Friday, 14 February 2014

Hester Bliss: such a pretty little garden

Hester sat quietly on the wooden bench by the infirmary door. Her feet dangled uncomfortably, and she kept catching her legs mid-swing and then keeping herself very still. She tried holding her breath, but that just made even more noise when she finally had to let it out. The opposite wall was plain, just dusty coloured plaster right from the ceiling down to the flagstones, stretching out to either side. She heard footsteps, and looked down at the ground, trying to make herself as small as possible. Two shoes stopped at the bench: silver buckles and soft, mouse-grey leather, just peeping out from underneath blue skirts. She felt a cool hand on her forehead.

'Are you quite well, child?'

Hester nodded without raising her head. The hand on her forehead slipped down to brush her cheek, and the other hand cupped her chin and tilted it up. She saw a tall lady, with fair hair tucked under a plain linen cap, secured by a neat strip of blue ribbon twisted into a rosette. Hester admired this, and tried to avoid the lady's eyes. Her chin was released.

'You're not one of the pupils that I know. What is your name?'

Panicked, Hester drew back against the wall. She looked around for Miss Bell, or even Tildy. She could see that the lady with the blue ribbon was wondering why she didn't answer. She lowered her eyes to the beautiful grey shoes, and wished that the floor would swallow her up.

'Well, child? Come now, don't be shy.'

With relief, Hester saw Tildy bustle out of the infirmary, drying her hands on her apron. She bobbed a curtsey when she saw the tall lady.

'Beg pardon mam, tis not that she's shy. She can't talk. Won't talk. Mounts to same thing, f'you ask me...'

The lady looked down on her with pity in her eyes. Hester stared at the wall. She heard Tildy repeat, in lowered tones, what Miss Bell had told her about the strange little girl who didn't speak. Tildy liked to talk, and that suited Hester very well. Tildy talked about anything, to anyone, and sang when she wasn't talking. She had a sharp nose and scrubbed-looking cheeks, and curly hair that escaped from under her cap. When she was angry she would slap Hester, but was sorry for it after, and sometimes gave her a strip of dried apple peel by way of apology.

'Hester...Hester! 'sakes girl, don't ee sit there in a maze...work to be done, and you to be doing it.' Tildy gave her a shake, but not a rough one, and Hester didn't mind it.

The infirmary wasn't large, just a few empty beds against the walls, and a few woven baskets for the babies. Hester thought they looked like large nests, all padded out with wool blankets. Only one child was in the infirmary - a new Foundling baby, who was tiny, the smallest  baby Hester had ever seen, and he didn't do much but squall fitfully. He wasn't squalling now. Hester took the broom from beside the fireplace and began sweeping the room the way Tildy had shown her - long, slow strokes from the edges of the room back to the fireplace, where the sweepings could be burnt. The broom was taller than she was, heavy, and the rough wood of the handle hurt her hands. She propped it against the wall and ran to take a peep at the baby.

He was very still, and very quiet. Hester put a hand into the basket to touch his cheek. It was cold. Desperate, she picked him up, blanket and all, and ran to the fireplace. She knelt on the warm hearthstone and carefully cradled the baby in her arms. If Tildy were here she would sing to the baby, would sing lullabies like she sometimes did, picking the babies up and playing with them, even though Miss Bell didn't approve. But Hester couldn't sing, couldn't even call for help. She held the little, cold baby close and tried to make him warm again.
***
Tildy didn't scold, not even with Hester's dress all covered in dust and ashes from the fire. She was very gentle, and took the baby from Hester, handing him to Miss Bell with a shake of her head. Then she turned back to Hester and firmly pulled her to her feet. She led her over to the water pump and cleaned the tear stains from her face with the corner of her apron.

'Come now, don't ee cry, such a big girl as you. Anyone could see a little mite like that wouldn't thrive no matter what...'

Tildy brushed the marks out of Hester's dress. 'Now put that cap straight and come with me.' Taking Hester's hand, she led her out into the old carriage square and under the archway into the grounds. It had been cool inside, with the old, thick walls, but outside it was summer, and the grass was growing long in the pasture. The older boys had cut a pathway with scythes at the edge of the enclosure, and underfoot it was springy with moss and tiny blue creeping flowers. At the end of the pasture there was a high brick wall, with a door in it. Tildy pulled on a rope that hung down from a hole at the top of the door, and it opened. The rope was too high for Hester to reach.

Inside it was all laid out like a piece of printed cotton - like the dress Tildy wore on her day off, with swirls of colour and flowers. There was a tree in the centre, and flowers around the edges. It was warmer in here than in the pasture - the walls kept the breeze out. It was such a pretty little garden that Hester almost forgot why they were here, until Tildy took her forward to look at the little wooden plaques surrounding the tree.
***
One of the eldest boys dug the hole, wiping his sleeve across his forehead in the heat. Tildy placed the little body in the ground, and Mr Grimble read something from a book that Hester didn't understand. She looked at the flowers in the garden and felt the warmth from the sun on the back of her neck, and meanwhile the boy shovelled earth and patted the small mound flat with the back of the spade. Hester placed a straggly bunch of the little blue flowers on top, and walked back through the pasture with Tildy.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

Hester Bliss: dark corners

Peregrine was anxious to leave the tailor's shop in a hurry - he had to get back to the printing workshop before he was missed. Printer's devils didn't get a break to eat their meagre bit of dinner - the journeymen kicked off to the chop house to smoke and drink, locking the younger boys in the shop. Peregrine had wriggled out of a half open window to bring the news about Adelaide. He hopped from foot to foot while Hester dampened the fire, picked up a shawl and muffler, and carefully locked up the front office.

It was cold outside, and the pair of them had their thick cloth mufflers wrapped right around the lower half of their faces. They walked in silence, keeping their heads down and hands tucked inside their sleeves. Peregrine sometimes ran ahead a little to make sure of the way, hanging back for Hester to catch up. Night was falling, and the Leerie-men could be seen trudging along, spark box dangling from one hand and glimmer pole over the other shoulder. Some of them also carried cudgels swinging from their belts. It was well known that the dippers, crackers, corner-boys and other criminals held a grudge against the men who went around lighting the streets of the city.

Dark corners could still be found, however, off every main thoroughfare - places where the tops of the buildings loomed up into the sky blocking even the light of the moon, twisting wynds that turned back in on themselves, and staircases that seemed to descend into the very depths. Peregrine ducked into one of these, and Hester followed, after a cautious glance over her shoulder. The flight of steps cut straight through the layers of the city, down to the river docks. They didn't go quite that far however, but turned into a little slip of a street, near the bottom, where the doors opened onto a long damp alley that jostled the back of the warehouses.

Peregrine counted doors silently, until he stopped at one that had a dirty sheet of paper nailed to it. He knew what it said, having set the type himself that very morning.

KINCHIN FER HIRE. ALL AGES. GOOD FER CHIMBLEY SWEEPS, TRAPPERS N DIPPERS.
Sara Twil - 8 yr * Addy Burd - 6 yr * Tom Brit - 7 yr * Jos Lun - 12 yr * Ana Park - 9 yr


 He remembered every badly-spelled word, not daring to deviate from the hand-written scrawl that came from the fist of the customer. He had already been fearful of what would happen if he was caught working the press. The man had pushed into the shop early, before the journeymen had clocked in for the day, and insisted that Peregrine do the job for him there and then. He'd followed the boy up to the case-room and leaned back against the setting rack, arms folded. Hands trembling, Peregrine had taken a sheet of paper from the discard box, set the type and inked up the rollers. He'd just pulled the first proof away when the man had snatched it from his hands and clumped downstairs. There had been just enough time for him to clear everything away before the shop-bell rang again as the journeymen arrived.

He felt a sharp elbow in his side and saw Hester looking at him. He nodded meaningfully at the door, pressed something into her hand, and ran back the way they'd come. Hester glanced down at the knife he'd given her, although she'd guessed by the shape of it. It had a slim blade, used for cutting the strings that held the paper stacks together.

 Hopefully she wouldn't have to use it.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Glory Brats: We were children playing in the sun who did not know the meaning of the clouds

Sparrow Jones was eight years old when the war started. She didn't take much notice.

The Jones family lived in Residential Sector 3, on the outskirts of Garden City. It was a good house - one of the newest in the city, not that that was saying much. New-er than the rest anyway. On the day the war started, the house was empty apart from Sparrow and her younger sister. Sparrow was sitting on her parents' bed, brushing her hair with purpose, carefully dividing it into two bunches and making each one equal before braiding the wispy brown strands. She poked her tongue between her teeth in concentration and picked two matching coloured bands from the drawer.

Tekla wandered into the bedroom still in her nightie, hair sticking up at all angles, and rubbing sleep from her eyes.

Sparrow made a face, 'Tekla -I told you to get ready!' She slid off the bed with a bump.

Tekla stretched her face into a yawn, 'Musta fell asleep again...'

Sparrow seized her little sister by the shoulders and turned her in the direction of the hall. 'Agh. Why do I even...ugh. Just do as you're told in school, OK?'

Sunlight spilled into the hallway through the large glass pane above the stairs. Sparrow marched Tekla along the hall and into their shared bedroom. She pushed the younger girl in the direction of the cupboard, 'Go on, get your vest and knickers. I'll get your new school stuff.'

Tekla shook her head, 'It never came.'

Sparrow stopped, half-way out the door,'What? But they always come, for all the new entry class.'

'Nup, not this time. Heard mum say Ela three doors along hadn't got hers neither.' Tekla grabbed her underwear from the basket and held them up, 'These do?'

'Uh huh...' Sparrow nodded, frowning. Uniforms always got delivered. New for entry class, then every other year after that. 'Have to be my old uniform then. Mum might not have sent it to Clearing yet. Now, get those things on. And get a clean shirt from the pile.'

Sparrow's old uniform was on the bottom shelf of the hall cupboard, neatly folded. She shook the black pinafore out, frowned at it critically, and then crouched on the rug to remove the brightly-coloured metal pin-badges from the shoulder strap.They clinked together heavily as she weighed them up in her hand. Blue for new, red for bled, green for clean, white for fight... Maybe she'd get a green this term.

'Do I get my first badge today?' Tekla asked, putting her arms up in all the wrong places as Sparrow tried to drop the pinafore over her head. Sparrow's only answer was to tug the pinafore down so it hung properly. Tekla wriggled as the belt buckle was tightened. 'Spar..ROW! Do I get my blue badge today?'

Sparrow sighed and dragged the brush through Tekla's short hair, 'Yes. Like everyone else. Since.....forever. C'mon, downstairs. Now.'

The kitchen was warmed by the heat from the big stove. Two plates and cups sat on the scrubbed wooden table, waiting. Sparrow kicked the wash-room door open. 'Go on. You first.' She sat down at the table and chewed the thick slice of bread and butter thoughtfully, washing it down with the milk. Breakfast finished, she knocked on the wash-room door and leaned against the door post. 'You better be done now. Don't want to be late first day of Entry...'

When no answer came, she pushed the door open slowly. Tekla was sitting hunched up on the tiled floor, trying not to cry and twisting her face with the effort. Sparrow crouched down next to her. 'Everyone feels the same. It's not meant to be scary you know...'

'..m'not scared...'

Sparrow tried a different tack: 'Pick that towel up, Tickles - Mum put it out fresh last night.'

Tekla uncurled herself and held out the towel with a miserable sniff. 'Mum should be here...'

Sparrow gave her little sister a hug and put the towel back on the hook. 'She will be, I bet she's just got stuck coming back from work. C'mon, hurry up and eat your breakfast.'