Sunday, 7 October 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-One

To forgive is  to set a prisoner free and  
discover that the prisoner was you. 
Philip Yancy

Wiseman's Creek, July, 1868

Will it never end, this trouble Michael keeps bringing on you?’ Kathryn sat heavily at the table beside Norah. 
     ‘Tom was very brave but if those men had a mind to they could have stormed into the place. I doubt Tom could have really used a gun on them. Joseph might have, mind.  He's still concerned about them catching up to Michael and doing him some harm.  Tom's ropable with him and Mick. They just can't see the man their father is.’
     ‘I suppose it's only natural for young boys to see the best in their father. They see him as they'd like him to be.’
     ‘Well, they're going to have to start growing up soon…taking some responsibility.  They don't help Tom around here unless he's at them the whole time. And he needs to be making plans for him and Elizabeth. Mary is really jittery since that night as well. She's talked about asking Mr Atkins at the Kelso Inn if she could work there, like Rebecca did, and live in, although I know she's afraid to leave me here in case something awful happens. It's a dilemma for us all, really.’
     Kathryn gritted her teeth. ‘All because of that dreadful man.’
     ‘Lets not talk about it any more. What about your news? Who'd have thought Mary Ann would become a nun?’
     ‘Actually, that doesn't surprise me at all.’ Kathryn smiled at Norah across the table.  ‘She's always wanted to work with children but somehow I couldn't see her interested in marriage. So now she'll be working with all the children at St Francis' school.’          
     ‘You must be very proud of her.’
     ‘I am, and so is Hamlet. It's cheered him up considerably. I think he feels Mary Ann will be very safe from here on in and he won't have to worry about her.’
     ‘Unlike Elizabeth, you mean?’
     Kathryn nodded. ‘He's not come to terms with that yet, but I'm trusting he'll come round, sure I am, for he's not doing himself any good with his carrying on and I'm sure he'll realise it soon enough.’
     ‘I don't understand his feelings about Michael. It's as if he's got some personal grudge, and I don't know why. Michael's been a source of grief for me and the children but surely that can't – ’
     ‘Don't you worry yourself about that,’ Kathryn interrupted. ‘for tis nought to do with you, or Tom. Let's just be glad that our children are finding their own happiness. It will happen for Tom and Elizabeth, sure it will, and then we'll be truly related. We'll be almost sisters. We'll have grandchildren who'll be part of both of us. Isn't that the grandest thing? Tis a blessing from God, sure it is and I couldn't be happier about it.’
     ‘You've always been a blessing from God for me, Kathryn. Sure, you've been my guardian angel. I know God brought us back together for I'd not have survived these past years without you and Hamlet. He's been such a support, too. I wish he knew how much I've appreciated that.’
     ‘He does, Norah. He just has things he must deal with…inside himself. And as for guardian angels, you know tis what you've been to me, too, for I'd not have been here at all if you hadn't talked me into living all those years ago on the boat. I believe God gives us the family we need when we lose loved ones. And that's how we'll always be, Norah…family. No matter what.’
     Norah sighed heavily. ‘I just wish Hamlet felt that way too. Heaven knows Michael never will. He can't even take responsibility for the family he already has. But I did choose to marry him, didn't I? I have to take responsibility for that.’
     ‘You made a mistake, Norah, but God will not see you suffering for it your whole life. Something will happen, I'm sure of it.’

When something did happen it was hard for Norah to see how it was going to relieve anyone's suffering.
     In the last week of August, the winds were wilder, the nights still cold, the days short.  On this day, when the rain had hardly stopped beating down, Norah called everyone in at five o'clock. She had a large pot of stew on the stove, thick with vegetables and chunks of mutton. It had been steaming most of the afternoon and she had made damper in the coals of the fire, which she now stirred up with some extra wood. There had been no sight of the sun all day and as the afternoon drew on, it was so dark that she lit the tilly lamp before she set the table. Mary and Theresa were folding the washing, which had been drying in front of the fire all day. 
     When the door opened, Norah looked up, expecting to see William, who was always ready for his dinner.
     ‘That smells like just the ticket.’
      Norah heard the voice and saw the familiar flowing coat but hardly recognised the grizzled face, and the wild, unkempt beard obscuring everything below the man's nose and hanging in wet, muddy strands to his chest. The hat he began to drag from his head revealed dark narrowed eyes, bushy eyebrows and then his greying, stringy mop of hair.  Water dripped to the floor from the bottom of his coat and squelched out in front of his boots. He drew in a deep breath, the smell of the food obviously pleasing to him and the animal-like features of his face split into a broken toothed grin. 
     Norah stood transfixed, her breath caught in her throat. The chatter between Mary and Theresa ceased. A rush of cold air swirled through the door, bringing Norah to her senses. A soft groan was expelled from her throat as she breathed out.
     ‘I'm not that awful a sight, me dear, surely.’
     Michael pulled the door closed behind him, pushed his coat off his shoulders and hung it on the peg behind the door without even looking, for it was where he had always hung it. He moved towards Norah, holding his hands out. As she jumped back out of his reach, she realised he was heading for the warmth of the stove and the smell of the stew rather than for her as she had feared. 
     ‘Ma?’ Theresa's voice was no more than a strained whisper. She looked sure the intruder was a madman come to kill them all. Mary put her arm around her sister. 
     ‘Tis all right, Theresa.’ Norah moved closer to the girls and touched both their shoulders to calm them.
     With a bit more distance between herself and the vile smell of the man by the stove, Norah addressed him.
     ‘You can't just walk in here again, Michael. This is no longer your home. You're not welcome.’ She made sure her voice sounded strong even though her insides felt like wool. She knew her hands were trembling and she slowly slid them behind her back, standing as tall as she could. 
     ‘Ah, yer say it every time, girl, but you're too kindly to send a ’ungry man out into the cold night…aren't yer now?’
     Norah fixed her husband with a cold stare, her anger rising, her strength growing by the minute as she felt the indignation which Michael's audacity evoked in her. She might have ordered him out that very minute if the door hadn't opened. William, Joseph, Mick and Tom came through the door, and nearly piled up on top of each other as each in turn took in the scene before them and stopped dead.
     ‘Pa?’ Joseph and Mick said in unison.
     ‘Ah, boys. Tis me, so it is. And will yer look at the two of you, bigger every time I see yer, so yer are.’ His face relaxed into a smile for a moment until his eyes moved to his eldest son, standing stone-like behind Mick. ‘An' you,’ he snarled at Tom. ‘Suppose yer 'aven't been able to keep yer 'ands off the trollop from up the road, 'ave yer? P'raps already producin' another little Pollard brat, eh?’
     Tom pushed past his brothers and ran at his father, wild from a rage that had grown with all the pain and injustice that had been wrought on his family from this ugly human being who had by some quirk of fate fathered him. A grown came from deep within him as he lunged at Michael. His hands went around the hairy, grimy throat and their bodies fell together onto the floor.
     Norah was sure he would have choked the life out of his father right then and there if Joseph and Mick had not grabbed his shoulders and pulled him off the cringing, struggling body under him. He stood over his father, heaving and straining against his brothers' hold on him. As his temper subsided, he pulled his arms free and wiped his hands on his shirt, as if repulsed by having touched his father's skin.
     ‘You'd better leave right now, or I really will kill you,’ he hissed. 
     Michael struggled to his feet and stood before his son, who he now had to look up to.  He wiped his sleeve across his face, sniffing loudly, and spat into the fire. 
     ‘You've gotten too big for yer boots altogether,’ he sneered, undeterred. ‘This is my 'ouse. I brought yer Ma 'ere and built this place up with me own 'ands. I'll not 'ave a snivelin', book readin' sod tell me when I come an' go.’ His voice rose as he spoke as if to intimidate his son and re establish himself.
     Norah moved between them. ‘Stop this right now. I'll not have a brawl in my home, do you hear?’ She stretched out her hands, one coming to rest on her son's chest. The other went close to Michael's mud caked vest but she stopped short of touching him, the very thought making her shudder. 
     But Michael reacted unexpectedly, grabbing her arm and spinning her around, twisting her forearm up behind her back and holding her close to his body. His other hand came around her middle, squeezing her waist into him. He pushed his grimy face into her neck. Tom started coming at him again but this time Norah was jammed between them and Michael let out a raucous laugh.
     ‘You think yer so clever, don't yer? Keep yer distance now or I'll break yer mother's arm.’ He pushed hard on Norah's arm, twisting it harder until she winced with the pain.    
     Cackling again, drool sliding from the corner of his mouth, Michael stepped back, pulling Norah with him until he was against the wall. He cast his gaze around the figures, all immobilised with horror.
     ‘Now, you...’ he nodded at Mary, ‘get me some food. An' you,’ he scowled at Tom, ‘you sit at the end of the table, where I can see yer…and don't move or I'll ’urt yer Ma.  Spoiled yer, she did, right from the start. Ruined yer. Take those two younguns over there with yer.’ He motioned towards Theresa and William, who scuttled over to Tom and sat one on either side of him, pulling him down onto the bench, their eyes wide with fear.  
     Tom's eyes were black with hate and rage. He sat slowly, patting his young brother and sister on the shoulders to reassure them. He watched as Mary dished out a plate of stew and put it on the table.
     ‘Now, me boys, get yerselves some food an' join me. One thing good about yer Ma was always 'er cookin.’
     He waited until Joseph and Mick tentatively dished themselves up a plate of food and sat down. Then he pushed Norah towards the table and slowly released her arm. She let out a sigh of relief as he shoved her hard on both shoulders and forced her to sit.
     ‘Don't move,’ he hissed, close to her face. She reeled at the smell of him and turned her head away, which only made him laugh again. 
     No one moved or spoke as Michael shovelled food into his mouth, slurping from the spoon and groaning with the pleasure of the taste. Joseph and Mick began to eat slowly, glancing at each other, their expressions unsure. When Michael's plate was almost clean, he stopped and looked up at young William, who shrunk away from his father's glare and pulled into Tom's side.
     ‘'Ow old are you?’
     ‘Six,’ William whispered hoarsely.
     ‘Speak up, boy.’ Michael grunted.
     ‘Six, sir.’
     ‘Sir!’ Michael let out a raspy cackle. ‘An' where did you learn to be so prissy? Sir, indeed. From yer brother, I s'pose.’
     ‘It's in my lessons.’ William looked up at Tom and smiled bravely. It was clear he didn't like the way his father spoke to his eldest brother one little bit, for Tom was his hero and the man he trusted most in the world. 
     ‘Lessons…bah! You still fillin' their 'eads with rubbish, girl?’ Michael shoved his elbow into Norah's arm, causing her to flinch in pain. 
     ‘It's just for the young ones, Pa.’ Joseph spoke quickly, as if to pacify his father. ‘Mick an' me, we don't do it any more.’   
     ‘Oh, you an' Mick don' do it any more?’ Michael yelled, his fist pounding onto the table repetitiously.
     Tom turned himself slightly and glanced at the corner of the room where his gun was leaning on the wall.  Slowly, he began to move his feet so that they cleared the legs of the table. He looked about ready to make a dash for the weapon when his father stood up, knocking his chair over behind him. 
     ‘Michael, please,’ Norah said quietly, trying to soothe the beast her husband had become.
     There was a small cry from Theresa and Michael's head turned viciously towards her.  Tom seized the moment, jumped from his chair and lunged for the gun. As he spun around, pointing it at his father, Michael grabbed the lamp from the table and hurled it at him. Tom ducked and the lamp exploded onto the wall behind him. Regaining his balance, Tom dropped the gun, skirted the table and launched himself at Michael, this time aiming a punch directly at the older man's chest. Michael reeled back, winded.  Before he could straighten up, Tom hit him again, this time under the chin. When his head jerked backwards with the force of it, Tom aimed another punch at his stomach and Michael doubled over, groaning. Tom stood back a little and watched the old man slide to the floor.
     ‘The lamp!’ Norah yelled, drawing everyone's attention away from the fighting and towards the opposite wall where flames were licking at the boards around the bottom of the wall.
     A small pile of newspapers was smoking and the fire was spreading across the spilt kerosene like a dancing streak of light. Theresa screamed and rushed around the table to get away from the flames, slipping on the kerosene as she did and falling across the path of the fire. Joseph grabbed her just as her skirt, now smeared with kerosene, ignited, causing her to panic and thrash her arms and legs about hysterically. Norah tore her coat from its peg on the back door and threw it around her daughter, smothering the flames.  
     The room seemed suddenly to be filled with bodies running in every direction, bumping into each other, tearing at whatever they could that might put out the fire.  Dank smelling smoke began to sting their eyes, making it harder and harder to see.  Norah concentrated on rounding up the young ones and herded them towards the door, grabbing whatever coats and shawls were not being used to beat out the fire. Mick was dragging his father towards the door. Tom and Joseph continued to try and smother the flames, holding their shirts over their mouths to control their coughing.
     Within minutes, the family was outside. Norah huddled under the trunk of the large gumtree with Mary, William and Theresa. Mary had pulled a blanket from the bedroom before she had run outside and the two younger ones were wrapped in it. They pressed against the tree, sheltering from the rain, which was still falling softly. Michael lay on the ground a distance from the house, groaning, Mick hovering over him on his knees.  Joseph and Tom ran into the hut twice more, trying to retrieve whatever was not too hot to carry but in the end, had only a small pile in front of them as they stood watching the flames rear up and smoke pour from the door.  The wind rushed into the vacated hut and aided the fire as it hungrily enveloped the family's paltry belongings. The wood on the outside walls sizzled as the flames met with the cold air and the rain. Gradually, the flames were spent and the misshapen hut faded into darkness before their eyes. 

‘Are you all right?’ Tom hung over the huddle of women and children under the tree.
     ‘We're fine,’ Norah answered quietly. ‘A wee bit cold and wet. We're well rugged up, but we can't stay here too long.’
     ‘I'll get the cart. We'll have to go to Pollards.’ Tom's voice was flat, emotionless.  ‘Hopefully Hamlet won't object.’
     ‘Of course he won't,’ Norah said. ‘Kathryn would never – ’
     Tom nodded. ‘We won't test Hamlet too much. I can come back and stay here with the boys in the shed until morning. When that lot's cooled down I'll see what we can salvage.’
     Tom's shadowy figure disappeared as he walked towards the shed. A few minutes later he returned, leading the horse and cart.
     ‘Get the children in and as warm as you can, Ma. Wrap them in whatever you can find. I'll drive you over. Pa's still rolling around over there, half delirious, ranting and raving. He's not likely to settle down until I'm gone. The boys will get him into the shed.  Pa's cart probably has some canvas and the makings of a campfire. If the rain holds off they can manage. At least they've eaten,’ he muttered the last.

An hour later Kathryn opened her front door to a sight that shocked her.
     ‘Norah! What's happened? Your clothes!’ Kathryn looked aghast at the state of her friend. Even in the dim light of the back porch, Norah looked like she had been dragged through mud.
     ‘We've had a fire,’ Norah said simply. ‘We need a place to get dry and warm. Tom says the barn – ’
     ‘Get the children and come inside at once,’ Kathryn said. ‘Hamlet's fallen asleep by the fire, which is what he does every evening as soon as he's eaten his supper. I'll just prepare him. And don't say another word for I'll not hear it.’ She was already backing into their parlour.
     ‘If you don't behave like a civil man, Hamlet, I doubt I'll be able to forgive you,’ she said firmly, having told him what she’d been confronted with. ‘Our friends are in trouble and they need help. I trust you'll welcome them like the decent man I know you to be.’
     Kathryn knew he would not argue. The word ‘fire’ was every farmer's greatest nightmare and even on a cold and rainy night, he would know how a fire could devastate property and snuff out lives. His concern for Norah and the children would outweigh any other feelings he had, she was sure.
     ‘How bad is it?’ He addressed Norah when they were all comfortably huddled around the warmth of their fire, the glow of its flames no doubt a comfort in spite of its contrast to what they had experienced just an hour before.
     ‘We don't know yet,’ Norah said quietly. ‘Tom will see in the morning. It all happened so quickly, and it was so dark afterwards.’
     ‘How did it start?’
     ‘A lamp got knocked off the table.’ Norah patted Theresa's head as she lay down across her lap, her head drooping into her mother's shoulder. ‘It was quite a trauma for us all.’               
     They were distracted from Hamlet's question as Kathryn handed out left over soup and biscuits. It was little enough but they were all in shock. Their appetites would return tomorrow after they had a sleep. She looked around at the group, counting heads and assessing how many beds she would need to make up. Elizabeth was hovering over Tom as he sat at the end of the table, gratefully sipping soup. William was huddled by the fire with Mary, both chewing biscuits. 
     ‘Where are Joseph and Mick?’ she said, suddenly realising they weren't there. 
     ‘They're staying…in the shed. They've some canvas and their coats. We knew how hard it would be for us all to fit in here. Tom will go back.’ Norah spoke quickly, her eyes darting around her children as if she was afraid they would say something she didn’t want known.
     A disturbing suspicion rose in Kathryn’s mind.
     ‘No!’Elizabeth cried at the idea of Tom going back out. 
     ‘It's all right, Lizzie,’ he said quietly, indicating she should not make a fuss. 
     A quiet discomfort pervaded the room. William stirred and began to squirm. It seemed that now he was warming up and was ready to drift into sleep, he realised how uncomfortable he was.
     ‘This coat smells really bad, Ma. Can't I take it off now? And it's got hard bits sticking into me.’ He pushed back his arms, freeing them from the grimy edges of the coat.
     ‘Yes, it does smell bad,’ Kathryn said. ‘I wondered what that stink was. With all of you in such a state I didn't notice how filthy it was.’
     ‘It's Pa's,’ Mary said abruptly. ‘He'll be mad that we took it. He hates to be without his coat.’
     ‘And how did you come by it?’ Hamlet's voice was suddenly steely.
     ‘I grabbed it from the back of the door as we rushed out,’ Norah said nervously. ‘It's very old but I knew it would keep the rain off the children. I don't know how long it's been hanging there – ’
     ‘Pa put it there when he came in,’ Mary blurted out. She was sitting at the kitchen table with Annie, finishing off a bowl of soup. As soon as she had spoken, the room went deathly quiet and she bit her lip. It seemed she was always speaking before she thought and so often what came out caused a fuss. She cast an apologetic glance at her mother and waited for someone to break the silence.
     William spoke first. ‘I'm warm now, Ma.’ He pushed the coat further away from his shoulders, the disturbed smell filling the hot air around the fire. ‘But there's something poking into me.’ He lifted his backside from the coat and felt around underneath him, innocent of the tense quietness around him.
     ‘Michael was there? Tonight?’ Kathryn was trying to make sense of what Mary had said.     
     ‘Yes,’ Norah admitted with a deep sigh. ‘He threw the lamp. Tis how the fire started.  I'm sorry, Hamlet. I thought it better not to say anything about him.’
     ‘And how long has he been around this time?’ Kathryn asked.
     ‘He just came back tonight. He shocked us all. It was very unpleasant.’
     ‘He's mad as a cut snake,’ Tom said roughly. ‘I swear I'll rebuild our home and he'll not set foot in it…ever. Or I really will kill him.’
     ‘Tom, please…the children,’ Norah cried, holding Theresa's head close to her chest. 
     ‘I'm sorry, Ma, but I've had enough. I won't have my family threatened any more by him.’
     After a moment's silence William again broke into the tension.
     ‘See, Ma. There's rocks or something in here.’ He was digging into one of the deep pockets in the coat, his arm all but disappearing into the length of it. After a moment he drew out his clenched fist and opened his hand in front of his mother.
     Norah gasped as she looked closely at the nuggets in William's small palm.
     ‘Tom, look at this,’ she said, motioning for him to come close.
     Tom bent down, took hold of William's hand and drew it up to his face. 
     ‘My God. I think this is gold.’
     Within seconds there were six heads all vying for a place where they could see the three small rocks that William had gathered from the pocket.
     ‘There's something else too.’ William said as Tom took the stones from him. He thrust his hand back into the pocket and rummaged around. When he pulled it out he held a small grey cloth bag, a draw string holding it closed at one end.
     Hamlet took the bag and opened it, spilling a small pile of tiny stones into his hand. 
     ‘It's gold all right.’ He stared down at his hand. ‘Probably worth quite a bit, especially those nuggets. I guess it's clear what your Pa's been up to.’
     ‘Not digging for it, that's for sure.’ Tom shook his head. ‘This is what those men were looking for, I'd say.’
     Kathryn sighed, shaking her head. ‘Something's got to be done.’
     ‘Something will be, Mrs Pollard.’ Tom sounded resolute. ‘I'll take care of Ma and the girls, I promise.’ He closed his fist over the rough nuggets, his teeth gritted. 
     ‘I found something else.’ William had continued to rat around in the pockets of his father's coat, the smell now forgotten. He held his hand out to Tom again, this time holding a small key.
     ‘What on earth – ’
     ‘That's a safe deposit box key, I'm sure of it.’ Hamlet inspected the key, taking it from William's hand and turning it over. See, it's got a number on it.’
     ‘I can't imagine Pa using one of those. Unless he's stored up a heap of someone else's gold.’ Tom looked at his mother. ‘Has he ever said anything about a safe deposit box?’
     ‘No. More likely something he stole along with other things and he's shoved it in his coat and forgotten about it. Some poor person probably has important papers they're not able to get at it.’
     ‘I doubt it,’ Hamlet said, thoughtfully. ‘Anyone who has one of these has to sign for it and if the key was stolen they'd only have to go to the bank and give the number.  No, if Michael's kept the key, then it's likely he's put something away, something he didn't want to use or didn't want found.’
     ‘What are you thinking, Hamlet?’ Kathryn’s stomach churned.
     ‘I'm not sure. I'm just wondering, thatathurs's all.’
     ‘This would be from a bank in town, wouldn't it?’ Tom asked. ‘In Bathurst, maybe?’
     ‘Or Sydney,’ Hamlet muttered.
     Sydney? Pa hasn't been to Sydney, that I know of, in years. What do you think, Ma?’
     ‘I'm sure I don't know what he gets up to or where he goes, Tom.’ Norah shook her head. ‘Anything's possible.’

To be continued.....

Carol Preston

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