“Mary Butler?” barked the guard at the top of the ramp. He looked again at the scroll he was holding to ensure he had not got the name wrong. I kept my head bowed and closed my eyes hoping that he would move on. I gripped tightly to the small bag I had been allowed to bring.
“Mary Butler?” he barked more firmly. A second guard was pacing up and down the rows that we had been assembled into. The second guard stopped in front of me and snatched my papers out of my hands.
“Here,” he grumbled. He grabbed my arm roughly twisted it behind my back. He threw me to the ground at the top of the ramp and kicked me in the side while ordering me to get up. I managed to gather my feet beneath me and took a hesitant step onto the ramp, which really just consisted of a few planks of wood nailed together. I placed one cautious foot in front of the other. I finally made it to the bottom where an impatient guard threw me to the deck of the small boat that was to transport me out to the ship. The small boat looked like it was barely holding together and I thought maybe I would drown before I had to serve out my sentence. After what seemed like forever we made it across the river Thames to the ship. Myself and the number of other passengers that had been crammed onto the small boat were lifted to the ships deck. We were greeted by a couple of guards who quickly took our belongings off us and threw them onto an increasing pile. We went from being crammed in a boat to being crammed in a room together. We were in the room a few hours. Many more were crammed into the room during this time and if anyone was caught talking when a guard came in they were kicked and scolded. After a few hours the floor appeared to be moving beneath us. It was a strange sensation for me. I had only been on a boat once and that was quite some time ago when my family migrated from Dublin, Ireland. I think I must have been about 5 or 6. Most of us had taken a seat on the wooden deck in the room. I noticed a few of them had changed colour and were paler than they had been before the ship had started to move.
The door was flung open with a loud thud. Sunlight streamed in from outside and I squinted as my eyes tried to adjust to the sudden increase in light. I looked at the figure in the doorway starting at what would have been some incredibly expensive boots all the way up to the top of an overdressed portly gentleman. He grinned at us and his voice boomed through what had been hours of silence.
“Welcome aboard the Neptune,” he announced. “I am your master Donald Traill. Now all of you on your feet these quarters are now reserved for my crew.”
One by one the guards dragged us out of the room and locked shackles around our ankles. I’d never been shackled before as soon as the guard on my left who had an awful stench of pipe tobacco and whiskey grabbed me by the arm and dragged me across the deck. I struggled with the shackles on they were quiet heavy. I stumbled and that earned me a backhand across the face from the smelly guard that was dragging me. He grabbed my arm again after a few failed attempts that ended with grabs of my breast. I didn’t think anything of it until he whispered in my ear.
“This is going to be a fun trip,” his voice rasped with the sound of decades of smoking.
I was pushed and dragged along the deck and down a level. We moved past some store rooms and the galley. A grumbling in my stomach reminded me that it had been a long day and we had all yet to be fed. They opened another door for us and thirty convicts and I were hurried down to the next level. The ladder to that level was more rickety and unstable than the previous one. The guards were impatient and threw a few people down to the next level. I cringed as they hit the lower level with a loud thud. It came my turn to step onto the ladder. I braced myself expecting to be thrown down like some of the others had. To my surprise I was allowed to make my own way down. I struggled with the ladder that looked ready to crumble and the heavy chains didn’t make it any easier. When I reached the bottom I looked around for a guard that would release the shackles now that we were confined. I found no such comfort.
“Mary?” a timid voice whispered from the corner. I turned to see my friend Mary Desmond huddled on the floor.
“Mary,” I cried as I sat down next to her. We had met on the boat from Dublin to England and remained friends ever since. At the time we never imagined that we would become convicts and put on the Second Fleet.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered as I took her hand in my own.
“I’m as much to blame,” she lied. I’d talked her into stealing a basket of beans from a farm and trying to sell them at the market. I was going to use my half of the money to pay for medical care for my brother, John, who had been struck down with polio when he was younger and now could hardly walk. We took the beans to the market in the hope to sell them and spoke about the theft only in our home country’s dialect but unfortunately for us there was someone that understood us and dobbed us in. We were arrested and tried together and here we are sentenced to 7 years and sent to the new country.
We sat there on that floor and waited. We expected to be shown to some sort of sleeping quarters and at least given some sort of meal. But the appropriate time for anything like that came and then it went. Mary and I used each other for warmth we watched many of the convicts shiver their way through the night. I was thankful that our long garments and bonnets were enough to keep us warm.
The next morning we were woken by the door banging loudly open and heavy boots thumping down the rungs of the ladder. I opened my eyes to see one of the guards coming down the stairs with a bucket. He started throwing whatever was in the bucket at the convicts on the other side of the space we were confined to. Some looked for a minute and then their eyes widened as they picked it up. I was curious to know what we were getting and when I saw a few of them pick it up and sink their teeth in I knew it was our breakfast. He made his way round the room and stopped in front of Mary and I. He looked at us for a moment and then threw a piece at each of us mine hit my shoulder with a thud and landed in my lap. Mary’s landed straight on the floor. He bared his teeth at me or at least the few that he had left in his yellowing mouth.
“I’ll be back for you ladies later. The boss will have a job for you,” he growled like a tiger and then turned and headed back up the ladder. When the door slammed shut behind him I looked down at the meagre piece of salted meat in my hand. I saw that most everyone else had finished their in a few bites. My growling stomach reminded me that it had been almost a day since we had been last fed. I watched Mary start tearing at the meat and had devoured a good chunk of it before I stopped her. I broke mine into three pieces and urged her to do the same. I tore a strip from my under garment and wrapped two pieces and put them in my apron pocket. I made Mary do the same and as painful as it was to only take small bites of the only food I’d seen in some time I knew it would be better in the long run. When my parents had been alive there had not been a lot of money and the small amount of food we could afford on what my father earned was stretched very thin between the four of us. So I was used to only small portions of food. Then when it was just John and I even though money was scarcer there was only the two of us to feed. I prayed that someone had taken John in. Would be cruel to think that while trying to save him and get him help I’d been taken away and left him alone which could ultimately lead to his death. My chest tightened and tears threatened to spill. But the last thing I needed was for anyone to think that I was weak. I took a deep breath and Mary took my hand probably knowing what I was thinking about. Mary had been orphaned many years ago and had been on her own for a very long time. I had helped her out as much as I could and helped get her a job at the laundry. The years of hard work made Mary’s hands hard and calloused. I could feel just how bad they were as she held onto my hand. My stomach was already grumbling again and I knew I had to refrain myself from finishing the small portions of food I had left. My head had started to throb a little. I ran my tongue over my lips to moisten them a little but the small amount of moisture I spread across them was sucked into the cracks within seconds.
Hours had passed and there was no sign of the guard returning with lunch. Finally the door opened again and another bucket was brought down this time by a woman. A free traveller to the new country. How lucky for her to have the choice and to not be shackled I thought bitterly. She placed the bucket at the bottom of the stairs and when she lifted her head I noticed a large bruise down the side of her face. I guessed not so lucky after all. She climbed the ladder again and returned with a second bucket and a ladle. She placed them down and turned and left as quickly as she could. Nobody moved. I guessed everyone felt as miserable as I did and they just sat and stared at the buckets. Although it was only seconds it felt like hours before I finally got to my feet. My head started to swim and I had to brace myself with the wall. Carefully placing one foot in front of the other I made my way to the buckets. The first bucket was empty. I held it upside down to show everybody that it was empty then I tossed it aside. The second bucket was full of the most glorious thing that I had seen all day. I lifted the ladle and dunked it in the bucket I let it pour back into the bucket so everyone could see and I gently filled it again and held it to my lips. The cool liquid felt wonderful in my parched mouth and even managed to moisten my lips slightly. I only had the chance for a few sips out of the ladle before I was knocked aside by one of the other convicts desperate to get to the water. I managed to scoop a handful for Mary before the savages devoured the whole bucket.
Most days were very much the same and the days turned into weeks before we knew it. As the weeks went on the food and water got less and less and the stench in the place was almost unbearable. We were not allowed up on the deck and the little water we were given was used only for drinking so we didn’t get to bathe at all. I noticed my clothing was fitting looser. Mary was looking very gaunt and pale and I was starting to get really concerned for her. We had little conversation with the other convicts. We’d spoken to a few of them in the earlier weeks but now that everyone was weaker there was little that anyone wanted to talk about. Most of the time we just sat around. We all prayed that we would make it through the night. There was one lad that I was concerned about. He couldn’t be much more than 20. He was one I had spoken to in the earlier days he reminded me a little of John. Of course they looked nothing alike and John was younger than 20. I discovered his name was Edward. This was the first time he had ever been away from his family. He became more emaciated with each day that went by. I shared a small portion of my rations with him. I couldn’t afford to share too much as we were only being fed every second day. He could barely move anymore. I sat with him while I tried encouraging him to drink some water and eat the remainder of my rations. He managed to get it down but threw it all back up. I climbed the ladder and banged on the door.
“Hello. We need some help in here,” I yelled. There was no response. I banged on the door and yelled until I was completely exhausted. I went to sit back with him and lay his head down on my lap while I stroked his hair murmuring soothing words to him. The door banged open and everyone looked expecting our new bucket of water but instead of one of the normal women that served us it was a guard.
“We need help over here,” I cried out to him. He ignored what I had said and walked straight to Mary and grabbed her arm forcing her to her feet and to the bottom of the ladder.
“Excuse me,” I cried as I got to my feet. “He’s very sick.”
The guard forced Mary up the stairs and then grabbed my arm and forced me upstairs as well. I protested the whole way trying to get him to look at Edward. We were dragged through the corridors and into a crewman’s cabin where a number of guards were sitting around.
“Finally,” grumbled a ginger haired man as he put his whiskey bottle on the table. I wanted to swing my arm and knock the bottle to the floor. They couldn’t give us water but here they were enjoying whiskey.
“One of the guys is very sick and needs help,” I explained.
“We need help,” replied the ginger haired gentleman as he got off his seat and undid his belt. It took a moment for me to realise what was going on. I tuned to see that Mary had been forced into a corner by a very tall sandy haired man.
“Mary,” she whimpered I could see her eyes had widened to almost double their size.
“Leave her alone,” I growled as I dug my nails in and tried to pull him off her. He lifted his elbow and bought it up right under my chin. The taste of blood fills my mouth immediately and I spit it out on the floor which scores me a punch in the stomach.
“One more act of defiance from you and it will be 20 lashes,” Mr Ginger tells me. I watch in horror for a moment as Mary’s clothes are taken off her. I don’t get another moment to protest before I was grabbed and thrown across the table. I felt the stitching in my clothing rip as he tore my clothes off me.
“One word of protest from you will also be twenty lashes,” he growled. He pinned my arms to the table above my head and held both my wrists with one hand. This made me even angrier when I realised how skinny I was and how easy it was for him to hold two arms in one hand. He clamped his filthy alcohol tasting mouth over mine. I closed my eyes and pursed my lips tightly. He grabbed one leg and spread it so that he could stand between them. My heart stopped when I realised that this was really happening. He writhed around on top of me like an animal before he finally finished and lay there until I couldn’t breathe. I prayed to God that he would crush me to death then and there. But much to my dismay those prayers were not answered. We were escorted from the room and not even given the dignity of having our clothes returned. We were practically thrown back down to the lower level and it was blatantly obvious to anyone else what had happened. A few gentlemen were kind enough to give us each a shirt. I sat with Mary in silence in the corner for a few hours. We eventually drifted off. I was constantly woken up throughout the night by Mary’s whimpering. I sat up and pulled her close to me and let her cry while I held her.
“You’re safe now,” I whispered. I spent the next few days between Mary and Edward trying to convince them both to eat and drink. Mary shut down. It was like she became an empty shell. There was nothing that I could say or do to make her talk or eat. The two of us were taken out frequently to “entertain the guards” as they called it. Each time we came back Mary disappeared into herself more and more each time. I was sitting with her one evening and one of the guys came over to pull me aside. I recognised him as one of the guys who offered up his shirt I’d found out his name was William.
“It’s Edward,” he mumbled to me. He led me to where Edward was lying. I felt guilty that I hadn’t been looking after him more. There was nothing to the boy. He was skin and bone. His clothes had been removed as well. I noticed then that there were a few people without clothing. I knew that the clothing they boarded with would no longer fit them. He was curled on the floor shaking. I knelt next to him and pulled his head onto my lap. I stoked his hair. He barely opened his eyes. He was so frail that I picked his entire body up and sat him on my lap. I cradled him willing him to live. He was too weak to talk and there was a brief moment that he was able to open his eyes. With one look he told me that he was at peace with leaving this world. His breathing grew shallower and eventually they stopped. I held onto him tighter. I looked up to see a number of grim faces around me and I knew that they knew. Day 23 of the voyage and we had our first casualty. William took Edward from my arms and laid him out carefully along the wall. I made my way back to Mary and took her hand. Even though there was no response from her anymore I simply needed the friend.
When the guard came in the morning with our rations he threw Edward his ration and then when he realised that Edward was not simply asleep he gave a small laugh.
“One less mouth to feed,” I heard him grumble. I was so angry but I was too weak to confront him. He shared out the rest of our rations and then went back to Edward. He picked the frail boy up with one hand and threw him over his shoulder. It angered me so much that they couldn’t even respect the dead. I knew that he would simply be tossed overboard like waste.
Time passed by without anyway of us being able to mark it. We estimated guesses and we also started scraping a tally onto the wall of how many people passed away. I knew that 514 convicts had boarded the Neptune there were probably about 100 in the area I was being held in. I wondered how the others were faring. We had lost 9 by the 84th day when we arrived at the Cape of Good Hope. I’d heard the guards talking about it on one of my “entertainment” trips. Other than that we didn’t get to see where we stopped. I knew the stop was to collect more supplies and rations. I prayed that we would get some of the rations before too many of us died. When the door swung open we hoped to be greeted with food but instead we were surprised with 12 more convicts. After speaking to them we discovered that they had boarded on a ship called the Guardian which had struck ice and been wrecked off the coast.
“You look well fed compared to everyone else,” one of them sneered at me. I placed my hand on my noticeably rounder belly and that’s when I knew. When I looked back up from my belly she was still looking at me.
“Oh,” she said. “How far along are you?”
“Not sure, the guards…” I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the sentence. She nodded knowingly and looked over at Mary who had not spoken in weeks. She had started getting spots on her thighs and legs but I thought this was the least of her worries.
“She’s got scurvy,” one of them pointed out. I didn’t know much about scurvy all I knew was that it most certainly meant death in this place.
There was a large outbreak of lice. I don’t think there was a single one of us that didn’t have the creepy critters running through our hair and what little clothes we had. Mary deteriorated quickly she developed open wounds, lost teeth, turned yellow and was constantly running a fever. Then just like many others she died. I carved a mark in the ever increasing tally. To think that her entire life came down to one measly little scratch on a wall made me mad. It also made me upset and as I turned from making the mark I ran straight into William who wrapped his arms around me and for the first time in the whole journey I allowed myself to cry.
Two weeks later arrived at the new world. The Promised Land. Our tally had reached 35. We were dragged out of the holding room and put into small boats and were rowed ashore. I was in a boat with people I didn’t recognise. I looked over my shoulder at the Neptune only to see bodies being tossed overboard like they meant nothing. How could any human think another human life mattered so little. I thought then to the small human growing inside me. I put a protective hand on my stomach and hoped that I would be able to protect this little one from the cruel world we lived in. I looked up for the first time at the land we had been taken to. It was beautiful. Land as far as the eyes could see. I prayed with all my might that this new land would be a happy new beginning for my child and I.
Challenge: To write a piece of historical fiction.
Word Count: 4000 words
Word Count: 4000 words
Actual word count: 4000 words
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Thank you very much for reading and if you are interested in more this is the story I am using for Script Frenzy this year.