by Hilary McCollum
Everything that mattered to Frances Moriarty was left behind in famine-ravaged Ireland, including the love of her life. Beset with grief and guilt, she is scraping out a shadowy existence as a New York shoeshine boy when word spreads like wildfire: gold nuggets line the riverbeds of California.
Eager to stake a claim, Frances boldly sets out on the overland trek to California’s gold fields, praying that her journey will lead her to riches—and a place a woman like her can call her own.
Rich with historic detail and steeped in the secret passion of women-loving-women, Hilary McCollum’s debut novel is an epic story of love lost and found in a daring life.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Golddigger — Winner, Lesbian Historical Fiction, GCLS Goldie Lesbian Debut Fiction, Finalist.
North West Culture
Hilary McCollum has excelled in penning this novel….There were times when I had goosebumps: there were times when I laughed: but unfortunately there were so many times when I cried. It is a story of love and loss, but more importantly it is a story of hope.
New York, August 1848
I woke this morning suddenly, as usual. Sleep is black and white for me. When I was growing up, I shared a bed with four sisters. They would moan and groan their way awake. Not me. Eyelids springing open, I’d leap out of bed ready for the new day.
Except for the nights I spent with Kitty. Then waking was a gentle stroll along a country lane, slowly becoming aware of her lying close to me, my breath on her skin, her foot on my calf, my eyes slowly opening to see hers looking at me. I couldn’t help but smile. She’d kiss the edge of my upturned mouth. “Morning, Frankie,” she’d say.
Now I spend my nights alone in a room in a boarding house in New York City. Sweat has pooled under my breasts as I have slept. New York is hot. I pour water from the jug on the dresser into the basin. My arms have tanned over the summer, up as far as the elbows, skin golden, splashed with brown freckles. But the upper half is pale, a creamy white. My arms are firm and strong. I like them.
I douse my face with water. It too is tanned, down to the collarbone. I catch my reflection in the mirror, eyes a bright blue, hair brown-black. I dip my flannel into the water, wring it out, then wipe my neck, beneath my breasts, under both arms, between my legs. Standing on one foot, I wash the other. I dry off with a rough towel. It is time to dress. I take a long piece of white cloth, tuck one end under my left armpit, and begin to wind it round and round my body, binding my breasts flat and tight.
I slip into my white shirt and the dark trousers that have hung overnight on a hook on my door. I bought them eighteen months ago in a pawnshop on the Lower East Side, the day after I’d arrived in New York on a coffin ship from Cobh. The trousers needed taking up and in, but I was good with a needle; my mother had taught me well. I borrowed shears from the landlady, then went back to my room and cut my hair short, peering into a spotted mirror. It was strange, not myself, but not entirely someone different—the son my mother never had.
I left the guesthouse and went in search of somewhere to live. It brought me here, to Mott Street. My room is tiny, space only for a narrow bed and the broken dresser I lugged up the stairs. I look again in the mirror above the dresser, adjusting my cap. It’s time to set off.
I stop at the post office on my way to work, expecting a letter from home. My mother writes to me twice a year. At last it’s arrived. My heart starts to beat faster—praying for good news. I read as I walk along.
I hope this letter finds you in good health bad times are still with us and people are dying all bunched together Mary Quinn and her mother dead last week
The Quinns were neighbours, rather than friends. I stop, crossing myself, sending a prayer for their souls, thanking God it wasn’t my family.
There is no sign of anything but hardship and poverty it has rained for months and your da is sure the potatoes will rot again thank God for our oats and the money you send Burnham has sent the wreckers in to destroy the cabins of them as cannot pay the rent but we have enough
That bastard Burnham. I turn and spit, as always when I think of him. Hounding people for the rent when he knows they have nothing to pay it with.
We found Dolly dead in the field some poor starving wretch had bled her she was such a good milker I hope it saved whoever done it
I am sorry I have no better news to tell you but pray God things will have improved by the next time I write
Everyone sends their kind love to you I remain until death
your loving mother
Twenty minutes later I arrive at Harvey’s grocery store. It sells all sorts—flour, sugar, tea and coffee, brushes and shovels, boots, tobacco and medicines. Gerry, my only friend in New York, works here. He’s thin and wiry with jet-black hair, soft brown eyes and a lopsided smile. “Morning Frank,” he says.
“Don’t you be wearing your tongue out,” he says.
“What?” I say. “Oh, sorry. It’s only…” I hesitate. Gerry is from Skibbereen. We’ve never talked about The Hunger.
“It’s only what?” he says.
“I got a letter from home this morning.”
It’s his turn to nod. “Jaysus, I dread those letters. Me stomach clenches when I see one waiting for me.”
We are silent for a moment.
I bang my fist down on the counter. “What am I supposed to do?” It takes me by surprise. Gerry too.
“Easy now there, Frank,” he says. “I’m sure you’re doing what you can.”
“What? What am I doing?”
“You’re making a new life for yourself here, you’re sending money. Sure that’s all you can do.”
I don’t answer. There is no answer. He’s right, but it’s not enough.
“Try and put the letter from your mind,” he says.
I sigh, shaking my head.
“Listen,” Gerry says, “why don’t we go out later? We could have just the one drink. Sure, it’ll lift your spirits.”
I manage a smile. “I better get started if I’m to have money for a beer. I’ll go and get my things.”
I retrieve my chair and box from the back of the storeroom where Gerry lets me leave them overnight. Soon I’m on the sidewalk, placing the chair near the wall a few blocks down from Harvey’s. There are shops here, a couple of restaurants, a theatre on the corner. It’s a good spot. I get my brushes, cloths and polish out of the box, then turn it upside down in front of the chair. It’s time to look for some trade.
I start off today with a pair of men’s front-lacing shoes, made from the finest black leather. He’s an older gentleman, with an eyeglass, gold pocket watch and bushy grey moustache. I set to with my black polish and brushes. I’m at the final cloth polish, bringing up a silky shine, when he leans forward.
“You’ve done a good job. I appreciate a young man who does a good job.” He lowers his voice. “I bet you’re good at all sorts of jobs, with hands like that. Perhaps I can interest you in a special job for me.”
I pretend not to understand. “Have you some other shoes you want polishing?”
“Well, it is a polishing job,” he says, coy, “a private polishing job, if you follow my meaning.”
“Is it some boots, sir?”
He gives up. “No, no, not today at least.”
Despite my refusal, he tips well then sets off down the street. I wonder about men like him. Is it just shoeshine boys? What about delivery boys? Messenger boys? Do they ever get a yes? I suppose they must.
I have four more customers in the next hour—men’s black leather boots, ladies’ soft grey leather side-fastening boots, ladies’ ankle boots in red and burgundy and men’s black shoes. A couple comes out of a shop twenty yards away, arm in arm. I’m hopeful—they look like a courting couple and men always tip more in front of their sweethearts than their wives. I watch them walk towards me, ready to catch the woman’s eye. But before she’s got the length of me she trips and starts to fall. She’s teetering, but he has her arm and manages to pull her back.
“Are you hurt?”
She shakes her head. “Thank goodness you caught me. Oh, but look at my shoes.”
I step forward where they might see me but I don’t say “Shoeshine.” I’m not a hawker.
“My lady has scuffed her shoes,” he says to me. “Can you restore them?”
I nod for her to take a seat. Her shoes are unusual, dark green leather, with a high heel and two pearly buttons on the outside of the ankle. Her trip has done no lasting damage and soon I have them polished to a high shine.
“Oh, they’re as good as new. Why don’t you get yours done too?” she urges him. He makes a show of reluctance, then sits down. He is wearing a well-made but dull pair of brogans. I give them my attention. He pays well, then departs with his beloved clamped tight to his side.
It is quiet now. Some days are like that. Usually I sit on my chair, waiting for trade to pick up again. But I’m restless today. I pace back and forth along the sidewalk, looking for a distraction. The newspaper stand down the street catches my eye. I fish two cents from my pocket for a copy of the New York Herald. Slowly I walk back to my chair, sitting down to read the first article, “Affairs in Our New Territory,” the story of a New Yorker’s journey to California. I settle down, taking my time, glad of the diversion. Until I get halfway down the second column. I sit up straight, sprinting through the words. Then I spring out of my chair and walk quickly down to Harvey’s. I need to see Gerry right now.
But he’s out on a delivery. I kick a stone in frustration as I walk back to my shoeshine stall. I try again later but he’s still not there.
My hands are busy all afternoon with boots and shoes, but the Herald is flitting round my mind. “Gold mine discovered…abundant…a Peruvian harvest…as soon as a sufficiency of miners can be obtained.” I am full of gold and what I might do with it.
At six o’clock I’m in the bar, waiting. “Over here,” I say, beckoning to Gerry as he comes in. “I got you a drink.”
“You’re in a better mood.”
“I am indeed. I found out something today that’s going to change our lives. Gerry, they’ve struck gold in California. We are going to be rich.”
“Will you talk sense. California. It’s clean over the other side of the country. That’s thousands of miles, as far as Ireland. How are we going to get there?”
“We’ll find a way. I don’t know how yet. But Gerry, we have to go. This is our big chance.”
He is suddenly savage. “We’re going to get rich,” he parrots. “This is our big chance. Would you ever listen to yourself? I’ve already had me big chance, Frank. It took me out of Skibbereen and got me to New York alive. It gave me a job when I got here. That’s more of a chance than the rest of me family have had. Four brothers and me father all dead in Skibbereen. Me sister, Mary, dead in me arms on the boat to America. Me mother and last brother waiting for me to have the money to bring them over. And here you want me throwing it all away for some half-arsed plan.”
I have never seen him like this. I have known him for almost a year and this is the first time he’s been angry. He’s usually funny stories, a smile dancing beneath his lips. Now they are tight, his face hard angles, eyes hot anger.
“Ah Gerry,” I say. I go to touch him, but he flinches away. “Come on, don’t take on so. I didn’t mean to upset you. Listen, let’s not talk about it now.”
“And when would be a better time? When you’ve taken yourself off halfway round the world on a dream that will never come true?”
“Why shouldn’t it come true? There’s gold there for the taking, the paper says so. I’m as entitled to it as any man.”
“As any man?” Gerry says.
“Yes, as any man,” I say, but I can’t look him in the eye. “Or lad, at least. As entitled as any lad.”
His voice goes soft. “I know.”
“Know what?” I say, wishing my face wouldn’t redden. But it does. I can feel it burning up to my ears, hot round my throat.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-two,” I say, wondering where he is going. “Twenty-three next month.”
“Yet still no sign of whiskers. Look at my face,” he says, “after a day at work.” Dark stubble shadows his cheeks and jaw. “And look at you, smooth as a baby’s arse. Frank, I know.”
I say nothing for several long minutes. I’ve been so careful, learning to stride like a man, sit with my legs apart, grunt answers to questions. “How?” I whisper at last.
He shrugs. “You’d me fooled for months. But one day…I just got a feeling.”
I stare at my glass of beer, not knowing what to say.
“Anyhow, you will understand why I can’t be letting you tear off across to California. You are but a girl. You may be man enough to shine shoes, but you’ve never the strength for gold digging.”
“You’re wrong. I’m as strong as many a man. I’ve been used to hard work since I was a child. I helped my father digging out the peat and preparing the fields.”
“You were helping a man. A full-grown adult man. You were not doing it by yourself. Please, see sense. You will never manage on your own. And I can’t be coming with you. I have steady money coming in. It’s keeping me ma and brother alive. Promise me there’ll be no more talk of California.”
“I will promise no such thing.” It is half shout, half sob. I’m on my feet now, bursting out of the bar, pushing away everyone and everything in my path, needing to get away from him.
You are but a girl! I can swing an axe all day, have a leg made for digging. I stride down the street, break into a run. I pound along, arms pumping, legs stretching. See how strong?
But in the back of my mind the fear nibbles, then gnaws. You will never manage on your own. I slow to a walk. Ahead I glimpse the East River. At home there was an old rock on the cliff at Dunmore Head. I would sit there looking out across the sea to the Great Blasket, my mind drifting and turning till it found whatever answer I was searching. On that rock I decided that I needed to have me the loving of Kitty Gorman. There too that I first talked to her about leaving Ireland.
I sit down near the river. Boats are ferrying people across to Brooklyn, the tall ships delivering their cargoes at the South Street Seaport. This is where I arrived eighteen months ago. I had a little money, sewn into a secret pocket in my skirt, but no address to go to. I was washed along by the tide of people milling around the harbour. And then I felt a strong hand on my arm and I was propelled down a side alley, away from the crowd. He stank of sweat and dirt and something huge and animal. Forcing one filthy hand across my mouth, he pushed me hard against the wall.
“Shut up, whore,” he said as I yelped in pain.
With his free hand he was fiddling with his trousers. But he couldn’t get the buttons undone. Cursing he removed his hand from my mouth. It was my one chance. I clawed my fingers sharp down his left cheek.
“Bitch,” he roared as he drew back his fist and swung for me. I dodged and he struck the wall. My knee came up hard and fast, catching him full in the groin. And then I ran and ran and ran. I couldn’t tell if he was following, didn’t dare look behind. Finally I stopped in a busy street, light and sound all around me. I leaned against a wall, my lungs burning. Slowly my breathing returned to normal. I looked up. There was a sign on the opposite side of the street. Guesthouse. I crossed over. They had a room free. I took it.
I lay awake most of the night. I’d heard stories of women molested, rumours whispered behind hands of girls disgraced and outcast. I knew these things happened, but they’d never happened to me, not until then. That’s when I decided to become a boy.
Tears slip out. I have clawed a life out here—a room, a job, a friend.
It is not enough.
You will never manage on your own. I came here on my own. I walked from Knockreagh to Cobh on my own. I sailed across the ocean on my own. The journey ahead is no farther than that behind. I am going to California.