Authors: Felicity Pulman
‘Nothing else to do,’ Allie grumbled. A thought struck her. John Bennett had lived in Government House while he was commandant. What if, after all these years, there was something to be found there, something she could use to prove to her classmates that he was not the brutal tyrant they believed him to be?
Catherine gave her daughter an encouraging pat on the shoulder. ‘It might take a while to make friends here, Allie, but don’t despair. They’ll soon realise what a star you are.’
Allie pulled a face and her mother laughed. She waved her car keys at Allie. ‘Ready?’
It was difficult to concentrate on lessons, Allie found, when her mind kept returning to the conversation with Steph. She stared at the smartboard, dimly aware of the teacher talking but not taking in a single word of what she was saying. She’d heard some whispers and sniggers when she’d entered the classroom
and had tried to brush them aside. It hadn’t helped that Noah had totally ignored her. She looked over at him. She’d thought of him as a friend. An ally. But not any more.
The faint sound of fingers clicking caught her attention. It was Meg. When she saw Allie looking at her, she winked and gave her a quick grin. Startled, Allie returned the smile but Meg had already turned back to study the smartboard, giving every appearance of intense concentration. Feeling somewhat happier, Allie made a determined effort to listen to the teacher.
After class, Allie was on her way to take refuge in the library over the lunchbreak when Meg stopped her. ‘So how’d ya go with Ms Elliott yesterday?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Told ya not to say anything. But hey, not everyone’s as uptight about the past as Noah and his family. Most of the people here are descended from the Pitcairn Islanders. They don’t give a rats about what went on before.’
‘So how come everyone’s treating me like I’ve got the plague or something?’
‘It’s not that.’ Meg hesitated. ‘It was just funny, the way you were so proud of being related to John Bennett, and the look on your face when Noah had a go at you.’
‘Well, Noah’s wrong,’ Allie said, adding boldly, ‘And I intend to prove it.’
‘How ya gunna do that?’
Allie shrugged. ‘Not sure really, but I’ll start with all the information my dad’s got and take it from there.’
‘Ya won’t change anyone’s opinion,’ Meg observed. ‘Like Noah said, John Bennett kept lousy records, but his time here was well documented by others who saw what he was up to.’ She noted Allie’s stubborn expression and sighed. ‘Leave it,’ she said. ‘Honestly, you’d do best just to forget about it. And shut up about it too, like I told ya.’ She gave Allie a nudge. ‘Come on. You don’t have to hide in the library. Come and sit with us.’
‘Okay. Thanks.’ Allie was about to follow Meg when a thought stopped her. ‘Hang on a minute. Tell me about Noah and Nat. Are they …?’
‘Like that, is it?’ Meg lifted an eyebrow, a broad grin lighting her face. ‘Join the queue.’
‘So they’re together?’
‘Nah. They were, but they broke up a few months ago. Dunno why. I reckon Nat’s dead keen to hook up again, but Noah …’ Meg shrugged. ‘He likes to be mates with everyone, including Nat. I don’t think it’s anything more than that. So you’d better go for it, if that’s what you want.’
‘After what happened in class yesterday, I think I’d be wasting my time.’
‘Yeah, well.’ Meg shrugged again. ‘He’ll get over it. Especially if you do like I say and shut up about the past.’
Meg’s advice echoed in Allie’s mind as she followed her over to where her classmates were hanging out under a round wooden shelter, one of several dotted about. The girls were huddled in conversation, ignoring the guys who were passing a ball around on the court nearby and lining up to chuck it
through the hoop. The playground was shared by everyone from kindy kids to Year 12 students, and Allie saw that her mother was on playground duty. She gave her a quick wave before sitting down beside Meg.
To Allie’s relief, Meg’s friendliness seemed to have rubbed off on the other girls in her class, the earlier smirks forgotten. The only exception was Nat, who eyed her warily before pairing off with Fran and drifting over towards the edge of the basketball court.
Meg tilted her chin towards Nat as she noticed the direction of Allie’s gaze. ‘You’ve got a serious rival there.’
‘I told you before, I haven’t got a chance with him,’ Allie said roughly, dragging her eyes away from Noah as he dodged an opponent and thew the ball through the hoop. ‘Anyway, I wouldn’t want to mess things up between them. After all, I’m the new girl here.’
‘I dunno about messing things up,’ Meg said seriously. ‘It was over between them before you even got here. And I was on the beach when he ran after you to ask you to the beach party. He really wanted you to come — he asked everyone if they’d seen you. Why didn’t you stay? We weren’t in the water all that long.’
Allie shrugged. ‘I felt like an outsider,’ she admitted. ‘So I ran away.’
Meg gave a snorting laugh. ‘I thought you had more guts than that. How about the way you stood up to everyone in history when they were having a go at you?’
‘Yeah, well, that was different. I had something to prove. I’ve got nothing to prove with Noah.’
Except the feeling we belong together
. But that was private. Allie had confessed enough for one day.
‘You go, girl.’ Meg gave her a friendly nudge. ‘I reckon you’re still in with a chance.’
Allie looked over at the guys. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Noah’s the one with the problem about the past. If he wants to get to know me better, then he’s the one who has to make the first move.’
Allie dumped her backpack at home and walked across the road for her appointment to meet the administrator’s wife and her two children. She realised she’d come into the grounds by the wrong entrance when she had to walk around the outside of Government House to find the front door. Her footsteps faltered as she came towards it. She was dreading the encounter even though she couldn’t explain why. Sylvia Armstrong had been very friendly when Allie had phoned to make the appointment, insisting that she call her Sylvia rather than the ‘Mrs Armstrong’ Allie had used out of politeness.
Now, she welcomed Allie warmly, and introduced her to Micaela, the three-year-old, before leading her through the grand entrance hall to show her the rooms on either side of the central passageway.
‘This is the part that’s open to the public on guided tours and where we do our entertaining,’ she explained as she opened a door on her right. ‘We use this as a drawing room now, but
in convict times it was a bedroom, with another bedroom beyond. There’s another drawing room on our left.’
They moved from the wine-dark walls of the entrance hall into the second drawing room and from there into the dining room. Allie had a confused impression of solid antique furniture gleaming with polish, and windows covered with thick curtains, paintings on all the walls, and a long dining table holding two silver candelabra. Sylvia told her that the colours were matched as closely as possible to resemble what the original decor must have looked like.
She led Allie down a passage to a room right at the end. ‘We’re sure there must be ghosts hanging around along here,’ she said, laughing. ‘It always feels so cold.’
Even without Sylvia’s comment, Allie had felt a sudden chill in the air. Ghostly fingertips played over her skin. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, hoping the show of bravery would make her feel less frightened.
Sylvia opened a door on the left but didn’t take Allie into the room. ‘Just like the commandants of old, my husband uses this as his study,’ she said. ‘There are reference books and a computer here if you ever need any help with your homework.’ She pointed at a closed door. ‘That was the commandant’s dressing room, but it’s been converted into a bathroom and toilet. The small room next to it was probably used as a bedroom. The main bedroom was here on the right, but we use it as a reception room now. There’s a guest bedroom next to it.’
She led the way back to the central passage without opening any more doors. ‘We live at the back of the house, where the servants used to have their quarters in the old days, so most of these rooms aren’t used. Nor is the sitting room on the other side, unless we have guests.’ They walked across the courtyard. ‘The kitchen’s on this side if you want to make yourself a coffee or tea,’ she said with a wave of her hand. ‘Our bedroom’s over there,’ she pointed in the opposite direction, ‘and the children’s bedrooms are at the far end.’
Allie followed her into the nursery where the baby lay fast asleep, sprawled on her back like a tiny starfish. ‘This is Jane,’ Sylvia whispered, whipping out a hand to restrain Micaela, who had followed them in and was about to poke an enquiring finger into the baby’s eyes.
‘I’m so pleased you’ve agreed to help me out,’ Sylvia said, reverting to her normal tone once they’d left the nursery. She pointed to a half-open door through which Allie could see part of a bed covered by a bedspread decorated with fairies. A large teddy lay discarded on the floor. ‘That’s Micaela’s room, and this is the small sitting room where we watch the telly if we’re having a quiet night at home. Let’s sit down for a moment and I’ll tell you about tomorrow night.’ She gestured towards a chair. ‘We have a function we have to attend, starting at eight. Both the children will be in bed by then and hopefully asleep, so you shouldn’t have any trouble with them. I realise it’s a weeknight but we shouldn’t be home later than ten. Is that okay?’
Allie suppressed a shiver as she recalled Sylvia’s remark about ghosts. She was tempted to tell Sylvia that she wouldn’t be able to look after the children after all; for some reason, this house was giving her the horrors. Maybe it was something to do with what had happened when she’d visited the old gaol at night. She’d never had such an experience before. Would she see ghosts here too? She didn’t know if she could stand another experience as terrifying as that.
After saying goodbye to Sylvia and Micaela, she was glad to escape into the fresh air and sunshine. As she walked home, she puzzled over her reaction to the large, beautifully furnished house. Sylvia had been kind, and she was sure she’d get on well with Micaela, who had studied her with large questioning eyes but had nodded vigorously when her mother asked if it would be okay for Allie to come over and look after her.
I can’t back out of it now, Allie decided. So I’ll babysit just this once. If there’s a reason I’m seeing ghosts, if someone is trying to tell me something, then my ancestor’s old home is surely the place to find out why.
Allie had forgotten about the sound and light tour of the convict past she’d agreed to go on with her parents that night. Her determination to find out the truth about John Bennett came back as they assembled outside the tour company’s office. Still, she was embarrassed when her father, ignoring Allie’s advice, took the tour leader to one side and began to talk about the family’s association with the past.
Shut up, Dad
, Allie pleaded silently as she noticed the guide’s eyes widen. But all he said was, ‘I’m sure the museum curator would be very interested in any new information you can give her, Dr Bennett,’ before turning to welcome some stragglers and usher them all onto the bus.
As they trundled down the road, the guide spoke about the first and second convict settlements that had colonised the island. Unexpectedly, the bus stopped in the middle of the road and the guide told them they were about to hear from the ghost of one of the convicts who’d been sent to the island. Noah’s ancestor? Allie’s heart began to hammer. She craned forwards, but couldn’t see anything. A voice with an Irish accent came over the microphone. It wasn’t until the ‘ghost’ introduced himself as ‘Dennis Doherty’ and began to tell of his experience as a convict on the island that she realised what was going on. She sagged back into her seat.
As the tour continued, John Bennett came in for the harshest criticism, as Allie had expected. To her relief, her father sat in silence as they watched various re-enactments between convicts and soldiers while driving among the old buildings of the convict settlement and listening to the ghost of the Irishman tell stories about the past. The site of the gallows was pointed out, and there was a mock flogging in front of Commandant Bennett, before the bus drove on to Bloody Bridge and yet another gruesome story.
Allie had wondered if she would see any of the ghostly apparitions she’d witnessed before, but the prisoners were all
real people: islanders dressed up and playing their parts with relish. She even recognised a couple of her schoolmates among them.
Her mother leaned across. ‘Isn’t this interesting?’ she whispered. ‘I had no idea that Norfolk had such a dreadful past.’
Allie felt the touch of cold, dead fingers on her skin once more, and shuddered. She longed for the tour to be over, yet everyone else on the bus looked quite comfortable, including her parents, even though her father shook his head now and again at yet another slur on the memory of John Bennett. Allie couldn’t understand why she felt so oppressed when her ancestor had been on the side that meted out punishment rather than enduring it.
‘How did you enjoy the tour?’ she asked her parents in the car on the way home.
‘I thought it was wonderful, didn’t you?’ her mother enthused. ‘They did it so well. It was so lifelike, it gave me the creeps.’
Was that all it was: my overactive imagination, Allie wondered. She looked at her father. ‘What did you think, Dad?’
‘I was impressed,’ Hugh Bennett said slowly. ‘I thought it gave a very real impression of what life was like back then.’ He pulled a wry face. ‘Especially under one of the most brutal and bloody tyrants of them all!’
‘Do you think he was really like that?’ Allie asked quickly.
‘Maybe.’ Her father shrugged. ‘But Bennett had a job to do, and that was how prisoners were treated back then. It wasn’t just prisoners who were flogged for misdemeanours either; so were underlings in the army and navy. It was just the way things were. We might think it barbaric now, but you can’t judge history according to contemporary mores.’
‘That’s what our teacher is doing,’ Allie said.
‘Is she giving you a hard time?’
Allie thought about it. ‘Not really, I suppose. She’s just echoing what everyone else on the island believes about John Bennett. That’s why I think we shouldn’t broadcast our relationship with him.’
‘You may be right,’ her father said as he parked the car outside their new home. ‘But I wouldn’t mind knowing more about his time here — the truth, not the popular perception.’ Allie shared her father’s ambition but said nothing. This was something she wanted to do all by herself.
Allie’s dreams that night were haunted by the ghosts of the prisoners, although she couldn’t remember any details when she awoke. She was left with a knot of tension in her stomach; a dread that wouldn’t go away.
Anxious to begin her research, she visited the Commissariat after school, only to find that she was too late and the museum was closed once more. Frustrated by her lack of progress, she resolved to make use of her time while babysitting to look around for any memorabilia to do with John Bennett, although
the place gave her the creeps and so did Sylvia’s story about the resident ghosts. She felt queasy just thinking about it.
Later, as she walked down the drive towards Government House, Allie had to force herself not to turn and flee. The moon was smothered in thick cloud. She’d never been out in a night so black, so threatening.
She switched on her torch, glad of the small and friendly beam. She could hear the soft shushing of waves breaking against the reef and an eerie wailing that sounded like the ghosts of crying children. At the thought, she broke out in a sweat and started to run. She was gasping for breath by the time she reached the back door. She knocked, feeling sick and shaky, wanting desperately to go home.
‘All’s quiet,’ Sylvia Armstrong said in greeting, and turned with a smile to introduce Allie to her husband. She then peered at Allie more closely. ‘Are you feeling all right?’ she asked.
‘Yes, thanks. I’m fine.’ Allie swallowed hard over her dry throat and attempted a smile. ‘I … I thought I heard children crying, that’s all.’
Sylvia laughed. ‘Both of ours are fast asleep. It was probably the birds of providence you heard. They’re shearwaters, but they were given that name during the time of the convict settlements. They were such good eating, you see.’ She smiled at Allie. ‘The islanders call them ghost birds. They really do sound like crying children, it’s quite spooky sometimes.’
She picked up her handbag, ready to go. ‘Please make yourself at home. You’ll find tea, coffee and drinking chocolate in the
kitchen and I’ve left out a plate of biscuits. We shouldn’t be too late.’ She was about to follow her husband out of the door when she turned back with a smile. ‘I know I mentioned ghosts to you the other day, but please don’t let that worry you. The islanders believe there’s a young woman who haunts the house, but I’ve certainly never seen her. I doubt she’ll bother you tonight.’
And Sylvia was gone, leaving behind the faint scent of perfume mingled with the lemony tang of furniture polish and the musty smell of ancient dust.
Allie wondered who the young woman was and why she haunted this place. At least she wasn’t anything to do with Noah’s family ghost. She felt again the touch of cold fingertips and wrapped her arms around herself in an instinctive gesture of comfort. She was here to look after two children, not go ghost-hunting. But she was also here to look for information about John Bennett, she reminded herself.
She hurried across the courtyard to the children’s bedrooms to check on them. Micaela lay sprawled in a heap, looking cherubic and innocent and as if she would sleep until morning. She didn’t stir as a floorboard creaked under Allie’s foot. Was she still breathing? Suddenly afraid, Allie crept closer to the child, wishing she could switch on the light to see better. She rested her hand lightly on the child’s chest. Reassured by the gentle rise and fall of her breath, Allie repeated the same routine when she checked on the baby. Glancing nervously around the dark courtyard, she walked across the back to the main part of the house.
Once there she began to have second thoughts about exploring, looking for memorabilia. It seemed like a stupid idea now. Instead, she went into the small room where Sylvia had told her they watched TV, and picked up the program. A quick scan told her there was nothing she wanted to watch. She opened her backpack, thinking she should probably finish her homework. And zipped it up again. She checked her mobile. No messages, not that she’d expected any. To cheer herself up she scrolled to Noah’s photo, but the memory of what had happened between them in class made her feel worse than ever.
The silence oppressed her. Her unease deepened into fear and a suffocating misery. It was as if those emotions were trapped inside the house, and she was tapping into them. Something had happened here. Something dreadful. She could sense it in every cell in her body. If only the house could talk to her, she thought.
She shivered and looked about the small, cosy room. Sylvia Armstrong had told her something of the house’s history along with describing the alterations and renovations that had taken place over the years. She’d even mentioned John Bennett when talking about the families who had lived in the house during the second settlement. Allie hadn’t mentioned her own connection with Bennett; she could sense that the administrator’s wife shared the island’s opinion of him. Was there anything from that time on display here? She hadn’t noticed when Sylvia had shown her around, but maybe there was something hidden
somewhere? She knew she’d have to make the most of this opportunity to look. She’d have no peace otherwise.