Jack woke with a start. His fifteen-year-old body was too big for the child-sized bed. At least it wasn’t winter.
Jack pulled the thin blanket tightly around him, trapping the warm air, as the hairs on his skin stood on end in an icy shiver. The blanket didn’t quite reach the ends of his long gangly legs.
It was almost daylight. Not much longer now. Soon, Jack would be free, and able to earn money. He had one recurring dream: to buy a ticket for the ship to New York. If Jack could make his own fortune through hard graft, then he could one day be the master of his own destiny. No one would tell him what to do anymore.
Jack felt the bed sheet beneath him. It was still dry. Jack had not wet the bed for the first time since that fateful night when he arrived at the orphanage in London.
Jack rubbed his hands together so the friction might warm his chilly fingers. As far as his brain was concerned the fingers were right where they ought to be. But when Jack touched the space around his arm, he knew that his brain was playing tricks on him as it always did. There was no hand. Not since the surgeon had amputated his arm on the night he arrived at the Foundling Hospital School as a five year old.
Apart from being left at the foundling school by his mother when he was a baby, life had been fairly good for Jack, right up until his fifth birthday. He had been placed with a young couple and their two children at a foster home in the countryside, and they had cared for him as if he were one of their own children. On Sundays, they went to church together, and at harvest time, Jack loved to help his foster dad on the farm with the crops. Everyone had been kind to Jack and for that he was grateful. Not all foundlings were so lucky.
Jack lay in bed, watching the rays of sunlight ripple through the bars on the dormitory window. It would be morning soon. Unusually, Jack’s mind was far away, at home with his foster family. Today was his fifteenth birthday and he imagined how it would be if he was with them now at their farm.
A big smile moved across his face as he played over the scene. His foster parents would have rushed into his bedroom, smothered him with bear hugs and kisses, and wished him a very HAPPY birthday.
Jack sighed as his thoughts returned to the grim reality of the boy’s dormitory, and he wiped a tear of sadness from the corner of his eye. He would give anything to see his foster family again. He missed them with all his heart, but he’d intentionally shut them out of his mind for the past ten years.
It was all he could do to survive. The memory of his foster family was just too painful when he was miles away from them.
But today was an exception. Today he was leaving the Foundling Hospital School for good. Today he could finally resurrect his childhood memories of what it was like to be a part of a family. To know what it was like to feel LOVED.
‘Happy Birthday Jack’ whispered the image of his foster mum inside his head as she blew him a big kiss.
‘Happy’ was not a word that Jack often associated with birthdays, and his fifth birthday was as far from happy as it could have been.
The day had started well enough; perfectly in fact. His foster mother had bought him a smart new outfit and black leather shoes, and his foster brothers had given him a fluffy toy bunny. Then the family had gone into the town together, where everyone knew Jack and wished him Happy Birthday, and Jack had been allowed to choose all of his favourite foods to have with his guests as part of a special birthday tea.
But Jack never did get to enjoy his birthday tea. Nor did he get the chance to open up his beautifully wrapped presents, or to say thank you to everyone who came to wish him health and happiness for the future.
In the blink of an eye, Jack’s life had been turned upside down as the unwelcome guest knocked at the door of the family’s home.
* * *
BANG…BANG…BANG… The wooden door of the cottage shook on its hinges. The locks just about holding fast.
It was NOT the sound of a party guest, but of a GIANT, ready to devour the occupants of the house. A big bad wolf, come to feast on the juicy little pigs huddled together inside. Fearing for their lives. At least, that was how it had felt for Jack when he heard the rap at the door, and saw the helpless expressions on the faces of his foster parents.
Their reactions to the knock on the door were far worse than anything he would ever experience again. The fear in their eyes was the worst thing he had ever seen. His foster family knew that there was NOTHING they could do to save Jack from what lay ahead and that thought alone was enough to terrify them.
‘It can’t be, can it? Not today surely? On his birthday, of all days. So soon?’ Jack’s foster mother appeared pale and ghostly as her husband placed his hand tenderly on her arm.
She was right to be worried. Foundling children were only allowed to live with foster families until the age of five, and now the horse and cart had arrived to take Jack away. Jack would NEVER see them again. Those were the rules.
Jack’s foster mum sobbed as she gave him one last hug. It didn’t matter to her that Jack was not her own flesh and blood. To her, Jack was her son and she had cared from him from just a few days after he was born. She had been there when he said his first word, and when he cried as his new tooth came through, and saw him take his first steps as a toddler. She had not had a single day away from him from the moment he arrived at their home, and now he would be taken and they would never meet again.
‘Just remember Jack, you are our special boy, and we love you, wherever you are. You need to be very brave now Jack. Promise you won’t forget us’.
His foster mother tried hard to give Jack hope and strength for whatever was to come. She pulled him to her, tightly. Wrapping her arms around him.
Jack’s foster parents had tried hard to prepare Jack and their other children for this day, but it had made no difference when it came to finally saying goodbye.
Everyone’s heart was broken. Five years of life with Jack had flown by so fast and as they watched their two own boys grow up and get married and have children of their own. They would always wonder where Jack was now and hope that he was happy and loved and that he longed for nothing.
‘Come on lad, I haven’t got all day’. The driver was not one for children. Poison dwarves he called them. Children were noisy, rude, and irritating creatures. Always leaving muddy footprints in his carriage or needing to stop for comfort breaks. What was it to him if the child had no parents?
Perhaps his mother should have thought about that before abandoning him at the Foundling Hospital School, expecting her baby to be cared for out of the goodwill and charity of others. It wasn’t right that.
Surely the foster family knew they wouldn’t live together forever, so why go getting attached to the child. It wasn’t necessary. Life was tough in the real world, and the sooner the boy understood that, the better. It did no good being soft on a child.
Jack climbed the steep steps up to the dark, gloomy carriage, as his foster mum hurriedly gathered his belongings in a suitcase.
If only she had known when the man was coming with the horse and carriage. At least then she might have had time to pack Jack’s things properly, instead of throwing them in his case in such a rush. There were so many things she wanted to say to him, and now it was too late. There was no time left.
The driver shook his head, tutting loudly as he snatched the suitcase from Jack’s foster mum and threw it into the carriage.
He knew matron would confiscate the bag as soon as they arrived at the Foundling Hospital School, Jack wouldn’t see anything of the suitcase again. What did he need all that stuff for anyway? The driver hated goodbyes and he saw no point in dragging things out.
The driver slammed the carriage door closed, and climbed up to his seat, grabbing the reigns and clicking the horses on. He was not looking forward to the long, cold journey to London.
The large wheels on the carriage rolled slowly forwards, and with that they were off. Trotting along the stony track. It was a very bumpy ride. The movement vibrating through the carriage frame, right through Jack’s bones, but Jack was too upset to notice anything right now.
Jack’s world felt dead and empty. The colours, magic, and excitement of daily adventures GONE.
Jack held his toy bunny to his cheek. It was soft, and smelt like home. The scent comforted him a little as he cried and rocked himself to sleep.
* * *
It was after midnight by the time the horse and carriage arrived at the metal gates of the Foundling Hospital School. A man unlocked the gates with a key, and let the carriage through to the gravel track outside the large, stone building.
The driver stepped down from his seat, his bottom numb from the journey as he gave the horses some hay and water to refresh them after their long journey. His footsteps were loud on the gravel track with it being so late at night and the surrounding city still and covered in thick white fog. It might be summer, but the driver was frozen, and he could see his breath in the air as he coughed up the black tar from the industrial city air.
The driver knocked hard on the building’s oak doors… Nothing…. He knocked again, only louder and more persistent than before. If there were no answer this time, he thought to himself, then the boy would have to sleep on the steps until morning. After all, the boy was not his responsibility, and he was keen to get home and warmed up before his next journey.
‘OK, OK. I’m coming. Just wait will you’. A woman complained bitterly from behind the doors, as she slid back the iron bolts. The woman peered around the door, dressed in a long, black gown, her face lit by the moonlight and the flicker of a flame from a candle that stood in a brass candlestick in her hand.
She eyed the driver suspiciously. The driver recognised her immediately, what with her sour expression and slicked back hair. There was no mistaking matron.
‘Oh it’s you’. She said, not impressed at being disturbed at such an ungodly hour. Now she would have to forego sleep to check the boy in as a foundling. There would be no extra money or compensation for being woken in the middle of the night, nor would she receive thanks from the governors for her troubles.
Matron resented the governors more than any other member of staff at the hospital. They were always on her case and for no real reason than they were do-gooders, interfering and thinking they knew best for the children in her care. They wanted the children to be fed, clothed, nursed, and educated, but all without the financial or staffing means to do so.