Literary Fiction, Historic Fiction, Humour

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Jack Dawkins, Chapter One

The white cliffs of Dover slowly appeared through the mist rising from the ocean surface. Jack stood at the rail of the ship, watching his homeland draw closer with every lap of the waves.

I’m home, he thought to himself in the near silence of early morning. The moisture stinging his eyes threatened his normally cool composure. Jack Dawkins didn’t get emotional over a country that shut him out, or so he tried to convince himself. It was only his satisfaction at returning illegally that had him over excited.

Many of his childhood... acquaintances... had been deported to the Australian colonies on the same ship that probably saved him a hanging. He had managed to remain in communication with them for a while through his own devious devices, but they were all dead now. If the drink didn’t get them, the poisonous spiders and snakes, as well as the crocodiles were as good as a rope for ending a man’s life.

Jack was indeed a man now. No longer the youthful child-villain who had aspired to becoming a fully-fledged robber like old Bill Sikes.

Dead. They’re all dead. Jack sighed at the thought of Fagin, still his best mentor. They had hung the old man. It had always been Fagin’s greatest fear that he would die by the noose. Jack wondered if his surrogate father had died bravely or whether he had broken into pathetic pleading in the end. For good or ill, old Fagin had taught him how to survive when no one else had cared about the small lad who had once been abandoned to the streets of London. Had Fagin not taken him in, he might well have died of starvation or worse, been consigned to a workhouse.

‘Like Oliver,’ Jack said aloud. He looked around quickly to make sure no one stood nearby where they might hear. The deck was blessedly deserted. The other passengers preferred to stay below deck where the cold fog would not dampen their finery or remind them that England was as cold a place as one could imagine compared to the hot desert climate of Australia.

Oliver, he thought more quietly. He was the one man who might recognise Jack from the old days. Ten years could change a youth to a man so that his appearance would not be immediately familiar, but Jack had no doubt that he and Oliver would spot each other in a crowd, even after all this time. It was his one fear about returning to London. As much as he had heard that the city had grown, he could not be sure whether Oliver would peach on him if they crossed paths. Reports had said that he had cried when Fagin was killed. Jack wondered if the innocent lad he had once rescued from the streets would be as sentimental about his old mate, the Artful Dodger.

After seventy-two days at sea his legs craved the stability of dry land. Jack took the gold pocket watch from his embroidered silk waistcoat pocket to look at the hour. It was a trinket he had collected at the Sydney dock, having intentionally arrived early to mix into a crowd waving goodbye to a ship destined for the other new world, America. In a land populated with deported villains and thieves the pickings had been better guarded than what Dodger had known in the innocence of London. He had even been reduced to accepting honest wages on occasion, hence the fancy togs he was wearing now. They had been procured from a tailor shop where he had earned a few bob doing menial work and the missing fabric would hardly be noticed until Jack was long since gone. Learning a little of the trade had assisted in making his new clothes fit better than the pinched articles he had procured under Fagin’s tuition.

There was still time for Jack to breakfast at his leisure. The ship had some distance to go before it could enter the Thames estuary.

Jack pulled a kerchief from his pocket to wipe the moisture from his jacket as he descended the stairs to below decks. He stopped on a landing for a moment, catching himself with his nose slightly in the air as he brushed away the droplets from the fine fabric.

A right regular gent I am, he thought in the vernacular of his youth. It was true. He had cultivated the mannerisms of the privileged classes based on the deportment of those he had habitually robbed. He’d had few enough examples of gentility in the colonies, but occasionally a dignitary would visit and could be seen in the shops. These occasional glimpses jogged Jack’s memories of hunting in the upper class neighbourhoods of London and he would go back to his room and practice the posturing and mannerisms that set a gentleman apart in mixed society. One day, he knew from the first day he set foot on foreign soil, he would return to England and make his fortune properly.

Now here he was, the goal partly accomplished. It would mean hanging if he were caught, but he had no intention of getting caught. No one looks for a villain amongst the genteel.

A waiter carrying a tray of sticky buns passed him on his way to the quarter deck. Somehow the tray was one bun lighter as he ascended the stairs to the ships officers. Jack was feeling very much his old self as he neared the land of his earliest tutelage. Whatever secret doubts he had entertained about managing to get by in a country that had no doubt changed greatly in his absence melted away as he enjoyed the sweet flavour of icing on his tongue. The treat was all the sweeter for having been pinched. Yes, Jack was truly back.

The remainder of the voyage was spent in his lower cabin, collecting his few possessions. He had travelled light, not least of all because he had never owned much. A set of clothing more fitting a common labourer and his shaving implements were more than enough to see him through the journey. The bag he kept these few things in had been stolen, as had its contents. The quality was sufficient to pass with either persona he cared to present to the world at any given time. Plain and black, but good conditioned leather.

He had considered leaving the ship in his poorer togs, but he didn’t want to crush his top hat in the bag. It had already taken one crease, hardly noticeable, but still an imperfection that drew his own eye. It had been the most difficult part of his wardrobe to pinch and he wasn’t prepared to see it ruined easily. Besides, his first destination after securing lodgings in London was to be the higher class area known as Pentonville, where the old gentleman who had adopted Oliver dwelt.

Jack relaxed with a bottle of gin and a smoke until the signal was blown for disembarkation. The cigar was of agreeable value, having been procured from the governor himself. It had been a stroke of good fortune, having been caught lurking where he had no business near the governor’s house.

As usual, his luck had been in. As it had happened, the governor had scheduled an appointment and the servant had assumed, despite his plain clothing, that Jack was the expected personage. He had been shown inside and asked to wait. Jack turned the minute the servant was out of sight up the stairs and started to open the door, only to find himself face to face with the actual person who was expected. He thought quickly and offered to take the man’s hat and coat as if he were the servant himself.

The gentleman had looked down his nose at Jack and the rough material of his togs, but had turned his property over, watching as Jack walked into an adjoining room. The wallet and the man’s kerchief were quickly out of the inner coat pocket and the hat placed on his own head as he scampered out of a window. The cigars had been collected from a box on the desk on the way out.

That was when Jack had decided that it was time to set sail. He had planned it for years. The recent weeks had seen him making preparations, with the general idea in mind that it was getting to be time he made his move. The incident at the governor’s house had been the catalyst that had convinced him that the moment had arrived. Jack speculated that the visitor had been delivering either campaign funds or bribery money, as he had been carrying a substantial amount of cash. Jack had booked passage that day with the money he had procured from the unknown man’s wallet.

Jack had always been a little smaller than average and rather quick to slip out of sticky situations. It had served him well when his prison ship had first arrived. With new settlers pouring into the Australian colonies, the docks had been busy enough for a half-grown lad to slip his chains and mix into the crowd unnoticed before the new arrivals had even been counted. He might have earned his freedom in seven years and returned to England legally, as a life sentence was a relative thing, but Jack preferred to take both his freedom and his chances from the start. He never spent a day as indentured prison labour.

Time had changed circumstances as time will do. The Australian colonies had been distinctly lacking in old derelict properties where he might have taken up residence at an appropriate price. Among other concessions, he had been obliged to pay for accommodation, hence his employment as a haberdasher’s assistant.

With such comforts having become habitual, Jack’s first priority as he set foot on English soil was to set about procuring a suitable room with as little expenditure as possible near the docks of London. The rooms there would be less costly than many and there was some merit in keeping one’s base of operation near to a quick getaway prospect, should such a need arise.

He cleared the gangplank with his bag over his shoulder and mixed into the thickest part of the crowd out of habit. Almost immediately he felt the familiar touch of light fingers too near his back trouser pocket. He spun quickly, grabbing the small hand that had slipped under his jacket and looked into the frightened eyes of a small, dark lad.

‘There ain’t nuthin’ but trouble there, mate,’ he said just above a whisper, then he let the boy’s hand go and watched him melt into the crowd. The young prig looked back occasionally with some confusion in his eyes. Jack smiled to himself as he watched the waif seek out better pickings, then turned and walked without breaking stride as he casually picked up a rather posh walking stick that had been left leaning on a post as another new arrival was hugged by relatives come to greet him.

Jack had no contacts or prospects in London. Thus far he hadn’t spoken to a soul apart from the would-be pickpocket. His old cohorts having mostly been shipped off along with him, there was no one left alive to welcome him home. No one, that was, except his old mate, Oliver. With hanging ever present in the spectrum of possible outcomes, he wasn’t sure that a reunion was a wise move.

Once his effects had been adequately stowed in a secured room, his next task was to investigate the extent of inevitable changes that must surely have occurred in a city that was once his playground. His steps took him first to the house that was once that of Mr Brownlow, Oliver’s grand-uncle and benefactor.

He took rather too much pleasure in the simple act of walking boldly down the street lined with fine houses, swinging the walking stick that he had picked up at the docks. A passer-by would certainly have thought that the well-dressed young man belonged in the area.

The street was largely unchanged, which was no surprise. Abodes of the very rich tended to stand the test of time. Jack spied a street sweeper and approached him carefully, pretending that it was by accident that their paths crossed. He put on his most pronounced Toff accent, which he had so often practiced as an act of sarcasm in his childhood.

‘Pardon me, my good man, can you tell me if that house still belongs to old Mr Brownlow?’

‘Young Brownlow now, sir,’ came the accented reply. ‘Old Mr Brownlow passed on more’n a year ago. You a relative?’

Jack smiled wanly, pleased with the intelligence of the streets. Jack Dawkins knew well that it was the lower classes who served the rich who would always know how things went with them.

‘Just an old friend of the family,’ he told the sweep. ‘I presume young Brownlow is the lad Oliver?’

‘He’s a young man now, sir, and a fine ’un to make ’is family proud. You won’t find ’im at home though, he was out early this morning.’

‘Indeed,’ Jack replied, drawing the vowels out just a little too long. ‘I don’t suppose you know where he’s gone or when he’s expected back?’

‘You might want to ask the servants, sir, per’aps you’ll be invited in to wait.’

Jack smiled then. He could just imagine sitting in a splendid parlour, sipping tea, and Oliver’s face when he came in to find his one time friend, the Artful Dodger, waiting in fancy togs and a top hat with only one crease.

‘Thank you for the information,’ he said to the sweep. ‘I have other business to attend to. I shall return later.’

With that he walked away. He thought of tossing the helpful man a coin, but he had little enough of them and needed to conserve what he had. Jack Dawkins might have had a rough start in life, but he was no fool. His future in a land where he had no remaining connections was still unknown.

Jack went back to his room to change into his other clothes before the next stage of his tour. This part of his plan brought more trepidation than the danger of encountering Oliver on his journey to Pentonville had done. He felt it was necessary. He needed to see how much the place had changed, or if it still existed at all. He was sure his feet would remember the way to a certain old derelict building, whether it still stood in the same place or not, and to the ale house where Nancy used to sing.

The murder of Nancy had never stopped tormenting him. Many times he had wondered if he could have done anything differently that might have prevented it. Sikes, her murderer, was long dead now. Jack had determined when it happened that whatever sort of low character he might grow up to be, at least he would never become a killer of women.

He had loved her in his way. She had only been a few years older than him. Oft times he would speculate on what might have been had they been allowed to grow a little older together. Surely Sikes would have come to a bad end sooner or later anyway. If he had gone to prison or the noose, Nancy would still have been there and she would have needed comforting. Her constant friend, Dodger, would have been only too glad to mend her sorrows.

The route to his old lodgings was imprinted on the stamp of his tarnished soul. He crossed London Bridge, stopping only for a moment to look over the old wall at the flowing river. His thoughts didn’t formulate in words, but he had a feeling of time and the significance of the constantly changing current that somehow applied to things past, perhaps cleansed by the passage of time itself. He quickly moved onward past the monument to the great fire of London and was surprised by a new train station where a row of old buildings should have been. The rail system appeared to have spread prolifically across the landscape of the city in his absence.

Still, most of the old streets remained where they should be. He crossed back over and made his way to Little Saffron Hill, which stood much as it always had, dirty and wretched. He turned at a familiar corner that was little changed, then turned again into Field Lane and…

He had been sure that he was ready to encounter the changes that would have inevitably occurred during his years away. He had specifically expected the old deadlurk to have been demolished in that time. However, as he looked across the row of new terraced houses that now lined the old street he felt somehow affronted. These new dwellings had somehow taken something from him, something of his past and the person that once dwelt within the dirty walls that had long since been removed. It was the first time since his incarceration that he had laid eyes on the place where it had all happened… the place where Fagin should have been.

Word of Fagin’s execution had travelled to Botony Bay soon after their arrival. Some of the other lads had even cried, though they were toughened street urchins who had never been seen to shed a tear before. Dodger, always the stoic one, felt the chasm where his old mentor should be perhaps more than any of them, yet had comforted the others and encouraged them to take heart. Most of them took to drink instead, leaving the Dodger alone to make his way in a world without Fagin or anything of the life that they had once known.

A tear escaped Jack’s eye as he looked upon the new buildings, at last bringing home the reality that it was all gone forever. Whatever he had planned for his return to London, he had once again stepped into a new life devoid of the comforts of an old one best left behind, yet still grieved. The echo of a past never forgotten taunted him from between the impossibly intact buildings that now lined the street.
Jack convinced himself as he turned and left the strange neighbourhood that was no longer his home, that the same would await him at the site of the old tavern. All the more surprised was he then to find it still much as it had been, although now derelict.

Here the building stones were free to speak their story. Nancy’s voice seemed to resonate from the damp stones themselves. The tavern was as gutted as if there had been a fire, though there was no sign of smoke. Time alone and perhaps scavengers had removed the tables and other accoutrements that had made the establishment into a working touting ken. Jack’s eyes flicked upwards, noting the stairs that led to the rooms above.

For a moment, he entertained the idea of free lodgings. If he could bear to look upon the room that Nancy once shared with Bill Sikes, he might recapture the spirit of what was once so much a part of him. He had paid a week in advance at his dockside lodgings. The price included warm water brought daily and some form of civilised conditions. Winter was not so far off that Jack didn’t know how cold and lonely a derelict room could be.

Just as he was deciding that there was some attraction in creature comforts, a dirty young man started to come scampering down the stairs.

‘Who’r’you?’ he asked angrily. It was a challenge. These were his lodgings and he clearly didn’t like the look of a strange man interfering in his claim. Jack looked at the tattered clothing and dirty face of the lad, probably no more than fifteen, and saw a reflection of his own past self. It struck him then that he had come a bit further in life. He was no longer the street urchin whom he saw mirrored in this discarnate waif of criminal class hardship.

‘No one,’ Jack replied simply to the boy. He turned and strode out of the tavern, walking away from the last vestiges of his past. Suddenly he wanted a warm water wash.

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