Kit wrapped her boy in her shawl and lay him on his side on the mattress, pulling the cloth over his head and around his face. Clara lay next to him and peered into his face, sobbing and stroking
his cheek with the back of her hand.
“Sit up, Clara. Your brother will sleep now, and I will carry him onshore. I need your help with the luggage. Do you understand?”
The girl sat upright next to her mother and wiped her eyes, smearing dirt from her hands over her cheeks . She nodded and tried to focus on something else but in the dim light, all she could
see was the misery of people at the end of a long and deadly voyage.
A sailor shouted down the stairs.
“Gather your belongings folks, the ship is about to weigh anchor.”
The steerage passengers cheered. The stagnant atmosphere of bodies laying exhausted in the oppressive heat lifted as people became animated for the first time in weeks. They began folding clothes
and stuffing belongings into the only bag they were permitted to bring.
“It’s about time they got us here, isn’t it love,” Ginny said. Kit didn’t answer. She looked down at her boy and felt emotionless, hollow and more like one of the dead than the living.
Clara rose and folded their coats, placing them in her mother’s Gladstone bag. She picked up Robert’s shoes and held them for a moment before stuffing them in the bag and closing it shut.
When the ship weighed anchor the first class passengers were the first to be ferried by long boats the quarter mile to the shore. The other passengers were told to stay below deck until they were
called, but the promise of a cool breeze on deck saw a mutiny of passengers push their way up the stairs and out into the clean air. Kit had no desire to leave her boy or to take him up on deck
away from the concealment of the shadows below. Ginny took Clara with her own daughter, who had reappeared after the first boat had left for shore. The two girls stood on deck, clasping onto the
side as the ship rocked against the lapping waves. They peered at the salient strip of land before them reaching into the sea.
“How long do we have to stay there, Ginny?” Clara asked.
“I don’t know lassie, weeks, maybe even months. They’ll be waiting until every passenger has been given a clean bill of health before they be letting us go.”
“But we’re not sick. Won’t they let us leave?”
“It won’t be so bad. I’m sure you two will find plenty to explore on shore, and you’ll be able to go to the beach and swim. It’s mighty hotter here than at home, I may even take a dip myself from
time to time.”
“Will we ever see home again, Ma?” Lizzy asked.
“Why would we want to go back when we will be living in a grand house with your Aunty Margaret and your cousins on the beach? Ay, Melbourne is a fine city, or so I’ve heard.”
“Mama says we’ll go back to Liverpool when we find Daddy,”Clara said.
“I’m sure you’ll find him soon enough lassie. Now, we better get back down below, your poor mother will be wondering what’s become of you.”
Hours passed before the first of the steerage passengers were called to board the long boats. Kit removed several hairpins from her bag and swept up her hair, pinning it back from her face.
“Why are you bothering to get all gussied up?” Ginny asked.
“There’s no reason for me not to look my best,” she said.
“Well, you look as pretty as a picture. I’d hate to see what I look like.”
Kit smiled at the woman whose large red cheeks and wild, wiry dark hair prematurely streaked with grey, made her look twenty years her senior, when in truth, only a handful of years separated the
ages of the two women.
Women and children were the first to leave and Kit carefully lifted the lifeless bundle and held it closely to her chest. Clara grasped the Gladstone bag and lifted it up with both hands, holding
it awkwardly in front of her.
“Give me that lassie,” Ginny offered. “I’ll carry it for you.” She reached down and took the bag from the grateful child as the last of the passengers made their way to the stairs. “Well, it’s our
turn now. Let’s leave this God-forsaken place.”
They made their way towards the stairs and Kit paused to look back at the mattress she had shared with her children. She remembered the day when they had first boarded and Robert had been so
excited that he couldn’t sleep at night. She’d snuggled next to him and sung lullabies so softly that only he could hear.
“No point in looking back now,” smiled Ginny, urging her to take to the stairs with a hand on her back. “A new world awaits us.”
The women and the girls made their way up the wooden steps to the deck and squinting against the light, they moved to where the long boat was waiting to take them ashore.
“Here, let me take the little’un for you while you board,” offered a young sailor, holding out his arms to Kit.
“It’s quite all right. I can manage. He’s very sick and I wouldn’t want you catching the sickness from him.”
“I’ll ‘ere nothing of it. I’ve weathered the danger so far, and I’ll not see a young lady struggle with such a burden.” The young man approached her and carefully took Robert from Kit’s arms.
“There now. Get aboard Missus.”
Kit didn’t take her eyes from the sailor as he cradled Robert in his arms. He focused on the passengers boarding and didn’t look at the face of the boy with the bloodless skin and blue lips. She
stepped into the boat and held out her arms to receive the lifeless bundle.
“There you go,” said the sailor, delivering him back into Kit’s arms. “He was sleeping so soundly that he didn’t even notice that I had ‘im.”
The two women saw the relief in each other’s faces before they took their seats beside each other. Ginny held out her arms and received the two girls from a sailor standing in the boat as
another on deck passed them to him.
When the small crowd of people had settled onto their seats, the sailor in the bow called to his shipmates.
“Lower us down. Steady on the ropes.”
The boat jolted as the slackened ropes allowed the vessel to begin its short journey to the sea below.
As they drew nearer the shore, the row upon row of canvas tents erected behind the beach the sailors had spoken about on deck, became visible. Kit sighed.
“It looks as though the conditions on shore will be little better than on the ship.”
“Yes, Ginny answered, “they didn’t expect a ship full of disease. But at least we’ll be on land at long last, and the sun, it’s mighty hot, but it’s better than living in the dark.”
When the boat entered the shallows and rowing was no longer possible, two of the sailors jumped into the sea and guided the vessel onto the golden sands. As the passengers stepped off, Kit gazed
down at Robert's lifeless body. She drew in a deep, wavering breath and promised herself that her grief would not deny her the chance of giving Clara the life that she had imagined for her before
they left Liverpool.
The two women walked at the back of the crowd following the sailors to a small gap in the trees where they could leave the sand and access the new ‘settlement.’ Clara and Lizzy skipped along,
throwing up the sand off the toes of their boots and looking around their feet for shells.
On passing through the gap in the trees the women saw some small buildings behind the tents and to these they were directed by the sailors.
“Everyone must pass through the triage section of the camp before being allotted a tent,” yelled a tall older sailor to the large group of passengers standing with the women. “No one is to pass
beyond any tree marked with white paint: this is the quarantine ground. Proceed now to the triage building." He stretched his arm in the direction of the small, stone cottage. The two women
looked anxiously at each other as they walked past the rows of tents to join the several hundred people already in line outside the cottage.
“I don’t think I can hold onto Robert for that long,” Kit said.
“Well then, Ginny said, “I think it’s time you told one of them sailors that he’s passed.”
Kit nodded. The tears streamed down her face as she carried her bundle towards a small group of soldiers smoking as they watched the line of people move into the cottage. She stood in front of
them, cradling him and struggling to find the words she must say.
“My boy has died."
The sailors looked towards an older man standing among them who threw his cigar to the ground and stepped forward.
“May I?” he asked, standing close to Kit and gesturing towards the shawl wrapped close to Robert’s face. Kit nodded and he gently pulled back the cloth from his face.“It’s been some time now,
“I couldn’t have him be thrown overboard,” Kit sobbed. “You understand, don’t you?”
“It would have been safer for the health of the other passengers if he had.”
Kit peered sternly into the stone face of the officer.
“I want him buried here. How do I go about it?”
“You have to see the Doc first, then I’ll fetch one of the labourers to take you to where … to where others have been laid to rest.”
The sailor gestured to one of his men who stepped forward and stood by the officer.
Take this woman and her … deceased infant to the Doc through the rear door, then fetch one of the labourers and tell him to bring a shovel.”
“Aye, sir,” said the sailor who gestured for Kit to follow him.
“I’ll look after Clara for you,” Ginny said. “She doesn’t have to see her brother go in the ground.”
“Yes, she does. Life here is going to be hard. There’s no use pretending it’s not.”
© Copyright 2024 Miranda J Taylor. All rights reserved.