The sun climbed up the London sky like an invalid part way through convalescence. If it could have wheezed it would have wheezed. If it could have coughed it would have coughed. It would have been a thick, phlegm-heavy cough which would struggle to clear the stinking, oily airs which lay like a sodden blanket upon the city.
In the streets below, a line of torches escorted a column of men towards the river. Their legs shuffled due to the heavy chains which linked them together. The men were of all sizes: short and wiry, short and fat, tall and fat, tall and thin and all sizes in between. They were of all ages: men in their twenties and men in their sixties. All except one. Bringing up the rear was a boy of perhaps twelve years old, dressed in men’s clothing which hung upon him loosely.
Whereas the others in the line looked beaten and despairing to a man, the young boy gave a huge grin. He swaggered along, jaunty as possible, whistling tunelessly.
‘Good luck, Dodger,’ came a call from the gathering crowd.
‘You show ‘em, Dodger,’ cried another.
‘I’m off to be Her Majesty’s High Ambassador to the New South Welsh,’ he said, flourishing his hat. ‘When I’ve sorted everyfink out I’ll be back. Fourteen years in the diplomatic service is nothing to a young gentleman like me.’
‘Shut it back there,’ called one of the guards.
The boy turned towards the crowd. ‘You’d have thought that Vicky would have given me a less common guard of honour,’ he said.
He started to whistle once more and acknowledged the applause and cheers of the crowd.
One small part of the crowd looked very out of place. Most of the spectators were obviously members of the East End community, poor, shabbily dressed and grimy with dirt. Half a dozen, however, were very different and these caught Dodger's eye.
They were a family which had got caught up in the throng and looked very nervous to have done so. The father was a man in his late thirties, tall and upright with fine mutton-chop whiskers. His wife was small and very slight and he held her close to him as if to protect her from the crowd. The steely look upon her face, however, suggested that any protection which he might offer would be quite redundant.
The parents held tight hold on three children. The mother kept hold of the eldest girl who was aged about fifteen and had a sharp face fixed with little eyes which darted here and there with great suspicion. A toddler of perhaps two or three was cradled in her mother's arms, looking with great anxiety not at the crowd but at her eldest sister.
It was the middle daughter who held Dodger's gaze transfixed. She appeared to be a couple of years younger than he but upright in posture and well nourished. She was very pale and her face held a scatter of freckles as close to each other as stars in the night sky. Her eyes were wide and agog at the sight of the criminals. She wore a straw hat but this seemed perched upon her head. The reason for this was that her hair was a mass or wayward curls which seemed to frolic about her head. Her head turned from side to side, staring at each of the convicts as they passed. She looked as though she was about to burst into tears.
When Dodger came up beside her she turned and stared directly at him. Her eyes opened wide, so wide that they made her hat jiggle slightly upon her head.
He gave her a grin and waved his hand at her. She waved back and was roundly told to stay still by her sister.
As he turned the corner, Dodger glanced back. The little girl was still staring at him. She raised her hand but he could not for the life of him tell whether it was to say farewell or hello.
While they marched along, Jack became aware that one of the convicts kept sneaking glances towards him. He was a little man, skinny as a gutter-cat, with one sharp, nervous eye. The other was hidden by a ragged black patch. He stroked his mouth as he walked, with a hand which had both middle fingers hacked from it.
The line of convicts got jumbled up and they were forced to halt. The skinny man took the opportunity to sidle up towards Jack and jabbed him in the ribs. ‘Do you recognise me?’ he asked. His voice was a low sneer.
Jack shook his head.
‘Well you should do. You’re one of Fagin’s boys ain’t you? In fact, you’re his prime boy, the pick of the bunch, so it’s said.’
‘You may know me, but I don’t know you,’ Jack said. The man made him shiver, as if an icy blast had sneaked in through a crack in the door.
‘You should know me,’ said the man. Flecks of spittle bubbled on his lips and he wiped them ineffectively. ‘My name's Crimp and you should know me because Fagin's the reason I'm convicted and being sent off to the ends of the earth. And I expect you had a hand in it as well.’
Jack shook his head. ‘I’ve never seen you before, guvnor, honest.’ Jack was a good judge of people. Crimp did not look much of a man but Jack guessed that he meant a lot of trouble.
He spat on Jack's foot. 'If it weren't for the big boss I've had swung no doubt. And all because Fagin did the dirty on the boss and me.'
'So where's your boss? Is he going on the ship?'
Crimp gave a high-pitched laugh. 'Don't be so stupid. He's safe from the law, being as how he is the law.'
Jack eyed him narrowly, hoping that the line would start up again so that he could get away.
The man leaned closer. ‘Do you know how long this voyage lasts?’
Jack shook his head.
‘Seven months,' Crimp said, 'eight months, sometimes more.' He grabbed hold of Jack’s chin and jerked his head around.
‘So there’s plenty of time for us to get better acquainted, Jack Dawkins. And plenty of time for me to remind you of how the old Jew did for me.’
A big man with curly hair stood watching the incident. He scratched his head thoughtfully, shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
The skinny man slid away from Jack but remained watching him with narrowed eyes.
As the line of convicts shuffled down the road towards the river they saw long masts rearing from the decks of countless ships which lay berthed against the banks of the Thames.
'The Transportation Fleet,' said the old man beside him.
'We're not going on them, are we?' Jack asked, his eyes widening. 'Them hulks, all round the world?'
'That's the plan, son.'
'Well it's a blooming nonsensical plan if you ask me. I doubt any of 'em would cross to Southwark without sinking.
'Shut up,' called one of the guards.
In surly, grumbling silence, the convicts trudged up the gangway of the first ship. As he neared the deck the young boy saw three rats bolt down the plank towards land.
The man behind him sucked in air in a loud, horrified gasp. 'They know it's cursed,' he cried.
'Not half as much as you are,' cried one of the sailors, making his friends laugh at the jest.
The ship Jack had been assigned to was called 'The Hornet.' It was already ancient when it had been pressed into service to supply the fleet at Trafalgar. Before that, or so it was rumoured, it had been a slave ship running from Bristol to Africa and the West Indies. As the men were shoved below decks to the damp and fetid cages awaiting them they well believed the rumours to be true.
One elderly man who had spent his years tramping the highways became wild-eyed with terror at the sight of the pent up, noisome gloom and began to emit a fearsome howl of distress which only ended when two guards knocked him unconscious.
'The bastards,' said the young boy but not so loud that they could hear him.
'Let's hope they've killed him,' said a huge man with a sprawling, knotted beard. 'It'll mean more grub for us.'
'Don't believe it, Trench,' said Crimp pushing himself into the large man's shadow. 'They'll eat his grub themselves or sell it to us, what's starving.'
'Shut yer mouth, Crimp,' said the bearded man. 'I'm sick of the sound of yer already.'
Crimp laughed but it was a laugh devoid of humour. He turned his eyes towards Jack. 'What you looking at?' he growled.
Crimp grabbed him by the throat. 'Well see you don't look at me in future. Not unless I tells yer to. It's me who will do the looking, and the catching.'
'Leave him be,’ said the big curly haired man who Jack had noticed earlier in the day. 'He's only a boy.'
'I can guess yer interest, so I can,' Crimp sneered at him.
The man did not answer but gave a quick glance towards the guards and saw they were looking elsewhere. He took a step towards Crimp and seized him by the hair. He twisted it violently, causing the little man's back to arch over, exposing a scrawny throat. The big man ran his fingers slowly from one side of the throat to the other.
'See here boy,' the big man said to Jack, turning Crimp as though he were a doll. 'This neck is little stronger than a rabbit's.' He jabbed his finger at Crimp's gulping Adam's Apple making him squeal. 'One chop and we'll be eating his grub.'
'Enough,' said Trench. He squared up and gave a belligerent stare. 'What's your name, friend?'
The man released his hold upon Crimp's hair and sized Trench up and down. 'Beresford. Want to make something of it?'
Trench shook his head. 'No, I won't make anything of it. But just remember one thing,' he said, indicating the skinny man. 'I can hit Crimp, I can punish him, but you can't.'
Beresford stared at Trench for a moment. 'Fair enough,' he said. 'And the same goes for the boy. I can punish him, but neither you or your creature touch him.'
Trench nodded. 'It's a bargain. The same goes for the boy.'
He stalked off, Crimp running after him.
Jack grinned up at his protector. 'Thanks very much, mister. My name's Jack Dawkins.'
'Just Beresford? Ain't you got a first name?'
'If I ever had, I've forgotten it.'
Jack nodded sagely. 'I think Beresford is right enough for you.'
The big man grinned and ruffled his hair.
A whistle sounded and a platoon of Marines hurried down the steps and took up position, muskets cocked and pointing at the convicts. They were followed by a skinny navel officer of about forty years of age. He glanced about him sourly and stood to one side of the stairs.
'Convicts rise for Captain Flowers,' he cried. His voice was every bit as sour as his glance.
A portly figure came down the stairs and gazed upon them. He looked bluff and genial, but there was something in the way that the posture of the Marines changed which suggested that it might be best not to take him for granted.
'My name is Captain Flowers,' he said in a voice as genial as his looks. 'I am charged with the duty of transporting you to New South Wales. What you choose to make of your life there is up to you. It will not be easy for you. Transportation is a punishment and you do well to remember this.'
He glanced around at the convicts who shuffled in their chains. Not a man of them seemed in any doubt that they were being punished.
'However,' Flowers continued, 'for those of you who repent of your wickedness, obey the laws of the colony and work hard, you may perhaps find some opportunity which would not be made available to you in England. In truth you may take this one last chance to redeem yourselves and make your lives anew.'
He paused again as if expecting some sign of appreciation, applause perhaps or three cheers. There was none. With a sigh he resumed.
'Until we reach shore, however, you will find no such opportunities. My only advice to you is to bend your spirits to the arduous journey ahead of you, to keep up your strength and health, to follow the regulations of my officers and crew and to avoid bad company.'
One of the Marines chuckled at the thought of this. The Captain glared at him. He nodded to the sergeant who instantly frog-marched the man up the stairs.
Some of the convicts grinned at the look of fear upon the Marine's face. The more intelligent of them took note of the Captain's swift and summary punishment. He may have looked a soft touch but in his case looks were clearly deceiving.
'You will probably not see me again,' the Captain continued, 'until we dock in New South Wales in seven months' time. If you do see me it will be because you have been brought before me for some misdemeanour. For your sakes I hope that this does not occur. Good day gentlemen.'
'Silly old fool,' muttered Crimp.
Beresford looked at him and shook his head as if wearied by the foolishness of mankind.
The sour, skinny officer had remained behind when the Captain left. He stood there still, nodding his head as if acknowledging to himself that he had been correct about something all along yet regretted that he had been.
The convicts eyed him expectantly.
'My name is Lieutenant Case,' he said. 'I am second-in-command of the ship. When the Captain sleeps, I remain awake. What he proposes, I dispose. Where he leads Sunday Prayers, Lieutenant Case leads the daily curses.
'For all intents and purposes there will never be occasion for you to see Captain Flowers, not unless you've done something that will only be answered by the cat, the keel-haul or the rope. But you will see more of me. And some of you may even come to prefer the thought of the cat.'
He gave one last, lingering look at the convicts then padded up the stairs.
At that moment there sounded a dreadful clamour above their heads. The convicts stared up fearfully as if their eyes could pierce both dark and deck. The noise continued, a gallop of feet, a clatter of wood and metal.
'It's the crew getting the ship ready to sail,' one of the convicts explained.
'How do you know?' asked Crimp.
'I was a sailor for twenty years, you oaf. I know everything there is to know about ships.'
'Will this one get us to New South Wales?' asked a young man anxiously.
'Some of us,' said the sailor. 'But not all.'
They heard the slow rasp of the anchor being weighed, the thunder and slap of the sails being lowered and then the ship lurched, bellied over and began to wallow its way into the river.
Within minutes the ground was awash with the vomit or men who had never before travelled on anything other than their own two feet.
Jack was one of them. He tried to reach a bucket but never made it. But he saw a more useful receptacle. He consoled himself that the contents of his stomach drenched Crimp from waist to feet.
He spent the whole of the first week being sick. Some of the convicts had been in the navy and guessed that they were now crossing the Bay of Biscay, the worst stretch of water in the world for rolling seas and erupting stomachs. But eventually they rounded the northern edge of Spain and headed out to the comparative calm of the Atlantic Ocean.
Jack was never sea-sick again but became gripped by a fierce hunger for food, any food, no matter how rank and unpalatable. Fortunately, there was sufficient as most of the convicts had little appetite for the scraps put in front of them.
The ship crossed the Atlantic, docked for a few days in Brazil for fresh water and provisions, then tacked south-east towards the southern tip of Africa. They remained a week at Cape Town, cramming every last shelf, cupboard, hidey-hole and piece of deck with food and water before beginning the last, terrible leg of their voyage to the forsaken continent of the south.
This is the first chapter of my new novel, Artful. It will be published soon so look out for it on most ebook platforms.