The crescent moon cut belts of shimmering silver onto the black water beyond. Perry gazed up at the desolate sky, clear and starry. Was God watching him? Wooden decking creaked underfoot, though he trod cautiously, seeking out forms in the shadows under the iron benches and checking behind for ambushes. The icy breeze buffeted and nipped at his ears, water licked and lapped in the darkness, stifling his senses. At the end of the wharf there stood a figure, black as a crow, waiting for him to come.
Perry took a moment to dab a handkerchief at the worst of his cuts, though there were too many to attend to. He settled for tying it around the biggest wound on his knee. The pain was sharp and true. He cursed his stupidity for falling for that old trick, one he had played himself when he was younger. But that wasn’t what really hurt, what really fuelled the anger and hatred deep within. Would killing him assuage it? Right the wrongs? Perry didn’t know anymore, but he knew he would continue on to the end of the wharf.
With each step, the figure grew larger; he was on the edge, facing out to sea, back turned to Perry’s approach. Perhaps he wouldn’t need the knife at all, a push might be all that it would take.
Bishopstoke, Hampshire, 1883
Atop a ladder, Samuel Scrimshaw could see his kitchen table through the hole in the roof. He had a lead sheet ready and his hammer was cradled safely in the iron guttering. Samuel covered the hole with his palm.
‘Perhaps I should just stay up here and plug the breach with my hand,’ he called down. It had been a rainy springtime and he’d patched it up three times already. If only he could haul summer closer with his bare hands…it would be less work.
‘No,’ his son’s voice carried up, ‘who’d cook for us if you’re stuck up there?’
‘Well,’ he took four nails from his pocket, ‘I suppose I’d come down if it wasn’t raining,’ he placed the nails between his teeth and slid the lead sheet over the hole.
‘Who’d walk me to school if it was raining?’
Inwardly, he tightened. It was Perry’s schooling that meant he couldn’t afford to replace the leaky tap in the kitchen or repair the roof properly. Samuel plucked the first nail from between his teeth and slotted it into the hole in the corner of the sheet. Making young ‘uns attend school by law and expecting common folk like him to stand the cost didn’t seem fair or right. It was hardly the boy’s fault but still, what was wrong with starting a prenticeship early? He brought the hammer down with a satisfying thump.
Once the sheet was in place he climbed down.
‘That should do it,’ he said, ‘thanks for holding me steady.’ He mussed up Perry’s golden-brown hair with his big gardener’s hands. Perry beamed back at him. ‘Can we go guddlin’ now?’
‘I thought you might say that.’
Bishopstoke was a small place, caught between Winchester and Southampton, provided for by the changeable River Itchen and surrounding woodland. Perry’s favourite guddling spot was a short hike into the woods. On the way, they both gathered kindling and small branches. Samuel tied them into a bundle and carried them on his back. Their riverside route was damp and addled with tree roots, the air ripe with the dewy spring.
‘Silver birch,’ Samuel pointed, ‘look at that cobweb stretched across that alder.’
Perry dutifully followed his signals. Samuel guessed that he liked it, but perhaps didn’t love these small things as he did. He was only a boy after all and perhaps took for granted the countless shades of green the Lord had created. Silver water gushed past, swollen by recent rainfall. Samuel led Perry further upstream, where the trees on the bank began to thin out and a flint footbridge came into view.
‘I’m going ahead!’ and Perry sprinted off as boys that age do. By the time Samuel got to the bank, Perry was already wading into the river, trousers rolled up beyond his knees and sleeves past his elbows.
‘Very,’ Perry replied.
Brave boy. ‘Let’s see…how many will it be today?’
Samuel sat on the bank and let his feet dangle a few inches above the flow. Perry crouched below, his chin an inch or two above the rippling water. Samuel loved moments like this: wind rustling in the trees, a woodpigeon cooing from some branch above and his son, staring into the glassy current, showing patience and skill. Perry smiled. Good boy.
Slowly, Perry lifted the trout from the water as gently as if it were made of crystal.
‘Good lad,’ Samuel whispered. ‘Pop it in the bucket and get another while I deal with this one.’
Deal was a kind word. He didn’t want Perry to see him killing the fish proper. As he got to his feet, the fish squirmed and writhed, its tail flicking the pit of the bucket. It was a beaut, on its own enough for two dinners at least. He thanked the Lord for his son and this knack he had. Not even his old grandpa could match-
Samuel looked up from the slithering fish.
‘Hurry up. I’ve got another.’
That eve they feasted on fish stew, cooked up with onions, leeks and carrots all grown by his own hand on the Hebblesworth estate. He tucked Perry in and lay on his own bed across the room. Though he wasn’t sleepy yet, he liked to lie in the warmth and thumb through pages of his tattered bible by candlelight. He didn’t have his letters, but it felt good to hold something holy while he assembled his prayers in his mind. He prayed his wife was looking down on them favourably, keeping them both safe and healthy.
Before sleep finally came, he was dimly aware of movement in the bed opposite. Perry wriggled and laughed through his dreams yelling out ‘hey leave that, it’s my slate!’ and ‘Five and twelve is seventeen!’
Schooling or no, it was good to see his boy learning some.
At the start of June, Samuel, the two other gardeners, the maids, servants and kitchen staff were told to assemble on the lawn in front of Hebblesworth House. It was the wife, Lady Hebblesworth who addressed them, talking at length about the stock exchange before Samuel realised what was happening. The husband, he assumed, was cowering inside somewhere. Only one maid and the cook were to be kept on.
He queued on the perfect lawn with the rest, waiting for his envelope.
‘Thanks.’ he took it off Lady Hebblesworth, but didn’t mean his words. He felt the sorrow in her eyes. She hated having to do this. It was wrong; this wasn’t woman’s work. He almost felt sorry for her but however bad their fortunes, they wouldn’t struggle to feed their son. He walked away, tearing open the envelope. A week’s pay. Dread filled his heart.
Hands trembling, he stalked over to the flowerbed and yanked a digging fork up from the soil.
‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ one of the gardeners said.
The spikes were blunted and claggy with soil. All eyes were on him.
‘What’s he doing?’ murmured Lady Hebblesworth, her hand flush against her chest.
What was he doing? He wasn’t sure. He glanced up at the house. Was that a figure in one of the windows? The husband? The spineless bastard who couldn’t meet the wronged faces of his own mistakes?
‘Sam?’ one of the maids said, taking a step towards him.
He met the troubled faces but found he had nothing to say. His son. That was what mattered. Digging fork still in hand, he stormed away from the house, away from the frightened people on the Hebblesworth lawn. Samuel snatched up a weeding sack. At the vegetable patch, he stabbed the fork down, half-imagining it was Mr Hebblesworth’s throat. When he levered up the soil, there was no blood. Just a clutch of carrots. He tossed the stolen vegetables in his weeding sack and moved the fork along to the next lot.
Summer passed, but Samuel couldn’t find regular work. He foraged for berries and wild mushrooms, went fishing while Perry was at school – at least he’d scraped enough together for the boy’s tuition.
One November’s eve, he sat with Perry by the hearth, warming his feet by the fire. Samuel felt the cold more now that he was thinner. Perry’s weight held up right enough, always accepting the bigger portions: a father’s toll. Gusts of wind buffeted the house, whipping the fire into a mesmerising dance in the hearth.
‘It’s amazing ain’t it?’ Perry said.
The fire crackled and hissed. ‘A warm fire’s the heart of any home. Throw another log on will you son?’
Perry slithered out from under his blanket. Samuel rubbed his hands together and splayed them out to the flames.
The front door creaked. ‘Pa?’
‘Any of them will do Perry, they’re all dry.’
‘There’s some people here.’
Samuel twisted round. Perry was flanked either side by a policeman, one with a heavy black moustache. In the soft light, their uniforms were dark midnight blue, buttons glittered silver.
‘Come to me Perry,’ he turned to the policemen. ‘Don’t you fellows knock?’
‘We were about to but then the boy opened the door.’
‘Are you Samuel Scrimshaw?’ cut in the other.
‘Yes, what’s this about?’
‘Perhaps you should send your boy to his room for a minute.’
A cold shiver ran through him, he looked down at Perry, clutching onto his hip. ‘Go on son, to the bedroom.’
Perry did as he was told.
The moustachioed policeman took a step towards him, ‘I think you know what this is about.’
‘Please,’ he said, ‘it was only for my boy. Some blackberries, a few apples here and there. We can barely scrape together enough to eat, please.’
The policeman had a set of wooden cuffs dangling in his right hand. Surely they weren’t here to take him away? This was all wrong.
‘-Apples did you say? Wasn’t at Mr Sexton’s place past the Anchor inn?’
‘It was,’ he admitted slowly, wondering why two policemen would be sent to question a scrumper. Wasn’t there enough real crime going on? But he knew he couldn’t say as much.
‘They’ve an orchard there, fruit just falling to waste and rotting on the ground. Me and my boy have to eat – you wouldn’t put a man in lockup for that, surely?’
‘You’re right, I doubt we would,’ said the shorter one, ‘only you knocked into one of the housemaids when you ran away.’
He searched his memory, yes, he had, but a bump was all. ‘Aye, I was filling my sack with apples when I heard the yell from the house. I was ashamed. I’m no thief by nature. I didn’t want the Sexton’s to see my face, so I ran through the orchard to the back way. Only I was running so fast through the gate, I didn’t see her. She was coming the other way. I bundled her over to be sure and she was shocked some, but I checked she was fine before I went on my way. She was a dumpling of a woman, plenty of fat to break her fall.’
He smiled at the policemen, hoping the story would find some chord within them, that they might know he was a plain enough man, not given to this sort of thing. They both glared back at him with a stony expression.
‘Fat you say?’
‘Aye, she was.’
‘Pregnant more like.’
‘She lost the babe.’
His mind went white as if punched in the head. He barely felt the cuffs land on his wrists and he had to be led to the doorway for he couldn’t think his feet into moving. It was only when he got into the police carriage and the policeman took his seat opposite that he thought to ask.
‘My boy, what will happen to him?’
‘Any living relatives?’
Samuel shook his head.
‘There are places, homes that get a stipend from the parish, we’ll find him a place somewhere.’
Numb, Samuel nodded. The carriage lurched forward. He cleared the foggy glass with his sleeve. The other policeman was there, Perry at his side, his little hand raised, and waving him goodbye.