FLIMSY

Part One

“For my part, distress for all those that loved us and thoughts of my boy kept me quite away from self pity, and my greatest sorrow was that I could never let them know that it was not so dreadful for us to go together, each strengthened by the love of the other, and helped to courage and calmness by the fear of adding to the other’s distress.” - From the private diary of Mrs. Ferguson (Auckland War Memorial Museum Library)

Chapter One
Sydney, Australia October 23, 1894 She was dying. I cupped her in my hands, stroking the still-silky feathers behind her head with my thumb. My fingers were sticky with her blood and the feathers on her left side were clumped with it. Her head sagged and her eyes were dull. I’d tried to get her to take a little gruel with water early on. She'd refused it of course, but what else could I do? I had to at least try. “Robbie!” I turned. Em was hurrying towards me, holding her skirts up out of the mud. Her face was pale. “You’ve got to come. Father’s furious.” She stopped in front of me, staring at the bird in my hands. “What happened?” “An animal got in last night.” “Oh, Robbie!” “The others were torn to shreds. I found Lily up the back in the straw, but she’s almost gone.” Em put her hand out and gripped my upper arm. “That’s Lily? Oh no. I’m so sorry.” I dropped my eyes back down to the pigeon’s drooping head, afraid I would lose control of the tears that had been worrying at the back of my eyes since I found the carnage. “At least I won’t have to fret about them now, while we’re away.”

FLIMSY / 1

Em’s grip tightened, her fingers squeezing into my arm. “You’ve got to come up to the house, Robbie. Father’s shouting for you. He told me to fetch you.” I shook my head. “I can’t leave Lily.” “Arthur Browne was here. When Father got home.” “Arthur?” I was startled. “What was he—?” “He came to say good-bye.“ Her face was defiant but a hint of red leaked into her cheeks. “He wasn’t here long. It was just bad luck.” “I’ll say it was.” “Father’s in a rage. You’ve got to come now.” “I can’t.” “But you don’t know what he’ll—“ “No, Em.” I kept my voice steady, but my fear was building. The same fear was reflected on my sister’s face. “I’m sorry, but I can’t just leave her. I won’t let Lily die on her own.” She hesitated. “He’s furious. What should I say?” I weighed up the choices. If Em went back up to the house without me, there’d be no way to mollify Father. I couldn’t let her face him without me. “Stay here, Em. We’ll go up together as soon as… when Lily…” Her grip loosened from my arm. I could sense her relief. “Are you sure, Robbie?” I nodded, looking down at Lily. It was hard to tell whether she was still breathing or not. Her head was to one side, resting on the base of my thumb. Her beak lay against my wrist.

FLIMSY / 2

Em drew in her breath. “He’s coming!” My head whipped around. Sure enough, Father was limping down the track towards us. His cane beat angrily down and flicked up mud each time he lifted it. He still wore his hat and suit, and the bottoms of his good trousers were catching the mud splatters. I carefully laid Lily on one of the straw bales beside the now-empty pigeon loft. A mound of dirt to one side showed where I’d buried what little remains I’d found of the others. Lily’s head slumped straight to the straw, but her beak twitched so I knew she was still clinging to life. I turned to face my father, stepping forward to meet him. “I expected you to be looking after the yard today, Robert.” Though hi s voice sounded controlled, anger was flashing in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Father. I’d intended to, but a cat or a stoat got into the loft last night. It killed my birds.” His hand tightened around the head of his cane until his knuckles were white. “Mr Blake came to pick up his colt and Bill let it go without taking payment. Now we won’t see the money until after we get back. If at all.” My stomach turned over. “I’m sorry, Father.” “Sorry won’t keep the stables running. Sorry won’t put feed in the mout hs of horses or pay wages.” “No, Father.” “Did you at least check the horses have all been reshod and are ready to go?” “I asked one of the lads to do it.”

FLIMSY / 3

“Did you check them to make sure?” I shook my head slowly. “No, Father. I should have. I’m sorry.” His lips thinned. His tone was tightly restrained. I was most afraid of him when he was like this, the rage boiling down underneath like a simmering volcano. “You know how much these horses mean to us, don’t you?” “Yes, Father.” “They must arrive in top-rate condition. That was specified. It is essential.” “Yes. I know, Father.” “Yet not only were you not doing your job today, but you weren’t taking care of your sister either.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Em shrink backwards. I stiffened. He wouldn’t touch her. I wasn’t going to let him. “Do you know who I found here when I arrived?” asked Father. I met his gaze. “Emily said he stopped in for a moment to say good -bye.” My father took a step forward, his free hand clenched into a fist. Even leaning on his cane he was still taller than me by an inch or so, and was now close enough to reach me. He sucked his breath in, and I could see him fighting to control his rage. “She said just for a minute, did she?” Em grabbed a handful of her skirt and squeezed as though wringing out water. “I–“ “Be quiet!” His eyes didn’t move away from mine. “What have I said about Mr Browne calling on her?” “But surely just a quick farewell –”

FLIMSY / 4

He shifted his weight and bought his cane up, switching his grip so he held it like a weapon. The pain lines engraved around his eyes deepened. It hurt him to stand on his bad leg, but he’d never let his own discomfort keep him from dishing out lesson s. My body was tense. It had been months since he’d last hit me, but my first instinct was still to cower back. I fought the urge. I’d had my eighteenth birthday three weeks ago. I wasn’t a child any more. Something tightened inside me, holding me in place. My innards churned with dread, but instead of crippling me, my fear just fed my resolve. I didn’t raise my hands, but they were balled up and ready. A rustling sound came from the straw bale where I’d set Lily down. I dragged my eyes from my father’s to glance at her. Her wings moved. She was trying to stretch them out. “You’re always down here with those bloody birds.” His cane was still raised. “Never where you’re supposed to be.” “She’s dying.” “That’s your excuse? That’s why you’ve been wasting your time down here? You’ve been waiting for one of your bloody birds to die?” I was silent. There was nothing I could say. My father took one hobbling step forward, lifting his cane high. My arms raised over my head, braced to take the blow. I stumbled backwards. My feet hit something - the mound of dirt. I lost my balance and went down, squelching backwards into the mud. Helpless. I didn’t understand what Father was going to do until he took another lurching step forward with his cane held high. Above the hay bale where Lily lay dying.

FLIMSY / 5

“No!” Grunting with effort, he swung the cane down on Lily’s small body. It smacked into her with a sickening crunch. I was frozen, sprawled in the mud. Blood seeped into the bale. As Father pulled his cane away, Lily’s body stuck to it and was dragged across the bale before coming free. Father wiped his cane on a clean edge of the bale, then leaned back onto it. He tugged his suit coat down with his free hand, smoothing it out. “Now you’ve no excuse to shirk your responsibilities." His voice was harsh. "Those horses are the most important thing in all of our lives, until we get them to New Zealand and the money’s in my hand.” His gaze went to Emily. She was crouched down, her skirts in the mud, her hand clamped over her mouth. Silent tears ran down and dripped off her hand. “You’ll have no dinner,” he said to her. “I don’t want to see you again until morning. Then I expect you to be ready to go.” When Father looked back at me the deep lines around his eyes were smoothing out. The pain in his leg was obviously easing, and the violence of his act seemed to have shocked most of the rage out of him. “Robert, go and check the horses have been shod, then clean yourself up for the table. And make sure your luggage is prepared for the morning.” My limbs unfroze as I watched him limp back up the path to the house. As I pulled myself to my feet, I realized I was shaking. I sucked in a deep breath, fighting a sudden urge to vomit. Then I bent to Em.

FLIMSY / 6

“Are you all right?” I took her arm and helped her stand. She was filthy and still crying, but at least she wasn’t hurt. And missing dinner was almost a blessing when Father was like this, especially as the two of us had a system for smuggling food to whomever had missed out. “It’s my fault. If only Arthur had left earlier. If I’d told him to go sooner, this wouldn’t have happened.” “It’s not your fault, Em. It’s mine.” I’d left a muddy black mark on the sleeve of her dress. I wiped at it with the back of my hand, although with its skirts filthy and sodden her dress would have to be washed anyway. “Father was right. I should have been looking after the yard.” “I wish we weren’t going away,” she said for the hundredth time since we found out about the trip. “It’s not for long. We’ll be back in three and a half weeks.” Her eyes flashed. “I hate him.” Instead of responding, I looked at my pigeon loft. Around this time my birds should be cooing to each other and rustling their feathers as they settled down for the night. It was all ruined now and I’d never be able to look at it again without remembering what had happened. Maybe it was a good thing we were leaving. While we were in New Zealand, the bulk of our horses would pass out of my hands and into someone else’s. Perhaps then I’d find some freedom. I picked up the spade and started a new hole next to the grave I’d dug earlier. When I’d gone deep enough to make Lily’s body safe from being dug up by animals, I turned. Em had fetched a clean rag from the tool shed and was gently wrapping up

FLIMSY / 7

Lily’s body. She’d got blood on her dress now as well as mud . Father’s rage would flare again if he saw it, but she didn’t seem to care. She carried the small bundle over to the hole and crouched to lay it inside. I paused to say a silent prayer in my head. It was probably blasphemy to pray for a bird, but I couldn’t bury Lily without doing it. Then I scraped th e mud back into the hole, covering her wrapped body. Em stood with her head bowed. Her hands were clasped, a single feather clutched between them. I filled the hole and smoothed the mound over while Em watched, her face pale. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand, but her tears still ran. My eyes went to the blood on her dress and a chill ran over my skin. I had a sick feeling of dread in my stomach, like a premonition that something worse was to come. I reached out and covered Emily’s hand with mine. Her skin was cold as death.

FLIMSY / 8