Wiseman's Creek, December, 1857
‘Murdered, 'e was, poor beggar, an' 'im with a wife an' wee son. Made me think of this one, it did.’ Michael patted Joseph's head and jiggled him on his lap.
He had the attention of the whole family as they finished their meal. He had only been home a few hours and although he had a hard time winning a smile from Norah, he was sure his adventure with the
police would ensure the admiration of the children, perhaps even Tom, who regularly ignored him, much to his aggravation. Bathurst
‘His 'orse came back to the police station not long after 'e'd left, so it did. He was supposed to take over the escort of the gold to
from the Sofala guard but 'e never made it. The wife thought 'e must 'ave 'ad an accident when the 'orse came back, an' she went to the neighbours for 'elp. The police were called in but it weren't ’til the next day a prospector who was camped nearby found the body. It was covered up with some branches…been dragged there after 'e'd been shot in the chest. So we was called in, weren't we? We tracked back to near Sofala an' found a likely suspect, an ex-bushranger, if there's any such thing, but the blighter 'ad an alibi, didn't 'e? So the police couldn't prove anythin'. They'll keep lookin' I'm sure, but I'd say 'e's got away with it. There's some bad ones out there, yer see. Men what oughta be locked up or 'anged. There's more work to be done for those of us wantin' to keep the country safe, so there is.’ Bathurst
‘Well, at least Frank McCallum won't be bushranging any more.’ Tom broke into Michael’s recital. ‘He died in prison in
. He was sentenced to thirty years, so he killed himself.’ Melbourne
‘Now, 'ow would you know about such things?’ Michael was sceptical.
‘I read it in the paper. I told you, there's often stories about bushrangers.’
‘You still doin' that with 'im?’ Michael turned on Norah.
‘If you mean reading, yes I am,’ she said, ‘although I've little need to be teaching him any more.’ Norah smiled proudly.
‘I even help Ma with teaching James and Johnny and Mary Ann.’
Michael spun around and glared at Tom. He felt heat rise in his neck and face.
‘For goodness’ sake, I just read with them,’ Norah said before Michael could think of what to say. ‘They all want to learn and they help each other. Sure, tis a pleasure for me to do it.’
‘Aw, Pa, never mind that,’ Rebecca whined. ‘It's borin'. Tell us some more bushranger stories.’
‘Fine thing when a man can't go off to work without 'is missus gettin' up to no good,’ Michael growled, ignoring his daughter. ‘Well, it stops right now, yer hear? Those Pollards want their brats to read, they can send 'em to school like other toffs 'ave to. They're not usin' my wife…an' for free, no doubt? No wonder the boy's not interested in man's work with all this toffy stuff in 'is 'ead. Maybe I'll just take 'im with me next time…show 'im what life's really about.’
Tom gasped and looked to Norah as if waiting for a response which would save him from a horrible fate.
Take me.’ Rebecca leaned towards Michael, her face breaking into a grin. Pa.
‘You do that, Michael, and you'll return to find your family starved to death for Tom is the one who does the work around here,’ Norah said sharply. ‘A man's work I might add… and we'd be lost without him. Probably frozen to death as well if it were over the Winter for he's the one who chops the wood as there's no other man around here to do it.’ Norah emphasised the final phrase.
‘Well, I'm surprised 'e 'as time to cut wood, with all that readin' 'e does.’ Michael sneered.
‘He reads in the evenings by the lamplight.’ Norah defended Tom. ‘Except when we go to the Pollards’ once a week for their lesson and we'll certainly be continuing to do that.’
She was as emphatic as Michael had heard her. He opened his mouth to answer back but Norah rose from her seat.
‘Joseph's ready for bed and I've to feed him.’ She took the child from his father's lap and headed for the other room. ‘I'd be thankful if you and Tom could clear up for me, Rebecca.’
‘Ma. I'm still listenin' to Pa's story. It's only his first night back.’ Rebecca huffed and screwed up her face.
‘You'll do as yer Ma says, girl.’ Michael rose from the table and headed for the back door. ‘There'll be time for more stories tomorrow. I'm goin' to 'ave a smoke.’
The following morning, Michael rose late and stumbled into the front room to find his family dressed in their best clothes.
‘What's this?’ he mumbled. ‘You couldn't wait to try the new bonnet I brung yer, eh, Rebecca?’ He looked admiringly at his daughter, thinking she was going to be as pretty as her mother.
‘We're goin' to church,’ Rebecca said, rolling her eyes.
‘You're goin' where?’ Michael's voice boomed and then he coughed and spluttered for a good minute before anyone could be heard above him.
When he’d caught his breath Norah handed him a steaming mug of tea. ‘We've been going to church on Sundays,’ she said. ‘Tis a small congregation at O'Connell and very friendly. You're welcome to come, sure you are, but I didn't think it was worth waking you on the chance that you'd be interested.’
Michael didn't like the offhandedness of his wife's tone one little bit. She had obviously been influenced by those she had been mixing with, in ways that he did not appreciate at all.
‘Now, look 'ere, girl. I'm still the man of this 'ouse, an' I'll say who goes where, do yer 'ear?’ He spoke fiercely, and Tom and Rebecca stopped in their tracks and turned to their mother, their eyes wide.
‘I'm sorry, but you're not here often enough to say where we might and might not go on a regular basis,’ Norah retorted. ‘We've had to get on with our lives in your absence and if you think drifting in with a pretty bonnet and a frying pan every few months qualifies you to be the head of this house, then I'm sorry but it just won't do. We need God's help and comfort, sure we do, and the support of others who, quite frankly, know more about what's happening in our lives than you do.’
Norah finished adjusting her bonnet and picked Joseph up from the corner of the room. She motioned for the children to go to the door and patted each of them on the shoulder reassuringly as they moved past her.
Michael watched them leave, his mouth hanging open. When the room was empty except for himself and Norah, she turned to him.
‘You're a man close to fifty, Michael. I know you're unlikely to change your ways now but I pray you'll consider your future, your eternal future I mean. Surely you realise you'll have to face your Maker one day and give an account of the way you've lived your life. I worry for you but I'll not take responsibility for you. Nor will I allow your ways to shape the lives of our children, not if I can help it.’
Michael was speechless. Norah waited a moment and when she spoke again her tone had softened.
‘I'd be very pleased if you'd come to church with us but you'd need to start changing your ways, so you would. It's not too late. Please think about it. We'll be back for lunch.’
With that, she was gone. Michael was still standing, dumbfounded, five minutes later, when the kettle on the stove burst forth with a blast of steam, startling him from his stillness.
Later, over lunch he was subdued. He listened to the family chatter, and enjoyed his wife's cooking, which he had to admit he sorely missed when he was out on the road, where most often he ate charred roo rat meat shot through with pellets from his gun and thrown in the fire. Sometimes he shared a small wallaby with some of the black trackers who certainly knew how to cook in the bush. Other than that, it was a loaf of stale bread he managed to grab from the back of a cart or a few pieces of fruit he whipped into his coat pocket as he passed the stalls in town. It was the way he had eaten from the time he was a small boy…not the roo rat and wallaby, of course, for in
it had mostly been scraps from bins behind the local pub. He sighed and felt sorry for himself. It didn't seem to matter how hard he tried, his family didn't appreciate him. He glanced around at them and wondered if they would care if he never came home. Dublin
‘Mrs Thomas gave me a sweet today,’ piped Mary. ‘She said it was sweets for the sweet.’
‘She's a very nice lady, Mary, so she is. She's been very kind to us.’ Norah smiled.
‘Yeah, Ma. It was her who gave me these pants and the other clothes, wasn't it?’ Tom added. ‘She said her boy wouldn't need them any more. I think he died a long time ago.’
‘That's right, Tom. Her boy died with the fever. He was your age, so tis very sad for her but she's glad to know a boy who's able to wear his clothes. And it's a great blessing to us.’
‘A dead boy's clothes? He's wearin' a dead boy's clothes!’ Michael entered the conversation for the first time. ‘Shame on 'im, I say…an' besides, we're not a charity case. I'll not 'ave my son – ’
‘Michael, please.’ Norah laid down her fork. ‘The families at church share things. Tis Christian charity and it's helpful for everybody. Mrs Thomas lost three of her children to the fever. Other families have been very good to her. She's just giving what she can in return. She's always helping women with birthing. Tis no shame to anyone to be helped, sure it's not. Tis how we were meant to live and I for very thankful we've found such a caring group of people.’
‘Well, tis pitiful if you ask me,’ Michael boomed. ‘A man 'as to look after 'iself an' 'is own, is what I think. I don't care for this kind of charity, Christian or not, an' I don't want me family involved in it.’ He slapped down his fork, rose from his chair and headed for the door.
Norah sighed deeply and began to clear away the dishes. There was quiet around the table for a moment before Rebecca spoke.
‘Why do you have to argue with him about everything, Ma? He won't stay. He'll go again if this is how it's to be.’
‘That may be, Rebecca, and it'll be sad if he does. I don't mean to argue with him about everything. I'm merely trying to explain why we do what we're doing. He has no idea how we live when he's away. I'm trying to make a decent life for us. You're old enough now to see how difficult it is without a man around to help. I'm doing the best I can.’
‘Well, perhaps he'd stay around and help more if you didn't argue with him about everything.’ Rebecca accused as she also rose from the table and headed outside.
‘I understand, Ma.’ Tom whispered. ‘I see how you try.’
‘Thank you. We'll all have to try a bit harder, so we can be a good family, eh?’
Family discussion went on in the same vein over the next few months, as Michael questioned and complained, making it clear he was not interested in going to church, even on Christmas day, and doing whatever he could to interfere with Norah's visits to the Pollards.
‘I'm pregnant again,’ Norah said to Kathryn after one of their classes. ‘I'm due about October, I figure, so just a couple of months after you. I wish I was as happy about it as you are.’
‘What's wrong, Norah?’
‘Oh, the usual. I'm expecting that Michael will take off any time and I'll have another child to feed and care for on my own. I know I have help from you and the families at the church. They are always so good to me but it's at night, alone…I think about everything. I fear that I'll not be able to give the children what they need.’
‘I understand, Norah. I can't imagine being without Hamlet. I'll do whatever I can to help, you know that, but you do manage very well, so you do. You're very strong, and you've seemed happier lately. Is it because Michael's home?’
‘No,’ Norah came in quickly. ‘It's because I feel very useful, what with teaching your children as well as mine. And a couple of the women at church have asked if I'll spend some time with their young ones as well. It gives me hope for the future, for them, I mean. And I have you to thank for that, for didn't you suggest it?’
‘Im just glad to see you using all those brains you have, sure I am. You must be happy to see how well the children are doing.’
‘Except for Rebecca, of course, who's the least interested of all. Although I did see her chatting with James in a corner the last time we were here. Maybe he can inspire her.’
‘He's not as keen on learning as the younger ones, either. Fourteen-year-olds have other things on their minds, I'm afraid. But they've had the basics so it's up to them now. You just keep on with the work for it's very important. And I'm thrilled others have asked you to teach their children. You've a gift, sure you do. And now we've two more students coming along before the end of the year, eh?’
Sadly, the end of the year did not bring the happiness the two friends had hoped for. Isabella Pollard was born on the thirteenth of August but died on the seventeenth, after multiple convulsions from the first hours of her birth. Norah visited a week later, doing all she could to comfort Kathryn but headed home quite despairing. She couldn't help but wonder, given her circumstances, if it wouldn't be better if she was the one to lose a child. Nevertheless, in October she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
‘I've such mixed feelings, Michael. I'm so thankful he's healthy but I ache so for Kathryn. How can she be happy for me, having just lost her baby?’
‘Tosh, girl, stop yer babblin' or you'll not be able to feed the wee one. He's grand, so he is. A strappin' boy again. You've done us proud, so yer 'ave. Now, what will we call 'im, eh?’
‘I wondered what you'd think about calling him Michael? I know we lost our sweet wee Michael before but somehow it seems time to honour him with a brother named for him.’
‘A fine idea, sure. But you'd best be callin' 'im Mickey, eh? For we'll be gettin' mixed up otherwise. I'd not like to be coppin' a rousin' on 'is behalf as well as me own, now, would I?’
‘Sure then, we'll call him Mickey…and I'd like to think this could be a new start for us too, Michael, for this wee namesake of yours is going to need you around for a while.’
‘I'll be 'ere for a while, girl, don't you worry yer pretty 'ead.’
To be continued...
Carol Preston http://www.carolpreston.com.au