Remember Me(5)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter five





1788

Mary was just coming up the companionway with Charlotte in her arms when she heard the cry ‘Land ahoy’. A surge of wild excitement grabbed her and she rushed up the last few steps and across the deck, to join crew members and other prisoners at the rail.

It didn’t look much like land to her, just a slightly darker line on the far horizon which could easily be cloud, but she knew the sailor up in the rigging who had spotted it was unlikely to be wrong.

It was January, a whole year since Mary had been transferred to the Charlotte from the Dunkirk, eight months of that time spent at sea. Charlotte was now five months old. Five male prisoners and a Marine’s wife on the Charlotte had died, but their deaths were attributed to diseases they carried with them from England, rather than lack of care on the voyage. In the main the prisoners were healthier than when they’d boarded the ship, thanks to fresh air and better rations. Few people had escaped some kind of accident, however, whether a broken limb or mere cuts and bruises, for the ship’s deck and steps were dangerously slippery during foul weather.

On the whole, Mary had found the voyage an enjoyable experience. While she was often terrified in the worst of the storms, and despaired at the spite and depravity of some of her fellow prisoners, this had been balanced by the happiness Charlotte had given her. Contrary to all the gloomy predictions, she was thriving. She seemed to charm everyone, from the officers, Marines and sailors right down to the other prisoners, with her ready smiles and placid gurgling. She had given Mary real hope for the future, but now they were nearly at their destination, Mary’s natural excitement was also tinged with anxiety.

Tench had told her back in Cape Town that the fleet would be split, the fastest ships going on ahead to prepare the settlement, but she knew that hadn’t happened. Bad weather and unfavourable winds had slowed the first ships down, and the others, which included the Charlotte, had caught up with them. Mary could see all the ships now, and it was daunting to know there would be nothing ready for them, and that for all they knew the natives could be hostile.

Will Bryant and little Jamie Cox were at the rails, and Mary joined them. ‘’Tis a grand sight,’ Will said with enthusiasm, making an expansive gesture with his hands at the other ships. ‘I feared we might lose at least one of them, but they’ve all made it.’

The prospect of shipwreck had been in everyone’s minds during the bad storms, and doubly so for Mary with Charlotte to protect. She had always found it comforting after a bad night to see at least one of the other ships close by in the morning. Will’s remark suggested he felt this too.

‘Aren’t you scared of what’s to come?’ she asked.

He shrugged. ‘Only that there won’t be enough food to support us till we’ve grown some,’ he admitted somewhat reluctantly.

‘And you, Jamie?’ Mary asked.

He smiled shyly. ‘The natives mostly. What if they’re cannibals?’

‘You won’t make much of a meal for them,’ Mary laughed, and prodded him in the side. Jamie had put on a little more flesh during the voyage, but he still looked like a skinny child to her.

‘So what are you scared of?’ Will asked Mary.

‘The other prisoners we don’t know, mostly,’ she said. ‘And whether I’ll be able to keep Charlotte safe and well.’

‘I’ll be looking out for you,’ he said, patting her on the arm with one great paw.

Mary wondered exactly what that remark meant. Although she had gradually picked up the old friendship she’d had with him before her proposal, she’d never mentioned it again, and neither had he. She had to assume he didn’t want her as a wife, and that silence was his way of not embarrassing her further.

‘I hope you mean that,’ she said with a smile. ‘But I expect you’ll be kept busy taking your pick of all the women. So I won’t count on it.’

*

It was another three days before the Charlotte sailed into Botany Bay, for the wind had been against them. But there were no cheers, smiles or laughter from the seamen, Marines, officers or prisoners as they got their first view of the new land they’d come so far to populate. For once they all reacted in the same way, shocked into silence.

It looked utterly desolate, and parched by the burning sun. There was none of the expected green pasture, the few trees were scrubby and stunted. Yet even more daunting was the sight of the very black, stark naked natives who brandished spears menacingly at the ships. It was quite clear they weren’t pleased to see white strangers invading their territory.

Most of the fleet had got there before the Charlotte, and a party of officers and Marines had already gone ashore to try to find a suitable site for their camp. But the prisoners were not allowed to stay on deck to watch the proceedings; once again they were made to return to the holds where they were locked in.

It was weeks later that Mary heard what had happened during the long days when she and her companions were incarcerated below decks in the suffocating heat. One story that would have amused them was that the natives hadn’t known which gender the white officers were, and one of the group was asked to drop his breeches to show them.

It seemed that Captain Arthur Phillip had managed to divert the natives’ hostility with gifts of beads and trinkets, but he’d been alarmed to find Botany Bay could not support over a thousand people and all the animals. The soil wasn’t fertile, and the water supply was in the wrong place. So, with a small party, he set out in the ship’s boats to try to find a more agreeable place further down the coast, leaving the rest of the company to clear trees in case he couldn’t find anywhere better.

He came to a place called Port Jackson which he understood from Captain Cook’s report to be a mere cove. As it was late afternoon he ordered his men to row in through the two giant headlands to check it, and once inside discovered it was not a cove at all, but a huge natural harbour, the best he’d ever seen anywhere in the world.

Delighted to find such a jewel with many sheltered bays, trees and fresh water, he pressed on and came to a place where the water was deep enough for the ships to come close to shore. He named it Sydney Cove after Lord Sydney, Secretary of State, to whom he sent his despatches. It even appeared that the natives were more friendly there too. So Sydney Cove was where the first settlement in New South Wales would be.

Mary and the other prisoners knew nothing of all this. Sweating and gasping in the heat of the holds, all they knew was that they’d been landed in a hellish, barren place peopled by fearsome savages. It was no wonder that many of them believed their long voyage had been for nothing and now they were going to die.

It was only on 26 January, when the prisoners heard the weighing of the anchor and the sound of sails being hoisted, that they felt a renewal of hope for their future.

By the time the Charlotte reached Sydney Cove it was night-time and too dark to see anything. The prisoners were not told that the flag-ship Sirius had arrived much earlier in the day, and that its officers had gone ashore, raised the English flag and held a simple ceremony where they fired a volley and toasted the royal family and the success of the new colony. But it was obvious to all the prisoners from the joyous shouts coming from the ships’ companies anchored out in the bay, that this was where they would be settling.

Down in the steamy, fetid darkness of the holds they couldn’t share in the excitement. They felt relief that they would soon be walking on solid ground and sleeping in tents, but they were fearful too, for this new prison which they had yet to build was so remote that they knew it was unlikely they would see England and their loved ones there again.

At first light the following morning the sound of axes felling trees filled the air and the women rushed to the hatches to look out.

‘Looks better than that other place,’ Bessie said cheerfully.

‘It does too,’ Mary agreed. The early-morning sun was glinting on the turquoise sea, and on land there were many trees, some quite large ones growing on the hills behind the bay. While there wasn’t what could be called pasture anywhere that she could see, this place certainly didn’t have the same desolate appearance as Botany Bay.

As they watched, they saw boats being lowered from the other ships, and male prisoners on the Friendship climbing down to them.

‘I wonder when we’ll go ashore,’ Bessie said longingly.

‘I hope it’s soon,’ Mary sighed. ‘It’s far too hot for Charlotte down here.’

It was over a week later that the women left the ships. They were allowed up on deck during that time as the men put up tents, cut trees and built store-sheds and a saw-mill, but they were told they had to stay on board until there was more order ashore.

Excitement grew with each day. It reminded Mary keenly of the sense of expectation before May Day back home. Women who had other clothes stored got them out and went through them to find something more fetching to wear, but most of them, like Mary, had arrived on the Charlotte with only the clothes they stood up in.

A new generosity bloomed, however, and ribbons, pieces of lace and small trinkets were offered to others who had nothing. They helped one another wash and curl their hair, and those who could sew were eager to assist those who couldn’t.

They could hear the women on the Lady Penryn engaged in much the same way. Their laughter and ribald comments wafted across to the Charlotte, and the rigging was festooned with drying clothes in every colour of the rainbow.

Although Mary felt every bit as excited as the other women, she was nervous too. Just a glance across to the Lady Penryn was to know that all those London women were going to be more worldly than her, and undoubtedly more attractive. On board the Charlotte she had a sort of distinction, admired for her ability to speak up for the women and her sense of fair play, and for being a mother. Her friendship with Will would almost certainly protect her from any harm amongst his large group of friends. She was also respected by most of the officers and Marines. She’d even gained the trust of their wives and children.

But on shore she would have to start all over again. She would need to be on her guard all the time. She was afraid that Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer might seek to malign her to anyone who would listen, and enjoy seeing her humiliated. Officers from other ships wouldn’t give her the trust and freedom she’d grown used to. She would be just a very small fish in a big pond, with no one to protect her and Charlotte.

On Sunday, 3 February a church service was held for the men by the Reverend Richard Johnson, under the shade of a big tree. Like all the women, Mary watched from the ship’s deck, a little awed to see around 700 men, prisoners, officers, Marines and sailors gathered together in prayer. Will stood taller and broader than most of the men, his fair hair bleached almost white in the sun. Jamie Cox stood next to him, so small he looked like a child compared to Will.

A mop of red hair in the crowd made Mary look more intently and to her surprise she saw it was Samuel Bird. Looking again, she saw James Martin beside him, his stooped shoulders and big nose unmistakable.

She was thrilled, for it was almost like seeing family members again, and she had to assume they’d been put on one of the other transport ships, maybe even separated from Will purposely to prevent them from inciting any kind of rebellion together.

Tench stood with the other officers, his hat tucked under his arm, and just the distance between prisoners and officers was a further reminder to Mary that the friendship between herself and Tench was unlikely to continue now the voyage was over.

Three days later the women went ashore. The excitement had been building up gradually over the last week, and as they were rowed to shore, Mary felt as giddy and giggly as her companions. It was wonderful to see everyone so happy, after the hardships on the voyage, with flushed cheeks and bright eyes, just like a bunch of bridesmaids at a wedding party.

For Mary, the prospect of walking on dry land again, to be rid of the smell of slop buckets, and to escape the nightly menace of rats was enough to start her heart pounding. But she was aware that for the other women it was mostly the men waiting on the shore that had them fired up.

As the boat got closer to the shore and Mary could clearly see the men waiting for them, she felt suddenly afraid, and hugged Charlotte closer to her breast. The expression on the men’s faces reminded her of when a ship came into Fowey harbour after weeks at sea. She had observed that same hungry look then, and although she hadn’t understood at the time why her mother always called her and Dolly indoors, she did now.

Sailors had a kind of rough charm, they were fit and strong, scrubbed up to look their best for shore leave. But these men waiting for the women prisoners were ragged and dirty, more like a vast pack of wild dogs than human beings.

Some of the women began to shout crude things to them, pulling their neck-lines lower and blowing kisses. In another boat coming from the Lady Penryn, one woman actually stood up and lifted her dress to show her private parts.

Marines pushed the men back as the boats were grounded on the beach and the women climbed out, but it seemed to Mary that the Marines were almost as bad as the convicts. They were laughing, winking, grabbing at the women’s hands, and there was certainly no sense of them being there to protect the fairer sex.

Mary elbowed her way through the crowd, Charlotte’s small crib under one arm, the other defensively round her child, almost deafened by the cat-calls, crude remarks and appeals for a kiss. It was exhilarating, like all the fairs and festivals she’d ever been to rolled into one, but frightening at the same time. It seemed odd to her that the officers were just standing by watching after all their stringent efforts to keep the men and women apart during the voyage.

Other boats came in, depositing more and more women on the beach, and the hubbub grew louder, the pushing and shoving more aggressive. But it was as much on the women’s part as the men’s – some of them were even running over to the men to kiss and embrace them.

Mary wanted so much to take off her boots, to run barefoot along the sand, to look at the strange birds watching them from the trees, to revel in her new-found freedom. But she could see this wasn’t an option right now, she had to stay in the safety of a group.

Seeing a small bunch of women with children, standing apart, Mary ran over to them.

‘Lawd have mercy on us,’ she gasped out. ‘It’s getting out of hand!’

A tall woman in a plain dark brown dress and bonnet, holding a small child in her arms, responded. ‘We asked to be taken to a place of safety some time ago,’ she said.

‘But our husbands seem distracted.’

Mary realized then that these women were Marines’ wives and families, and as she’d been treated with some kindness by those who travelled on the Charlotte, she assumed this group would be the same.

‘May I stay with you?’ she asked. ‘I’m afraid for my baby.’

The woman’s expression stiffened. ‘Join the other women from your ship,’ she said curtly. ‘That’s where you belong.’

Shamed, Mary turned and walked away, realizing that brief encounter had shown how things were going to be here.

A little more order came later when the Marines fired a warning volley over the prisoners’ heads, and the women were led to the tents allocated to them. But even as they were marched along, Mary overheard comments and giggles that suggested most of the women were too excited by the eager men to be kept under control for long.

Mary, Bessie and Sarah managed to stay together, but the other three women they were to share the tent with were strangers. The leader of the three, who announced herself as Cheapside Poll, was a tall, skinny woman with hard blue eyes, wearing a striped dress and a battered red hat. She deposited a carpet bag by the tent pole and glowered at Mary and her friends.

‘Any of you so much as think of digging in there and I’ll slit yer nostrils,’ she said. She looked round at her companions and urged them to tell what she was capable of.

‘She done it to a woman in Newgate,’ a fat one with a pock-marked face said gleefully. ‘Never ’eard screams like it afore.’

‘We aren’t thieves,’ Mary said, even though technically she supposed they were. She was frightened now; all three women had harsh voices and a way of speaking which was very different to her own. As she knew Newgate was the infamous prison in London, she supposed that was where they came from.

‘Keep that brat well away from me,’ Poll said viciously, pointing to Charlotte. ‘I can’t be doing with a screamer.’

It was perhaps fortunate that the three Londoners were anxious to get out of the tent as quickly as possible. After laying their blankets down, they disappeared.

Mary sat down to feed Charlotte, but it was clear from the way Sarah and Bessie were fidgeting that they were anxious to get out too. Both her friends looked much better now than they had back in England. Sarah was plumper, with pink cheeks and shining hair, while Bessie, who had been fat when they arrived at the Dunkirk, was a couple of stones lighter, and her once grey complexion peachy with health.

‘We’ll just look around,’ Bessie said, primping up her hair. ‘We’ll be back when we’ve found out where we get our rations from.’

Mary had been looking forward to going ashore as much as anyone, but now she felt close to tears. It was so hot, sweat was already soaking her dress, she needed to find water, both for a drink for herself and to cool Charlotte down. All around her she could hear strident, coarse voices, but the language they spoke wasn’t English as she knew it. She guessed it was the Newgate prison cant she’d heard about in Exeter, for odd words had a familiar ring to them. She hadn’t expected that she would have to learn a new language on top of everything else.

On the ship she had known exactly what was expected of her, a daily routine that seldom varied. She was one of only twenty women, an individual with a name and a character. Now she was to be one of some 200 women, thrown in together without any clear-cut rules of behaviour. If Cheapside Poll was an example of what she could expect of the rest of the women, she knew she would need to find new strengths for survival.

Tears dripped down her cheeks as she held Charlotte to her breast, and the words she’d so often heard in church at Easter-time came to her: ‘Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?’

Darkness came suddenly, taking Mary by surprise. There appeared to be no twilight period like back in England. The noise which had grown louder and louder throughout the afternoon reached fever pitch.

Mary had plucked up courage to explore the row of women’s tents to seek out her old companions and get food and water. She had spotted James Martin with Samuel Bird, but though they waved and shouted out greetings, Mary didn’t go and talk to them as they were with other more desperate-looking men. She did try to join in the revelry for a while, but the underlying menace in it drove her to join some of the older women who were as nervous as she was.

Again and again the Marines had tried to separate the men from the women, with little success, but as darkness fell all attempts to control the prisoners broke down, and couples were seen scurrying off into the bushes.

Mary was just laying Charlotte down in her crib in the tent, when a flash of lightning lit up the entire bay. Thunder followed it, so loud it was like a cannon, making Charlotte scream out. More thunder and lightning followed, and then came rain, heavier than Mary had ever seen in her life. Within minutes the hard ground was awash, water running through the tent like a river.

Mary expected that the storm would at least dampen the spirits of the revellers as it put out the many fires burning along the beach. Yet as she crouched in the shelter of the tent looking out, to her horror she saw that the storm was only inflaming people more. Each flash of lightning lit up acts of obscenity, women pulling off their clothes, men rushing to grab them and taking them there in the mud. But if such acts were horrifying, they were at least mutual; elsewhere she saw men rushing like ravaging beasts, pulling down women who were running for their lives, their screams reverberating around the camp. It wasn’t only the convicts either, some of the men were Marines, and as she stood with her hands clamped over her mouth in horror, she saw old women, too frail and bent to run, being knocked to the ground and raped.

It was like a scene from hell she’d once seen a picture of at Sunday school in Fowey, the men demonic in their lust, some women spurring them on with gleeful shouts, others screaming in terror. She saw one woman get up unsteadily from the ground as her rapist left her, so thickly coated with mud she had no features, only to be leapt upon by a second man, while another stood waiting for his turn.

Mary didn’t know what to do. To run from the tent would be folly for she would surely be caught by someone, and if she took Charlotte with her she might be dashed from her arms and killed. Yet the tent offered no protection. Even as she hesitated, another flash of lightning revealed a band of men coming along the rows of tents looking in each for new prey.

Grabbing Charlotte from her crib, she wriggled under the back of the tent and cowered there for a moment, considering which direction would be the safest. Going inland appeared to be the best choice, with luck there might be bushes to hide under, so hitching Charlotte under one arm and holding up her dress with the other, she ran for her life into the shelter of the trees.

She stubbed her bare feet against stumps of felled trees and tripped over dead branches, but somehow she managed to hold on to her baby. Just as she thought she was well away from the mayhem on the beach, however, she saw two men in front of her.

‘Lookee here,’ one of them shouted. ‘Fresh meat.’

‘Don’t hurt me,’ Mary screamed out in terror, for she knew whichever way she ran, one of them would catch her. ‘I’ve got a baby with me.’

‘We ain’t after hurting a baby,’ one of them said. ‘Just put it down and be nice to us.’

Mary screamed and clutched Charlotte even tighter to her. But one of the men grabbed her shoulder and pushed her down to the ground.

Flat on her back, still holding Charlotte who was now screaming too, Mary fought with the only weapons she had, her legs and feet. It was too dark to see, but she felt the heel of her foot land in a soft place and the yell that followed it suggested she’d struck his belly.

‘Get off me, you brutes,’ she yelled. ‘There’s plenty of willing women back there.’

One man pinned her down by the shoulders, the second one grabbed her by the knees and forced them apart. She could smell their sweat and rancid breath.

‘Damn you to hell,’ she screamed out, still bucking frantically. ‘Help me, someone!’

The man who held her legs apart was pulling her on to him as he knelt in front of her, the other one was still holding her shoulders in a grip of steel. She heard someone crashing through the bushes even over Charlotte’s screams, but that increased her terror further as she thought it would be another man wanting to join in.

‘Let her go,’ a male voice bellowed out, and to her shock she recognized the voice as Will’s. She saw nothing more than a dark shadow, then heard a crack, and the man about to rape her toppled back on to the ground.

There was another loud crack and the hands on her shoulders fell away. ‘That’s my woman,’ Will roared out, and all at once he was pulling her up and holding her in his arms.

‘There, there,’ he said gently, disengaging himself slightly so Charlotte wouldn’t be crushed. ‘You’re safe now.’

Taking her arm, he led her away. Mary had to suppose he had knocked the two men out with some kind of cudgel, but she didn’t turn to look.

‘Did they do it?’ he asked breathlessly.

‘No,’ she gasped out. ‘You were just in time.’

Will took her much further into the trees, and when they came to one that offered some real shelter from the heavy rain, he stopped and made her sit down.

‘Are you or the babby hurt?’ he asked, sitting down beside her and putting his arm around her.

‘I don’t think so,’ she replied, rocking Charlotte in her arms to soothe her.

All at once she was crying as she had never cried since her trial. All the hardships, deprivations, the cruelty and humiliations she had endured for so long seemed to come to the surface, just because one man cared enough to comfort her.

‘You’re safe now,’ he whispered, holding her tight and rocking her. ‘I won’t let anyone touch you again.’

A little later it stopped raining as suddenly as it had begun, and the moon came out from behind the clouds. Will continued to hold Mary as she offered Charlotte her breast to calm her. They were soaking wet and covered in mud, but at least it wasn’t cold.

‘I came looking for you when it all got nasty,’ Will explained. ‘I’d seen Sarah and Bessie earlier and they said you was back in the tent putting Charlotte down. I should have come to you then.’

‘I was scared almost as soon as we came ashore,’ Mary admitted. ‘Everyone was so wild.’

‘It was like a madness caught them all,’ Will said, his tone hushed and shocked. ‘I’ve never seen the like afore.’

‘How did you find me?’

He was silent for a moment, and she guessed his conscience wasn’t entirely clear either.

‘I saw a gang going through all the women’s tents,’ he said eventually. ‘I guessed if you were in there you’d get out the back and run for it. So I went that way, and I heard a babby crying.’

‘Will it always be this way?’ Mary whispered. She was shivering with shock, the vivid pictures of what she’d seen down on the beach still dancing before her eyes.

‘I don’t reckon so,’ he sighed. ‘Tomorrow the officers will take control, there’ll be floggings for some, chains for others, it will settle down.’

‘I hope you’re right,’ she said. ‘But I don’t like the thought of living with those London women, they scare me to death.’

‘You scared?’ he teased. ‘A girl who is brave enough to ask a man to marry her?’

‘I wish I hadn’t now,’ she admitted. ‘It must have seemed so forward. It was just that we appeared to have so much in common, I really like you and as tonight proved, women do need some protection here.’

‘They do indeed,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘But I think us men will need a good woman beside us too. So we will get married.’

‘You want to marry me?’ She was so surprised it dried up her tears instantly.

‘Well, I don’t want one of those London harpies full of pox,’ he said with a chuckle. ‘You were right, Mary. We’ll make a good team, you and me. They’ll need someone to fish, a lot of the food they brought with us is rotten. I think I can bargain for us to get a house of our own, my mind’s a bit sharper than most of the others.’

Mary was very aware he wasn’t saying he loved her, only that he thought she was clean and useful to him. Yet he had fought off those men for her, he’d comforted her just when she needed it. This place was going to be a living hell, and she doubted she could survive it alone. She didn’t expect or need romantic love, she’d settle for protection.

Four days after that terrible night, Will and Mary were married by the Reverend Johnson under the shade of the big tree where he’d held his first service. They weren’t alone, other couples married too, perhaps for the same reasons as Mary and Will.

Mary had no finery to wear, just the same shabby old grey dress freshly washed, and an artificial flower in her hair, lent to her in an unusually generous gesture by Cheapside Poll.

Mary had no real expectations, either of her marriage or of this new country. In the four days since coming ashore she had observed that the vast majority of the convicts were bone idle and devious. They would steal anything, cared nothing for the idea of working for the common good, and many were already bartering rations or belongings with the Marines for drink. The Marines were every bit as bad, and there was a lack of organization on the part of the officers and the powers that be who had sent them out from England.

Will had been right in saying some of the food was rotten. Mary had had to eat rice crawling with maggots and the salted beef was almost inedible. Tools were of inferior quality, there were too few women’s clothes, and a complete lack of skilled men.

She wondered how they could farm this desolate place when there were but two men out of hundreds who knew anything about farming or animal husbandry. How could a town be built without skilled carpenters or brickmakers? Captain Arthur Phillip had his house erected, a superior canvas one, a store-house had been built to lock away the provisions, and a few tents had been put in isolation as a hospital.

But the animals brought with them were in poor health, and dysentery had already broken out among those weakened by the voyage. Captain Phillip might be proud that only forty-eight people overall had died on the way here, but how many more would perish before the year was out?

An eighty-year-old woman hanged herself from a tree on that first night ashore. Many women still had black eyes and a hunted look. There were snakes, spiders and many flies and other insects, any of which could be dangerous. As for the natives, the officers seemed intent on getting their cooperation, when even an illiterate girl like herself could sense they bitterly resented this swarm of white people who’d taken it upon themselves to oust them from their land. Mary wondered how long it would be before their curiosity turned to real anger and they began killing.

But Will had been as good as his word. Not only had he pledged to marry her, he’d already made a deal that put him in charge of fishing and allowed him to build a hut for himself.

Mary glanced at him standing next to her, and smiled. He looked so handsome in a clean shirt and breeches; he’d even shaved off his bushy beard, and his blond hair was as bright as ripe corn. She knew most of the women envied her, for he was without doubt the most attractive and capable of all the male convicts. She might have her work cut out keeping him faithful to her, and perhaps his bragging would be wearing, but she did like and trust him. That was enough.

As the wedding ceremonies ended and everyone drifted back to their tents or the huts they were building, Lieutenant Tench stood for a little while watching Mary and Will walk away up the beach.

He was in a state of confusion about everything. Nothing was as he’d expected – not the country, nor the organization, nor the officers from the other ships. Even the stores they’d brought with them were inadequate. It was a shambles, in fact. And from what he’d seen of the convicts so far, it was going to be an uphill struggle to get any of them to work.

As far as he could see, only a handful of officers shared his will to make this place work. As for his men, most of them were behaving appallingly, every bit as devious and idle as the convicts.

He had thought he would feel more positive after the weddings today. They were, after all, one way of injecting a little joy into a new community, a show of hope for the future. Yet he had felt no joy at seeing those couples married. What he felt was utter sadness.

His mother always cried at weddings. She believed the more she cried, the happier the couple would be. But he knew his mother’s tears weren’t sad ones, they were pure emotion at a public declaration of love between two people.

Perhaps that was the cause of his sadness, knowing the couples married today were not in love. The women wanted protection and security, the men wanted sex.

He had thought he’d be happy to see Mary under Will’s protection. But he hadn’t considered till now that meant she would be her husband’s in every way.

He turned sharply and walked away towards the store-sheds. Maybe if he found something constructive to do he’d overcome these ridiculous feelings milling around inside him. Mary looked pretty and happy. Will was a decent enough man. They were right for each other.

‘It will be a nice little place once I’ve finished it,’ Will said later that same night, as he laid their blankets on the hard-packed dirt beside Charlotte’s crib.

They were in their new hut, which at present was nothing more than a few poles hammered together and the walls interwoven branches, with a piece of sacking tacked on a stick for a door. The roof was not yet on, and when Mary sat down on the blankets and looked up, the night sky strewn with a myriad stars looked very beautiful. Their bellies were full, as extra rations had been dished out to honour the weddings today, and Will had managed to get hold of some rum to celebrate.

Rules had been made since that first night ashore. Male convicts were banned from the women’s area, and guards were on duty to make sure no one slipped in. There was also a dusk curfew when everyone was supposed to be back in their own quarters. It didn’t actually work, men did get in with the women, but at least it was covert, and the women willing.

‘Plenty of fresh air,’ Will said, and laughed. ‘I can stand upright too. Beats that stinking ship anyways, or a tent with the men. Now, come here and give your husband a kiss.’

Mary needed no urging; since Will had announced their wedding plans she’d found she had status, and for that she was extremely grateful. Even Poll and her two cronies, three of the most foul-minded women Mary had ever met, were awed that she was wanted by the most desirable convict in the colony.

There were good things here. It was hot, the sand on the beach soft and white, the sea so blue and clean, and there were hundreds of beautiful birds. Even the trees had a lovely smell that cleared your nose. It beat a prison back in England any day.

Now Mary had a home, well away from everyone else, and even if it hadn’t got a roof yet, nor a stick of furniture, and the first storm would knock it down, it was theirs. Will had managed to get her a cooking pot, a bucket for carrying water, and a few other essential pieces of household equipment from the stores to start married life.

He’d already kissed her several times today, and he did so tenderly. She hadn’t expected to want him, but she found she did; in fact for the first time in over a year she was really happy to be where she was.

‘You’re such a little thing,’ he said gruffly as he helped her out of her dress. He cupped his big hands round her breasts and squeezed them, then sliding his hands down to her butt**ocks squeezed them too. ‘A bit skinny, but I never was one for fat women.’

He lifted her up in his arms then and laid her down on the blankets. Mary expected nothing more than for him to pull off his clothes, a quick coupling, then for him to fall asleep. But to her surprise Will made no attempt to undress himself, only to caress her. She had once heard him bragging to a sailor on the Charlotte that once he’d bedded a woman they always came back begging him for more. She believed it now, for she was afraid that any moment he might stop. His touch was so sure and slow, his fingers found exquisitely sensitive places to touch that until now she hadn’t even known existed.

The hard ground beneath the rough blanket, the crudeness of their unfinished house, even the hardship she’d been through were forgotten as Mary gave herself up to the bliss of his love-making. When she opened her eyes and saw the stars above, she could have been lying on a feather bed in a royal bedchamber, the stars just a decoration on the ceiling. Will made her forget she wasn’t pretty, or that there were lice in her hair; for once she was beautiful, desirable and loved.

She never could have believed she could behave like a wanton, begging for more, asking him to show her what pleased him, and doing it all too eagerly. At the peak of it all the thought crossed her mind that it was worth crossing the world in a prison ship to feel like this. She didn’t care about the future, she just wanted this night to last forever.

‘Are you glad you married me?’ Will whispered later, after he’d covered them with the blanket to keep off the insects.

‘The happiest woman alive,’ she whispered back, her cheeks wet with tears of joy.

‘We’ll make something of our life here,’ he murmured. ‘We’ll plant ourselves a little garden and grow some vegetables. We’ll never go hungry while I can fish, and we’ll have other children for Charlotte to play with.’

‘Will we go back to England when our time is up?’ she asked.

‘Sure, if you want to,’ he said, and laughed. ‘Or we might stay as free men and take some land for ourselves. Anything’s possible.’