Remember Me(3)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter three





Around noon Watkin Tench came back to the hulk in a small boat. Mary’s heart leaped as she heard his voice calling out from below. But she continued bailing out the wash tub over the side, waiting for him to appear.

As he clambered on to the deck, she smiled. He was wearing a white shirt and breeches and his face was shiny with perspiration. He looked hot and tired, but to Mary that only made him more desirable.

He nodded when he saw the two women. ‘Good day, Sarah, Mary. I hope you are behaving yourselves today?’

It was clear by his light tone and the hint of amusement in his voice that he’d heard about the bathing in the wash tubs. Mary wondered what he’d have to say if he knew they’d repeated it today. But their clothes were nearly dry now, and they were spinning out the remaining washing to delay the moment when they had to go back to the hold.

‘We’d behave still better with something to eat,’ Mary called out cheekily. ‘Any chance?’

She saw Sarah turn away and guessed her friend thought she was being too forward.

‘Isn’t it enough you’ve got out of the hold for a few hours?’ Tench asked, taking a few steps closer to them. There was no real irritation in his voice, and Mary decided she had to charm him now or lose the chance for good.

‘Oh yes, sir, we really appreciate the chance to come up here, to look at the woods and fields, hear the birds singing, and feel the sun on our faces,’ she said, trying not to laugh because she was aware she sounded insincere. ‘I wouldn’t complain about anything ever again if we had work like this every day.’

He smiled then, his teeth very white against his tanned face. ‘Tell me about yourself, Mary,’ he asked, then added, ‘And you too, Sarah.’

It seemed to Mary that Fate was smiling on her for once, for Tench sat down on a crate and looked relaxed as he talked to them both. No guards came near and there were no distractions of any kind; they could have been two ordinary girls chatting to a friend after work.

Mary let Sarah talk first. She spoke of her husband’s death and the children she was afraid she’d never see again. She went on to explain that her parents were past the age when they should be bringing up children, and if they should die, the children would go to the workhouse.

Tench really listened. Mary saw him clench his lips as if he was incensed that Sarah’s family circumstances hadn’t been taken into consideration when she was sentenced.

Mary’s own story was very short. She told him about her family in Fowey and how she’d left for Plymouth to get work.

‘I wish to God I’d stayed at home now,’ she said ruefully, as Sarah tactfully moved away to check the drying washing. ‘It pains me to think that I’ll never set foot in Cornwall, or see my family ever again in this life.’

She half expected Tench to insist she would, that seven years weren’t so long, but she knew by his grave expression he could hold out no hope for her.

‘It is more difficult for women convicts to return,’ he said. ‘Men can sign on a ship coming home when their time is up.’

He didn’t have to add that there was no such opportunity for women, and therefore they were forced to stay. Mary heard it in his voice.

‘I’ll get back,’ she said with determination. ‘Somehow. But do you know where we are to be sent?’

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘There’s talk of Botany Bay, in New South Wales, the country Captain Cook discovered. But no one else has been there to confirm or deny it’s a viable proposition. America is out of the question now since she gained her independence. They tried Africa and that failed.’

‘If we stay here on the Dunkirk we shall all die,’ Mary said dolefully.

Tench sighed. ‘I agree it’s bad, but what can the government do? Every gaol is overcrowded.’

Mary was tempted to comment that if they didn’t send people to prison for petty crimes like stealing a pie, there would be no overcrowding. But she wanted to keep Tench’s interest, not have him scuttling away in haste.

‘Tell me about you yourself, sir,’ she asked instead. ‘I heard you were in the war in the Americas?’

‘I was,’ he grinned ruefully. ‘Taken prisoner of war too. Maybe that’s why I’m a little more sympathetic to prisoners here than the average Marine. I grew up in Penzance too, so I also know how hard life is in Cornwall for most people.’

Mary sat on the deck by the wash tub entranced as Tench told her of his happy childhood memories of Penzance. He had of course come from an entirely different world to her – a big house with servants, a boarding school in Wales, a family with a good name and money. But there was common ground, their love of Cornwall, his interest and affection for ordinary people. He could paint vivid pictures with just a few words of his life with the Marines, of America and of London.

‘I have to go now,’ he said suddenly, perhaps aware he’d stayed talking to her for far too long. ‘You empty that tub and clear away. I’ll bring you up a little something to eat.’

‘He’s not the kind to take a woman,’ Sarah said sharply as soon as Tench had walked away. She had remained silent all the time Mary was talking to him, only nodding and smiling from time to time. ‘You won’t get what you want from him, Mary.’

‘How do you know?’ Mary asked, hurt because she thought the older woman was ridiculing her.

‘I know about men,’ Sarah said simply. ‘He’s the kind who will save himself for the woman he’ll marry. A rare breed.’

Mary thought Sarah was mistaken when Tench came back to give them a lump of bread, some cheese and an orange. But as he hurriedly walked away, urging them to finish up and go back to the hold, Sarah looked at his slender figure retreating down the deck and sighed.

‘He’s a kind, good man,’ she said. ‘No doubt if you can keep his interest he’ll always help you, Mary. But don’t hope for love, or even sharing his bed. His kind don’t fall for convict women.’

The bread and cheese were both a little mouldy but that didn’t matter, it was solid food after all. It was the orange which thrilled them even more, for such fruit had always been a rare treat even before imprisonment. They ate it all greedily, even the peel, licking every last drop of juice from their chins and laughing at each other.

They had just emptied the last of the washing water over the side when Lieutenant Graham appeared. He was in full uniform and looked very hot and tetchy.

‘Time you were back in the hold,’ he said curtly.

‘We were just going to take down the dry washing and fold it,’ Mary said.

She had caught the sun on her face and arms, she could feel the familiar sting and knew it would be tender for days. But up here she felt free and even happy and she didn’t want to go back down to the hold just yet.

‘My men will do that,’ he said, giving her a piercing look. ‘I know what you women are like, you probably aim to steal a shirt or two.’

‘You are mistaken, sir,’ Mary said indignantly. ‘We just wanted to finish the job properly.’

He leaned back against the sawn-off mast and sneered. ‘Is that so? I think it’s more likely you’d sell your souls for a new dress, food or a drop of rum.’

Mary glanced at Sarah, saw her anxious expression and guessed she had already passed a message that Mary could be tempted into becoming a bed partner. After talking to Tench, Mary had no real interest in Graham any longer, but her common sense told her she mustn’t wipe him right out of the picture.

‘I wouldn’t sell my soul,’ she said pointedly. ‘And I haven’t considered selling my body either, not yet.’

‘You women are all whores,’ Graham said nastily. ‘Now finish up and get back.’

His words stung, but as they lifted the tub to empty it completely, Mary felt Graham’s eyes on her legs. She had tucked the sides of her dress up into the chain around her waist and forgotten she’d left it like that.

She looked round at him and winked cheekily. She had no doubt he could be lured, even if Tench couldn’t.

Over the next few weeks, Mary was called out for work regularly. Sometimes it was just with Sarah, often with other women. But she wasn’t slow to notice she was always picked, whether it was for washing, mending or peeling vegetables. Sadly, she had no way of knowing whether it was Tench or Graham who was putting her on the list.

She saw both men on nearly every occasion, and although Tench didn’t stop to speak again for as long as he had before, he almost always slipped her something to eat. Graham on the other hand lingered longer each time, often calling Mary away from the other women under a pretence of chastising her for something.

The man puzzled her. He could be so curt and even nasty, but now and again he showed a touch of real kindness, like the occasion when she got a splinter in her foot from the deck planking. Several of the women had attempted to get it out for her without success. By the end of the day she could barely stand on it, and when Graham saw her limping, he called her over.

‘What’s wrong with your foot?’ he asked.

She explained, and he asked her to let him see it. She turned her back on him and with some difficulty because of the chains, lifted her foot up by bending her knee.

‘It’s embedded,’ he said. ‘I’ll get a needle to dig it out.’ He then ordered the other women back to the hold and told Mary to stay where she was.

‘Sit down,’ he said sharply as he came back with a needle and a small bottle of liquid.

Mary did as she was told, and Graham squatted down on a crate before her and lifted her foot on to his knee. It hurt as he prodded the needle in, but he eventually got the splinter, then rubbed a dab of the contents of the bottle on to it, making it sting. Mary squealed with pain.

‘That’s to kill any infection,’ he said. ‘Now, put something round it, and don’t walk around in any muck until it’s healed.’

‘Difficult down in the hold,’ she retorted.

‘Don’t you ever give up on complaining?’ he asked, but he was still holding her foot in his hand.

In that moment Mary knew for certain he did have a real interest in her. ‘If you think that’s complaining, just let me get into my stride,’ she said with a wide grin. ‘What would you like to hear about? The filth, the stink or the lack of decent food?’ She laughed then, to soften her words. ‘But I don’t want to put you off your supper tonight. It was very kind of you to see to my foot.’

He said nothing, but his hand strayed on to her leg, just above the shackle, smoothing the skin. ‘You keep yourself cleaner than the others,’ he said, his voice suddenly lower and more intimate. ‘I like that about you. I wouldn’t want to see you get a poisonous wound.’

‘Keeping clean is one way to survive this hulk,’ she retorted. ‘That’s my aim, to survive it, whatever I have to do.’

He smiled then, a warmth coming into his plump face, and for a brief second he looked almost handsome. ‘Whatever you have to do?’ he asked, raising one eyebrow.

Mary couldn’t look at him. She sensed he wanted her to spell out to him that she was available. Knowing that he could, if he wished, take her by force made her feel a little tender towards him.

‘I’ve never been with a man,’ she said softly, keeping her eyes down. ‘I always intended to wait till I was wed. But that’s not going to happen now. I could easily die of starvation before I see the country they plan to send me to. So if a man was to offer me food and a new dress, I think I would do what he wanted in return, as long as he was kind.’

‘You don’t mind if it’s not love?’

That seemed a strangely sensitive question to Mary. Not what she would have expected of a man of his class.

‘Love doesn’t come to women like me,’ she said. ‘I’ll settle for kindness.’

He ordered her back to the hold then, but as she got up he gave her a strip of cotton to bandage her foot. ‘Keep it clean,’ was his only comment, but his eyes said a great deal more.

That night Mary was in a quandary. It was Watkin Tench she wanted: for him she could feel very much more than mere gratitude. But she felt Sarah was right in saying he wouldn’t ever take a woman he wasn’t married to. Yet if she allowed Graham to have his way with her, and Tench found out, he’d be bound to despise her for it.

All the following week she could think of nothing else, agonizing over whether it was nobler to allow herself to starve to death than lose her self-respect, or fight with the only weapons she had for survival.

The long hot spell broke with a fearsome storm. The old hulk bucked and shuddered, the timbers groaned as if it was about to break up. The hatches had to be closed, and remained that way day after day as heavy rain continued to bucket down. As the women lay on their benches in complete darkness, listening to the cries of those who had become sick, the already fetid air was so thick and heavy it was difficult even to breathe.

Baby Rose, who had been sickly from birth, died first, followed a day later by her mother and the woman who shared the same bed. Within twenty-four hours a further eight women were running a fever, and a dozen more, including Mary, were vomiting and had diarrhoea. Most were so weak they couldn’t even make it to the buckets and just lay in their own mess.

Mary saw for herself then that the only women who weren’t suffering so badly were the so-called whores. They were the ones still healthy enough to be able to wipe another woman’s fevered brow, to offer a few words of comfort. Even Mary, who had considered herself so strong, barely had the strength to crawl to the bucket.

She made up her mind then that survival was far more important than morality.

Eventually the rain abated, and the hatches were opened again, to reveal a foot of bilge water beneath the sleeping shelves, vomit and excrement floating on it. The sickness among the prisoners persisted, claiming yet another two souls. The men called through the grille to the women, but they were suffering just as badly. Mary heard that Able, her cellmate in Exeter, had died, as well as a young boy, barely fifteen years of age, and two of the older men.

Mary spoke to Will Bryant one morning. Even he didn’t sound as brash and full of confidence as previously.

‘If it’s gaol fever that’s come amongst us, we’ll all die,’ he said gloomily. ‘We’ve got to find a way to make them swill out these holds. There’s more rats than ever and I fear for us all.’

‘I’ll try and do something,’ she said.

‘What can a little thing like you do?’ he retorted arrogantly.

‘I can try pleading for us,’ she said, more determined because he doubted her.

‘You can try, but it won’t get you anywhere,’ he said. ‘They want us all to die, then they’ll fill the hulk with new ’uns who’ll die too. Save ’em a fortune it will.’

‘You bring shame to Cornishmen,’ she shouted at him. ‘Talk like that won’t help anyone.’

‘I’ll marry you if you get the holds swilled out,’ he called back, and gave a raucous laugh.

‘Be careful I don’t hold you to that,’ Mary yelled at him.

Sarah smiled weakly as Mary told her what she intended to do.

‘The guards won’t get Tench or Graham down here,’ she said. ‘They’ll just ignore you.’

‘I’ve got to try,’ Mary insisted.

There was no point in banging on the door, no one ever answered. So Mary waited until the guard came down to order two of the women to bring out the slop buckets, and as soon as he unlocked the door she pounced on him.

‘I’ve got to see Lieutenant Captain Tench or Lieutenant Graham,’ she insisted.

‘Bugger off,’ he said, pushing her away with his stick. ‘You’ll see no one.’

‘I will,’ she said, grabbing him by the arm. ‘If you don’t take a message to one of them from me, I’ll see you punished.’

‘You get me punished?’ His narrow eyes became even narrower. ‘D’you think anyone up there would take the word of a bloody felon?’

‘Ignore me at your peril,’ Mary replied menacingly. ‘I’m telling you, give them the message, or take what will come to you.’

‘Bugger off,’ he repeated, but this time with less conviction. He ordered two women to take the buckets, holding Mary back with his stick.

‘Tell them,’ she yelled out as he slammed the door and locked it. ‘Tell them or be damned – it’s important.’

Mary tried again when the women came back with the buckets, but with the same response. As the hours crept by and still no one came, she stared out through the hatch at the dark grey sky above and cried. More women were going down with the fever, and she feared that if they were left like this they would all be dead within a week.

‘You did your best,’ Sarah said in an attempt to comfort her. ‘It’s just like Will said, they don’t care if we die.’

‘That may be true of most of them but I can’t believe it of Tench or Graham,’ Mary said. ‘I won’t believe it.’

She had no idea what time of day it was, as there was no sun to tell her, but it felt like late afternoon when a guard came in and called her name.

‘Up there with you,’ he said.

It wasn’t the same man she’d threatened earlier, but she felt he knew of it because for once he didn’t whack her with his stick. As Mary reached the top of the companionway she took a deep breath of clean air, and it made her giddy.

Lieutenant Graham was standing on deck. ‘You wanted to see me?’ he asked.

Mary poured out what was wrong. ‘The holds must be scrubbed out,’ she pleaded. ‘We’ll all go down with fever if they aren’t.’

He remained impassive, and it infuriated her. ‘If we all get fever it will spread to all of you too,’ she said heatedly. ‘In God’s name do something, you don’t want the death of a whole ship’s company on your conscience.’

He gave her one of his long, penetrating stares. ‘And what will you do for me, if I do what you say?’

Mary gulped. She hadn’t expected him to bargain with her.

‘Whatever you want, sir,’ she replied.

‘I don’t want you unwillingly,’ he said, and for the first time ever Mary saw a trace of nervousness in his face.

‘I don’t want you to help those down in the hold unwillingly either,’ she said.

He looked away from her, over towards the sea, and Mary could see he was struggling with his conscience. Not so much whether it was right to let prisoners die for want of clean air, but whether it was right to bow to Mary’s demands because he wanted her.

After what seemed an interminable silence he turned back to her. ‘I’ll pass the order that the holds are to be cleaned,’ he said sternly. ‘You will come to me as the other women are sent back.’

It was dark by the time the scrubbing of the women’s hold was completed. The women had been brought up on deck, and the evening soup and bread were dished out there while the guards went down to do their task. For some of the women who had never been out of the hold since they were originally put there, it was almost too much. They crouched on the deck fearfully, shivering in the brisk breeze, their eyes dull as if they were partially blinded by the daylight.

Mary was shocked by the condition of some of them. In the gloom of the hold she hadn’t been able to see the full horror of it. Some were nothing but skin and bone, and all were pale, gaunt and listless, dirt so deeply embedded in their skin and hair that it would take more than one bath to clean them. She saw ulcerating sores where their leg irons rubbed, the lice crawling on them, the bites on skinny arms and legs which could only have come from rats. Sadly, she sensed that the cleaning of the hold wouldn’t help them unless they were given better food. She doubted that all of their number would survive to be transported.

As the guards returned on deck, sweating profusely from their efforts, the smell of vinegar sharp in the evening air, Mary began to tremble with fright at the thought of what was coming to her.

She knew what love-making entailed. In the tiny cottage at Fowey there was no privacy, and she had heard her parents at it in the darkness. During her time in Plymouth she had seen it going on all around her too, so the act itself wasn’t frightening. Thomas used to kiss her passionately, and she would have gladly let him go further if he had pressed her. But there was a great deal of difference between being seduced and being compelled to submit to it.

Apart from her fear of being taken by a man she scarcely knew, there was the information Sarah had passed on. She said that although the officers turned a blind eye to one of their number taking a convict woman, that didn’t always stop them from banding together to flog a woman afterwards if they had some grievance against her. Mary guessed she would be a marked woman now for daring to complain about the holds.

Lieutenant Graham appeared just as the guards were ordering the women back below. He gestured for her to follow him to the stern of the ship, and disappeared into one of the shed-like structures up there.

He closed the door and locked it as soon as Mary was inside. It was very like the room Tench had taken her into before, tiny, with a bunk, a desk and a couple of stools. Graham lit a candle on the desk, and it was then that Mary saw the small bath of water on the floor.

‘For me?’ she asked.

‘Yes. You stink,’ he said, looking faintly embarrassed. ‘Wash yourself all over, including your hair. I’ll come back later.’

‘Will you take these off?’ Mary indicated her chains.

He hesitated for a moment, which suggested to her he hadn’t done this before, then taking a key from his pocket released both her ankles and drew the chain from around her waist. He left her without another word.

For a moment Mary could think of nothing but the sheer joy of being released from her chains. To be able to move easily and not to hear the hated clank she’d lived with for so long was bliss. But she regained her wits within minutes and sprang to the door to try it. It was locked of course, just as she’d expected, and the two porthole windows were far too small for her to get through, so she peeled off her clothes and got into the bath.

To her delight it was warm, and the soap he’d left wasn’t the rough stuff they used for washing clothes. The bath was too small to do anything more than squat in it, but it felt so good, especially without the hated chains weighing her down.

She was drying herself with the towel he’d left when she spotted a looking-glass on the wall and took a look at herself, almost falling back with shock at what she saw. Hollows had taken the place of her plump red cheeks and her eyes seemed to be bulging out of her head. When she looked down at her body she saw that was emaciated too, her ribs sticking out below her breasts. Stranger still were her brown face and forearms when the rest of her was ghostly white.

But her newly washed hair did look pretty, hanging in dark shiny ringlets to her shoulders. She rubbed at it hard with the towel, and combed it through with Graham’s comb to remove the lice, then washed that too in the bath water and put it back where she’d found it.

As she heard the sound of Graham’s feet coming back she dived into the bunk, quickly covering herself with the blanket.

Graham came in slowly. He was carrying a small tray which he put down while he locked the door again. Mary felt too shy to speak, but at the smell of the food, she couldn’t resist sitting up.

‘Is that for me?’ she exclaimed, hardly able to believe her luck, for it was some kind of pie, the pastry all golden the way her mother used to make it, with a rich gravy poured over it.

‘I guessed you were still hungry,’ he said gruffly, without looking at her, as if embarrassed.

‘That was kind of you, sir,’ she said.

‘You don’t have to call me sir in here,’ he said, passing her the tray and sitting down on the edge of the bunk. ‘My name is Spencer, now eat it up before it gets cold.’

Mary didn’t need to be told twice, and fell upon it with glee. It was rabbit and vegetable pie, the best she had eaten since she left Fowey, and even though the food meant more than the man who brought it to her, she couldn’t help but notice he seemed to be enjoying her obvious delight.

The Lieutenant was surprised by his own emotions as he watched Mary eat. He had expected either to feel guilt that he was betraying his wife’s trust in him, or so lustful once he got back to his cabin that he wouldn’t be able to give Mary time to eat the dinner. But instead he felt able to put aside both his guilt and his lust, because the way she ate the food made him feel good. She hadn’t noticed as she was eating that her breasts had become exposed, two small perfect little mounds with pale pink nipples. A little gravy had run on to one of them, and it was all he could do not to lean forward and lick it off.

He had married Alicia, his second cousin, at twenty, ten years ago now. They had played together as children, learned to dance and ride together back home in a village near Portsmouth, and there had always been an understanding that they would eventually marry. Alicia had come to live in his parents’ home, and she was very much the daughter of the house. She painted, sewed and played the piano, was gracious to all their guests, never complained when he was away for long periods. She even produced first a son, then a daughter, without losing her shapely figure.

Graham considered it a very successful marriage. They were in harmony with each other, and he knew that other men envied him such a pretty and vivacious wife. He didn’t understand why he sometimes felt disappointed.

Yet as he watched Mary eating, he realized why. Alicia was like biting into fruit, delicious and good for him, but not satisfying in the same way as a meat pie could be. Alicia never argued with him, everything he said was right. She always looked lovely when she welcomed him home on leave, but there was never any passion, no real emotion.

Mary was not even close to being as pretty as Alicia. Even if she were dressed in the most expensive silk gown, her hair arranged in an elegant coiffure, she would still look what she was, a simple country girl with no social graces.

Yet she was so very desirable, especially now, scrubbed clean and her dark hair flowing on her shoulders. She had a defiance he’d never seen in Alicia; she was proud, daring, wilful and outspoken. It would be a challenge to make this convict woman love him, and he felt that if he succeeded he’d discover something marvellous and sustaining. It even thrilled him that he was risking his career in the Marines by bringing her to his cabin. He’d never done anything so daring in his life before.

‘That was wonderful,’ Mary said, surprising him that she could be so grateful. ‘And the bath, that was wonderful too.’

She felt she was up to sharing his bed now. Warm and clean after the bath, with a belly full of food, she was ready for almost anything. Somehow she didn’t think he’d be very rough with her, not if he thought to bring her such good food.

‘Would you like some rum?’ Graham asked.

‘Just a little,’ she said. She didn’t really like the taste, but she enjoyed the warming effect it had on her. Besides, Sarah had warned her to drink whatever she was offered, saying it would help to numb her.

Graham handed her some rum in a glass and began to strip himself of his clothes. Mary gulped down her drink as she saw his white, hairy legs, suddenly afraid she couldn’t go through with this. The fear grew greater still as he threw aside his shirt: he had a pigeon chest and a fat white belly which quivered as he moved.

All her life she had been used to seeing semi-clothed male bodies. Fishermen and sailors were often stripped to the waist in the hot weather and they had hard, lean bodies rippling with muscle. That was how she thought all men were, and Graham’s unexpected white, flabby flesh made her feel suddenly queasy. But there was no backing down now, so she wriggled down under the blanket, leaving room for him beside her, and averted her gaze.

He was on to her within a second of getting into the bunk, pressing her into the mattress under his weight, his hands moving wildly all over her body and his lips clamped to hers like a limpet. Mary had no idea how to respond; her only experience had been with Thomas, and he’d given her gentle, sensual kisses that left her aching for more.

Graham’s mouth moved from her lips to her breasts, sucking at them so hard it hurt, and his breath came hard and heavy like a horse’s after a long gallop. She could feel his penis against her belly, hard and hot, but mercifully it appeared to be small. Within seconds, with his face buried in her neck, he was prising her thighs apart and forcing his way into her.

It didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t pleasant either, just the sensation of a pole being shoved into a dry tube which was barely large enough to accommodate it. She didn’t like the way he gripped her butt**ocks, grunting like a pig.

But thankfully it didn’t last long. The grunting grew gradually louder, his body grew hotter and more sweaty, then all at once he sighed deeply and was still, his face buried in her neck.

It was only then that she felt a slight tenderness towards him. After all she had been through in the past six or seven months, it was good to be held, and to lie in a warm and comfortable bed. She lifted one hand and caressed his neck and shoulders, wondering if she should say something.

But what could she say? Not that she loved him or that he thrilled her. Nor could she ask if he intended to do it again to her, tonight or any other night. That was another reminder of her status, a wretched convict woman who had no rights and was considered to be without feelings or needs. She was pretty certain that most people imagined such women were incapable even of thought.

He moved down the bunk a little, cradled his head against her breasts and almost instantly fell asleep, his arm tightly round her.

Mary lay there for some time. The air coming through the porthole was clean and fresh, only Graham’s gentle breathing breaking the total silence. It was good to know that no rats were likely to run across her in the night as she slept, and no hunger pains would wake her. Yet she couldn’t sleep, for it suddenly occurred to her that she might be able to escape.

Graham had locked the door when he came in, and she was sure he’d put the key in his jacket pocket. Could she possibly get out of the bunk and find her clothes and his keys without waking him? Would there be a guard posted outside?

The last question was answered when she heard the tread of heavy boots pass by the door. She listened closely for some time, mentally seeing the route the guard was taking around the deck. As he approached the cabin door for a second time, she counted out the seconds before he made a complete circuit. Ninety seconds, but on the third circuit he stopped somewhere, perhaps to smoke a pipe, or rest.

She realized then that there were too many unknown quantities to deal with to try to escape tonight. She didn’t know how heavy a sleeper Graham was, she wasn’t certain where the key was, nor had she checked the sides of the hulk to find the best place to climb down to the water. Jumping over the side would be foolhardy; she’d alert the guard in a second with the splash. All she could hope for was that Graham would want her again, that she could build up his trust in her, and meanwhile take careful note of the deck layout and best escape routes.

Mary dreamed she was at home in bed with her sister Dolly, waking to find that the hand caressing her belly was Graham’s, not her sister’s. She feigned sleep, hoping he would drop off again too, but to her surprise she heard him lighting a candle.

It was so tempting to open her eyes to see what he was doing, but if she did he might send her back to the hold, and she was too warm and snug to relish that. She felt him move the blanket back, and felt the slight heat from the candle coming nearer her.

All at once she became aware he was sitting up, the candlestick in his hand, studying her body. It was unnerving, but still she didn’t open her eyes. He gently probed at her private parts with one finger, parting the hair, then with two fingers held the lips apart.

It was even harder to pretend sleep, knowing he was looking at a part of her no one but herself had ever seen. She wondered why he wanted to look at it. Had he never seen one before? Or was he checking her for a disease?

But as his finger slid over her there, the strangest sensations washed over her. It felt good, the way Thomas’s kisses had, and involuntarily she opened her legs a little wider. The hesitant rubbing became a little stronger, and she knew he was looking at that part of her, not at her face, because she could feel the warmth of his breath on her belly. She half opened her eyes and saw that he wasn’t holding the candlestick as she supposed; that was resting on the side of the bunk. He was rubbing his penis with one hand while stroking her intimately with the other.

She shut her eyes tightly. She didn’t want the image of his fat belly to spoil the pleasure he was giving her. While it seemed peculiar that a man would prefer to do such things to her while she was asleep, rather than awake and responding, she had no real idea what lovers did to one another anyway.

Again and again his finger slid into her, and it was all she could do to lie quietly and not call out. She could hear his breath becoming more laboured, his hand moving faster and faster on his penis, and then just as she was about to reach for him, urge him to put it inside her, he made a grunting sound and was still.

He got back into bed beside her a few seconds later, and again fell soundly asleep. Once more Mary lay awake, disturbed by the feelings he’d aroused in her, and even more puzzled by his actions. Was he being caring by not waking her for what he wanted to do? Or was it some deviation of normal male behaviour?

She must have fallen asleep eventually, for the next thing she knew he was shaking her. ‘Wake up, Mary,’ he said. ‘It’s time for you to go back.’

It was barely dawn, just a faint pink glow in the east, as she walked across the deck, the chains back on her. Graham was in front of her, and as he reached the first of the two doors to the hold, he turned back to her.

‘Do not speak of this to anyone,’ he said, his face tight with tension. ‘If you are asked to explain your absence tell them you were locked up on deck as a punishment. Next time I will try to have a dress for you.’

He said nothing more, just unlocked the first door, then went down to the next and unlocked that, gently nudging her in without a word of farewell.

If anyone heard or saw her come in, they said nothing. Mary made her way to her bench, nudged Anne over as she had taken up her space, and lay down. After the warmth and softness of Graham’s bunk, the planks seemed very hard and cold. But she noticed it smelt far more pleasant in the hold, and that pleased her. Yet Graham’s last words had made her feel uneasy, for it was obvious he didn’t know how the other women would react to one of their number going missing for a night. They wouldn’t ask where she’d been, they’d just ignore her.

To Mary’s utmost surprise there was no animosity towards her when she woke again later. In fact her status appeared to have been raised to one of heroine. ‘Did they flog you?’ Anne asked first, and with that every single woman, even the sick ones, raised themselves to thank Mary for her courage in demanding to see Graham. Only Sarah gave her a knowing look, and she grinned when Mary told the story that she’d been chained up on the deck until dawn.

All the women seemed much less apathetic now the hold was cleaner, and throughout the day Mary was unable to get to speak to Sarah for them complimenting her, asking questions, and remarking on how no one else had ever dared do such a thing. The men were cleared out of their hold that morning too, for cleaning, and later, as they came back, Mary was subjected to shouted praise from them too.

Will Bryant called her over to the grille. ‘You’re a plucky little lass,’ he called out. ‘Bless you for it.’

‘You got to marry her now,’ James Martin shouted, and Mary laughed along with the men, amused as much by their ribald remarks as their praise for her.

‘I won’t be holding you to it, Will Bryant,’ she called back. ‘I know you’re all talk, and besides, I’ve got no wedding finery in here with me.’

While it felt good to receive so much admiration, Mary felt guilty too. The next time Graham called her out, not only would she lose all this respect, but they’d hate her for deceiving them.

After dark she managed to slip on to Sarah’s bench to talk to her. ‘I was with Graham,’ she whispered. ‘What do I do now about all this?’

‘But for you there would be many more deaths,’ Sarah whispered back. ‘Besides, they’d all be offering their fannies if they thought there was anyone up there wanting them. But never mind that, what was it like?’

‘Not so bad,’ Mary replied. Much as she would have liked to share her experiences with her friend, she couldn’t out of loyalty to Graham. He had after all been kind to her.

Four days later Mary was called again by Lieutenant Graham. This time she had been set to work cleaning the galley alone, and when she finished the filthy job, Graham appeared and ordered her into his cabin. It was late afternoon, and seconds after the door was locked behind her, she heard the male convicts arriving back from their outside work.

Again he removed her shackles, and again there was water for her to bathe in. But he didn’t stop to undress, and took her swiftly, before she was even dry, and when he had finished thrust a clean dress and petticoat at her.

‘You can’t stay up here,’ he said. ‘It would be noted. Put these on and be gone.’

‘Can I have something to eat?’ she asked as she put the petticoat on. It was very worn, but soft and clean. The grey dress was equally worn, but it looked wonderful to her as her old one was in shreds.

‘I thought you’d steal food while you were in the galley,’ he said with a sneer.

‘Our arrangement wasn’t for me to steal what I need,’ she said sharply. One of the guards had watched her most of the time she was in the galley, and to her disappointment all she’d managed to get her hands on was a bit of cheese. ‘I’ve kept my part of the bargain, so you keep yours.’

As she put the new dress on he turned away and opened a tin box. ‘Very well,’ he said, his back turned to her. ‘But keep your mouth shut about this. If word gets out I’ll have you flogged.’

He handed her a cold pasty and an apple.

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, and made an insolent curtsy. ‘I won’t be boasting about it. I’m not proud to stoop this low either.’

As he bent to lock her chains, she felt his hurt. She might have added something kinder, but she was too busy eating the pasty.

The weeks and months passed very slowly into autumn and finally to winter, bringing with it the prospect of freezing to death. With only one blanket apiece, the women huddled even closer together at night. There were several more deaths among the older ones, but a new influx took their places, and still there was no news of the transportation.

Will Bryant had been on the Dunkirk for two years already and he often joked to Mary through the grille that his seven-year sentence would be up before they set sail.

Mary was still every bit as desperate to escape. She knew the layout of the upper decks intimately: who patrolled at any given time of the day; the times when there were fewer guards on duty. But no feasible opportunity to escape had presented itself yet, however vigilant she was. She certainly wasn’t going to attempt it in a foolhardy way, for if she was caught she could expect a hundred lashes at least.

So, like Will, she had learned to bear her imprisonment, concentrating her energies on finding ways to alleviate the misery and stay alive and healthy. Whilst her continuing good health and her work up on deck, and nights away, did create some jealousy among the other women, she still commanded their respect for being their spokeswoman when required. She also helped herself to anything useful which came her way – rags for the women’s menses, soap and small amounts of food when she could get it – and gave it away to those who needed it most.

Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer, along with Aggie as their vociferous mouthpiece, did their best to make the other women turn against Mary, but the only real charge that stuck against her was that she was aloof and proud. Mary didn’t mind them saying that of her – pride to her wasn’t a fault – and as for being aloof, she supposed she was, in as much as she kept her own counsel and tried to rise above the petty squabbling some of the others went in for. But no one ever called her a whore, though she was well aware that was in fact what she’d become, even if it was only with Lieutenant Graham.

Once, sometimes twice, a week she slept in his cabin. He slipped her extra food, gave her clean clothes now and then, and showed her a certain amount of affection. But she was still nowhere nearer understanding the man.

At times it seemed as if he was in love with her, at others he appeared to loathe her. She now knew he was married with two children, and when he did speak of his wife Alicia it was almost with awe. Yet he persisted in bedding Mary, and seemed desperate for her to say she loved him. At times he gave her some pleasure, but more often his love-making was like the first night, fast, furious and without any feeling.

Mary’s feelings for Graham were based on pity more than anything else, for she sensed he was a complicated man, who didn’t appear to have any true friends. He had no real love for the Marines and had told her many times he wished he could resign his commission. Mary sensed he was a coward, and that he lived in fear of being given new orders to go somewhere dangerous. Yet he liked the power he had as an officer and knew there was no place for him in civilian life.

Mary suspected that even the marriage he claimed was such a happy one survived because husband and wife were apart so much. Lieutenant Captain Watkin Tench, whom Graham belittled at every opportunity, was a far happier man.

Tench was Mary’s other problem, for she felt she had fallen in love with him. While she doubted she would ever have looked his way if she’d met him when she was free, right from the first night they talked, she’d been smitten. It wasn’t for his looks, which weren’t that remarkable, nor because he could be relied on to give her extra food. It was because he cared about people, even convicts. He could command without brutality, and had a sense of humour too.

She loved his ready smile, a certain eagerness for life, his generosity of spirit and his lack of prejudice. She had long since given up any hope of him as a lover, but she counted him as a friend.

She knew now that it was he rather than Graham who put her on the list for work up on deck. He always spoke to her kindly, and listened sympathetically when she went to him with complaints. While mostly he couldn’t reduce the hardships the prisoners had to bear, for decisions were made much further up the hierarchy, he did what he could.

Tench was well aware of Mary’s arrangement with Graham, but he did not appear to despise her for it. He was an intelligent and adventurous man, who had already seen more of the world than anyone else Mary had known. He liked order and calm, but he was courageous too, loyal and dutiful to his King and Country. Mary doubted he would ever lie or take a bribe, yet he had compassion for those who did.

He loved books, and had told Mary that he kept a meticulous diary which he hoped might be published one day. Mary often wondered if he mentioned her in his writings, for she felt he was fond of her. He had said once that he wrote a great deal about his view of the penal system, because it would be of interest in the future to historians.

One day just before Christmas, Mary was called out for washing duties with Bessie. It was a bitterly cold day, and for once Mary would have been glad not to have been chosen. Bending over a tub of washing, up to her armpits in icy water and exposed to the elements, was not something to be desired. Only the prospect of possibly seeing Tench made it bearable.

It was even worse than she feared. The wind from the sea cut through the poorly clad women like a knife. Bessie began to cry within minutes of putting her hands in the cold water, and however much Mary tried to take her mind off it, she couldn’t be cheered.

They didn’t wash the clothes as thoroughly as they had during the summer and by noon the job was completed, the whole deck festooned with wet shirts which would freeze on the lines.

As they made their way back to the hold, Tench appeared. ‘I want a word with Mary Broad,’ he said to the guard. ‘I’ll take her back myself in a few minutes.’

To Mary’s surprise and delight, he ushered her into his cabin on the deck and gave her a cup of tea to drink. She clasped the cup with her two hands to warm them.

‘Bless you,’ she said gratefully. ‘I’m so cold I thought I might die in a few more minutes.’

‘I didn’t just bring you in here to let you get warm,’ he said. ‘I have some news for you. Your transportation has been arranged.’

‘When and where to?’ she asked, hoping it was to be soon, to somewhere warmer than here.

‘We are bound for New South Wales,’ he said.

Mary could only stare at him for a moment. He had told her what he knew of this country on the other side of the world in a previous conversation. Captain Cook had reported on a place there he had named Botany Bay, which it was thought might be suitable for a penal colony. But at the time Tench told her this, he considered New South Wales was unlikely to be the final destination of the convicts on the Dunkirk.

‘“We” are to go?’ she said. ‘You mean you too?’ She didn’t think she’d mind being sent to hell if Tench was to be there along with her.

He smiled. ‘Me too, they need Marines to keep you all in order. I am excited at the prospect. It’s a new country, one I very much want to see. England needs a presence in that part of the world, and if this country is all that has been reported, it could become an important place for us.’

Tench’s enthusiasm warmed Mary even more than the hot tea. As he went on to speak of the fleet of eleven ships being sent, of convicts building towns, of farming and being given free land when their sentences were up, she shared some of his excitement. She had always wanted to travel, a long voyage by sea didn’t daunt her, and if they were to be the first people to land at Botany Bay there could possibly be good opportunities for someone as quick-witted as herself.

‘Swear you won’t tell the other women,’ he warned her. ‘I’m only telling you because I hoped it might cheer you. I watched you earlier out there in the cold and my heart went out to you.’

He went on to tell her that Botany Bay had some native people with black skin, that the government believed there was flax and timber there, and the climate was good, far warmer than in England. He said Captain Cook had reported many strange animals and birds, including a large furry beast that bounded along on its back legs, and a huge flightless bird. But though Mary was interested to know more about this new country so far away, it was Tench’s words, ‘my heart went out to you’, that resonated in her mind.

‘When will we sail?’ was all she could ask.

Tench sighed. ‘We have orders to take you to the ships on the 7th of January, but I suspect it will be some time before we set sail. Captain Phillip, who is commanding this operation, is not yet satisfied with the supplies of goods and food to be taken with us.’

‘Will I be on the same ship as you?’ Mary asked.

‘Would you like to be?’ he asked, his dark eyes looking hard at her.

‘I would,’ she said bluntly, seeing no point in being bashful.

‘I think I could arrange that,’ he said, and smiled. ‘Now, not a word to anyone, especially Lieutenant Graham.’

‘Is he going too?’ she asked.

Tench shook his head. ‘Does that sadden you?’

Mary smiled. ‘No, not at all. I don’t think he’s a man for an adventure.’

Tench chuckled, and Mary wondered if that meant Graham had in fact refused to go. ‘No, he’s not one for adventure, Mary. But you and I are, and perhaps we’ll see things we never dreamed of.’