Five or six half-grown larrikins sat on the cemented sill of the big window of Grinder Bros.’ Railway Coach Factory waiting for the work bell, and one of the number was Bill Anderson — known as “Carstor Hoil” — a young terror of fourteen or fifteen.
“Here comes Balmy Arvie,” exclaimed Bill as a pale, timid-looking little fellow rounded the corner and stood against the wall by the door. “How’s your parents, Balmy?”
The boy made no answer; he shrank closer to the entrance. The first bell went.
“What yer got for dinner, Balmy? Bread ‘n’ treacle?” asked the young ruffian; then for the edification of his chums he snatched the boy’s dinner bag and emptied its contents on the pavement.
The door opened. Arvie gathered up his lunch, took his time-ticket, and hurried in.
“Well, Balmy,” said one of the smiths as he passed, “what do you think of the boat race?”
“I think,” said the boy, goaded to reply, “that it would be better if young fellows of this country didn’t think so much about racin’ an’ fightin’.”
The questioner stared blankly for a moment, then laughed suddenly in the boy’s face, and turned away. The rest grinned.
“Arvie’s getting balmier than ever,” guffawed young Bill.
“Here, Carstor Hoil,” cried one of the smiths’ strikers, “how much oil will you take for a chew of terbaccer?”
“All right; let’s see the chew, first.”
“Oh, you’ll get it. What yer frighten’ of? . . . Come on, chaps, ‘n’ see Bill drink oil.”
Bill measured out some machine oil and drank it. He got the tobacco, and the others got what they called “the fun of seein’ Bill drink oil!”
The second bell rang, and Bill went up to the other end of the shop, where Arvie was already at work sweeping shavings from under a bench.
The young terror seated himself on the end of this bench, drummed his heels against the leg, and whistled. He was in no hurry, for his foreman had not yet arrived. He amused himself by lazily tossing chips at Arvie, who made no protest for a while. “It would be — better — for this country,” said the young terror, reflectively and abstractedly, cocking his eye at the whitewashed roof beams and feeling behind him on the bench for a heavier chip — “it would be better — for this country — if young fellers didn’t think so much about — about — racin’ — AND fightin’.”
“You let me alone,” said Arvie.
“Why, what’ll you do?” exclaimed Bill, bringing his eye down with feigned surprise. Then, in an indignant tone, “I don’t mind takin’ a fall out of yer, now, if yer like.”
Arvie went on with his work. Bill tossed all the chips within reach, and then sat carelessly watching some men at work, and whistling the “Dead March”. Presently he asked:
“What’s yer name, Balmy?”
“Carn’t yer answer a civil question? I’d soon knock the sulks out of yer if I was yer father.”
“My name’s Arvie; you know that.”
Bill cocked his eye at the roof and thought a while and whistled; then he said suddenly:
“Say, Balmy, where d’yer live?”
A short, low whistle from Bill. “What house?”
“Garn! What yer giv’nus?”
“I’m telling the truth. What’s there funny about it? What do I want to tell you a lie for?”
“Why, we lived there once, Balmy. Old folks livin’?”
“Mother is; father’s dead.”
Bill scratched the back of his head, protruded his under lip, and reflected.
“I say, Arvie, what did yer father die of?”
“Heart disease. He dropped down dead at his work.”
Long, low, intense whistle from Bill. He wrinkled his forehead and stared up at the beams as if he expected to see something unusual there. After a while he said, very impressively: “So did mine.”
The coincidence hadn’t done striking him yet; he wrestled with it for nearly a minute longer. Then he said:
“I suppose yer mother goes out washin’?”
“‘N’ cleans offices?”
“So does mine. Any brothers ‘n’ sisters?”
“Two — one brother ‘n’ one sister.”
Bill looked relieved — for some reason.
“I got nine,” he said. “Yours younger’n you?”
“Lot of bother with the landlord?”
“Yes, a good lot.”
“Had any bailiffs in yet?”
They compared notes a while longer, and tailed off into a silence which lasted three minutes and grew awkward towards the end.
Bill fidgeted about on the bench, reached round for a chip, but recollected himself. Then he cocked his eye at the roof once more and whistled, twirling a shaving round his fingers the while. At last he tore the shaving in two, jerked it impatiently from him, and said abruptly:
“Look here, Arvie! I’m sorry I knocked over yer barrer yesterday.”
This knocked Bill out the first round. He rubbed round uneasily on the bench, fidgeted with the vise, drummed his fingers, whistled, and finally thrust his hands in his pockets and dropped on his feet.
“Look here, Arvie!” he said in low, hurried tones. “Keep close to me goin’ out to-night, ‘n’ if any of the other chaps touches yer or says anything to yer I’ll hit ’em!”
Then he swung himself round the corner of a carriage “body” and was gone.
. . . . .
Arvie was late out of the shop that evening. His boss was a sub-contractor for the coach-painting, and always tried to find twenty minutes’ work for his boys just about five or ten minutes before the bell rang. He employed boys because they were cheap and he had a lot of rough work, and they could get under floors and “bogies” with their pots and brushes, and do all the “priming” and paint the trucks. His name was Collins, and the boys were called “Collins’ Babies”. It was a joke in the shop that he had a “weaning” contract. The boys were all “over fourteen”, of course, because of the Education Act. Some were nine or ten — wages from five shillings to ten shillings. It didn’t matter to Grinder Brothers so long as the contracts were completed and the dividends paid. Collins preached in the park every Sunday. But this has nothing to do with the story.
When Arvie came out it was beginning to rain and the hands had all gone except Bill, who stood with his back to a verandah-post, spitting with very fair success at the ragged toe of one boot. He looked up, nodded carelessly at Arvie, and then made a dive for a passing lorry, on the end of which he disappeared round the next corner, unsuspected by the driver, who sat in front with his pipe in his mouth and a bag over his shoulders.
Arvie started home with his heart and mind pretty full, and a stronger, stranger aversion to ever going back to the shop again. This new, unexpected, and unsought-for friendship embarrassed the poor lonely child. It wasn’t welcome.
But he never went back. He got wet going home, and that night he was a dying child. He had been ill all the time, and Collins was one “baby” short next day.