Refugees – Part II

The second part of Chapter Two. Boys will be boys…

Arthur knocks cautiously. George should be down at the harbour: his boat’s in dock having its hull scraped. Still, Arthur feels nervous. There’s no reason he should be but he always feels a bit guilty where Sally’s concerned. Plus he wonders what goes through his brother’s head when he sees the two of them together.

There’s no answer and Arthur tries the door. It’s open but he can’t hear anything from inside.

He wonders for a moment about turning away but knows he’s only putting off the inevitable. He needs to talk to Sally. Normally he manages to avoid situations where the two of them are alone together: partly because of George but also because he still hasn’t worked out how things stand with Sally. He keeps thinking he should say something about it. Trouble is, he has no idea what to say. Today, though, things are different. He desperately needs advice and there’s no one else he can turn to with this present situation.

Arthur draws a deep breath and enters the house. He closes the door quietly and takes a moment. When the others are around there’s no chance to stop and take it in. He might have thought he was already a man when he walked out of the house and fled Black Island. All those years seem to dissolve, though, when he’s in the old family home on Goat Street. There’s something about the place that makes him feel he’s still a little boy.

He smiles to himself. Perhaps it’s the ghost of the old man: waiting behind the door to belt him one for not doing his homework, his chores or some job on the boat. Or it could be the cooking smells reminding him of his mum: the security of her big warm embrace, burying his face in her apron when he’s in trouble again.

Arthur pauses. He sniffs. Hmm. There’s definitely a smell in the air but it’s certainly not his mother’s cooking. He doubts it’s anything Sally’s baked either.

Moving quietly, he steps around the old sofa in the front room and approaches the door into the hall. The smell is definitely stronger and he lets his nose lead him through the house. As he gets closer to the back door he hears giggles. It sounds like two boys: almost hysterical with laughter.

Arthur slowly pushes the door until he can see out. The back yard isn’t big but for a moment he doesn’t spot the boys. Then he blinks. Young Nathan from down the road is on his hands and knees in the rabbit pen. His head is under a pile of hay and several carrots are sticking out of his mouth. Davey is sprawled in the wheelbarrow with a flowerpot on his head. In his hand is the fattest joint Arthur’s seen in a long time.

Arthur watches for a moment, grinning. He thinks about leaving them to it. Then he shakes his head. The boys are only twelve.  He opens the door and gives a stage cough.

Davey’s eyes slowly widen. He stares in blank amazement at his uncle. After some delay the message finally reaches his brain and he tries to stand up, hide the joint and take the flowerpot off his head: all at the same time. He doesn’t do well at any of the tasks. Instead, as his legs and arms flail impotently, the wheelbarrow topples over and Arthur’s nephew falls in an ungainly heap, the terracotta pot landing next to him with a loud crack and splitting in two.

His friend Nathan makes a strange noise that sounds more guinea pig than human. Crawling forwards, he sticks his head in the rabbit hutch. Arthur watches in bemusement. He’s not sure if Nathan’s trying to hide but the boy’s head is the only part of him that fits inside the hutch.

With a shake of his head, Arthur strides over. He plucks the joint out of Davey’s trembling fingers. He gives it a quick glance: it’s impressive, built with at least half a dozen cigarette papers and as fat as a big cigar. Judging by the glaze on Davey’s eyes, he guesses it’s not the first the boys have smoked either.

Davey’s still having trouble co-ordinating his limbs. Arthur bends over and picks the boy up by his collar. ‘Well then Davey. What’s this?’

Davey looks up with wide, bloodshot eyes. His bottom lip trembles and then he sniggers. ‘Huh. ’s a Cabelwell carrot, Uncle Arfur.’

‘A what?’

Davey pulls himself upright. He looks proudly at the joint in his uncle’s hand. ‘It is a Cabelwell carrot.’ The boy sways. ‘My very first Cabelwell carrot. Bloody good ‘un too. Used twelve skins like you’re s’posed to.’

‘What… why…’ Arthur shakes his head. ‘Okay, carrot: I get that. What the hell is it a ‘Cabelwell’ carrot?’

‘Whufn’ll.’ The strange squeak of response comes from the direction of the rabbit hutch.

‘Yay,’ said Davey. ‘Tha’s righ’. Amazin’ fillum.’

‘What are you two talking about?’

Davey takes a deep breath. Steadies himself. Looks his uncle in the eye. Giggles and then reaches out for Arthur’s arm. ‘You know! Withnail And I. That film where they… smoke a Cabelwell carrot.’

Arthur gave a short laugh. ‘A ‘Camberwell’ carrot.’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘You made it with twelve papers?’

‘Had to. Not a Cabelwell carrot if you don’t use twelve skins.’

Arthur blinks and looks at what’s in his hand. If Davey has used a dozen cigarette papers to make the joint then it’s little surprise how stoned the two boys are. Particularly not considering what his brother’s home-grown is like. ‘And you’ve watched Withnail And I have you?’

‘Yay-up.’ Davey nods enthusiastically. ‘Dad’s got it on thingy.’

‘Does he know you’ve watched it?’

Davey exhales noisily and looks sideways. Hesitates a moment. ‘Never said we couldn’t.’

Arthur rolls his eyes. ‘And what about this?’ He holds up the joint. ‘Does he know you smoke this?’

Davey purses his lips and tips his head from side to side, considering the question. ‘Well… not egzackerly… but he’s the one what grows it!’

There’s a rustling sound from the hutch and Nathan stands up. He’s smaller than Davey and normally still looks an innocent little boy. Today though, with his wild eyes, a pile of hay draped across his head and a carrot in each hand he looks more like a deranged pixie. Nathan gives a wide-eyed, goofy smile. ‘The rabbits like it. Doesn’t do them no harm.’

Arthur blinks. ‘You feed it to the rabbits.’

‘Nah.’ Davey shakes his head. ‘But they escapes sometimes and they’re always trying to sneak into the greenhouse and eat Dad’s weed. Don’t think they’ve tried smokin’ it though.’

The boys erupt into giggles and Arthur tries not to join them. ‘Yeah,’ he says as sternly as he can manage. ‘That’s all well and good but I don’t think you should be smoking your dad’s weed.’

‘Well you do.’

‘What!’ Arthur blinks. ‘When have you ever seen me smoking joints?’

‘In the summer: after that barbecue we all had. We’d gone up to bed and you and dad were sitting out here smoking and smoking. You was laughing and laughing.’

Arthur shakes his head, trying hard not to smile. ‘Oh that was just roll-ups. Tobacco.’

‘You liar!’

Arthur keeps shaking his head but knows he is sussed.

‘Our window was open and you was sitting right under it. All the smoke was coming in and you weren’t smokin’ roll ups!’

‘Yeah. Well maybe. But you’re way too young to be smoking anything.’

‘How old was you when you started then?’

‘Not that young.’

‘How old then? Eighteen? Sixteen? Younger?’

Arthur gives Davey a glare but his heart has gone out of it. He’s tried being the responsible adult but somehow it’s backfiring spectacularly. He’s supposed to be the one doing the telling off and now here’s his nephew giving him the third degree. Arthur sighs and is about to say something when he suddenly hears footsteps in the corridor. He turns as his sister-in-law appears in the doorway.

‘Hello, boys. Are you cleaning out those rabbits…’ Sally’s voice dies away. For a moment Arthur thinks she is just surprised to see him and then he realises her eyes are focussed on his hand. She gives a deep sniff. Her expression turns hard and angry.

‘Oh, shit.’ Arthur closes his eyes.

‘Arthur! You do not smoke that stuff in front of my boys.’ Before he can even react, Sally strides across the yard. She snatches the joint, throws it to the floor and grinds it under her foot. ‘You get out of here right now.’ She grabs his arm and starts to tow him away. ‘I’m ashamed of you, Arthur! They’re still children.’

He hears a stifled giggle from behind him and opens his mouth, trying to think of something convincing to say. But nothing coherent comes out of his mouth and, taking his inability to speak as evidence of his guilt, Sally isn’t stopping to hear any of it.

Before Arthur can do much more than splutter in disbelief he is being propelled out of the house. ‘I’ll deal with you later,’ she says as the door closes in his face.

* * *

Padraig looks around as they make their way back towards the side door. It’s the first time he’s been to the island and he’d got a shock when Keziah named the prison for their rendezvous. Black Island has an ambivalent place in his family history and the prison represents a lot of what’s bad.

Keziah gives him a glance. ‘So. Pleased to see the family home?’

He blinks. Had she been reading his mind or are his feelings that obvious? There’s definitely something witch-like about the old woman but he’d thought that was just to do with the way she looked.

‘Home?’ he asks. ‘Do you mean the island or this little place?’

They stand and look around. The walls are massive and grim. It’s foreboding enough in its current state of abandonment; it’s easy to imagine how soul-crushing it would have been for those incarcerated here.

Keziah gives an amused snort. ‘Well. I didn’t mean the prison but I suppose it’s… part of it all.’

‘Yes.’ Padraig feels cold at the thought of living within these walls. ‘A cruel-looking place is it not?’

‘Not to me.’

‘No?’

She shakes her head. ‘I’ve got the keys.’

Padraig laughs. ‘Ah well that is a big relief, Miss Black. A very big relief indeed.’

He chuckles again but his humour is only fleeting. The prison isn’t something his family talked about. Back home in Ireland, he’d grown up on stories of Black Island. Sat around the fire of an evening, the old ones — grandparents, uncles and aunts — would tell stories about life on the island; they talked about the quarries, the town, fights with the fishermen and about the Blacks. But not about the prison. Being a convict wasn’t really something civilised people liked to boast about.

The truth is, though, this place plays a significant role in the story of the Le Picard family. And now here he is: crossing the courtyard next to the main prison yard.  Padraig stops. It occurs to him that he’s on the wrong side. Once, his family would have been the ones on the other side of the railings. The guards would have been this side: men with sticks and clubs to beat anyone stepping out of line. His ancestors were the prisoners, the ones who worked the quarries and lived a dozen to a cell. He shivers again. ‘Would you mind terribly if I was the first of us to leave, Miss Black?’

Keziah watches Padraig leave. She’s not met him in person before, although they’ve communicated by letter for a few years now. His family may be exiles but they still maintain a link with the island and Padraig Le Picard makes an ideal agent for certain of her mainland dealings.

Once his slim figure has disappeared down the track towards Quarry Town, she pulls the door closed again. She could sense Padraig’s unease as they crossed the yard. It suited her to let him make his escape first; now she gets to enjoy the comfort of its big walls and empty spaces for a bit longer.

Keziah finds a kind of poetic irony in the fact her family spent more than two centuries imprisoning people in this building but now she uses it as a place to escape. She’s read about the prison in the family archives. Prisoners were sent to Black Island as early as the 1500s. Various monarchs found it a conveniently remote place to dispose of embarrassments: such as troublemakers they couldn’t execute outright but wanted removed from circulation.

The first convicts sent here lived a miserable and generally short existence, housed in crude huts and caves in the surrounding hills. It was the island’s first official governor, Lord Augustus Black, who put them to work building a proper prison. Not out of consideration for their well-being but because prisoners who were worked until they dropped were less likely to have the time and energy on developing inconvenient escape schemes.

Most of those sent to Black Island weren’t really expected to return and with no shortage of labour or raw materials, Augustus Black set about making sure his prison was both strong and secure. The prison walls are ten-foot thick, which is probably why it’s stayed so dry in here. Even after decades of being abandoned, the prison remains weathertight: ideal for roosting pigeons and reclusive spinsters who need a place for secret assignations.

* * *

Arthur walks slowly up the road. Four days have gone by since Sally caught him with the joint in his hand and he still hasn’t managed to speak to her. His sister-in-law isn’t having anything to do with him at the moment. It would be funny under normal circumstances. But he’d really wanted to get her advice before this moment: or at the least have someone to confide in.

To be continued…

I hope that chunk wasn’t too long. Tomorrow, Arthur gets a big surprise and Keziah shows what she’s like at poker.

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