Sunday, 30 September 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen

I have often said ‘I forgive you’ but even
as I said these words my heart remained
angry or resentful. I still want to hear
the story that tells me that I was right
after all; I still wanted to hear apologies
and excuses; I still wanted the   
satisfaction of receiving some praise in 
return - if only the praise for being so 
forgiving.' Henri Nouwen                                                              

Wiseman's Creek, February, 1867

It had been a long, hot day but Norah felt she had accomplished a lot. She had paid up their rent for another six months, bought materials for the children's clothes, some seed and small plants, as well as flour, salt, oil and sugar. She had also taken Theresa to the doctor, having been concerned about her continually running nose. The doctor had considered her concerns unwarranted but given her a small jar of elixir to rub on the fifteen-month-old's chest. Norah sighed with relief and smiled at Mary, now fourteen and quite the little mother, who held her sister, Theresa, closely on her knee as the cart bumped across the dusty track that led to their hut.
     Norah heard William stir in the back of the cart. He had hardly said a word on the way home, having been entirely occupied with sucking the sweet Mr Atkins had given him earlier when Norah had stopped in at the Inn to enquire about Rebecca.  But Bob Atkins just shook his head sadly when Norah stepped in the door these days, having seen nothing of Rebecca since she had left four years earlier. Norah inevitably left there feeling sad and found herself silently praying for her daughter most of the way home.  Now, she distracted herself by noting how dry the ground looked as she slowed the cart near their hut. She hoped her vegetables would not be too parched.            
     She sighed thankfully as she came through the door, the smell of soup greeting her.  Tom was all smiles, always happy to see his mother home. Joseph and Mick also seemed relieved to see her and Norah suspected their older brother had been a hard taskmaster in her absence. She grinned at the two boys who were fiddling with setting the table. They were obviously under strict orders and their resentment showed. Norah thanked them and said what a good job they had done as she helped serve out the piping soup and watched them scoop it up heartily.
     ‘Tis very good, Tom, so it is. You've done a great job…hasn't he boys?’ she said, watching their faces. Neither Joseph nor Mick looked up from their plates. ‘I said your brother has done a good job with this soup, hasn't he now?’ she said more pointedly.
     Joseph nodded begrudgingly and Mick grunted as he swallowed another mouthful. 
     ‘They're a bit fed up, I'm afraid, Ma,’ Tom explained. ‘We've been working hard all day but we've got all the fences mended. The boys will be glad of a good sleep, I reckon.’
     ‘I see.’ Norah nodded. ‘Well, we'll all be glad of that, sure enough.’

     ‘I've been reading about the new railway being built east of Lithgow, Ma,’ Tom remarked as he and Norah sipped hot tea when the others had gone to bed. ‘Sounds like a huge project. It's through to Lapstone Hill and apparently the engineer, John Whitton, wanted to tunnel through the hill but that was going to cost too much so they've built this rail line with three legs in a zig zag and the train has to reverse up one of the legs and then they have to switch the engine from front to back. There's also a huge viaduct over Knapsack gully, the largest in Australia. Two of the spans are fifty five feet high.’
     ‘Sounds impressive.’ Norah tried to sound interested but tiredness was catching up with her. ‘Why are they going to so much trouble? Surely if it's that hard people could just use the coaches. They're regular now from Sydney.’
     ‘Oh, it's not so much for people. They want the rail done so they can transport coal.  There's plenty of it out this way, so they say. I think coal mining will be a big industry here one day.’
     ‘Ugh.’ Norah turned up her nose. ‘Coal mining sounds like dirty, dark work. It'll take people away from farming, so it will, and that can't be good.’
     ‘There's room for both. The railway will be used for taking produce to Sydney as well. There's plenty of prosperous farming still going on around here but there's a lot of talk about mining, not just coal but copper and kerosene shale. There'll be big money in it, I reckon.’
     ‘You wouldn't think of mining, would you, Tom? You'd not leave the farm for such work?’ Norah’s heart sank.
     ‘Who knows what the future holds, Ma. I'd not be adverse to some extra work if the opportunity came. Don't worry, I'll not abandon the farm but there's the other boys coming along. We can't all stay on this little farm forever. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. They've still got to get the rail line down into the Lithgow valley if it's to be any use for carting coal. And that will be a grand feat. It's the biggest project of its kind in Australia…maybe the world. I'd be keen to have a look at it sometime, that's all.’
     Norah nodded tentatively.  She was too tired to think any more about it tonight and she had to trust Tom to make good decisions for their future. She couldn't imagine being anywhere but Wiseman's Creek with her little home and garden and their few animals, but Tom was right in that it could not support all the children into adulthood. It was too much to worry about now. She rose, kissed the top of Tom's head and left him with his newspaper spread before him. He was the strength of the family and she thanked God for him as she wearily settled herself beside William and Theresa on their narrow mattress.

At Stoney Creek the following day, James Pollard was trying to reason with his father about prospects other than their farm. 
     ‘It's a good offer, Pa. Mr Quinn's flock is huge and he needs shepherds. His boys are tied up with running the property. I could help out here on my days off and the money would be good.’
     ‘And who's to run this place, eh?’ Hamlet's face was creased with worry. ‘Johnny and I have our hands full even with your help. I'm getting on, son. I've turned sixty and this old body doesn't stand up to the work like it used to. I understand you want to make your own way in the world but I thought you'd want to take over this place. God knows I've worked hard enough to get it going. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't thought you boys would want it some day.’
     ‘What about you, Johnny?’ James looked at his brother. ‘You're eighteen now. What do you want to do in the future? We can't both run this place. It's not big enough to support two families.’
     ‘Families!’ Johnny spluttered. ‘I'm nowhere near thinking about a family. I don't know what I want yet but I'd like to get about a bit, see a bit more of the country, maybe work on some big properties too, get some experience. I don't know, Pa. It's too soon to make a decision.’
     ‘I know, boys. I don't want to push you. I just reckoned…well, I guess I assumed too much. There's only the two of you and sooner or later it'll be up to you what happens to this place. The girls will marry into one or another of the families around here, I imagine. I know this is not a big place but it's a good living for one or the other of you, at least.’
     ‘Who knows, Pa. Maybe one of the girls will marry a man who can work this farm –’
     ‘No.’ Hamlet's voice was firm. ‘I didn't build this up to have it taken over by someone outside the family. I've put my heart and soul into this place, and so has your mother, to provide a good future for our children. And if it's not to be yet, then I'll be working it until I drop if I have to.’ Hamlet's usual calm manner was agitated and both the boys felt uncomfortable.
     ‘What about if it were someone close…someone you could trust, like Tom. The way Elizabeth goes on about him I wouldn't be surprised if they end up hitched and Tom could work this –’
     ‘I'll not hear of that, James. And don't you go talking about it either. Elizabeth's still a child. And just because she's infatuated with Tom Kearns doesn't mean a thing. The last person who'll ever have a piece of my land is Michael Kearns. That'd be over my dead body.’
     James looked at the flashing darkness of his father's eyes and realised the depth of his hatred for Michael Kearns.
     ‘But Pa, he's been gone for ages now and who knows if he's ever coming back and anyhow, it would be Tom that'd be married to Elizabeth.’
     ‘I'll not hear of it and that's an end to it. We'll not discuss the farm again until you boys sort out what you want to do. If you're set on shepherding, James, then do it now.  See how you like working for someone else, and come back when you're ready to take up your responsibility here.’
     With that, Hamlet set his face toward the bush and headed out, not looking back.
     James and Johnny looked at each other blankly and there was an awkward silence.
     ‘I've been hearing some of the fellows talking about the money that's up for grabs on a stock drive,’ Johnny eventually said, his voice husky. ‘I had been thinking I'd like to try it for a while, but I guess I'll hold off a bit if you're taking this position with the Quinns. I don't want to hurt Pa, and I'm sure you don't either. I can wait a while yet.’
     James nodded and cuffed his younger brother on the shoulder playfully as they walked back into the shed.

Inside the house, a similar conversation was going on between Kathryn and Norah.
     ‘Tom didn't say he would go mining or working on the railway but he talks about it as if he might find it tempting one day. It made me sick to my stomach, Kathryn. I've always thought he loved it here like I do and that he'd take over our place and build it up, for God knows it's only a small concern now. Joseph and Mick would never take responsibility for the farm. I don't know what they'll do, sure I don't. I guess I hoped they'd work with Tom, at least until they grow up a bit and then maybe they'd find work somewhere. Perhaps even in one of these mines he's talking about…although that's hard to imagine. But they'll have to work for someone. They're too much like Michael to work for themselves.’
     ‘Come now, Norah. Tom's got a good head on his shoulders. He wouldn't make a decision without considering you and the other children. It's not in him.’
     ‘Perhaps, but I made so many bad decisions…and you don't really know they're bad until down the track.’ Norah felt heavy hearted.
     ‘What decisions have you made that have been so bad?’
     ‘Marrying Michael was no stroke of genius, was it now? It seemed so right at the time. I had such hopes. Now I wonder what on earth I've brought my children to. I wonder if that's why Rebecca has gone, why I've lost her. Is this what I've brought on myself?’
     ‘And just what have you brought your children to? A healthy life in a land filled with opportunity is what. You've taught them to read and write, to know right from wrong…and yes, to be careful who they marry, for it can make life easier or harder but that's a good lesson to learn. So you didn't get it right all of the time! You're learning along the way. As for Rebecca leaving you…I should box your ears for talking such rubbish. Rebecca's made her own choices and she'll have to learn by them, sure she will.  And thank God she has more choices than we did to start with, for ours were few enough. You've got to trust Tom to make his decisions. He wouldn't leave you.’
     ‘Leave? Where would Tom be leaving to?’ Elizabeth's voice broke into the room.  She had walked through the door with her apron full of fresh eggs and Norah thought the lot would hit the floor any moment as her arms sagged to match her face.
     ‘Here, watch what you're about, my girl,’ her mother said. ‘Hold onto those eggs and don't be butting in to the conversation like that.’
     ‘Sorry, Ma.’ Elizabeth looked down at the load in her apron and straightened it up.  She carefully removed the eggs and placed them in the basket on the table, her furtive glance going from her mother to Norah, the silence clearly disturbing her. 
     Norah saw panic in the pretty brown eyes. Elizabeth was growing into a very attractive young woman, she realised, and there had never been any hiding of the fact that she adored Tom. But now, what Norah saw was not a sweet child looking up to a big brother figure. She was a sixteen-year-old, and quite clearly in love. Norah gasped at the recognition. She wondered how Tom felt about the girl and if he had any idea of Elizabeth's feelings.
     The eggs all safely in the basket, Elizabeth pushed wisps of pale brown hair from her forehead, pinning them under the scarf that was wound around her head and tied behind her neck. Her hair fell to her waist, shining and thick.  As she straightened her apron, Norah could see the budding of the girl's womanhood, the shapely figure and generous hips. Kathryn had often joked about her daughter being enamoured of Tom but Norah had never taken it too seriously. Now she could see that it was very serious indeed.
     ‘Please, Mrs Kearns,’ Elizabeth pleaded. ‘Tom isn't thinking of going away, is he?’ There were tears welling in the girl's eyes.
     ‘No, Elizabeth. Tom has not talked about going away. He's just taken an interest in the new rail line that's being built east of Lithgow. He thinks that mining for coal will be a big industry here one day and I wondered if he'd want to try his hand at it, that's all.’
     ‘Oh.’ Elizabeth sighed deeply and sank into a chair beside her mother.
     Kathryn reached out and stroked her daughter's face. ‘Such a worrier, poor pet. Just like your Pa. Now you get about your chores, eh.’
     ‘Interesting times ahead there,’ Norah said quietly when Elizabeth left the room.
     ‘And haven't I said so often enough?’ Kathryn smiled knowingly. 
     ‘You have. I suppose it's all sneaking up on me too fast…this having grown up children.’
     ‘You've done a good job, Norah. If you hadn't taught him to read, Tom would hardly know about the rail line and the coal mining, would he now? You wanted him to have choices and now you'll have to trust him with the education you've helped him get.’
     They were interrupted again as the back door was pushed open roughly and Hamlet strode in. He went straight to the kettle without acknowledging the women at the table.  Kathryn looked at her husband quizzically. ‘You look tired, dear,’ she ventured. ‘Sit here a bit with us, why don't you.’
     Hamlet dropped into the chair his daughter had just vacated, the tea he had poured sloshing dangerously in his cup. ‘It's hard work, this farm, Kathryn. Perhaps it's not worth it after all.’ He let out a deep breath.
     ‘After all what?’
     ‘What if no one wants it after all the hard years of work?’ He sucked in a mouthful of hot tea, his eyes staring straight ahead.
     ‘Is everybody melancholy about the future for some reason today?’ Kathryn exclaimed. When Hamlet didn't respond she went on. ‘I want this place. It's our dream.  If no one wants it beyond us, then so be it. We've made a good life for ourselves and our children. They have opportunities that we didn't, freedoms we were denied. Tis enough, Hamlet. Be proud. Be happy with what you've achieved. I am.’ She reached across the table and took his hand firmly as it lay on the boards; large, scarred and ingrained with dirt.
     ‘Hamlet looked up into his wife's eyes, and squeezed her hand. ‘You are a good woman, Kathryn Pollard.’
     ‘Good enough.’ She grinned. 
     Norah watched quietly, envying the easy love between her two friends. She thanked God that she had found them again, for she knew she would not have been able to stay on the land without them. 

The following Sunday, the little church at O'Connell held a Spring Picnic.The families all supported one another, sharing what they had, being glad for each other in the good times and offering help in the struggles.  Everyone knew that life on the land in
Australia was tough, unpredictable and sometimes heartbreaking. But the blessings were also great and on days like this there was a spirit of celebration. 
     In a quiet corner of the yard, under a huge fig tree with spreading branches which almost hid the couple from view, Tom and Elizabeth sat among the roots, their backs pushed into the curving wood. They didn't often get a chance to sit quietly, for it seemed Tom was always working and while Elizabeth welcomed even the chance to watch him chop wood or mend fences or dig gardens, she cherished these moments when she had his complete attention. 
     ‘I was so worried,’ Elizabeth said demurely, ‘when I heard your Ma say you were thinking about something else in the future…something other than the farm. I can't imagine you anywhere but on the farm, Tom.’
     ‘It wouldn't matter what work I did, Lizzie.’ He only called her that when they were alone. It was their secret signal that there was something special between them. ‘I'd always want to live on a farm, even if it was small; to have a garden and some animals, even if it was just chickens and pigs and such. There's not so much money in cattle and sheep, you know, not unless you have lots, and I can't see me having enough, not unless I made money some other way and then bought something bigger.’
     ‘I see.’ Elizabeth looked at him with total acceptance. Everything Tom said was perfectly true. 
     ‘Where would you like to live, Lizzie…eventually, I mean?’
     ‘I don't mind at all, Tom, as long as it's near you.’ She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. She knew she often sounded like a child when she spoke to him and she did so want him to see that she was becoming a woman, but her heart just failed her when she was close to him and she could hardly think at all.
     ‘Or with me?’ he questioned.
     Elizabeth felt her heart skip a beat and she knew her mouth would not work properly if she spoke. She nodded, hoping he would understand what her heart was saying.
     In answer, Tom reached out and took her hand, holding it lightly on his knee. When her hand trembled in his, he smiled and squeezed a lttle tighter. He knew how she felt and she knew he felt the same. They had always had this silent understanding. They didn't need a lot of words, but they were aware that now he was a man and she a young woman, there needed to be words spoken between them so that their intentions would be clear to everyone.
     ‘We'll always be together, Lizzie,’ he said. ‘Wherever we are, we will be together…right?’
     ‘Yes,’ she whispered. Her heart was throbbing under her pinafore and she thought everyone would be able to see what she felt for Tom Kearns and she didn't care for now that he had told her how it would be, nothing else mattered.
     Tom pushed his dark hair back from his forehead with his free hand and then rose from their tree root seat, gently pulling Elizabeth to her feet. He looked briefly towards the scattered crowd around the church yard and, apparently confident no one was taking any notice of them, he leaned down and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Elizabeth thought her stomach would drop right out of her onto the ground. She hardly felt her feet touch the grass as they wandered slowly, reluctantly, back to the front of the church where families were gathering together, packing up their baskets and rugs and saying their farewells to friends.
     Suddenly, Elizabeth felt Tom drop her hand from his and when she looked up, she saw that her father was glaring at Tom from the front step of the church. His face was dark with something Elizabeth had never seen before. She shuddered at the sight of him and turned to Tom, her dreamy smile creasing into a worried frown.
     ‘What's the matter with Pa? Have you had words?’
     ‘No, Lizzie. We haven't, but I fear we will soon. Don't worry. I'll sort it out.’ He touched her arm reassuringly and walked towards Hamlet, his face calm and determined.  But before he reached the step where Hamlet stood, seemingly frozen, Kathryn called her husband to help her with her baskets and he moved quickly away.

That night Elizabeth lay sobbing on the mattress in the small bedroom she shared with Harriet and Annie, as she listened to her parents' voices getting louder and louder.
     ‘I can't believe you've been so blind that you haven't seen what's as plain as the nose on your face and has been since she was a small child.’
     ‘A child enamoured of a boy down the road is one thing, but this is another thing altogether. If you think that a daughter of mine will ever become a Kearns you're sadly mistaken for I'll never accept it…never.’
     ‘And what would you be doing then, answer me that? Denying her the only happiness she's ever longed for?’
     ‘I'll be saving her from a life like Norah's, that's what I'll be doing, and she'll thank me for it one day, you'll see.’
     ‘You're a fool, Hamlet, if you think she'd ever forgive you for keeping her from Tom. Not that you'd be able to forever. Tom will not give up on her, nor will he treat her like his father treats Norah. It's not in him.’
     ‘That's just it. It is in him. He's Michael Kearns' son and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Eventually, it'll come out in him, you mark my words.’
     ‘Tosh and nonsense, for he's nothing like his father. He's seen through his father since he was a small boy. He'll never be like Michael.’
     On and on it went, until Elizabeth thought she would scream if they didn't stop. But then they did, for her mother and father could never keep fighting each other for very long. She heard them apologising for the yelling and then their voices became soft and Elizabeth could not make out what they were saying. She fell asleep, praying that God would do something to show her father that Tom was the best man in the world and the only man she could ever love.

To be continued....

Carol Preston


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