‘This is about’ – the Irishman balances his hat on his thigh – ‘what we’d call, at home, a “skeleton in the cupboard”.’
‘On Walcheren we say, “a body in the vegetable patch”.’
‘Monster turnips, then, on Walcheren. May I speak in English?’
‘Do so. If I need your help, I’ll ask.’
The carpenter takes a deep breath. ‘My name is not Con Twomey.’
Jacob digests this. ‘You’re not the first pressed man to give a false name.’
‘My true name is Fiacre Muntervary, and I wasn’t pressed. How I left Ireland’s a stranger story altogether. One icy St Martin’s Day, a block of stone slipped from its harness and crushed my Da like a beetle. I did my best to fill his boots, like, but this world’s not a merciful place, and when the harvest failed and men came to Cork from all over Munster, our landlord trebled our rent. We pawn Da’s tools, but soon enough me, Ma, five sisters, and one little brother, Pádraig, were living in a crumbling barn where Pádraig caught a chill and that’s one less mouth to feed. Back in the city I tried the docks, the breweries, I tried feckin’ everything, but no luck. So back I went to the pawnbroker and asked for Da’s tools back. Yer man says, “They’re sold, Handsome, but it’s winter and folks need coats. I pay shiny shillings for good coats. You understand me?” ’ Twomey pauses to gauge Jacob’s reaction.
Jacob knows not to hesitate. ‘You had a family to feed.’
‘One lady’s gown, I stole from the theatre. Pawnbroker says, “Gentlemen’s coats, my Handsome,” an’ gives me a clipped threep’nny. Next time I stole a man’s coat from a lawyer’s office. “A scarecrow’d not be seen in that,” says yer man. “Try harder!” Third time, I’m bagged like a partridge. After a fortnight in Cork Gaol, I appeared in the courthouse where the one friendly face was the pawnbroker’s. He told the English judge, “Yes, Your Honour, that’s the urchin who kept offering me coats.” So I says the pawnbroker’s a feckin’ liar who deals in stolen coats. The judge told me how God forgives everyone who truly repents an’ handed down seven years in New South Wales. Five minutes from entry to gavel, like. Now a convict hulk, the Queen, was moored in Cork Harbour an’ it needed filling, an’ I helped. Neither Ma nor my sisters can bribe their way aboard to say farewell, so come April – the year ’ninety-one, this is – the Queen joined the Third Fleet out…’
Jacob follows Twomey’s gaze over the blue water to the Phoebus.
‘Hundreds of us there were, in that dark an’ stifling hold; cockroaches, puke, fleas, piss; rats gnawing the quick an’ the dead alike, rats as big as feckin’ badgers. In cold waters we shuddered. In the tropics pitch’d drip through the seams an’ burn us, an’ every waking and sleeping minute our one thought was Water, water, Mother of God, water… our ration was a half-pint a day an’ it tastes like sailor’s piss, which no doubt much of it was. One in eight died on that passage, by my reck’ning. “New South Wales” – three dreaded little words back home – changed their meaning to “Deliverance” an’ one old Galway man told us about Virginia, with its wide beaches an’ green fields an’ Indian girls who’d swap a screw for a nail, an’ we’re all thinking, Botany Bay is Virginia, just a little further…’
Constable Kosugi’s guards pass beneath the Sea Room, down Sea Wall Lane.
‘Sydney Cove wasn’t Virginia. Sydney Cove was a few dozen patches of hack-an’-peck hoe-rows where the seedlings’d wither if they sprouted at all. Sydney Cove was a dry an’ buzzing pit of sting-flies an’ fire-ants an’ a thousand starving convicts in torn tents. The marines had the rifles, so the marines had the power, the food, the ’roo meat an’ the women. As a carpenter I was put to work building the marines’ huts, furniture, doors and suchlike. Four years went by, Yankee traders began to call an’, if life never got soft, convicts were no longer dying like flies. Half my sentence was up an’ I began to dream of seeing Ireland again one day. Then, in ’ninety-five, a new squadron of marines arrived. My new Major wanted a grand new barracks an’ house up in Parramatta so he claimed me an’ six or seven others. He’d been garrisoned in Kinsale for a year, so he fancied himself an expert on the Irish Race. “The lassitude of the Gael,” he’d boast, “is best cured by Dr Lash,” an’ he was liberal with his medicine. You saw the welts on my back?’
Jacob nods. ‘Even Gerritszoon was impressed.’
‘For meeting his eye, he’d lash us for insolence. For avoiding his eye, he’d lash us for shiftiness. For crying out, he’d lash us for play-acting. For not crying out, he’d lash us for stubbornness. Yer man was in Paradise. Now, there were six of us Corkmen who looked out for each another an’ one was Brophy, the wheelwright. One day the Major goaded Brophy into hitting him back. Brophy was slapped in irons an’ the Major sentenced him to hang. The Major told me, “High time Parramatta had its own gallows, Muntervary, an’ you’ll build it.” Well, I refused. Brophy was strung up from a tree an’ I was sentenced to a week in the Sty an’ a hundred lashes. The Sty was a cell, four by four by four, so its inmate couldn’t stand nor stretch an’ you’ll imagine the stink an’ flies an’ maggots. On my last night, the Major visited an’ told me he’d be wielding the lash himself and promised I’d be in Hell with Brophy by the fiftieth stroke.’
Jacob asks, ‘There was no higher authority to appeal to?’
Twomey’s answer is a bitter laugh. ‘After midnight, I heard a noise. I said, “Who’s there?” an’ my reply was a cold chisel, slid beneath the gap under the door, and loaves in a square of sailcloth an’ a water-bag. Footsteps ran off. Well, with the chisel I made short work of prising away a couple of planks. Off I ran. The moon was full an’ bright as the sun. The encampment has no walls, you understand, ’cause the emptiness is the walls. Convicts ran off all the time. Many crawled back, beggin’ for water. Some were brought back by Blacks who were paid in grog. The rest died, I doubt not, now… but the convicts were mostly unschooled an’ when word spread that by walking north-by-north-west across the red desert you’d reach China – aye, China – hope made it true, so it was China I was bound that night. I’d not gone six hundred yards when I heard the rifle click. It was him. The Major. He had slipped me the chisel and bread, you see. “You’re a runaway now,” he said, “so I can shoot you dead, no questions asked, you stinking Irish vermin.” He came as close as we are now an’ his eyes were shining an’ I thought, This is it, an’ he pulled the trigger an’ nothing happened. We looked at each other, surprised, like. He lunged the bayonet at my eye socket. I swerved but not fast enough’ – the carpenter shows Jacob his torn earlobe – ‘an’ then it all went slow, an’ stupid, an’ we were pulling at the gun, like two boys arguin’ over a toy… an’ he tripped over an’… the rifle swung around an’ its butt whacked his skull an’ the fecker didn’t get up.’
Jacob notices Twomey’s trembling hands. ‘Self-defence isn’t murder, in either the eyes of God or of the law.’
‘I was a convict with a dead marine at my feet. I scarpered north, along the shore, an’ twelve or thirteen miles later, as day broke, I found a marshy creek to slake my thirst an’ slept till the afternoon, ate one loaf, an’ carried on walkin’, an’ so it went for five more days. Seventy, eighty miles, perhaps, I covered, like. But the sun burnt me black as toast, an’ that land sucks your vigour away, an’ some berries made me sick, an’ soon I was wishin’ the Major’s rifle had gone off ’cause it was a lingering death I was in for. That evening the ocean changed colour as the sun went down, an’ I prayed to St Jude of Thaddeus to end my suffering however he thought fit. You Calvinists may deny saints, but I know you’ll agree that all prayers are heard,’ Jacob nods, ‘an’ when I woke at dawn, on that forsaken coast, uninhabited an’ hundreds of miles long, it was to the sound of a rowing-shanty. Out in the bay was a scaly-looking whaler flying the Stars an’ Stripes. Her boat was coming ashore for water. So I was there to meet the Captain an’ bade him a pleasant morning. Says he, “Escaped convict, ain’t you?” Says I, “That I am, sir.” Says he, “Pray give me a solitary reason why I should kick the balls of the best customer in the Pacific Ocean – the British Governor of New South Wales – by shipping one his runaways?” Says I, “I am a carpenter who’ll work aboard your ship for landsman’s pay for one year.” Says he, “We Americans hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, and that’ll be three years, not one, and your wages are life and liberty, not dollars.” ’ The carpenter’s pipe has gone out. He rekindles the bowl and takes a deep draught. ‘Now to why I’m telling you this. Earlier, in the State Room, Fischer mentioned a certain major who’s there, on the British frigate.’
‘Major Cutlip? Not the luckiest of names in our language, as you know.’
‘It sticks in this runaway convict’s memory for another reason.’ Twomey looks at the Phoebus and waits.
Jacob lowers his pipe. ‘The marine? Your tormentor? Cutlip?’
‘You’d think these coincidences’d not happen, not off the stage, not in life…’
Repercussions fill the air. Jacob hears them, almost.