The Boy With the Golden Eyes
by London Lampy
This is a rewritten version of a story which originally appeared a couple of years ago, if you've read it before it hasn't changed in terms of plot, I just like to think that this is a better written version with far fewer typos (I'd like to say no typos but I can't guarantee that) and that it no longer has wall o'text issues. I will be updating it five chapters at a time over the next few weeks. It has twenty two chapters in all.
It is a sort of prequel to my story "Exit Strategy", but if you haven't read that it is also a stand alone story in it's own right, and can be read as such.
"Jack, Jack! Nanny's fallen over collecting eggs and I can't get her to wake up!" The small girl shouted frantically as she ran across the yard. Jack glanced up from the logs he was splitting for firewood and caught Lilly by the shoulders before she ran headlong into him.
"What happened, did she trip?" He asked, looking into the little girl's wide frightened eyes.
"No, she bent down to pick up an egg and fell forward, and now her eyes are closed and she won't wake up!" Lilly said, her voice breaking and tears starting to roll down her cheeks.
Filled with dread at what he might find Jack followed her to the chicken run where the two youngest children, Kate aged four and Ben three stood huddled together staring at the old woman on the ground.
"Eggs all broke." Ben said, pointing to the basket she had dropped.
Jack knelt beside the old woman, fearing the worst. He didn't know exactly how old she was, no one did, and for most of his life Nanny had seemed immortal, but recently he had begun to notice changes in her. Before she had always been able to keep up with her tribe of children, now when they walked into the village she often fell behind, and sometimes even needed to rest for a while before she continued. Her memory had always been excellent until the last few months too, when she had suddenly started to forget where she put things, and she now often called the children by the wrong names as well. She had even referred to Jack as "Drew" on a number of occasions, the name of a boy who had grown up and left before Jack had even turned ten.
Smoothing his hand over her brow Jack turned Nanny's slack face toward him and gently pulled one of her wrinkled eyelids up, he knew she was gone when the eye that looked back at was dull and empty.
"Lilly, can you go and find Dana and bring her here?" He asked, trying to keep his voice level so as not to scare the younger children.
"Is Nanny going to be all right?" She questioned, tears now welling in her eyes.
"Please Lilly, just fetch Dana." He asked again, pushing down the knot of grief and fear that threatened to overwhelm him.
Dana helped him dig the grave, they chose a spot under the willow tree by the duck pond where Nanny had liked to sit on sunny days and got to work, Jack with a pick to loosen the earth and Dana with a shovel to dig it out. At fourteen Dana was a year younger than Jack and the oldest of the girls. She was a slight pale girl with short black hair and a small narrow face, she could be taken for frail at first glance, but her strength was out of proportion with her size and she had spent her whole life trying to prove that she was the match of any of the boys. She had never wanted to help care for the babies or learn to sew and cook, preferring instead to work outside with the animals and assist the older boys with their chores. Nanny hadn't minded, believing as she did that children should be allowed to chose their own path in life, even when Dana frequently came to her covered with scrapes and bruises, and on one occasion with a large hole in her foot where she had managed to put a fork through it turning over the earth in preparation for planting carrots.
"We need to make it deep." Jack said panting from the exertion, wiping sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve even though it was a chill early autumn day. "We don't want the foxes digging down to get to her." Dana just gave him a single nod in reply and kept shovelling.
Once he deemed the hole deep enough they carried Nanny's body down from her bedroom where they had laid her out. The girls had dressed her in her favourite green dress with cornflowers embroidered across the hem and sleeves and fixed her moonstone pendant that she only put on for special occasions around her neck. The pair of them lowered her body down as carefully as they could, then filled the grave in, neither of them looking until she had disappeared from view under the brow earth. Jack and Dana had instructed the younger children to stay in the house and they were being watched over by thirteen year old Jane, who despite her grief was delighted to be put in a position of such responsibility. When they were done they called for the others to come out, and the children were led to the grave in height order by Jane.
All ten of them stood around the newly turned earth, and Jack looked sadly at the children wondering what they would do without the old woman who had cared for them all their lives. Dana suggested that they sing some of Nanny's favourite songs, and Jane picked a handful of late flowering wild roses to put on the grave. The youngest ones barely understood what was going on and frequently asked where Nanny was, while the older ones sobbed and sniffled, clinging onto one another. Even the ten year old twins Cale and Cole, who were perpetually at war with one another, held hands tightly.
That night, once the young children had been bathed and put to bed Jack, Dana and Jane, exhausted and numb from the days events sat around the farmhouse's large fireplace trying to work out what they should do now.
"No one needs to know." Jack said, watching a log pop. "If anyone asks where Nanny is we just say she's busy milking the goats or something." At fifteen he was taller than most of the local men, and muscular with it from years of working on Nanny's small farm and his size and confident demeanour meant he was often taken for several years older than he actually was. He had a mop of tawny curls, hazel eyes and looks that already made heads turn in the nearby village of Dovedale, where his friends lived, and where until he turned fifteen he had gone to school.
"What will happen to us if people find out?" Jane asked, twisting a strand of strawberry blond hair around a plump finger. Jack hadn't been sure that they should include her in this conversation, she had a tendency to over dramatise things and he thought that she might be too young to be of any real help, but she wouldn't go to bed and neither him nor Dana had had the heart to tell her to go away.
"They'll send us to an orphanage." Dana said flatly, her sharp features contorting with disgust at the word.
"That's why we need to keep it a secret." Jack added, remembering Nanny once telling him that orphanages were no more than prisons for children whose only crime was to have parents who couldn't, or wouldn't, look after them.
Nanny had arrived in the area over twenty five years ago, from where nobody knew. She'd had three small children in tow then, and as a woman clearly well past child bearing age it was assumed that they were her grandchildren, until one day a new baby mysteriously appeared. When she was asked about it she simply smiled and said that "every baby is a gift from the gods", but when nearly eighteen months later she had another one nestled in a sling on her chest tongues really started to wag. The truth was known to some though and over the years it began to slowly leak out. Among the young women of the surrounding villages Nanny's became known as the safe place to go if you were in trouble. Country girls who became pregnant outside of marriage and for what ever reason weren't going to wed the father had few choices. They could brazen it out and have the child, but many families could not face the shame and would disown them. They could pay a visit to a hedge doctor for a concoction of bitter herbs, and if that didn't work, as it often didn't, undergo and agonising and potentially fatal procedure from him, or if they lived in the right place they could spend a few months at Nanny's. Once the babies were born and in their arms many girls chose to keep them and live with the consequences, but some left them behind and so year by year her brood grew. The older ones grew into adults and left to pursue lives of their own, coming back for occasional visits and sending her a few shillings out of their wages when they could afford it, but they were always replaced by new babies in the overcrowded farmhouse.
The fire burned down to embers while the three of them made plans. As Jack was now too old for the small village school he would look after Ben and Kate during the day, who themselves were too young to attend, while also taking care of the farm. Like all the others he couldn't remember a time when he wasn't helping Nanny plant, dig, harvest and milk, but taking on the responsibility for the whole thing himself was a daunting task.
Dana would also help Jack, and take on keeping the house clean, while Jane was keen to be in charge of the cooking, and the younger children in general. Dana offered to draw up a chore rota so the smaller ones could play a part too, Jane said she'd enforce it and Jack couldn't help a small smile at this, ever since she was tiny she had liked nothing more than bossing the others around.
They turned in for the night, Dana and Jane heading to the small room they shared with the other girls and Jack making his bed up on the old horsehair couch where he had slept ever since Ben was old enough to move into the cramped boy's bedroom. Tired as he was Jack struggled to fall asleep, Nanny had been the only parent he'd even know and the loss of her had left a hole inside of him that he doubted he would ever be able to fill.
As none of them had gone to school the day before they decided that they now had to make things seem as normal as possible, so at half past seven in the morning Jane led the children out of the farmhouse for the two mile walk into Dovedale. They had concocted a story about the chickens getting loose and needing to be hunted down and recaptured to cover for their absence of yesterday, and Dana spent quite some time making sure that all the younger children who were going to school had the story straight. As Jack later found out all was going well until mid morning when Tommy, a sensitive eight year old boy with huge eyes and tufty black hair began to cry loudly. When their teacher, Miss Osram, asked him what was wrong he bawled "Nanny's in a big hole in the ground." Apparently this had set the others off and soon all five of Nanny's younger children were sobbing in unison to the extent that Miss Osram had to send the rest of the pupils out into the school yard while she tried to calm them down and get to the bottom of what was going on. Bit by bit they told her what had happened, while Jane and Dana had sat huddled together feeling sick with the knowledge that their subterfuge had lasted less then a day. The teacher then sent for the mayor, not knowing what else to do, and he sent a cart to the farm to collect Jack, Kate and Ben to bring them to the village hall.
"But we can look after ourselves!" Jack insisted to the three men who were regarding Nanny's children with expressions of scepticism, dislike and worry respectively.
Mayor Gregory, Father Panton and Mr Harper, the owner of both the village post office and inn, and as such was a very important man in Dovedale, had got together to try to decide what to do for the best.
"I don't doubt you think you can lad." Mr Harper, a wiry middle aged man with slightly unruly greying red hair and a cheerful face said. "But running a farm is hard work, and so's child rearing, just ask my wife." The other two men chuckled at this, he famously had eight children of his own.
"You could at least give us a chance." Jack argued. They were in the village hall, Miss Osram had organised for some food and milk to be sent over for the children, and the others were sat on the floor tucking into bread and cheese while Jack pleaded with the three men to be allowed to stay as they were.
"I've no doubt a few of the villagers would be happy to make room in their houses for some of you, hmm?" Mayor Gregory said nodding his head, which sent ripples of movement through his ruddy jowls. As the owner of a shop that sold pies and pastries he felt it was his job to frequently sample his wares to make sure they were up to scratch. "That wouldn't be so bad hmm?"
Jack thought it unlikely that many of the villagers would be willing to take them in, he well knew that they were often looked down on due to their "bastard" status, pretty much everyone was aware of where the children on Nanny's farm came from by now. Although he did have a few good friends among the younger population of the Dovedale, who of a similar age to him cared less about such things. He often spent his evenings with them in the woods building bonfires and sometimes passing around bottles of illicitly obtained locally made apple brandy. He had frequently arrived home a little drunk to a grinning Nanny trying to quiz him about which one of the local girls had "caught his eye".
"And for any of you who fail to find homes locally the Bryce orphanage in Parnell is less than a day's train journey away." Father Panton added in his sing song voice, peering at Jack over his half moon glasses.
Jack felt his heart sink, that was the thing he was most afraid of happening. "Please, just let us try, if it doesn't work out then look for other homes for us." He said in desperation.
"Ah lad, it's not that easy." Mr Harper said sighing. "If that little angel." He pointed to Kate who was blowing bubbles into glass of milk. "Or that young tyke." He indicated Ben, currently stuffing a whole slice of bread into his mouth in one go. "Were to say, fall into your duck pond and drown, or decide to make a meal out of a handful of poisonous berries, whose fault would that be? Not yours, as you're still a minor, but mine and that of every other adult in this village, and that's the rub." The other two men nodded in agreement.
"They both know how to swim, and Nanny taught us all never to eat anything without checking with her what it was first." Jack protested.
"Aha!" Mayor Gregory said raising a finger like a fat sausage in the air to punctuate his exclamation. "But Nanny is no longer with us, the gods rest her soul." The priest nodded at this. "So who will they ask now hmm? No, I'm afraid it's unthinkable, a bunch of children cannot just be left to fend for themselves in the middle of nowhere."
"But..." Jack started again, a deep burning anger beginning to build inside him, this time Father Panton cut him off. "The matter is settled young man." He peered at Jack, narrowing his eyes. "And it would serve you well to leave it alone, I don't think many families would be willing to take you in if you got yourself a reputation of, shall we say, a trouble maker?" His message was clear, shut up or be sent to the orphanage.
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