Is life a shit, the unwanted waste of human effort? Is the world the poop-pail in which mankind wallows in the swill that life has become?
I am lost in a wilderness between boyhood and manhood, innocence and evil, understanding and uncaring, between two worlds-that of my nurture and that of my gaoler. And I fear the void.
Never have I needed to question values, nor doubt standards. Me and my world have ever been one, two parts of a whole in unison. Never have I considered that me and my environment are separate; never was there conflict between what it expected of me and me of it. Every standard I hold to-of life, mankind, love, honour-all are creations of the world I've known. The difference between right and wrong has ever been simple to distinguish, acceptance ever been instinctive. Never did I question that social behaviour rules the world.
Yet now I find a crossroads.
The people of the world I am now part of insist my values are false, my standards based on false ideas. Can I have been naive in believing that in all men there is need each for the other if we are to live in harmony? I have ever followed a course true to such a belief-yet if they were right, that the environment my early world created is wrong, are then, the values nurtured by it wrong? Or have I simply failed to fairly assess them?
A frightening doubt.
Seven years they give me to accept their right, deny my wrong.
And they will chain me, flog me, degrade and abuse me until I do?
What superior sense of value is this?
I cannot understand their world, yet captive in its environment is surely, then, opportunity to gauge their values, weigh them against mine.
I will test it fair, listen with open mind, observe with open eyes.
Seven years will test it, the opportunity theirs, the challenge mine.
A year earlier, 1784, London's Newgate Prison
The portcullis crashed shut, a sound of such finality, a portent of doom.
They clung together, craving support, fearful of the future even more than the moment while the echo reverberated in their eardrums as if to stun them.
"Three more, Rufus."
The wagoner who brought them from the watch-house handed over papers, no doubt statements of witnesses, before hurriedly departing, the stench of his body leaving with him. And with him also departed their last contact with the free world.
The turnkey reached out as if through a mist, to unlock their shackles-to clatter ominously as he tossed them into a corner. There was scant ceremony to being put in gaol, they found, no information sought but a name and, because of their youth, ages. It seemed the only question otherwise asked was if the prisoner had means of support, yet their appearance spoke for itself.
From along a dingy passageway, to assail their nostrils, the stench of damp mingled with the odour of unwashed bodies. Adam became slowly aware of a consciousness returning, realisation that the jolting wagon ride through the rain, the trauma of yesterday's arrest, the fear they had shared during the night in the lock-up, had all actually happened. The fog of shock was beginning to abate.
Realisation that all he knew of life was, of a dreadful sudden, something of the past, became a stark reality.
Now there exists only a dread future.
The small chamber they arrived in was lit solely by a grilled window the height of two men from the floor, and along the passageway at the source of the stench was a door with a massive iron lock, no doubt opening into the gaol proper.
Blankets were piled in a corner of this tiny chamber and the turnkey sullenly handed one to each. He then, with a practised movement, lifted a ring of keys from a hook and gestured them to follow. Adam gave his blanket a cursory inspection, finding it threadbare and unclean
Yet it is now my only worldly possession.
The lock grated in complaint as the key turned. Beyond the door a milling crowd of laggards stood about, those whose stench had been their introduction. Most were men and boys with but a sprinkling of women. Some turned at the sound to watch Rufus pull the door ajar.
With almost too obvious a nod, he invited the three into their new home; it took but a minute to arrive at a measure of the place.
All too few shafts of daylight beamed from dormers high in the wall that were also barred with grills, and here and there straggling rays of light reached the floor to cast a shadowy pattern. For the rest, the chamber was gloomy and airless. Stone pillars rose from the floor, and wooden benches lined the walls. Alcoves branched off at intervals into other chambers. Amidst the legs and feet lay straw mattresses and blankets, the floor strewn with hay as if for creatures in a stable. Dust swirled in the shafts of light. The rank dampness was suffocating. There was little welcome from anything in sight.
Their arrival drew scant interest. A few lags turned to cast a glance, yet once Rufus retired and the key again grated, they returned to their pastimes.
The whole took but a moment to assess, and Fickless moved silently off, easing his way through the press, Adam and Wil following, nostrils twitching.
It was too crowded to walk but in single file, and it was quickly obvious there was no spare bench space other than by the reeking latrine. In a far corner, palliasses lay about, and with a nod from each, they agreed on a site with space enough to lie together yet far enough from the stench. They fetched mattresses from a pile to lay on the straw.
They were drenched from their hour chained in the wagon through London streets, and there was no fire for drying out. Wil now tugged at his wet blouse before flopping down. There certainly seemed no purpose in doing else.
Adam followed suit. It made sense to squat, he reckoned, stake their claim.
Many of like age stood about, some even younger although men of twenty or more comprised most, a motley lot, many with a shaver ring to them. The few women kept to themselves; nowhere could Adam see them mingling with male prisoners who stood in groups of two or three, or here and there a handful. Other lags sat where there was space, some alone, one or two with a book; a few slept or were ill. Generally the sound was a buzz of quiet conversation except in the distance where someone gave noisy emphasis to a viewpoint. From farther off still he could hear the high pitch of women dominating bawdy argument-whores defending 'virtues' against the baiting of jaunty lads.
The boys maintained a quiet because the whole smacked of idleness, a waiting.
Even for new arrivals, a lack of either urgency or anticipation was evident, and like the rest they were content to be idle. Adam tried overhearing the trend of conversations, what topics that waiting felons chose to pass time, what interests worth exchanging opinion on they had in common. Yet he could hear none clearly. Here and there was a chuckle, even a laugh. He reckoned there'd be those who'd weathered the shock he still suffered, who'd regained some sense of presence. Or they defensively asserted bravado.
Rubbing his hair with the blanket dried it somewhat, yet it was difficult to ignore the stench.
Given opportunity and time to familiarise with the temper of the place, I might just exchange this for one less offensive.
To lie back, even to simply enjoy freedom from the fetters, was balm to jangled nerves, so it was hands under head to study the ceiling, roof of the world that now bound him. The ceiling was of no interest of course, yet his mind was at least free in knowing the next minute or hour would not present change.
So I'll need use every minute in thinking, or go mad.
Somewhere he'd heard it took weeks for charges to reach the courts, and coming days would expose the routine to be faced, so there was time yet to think on such things. Now was opportunity to relax, recover from the trauma of the twenty-four hours.
I'll worry later about learning procedures at a trial. Be plenty of shavers here who've been through it, will know the traps. And lurks.
Wil lay alongside. Beyond him, Fickless talked with a neighbour. Only things this side of Adam were legs, legs of lags standing, talking. It was common area as yet unspoken for by people needing bedspace. And he wasn't going to concern himself with trying to overhear what Fickless was saying-he'd be told it later.
A touch on the elbow. Wil lay in similar pose, hands under head, inching his elbow until it touched, smiling the intimate smile Adam knew so well, the togetherness, encouragement smile they ever shared. Adam flashed a wink and answered the pressure. There was no loneliness when they were together. Neither had said a word since bundled into the cart at sunup, and they still found no need.
Adam gazed at the roof.
The mind never stops, of course, always thinking something, yet right now, mine has a laziness to it. Fatigue from the recent events? Uncertainty of the future?
Wil's touch, however, was balm to the languor, a conscious communication, a case of 'and he knows I know it'.
Fickless spoke to Wil, interrupting his abstraction, so Adam now lent an ear. Having missed out on the morning meal, of which but two were served each day, there'd now be nowt until supper. Food was reasonable, the fellow reckoned, porridge meal or gruel each morning, bread with something from a stew-pot for supper. Water pail and ladle were by the door. This chamber was transfer point for lags awaiting trial or on call for the hulks. Long-term confinement convicts were luckier, he reckoned-they had work-jobs for public benefit like working the laundry.
I wish I could send my blanket to them.
Not much trouble among the lags: a few bickerings, mostly over petty jealousies, squabbles over bed-mates. There were rapes in which some took avid interest, as many as there were those who carefully avoided doing so. Wil made no comment when Fickless finished; he always reckoned, same as Adam, that what he didn't know would unfold later, that then would be soon enough to think on it.
Adam's belly was sorry they missed breakfast, yet the pressure from Wil's elbow was comfort. Friendship with Wil was the nicest thing to happen to Adam when little, real little. And the niceness had remained. His life had been happy since Wil joined the troop.
He let his mind drift to when it comprised but himself, Ringer, Tom and Fickless.