Remember Me(2)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter two





Thankfully the rain had stopped when the prisoners were ordered out of the warehouse the following morning. But the sky was still grey, with a keen wind blowing off the river which made them all huddle together for warmth.

Breakfast had been nothing more than water and a lump of stale bread, and as Mary looked across at the prison ship Dunkirk, and saw it really was as decrepit as it had appeared at dusk yesterday, she guessed the provisions there would be no better.

Yet her spirits were a little higher than on the previous day. Despite her wet clothes, she had slept quite well, and at least there was no further travelling today. She thought escape was out of the question for the time being. Apart from her shackles, which she now doubted would be removed, the quay was busy with watchful Marines, all carrying muskets.

Dozens of boats of all sizes were bobbing around on the water, ferrying passengers across the river and carrying goods to the bigger ships anchored at deep water. Mary couldn’t smell the prison ship today, but whether that was because the wind had changed, or she had imagined the smell last night, she couldn’t guess. It was good to breathe in the salty air, and if she ignored her fellow prisoners and her hunger, and just drank in the sights, sounds and smells, it was almost like being back in Fowey.

At midday Mary was still waiting on the quay, still chained to her four companions. So far several small groups of male prisoners had been rowed out to the Dunkirk, and they had watched them climb up the ladder to the deck, then disappear from view. But the women’s interest in this procedure had long since waned. Most were trying to improve their appearance, combing or plaiting their hair, attending to wounds on their ankles from the chains, and any who were carrying belongings were sifting through them, sorting out another dress or petticoat.

Mary had no belongings beyond a comb, and that had been given to her by another prisoner at Exeter, so her grooming could go no further than trying to remove as many lice as possible from her hair. They had been provided with a bucket of water to wash their faces and hands that morning, but she longed to be able to strip off her dirty clothes and wash herself completely. She hadn’t done that since before her arrest, and she felt she must stink.

None of the other women seemed that concerned about their filthy state, but then Mary had discovered almost as soon as she left home that the high standard of cleanliness her mother had instilled in her was rare. When she confided in Bessie about how she felt, the other woman looked at her askance. ‘We can’t look that bad,’ she said. ‘Those Marines over there are giving us the glad eye.’

Mary glanced at the group of men surreptitiously and observed that she was being singled out for particular attention from them. She thought that red jackets, well-fitting white breeches and highly polished boots gave almost any man, however homely-looking, an unfair advantage over civilians. But she wasn’t going to delude herself that they were looking at her because she was outstandingly attractive.

Mary had been around seamen all her life, and she knew the first thing they did when they got off a ship was look for a woman. Mostly they landed up with whores, and with that came the near certainty of disease.

These Marines were in a slightly different position to seamen. They would be guarding the prisoners, both male and female, here and on the transport ship later. Mary guessed they knew they’d get little if any shore leave. It stood to reason they were all hoping that amongst this ragged, demoralized bunch of women, there would be some eager to meet their sexual needs. A young, fresh-faced and disease-free country girl would be their ideal. Mary thought she’d sooner throw herself off the Dunkirk in her chains than be used that way.

It was mid-afternoon before Mary’s group were rowed over to the hulk. The chains linking them together had been removed, but they were still shackled from their ankles to their waists. As they drew closer to the prison ship, Mary saw the sides were green and slimy with weed, and the smell of human effluent gradually increased until the women were gagging.

Once up the slippery ladder, they were lined up to be examined and measured, and their crime recorded.

‘Mary Broad,’ a young Marine called out, and ordered her to stand in front of a rule marked on the broken-off mast. ‘Five feet four,’ he called out to another man who was recording it. ‘Grey eyes, black hair, no visible scars. Crime highway robbery. Seven years’ transportation.’

As soon as the whole group had been similarly dealt with, and each of them been handed a worn, stinking blanket, a hatch was opened and seamen pushed them roughly through it, down a steep companionway. Bessie tripped on her shackles and fell the last few feet, letting out a cry of pain. They were in a narrow area which appeared to lead on to the guards’ quarters, then another hatch was opened.

The stench that burst out hit the women like walking into a brick wall, and they all moved back involuntarily, horror on every face. Each one of them had grown used to filth in all its forms in the past few weeks, but this was something far beyond anything they’d experienced previously.

‘Get in there,’ the guard shouted, hitting at them with a stick to make them climb down the stairs. ‘You’ll soon get used to it. We have.’

Mary resisted, but the guard hit her on the shoulder and forced her down through the hatch into what must have been the hold when the vessel was still sailing. The first thing she glimpsed was a sea of ghostly white faces, and when her eyes grew more used to the gloom, she saw a series of wooden shelves which were to be their beds, four women to each. There was some air and light though, coming from open hatches on the seaward side of the ship and a further grille at the far end through which Mary could just make out the male prisoners’ quarters. The evil smell came from the floor, which was awash with the contents of overflowing slop buckets. Clearly this was one place which was never cleaned.

Mary realized this meant that rats, bugs and lice would be living here in their hundreds with the women. Just to look at their haggard grey faces, stringy hair and bony bodies was proof that the diet was one of starvation. Fever could sweep round in one night and under these conditions would claim them all.

She thought she would be lucky if she survived long enough to be transported.

An hour or two later Mary was as despairing as everyone else. All around her was moaning, groaning, crying and the occasional demented scream from a woman who appeared to have lost her wits. One woman was suckling a newborn baby, and Mary was told it had been delivered down here by the other women.

The beams were too low for them to stand up, so there was no alternative but to sit or lie on the wooden shelves. When the evening meal, a thin floury soup and stale bread, was brought in, the women fought to get it, and by the time Mary managed to reach the pot, everything was gone. The rats didn’t even wait for total darkness to fall, they scuttled along the beams and under the bed shelves, and even jumped across bodies.

But to Mary, the most terrifying prospect was that she could expect nothing better. She had learned they were never allowed up on deck, their quarters were never cleaned, they couldn’t wash their clothes, and the slop buckets were emptied only once a day.

She fell asleep eventually, tucked between Bessie on the inside, closest to the ship’s hull, and a girl called Nancy who was only fourteen. Taking up the outside position on their shelf was Anne, a woman of over fifty.

Mary’s last thought before sleep overcame her was that there had to be some way to escape. The other women had insisted there wasn’t, but from what she’d observed of them, they were all dull-witted.

She would find a way.

Over the next few days Mary watched and listened to her fellow prisoners. While her whole being wanted to hammer on the door, scream for release, even to insist that she’d rather be hanged than endure this, she knew she had to control herself. By staying quiet, learning about the running of the hulk and observing the other women, she would arm herself with knowledge.

She noted that many of the women were so deeply immersed in their misery that they barely moved from their sleeping places and hardly spoke at all, and she guessed they hoped that death would come speedily to release them.

At first Mary had every sympathy with them, but as she began slowly to accept her imprisonment and get to know those women who still had a spark of life and hope in them, so her feelings for the remainder turned to scorn and irritation.

Almost all of the women who talked and even found something to laugh about now and then had been convicted of theft. Nancy, the fourteen-year-old, had taken some food home to her family from the house in Bodmin where she was a scullery maid. Anne had taken a dress from the laundry where she worked in Truro. There was a woman who had acted as a look-out for a cut-purse, and another had helped herself to a blanket left out on a washing-line to air. Yet another had stolen a couple of silver teaspoons. None of the women were hardened criminals, they had all committed opportunist crimes, out of need.

When Mary admitted she was convicted of High Toby, she saw awe on the faces of her audience. Back in Exeter Castle, she had learned the hierarchy of crime, and a highway robber was at the top of the pile. To Mary it seemed a little absurd that snatching a hat and parcels should be considered in the same light as waylaying a stage-coach. But she supposed she had technically robbed on the highway, as opposed to stealing from a shop or dwelling-house.

While she knew that in reality she was exactly the same as most of these women, just another country girl who had fallen by the wayside, she saw immediately that it would be smarter to keep that to herself. Status was as crucial to survival as food and drink. She would make it work for her.

Another thing she observed was that not all the women were filthy and in rags. Four of them had fairly decent clothes, their hair looked as if it had been washed recently, and they were plumper, less strained and hollow-eyed. Because of their appearance, and the fact that some of the prisoners gave them the cold shoulder, it didn’t take long for Mary to realize these women had friends among the guards and Marines. Clearly they were trading their bodies for extra comforts.

‘They ought to be ashamed of themselves,’ one old biddy exclaimed, pursing her lips in disgust. By the way she coughed she had to be in the grip of consumption. ‘Dirty whores!’

Mary had always believed that any woman who sold her body was beyond redemption. In Plymouth she had seen whores grappling with seamen in alleys, and heard about the terrible diseases they passed on, and she felt almost faint with disgust.

Yet as the days slowly passed on the Dunkirk, and the horrors seemed to grow greater rather than diminish, she found herself looking at the whole question a little differently. While she still thought that offering her body in return for food and a clean dress would be the surest way to hell and damnation, surely she was in hell already? She intended to survive at all costs, and if sacrificing her chastity would prevent a slow death from starvation, she was prepared to do it.

It wasn’t just the desire for more food and the chance to get out of this stinking hold into fresh air once in a while. Escape was most prevalent in Mary’s mind, and for that she needed her chains to be removed. While there was no certainty that a lover would do this for her, she hoped she could persuade him to. Maybe if he grew to like her enough he’d even help her escape.

Sadly, she had no idea how to go about getting a ‘friend’ on the upper decks. The ugly brutes who came to collect the slop bucket or bring the rations had to be the lowliest of the crew, and they were the only ones she had any contact with, and that only briefly.

At the end of her third week she was growing desperate. Her twentieth birthday had passed at the end of April, and May Day, with all its happy memories of village celebrations, had made her spirits plummet even further. She would stand all day at the open hatch, looking out seawards, watching the sunshine glint on the water, aching so badly to be out in it that she thought she would lose her reason.

She knew all forty women’s names, where they came from, their crimes and about their families. She had even seen a change in Catherine Fryer and Mary Haydon’s attitude towards her, perhaps because they saw she was stronger and quicker-witted than anyone else, and it was better to be on a winning side than a losing one.

Mary had spoken to some of the men prisoners too, at least shouted to them through the barred grille. Because they were often taken out to work ashore, she’d learned from them the names of the few humane officers on board.

Lieutenant Captain Watkin Tench was the one who had captured Mary’s interest. The men said he was young, and that they found him fair and reasonable, an intelligent man, who had been held prisoner himself during the American war. He sounded perfect for Mary’s plan, but as yet she had no idea how to get his attention.

She had gone out of her way to befriend all the women who were labelled as whores. It wasn’t difficult as they were only too glad of someone taking an interest in them, and Mary discovered that in the main they were very like her, a bit daring, more amusing than the other women, and warm-hearted.

But although they often gave her titbits of food or a new ribbon for her hair, and passed on rags when she was menstruating, they were all tight-mouthed about their men and how they got themselves picked in the first place. Mary could understand why. They weren’t going to take the risk of losing their lovers and the comforts that came with them to another prisoner.

She had thought of picking a fight with another woman, to create such a big disturbance that she would be hauled out of the hold. But it was likely she’d be flogged for that, and even if she got to meet Tench, under those circumstances it was hardly likely to endear her to him.

One evening, the pot of soup and bread were brought in as usual, and as always, the strongest pushed their way forward to grab the lion’s share. It was only the fear of dying of starvation that made the women fight to get to the soup. It was invariably cold and watery, mainly barley with a few bits of vegetable and strands of rank meat. It had taken Mary several days to overcome her nausea before she felt able to elbow her way in to get her share.

That evening, she was up by the door talking to Lucy Perkins, a girl from St Austell, when the men unlocked it to come in. For once she was in a strong position to get a better helping, but as she took her place, and the women behind her began to push and shove, she glanced backwards.

It was a shock to see the plaintive faces of those who were too sick and weak to get off their beds to collect their share. Some were holding out their bowls, their feeble cries for help drowned by the clamour, and their distress unnoticed by anyone but herself.

Mary hated injustice. Even as a small child she had despised bigger children who bullied younger and weaker ones. Knowing that healthy women capable of fighting their way forward were sentencing the sick ones to death by depriving them of food, she suddenly saw red.

Turning in the queue, she held her arms out wide, blocking the way to the soup pot. ‘Let the sick ones have their share first,’ she commanded.

There was a hush, surprise on every grimy face. ‘We should take care of the sick,’ she said in a loud, clear voice. ‘They might treat us like animals down here, but we are women, not savages.’ Seeing Bessie at the back of the queue, she shouted to her, ‘Get their bowls and bring them here, Bessie. When they are served everyone else can have theirs.’

Mary heard the rumble of dissent, and it frightened her. But she had no intention of backing down. She was aware that the guards were watching from the grille on the door, and she hoped that if the stronger women rushed her, they would step in.

‘Who d’you think you are? Fuckin’ royalty?’ Aggie Crew, one of the most ragged and dirty of the women, shouted out.

Mary had crossed swords with this woman on several previous occasions. In Mary’s opinion she was totally brutalized. She stole from others, she didn’t even attempt to wash her face and hands when the morning washing bucket was brought down. She belittled anyone with a shred of decency left. She had sneered at Mary for washing out the rags she used when she had her menses, and for her attempts to rally some of the other women to join her in asking for buckets of water and mops to clean the floor. Now Aggie’s thin face was alight with malice, and she was clearly spoiling for a fight.

‘I don’t think I’m anyone other than a woman who doesn’t want to behave like an animal,’ Mary said, looking hard at her. ‘It isn’t right to act like this. The food should be shared equally, and I’m going to see it is.’

Bessie squeezed through the crowd with the sick women’s bowls. ‘Fill them, Jane,’ Mary ordered the very young pregnant girl who was standing right by the soup pot, her hand on the ladle. Mary had talked to Jane a great deal, for as if it wasn’t enough to be transported for stealing a candlestick, the parson who had made the complaint to the constables had also raped her.

Jane dutifully began to ladle soup into the bowls, and Mary ordered those standing nearest to take them over to the sick ones. ‘You’ll get your share next,’ she said by way of an inducement.

For a while it seemed as if Mary had won the day. The sick got their rations, and the other women were queuing properly for theirs, but as Mary turned to look at the soup pot, to make sure there was enough to go round, she was suddenly hit over the head with a bowl. She fell forward, knocking another woman off her feet, and all at once Aggie Crew was screaming blue murder, trying to entice the other women into hitting Mary.

The door flew open and in came the guards, lashing out with their sticks. They hauled Mary to her feet and unceremoniously dragged her out.

She knew they must have watched the whole proceedings through the grille on the door, but she also knew better than to hope they’d be on her side. Back in Exeter Castle, Dick Sullion had explained to her that the whole business of running prisons was put out to private tender to save the government money. As he pointed out, it was a good business for those who had no scruples; they hired the most brutish men as gaolers, ones who weren’t above cutting corners with the rations. And in turn the owners turned a blind eye to their men taking bribes and treating their charges with the utmost brutality.

The two who held her by the arms now were typical of their breed, with their ugly, foxy faces and broken teeth. There was no light in their eyes.

‘Why me?’ she asked them when she’d caught her breath. ‘It wasn’t me who hit anyone.’

‘You were inciting riot,’ one said. ‘Bloody troublemaker.’

‘Take me to Lieutenant Captain Tench,’ she said boldly. ‘I’ll explain it to him.’

They didn’t reply, just dragged her on along the passage and up the companionway, out on to the deck. Mary was sure she was going to be tied up somewhere for a flogging but at that moment, as her lungs filled with the sweet, fresh air after breathing effluent for so long, she didn’t care.

She saw the night sky, sprinkled with a million stars, and the moon cutting a silver path across the dark waters of the river to the shore, and it seemed to be a sign that this was her moment, the opportunity she’d hoped for.

‘I want to see Tench,’ she screamed out at the top of her lungs. ‘Get him now.’

One of the guards struck her, knocking her down on to the deck. ‘Shut up,’ he hissed at her, and added a stream of profanities.

All at once Mary saw what they were about. They hadn’t dragged her out of the cell for formal punishment. They were intending to have their way with her, then shove her back later, with no one the wiser.

Determination was one of Mary’s strongest attributes. While she might be prepared to be bedded by someone who would feed her, allow her to wash and perhaps show her some affection, she wasn’t going to let herself be taken by a couple of rutting animals. She guessed too by the way they’d tried to silence her that there were men on the Dunkirk who didn’t approve of prisoners being raped. So she yelled again and again, and when one of them tried to cover her mouth, she bit his hand and punched him, screaming still louder for Tench.

‘What’s going on?’ a voice boomed out, and as the two men let go of her, she saw a slim male figure silhouetted in an open doorway to one of the many sheds that were built on the deck.

‘Mr Tench?’ Mary yelled out. ‘They dragged me out, I’ve done nothing wrong. Help me, please.’

‘Stop that yelling and come in here,’ he said. ‘And you too,’ he added to the men.

The shed was part ward room, part office. At the centre of it was a table littered with papers and lit by a couple of candles. It looked to Mary as though this man had been writing, for there was an open notebook and an inkwell in front of the stool he’d obviously just vacated.

Mary had no way of knowing if this was Watkin Tench. But the gold braid on his well-fitting red jacket and his spotless white breeches proved he was an officer, and he spoke like a gentleman. He was of slender build, with dark crinkly hair and brown eyes, and she thought he was around twenty-four or -five. His face was unremarkable, with small, neat features and clear and glowing skin. While he looked irritated at being disturbed, he certainly didn’t give the impression of being bad-tempered by nature.

‘Your name?’ he asked curtly.

‘Mary Broad, sir,’ she said. ‘I was trying to make the women let the sick ones have some soup,’ she added quickly. ‘Some of them didn’t like it, and one hit me, then these two dragged me out.’

‘She was trying to start a fight,’ one of the guards claimed. ‘We had to separate her.’

‘Wait outside, you two,’ the young officer said.

They left, one muttering something under his breath. Once the door was closed, the officer perched on his stool and looked hard at Mary.

‘Why were you calling out my name?’ he asked.

Mary felt a sense of relief that she had found the right man. ‘I’d been told you were fair,’ she said.

Tench nodded noncommittally, and asked Mary to explain what had happened.

Now that she had a platform to air her complaints, she spared him nothing. She said how the strongest women got the food while the weakest were starving, and that in her opinion there wasn’t enough food to keep so many women alive.

‘Our punishment is supposed to be transportation,’ she said heatedly. ‘Surely it’s wrong to try and kill us before we ever get put on a ship?’

Tench had been surprised enough to hear his name being called out, and even more so by this woman’s obvious intelligence. But most of all he was touched that she had the courage to speak up for her weaker fellow prisoners.

He had been a prisoner of war himself in America and had feared he would die from the terrible conditions there. When he arrived at this posting on the Dunkirk, he was horrified to find his fellow countrymen were capable of even worse barbarities. To his distress he found there was nothing a Marine officer could do to prevent it. The hulks were run by private companies, and the Marines were merely there to keep order, without any control over the management.

When he had voiced his strong feelings on the matter he’d been severely reprimanded, and as he was only a junior officer without anyone higher up in agreement with him, there was nothing more he could do, and in truth he had become apathetic. When he took men to work outside, he was kindly to them; he tried to make certain the guards were giving the full quota of rations to the prisoners, and when someone was brought to him for punishment he was always fair. But he knew that wasn’t enough.

Mary’s Cornish dialect sliced through his apathy. He had spent his childhood in Penzance and had a store of happy memories of its natives. He felt compelled to find out a little more about this woman before dismissing her. Realizing she must have foregone her own supper during this skirmish, he put his head outside the door and ordered one of the men to bring something from the galley.

‘Am I to be flogged?’ Mary asked, once he’d shut the door again. She didn’t hear what he had said to the men, and assumed he’d sent one of them to fetch someone of a higher rank than himself.

‘No,’ he said. ‘And in future I shall order the guards to make sure the rations are shared out equally.’

‘While you are about it, could we have more?’ she asked cheekily.

Tench had an overwhelming desire to laugh. The woman reminded him poignantly of many Cornish miners he’d known, dogged, tough and fearless. He remembered from the records that she had assaulted the woman she’d robbed, yet her calm grey eyes and gentle manner belied a vicious nature. Likewise, the innocence in her face sat uneasily with her impudent demands. A woman to be watched, he thought. But a rather admirable one for all that.

The guard brought in a plate of bread, cheese and pilchards. Tench pulled up another stool at the table and told Mary to eat.

It was so long since she had tasted either cheese or pilchards that it was all she could do not to cry. She wolfed down the food, holding on to the plate with one hand, afraid Tench might snatch it before she’d finished.

He poured her a little rum too, and topped it up with water, taking a glass neat himself. As he watched her bent over the plate, he noted that although her hair was alive with lice, her neck was very clean, an extremely unusual sight in a prisoner.

‘I’ll get someone to take you back now,’ he said when she’d finished.

Mary had always found it easy to talk to men, but she had no idea how to flirt with them, nor would she know if a man found her attractive. As she looked into his soft brown eyes she thought she read curiosity in them, and she wished wholeheartedly she was in a clean dress with her hair newly washed, at least to give herself some sort of chance.

‘Can’t I stay a while longer?’ she blurted out impulsively.

He smiled, and his eyes twinkled. ‘No, you can’t, Mary,’ he said. ‘I have work to do. But why do you want to stay? I’ve given you food, you aren’t to be flogged.’

‘Because…’ she began, but to her horror she felt tears welling up in her eyes. She couldn’t find the words to explain what it meant to be out of that stinking hold, or how it felt to have a full belly. And she certainly couldn’t say it had been her intention to offer him her virginity in the hope she would get some privileges.

Perhaps he understood at least some of it, for he put his hand on her shoulder. ‘You have to go back,’ he said gently. ‘But we’ll talk again.’

Watkin Tench’s kindness comforted Mary that night. As she lay between Bessie and Nancy, she wasn’t so aware of the moans and groans, the coughing and the sobbing from the other women. Nor was she so aware of the stench or the rats scuttling around. Instead she was able to immerse herself in the thought of the amusement in his eyes, the shininess of his hair, and his gentle manner. For just a few brief minutes she’d felt clean, forgotten she was a felon. It was a form of escape, and a very welcome one.

Mary didn’t know whether it was as the result of Tench’s influence or not, but a couple of days later she, Bessie and two other women, Sarah Giles and Hannah Brown, were called out of the hold for work. There had already been a marked improvement in the food sharing, as the guards stayed in the hold to check everyone got fair shares, whether sick or not. To Mary that was enough. And to be called out for work was an unexpected bonus.

The job they were given was washing clothes, mainly shirts. It wasn’t an easy task as they had to carry the four heavy wooden tubs out on to the deck from a store-room, which was difficult wearing chains, then lower buckets on a rope to the river to fill them with water. But it was good to be out in the sunshine, to be able to look over to the shore and see the lush green of fields and woods, and even if the guards did watch their every move, at times leering at them in a frightening manner, it was a million times better than being cooped up in the hold.

‘Do you think we could wash ourselves when we’ve finished all these?’ Mary whispered to Sarah as they scrubbed at the dirty shirts with blocks of hard soap.

Sarah was one of the women the others called whores. Small and pretty, with red-gold hair, she was twenty-five, a widow with two small children. Her fisherman husband had been lost at sea when his ship went down in a storm, and Sarah had left the children with her mother in St Ives and gone to Plymouth. Her story was very like Mary’s – she’d turned to stealing because she couldn’t get work – and she’d already been on the Dunkirk for eight months.

‘You can if you want,’ Sarah said, and laughed as if it was funny. ‘But I hope you ain’t intending to do it with nothing on.’

‘Of course not.’ Mary coloured up. ‘I’ll just get in the tub with my dress on and wash that too while I’m about it.’

‘Chains and all?’ Sarah raised one eyebrow.

‘Well, I can’t get those off,’ Mary said offhandedly, and looked round at Bessie. ‘What about you? Fancy a bath?’

Bessie began to giggle, and it infected them all. Sarah rubbed soap into her hands and blew bubbles, Hannah splashed Mary with water, and Mary retaliated by slapping her with a wet shirt. If the guards noticed they didn’t intervene or stop them, and all at once it was as if they were just girls at a Sunday school picnic. They giggled, chatted and sang. Bessie even did a little dance, rattling her chains in time with her feet.

Once the washed shirts were hanging up on lines to dry, the women were completely hidden from the guards’ view. ‘Go on then if you’re going to,’ Sarah urged Mary. ‘Before we empty the tubs.’

While Bessie and Hannah looked on, tempted to join her, but afraid of being caught at it, Mary stepped into the tub, gasping at the cold. Elated by the almost sensual touch of water on her skin, she began to laugh. ‘It feels wonderful,’ she gasped out, crouching down so that the water came up to her middle and looking to the others to join her in their tubs. ‘Do it quickly if you’re going to, before we get caught.’

Bessie and Hannah got into theirs without any hesitation; only Sarah held back, claiming she was keeping watch. The three women scrubbed themselves and their clothes eagerly, aware they hadn’t long to finish the task, yet smiling with delight as they saw the dirt floating away from them.

After soaping her hair, Mary dunked herself right under the water several times. As she came up for the last time, to her horror she saw the two guards and an officer staring down at her. A quick glance revealed that Bessie and Hannah were already out of their tubs, trying vainly to wring the water from their dresses. Sarah was white-faced and agitated.

‘We weren’t doing no harm, sir,’ Mary said, addressing the officer. He was a portly man with a big nose and he looked astonished. ‘Just using up the water before we threw it overboard. We’ve done all the washing.’

Mary could see no good reason why bathing should be considered something punishable. But one glance at her two wet friends alarmed her. Their dresses were clinging to their bodies, showing clearly the curve of their breasts and hips, and the guards were looking at them with naked lust. Aware that her own body must be similarly displayed, she was stricken with embarrassment.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ she said as she struggled to get out of the tub. ‘But you can’t blame us, we’re never given enough water to wash properly.’

‘Why is it that you women always take advantage of any situation?’ the officer asked.

Mary glanced at her companions and guessed they were tongue-tied with fear. The officer was older than Tench, perhaps thirty or more, his voice high-pitched and clipped. Yet she could see no cruelty in his eyes, only puzzlement.

‘Wouldn’t you?’ she retorted. ‘What else are we to do? That hold you keep us in wouldn’t stink so much if we were allowed to bathe and come up here for exercise, and if it was scrubbed out now and then. If you kept animals in such a place there’d be a riot.’

One of the guards sniggered, and the officer silenced him with a stern look. ‘Take those three back,’ he said, pointing to Bessie, Sarah and Hannah. ‘I’ll deal with this one.’

The other women were pushed away through the lines of washing by the guards, leaving Mary alone with the officer. She vainly tried to wring out her skirt as she waited for him to speak.

‘Your name?’ he asked.

‘Mary Broad, sir,’ she said. ‘Am I allowed to know yours?’

She thought she saw a glimmer of a smile, and she ran her fingers through her hair and smiled back defiantly. Her mother and sister had often remarked how pretty her hair was wet, as it sprang into ringlets, and she hoped that was true because the wind felt chill now she was wet, and she wouldn’t look anything more than pathetic if she began shivering.

‘Lieutenant Graham,’ he said. ‘It seems to me, Mary, that you haven’t quite grasped the gravity of your situation.’

Graham was a name she’d also heard from the men prisoners. He was reputed to be dangerous when crossed, but decent enough most of the time.

‘Oh, I have, sir,’ she said boldly. ‘I can see that I won’t be alive to be transported, not unless I get a lucky break and a chance to have a bath and some extra food from time to time.’

He gave her a long, appraising stare which seemed to go right through her clothes, and she knew in that moment that he wanted her.

She had set her heart on Tench as a prospective saviour, and Lieutenant Graham would be an extremely poor substitute. His face was fat and flabby and she suspected he had little hair under his very well-cared-for wig. But there was no harm in having someone in reserve in case Tench couldn’t be tempted. And Graham wasn’t entirely repulsive as his teeth and skin were good. Besides, she wasn’t looking for true love, only to survive long enough to escape.

‘Are you trying to suggest something?’ he said, his eyes narrowing. They were a muddy brown, not the kind which could keep her awake as Tench’s did.

‘It’s not for me to suggest anything, sir,’ she said, making a bob of a curtsy and grinning impudently. ‘I was just saying how it is for me.’

He ordered her back to the hold at that, but as the guard roughly pushed her down through the companion-way, she felt Graham was watching her with interest.

Down in the hold, the afternoon’s bath was being discussed by all those women still strong enough to be interested in the others. As Mary was pushed inside, they broke off their chatter to look up at her.

‘What happened to you?’ Bessie asked, wringing her hands with anxiety. ‘We were afraid you’d be punished, or…’ She broke off, not wanting to add the word ‘raped’.

‘I told him we need more food, fresh air, and this hovel cleaned out,’ Mary said. She didn’t feel inclined to discuss it any further as her wet clothes were making her cold and she wanted to talk in private to Sarah.

Her chance didn’t come till much later that evening. She took off her wet clothes, hung them from a nail on the beam to dry and huddled in her blanket, but each time she looked across the hold, Sarah was talking to Hannah.

It was almost pitch dark when Mary saw Sarah move towards the bucket. By then most of the women were lying down ready to sleep. Mary got up and shuffled over to her, holding her blanket round her.

‘When you’ve finished, can we talk?’ she whispered.

In the gloom she saw Sarah nod her head.

The bucket was the best place to stay, furthest away from any of the women, but without room to stand up. When Sarah had finished, they perched on a beam. ‘What is it?’ Sarah asked.

‘Who is your lover?’ Mary asked. She saw no point in being more subtle.

Sarah hesitated. It was too dark for Mary to see if she was angry at being asked.

‘Is it Tench or Graham?’ Mary persisted.

‘No, neither of those,’ Sarah whispered. ‘But you shouldn’t ask such things, Mary.’

‘Why not? I have to, if only so I know who not to make up to,’ Mary whispered back.

‘Tench can’t be drawn into such things,’ Sarah said with a sigh. ‘Most of us have tried. And I wish you luck if you’re going to try Graham, he’s a hard man.’

‘How do I go about it?’ Mary asked.

She felt rather than saw Sarah’s shrug. ‘Give him the glad eye whenever you see him, that’s usually enough for them to call you out on a pretext. But don’t hope for much. You’ll only be disappointed.’

‘Does your man remove your chains?’

‘Sometimes, not often,’ she said wearily. ‘Now, go to bed, Mary, I don’t want to tell you these things, it’s not good.’

Mary heard the sadness in Sarah’s voice, and knew instinctively it was only desperation that had driven her to such an arrangement and she wanted no part in seeing another girl follow her lead.

‘We have to do what we can to survive,’ Mary said, taking Sarah’s hand and squeezing it. ‘That’s all it is, Sarah, nothing more. I don’t see any shame in that.’

‘You will when the others turn their backs on you,’ Sarah said, her voice breaking.

‘Better a turned back than dying of hunger,’ Mary insisted.

For over a week Mary waited, each day hoping she would be called out again for work. The weather had turned really warm and the hold was stifling. A woman called Elizabeth Soames died one night and was only discovered dead at daybreak, but what shocked Mary most was that no one had anything to say about her. She’d been locked in here for months, yet she hadn’t made one real friend and no one seemed to know anything about her.

‘She was already here when I came,’ Sarah said when Mary pointed this out. ‘She was sick then, she barely spoke. She was old anyway, don’t fret about it.’

Mary did fret about it. She wondered where the guards took Elizabeth’s body for burial, whether the woman had any relatives and if they’d be told. It also made her own desire to escape even stronger.

The only comfort she could find was reliving memories of home. She found that if she sank into them far enough she could forget the heat, hunger, smells and the other women. Sometimes she would imagine herself walking down the path to Bodinnick with Dolly and their mother to catch the boat up to Lostwithiel. Mary could only recall going there twice, the last time when she was about twelve and Dolly fourteen, but both occasions were hot, sunny days, and she remembered sitting in the boat trailing her hand in the cool, clear water.

For much of the boat journey the river ran through steep, thickly wooded banks where the trees grew right down to the water’s edge, their roots reaching out into the water like gnarled fishermen’s fingers. It was a journey of enchantment, dragonflies hovering over the water, herons standing patiently in the shallows, and often timid deer peeping out from the trees. Kingfishers perched on the tree roots, waiting for an unwary fish to swim by, and then they would swoop, a glorious flash of turquoise, and come back up with their silver prize in their beaks.

Lostwithiel was the farthest Mary had ever been from home until she went to Plymouth. It might have been no bigger than Fowey, but to her it was thrilling because coaches thundered in from as far away as Bristol and London. She watched bug-eyed as the passengers alighted, marvelling at the women’s beautiful clothes and pretty hats, and wondering why, if they were rich and important enough to travel so far, they didn’t look happier.

Last time they’d gone there, Father had given her and Dolly tuppence each to spend. While Mother was buying material for new clothes, they looked in every single shop and examined each and every market stall before they decided what they would spend their money on. Dolly bought some artificial daisies to put on her Sunday bonnet, and Mary bought a kite. Dolly said she was stupid wasting tuppence on something she could make at home for nothing, and anyway girls didn’t fly kites.

Mary didn’t care about being the only girl to fly a kite, and she thought Dolly was foolish wanting daisies on her bonnet. Besides, kites made at home were too heavy to fly well; hers was made of red paper, with yellow streamers, and the string was waxed so it slid through her hands smoothly.

The very next day after church, Mary took the kite up on the hill above the town to fly it. Dolly came with her, but only because she wanted to show off her newly trimmed bonnet. As always on a fine day with a strong breeze there were many boys flying kites, and they all looked enviously at Mary’s when it took off effortlessly, soaring up into the sky way beyond all their homemade ones.

Dolly overcame her prejudice about it being a boy’s game, mostly because there were several boys she liked up there, among them Albert Mowles whom she was sweet on. Mary might have known she shouldn’t have allowed Dolly to persuade her to let her hold the kite. She only wanted to do it so she could attract Albert’s attention.

A gust of stronger wind came, and to Mary’s horror, Dolly didn’t hold the string tighter, but let it run right through her fingers. The kite was off, swept along on the wind in the direction of the beach at Menabilly.

Everyone gave chase, some abandoning their own kites to rescue the superior one. Mary remembered how she ran like the wind, determined to beat all the boys, and they were all whooping and shouting at the unexpected excitement.

The kite came down suddenly and dramatically as the wind dropped, landing on some rocks to the side of the little beach. The tide was out and Mary didn’t stop to think about her Sunday clothes and shoes, but ran full tilt across the seaweed, sand and mud, her mind only on rescuing her kite.

She tripped on a half-submerged rock and fell face down. It was Albert who reached the kite, then turned back to help her up.

‘You can run faster than most boys,’ he said in admiration.

Now, as Mary lay sweating in the stinking hold, she thought she ought to remember the wallop she got from Mother when she returned home soaking wet and smeared with mud. Perhaps too she should remember Dolly’s baleful look when Mary was the recipient of Albert’s praise. Maybe she would have been wiser to have taken note of her father’s lecture that girls who acted like boys came to a sticky end.

Yet none of those things were important to her then, or now. Nothing could detract from the thrill of seeing the red kite soar up into the sky, feeling the warm sun on her face and the soft grass beneath her feet, experiencing the joy of running wild and free, the beauty of that little beach where she so often caught crabs and mussels. It was even more important now to hold on to those memories, to think of herself as that kite, straining to be free. For hadn’t she been told at Sunday school that if you prayed hard enough for something, it would come to you?

But it was hard to believe God listened to her prayers. Did He know or care that she was terrified she’d never see Fowey again? Was it too much to ask to go back to stand on the hill and look down at the pretty little town as the sun was setting? To watch the fishing boats come in, laden with their quivering silver pilchards, or hear the men singing in the tavern by the harbour?

Tears came into her eyes as she reminded herself that she had lost the chance to make her mother and father proud of her. That she’d never be able to dance at Dolly’s wedding. Mary knew they despaired of her for being a hoyden, but she had always known they loved her. What would it do to them when she didn’t come home again?

Just as Mary was beginning to believe that the hot weather would never break and she was going to be stuck in the hold for all eternity, she was called out for work again. This time it was just herself and Sarah.

It struck Mary that Sarah must have had some hand in it, as she’d spent two nights out of the hold since the wash day, but if she had, she didn’t let on. Once again they were instructed to wash shirts, and as they were lowering buckets over the side they saw a group of male prisoners being brought up for work too.

Although Mary often spoke to the men through the grille and could put names to the different voices, she had no idea what any of them looked like. But the moment she saw a big man, well over six feet tall with wiry, fair hair, a thick beard and pale blue eyes, she knew with certainty that was Will Bryant, the man most of the other women liked best.

Mary liked him too, mainly because he was Cornish and knew Fowey well. They had talked on several occasions, but once the initial delight of finding someone to share her memories of her home town had worn thin, she’d found him to be something of a braggart. He boasted he was one of the few men to be convicted of smuggling.

This seemed odd to her, for it was a crime that was usually ignored because everyone in Cornwall, from the poorest people to the gentry, were involved in it to some extent. As he was a fisherman by trade, with a boat of his own, he would know the rugged coastline well, and certainly have all the necessary skills for bringing contraband ashore, but Mary didn’t believe that was all he’d done. Nor did she like the way he considered himself to be the cleverest, toughest prisoner on the Dunkirk.

But seeing him in the flesh, she had to admit he was handsome. Even grime couldn’t spoil his strong features, or the loose shirt hide his muscular body. His fair hair shone in the sunshine, there was a sparkle in his blue eyes, and his skin was golden-brown from working outside. He was probably only a couple of years older than her, still fit and healthy despite having been on the hulk for over a year. Clearly he’d found a way to get extra rations, which proved he was resourceful.

‘Who are you two?’ he shouted, as if they were at the market place, not prisoners in chains.

‘I’m Sarah, this is Mary Broad,’ Sarah called back. ‘A good day for working outside!’

‘It’s worth breaking my back to see you two beauties,’ he replied impudently, making the other men with him laugh. ‘If you can get away later, I’ll meet you at the tavern and buy you both a drink.’

Mary had to smile. A man who could still make jokes when he was about to start a ten-hour stint of shifting rocks was someone to be admired.

‘I’ll buy you two each, me darlin’s,’ another man called out. He had an Irish accent and Mary knew right away he had to be James Martin, the man who made all the women laugh with his florid and often suggestive compliments. But whereas Will was better in the flesh, James was disappointing. His large nose dominated his gaunt face, his brown hair was stringy, and his ears stuck out. His shoulders were stooped and his teeth were very brown.

‘I thought a horse thief would look more dashing,’ Mary remarked to Sarah as the men climbed down the ladder into the waiting boat.

Sarah laughed. ‘That one’s got more cheek than an elephant’s behind,’ she said. ‘I don’t think he needs looks too to attract women.’

‘Who were the other two with Will?’ Mary asked. One had bright red hair and freckles and looked about the same age as herself. The other was younger still, perhaps only sixteen. He was very small and nervous looking, with sharp, bird-like features. ‘The young one had a nice smile.’

‘They arrived about the same time I did. The one with the ginger hair is Samuel Bird. He’s a bit gloomy, not one to brighten up a girl’s day like Will and James,’ Sarah said with a grin. ‘The little one is Jamie Cox. He don’t say much, too shy I guess. He’s lucky Will and James Martin keep an eye on him, it don’t bear thinking of what some of the brutes in that hold would do to him otherwise.’

Mary asked what she meant.

Sarah shook her head. ‘If you don’t know, then I’m not going to be the one to tell you,’ she said. ‘There’s some things men do that are better not mentioned.’

It was quiet up on deck after the male prisoners were rowed ashore. The sun was hot on the women’s arms and heads, and a heat haze shimmered on the water. They scrubbed at the clothes in companionable silence, and there seemed no need for conversation as both of them savoured the light breeze, the sound of the seagulls and the gentle movement of the hulk in the water.

Later, once they’d rinsed the first load of shirts with fresh water, both women bathed in the water, giggling delightedly as they helped each other to wash their hair. The two guards, who were lounging on crates further back on the deck, smoking pipes, made no comment. Perhaps the hot sun had mellowed them too.

The women’s clothes dried quickly as they hauled up fresh water for the second load of washing, but Mary was horrified to see how faded and flimsy her dress was becoming – another couple of washes and it would fall apart.

‘What will we do when these clothes are just rags?’ she asked Sarah. Many of the other women were already semi-naked, clutching the last vestiges of their rags around them to hide their bodies.

‘My man gave me this dress,’ Sarah said, her eyes downcast. ‘Hold out for clothes and food, Mary, don’t let him have you for nothing.’

Mary looked thoughtfully at her friend for a moment. Her dress was blue cotton, nothing fancy, and it was too big for her slight shape. But it was by far the best one down in the hold. She guessed that Sarah had been quite a head-turner back in Penzance, for her red-gold hair was pretty and her dark eyes smouldered.

‘Is it terrible?’ she whispered. ‘I’ve never done it.’

Sarah sighed. ‘I thought lying with my husband was wonderful,’ she said, her voice cracking. ‘It hurt a bit the first time, but he was so gentle and I loved him. It won’t be like that for you, I fear, the men here that want a woman won’t care about your feelings. You are nothing but a warm body to use any way they like.’

‘Is there any way I can make it better?’ Mary asked nervously.

‘Don’t struggle, try to pretend you like it.’ Sarah sighed. ‘But don’t think he’ll love you, we’re only convicts after all.’