An ‘Out of the Smoke’ Short Story
Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.Luke 14:12-14
I was inspired to write this Christmas short story when I saw a very good friend of mine doing the same for her characters. Christmas stories are a good opportunity to explore some of the key themes of this time of year: grace, mercy and kindness to all people. These are also key themes in ‘Out of the Smoke’, on which this story is based and from which it draws its characters and setting; and, of course, they are central tenets of Christianity, expressed by God when He sent His Son to be born into a sinful world, to be a Saviour for sinful people.
This story takes place between parts 1 and 2 of the book, and follows two of the characters who I wished I had spend more time with. This is the first part of the story: the rest of the parts will follow over the Christmas period.
I hope you enjoy reading it. A very happy Christmas to you all.
Robert Brown stood back and surveyed the tiny parlour with a feeling of intense satisfaction. Susan had outdone herself this year, working around the clock with the children to transform the cramped room into a festive grotto of green, red and gold. Holly trailed along the mantelpiece, enormous crimson bows decked the picture-rail, and taking pride of place in the corner by the window was a bristling fir tree that seemed to fill half the space, its branches laden down with home-made sweets and biscuits.
He put his arm around his wife, who was beaming with pride.
“It’s a marvel,” he said. “Really a marvel. Whatever did I do to deserve such a wife?”
“You?” Susan nudged him playfully in the ribs. “It weren’t nothing to do with you, Robert Brown! The most energy you expended in our courtship was the amount it took you to go down on one knee and get up again.”
Robert bristled. “And what about all the walks I took you on in Hyde Park? Or the tours around the British Museum?”
“Oh yes. If women’s hearts were won by the mile then you’d take first prize every time.”
She gave him an arch sidelong glance, taking in his dismayed expression, then laughed and pecked his cheek happily.
“I’m only teasing,” she said. “You’re a good man, and I’m blessed to have you for a husband.”
A loud rap on the front door interrupted them.
“Is that the time already?” Robert released his wife and darted into the hallway, seizing his overcoat. The knock came again, sharp and impatient. “I’m coming! I’m coming!” he called, hastily doing up the buttons.
He opened the door in the middle of the third knock, and found himself face to face with an older man who sported an enormous beard and a stern expression.
“Took yer time,” the man grunted. “Ready?”
“Just about,” Robert said. He shrugged on the coat and cast around for his hat, which as usual was not hanging on its peg. “Won’t you come I for a moment, Daniel? We’ve just finished decorating the parlour. It looks a treat.”
“No time for that sort of frippery,” growled the man called Daniel. He looked past Robert to where Susan stood in the parlour doorway, and touched a hand to his cap. “Mrs. Brown. Bid you good evening.”
She bobbed a quick curtsey. “Mr. Tanner. Mind you look after my husband.”
“I’ll bring him back in one piece,” Daniel replied. He looked at Robert, who was struggling to wind a long green scarf around his neck. “You done?”
Robert threw the trailing end over one shoulder. “All done!” he declared.
Daniel grunted and turned away, striding into the dark, cold evening. Robert gave his wife a brief hug and a peck on the cheek and ran after him.
Old snow lay piled in doorways and thrown up in dirty brown drifts on either side of the road. Daniel ploughed through it, hardly seeming to notice the filthy slush as it spattered in his boots and trousers; Robert picked his way carefully, trying not to stain his brightly-polished shoes. Neither of the men spoke—Daniel, because that was his custom; and Robert, because he knew better than to be the one to start a conversation.
After half an hour of walking they stopped by a narrow gate in a long, high wall topped with iron spikes. Behind the wall was a mass of buildings, punctuated here and there by tall chimneys, surrounding a wide yard that bore the marks of hundreds of feet and countless sets of cartwheels. It was the kind of place that during the day would be heaving with life and noise, smoke and smells; now it lay as dark and silent as the streets that surrounded it.
Daniel picked up a stone, shook the snow off, and rattled it on the bars of the gate. The two men waited in silence. After a moment a door opened on the far side of the yard, spilling yellow light across the cobbles. A man emerged, short and squat, dragging a heavy sack behind him. He stumped slowly across yard to the gate, muttering under his breath the whole way, and dumped the bag on the ground.
“Evenin’ gents,” the figure said, squinting at them from under a pair of bushy eyebrows. He fished around at his belt for a ring of keys, which he used to unlock the gate. It opened with a squeal, and the man nudged the bag towards Daniel with his toe. “As promised to yer master,” he said.
“He’s no master of ours,” Daniel replied, reaching out and seizing the sack. “Call him a friend.”
“Mighty powerful friends you have, then,” the man said with a chuckle.
Ignoring this remark, Daniel slung the sack over his shoulder and trudged away, with Robert scurrying along behind. It did not take very long for curiosity to overcome Robert’s trepidation.
“What’s in the sack?” he asked.
“Gifts,” Daniel replied shortly.
“What kind of gifts?”
“The useful kind.”
“We’ve already prepared our Christmas stockings,” Robert said. “Susan has a friend whose girl works in a wealthy household, and she managed to bring home an orange. She offered it as a gift for the children—I expect they’ll be thrilled! Annabel has been asking for her very own doll to care for, and Michael wanted a model farm. He’s got it into his head that he wants to be a farmer when he grows up. I think it’s the books Susan’s been reading to him …”
“Load of pagan nonsense,” Daniel growled. “The only gifts worth giving at Christmas are ones that will bring folk a benefit. All else is frippery.”
“Well,” Robert stuttered, red-faced, “the children enjoy it, at least.”
“Aye, I expect they do. And before the New Year has dawned the doll’s dress is torn and half the animals have gone missing from the farm, and the orange has been eaten and the stockings put away, and all that’s left is another cold grey morning at the start of another year.”
“That’s a dire way of looking at it,” Robert said. “Christmas is supposed to be a time of cheer—of celebration.”
“You and I both know there’s precious little to celebrate for some folk,” Daniel replied. “Better to do some good while we can, than to go about with talk of cheer and celebration that’ll be over by January.”
As if to emphasise the point, he hefted the sack a little higher on his shoulder, put his head down, and quickened his step.
Very soon the two men rounded a corner into a narrow street where the upper floors of the houses bowed over to meet each other. They stopped outside a crooked door, and Daniel dropped the bag on the ground and knocked loudly. After a few minutes they heard the sound of a woman approaching, muttering and mumbling under her breath.
“Dearie, dearie me … The way my old bones ache … This cold—I tell you, it weren’t like this when I were a girl …”
Locks rattled, bolts shot back, and the door opened a crack. A beady eye glared out and took them both in, then the door swung open the rest of the way to reveal a short, round woman in a cap and apron.
“I were beginnin’ to wonder where you’d got to,” she said. “Come in, come in—no sense us standin’ around ‘ere in the cold.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lucas,” Daniel said, and ducked inside.
The two men followed her down a narrow, dark corridor to a huge kitchen at the far end. A fire was flickering in the wide hearth, filling the room with stifling heat and casting wild shadows on the stone walls.
“Put it up ‘ere, Daniel,” Mrs. Lucas said, patting the surface of a huge table that dominated the middle of the room.
Daniel swung the sack up onto the table, then loosened the neck and upended it. With a thudding rush, a pile of meat spilled out across the wooden surface: chops, hams, joints, quails, hooves, long links of sausages and even a whole pig’s head. A few rolled off on to the floor, and Robert stooped quickly to retrieve them.
“A fine haul,” Mrs. Lucas said, nodding approvingly as she surveyed the meat. “This’ll do just fine.”
She reached out and selected a few pieces—including a goose, two chickens, and a selection of offal wrapped in brown paper—which she placed to one side. Then she began separating out the rest, putting like with like. Robert joined in, handling the raw meat fastidiously and wrinkling his nose at the musty, faintly sweet smell.
“We’ll parcel them up as best we can,” Mrs. Lucas said. “Then you can take them round the families. I daresay there’ll be more’n a few smiles when they see what’s come. His Lordship has been very good to us. One moment. I’ll go fetch a few of the lads down to help out.”
As Daniel and Robert portioned out the meat in silence, Robert thought wistfully of his own goose waiting at home, stuffed and ready to be roasted—then he thought of the mince pies, and the mulled wine, and his chair and slippers and newspaper, and Susan sitting alone in the beautifully-decorated parlour. He knew it was his duty as a Christian to extend charity to those less fortunate than him, but giving charity was sometimes far from easy.
Mrs. Lucas returned with a small band of teenaged boys, who sloped into the kitchen and sidled as close to the fire as they could. Behind them came a solitary girl with light brown skin, fierce dark eyes, and the left sleeve of her blouse folded up and pinned in place where an arm should have been. She stuck close to one of the boys, whose flaming red hair made him stand out from the group; he looked around with an absent-minded expression, smiling gently to himself, as if he either wasn’t aware of where he was, or didn’t much care.
“Right, you lot,” Daniel growled, motioning the group to come forwards. “Form a line. One of you can pack, another can wrap, and another can tie up the parcels. The sooner we start the sooner we’ll get done. All right?”
The boys muttered their assent and crowded round the table, reaching for the meat and packaging it up in small parcels. The one-armed girl moved straight to the end of the line and took up the ball of twine. Robert almost stepped in to help her, but Daniel caught him surreptitiously by the arm and gave a brief shake of his head.
“Just watch,” he said.
The red-haired boy had drifted over to stand beside to girl. Robert watched in growing wonder as the girl picked up a pen-knife and handed it to the boy, who proceeded to cut the twine into lengths without any prompting; when the first package made its way up to them the boy laid it across a piece of twine, and between them the boy and girl took up the ends and knotted them together, their hands moving independently yet somehow as one. They did the same for the next parcel, and the next, and the next, neither one saying a word and yet both of them seemingly able to tell what the other was thinking.
“You don’t remember them, do you?” Daniel said softly. “Came in a month back, with another lad. We picked ’em up ourselves, from the arches near Tower Bridge. Girl was all shot up, been in trouble with some gang or other. Their friend was a troublemaker—didn’t like the look of ‘im from the start. Saw ‘im off sharpish, I did. Would’ve sent the ginger one away as well, except Mrs. Lucas begged me to let ‘im stay.
“You weren’t there when Dr. Samuels took the girl’s arm off. Hardly made a sound—though you should’ve ‘eard ‘er friend there, cryin’ fit ter burst. She just bit down on a belt and closed her eyes, and when it were all over she nodded, and I swear she thanked the doctor before ‘e went. The two of them ‘ave stuck together ever since. Ain’t scarcely been a moment they’ve been apart, save to wash and to sleep. Girl’s barely said a word, though once the boy gets going it’s hard to stop ‘im.”
Daniel shook his head and gave a soft snort, just short of a laugh. “Sometimes I wonder if ‘e knows where ‘e is and what’s ‘appened to ‘im—wanders around with that moon face, askin’ the daftest questions; but ‘e’s a good soul, innocent—though ‘e’s got light fingers, if you know what I mean. Oi! Tosher! Watch it!”
These last words were barked in the red-haired boy’s direction. The boy froze with his hand halfway to his pocket, the small pen-knife still in it. He stared dumbly at Daniel, uncomprehending, until the girl reached over, took the knife, and placed it gently on the table. A lopsided smile spread across the boy’s face.
“Sorry, Mr. Tanner,” he said. “I weren’t finkin’.”
“When do you ever?” Daniel growled.
“I don’t know why you call him that,” Mrs. Lucas declared from the far end of the table. “His name’s Clarence, as you well know. That other … word is no more than a cruel trick someone played on him once. Goodness only knows how it stuck to him.”
“Everyone calls me Tosher,” the boy said. “‘S my name, innit?”
“I’ve told you time and again, Clarence,” Mrs. Lucas said. “‘Tosher’ is not a name. It’s an appellation, nothing more. No Christian would ever be given it.”
“Well I was, wasn’t I?” Tosher’s face screwed up in an effort of thought. “And if someone give me it, then it’s mine, innit? Even if it is an apper- … apple- … that thing you said.”
Mrs. Lucas gave a loud sniff, and started piling the parcels of meat at one end of the table. “Well I shall call you Clarence, even if no-one else does. Clara and Clarence. It’s got a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Better than Clara and … Tosher.”
“You always says nice stuff, Mrs. Lucas,” Tosher said, smiling again. “I can be Clarence if you want.”
“We all done?” Daniel said. “Right. Tosher, Edward, Simon, go get your hats and coats, then come back and grab a few of these parcels. We’ve deliveries to make. Robert, give us a hand, will you?”
Robert helped Daniel to gather up the gifts while Mrs. Lucas busied herself with the remaining meat. The one-armed girl stood to the side, watching silently and intently, until the boys returned with their outdoor clothes on. Tosher brought her a scarf, coat and hat, which he proceeded to help her put on.
“Clarence!” Mrs. Lucas snapped. “You leave Clara alone. She’ll not be going out with you. Not in this dark and cold. Ain’t no time nor place for a lady.”
Tosher hesitated, but Clara took the hat with her one hand and pulled it over her curls with a determined expression, then slung the scarf around her neck and stared defiantly at Mrs. Lucas.
“I think she’ll be comin’ with us, Mrs. Lucas,” Daniel said. He held out the heaviest of the parcels. “Since you’ve only the one arm you can take that one. All right?”
Clara nodded and hooked her fingers through the string. Daniel grunted with satisfaction.
“Good girl. Come on then. We’ve deliveries to make.”
Come back soon for part 2! In the meantime, if you haven’t read ‘Out of the Smoke’ you can order it online or from all good bookshops.