Sometimes at night, Samuel Fiddes resurrected his fading memories of being wanted. His mother's soft touch, her tired, insistent goodness, his father's patience as he showed Samuel how to cut a straight angle, lay a shiplap, sand a recalcitrant plank. He dreamed of his parents long after the memory of their faces blurred into oblivion.
But upon rising, Samuel remembered, and girded himself for the day ahead.
On this cold autumn morning, he brushed his sister's strawberry red hair from her cheek. She lay sleeping on a makeshift mattress made of straw he had pilfered from the city stables.
"Alison," he whispered, tucking a strand of her hair behind one ear. "Wake up, wee one."
Alison wasn't stirring. Exhausted five-year-old girls, Samuel had learned, could sleep through anything. The others slept on, their bodies still as ghosts. Samuel and Alison shared this airless tenement room on Argyle Street with five people: three sisters awaiting word and money from their brother in America, and an anguished couple whose infant son had died the previous winter from some mysterious pestilence. Everyone kept to themselves, guarding their meager possessions with the tenacity of the needy. At six-by-six meters, there was barely enough room for everyone. The square-cut stone walls wept with cold, and on this late September morning, the oncoming Scottish winter threatened a premature appearance. Samuel dreaded the thought. Glaswegian winters could be arctic terrors.
"Wake up, Ali, it's Sunday. We can't miss kirk."
Alison's eyes fluttered open. She was an ethereal sort of child, all cheekbones and skinny limbs, with a pointed chin and that cascade of russet hair.
"Will the kirk ladies have food for us again?" she said.
"I certainly hope so."
She sat up and rubbed her eyes. As always, Alison had slept in her clothes: her black uniform dress, dingy white smock, and the woolen jumper he had bargained for last week from a shop on Finnieston Quay, shoveling their coal delivery in exchange for the jumper. Her woolen coat doubled as a blanket. Samuel feared he didn't know half of what he ought to know to take care of her. She looked a mess. Her face and dress were smudged with dirt, her fine hair was tangled with straw, and she'd recently lost her comb. But more worrisome, over the past few months her skin had turned sallow with a rapidity that had shocked him.
Samuel pulled her onto his lap, and she balanced on his legs, light as a bird. They hunkered by the lifeless stove, sharing a heel of stale bread and eating leftover porridge they'd cooked the night before. In July, when they had fled Smyllum Park Orphanage for Glasgow, they'd slept under a clump of bushes at the eastern end of the green, away from the bustle of the Saltmarket and the confusion of the river quays. The annual fair was on, and the lurid carnival shows featured desiccated mummies and the fattest man alive and even an Indian sword-swallower. They bathed doon the water in the River Clyde because they didn't have money for the public washhouse, and ate meat pies and potato scones and bowls of Cullen skink he filched from the fair booths. When the fair closed, Samuel was forced to branch out, foraging near the Saltmarket, and occasionally begging at the giant cathedral gates and the Trongate. He even ventured to the houses near the dank close where his family had once lived, but he didn't know anyone anymore. In August, he got a job shoveling coal at the Govan Shipbuilding Yard and they'd moved into this damp cell. Alison worked doffing bobbins and spindles at the Wilkie textile factory in Calton. Only young children were small enough to fit underneath and in between the great looming machines to change out spent spinners for new. Every night, she came home covered in tufts of wool. Their combined wages almost kept them in food.
Alison nibbled her chunk of bread slowly, in that way she did when she wanted it to last. Five years ago, when their parents and siblings died of diphtheria and the parish council committed them to the orphanage, Samuel was twelve, but Alison was just an infant. In their five years there, sustained on solid Catholic fare, Samuel forgot the gnawing hunger of his early childhood, though other cruelties took its place. His memories of starvation faded. Until this past July, Alison had never known hunger. Now she was hungry all the time. Recently, though, she had stopped complaining, a worrisome sign. Last night, Samuel had consulted the contents of his pockets. Money enough for three days' food, but it was six days until he would be paid. There would be food at church today, but after that, he would have to ration. Again.
Samuel stroked Alison's hair, knowing it comforted her. "Do you want to go back to Smyllum, wee one? I'll take you back if you want. You'd be warm there, and there'd be plenty to eat. You'd have a bed. You could go to school."
When the nuns expelled Samuel from the orphanage, he had taken Alison with him. Stolen might be more accurate, but he had refused to leave her behind, not after what they had done to her. Still, there were days when he feared he had made a terrible mistake.
Alison stopped eating as she considered. Samuel hoped she would tell him the truth so that he would know what to do, because he'd been trying so hard, and they were still in this wretched room on this wretched street, and he didn't know anything about anything.
His sister gazed at him with profound stillness. In the thin light, her blue eyes appeared gray.
"Everywhere is sad," she whispered. "I want to be with you."
Samuel exhaled. He vowed never to ask her again. No matter how hungry and cold they got, it was better to be together, better to fend for themselves.
"Kirk?" he said.
The wind was a dervish in the courtyard, and rain had collected in brown puddles around the privies. Samuel shed his coat as Alison danced beside him, trying to get warm. All the boys at the orphanage had worn the same black woolen coat of no distinguishing feature except warmth. At least the nuns hadn’t stinted on wool. Today, Samuel took extra care with his spit bath at the standpipe, digging under his fingernails as water ran over his blistered hands. But not even lye soap could conquer coal dust. It clung to everything and set up residence in every crevice of his body. There was only so much a cold bath from a spigot could do. And his clothes no longer fit. Manual labor had broadened his shoulders so that his shirt strained at the seams. His ankles showed from under his pants legs. At six feet, he was bigger than most men. Walking about Glasgow, he’d grown aware that sometimes women stopped and stared. The nuns had mocked the symmetry of his face, the locks of black hair curling around his forehead, his dark eyes. They tried to make little of his intellectual capabilities, too. Inmates of Smyllum were educated to be cobblers or farmers or domestic servants. But when Father Davis, who taught math, noticed Samuel’s aptitude, he insisted on tutoring Samuel privately in engineering and advanced math. Samuel believed the spiteful nuns would be pleased to learn that he had been reduced to shoveling coal in order to live.
He combed his fingers through Alison's hair, pulling out the last bits of straw, and then they hurried away from the gray streak of river along the Broomielaw, past the scaffolding surrounding the new train station, and up Pitt Street, the dun-colored buildings casting shadows onto the sidewalks. Rivers of humanity were going about their Sabbath, the wealthy warm and dry in their fine carriages, the poor afoot-squat mothers trailed by ragged children, rail-thin men scurrying past, clutching the lapels of their threadbare coats. Samuel and Alison trudged on. As always, they stopped in at the cemetery of the Presbyterian church to visit their family's graves, today laying only a handful of straw as tribute.
They climbed to the top of Pitt Street, where Samuel turned to survey the city, chilled and sullen on this gray day. From here, Glasgow's elegant George Square, the Trades House, and the city's many churches all cut away to the River Clyde. In Glasgow, all roads and desires led to the river, where the greatest industry of Glasgow prospered. Around the globe, the descriptor "Clyde Built" heralded shipbuilding excellence, and from Glasgow all the way out to the Firth of Clyde, men pounded rivets into iron skeletons, and ships miraculously rose from nothing.
It was Samuel's great desire to build ships. A hundred yards below the orphanage, at the base of the hill, had lain a shimmering loch. Samuel had often imagined it as a great sea, and that he lived on its shores in a stone cottage and built ships-fast, fleet things that could outrun memory.
"I'm cold," Alison said.
"Come on, then, let's go."
"Will that lass be at kirk?"
"The one you watch all the time."
Alison, Samuel thought, sighing, missed nothing.
At St. Vincent Street Church, a disapproving usher took one look at Samuel and Alison and herded them upstairs to join the rest of the poor in the gallery mezzanine. Samuel claimed a place in the front row overlooking the sanctuary floor, where the monied citizens of Glasgow milled about, greeting one another in hushed tones.
Even in such elevated company, the girl stood out. Today she wore her fitted blue coat, which he preferred to her others. Beautifully formed, trim, with a narrow waist and flared hips, the girl had a good-humored, plump, smiling face, with dimpled cheeks and pale, smooth skin. Untamed ringlets of thick black hair spilled from underneath her feathered hat. Maybe it was this unruliness that charmed him, or maybe it was that everything about her radiated happiness, but Samuel felt as if he had always been aware of her-as a dream conjured during the long years of his loneliness.
Her younger brother, clad in a tweed coat and shorts, younger than Alison by a year or two, climbed onto the pew beside the girl, and she corralled him with a laugh. Her father and mother were resplendent, he in top hat and tails, she in an elegant fur-collared dress. As the organist struck the first notes, the girl reached for her hymnal and glanced idly up, her wide-brimmed hat tilting back to reveal the fullness of her face, which lit with frank and startled pleasure when she caught Samuel staring at her. Before he could stop himself, Samuel raised one hand in salute. The girl blushed and turned away, fumbling with the pages of her hymnal, and didn't look up again for the rest of the service. Samuel could think of little else but her glance.
When the service ended, Alison hurried ahead of him to the assembly room, where the kirk ladies had spread today's charitable offering of two thick slabs of fatty, warm beef sandwiched between slices of buckwheat bread slathered with butter. Samuel helped Alison to one, and himself to another, and shooed her into a corner where they could eat unobserved. It was one thing to need charity, another to be on display, and he didn't want anyone to see how hungry he was. Around them, other charity recipients scarfed their sandwiches, too, but the wealthy segregated themselves on the other side of the hall, chatting over cups of tea and slices of gingerbread. Soon they would go home to a full dinner table, while Samuel and Alison would retreat to the indifferent shelter of their tenement. Samuel bit into the sandwich with pleasure. The last time he'd eaten meat this good was in the orphanage. Shutting his eyes, he let the fat melt on his tongue, relishing the savory taste of the beef, while Alison made little noises of pleasure.
As Samuel brushed bread crumbs from Alison's coat, word came that sunshine had broken through the dreich day. Members of the congregation, including the minister, still clad in his ecclesiastical robes, streamed out of the assembly room. Rather than going home, everyone lingered in the sunshine, chatting. A spontaneous football game erupted, a tricky endeavor given the steepness of the cross streets. Whenever a carriage passed, someone yelled, "Out the street," and the children scattered. Alison hopped puddles on the wide sidewalk with a group of girls. Samuel, basking in the sunshine, shed his coat and leaned against a lamppost, one eye on Alison and the other on the girl of the blue coat.
A group of people were listening to the girl's father talk about a town on the west coast of North America. A new city, he said, barely cut out of the wilderness, with coal in its hills, timber like weeds, and money for anyone who had half a notion how to make it.
"If you've a plan to invest, don't be coy," someone said. "Tell us everything."
The girl's little brother tugged at her arm, begging to play, and she released him with instructions to stay close. Samuel watched the boy edge farther and farther away, entranced by the exuberant players, until he had migrated to the middle of the street.
At first, no one heard the frantic cries of a runaway lorry careening down the cobbles from the heights of Pitt Street, its failed brakes smoldering, the horse struggling to keep pace, the whites of his eyes bared. Only the harness prevented the carriage from running the horse over. Casks of whisky sailed out of the wagon to crash onto the steep street, spraying amber liquid everywhere. The football players froze, then scattered, but the little boy went rigid, his frightened gaze fixed on the oncoming wagon.
Samuel bolted toward the boy and dove, scooping him into his arms and rolling out of the way just as the carriage caromed past. It rocketed down the street for several more blocks, scattering people and carriages until the road flattened out and the horse, still harnessed and whinnying in terror, veered onto the sidewalk. The cart overturned, smashing to atoms and throwing the driver onto the cobbles, finally tumbling to a dreadful, ear-crunching stop.
For one moment, the crash and the smashed whisky barrels and the football bouncing down Pitt Street absorbed everyone's attention. Then parishioners rushed toward Samuel, among them the boy's father, who snatched his son from Samuel's arms, crying, "Geordie, are you hurt, are you hurt?"
The boy broke out in a wail, overwhelmed by the attention, and buried his head in his father's shoulder.
Samuel felt only his pounding heart. The right sleeve of his shirt had torn at the shoulder, and his left elbow was scraped and bloody. His leg ached a little, but that was normal in this kind of weather.
Copyright © 2024 by Robin Oliveira. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.