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The Potato Factory  - Bryce Courtenay

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Published: June 2006
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Ikey Solomon's favourite saying is also his way of doing business. And in the business of thieving, he's very successful indeed. Ikey's partner in crime is his mistress, the forthright Mary Abacus, until misfortune befalls them. They are parted and each must make the harsh journey from thriving nineteenth-century London to the convict settlement of Van Diemen's Land.

In the backstreets and dives of Hobart Town, Mary learns the art of brewing and builds the Potato Factory, where she plans a new future. But her ambitions are threatened by Ikey's wife, Hannah, her old enemy. The two women raise their separate families, one legitimate and the other bastard. As each woman sets out to destroy the other, the families are brought to the edge of disaster.

'Courtenay offers an ersatz Dickens novel, a sort of Australian Oliver! but without the music.' Sunday Age

'The tale is vivid and instructive … The Potato Factory is pure yarn-spinning, rattling along at heart-thumping pace. Barely a page goes by without incident. And for those who like their plots dense and melodramatic, Courtenay's in a class of his own.' Time

About the Author

Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa and has lived in Sydney for the major part of his life. He is the bestselling author of The Power of One, April Fool's Day, The Potato Factory, Tommo & Hawk, Jessica, Solomon's Song, Smoky Joe's Cafe, Four Fires, Whitethorn and Brother Fish.

Chapter One

Ikey Solomon was so entirely a Londoner that he was a human part of the great metropolis, a jigsawed brick that fitted into no other place. He was mixed into that mouldy mortar, an ingredient in the slime and smutch of its rat-infested dockside hovels and verminous netherkens. He was a part of its smogged countenance and the dark, cold mannerisms of the ancient city itself. He was contained within the clinging mud and the evil­smelling putrilage. Ikey was as natural a part of the chaffering, quarrelling humanity who lived in the rookeries among the slaughterhouses, cesspools and tanneries as anyone ever born in the square mile known to be the heartbeat of London Town.

Ikey was completely insensitive to his surroundings, his nose not affronted by the miasma which hung like a thin, dirty cloud at the level of the rooftops. This effluvian smog rose from the open sewers, known as the Venice of drains, which carried a thick soup of human excrement into the Thames. It mixed with the fumes produced by the fat-boilers, fell-mongers, glue­renderers, tripe-scrapers and dog-skinners, to mention but a few of the stench-makers, to make London's atmosphere the foulest-smelling place for the congregation of humans on earth.

The burial ground in Clare Market was full to the point where gravediggers would be up to their knees in rotting flesh as they crammed more bodies into graves. Corpses piled on top of each other often broke through the ground emitting noxious gases, so that the stench of rotting bodies was always present in nearby Drury Lane.

Since infanthood Ikey had grown accustomed to the bloated effluence of the river and the fetidity that pervaded St Giles, Whitechapel, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and the surrounding rookeries. His very nature was fired, hammered and hardened within this hell which was the part of London he called home.

Ikey Solomon was the worst kind of villain, though in respectable company and in the magistrates' courts and the assizes he passed himself off as a small-time jeweller, a maker of wedding rings and paste and garnet brooches for what was at that time described as the respectable poor. But the poor, in those areas of misery after Waterloo, had trouble enough scraping together the means to bring a plate of boiled potatoes or toasted herrings to the table. If Ikey had depended for his livelihood on their desire for knick-knackery, his family would have been poorly served indeed.

In reality he was a fence, a most notorious receiver of stolen goods, one known to every skilled thief and member of the dangerous classes in London. In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham young pickpockets, footpads, snakesmen and the like referred to him in awed and reverent tones as the Prince of Fences.

Ikey Solomon was not a man to love, there was too much the natural cockroach about him, a creature to be found only in the dark and dirty corners of life. It might be said that Ikey's mistress loved him, though she, herself, may have found this conclusion difficult to formulate, love being a word not easily associated with Ikey. Mary wasn't Ikey's wife, nor yet his mistress, perhaps something in between, an attachment for which there is not yet a suitable name.

The doubtful honour of being Ikey's wife was reserved for Hannah, a woman of a most terrible disposition who did little to conceal her dislike for her husband. Such acrimonious sentiments as were commonly expressed by Hannah were usually forbidden to a woman, who was expected to accept with a high degree of stoicism her husband's peregrinations in life. A woman, after all, had no rights to carp or pout at the results of her partner's misfortunes. Nor decry his errors in judgment or his lack of moral rectitude but share the good, silently accept the bad and hope always for the best, which is the female's natural lot in life, though if this was ever made plain to Hannah, it had not sunk in too well.

Moreover, setting aside for a moment what might be considered formal filial duty, Hannah had a good case against Ikey. Their children also were on her side, both puzzled and somewhat ashamed of the curious man they took to be their father.

If Ikey understood the duties of a father he chose never to exercise them. To his children during the hours of daylight he was a dark, huddled, sleeping bundle wrapped in a large, extremely dirty coat from which protruded at one end strands of matted grey hair surrounding a mottled bald dome. Looking downwards, first there was a thick hedge of unkempt eyebrow and then a nose too long for the thin face from which it grew. Still further downwards in the area of the chin grew an untidy tangle of salt and pepper beard, thick in some parts and in others wispy, all of it most uneven and ratty in appearance.

From the other end of the greasy coat stuck a pair of long, narrow, yellow boots, their sharp snouts concertinaed inwards and pointed upwards. These boots were never seen to leave his feet and to the curious eyes of his children their dented snouts seemed to act as sniffing devices. With the first whiff of danger they would jerk Ikey from the horizontal into a wide-awake seated position, their snouted ends testing the air like truffle pigs, quickly establishing the direction from whence the danger came. Whereupon, Ikey's boots would become in appearance two yellow cockroaches, plant themselves firmly on the ground, then scuttle him away into some dark, safe corner.'

Ikey was also a series of daylight noises to his children. A cumulation of slack-jawed snoring and wet spittle sounds issued constantly from a mouth clustered with large yellow and black teeth. Several appeared to be broken or missing, worn down by the gnashing and grinding of a torturous sleep which came to an end precisely at six-thirty of the clock in the evening.

At night Ikey's children, hugging each other for moral support, would watch wide-eyed from dark corners as he shuffled about the house, sniffing, snorting and whimpering as though expecting somehow to find it changed for the worse during his sleep. If Ikey should come across a clutch of children he would halt and stare momentarily as though curious to who they might be.

'Good!' he'd snort at them and shuffle away still sniffing and whimpering as he carried on with his inspection of the premises.

At seven of the clock precisely, the Irish woman who looked after the children in Hannah's absence would place in front of him a mutton and potato stew with a thick wedge of batter pudding. He'd eat alone in the skullery, his only implement a long, sharp pointed knife with which he'd stab a potato or a fatty piece of mutton and feed it into his mouth. Then, when the solid contents of the bowl were disposed of, he used the batter pudding to soak up the broth, polishing the bowl clean with the greasy crust. .

Ikey's evening meal never varied. Neither beef nor fowl ever replaced the greasy mutton, and he would complete his repast with a bowl of curds swallowed in one long continuous gulp which made his Adam's apple bounce in an alarming fashion. Milk with meat was not kosher and Ikey, who had a regular seat in the Duke's Place synagogue, was a good Jew in all but this respect. With his hands, first the left and then the right, he'd wipe the remains of the frothy curd from his lips then run both greasy palms down either side of his coat, this action bringing scant improvment to either.

At this point the children listening at the door would strain their ears for the various oleaginous noises coming from his stomach. They'd hold their breath for the magnificence of the burp they knew must surely follow and the horrendous fart which would cap it, a single explosion which signalled the end of Ikey's repast.

His evening meal over, Ikey picked his teeth with a long, dirty fingernail. He would then take up Hannah's ledger and repair to his study. Before he unlocked the door he would pause and look furtively about him, then enter and immediately lock it, restoring the brass key to somewhere within the interior of his overcoat.

Ikey would light the two oil lamps in his study to reveal a smallish room thick with accumulated dust except within the precinct of his writing desk. This he kept pristine, the quill and blacking pot neatly lined up, a tablet of evenly stacked butcher's paper to the right.

Ikey would then take a cheap imitation hunter from the interior of his coat and lay the watch together with Hannah's ledger upon the desk. He then removed his coat and waistcoat, leaving him standing in his dirty woollen undershirt. The coat and waistcoat he hung upon the coat-stand, one peg of which already contained his flat-topped broad-brimmed hat. Then moving to one corner of the room, he sank to his knees and, in turn, pushed four knot-holes contained in the floor­boards. These immediately sprang up an inch or so at one end, whereupon Ikey carefully removed the nails from the holes. He lifted the floorboards to reveal a small dry cellar no deeper than four feet and filled with ledgers. Ikey removed three and carefully clicked the sprung floorboards back into place, positioning the nails in the holes in which they belonged. He then crossed to his desk, placed the ledgers down, seated himself on the high stool and lit the lamp which hung directly above his head. Seated quiet as a mouse, he worked until midnight.

Precisely ten minutes later, the time it took to tidy his desk, return the ledgers to the cavity beneath the floor­boards, get into his coat, fix his hat upon his head, douse the lamps, lock the door to the study, take Hannah's ledger back to the pantry and place it in the sack containing potatoes and leave the house, he slid furtively from a half-closed front door into the passing night.

Ikey wore his great coat buttoned tightly with the collar pulled high so that it wrapped around his ears. He pulled his hat down low across his brow and hardly any part of him was visible as he moved along, the hem of his thick woollen coat inches from the scuffed and dented caps of his scuttling yellow boots.

The irony was that Ikey's entire identity was revealed in his very self-concealment — his wrapping and scuttling, chin tucked in, head turned around at every half a dozen steps, dark eyes darting, as though seen through a brass letterbox slot; the crab-like sideways movement, stopping, sniffing, arms deep into the pockets of his great coat, instinctively seeking for a wall to sidle against, so that the shoulders of the coat were worn with scuffing against brick and rough stone.

These mannerisms clearly identified him to the street urchins and general low-life who used their rapacious eyes for observing the comings and goings of everyone they might prey upon. If Ikey had completely disrobed and walked, bold as a butcher's boy, in broad daylight, whistling among the stalls in the Whitechapel markets, this would have been a more complete disguise.

Perhaps the broad daylight aspect of such a disguise would have been the most effective part of it, for light in any form was repugnant to Ikey who, like Hannah, was nocturnal. Both were involved in duties best completed well after sunset, and before sunrise.

Ikey would be out and about after midnight, sniffing for business in the thieves' kitchens, netherkens and chop houses in the surrounding rookeries, while Hannah was the mistress of several bawdy houses which traded best as the night wore on.

Hannah had been born a beautiful child and lost none of her fine looks as she grew into a young woman, but then the pox had struck. Unable to restrain herself she had scratched at the scabs until the blood ran, leaving her pretty face and pubescent breasts badly and permanently pocked.

From childhood Hannah had imagined herself away from the hell of Whitechapel and occupying a small residence in Chelsea. She would be a courtesan, exquisitely perfumed and coiffured, dressed in fashionable gowns of shot silk. She would wear diamonds from Amsterdam. and pearls from the South Seas which, naturally, were the grateful gifts of the young gentlemen officers of the Guards, the Blues and no other, or of the older, though equally handsome, titled members of the Tattersall Club. She would be seen at the opera and the theatre and remarked upon for her extraordinary beauty. Wherever Hannah went young swells and flash-men on the randy would evoke her name as one might a princess, knowing her to be beyond the reach of their impecunious pockets, dreaming of a windfall which might cause such unfortunate circumstances to be overturned.

Instead the dreadful scars had caused her to become a barmaid at the Blue Anchor in Petticoat Lane. Here her pretty figure and large blue eyes could have earned her a handsome enough living as a part-time prostitute, but the idea was repugnant to her. She was not prepared to deny her previous expectations to work on her back as a common whore.

Hannah's bitterness had left her moody and recalcitrant and the young men who paid her attention soon dwindled. Her tongue was too acerbic and her expectations too high for their aspirations or resources. Quite early in her pock-marked life she had conceived of the idea of owning a high-class brothel. She saw this as her only chance of resurrecting the original dream to associate with the better classes in dress and mannerisms, if not in respectability.

So she cast her eyes about for a likely patron. Perhaps an older man easily pleased with her generous hips and big breasts whose needs, after his nightly libation, were seldom onerous, satisfied after a half-dozen grunts and jerks whereupon he would fall back exhausted onto his duck down pillow to snore and snort like the fat pig he undoubtedly was.

When Ikey, who at the age of twenty-one was already coming on as a notorious magsman and was thought not without spare silver jiggling in his pockets, came along, his very repulsiveness made him attractive to her. True, he was not elderly nor yet rich, but young, clever and careful, his dark eyes always darting. Appearing suddenly at the door of the Blue Anchor, he scanned the patrons, his eyes sucking in the human contents of the room before he entered. Hannah could sense that he was greedy, secretive, a coward and moreover he made no advances of a sexual nature during his pathetic attempt at courtship. What she had expected to find in an older man she now found in Ikey. Ikey would be her ticket to glory, the means by which she would achieve the remnants of her earlier ambition.

They were married in London in 1807 in the Great Synagogue at Duke's Place with all the trappings and regalia of the Jewish faith. It was a bitterly cold January morning, but it was well known that a morning ceremony was less costly and Hannah's father, a coachmaster, was not inclined to waste a farthing even on his family. If, by a little thought and negotiation, a small extra sum could be saved for ratting, the sport on which he chose to gamble most of his earnings, so much the better.

Hannah and Ikey were a well-suited couple in some respects and they shared a thousand crimes and ten thousand ill-gotten gains in their subsequent life together. As a consequence they became very wealthy, though Hannah had not achieved her ambition to mix with the male members of the best of society and be seen in the gilded boxes of the opera and theatre. Instead her bawdy houses were frequented by lascars and Chinese and black seamen from North Africa, the Indies and the Cape of Good Hope, and of course all the scum from the English dangerous classes. Panders, crimps, bullies, petty touts, bimbos, perverts, sharpers, catamites, sodomites and unspecified riff-raff as well as the famine Irish with their emaciated looks and long thick swollen dicks. They were more in need of a feed than a broken-down tart, robbing their families of what little they had to boast of fornication with a poxy English whore.

Ikey counted himself fortunate to have found a wife as avaricious and morally corrupt as himself, yet one who could play the prim and proper lady when called upon to do so. Upon their marriage Hannah had adopted the demeanour in public of a woman of the highest moral rectitude with the straitlaced, scrubbed and honest appearance of a Methodist preacher's wife. This was only when she was in the presence of her betters and as practice for a time to come when, she told herself, she would run the most exclusive brothel in London Town.

Ikey's success as a fence had precluded such an establishment, designed, as it would be, to cater for the amorous needs of the better classes. It would be too public and draw too much attention. Hannah had reluctantly and temporarily put her ambitions aside. Instead, by working at the lowest end of the sex market, she often proved to be a useful adjunct to Ikey's fencing business.

This subjugation to her husband's needs did not come about from loyalty to him, but rather from simple greed. Ikey had been successful beyond her wildest expectations. Hannah began to see how she might one day escape to America or Australia, where she could set up as a woman of means and attain a position in society befitting her role as a wealthy widow with two beautiful daughters and four handsome sons, all eligible to be married into the best local families. It had always been quite clear in Hannah's mind that Ikey would not be a witness to her eventual triumph over the ugly scars which had so cruelly spoiled her face and with it, her fortune.

In the intervening period, Hannah felt that she had sound control of her husband. Her sharp and poisonous tongue kept him defensive and it was as much in her natural demeanour to act the bully as it was for Ikey to be a coward. She prodded him with insults and stung him with rude remarks as to his appearance. Ikey was constantly shamed in her presence. He knew he possessed no useful outside disguise to fool his fellow man and he greatly admired this propensity in her, who added further to his infatuation by giving him six children and proving his miserable, worthless and reluctant seed accountable.

Moreover, Hannah had gratified him still further, for none of his children had inherited any onerous part of his physiognomy and all took their looks strongly from her. She claimed that Ikey's puerile seed had been overwhelmed by her own splendid fecundity and, as he had no confident reason to doubt that this was true, he was grateful that she brought an end to his line of unfortunate looks. Hannah, who so clearly held Ikey in her thrall, had no cause whatsoever to suspect him capable of dalliance with another. The thought of a Mary or any other such female coming into Ikey's life was beyond even Hannah's considerable imagination or lack of trust in her husband.
Bryce Courtenay

Bryce: in his own words...

I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

Here I met Doc, a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

Bryce Courtenay died at his home in Canberra, Australia. He was 79. Courtenay is survived by his second wife Christine Gee and his children Adam and Brett.

Visit Bryce Courtenay's Booktopia Author Page


ISBN: 9780143004561
ISBN-10: 0143004565
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 856
Published: June 2006
Dimensions (cm): 19.2 x 13.1  x 5.0
Weight (kg): 0.63
Edition Number: 1