Rough and ready… here we go! I have no historical facts, I’m sure I’ve got the dialogue all wrong… but hell. Never let any of that ‘important factual stuff’ get in the way of a good story, right? I never thought I’d say I wished I’d kept my history books from Year 12 – especially the one to do with the Gold Rushes!
“Don’t cry, Ma.”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them. My mother didn’t cry. No tears flowed down her ruddy cheeks when my father dropped dead a year ago. Maybe she cried in private, if she did there was never evidence of it. Not like Mrs Doherty next door when she lost the last of her children, puffy eyed and staring blankly off into space in between spasms of uncontrolled wailing. Mother had shaken her head and taken to avoiding the poor woman.
When my Father died it seemed as though she simply rolled up her sleeves when the final clod of dirt settled on the top of the grave and she set about replacing him in the bakery, kneading bread alongside my older brother, Ewen. It was as though nothing changed. I wondered long and hard if she missed him like I did.
Those words, ‘don’t cry ma’ might have sounded sincere if not for the antagonism between us about my decision to go to Australia. If not for the thinly veiled poison we’d spat at each other over the stub of the dying candle on the kitchen table as the argument raged and I refused to yield my original position to her. If she accused me of stubbornness it was the pot calling the kettle black. My mother had always got what she wanted, from the time she laid eyes on my father to the time she organised my apprenticeship. It wasn’t luck, it was sheer refusal to give in until she got what her heart desired, and as I got older I realised it was always what her heart desired. She kept to her position even when it became redundant.
The words, hollow sounds, I realised later as the clipper sailed out of the port on the retreating tide, were just something to fill the space between us.
As the third son there was no reason to stay. Ewen inherited the bakery, Callan was working his way up through the seminary and having served my apprenticeship I had my freedom for the first time ever. I didn’t have to stay. I was my own man.
The lure of the Ballarat goldfields was not gold. My mother did not raise me to be a fool. Plenty of men would die in the process extracting the tonnes of gold which flowed out, via barely made roads, to Melbourne and beyond and those men would need to be buried in something. I would make the coffins for their eternal sleep. The trade I would never have willingly chosen had bought a sense of pride and peace I could never have imagined as a young boy.
“And who is going to pay for a pauper’s funeral. There’s plenty of men and women with money who need to be buried here Ryan MacDonald. The colonies are no place for a God-fearing man. They are hellish places where the evil and cursed are sent to spend the rest of their mortal lives.”
I had no care for who had been sent against their will. It wasn’t being forced to go anywhere. Australia was my choice. Times were changing and I wanted a chance at some of the wealth the gold was generating. I wasn’t caught in gold fever. I’d listened to the stories of the Californian rushes and learned the only people who made money that lasted beyond the boom were those with trades which complimented mining. Merchants. Blacksmiths. Carters. Policemen.
There were three things you couldn’t avoid in life; birth, death and taxes. This made the trade of coffin as enduring as midwifery and tax collection with perhaps a little less professional stigmatism.
“People will always die, wherever they are. And their families will always pay to have the best they can afford. I’m going. And that’s it.”
For all her words spat and snarled at me, her hands couldn’t keep still as we stood on the dock, mimicking the final frenzy of cargo loaded and families fearfully farewelling men whose gold lust glimmered like fool’s gold in the early morning sun. One after another, her calloused hands wrung at the flour-dusted apron hanging below her sunken waist.
I leaned in to kiss her paper-dry cheeks, wanting to end the torturous good-bye neither of us wanted to participate in.
“I’ll write,” I said stuck by the last of the maternal bond holding us together. I wanted to hug her and reassure her everything would be OK, but I held back. Instead, I squared my shoulders and picked them my belongings from the wooden sleepers and swung the bundle over my shoulder.
“Who knows, Ma. Maybe (?) will break the world record for Portsmouth to ? Maybe I’ll be famous.”
She snorted and I turned to walk towards the gangplank, relieved it was over. As I did, she grabbed my arm, stopping me. Without a word she pressed a simple silver cross into my hands and turned her back, walking off, her proud walk strained and clipped.
“C’mon lad,” the boomed a voice behind me, and a large hand clapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see the quartermaster grinning at me. “Just be glad she’s only your old Mum and not your sweetheart wailing at you to stay put. Get yourself aboard, time and tide and all of that.”
My hand closed around the cross and shoved it into my pocket. The Lord works in strange ways she’d tell us as kids, and as I grew I saw it was a way for her to justify just about anything. I had no idea as I strode across the gangplank just how important my mother’s crucifix would become when it came to proving who I was. And I although I never believed with the fervour of my Mother, I came to grudgingly admit He did indeed move in strange ways.