The Coast by Eleanor Limprecht

Article | Issue: Jun 2022

ELEANOR LIMPRECHT is the author of The Passengers, Long Bay and What Was Left.  Her latest novel, The Coast is moving story of love and courage which is set in 1910 and follows nine-year-old Alice who is sent to the feared Coast Hospital lazaret at Little Bay in Sydney.

ABOUT THE BOOK

The CoastAlice is only nine years old in 1910 when she is sent to the feared Coast Hospital lazaret at Little Bay in Sydney, a veritable prison where more patients are admitted than will ever leave. She is told that she’s visiting her mother, who disappeared one day when Alice was two. Once there, Alice learns her mother is suffering from leprosy and that she has the same disease.

As she grows up, the secluded refuge of the lazaret becomes Alice’s entire world, her mother and the other patients and medical staff her only human contact. The patients have access to a private sandstone-edged beach, their own rowboat, a piano and a library of books, but Alice is tired of the smallness of her life and is thrilled by the thought of the outside world. It is only when Guy, a Yuwaalaraay man wounded in World War I, arrives at The Coast, that Alice begins to experience what she has yearned for, as they become friends and then something deeper.

Filled with vivid descriptions of the wild beauty of the sea cliffs and beaches surrounding the harsh isolation of the lazaret, and written in evocative prose, The Coast is meticulously researched historical fiction that holds a mirror to the present day. Heartbreaking and soul-lifting, it is a universal story of love, courage, sacrifice and resilience.

 

EXTRACT

Prologue

 Alice 1926

Sixteen years captive. But this last year I have hardly felt it, the sky has opened instead of pressing down. When they take me out of doors I am floating. The air of the sickroom is thick and yellow, but out here the ceiling is blue, and beyond the palings is the sea. Sometimes I can still smell the ocean  – salt and a fishy tang  –  seaweed at the back of my throat. I can imagine myself back in the clinker hull, waves spilling over the gunnels.

Three times a day they clean and dress my skin. First the scabs are washed with Eusol, then covered with cod-liver ointment and wrapped in a long ribbon of white bandage. Most places are numb. Some still make me flinch. I am vile but they are used to it: the scabs and sores, the fawnish skin. Each week Dr Stenger comes and touches me with his bare hand.He does not ask the questions he used to but speaks gently to me. I imagine the wrinkles on his forehead creasing. I want to touch his shoulder, to reassure him, but I am long used to not touching. You only need to see that look once to learn. To see how they back away. He scratches in his books, muttering to himself. Buccal cavities and fauces, normal. Enlargements of glands in the neck. Slight, soft swelling of the right axillary glands.

Butterfly swelling on face.

How pretty it sounds. How deceiving. I remember the year I turned 11, reading as he wrote: She has grown three inches over the year. I was proud of my height, for it made me seem like a normal girl. I thought of the branches I might reach now in the gum tree behind the house at Jiggi, how much quicker I’d climb. My sisters and brothers would be surprised when they saw me. How you’ve grown, Gran would say, when I returned home.Three inches, I’d reply.

I dreamed the other night that I was back at Jiggi. Looking after Annie, George, Hunter and Irene on the banks of the creek. Charlie was chopping wood in the low paddock. The rolling green hills and the basin of valley, the damp grassy smell. I dreamed that George, the baby, was splashing in the creek and went under, that when I pulled him out his skin was blue. I screamed and Charlie came running with his axe,his sun-flayed face furious and his arm swinging, and I held Annie in front of me for protection. He would not hurt one of his own. When I woke my nightdress was wet. Mama was saying my name. She touched my face – I knew from the sound rather than the sight or feel of it. The sound of her rough skin brushing my own.

‘Are you hurting?’ she asked.

‘I was looking after Sid – only he was George still – and I let him drown.’

‘It was just a dream of home. Hush, now.’

She did not remind me that he was gone – dead. Her blurred face hovered above me in the moonlight. I no longer saw the skin. The mottled and the bronzed, the thickening of the earlobes and nostrils.

I heard her climb back into her bed.

‘Sleep, Alice. Morning is not far off.’

Let me stay asleep, then. Let me drown, too.

‘Home’ is a strange word for a place I have been away from nearly all my life. For Mama, Jiggi is home – the place where she was born, and her two babies. But for me this is home. This walled prison between the hospital and the sea; our cottages; the stony sandy soil from which we have eked a garden. The flowering coral tree; the melon patch; my oleander bushes andarum lilies; our wisteria, which breaks into pale blossom for a few weeks in spring. The ocean wind kills a delicate flower. We have learned to grow the hardiest breed.

Jiggi is so much bigger – in my memory, at least. There is the house where the seven of us slept, five children in a bed. The outdoor kitchen; the dragoon birds and carpet snakes; the muddy creek where we bathed and swam and fetched our water, washed our clothes. The creek was a puddle in the dry and flooded high and brown in the wet, banks slippery with mud which stuck to everything. The rushing sound when it was high drowned all noise, even the scream of the sulphur-crested cockatoos. In dry spells I sat on the flat stones warmed by sun and the sound was only a trickle, like water poured from a jug.

It was this creek I crossed to go to the Jiggi school. The first day of school, Gran and the little ones waved to me once I reached the opposite side, Hunter’s face scrunched from crying because he was two years behind me and he wanted to go to school too. That feeling of happiness, despite my stiff frock and my dirty feet and the drying creek water and tightening mud on my legs. I nearly ran the whole way. To be off on my own, to be free.

That feeling faded as soon as I entered the schoolyard. There I learned that my family name marked me. Two pink-scrubbed boys – the Faber twins – came up on either side of me and each yanked the end of a plait, then screamed that their hands would fall off. They were boys who rode ponies to school, who had shoes. No one would sit next to me when we took a seat at the wooden desks, with their smooth tops and inkwells, their hard benches with names carved in them. We learned reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography and scripture. The books, at least, did not despise me. In the yard, the boys played marbles and the girls hopscotch, except for me. I had no older brothers to fight for me. I fought for myself, coming home with hair missing from my scalp, longred scratches on my legs and arms. You only need one friend,Gran said, kneeling by the woodstove, blowing on tinder till it caught. The mystery was how to find one.

Walking home, I went deeper into the bush, for silence. Under a canopy of trees sounds are different, more distinct. The slither in leaves which might be a snake. The wet fall of rain dislodged from upturned leaves. Silence is its own solace – one can be lonely surrounded by people.

This last year I have rarely left the bed. Sue reads to me. We have a radio, now, and in the Arts Cottage a gramophone, so there is always some distraction. I no longer seek silence, I seek sound to distract me from my thoughts, from the darkness that pools in my centre.

I feel as though I am shrinking sometimes inside my skin, like I might disappear altogether one day. I am that other Alice, shutting up like a telescope. My dreams are strange and vivid. Mama asks what she can do to ease my pain. I would like her to read to me, but I would never say as much. She was not there on the creek bank the day I left for school. She never learned to read or write.

The days bleed into each other. Breakfast is porridge at seven, then toast and tea. The porridge is no longer hot by the timeit reaches us from the hospital kitchens. We are on the fringeof the grounds, the furthest away besides the men. I have little appetite anyway. I nibble the bread like a mouse, crumb by crumb. The bread, they say, comes from Long Bay Gaol, andI like to imagine the prisoners – men in their striped prison uniforms – forming the soft dough, stoking the ovens, bakingthe loaves in their tins. Knocking gently on the bottoms of the baked bread for the hollow sound. Mama says the prisoners are women too, but I want my bread from the rough-knuckled, flour-dusted fingers of men.

There are other moments to mark my day. A full sponge at nine, which is done by either Sue or Mama. Soup at 11 – a thin broth of wrinkled carrots, soft potatoes and bones from the meat – followed by lunch at noon: chicken or brains or tripe with vegetables and gravy, sometimes roast beef or mutton. I give most of mine to Mama, and she gives me her steamedpudding, baked custard, jelly and custard or stewed fruit. The sweetness is all I have a taste for now.

At tea there is bread and milk, which comes from the hospital’s own herd. Dr Stenger insisted on it when dairies around Sydney became infected with tuberculosis. The milkis creamy and thick, with a lick of salt from the sea. At seven there is cocoa and more milk. In my mind I am back at Jiggi, cutting through a paddock of black-and-white cows on my way ro school. The sound of the paspalum grass as they rip mouthfuls from the soil. I tried it myself one day, but the grass was bitter and foul, and I spat it out. The cows turned to look. My stomach was always hollow then, but at the hospital we are never hungry. I would trade all of the cocoa in the world, though, to lie down on the cold, muddy bottom of Jiggi Creek. To feel the smooth stones, the fresh water running over me, calming me to the bone. To hear Gran’s voice, sharp and clear, calling mefor tea. Perhaps we long most for the things we can no longerhave. The places we can never return, because they only exist in our memories.

Jack 1905

When the camp dogs started up their barking, he ran to the Narran. Wade into the muddy water, swim to the other side,scoop into the Gidgee scrub. Before he learned to swim the bigger boys would carry him on their backs. Hurry, hurry! Shhh. He could feel his own heartbeat against the slipperiness of wet skin. Once they hid in the woolpack instead; afterwards Jack itched for days.

Down the Narran was where they played: rounders, drop the hanky. Where they caught fish in the weir: catfish, yellabellies. Some days Jack went yabbying with a chunk of meat on astring. The older boys at Angledool collected river water tofill the tanks, water for the Chinese gardens. Jack and the other younger ones gathered wood for cooking. They collected bottles and sold them back to the cordial factory, then spent the profit on jam drops at Granny Walden’s bakery.

Jack grew up in the laps of women: his mother, aunty,granny – warm arms always pulling him in. He slept on more bosoms than pillows. Jack’s granny had white hair and a wrinkled-apple face, long bony fingers and loose skin. He sat with her in the shade on hot days and her singing was acurrent of cool water. It always put him to sleep.

Then there was the day Jack woke up curled against his mother’s back, the sound of the heat already cracking the tin roof, her breath in and out, soft and steady. She smelled like gum leaves and honey. He lay there and watched the light come in through the curtain, the day bring shape to the room. Buta cramp came to make him moan and shift: belly ache. She woke, the crease between her eyes when she worried about him. She led him out to the dunny, made him tea to calm his belly,then took him to Aunty Rita. Rita was fixing a net and let him lie on her bed with a paper fan she kept on a high shelf, printed with pictures of dressed-up ladies.

She worked and he dozed, but when he woke she was shaking him, whispering. He heard the voices outside. She ushered him into the corner, covered him with an empty flour bag and told him not to move or make a sound.

‘Haven’t got any little children,’ he heard her say. ‘They’reall grown up. It’s just me and my man.’‘

You don’t mind if we come inside?’ That was a stranger woman’s voice, high and sharp.

He could be as still as a goanna, frozen on a tree trunk. He could be a stone in the Narran, water flowing around him. Before, his mother had smeared charcoal mixed with porcupine fat into his skin, but he learned to squirm away from the foul smell, and she stopped trying to hide his difference.

The flour bag was stuffy and dust crept up his nostrils, intohis eyes. Hard as he tried to repress it, the wet noise came. He heard Aunty Rita pretend to sneeze, but the voices came near.

‘What was that?’

Hands pulled the bag aside. He kept his eyes squeezed shut.

‘What have we here?’

Jack opened his eyes. The woman studied him, her eyes pale, skin so white in the dark room she glowed.  A man stood behind her, with a moustache that curled up at the edges.

‘This one’s half-caste,’ she said.

‘You’re sure it’s not the flour?’ the man replied.

She licked her thumb and pressed it to Jack’s forehead.

‘See?’

Jack took off out the door and across the camp, followed by the sound of their shouts, the woman’s spit still wet on his skin.

Mother was there at the Narran, washing clothes, hanging them on the branches of the tree. He slipped down the bank,hiding behind her long thin legs. The mud sucked his feet.Even the river wanted to keep him.

‘This one’ – the woman came down the path, holding her skirts high, gesturing towards Jack and speaking in a slow, loud voice – ‘has to come to the school with us. Learn English. Train to work and make money.’

The galahs screamed, beating the air with their wings. The woman did not realise Mother understood her; she had worked at Angledool Station, before.

The man pulled a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket.

‘This says you must give him to us.’ He pointed to Jack with a tobacco-stained finger.

Mother lifted him into her arms – he was still small enough – and he hid his face in her shoulder. ‘My boy,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll come for you.’

The man had a pistol attached to his leather belt. They doubled Jack on a chestnut horse behind the woman, instructing him to hold her leather belt. She did not sit side-saddle but had a split skirt. Mother followed on foot, until the horse cantered and dust swallowed her whole. He heard her wail and he shrunk into himself. He would have jumped. He should have jumped. But it was so far away, the ground, and there was the man’spistol. He shut his eyes against the print of the muslin dress in front of him, smelling the woman’s sour sweat, feeling the hard leather of her belt against the soft folds of her waist.

If only he could see Mother in his mind she might reappear. If he could hear the clear voice he could pick out in the dark among many voices, he might be in her arms again. But when he opened his eyes, there were just tiny purple flowers on abrown stretch of fabric. The stranger woman’s back. Empty trail and jolting, hoofbeat sky.

When they stopped after hours of riding, the woman pulled a long length of chain from her saddlebag. He thought it was for the horse, but she motioned for him to follow her into a copse of trees. There she put the chain around the tree’s base and made a belt with it around his waist.

‘Soon we won’t need this, as we’ll be too far away for you to run home,’ she said, as she slid a padlock through the links,clicking it into place. The metal lay heavy against his belly, which now ached only from hunger. Other riders had joined them with other children whom Jack did not recognise; children with red-rimmed eyes. They too were brought into thecopse of trees and tied with lengths of chain and rope. They did not speak or look at each other long; he was afraid to see his own fear in their faces. After some time had passed,the woman gave each child a pannikin of stew, but Jack was loath to eat it, in case it was poison (Aunty Rita had told him stories). Soon, though, the smell and sounds of the others eating became too much, and he ate fast, listening to the woman’shigh sharp voice at the fire.

‘They’ll be brought up properly, trained to be serviceable boys and girls, away from the degradation of camp life,’ she said.

The man with the moustache just grunted, spooning stewinto his gob. The man dropped the bowl so the spoon rattled, and stood, scratching his head where his hat had left a red mark.

‘We’d best get going. Plenty of distance to cover before thesun goes down.’

Jack lost count of how many days they were on the track. They were dusty, thirsty and saddle-sore when they pulled upat a well and were told to scrub their faces. The woman said this was because they were about to arrive at what she called ‘the Home’.

‘Bugger that. Not my home,’ an older boy – Guy – whispered.

‘What did you say?’ the woman asked.

Guy shook his head. ‘No English.’

‘You’ll speak English soon. That’s why you are here: to be educated.’

Jack looked at Guy. He was taller than the rest of them, with wide set eyes that rarely blinked, and square shoulders held back rather than hunched forward. If Guy felt fear, he had figured out how to keep it hidden. Jack rubbed the cold well water on his face. His mother was coming for him, her arms would pull him close. He washed away the dust and crusted tracks of tears.

Author: Eleanor Limprecht

Category: Historical fiction

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781760879402

RRP: $32.99

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