THE JAPANESE GRANDMOTHER
We were always in awe of our Japanese grandmother, so tiny and delicate in comparison to her great clodhoppers of grandchildren who took after the Australian side of the family. The only thing we inherited from her were our sloe black eyes.
To her grandchildren, she always remained an enigma. “Tell us about where you came from?” we’d beg her.
“I came from Japan,” she said, her black eyes smiling.
“But where in Japan?” we’d cry, especially me, who had a greater interest than the others in our family history. “We know grandfather’s family here in Melbourne, but where are your Japanese family.”
She smiled mysteriously and fluttered a fan made from rice paper in front of her face, using it like a mask as she gazed at us over it, her eyes inscrutable in their darkness.
We tried to guess what grandmother’s life might have been in Japan. Had she been a princess or highborn Japanese lady?
One of the younger grandchildren was sure grandmother had been a fairy. We bigger ones scoffed, sending her fleeing to grandmother for comfort.
“If you say I was a fairy, then I must have been,” grandmother said. “Look, my little one.” Grandmother opened the fan with its exotic design. “See the crane contemplating the tree. What is he thinking?”
“He wants to build a nest and lay some eggs,” my small cousin said, getting her genders mixed.
Grandmother folded the fan and placed it in my cousin’s chubby hand. “For you, little one.” Sixty years later, my cousin still has it.
As we grew older, we queried grandmother’s history less, that is, except me. I suppose it was why grandfather left me the letter to be opened after my grandparents’ deaths. He knew I would become an historian.
The small hessian clad huts masquerading as laundries and other businesses in Lindsay Street, Coolgardie, a gold mining town in Western Australia, were fronts for brothels and sly grog shops. The locals nicknamed the street, the Rue de Lindsay, because of the French prostitutes who worked there.
James Robinson arrived from Bendigo in 1897, to work as a mining engineer. He made friends with the local doctor, Jack O’Connor, a young Irishman, who took James to try the delights of the local prostitutes.
“Do doctors visit prostitutes?” James asked, sounding a little prudish.
“What else is there to do in this God forsaken town?” Jack said in his lilting Irish brogue and with his dashing Irish smile.
They walked along the dusty red road and stopped outside a hut where two women, wearing low cut dresses and showing a lot of leg, called to them. “The French girls,” Jack said to James as he waved to the women.
“Who lives in the next hut?” James asked, who had glimpsed a face at the curtained window of the building.
“It fronts as a Japanese laundry. The Japanese girls keep well hidden. Not like these two exuberant ladies who will give you a good time and try to steal your money as well as trying to kill you with their grog. I’d like a shilling for every man who’s ended up at the hospital suffering delirium tremens and the loss of his hard earned cash after a visit to these two beauties.” Jack waved to the two women. “I’ll be there shortly, my darlings,” he called in answer to their suggestive invitations. “I’ve only a couple of pounds in my pocket,” he told the French women as they flung their arms around him. “See what you can give me for that, my darlings,” he said as he good-naturedly allowed the women to drag him inside.
About to follow, James saw the curtain flutter again at the Japanese laundry’s window. After a few moments deliberation, he went in.
A small Japanese man came into the tiny hall. “What can I do for you, honourable sir,” he whispered.
“I have some shirts to be laundered,” James stuttered. “Would you be able to do them?”
The small Japanese man bowed. “Yes, honourable sir.”
“I’ll bring them tomorrow.” As he turned to go, two women wearing kimonos, their faces half hidden by the rice paper fans they held, emerged from behind a hessian-covered door.
“Osiga and Oyoni from Japan,” the man said, bowing again.
The women bowed too, and fluttered their fans.
“Which girl would you like, honourable sir?”
In a daze, James pointed to the younger girl, who looked beautiful with her perfect Japanese features. “That one.”
The girl bent her head in obeisance and led him to a small room off the hall.
“You look very young,” James said after he’d made love to her on the narrow wooden couch, covered with a thin padded blanket.
He was surprised when she replied in lilting near faultless English. “I am sixteen.”
Her perfect small breasts looked like golden peaches decorated with pink rosettes. He felt a desperate desire to caress their softness and cover those tender rosettes with kisses.
“What are you doing in this place,” he whispered, gazing into her sloe black eyes.
“My father sold me to the Karayuki-san when the rain didn’t come and the rice crop failed.” Tears welled in her eyes and ran down her cheeks.
“Don’t cry.” He kissed her soft lips and wanted to make love again. “I’ll take you away from here,” he vowed.
When he told Jack of his promise to rescue the girl, Jack laughed. “You’re off your head. She’s only a prostitute. What would you do with her? Take her home to your family! Marry her!”
“Maybe, I will.” But James was horrified when he thought of what his family would say.
Jack clapped him on the shoulder. “Take my advice, James. Forget her. Her Japanese laundryman pimp will carve you up in a thousand pieces if you took the girl.”
“She’s very beautiful,” James muttered.
“She’s a prostitute. Go to the Kalgoorlie girls next time.”
Oyoni did flee from the brothel. She escaped with Shah Secundah, an Afghan cameleer, old enough to be her grandfather, but the Japanese pimp caught up with them a day’s journey from Coolgardie. He killed the Afghan and wounded Oyoni who escaped into the darkness of the surrounding bush.
Vowing revenge, Shah Secundah’s countrymen caught the Japanese and killed him.
Oyoni was close to death from dehydration and loss of blood when a trio of Aborigines found her two days later and carried her to the hospital.
Unconscious and in a fever, Oyoni came to her senses to see Sister Quinn and Doctor Jack O’Connor standing by her bed.
Jack smiled. “Feeling better?” he asked in his professional voice.
Oyoni nodded, but she looked like she didn’t know whether she was or not. She tried to smile though her cracked and swollen lips and a face peeling from sunburn. Her shoulder where the Japanese pimp had knifed her to the bone was heavily bandaged.
“In a few weeks your shoulder will have healed,” Jack said. “You are badly sunburnt and dehydrated. You must drink plenty of water and do what Sister Quinn tells you.” He smiled and moved on to the next patient
Sister Quinn told Oyoni about the killing of the Japanese laundryman and the demise of Shah Secundah.
“Shah Secundah was a good man,” Oyoni whispered. “He said he’d look after me. What will happen to me now?” She turned her poor sunburnt face away.
“Doctor O’Connor will arrange something,” Sister Quinn said, reassuringly patting Oyoni’s good shoulder.
But Jack O’Connor didn’t know what to do about Oyoni. “Of course, seeing she’s only sixteen, she can’t go back to the brothels. She wants a good man to marry.”
“She’s only sixteen,” Sister Quinn said.
“We can’t compare her with our sixteen-year-old girls,” Jack said. “She’s been a prostitute and probably will be again.”
There were plenty of men who would take Oyoni into their camp, but Jack didn’t think any of them suitable for the Japanese girl, recovering from her ordeal and getting back her beauty.
Perhaps James will look after her, Jack thought, remembering James’s desperate desire for the girl. He might take her off his hands. With this hopeful thought, he caught the train to Kalgoorlie only to discover James had given up his job and returned to Bendigo.
It took him month to come to a decision about Oyoni’s future. She’d left the hospital and was living in his house. The shoulder wound had healed and she’d recovered from the sunburn and become beautiful again.
When some of Oyoni’s former patrons called at the doctor’s house, Mrs Benson, the housekeeper, threatened the undesirables as she called them with a wooden spoon to get rid of them.
She told Jack tartly, “Oyoni is a schoolgirl. It’s a pity the men around here don’t realize it.”
“If she looks like a schoolgirl, then that’s what she’ll be,” Jack said.
He arranged for a locum to come to Coolgardie while he and Oyoni travelled to Perth on the train. He told the headmistress of the girls’ school, recommended to him by one of his patients that Oyoni was the daughter of a prominent Japanese mining man. He also warned Oyoni before he left not to mention her previous life in the brothel.
He returned to Coolgardie and forgot about her except when the bills arrived for the school fees. He showed Mrs Benson the reports and the remarks the headmistress wrote about Oyoni that increased in praise with every bill she sent. One of my best girls, very intelligent and charming and industrious, sings well, plays the guitar excellently - the headmistress had importuned Jack for extra fees for Oyoni’s guitar lessons. We like our girls to learn a musical instrument, she wrote to Jack. Oyoni says she would like to learn the guitar.
“She’s a very intelligent girl as well as beautiful,” Mrs Benson said, reading the latest report.
Then suddenly, before Jack knew it, the two years were up. He’d nearly proposed to the warden’s daughter, but that idea fizzled out when he thought she looked and behaved too much like her mother, a forthright woman, who ruled her husband and family with a rod of iron. I want a wife who will bend to my wishes, he thought. Though he still called upon the warden and his family, he didn’t seek out the daughter much to the dismay of the mother, whom Mrs Benson learned from her friends, had begun to make preparations for the wedding.
The headmistress wrote they could teach Oyoni no more. What did Doctor O’Connor plan for her future, the headmistress asked in a postscript at the bottom of Oyoni’s last report?
Jack sat in the headmistress’s small sitting room, waiting for Oyoni and making plans to return her to her family in Japan. I can’t continue being a surrogate father to a Japanese girl I hardly know, he thought.
Oyoni entered the room, bowing and said to her benefactor as she’d learned in etiquette classes. “How do you do, Doctor O’Connor.”
Looking demure, she sat on a chair opposite him. Wearing a white dress with long sleeves and a high neckline, and her long black hair tied back by a blue ribbon, she looked the picture of innocence.
I suspect my grandfather, Jack O’Connor, fell in love with her then.
When they returned to the hotel, Jack asked, “Would you like to marry me, Oyoni?”
“Yes, very much,” Oyoni said in a voice more Australian now than Japanese.
Grandfather worked fast after that. He arranged to be married to Oyoni under the auspices of a Japanese businessman who agreed to represent her as a member of his family and sent his resignation to the Coolgardie Hospital. He booked tickets on the steamer to Sydney and found work as a doctor in a Melbourne Hospital.
The relationship, which had begun in hell, had ended in heaven.
As I write this family history, I still can scarcely believe my fragile beautiful talented Japanese grandmother was once a prostitute in Coolgardie in its roaring days.
HEART UPON THE HEARTH
like harp strings
play upon the soul.
Women reaching out
in this room of tea and scones
The flames burn brightly
in the morning.
and the noise of children
leaving for school
and the roar of the tractor
from the shed.
Black coals reflect my soul.
The tractor is silent
as the earth waits
The day draws on
bright sun shining shining
into a house of gloom
and the heart of my man
as black as coal.
willing them into life.
A tiny flame of hope
I feel the strength there
and women talking talking
giving their strength
and the flame grows
as I feed on the strength
of my sisters.
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