Before the creak of keys in the door, came the cacophony of jeers. It swelled in volume until almost painful on the ears, dying to a faded moan after a few long minutes.
The man, in the end cell, closed his eyes in the hope that it would soften the assault on his ears. It did not. Four times a day the yelling occurred, never was it necessary. Animals they were, not men, snarling and howling for their supper. Supper! A grand name for the slop they were served.
But it couldn’t be suppertime already. Surely he had only just woken up. That was the trouble with this place – with no windows, there was no way to tell the passing of the days. Day passed to night in gloomy similarity, and his pocket watch had filled with dust on his third day. Breakfast and supper were his only hourglass, and he dreaded the day when his shillings would run out and there would be no more candles to light his cell.
He didn’t bother looking up when the door creaked open. Twice a day, the girl would shuffle in, place his tray on the table, and shuffle out without so much as a word. Instead, when the interminable cacophony finally died down, he opened his eyes and returned to the book of Job.
That battered Bible was the only possession he owned within the four walls of the cell. Not that it was much of a possession – the pages were tattered and in places scorched, and the book of Exodus had completely fallen out. The man, in the end cell, reflected that he was probably the only one in the whole gaol on whom the irony was not lost.
It wasn’t until the gaoler coughed that the man, in the end cell, looked up.
Slowly, he raised his eyes. He assessed her slowly, not speaking, taking in her skeletal hands that knotted themselves up in tight, nervous twists.
"Um – sir?"
The man gave a short, coarse laugh. ‘Sir? That’s a first.’
The girl coloured quickly. "What should I call you?"
"You tend to use words such as ‘bastard’ and ‘son of a whore’ for the others. What's good enough for them is good enough for me. They’ll suit me well enough."
Her blush deepened, and she looked at her shifting feet nervously. Good God, could she never stand still? "I don’t wish to call ye like that," she whispered, almost inaudibly.
The man sighed. ‘They call me Palmer."
"Palmer, then." The girl continued to shift from one foot to another, twisting her bony hands back and forth.
After a few long moments, the man sighed and opened his Bible again. He had neither the time nor the inclination to chase after the girl.
"Can you read, Palmer?" She asked suddenly. By way of reply, Palmer raised a lazy eyebrow. "Course you can. Stupid," she rushed to cover up her mistake, "But I was thinking, um, can you, could you teach it to me? Letters, I mean?"
For the first time in weeks, a spark leapt from Palmer's dark eyes. He put down the Bible and sat up, interested. "Why?"
The gaoler girl coughed again, a little more confident. "Well, because I’d like to learn."
He couldn't resist teasing her a little. '"Waste of time, teaching a girl to read. Like painting rouge upon a pig."
"Not me it isn't!" Her rebuke was sharp.
"Indeed?" Palmer took a slow breath. "Well, then. What’s in it for me?"
A grin leapt across the girl’s face. "Anything – I’ll give you anything!"
"Anything, eh?" Palmer leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "That’s a very dangerous promise to make to a criminal."
The gaoler nodded sagely. "I can’t give you the key to this cell. My father will kill me. But I promise you – anything else."
"That wasn’t what I was thinking." Palmer’s eyes wandered lecherously up and down the gaoler’s body, imagining the feel of her bones beneath his hands.
The implication rushed hot to the gaoler’s cheeks – "Not that either!" she snapped, with remarkable force.
The flash of fear in her eyes, before it was replaced by anger, touched Palmer more than he cared to show. With a nonchalant laugh, he stretched himself back down on his bed. "Be careful when you make promises to criminals." And I hope that’s taught you a lesson, he added silently, but he couldn’t bring himself to truly harden his heart to her.
"But anything else," the girl insisted, "More light in here? More candles? Sheets, perhaps a pillow? More food – I can get you –"
"Writing materials," Palmer interrupted suddenly, an idea having just occurred to him.
The girl faltered. "What?"
"A pen and ink. Paper. A blotter too if you can get it. Give me those and I’ll teach you to read."
She licked her lips a little. "I don’t know where I’ll find them, but I will. I promise."
"Haven’t I just told you not to make promises to criminals?"
"I will find them," she insisted, ignoring him.
Her passion made him smile. "You must tell me your name if I am to tutor you."
"Abigail – Abigail Henshaw." She faltered for a second. "But please – don’t tell anyone. I don’t mind when they yell at me, really I don’t. It’s just noise. But if they knew my name –"
"They won’t," Palmer promised, "They won’t."
Abigail nodded gratefully. She turned towards the door, and hesitated, one hand in her pocket.
Palmer sighed, sensing her hesitation even as the door separated them. "What do you want."
Paper rustled as she pulled something from her pocket. "I want to read this," she said, clearly emboldened.
Idly, Palmer wondered whether or not the paper was filthier than the girl. They certainly bore some resemblance – both crinkled and creased, with lines that oughtn’t to belong to something so young. Both were filthy, but then so was Palmer, smeared in a gaol grime that never seemed to leave no matter how hard he scrubbed his hands. Both bore the same jaundiced tinge and seemed much older than he suspected they were. Come to think of it, Palmer reflected, the gaol bore many similarities too, grimy and creased and crooked though it could hardly be called old. The question was, had the gaol grown to reflect the gaoler or the other way around?
The paper crinkled as he took it in his hand. It was a wanted poster, of sorts, with a description on one side and a sketch on the back. As he scanned the text – a fanciful, ridiculously romanticised account of Dick Turpin, the terror of Yorkshire – his left hand unconsciously dragged itself into a fist.
Slowly he turned the paper over to see the sketch on the other side. No longer did the paper resemble the girl in front of him. Instead, Dick Turpin stared into his own eyes and cursed the day he had been born.