The progressive writer Jean Devanny journeyed through north Queensland during the war years to research an idealistic book she planned ‘about the national integrity of the Australian people during wartime’. The result was Bird of Paradise published in 1945, a vivid account of people, their activities and industries during this time of peril and energy.

Her concern with marginalised voices led her to record stories of people like Ama, a Torres Strait islander working in Cairns. For Ama, painting her dinghy was one tactic to negotiate a tricky situation with the visiting Americans.

Ama did the weekly washing for one hundred and fifty Allied soldiers. “The girls, they help me,” she told me. “Five of us going all the time. Sometimes into the night. We work hard. In dry weather it is not so bad, but in rain it is terrible. They wait for their clothes then. See those lines.” I saw them. Dozens of lines hung between two houses, and between the groves of mangroves.

Ama stopped scrubbing to light a cigarette. “They not bad, those Yanks. They give me plenty of cigarettes. They treat me well. But the other day they make me so mad I said I wouldn’t wash for them any more. The officers, you know, they always bring the washing, so last week when three officers came along I was down at my dinghy on the creek there, painting it. I know they come so I go to paint my dinghy.” She laughed and suited the action of painting her dinghy to her words.

“My girl, she sing out to me: ‘Mum, here are some soldiers with the washing.’ I sing out to her: ‘Tell those American soldiers to go away. I won’t do any more washing for them. I’m painting my dinghy.’ Then my girl, she tell them soldiers: ‘Mum is cross.’ And they say: ‘Tell the old lady we want to talk to her.’ So the girl sing out: ‘Mum, the Americans soldiers want to talk to you.’

But I go on painting my dinghy and then those Yanks, they come along the jetty and stand beside me while I paint and when I look up at them the chief man, he is looking down at me and smiling.

“’What’s the matter, old lady?’ he say, and I say quick: ‘I not old lady. I not much older than you. Then they all laugh. They L-a-u-g-h like anything.” She drawled out the words with an upward inflection.

“So I had to laugh, too, and then I said to them: ‘Look here, you Yankee soldiers, I’m not going to do any more washing for you. On Monday, it rain and you bring down a load of washing. Then on Tuesday it fine. The sun shine good so clothes can dry, but you – you only bring down a few rags. That’s not what you arranged to do! I’m going to wash for our own Australian boys. I’m going to wash for our own airmen. You Yanks, you can go away.’

“But that chief man – a Lootenant, he was…” She grinned as she accented the ‘loo,’ as though we shared a secret joke, ‘He just stand there and look at me real pleasant, and he knock his hat – you know that funny little cap they wear – over his eyes and he say: ‘But you’re the best washer of them all, Mrs. S -.’

“’Aw, you go away,” I say, and I push my paint brush at him.” She laughed richly and rocked her body. “’You tell me first I old lady and now you say I the best washer of them all. I don’t want to wash best of all. Go away. I’m painting my dinghy. ‘

“So they went away but the next day…You oughta seen what they sent down here! They sent down one hundred and fifty bags of washing and that nice Lootenant, he come with it and he smile. He not say anything at all, but he stand there with all that washing in the truck behind him and smile.

“’Aw, it’s you,’ I says to him. I got my dinghy all painted up now and I go fishing. No time to do washing for Yankees.’ And he say: ‘Aw, Mrs. S-‘ Not cheeky-like, you know. Just kiddin’. So I said the girls could do as they liked but I go fishing. I go out every morning and cast my net for prawns. No time for washing…   

“And here it is! Look at it! And three girls ironing all the time. But now I tired. We have a cup of tea, aye?”

She climbed off the bench, took me inside her house and made me a cup of tea.

Jean Devanny, Bird of Paradise, Sydney, Frank Johnson, 1945

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