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Authors: Deborah Challinor

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Isle of Tears

BOOK: Isle of Tears
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This one is for my excellent friends, Mary and Laurie.

 

 

 

Chapter One

T
ARANAKI
, 4 M
ARCH
1860

I
sla McKinnon was bleeding to death. She had reached up to peg a pair of her father’s breeks onto the frayed washing line when suddenly she’d been doubled over by a sharp, dragging sensation in her belly. Like an urge to move her bowels, but much, much worse.

Screwing up her face against the grinding discomfort, she’d hurried across the sun-baked back yard to the privy at the end of the garden. Inside, leaving the door ajar to let in some light, she’d pulled her drawers aside and sat on the worn wooden seat. Nothing had happened, but when she’d glanced down, her heart had given a single violent
thud
at the sight of the sinister dark smudges on her inner thighs. Tearing off a strip of newspaper, she’d blotted herself, squeaking with fright when the paper came
away stained red with thick, stringy blood.

She sat, now, a hand pressed over her pounding heart. Only fourteen years old and she was dying, bleeding from some terrible internal malady she hadn’t even known she had!

She forced herself to take several deep, calming breaths. Then she stood, dropping the bloody paper into the privy, and stepped out into the bright sunshine. Fighting the urge to race into the house to tell her mam, she made herself walk calmly through the wilted vegetable garden until she reached the back porch, where she paused to remove her boots.

Inside, her mother—a handsome, fair-haired woman whose years of labouring on the family croft had aged her face and hands beyond her thirty-five years—sat at the table peeling potatoes for the midday meal.

‘Have ye hung oot the washing already? That wis quick,’ Agnes McKinnon exclaimed. She regarded her daughter fondly, but when she saw Isla’s pale, shocked face, her heart lurched with fear. ‘What is it? What’s happened?’

Isla sat gingerly on one of the mismatched dining chairs, wondering how to say it so she wouldn’t frighten the life out of her mother. In the end she blurted, ‘I think I’m poorly, Mam,’ and burst into tears.

Agnes dropped her knife into the tattie bowl and hurried around the table, stooping to peer into Isla’s face. ‘Is it a pain ye have? Or are ye sick tae the stomach?’

Isla clamped a hand over her abdomen. ‘A pain. In ma belly. I’m…I’m
bleeding,
Mam!’

‘Have ye cut yesel’?’ Agnes, alarmed now, tried to pull Isla’s hand away to see.

‘No’
on
ma belly, Mam,’ Isla wailed.
‘From
it. I’m bleeding…doon there!’

‘Ah.’ Agnes straightened, the furrows across her brow relaxing. ‘Have ye a sore back as well?’

Isla nodded hesitantly, wondering fearfully what that could mean.

‘And sore teats?’

‘Aye.’

‘Then dinnae greet, mo leannan.’ Agnes gently swept a stray lock of Isla’s heavy, pale gold hair back from her face. ‘Ye’ve started your courses, is all.’ She blinked quickly several times and gave a small, sad smile. ‘Ma first bairn, growin’ up already!’

Embarrassed by her naïveté, Isla couldn’t meet her mother’s eye. Her mam had explained to her a year ago what happened when a girl became a woman, but Isla hadn’t much thought about it since. And she certainly hadn’t expected such an alarming demonstration of the fact when her time did come.

Agnes stroked her daughter’s silky hair. ‘Dinnae be upset. Come on, come wi’ me.’

Isla followed her into the small bedroom her parents shared, and waited while her mother rummaged through the top drawer of the rimu chest her husband had made for her. Above it hung a fancy mirror he’d brought back from New Plymouth one day last year: it was the only new, shop-bought piece of furniture Agnes had ever owned, and Isla knew she was very proud of it.

Agnes handed Isla a tidy bundle of towelling rags, and explained: ‘Ye fold one o’ these four or five times and set it between your legs.’ She then gave Isla a cloth belt and a long strip of cheesecloth. ‘Then ye put on the belt, tie one end o’ the cheesecloth tae the back o’ it, pass it between your legs and tie it tae the belt at the front. Like a sling. That keeps the rag in place, ken?’

Isla nodded, even though it sounded rather complicated to her.

‘And ye change the rag for a fresh one when ye’ve the need,’ Agnes finished.

‘But how long does it go on? The bleeding?’

‘Aboot five or six days.’ Agnes slid the drawer shut. ‘And then it’s back a month later and every month for the rest o’ your life, more or less. Unless you’re expecting a bairn, o’ course. Or nursing one.’ She pointed to the belt in Isla’s hands. ‘D’ye want me tae help ye put it on?’

Isla said no and, sensing her embarrassment, Agnes said, ‘I’ll leave ye tae it, then.’

Isla fiddled about for some time before she was satisfied with the arrangement, then self-consciously took a few steps, the wad of towelling between her legs feeling bulky and strange. She peered into the wall mirror at the pale hair, wide cornflower-blue eyes, short straight nose and curved lips that her da said were so pretty, but that she thought were all rather ordinary compared with her mother’s striking features. Furthermore, she noted disappointedly, she didn’t look any more like a woman than she had yesterday.

‘Are ye all right, then?’ Agnes asked when Isla finally reappeared.

‘Aye. I’ll just finish hanging oot the washing, shall I?’

‘Aye, and then can ye call them weans in? Dinner will be ready soon,’ Agnes said. Then she added, ‘You’re a good lassie, Isla, ye really are.’

Isla flushed with pleasure. She was still smiling to herself as she hung the last garment on the line, happy because she was becoming a woman, and happier still that she wasn’t dying of some awful sickness after all. She left the cane washing basket in the sun to air, then set off towards the stream that ran across one corner of her da’s small farm in search of her younger brother and sister.

As she had suspected, they were both there, half-concealed behind a stand of cabbage trees and playing farther away from the house than they were supposed to without supervision. Jamie and Jean were six-year-old twins, both round-faced, copper-haired and blue-eyed, and ‘fair wee trials’, according to their mother. Laddie, the family dog, was with them: Jamie was throwing a stick off the high bank above the stream, and he and Jean were shrieking with laughter as Laddie hurled himself into the air after it, then crashed down into the water with an almighty splash.

Laddie was a black-and-tan short-haired collie, who, according to all the McKinnons, possessed a level of intelligence not normally found in the average dog. Isla’s father, Donal, had purchased him as a pup in Scotland and reared him as a working dog, and the whole family had been heartbroken when they had had to sell him to a neighbouring crofter before they emigrated to New Zealand. So heartbroken, in fact, that early in the morning of the day they
left for Campbeltown, Donal McKinnon had crept across the fields to the neighbour’s cottage and taken back the dog, leaving the money the man had paid on his doorstep. Laddie had been very unhappy cooped up in a small pen on the ship’s deck for months, and expensive to feed, but they all agreed it had been worth it.

‘Mam’ll tan your hide if she sees ye doing that,’ Isla said benignly.

‘She’ll no’ see us if ye dinnae tell her,’ Jamie said, accepting the stick from a dripping Laddie, the dog’s furiously wagging tail scattering droplets of water far and wide.

‘Well, you’re tae come in, dinner’s ready soon.’

‘Are Niel and Da back yet?’ Jean asked eagerly. There were streaks of mud on her face and pinafore, her hair had fallen out of its ribbon, and her stockings and boots were soaked. But she was too excited to care: her father usually took his dinner with him when he worked on the farm, so it was always a treat when he came home in the middle of the day.

‘No’ yet.’ Isla moistened a corner of her own pinafore with spit and dabbed at Jean’s face.

Laddie watched with great interest for a moment, then returned to leaping around Jamie, trying to get him to throw the stick again.

‘It’s no’ neeps again, is it?’ he asked warily.

Isla made a face: they all hated turnips, but they grew so easily here. ‘Aye, but there’s tatties as well.’

They met up with their father and brother Niel just as they arrived back at the house. Donal McKinnon was six feet tall, broad
of shoulder and back, and as bright-haired as his two youngest children. At the moment, his stubbled face was red from the heat, and from the exertion of clearing scrub all morning.

‘Did ye stack that wood, lad?’ he asked Jamie as they walked to the back porch.

‘Aye, and I chopped some more,’ the little boy boasted, eager as always for praise from his father.

Donal ruffled Jamie’s copper curls. ‘Good lad.’

From the dimness of the interior Agnes called, as she always did, ‘Boots off in the hoose!’ Donal and Niel usually remembered, but the twins were always rushing in and tramping dirt and muck everywhere.

Jean sat down and tugged at one of her boots, grunting with effort.

‘Untie the laces, ye galoot,’ Niel said disparagingly.

‘Niel,’ Donal warned as he prised off his own large boots and set them neatly against the wall, then bent to help Jean with hers.

At thirteen, Niel McKinnon was tall but thin for his age, good-looking with his mother’s fair hair and colouring, and a strongly developed but somewhat naïve view of the world. To Niel something was either right or wrong; there was nothing in between. ‘But Da,’ he said exasperatedly, ‘she kens verra well how tae take her boots off. She only pretends she cannae so ye’ll help her.’ He loved his little sister, but sometimes her babyish behaviour, which he was convinced she exaggerated to her own gain, really irritated him.

‘Wheesht, boy,’ Donal said gently. He knew what Jean was up to, and didn’t mind indulging her at all.

After the family had sat down and Agnes and Isla had served the meal, Jean made a show of sanctimoniously closing her eyes and bowing her head before saying grace.

Give us this day oor daily bread, O Father in heaven, and grant that we who are filled wi’good things from Your open hand, may never close oor hearts tae the hungry, the hopeless, and the poor, in the name o’ the Father, the Son, and o’ the Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Amen,’ everyone repeated, giggling. Everyone except Jamie, who scowled fiercely.

‘It’s no’ “hopeless”, it’s
“homeless”!’
he insisted, barely keeping his temper in check. She got it wrong every single time she said grace, and she did it on purpose, he was sure.

‘I
said
that,’ Jean responded with equal insistence.

‘No, ye said—’

Donal could see a familiar argument developing. ‘That’s enough, lad. She’s only having ye on. Pass the tatties, will ye?’

Jamie passed his father the bowl of potatoes while Jean smirked. He kicked out at her under the table.

‘Ow!’ Isla exclaimed.

‘Did ye get much done this morning?’ Agnes asked.

Donal piled potatoes onto his plate. ‘Aye. I’d say we’re nearly halfway there.’

Agnes was delighted. ‘Well, that’s good news, is it no‘?’

‘Aye, very,’ Donal agreed wryly, regarding the thick calluses on the palms of his hands.

The McKinnons had been crofters on the Isle of Skye, and had only just managed to keep themselves fed and clothed because Donal had worked in Glasgow as a journeyman carpenter for six months of the year while Agnes stayed behind to work the croft. Isla, their eldest surviving child, had been born in 1846, the year the potato crops failed and the great Highland famine had begun. When Isla was almost seven years old, the laird of Donal McKinnon’s croft converted to large-scale sheep farming, and most of his crofters were told to vacate the land they leased from him. So they became the latest victims of the practice of Fuadaich nan Gàidheal, the Clearing of the Gael, that had been eroding the old Highland way of life for decades.

However, the laird was a compassionate man and offered to pay part of the cost of his tenants’ passages to new lives in Australia. So, with the balance of the fare lent by the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society, Donal and Agnes and their three children—Isla, Niel and Anne—left their beloved Scotland just after Christmas of 1853, aboard HMS
Hercules.
A shipboard outbreak of smallpox and typhus had quarantined the ship in Ireland for three months, and took wee Anne’s life, but late in July they finally reached Adelaide, Australia. Four years later, after hearing a distant cousin speak encouragingly of the wonderful farming opportunities to be had across the Tasman Sea, they set sail for Taranaki on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

When they arrived, it had been with two more children—Jamie and Jean—and little else, but they had at least managed to pay back the Emigration Society loan and put by enough money to get them started in New Zealand. Donal settled his family at New Plymouth and spent the next twelve months carpentering and labouring until he could afford a few head of cattle and a deposit on fifty acres of land some distance south of the Waitara River, which he christened Braeburn and which the agent insisted would be ideal for farming once it was cleared. And Donal had been clearing it, mostly by hand, ever since.

The family had initially lived in a tent, then a hut made of raupo, then Donal had built a two-roomed slab house with a proper wooden floor, shuttered windows and a shingled roof. He’d also taken the precaution of building a cellar beneath the floor, a space big enough to contain the six of them should trouble arise with the local natives, the Maori. The house was smaller than their cottage on Skye had been, but at least here they didn’t have to share it with the cattle.

They were almost entirely self-sufficient, and what they did need to buy was purchased from New Plymouth once a month with money raised by selling a steer or a heifer, money that also paid the interest on Donal’s loan from the New Plymouth Savings Bank. Two steers and two heifers had been necessary to pay for the cart and very expensive pair of bullocks bought recently. They also kept chickens, and a sow and a boar—the offspring of which they either ate or sold—and a house cow named Rosie for milk, cheese and butter.

BOOK: Isle of Tears
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