In a dread-laden atmosphere of shocking sights and smells, the transportation of four convicts to the women’s gaol Parramatta Female Factory is as grim as their backstory. Although hiding a terrible secret between them, these young women are resilient and struggle against the harsh conditions.
The Convict Girls four-book series written by Deborah Challinor follows four bonded female convicts Friday Woolfe, Rachel Winter, Sarah Morgan and Harriet Clarke who are shipped from London’s infamous Newgate Prison to the penal colony of Sydney Town, New South Wales, to work off their sentences. The penalties for petty crime, like the strange new land, are unforgiving.
Set in 1832, the travails of Friday, Rachel, Sarah and Harrie jump off the page as each book tells the story from each woman’s perspective while moving the narrative forward. Titles are Behind the Sun, Girl of Shadows, The Silk Thief, A Tattooed Heart. As they work through their bond in different forms of servitude, the reader follows their friendship, the physical and mental strain, and their all-important futures.
Author Deborah Challinor skilfully expands and elaborates on their new lives (the homebody, the thief, the seamstress, the prostitute) while keeping the voice true. She gets the more risqué messages across without unnecessary crudeness. Her well researched, well written plots and strong supporting characters, like cruel Bella Jackson and handsome Dr James Downey, blend together to spin a gripping yarn, spiced with highs, lows, loves, laughs, drama and murder.
I love good historical fiction, this quartet is superb (look beyond the chick-lit cover art) and Deborah Challinor knows how to lure her readers. The outstanding imagery, ripe for screen adaptation, kept me reading long after I should have turned off the light. I strongly recommend this 5-star series and suggest reading the stories in sequence so they unfold in all their splendour.
AUTHOR BIO: Deborah Challinor is a writer and PhD historian from Waikato in New Zealand. She lived in Australia while researching the stories for her Convict Girls series. The books follow four young woman transported to New South Wales for petty crimes. The character of Friday Woolfe is loosely based on her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Mary Ann Anstey who was caught stealing a silk handkerchief and sent out to Sydney Town on Lady Juliana, a convict ship dispatched in 1789 from England to Australia. Deborah Challinor has written over 16 books, historical fiction and non-fiction titles. Website https://www.read-nz.org/writer/challinor-deborah/
A snowflake fell on Anne’s shoulder as she walked across the muddy track between the ski lodge and the cabins. Her boots were of no concern, she was more worried about slipping over in the new jacket she’d just purchased for an exorbitant sum in the gift shop.
The shop assistant had jabbed at the ski jacket with her bandaged hand and grimaced. “Guaranteed waterproof.”
The jacket was a unisex design, muted green with inserted grey panels. It was a generous length, full of padding, zips and reinforced stitching. A stylised logo was sewn on the high collar, a small discreet statement of affluence. “Stupid really,” thought Anne. “After today, I won’t be wearing it again.”
A product of the Sunshine State, Anne supposed her sister in Tasmania might like its Antarctic weight. Still, today it was worth its weight in gold. Today it would earn its expensive price tag by stopping her from freezing to death when the snowmobile crashed into a gnarled snow gum. Sadly Paul, her fiancé of one month, would not survive. A branch would spear him in the chest and he would die at the scene.
With numb fingers, Anne cleaned the cloying mud off her boots using a sharp stick. Inside the beautifully-appointed living room, the ambience enveloped her like warm honey, contrasting with the glance Paul shot her from under his dark lashes.
“Right,” he said, “are we ready to roll?”
While he secured their ski equipment, Anne mounted the twin seater snowmobile and positioned a basket of rations on the seat. “Alcohol was a contributing factor” stated the soon-to-be tragic accident report which ran grimly through her mind.
Their route to the plateau was empty, a vast tract of whiteness stretching out before them. The chalet was quickly lost to sight and they hadn’t travelled far when Paul pulled over, skidding in the pristine snow.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing across the undulating tundra.
A barely visible arm was waving listlessly just above the snow line. Anne squinted into the glare. She had an agenda and feigned ignorance.
A sense of urgency crept into Paul’s tone. “Look, over there. Somebody’s crashed.”
Before Anne could protest, Paul had swung the vehicle around and was heading in the direction of a stricken form.
When they reached the spot, they found a skier laying crumpled in the churned snow. Anne experienced a moment of revelation. She stifled a snort. “Typical.”
It was the woman from the cabin next to theirs, all mouth, red claws and stiff blonde hair.
With athletic confidence, Paul jumped out of the snowmobile and landed beside her. “Oh shit, Verity, what happened?”
After much wailing, Verity explained that her leg felt broken and she couldn’t get up.
Paul squeezed her ungloved hand, his voice rising in dismay. “How long have you been here?”
“Hours,” she wept, “I’m freezing, I can’t feel my legs.”
Anne saw what Verity didn’t know. One leg had been skewered by a snapped ski pole and blood was seeping behind her into the snow.
Fighting a wave of nausea, exacerbated by Verity’s liberally applied perfume, Anne peered closer.
“The woman looks like she’s dressed for a cocktail party,” she thought, “And she used the wrong ski pole.” She swallowed the words “That’s mine.” It was a struggle to remain silent in the face of such duplicity. Anne realised a very different scenario had been planned.
Paul turned to Anne, his face rigid. “Give me your jacket.”
He wrenched it off, twisting her body. “Get on the ski buggy and go back for help. Fast as you can! I’ll try to stop the bleeding.”
Anne’s eyes flashed with anger. Suppressing her temper at this unforseen turn of events, she drove the snowmobile back down the slope. Half way to the emergency post, she shoved the provisions off the seat into a snow drift. The champagne would be well chilled. She withdrew the sharp stick from her ski boot and it followed the abandoned basket. It hurt to leave her brand new jacket. On the other hand, she would also leave Paul and take great pleasure in selling off their engagement gifts.
Several months later, Verity was preparing for a move to Perth and a new boyfriend. She began cleaning out her wardrobe. She sat looking at the green polar jacket. A mixture of bitter sweet memories came with that jacket, conceivably more bitterness than she cared to recall. She rubbed a finger across the scar which gouged her cheek.
The jacket was tossed unceremoniously onto the pile of clothes destined for the charity shop. Verity hoped Anne’s jacket would keep a dirty, smelly person warm.
Laughter gurgled up like bile in her throat and she turned to her girlfriend.
“I wonder if Paul is sleeping on the streets yet?”
Her girlfriend raised hunched shoulders in a noncommittal reply.
Verity rose and limped across to her coffee cup. “It was the thrill of the chase really.
Everything deteriorate after I mixed-up the ski poles. Then that stick flicked up and hit my face.”
They stuffed the hardly-worn apparel into brightly coloured department store bags. After loading Verity’s car, a present from Paul he wasn’t getting back, they drove in silence to the charity warehouse. The only sound Verity made was to blast the horn at a cattle truck which veered into her lane.
A small woman, with bright eyes and quick movements, dashed across to a large open box. Moments earlier, she had surreptitiously watched a blonde female dump clothing into it.
As she leaned over the cardboard box, the sides buckled inward and the box nearly swallowed her. The first jacket she saw was perfect. The woman knew that this green jacket would suit her burly son-in-law who laboured in all weathers. She walked to the counter with it firmly clamped in her hands.
The cashier barely moved her eyes from the screen. “Twenty-five dollars.”
With a gulp, the small woman said “It doesn’t have a price tag on it. Maybe it’s cheaper?” She smoothed the crinkled logo repeatedly with her thumb.
“Listen, love,” the cashier said, her whole body exuding weariness, “you shouldn’t have taken it out of that box, it ain’t been sorted yet.”
“Could you check for me, please?” said the small woman, straining on tiptoe, losing her battle to conduct a face-to-face conversation.
A gleam lit the cashier’s eyes. “I’ll have to nick out the back and check with the warehouse manager.” As she spoke, she scooped up a packet of cigarettes.
“Hey, Macro, will ya take over for me, mate?”
Macro knew it wasn’t a question. As she vanished through a door marked Staff Only, he settled his long, lanky frame into her warm chair and crossed his legs. The small woman knew that relief cashiers were not bound by the same hard and fast rules of others and Macro proved this point.
“Ten bucks, little Kathleen.” He leaned over the counter. “Go before she gets back, sweetheart.”
Kathleen paid with coins and thanked him profusely. She scurried out the door and down the street. Once around the corner, she stopped to catch her breath, air rasping into her lungs. Her fingers dug into the depth of those warmly lined pockets and she felt the colouring book and pencils she’d nicked for her granddaughter.
Kathleen said she didn’t own a mobile phone “Because they caused ear cancer.” So, when she arrived home, a message was waiting on her back door. The tack had punctured the notepaper like an exclamation mark at the end of the word “boy”.
Kathleen headed back to the bus stop with an empty stomach and a head full of premature baby scenarios. She prayed for her sixth grandson.
When she alighted at the hospital, she stopped dead in her tracks. “Where’s the jacket? Did I leave it on the bus?”
Startled, her heart lurched in her chest and she could hear the blood roaring in her ears. It was unseasonably warm. Her temperature soared as she willed herself to stay calm.
“What have I done with it?”
She patted her chest in consternation, then a green cuff caught her eye. Kathleen cautiously held out her arm. A sudden surge of relief left her feeling weak at the knees.
Swamped by ice-repelling warmth, Kathleen peeled off the jacket. With a reddened face and thin brown hair plastered to her skull, she dragged the seemingly leaden garment through the double doors of the maternity ward.
There was no crib beside the bed and judging by the look of the machines around her daughter, there had been complications. Kathleen wasn’t strong around illness. The four-bed ward began to swim and tilt alarmingly. She tottered over to a hard-looking chair next to the bed. Her daughter’s round face showed dismay but Kathleen grasped the back of the chair, determined to offer consoling words. A hoarse sound escaped from Kathleen’s lips but was cut short by her daughter’s scream; a scream which sounded suspiciously like “Muuum”.
When little Kathleen came round, a nurse was asking her to breathe slowly and evenly through an oxygen mask. Kathleen listened to her babble on about someone with a weak heart and years of food with poor nutritional value.
The nurse paused to adjust a valve and Kathleen asked “Where am I? Where’s my jacket?”
“You’re in the cardiac wing of the hospital, dear. Of course, your handbag’s been locked up but I didn’t see a jacket.”
Her eyes widened. “But the polar jacket. It’s green with grey––”
A sting stopped Kathleen. She looked down and saw another nurse pull a syringe out of her pale, bony arm and dab cotton wool on the injection site.
The nurse grinned. “Don’t worry, dear. It’ll turn up, just you wait and see.”
Anthony had seen the prestigious logo during his clean up.
As she tumbled, Kathleen had tipped the chair over, consequently bringing down the side cabinet and a drip stand. The whole lot had ended up in a heap, covering the ski jacket with a broken vase, crushed flowers, soggy towels and an aged handbag.
“It’s amazing how one little old lady could cause such havoc,” mused Anthony as he shovelled everything into a large black plastic bag. The maternity ward patients and visitors had been vacated so he righted the furniture and mopped the floor. To avoid scrutiny, he checked the handbag into Reception lost property. He liked to think he had a conscience.
Anthony sent the garbage bag down the chute and hastily followed it to the lower ground floor. He heaved the towels onto a clammy laundry pile and ducked down out of surveillance range. Fumbling for the precious jacket, a shard of broken vase cut his finger. With a yelp of pain, he wrenched the jacket free, trying to avoid blood droplets on the fabric.
He found a tissue in his trouser pocket. His finger began to throb and he was annoyed with himself for forgetting to leave his sports bag down in the utilities area. Now he’d have to walk through the staff zone to reach his locker. Nonchalantly holding the jacket, it proved surprisingly easy to slip by unnoticed. Attention was focused on the noise of an agitated mother causing a commotion upstairs.
An hour later Anthony was in his flat, itching to try the jacket on for size. He shook it out and gloated over the beauty of its tailoring. It fitted him like a glove. He shoved his hands into the deep pockets. A flash of pain shot through his finger and the cut reopened. He withdrew the offending orange pencil. “Kid’s junk,” he sniffed and threw the objects into a milk crate.
In front of his bedroom mirror, Anthony smoothed his ponytail and considered his image from different angles. He preened and pouted before removing the jacket. It smelled of perfume. Regardless of origins, he grinned with delight. He knew his flatmate Wilson would be jealous when he saw it.
Anthony bounced down a flight of stairs to knock on the pink front door of his girlfriend Frederica’s flat. “Maybe she wants to go out?” He lived in hope.
Frederica worked in a wine bar and obviously wasn’t at home. Which suited Anthony. He could drop by the bar before dinner, show off his new jacket and at the same time scrounge a free drink.
He arrived at the bar just as raindrops began to fall. Inside, he removed the ski jacket and was seated at a low table opposite a morose man whose conference name tag read “Paul”. He was slurping at a vodka like someone who didn’t care anymore, and definitely someone who wasn’t going to work next day.
Anthony accepted his drink from a cross-dresser with long legs who eyed off his jacket. He looked around for Frederica. He heard her delicious laugh. He couldn’t see her until she emerged through an open side door which accessed a private room. She was tugging at someone who seemed coyly reluctant to follow. Anthony almost swallowed an ice cube when he saw Wilson materialise beside her.
They stepped forward but pulled up short when they saw Anthony. Out of habit, Frederica twitched the neckline of her top. With his rendezvous interrupted and nowhere to hide, Wilson stood there unmistakably working on an excuse.
Without a word, Anthony rose and grabbed his jacket, an action which irritated Paul the drunk, and headed towards the door. Frederica was ready to make amends, rosy cheeks dimpling with apology, but before she could speak Anthony walked out of the bar.
He was glad to escape the smell of alcohol soaked carpet and the nicotine tinged breath of patrons who’d seen it all before, relieved it wasn’t them. Conversely the cut on his finger started to pulsate. “Bloody brilliant,” he growled and the notion of infection fuelled his rising anger.
The night air was misty and the bitumen road gleamed with falling rain. Aggravation merged with anger. Anthony briefly considered holding the jacket over his head. Somehow this gesture seemed feeble, as though he was cringing under it, taking shelter like a reviled lover sneaking back home.
Furious at the thought, he crossed the street against the lights and stomped through a luminous puddle which shimmered with oily rainbows. Unexpectedly his leather shoes slipped out from underneath him. The ski jacket went flying and in the split second before he hit the ground, Anthony knew he was going to fracture something important.
She kept looking over her shoulder into the gloom to make sure she wasn’t being followed down the alley. Once satisfied, she wrapped the jacket around her waist and tied the sleeves. She hoped it didn’t have blood on it. Hospital scavenging was risky. Taking from another hospital scavenger was riskier still. He had been crying too hard to notice.
Further along, she scaled a crumbling brick wall and dropped down into a dismal rectangular courtyard filled with rain-soaked herbs. The aroma of crushed basil wafted up to tickle her nostrils. The girl was hungry and knew Aunt Ivy would feed. In return, she would hand over this magnificent jacket. It seemed to hug her in a warm embrace, an infusion more distinct than any familial bond she had known. Fleetingly, she examined this raw thought and then dismissed it. Aunt Ivy’s food was enough.
After knocking with a secret code, she heard the bolts draw back and light pierced the shadows.
“Welcome back, Tuyêt,” said her Aunt.
Tuyêt replied in their language. “A little something for you.”
She unknotted the sleeves and held up her trophy. The jacket seemed to prickle her palms. It stung a scar on her wrist as it was drawn from her grasp. She frowned, but not so her Aunt would notice, and slipped into the sweet smelling kitchen. Steaming bowls of noodles and rice were placed on the table and while Tuyêt ate, she watched her Aunt thoroughly check the jacket.
With a knowing nod, Aunt Ivy said “It was made in your cousin’s factory.”
The girl was sceptical but her Aunt insisted. She held up the jacket which she had turned inside out. “See, here on the lining, the factory mark. Also, it bears your cousin Lanh’s sign.”
The felt pen marks meant nothing to Tuyêt. To her, they were as indecipherable as ancient Egyptian. She tucked her limp hair behind her ears and raised her chin.
“Why should I care if one of my lousy cousins made it, particularly the bad one?”
With a dismissive flip of the hand designed to amuse her Aunt, she said “I don’t want it, you keep it.”
Aunt Ivy gladly accepted the jacket. She had a suitable person in mind, someone who worked hard for very little reward. Later that evening, after supper, she waited until her husband was rested before she presented it to him.
“Ivy,” he said, recoiling from the ski jacket after inspection, “you know cousin Lanh has a poisoned mind, he probably put a curse on this jacket. One thing is for sure, I couldn’t bring myself to wear it for fear its blackness would overtake me.”
Disappointed in her superstitious husband, yet fighting with her own apprehension, Ivy decided to sell the jacket. She displayed it in the window of her tired old shop just off the main road and waited patiently for a customer to buy it.
One Friday afternoon, a man wearing tailored trousers and a maple leaf badge on his crisp shirt, pushed open the front door of her shop. He blundered into the book carousel. He apologised, becoming more and more vociferous as he picked up the fallen paperbacks and outdated magazines. Ivy could tell he was having trouble asking the price of the dusty ski jacket even though he couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“Actually I’m lost but I saw that jacket in your window and just had to stop. I know quality when I see it.”
He blossomed under Ivy’s sales technique and she avoided asking him why he wanted a second-hand jacket. He supplied the information.
“Where I work, you know, we fellows need sturdy winter gear.”
He didn’t blink when Ivy told him the price and paid much more than it was worth.
“I’ll give you my business card and if you come across another of these fine coats, you let me know.”
Ivy knew she would never see another one but smiled encouragingly just the same. The name on the card was Robert, with an unpronounceable surname, and she let it flutter into the wastepaper basket under the counter.
As she watched him climb into his Lexus, Ivy took comfort in knowing that his money was earmarked for Tuyêt. The tutor had promised to persevere for another six months.
Robert’s arthritic joints creaked when he eased himself into the rental car. On twelve weeks leave from his mining job, he was leisurely passing through Sydney, heading north to the sunshine. His accountant had said “Enjoy your riches, Rob” without sarcasm or envy.
Robert tossed the ski jacket onto the front seat of the sedan and tapped the faulty GPS. He wished there was a road map in the glove box. He pulled out into the stream of traffic and his thoughts turned to the jacket, mainly because it emitted a musty odour which forced him to open a window.
He wouldn’t need the ski jacket for a while. In the meantime, he’d have it drycleaned and stored in his new girlfriend’s wardrobe. Robert remembered she used to ski. He hoped she would wear it on a trip he was planning. “The green will match her eyes. And it might come in handy when she feels cold.” He’d seen Anne shiver, especially when she talked about snow.
Out on the highway, signposts became less frequent. Robert tapped the GPS again. The screen went blank and he cursed. He heard a horn blast and looked up. A cattle truck was bearing down on him. He tried to take evasive action but his reflexes weren’t quick enough to avoid a collision.
With brakes pumping and tyres squealing, the truck sideswiped him. The force spun the Lexus around twice before the momentum plunged it through a steel guard rail and down an embankment. It rolled several times. The windscreen shattered and items flew through the gaping hole. Robert saw the ski jacket float upwards, briefly outlined by the blue sky, then flap out of sight. As the world faded to black, he heard a chuckle.
Long after Robert had surrendered to a pain-free environment, a council worker pulled up between the rescue vehicles. He scattered the grazing cows and looked over the edge.
The first thing he saw was a ski jacket draped across a clump of weeds. Further down, he saw the smashed car, swarming with ambulance officers.
Making sure no one was watching, he scrambled sideways down the embankment and picked up the unscathed jacket. Whistling, he threw it into the back of his repair truck and began to erect temporary barricades. Little Kathleen had told him to be on the lookout for a winter jacket.