Little Tom & Tommy Fist
“BOO!” Somebody – suddenly – yelled. That somebody was Jack’s 14-year-old brother ‘Little Tom’. The neighbors scattered like chickens across the yard as he strutted into Welford Square.
Little Tom was a tall, sinewy teen with cropped, mud-colored hair, acned skin and yellow teeth. His narrow eyes were a sickly green and one permanently twitched.
“MOVE IT!” Little Tom ordered, relishing his authority.
But Welford Square’s neighbors hadn’t scarpered on Little Tom’s account. It was what followed the lad. Close by, another’s shadow moved. Little Tom sniggered as the sinister shape grew in diabolical height. Any lingering neighbors snatched up their washing and scurried inside.
C-LANG, C-LANG, C-LANG, C-LANG
A relentless, methodical march of buckles, cold steel, slick knives and spurs shook the smog as the shadow took shape and attached itself to a pair of steel capped boots.
What emerged from the gloom seemed barely human. Shrouded in the misty fog, snorting plumes of tobacco smoke, a demon stomped. A thick cloak flickered behind him like a pair of hellish wings. Tommy Fist had entered Welford Square.
It was his dominion. In this dingy courtyard he reigned as King. A deathly silence exploded as mothers called in their children and old men fell into unseen corners.
“What you doing out here boy?”
The beast of Welford Square growled. Tommy Fist’s low, vibrating tone slashed at the Square’s atmosphere like a rapier.
This was Jack’s father.
Tommy Fist stepped out from the shadows and took center stage in the foggy twilight. He was a rough man of some fifty years with an angry face covered in black whiskers and scars. His body contorted by years of fighting, was as gnarled as an old gladiator’s.
Tommy Fist’s question immediately knocked Jack to his senses. He hopped from one foot to another. “I was just about to, er,” Jack squeaked.
“Run away and play ‘ookey?” cackled Little Tom, exposing a row of pointy teeth. Tommy Fist glared and took a puff on his cigarette. Jack knew better than to interrupt either his father’s or his brother’s smoke. Tommy Fist flicked his cigarette for Little Tom to catch, and then he stamped towards his younger son.
Jack flinched as Tommy Fist grabbed his face. A calloused finger traced an invisible line over a purple bruise on Jack’s brow. “Tut -tut-tut,” Tommy Fist whispered. Jack could smell liquor on his breath.
“Looks right nasty, that, wouldn’t want another to match it would you boy?” he grunted.
Tommy Fist’s hand jerked. Jack understood that this movement, left unheeded, would preempt a beating; and so he dodged back, still clutching his baby brother.
“Cup’a tea Dad?” Jack offered. Tommy Fist nodded cordially. “Now that’s more like it, now that’s a proper home coming that is.”
He spat before kicking open his slum door. Little Tom, trotting after his father, abruptly turned and pointed to the bundle in Jack’s arms.
“Don’t bring that brat in, get it to the crawler first, we need some sleep. And make haste or feel the end o’ my boot,” Little Tom barked.
Jack’s heart slammed down into his gut when he heard his father concur. “He’d better get rid’o that brat, or he’s ‘eading for a good thrashing.”
Once Tommy Fist and Little Tom had safely disappeared into their doorway, crumpled figures emerged from the Court’s corners. One figure belonged to Vicky Bennet. The poor wretch could have been any age from 35 to 85. Her frail, filthy frame was barely covered in a torn dress and shawl. She edged over to Jack, her scrawny arms outstretched.
“Give the babe to me,” she hissed.
Vicky was a crawler, a homeless woman who minded babies in dingy doorways all day long. Vicky was the cheapest and by far the dirtiest of the bunch. She was the one who took care of Baby John each day.
“If that baby goes to Vicky today he’ll be dead within the hour.” Irish Mary announced bluntly as she re-hung her washing next to Jack.
Jack stood dumb with shock. Baby John couldn’t die. He just couldn’t die. The boy had to make a decision – then and there. Disobeying his father would place Jack in serious danger. Nobody – nobody – disobeyed Tommy Fist. But if Jack obeyed today it would cause his baby brother’s death.
“Pay no heed to Irish, give’im to me, give’im to me, I said.” Vicky groaned again, twisting Jack’s arms apart.
“NO! I WON’T LET ‘IM DIE!” Jack bellowed. “I WON’T!”
Pushing Vicky away Jack ran out of the Square. He hurried through the crowded streets to Covent Garden. Jack’s heart pounded so loudly he barely heard the curses of those he barged into.
On the thoroughfare shopkeepers had lit their windows with gas lamps, battling the omnipresent fog. Jack hung close to the back of a postman and used him as a human shield to batter a way through the dense gloom. I got’a find Rose – I got’a find Rose – she’ll have a coupl’a pennies for milk – I got’a find Rose!
The cries of the street-traders, the clatter of a hundred hooves and the thunder of a thousand Hanson cabs failed to rouse Baby John from his seemingly, fateful slumber. As Jack ran faster and faster, tears began to cascade down his cheeks.
“Rose! Where are you! Rose! Where are you!” Jack called out as he darted through the crowds. Jack desperately hoped that Rose had already earned a penny or two. But first he had to find her. Jack didn’t find Rose in Covent Garden. Nor did he find her in nearby Leicester Square. It took him over an hour to track Rose down to Hyde Park.
The royal park was one of Rose’s favorite places. Beneath an oak tree, laden with lush autumn foliage, Rose had fallen asleep. Beside her were the park’s water fountains. The soft trickle of the fountains soothed her. It was a small respite. Every day Rose handed over her wages to her father. And every day he beat her for not earning enough money. Not one single penny was handed back to her for food.
But today was different. The honey-headed child lay perfectly still on the grass. Stray Posies and Violets lay scattered over her tattered skirt and she was snoring.