The rest of the afternoon wore on with an uncomfortable rising tension. When called on to read Finny did so resentfully. Her three companions around the little table slowly sank lower and lower in their seats. Finny’s growing sullen hostility to the lesson was acting like a lightning rod in the stormy sky of Joe’s impatience and they didn’t want to catch any stray bolts. When it was their turns to read, One Tooth, Casper and Worms would falter over their words, waiting for Joe’s patience to finally snap.
Fortunately for everyone in the claustrophobic office the ancient oven timer on Joe’s desk rattled into life and danced across the tea-stained surface before being crushed into silence by Joe’s frustration fuelled fist.
The headlong flight of the three boys drew attention from the factory floor below. However, this quickly shifted back along the walkway to the arms crossed, thin lipped measured stomp of a very pissed off Finny who followed them to the coat room.
One of the few pluses of being in Joe’s reading group was that there was nothing to clean up and put away at the end of the working day. Consequently the four youngest orphans employed in the factory always got back to the orphanage in time to be at the front of the queue for the first dinner serving. This time though, there would be one less around the junior table because Finny turned away from the orphanage at the other end of the street and headed towards the square instead. She was not in the mood for company and her footsteps led her along the still hot late afternoon sidewalk towards the familiar noises and smells she had known since she was little.
She climbed up onto the ledge of the office building that backed onto the side of the square where most of the daily activity took place, around the vaults and the auction block. As far as she was aware she was the youngest and smallest of the street kids to be able to manage the five metre climb, something that gave her all-important kudos amongst her peers. At a point directly above the vaults, Finny squatted down, wrapped her arms around her legs and planted her chin on her knees.
Aunty Onetit had given her the locket when she was four.
“Here, this was your Mom’s. It used to have a chain but I had to sell it for that potato you’re eating.” Aunty Onetit belched beery fumes into her face. “Now you look after it. Hide it and don’t show it to people or they’ll take it off you.” Aunty Onetit then went on to explain the difference between good hiding places and bad ones. To date Finny had yet to resort to the hiding place that involved a lot of spit.
But Finny did as she was told. She hid the locket well, kept moving it from hidey hole to hidey hole and only ever took it out when she was sure nobody could see. Inside the tarnished and dented silver locket was a picture of the woman Aunty Onetit told her was her mom. Behind a piece of scratched plastic on the underside of the lid was a lock of her mom’s bright blue hair. According to Aunty Onetit, her mom had been eaten by a bear. Finny just knew in her heart that her mom had fought the bear all the way down into its tummy.
Aunty Onetit had looked after her since Finny could remember. Until Aunty Onetit never came back one day. Then hunger had forced her and the half dozen or so other kids out of the crib they had been using and into the wider world. One by one the other kids went away until, at age five, Finny was fending for herself and honing her scavenging skills around domestic trash cans. That all changed when Crunchy found her and Finny had been introduced to gang life.
Not that being in a gang was any great improvement but at least she got to eat almost every day and, of course, there was safety in numbers. As a gang member, too, you learned stuff. You learned who was who. Who was safe and who wasn’t. Who would rip you off and who would rip you off worse. You learned how to keep watch for burglars and muggers as they went about their work. Two little kids singing a skipping song while they twirled rope outside of a house or shop didn’t attract attention… and if the song suddenly changed mid verse who was to say if they were tipping off the robbers or not? They were just kids.
Finny and her cohorts did other jobs too. Like delivering packages and posting leaflets. Crunchy was one of Joe Spivey’s ‘eyes’ and never out of work, which was good for the whole gang. Joe Spivey, though, was on the ‘definitely not safe list’. At least according to Crunchy. Also according to Crunchy Joe was known to ‘…tie kids up in a sack and drown ‘em and then feed their bodies to the hermit crabs.’ Stories like this, besides giving her and the other little kids nightmares, intrigued Finny. But it wasn’t until she was seven that her curiosity led to her first meeting with the man himself.
As she learned more and more about what Crunchy and the other ‘eyes’ did to earn their chips Finny’s curiosity in their boss grew. She started watching him, sometimes following him… and that led to the fateful day when she was grabbed by two bigger boys and dragged off with a grubby rag stifling her screams.
Finny had found herself in a urine smelling shipping container with two young teenage boys she didn’t know holding her arms tight enough to hurt. Crunchy always, always stressed the golden rule. ‘Never be by yourself.’ But she couldn’t very well do secret stuff like watching Spivey with someone else could she. Her regret, however, was curtailed by the arrival of another one of Joe’s ‘eye’s with Joe Spivey himself close behind.
“This better be bleedin’ good. I was halfway through…” Then Joe had stopped when he caught sight of her. “What the fu…”
“We caught her Joe. She’s been follerin’ you around. Watchin’ you for days.”
Finny’s head slowly tilted further and further back as Joe came closer. Then he was standing right over her, looking down. The boy on Finny’s right smirked.
“Shall I get a sack?”
Finny almost wet herself then.
Joe turned to him. He had a look on his face that Finny might have recognised if she had ever gone to school and had a teacher who was close to retirement. Tired resignation.
“What? Sack? Nooo, don’t be such a… let go of her, both of you. She’s scared to death already.”
Finny’s arms were released and she crossed her arms to rub at the vivid red marks where their hands had squeezed. She gritted her teeth and stared unblinkingly up into the stubbly face of the kid drowner, daring the tears to come.
Joe had squatted down in front of her then.
“Have you been following me?”
Finny nodded slowly. No point in lying about it.
“You’re too young to shrug like that. How old are you?”
Finny hadn’t understood what he meant but answered anyway.
“Seven.” Joe had looked away and muttered “Jesus Christ” under his breath before turning back to look her squarely in her eyes.
“Look kid. I’m going to let you go okay.”
Finny almost let a sob of relief escape then but managed to hold it in. Instead she just started to shake. Then Joe had said something else.
“Before I do though I’m going to ask you a question. Now, you can lie if you want and I’ll still let you go. But I want you to understand that IF you do lie to me then I WILL find out. And that won’t be good for you. Okay?”
Finny nodded again and Joe had smiled at her.
“Okay then. Now, did someone ask you to follow me?”
Finny shook her head and even managed to squeak out a “No!”
Then Joe had stood up.
“Okay. Now beat it.”
Finny had run all the way back to the safety of the gang. The following day a Union sweep had raided the gang’s crib. The bigger kids had gotten away. But for Finny and a couple of others that day was to be their introduction to life in the orphanage.