13 September 2008

The Penal Colony: first chapter

Routledge became conscious. A foul taste was on his tongue; he felt nauseous, drug-sick, and at first he thought he was emerging not from sleep, but from anaesthesia. It followed that he must be in hospital, in pyjamas, but his skin and limbs returned a contrary sensation. He was fully and heavily clad; and hospitals smelled of disinfectant, while this place smelled of damp wood, and stone, and salt air, and an unpleasant acridity which he could not quite recognize.
    Then he remembered a recent fragment of dream. He must after all have been asleep: was he dreaming still?
    Above him, dimly illuminated, as if by a single candle some distance away, he could make out the form of a low ceiling, crudely made of rough laths and bundles of rushes. The quality of his sight was unmistakably real. This was no dream.
    He had been placed on a low bed or pallet, on a mattress made of dried heather or bracken. He became aware that he was completely helpless: he had been zipped into a tightly fitting sleeping-bag and his wrists felt as if they had been bound together.
    At that moment he understood where he was and what must have happened to him. The preceding days in the workroom, supper last night, had given no inkling of this; there had been no unusual taste in his food. Each day had followed the same routine, the routine that had been established from the morning of his induction over six months before. During those days he had foolishly begun to feel safe, to imagine, somehow, that he was not after all to be placed in Category Z.
    A noise to his left made him turn to the side. The interior extended for three or four metres, ending at a sort of hearth, without a fire. Here a large man was sitting, his back to Routledge, seemingly intent on making or repairing something in his lap. Beside him, on an upturned crate, burned the small oil lamp which was giving its glow to the room.
    The fireplace and the walls had been fashioned from irregular blocks of grey stone. Above the hearth, supported on brackets driven into the interstices, ran a warped plank which, laden with a jumble of tins, bits of netting, feathers, plastic canisters, paperbacks, and some dried stalks in a wine bottle, served as the mantelshelf. Similar clutter filled a series of shelves to the right. Between them and the low doorway in the corner there were three or four pegs, each hung with a bulky mass of clothing, including a trawlerman’s black plastic raincoat, much the worse for wear.
    The man appeared to be sewing.
    Perhaps in his terror Routledge had made a slight sound; perhaps the rhythm of his breathing had changed; or perhaps the man had felt, at the nape of his neck, the pressure of Routledge’s gaze. Whatever the cause, he glanced over his shoulder and, seeing Routledge awake, immediately got up.
    With the lamp behind him, the man was in shadow, but Routledge could see enough to tell that he was of late middle age, bearded, long-haired, balding from the forehead, wearing a tattered pepper-and-salt rollneck sweater and shapeless corduroy trousers.
    He came nearer. The acrid smell grew stronger. He stopped at a safe distance and, resting a hand on one of the posts supporting the ceiling, bent forward to examine his captive more closely.
    “Welcome to Paradise.” He spoke in a mild, educated voice, and Routledge began to feel less afraid. “What’s your name?”
    “First name?”
    “Good. It’s on your papers, but I have to ask you. You were at Exeter, right?”
    “Do you know where you are now?”
    “No. Sert.”
    Routledge shut his eyes. Christ. O Christ.
    “Do you think you can manage to walk?”
    “Yes. I think so.”
    “You’ve got to see Mr Appleton.”
    “Who’s Mr Appleton?”
    The question was not answered. In a more businesslike tone, the man said, “If I let you out of your sleeping-bag you won’t try anything, will you?”
    Routledge did not fully understand. What was there to “try”? But he nodded, and, apparently satisfied with this response, the man unzipped the bag and helped Routledge to his feet.
    As soon as Routledge tried to stand unaided his legs gave way. He sat down heavily on the bed, overcome by giddiness, wanting to fight back the burning taste rising in his throat; but it was no use. The struggle was lost even before it had started. He was too weak, too frightened, too stunned by the realization of what had happened to him. He could not help himself.
    Bending forward, he retched repeatedly, succeeding only in bringing up a few viscid strings. There was nothing in his stomach.
    “You might have told me you were going to do that.”
    “I’m sorry,” Routledge tried to say. He was shivering so badly that he wondered whether he were truly ill. A new fit of retching overtook him.
    “Mr Appleton won’t see a man who’s smelling of vomit.”
    Whatever they had poisoned him with, it must have been a massive dose. “The bastards,” Routledge said to himself. “The bastards.” For weeks past, months, he had been struggling to contain his outrage and despair. It had been bad enough before, but since landing in that cell at Exeter with those two animals his self-control had been stretched beyond human endurance. And now that he was here, now that it had finally befallen him, the worst of all possible fates, there could no longer be any bottom to his grief.
    He began to cry.
    The futile attempt to void his stomach had already filled his eyes with hot tears. Now these were supplanted by a fresher and more copious flow. His wrists had been so firmly bound with nylon cord that he was unable properly to cover his eyes with his hands. This minor indignity alone, heaped on top of all the others, was enough to move him to further self-pitying sobs.
    Routledge thought he heard the man say something sympathetic. He felt an awkward hand placed momentarily on his shoulder.
    Sniffing and wiping his face, Routledge managed to recover himself slightly. The man’s voice was cultured, the voice of someone who had read books and listened to music, someone whom one could address in the old language that Routledge had been learning to keep hidden from view. “I’m sorry,” he said, two or three times. “Forgive me.”
    The man fetched a can of water and, with a rag, wiped the mess from Routledge’s clothes. Routledge saw that his prison uniform had disappeared: instead he was dressed in an ill-fitting black sweater, a threadbare shirt, and a pair of patched and baggy dark twill trousers. “Take the rag,” the man said. “Clean your face up a bit.”
    While Routledge did as he had been told, the man brought a comb from the mantelshelf. With his wrists bound together, it was no easy matter for Routledge to comb his hair. His awkwardness, the reason for it, the nature of his surroundings, the future that awaited him – all these suddenly conspired to reveal the absurdity of rearranging his hair in this way, to set it in a pattern devised and approved by a society which for him would never exist again. It almost began to seem funny. He realized then how near he must be to mental exhaustion, emotional collapse, outright madness. There was nothing funny about his predicament. Nothing whatever.
    “That’ll do,” the man said, half gruffly, as if he were ashamed of having displayed a trace of sentiment just now. “Do you think you’ll be able to walk all right this time?”
    Routledge nodded reluctantly. He was dreading what was coming next, his interview with the ominous Mr Appleton. From what he had read and seen on television, he knew a little about the organization of the penal colonies, of which Sert had by far the worst reputation. There were no warders, no guards: the authorities never set foot on these islands, using helicopters to drop supplies or fresh prisoners. He himself must have been flown out from Exeter this morning or last night and dumped, unconscious, for Mr Appleton and his henchmen to find. For presumably, and judging from the note of awe in the man’s voice when he had mentioned the name, this Appleton had set himself up as leader, or chieftain, and Routledge was about to be presented for his approval or otherwise. If the interview went well, Routledge would have a chance of surviving. If it didn’t, he would soon be dead. That much he had already guessed. But, whether it went well or badly, the outcome was really just the same. The law-courts would have been kinder and less hypocritical to have hanged him. The punishment he faced now, with Mr Appleton or alone, was infinitely worse.
    These were the thoughts he had entertained for the past months, waiting for this to happen, hoping against all reason that his status would be revised, that he would be put in some other category. In prison he had decided to commit suicide if he were sent to one of these places. The decision then had seemed absolutely unshakeable; but now he found he had already abandoned it. As the man took his elbow, Routledge understood why it is that human beings can so readily be made to dig their own graves.
    “By the way,” the man said. “My name’s King. Brian King.”
    “How do you do.”
    The door, such as it was, consisted of what looked like odd planks of driftwood held together by two crosspieces. King lifted it open on its rope hinges, and went back to extinguish the lamp before leaving.
    The night was extremely dark, unseasonably cool and fresh, with heavy cloud. Yesterday had been wet; perhaps today also.
    “I wonder,” Routledge said, taking the first steps beyond the threshold, “I wonder if I might …” and he searched his vocabulary for an appropriate phrase, “… take a slash before we …”
    “Yes, of course. Anywhere there. Off the path.”
    “Thanks.” The urge to urinate had been almost the first thing he had been conscious of on awakening; indeed, that urge may of itself have brought him round.
    “I’ll have to keep hold of your jersey.”
    Routledge clumsily unzipped his fly. Much as he wanted to relieve his bladder, nothing would come. So long as King continued to clutch the back of his sweater, Routledge knew he would be unable to do it. He needed privacy.
    “What are you waiting for?”
    Then Routledge saw that he could no longer afford such niceties. His bladder was giving him a plain signal. For its own good, for the welfare of his body as a whole, it was demanding to be emptied at once. He was holding back for no sensible reason, for a reason that had nothing to do with survival or self-preservation.
    Consciously he abandoned his inhibition, let it go, and immediately the flow of urine began to fall, unimpeded, into the darkness.
    Routledge took the opportunity to look about him. Little could be seen. The bothy or shack from which they had just emerged seemed to be one of a group, perhaps a dozen, perhaps more, loosely clustered about the central precinct where he was now standing. In several, dim yellow lights were flickering at cracks in doors or shuttered windows. Across the precinct stood a more imposing building, almost a bungalow, within which much whiter, stronger lights were burning. Routledge’s apprehension grew. Was then Appleton so important, so powerful, so much above the run of his subjects, that he had electricity, while they burned feeble lamp-oil?
    “Is that where Mr Appleton lives?”
    Again the question went unanswered. It was as if Routledge hadn’t spoken, or as if he had made some solecism which superior breeding bade his companion overlook.
    On closer inspection Routledge saw that the building was indeed a bungalow, professionally constructed. The path to it across the precinct felt and sounded underfoot like shale. In front of the house it gave on to a broad area that seemed to be paved with slabs of stone. From the slabs, a flight of low steps led up to a porch or veranda where a man, barely visible in the light seeping from a window-shutter at the left, was seated by the door. He rose at their approach.
    “Who’s that? King?”
    “Got the new boy with you?”
    “He came round just now.”
    The guard appeared to be armed with a club. He knocked lightly at the door and said, “New boy’s here.” His accent had its origins in the East End of London; his manner and bearing exuded authority, privilege. Routledge’s apprehension grew yet more.
    “Come on, Stamper, open up!”
    There was a sound of bolts being drawn back. The door opened, releasing a widening shaft of light which spilled across the boards of the veranda and illuminated the guard, a man in his twenties with curly dark hair. The club he was holding was in fact an iron bar, the sort with a pointed end used for digging post-holes. Besides this, attached to the belt of his corduroy jeans, he was equipped with a machete in a broad leather scabbard. His plaid shirt looked new, much better than any of King’s clothes, and on his feet was a pair of workman’s boots with heavy-duty rubber soles.
    “Right, you,” he said, addressing Routledge. “Inside.”

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