A story based on the escape attempt of George ‘Billy’ Hunt from the convict jail at Port Arthur, Tasmania
When in captivity time goeth very slow but free as air to roam now quick the time doth go.
—James Godfrey (convict), inscribed on a penny, 1846
The crack of the whip cut the frosty dawn, sending feverish shivers along the lines of sleeping men. Exhaustion kept them at a doze, although the sound pierced their flesh and settled in their bones. They had all endured the whip—but none had seen it ring so many times and with such ferocity as they did now.
Crack. It shuddered along the rough stone walls, all the way to the dock where gulls took flight and circled, squawking. Crack. Eighty-two. Crack. Eighty-three. The number crept higher. No man’s back should be able to withstand such a beating, unless it was Scottish-made. Billy Hunt’s was not. The whip cracked a century and from where Philip Cavendish lay—third bed along the east wall, ear-to-stone—no sound from Hunt could be heard. Not a cry or a plea for mercy. It was the silence of madness. Or the silence of a dead man.
Cavendish peeled off his sweat-soaked sheet, ignoring a warning grunt from Jimmy Boot a few bad smells away. His iron-clad feet dragged along the stone floor towards the locked and barricaded door and he wondered how long it would take the prisoners of the port to worry down the scorched Devil’s earth with their irons until they reached hell itself.
Billy, he thought. For the love of your nine fingers, keep your stinking mouth shut.
Three days ago Cavendish had been playing chicken at the mouth of the bread stove—inching towards the flames until the heat raised blisters on his skin—when Billy Hunt burst through the door.
‘Cavendish. You rat.’ He pointed a stubby, tip-less finger at Cavendish’s chest. ‘I knew it wasn’t yer charm that got you them light irons.’
Phil Cavendish stepped back and shovelled a spade full of hot coals, making a show of turning them belly up, bright and red, to remind Billy who had the privileges about the prison. But Billy Hunt was undeterred. He stepped closer—the bulk of him looming throat-stranglingly close.
‘Hear me now, eh. Yer gonna be a dead man when I tell the Commandant what I know.’
At the mention of the Commandant, Cavendish froze, spade itching to take a swing at Billy’s head. He took a steadying breath, flipped the coals once more and said carefully, ‘What are you on about, Billy? I ain’t got time for this.’
Billy showed a rotten set of teeth. ‘That’s right, Cavendish. I know what you done. Or who you done. And I bet the Commander ain’t gonna want you in his kitchens, kneading his dough with them lecherous fingers when he finds out.’
Phil shivered, despite the heat of the fire at his back. At the best of times, Billy clung to the edge of madness. And this was far from the best of times. Billy whispered his plans, or rather, his terms in Cavendish’s ear. Phil cursed the turn of events that had brought him here.
Only six months earlier, Cavendish had stood at the port of New South Wales, swaying with reverse sea-sickness while the officer in charge of arrivals peered down at his transportation register.
First Name: Philip
Description of crime: cow stealing
Place of trial: Kerry
Transportation: seven years
Name of ship: Rodney
Comments: Butcher by trade, literate
‘Butcher, eh?’ the officer mused, looking up. Next to him another high-collared officer bent over the desk to murmur in his ear. The glare of their British reds against the bluest sky he’d ever seen made him close his eyes. After a tense exchange, they bid Cavendish to stand to one side.
The sun was high overhead by the time the remaining convicts were sorted and consigned to labouring assignments—farm and factory mostly. Only one other convict, a small bookish man with oversized glasses that kept slipping down his sweat-slicked nose, was separated from the rest. Cavendish licked his chapped lips and shifted under the prickle of the sun on his cabin-whitened skin. He was almost glad when a bad-tempered officer kicked at his heels and pushed him down a gangplank until he realised he was being corralled into the bowels of another ship—this one much smaller than the one he’d been held on for nine months. He groaned. He’d been green for most of the long journey to the golden country and had shrivelled to half the man he’d been before. He’d seen men die in pools of their own spew, obscenities ghosting their mouths while the churn of the waves had rolled their limp bodies like dead fillet fish in batter. He thought if he never had to see another boat again, he’d be the luckiest man alive.
‘No cows at Port Arthur,’ the bad-tempered officer said as he walked away, slapping Cavendish hard on the back. ‘Only kangaroos, and men who’ll knock you senseless if you pull one on them.’ Phil had too much turn in his stomach from the boat’s sway to register offence.
From the port of New South Wales, Phil was transported to the kitchens at Port Arthur. According to those in charge, ‘butcher’ by trade was a fair exchange for ‘cook’. He took up work in the kitchens, where the heat from the bread ovens sent his head spinning. Still, he received better treatment than the murderers and rapists who lugged stone and log day in, day out, so he endured without complaint. He even learned how to make a fair loaf of damper, with only a few burned edges. But it was butchering that he missed, and the taste of fresh meat, salted and served with a pint of dark ale.
A year into his sentence, he’d had an unexpected visit. The Commandant’s wife, Mrs Pennington, burst into his kitchen, black hair a storm cloud about her head and crystal blue eyes unblinking. Too shocked for words, he waited for her to state her business. She merely dabbed her forehead with her handkerchief and said, ‘It’s rather hot in here.’
‘Ay,’ he heard himself say dumbly. ‘The ovens.’
It was not every day that a woman paid a visit to the penitentiary. Somehow she must’ve convinced the guards to let her down from the top of the hill, where she spent most of her time inspecting the ornamental gardens like a bird bending beak to soil. He remembered the dining-room chatter—rumours that her mouth was as sharp as the beak from which it was fashioned and guessed that a woman such as she, with a full purse and her husband’s name, could go anywhere she pleased.
‘Are you … Is there something I can help you with, ma’am?’ he said, looking around for an accompanying guard, finding none.
‘Oh, call me Elizabeth.’ Her tone was so tight-lipped and English, she might as well have had a rose between her teeth. ‘And you’re Philip Cavendish.’
It wasn’t a question. He nodded.
Her lips formed a thin line and she extended her arm into the space between them. At first he was mortified at the thought of taking her hand and kissing it given the state of himself. Then he saw what she held. At the end of her long, delicate fingers was a small, round coin—a penny, flattened on one side and etched in neat cursive.
‘Mind you read to me what this says?’
The penny glinted in the firelight and Phil caught the delicate lettering of his home tongue, Gaelic. His breath caught. It had been years since he’d seen the curve and flick of those letters. The last time had been in his daughter’s shaky hand—lá breithe shona duit—Happy Birthday—a few months before he’d been sent away. What he’d do to hold those tiny ink-smudged hands again, to kiss the wispy hair on her forehead from temple to crown.
Elizabeth was frowning. ‘It said you were literate on the papers. Or do you not read Gaelic?’
Phil continued to stare at the coin. After a moment, ‘I read Gaelic fine enough, but forgive me if I speak out of turn—it’s not every day that a woman such as yourself requests such a matter from the likes of me. Does the Commander know you’re here?’
She stiffened. ‘Of course not, and neither does he need to know.’ Her eyes travelled to his feet. ‘I can negotiate lighter irons for you, Cavendish, if you promise to ask no questions and speak to no-one about my visit.’
He hesitated. If instinct spoke true, Mrs Pennington was asking him to act against the Commandant’s wishes. Experience had taught him it was always better to have heavy feet and a light heart in Port Arthur than the other way around.
‘And two years off your sentence for your continued assistance with this matter,’ she added at his hesitation. ‘I hear there’s a fine business to be made in the butchering trade in the capital.’
Two years. The words wafted past, warm and enticing as a loaf of fresh bread.
Mrs Pennington’s gaze bored into his own. ‘Your family. How much would it cost to bring them here once you’ve been granted freedom?’
And that was all it took. A single mention of his family. His hand shot out of its own accord. She placed the coin in his palm. It was lighter than he expected. He flipped it over.
‘You’ve got yourself a leaden heart here, ma’am,’ he said, surprise lifting his eyebrows at the same time as the realisation turned his stomach. Inscribed into the metal was a beautifully rendered well-wish with an undertone of admiration.
‘A leaden heart?’ she said, voice turning waspy for the first time since she’d entered.
Their eyes met. ‘It’s what we call a love note back where I’m from. In Ireland.’ He opened his mouth, a question on his tongue, then closed it again. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘for both our sakes, it’d be best if you don’t tell me who it’s from.’
She tilted her head as though it had suddenly become heavy, then turned to walk away, skirt swirling. ‘Two years and lighter irons,’ she said, pushing open the door. ‘Until next time, Cavendish.’
And so it had become a regular appointment. Mrs Pennington calling in, always at random hours when the Commandant was off site. And he, translating her leaden hearts. At times he’d wondered whose high-born hand and smooth tongue had etched those guilty words. Then he’d remembered his daughter, the smell of her skin, the press of her lips against his cheek and kept his questions to himself.
‘You listening to me, Cavendish?’ Billy Hunt’s cockney twang cut his reverie. ‘I need a roo. A boomer. Big enough to fit all of me if you will.’ He thrust his crotch forward.
Phil knew Billy had one or two connections missing from ear-to-ear, but only a loose screw would come up with a plan like the one rolling off his tongue now. ‘… need him gutted by tomorrow. Sundown. Meet you at sawpit creek before the logging lads call it in for the night.’
‘Billy … I am a bloody cook not a—’
‘A butcher?’ Billy snorted. ‘Thought that was your trade. Wasn’t it cow-stealing that got you here in the first place?’ He raised his eyebrows and lifted the stub of his index, bringing his other hand down on the stub sharply. ‘Do it or I’ll get the Commander to make a carcass out of you too.’
Phil could see the absurdity of Billy’s plan in plain view, but could also see his options turning to ash before him. He could hardly tell the truth—that he’d been translating Mrs Pennington’s love notes, aiding her in a secret affair with the hope of seeing his family again. That would surely amount to more trouble.
Billy’s face was turning purple as he waited for an answer, beady eyes bulging as though about to burst from the pressure of his thoughts. Phil knew Billy had spent time in a lunatic asylum before finding his way to Port Arthur, but he had never encountered a madman on the brink as he did now.
‘All right,’ he said between gritted teeth. ‘You want a boomer? I’ll get you a boomer.’
‘Roo Stew’ was added to the menu after negotiation with the doctor—a rare treat to curb the latest outbreak of scurvy and muscle fatigue in the men. The roos were delivered by the trigger-happy sentries and Phil made sure to keep the largest male carcass aside.
Twilight arrived. The men dawdled in a red-meat drowse and Phil waited for the escape sirens to sound. None came. When he went outside to wash the last of the blood and entrails of their dinner from the stone slab near the washhouse, he saw Billy, neck deep in kangaroo carcass fading like a shadow into the forest on the other side of the river, the sunset like a blazing bushfire at his back.
For the first time in what seemed like years, Phil’s jaw unclenched and his lips lifted in a crooked smile. The bastard looked like a passable kangaroo. He might actually do it. He went back inside, breathing hard, heart hammering against his ribs.
According to the sentries posted at The Neck, Billy Hunt had made it past the first set of sentries and dogs, one slow hop at a time, almost to the scrubland on Forestier’s Peninsular. But at the last minute, the sentry who had shot down the boomer for supper that day had spotted him and opened fire. Losing his nerve, Billy had thrown off his pelt and cried, ‘Don’t shoot! It’s only me, Billy Hunt!’
Crack. 148, 149, 150.
At last the record number of lashes was reached and the whipping ceased. Silence hung in the air like a dead man at the end of a rope. Phil’s shoulders began to shake. Any second now, Billy Hunt would let loose on his story and the two years he’d negotiated off his sentence would be back, doubled, then capped at life.
But the guards didn’t come. The gulls resumed their squawking and the men rose and went to their posts as usual. Phil made his way to the kitchen, bent over the work bench and kneaded dough until his back ached and his forearms fused into Celtic knots. Minutes turned into hours and still no-one came. It wasn’t until the sun had almost set on another day that he allowed himself to believe that Billy, for the love of his nine fingers and the code of the convict, had kept his silence.
His breathing evened, his pulse slowed and for the first time since setting foot to earth on this strange parched land, the lead left his heart.