The early morning smells like blood, and Levi sneezes into his shirtcuff. The neighbors are butchering a chicken - hopefully the old rooster that always seems to wake the whole street in the middle of the night - and their shouts bounce off the houses all around. Evidently the chicken has not acquiesced to its slaughter, and is making an attempt at escape.
Levi scratches at a flea-bite, leans against the cool stone by the doorway, and wonders why they're making the effort. It's a Thursday and not a holiday, no Sunday dinner or special-occasion feast to make.
Someone's probably died, he decides, and they're having his wake tonight.
The sun isn't yet up, the sky still grey with only the precursor of dawn, so he waits and scuffs his shoes on the pavement a while, delaying the inevitable just a little longer. He shouldn't - they need the money, and the sooner he can get to his corner the more he'll make - but he doesn't want to go, not just yet.
A door down the street creak-clicks shut and footsteps creep closer through the early fog; Ada who sells lavender (and coughs and coughs in the night), leaving for the day. She smiles at him, though her face is fearful pale and her hands a-tremble where she holds a bundle of yesterday's leavings to her chest.
"Wilt tha come with me?" she says, pausing at the foot of the stairs (and the shadows under her eyes are dark and deep, the scabs at the corners of her lips caked in powder to hide them). "It's a cold and lonely morning to stand here all alone."
Levi bobs a quick bow to her (usually it makes her smile, but not today) and fumbles his reply. "Thank 'ee, marm. I'm waiting for Tom down-the-lane today."
Tom Harrison (who isn't) may or mayn't come along; he's a dawdler born, a year younger than Levi and lazy as a cat in sun. Ada doesn't know, though, and doesn't need to.
She nods her head, loose bits of hair swaying with the motion. "Good by you then."
"Good by," he echoes, the lie rattling in his empty stomach. Because Adelaide Asbury married a man who brought her to London and made her Addie O'Briain, and the sparrows knock against her windowpanes and the deathwatch ticks in her walls because for a dowry he gave her consumption, the dry cough that racks her and bloodies her handkerchiefs, and Levi knows what she does not, that she'll be dead by Candlemas.
You can't catch consumption by walking with the sick person as she goes to sell her lavender (her boots a clack-clack-clack on the stones as she walks away, the only new things she owns, bought them in Petticoat Lane for good luck in her walking all day, always on her feet), but the bad luck that follows her is something that can be passed along, and Levi raps his knuckles against the doorframe to make sure it doesn't leap the space between them and catch on him.
The bad luck isn't her fault, only a thing that happened to her, battened on to her, but it's still best not to risk the catching of it. It might not take him as consumption, maybe a kick from an ill-tempered horse in the street or a settling mist of disease, and maybe not right away, might wait a year or longer, but luck is not a beast to be taunted.
He watches her go (her new boots wearing at the heels, her dress flecked and stained at the hem where she cannot always keep it from the mud) and wishes what he said was true, that Tom the fool was at this moment shoving his feet into outgrown shoes, hurrying down the wobbling stairs, to come and join him here. Even if she's dying, she doesn't deserve his lying to her.
Levi shoves his hands in his trouser pockets, counts the coins by touch. Most of what he made yesterday he gave over to Mother when he got home (dragging himself in the door, smell of something baking and oven-heat working into his cold fingers and her hands on his shoulders, the rustle of her skirts), but he kept a little over for this morning to keep body and soul together. Two ha'pennies, big round penny, and edge-sided thruppence, fivepence all told.
He's been so hungry the past weeks, Molly's strong tea and a cut of bread-with-drippings no longer enough to keep him to lunchtime. It could be the cold, the clammy fogs that creep up the river and lay still between the houses. Or it could be what Mother says all sadly, that he's getting his growth (and this he thinks is true, because the hairs gathering on his cheeks seem darker and longer, and his voice cracking sometimes into a different deeper register).
When Father was alive he didn't have to care about the pennies in his pockets, didn't need them - what did he want with them, a boy still in short pants? But his father is dead, in Potter's Field buried these five years and some, and not here to see his son counting out his money, planning a breakfast bought from vendors on the street.
A shout arises from the neighbors' and Levi jerks back into himself, listening again - the chickens have stopped squawking, the cleaver they use to chop the heads away thunked back into its keeping-place, and the new wife is angry at the girl because she didn't take off the head clean (they only hired her a week ago, the new wife is a plague on servants).
He stamps his feet, stuffs his hands in his pockets, and takes the five steps down to the sidewalk one-by-one like a man (Tom would take them at a jump), the stiff mended place in his boot by the heel rubbing against the building callus there through the sock.
Up the street he hears Ada singing already, her voice one thread in the weave of early-morning noise:
"Won't you buy my pretty lavender" and the slam of a door as someone leaves a room in anger (Frank or Robert maybe, the upstairs renters next door who look alike and don't care for each other at all) that cuts off his hearing the rest. He knows it by heart; while it wasn't her singing, lavender girls are a part of the sounds of the city, familiar as a lullaby.
Follow the noise and the smell of men passing and the memory he carries in his head, past the point where he ceases to know everyone in every house and only has some of what is going on (widow on one side of the street, new bride on the other, a large Irish family here and a German bachelor there), into the main ways where men are already trudging to work (and not a few women slipping among them as they go).
He passes the bakery (warmth reaching out, cheerful shouts inside, and he hopes that he could find a place somewhere like that, hopes that the new boy they just took on will turn out bad and that he can beg cap-in-hand for his place) and pushes past a man who smells like he spent the night in the river who's standing still for no reason in the street. Levi doesn't always understand.
Polly is where she always is, waiting stalwart in the middle of a crowd of hungry people (usually men, today two women with seamstress's squinting eyes and worn hands who huddle against each other, chattering as they drift away down the street) and taking the money they press to her hands as she passes them food.
She sees him and raises one thick hand in a brief wave as he shoulders his way to her, booms a greeting over the hum of the morning street.
"What's tha doing out so early, wee one?" she says, a grin showing all the teeth she still has, healthy yellow and strong. "Tha belongst in bed still."
Levi puffs himself up to her mock. "I've work, Polly. And tuppence for thee if tha'll take it." He offers her the thruppence in his unstained palm, and her nails scrape the skin as she takes it.
"I'll take it," she says, and with her other hand gives him the hot pasty he came for (he smells the onions and the richness of meat, hopefully not cat this week), done up in newspaper that he could read later, a small gift. "Didst tha hear the news?"
"What news?" He leans against the stall, props all-bone elbows in readiness to listen. The pasty is hot in his hand, almost painful, but that's no consequence to news passed from Polly who hears everything.
"Jobs," she says as the crowd passes by around them. "For boys like thee. Out in the country somewhere under Lord Someone. As many as he can get, I heard, and girls too if he can find 'em." She laughs with the edge of a cackle in it. "He won't have no trouble if he knows where in London to look."
"What kind of jobs?" he presses (the shadow of a memory forming that will haunt him in twenty years, a question, a pursuit), hungry-stomached and always looking for money anywhere.
"If I knew I'd tell thee." She scratches under the brim of her hat. "If I find out I will tell thee."
"Thank 'ee," he returns, and makes to leave.
"If I were thee I'd ask after him," she says, all kindness in her eyes (not the sharpness that sometimes dogs Mother of how to feed the four of them and Levi nearly a man now). "I heard he'll give a crown to anyone who asks after the job, even the ones he won't have."
"It's so." She adjusts the hat, crooked from her scratching underneath. "Get tha gone na - good by."
"Good by," he says, and bows his head to her in a jerky show of thanks (Mia is in service in the country, Lucy in a better part of London, and if he could get a place he could send home more money to Mother, even the crown for asking, too good to be true, would ease things at home a little) before peeling back into the crowd that sweeps up the street to the market.
It's too late to go back when he realizes he's got a penny owed now, too late to go back and ask, and the church bells are calling seven o' clock, ringing When will you pay me and as he unwraps the paper for a first bite the next line chimes in his head
When I am rich, when I am rich, when I am rich.
Note: I can explain myself. While it neatly skirts almost every element that would make it relevant, this is a character exploration piece set in the same world as an unpublished Hunger Games AU of mine. That AU is set in the 1860s (and this, therefore, in the 1840s) and its central conceit is essentially that the Hunger Games are run by a bunch of rich guys who want to see poor people fight for their lives. There's just no television.
Anyway, I beg your pardon for this crap and you'll have to take my word that it's not just historical fiction sneaking into this category. I am humbly sorry and it is 2:30 in the morning.
As far as actual, historical notes and things go:
- The two minor characters Ada and Polly are from Tyneside, and speak a slightly more archaic English than most Londoners. I did try to keep cant and archaic slang out of the dialogue here, but let me know if I messed up and you need a translation.
- Levi's neighborhood is on the edge of St. Giles but not in it, near the Farringdon Road.
- The rhyme quoted is rather famous and pretty old - it's called "Oranges and Lemons" and I made reference to the oldest recorded version of it for this.
- If you happen to care, the church tolling right at the end is the ominously-named St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate.
Again, I tender my apologies - and, since you scrolled down this far, mister Levi was actually created by the lovely GlimmerIcewood. I just stole him (all right, borrowed) and booked it in the opposite direction.