‘Did you hear about the hanging, Norah?’ Kathryn drew her shawl around her neck as the cold wind bit into her skin.
‘I was there to see it, in fact, except when it came to it, I couldn't look. Horrible, so it was. Edward Davis and then the other five, one after another. Eliza thought it was a treat to see. She's ever so brazen. Pleaded with Cook to let us go. Mrs Clancy said she hadn't the stomach for it herself but was glad to know those bushrangers would cause no more trouble. Too many criminals here, she says. But they say the
brought the last load of convicts in November. And soon they're to stop assigning them to the settlers as well.’ Eden
‘Why, aren't you a wealth of knowledge?’ Kathryn paused, reluctant to reveal her news. ‘I did hear they're to stop assigning females. And that Caroline Chisholm is arranging for girls to work for the farmers in the country areas where help is harder to find. It's what I've wanted all along, Norah…to be out of the city.’
Kathryn noticed Norah's face drop and reached for her hand. ‘I'm suffocating here, luv. It's so crowded and dirty and noisy. I need some fresh air and green. I miss the hills of
, I do. You do understand, don't you?’ County Longford
Norah blinked back a tear. ‘Sure I do. I'll miss you terribly but I do understand. Do you know where you'll go?’
‘I'm hoping out Campbelltown way, south west of the city. They say there's rolling hills and sheep paddocks. But it won't be for a little while. I'll see you lots before I go, I promise.’
‘Maybe we could exchange letters?’ Norah said hopefully.
‘Perhaps.’ Kathryn nodded. ‘You know I’m not so good at writing but I've been practising my letters. But let's not be sad about it now.’ She changed the subject. ‘What do you think of the new gas lights in the city streets?’
‘Oh, they're fine, sure they are, but I've not noticed them much. They've not been on when Eliza and I come out of the picture theatre on Saturday afternoons.’
‘You go to the theatre? Just you and Eliza?’ Kathryn felt a stab of worry.
Norah nodded. ‘Just sometimes. We have a Saturday afternoon off once a month and it's been a bit of fun. Eliza's full of fun, but she's careful, mind. She wouldn't take me anywhere dangerous.’
‘She's not leading you astray is she?’ Kathryn knew she sounded over-protective. ‘I'm sorry, love, tis your life and you should be having fun if that's what you want. I just want you to be safe.’
‘I know, and I'm grateful for your care, so I am, but you don't need to worry about me.’
By the end of that winter, Kathryn was settled in Campbelltown where she had been assigned to Thomas and Joan Haynes, who had a modest land holding in the area. Their farmhouse was nestled in the low hills to the west of the small town and Kathryn found herself often on the back porch, breathing in the fresh air, watching the sunset, enjoying the sight of the grasses waving in the breeze. Just for moments at a time, of course, as she came in and out of the house, pegging out or taking in washing, emptying night pans, taking food scraps to the pigs or chickens. She was the only domestic the Haynes had, so she had run of the house and took great pleasure in keeping it spick and span. Joan Haynes enjoyed cooking herself so Kathryn's work was to focus on the other chores. Joan was ten years older than Kathryn but they hit it off right from the start and Kathryn felt she was treated more like a friend than a servant. Perhaps life could be good, she now sometimes mused as she paused on the back porch. Perhaps Norah was right after all.
Over the next two years, the talk about
became more and more bleak; compulsory sales, foreclosures of mortgages, insolvencies and increased unemployment. Tradesmen were receiving fifty percent less in wages than they had been a year before. Property owners were forced to auction their homes, turning them into paupers overnight. All of this did nothing for the safety and cleanliness of the city streets and Kathryn often shuddered as she imagined Norah being in danger each time she ventured out, perhaps even being one to lose her position. Sydney
Norah's letters were always positive, but Kathryn had tried to convince her to apply for a position in Campbelltown or the surrounding districts. After all, she wasn't a convict, she didn't need the Governor's permission. And Kathryn would have gladly put in a word for her with the landowners who came to the Haynes' home for tea. But Norah had so far declined the suggestion. Her position was secure and she was enjoying the many diversions from work that the city offered. Kathryn could only hope that Norah was as happy as she sounded.
On a balmy March morning in 1843, Norah stood amongst a great throng of people. She was too short to see much of what was going on but as the crowd began to move from Sydney Cove towards
she sensed the excitement around her.
‘I'm not sure why everyone's so impressed,’ Eliza muttered. ‘After all, they're only priests and didn't we 'ave enough of them back 'ome? But I do like the band, don't you?’
‘I do,’ Norah whispered, not sure why she felt she ought to keep her voice down. She was embarrassed by Eliza's disrespect for the priests. They made quite a sight, now that she could get a glimpse of them as they headed up
. Soon they would enter the Catholic Cathedral and the first Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding, would begin his reign. It all seemed terribly important to Norah. For the first time in many months, she remembered her early years in Limerick, the tiny church where she and her parents and her brothers would sit reverently, watching the priest as he prepared the Eucharist and invited them to come forward and receive the blessing. She had always been awed and comforted by the proceedings.
She wondered what it would be like to attend a service in the great Cathedral of Sydney. Her Sundays were always such busy days now, helping to prepare lunch for the Hennessys, who would arrive from church all chattering, the women in their fine gowns, ribbons and bows fluttering from their necks and waists. They would remove their delicate hats and sink into the lounge chairs in the front room, waiting for a cup of tea as if they had done a hard day's work. The men would talk business or the economy or politics, none of which seemed to interest the ladies.
There was never an indication that any of them had been at all moved by the church service, Norah mused. She found herself wishing she could once again experience her early sense of peace about the world. Lately, she had struggled to feel comfortable with the way her life was going. She was missing Kathryn and although she had assured her friend only recently in a letter, that all was well in
, the truth was Norah was finding herself confused and even frightened. Sydney
Her only outings were with Eliza, who was still quite fun to be with, until she talked her way into the local pubs and had a few drinks. Then she became very loud and more than a little…obscene was the word that came to Norah's mind. Eliza liked to be with men and made no secret of the fact; making lewd gestures and telling jokes that made Norah blush. Moreover, the men, who were drawn to Eliza like bees to honey, would start groping, not only Eliza, but herself as well, and no matter how much she told them to stop, they just laughed and continued until she fought her way out of the pub and found her own way home.
She was thankful then for the gas lights which lit up the main streets and she was always terribly relieved when she finally reached the back door to the Hennessy's home and let herself in. She vowed on those nights not to go again, but the next time Eliza suggested they head out she found it hard to say no. It was usually quite late in the evening, for they didn't finish their chores until after eight. Mrs Clancy thought the girls were heading straight to their rooms at the back of the house and would have been horrified if she had known where they were going.
Norah promised herself that she would be stronger in future and say no to Eliza, for she didn't want to jeopardise her position. Nor did she want to put herself in danger. She was well aware of the problems a young girl could face on the streets of
, but it always sounded so harmless to go out for a little while, to meet up with the other domestics and have a chat at the local pub. It all seemed so innocent until she was faced with some grimy faced man, smelling of beer and sweat, who wanted to use her body for his pleasure. Sydney
No, this was not what she wanted for herself and she resolved to make a change. Perhaps it was time to consider what Kathryn had suggested and look for a position outside the city. Perhaps there was a nice family in the country who had small children and needed a nursemaid. Yes, it did seem like a very good idea and Norah determined that she would write to Kathryn about it very soon.
But then she met Michael Kearns.
She had tried so hard to refuse Eliza that night but it was nearly Christmas and everybody was sure to be celebrating. It was definitely going to be her last time, she had determined, and Eliza had agreed that they would come home early. Perhaps if they had gone to their usual pub on
, instead of the Irish pub on
, it might not have happened. But here she was now, unable to stop listening to the small man with the dark, wavy hair, his Irish lilt broad, his laughter infectious. He wasn't talking to her, of course, but to a couple of older men in a darkened corner. It was just that his voice carried to where she and Eliza sat, and his story was intriguing.
‘I could show 'em a thing or two, so I could, 'ere in
. They're amateurs, sure they are. We were so quick, not an eye in Sydney could've seen what we were up to. Got away with watches an' wallets, purses an' silk scarves. Why, we could've taken the gold right out o' their teeth if we'd had a mind.’ His laughter rang across the room. Dublin
‘But you got caught, didn't you? Or you'd not be here with the rest of the criminals?’
‘Sure, I got a bit too smart for meself, so I did. I picked on someone what knew me, didn't I? A man I'd delivered a parcel to, for I was an errand boy, an' I should've been more careful to stay away from those who'd know me face. Too 'andsome for me own good, sure I was, specially then, at sixteen. He never felt a thing while I lifted 'is fob right from 'is belt, but 'appened he looked for it just after, an' it were gone, an' I wasn't far enough away from 'im that 'e didn't recognise me. But that were a long time ago now…seventeen years. I been 'ere since Christmas, 1826. I remember, as we were 'eld on board the old
over Christmas, right up ’til the second o' January. Bleedin' 'ot it were, on that old tub, an' not even a beer to wet our whistles nor celebrate the new year. Not that there was much to be celebratin', then, eh?’ Phoenix
Norah smiled as she remembered her own arrival, almost four years ago now. Goodness, she thought, I was just a wee child when this man arrived here in the colony. It hardly seemed possible, for she could see his face had a cheeky youth about it and there was a twinkle in his eyes that defied the years he was recounting.
‘Seven years, they kep' tryin' to make me work on that bleedin' road gang but I was as quick as a wink gettin' away there too. Every time they turned their backs, I was off. Course, they kept catchin' me again, for there was nowhere to go except into the bush, an' a man'd be a fool to be runnin' into the spears of those ruddy blacks, now, wouldn't 'e? Got sent to Penrith in the end, to finish me sentence…an' then I'd no sooner got free and I was in court again. Incorrigible, they said I was…but I 'ad to eat, didn't I? So I found me a little farm and let meself in for a feed. There was no getting' a job for the likes o' me. So what's a man to do? What 'e's good at, eh?’
He stopped to swig at his drink and the two men hung over the table waiting for him to go on. Norah could see that he was deliberately taking his time, leaving them waiting to hear the rest of the story. He was a real entertainer, she thought.
‘So for all that I ended up on
Norfolk Island… with the incorrigibles. Now there's a 'ellhole you don't want to find yourself on, sure enough. No way of escapin' from a bit of rock in the sea like that.’ His laugh rang out again and Norah found herself laughing with him.
‘Are you daft, girl?" Eliza's voice broke into her thoughts. ‘You been off with the fairies most of the night and now you're gigglin' with yourself. What's got into you?’
‘Sorry, I was thinking of something else…what were you saying?’
‘I weren't sayin' nothin'. That's the point. No one's talkin' to you and you look like you're havin' a grand old chat in your 'ead.’
‘I suppose I am.’ Norah grinned, a little embarrassed. She turned her head as she spoke, wondering what she might have missed of the stranger's story. And there were his eyes, staring right back into hers. She felt stunned, like a rabbit caught in a hunter's lantern. They sat, eyes locked for what seemed like minutes until she became aware of Eliza shaking her arm.
‘Come on, girl, let's get out of 'ere. There's nought of interest and you're no fun at all tonight.’
Norah couldn't answer. She watched, immobilised, as the man rose and started to walk towards her, his eyes never leaving her face.
‘Well, 'ello there, me pretty. Sure, an' aren't you a sight for sad eyes? Just when I was thinkin' there was nought to be celebrated in this wretched town and there you are, just like the angel atop a Christmas tree.’
Norah was speechless, and the man apparently took the smile on her face as an invitation to sit down in the chair from which Eliza had just risen. He nodded at the older girl, as if to dismiss her and leaned close to Norah's face.
Norah thought for a moment he was going to snatch a kiss but Eliza’s voice interrupted.
‘Excuse me, mister,’ she started, obviously put out. ‘My friend and I were just leavin'.’
‘Tis alright, Eliza.’ Norah found her voice. ‘You go ahead. I'll be along soon.’
Norah couldn't imagine where she was getting her nerve from. She was usually so uncomfortable amongst the men at the pub.
‘You know this man?’ Eliza persisted, looking aghast at Norah.
‘Michael Kearns.’ He held his hand out to Eliza. ‘I'll not keep your wee friend too long.’ He turned back to Norah, flashing a broad smile.
Eliza headed hesitantly toward the exit, looking back briefly as she pushed through the doors and disappeared from Norah's view.
Aware that her hands were shaking, Norah hid them in her lap and smiled back at the man beside her, now so close to her that she found it hard to breathe.
‘And your name, me pretty?’ Michael rested his chin in his hands and winked cheekily.
‘Norah McCann’, she answered.
It was late that night when Norah crept back into the Hennessy house. Her face was flushed, her mind reeling. She undressed quickly, slipped into her bed and tried to sleep. She knew she had an early start and needed to be alert in the morning but, try as she may, she could not erase Michael's face from her mind nor his voice from her ears. He had completely charmed her with his tales and his sweet talk. Something at the back of her mind warned her not to take his words too seriously, for he’d had quite a few drinks and after all, and he was so much older than her and so experienced. He’d likely had many a young girl carried away with his attentiveness. She had agreed to meet him at the pub on Christmas Eve, just a few nights away, and although she had a deep fear that she was getting herself into more than she was ready for, she knew, as she finally drifted off to sleep, that Michael Kearns had captured her heart.
To be continued.....
Find Carol at http://www.carolpreston.com.au/ or www.facebook.com/writingtoreach