A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
"I stuck more than one man with this beauty, that's for sure." The knife was dull and pitted, except for the edges of the blade where it had been sharpened wafer thin and wickedly sharp. "Yeah lad, that I have." The dirty man slashed the blade through the dim interior of the goods carriage, making Sam move as far back against the carriage wall he as he possibly could to avoid its arc, and making the welts on his back caused by his father's belt flare with pain in the process. "Want to see her in action?" The man laughed an unpleasant wheezing laugh.
Sam didn't reply, he just drew his knees up to his chest and wished that he could make himself invisible, or small enough to slip out through one of the cracks in the carriage's wooden planking sides, which both let in the cold air and a few pitiful rays of the low winter sun. The only actual means of escape from the goods carriage would be to open the sliding door beside him and throw himself from the moving train, although at that moment it was possibly looking like a better option than staying where he was and becoming the man's next victim.
"Well do you lad?" The man asked again, clearly taking great delight at Sam's discomfort.
"No." He managed to croak, wondering if he had the courage to open the door and jump out, and how much it would hurt when he hit the ground.
Sam had been alone in the half empty goods carriage for the first couple of hours of his journey, until the train had stopped a few miles back to take on more water and the filthy ragged clothed man man who was now waving a knife at him had slid open the door and jumped inside.
"No?" The man questioned. "You don't? Well you'd better close your eyes then 'cos I'm going to be using her real soon." He gave Sam a grin that was anything but friendly, revealing two rows of rotted and broken teeth set amongst a tangled mass of greying beard.
Sam tried to edge surreptitiously toward the door while the man was momentarily distracted with rummaging in his pack, he'd almost made it to the leaver that opened the door when the man pulled out a cylindrical object, wrapped one dirt crusted hand around it to steady it then plunged the knife into the top of it.
"You don't think I meant to use it you, do you?" He said to Sam in a mocking voice, who was now frozen to the spot in fear. "Just wanted to have me a little supper, that's all."
Sam could now see that the object was a tin of beans and pork sausage pieces, and that the man was working his knife around the rim of the tin to open it. "When I said I'd stuck her in men, I meant men not boys, how old is you? 'cos you sure as fuck ain't a man."
"Eighteen." Sam breathed, his heart still thumping loudly in his chest.
Once the tin was open the man used his knife to lift out some of its contents then tipped it into his mouth, not seeming to care that a good amount of the food dribbled down his beard and his tattered coat front. "No you ain't." He squinted at Sam. "You got a look about you that says you're no stranger to hard work, and some might take them shoulders to mean you was older, but your face says you're still a kid, so try again, 'cos I don't like people lying to me."
"Sixteen." Sam sighed.
"That I might just believe." The man said through a mouthful of food, Sam could see mashed up beans between his broken teeth.
"I am, I'm sixteen." He asserted, because it was the truth.
"All right lad, I believe you." The man laughed his wheezing laugh again. "So what's your name?"
"S..." He considered for a moment giving a false name, but Sam was common enough, even in his small village of Dovedale there had been another Sam, albeit a very elderly one. "My name is Sam." He replied.
"Good to meet you Sam." The man held out one filthy hand and Sam leaned forward to shake it, touching it as briefly as he could. "I'm Skipper, Skip to my friends, but you ain't my friends so you can call me Skipper."
"Nice to meet you Skipper." Sam said, while covertly wiping his hand on his coat.
They sat in silence for some time, the only sounds coming from Skipper masticating his beans and sausage pieces and the steady rumble of the train. Once he was done and he'd up ended the remains of the tin straight into his mouth he licked the juices off his fingers, belched loudly then flung the empty tin behind him where it rolled off into a corner.
"So Sam." He said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "What brings a country mouse like you to be riding in the back end of the Parnell train?"
"Don't know." Sam shrugged. "Just wanted to see the city."
The man wheezed a laugh, then removed a bottle of some sort of spirits out of his pack, uncorked it and took a slug. "Just wanted to see the city? I don't believe that for one single instance. You're running from something, they all are, all the kids who turn up in the big bad city thinking it's the place to go. So what is it with you, your Da beat you too much? You stole something? You got a girl into trouble? Come on lad, you can tell old Skipper, I heard all the stories a thousand times already."
"My Father did beat me, and I did steal something." Sam replied, telling the truth, but not the whole truth.
"I knew it!" Skipper exclaimed, taking another pull on his bottle. "But you didn't get no girl into trouble?" Sam shook his head. "Ah well, two outa three ain't bad. So what you steal?"
"You still got it?" Skipper's bloodshot eyes lit up.
"No." Sam lied. "I got caught, got a hiding and left."
"You're going to have to be a better thief than that if you're going to make it in the city." The man said knowledgeably. "Them cops they got in Parnell don't mess around, got caught down there once letting myself into someone's house, so to speak. This were a few years back mind, I've changed my ways since then." Sam very much doubted that. "There were this one copper, a lady copper would you believe it? She scared the living shit out of me I can tell you, she had these icy blue eyes that I swear could read my soul..."
As Skipper rambled on about his many brushes with the law Sam put his hand into his coat pocket and pushed his fingers through a hole in the lining until he found the spiky star shape of his mother's brooch sitting in the stitched up bottom seam of the thick fabric. The brooch was his mother's prized position, it was a gold five pointed star set with a large diamond in the centre and alternating smaller diamonds and pearls down the arms or the star. She wore it to chapel every week, and to each village festival, and she swore that it made her the envy of every other woman in Dovedale. It had been handed down to her from her mother, who had been given it by a wealthy woman she once worked for as a maid as a wedding gift when she married Sam's grandfather. Sam's mother had promised to hand it onto his sister Marni on her wedding day, but now that was never going to happen, because Sam was taking it to the city with him.
He hadn't wanted to, but it was the only thing of value anyone in his family owned that was small enough and portable enough to fit into his pocket. His family weren't poor, they possessed over a hundred head of dairy cattle and they lived comfortably enough on the profits of their farm, but he could hardly run away to the city with a herd of cows so he had taken the brooch, along with a small amount of money that he had found in his mother's draw beside it.
He felt miserable and guilty about the theft, as he turned the brooch over in the depths of his coat he let the pin dig into the pad of his thumb, and when he pulled his hand out a small drop of scarlet blood had formed.
"...been away from the city for a couple of years now." Skipper said as Sam pressed his thumb into the sleeve of his coat to stop the bleeding. "But somehow she always pulls me back."
Sam inspected his thumb, there was no more blood and he put it to his mouth to chew on the already well bitten nail while he thought. It sounded like Skipper knew the city well, and maybe he could give him the directions he needed. "Do you know where the Parnell orphanage is?" He asked as Skipper was nosily taking another pull from his bottle.
"Orphanage?" The dirty man echoed, raising a pair of bushy eyebrows. "Why would you be wanting to go there? You don't want to be having any business with them nuns, cold hearted bitches, the lot of them. Know why they call them nuns?"
"No." Sam shook his head, knowing that Skipper was going to tell him.
"'cos they get none." The man laughed a long wheezy laugh at his own joke. "None, you get it? Them bitches is all in need of a bit of man meat." Skipper put his hand between his legs and squeezed his crotch to make his point.
Sam laughed politely. "I've a got a friend who was sent to the orphanage, I thought I'd go and visit him."
"It ain't like you can just walk in there lad, them nuns, they runs that place like a gaol for kids, but if you really want to find it, it's about a mile and half north of the station we is coming into. Keep going 'til you see a long high wall, but don't expect them to let you in."
Sam thanked the man then rested his head against the carriage wall and closed his eyes. He was exhausted, he hadn't slept in over twenty four hours and he had run for miles to get as far from the village as he could before anyone woke up and found both him and his mothers valuable brooch gone. Added to his exhaustion was the constant dull ache in his back where his father had strapped him with his belt, buckle end first. He'd had beatings before, his father was a firm believer in "spare the rod and spoil the child", but none had ever been so savage as the one he'd been given night before last though. Never before had he been beaten until he was bloodied and barley able to stand, but then never before had his father caught him naked and on his knees in front of an equally naked dairy hand, with the dairy hand's erect penis in his mouth.
It wasn't simply the ferocity of the beating that had made Sam run, but also the thought of living with the guilt and shame of what his parents had caught him doing. He knew that his father would never forgive him, would forever more bring the incident up to humiliate and taunt him whenever he wanted, but almost worse than his father's anger and cruelty was his mother's sad, disappointed face, he knew that she would never be able to see her son in the same way again.
He'd taken nothing with him save the money, the brooch and the clothes that he was wearing, and he'd only had the vaguest idea of where he was headed when he left. He knew that there was a railway station in the nearest town, and he realised that if he could make it on foot there he could board a train and go anywhere the tracks ran. What he hadn't realised was how much a ticket to any place other than the closest destinations would cost him, the few coins he had in his pocket wouldn't come close to covering the fare, and he was loathed to attempt to sell the brooch unless he absolutely had to.
Then he noticed that at the end of every train he saw coming through the station were a few goods carriages, and it occurred to him that if he was careful it would be possible to sneak into one while the train stood in the station. After that it was a question of picking his destination, Parnell stood out amongst the names chalked on the departure board as the place to head to, it was the largest city on the West Island, but more importantly it was the place where Jack had been taken.
"Sun's starting to set." Sam opened his eyes to see Skipper peering through one of the gaps in the wooden planking. "Going to be colder than a witch's titty in here tonight." The man produced a small glass jar containing stubby candle, then lit the candle with a match struck on his thumb nail. The carriage instantly became full of flickering shadows. "You shoulda picked summer to run away lad, though I suppose at least the snows ain't come yet."
Sam found himself silently agreeing, if it was even a few weeks further on into the year there would be heavy snowfalls that often blocked the routes in and out of the village for weeks at a time.
"Course it don't snow much in the city." Skipper went on. "Too many people and buildings and what have you. Just rains, mostly, but still gets bastard cold, specially at night, you're going to need a warm place to sleep."
For a moment Sam thought that the man was offering him some sort of accommodation, but he went silent again and Sam's guts churned as he was faced with the thought of being alone and homeless in a cold, unknown city. He'd never even been to city before, he'd only ever been as far as the town he'd caught the train in, and he had no idea what to expect.
He hoped that Skipper was wrong about the orphanage, and that they would let him in to visit Jack, but then what? Perhaps they'd let Jack go and then they could be...homeless together, but why would Jack want that? From what Skipper had said the orphanage didn't sound like a very nice place, however it was most likely preferable to sleeping out in the cold street with no food or money. Sam started to wonder if he hadn't made a terrible mistake in running away and that perhaps he should simply stay on the train when it reached its final destination and then let it take him back home. Then he remembered his father's anger and his mother's tears and he knew that he had no choice, whatever his future was it wasn't going to be in the village he'd been born and raised in.
"So your friend, the one lodging with the nuns, what happened, his Ma and Da die?" Sam looked up, Skipper was filling the bowl of a gnarled and blackened pipe with shreds of tobacco from a leather pouch.
"No." Sam shook his head. "In my village, just outside really, there's this old woman, Nanny, who looks after babies no one else wants, but she died and all the children who lived with her got sent off to the orphanage, except for the very little ones, they stayed with families in the village."
"Ah, so your friend's a proper bastard then." Skipper laughed. "Lad, don't look at me like that, I never knew who my Da were, never did me no harm neither, and I ain't ashamed to call myself a bastard."
Sam's parents had never been too keen on him and his sister Marni's friendship with Jack, especially when it became clear that his sister was sweet on him. Nanny's adopted children were not seen as entirely respectable by the majority of the villagers, not a single one of them had been born to a woman who was married to her baby's father, and while this alone was enough to mark them down, Sam's parents dislike of Jack went deeper than that. It was only by chance that Sam happened to overhear a conversation between Jack's mother and one of her friends on Jack's possible parentage that perhaps explained why.
Jack was distinctive looking, even at fifteen he was well over six foot tall, muscular with it and according to his mother's gossipy friend bore an uncanny likeness to a blacksmith from a couple of villages over. Sam's mother was loudly voicing her concerns about this as Sam stood in the hallway of their house trying not to make a single sound so he could continue to eavesdrop on this interesting conversation. Apparently the blacksmith had murdered his wife in a fit of temper, but had claimed that she had simply fallen down the stairs and broken her neck, and as no one could prove otherwise he'd got clean away with it. There was much muttering of "bad blood will out" from the two women, but Sam couldn't imagine Jack doing anything like murdering someone, he was big and he could loose his temper from time to time, but he was sure Jack wasn't capable of killing. He'd never told Jack about what he'd overheard that day, it was only speculation on the two women's part, and even if the blacksmith was Jack's father what good would it do for him to know?
Sam shivered and pulled his coat tighter around him to keep in as much warmth as he could. Once again he closed his eyes, and he thought back to one of his happiest memories, the night of the last spring festival, the night that Jack and he had shared their first kiss, and much more...
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