Authors: Felicity Pulman
‘Like I said,’ he continued. ‘Padraic and Cormac were educated men, not criminals. They did their best to stay out of trouble, and were given quite a lot of freedom during Maconochie’s time. But all that changed when John Bennett arrived. No-one’s sure exactly what happened after that ’cos a lot of records and reports from that time are missing. Maybe Bennett didn’t bother to keep proper records ’cos it’s not only my ancestors’ details that can’t be found. All we have to tell us what happened to Cormac are stories that were passed down through the family. And a memento: a plaited ring of hair. Dunno who it came from, maybe his mother or an old sweetheart in Ireland, or something. What we do know is that Cormac was accused of taking part in a mutiny and killing a man, even though he’d never been in trouble before.’
‘But there was a mutiny,’ Allie said irritably. ‘And it wasn’t just one man who died. Four people were murdered.’
‘Padraic told his family that Cormac didn’t kill anyone. He said Cormac was nowhere near the riot on that day. There
was no reason for Padraic to lie about Cormac, so our family doesn’t believe it.’
‘There’s every reason to lie about Cormac. You accuse me of wanting to think the best of John Bennett, but aren’t you doing exactly the same thing?’ Allie said fiercely.
Noah was silent.
Nat came to his defence. ‘It’s a bit different. Bennett was well known as a tyrant, but nothing was ever said against Cormac during all his time on Norfolk. There’s no record of him being in any trouble after Bennett’s arrival either.’
‘Except for taking part in a mutiny,’ Allie said.
‘But why would he do that when he hadn’t caused any trouble during the rest of his time on the island?’
Good question, Allie thought, and one for which she had no answer. Fortunately, Ms Elliott came to her rescue.
‘This points out one of the problems we encounter when looking at historical records,’ she said, ‘and it’s something I want you to think about whenever you’re studying some aspect of history. You should ask yourself the questions: who has written this record, and what purpose does it serve? Historical records were usually written by those in power. The stories of the vanquished, or the ordinary people, were lost because they had no voice. Like Noah’s ancestor, for example.’
She stopped and surveyed the room. Everyone was quiet as they listened to her words.
‘Something else I’d like you to think about, which we’ve touched on today, is how attitudes change through the
centuries,’ Ms Elliott continued. ‘What was considered disgraceful back in the convict era — like those “unnatural practices” that prompted the closure of the penal colony here — are now accepted in our society. People have the right to express their sexuality. And practices that were commonplace in those days, like the brutal treatment of prisoners and the belief that they had to be beaten into subjugation to persuade them to reform, are now considered abhorrent.’
The buzzer pinged to mark the end of the lesson.
‘It’s been a good session with some interesting questions raised,’ Ms Elliott said briskly. ‘Alice, if I could have a few words, please? The rest of you may go.’
Allie stood up and walked to the front of the class, pushing against the surging tide of students intent on getting to the door. She was seething with resentment. How dare they all rubbish John Bennett like that without knowing all the facts? And the teacher had just stood there and encouraged their prejudice — against Bennett and, by association, against her too. It just wasn’t fair.
She stood in front of the teacher, sullen and withdrawn, as the last of the students banged out of the classroom.
‘I’m sorry if you had a hard time in class,’ Ms Elliott said. ‘I realise that you and your family probably have a very different view of John Bennett — well, that certainly seems clear enough if you’re quoting your father’s opinion. I don’t know how widely your father has researched the history of Norfolk, but Bennett’s time as commandant is reasonably well documented,
even if, as Noah said, some of the records that were supposed to detail the wrongdoings of prisoners and their punishments are missing.’
‘So how do you know what you’re saying is the truth?’ Allie knew she sounded rude but she didn’t care.
‘Because there were other reports written at the time, by the visiting governor for one, and by various members of the clergy. All were appalled by what they witnessed of Bennett’s treatment of prisoners. There’s a lot of documentation about it, which perhaps your family doesn’t know about?’
She raised an eyebrow in enquiry. Allie shook her head.
She hadn’t seen any reports condemning Bennett, but vowed silently that she would look out for them.
Ms Elliott hesitated, as if debating the wisdom of what she was about to say next. Finally, she continued: ‘You may not want to broadcast your relationship to Bennett. While the bulk of the islanders settled here after the penal colony closed, there is at least one family who has convict ancestors and they’re extremely sensitive about it.’
‘Exactly. They believe that Cormac and Padraic should never have been transported here in the first place. The fact that Cormac was accused of something his brother said he didn’t do has added to their sense of injustice.’
Allie clamped her mouth shut so that she wouldn’t say what was on her mind: that the past was past and it was ridiculous for them to hold on to grudges. At the same time,
she determined to do exactly as Ms Elliott had suggested: she would go to the museum, and to the library. And look on the internet. She would read everything she could get her hands on about the penal colony on Norfolk Island and she would prove them all wrong about John Bennett. The satisfaction of that thought brought a smile to her face.
‘Thanks for the explanation,’ she said. ‘I’ll talk to my father about doing some more research.’
She picked up her bag and walked out of the classroom, determined to make all of them sorry for what they’d said.
The rest of the day passed without incident, but Allie noticed that Noah was avoiding her, as were his mates, while none of the girls made any effort to be friendly towards her. It seemed she was back to being an outcast, and she spent recess and lunchtime hiding in the library, feeling miserable.
Her spirits sank lower still as she put on her sunnies and slowly wound her way downhill towards her home. It was a long walk from the Central School, the only school on the island. Her mother, who’d become the new kindergarten teacher, gave her a lift to school in the mornings, but Allie had insisted on finding her own way home rather than hang around like a little kid waiting for a ride.
She stepped to the side as a couple of bikes roared past, the helmeted riders not bothering to give the friendly wave that characterised most encounters on the island. In spite of their helmets, Allie knew who they were: Noah and Nat. It was absolutely clear that Noah had changed his mind about her
since their clash in class and Nat seemed to be turning it to her advantage. Allie watched them streaking down Middlegate Road towards the bay.
She wondered if they were going out together now. Had they hooked up at the beach party? Nat had certainly enjoyed herself, from what she’d said. And she seemed to know a lot about Noah’s family, which suggested they were pretty close. So I’ve lucked out, Allie thought. Anyway, why would I want to have anything to do with someone as prejudiced as Noah?
In spite of her indignation, Allie knew the answer to that question. She’d felt attracted to him right from the start. There’d been a sense of recognition that she couldn’t explain but that she’d felt in her heart. It was as if she’d known him forever instead of just a few days.
She watched as the pair roared out of sight around a bend, telling herself that she really didn’t care that she and Noah seemed to have broken up before they’d even got started.
‘No big deal,’ she muttered aloud. She was off guys anyway, probably for life.
Mindful of Ms Elliott’s recommendation, she stopped outside the Commissariat. Once used as an office and to house valuable food stores, the imposing building had been converted by the Pitcairn Islanders into a church. The museum was set on one side, but it was closed. Resolving to return another day, Allie wondered where else she could go for information. Back to the old gaol? The thought gave her goosebumps. Perhaps in the daylight, the ghosts she’d encountered would prove to be
nothing more than her overactive imagination at work. She prickled with nerves as she walked on down towards the bay and the ruins of the gaol.
The high walls and the imposing entrance told their own story of oppression and captivity. Several geese were keeping guard, honking contentedly. They hissed at Allie as she passed and she flapped her hands at them to keep them at bay. Once inside the prison, she wondered how she could have been so spooked by the peaceful scene spread in front of her. Thick green grass blanketed the site, speckled with yellow and white daisies. She saw little squares of stone here and there — did they mark the site of the cells? How small they were to house so many men! She wished she had a map so that she could make sense of the prison’s layout. There was a deep drainage ditch — was that where the privies would have been? Where did the waste go?
Allie shivered, imagining how it must have felt to be incarcerated here, knowing you’d remain here for the rest of your life. But she already knew how it had felt. She’d seen the despair on the ghosts’ faces and understood how they would welcome death as a release from a life in bondage.
Her father had explained that only the most hardened criminals had been sent to Norfolk, yet Noah had claimed his ancestors were political exiles, not criminals. Had that injustice made Padraic and Cormac angry enough to take part in a mutiny? Was Noah’s ancestor one of the ghosts she had seen the other night? The thought haunted her as she retraced her steps back to her home on Quality Row.
‘You’re late home.’ Allie’s mother looked up from the computer as Allie walked into the small study that Catherine Bennett had commandeered for her own. ‘Were you hanging out with some friends from school?’ she added hopefully.
‘Yeah.’ Allie didn’t want to go into explanations; nor did she want her mother’s pity. ‘How were the littlies today?’ she asked, keen to switch attention away from herself.
‘Full on, as usual.’ Her mother laughed. ‘I’m so pleased they’ve got smartboards here. I was a bit worried about what kinds of facilities they’d have.’
The fact that her mother had also been able to find work had been a factor in their decision to move to Norfolk Island.
. The phrase echoed in Allie’s head. She pushed it aside.
‘Is there anything to eat? I’m starving,’ she said.
‘There’s some chicken left over from last night if you want to make a sandwich? Or I found some bananas at the supermarket this afternoon, if you’d prefer some fruit?’
‘So did you see anyone we know while you were shopping?’ Allie asked. There’d been an official welcome when they’d first arrived on the island. Some of the Australian contingent had been present, along with islanders elected to the Legislative Assembly, the governing body of the island. Although the islanders were friendly, always waving or cheerfully calling, ‘
Wut a way you?
’, the island version of ‘How are you?’, whenever
they met, there seemed to be an obvious divide between them and the Australians. Her father had explained later that some of the islanders didn’t want them there, believing that the Australian government should grant them full autonomy. Allie had wondered if that was why her classmates didn’t seem all that welcoming. Perhaps her mother had felt it too?
Catherine smiled. ‘Yes, I saw Sylvia Armstrong, the administrator’s wife. And there’s something I have to ask you.’
Allie remembered Sylvia Armstrong: a bright, bubbly woman who’d been genuinely friendly.
‘She’s a few years younger than her husband,’ Allie’s mother went on. ‘He’s divorced, apparently, and they got married a few years before his posting here.’
‘So?’ Allie asked, wondering where this was going.
‘So they have two children. A baby of six months and a little girl aged three and a half.’
Allie knew what was coming. She’d done some babysitting in Sydney but it wasn’t her favourite occupation.
‘Do I have to?’
‘You’d be doing Sylvia a huge favour,’ her mother said, as if Allie hadn’t spoken. ‘She and her husband have a ceremonial role here on the island and they have to attend a lot of functions. She was saying how difficult it is to find a reliable babysitter as often as she needs one. I gather the teenagers here tend to babysit for their own families. She was very keen to find out if you’d be willing to fill in when necessary, especially seeing we live just across the road from Government House.’
Allie pulled a face.
‘Money for wheels?’ her mother prompted. ‘Money for fuel for wheels?’
‘All right then. If I have to. When does she want me to start?’
‘I think she’d like to meet you first, talk to you. And introduce you to her children.’
‘Okay. Tell her I’ll call in tomorrow, after school.’
‘Better to ring her and make an appointment, Allie. She’s a busy woman, you know.’
Rolling her eyes, Allie walked out to the kitchen to make herself a sandwich.
Allie’s mobile rang early the next morning, waking her up. To her delight, it was Steph.
Steph cut to the chase. ‘I gather you had an encounter with some ghosts?’
Allie laughed self-consciously. ‘Sara doesn’t believe me, but yeah, I know what I saw. It was horrible. And very real.’
Judging from the silence, Allie realised that Steph also didn’t believe her.
‘I was in the gaol at night, on my own,’ she said. ‘I saw the convicts that used to be in prison there. God, they looked so desperate — it was terrifying. But when I went back the next day there was nothing but grass and flowers. And some geese.’
‘Grass and flowers? Geese? Sounds like you’re right out in the sticks.’ Before Allie could say anything, Steph hurried on.
‘Listen, Allie … I thought I should maybe tell you, ’cos I know Sara won’t. The thing is, she and Jase are … you know …’
‘She’s going out with Jason?’ Allie had suspected it all along, but it still hurt to have it confirmed. ‘You know what a coward he is. How could she?’
‘Well, he’s told us his own version of what happened that day. To be honest, I think Sara liked him even when you were going out with him. And, you know, you’re not here any more so …’ Steph stopped.
‘And so she’s hooked up with him.’ Allie paused to take a breath. ‘I suppose I should say thanks for telling me,’ she added frostily.
‘Sara says she can’t talk to you any more. She doesn’t know what to say.’
‘I noticed. And what about you?’
We’ve been friends for so long. Don’t tell me you’re going to let a liar like Jason end our friendship?
The words were on the tip of Allie’s tongue, but she found she couldn’t say them.
Steph sounded uncomfortable. ‘Like I said, Allie … you’re there — and we’re here. And Sara’s still my friend. She and Jase are … well … And anyway, Matt’s asked me to go out with him on Saturday night, so you know …’
Allie clicked off her mobile. The message was clear enough. Sara was going out with Jason, and now Steph was contemplating dating his best mate. Case closed. Fighting tears, she collapsed onto her bed. So much for friendship, she thought. Back in their first year of high school, none of them
had known anyone else so they’d bonded, and had stayed close. Until now.
Allie reached for a tissue and blew her nose. It was all down to Jason. She just wished she’d never gone out with the creep. But Steph had said one true thing: they were there and she was here. No point mourning what she’d left behind. She had to make a life for herself here, on the island. Starting today.
She bathed her face in cold water, dressed quickly and went in search of breakfast.
She found her parents sitting at the table, companionably sharing coffee and toast. Her mother smiled when she saw her. ‘Dad and I were just talking about finding out more about the convict era here. We thought it would be interesting to go on the sound and light tour tonight. Would you like to come with us?’
Allie remembered her vow to find out more about the past. This seemed as good a place to start as any. ‘What’s it all about?’
‘Not sure. I think it’s a matter of driving around and watching various re-enactments.’
Allie shivered as the ghosts from the gaol crawled into the back of her mind. ‘They don’t show you a hanging, I hope!’
Her mother laughed. ‘I wouldn’t think so, but I’m sure the tour guide will point out the site of the gallows.’
Would they talk about the ghost of Noah’s ancestor? Perhaps she might even see him. The hairs rose along the back of Allie’s neck at the thought.
‘I must tell the organisers about our connection with the second convict settlement,’ her father said. ‘I’m sure they’ll be interested to hear what I know about John Bennett.’
‘I wouldn’t do that, Dad,’ Allie said quickly.
‘Why ever not?’
‘We talked a bit about it in class yesterday. The teacher said there’s already heaps of information on the island about Bennett’s time here. Far more detailed than anything we could tell them.’
‘Really?’ Hugh Bennett didn’t look convinced. ‘I could show them my copies of the letters of complaint from John Bennett to the authorities about the previous administration of the convicts here. I doubt they’ll have seen those.’
‘I doubt they’d be interested,’ Allie said bitterly.
‘Why do you say that? Of course they’ll be interested to hear new information about the island’s history.’
Allie took a breath, wondering if she should say anything. But if it helped her parents to avoid the sort of strife she’d got into, it was worth it.
‘They know all about John Bennett — or at least, they think they do,’ she said. ‘I was told yesterday that he was a brutal tyrant.’
‘Strict, that’s what he was,’ her father corrected her. ‘The thinking in those days was that punishment would lead the convicts to acknowledge the error of their ways.’
‘That’s what I said, but they wouldn’t listen to me. Our teacher even talked about official reports complaining about
his treatment of the convicts here. So tread carefully, Dad. John Bennett’s the most unpopular name on Norfolk Island when it comes to the convict past. It’d be better if no-one associates us with him.’
‘Nonsense, Allie. I think it’s up to us to set the record straight, don’t you?’
Allie kept silent. Her father was echoing her own thoughts, but this was something she wanted to do on her own. She didn’t want him to take over her project. At heart, she knew what she really wanted to achieve: she wanted to convince Noah that John Bennett was right to condemn Cormac O’Brien for taking part in the mutiny. Maybe then he’d be sorry that he’d piled this ancient grudge onto her shoulders, as if what had happened to his ancestor was all
And then maybe we can get together, after all? The thought snuck in sideways and lodged in her mind.
She became aware that her parents were looking at her expectantly.
‘Yeah, I’ll come,’ she said. ‘I might as well find out some more about this old convict stuff while we’re here on the island.’
‘It’s good to see you taking an interest in your family history, Allie,’ her dad said. He looked pleased and, Allie thought, relieved too. Which was probably understandable given that since the thing with Jason had happened she’d found it hard to get excited about anything. She’d just drifted along at school and her grades had dropped faster than a high-speed elevator.
She smiled at him. ‘It’ll be interesting to hear what they say about our ancestor tonight,’ she said, as she reached for the bread and set about making herself a sandwich. She packed up her lunchbox and shoved it into her backpack.
‘I’ve arranged to go and see Sylvia Armstrong after school,’ she told her mother.
‘Good. It’ll give you something to do as well as earning you some cash,’ Catherine said, as she rummaged through her bag for her car keys.