A Winter’s Day

 

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It was snowing and windy. The air was bone-chillingly cold and daylight was fading. Darkness came early this time of year. I wrapped my coat as tightly around myself as I could trying to prevent the cold from seeping in any further. I wound the thick woollen scarf around my neck, tucked the ends inside my coat collar and pulled my winter hat down over my ears. Gloved hands slipped easily into the capacious coat pockets. They were the warmest part of me. Thankfully I was wearing knee high gum boots which kept my feet dry. I was as weather-proofed as it was possible to be on this winter’s day.

The day had started well enough. An early waker, I had risen with the dawn. Stoking the coals in the hearth to re-kindle the fire, I pondered the coming day’s events. Breakfast was a simple affair – a cup of tea and some of last night’s left over bread with a smearing of jam. That would have to do. I could pick up something more substantial later in the day on my travels. Having finished my meal, I washed my face and hands, dressed, combed my hair, then stepped back so I could check myself in the looking glass. It was important that I present myself as professional and business-like as possible where I was going. Satisfied, I quickly made my bed and tidied up after myself. Living alone meant I did not have a great deal of housework to do. Being of a fastidious nature, I always kept the cosy, small cottage I lived in neat and clean. I preferred to do my own housework apart from a washer woman who came once a week to do my laundry and ironing.

This morning I was ready to be on my way in record time. Too soon in fact. I didn’t want to leave too early and be caught having to wait around out in the cold in this weather.  Perhaps another hour at home would be enough. I sat down at the kitchen table near the dying fire. There was enough heat left in it to keep me warm until it was time to go. Picking up the latest novel I was immersed in , I sat to read the next chapter.

 

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I didn’t get past the first sentence before there was a loud rap at the door. Startled, I wondered who could be knocking at this hour of the day. I rarely got visitors, let alone at the crack of dawn. Opening the door, I was taken aback to find standing in front of me a bedraggled young child of no more than eight. Barefoot, wearing only dirty shorts and a short-sleeved torn shirt, he was blue from the cold. He shivered so violently his teeth chattered. Quickly I ushered him inside and closed the door. Leading him to the hearth I stood him in front of it as I wrapped a warm blanket around his frail, small body. There was nought for it but to stoke the fire again. Once it was going nicely I warmed a pot of milk and handed it to him. He gulped it down in one breath, handed the pot back to me and burped loudly. All the while he had been keenly watching every move I made. He had yet to speak a word.

“Thank ye kindly sir,” he said in a whisper.

“What’s your name lad and what are you doing out and about in this weather, so early in the day with nary an article of clothing on your back?”

“Please sir, I don’t mean no trouble sir. My name be Jack O’Reilly. I’ve no kin. I’ve run away from the gov’mint  ‘ouse. They be cruel and unkind. Please sir, I beg you, don’t send me back sir!” he said with a trembling bottom lip and a look of fear on his face.

Scratching my head I stared at him in disbelief. Of all the things that could have confronted me today, this had to take the cake. What was I to do now?

I was not unsympathetic to the lad’s plight mind you. My parents had died when I was twelve.  I was an only child and had gone to live with my one living relative, an uncle who was cruel and miserly. His cruelty never once extended to the use of physical force. Rather, he used his words and actions towards me like a master swordsman who had perfected his art, teasing, taunting, jabbing. I was not used to such treatment. My parents had been indulgent and loving, albeit not to the extent of spoiling me into a useless sop.  Living with my uncle were the most miserable few years of my life. Fortunately, he had died young.  That may seem a cruel thing to say, but there was no love lost between us. I had just turned eighteen a few weeks before his death.  His loss was a relief. I did not mourn his passing. My inheritance it turned out was a tidy sum of money and real estate from both the loss of my parents and uncle. I sold most of the properties but chose to keep the cottage I still live in to this day. I had no wish to live an ostentatious life even though I had ample funds to do so.

 

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After the death of my parents I had applied myself to study, keeping out of the way of my uncle as much as possible. Fortunately my father, a well respected lawyer, had had the foresight to set clear instructions in his will about my care should I be left orphaned. A strange co-incidence of second sight perhaps. This left my uncle no option but to comply.  The firm my father had worked in as a senior partner monitored my care until I turned eighteen. They carefully scrutinised quarterly reports and statements of expense my uncle was required to provide. What they could not monitor or know about was the day to day misery of living under the same roof with him. However, I am sure they had their suspicions and did all they could to make it easier for me. My father must have discussed the nature of his brother with them judging by some of the things they asked me. In my meetings with the firm I was careful never to denigrate my circumstances or complain. Had I done so, they would have had to intervene on my behalf. I knew my life would have become even more miserable. All in all I thought it was easier and safer to be quiet. What I did not know at the time was that had I made the full extent of my situation known, I would have been moved out of that horrid place.

I always knew that once I turned eighteen I could leave. Often I daydreamed about what I would do and where I would go. It kept me focused at the worst times.  My uncle was suspicious something was in the wind after my birthday and tried to worm it out of me – unsuccessfully.  He was probably worried that whatever retainer he had been on would shortly cease given I had come of age. On my eighteenth birthday I had been summoned to the legal offices of McPherson, Dalrymple and O’Connor.  It was a formal meeting with the Senior Partner James McPherson. He had taken personal responsibility for overseeing and monitoring my welfare in the years following the death of my parents.

I left the house early, as was my custom, without telling my uncle where I was going. Not that he ever asked. Arriving well ahead of scheduled time I was immediately ushered into Mr McPherson’s office and offered a cup of coffee. This in itself was unusual. I sat down to wait, savouring the coffee and tasty platter of sweets. Some ten minutes later Mr McPherson stepped into his office and closed the door. Smiling and shaking my hand warmly he told me it was a pleasure to be able to finally sit down with me man to man. It was a conversation he had been looking forward to for many years. Suddenly shy, I just smiled weakly and nodded my head.

“Now, young man, tell me what it was really like living with that miserly uncle of yours. I want the cold hard facts. Don’t spare me any details, ” he said with a serious look on his face. So for the next two hours I told him the story of my life since my parents died. Shaking his head and sighing deeply he explained that they had known some of it but never realised the full extent of my misery. They had been able to ameliorate it somewhat, he said, by setting very strict conditions in place. There had also been inspections and meetings at the house I did not know about when I had been at school.  However, they never uncovered enough evidence that could be acted on even when they dropped by unannounced.

“I’m so very sorry lad. Had I known just how bad it was, we would have moved you out of there. Your father suspected that if it ever came about, life with your uncle would not be pleasant. He had put in a back-up plan that we could have legally actioned.  Your uncle would have made one hell of a fuss and done everything in his power to prevent it. In hindsight we should have been more thorough . Well, it’s too late to do anything about that now.” There was a very generous fee paid to my uncle for my care, including monies for clothing, incidentals and the like. Very little of it made it past his bank account. Only on the days I was to meet with the legal firm or went to school  was I dressed in decent clothes. In between they were kept in a locked closet I had no access to along with other belongings that were only brought out on show if the occasion demanded it.  Food was another means by which he sought to control me. However, I was able to supplement the meagre pickings with the money Mr McPherson regularly slipped me when we met.

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School was my one and only source of respite and delight. I excelled in my studies. The subjects had been chosen for me by my father . Not that I objected. I was following in his footsteps and recall that  he had always talked to me about joining him in the business as a junior partner one day. It was something I had been looking forward to. His death only made me more determined to succeed. Study was also a pleasurable escape from the harsh realities of my life and I threw myself into it with zeal.

The next couple of hours were spent going through legal paperwork  about my inheritance, its terms and conditions, and an accounting of how the firm had managed my affairs to date.  He was very thorough. After lunch, he said, we would discuss my future. I had not realised this was to be an all day affair.  My head was spinning with all the new information I had been given. If only I had known, I thought, how different my life would have been. Never being one to immerse myself overly long in misery and ponderings about “what if” or “if only”, I shrugged the thought away and concentrated on a sumptuous lunch in the firm’s private dining room. For this we were joined by the firm’s  entire staff. It seemed the feast had been laid on in my honour and was their way of giving me a belated eighteenth birthday. My uncle had not acknowledged it at all. I was deeply touched and honoured. Celebrations of any kind had ceased for me when my parents died.

At the end of the feast I was led back to Mr McPherson’s office. Clearing his throat, he asked me if I had given any thought to what I wanted to do with my life. I had some very clear ideas, I said,  but was willing to listen to and consider other options. As far as he and his partners were concerned they were happy to give me a starting position in the firm based on my scholastic achievements alone. They were also very mindful of my father’s wishes that I follow in his footsteps. He had been a deeply loved and respected founding member of the firm.  I told him I had always taken it as a given that I would work in law. That being settled, he then moved on to discuss my living circumstances.  As I now knew, my inheritance would more than cover whatever arrangements I wanted to make for my future. There were substantial property holdings as well as stocks and shares.  My inclination, I said, was to build up more of a share portfolio than property holdings. On his advice, I decided I would keep some of the more lucrative properties. The monies from these sales would be invested into more stocks and bonds at this stage. In the future I may choose to do things differently.

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As for employment, it was settled that I would start working for McPherson, Dalrymple and O’Connor in a junior clerk capacity and work my way up. My position as a partner in the business had been tentatively secured by my father. Of course the firm had final say in the matter. A precaution had I turned out to be a total nincompoop, he said, jesting. It was up to me whether I really wanted to pursue this. I would be in a better position to make that decision later on once I had  sufficient work experience. Should I decide to continue in law, arrangements would be made for my training.

Next was the matter of my residence. I had so many choices now it made my head reel. However, I was adamant I wanted to be independent. I wanted a comfortable home -one I could look after myself which was my preference. It turned out that there was just such a place that already belonged to me. Now vacant, I could move in as soon as I was ready. Given the keys so I could go and look at it on the way home, I left the firm’s offices deeply content.  I was to start work when I had moved and settled in to wherever I chose to live.

I fell in love with the cottage at first sight. It was homely, had a warm cosy feel to it, was small enough for me to manage it, yet large enough to entertain a select handful of people should I wish. If ever in the future it became a necessity to live in a bigger residence with support staff I had more than enough monies to do so. On return home after a long day’s absence, my uncle was very inquisitive about where I had been. I was very evasive and vague about my answers and retired to my room as soon as I could. It was obvious he was not happy. However, he was also very aware that I had turned eighteen. He had no jurisdiction over me and I was no longer answerable to him. His manner towards me had changed to a more reserved and distant one.

That night I had a very restless sleep. All the events of the day kept replaying in my head over and over.  I felt a shiver of anticipation and excitement surge through me as I thought about all the possibilities my future held. On the morrow I would let Mr McPherson know that I wanted to move into the cottage as soon as possible. It needed a good clean inside and out. And I would also let him know which properties I wanted to keep, which to put on the market. As soon as the cottage was habitable  I would move. Till then I intended not to say a word to my uncle.

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Unbeknownst to me, Mr McPherson had very different ideas about the situation. He summoned my uncle to a meeting in his office the very next day. In no uncertain terms he was told that he had been in gross breach of contract due to his lack of duty of care towards my welfare.  I am not privy to the exact details of the discussion but I gather that he was confronted with sufficient factual information to make it impossible for him to refute.  Mr McPherson issued him a writ demanding a refund of a large percentage of the monies that had been paid to him for my upkeep. He was given two months to pay.  As I have since discovered, my uncle took his own life rather than face the consequences of his actions. Being his only next of kin, with legal rights to claim a vast sum to recover what was rightfully mine, I inherited his entire fortune. It was vast. He had not only deprived me, he had deprived himself as well.

In due course I moved into my own little cottage. Having settled in I contacted the firm to let them know I was ready to commence work.  Life was good for me. I was content in my home. Work was interesting and I made rapid progress in learning all that was required of me. Law school was a fascinating mix of studies for me. Again, I excelled. The firm appointed me junior partner as soon as I graduated.

The morning that the young ragamuffin Jack O’Reilly knocked on my door was the day I was to attend a board meeting of the local orphanage. There was a certain irony in this turn of events. Our firm was involved in various charitable organisations. For my thirtieth birthday  I had been appointed to the  board to represent the firm. It was an important appointment and one close to my heart given my formative years with my uncle. I had a passionate interest in ensuring that vulnerable young children would be cared for in the most humane and caring way possible. Was Jack O’Reilly’s presence in my home a sign? If so, to what intent? These were the questions I pondered as I stirred a pot of oatmeal porridge on the hob for him. He looked undernourished. Given the way he had scoffed the milk I proffered him, he must be starving.

My immediate dilemma now was what to do with the young lad. It was vital I attend the board meeting on time. I did not have the heart to toss Jack back out onto the streets. He would perish. But could I trust him enough to leave him in my home unsupervised? Maybe his fear of being sent back to the “gov’mint  ‘ouse”  was enough to ensure he would not rob me blind or vandalise my home were I to leave him alone while I attended the board meeting. Perhaps it was the very institution he had escaped from. I could make discrete enquiries whilst I was there. Having made my decision, I offered him the porridge which he ate with gusto while I told him my plan.

He could stay while I attended to some important business. Under no condition was he to answer the door should anyone come knocking. Now that he was warm and fed, I assumed he would become tired and sleepy very quickly. In fact, as I was laying down the terms of his stay, his eyelids were beginning to droop as he struggled to listen to me. I quickly made a make-shift bed for him on the floor next to the hearth. He would be warm and comfortable.  A platter of fruit and a jug of water on the table would suffice were he to become hungry and thirsty again before my return. Gratefully he nodded his head. He was asleep before I softly closed the door on my way out.

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The orphanage was only a brisk thirty minute walk from my home. I arrived at the same time as several other board members pulled up in their carriages. Introducing myself, I followed them to the ostentatious board room. A large  carved oak table was surrounded by plush upholstered chairs. The floor was covered in soft red carpet. The windows draped in red velvet. Elaborate gold framed paintings by several old masters adorned the walls. It looked and smelled of vast riches. For me, it seemed strangely at odds with the purpose of the organisation. Mindful I represented the firm I reminded myself not to make rash, unfair judgements. The dozen chairs surrounding the table filled quickly. Silently waiters decked in regalia worthy of serving royalty, arrived bearing platters of hot rolls, steaming bacon and eggs, pots of hot coffee. White gloved, they proceeded to serve the board members. Had I known the meeting was to start with breakfast I would have forgone my stale bread and jam at home.

Breakfast over and the dishes cleared, the meeting was called to order by the chair. I was introduced and welcomed. The order of business was odd. There was not a single item that referred to the reason for the board’s existence, let alone the orphanage’s role and function. Perhaps that was to follow, I thought. Discussion about menus for future meetings were extensive and vocal.  A menu considered more worthy of the prestigious nature of the board’s members passed with an overwhelming majority. The chairs were old and worn someone said. They were to be reupholstered. A subcommittee was formed to investigate what would be the best fabric to use and make recommendations to the next meeting. Other minor details having been dealt with, the meeting was closed. Due to lack of time all other matters were to be carried over to the next meeting in two months’ time.

Confused, I stood and left the board room in the company of the orphanage’s manager. Making small talk, I managed to slip in a few questions about the children who lived there. “Right little bastards, most o’ them, don’t deserve the time o’ day, ” he said. I asked for elucidation. I was ignorant, I said, given this was my first meeting. He explained that the majority of the children were literally bastards, born to whores who did not want them, let alone be burdened with their care. Some had been orphaned. Most lived there till they were considered old enough at age ten to fend for themselves. They were given a bundle of clothes, a husk of bread, sixpence (a fortune according to him, of which they were undeserving) and sent to make their way in the world. Why just this very night gone, he said, young Jack, one of the ungrateful little bastards,  had done a runner. He spat on the ground, cursed, and said he hoped he got his just deserts. From this I gathered whatever his just deserts were would not be good. I asked what course of action was taken in such an event. He looked at me in astonishment. They did not have the time to go chasing after every snotty nosed little bastard that thought they deserved better. Only if the orphan had relatives who kept in touch did they try and find them. The latest escapee had been abandoned on the doorstep of the orphanage as a newborn. No-one had ever come asking after him. He had been named after one of the staff who took a liking to him as a baby. Cursing roundly, he said, this is all the thanks we get for the years of loving care.

This conversation provided me more detail than I wanted to know about young Jack. I had thought on the way to the board meeting that perhaps I could return Jack to the orphanage if I was able to negotiate better care for him. Clearly this was not an option. My first impression of this venerable government home for parent-less children was not good. It appeared to be run by self-serving, greedy and uncaring people who didn’t concern themselves in the least about their responsibilities for the children entrusted to their care. Memories of life with my uncle flooded into my mind as I trudged my way home. Is this why the firm had nominated me to fill their position on the board, so I could be a harbinger of change, I wondered.

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Stomping the snow off my shoes, I unlocked the front door. Young Jack was fast asleep exactly where I had left him. He did not stir when I clomped in deliberately loud. Either he was very good at faking it or he was truly exhausted. Reluctant to wake him, I sat down at the table to think about the dilemma Jack presented. Seemingly it was more than Jack who suffered at the hands of the incompetent fools running the orphanage. Clearly change was necessary if the welfare of the children was to be taken seriously. Just how this could be brought about was a matter that I would have to consider carefully. I did not have enough information about the running of that institution to know what would be the best form of attack. That is how I thought of it.

I sat and wrote lists. This was my usual way of tackling sticky problems. Put it down on paper so you can see the issues more clearly. Under one heading was the information I had gleaned about Jack. Another heading listed the events of today’s board meeting. Yet another listed all the unknowns, and finally a list of possible solutions. The last was empty for no feasible ones had as yet presented themselves to me. I could hardly turn up shotgun in hand and march the staff off premises much as I would have liked to. Maintaining a clear and objective view was of great importance were any useful and permanent change to be possible. Letting emotions take over was not helpful in these kinds of circumstances. That much I had learnt from living with my uncle.

Deep in thought, it took a while for me to notice that Jack had woken up. He lay very still under the blanket, only his big round eyes showing. I smiled and wished him good morning in a cheerful voice, hoping this would reassure him. He nodded,  then asked if he could use the privy. Handing him a pile of slightly over-size clothing more suitable to the weather, I showed him where he could attend to his needs. I had hurriedly purchased the clothing on the way home after the meeting.  Other items would have to wait. I was no expert when it came to matters of clothing for children.

I set about making a plateful of cheese sandwiches whilst I waited for him to return. He would be hungry. In what seemed like record time Jack was back next to the hearth. He still had the bundle of clothes I had given him in his hands.  Looking at them like they were foreign objects he had never seen before, he did not seem to know what to do with them. I encouraged him to take his own clothes off and put on some warmer ones. Eventually I asked him what was wrong. With a tremor in his voice he said he had never been given new clothes to wear without having to earn them first.  Now it was my turn to be confused. What on earth could he mean ?  Jack turned his back to me, took down his britches and bent over. Suddenly it all became very apparent to me. In horror I realised this poor little mite had been sodomised! Gently, I told him in this house he did not have to earn new clothes. They were his right, not a bribe. With tears in his eyes he straightened up and slowly dressed himself.

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I was angered beyond belief, thinking about the things this child and others like him were subjected to in what was beginning to sound more and more like a house of horrors. Knowing I must not let Jack see my anger lest he misunderstand it, I invited him to join me at the table for some food. I had lost my appetite totally, but to keep him company, I slowly chewed on half a sandwich. It tasted like sawdust in my mouth.  Jack, on the other hand, ate with the appetite and manners of a starving man. Food, it seemed, was something else in short supply where he came from. He polished off all the sandwiches and some of the fruit. Sated at last, he sat back and looked at me.

I cleared my throat and asked him what he had planned to do after leaving the orphanage. He shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something indistinguishable. From this I gathered his intent had simply been to escape. It was imperative I earn his trust. I started talking about my experiences in my own house of horrors, embroidering the facts to make it sound more like what I knew and suspected Jack’s had been. He listened closely, nodding his head vigorously at times when I was talking about episodes of cruelty and deprivation. When I finished, I brewed us both a cup of hot, sweet tea. Inviting him to tell me his story seemed the next best step. Hesitantly at first, Jack began to talk about life at the “gov’mint ‘ouse”.  With nods and words of encouragement and some questions of clarification  to spur him along he grew more confident in his story telling. What emerged was such a picture of misery I had trouble holding back my tears. When he finished, we both sat silent for some time.

Jack became increasingly agitated. Taking a deep breath, he asked what was to become of him now. In a gruff voice I thanked him for telling me about his life at the orphanage.  He need not worry, I wouldn’t be returning him there. Exactly what was to become of him, I said, would have to be sorted out. For now, he could stay with me. I told him he would never again be cold and hungry or hurt. I would make sure of that. He burst into tears. Wanting to give him some physical comfort, I patted his hand. He flinched. I apologised and said I had not intended to scare him. This child had probably never felt a caring touch.

Pulling myself together, I became more business like. Knowing that he was used to authority figures who brooked no argument, I felt it important that he be guided into freedom carefully. If he were to lodge with me he must be clear on my expectations of him. Today was to be a day of rest for him, I said. He was to eat and sleep.  It was necessary for me to go out again. On my return we would have supper and talk some more about what was to become of him. Should he disobey my instructions, I told him I would return him to the orphanage. Of course I had no such intentions.

I dressed myself as warmly as I could for it was beginning to blow a blizzard outside in the fading light. I would have to hurry to catch Mr McPherson before he left the office. He would be wondering what had become of me for I was to report back to him after the board meeting. Fortunately he was still at work when I arrived. Looking closely at me, he commented on my lateness. I apologised and said there had been some unexpected delays which I badly wanted to discuss with him. Inviting me into his office, he sat at his desk and motioned for me to take the seat in front. This signalled a brisk and formal business discussion. He waited for me to begin. Clearing my throat, I launched into a report of the board meeting.  There was no discernible reaction on his face as I recounted the agenda and discussion. It was not until I started to tell him the story of Jack, beginning with my conversation with the orphanage manager, that he showed any signs of emotion.

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By the time I had finished, he was pacing the office, shaking his head and sighing. “So, it is as I suspected. Nothing has changed.”  He himself had been a foundling, having lived in the very same orphanage for several years, he told me.  What I had told him about Jack had transported him back to his own very similar experiences. I was astounded. This day was taking many a strange twist and turn. After he left the orphanage, he was fortunate enough to find a living relative, an aunt, who took him in. His life thereafter was one fortunate circumstance after another. The orphanage years were forgotten until the firm was invited to have a permanent membership on its board of management some two years previously. They needed a legal representative and seemed to be unaware of Mr McPherson’s own history in the institution. He himself had attended the first few meetings but felt unable to continue due to the distress it caused him . Other staff had taken turns to attend meetings. Each of them had expressed concerns. After lengthy discussion with the other senior partners, it was decided to ask me to attend the meetings and see what transpired from that.

We both agreed something had to be done urgently. To leave vulnerable children in the care of such heartless monsters was intolerable. The firm was highly respected and had the ear of the governor. Mr McPherson had many influential contacts all of which were put to good use. An investigative committee was set up based on Jack’s story. What was uncovered was appalling. The current board was disbanded. It had not functioned within its brief for a long time, if ever. The members would be held accountable for their actions through a court of law as would all the existing staff. They were replaced with caring, honest people who were hand selected for their experience and expertise in looking after children.

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Jack continues to live with me. He is a gentle child who is slowly recovering from his traumatic life in the orphanage.  Earning his trust took time. Mr McPherson  and Jack have struck up a friendship. They often go fishing together or some other equally as important outings. On one such occasion Jack returned with a puppy. It was a gift, he said, from Mr McPherson. The two became inseparable. Of all the things that have come into Jack’s life since his escape from the “gov’mint  ‘ouse” on a winter’s day the puppy has provided the most soothing balm. It is a joy to see.

 

 

© Raili Tanska,  December 2014

Images Pixabay
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