'Suzannah Casey, get yer measly little carcass over here,' the guard yelled. 'Suzannah Casey, from Limerick, Ireland.' His voice got louder. 'Over there with that bunch.' He made a slash on his page and waved his hand dismissively, already tired of the long list of names he had to read out. Suzannah raised her arm to protect her eyes from the glare of the sun. Under other circumstances she might have taken the time to enjoy the blue sky and shimmering waters of Sydney Harbour. She scuttled towards the group she'd been directed to, dragging her small bag behind her.
Suzannah looked less than her thirteen years. She was barely four feet tall, fine boned, pale skinned, and though she did not look sickly, there was no more flesh on her bones that was absolutely necessary. Her hair was rich auburn, and hung about her face, almost obscuring her down cast eyes as she peeped around at the faces of the other young girls with whom she'd spent the past nine months; all of them as desolate and confused as she herself felt. It had been nine months she'd thought would never end and wondered if she'd ever survive. She felt the firm ground under her feet and a moment of relief replaced the blurring memory of the vessel swaying day after day, night after night, which had made her feel she would never be able to stand still again. She drew in her breath. A strange smell caught in her nostrils. The familiar stink of rotting fish and salty air was still identifiable, but there was something else; fresher, more alive. She sucked it in, displacing the nauseating staleness in her belly. The hunger was still there, mixed with lingering seasickness, which had been made worse by the terrible smell of others throwing up until there was nothing but dry retching and gagging. For a moment Suzannah could hear again the endless groaning and whimpering of women and children, who'd spent most of the months at sea wishing they could die. And then there'd been the hideous wailing when someone alongside no longer moved or groaned, and a lifeless body was dragged from amongst them, the stench overpowering.
Was the nightmare really over? And what now?
'Move out you lot, and don't be dragging your feet.' The gruff voice startled Suzannah into movement and the small group trudged slowly from the wharf down muddy, noisy lanes, flanked by roughly built storefronts and crowded pubs, from which erupted raucous laughter and the smell of whisky. Like mistreated animals the girls made various responses to those who yelled at them or shoved them as they passed; some hissing and swearing, others whimpering and cringing. By the time they arrived at the dark stone building Suzannah thought she might pass out with weariness. The orphanage cast a long shadow over the street, blocking out the sunlight and swallowing the small figures into a maze of dark corridors and tiny rooms. Suzannah found herself a cot in a corner and stashed her tiny bundle underneath. It held the few things she'd been issued on board the ship; a rough woollen shift, a change of underwear, a small tattered towel, and hidden amongst these, her mam's shawl and her one treasure, her locket.
For the next three months she shuffled between the orphanage and the workhouse where she'd been assigned. Day after day she sewed pieces of material, uncaring of what garment she might be making. Every day was exactly the same, every coarse directive of the overseer yelled with the same disdain, every young face bent over the machines with the same weary, fearful expression. Each evening she was pushed into the street to make her way back to the same measly plate of gruel for supper before she collapsed into her narrow bunk, glad to disappear into sleep before being roused by a loud bell to begin the same process over again. She had not had the energy or inclination to get to know any of the other girls, their faces set with such despair that it was too painful to even ask how they might be on any miserable morning.
Then one day it all changed. She couldn't help but notice the buxom figure of the woman speaking to the overseer in such a forthright manner. Suzannah's heart began to race with some mysterious anticipation. The woman proceeded down the passageway between the rough sawn stools, looking with great intensity at the girls lined up at their machines. She stopped near a couple of the youngest girls, watched them for a few minutes and then touched them on the shoulder and pointed them out to the overseer, who grimaced as if he had some bad taste in his mouth, licked the end of his pencil and scribbled something on what Suzannah thought to be the roll he checked each day. The woman strode further down the row, and stopped behind Suzannah, who hastily returned to her work and tried to look engrossed. Her mind began racing with long forgotten prayers. 'Holy Mother of God, look on me with mercy and grace...let something good come to me this day.' She wasn't sure the last bit was correct, but it was so hard to remember...'Dear God, I promise to learn to pray proper, an' say the Our Father every day for the rest of my life if only...'
Suzannah's thought were stopped by the firm touch on her shoulder, and though she had no idea of this woman's purpose, she knew with all her heart it was the touch of an angel of God.