Fiction

Violettowne

1.

This might be about what Bert Billingsworth did to Tho. North’s youngest brother, or George Ley’s cousin, who knows, but the Honourable told me to write down as much as I could remember. The Honourable said every detail, every bit, don’t skimp, it’ll all help, it might save your life Ivan. So I’ll start by saying this happened in Violettowne and Violettowne is a rough raw uncivilised place and there’s not much there apart from pigs and horses. Straight to the story, and it was 3.15 I think, perhaps later, but I’ve already told the police that. Me the police too, but not now. Either way, I was left to watch George Ley, who was locked up for hitting his wife, and Thomas North, who’d stolen a sack of grain. Bert Billingsworth was in the cell with them in Violettowne, with its one street and public house, its gaol made of big granite blocks. Bert was in for vagrancy. He never done nothing wrong much and probably shouldn’t have been there, but he was and it was 3.15 or maybe 3.30 I don’t know as I was sleeping, and I was woken by a drama in the cells, a lot of moving about and huffing and heaving and I shot up and said oi, what are you lot up to? No reply, so I turned up the gas and there’s Tom, and there’s George, and there’s Bert lying on the ground, and I said what have you done to him? George shrugged and lit a cigarette. Thomas laid down to sleep. So I opened the cell, shook Bert, but there are no words or him moving, just nothing, and he’s dead, I’m sure he’s dead, and I said what did you dogs do to him?

 

2.

The Honourable Nicholas Hannen was the one who passed the sentence that wasn’t a sentence and according to the even more Honourable I shoulda knowed that and not did what I did. So back in Violettowne the doctor in the dock said oh, yes, he died from a blow to the head, and it’s simple, open and closed, someone, one man killed him. And me thinking I shoulda been awake, I shoulda seen, I shoulda known what was going on, but anyway, the reason why I’m writing for my life isn’t because I fell asleep that night, no, it’s because I did what no other man would do, and it was right and proper and I have no regrets. Mr Hannen got George up and said what happened and George said not sure, I was sleeping, and I woke, and Tom was standing with the hammer in his hand, and the judge wanted to know where the hammer come from, and I said (later, when it was my turn), I don’t know, I can’t remember no hammer. But it was still my fault. But I’m not writing for my life because of no hammer, no, nothing like that. Then Tho. North got up and he said he was shocked when he woke and saw George Lexy standing above Bert Billingsworth with a hammer in his hand. That’s what he said, and during all this George looked at Tom and said you liar, and Tom looked back and said the same thing, and they tried to get at each other but me, Ivan, Ivan Samson, me and the other men held them back so that couldn’t happen. Then the Honourable summoned me and said what had happened and I said I didn’t know, I was busy in the armoury and I didn’t see, I should’ve I suppose but I didn’t. He called me unreliable and simple and I said so be it.

 

3.

Too much for a simple man like me, which is why the decision fell to the Honourable, who sat for days in his office and although I was a witness I still had to bring him tea and toast and he kept asking me questions and I told him what I knew (apart from the falling asleep) and in the end he just shrugged and said well, there’s nothing for it. So I was sent to summon the people and the Honourable got up and said if neither of you will say then I have no choice but to find you both guilty of murdering Albert Billingsworth. Then Tom and George are calling out it couldn’t have been both of us but the Honourable said what else can I do, and if that’s the game you want to play. The lawyermen argued there’s no precedent, it can’t be done, only one man can be found guilty of one crime, but the Honourable shooshed them and said so what, get my cart, Mr Samson, I want to get of this pigshit town. George shouting no it wasn’t him, and Tom saying you rotten liar, and me and the men dragging them back to their cells.

 

4.

It ended at the gallows. It always ends at the gallows. Both men standing side by side, George pissing himself, but that didn’t mean he was innocent, or guilty. I said time’s up, gents. Take a look. And they looked at each other. Can’t someone decide, now, to speak up. Who killed Bert? The same shouting and struggling but we had them tied good by then. I said come on now, it’s time, one of you. I was sure one would break. Even the innocent man might decide to die for the other. But no, shouting and screaming and I lost patience and held the lever in my hand and said if this is what’s writ, and no other man in his high and mighty will agree to do it, then I have no choice but to carry out the Honourable’s sentence. So, of course, you know what I did. But I have to make it clear before the sun rises one last time over Violettowne.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2022 as "Violettowne".

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Stephen Orr is an Adelaide-based novelist, essayist and short story writer. His most recent book is Sincerely, Ethel Malley.

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