by Mario Coleman
The station wagon turned off the main road and towards a set of old iron gates that looked as if they had been painted green many years ago. Ritchie wasn’t quite sure what shade of green it was supposed to be, as the years had faded the verdant gates to a lighter aquamarine colour which was flaking off in chunks and revealing the rusty metal underneath. It made him feel uneasy, itchy and grubby. They reminded him of mouldy bread, of decay, as if the gates themselves were decomposing. Death had been on his mind a lot recently, which could be forgiven with the untimely passing of both of his parents. It wasn’t macabre, just his young mind trying to figure things out as best he could. The gates lurched open with a juddered motion and let out a sound like nails on a chalkboard, only the screech was like the chalkboard could feel the nails scraping against its slate face and was letting out a cry of anguished agony. The drive up to the house was shorter than he expected. From what he had read and seen on TV, mansions always had long driveways through trees and hedges shaped like weird and wonderful animals, which finally led to the front of the house, maids and butlers waiting outside to open the car door and welcome the new arrival. In actuality, from the gate there was about twenty yards of gravel, with patches of long grass and weeds poking through, which led to the main house. There was no one waiting outside. The front of the house also looked unkempt. Just like the gates it looked as if the white paint job had been done many years ago and hadn’t been maintained for almost as long. This was to be his new home and Ritchie hoped that the inside would be better than what he had seen so far. He opened the door himself and got out, giving a stretch as he had finally been able to step out from the car for the first time in a couple of hours. He had needed the toilet three service stations back but didn’t want to be a bother to the driver, so he held it in and was still in desperate need of the lavatory. He would have to wait a little while longer as two men emerged from the front door of the house, one a tall, thin man with thick coke bottle glasses and an even thicker wiry ginger beard. He looked a bit like a hippy with corduroy trousers and a Hawaiian shirt over a long sleeved t-shirt with a picture of a koala bear on it. In his right hand was a red clipboard with papers blowing in the breeze of the day. The other man looked more like a handy man, a bit grimy and salt of the earth looking. He was wearing dungarees and a baseball cap that was so beat up that he must have been wearing it for years. He smiled a big grin and genuinely looked happy to see Ritchie.
“Hi!” said the ginger man. “You must be Ritchie. Welcome to Saint Jerome’s. This will be your new home for a while. I’m Peter, the administrator of the house and this here is George, the caretaker.”
“Pleased to meet you, son.” Said George, sticking out an oil stained hand which Ritchie sheepishly took and shook.
Peter continued “Let me take you around the house, show you your room and introduce you to the kids and some of the other members of staff.”
Ritchie took his suitcase from the boot of the car and followed Peter inside the house, entering the foyer. In front of them was a large wooden staircase leading to the upper floors. The walls were a light pistachio green and there were wooden double doors with large glass panels to the left and right. Peter led Ritchie through the door on the right and down a corridor illuminated with fluorescent lighting. This place looked more like a hospital than a home. Ritchie had to reassure himself that it was still early and that he would get used to it eventually. Hopefully.
Peter opened one of the doors on the left hand side of the corridor to a small room with a bed pushed up against the corner. It was neat, but bland as the walls were bare other than the pistachio green paint that followed him in from the corridor. “This is your new room.” Said Peter, still smiling. Ritchie took a good look around. There was a wooden wardrobe on one side pushed into an alcove in the wall and a bedside cabinet that looked to be made by the same joiner as the wardrobe with matching patterns carved in the edges with an identical router. “Right, why don’t you unpack and get settled and I’ll come back later to introduce you to the rest of the kids when they get back from school.” After making the statement, Peter gave a nod and turned and left the room closing the door behind him. Ritchie was alone again and scared. Too scared to look for a toilet or ask where one was, he sat on the bed in the far corner up against the wall in a foetal position and began to cry. Tears stung his eyes as he tried to hold on for as long as possible, but eventually his bladder couldn’t take it anymore and Ritchie wet the bed. He missed his Mummy. He just wanted a cuddle.
Katie heard the sobbing from down the hall and decided to investigate. She had heard that someone new was going to be living with her and the other kids at Saint Jerome’s and to be honest, she knew from experience that they all cry on their first night. She was twelve years old and had lived there for a third of that time and her years in the orphanage made her savvy, street wise and tough. Little Joey McClusky would often recant to the other children in the TV room of the time Steven Crabtree tried to take his magic wand, the special one that his Dad had made for him before he died, and Katie walked up to him and socked Stevie in the nose. Joey had always been grateful for that act of kindness and would probably find himself having a crush on Katie, if it wasn’t for the fact that girls are icky. She hated bullies more than anything, especially from within the house. They were all in this together and they should be there for each other, at least that is what she thought anyway. Right now she was concerned about who was crying down the hall, so she made her way to Ritchie’s room and knocked on the door.
“Hello? Are you OK?” asked Katie from behind the door. There was no answer, just more sobbing. Katie pushed the door forward and peered into the room. There was Ritchie, sitting on a now soaking wet bed, head buried in his arm as he attempted to hide his tear track marked face. “Come here.” She said as she sat next to him, pissy sheets be damned, and put her arms around him. He grabbed her tight and squeezed hard, as if he was worried that this would be the last hug he would ever get and he wanted to make the most of it. After a few minutes, Katie lifted his head by his chin to face her and finally got a look at the young boys face. He was a cute kid with a deer in the headlights look about him and she could tell that the shock of this transition hadn’t quite set in. She would have to look after him, at least for the first week or so. “C’mon kid. Let’s get these sheets to the laundry room before the other kids get back from school.”
Katie took Ritchie by the hand and led him down the corridor and round the corner to a set of stairs that led down into the basement. There they entered the laundry room, a large white room with several industrial sized washing machines and equally large dryers. Opening the large circular door, she threw the wet sheets into the machine and poured in a cup full of powder, closed it back up and turned the knob which sent the machine into a whirring frenzy. Sitting down opposite Ritchie on the bench that ran across the middle of the room, Katie began to question the boy. “So, what’s your name kid?” “Ritchie.” He replied sheepishly. “Well Ritchie, I’m Katie and you don’t need to be shy around me. I’ve been here longer than anyone and I’ve seen kids come and go for all reasons, so if you wanna talk to someone, or if anyone is giving you any hassle, you come find me. Ok?” Looking up at the girl, Ritchie could see sincerity in her eyes. It was the same look that his mother would give him when reminding him that she would always be there for him. Only this time she wasn’t. “Why aren’t you at school with the other kids?” He asked. Katie looked at him with a wry smirk as she responded. “I’ve been suspended this week for fighting.” “But you’re a girl!” exclaimed Ritchie. “So what?! I can whip most of the boys in my class. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I play with dolls and braid the other girl’s hair. Besides, the boy I beat up was a bully and he deserved it. You’re not a bully are you?” She asked him with a silly look on her face trying to get a smile out of the kid. “No.” he said with a smile. “Good! I wouldn’t want to have to give you a knuckle sandwich on your first day here.” Ritchie kept smiling. It was the first time he felt safe and comfortable since his parents died and he was happy to have found someone like Katie. “C’mon.” she continued. “Speaking of sandwiches, let’s get the table ready for dinner. Everybody will be back soon.” She put her arm out and draped it over Ritchie’s shoulder and led him out of the room.
The dining room was abuzz with sound and energy as the recently returned children sat around the table and gabbed about the various things that had currently held their interest. Robert was telling Jenny about his visit at his Grandma’s house this coming weekend. He was especially excited to see Grumbles, his Grandmothers cat. Rupert was moaning to Tilly about Mr Green, the maths teacher, and debating the real need for knowing Pythagoras’ rule in the real world. Suzie had the attention of four other girls who were keen to know if she would be going with Chris Cooper to the school disco, though the whole swooning over a boy thing just made Katie roll her eyes. Ritchie, who was sat in the far corner of the dining table next to Katie just sat quietly as he waited for dinner. “Hey Katie.” started Joey McClusky. “Tommy Edison is back at school. He’s really mad at you.” Katie looked at Joey with a look of disgust as she answered back. “Tommy is back at school and I’m still suspended?!” “You did beat him up though.” Joey replied. “Because he was stealing money from a bunch of eleven year olds. I had to do something.” “Yeah, but breaking his nose?” Steven Crabtree chimed in. “Don’t you think that was a bit harsh?” “I gave him a bloody nose, not a broken one. And trust you to stick up for another bully, you jerk!” Steven looked flustered and muttered under his breath “Dyke.” “What did you just call me?” Demanded Katie, looking angrier as she raised up out of her chair. “Nothing, nothing. I swear!” Insisted Stevie, holding his hands up and pleading innocence. Joey looked over at Ritchie and introduced himself. “Hi. I’m Joey. Are you the new kid?” “This is Ritchie.” Said Katie before Ritchie had time to answer. “Hi.” He said looking up from his place mat, one hand nervously held up in a wave. “So, how did your parents bite it?” tactlessly asked Stevie. “You’re out of line Stevie!” Katie was now back up out of her seat and almost ready to lunge at the boy. “What? We’re all here for the same reason, we’re all orphans. Let the kid tell his story. We’ve all had to at some point.” The rest of the room had fallen silent and all eyes were now on Ritchie. Even Katie was curious to find out. It was true that they were all orphaned, but maybe it was too soon. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to Ritchie.” She tried to reassure him, with one hand on his forearm, though she hated herself for hoping that he would. “Ok, I’ll tell you.” And Ritchie began to think back to that fateful night.
To Be Continued Next Week.