What You Call Free, part four: ‘She couldn’t summon the heat for revenge… he was false, she was broken’

In the final extract of Flora Johnston’s debut novel What You Call Free, there’s a glimmer of hope for Jonet...

Friday, 12th March 2021, 7:00 am
Flora Johnston, author of What You Call Free, at the Grassmarket which features in the novel

Jonet knew her wage was a sore loss... So hard, to come trailing home to Mam’s tight face, Davy’s scorn and wee Mary’s huge eyes. And so much harder, to find herself alone next day as they all went about their business. She could hear Mam humming at the far end of the cottage as she worked the spindle. Unable to bear the idea of sitting inside doing nothing, she stepped into the sharp October air.

It was a dry day, for all it was overcast, and the wind that whipped down from the hill stung her cheeks, but she welcomed that. Welcomed the feel of it, the struggle against it, as she made her way past the small cluster of cottages, following the path that would take her up the gentle incline towards the common grazing. She had not come this way since she started working at the farm three year syne, yet she knew every tree, every ditch, every leaf. And as she walked along the track in the footsteps of her girlish self, she was able, just fleetingly, to catch a sense of that lass again. The lass who had not yet met Will Murdoch. But it was fleeting right enough.

Round the next corner she met Mamie and her daughters from one of the cottages. And she kent them well, one lass being about her own age, and she made to greet them. But the younger one gave a giggle and the mother actually stretched out both her arms and pulled one daughter into each side, as if to shield her precious children from the harlot in their midst… she stopped and watched as they hurried past, round the corner and out of sight.

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What You Call Free

And then, alone again, she reached out blind and leant all her weight against a tree trunk, sinking slowly downwards until she was huddled at its roots. This was the way it would be from now on, then. Shunned. Unable to find work or a husband, forever a burden to her family. Shamed. All because she fell for a man who brushed the hair from her face, and spoke as softly to her as he did to his beloved horses.

Another woman’s husband. She didn’t doubt it now. Each night as she lay in her bed amid restless and fitful dreams, she heard snatches of Will’s conversation echoing round her head. Phrases and stories which hadn’t quite made sense. The laughter in his eyes had chased away any worries at the time, masking his betrayal. She could scarcely comprehend it, but it was quite obviously true. They were looking for him, of course, to bring him to justice too, and she tried to picture him, the laughter gone, bareheaded and draped in sackcloth at the front of the kirk. What would his wife say then? Aye, that would be a sweet moment. Yet somehow, in the chill, she couldn’t quite summon the heat for revenge. He was false, and she was broken.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there amid the damp fallen leaves... but eventually she pulled herself to her feet and began to walk down, life creeping painfully back into her numb legs. And as she passed along the path near the houses, everyone she met seemed to confirm her fears. Two folk with heads close together, whispering quietly. A child laughing, someone else pointing. It was right, what Mistress Dalguise had said: ‘all the world kens of this bairn.’

For all the world had seen her, shrouded in shame before the kirk. And with no Will to be found, that same world saw and judged a wicked, wanton woman. So she returned to the cottage and she took to the boxbed and lay facing the wall. All that day and all the next. And the week inched forward, and the prospect of the Sabbath drew closer, when she would yet again be paraded as an object of sin and shame.

For a day or two her family let her be, though wee Mary’s thin arms would slip around her as she lay there wakeful in the night, and she was grateful for it. But she knew that Mam

wouldn’t live with such idleness and self-pity for long. She heard her mother muttering as she went about her work, the words never quite distinct enough to worm under Jonet’s blanket of grief, but aimed at her, without a doubt.

And right enough the day soon came when her mother was before her, berating her, ordering her to get to her feet and come ben. So she did. She dressed herself and slipped

through the curtain into the room where Mam was leaning over the fire, her face flushed. There was a bowl of porridge waiting on the old wooden table, and Jonet sat herself down.

She waited. A lifetime’s experience told her Mam would speak when she was ready and not a moment before. When she did, it was the last thing Jonet expected.

‘Right, my lass. Sandy’s coming for you Monday forenoon.’

Her head felt stupid. She didn’t understand. She opened her mouth but said nothing.

‘You’ll bide with Kirstie. It’s all arranged.’

Still she could only stare, her thoughts slow. ‘But...’

Mam glared at her then. ‘Do you no want to go? You’ll no be lying in your bed there, mind. You’re to help your sister with her bairn.’

Of course she wanted to go, but surely Mam understood it was impossible. ‘When will I come back?’

Mam shrugged. ‘I’ll send someone for you when I want you back.’

‘But - I must be here on the Sabbath. The minister...’

‘You leave the minister to me,’ Mam said…

To continue reading, What You Call Free is published by Ringwood Publishing, March 17, pre-order www.ringwoodpublishing.com

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