Remember Me(7)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter seven





‘Move over, Mary,’ Sarah hissed in the dark. ‘You aren’t in bed with Will now.’

Mary half smiled, wishing she was in bed with Will, back in their own hut. But however cramped it was sharing this hut with five other women, plus Charlotte, she was very grateful to Sarah and her friends for letting them stay. In cynical moments she put their kindness down to her being back on their level. But mostly she preferred to believe that Sarah, at least, had had such a shock at seeing Will’s flogging that she had regained her old standards of compassion and generosity.

Will was in a hut with James, Samuel and Jamie, and Mary hadn’t had many chances to see him since the day of the flogging, as he’d been sent to work on the brick kilns the day after. His back still wasn’t healed. Mary was incensed at the further cruelty of forcing a man to do hard physical work when his back was torn to shreds. She had gone to meet him after that first day, and she’d cried at the sight of him. He was dragging himself along, his shirt soaked in blood, his face contorted with the pain. He went into the sea for a swim, hoping that would heal it faster, but he could barely move his arms, and his face went so pale that Mary thought he was going to pass out again. The wounds didn’t heal with all the bending and lifting, and dirt and dust had got into them and caused infections. Will was scarred for life now, both physically and mentally.

It seemed to Mary that she was in a dark tunnel without even a chink of light at the end of it. She’d been separated from her husband and lost her hut; rations had been cut again, even more people were getting sick and each week the death toll increased.

It had once been the custom that all work stopped for a funeral and everyone attended, but not any more, otherwise no work would ever get done. Death was commonplace now, no more remarkable than a reported theft or accident. Word would go round that Jack, Bill or Kate had gone, but the only real interest was in who would get their personal effects. That was, if they hadn’t already been stolen even before the man or woman passed away. Children’s deaths had even less impact; to everyone but the mother it was just one mouth less to feed.

Mary had been pressed into laundry work the day after Will’s flogging. Although washing the officers’ and Marines’ clothes wasn’t particularly hard work, the vigilance required was exhausting. Shirts were at a premium and if left to dry unguarded, would be stolen by other women. But it was always the laundress who was punished if a shirt went missing, even if she wasn’t found with one in her possession.

Only the thought of escape kept Mary going now. It filled her mind from dawn till dusk, distracting her from hunger, the funerals and the depravity all around her. Four women had run off into the bush, but they were soon recaptured; others who escaped were either killed by natives or died unable to find food and water; sometimes their bodies were found later. Many more just returned with their tails between their legs, only to be put back in chains.

Mary knew from Tench, who had done a lot of exploring inland, that there was nothing there to run to, just mile after mile of barren bush land. Some men had stolen a boat a while ago, but they weren’t sailors and capsized it and were soon picked up.

But Mary was familiar with boats and sailing. She knew she’d need a sextant, a great deal of provisions, and charts of the waters around here. Above all, she needed to know where the nearest civilization was, and find a boat suitable for rough seas.

She had said all this to Will a few days ago, but he’d just laughed at her. ‘A boat, a sextant and some charts! Why don’t you ask for the moon too, my lover?’ he said.

Mary was well aware of the difficulties involved, but she didn’t agree that it was impossible just because no one else had dared to do it. She knew that Captain Phillip and his officers had tried to communicate with the natives and got nowhere, but she had made inroads in that direction herself and been successful.

She attributed this to Charlotte. While the natives might be intimidated by men in uniforms, they weren’t frightened of a small child almost as naked as one of their own. While walking along the beach and around to the next cove, collecting wood for a fire, Mary had become aware she was being watched by a group of women natives and their children. She sat down with Charlotte on her lap and sang some songs to her, and to her delight she heard a voice joining in. It was that of another small girl, and when Mary turned and smiled at her, the child came closer.

Mary did the same again for three consecutive days, and on the fourth the little girl came and sat beside her, the mother standing a little way back, watching. It wasn’t long before other children joined them, and after only a few more days, they all knew some of the words to Mary’s songs.

She showed the native women some leaves of ‘sweet tea’, the vine-like plant the convicts used as a drink. This was the closest thing they had to a cure-all. It seemed to alleviate hunger pains, it comforted and revitalized, and it was believed to ward off diseases as those who drank nothing else seemed to suffer less from dysentery. The convicts had exhausted all the sources of the plant close to the camp, and Mary hoped the natives would show her where there was more. They did, taking her there so fast she had to run to keep up with them, and they even picked it for her.

In general the convicts hated the natives. This was partly because these people were so free, while they had to work, but more because they felt they were inferior beings. Convicts were used to being looked down on as the lowest of the low, and to their minds the natives were lowlier still. They bitterly resented the way the officers gave these savages presents and insisted they were to be treated with deference, while the convicts were subjected to cruelty, with no allowances made for their needs.

Mary had never felt this way, although she didn’t see the natives as beautiful people. To her mind the stink of the fish oil on them, their splayed noses and the ever-present bubbles of snot nestling above their thick lips made all but the children ugly as sin. But she was intelligent enough to realize that they probably thought white people just as ugly, and furthermore this was their land, and they were perfectly adapted to it. Her interest in them had been furthered by Tench’s enthusiasm. He believed that the way truly to settle this new country was to learn to understand its people. Mary, however, didn’t want to understand them in order to settle here; she was hoping for their help in her escape.

She persisted in making friends with them. And with a warm smile, and showing interest in their children, it wasn’t hard. She told them her name, they reciprocated. They touched her hair and skin, laughingly holding their own black arms against hers to show the difference. Mary drew crude pictures of native animals in the sand and they told her their names. She drew a picture of one of the boats, then a very long wavy line to show them how far the white people had come to get here. She wished she could illustrate how different her homeland was from theirs, but that was too difficult. She wondered too if they had any conception at all of the nature of the white man’s colony, and what the word ‘convict’ meant.

As Tench had pointed out, until the white man came these natives wouldn’t even have understood the notion of theft. They weren’t acquisitive people, and they left their tools, canoes and other items lying around. Much of their hostility was due to white men taking their belongings, and who could blame them for retaliating with violence?

Mary continued to cultivate this little group of natives, day after day. They appeared healthy and well fed, and although she knew much of their diet was fish, which they caught from their canoes, she guessed they supplemented this with other things. She wanted to know what, for they didn’t grow or rear anything. She thought such knowledge would help in her escape.

To her shock, the women showed her grubs and insects which they dug out of rotting tree stumps. Although Mary’s empty stomach heaved at the very thought of it, she bravely tried some and found they weren’t as bad as she expected.

Heavy rain prevented her from going to talk to the natives for almost a week, and when she did eventually venture back into the next cove, she couldn’t see anyone. This disturbed her, for although she knew that these people didn’t stay in permanent camps, wandering about as the mood took them, she was aware that this was a favourite fishing spot.

She walked farther than she normally did, until a buzzing of insects and a wheeling of birds overhead halted her. Ahead, she could see something lying up by the bushes above the beach, and to her horror she realized it was a dead native, covered in a swarm of ants. Snatching Charlotte up in her arms, she ran as fast as she could back to the camp.

She was still running when she saw Tench. He must have come back from Rose Hill the previous night. He smiled at her warmly. ‘You’re in quite a hurry,’ he said. ‘Something wrong?’

‘There’s a body around in the next cove,’ she blurted out.

‘Anyone you know?’ he joked.

Mary couldn’t laugh, for she was afraid the body belonged to one of the group she had befriended. ‘I think it’s one of the natives,’ she said. ‘I didn’t go close enough to be sure. Surely they don’t leave their dead lying around unburied?’

‘I wouldn’t think so,’ he said, looking concerned. ‘I hope it is a natural death, not an attack by one of our people, we’ve got enough trouble without that. But I’ll go and check it out now.’

After advising Mary not to stray so far from the camp again, he walked off.

It was several days before Mary had a chance to speak to Tench again. She’d seen him sailing off down the harbour with a group of Marines the day after she told him about the body, but he could have been going to the lookout on the Heads at the end of the bay.

She was just coming out of the stores with the rations for herself and Charlotte, when she saw Tench coming down the hill from Captain Phillip’s house. She thought he looked very worried and upset.

‘What’s the matter?’ she asked as he drew near to her. ‘Didn’t you have a present for him?’

This was a long-standing joke between them. In the early days Tench usually brought a gift of food when he dropped in to see her and Will. It was never anything much, maybe an egg for Charlotte, or some vegetables, but when times got harder and he didn’t bring anything he always apologized and looked embarrassed. Mary would tease him then and say he couldn’t expect a welcome without a present.

This time Tench gave her only a ghost of a smile. ‘The captain’s not happy with my news,’ he said. ‘There’s dozens of dead and dying natives around the bay. Just like the one you saw.’

Mary instinctively clutched Charlotte tighter.

Tench saw her fear and put one hand on her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, Surgeon White hasn’t got any similar cases here. It must be something that only affects them. But keep away, just to be safe. Captain Phillip is sending someone down there to see what he can do or find out.’

Telling Mary not to worry was like asking the sun not to shine. She was terrified that this disease would spread to the camp and kill Charlotte, so her whole being urged her to flee now, any way she could.

Just a few days earlier, the Supply, the smallest ship of the original fleet, had returned from Norfolk Island with news that twenty-six of the twenty-nine convicts there had devised a plan to lure the crew away from the ship and sail off in her. By all accounts this plan was a first-class one and would have succeeded but for someone informing on them. While this meant on the one hand that Mary’s idea was feasible, it also meant that all security would be tightened still further now, and punishments for any misdemeanour would be harsher than ever.

This was borne out just a few days later when six Marines were hanged for stealing from the stores. It seemed they had been doing it for months, having made keys for the locks, and when one of them was on guard duty he let his friends get in to plunder.

Most of the convicts were delighted that Captain Phillip was coming down on his men just as hard as on the convicts. But to Mary it suggested that Phillip was panicking because he knew the stored food wasn’t going to last until more came from England.

As usual when a punishment took place, everyone had to be there. As Mary watched the rope put round each man’s neck, and heard the sound of the gallows floor pulled away beneath him, leaving him dangling in space, she had never felt so desperate and afraid.

To her there was nothing good about this place – corrupt guards, women getting thirty lashes just for fighting, and all the time they were slowly being starved to death. It seemed to Mary that she was trapped in hell with several hundred lunatics.

In April, however, things looked up slightly for Mary and Will, as Captain Phillip was forced by food shortages to let Will go back to the fishing, under supervision. Mary smiled grimly to herself for she had been right, they couldn’t manage without him. The catches had been tiny without his skill, and although Will very much resented being watched over, at least he had proved he was indispensable, and they got their old hut back.

Whatever the epidemic was which killed half the native population around the bay, it didn’t spread to the new colony. Only one white man died, a sailor on the Supply. Surgeon White seemed to be of the opinion it was smallpox, but how it had come was a mystery. If they had brought it with them on the ships, it would have shown up far earlier.

Then in early May the gloom in the whole colony was lifted for a while by the arrival of the Sirius from Cape Town. Although she was mainly carrying flour, not substantial provisions like meat, she brought good news that other ships were on their way, and long-awaited mail for those lucky enough to have friends and family who could write.

Yet the sight of the ship anchored out in the bay seemed to have a bad effect on Will. Mary found him on the shore on many an afternoon before he went out fishing, just staring out at the Sirius. When she tried to speak of it he snapped at her, and when he wasn’t working he didn’t come looking for her and Charlotte as he once did.

One day, early in the afternoon, Mary was taking the clean washing back to the barracks, having left Charlotte playing with another child, when she heard Will’s loud voice coming from James Martin’s hut. Mary guessed they’d managed to get some rum from somewhere.

Mary had conflicting opinions about James, the Irish horse thief. She had been delighted to see him again, and Sam Bird too, for the friendships formed on the Dunkirk were the basis of a kind of family here. James was a very amusing and charming man, intelligent and articulate, and able to read and write. But he was a devil for the drink, and women.

Mary recognized him as the sort who led others into trouble but usually managed to wriggle or charm his way out of any blame. He wasn’t bound by loyalty; James Martin looked after himself first and foremost. She felt he was a bad influence on Will.

Mary wasn’t by nature a snoop, but Will worried her when he drank, as he became boastful and often quite belligerent. She also wanted to find out how he and James had acquired the drink; if he was stealing fish to get it she wanted to know in advance.

There wasn’t anyone else around, so Mary crept round the back of James’s hut. If anyone came by she would make out she had just come out of the bushes after relieving herself.

James was talking about some of the men going after the native women. He took the view that a man wasn’t right in the head to do such a thing.

‘I reckons you’d at least be safer than with some of the pox-carrying hags here,’ Will said, and laughed heartily. ‘That’s why I picked Mary, I knew she were clean.’

Mary wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment or not. It had a kind of double edge to it.

‘She’s a good woman,’ James said almost reprovingly. ‘You’re a lucky man, Will, in more ways than one.’

‘I’ll be luckier still once I get out of this accursed place,’ Will retorted. ‘And I’ll be off on the first ship when my time’s up.’

‘Won’t you wait for Mary?’ James asked, his tone slightly arch, making Mary suspect they weren’t drinking together after all. Maybe Will had come visiting after getting some spirits elsewhere.

‘No, I bloody won’t,’ Will burst out. ‘Firstly no ship will take me on with a woman and a child, secondly I can do better than her.’

Mary felt as if someone had punched her in the belly. It was one thing for Will to tell others he didn’t consider himself legally married, quite another to say he could do better than her. She turned and fled, trying very hard not to cry.

Will didn’t come back to their hut before going fishing that evening, so Mary cooked up some rice on the fire, for once barely noticing the maggots that floated up to the surface as the water got hot. She had nothing more to add to it, as they had already eaten their tiny ration of salted pork earlier in the week. But Mary had no appetite, she was only cooking for Charlotte’s sake. She felt weak with misery that Will intended to abandon her.

Charlotte sat right by the fire, as she always did when food was cooking, her dark eyes never leaving the cooking pot. That distressed Mary still further, for a small portion of rice wasn’t anywhere near enough to keep a child growing and healthy. She could already see in her daughter the tell-tale signs of under-nourishment that she’d observed in children from desperately poor families back in Cornwall: the distended belly, sunken cheeks and lacklustre eyes and hair.

If Will left her and went home, escape would be well-nigh impossible. She might be able to plan it, get her hands on all the necessary equipment and handle a boat well, but it was Will who had the navigation skills. There wasn’t another man in the whole convoy likely to take his place.

The prospect of being left alone here terrified her. She’d lose the hut, the women would jeer at her, the men would pester her. She wouldn’t be able to protect Charlotte from the depravity that was all around. The best she could hope for was to become a ‘lag wife’, the mistress of one of the Marines or officers. But that would only last until he too went back to England.

Mary’s emotions ranged through despair, fear and then anger that evening, but by the time Charlotte had devoured the rice and turned sleepily to her mother’s breast, she had a plan. Just as she’d coolly planned finding an officer lover on the Dunkirk in order to survive, she was now going to use the few assets she had again.

As Will made his way back to his hut it was almost dawn. He was chilled to the bone and wet through for it had started raining and turned very cold around ten o’clock the previous evening. He was also exhausted and aching with hunger, for they’d fished all night and all they had to show for the hard work was around a dozen fish. He had experienced all that a thousand times before, both here and back in Cornwall, but what had really got him down tonight was the attitude of the two Marines sent out to watch him.

‘Bastards,’ he muttered, and spat noisily on the sand. But for the fear of another flogging he would have knocked them over the side. How dare they suggest the lack of fish was because he didn’t know as much about fishing as he claimed! And that he was drunk when he came aboard. He had had a few tots of rum, but that didn’t impair his judgement. There just weren’t any fish in the bay. If they’d been prepared to sail through the Heads like he wanted to do, they would have caught thousands.

As he drew nearer the hut, he was very surprised to see a fire and Mary bending over it.

‘Why the fire? Is Charlotte sick?’ he asked as he got nearer.

‘No, she’s asleep,’ Mary said. ‘I thought you’d be cold and hungry so I made some breakfast for you.’

Will’s spirits lifted. He had expected Mary to be sullen because he’d gone off fishing without seeing her first. If she had found out he’d bought some rum instead of something they could all eat, she’d have been even madder.

‘Breakfast?’ he said incredulously.

Mary touched his wet shirt. ‘Take that off and hang it up to dry,’ she said, her face soft with concern. ‘Wrap the blanket round you to warm you up. I could only fry a bit of bread for you, it was all I could get.’

Five minutes later, sitting on a stool in the doorway of the hut, with a cup of sweet tea in one hand and a big piece of fried bread in the other, Will felt much better. The first rays of light were coming into the sky and the bay looked beautiful with a cloud of mist just above the water. It was his favourite time of day, the birds just waking to sing, the ugliness of the camp not yet visible. It might be winter here, but it was as warm as a spring morning back home. In fact, looking across at the Sirius wreathed in mist, with the grey-green of the other side of the bay behind her, he could almost fool himself he was in Falmouth harbour looking out to St Mawes.

He missed Cornwall so much – the little winding cobbled streets, the houses huddled together, that blinding clear light in summer, the big fires in the tavern on a winter’s night. When he thought of the risks the Cornish took with smuggling, it made him smile. Straining at the oars against waves as tall as houses, watching for the warning lanterns on the cliffs that said the excise men were coming – it was a game with high stakes, and only those with speed, nerve and strength dared play. But the winners tossed back glasses of French brandy, fishermen, miners and farm labourers equals with the country squire if they had played their part well.

The lasses there were pretty as well – rosy cheeks, big breasts and sweet shy smiles. The first time he saw Mary, through the grille on the Dunkirk, she was like that too. Now she was rake-thin, with hollowed cheeks, and she rarely smiled.

But she’d got up to make a fire and fry him some bread. She kept herself clean, and she didn’t go after other men.

‘Penny for them?’ Mary startled him by coming up behind him and putting her arms around his neck.

‘They aren’t worth a penny!’ he chuckled. ‘I’ll tell you them for free. I was thinking about Cornwall, the smuggling and the taverns.’

‘Want to know what I’m thinking?’ she asked, kissing his neck.

‘Go on,’ he said.

‘That we get into bed,’ she said. ‘And I warm you proper like.’

Will smiled, and it went right down inside him. Even before the flogging there hadn’t been much love-making, hunger and exhaustion saw to that. But since then it had gone completely; his lacerated back, working on the brick kiln, and further cuts in rations had knocked all the passion out of him.

‘Now that’s a real good idea, my lover,’ he said, turning to grab her for a kiss. ‘It’s been far too long.’

Mary smiled to herself later that day as she washed clothes down at the water’s edge. She’d almost forgotten how special Will could make her feel. It was worth getting up so early, she’d even managed to forget how hungry she was.

In early September Mary knew she was definitely pregnant again. She was thrilled, not just because she’d reached her objective and found a way to prevent Will from leaving her here alone, but because he was genuinely delighted at becoming a father. Yet as always in the colony, any happy moment seemed to be erased by something bad. This time it was a soldier raping a girl of eight. To Mary it brought Charlotte’s vulnerability sharply into focus. Up until then she’d hardly considered what the future for her child would be – keeping her alive was enough to concern herself with. But when the soldier wasn’t even hanged, but sent off to Norfolk Island, she found herself sobbing with rage.

‘Don’t take on so, Mary,’ Will said, trying to comfort her. ‘He’ll be out of the way there.’

‘But there’s children there too,’ she reminded him. ‘Including little Henrietta, Jane’s baby. You explain to me why you can be flogged just for insolence, but hurting a little girl isn’t thought a real crime.’

‘I don’t know,’ Will said, shaking his head. ‘Any more than I don’t know why they still keep sending a couple of men out to watch me fish. If they weren’t there, I’d sail right out the bay and get a better catch.’

‘We have to think again about escape,’ Mary said fiercely.

‘How can we do that with a little ’un on the way?’ he replied, tenderly patting her belly.

‘Because of this little ’un,’ she retorted. ‘Don’t you want something better for him?’

In November the whole colony buzzed with the news that Lieutenant Bradley and Captain Keltie of the Sirius had captured two natives on Captain Phillip’s instructions.

The captured men were called Bennelong and Colbee, and it was discovered they had no wives or children. Lieutenant Bradley, the officer responsible for their capture, got an orphaned native boy who had been taken in by Surgeon White to explain to the men that they weren’t going to be harmed.

Mary watched the whole proceeding with amazement. She had always thought that abducting anyone against their will amounted to harm. She was also sure that the two natives would be even more alarmed when they were subjected to being washed, shaved, dressed in clothes and shackled to prevent their escape.

Just a few days later, news got round that both men had managed to free themselves from their shackles. Colbee got clean away, but Bennelong was caught. The majority of the prisoners found all this highly amusing. They didn’t consider Bennelong to be a person with feelings, more an animal which had to be caged. But Mary was sickened by it – there was something about the tall, well-built black man that touched her. She could imagine his confusion at the peculiar world he’d been dragged into. His people weren’t confined in any way. Home was the temporary shelter of a cave or a mud and bark ‘humpie’. They didn’t have kings or princes in their tribes, every man was equal to the next, so how could he possibly understand the white man’s class distinctions, or his lust for wealth, power and possessions?

Mary saw Bennelong as being in a very similar position to herself, and as such they could be allies. It struck her that if she could show him ways to use his captivity to his advantage, in return he might be persuaded to help her and Will escape.

The weeks went slowly by, and with each one Mary felt more desperate. There were no extra rations here for pregnant women as on the Charlotte, and she was so hungry that she often went searching for the grubs and insects the natives had shown her. During December and January it was blazing hot, she would be wakened at dawn by the sun beating down on the hut’s roof, and there was no respite all day until sunset.

Only the relationship she was forming with Bennelong gave her a little hope. With words of his language she learned from the children she had befriended, she was able to suggest to him that if he played along with Captain Phillip his leg irons would be removed and he could become important to the white man. Bennelong seemed to understand what she meant; on one occasion he showed her half a bottle of rum he’d been given and grinned broadly. He appeared to be happy to stay in the settlement as long as more of it was forthcoming.

Mary knew it was too soon to attempt to enrol his help in any escape plan. Besides, it was impossible when she was so heavily pregnant. There was no possibility of collecting and storing food either, and anyway there were no ships in the harbour. Both the Sirius and the Supply had gone, taking ninety-six male and twenty-five female convicts, as well as twenty-five children, to Norfolk Island in an effort to eke out the rations a little longer. The Sirius was then going on to China to try to get desperately needed provisions.

When they set sail from England they had enough food for two years, and now that time was up. Even though the farm at Rose Hill had produced a good harvest of wheat, there was only enough food to last a few more months, with rations cut yet again. Everyone from Captain Phillip to the lowest criminal was waiting expectantly for a ship to arrive with more food. Daily, people trudged down to Dawes Point, where they could just about see the flag mast on the South Head at the end of the bay. If the flag was struck it would mean a ship was coming, but day after day they were disappointed.

The fear of dying of starvation was very real now. It showed in every convict’s face, from the bleakness of their eyes to the hollows in their cheeks, and in the slowness of their movements. With so many of their original number taken away by troops to Norfolk Island, and the countless deaths during the two years, Sydney Cove looked like a ghost town, and empty huts were being allocated to people who had previously shared. With a further cut in rations, no one had the physical strength to work a full day. An order was issued that they need only work until midday; the afternoons could be spent working their own gardens. At last Will was told he could fish without a guard, because there just wasn’t the manpower to spare for fishing duties.

Mary had her first labour pains during the early evening of 30 March. She didn’t recognize them as labour at first, assuming they were merely hunger cramps. Will was out fishing and it was raining so hard that the ground was a sea of slippery red mud. She put Charlotte to bed and got in herself, but the pains continued, just strong enough to prevent sleep.

All through the night she lay there, staring up into the darkness, listening to the steady dripping of water coming in through the roof. By then she realized the baby was coming, but in her weakened state she felt unable to get up and trudge through the mud and rain to seek help.

For the first time ever, she hoped for death. She was exhausted by the daily struggle to survive, and she felt unable to meet the further demands a new baby would place on her. Even the little cries Charlotte made in her sleep didn’t stir her conscience. She hoped that by lying there, ignoring the child struggling to find its way out into the world, it would just fade away and so would she.

But as she closed her eyes and tried to will herself into death’s dark valley, her mother’s face came into her mind. Mary had tried her best to forget her parents and sister. She had long since given up trying to recall their faces and the sound of their voices or wondering if they ever spoke of her. She had even steeled herself not to think about Cornwall and compare it with here.

Yet there was her mother’s face, as clear as if she was standing in the daylight before her. Her grey eyes were full of concern, her mouth slightly pursed as if in disapproval, wisps of grey hair escaping from her linen cap. Her expression was one Mary remembered very well, the one she’d always worn when berating Mary for unfeminine behaviour. Mary remembered then that her mother had always been strong, she’d never shown her anxiety to Mary and Dolly when their father’s ship didn’t return when expected. Somehow she always managed to put food on the table and keep the fire burning.

It seemed to Mary that her mother was trying to send her a message that she must fight for life, for her children’s sake.

With great difficulty she got out of her bed, fumbled in the dark for a piece of sacking to put around her shoulders, and went out into the rain.

The nearest hut was only twenty yards away, but the pains were too fierce to stand up. On her hands and knees, Mary crawled through the mud in agony to get help.

The first dawn light was just coming through the open door of the hut as Mary’s baby finally fought his way out, in the none too certain hands of Anne Tomkin.

‘It’s a boy!’ Anne exclaimed with more weariness than jubilation, as she held the baby closer to the door to examine him. ‘And he looks healthy enough.’

This was borne out by a lusty, angry scream. It was Mary who had to tell Anne to wrap her son in a piece of cloth, to tie the cord and cut it. Anne had no children herself and her husband Wilfred who had gone for more experienced help hadn’t arrived back.

Yet as Mary took her baby in her arms, she forgot the pain, the hunger and even her blood- and mud-caked body. God had given her the boy she wanted, He had spared her life, and that had to mean there was hope for better times.

‘I’ll call him Emmanuel,’ she said softly to herself.