Book by: Miranda J Taylor
Genre: Historical Fiction
The Chinese Smokehouse
The next day, Kit took the girls with her to visit the nurse training facility at the hospital. Tom had arranged payment of her tuition and the head matron was eager for her to start. When they arrived back at the cottage, Jimmy was nowhere to be found.
“Girls, stay here while I look in the yard,” Kit said.
“Yes, Mama", Clara said.
Lizzy giggled. “Yes, Mama.”
Kit blew them a kiss and went to the backyard. Jimmy had finished making the bench for the girls. It stood in the beckoning shade under a paperbark tree. The yard joined a vacant bushland area and Jimmy was fond of wandering into it and falling asleep beneath the trees.
“Jimmy,” she yelled. “Are you out there?”
Kit turned when she heard the back door slam. Clara and Lizzy ran into the yard.
“There’s a strange man knocking on the front door,” Clara said.
“Come inside.” Kit ushered the girls in and answered the door.
A thin man with a long, angular face removed his hat. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am. I’m a mate of Jimmy’s. I think you’d better go get him.”
“Go and get him? From where?”
“He’s at the Chinese smokehouse, ma’am, and he’s causing such a ruckus. I tried to get him out, but he wouldn’t listen to me.”
“What is a smokehouse?”
“Ma’am, pardon me, but you better just come quickly.”
“Just a moment.” Kit closed the door and turned to the girls. “Get your hats. We’re going out.”
The man nodded to the trio when they emerged and headed down the front path.
“You must beg my pardon, I didn’t ask you your name,” Kit said.
“It’s Georges Miller. But everyone calls me Blinker, on account of I always look like I’ve got something in my eyes.” The man blinked profusely.
“Oh, I see. How long have you been in the colony, Mr Miller?”
“Just on three years, ma’am. I came here from the diggings with my wife and son. She’d had enough of living rough on the goldfields. I work for Father Wilfred, doing odd jobs around the church and schoolyard.’
“You do! Clara and Lizzy are starting their schooling there next week.”
“They've got a fine headmistress. I’m sure they’ll be happy.”
Kit and the girls walked with Mr Miller until he stopped outside a squat wooden building decorated in red Chinese lettering. A vine smothered with small star-shaped white flowers scrambled over a large archway, shading the entrance from the warm autumn sunshine.
“This is it, ma’am. But you shouldn’t take the lasses in there. It’s no place for a woman either, but as I said, he wouldn’t listen to me. I can take your daughters to the church if you like. I got to get back there myself and continue my work. Father Wilfred would be happy to watch them for you.”
Kit glanced at the girls and fixed her eyes on the man’s face.
He blinked as though looking directly into the sun.
“Thank you for your kind offer. I’ll be but a few minutes, then I’ll fetch the girls directly.”
“Right you are, ma’am. I’ll take them there straight away.”
She chewed her bottom lip as the girls walked away with Mr Miller before turning her attention to the building. She slowly stepped underneath the arch and took a deep breath before pushing open the front door. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkened room, lit only with thick white candles and a few lanterns.
She coughed and covered her nose and mouth with her hand. A strange smell emanated from long thin sticks placed in empty bottles. A trail of smoke drifted from the top of the sticks and floated lazily into the room. Men lay prostrate on black mattresses on the floor or propped on one elbow while smoking from long pipes, the other end held over a small lamp. The smoke created a thin fog that stung Kit’s eyes as she peered around the room for Jimmy.
Upon not finding him, she ventured down a hallway. An old Chinese man with skin so deeply creased with wrinkles it almost obscured his eyes, stepped into her path from an adjoining room. He glared angrily at her.
“No woman!” he shouted. “Not welcome. You go now.”
Kit stood her ground. “Please, I’m looking for my husband, Jimmy. Have you seen him?”
The man paused before speaking again with a slightly softer voice. “He in back room. You get him out of here. He pain in neck.” The man pointed to a room at the end of the hallway.
“Thank you.” Kit bowed her head and the man smiled and did the same.
She made her way down the smoky hall to the end room. Five prostrate men occupied black mats. Jimmy sat cross-legged next to a man lying motionless on one of the mats.
Kit heard him speak to the man in a panicked voice she barely recognized.
“So, when do you think they’ll let us out of here, hey? I’m innocent, you know. I don’t belong here. How long have you got left on the island?”
Kit picked her way between the mats, waving her hand in front of her face as the smoke filled her nostrils. She stood beside him and softly spoke his name.
He didn’t move, but continued to talk to the man on the mat, who lay still, eyes closed.
She knelt beside the mat. “Jimmy. It’s Kit. Come home with me. The girls miss you.”
He slowly turned his head. “Kit! You made it! All the way from England. I knew you would. Where are Clara and Robert?”
“You need to come home now. Come with me.”
He pointed to the man on the mat. “But you haven’t met my friend.”
The man opened his eyes. “Get him out of here and make sure he doesn’t come back.”
“Stand up, Jimmy.”
Jimmy rolled onto his hands and knees and tried to stand but appeared to have forgotten how. Kit lifted him under the arms and helped him to his feet. She steered him to the door and out into the hallway.
“Wait right there.”
Kit turned to see a pale-faced older man and a taller thick-set Chinese man.
“He owes the house some money,” the pale man said.
“Money for what?” Kit asked.
“For the Pen Han he smoked and the damage.”
The man sighed. “He came in here demanding a pipe, and when we found he had no money and we refused him, he started smashing up the place. We had to give him a pipe just to calm him down.”
“I can see no damage.”
The man jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Well, if you come to the back, I can show you the holes in the walls and the smashed vase.”
Jimmy swayed and Kit struggled to steady him against her body. “That won’t be necessary. What does he owe?”
“Three and six should do it.”
The man nodded and the Chinese man grunted.
Kit steadied Jimmy against the wall while she removed the payment from her purse and handed it to the man.
He saluted with the notes. “Much obliged.”
Kit grasped Jimmy by the arm and lead him down the hall.
The man yelled behind her. “He’s a damaged man. You’ll never bring him back from where he’s gone.”
Jimmy randomly waved goodbye to people as Kit led him through the building and out the front door.
Kit left him lying under a stringybark tree outside the church while she hurried inside to fetch the girls.
The tapping of her shoes on the wooden boards rebounded off the imposing stone walls as she approached Father Wilfred. The girls remained in the front pew listening to him finish talking of baby Jesus’ birth.
“They are delightful children,” he said. “It will be a sheer pleasure to have them join the class tomorrow with Miss Mae."
The girls turned and jumped down from the bench and ran to Kit.
“I’ll have them here bright and early, Father. I thank you for looking after them. Good day to you.”
The girls said a farewell to Father Wilfred and followed Kit outside to fetch Jimmy, sleeping beneath the tree in the cool green grass.
Kit woke him and helped him to his feet.
He groaned and swayed, while trying to focus on the girls.
“What’s wrong with Papa?” Clara asked.
“He’s unwell. He ate a bad piece of pork at lunch.”
“Poor Papa. When will he be better?”
“He’ll be all right after a good sleep.” Kit lifted Jimmy’s arm and put it around her shoulders. Clara went to his side and placed his hand on her shoulder and together they took him back to the cottage. At home, they let him fall onto the bed and Clara removed his boots.
Kit ate supper with the girls and put them to bed. Before retiring for the night, she gulped down a finger of whisky.
© Copyright 2023 Miranda J Taylor. All rights reserved.
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Hey, Miranda. I feel very sorry for Jimmy. As that man said, he's damaged goods and his future is not promising. It would indeed take a miracle for him to "come back."
Good that the girls will be attending school and that Kit is going on with her nursing education/training.
Not good that Kit seems to have picked up on the beginnings of a drinking problem herself.