The Orphan

The Orphan by David Macfie

Archie was a no-good orphan. He knew this for a fact, because his mother called him that all the time. She said she’d fostered him long ago and now regretted it because he was so no-good. Her name was Alice, but she insisted he call her, Mam. Alice didn’t have a husband and the two lived in a broken down, old, one-roomed fisherman’s cottage on the margins of the beach. The only reason they had it was because it was so derelict that no one else wanted it. The roof leaked, the windows didn’t shut properly and most of the panes were cracked or broken. They didn’t have curtains or electricity, so they used candles for light. They had no stove, but Alice didn’t cook anyway, so they didn’t need cooking facilities. There was a fireplace with a chimney that sent as much smoke back into the cottage as it let go into the sky. They had a single bed that had a metal frame and broken springs. The foam mattress had holes in it and no mattress cover. The few blankets they had were from the poverty box at the church or were patched together from bits and pieces Archie had found in dust bins around the village. The toilet was in a separate little shed about ten meters from the back door. There was little space and less tidiness. Alice didn’t do housework. In fact she didn’t do any work at all. She had a government grant, but it wasn’t much – certainly not enough for both of them to live on.

Alice spent her grant on cheap wine and lived on scraps, odd meals from the church and hand- outs from her male guests. There were many of them and they brought cheap wine and stayed the night. But most of them visited only once or twice. The place was too pitiful for more. She did have one regular though. His name was Ronnie. He was a big, muscular man with jet black hair and a swarthy skin. His eyes were like black holes that went all the way to hell. He didn’t come often, because he was a fisherman on the trawlers and was away a lot. But he always came, when he was home and he always brought a lot of rotgut wine. He always stayed the night too, and he was a mean drunk. He beat up on Alice and on Archie, whenever Archie was too slow. Archie and Alice normally slept head-to-toe in the bed, but not when Alice had a guest. Then, winter or summer, Archie had to find somewhere else to sleep.

So, all in all, it was not surprising that Archie was a no-good orphan.

Since Alice didn’t feed him either, he spent a lot of his time searching for food. He scavenged in the bins in the village, begged for scraps outside the eateries in range of his cottage and caught crabs and small fish on the beach or a rabbit in the fields or even a rat in the rubbish. These last he ate raw. And he always made sure that Alice got most of what he found. Sometimes he got lucky and workmen shared their sandwiches. Archie was eight years old and so undernourished he looked no more than five.

But, often the sea washed up lots of small pieces of coal that had spilled into the sea, when the coal barges were unloading at the coal terminus. So, Archie’s first job every day, usually just as dawn was breaking, was to be on the beach trying to fill the hessian bag that was his most important (and only) possession apart from the ragged clothes he wore. He didn’t have any shoes. Whenever, he managed to fill the bag, he was always able to sell the coal for enough money to buy him food for a couple of days. Then he’d go back and fill the bag again for Alice.

Archie’s other major headache was that the authorities thought he should be in school. Truant officers often tried to catch him to take him there. They’d only managed it once, so far. Archie stuck out the excruciating boredom, he felt there, for two days – only because of the free breakfast and lunch – then, he escaped. He’d managed to elude them since. His mother called him a no-good orphan, but the villagers called him a different name. To them he was ‘the wild boy from the beach”.

Then one day, Archie’s life changed. He met an old tramp called George, who was about as old as Alice. George was just as ragged as Archie, but he was wise in the ways of a vagrant. He knew all the tricks for getting a few pennies a day from lots of people and he had plenty of ways of persuading people to give him food. He also knew a lot more than Archie, about foraging for himself. But most important of all, he knew warm places where shelter could be found on a bitterly cold night. At the time, Archie didn’t understand why George took to him so quickly, or why George took him under his wing and started to teach him everything he knew. He was just so happy that, at last, someone cared whether he lived or died. He learned a lot from George and spent less and less time with Alice. She didn’t even seem to notice. Soon George was looking after him all the time and he was happier than he’d ever been. At night, George told him stories to help him sleep. George woke him at dawn and helped him fill his bag. He even, magically, acquired another, bigger bag that they also filled. George helped him find food and taught him how to make a fire with dried grass, driftwood and two stones to make sparks. Then he taught him how to cook his food so that it tasted much better.

On another day, Archie’s life changed yet again. Alice was found, beaten to death, just outside her cottage. It was thought that Ronnie had done it, but Ronnie was never seen again and couldn’t be punished. Archie found that he wasn’t sad. He and Alice had never loved each other. They’d been together just for the company. George wasn’t there that day when Alice was found, but the next day he was there again, dressed in fine clothes. He came down to Archie on the beach.

“Archie, I have something to tell you,” he said. “You are not an orphan. Alice was your real mother. Your father and mother broke apart and divorced. Your father didn’t know that Alice was expecting a baby and he went to another country. He only came back a short time ago and learnt he had a son.”

“Archie, you are my son, and I want you to come and live with me. Would you like to do that?”