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Footscray, 1933

The meatworks is not the centre of town, but it feeds so many hungry mouths—literally and figuratively—that it has assumed that status. It sits on the highest point to the east of the river and the buildings and cattle yards stretch all the way down to the water. North, this slope is interrupted by the strap of Ballarat Road—busier every day now with cars and trucks tooting the stock and the bicycles and the horses and carts that still make use of the thoroughfare. The river loops around and then flows directly south (more or less, nodding to the slum of Dudley’s Flat as it passes by) to meet with the Yarra before spilling out its dirty fluids into the bay. From the centre of town and west, west, west—the noise of industry gobbles up the basalt plains.

Just south of the works, beyond the high metal fences and across Newell Street, is where the boss himself lives in his redbrick with the big tree out the front dropping fat yellow grapefruits on the grass (fanciest place this side of the river, for a way). Then Railway Place, a narrow street mirroring the train tracks as it peters down to meet the flats.

Nobody dreams of living at the bottom of Railway Place—stinking of swamp and sadness. The last cottage was built at the same time as the rest, but you wouldn’t know it to look at it. The story goes that shortly after the Hicks family moved in Mrs Hicks died in childbirth (poor love, should’ve stopped at five) and the house began, that very day, to fall into disrepair. The grass grew high and the weeds grew higher and despite there being no woman in the house, children still seemed to multiply down there as though the fertile earth of the river was conceiving them and spitting them out half grown and snotty-nosed in the cast-off pants of their snotty-nosed siblings. The despair at the bottom of Railway Place threatened to leach up and infect the rest of the street.

Nobody dreams of living at the bottom of Railway Place—stinking of swamp and sadness.

The Murrays, in the second-to-last house, nailed extra palings to the top of the fence when it became clear that Mr Hicks paid no heed to their requests for the children to stop throwing stones through their windows, or for the offensive refuse in his yard to be dealt with. But the O’Loughlins, two doors up, God-fearing as they were, continued to ask Mr Hicks to service on a Sunday (he never once accepted) and did not chide the children when they brazenly picked plump apricots from their tree. Perhaps it was the O’Loughlins who invited the despair to creep upwards a little, all the way to where Harry Bailey, the candlemaker from number 10, drowned himself down the river on a Sunday morning.

The scream brings everyone at this end of Railway Place out into the street. It is a Sunday after all, and for a long time after they’ll all wonder why the candlemaker would do such a thing on that day, of all days. Why not wait until a Tuesday? A Thursday afternoon? Something with a little less weight to it.

They’ve all had their Sunday lunch, those who go to mass have returned, those who don’t have taken a walk by the river, or had an extra cup of tea between the loads of washing, and in that strange timeless Sunday afternoon the copper knocks on Millie Bailey’s door and tells her they’ve found her husband. Gone and drowned himself in the stinking river, guts full of booze, found him caught in a pontoon just south of the candle works. What a way to go. The saving grace was that he’d done it in such a way that it might, if one stretched the imagination, be considered an accident—although everyone knew Harry had been laid off the month before from the soap works and that Millie was already doing double shifts at Kinnear’s to get enough into the mouths of the kids and to hang on tight to the tenancy of the little terrace house. The shame of it, of all of that, was enough to drive a man all the way to the bitter end. He wasn’t the first. And he wouldn’t be the last.

Lil Martin would never say it aloud, but she wondered at the foolishness of giving man such pride and such capacity for violence housed in the same body. The women of Railway Place were as hungry—as shamed, as beaten down by the cuts, the susso, the greyness of it all—as the men were, but she couldn’t imagine any of them drowning themselves in the sludge of the river. If they did, they’d be too considerate to let anyone find them. They’d do it neater. So as not to cause any trouble. When a woman was broken, she tried to fade away. Lil thought of her mother. Yes, that’s it: a woman tried to make herself invisible, fainter and fainter until you just forgot she was there. A man had to finish himself with blood and gore and filth, having the last bloody word, yet again.

She wondered at the foolishness of giving man such pride and such capacity for violence housed in the same body.

On that Sunday afternoon, Lil lets the women who live closest to the Baileys do the comforting, handle the practicalities of dealing with the police and notifying family and, above all, getting a stiff drink into Millie so that she will stop being quite so loud in her rage at her dead husband for leaving her all alone in this mess of a time. ‘Hush now, Millie,’ Lil can hear the women saying in chorus as they gather round and hold her, ‘there’ll be time for that, think of the children now.’

Lil turns back inside and starts chopping onions. Late into the night she will braise and stew and bake until there is nothing left in the ice chest or the pantry, and early morning before the wretched household wakes, she will leave the covered pots and biscuit tins in a neat row on Millie’s doorstep. And on Thursday she will don her one good black tea-dress, used exclusively for funerals—she notes with some satisfaction that it fits as well as the day she wore it to her father’s, twelve years ago—and she will walk to Donald Street with the rest of the neighbours to pay her respects. A few won’t come—the die-hard Catholics at number four—but the rest, even the church-going ones, seem to accept that this is a time like no other.

Millie Bailey will keep her head high, held up by the women of Railway Place, by the workers from Kinnear’s, and her four children will trail her, the youngest with his mouth covered in the sticky pink of a lolly someone has given him to make sure he doesn’t make a racket.

And despite the fact that Lil thinks him weak and selfish and a fool, she will stand and bow her head with all the other mourners, cowed as they are by the times and the uncertainty and the way the world feels like it is shifting under their feet. She will understand how Harry Bailey was brought undone. How the act of pulling himself from his bed each day to work the same hours in the same stinking factory became too much, how the coins must have felt like they were slipping through his fingers as they fell further behind in their rent, how a man might feel like he had nothing at all. A future so bleak that it couldn’t be glimpsed.

Yet all the cuts of grief Lil has taken in her own life—for her father, for Tommy, her mother—have not untethered her, rather they have healed over rough and hard and ugly, layers of scar tissue that bind her up and make her harder still. She could no more drown herself in that saltwater river than she could fly to the moon.

And anyway, there are six houses between all that sadness and number sixteen. Lil’s place. And now there’ll be a stranger in the house, or not a stranger exactly, but not her mother, not her dad. She wonders what they might have made of it. Oh well, she thinks, not your decision to make any more. It’s mine.

This is an edited extract from The Hummingbird Effect by Kate Mildenhall (Simon & Schuster),  available now at your local independent bookseller.