Flash Fiction: The Volunteer
His arm held in the grip of officialdom, he would tug, but gently, allowing himself otherwise to be moved along. He would search faces for the onlooker willing to meet his eyes, and flash a smile to convey that a favor would be repaid. One or two Curach saw were short-statured and dark, like himself.
He would use the shiv tucked in the vamp of his boot, jam it hard, just above the kneecap. Take a ring or a watch, and be lucky if finding it had a name inscribed.
A friend, though, was preferable to a fight.
His mother would say it often: “Necessity knows no law”; and Curach had stolen often—but he would rather earn his way. A man native to the place was the thing needed. To act as go-between.
“I’m a lad for a barney.” He was, a willing fighter, equally a willing dogsbody. Coming across on the Portsea he had said this, and more than a few times, his purpose to be overheard. For, why not? He had been told if you crossed, you would find yourself at anyone’s mercy.
“And aren’t they having a war there, still?”
Yet having worked jobs in the past, Curach wondered if there could be a difference. You followed commands or you got the sack. Bloody like to die, laboring for your living…
The eyes he found himself meeting, once Heaven had blessed him with a chance—and after he’d skittered down a short lane that ended in a flight of steps, that brought him straight back to the dockside, were those of a round-faced girl. Not so much a girl; nearer his own age of twenty, he guessed. He swept the cap from his head and bowed to her. He had ten shillings in his pocket, fused by his mother’s worried fingers into a sticky packet of brown paper.
“I’ll walk you up the town,” he told her. He was not certain how he’d get a meal and a roof for the night out of this gambit. He offered her an arm, and she bumped it rudely with her market basket.
“Are you wanted?” she asked him. “Did you come to join a work gang?”
“No, ma’am.” He had come to go down the pit. But he’d been once, and wouldn’t. It was a shame he was by way of stealing his passage money. But so long as he was breathing, he was not going to be caught by Captain Bannigan.
From under the cloth came the smell of onions. Perhaps, if she’d been in the shops, gone to the baker’s at all, she might spare him a crust of bread. He gave the basket handle a playful tug. She was that quick with her hands…the next bit came in a blur. She’d smashed him in the lip with one of her onions, and the juice of it glanced off a tooth.
This was a fair insult, but Curach supposed the girl to have scarpered. He raised himself from the mud, knuckling his watering eye.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“A bit I am.”
“Then you ought to go to the soup kitchen. But you won’t like walking so far, I guess.”
He shook his head. On principle, he did not like walking far.
“You come with me, John Cannon’s tavern down the end of the street. He’ll let you…if you’ll only buy a dram…have as much as you like eating from the board.”
He was squinting from his bad eye yet, but thought he’d noticed her wink at a dandy, who tipped his hat and murmured in passing, “Take care.”
Curach thought he was well awake, and staring…only the view was dark as night. He had dossed in some smelly hole, so it seemed. He had no why or how for it. There must be a great many others, for he could hear a din of snoring, and felt an unpleasant warmth. A close space it was, then, heated by human breath. Also, though he could picture nothing to answer the description, this shuddering box reeled, spinning round every point of the compass, each time Curach made the effort to extract himself from the elbow—it was an elbow—upon which some person leaned against his back.
“Pat!” he heard a voice say. He was dragged up sitting. After all, he could see light…from a wagon car’s open side.
“Tell me, Pat, what’re you good for?”
“Ah, Captain Bannigan”—he felt like weeping—“I was only lost, sir. I’d meant to come along.”
“Sergeant,” the man said. “Sergeant Wrayford. Can you take a gun apart and clean it?”
Curach had never touched a gun. His silence lasted too long.
“Can you saddle a horse? Well, dammit, can you push a broom?”
With hesitant surmise, Curach said, “Sergeant Wrayford, sir. If you’ll put me at the front.”
(2019, Stephanie Foster)