Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tangled Secrets by Carol Preston

Chapter One
Wiltshire, England, May, 1829
The stone bench under Bill’s buttocks was hard and cold, but not nearly as icy as the twisting knot in his stomach. His face contorted as tears ran from his eyes, over his bristly cheek and into his beard.
The other prisoners gave him a wide berth. He knew they would find no words of comfort to offer him. As if it wasn’t bad enough to face the prospect of never seeing his family again but then to have the news that not only his wife but his three-month-old baby had passed away. Now Bill’s other three children would be left motherless as well as fatherless. Even the most hardened of criminals would cringe at the thought. And Bill Nipperess certainly didn’t think of himself as a hardened criminal. Poaching one lamb to feed his family seemed a paltry reason to be shipped to the other side of the world for the rest of his life.
Bill wasn’t a man to say much at any time, but now he couldn’t even bring himself to look at the small huddle of prisoners who had gathered on the far side of the cell. He wondered if he’d ever have the heart to speak again. It had been hours since the warden had hissed his gruesome message into the darkness, as if were some piece of irrelevant gossip. In another life such heartlessness would be considered utterly inhumane. But Bill knew the prisoners’ lives had ceased to matter to their jailers. Soon they would all be taken on board one of the ships being readied to sail to New South Wales. In no time at all they would just be forgotten refuse.
‘Can I get you a drink of water?’ One of the prisoners called, his voice cracked with pity.
Bill didn’t answer. He sat as stone-like as the walls and floor around him, his eyes staring into nothingness.
‘P’raps he’ll go stark raving mad,’ another whispered.
‘P’raps it’d be better to be so,’ said a third. ‘Better than knowin’ what we’re to go through … an’ thinkin’ about his younguns all alone.’
‘I heard he has sisters. Let’s hope they take care of the little ones.’
‘Small comfort I should imagine, for he’ll never see them again now.’
Bill was thirty years old when he arrived in Sydney Cove on the convict transport, Katherine Stewart Forbes. It was February eighteenth, 1830. Along with some of his fellow prisoners he was assigned to tented convict quarters at Parramatta and put to work on one of the farm plots taken up by members of the military corps. As the months passed, his body hardened and tanned with the physical work but his mind remained tortured. He was sure he would never heal from the devastating loss of his freedom, his home, and his family. He would never forgive himself for leaving his Martha alone, pregnant with their fourth child and ailing from the impoverished existence he had been able to provide in Wiltshire. He had nightmares about Martha’s last days and hours. Her ravaged face was etched into his mind like a raw burn. Her anguished cries woke him often and he would wretch with the agony of the sound in his ears.
However, as the months turned to years, Bill could not deny the glimpses of hope rising within him. He had heard other convicts talk of bringing their families out from England. The pessimism that had reigned in the early days of the colony had gradually been replaced by visions of rich pasturing and successful industries. Even a modest land holding and hard work could produce a life that far surpassed the meager existence available for the common man in England. Well-behaved convicts were regularly given Tickets of Leave before their sentences expired. This enabled them to work as paid employees rather than in servitude. They could become more independent and make choices about their future. If they were seen to honour this privilege they were sometimes granted a Certificate of Freedom, which saw them released from all the obligations of their convict status. They became free men in a new and growing colony where prospering was encouraged and assisted.
In June of 1839, after working hard as an assigned convict for nine years, Bill was granted a Ticket of Leave. He was given a transfer to Fielding’s sheep farm in the Parramatta area where he became known as a diligent worker; a no-nonsense character who could be trusted with responsibility. It was here that he began to dream of a better life. Although at first he had tried hard to push thoughts of his children from his mind, now he began to think about them more and more. Beth was his eldest. A pretty, fair-haired six-year-old she had been when he left. Then there were his boys: Tom and Henry. They’d been just four and two. His sisters had called Tom, ‘Nipper’, from the beginning. He wondered if the nickname had stuck. He teared up whenever he thought of their rascally grins, their hazel eyes and masses of floppy curls. Could he possibly bring them to this foreign place? Could he take them from the only family they would likely remember? Would they want to be with him? Could they ever forgive him?
Bridget Hall set her heart on Bill almost as soon as she laid eyes on him. She arrived in the colony from Ireland early in 1840. She’d been a children’s maid, but she quickly left that position and came to work in the kitchen at Fielding’s farm. It took her only a week to decide that Bill was the steady and reliable type of man with whom she’d like to spend the rest of her life. She was confident Bill would find no good reason to resist her. She was sure he must be weary of the loneliness and constant battle that his life in the colony had been.
However, the other girls in the kitchen insisted she was wasting her time.
‘He’s a dark horse, that one, Bridget,’ one said. ‘I doubt even a buxom redhead like you can get through to him. He’s not shown the slightest interest in any of us.’
‘He has a sadness in his eyes that blocks his sight of any girl,’ another said. ‘Still carrying a torch from the past, I’d say.’
‘What’s the point of setting your cap for him, girl?’ a third whined. ‘There are strict rules about staff fraternising. Mister Fielding wouldn’t put up with it. You’d both be out on your ears.’
Their taunts only spurred Bridget on. She had no doubt she could bring Bill comfort from whatever ailed him. She made sure she served him his meals in the large dining shed where the workers ate. She offered to mend his shirts, to sew back buttons that came loose, and to wash his mud-spattered trousers. With her eyes she promised him pleasure and solace.
Her hopes were heightened when Bill’s potential was recognised by Mister Fielding, who gave him the role of an overseer with a number of men working for him. There was also an offer of separate quarters. The future began to look much brighter and Bridget lost no time in suggesting they make that future together.
‘We can be family, Bill, sure we can. We could have little ones. I can’t be waitin’ much longer if I’m to have babies, and wouldn’t it be a shame to deny my body to a suckling child?’ She chuckled and flashed her eyes at him.
He certainly wasn’t an easy man to rouse, she’d found — far too quiet and brooding for his own good — but she was determined to brighten him up, to bring out the best in him. It was their time to enjoy what life they had left and to reap some benefit from the sacrifices they’d made over past years. Bridget had plans and Bill would be part of them.
‘You’ve not said anything about having children, Bridget,’ Bill answered. ‘In fact we’ve said little about our pasts at all. If there’s to be a future for us, perhaps we should know more about each other.’
‘Best forgotten, I say, Bill. Sure, isn’t it enough to say that the best must be ahead?’ She melted into him and rubbed her hand around his chest.
‘I can understand wanting to forget the past, Bridget — most of it — but you should know that I have a family in England. I’ve written to my children over the years, and my sisters have kept me up with how they are. I know they’ve been well cared for. Still, I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like them to come and be with me. I wasn’t sure they’d want to but it seems they do. The arrangements have been made. They’re on their way.’
‘Well, aren’t you are a dark horse? Kids … and a wife?’ She pushed herself away from him.
‘Not a wife. Martha passed away before I was transported.’ Bill’s face dropped at the mention of his wife. ‘But I have three children. Beth is sixteen now. The boys are fourteen and twelve.’
‘A bit old to be making the change, I reckon.’ Bridget relaxed a little. ‘They might not like it here.’
‘Well, I’m praying they do. You should know that, right up. I want them with me, Bridget, so if that makes you reconsider being with me, I’d understand.’
‘So you’re sayin’ the kids will come first?’
‘I have to think about what’s best for them. God knows I let them down when they were young.’ Bill’s sense of shame was still raw in his expression. ‘I want to be their father. And I’d like them to have … a mother.’
Bridget leaned into him and put her arms around him.
‘Now, Bill. Sure, if they’re happy to be here then there’s no reason for it to change our plans. They’re almost grown anyway and won’t they soon be makin’ a life for themselves?’
‘I hope not too soon.’
‘I’m hopin’ we’ll have little ones of our own soon, darlin’ man. I’ve come across the world to start a new life and have a family of my own, sure I have. And I haven’t another soul in the world.’
‘So you’re still keen then? On us, I mean?’
‘You don’t get away from me that easy, Bill.’ She squeezed him close and laid her head on his chest.
Truth be known Bridget had no desire to ever lay eyes on Bill’s children but, either way, she had no intention of letting them spoil the plans she was making for her future.
In tragic circumstances Beth and her brothers are left in England to grow up without their parents. When Beth’s childhood dream to be reunited with her father in Australia finally eventuates she finds that dreams do not always come true. All that seems to follow is further abandonment. Will she ever find true love? And will she discover she doesn’t have to be alone before it is too late? Set in the early colonial days of New South Wales and based on real characters in the mid 1800s. Revisit Charlotte and Thomas from Charlotte’s Angel and Mary’s Guardian, and meet new characters in this new novel by Carol Preston.
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – G
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