Conviction

FictionIssue Five

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By Jane Downing

 

‘What was your very first memory, tell it to me,’ Frank commanded Billy.

Billy lay on his stomach on the cell floor. He moaned, and Frank bent in closer to whisper the question directly into his ear. Billy shifted and arched his naked back. His pain allowed no words. Frank thought, if only he could get Billy’s mind out of the cell, if only he could transport him back to the old country, magic him back to childhood, then he might escape the torment. By casting his mind back Billy could perhaps be comforted. By reliving his memory, he had a chance of recapturing the joy.

Billy’s rump’d flesh twitched independently of him, raw where the whip had fallen. His lips moved but still no words came out.

There was no need to talk as long as he remembered: Frank already knew the answer to his question as well as Billy did himself. He could almost feel the rock of the cart in young Billy’s memory, and the lurch as it pulled up at the farm with the low, darkened sheds.

The air was icy and the sky as mottled as chilblained flesh back there. It didn’t matter that Billy had only been in the cart the same way the dog was; dogs and bairns were best out from underfoot at home. It didn’t matter that his pop’s hand would soon land heavily on his shoulder, and he’d snarl ‘gid out of i’ boy’. Because before he was pulled away by his father, Billy stood on his tiptoes and forced an opening to spy into the secret, creaking place. He’d heard the rustling that whispered, come closer, see, and he had seen into the darkened shed. In the tiny shaft of light he’d made, the closest rows of rhubarb were growing higher before his very eyes. Ah, that green writhing miracle of life.

‘I never,’ Billy moaned, caught his breath, remembered deeply, ‘never tasted rhubarb. What do you think it tastes of?’ It was the same question he always asked Frank when they mined into their memories.

The cell was crowded with the smell of flogged flesh so it was impossible to conjure rhubarb’s sweetness. Frank lay back on the sagging canvas of his bed once he was sure Billy’s breathing was steady. He adjusted his own to the crash of the waves outside. In every cell the snores of the damned and the whimpers of the Godless lapped against the sandstone blocks. The stone kept the cold in as much as the elements out.

Frank thought to say a prayer. Thought only of death.

‘Will I die?’ Billy whimpered from where he stayed on the floor, his back too far gone for any bed. There was such hope in his voice.

No light came in through the high window. Frank had seen enough of Billy’s wounds to know the answer though. After fifty of the worst – the cat whistling through the air and the knots of the chords ripping – the white of Billy’s ribs were visible through the meat and tissue. Powdered flecks of bone speckled the spongy wounds like grit; would bugger up the scarring. But Billy would not die. The gaolers had been tricksey in where they landed their whips as they’d flogged him with vicious concentration. They’d have him back on the chain gang soon enough. Back into the wilderness that surrounded their convict prison on three sides.

Their waking and sleeping dreams were crowded with noises from the wild forest. There were ghosts and devils beyond the perimeter of the settlement, angry at each giant tree cut down, each trunk hefted out into the daylight. Twenty, thirty men were needed to carry each one out, each man the leg of a centipede, not men at all.

‘We should do a bolt,’ Frank whispered when he thought Billy was finally asleep.

‘I’m too jiggered to think,’ Billy said, and the time he took to say it said as much as the actual words. ‘You go when I’m finished in this world.’

 

The floggings were for no good reason, only many bad ones. There were days it felt like they were rump’d more than they were fed. The first sounds the new church heard were leather on flesh and barks of anguish.

The only thing that changed was their gang was taken out of the wildness of the forest and into the shell of the church. It was a high place, this place of God they had to construct in the Godless land. The tower would point to Heaven.

They were let free of their irons so they could climb. A skeleton of wood grew under the sky; it would one day support a roof. Nimble Frank was sent up first this day, others followed, others stayed on the ground, together they hauled the wood – sawed to planks and beams and struts – to construct the rafters. Frank had been a sailor once and his feet remembered the trajectory of the mast and the sway when nothing is landlocked and secure. At the top he paused to catch his breath. Ice tickled his lungs. He was high as a bird or an angel – and like a winged-creature could see further out beyond the stone jetty and the rocks and the waves. The ocean smiled a gentle aspect.

He knew running from the place was nothing more than a dream. Where could he run to anyway? The ocean, for all its glinting calm, was a barrier higher than any wall; the island was another hulk just larger and further away from the coasts of home. The countless hundreds of days out to the penal colony had been a descent into Hell, a path neither he nor Billy could imagine surviving again, though they had tried to conjure it in their whispers in the night. And why escape if it wasn’t to go home? This place could never be home. There were Blacks out there as ready to eat them as look them in the eye; they’d heard those stories loud enough from the bolters who’d failed.

Billy dragged himself up beside Frank, moved crablike along the beam as if he was still hampered by leg irons. He did not look down. His trousers were folded over and over at the waist to stop them falling over his scrawny bum and shanks. He had no time to pause and admire any poet’s view. Everything was harder for the kid: it’d been the same in the forest and on the road. A slight turn of his upper body, and Frank could make out the road, a lady’s ribbon of colour disappearing into the bush. They’d built it yard by yard, each yard taking it closer to a town and tarts and grog – and none of that mattered. A wave of despair swept over Frank, the type of despair that rushes into the gulf left when all desire fails.

Frank watched Billy stumble along the narrow walkway, and thought, there is nothing to stop me. Billy was not his brother, he did not have to care. It would take nothing to let himself drop. He hung over the wooden beam at a giddying angle. The flags below rose and swam. The only thing that stopped his fall was the fear – no, the knowledge – that he might not die instantly. He cursed himself as a coward, but he had to be certain Death would come seeking him quickly and not crush his bones and let him linger.

‘Git on with it,’ screamed a warder, and the convicts below lugged at the pulleys and another strut swam through the murky light of the church’s sanctuary. The convicts up high took possession. Frank fumbled with knots to release the weight. A rope slipped, writhed like a snake as it fell. Frank caught the second rope and hung it carefully over the rafter he stood on. He worked; he did not forget it lying there. And an hour later, as they waited for the next of a series of smaller planks, he peeled himself from the work gang and edged to the point where the trusses met the sandstone wall, taking the filched rope with him. He turned his back as a shield and tied a noose, pulled sharply to test its strength.

‘You couldn’t,’ Billy said at his elbow.

Frank had not heard him sidle up. The boy’s face was ghostly with exertion and fear: it was hard to remember he was only a year younger; it felt like ten because Billy was so lost in the world.

All pity was lost for that moment, lost to anger, the fright of interruption, and to guilt. ‘You can’t stop me,’ Frank hissed. He’s not my care, he told himself again as he avoided Billy’s eyes.

‘Think about thy Immortal Soul,’ Billy pleaded.

‘It can go hang itself too.’

‘Frank, no, God is watching. He will know. You will drop into Everlasting Fire. How could He let you into Heaven if you reject his Creation?’

The sun glowed around their heads, up there above the hay-coloured sandstone walls. The strange black birds of the colony cawed as they swooped by. Exhaustion swayed both men on the narrow beam.

‘Nay, not in a church,’ Billy pleaded again. ‘Not here.’

‘You want to die,’ Frank accused. ‘We all do.’

‘Not like this.’

 

The stone floor was cold; skin would stick to it and tear. The straw was manky and rank. These were their choices. How had it come to this? They’d exchanged the stories of their lives and knew what seemed inevitable hadn’t always been so. There had been love and rolling hills and sometimes enough to fill their stomachs at the end of the days so their bones could grow them into men.

Billy’s stomach complained so loudly it was part of the night conversation. Frank was reluctant to join in. He had come down from the rafters alive but still wanted no part of this world. The governor said this place was going to be great – but when, and for who? Sounds of drunkenness filtered from outside. The sounds of free men. Frank rolled onto his side, pelvic bone sharp as a spade on the bed and stared at the wall, a darker point in the blackness. He waited for Billy to sleep. But Billy did not take the hint of his turned back.

‘There is a way,’ Billy said eventually.

Frank pretended to be asleep.

‘A murderer can get God’s forgiveness if he truly repents,’ Billy continued. He might have lost his way from the Paths of Righteousness but this was not the fault of his Mam’s devotion to the parish school each Sunday morning. He’d learnt much that he could not now forget. But there was a way through the commandments. Billy spoke a little more softly, each word almost gentle. ‘You’d be sorry to kill me.’

Frank had not expected to be surprised by Billy after the last few years side-by-side in forced brotherhood. He struggled up and laid his feet squarely on the cold ground.

‘I’s not kiddin’ you. Make it quick. Our Maker will take me and they’ll hang you good and proper for your deed and we’ll meet again in Heaven.’

Frank listened to rats scuttling in the walls. The Cornish boys had put an old shoe in the wall cavities when they were building it to ward off evil spirits, but no superstition could help against the vermin. Frank still said nothing. He closed his eyes and thought about killing Billy and giving him entrance to Eternal Life. He shifted and knelt beside Billy who was lying as if already dead, legs straight, arms down along his sides.

They were silent for a while. The rats were more talkative. Then.

‘I would murder you and face the noose meself,’ Billy said, before gulping back his sorrow, ‘but you are the strong one.’ There was no denying this. ‘I love you Francis Lambeth so let me do this for your Soul. Suicide is no way out of here. There’s nowt worse.’

Before he could think beyond Billy’s words, Frank reached over and circled his throat with his calloused hands. Billy’s body jolted and his hands grabbed at Frank’s.

Frank laughed bitterly. ‘So you don’t want to die that bad after all.’

Their faces were close. Frank could smell Billy’s foul breath as he opened his mouth to speak again.

‘Nay, we ‘ave to do it with the warders as witness. Let them hold no doubt to your crime – I must be sure you’ll face the gallows. I couldn’t bear the thought of you being left behind and having to do it with your own hand.’

Frank lay his head on Billy’s chest and heard the honest beat of his heart. He felt Billy’s hand stroke his hair as a mother would her child. His knees cramped on the flags, in the cold. He stayed until his tears were dry.

 

There were days when no chance offered itself.

It had to be swift.

The warders would be on them and they’d both get another flogging if they were caught looking like they were coming at each other for a brawl.

Bare hands could not be trusted.

In those days, the porridge tasted better, the air smelled fresher, the sky was as clear and bright as the Virgin’s robes. Billy smiled like one of the Saints whenever he caught Frank’s eye.

Frank had time to think and could think of no other way, not if they wanted any chance of meeting in a better place. The leg irons chaffed anew each time they where bolted back on at the end of the day. Their ankles remembered freedom, learned to be fettered again. Learned there was only chain enough for small steps.

It was only days of waiting. But they didn’t know which it would be even when it came.

The morning young John lagged behind and copped a belting and a strange bird laughed a long hearty chortle, seemed like any other. The gang tramped on to the church. The chaplain stood in the open-air nave and raised his hands into diamond shapes as if to construct stained glass in the open spaces. The whip licked at the convicts backs. The chains clanked.

Another work gang went each day to the quarry up past the next cove. Sandstone came back, some creamy, other raw blocks streaked with a rusty sheen. The quartz glinted on the sunny days, the rust looked like dried blood on the dull days.

It was a sunny day.

Frank and Billy waited to climb up to the rafters, milled with the gang.

The men who dressed the stone were a rum lot. They grunted and raised pickaxes and iron hit stone: a sound like bells ringing out. The gaolers screamed above the noise thinking their voices were fuel for the machine of convict muscle. Old Will threw his pickaxe down, not sharp enough, he shouted and the whip was on his back instantly.

Frank did not say goodbye. Before Billy could feel the last of life’s fears, Frank took five steps over, snatched up the pickaxe. He brought the point down on the back of Billy’s bent neck. The axe struck bone and recoiled. Frank pulled up and back and brought the iron down a second time, bending lower to aim at the bloody target on Billy’s collapsed form. Before he could make certain with a third blow, two gaolers had him down. Through their legs Frank saw Will and Ned turn the boy over. Billy’s eyes were open but he was no longer there.

As the cat landed about his shoulders and tore his flesh, Frank remembered his own first memory, the one he’d shared with Billy to soothe them both in times of pain. The barn was warm and shadowy as the calf slipped from its mother in a wet heap on the straw. The calf was slick and bluish and he saw his father’s hands feeling across the caul stretched over its pointed face. Two fingers tore the membrane, two brown eyes flickered and blinked as life began. Such warmth flooded Frank, spreading to every corner and length of his body. He’d called it joy. The calf struggled to its feet.