Me Big Day

FictionIssue ThirteenIssue Thirteen Fiction

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By Alison Knight

They’ll be coming to fetch me soon. It’s me big day! Lots of people out there. I can hear them through me window. Boots clattering against the cobbles, a rumbling undercurrent of chatter. Every now and then a squawk of protest — ‘Oi, mate! Mind me feet!’ You can sense their rising expectation. You can almost feel the soft collision of flesh as they press for position. It’s me they want to see. Me, little Betsy Scott.

The banging and hammering began a few days ago. Well, you’ve got to have everything just so for a special occasion, haven’t you? I shouldn’t look — it’ll spoil the surprise — but I can’t help me self. Not that I can see much, standing here on me tippy-toes: just little patches of the yard, framed by the window; rough wooden boards laying on the cobbles; three iron rings, evenly spaced; and a stout beam, like you’d see in a cottage — weight-bearing. I piece the patches together like a quilt. Ooh…perhaps best not to.

There’ll be a bit of a procession, I expect. Davey will be there, and Julian Cross, and the parson, of course. Rather like me wedding day, but more people attending. I won’t make a fuss when they come for me; I’ll do what I’m told, like I always do. I mean, since when have I ever had a say in anything?

Never wanted to leave London for Australia. ‘We don’t have no choice,’ me mother told us girls. I didn’t have no choice neither. Bob Scott was a big man, belly oozing over the top of his trousers like lard dripping out of a cooking pot, thighs like hams, red nose threaded with veins.

‘It’s a good offer,’ said me mother. ‘I got four daughters, Betsy. Can’t afford to keep you all.’ She got cross when I whined. ‘Don’t want to end up walking the streets, do yer?’

So, I tripped down the aisle in me good dress, veil flapping round me face. I promised to honour and obey that man till death did us part. That was December 1853. Bob Scott was thirty-five. I was thirteen.

When we was first married, we lived in a shack on a property in northern Victoria, where Bob worked as a stockman. I had me first three children there, though only John survived. Then Bob got himself a grog shanty, near Mansfield. It was a lot bigger than we was used to — wood and bark, you know, but a whole six rooms.
We had a couple of boarders at the shanty. Julian Cross worked for Bob — had a room upstairs. A black fellow, he was — half-Portuguese and half-Chinese. And then there was Davey Gedge. A handsome boy, not yet twenty. A good worker, but inclined to be impetuous.

The police tried to shut the grog shop down more than once, it not being a legal establishment, but Bob took no notice. Plenty of folks like a nobbler of brandy, even the piss-poor poison Bob dished out. Customers was mostly blokes from the goldfields, of course. Them diggers would be leering at me, and all the while Bob’d be watching me like a hawk, making sure I didn’t seem too friendly, like. He had a jealous streak, did Bob. I spent a lot of time staring at me feet.

I was lonely. I’d have liked some female company, especially when two more babies came. Little Thomas survived but it was hard when I lost the other one. Bob never had a lot to say — other than issuing orders. He was in liquor much of the time, swilling away our meagre profits. When he got delirious, he’d jabber nonsense, and sometimes even threaten me with his pistol. I didn’t take much notice after a while; it was all hot air. All the same, I felt safer knowing Julian was around. And Davey — I was glad Davey was there. He always looked out for me when Bob got to scolding me. But I did try to be a good wife to Bob. I rubbed his feet and chest when his blood was sluggish. I emptied the chamber pot when he spewed the grog up. I dosed the children with laudanum to keep them quiet when he was in one of his rages. ‘I’m not long for this world,’ he’d cry. Well, he never spoke a truer word.

April 11th, 1863. That was the day it happened. Mr. and Mrs. Ellis was camping near our shanty, on their way to Melbourne. Earlier that evening, Mrs. Ellis had been helping me tend to Bob, who was well in his cups. Then she returned to the dray to join Mr. Ellis. I popped out to say goodnight. I wasn’t even in the house when the gunshot split the midnight air.

I run to the door to see what’s happened. There’s nothing but smoke in the bedroom. Then Davey races past me. ‘Bob’s shot himself,’ he says. He’s fetching Mr. Ellis. I clutch the kitchen door. I’m not going in that room.

Mr. Ellis lurches out of the bedroom. His face is green. Bob’s lying on the bed, he tells us. He’s got a wound below his ear, pouring blood, and his eye’s popped out of its socket. There’s a pistol on the bed, between his right hand and knees.
‘Bob can’t have shot himself from that position,’ says Mr. Ellis. ‘It’s just not possible.’
Davey frowns, gives me a warning look, whispers something I don’t quite catch. Mr. Ellis calls Julian Cross down. Julian’s reluctant. He stumbles downstairs, just glowers at Davey and purses his lips. Doesn’t look at me.

Davey fetches the police early next morning. He’s told them it was Julian shot Bob. But Julian claims Davey made him do it, to stop Bob laying into me. I tell the police I wasn’t even in the house when the gun went off and that’s all I know about the affair. That’s God’s own truth. I wasn’t in the house. I didn’t shoot Bob.

Though I wasn’t about to point the finger. Then or now.

They arrested all three of us, charged us with murder. It fair broke me heart when me little boys was taken away. The case came to trial at Beechworth. I made meself as neat as I could and sat quiet to show the judge and jurors I was a respectable woman. For all me husband was a vile drunkard, I can read and write, you know. It worked against me, though. The prosecution painted Betsy Scott as cold and heartless. Said I’d played the whore with Davey; used me feminine wiles to talk him and Julian into murdering me husband, even if I hadn’t fired the shot that blew his brains out. The jury took but thirty minutes to find us guilty. All three of us: me, Davey, and Julian Cross. The judge put on his black cap to deliver the sentence.

They’re coming to fetch me soon.

Heavy boots clip the flagstones. Left, right; left, right; left, right. Key clunks in the lock. Door scrapes open on rusty hinges. A black shadow falls across the floor. I flatten meself against the wall. It’s as cold as the grave.

It’s me big day. I’ll be the first woman to hang in the colony of Victoria. I won’t make a fuss; I’ll be dignified, because that’s one thing I do have a say in. I’ve braided me hair very carefully. I look respectable in me black cotton gown. I have me white cambric handkerchief because a lady always carries a handkerchief. It will be quite a procession. A bit like me wedding day.

Someone places a white hood on me head — carefully, as you would a bridal veil. The parson leads off, followed by Julian Cross, and then poor Davey, sobbing his heart out. And then me. The door opens onto the courtyard. First a gasp, then a roar. All those people out there! The crowd surges forward. They’ve come to see me, Elizabeth Scott.

They’ve come to see me!