‘You've outdone yourself, my dear.’ Thomas Haynes sat back in his chair, rubbing his stomach. ‘A splendid meal. And for your part, Kathryn, you've been a great help to Joan and we're mighty pleased to have you here.’
Kathryn smiled and nodded. She felt uncomfortable being at the family table for Christmas dinner, particularly when there were guests as well. She was happy to eat in the kitchen when the family had finished their meal, but more and more the Haynes had insisted that she join them, especially since October, when she had received a Ticket of Leave from the Governor.
She had only served four of her seven year sentence, but the Haynes had recommended leniency on the basis of her good behaviour. So now she was able to get a small allowance for her work, and she was saving every penny. She still wouldn't be eligible for her Ticket of Freedom for a few more years but when that time came she would be able to consider her options. Perhaps even a place of her own…even a family of her own. Joan and Thomas Haynes' marriage had given her hope that perhaps there were men in the world who could be trusted.
‘So George, how is the year ahead looking for your property?’ Thomas' voice interrupted Kathryn's thoughts. He was addressing the stout man across the table from him, who owned a property just south of Campbelltown.
‘Things are definitely looking up. The economy seems to have taken an upturn, thank goodness, and Hamlet has done a fine job of overseeing this past year. He seems to get the best from the men so we've a positive outlook for the future, eh, Hamlet?’ George smiled at his overseer, who also seemed uncomfortable to be seated at the dinner table with his employer.
Kathryn had noticed Hamlet looking confused about the spread of cutlery, and unsure of what to do with his napkin. Now he was running his hand over his thick brown hair, as if he was checking it was still firmly brushed back. She wished that she could let him know that much of the etiquette of the gentry was unfamiliar to her as well. She was learning though and meant to take it all in so that one day she would feel completely a part of their world. She wondered if Hamlet had such ambitions.
‘We have indeed, sir.’ Hamlet's ruddy face brightened with a grin. ‘I think we could double the stock this year if we get the rain that's predicted.’
Kathryn could see that Hamlet Pollard had no confusion about his role on the property, nor his capacity for doing a good job. She liked that. She knew a little of his background from a previous discussion with Joan, who was definitely impressed with Hamlet and had on more than one occasion suggested that the two of them might get along very well.
, Hamlet had grown up on a farm where his father and he worked as labourers. He was the eldest of a large family and knew what it was to have nothing to spare. In his early twenties, things had been so tough for the family that Hamlet had resorted to stealing extra food from the farmer's kitchen. He had been caught and sentenced to five years jail. When he was released, he had tried, without success, to get work, and at the age of thirty he had been caught again for housebreaking and given a life sentence in the penal colony. He arrived in Manchester, England in 1835, and was incarcerated on Sydney Goat Island, a mile from Sydney Cove, where he had served in irons, excavating for the construction of a military magazine.
It must have been a terrible three years for him, Joan had concluded, for although he never talked about it, she knew from other sources that the men in these chain gangs were locked up at night in groups of twenty five in prisoner boxes mounted on wheels, with no more than eighteen inches of space to lie down. By day, they were kept hard at work, not allowed to talk and liable to be flogged for trifling offences. In spite of it all, Hamlet must have been a model prisoner, for he was assigned to George and Martha Nicholl soon after coming off Goat Island and he had proven himself so trustworthy and hardworking during the time he had worked for George that he had been granted a Ticket of Leave in August of this year, after serving just eight years of his sentence.
The women sat in the front parlour after the meal, the men having wandered outside at Thomas' invitation.
‘I think Thomas has some new farm implement he wants to show them,’ Joan said as Kathryn passed out cups of tea. ‘I'm so glad things are looking up economically. Last year Thomas was really worried that we mightn't be able to stay on the land. And then where would we be? Thomas has really had enough of the seaman's life, and I certainly have. It's such a blessing to have a home on solid ground and a husband who's here to enjoy it with me.’
She paused and looked quizzically at Kathryn. ‘And tell, me, Kathryn dear...’ Her voice was more playful now. ‘What did you think of Hamlet? You and George are quite taken with him, isn't that right, Martha?’
‘We are,' Martha answered.
‘I've been singing his praises to Kathryn but she's kept her opinion quite close to her chest to this point. So come on,’ Joan goaded gently, ‘tell us what you think.’
Kathryn felt herself blush as the two women turned to her.
‘I hardly know the man, really. This is the first time I've met him, sure it is, and I barely said two words to him over lunch. I know he's quite a bit older than me but other than that…I'm not sure what I think of him.’
Kathryn felt cornered into making some kind of judgement about Hamlet's suitability for marriage, a concept she had given no consideration at all. She hated to think that the women assumed that she was hunting for a husband.
‘Come now, Kathryn. You must be thinking about what kind of man you'd like to marry,’ Martha said, as if reading Kathryn's thoughts. ‘And what's fifteen or so years between a man and woman? Really, an older man's more stable and sensible, I say. You're twenty-three now, aren't you, and practically a free woman? Surely it's time to think about having children.’
Kathryn's jaw dropped. ‘I've considered little but getting through my sentence for the past four years,’ she murmured uncomfortably. ‘I'm not ready to – ’
‘Oh dear, we've embarrassed you, pet,’ Joan comforted. ‘We've gotten carried away with the idea. It's very naughty of us to be so presumptuous.’
The women brought their teacups to their lips and averted their gaze, clearly disappointed that they had not got any idea of what Kathryn thought of Hamlet Pollard.
Two weeks later, Joan had a new opportunity and considered it would have been almost rude to ignore it. Hamlet called by the house on the Sunday after New Year and asked if Kathryn would like to go for a ride. He had the Nicholl's spring cart looking so clean and smart that a person could only presume he had courting on his mind and when Kathryn agreed and came back hours later looking flushed and pretty, a person could only conclude that she was happy to be courted.
‘You assume too much, Joan, so you do,’ Kathryn chided. ‘We only drove through the countryside. I enjoyed it very much and Hamlet seems a gentleman. Mind you, I told him right off if he so much as laid a finger on me I'd tear his ear off.’
‘You said what?’ Joan looked aghast and then laughed. ‘He wouldn't believe that of you.’
‘Oh, I think he did, sure enough, but I think he rather liked the idea of a woman who wouldn't be walked over.’
‘Didn't I say he was a smart man?’ Joan teased.
‘We'll see.’ Kathryn took off her bonnet and shook out her hair. ‘Now, I've some chores to finish so I'll be about them, so I will.’
Kathryn smiled to herself as she thought back on that day and remembered her determination to think very carefully before making any decisions about Hamlet Pollard. Yet, here she was, less than four months later, standing in the little Anglican church in Campbelltown. Even now, she could hardly believe she was getting married and yet she hadn't the slightest doubt that it was the right thing for her to do.
Hamlet stood beside her, just five inches taller than she, which meant they both looked up into the face of the chaplain, George Vidal. Hamlet had obviously worked hard at looking very swish. His usually unruly brown hair was tamed into a tight cap on his scull. His stocky, sunburned arms were covered to the wrist in the sleeves of his white, starched shirt. Kathryn knew he would want to hide the tattoos on his lower arms, for he was not proud of the time after his jail sentence in
, when he had done all he could to flout the law and appear to be tough. He was truly regretful of his foolishness and although his crimes had been an attempt to help his family, he believed he deserved his prison sentence and wanted to do all he could to redeem the years he had wasted. England
He had a kind and gentle heart, Kathryn had no doubt now. He had softened her guardedness about men and convinced her that he would be a faithful and loving husband. They shared a dream to have a place of their own, and while it would take time and hard work, they were equally determined to make their dream come true.
A great match, indeed, Kathryn heard the chaplain echo her thoughts as he began the ceremony. The Haynes and Nicholls families sat in the rows behind the couple, no doubt sighing their congratulations of themselves for having brought this happy pair together. These were the marriages that would build this foundling country into something good, productive and solid, they had earlier boasted.
As Kathryn and Hamlet left the small church and headed for the overseer's small slab cottage, which Hamlet had scrubbed and decked out for his new bride, Kathryn found herself thinking of her friend in
. She wanted Norah to know that she had been right in believing for better times ahead. She had written over a month ago to tell Norah her news and ask if there was any way she could come to the wedding, but there'd been no reply and Kathryn wondered if Norah had moved on from the city. She determined to make more inquiries about that later, but for now she held tightly to Hamlet's strong hand and allowed herself to anticipate a happy future. Sydney
At that moment, Norah was huddled in the corner of the tiny dark room that had become her home. She could hear the scratching of yet another rat, clawing its way through the cracks in the walls of the lean-to room attached to the kitchen outhouse. She had not met the owners of the small tenement house who had allowed Michael to rent the back room for a modest fee. Norah thought a person ought to be paid to live in such squalor rather than having to pay for it. She knew that Michael only paid at all because he stole goods that he could sell on to make the rent.
Food was so scarce that she was constantly hungry and she was afraid to think how it would affect her unborn child. Michael said she was foolish to worry, for hadn't the Irish bred generations of babies with barely anything but a few potatoes in the stomachs of their mothers? He knew nothing except stealing to survive and cared little for the prospects of the future. He revelled in the danger in which he put himself daily as he brazenly sought out those from whom he could snatch a purse or fob watch.
Norah didn't want to think about what he got up to when he went out late at night but she was sure he was breaking into houses and businesses, hiding away his returns, as he put it, under the few broken pieces of furniture that were scattered about their room. She dragged her shawl around her drawn up legs, shivering as a blast of cold wind slithered through a crack and enveloped her thin frame. She prayed that Michael would not come home too drunk this night, for he could be cruel and cutting when he had a belly full of beer.
So different, she mused, than when he was sober. He was a jolly man then, full of cheeky humour and fun. He made her laugh and treated her like a princess, marvelling at her beauty, assuring her of his undying love, promising her the world, even though he had no means nor plans to change anything about their life together. She had been so sick when first pregnant that she couldn't hide it, not from Eliza nor from Mrs Clancy, who immediately dismissed her for hadn't she warned her about mixing with bad types? Michael had laughed when she told him she was to have a baby. She hadn't been sure if he was happy or unbelieving. He had brought her to this tiny room and told her to make what she could of it. He would find some more blankets, he had said, for the nights he would not be able to keep her warm himself. No need to worry, he'd assured her, for there were plenty of nobs to supply their needs, willingly or not. He'd scoffed at her suggestion that he might look for work so that he could support a family. He had never worked for another person in his life and was not about to start now, especially an Englishman, for he would rather slit his throat.
He also laughed at the idea that he might marry her, seeing as she was to have their child. Even though he did love her very much, marriage was for nobs, he said. In any case, the English had made sure that Catholics were denied the Catholic mass for most of the life of the colony and even now that there was a Catholic Archbishop, the Catholic religion was detested by most. Being legally married was of no help in this God-forsaken place if you were Catholic and Irish. No, he would not conform to their laws and expectations in any way. But she should not concern her pretty head for he would make everything right.
Norah couldn't imagine how Michael was going to make anything right but she would have to trust him, for what other choice did she have now? She did know that what she had done would have brought great shame to her family back in
. She would most likely have been sent off to a convent to have her baby and never seen the child again. But here, there were many babies born out of wedlock and no one seemed to care too much. Not that it was any comfort to her, for she did feel shame and she desperately wanted someone to care. Ireland
She reached under the thin mattress and pulled out the crumpled letter. It was from Kathryn, a few months old now, for Eliza had only brought it to her a couple of weeks ago. Norah held it up to the shaft of moonlight coming through the small window above her head and read it again. Kathryn would be married now, for the wedding was to be that very day. If only she had known…but then it would have been impossible for her to go to Campbelltown. What would Kathryn think of her circumstances now? Even Eliza thought she was daft to stay with Michael. Better to have got rid of the baby in the first place, she had said, but Norah could never do that. Kathryn would be more understanding, she was sure. She would talk to Michael about going to Campbelltown some time soon, perhaps after the baby was born. She curled up against the cold and prayed that by then her circumstances would have changed.
Rebecca Kearns was born in September. The only thing that had changed in Norah's circumstances was that the weather was warmer. Mary Cregan knelt over Norah, holding the squirming child.
‘A squawker, this one. Didn't 'ave to even shake 'er to get 'er goin', eh? I 'ope she don't do it all night, though.’
Mary had introduced herself to Norah a few weeks before and promised Michael that she would be there for the birth of his child. Joseph Cregan had also made himself known. He and his wife were resigned now to Michael having a woman and child with him permanently. They had asked for more rent, as there's to be more bodies around, but at least they did seem to be a little more friendly this past month.
Norah reached out and took her baby from the grubby faced woman, whose dank hair hung limply around her ears. Mary was obviously unmoved by the tiny perfection of the child and Norah drew her whimpering daughter close to her breast and held her until she settled. As she drifted into sleep, her body aching, Norah saw the sweet smile of her own mother, for whom she had named her daughter.
‘Rebecca,’ she crooned as she faintly heard Michael and Joseph begin their celebrations with the clink of bottles.
To be continued....