The clink of milk bottles could be heard outside as the milkman went about his early morning rounds. Curtains had already been pulled in houses up and down the street. People readied themselves for the day ahead, sipping tea and scraping toast. Number forty-two was identical to all the other terraced dwellings in the street except that its blinds and drapes remained tightly closed while the house slept on. In a tiny bedroom, a small boy heard with a mop of black hair lay wide awake in the damp cot that he had outgrown, looking at the shapes of the rabbits on the mobile that bounced in the draughts from the poorly fitting crittall windows. As the morning sunlight pierced the tatty curtains and threw shapes on the wall of the bedroom, the boy became restless and strained to listen.
After a long while, he heard noises in the room next door, sounds of someone getting up. He climbed out of the damp cot awkwardly, hampered by the low-strung terry cloth nappy that had not been changed for two days. He dropped silently to the floor and approached his mother’s bedroom, watching shyly through the hinged gap in the door. He waited, out of sight and quiet as a mouse. Her latest overnight companion had just risen and was coughing up morning phlegm. The boy spied through the narrow gap and watched as the man lit a cigarette, buttoned up his shirt, found his shoes and opened the bedroom door to leave. The man smelled the pong before he laid eyes on the boy.
“You’ve got to change your kid, for pity’s sake,” remarked the man to the slumbering woman, “he’s stunk the place out!” The woman did not rouse.
Heavy feet thudded down the stairs and the front door shut behind, rattling the letterbox flap. The child wandered into his mother’s room, chewing his thumb and hugging Bear. He stood right next to her bed and snuffled loudly at her. She slept on. He whimpered like a puppy and she still slept on. The crying started in earnest, first in low notes, gradually climbing up the scales. It was persistent in rhythm and rose in pitch until it caught her attention. She stirred and opened a bleary blood-shot eye but rolled over, away from the ruddy-faced child. Weighed down by her latest hangover, she sank back into her slumber. Jerry was indignant. He screwed up his face and bawled his lungs out until his chest hurt, feeling with every intake the injustice of being little and helpless. The crying became uncontrollable and emotional release that oddly soothed him. It took his mind off his discomfort, hunger and boredom. At last, she could take no more and seeing the toddler with his arms outstretched to her and drenched in tears, she finally came to her senses. She lifted the rank child, and Bear, into the bed until she was ready to face the day.
Neighbours observed the comings and goings at number forty-two, tutting and talking in hushed tones over their garden fences. They shook their heads at the shame of it as they watched Jerry’s mother emerge from the corner shop at the end of the street in headscarf, sunglasses and bright red lipstick, her basket laden with bottles but little to eat. It was obvious that she had left the child at home again on its own. Word got round.
“She had another man over last night,” one would say.
“That poor child!” exclaimed another.
“What a racket next door, did you hear?”
“Playing that music again. It went on until after midnight, so inconsiderate!”
“And that’s not the worst of it. My Henry had a glass to the wall and did he blush!”
One day there was a knock on the door. The distraught mother wept as her sobbing toddler, her only child, was wrenched away from her. She understood the reasons. She accepted that she was a hopeless mother and that she was unable to care for herself, let alone for the young life.
“It’s for his own good,” reassured the kindly doctor, looking around him with dismay at the filthy room, the empty bottles stacked by the bin. “Rest assured he will go to a good family! Come on, I’ll help you to pack a bag for him.”
When they were ready to leave, the doctor turned to the boy, knelt to his level and looked compassionately into his eyes.
“It’s alright, Jeremy”, he said. “You go with the nice man here, just until your mother gets better.” The tall visitor in the black coat and wire framed glasses had not spoken and smiled coldly.
That night, Jerry’s fragile mother took an overdose as a cry for help. But help never came.
Little Jerry’s bottom lip trembled as he looked up at the sinister building, squinting at words that he could not decipher that were carved above an enormous doorway. He hugged Bear closely, whispering to him softly, “Don’t be scared,” and stroked his brow as his mother did to him when she was sober.
The boy was afraid and tried to pull away but the grip around his wrist only tightened. The tall man in the black coat and round glasses held the child firmly and forcibly led him up the steps, pressing a large bell that rang somewhere deep within. Bolts slid and the door was opened by a stern-looking woman in the uniform of a nun. She had been expecting them. She looked down at the child.
“What’s this one’s name?” she asked in clipped tones.
The bespectacled man replied and passed her the envelope that the doctor had written. She nodded, took the small bag that the man handed to her, the bag that Jerry’s mother and the kind doctor had packed for him that morning.
“I’ll be back for him, in a week or two,” he said.
The woman held his gaze, snorted in distaste, then closed the door on the man. She took the bewildered Jerry inside the cold, dimly lit hallway.
“Come on, Jeremy” she said, “you’ll be safe here. At least for now. Let’s find you something to eat.”
Crystal waters bubbled up in a freshwater spring in a green and lush meadow in rural England. The stream flowed through the landscape, widening as it flowed. It was home to freshwater trout and dazzling blue kingfishers. Cows lazily chewed the succulent grass along the banks. Boaters rowed and punted, fishermen cast their lines.
The upper river ran eastwards and meandered under ancient stone bridges, through villages and towns. Over its journey of two hundred miles from its conception to the sea, the river gathered pace as the tributaries along its route merged to fill and energise the maturing River Thames that was taking on a bolder personality, now fast and swollen. Beyond Teddington Lock, the waters were tidal and turbulent, churning the mud into brackish brown. The river flowed swiftly, funneled by the high embankment walls that served as flood defenses to protect the city. It raced on, battling or running with the tides that surged past the London’s landmarks. It rushed under Tower Bridge, past the docklands to the east of the city and out to the silty Thames Estuary before finally discharging into the North Sea.
Along its tidal reaches, beyond London’s bridges that spanned the waterway, little beaches were exposed at low tide. On one of these mudflats, oyster catchers, dunlin, ringed plover and a solitary avocet picked at the waterline as it sparkled in the morning sunlight. Opportunist gulls hung around shiftily, looking for easy pickings and fighting over washed up food waste, their speckled young boisterously demanding to be fed. Two adult gulls danced a circular dance at full stretch, stamping three-toed prints in the mud as each bird possessively gripped the river food in their beaks, seeking to rip from the other the sinewy oyster that stretched as they tugged.
The stronger gull prised the oyster away, swiftly gulped it down and flew up to a high vantage point on a channel marker above the mudflat. It raised its head, puffed its breast and raucously proclaimed its success to the seagull world.
A few yards along the beach, a man’s body lay partly submerged just below the strandline. It was swollen and bashed from the undercurrents. The head rocked gently from side to side in the wavelets. A barge laden low in the water passed on the far side of the river, its engine drumming steadily. The wash from the boat reached the mudflat. The body lifted and sank back, briefly turning full face to the sky as the head lolled on the wave. One misty eye stared out unseeingly. The other displayed a raw empty socket, drilled out by the bird for its gristly meal.
The body was also missing its hands.