Trinketing n. secret or underhand dealings.
Collins English Dictionary
Down in the haunts of the city
Mid the darkness of squalor and sin
We find the poor lads we are seeking
And tenderly gather them in
From ‘The Street Boys’ Song’
TRY Excelsior News, 1893
The rattle of the first tram meant the bread cart wasn’t far off. Chester had been awake since the fighting tomcats and then sleep was difficult because of the heat and his empty stomach, but soon there would be food. He glanced at the others. Lucky had called out for his ma and Chester had patted his head ’til he was quiet. Now he was dead asleep, his eyelids flickering translucent in the half-light of dawn. Chester let him be and kicked his crutches closer.
Little Spud slept curled up against the sweet-smelling flank of Bear, the mutt they reckoned was more labrador than anything else. He muttered into the dog’s fur, his freckled face frowning even in his sleep.
Chester nudged him and he screwed up his face like a fist.
‘Shove off Chester. It’s night time.’
‘The bread cart. Get up. Now.’
The boys chased the Yarra, and scrambled up the embankment to the bridge, in time to see the horses clopping along St Kilda Road.
‘You go round the back,’ Chester said, before he ran out in front.
The driver stopped the horses with a flash of reins. His face was tired.
‘Come on boy. If you want bread, you gotta pay. Now clear off.’
Chester spread out his newsprint hands. ‘Please Mister. Give us a break: I’m only ten and I’ve got three more mouths to feed back there.’
The man sighed. ‘Bludgers, vagrants . . .’
‘We’ve got jobs.’ Chester was indignant.
The bread man was due at his next stop and Chester wasn’t moving, so finally he reached behind and took a loaf, handing it over. ‘It’s the last time. Don’t care how many mouths you’ve got back there. Money next time.’
Chester caught Spud’s eye and winked. ‘Next time Mister, I’ll be rollin’ in it.’
The cart was off towards the Melbourne terminus before Spud took his hands from behind his back, to show the loaf he’d stolen.
They strolled back along the Yarra and Spud dragged a stick behind him in the dirt. The water was so black you wouldn’t wash in it, and like a sea monster it sucked greedily, taking its captives with it. That day it was animal entrails, veiny and blue, worse than you’d see at the markets, a bent-up bicycle wheel, and a pot of food scraps, turnip and carrot tops bobbing on the sewage-slicked surface. Sometimes Chester would see a whole turkey, with its legs trussed for Christmas in the water, but when he blinked it would be a ball or a dog’s head or the whole dog.
Back at their spot near the bluestone walls of the morgue, Lucky and Plum were up and Bear was sniffing along the ground. Old Rosie the drunk was sniffing around too.
‘What’cha got boys?’
‘Nothing Rosie. Just a morning stroll: it’s good for the circulation,’ Chester said.
Rosie made a grab for the lump under Spud’s jacket, but he sprang back, like a feather-weight champion and she lost her footing, lunging for Chester’s stash on the way down. Chester turned his back on her and broke the loaf into two big chunks and one small piece. He divided the small one amongst Rosie and Bear: the big ones were for him and Spud.
‘You tell Fitzy that Chester looked after you,’ he said to Rosie as she wandered back to her camp.
‘You’re a good boy,’ she muttered.
‘Tell Fitzy,’ he called.
Fitzy was a member of the Crutchy Push. Nobody knew how he’d lost his leg and nobody wanted to ask in case he answered with a whack to the head. Last Chester had heard, Fitzy’s crutches had put a policeman in hospital. Word was he hit his girlfriend; you’d see her around with a face full of purple, but Fitzy was good to his ma, making sure she always had gin money.
When Rosie had gone, Chester divided Spud’s loaf amongst the other two and allocated a palm sized nub to each of them for lunch.
‘You won’t believe what happened,’ Chester said.
‘What?’ Lucky asked, already laughing.
‘Well, when the bread man saw Spud nicked a loaf, he was furious and he roared so loudly that it scared the horses. They reared up and the whole cart was on an angle like this.’ Chester made his hand into a ramp. ‘Only, when Spud took one, he must have bumped the catch, cos then the whole thing opened and suddenly hundreds of loaves came pouring out the cart. You should have seen it.’
Lucky was laughing but Plum was frowning and had his arms crossed. ‘Why’d you only get two then?’
Spud was watching Chester.
‘Because by now the police were coming, swinging batons around in the air. What do you expect, that I’m going to hang around and get clobbered?’
‘You’re a liar,’ Plum said, pushing his dark hair out of his eyes.
Chester shrugged. ‘Don’t take my word for it. They’ll probably still be cleaning it up when we head to work. See for yourself.’
More carriages were coming across Princes Bridge now, gleaming private coaches and cabs rushing to the offices and courts. From Chester’s spot on the river, the passengers looked like ghosts rushing past with their flashes of black hat and hints of whisker.
Chester peed in the river, and washed his face in the pail of water. When he finished, Lucky hid their pail, enamel cup and blankets in the grass by the bluestone wall, and Chester whistled at the others. They had to move before rush hour really began.
‘See ya boy,’ Chester said, as he tied up Bear, who was looking at him.
‘I’ll see if I can get you a bone.’
At the Melbourne terminus, the boys, invisible in their rags, were swept into the scrum of black suits and bowler hats. They collected their newspapers from Mr Tucker, and shoved their stacks under each arm, being sure to walk in small steps for now, with their chests upright and even. They passed the older boys who had the top spot under the clocks, and they settled Spud into his post round the corner. Plum and Lucky worked the stand a block down from the station, catching the customers who had avoided the main exit rush: with Plum’s velvet voice and Lucky’s missing leg, they raked it in. Whereas Chester, who preferred to work alone, had the spot in front of the courts.
The walk to the courts was time alone. Chester walked at a pace despite the ground being rougher under his feet than usual and the weight of the papers pulling on his arms. He was tired but tired wouldn’t get tips: whereas a good day could mean fish and chips for tea and a bone for Bear.
The city was coming alive now with the din of trams, clacking of hooves and cries of street vendors who looked right through Chester as they peddled their flowers and matches.
Every few blocks, if no other newsboys were about, Chester would stop and thrust out the hip carrying The Age.
‘Come and get it, before it’s old news.’
Even ten sold would lighten the stack.
A man with a waxed moustache and a pearl-tipped cane, flicked the coin towards Chester’s palm and missed, leaving Chester scrambling on the ground. But when he found it, the coin was bad.
‘Oi,’ Chester yelled to the man’s tailored back. ‘Come back here, yer coin’s no good.’
Chester shook his head. He wouldn’t be able to pass the coin to Tucker when he bought his evening papers. That man could see a bent coin from a hundred yards away. Chester had tried to pass a forged coin to him once before and Tucker had smacked him so hard across the mouth, he’d tasted blood.
And just like that, the shadow of a black mood was on him. Chester had known these moods his whole life, and in truth this melancholic switch was in his blood on account of his madhouse Ma and his lying, useless Pa. What hope did he have? He glanced from his filthy, picked nails to the stack of papers he’d dropped, and he thought of Lucky balancing on a crutch as he handed out the change.
What would Lucky say?
‘It’s only a newspaper mate. How many you going to sell today? A hundred? Spark up or you won’t sell any and then you’ll really have something to whinge about.’
Chester rearranged the stacks in his arms and when he reached the courts he heaved the armfuls of papers to the ground and stood up straight, chest out, as he took up his post.
‘The Argus—gentlemen, just printed. Can’t get any fresher. The Arrrgus.’
Here news was especially in demand. Chester doled out newspapers, the coins making their own musical show as they tinkled into the tin Chester kept there. It didn’t matter if it was a wigged lawman in his black robes or a criminal’s mother, fresh from crying: their pennies made the same sound in the tin. For most punters, Chester was no more than a cardboard boy. They snatched the paper and chucked the coin without even looking. But others made a fuss and that was worse.
An old lady hobbled up and Chester braced himself for a lecture about his dirty feet or his ripped clothes or him not being at school.
‘The Argus,’ she said. And then, ‘It’s too hot to be standing out here, dear.’ With a shaky hand, she put a coin into Chester’s palm. Her hand was as cool and dry as paper.
Chester’s shirt stuck to him and his body ached.
‘Don’t worry about me, Ma’am: I’m from the country.’
‘Here,’ she said, reaching into her purse again and putting another coin in Chester’s hand. ‘You get yourself a lemonade and something for your tea.’
Chester didn’t need to look at the second coin to know its worth.
On the way back, Chester bought the lemonade to share and milk for Spud who was only six. He balanced the drinks and held the paper bag closed tight against the stink of horseshit. He stepped around a fresh steaming pile, nearly colliding with a horse and cart that was flying past.
‘Git out the way,’ the driver yelled. ‘Ya bloody moron.’
Chester covered his eyes against the dust kicked up by the horses and coughed as it settled in his throat like gravel. He swiped at the flies that’d come for the horse dung, and then hung around to feast on the moisture in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. As Chester approached the bridge he thought of Bear’s thick coat and the bone he’d promised and forgotten. He saw the dog and then the boys, all made hazy by the city smog.
As Chester approached, Plum was the first to notice the bag and the bottles.
‘Chester’s done it again.’
‘Got tipped. Told you boys the Court’s the top spot. Sixpence she gave me.’ Chester broke open the paper bag to make a tablecloth and arranged the buns.
‘There was a man,’ Lucky said through a mouthful of currant bun. ‘Did you see him?’
‘He went up to Lucky and Plum and me,’ Spud said. ‘Asked what our names was.’
‘Then what did he say?’ Chester asked.
‘He asked if we knew you,’ Lucky said. ‘He knew your name. Maybe it’s your pa come back to get you.’
Spud drank from the bottle, the milk dribbling down like fangs, big eyes watching Chester.
‘He said he’d come find you.’
About the Story
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
Melbourne. 1897. Chester Blake is an orphaned newsboy who has been sleeping rough since leaving the madhouse where he lived with his mute mother. He is offered a home by a psychiatrist who believes Chester could read his mother’s mind. He wants Chester to do the same with his mute wife, Eleanor. Yet, once inside the psychiatrist’s home, Chester discovers Eleanor is not mute. She is haunted by her dead son, believing he wants to harm her. She swears Chester to secrecy. But when strange things start happening, he begins to doubt not only Eleanor’s sanity, but also his own.