Empty Beds

FictionIssue TenIssue Ten Fiction

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By Janeen O’Connell

Mary Allan

Monegeetta (Victoria) 9 April 1873 – Good Friday

I know he isn’t there, but I reach across to James’s half of the bed anyway. It’s cold. Turning onto my side, I pull his pillow into me and hug it, as if being able to smell him will bring him back. The bairn in my belly kicks and complains about my position. Turning onto my back settles the bairn, but not my tears; as useless as they are, they keep trickling down the sides of my face. 

Lying in bed, I search my mind for memories of James and find one from 1852 when he first discovered gold at Fryers Creek. We lived in a tent with a dirt floor, mosquitoes, and flies for company and shared the riverbank with hundreds of other people searching for their fortune. He had run to the tent, his cheeks the colour of ripe tomatoes, out of breath, and unable to speak, looking as if he were dying of a mysterious breathing disorder. Panic squeezed its tentacles around my heart. Then he held out his shaking hand to reveal a piece of gold about the size of the buttons on his shirt. A smile wider than the creek he panned spread across his face.

Pulling me in close, he whispered in my ear, ‘We have a start, Mary.’ 

Twenty years away from the banks of Fryers Creek, I now face running the farm on my own.

Knocking quietly on the door, our eldest, Jean, calls out to me. Wiping my eyes, I put James’s pillow back on his side of the bed and push myself up to sit against the bedhead. Jean lets herself into the room, making a fuss about how gloomy it is. She opens the drapes and the mid-autumn sun creeps over the floor, across my feet and onto my face. It does its best to thaw the ice block that has settled in my heart.

Sitting next to me, Jean holds my hand. ‘Come on, Mama, I’ll help you up. You’ll have something to eat and we’ll get ready for the funeral.’

Helping me into my day dress and slippers, Jean leads the way to the kitchen. For the sake of the bairn more than me, I force myself to eat the parritch she has prepared. Each mouthful settles around my teeth and gums; she should have let it simmer another ten minutes. I allow myself a well-hidden smile when I think how lucky her husband, George, is to have a cook at his hotel. 

Halfway through the sticky glug, George walks into the kitchen followed by the settler James was helping when the accident happened. He and James were moving timber when the kingbolt came loose on the dray and the bullock team dragged James through the dirt and mud until a rock blocked its path.

‘Mother,’ George says to me louder than necessary. ‘I have someone here who would like to speak to you.’

The man, whose name escapes me, sits on the other side of the table. Without an invitation he blathers on about how sorry he is, how he wished he’d been more careful when he had gotten down off the dray to fix the brake, how he should have checked the kingbolt. I stare at him, holding down a scream that wants to tear out of my throat and rip him to shreds. It is because of him my James is dead. Shaking my head, I try to dislodge the unchristian thought I have of wishing it were him lying in the coffin and not my husband.

The workers from the nearby timber mill had put James on the Melbourne train to go to the hospital. The fellow who now sits in my kitchen accompanied him. The image of James, when I opened the door of the carriage after it stopped for me at the Lancefield Road will be stamped behind my eyes forever. Lying on the bench seat, hidden under blood and dirt, his head cradled in the lap of the person who had caused the accident,. There was a gash on his face that ran from his forehead to his chin, his lips were swollen, and teeth appeared to be missing. The dirt on his arms and hands caked in the cuts and gashes. One leg of his breeches was torn off, with pieces of fabric meshed into the exposed bone. Blood oozed from torn flesh like treacle off a spoon. The tourniquet made from the bullock dray whip, and tied at the top of his leg, was the only thing stopping James from bleeding to death. Did the settler apply the tourniquet? Ah dinnae ken.

Barely conscious, James hadn’t known I was there. Sitting on the seat opposite him and the other man, I leaned forward and put James’s hand in mine. Praying for his survival, my mind raced with the terror of how we would manage the farm if they amputated his leg. Ah dinnae imagine for a minute, that he would die and leave me with six weans under fourteen, and a bairn on the way.

George notices the tears running down my cheeks and leads the settler through the kitchen and out the back door. Jean helps me out of the chair and into the bedroom where I wash and dress for my husband’s last farewell. 

Sitting in front of the mirror as Jean brushes my hair, I gasp at my reflection. I don’t recognise the thirty-nine-year-old woman I see.

‘I look so old. I look like my Ma did just before she passed. She was the age I am now. She lived for three days after wee Campbell was born.’ 

Turning my head from side to side, I see white wisps I hadn’t noticed a week ago. ‘Why is my hair white on the top, and why do my eyes have grey smudges under them? I look as white as I did when we got on the ship at Glasgow to sail to Melbourne.’

‘How do you think you should look, Mama?’ Jean scolds. ‘You’re carrying a bairn and burying your husband today. Talking about your dead Ma isn’t helping.’

When Jean is happy with the way my hair looks and how my hat sits on my head, she sends me back to the kitchen. Wearing my Sunday best, I sit by the fire sipping a cup of tea while my eldest son, Robert, gets the wagon ready for the trip to Romsey for the funeral. Watching the cooking fire smoulder in the grate, I feel my thoughts throb with the coals, pulsing between anger and despair. 

Contrary to the cold in my heart, the sun spreads its warmth across the Romsey township. My son-in-law, George, supports my arm as we cross the dirt track that serves as the primary thoroughfare of the town, toward the small wooden church. On Sunday, the building fills with settlers like us cramming in to listen to the reverend issue warnings and promises and the inevitable retributions. Today the little church cannot hold all the people wanting to farewell James. Hundreds, who could not find space inside, stand quietly as we approach, paying their respects to a much-loved member of our community. George was right; he said James should be farewelled on Good Friday so more could attend. ¹

Mourners squeeze together in the pews. Our neighbours, people my husband supported over the last twenty years, stand against the walls and at the back of the church, heads bowed. It’s ironic that James’s generosity, the reason so many feel obliged to attend his funeral, caused his death.

‘Mama, Mama.’ My two-year-old son Andrew’s cry carries over the murmurings and whispers of the congregation as he pushes himself away from my daughter, Margaret. 

As I bend down and reach out my arms to him, a voice in my head tells me not to cry. Taking his little hand in mine, we let George lead us to the front row where my other children wait. 

‘Our dear friend, James Allan,’ the reverend begins, ‘who emigrated from Scotland in 1852 with his beloved wife Mary, has, by the example of the crowds lining the street, made an indelible mark on our community.’

While Andrew settles on my knee and my other children sit in the pews around me, my thoughts drift. I don’t hear much of the reverend’s eulogy. Occasionally he says something that reminds me of James’s wit, selflessness, and loving nature, and my mind wanders again, coming back to the present only when Andrew fidgets. 

Jean and George insisted we have the wake for James at George’s hotel on the Lancefield Road. I want to go home and wallow in my misery. I think I’ve earned that right. My forty-three-year-old fit and strong husband is dead, and I have six children between two and fourteen to worry about. But, as George paid for the church and the burial plot at the Lancefield Cemetery, I feel obliged. 

Dozens of people cram into the lounge of the hotel, but George finds me amongst them all and introduces me to a reporter from the Lancefield Examiner. 

‘I wrote a piece in the paper last week about your husband’s accident. Did you see it?’ he asks me. 

‘Yes, I did. You captured the tragic event in great detail.’ 

‘Thank you, Mrs Allan. I’m glad you thought highly of it.’

Frowning, I wonder how he turned my words so quickly.

‘I’m writing an article about the funeral so people who could not get to Romsey today can read about how wonderful it was. Did you know the procession for your husband was the longest ever seen in the District? It stretched the whole length of Main Street.’

‘Ah dinnae ken,’ I say to him. 

With a wave of his hand as if I’m a servant to dismiss, he continues, ‘This sad event and the shocking, sudden manner of its occurrence has cast a gloom over the entire district.’

I smile politely, screaming inside: ‘Is there not a gloom cast over me and my family?’ But I am being uncharitable, so I encourage him to keep talking.

‘His unsullied reputation as a man of the strictest integrity in all business transactions, his never-failing good humour and his Christian kindness served to command the respect and highest appreciation of all who knew him. His death may be said to be a public loss, for the district cannot spare many such men.’ ²

The reporter is practising on me, reading from his notes, telling me what he plans to write in the newspaper. Does he want my blessing? I don’t ask, but I thank him for coming, for sharing those very kind words with me, and for remembering my husband with the dignity he deserves. I move on to mix with other mourners.


Jean Witherspoon Jeans (nee Allan)

End June 1873

The cook lets Robert into the kitchen, and calls out to me, ‘Mrs Jean, Mrs Jean, come quickly.’ 

I’ve been sitting in the parlour by the fire watching the persistent rain hit the windows, wondering if it will stop at all today. Walking into the kitchen, I see Robert holding his hat by his side. The water is dripping off it forming pools on the floor. His boots are caked in mud and his coat is so wet it’s hard to see what colour it is supposed to be.

‘Take off your coat and boots, and go over to the fire,’ I instruct as the cook moves in to help him.

‘I’m not here on a social call, Jean,’ he snaps. ‘Mama is in labour. I’ve left our sisters with her. Mary is supposed to help Mama, and Marion is looking after the others. Where is the midwife? I fear Mama will deliver this infant with our fourteen-year-old sister as her only support.’

Panic takes my voice away; I struggle to speak. ‘But the babe isn’t expected for another month. I was going to stay at the farm to help. It’s too soon.’

‘Well this one doesn’t know about your plans. Where is the midwife?’

‘She’s in Lancefield. It will take too long to get her in this weather. I will have to go back with you. Get two horses from the stalls and leave the one you rode here. The stable boy will look after it.

‘You should have put on a dry coat. George has plenty,’ I tell Robert as he holds the horse steady for me.

‘I’ll not get any wetter now.’

In dry weather, the journey from Romsey to Monegeetta takes forty-five minutes. With our heads down to shield our faces from the rain, our horses struggle through heavy mud until we arrive at our parents’ farm five hours after Robert left.

The trip leaves my face stinging from the cold and my hands frozen around the reins. Robert helps me off the horse, but my legs will not cooperate and he almost drags me onto the ground.

Leading both horses into the stalls, Robert leaves me to go into the house on my own. I lift my skirts to keep mud from clinging to the saturated hems and hurry into the annexe next to the kitchen. Dropping my soaked coat, I pull off my sodden boots then call out to my sisters as I make my way into the kitchen, stockinged feet stinging with cold on the stone floor.

Marion, her face the colour of the ash in the fire grate, comes into the kitchen holding Andrew’s hand. ‘Mary is with Mama. She will not let us in the room. It’s very quiet. Jean, I fear something is wrong.’

Dread creeps from my stomach to my throat. The house is quiet; no groans from Mama in childbirth, no crying infant. Silence.

I knock on Mama’s bedroom door before I open it. My sister Mary sits in a chair next to the bed screwing her apron into a ball, letting it go then screwing it up again. Her eyes are red and puffy. Mama is leaning back on the bedhead, cradling the infant in the patchwork blanket I made when Andrew was born.

‘We will have another empty bed,’ Mama says, her face stained with dry tears. ‘The bairn was not meant for this world. We will bury her with her father.’


Mary Allan

July 1873

I remember standing in the snow in the cemetery in Ayrshire the year before James and I left for Melbourne, holding his frozen hand as they lay his mother to rest. When they buried his mother, it was a biting wintry day in December. Twenty-two years later, I am again standing in a cemetery in the bitter cold. This time it’s July. July in Ayrshire would see the sun shining. Here, at the Lancefield Cemetery, it’s a typical winter’s day: rain seeps through the fabric of coats, drips off hats, down backs or into eyes, leaving hands and faces frozen. 

I wipe the stinging tears from my face as the tiny coffin is lowered into the ground. Our bairn will sleep next to her Da. I promise them both I’ll get a fitting headstone. 

The reverend prays for our family for the second time in as many months. My faith willnae waiver, but I look towards the heavens and silently ask God why He has taken my husband and my bairn in the same year. With no time to grieve for James, the anguish of the birth and death of this baby girl gnaws at my soul. She has no name. Born the colour of the sky before a spring storm, she went to be with her Da before taking a breath. 

‘What is in the box, Ma?’ Andrew tugs at my coat sleeve and tilts his head back to see my face through the mist hanging over the plot. 

‘Company for your Da.’

As I pick him up, his muddy shoes swing against my side. His wet coat weighs more than he does. I bury my face into his shoulder; he willnae remember his Da, nor know his little sister. 

He is the last wean James and I will have.

  1. Lancefield Chronicle 10 April 1873
  2. Lancefield Examiner 10 April 1873