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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Tom Blake
Tom Blake
by Tim Verger

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The small whimpering cry was entirely lost amidst the miasma of sounds and smells that pervaded the solidity of darkness surrounding the small limp body lying huddled in the corner of this most inhospitable of chambers. A sudden shriek followed immediately by an incessant cackling noise caused the minutest of movement in the ragbag hiding away in what he hoped was the deepest recess. A movement of something across his unshod foot caused a semi-voluntary kick, which resulted in a brown rat emitting a loud noise of complaint as it was unceremoniously and violently propelled into a wall, a foot or so from the wasted body it had chosen to nibble at. The rat scurried away, presumably in search for a less aggressive meal.

The small form was under no illusion; either that same rodent or another one with similar appetites would be along shortly. Not that the boy, for such he was, had much concept of time. There was precious little to measure the passage of days in this subterranean hellhole with only the tiniest of apertures piercing the enormously thick stone wall. Even then the fenestration was placed so high above the boys' full height that the only benefit he gained from the slit window above him was the occasional beam of direct sunlight that reduced rather than increased his ability to see his immediate surroundings. These rays were rare events even then, since the slit was only at ground level to those outside and was regularly blocked by all manner of things being stood by it. The boy lay quite still and sincerely hoped that when he slept an angel would take him away; that was the way it happened, wasn't it? That's what he had always been told and that was how his own mother had been taken from him. His aunt had told him that before she too disappeared from his life.

The story of the short life of Thomas Blake was at once pitiful and utterly shameful considering he lived in the greatest city in the world, surrounded by the most wealthy merchants, nobles and princes of the burgeoning empire that was Britain in the late eighteenth century. Thomas was a product of the coupling of a young serving girl and an unknown person of wealth, according to the story as told by his aunt. The person of wealth was, according to the same tale, a gentleman of standing who would appreciate the pleasures of Malmsey and Madeira wines and the wenches at his favourite taverns. The mother was, at the time, not yet twenty years old and when she died in childbirth nobody knew quite why, except that she had contracted a fever. The baby was handed across to the mother's older sister to wet nurse and to bring up. The task was taken up with something less than enthusiasm and glee since the sister had no real maternal instincts and precious little concern or love for children; her motivation was simply the money handed to her by the anonymous wealthy father.

By the time Thomas had entered his eighth year his aunt had deserted him. She simply went off one night with a man and was never seen by Thomas again. Left alone, in a riverside garret, he assumed independence undreamed of by children of later generations. The education that he had received during his brief sojourn in life had been a practical one; aimed at survival, usually at the expense of anyone gullible or vulnerable enough to supply the basic needs of living at the lowest levels of the metropolis. He was adept at a variety of petty criminal activities, he was an active mudlark; an occupation much despised but, on occasions, surprisingly richly rewarding. Living, as he did, by his wits he very quickly learned to recognise those in the community that he could trust and those from whom he could only expect to suffer either by loss, by beating or worse.

Sitting as he now was, incarcerated in a tomb of a cell with an unknown number of other unfortunates, he reflected miserably on his circumstances. In many ways the age in which he lived was enlightened; great advances were being made in science, geographical discovery, commerce, art and politics, often within a stones' throw from where he now disconsolately sat. One aspect of the age that militated against his ill-educated and undernourished mind was the state of the teaching of religion. This was the apogee of the established church's teaching of hell-fire and damnation. Bewigged clerics could be seen throughout the rapidly expanding conurbation, centred upon the building in which Thomas was reluctantly being held, standing upon specially erected wayside pulpits built outside the churches to which they were attached. These educated gentlemen espoused a form of Christian ethics that, whilst sitting well with the moneyed and privileged classes, were almost certainly unattainable by those who existed in the greatest need of the succour of God.

Hellfire and damnation was all that young Thomas could envisage as his future in perpetuity. His filth-caked brow sweated at the thought of eternity in a brimstone pit as hot as a bakehouse oven. He shivered again and felt a massive bolt of pain inside his cranium; he whispered to himself again and hid his head still deeper inside the ragged remains of an old jacket that represented one third of his entire wardrobe.

The jangle of keys and the coarse language of the turnkey echoed down the dank, dark steps that he could just make out beyond the old rusty bars. The stairs, and a small area at their base, was all that whole chamber provided outside of the cell itself and it was here that the turnkey sometimes arrived with minimal levels of sustenance. An occasional ladle of rancid water and a weevil infested ship's biscuit, purchased by the authorities as a cost-saving exercise from berthing ships at the nearby docks who were reprovisioning and needed the stowage space. It was to the area at the bottom of the stone steps that those people who deigned to visit were brought. The visitors were not, usually, of the benign variety, like friends or family of the gaoled prisoners. These visitors were paying to see the spectacle. The turnkeys made a handsome profit from these visitations. Very rarely a visitor of really humane compassion would pay the pennies required for access, and they might pass the prisoners foodstuffs or other useful items to make their existence more bearable. The problem for Thomas was that not only were this type of visitor extremely rare, but when they did arrive it was the adults who grabbed at any largesse being distributed leaving Thomas with nothing more than extra bruises on his already emaciated and scarred body. The normal visitors, or perhaps they might be more appropriately named spectators, merely squawked and squealed. Ladies in their finery holding nosegays before their faces to disguise the all too obvious noxious odours that inevitably presented themselves in a damp subterranean cellar without sanitation bearing a load of diseased human cargo.

Accompanying, and usually paying for these ladies' visits, were dandified gentlemen with excessive powdered wigs, tricorn hats with ostrich feathers, and silk stockings; entirely inappropriate to the environment, but fashion can be so frustratingly out of step with one's means of entertainment. Of these latter visitors young Thomas knew that the most he was likely to receive was a sharp poke from the silver-capped cane that the gentlemen invariably carried.

Thomas had actually only been in this pit for nine days. It was just that he was unaware of the significance of the morrow. Nine days ago he had listened with increasing terror to the huge bewigged judge dressed in red and ermine. The judge had a face suffused with subcutaneous blood vessels indicative, to those that knew the predilection of this learned gentleman, of the influence of the principal product of friendly Portugal, particularly of the city of Oporto. In the noisy atmosphere of the packed court His Honour donned the black cap and intoned the sentence with great solemnity, raising, as he pronounced, his extraordinarily hirsute eyebrows to indicate his great distaste for the task and associated displeasure to the small creature before him. This minute shape struggled to see across the spiked wooden wall of the dock that hid him. Cries of anguish by a few matronly figures that had developed an immense sense of sympathy to the boy, who looked to be of only about seven or eight years, but whom the court had assured them was actually over ten years old. These cries were, of course, drowned by those of the remaining numbers of spectators within the public galleries for whom a hanging was a spiritually uplifting community sporting event. They looked forward to a good hanging and resented the absence of the spectacle when verdicts of either innocence or lesser sentences of transportation or prison were handed down.

Since that moment, Thomas, now convicted of theft, the theft of a loaf of bread, had lived in terror of what the after-life, and possibly even more frightening, the journey to the after-life, would be like. Completely friendless, this young child whose sole reason for being executed was that he had once previously stolen an item of fruit and was now viewed as a major threat to the whole fabric of this civilised society that rated property at a level substantially above human life. This was especially true of a low-life, such as Thomas was considered to be. A former soldier who suffered no pangs of compassion for his charges had manhandled him from the dock. Smiling through the wooden false teeth that he wore almost as a badge of honour, having lost his own teeth and part of his jaw in the service of His Majesty in the colonial wars in North America. This gruff man held Thomas by the scruff of his neck and physically tossed him into the holding cage behind the court to await onward transport to the condemned cell.

The judge had made no bones about the sentence. Thomas Blake, he had been told, was to be taken to the condemned cells and thence onwards in ten days to a lawful place of execution where he would be hanged by the neck until dead. The benediction of God having pity upon his poor soul was entirely lost upon the small boy, thus deprived of any future having enjoyed very little of his past.

Thus he sat in the coldness of the dark condemned cell, which he shared with at least five others, and bided his time in undisguised self-grief and terror as he waited the coming of the turnkey. The turnkey who would force him to join his fellow condemned prisoners on the cart that would be their transport to the gallows. Without doubt he was in the deepest despair that anyone could imagine, or should be made to endure. His brain had begun to act without Thomas's knowledge or understanding, and was relaying signals around his malnourished frame causing physical symptoms of distress to show in various ways. He was feverish, twitching violently; he would retch but without producing any vomit from his completely empty stomach. It was in this state that Thomas awoke on the morning of the tenth day, unaware of the date, unaware that this was his final day on earth and unaware, also, that this was his eleventh birthday.

Sunlight streaked into the gloom of this high-ceilinged cell. It pierced the darkness and caused immediate distress to the young boy who had been awakened by the customary clout from the turnkey. "On yer feet boy," he ordered, "You've got an appointment with Jack Ketch!" Thomas was responding but in the manner of an automaton. He was barely conscious of his surroundings any more. The light hit his eyes and caused momentary blindness, but he was otherwise unaffected by his surroundings. The turnkey, holding the gate open, shoved him violently out of the cell and against the wall at the base of the stairs. Thomas hit his head on a small stone that formed part of the wall but sat proud of its partners and provided a convenient sharp surface for the young head to injure itself upon.

The old man encouraged Thomas to climb the stairs with the liberal use of the cudgel that he habitually carried and never shrank from using. He emerged into the daylight, only half-aware of the fact except for the renewal of the pain in his eyes. He gazed around; the glare caused the scene to be mist enshrouded. His eyes, so recently emerged from the lightless hole of the condemned cell, could barely cope with the onslaught of the outside world. Another, younger, turnkey grabbed the boy and thrust him towards an anvil. The bulky figure now staring down at Thomas scowled as he took the boy's bone-thin wrist and sought out an appropriately sized manacle from the assortment hanging from an iron bar arrangement adjacent to the anvil. Satisfied with his choice the man proceeded to chain the boy's wrists together. The wrists were bound with solid iron wristlets, joined by a length of chain. He repeated the performance with the boy's ankles; he was going to be quite sure that this boy was going nowhere except to meet his maker.

Onlookers seeing this waif, frail of limb and stature, would have described Thomas as being no more than four feet six or seven inches in height. He was painfully skinny from years of malnourishment. His small nose protruded, apparently, further from his face than it would have done on a healthier well-fed version of the same boy. The sunken eye sockets were dark and his skin taut over his skeleton. Across the exposed areas of flesh could be seen a variety of marks; bruises received from the turnkeys and fellow prisoners, bite marks from the rodents who shared his final accommodation. There were other blotches that were yet further manifestations of the illness that was developing within him, driven by his brain. He was clothed in a coarse cloth jacket and trousers of a much finer, but older, cloth that had been cut down from those used by a now dead neighbour. A coarse linen shirt that was once white but now resembled a rag discoloured by oil completed Thomas's wardrobe.

Without any outward display of emotion the boy simply stood on the cart where he had been placed. Each additional prisoner emerging from the condemned cell occupied space alongside him. These others were adults and were each displaying their feelings about the role that they were about to play in the day's entertainment. One middle-aged well-dressed gentleman, now somewhat dishevelled following his wait in the dungeon, was deeply upset and snivelling into his torn lace cuff. A more formidable figure towered above him with a facial expression that seemed to invite anyone in the audience to mock him; he growled and rattled his chains at any that he thought were mocking him. That his actions were effective and that he was seen as a frightening sight was demonstrated by the speed at which onlookers and passers-by removed themselves whenever his guttural growl gave voice.

Eventually the older turnkey gave the order for the procession, consisting of two carts and a handful of guards, to move out of the gaol gate and along the mile or so to the gallows tree.

The carts rocked and jolted along the uneven surfaces of the roads, making the passengers' journey even more uncomfortable and unsafe. None of the prisoners probably cared much for their safety, but as for comfort, certainly there were at least two who wished for a little more before suffering the ultimate penalty of the law. As the distance travelled from the gaol increased, and consequentially the nearer they got to their destination, the crowds along the roads and nearby streets swelled. Public executions were an opportunity for enjoyment. The spectacle moved through three phases; the journey, during which abuse and refuse could be thrown at the cart passengers, a little care being taken not to hit the guards or at least not to be seen hitting the guards. The next phase came as the carts waited with their loads as each customer for the hangman was fetched up to their particular noose, balancing precariously as they awaited the push that would send them off of the barrels upon which their feet were placed, and into oblivion. During this phase the guards and cart drivers were able to afford the crowd a more open target, an opportunity that seldom failed to attract its share of rotten fruit throwers. The final phase, of course, was the real entertainment as the felons met their maker. Some would break down as the noose was placed over their heads and about their necks; others, of whom the crowds were much more appreciative, would make ribald comments or gestures at their captors and executioners. Still others would react with stoic resolution. This last group was a minority.

When the barrels beneath the feet of the convicted were kicked away their bodies swung in unison, flailing in the wind and being subjected to the cruellest of endings. Slow strangulation until life is extinct. To be absolutely sure, the executioner, the hangman, would leave the cadaver swinging for periods far in excess of the time in which death would occur. He did this for reasons of ensuring that he had been punctilious in carrying out the orders of the Courts of Justice, but also for the macabre spectacle that the crowds delighted in and for which the hangman was often richly tipped. In direct response to the victim's last performance members of the crowd would grab the legs of their favoured felon and dangle from them in an effort to reduce the time of the strangulation process. Sometimes it was relatives who would perform this grisly but humane task.

Thomas, all alone in the world and not being very heavy, was likely to be very slow in dying, a fact noted by both the hangman and an elderly matron who was standing with eager anticipation of the morning's entertainment. The old lady had spotted Thomas in the cart and spoke to her neighbour, "He'll be slow going poor mite." An unusual comment of compassion from someone who attended public executions for the fun value of the spectacle. The neighbour agreed that the boy should be helped on his way.

Thomas had shoulder length hair considerably matted by dirt and the outpourings of his sweat glands. His face was smeared with streaks of mud interspersed with blood from his various wounds. It was his turn. Without any form of dignity allowed to him, one of the guards pulled his leg chains and dragged him to the end of the cart. Cuffing the defenceless boy as he was hauled to his feet, the guard earned himself the opprobrium of the crowd which would later be repaid by a mouldering cabbage hitting him squarely on the head. Dragging the limp form of young Thomas the guard passed over the responsibility to the hangman and his assistants. They lost no time in placing the boy on the barrel.

Thomas was now beyond despair and it must be considered miraculous that he remained standing; his brain was now in overdrive and sending out danger signals that had his young body attempting simultaneous actions that it simply was not equipped for. He could not break away; he painfully learned this, earning another cuff for trying. He could not jump or fly out of danger; shutting down was an option for Thomas's brain, but not for the hangman, not yet anyway.

The two watching and waiting women stood nearby as the hangman's assistant shimmied up on to the cross-tree to lengthen the noose so that Thomas could be fitted into it, he wasn't even tall enough for that. As they watched, the delay merely caused the boy's anxiety levels to increase further. A telltale dark patch developed on the front of his ill-fitting grey trousers. The patch spread. The boy had urinated himself to the disgust of the hangman who moved away from the unfortunate boy. The crowd, growing impatient for the most important part of the act, began shouting abuse at the grizzled man who wisely nodded to his assistant. Between them they started kicking away the small platforms upon which these wretches stood. The legs began their flailing dance. The two women, in concert with several others at the front of the crowd, moved forward to carry out their mission of mercy.

Thomas had felt the noose placed around his neck and then tightened. A hood of some description covered his head and strangely he felt some relief at that. During what seemed an eternity he waited and without warning the drum-like barrel was no longer beneath his feet. He felt the tightening of the rope against his neck and the tension behind his eyes and throughout his head; there was an indescribable thumping in his ears. Momentarily, down through the gap between his hood and his nose he spotted the two women, warm comfortable women, approaching his legs. They were holding his thin ankles. He thought his feet were shining were they wet? A bright light took over from all other sensations, a complete whiteness and an accompanying silence.

Through his eyes he began to make out other colours, reds, yellows, blues and shades in between. The thumping noise had returned to his ears but less pronounced than before. He was being moved, he could feel his legs being pulled. He couldn't smell anything, in fact he couldn't recognise anything that he saw either. 'No hellfire and brimstone' was the curious thought that flashed across his mind. He continued moving. A rush, a very wet rush, and that white light was back. Noises! He was conscious of noises, human voices, a pain, short-lived but unmistakably a pain crossed his mind as he pondered his new experiences. He made an attempt to complain but was surprised at the strangled noise that emitted from his own mouth. Well, perhaps it was not so strange, but he wondered how long it would last?

More noises, more noises permeated his private thoughts. "It's a boy," someone remarked. It was a female voice, probably one of those women he logically thought. "We'll call him Thomas," said another. He felt no particular urge to tell her the obvious.

On a bright day in May, during the school Spring holiday, Thomas and his older sister Annabelle emerged from the steps leading up from the South Kensington underground station by the Natural History Museum entrance. They were with their dad who had wangled a day off of work to take the children on a trip to London. It was really a trip for Thomas, whose eleventh birthday it was, but he always went on Annabelle's trips and she had wanted to see the museums. She also looked forward to the promised shopping trip to Oxford Street afterwards. So here they all were; only their mother was missing, she had to work and was in any case not a fan of traipsing around museums.

They had arrived immediately after the end of the morning rush hour so that they would have time to 'do' two of the museums and get across to Oxford Street. Both of the children enjoyed the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum next door along Prince Albert's Exhibition Road. Even though they had all day, their dad was persistent in moving both of his offspring along. He knew how to prevent premature boredom and predicted uncannily accurately when his family would want to eat. This chore he felt was best achieved between the two museums with the packed lunch they had carried from home. They could sit in the gardens of the Natural History museum and eat and drink their fill and then move onto the next phase of the operation.

The dinosaur section of the first museum still held captive Thomas's imagination, but Annabelle was beginning to consider it a little passé, although even she was taken by the escalator ride up to the earth sciences department. They both felt vertiginous as they enjoyed the incredible feeling of tipping over as the apparently unsupported moving staircase ascended into the perpetually rotating planet-like sphere that marks the department's entrance from the lower floors. Annabelle took notes as they passed the earthquake zone since she had been given the subject of volcanoes and earthquakes for geography at school.

Thomas, at eleven, was five feet two inches tall, not quite up to his fourteen-year-old sister's height but gaining rapidly. He had a small nose in the middle of his fleshy face. His eyes were bright and he veritably twitched with intelligent excitement with each new experience. Both of the children got on with each other. For Thomas this would prove to be a boon in September when he finally left his primary school and moved up to the same secondary school attended by Annabelle. Having a year 10 sister when you're only a year 7 has advantages. Their father also relished these trips because he enjoyed the company of both of his children and because of work pressures he had precious few opportunities to be with them.

They had 'done' the Natural History Museum and were now eating their lunch. "It's two o'clock," said the father. "If we're to get across to Oxford Street and the small detour I've got planned then we need to leave the Science Museum by three thirty is that OK?"

"What detour?" Thomas and Annabelle piped up in tandem.

"Oh! That's a surprise, but it should end at McDonald's," he added, again knowing his family well enough to know that the mass-produced beef patties would win him the argument every time.

"Yeah!" they echoed each other again.

The Science Museum visit ended by the predetermined time, possibly with the carrot of McDonald's being dangled. "We had better step it out we're going to the park," the father said ambiguously. They strode out along Exhibition Road turning left into Kensington Gore round by the Royal Geographical Society's building. They very quickly crossed over and, pausing briefly to look at and admire the newly restored monument to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, they hurried across the park to Kensington Gardens.

"I thought you'd like to see this Annabelle," the father spoke to his daughter. "It's the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial garden, and it's really coming into bloom." He remembered her interest in the television pictures when all the floral tributes were piled up in incredible numbers alongside these very railings.

"I wonder how William is?" Annabelle reminded her father of her current main interest in the Royal family, "and Harry, of course," she added as an afterthought. They were conscious of the time and hastened across to Bayswater Road.

"We can get to McDonald's round at Whiteleys or wait until we get to Oxford Street," the father posed the question. The children voted for the former and so they visited Whiteleys.

Refreshed, and wanting to attack the shops, Annabelle led the trio back to Bayswater Road and left to her shopping Mecca. Thomas chatted endlessly of the things he'd seen at the museums. He also delighted in how one of his best friends would have to stop going on about one of the current attractions of the Science Museum since he would no longer be the only one in the class to have visited it. The time was creeping on, but late night shopping beckoned. As they drew near to the Marble Arch end of Bayswater Road their father said that he was going to ring their mother since they were obviously going to be later home he'd originally planned.

He rang her mobile and she spoke in turn with each of them. They agreed that the mother would cater for herself that evening and that the three of them would grab a meal on the journey home. The father put his mobile back into his jacket pocket. From here on the crowds on the pavement would be too great to have a reasonable conversation on a mobile telephone. They moved on and watched with interest as a car escorted by two police motorcycles, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, sped around the arched monument from the direction of Park Lane. The noise of the sirens as they passed Thomas, Annabelle and their father, was intense. Annabelle and her dad craned their necks to see if they could spot any famous celebrities in the escorted Jaguar. Thomas stepped back holding his ears.

Annabelle spotted him and laughed, shouting "You wimp!" Thomas's sister continued smiling until she realised that Thomas was not playing, but that he really did seem to have something wrong with him. She pulled her dad's sleeve and they both rushed to Thomas who was now supporting himself against the wall of the nearest building. His right hand was flat against the wall above his head. His left covered his eyes. He screamed about the light and slowly crumpled, and his right hand slowly descended from the wall-mounted memorial that it had been placed on. A nearby policeman heard his cry and rushed over asking if everything was all right. The reaction of the distraught father, the frightened sister and the crumpled pile of the son were sufficient answer for him to immediately call for an ambulance.

A post mortem examination revealed death was caused by something resembling strangulation. Perhaps some sort of allergy or shock had caused an involuntary closure of the upper airways. The doctors were of the opinion that the boy had died before the ambulance had arrived. Quite tragic; the place of death was recorded for posterity, beneath the memorial plaque mounted outside of the Tyburn convent indicating the site of the Tyburn tree on the traffic island opposite. The notes recorded by the policeman on duty stated that the name of the deceased was Thomas Blake, aged eleven.

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