His clothes hadn't been washed in a week, for that matter nor had the skin beneath. She combed his hair with her fingers, peering over her glasses before grunting that she had found nothing. The fingers moved down his neck, onto his collar, clutching it firm in case he ran. There was no need, Marlow stayed put, he had nowhere to run too. Shoulders down he was resigned to the fate that was coming.
A second adult came into the room, crouched down and dropped to Marlow's level, or as near as he could. His brown eyes shifted from the small boys blue, searching for some depth. From his left hand he produced a coat, slipped it around his captive and pushed the boys arms in. "You are to come with me, I'm here to take care of you." He split a smile, nodded and rose back up.
Marlow kept his eyes focused on his plastic dinosaur, determined not to leave without it. Eyes down with ears up, as the two adults discussed in hushed tones about the small boy wedged between them .
"He looks a bit hungry, but no nits. Dirty, a hard scrub and then the Doctor can give him a good check over. But I am happy to sign him over to your care.” She sighed in deep, checked her watch and tensed at the hour. "After six on Christmas Eve, I should have been home hours ago. It has been most inconvenient.”
The man drew his palm over his red eyes, knowing that he would be out for several more hours getting this one settled in somewhere for the night at least. "Yeah, sure, well, I can take it from here. Thank you for your time."
Her heals clipped, turned and with two steps she reached the door, stopped as her heart gave a small jump. "What will happen to him?" Thirty years of this, she really should have been able to switch off her feelings, but a tiny patch always jumped out.
"I don't really know. He's six I think. Too old for adoption. Parents want babes, not a kid with that much baggage. Maybe a foster home. But kids like this. Well, I'll start him at the children's home off Grange street." He let his left hand drop, feeling for a little hand back. "Come on Marlow, lets get you somewhere warm and something to eat.”
At his touch, Marlow sprang to life, darted to the corner, grabbing his plastic toy and hiding it folded in his arms.
"It's okay Marlow, you can bring it with you." The boy shuffled and slipped his right hand into the mans, whilst holding tight in his left his only reminder of his home.
"See, Foxes hair cut." The teenager pointed over at Marlow with enough volume for his gang and his intended victim to hear. "Every two months the thick kids from the home gets shoved to Foxes for a grade two.”
Marlow hand came up, rubbing his short hair and catching his ears already red from the cold and now with heating from within. He kicked his Asda shoes over the stones at the edge of the path, working out which corner he could hide in.
"What are you parents getting you for Christmas home boy?" Sniggers followed from those to his side. "Oh yes, bugger all.”
"Hush Seb.”’she said, pushing her elbow into his ribs and flicking her brown fringe from her left eye. "Marlow's okay, he's in my math class."
"And you’re bloody crap at math Jenny." Sebastian fell forward away from the wall he had been keeping up, dropped his school bag, pushed his way out from the huddle and stepped towards Marlow.
"Where you going home boy?" He stepped in front and then to the left as Marlow moved right. "I said, where are you going home boy?"
His eyes came up as his head cocked to one side. His slim build disguised his strength. Years of good food with little to no extras left him with bone covered by muscle. With eight years at the home, Marlow was no shrinking violet to looking after himself. Small quick and already aware that you had to get in there first, he moved his knees forward, his body twisting with it and his right hook with force from the whole of his body sprang out.
His case worker counted to ten inside his head, breathed out and readjusted the school report with extra exclusion letter attached. The last day of term and the last thing he needed was to find Marlow a school that would take him.
The boys shoulders raised, his eyes kept low and his cheeks glowing red. "I dunno. Reckon he was going to clobber me, so I got in there first." His eyebrows raised, it was how he saw it.
Sitting back, the case worker intertwined his fingers, blowing gently over the top of them. "This is not the first time is it Marlow, lets see. A fight with an older boy in the home last term." He peered at his charge, waiting for a reply.
"He took something of mine, I just wanted it back.”
"Not that bloody plastic dinosaur.” His voice raised as his hands punched the wooden desk. With no reaction Marlow cocked his head to one side and waited. "Your punishment, no Christmas present and no Christmas lunch. You are dismissed.”
Marlow rose from his seat, stood tall, firm and stoic. He hated Christmas anyway.
The rucksack bulged as Marlow squeezed in his last pair of socks. Holding it tight, he pulled the zip closed and dropped it on his bed whilst waiting for his lift to come. The room was bare, his posters down, cupboards empty and the few items he had gathered over the last ten years, packed away.
He sat down next to his bag, not sure of what he should feel. It was never a home, it was just a place to survive. And he had. Marlow checked his letter again, trying to make out the words, gave up and made a mental note to remember to ask his case worker where he was going.
A whistle and a brush of leather echoed down the corridor, followed a few seconds later by a black short beard and a corduroy jacket. "Ready lad? Sixteen now, time to get you out of here and in to your own place." The case worker stood, spinning his car keys over his finger whilst carrying on his whistle. Marlow moved, slipped his pack over one shoulder and grabbing his plastic dinosaur in the opposite hand. Without a word, he pushed passed and stomped off down the hall.
He placed his dinosaur on his new bedside cabinet, flicked on the lamp, kicked off his trainers and tried his bed for the first time. Marlow sucked in his cheeks, gave a short whistle as he took in the beige painted wall. His counselor stood in the door frame, watching for the boy to give him his full attention.
"You ready Marlow. Here are the rules. One," he announced to the crowd of one. "No blue tack. Two, your room must be clean and vacant every Friday between eleven and twelve for inspection." He gave a sigh as the boys eyes wondered off. "Marlow are you listening?"
"Huh?" said Marlow turning his toy to face the door.
"Three, the kitchen must be clean after every use. Four and five are the same but to do with the laundry room. Six, no guests after eleven p.m."
The teenager raised his shoulder, he had no friends away from the home so the visitor rules was pointless.
"Any variance from the above and you will be requested to leave. Last thing Marlow. Tuesday, you are to go to the meat packing factory off Buxton Hill. You know the one?"
"Get down there for seven sharp. They can't put you on the line until you are eighteen, but you can sweep the yard. It's a good role Marlow and it will give you money." He stood back a step, stroked his beard, "You can get a couple of weeks pay in before Christmas, it'll be good for you." He took a last look at the boy and with a shake of his head strolled off down the corridor.
A few minutes later Marlow moved silently over to the door, peered out around the frame, pulled back in and closed himself into his bedsit.
His cleaver fell hard splitting the meat. With his spare hand he moved the pieces apart and pushed them down the belt. Marlow grabbed another, slapping it down hard, moving it into position and again perfectly chopping it into pack size chinks.
"That Jenny girl from dispatch has been asking about you," announced his companion on the opposite side. He winked, gave a slight nod before beaming at Marlow. "She's coming down the Fox and Elms for the Christmas drinks after work today. Why don't you buy her a pint?"
Marlow dropped his head and reached for a new joint, pulling it into place. "You know, I think I might." He gave a whistle and felt warm as his breath blew clouds into the chilled factory. The clock ticked on slowly from lunch till four thirty.
The two boys chatted, pulled meat, separated it and pushed it down. Contemplated football scores, and beamed at the thought of being off until the twenty seventh. "Look sharp. Sparkes has just come out of his office." Marlow dropped an eye in his managers direction before concentrating on his work. Both men went silent, waiting to see what he wanted.
Sebastian Sparkes came in close, peered over Marlow’s shoulder and rested his palm on it. "Bad news I'm afraid Marlow. Just had an emergency order. You have to stay on tonight."
Marlow kept his eyes low, nodded and split another joint with just a little more force than was needed. "But boss," pleaded his colleague, "It's our Christmas drinks night.”
Sparkes shook his head, "Can't be helped, we have to put the customer first." He removed his palm "Should only take till nine or ten.” Sparkes turned, pushed his hands deep into his trouser pockets and slipped back away to his warm office.
"Hate him.” said the man. Marlow stayed silent and raised his cleaver.
He removed his wellingtons, washed off the dry blood from his hands and placed the white coat into the laundry. Marlow checked the clock, it had moved on to eleven. Way too late for the pub and way passed his opportunity to buy Jenny a drink. He sucked in his cheek, let his brain turn over on what might have been and pulled his cap down hard.
Marlow flicked off the changing room light, closed the door behind him and took a look at the deserted factory floor. One office light illuminating. His manager, still at it and sat fixed at his computer screen. Marlow slipped away, out through the gate with the plan of a walk through the car park, to the lane at the back and a steady downhill stroll back to his bedsit.
She stood on the path, shuffling from foot to foot, her hands cupped around her mouth and her hood firmly up. Marlow stopped, searched around for a third person. "Jenny?"
Sebastian leant against the wall. His gang gathered in close, waiting for him to decide what they should do next. He listened into Jenny talk to Harriet. Their conversation high, light and without any show of jealousy or hint of bitchiness that Harriet held against his Jenny. He picked a loose stand of cotton from his dry cleaned blazer and brushed his long fringe with his fingers, away from his grey eyes.
To his left a skinny kid, hair cut short, trousers a year too short and his pointy ears red in the cold, strolled along kicking stones with his Asda shoes. Sebastian pushed his elbows into the wall propelling himself forward. He thought back to last night. Harriet sat on his bed annoyed again with the amount of time he spent with Jenny. How many times did he have to explain it. Jenny's mother and his had been friends for years. They were just friends.
"What are you parents getting you for Christmas home boy?" he shouted over and caught the sniggers from his crowd. It would keep Harriet quiet. She knew that Jenny had a soft spot for the kid and making him look stupid would annoy her and please his girlfriend.
Sebastian sauntered over, stopping the kid from the home from passing. Smaller, lighter and much skinnier. Sebastian put out of a hand to push Marlow back. He watched as the kid dropped his head to one side, cocked his fist and took the blow to his left eye.
A teacher flew between them, shielding Sebastian from any more punishment. He stood back up, brushed the dust and eyed the teacher. "I just asked a question and he just lost it.”
"Is this true Marlow?"
"Yep, I reckon.” said Marlow, his ears bright and his face pale.
"To the Head’s office Marlow and I will be talking to your case worker." Marlow span, dragged the toes off his shoes over the stones and headed back, resigned to whatever was to come next.
Sebastian turned to his gang. Jenny, watching Marlow trudge off and Harriet beaming back at him. Maybe it had been worth it.
The office had a large window. It was warm and they were allowed to drink coffee whilst watching the line split and pack meat at five above freezing. Sebastian stretched back, linking his fingers, pleased that everything was now slowing down after the Christmas rush. A few more hours and another peak season would calm down and he could switch off for the holidays.
He jumped as the door burst in and his father stood over his son. "You have done well. First Christmas in charge and everything in order." He patted his son and peered out over his company.
"Just one more thing Seb. We have a late order, needs to be completed today. You'll have to get someone to stay on the line to prepare." He checked out his works, searching for a name. "That man.” he said pointing at a white coat in the distance, "The one who works like a machine."
Sebastian followed his fathers fingers. "Marlow," he said.
His father nodded. "Yes Marlow, get him to stay, I can trust he is to get it done right."
He breathed in deep. "But dad, they have their Christmas drinks down at the Fox and Elms tonight. Could I not ask him to come in tomorrow to get it done?"
"Now Son, business is business. If you are going to run it, you have to do the hard side as well as the good. It'll be good for you. Now go and tell Marlow he has to stay on.”
She killed the four by four, slipped her designer shades on and stepped down into the cold bright winter morning. Two children popped out of the back and joined her on the pavement, already in their third set of uniforms for the third day of the week. Harriet brushed them forward getting in step with Jenny, as she pushed her children towards the school gate. The red of her childrens uniform now faded to a purple pink.
"Hey Jenny. Lovely morning. What you doing after dropping the kids? Do you fancy a coffee?" She came in close as she separated her daughters plaits.
Jenny smiled back, let her hair fall and thought about getting some dye. "I can't Han, I've got to work as soon as I drop these two scruffs off.”
Harriet reddened, a slight guilt fading as quick as it rose. "No luck for Marlow yet?"
Both ladies fell into step, fussing over the four kids in front and talking about the redundancy her husband had pushed onto Marlow. "I'm sure it will pick up soon. Your Marlow is such a hard worker. Some one will bag him up I'm sure."
The two older girls conversation dragged back over the women, both discussing Christmas presents they were definitely getting. And both matching like for like trends of gifts.
Jenny spat back, "There's not much chance. We only had one big employer around here and your husband sold it out.” She quickened her step, pushing through and separating her children from Harriet's.
"Oh Jen, please, don't. It really wasn't like that," said Harriet to the back of Jenny, secretly pleased to keep the divide between her husband and Jenny, even after all these years.
He stood, leaning back against the kitchen worktop, watching his wife crunch through the calculator, reaching the wrong amount and starting again. After three attempts Jenny gave up and sat back, clicking her spine back into place. She raised an eyebrow at Marlow, who, not sure what to do grinned back. "That bad, hey?" he said.
"Yep.” she replied blowing out hard. "After the mortgage, well, they are certainly not getting an ipad, Wii switch or anything else that would keep up with the Sparkes. Might stretch to an orange and a lump of coal."
Marlow folded his arms, kicking his heels and letting his brain search deep. "All those years of getting nothing and watching the other kids full of it. I can't let mine go through the same thing," he whispered quietly. Marlow shook his head, pulling his skin in tight, prepared to do anything not to have his children share his experiences.
"There's nothing we can do about it Marlow. The shops shut in an hour. I can't borrow anymore. I'll just have to explain. They will have to live with it this year and let’s hope the next one is better." Jenny stood up, there was no point putting it off any longer. "Kids, I need to see you, come down to the sitting room." she bellowed out into the hall way. As she left the kitchen, Marlow turned and went in the opposite direction and out into the dark cold night.
Movement had stopped several hours ago, the lights from the Christmas tree still danced between a small gap in the window. Marlow tapped his crow bar against his joggers, his woollen gloves killing off any finger prints and his trainers mass produced. His mind had circled his thoughts for the last few hours and he had turned his phone off, silencing the massages from Jenny. Sometimes, he had concluded, you just had to do what's best for your own and sod everyone else.
Marlow crouched low, his hood up and focus on the side bay window, the one a few feet from the front door, but permanently in shade. His soft feet brushed over the sand stone drive, stepping gently onto the flower bed that circled the windows as he fell back against the wooden frame, already short of breath.
He felt his way around, trying to work out the give points and the one solid area where the lock would be hidden inside. He pressed in and located the break point, bottom middle. Marlow, still breathing heavy, his heart rate up and eyes as awake as they had ever been, slipped his bar in the small gap, leaned back and cracked the wood. The break echoed around his head, splitting the silence of the early hours and freezing him to the spot. Marlow waited, counted to twenty, as his radar picked up any movement inside or out of the detached house.
Seconds felt like hours, the silence loud, Marlow focused back in on the job in hand. He pushed up the window, all the way, making it easier for his great escape. Still toned, light and extremely strong, he raised his body, holding it still whilst his knee felt for the ledge and he got his balance. The curtain billowed at his touch as he fought his way into the large warm sitting room.
The tree sat back at one side of the big open fireplace. The mantle decorated with holly and ivy, covering the white marble which balanced perfectly with the red wallpaper that lined behind. Attached, reflecting himself back, was a large silver mirror, creating more size to the already large room. Marlow brushed the soles of his trainers against his leggings, not as to remove any print marks, but as to not leave any mud on the deep rug that lay square on the polished wooden floor.
Taking two steps, he crouched down eying the presents. Sizing the boxes and weight of the presents before touching them. To his left lay a square, flat solid looking parcel. Marlow slipped it effortlessly from the stack, felt the frame and read the name tag. It felt right, he pushed it behind him before continuing his task. One more to get.
Passed the soft, the lumpy and very small, his eyes found it. Oblong, solid and with a tiny tear, he pulled his sons present towards him. Marlow stood, one present in each hand. It was all he needed. He nodded to himself and turned towards the fire place as the living room door opened and the main lights came on.
Sebastian stood, golf club raised to his side and the look of pure terror on his white face. He stepped into the opening as both men came to a complete halt. "Marlow? What are you doing ?"
Marlow dropped his head to one side and lifted his eyes to Sebastian. He raised the two presents to show him his loot. "I'm sorry Sebastian, but I needed them." Slowly he placed them onto the white leather sofa, picked to match the fireplace. "My kids have nothing this Christmas, I just wanted them not to miss out."
Sebastian relaxed his grip, letting the club hang lose to his side. He moved sideways, his brain working Marlow out, but his body still wanting to get his goods back.
"But Marlow I thought you were a real burglar, I might have hit you with this.” He showed his club, waved it and then placed it by the two presents. "Actually, you are a real burglar. What the hell are you doing." The realisation hit Sebastian and he shouted at the tall, slim, quiet man in a hushed tone. Sebastian sat down hard on the sofa, his lips tight and his shoulders dropping. "Oh sit down Marlow I need to think."
All his life Marlow had taken any discipline thrown his way, his fault or not. He sat next to his old Boss, separated by two presents and a club. Always silent and waiting. He sat still.
"Tell me Marlow?" said Sebastian after a minute or two. "Why us, why at all? It's not you. You never had much, but you were always a proper working man. Hard, on time, always put a good shift in. Reliable."
Marlow twitched. "You know I was brought up in the home, never had money or family, just kind of pushed on. Then I worked for your dad, well over twenty years. Until the redundancies. I worked hard. It was a good job, the best in the town. When that went, well I'm not clever. I don't read or write well. I really, still am, struggling to get a job since. "
He breathed in and let his roll continue. "Jen can't move, not with her mother being ill so at the moment, we are stuck." He caught Sebastian's eye and dropped his away. "And to be honest, I was jealous. You took the money, you have the house and your children have everything I can't give mine. I just wanted them not to think that they mattered less than anyone else. I know how that felt."
Sebastian sat upright. "I need a drink, you drink vodka Marlow?" He turned to his criminal. "Well you do now.” He walked over, poured two large ones and added some full fat coke.
"My turn Marlow. " He said handing over a tumbler. "I was never the business man my father was. When he died I knew that given a few years the plant would be dead. I didn't get it, understand, and I really struggled to work with his customers." Sebastian smiled. "It just wasn't me. So I sold up, and here's the thing that proves that I had no idea what I was doing. I thought they wanted the factory. I'd sell, get some cash and you would all have your jobs. Everyone a winner." He knocked back his drink. "When they started to shut it and move the production to Leeds, I was so shocked. Turned out they wanted the client base."
He sat back down and smiled at Marlow. "Have your drink Marlow, we have some time and we have to get out of this mess. " He winked. "See, I was the stupid one.”
Marlow took a sip. "I'm sorry about your window lock. I think I cracked the wood too. Maybe you should call the police and get this over with. I'll admit to it all."
"There wont be any police tonight Marlow. You can fix the frame next week. You were always good with your hands. But what we do next, well after another drink we can sort that." He pulled the bottle from his side and topped up both glasses. "Besides Jenny would kill me if I dropped her husband in it. It's a small town Marlow, everyone knows everyone's business, or at least think they do.”
Footsteps battered the landing floor boards as Harriet screeched that it was only five in the morning. She gave into the screeching and sent the children scampering down to the sitting room. The two children flew in and stopped still at the picture of their father sat with another man . Harriet came in. "Oh hello Marlow, why are you here?"
Sebastian turned to his wife. "Marlow texted me, I invited him over, and we, as a family are going to make things right for him. God knows I messed up his life already." He raised a hand to stop Marlow from speaking. "Now you two," he spoke to his children. "You have, well, a lot of presents. I'd like you to give a present each to Marlow for his kids. You are friends with them at school, so it would be a proper Christmas thing to do."
"Sebastian.” cried Harriet
His hand came up. "No Harriet, the children understand, don't, you?"
"Good.” said Sebastian, "And you two aren't to worry, I'll get you the presents you give away replaced when the shops re open."
"Well that's that sorted." He turned to Marlow. "Come on then, lets get you home. Grab those two presents. Harriet and I will grab some food. Kids, throw some more presents into a bag. Marlow we need a bottle or two. We are all off to Marlow's for Christmas morning then everyone back here for the afternoon." He stood and clocked the stares back. "Well come on Chop, chop.”
Jenny tried his mobile again, bit down and threw it across the kitchen table. The children sat in silence, wondering what they had done wrong and if Christmas might start at any time soon. "Where's dad?" Jenny looked up and checked the clock, it had just turned six am and it was now just over ten hours since she had started looking for him.
Voices filled the garden, getting louder with a few ssshhhs thrown in to no avail. Jenny moved, squinted out and in pure anger slammed the door open. "Where the hell have you been?" she screamed as Marlow's grin slipped off his face and the reality of the trouble he was in became apparent.
"My fault," butted in Sebastian. "I got a text from Marlow last night. I had him talking and a few drinks. I've drove him back as soon as we were sober enough. Sorry Jenny." He pushed passed dropping two bottles on the kitchen table. Harriet followed in, raised her eyebrows at Jenny and dropped a cooked ham with the bottles. Their two children barged in and joined the two sat at the table, before all four busted out and flew upstairs to the bedrooms.
Marlow placed two presents with the other goods. "Christmas has come, thanks to Sebastian and Harriet.” said Marlow to a bemused Jenny.
The four sat down, Sebastian opened the wine as Marlow passed around the glasses. "Merry Christmas Jenny, Harriet and to you Marlow.”he announced. "And one other thing. Marlow come over on Monday, you really were the best Butcher at the factory. The old one in the high street is up for sale. It's not for me, but it needs a new owner and a hard worker. I've got more money sat in the bank doing nothing and have been looking for an investment. Obviously I want nothing to do with the day to day running, but I'm sure we can work something out." He lifted his glass high. "To the new year.”
Small footsteps jumped down the stairs and came flying at Sebastian. "Look dad a Acrocanthosaurus toy!" He span around, placing the plastic dinosaur on the table, "It's my favourite one, I haven't got one in my collection yet." His eyes wide at his find.
Marlow picked it up, turned it in hand. "Well boy, I think you have now, it's old and could do with a good home," he said as he handed it over.
"Really, that's the best present I could ever have had.” The boy pulled it in tight in both hands. "This is the best Christmas ever.”
"Certainly looking that way” said Marlow.