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Insurrection November 25, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt: London 1821 … ‘A most heinous crime…’

The morning I remember most from my childhood was absolutely glorious. Healing, in fact. My parents’ fight the night before had been their worst ever that I could recall.

I spent a lot of that beautiful morning out on the sand dunes, feeling the wind whipping through my hair and watching the dark people down by the shoreline. I never spoke with them, although given my childish curiosity, it is a wonder.

“They’re not civilised,” my mother told me. It made me wonder if being ‘civilised’ was a good thing. These people seemed to laugh together and work together in a way I didn’t see often in my own home.

My father was always saying, “Don’t tell your mother,” about things we did together, and my mother was always saying, “Don’t tell your father,” about cheques she had to write or letters I had to post for her. I often sat and watched the darkies, and wondered if there was a lot of ‘don’t telling’ going on between them. I certainly never saw any of the yelling and screaming down there that went on between my parents. I wondered what, really, people did to be considered ‘civilised.’

My grandmother in particular was most insistent on things being ‘civilised’. She used to give me lectures about growing up and choosing a husband from ‘good stock’. “None of that riff-raff!” she used to insist. I remember making her very cranky indeed, asking if we came from ‘good stock’. I’m not sure she ever gave me a direct answer to that.

I remember looking up ‘civilise’ in the dictionary when I was at school. It meant: to bring out of a savage, uneducated, or rude state; make civil; elevate in social and private life; enlighten; refine. The darkies didn’t look savage to me, and although they didn’t go to school, they knew a lot about fishing and about conducting their own lives. I had to concede, though, that they held no social standing, and nobody I knew would have considered them enlightened or refined. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that seeing as they’d been here a lot longer than us, that they could help us learn how this land works, rather than trying to make it ‘just like Mother England’ all the time. Even as a child, I knew that the end of Malabar backing onto La Peruse was a far cry from whatever the seemingly ubiquitous Mother England was.

I must have been about nine, the morning I remember so clearly, coming in from my free time on the dunes with my feet all covered sand and clumps of it through the pockets of my sundress and in my hair. Mum, livid, hosed me down, naked in the back yard that day. Maybe that’s why I remember it so clearly. Or maybe it was because it was the last time we saw my Grandmother.

Mum was so angry with me because I’d been in my best dress when I went wandering on the dunes, and she aimed to catch the next bus over to visit her mother. Great Grandma was to be there for afternoon tea too, so we all had to be freshly pressed and neatly dressed. Except Dad of course – he never came to Grandma’s house with us – he usually went to the pub instead, and yelled a lot once we got home.

I was hastily dried off and reclothed in my shaken-out dress and best sandals, and my wet hair was scraped back into two tight braids down my back. Somehow we caught the bus, but Mum was tight-lipped and tense all the way, and wouldn’t put up with any nonsense from my wiggly younger brothers. They had to sit on their bottoms for the entire trip, rather than being up on their knees looking out the window like they usually did.

Grandma’s house was big and made of large stone blocks. It was beautifully cool in summer, and large open fires kept it friendly and warm in winter. The grounds were large and the gardens beautifully kept, and although I don’t ever remember it being mentioned, I’m sure she must have had a gardener, just as she had a cook and a maid. There were extraordinary views out over Sydney Harbour from her house, too, although I never paid much attention to them as a child – they were just there, and taken just as for granted as was everything else about my life.

George and Frank and I were outside on the verandah, drinking lemonade and eating every last morsel from the tray of delicacies that the maid bought out to us, when the voices inside became raised.

“We live there because it’s all we can afford!” Mum asserted, and I gathered, not for the first time.

“Well, if you’d married Grainger Cartright instead of that riff-raff!” my great-grandmother sniffed indignantly.

The boys left their seats and ran off to play in the garden as Grandma sniffed loudly about the humiliation of her only daughter being married to a grave-digger, but I crept closer to the open French doors and strained my ears to hear every little thing. I’d never known before that my dad was considered ‘riff-raff!’

Your grandparents were convicts, for goodness sake!” my mother was saying, and I snapped myself out of momentary consternation about my riff-raff paternity to pay closer heed again. That’s what the answer to her secretly sent letter said.

Mum must have been addressing Great Grandma, because it was she who cried out, “They were not!” in utter outrage.

“I did some checking,” my mother said in a voice that was even and definite, not full of the hurt and despair that usually accompanied such arguments in this house. “Your grandfather came out on a convict ship called the Shipley. It left London in 1821.” She considered that information to be money well spent, but Dad was furious – hence all the previous night’s yelling.

“He was crew on that ship!” Great Grandma retorted, as if anything else was completely out of the question.

“I checked that too,” my mother advised. “His crime was insurrection.”

I had no idea what insurrection was, but by the fury provoked in my grandmother and great grandmother, I knew it was considered a most heinous crime indeed.

Not long after that, my mother came to the door and called out into the garden for us to come quickly as we had to leave. Either she didn’t see me, crouching at the doorway, or she chose to ignore me. The boys and I met her at the front door pretty quickly – she’d used a tone we all knew wasn’t worth messing with.

We had to wait ages for the bus to take us home again, and almost nothing was said for the entire journey. We only got seats for the last few stops, and Mum didn’t even tell George off when he climbed up onto a seat in order to pull the cord so the bus would stop at our stop.

Dad wasn’t even drunk when we arrived home. Instead, he greeted us at the front door, and just touched the tops of the boys’ heads and my shoulder as we walked past him, but keeping his eyes locked on Mum’s face. I could feel instantly that the intensity in him was entirely different in nature to anything I knew.

“It didn’t go well, hey love?” he said gently. Dad had never spoken ‘gently’ to Mum in all my living memory.

I turned in the front hallway and saw Mum shake her head. I saw the tears in her eyes too, as she let Dad draw her into his arms. It was a new tenderness between them, and it made the boys and me look at each other in almost horror – we had no idea what it meant, or whether it was good or bad.

“Pop the kettle on, will you love?” Dad said to me over his shoulder. He led mum through to the kitchen and sat her down at the table, and all three of us kids gathered around too – we’d never seen either of them like this.

“I just thought that knowing that you came from good stock, but we came from convict stock way back when … that it might help them … accept you!” Mum wailed as I made a big pot of tea and set out cups for all of us. Frank and George and I weren’t usually allowed to drink tea, but I made ours very milky that evening, and neither of our parents stopped us. It felt like a real communion – a real bonding time – as I remember it.

Dad shook his head sadly. “It’s time to accept it, Esther,” he told Mum firmly. “You can’t be working class, and I can’t be upper class. I married up, and you married down. It’s just a fact of life, love. If we really believe that we’re right together, then we’ve got to make our own class.”

I still remember Mum’s face, tear-stained and lipstick-smeared as it was from being buried in Dad’s shirt, as she looked Dad in the eyes, strong and steady. “I married you because I loved you, Sam. We’ve been through some awful trials, mostly at our own hands, but you’re still the same man underneath it all, and I still love you.”

Dad didn’t miss a beat. “I still love you too, Essie,” he said, his voice all choked and husky, which I’d never seen in my life before.

“Dad,” asked George, bold as brass, “are you riff-raff?”

Frank and I instinctively cringed, and Dad noticed it as he turned to answer, dismay sweeping his face. Maybe he’d never realised before that we were often terrified of his drunken rages.

Mum was already decrying George’s words, but Dad held up his hand to make her stop. He answered George calmly, explaining why Grandma thought he wasn’t good enough for Mum, and promising he would never let her opinion of him affect how he treated us ever again.

I’m not sure I believed him at the time, but soon afterwards he got a job on the railways, and we moved out to a little siding called Minnamooka. The boys and I did School of the Air, and Dad and Mum danced around the kitchen after dinner at night, and taught us how to waltz and sing at the tops of our lungs.

I never once heard, “Don’t tell,” from either of my parents again. Never again did Dad and I go to steal fruit off our neighbours’ trees, or wood from their woodpiles. I never had to keep the writing of a cheque or the posting of a letter secret ever again, either.

It became my own opinion that Mum invested very wisely in obtaining that scurrilous information about her ancestor. Only when Grandma died though, leaving all of her estate to a charity, did we venture back to the city or to her house.

Dad drove us all in the family car, and together we walked all over the estate when it was opened for public inspection, prior to auction. Back in the car and driving to our lodgings for the night, Dad reached across the wide bench seat of the old car and pinched Mum’s knee, making her jump, then giggle. “What’s got you, love?”

Mum had been looking smug. “Oh, I was just thinking about Great-great-great-great Grandpa Smith,” she said. “Perhaps a few of those insurrection genes passed down through the line to me!” She didn’t sound in the least bit dismayed about it, either.

The boys and I were mostly all past our teens by then, and within the next two years we’d all be married. I piped up from in between my brothers in the back seat. “I heard you tell Grandma that’s was the crime he was transported for,” I admitted. “I thought insurrection must be just the most heinous crime imaginable.”

Dad laughed. “Oh, apparently not,” he chortled. “Wouldn’t trade it for mindless compliance in our life, not for all the money that estate back there will haul in at auction! That charity can keep the lot of it.”

Mum smiled sideways at him. “So, God bless the departure of the good ship Shipley from London in 1821 with Edwin Horatio Smith on board.”

He chuckled again. “And may the crime of insurrection always be alive and well in our family’s genes.”

“Along with hard work and decency,” Mum amended, ever the moderator of all things appropriate in the family. “And only ever for a good cause, of course!”

I just remember that as we drove through the city traffic, we were all smiling broadly, happy with how things had turned out after all.

The boys don’t remember a thing from the house at Malabar, but for me, I’ve only got to close my eyes and it’s all right there. That one day that I remember so well, to my mind, was the day we became civilised. We might never have been civilised enough for Grandma, but in fact, we did just fine.

Resources

  1. Convict Ships to NSW 1801-1849 http://members.iinet.net.au/~perthdps/convicts/shipNSW2.html
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