- Published: 2 February 2021
- ISBN: 9781760894467
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
The Last Convict
Perth, Western Australia, August 1938
It wasn’t me!
The old lag stirred uneasily on his dormitory bed: at liberty in sleep, yet imprisoned still within a frail body and held by the shackles of memory.
He’d been dreaming, as he often did, of smoke. And fire. The gum-scented pleasures of a billy boiling in a bush camp, and a yarn over the coals after a day’s labour. Sweet dreams . . .
. . . shifting, in the way they do, to an image of hot cast iron and an ember glow that sweated but never warmed you, as too many broken old men huddled around the stove on a winter’s night . . . The aroma of salt beef boiling in the mess deck copper on the transport Belgravia, drifting with the sea breeze to the convict decks below. Food that filled yet failed to nourish . . .
And before that . . . a smell of dry grass and sulphur, for the ghosts had become more disturbing. A wicked yellow flame. And a pale spectre of smoke that rose in the darkness to billow and surround him – acrid and flecked with black burning cinders – until he could see nothing else and cried out in his fear:
It wasn’t me!
Samuel Speed woke up. Frightened, as always, by the old vision. The blanket was in a tangle and the sheets damp, as if he’d wet himself in the night. Not uncommon now, at his age, though he hoped it was only perspiration and not the result of a too-vivid nightmare. Incontinence was frowned upon.
I’m sorry, he’d have to tell Matron, but what do you expect in my nineties?
Samuel felt his breath laced with the panic of wrongdoing, for he was still caught in the shrouds of the past. He lay in the narrow bed, eyes closed a little longer to let himself return more gently to the present and the waking day. Lying on one side, he carefully brought his knees together in a foetal position, and with elbows and feet slowly levered himself onto his back. It was one way to avoid the agonies of leg cramp from any sudden movement, and eased the strain on both groins from his double hernia and the pressure of what remained in his bladder. He could sometimes manage it without assistance or pain; and succeeding this morning, Speed allowed the sense of accomplishment gradually to displace those lingering feelings of dread ignited by the phantom bonfire.
No phantom though!
He opened his eyes. And, for a moment, Sam Speed imagined himself still enveloped by the smoke cloud. The morning light coming from the window was white and opaque, through which only shadows moved. Like fog on the Swan River outside, or the Thames at Chatham. Until he realised he was also incarcerated in his blindness – or very nearly so. The bad eye had been scarred as a boy, and from then on was permanently misted, like pale opal. The authorities put it down to a cataract, not knowing that cataracts are usually another affliction of age. The other eye had been all right until his middle years, when it also began to fail.
But, praise God, I can still see a little, Sam thought, in silent morning prayer. Enough to read the newspaper, anyway, with the help of a large magnifying glass, once the eye settled: hunched over a table in the day room, the page six inches from his face, like some decrepit Sherlock Holmes. He laughed. Not that it was worth the bother, filled with talk of Depression and now war, though he could still get a chuckle from the comic cartoon.
Books were out, however. Had been for a long time. It was too hard to maintain the sense of them, squinting at the tiny words through that thing. So, thank heaven for Braille – as Sam returned to the Almighty – and the man who invented it, for allowing him still to have stories at his fingertips. And also, as a postscript, for the person who thought of putting the new ‘talking books’ on gramophone records.
Samuel was never one to let himself dwell too much on the hardships of life. Such things were better left to his dreams. To the outside world – even to his Maker – Speed tried to adopt the cheerful countenance of his literary namesake, Mr Samuel Smiles. And thus, he lay there thinking and letting his good eye adjust to the patterns of the day.
‘Good’ was a relative term, of course, for Sam’s sight was such that anything much beyond the end of his arm was a blur. The best he could manage this morning was to concentrate on the contours of his right hand, stretched limply across his chest. A thin, brittle hand, wrinkled like tissue paper, through which the bones stuck out as ridges and the blue river veins ran as if through a painted landscape, mottled brown with freckles like the summer country around the Vasse. An old man’s hand that had seen much – done much – these ninety years or so. The strength that once allowed him to lift a chaff bag or dig a garden bed had departed long ago, however, as had the interest in his own anatomy.
Besides, as vision failed, his other senses had become more acute. And as the emotions roused by smoke and fire receded into the darkness, they were replaced in Samuel Speed’s consciousness by the early morning dormitory sounds of those about him. The old feller in the next bed grunting as he strove to stay asleep. Coughs and mutters. Somebody urinating into the metal chamber-pot. A magpie started to sing outside the window. ‘Break o’ day birds’, they used to call them – and one chap, in need of conversation during those lonely weeks out as a shepherd, even taught one to speak. He was happy, so they said. Unlike those two at the other end of the ward, quarrelling as one tried to cadge a smoke.
‘Get way with yer. It’s me last . . .’
Ever the same.
‘Jesus!’ from the next bed. Taking the Lord’s name. ‘Open the flamin’ winder . . .’
The odour of his own body. A kind of stale, fetid sickliness that never scrubbed out. An old man’s stink – but more than that, Samuel . . .
It’s the whiff of too many bodies crammed together in one place for far too long, experience told him. And that is something you have known all of your life.
Indeed. He’d become used to it. Had to. In the workhouse. In prisons from Oxford to Fremantle. The Belgravia. Convict Depot. Boarding houses he had known. Braille Society Rest Home at Victoria Park. Perth Hospital. And now back in the crowded ward of the Old Men’s Home at Dalkeith, Silly Sam Speed had been in an institution of one kind or another for the better part of his ninety-odd years. And the smell of it never went away, not even using laundry soap in the bath last night, and they’d given him clean clothes again.
What was that for?
There was something . . . something about today . . . Samuel’s mind tried to search the possibilities. This forgetting was the worst of growing old. Something he had to do . . . The trouble was not just the disintegrating body; the cobwebs of age were spinning a cocoon over the brain as well, so that the past generally seemed more alive to him than the present.
Church? No, that was only a few days ago, a service in the dining hall, and he’d had a bath on Saturday night. Only one a week allowed, so why two . . .? Were they going to tell Sammy he’d won the lottery? There was a piece in the paper not long ago about an old-timer who’d scooped up a fortune. But no . . . he didn’t gamble. Yet the paper . . . that was it! Some feller from the newspaper was coming to see him today. Wanted to do an interview with him, so of course he had to be clean-smelling and all smartened up.
Mr Rust had told him about it only yesterday, when he was called into the Superintendent’s office.
‘It’s a reporter from the weekend Mirror, Sam. He wants to talk to you.’
‘Oh . . . about yourself, and the old days, and what it was like. Take a photograph, too, and publish it in the newspaper.’
‘I’ll break the camera!’ Sammy was always ready with a laugh. ‘And why me, Mr Rust?’
‘Well . . . because of who you are. He’s heard that you’re the last of the old ex-convicts still among us. The last of the expirees – so far as we’re aware, anyway.’
Expirees. That was a word rarely heard nowadays – an ugly word, as if he had already expired and gone to his grave. Certainly, it was something Samuel Speed rarely talked about to anybody else, except when he had to. Tried to keep hidden, in fact. The others had gone – and even after all these years the shame was still palpable: in the looks and small, distasteful shifts of the body if anything were said to the respectable. ‘Swan River lags’, they used to be called in contempt, back east. They even tried to stop them from entering the uncontaminated air of South Australia after they’d served their time; and Samuel Speed, convict indent number 8996, wasn’t at all sure he’d want his past exposed on the front page of a newspaper. The secrecy of his iron bed was enough to bear.
‘It’s a good story, Samuel.’ Albert Rust could see the doubt on his inmate’s countenance. ‘You’re a piece of living history. Here we are in 1938, seventy years after transportation to Western Australia ceased, and you’re still alive. Hale and hearty . . .’
‘Don’t know about the “hale”, Boss.’ It was the name they all called him. ‘I’m falling apart, held together with me truss straps.’
‘Hearty, anyway. Never without a cheery word, Sam. And you don’t have to tell them everything. Nothing too grim. Just the amusing things, little anecdotes that people like to read. You’ll be famous. And besides,’ as the Superintendent turned from flattery to self-interest, ‘it would be a big help to the Home.’
‘Well, it’s always a struggle to raise donations from people to buy those extra comforts we like to give our inmates.’ Rust was a large, expansive man and spread his hands wide. ‘Books, and another wireless, and little treats . . . Especially in these times. A nice article about you, Sam, will bring us to the attention of readers and perhaps even encourage them to be generous. As we have – er – been very generous to you over the years . . . As you well know.’
He smiled broadly, as officials ever do when tightening the moral screws.
‘So I told him to come tomorrow. In the morning, when you’re not too tired. If that’s all right?’
It would have to be.
‘I suppose so, Mr Rust. If you wish it.’
With a little bow and knuckle to the forehead, as always, to those in authority. And to be fair, the Boss was a decent-hearted man – far better than many workmasters and superintendents Sam Speed had known in his life. If he thought it a good thing and Sammy could help.
Still, he sought to put the interview out of his mind for the rest of the day, and even tried not to think about it last night. Which perhaps was why his dreams had been so intense. But lying here this morning before the quarter-to-seven getting-up bell, the sounds of other men about him, Sam couldn’t help but rehearse the sorts of things he might say. Nothing unpleasant, Bert Rust had advised: and if nothing else, during his nine decades on this Earth, Speed had become adept at burying his secrets deep and telling people only those things he wanted them to hear. Not lying, exactly, for that would be sinful. But a small exaggeration here, a gloss about his age there, tossed off with a joke.
And some things he could truthfully tell the reporter from the Mirror.
‘I’ve never been in a chain gang,’ he murmured to himself. ‘My back bears the scars of no whip.’
No, by God, for the penal system had put the fear of Christ into Samuel Speed – quite literally – though that was something he would also keep to himself.
‘I learnt me lesson,’ was the most he would say, ‘and came out of it a well-travelled man. It brought me halfway round the world, eh?’
Sam was still chuckling at his prepared jest, when the bell began to ring. Fifteen minutes to breakfast and the orderlies would be on their rounds. His whole life had been governed by bells, the man’s free will replaced long ago by their insistence. When to eat, work, sleep and rise determined by official regulation. There was a certain comfort in that – knowing these essential routines of life were taken care of by somebody else, and you didn’t have to worry about them like you did outside. Nevertheless, the old man still occasionally felt the need to rebel: and so he lay there, refusing to get up and face the day, even though all around him thirty men were creaking out of bed, piddling in the pot, grumbling, dressing, lighting the first fag of the day and squabbling over the wash basin. You didn’t want to be late for a meal!
‘Sammy . . .’
He heard the voice of an orderly. Felt him touching his shoulder, and a little shake.
‘Wakey-wakey, Sammy. Time to rise and shine, mate. It’s your big day.’
‘Yes . . .’ A long pause as the old chap dragged his thoughts back from the past imperfect to present indicative. ‘Howzit, Bob?’
‘Bit cloudy. Still cool and a chance of rain, they reckon. Easy there, Sammy . . .’ as the old man felt Bob’s arm slide between his shoulderblades and the kapok pillow, and begin to lift him. ‘Hold on to me other arm, here.’
With bony elbows, knuckles and feet acting as secondary props, Speed hoisted himself up. That was always the hardest part of the day, and he sat there catching his breath and looking at Bob’s shadowy presence.
‘Thanks, cobber. Could you pass over me falsies?’
Bob picked the dentures from the bedside glass and put them in Sam’s hand. A nice enough feller, he couldn’t be much more than half Sam’s age. One of the ‘Tuppenny Orderlies’: an inmate like himself, but still with his strength and reliable, who did all sorts of jobs around the Home. In the hospital block, kitchen, yards, helping old codgers in the wards who were past it. There were quite a few of them here. In return for which they got paid twopence a day. Tuppence, see? And a plug of tobacco. Well, they all got that. Clay pipe, too, in the old days.
‘Oh, Sammy. Have you pissed yourself in the night?’ The orderly uncovered the old bloke’s limbs and prepared to set him upright. ‘Sweat, I reckon, Bob. I felt hot . . .’ Samuel fumbled putting the teeth into his mouth. They were a nice set, too; a pal got ’em secondhand from a jumble sale.
‘’Course it was. Excitement, more like. All right, I’ll take the sheets to the laundry for yer. They won’t know.’
He helped Sam swing his legs over the edge of the bed. And holding him under the arms, rather like mother lifting a child out of the bath, gradually coaxed and manoeuvred him into the vertical position. He stood there giddily a moment – skinny shanks, poking beneath the old cotton nightshirt he always wore, trembling with the exertion of it all. Shrunken chest heaving, as mind and body laboured to restore equilibrium.
‘Have you got me stick handy, Bob?’
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
It is nearly dawn, and the semi-darkness casts strange shadows along the footpath.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.