The Streets of Yorktown
Claude ran as fast as his feet would allow him. The cobblestones were cold and uneven. He wove through the bazaar, ducking and weaving through markets, over the top of wooden crates and through roads packed with Clydesdale horses. They saw him and raised their front hooves, slamming them down hard on the stone ground.
‘Hey!’ a rider yelled at the young boy. ‘Watch where you’re going!’
‘Sorry, Sir!’ Claude yelped, dipping his cap to him.
He pressed his back against the brick wall and quickly caught his breath. Sweat beaded on his brow so he took his flat cap off and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. His shirt was covered in holes and his pants were dirty. His boots were stitched together with string and fishing line. The importance of his task suddenly struck him, and he sucked in a lungful of air and started running again.
The journey took him through the streets of Yorktown, past the church where Father Jacob was hanging his clothes on the back line.
‘Why in such a hurry, Claude Wells?’ he yelled, as Claude zipped passed him and leapt over the fence.
‘It’s father!’ Claude yelled back.
Through alleyways lined with trash and slop buckets, Claude made his way to the end of town where a small building stood amongst the taller houses. On the door was a red cross, the paint peeling and faded. He stumbled the last few steps, his lungs squeezing and gasping for air. Up the stairs, he finally paused, raising his fists and banging on the wooden door. A woman answered quickly.
‘Why are you bashing on my door? Are you trying to turn it into kindle?’
‘It’s… my… father,’ Claude begged.
‘Get up boy, I can’t have you gasping and sweating on my front porch. Come through quickly.’
The woman, who was dressed all in white, and wearing a nurse’s cap, took him through a room full of people lying on beds. Most of them had handkerchiefs covering their mouths. They were all coughing and looked gravely ill.
‘Sit here. I will fetch the doctor.’
‘But!’ Claude said, leaping to his feet.
‘Sit!’ she demanded and pointed to the chair.
Claude sat, but was unable to keep still.
Suddenly the Doctor appeared. He had blood on his apron still and his hair was dishevelled.
‘What is it boy?’ he yelled. ‘I’m in the middle of surgery!’
‘It’s father… he’s not well again.’
The Doctor looked towards the door, as if expecting to see him standing there. He looked back at the young boy.
‘I’ll be there when I can.’
‘No,’ Claude said, rushing over to him. ‘Mother said it’s bad this time. You must come now.’
‘Okay,’ the Doctor nodded, looking down at the small boy in his ragged clothes. ‘After I sew this man’s leg up, if he hasn’t lost too much blood from me being out here conversing with you, I’ll come by.’
Claude saw the woman reappear, as if her and Doctor weren’t allowed to be in the same room at the same time.
‘Thank you,’ Claude said as he headed towards the door.
‘Tell your mother it will be 4 shillings!’
Claude pushed on the door and didn’t look back. He ran into the street and up through the alley way. There were people heading down from the township to see the Doctor. They were all coughing and spitting. Claude didn’t know how they were going to pay the Doctor to come out to see them.
He headed towards home, going faster than he had before.
Claude sat beside his father’s bed and watched his mother dampen his brow with a wet cloth. His sweating was profuse and relentless. His father complained about the heat, even though the air in the small house was chilly.
His mother picked up a jug of water and poured a little into a glass. She lifted his head and he sipped it, before spitting it out over his drenched sheets and coughing wildly.
‘When did he say he would be here, Claude?’
‘I don’t know. He didn’t say. He was fixing a man’s leg.’
Claude stood up and looked at his father. He was pale and his eyeballs had receded into their sockets. He looked ghastly.
‘Get the last of the bread,’ his mother told him. Claude did as he was told and ran to the kitchen. It was small, with shelves with no doors and a cooler box with no ice. There was a bucket of filthy water and flies buzzing around old onion skins. Under a small cloth was two slices of bread from a loaf they had brought weeks ago. Claude picked them up as if it was the last piece of bread on earth and took it back into the room. His mother took them from him and tried to feed it to her husband, but he refused.
‘You eat it,’ he told her. ‘Do not waste it on me.’
‘It’s not a waste,’ she told him. ‘Not if you get well.’
‘What if I don’t get well,’ his father said, followed by a violent cough that produced mucus on his lips.
There was a harsh banging on the door and Claude looked at his mother, who appeared afraid. He jumped to his feet and bolted for the door, swinging it open. Doctor Herbert stood on the doorstep. His shirt was stained with red and he was carrying his medical bag. He looked unpleasant.
‘Are you going to let me in, boy? Or should we wait till your father passes into the next world?’
Claude moved aside and the Doctor rushed in, looking around frantically.
‘They’re in the bedroom,’ Claude announced, pointing to the end of the hall.
The Doctor marched forward into the room, shutting the door behind him. After a little time, Claude could hear his mother crying. He crept slowly towards the door and pressed his ear to it.
‘…the sickness. There is no cure. Only rest and water and pray that it passes. I can give him something for the pain, but he is in a bad state.’
Claude knew they didn’t have 1 shilling to pay for the medicine, let alone 4 shillings for the home visit.
‘I’ll return in a week. If he gets worse, send the boy.’
The door swung open and Claude nearly fell into the room. The Doctor looked down at him with narrowed eyes.
‘Will my father get better?’
‘He needs the right medicine and clean water,’ the Doctor looked around the room and marched back towards the front door. Claude followed him.
‘If he can’t work, then you must,’ the Doctor told him.
‘I can’t. I’m only 14. Apprenticeships start at 16.’
Doctor Herbert leant down, so he was face to face with Claude.
‘Ever heard about lying, boy. Either you bring in money, or….’ Doctor Herbert looked over his shoulder at the room at the end of the hall. ‘Tell the employment office I will vouch for you.’
Far down the hall he could hear his father coughing and splattering. The Doctor stood back up and stomped out of the house. Claude shut the door and slumped down to the ground.
That night, his father got worse. Due to the house only having one room, Claude slept in the small nook in the evening room where the fireplace was. There was no wood and it had not been lit for some years. His blanket was an old rug he found in the alleyway in town. He slept on rags for a mattress and his pillow was a balled-up shirt his father never wore anymore. The window above him let in moonlight. From where he lay, he could see the stars. They seemed so far away and, no matter how much he focused, he still couldn’t see what they were. He heard footsteps coming down the hall. It was his mother. She fetched more water from the bucket and returned to the room. She had been awake now for over two nights, keeping vigil over her husband. What the Doctor had said to Claude had resonated with him. It rattled around his skull like a loose marble. Tomorrow, he thought, I will go to the job market and look for an apprenticeship. I will lie about my age and get father the medicine he needs. He closed his eyes and thought no more.
Want more? Coming mid-March!