It’s a dreary grey evening in late February, when Jonny Mackay goes missing.
East along the great winding highway of the River Thames, thronged with slow chugging barges and coal launches belching black smoke, way down past Teddington and Richmond to Chiswick, and further down still: past Chelsea, the pleasure gardens spread bright with fountains and banners by day, with tree lamps and fireworks by night; past the domed spires of Whitehall where ministers drone through their weekly councils of state; past Holborn, where the clerks of Lincoln’s Inn hunch over ledgers and sigh up at the clock; past the Tower’s high chilly battlements patrolled by ravens and surly Warders in scarlet and gold; past Ferris Ironworks pouring its endless drizzle of molten lead into vats of murky water; further down still, to where the river, wide and filthy-brown with the warm sour stink of sewage, swings in a great curve southwards…
This is Shadwell, and Jonny Mackay is out stealing. Again.
His mum thinks he’s nine years old, but she has a fuzzy memory rotted by drink; he might be eight, or seven, or maybe ten. His surname is Scottish, but like his age, that’s a vague guess on his mum’s part, because he looks more like a ragged guttersnipe from the St Giles’ rookery than a slab-faced runt from the Highlands, and there’s Irish and Nordic and even a distant trace of Lascar blood in him from his mum’s side too. Jonny’s not very bright, but he has a sort of clumsy tenderness that sometimes prompts him to hug his mum close and plant a sticky kiss on her ruddy cheeks. The poor woman’s usually too addled by her penny-quart of gin to hug him herself; but she responds warmly enough, once she realises.
Right now Jonny’s hanging about the market in Cable Street. He’s hungry. It’s early evening, street cobbles glistening with icy puddles of rain, and he won’t be fed at home. He’s got a dull shilling in his pocket from a navvy for taking a message to his sweetheart, but Jonny’s not going to waste that on food, not table-scraps, not when there’s easy pickings for nothing, not when you can snatch up so much for free. Sometimes he brings home a morsel for his mum; a bruised apple or a half-gnawed lukewarm sausage roll, and she’ll tut and smack his ears and wag a crooked finger under his nose. Yer a thievin’ cad, she’ll grumble, smirking, fingers dancing over his ribs until he’s wriggling and giggling in her arms, a no-good thievin’ rotter. If I ‘ad my way, Jonny Boy, yew’d be slavin’ in the work’ouse.
They both know she’s joking.
So he wanders through the market, between the old-clothes stalls and the fortune-teller stalls, the organ grinder and the fruit seller, under the sickly yellow haze of the gas lamps, watching this way and that, biding his time; and when a stall holder in her greasy apron is looking elsewhere, Jonny’s hand flashes out and returns to his loose shirt with an orange or a couple of nuts, and finally with a hot pie, gravy dribbling over his fingers.
The stall holder sees, and shrieks, but Jonny is halfway down the street already, vaulting over crates and darting around carts and dodging rats in the gutter. Curses and abuse trail after him, but not far. He stops running at the steps of St. Margaret’s Chapel, where he sits down and takes out his steaming, battered prize, leaving a sopping trail of gravy on his shirt.
And he’s not alone. A man in a grey suit with a neatly-curled moustache, whose waxed hair gleams under the lamplight, is standing in the doorway of the church, half a dozen steps above him. Perhaps a service is just finishing; light streams from the doorway behind him, an organ is droning inside, and the man has a jewelled prayer-book tucked under his arm.
Jonny doesn’t notice. His face contentedly deep in the pie, toes curled inward and bare feet together, he sits and chews and swallows blissfully, meat and pastry settling deep in his belly like glowing coals.
The man in the grey suit steps silently down the steps towards the boy hunched over his trophy, and seats himself a step above.
And then Jonny senses, and prickles, and turns. He can’t help it.
‘Who’re yew?’ he mumbles, mouth full of chewed meat and pastry.
The man says nothing. His brown eyes are dark and warm, lips curled in a faint smile. Jonny swallows his mouthful and stares.
‘Hello,’ the man says. ‘What’s your name, then?’
‘Where do you live, Jonny?’
‘What’s in the pie?’
Jonny stares at him. Unease crawling through his gut. His mum’ll be getting worried, back at their dingy lodging-house. Only a narrow musty bed under a sloping ceiling of rotting rafters, the rank stench of boiled cabbage seeping through the flimsy walls, mouse shit mushed into the floorboards. But it’s theirs. It’s their kingdom, for one-and-six a week. It’s home.
A flick of the man’s hand, and a gleaming silver sixpence appears between his fingers. Jonny stares, wide-eyed. The man’s smile widens. ‘You seem like a smart kid, Jonny. What’s four fives?’
Jonny frowns. ‘Twenty?’
‘Very good.’ The coin flashes through the air. Jonny catches it, cradling it to his chest with grubby fingers.
Another coin, a gleaming gold piece this time. Jonny’s breath hitches: a sovereign. A real gold sovereign! Enough to keep him and his mum in beer and bread for a month! The man gazes down at him. Purses his lips. ‘How about…hmm…seven eights?’
‘Er…um, fifty-four – no!…Wait!…errr…fifty…fifty-six! Yeah! Fifty-six!’
The man’s eyes soften, warm and comforting. ‘Good lad. Here.’ Another flick of his fingers, and Jonny catches the sparkling gold coin, nursing it against his chest. Unease melting away like early morning mist. The man shuffles closer, leans in, conspiratorial.
‘I want your help, Jonny. You don’t mind helping me, do you?’
Jonny nods eagerly, eyes shining.
‘Do you like hot chocolate?’
‘As it happens, I’ve got more hot chocolate than I can drink myself. Silly, really. Fancy coming to help me drink it?’
Jonny’s lost already. He was lost the moment he spied the glittering gold sovereign in the stranger’s hand. He follows the man in the grey suit down Cannon Street and along to Hangman’s Wharf on the Shadwell Basin, down King George’s Steps to a little green door in the side of a big looming warehouse. The man knocks, the door is opened, they go in, the door closes. Jonny will never come out – at least, by that entrance; and he’ll never see his mother again. Poor drunken wretch, she’ll think he’s run away forever, and when she remembers him, she’ll think it was all her fault, and bury her face into her hands and sob her sorry heart out.