Christmas Short Story
Leeds, December 1889
It was still dark when she finished the baking, and bitter outside the kitchen. She washed the flour from her hands, walked through the yard and unlocked gate that led to Roundhay Road. The draymen would arrive soon enough, the sharp sound of hooves as the horses stopped outside the Victoria. She peeked out into the street. The air was winter-heavy and wet with soot.
It was early but there were already men out walking, on their way to jobs in the boot factories and tanneries, the mills and breweries. The gas lamps offered a faint glow. She turned and caught the silhouette of someone crouched on the doorstep of the pub.
Someone small. A boy.
“Waiting for something, luv?” Annabelle Atkinson asked as she crossed her arms. “We’ll not be open for two hours yet.”
“I’m just sitting,” the lad answered. She could hear the cold in his voice. As she came closer, she was that his face was grubby and he was only wearing a thin shirt and a pair of ragged trousers that left his calves bare, his shoes were held together withpieces of string. He wasn’t local, she was certain of that. Annabelle knew everyone around Sheepscar, each man, woman and child. “No law agin it, is there?” he asked.
“Not if you want to stay there,” she told him. “Warmer inside, though. The oven’s going. Cup of tea. Maybe even breakfast if you’re not too cheeky.”
He was torn, it was plain on his face. He was thin as a stick and didn’t look as if he’d had a full meal in days. She didn’t say anything more, deliberately turning away to stare back up the road towards the endless streets of back-to-back houses and factories that lined the way out to Harehills. December. It would be a good while yet before it was light. As light as it ever got when the air was filled with fog and smoke.
When she looked again he was there, standing close, expectant and wary.
“You’re not having me on, missus?”
“No, luv, in you go.” She watched him run through the yard and into the kitchen. By the time she entered he was already standing by the oven, hands outstretched, soaking in the heat. She didn’t have any bairns of her own. Her husband had been older, then he’d died and she’d taken over running the pub. However it had happened, she’d never caught. Now she was courting again, a man called Tom Harper, a copper of all things, and set to wed next year if she could ever persuade him to pop the question.
She cut two doorsteps of bread, buttered them thickly and placed them on the table in front of him. Before he could grab one she took hold of his tiny wrist and said,
“You’re not eating with those filthy hands. Get them under the tap. Your face, too. We’re not short on soap.”
He returned, skin scrubbed and glowing, grabbing the food before she could say anything more. Annabelle brewed tea, one cup for herself, another for him, milky, with plenty of sugar.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Henry, missus,” he answered with his mouth full.
“You can call me Annabelle. Where are you from? I’ve not seen you around before.”
“Me and me da just moved here two day back. We was living in Morley, then me mam and me sister got ill and died and me da started drinking and lost his job so we had to leave.” The words came out in a rush. “He thought we might do better up here.”
She smiled softly. The lad couldn’t be more than eight. But what had happened to him was no more than had happened in so many families.
“We’d best get you home then, Henry. Your da’ll be worried. Get some food in you and I’ll walk you back.”
“He din’t wake up yesterday, missus.” He said the words flatly.
“What do you mean, luv?”
“He’d had a few drinks the night before so I thought he were asleep. I knew he’d belt me if I tried to wake him up, so I left. When I got back the door were locked and he din’t answer. I don’t know anyone round here so I din’t know where to go.”
“Right,” she said after a minute. “You tell me where you live, Henry and I’ll go and see your Da.” Emma the maid came into the kitchen, raising her eyebrows at the sight of the child. “Can you make him something hot?” Annabelle asked. “Bacon and eggs or summat. Poor little sod’s perishing. And see he gets a bath after. I’m off to see his Da.”
“Are you posh, missus?” Henry asked, looking at the servant in awe.
“No, luv,” Annabelle laughed. “I’m not.”
Armenia Grove ended in a big stone wall at the back of the dyeworks. A little further along, Gipton beck ran along past the school, down to the mill pond. Number six was the same as its neighbours, all blackened brick and rotting woodwork, the front door opening as the turned the handle. Henry and his father had the upstairs room at the front, the boy had told her. Locked, just he’d said. She knocked but there was no reply.
Back on the street, Annabelle caught a glimpse of Bert Hardwick and shouted him over before he could duck out of sight.
“There’s a door I need opening,” she said.
He gave her a sheepish glance. “I don’t do that no more. I’m over at the brick works now. It’s steady, like.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to take owt, you daft ‘apeth. Just work the lock for me. Or do you want me to tell your Annie about seeing you with Betsy Ainsworth the other night?”
It only took him a few seconds, working with the tip of his pocket knife. Before she could enter, he’d vanished, boots hammering down the stairs. Men, she thought. They were all bloody useless.
Rags covered the window, blocking out the first light. But she could still see the shape on the floor, huddled under a threadbare blanket. Annabelle spoke his name but he didn’t stir. She reached out to touch his cheek then recoiled with a gasp as soon as her fingers felt his cold skin.
Quietly, she left the house.
Dan the barman was emptying the spittoons and polishing the tables. She asked him to find the beat bobby and take him to the house on Armenia Grove.
“He’ll know what to do.”
She brightened her expression and walked through to the kitchen. Henry was sitting in front of the oven, wearing nothing more than a large towel. Emma had stoked up the fire and washed his clothes; they were strung up on the wooden rack, steaming as they dried.
“You look better all cleaned up,” she told him. “Right handsome.”
“Did you find my Da, missus?”
“I did.” She stood by the chair and took hold of his hand. “What’s his Christian name?”
“Edward,” the boy answered. “But everyone calls him Ted.” Worry flashed across his eyes. “Why, missus?”
She gazed at him for a moment.
“I don’t know how to tell you, Henry, so I’ll just do it straight. Your father’s dead. It looks like he passed away in his sleep. I’m sorry.”
His grip tightened.
“But…” he began, then the words failed him. He began to cry and she cradled him close, rocking him softly until the tears turned to slow hiccoughs.
“Tom, you’ve got to help him.”
He’d arrived after work, close to eight on a dreary evening, exhausted and dirty. He’d ended up chasing a pickpocket out to Marsh Lane, finally bringing him down in the mud that passed for road there. She’d kept a plate warm in the oven for him, the way she always did, hoping he’d visit on the way back to his lodgings.
“Where is he now?” Inspector Harper asked.
“Fast asleep.” She smoothed the silk gown and with a satisfied sigh, let down her hair so it fanned over her shoulders. The mutter of voices came from the bar downstairs. “Poor little lamb’s all cried out. I finally got him to tell me that his mother’s sister lives in Morley. She’s Temperance, so after his ma died, she wouldn’t have anything to do with his father because he was a drinker. What do you think? Maybe she’d take him in.”
“Maybe. What’s her name?”
“I’ll get in touch with the station down there. Someone will let her know. I can’t promise anything. What about the father?”
“The undertaker has him. Burial tomorrow up at Beckett Street.”
He shook his head.
“Someone has to,” she pointed out. “Come on, Tom. I couldn’t let the boy’s father go to a pauper’s grave, could I?”
“No,” he answered slowly. “I suppose you couldn’t.”
“It’s only money. I have the brass for that.”
Two days passed before the woman arrived. Annabelle had set Henry to work, washing glasses and helping with small tasks in the kitchen. He was an eager little worker, humming as he did whatever he was told. Only when the memories caught up with him would his face crumple and the tears begin. She fed him well and tucked him into the spare bed every night, watching from the doorway until he was asleep.
“There’s a woman outside wanting to talk to you,” Sad Andrew told her as he entered the Victoria. It was a little after ten in the morning, the fog thick as twilight.
“Tell her to come in, then,” she said. “I’m right here.”
“She won’t come into a public house.” He mimicked a prim voice and Annabelle sighed, drying her raw hands on an old cloth before pulling a shawl around her shoulders and pasting a smile on her face.
A horse and cart stood at the curb, driven by a man with hunched shoulders and a defeated expression. The woman had climbed down, glancing at the pub with a critical eye. Her bonnet was black, her gown a plain charcoal grey, button boots peeking from the hem.
“You must be Mrs.Wild.”
“I am,” she replied with a sniff.
“I’m Mrs. Atkinson.” The woman’s gaze moved to Annabelle’s hand, no ring on the third finger. “I’m a widow.”
“I see.” Her tone was disapproving. “The police came,” she said as if it was the most humiliating thing that could have happened. “They said Henry’s here and that his father’s dead.”
“That’s right. Do you want to see him?”
The woman stepped back as if she’d been slapped.
“I would never set foot on licensed premises.”
“Then I’m glad not everyone’s like you,” Annabelle said, smiling to take the sting from her words. “I’d be out of business in a week.”
“Was it the drink that killed my sister’s husband?”
“I don’t know, luv. All I did was take the boy in and see that his father was buried. But now you’re here, I’m sure Henry will be glad to have a home with you.”
“We already have five children.”
“Then you’ll hardly notice another.” She tried to make her voice light.
“We have good, God-fearing children.”
“You’ll love Henry. He’s a wonderful little boy.” She paused for a heartbeat. “And he’s flesh and blood to you. Your sister’s boy.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me something, luv,” Annabelle said. “You strike me as someone who likes to live by the Bible.”
“Of course we do.” Mrs. Wild lifted her head.
“Then what does it say inre about looking after those in need?”
“Don’t you go quoting that to me!” the woman bristled. “I’ll not have that from someone who runs a place like this.”
“What about someone who took your nephew in when he had nowhere else to go and arranged his father’s burial?” It didn’t matter who the woman was or what Annabelle needed from her. No one was going to speak to her that way. “Or doesn’t that count because I own a pub?”
The man on the cart turned.
“Just bring the lad out, missus.” He glared at his wife. “Don’t worry, we’ll look after him proper, won’t we, Molly? Like you said, he’s family.”
She stood on the doorstep of the Victoria, watching them drive away until they vanished into the fog. Henry had clung to her, not wanting to leave, crying once again as his aunt looked on, hawk-faced.
But it was for the best, she told herself. They were family.
* * * * *