He hadn’t walked very far when a loud thud attracted his attention. It came from the street to his right: a piece of pipe had fallen off a handcart and onto the stony street. A man stooped down to pick up the pipe. Behind him, and in the gap between two shops on the right side of the street, was a large wooden gate, with a sign above it that read: ‘Thos. Wolstenholme, Plumber.’ Another thud as the man dropped the metal pipe back onto his cart and started to re-arrange the items on it.
The road seemed to lead to a piece of open ground. It looked interesting, a change from the closed, cramped streets of the town centre. This was a better area of the town than the poor streets in the Becketts’ neighbourhood. Jason looked along the left side of the street, which was mainly three-storey buildings, most of them being shops on the ground floor, very similar to some of the older buildings in the centre of Eastbourne. The upper levels here had curtains at the windows, unlike Eastbourne, where they looked gloomy and empty.
Looking more closely, Jason saw that the shops were quite different from those in his own town. Fascinated by the shop windows, he began to walk up New Market Street and passed Jos. Miller, baby linen; Wm. C. Bramwell, butcher; Bury, tailor and hatter; and a jeweller and watchmaker called Mason.
Suddenly, there was the sound of a door banging. A shout: “Stop! Stop him!” Jason turned to see a young man running from a sort of café, towards the open space at the top of the short street. He hadn’t made it there before a policeman appeared and blew his whistle. The man turned and began running in the opposite direction, towards the market, but he now had to get past a few people who had followed him out of the eating house. The woman was still calling for people to stop the man.
Within seconds there was a second policeman – the one who had stared at Jason a few minutes earlier – at the market end of the street. The man, desperate now, dodged from one foot to the other for a couple of seconds, and then made a sprint towards the market. As he did so, he threw a small cloth bag to the ground only a few metres from Jason’s feet.
Like a rugby player aiming for the try line, the man attempted to force his way past the policeman, but with the help of two men who had come out of the butcher’s shop, he was captured. By now the other policeman had run the length of the street and assisted his colleague in leading the man off towards the Town Hall. “That’s the lock-up for him,” said a woman’s voice behind Jason.
It was only then that Jason looked down at the ground. A young girl was crouching near his feet, looking at some large silver coins that lay on the street. They had obviously fallen out of the cloth bag. A few adults, mostly women, were gathering around the money, but Jason was small and quick enough to slip between two women. He knelt on the gravel street and picked up some of the money.
The woman who had spoken earlier, noticed the young girl examining the coins. “Don’t touch them, love – it’s bad money,” she warned.
The tall plumber, who had been harnessing a horse to his cart, came close to Jason, bent down, picked up one of the coins and, to Jason’s surprise, put one edge of it into his mouth and bit it. “Aye, it’s base money all right.”
The people who were surrounding the two children then began to collect the coins from the road and put them back inside the bag which was now being held by Mr Wolstenholme. He looked down at Jason, who was still kneeling, amazed at the excitement.
“You don’t want to go to t’lock-up with him, do you?” the plumber said to Jason with a stern voice and nodded in the direction that the policemen had gone. He held the bag open. Jason stood up and, a little reluctantly, dropped two large coins into the bag. The man reached into his pocket and pressed a large brown coin into Jason’s hand. “That’s for being honest,” he said and patted the boy’s head.
“It’s all I need,” said the woman as she returned to the eating house. “It’s hard enough to make a living without people feeding their face with my food and giving me that for it.”
One of the policemen returned and the tall man handed over the bag to him. The constable counted the coins. “Seventeen half-crowns: two pounds, two shillings and sixpence – hardly worth a few months in jail,” he said, shaking his head. “Not even good copies. Wouldn’t fool anybody.” He then spoke to the tall man. “Thank you, sir. Could I just make a note of your name, as a witness?” The two men walked away from where Jason stood and continued speaking near the doorway of a shop.
The young girl had moved towards the opposite side of the road, but Jason noticed that she was staring at him. When she realised that he had seen her, she came towards him. She was wearing a brown dress that was clearly old and a grey shawl, similar to his own, over her head and shoulders.
“What’s your name?” she asked. Her eyes were large and hazel coloured and, Jason thought, looked quite sad. Although she was no cleaner than the Beckett brothers were when he had met them, there was something in her face that told Jason he was quite safe.
“Jason Brindle. What’s yours?”
“Mary Ann Kelly. How old are you?”
“Me too. Nearly. Nine and a half. How much did he give you?”
“Who?” Jason, still caught up in the drama, and surprised by the openness of the young girl, had, for a moment, forgotten about the coin in his hand.
“The man – he gave you some money.”
The boy, amazed at the girl’s sharp observation, opened his fist and inspected the brown coin. It was not like any coin he knew. He was about to say, “I don’t know” when Mary Ann helped him out. “A penny. Better than a ha’penny.” She thought for a second. “Are you hungry?”
“A bit,” admitted Jason.
“We could get two currant buns for that.”
Part of Jason wanted to hold onto his first penny, but currant buns sounded much more delicious than runny porridge; and Mary Ann had already grabbed his arm and was pulling him towards the café where the excitement had started. “Come on,” she urged, and they went inside.
Once inside, all of Jason’s senses were brought to life. The large cream-coloured room, with its dark brown tables; the warmth from the kitchen at the back of the shop and from the people; the sound of those people talking excitedly about the incident and laughing – there was agreement that the man’s name was Johnson; above all, the smell of cooking – a meaty, oniony smell. Whatever was being cooked in the kitchen, it was the best thing he had smelled in Blackburn. Just then, he might have said it was the best thing he had ever smelled. His mouth began to water.