‘You can't give up now, girl. Come on, you're almost there. Isn't she, Mary?’
Mary Cregan rubbed her hands over her face and pushed her hair out of her eyes. This had been a long night and she wasn't sure it wouldn't end the way Norah's last two pregnancies had. Maybe there was something seriously wrong with the girl's body. Everyone lost a couple of babies early in the piece. But to go nearly full term and lose them at the last minute seemed rather cruel and somewhat odd to Mary. Especially when they put up this much of a fight to come into the world. This would have to be the last push or none of them would have the energy to go on, she thought, as she readied herself to pull the baby from Norah's body.
‘Ere it comes, girl, that's it…puuush! Yep, it's comin'. Here we go now…that's better. A live one…and there's a good scream for yer.’ She cradled the newborn in her hands and drew it up towards Norah's chest.
‘See, I told yer. Tis a boy…an' that's the difference, eh? Strong as an ox. Listen to them lungs.’ Michael was half way out the door as he finished speaking. ‘I'll tell Joseph to get ready to celebrate. You right to finish up 'ere, Mary?’
‘No doubt about 'em,’ Mary mumbled. ‘Men are not creatures to 'ang about when there's a reason to drink, eh?’
Norah gazed at the newborn baby, touching his tiny nose and fingers. She had little strength left but felt a surge of relief as her neighbour cleaned her up. Mary was a tough woman but could be surprisingly gentle, Norah thought as she drifted off to sleep.
When she woke a couple of hours later the older woman was still in the room.
‘I've just settled young Thomas again. He's been restless tonight. You be right if I go now? Baby should sleep. He’s exhausted after the time 'e 'ad gettin' 'ere. I need a few 'ours meself. I'll look in on yer in t'mornin', then.’
‘I'll be fine, Mary, thank you.’
Norah reached out to check the tiny bundle beside her, tightly wrapped in a thin, patched rug with ragged edges. It was a rug Michael had brought home new when Thomas was born. There was nothing new now. Everything was shredded. Maybe this new son would inspire Michael to try harder… come home more. She was so lonely, so tired of these walls. She had tried hard to make it homely but the dirt floor was impossible to keep clean and the rats got in no matter what she did. They certainly didn't come for the food scraps, for she and the children ate every morsel. At least now it was summer, the baby wouldn't freeze to death. She prayed her milk would be enough, for she was skin and bone herself and couldn't imagine her body having sustenance for even a tiny newborn. The baby stirred and she pulled him closer.
‘Yes, little one, I'm here. And your father will be here soon, too, I'm sure,’ she whispered into the night and closed her eyes.
Michael came home late that morning, unsteady on his feet, but wide awake.
‘You're very chirpy for this time of the morning.’ Norah smiled weakly at her husband.
‘And why not, me luv? For I've a new son to celebrate, and a new plan.’
Norah barely caught the last words and looked at Michael quizzically.
‘There's new opportunities afield, me luv, and I'm thinkin' tis time we moved on. Can't let a chance for rewards pass by, can we now?’
‘What are you talking about, Michael?’ she asked wearily.
‘Perhaps we'll just wait a bit before we go talkin' about it, for the walls 'ave ears, an' if you've nought to talk about, to be sure you won't go lettin' the cat out o' the bag.’
‘I have no idea what you're on about but I did want to talk to you about calling the baby Michael…after you, what do you think of that?’
‘Michael,’ he mused. ‘Hmm, to be sure it'd be a problem if 'e's 'andsome, for you'd be gettin' us mixed up, wouldn't you now?’ Michael laughed raucously and Norah thought how childlike he could be.
‘You're in your forties, Michael, and not likely to be looking like a young man again, let alone a boy. Tis serious, this is. I'd like to name our new son after you. What do you think?’
‘Tis a grand idea, me luv, sure it is. A grand idea.’
When little Michael was three months old his father arrived home late one afternoon, rushing through the door like a madman. Norah was afraid he was about to walk right over the top of the baby who she had laid on the floor on his shabby rug.
‘Quick!’ he yelled, grabbing at the small bundles of their clothes. ‘We're off…hop to, girl. Don't jus' sit there, gawpin'. We 'ave to be away, quick.’
Norah rose to her feet, more to confront Michael than to do his bidding. She was just settling Thomas and Rebecca down for the evening, thinking about what to feed them. It had been a long, hot February day and she was in no mood for the antics of her husband.
‘I'll not move an inch, Michael, sure I'll not, until you explain yourself. Tearing in here like a scalded cat, frightening the children. Just stop and tell me what's going on.’
Norah stood with her hands on her hips until Michael stopped dashing about and looked at her. He seemed surprised that she was not jumping up to follow him unquestionably as she once might have done. She hoped he could see that she had changed. She was twenty-eight now, no longer a girl. She was tired, and no longer easily convinced that his schemes were for her benefit, or for the benefit of their children. She watched his face register acknowledgement of her need to be paid more attention, to be given more information about his plans.
‘Tis a surprise, Norah,’ he said winsomely. ‘I've been plannin' this for a while but I wanted to surprise you. Tis all arranged, sure it is. We're goin' to the country, girl…fresh air and sunshine…just like you've wanted. I've a cart waitin' but we need to be goin' so we can get away, er get along the road before dark.’
‘The country?’ Her heart leapt. ‘You mean to a farm? Have you bought land, Michael?’
‘Sort of, darlin'. Sure there's lots of land where we're goin'. Tis there for the takin', so it is.’
‘Taking?’ Warning bells clanged in her head. ‘Michael you can't steal a farm!’
‘Please, luv, trust me. Tis all thought out, 'onest it is. You'll see. T'will be grand. A new start. Plenty of room for the wee ones to run and play, just like yer friends 'ave at Campbelltown.’
‘Is that where we're going?’
Norah had not written to Kathryn since their visit three years before. She had seen that Hamlet didn't approve of Michael and she could not blame him. She had been too embarrassed to think about going back to visit and she certainly would not contemplate turning up there again, unannounced.
‘No, no, me luv, not there. We'll be 'eadin' further out west, where land's aplenty. Please, Norah, we must get goin'. I don't want to be findin' me way in the dark.’
Norah nodded, still confused and wary but she could see she was going to get no more information until they were on their way. She picked up her few belongings; a small bundle of clothes, her sewing kit, her hairbrush and a small cracked mirror. She put these in a canvas bag and added the children's boots. Michael had thrown a few tin cups and plates into another bag and then gathered up the baby and their threadbare blankets. He dragged his bulky coat from the hook on the wall and ushered them all out the door; Thomas yawning, Rebecca glancing from her father to her mother, as if trying to work out who was in charge. By the time they had all climbed onto the cart in the front lane, Rebecca’s face mirrored her father’s smug smirk. Norah could see they both sensed adventure. She was praying that her own sense of foreboding was unnecessary.
Two hours later, as the sun was setting over the mountains in front of them, they drove through the plains towards Penrith. The children had fallen asleep in the back of the cart after devouring the bread and sausage Michael had given them.
‘There's orchards ‘round 'ere soon if my memory serves me well,’ Michael said, scanning the surroundings. ‘Soon as it's dark we'll find us a tree to settle under for the night, eh? We’ll be off good an' early in the morn, an' over those mountains in no time at all, sure we will.’
‘Over the mountains? Michael, are you sure you know where you're going?’ Norah's feelings were still mixed.
She was glad to be out of the city, and breathed in the fresh air gratefully even though the temperature was still stifling. She was beginning to feel a little excitement at the prospect of being on the land. Her childhood memories of the fields around
Limerick were aroused and she wondered what might grow in the soil out here. She might be able to plant vegetables, and have a cow. It was almost too much to hope for.
But there was also her usual apprehension about Michael's plans. What could have possessed him to bring them all this way? He hated the country. He made no secret of that. But there was no going back. Wherever he got this cart from, she could tell he had no intentions of returning it. She had noticed a bulky canvas bag in the back, along with what looked like picks and shovels and a tin lamp. It was all neatly packed and tied down, as if someone had been getting it ready for some time. Did Michael do this? Or did he relieve someone of the cart after they had packed it for their own purposes?
Nothing shocked her any more and she sighed as she realised how complacent she had become about Michael's comings and goings. She had to keep her mind on getting through each day, finding enough for the children to eat with the few pennies Michael gave her, mending the few rags of clothes they possessed and trying to keep herself and the children as clean as possible, given the conditions they lived in. But being out in the countryside – in the sunshine, the open spaces and fresh water springs – would mean a new way of living. Dare she hope? She wanted so much to believe that Michael would build the good life that she dreamed of for herself and their children.
She prayed silently as Michael moved the horse and cart slowly along the rough road and then pulled to the side under a stand of apple trees. It looked like heaven. It smelled divine. Michael reached up and pulled a couple of apples from the tree and handed one to her, winking cheekily as he munched into the other. When he had kicked a few stones away from the wheel of the cart, he dragged one of their blankets from the back, laid it on the ground and squatted down, inviting her to join him. As she leaned into him and closed her eyes, she could see, in her mind, a small farm house surrounded by green grass, dotted with wild flowers, bees and butterflies flitting about. She sighed deeply and allowed herself to believe it was possible.
She listened to the soft chirping of birds as she fed the baby and then the snuffled snoring of Michael beside her when they had settled for the night. It wasn't often that they slept through the night together, for Michael was always out and about after dark. For the first time in a long time, Norah slept deeply, her body relaxing into that of her husband.
The trip up the rocky mountain path the following day, was torturous. Tall gums swayed over them, their large roots wandering menacingly out to trip the cart. The children shrieked anxiously one moment and the next laughed as they spotted small animals in the bush and chortling magpies and kookaburras. Twice the cart was bogged in such thick mud that Michael had to jam a log under the wheel and yell at the horses to pull while Norah pushed from the back, stones cutting into her feet until they bled, bramble bushes tearing into her skirt.
As the afternoon wore on, she felt exhausted and worried that she would have no milk for the baby. She was greatly relieved when eventually they pulled over a ridge and Michael said they would be stopping for the night. She wondered how many more nights they would spend on the mountain and if her husband really had any idea where they were going, but she was too weary to question him again and certain she would get no answers that she could believe, so she accepted the apples he pulled from his coat and tried to settle the children.
‘I'm still hungry, Ma,’ Rebecca complained. She and Thomas had eaten their fruit and the few scraps of dry bread she had left.
Under the cover of darkness, Michael disappeared for an hour, returning with bread and cheese and a lump of cooked mutton, which the children immediately shovelled into their mouths. Norah ate gratefully, wondering whose mouths the food had been taken from and praying that God would forgive them and that the other side of this mountain would reveal a new way for Michael to provide for them. She fed the baby on the rug beside the wheels of the cart and then drifted to sleep under the warm night sky, watching the myriad of stars in the blackness.
The next two days were equally tiring. The hot wind whistled through the gum trees. The cart lurched across treacherous ruts and rocks on the path. The further they went the more the blue-grey bushland spread out behind them. At times, looking back, they could glimpse the plains of Penrith stretching away to the blue of
harbour and the headlands. Then the view would be hidden by the giant gumtrees and sandstone bluffs that hemmed them in and the children's attention would be taken with sightings of small kangaroos and brightly coloured parrots. Sydney
‘I can't imagine how those men ever found their way over these mountains the first time,’ Norah said, looking around in wonder. ‘Some of these ridges drop away to nothing, sure they do. They must have faced those huge rock walls over and over with no way through and had to start again. Tis a wonder they weren't killed in the trying, sure it is.’
‘It was the convicts that 'ad the worst of it, sure it was…buildin' the roads with picks ‘n shovels…lashed for so much as takin' a breath.’ Michael grimaced. ‘Bloody Governor Macquarie cared nought for the lives of ‘em, long as 'e got to see what's on t'other side.’
‘And what is on the other side?’ Norah asked. ‘You've still not said where we're going nor what we'll be doing.’
‘You wait an' see, girl. T'will be a surprise for yer, so it will. Trust me, eh?’
‘I try, Michael. I do try, but just now I'd be thankful to know that we'll get our children to safety, sure I would. There's stories in the cities of savages out here, who'd eat a child soon as look at him. I've never been sure what to believe but – ’
‘Then don't be givin' it a thought, me luv. Whatever 'appens, I'm 'ere to save yer, aren't I?’
Norah tried to be reassured by Michael's confidence. Rebecca and Thomas were growing tired of the trip, weary of the bumping about, irritable with scratching the itchy sores from the mosquitos that attacked them each night. By the fourth night Norah was beginning to despair that they would ever see civilisation again. But the following day, they pulled over a steep ridge named
and saw spread before them, the plains that led to Mount Victoria . Her spirits rose immediately, her natural optimism resurfacing. Bathurst
‘Oh, Michael, tis beautiful. Tis like I can see to the other side of the colony.’
Even though the view was blocked by rounded hills as they descended to the floor of the valley, Norah held onto the hazy promise of a country town and a new life. The outskirts of
were shaggy with low lying bushes and wooded hills. The grass was a green carpet spreading across undulating plains through which they were able to travel much more quickly. They crossed small, babbling brooks of clear water. She could picture a small hut on any number of the flat grasslands, like the one where they camped on the sixth night. Surely, they must nearly be to their new home. Bathurst
She sat quietly the next day, watching Michael expectantly for some signal of his plans.
‘This'll be Kelso comin' up, from my calculations,’ he murmured as he dragged a grubby piece of paper from inside his shirt.
He pulled the horse up and unfolded the paper, turning it about until he seemed satisfied he was looking at it the right way up. ‘And Wattle Flat will be that way.’ He waved his hand to the right.
‘Michael, how do you know where we are? Where did you get the map?’ Norah leaned over his shoulder, a small shudder of fear running up her spine.
‘A friend drew this so's 'e'd know where to 'ead. This is where it's all 'appening, so it is.’
‘What's all happening? I don't understand.’
‘Gold, darlin'. There's gold in these 'ills. It were all the talk at the pub. Men can smell it. Some 'ave found it already. There'll be ‘undreds 'eadin' out 'ere before we know it. An' we'll be 'ere afore 'em, so we will. Our fortune's 'ere, me luv. Waitin' for us, in t'ground.’ Michael threw his head back, whooping into the air.
The children jumped at the noise and then joined him innocently, for his mirth was always infectious. Norah looked at him incredulously. She grabbed the map from his hand.
‘Gold? Are you completely mad? What do we know about digging for gold? You stole this map from someone, didn't you? And this cart? It was all packed by someone else…someone planning to come out here and find gold. Someone who knew what they were about, no doubt. Sure, you've taken someone else's dream… and you'll be the death of us, Michael Kearns. We'll starve, so we will, for you've never swung a pick in your life.’
She took a deep breath, aware that the children had fallen silent with the sound of her yelling, for they had never heard it before. ‘There's no farm, is there? No cottage in a field, no vegetable plot…no – ’
‘What are you babblin' about, girl?’ Michael snatched the map back from her and grabbed the horse's reigns. ‘You just wait an' see. There'll be plenty 'ere for us. Every man an' 'is dog will be 'ere diggin' soon, an' none of 'em 'ave ever dug for gold before. Tis new for us all. It'll be a grand adventure, sure it will, an' I'll be damned if I'm to miss out on it.’
He clucked loudly and flicked the reigns, following a narrow track to the right of the road, the tilt of his chin defiant with self confidence and determination.
Norah's shoulders slumped as she pulled baby Michael close to her breast. Whatever will become of us, she wondered fearfully. Whatever will become of my beautiful children?
There was silence in the cart as Michael urged the horse on through more and more dense bushland. The track narrowed and became rougher, bouncing the cart from one wheel to another. Branches brushed past their faces, making the children cringe. Even Michael looked like he was beginning to wonder if he had taken a wrong turn when they came across a tract of grassland a few acres wide. In a far corner of the opening, Norah spotted smoke rising from a campfire. Michael redirected the horse and as they came close, she could see two men sitting on logs beside the fire, drinking from tin cups.
‘Tis no more than a camping spot. There's no town here at all.’ Norah said icily.
‘Sure, but isn't it on the way? And here's the proof of it, for there's others 'eaded for it too.’
Michael waved his arm in greeting to the men who returned the gesture and rose as he jumped from the cart and approached them.
Norah could hear the men exchange a few pleasantries and watched their faces as Michael questioned them.
‘You'll need to go further north, to the creeks off the
. That's where we're headed. They say if you go past this thick bushland here and then turn west you'll come across Wattle Flat. Brave man, taking the family. There’s not much there for a woman, they say.’ Turon River
Norah gazed at the back of Michael's head, wondering what tale he was spinning. She sighed deeply and patted little Michael's back, as if comforting him might bring some sense of peace to her own mind. Rebecca and Thomas chatted behind her, the game of spotting small animals and birds now their constant entertainment.
‘We're on the right track, sure we are.’ Michael nodded as he returned to the cart. ‘Let's 'ave a break 'ere, an' then we'll push on…should reach the river before nightfall.’
He lifted Thomas from the back and held Rebecca's hand as she jumped down excitedly. The two children skipped to the edge of the bushland, scouting among the small trees and scrubby natives for further sightings.
Norah fed the baby, saying little. As the two men gathered up their belongings and piled them into a large wheelbarrow, they offered Norah and Michael the remains of the tea they'd boiled on the campfire. Norah drank gratefully while Michael swigged on the small whisky bottle he always carried in his coat.
‘Are you walking all the way? Norah asked, as the men prepared to set out.
‘Sure are, Missus,’ said one, tilting his cabbage hat. ‘Two legs apiece. That's all the transport we have. Over forty miles so far, we've come. About twenty to go, we reckon. Slow going with this load but there's not much there from what we hear and what there is, is mighty pricey. You'll make it before us, for sure, with the cart, but we hear it's pretty rough so take it easy. Perhaps we'll see you along the river somewhere.’
The second man took hold of a rope that fell from his waist and hitched it around the front of the barrow. As he pulled from the front, his partner took up the handles from the back and they headed off, both waving farewell.
‘See, girl. We're in front already, for you don't 'ave to be pullin' us along like an ox, eh?’ Michael slapped his knee and laughed, jumping onto the cart and calling Rebecca and Thomas. ‘Up an' in, you two, for we're off to make our fortune, sure we are.’ He whistled as they passed the two men and their barrow.
An hour later, they passed two more men struggling under the weight of an enormous pack, strapped to two poles, one man each end. Like pall bearers, Norah thought, watching the looks of determination on their faces. She shuddered at the image and glanced back at Rebecca and Thomas, now both dozing on the floor of the cart.
It was almost dark when they came across the first creek and could see the saucer of hills around a small settlement. A few tents were scattered about, campfires rising amongst them. The pungent odour of smoky gum leaves drifted out to meet them. As they drew closer, the clash of tin billies and the soft buzz of voices drifted across the evening air. Michael pulled the horse to a halt on the outskirts and stepped down, looking about. He breathed in deeply and stretched; a satisfied, confident smirk on his face.
‘Ere we are, me luv. Our new 'ome. You wanted fresh air…well, there's plenty of it, so there is.’
‘And not much else, sure there's not,’ she said, trying to curb her disappointment. ‘And what do you think we're going to be living in, tell me that? Or are you to invite yourself into the back of someone's tent now?’ She knew that she sounded sarcastic but she was weary beyond words and more than a little frightened.
She was surprised to hear Michael laugh again and more surprised when he dragged the large canvas bundle from the back of the cart and rolled it out.
‘Your 'ome awaits you, me luv. If you'd just give me a 'and 'ere, we'll 'ave it set up in no time at all, sure we will, an' we'll light our own campfire and be as cosy as bugs in a rug.’
Norah laid baby Michael in the back of the cart and took the end of the roll, gaping in shock as it stretched out into a large square, revealing ropes and pegs, a swag, a bundle of bags which she could see held an assortment of flour, tea and sugar, a tin billy, frying pan and a lantern. Michael pushed these to one side, grabbed a couple of poles from the back of the cart and began to erect a tent. He couldn't wipe the smile from his face and kept stopping to wink at her, as if waiting for her to realise what a grand scheme he had come up with. Norah could only shake her head as she watched their home taking shape and, in the end, found she could not stop herself from smiling back at her husband.
‘And what are we to eat?’ She was determined not to congratulate him too soon.
‘You've the makin' there of a damper, luv, once I get some water from the creek, an' tomorrow I'll be catchin' us somethin'. I'm told roo rats an' possums are plentiful out 'ere.’
He grabbed a trap from the back of the cart and rattled it in front of his wife to prove his intentions.
Rebecca was horrified. ‘Pa, you wouldn't have us eat a li'l animal, would you?’
‘Sure, me darlin', for didn't the good Lord put 'em 'ere just for that, now? That's 'ow it is on the land.’ He winked again at Norah, obviously seeking the approval he was sure he deserved.
Norah shuddered and squeezed her daughter's shoulders. ‘I'm afraid your Pa's right, my sweet. God did provide animals for men to hunt for food and skins. If we must eat them to live, then so be it, for we've not come out here to starve to death, have we now? And we'll not be taking the food from anyone else's mouth again. Is that not right?’
She cast a questioning frown at Michael but he had already turned his attention to lighting the lantern.
Early the next morning, Norah woke to find Michael gone. She stirred up the remains of the campfire they had made the night before and boiled some water for tea. The clatter of shovels and the thudding of picks could be heard from the gullies and in the early morning light, Norah could see men felling timber and the beginnings of mullock heaps at the base of the low hills around the camp. She could see the stooped figures of men carrying wooden cradles and piles of rock; something it was hard to imagine Michael doing. She wondered if there were any other women in the camp. Other questions flooded her mind but she pushed them away. They were here now and she knew she would have to make the best of it, for it could not be worse than where she had spent the past eight years, and who could say if it wasn't the new beginning that she had prayed for.
She squinted in the morning sun as she spotted Michael returning from the edge of the bushland; the single-barrelled muzzle-loader he had pulled from the cart last night, over his shoulder. He caught her eye and held up a small animal, waving its limp body about like a flag. He had a grin from ear to ear. The hunter returned triumphant. God works in mysterious ways, she suddenly remembered the priests of her early years saying. She would have to trust that He was at work now and perhaps soon enough she would see what He had in mind for her.
To be continued....