Wednesday, 10 August 2011
During the autumn of 1867, an incongruous group of sack-clothed men huddled close to the harbour wall at Sheerness. Gusts whipped around their bodies, their arms folded tightly across their chests as protection against the biting wind. They shuffled from leg to leg, trying to keep warm in their inadequate clothing, but also trying to alleviate the muscle pain from walking with the weight of leg chains. Above them, pewter clouds sped across the skies at the mercy of the gales, whilst an insipid sun shone pale lemon beams of sunlight onto the choppy seas.
Silas Dredge was amongst this group. He sniffed, cleared his throat and sidled closer to the bearded man on his left.
“Any idea where they’re sending us?”
The man’s piercing blue eyes stared back at Silas, like sapphires lying in the mud. It appeared that he hadn’t washed in days.
“I’ve heard talk of a place called Freemantle,” he grunted, clearly not in the mood for idle talk.
Silas persisted. “I’m Silas. Silas Dredge.”
“I can’t believe this is happening; being taken away from my pregnant wife and seven bairns, just for collecting firewood.”
William turned towards Silas, his leg chain grating on the ground. He saw a pale wiry man, his neck puckered like smocking. He still had a full head of fair hair which framed his gaunt features. He noticed that Silas’s eyes were kindly, a starburst of wrinkles splaying out from their corners. William relaxed, relieved that he wasn’t making small talk with a murderer.
“Firewood?” he enquired.
“How was I to know that I was on another’s land? I thought I was still in Hickling Woods. I was only trying to keep my family warm. I’m not a brigand.”
After a short pause, William replied quietly, “Seven years.”
“I’ve got seven years for trying to keep my youngest alive.”
Silas raised an eyebrow by way of a silent enquiry.
“I took some milk from a local farm. My youngest was two months old and sickly. Nancy my wife, she was sick too so she couldn’t feed the baby herself. She begged each day for me to help save our son. What’s a man to do?”
“You were caught?”
William nodded. “I thought he was a friend – the farmer. We used to wave a greeting as we passed. He went straight to the authorities when he found me leaving with a pitcher of milk.”
Silas clenched his fists. “And they say The Blood Code was too harsh,” he hissed. “What do they call this punishment? This isn’t right.” They stood in silence for a minute before Silas enquired, “How’s your bairn?”
William cleared his throat and fidgeted. “He’s with the Lord.”
Silas looked down at his worn shoes and shuffled uncomfortably whilst mumbling his condolences. He changed the subject.
“In different circumstances, I’d say that was a mighty fine ship.”
The two men raised their eyes towards the Hougoumont, a magnificent three-masted fully rigged ship. Its sails fought the blustering gales as they flapped frenziedly, like a trapped butterfly.
“My father used to be in the Navy. If I’m not mistaken, I’d say that’s a Blackwall Frigate,” said William.
Silas shivered but didn’t answer. If he’d met William down the local ale house, he thought, he’d be fascinated to hear about the ship. New friends, bonding over a flagon of ale and a warm fire. Instead they were standing on a bleak dock yard, about to spend several months being transported to a new continent called Australia. And what about his wife Milly and their seven children? She earned a little money repairing neighbours’ clothes, but... Silas wiped away a tear with the back of his rough hand.
“This wind plays havoc with your eyes doesn’t it?”
William smiled weakly and nodded, knowingly.
The large group of men were herded into single file and ordered to stop talking. A guard cajoled and struck out at some of the men.
“Take a last look at your country,” he jeered. “You’ll only see it in your dreams from tonight.” He laughed pitilessly at the line of shivering men. “Now walk,” he ordered.
Rusting leg chains clanked and rattled as the prisoners shuffled one after the other towards the Hougoumont’s gang plank. Silas looked around the dock yard which was bathed in weak autumnal sunlight. Suddenly the colours of the yard faded as grey clouds eclipsed the sun’s weak glow, muting the dull harbour colours a tone darker. He saw the small timber houses in the far distance, framing the dock. Around the perimeter of the harbour he noticed the timber yard, bustling with weary workers. Rolls of rope lay coiled like sleeping serpents at the cordage works, whilst a rhythmical rasping echoed from the saw pits.
As the forlorn line hobbled towards the towering ship, Silas looked into the inky water, gazing at the reflection of the rounded wooden hull at the bow above the waterline. It certainly was a fine ship. If only the circumstances could have been different.
The long line of men shambled in single file, until they reached the gang plank. Here the procession turned at a right angle in order to embark. A fine drizzle now fell from the overcast sky, blown sideways by the continuing gusts.
Silas momentarily closed his eyes against the spray. He belly ached from hunger, his muscles shivered from cold, and now his inadequate clothing was slowly soaking up every drop of rain which fell on him. Hot tears stung his eyes but were instantly wiped away with the back of his coarse hand. He had to be tough to survive this journey, he chided himself.
As he reached the gang plank, he turned to look at William. In turn, William made eye contact and gave a thin-lipped smile and a nod of his head. Strengthened, Silas stepped onto the bridge dividing his homeland and what was to be his prison for the next few months.
He felt the gentle bounce of the wooden gang plank beneath his tread, his nostrils filling with the aroma of rotting salty fish soup. Was that a farmyard he could smell too? Fearful that he might slip and drown now that the gang plank was wet from the rain, he slowed his gait to a shuffle.
“You! Get a move on.”
Silas looked towards the ship, where a guard was pointing at him and scowling.
“I’ve got a hearty meal by the fire, a pitcher of ale and the arms of a warm woman waiting for me at home. Get a move on so I can make haste.”
Silas heard the spiteful laughing of the guards as he finally stood on the deck of the Hougoumont. He was surprised to see sheep being brought on board, but it solved the mystery of the farmyard smell. Inhaling wearily he looked up, his eyes drawn by the flapping of the sails which sounded like the cracking of whips. The three masts, laced with a cobweb of rigging, creaked and groaned above him. He’d heard talk of these magnificent ships but now the dichotomous emotions he was feeling, disorientated him.
A sting of pain stabbed his temple, rendering him senseless for a few seconds. When he opened his eyes, still clutching his head, the same guard grimaced in front of him.
“I can see you’re going to be trouble. You’ll be sorry.” He turned to a younger guard who seemed no older than Silas’s eldest son. “Get him below decks,” he ordered.
Silas was man-handled towards a worn staircase, where he was unceremoniously pushed. As Silas fell into the black nothingness above the stairs, he felt a blissful few seconds of freedom. He was floating, flying weightlessly. An obscure memory flashed through his mind. A hot summer, he was six, swinging on a rope tied to a tree, dappled sunlight shadowing his playmates. A happy memory. Then nothing.
Sometime later, Silas awoke to startlingly blue eyes. William was dripping tepid water into his mouth. The searing pain in his head made him flinch, but he drank thirstily from the cup William was holding.
Peering around the damp stinking murkiness, he became aware that the ship was rocking gently.
“We’ve set sail. How’re you fairing?” asked William.
“I wish the Lord had taken me when I fell.”
“You must be strong. We’ve family to return to.”
Silas sat up shakily in his hammock. “Return?”
“I hear men have returned after several years. Take heart my friend and strengthen your mind. One day we will return to our loved ones.”
Several of the other convicts scoffed as they eavesdropped on their conversation.
“Yer’ll be lucky if yer survive the journey. There’s a sickness that’ll surely come after months at sea,” sneered a toothless convict.
“Don’t listen,” urged William. “Keep strong and focus on your return. Believe that you’ll see your wife and bairns again.”
Silas nodded, lay back, closed his eyes and thought of Milly.
By Angela Barton