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Authors: Thomas Keneally

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She admitted, only after threats, that Duckling had gone to see Goose.

Harry crossed the stream in the last blue of the evening and walked up through the women's camp, which was then all tents or insubstantial tumuli of boughs, looking for an innocent glimpse of Duckling among the cooking fires.

Even in those days the apothecary she-lag, Goose, had achieved a superior dwelling. Her mere tent had been extended with a length of canvas to become a spacious marquee. It had therefore both an anteroom and a sanctum.

Calling Duckling's name, he went inside this elegant tent. There, on a pallet, the big Marine, Private Handy Baker, dressed only in a shirt, was plunging and rearing between Duckling's knees.

Harry launched himself, strangling away, onto Baker's shoulders, but was soon thrown, with all the diverted violence of Private Baker's desire, onto the clay floor. Baker landed on top of him now and, with hands which held the odour of Duckling, began strangling him. A shadow passed over Harry's mind. For the first of the two times he would manage it, Baker took Harry's senses away.

Waking later, Harry found himself seated on a square of canvas, a tumbler of spirits in front of him. As his brain reached painfully for the memory of the latitude and the year—the common bread of time and place without which Harry was not Harry—the knowledge returned to him and he hurried to the corner of Goose's tent to be sick.

Looking up he recognised Goose standing calmly by the flap, some firelight from outside richly burnishing her red hair. He knew now that he was still inside her tent. It was a further segment of it than the one in which he had observed Baker and Duckling. Perhaps there was no end to the canvas Goose had already acquired.

She was the same ample, red-haired woman he had seen in Newgate on the occasion he visited Duckling there. He had rarely bothered to face her since the night of Duckling's commutation of sentence. When he discovered that Duckling and Goose were both in the same detachment of Newgate prisoners marched down to Portsmouth and placed with over a hundred other female convicts aboard the
Lady Penrhyn
, he had devoted himself to having Duckling transferred to the smaller female convict hold of the
Charlotte
. This expedient, he now bitterly understood, had been quite fruitless.

Goose sat on a folding camp stool and grinned at him. She had mad, nut brown eyes. “You should never set yourself to stop Handy Baker once he's in his stride. Handy Baker is a runaway coach and four. Handy can take on three coolers a day.”

Cooler was flash talk for girl.

She surmised aloud that Harry, in spite of the bruising he'd had, wasn't planning any vengeance based on the letter of the law. “All the camps might laugh at you then, Mr. Brewer,” she told him. Besides, everyone came over here to the women's camp to see Mother Goose, she said, slapping her stomach. To ask Goose for favours.

CHAPTER 1

The Reading

APRIL 1789

Ralph began hearing for the parts in the play early in April, the day after the hanging of Private Handy Baker and the five other Marines. His purpose was to find eleven or twelve convicts for the chief speaking parts. Much later he could find and begin rehearsing the lesser actors in their movements about a stage which he could only dimly envisage as yet, and among leading players he would somehow have to perfect in the coming two and a little months.

H.E. had given him that span of time in which to bring about the very first presentation of this or any other play ever performed on this new penal planet, which so far as anyone knew had gone from the beginning of time till now absolutely play-less and theatre-less.

On this morning of his first auditions, he was heavy-headed from sitting up late with Harry Brewer the Provost Marshal, and from drinking with him a dangerous quantity of brandy. Then, returned to his hut, he'd paid for it with one of those murderous old dreams he thought Dabby Bryant the witch had cured him of. As long as he drank wisely and modestly, Ralph was safe from them. But in occasional drunkenness they returned, deadly and perfectly discreet little dreams to do with loss, desire, and jealousy.

In this one he met a city and a wife he had been separated from almost precisely two years in time and eight months' travel in space. The city was Plymouth, for which his convict transport had sailed to join the others at Portsmouth. The wife was of course little Betsey Alicia, her heart-shaped face sharp as a knife in the dream's definition. He had been holding two chestnut horses, one on either side of him, by the bridles. He had wanted Alicia to mount one of them and go riding with him, but she had refused. He got angry and abused her, falling back on convict insults in his fury, calling her an ulcer, a torment, threatening even to punch her. He hated to satanic lengths her perfect little shoulders and her neat rose of a mouth.

When she had still refused to mount, he'd let go of the bridle of one of the chestnuts, mounted the other and gone flying through the countryside, he and the horse both speeded along and made one creature by a delicious anger. Rounding a corner, however, he had been stopped by the sight of Alicia sitting under a hedge with a sharp-featured young man in a white suit of clothes. And singing a particular song with him, “The Myrtle of Venus—with Bacchus Entwined.”

The day-time Lieutenant Ralph Clark had no doubts about the faithfulness of his wife. But the old question was, did the nighttime Ralph, that child of the prophets, of the seers and the holy dreamers, looking straight through the eight moons which divided him from his wife, know something better than the day-time functionary and playmaker might know?

He had had Private Ellis erect the marquee again at the side of his hut, and at ten o'clock on a rainy morning at the beginning of April, a month which here, on this reverse side of the mirror of space, was not spring but instead a temperate autumn, he sat in there at a folding camp table, his green coat slung over his shoulders and two copies of the chosen play in front of him. This was
The Recruiting Officer
. It had been written some eighty years past by a sad young playwright called George Farquhar, who had not lived to see it become a great favourite of the theatre or to know any of the wealth and fame it would generate for those who presented it or acted in it.

In fact Ralph had read the play four times in the past week, and during at least one of these readings began to see how the play could be thought of as dull and contrived. Just the same, in all this vast reach of the universe this was the one play of which two copies existed. There was Lieutenant George Johnston's copy, and Captain Davy Collins's. He himself would have preferred
The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey
, because he could remember how he had wept when reading it aboard the convict transport
Friendship
during an Atlantic storm. But the cultivated Judge Advocate of this penal commonwealth, Davy Collins, commenting on H.E.'s demand for a play, had said with some justice, “Something lively, eh, Ralph? Confused identities, inheritances, lovers, girls dressed as officers, double meanings! We all know the convict lags won't sit still for death and destiny!”

Four large and robust speaking roles for women, seven or eight grand to minor speaking roles for men. Sitting at a table inside the marquee, he felt ill enough to hope that few prisoners would come to be heard, but he knew many would. For the women prisoners liked to consider themselves actresses, and many of them had followed the trade which, cynics always remarked, was so close to that of the stage—whoredom.

He was not prepared for the first auditioner to be the prisoner Meg Long, the woman-beater. He saw her suddenly at the tent flap, her big flat features gleaming at him wetly through a slick of raindrops. Her hair was slick with rain too, and terrible bald patches from ringworm glistened pinkly. As she came closer, her breath blinded him.

“Morning, Captain chuck!” she said gaily. “I ain't no mere pretty nun. I'm a Covent Garden woman of high class.”

She smelled like death. She was quite incontinent. The surgeons quoted her as an argument for the building of an asylum. Occasionally she would jump on one of the younger female prisoners and try to caress her, and the girl would scream into those rapt great hammer-flat features until rescued by other women or constables or Marines. But here now her face was lit from within with the hope of Thespian glory. It was so strangely touching that Ralph, despite her madness and her stench, felt it would be inhuman to send her away at once.

“Meg, you must come in out of the rain,” he told her.

She stood in front of his desk, grinning and shaking herself. Water flew from her as from a wet dog. “There are not many parts for women,” he said. “I am looking particularly for actresses who can write. They will have to make copies of this play for their own use.”

He riffled the pages of
The Recruiting Officer
. He saw the names of Plume and Worthy, who before the play was over would find themselves engaged to heiresses, and the name of Silvia Balance, that lusty, forthright girl who—to fit Davy Collins's requirements for a play—dresses as a young gentleman and attracts the desire of a farm girl called Rose. Who would be Silvia and who the virago Melinda? This dull morning Meg Long seemed not only to incarnate the gulf between his own fortune and that of happy Captain Plume, hero of the play, but also to show him too clearly the gulf between the convict women and the true actresses, the women of authentic theatrical spirit, he was seeking.

“Now you can't write, Meg, can you?” he asked.

Meg Long nodded crazily. “I have penmanship, Captain chuck.”

“Where did you get penmanship, Meg?”

“From the abbess of my mob, my canting crew, when I were a kiddie. She teached me penmanship to the hilt.”

“Oh sweet Christ!” he murmured. He tore off a small slice of paper—there wasn't much to waste of the stuff—and pushed a pen and ink toward her. “Come here and write me something.”

She held the pen deftly and with delicacy, and he was surprised. Then, leaning over the desk, dripping on to it and giving off miasmas that stung his eyes, she began to write, dipping the pen twice. There was some blotting, and when she had finished she waved the sodden paper back and forth, helping it to dry. Then she handed it to him. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” she had written. He studied the succession of vowels, wondering how to get rid of her. Without warning she had her arms around him, threatening to crack his ribs with her maniac strength. Once, in another hemisphere, she'd beaten the wife of a coffee merchant so livid and swollen that members of the jury had wept when the victim gave evidence. In Meg Long's arms, Lieutenant Clark understood how misused the woman must have been, and why Meg had been given a lifetime's exile—what the convicts called a bellowser—to a distant star.

He had only just collected himself to struggle with her when he saw a black face appear over her shoulder. A harmonious voice, marked by elements of French and Kentish and something irreducibly African, came from the face.

“Ma
mère
, you must let go that gentleman. Yes,
chérie
, in the name of the Fragrant One. Ease them little arms of yours. This gentleman is
foko
to me, is brother, so ease your arms, mammie.”

Mad, shitty Meg Long let go of Lieutenant Clark and began to caress the black man's face. His name was John Caesar. He came from Madagascar and invoked the Fragrant One, some sort of Madagascan god, endlessly. He was very dangerous—the strongest and hungriest of all the prisoners.

“I have come here for the play,
maître
,” he told Ralph, pushing Meg Long deftly to one side. “There was a black servant in every play I see in Maidstone.” He had been someone's servant in Maidstone once. His great member was said to be renowned among the convict women, but not always welcomed by them, since he turned so easily to blows.

Lieutenant Clark thought he had better not entertain Black Caesar's artistic ambitions too much, since he had seen how dangerous it had been to give any space to Meg Long's. “There are no black men at all in this play,” said Ralph, his head pulsing. Meg Long's lunatic muscles had squeezed all the blood into his brain. “There are no black servants, Caesar.”

“There be always
beaucoup
black servants in every drama I see,” Black Caesar insisted, frowning.

“Now do not argue with me,” said Ralph. “It is not down to me that there are not black roles in the play; it is down to George Farquhar, who wrote the play eighty years ago, before you were born, and who died of consumption before he was as old as you or me.”

Now, in the lessening rain, there was a crowd of convict women, noisy but waiting to be invited in, at the flap of the tent. They displayed that delicacy which, apparently, Madagascans lacked. Ralph saw among the faces that of Liz Barber, who had once, aboard the convict transport
Friendship
, invited Captain Meredith to kiss her arse and called him a thief. Now she wanted, of course, to be first woman of the stage in this penal latitude. In her berserkly enthusiastic face, Ralph could tell what a grief this play, demanded by H.E. and Davy, might be for him.

“I will take your name,” Lieutenant Clark told the Madagascan, and did so. “If we find we need a black servant, I shall send to the sawpits for you.”

Oh what an axeman he was, the Madagascan! “By the Fragrant One,” said Black Caesar, almost gently, “you will need a black servant.
Tout le monde
needs a black servant for their play.”

“I shall send to the sawpits,” Ralph Clark promised again, trying to keep out of his voice the hope that Caesar would return to his labour.

The Madagascan went, but Meg Long sat for hours by the tent flap, just inside, listening without comment or movement as forty convicts, men and women, offered their halting readings to Ralph, some with nearly as much desperation as Miss Long had earlier shown, as if they sensed like her that their best chance out of hunger and lovelessness and a bad name was to capture the first primitive stage of this new earth.

BOOK: The Playmaker
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