A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
Sam took a deep breath and set out walking in the direction that Skipped had told him to go. It took him only a few minutes to completely loose his bearings, all the streets turned onto other seemingly identical streets and the height of the buildings obstructed his view so not only did he not know where he was going, but where he had come from either.
He was also very hungry and thirsty, he'd eaten nothing more than a few wizened apples that he'd found on a tree and drunk nothing other than brackish pond water for over two days now. The combination of this and the sheer scale of the city made his head swim and his vision flash, but he was determined not to stop for anything until he'd found the orphanage. In lieu of anything else it had become his only goal, what happened after he found it he didn't want to think about, he simply focused on the fact that he had to get there.
Sam walked and walked, by now the sun was fully up although hidden behind a thick blanket of grey clouds, and despite the chill air he began to sweat inside his thick winter coat. As he approached a large four way junction he saw a pair of uniformed police officers standing on the corner watching the traffic and occasionally directing it with white gloved hands. He suddenly remembered something his school teacher, Miss Osram, had told the class once, "if you're ever lost in a city, ask a policeman for directions". Her words echoed inside his head as he approached the two men, hoping that she had been right and that they wouldn't laugh at him for being a lost country boy, or somehow sense his guilt and know that he had valuable stolen property hidden in the lining of his coat. However they did neither of these things, Miss Osram had been right and they simply gave him directions, and it turned out that more by luck than judgement he was only a few streets away from where he wanted to be.
He knew that he'd finally found the right place when he saw a continuous high wall that ran almost the entire length of the street, Sam had never seen a prison but he couldn't imagine that they looked much different, the wall was at least eight foot high and topped with black painted spikes. He followed the wall until he came to a huge set of iron gates, if they were both opened they'd be wide enough to drive two carts through side by side, and picked out on them in wrought letters were the words "Bryce Orphanage". He looked through the gates, inside was a cobbled yard with a single leafless tree in the centre and beyond that a series grimly solid looking grey stone and red brick buildings, one of which was clearly a chapel fronted by heavy wooden doors. As he watched the chapel doors swung open and two lines of children started to file out across the yard, one of boys and one of girls. The first children to come out were tiny, but as the line progressed they grew in size and age and Sam kept his eyes trained on the column of boys in the hopes of spotting Jack. Even though all the boys were dressed identically in drab grey trousers, shirts and pullovers, and they all had close cropped hair he was sure that Jack's height would mark him out from the others, but as the oldest of the boys began to cross the yard he saw no one approaching his friend's size. He did see one very strange thing though, a rather short boy who was walking with the oldest group turned and looked across the yard and very briefly caught Sam's eye, and Sam could swear that the boy's eyes were coloured completely golden with a single black slit pupil in the centre of each one where normally a round pupil would be. He only saw this for a split second before the boy turned away, and he wasn't at all sure that he'd seen what he thought he'd seen, but as he watched the line of boys file through a door into what looked like the main building he thought he caught an odd flash of blue from the boy's hair.
Sam blinked, he was quite happy to concede that he may be seeing things due to hunger and thirst, and even if he wasn't this city clearly contained many more things than he understood, and an unusual looking boy was of no consequence to him, the only thing that actually mattered was that he had not seen Jack anywhere amongst the orphanage's boys.
Sam stood and stared across the yard for a few more long minutes in the hope that the tall, broad shouldered familiar figure of his friend would somehow appear, but all he saw were two girls hurrying between the buildings, their arms full of books.
Set into the large gates was a smaller wicket gate, beside that was a bell pull and he stared at the bell pull trying to decide what to do. If Skipper was correct about the nuns then they were likely to send him away, he wasn't sure he trusted anything the man had said, but he was still very unsure if he should actually pull it. In the end it was the weather that made the decision for him, the grey clouds chose that moment to discharge their contents of freezing rain across the city and as he didn't want to get any colder or wetter then he had to he rang the bell.
It took a long time for anyone to answer it, so long that he was considering whether to pull it again when an elderly nun with a deeply wrinkled face completely surrounded by a black wimple came to the bars of the gate.
"Can I help you?" She asked in a crabbed voice, looking Sam up and down, the expression on her face suggesting that didn't much like what she was seeing.
"I'm here to see Jack." Sam said as confidently as he could.
"Jack who?" The nun snapped, her face hardening.
"Jack..." Sam suddenly realised that he had problem, as he had no parents Jack had no family name, at least that Sam knew of. "Jack...he's tall." He held his hand up to indicate his friends height. "And big, and he has curly brown hair...do you know who I mean?"
The nun stared levelly at Sam. "There is no child here who fits that description, you'd better be on your way."
"No...I know he's here, they brought him here, they brought all of them, Jack and Dana and Jane and the younger boys, I want to see Jack." His voice was starting crack in desperation.
"Boy, I will tell you one more time, there is no child named Jack in this orphanage, go away." And with that the elderly nun turned and headed back toward the buildings, leaving Sam to watch her go, the cobbles of the yard turning slick in the rain.
How could Jack not be there? The orphanage was where everyone had been told Nanny's charges were being taken, where else could he be? It was more than Sam could take, the one thing that had kept him going through all of his fear and hunger and exhaustion was the thought of finding Jack, and now that had been taken away from him. He felt like his legs could no longer support him and he sank down onto the ground with his back against the wall, now neither caring about or noticing the rain he curled himself into a ball and began to cry.
He didn't know how long he stayed like that for, passers by ignored him, all except one who dropped a couple of pennies in front of him mistaking him for a beggar, until the wicket gate opened once more and a nun stepped out, shielded from the rain by a large black umbrella.
"Excuse me, are you all right?" She asked Sam, looking down at him with concern. Sam scrubbed his eyes with his hands, it was a different nun from before, this one was very much younger, only a few years older than him he would have guessed and mass of freckles across her face, along with her pale eyebrows and eyelashes suggested that under her wimple was a head of bright red hair.
"I...I'm looking for Jack." It was the only thing he could think to say to her, and the young nun's eyes widened in surprise.
"Do you mean a boy called Jack, an orphan?" She asked quietly.
"Yes." Sam got to his feet, a tiny spark of hope forming inside of him. "He's tall...and he has curls."
"I know who you mean." The nun said. "But I'm afraid that he's not with us any more."
Sam blinked, that had always been his mother's way of saying that someone had died. "Jack's dead?" He breathed.
"Jack?... Jack's not the one who died." She suddenly seemed to catch herself and started again. "I mean he's not dead, he joined the army, he left here a few days ago. I'm sorry, did you come far to see him?"
"From the village." Sam replied numbly, trying to take in the fact that his friend was gone from the city.
"Yes." He nodded.
"Well, the girls and the younger boys are still here, but they're going back to your village soon too, things didn't...haven't really worked out for them here, so you'll be able to see them when you get home." The young nun gave him a bright smile, as if this solved all of his problems. "I'd better be going now, I have errands to run, but I'll tell the girls you stopped by and that you'll see them soon. What's your name?"
"No...don't say anything." Sam shook his head, he didn't want anyone from Dovedale to know he was here. "Like you say, I'll be seeing them soon."
"All right, as you wish." She gave him a puzzled frown. "Goodbye then."
"Goodbye." Sam waited until she'd disappeared from sight to slump back down against the wall.
Jack was gone, he'd joined the army and was gone from the city, and there was nothing Sam could do about it. He thought about Dovedale, he'd been happy enough with village life when he was a child, even if his father wasn't the kindest of men his mother had always loved him, and he'd got along well enough with his sister, but as his age moved into double figures he'd become increasingly aware that he was somehow different from the people around him. At first it wasn't anything he could put into words, just a feeling deep down that the things that were expected of him, one day taking over the farm, marrying a local girl and producing the next generation of dairy farmers, weren't the things that he actually wanted. When his teens hit suddenly everything became extremely confusing, all the things he was told he should be feeling he wasn't, and some things that he was very sure he shouldn't be feeling he was. Then he started having fairly regular sexual encounters with the dairy hand, and this confused him even further. While he enjoyed the physical part of it once it was over he was left feeling wrong and alone, it was a purely sexual relationship, the man rarely spoke to him except to tell him what he wanted Sam to do, then Jack happened, and suddenly Sam felt a lot happier and a lot less lonely. Jack wasn't just someone to have sex with, he was also one of his closest friends, although he could never quite rid himself of the nagging feeling that something he was enjoying so much couldn't last, or that what they were doing wasn't very wrong, and he hated the way his family had his future all mapped out for him, leaving him with no choices of his own. The last thing he wanted to do was spend his life looking after cows, but if anyone had ever thought to ask him what it was he actually wanted to do with his life he wouldn't have been able to tell them because he didn't truly know himself. However right at that moment sitting alone on the pavement outside of the orphanage in the stingingly cold rain he would have given anything to be back in the familiar surroundings of the village, but he knew that he could never go home again, because Dovedale was no longer his home.
Eventually the cold drove him to move on, and by now thoroughly soaked to the skin he squelched down the road back toward the city centre. Sam walked for miles through the unfamiliar streets, his stomach was growling with hunger but he was reluctant to spend even a single penny of the small amount of money he had, so when he saw a woman drop a half eaten sandwich into a street corner bin he forgot all about any pride that he'd ever had and reached in to get it. Just as his fingers were closing around the bread he heard a voice.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you son, rats live in those bins." Sam snatched his hand back and looked around to see who had spoken. It turned out to be a short pudgy man sheltering under an umbrella, he had skin the colour of curdled milk and deep set piggy eyes. He looked to be in his middle years but he could be younger, it was hard to tell as he was all but bald, he'd scraped a few long hairs across his head to attempt to cover his pate, which did nothing except make him look slightly bizarre. He was dressed in a suit that even Sam could tell was probably tailor made and expensive, but he had spilled something down the lapels that had stained white, and his stature and shape made the whole thing hang strangely, giving him the air of a tramp in someone else's clothing. It was only his shoes, shiny, hand stitched and immaculate, that gave away the fact he was not a poor man.
"Rats?" Sam said questioningly.
"Yes son, rats. Carry all sorts of nasty things, and bite your hand off given half a chance." The man's voice sounded thick and phlegmy, like he needed to cough. "And didn't your mama ever tell you not to eat out of bins? Very bad for you, full of dirt and what have you."
"I'm hungry." Sam stated. "And she'd only just put it in there."
"Even so son, not a good idea, no not at all." He shook his head, making his pasty cheeks jiggle. "Why don't you be buying yourself something nice to eat? Plenty of places round here, pie shops, chip shops, all the foods boys like, yes indeed."
"I haven't got much money." Sam admitted. He wasn't sure about the strange man, nothing about him seemed quite right, but at least someone was talking to him.
"Not much money? What about your family, don't they give you an allowance, a few shillings maybe?" The man's small eyes were bright and questioning.
"Um..." Sam looked around, people streamed past him, getting on with their lives, all of them with somewhere to go. "I ran away, I don't have a family any more."
"Oh ho." The man regarded him with interest. "That answers why you would risk eating out of a bin, so where is the home that you ran from, if I may be so bold as to ask?"
"It's just a little village, you wouldn't have heard of it, it's a long way from here."
"A long way, a long long way, I see. Do your family know where you've gone, maybe you left a note for them?"
"No." Sam shook his head. "I don't want them to know where I am."
"And what would be your reason for you running so far?" The man stepped closer to Sam, sheltering him under his umbrella.
"I would rather not say." Sam was certainly not about to tell this man what he had been caught doing.
"A secret eh? Don't worry son, I won't try to winkle it out of you, no not at all, your secret is yours to keep." The man put one hand up to his cheek and rubbed it in what looked like a gesture of thought. "I am assuming that you have no place to sleep in this awful weather?"
"I don't." Sam confirmed. He hadn't even wanted to consider what he was going to do when the sun set again.
"I think that perhaps the two of us may be able to come up with a deal that could be mutually beneficial. Let me see, I can always find employment in one of my establishments for someone such as yourself, room and board provided." A small, not entirely pleasant smile crept onto the man's face.
"What would I be doing?" Sam frowned. He didn't trust the man, but his choices were limited to being alone, hungry, cold and homeless, or taking him up on his offer.
"This and that, yes, this and that. We'll thrash out the details later son, if you come with me now I'll buy you a hot meal and get you out of this nasty rain, yes?"
"Yes." Sam agreed, he was desperately hungry, and he thought that he could always change his mind after the meal if he didn't like what the man wanted him to do.
"Good, good." The man nodded. "So son, if you're going to be working for me I'd better know your name."
"Oh...yes, I'm Sam." Sam stuck out his hand in greeting.
"What a very well mannered young man you are." The man said as he took Sam's hand and shook it. Sam noticed that his hand was warm and clammy. "And I'm...well, you may think this a little strange, but you see the people who work for me see me as...something of a nurturer you might say, so over the years I've become known by a name that suits this role, my name is Mother."
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