Title: The Best You Can
Rating R (For horribleness.)
Word Count 1040
I don't know why I am preoccupied with Simpson. I would rather not think about him at all, but it sometimes seems as if writing is like digging through a bucket of things, you cannot get to the bottom until you deal with the top. This was on top of kinder things. I hope it will leave me alone now.
This little story involves bad luck, and some pretty severe child neglect. It is an ugly piece of work.
July 1774, London
Daniel Barrow held his hand out. His voice was oddly clenched, he was trying to speak without breathing.
“Ah, God, It stinks-- Christ, give me the key.”
Mrs Viola Greene pushed her handkerchief against her face. It did not help much. She felt the thin drool filling her mouth. She swallowed helplessly. She was not going to puke, she was not. She fumbled the key over with her free hand.
“Key's no good. There's already one broken off in there, see?” He took a few steps back.
“But I I think I can—Unf”
He came forward. His booted foot hit the door just beside the lock. The wood flew back, in three pieces.
The smell was worse, and now she could hear the heavy sound of flies.
“She never brought me the rent this week. Never late before. I thought she was just-- “
The light from the window was diffuse. It trickled past the sag of curtain. Most of the light was blocked by a cheap wardrobe. There was a narrow bed. The bed had a monster on it. The monster had been a woman once. Her hands and feet were still almost human looking, but her face was blackened and swollen, and her teeth bared by her shriveled snarl. The flies rose reluctantly. A puddle of black liquid had formed beneath the bed, the flies were feasting there too.
There was a plate balanced on the edge of the bed. Something on it, toast? And now, coming closer, Viola could see a cup of tea, scummed with film, tucked against the body. Breakfast in bed, Viola thought. And that is when she did puke. Dimly she heard the man saying that it was probably best to take the bed and all out the door. Better not to to touch, the -- thing-- might explode. Dimly, she nodded.
She almost didn't hear it. She almost missed it, and that was the thing that stayed with her in later years, that curled her toes with horror when she woke in the dark.
It was a small sound, smaller than the heavy flies, disturbed now in their doings. It was smaller than her own breathing. It was coming from the wardrobe.
It was dark inside, even when she opened the door. There was one calico dress on a hook, one pair of shoes. And now a new smell-- urine.
He was curled so small that she thought he was dead too. His eyes were sunken, his fingers in his mouth. He was small, his bones were sharp. His size said two or three, but his little face was strangely aged. She thought he must be older.
“She won't eat it.” He whispered.
His eyes did not meet hers as she lifted him. His little body was rigid. She had to hold him like a board.
“Mummy.” He said once, just once, as she carried him away.
He did not speak again for 2 days.
She heated water in the clothes kettle, and washed him. He stood like a statue, motionless, speechless. He still did not meet her eyes. When she spoke-- trying to be kind-- he looked at her hands or her mouth. The dirt ran away, until he was standing in black water. His skin stretched tightly over his narrow bones. His hair was fine yellow straw. He shivered slightly, but did not seem aware or troubled by his nakedness. She wrapped him up in a shirt that fell to his knees and covered his hands.
He ate what she put before him. Porridge. He sat at the table, with one arm embracing his bowl. He leaned forward over it, and worked the spoon as fast as he could go. She gave him more. He ate that with equal speed. “That is enough now--” She said. “Don't want a tummy ache.” He looked at her hands as she spoke. His expression was remote and slightly puzzled. She felt ridiculous.
She made a pallet for him, in the corner of her room. He did not question. He went there, when told, and he stayed there. And he wet the bed. This did not seem to trouble him. She woke to find him soaked, stinking, silent, in the morning light.
Again she washed him. This time she had to haul water from the pump to wash the sheets and blanket too. He used the pot during the day without prompting, so she knew he could do that.
Mr Barrow had come back with three of his sons. They had gotten the bed and the contents out, and opened the small window. Miss Simpson would go to potters field. Her son was left behind, like the black stain on the floor.
On the second night he went to bed when told. She lay awake. Barrow had come by, in the morning. They had talked, quiet as they could on the step.
“I didn't know she had a kid,” Viola said. “I suppose she thought I'd charge her more. God--” She shuddered afresh. “What kind of boy never makes a sound?”
Neither of then knew what to say about that. And what kind of boy would he be, after sitting 4 days with that thing? Viola stared at the ceiling. She didn't know the answer to that one either.
The next morning was the same, the silent boy, the acrid heavy bedding. She cleaned him in her own silence, her pity streaked with anger. This time he moved to the table without prompting. When she had the bowl ready she moved close, but held it back. He watched it, at least, attentively.
“What is your name?”Viola asked. He looked at her mouth, his brow creased. His lips whitened, pressed. “I need to know your name.” She repeated. “I'll give you the food if you tell me your name.”
His mouth opened. His voice was a wintery whisper. “Johnny.” He said. He reached for the bowl and she gave it to him.
That afternoon she brought him to the workhouse.