It’s always challenging to know how to start a novel – at least, it was for me. Because in the early stages I didn’t even know who I wanted my protagonist to be. After some trial and error (and many thousands of words), I decided it would not be Francis Light.
Nevertheless, I had already written a Prologue in order to show, early on, Light’s childhood character and ambition. I had discovered that he and a friend, James Lynn, had scratched their names on one of the windows of their school. I wondered why…which led me to discover that not only well-heeled people of the time scratched graffiti on the windows and walls of latrines, but these had been collected into a book by the pseudonymous “Hurlo Thrumbo.” It turns out that this was the title of an “18th century nonsense play” written by one Samuel Johnson of Cheshire (1691-1773). Not to be confused with the essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).
But back to my original Prologue. As much as I loved every word of it, at just over 2,500 words it seemed a little too long. I judged it better to introduce my protagonist, Jim Lloyd, and place his future in turmoil before I introduced anything to do with Light. After all, although the captain provides the backdrop for Jim’s development, it is the younger man’s story I’m telling.
Eventually, I decided to include Light’s early exploits as the Epilogue to Lies That Blind. When Jim shows this piece of writing to Light in Chapter 8 (Means and Ends), the reader is not privy to the full story. I felt this needed to be remedied—otherwise it was a thread that remained hanging—and the idea struck me that Jim’s wife could send his “vignette” to William Light years later.
See what you think of this original rendering; it’s been severely cut back in the final book
Woodbridge Free School, Suffolk: Autumn 1752.
No feet pounded the floors, no shouts ricocheted off the walls. Only the odour of growing boys lingered. Francis Light had three quarters of an hour to complete a task that his friend James Lynn had convinced him couldn’t be done without a diamond. Something neither of these twelve-year olds owned.
Francis spat out the fingernail he had just ripped off and began to tiptoe closer to the mullioned window. A floorboard creaked under him, and he froze. Breathe. That other sound? Only the wind whispering through the halls. No school masters had stayed behind—they never did. It would now be safe to sneak a look outside.
Pupils and masters swarmed like nomadic ants across the quad, on their way to morning prayers—to Matins. Their destination, the Anglican parish church dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin whose majestic tower, like a land-locked ship’s mast, could be seen even from Woodbridge quayside.
Francis scanned the grounds from his hideout in the school’s upstairs corridor. Only the more unusual of his peers were identifiable from this distance: orange-haired Edmund Jenney; that mean midget John Reeve; Joseph Fielding dragging behind on crippled legs. No sign of James who, even if he was not on his way to Matins, might be hiding. Too embarrassed to show his face had he failed to liberate a diamond from his mother’s jewelry box as promised.
Francis heard the longcase clock in the downstairs hallway drum the beat of seconds, reminding him of his father’s walking stick tap, tap, tapping on the cobblestones on those rare occasions the two of them ambled to market. He was running out of time. Soon the masters would be back, scouring these hallways for wrong doers. He would be caught and punished—how could he not, eventually?—but by then it would be too late. He would have accomplished what he intended and there would be no undoing it. Ever.
Reminded of why he had stayed behind, on this day, at this time—his mission—Francis rubbed his sore backside. To distract himself and give James more time to show up, Francis dug into a jacket pocket for his prized copy of The Merry Thought: or The Glass-Window and Bog House Miscellany. He pressed this prized pamphlet between his palms to flatten it, then opened one of the tattered pages at random:
When my brisk Lass Upon the Grass,
Will sport, and Give her Love;
She'll wink and pink, Till she can't think;
That's Happiness, by Jove!
How grateful he was to read these musings, scratched by men of every social class on the windows of taverns, parlours, even the panes of fine London houses. To console himself in his solitude he would read the bawdiest verse he could find:
Damn Molley Havens for her Pride
She’ll suffer none but Lords to ride:
But why the Devil should I care,
Since I can find another Mare?
Mare! Aha! Francis threw the pamphlet on the floor and rummaged through every pocket in his breeches and jacket until he found the one thing he considered even more precious: his lucky charm.
Some weeks earlier, when the man sitting, smoking alone at Woodbridge docks had asked if the boy had ever seen jade, Francis thought he meant had he ever sneaked into the town’s whorehouse. For Francis had never heard the word ‘jade’ used other than to mean a mare or fallen woman. But then the man had taken off a shoe and, poking within its toe, had extracted a circular object, the size of a guinea coin and the colour of water at low tide. Flat on one side and carved with what the man described as a fortune horse on the other. Francis still didn’t know if this sailor, who’d earlier told him tales of a faraway land called China, had meant to leave the grey-green stone behind when he left to go for a shit. But he didn’t seem in any hurry to return and so that exotic treasure had lain there like a siren, calling to his desire to own it.
If Francis had not picked up that piece of jade and pocketed it, then someone else would have, and then he’d have kicked himself for not doing so. In any case, where was the harm if the man was so foolish not to take better care of his possessions? Now the green stone was Francis’, but he’d avoided Woodbridge harbour ever since–-a great sacrifice on his part—in order not to bump into that sailor again, in case he was accused of stealing.
Could this jade—his lucky charm—have the potential now for a more practical role?
The longcase clock chimed the quarter hour. Francis wondered if he should maybe wait until the end of Michaelmas term when he would have the chance to hunt through the drawers of the Negus household. His father’s wife, Margaret, had plenty of diamonds, a few of which had to be real, given that the Negus family was related by marriage to the illustrious, wealthy Churchills. If James had had no luck finding the tool he insisted they needed for this task, perhaps Francis could sneak into Mrs. Negus’ bedroom one morning while she and his father were at church? She seemed to like him, even though his mother, Mary Light, had told him—once again, just the other day—not to go up to the big house too often, on account of him being his father’s bastard and a reminder of what no woman, especially one too old to bear a first child, would want shoved in her face. But the old man seemed to enjoy his visits and so it appeared did his wife, calling Francis a little charmer.
Perhaps next time he would ask to fetch something for the wife from upstairs then say he’d had trouble finding it, which is why he had taken longer than expected. That would give him time to borrow a diamond from her possessions. But the end of term was still a long way off. And after what had happened today, he couldn’t wait any longer. He’d even selected the very pane on which he would make his mark, this one, lower right and—
Behind him a stair creaked. Francis spun around, open-mouthed, ready with his excuse for not being where he should be. James! At last. With his hair and clothes askew, as if he had just tried to retrieve a ball from deep inside a hedge.
“Almost got caught,” James panted, then held out both hands, palms up, like a scoundrel clamped in the stocks. Empty. “Sorry, Francis—no diamond.”
“We don’t need it.” Francis knelt in front of a lower pane of glass, as if about to pray. His groan escaped like an unintended fart.
“You still pained? Heard you got belted.”
Francis winced. “Yes.”
The landing, until now cool and draughty, began to feel oppressively hot. Francis picked up the pamphlet from the floor and fanned it in front of his face. He had not wanted to think any more about it, but his mind automatically relived that earlier scene: The master’s command to stand on the bench, drop his breeches, and bend over; how the boys on either side had scattered to avoid the tail end of the strap; the crack of the leather as it connected with Francis’ bare skin; the jolt of pain, not once, not twice, but three times. Then the fiery ache that had sent his entire lower body into spasm. Followed by sniggers, and that hateful laughter that he would find a way to repay, even it took a while. Because if there was one thing Francis prided himself on, it was persistence.
“What you get whipped fer?”
Francis spat out each word as if tasting blighted potatoes. “I got two sums wrong.”
“Yes. Out of twelve.”
“Blimey. Ahm lucky if ah get two right.”
Francis clenched his jaw to try and stop his eyes from misting up. He mustn’t cry. Yes, it had been unfair punishment. But he would get his own back. Starting now.
“Saw my brother’s arse, after he got beat, once. Big red swellings ‘ee ‘ad. Like ‘eed caught the plague or sumfink.”
Francis ignored his friend and began to abrade the surface with the jade.
“Why’re we doing this again, Francis?”
Should he explain to James how his throat had tightened and his face burned as if thrust too close to a furnace, when the master had informed him after the beating that unless Francis improved himself, the best he could hope for in the future would be an apprenticeship to a merchant connected to one of the many trading companies: the Levant, the Muscovy, or the Honourable East India Company? That he certainly wasn’t cut out for university, the law—definitely not the Church—and that even though he’d been born to a lesser life, it was no excuse for slacking off.
Yet, no one seemed able to explain to Francis why becoming a trader would be so bad. To not just watch boats sail up and down the River Deben and imagine the precious cargo contained within their holds, but to travel as they did to Amsterdam and Esbjerg and London, maybe even as far as China and the other exotic lands that the sailors he often spoke with had told him about. To experience a life like the adventurer Sir Francis Drake, whose fighting ships had been built here, in Woodbridge harbour. A hero who had not only enjoyed freedom and danger in his lifetime, but the ultimate goals of wealth and fame. Whose deeds and glory—despite his being dead a century and a half already—had never been forgotten and never would.
Ah, but Francis had pressed a little too hard just then, at such an exciting thought. He needed to be sure not to break the glass or, worse still, damage his lucky charm. He blew away the miniature snowstorm that had gathered on the back of his hand and vowed to take more care. But also to rejoice in the fact that the green stone worked as well as the diamond James had insisted they needed yet had failed to produce.
“Well? What— ”
Francis had almost forgotten James’ earlier question. “Shush. I’ll answer you in a minute. Let me work in peace.” With mounting satisfaction, Francis could see how the swirls and lines he’d scored on the glass would soon be recognisable as his. Should he bother to recount to James that epigram from Johnson’s The Merry Thought, whose second to last line had strengthened his determination to deface school property?:
Then would thy fame be from oblivion sav'd?
Francis did not want his friend to think this act was a form of vengeance for his beating. Not at all! He wished to re-enact an idea that had first ensnared him when he read John Donne’s poem, A Valediction of My Name in the Window. He wanted to do something that those high and mighty men did, whom the Masters constantly referred to as his betters. The ones who scribbled and scraped on the walls of conveniences and on the sides of fine crystal goblets certainly to be amusing or amorous, but mostly to be remembered. But James, his head half obscured as he pored over Johnson’s pamphlet, seemed otherwise engaged, so Francis did not bother.
With a final flourish, Francis sat back on his haunches, surprised to find that they hurt a lot less than they had before. Done!
“So, your lucky stone worked.”
“I knew it would,” responded Francis. “And think of it! We’ve proven that diamonds aren’t the only stones that mark glass. Jade does, too. Here, take it and be quick about it. We don’t have much time left.”
Francis looked with satisfaction at his work. The pane of glass now had an inscription like those toasting glasses on which prominent Whigs and the men of letters of the Kit-Kat Club in London scratched the names of desirable ladies. Only in this case it was his own signature: F. Light.
James began to scrape away at the glass pane in order to add his name—J. Lynn—beneath Francis’ own. As he worked, Francis recited some of his favourite verses, both to amuse his friend and hold at bay his earlier resentment. So absorbed, he failed to hear the downstairs clock chime once more.
Too soon, it seemed, James grabbed his arm. He looked as crouched and wide-eyed as a grotesque on the church roof, the talisman suspended in mid-air between his fingers. “What’s that?”
Animated by a lightning bolt of urgency, Francis lifted his eyes away from the pamphlet and peered through the window. Outside, boys and schoolmasters had spilled out of the church, the noise of their chattering faint but growing. “Are you done?”
James handed over the stone. He blew white dust from his fingertips and rubbed his nose as if to stifle a sneeze. “Just.” Then he looked up, an unspoken question written across his eyes. He had never been as brave as Francis when it came to facing punishment.
Francis took back the green charm and began to examine it for damage. “Go! I’ll clear up here. I’ll be right behind you. Promise.”
With mumbled thanks, James bounded down the stairs.
The noise from outside had increased in intensity. Somewhere below him a door burst open and feet, no doubt agitated from sitting too long and too still in church, ran like demons along the corridors. Determined to bask in this moment for as long as possible, despite the risk of getting caught, Francis traced his finger across the etchings. At both their names expressed in the glass. His first mark on the world, but not his last.
While admiring his handiwork another realisation took hold. He could have executed this daring achievement even without James’ help. For what had his friend done, really, to bring it about? Francis alone had come up with the idea to use the jade talisman. He had inspired their actions, ones similarly undertaken by the kind of prominent men Francis intended not only to know as equals in years to come but who would one day speak of him in awe. In a few years’ time he would be out on the open seas like his namesake, Sir Francis Drake. Who knew what adventures, what glories awaited him? Surely he had just proven that he possessed all the qualities required for lasting fame.
With a sense that if he raised his arms aloft he could have touched the ceiling, that 12-year-old boy turned and with a triumphant burst of energy vaulted down the stairs. Laughing inwardly at the easy lie he would tell, about why he hadn’t gone to church; rejoicing in the fact that his name would never be forgotten.
* * *
At least, that is how I imagined this scene, after applying a scintilla of poetic license to the fragments of memory I coaxed, decades later, from Francis Light and James Lynn. Men long separated by oceans and their individual fates.
By the time I met him, Francis Light had long embraced the falsehood I also foolishly chose to adopt: That without renown, your life does not count. Neither of us recognising in time how this belief would drive us closer to jeopardy. Not just of our reputations but our lives, and those of the community we were meant to protect.
If you would like to read parts of Sam Johnson’s collection of graffiti for yourself, here’s a link on Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20558
This article, Behind the Writing on the Stalls, offers a brief history of decorating toilet walls with scribble: https://bit.ly/3ini9pw