This week's edition to our Olympia Extracts is an insightful collection of short stories called The Rag and Bone Man by Pauline Henderson. 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Dusty was stamping her hooves. She was neighing. Charlie sat up in bed. He lit a candle and looked at his watch. It was two-thirty, dark outside but the sky was clear. The moon lit up part of the room. He had never been woken before by Dusty. ‘She must be ill, what’s wrong with her?’ he said, muttering to himself. He crept quietly down the stairs with the lit candle in his hand, and as a precaution he picked up a chair leg that was balanced up against the kitchen wall. He unbolted his back door and walked across the yard to the stable. He got a shock to see both bolts had been opened, and the door slightly ajar. Dusty was stamping all four hooves on the stone floor, and her neighing got much louder. Charlie held the chair leg high, and shouted. ‘Who's there? If ya don't come out, I'll whistle for a polis.’ The door of the stable started to open. Charlie held the candle nearer to the door. He was shaking, and the leg of the chair was ready to come crashing down on the intruder, when a voice said, ‘I'm so sorry, sir.’ Charlie kicked the door with his foot and opened it wider. He put the candle closer and peered in the direction the voice came from.

He stretched his eyes wide open, and there stood a young lad, dressed in a grey serge suit, thin, tall, and dark.

‘What you doing in there, boy?’ Charlie shouted.

The lad was trembling. ‘I… I was hiding,’ he said.

‘From what?’ Charlie shouted.

The lad could hardly speak. ‘I was hiding from... from… '

‘From what?’ Charlie shouted again.

The lad was shaking and said, ‘I don't know, uncle.’

Charlie's mouth dropped. ‘What you talking about, lad? I’m nobody's uncle. Now get out of here.’

The horse was getting more agitated. Charlie approached the horse. ‘There, there, calm down,’ he said. Charlie lay the leg of the chair down, and put the lit candle on a shelf. Dusty wasn't settling. Charlie approached Dusty again. He started rubbing her nose and patting her. He picked up a bucket of water so the horse could drink. The lad stood there frozen to the spot. Charlie turned to the lad and shouted, ‘Out!’ When the lad came out, Charlie picked up the lit candle, muttering to himself all the time. He bolted the stable door. Once again he turned to the lad, and he then got him by the collar and frogmarched him into the house.

The house was dark. Charlie still had hold of the boy’s collar and sat him down none too gently. Charlie lit two lanterns in the room, then he raked the fire and put on some coal. Then he hung the kettle over the heat of the fire. Charlie sat opposite the boy.

‘Now lad, tell me, are you a bit soft in the head?’

‘No, sir,’ he replied.

‘Well, what makes you believe I'm ya uncle?’

‘I'm May’s son, Joe.’

Charlie give a mocking laugh and said, ‘Our May’s been gone these past ten years or so, she died with the consumption. She had no bairn.’

‘You weren't meant to know,’ said Joe.

Charlie stood up, put tea in the pot and put two mugs on the table.

‘I’ve always known what my mother died with, I was five.’ Joe felt himself filling up, but kept it in. ‘I’ve been in an orphanage all these years, and it’s not until they took my birth certificate out to check my records, it slipped out that I had an uncle. Charles Irwin. Mill Lane Cottage. I'll be fourteen next month, and they were talking about putting me to work. It’s not the work. The reason why I fled, I didn't want the workhouse, and you—I...’ he started to stutter, ‘I never knew I had an uncle. You’re my only family.’

Charlie sat with his head hung low and said, ‘Well, why didn't they tell me there was a bairn? I never knew she had a son. Well, I'm shocked, but what can I offer you? I'm not a rich man, I make a living, I get by. This is no life for you. Charlie stood up, and took the steaming kettle off the fire, put some water into the teapot, stirred it, and poured a hot drink out for Joe. ‘We'll have to talk about this in the morning. I can't think straight. It’s a big day on a Friday,’ Charlie said, shaking his head. Joe was confused.

Charlie picked up two lanterns and gave one to Joe. Charlie led the way up the stairs, Joe holding his tea in one hand and the lantern in the other. Charlie showed Joe to a room. He said, pointing, ‘There’s a pot under the bed if you need it, and if you do, get rid in the morning and swill it under the tap outside.’ Then he pointed to a blanket box and said, ‘There’s plenty of stuff in there. You'll have to bed yourself down.’

Charlie didn't go back to sleep, he couldn't believe that May had had a bairn. Who is the bairn’s father? Why hadn't he been told? His head was spinning. What was he going to do with him? Could he let him live here? Charlie had to admit he had a look of his mother, dark with deep blue eyes, and tall.

Joe tossed and turned, wondering if his Uncle was going to turn him away. He was hungry. There was one thing he did know. He wasn't going back to that orphanage, and definitely not to the workhouse, and if he couldn't stay, he'd look for a job on a boat—go up to Scotland. He kept saying it over and over in his mind. He wasn't going back.

 

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