What You Call Free, part two: ‘On her knees, exposed, defenceless, she felt the shame...’

In the second extract of What You Call Free, by Flora Johnston, Jonet’s nightmare continues.

Covenant Close, Edinburgh
Covenant Close, Edinburgh

‘Jonet Gothskirk, do you admit your guilt in adultery with William Murdoch, and your sorrow for the same?’

And in the echoing darkness she heard her own voice agree, the dust sticking to the roof of her mouth, nausea rising. All the while struggling to believe what they were telling her about Will and his woman, and yet knowing somewhere right in the pit of her stomach that it must be true. She admitted her guilt and she begged for mercy. On her knees. Exposed. Defenceless. And she felt the shame.

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But Mam was waiting for her afterwards... Jonet crumpled then, still reeling at what they’d told her about Will. She clung to her mother, terrified at the thought of all that had already been and all that was still to come. And it was Mam who showed her the way to get through it, who lifted up all the broken pieces of her, and let her see that they were still worth something. Who told her how to survive this first horror. You’re no the first and you’ll no be the last. Just dinna let them in.

So now here she was, paraded before them all, this Sabbath and everlasting Sabbaths stretching out before her. She would shelter within herself, and within this old heap of sackcloth. For it was just a rag, rough perhaps, but unable to hurt her. Pain screamed through her soul, but it came from a different place entirely. Do nothing but breathe.

Who made this garment of humiliation anyway? Who sat, with an old piece, or was it a fresh piece, of sacking, and cut and stitched it into this hideous shape? Probably some poor cow desperate to earn a couple of bawbees from the Kirk Session. Did she try it on when she had finished? Did she twirl for her husband, laughing at the thought of the misery it would bring to the women and men of the parish? Or did she shiver, maybe, brushed by a memory, unsettled by a foreboding? For who, really, was safe?

There was a movement there, just on the edge of Jonet’s vision. Dark eyes and a hostile glare. Her brother Davy, so cold. If only Kirstie could be here among the faces that she was trying not to see, or Mam. But notwithstanding her mother’s strength, that was too much for her. Mam would be at home, taking out her anger on the washing, for all it was

the Sabbath. Jonet could still feel the pressure of Mam’s clasp on her arms before she left that morning.

‘I’ll no be there, Jonet,’ she’d said. ‘I’d never be able to hold my tongue and let that minister rail at you. I’d only make things worse. Be strong, my lass, and you’ll get through it.’

There was a burning behind her eyes, a tightness in her chest. Weeks of this humiliation stretched out ahead of her, and she had no notion at all how she would get through it, but somehow she must. She must.

Helen Alexander...

On the other side of the lumpy spine of the Pentland Hills, Helen Alexander pressed a small parcel of food into the fair young man’s hands, bade him Godspeed, and watched until

he was just another shifting shadow amid the early morning mist that cloaked the lower slopes. She pushed the door as quietly as possible, holding her breath as it grated on the

floor. Her hands were trembling, so she pressed them into her apron and turned towards the fireplace, ready to get the oatmeal on.

But for all her attempts at stealth it seemed her daughter had been roused, though the lads slept on unaware. Beatrix had slipped from behind the curtain and now stood; a white,

silent figure, dark eyes fixed on her mother.

‘Get dressed then or you’ll catch your death,’ snapped Helen. ‘And hurry about it, for I need you to fetch some water.’

There was a quick, quizzical glance from those watchful eyes, nothing more, and Beatrix turned and retreated to the boxbed. Thirteen years old, and she didn’t miss a thing. Helen set the pot above the fire; her heightened nerves soothed by familiar movements. No harm done, and God willing he would be safely away by now. She would tell them her news today, and that should chase other thoughts from Beatrix’s mind.

She waited until they were all gathered round the table, and she had prayed God’s blessing on their food, their home, and on all those who were persecuted but remained faithful.

Once they’d eaten, they would spend time together in family worship, where they could be free... it would just be the four of them. Her wee family: Beatrix, Jamie, Charlie.

They might be bairns, Charlie but nine, yet they understood the dangers of these wicked times. How could they not, when every unexpected knock on the door brought with it an echo of her capture and imprisonment? Surely they too would see that her decision was for the best. She laid down her spoon.

‘You ken Mr Currie. Well, he and I are to wed.’

The words, spoken aloud, seemed to summon the presence of the kindly merchant right into their home at once - but of course, he had already eaten many a meal alongside

them. Perhaps that’s why the bairns were none too startled by the news. The lads had their questions - would they go to live with him, or would he come here to Pentland? Would

he bring Moss the packhorse, and where would she sleep? Helen answered, then looked to her daughter.

‘Beatrix?’ There was something fleeting in those dark eyes once more, and Helen took in a quick breath, but then the look was gone. Beatrix smiled. ‘I’m glad,’ she said.

Tomorrow: Davy was glowering with mortified fury.

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