‘Tis good of you to have us here again, Hamlet. We've had a lovely day.’
‘I'm glad, Norah. You've been a great help to Kathryn. She'd hardly have managed getting this meal together on her own, what with the size of her. We're quite sure she's having two this time, aren't we dear? And with Harriet only eighteen months old, you really have your hands full, don’t you, luv?’
Kathryn smiled as if contradict her husband would be a waste of breath.
‘Anyway,’ Hamlet continued, ‘we think of you as family, Norah. Kathryn wouldn't hear of you not being here with us for Christmas.’
‘You're very kind, both of you.’ Norah smiled gratefully. ‘And the children are very thankful, too.’
Tom nodded his head vigorously, as he tucked into a second helping of baked fowl.
Rebecca also had her mouth full but pretended that she had not heard the comment. That way she could ignore her mother's hint that she express some gratitude, especially since Tom had made such a show of himself. Always the good boy, she sneered inwardly. All of them made her sick. James and Johnny and Tom were always doing things together, and Mary Ann was more like a boy as well, wanting to gather wood, feed pigs and chickens, pick fruit. All the really boring things. Mary Ann never wanted to pretty herself up and the only boys that she talked about were her brothers. Not older boys, like some that they had seen at the last dance at the Quinns. Rebecca found some of them much more interesting and now that she was going on twelve, they found her more interesting as well. But Mary Ann was only nine so, of course, she wouldn't understand those things.
It was so boring on the farm that Rebecca sometimes thought she would go quite mad and since her father had been away for months again, there was nothing interesting to hear about and not even any presents for Christmas. She wished that she were someone else, someone who lived far away from here.
‘Are you sure you're right to travel home with the children alone, Norah?’ Kathryn asked later as they were clearing up. ‘Perhaps James could ride along with you until you get to Wiseman's. He's a good horseman now. If anything should happen – ’
‘It's not necessary, Kathryn, truly. Sure, nothing happens out this way that the children and I can't handle. Worst thing we've had to deal with lately is snakes, sure it is. We've had a few browns lurking about this summer. Tom killed one just yesterday, shot it from twenty feet. If we had any trouble he'd be able to take care of it, I'm sure.’
‘We all need to be careful at the moment.’ Hamlet said. ‘I hear there's a breakout of English Cholera and a lot of sick people around. Owen Quinn said it's bad in
and the surrounding areas. The doctors are telling people to stay in their homes as much as possible.’ Bathurst
‘I'm not planning to be out, Hamlet,’ Norah assured him. ‘It's too hot to be travelling anyway, and I've enough vegetables and stores to get by. Tom has caught a few possums lately. And our chickens are laying well. We're doing fine.’
And they were doing fine, until early in February when Michael arrived home. Norah could see that something was very wrong the minute he walked in the door. His skin was pale, his face drawn, and he dropped onto a stool in front of the table, hardly able to hold up his head.
‘Dear God, Michael? You look like death, sure you do. Is this from a night on the grog, or –?’
‘Of course it's not, you stupid woman. ‘Ave you ever seen me sick from a night on the grog? I've got somethin'…bad. There's sickness everywhere in
.’ He grabbed at his stomach and doubled over. ‘I went to cash some gold…should 'ave come straight 'ome...’ Bathurst
Michael doubled over again and Norah heard the rumble of his bowels as they exploded onto the floor. A grey, watery mess spread around his feet and he laid his head on the table, groaning. She dropped the spoon she was stirring with and rushed to his side, grabbing him just in time to stop him crumpling onto the floor.
‘Hold onto me, and we'll get you into bed. Mary!' she called to the two-year-old who was playing in the corner. Go get Tom, darling. Find Tom, that's a good girl.’
She saw the little girl grin and move toward the door as she struggled with Michael's weight and pushed him into the bedroom. Within minutes Tom and Rebecca were by her side.
‘Get me water from the stove, Rebecca. Tom, help me get these clothes off your father.’
‘What's wrong with him?’ Rebecca stared, wide eyed.
‘I don't know. Just get me water so we can get him cleaned up.’
Two days later, Michael was still hardly moving, his pallor deathly white. Norah had hardly left his side, cleaning his body over and over as the diarrhea continued, until it seemed that there could be no fluid left in any organ inside him. She was exhausted herself and was just drifting off to sleep beside him when Tom crept into the room.
‘Ma, it's Rebecca. She doesn't feel good. I think she's got it too. She's just…you know. She's crying. What will I do?’
‘Oh, dear God, no. Here, you sit with your
I think he's over the worst of it. Just give him a sip of water when he stirs for he's dried out. I'll see to Rebecca.’ Pa.
Another day passed, Rebecca going through the same cycle as Michael; her body scourged by racking diarrhea, until there was nothing but grey fluid pouring from her body. She moaned loudly through the night, terrified that she was dying, and although Norah tried to assure her daughter that she would recover, she was beginning to fear for all of them. She watched Tom and Mary closely for any signs of the sickness and made them keep well away from the bedroom, instructing Tom to set up a bed for himself and Mary in the other room.
‘We're all right, Ma,’ Tom called faintly the next night as he settled his young sister onto the thin mattress. He had fed her left over porridge from the morning before and patted her to sleep. He lay down and prayed that God would look after his mother and his sisters. He guessed his Pa was slowly recovering for there had been no more dirty clothes from him all that day.
He was awakened early the following morning by his father shaking his shoulder.
‘Tom, are you awake? You need to get up, lad.’
‘Ma? Is it Ma?’ He sat bolt upright, fearing for his mother.
‘Yer Ma's asleep. She's not ill…not yet anyway. I want you to take young Mary here to the Pollards. She's too young to survive this. I want 'er out of 'ere before she catches it. They'll take care of her for a bit, I'm sure. Yer mother's in no state to be looking after 'er, and Rebecca's far from through it. Now, up an' off you go.’
‘But, Pa, I'm taking care of Mary. I've not got the sickness.’
‘Don't argue with me, boy. I know best. I'm not riskin' this little one. It'd kill yer Ma to lose 'er. An' we don't know yer Ma's not goin' to come down with it 'erself, yet. I'll get the cart ready for yer.’
Tom reluctantly got dressed and did as his father directed. He didn't feel right about the idea but his father looked about to clout him when he tried again to talk him out of it.
It was after when he arrived back home. His mother still wasn't up and he became frightened that she had died in the night and his father was keeping it from him.
‘I want to see Ma,’ he insisted. ‘She's sick, isn't she? You're lying to me.’ When the tears would no longer be held back, he dropped his head into his hands and cried softly. ‘Please,
Please let me see her.’ Pa.
‘Oh, go in then, Mamma's boy. I tell you, she's just sleepin' but Rebecca's likely a mess again now so you can take some water an' clean it up. That'll teach yer to believe what I tell yer.’
Tom crept into the dark room. He held his breath for a moment as he focussed his eyes on the two thin bodies on the mattress. Neither was moving. He went quickly to his mother and leaned down close to her face. Relief flooded him as he heard the soft breathing and then saw her eyes flutter open.
‘Tom? You shouldn't be in here, son. Please keep Mary out. I'm fine, really I am. I've had a good sleep and I think your Pa...’ She turned her head and saw that Michael was no longer on the bed beside her.
‘He's out, Ma…in the other room. I think he's better. He's making tea.’
‘How is Mary?’
‘Pa made me take her to the Pollards. Mrs Pollard wanted to come but Mr Pollard wouldn't let her. But she'll look after Mary, she said. She was very worried about you, Ma.’
‘I'd have it by now if I was going to. I’m just very tired. Let's see how Rebecca is, then.’
‘I'm bad, Ma,’ Rebecca moaned. ‘I feel real bad.’
‘I know, love. Has it happened again?’
‘Not since this mornin'. But I feel real weak. I can hardly move.’
‘You'll be better soon, sure you will. If the diarrhea has stopped then I think you'll be right. Tom, would you get your sister some water, please. She needs to keep drinking.’
Gradually the crisis passed and two days later, both Michael and Rebecca were able to eat a bowl of vegetable broth. Neither Tom nor Norah had any sign of the illness.
‘God answered my prayers, Ma,’ Tom said with confidence the following morning as he and Norah set out for the Pollards to pick up Mary.
‘I'm sure He did, Tom. He's a good God. He likes to answer our prayers.’
‘Then why does He not answer yours, Ma?’
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘I know that you pray for Pa…that he'll do the right thing. I know what he does, Ma. I've heard you talking to him and I've seen for myself. I hate him sometimes. I wish he was like Mr Pollard. I pray that he'll stop stealing, Ma. I know you do, too. Why doesn't God answer that prayer?’
Norah’s heart lurched and she took a deep breath. ‘Well, no doubt, God would also like your Pa to do better, luv. But He decided when He made us that we would be allowed to make up our own minds whether we did the right thing or not. And your father, well, he had no one to teach him what was right and wrong when he was a little boy and no one to look after him so he's always had to look after himself and sometimes he does that in a way that…well, that we know is wrong, but he doesn't.’
‘He does now, though. I know you've told him that it's wrong to steal and I've told him I don't want the things he brings home if they belong to someone else. So he knows it's wrong but he still does it so God would not be pleased with him, would He?’
‘God is never pleased when we do wrong things, Tom. But He's very forgiving, so He is. More than we can imagine and certainly more than we're able to do in our own strength. But we must try, Tom. We must try to forgive your
‘Why?’ Tom's face was steely.
‘Because forgiveness may help him see the error of his ways, Tom.’
‘I think he needs punishing. That's what I think.’
Norah let it go, knowing it was a very hard thing for a young boy to take in. She prayed silently that God would help them both understand how to do what was best for Michael. When they reached the Pollards' home, they found something neither of them could understand.
‘Kathryn's not well at all, Norah.’ Hamlet met them at the door. ‘She went into labour early…because of the vomiting. Yesterday we thought we'd lose all of them. It started very suddenly.’
‘Hamlet, I'm so sorry. I would never have brought Mary here. Michael thought he was doing the right thing. Can I see Kathryn?’
‘I don't think that's a good idea.’
‘Of course you're right, Hamlet. I'll take Mary and go. I can't believe she's shown no signs of it and yet Kathryn got it. I don't understand. God help us all.’
‘What happened, Ma?’ Tom huddled close to her, holding Mary between them as they slowly drove home. ‘Did Mrs Pollard catch it from Mary? I knew it wasn't right to bring her here. I told Pa, but he wouldn't take any notice.’
‘Shush now, Tom. These illnesses have a way about them none of us understand.’ Norah patted his knee. She could hardly take in the news they had heard herself.
‘Will Mrs Pollard be alright?’ Tom's face was grave with concern far beyond his years.
‘I pray so. Mr Pollard said it seems to be passing but she's the baby to think of now. We wouldn't want to risk the baby getting sick, would we?’ She saw no point in telling her son the full awfulness of the situation.
Tom shook his head and held his sister tightly.
Kathryn had twins, Michael.’ Norah said quietly when the children had settled down to sleep that night. ‘It was early, brought on by the sickness. One of them didn't live. A little boy, Hamlet said. He was so sad. Dear God, I pray the other lives. He said she's very frail and Kathryn is very weak too. Oh, Michael, I wish you hadn't sent Mary there. Tom is so upset. He blames himself. What if Kathryn – ?’
‘Don't be going on, girl. There's nought you can do about it by fussin'. I didn't want to risk Mary, did I? Would you rather it be Mary that died, would you?’
‘How can you think that way? We were managing ourselves. Tom was caring for Mary. Tis a terrible burden to think we may have caused Kathryn to – ’
‘An' that's just it, isn't it, now? You don't know what caused it. She might 'ave got sick anyway. Now shush up your whinin' about it, for I'm not that strong yet meself and you're makin' me tired.’ Michael pulled off his trousers and headed for the bedroom, yawning.
Norah stood with a mug of tea in her hands, her grip tightening around the heat of it until she could feel her skin burning. Dear God, she prayed. Please give me patience.
Three days later, Norah could bear it no longer and headed back to the Pollards' home. Kathryn was still very weak, her new baby girl so tiny and frail that she looked like a porcelain doll.
‘We called her Annie.’ Kathryn's voice was just audible. Her face was blank of expression. Her red eyes filled, although she didn't look like she had the strength to cry. ‘We wanted to call our son Hamlet. Tis the third time we've tried for Hamlet. Perhaps it's not meant to be.’
‘Kathryn, I'm so sorry we sent Mary here. I was asleep – ’
'No, Norah, you mustn't blame yourself. Mary didn't have the cholera so how could it have been her? It does no good to blame. I just need some time to get strong again and to concentrate on this wee one. Hamlet will take care of me. He's very...he'll need some time, too. I'll come to you when I'm stronger, Norah, I promise. Please pray for little Annie. I don't think we could bear it if we lost another child.'
To be continued...