She walked past the baker’s shop, shut many weeks now, with it’s pale blue overhang now full of holes and soaked by the April rain. The girl had only been inside twice, the days before the shop’s closing, when her mother was too sore from the pregnancy to walk the quarter mile. Next to it stood the Falcon Inn, a pub she knew he dad went to on Thursdays, after his dinner of stale bread and cheese that was starting to turn pale green in the far corners. It was Friday now, long after when he should be home, on a day he rarely went out in fear of being mugged for his fresh wages. The girl poked her head in, keeping the bundle in her arms shielded from prying eyes, and asked if her dad was in; he wasn’t. She huffed and walked off to find the next pub. If her dad wasn’t in there, he’d been in one of the less comforting pubs, like the Ironworks in the middle of the factory district. She avoided the area on her dad’s advice, hearing that only the rough people were there at night, but she needed to find her dad.
It was starting to rain again, accompanied by the faint howling of wind from the west. It was already the coldest April she’d known, but the wind felt colder, more like something from mid-Winter. The moon was hidden by the thick black rain clouds, turning the cobbled streets into a darkened maze. She marched on. The next pub, half a mile away, was the Ironworks. She knew little of it, other than the ‘wrong’ people went there, but she knew her dad had to be in there. Again, she went in, keeping the bundle safe, and made her way to the bar. There were rough-looking men all around her, leering at her like the poorest of the poor often did when they say a child in something resembling actual clothes instead of rags. One of them, a man of thirty or so, made a drunken grab for the bundle, believing it to be food or a bottle of scotch. The girl squeaked and darted to the bar faster, holding the bundle tighter. When she approached the bar, a woman in a low-cut dress of dark blue wool eyed her suspiciously. After the girl described her dad, her features softened and she shook her head. Not here either. The little girl pursed her lips and rushed out, determined to find him tonight. She wasn’t even out of the door when she heard a couple of the drunkards making disturbing comments about her. One of them sounded like he was wanting the package in her arms to be money or food. The other...well, his comments were not the sort for even an adult to talk about, let alone for a six-year-old child to hear. Even if she didn’t understand some of his words, she shuddered in mild fear all the same.
The rain was getting heavier, turning the road into a shallow stream flowing between the cobbles. The girl slipped slightly as she ran down the road to a pub or bar further on; she had never been this way, even when her dad made her walk to visit her cousins who lived somewhere close by to the Ironworks pub. At almost every street corner was a beggar, slumped and starved, with the fabric on their frail bodies close to falling off. Some slept, but most were moaning in hunger or thirst. These were the victims of the cotton mill closing, much like how the people sat drinking in the Ironworks were close to being forced out of their steelwork jobs by the factory owner’s bankruptcy. The beggars were like shadows in the night, pressing against the rough brick walls in futile hope of not being soaked by the harsh rain. One of them was a girl no older than fifteen, with her dark hair hacked short and matted; her dress, low cut and tight-fitting like the barmaid’s, was torn all over, with only the thinnest piece of rough wool covering her hollow breasts. Her hands were bloody from holding her recently broken nose, and every third hoarse breath was replaced with a ugly sob. At the sight of the girl, she let out a long, laboured moan and tried to stretch out her hand, causing the blood to drip onto the cobbles and into the stream of rainwater. The little girl shook her head slightly and moved on, clutching her package tighter with each corner turned. Eventually, she could see the flickering lights of an ale-house. She was nearly two miles from home now. Her dad had to be in here, surely?
He was. Inside the stuffy little room, stinking of cheap ale, her dad stood leaning against the bartop. His jacket was stuffed in a ball under his arm, and his face was red from drinking too much. Behind him, the ale-house’s owner stood pouring him another pint, oblivious to a young girl just walking into his establishment. The dad was on his fifth pint, which he drained as his daughter approached him. The girl beamed at the sight of him. She’d spent the past two hours wandering around trying to find him, and she had found him in the end. Her dad looked at her in drunken confusion, taking a few moments to realise his only child stood in front of him. He hadn’t expected even his wife to know he was here, in a barren ale-house far from home. He’d hoped to be able to sneak into her bed the next morning with little harm done, but now he was caught, and he didn’t know how she’d react. Granted, it wasn’t the worst thing he could be caught doing, much less worse than if he’d been unfaithful, but he still felt like he was going to be in trouble when his daughter went home and told her mum.
“Ey, what you doin’ here lass?” he slurred at her, bending down to meet her eyes. He tried to find any suspicion in her face, but saw none. His girl smiled in response.
“Momma’s not well. She’s had me baby brother though, and she was sleepin’ so I brought him to you!” With that, the girl thrust the bundle into her father’s arms. “He’s been sleepin’ too since before I came out to find you, but he’s just been born so I think he’s tired is all.”
Her dad, starting to understand her words, felt ashamed. His wife had given birth without him even knowing, and now his child had come to deliver his baby boy to him in the dead of night.
“Sleepin’, ye say?”
“Aye dad, she was so cold and fast asleep I couldn’t shake her awake.” Her innocent face hid nothing but also knew nothing. No tears or redness lingered around her eyes, her lips weren’t chewed, and she stood proudly and with pure happiness of finding her dad. She didn’t understand the truth of the situation. His wife was dead, that was clear. The birthing bed was a hard one to survive; he knew that from his own sister, ten years dead trying to birth her first baby. Now his own wife had died the same way. The grief came sudden, but was hidden fast enough from the unblinking eyes of his little girl. Remembering he had a baby son in his arms, he moved the fabric hiding the face to see him for the first time. The newborn’s eyes were softly shut and his cheeks almost purple, and his chest was still. His son, his newborn babe, was already dead.