I’m here already, in the bleak, awful hour on Dudley Flats in which the final dereliction of Elsie Williams will come to pass. I’m beginning with it, so you won’t be under any illusion as to how it ends. It’s 10 November 1942. A Tuesday. Yesterday, Eddie Leonski, the US serviceman who strangled three women on the streets of Melbourne in the autumn, was hanged at Pentridge Prison. I tell you this to remind you that lives end every day and in many ways. The end of one life is violent and desperate. The end of another is peaceable and reconciled. Another again is simply bleak. Lives end. Time marches on. So it goes, Vonnegut will go on to say.
It’s just after seven and still over 80 degrees in the old money. Because daylight saving resumed in September, for the first time since the Great War, there’s still plenty of light. The sun is low over the Flats to the west; it picks out glints in the glass on the rubbish tip on the West Melbourne Swamp, and its heat has lifted the life out of the tip’s deepest rot again; the chimneys and zigzag roofs of the distant factories and tanneries, past Coode Island and across the Maribyrnong from Footscray to Yarraville, are in silhouette. And here, a little way from the banks of the Railway Coal Canal, the light falls through the slits and ruptures in the tin and hessian of the squalid little humpy, a lean-to more than anything else, that has been Elsie’s home since her last long stretch in prison ended the previous December.
Two days ago, a tatterdemalion gang of girls in dresses and grimy boots followed the track down to the tip from Lloyd Street on a treasure hunt. They found Elsie sprawled out on the hot crust of it, on a stink of cabbage leaves. She was busted, sorelooking, burned on her legs and arms. Her skin was grey. She’d been there long enough for the rats to have been at her legs. She was a mess.
The girls stood about, passing around one another’s names in their sweet bell voices. Patty, Shirley, and the little scared one at the back, Phyllis, who was too much of a sook to come closer. Phyllis knew about Elsie. Her mother had told her that she hid razor blades in her stockings, that she’d slashed a tram conductor across the face. Phyllis remembered that she’d seen Elsie once, coming out of the jumble sale at St Mary’s Church of England on Queensberry Street, and, with the tram conductor and the razor blades in mind, she had crossed the street in terror.
On the tip, Elsie didn’t look so terrifying. She looked small. Her voice was small, too: soft, American even. Not so terrible after all. ‘My man punched me,’ she said. ‘I’m so hurt. I’m so hungry.’ Over and over she said it. How small she looked. ‘So hurt. So hungry. Help me.’
The girls stared at her a moment then all at once scattered. Back they went through the tip, across Dynon Road, past Brown’s Hill, and up Lloyd Street to the terraces they all lived in, their tiny village. Because it was Sunday, Phyllis had it in mind to fetch Elsie some of her mother’s fresh scones and some corned beef. But no sooner had she come in the door than her mother went crook. She’d been told before not to go down to the tip and now she reeked of it. Lunch would be soon, and she had to wash up. There would be no going back. She didn’t dare tell her mother about Elsie. As soon as lunch was done, she found Patty and Shirley out on the street again. They said they’d managed to take back some food for Elsie, but when they’d got to the tip she was gone.
How Elsie made it through the next day is anyone’s guess. According to the Herald, by Monday night she and her man were up late, slugging away at the metho as hard as they could. It beat them both into sleep around 1am. When they woke, sometime the next day, they started up all over again. A two-day bender that they blotted out with four bottles between them.
Now it’s Tuesday, and, except for the lumps of sacking and the foetid waste of Elsie’s fouling of it, the humpy is empty. Her companion has been gone for hours. It might be that he’s fallen asleep elsewhere. Maybe he’s in someone else’s hut or has found his way up the canal to Dynon Road and made for Kelly’s Grocer in North Melbourne to cadge another drink. Elsie is stumbling about. Half-crawling. Does she realise she’s naked? There’s no way to know. Not so far away, a group of men are sitting about a cooking fire. A car hurtles down the New Road to Footscray. It honks, long and angry, and slips by. Elsie is in the wrong place altogether. She can barely string together the fizz of one moment into the next.
She turns in another direction, stumbling into the tip proper. She wades through the hot ashes. A drink is all she wants. When she trips into a tub-sized divot in the dirt, the first swell of cool air from the south licks the grass around her. A change is coming, and tomorrow it’ll rain.
The name of Elsie’s man has been lost to time. Neither of the two she’s been tightest with on the Flats has ever managed to aim particularly high in life. Siddy Wilson was sent down with her when they’d tried to do over old Ted in 1939. How deeply she’d fallen into the dark place then. She’d taken to the Cornishes with a razor and got three years for it. Wilson ended up doing time for the robbery, as well as six months on a vagrancy charge. He was out by early 1940, but he hasn’t been back to the Flats since Elsie got out in December. Walter Fiddes was on-and-off with Elsie through the 1930s. In 1934, he was sent down for a fortnight for bashing her in a house in Chetwynd Street, North Melbourne. He’d kicked her to the ground and, once she was down, kicked her in the face. In court, Fiddes defended himself by claiming she’d attacked him with a razor. It’s true she’s kept a blade on her ever since the Sydney days, more than 20 years ago, but it’s only because no one has ever given her a chance, not since the law first got hold of her. Back then, she told the police her name was Josie Maxwell and then, because she had a sense of humour, she said it was Josie Snowflake. Lately, the only thing anyone’s called her is Black Elsie. That name has become bigger than the person she really wanted to be. Bigger than when she was the singer named Elsa Carr, who’d stood on the precipice of fame, but never took the leap to the other side. In 1937, she got her own back on Fiddes — she clubbed him over the head with an iron bar just over there by the canal. She wouldn’t let anyone, not a man, and certainly not a white man, get away with lording it over her.