This is quite a departure from the first story I wrote. It has violence, vice, objectionable language, and it's pretty dark. Fair warning.
BTW, thanks to everyone who reviewed. It was like M&M's by email!
Best of a Bad Lot
If I had not been an only child, my life would have been much different.
If the brothers and sisters who followed me into the world hadn't been dead or dying, I would have been put out to work almost as soon as I could walk, like any child of poor parents. I was small and quick and stronger than I looked; I might have made a passable chimney sweep's boy.
If other kids had come before me, my mum might have listened to reason and given me a solid, sensible English name.
If I had been one of half a dozen mouths to feed, I might have gone hungry all the time instead of only sometimes, in which case—and that's all the "if" I can stomach for now—I might have been a better thief.
As it was, I was only a fair to middling thief at the age of eight. And so it was that I had an apple halfway between a costermonger's barrow and my open mouth, half a second from bite and run, when a giant's hand clamped on my shoulder.
Gingerly I put the apple back and looked at the hand. It was calloused and clean. I looked down. Shiny black boots, dark blue woolen trouser leg.
A dreadful possibility occurred to me. I looked up, hoping against hope that I was wrong. Dark blue woollen jacket with cut-steel buttons. I was right. A constable's face, handsome and ruddy-cheeked, glowered down at me from a great height.
"Weel noo, lad," he said, "where'd ye be gooin' wi' that?"
Bleeding Christ, what was wrong with my ears?
Whatever it was began to clear; the next words were almost intelligible. "I ast ye a question. Can ye no speak English?"
"I can," I whispered. My words sounded all right, but to be safe, I tested. "Can you?"
The constable's high color climbed his temples and forehead. "Ah'm Scottish, ye cheeky brat! Where d'ye live?"
"Live? Me?" If—that word again—he marched me home now, my dad would be there, sleeping. Later, he'd be gone to the dockyard, but my mum would be home from the workshop. From him, I'd get the belt. From her—she'd cry, which was worse. "Nowhere!"
"Nowhere to live, eh? Well, it's the workhouse for you, then." He pulled on my shoulder as if to drag me off to the nightmare place. He wasn't the first to frighten a child with threats of the workhouse. Poor people were brought up to fear the name of it.
"Wait!" I fairly screamed.
"Remembered where you live?" The constable seemed to be holding back a smile.
"Yes, but I can't go there."
"Why's that? What's there that's worse than turning to thievery at your age?" He was taking the matter seriously at last, but asking questions for which I had no quick answer.
I wasn't one of those children casually knocked about by a drunken or overburdened parent. Those children got a cuff here and a swat there, all of it arbitrary. Whether they resented or were resigned to such treatment, they had the small comfort of knowing it was nothing to do with them.
I didn't live that way. My mum and dad were decent, working people. I was better off than many, as Mum kept reminding me. I thought better off was hardly the same as well off.
The constable was waiting for an answer.
I sighed. "I live on Ellen Street."
"That's better." During none of this time had his mitt of a hand left my shoulder. Had it, I would have dashed down the nearest bolthole-as he surely knew.
I didn't often meet someone sharper than myself. So far, I disliked the experience.
"It's shorter that way." I pointed east down the Commercial Road, toward Berner Street which met with Ellen.
"My beat leads this way." So we turned left into Backchurch Lane. "I pass by here twenty times a day, protecting the taxpayers from skinny midget hooligans."
Deeply insulted, I sniffed and wiped my nose on my sleeve. "When they take a man to the gallows , they at least give him a smoke and a blindfold."
"You want a blindfold?"
"None such. How'd you get so dirty?"
"Mudlarking." I didn't think I looked so bad, considering I'd spent the day on the Thames mud flats.
I shrugged. "No." The river often cast up valuable flotsam—chunks of coal for the fire, bits of rope or sail that the rag and bone men might buy. "Frankie Sprague found a tooth once."
The constable stared at me. "A human tooth?"
"It had a gold filling."
"What'd you do with it?"
"Frankie hocked it, of course. I wanted to look for the stiff it came off of, but he said I was cracked."
"You might have told the police."
"What was you like to do about it, whoever it was being dead?"
"You don't know he was dead. Should have been a police report. Which house do you live in?"
We stood at the corner of Ellen Street. "Number 18." The street was a solid block of identical houses. Sometimes people got drunk and mistook them. That gave us some awkward moments.
The door was warped, hanging askew on its hinges. The constable yanked it open, then paused in the gloom, straining to see.
Rickety stairs led up into darkness.
No sense in taking advantage of the dark to run. He knew where I lived.
I paused at the door to our room. Dad would be just waking up.
And I was in for it.
The constable looked at me. In the dim light, he seemed to loom even taller. "Last chance. Why are you afraid to go in there?"
"I ain't afraid of nothing!" I said with defiance born of fear.
"Have it your way. What's your dad's name?"
Best get it over with. "Will. I mean William Lestrade."
He rapped on the door. Dad opened it, his shirt still unbuttoned and his hair not combed yet. "Yeah?"
"Mr. Lestrade? I'm Constable Byrne," my captor said. "Your lad here—"
What he added to that, I didn't hear. I was struck suddenly by how very tired my dad looked.
I had never given much consideration to his life. Now I thought guiltily of him working all night as a watchman at the London Docks, alone in the dark, then doing a stevedore's work the next morning, catching a nap, only to find this at his door.
The look he gave me was worse than the fury I had feared. It was despair. "Ain't I told you a hundred times? And your mum, too? What are we to do with you?"
"If you'll pardon an observation," Constable Byrne put in, "he's scared he'll get a thrashin'."
"He's got that to rights."
My new sympathy for anyone but myself went like water down a gutter. "Thanks much," I muttered to the constable.
"Don't go too hard on him," Byrne added, as if he hadn't fixed me well enough already. "I'll be back tomorrow to take him to Sunday school."
With that, he left.
Dad's exhausted look turned into the glittering energy of rage. "What do you mean, bringing the coppers down on us?" He grabbed my wrist, yanked me into the room, and slammed the door. This time, he did me the courtesy of telling me what I had done. The gist was that I should be decent, respectable, and not a common thief. Every other word or so was underlined with a whack from his belt.
Mum came home, carrying the bread that was our usual warm-weather supper. I stood at the window, stubbornly refusing to cry, while Dad buckled the belt.
Mum sank into her chair. "What now?"
"For the love of heaven, Nancy, don't ask." Dad cut a slice of bread and went out the door eating it.
Mum sighed, then began to cut the bread and put the kettle on for tea.
I was too big to cry, but little enough to want soothing. "They say I have to go to Sunday school."
"School!" The word to her seemed to have an utterly opposite meaning from what it did to me. There was a gleam of hope and calculation in her eyes that didn't bode well for me. "School..."
I interrupted whatever daydream she was lost in. "Dad beat me."
"Come here." She held out her arms to me, and I leaned against her. She didn't quite hold me, careful not to hurt me more by touching the smarting welts. "I wish he weren't so heavy-handed with you."
"You ain't the only one." It was as if storing up his anger made it stronger.
Having once again taken my side and feeling disloyal for it, she let me go. "That ain't to say you don't earn it. What'd you do this time?"
I sullenly ate instead of answering.
"If you'd only cry a bit, he'd feel guilty and stop. You make it worse by being so prideful."
I had nothing to lose by asking, "If he took the belt to you, is that what you'd do? Cry a bit?"
Her blue eyes went dark with anger. I'd gotten that touchy pride from her.
"You got no call to find fault with me," she said. "You'll go to school tomorrow and to work with me the Monday. You can't get in no trouble there, I should hope."
She made straw hats—all day. I went along when there was fetching and carrying or sweeping up for me to do. It bored me to desperation.
Then she said about the only thing that could have made my situation more unbearable. "You can't go to school filthy from head to foot. You'll have to scrub."
As Constable Byrne led me to the dreaded school, I said, "I'd like to know what I ever done to you." Mum had made me scrub everything, even my toenails, although I had pointed out that nobody would see them. Cleanliness had done nothing to lighten my resentful mood.
"You want to know why I bother with a smart-mouthed guttersnipe, instead of restin' of a Sunday? Look at that lot there." He pointed to the curb, where hard-eyed boys crouched, passing the stub of a cigar around. They took no notice of the drunkard sprawled on the walk, nor of the blowzy unfortunate leaning against the wall. She must have been hard-up or addled, to be out working so early.
"So?" Drunkards, whores, and street kids were nothing special. I saw them every day.
"So you're better than that!" He grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a rough shake. "You're smarter than that. And it's over my dead body you'll end in the gutter like them, so step lively!" He gave me a push.
Do-gooders came to the East End like flies to a midden. They never stayed long. I only had to humor him until he gave up, too.
Then again, do-gooders were usually old ladies in fancy dresses. No other, so far as I knew, was a six-foot Scottish policeman with a billy to crack your head if you wouldn't reform.
When I saw where we were going, I had another complaint. "That ain't no school. It's a church."
The constable sighed. He seemed out of patience, although that couldn't have had anything to do with me. "It's a Methodist chapel in the morning, and a Sunday school in the afternoon."
"Methodists." I though that over. Methodist street preachers were do-gooders, but at least they were entertaining. The words hell, damn, and Jesus Christ came up fairly often in their sermons.
"You got anything against Methodists?"
"No." I shook my head, all innocence. "I like to hear 'em preach."
"Good." For some reason, he didn't look like he believed me.
His enthusiasm for my schooling was explained at sight of the teacher. She was a little bird of a thing, in a stern black dress that made her look very young. She had curly brown hair, skin the color of coffee with cream, and large, soft brown eyes. I had seen people like her before, although not many. They came off the ships that brought sugar, tobacco and rum from unimaginably far places called Jamaica, Barbados, New Orleans.
When she wasn't looking, Constable Byrne gazed at her as if she were an angel in a church picture.
To me, this meant primarily that I'd better watch my step. He was sweet on her, and wouldn't take kindly to any lying, stealing, smoking or blasphemy from the pupil he'd brought her.
Twenty kids sat on benches, some quietly, others fidgeting. Most, to my seven-year-old disgust, were little girls.
Constable Byrne wisely sat me in the first row, where the teacher could keep a sharp eye on me. He threw me an or-else look and went away.
The teacher wrote on a slate and gave it to a benchful of the little girls, then got the others reading or reciting together. She picked a small book from her table and sat next to me. She smiled and held out her hand. "My name is Miss Anne Jackson."
"'Ello, Miss." I shook her hand. It was soft and warm and smelled of soap. Close to, Constable Byrne's reasons for admiration became clear. She was very pretty.
Then Miss Jackson's calm, sweet face changed. Her lips pressed together, and a vertical line formed between her eyebrows. She had not let go of my hand. "Are you hurt?"
"No." I pulled my hand away, yanking my sleeve down over the bruises on my wrist. I didn't need anyone's pity.
"If you are quite sure. " She spoke clearly and crisply. I was too ignorant even to understand that she was trying to teach me better manners and grammar. "What is your name?"
"Do you have a Christian name?"
This was a puzzle. "A what?"
"What do your mother and father call you?"
"Their son, of course." Apparently you didn't have to be smart to be a teacher.
"All right. Never mind." She opened the book. "This is a book of the alphabet. It shows the letters that make up every word in the language. It tells the sounds they stand for. Once you learn those letters, you can read any word."
She turned to the first page. "This is letter A. A is for apple."
And there was a picture of the very thing that had started all my trouble. Well, I wasn't likely to forget that letter.
I understood "ball," as well, though nobody I knew had toys.
"Cat" was easy. Cats killed rats, and yowled and fought in the night.
"Dog" was easy,too. Dogs roamed the streets, eating garbage.
"You see?" Miss Jackson asked. "Each letter makes the sound that starts the word."
Then we got to "elephant" and "fan."
"I ain't never seen none of them things," I objected.
"I have never seen any of those things," Miss Jackson said.
"Well, if you ain't never seen 'em, neither, how do you 'spect to learn me about 'em?"
A different sort of teacher would have given me a smack for that. Fortunately for us both, Miss Jackson wasn't that sort. She nodded at shelves in the corner. "You'll find a set of books there. They are called the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Please fetch the one with the letter E on it." She pointed again to E in the small book.
I shrugged, and fetched a volume of the 1823 edition of the Encyclopedia.
Miss Jackson turned the pages. "There," she said. "This is the article about elephants."
This book had drawings, too, better than the other.
"Do you want to know about elephants?" Miss Jackson asked.
There was very little I didn't want to know. I nodded. "Will you read it to me?"
She smiled. "No."
"That ain't hardly fair," I said, although just how it wasn't fair, I couldn't have said.
"I'll help you learn to read for yourself," Miss Jackson said quietly. "Is that fair?"
By the time the church bells rang six o'clock, I had learned enough of the letters to scratch a few of them in chalk on a slate.