Earl Grey || by Fiona Murphy

FS Review

CRUNCH OF STONE AND VIBRATION OF HEART. There is no one here to say goodbye. Long lingering looks reserved for the half empty countryside, all dead now. Suckle of flesh, memory of heat, of being held, all dead now. The beauty of beckoning, the breaking of heart. No warm embrace. Farewell my everything, my everyone. Force of step, teetering of waves—rocky and hurtling. I see it. I feel ill. Is it too soon to feel so ill? Or, is it too late? My deft steps quicken. Girls, I spy, many of them, so many. I am somehow apace with them, pallor and listlessness both. They glance, pitiful and sad.

Together, we grieve.

           There are gifts. First ones or final ones. I cannot guess at this. Bone of marrow, spoon of plenty, prayerbook of plenitude. New clothes encased in a glorious wooden box. Strange gifts, symbolic gifts. Strawman gifts for lost girls. They line up. I do too. Broken by force, by loss. Devastated by hunger, brittle of bone and empty of soul. No one smiles. Will we be friends? Should we be friends? My name is Bridgin. What is yours? Do you remember? Where will this end? Please stop crying. 

Some of you are so young, too young for this. 

           No bells toll for us. Too many dead. Smell of rot and burn. Surfacing memories and screeching stories halt me. Grip of handle, careful, slow step, upward. Some of you are so weak. I am so weak. Promise of food, aplenty, they chime. Leathered foreign tongues beat a squared hope into us. It hurts. Masters from that other island, responsible for our loss, responsible for our shame. Masters of death, you say, I say, as the image of my beautiful, kind dead mother floats above me. Responsible for our hauntings, maybe even for generations to come. 

Who knows? I do not. I cannot.

            My name is Bridgin. No one has answered me yet—no hands extended, no warmth exchanged. Side-glances have become our only friend. They named me after that first Brigid. I feel bound to her, strength of her name, prowess of her ghostly presence. I call on her, now and always, like my other ghosts—kith, kin and ancestor. As we toiled, my mother would softly whisper the story of her past to me. She would tell of a life surrounded by love and care, even in the midst of a sparse existence. Her story was one that decentered our own troubles in a gift of momentary respite. Through her telling, our labours were suddenly softened by the presence of strong women, ancestral lore, myth and magic, a partial remedy to overwork and starvation. She, my mother, clung on to this until her harsh, brutal death. I cling to it now and to her—sparrow of what strength I have left. 

             Birdsong of survival.

             Prayer is useless here. It was useless then. No one paid heed to my mother’s cries as one by one her children fell. Last ones left, we were forced into that place of work—our hearts emptied of desire and hope. Worked to the bone, the callousness of our holding place seeped into our very being. Then she was taken from me too. Her body languid and diseased, toppled into a mass grave. No funerary rites for her delicate soul, deemed too unworthy. Where have our dead gone now?

But we, good Sirs, will be the ghosts that will haunt your children’s children.

              Prayer is useless here as it was useless then. Infectious enclosure riding along grey, sickening waves into a crimson unknown. You were selected because you were healthy, Bridgin. Selected. Thick, dark wavy hair, longer now than it has ever been. Sargasso green eyes weary from hunger and death. Here, they tell us, we will be better fed. Here, they tell us, we will be nourished. Here, they tell us, we will soon be fit of form and replenished. This is the story they tell themselves and others. A story which will linger. A story of rescue and recovery. I do not believe their words. My story is one that tells of a thieving of life, of future, of souls. We are the ones christened by loss. It shall remain thus.

I often, all too often, whisper for death to come and rescue me too.

              Circumference of care all but disappeared. We are together, but each all alone. Seasickness, wretchedness. I comfort the younger girls. They tell us, soon you will start a new life. Pray for the kindness of a husband, pray for the children you will bring forth. It is our duty, they tell us. We are servants of their god and state, they seem to believe. There are barbarians there too, one says, but they have not relented in the way you have. He smiles as he speaks. We will rescue their land from them too, no matter the cost, another advises. I see nothing but contempt in their tales. I think of our lost language, lost lands. I think of our missing, of our dead.           


              Weeks of this. Months. Maybe even a lifetime. Who knows what will be there to greet us? More prejudice, more grievance, more loss? The sea, air does suit some of us. The seasickness does not. The food is indeed better, but how could it not be? They do not want us to bring the stench of dying and death with us to this new place. They want wives. They want whiteness to purify. Even our version of this will do for them, for a while at least. I am the only one who suspects. The other girls, some at least, have given up, taking comfort from their tales of charity. My journey might feel shorter if I too could do the same, succumb to their mantra of rescue and freedom.

                      This some say is charity. 

              My name is Bridgin. They try and change this. Simplify it for their foreign tongue. I will not relent. The large wooden box they gifted to us belies their true intent. Open it, empty it, leave it in the sea. New shoes, first shoes for some. I rid them from me, jettisoned, momentarily bobbing, like a miniature ship. They will make you pay for that, one of the converted girls asserts. My loss, I think, as we approach the crimson shores of a strange new land. 

I shall never be converted.

            One of them laughs gleefully. Weeks of seasickness makes way for exalted hysteria. One of them tells us our ugly waywardness will dissolve here. A new path of righteousness in a new land, another shouts. Some of the younger girls believe these Christian myths. I know better. Their God is the same God that failed us. Their God is the same God that allowed my family and so many other families to starve, to wither, to die. We are their prisoners encased in an imagined religious ethic of saving and sacrifice. I see no God or light in their eyes. 

I see their greed; blood thirst.

            The ship gets ever closer. Pretty, unusual birds float above us, chirping in a saccharine tone. I do not know what season it is here. We are told this is the land of heat. I can make out a port more makeshift than the one we departed. It feels like summer, winter they say. As the boat docks, pebbles of eyes stare upwards and out at us as we descend ever so slowly. All I see are men and boys. Shadows move towards us shifting like lacework on the burnt red muddied grass.                                        

My name is Bridgin, but names might be useless to us now. 

            Some are here for servants. Some are here for wives. Some are here to abuse, some to love. We have no way of knowing who or for whom. I look to the riffing trees beyond the people at the port. The girl’s relief is short-lived. A surge in the crowd. Stark, hungry men rush forward. Clamour quietened. A soldier commands with force. People are moved on, nothing here for you except for the lucky few. I sense homesickness—some merely want contact with those fresh from their homeland. No news, we bring no news. Only more loss and death. 

A surfeit of storied pain is all we have to offer.

           They march us off, one by one. No feeling of freedom here. Harsh sunlight, already too much. I feel its burn will cause more distress. This place feels makeshift, in process. Grabbing eyes glare at us as we are directed through the crowd. The other girls are wearing their pretty new shoes. Mine are drowning in the sea some miles away. So, I move barefoot and wild-eyed. You won’t be wanted, one jokes. Religious chants fill the air. We accept no heathens here. We are marched to a place resembling the misery from whence we came. Labour, pain, death once more in this new free place. You’ll not be here for long, one of them tells us. Servants are needed. Wives are needed. As one day runs into the next, the girls are taken, released into this new world. Some go willingly, some do not want to leave the collective embrace. Some will suffer, some will flourish. 

I am one of the last in this place, left it seems, to languish. 

              So, I decide to run. To run free. Into the wilderness of this place I go, tarred scorched earth beneath my swollen feet. Unknown menace ahead. In our weeks and months here, we have been told tales of strange dangers—snakes, crocodiles, spiders that devour. They cannot be more frightening than those who forced us to this place. I move through empty forested land, avoiding human encounter. I seek those other people who live here. Since my arrival I have heard many stories of this land’s owners, of their violent displacement. Such incursions of land and soul remind me of my own. Threatened by enslavement too, they will surely be my ally. Crunch of stone and vibration of heart. They will welcome me; of that I am sure. 

Postscript: From 1848-1850, Irish girls, between the ages of 14-18, survivors of famine and fury, were delivered to Australia aboard the Earl Grey. A purported charitable scheme with the aim of addressing the gender balance in the new colony, many of these young girls were married off, some became domestic servants. Some of their stories were tales of survival, but others continued to suffer terrible abuse in this new colony. This is my praisesong for these girls, displaced by famine and colonialism. 

Earl grey, also the name of a tea, one I can never bring myself to drink. 

Meet the Author:

FIONA MURPHY is an anthropologist and writer hailing from Kerry but living in Dublin. She works for Queen's University Belfast. She has a particular interest in asylum seeker and refugee issues, and a strong love for historical fiction.

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