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Authors: Alan Watts

Touched by Angels

BOOK: Touched by Angels
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TOUCHED BY ANGELS

Alan Watts

 

 

 

Published in the United Kingdom by Aston Bay Press in 2012

Kindle Edition

Copyright © Alan Watts, 2012

Aston Bay Press, Dallam Court, Dallam Lane, Warrington, Cheshire, WA1 7LT

Alan Watts has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination, unless otherwise stated, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN 978-0-9569830-8-4

www.astonbay.co.uk

Cover Design by Richie Cumberlidge at Daniel Goldsmith Associates

Conversion to ebook by www.danielgoldsmith.co.uk

 

 

 

Part One

One

East End, London, 1912

A musky tang of oil and steam drifted in wreaths through Rice Lane from the cargo ships at West India Dock, mingling with the soot and smoke of a thousand coal fires. The factories at Wapping beat a steady throb while their chimneys pointed to a slate sky. A retch of whooping cough came through an open window, while cats screeched fighting over a dead rat.

None of this could be heard by nine-year-old Robert Smith.

All he could hear was the rapid sound of his own pulse, as his hand hovered over two straws, held in the grubby fist of Lenny Chapman. If he picked the short one, he risked a battering from Big Molly O’Brien. Topping seventeen stone, and with fists like hams, she lived with her mother in the house opposite, and was given to terrible rages over nothing.

The other two members of the gang, Dick Morgan and Nigel Boakes were starting to fidget. Feeling safe, they’d drawn long straws ages ago and now they wanted some action.

It all became too much for Nigel, as he snarled, “Go on then, for fuck’s sake. We ain’t got all day!”

He glanced around nervously in case they were being watched.

“Yeah,” added Dick Morgan, “what are you, a drip? You only gotta nick a couple o’ coins.”

He shoved him hard and Robert sprawled against one of the empty beer barrels they were hiding between.

“No, I ain’t,” Robert gasped, winded, as he pulled himself up, “and I’ll fump the next wanker who says I am, so fuck off!”

He threw a mouldy tomato skin at them.

“Well go on then,” said Lenny through gritted teeth, “pull one!”

There was a fifty-fifty chance that
he
would have to perform the dare.

Robert closed his eyes and pulled and knew before he’d even opened them what the verdict was, as laughter echoed all around.

He dropped it as he stood and shook as he made his way, white faced, past the Dog and Duck, across the street, then through the open front door of the O’Brien house, feeling their goading eyes upon him.

The boys were tensed up, grinning and ready, for it was normally about now it all went wrong.

They had all seen Big Molly in action and some had the scars to show for it.

In the hall, where he was terrified of creaking floor boards, he could hear the sound of singing coming from the back yard and the squeak of a mangle being turned. There were stairs to his left, with a scabby cat at the top, staring down, its yellow eyes marking him.

The Irish kept their dead bodies in the parlour for a couple of days before internment, and that was where the pennies would be, pressed into the dead man’s eyes.

There were two doors, but which led to it? The left was slightly open, so he pushed it gently and peered inside. The pungency hit him like a hammer and he reeled back, gagging.

In the half light, he saw her sitting in a wing-backed chair, head back, amid puffed-up ginger hair, gaping mouth lined with great yellow teeth. An empty gin bottle was rolling slowly on the floor beside her.

He nearly ran, there and then, because his mother had warned him time and time again to steer well clear. He’d seen Big Molly knock grown men to the ground.

He closed the door carefully, walked to the other and tried the handle. It squeaked as he depressed it, only faintly, but he knew she wasn’t sleeping very deeply.

He closed his eyes in relief when he had pushed the handle down as far as it would go, wishing his heart would stop galloping, and carefully pushed the door open.

He was half way there. A couple more minutes and the prize would be his.

The curtains were pulled and the parlour stank of must and burned tallow. A wooden crucifix hung on the wall, above a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary.

He gazed at the coffin, balanced on two trestles, with a lit candle either side, each burned three quarters of the way down. A moth fluttered around one of them, the rasp of its wings the only sound. He saw the waxy grey face of the elderly body in the ochre glow, copper discs for eyes, cheeks sunken in, thin arms crossed athwart his narrow chest, over the moth-eaten suit with a folded handkerchief in the top pocket.

Taking the pennies was more than just a dare, they were desperately needed income, which, as part of the deal, he alone would benefit by. Robert’s heart thudded as he reached out, knowing he would faint if the mouth dropped open.

Then, just as he touched the nearest coin, he heard a shriek from behind. He turned to see the door flying back on its hinges with a bang and Big Molly charging at him with a soup ladle clutched in her hand.

The stench of urine hung around her like a green cloud.

“You ’orrible little
pig
!” she screamed, spit flying from her mouth.

Robert darted around to the other side of the coffin, terrified. He could hear the others laughing outside. Running would be impossible. He was hovering, left then right, knowing the only exit from the room was her side.

She knew it too. “I’m gonna make you wish you was never born!” she screamed. “An’ I don’t care if I fuckin’ swing for it, and then I’m gonna put your dick fru that bleedin’ mangle, ’til there’s blood and fings squirtin’ out of it, that’ll teach…”

“Flippin’ ’ell!” Robert gasped. “It’s only a joke.”

He saw the mindless fury in her little pig eyes and a raging certainty came over him. He was going to die, horribly and painfully.

His voice was papery, no spit at all. “Look, I’ll just go. If you don’t peach on me, I won’t peach on you, cause if my dad finds out you’ve ’urt me, he’ll…”

She took a sudden swipe.

It came so close it skimmed the tip of his nose, leaving his eyes watering. He tripped backwards, lost his balance and his right foot shot out, clipping one of the trestles.

The coffin started to shake, and before he could do anything, it dropped, tipping sideways. The body tumbled out face down, with the coffin lying on top.

Molly staggered back in horror with her hands over her face, the ladle dangling frantically from one of her fingers.

An older woman appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron, as Robert was scrambling back up with his heart thudding. A black band circled one arm. She was Molly’s mother, a big woman herself, who muttered, in broad brogue, as she crossed herself, “What in the name of sweet Jesus…”

With that, Robert saw his chance. He leapt over the coffin, shoved between them, ran out into the hallway, skidded down the steps and was gone.

 

***

 

As Robert tore past them, the other boys, who had been holding their ribs laughing, suddenly came to their senses and took off. They stopped running after several streets, heaving for breath, watching the route they had taken for any sign of Big Molly, or worse, a cop.

Nigel Boakes, who was examining a graze on his left foot, was sure he wouldn’t be doing a lot of sitting down if this got back to his parents, and said so, while Lenny asked, “What the fuckin’ ’ell are we gonna do?”

“Well
I
don’t know, do I?” replied Dick Morgan. “Anyway, it’s all your fault, you stupid prick. I never would ’ave done it, if…”

“Is it, fuck! Anyway, they only saw Rob. They don’t ’ave to know about the rest of us.”

“But you were all there too,” Robert protested, seeing human nature, starkly, and not for the first time, for what it really was, “and if I get
my
arse skinned, I’ll bleat, I can tell you that!”

They spent the next minutes hiding in the shadows, watching and accusing each other of thinking up the stupid idea, swearing they wouldn’t do anything like it ever again.

Then, when they were certain there was no pursuit, they made their way back, their eyes peeled constantly, before splintering, and going their separate ways, knowing that by now, news may have reached home.

It was worse still for Robert, as his house was nearly opposite the O’Briens’. Shaking, he walked down the alley behind, so he could enter by the back door and not be seen, hoping that at that moment Mrs O’Brien would be too upset and angry to go around knocking on doors, shouting the odds.

 

***

 

He was in luck, but only because Molly had flown into a hideous fury after throwing the statue of the Virgin Mary at the wall. It had struck it so hard, that when it shattered, a fragment flew back and cut her above the left eye.

Then, howling with pain, she had kicked the parlour door off its hinges, and Mrs O’Brien had made a run for it, and hidden herself in the outside toilet, shaking with fear.

The neighbours had heard the shouting and screaming, but knew the folly of intervening.

Mrs O’Brien had only wandered back when the din had petered out, and only then, very gingerly. She found Molly sitting in her wing-back chair, staring into space, with blood coursing down her cheek. She didn’t seem to notice it. Sometimes, after a rage, she would sit like this for hours, and not a peep would come from her.

This time though, she only stayed like it for about fifteen minutes, before the sobs came, and Mrs O’Brien knew it was reasonably safe to approach her.

Having only caught the merest glimpse of the boy herself, she put her arm around Molly’s great shoulders; and whilst gently dabbing the blood away with a handkerchief, coaxed from her his name.

“It were that Smiff boy,” she sniffed.

Mrs O’Brien knew the boy Molly meant. There were several families bearing that name around here, but she knew Molly meant the Smiths opposite, where the father, Bob, was a drunken wastrel, and the mother, Lil, thought her shit didn’t stink.

By now, she was seething as she lifted her grandfather back into his coffin, and replaced the pennies, before placing the coffin back on its trestles.

Then she made another oath, as she had every time her Molly was harassed, that if she ever got hold of that boy, or any of the little guttersnipes he hung around with, she would make him wish he’d never been born!

 

***

 

Across the lane, Lil, Robert’s mother, looked up as he entered the parlour, instantly suspicious of his furtive behaviour. She was darning a sock, but she was so practised, her gaze never left him. Her hair, the envy of Whitechapel, was piled up. A shaft of sunlight, through the cracked pane, made it shimmer like quicksilver.

A knock on the door made him flinch, confirming her misgivings. She nodded at him to open it.

As he did, she knew he was already thinking up his alibi. She frowned seeing how relieved he was to see it was only Mr King, the landlord, come for his rent. Not that that was especially good news. A shaven-headed thug stood either side, one carrying the rent book.

As young as Robert was, she’d made sure he knew what happened to people who hadn’t the money to pay. They were evicted on the spot.

If they refused to leave, which was exceedingly rare, the neighbours would hear the sound of a beating for the man of the house, howling children, the wife screaming before the door slammed shut behind them. A few minutes later, they would stagger past, their few possessions strewn between them, and the husband with his head back to stop his nose bleeding into his moustache, with everybody peeking from behind their curtains, glad it wasn’t them. Everybody knew where they would be heading, because it was the same place they always went: the workhouse in Marylebone, which was run by the King family.

BOOK: Touched by Angels
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