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Authors: Thomas Keneally

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BOOK: The Playmaker
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Though that fishing camp redolence nagged at his brain, he did not go back there to smell the nets for some days. When he did return, on a Saturday, he was delighted to see the shore deserted. The convict gardener Mitchell worked in the Bryants' garden, planting turnips, as Ralph himself would soon start doing on his island out in the harbour. Gulls argued about the place where Will Bryant usually gutted the fish before taking them to Surgeon Johnny White at the hospital. Ralph was passing the Bryants' shack, the slab bark shutter of its one window propped open, when he was surprised by a flat statement from within the hut. “I am famous for dreams too.”

He saw through the window that Dabby Bryant was there, talking to him directly. She could not have seen him coming, so her statement, so exactly timed for his arrival at the window, was somehow based on foreknowledge.

Ralph stopped to face her. He could feel the extremities of his face burning. He had become the most notorious dreamer in the colony, with his night cries and his wailings. Aboard the
, across three oceans and through eight whole moons, he had with his dreams attracted complaints from Captain Meredith and gross Lieutenant Faddy. Faddy had once told him those who cry out in their sleep were not fit to command Marines. That was the only time in his life Ralph had ever proposed a duel to anyone.

Now that everyone was on shore, it seemed even the convicts knew about his loud dreams. Perhaps Dabby Bryant had heard him cry out at night in the Quarter Guard tent.

“I heard you when you stayed at Mr. Harry Brewer's tent there. You are heard all the time, poor fellow, wailing away like that.”

And not only wailing away, but keeping his journal of dreams so that Betsey Alicia could later interpret them to him.

“It is someone else you've heard,” Ralph stupidly claimed.

“Oh,” she said, “it's a known thing. Mr. Brewer sees ghosts, and you have your plague of dreams. Everyone knows you dream that your wife and son are dead. They die every night for you, between the lightning and sunrise. So much to bear!”

Ralph felt a flush of anger. “My dreams aren't for picking over, you know.”

“Listen here,” she told him, extending a brown hand through the window and grabbing his wrist. The familiarity of her touch took him by surprise. “I have dreams like a Pharaoh. When I was fourteen and asleep in Fowey, I was here on this exact shore. I saw Will Bryant—it's none of it a surprise to me. These days and nights, I have dreams I cannot utter. I know I will be an old woman in Fowey—that is one of the dreams.”

“Dreams aren't to be directly interpreted,” said Ralph, grateful that the attention had turned from his sleeping self to hers. “You should reconcile yourself never to see Fowey again.”

“Oh,” she said, “if we have made the longest journey in the history of lagdom, is there any surprise if I could make it back the other way?”

I will go back, he thought, pitying her, and I will remember you and this place only as an anecdote to be related at a northern fire. Yet he certainly loved her olive skin.

She maintained the hold on his wrist. “Listen, darling! You go following your wife into a field, don't you? The field is all ploughed. There's snow on the clods. Yes, the field is all ploughed. And she wears her wedding dress. And from her breast she takes a louse. With her eyes fixed on you, she gives the louse to you. And you don't know what the louse means, darling—death or hate.”

Ralph tried to get his wrist back from her now, but to his surprise her hand held it.

“Oh, duck,” Dabby said, “what a sad little lord you are!”

He was free all at once. He walked to the door, halted in front of it, and began weeping. She had so neatly presented one of his chief dreams! He entered the hut and Dabby put her arms completely round him, vice-like. There was no child here. The infant Charlotte, a favourite throughout the encampment, must have been with one of the other women. She drew Ralph down onto a low cot which held a feather mattress she and Will had somehow acquired. The bed was so close to the clay floor that snakes and scorpions and giant ants could have struck the sleeper without leaving the earth. But in the circle of Dabby Bryant's arms Ralph did not fear any of these blunt, earthy dangers. Releasing him, she dropped the fairly fashionable scarf from her shoulder, opened the grey penal blouse the Home Secretary had given her. Within the sullen fabric lay two olive and, so Ralph thought of them, feral breasts. Images of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf came to his mind.

As Ralph tore at his own military jacket and unbuttoned the sides of his breeches, there was more than the desperation of lust. For he knew it was specifically the seed of his dreams that he was about to pass to her, and that chance must be taken instantly.

Her legs now locked over his shoulders, she too worked at him like someone ministering an urgent mercy. And soon they lay together gasping cruelly, like two people who had somehow mutually rescued themselves from drowning in a canal.

Later he was astounded by the ease and blamelessness of this infidelity. Given the whole story, as he hoped she never would be, Betsey Alicia might nonetheless understand that he had put off an inhuman burden. He no longer dreamed those well-arranged but mystifying dreams which he had suffered in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, whose cries had awakened other officers and, for all he knew, reached even the lags on the convict decks. His dreams now became chaotic, like other people's, and dimly remembered. There was nothing to write down of them. They possessed no story. He woke from them feeling strong and normal.

Without those intricate dreams to set down, the journal he had been keeping now possessed no meaning. Davy Collins's journal was fuller in describing this remarkable penal station and the outlandish mysteries of its animals and plants, and of the Indian inhabitants who had lived here
ab origine
, from the start of time. His own journal had never had any distinction apart from the dreams. The Pharaoh-like burden of dreaming significantly, which he had caught from his wife, Betsey Alicia, had now been lifted from him by Dabby Bryant. And so, when the convicts had been ashore fewer than three weeks, and himself ashore barely a month, he abandoned his journal so rigorously kept aboard the

Not only did he never approach Dabby again for a repeat of the exorcism, he was not even tempted to. Dabby Bryant had got the balance right. Now it should be left to itself. He saw her sometimes when she was in the company of other convict women from that side of the stream, and heard reports of her from Harry Brewer.

Now, a full year after she had delivered him of the dreams which until then had oppressed his days, he went across the stream to ask her to play Rose.

When Ralph got to the door of the Bryants' shack, the venue of his cure, he was shocked to find the convict Cox there. Cox was Will Bryant's foreman. His face was large and disordered from an excess of imprisonment and now from the cruel reflections of the sunlight off the harbour. Neither Dabby nor the child was there. Ralph felt the Bryant hearth had been violated.

Cox reminded Ralph that Will had been turned out of his house. “Turned out of being chief fisher too. He were flogged and sent across the stream. And now he works for me, that kiddy, that Will.”

remember now having heard that Will had been tried for keeping back some of the catch. He had been sentenced by the Court of Criminal Jurisdiction on a day when Ralph had, thankfully, not been sitting on it.

Crossing the stream again, Ralph found the Bryants in poor Charlie Wilson's hut in the male convicts' encampment. He felt shame at having been ignorant that his Cornish exorcist, Dabby Bryant, had been forced across the stream and into a hut which had gone empty and haunted since Charlie Wilson had fasted himself to death months before. Charlie, working at the shingle-cutting camp, had starved himself, selling off his rations to other lags. He wanted to raise money for a return to that England which had spat him out. What a terrible faith there was in that shingle-cutter as he wasted to a skeleton. For there were no ships in the harbour, and barely a rumour of possible ones.

Charlie's body had been found near the shingle-cutting camp, on its back and already black with putrescence. Poor Harry Brewer had attended the post-mortem examination and had of course promptly enough seen Charlie's ghost, black-faced as at his death, waiting among the alien acacias and tree ferns at dawn.

As Ralph approached the door, he could see Dabby moving about in front of the place. Even in her eclipse she looked unabashed. And as he knew, no one had greater power to appease and quench a querulous ghost.

Getting nearer, Ralph saw Will Bryant lying face down on a blanket, profoundly asleep, his body half in shade. The infant Charlotte played with her father's hands, tripped over his sizeable upper arms, probed scars on the back of his neck with a small finger.

“That girl Duckling tells me you don't cry out so much, Mr. Lieutenant Clark,” Dabby called lightly to him, not careful at all of her husband's presence. He wondered was she punishing him for ignoring her decline from the east side of the penal city to the west. He did not speak until he was close to her.

“I am so sad to see you have had a change of fortune,” said Ralph.

“We will go back, darling,” she said, smiling frankly.

“I hope that's so.” He paused. “Did you know I was making a play? On H.E.'s orders. I would like you to act a woman named Rose in this play. Rose is a country girl, very funny.”

“So you want a sawney, a stupid Zedlander?” she asked him, winking.

“Dabby,” said Ralph, “you know how you have to be very clever to seem stupid on stage. Take the role of Costar Pearmain, who is a dull country boy, whereas Rose is sharp. Well, let me tell you that the great Garrick himself, in his first season on the stage in London, played Costar Pearmain.”

He had taken this item of theatrical history from the copy of the play which Davy Collins owned.

“I know in my blood,” he pursued, claiming the same degree of special sight which she possessed, “that you can be damned clever on the stage.”

He noticed Will Bryant had stirred and was sitting upright now, holding his daughter by both her wrists and gazing darkly at him.

“Why should I play a country girl?” asked Dabby. “To fetch myself men? I have a man.”

“It will give you great enjoyment,” Ralph told her. “There is nothing as sweet as making plays.”

Ralph heard a piercing female catcall behind him, the sort which had transfixed him so often aboard the
whenever he appeared below decks near the women's bulkhead or walked amidships to inspect them in their exercise pens. Turning, he saw the call had come from some of the women he most abominated in any world and under the influence of any system of stars. It was a clutch of
women—Liz Barber, Liz Dudgeon, a third Liz, Liz Huffnell too, whose Marine lover, Private Handy Baker, had only the week before been hanged. Huffnell, passing now with the other two, seemed in no way inconsolable.

“They always envied me,” said Dabby. “Now they take joy in Will's punishment.”

Will was standing up, yelling at the women. “Get away! Whores and slop buckets!”

Liz Barber yelled, “Taking in extra laundry, Lady Shit?”

They meant Ralph's laundry, of course, and Ralph burned, so easy was it for them to make him burn. And they knew it. There were officers they would not mock so openly—some because of their dignity, others because they were mad and vengeful. Ralph sat uncomfortably somewhere between these two parties of gentlemen.

Dabby took a disk of sandstone in her hand and whirled it against Liz Barber's ankles. There were flurries of abuse. Ralph ordered the women to disperse, threatening to call the Quarter Guard. He was relieved to see that this had some effect. As they turned away, sneering and jibing, Dabby continued to shout insults after them, and Ralph did not bother to stop her. It was as good as rehearsal, it was as close to Rose slanging Bullock as he could have wished. At last the
women veered away, up a track among the cedars, toward the Marine cantonment.

“Have you ever been flogged, sir?” Will Bryant asked Ralph then with dark suddenness.

“Of course I haven't.”

“Ah!” said Will Bryant, shaking his shoulders in a way which implied he had not yet healed, though of course he had.

“Some people,” said Dabby, taking up the running from her more reticent husband, “look on flogging as an awful insult. To show your arse in public and be beaten on it, darling. And then to lose your house on top, and have to work as a hand in a boat.”

Will said, “It'd be better for a child on that other side of the stream. There's less riot there.”

Ralph understood at once that they were offering him trade. He should write to H.E. and say that Will was repentant, and had suffered enough, and wished to expiate now by the daily competence of running the fishing boat. And in return Dabby would play Rose and speak those lusty lines.

Will was asking without apology for a large favour. And Ralph hoped it was not because Will was aware of the larger kindness his new world bride had extended to a bewildered dreamer the year before.

“I can say with some confidence in any letter I write to H.E.,” Ralph asked, “that you intend never to steal fish again?”

Will would not answer. “You can say it,” said Dabby.

He had to demand something. “I want you, Mrs. Bryant, to come and meet the other women of the play at noon bell tomorrow.”

“I must bring Charlotte with me,” said Dabby, “for there are no servants for me now, and no one on this side I would like to leave her with.”

Ralph turned to Will himself, who again held Charlotte by the wrists, a tethering the child seemed to delight in.

BOOK: The Playmaker
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