Up in the district of Bow, on Fairfield Road, there exists to this day a match factory by the name of Bryant and May. This building, its exterior not particularly impressive by any standards, is one that everyone knows, and knew back then also, the activities taking place inside of it quite widely spoken about in one context or another. Not for any particular reason, might I add; I myself have never heard any rumours of anything suspicious taking place within those walls. What I mean to say is that this factory, at the end of a day a factory like so many others, symbolised different things to different people living in the area. Perhaps this was merely a conclusion I based on my own feelings, it is not at all irrelevant to wonder whether I might have been the only person to see this business in such a light; I rarely socialised enough with others to hear their opinions about anything. For me, however, Bryant and May had for several years been a symbol of hope, a symbol of something that I had always strived to achieve in my lifetime. I had never had a job. As a child I had suffered from rather severe breathing problems, never properly diagnosed by a doctor but supposedly of asthmatic character, which ruled out participation in any type of child labour. Any other mother desperate for money would, perhaps, have risked it, but certainly not mine. She would sooner have worked herself ill than seen me suffer for the sake of supporting our little family. It was a curious illness that I had, appearing for the first time when I was not even three years of age and then presumably curing itself quite suddenly seven years later, as if I simply outgrew it. I do not know enough about medicine to determine whether this is at all possible, but it certainly seemed like it. Still, even without the constant worry that I might deteriorate to the point where I was unable to breathe at all, mother thought it best to not allow me to take employment – even if, at ten, I certainly wanted to. Although I myself have always possessed a wisdom extending far beyond my earthly years, I believe that; in most children, there is always a raised awareness of what goes on around them as the mind develops and matures. And while each individual is different, this small step towards becoming an adult is one that everyone must indeed take at one point or another. In my case, the "revelation" of the world in which we lived occurred, strangely enough, when my disease had only just ceased to bother me: a few weeks before my eleventh birthday. What it was that brought the issue to my attention in such a surprisingly abrupt manner I do not remember; and quite possibly I was not even aware of it doing so at the time. I do, however, recall the first time I questioned in my young mind what society had always attempted to make us all believe; that we were deserving of a life in poverty and should not, under any circumstances, expect any aid from anyone apart from our Lord in Heaven.
On a warm spring day I had watched from afar the rich and their everyday endeavours; intrigued, as children are, to learn about people different from myself. Careful to remain well disguised by the green leaves amongst which I was hiding, I had not dared to move close enough to eavesdrop on their conversation, and thus I merely observed. The children, not far from me in age, were considerably taller and wore fine tailored clothes of a material I had rarely seen, let alone touched; their hair long and well-combed in contrast to mine. Three girls they were; three pretty, well-fed girls who had never gone hungry or cold in their entire lives, playing chase up and down the street as their parents immersed in conversation with peers. One of the girls, who appeared to be the youngest, was named Amy (of this I was certain, because she kept on running off too far for her mother's liking, and thus her name was continuously being called out across the street). Perhaps it was the similarity to my own name that possessed me to keep watching them with such an interest, noting and analysing their every move with growing fascination. Their games were not strange to me, it was the manner in which they were being played that struck me as unusual; children of the street did not do this quite as enthusiastically and carelessly – if at all. The ones that were incredibly unfortunate, of course, did not play. There was no time for games on the brink of starvation; that sort of existence was merely a matter of survival even for the very youngest. For that reason it saddened me a great deal to see these girls at play, to witness with my own two eyes how privileged they were not only to be born into wealth, but to have a childhood that did not primarily revolve around surviving yet another year. In my attempts to understand what their reality might be like, my imagination ran wild. Where did they live? In a fancy townhouse I assumed, somewhere in the opposite end of the city where I had never been. What was it like there? Had they a big garden to play in? Servants and toys, like the ones on display in shop-windows? My brothers and I, whenever we happened to find ourselves in the fancier parts of the city, often marvelled at these fascinating creations, most of which we would never have known how to properly use if given the opportunity. This provided some much needed entertainment, until the shop owner appeared at the door, that was; his angry expression chasing us away like stray cats from the back alley of an inn. Mother would always tell us off afterwards, deeming it an inappropriate activity for us to be busying ourselves with. Why should we? The barrier between rich and poor was too high, she said; too high to climb without ending up falling back all the way down. It was better not to attempt it at all, to stay on the side on which God had intended and remain, to as big an extent as possible, blissfully unaware of what there might be on the other side. In hindsight, I realise that what she really meant by this was that there was no point dwelling on what life could have been; in the end it gave you no satisfaction or peace of mind. And for that reason it should come as no surprise that my observation of the three girls was ended abruptly with plenty of, rather stern, words from my mother as she reappeared to find her daughter hiding behind a bramble bush.
The first thought that then took form inside my mind as I was being dragged from the scene is, in fact, the one that I recall most vividly. It has bothered me many a time since then, but until that point it had never fully developed, remaining always in my subconscious. These children I had just watched...were they not; beneath the surface of differences seemingly endless, children just like me? Just like my brothers, just like every other child in the East End? At the end of the day, all inequalities aside, were we not the same still? Were we not all human? If we deserved to be poor, what had they done to deserve a life in wealth? One cannot help what one is born; it is one of the many mysteries in life, never properly explained by any holy script or science. To blame the adults is one thing; perhaps there were, indeed, people living in the rookeries that had ended up there through their own faults and wrongdoings. As little as I knew about my mother, I could not be certain that she was not one of them, even if I doubted it sincerely. But to judge children so harshly, that logic is one that I have never understood at all. The poor children were, at this time, the forgotten children – the ones that were judged from birth never to become anything but brutes. And for what reason, I asked myself? Was it not at all possible to defy the odds and change one's destiny, to change indeed the course of one's entire life? Part of me, however small a part, had always thought so. Or hoped, at least. But no one had any faith in the poor. It seemed we were merely a burden to society, and one that was better left alone according to most. Ignored and uncared for until, hopefully, at some point, it would vanish all by itself. Perhaps that was precisely what they all secretly hoped for...that by leaving us alone, we would eventually die out. Like nothing more than animals, beasts of ages past that no longer belonged in the modern world – gone extinct as a result of an inability to stay afloat in the raging river of materialism. This was what revealed itself to me on that particular day; and from then onwards I came to almost despise the rich. What gave them the right to judge? To think they knew everything about the world when in fact, they knew so very little?
Half-hearted as they sometimes were, my attempts to find employment were frequent. Bryant and May was quite a long walk away and although it was often very tiring, I went to the factory at least once every week. Standing by the tall, rusty gates, I would wait for someone to either approach the building or emerge from inside of it, whichever happened to occur first. Sometimes, I saw no one at all except factory workers, the vast majority of whom were females of different ages. I knew no one by name; and they in return always, if they addressed me at all, referred to me as "Doe-Eyes". The topics of conversation, however, were limited to whether or not I was "still hanging in there" and thus I, suspecting that most were only poking fun, went to great lengths to avoid them. But occasionally, I caught glimpses of gentlemen - whose exact positions in the business were unclear to me; however, judging by their clothes and general appearance I assumed that they had at least some degree of power. The morning following the "incident" (as I later came to call my rather humiliating encounter with Mary Ann) I rose early, finding no peace to go back to sleep. The rain had finally ceased and it appeared that the sun was coming out, although it was still dreadfully cold for October. Having had breakfast, I set off; my deep breaths coming out in little puffs as I walked. If the night before, I had been convinced that I was dying, I now felt revived; the piece of bread stilling the hunger that had twisted my insides all night and filling my heart with an emotion that could almost be likened to that of happiness. The only downside to this change in mood was that I now had plenty more energy to become increasingly annoyed with Sailor the dog, who refused to stop following me despite my many attempts to chase him off.
"Go away, I haven't got anything for you!" I protested as he leapt and bounded in circles around me, his tail wagging vigorously, "Leave me alone!"
Needless to say, he did not listen, and as I gazed down at him I had to question my sanity for a moment. Had I expected him to listen? To understand? He was only a dog. He neither listened nor understood, for such was the limitation of his intelligence, or indeed, the intelligence of all animals. Most likely, he merely saw me as a possible food source, which was ridiculous to say the least. Perhaps, I thought as I watched him eagerly sniff the ground before me, he might soon realise that I had nothing to offer. Perhaps he would then return to his rightful owner.
This thought cheered me up, as cruel as that might sound; I really did not care much for the animal. Having always been taught to stay away from dogs, his every move caused me to flinch slightly, half expecting a vicious attack each time I felt the wet nose on my palm. Still, he seemed determined not to leave my side, and so eventually I let him be. Pretending not to notice the creature, I kept on walking; running my fingers through the disgraceful sight that was my hair. All around me the city was slowly coming to life, not that it was ever completely still even during the night. Most windows were lit up, and from somewhere behind a fence came the loud crow of a rooster, the echo of which interrupted the silence embracing the streets. Although the sun had not yet risen completely, I could make out the dark silhouettes of people lying close together on the ground; sleeping, I hoped, although possibly worse. At least one appeared to be a prostitute (they were easily recognised by my trained eye) and I felt my stomach lurch slightly as I once again thought of Mary Ann, the pretty girl with the golden hair who had treated me with such kindness. Where was she spending this morning, and in what company? I could only imagine it but frankly, I was not sure I wanted to ponder this any further. It was none of my business, after all.
Passing by Bow Church and continuing up Bow Road, I soon found myself standing outside the match factory like I did every week, this time accompanied by a small, brown dog. Looking around, I breathed a sigh of relief; the area seemed relatively quiet apart from a few factory workers entering the building, a few of them looking my way but doing, or saying, nothing else to acknowledge my presence. The icy winds made me shudder, and in an attempt to stay warm I unfolded my dirty scarf, wrapping myself up in it so that it covered some of my head as well as my shoulders. It helped very little, however; to obtain desired effect I would have needed a cap, and I had none in my possession. Nevertheless, what little protection it provided was enough for me to stay comfortable for the time being and thus, I kept it that way, brushing the strands of dark hair from my eyes as I awaited my opportunity to strike. As it turned out, this opportunity would not present itself until an hour had passed, when a gentleman I immediately recognised showed up at the gate. He seemed in a bit of a hurry, walking hastily and repeatedly checking his pocket watch as if concerned about the time, and I immediately took a few steps forward. Knowing that there was no time to lose, I approached quickly; although speaking in a calm collected manner so as not to come across as rude or disrespectful.
"Pardon me sir... would you be so kind to tell me what the time is?" I heard myself say, in a voice that sounded surprisingly steady. One might think that I would have been used to the routine by now, having done it so often ever since the factory opened, but there was no taming my anxious heart. It pounded on its own accord, whether I admitted to being nervous or not.
He glanced at me, his bushy eyebrows slightly raised. For a man of around fifty he had few wrinkles, and his hair was still thick and dark, bits of grey visible only around his temples when he took his hat off. He had a rather odd habit of doing this when talking to women, I had noticed; perhaps to make them feel more comfortable in his presence – although I personally could not have cared less. I still found him intimidating, with or without the hat, solely due to him being an authority figure. As a person he appeared to be quite friendly, which was more than could be said about most of his peers. Recognising me, he fished out the pocket watch once more, its long silver chain glistening in the sunlight as it rested between his fingers.
"Precisely six o'clock, miss." he said with a smile, knowing very well what my errand really consisted of. "You're early today. Looking for work, I expect?"
I nodded. "Well, I regret to inform you that there is none." He said, the gate creaking slightly as he opened it, looking back at me in what I interpreted as a sympathetic manner. "There's no need for any additions to our workforce at this time." My heart sank and I knew he could see it, for there was not a doubt in my mind that the disappointment was written all over my face.
"I see." I said, quietly and looking down at my hands rather than directly at him. "Thank you, sir. I won't bother you any longer."
With a curtsy, I swiftly turned to walk away. Once, I thought I heard him call after me but I could not be sure and thus, I did not look back until moments later, by which time he had vanished for sure.
Sighing deeply, I reached into my pocket to make sure I had not lost my five pence, but luckily the coins were there still. Although part of me ( the part, I expect, that still carried within it the faint hope for a brighter future) tried hard to remain positive, I had to ask myself there and then if it was worthwhile. The effort I put into finding employment...what was it for? When was it going to pay off? Would it ever? It certainly seemed that my luck was not going to change anytime soon; and just like my mother, I was running out of time. Every day colder than the preceding one, winter would arrive before I knew it - and then I would be done for.
Perhaps I really was doomed.
The pavement shone in the sunlight still and from the treetops came the sound of birdsong, a melancholy tune that foreboded darker times ahead. From afar the church bells rang; the music of a new day dawning for those fortunate enough to last the night, a hymn of peace for those who had not.
Kicking up the leaves as I strolled aimlessly down the street, I once again became lost in my own miserable thoughts - which might explain why it took me so long to notice the man; the strange man in the long black coat who followed far behind.