A Kind of Family.
Estelle heard a noise in the kitchen and went to investigate. Daniel had gone to bed some hours ago and her other guests knew better than to invade her kitchen after hours. She was half expecting a burglar, but it was Harry, sitting at the table, eating an iced bun. He had crumbs all over his pyjamas and tear stains on his face. As the light came on, he dropped the bun, the instincts of the streets too much a part of his life still.
"You're not in trouble." she said. It wouldn't have been the first time if he'd run out thinking he was. It was always best, with Harry, to be very clear about things like that.
"Can I 'ave the bun?" he said.
"Anything you want, love." she said.
He looked at the door. "Where is he?"
"In bed, asleep in the arms of good French brandy." Estelle sat at the table. "Bad dreams, love?"
"I wasn't crying." he said.
"No, I know." she said.
"Just couldn't sleep." he said. He took a bite of the bun and looked at her with tear-filled eyes. "Sometimes, I can't sleep. Everyone has bad nights sometimes."
She patted his hand. "Do you know how often he's sat there and said the same thing?"
"I know he seems as tough as old boots, but we all get sad and lonely."
"And all the lonely ones come here." he said.
"It's as good a place as any." she said.
"He should get married." said Harry.
"I pity the woman that takes on our Daniel." she said.
"What's wrong with him?" said Harry.
Estelle looked at him, a kid who was ready to leap to the defence of the only friend he had in the world. She smiled. "Not a lot, love. He's just hard work to look after."
"Like me?" he said. He looked so lost.
"You're no trouble!" she said.
"I used to get sent away a lot." he said.
"From where?" she said, wondering if he would finally tell her where he was from.
He clammed up instantly. "Nowhere." he said, "Just places."
She filled a saucepan with milk. "You want some honey in this?" she said.
He nodded, still wary. Wherever he had come from, he was terrified of going back.
"I'm sixteen." he said, "They couldn't make me go back."
"Sixteen?" she said. He looked twelve to her, Daniel guessed fourteen.
"Nearly." he said.
"When's your birthday? We could have a party."
"I don't have one." he said.
"What's your name, really?" she said.
He smiled, that polished smile Daniel had taught him, the one that made the world believe them and told Estelle they were lying. "Rick Blaine." he said.
"I'm not trying to trick you." she said, "I'd never do that. I just worry about you. You must have mattered to someone. Do you have a mother?"
"I'm sixteen! What do I need a bloody mother for?" he said, "Anyway, I got you."
"Me and Daniel Chalmers, Rathbone and his books. You poor love."
"Estelle," he said, his voice shaking, "Do you like me?"
She put her arm around him, noticing that it took a moment for him to pull away. "Yes, Harry, I like you. And if we're all the family you've got, we'll be the best one we can be."
She filled a mug with the hot milk. "Here, Harry, have a drop of that."
"Can I have some brandy in it?" he said.
"I'm not Daniel." she said, "And you're not old enough."
She expected him to argue, but he shrugged and smiled and she wondered whether perhaps he had asked just to get a mother's loving refusal. Who had cared enough to have rules for him in the past?
"You'll be fine." she said, "That man is as soft in the head as in the heart, but he never walks away from someone who needs him. And I'm always here, and my door is always open to you."
"Why?" he said. Kindness was incomprehensible to him.
"Because however you got here, when you ate in my kitchen, you became family." she said.
He burst into tears and this time, when she hugged him, he forgot to pull away.