The house prayed on our nerves. Mary and I fought and bickered continuously. We all fell into a depression. Perhaps it was just the mildew and the bad air from the gaslight which flickered disconcertingly. We had to crack every window open to be safe but that made the place still more damp as fog crept in. Willie started having more and more bad dreams and Charlie resumed sucking his thumb which Father had cured him of. Alex started to stutter worse and worse. Mother became ever more hysterically religious. Her temper, always fiery, became ever more so. She took to beating us with her belt. She always used to strike us or slap us or yank our ears before. Because Father was a Quaker he disapproved of corporal punishment. So Mother by default was the disciplinarian of the family. But she had never before flogged us. Now she raved ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ as she flogged us. It was as if the house oozed blackness.
I had smuggled Father’s fishing rods to our new home however. It was all we had left of Father after all. So some days we would go and set on the edge of the industrial canal and pretend to fish among the garbage and rotting corpses of dead dogs and rats. One day a nice man stopped and watched us pretend to fish. Mary said very loudly “We are not allowed to talk to strangers!” in that pompous voice of hers.
The man grinned. He was perhaps in his early thirties but he seemed quite pleasant. Genteel. The clothes. The clothes make the man. “Quite right Little Missy! So let me introduce myself! I am Charlie Rose.”
How do you do” I replied because Mary was wearing her lemon face. “I am John and this is Mary and this is Alex and Willie and Charlie.” The babies waved. Charlie paused from sucking his thumb to wave too.
Charlie Rose then pulled something out of vest pocket. It was a calling card. “Here is my calling card Mary. Now that we are introduced can we shake hands?” Mary made her lemon face so Charlie shook every other grimy hand instead. Then Mary felt left out and she held out her hand to shake hands. Charlie then suggested baiting the hooks with something better than air. I had to confess to him we were just pretending to fish because Father was dead and we did not have anyone to bait our hooks for us – —- or even getting bait. Charlie sat down on the dirt by the industrial canal and watched us fish. He seemed very nice. After a while he said “why not come fishing with me tomorrow? I know a spot further along that actually has fish and I can bring some bait.”
“Mother would not approve!” Mary sniffed. But I felt oddly comfortable around Charlie. Very much so. It was odd but I felt oddly safe in fact. So I said “Why not?” The next day we trotted to the industrial canal and Charlie was not there.
“Told ya!” Mary sneered. We are crumbled. We were so sure we had a friend…