Friday, April 27, 2018

Short Story: The Street Arabs

The story below is from my early days of fiction-writing, but I think it's a nice one. It's a short little story, inspired by the famous old photograph below of homeless immigrant boys warming themselves on a street grate in Manhattan. I hope you enjoy it.

He smiled, watching the snowflakes sink slowly to the ground outside the window.  Beside him, a little girl sat on the arm of his easy chair, absentmindedly stroking his wispy white beard.  She looked up, her big eyes glistening brightly.  “Tell me another story, Grampy.”
He chuckled and glanced back out at the snow.  It was cold, so cold…

The icy wind screamed over the bay, ripping the heat right from their bodies.  Duncan shivered against him as they held tightly to each other to keep warm.  It had only been one week since the two brothers had been left alone on the street, their parents having died of sickness on the ship. 
He smiled as he remembered them outside of their little home outside of Glasgow, before the hard times had come and driven them away.  Duncan’s red hair fluttered in the air as he glanced up. 
“Ah, I wish we’re back in da hameland,” he smiled.  “D’ye r’member the ol’ but-├ín-ben by the loch, Aidan?  It’s allus so warm there.”
Aidan nodded, a tear springing in his eye at the memory.  “Aye, I ‘member.  I ‘member so much.”  He paused, looking at his brother’s shivering form.  “Come wid me, Duncan.  Ye’re in need of a wee bit of heatin’ there, afore we freeze.”
So saying, he drew the youth by the shoulder into one of the narrow, dirty alleyways.  In the corner a small boy lay against a metal grate, his eyes closed.  His cheeks were rosy against the cold and his breaths poured out like bright puffs of steam. 
Aidan ran forward and settled on the grate beside him, pleased to find heat slowly spilling up onto him.  Duncan sat down wearily and fell against the other boy’s shoulder, causing the latter to awaken and look at them with bleary eyes. 
“Hullo,” Aidan smiled, blowing on his fingers.  “It’s a bit hillbilly out, i’nt it?”
The boy’s face wrinkled with confusion at the remark, and he paused for a moment before replying.  “‘ello.  It’s cold.”  He looked down at Duncan for a moment, then turned back to the elder brother.  “You’se come down from da docks?”
Aidan nodded.  “We’re from the Glasgow sheep.”
“Sheep?” the boy was obviously confused.  “You from a sheep?”
Aidan nodded, pleased with the boy’s comprehension of what he thought was not a difficult subject to grasp.  The other boy shook his head dazedly, then changed the subject.  “What’s yer name?”
“Mine’s Aidan.  He’s Duncan.”
“Aeddan,” the boy replied, trying to mouth out the unfamiliar name.  “I’m George.”
Aidan nodded and smiled.  “How’s she cuttin’ wid you?”
The boy paused, now even more perplexed.
Aidan muttered under his breath, searching his mind for another phrase to help the daft child understand common speech.  “How’s it gaun?”
The light of understanding lit George’s face.  “Ah, I’m alright.  A mite cold and hungry, but alright.”
Aidan nodded sympathetically.  “Aye, I’m a wee bit hoongry too.”  He sighed, then continued.  “Let’s a-go and look around dese shops for some scones ‘n kippers to aet, then.”
George frowned, obviously reluctant to leave the warmth of the grate, but he relented and shook Duncan to wake him.  The little boy moaned and opened his eyes as he was pulled to his feet by his brother.  Their bare feet nearly froze on the cold stone as they stepped away from the grate and back on the street.  They walked what seemed leagues upon leagues of the cold, hard streets before they came to the little shops near the dockside.  They huddled down under a table for a moment, discussing a plan before dashing back out. 
Aidan and Duncan strolled leisurely up to a large table set out on the street that bore all sorts of breads and warm loaves.  He was suddenly filled with the craving to simply rush forward and grab one of the loaves for himself, but decided to stick to their arrangement.  Behind the table, a large, greasy-looking man glared at them unkindly.
“What a nyaff,” Duncan sniffed under his breath to Aidan, but he ignored the comment.
“Rare day, sir!” Aidan smiled cheerfully.
The baker’s brow furrowed with thought, trying to read through the boy’s thick accent.  “Just run along and play, sonny,” he smiled half-heartedly.
Aidan tried not to glance over, seeing loaf after loaf disappear off the edge of the table.  Only a little more, and George would have all he could carry.  “Um,” he fought for words to distract the baker’s attention further.  “A bit coold, i’nt it?”
The baker nodded, now becoming annoyed, but Aidan kept the one-way conversation going well.  “Ah, me Ma would tell me about dese days, and denn Da would say, ‘Oh, ye’ve never died a winter yet!  So don’t gie’s yer worries, right?’  And denn Ma would say—”
The baker huffed loudly at the nonsensical dialogue, then sharpened up suddenly as a large man grabbed the two boys from behind.  Aidan glanced up to see a scowling man holding him by the shoulder.  “Ah, George!” the older brother shouted.  “The baw’s up on the slates!”
George took the hint and dashed away as fast as a bolt of lightning, his pattering little feet pulling him out of sight in an instant, loaves and all.  The baker’s fat cheeks flushed with color and he stood there flustered, his tongue rolling around, searching for the words.  Duncan giggled at the sight.  Suddenly the baker turned to them, an accusing finger pointed.
“Ye’ll pay for all those loaves, boys!”
The other man’s grip on Aidan’s shoulder tightened, and the boy looked up to see a warm, kindly face in place of the scowling, judgmental one he had seen a moment before.  The man smiled and laid a few coins on the table. 
“You needn’t punish them, good sir.  They are under my care.”
Duncan was confused, but Aidan smiled and looked up with wonder.  After a moment, the man took them aside, his lined face warm with sympathy.  “What are your names, lads?”
Aidan gulped nervously.  “Aidan and Duncan MacCainnech, sir.”
“And where are your parents?”
“They’s dedd!” Duncan suddenly burst into tears and lowered his little head against the stranger’s shoulder. 
The man rubbed the boy’s flaming red hair for a moment, then stood as if having made a decision.  “Come on boys, you’ll live with me.  The streets are no place for two good lads like you these days.”
They smiled and took one hand each and walked off down the alleyway together, rounding a corner and disappearing into the mists of time and a destiny that fortune favored to bring them. 

The old man rubbed a tear from his eye silently, then leaned down and kissed his granddaughter on the forehead.  Her eyes were closed, her little head resting against his great chest.  He sighed at length and took her in his arms, cradling her in his arms as she slept.  “May you never live to see such days come again, little one.”