The Boy With the Golden Eyes

by London Lampy

Chapter 17

"Would you like a glass of ginger beer?" The old man offered Jack, peering up at him through thick lensed glasses. He had large eyes which were further magnified by the lenses and sharp features that must have been quite striking when he was younger, but now along with a head that was completely bald save for two tufts of white hair behind either ear gave him the look of a small, inquisitive owl.

"Yes, thank you." Jack replied, he was very thirsty as the bookshop was on the dusty side, not to mention all the cat hair, and he had been busy all afternoon.

Sister Mackintosh had come to find him while he was sweeping the yard at lunch time and explained that a bookshop owner in the city wanted help with his stock take, and in return he was not only paying the orphanage the usual fee, he was willing to donate some of his excess stock to the place. The young nun had come along with him to check through the books to make sure that they were suitable for the children, although Jack got the feeling that this was partly an excuse for her to spend some time away from the orphanage.

Jack's job was to remove the books from the shelves, create a stack for the shop's owner Mr Lustrum to sort through, then replace them where he dictated. The placement of the books seemed entirely random to him, he had found himself putting romantic novels next to tomes on the art of breeding cattle, but the old man insisted that he had a system and Jack was quite happy to simply do as he was told. Mr Lustrum seemed a very pleasant, if slightly eccentric man, and the only problem he was having was with the cats.

"They keep the mice and rats away, otherwise they gnaw on the books and then I can't sell them you see." The old man told Jack as he shooed a jet black, green eyed feline out of a shelf where it had settled down with all four paws tucked underneath it and a smug expression on its face.

Jack could see how the shop might need one, or maybe even two cats to keep down the rodent population, but he had counted at least twelve. They came in all colours and sizes and whenever he turned around one seemed to be under his feet trying to trip him up, and he had also noticed that some of the darker corners had a rather suspicious aroma about them. When him and Sister Mackintosh had first approached the shop from the street there had even been a striped tabby dozing in the window.

The shop had looked to be quite small from the outside, little more than a narrow doorway and a bowed window between a jewellers and a kitchen supplies shop that Jack thought Ward would love to visit, but inside was a different story, it was full of twisting passages and sudden unexpected steps, and everywhere, floor to ceiling, was filled with books.

"How about you Sister, would you like some ginger beer too, or if you prefer I could get you a nice glass of wine?" Jack heard Mr Lustrum saying from somewhere behind him.

"Ginger beer will be fine." The nun replied stiffly, and Jack briefly wondered if he could get away with asking for a glass of wine, he supposed not.

Once the bookshop owner had brought a tray of drinks down he called them over to a rickety looking table near the front of the shop that acted as both a sales counter and a desk. The old man offered his chair to Sister Mackintosh and perched on a three legged stool, while Jack carefully balanced on a stack of oversized books.

It was late in the afternoon and a combination of the short early winter days and a sky full of ominous looking rain clouds meant that the street outside was already gloomy and the street lamps had been lit. The shop itself was illuminated by a handful of bare electric bulbs, all of them hanging in corners or directly above the shelves so the place was full of strange shadows and unexpected pools of darkness.

"You're a big lad for fifteen aren't you?" Mr Lustrum looked at Jack, his eyes unblinking behind his glasses. "Perfect for reaching the high shelves. Is he handy to have about the orphanage?" He addressed the nun.

"Erm, yes." She nodded quickly. "But he hasn't been with us for very long though."

"And he won't be with you for that much longer will he? Nearly time for him to make his own way in the world." He smiled at Jack and sipped his drink. "You know, I envy you. Your whole life ahead of you, places to see, adventures to be had..." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "...girls to be kissed. You enjoy being young, before you know it it's over, and one day you wake up to find you're an old man with hips that ache in the mornings, knees that don't quite work as they should any more and...well perhaps I won't go into the other things that don't work quite as they should these days, at least not in front of a lady." They both glanced at Sister Mackintosh who was busy staring down into her glass, her cheeks slightly pink. "Do it all lad, do everything, while you still can."

Jack wasn't really sure that he wanted to do everything, he'd settle for him and Exit getting out of the orphanage and finding somewhere to live.

After their break Jack went back to restocking the shelves for Mr Lustrum, it was fully dark outside now and the rain that had been threatening to fall all afternoon suddenly arrived with torrential force. It hammered down on the roof of the bookshop and overwhelmed the drains in the street outside until it ran several inches deep and started to resemble a small, fast flowing river.

Sister Mackintosh was staring out of the shop window as Jack passed her by with an armful of books. "We ought to be leaving soon, but we can't go out in that, we'll get soaked." She shook her head. "I think we'll just have to wait it out, if Mr Lustrum doesn't mind."

"I don't mind at all Sister." The old man said from behind his desk, proving that even if his eyesight was poor there was nothing wrong with his hearing. "If I'm honest it'll be good to have some company of an evening, would the pair of you like a bit of supper in a while? I'm sure I can rustle something up."

"That's a most kind offer, but we don't want to put you to any trouble." The nun said, still watching the downpour.

"It'll be no trouble, and we can't let a growing boy go hungry now, can we?" He winked at Jack.

The cooking smells coming from upstairs made Jack's stomach growl and his mouth water and was nothing like the unappetising boiled meat and cabbage scent that was a constant steamy presence in the orphanage's kitchen. He was in the process of filling the final shelf but had stopped because a small calico cat had taken up residence in it and was defending her territory by swiping at him with her claws. He was trying to get her out by gently prodding her with a book on the history of textiles in Rosheen, and therefore was quite happy to leave her to it when the old man called out to them to tell them that the food was ready.

Mr Lustrum's kitchen was old and clearly much used, but clean and welcoming at the same time. He had set a small oil cloth covered table with three mismatched plates and an equally eclectic selection of cutlery, and although Jack didn't know much about these things he was pretty sure he had been given a fish knife.

"I'm afraid it's nothing more exciting than omelette and fried potatoes." The old man apologised, stirring a pan. "But I had a little bit of cheese and ham so I put that in with the eggs, and there's some onions in with the potato so it should be quite tasty."

"That sounds fantastic." Jack said. "Loads better than the crap we get in the orphanage."

"Jack!" Sister Mackintosh scolded. "Don't use words like that."

"Sorry Sister, but it is." He replied, feeling that out here in the city her jurisdiction over him had almost evaporated.

"I know." She sighed. "We eat it too. Have you any idea how hard it is to feed a hundred hungry children on just a few shillings a day? We have to take what we can get, even though it's not the best quality or the freshest food."

"Here you go." Mr Lustrum brought the pan of eggs over to the table and slid a large portion onto Jack's plate. "I'll put some bread and butter out as well, just help yourselves."

Jack was far too busy eating to talk, apart from the roast beef sandwich Fletcher had given him this was the most delicious thing he had tasted since he had left Nanny's farm, and unlike the sandwich there was lots of it. However Mr Lustrum was quizzing the nun as he picked at his own, much smaller portion.

"If you don't mind me asking, why does a nice young woman like yourself want to be a nun? It always seems to me that taking the habit is for the lost, the old, the dried out and those who have given up on life, and you don't appear to any of those things."

Sister Mackintosh predictably turned a deep shade of red. "It's the path I've chosen." She said quietly, looking down at her plate.

"Yes." The old man pushed his glasses up his nose. "But why?"

"My whole family were killed in a house fire when I was ten, I only survived because a neighbour smashed a window and pulled me out. I've lived at the orphanage ever since then, it's my home and the sisters are my family."

"And how old would you be now?"

"Twenty one."

He frowned at her thoughtfully. "But my dear, there comes a time when we all need to leave home and stretch our wings, if you spend your whole life dressed in black and closeted away from the rest of the world you'll never learn to fly."

"I very much doubt I would be able to fly wherever I was." The nun said with a nervous laugh.

"Everyone can fly, but not everyone does. It takes courage and belief to try, to throw yourself out of the nest for the first time, but the rewards are worth it. You understand that already, don't you Jack?"

Jack looked up from his plate. "Um...I think so, maybe." He mumbled through a mouthful of potato, not really sure what the old man was on about.

Once the food was finished and even Jack was full Mr Lustrum made a pot of tea, as Jack and Sister Mackintosh drank it he went over to the steamed up window and wiped a pane clear with a kitchen towel. "The rain has eased somewhat and the street has drained, you might be able to find a cab to take you back now."

"I'm afraid we'll have to walk, I don't have the money for a taxi." The nun replied.

"Well then let me pay." He began to clear away the dishes. "The pair of you can't possibly be out and about on a night like this, even if you took a tram you'd be wet through by the time you got to the stop." Sister Mackintosh opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to silence her. "I insist, and I won't take no for an answer."

Jack saw an expression of relief pass across her face and he felt the same, he hadn't been looking forward to walking back through the driving rain either. When the teapot was empty Sister Mackintosh excused herself to the bathroom and Jack offered to help Mr Lustrum wash up, which the old man turned down saying they were his guests and he wouldn't hear of it.

Would you like something to take with you?" He offered, opening a cupboard and taking out a small paper bag. "Chocolate covered toffees, they're very good."

"Thanks...but I don't really like chocolate." He said politely.

"Good grief. Do you have a girlfriend, or someone you're a little sweet on? Perhaps you could take them as a gift for her."

"Yes, I do, thank you." He accepted the bag off the old man. "But actually..." Jack glanced at the kitchen door to check Sister Mackintosh wasn't about to come back. "...I have a boyfriend, and he really likes chocolates."

Mr Lustrum gave him a small smile. "Ah, well then, give them to him with my blessings."

"There is no way I'm waiting for you in the yard." Dana said, staring out of the window at the pelting rain. "If you want to go and visit Father Frederick tonight I'm staying inside in the dry."

"I think I'll stay in too." Jane glanced at her sister. "It's too wet, and I'm too worried about Jack."

They'd noticed his absence at dinner, Dana had asked Ward if he knew where their brother was, the large eared boy had simply shrugged and said he had no idea.

"Don't you want to get Father Frederick to pray for him?" Dana asked sarcastically.

"No." Jane replied in a small voice, her hand going to her hair. She was still unsettled by the events of the previous evening, and she was also scared that Jack's disappearance somehow had something to do with her. It had occurred to her that maybe the priest had put two and two together over her questions about boys kissing each other and that Jack had been taken off somewhere awful to be punished.

"Perhaps Exit knows where he is." Dana mused, watching the gaps between the cobbles filling up with water. "If he hasn't gone missing too, did you see him at dinner?"

Jane couldn't remember seeing him, and this only added to her anxiety, what if they were both being punished? "No, I didn't." She said miserably.

"Lets check the classroom, see if he's in there. You never know, Jack might be too."

"But what if Sister Oakley catches us?" Jane felt like she was going to cry again.

"Then we do what I did last night, we hide under the big desk until she's gone. Come on, don't be such a chicken." Dana grabbed her wrist. "We need to try and find Jack."

Dana opened the door cautiously in case the elderly nun was inside, but the only person in the classroom was Exit, sitting alone at the desk he normally shared with Jack. He glanced up as they came through the door, and Jane couldn't help noticing that he looked disappointed when he saw who his visitors were.

"Hiya." Dana said, walking over to him. "You don't happen to know where Jack is do you?"

"No." The echoback boy said frowning. "He was in class with me this morning, the last time I saw him he was going off to sweep the yard. I tried asking Sister Oakley about him, but she just told me it was none of my business."

"You don't think he's run away, do you?" Jane asked, adding a new fear to her list.

"No." Dana said shaking her head. "He wouldn't, not without telling anyone. He's always making me promise not to do that, I'm sure he wouldn't, would he?" She looked at Exit.

"I don't think so." The boy answered quietly.

"Is he in some kind of trouble, perhaps he's being punished?" Jane questioned Exit, winding a strand of hair around her finger. "I mean you two weren't caught...doing something, were you?" She stared at her feet.

"If we had we'd both be being punished." Exit pointed out.

"You haven't said anything you shouldn't, have you?" Dana glared at Jane.

"No!" She squeaked. "I promise, I haven't."

"All right, I believe you." Dana sighed, holding up her hands. "But where the hell is he?"

The tempo of the rain picked up even further and all three of them turned to look at the window. The combination of the storm and her worries made Jane's stomach churn, everything felt wrong, as if the lashing rain were an omen of bad things to come.

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