Remember Me(12)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter twelve

After two days at sea, Mary found herself feeling exactly the way she had on the cart from Exeter to the Dunkirk. Just like then, she had started out with so much enthusiasm, then came the aching all over from sitting in the same position for so long. At night she was chilled to the marrow, by day the sun and wind made her face raw. Yet on the trip to Devonport she hadn’t had children to placate, amuse and control too. While Emmanuel at least stayed in one place, mostly on her lap, Charlotte kept trying to move around.

Mary had fallen asleep for a couple of hours at a time, once the children were sleeping, but she kept waking with a start, afraid that whoever was at the tiller had dropped off too, and that they were drifting on to rocks.

Yet despite the discomfort, she certainly hadn’t found herself wishing she was back in Sydney Cove. The weather was good, with steady north to north-east winds driving them along, and all the men were still in high spirits, discussing endlessly how different people back in the settlement would have reacted to their escape.

‘Cap’n Phillip will be wild with fury, to be sure,’ James Martin said gleefully.

‘I hope Sarah wasn’t too sore at me when she found my note,’ Jamie Cox said with a touch of sadness.

‘You did well not to give in to temptation and tell her before we left,’ Mary said soothingly. She knew Jamie was very fond of Sarah Young, and it must have been hard for him to leave her behind.

Although Mary thought she had known all the men quite well before they left the settlement, she had soon discovered they all had aspects to their personalities she hadn’t been aware of before. James Martin, the ugly Irishman, had always been amusing, a funny man who could tell a great story, but something of a rake, chasing women and drink, and always ready for a fight. Yet she had found him to be unexpectedly fatherly, often taking Charlotte or Emmanuel into his arms to give her a break.

Red-haired, freckle-faced Samuel Bird had seemed to her a very morose man, and she had never really understood why Will thought so much of him. Yet now they were free he was laughing as much as anyone else and though he didn’t say much, he listened to the others and responded.

Bill Allen and Nat Lilly were the ones she knew least, and they were complete opposites. Bill was stocky and bald-headed, with a pug nose that looked as if it had been pummelled with fists. In fact he looked every inch the ‘Iron Man’ of his nickname. Nat, with his cherubic face, big eyes and long blond hair, wasn’t tough at all, in fact Mary had considered him a bit of a nancy boy. But he fitted in with any group of men he was set to work with, and everyone liked him. He was also very loyal to Will.

Both Nat and Bill had been in better health than any of the other men who arrived with the Second Fleet, and Mary had never discovered why. In Nat’s case it was probably better not to ask.

It was this ability to survive which had made Mary pick both men for the escape. Yet now she saw they were both surprisingly sensitive. On the very first morning they had fixed up an awning to protect the children from the sun, and took charge of doling out the food fairly.

William Moreton was undoubtedly one of the more intelligent prisoners. He was also unattractive, with a large domed forehead, bulging eyes and a tight, narrow mouth. Sadly, he wasn’t improving with knowing; he was very argumentative, and Mary was a little afraid he was going to put someone’s back up before long.

Even Jamie Cox and Sam Broome, both quiet, thoughtful men who had appeared to be content to be led by the nose by the others, had asserted themselves a little. At one point Jamie had been brave enough to tell Will to stop bragging, and Sam Broome had told James Martin to mind his language because of Mary and Charlotte. Mary had no doubt that in the next few weeks she would find out even more surprising things about everyone.

Now and then the men would talk dreamily about what they would do when they got back to England. They all knew that it would be foolhardy to attempt going to their home towns, for fear of being re-arrested. London was the favourite destination, there they would be inconspicuous, and with a new name they could start all over again.

Mary couldn’t bring herself to think that far ahead, it seemed like tempting Fate to her. The reality of it was that they had no money, their clothes were in rags, and they’d need a tremendous amount of luck to avoid turning back to crime.

Yet despite her qualms sometimes she couldn’t help but lapse into a little day-dream in which she found herself walking up the cobbled street from Fowey harbour holding her children by their hands. She imagined standing at the open door and seeing her mother inside the house, bent over the cooking pot on the fire. She would turn her head, see them and almost faint with surprise and delight. It was of course an unrealistic and fanciful day-dream, but it helped Mary’s aching back and warmed her very bones.

The weather turned on the third day, with rain and a stronger blustery wind, and Will became concerned at the boat being rather overloaded. ‘We must find somewhere to land until it passes,’ he said.

A little later William Moreton, who was up in the bows, suddenly bellowed out that he could see what looked like a good spot.

Everyone looked to where he was pointing and saw a small cove with a pebble beach. Will went in closer to check for rocks under the water, and as there were none, agreed it was ideal.

‘Let’s hope there’s a tavern,’ James exclaimed.

That made everyone laugh, even William Moreton who hadn’t appeared to have been amused by James’s sense of humour up till now.

Will brought the boat in as close to the beach as he could, then James swam ashore with a rope to pull her into the shallows.

‘Natives have been here,’ James said, once they were all safely on the beach. He pointed to the charred remains of a fire and a great many fish bones.

‘Well, they aren’t here now,’ Will said, scanning the cove carefully. ‘Besides, I know enough of their words to tell them we mean no harm.’

The rain stopped, the sun came out again, and Mary chased Charlotte along the beach, laughing at the sheer joy of a night on dry land. There was a stream of fresh water from which they refilled their water cask and washed their salt-encrusted faces, and Mary found a plant that looked like cabbage. While Will, Bill and James took the seine net to fish, William lit a fire, Samuel Bird and Nat collected wood, and Sam Broome and Jamie Cox made a crude shelter under the trees.

The fishing was good, the men came back with a quantity of grey mullet, and along with some of the rice they’d brought with them, and the cabbage leaves, it was quite a feast.

‘But for the dire lack of beer and some buxom wenches, I could be happy here,’ James said, as he lay back on the beach after the meal.

Mary giggled. She hadn’t always approved of James in the past, but she was growing to like him more with every hour that passed. His sense of the ridiculous warmed her and he could make time pass so quickly with his stories. She had always thought him a strange-looking man before, with his very bony, lopsided face, large ears and nose, and thick dark eyebrows that met in the middle. Her mother had always said that was a sign that a man was ‘born to be hung’, and perhaps he was, for he had only escaped it by a hair’s-breadth. But his lack of good looks was compensated by his personality. She didn’t find it so odd now that many women back at the settlement were after him.

That night they all slept well, huddled together in their shelter, the fire just outside. As Mary lay there, waiting for sleep to overtake her, Will curled against her back and the children tucked in between her and Sam, she felt warm, well fed and really happy. It wasn’t just that she was freed from the penal colony, more that something inside her had been set free.

As a child she’d always wished she’d been born a boy, purely so she could go fishing, climb rocks and have adventures. Girls just didn’t get opportunities to do anything more than ape their mothers, waiting on the menfolk. She supposed that when she went off to Plymouth that would change, but of course it didn’t. All these years since she was first imprisoned, she’d had to yield to men’s superiority, just to survive. But here she was with eight men, and she knew in her heart that in the weeks to come they were going to become dependent on her. She already sensed their admiration for her. She saw in their eyes and their manner that they knew she had dreamed up the plan, however loudly Will boasted otherwise. When she’d taken her turn at the tiller, they realized she knew boats almost as well as Will.

But her trump card was her passionate determination to get to Kupang. The men might believe they shared it, but Mary knew they weren’t driven by anywhere near such a powerful force as she was. That force was her children, and she would put up with any hardships, brave every peril to keep them alive to find permanent safety. She slid her arm right over both Emmanuel and Charlotte, the warmth from their small bodies comforting her and adding to her determination.

‘How long have we been sailing now, Will?’ Nat Lilly asked one afternoon, his voice weary and jaded. He no longer looked so cherubic, his once golden hair was matted and dull with salt, and his fair skin was a mass of blisters from the sun and wind. ‘It seems like a year.’

Will kept a log, which he assiduously wrote up every couple of days, and but for him none of them would have known what day or even month it was.

‘It’s well over a month,’ Will replied, pulling hard on the oars as there was little wind that day. ‘It’s the 2nd of April today.’

‘So how much more of this coastline can there be?’ Nat asked, his full lips curling petulantly as he looked towards the shore. Not an hour since, he had pointed out that it rarely looked any different however far they’d gone in a day.

‘Don’t ask damn fool questions like that,’ Will replied irritably. ‘How would I know, it’s not charted is it?’

‘Well, whoever sailed it before must have known if it was one thousand miles, or five,’ Nat said sullenly.

‘Daresay they did, but they didn’t bother to mention it,’ Will said tersely. ‘Now, shut up and row faster.’

Mary was at the tiller, Emmanuel on her knee, and Charlotte at her feet, playing with a doll James had made her from a piece of rope. She heard what passed between Nat and Will, just as she’d heard each of the men at other times questioning exactly how far Kupang was. They all needed a rest and she hoped against hope they would find somewhere soon where they could stay for a couple of days.

Since they made their first stop in what they’d called Fortunate Cove, they had stuck to a pattern: a few days’ sailing, then a rest for two days when they found somewhere with fresh water. Tension grew all the time while they were on the boat; they got stiff, cold and sharp with one another. But as soon as they got ashore all the bad feeling seemed to vanish.

Will was getting more and more worried about the boat, though, for it was taking on water badly now. William Moreton kept mentioning the monsoons too, he said he thought they were sailing towards one. The boat might have been fine sailing around Sydney Bay, but it wasn’t intended for a long voyage packed with so many people.

Late that same afternoon they came to a big bay as fine as Sydney, and everyone immediately became more cheerful.

‘We’ll have to get the boat out of the water and caulk her seams,’ Will said, then looking at Mary he added, ‘You can wash everyone’s clothes, my girl.’

Mary smarted, but said nothing in reply. She would have washed everyone’s clothes anyway, but ordering her to do it was Will’s way of admonishing her.

She knew exactly what was wrong with him; he was losing his spirit. The men had stopped praising him for getting them away. Perhaps too he was dwelling on how if he hadn’t escaped, his sentence would have been up now. And of course he was worried about the boat’s ability to hold together long enough to get them to Kupang.

Mary thought he’d probably be relieved if someone was to suggest they stayed for the rest of the winter months in a bay like this one. But he wouldn’t suggest it himself for fear of looking cowardly. Also, he didn’t like the way the men acted towards his wife.

It had begun with James getting a splinter from an oar in his hand about a week into the voyage. Mary had dug it out and he kept calling her ‘Mother Mary’. Since then, every time someone had something wrong with them, they asked her opinion on it. To Mary, this was what anyone would expect – she was the only woman after all, and she’d picked up quite a lot of basic medical knowledge from Surgeon White, both on the Charlotte and in the settlement. But Will seemed to think it was because they had designs on her.

He had also made a fuss about how all of them, save William Moreton and himself, vied to be next to her in the boat, and took charge of Charlotte when she was feeding Emmanuel. Mary knew perfectly well that none of them did this as a prospective lover. It was just brotherly, and maybe sitting next to her as she nursed Emmanuel reminded them of how it had been with their own mothers. Perhaps, too, they were weary of acting tough the way Will did all the time. Talking to her, they could drop their guard for a while. She couldn’t understand why Will saw anything more sinister in it.

Bill had confided in her that he’d been a brute to women in the past, but perhaps that was because his father had always hit his mother. Nat had admitted that he had allowed some of the sailors to use him like a woman on his transport ship, for it was the only way of obtaining extra food and getting out of the holds. Sam Bird had told Mary he stole rations from other people’s huts when things were really bad, and now he felt terribly ashamed.

She didn’t think any the less of the men for telling her these things, even if they were ugly. She felt shared confidences bound them closer together.

Once they were ashore, a shelter erected and a fire lit, Mary put Emmanuel into his sling, tied it around her, and leaving Charlotte playing on the beach where the men were hauling in the boat, she went off to look for things to eat.

She found some more sweet tea leaves, and some of the acid berries Surgeon White had set so much store by, but having failed to find any of the leaves that were like cabbage, she turned back.

All at once she saw a group of natives watching her from beneath a tree. She was momentarily alarmed as she was some distance from the men, but she waved her hand, which the natives back in Sydney had seemed to understand as a friendly gesture, and smiled at them. She sensed they were just baffled by her, not hostile, so she walked back to the men on the beach.

The following day the natives came closer. They crouched further up the beach, watching intently as the men repaired the boat. Mary was doing the washing, and each time she got up to hang a garment over a bush to dry, she smiled at them.

‘What are you playing at?’ Will suddenly snapped at her. ‘Isn’t it enough having eight men around you? Or do you want a few of them too?’

‘Don’t be a fool, Will,’ she said wearily. ‘I’m only smiling to show we mean them no harm, as well you know.’

Will continued to be sullen with her for the rest of the day, even though they’d caught enough fish to eat well that night and have some over to salt some down for the future. After Mary had put the children down to sleep in the evening, she sat for a short while by the fire. The men were discussing once again how much farther it was, a conversation she didn’t join in. Feeling very tired, she got up from the fire to go and relieve herself before settling down to sleep.

It was a beautiful night, with a full moon, and instead of going straight back to the shelter, she sat down on a rock just to enjoy the quiet. Quiet times were something of a rare treat for Mary. Right from the day she was arrested back in Plymouth, there had always been noise and tumult around her. Even in her hut back in Sydney, she rarely got a chance to be entirely alone.

On the boat every single thing she did was in full view of the men. They were polite enough to look the other way when she relieved or washed herself, but they were there, just feet away from her. There was always someone talking, arguing, singing or even snoring. Even her body wasn’t her own: Emmanuel was either at her breast, climbing on her or sleeping on her, and Charlotte demanded her attention most of the waking hours. Even the men used her as a cushion to lean against.

Looking up at the stars, with the sea lapping gently at the shore, she could pretend she was back in Cornwall. She lapsed into a day-dream again, imagining herself in a little cottage, the children safely in a real bed upstairs, and Will out fishing. She could see it so clearly – a candle burning, the fire glowing red and little sparks catching on the soot making pictures.

When she and Dolly were small they had always competed to see the best picture in these sparks. Dolly saw things like people going to church, dancers round a maypole, while Mary had always seen fish, animals or birds. She wondered what Dolly would make of the tales she had heard about the strange animal they called the kangaroo here, or those big birds that couldn’t fly but ran faster than a man. Then there were all the millions of pretty birds, so exotic and brightly coloured they took her breath away.

‘He isn’t coming!’

Mary nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of Will’s angry-sounding voice. She hadn’t heard anyone coming towards her.

She got up and turned, and he was striding towards her. ‘Who isn’t coming?’ she asked.

‘Sam, of course, as if you didn’t know,’ he snarled at her. ‘I caught him creeping off to meet you, and flattened him.’

‘I didn’t come out here to meet anyone,’ Mary said indignantly. ‘Don’t you think I get enough of people all around me every day?’

He struck her so quickly that she didn’t have time to move or even duck. The punch caught her on the cheek and knocked her backwards down on to the beach.

‘You’re my woman,’ he hissed at her and threw himself down on top of her, pulling up her dress.

It was enough of a shock to be hit by him, but when she realized what he was trying to do, she was horrified and frightened.

‘Don’t, Will,’ she implored him. ‘Not like this.’

She tried to fight her way out from under him, but he was too strong and heavy. All at once he was forcing himself inside her, biting at her neck like a savage animal, his fingers digging into her butt**ocks as if to hurt her more.

When he was done, he got up and walked away, without even an apology.

Mary stayed where she was for a few moments, too stunned to move. Later she walked down to the sea and washed herself. Her eyes were dry but inside she was weeping, for she had never imagined her Will being capable of such a bestial act. Gentle, sweet love-making had been the one thing they’d had between them that made life bearable in the settlement. It eased hunger, physical pain, and the hopelessness of their situation. If he had wanted her tonight, he need only have said, and she’d have joyfully slipped away with him out here.

She knew what he’d done wasn’t uncommon, she’d seen plenty of women with split lips and black eyes back in Sydney. She knew from confidences from some of them that they’d never known any other kind of love-making but the rough sort. But their men were in a different class to Will, low types, who would steal food from their own children without a qualm.

Mary heard a faint sound and turned to see Will had come back and was standing a little way up the beach. ‘Come on back with me now,’ he called out.

He was holding out his hand to her. It was too dark to see the expression on his face, but his stance was uncertain, as if he was ashamed of himself.

‘Why, Will?’ she said as she walked up to him. She felt no hatred, not even anger, just a huge well of disappointment.

‘I don’t know,’ he said in little more than a whisper. ‘I got all fired up about Sam, I suppose.’

Mary said nothing as they walked back to the shelter. She needed time to think this through.

When Mary woke up the following morning, she was alone in the shelter with the children who were still asleep. Will was already working on the boat repairs with William and James. She couldn’t see the other men and guessed they’d gone off to try to catch some shellfish.

Gingerly, she felt her cheek. It was puffy and sore, but the skin wasn’t broken.

A little later when she was kneeling trying to light a fire, Will came over to her. He just stood by her for a second or two, looking down at her. She ignored him.

‘Do you hate me?’ he asked eventually.

‘Do you expect me to?’ she retorted, looking up at him. He looked rough. Of course they all did, what with wind-and sun-burnt skin and little sleep. All the men needed their hair and beards trimmed, but it looked odd on Will who normally took pride in his appearance.

Yet it was more than that. Will’s eyes were dull and sunken, Mary could only remember them looking that way once before. That was after the flogging.

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

‘We’ve been through a lot together,’ she said. ‘We’ve got a lot more still to come, and if we don’t pull together we won’t make it.’

‘So you’ll forgive me then?’ he said, looking a bit puzzled.

‘I don’t know about forgiveness, you have to earn that,’ she said sharply. ‘But I’ll put it to one side.’

He made a sort of exclamation with his hands. ‘What sort of a woman are you? You don’t cry, you don’t shout. I don’t understand you.’

‘I understand you,’ she retorted. ‘And I don’t cry or shout because there’s nothing to be gained by it.’

She did understand him. She knew he was afraid she was usurping the position he’d always held, that of leader. Raping her was his way of making her submit to him. But she wasn’t going to.

The natives came back again during the afternoon. The men gave them some of the fish they’d caught and they in turn offered a gift of a couple of large crabs.

The following morning the natives came down the beach and helped them relaunch the boat, waving as they left. It was to be the last time they were to encounter friendliness when they put ashore.

The luck which had held for a month suddenly gave out. The weather turned bad, with strong winds and heavy rain, and though they saw many inviting beaches, the surf was too high to chance trying to go in. The boat was still taking in water, and when they eventually found a bay, natives appeared at once, throwing spears to warn them off. In desperation the men fired the muskets over their heads, and the natives ran away, but they were back in larger numbers the following morning, so there was nothing for it but to flee.

A violent storm caught them unprepared. The waves were like huge green mountains, tossing the boat up and down like a toy. Mary kept Emmanuel strapped to her chest, and held Charlotte tightly for fear she would be washed overboard. She doubted that any of them would see the sun rise again.

It was like the worst sailing nightmare which just went on and on. The sky was so black that even day seemed almost as bad as night. Emmanuel and Charlotte screamed with terror, then when exhaustion overcame them they merely quivered, too petrified, cold and wet to sleep.

The fresh water was nearly gone, but they were unable to go ashore for fear of wrecking the boat on rocks beneath the surf. Will anchored offshore and two of the men bravely swam ashore with the cask to fill it, but natives with spears appeared again and they had to retreat quickly.

Over the next couple of days Mary saw that Will was sinking into an apathetic state. He left William Moreton and James to take charge, and sometimes the wind blew them so far away from the shore that they lost sight of it altogether.

‘Pull yourself together, Will,’ she shouted at him one day. ‘We’re heading towards the reef and we’ll be holed.’

He muttered something about needing speed to beat the monsoon, which sounded crazy to her, so she took the tiller and headed back towards the relative safety of the shore. By now the boat was filling with water, from both above and below the water-line, and they were in real danger of sinking.

Just when it looked as if all was lost, they saw the mouth of a river. Will rallied round then, took over at the tiller and skilfully negotiated the boat through shoals where the water was only five or six feet deep. At last, close to complete exhaustion, they managed to pull the boat up on to the river bank.

There was plenty of fresh water, but they were unable to catch any fish or find anything else to eat. Yet even with only rice and the last of the salted pork, just to get dry and be able to stretch out and sleep was enough.

The following morning the men set to work to repair the boat again. The resin they’d brought with them was all gone, but resourceful James came up with the idea of using soap instead. They knew they would have to move on quickly to find food, and Mary was very anxious now about Emmanuel and Charlotte who didn’t appear to be recovering as the adults had. They seemed listless. Charlotte took only a couple of mouthfuls of rice and fell asleep again. Emmanuel lay in her arms, not even attempting to suckle.

‘They’ll be all right,’ James said comfortingly to her. ‘They’re just worn out. Let them sleep.’

They had only gone a couple of miles the following morning when the monsoon finally caught up with them. Torrential rain hammered down, the wind stronger than they’d ever known it before. Once again the sea was mountainous, and they lost sight of land altogether as the wind sped them along.

For the first two days and nights Mary concentrated all her efforts on her children, trying to shelter them with a tarpaulin, singing to them and rocking them. But when she saw all the men were losing heart, she knew she had to induce them to fight for their survival.

‘We can do it,’ she yelled at them. ‘It’s no good just giving up. At least this wind is carrying us fast, let’s lighten the boat by throwing out all the surplus stuff.’

They threw out spare clothing and personal possessions, and when water still poured into the boat, Mary took off her hat and began bailing it out.

‘Come on,’ she screamed at them. ‘Bail, every one of you. Your life depends on it now.’

One by one they joined her, apathetically at first, but as they saw the boat rise in the water, they worked faster. ‘That’s right,’ she yelled. ‘Come on, Sam, Jamie and William, do you want to end up as fish food? You can kill yourselves if you’ve a mind to when we get ashore, but don’t let it happen out here just because you’re tired.’

For eight days in all they couldn’t see land. Still the rain came down, and still Mary shouted at the men. Her arms felt as if they were coming out of their sockets with bailing and her voice was hoarse, but she knew she was winning. Not one of the men would stop while she was bailing, and the boat was speeding along.

They saw the shore again just as night was falling, but the surf was so high they couldn’t attempt to go in. Will dropped the anchor and used the grapnel to hold the boat faster overnight, hoping that by morning the wind would have dropped enough for them to get ashore.

In the early hours of the morning, as they tried to get some rest, they heard the ominous sound of the anchor being dragged along the rocks, and all at once the boat was drifting out towards the reef.

‘It will be holed and we’ll all drown,’ Will shouted hysterically above the sound of the roaring wind. ‘Oh God, why did I attempt this?’

Mary scrabbled her way to the mast and pulled herself up. She looked down at the cowering, frightened men, and snarled at them. ‘It’s just water, wind and rain,’ she shouted above the wind. ‘We’ve got this far, we’re not going to let it beat us. Don’t turn lily-livered on me now, pull up that anchor and we sail on.’

Dawn came as they battled against the elements, and as the sky lightened so the wind dropped a little.

‘Keep bailing,’ Mary yelled, her voice just a croak. ‘We’ll get ashore, I promise you.’

‘Thank God,’ James murmured a few hours later as they sailed into a bay ringed with white sand. ‘And thank you, Mary, for having the courage to make us battle on.’

Mary smiled weakly. She felt sick with hunger and she was almost frightened to look at Emmanuel and Charlotte under the tarpaulin in case they were dead instead of sleeping. Maybe it was a victory, but right now she felt utterly defeated.

She had no recollection of coming ashore. The last thing she remembered was sailing close to the shoreline and then waking to find herself on soft, warm sand.

She sat up cautiously and looked around her, puzzled because the sun was in the east. She felt her clothes and they were dry, but stiff with salt. Alarmed by the utter silence, she tried to get up, but she was so stiff she could barely move.

As she turned her head she saw the men asleep under the shelter, Charlotte and Emmanuel tucked in between Will and James. There was the remains of a fire with a huge pile of mussel shells close to it, and the water cask was placed under a tree, a deep track in the sand showing how it had been rolled there after being filled.

All at once Mary guessed she must have fallen asleep or even passed out the day before, and the men had let her sleep undisturbed while they found food and water before finally falling asleep themselves.

That little kindness brought tears to her eyes, and gave her the strength to overcome her stiffness, to stand and stretch, then walk slowly over to the water cask. She drank greedily, mug after mug, until her stomach felt bloated, then she gobbled down the cold rice left in the cooking pot. Looking around, she saw it was a beautiful bay they’d come to, white sand, clear blue sea, and lush green vegetation all around.

Her heart seemed to swell up with gratitude, and she dropped to her knees to thank God for their safe deliverance from the storm.