••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 22nd Year: Extract from J&K 4Ever
A Dereliction of duty
Jeyna said a quick prayer of protection and entered the children’s bedroom. She quickly checked herself, tried to hide her surprise. The room was small, damp and far worse than any room at the orphanage.
A boy and girl, both small for their ages were sitting on their narrow beds watching her. They were half-starved, clearly terrified, their hands gripping and twisting their meager patchwork blankets. The girl had little blue veins visible on her forehead and looked sickly. The boy’s legs were bruised; he had a lump on his head and the remnants of a black eye. Jeyna didn’t think this came from fighting each other.
‘My name is Jeyna,’ she began hesitantly. ‘I’m very sorry about your mother.’
The boy stood, began something he had obviously rehearsed. ‘Welcome to our home, Miss Jeyna. We promise faithfully to never give you reason to beat us. I am Seb, this is Jessica.’
Jeyna smiled, but her heart sank at the condition of the two of them. The Master of the Sewers was clearly a monster.
‘Thank you, Seb. I will try to make your lives as pleasant as possible. Your father told me that you’d show me where everything was.’
The girl rose. Jeyna noticed she had no shoes and her legs had vivid red scars on them.
‘I’ll show you. Seb has to go to school.’
Jeyna nodded, then frowned. ‘But it’s late. Surely school has started.’
‘They don’t let me go to the gym.’ Seb declared quietly, clearly embarrassed by this.
His sister explained.
‘You do not.’ Jeyna protested.
‘My father is Master of the Sewers.’ Seb explained. ‘No one wants me at school.’
‘Is that how you got your black eye?’
Seb nodded. His sister sighed. Clearly she was the stronger of the two.
‘What do you think life would be like in Bluette if someone didn’t collect the muck and clear the horse droppings? Did you think about that, Seb? Do they?’
Seb’s face cleared. He seemed surprised that Jeyna would say should a thing.
‘When they tried to bully me at the orphanage, I put some horse droppings on the bully’s seat and made sure I was a long way from his reach when he sat down. To this day they think he pooped his pants. There’s ways of dealing with bullies, Seb. No need to fight. And as for smells. As long as I’m here, you’ll wash everyday. You understand. Hair washed once a week. Them’s the rules now.’
The girl smiled. Rules were something she understood.
Seb grabbed his bible, straightened his back and left the bedroom a little more confident than he’d been moments ago.
The girl looked at Jeyna and sighed.
‘You won’t stay.’
Jeyna looked at her, puzzled. ‘I won’t?’
The girl shook her head. ‘You’re too pretty. You won’t stay. I know it.’
Jeyna took the girl’s hand, noticing she had rough hands, unusual for a little girl. ‘Show me the house, Jesse. Tell me what you do every day.’
Jessica could do that. Jeyna wondered why the girl was so sure she wouldn’t stay. Nice to be thought pretty, even by a small child, but something in the girl’s manner worried her.
The house was a dump. Uncared for. There was little sign that any mother had lived here or kept order. There were no carpets. Bare walls where the wind whistled through. It would be freezing in winter. She couldn’t wait for Kruge to come for her, but now she had seen these children, how could she abandon them? Of course, that was the plan. She was sure of it.
‘We will prepare lunch together, yes?’ Jeyna told her.
The girl shook her head. ‘There’s no food. Never any food.’
That’s when the heavens opened and the rain came down hard.
‘Buckets!’ Jessica shouted and broke free from Jeyna.
Jeyna watched as water poured through the roof, pooling on the wooden floors. Not just one hole, but several, in every room. Jessica reappeared with the buckets and they quickly placed them under the worst leaks. There weren’t enough buckets. The noise of the rain on the rusted tin roof was deafening.
Jeyna was astonished. This house was a total wreck. Surely the Master of the Sewers was well rewarded for his efforts each day? Could he not fix his house? For the sake of the children at least?
Jeyna stared at the water as the buckets filled rapidly. She couldn’t believe that she’d actually miss the orphanage so quickly.
‘No food?’ Jeyna asked, remembering what the child had said.
Jessica shook her head.
‘But…’ Jeyna couldn’t make sense of it.
‘Your father told me to make lunch. He’s coming back for lunch.’
‘There’s nothing,’ Jessica told her emphatically. ‘Come.’
They left the buckets and Jeyna allowed herself to be led to the kitchen and beyond it, the larder. The door was wide open. The only item in there an open box of rat killer. Rows of empty plastic containers faced her. There wasn’t even any milk. Nothing. No one had cooked in this house in a long time.
‘How do you eat? When do you eat?’ Jeyna asked, incredulous.
Clearly these children didn’t get anything at home, but they were still alive so they had to be eating somewhere.
‘There’ll be a whipping,’ Jessica said quietly.
Jeyna looked at her, confused.
‘I don’t understand, Jessica. I’m here to feed you. Take care of you. Why isn’t there any food? No flour to make bread. Nothing.’
Jessica shrugged. ‘You’ll get a whipping. That’s what you’ll get.’
Jeyna took a deep breath. Jessica was making no sense.
‘Perhaps there’s something to eat in the garden?’ This could be a test of her initiative she realized. Perhaps the food was hidden.
Jessica looked at her blankly. Jeyna moved to the window. Saw the rain pulverizing the garden, churning it all to mud. There wasn’t a single plant or bush. It was a sea of rubbish. Old prams, bits of metal, abandoned broken machines. A tip.
A sin too, for everyone was obliged to tend a garden.
‘The Lord will provide,’ Jessica stated.
‘The Lord helps those who help themselves,’ Jeyna retorted. ‘Do they not teach you that at bible class?’
Jessica went to collect a bucket, already nearing full.
Jeyna entered the living room and did the same. Together they threw the water out into the garden. She had a very bad feeling about all this.
‘Yes, Miss Jeyna?’
‘How did your mother feed you?’
Jessica took her empty bucket back to the leak and set it down to collect more water.
Just at that moment the door opened, slamming against the wall with the force of the wind. The boy Seb was back. He was drenched. His bible almost pulp.
‘School’s flooded.’ He declared, closing the door, stripping off his wet jumper. Jeyna picked it up and wrung it out. She realized that drying it would be almost impossible in such a damp house. Another thought suddenly occurred to her. She turned to Jessica.
‘You didn’t show me my room.’
Jessica looked confused.
‘Show me where I am to sleep, Jessica.’
Jessica walked towards the corridor and Jeyna followed wondering how the girl got those vivid scars on her legs. A whipping? How many whippings?
It was quickly apparent that there were only two bedrooms. The children’s, where water was pouring down the inside side wall, and the bigger room. His room; the Master of the Sewers domain. It consisted of one mean narrow bed, one chest of drawers, and one broken picture of Jesus hanging askew, water dripping onto his sweat-stained pillow.
Jeyna made up her mind right there and then.
‘The Lord will provide, you said.’
‘Your mother fed you at the church kitchen?’
Jessica nodded again.
Jeyna realized exactly what was going on here. The Master of the Sewers didn’t even bother to feed his own children. His wife had taken the kids to the soup kitchen on Main Street. The walk of shame. To eat there was to admit you were too poor or too sick to feed yourself. They made you scrub the floors or wash up afterwards. Nothing was for free in Bluette.
Thunder rolled overhead. It seemed louder than before – the rain fell harder, the sky darkened.
‘This will not stand,’ Jeyna declared. ‘I don’t care how much your father paid for me. This will not stand.’
The boy was still stood dripping by the front door. He looked chilled to the bone.
‘Find a towel. Don’t be useless, Seb. Is there such a thing as an umbrella in the house? Do you have any shoes, Jessica?’
Jessica went to look. The boy ran to his room. Jeyna replaced her bucket. She made no attempt to mop the floor. She’d already made up her mind to leave. Whipping, or no whipping. This would not stand.
Jessica returned with an umbrella, one spike broken, but it opened well enough and would keep some of the rain off.
‘Where are we going?’ Jessica asked, nervous now. She still wore no shoes.
‘A place you should have gone to years ago. Seb? Hurry now.’
© Sam Hawksmoor Nov 2022
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