An ‘Out of the Smoke’ Short Story
The group trudged through the darkened streets, heads bent low against a freezing wind that seemed to have come straight from the pole. Robert kept half an eye on Clara, but he soon realised he need not have worried about her: Tosher stayed close by at all times, ready with a helping hand or a guiding word, keeping her away from treacherous patches of ice.
They made their way down narrowing streets to a neighbourhood where tall buildings rose on either side, with darkened doorways at the bottom and rows of windows above.
“Robert,” Daniel said, “take Tosher and Clara and do the houses on this side. I’ll do the other. Meet back here afterwards.”
Robert nodded, despite the tightening in his chest. This was a rough and desperate area, he knew, and likely to be frequented by gangs on the lookout for the unwary. He knew it was his Christian duty to help the poor and destitute—but sometimes he wished the Lord had not been so insistent on such a duty, especially when it meant entering those doorways without knowing who or what he would find within.
“Right.” Daniel beckoned to the other two boys. “Come on. Sooner we start, sooner you can get back.”
He moved away, leaving Robert standing with Clara and Tosher. Robert hefted the parcels in his arms and cleared his throat.
“All right, then,” he said, trying to sound more authoritative than he felt. “Shall we go?”
Tosher smiled brightly, and Clara fixed Robert with the look she seemed to reserve for everyone who wasn’t Tosher: if not outright hostility, then at least deep suspicion. Robert turned away and headed for the nearest building, trying to keep in mind the verse he always reserved for these occasions: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” If only there was a way to keep himself unspotted from this particular part of the world.
Through the first doorway was a narrow passage, and immediately to their right a steep flight of stairs. Two doors opened off the passage, both shut fast. Robert knocked on the first, and was welcomed by the sound of a baby screaming. Someone cursed, and a moment later the door was wrenched open and he found himself staring into the beet-red face of a woman in a filthy smock, whose eyes darted suspiciously around the little group.
“Hear that?” she snapped viciously. “You’ve only gone and woken ‘im! And when I’d finally got ‘im to take a bit o’ rest! What’s wrong with yer, eh? Wakin’ good folk from their rest on a night like this?”
“I- I come to bid you good Christmas tidings,” Robert stammered, trying to remember the speech he had prepared. “In the name of the Father and His Son the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate at this time of—”
“Oh, lawd!” The woman rolled her eyes. “You’re one of them, is yer? Well, let me tell you what the good Lawd ‘as done fer me, shall I? ‘E’s only gawn and given me a useless lump of an ‘usband who spends all ‘is wakin’ ‘ours and all the coin in ‘is pocket down at the ‘Shepherd’s Crook’—so iff’n yer don’t mind I ain’t exactly full o’ Christmas cheer, while I got four ‘ungry mouths ter feed and barely tuppence to scrape together.”
“Well, I … that is to say …” Helplessly, Robert held out a small package, which the woman regarded with deeper suspicion still.
“What’s that then, eh?”
“A token of the good Lord’s kindness,” Tosher piped up cheerfully. “We’s goin’ around spreadin’ Christmas cheer, y’know. It’s good stuff—there’s some sausages in there, maybe a kidney or two.”
“Is that so?” The woman snatched the parcel from Robert’s hands, tore back a corner, and peered inside. Then she snorted derisively. “Well that’s kind enough, I’m sure. Though it won’t go two days around ‘ere. Not if my useless ‘usband get’s wind of it. All right. Get on wiv yer. I got ter get this one ter sleep again an’ all.”
With that she slammed the door shut, screaming at the child to be quiet.
The group moved on, first to the next door in the passageway, then up the stairs to the first floor, where there were two more doors. Some answered the knock; others did not. Sometimes Robert could hear voices within, arguing or whispering, and no-one came to the door. Often it was women who opened to them, of all shapes and sizes—tall, short, wide and thin—and all regarding them with varying degrees of suspicion, fear, or outright hostility.
Robert soon gave up on his speech, which was supposed to be a word of the Gospel with an invitation to attend a church that Sunday, and resorted to simply announcing that they were from the Duke Street Ragged School, and that they had a Christmas gift to give. Most took the gifts, some with a brief word of thanks, and others with the resigned air of those who knew that come New Year’s Day they would still be just as poor and just as hungry. A few swore at them and slammed the door, livid at the thought of accepting charity; one or two were interrupted in the act of taking the parcel by husbands who cursed Robert for daring to think that they were in need of such help.
This continued in the next building, and the next, and the next. The worst doors were those behind which Robert could hear children crying or arguing, without anyone opening to them. He knocked extra hard in these cases, and sometimes the children’s voices fell silent, but the door was never opened. He left a parcel outside each one, hoping that someone would eventually come to open the door and check on the children’s wellbeing—but the hope was slim, and by the time their arms were empty his heart was empty as well, and he was worn out from the crushing hopelessness of these people’s lives.
They emerged on to the darkened street to a light snowfall, fat flakes spiralling through the frozen air and settling in the slush and mud. Already everything was dusted with white, and within a few hours the street would be pristine once more, covering up the filth that lay hidden beneath and presenting a scene that might grace a Christmas card. Tosher tilted his head back and opened his mouth wide, letting some of the flakes fall on his tongue. Clara huddled in the doorway, her eyes roving up and down in an unconscious habit, alert for trouble.
“I don’t think they’re done yet,” Robert said. “We’ll wait here a minute.”
He moved back to stand by Clara in the doorway, but as he did so his attention was caught by a commotion at the far end of the street. A group of youths appeared, sauntering along through the snow and shoving each other with laughs and curses. They quickly caught sight of Tosher, who was still standing with his face turned to the sky, and they sniggered and whispered to each other.
“Oi!” one of them called. “Carrot-top! Wotcher doin’?”
Tosher blinked and looked down just in time for a dirty snowball to catch him full across the face. He gasped and staggered back, blinking through the grit and grime, as another followed suit, then another. He put up his arms to shield himself, but this just drove the group to further efforts, the boys scraping up whatever sludge they could find and pelting him mercilessly.
Robert stood frozen, watching helplessly as Tosher half-turned, trying to avoid the worst of the missiles. He knew he should step out and do something, but what could he do? If he exposed himself they would just turn on him instead—wasn’t it better to wait for them to lose interest and move on? Immediately he felt ashamed of himself, of his cowardice and weakness—but still he could not will his feet to move.
There was movement beside him as Clara brushed past and marched out into the street. The barrage of snowballs ceased, and in its place came a flurry of whistles and appreciative shouts.
“Who’s this, then?”
“All right, love? ‘ow about it, eh?”
“‘ow about a bit o’ Christmas cheer, then?”
Clara placed herself firmly between Tosher and the gang, and stood with her feet apart and her face set. The lads laughed and nudged each other.
“Look at ‘er! She’s protectin’ her beau, ain’t she?”
“They don’t ‘alf make a funny pair.”
“Orange and brown—like a bowl o’ stew.”
One by one they fell silent, however, as their eyes moved down to Clara’s one good hand, where she helf the pen-knife they had been using the cut the twine in the kitchen. The leader of the gang stepped forwards, all his joviality dropping away.
“I ‘opes you knows ‘ow ter use that,” he growled.
“Leave ‘er, Ned,” one of the other lads said. “Can’t you see she’s a cripple?”
The boy called Ned spat into the snow. “Cripple or no, she pulled a blade on me,” he said. “And I can’t let that stand.”
With a flick of his wrist a blade appeared in his own hand, and he raised it to point in Clara’s direction.
“Wotcher say?” he growled. “Wanna try me? Or you got some cotton ter pick?”
They all turned at the sound of Daniel’s voice. He stood with his feet apart in the middle of the street, his huge arms crossed over his wide chest and his beard bristling. He surveyed the group, and his eyes lighted on the leader.
“Evenin’ Ned,” he said. “How’s yer mum, then?”
“She’s all right, Mr. Tanner,” the boy muttered reluctantly. A little of his bravado had left him, and he seemed almost embarrassed to be caught with a weapon in his hand.
“I’m sure she’d be less than ‘appy ter know you was goin’ ter use that on a lady,” Daniel observed, looking pointedly at the knife.
“Well I didn’t start it Mr. Tanner.” The boy glanced at Clara. “This ‘ere girl pulled a blade on me first.”
“She’s a quick temper,” Daniel said calmly. His eyes took in Tosher, mud-stained and soaking. “And it looks like she was provoked.”
“It were only a bit o’ fun.” The boy smiled uneasily and pocketed his knife. “We can all take a joke now, can’t we?”
“Doesn’t look that funny ter me, Ned.”
“Yeah, well …” The boy looked around at his gang, then spat in Clara’s direction. “We was leavin’ anyway. Ain’t worth botherin’ a cripple and a loon. Come on lads. Richer pickin’s elsewhere.”
The gang slouched off the way they had come, shooting resentful glances back over their shoulders as Daniel, who stood where he was until the last of them had disappeared into the night. Then he sagged, and hurried over to the group in the doorway.
“You all right?” he asked, looking them over.
Robert left the doorway, uncomfortably aware of his position of safety compared to the other two, but Daniel didn’t mention it. “Those boys just came up and started throwing snowballs at Tosher,” he said. “I … I mean I couldn’t … I didn’t …”
He stumbled to a halt, on the cusp of a lie, but Daniel held up a hand a saved him.
“Don’t fret, Rob,” he said. “Those boys aren’t the worst, but they’re more’n a match fer the likes o’ you. Weren’t much you could’a done.”
“Sorry Daniel,” Robert said, burning with shame at the thought of just how useless he was. His throat tightened, and he looked away. More than ever he wished he could be back in his comfortable parlour with his wife and children, away from the darkness and cold and danger of these streets—and even as the thought came to him he hated himself for it.
“Come on,” Daniel said with a sigh. “That’s plenty for tonight. Let’s be getting back.”
Thank you for reading so far. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you a very happy Christmas. Stay tuned for more of Robert, Tosher and Clara’s story, which will continue next week.
If you like this story and you want to read more, you can always pick up a copy of ‘Out of the Smoke’, available online or from all good bookshops.