Chapter 15: One for All

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Two days out to sea and Charlotte was already suffering the effects of severe dehydration. True to her word, Shanks had somehow organised for the Ship's Doctor to mysteriously appear in the hold the night after their departure, although he appeared clearly uncomfortable and wishing himself elsewhere. He had attended to Livvy, the drug addict and had administered some serum which had had the effect of sedating her. For the first evening, they were allowed to sleep without Livvy's hallucinatory screams and writhing.

On the third day, the women prisoners were permitted up on deck. The lick of the sun against her skin was enough to send Charlotte into a swoon of delight. Her hair had matted in the damp close heat of the below decks and her skin was streaked with dirt and sweat. But the sunlight cleansed her spirit at least, and she felt a little less desperate when she returned to the convict hold. Red hadn't wasted the time above decks either it seemed. For the next four nights, she was bundled surreptitiously out of the convict hold by nervous looking sailors and marines, returning before dawn with her clothing stuffed with an assortment of food, tobacco and rum. For her efforts, Red was allowed her pick of the booty, but Shanks made her hand over the rest for distribution to the neediest of the women – Lizzie, heavy with child; Dotty, close to death from the pox; and Dee Dee, battling an infection from a wound on her leg which had become ulcerated and pus covered.

Charlotte found herself begrudgingly admiring the old woman, Shanks. She was no angel, but her heart was not completely bad either. On day seven of the voyage, Shanks surprised Charlotte by seeking her out for the first time. "Lottie, you're getting thin girl."

"I have lost weight, but I'm doing a lot better than most of the other poor women."

"You're right there girl. Red can't keep up the pace. Her health will start to give out soon if she don't get help from some of you young ones."

Charlotte shuddered with distaste at the unspoken suggestion. "I won't do it you know. You can't make me. I don't want anything Red brings back from the men. Give it to the other girls. But don't ask me to do that."

Shanks sighed. "Do you think that's the worst thing you could do Charlotte? Look at Dotty over there. She won't see out the week. Do you know what happens if she don't get morphine to deaden the pain?"

"I don't care Shanks. Get the doctor like you did last time. It's his job to help her."

A cackle of noise that Charlotte supposed must pass for laughter, erupted from Shanks' dry throat. "Do you think he cares about us? He only cares while he thinks I can still get to him or at least, his precious reputation. And the further we sail away from London, the safer he feels you fool. There are no rules out here girl. No one cares about us, except us. That's the only rule that should matter to you. Without it, we're all gone."

"I tell you, I can't do it. I won't!"

"If I had a penny for every time I've heard that lassie . . . . . But you can do it. You will do it. . . . . . . . . Let's suppose the shoe was on the other foot like?"

"What do you mean Shanks?" Charlotte's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"What if you were the one needing the medicine? An accident could happen at any time. You might, in your weakened state, fall down the ladder on your way above decks . . maybe break a leg or worse. Who would care about you if we didn't? It's us who looks after us I tell you."

"Are you threatening me Shanks?"

"I tell you Charlotte, there's only one rule you can't break – we must look out for one another . . . Dr Cooper is not a violent man. He's not a sick man either. He looks after hisself, don't worry about that. And he can be VERY generous with the right woman. He likes young, healthy girls like you. He's already spotted you. And if he's spotted you, you can bet others have too darlin'. It's only a matter of time. Better him, than some violent oaf who'll take you with or without your say-so and leave you worse for wear into the bargain."

Charlotte felt her high opinion of Shanks falling by the second. She knew she was being given an ultimatum. She didn't like it. Now she knew why Shanks had defended her against Red. She was a valuable commodity – young, healthy, fresh – meat! Even in her anger however, she could see the old woman's logic and at its heart, the interest of the group. 'Damn it all', she thought to herself, 'why? Why? Why?'

Charlotte stalked away – not far enough in these close quarters. Peg it turns out, had heard everything. She put her arm around Charlotte maternally. Charlotte would have pulled away, except that she couldn't. The gesture surprised her and in her vulnerability, she found herself welcoming the physical contact. Her mother must have done this for her at some point in her life many years ago, but she had no memory of it.

"How old are ya love?" Peg whispered.

"Sixteen", she said, beginning to cry.

"And would this be your first time?"

"Yes-s, yes", she sobbed, covering her face with her hands.

She was grateful that Peg did not say anything more. Silently stroking her hair, she hummed the same tune that Charlotte had sung herself to sleep by each night on their voyage – "Amazing Grace". When Charlotte looked up into her face, Peg's eyes were wet with tears too. "I don't want to have to do this Peggy," she pleaded.

"I know lassie, I know" Peggy pressed her face into Charlotte's hair comfortingly, a faraway look in her eyes – "none of us did".

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