Remember Me(6)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter six


Mary was standing waist-deep in the sea, holding tightly to the fishing net, looking as all the other helpers were towards Will in the small boat, waiting for his signal to pull the net tight.

She was very hungry, but hunger pains and the dizzy spells which went with them were just a fact of life now. After a whole year here at Port Jackson she couldn’t even remember what it was like to be without them.

She was much thinner than she’d been back on the Dunkirk, her skin leathery and brown from constant exposure to the sun and wind, her hands hardened like the women’s who gutted fish back in Fowey. But her looks weren’t something she ever thought about; just keeping herself and Charlotte alive was of far greater importance.

Will gave the signal and everyone holding the net began pulling and moving back to the shore. Mary’s heart leaped when she saw the abundance of fish squirming in the net. It wasn’t often they were that lucky.

The colony was close to dying of starvation. The rations had been cut again and again because no further supplies had arrived from England yet. A great many of the provisions brought out with them were spoiled, and the original hope that within a year they would be producing home-grown food was shattered. Had draught animals and ploughs been sent out, along with men from a farming background, maybe the ground could have been tilled and cultivated quickly. But all this had been overlooked. The weather and the lack of fodder for the animals soon decimated their numbers, cereals withered in the ground and vegetables didn’t thrive.

Building work had been the priority at the start, houses for the officers, Marines, and then the convicts. But along with the lack of carpenters, an outbreak of scurvy, together with dozens of other diseases, kept the men from work, and so the building was painfully slow.

As the rations were cut, more people risked stealing food. Flogging was the punishment for this crime, but 100 lashes failed to be a deterrent, and Captain Phillip increased it to 500, and eventually to 1,000. When that didn’t work either, he finally resorted to hanging. Just the previous week Mary and Will had watched as Thomas Barrett, who was only seventeen, was hanged from the newly erected gallows for stealing some butter, dried peas and salt pork from the stores. Mary couldn’t even weep for the boy, for he’d been imprisoned for theft at the age of eleven, and she thought that death was preferable to the kind of life he’d had.

‘Come on, Mary, put your back into it,’ Will yelled at her from the little boat.

Mary laughed, for Will didn’t really mean she wasn’t pulling her weight – that shout was their secret code for ‘We’ll be eating well tonight.’

‘I don’t know what you’ve got to laugh at,’ the woman next to her said sharply as they hauled the net back on to the shore. ‘If I was in your shoes I’d be crying.’

‘Why’s that?’ Mary asked.

She didn’t trust Sadie Green an inch. She knew the only reason the woman had come down to the nets to help was in the hope of stealing a couple of fish for herself. She was one of the Londoners, foul-mouthed, cunning and lazy. And she bitterly resented that Mary appeared to have a better time of it than her.

‘Will’s gonna leave you soon,’ Sadie said, her mud-coloured eyes sparkling with malice. ‘He keeps telling the other men he isn’t legally wed to you.’

‘Is that so?’ Mary retorted with heavy sarcasm. Will had told her he didn’t believe their marriage was valid, not like a church wedding at home, but all the same she was hurt he’d bandied it about among the other men to reach the ears of people like Sadie. She wasn’t going to show that hurt though.

‘Just don’t wait around for him, Sadie, you might be waiting a long time,’ she said with a forced chuckle.

She saw the woman’s face tighten with anger. Sadie could only attract the most desperate of the male convicts. Although only about twenty-four, she had the grey look of gone-off meat, and smelled much the same. She never combed her wispy straw-coloured hair, much less washed it, and dirt was ingrained in her skin. There were no beauties in this colony, the sun and starvation saw to that. But Sadie was probably born plain, and a life of prostitution had done the rest.

‘Why, you stuck-up cow!’ she snarled, showing the blackened stumps of her teeth. ‘What makes you think you’re better than the rest of us? You’ve got a bastard kid that ain’t Will’s.’

Mary hesitated. She was very tempted to hit Sadie, but that was just what the woman wanted, so she could say Mary started the fight and get her punished.

‘Leave me alone, if you know what’s good for you,’ Mary replied wearily. ‘This place is bad enough without picking fights.’

‘But it ain’t bad for you, is it?’ Sadie put her hands on her hips and glowered at Mary. ‘You’ve got a nice little hut, Will’s got the best job, and I bet he gets extra rations too. Lieutenant Tench is always sniffing round you too. I bet he’s the bastard’s father.’

Mary was saved from answering by an officer coming along the beach to check the catch. Sadie gave Mary a menacing look and smirked at him, then left her place on the net and flounced off.

An hour later Mary was back at her hut, having collected Charlotte from Anne Tomkin, her neighbour, who minded her while Mary was helping with the nets.

The hut was now much improved. Because of Will’s status they had been allowed planks from the saw-mill for both roof and walls. The furniture was of the most basic kind: a rough-hewn bed, with rope tied across it like a hammock, a small table made from a tree trunk with a board nailed to its top, and two stools fashioned out of wooden crates. The floor was still hard-pressed dirt, though Will intended to put some planks down soon, and the only decoration some pretty sea shells on a shelf. Another held the few cooking pots, plates, mugs and a tin bowl to wash in. Yet however primitive, it was Mary’s haven, a place of comparative safety and peace for both herself and Charlotte.

At seventeen months Charlotte was a bonny child, with pink cheeks, black curly hair and well-rounded limbs. Her wide, joyous smile was worth a king’s ransom to Mary, and she gave shape and reason to her life. Yet at the same time, keeping Charlotte safe and well under such appalling conditions was slow torture.

While she was still a babe in arms, feeding from her mother’s breast, it was relatively easy, but once she began crawling and then walking, Mary saw danger everywhere. Aside from the most obvious things – insects, snakes, the sea and fires – there were the hidden hazards. Who knew what was buried in the sand Charlotte played on, which she could pick up and swallow. Other mothers here were very casual about their offspring, allowing them to wander and showing no anxiety if they got sunburnt, fell over, or ate something that made them sick. But Mary couldn’t be that way, she had to have Charlotte near her at all times. She tied a piece of rope around her waist to keep her close when she was mending nets, and gave Anne some fish or part of their rations to mind her when she was helping to haul them in. Even in the evening when Charlotte had fallen asleep in the bed all three shared, Mary wouldn’t go beyond her own door, even though other mothers went out to visit friends.

While waiting for Will to come home with their rations and hopefully some fish, Mary filled the bowl with water, peeled off Charlotte’s dress and began washing her. She didn’t like to dwell on the fact that the dress was merely rags now, held together by a few threads. Or that it would have to be washed tonight and put on again tomorrow because it was the only one. Nor did she want any reminders that she hadn’t any friends to visit.

She couldn’t win in this place.

Marrying Will had been a wise choice. He had protected her from the other men, built them this hut, and had come to love Charlotte as if she were his own. But Mary hadn’t anticipated that his fishing skills would make him so important in the colony, and it was that which had brought her problems.

When they first landed, the convicts from London and other cities were suspicious of fish and refused to eat it. This was understandable, considering that where they came from it was probably at least a week old and stinking. But by the time the rations had been severely cut and starvation was a real possibility, they quickly overcame their objections. Will was elevated to hero status because he was the man who not only introduced them to something tasty and filling, but also supplied it.

Yet as Will basked in the warm glow of admiration and gratitude, Mary had lost the strong position she’d once held with the other women from the Charlotte. With Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer dripping poison in the ears of the trouble-making women from other ships, it wasn’t long before most of the women were suspicious of her. Even Bessie and Sarah, whom she thought she could count on forever, had turned against her. They called her a ‘dark one’, as if she was guilty of some treachery, when the plain fact was that they were jealous of her.

Mary understood why. They were mostly sleeping six to a hut, while she was tucked up in a strong, weatherproof one, well away from the noise and trouble in the main camp. She ate better in those early days because Will was allowed some of each catch for himself. Nor did she have to work as a servant for one of the officers as the other women did. Added to this, the women saw Mary as a ‘nark’, because officers talked to her.

Tench often came to see how she and Will were getting on, and he liked to help with the fishing at night. It was reported that even Captain Phillip had remarked that the Bryants were the model family, industrious, sober and clean.

In the early days in the colony, Mary had made a good friend of Jane Randall, who sailed on the Lady Penryn. She too had a baby en route, though it was born while they were berthed in Cape Town. Initially it was because Charlotte and Henrietta were so close in age that Mary and Jane became friends; they had the same anxieties for their babies, and they minded each other’s to help out. Jane was sweet-natured and fun to be with, and like-minded too about making the best of it here.

Then Captain Phillip decided to start a new settlement on Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles away. It appeared to have a better climate, and the ground was more fertile, so some of the convicts, Jane among them, were sent there to alleviate the food shortages. Mary still missed her badly. Jane had never been jealous of her, she was always glad fortune seemed to shine on her friend.

Mary took the view that many of her former friends could be just as fortunate as her if they only used their brains. In the early days, Mary had tried to make them at least see the logic of appearing to be industrious. It was so easy to do, the officers only poked their noses in if there was any trouble, and to her mind the majority of the Marines were half-wits. Likewise, keeping yourself clean and tidy, and not running around hunting for men and drink, got you privileges and respect.

But sadly, one by one her old friends had fallen into apathy and allowed themselves to be influenced by a few forceful characters who thought they were proving their toughness by fighting and stealing. Nothing was safe from these women, and they recruited new members into their band by offering the drink they acquired through theft or prostitution.

Mary understood why Sarah had gone that way. She’d been raped on that first night, and found herself pregnant afterwards. Her baby was stillborn, and that brought back all the pain of the two children left behind in England. Drink was the only thing which made her life a little more bearable.

But most of the women hadn’t got such a good excuse. They had become filthy slatterns who neglected their children, preyed on those weaker than themselves, and went with any man for a shot of rum.

Mary was like a pricking conscience. They sneered at her because she bathed in the sea every day, cleaned her hut and kept Charlotte constantly beside her. But Mary knew that most of their spite and scorn was purely because she had the man they all wanted.

Will was attractive in every way. His looks, height and muscular body were almost enough on their own, but added to this he was a kind man with a jovial, cheeky nature that endeared him to everyone. He was also strong and clever with his hands, so it wasn’t surprising that everyone, from Captain Phillip right down to the lowest of the prisoners, held him in high esteem.

But what they didn’t know, and Mary would never divulge, was that Will was in fact quite weak. He might be able to read and write, but he didn’t use his brain and was unimaginative. Left to his own devices, he would be much like all the other men, living in squalor, getting drunk as often as he could, and bemoaning his bad luck.

Mary was the strong-willed and wily one. It was she who realized the importance of fish for their survival, and she talked Will into seeing his skill as the trump card to improve their life here. Will’s bargaining for a hut in a good position, the use of the only small boat, and a portion of each catch for himself, was all her doing. In return, Mary made their hut more homely so that he would want to be there, and pandered to his vanity so that he felt important.

If only he had listened to her when a new rule ordering that the entire catch should go into the stores was made. Mary had wanted him to go straight to Captain Phillip, not only to dig his heels in and insist on keeping his original rights, but also to discuss her plan with the captain. This was to build a bigger boat which would then be able to go further out into the sea and get catches big enough to feed everyone well. She also suggested they used surplus fish as a fertilizer for the soil, something she’d seen done back home in Cornwall.

But Will wouldn’t do that. He might brag to his friends that Mary’s ideas were his, as it made him look cleverer than them, but in reality he was too scared of losing his popularity with the officers to speak out. So instead he resorted to stealing what fish he needed.

Mary sighed deeply as Charlotte began groping for her breast under her dress. She had little milk left now, and each time the rations were cut further she was fearful Charlotte would become sick as so many others had.

It was the very young and the very old who were dying in ever-increasing numbers each week. The hospital building was always full now, the path to the cemetery so well used that a new funeral wasn’t remarked on any longer.

Shouting and chatter outside made Mary start. Through the window they had plaited with twigs in place of glass, she could see the sun was very low, and Will should have been home by now. She stood up, and holding Charlotte in her arms, went to the door.

The commotion was coming from further along the beach closer to the main camp. Mary thought she saw a glimpse of Will’s blond hair, so wrapping a piece of cloth around Charlotte, she went to look.

She had gone no more than two hundred yards when she saw Sarah.

Her once pretty face was gaunt. Her strawberry-blond hair was matted and filthy, her blue eyes were dulled by drink and she’d lost her two front teeth in a fight. Her slop dress still had bloodstains from the birth of her child and it was split on one side, showing her scrawny thigh.

‘Your Will’s been caught stealing,’ she called out. ‘He’ll be for it now.’

Mary’s heart quickened. She had of course eagerly eaten the fish Will brought home, and to help him remain undetected she had made the sacking bag to put them in. He hung this on a hook on the boat’s side below the water-line to retrieve later after the rest of the catch had been weighed and taken to the stores.

It had appeared to be a foolproof plan, but Mary guessed that Will had been stealing more than he told her, selling the surplus off to others or exchanging it for goods.

‘My Will’s no thief,’ Mary said sharply. She couldn’t look upon it as theft – after all, fish were free to anyone who could catch them.

‘I don’t think Captain Phillip will see it that way,’ Sarah said, her grin a touch malicious. ‘He’ll say you’ve been robbing the rest of us.’

Mary looked at her former friend coolly. ‘Will’s one of the few men here who provide anything for us to eat,’ she said. ‘But for him most of us would be too weak to be nasty.’

It hurt that Sarah had turned against her. Mary could not forget how close they’d been on the Dunkirk, and that Sarah had helped her with Charlotte’s birth on the voyage. But it had never been a one-sided friendship. Mary had always made sure she saved food for Sarah, comforted her in the aftermath of the rape, and even gave her some of the fish Will got. But perhaps the horror of the rape had killed off something inside Sarah.

All the way into the town, people called out to Mary. A few, like James Martin, Jamie Cox and Samuel Bird, Will’s closest friends, offered help and words of sympathy, but from the others it was mostly spiteful remarks. Mary remembered how back in the early days everyone would have stuck together if something like this had happened. But hunger and deprivation had changed them all. There was no sense of honour any more, people would peach on almost anyone in return for drink or extra food. And they took pleasure in seeing anyone they considered favoured brought down.

Mary kept her head up and ignored them all, but her insides were turning over with a combination of fear and hunger. The town didn’t consist of much, just two rows of squalid little huts for the convicts, slightly larger ones set further back for the Marines and their families, and the guarded store-sheds. But Mary’s eyes were drawn to the gallows. She remembered only too well the warning that anyone found stealing food would receive no mercy.

Watkin Tench came out from behind one of the store-sheds, surprising Mary for she’d thought he was away at Rose Hill, a new settlement inland where the soil was more fertile. Tench had been put in charge of it, and they were building a new Government House here too.

‘Mary!’ he exclaimed, his tanned lean face etched in concern. ‘I assume you’ve been told?’

Even he, who had always been so elegant and spruce, was looking worn. His boots were rarely highly polished any more, his red jacket was threadbare and his breeches stained. But the compassion was still there in his dark eyes.

Mary nodded. ‘Is it true?’ she asked.

‘Caught red-handed,’ he shrugged. ‘I’m afraid there’s little I can do to help him, however much I wish I could. The Governor will have to treat him just like anyone else caught stealing food.’

‘They won’t hang him, will they?’ Mary felt faint now, and her voice was little more than a whisper.

Tench glanced round to check who was watching, then moved closer to her. ‘I certainly hope not,’ he said. ‘It would be folly to lose any of the skilled men.’

His first reaction to the news as he rode in from Rose Hill had been anger at Will. Will was more fortunate than any other prisoner, he did a job he enjoyed, he had privileges and a decent hut. And he had Mary for a wife. Tench knew in his heart that Will hadn’t taken fish just for himself and his family, he’d been taking a great deal and trading it for rum. This incensed him, for it was not only breaking down the very fabric of the community, but cheating Mary too; no doubt she was oblivious to how much her husband needed drink.

‘Could I speak to Captain Phillip?’ Mary asked in desperation.

Tench hardly knew what to say. He certainly couldn’t bring himself to hammer home what kind of man Will really was. ‘Captain Phillip has probably already made his decision,’ he said after a couple of moments. Then, seeing the terror in Mary’s eyes, he weakened. ‘But perhaps if he saw you with Charlotte in your arms, he might be persuaded to change it.’

‘Please take me to him,’ Mary pleaded, and she reached out and clutched at his arm. ‘Will doesn’t deserve to die just for feeding his family. Surely any man would do the same?’

Tench looked at her for a moment. There had been so many times when he wished he had never suggested Will as a husband for her, for he knew now that Will was weak, easily led and very boastful. He guessed Mary felt mortified each time it got back to her that Will had claimed they weren’t legally married. Or that he intended to be on the next ship home when his time was up.

He wished too that he could get Mary out of his mind. He had hoped that being sent to Rose Hill would help. But now, faced with her distress, he knew the feelings he had for her hadn’t abated at all. ‘Any man would do the same for you,’ he said, putting his hand over hers briefly.

Captain Phillip’s house was some distance away from the town, up on a hill. With its two floors and veranda along the front, it stood out as being the residence of the most important man in the new colony, but this was not because it was grand, only that it had an appearance of sturdy permanence in comparison to all the other building work.

Mostly everything else was made of clay and wood, for even though there was plenty of stone around, and a brick-making kiln too, no lime to make mortar could be found anywhere. Mary, like many of the women, had been set to collect sea shells, then grind them up and burn them to make lime. She supposed all those many hundreds of bucketfuls she’d collected had barely made enough for the foundations of Phillip’s house, so it would be years and years before the real town he envisaged, complete with a church, shops and paved streets, could be built.

As Mary followed Tench up the hill, she held her head high and ignored the coarse remarks and stares. Will had always claimed that no one would ever peach on him, but that was yet another of his failings, a stupidly vain belief that he was special. He’d probably bragged about the fish to someone, and it hadn’t occurred to him that when jealousy reared its head, friendship and loyalty vanished.

Mary had to wait out on the veranda while Tench went inside the house to get permission for her to speak to Phillip. Charlotte was wailing with hunger now, and Mary jogged her soothingly in her arms as she looked back down the hill towards the town.

Darkness had fallen on the way there, and for once the town looked pretty, lit only by the many campfires. Mary could see the silhouettes of women cooking on them, and the flames highlighted trees and cast a twinkling orange glow on to the sea beyond.

She sighed, for although she always told anyone who asked that she would be on the next ship back to England when her sentence was up, she had grown to quite like this strange new land. Of course she hated what it stood for, a place where all the degenerate, desperate and wicked people from England were dumped. But it had some good points. The heat of the summer was sometimes too much, but there was always the warm sea to take a dip in. She loved the sandy beaches. Winter was nothing like as severe as at home, and however peculiar-looking most of the trees were, she liked their pungent aroma. Then there were the wonderful birds. To see flocks of the grey ones with pink bellies flying brought tears to her eyes. There were also the sulphur-coloured cockatoos that sat up in the trees squawking out what sounded like insults. Birds here were every colour of the rainbow, so vivid she could hardly believe they were real. She still hadn’t seen the animal Tench called a kangaroo, or the big flightless bird; perhaps they were too timid to come close to people and she’d need to go further inland.

But whether or not she much preferred the land to which she belonged, Mary was a realist. Hunger back in England was exactly the same as hunger here, except it was better to be hungry and warm than hungry and cold. Unless a miracle happened, she would never amount to anything more than a servant in England. Here she stood a chance. When she was free she could claim land of her own, and the challenge to build something out of nothing appealed to her.

Often at night she thought about having a few animals, growing vegetables and fruit, and sitting on a porch in the evenings with Charlotte and Will, gazing at their land. Will had always pooh-poohed such ideas, he wanted to live in a fishing village with a tavern at the centre of it. But as she’d often retorted, he could build his own tavern here.

‘You can come in now, Mary,’ Tench said softly behind her. ‘I have to warn you, Captain Phillip is very angry and disappointed. I don’t think you can sway him from hanging Will.’

Mary knew Tench would have done his best for her and Will, for even the hardships here, which were almost as bad for the officers as for the convicts, hadn’t changed his caring nature. Mary still had that same yearning for him, which marrying Will hadn’t made go away. In a year here she had seen many officers who were once above taking convict women into their beds, succumb to the temptation. And in her heart she knew that if Tench was to weaken, she would go all out to be with him, regardless of her marriage.

But she knew somehow that Tench never would. He cared for her, she saw it in his eyes every time he stopped off at her hut or looked for her amongst a group of women, and in the tender way he petted Charlotte. Just knowing he cared for her helped. It was something good to dream about at night, a reason to keep herself clean and neat, another reason to stay alive.

It also gave her the courage to face Captain Phillip, and the same defiant streak which had prevented her from crying out when she heard her own death sentence, rose in her as she marched into the house. She didn’t intend to watch Will hang while she still had breath in her body.

Captain Arthur Phillip was seated at his desk, a pen in his hand, as Mary came into the room.

‘Thank you for agreeing to see me, sir,’ she began, and bobbed a little curtsy.

Rumours went around the town that Phillip’s house was very impressive inside, stuffed with fine furniture and silver plate. But to Mary’s surprise it wasn’t even as grand as the rector’s house in Fowey. He had his desk, the chair he was sitting on, and there were a couple of armchairs by the fireplace, but apart from a silver-framed picture of a lady who was almost certainly his wife, there was little else, not even a rug on the bare boards.

Captain Phillip wasn’t much to look at either, fifty, slender and small, all the hair on the top of his head gone. But he did have lovely dark eyes, and Mary thought he wore his naval uniform well.

‘I suppose you’ve come to plead for your husband?’ he said coldly.

‘No, I’ve come to plead for everyone in this colony,’ Mary said without any hesitation. ‘For if you hang Will, they will surely all die, yourself included.’

He looked startled by such a claim, his dark eyes widening.

‘Without the fish he brings in we will starve,’ Mary continued, hitching Charlotte higher into her arms and willing her not to cry. ‘There is no one else as skilful as Will. If you hadn’t taken away his rights to take a few fish home for us, this would never have happened.’

‘That couldn’t be helped, it was an emergency situation,’ Phillip said tersely, irritated that she had the audacity to question his orders. ‘And your husband hadn’t just taken a couple of fish. He had a great deal. He has been bartering them for provisions stolen from the stores. Each time someone steals from there, it leaves even less for the rest of the colony. It is an extremely grave offence.’

‘Wouldn’t you do the same if your wife and family were facing death?’ Mary said, glancing at the picture of his wife.

‘No, I would not,’ he said firmly. ‘The provisions are rationed fairly. I only have the same as you.’

Mary doubted that, but didn’t dare say so.

‘So what good will hanging Will do?’ she asked. ‘I’ll be left to bring up this child alone, the people who steal from the stores will still do it, and every one of us will be even hungrier.’

Phillip looked at Mary, noting that she was every bit as ragged as the other convict women, but that she was clean. Even her bare feet were only dusty, not filthy as he’d observed many of the other women’s were.

Lieutenant Tench had often spoken of this woman, whom he considered intelligent and forthright, and claimed had been a good influence on the other women on the Charlotte. There hadn’t been any complaints about her behaviour, in fact he had himself commented on the Bryants being model prisoners.

‘Go home now,’ he said. ‘He will be tried tomorrow. Tonight he stays in the guard-house.’

Mary moved towards the door, but turned before leaving and gave Phillip a penetrating stare. He saw deep fear and desperation in her eyes as she held the child out to him.

‘Please, sir,’ she pleaded. ‘Look at my child. She is bonny and healthy now, but without Will she may not stay that way. I’ll make sure Will never goes wrong again. Please, for the love of God and this child, spare him!’

She left then, slinking off into the night like a cat.

Phillip sat for a while deep in thought. The woman was right. Hanging Bryant would bring the spectre of starvation even closer.

‘Damn those fools in England,’ he muttered. ‘Where are the provisions asked for? How can I be expected to make this colony self-sufficient when I haven’t been given even the most basic equipment or men with the right skills?’

He had deep anxieties about almost every facet of this experiment: the infertile soil, the fast-dwindling stores, the behaviour of the felons, and the natives. It was predictable that the felons wouldn’t pitch in and help themselves. They were townsfolk in the main, and they were more familiar with a jug of ale than a plough. They had no morals – dozens of the women had given birth or were expecting a child, and they moved from one partner to another without a qualm. They’d rather stand about chatting than work, would rather steal vegetables than grow them. Phillip could understand them, they had after all been sent here for good reason. But he was very disappointed in the natives.

Phillip had believed that if they were treated with kindness and friendliness, they would reciprocate. Sadly, this didn’t seem to be the case – over the last few months several convicts working away from the camp had been brutally murdered. He still wanted to find a way to communicate with these people, to discover where the big rivers and fertile land lay, to learn about the native animals and birds, but all his efforts had come to nothing.

In truth, by the first anniversary of the colony, Phillip was a very worried man. He had the settlement at Sydney Cove, the one in Norfolk Island, and now Rose Hill too, but the convicts showed little inclination to reform, the Marines grumbled constantly, and the situation with the natives appeared to be getting worse rather than better. Without more food and medicine, the death toll would rise even more steeply. He found it hard to sleep at night for anxiety, and he couldn’t see an end to it.

Mary bit into her knuckles as Judge Collins stood up in the guard-house to tell Will what his punishment was to be. As she had expected, someone had informed on Will, and she guessed it to be Joseph Pagett, a man who had been on both the Dunkirk and the Charlotte. He had shown signs of jealousy during the voyage, and she could recall him giving Will a baleful look the day they were married.

Charles White, the surgeon from the Charlotte, had spoken up for Will, but even so Mary was sure he was to be hanged. She knew Will thought so too, for his face was drained of all colour, and he was biting his lip and trying very hard not to tremble.

‘I sentence you to a hundred lashes,’ Collins said. ‘And to be deprived of the direction of fishing and the boat. Also to be turned out of the hut you are now in, along with your wife and family.’

Will shot a glance at Mary, his face registering some relief, but anxiety at how she would take the loss of the hut.

Mary couldn’t think about that now. While she was relieved Will wasn’t to be hanged, and 100 lashes was a light punishment compared to some she’d witnessed, any flogging was still terrible, and she felt her stomach heave with nausea.

‘Take him away for punishment,’ Collins said.

All the prisoners were rounded up to watch Will’s flogging, even the children. They took their places in a semicircle before the big wooden triangle, which was manned on either side by a Marine drummer. In front of the triangle stood the Marine who was to administer the flogging. He had stripped down to his shirt and was already wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, for it was yet another very hot day. In his other hand he held the cat-o’-nine-tails, each strand tarred and knotted.

The Marines began to drum, and Will was brought into the circle. His guards removed his shirt, then tied his hands to the upper parts of the triangle. There wasn’t a sound for a moment, not a whisper from a concerned friend, nor a cry from a child. Everyone was entirely focused on the hideousness of what they were to witness.

Will’s punishment was announced again, and one of the Marines who had brought him out of the guard-house gave the signal count of one.

Mary had witnessed some thirty or more floggings, of women as well as men, and it had always appalled her, even when she thought the victim deserved punishment. Some were given 1,000 lashes, 500 one day, the rest saved for when their backs healed up. Some people died before they got even half-way, and those who survived would bear the scars for the rest of their lives. Mary felt sick even before the Marine lifted his arm for the first lash. She had caressed that broad brown back, knew every knob in Will’s spine as intimately as she knew her own hands.

Will didn’t flinch at the first lash, he even tried to smile at Mary as if to prove it didn’t hurt. But just that one stroke had left a red weal, and his smile, however brave, didn’t fool her.

The counting was slow, half a minute between each lash, and by the eighth blood was drawn. Will couldn’t smile any longer, his body jerked with each lash and he was biting his lips as he tried not to cry out.

On and on it went, flies homing in on the fresh blood which spurted out all over his back like water through a sieve. By the twenty-fifth lash, Will was clinging to the triangle, his handsome face contorted with agony. Mary held Charlotte’s face close to her chest, and shut her eyes each time the drum was beaten. But she could still hear the whip whistling through the still air, and the sound of the Marine’s boots on the ground as he spun round to give each stroke more impact. She could also smell Will’s blood and hear the buzzing of the flies gorging on it.

It took over an hour in all, many of the crowd almost passing out from standing beneath the hot sun. By fifty lashes Will was insensible, the sinews on his back showing white through the lacerated skin. He hung by the ropes around his wrists, his legs sagging like a drunk’s.

Mary was crying now, hating the system which ordered such brutal punishment and despising those Marines who had often talked and joked with Will and were now his torturers.

The drum and the count finally stopped. Will was released from the triangle and he slid down it to the floor. His breeches and boots were soaked with blood, and ants were already carrying off small pieces of his flesh on their backs.

Mary ran to him, imploring someone to get cloths and salt water to bathe his back. Will was unconscious, his face still contorted with pain, and she crouched down beside him, Charlotte still in her arms.

‘Let me take Charlotte?’ a familiar voice asked.

Mary looked up and was surprised to see it was Sarah with a bucket of water and cloths. She had streaks from tears down her dirty face and it seemed that Will’s suffering and Mary’s distress had reminded her of their old friendship.

‘Bless you, Sarah,’ Mary said gratefully as she handed her child over. She washed Will’s face first, then looked up at Sarah again. ‘I ought to get him out of the sun but I haven’t got anywhere to take him now that they’ve confiscated our hut.’

‘We’ll take him to mine,’ Sarah said, leaning down and patting Mary’s shoulder. ‘Hold on, I’ll get some men to help.’

As Sarah walked away with Charlotte in her arms, Mary leaned over and put her lips close to her husband’s ear. ‘Can you hear me, Will?’ she whispered.

He didn’t reply, but his eyelids flickered. ‘I swear to you we’ll escape from here,’ she whispered, hate for Captain Phillip and everyone else responsible welling up inside her. ‘We’ll find a way, you’ll see. I’ll never let this happen again.’

It was later that day, as Mary crouched by Will’s side in the small hut, gently bathing his back, that she considered her old vow to escape. She hadn’t thought of it once since her arrival, and now it seemed incredible to her that she had begun to accept this terrible place, even to like it. But she couldn’t bear it any longer. Somehow she was going to get Will and Charlotte and herself away from here and do so as fast as was humanly possible.