|It was dark in the high roofed school building apart from the
candles that softly fluttered with the opening of the heavy door.
Inside a coolness that eluded them in this unforgiving land had her
sigh in relief. Tangible proof, and it was most definitely needed, that
God was looking down on them in their struggles, providing a sanctuary.
Finding chairs for herself and her children Margret Byrne entreated them to sit, silent and bowed as others entered and folded into dark hunched shapes. Around them incongruous images- a map of the world, a picture of Victoria, a blackboard only half covered with rich gold cloth- belied the purpose of this building in the hours of light. But in this makeshift church hushed voices greeted long lost neighbours in between the peel of the bell that called those who had held steadfastly on to their faith to come celebrate the birth of Christ.
At the front of the small wooden church a figure in white rummaged with papers and prayer books, perhaps aware of the auspicious circumstances, the strength and the expectations of the swelled congregation. Jealously guarded incense, eked out over months, billowed plumes of heavy scent into the already thick air. He cleared his throat again and looked out over the congregation. Poor farmers, selectors, irish folk mixed with some from the colder north eastern countries. There would be a thin covering in the poor box. Still, hopeful anticipation met his eyes, of meaning and reward and a chance to just be joyful. And the bell did its best, ringing out in the night to celebrate Mass.
It was well into the service, past that point when the youngest had started to fidget, when she felt a touch on her shoulder. She didn’t need to turn.
Her eyes closed in thanks. That he was here, that he had come to find them instead of running off to find one of those brazen women, that he wasn’t dead yet. Half turning her head she acknowledged his presence with a warning in her frown not to disturb Denny or Paddy or Catherine from their stillness. She could do without being the talk of the Woolshed again the next day. He might have shot a copper but interrupting the Mass, well that would have women tutting louder still.
But he was here, her Joe, and as the incomprehensible words continued her heart swelled to see him tonight, of all nights. Unable to stop herself she turned to look at him. Her handsome son. He was too thin, she noted in an instant, his beard too long for his years, his fingers too dirty, his clothes too ragged. But his eyes- well they shone back at her.
Leaning forward Joe put his hand close to her ear to whisper “I can’t stay long”
She took a moment, feeling the sharpness already jabbing at her. It never quite went. “I’ve not enough food for yer anyhow. You never said you was coming”
He might have been six again, staring back at her with shocked disbelief before she chuckled silently and shook her head. She could always get the better of him no matter how clever he thought he was. The barb remained all the same.
“I have some brisket in the pot for tomorrow, sure there is a bit for you. That’s if you’ve time to come back home”
It was almost too much to ask, in case the answer was no. People were starting to turn and look, so with determination she faced front, her back straight against the worn old wood whilst the Latin swept clean over her head, listening instead with her bird like ears to every movement, every breath behind her.
At last the priest closed his book and the bell picked up again, signalling the turn of one day into the next. Her children were all here, even only for a moment, trusting that he would stay she bustled to gather them together, almost a cluck in her voice despite the size of some of her brood. “Come, come!”
Her haste however did not deliver her from the necessary words with the priest, flushed with success and the goodwill of the season, he demanded her attention, her opinion on his sermon and a contribution to the pot. Despite her keen glances she lost sight of that shadow in amongst the hearty felicitations of her neighbours. Don't go! Filing out of the doors her eyes flitted in the corners and the trees to find him, annoyed now by the imposing clang of the bell that interfered with her thoughts. There was no sign and Margret began to wonder if it had been a vision, perhaps she had just conjured him up afterall? They said that you could do that, conjure up temptations, or perhaps she was delirious from all that sun.
It wasn’t until they came down the valley that Margret allowed their legs to slow, even Ellie running as best she could to keep up with her mother’s purpose. In the distance, across the creek a light in the window and smoke snaking from the chimney had her smile bright as a crescent moon.
“Come along! We’ve a visitor fer Christmas!”