Way back in the medieval mists of time, long before most people counted which century was which, Tung shivered violently on the ice-cold, stone floor of the executioner’s dungeon.
Dark, dank and putrid were the words an unscrupulous property merchant might have used to glamorise this miserable dungeon, no words were hideous or nauseating enough to describe the true horror of this dreadful place. To be fair though, it wasn’t all bad, at least the green slime, which oozed like pus from small cracks in the walls, added some colour to the drab greyness.
Tung huddled in the darkest corner of the freezing, granite cell wishing he was dead. He wouldn’t have to wait long for his wish to come true because he was due to be tortured to death the very next day. Roll on death, it couldn’t come a moment too soon. He was soaking wet, bruised, starving and parched with thirst. Yes, roll on death.
Now all he could do was pray for sleep, because sleep would give him merciful nothingness before the excruciating morning. He tossed and turned like an agitated foetus. How could anyone sleep in this frightful place? Hands over his ears, he tried to shut out the sounds of the torturers’ hammers smashing bones, the heavy clunk of the ratchets on the rack and the anguished screams of the victims which echoed forlornly down the stone corridors. Rank stenches crept under the door to assault his nostrils, the acrid smell of flesh being seared by white-hot branding irons overwhelming the other odours of human sweat, urine and excrement. Wails of despair reverberated inside his head. Did these evil tormentors never rest?
By some miracle, his brain dragged his racked body into an uneasy slumber. Praise the Lord for the gift of sleep, at least he hadn’t been denied that last sanctuary. His nightmares replayed his pathetic life as his subconscious tried to figure out how he’d ended up in this God-awful mess. The work of the devil, no doubt… with a little help from his fiends.
The tortured dreams relived sixteen years of poverty, every day a battle to find enough food to survive. He’d been born to a mother who, all through his childhood, had struggled relentlessly on his behalf, trying to stop his father drinking and gambling away whatever meagre wage he had earned. She’d been drained dry by the futility of the struggle to turn beer money into food money. For most of the time, the family went hungry and, to add real injury to insult, there was usually a beating for anyone daft enough to complain.
Tung had loved his mother more than he’d loved life itself. She’d meant the world to him, so it broke his little heart when, just before he turned twelve, the will to fight for her kids deserted her… so she deserted them. She’d either died or run away; he never discovered which.
Things got a lot worse after that. He’d no one to protect him from his father’s drunken wrath, so the beatings increased in regularity and harshness. His childhood descended into a nightmarish hell of torment and deprivation. To make matters worse still, he’d heaped a couple of cartloads of self-inflicted guilt onto his tiny shoulders. He just couldn’t forgive himself for not being able to protect his little sister from the torrent of paternal abuses. His father brought nothing but pain into their lives; there was no support, no money and no food. Tung had become the ‘man’ in charge of the household and, as far as he was concerned, stealing was the only option he had to put a meal on the table.
As he drifted in and out of sleep, his memory reconstructed the day of his first theft. A day destined to determine how the rest of his life would play out.
He was a mere child and his victim was a giant of a man whose purse bulged with gold and silver coins. He’d watched the man for weeks and resented how he seemed to have an endless supply of money to waste on fripperies. This was to become an enduring theme in his life… resentment. Resentment sprinkled with an unhealthy dusting of jealousy, spite and bitterness.
The sight of a fat man buying a gaudy hat at an up-market market stall wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, although there was something a little bit different about this fellow which piqued his interest. He followed him for the rest of the day and on many occasions after that. He crept in the shadows, always ten or so steps behind. He tracked him from the market, where he’d first spied the man’s money, to the big house where all the ladies lived. Now there was a mystery. Why did so many pretty ladies live in this place? It boggled his tiny imagination. Why were they all there? What did they do? One thing was for sure, they enjoyed a steady stream of gentleman visitors, so they weren’t short of male role models. Unlike the young Tung who desperately lacked someone respectable and ethical to set his moral compass; his father being the only man in his life and he wasn’t even a good example for the devil to follow. Actually, maybe the devil could have learnt a bit from him.