Chapter 13: Women of the Fortuna

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Charlotte was dumped unceremoniously below decks.  Like any ship's cargo, once processed, she was simply thrown into the dark depths of the ship's convict hold.  There, she encountered another world with laws and rules for enforcing its own kind of chaotic order.

At first, it took her eyes some time to adjust to the blackness.  Identifying shape and form was a challenge, let alone the facial features and defining characteristics of individuals.  Her cause was not helped when she was walloped across the face by a gnarly, but surprisingly thick and hard hand.  The blow felled her immediately.  Peering through smarting eyes, she managed to make out the shifting lines of a face – whether male or female she could not tell, but it was incredibly old.  The voice, when it emanated from the folds of skin around the mouth, was shrill – "Don't stand on my stuff!"

She had no idea that she had been standing on anything.  But more to the point, what 'stuff' could a prisoner possibly possess to protect so ferociously?  For the moment, her eyes would not permit her to see.  All she could utter, as she looked into the rheumy eyes of her attacker, was a muffled apology.

"What yer name girl?" the same shrill voice queried.

"Charlotte", she responded.

"Hey?  Speak up girl – I can't hear you, ye ijit.  Can't you see I's about as old as Methuselah hisself?"

"I'm Charlotte", she shouted as loudly as she dared.

"I knew a Charlotte once", said the old person who she surmised must be a woman, because now her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, she could see that all the prisoners in the hold were women.  The old woman seemed to be weighing something very carefully in her mind.  Charlotte had the feeling that her memory of this other Charlotte would determine very strongly her own treatment.

"She was a good girl", the old woman finally announced.  Charlotte couldn't help but feel relieved.  "Did as she was told", the old woman continued, nodding her head.  "Poor soul", she ended.  Charlotte didn't know what to make of this last statement, deciding instead to sit on the crib closest to the side of the ship's hull – a position most advantageous to keeping an eye on the rest of her cohort.

"Get orf my crib missy!" yelled a robustly solid young woman from across the hold.  "Who do you think you are?  Think you can just put down anywhere do you?"  Now she advanced more closely, Charlotte could make out beautiful, long red hair.  She had the greenest eyes imaginable and a light spray of freckles fanning a cute button nose.  Charlotte couldn't help, despite her fear, noticing the incongruity between the young woman's soft physical beauty and the harsh and crude persona she projected.  The incongruity was mesmerizing, seeming to paralyse her of further thought or action.  'I must be in some state of shock' Charlotte realised, shaking her head as if the action would snap her out of her strange delirium.

The old woman suddenly appeared in the gloom.  "Move", she commanded Charlotte, before standing in front of Charlotte protectively.  Turning to the flaming redhead, the old woman smiled.  "Now Bessie", she said placatingly, "the girl's green as grass in early spring, you can see that.  She didn't know.  Leave it be."

Bessie opened her mouth to speak and Charlotte could see that the first four or five front and bottom teeth were chipped and broken.  Bessie's beauty was such that, even in her precarious circumstances, Charlotte was saddened by the marring of otherwise creaturely perfection.

"You old bitch!" the young Bessie screamed.  "Don't be tellin me wot I can an' carn't do!"  Four or five beefy women, slightly older, but no less menacing, grouped behind Bessie in silent support.  Charlotte noticed that one had pustules covering her face and hair missing in patches across her head.  'The pox', she thought silently to herself and shuddered.  Another had the slightly deranged look of the lithium addicted.  This one stared at Charlotte, almost lasciviously.  Not for the first time did Charlotte wonder at the madness which had brought her to this place.

"Now Bessie", the old woman cooed in response, as if soothing a baby, remaining completely unflustered.  Gone was the shrill voice.  In its place was the tone of a mother gently and affectionately chiding a misbehaving child.  "Bessie dear, this is beneath you.  Do you think this gang of wretched women can protect you here?"  Turning to the women beside Bessie, the old woman queried, "Livvy, running low on your 'medicine' dear?"  The lithium addicted convict snapped her attention to the old crony with a look of sheer desperation etched on every inch of her face.  "I can help you there", the old lady crooned.  "And Dotty, the pox has got you darling.  You know it.  I know it.  It's going to be hell for you not too far down the track.  Do you realise that Dr Cooper on this ship is a friend of my Sarah's?  He could make it easier for you love."

The women prisoners who had been surrounding Bessie now dropped back silently, looking sheepish and guilty as they dispersed into the crowded hold.  "Bessie, you're young and pretty still, but that's not going to get you much here."  Bessie's eyes grew defiant and then, just as suddenly, her head dropped and her arms slackened at her sides, in hopeless resignation.

Watching the scene from her detached, dream-like state, it was apparent to Charlotte that the old woman had masterfully manipulated the whole situation to avert violence and assert her own authority.  Charlotte expected that the old lady would now assume control and power over the group.  So, it was surprising when she didn't.  Instead, the elderly inmate addressed the whole convict hold, scouring the faces of all present with a penetrating stare.

"Bessie . . . Girls  . . . . If we're going to survive this voyage, it will only be if we do it TOGETHER;  no bitch fighting, no slanging off.  We combine our resources -and we survive.  We fight between ourselves -and we get picked off, one by one.  Do you understand?"

Silence.

"Whether we make it alive to the shores of this Sydney Cove, depends on us sticking together.  I need you", the old woman said pointing at the different faces of the women crowded around her.  "You need me", she said punching her own chest.  "We help each other", she said finally, turning slowly around and gesturing with her arms to encompass everyone.  "I'll ask you again."  Here the woman paused and more loudly than Charlotte thought the old woman was capable of speaking, she bellowed, "Do you understand?"

As one this time, the entire hold of women answered in the affirmative.

As if rallying troops, the old woman faced the prisoners once again.  Holding up her arms in a victory salute, she intoned:  "Women of the Fortuna, are we together?"  Charlotte found her own voice blending with those of the hundreds of other women present as they chorused a single word full of surprising, buoyant hope:  "YES!"


*****Author's Note: If you have enjoyed reading Charlotte's story, please comment or simply vote to let me know. Any feedback would be gratefully received and acknowledged. Thank you for your time.




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