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Authors: Fiona Kidman

Captive Wife, The

BOOK: Captive Wife, The
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THE CAPTIVE WIFE

FIONA KIDMAN

For Ian Kidman
and
Niyaz Martin Wilson

This is a work of fiction based on real events and people. Their characters are reflected insofar as surviving documents and accounts can be relied upon. Some of the characters, both Maori and European, are fictitious.

Before Sydney existed it was a narrow shelf of land along the
western bank of a little stream that lost itself in mudflats at
the head of a cove. Naked Aborigines speared fish in the tidal
waters below and, when they rested, carved shapes of fish on
the sandstone rocks above
.

 

When the white men came, the boots of convicts and their
guards beat out the first track on Australian soil along that
shelf of land. The advance guard of the First Fleet sailed
round from the swamps in Botany Bay, edging into Sydney
Cove on the evening of 25 January 1788
.

 

This site in the sand was where the first merchants would
build their wharves and storehouses, the future main street a
shell of roughly level ground between the oyster-covered rocks
on the western beach and the high crags above. Next
morning, Governor Phillip hoisted his flag near the mouth
of the newly found run of fresh water that stole silently
through a very thick wood
.

 

Then he looked about for a place to plant his detachment of
Marines and a thousand sick, sullen and iron-galled felons
.

 

On the east side of the cove were pitched the tents of the
Governor, the Judge-Advocate, the Provost, the Surveyor
and some of the Better Class convicts. Across Tank Stream,
on the western slope, were placed the main tent rows of the
male and female convicts, storehouses and the barrack lines
of the Marines
.

 

Near here was the site of the first hospital, its history a litany
of how people fail one another, a sight no more terrible than
when the three ships of the Second Fleet dropped anchor, foul
and stinking from their six months' voyage
.

 

Some died as the ships came up the harbour; for a month
after the tides rolled their naked bodies up on the beaches
from the Heads to Dawes Point. As each fly-blown wretch fell
dead, his companions fell on him like wolves, stripping and
dividing the clothing, prising open the stiffening jaws to
snatch the half-chewed plug of Brazil tobacco from the dead
man's cheek
.

 

More fell dead in their chains and rags, rowed on their last
ride ashore. Somewhere close to the running tide lie the bones
of the unknown hare-poachers and pickpockets, shovelled into
Sydney's first burying ground
.

 

The settlement changed, from a camp to a town, the western
shore lined by timber wharves, launching slips and cottages
of brick or stone plastered with pipeclay and roofed with
shingles or thatch. On the eastern side, mansions rose with
domed ballrooms, plate and silverware, and music by night
.

 

Sydney grew up as a garrison town, the barrack walls ten feet
in height and two feet thick, built of honey-gold blocks of
squared stone pierced by four gates, one on each side of the
rectangle. The redcoats moved in and the gallows rose, the
brazen notes of trumpets sounded reveille and retreat
.

 

based on found text by G
EOFFREY
S
COTT

Chapter 1

J
OURNAL
OF
J
OHN
G
UARD:
WHALER,
FREED
CONVICT

New South Wales, 1826
     

Today I took the young girl Betsy Parker to collect oysters. She is a beautiful girl. Her hair shines and her teeth can split an apple in one bite. She is just on 12 years, the niece of Charlotte Pugh. I had a great need to get out of my house for there are children underfoot everywhere and I am the father of none of them.

I got myself a house of my own in Cambridge Street, that part of Sydney known as the Rocks. It is down near the sea and close to some good alehouses. I bought it for peace and quiet when I am laying up off the ships which are very crowded and leave a man no time to think. I took on Charlotte Pugh thinking she wd do for me in a useful way. I pay her enough but she is always off with men of 1 kind or another, there are children bawling all over the place. She's a good-looking woman, is Charlotte, or she was when I took her on. I fancied her appearance, tell the truth, even though she had a man who also got work from me, name of Samuel Garside. Well, I could tell he was not up to much. Garside left her with a girl and a boy, and took
off to marry another woman. Not that it did him much good for now he's up and died and neither woman got aught but grief. She could have done worse than me. All I ask her to do is keep the house clean and have a hot dinner or 2, and on both counts she does well. She has blue eyes and light red curls and when first I knew her she had a lively way with her. I'll guarantee what she keeps in her little box down there is very nice but it is a crowded house with all that have visited.

When I am off at sea I have only loose women to lay my poker in. I come back looking for a warm hearth, and some good company, but I find the woman who keeps house for me has yet another man under the roof I have paid for, and so she no longer takes my fancy. That is what I tell myself. Her last man was also called Samuel and she has another boy with him, she has called him Samuel too. I guess my name is not right. I am no Samuel, I am just John Guard, and there are times I think I might put the wench out on the street. She should know better. She is a free woman. Her mother and father were government people come in irons, although they have been free people many a year and who am I to talk for I am no better. But she is a currency lass born free, not confined to work for me. Charlotte may go where she pleases and I do not know why she stays here with me.

For the last year or 2 there has been an improvement, except for all these noisy children. So I was coming round to saying well what's done is past and perhaps it's time to settle down, but last week I come in from a long journey round the coast of New Zealand and the ship laden up with seal skins, and I am thinking of what the future might hold, and perhaps I will come across a place in New Zealand to settle down, and what do I find but she has another girl in the house. This is my niece Mr Guard she says, in a voice that tells me she is wheedling again. Other times she will call me Jacky, which is her fond name for me, the 1 she uses when she has made a good stew and there is money in the pot and all is well between us. When she calls me this silly name I sometimes wonder if she wishes she had laid in better store with me. Well I
have come close to it time and again. Get in the bed I am going to say and then something holds me back.

At the end of the last trip to sea it had been on my mind again, because I am sick of the bachelor life and afraid to catch the pox but who's to say I won't find it here, and I do not want to cause more Samuels, least not with her. But she is the 1 that warms my hearth, and it might as well be her. And then here is this girl and I change my mind again.

This is Betsy. She is my sister Harriott's girl, Charlotte said, soon as I'm in the door. I knew this for I had seen her once or twice. I went to fetch Charlotte's mother, Granny Pugh, when Charlotte was down with the last baby and it wdn't come. That is where Betsy lives, with Granny Pugh. My mother will know what to do Charlotte said, between her screams and crying and shaking, she can deliver a baby, so I fetched Granny who fished young Samuel out feet first, and all the time Charlotte calling her an old witch and other bad names no woman should know. I saw the girl once or twice after that but I don't let on I know her. At 1st I was very cool towards her.

Your sister, that Harriott, what's she done now, I said to Charlotte, for these Pugh sisters get up to pretty much the same old larks, and Betsy's mother Harriott is known about town for taking off and leaving Stephen Parker alone with the children and then him up and drowning and nobody left to look after the children, except poor old Granny who is past caring for the 3 Parker snot-noses. While Harriott has more and more children with the sawyer John Deaves.

My mother is dead Charlotte said and I should have seen it right away, the way she was dressed head to foot in black and her hair hidden away.

There are 3 children in this house already I told her, sharp as a razor and it's true I'd have ripped the bitch's throat out on the spot for I can see what is coming next. I don't want another 3. I know I should tell her that I am sorry about Granny Pugh for it's true, she was a good woman in old age, though given to
fighting and spitting when she were young, from all accounts. She had more than her fair share of trouble and I am sorry to hear that she is gone.

I do not want Harriott's children in this house I said. There is not enough room for all of us here now. We have gone over this before.

It is just this 1. Betsy.

Where are the other ones? I said, although I knew the answer.

They are in the orphanage where Granny put them.

Well that is where they will have to stay I said.

She did not put Betsy in the orphanage, she is too old, she is 12 already.

All this time Betsy Parker was looking at me with a bold stare, the way those Pugh women have, a look that says come here and I think I can not have seen it right, remembering she is a girl. Her dark hair falls in waves about her shoulders and I'd have put her at older than her years, already she is growing tits.

Harriott is sorting things out said Charlotte. John Deaves has told her he will put a ring on her finger and make an honest woman out of her and they will bring the children back to their place. He is finding a bigger place to live. Meantime Betsy is helping with the little ones. She is a good girl, very capable.

I had to agree the children were quieter and not so much snot around their noses as I'm used to seeing. Still they huddled in a mass like ants around the jam, which I cannot stand.

I looked at Betsy and saw the girl is not so much bold as sad and frightened, willing me not to turn her away. I recalled this one was Granny Pugh's favourite. I guessed she was fretting. Tears filled her eyes that are handsome and large with heavy lashes. Her tears did not fall.

You can stay the week I said. But remember my brother is coming here to stay soon and there will not be much room. My brother Charles is a sevener too, like I was, my little brother who I reckon had himself sent to Australia so he could be near to me, not that there is much I can do for him until he's done his time,
but that is nearly here. He did not take to convict life easy. He looked one sick canary when first I saw him. The yellow uniform that is for the bad convicts did not flatter his complexion, reflected the whites of his eyes. He was flogged more than once or twice, 150 lashes once. I wished he could see, as I did early on, that it's better to be agreeable to the guvs. It's the quickest way to freedom. Already when he came I was on my way to better things because I did what I was told and planned the day when I wd be free and got out sooner than my time. It pays to lick an arse or 2, they taste better than maggots in a stew. But Charley has had to serve his full 7 years. He has been an assigned convict servant to a Mrs Harris for some time and does not have to wear uniforms any more so things is getting better and soon they will let him off, but he has made things harder for himself than he need have done.

I told Betsy you better come with me.

Where are you taking her Charlotte said.

To find some peace and quiet.

You're a grown man, don't go friggin' with her.

I'll frig who I like I told her. I was about to add that I wd have frigged with her long ago if she had kept herself to herself but she wants to hear nothing from me.

Jacky, Charlotte said. I know she's serious, taking a risk with me when I'm in a mood because by now I was. She is a good girl.

I can see that, I said, come on Betsy. I grabbed the girl by the wrist. We're going for a walk you and me.

 

As we walked towards Sydney Cove beyond the port my spirits lifted. The sky was a dark blue and the sea serene. I saw 2 ships unfurling their sails as they set out on an ocean voyage, making white splashes on the ocean. Behind us the town lay peaceful the spires of the churches lifting near as high as the big Norfolk pines that stood on guard along the shore.

You want oysters that are plump I said to Betsy when we was at the mudflats. You want them big just when they're ready to
spawn nice fat oysters. There's some think them too rich when they're fat but I like 'em creamy and moist. How do you like your oysters Betsy?

Fat she said, turning over what I had said. I always gave the fat ones to Granny and David to make them strong. Sophia didn't like them, I think she's too young. I don't know what they give them to eat in the orphanage Mister Guard. I am afraid David will die there, he's just a little boy.

I felt sorry for her then because I know what it is like to be worried on account of a brother. She was kneeling on the rocks looking out for oysters. I could not help myself. I put my hand on her head. It felt like an egg shell and as if it wd break as easy. She sat very still, not moving, as if she was expecting something. As if she knew I could do what ever I want with her. I took my hand away and she stayed sitting like that.

Aren't you worried for your sister too I asked her.

She is a girl and they will not hurt her the way they do the boys she said in a low voice that I could hardly hear. Besides she is like me, she is quick to go about what she is told. When she said that I thought clever girl, this 1 thinks like me. But David is slower she went on he is very small for his years and he had the measles not long ago. I thought he wd die. I don't know whether Granny told them that.

Perhaps your mother can.

My mother. She straightened herself up and surprised me with a knowing look. She pulled a face, her tongue pushing out her lips. I saw she knows what's what.

Your mother will take you all home. I said this to comfort her but she pretended she had not heard.

We looked around the mudflats and down below there was lazy oysters, a gang of them all together, which is what oysters like to do. You will not find an oyster on its own. You can hear oysters whistle to each other. I've heard some argue this is nonsense but it is true, oysters sing when they are together.

The girl looked at me intent not as if I am a crazy old man.
I am old enough to be her father twice over but when I thought about her little snatch I felt myself stiffen up. I told myself stern as I could, keep your pricker down John or it'll be on its way to harm.

Instead I showed her how to open the oysters even though I suppose she must have done it before for who else wd have opened them for Granny Pugh. We now had a couple of buckets full. I took my knife from my belt and rested an oyster on a shelf, flat side up. I showed her how to push the knife through the shell and lever up the hinge. Push, push down on the knife I said. She has a lot of strength and did it in a trice.

I slid the knife beneath the oyster, cutting through the muscle and lifting it on to the frilly cup that is the top shell.

You must eat them off the shell I told her. They are best eaten without rinsing I say quite soft for I want her to have the 1st one.

The sea was coming up in little waves and the air turned cool for this time of year for we are in November now when the days are long and the temperature stays up here in Sydney. I watched the way Betsy opened her red mouth and put the oyster on her tongue, letting it sit there a moment with her lips parted. Then she closed them round the fish and swallowed swift but still I thought I saw the path of the fish in her throat as it travelled down. We opened oyster after oyster and I fed them to her 1 after another.

When she had eaten a dozen or more and I had had my fill we took the rest home.

We shall have an oyster stew tonight I said. It is my favourite. Charlotte banged about a bit because it takes more than 1 pan to make her best stew. But she is out to please me. When the stew was ready the kitchen filled with a warm muggy smell. Soon we were content and fed for the night. Betsy cleaned the pans and then took herself off to bed, top and tailing with Charlotte's oldest boy.

When the children were settled I said to Charlotte, that girl has been through hard times.

Happen she has. Charlotte does not give much away.

Her mother should know better.

I'll not have you talking about my family like that said Charlotte snappy like.

Ah the pot calling the kettle black.

You don't need to talk like that.

You women lie down too easy I said.

My children are all with me.

Because I put a roof over their heads.

She did not answer that. Charlotte is 26 years old. Her face has become puffy and pale, the eyes once like blue lightning are often dull.

I am afraid for the girl I said, turning her argument against her. Afraid you'll put her to some young stud before she's ready.

Oh don't tell me John Guard she says, don't you tell me you never took advantage. What is in your head with this girl.
Fair
maid is a lily o
.

I heard her mother's voice then. Granny Pugh was always full of old sayings, she had a rhyme for everything. But this is 1 I know for it is said also by men with a laugh in their voices not to mention hope. It is about a girl who says yes to everything a man puts to her. A woman who says yes too easily.
Gently Johnny my
jingalo
.

BOOK: Captive Wife, The
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