Excerpt of The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber
(Page 5 of 10)
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What they're after is the cab's skin and bone, and they're not shy in getting it: they attack the maimed vehicle with boyish enthusiasm. Their small hands wrench spokes from the splintered wheel and use them as chisels and jemmies. Metal edgings and ledges snap loose and are wrenched off in turn; lamps and knobs are beaten, tugged and twisted.
More children emerge from other filthy doorways, ready for their share. Those with sleeves roll them up, those without fall to work without delay. Despite their strong hands and wrinkled beetle-brows, none of them is older than eight or nine, for although every able-bodied inhabitant of Church Lane is wide awake now, it's only these younger children who can be spared to strip the cab. Everyone else is either drunk, or busy preparing for a long day's work and the long walk to where it may be had.
Soon the cab is aswarm with Undeserving Poor, all labouring to remove something of value. Practically everything is of value, the cab being an object designed for a caste many grades above theirs. Its body is made of such rare materials as iron, brass, good dry wood, leather, glass, felt, wire and rope. Even the stuffing in the seats can be sewn into a pillow much superior to a rolled-up potato sack. Without speaking, and each according to what he has in the way of tools and footwear, the children hammer and gouge, yank and kick, as the sound echoes drily in the harsh air and the framework of the hansom judders on the cobblestones.
They know their time is likely to be short, but it proves to be even shorter than expected. Scarcely more than fifteen minutes after the first urchins' assault on the wreck, a massive two-horse brewer's dray turns the corner and rumbles up the lane. It carries nothing except the cabman and three well-muscled companions.
Most of the children immediately run home with their splintery armfuls; the most brazen persist for another couple of seconds, until angry shouts of 'Clear off!' and 'Thief!' send them scurrying. By the time the dray draws up to the wreck, Church Lane is empty again, its house-fronts innocent and shadowy, its windows full of faces.
The four men alight and walk slowly around the cab, clockwise and counter-clockwise, flexing their massive hands, squaring their meaty shoulders. Then, at the cabman's signal, they lay hands on the four corners of the wreck and, with one groaning heave, load it onto the dray. It settles more or less upright, two of its wheels having been plundered.
No time is wasted scooping up the smaller fragments. The horse snorts jets of steam as it's whipped into motion, and the three helpers jump on, steadying themselves against the mangled cab. The cabman pauses only to shake his fist at the scavengers behind the windows and yell, 'This 'ere was my life!' and then he, too, is carted away.
His melodramatic gesture impresses nobody. To the people of Church Lane, he is a lucky man, a survivor who ought to be grateful. For, as the dray rattles off, it exposes a pattern of dark blood nestled between the cobbles, like a winding crimson weed.
From where you stand you can actually see the shiver of distaste travelling down between Caroline's shoulder-blades: she's not brave about blood, never has been. For a moment it seems likely she'll turn away from the window, but then she shudders exaggeratedly, to shake off the goose-flesh, and leans forward again.
The dray has gone, and here and there along the house-fronts doors are swinging open and figures are emerging. This time it's not children but adults - that is, those hardened souls who've passed the age of ten. The ones who have a moment to spare - the bill-poster, the scrubber, and the fellow who sells paper windmills - dawdle to examine the blood-spill; the others hurry past, wrapping shawls or scarves around their scrawny necks, swallowing hard on the last crust of breakfast. For those who work in the factories and slop-shops, lateness means instant dismissal, and for those who seek a day's 'casual' labouring, there's nothing casual about the prospect of fifty men getting turned away when the fittest have been chosen.
Copyright © Michel Faber, 2002. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.