Authors: Felicity Pulman
Not wanting to hang around any longer, Allie decided to go for a walk instead. After some thought, she decided to take the road that skirted Slaughter Bay and headed towards the crumbling ruins of the convict barracks and prison. It might be interesting to wander through the ruins at night, she thought. Perhaps the walls would tell her their secrets. She might even see a ghost!
Smiling at the thought, she pulled a small torch from her pocket, knowing she would need it to guide her through the darkness. She glanced at her watch in the torchlight. She could waste a fair bit of time if she dawdled along the bay and then doubled back along Quality Row, where their house was located. She’d still be home a little early, but she could always say that she was tired or the party was boring.
She looked with envy at her classmates’ motorbikes and cars parked haphazardly along the bayside road. She’d been told the islanders could get a motorbike licence at fifteen, and a car licence when they turned sixteen. She’d already asked her parents for wheels of her own, so she wouldn’t be dependent on them for lifts to school or anywhere else.
‘What about a bicycle?’ her father had asked.
Allie had pulled a face. ‘All those hills! I’d rather have something with a motor, thanks.’
‘And what are you going to contribute towards it?’
‘I’ve got some savings. And I’ll pay you back the difference.’
‘Better find a job first,’ her father had advised, adding, ‘You’ll need money for fuel, and it’s expensive here.’
Getting a job was high on Allie’s list of things to do, but the few enquiries she’d made so far hadn’t come to anything.
From her high vantage point she looked down at the light of the fire and the deserted beach. And she wondered if the past had scarred her and if she would always feel so lonely.
Mindful of the need to waste time, she ambled along the road that hugged the shoreline, aware of the sound of the restless waves crashing across the reef. Their endless suck and hiss were sometimes audible even from her new home. Her ancestor, John Bennett, must have listened to them over a hundred and fifty years ago as well.
Perhaps the sound had also lulled the prisoners to sleep, she thought as she came to the high stone walls of the prison. Now she could hear other sounds above the surging surf: voices crying out, but so faint she couldn’t be sure if she was just imagining them. She stopped and listened intently, wondering if the sounds were coming from one of the tour buses that took visitors around the convict area of Kingston at night.
On impulse, she turned into the imposing portal that marked the entrance to the old prison. The walls closed in around her, tall and menacing. The sound of the sea faded. Instead, a clatter and roaring filled her ears. She flashed her torch around, but saw only scattered stones among the grass.
She closed her eyes and the high keening of a lone violin sobbed in her ears, a lamentation of pain and loss. The music stopped abruptly, replaced by the whistle and lash of a whip, followed by screams and curses.
Terrified, Allie opened her eyes and looked for the source of the sounds. Pale, skeletal wraiths surrounded her. She saw the despair on their faces, and understood that these were the convicts who had once been incarcerated on Norfolk Island.
She was caught in time and space, more frightened than she’d ever been in her life. She tried to breathe, to shout for help, but her throat was constricted and aching with grief and she couldn’t utter a sound. The prison walls pressed in on her, the wraiths came closer. She was trapped.
But I’m not a prisoner. And I’m still alive
The thoughts gave Allie the courage to take a step away, and then another, and finally to turn and run. She stumbled over the stony ground, almost falling in her hurry to get out.
Her heart pounded in her chest; her breath came in short, panicky gasps as she raced up the street that linked the bay to Quality Row. All she could think of was getting home, crawling into bed and pulling the covers over her head to escape the misery she’d just witnessed.
‘What’s happened?’ her mother asked as Allie burst through the door.
Allie shook her head, unable to speak.
Her mother turned off the TV. ‘Has someone said something to you? Has someone hurt —’
Allie drew a sobbing breath. ‘No. No, I’m fine. Really.’
Her mother surveyed her with a worried expression. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ she joked.
Allie shook her head again, knowing that it would be impossible to explain to anyone what she’d just witnessed.
‘Everything’s cool. I’m just tired.’
She pushed past her mother and fled across the courtyard to the small self-contained apartment that had become her bedroom. She flopped down on the bed and closed her eyes. At once, the scene from the gaol sprang into vivid life. Terrified, she sat upright, eyes wide open, shaking with nerves. Why was she seeing these things? She heard once more the cry of the
violin; it sounded as clear as if it was being played in her room. What was happening to her? Was she losing her mind?
Her hand went automatically to her mobile to talk to Steph before she remembered the battery was dead. She plugged it in to charge then, acting on impulse, she felt under her bed for her suitcase. She dragged it out, opened it and took out the wrapped parcel within. She still didn’t know why she’d brought the violin over to the island. It wasn’t as if she could play it. No-one in her family could. It was a family heirloom and had sat gathering dust in a cupboard for as long as Allie could remember. But when it came time to pack away everything they wouldn’t need, she had rescued it on a sudden whim. She couldn’t bear to think of it being shut away in the dark.
Once they’d arrived on the island, she hadn’t known what to do with it, so she’d shoved it into her suitcase for safekeeping. Now, she carefully undid the bubblewrap and opened the case. Hardly aware of what she was doing, she tucked the violin under her chin and drew the bow across its strings. It emitted a hideous squawk, almost like a howl of outrage.
With a rueful smile, Allie placed it on the bed beside her. Perhaps she could learn how to play it? She wasn’t a fan of classical music but it might help to pass the time, give her something to do. She gently stroked the strings. For some reason, touching the violin calmed her racing heart. She put it on her bedside table, where she could see it as she undressed and climbed into bed.
Allie’s sleep was broken by nightmares of spectral figures trapped within the high stone walls of the prison. She awoke
with a start, her heart pounding with remembered fear as she recalled the events of the night before. A half-familiar tune came into her mind. She’d heard it while walking through the ruins of the prison; it was the same music weaving through her dreams. She struggled to put a name to it.
. It was the lament of every Irishman far away from home.
Desperate to share her terrifying experience at the gaol with her friend, Allie reached for her phone. But Steph’s mobile went straight to voicemail.
‘Steph, it’s Allie. Something horrible has happened. Please call me!’
After some hesitation, she hit Sara’s number.
‘Allie? God, what time is it? Why’re you calling me so early?’
Sara sounded so hostile, Allie was startled. ‘Sorry, Sas. I just … Something awful happened to me last night. I just wanted to talk to you, that’s all.’
‘There’re all these old ruins here from when the place was a convict settlement. I went walking in the gaol on my own last night and I saw … I saw …’
An icy wave of horror swept over Allie and she couldn’t continue.
‘Don’t tell me you saw the ghosts of convicts past?’ Sara said.
‘Uh … yeah. Yeah, I did actually.’
‘Oh, get real, Allie. You wake me up practically in the middle of the night to tell me a story like
Allie winced. ‘It’s true,’ she said feebly.
‘Come on, Allie. You don’t have to make up stupid stories just to talk to me.’
Allie took a breath. ‘Well, I want to talk to you anyway. How’re things with you and Steph?’
‘I miss you guys. It’s …’ Allie was about to say lonely, but that sounded too pathetic. ‘I’ve met a hot guy!’ she said instead.
‘Really?’ Sara suddenly sounded a lot friendlier. ‘What’s his name? Have you hooked up with him?’
If Noah had wanted to go out with me, he’d have made more of an effort to find me on the beach last night, Allie thought.
‘No, it’s nothing like that,’ she said. ‘His name’s Noah.’
‘Well, good luck, Allie. I hope it works out.’ There was a brief silence. ‘Sorry, Mum’s calling. I gotta go.’ And Sara ended the call before Allie could even say goodbye.
She put down her mobile, feeling flat. After the whole thing with Jason, her friends had stood by her, taken her side. Now they were acting as if they didn’t want to know her any more — and Allie had a sneaking suspicion she knew why.
With a deep sigh, she selected shorts and a T-shirt and headed to the shower. As she washed her hair, she comforted herself with the thought that at least Meg seemed friendly. Maybe she wasn’t quite as alone as she thought.
Then her stomach dropped with a sickening lurch as she recalled her vision the previous night. Why had she seen those desperate men, why had they come?
‘Hey, Alice! Good weekend?’ Noah stopped beside Allie as she sorted through her backpack for the books she needed for her next class.
Allie hesitated, wondering what to say. ‘Yeah. It was okay, thanks,’ seemed safe enough. In fact, Meg’s condemnation of John Bennett had intrigued Allie, and she’d spent the weekend looking through some of the letters and papers her father had collected about their ancestor. Nothing she’d read justified the description of ‘a bloody old tyrant’.
‘So where were you Friday night?’ Noah asked. ‘I thought you were coming down to the beach?’
‘I came for a little while.’
But you ignored me
. ‘I couldn’t stay long,’ she said instead.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t see you.’ Allie thought he seemed genuinely regretful. ‘Why didn’t you come over and say hello?’
‘You were busy with your mates. I didn’t want to butt in.’
Noah gave a snorting laugh. ‘My mates I can see any time. But you …’
Was he coming on to her? Allie could feel a blush rising; she felt like a traffic light standing there. She wished she could think of something clever to say, but nothing came to mind.
‘Well, I’m here now,’ she said at last. ‘Maybe you can tell me where to go for our next class?’
‘History.’ Noah shrugged his backpack more firmly onto his shoulders. ‘Come with me.’
Nat stepped in front of Noah, blocking his way, as they reached the door of the classroom. ‘Hey, Noah.’ She cast a dismissive glance in Allie’s direction, before turning her attention back to her main target. ‘Great party Friday night,’ she gushed.
‘Yeah.’ Noah put out his hand and caught hold of Allie as she tried to sidle past them. ‘Nat, you’ve met Alice? She’s new here.’
‘Course I’ve met her. She was in our class last week, wasn’t she?’
‘So I’m trying to be friendly,’ he said. ‘Maybe you and your mates could make her feel a bit more welcome too.’
Allie wished they wouldn’t discuss her as if she wasn’t there.
‘I’m usually called Allie,’ she said. ‘And you don’t have to ask people to be friends with me. I’m quite capable of making friends by myself.’
Nat looked her up and down. ‘That’s okay then,’ she said, and walked off.
Allie hurried to her desk and sat down, wondering why Nat had sounded so hostile. Was it all about Noah? Did she think she had a rival? Allie pulled a face, then became aware that the teacher had walked in and was addressing her.
‘We’ve been looking at Australia’s early history, Alice, and the displacement of the Aborigines during colonisation. Is this something you covered at your old school?’
‘Yes, Ms …’ Allie’s mind went blank.
‘Ms Elliott,’ the teacher said crisply. ‘What I’d like to do now, for the benefit of all of you, not just Alice, is consider
how convict transportation contributed to Australia’s early settlement — and that includes the unique history of our own island, of course. We’re all familiar with what happened later in Norfolk’s history, how the descendants of the
mutineers were moved from Pitcairn Island to settle here. But I’d like to refresh your memories about the gruesome and bloody history of the first and second convict settlements.’
Allie stole a quick glance around the classroom, and caught Meg’s eye. The girl put a finger to her lips, then sliced it across her throat. Allie remembered her warning on Friday night and felt a hot flush of indignation.
Meg was wrong about John Bennett, but perhaps she should wait and see what Ms Elliott had to say.
Ms Elliott began by describing what life had been like for the convicts transported during the first settlement. ‘The second settlement was a very different proposition,’ she continued. ‘For a start, women convicts were no longer sent here, which led to all sorts of problems as you may imagine.’
Allie was bewildered when, instead of continuing her description, the teacher turned to Noah.
‘A couple of your ancestors had firsthand experience of life here during the second settlement, Noah. Instead of my giving facts and figures, I think it would mean more if you tell us what happened to them.’
Noah sprawled back in his chair. ‘Okay, so you all know my ancestors were Irish. Their names were Cormac and Padraic O’Brien, and they were brothers. Padraic worked for
a legal firm in London. Cormac was a musician. He also lived in London, earning a living playing at concerts and in music halls. They were educated men, not criminals, but they made the mistake of supporting independence for Ireland and were transported because of it. But instead of being sent to New South Wales, like most convicts, they were brought straight here as part of Maconochie’s experiment. They began to work out their sentence, and everything was going well until, unfortunately for them, Maconochie was dismissed and John Bennett took over as commandant.’
Allie sat upright at the mention of her ancestor’s name.
‘Bennett was the most brutal and bloody tyrant of them all,’ Noah continued.
‘No, he wasn’t.’
Allie hadn’t meant to draw attention to herself, but she couldn’t let Noah tell lies about her own ancestor.
‘Why, what do you know about John Bennett, Alice?’ The teacher’s expression changed from interest to shock as she made the connection. ‘Bennett. Are you a descendant of his?’
Allie nodded. She was committed now to setting the record straight. ‘I don’t know exactly how many generations it goes back, but yes, one of my great-greats was a commandant here. That’s partly why we’ve come back, to find out more about him. And he wasn’t a brutal and bloody tyrant at all,’ she added, recalling the documents she’d read over the weekend.
‘He was a sadistic psychopath!’ Noah said angrily.
Allie was shocked at the change in his expression. He sat with his arms folded, glaring at her, his eyes cold and hard. He looked as if he hated her.
‘No, you’re wrong. He was just strict, that’s all,’ she corrected him. ‘He was sent here to set things right. My dad’s got copies of letters he wrote to the authorities complaining about how the convicts had taken advantage of Maconochie’s weak rule, and were bold and out of control. And dangerous. There was a mutiny shortly after John Bennett arrived on the island with his family. The convicts went on a rampage and bludgeoned four people to death. The government wanted Bennett to bring them under control, and that’s what he did. It’s a matter of public record that he was stern, but just.’
‘What we’ve come to realise is that Maconochie was a reformer, a man before his time,’ said Ms Elliott. ‘He believed in rewarding the prisoners for good behaviour with a system of merit points. He gave them hope and the chance of a decent life. He encouraged the convicts to find their self-respect and take responsibility for their actions. That’s why he —’
‘But it didn’t work,’ Allie butted in. ‘It just encouraged the convicts to try to run away. My dad told me that there were several escape attempts during Maconochie’s time because he gave them so much freedom. And people died as a result — convicts and soldiers. That’s why Maconochie was discharged and my ancestor was appointed in his place.’
‘I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned the “unnatural practices” that were also a concern at the time,’ Ms Elliott said dryly.
‘What unnatural practices?’
An outbreak of catcalls and whistles turned Allie’s face a fiery red once more. ‘Oh,’ she said in a small voice.
‘Inevitable, of course, when you have up to two thousand men herded together with no women around, but it was considered a great crime in those days. And, of course, Maconochie was held responsible for that too.’
Not knowing what to say, Allie kept silent. The class was also quiet, save for suppressed giggles from a couple of girls.
‘There’s a lot of information and a very good video about the early convict years in the Commisariat. It’s one of our museums,’ Ms Elliott said. ‘Perhaps you should pay it a visit so you can find out a little more about your ancestor’s time here.’
‘And take your dad with you. It’s about time your family found out the truth,’ said Noah.
‘It might be a good idea if we all paid another visit to the museum,’ Ms Elliott said hurriedly. ‘There’s always something more we can learn about the past.’
Someone at the back gave a loud yawn and several of the students tittered.
Ms Elliott glared at the yawner. ‘Do you have anything to add to this conversation, Natalie?’ she asked pointedly.
‘Yeah,’ Nat said. ‘Ask Noah to tell the new girl about the family ghost.’
Those students who’d been lolling across their desks sat up straight, looking expectant. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Allie realised they all knew what was coming, and that whatever it was would support Ms Elliott’s opinion of John Bennett rather than her own.
‘Some people claim to have seen Cormac’s ghost, that’s all,’ Noah said, with an embarrassed laugh. Allie noted that he was careful not to admit to seeing the ghost himself.