Orlando’s Ghosts


This is the opening of my novel, Orlando’s Ghosts, set in the Victorian period. The two main characters are Orlando, a black boy, and his younger white friend Kip.

Chapter One: A Strange Meeting and Some Old Bones

‘We’re never going to the grubber are we, Orlando?’

‘No we’re never going there, Kip.’

‘But what if the Cudgel gets us?’

‘He won’t.’

‘But he might.’

‘He won’t.’

‘But what if he does, though?’

‘If he sends us to the grubber, you know what we’ll do.’

‘We’ll scarper!’ we shout together, and then we chant, ‘we won’t go to the grubber! We won’t go to the grubber! We won’t go to the grubber! No! No! We won’t!’

The grubber is always at the back of our minds. It’s the workhouse. They send you there if you don’t have a penny to your name. Not that we’ve ever been in the grubber. But we’ve heard the stories. The grubber is like the fiery furnace of hell. You get swallowed up and burnt. That’s what people round St Giles say. When you go through the great clanging door they stick you in a sulphur bath. If you don’t peg out you’re given bread and water and that’s your lot. Everyone round St Giles is afraid of the grubber. So we’ve been very careful to keep away from it.

But we have one big problem – the Cudgel.

He works for the parish officers in St Giles and has a finger in every pie, one pie being the workhouse. He’s like a great bull. Kip hardly comes up to his middle. They say he was once a strong-arm man in the circus, that he drinks blood, and chops people up.

Once Hetty at The Angel beer shop said to Kip, ‘D’you know why the Cudgel wears a scarlet cloak? To hide the blood when he drags your carcass off to the meat market.’ That made Kip’s yellow hair stick up even more than usual.

Kip and me can spot the Cudgel a mile away in his cloak and big three cornered hat. He walks around like a swell and he carries a stick that he doesn’t mind using. We’re two buzzing flies he wants to swat. The parish officers call him the beadle. We call him the Cudgel, and what he seems to forget is that St Giles is our patch, just as much as his.

I was found when I was three or four years old in St Giles church, curled up by the stone angel. I suppose I had a name but it flew out the church and never came back. I was wrapped in a good linen petticoat and on the petticoat was a label. I know the words on that label off by heart. I never forget them: Orlando and Son Ltd. Purveyor of cotton petticoats, knickerbockers and fine linens.

So they called me Orlando.

And how do I know all this? Mrs Penny told me. And I believe her, because she’s a good friend to me and my friend, Kip. He was found in the church, too. Lots of foundlings are. Kip was laid in the font like Jesus in his manger, wrapped in a fur neckerchief and an old newspaper that smelled of kippers. So he got the name, Kip.

‘I could eat stew, potatoes and dumplings and a bread pudding all rolled into one,’ Kip says.

‘That’d be nice, but we’re skint, aren’t we?’

Kip usually knows how much we have to the farthing.

‘We’ve got tuppence to be exact,’ he says.

We’re just off the main thoroughfare in a narrow street and though we can hear the hawkers calling out in Drury Lane, there’s no sign of a hot potato seller or a cheap pie man round here. Old Solly would give us one of his buns with holes that Mrs Solly bakes. Sometimes it even has a bit of cheese in the middle. His rag and bone shop is round the corner, but the shutters are down because today Old Solly has gone to visit his brother Old Isaac. There’s a chophouse nearby, though. If we go by the side door we might get some leftover cutlets on the quiet for a coin or two, so we turn into the alley. Outside, leaning against the wall chewing tobacco is a pot man, and I know as soon as I clap eyes on him that he’s bad news. But Kip, he’s off before you can say Jack Robinson.

‘Mister,’ he calls.

The man scowls.

‘Mister, Mister.’

‘Clear off!’

‘Just wondering, Mister if…’

The man gets up. He’s small but stocky and he’s glaring at us.

‘Move it, ragtag! We don’t like scum round here!’

‘Scum!’ yells Kip annoyed. ‘You watch it Mister, or I’ll give you what for!’ Kip thrusts his tongue out and darts about, egging the cove on. ‘C’mon then, c’mon!’

He never learns, Kip. He’ll take a swipe at the cove without a second’s thought if he gets a chance. I can just see it. But me, I try to keep us out of trouble. So I grab Kip’s collar and pull him back.

‘Leave off Kip! Keep out of his way or he’ll have us.’

‘I was only asking,’ says Kip, wriggling. ‘He got his temper up over nothing.’

But the man moves closer and closer, jabbing a vicious finger in our direction. Then out of the blue he spits at us – just like that – a great, nasty glob full of chewed tobacco. It lands with a splat on my boot.

I’m fuming now. I hate spitting. I hate it. Nobody spits at us. I’ll show him. I pick up a stone to throw at his smarmy grin, and I’m about to send it whizzing through the air, when I stop. I know his sort. It’s what he wants. He’ll call on others to help him. I know if I throw that stone there’ll be a full-scale battle.

But I throw it anyway…






Please remember, the text in this chapter is copyright ©Mary Green and not to be used without the author’s consent.


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