Our final Christmas short story of 2022 comes from Crime Cymru’s Thorne Moore. If I might say so, it’s an excellent example of drawing the reader into an emotional attachment with the central character.
Away in a Manger – Thorne Moore
So he says ‘That’s pretty impressive, lad,’ and he gives me a fiver. I mean, a fiver! Can’t see the need to start another picture now, and anyway, see them clouds? It’s going to piss down in a minute, wash it all away. So I pack up my chalks and gather up the cash and head for Ted’s Caff. Order myself chips and a coke. It’s not bad in here. Cheap and loads of chips and I ain’t eaten since yesterday morning. It’s like that some days. Most days, really.
‘Jimmy!’ says Spike. He’s okay, mostly, is Spike, when he’s alone, like not with Rooms. He’s with a girl today, but that don’t matter. She’s pretty, I think, all big eyes inside her hood. She keeps her hands tucked in the sleeves of her tatty fleece to keep warm.
‘Hey, Jimmy!’ Spike’s doing a Scottish accent now. ‘Hey, Jimmy!’
The girl smiles, like she has to, but he’s already bored with the joke. ‘So how you doing, man?’ Spikes flings himself onto the bench opposite me, and thumbs at the girl with one hand as he helps himself to my chips. ‘Mandy, come here. This here’s Jimmy. He’s an artist. Ain’t you, Jimmy?’
‘Really?’ She wriggles onto the bench next to him and stares at me, like I’m a freak or something.
‘Yeah, go on, show her,’ says Spike, pushing the sauce bottles to the side of the formica. ‘Get your chalks out. Ted won’t mind.’
I shake my head, holding up my glistening hands. ‘Got grease on my fingers. They’d mess up the chalk.’
Mandy looks away, like, yeah, just more bullshit that don’t mean nothing.
‘I could wash them,’ I say ‘cos I really want to impress her. I want her to look at me again. But then Rooms is outside, peering through the window. His real name is Chambers but everyone calls him Rooms. Loonie Rooms. Last time I saw him, he threatened to break my fingers so I couldn’t draw no more. I’m on his patch, so he wants rent. He wants me to sell stuff for him, but I just want to draw.
Spike frowns at me, then turns and sees. Rooms beckons and Spike scrambles up. ‘Stay here,’ he orders the girl.
She watches him go, then turns back to me. Her hand comes out from her sleeve, and she tentatively reaches for a chip.
I smile, push the plate between us. We both nibble. I’d like to scoff the lot but I’d rather share them with her.
‘You draw with chalk?’ she says. ‘Just on the pavement? Not like real art.’
I don’t know. I suppose it’s nothing special, what I do. It’s all I can do, but she thinks it’s nothing. ‘It’s just cover really. So I don’t get noticed. Really I’m a private eye. You know, a detective, following someone.’
‘No kidding! Someone in here?’ She looks around at the other customers. None of them look worth following. All bent over cod and chips or bangers and beans.
‘Nah. A guy in a flat across the road. He’s in there with a bird, so I’m waiting for him to come out.’
She looks impressed. Well, not exactly impressed, but interested, looking at me like she can see me properly.
‘You can stay and watch with me if you like. Good cover.’ Why did I say that? Stupid. I’d really like her to stay though.
She shrugs. ‘Supposed to be Christmas shopping.’
‘For my kid brother. Mum forgot.’
‘Oh, right. I’ve done all mine.’ I’m doing it again. Why did I say that?
‘Got a big family? Christmas tree and Santa Claus and all that?’
‘Oh yeah. And the turkey and stuff.’
‘Lucky bastard. Mum’s a dope head. Can’t remember what day it is. We’ll probably have beans on toast.’
‘Tough.’ I’m thinking beans on toast are okay. Better than pickings from a bin. ‘We have loads. Chocolate and Christmas pudding and everything.’
‘Liar.’ It’s Rooms. I didn’t see him come in. He’s come up behind me. I can feel his breath on my neck. I shouldn’t have said nothing, ‘cos he knows all about me and what I really am. Makes it his business to know everything about everyone on his patch.
‘You talking crap as usual, Jimmy Crowe?’ says Rooms in my ear. ‘Telling her you’ve got a loving family and a home and a warm bed? ‘Cos you haven’t, have you? Know why that is? Because you’re a loser. If you don’t want to make yourself useful, get out of my parish, right? The girl, Mandy, isn’t looking at me anymore. She’s looking at Rooms, kind of scared and kitteny at the same time. She’s not interested in me now, ‘cos I’m a loser.
Rooms clamps his hand on my shoulder, then squeezes. Hard. He knows exactly where to put his fingers. ‘You heard. Get.’
I stand up, go to grab the rest of my chips, but Rooms knocks my hand away and pushes them at Mandy. ‘Here you are, sweetheart.’
She’s smiling at him as I shuffle away. I pull my hood up. I was right about the rain. It’s pissing down. Think I’d best go find a shop doorway that someone else hasn’t nabbed.
It’s Christmas Eve. I haven’t got no money. I had change from the fiver, but someone nicked it in the night. I should have hidden it better. I could do some more pictures to earn a bit, but it’s really icy, that’s the problem. I have to wait all morning for the frost to clear from the pavement, but then it’s all wet and slippery instead and my fingers are too numb to hold the chalk properly. Difficult to find somewhere anyway, with all the Christmas shoppers hurrying past. There’s a good spot under the canopy of one of the big stores, so I settle down there and make a start. Christmas Eve, season of good will and all that, you’d think everyone would be feeling generous, but all I get are a few coppers and some of them are foreign. Then the manager of the store comes out and tells me to clear off. Looks at me like I’m dog shit or something. He doesn’t like to shout because of all his customers, so I ignore him. Next thing, he’s sent this guy out with a bucket of water.
It washes my picture away, and some of it goes on me, which isn’t nice, so I have to get up and go. Not point hanging around in the High Street any longer, where all the shoppers are, ‘cos I’ll just be moved on again. So it’s this, Wellington Street. No one gives a toss in Wellington Street. The best bit would be by the pubs, but I don’t want to hang around there, ‘cos there’s a couple of dealers on the corner. They work for Rooms, and they’ll just snitch on me if I go too close. But they’re not looking my way. Maybe I’ll try something here, the 007 thing. The one in the credits where Bond turns and fires. That always pulls them in. They start yabbing on about who’s the best Bond, and then they cough up, like I’ve just become their best friend. If I can just make a bit, I’ll buy something hot, because I’m so freezing. Inside, I’m freezing. Just need to warm up enough to hold the chalk.
I suppose it’s stupid, drawing pictures and stuff. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, draw things. Paint when I get the chance. I did this great painting when I was in the home. They’d had painters in and there were these pots left, so I did this bloody great picture. Mural, it’s called, according to Mr Jones, all along the wall of the canteen. It was great. Had soldiers and pirates and aliens and everything, and they all had the faces of the other kids and the staff, you know. They loved it. Only Bozier didn’t. Bastard Bozier, that’s what we called him.
‘You get that off now, boy!’ That’s what he said. ‘Too much imagination, that’s your trouble. You don’t need imagination where you’re heading. A life of crime, likely as not. You need discipline, learn to do what you’re told.’
He made me paint it all over with white. So I did. And in the night I painted the whole thing again. Then I was out the window and off. Never went back.
Trying to warm my hands. They got frozen again with the water the guy threw at me. I try slapping them together, stick them in my pockets except that the pockets have so many holes they’re not much good. Still, I reckon I can make a start.
I’ve got it half done, and a couple of guys are hovering around to see how it goes. Arms folded, heads on one side like they’re art critics or something. Then, all suddenly, the whole street goes quiet. The two guys walk off, shoulders hunched, heads down, like they don’t want to be noticed. I see why. This big black car pulls up, very quietly, at the kerb. I know that car.
Rooms gets out. Very slow, very calm. He’s standing over me, staring down though I can’t see his eyes, because of his wrap-round shades.
‘What did I tell you, boy?’
I don’t reply, ‘cos whatever I say, it will be the wrong thing.
He pulls me up by my collar. ‘I told you to get off my manor, Jimmy, if you weren’t going to work for me. And yet here you still are. So that means you must be working for me. Right?’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Whatever I say. Got it?’
I don’t answer, ‘cos saying no would be asking for trouble. Big trouble.
He takes out this wad of notes. I mean, notes! Not just fivers, reds ones. Fifties. A whole stack of them. He flicks them under my nose.
‘You want to stop being a loser, Jimmy? Want a couple of these in your pocket? See that pub down there? You could walk in, order yourself a beer and a great fat steak and chips. How do you fancy that? Get yourself a bed for the night. Buy yourself new clothes. Proper ones, not crap from the charity shops. What you reckon? All you have to do…’ He’s put the notes away and taken out a packet, wrapped in brown paper. Can’t tell what it is except I can see it’s heavy. I think it’s a gun. Looks like it might be a gun. ‘Deliver this, that’s all. Nothing to it. Across the park, number 27, flat 3. Deliver this and come back with the stuff, and you get to eat today.’
Steak and chips. My stomach is screaming, just thinking about it. Imagine having a hundred quid. I could buy…
I look at Rooms. I look past him into his car. The girl, Mandy, is sitting there. She’s not in jeans and hoodie this time. She’s in this glittery dress, really short, and she’s wearing shiny high heels. Dressed like a million dollars, ‘cept her cheeks are wet, with black streaks dribbling down them and her mouth is all bruised. Big eyes looking at me. Pleading. I wish she hadn’t gone with Rooms.
‘Here. Take it, Jimmy,’ said Rooms.
I shake my head.
Of course he doesn’t like that. I’m so stupid. I know what’s coming. He tosses his head, stepping back to let two of his men move in. They’re always somewhere around, wherever he is and they know what they’re doing. I get a kicking, like I always do. I wouldn’t mind that so much but they scuff out my picture and stamp on my chalks. One of them kicks me in the head and I’m all dizzy for a bit, with everything going fuzzy, and when it clears, there’s Rooms looking down on me.
‘You don’t work, you get off my patch, loser, or next time they’ll give you a kicking and you won’t come round. Understand?’
I’m holding my head as I nod. Everything’s still a bit blurry, but I can see the car behind, the door still open, and Mandy’s gone. Just the shiny high heels on the pavement.
Rooms has seen the shoes too. He’s swearing, shouting at his men and he gets back in and drives off. I hope she made it back to the shoppers on the High Street. She’ll be okay there.
Don’t know what to do now. I hurt, like all over, and it’s still freezing, but it’s raining too, the sort that soaks right in. I can’t stop shivering and I’m starving. All I had yesterday was five chips before Rooms took the rest and I can’t do any more pictures ‘cos there’s nothing left of my chalks but crunched-up muck on the pavement.
I could try the hostel. There’s a priest guy there, serves up soup. My stomach clenches up just thinking about it, hot soup. I wouldn’t mind what they put in it, even turnips and stuff, or cabbage. I wouldn’t even mind listening to the priest guy going on about Jesus and repentance and forgiveness of sinners as he dishes it out. Trouble is, it’s right across town. A couple of miles at least. My head hurts.
I’m still hurting when I get to the hostel, but they won’t let me it. ‘Sorry, mate, full for tonight. Can’t take any more, it’s the rules. Health and safety. You should have come earlier.’
So I go back to the High Street. Christmas Eve. Icy rain. Street emptying, shops closing now, but their windows are still lit up. Big bright windows full of stuff. Christmas trees in some, and fairy lights. Santa Claus and reindeer in one, with piles of shiny parcels. There’s another one, it’s one of them charity shops, with a whole stable thing, Mary and Joseph and the crib and stuff. It makes me feel odd, looking at it, like hurt inside. Mum and Dad and baby. My mum wasn’t like that, all rosy cheeks and lovey dovey. I don’t remember her much except she wasn’t like that. Screaming. She did a lot of screaming, especially when Dad knocked her around. Except the last time, when she wasn’t screaming and she wouldn’t get up, and there was all these men in the house. Policemen, taking my Dad away. And then other men, with a stretcher, taking Mum away, covered up. And then a load of men and women taking us kids away. I was five, don’t remember much really, except the emptiness. Never saw the others again. Just me now.
Just me, looking at Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus all warm in that shop, with the lights shining, and me outside, starving in the freezing rain.
There’s a shop opposite, been shut a while, all boarded up. Planks and bricks stacked in the doorway, waiting for someone to do something with them. So I do the something. I wander over, pick up a brick, then come back to the bright shops. Chuck the brick.
The window smashes. Not like I thought it would, a great shower of glass, but it does break it though. The brick’s lying in a pile of shiny green material inside and the alarms are going off, shrieking and whining. Takes the police five minutes to turn up, blue lights flashing.
They’re rough, getting me into the car. I’m shouting, and struggling a bit, ‘cos you have to or they won’t take you seriously, but they don’t need to be that rough. Swearing at me. I expect they want to get home and do Christmas stuff. At the police station, they push me up to the desk, jabbing me in the back, like it’s all my fault, but I don’t care. I get pushed into a cell and it’s warm and dry and I’ve got a blanket.
Sergeant Murphy comes along in a bit and brings me a mug of tea. Lost his wife a year ago, and his kids have gone, so that’s probably why he does the Christmas shift. Hasn’t any time for the likes of me, he always says, but he brings me tea. And then he hands me a sarnie. Cheese and pickle.
Jeez, it’s good.
He tuts over me as I stuff the sarnie down. ‘Jimmy, you’re a hopeless case, you know that? Getting into fights, by the look of you. What d’you have to do that for, silly sod? And then criminal damage. I ask you. You need to learn a bit respect for property, lad, that’s what you need. You can’t go round chucking bricks through windows. What is it? Fourth time now? You needn’t think it’s just going to be another caution, this time. It will be a custodial sentence, I reckon. Jail time for you.’
‘You reckon?’ I ask. The tea is scalding my throat, warming up my insides. Bliss.
‘You’re not supposed to look pleased about it.’
‘Let’s hope it teaches you a lesson, not to go breaking windows just because you’re pissed off. You reckon you could learn that, Jimmy? Crime doesn’t pay. Never has, never will. Make a note of that. Maybe prison will sort you out, get you on the straight and narrow. Teach you to read, learn a skill maybe, something useful.’ He laughs like he knows it’s a joke. ‘Or teach a pig to fly. Can but dream, eh, Jimmy? So what do we do with you now? Keep you in till the magistrates are sitting again, I suppose. Think you’re going to get a five-course Christmas dinner out of it? Think again, lad. A slice of turkey and a sausage, if you’re lucky.’
He’s trying not to smile. ‘And maybe a mince pie.’
He shakes his head. He’s got something else and he hands it over. A paper pad and a pencil. ‘Merry Christmas, Jimmy Crowe.’
‘Merry Christmas, Murph!’
Best one ever.
You can read more about Thorne on her Crime Cymru page here
or her Amazon page here
7 thoughts on “Away in a Manger – Thorne Moore”
Reblogged this on Thorne Moore.
If you like the story, please think of Crisis at Christmas. https://www.crisis.org.uk/
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Reblogged this on Judith Barrow and commented:
A must read at Christmas.
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That was very real and very moving. I’ve been to the Crisis site and donated. They respond with a ‘You’re amazing’, but I’m not. I’m sitting in a warm house with a fridge full of food and close friends and family nearby. Those who give practical help to people without any of these things are the amaxing ones. x
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We can only do what we can, Alex. x
A very touching tale Thorne, and very insightful. Thank you for writing it. It made me think. I will donate to Crisis at Christmas.