Woolies for Jim

by | Apr 17, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

Under the grey shadows of a long, narrow room lay twelve little mattresses. Upon these rested twelve little forms, some curled up into foetal positions, some with an arm and a leg outstretched as if running a silent marathon, some on their backs with their mouths open, snoring gently into the cold, musty air.
They needed all the rest they could get. Rest was a precious commodity, more precious than pranks or play, costlier than talk or friendships. Little rest meant little productivity, and little productivity meant little food. And the combination of little rest and little food was not a pleasant one at all.
Besides, it was naughty to waste time on silly games and pranks when there was work to be done; they were, after all, forever indebted to Mrs Godfrey for taking them in and putting a roof over their heads and feeding and clothing them. Living here had taught the boys a thing or two about life: life wasn’t about sharing. Sharing meant having less for oneself, and what they had was little enough. And so the boys never shared anything with each other ─ neither food nor quilts nor the occasional marble games.
Only one little boy was silly enough to part with his meagre belongings often ─ his socks, his precious green marbles, sometimes even his broth when another boy was feeling hungrier. And they would all turn to him when they needed anything. Yes, Jimmy was such a simpleton, there was nothing he wouldn’t help the other boys out with.
Jimmy was also the only one whose folks were no more, but he remembered his mother in his own little ways. Mum’s face was blurry now but he remembered her hands well; they were soft hands, softer than his own blistered ones. And he remembered the way they smelled against his cheek when she tucked him in to sleep ─ a bit of garlic and lavender from cooking and doing the dishes. He remembered mum was always warm as if she had just stepped out of the kitchen; and he remembered the sticky toffee cakes she baked for him on every birthday and every Christmas as far back as he could recall.
But two summers ago, she had left him to go and meet God and Jimmy had to move in with Mrs Godfrey. He often wondered when mum was coming back to get him, but he was too scared to ask Mrs Godfrey. She got angry if anyone talked to her unless first spoken to, and it wasn’t good for any little boy to have Mrs Godfrey angry at him.
And so tonight in this dark room, the boys slept oblivious to the dank walls, the mildewed wallpaper, the pungent scent of mould that lingered heavily in the air. They also slept unaware of the cold that crept obdurately from the floor through their thin mattresses and into their backs and their tummies; or of the crack under the windowsill through which gusts of October wind came hissing down to jerk and tease the quilts off their little feet. Yes, sleep was a dear friend that made them all immune to these little nothings around them.
But tonight, Jim could not sleep. It was colder than usual and his feet just would not get warm. Mum would always make him put on his woollies before tucking him in; it would be nice to have a pair of woollies on his feet now. But Jim had no socks left ─ he had given away his only pair to Warren ─ and now it was hard to sleep with cold feet.
Besides, Ron on the adjacent mattress was squirming. He was curled up on his side, his face tucked beneath his pillow, moaning. Jimmy shivered as another gust of icy wind hissed through the window. Wrapping his own quilt around himself, he huddled closer to Ron, “Ron, what’s the matter?”
“I’m c-c-cold, Jim. I’m so cold.” Ron was shivering all over.
Jim felt his face; it felt hot and clammy. He tried tucking Ron in but the quilt was just too small and too thin to do any real good. Ron did not look okay at all. Jim turned to nudge Warren on his other side, “Wake up. Ron don’t seem to be doing too good.” But Warren kept snoring away as did the rest of the boys.
Ron’s shivers were getting worse now, and the wind was beating up a wicked storm outside. He could hear Ron’s teeth chattering. Taking off his own quilt, he wrapped it around the other boy, tucking it over and under his feet. “You’ll be better soon, Ron. Don’t worry.”
Shivering now, he pulled his own mattress next to Ron’s and curled up into a tight ball, rubbing his feet together. But the cold was brutal and it was a long night. If only mum was here, she would pick him up in her arms and carry him upstairs to tuck him in. She would put on the brown woollies on his feet first. Those woollies were nice, so soft and warm; they warmed him right up to his ears the minute he put them on. She had knitted them herself for Christmas.
On Christmas too, she would bake him his favourite sticky toffee cake, and his nose would flood with the scents of cinnamon and warm simmering dates. Oh how wonderful that cake was, with sweet golden toffee syrup oozing onto his tongue in every mouthful. Jim smiled in his sleep; the hazy image of his mum had turned a lot clearer somehow. He could see her face now, see her smiling blue eyes.
Those were the same eyes he saw reflected in the puddle behind Mrs Godfrey’s house as he played quietly by himself; the big old house with its icy walls and scorching kitchen. The same kitchen that put blisters on his fingers and soiled his nails black. He wouldn’t think about Mrs Godfrey or this cold house. Tonight, Jim thought instead only of mum and her hands that smelled of garlic and lavender. How warm those hands were against his cheek! And now, his shivers were no more and his tummy was no longer growling and his feet were no longer cold. He was reaching out for a piece of warm toffee cake that mum was handing out to him; everything would be alright now.
As morning broke, the boys found him curled up in a little bundle, bare toes pink and blue resting in an endless slumber. Why was his quilt wrapped around another boy?
“He wanted to keep me warm,” said Ron.
“It was a silly thing to do,” grumped Mrs Godfrey.
He was such a silly little boy, they all thought. But they could not help but wonder why Jim had a smile on his lips even though he had no socks on.


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