Rain. Bullets from a gunmetal sky so low it bows the backs of the people hidden beneath the peril of black umbrellas that blanket the cemetery. A crowd of two hundred. Silent men in cloth caps, pointedly ignoring each other, angry and impotent without their guns. Thin-lipped at the death of this hero.
They turn away, shoulders crowding their ears. Wet fags useless between blue lips. Heading to the pub for the laments and the safety of closed doors. The whisky. The drowning moments before it all begins again. Women’s coats, heavy against the December bleakness, drag in the mud of the track that the walking trundle back to Dublin. Holding the hands of silent children, knowing about sin already and the war they’re growing up in. All move in a wave away from the maw in the ground. The coffin of James Fintan Lalor glinting at handle and crucifix, seven foot down in the deep rectangular black, covered with a snowing of white roses.
The burly, bearded nameless men leaning their bodyweight against their shovels. Beside the dirt box. Getting a drenching but not paid if they fill in the hole while the mourners are about. This cemetery is new. Prospect. But that’s an English word. The Irish call it Glas Naíon and it means the stream of infants. Dublin buried a hundred and sixty unbaptized babies here, in mass graves, until the Catholics won it for their own seventeen years ago. Nine acres that meander along that little burn overhung by yews, willows and vast-limbed lime trees. Pretty. Deep with soft, dark grass and low thistles. Heavy with massive, unmoved stones the same colour as the day. Dotted with graves so recent their lichens are still green. Grey slabs with sad stories of love and early death. Of mothers done in after nine children, consumption or a botched abortion.
James, in that coffin, was the eldest of eleven children. A warrior for the liberation of Ireland. A poet. A man of letters able to influence others and savaged for it. Imprisoned. Wrecked.
Peter has his hands in his pockets. Rain drips from the peak of his cap in a runnel. Two lines a railroad track between his clear blue eyes. He’s James’ youngest brother and he can’t get his head around it. Why die? He can see the truth of it. This beautiful man should be married. In love. Living in the country house writing a fine book. Peter hates black. Hates religion. Hates funerals. He’s angry at himself. He doesn’t want his dead brother’s war. Angry that he understands the fighting but knowing the English are unbeatable. Have been for hundreds of years. Proud of his brother. His poor dead brother. In the hole, the edge of which tempts his booted toes. He could just jump in. Lift the lid and yell why the fuck did it have to go this far? They’re still here aren’t they? But these men opposite him want him gone.
His clothes mark him as gentry in a city of survivors. Four years into the Famine. Six foot of him dressed in the three piece black suit, black tie, black stockings, black riding boots. Mourning. The working man’s wool cap a protest against his wealth and privilege. It lies wet and flaccid over his black hair. His eyes have the look of a child in them. A deceptive innocence. And his beard is trimmed short in defiance of fashion. An Irishman whose family traces a history and lineage through the mists of legend to Amergin landing on the western shores chanting, I am wind on sea.
“You comin’?” It’s Risteard. Another brother. As political as James but more subtle. His body slim and flexible. His faith as strong as Peter’s is not. His voice a soft thing that needs no convincing of its sincerity. Does all the horse work—the breeding, the healing, the wheeling and dealing—on behalf not only of the Lalors but others across Ireland. Pulling Peter by his coat tails. Just as tall, quick to smile or hit a man.
“You need a drink. Stop thinkin’.” He indicates the grave diggers. “Go ahead. Don’t wait for us.” He pulls a flask from his jacket pocket, unstoppers it and offers it to Peter.
“Sorry,” Peter says to the men, turning away, taking the flask.
They dig into the soil in the box, transferring shovels full of wet, peaty loam to the grave where it thumps onto the coffin in a rhythm like the slow tipper on a bodhràn.
Two horses are tethered to the lowest branch of the yew that overhangs the cast iron cemetery gate. Risteard’s mount, a muddy white Connemara pony named Angus. Fifteen hands. Of an ancient lineage said to have merged with the Andalusian horses when the Spanish Armada sank off the west coast three hundred years in the past. Risteard’s been breeding the family stock with the recently imported Arabs, Angus a two year old offspring of such a mating. He could travel the length and breadth of the country without tiring. Fearless. Peter’s mount, on the other hand, is the colour of a storm. Aloof, though she tolerates Angus. She’s seventeen hands. A thoroughbred that Peter named Granuaile for the pirate queen who almost bested Elizabeth back in the day, with a blade in the boot beneath the gown that would have looked ridiculous on such a wild woman. The horse was a gift from his father on his twenty first birthday. A long, confusing two years ago, when their family has scattered. His brothers gone to America to fight a war not their own. Granuaile his true love.
Peter and graduated from Carlow College in Dublin. An engineer. He can build railways and bridges. Be part of something solid. Not murdering and having to hide. Not going to jail and getting shot up against some haunted wall. He’s a logical man and a gentle man with a love of poetry and music. A fun man with a glitter of humour whenever he is not faced with the reality of this devastated society. An admirer of the charms of women. They love him and he courts them as though he might one day love them back but no one’s done it for him yet. Unlike Peter, Risteard’s motives are driven by a hatred of the presence of the occupying forces in his country. His heart breaks for the millions either dead or dispossessed in this famine. He carries a quietness; a darkness within himself that causes men to stand by him. It mirrors his country. An invisible member of the Young Irish.
The Lalors have money. Every last penny they can spare is going into this endless bloody war. Peter knows he has to bring it. There was a lot of yelling by his father and silences from his step mother when he told them both he and Risteard had filled out the form letter that offering postings on in Australia. The Hobson’s Bay Railway Company. Both applications had been accepted, the company warning however that any interview would only happen in person.
“What’re you doing? It’s too risky.”
“We’ll use ‘em for their money,” Peter’d told them. “It makes sense, Da. What am I going to do here? Build another prison? Another gallows? Farm like you, just to have them tax the life out of it?”
He’d stood his ground, tamped tobacco into his pipe, lit it without looking up. “Risteard?” But he just shrugged.
In the end they’d understood the plan. The money would be trade for the souls of the soldiers in purgatory till the angels remind the Almighty that they’re heroes deserving of better despite how it might look.
Even though his older brother Risteard has agreed to accompany him it is to petition on behalf of the men that have been deported for sedition. Those not already hung for it are being, or have been, shipped to the arse ends of the earth. He is part of the fight James died for. Like him he’s a Young Irelander and destined for politics. Unlike Peter he can’t hide his loathing for the English. He’ll go. To watch over till his man has established himself. He won’t stay.
The two sit tall in the saddle and walk their horses towards Dublin town despite the rain. Unspoken thoughts lying between them. So concentrated they could be edible.
They had planned to be ready by the middle of the following year but that was not to be. Too much despair. Too many refugees. Way too much to organise. It was the year after. They were to pay for their passage and that of their horses for bunks, stalls and slings in the hold of the four mast barque the Scindian, square sailed, her mizzen rigged both fore and aft, in the October of 1852.
The smells of roast goose, bread rising in the big ovens, the wax of fresh lit tallow candles and chimney smoke, are like Ellen’s signature on the day of her stepsons’ departure. Who she is. Dauntless in the wreckage of this great and ugly famine that has killed so many, driven others into desperation. Knows she can never truly win the hearts of the women, mothers of all the dead children. Loving them as best she can. She keeps what she feels to herself or she’d break. It’s her way to use her husband’s wealth for them and for the poor farmers that wouldn’t make it through another winter if she didn’t. Not that she or her husband argue about it. Pat supports the liberation, is all. Women fight a different revolution.
Peter and Risteard play out in the dusky October afternoon with their siblings’ kids. It’s easier than to sit inside on a day like this. Not raining. Playing at being Finn McCool.
Wielding stick swords and riding stick horses before the pale light is taken away.
They’ll leave after dark. Risteard is too well known. Someone might spot them. That’d muck up their itinerary. They’re to board a boat out from Cork the night after next and don’t think getting a beating, for the fun of Her bloody Majesty’s army, would help them meet on the tide. London three days later and then maybe four months at sea, three if lucky. With no knowing what that means having been no closer to an ocean than the Liffey.
Brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and other kindred gather in soft whispers and condolences to Patrick. The farmers and neighbours from the acreages about Tenakill House begin streaming in closer to sunset, bringing what food they have, their instruments and smiles that hide a decade of being lied to. They’re grey with fatigue and all grieve the death of someone. All support this family and the shields Patrick and his sons hold up against the impossible tithing demanded by the men of the English queen. Tax that will ruin them. Even more. Even the priest makes it known he only sees and hears what they want him to, with a nod to Patrick.
But tonight is for Peter and Risteard. A fiddle. Two bodhràns and a low whistle. Uilleann pipes. An accordion. They’re even blessed by Ruairé Ui’Neil, the bard, who’s come with his harp to create an epic for the family. The men play The Man from God Knows Where and not a sound from those standing about. Like an anthem. They play it a second time and everybody sings. Everybody knows the words, their voices old friends.
Night like the bottom of a well. Not even starlight. The barren branches of trees outside the window skeletal in the lamplight from inside. Children sleeping on warm woollen laps or on the rug to the side of the fireplace Patrick wraps his arms around the shoulders of these two sons.
We expect nothing, he says with the voice of a poet. No one else speaks. Ellen brings the two boxes. Hands one to each man. Inside each is a pistol with silver filigree on the grip. Inside each is a rosary. Each man kisses his gift, slips the pistol into the belt of trousers, drapes a rosary around his neck hidden beneath travelling clothes. Shake Patrick’s hand. Thank Ellen. Hug and pat the backs of siblings, kissing cheeks.
Everyone in the room kneels. Makes the sign of the cross. Waits for the priest’s blessings.
Later, in the light of torches, folded blankets behind the saddles of both horses, well-stitched, lanolin-laden bags, sacks large enough to cover a body, filled with provisions and whatever spare clothing can be carried. Panniers same. Money sewn into belts tied around the waists of each man beneath shirts and vests, wool sweaters and heavy coats.
Below decks. Everything wrong with this. The vast hull a labyrinth of animal pens, chickens, ducks and geese in wooden crates lashed to the support beams in readiness for the storms only the crew knew would come. Cows fore, bulls aft, just in case. Pigs, sheep, cats, dogs, rabbits. Everything that could howl or screech or panic, ear-splitting. The cacophony of the next four months. That and retching and weeping and fucking, the rattle in the lungs of the dying, the muffled screaming of women abused. Occasionally the haunt of a low whistle or a fiddle. A woman’s voice sings Mo Mhíle Stór and everyone but the babies is hushed.
From the first night Peter and Risteard bunk down beside the horses on mattresses made of ticking and stuffed with straw bought on the London docks. The whites of the horses’ eyes a testament to their fear. Although they are supported by the canvas slings to compensate for the roll of the ship as it navigates huge seas their legs are worked every day to keep the muscles vital. In rare calm weather they are led up the gangway to the deck two tiers above and exercised. The men pay good money to be allowed to do this. Some cannot, their horses doomed before ever the vessel restocks in Kingston Town. The men spend much of their day caring for their charges, mucking out the stalls and fighting boredom. Packing their ears with cotton to block the noise. It’s all they can do to gentle them in the heart of this stink.
To a man everyone is Irish. Young and old. Pregnant women and teenage girls who will be before this trip is done, no stopping it. Shit and vomit. Shifting fractured light from the lattices. Little air. The farts of every kind of animal. The constant stink of wet wool, wet fur, wet feathers. Mould on the fine leather saddles. On the belts and panniers and boots. Crusty eyes. The stench of corpses, dead of one thing or another. Of animals that suffocate in pens so small, their owners not able to buy them the slings, the timber poorly put together, the splinters brutally sharp. The unseen whose lungs rattled until silence announced their ends. The gagging smell of putrefaction. The air thick with tobacco smoke. Human and animal faeces. The eye-watering bitterness of urine in dark. Nothing else for it. Some thought to bring a pot. Most weren’t told.
The rustle of women’s skirts lifting, men grunting and the endless huffing, in dark corners, of those that cannot take a woman. The constant groan of shifting timbers. Howling screeching wind above, outside. A she-demon in need. Food delivered twice a day when the galley is off limits, which is most of the time. The same tired boys bring the same buckets at some time during the same grey light. Weevils in the porridge, flaccid rehydrated vegetables in a thin stew and God knows what the flesh is from. Biscuits. Dried meat. Salted fish. Sometimes dried fruit but that is usually suspect. Maggots.
Both Peter and Risteard now silent. Beyond the sickness that plagued them for the first days and nights. The diarrhea that had them running above decks and hanging their arses over the railing, wet fists clinging to the rigging and willing the wind not to turn. Nobody could have warned them because no one they had ever met knew.
Their neighbours carrying rolled up bedding above decks when it’s not raining. To air. The bugs are in the straw despite that. Covered in sores. Being careful not to scratch because infection will likely kill. The floorboards below decks scrubbed daily and all the dead things removed. Rat hunting a sport for some, neck wringing relieving clenched jaws with forced laughter or grim satisfaction. Porthole shutters opened if the Trade Winds are fair. To let the light in. The freshness.
Now slowly, slowly, day by day the air becoming warmer. Angus and Granuaile are given more and more water as the heat threatens. Both taken above deck more and more often. To relieve the incessant standing and to get them away from the smell of dead animals. Animals dying of thirst.
Day after day the weather changes. The ship sailing towards the equator.
Then, damn, it’s hot.
The sailors call this part of the Atlantic the Horse Latitude. And yes, many, many horses are dragged above decks and thrown into the ocean where they are ripped apart by schools of frenzied sharks. So is every other species. So are people but the latter get words spoken over them. Some are even sewn into tablecloths thought destined for new homes.
The wind is light, the sun a monster compared to England. Fair skin needs covering or it reddens, stings like wasps then blisters, the skin peeling off like wet paper.
Peter keeps to the shade but leans on the rail. He’s caught the wet lung and needs this fresh air. His cough is loose and his body still strong but Risteard is down with it. Hacking his guts out. And with fever. Neither man say a word about it. They know they could both die. Spread from one person to another, the hold feels like a soup of contagion. Peter nursing his brother as best he can. The ship’s physician efficient but with a monster of a job. God knows what they pay him to do this terrible work.
A sailor passing. Peter stops him, his handkerchief over his mouth. He points over the rail.
“Sorry to hold you up, man, but do you know what they are?”
The man keeps his distance despite the fact that sailors don’t catch the infections of the land lubbers. He grabs the rail and leans right out.
Dolphins. He’s grinning, teeth missing, when he turns back to Peter. Hounds of the sea. They’ll follow us to the pole, mate. I hope you make it. And he’s gone.
By the hundreds the dolphins keep pace with the craft, all smiles. The frenzied sharks being left behind by the high wind. Peter hacks into his handkerchief. Checks the sputum. Still clear. Relieved he leans on the railing observing the source of his new words.
Then she’s beside him.
“Hello,” she says shyly, leaning on the rail close enough for him to smell her. She’s twenty. Pretty. Light brown hair tucked under a bonnet that’s flapping like a chicken’s beak in the strong wind. Trying to hold it down with a hand in a glove. Dressed from head to toe in Irish clothing in this stinking, prickly heat.
Peter takes a step further from her. She doesn’t know how to read this and looks towards the dolphins.
“I’ve got the cough,” he says. And as if to prove a point the hack overcomes him, his handkerchief a shield between him and the world.
The wind cracks the sails above them, is a hooing in their ears making conversation almost ridiculous but she is pretty.
“I’m Alicia Dunne. I’m a teacher.”
“Oh?” He clears phlegm from his throat.
“I have an appointment in Geelong.”
“You’re on your own?”
“No. My dear mother hasn’t got off her cot since we started out.”
“Poor thing. Where you from then?”
“Mountrath in County Laois.”
“Be fucked!” He raises a hand to his mouth. “Jesus. Sorry.”
Her cheeks flush but she’s not about to let either profanity or blasphemy deter her. He’s much too good looking and she wants him.
“I’m down the road from you at Raheen. Peter Lalor. I’d shake your hand but.”
“Oh. I know who you are. My family was at your brother’s funeral. So sorry for your loss.”
Rushing from where it had hidden in the forests of necessity the spectre of death attacks. Hits him like a blow to the gut. His blood runs cold even as the sweat runs down his sides under his shirt. Seems like that’s been his life so far. Since his mother died when he was only eight. It’s almost a revelation. He hadn’t realised until this very second why he left his home behind. He can’t speak until she breaks the spell.
“Sorry,” she says.
“I’ve got to go. My brother’s worse than me. We’re down with the horses in the hold.”
“I thought so.”
“How?” His pale complexion goes paler still.
“I smell terrible, don’t I?”
“I’m still standing here, aren’t I?”
“If I’d known I’d be meeting a beautiful woman like yourself I’d have been clean as a new pin. Will you be here another time?”
“If I don’t melt first. Stupid clothing. I must be on the nose myself. We weren’t warned.”
“Who comes back to tell us? You smell like a field of flowers.”
She blushes but her eyes are languid and hinting at deeper sensations.
“It’s been a pleasure, Alicia Dunne. Sorry about the swearing.”
He smiles that wide, white smile he knows works a charm. She’s already in love.
He meets her mother once. She’s a widow turns out. Her husband in the ground since ‘48.
He asks if he can marry Alicia. They’ve known each other nine days. She questions him about his family even though Alicia’s already let on. It’s polite banter. She agrees.
Better a man with money than not, she thinks. Then aloud, “When?”
“I’ll get paid within a month of starting with the railway.”
They meet every day for a while longer but those days now get colder and wilder as the ship heads south for the Cape. Ice in the sails. Freezing rain. The wind cruel, savaging through every piece of clothing, blading through any weakness in the wood. Shutters severely locked. The deep dark between the liberation of an occasional oil lamp never allowed to die for fear the matches are too wet. The storms crushing the sea, the ship rolling in waves bigger than the sky. Everything not tied down a potential weapon. Granuaile and Angus slung up well.
But both Risteard and Peter are on the mend. We’re of the old blood their father was fond of reminding them. Staying away from every other poor bugger still wet with coughing. That and the dried lemons the ship’s doctor hands out. What a trick, something as sour could save a life.
Days of ice slicking every exposed thing. Sores and scabies and scurvy. The sound of people spitting out teeth. The grunts and restrained howls of women giving birth; bearing down. The silence of the still-born. Marking off the days with the point of a dagger into the iron hard wood, hoping with all their might that the horses’ stores hold out. Protecting them like the cú of Chullain because the thefts have started.
Batten down around the Cape, people clinging to whatever they can to stay alive.
Some tying themselves and their sheep to each other at the stall railings. Peter and Risteard standing all night with the horses, whishting to their shaking bodies. Each horse roped in four directions to the corners of their pens. Legs wrapped in blankets. Desperation. The ship navigating dangerous shoals. Icebergs, sharp mountains coloured perpetual white, emerald in shadow, during the long hours of Antarctic summer daylight. Their true danger within the black water mere feet below the surface of the ship, the landscape there could tear the hull apart. Freezing nights frosted white with starlight, the Aurora Australis riveting those who witness it, thinking of Armageddon or the glory of God, the sky on fire with green while below decks entire families freeze to death, their arms too thin to keep each other warm. At night down the galley under the forecastle while the cooking stove is lit as many as can, from both steerage and the hold, gather to play music and for the warmth. The singing and the hope. Time away from this eternity of shivering and fear.
Sundays up on deck for service. The Catholics pretending to be included. They hold their own down in the hold. In secret. Communion by the man who looks like any other man but is the priest out of Belfast on a mission of his own. Believing in a loving, omnipotent God despite what he seems to be doing to his people.
Then. What is that? Right beside the ship, causing it to roll, and the people not sailors to panic. A vast spiral of bubbles breaks the surface of the pristine calm ocean. Humpback whales! shouts a man high up in the rigging. The giants of the deep rise like leviathans. Dozens of them, rising and diving in a majestic dance. Herding krill within the depths. Vast shiny grey lengths covered in barnacles. Bellies white. Tiny eyes. Huge mouths. Hissing geysers through holes in the tops of their heads. Some lying sideways as they move effortlessly through the silky sea, vast pale, black-freckled fins pointing like languid arms. Moving slowly with their harvest in the opposite direction. Captivating.
Peter considers this new word to add to shark and dolphin. He slides his gloved hand into that of Alicia, glad to have this story—these stories—to one day tell their children, sitting about the great fireplace in Tenakill House upon a deep winter’s night. His stepmother and Alicia bringing warm mince pies from the kitchen. Whisky smelling of peat and heather. The delicate blue of pipe tobacco hazing the light. What an experience all this will be to tell should they live so long. Walking the port streets of Jamaica while the ship restocked supplies and fresh water, drinking rum at the English tavern. Black faces and exotic smells. Music unheard of and unable to irreplicable. Parrots and monkeys. Bananas. The flat mountain behind queen Vistocria’s settlement of Cape Town, seabirds dive-bombing God knew what fish in that part of the world.
Them both thinking the same thoughts as they watch the families of sea beasts disappear behind the ship, her laughing to his delight. Risteard broody that the two should be so brazen, feeling deeply alone having left his love behind waiting to wed him if he makes it back.
3—HARD AS IRON
Not long now lads, someone calls down. Land! The scramble as everyone still able gets to their feet and runs for the ladders or the gangplank from below decks, hugs the rail above.
And there it is. A hazy smudge of darkness under a licorice-clouded sky that holds sleet. It is as though a collective breath is released by every man, woman and child that none knew they were holding. So many have harbored the fear of drowning, of the ship catching fire, of one kind of death or another since before they even boarded. Like a constant stream of madness sitting just behind behaviour hissing, what are you doing, what are you doing? How many dead? Babies and ill-formed infants? How many grandparents heaved overboard? They would have died had they stayed home. It was worth the risk.
Most are coming for the gold. The only hope of escaping a life of hunger and privation. The burial of so many and the guilt of staying alive. Gold. It had been in the papers for those who could read. The word rushed through cities and villages, from Derry to the shores of Bantry Bay. What money remained being spent on this voyage of possible damnation. No knowing what they are getting into. No knowledge except, for most, the art of digging the ground. No idea that the soil of this unfriendly continent is as hard as iron. The sun as savage as sin. How many are hard or scared enough—nasty enough—to survive this land and the English?
The final night before dropping anchor in Hobson’s Bay and Peter’s initial diary is almost full. He works by the light of a safely secured paraffin lamp. He’s recorded everything. All the names of the ship’s parts. The titles of the winds. The words dolphin and shark and whale. All the sickness and the filth. That he thinks he’s in love but isn’t quite sure what it’s supposed to feel like. He omits the ceaseless sexual throb. He documents accurately everything that has happened to them. Down here in the hold. That the horses are still alive. Every detail. His sketches are stark, clean lines. The work of an academic. He intends to send this by post on the first possible vessel. To warn others of what he and his brother now know of the so-called emancipation ships.
Risteard speaks with the men still awake in low whispers. Of politics and allegiances. Making alliances. Promising to keep in touch when on the ground. Asking their business and sharing the remainder of his whiskey and tobacco. He’s been friendly with everyone all the way, helping others with mucking out the stalls, working with their horses, massaging and exercising their legs, checking hooves for rot, keeping the stallions calm with his homemade potions.
Another storm breaks overhead. It’s been like this every night since leaving New Holland on the west coast of the continent. Cold enough to kill again. The ship bucks and prances and groans as though about to break apart. Gale force winds threaten to push us landward and into trouble on the jagged coastline. These are the first thunder storms now, terror of the sound ringing bells of ancestral memory, the hounds quivering and baying and the dogs going off their rockers. Below decks is deafening with the keening that everyone associates with banshee superstition, all the babies and children waking in fright, no breast sufficient to soothe. Deep in the marrow this is ominous, the hunting animals hide beneath the sleeping pallets, their eyes haunted, not understanding any of this. Humiliated that they have to shit in their own territories. An eternity of night ending with a sudden and eerie reprieve in the hour before dawn.
Above deck, the sky white with nimbostratus scudding towards land from the south. Bitter. A bully of a wind. Everywhere a seething, roiling, demanding mass of gulls. The noise of them like newborn babies mixed with demon but a relief. A reminder of when the fishing boats come ashore with the mackerel. A sound of the home no one might see again. The decks and railings are crowded with survivors. Passenger and sailor both. Looking towards the cauldron of masts that crowd the distant shoreline. Every soul expelling a collective sigh amidst a vulnerability unused to be any. They have made it. Those who believe in God anymore thank Jesus, Mary and Joseph and all the saints. They are blessed by the priests who secretly questions the likelihood of an omnipotent deity being capable of this much sadism.
4—ANGRY AND UNPREDICTABLE
Rain a blindness. The deck slippery and dangerous. They know the drill. Saddle and tack. Load the canvas sacks, the panniers. When Peter and Risteard came to terms with the distance they have to swim their horses to shore they know that whatever will drag them under must stay behind. They cannot take the blankets or any but the most necessary of clothing. They are losing the advantage of their ten pound bribe to the first mate. Passengers at the end of the rope of life and death pour antlike onto the deck from the holds below. Protecting themselves and their children as best they can from the weather. From others. Cacophony of crying, shouting, begging. The human voices. Those of animal and fowl almost as loud, although so death-like it takes sheer fear for them to make any sound at all. Both Peter and Risteard know.
Two ferries and a six oared rowboat churn through the veil of wetness and the slate grey, wind-chopped waters. They plow toward the four master, at the prow of each a gentleman in oilskins, with a silk top hat. The money-men could not afford to look like other men.
The portside rail is down. The sea, churned up with foam, the waves like small mountains, says go away, you are not wanted here. The weather has turned into a fury and the deck bucks them, warns them of the danger. Says stay another night. Neither man will.
Alicia pushes at strangers. Shoves and growls, all semblance of gentility abandoned. She has to get to Peter. He’s there, at the aft of the ship. The sailors are lowering the rail. He’s with Risteard and the horses. Oh God, she begs. She slips. Grabs the coat tail of an old man punching the ears of a younger man, pulling at the leather money purse. The younger man tries to hold what he has stolen but his fingers bleed as the cord is ripped away. The authorities are keeping out of sight. They know this pandemonium. It has been their bread and butter for two years now. They do not care who lives or dies. After the first such ocean crossing, the rule of law was realised as pointless at this stage of the journey. Poverty is as angry and unpredictable beast as anything alive.
Alicia pulls herself to her feet. The old man turns on her and spits. Raises a hand but she is gone. This has been her lot the whole trip. How to avoid the men. One bludgeoning insult upon another. Grope after grope. She began this journey as a soft and naïve child. That’s gone now. She’s learned. Peter will not see this side of her nature. She can hide it well already. He is a man. He does not know this fight and she would have him as husband. Her will is a blade and she has made it all the way here without being raped unlike many others.
She reaches him. Throws her arms about his neck. He laughs and kisses her, his arm about her waist. “Here,” she says, thrusting the page into his hand. On it is written the address of the school where she will live and work. “Find me. Write to me.”
“I love you,” he answers. “Of course I will. We have to go.” He and Risteard mount their frightened horses and ride into the bay.
The sudden dark. That strange, muffled sound. The shock of brine that burns his nostrils. Hold on. Can’t see his brother. Which way is up? Trust. Everywhere bubbles and the touch of the unrecognisable.
Granuaile breaks the surface and Peter realises the muffle was her screaming. She’s facing back towards the ship, legs pounding. Peter jumps from her and drags the reins around clinging on, though, for dear life because he cannot swim. No thought. Toward the specks of light. If it’s the souls of the drowned damned he’ll join them soon enough because without them he has nothing. No way back onto the ship. He does not think of Risteard or what might have befallen him. Can do nothing except breathe, hold on and believe his mare’s will to live. After all these weeks below deck and with legs that trembled constantly, surely this striding through the ink of an alien sea is a relief.
It seems like forever. Water in his nose. Swallows of it. Vomiting it back up. Granuaile’s ribs heaving, mouth wide, foam flicking back into Peter’s eyes. Then solidity. At first just the tease of it, then it takes Granuaile’s weight, and her powering for it in a last ditch fight to live. Peter senses the sliding, shifting of it beneath frozen feet and drowned boots. Water to his chest. His thighs. His hands that grip the bridle are the talons of a raptor. In the back of his mind a small voice whispers that he might never let go. That this was hell and he had died because he could feel not one iota of his own body. At least the rain has stopped.
Fires along the shoreline. One each beside its own rowboat. Two more ships like the Scindian due before the night fully falls. Oarsmen balled up so deep in clothing that only the bulbous purpling noses of heavy drinkers can be seen. Glint of an eye here and there a warning. As Peter approaches an already crowded bonfire a jaw juts from beneath a peaked cap and a hand is held out.
“A farthing,” says the muffle of Irish. It takes Peter a full minute to remove his glove, rescue the coin bag from down his trousers and establish the size of the money that his fingers work at identifying. He hands across a penny, indicating the sensuality of the pile of dry blankets beneath the open canvas tent that serves as a shelter.
The man laughs at him. Peter digs out a silver shilling and is rewarded by four folded squares of warmth. He does not strip. Cannot risk the loss of anything. He drapes the one around his shoulders, pulls the luggage and tack from the Granuaile and rubs her down with the second.
Risteard and Angus make their way easily along the shoreline, searching, the saddle and luggage a mountain of hard work on Risteard’s shoulders but the welfare of his horse coming first. He makes his brother out from the crowd, head and shoulders taller than the tallest. The sand is mud-like this far up the beach and sucks at the exhausted legs of both him and his pony. Head down, weary beyond talking, he joins his brother by the fire and dumps his gear. Without a word Peter hands him the other two blankets.
Here they come, one man calls out as the boats bringing paying passengers from the ship hiss up onto the sand and disgorge their loads. One after another the boats skim to the Scindian and just make it, loaded to the gunnels, back to land. More fires are lit. The immigrants without livestock will stay on the beach until dawn. Come daylight the steamers will ride the river to the town established at Port Phillip. Lots will be drawn and monies change hands. Some have appointments waiting for them. Some are thieves. Some are savvy and entrepreneurs in this new and fledgling colony. The vast majority are headed for the goldfields. Many will starve before they get there. Those with livestock head inland despite the dark. Without shelter, with only rudimentary maps, with little clue, their faith in God and need. Incandescent, unquenchable need.
Peter and Risteard stay by the fire, slowly drying out until close to dawn. Smoking and talking with the boatmen. Good men it turns out. Good men with fair to middling good whisky. Wary, truth be told but they had reason to be, every one of them. Every one of them Irish and every one of them like to get a beating from any sassenach in uniform for speaking their language or looking at a woman.
5—YOU GETTEE ME
Robert Reed sits is his wicker chair, one tailored, uniformed leg crossing the other at the knee, highly polished boots reflecting the spectacle before him. A fly-whisk of ebony and horsehair dangles from a gloveless left hand, trailing the rough plank veranda floor like an offering to Hathor. The chair has come all the way from India and the cushion is yellow silk, embroidered with an elephant. He paid for it like he pays for all his luxuries. He and his chair balance at the very edge of the veranda of police headquarters, sufficiently under cover that the coming storm will be rendered helpless against him, close enough to the edge to be Nero. Like a lord surveying his lands he twists one end of his moustache unconsciously, the tic at the edge of one eye the result of a perennial nervousness that belies his capacity for a spectrum of traits from kindness to abject cruelty. Thunder rolls across an endless chaos of limitless sky. He has not lost his confusion and disbelief at the impossibility of this sky since his arrival one year ago. Lightning renders him blind time and again as it zags from ground to black cumulonimbus, black cumulonimbus to ground. It strikes the sole eucalypt on the hill closest to the camp, on a horizon of other hills all swathed in the licorice green dark of potentially devastating weather.
The small circular table to his right is of filigree ebony inlaid with mother of pearl. Another exotic trophy. He rests the fly-whisk across his thighs, removes the glove from his right hand and takes from the table the pouch of tobacco that rests there. He delicately dispatches a thin row of Virginia tobacco onto a cigarette paper, rolls it and licks the edge to seal it. He pulls the Vesta case from his inside jacket pocket and grates a flame to its wick, lights the end of the cigarette, clicks the lighter shut and repockets it. He pulls the smoke deeply into his lungs. He holds it there, attaining the head rush, then exhaling the pale blue stream into the lowering dark, a pittance compared to the roil coming in his direction. A fleck of ash lands on his upper leg and he brushes it away languidly, sighing.
What a cunt of a country, he thinks.
His father had set him up. To be rid of him. To get him out of under his mother’s money and what she was prepared to dole out to her beloved son. Sent on this commission to hide his son’s blatant sexual proclivity for young men. A six month’s tide away from the mind-bending absinthe habit he had developed while serving in France. Altogether Robert had dallied with all manner of intriguing substances including the seduction of laudanum and the more exotic hashish fresh from the tribes of Egypt and Turkie.
Robert sighs and takes another drag. His hands shake just the slightest. The dust of the storm’s damp edges glistens in his hair. He half turns towards the lamp lit interior.
“I want you,” he calls.
An aboriginal girl about eleven, her eyes downcast, is dressed all in white like a little English servant. She stands in the twilight between inside and out, a silhouette nimbussed in suppressed gold.
“Rum, you gettee me, Eloise, now.” His distraction has nothing to do with the storm. Rede almost never shows his rages. And he is in one of the blackest since he landed on this godforsaken man-made mud plain. He can see them if he looks down. People, mauve and yellow in the thunderous dusk. As far as the eye can see. Picking for their fortunes. Buckets coming up and lowering down in a ceaseless teamwork of stick figures. Piles of dirt and stone, a hundred million years left undisturbed, now facing an unknown future. No, his rage is at being told what to do. At the lack of an eighty percent deal he’s demanded of his stake in the hotel. Fucking Bentley. A commoner. Without Rede’s protection the place could go up in flames.
Might anyway, he thinks way down in the cellar of his to-do list.
He wants to hit Eloise. Every day. For her silence. He believes she does it on purpose to unnerve him. Shadow-child. He’d bang her if she was a boy. She deposits both the jug and a cup beside him so quietly he jumps when she touches his shoulder.
He’d had to spend the better part of yesterday and the day before kowtowing to Hotham in his Port Melbourne offices. Waiting like a schoolboy. Waiting some more. Hotham is all smiles for the Argus’ reporters but that is a ruse. Elderly bastard is only interested in who’s who and from what embassy, and up the tax on the cunts, there’s a good fellow, Rede. So it’s yes, your worship and fuck you, too behind his gloved hand and return to his office severely in need of a pipe and someone whose throat he can rip out with his own teeth.
He waves his hand in dismissal and the aboriginal girl he has carelessly named Eloise backs back inside. He drops the chair’s front legs to the floor, twists the cork from the clay and fills the cup completely. He shags back his hair and downs the grog in one. Checks his watch. Almost time to visit the Chinaman.
6—HIS OWN WAR
Outside the offices of the Hobson Bay Rail. Cold as monkey balls in a cloud of fog as thick as grease and dark. Peter somewhere inside for something close on to an hour. Granuile hoofing the mud like a ballerina, tied to the post and hating it. Risteard a pile of grey this and grey, a rabbit fur lined leather gloved fist holding his rifle ready. Stubble and a thin cigarette. Sitting his horse. Not a word. Not that anyone’s asking. He knows. Known all along. You’re a bog trotter. You think we’re hiring bog trotters for the work of gentlemen? You think that’s what the dispatch meant? Get yourself a sledge, a tic tong and a pick and join the line. Now bugger off and ask the English. They’re hiring navvies for the Geelong line.
Peter’s mouth a straight line, his eyes down, closing the door behind him.
“I take that for a no?” Peter pulls the reins from the iron ring and mounts.
“Is there a plan? Other than Corrigan’s?”
The pair ride side by side down the main street of Port Melbourne, mud to the fetlocks churned by clack-curtained carriages. The poor huddled at fires with no thought for the next meal. Survivors of a famine that killed most of Ireland. The ones couldn’t get the pennies together to provision for the long walk and no passage back home.
“The English are hiring.”
“You’re not thinking, Peader.”
“I am. There’ll be no justice if people can’t eat.” Risteard comes to a stop. Peter keeps riding. “You’ve nothing else to say to me?” Risteard yells, to the frightened glances of the passers-by.
Risteard watches till his brother is out of sight. He slides his rifle into the holster hanging from his saddle. He pulls at the hem of the hard wool blanket that had been soft when his mother had made it. Pulls it over his hat and his jacket till he appears like a man mountain. Turns Angus in the opposite direction. Turns towards the docks and the passage home. Turns towards his own war.
Bleak, formidable, endless and cold. The landscape leaks every imaginable shade of grey and every imaginable kind of wet. The mud thoroughfare is slick with ice and Peter Lalor, exhausted and sodden, trudges beside Granuaile. She is loaded with panniers, a shovel, rifle and his duffle bag.
Closed in by towering eucalypts on either side, just beyond the track made wide by the passing of the feet and carts of thousands. Made treacherous by desire. Not a place for people. Not European people with unforgiving ways and habits anyway. This is goanna landscape. Sleep dreaming koala territory. Big grey kangaroos made this track in the first place. Otherwise no one would have got this far. More’s the pity.
Visible through the mist are dead and dying cows. Sheep and horses. Their agony cruel. Not a bullet to spare from any man. A wagon is on its side, its axle cracked, a partially decayed bullock strapped to the stays, half submerged in mud. A discarded trunk has fallen open, its contents, a woman’s apparel, are spewed across the saturated landscape. A piano. A pair of bed-ends. The detritus of the unprepared.
Sideways down a decline in bog water, two pair of whips lay into the dray’s two Clydesdales. Struggling to move but drowning for all that. The men, themselves, fight to keep on their feet but they know death when they smell it. In their armpits. When they see the white’s of both the shires eyes. To have come this far. Made it in the bottom of that putrid ship. The price of men’s greed.
Cloud from black to grey to flashes of blue. Then hail. Then sleet. Wind from the north in gusts and starts. Mud that once was solid ground. Used to be treed along this route. Tribes of hunters stalking kangaroo made these tracks as much as the animals they hunted.
Up ahead, to Peter’s right, daunted and demoralized by his own audacity, a ragged boy, ginger hair sticks out in agitation from under what looks a newish tweed cap. Dead beat he is. Wheelbarrow of soggy gear. Staring at nothing. Maybe fourteen, fifteen. Shaking uncontrollably from the cold. Lips blue. His bum’s wet through where he sits on the side of the track. Done in.
He takes off his cap, runs his fingers through his hair. A useless gesture. Replaces the cap.
“Looks like your stuff’s fucked.” Initially nothing registers. Granuaile whuffles encouragement.
“You can ride her for a while, if you like. God knows you’re small enough.”
“What do you want?”
“Nothing. Suit yerself.”
Peter gets back in stride, head down against the wind. Sleet intermittent and unpredictable. April, for fuck’s sake.
Jimmy watches the tall man’s back erode into the afternoon twilight. He rummages through his stuff, pulls out a canvas bag, slings it over his shoulder and runs after him.
“Wait up. Sorry. Jimmy Scobie.” He holds out his hand and Lalor shakes it.
“I’m Peadar Lalor. Where you from? He makes a sling of his hands and hefts Scobie onto his horse.”
“Áuchterarder, just north of Perth.” Lalor looks blank so Jimmy says Scotland. “Near Kinross but up in the hills. A wee town.”
To cover his ignorance and to pretend he cares Lalor takes a clay-fired jug of whisky from a pannier and hands it up. Scobie uncorks the jug, takes a swig, reacts to the fire of it, recorks it and returns it to Lalor with a grunt of satisfaction.
Alicia Dunne and her mother move into a tiny one room cottage on McCurdy Road, Herne Hill, near where they’re building a new orphanage and asylum. Children put aboard ships during the famine years. Those that made it here alive taken in by Her Majesty’s government. Many left destitute because nobody this side of the Atlantic cared. One or more parent dead. Missing. Too far gone on grog. These children are trained up for service, fed, uniformed. There is no schooling for these. Stunned and abused.
Besides. Most businesses aren’t hiring anyone Irish and certainly not Catholics. No. Alicia gained employment at the orphanage school on Aphrasia Street, far enough away from the river frontage that she needn’t hold a handkerchief to her nose anymore. Not like when they’d first arrived. Then they’d taken what they could get. Rooms in a boarding house in Chilwell. With the cloying air and the burning eyes. The rank musk of men. The stink of tanneries, wool scours and soap works. Thank goodness Peter had not seen how impossible it was to maintain dignity under those conditions.
Alicia wrote to him every day. Little frippery things. Naughty bits. Quotes from Wordsworth. What they’d had for supper. The cost of gabardine. Nothing of the real news. He would not want to know that. He wrote once in a while, so she knew he still desired her. Loved her? She had not seen him since he and his brother had parted ways last December. She’d bought a leg of mutton. They’d celebrated Christmas. Four months ago. She’d had no letters for the past two. She could not know where he would be next.
Then yesterday she had gone to the village store and the post had arrived with a quick note from him. He was headed to the Eureka Lead. To send further letters to the post office there. He had signed it, love Peadar.
8—NOT HERE TO MINE
Lalor back in the saddle. Jimmy’s duffel atop his own. He rides across the eerie, pocked and polluted moonscape that is the goldfield, Jimmy running beside. Every conceivable ethnicity is represented, including people indigenous to the landscape. Lalor’s never seen Chinese or Afghanis in turbans and robes. So many exotic people. Tattooed men and women in trousers. Workers like ants at holes in the ground with odd-shaped sails above that flap and crack in the eerie wind, meant to carry off toxic fumes. Over there’s another lot. At the muddy, toxic river-edge. Panning, cradling, puddling.
Lalor dismounts at the elegant, two storey Eureka Hotel just as a stagecoach, pulled by four tall horses, rumbles past. It bears the insignia The American Telegraph Line of Coaches. Jimmy catches up, grins and dumps his duffel on the dry seat beside the pub. He doffs his cap and holds out a hand. “Thanks fer saving me life.”
“Good luck with all.”
Scobie enters the hotel as Lalor tethers his horse to the post and rail, shrugs his panniers onto his shoulder and takes his rifle in hand. Inside is all grandeur with chandeliers, fine furniture, grand piano, mirrored walls, a fireplace and staircases to rooms above, their banisters polished to a high sheen. Tables and chairs loaded with dirty men, the light catching the smoke from pipes and cigarettes turning it blue, swirling it in idle whorls. The floor strewn with rushes despite the luxury. And still it stank. Of booze and sperm and vomit and piss and roasting meat somewhere. Coal fires. Cheap perfume. Prostitutes trying very hard to seduce the money from the patrons. Mothers and grandmothers, the many. Girls as young as nine or ten whose eyes were those of whipped dogs.
Lalor rubs shoulders with miners on his way to the bar. Some show disdain at his gentrified appearance. Others are amused or bored. Jimmy Scobie has already joined a group, accepted affably when he produces an unopened pack of playing cards.
Grace Callinan works the bar. A dark beauty with skin as pale as cream. In her twenties and still looking it. Flint-coloured eyes. Lalor places a coin on the bench.
“Might I have your best single malt please?”
When she returns Peter leans both his elbows on the bar, infatuated already.
“I’m Peadar Lalor. I’m new here.”
“It shows. Grace Callinan. County Clare.” Lalor downs the whiskey never taking his eyes from hers.
“Can I meet with your employer?”
“What’ll I tell him? He’s a busy man.”
“Say there’s a gentleman can make him some money.”
She refills his glass. He admires her as she walks to the other end of the bar.
There she struggles to be heard by that big man seated like a lord at the end of the bar. On his own stool. Lord Muck. Well-tailored in a three piece suit, early forties. Barrel-chested man with cauliflower ears. Lalor dislikes him immediately the way you sometimes do. The eyes. Mentally he tucks away the words cheat and thief. He unbuckles his panniers, pulls out top-shelf bottles of wine and spirits. And tins of tobacco.
The big man wipes his hands on a cloth and ambles towards Lalor. They shake hands.
“George Bentley.” He gestures to the products. “Nice.”
“I’ve got trunks of this coming from Melbourne. Are you interested in business?”
“I’m interested. You got your papers?”
Lalor is confused.
“Your license. Can’t do business till you register with the Gold Commission.”
“I’m not here to mine.”
“Doesn’t matter. Everyone has to register. No license no business.”
Lalor packs his stuff back into the panniers, tips his cap to Bentley.
“Then I’ll be about my day. Thank you for your kindness.” And he tips his cap to Grace.
The day has decided to be magnificent. The air has gone from scudding threat to the kind of blue Lalor never saw in his life before. How can there be this much sky? The scent of eucalypts with the sun on them after the savagery of the wet is intoxicating. Erotic. Utterly alien but so strong that moment nothing else counted as important. This newness. The sudden beatification of the long dead deemed holy.
As Lalor loads his panniers onto the saddle across Granuaile’s back, a crippled man with skull-hugging curly black hair and soft brown eyes is dragged to the centre of the street by a policeman who is doing all he can to search the young man’s pockets. Everything goes mad at once.
Chem haskanam, Siktir, Hesus Kristos! Tsekeh enzee, he begs. Then he kicks the copper with his good leg and goes down. The copper smashes him in the face with his cudgel. An eye ruptures like an egg. Blood and screams. Lalor starts towards the rammy as people on the street keep walking as though nothing untoward was occurring. An arm holds him back. A lean-faced man marred by a scar from his forehead to his jaw.
“Don’t do anything.”
Lalor acknowledges the slightly older man but does not speak. Intends to take no notice. Intends to stop the brawl. But before he can take a step a twenty-something baby-faced Catholic priest in full black cassock with twin pistols in his belt and a long wooden rosary exits the butcher shop and pulls the policeman off his man.
“He works for me. He doesn’t pay your vile, heinous license, yerself. Your mother would be ashamed of you.” The cop doesn’t dare hit a priest. He’s not long over from Van Diemen’s Land penal colony. Not about to jeopardize the only job he could get. Because of the murder. Because of his temper. That seems an advantage here.
The man beside Lalor holds out his hand in greeting. “Tim Hayes, County Clare, father of five. This place is a shit heap. Leave off.”
Peter indicates the scar. “What happened to your face?”
“Ask yourself how long you’ll look so pretty.”
Lalor shakes his hand. “I’m here to make money, not trouble. Peadar Lalor, Tromaire, County Laoise.”
“You James Fintan’s brother by any chance?”
“That I am.”
“Buy ya a Porter?”
“I’ll just get meself sorted out with a place to stay.”
“There’s a clean boarding house next door to Carboni’s bookshop. Down past the Star Inn. See it?”
Lalor peers in the direction of the proffered gesture. “Which one’s the Star Inn then?”
“See the bench? And the stable is out back. No one will steal your beauty from that one.”
Lalor again shakes the man’s hand. He mounts Granuaile. They canter towards their new home as the vast sky turns green with the threat of snow.
EPILOGUE—A FIGHT TO LIVE FOR
When is a story the truth? At whose hand is history written? I am sixty six years old, and I have outlived too many deaths and too many lies to offer an answer. But here I am again, come to this wretched country to bury him. My brother’s leadership of the battle at the Eureka Lead had been written into the pages of a small book, scribed with the flourish of a purple pen by Rafaello Carboni, a man who once called himself Peadar’s friend. So, fact became legend, the reality blurred when written of by chroniclers who, I dare suggest, might have been biased. Or pissed. Or English. From his letters there seemed no choice but to fight. A set up, because her bloody majesty’s colonial coffers were being emptied by the gold rush.
This country wasted my brother. As did the drink. As did the eventual pointlessness because this is an English-made, and stolen, land and he has always been an Irishman.
His humour abandoned him when his daughter and Alicia died. He whispered to me, three nights ago, that his neglect may have been to blame.
I have buried Angus seven times over. I have buried brothers and sisters, razed down by our enemy, wept at my own father funeral three decades ago, a warrior to the very end. So once this afternoon is done, and I have born witness to my brother’s coffin being lowered into this unfamiliar and alien clay, I will offer his son Joseph the key to our home at Tenakill, in County Laois. The offer of the land of his ancestors. On the off chance he realises the foolishness of this inheritance. Because a dog can be born in a stable but that doesn’t make it a horse. Then I am leaving. For in the country of our births, a thousand years into the past, the battle still rages, and I have a fight to live for.
Risteard O’Leathlobhair, 1889.