A novel: Hard lessons

Chapter 1

It was after two in the morning when Jack got home. He’d been watching a house where he’d delivered some meat earlier, and had knocked on the kitchen door; it swung open and he called out. There was no reply and looking into the kitchen, he saw a woman asleep in a chair, stinking of drink. He shook her, woke her, told her he’d brought the meat, two shillings to pay.

She stood up, staggered to a drawer and pulled it open. Then she stood there, swaying to and fro, grasping at a chair. She put her hand into the drawer, and took out some money, dropping most of it onto the floor. She was so drunk she couldn’t count it, so Jack counted out the two shillings for her. He could have counted out anything, told her it was two shillings, but he knew better. If it was missed, they would know where it had gone. He counted the money out aloud so that she knew what he was taking, but knew that she didn’t understand what was going on.

He wondered if the kitchen door was always open, and if he could get in later. He was astonished at how much money there was in the drawer, all mixed up together, and wondered if they knew how much there was. If they were all as bad as her they wouldn’t.

He went back about midnight, stood looking at the house for a time. There weren’t any lights, and it all seemed very quiet. He wondered if there was a dog, but he hadn’t heard one. After a time, he crept up to the door and tried it. It wasn’t locked, and he slowly opened it.

Then there was a dog, jumping at him, barking like a mad thing. He was kicking out at it, trying to stop it getting hold of him. He could hear someone shouting at the dog, telling it be quiet, but he knew the dog wouldn’t, and in time they would come to investigate. More by accident than anything else he banged the dog’s head against the door, the dog let go, and Jack was away. The dog had torn his leggings, and bitten his leg, but at least he was free. He stopped when he turned the corner of the street, out of breath. Then he heard the nightwatch, two of them, marching along in the leisurely way they did, and he was off again before they saw him, and he would be in the cells in no time.

 

When he got back home, it was pitch black, and foggy, no lights anywhere. Someone was dragging a bundle through the entry from the court; he saw that it was Kitty, and what she was dragging was a man. He wondered what was wrong with the man: she was having a problem, he was a dead weight.

At first Kitty didn’t realise he was there; she had her back to him, dragging the man. Then she must have sensed something, and turned round, had her knife out.

‘Mother of God,’ she said. ‘Don’t do that. Well, stop staring; help me get this lump out of the way.’

Jack liked Kitty: she was all right. He ran errands for her, and she always paid up, fair and square. Kitty was a tail, and the women in the court were always shouting at her. Jack’s Dad looked at her, but didn’t dare. Jack’s Ma really would kill him. And his Dad hadn’t any money, anyway, so he was never going to have her.

They dragged the man into the alley behind the Hippodrome, propped him up against the wall: a nice surprise for Harry, the caretaker, when he opened up in the morning.

‘Good lad,’ Kitty said. ‘Now cut along home.’

‘Aren’t we going to see what he’s got.’

Before she could answer Jack’s hand was in the man’s pocket. There was a sovereign case, and he opened it. Six sovereigns! There was a watch, as well, a nice one. That would fetch a bit.

‘Nice,’ Kitty said. ‘I’ll have the sovereigns, you can have the watch.’

‘We share,’ Jack said. ‘Or else …’

‘I’ll have to keep an eye on you. Right, but you take the watch to Uncle.’

Then they heard footsteps on the next street, and he knew again that it was the night watch and that they would be there before he and Kitty would be able to get away. He was off round the corner, catching hold of one of the men.

‘Come quick,’ he said. ‘There’s a man, I think he’s ill. Me and my sister was going home, and we saw him.’

Kitty had heard this, and she was bending over the man.

‘Oh, you poor man, you poor man.’

The watchman looked, felt the man’s neck.

‘Dead,’ he said.

‘Oh, no, no,’ Kitty said, holding her handkerchief in front of her eyes.

‘There,’ the man said. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’

Jack could see suspicions beginning.

‘What are you two doing out at this time of night?’

‘Our Dad is in hospital, we’ve been to see him, and we’re going home to tell my Ma,’ Jack said. ‘She doesn’t know. He’ll not last long.’

Kitty started crying again. She was really very good at it.

‘Better get along home.’

They stood there looking at the man.

Then they walked away. Kitty held Jack’s hand. They managed to get into the entry before they started laughing.

‘You’re a cool one,’ Kitty said. ‘How will you get into your house?’

‘I won’t. I’ll sleep in the wash house, it’s warm in there. And I’ve got to light the boiler tomorrow anyway, it’s my Ma’s washday.’

‘What would your Ma say if she knew you had helped me out?’

‘She won’t know. Kitty, was the man with you, you know?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think it was all too much for him. Jack, how old are you?’

‘Eight.’

‘Mm. You seem to know a lot about the ways of the world.’

‘What do you mean?’ he said.

‘Nothing. And don’t try to cheat me over the watch. And Jack, give me the sovereigns.’

He gave her three sovereigns, and she looked at them.

‘Three,’ he said. ‘Share alike. We’re partners’

‘Oh are we? First I heard of it.’

‘Or else.’

‘Don’t you threaten me, Jack. All right, three. You’re a good lad.’ And kissed him.

Jack would do anything for Kitty, but he didn’t let her know that. He knew she wouldn’t think much of him if he did. He was eight, but a boy growing up in a city slum learned early on to be wily, careful. He’d also learned that she was clever, and knew what she was about. Not like his Ma. He was fond of his Ma, but he knew she wasn’t the smartest woman in the world.

Jack saw the world he lived in, but it was just that, where he lived, his world circumscribed by his home, the streets, the market. He didn’t see how his town was growing. Men came from all over England, and from Wales and Ireland and Scotland too, and from overseas, from France and Holland and Germany to make their way. There weren’t the Guilds that there were in London, regulating the tradesmen, stifling ambition. Men could come to his town, and set themselves up, and if they would work, and had a vision of what they could do, they could succeed. Not all of them did, of course. But Jack, young as he was, had an embryonic ambition. He didn’t know what it was, but he was dissatisfied, and that was the key to his future, the key that would, perhaps, one day open the door to a better life for himself.

§ School

Next morning Jack had the fire going under the boiler, and he was up on the roof of the wash-house, getting the window open. He realised he would have to get a new bit of tin lid, the bit he had was bending when he pushed it against the catch; it had done a good job getting him into places where he wasn’t supposed to be. In the end he was climbing in through the window, got the fire going in the range, and was sitting down with some bread before Ma appeared.

‘Lit the wash-house boiler?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Filled the boiler?’

‘Yes.’

Ma looked at him, suspicious.

‘I’m off to the market,’ he said.

‘You’re not a bad lad,’ Ma said, and gave him a kiss. She stopped, puzzled. Perhaps she could smell Kitty, who kissed him last night when she also told him he was a good lad. Kitty always smelled nice. He had to unlock the door, he’d forgotten about that. Ma looked even more puzzled.

 

At school Miss Wilson, the teacher, was writing on the board, and they had to copy it. She walked round to see how everyone was doing, and when she came to Jack, she stopped.

‘Well done, Jack,’ she said. ‘You’re beginning to write very well. It’s very important that you learn to write well. If you can, you will be able to get a good job.’

By a good job, she meant a job in an office. Jack didn’t want a job in an office. Miss Wilson had a good job. She was a teacher. But her dress was mended, darned, not like Kitty’s dress. Miss Wilson was very pretty, but she didn’t have a husband. He liked Miss Wilson. She looked like Kitty, although her hair wasn’t quite the same colour, and Jack knew that she wouldn’t like to be told she looked like Kitty, a tail. Miss Wilson was good, not like Kitty, Jack thought, but her dress was darned.

Jack knew he was lucky to be at school. It was just an accident that it happened. He was in the street market, wondering if he could sneak an apple off one of the stalls, and there was a cab. The cab driver had got down to hand his fares out. They didn’t usually do that, he must have been expecting a good tip. The gentleman got down, turned to help the lady out, and there was a bang as a barrel fell off a cart passing by, and the cab horse bolted. Jack knew that if you wanted to stop a bolting horse, you had to do it quickly, before it got going, so he jumped up, and grabbed the bridle. He didn’t know why he did, perhaps it was because the lady looked nice, and well-dressed. He hung on to the bridle, was too heavy for the horse, and it stopped. It was an old horse, gave up easily. Jack knew a bit about horses, he had earned a few pennies holding a horse for gentlemen while they were in a shop.

The gentleman and the cab driver came running up, and helped the lady down from the cab. Jack stood there, hoping they would give him something.

‘Oh, Josh, what would have happened if this boy hadn’t been there,’ she said. ‘What’s your name, boy?’

‘Jack.’

‘Jack what?’

‘Harling.’

Then she asked him where he lived, and he told her, in Inge Street.

The gentleman gave him a shilling, told him he was a good lad. He seemed to be being a good lad quite a lot at the moment, he thought.

The next day a man came to their court, asking for Jack Harling.

‘You’re to come with me,’ he said.

‘What’s he done?’ Ma asked. ‘He’s a good lad, he’d never do anything wrong.’

‘I didn’t say he had,’ the man said. ‘You’d better come as well.’

Ma looked worried, but in the end they went with the man to a school in Pinfold Street.

Then they learned that he could go to school there, and learn to read and write. They told Jack that the lady who had been in the cab had arranged it, and from time to time she came to the school, and she always asked for Jack, asked how he was doing. He didn’t understand why she had done this, but he went to school.

It was strange at first, being at school. Ma had taught him his alphabet, and although he couldn’t read very well when he first went to the school, he soon learned. Most of the other boys didn’t like him, they all had better clothes, but they left him alone, except for one boy, Vincent, who was always sneering at him, calling him names. Vincent was a bully, the biggest boy in the class, but he was very slow to learn. They had to take it in turns to read, and Vincent was hopeless. He stumbled over nearly every word, and was completely defeated by “through”. He couldn’t even repeat the word after the teacher, Miss Wilson, had said it, and Jack laughed. Vincent was waiting for him after school.

‘Charity boy,’ Vincent said. ‘Give me that apple you had in school. I saw it.’

Jack just looked at him, and Vincent went mad, came rushing at Jack, swinging his fist. He missed, Jack got a punch in and Vincent staggered, but Vincent came back again.

The boys at the school had a way of fighting that was strange to Jack. They held their fists up together in front of them, pretending to punch, until they had a chance to hit their opponent. That wasn’t how Jack and the boys in Inge Street fought. They aimed every punch to hit their opponent, watching and trying to evade a punch coming their way, of course, but intent on doing as much damage as possible. Fights were usually over pretty quickly, and Jack’s fight with Vincent was. Vincent’s nose was bleeding before he had even hit Jack, and the next punch from Jack knocked him down. Vincent was staggering to his feet when Mr Wakeford, the teacher for the older children, came rushing out and shouted at them to stop fighting.

That didn’t do Jack any good, of course. Vincent wouldn’t let him play football with them, but one day Jack was standing by the wall, the ball came his way, Jack took it, ran across the yard kicking it, evading Vincent, and kicked it into Vincent’s goal. The other team cheered Jack. Vincent always picked the biggest boys for his own team, and they always won.

‘I told you you couldn’t play,’ Vincent said.

‘Who’s going to stop me?’

Vincent’s reply was to try to punch Jack, but once again he was too slow, and Jack got two good punches in before Mr Wakeford came rushing out again to separate them.

‘Right,’ said Mr Wakeford. ‘You’ll stay in the classroom, Jack if you can’t behave.’

‘Please sir, it wasn’t Jack started it,’ one of the boys said. ‘It was Vincent.’

‘Then they can both stay in the classroom.’

Jack thought that was a bit unfair, but he knew better than to argue with the teacher.

Miss Wilson had seen all this from the classroom window, but she didn’t say anything.

 

Vincent went on calling him a charity boy, but didn’t try to pick a fight with Jack. The boys who weren’t Vincent’s cronies talked to Jack, played marbles with him, and Jack also found that he could learn just as well as they could. They had to copy what Miss Wilson had written on the board, and Jack was often the first to finish.

Jack looked at Miss Wilson while they were copying what she had written on the board, she often went to the window and looked out. What was she thinking? When they went out into the playground, he looked in through the window at her.

Having to stay in the classroom, Jack began to wonder what the book was that Miss Wilson was reading while they were copying into their books, and one day he went to her desk while she was away, and opened it, wiping his hands on his trousers first.
“Intimations of Immortality” it was called, and he read the first lines:

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparell’d in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

 

Then Miss Wilson was standing by him, and he started.

‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘Why are you sorry, Jack?’

‘Reading your book. I wiped my hands before I touched it.’

‘Thank you, Jack. But what did you think?’

‘What’s celestial?’

‘Heavenly.’

‘I don’t understand it.’ he said.

‘It’s a man, remembering when he was a child.’

‘What’s apparelled?’

‘Clothed.’

‘I don’t know what any of these words mean,’ Jack said.

‘That doesn’t matter, Jack. You can ask. Most boys would even be asking, wouldn’t even realise that they had something to learn. You must ask, Jack.’

Then the bell for the next lesson rang, and all the other children were pouring into the classroom, shouting and pushing at each other, and Jack went to his desk, sat there, wondering about Miss Wilson’s book. Why were the words in the middle of the page, not like they were in his copy book?

He had finished copying what Miss Wilson had written on the board. He was always the first to finish, and he turned to the back of his book and wrote what he remembered.

“There was a time when meadow grove and stream,

The earth and every common sight,”

Then he couldn’t remember. What was it? Then it came to him

“To me did seem

Apparelled in heavenly light.”

No, that wasn’t right. It didn’t sound right.

Then they were reading out what Miss Wilson had written on the board from their books, all together. Jack wondered why they did this.

That night in bed he was thinking about what he had written, and it came to him. Celestial, that was the word.

Next day when he collected his book from the book box, he turned straight away to the end, to alter what he had written, and saw. Miss Wilson had crossed out “heavenly”, and written in “celestial”. He looked up, looked at Miss Wilson, and she saw him, and smiled. He knew he would do anything for Miss Wilson.

 

Miss Wilson asked him what he wanted to do. He wanted to get away. To be rich. But he didn’t tell her that. He knew what she would like to hear.

‘I want to get a job in a bank, or something like that.’

‘You could do,’ she said. ‘You’re very good at arithmetic.’ She put her hand on his shoulder. ‘You must work hard, Jack, you must work hard, it’s the only way.’

It wasn’t the only way. She didn’t understand.

One thought on “A novel: Hard lessons

  1. Pingback: A Blog Hop | David Franks' Blog

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