Joseph gripped the tuppence within his pocket and hesitated. Saul was almost ready to shut up the bookshop, and Joseph knew it was now or never. Still he dithered, unable to make up his mind.
It was beginning to snow. The cobblestones were cold. Joseph’s sockless feet ached in their thin shoes. He rubbed the tuppence between his fingers. Two pies, this coin was worth. Today’s dinner and tomorrow’s. His stomach groaned at the thought of food. Last night he’d been idiot enough to leave his jacket hanging in the cabbies’ depot, and Jimmy the Wrench had stolen the last shilling from his pocket. This tuppence was all he had until the wages were doled on Saturday.
Saul spotted him lurking in the dark and Joseph stepped into the rectangle of light by the door.
“Joe!” smiled Saul. “You come to rent?” Vapour puffed out with every word.
Joseph stayed silent. Saul squinted at him in the poor light.
“Where’s your coat? Weather’s getting harsh for that thin suit now. You need get your girl knit you a muffler!”
Joseph grinned his best grin. The cold made the skin of his face feel stiff. “Sure the ladies won’t look at me twice if I ruin the cut of me gib with a scruffy awld coat.”
Saul tutted. “Vanity will kill you,” he warned. “You come to rent, Joseph? I just about ready to close.”
Two pies, whispered the coin. A twist of tea.
He could buy one pie on the way home, eat it under the railway bridge. He’d have a full belly then. A full belly was irreversible. Not even Jimmy the Wrench could steal an eaten pie.
“Boy,” sighed Saul. “I’m closing up shop.”
“Hold yer horses,” murmured Joseph.
Right now, Lady Nana would be settling down by the fire in her little room. She’d be humming to herself and making tea, waiting for Tina to come home. If Joseph knocked on her door, Lady Nana would never turn him away. But Fran the Apples might. Was it worth the risk to spend his last tuppence with Saul, only to have Fran turn him away? Where would he be then? His belly still empty. His last tuppence wasted on a handful of useless paper, and nothing to do but walk home.
Home. Joseph shuddered.
How he wished Fran the Apples had never overheard them. It wasn’t like Joseph even believed in any of that ghosty stuff. He was just trying to be entertaining. It was just a bit of a laugh. Well. To him it was. Fran the Apples hadn’t been at all happy to find himself and Tina crouched over the spirit board. She hadn’t said anything at the time. But as soon as Tina had left the room, Fran the Apples had bent low, stared into Joseph’s eyes and hissed, Get out.
That had been a week ago. A long, bleak and miserable week, and Joseph didn’t think he could stand another one like it. He took the tuppence from his pocket and held it out. Saul smiled.
“Pick one,” he said.
The stairs to Lady Nana’s room were black as pitch, but that was alright. It wasn’t like the stairs at home, where the dark was a long swallow into misery and pain. At the end of this darkness there was a warm fire, a smile, the possibility of a jar of tea. At least, there used to be. Staring into the impenetrable nothing, Joseph put his hand on the damp wall and carefully made his way upwards. All the noises of the flats followed him: singing and murmuring and coughing and a baby’s hoarse cry. The smell of pig’s cheek and fried onion was torture. He clutched the rented book against his heart.
Oh, let me stay.
Then he was at the beloved door, warm light leaking out its edges: the smell of Lady Nana’s pipe. He knocked.
“Me, Lady Nana.”
“Joe! Come in!”
He pushed the door and crossed the threshold, his eyes skittering in fear of Fran the Apples. The room was ablaze with candles, all melting their lives away beneath the serene gaze of the Virgin Mary on her alter.
Oh let me stay. Sweet Mother, let me stay. Joseph’s head swam at the scent of sheep’s head stewing over the fire, but it wasn’t for the food he was praying.
Lady Nana motioned him into the room. “Where you been?” she cackled as he bent over her, and Joseph nearly wept at the feel of her gnarled fingers on his cheeks.
“I was busy, Nan.”
Fran the Apple’s voice froze the heart in him. “Joe.”
He looked around. She was standing in the corner, her eyes boring into him, her face a grim oval within the frame of her black scarf. “Why’re you here?”
“What d’you mean, why’s he here? My darling lad!”
Joe held the book out. “Brought a story,” he said.
Fran kept her fierce black eyes on his a moment, but she couldn’t resist the pull of the book and her attention dropped to it.
“It’s a good one,” he said weakly.
He saw a war go on within her eyes. Then she moved to the bed and sat on the edge. She nodded. Joseph sank to the fire-stool, so overcome with gratitude that he almost dropped the book. Nana nudged him. “Read it.”
The hunger was making his head spin. The smell of the stew was like a dream, but he didn’t mention it. Light footsteps ascended the stairs and Tina came laughing in the door, shaking snowflakes from her hair. Lighting up the room, as always.
“Did you see the sn—” she began.
“Shush,” snapped Fran. “Joe’s reading.”
Tina sank down by Nana, smiling that smile.
Joseph opened the book, the words seemed to crawl a moment – from hunger perhaps, or joy – then he began to read.
“Marley was dead to begin with,” he said. “There is no doubt whatever about that…”