It was a mercy when she jumped from the railway bridge. Her faded pink nightgown fluttered like an angel’s wings. She bounced off the windscreen of the 5.05 to Putney. Cartwheeling the last thirty feet and making a bigger splash in the Thames than she had ever made in her life. Dying as she’d lived - a Jane Doe label attached to her toe.
Boy, her four-year-old son, alone in the rented room they called home. It took two days before his hunger got too much. By then the scraps and crumbs were gone. He studied the mice. Tracking them to their nest. Swallowing the pink babies in one sitting. Mum and Dad were too quick and he switched to the cockroaches.
After five days Boy was so hungry he would have eaten the wallpaper. And no matter how long he knelt on the chair by the window his mother wasn’t coming home.
Late evening, the street darkened, and shadows flitted like moths along the pavement. He dragged the chair to the door and scrambled up. The worn Yale lock clicked and the door swung open.
The odour of urine invaded his nostrils. Cigarettes. Alcohol. Shapes squirmed in the dim light.
“Bugger off. Mind your own business.”
A bearded fat man grappled with Sheila from next door. She winked at Boy, eyeball motioning him to go back inside. He knew all about drunks. Jamming fingers in eyes and ears when they visited his mother. The grunting didn’t last long and he watched Sheila’s door close. Downstairs the bearded man urinated on the mat. He zipped up and stumbled out to the street. The front door opened and swung in the breeze.
Boy scrambled across the landing. Sliding and bouncing down the stairs. He was going to find Granny Martha . . .
The system found him first, a series of care homes and foster parents. The Social Services discovered his mother’s name amongst the debris of the one room he’d known as home. Boy now known as Daniel McAllister.
He whispered it to himself at night.
Daniel hopped between foster homes. In his teens joining Timothy Duffin and his wife Pam. They were a good match, the young couple devoted themselves to Daniel. Treated him like an adult.
Saturdays were the high spot of his week. Working on their fruit and vegetable stall in the high street. Pam smiled at Danny’s puberty-inspired voice mimicking her husband. “Come on laydeez don’t be shy. Lovely strawbs, one sixty a punnet. Two for three quid.”
Business picked up. Teenage girls wanted to check out Daniel and dragged their mothers to the stall. The mums and daughters were fascinated by Daniel’s dark hair and eyes as much as his Elvis Presley voice.
The trio arrived home after a busy Easter Saturday. Timothy was in the garage unloading the van. Pam and Daniel, in the kitchen. She looked up from the fridge and raised an eyebrow.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course. Let’s go in the garden.”
He nodded and Pam looked at the ceiling. Thank you, Lord. She’d known for days something troubled Daniel. He’s bothered about something she pillow-talked. Her husband suggested they give him time, “He’ll cough it up when he’s ready.”
They’d both grown to love this boy who’d once eaten cockroaches to survive. Describing them as crunchy, a bit like eating peanuts with the shell on. He didn’t remember much but enjoyed the look of horror when he embellished the tale. The middle bit juicier than peanuts.
In the garden, Pam sipped a Pepsi. A girlfriend? Something at college?
The silence dragged and Daniel fidgeted. She broke the silence, “We were busy today huh?”
Daniel gulped a mouthful of cola and spluttered when bubbles exploded from his nose.
“There’s this lady who comes every week. Same time, buys the same stuff.”
“No, she’s the three o clock. This one is earlier. Always squeezing the fruit.”
“Nice old dear, sad eyes?” Pam gazed at a tall oak tree that swayed in the breeze, “I don’t know her name. Why do you ask?”
“She reminds me of Granny Martha.”
“What does he want to do?”
It was 2.00 am and neither foster parent could sleep. Pam jiggled around for the umpteenth time. Her head propped on a scrunched-up pillow, “He doesn’t know what to do. He’s throwing ideas around.”
“Let’s see what a night’s sleep does,” Timothy never liked rushing things, “We’ve got a week before we see her again.”
Wednesday was curry night. Home-made and Daniel’s favourite. He sprinted home from sixth-form college. Timothy would be late and he had Pam to himself. Enjoying her companionship and discovering spices. Tonight they were making roti. He also had news.
“I’m going to ask her.”
Daniel watched Pam roll out the dough. Her mind, busy on a stock order, stopped dead. He’s got his eye on a girl!
“I’ll ask about her about my mum first. See if she knew her,” Daniel paced the kitchen. Nodding to himself while Pam tried to join the dots, “I’ll go round in a bit, don’t want to scare her. Start with something like, have you got any children?”
Not a girl then, but a sad-eyed old lady.
Pam gulped her tea. Leaving floury fingerprints on her favoured I’ve been to Brighton mug. She wasn’t so sure. There was only a thin veneer of confidence protecting this fragile boy.
“Morning ma’am, we’ve got lovely Satsumas. Sweet and juicy.”
Saturday morning at the market. Timothy took the lead with the old lady. Going round in a bit as Daniel suggested.
“Very popular for kids' lunchboxes. Full of vitamin C.” Pam joined in with a good-to-be-alive smile.
“You’re one of our favourite customers. Our first regular,” She fussed with the parsnips before catching the old lady’s eye, “I’m Pam.”
Her worn voice reminded Pam of faded denim. She had no desire for socialising but this family always left her feeling warmer.
“My husband is Timothy and this whippersnapper is Danny.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ma’am. I’m the whippersnapper. Their foster son.”
Daniel grinned at Pam and Mrs McAllister scrutinised the youngster, “That’s a nice name. Short for Daniel?”
He nodded, “My Nan called me Daniel unless she was singing to me.”
“She sang to you?”
His eyes fogged at a long-forgotten memory, “A song about lights shining.”
She frowned, “Can you sing it?”
Daniel hummed a few bars before singing - the lights, the lights are shining from glenty glen . . .
Pam rolled her eyes at her husband. Get him a song sheet. Our boy can sing!
Mrs McAllister's eyes lit up, “You mean Danny Boy.” The widow’s husband walked home from the pub on Friday nights. Belting this song out like he was auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent. She knew every word.
“Do you have any children?”
A shadow passed over the old lady’s face. Her eyelids dropped like window blinds and she shook her head. Daniel moved closer and took her hand, “Are you my Granny Martha?”
Six weeks after finding each other Granny Martha disappeared. Daniel was desolate. His anxious foster parents watched and Pam wished she was a believer. She would have begged the lord 24/7. The light in their foster son had gone out.
Two weeks with no news. A dog-walker found Granny Martha in the same stretch of water that claimed her daughter. The remains of a collapsed railway bridge formed a still pool. Anything floating in the river ended up there.
Daniel stood by the water’s edge. Staring at his reflection. Does this feeling ever go away? Will I ever be happy? Nan was nearby. Singing. The lights, the lights are shining from glenty glen . . .
His mother joined in. Their faces reflected from the water. Wanting in death what they’d never had in life. To be together.
“I’m coming,” Daniel whispered and the water closed over his head.
© Mick Shawyer