Chapter 1 Caught
Oy was slight, weakly, overlooked. He had thought himself some sort of ghost, till one day, when he was about seven (he guessed), someone saw him.
‘Oy, you,’ said the girl. Startled, he had slipped away, through a gap, into a yard, through a hole, into the innards of a half-collapsed shanty. There he survived on crumbs and smells until, some years later, he was seen again.
He was in the alley behind the bakery when the waif-catchers netted him. He fed daily on the smell of bread, letting the vapours swirl around his brain and conjure of themselves a high-risen floury loaf. He would seize it with his two hands, break open the crust, and inside would be fluffy and white with a puff of steam, and he would scoop out the new bread and eat. That warm salt vapour would feed his mind for hours, but his body did not know bread.
Only other children were fast enough to catch the waifs. It was popular sport and paid well. The Affland girls who flanked Oy were tall and strong, and so explosively alive that Oy could hear their blood thundering. His feet pedalled air as they carried him to the office of Mrs Rutheday.
‘We got another one for you,’ they said, lifting him onto a block so that he could be seen through the hole in the wall.
Mrs Rutheday turned showing her face. The wall had more feeling in it. She might have been scoured from stone, her mouth was a ruled line and her hair was like iron wire.
‘Family name?’ she asked. Oy was in shock like any wild thing when it is handled. He could only pluck at his rags and gape like a fish.
‘What is your surname?’ she asked again.
One of the girls poked him.
‘What does it mean?’ he said with effort. He had picked up some stilted language but it was strange in his mouth.
‘Your second name, noodle. It comes after your first.’
‘You,’ said Oy.
Yew, Mrs Rutheday wrote. ‘First name?’ she asked.
‘Oy,’ he said.
The girls spluttered.
‘You’ve caught us a joker,’ said Mrs Rutheday. Then she looked at his pale vacant eyes. ‘No, there’s not enough brains in there to joke with. Oy Yew it is then. What is that thing he’s wearing?’
‘Old flour sack, ma’am.’
‘Alright, take him up.’
They pushed him into a room so long that its eight rows of benches disappeared to a point. Behind every work station sat a child, and each child was possessed of a pair of eyes, and each pair of eyes looked at him.
‘Who wants this one?’ shouted the eldest of the two girls.
There was no answer.
‘Name of Oy Yew,’ said the other girl to breaking laughter.
A faint, croaky voice came from somewhere far down the hall: ‘Here, he can sit here.’
The girls craned to where a shy hand waved and shoved Oy towards it. Oy fixed his eyes on the fuzzy, white head of Linnet Pale and stumbled down the aisle.
So Oy went to bench 54, to sit by Linnet, and to be trained by her in assembly. They had no idea what it was they assembled, only that they strained their eyes over sixteen tiny screws, and that the part thus assembled was passed on to the next bench, and from there to the next, till the thing was much increased in size, whereupon it was loaded onto trolleys and taken through the arches where there were flashing lights and sparks and a smell of burning rubber.
Linnet had no pigments in her skin or hair except for a stain on her temple. The other waifs said it was the hole where all her colour leaked out. Oy thought she was perfect. At first he was alarmed to have someone evidently seeing him, constantly speaking to him and even caring to know what was in his head. Once he got used to it though, it was exciting. It unsettled and warmed his insides, this business of having a friend.
To start with the conversation was all one way. What language Oy had was buried deep. He had always thought in pictures, pictures as vivid as life, but with Linnet’s help he began to speak. Neither had known there was so much to say. Oy especially, as he learned more and more words, had seven or eight or nine years (who knew) of thoughts all stored up for telling.
The talk fell naturally into the great rhythm of the factory.
‘Where did you come from?’ asked Oy, his voice climbing above the tapping of a hundred little hammers in the rows behind them.
‘To begin with? I came from Poria on a raft, of course.’ Linnet shouted over the strikes and clattering.
‘What a raft?’ Oy shouted back.
Linnet looked puzzled. ‘You know, a flat boat. Sometimes it’s just a few logs tied together. We’re all raft-children aren’t we? Can’t you remember? You were too little I expect. On fair days the beaches were all dotted with seeing-off parties. All the way down the coast you could see them, loading the rafts with spares like us. It’s not something you forget easy, sitting on that bit of wood, and all that mass and slap of water and the sea smell, and your family getting smaller and smaller as you’re sucked away and away, all the way down here to Affland – that’s if you don’t drown first.’
Oy stared at her with wide, empty eyes.
Linnet leaned towards him. ‘Are you listening?’ She looked into his eyes then pulled back fearfully. ‘You was more than listening. You was right inside my head.’
‘Is it wrong?’
‘Not really. I just ain’t been listened to quite like that before.’ She shot him little sideways glances, then smiled. ‘Go on, tell about what you ’member.’
‘I can’t remember no sea trip,’ Oy replied. ‘I can’t ’member nothing before the bakery. I just sprout there, like weed I think – live off crumbs and sour dough slung out back. I watch and hear through windows and in the alley but no one sees me. So I wonder what I am. Am I a ghost p’raps?’
‘That’s silly,’ Linnet giggled.
Oy had always wanted to try laughing, so he copied her. This tickled Linnet even more. Then the noise from the steam room swelled and swallowed all.
At night in the waif sheds, while others slept, they talked on, as though they knew their time was short.
‘Tell me about your home in Poria. Why did you have to leave?’ Oy asked.
‘Us Porians, we generally don’t talk too much about that.’
‘You weren’t to know. Oh, I’ll tell you anyway. My family…’
‘What a family?’
The boy in the next floor space twitched and pulled his blanket over his head.
She lowered her voice to a croaky whisper. ‘My family kept me for as long as they could, but I was always expecting to be sent away. I knew it was my time when the harvest failed second year running and then my mother’s belly started to swell…’ Oy looked confused. ‘With a baby – that’s a sign a woman’s going to have a baby. That’s when my father started to build a raft.’
‘Did it make you very sad?’
Linnet shrugged. ‘Ain’t no point being sad about what can’t be helped.’
Like a duckling that takes for its mother the first object it sees, Oy took for his friend the first person to really see him. The endless assembling, all the endless hours of endless days, did not bother him. Hunger and hardship were only what he’d been used to, but now everything was shared, and that put a shine on it. Linnet was just as pleased. She had only ever been looked down on, never looked up to.
‘Linnet,’ said Oy, some weeks later, ‘if I am a person do you think I had a mother?’
‘Yes, you must have had a mother, just like I had, even if it wasn’t for long.’
‘Do you think she forgot about me then, put me down somewhere and never bothered to pick me up again?’
‘No, there’ll be more to it than that.’
Linnet patted Oy’s arm. Oy hadn’t been patted before. He looked at his arm curiously, then started. He felt three sharp knocks on his backbone and cold metal pressed to the corner of his mouth.
‘Poker faces, poker backs.’ Mrs Rutheday looked down at him.
She had no expression. She could not read expressions, so she hated to see them, especially smiles. In fact she did not like curves of any sort.
‘Are you making your quotas with all this chatter?’ Her voice was grittier than the sanders.
Oy tried to answer but found that he had forgotten how.
‘Yes’m,’ Linnet butted in, ‘we’ve never missed.’
‘Mr Gurney had better raise them then, if you’ve got leisure to talk.’ All the time she appraised Oy, making him want to hide. ‘Stand,’ she ordered. Oy stood. She tipped her head. ‘You’ll do. He likes them small for the house. Be ready at six tomorrow for the cart to Duldred.’ Linnet began rising from her seat in protest, but Mrs Rutheday’s frozen face weighed her down again. ‘What, you want to go too? Attached to this one are you? None of you lot are pretty but the master wouldn’t want anything as plain freakish as you at the house.’ She turned to Oy. ‘Mind what I say. Front gates, hour of six.’ Mrs Rutheday moved away, knocking kinks out of spines with her poker as she passed between the benches.
Linnet sat back staring at her hands.
‘What did she mean?’ asked Oy.
‘You’re being sent to the big house, to be a house servant for Master Jeopardine.’
‘Is it near?’
The noise from the steam room grew loud again. Linnet shouted. ‘Fifteen miles or more. But not allowed out. Like here. Work, sleep, work, sleep.’
For the rest of the day they chose their words carefully, knowing that there were few left to them. That night, as they found their spaces under the high windows of the waif shed, their faces were passive but their eyes were busy storing friendship.