(Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1828)
Content warning: sexual assault
Annie Green - only, having changed colour through no fault of her own, she was Annie Browne now - was mighty scared when she saw the blood spidering down her legs. It was her first time. She was on the point of screaming but was immediately assailed by the thought of what would become of the little ’uns if she bled to death? She dropped her pail, stared at the red lines, stunned, and finally sat down under the chestnut tree in a daze. She dried her tears almost immediately, remonstrating with herself. Blood flowing from down there and tears coming from her eyes at the same time simply won’t do, Annie, she told herself, I cannot cope with both. Clearly I can do nothing about the blood, but I sure can stop the tears, I have done that often enough in the past. Maybe I ain’t gonna bleed to death, she hoped. Please God, she added as an afterthought, I’ll be ever so good if you spare my life. I’ll stop thieving, stop pulling my tongue at haughty old ladies. Who is going to look after young Michael Michael and sweet little Queenie (her first words had been Makel Makel)? They’ll starve to death if their Annie snuffs it. Sure enough the tears dried up, and she was relieved when the flow down below slowed down too. She did not want to draw attention to herself and furtively wiped the blood off with the hem of her skirt. It was so soiled already that no one would notice the difference.
Suddenly she remembered what Old Isaac had said. We’ll do it proper once you’ve had your bloods, I ain’t no brute me. So that’s what he meant. Not that he didn’t do it “proper” shortly after the first time. Ah the pain!
She had looked after the two little ’uns for almost as long as she could remember. They had set off from Quedgeley with Mama Yolanda one morning, Queenie hanging precariously on her frail haunch with the bigger Michael Michael on Mam’s back. They had walked all day, slept in the woods, and next day they had reached Stroud. There was a fair and Yolanda had settled her and the little ’uns under an oak tree with a piece of stale bread whilst she went to get them something more to eat, but she never came back. Annie had been desperate, and when one or two bystanders seeing her crying had asked, she had explained that her Mam had been lost. Some offered sympathy of course, but no more. The others just laughed. She cannot remember clearly what happened next, how they survived the cold nights and the hunger. Fortunately Yolanda had taught her about berries and fungi, but the body needs much more.
At first she had wasted her compassion, feeling sorry for Mam. Had she been picked up by the new Charleys for vagrancy? Had she had a fall and bled to death in some ditch? Later it dawned upon her that she had done a runner on them. She damn well planned to abandon them to their fate, for why else would she have said, ‘Remember, you are Annie Green, you are nine years old, your little brother is Michael Green and the girl is Queenie Green. And remember your grandfather was the King of the Gypsies.’
When some time later the truth dawned upon her, her sorrow turned to bitterness, but not for long. The poor cow was at the end of her tether and felt that she had no choice. She sometimes longed for a cuddle from her, but she rarely pined for her. Instead she comforted herself by cuddling the little ’uns. She knew that they adored their Annie. The two of them were her whole life too.
Fortunately Stroud had a weekly Fair. Later, thinking about it, she would realise that Mam had chosen the town for that very reason, believing that the children would at least manage to have a half full belly there. All sorts of tradesmen from the villages of Gloucestershire arrived early on a Friday and set up their stalls on the Market Square. They came in oxcarts and horse-carts, some came on foot pushing their laden barrows. Yet more came in boats up the canal. They came with poultry, goats and sheep, piglets, bread and cakes, peas and tomatoes, potatoes and cabbages, cheeses and honey, apples and pears, woollen and cotton clothing. They brought kettles, pots and pans, jingling merrily as the cart went over a bump on the road. They had ropes, nails, paints, trinkets. There were fortune-tellers and sellers of miracle cures, there were jugglers and magicians, acrobats, singers and story tellers, and of course there were cutpurses and muggers too. Everything that the good citizens and villagers might have needed was available if you had the money. Yolanda had guessed right. Those with no money could beg for work, or just beg, sometimes steal, and it was not impossible to get by.
Annie made a few pennies every week by doing odd jobs at the Fair, fetching and carrying, plucking chicken or gutting fish for the market vendors, fanning their charcoal fires, driving away flies round meats. Some paid in kind, scraps of left overs, bread, fish, a chicken leg, an old rag which somehow she fashioned into something for the mites to wear. So, there were always a few scraps for them and herself. They had found refuge in a disused barn until one morning they was discovered and chased away. She had begged for food, stolen a loaf and an apple when the opportunity arose. They were always hungry and cold, and Michael Michael’s nose always dripping with yellow stuff, but the three of them had survived.
The bleeding had completely stopped now, but she did not feel able to get up and move on. Suddenly she noticed that she was just outside the mansion of Sir George, whoever he might be, where she had been caught stealing apples only a few weeks ago. She shuddered at the memory.
She had been mesmerised by the dark pink of the fruits on the apple trees, and had thought that she might easily slip through the hedges and go serve herself. There were bound to be a good windfall on the ground and surely nobody was going to miss them, she had thought. Certainly she and the little ’uns would love to have them. She had dropped her pail, squeezed through the hedge, and in a trice she was inside the orchard. She saw plenty of shiny pink fruits nesting in the moist green grass, begging to be picked. She looked round, saw nobody and began to serve herself: six of the best she had thought, two for each of us. She picked them and put them in the fold of her skirt, and was walking towards the breach where she had forced an entry, when she heard voices and saw what was obviously a gardener and a portly gentleman sporting the finest garments that she had ever seen. They had seen her, and the gardener was rushing towards her angrily, followed by the portly gentleman. In the scramble, the apples fell off and she was not sure what to do. Never one to give up, she thought that she might just be able to grab two of them, one in each hand before reaching the hedge, but she tripped over a stump and came crashing, face down on the ground. Before she had picked herself up, her ear was firmly gripped between two vicious fingers belonging to the gardener. By now the portly gentleman had reached their level, out of breath and was jumping up and down as if he had ants in his silk trousers. He nodded to the owner of the vicious fingers whereupon he generously offered his master the prized ear. He was still out of breath but harrumphing and nodding happily as he took possession of the offering. He twisted it two or three times in quick succession, raising and turning her head to provide eye contact with the girl who was out to ruin him. With his free hand, he took a kerchief from his pocket and wiped his sweaty brow.
‘Filth!’ he spat out, and Annie stared at him, not immediately catching the word.
‘Absolutely, Sir George,’ said the gardener, ‘filth indeed. Those gyppos hate the sight of water as much as they like thieving.’ I don’t, mused Annie, there’s nothing I love more than the sight of a cool stream when I am thirsty. And I am not any gyppo! My grandfather was the King of the Gypsies.
‘It’s prison for you now, my dear,’ Sir George said merrily, opening his eyes and shaking his head from left to right comically. O Lordie! Who will look after the little ’uns if I go to prison, Annie had thought. No, she was determined not to go to prison. On an impulse, she bit Sir George’s hand. Anyone hearing his squealing would have thought that he had just lost a whole arm. He let go of the ear, and jumped up in the air, as if he had just stepped on live coals, which was surprising in view of his bulk. Annie made a dash for the hedge with the gardener closely behind. At first she could not see the breach that she had made, and had to run randomly, like a hare in order to mislead the pursuant. Sir George having regained his composure joined in, and for a while, the crows in the sky, if there had been any, would have been mightily amused by the sight of the girl running like a hare, the gardener chasing her in the most curious fashion, unable to change direction seamlessly, having to brake off suddenly before aiming for a new path, and Sir George bobbing up and down and then forward, unable to decide whether to follow the gardener or the girl, ending up by spinning round like some German mechanical toy. Demented, the crows would have cawed to each other. Suddenly Annie saw the gap, but instead of going straight through it to liberty, having espied two seductive apples on the ground, she went back a few steps towards the gardener in close pursuit, exposing herself to being caught again, pounced on them and only narrowly evaded capture, richer by two apples. The scratch on her face as she scraped herself out was well worth it, she thought. The men inside gave up the chase, and she was able to grab her pail and kept running until the mansion was out of sight. That was weeks ago.
She decided that it was not a safe place to have your first bloods. She placed her prized apples in the pail. I’ll wash them after, she told herself, and started running for dear life, not that there was any chance of her being caught now. She did not have a single penny to her name, and she had no doubt that the little ’uns would be starving. And the pail isn’t even half full, she thought glumly.
She decided to go on looking for more dog turds. What was happening to them dogs these days, she wondered, are they all blocked? Time was when all you did was bend down and you could pick and choose plump droppings the size of a sausage. The tannery owners were pretty picky and would sometimes refuse to pay you for your day’s work if they did not like the result of your toil. Still she managed to fill her pail and was pleased when Mr Balchin said here’s two shiny pennies for you girl. I would have liked three rusty ones better, she thought. With just one more penny she could have got some cheese to go with the bread. With bread only, half an hour after you have eaten, the beast starts gnawing at your insides again. Today was going to be a feast with the apples. She went to the town centre, put on her look of suffering and approaching the burghers going about their business, she made hammering motions at her half open mouth with her tiny tapered fist, in a show of hunger. In an hour all she got was two farthings and a score of insults. Her heart ringing with joy, she put the bread and cheese in the unwashed pail beside the fruits, and ran towards the canal where she had lodged Queenie and Michael Michael.
Old Isaac the lock-keeper still allowed them to stay in a disused hut next to his own shack, where he kept tools. The little ’uns had to be reminded all the time that they had to stay inside when she when she went out earning their keeps. It was a complicated arrangement.
It had started when Old Isaac had taken pity on them one wintry night and invited them to shelter in his lock-keeper’s shack. He was an old childless widower, living alone, and had seemed kindly and well-disposed towards the waifs. That first night, he had made them sausages and mashed potatoes and for the first time in a long time Annie remembered going to bed on a full belly. He did not have beds but provided blankets and old sails for them to keep warm. Annie had not even thought of the possible dangers of accepting the hospitality of a stranger, but Old Isaac had assured her that he was not an old brute waiting for the chance to take advantage of the weak and defenceless, but a god-fearing Christian. However, once she was safely tucked in, he approached her with a candle and asked if he could sit down next to her, just for a talk, mind you. He rambled on and on. She knew that she had to show some gratitude for the man’s kindness, but she could not help yawning. He kept repeating that he was not a brute but a god-fearing Christian, and this was what alerted the girl to the possibility of something sinister. He asked her if she had enjoyed the sausage that he had offered them, and she nodded enthusiastically. It was then that he offered to show her his own sausage. Annie had no idea what he meant, and was completely uninterested. Sausages are meant to be eaten not looked at, she had thought but shrugged, whereupon he dropped his trousers and held his erect penis up with two fingers. Instinctively she knew that this was wrong, but thought that he would now leave her alone to go to sleep. He asked if she wanted to touch it, and she shook her head. It’s nice, he said, soft and warm. She had no great inclination to do what he said but thought that if she did, he would then go away. She was trembling a bit, but forcing a smile, she took his member in his hand. It’s so nice when you do that, he said. She frowned, wondering what was nice about that, and Old Isaac closed his eyes and groaned with pleasure. Stroke it gently, he urged, but not waiting for her to take the initiative, he took her hand gently and wrapped her frail fingers around the member and began sliding it up and down. The girl had not the slightest inkling about what this was all about, but knew that it was wrong. She also knew that she had no choice. I am not a brute, he said again, but this will not hurt you, take it in your lovely little mouth. Annie did not want to, and feeling instinctive revulsion at what was being proposed, felt a lump in her throat. She was now fighting a losing battle against her tears which were ready to cascade down. He stroked her head gently and told her she was such a sweet good little girl, that he would make sure they would never go hungry, that he would look after them like a real father. Annie was too stunned to say anything. I am a God-fearing man, Old Isaac said, I will never let anybody harm a single hair on your head. She had felt that she had no choice, and fighting her tears, she opened her mouth, and he pushed the sausage in. He spurted in her mouth, and he gave her a bowl of water to rinse it. Now we will pray to the good Lord to forgive us for our sins, he had said, and had made her kneel down with him. She was trembling all over and it took her a lot of effort to stop her tears.
‘Lord,’ he had said closing his eyes which did not stop his own tears streaming down his cheeks, ‘you who know the inside of our hearts must know that I did not offer these unfortunate children my hospitality with any thought of committing a sin. Lord, remember that anybody else would have done worse, but I am not a brute. Forgive her for tempting me and me for succumbing. Give me the strength not to want more from this sweet innocent child.’ Suddenly he stood up like a man in a trance, and began to shake his raised fists and scream. ‘Lord, why did you give me sinful desires? I do not want them, I did not ask for them, take them away from me. Why Lord? Answer me!’
She did not know why, but felt that she was soiled and dirty, and wished that Old Isaac would not want to do all this again. But of course he did. Next night he asked her to let him see her little pussy, promising that he was not going to do anything but the looking, as he was not a brute. She felt cornered and lifted her skirt and he stared in rapture. The night after, he asked if he could just stroke it, nothing more, he was no brute. The following night he asked if she would sit on his erect member and stroke it with her pussy, swearing that he wanted nothing more, adding mysteriously, not before you have had your first bloods. She was too scared and too exhausted to resist.
It was on the next night that he tried to penetrate her. She pushed him away screaming and tried to run away, but he seized her, placed a hand over her mouth to stop her screaming. Do you want to wake up the little angels? he admonished, and carried her trembling and struggling little body to his bed. He promised that he was not going to hurt her, that it was going to be nice, that he would put it in gently. The little ’uns began to scream, but he held her firmly and she was helpless. It hurt so much when he put it in. She bled profusely and he was ever so gentle as he washed the blood away and cuddled her, tears streaming down his wizened face, repeating nice things, calling her little angel and little devil at the same time, sometimes laughing as someone who had lost his mind, which did not stop the flow of his tears. Fortunately the mites had wept themselves to sleep.
She cried herself to sleep too, and next morning, Old Isaac having gone to have a look at the sluice gates, she grabbed hold of the little ’uns and left, but he soon caught up with them. He was alarmed. Where are you going? He asked, who will look after you, who will protect you? It’s a treacherous world, come back home, he entreated, promising that he will never repeat what he did last night. I will promise on the Bible he said, I will take a knife and cut off this evil member of mine. Annie was adamant. Never will she go back, she had no wish for anyone to cut off their member on her account. He begged and entreated her, went down on his knees, cried hot tears. She shook her head and kept walking away. I am so lonely, he cried, I liked having you around. What’s to become of me? Annie kept walking. Suddenly, as they were passing near a small shack in which he kept tools and things, he grabbed her hand.
‘You don’t even have to stay in the house, you can stay here, it will provide you with shelter… I will not let you go hungry… all I want is for you to sweep the floor in the house, perhaps darn my clothes… cook for me… not even everyday… please, say yes.’
Annie shook her head, struggled to free her hand, and went on her way with the little ’uns, leaving a disconsolate Old Isaac behind. They went to the city square, and it rained all day. Michael Michael sneezed and seemed to be having a temperature, and she was greatly alarmed. She begged when she could, and all she got was a penny and two farthings, and advice to clean herself. Queenie began to cry, she was cold and hungry and Michael Michael was shivering. Finally she decided that she would sneak into the Lock-keeper’s tool shack for the night. Old Isaac saw them and brought them hot soup and bread.
Annie began earning a few pennies doing odd jobs for the people at the Fair and begging when there was no work. She was not averse to a little thieving when the opportunity arose. She could not guarantee that they had a full belly everyday, but they rarely had a whole day without at least something inside them. The lock keeper did not make any more demands upon her. He sometimes came around and offered them food and rags, and she had no choice, but she hated having to accept his help. Inevitably the men she came in contact with at the Fair would sometimes offer her a penny or two if she would go behind a tree with them, but she always spat on the ground when they made their lewd suggestions. If anybody tried to grab her, she would scratch bite and swear and they would laugh, saying that she was too dirty anyway and leave her alone.
Today, as she was wending her way home - that’s what she called the tool shack - the blood on her legs now dried up, she heard a big commotion and saw the circus which had been in town the whole of last week, all packed in their colourful carts, leaving. She had hoped to take the mites to have a look-in, but had never got round to it. She stopped near a small crowd of cheering children and watched the clowns and acrobats doing their farewell antics, waving at them merrily.
She now had some bread and cheese as well as a banana in the pail - she should have thought of washing it. The thought of seeing the little ’uns filled her with joy. Yes, she loved them with all her heart, they were her pride and joy, even if they were always doing things that she forbade them to do. She could never raise her voice to them. All the little reprobates had to do was to look at her with those hurt little eyes of theirs and she would stop chiding them and give them a cuddle instead. Clearly she could not ferry them around for a whole day when she was out working, and had no alternative but to leave them in the shack. Although she made no demands on Old Isaac, she knew that he would pop in now and then and see that they were all right, give them a scrap to eat. She was uneasy about this, and often feared that he might do to Queenie what he had done to her. She swore that if he did, she would stick a knife in him and crush his head with a stone and then drown herself and the mites in the canal.
She was thoroughly exhausted when she opened the door of the shack saying, your Annie’s back my little darlings. There was no response. They never do what I tell them, she said wearily, always making me sweat a little more. She went out and shouted their names, and this produced no result. She went on the canal and in the woods, her panic rising as her calls remained unanswered. She became desperate, and in the end had no choice but to go look for Old Isaac and ask for his help.
The sun had set when she finally saw the lock-keeper tottering ahead in a drunken stupor. In the old days he never drank, calling it the devil drink. He took to it after the rape. He seemed not to understand what she was saying, but when he finally did, he started crying, beating himself on the chest and saying that it was all his fault. He made a weak and vain attempt at finding the lost babes.
Next day, when Isaac had a clearer head, he remembered that he had seen two strange men lurking around in the last week, but had thought nothing of it. Now he became convinced that they had kidnapped the little ’uns. Annie became hysterical and wanted to know more, but the lock-keeper could say no more. Strange men, he said incoherently, two of them, might have been three. Why would anybody steal my little babes? Annie asked tearfully. To sell them into slavery, the old man suggested, or worse. No, no, she screamed, how can you say that? You are an ’orrible man! She knew that there was no one to help and was at a complete loss.
A day later, Isaac suggested that the kidnappers might have been circus folk. He remembered that they had colourful scarves. They had a reputation for stealing small children so they could train them to become acrobats or pages. Annie clutched at that straw. It was definitely the circus folk. She was determined to go find them and beg them to let go of her little ’uns. She would tell them that she could not live without them. They will surely understand. They could not be heartless. With new heart, she went to the market and asked questions, and when someone said that the circus usually headed for Gloucester after Stroud, she determined to follow them there.
She heard that Harry the tailor, who had a cart, went to Gloucester regularly as he had clients there, and approached him, explaining about her lost siblings. Harry was surprisingly sympathetic, saying that he was going in two days’ time and would gladly take her with him, which filled her heart with gladness. However, just as she was leaving, he stopped her. There is one thing, Annie, he said, I’m entertaining my daughter’s prospective in-laws in a week, and seein’ as you work in the market, couldn’t you get me a plump ’en? Her heart sank. Everybody in the market knew of her thieving reputation, and Potter the poultryman had threatened to slash her face for her if he but saw her go within sight of the coops. How was she going to steal one of those noisy pests without getting caught? She did not know that it was possible to spend a sleepless night, and also have nightmares! She woke up resolved that she would get that plum ’en for Mr Potter or a scar on her face.
As she was so small, she was able to mingle in the crowd and creep towards Potter’s stall unseen. She hid behind a drum and watched the poultryman’s every movement, knowing that he was bound to want to go ease himself behind the giant chestnut sooner or later. The moment he did, she boldly made for the coops, opened the door and grabbed a plump four-pounder, but the stupid bird made such a racket that the whole market’s attention was drawn to what was going on. People began shouting, Thief! Chicken thief! Stop the Gyppo! Potter stopped in his tracks, picked up his trousers, and still holding to them, rushed back towards the coop where Mrs Wipps the ribbon merchant was holding Annie’s head tightly between her fat thighs. There was no point struggling. She tried to tell them about Michael Michael and Queenie, but no one was listening.
Old Isaac was distraught when he heard, and promised that he would do all he could to help, but there was little he or anyone else could do. The whole market was willing to testify against the pestilential Gyppo brat who was out to destroy the whole fabric of society. But worse was to come.
When three days later, she appeared at the Assizes Court in Gloucester, she found that the Magistrate was none other than the Sir George whose hand she had nearly amputated. He recognised her immediately, and rubbed his hands in glee.
‘What’s your name?’ she was asked.
‘Annie Green, sir,’ she said in a firm voice, ‘and my grandfather was King of the Gypsies.’ The whole court laughed.
‘You’re more brown than green,’ Sir George said to renewed laughter.
‘Shall I enter her name as Annie Browne then, your honour?’ the clerk of court asked.
‘Brown or Black, you choose,’ Sir George said. She had lost her siblings but had gained a new name, she mused.
When the charge was read, the magistrate, Sir George Culjohn-McRoe adjusted his spectacles and demurred.
‘A four pounder hen costing seven shillings and sixpence?’ he cried, ‘rubbish! I bought one only last week and was charged ten shillings and… fourpence… change it to ten shillings and a penny, clerk,’ he bawled out in a Stentorian tone.
‘Your honour, you can’t!’ shouted Old Isaac, and, addressing the unsympathetic court, added, ‘He wants to transport ’er to the end of the world…’ It was an established practice to pass a sentence of transportation to thieves guilty of stealing goods worth more than ten shillings. A law officer grabbed Isaac and took him away. Four people came forward and testified to Annie’s thieving habit, and there was no one to speak for her. Culjohn-McRoe shook his head in mock disbelief.
‘Annie Browne,’ he said, ‘if at the tender age that you are, you have already done all those horrible things we have heard, I am willing to wager… eh… an apple to an orchard… hum… that by doing the rightful thing and sentencing you to seven years’ transportation to New South Wales, there to reflect upon your sinful and guilt-ridden life, when you return to this blessed land of ours, you would have sincerely repented of your sins and made yourself ready to lead a new life of honesty. I am in fact saving you from a sentence of hanging which you would have handsomely merited for some serious crime which you would indubitably commit if left to your own device.’ Annie had no idea what the man was saying but conceded that he spoke very well. Still she felt that she had to say something as she was being led away.
‘My name is Annie Green and I am a granddaughter of the King of the Gypsies.’