Today's guest writer is Steven R Roberts with ann excerpt from his book, A Freak's Journey, The Life and Times of a Six-Year Old Circus Runaway.
The Borough of Islington
Jimmy ran full speed toward the other three, looking back over his shoulder with full fright on his face and crying “No, No!” Five feet short of the group he tripped and fell, rolling into Max, his teacher. At eight-years-old, Max, a skinny kid living most of the time on the streets, was as close to a father figure as Jimmy had known. For the final bit Jimmy looked up with his wide eyes, brushed his long mop of brown locks out of his eyes and said, “So very sorry, Sir.”
“Blimey, Jimmy, you’ve got to put more spit into the game,” Max said to his young foil. “Let’s see your lower lip quiver when you look up at the target. London streets is ripe with targets but ya’ gotta sell your soul in this bit, Jimmy, or it bloody-well won’t work a lick. I’m not lookin’ for anythin’ queer here me boy just sweet innocent fear in those soft black eyes.” Max, with his dirty yellow hat sitting back on his head, was exasperated at the results of his first training lesson with six-year-old Jimmy, the gang’s newest recruit.
James Northway Stockley was born in the near north side slum of London known as Islington. He and his mother Renee lived in a tiny one-room apartment on the third floor of a building on Childerditch Lane just off Liverpool Road. The four-story buildings stood in long rows close to each other each apartment had one small window for ventilation. Landlords were taxed per window. Typical for 1880s London, the apartments in their block had no water and no toilet facilities. Renee carried water from a pump located about 150 meters down the street from their building. There were pumps located all over London in those days and they were open only certain times and certain days. Lines were typically long at the pumps to fill the families’ pots and jugs. Families who ran out of water while the pumps were closed had to use the water in the rivers, which were also depositories for the neighborhood’s garbage and human “dung.”
Because the latrines on the ground floor of the building were dank and putrid, most upper floor residents kept a copper chamber pot in the corner of the room. When the pot filled for a day or two and the smell in the apartment became unbearable, it was emptied out the window. Richard II, who had become King of England back in 1377 at age 10, later issued a writ that, “no one is to dump dung.” Further, there were penalties, still in effect, for hitting a person with anything, especially dung, thrown from a window. It seemed such restrictions only encouraged tenement dwellers. By the end of the day the streets below the tenement windows were ankle deep in human waste and ripe until the next rain washed it down the gutters toward the rivers. The appearance of the buildings suffered in that a yellowish brown stain quickly developed below each window. Apartment dwellers kept their windows closed despite the occasional hot day to avoid dung spilling in from above.
Jimmy’s mother worked afternoons and nights as a prostitute walking the streets bordering the boroughs of Islington and Heringey, where she competed with women stationed on several other street corners. Jimmy’s first memories of his mother were of her wearing pretty dresses and sparkly bracelets with her blonde hair pulled back and tied, running down her back. He remembered her ruddy complexion and sad loving eyes as she got ready for work. On many nights there were no customers in their dark district but she needed to be there just in case.
“Come to Mommy, Jim Bo,” she whispered as the toddler ate stale bread she’d found thrown out the back door of the bakery. Jimmy looking around the table for more. “Things will be better, Jim Bo, just you wait and see.” In those early years, Renee worked from 3 to 5 pm with Jim in her arms, then took a two-hour break to fix dinner. Before reporting back to the corner, she wrapped her son in a blanket and rocked him in a chair that didn’t rock, gently smoothing his little brown infant curls. Renee spit on her fingers and cleaned her son’s face of the grime of the day. She sang him to sleep with a lullaby, a fantasy of unrealistic hope. Somehow it had been very real when her mother had sung it to her many years before. Jimmy grinned, looking up into his mother’s eyes as she rocked and whispered the song more than sang it.
Curly Locks, Curly Locks
Wilt thou be mine
Thou shalt not wash dishes, nor feed the swine
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam
And feast upon strawberries, sugar and cream
Renee sang it again with tears slowly ruining her heavy makeup. She placed her son in the top wooden drawer of a beat-up dresser that served as a bed before locking the door and leaving him in the apartment while she went to work. If the night went well, she’d be back a time or two, accompanied by a friend.
At three years old, James walked to work with his mommy in the afternoons and played along the streets while Renee sat on a broken bench with Sadie, a partner prostitute with dark orange hair. Sadie nursed her newborn baby girl, Marilyn, who she called “Pookie.” The baby, with a shock of wavy auburn hair and big blue eyes, was a happier miniature version of her mother. Sometimes one of Sadie’s regulars walked by and stopped to talk. James couldn’t hear what was said but a few minutes later Sadie stopped the feeding, slid her breast inside her blouse, and declared the baby fed. She stood and handed Pookie to Renee for a while as Sadie and the customer walked toward her flat. James sat down at his mother’s feet and played in the dust. Renee put the baby down next to her son.
The women worked in pairs so one could watch the children and hold the position if a customer showed up. Sometimes Renee would grab Jimmy’s hand and hurry behind the nearest building. Jimmy noticed that Sadie picked up Pookie and did the same as a black carriage rolled by on the rutted street. Renee mentioned to Sadie that the constable was getting to be a pest with his weekly patrols. Sadie didn’t say much because sometimes the constable winked at her and she walked away with the constable.
The girls were always on the lookout for fancy carriages with skinny-legged horses entering their street. Well-dressed gentlemen from the wealthier boroughs sometimes rode up in carriages providing the girls with a chance for income for the evening.
“Here comes a carriage, Mommy,” Jimmy said, as the women dozed, leaning into each other, back to back on the bench.
“How many in the team, Jimmy?” Renee asked, opening one eye then the other.
“Looks to be two horses, Mommy,” her son reported proudly.
“Come on Sadie,” Renee said. “Put the baby down and get up. This could be dinner for one of us.” As the carriage approached, the women stood, brushing back their hair, smoothing their dresses and smiling. The carriage passed by with a look of disdain from the dark occupant inside. Some days it seemed the rich had better things to do, and all the four souls on the corner got for their trouble was a smile and a wink from the driver.
A Freak's Journey is one of six books Steve has written, several of which are based on true stories in the action adventure genre.
More information can be found on Steve's book at www.steverroberts.com
In an 1890's London slum six-year old Jimmy Stockley is thrown out of his apartment while his mum services clients. Broken and confused, the boy runs away with a caravan circus. Jimmy takes to the circus life as he meets the circus owner's challenge to become a 'freak' of some kind to earn his keep. Along the way Jimmy falls for Caitlin the lion tamer's daughter but he is forced to run again to hide a personal secret and keep from being fed to the lions by Caitlin's disapproving father.