Mrs O Rourke shook her head in wonder as she placed the doll in the window. It was a very beautiful doll by any standards and ordering it had been an impulse she could not resist, but the moment she opened the box she had regretted her lack of common sense. Who in their right mind would pay twelve shillings and sixpence for a toy, she wondered? She was so busy fanning its lace dress and fixing the blond curls that she didn’t notice the bright eyes, watching from outside. Despite the cold of the October morning, six-year-old Cathy Ryan pressed her nose and the palms of her hands against the icy glass and gazed enraptured at the doll. Today was her birthday and for the first time ever, she hadn’t received a present. They never got anything nice now, not since her Daddy died and she felt cheated. The doll caught her eye on the way to school; she was dawdling as always in the footsteps of her big brother, Johnny. The doll’s big, blue eyes and blond curls stopped her in her tracks and she swore she had never seen anything so beautiful in all her life. Her breath made small patches of condensation on the window pane and the glass, still damp with morning dew, made her nose wet.
“Cathy,” her brother stood reflected in the glass. “Will you hurry up; we’ll be late again.”
He grabbed her hand and dragged her away; terrified of getting a telling off from his teacher. He did well in school and he didn’t want anyone to complain about him; not now, not at this sad time. He felt tears gather in the corners of his eyes and his throat hurt when he thought about his mother. They had left her minutes before, so sad and forlorn, in the cold, two-bedroom flat they were forced to rent after his father died. It was on the top floor of a block of flats over a fish and chip shop. The stink of fish permeated the very bricks of the building and rose in waves from the worn carpet lining the stairs. The stench stuck to his clothes so the neighbourhood children held their noses as he passed by and made exaggerated wafting motions with their hands. There were six flights of wooden stairs to climb and no matter what time of day it was, the stairs were always dark and frightening. At first, he imagined some terrible monster lurking in the shadows on each landing, but now all such thoughts were gone as he assumed the role of man of the house.
Today was the hardest so far since his father’s passing. He realised how upset his mother was at not having a present for his little sister, but times were hard. At twelve, he was old enough to understand this, but his sister was still too young and couldn’t be expected to be as grown-up as he was about the whole birthday thing. His mother tried her best to find a job, but it was difficult. The year was nineteen-forty-two and jobs were hard to come by, especially for a woman with three children and two-year-old Jimmy wouldn’t start school for years.
“Johnny,” Cathy dug her heels in, forcing him to stop. “Do you think that if I’m good and say my prayers every night that Santa will bring me that doll for Christmas?”
“I don’t know, Cathy. It costs a lot of money and Mam barely has enough for food.”
“I know that,” she pouted. “But my teacher says that Christmas is a time of miracles, so I’m going to be very, very good and pray.”
That’s what we need, Johnny thought, a miracle.
When they reached the school gates, he let go of her hand and bent down to speak to her.
“Hold out you hand,” he ordered.
She did as he asked and watched as he pulled two paper-wrapped packets from his coat pocket. Each held a small currant scone. Their Mother baked these every night on the griddle over the fire and she was glad they had something to fill their empty bellies during the long school day. Johnny handed Cathy her scone and opening his packet broke his in half and added it to his sister’s. He did this every morning with the promise that he couldn’t eat a full scone and he knew that she could. While she was grateful for the extra food, she wondered how someone as big as her brother couldn’t manage a full one. Her stomach rumbled very loudly at times and she always seemed to be hungry. She saw Johnny at break times wolfing down his lunch and licking the paper clean of crumbs. He was a puzzle, her big brother.
No matter how hard he tried, Johnny couldn’t concentrate on his work that day. His mind kept wondering back to the cold flat where his mother and brother sat sad and hungry. He had to do something to ease their suffering, but what? The bitter autumn wind sliced through his threadbare jumper as he made his way home that afternoon. The wind’s sting carried with it the promise of a hard winter and he knew they’d never survive on what little money his mother had. Please God, he prayed. Help me find a way to feed my family.
It was at that moment he saw it; the answer to his prayers. Grabbing his sister’s hand, he ran her the rest of the way home. After depositing her, breathless at the flat, he mumbled an excuse about leaving a book behind at school and hurried out. He ran as fast as his legs would go, hoping all the while he hadn’t been dreaming. There it was, large as life, in Brown’s window, the sign that read, Messenger Boy Wanted.”
He brushed down his jumper and licking his hand, ran it through his dark, unruly hair. The smell when he entered the shop overwhelmed his empty stomach and made his head spin. Bread, still steaming from the ovens, lined the racks behind the counter and cakes in all the colours of the rainbow vied with the plainer pancakes and scones in shiny, glass cases. He waited behind some ladies as they chatted with Mr Brown until the shop was empty and the man noticed him.
“What can I get you, son?” Mr Brown asked.
The word son made Johnny catch his breath and it took a few seconds before he could speak, but the man waited, patiently.
“ I’ve come about the job, sir,” he nodded at the sign in the window.
“How old are you?” Mr Brown thought the puny boy before him couldn’t be much older than ten.
“ I’m twelve, sir and stronger than I look.”
They stared at one another for a moment and then the man spoke.
“It’s a heavy bike; mind and it would take a strong fellow to hold it.”
“Yes, sir, I could do it,” Johnny said.
“All right,” the man rubbed at his chin. “Wait there.”
As he waited, Johnny looked around at the wondrous things on the shelves until the clackity-clack of the bicycle wheels sounded as Mr Brown wheeled it out from the yard at the back of the shop. He steered it out on to the footpath and handed it to Johnny. The handlebars reached just above his chin and he couldn’t see over the huge wicker basket that was strapped to the front of the bike.
“All right,” Mr Brown said. “Have a go and we’ll see how you get on.”
Once the man let go of the bike, Johnny had to cling on for dear life; it must have weighed a ton. He managed to keep it upright, but when the front wheel went off the kerb, the bike, which was front heavy, took the boy with it.
“Sorry, sir,” Johnny looked up at the man with frightened eyes. “I just slipped, that’s all.”
Part Two tomorrow, folks.
Copyright © Gemma Mawdsley 2012