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Authors: Bryce Courtenay

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Brother Fish (67 page)

BOOK: Brother Fish
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The mantelpiece problem was eventually solved when Steve and Cory arrived home with a wheelbarrow full of bricks they'd taken turns to push two miles from the government depot on the edge of town. Steve's mate, who was a builder's apprentice in the workshop, had tossed them over the depot fence in return for a couple of fresh crays for his girlfriend's aunty. Steve extended the mantelpiece shelf by two feet on either side so that it took up the entire rear wall of the kitchen. Pride of place in the centre was given to the three press photographs in their posh silver frames, together with the Government House letter and a little porcelain thimble holder with pink rosebuds on the lid that was perhaps Gloria's most precious possession.

The thimble holder, complete with a tiny battered tin thimble too small for any contemporary woman's finger, had been Gloria's only inheritance from her convict great-grandmother, Mary Kelly, of the now-famous ‘Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye' song.

Gloria's immense pride in her convict ancestor was in contradiction to the times. In the 1950s it was simply not done to admit to a ticket-of-leave convict in the family. Such family secrets were kept well hidden, even to the point of erasing them from the family bible or visiting the museum in Hobart, looking up the appropriate convict record and surreptitiously tearing the offending portion of the page from the book. The wife of the mayor of a small town in the Huon Valley was sprung by a museum guard in the act of tearing a section of a page from the dreaded record. When he'd tried to recover the torn strip of paper she'd placed it in her mouth, chewed hastily and swallowed. These records had been referred to by the convicts as ‘the black book', as every convict upon arriving in Van Diemen's Land, later named Tasmania, had his or her details entered in one of these black-covered books. The governor's secretary would be seated at a table on the wharf, and as each convict stepped ashore from the rowing boat that brought them in from the convict ship they would stand with head bowed while their name, crime and length of sentence were recorded – which may have been how the expression ‘You're in his black books' came about.

But Gloria wasn't one of these clandestine expungers of past family felons. She didn't require the family slate to be wiped clean – on the contrary, she referred to it at every opportunity. She was inordinately proud of Mary Kelly and the musical patronage of Lady Jane Franklin. As far as Gloria was concerned, her liaison with the governor's wife clearly indicated that Mary was a respectable woman, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Nations, too, have a way of drawing curtains on the past, often seeing an unsavoury incident in history for what it wasn't. If not constantly reminded, the public memory of a shameful occurrence soon fades and past inglorious events are either forgotten completely or arranged into a satisfactory explanation a hundred years on. It is no different with families, where rogues become ‘interesting characters' or even heroes, while thieves and harlots are seen as the unfortunate victims of circumstance. In Gloria's eyes, Mary Kelly had been an Irish patriot sentenced by a bibulous English judge to be transported for prostitution and unruly behaviour and described at the time by the judge as ‘an incorrigible termagant'.

Back in Ireland, Mary Kelly had been a maid in a big house situated close to the village of Kildoon in County Kildare. As a twelve-year-old maidservant she had been seen to have a pretty voice, and her mistress had allowed her to sing as an accompaniment to the harp. One thing led to another and Mary Kelly became a talented harpist as well as having what eventually matured into a lovely voice – but being of a bold and extroverted nature, she lacked the demure personality usually associated with a player of that celestial instrument.

By the age of eighteen she had risen to the position of lady's maid, and upon her mistress's absence on a visit to Dublin, she borrowed one of her bonnets and a fancy gown to attend a wedding in the village. She proceeded to get drunk and into a fight over a footman from another manor house, and her mistress's pretty gown was torn and her bonnet trampled in the mud. As a consequence, on her ladyship's return Mary Kelly was dismissed without a reference. Those were hard times in Ireland, and without a suitable reference she had no hope of finding another position as a maid. So Mary was effectively thrown onto the street.

To cut a long and sad story short, she'd somehow made her way to Dublin, where her pretty voice allowed her to join up with a group of street musicians who played in ale houses and at middle-class weddings and the like. Mary Kelly soon discovered that the incident at the wedding hadn't been aberrant behaviour and she had a distinct weakness both for grog and the opposite sex. Soon enough she was neglecting the group and using her charms to make the latter pay for the former. While she could sing like a lark she could also scrap like an alley cat, and because of her temper and increasing unreliability she was eventually given the push by her fellow musicians. She took to singing solo on the streets of Dublin, where she quickly learned there was a more profitable way to earn a living by standing on a street corner. Fighting, drunkenness and prostitution saw her frequently in front of the beak, until finally the magistrate declared her incorrigible and sentenced her to a trip in a leaky boat to the Fatal Shore.

All of this had been transmogrified by Gloria to where Mary Kelly had been an Irish patriot who had taken to the streets to sing protest songs of a seditious nature, of which ‘Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye' had been but one small example. This, in turn, had caused the Crown, in the form of a vindictive English judge, to transport her to Van Diemen's Land.

Mary Kelly's subsequent post-convict behaviour was rather more difficult for Gloria to explain. On being granted her ticket-of-leave she'd found herself on an island where men outnumbered women roughly four to one. Had she been vaguely respectable she would have attracted dozens of eager suitors falling to their knees begging for her hand in marriage. Seven ragged, under-nourished, snotty-nosed street urchins all named Kelly, conceived to seven different fathers in ten years, did little to underpin her respectability. The English judge had been quite correct – Mary Kelly was undoubtedly a confirmed termagant with a fondness for the bottle who lifted her petticoats frequently, and not only to jump puddles.

But once again Gloria had seen her way around this by declaring this minor blemish in Mary's character was due to a shortage at the time of Irish Catholic ticket-of-leavers, as most were condemned to serve longer sentences than their English counterparts for similar crimes. Mary Kelly, Gloria claimed, had deliberately chosen bastardry for her precious children rather than submit herself to the vile clutches of a Protestant husband – forgetting of course that Alf was a Protestant, and we were the results of just such vile clutches.

Gloria approached Mary Kelly's reputation as a respectable woman with the zealotry of a converted Catholic. Or, as she insisted, a
reverted
one. She maintained that her own recent return to the ‘true faith' was meant to be in order that her convict great-grandmother might receive justice in the eyes of God. She frequently pointed out that all her immediate relations were living in mortal sin, as the Kelly family had only become Anglicans because of a spiritually weak-minded grandfather.

Charlie Kelly, Gloria's father, had been born a Catholic, and her mother, his second wife, was a strong-willed Protestant woman who'd lost her first husband in a drowning accident on the Tamar. She'd subsequently hitched up with Charlie, mistakenly thinking at the time that, compared with spinsterhood, it was the lesser of two evils. Despite being married to Charlie she'd insisted on being called ‘Mrs Wilson', her first husband's surname. She justified this by maintaining that Captain Wilson, the captain of the first steam dredger on the Tamar River, had been a ‘somebody'. This, in turn, implied that Charlie was a ‘nobody', which was by no means an inaccurate assessment.

Charlie's sole contribution to this ill-conceived partnership was his virility, and he gave the previously barren woman five sons and a daughter, Gloria. Mrs Wilson asserted that her children had a chance of being a ‘somebody' if they were raised Protestant, but were likely to take after their father should they be raised Catholic. As it turned out, choice of religion played no part in her children's future social status. Mrs Wilson had vastly underestimated the power of the otiose Kelly blood that coursed through their veins. Gloria eventually defected to her father's faith, while her five brothers remained Protestant. But, she maintained, as they collectively didn't amount to a pinch of the proverbial, the Catholic faith could count itself fortunate not to have been saddled with them.

Gloria's five brothers, of whom Les Kelly was not an untypical example, had dutifully inherited their great-grandmother's powerful thirst, and drank as fast as their elbows would allow them. They also passed on the profound apathy they held towards religion of whichever persuasion to the thirty children they collectively spawned. To Gloria's almost certain knowledge the Kelly brats had only entered St Stephens to be christened by the Reverend Daintree. They would undoubtedly do so again to be married, and all would visit on a third doleful occasion when they were carried to the altar in a wooden box fitted with the funeral parlour's rented and retrievable silver ceremonial handles, with a bunch of gladdies perched on the top.

While Gloria didn't want Mary Kelly removed from the black book, she nevertheless shared with Mrs Wilson a desperate need for respectability. She dearly wanted her convict ancestor to take what she regarded as her rightful place in Australian history, which was as a musician who kept company with what at the time passed for high society. If she couldn't achieve this in a statutory manner she hoped to do so in an ecclesiastical one. So she'd taken the problem of Mary's criminal status and her numerous conceived-out-of-wedlock children to Father Crosby.

He listened to her with great sympathy, frequently nodding his head while clucking his tongue. When Gloria finally came to the end of Mary Kelly's sad tale the redoubtable Father Crosby couldn't see a way clear for the Church to grant Mary Kelly absolution. The evidence against her, even told in Gloria's justificatory way, was simply too condemning. Fornication outside of wedlock is a sin in the eyes of the Church, whatever way you look at it. But Father Crosby wasn't one who liked to disappoint his parishioners, and believed in a just and merciful God.

‘Now let me see, Gloria,' he said, after having thought for quite a while. ‘This woman named after the Blessed Virgin was an Irish convict who had seven children out of wedlock but was blessed with a wonderful talent to play the instrument of heaven. Is that correct, my dear?'

‘Father, she played the harp like an angel and was a good mother.'

‘Aye, to be sure. She was an Irish mother and there are none better,' he reassured her.

So Mary was given points for motherhood, and as a skilled player of the most heavenly instrument – no mention was made of grog. But this still wasn't sufficient to grant her forgiveness in the eyes of God or Father Crosby. That is, until he brilliantly brought up the subject of purgatory.

‘Have you prayed for her soul?' he asked.

‘Every day since I've been converted back to the true faith, Father,' Gloria assured him.

‘And others, have they prayed?'

Gloria was forced to admit that, as the good father was already aware, her immediate generation had been raised as Protestants, and she doubted very much if any of the numerous Big Island and mainland Catholic Kelly cousins, aunts and uncles had done any praying for Mary Kelly's immortal soul. Gloria had no illusions about her extended family. The men were invariably unreliable, confirmed drunks and notorious layabouts, and the woman were, with herself perhaps the single exception, shrill, fat and frumpish. As far as she knew there had been no single male Kelly ever born who had risen above the indolence that typified the clan and, furthermore, to her almost certain knowledge they were all lapsed Catholics.

Father Crosby continued his peroration. ‘That poor woman has remained in purgatory for nigh on one hundred years without a prayer uttered until recently!' he declared, his voice deeply sympathetic. ‘Can you imagine that, my dear?' Gloria agreed that this was too sad and too long. ‘Taking into consideration that the dear woman has had an entire century to contemplate her mortal sins, I feel sure the Lord – who is a just and merciful God – will allow us to speed up the process of Mary Kelly's elevation to heaven. You will pray for her forgiveness for some time in the future.'

‘How long will it be?' Gloria asked anxiously.

‘Ah, my dear, the Lord works in mysterious ways. We will know when the time has come. Shall we begin by praying for Mary Kelly's immortal soul?'

‘Thank you, Father. I shall pray for her three times every day,' Gloria promised gratefully.

Father Crosby smiled, his eyes cast upwards to the nave where a vivid plaster-cast statue of the Blessed Virgin clutched her divine child to her breast. With a deep sigh, and in suitably pontifical tones, he pronounced, ‘Let us pray.' Gloria sank to her knees, and the slow redemption of Mary Kelly commenced. ‘Mary Kelly, you have paid dearly for your sins on this mortal coil, and in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost I ask that you be forgiven your transgressions and that in God's chosen time you will be granted absolution, when you will take your place beside the saints in heaven.
Requiescat in pace
, amen.'

BOOK: Brother Fish
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