As the sunlight faded and the street lights blinked into life, Tag darted across the road and skidded into the darkened doorway, his heart pounding in his chest. He was breathing heavily and gulping for breath. He was almost caught that time. Tag grinned. Almost, but not quite. He looked about him – this was no place to be hanging about. The thieves could come around that corner any time. He could feel the package tucked in his coat pressing against his side. He slid his fingers into the lining and stroked the leather wrapping. He had to see what it was, he needed to know what he’d taken.
The heavily rusted grate rumbled back into place above him as he skidded into the safety of the sewerage tunnels that wove their way beneath the city. The rain had poured in and the water swished around Tag’s feet and soaked into his socks as he ran to the security of more familiar, slightly higher ground. The huge echoing cavern below the university was always a good place to find a friend with a fire to sit by. A friend who wouldn’t ask questions about Tag’s – not stolen, definitely not stolen, perhaps the word was recovered? – Tag’s recovered package.
Aldo Reloj was a gammy old Spanish soldier who’d found himself living, like so many people since the government began its new levy on the poor, in the man made catacombs below the world of the more fortunate. His fire was built from the driest debris he could lay his hands on and his pile of treasures was legendary – the strangest things washed their way down here to the subterranean realm of the forgotten. Aldo Reloj’s treasures were famous among the urchins and the vagabonds of the city, as was his generosity with his time and his fires. His wild white hair was tangled into his straggly beard and his mouth was almost entirely bereft of teeth – he had only three left at the front, two at the top and one bottom, making his sallow cheeks sink into his face giving him a hollow look, he reminded Tag of a skeleton he’d once found, shriveled in a chimney. He was hunched over on his log, the firelight dancing over him and casting strange shadows in the gloom. He heard Tag’s footsteps echoing along the passageway long before the boy burst out into the wide open gallery. He didn’t look up.
“Slow down, boy.” he croaked, still staring into the fire. “You slip and fall, floor very slipsy in the rain.”
“Sorry, Aldo. Can I come and sit by your fire?” Tag slowed to a stop a few metres away from the old man.
“Come away from the cold. Is very cold today, no?”
“Thank you, it is. Very cold.” Tag shivered, suddenly aware of the chill that had soaked its way into his bones. He approached Aldo and the fire cautiously, he liked the strange man, but he was never sure of him. Not completely. There was something in the way he never made eye contact. Tag sat on the log next to the old man, opened his coat and retrieved the package.
Aldo Reloj remained transfixed with the twirling flames. “The summer is too cold this year.”
Tag carefully untied the leather wrapping and took out the item. He sighed. The thieves had been very excited by it. Perhaps they’d taken the wrong thing. Perhaps he’d risked life and limb for nothing.
“It’s just a book.” Tag visibly sagged.
“What is?” Aldo muttered.
“This is. I thought it was something good.”
“Book is something good. Let me see.” he held out his hand.
Tentatively, Tag passed him the book.
Aldo’s thin, cracked lips pealed back over his three rotting teeth and he grinned a revolting grin. “You visit over city?” his tiny dark eyes twinkled with an unusual new light. “You go to university library?” he grinned and raised his eyebrows. “You take this book?”
“I didn’t know it was a book. I didn’t steal it, not really, I just…” he petered out into silence.
The elderly Spaniard chuckled and shook his head, casting his white hair tumbling around his face. “So you take book from those men? The ones who you take jewels from last year?” his toothless grin spread wider and he sighed. “You know they beat you, if they catch you. Brave or stupid? Hum?”
“I, erm…” Tag gulped. “I think probably stupid.” he licked his lips, nervously. “Sorry.”
Old Many riffled in his pockets, the strange contents spilling onto the floor. A deck of cards, the skull of a bird, a sovereign ring, various papers, a feather. “You read?” he asked. Tag nodded. He read. Just about, but he read. He longed to go back to school, to be able to do all of the things that the older children could already do by his age.
Aldo stuffed the book back into the boy’s hand along with a small scrap of cloth. He stared at Tag. Tag looked up at Aldo. His eyes were like a jumble of cogs – like clockwork. The greens and reds behind the copper gears just sunk away into the depths, deep into the past, into the mind. Ringed with gold and bronze, he stared into the mechanisms of this old man’s sight.
“Take book here. In morning. Sleep first. Get cold out of young little bones.” then he looked back at the fire, haunted by its beauty and movement.
That night Tag slept on a pile of rags laid out for him in front of the fire by the ancient mariner, as the multitude of other waifs and strays crept in around them to warm themselves by Aldo’s fire.
Tag awoke the next morning to find himself alone, abandoned in the biting darkness as the sewers emptied of its people, who had all gone back above to eke out a living from the meagre scraps cast off by those from the world above. He shivered, though the embers of the fire still glowed. There was the end of a loaf of bread on the log beside him. Good. He was hungry. In his hand he found the piece of cloth given to him the night before. There was an address.
A noise, a crash from somewhere off in the darkness echoed and clattered towards him. Tag froze in the shadows and held his breath.
“It must be here somewhere.” hissed a new and angry voice. “The dog has its scent.”
“It could be confused. There’s a lot of stink down here.”
Tag snatched up the book and his coat and disappeared into the obscurity of blackness behind him. He was running again, as quietly as he could, leaping over the standing water as he sped through the gloom, then hauling himself up through the grate and out into the blinding early morning light and onto the street. He was alone and afraid once again – that was his lot. But there was an address.
Join me next Sunday for chapter two -Rest
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