Two generations face heartbreak and injustice in this poignant and emotional novel inspired by true events.
Mary Roberts is a poor gutter child living in a council flat in 1950’s London. When she and her sister are left at an orphanage by their mother, they don't think their lives can get any worse.
Harry Evans is an orphan who finds himself, with Mary and her sister, on board a ship bound for Australia. They're sent to a farm school for children, where abuse and neglect are rife. A journey that will change their lives forever, and from which they’ll never return.
Married to her dream man, and with a baby on the way, Dr Mia Sato’s life is in perfect order. When her beloved grandmother has a fall, the photograph clutched in her hand prompts Mia to ask questions her grandmother isn’t willing to answer. When she cries out a confession that rocks Mia to her core, it leads to a shocking discovery of a past filled with lies, broken families and forced child migration.
For readers of Before We Were Yours and Where the Crawdad Sings.
From the USA Today Bestselling author of The Waratah Inn series.
Release date: October 12, 2021
Publisher: Black Lab Press
Print pages: 396
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Behind the book
Based on one of Britain's most secret and shameful real-life scandals in which over 100,000 British children were forcibly deported to Canada, South Africa, and Australia over several decades. Lilly Mirren’s heartbreaking, captivating and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us that no matter where the journey leads us, our heart will always find its way home to those we love.
Beyond the Crushing Waves
Gloom crawled across the East End of London. The moist exhale of a remnant fog hung over the rubble, creeping around the ends of the nearby tenement building. Bricks, some whole, most in pieces, lay strewn across the ground. A few had been piled here and there by industrious scamps looking for something to do or somewhere to play. One half of a wall climbed suddenly out of the rubble and turned a corner, marking where the edge of the building had once stood.
A light drizzle tickled the end of her nose, and Mary Roberts sneezed.
“All right, then. No need to cheat, you,” cried her sister Charlotte, a frown creasing her pale seven-year-old features.
“Not cheating, Lottie, you daft girl. It’s the rain making me sneeze.”
Lottie raised her makeshift sword high over her head and brought it down as hard as her thin arms would allow, the stick glancing off Mary’s own sword as she stumbled backwards over a pile of bricks.
She held up her stick to block another parry, then scuttled backwards, crouched low to the ground. “You’re never gonna win, Blackbeard!”
Lottie set the end of her stick on the ground and wiped her nose with the back of one tattered sleeve. “Oi, I don’t know why I’ve got to be Blackbeard every time. I want to be the hero, saving the day. It’s not fair. You always make me play the baddie.”
Dirt streaked Lottie’s face. Her blue eyes glistened with unshed tears. Her nose was red and her lips a faint shade of purple.
Mary sighed, set down her own stick and wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “You can be the hero next time. Come on, let’s get you inside. It’s cold out here, and you without a coat.”
They sidled around the edge of the bomb crater in the middle of their jousting stage and, arm in arm, trotted towards the tenement building. A trio of boys, three brothers, squatted around something on the ground up against the brick wall. The way forward lay around them. The only other route involved leaping across a large puddle that Mary was certain Lottie wouldn’t manage and would end up with wet, muddy feet and no change of socks to warm her feet with.
She waited a few moments, impatience nipping at her heels. She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye — a rat nosed through the wreckage, searching for scraps. It was big, brown, and fat, its long tail curved behind it, black beady eyes surveying its surroundings as it ducked and scurried between hiding places. She wished she was close enough to hit it on the head with one of the bricks by her feet. It’d make a right feast for her and Lottie. They hadn’t eaten meat in weeks. Her mouth watered at the thought of it roasting over the fire on the end of a stick, crackling and dripping as it sizzled. Never mind chasing after it —the rat would be gone before she could get there. She’d chased enough of them in her life to know that.
Hunger clenched her stomach. She pursed her lips, tapping a foot as she studied the boys, hoping one of them might move out of their way. Then all of a sudden, she pushed past them with a loud “excuse me”. Lottie followed close behind, doing her best to balance in a line and shimmy by the children. She lost her footing and leaned a hand on one of the boys to steady herself. Mary glanced back and saw the look of horror on her sister’s face as she realised what she’d done.
Jimmy Myer was twelve years old, a dim boy who was as mean as a cornered badger. Lottie knew better than to mess around with one of the Myer boys. But it was too late to reprimand her now.
Jimmy jumped to his feet, his face blooming a dark shade of red as he turned on them.
“What do ya think you’re doing? Did I say you could sidle past me like the two stray cats you are?”
Behind him, his brothers laughed uproariously. One of them mimicked the wail of a cat. The other laughed even louder.
Lottie faced him, her mouth ajar, her small hand trembling in Mary’s.
Jimmy took a step towards her, pumping one fist into the palm of the other hand. “I guess you need some schooling.”
Anger swept up Mary’s spine and burned in her cheeks. She grabbed Lottie by the arms and pushed in front of her.
The movement caught Jimmy off guard for a moment. His eyes narrowed.
“I can teach you both a lesson just as well as one of you,” he threatened, pushing the sleeves of his too-small coat up both arms one at a time. “Two little girls. I’m gonna enjoy watching you cry.”
Mary recognised in him the same savage look she’d seen on the faces of the dogs that scuttled and scowled their way around the community, lurking in dark corners and coming out to fight when they were boxed in. And like those feral creatures, it’d take more than her usual sweet words to get out of this one.
Her eyes narrowed as adrenaline coursed through her veins. “I’d just as soon teach you!”
One fist lurched out and popped him in the nose.
He howled in surprise and clutched at his bloody nose, stumbling away from them.
“Come on,” said Mary, reaching for Lottie’s hand.
She dragged her sister after her, running around the scattered bricks and dodging craters filled with muddy water. Rain misted against her face, blinking wet on her eyelashes. Her nose was so cold, it barely registered any sensation at all. She looked over her shoulder and saw the boys hadn’t followed. In fact, they seemed to be embroiled in some kind of scuffle amongst themselves, so she slowed her pace, puffing small clouds of white into the frigid air.
Mary looked up as they drew close to their home, her gaze taking in the sagging roof, the reaching black mould that’d climbed the brick face of the unit around the front door coated in a thin layer of peeling blue paint. She pushed the door open then traipsed up the steps to the second level. No welcoming rush of warmth greeted her when she stepped through an ajar door into their flat. Either they’d run out of coal for the fire, or the open front door had robbed the place of its heat while they played.
“Mam!” she called.
There was no response.
Lottie skipped inside, slumped onto the top of a milk crate, and wrapped her arms around herself, pulling her threadbare brown jumper tight around her tiny frame. Mary pushed the door closed and locked it.
“Cold in here too,” Lottie complained with another dash of her hand at her running nose.
“I’ll get the fire going.”
The cramped living room was furnished with overturned wooden orange boxes, milk crates and a single worn-out armchair which was reserved for their mother. She spent the evenings when she was indoors with them sitting in the chair, sipping whisky, and darning or knitting. She loved to knit and did it whenever she was able to rustle up some yarn, needles clicking and flashing. Those were the good nights. The times they shared together as a family. But they were becoming rarer with each month that passed. In fact, Mary could hardly remember the last time they’d all spent the evening together by the fire. These days, they barely had enough coal to last.
The fire in the stove lay cold and black behind the rusted door on its little squeaky hinges. Remnants of coal dusted the space and Mary leaned down to brush it to the side. She set down the crushed ball of old newspaper and went to work to set up a steeple of kindling.
“We’ll fetch more kindling tomorrow,” she muttered beneath her breath. Kindling was her job. Hers and Lottie’s. Mam wasn’t often home, so didn’t much care whether or not there was a fire in the grate —at least that was what she’d yell whenever they asked her about it.
She bought the coal when she could afford it, but anything else was up to the girls.
Lottie curled up on the floor to watch Mary work. She tucked her legs beneath her skirts, one toe poking through a hole in her shoe and a matching one in her stocking.
“One day, I’m going to live in a warm place,” said Lottie, with another attempt to wipe her nose. “Warm and dry.”
“And we’ll eat oranges every day,” added Mary, with a smiling glance at her sister.
“Yes, and plump sausages too.”
“With potatoes and gravy.” Mary licked her lips, imagining the burst of flavour hitting her tongue, the crisp brown skin of the sausage and the salty gravy covering a mound of creamy mash. She’d eaten the meal once when she was four years old and they’d visited her grandparents in the north. They’d lived in a house all their own, with a yard and everything. She often thought about running away to see if she could find them again, although she didn’t recall where exactly they lived and hadn’t seen them since.
“That sounds lovely,” replied Lottie, her eyes shining with the reflection of light from the fire as it rose through the open door of the stove before her.
Mary sighed and reached out a hand to stroke Lottie’s cheek, pushing a strand of oily hair behind her sister’s ear. “I’ll get it for you someday. I promise, I will.”
* * *
“What are you lazy girls doing? You’ll burn the bloomin' house down, you will.”
The slap of her mother’s hand stung Mary’s face before the shouting registered in her addled mind. She leapt to her feet, dazed and sleepy. The fire had warmed one side of her body. The other side was cold from where she’d lain on the hard floor.
Her mother shook Lottie awake before striding to stoke the fire. “Where’s tea? Anyone would think I haven’t taught you little scamps anyfink useful at all.”
“Sorry, Mam. I must’ve gone off to sleep,” said Mary, rubbing at the place on her cheek where her mother’s cuff still stung.
“You’ll be sorry if you don’t get to it now. I’m hungry as a wolf, am I. Been workin’ all day, fingers to the bone, and this is what I come home to. You shiftless lot, laying about as though you’re Lady Muck. Get a move on, or it’s a floggin' for the both of you.”
It was dark in the unit, apart from the light from the fire that danced on the stained walls. It was spooky at night. Mary hated the dark, but not as much as Lottie did. So, she pretended to be brave for her sister’s sake and told her there was nothing to fear in the night. But she didn’t really believe her own words.
There was plenty to fear, as far as she was concerned. Rats that might eat your face, stray cats who’d come in after the rats and stayed to scare the living daylights out of her if she got up in the night for a glass of water. There was Mam, who came home drunk more often than not, and whose predilection for the thin piece of cane she hung behind the bedroom door was always stronger when she’d spent the night nursing a bottle in her hands. It stung Mary’s legs where it landed in rapid succession, and if Mam went for Lottie, Mary would push in, leaning over her sister to take the blows herself as her sister sobbed in her arms. But her heroics only made Mam madder than a hornet, so Mary’s legs fairly bled with the slashes of the cane then.
The worst nights of all were when Mam’s gentleman friends came to call and spent the night in Mam’s cot. They’d invariably be in as bad a state or worse than she was. They’d leer at the girls through whiskey-soaked eyes and tell jokes Mary didn’t quite understand that made Mam laugh until her face was red. Those were the nights when Mary let Lottie sleep against the wall in their shared bed so she could keep watch on the door.
The first thing to do was turn on the single electric bulb to light the living room. But when she flicked the switch, it stayed dull, without even a shimmer of light. She reached for another switch, the one over the kitchen sink, but it didn’t light either.
The shilling under the stairs must’ve run out. They’d need to add another to the meter if they wanted the electricity back on. But with the mood she was in, Mary knew better than to bother Mam about it tonight. There was nought to be done. She’d have to make tea in the dark or by the light of a candle, if there were any to be found.
After searching high and low, Mary found a stub of a candle left in the cupboard over the sink. She lit it and set it on the small kitchen table, careful to slip a piece of cardboard under one table leg to keep it from wobbling and displacing the candle. Then she sliced three pieces of stale bread and chunks of cheese that were wrapped in waxed paper and stowed in the tiny cubby beneath the bench. She wished there was some fresh milk for Lottie to drink. Her sister was skinny and had a pale, gaunt look about her that worried Mary. Instead, she brewed a pot of tea and used the leaves from the morning’s pot to give the hot water a little weak flavour. There was some sugar left in the canister, so she added a spoonful to each mug of tea before setting them on the table.
There was also the cough that wracked her sister’s frail frame and hadn’t left since a bout of flu last winter that’d scared Mary to death. It was the blue tinge to Lottie’s face that’d brought a flash of understanding — if Lottie died, Mary would be all alone in the world. There was no one else who cared, no one else to hold her hand or snuggle up against her on the coldest nights. She couldn’t let that happen. So, she’d spent every waking moment nursing her sister back to health or scouring the streets for an opportunity to steal a piece of fruit or a day-old loaf of bread from the local bakery.
Finally, Lottie had recovered, but the wet, hacking cough remained. It worried Mary every time she heard it. She was determined to do something, to find her sister something nourishing to eat, to get her a second pair of wool socks or a thick coat. Anything to keep her safe for one more day.
“Tea’s ready!” she called.
She set three plates on the kitchen table surrounding the candle that flickered and fluttered in the small breeze that crept through the cracks in the plaster walls.
They sat down together, Lottie beside Mary who sat across from Mam. Mam ate slowly in between gulping swallows of whiskey from a battered tin cup. The girls ate in silence. The bread stuck in Mary’s throat. It was dry and difficult to chew. She filled her mouth with tea in an attempt to soften the doughy mouthful, then swallowed. The tea was weak, but sweet, and brought a rush of hunger pangs as soon as it landed in her empty stomach.
Mam’s face seemed haunted in the faltering light from the candle’s thin flame. Her cheeks were hollow, her eyes like dark sockets. She clutched her knitted shawl around her shoulders, covering a tear in her collar where a reddened scab showed through. Mary was curious about what had happened but didn’t dare ask — there were few things she had the courage to question Mam about. She’d learned the hard way that any question Mam didn’t like resulted in a cuff to the cheek or a blow to the head. Sometimes the question jumped from her mouth before she realised it, and still surprised by her own brazen confidence, she failed to duck when Mam’s palm connected with her cheek.
“I lost my job today,” Mam said suddenly.
Mary’s heart fell. No job meant no more money for bread or cheese, no more coins for under the staircase. No chance of a new coat for Lottie. Not to mention Mam’s temper was infinitely worse whenever she was out of work. But Mary knew better than to say a word about any of her fears. Fears were things you kept to yourself like rag dolls made from the scraps of clothes that no longer fit — she lined them up deep in her soul and dressed them in remnants, hovering over them with wary eyes, but never talking about them out loud.
Lottie exchanged a worried look with Mary, eyes wide and doleful, like the eyes of a frightened fawn. Mary wanted to hold her close and tell her everything would be all right. But Mam hated it when she did that, so instead she offered Lottie a wobbly smile.
“I was feeling poorly, sorry for myself and angry. Because who is that scoundrel Frank to fire me for doing nothing more than taking a break when my knees felt poorly in the bad weather? Nothing but a smarmy old tosser who likes to make out he’s the big man. But I ran into some ladies today. They was goin’ around the Bethnal Green, talking to people about an opportunity. So, I thought, I’m in want of an opportunity, me and my girls. I’m going to listen to what they have to say. They’ve got a chance for us, a chance at a better life.”
“What is it, Mam?” asked Lottie.
Mam smiled at Lottie, cupped her cheek with one hand, her eyes glittering in the dim light. “They’re comin’ by the house tomorrow to talk to us about it. Be sure to wash up and comb your hair —there’s my girls. Tomorrow, everything will be better. You mark my words.”
Mary’s stomach tightened into a knot. She didn’t like the sound of it — whatever the opportunity was, it scared her when Mam’s spoke that way. But maybe this time would be different. After all, things couldn’t get much worse. Anything would be better than staying every day in the unit with Mam, unable to face the winter without new coats or shoes, and with nothing in their stomachs but a gulp of sugar-water or whatever she could steal from the shop on the corner. One day she’d be caught, and then what would happen to Lottie?
“Yes, Mam,” she replied.
Lottie added her agreement.
“Now run along off to bed. You don’t deserve a good night’s sleep after the lazy way you’ve spent the afternoon. I can see you didn’t do a bit of cleaning while I was gone. But I’ve got a friend coming to see me —Stan’s his name—and I want you out of the way. He’s a good man and might change things for us if I get my way. But if he sees the two of you, it’ll ruin my chances, so go on now and stay out of sight. If I see either of you again tonight, you’ll be wishing you’d stayed abed.”
Mary hurried Lottie up the narrow staircase, ushering her past the broken step and the side of the staircase that hung crooked and tripped her up whenever she forgot to dodge around it. They each rubbed a finger over their teeth. Mary’d seen some of the children in the terrace houses a few streets over talking about their new toothbrushes and showing them off to their friends, so she figured they could just as well use their fingers to do the same job. Then, after their evening ablutions were done, they climbed into the small bed they shared in the same room as Mam’s cot. The room was separated with an old sheet hung from the ceiling with pegs and a piece of string.
“You get in first,” Mary said. “Since Mam’s got a visitor coming tonight.”
“I don’t know why that means I’ve got to be squashed up against the cold wall,” muttered Lottie, climbing beneath the threadbare blanket and curling up with her hands fisted beneath her chin.
“Because I said so, that’s why,” snapped Mary. She had no desire to ruin the last vestiges of her baby sister’s innocence before it was needed.
Lottie’s eyebrows lowered and her bottom lip protruded. “Don’t nick the blanket. I’m chilled through as it is.”
“I won’t.” Mary climbed in beside her sister, back-to-back, lifting her knees high to keep as much warmth in her body as she could.
“I wanna sleep by the fire,” whined Lottie.
“Hush,” replied Mary, then rolled over and wove her arms around her little sister, pulling her close. She stroked the hair back from Lottie’s forehead and kissed her tear-damp cheek. “One day, we’re going to get away from all of this,” she said. “And I’ll feed you cream buns and hot tea that’s as black as night. You’ll have brand-new clothes that no one has ever worn. And I’ll comb all the tangles out of your hair and braid it up over your head like a princess.”
“What else?” urged Lottie before shoving a thumb into her mouth and sucking it.
“We’ll ride bikes in the sunshine and only stop to pull fruit from the trees to eat until we’re too sick and fat to eat more. Then we’ll swim in the ocean and float on the waves to shore.”
“I don’t know about waves. They sound scary to me, like they might crush me into sand.”
“Not these waves,” countered Mary, still stroking Lottie’s hair. “They’re gentle, soft waves. Warm and will carry you easy.”
Lottie sighed. “I wish I could visit the beach.”
“It’s like paradise.”
Lottie propped herself up on one elbow. “How would you know? You’ve never been.”
Mary smiled. “I saw a picture once, in a book at Grandma and Grandpa’s. You were too young to remember, but it was beautiful. The waves were blue and green, and they look so peaceful and happy.”
Lottie lowered herself onto the bed once again and shoved her thumb back into its place.
Mary continued. “We’ll be happy there, in that paradise. Just you and me, full to the brim with good food and warm as two loaves of bread pulled fresh from the oven.”
Downstairs, the front door slammed shut and a murmur of voices climbed the stairs. Mam’s laughter tinkled like bells, high-pitched and ringing out in the stillness of the night. Lottie scowled and shrunk lower beneath the blanket with her eyes squeezed shut. Mary’s eyes closed too, but she turned back to face the wall, her body taut, waiting.
She would sleep, but not soundly. As she lay there, she imagined those waves and how they might look as they curled to shore under the brilliant sun. She imagined how it might be to touch them, what they might sound like, and pondered over whether she’d be too afraid to wade beyond the edge when she saw them. She didn’t know how she’d do it, but she knew, deep down to the soles of her feet, that she would. One day, she’d take Lottie and the two of them would leave this all behind. They’d never come back, and they’d live close by those blue-green waves happily for the rest of their days.
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