by Christina King.
Winner of the HNSA 2019 Short Story Contest
Just fuzz. Like the fur of a sewer rat. She ran her hand over her head again, shuddering in the darkness as her fingers touched all that was left of her once long hair. She picked at some bread stuck between her front teeth with the remains of her thumbnail. The sound of her cough shattered the silence.
The ultimate punishment: hair cropping and solitary isolation. She sighed; she regretted her lost locks. But not her escape. She could never lament that. Freedom—although short-lived—had tasted too sweet on her lips to regret. She glanced at the door, daylight creeping around the loose-fitting frame. At least in the solly cells she could tell night from day, and she had kept count as they passed. Had it really been three days since she had breathed air outside the factory walls?
All those days ago, the drying yards had been busy with the sounds of work and chatter. Late October was dry in this upside down part of the world. The strips of factory flannel had been stretched across great drying racks to catch the sun as it poked its head over the convict-cut sandstone of the factory’s walls.
Agnes balanced her barrel of sodden bedding on her hip, staggering under its weight. The smell of animal fat soap was barely disguised by the lavender oil she had sprinkled across the linen.
She smirked. Flowers masking the scent of dead animal summed up factory life entirely; the Governor and his Committee of Gentlemen fluffing about pretending to protect the women. Actually, they considered female convicts little more than an inconvenient stain, an unnatural thing to be hidden from the world. And Parramatta’s female factory provided the perfect hiding place.
Part prison, part safehouse, and part marriage bureau, it had become Agnes’ home in the colony. She’d never been so pleased to leave a place as she was to escape the ship upon her arrival. A place stinking of misery, of shit.
And of death.
For her nineteen years, Agnes had seen a bit of death. She first met it when she was just nine years old. Her mother had delivered another baby which had not survived, the sixth since Agnes. And this time death had taken her mother too.
Her other encounters with death involved sunken eyes and starving bellies, or the sound of wheezing lungs filled with cotton fluff from the carding rooms.
She had tried to run away from death. But it chased her to London. It chased her through the streets as she learnt the art of cutting the purses of wealthy women who smelt of lavender. Death was still snapping at her heels when she was caught with three purses stuffed into the hidden pockets of her tailor-made skirt, and was thrown into Newgate. She had felt its fingers wrap around her throat and then, when her sentence was passed, she heard its name echo across the assizes court room:Death.
But she had escaped again. She had wriggled free from its clutches and instead found herself transported for fourteen years beyond the seas.
Now, in the drying yard, having survived eight months of factory life, Agnes dumped her wet, lavender-soaked burden onto the dirt and stood up to stretch her aching back.
“More from Government House?” Tessa asked, nodding towards the barrel.
“Cleanest sheets in the Empire,” Agnes said, smirking.
Tessa flapped one of the wet calico aprons she was sorting. It made a satisfying crack as the fabric connected with her thighs.
“Nothing to clean off the sheets anyways,” she said. “I hear he don’t sleep in her bed.”
Agnes snorted. It was a reliable rumour that the Governor and his wife didn’t share much beyond a carriage anymore.
“Four bairns nonetheless,” she said. “They must have shared something.”
It was Tessa’s turn to snort as she shook out another apron.
They had both been transported onboard The Friendship and now Agnes supposed she would call Tessa her friend.
She rubbed her shoulder and poked at her barrel of linen with the toe of her boot.
“You mind none of that linen gets dirtied, kicking it about like that, Agnes Lawson.” The Matron’s voice was shrill and the chatter of the other women died away as the short, fat woman waddled into the yard to stand in front of Agnes, who instinctively slid her left hand into the pocket of her apron.
“None of it has touched the dirt, ma’am,” she said.
Mrs Telford’s beady eyes peered out from her fat face. Agnes held her stare.
Finally, the Matron grunted. “Mind you keep them that way,” she snapped, then waddled to a large copper bell in the corner of the yard. She smacked a baton against its dull brassy surface.
The women assembled and Agnes hurried to join their ranks. As she did, she noticed two rank-and-file emerge from the shade of the factory wall. A bodyguard?
Mrs Telford cleared her throat.
“After discussion with the Committee on the state of colonial rations, it has been decided—” she cleared her throat again, “that the 3rdclass proportions of sugar and tea will be reduced from 1 ounce to ½ an ounce, and from ¼ of an ounce to nothing, respectively.”
At the Matron’s final words a roar rang out and the crowd of over a hundred women surged towards the unlucky woman who was hurriedly escorted away by the two soldiers, waving their weapons at the advancing mob.
In the darkness of her solly cell, Agnes rubbed her eyes until colourful dots danced under her eyelids, like fairy folk bringing her the luck she had needed three days before. She rubbed the spot on her left hand where she knew her tattoo sat. Five dots. The mark of the Forty Thieves. The dangerous women of London who refused to open their legs for cash, who found other ways to get their hands on it by shoplifting and cutting purses. And throats. Murderers and thieves, just like their namesakes. And no matter how much she had scrubbed, trying her best to remove it, the ink embedded in her skin refused to be wiped away.
Now, sitting in her cell, her thoughts returned again to the previous Friday evening after the Matron’s announcement. Agnes had sat playing with the unidentifiable lumps in her soup bowl rather than eating, listening to the furious mumblings around the mess table.
“Telford has gone.”
“Resigned. Pissed off for good.”
“Afraid of us, I reckon. Nearly had a riot on her hands.”
“New one’s already arrived. Maybe she’ll see sense.”
Sitting next to Agnes, Tessa had snorted. “Not likely!”
Opposite them, a woman who Agnes had never seen before was nodding wildly into her soup. She was surprisingly fat for a prisoner and her apron and cap were curiously clean.
“Just arrived?” Agnes asked.
The woman looked up at her with grey eyes beneath a forehead browned by the sun. She shook her head. “Returned.”
Ah. “What for?”
“Me master ‘ad me accused of pinching ‘is silver,” she said. “I never did, though.”
Agnes nodded mutely. It didn’t matter whether the woman was telling the truth.
“Guess I’m one of you now.” The woman grinned and her lips withdrew to reveal only a handful of brown teeth. “A felon. A troublemaker.” She smirked. “A whore.”
“I was never a whore,” Agnes said, pushing her bowl away.
“All of us here are whores,” the woman said, gesturing around the hall. “Ask anyone outside the factory walls and they’ll tell you.”
Agnes stood and began to walk away.
“Don’t matter if you never parted your knees,” the woman called after her. “You’re still a whore.”
Agnes stopped. To the decision makers of the colony, the very idea of female convicts was as unnatural as the thought of the Governor’s wife taking a shit. All thieves and prostitutes.
She knew the toothless woman was right and her heart sank. She had tried so hard in London to ensure she had found other ways to keep herself fed. But now, on the other side of the world, the nature of her crime seemed to matter even less.
Saturday morning saw the tight-lipped Mrs Giles arrive. The new Matron’s voice was deep and husky, her eyes small and set too close together.
“As a consequence of last evening’s violent conduct on yourpart,” she began, “all rations of bread and sugar will be stopped immediately.” Her statement echoed across the drying yard. The prisoners released a collective yell and began to surge forward.
The Matron withdrew quickly but she was not the target. The women ran towards the gate, many brandishing iron crows and pickaxes, collected from heaven knew where.
Agnes felt herself swept up in the movement. Someone grabbed her arm and shoved an axe into her hand. It was the toothless woman from the mess table the night before. Her eyes were wild. Wild with rage and hunger. Wild with the injustice of the system from which she could never escape.
The lock on the gate broke easily enough and the portcullis flew up faster than Agnes had thought possible. Over a hundred women surged through the opening like ants from an anthill.
Agnes’ legs moved with the crowd and suddenly she was outside the walls. She hesitated for a second. Free. The word was foreign in her mouth.
The women were dispersing but those heading into the town were surely mad. They would be caught by the constabulary within a matter of hours. The bush was her only hope.
She tossed her axe away and ran towards the forest of eucalypts. She ran and ran, holding her skirts up around her hips as the scrubby undergrowth reached up, catching hold of her stockings and tearing them until they were almost gone.
Soon the sound of footsteps pursuing her faded. She stopped and the cracking and popping of dry branches stopped too. Surrounded only by the ghostly trunks of the eucalypts, she held her breath for a few counts, straining her ears. The sound of faint yelling still wafted from the direction of the factory. A few gunshots rang out but nothing nearby. Somewhere above her head, a laughing jackass started up its manic cackling and was soon joined by several others to form a chortling chorus.
She began to walk. The sun was just rising above the treetops and here, in the middle of the wilderness somewhere outside Parramatta, she stood taking huge breaths of the warm spring air. She rubbed her face and ripped her cap off, running her fingers through her thinning hair.
She could smell burning. Someone had a fire nearby. She froze. Perhaps it was a native. She swallowed. She knew nothing of them, other than having seem them around Sydney Town upon her arrival. As she tiptoed forward, a clearing appeared and she spotted a small lean-to. Smoke curled from a fire outside the door.
There didn’t seem to be anyone about. She shuffled forwards and her eyes fell upon a splash of green at the side of the house. A vegetable patch; a late potato crop. Her stomach was aching with hunger.
She straightened her shoulders then ran towards the clearing. Arriving at the corner of the house, she crouched in the dirt and ripped up the green seedlings. The small, wrinkled potatoes underneath were pathetic to look upon but better than nothing. She tore the lumpy vegetables from their green tops, stuffing them into her apron pocket.
She had almost cleared the patch when she heard it. A branch crack under the pressure of a footstep. She froze, crouching there behind the fire.
Another pop. And another.
Please let it be an animal!
Her eyes scanned the trees. Another few branches popped and then a man appeared only a few feet from her.
She strained to see more of him. No markings of a convicts. She swallowed. A free settler perhaps.
When he began to walk towards the house, her shoulders relaxed a little. As soon as he went inside, she would make a run for it. He was nearly at the door. But instead of entering, he bent to pick up two neatly chopped logs and she watched in horror as he trudged back towards the fire with them.
He would see her now.
But then he stopped again, less than three feet from the potato patch. He stood motionless, his back to her, looking up at the trees. What on earth was he doing?
“Can I be of assistance, ma’am?” he said.
Agnes blinked. The man stood there, a log dangling from each of his hands. Who was he speaking to? Someone else must have arrived.
“Perhaps I can help?” he said. His clipped accent made her think of London, but not the rough part she had once called home.
Her skin began to prickle. He couldn’t be speaking to her.
“If you would be so good as to leave a few potatoes for myself then,” he said finally, stepping to the fire, throwing the logs onto it and turning to face her.
Agnes stared at his worn, leather boots for a few beats, her hands still full of his potatoes. Then she ran.
But the man lunged and caught her arm. She kicked at him, potatoes bouncing out of her pocket. But he was strong. He seized her other wrist.
His voice, when he spoken again, was calm.
“You are hungry,” he said simply.
She stopped struggling for a moment.
She hesitated. Then nodded.
“Then eat,” he said, and indicated. “Inside.”
He released his grip and walked towards the door of the shack.
Agnes stood, once again freed. She took deep breaths, her courage returning. Run! Run, now! Don’t eat. Run!
But she would die in this harsh landscape without food. She followed him but hovered in the doorway of the lean-to.
The man was pulling items from a box and placing them onto the scrubbed timber table: lumps of bread, dried pork, string beans, a few small cabbages, and a handful of potatoes.
“Your name?” he asked, not looking up.
She licked her lips.
“Mine is George Wright,” he said.
“Sarah Smith,” she muttered.
He glanced at her through the dimness of the shanty. “Of course it is,” he said then sat at the bench.
“Come and eat, Sarah Smith. Then you can continue your journey.”
Tempted by the sight of food, she edged her way to the side of the table.
“It’s all right, girl,” he said. “I too was a convict once. I remember the hunger that follows you everywhere.”
Not a free settler then. An emancipist.
She perched herself on the bench, as far from him as possible. He watched her for a moment then, item by item, slid the food towards her. She didn’t hesitate then. She grabbed the bread and began tearing pieces from it, stuffing them into her mouth. She crunched the string beans raw and ate the cabbage like an apple, ripping pieces of it with her teeth. She swilled a few mouthfuls of ale around her mouth and paused for breath. She glanced up and realised that he had moved up the bench and now sat close to her elbow.
“You have to play by their rules,” he said, softly.
She opened her mouth to argue but he stopped her—
“Obey their rules Sarah Smith, and you can get what you want.”
“How do you know what I want?”
He shrugged again. “It’s the same as we all want: to be free.”
She snorted. “I’ll never be free.”
He nodded as though he understood though he never really could. He was a man. He could be free. Truly free.
She, on the other hand, could be freed from her sentence but what then? An unwed ex-convict woman in a foreign land with no money or income, she would have little choice but to return to her old ways of purse-cutting and risk getting caught as a reoffender. Or she could marry and become a different kind of prisoner.
She scoffed, picking at the piece of bread she still held. “You can never understand.”
“Perhaps you can explain it to me,” he said, taking her hand. His thumb rubbed at her tattoo.
“You have many stories to tell,” he added. “I would greatly like to hear them one day.”
She stared at him. Feeling the warmth of his hand in her own was as foreign to her as a warm bed and a proper meal. And he seemed to be offering her all that. So why couldn’t she agree?
“I can’t stay,” she said, suddenly aware of how much time had passed. She withdrew her hand and stood up.
“I have time to wait, Sarah Smith,” he said. “You know where I’ll be.”
Her eyes fell on the food remaining on the table.
“Take it,” he said, waving his arm.
She had run barely a mile from George Wright’s shack when they caught her.
Three rank-and-file, waving their bayonets and yelling. She had turned on her heel but her apron loaded with meat and vegetables as it was, she didn’t get far. And when the Matron had finally spotted her tattoo, Agnes had been the perfect scapegoat for the rioters.
Now, she sat in her cell and rubbed again at the five dots. A ringleader for every crime. The evidence of her criminality permanently etched onto her very being.
Somewhere outside the walls of the factory was George Wright, waiting. She sighed into the darkness, thinking of her freedom. She knew she would achieve it. Eventually. But it would be hers. She would not be sharing it, not with anyone. She shook her head.
George Wright would be waiting a while.