Desperation led her to steal. She was starving. Filthy. Freezing. The winter of 1710 was cruel and cold. Desperate enough she tried to sell her body, but no-one wanted a smelly bag of bones. She couldn’t give it away! 1 apple would feed the burning hunger in her gut, take the pain away.
The woman waited until the grocer turned his back. As quick as she could she grabbed an apple, knocking over several others as she turned to run. Hunger made her weak and she hadn’t taken more than a few steps when she felt his hand grab her hair. Her head jerked back and she fell, sharp stones scratched her back, spotting her manky dress.
“Please, please I’m starving…” the man lifted his hand and slapped her hard. Spots flickered in her eyes.
“Please I’ll do anything.” She tried to reach for him but he stepped back.
“Don’t touch me leper.” Her hunger burned and white-hot anger poured through her veins, giving her strength. She punched him in the face but it had little effect other than making him angry. He walked away dragging her along behind him by the hair.
Throwing her in the door, the grocer ranted at the policeman. He turned an unsympathetic face to the woman, leading her roughly to the cell. Desperately she wondered if they would feed her, being in prison would then be worth it. The scratchy blanket did little to keep out the cold. Water and stale, dry bread was her supper and she scoffed it down.
Deep shadows poured through her window, cooling her to a shiver. Hearing footsteps she looked up and saw the night constable leering at her through the bars. She shrunk back, using the blanket as a barrier. He unlocked the gate, whistling as he looked her up and down.
“So what you in for?”
“I…I was hungry Sir, I stole an apple.”
“What’s your name?”
Tapping his truncheon in his hand, he moved closer. “Are you cold?” She looked up at him. He knew she must be, the woman wondered what he wanted. Ripping off her blanket he stared at her, fear trickled down her spine, increasing her shivering.
“You gonna be nice to me?” he asked? She nodded, now knowing what he wanted. He reached out and tweaked her nipple, it burned as he squeezed. She tried to pull away crying in pain, but he held fast. Instinctively the woman lifted her knee and kicked, catching him by surprise. He fell against the steel cot, cutting his head from eyebrow to ear. He wasn’t moving… Had she killed him? She prayed not. There was little sympathy for murderers AND he was a policeman.
Prodding him with her foot, she cried in relief when he groaned. Jumping up she grabbed her shoes and ran, straight into another policeman. He had the presence of mind to grab her as she kicked and fought trying to get away, but he held her fast. Her fate was sealed. She dropped to her knees.
Of course the policeman denied wanting to rape her or that he had touched her. The judge believed him, blackened eye and swollen face adding to the sympathy he demanded. After all – he upholds the law the judge boomed at her! His words painted a picture of a sympathetic policeman checking on a thief who then unprovoked was viciously attacked by this… this libidinous thief! “The gibbet!” someone shouted from the court.
“The gibbet, the gibbet…” it picked up pace and Grace trembled. Surely they wouldn’t put a woman in the gibbet?
“No…I…please don’t, I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” she reached for the battered policeman who made a big show of ducking away from her.
“He wanted to rape me…” she stopped. The crowd were furious that a street thief would lie about such an upstanding citizen! What a cheek!
“The gibbet” gained momentum until it was all she could hear. Grace knew it was over.
The gibbet they chose resembled a metal cage. It allowed a prisoner to be locked in, in a half-standing position. With wide gaps between the metal strips, it offered no protection from the elements. It was lifted high enough off the ground that people couldn’t try to get her out or help her. Criminals locked in, died of hunger, thirst, exposure or their injuries. It was long and torturous, a cruel way to punish the guilty. Grace cried, there was no way out, it was devastating.
A jeering crowd surrounded her adding to the indignity of it all. Grace turned her burning face away, praying for a miracle. It never came. The gibbet was raised off the ground by sweating men and ropes and secured in place.
She tried to sit but the gibbet didn’t allow it, so Grace wedged herself into as comfortable a position as she could and worked on the terror running through her veins. She knew it was the beginning of the end of her life.
One by one the crowd left, no doubt to warm homes and hearty meals. Tears tickled down her dry cheeks. Hunger scratched at her and her dry throat worked up and down trying to find some spit to moisten it. Misty fingers were her blanket and she shivered and trembled. Sleep didn’t come easily.
Grace woke to tremendous pain. Her knees were bruised from the half sitting position she slept in and her legs ached from the cold. Her swollen feet were blue and her throat burned. Shocked she comprehended that she needed to pee. Oh no! People were walking along the road. Children with their nannies, servants and homeless men. She would have to do it surreptitiously, if she left it much longer the decision would be made for her. Cheeks burning, she turned away, waited until her sidewalk was clear, moved her skirts and peed. The relief was instant.
To her horror she heard a scream “ewww gross” a little boy from across the road was pointing at her and laughing. Grace tried to stop peeing but couldn’t, it kept running down her leg. She turned away utterly humiliated, as the people stared. One woman reached into her basket, chose a hard tomato and took aim. Unbelievably it sailed right through the gap hitting Grace on the shoulder hard enough to knock her against the side wall. Grace finished her pee and adjusted her skirts.
The tomato came to rest inside the gibbet. Food! She grabbed it and bit, not even stopping to wipe it off. Tiny bits of sand added crunch to the sweet-sour taste. It was heaven and soothed her parched throat. Grace ate half the tomato then carefully put it into her pocket, she would need it later.
Grace moved her weight from foot to foot, the slats dug into her feet. The pain was unbelievable. Feeling much better after the tomato, Grace found new energy to think. She examined the gibbet. It was well made. Strong. Built to last. How many people had died in this, she wondered. The cage was designed and built by a blacksmith, there was no way to break through.
By the evening of her 2nd day Grace had finished the tomato, even licking the drops of juice off her filthy hands. She was grateful that the sun was sinking and even for the cool air, but knew that the nights were cold. She hadn’t peed again, probably due to her not getting anything to eat or drink apart from the tomato. She tried to goad a woman with a shopping basket into throwing something at her. Unfortunately the woman picked up a stone, lunging it at her. It hit the cage and bounced away with a loud bonnnggg. She stopped goading people, fearing that she may not be as lucky next time.
Early morning came, she had survived the night. Crying out in agony Grace tried to move around in the confined space to get comfortable. It was impossible. She begged passersby to help. Most ignored her, some spat and all hurried away. Once during the day a woman tried to pass her a fruit through the bars but couldn’t reach. As she leaned back to throw it, a policeman shouted at her. She hurried away. That was the last time anyone tried to help her.
“I’m dying” Grace realized. Between the elements, hunger, thirst and her body being weak to start off with, she was dying. Sadness swept through her.
“Mother? Father? Where did you go?” delirious and talking to herself through crack lips, she no longer felt the pain. It belonged to someone else, far away. The faces of the curious people watching her, turned to mist. The buildings and landscape faded. Even the blue sky and hot sun disappeared in a blanket of white.
Grace put out her hand, shaking, gave a small, dry scream and died. She remained in a half upright position. Her corpse slowly rotting, dripping, stinking.
Eventually her body was recovered and buried. It was too far gone to be handed over for research.
Grace was gone and forgotten.