When he returns home from the stone yard, as the shadows of dusk settle over the town, the baby is still there. The basket rests discreetly in a corner where her tiny body lies, swaddled in plain white cloth.
As usual, the fire is unlit; a few lumps of coal remain in the scuttle but they are like black gold. He looks down at his hands, almost as rough now as the stone he works. Since the mill closed, this is how it is; the supply of cotton strangled by a distant war, unknown to him but real enough. As his workmate said after their last shift, ‘It’s American cotton, Jack, or nowt.’
His mind turns to food; semi-bare cupboards face him with a dismal lack of offerings. Going upstairs to look in on Margaret, he finds her sleeping, layers of thin blankets dragged up to her chin. “I’ll be back soon, Maggie,” he whispers into the cool air.
At the soup kitchen, the aroma dives to the pit of his belly. They give him his due portion; it’s thin, but he almost scalds his tongue devouring it. Sitting at the soup-spattered table, he’s barely aware of the others, or the conversations generated by fleeting respite. Tomorrow, he decides, he will encourage Margaret to come.
Walking home, he sees in a store window the daily lives of himself and others reflected back. Rows of empty jars and a stack of barren crates. No salt, no spices, no farthing candles, no matches; and just a single mug of buttermilk on one shelf.
He finds her sitting motionless in the grey-gloom, her sallow face fixed on the miniature basket. He sees the familiar white swaddling out of the corner of his eye. Somehow he realises he will never forget this scene because it’s like he’s not here at all, but observing it through distant mist.
She is too exhausted to cry more. Gently, he hands her a chunk of bread from the soup kitchen. Taking it, she looks at him with a glimmer of acknowledgement. He brushes one callused hand against her cheek.
Tomorrow, he knows, they must have the basket taken away. Just one more person in this town to be taken.
Christine Collinson writes (mainly historical) short fiction. Her work has appeared in The Cabinet Of Heed, Firefly, Ad Hoc Fiction and Paragraph Planet. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.
Image: Nathan Burrows