THE HOUSE ON HOPE STREET
“Oi look, there ’e goes! Come on! Tommy gun! Stinky bum! Tommy gun! Stinky bum! We’ll get you this time!”
The three of them were getting nearer. Tom darted down the alley by the pork butcher’s, but they followed.
“Stinky bum, stinky bum, we’re going to get you!”
Out into Hope Street and across to the darker side where a street light was out, dodging a van that chugged up the rise. That gave him a second or two. There were railings on his right, and some area steps leading into darkness. Tom stumbled down them and flattened himself against the wall, certain they’d seen him, that he’d be cornered when they came to get him.
“Which way’d ’e go?”
“’E can’t ’ave gone back up, we’d ’ave seen ’im.”
“Must’ve come down this way then. ’Is ’ouse is somewhere down Beeches Road.”
“Unless ’e’s ’iding in there.”
Tom shrank further into the shadow. Blood pounded in his skull, his breathing hurt and there was a raw taste in his throat. Any moment now they’d be down. But they were still arguing.
“Can’t be, little shrimp like ’im. ’E’d be too scared.”
“Bet you ’e’s down under those floorboards. Wish we ’ad a torch.”
“Na, no point looking. ’E’s gone ’ome.”
“You scared then, Georgie?”
“Wouldn’t catch me goin’ in there. Me dad says ’e’s seen rats this big on ’is way from nights.”
“Let’s go. ’E ain’t there. And me mam’ll ’ave tea ready.”
“Race you to the end!”
“Oi wait for me!”
Silence. Tom edged towards the steps, climbed halfway up, and peered into the street. An old man on a bicycle wobbled uphill, a lady pushed a pram on the opposite side; no one who’d take any notice of him. He reached the pavement and gazed up at the house that had saved him. There were no lights showing in the tall windows.
All the houses round here were big, mostly made into flats now like the one he lived in. You could usually tell by all the doorbells and the umatched curtains in the windows.
Even in the winter darkness this one seemed different. For one thing, it had proper railings, not just stumps where they’d been sawn off for the War. And it had a calm, settled feel, as if the people who lived in it had been there a long time. There’d be no doors slamming in the night as they came and went on shift work. Tom walked slowly downhill, shoulders hunched, feet scuffing at each step.
The flat was empty as usual. He found half a loaf in the bread bin and got down the bowl of dripping from the cupboard. He cut an uneven slice of bread and spread it with a thick layer of streaky brown fat, then folded it into a rough sandwich. Mam wouldn’t be back until ten at least, and he didn’t want to be here alone when Jim came in to get washed and changed. Clutching his tea, Tom went downstairs and knocked on Mrs Goldblum’s door. He’d heard her wireless on the way in.
“Ah, it’s little Tommy. I thought it must be you. Are they all out? Come in and get warm. Mind, Patch, let the boy sit down.” She pushed the aged fox terrier off an armchair in front of the electric fire. Tom sank into plump cushions, and took a quick bite of his sandwich while Mrs Goldblum bustled off to her cupboard of a kitchen.
“I have some milk here. You like some Ovaltine, Tommy?”
“Oh yes please, if it isn’t any trouble.”
“Always so polite. And here, we have biscuits too. What is that you have in your hand, the bread and drippings? That is no good for a growing boy like you.”
“I was too hungry to look for anything else.” It was a fib, but a small one. The tin opener was hidden out of reach, and he didn’t know how to cook eggs like Mam sometimes made in the mornings. Anyway there’d be trouble if he did.
Tom finished his bread and tossed the last corner to Patch, who caught it neatly as Mrs Goldblum came in with the tray. The old lady clicked her tongue.
“You spoil that dog! He is fat enough already, not like you, Tommy.”
She set the tray on a polished table between the two chairs and handed Tom a mug.
“Help yourself to biscuits. They are your favourites, I think.”
She poured herself a cup of tea and sat down.
“So what have you been doing today?”
“Oh, er, the usual things. But I came home a different way, down Hope Street. There was this house I hadn’t noticed before, up near the top end. It’s got railings outside and it seemed..... sort of posh.”
“I have not seen such a house. I take Patch up that way in the mornings, and I cannot recall any railings. I put him on the lead always, I am afraid he will go onto the bombsite after rats and get himself trapped.”
“I didn’t see a bombsite. But it was dark, one of the street lights wasn’t working.”
“It is up near the top of the road too, but you must not go there, it is dangerous. There are old rotten floorboards, and part of the walls, but they are collapsing.”
A shiver ran down Tom’s back as he remembered hiding from the three older boys. But he was safe now, and he had a plan to avoid them tomorrow. He blew the top of his Ovaltine and took a sip. Mrs Goldblum turned the wireless up in time for Children’s Hour.
“You have only taken one biscuit, Tommy. They are all for you. Eat up, then you will grow big and strong.”
It was after seven when Tom finally crept back into the flat. He smelled something sharp, like lemons and spice, above the stale tobacco mustiness, but the place was empty. Jim must have gone out again already. Mam would be ages yet. Best go to bed. He was drowsy from Mrs Goldblum’s fire. If he kept his clothes on he’d stay warm. He’d used the lav downstairs so it would be all right.
Tom had a narrow room made by partitioning off one end of what had once been a drawing room. Mam and Jim had a wider bedroom made from the other end and the space between formed the family sitting room. It was dominated by Jim’s black and white radiogram, positioned across the window bay, partly hiding a wicker basket overflowing with laundry, a carpet sweeper and a folded ironing board propped against an angle of the bay.
The sheets were ice cold. Lying on his side Tom hugged himself, knees drawn up, and tried to ease into sleep by imagining he was back in his old bedroom. Tonight he needn’t be afraid to fall asleep. On nights when he hadn’t been downstairs he’d try to stay awake until Mam came in, when he could get up and cross the dark part of the landing to the lavatory. The monsters wouldn’t get him when she was there. Sometimes it worked. But sometimes he woke up to the cooling dampness, the stink that seeped into his clothes and his skin and made school misery once the bigger boys caught a whiff.
Tom still thought of the other place as ‘home’, the little house with Granny and Grandad where he’d lived as long as he could remember. Mam had come to see him on birthdays and at Christmas, bringing clothes and toys, always alone and always looking magazine-smart. He would run to the gate to meet her and she’d hug him, putting down all her bags on the path between the rose beds. She’d leave in time to catch the eight o’clock train.
Mostly though it had been him and Granny and Grandad, and the two cats, Tibbles and Tuppence. When he was five he’d gone to the school two streets away, Granny taking him each morning and waiting at the gate in the afternoon. She kept chickens in the back garden and grew vegetables, and Grandad worked in a factory making parts for big machines. He left before Tom got up and came home in time for six o’clock tea. On Sundays people came to tea, Uncle Ted and Auntie Doris or old friends of Granny’s from where she’d worked in the War when Mam was at school. Last summer they’d been to the Zoo, a long bus ride to Dudley. There’d been a lot of steps and Grandad had held Tom’s hand so his fingertips had felt the hard skin on Grandad’s palm. He remembered that more than the animals now.
At Easter Granny had called him into the front room. She’d told him about Mam getting married again, and how Mam wanted him to have a home with her now near big shops and a park with a paddling pool. Granny had helped him to pack a suitcase with his clothes and One Eyed Ted. The other toys would be there for when he came to stay, because they’d be too much to carry. Next day Mam came, all dressed up as usual but without presents. They caught a bus to the station then a train and then another bus to just down the road from this house.
Tom had started at the school at the end of Marchmont Road, sitting in a green-painted room doing sums and spellings, until Miss found that he knew them already and he was sent to the other building across the yard where he was the youngest by a lot. Lessons were all right but playtimes were horrible. Then the trouble after school had started, just following and names at first but now it got dark early it was worse.
He hadn’t been back to visit Granny and Grandad yet. Jim’s van was always full of stuff, and Mam was too tired for buses and trains by the weekend. Jim took her out in the van on weekend evenings. They’d come back in the morning, Mam pale and puffy under her make-up. Tom stayed in his room until he heard Jim slam into their bedroom, then he’d creep out and go to play on the big bombsite three doors down where it was safe except for nettles in one corner. In the summer holidays he’d made a camp with bits of wood and planned to run away to live there. He’d taken slices of bread and hidden them in a biscuit tin behind the nettles ready for his escape, but it had rained for a week and then school started again. The lid had rusted onto the tin so the bread was still there.
As soon as school finished next day Tom grabbed his jacket from the cloakroom and sped through the door, then turned sharply, stooped below the window sill, and scuttled along to where the brick casing for the coal stove jutted into the yard. He sidled round this and crouched against the classroom wall, ears tuned to the shouting and jostling, the scraping of chairs and clomp of shoes.
When his legs were starting to hurt from crouching Tom crept back to the cloakroom door. No sign of the big boys. Still cautious, he walked through the school gates and into the street. He’d done it!
Not wanting to risk catching up with the others, he strolled past the hardware shop with its window display of screws, washers and hinges arranged in a star, the pork butcher’s with loops of polony and black pudding, the newsagent on the corner where dead flies lay among the sweet jars, then left into Hope Street. He crossed at the same place as yesterday.
The iron gate at the top of the area steps was closed, and light streamed from the window as Tom peered through the railings. He could see an orangey-brown carpet and part of a big table. A miniature railway track ran along the edge, with an engine and some carriages lined up ready to go. No one seemed to be in the room. Perhaps they’d gone for their tea, and would come back later to play. He longed to wait and see the train move, but it was cold and had started drizzling.
Mrs Goldblum was busy at the sewing machine altering something for an important customer, but she stopped work to get Tom Ovaltine and biscuits. She was full of stories about the fine dresses she’d made years ago, before she’d had to come to England with her sick husband. Tom forgot to tell her about the house, only later he wondered if the people in it would wear the kind of clothes Mrs Goldblum used to make. He fell asleep picturing their bright colours.
The next afternoon it was pouring so Tom ran all the way from school without being followed, but by Thursday the sky had cleared and the pavements twinkled. The plan worked again, and this time as he crossed Hope Street a light came on in a window overlooking the street. Before he could catch a glimpse of the room a lady appeared, reaching out to pull the dark-coloured curtains together. She had a kind, oval-shaped face. She paused for a moment, as if she’d seen him standing there. Then she drew the curtains with a quick, smooth movement that left him feeling alone in the frosty street.
Friday was the last day of term so school finished early. Tom thought he heard the front door click shut as he walked past the house, but there was no other sign of life. Disappointed, he walked on towards the High Street. The shops were full of people and he couldn’t see much beyond the bags and elbows. He wanted to get a Christmas present for Mam but had no money. Grandad always took him out to get a little present for Mam at Christmas and her birthday. Maybe Mrs Goldblum would help him.
When he got to their house Jim’s van was parked outside. Music was playing in the flat, loud like Saturday afternoons when Jim went to the shop for a bottle. Tom halted on the landing. The door was open and he could hear Jim slamming and banging cupboards and drawers, muttering to himself as he ransacked their home like a burglar. He was about to tiptoe downstairs again when he heard Mam’s voice above the din. He edged towards the sitting room.
“No, Jim, no! Don’t touch that. Please don’t touch that.”
She was sobbing. China smashed and Mam screamed.
“No, it’s for Tommy, please!”
“So that’s it, you bitch!” Jim’s voice was thick and blurry.
A slap and a stifled moan. Tom rushed into the flat and charged head down at Jim where he stood in the middle of the sitting room. Caught off guard he reeled back against the radiogram and the needle screeched across the grooves. Mam was on the settee, fingers spread over her face. Blood oozed between them. The carpet was covered with ten shilling notes and fragments of china.
“You little runt! You’re as bad as her!” Jim flung Tom at his mother, who put both arms round him as blood from her nose dried on the front of her work dress.
Jim was on all fours now, scrabbling for the money.
“Look at this, twenty pounds at least! And you swearing you handed over everything you got!”
“It’s for Tommy! You can’t have it! You can’t have it!” Mam sobbed as she held Tom on her lap and rocked him like a baby.
Jim stuffed the notes into his pocket.
“Come on, you bitch, get cleaned up and do your face. We’re going out tonight. You’re going to make up for this.” He pulled at both her arms but Mam clung to Tom more tightly.
“Let go or you’ll both get a hiding!”
Mam’s hold loosened and Tom scrambled sideways. She stood, swaying slightly.
“I can’t Jim, I just can’t. I told you, I’m feeling really rough.”
“Don’t give me that! Go and get yourself ready. And shut that brat in his room. I can’t stand the way he looks at me.”
Long after it had gone quiet, Tom lay on his back staring into the darkness. He saw Mam’s white face covered with blood. He tried to draw a curtain across but it wouldn’t work. Mam had been stuffing ten shilling notes into the neck of that vase for him, so he could go home. And now Jim had it all. His eyes stung and his stomach ached with hunger. Sitting up, he switched on the bedside lamp. He laced his shoes and put on his jacket. It would be really cold outside, but he wasn’t going far. He tucked One Eyed Ted under his jacket.
The door was opened by the kind-faced lady.
“Hello Tom, I’m so glad you could come tonight. Everything’s ready for you.” Her voice was low and musical.
Tom stepped past her into the warmth and light.
On Christmas Eve Rosa Goldblum took Patch out earlier than usual. Frosty air made the dog silly, running round her barking like a puppy, then scampering off to explore doorways. As they neared the end of the street she called “Patch, come her! Here, Patch!” but he only circled her and bounded off again before she could clip the lead to his collar. He stopped at the edge of the derelict site, whining, looking up at her, then across at the crumbling corner wall. Someone had left a pile of old clothes there. Patch approached it on stiff legs, then shrank back and whimpered. Mrs Goldblum gave a sharp cry and struggled over the rubble, skirting the caved-in floor, to where Tom lay, his thin face serene, one hand under his frozen cheek as though he slept.