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Perry Scrimshaw's Rite of Passage

 

 

Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage

 

Chris Hannon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 Chris Hannon

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

 

 

The right of Chris Hannon to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

 

ISBN 9781849147743

 

 

Published through Completely Novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We must scrunch or be scrunched.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(for Toby)

 

 

 

 

 

The crescent moon cut belts of shimmering silver onto the black water beyond. Perry gazed up at the desolate sky, clear and starry. Was God watching him? Wooden decking creaked underfoot, though he trod cautiously, seeking out forms in the shadows under the iron benches and checking behind for ambushes. The icy breeze buffeted and nipped at his ears, water licked and lapped in the darkness, stifling his senses. At the end of the wharf there stood a figure, black as a crow, waiting for him to come.

Perry took a moment to dab a handkerchief at the worst of his cuts, though there were too many to attend to. He settled for tying it around the biggest wound on his knee. The pain was sharp and true. He cursed his stupidity for falling for that old trick, one he had played himself when he was younger. But that wasn’t what really hurt, what really fuelled the anger and hatred deep within. Would killing him assuage it? Right the wrongs? Perry didn’t know anymore, but he knew he would continue on to the end of the wharf.

With each step, the figure grew larger; he was on the edge, facing out to sea, back turned to Perry’s approach. Perhaps he wouldn’t need the knife at all, a push might be all that it would take.

1

Bishopstoke, Hampshire, 1883

 

Atop a ladder, Samuel Scrimshaw could see his kitchen table through the hole in the roof. He had a lead sheet ready and his hammer was cradled safely in the iron guttering. Samuel covered the hole with his palm.

‘Perhaps I should just stay up here and plug the breach with my hand,’ he called down. It had been a rainy springtime and he’d patched it up three times already. If only he could haul summer closer with his bare hands…it would be less work.

‘No,’ his son’s voice carried up, ‘who’d cook for us if you’re stuck up there?’

‘Well,’ he took four nails from his pocket, ‘I suppose I’d come down if it wasn’t raining,’ he placed the nails between his teeth and slid the lead sheet over the hole.

‘Who’d walk me to school if it was raining?’

Inwardly, he tightened. It was Perry’s schooling that meant he couldn’t afford to replace the leaky tap in the kitchen or repair the roof properly. Samuel plucked the first nail from between his teeth and slotted it into the hole in the corner of the sheet. Making young ‘uns attend school by law and expecting common folk like him to stand the cost didn’t seem fair or right. It was hardly the boy’s fault but still, what was wrong with starting a prenticeship early? He brought the hammer down with a satisfying thump.

Once the sheet was in place he climbed down.

‘That should do it,’ he said, ‘thanks for holding me steady.’ He mussed up Perry’s golden-brown hair with his big gardener’s hands. Perry beamed back at him. ‘Can we go guddlin’ now?’

‘I thought you might say that.’

 

Bishopstoke was a small place, caught between Winchester and Southampton, provided for by the changeable River Itchen and surrounding woodland. Perry’s favourite guddling spot was a short hike into the woods. On the way, they both gathered kindling and small branches. Samuel tied them into a bundle and carried them on his back. Their riverside route was damp and addled with tree roots, the air ripe with the dewy spring.

‘Silver birch,’ Samuel pointed, ‘look at that cobweb stretched across that alder.’

Perry dutifully followed his signals. Samuel guessed that he liked it, but perhaps didn’t love these small things as he did. He was only a boy after all and perhaps took for granted the countless shades of green the Lord had created. Silver water gushed past, swollen by recent rainfall. Samuel led Perry further upstream, where the trees on the bank began to thin out and a flint footbridge came into view.

‘I’m going ahead!’ and Perry sprinted off as boys that age do. By the time Samuel got to the bank, Perry was already wading into the river, trousers rolled up beyond his knees and sleeves past his elbows.

‘How cold?’

‘Very,’ Perry replied.

Brave boy. ‘Let’s see…how many will it be today?’

Samuel sat on the bank and let his feet dangle a few inches above the flow. Perry crouched below, his chin an inch or two above the rippling water. Samuel loved moments like this: wind rustling in the trees, a woodpigeon cooing from some branch above and his son, staring into the glassy current, showing patience and skill. Perry smiled. Good boy.

Slowly, Perry lifted the trout from the water as gently as if it were made of crystal.

‘Good lad,’ Samuel whispered. ‘Pop it in the bucket and get another while I deal with this one.’

Deal was a kind word. He didn’t want Perry to see him killing the fish proper. As he got to his feet, the fish squirmed and writhed, its tail flicking the pit of the bucket. It was a beaut, on its own enough for two dinners at least. He thanked the Lord for his son and this knack he had. Not even his old grandpa could match-

‘Pa?’

Samuel looked up from the slithering fish.

‘Hurry up. I’ve got another.’

 

That eve they feasted on fish stew, cooked up with onions, leeks and carrots all grown by his own hand on the Hebblesworth estate. He tucked Perry in and lay on his own bed across the room. Though he wasn’t sleepy yet, he liked to lie in the warmth and thumb through pages of his tattered bible by candlelight. He didn’t have his letters, but it felt good to hold something holy while he assembled his prayers in his mind. He prayed his wife was looking down on them favourably, keeping them both safe and healthy.

Before sleep finally came, he was dimly aware of movement in the bed opposite. Perry wriggled and laughed through his dreams yelling out ‘hey leave that, it’s my slate!’ and ‘Five and twelve is seventeen!’

Schooling or no, it was good to see his boy learning some.

 

At the start of June, Samuel, the two other gardeners, the maids, servants and kitchen staff were told to assemble on the lawn in front of Hebblesworth House. It was the wife, Lady Hebblesworth who addressed them, talking at length about the stock exchange before Samuel realised what was happening. The husband, he assumed, was cowering inside somewhere. Only one maid and the cook were to be kept on.

He queued on the perfect lawn with the rest, waiting for his envelope.

‘Thanks.’ he took it off Lady Hebblesworth, but didn’t mean his words. He felt the sorrow in her eyes. She hated having to do this. It was wrong; this wasn’t woman’s work. He almost felt sorry for her but however bad their fortunes, they wouldn’t struggle to feed their son. He walked away, tearing open the envelope. A week’s pay. Dread filled his heart.

Hands trembling, he stalked over to the flowerbed and yanked a digging fork up from the soil.

‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ one of the gardeners said.

The spikes were blunted and claggy with soil. All eyes were on him.

‘What’s he doing?’ murmured Lady Hebblesworth, her hand flush against her chest.

What was he doing? He wasn’t sure. He glanced up at the house. Was that a figure in one of the windows? The husband? The spineless bastard who couldn’t meet the wronged faces of his own mistakes?

‘Sam?’ one of the maids said, taking a step towards him.

He met the troubled faces but found he had nothing to say. His son. That was what mattered. Digging fork still in hand, he stormed away from the house, away from the frightened people on the Hebblesworth lawn. Samuel snatched up a weeding sack. At the vegetable patch, he stabbed the fork down, half-imagining it was Mr Hebblesworth’s throat. When he levered up the soil, there was no blood. Just a clutch of carrots. He tossed the stolen vegetables in his weeding sack and moved the fork along to the next lot.

 

Summer passed, but Samuel couldn’t find regular work. He foraged for berries and wild mushrooms, went fishing while Perry was at school – at least he’d scraped enough together for the boy’s tuition.

One November’s eve, he sat with Perry by the hearth, warming his feet by the fire. Samuel felt the cold more now that he was thinner. Perry’s weight held up right enough, always accepting the bigger portions: a father’s toll. Gusts of wind buffeted the house, whipping the fire into a mesmerising dance in the hearth.

‘It’s amazing ain’t it?’ Perry said.

The fire crackled and hissed. ‘A warm fire’s the heart of any home. Throw another log on will you son?’

Perry slithered out from under his blanket. Samuel rubbed his hands together and splayed them out to the flames.

The front door creaked. ‘Pa?’

‘Any of them will do Perry, they’re all dry.’

‘There’s some people here.’

Samuel twisted round. Perry was flanked either side by a policeman, one with a heavy black moustache. In the soft light, their uniforms were dark midnight blue, buttons glittered silver.

‘Come to me Perry,’ he turned to the policemen. ‘Don’t you fellows knock?’

‘We were about to but then the boy opened the door.’

‘Are you Samuel Scrimshaw?’ cut in the other.

‘Yes, what’s this about?’

‘Perhaps you should send your boy to his room for a minute.’

A cold shiver ran through him, he looked down at Perry, clutching onto his hip. ‘Go on son, to the bedroom.’

Perry did as he was told.

The moustachioed policeman took a step towards him, ‘I think you know what this is about.’

He did.

‘Please,’ he said, ‘it was only for my boy. Some blackberries, a few apples here and there. We can barely scrape together enough to eat, please.’

The policeman had a set of wooden cuffs dangling in his right hand. Surely they weren’t here to take him away? This was all wrong.

‘Please…I-’

‘-Apples did you say? Wasn’t at Mr Sexton’s place past the Anchor inn?’

‘It was,’ he admitted slowly, wondering why two policemen would be sent to question a scrumper. Wasn’t there enough real crime going on? But he knew he couldn’t say as much.

‘They’ve an orchard there, fruit just falling to waste and rotting on the ground. Me and my boy have to eat – you wouldn’t put a man in lockup for that, surely?’

‘You’re right, I doubt we would,’ said the shorter one, ‘only you knocked into one of the housemaids when you ran away.’

He searched his memory, yes, he had, but a bump was all. ‘Aye, I was filling my sack with apples when I heard the yell from the house. I was ashamed. I’m no thief by nature. I didn’t want the Sexton’s to see my face, so I ran through the orchard to the back way. Only I was running so fast through the gate, I didn’t see her. She was coming the other way. I bundled her over to be sure and she was shocked some, but I checked she was fine before I went on my way. She was a dumpling of a woman, plenty of fat to break her fall.’

He smiled at the policemen, hoping the story would find some chord within them, that they might know he was a plain enough man, not given to this sort of thing. They both glared back at him with a stony expression.

‘Fat you say?’

‘Aye, she was.’

‘Pregnant more like.’

‘What?’

‘She lost the babe.’

His mind went white as if punched in the head. He barely felt the cuffs land on his wrists and he had to be led to the doorway for he couldn’t think his feet into moving. It was only when he got into the police carriage and the policeman took his seat opposite that he thought to ask.

‘My boy, what will happen to him?’

‘Any living relatives?’

Samuel shook his head.

‘There are places, homes that get a stipend from the parish, we’ll find him a place somewhere.’

Numb, Samuel nodded. The carriage lurched forward. He cleared the foggy glass with his sleeve. The other policeman was there, Perry at his side, his little hand raised, and waving him goodbye.

2

Southampton, April 1890

7 years later

 

With a long drag on its horn, a great steamship eased through the Solent, black smoke belching from its funnels and burrowing into the heavenly sky. The horn’s echo was colossal enough to touch every brick in the town and reach the ear of every man who called this den of a port home.

At the dry docks a ship was in for repairs, its red funnels gleaming in the spring sunshine. The metal stays were so straight, thick and true that an artist might have ruled them against the sky. It was chaos around the ship; metalworkers, carpenters, furnishers, prenticeboys and lackeys alike swarmed around, ordering, carrying, pointing, sawing and hammering. Nearby, there was a fenced compound used to store the decking timber and house the exotic wood furnishings for the First Class areas. Foolishly, a single watchman alone guarded this goldmine.

At the back fence, in grey bakers boy cap and jacket done up to the neck, Perry Scrimshaw whistled a tune. At his side was an empty barrow, rusted with age. A lackey rounded the corner, an apish lad with meat-chop sideburns, pushing a barrow full of sand, the wheel squeaking rhythmically with each revolution. Perry stooped and pretended to tie his laces. The lackey passed and paid him no mind.

Perry rose to his full height again, checked the coast was clear and tapped his elbow twice against the fence. A wood plank appeared above and Perry negotiated its safe passage over to his side and balanced it on his wheelbarrow.

‘Quick, post over the rest,’ he hissed.

Four pieces passed over, one at a time, three more decking planks and a rounded mahogany piece. The last was surprisingly heavy for its size and he had to shuffle the other pieces to even out the weight in the barrow. Next were some smaller pieces, pine by the looks of it, about the size of chopping boards. He turned one around in his hand. They were chopping boards, destined for the ship’s kitchen he supposed.

‘That’ll do,’ a voice came from the other side.

‘Come on then, quick, it’s still clear.’

There was a scramble on the other side, fingers appeared on top of the fence followed by a grunt and then the gritted face of Peter appeared. He was the second eldest in Mrs Donnegan’s pack of boys, behind Perry, and was a little taller. Puffing his cheeks, Peter hauled one leg over and sat awkwardly on the fence.

Perry heard the squeak of the barrow ape returning.

‘Quick Peter! Someone’s coming, haul Rodney up.’

Peter reached down and heaved up a second boy, all red hair and freckles. He scrambled up and over like a monkey and landed deftly on the ground. Rodney was a little scrap of a lad, just eleven and Perry thought he had the makings of a sweep, a prolific thief or perhaps both. Peter landed with a thud, just as the lackey returned, his barrow now yellow-dusted and empty. The lackey watched the three of them as he passed, glanced at the barrow of wood, but said nothing.

‘He saw us,’ Peter muttered, ‘he knows.’

‘No way,’ Rodney said his high-pitched voice, ‘long as he didn’t see us climbing in or out we’re fine.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Perry said, ‘I say we still try and sell it back to them now.’

‘Too risky,’ Peter shook his head, ‘the lackey saw us. And even if he didn’t, what if they recognise the wood as theirs? I say we take it to that carpenter on Bugle Street.’

Peter and Rodney looked to Perry for the final decision. He knew they would. He took off his cap and ran his hand through his sandy locks, making a show of giving it some thought.

‘No,’ he replaced his cap, the matter closed. ‘That tight-fist always gives us a lousy price and we’ve got too much. We can’t wheel this lot all the way over there, it’s too far,’ Perry grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow.

‘I’ll try my luck. Wait here.’

Peter folded his arms, clearly not happy. Rodney, for his part simply stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged.

 

Five minutes later, Perry returned empty-handed in a cloud of dejection.

‘I knew it,’ Peter seethed, ‘you never bloody listen.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Perry said, ‘it was that mahogany tabletop – it was too recognisable.’

Peter turned on Rodney, ‘I told you not to pick that.’

Rodney scrunched up his nose. Perry could never tell if he was about to shrug or cry.

‘It’s not his fault, the mahogany was worth the most, it was a good choice. If you want to blame anyone, you should blame me.’

‘Oh I do,’ Peter jammed his finger into Perry’s chest, ‘you may be the eldest but you ain’t the smartest. Not by a long stretch. Next time, we’ll do it on my say so and we’ll go home with some coin in each of our pockets instead of bugger all!’

Perry lowered his gaze. Peter could have his tantrum.

‘Fair enough.’

The three boys walked back waterside, passing the old bathing house and then onto Simnel Street. Mrs Donnegan’s was a strange abode, usually bedecked with a brace of yellow-beaked herring gulls on its spattered roof. Noisy buggers, they were.

Barely inside the threshold and the yelps and whoops coming from the kitchen were enough to make you want to run back out. The littleuns were home. The hallway’s huge wardrobe doors were open and clothes leaked from drawers and gathered in cloth puddles on the floor.

‘What a mess.’ Perry picked a shirt from the floor – maybe his, maybe not, he could hardly tell anymore – and tossed it back into the wardrobe.

‘I’ll make us a brew boys.’

‘Thanks Perry,’ Rodney said, hopping on one foot as he tried to prise off a shoe.

Peter barged past him, bumping shoulders.

Fine, Perry thought, have your mood. They had to get along; he knew it and Peter did too. Six boys called this place home. All slept in the front room on the ground floor; their mattresses positioned strategically to allow a narrow square walkway around the room. The tight space encouraged infighting amongst the boys as much as it stifled it. Arguments were frequent but short-lived and it need be no different on this occasion. A cuppa and a night’s rest and Peter would be his friend again come morning, he’d soon see to that.

He went into the kitchen and immediately wished he hadn’t: it was bedlam. The much-prized tin bath was out, full of steaming grey water and in it cowered the youngest, Dicken. Sat on a stool, Mrs Donnegan scrubbed the boy’s back vigorously with a brush. The two other littleuns were naked, slipping and sliding around the kitchen while swordfighting with twisted towels.

En guarde!

‘Yield!’

‘Evening boys,’ Perry spotted the kettle on the kitchen table. The scrubbing stopped.

‘And where the devil have you lot been? The littleuns have been back from school for hours!’

He gave Mrs D his most pacifying smile. She looked fraught, more so than usual. Her filthy grey ringlets sprouted miserably from her bonnet, half-moon spectacles perched on the bridge of her sharp nose – normally so formidable and severe – made her look naught but old and haggard. He had to remember that she was old; he’d asked her years once and got his ears boxed for his trouble.

‘Trying to get another pretniceship wasn’t I? No one will take me on.’

She pointed the scrubbing brush at him. ‘They probably heard what a mess you’d made of your last two. Your name’s mud by now.’

She returned to scrubbing Dicken skin red raw, the lad was clearly in pain but they all knew better than to complain. Perry was glad he no longer had to endure one of her ‘thorough’ baths.

‘We supped without you three,’ she said and cuffed Dicken around the head, ‘come on child don’t just stand there like a spare spud,’ she handed Dicken a sponge, ‘wash behind your ears while I scrub!’

Perry filled the kettle and put it on the stove.

‘Ow, ow, ow!’

One of the swordfighters hopped up and down.

‘Has our brave knight of the realm stubbed his toe?’ Perry said.

‘For Christ’s sake child, how many times must I tell you?’ Mrs Donnegan roared, taking Perry aback. He couldn’t remember seeing her in such a foul mood. Both the swordfighters looked like they might cry, Perry stepped across and put a hand on each of their shoulders,

‘Come on boys, time for bed now. Get into your jimjams.’ He coaxed them out of the kitchen and into the bedroom. Rodney and Peter were sat with their backs to the wall poring over a tattered Penny Dreadful.

‘Stick some clothes on boys, blinkin’ hell,’ said Peter.

‘Intimidated by their size are ya?’ Perry couldn’t resist. Peter’s face flushed red and he clenched his fists.

‘Tea’s on its way,’ Perry soothed.

Mrs Donnegan was towelling Dicken, rubbing the poor lad’s head like she was trying to scour the bark off a tree.

‘There,’ she said, satisfied.

Dicken’s ears were as bright as candles.

She turned to Perry with a weathered look, ‘Can you see them all to bed tonight son? My head’s splitting like an axe through a log.’

So that’s what was eating her. ‘No problem.’

‘There’s barely cracker in, must go to the market tomorrow, help yourself to whatever you can find.’

‘Will do.’ Perry mussed up Dicken’s damp hair, transforming his black mop into a fluffy matchstick. ‘Come on. Say goodnight.’

‘Night night,’ the boy said meekly, but Mrs D was already heading out of the kitchen, her hands in front of her like a blind person as if worried she might fall. He waited, listening to the creak of the stairs and the sigh of her bedsprings. Was this what happened when you got old?

Perry put the three littleuns to bed, snuffing out the candles on the window ledge. He busied himself, taking the tub water out to wash down the privy. He blotted the kitchen floor with tea towels and poured out more tea. It was too early to sleep for the three eldest so they sat around the kitchen table, trading stories while playing a hand of Whist. Perry, contriving to finish last, underplayed his hand as convincingly as he could but still ended up beating Rodney.

Rodney was next to bed. Perry and Peter stayed up a while longer playing a subdued game of Beggar-My-Neighbour in which Peter thoroughly deserved his win. By then, they were both yawning and retired to bed themselves, tiptoeing to their mattresses amongst the soft sputter of sleep.

‘Night Peter,’ he whispered.

A long silence.

‘Night Perry.’

Friends again. Perry smiled, he hadn’t even needed to wait for morning.

Peter was a light sleeper and Perry always found it hard to tell if he was out for the count. After half an hour, Peter’s breath lengthened and as quietly as he could, Perry slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the kitchen. Moonlight bathed it in an eerie jellyfish light; he didn’t even need to light a candle. He reached into his pocket and carefully lifted out a knotted handkerchief, untied it and smiled at the coins glinting within. They clinked softly in his palm as he scooped them out and laid them on the table. He scooped Mrs D’s wooden stool up and placed it at the foot of the dresser. He got on and reached to the top and grasped the old cookie tin. He gathered it to his chest and put his fingers to the lid.

‘What are you doing?’

Perry froze. It was Peter. Candle in hand, the flame flickering on his stony face.

‘Nothing.’ The word slipped out unconvincingly and he gave a guilty glance at the coins on the table. He cursed himself. How could he be so stupid? Leaving the coins there like that! Peter rested the candle down.

‘That’s the money from the wood isn’t it, you did sell it didn’t you?’

Yes Peter I scammed you, you fool, didn’t seem the best thing to say.

‘No it ain’t.’

‘Liar!’ Peter lunged and rugby tackled Perry to the floor. Peter’s speed had surprised him and being sprawled out on the floor was not his idea of a good scrapping stance. A thick punch caught the side of his head and his ear rang. Perry squirmed for position but Peter grasped a clump of hair and yanked.

‘Evil rat!’

‘Ow! Gerroff!’ his head burnt like fire, ‘stop fighting like a girl!’

‘You’re just like your Pa!’

The words struck as hard as the punch, ‘I’m nought like him!’ Enraged, Perry went on the attack. He slithered into position and dug his elbow hard into Peter’s ribs and palmed Peter in the face, avoiding his chomping, gnashing teeth.

‘WHAT THE DEVIL IS GOING ON HERE?’

They instantly rolled apart.

Mrs Donnegan had an oil lamp hanging from her hand. The other four boys were gathered behind her gown like woodland creatures.

‘He-’ Peter began, but Perry knew he wouldn’t tell, it would mean admitting what they’d spent their day doing.

‘We had a game of cards and Peter accused me of cheating,’ Perry caught his breath, ‘only I’m no cheat.’

‘Are too!’

‘ENOUGH!’ she levelled a finger first at Perry and then at Peter, ‘the two of you shake hands right this instant or I’ll throw you out into the cold.’

Perry didn’t need to be told twice, he offered his hand. Peter took it and squeezed as hard as he could. I can play this game too. Perry squeezed back harder and Peter let go with a whimper.

Mrs Donnegan turned to the boys behind her, ‘You lot get back to bed or I’ll make you stay in all day tomorrow.’

‘But it’s Saturday,’ Dicken whined, ‘the six of us is going fishing at the wharf!’

‘I don’t care what you boys are scheming to do tomorrow, if you’re not in bed at the count of three….’

While her back was turned, Perry quickly swept the coins from the table into his tin.

‘One,’ Mrs Donnegan said. The boys scampered. She never got to three.

Peter shook his head. ‘Soon as we go back to bed, I’m telling them all what you done.’

‘See if I care.’ He tucked the tin into the crook of his arm. He would need to find a new hiding place for it now. Peter would turn the house upside down looking for it.

Peter caught a cuff from Mrs D on his way out, Perry bowed his head and readied for the same. As the weak blow skimmed of the back of his head, he caught a whiff of Mrs D’s stale sweat. He held his breath and made a show of rubbing his head so Mrs D would feel satisfied with her justice.

In the bedroom, Perry stuffed the tin safe under his pillow. He could smell the Irishwoman’s unique perfume of chicken and mushroom soup. She’d be waiting outside the door, hovering so she could burst in on them if there were any shenanigans. Maybe the boys should give her a thorough bath. Perhaps he’d say it aloud when the coast was clear, get a laugh and ease the tension a bit… that was if they were still talking to him of course. Peter would tell them what he had done. There was no avoiding it. It was regrettable, but Rodney and the littleuns would all learn soon enough where trusting people got you. It was just a pity that they had to learn it from him.

The stairs creaked, the old crone was returning to her lair. Perry closed his eyes and waited for the chatter amongst the boys to begin.

 

3

 

Perry stirred, stretched out long and yawned like a lion. As he rubbed sleep from his eyes he was already thinking about breakfast and hoped it would be bacon, bacon burnt so perfect it would snap like balsa wood between his fingers. Then, he remembered the tin. His hand shot under the pillow. It was gone.

‘Bugger!’ he punched the pillow, wishing it was Peter’s head. He pushed himself up – the other five mattresses in the room were empty, just a tangle of blankets. That damn sneak, bet he got Rodney to filch the money tin, there was no way that oaf could’ve done it. Perry reached over and felt Dicken’s mattress. It was cold. They were long gone. Probably snuck out at first light, silent as cats at the behest of Peter and gone fishing without him. If he wasn’t so angry he might even have been impressed at their stealth – but the tin wasn’t just yesterday’s haul. It was all his savings.

Perry measured his position. He’d have to let the boys have their share of yesterday’s take. Fine, he could cope with that, but he’d be damned if they were going to get their grubby paws on the rest of it. He’d give Peter a chance to give the tin back. And if he didn’t, the boy would get a larruping the likes he’d never had before.

He got up and drew the curtains. It was a grey day. A horse and cart ground through the April mud outside. No sign of the boys on the street, not that they’d be stupid enough to be out there, probably at the wharf by now. He straightened his sheet and blanket and left the others in their messy state. Mrs D would give them all a cuff but him if she saw the room. A small victory to be sure, but satisfying nonetheless.

In the kitchen there were no eggs on the boil, no smell of bacon in the air and no oatmeal on the table. The pantry had little else to tempt: a couple of dusty jars of jam, a pack of flour and a jar of pickled eggs. A bread crust lay in a curl on the table. Odd that Mrs D wasn’t down, clanging around in the kitchen. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t woken.

A faint splutter came from upstairs.

‘Mrs Donnegan?’ he called up. There was no reply.

Perry hesitated – the boys weren’t allowed upstairs. Then the sound came again, louder this time, as if choking. Alarmed, he creaked up the first step and paused, expecting a reprimand. It didn’t come so he raced up the rest. At the top there was a small landing. One of her blankets hung over the bannister. The fabric was damp between his fingers. He rapped on her door.

‘Mrs Donnegan?’

A muffle came from the other side. He couldn’t make out the words but it didn’t sound so bad. He relaxed a little.

‘Sorry to bother. I heard… I was just checking.’

Then that sound again. A thief throttling her? Was she choking on her breakfast?

‘I’m coming in!’ He barged the door open, his fists ready. Mrs Donnegan was alone, sat upright in bed. Her grey and dreadful face poked out between a white gown and bonnet. A rancid, sour odour bored into his nostrils.

‘Bloody hell,’ he gagged, catching the bile in the back of his throat. He caught a tiny movement under the bed and chased it late, like a shooting star almost seen, and caught up with it as it patted onto the floor. There was a small puddle of…he didn’t know what. He didn’t even want to know what. Another drop. He followed its trajectory back up to a sheet, untucked and bowing from the mattress, grey where it had once been white, moisture collecting on it as if it were a bottom eyelid brimming with tears.

He was going to be sick. He slapped his hand over his mouth and fought the stench seeping through his fingers, curling in waves and churning up his empty, acidic stomach. He wasn’t equipped to deal with this, it was Mrs Donnegan who looked after them, brought them soup when they had colds and rested cool flannels on their foreheads when fevered, not the other way around.

Control yourself. He slid his hand off his mouth and gulped. He brought himself, made himself, look at her square in the face. Wild panic glistened back at him. Soup and flannels were not going to be enough.

‘I…’ he bunched his hair in his fist, ‘what do I…?’

Mrs Donnegan nodded frantically at him and pointed at her neck. She couldn’t speak, was that it?

He motioned that he understood, ‘I’ll-,’ he backed out the door, ‘I’ll go and get help.’

She nodded and flung her hands out, shooing him away. He flew outside, desperately looking up and down the street, somehow expecting a doctor would just be happening to pass at the perfect time. No luck, two coachmen smoking, a washerwoman and two wretches dancing outside an opium den. Think! There was an apothecary he’d fetched once when two of the boys had chicken pox.

He sprinted through the alleyways and side streets. A small crowd of people were gathered outside St. Michael’s, chatting to the Reverend. Perry considered him. Prayers could come later. She needed real help now. He weaved through the group of church folk and sprinted down Bugle Street to the door of a narrow townhouse. He banged twice and the door flung open.

‘Mr Hampton?’ Perry gasped, holding his sides.

The apothecary was dressed in a fine purple suit and looked like he was about to leave.

‘It’s Mr Brumpton. What is it boy?’

Perry tugged him out onto the street. ‘Sorry mister Brumpton, it’s Perry, I’m one of Donnegan’s boys- you’ve got to come quick, there’s something wrong with her – real awful, we-’ his words tumbling over one another in his haste.

The apothecary pulled up short and checked his watch, ‘Can you even pay?’

‘Yes, yes. Don’t worry,’ Perry replied, worried. His tin was gone and the way the other boys scrounged around, there wouldn’t be a farthing under the floorboards. All that mattered was getting someone to see Mrs Donnegan.

 

When they got to the house the apothecary shrugged off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, all business.

‘Where is she?’

‘Upstairs.’

Brumpton wrinkled his nose, ‘That smell.’

‘I know.’

‘Stay down here for me will you Perry?’

‘Yes sir.’

Hungry and restless, he waited in the kitchen, anxious about Mrs Donnegan. What would happen if she needed to be taken away to hospital? He told himself to wait, not to get ahead of himself. It was probably just a bad cold or something. He chewed on the crust of bread. It was dry and tasted bitter, but it was all he had. By the time the apothecary came down, not even the crumbs remained. Brumpton filled the doorway, a white handkerchief covering his mouth.

‘Perry. Listen to me. Stay downstairs.’

‘Is she alright?’

‘I need a second opinion. I’m going to fetch Dr Fairbanks.’

‘Well I could –’

No!’ he said firmly. ‘You must stay here. Don’t let anyone in. Not the other boys, no-one! Do you understand? In fact’ he said, not letting Perry answer, ‘-I’ll just take these.’ He grabbed a set of keys off a metal peg and locked the kitchen’s back entrance.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Just a precaution. I’ll be back within the hour.’

Perry heard Brumpton lock the front too, but tried it anyway just in case. He was trapped. It bothered him that Brumpton hadn’t even brought up payment, which normally he’d have been pretty happy about. It led him to think that whatever Mrs D had, it was serious. If something happened to her, where would he and the boys live then?

Throaty coughs, louder than before, carried down the stairs.

 

Perry was weeing into the washtub when keys clattered into the front door. He finished, yanked up his trousers and hid the tub under the table and let himself hope that Peter would be next to use it. Lunch had long passed, surely the boys would be back soon and he wouldn’t have to deal with this all on his own.

In the hallway, Mr Brumpton was easing a short gentleman out of an expensive looking coat.

‘Don’t hang that coat anywhere Brumpton, hold on to it for me would you?’

Perry cleared his throat. The doctor met his eye.

‘Is this the boy?’

‘Yes Dr Fairbanks.’

‘Good,’ the doctor started up the stairs, ‘see to it that he stays down there while I examine the patient.’

Brumpton locked the front door and pocketed the key. ‘You heard him.’

Perry nodded, feeling a tad better now a proper doctor was here.

‘Mr Brumpton, my effects?’ the doctor called from the landing.

A half hour passed. Perry went from the kitchen and into the bedroom and back again, keeping an eye out the window for the boys. He played solitaire, couldn’t finish and swept the cards onto the floor. He checked every cupboard and shelf for food again. Nothing. In the pantry he scooped a layer of mould of one of the jams and managed a spoonful before deciding he couldn’t stomach it. He went next for the pickled eggs and sat cross-legged on the pantry floor. With the rows of empty shelves around him, it almost felt like he was inside an abandoned hive. He fished out one of the white balls and sucked off the sour film. He popped the whole egg in his mouth and let it collapse slowly, barely chewing. Hardly a feast, but at least it was something.

As he sat, he noticed one of the floorboards was loose and prised it up without too much trouble. He blew the dust and cobwebs away and found the hollow was just big enough to have housed his tin. Typical. Now I find the perfect hiding spot. It was a poor substitute for his money tin, but the pickled eggs fitted neatly in the cache. He replaced the floorboard; there was scant food in the place and who knew how long it would take Mrs Donnegan to get back on her feet, let alone buying groceries and cooking.

Floorboards creaked above. The light chink of glass. He imagined test tubes, pipettes and instruments being laid out beside her bed.

 

Another hour or so passed and the men appeared in the kitchen, grave and sombre.

‘How old are you young man?’ The doctor examined him with severe and precise eyes.

‘Not far off six and ten,’ he answered truthfully.

‘I shall speak to you like a man then, for that’s what we need you to be. Your mother, she’s-’

‘She ain’t my mother,’ Perry crossed his arms, ‘she just looks after a few of us, you know.’

‘Orphans?’ offered Brumpton.

‘Oh good,’ said the doctor, ‘very good indeed.’

‘Good? What are you trying to say?’

‘Oh,’ the doctor checked himself, ‘only that this will be less traumatic if the patient isn’t your mother. But first, I need to know all your names, you and the other boys who live here.’

Perry resented this, ‘We’re not boys. Young men is what we are here, tough fellers.’

‘Fine, young man. What are their names?’

He’d do in order of eldest, ‘Well I’m Perry. Perry Scrimshaw. Then there’s Peter Collins…why you writing them down doctor?’

‘Just give the rest of the names boy,’ Brumpton cut in sharply.

After Dicken Matthew’s entry, the doctor snapped the notebook shut and slipped it in his pocket.

‘So have you given her some medicine? Will she be alright?’

The doctor removed his glasses and breathed on the lenses. ‘Perry,’ he rubbed them with a cloth, ‘I’m afraid I must take Mrs Donnegan away for disinfection at the Sanatorium.’

‘Disinfection?’ Perry straightened up. ‘What’s that? Does it hurt?’

‘No, of course not,’ he replaced his glasses and gave him an earnest look, ‘it’s just so we can treat her.’

‘So she’s going to be alright then?’

The two men quickly nodded in unison.

‘Can I stay here for now? I’m old enough to look after myself.’

The doctor and Brumpton exchanged a glance. There was some conversation they’d had upstairs, deciding what they would and wouldn’t say to him, he was sure of it.

‘We think you should go too. In case you’ve been…exposed.’

Perry nodded slowly, ‘And yourselves? You’ll have to go as well seeing as you’ve been exposed too?’

‘No, Mr Brumpton and I are immune. I don’t expect you to understand young man, just know that it is in your best interest.’

‘Fine,’ Perry nodded at them, ‘It makes sense.’

The doctor smiled to Brumpton, visibly relieved. ‘I knew he was a sensible lad, moment I saw him.’

‘Just before we go, I’ve been busting for the toilet for ages,’ he gripped his crotch with both hands, ‘and it’s in the yard.’

‘Good Heavens!’ Brumpton pulled the key out of his pocket. ‘Poor lad, holding on like that.’

‘I didn’t think these sorts of places had proper toilets,’ the doctor said, impressed.

Brumpton let him out into the tiny yard. Dusk was settling, making it seem like the brick water butt, the coal shed and the privy were huddling together against the impending darkness. He crossed to the battered outhouse. Weeds sprouted through the rotten holes in the door, black green and evil looking. He swung it open and turned. Through the kitchen window, he spied the doctor and Brumpton talking.

Mrs Donnegan would be fine, the doctors said so themselves. He’d be damned if he was going to the Sanatorium, there was nothing wrong with him. He gripped the roof of the outhouse. It felt sodden, but sturdy enough to climb.

4

 

Moss softened his landing. He batted back brambles and tore through nettles, feeling the burn of the evening air in his lungs. The passageway ended at Castle Way where fingers of sea mist hung amidst the dusk. Perry caught his breath and checked back, hearing no alarm being raised or shouting. He gave his knees a quick scratch and stepped onto the road.

‘Oi! Don’t you come any closer!’

He halted and traced the voice to a plump woman, a white cloth tied over her mouth and a baby jiggling in her arm.

‘Miss, I’m not meaning no harm,’ he took a step towards her.

‘I said no closer!’ the baby wriggled and kicked.

‘Look, I don’t know wh-’ Perry took another step.

‘No! Keep away!’ she hobbled away from him.

‘Freak!’ he hurled the word after her, stupefied by her reaction.

He didn’t have many options. Ahead, the notorious Blue Anchor Lane mingled with the dusky darkness. It was the gateway to the Ward and its maze of backstreet passageways, where the poorest of the poor lived, slum town some folk called it. It was avoided by the law; not even the commission chasing School Attendance Officers dared venture in. And because of this, the Ward offered the poverty-stricken labourers, the whores, street urchins, the rotten-toothed witches and gaunt opium-slaves alike its ugly protection from the authorities. Perry headed for it. One thing was sure; nobody would look for him there.

He stepped in; the first tumbledown houses arched unevenly like huddled mushrooms. The way was then blocked with a pile of decaying vegetables, hay and splintered crates. He covered his mouth and stepped onto the rotting heap. His foot squelched in, the foul mulch wetting his ankles. He shuddered and leapt down onto the other side. The stench seeped through his fingers; rot, decay, piss, shit. It was as dense as a wall and it was all he could do to not throw up. The lane was used as a public latrine but it was ten times worse than in Mrs Donnegan’s sick room. He muttered a prayer for her and urged himself on, covering his mouth with his arm.

It was slippery underfoot. Lamplights and candles glowed in the windows; halos in the foggy gloom. He cleared a grubby window with his sleeve and counted nine mattresses cramped together in front of a fireplace. The room was even smaller than at Mrs D’s. He gave a thought for the boys, though they didn’t deserve it. He’d look for them on the morrow, but he needed to get out the cold and hunker down before darkness truly turned the thieves and slashers out into the night. Someone surely would take him in. Perry banged on the next door he came to.

An old hag stuck her head out of a window, ‘Piss off!’ she yelled, revealing a mouth with barely any teeth.

Rubbing his arms as he went, he passed a tramp too old and too drunk to pay him any mind. He looked to be adding his own contribution to the sodden walls and cobbles. Perry was getting used to the smell and that was no good thing. A little further along he came to the Southampton Gospel Mission, one of the few attempts to seed goodness into the area. It was barred shut with a wooden plank and padlock. He gave it a rattle anyway, but it didn’t give.

‘Thanks God,’ he said to the sky with all the sarcasm he could muster. A passageway, barely shoulder-width apart, meandered off to the right. Teeth-chattering, he took it, tracing his hands against the walls to steady himself, ducking under a low beam – one of a labyrinth above him that braced the houses together or kept them apart. The passageway ended in a narrow square of mud, surrounded on all sides by the backs of crooked houses. Apart from a few windows, only one of these houses had a door. A gaunt rat scurried between his feet and sniffed the air.

‘What a palace.’ Perry knocked. As he waited, he realised what a state he must look, clothes caked in mud and torn by brambles. Mrs Donnegan would no doubt be licking her finger and smudging the mud off his face. He took off his cap and combed his hair with his hands and hoped it would improve his appearance. The door opened. A woman thrust out a candle and sized him up. He tensed, ready to run.

‘You’re a bit young aintcha?’

‘Fifteen ain’t young,’ he replied mechanically.

She moved the candle back in from the rain. A messy nest of hair, but a fine, almost pretty face.

‘I don’t often get door knocks. Can you pay?’

‘Depends really. How much for the night? And food?’ he’d almost forgotten how hungry he was, ‘have you got any food Miss?’

‘Where do you think you are? A bleedin’ Inn?’

‘Just that I’m starving, if you had anything to spare, anything at-’

‘- I got pie scraps. But it’ll be thruppence for the lot.’

Perry could explain about the tin if need be, he was good for the money providing she didn’t want it now. He followed the woman through into a hallway. It was chilly and smelt of mildew and fish. It would have to do, just for a night.

He followed her into the kitchen. At the table, a boy, he guessed a year younger than himself, was scraping out a tin into his mouth.

‘Your lad?’ Perry asked.

The boy dropped the knife and blinked at him.

‘Blimey no! That’s just Joel,’ she grabbed the tin off him and handed it to Perry.

‘Hey Ma! I was eating that,’ Joel protested.

‘Ma’s what all the boys call me,’ she explained. It was a much smaller space than at Donnegan’s, how many boys were there?

‘Well then,’ she nodded to the tin, ‘have at it. My bed’s upstairs. Come up when you’re ready.’

‘Oh Miss,’ Perry was taken aback at her kindness, ‘I couldn’t kick you out of your own bed!’

She gave him an odd look. ‘You ain’t.’

The silence hung for a second or two and was broken by Joel.

‘Ha!’ he looked from Ma to Perry. ‘He didn’t come here for that! He just wanted somewhere to sleep is all Ma.’

Perry, sudden understanding flooding his mind, flushed with embarrassment.

‘The floor’ll do me.’

Ma looked miffed, ‘suit yourself, that’ll be tuppence then.’

‘On my word you’ll have it on the morrow.’

She scowled, weighing up the likelihood of him paying against the hassle of throwing him out.

‘Fine but let me warn you. You cheat Ma, you live to regret it.’

There was enough to regret about the day already, and he didn’t plan on adding this to his growing list. Ma went upstairs and he was relieved to be left alone with the boy. In the flickering light it was hard to gauge his features. Joel had small dark eyes and a straight shock of black hair that put him in mind of a scarecrow. He was a wiry lad, thinner than Perry, but on the whole seemed a darn side more normal than Ma.

‘Go on,’ Perry motioned to the pie scraps, ‘let’s share. No point both of us going hungry.’

‘Cheers,’ Joel set upon the food again. Joel chiselled a thick bit of crust from the corner of the tin and offered it up.

He took it with a nod and popped it in his mouth and chewed. It was crunchy, burnt and soggy all at the same time. Certainly not the best thing he’d ever eaten, but he was so hungry he didn’t really care.

‘Good?’

Perry nodded, ‘It’s alright. Did Ma cook it?’

‘Bought it more like, she’s hopeless,’ Joel was shaking his head disapprovingly, ‘a bleedin’ nightmare. Lucky escape you had there.’

Perry licked his fingers, ‘You don’t know the half of it.’

 

The following day brought a great many steamships on the morning tide; Royal Mail, North German Lloyd and Brazil & River Plate Company had all their charges docked, nodding with the swell. Pulleys hefted bales of cargo over the gunnels and eased them gently onto the jetties. Carriers swarmed around the quay; dockers, blackened coal-porters, corn-runners, shipping agents, and messenger boys everywhere, wriggling like maggots over rotten meat.

At the foot of the bell tower steps, a small crowd gathered awaiting the end of the church service. An inky paperboy rested on the stone balustrades, cap pulled casually over his eyes as he kipped. Perry and Joel sat on a stone post, their feet dangling down, poring over the front page.

‘What’s it say, what’s it say?’ asked Joel.

‘It’s con-ta-gious.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘It’s a type of illness, you know like consumption,’ Perry mumbled and read on.

‘ The Sick’s what everyone’s calling it, no feller going to call it con- whatever it is…’

Perry stopped listening, his eyes danced from line to line until he saw it. He felt the blood drain from his face.

‘What is it?’

Perry’s jaw went slack, ‘She’s dead.’

‘Your Irish Ma?’

Words caught in his throat, he nodded, yes. He picked the paper up and read it again just in case he’d been mistaken: The sanatorium list over two dozen infected and the county coroner lists five deceased; Gavin Straker, Terence Colestaff, Billy Cudgill, Drew Fletcher and the first female, Norma Donnegan.

His throat tightened, and he suddenly wished he were alone. He barely knew this boy and didn’t want to cry in front of him. He looked away, focusing on the crowd on the bell tower steps. He would not cry.

‘I’m sorry.’

He felt Joel’s hand upon his shoulder but couldn’t bring himself to say that he’d miss her sing-song Irish voice, or that she was the closest thing he’d had to a mother since…. he couldn’t remember when. He had to pull himself together. He was no softie. He was the eldest. He had to be tough.

Perry cleared his throat, ‘It’s not like she was my mum or anything but still…she was fair to us boys.’

‘Maybe you’ll stay with us for good now?’

Joel was likable enough but he couldn’t imagine a worse place to stay.

‘Maybe.’

A clergyman emerged from the bell tower, a crucifix held aloft and shaking in his hands. He bellowed something in a deep and hollow voice and the group of waiting townsfolk bowed their heads, murmuring a prayer for The Sick. The clergyman flicked water out on the crowd and the people jostled and elbowed for a drop on their faces.

‘Idiots, what’s holy water going to do?’ Perry shook his head, ‘I should go to the wharf to see if any of her boys are there. Only fair they hear it from me rather than some stranger.’ Perry rolled up the newspaper and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. ‘You coming?’

‘Course,’ Joel hopped down, ‘then I’ll take you somewhere guaranteed to cheer you up.’

Being cheered up was the last thing on his mind, but he might as well have company as not.

 

The wharf was busy; it was as if a deck had fallen from a ship and landed perfectly in the water, complete with iron wrought benches and well-to-do folk taking a stroll. Perry paced the wharf, squinting to spy the outline of the littleuns, Peter or Rodney.

‘They’re not here.’

‘Let’s go to the end anyway,’ said Joel.

‘What’s the point?’

‘At least then you’ll know they’re not bobbing face down in the drink.’

He shuddered, such a thing hadn’t even occurred to him and he found himself walking faster. At the end of the wharf there was an old fisherman sitting on a stool. Perry ran to his side and looked down into the milky green water below. It was dirty; corks bobbed, a fish skeleton, a constellation of sawdust and a couple of bottles but no sign of the boys. His chest unknotted in relief.

‘I wasn’t being serious about them being in there,’ Joel said, ‘it were a joke. Just trying to lighten the mood.’

Irritated, Perry took a breath and looked for calm in the fold between sea and sky, ‘Early days between us Joely, but your sense of humour is your twos, not your aces.’

‘Alright, alright.’

Perry checked both sides of the wharf, just to make sure. The fisherman was whistling a tune. If Perry knew anything, he knew fishermen; they were superstitious folk that tended to have their favourite beats and kept to them regular.

‘Excuse me mister, you happen to be here yesterday?’

The old man looked up from his stool, his eyes were cloudy blue, white stubble frosted his cheeks.

‘I was,’ he said in a gap-toothed whistle.

‘Did you see some boys fishing down here?’

‘Hmph,’ he stretched his woolly hat a little further down his forehead, ‘Yesterday aye. Not today and a good thing too. Bleaters were so damn noisy I reckon they scared away the mackerel. Barely caught a thing, if you see ‘em tell them to stay clear of here. Now Shhhhh,’ he said softly, his finger placed on his lips and turned back to the water.

Perry turned to Joel, who was stifling a giggle and he found himself grinning as they walked back down the wharf. Joel pulled down his cap, walked as if he had a peg-leg and puffed his face up like a seadog, whistle-speaking, ‘Ssssay ssssonny, don’t you go making facesss and ss-ss-sscaring the fishesss away!’

Perry laughed and then caught himself. It felt wrong to be laughing now, like he was betraying Mrs D somehow.

‘They’ve probably snuck back to Mrs D’s.’

‘Want to go there?’

‘Not yet, the doctor and Brumpton might have it under watch. I might sneak back when it’s dark.’

His bed at Ma’s was just a bundle of old blankets and a chewed up eiderdown, not even a mattress. It would be good to sleep in his own bed tonight.

‘Ready to be cheered up then?’

He smiled, grateful for Joel’s enthusiasm. Perhaps he could come and stay in Mrs Donnegan’s place too.

‘Maybe. What is it?’

Joel’s face lit up, ‘it’s a surprise. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.’

‘Why should I trust you?’

Joel looked hurt, ‘Friends trust each other and we’re friends now aren’t we? Me and you.’

Perry looked into Joel’s earnest face, ‘Yes, I suppose we are.’

 

A couple of miles from Southampton, the seafront road petered out to mulch gravel with thorn bushes and squat hedgerows to one side and a drop to a stony beach on the other. Tufts of stubborn grass thrust through chalky outcrops where seabirds sheltered in pockets against the shunting wind. Perry wrapped his arms close to him. He remembered the days of snow in Bishopstoke when his father sent him off to school with a hot potato in his pocket. It wasn’t as cold as that, but the way the wind bit and boxed his ears, a bit of warm in his pocket would be welcome.

Joel was quiet, perhaps suffering a little from the cold too. Perry was glad it wasn’t just him but it occurred to him that this was supposed to be cheering him up. There wasn’t much cheer to be had facing the bluster of the English Channel.

‘Are we nearly there yet?’

‘Nearly,’ Joel muffled back.

It had better be worth it. He cupped his hands over his cold ears to give them a moment’s warmth though it did little but chill his fingers to the bone. The road became rugged and spawned worn paths that followed the dip and rise of the landscape. The sky was one of grey cloud and the apple-green sea raged in a frothy torment of white, wind-swept waves. In the distance, the Isle of Wight hovered above the waterline like a mosquito standing on a puddle. It was all so bleak and worn, what he’d give for a cup of tea by the fire with the boys, hearing an Irish tale of giants from Mrs Donnegan.

They trampled down towards the beach, and it was only then, when they re-joined a gravel road that Perry realised where they were heading.

‘Joel, why on earth are we going down here?’

‘You’ll see.’

Perry heard the faint smash of surf. A bird squawked overhead and he followed the arc of its flight. As the road snaked around, a building came into view. It was a boxy brick construction sheltered by giant rocks to the rear and by a hull-shaped concrete sea wall that met the crashing waves to the front.

Birdshit Prison. He’d heard of it of course, but had never seen it before. The road led to the gated entrance flanked either side by a guard booth.

‘Looks more like a fortress than a prison don’t it?’ said Joel.

‘What the blazes are we doing here?’

‘Come on, don’t be soft.’

‘Soft?’ Perry was incensed; they must have walked for well over an hour, maybe two in the freezing cold to be cheered up in a prison!

‘Have you gone crazy?

‘Come on Perry!’ he yelled. ‘You ain’t scared are ya?’

Scared? The cheek to think of it. He was cold, tired and grieving. Not scared, not in the slightest. He should just leave Joel, turn around and walk back, find a café and wrap his hands round a hot brew…. but then Joel would think he was scared, when he wasn’t.

A guard came out and shook hands with Joel. Perry didn’t want to go in. Who in their right mind wanted to go into Birdshit Prison?

‘I’m not scared, there’s just no point.’

The guard yanked the gate open. Joel stepped through.

‘Prove it then.’

It was all too much to explain to his new friend.

The guard stared at him. ‘Come on son, you going in or what? It’ll be my job if I keep the gate open much longer.’

He didn’t want to. He couldn’t. He just wasn’t ready.

‘Hurry up!’

Against all his better judgement his feet were moving. And he was inside. They would be quick. It was just a dare. They’d go in and be out again straight away.

The yard was completely empty, save Joel, who stood there, his hands in his pockets flicking some of the shingle with his feet.

‘I thought you said this was going to cheer us up?’ Perry did his best to sound confident. ‘So we’ve been inside. Let’s get out of here now.’

‘We only just got here! There’s money to be made first.’

‘Money? You’re sixpence short of a shilling more like.’

Joel snorted, ‘We’ll see.’

A claxon sounded. Guards looked down on them from metal towers.

‘What’s happening?’

Joel didn’t reply, but nodded to the inner building. Two guards stepped out, followed by a line of men in striped shirts and baggy trousers. The prisoners spread out in the yard; some lit cigarettes, others leant on the wall but a few headed their way.

This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. Anxiously he flitted from one face to the next, there were hundreds, too many to count.

‘Let’s get out of here!’

Joel had a grin on his face and waved.

‘Gents!’

Perry couldn’t believe it. ‘What the hell are you doing? Don’t wave them over!’

Two wrinkled prisoners approached them.

‘Hi Joel,’ one of them said in greeting, ‘got a helper today I see?’

Perry looked around for the guards and stopped in his tracks.

‘How do they know your name?’

‘That’s right Si,’ said Joel, ignoring Perry, ‘what you got for me?’

‘Here you go boy,’ Si pulled a bit of paper from his pocket and handed it to Joel with a farthing.

Joel returned it, ‘There’s no address on the back.’

‘Mine’s got the address on,’ said the taller man.

Joel collected the note and a coin. ‘Much obliged sir, in times like these we need to stay in touch with our loved ones.’

Joel winked at Perry; ‘I’m cheaper, quicker and uncensored.’

Perry was amazed. How had Joel even come up with such an idea? Delivering notes for prisoners, where did the inmates get the money from? His eyes darted over the prisoners in the yard, but each was a hallow-eyed stranger.

Perry realised he wasn’t being much help and didn’t want to be accused of being scared once they were safely out of there, so when a trio of prisoners approached them, Perry straightened up ready to take their notes.

‘What news on The Sick?’ one asked, ‘the guards don’t tell us nothing.’

Perry had an idea and took the newspaper out of his pocket, ‘There’s loads gone caught it, but only a few dead. We got names in here of them taken. Yours for a farthing.’

‘Ain’t right to profit from such a thing,’ the man said.

‘What you in here for then?’ Joel chipped in.

‘Thievin’’

‘Well then,’ Perry shrugged, ‘If you want to know,’ he held out his palm. One of the men grumbled and handed him a farthing.

Perry unfurled the paper and cleared his throat,

‘The county coroner lists five deceased: Gavin Straker,’

The prisoners all removed their caps and bowed their heads.

‘Terence Colestaff,’ Perry went on.

‘And Billy and Drew too,’ one of the prisoners said shaking his head.

‘Yes, Billy Cudgill and Drew Fletcher,’ Perry confirmed, ‘Hold on, how come you know?’

‘They were inside here, all of them.’

‘What? All of them were in here?’

‘Aye, carry on lad, I paid you the money didn’t I? Is there anyone else, anyone from outside?’

‘There was one more,’ he said with a pang of guilt, ‘Norma Donnegan.’

The man’s face dropped. ‘Not poor Norma. She were here visiting but a few days past,’ he shook his head and wandered off.

‘Wait! She was here? Come back! Talk to me.’

‘Oh now you want something for free? Piss off!’ the man spat back, barely turning round. Another pair of prisoners pushed in front of him, wagging their notes in the air. Joel was grabbing notes off some others, checking for addresses, assuring the men of safe delivery. He turned to Perry.

‘Glad you’re here to help me deliver all these, looks like a bumper week!’

Perry took the notes off the prisoners and their coin. He couldn’t credit it, Mrs D venturing this far from home and to prison. It could only mean one thing. She was visiting his father.

By the time the claxon sounded, they counted twenty-one notes between them. The guards bellowed for the prisoners to fall in line.

‘Look,’ Joel pointed, ‘one more?’

The man shuffled towards them, his shackles clanking as he went. Perry knew instantly. He knew by the shaggy hair hanging over his face, by his big gardener hands. Hands that had tucked him in at night and mussed up his hair in Bishopstoke. The hands that had abandoned him.

‘We’ve got enough. Let’s go,’ Perry stuffed the notes in his pocket.

‘Oh come on! It’s only one more. Not frightened of him are you?’

‘Not him Joel,’ he said sharply and left as fast as he could without breaking into a run.

Perry felt sick with guilt. He just wasn’t ready. Maybe Samuel Scrimshaw was just hoping to send a note like the rest of them, maybe he’d recognised his son. But he didn’t want to know.

‘Let me out,’ he said to the guard.

‘Wait for your mate,’ the guard replied and to his relief Joel was bounding towards him.

‘Thanks Jack,’ Joel dropped a few coins into the guard’s palm.

‘Anytime,’ Jack opened the gate and Perry rushed through the gap. He gulped the air like he’d been stuck underwater.

A hand patted him on the back. ‘You alright Perry? You don’t look so good.’

‘Fine. Just had to get out of there.’

‘Don’t worry. I’m scared of them sometimes too. The ones in shackles are the murderers apparently.’

A chill went down his spine. His father had killed someone, he knew that much, he remembered the towering policemen and being frightened out of his wits, but who his father had killed or why – he had never wanted to know. Murder. The word was sinister black, an unshakeable leech that had attached itself to his father forevermore.

They returned up the path, Perry stirred his hand around his change-filled pocket, feeling marginally better with each step he took away from the prison.

‘ We done really well today, I- ’ Joel stopped counting the coins in his hand and looked up. Perry heard it too; the rumbling wheels of a carriage. When it got to them, Perry and Joel stepped off the road onto the scrubland to let it pass. Perry craned his neck and caught a glimpse through the window of a man with white hair and a moustache.

‘I think that was Dr Fairbanks.’

‘Who?’

‘He came to see us when Mrs D caught The Sick. He was after me, wanted to take me away to a sanatorium,’ panic flushed over him, ‘what if he saw me? Come on Joel, we better scarper.’

Joel chewed his lip. ‘Another one of the prisoners must have gone down with it. Contagious don’t just mean it’s serious does it?’

Something clicked in Perry’s mind; the dead prisoners, Mrs D visiting the gaol.

‘Contagious means you can catch it.’

‘Like the plague,’ Joel whispered.

What if his Pa caught it – and that was the last time he ever saw him? Then, what if he himself caught it. He ran his hand over his Adams apple.

‘Bloody hell! We might have got it off one of them,’ he grabbed the fistful of notes in his pocket and threw them onto the ground.

‘Don’t be stupid, none of them looked ill.’

‘I’m not touching them,’ Perry wiped his hands on his shirt.

‘I can’t do all of them on me own!’

‘Don’t then. Throw them away! We got the money didn’t we?’

‘They’ll find out! I’m not pissing off a bunch of thieves and murderers! Anyway, why would I? It’s a right money-spinner.’

‘Not my problem,’ Perry walked past the notes, twitching in the wind, threatening to take flight.

‘I’ll tell Ma,’ Joel called.

‘So what?’ Perry sneered, ‘I’m not coming back. I’m going home to Mrs Donnegan’s! She might not be there anymore but my bed bloody well is.’

‘Perry!’

But there was no point arguing anymore. He marched to the top of the road and paused to see if Joel was following, but no, he was chasing the skittering notes across the scrubland. Stupid fool.

5

 

The Southampton rooftops glistened with rain in the early dark. People scurried in heavy coats, brollies gleaming dully under the streetlamps, shuffling along like beetles. All had handkerchiefs and rags fastened around their noses and mouths.

At the wealthier townhouses near Charlotte Street, an exodus was in motion. Carriages lined up outside half of the residences. The street teemed with drivers carrying luggage from house to cab, assisting wives and children into vehicles.

Perry cowered under a tree for shelter, watching them leave. He was jealous; not just of the wealth in itself, but the safety it afforded. They could flee town at a moment’s notice while he had been exposed to Mrs D and to the inmates at the prison. On the walk back he’d checked himself every quarter of an hour or so, but he was tired and wind-battered. It would be easy to believe every little muscle twinge or sneeze was the start of something more and he had to fight to keep calm, to remind himself that he wasn’t at death’s door. After all, only adults had been taken by The Sick thus far.

The drizzle left him itchy damp and the idea of sleeping in his own bed again was a warming prospect. Perhaps he’d even see the boys. He continued on to Simnel Street, hazy with fog and the air smelling faintly of bacon. Perry crept along, keeping an eye out for the doctor or the apothecary. As he neared, the smell grew stronger. This was no fog. It was smoke.

He pressed on; the murk enveloping him was now so thick he could barely see. He used his shirt to cover his mouth and wafted his hands in front of him, but saw no flicker of flame, no heat, only the pattering rain on his face and the sting of smoke in his nostrils. Up ahead there came a strange sound, a squeak, repeating over and over like the rusted wheel on the lackey’s barrow at the dry docks. Then, a snort. Not a human sound. He stopped, frozen with fear and squinted through the fug. It looked like…he took a step closer, yes, it was the black stamp of a horse in the milky gloom. The beast’s nose was warm and damp and it lowered its head submissively as he stroked it.

‘What happened here boy?’ he said to the horse.

‘Fire,’ came the unexpected reply.

‘Huh?’

The squeaking stopped.

‘Over here.’

Perry traced the voice to beyond the horse and saw as he stepped closer, that it was harnessed to a fire truck. A silhouette of a man came into view, chest heaving and leaning on a pump.

‘Bad fire?’ Perry asked him.

‘It’s mostly out thank Christ. The rain saved us a hell of a job here.’

‘Bit more water!’ came a yell from the gloom,

‘Coming!’ he returned to the squeaky pump. Perry followed the hose, water belched out in thick gobbets, like a picture he’d seen once of a rat in a snake’s belly. The smoke had disorientated him and he couldn’t be sure of exactly where he was, so he traced the hose to the nearest house. It was Mrs Donnegan’s.

‘No!’ he gasped.

It was a smouldering ruin, charred and black. On the front door a skull and crossbones had been painted in red, the streaks baked hard by the fire. Smoke caught the back of his throat. His eyes stung, oozing out tears. What had he done to deserve this? He wiped his nose on his sodden sleeve.

A fireman appeared in the doorway, hose in hand. ‘Oi, you shouldn’t be here.’

‘Sorry,’ Perry stammered, ‘what happened, what’s the skull mean?’

‘Madness is what it is. Fourth one today. There’s folk going round torching the houses of the infected to stop it spreading.’

Perry stared at the ruin and his sense of dread sunk to his very core. The boys. ‘Were there any bodies?’

Grimy and grim. ‘Not yet.’

Thank God, let it stay that way. Perry wiped away the tears and cleared his throat. Before he knew it, he was climbing back over the rubbish heap and sploshing through the swollen Blue Anchor Lane puddles. He knocked at Ma’s, hating that he was here again and in no mood to make amends with Joel.

The door swung open violently and before he could speak, his chin was in Ma’s vice-like grip.

‘Ow! Get off! What are you doing?’

He struggled and squirmed, not believing how strong she was.

‘Stop wriggling!’

Lantern light flooded his eyes, too bright and too close. He batted it away and finally tore himself free from her grasp. Ma stood there grimacing, her bosom heaving. Then he realised. Joel must have told her about the notes.

‘Look, I know what-’

‘-Don’t you start with me you little scamp! You were one of Donnegan’s boys weren’t you? The whole Ward’s talking about The Sick starting there!’

Wrong-footed, Perry opened his mouth but no sound came.

‘You might have brought it into my house!’

‘I ain’t got The Sick,’ he said limply, then gathered up his resolve, ‘It ain’t possible Ma. I spoke to Dr Fairbanks see, you heard of him?’

‘The doctor looking for a cure?’

‘Yeah him, he said I can’t get it because I’m not an adult. Otherwise they would have taken me for disinfecting wouldn’t they?’

She grunted, his logic stumbling into place somewhere in her head. Perry reached into his pocket.

‘I owe you for last night, and here’s payment for tonight too, go on take it.’

Ma examined the coins.

‘I’m fine. Promise,’ he attempted a smile, ‘and there’s more where that coin came from if you let me stay for a bit.’

Ma stared him down for a moment, weighing his words. Then, she stepped back from the doorway. Money talks. Water dripped off his nose, earlobes and fingers and pattered on the floor. Ma didn’t seem to care; the floorboards were rotten anyway. He couldn’t believe he had to beg to stay here. In the bedroom there was no sign of Joel. My first bit of luck all day, he thought wryly. He hung his sopping clothes over the door to dry and wrapped himself in a bundle of old blankets on the floor. The day couldn’t end soon enough.

In the morning, he woke with his hair still stinking of smoke. Joel was asleep on the other side of the room. Perry hadn’t heard him come in but it must have been late; there were an awful lot of notes to deliver. Guilt prickled at him. Things were far adrift from even his most modest hopes and it was up to him now to make the best of it. He got up quietly and went to the kitchen. There was no sign of Ma, probably asleep upstairs. Joel’s clothes were gathered in a soggy bundle in front of the unlit hearth.

Perry brushed the ash and spent coal from the fireplace. From the coal bucket, he tossed a scattering of black lumps until there was a decent pile and stuffed paper and kindling in the gaps. He struck a match off the wall and lit the paper. The fire smoked, but wouldn’t draw properly, so he covered the fireplace mouth with a sheet of old newspaper, holding it in place until he could see the lick of flame shadow through the paper. Once it was going he dusted his hands off and set the kettle. While he waited for the water to heat, he wrung Joel’s clothes out into a bucket and hung them on the line above the mantel. He supposed it was the least he could do.

Two slices of bread rested on the table. Ma playing at innkeeper was she? Laying on a breakfast spread for her two young guests? Perry claimed his stale slice and gnawed on it until it was soggy enough to bite off and chew. At least there was something to eat. The kettle whistled and Perry grabbed a towel, took the kettle off the heat and poured the scalding water into a dented metal teapot. He heard movement in the bedroom.

‘Morning,’ he called, swilling the water round the teapot.

Joel shuffled in, red-eyed and in his nightclothes, his head down. He reached the washing line and felt his shirt and trousers.

‘They’re still a bit damp,’ said Perry, ‘I only just got the fire going.’

Joel nodded, but wouldn’t meet Perry’s eye.

‘When the fire settles we can lower the line a bit, make it dry quicker. I made you a brew,’ he poured out the tea and offered the steaming mug to Joel.

Joel stared at the fire. He wants to throw my head in it, thought Perry.

‘I was thinking of guddlin’ some trout later in the Itchen. Not had a proper meal in a few days. You could come if you like, hold my legs so I can reach deeper in the water.’

‘Perry,’ Joel faced him, his jaw was clenched. ‘You said we was friends.’

Perry held out the mug again. ‘We are…it’s just, The Sick…those prisoners…’

‘You left me to deliver all them notes on my own, I wouldn’t have taken ‘em all if it was just me! It took me half the night!’

‘I know. I’m sorry Joel. It was mean. And wrong. Mean and wrong. It’ll never happen again. Promise. Friends again?’

Joel took the offered mug and sat. He sipped at his tea and poked a finger into the belly of his bread slice.

‘Alright then Perry.’

Out from the clutches of Blue Anchor Lane, Perry and Joel hailed the driver of passing cart. The driver reined up and his horse stamped to a halt.

‘Hey mister, you going out Bishopstoke way?’

The man gave Perry a look. ‘Might be. What’s it to you?’

‘Gives us a ride and I’ll catch you some fish.’

‘Think I’m daft?’ the man laughed, ‘boy like you catch fish?’

‘Honest mister, it’ll be trout.’

‘I’m hardly going to wait by the side of the road while you two frolic about in the Itchen. I’ve got important lambing business to tend to near Winchester.’

‘So you’re coming back to Southampton today?’

‘Aye, around three,’ the man said guardedly.

‘All the better then,’ beamed Perry, ‘we’ll wait for you by the road when you come back, give you an extra fish or two for the ride home and all.’

‘And if we’re not there, you’ve not lost much have you?’ Joel chipped in.

‘Cheeky beggars. Come on then, get up.’

 

They sat, legs swinging as the horse plodded up the road, Perry tapping a beat on the bottom of a bucket they’d brought. The ride there and back would afford them an extra couple of hours fishing, Perry reckoned he could bag an extra half-dozen trout in that time on a good day. He drank in the clean air of the countryside and pointed to the hedgerow.

‘See that white blossom? That’s wild cherry that is,’ Perry was enthusiastic, ‘and if you look through that bit of woodland up ahead, you’ll likely see the bluebells,’ he glanced sideways at Joel and saw his companion wasn’t really interested and said no more.

It took a little over an hour to reach Bishopstoke and the boys hopped off the cart at the Old Anchor Inn and thanked the driver. Perry assured him of his fish and they arranged to meet in the same spot later.

Perry led Joel along the winding Itchen, keeping to the trees along the bank. He’d forgotten how much he liked it here; so different from town. The flowing water trickled peacefully rather than the harsh splash of slops on cobbles. There were no shouts here, just the birdsong rising from the willows. He remembered his father taking him here for the first time and teaching him the names of the plants and flowers on the way. A man who taught his son such things was surely a good one, deep down, wasn’t he? Perhaps once this business with The Sick died down, he would go and see his Pa, find out a bit more about it all.

Joel blew a high-pitched whistle.

‘What the-’ Perry covered his ears and saw Joel had a slingshot ready-loaded with a stone. Before he could stop it, the startled birds exploded from the trees like black fireworks. The stone spat, sliced the air and cannoned harmlessly off a branch.

‘What are you doing? Put that thing down, you’re not firing at cans on a wall Joel. They’re birds, living birds!’

Joel pulled a face. ‘So what? We’re about to go guddlin’ for livin’ fish, what’s the difference?’

‘There’s no purpose to it. Fishing is for us to eat. We aren’t about to eat blackbirds are we?’

A sly smile appeared on Joel’s face. ‘Thought you were a tough ‘un but take you out the town and it’s all birds and flowers. It was just a bit of sport is all, but if it gets your dander up then I’ll put it away.’

Perry didn’t know what to say to that. He felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment and turned to face the river.

‘Come on, we’re nearly there.’

They traced a few more bends of the river and came to a flint bridge.

‘Here we are,’ Perry scurried down the bank and rolled up his sleeves, ‘I swear this is the best spot in Hampshire, I always do well here,’ he leant over the bank. ‘In summer I just get in the water, I used to do it in springtime too, don’t know how I did it – the water’s too cold now.’

‘What do I do then?’

‘Hold on tight to my legs, then just do what I say,’ Perry dropped to his knees and leant over the edge. Pebbles speckled the bottom and shadows lurked under the ledge of the bank. Joel held his ankles.

‘Hold me tighter,’ Perry said, and dangled upside down from the bank. He plunged his hands into the icy water,

‘Oh it’s freezin’! A bit lower, don’t let go now,’ he sunk to the elbow, then deeper still until he felt his hair flopping into the stream. He felt underneath the bank’s overhang. He stayed still, leaving his palms open and cupping his fingers. The Itchen trickled past, numbing his arms with cold. Blood thumped in his head. His palms tickled, he didn’t flinch. This was the hardest part. He began to whisper:

‘What are you-’

‘-Shhh,’ Perry hushed, and slowly moved his forefingers until they made contact with slick fish skin. He circled his fingers on the trout’s belly, gradually widening out a touch firmer each time until they were under the gills.

‘I got him,’ Perry whispered, ‘pull me back up.’

Joel was pulling him back with ease; he was stronger than he looked. Perry’s clasped his hands around the prize.

‘He’s in your hands!’

‘Pass the bucket,’ Perry said calmly, getting to his knees.

Joel grabbed it, ‘Right o’, put him in.’

But Perry threw the trout onto the ground where it writhed and flicked.

‘It woke up,’ Joel said, ‘why didn’t you…’

Perry snatched the bucket from Joel and smashed it down on the trout’s head, once, twice, thrice.

‘Oh.’

The trout gave a final twitch of the tail and was still.

‘We’ll load up the bucket at the end,’ said Perry.

A trickle of blood ran across the brown sheen of the fish and mingled with the wet mud of the bank.

‘How do you make em sleep?’

Perry smiled mischievously. ‘I’ll show you. Want a turn?’

‘Too right I do. Looked easy to me.’

Poor fool had no idea.

The sun warmed Perry’s back on the walk to the Inn. They passed old cottages and spied farms in the distance. He glanced at Joel, struggling with the weight of the bucket, but smiling. He wished they lived out here and didn’t have to go home to Southampton.

In the village he took a different route, passing by his old house. It looked good, the chimney was firing out smoke and the roof had been redone. He was glad the home was being put to good use and wondered what his Pa would make of it.

While they waited, Perry gave Joel some tips about where his guddling was going wrong although he had to admit it was impressive that Joel had managed it once. Fair success for a first attempt.

It was an hour before the cart trundled into view.

‘Well, well, so you got your fish.’

Perry glowed with pride. ‘Told you, didn’t I?’

 

The Sick’s menacing undertow could be forgotten in the countryside, but in Southampton it was a different story. As they clopped through the busy streets, people were frightened. He could tell by their panicked eyes and covered mouths. People could carry on about their business, but he wasn’t fooled. They were scared shitless, would it be them next? Perry couldn’t blame them. It was rotten meat, this town, and rotten meat didn’t tend to get fresh again far as he knew.

When they got back to Ma’s, he wanted to keep the momentum of the day’s good feeling going.

‘I’m ready to put my feet up with a mug of brew,’ said Perry.

‘I think not,’ Ma came into the kitchen wearing a dingy red gown, ‘thought I heard you two scamps coming back. What’s that?’

‘Oh this?’ Joel put the bucket down on the table.

Ma looked at them both in disgust. ‘You’re both filthy. Is that blood on your clothes?’

‘Only fish blood.’

Ma peered inside the bucket. ‘Slimy critters. Well I suppose you can sell some of them at the port later.’

‘Not tonight!’ said Joel. ‘We’ve been fishing all day.’

‘Yes, tonight,’ Ma snapped, ‘passenger liner in from the Cape.’ She looked at Perry, ‘If you’re thinking of staying here for good you’ll damn well be earning your keep.’

Annoyed, Perry pointed at the bucket. ‘What do you call that if it’s not earning our bloody keep?’

Ma’s features darkened. ‘That’s enough lip from you. Don’t think I won’t throw you both out on the street!’

He held his tongue.

‘Joel will show you what to do. I’m going to bed, need my rest.’

They didn’t speak until they heard the creak of her footsteps upstairs.

‘You were right. She is a bleedin’ nightmare,’ said Perry.

‘Come on, we better eat and get cleaned up. We’ll need our wits about us if we’re going down the docks.’

Perry grunted, irritated by Ma’s lack of appreciation for their catch. He took a trout from the bucket and laid it lengthways on a chopping board. He grabbed a knife from the drawer, it looked blunt but it’d have to do.

‘That’s a thought,’ said Joel.

‘What is?’ Perry followed his gaze to the knife.

‘Nothing. Let’s eat this up real quick; we better get down there before it gets too late. I’ll tell you what you need to do while we eat.’

6

 

After supper, Perry wrapped up the rest of the fish and headed to the harbour. It was already black as pitch when they left the house, but on the way, Perry stopped a street hawker and managed to agree a fair price for the fish, gaining a slice of mutton pie each in the bargain, which they pocketed for later. Although Joel had only caught one fish, Perry gave him a couple of farthings of the take.

At the harbour, three huge passenger liners were docked under a starry sky; their lights shimmered in the water’s mirror. Perry had never really been down here at night, it felt like a different place; the sailors that spilled outside The Bell & Mast tavern seemed larger than the men of daylight somehow, they poured beer down their throats and clapped one another on the back and bellowed out jokes. It was the women too, a group of five walking to the docks were no daytime washerwomen or maids, but rouged of face and wearing frilly dresses with plunging necklines. Even the tavern’s sign – a bell, painted a stormy dull gold, angled on a mast with flecks of rain flashing past – looked the more menacing for the night. All in all, it was as welcoming a sight as a rotten tooth.

‘You’re older,’ said Joel, the taint of nerves in his voice put Perry on edge. ‘You do the tavern, I’ll try the crew over by the boat.’

‘The tavern?’ he eyed the group outside again, their breath fogging like smoking coals. ‘Maybe I should try the crew?’

‘No Perry, the crew is the terrible job, awful. They’re all cranky and irritable. You need your wits about you in case one of them snaps. In the tavern they’re all having a drink and a good time – listen to that lot, they’re laughing their heads off.’

The manic laughter coming from the group outside the tavern was not putting him at ease. Whichever way he looked at it, he had never done anything like this before and if Joel reckoned he’d do better in the tavern, then surely he must…and he did still feel a tinge of guilt for the prisoner notes.

‘Alright then.’

‘Great!’ Joel reached into his pocket, ‘here, you take this,’ he handed Perry a switchblade and showed how it sprung open. Surprised by its weight, Perry ran his hand over the steel face down to the wooden handle where a carp had been ornately carved on either side. It looked dangerous, like it could skewer the hull of a ship.

‘I’m starting to worry about you,’ said Perry, eager to take the knife’s appearance in his stride, ‘first the slingshot, then the knife…what else have you got?’

Joel gave him a toothy grin.

‘According to you, the tavern’s the safer location, how come I need a knife and you don’t?’

‘It’s a question of experience Perry, not location. You never know when you might need it. Best to have it just in case.’

‘Ever had to use it?’

‘Not really.’

‘How do you mean, “not really” Joel? You’ve either had to use it or you haven’t. What is it you’re so scared of that you’d need a knife?’

Joel looked offended, ‘I’m not scared.’

‘Then you take the knife and do the tavern.’

Joel chewed his lip for a moment. ‘Fine, I’ll tell you. It was a couple of months back. I was in there for Ma, talking to these three sailors, big lads, think they was from Scandinavia. But they said they weren’t interested in no women, so I asked what they was interested in. Now thinking back I should’ve kept my trap shut, cos they start grabbing at me, just playful stuff at first-’

‘-then what?’

‘ Well I gets the bad feeling and I ran out of there. Thing was, they came out too! I then started running and they started running after me, laughing like goons they was. I go as far as Alexandra docks, look back and they’re still bloody chasing after me, lumbering like bloody giants, whooping and yelling. Problem is, I was reckoning on them getting tired of it, but they were fast and strong and there I am running in the wrong bloody direction, straight to the end of the dock- which is a dead end.’

‘So what did you do?’

‘Well it’s but thirty seconds and I’m at the end of the dock. I yell but there ain’t no-one else about. It was late see. And they’re coming for me fast as three cannonballs. And behind me is just the sea, black and oily as a fish eye, and I just know I’ll freeze if I jump in but I don’t see what option I have. Then I remember the knife in my pocket and I pull it out. They’re nearly on to me and I yell at em, “Back away or I’ll rip you to shreds!” and I pull the knife and it somehow catches the moonlight and looks meaner than ever. And I lunge it forward, swishing the air, cutting the night to pieces like some wild beast,’ Joel mimicked the movement, ‘and then their feet stops pounding on the dock and they’re right in front of me. Them Scandinavian chests is heaving, gulping air and sizing me up, seeing if I’m serious. So I yell at ‘em “I’m serious!” and I give ‘em a few more air strokes of the knife for good measure.’

‘So they just let you go?’

Joel sunk into himself and stuffed his hands in his pockets, ‘No,’ he said meekly, all his bravado and performance dissolving. ‘One of ‘em brings out a knife twice as big as mine and they start laughing like dogs.’

‘And then what?’

Joel shrugged, ‘I put the blade away and dived into the sea.’

‘What? Bleedin’ heck Joel!’ Perry laughed, ‘so the knife didn’t help you at all?’

‘Brought me some breathing time before my swim!’ he said defensively, ‘and you shouldn’t laugh, I got so ill from the cold I was sick for weeks!’

Perry let his laugh slip to a smile, ‘Joely, pal, it sounds like a close escape to me and a brave one at that.’

Joel crossed his arms, ‘Aye, it was. So you hold on to that for now. I never seen those fellers around since, but just in case.’

‘And you? What will you have to protect you?’

‘Tsk,’ Joel dismissed him with a hand, ‘I got my smarts and my bravery. It’s your first time at this. Take the blade.’

It was true; he hadn’t done anything quite like this before. Had never wanted to and still didn’t. Perry nodded to his friend and slipped the knife into his pocket.

When Joel left him to try the crewmen by the docks, nerves flooded Perry once more. He took a deep breath and met them the only way he knew how. He pulled up his collar, mussed up his hair and hoped it made him appear a bit dangerous.

Inside, a set of stairs to his right led up into darkness but the main bar was full to the brim, a jumble of conversations and laughter ringing under a fug of smoke. He looked around uneasily, not sure exactly where to try. Six stocky men sat around a bench by the window, a woman with fire-red hair sat on one of their laps, giggling. Not there. Perhaps he should buy a drink first, try and fit in, but people were packed in so tight he doubted he’d make it to the bar without elbowing his way through. Then, in a nook under the stairs, he spied three men around a circular table gripping tankards with no woman in their company. Sailors, he guessed by their thick jackets. Lonely, perhaps, from time at sea with no woman warming their beds. Sailors were his best bet.

He strolled over as confidently as he could, ducked into the nook and cleared his throat.

‘Scuse me misters…’

They stopped their conversation and his confidence drained at the sight of them. Close up, the one on Perry’s left was bald as a fly-rink with a nasty scar on his cheek. The next sailor was smaller, bearded, with ginger hair sprouting from under his cap. Small black eyes and a hooter nose poked through the undergrowth. Between them was a wide man, with a mop of greasy black hair and a jaw that looked like it could crack walnuts.

‘What is it boy?’ said Jaw, his accent strange.

‘Sorry, right. Yes,’ Perry regained his composure, he was here now, he’d best try. ‘Well, I was wondering if I might interest you gents in the company of one of Southampton’s finest…er…d-dames?’

The three sailors exchanged confused glances.

‘Dames?’ Fly-rink said.

Perry felt hot and tugged at his collar, ‘Er- women. Well, a woman.’

***

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Perry Scrimshaw's Rite of Passage

"With each step, the figure grew larger; he was on the edge, facing out to sea, back turned to Perry’s approach. Perhaps he wouldn’t need the knife at all, a push might be all that it would take." In this transatlantic victorian tale, love and betrayal aren't oceans apart. In darkest Southampton the alleyways are rife with schemers and tricksters and Perry Scrimshaw considers himself the very best. The port is a dangerous, plague–ridden place with dockers threatening to riot. In the chaos, Perry attempts a swindle so ambitious it will set him up for life with the girl he loves. But Perry isn’t the only trickster in town. When his plans go violently wrong, he faces the struggle of his life…

  • ISBN: 9781311420060
  • Author: Chris Hannon
  • Published: 2015-12-02 13:05:10
  • Words: 86895
Perry Scrimshaw's Rite of Passage Perry Scrimshaw's Rite of Passage