Escape Pod 315: Clockwork Fagin
Music by Clockwork Quartet
By Cory Doctorow
Monty Goldfarb walked into St Agatha’s like he owned the place, a superior look on the half of his face that was still intact, a spring in his step despite his steel left leg. And it wasn’t long before he *did* own the place, taken it over by simple murder and cunning artifice. It wasn’t long before he was my best friend and my master, too, and the master of all St Agatha’s, and didn’t he preside over a *golden* era in the history of that miserable place?
I’ve lived in St Agatha’s for six years, since I was 11 years old, when a reciprocating gear in the Muddy York Hall of Computing took off my right arm at the elbow. My Da had sent me off to Muddy York when Ma died of the consumption. He’d sold me into service of the Computers and I’d thrived in the big city, hadn’t cried, not even once, not even when Master Saunders beat me for playing kick-the-can with the other boys when I was meant to be polishing the brass. I didn’t cry when I lost my arm, nor when the barber-surgeon clamped me off and burned my stump with his medicinal tar.
I’ve seen every kind of boy and girl come to St Aggie’s — swaggering, scared, tough, meek. The burned ones are often the hardest to read, inscrutable beneath their scars. Old Grinder don’t care, though, not one bit. Angry or scared, burned and hobbling or swaggering and full of beans, the first thing he does when new meat turns up on his doorstep is tenderize it a little. That means a good long session with the belt — and Grinder doesn’t care where the strap lands, whole skin or fresh scars, it’s all the same to him — and then a night or two down the hole, where there’s no light and no warmth and nothing for company except for the big hairy Muddy York rats who’ll come and nibble at whatever’s left of you if you manage to fall asleep. It’s the blood, see, it draws them out.
So there we all was, that first night when Monty Goldfarb turned up, dropped off by a pair of sour-faced Sisters in white capes who turned their noses up at the smell of the horse-droppings as they stepped out of their coal-fired banger and handed Monty over to Grinder, who smiled and dry-washed his hairy hands and promised, “Oh, aye, sisters, I shall look after this poor crippled birdie like he was my own get. We’ll be great friends, won’t we, Monty?” Monty actually laughed when Grinder said that, like he’d already winkled it out.
As soon as the boiler on the sisters’ car had its head of steam up and they were clanking away, Grinder took Monty inside, leading him past the parlour where we all sat, quiet as mice, eyeless or armless, shy a leg or half a face, or even a scalp (as was little Gertie Shine-Pate, whose hair got caught in the mighty rollers of one of the pressing engines down at the logic mill in Cabbagetown).
He gave us a jaunty wave as Grinder led him away, and I’m ashamed to say that none of us had the stuff to wave back at him, or even to shout a warning. Grinder had done his work on us, too true, and turned us from kids into cowards.
Presently, we heard the whistle and slap of the strap, but instead of screams of agony, we heard howls of defiance, and yes, even laughter!
“Is that the best you have, you greasy old sack of suet? Put some arm into it!”
And then: “Oh, dearie me, you must be tiring of your work. See how the sweat runs down your face, how your tongue doth protrude from your stinking gob. Oh please, dear master, tell me your pathetic old ticker isn’t about to pack it in, I don’t know what I’d do if you dropped dead here on the floor before me!”
And then: “Your chest heaves like a bellows. Is this what passes for a beating round here? Oh, when I get the strap, old man, I will show you how we beat a man in Montreal, you may count on it my sweet.”
They way he carried on, you’d think he was *enjoying* the beating, and I had a picture of him leaping to and fro, avoiding the strap with the curious, skipping jump of a one-legged boy, but when Grinder led him past the parlour again, he looked half dead. The good side of his face was a pulpy mess, and his one eye was near swollen shut, and he walked with even more of a limp than he’d had coming in. But he grinned at us again, and spat a tooth on the threadbare rug that we were made to sweep three times a day, a tooth that left a trail of blood behind it on the splintery floor.
We heard the thud as Monty was tossed down onto the hole’s dirt floor, and then the labored breathing as Grinder locked him in, and then the singing, loud and distinct, from under the floorboards: “Come gather ye good children, good news to you I’ll tell, ’bout how the Grinder bastard will roast and rot in Hell –” There was more, apparently improvised (later, I’d hear Monty improvise many and many a song, using some hymn or popular song for a tune beneath his bawdy and obscene lyrics), and we all strove to keep the smiles from our face as Grinder stamped back into his rooms, shooting us dagger-looks as he passed by the open door.
And that was the day that Monty came to St Agatha’s Home For the Rehabilitation of Crippled Children.
I remember my first night in the hole, a time that seemed to stretch into infinity, a darkness so deep I thought that perhaps I’d gone blind. And most of all, I remember the sound of the cellar door loosening, the bar being shifted, the ancient hinges squeaking, the blinding light stabbing into me from above, and the silhouette of old Grinder, holding out one of his hairy, long-fingered hands for me to catch hold of, like an angel come to rescue me from the pits of Hades. Grinder pulled me out of the hole like a man pulling up a carrot, with a gesture practiced on many other children over the years, and I near wept from gratitude. I’d soiled my trousers, and I couldn’t hardly see, nor speak from my dry throat, and every sound and sight was magnified a thousandfold and I put my face in his great coat, there in the horrible smell of the man and the muscle beneath like a side of beef, and I cried like he was my old Mam come to get me out of a fever-bed.
I remember this, and I ain’t proud of it, and I never spoke of it to any of the other St Aggie’s children, nor did they speak of it to me. I was broken then, and I was old Grinder’s boy, and when he turned me out later that day with a begging bowl, sent me down to the distillery and off to the ports to approach the navvies and the lobsterbacks for a ha’penny or a groat or a tuppence, I went out like a grateful doggie, and never once thought of putting any of Grinder’s money by in a secret place for my own spending.
Of course, over time I did get less doggy and more wolf about the Grinder, dreamt of tearing out his throat with my teeth, and Grinder always seemed to know when the doggy was going, because bung, you’d be back in the hole before you had a chance to chance old Grinder. A day or two downstairs would bring the doggie back out, especially if Grinder tenderized you some with his strap before he heaved you down the stairs. I’d seen big boys and rough girls come to St Aggie’s, hard as boots, and come out of Grinder’s hole so good doggy that they practically licked his boots for him. Grinder understood children, I give you that. Give us a mean, hard father of a man, a man who doles out punishment and protection like old Jehovah from the Sisters’ hymnals, and we line up to take his orders.
But Grinder didn’t understand Monty Goldfarb.
I’d just come down to lay the long tables for breakfast — it was my turn that day — when I heard Grinder shoot the lock to his door and then the sound of his callouses rasping on the polished brass knob. As his door swung open, I heard the music-box playing its tune, Grinder’s favorite, a Scottish hymn that the music box sung in Gaelic, its weird horsegut voice-box making the auld words even weirder, like the eldritch crooning of some crone in a street-play.
Grinder’s heavy tramp receded down the hall, to the cellar door. The doors creaked open and I felt a shiver down in my stomach and down below that, in my stones, as I remembered my times in the pit. There was the thunder of his heavy boots on the steps, then his cruel laughter as he beheld Monty.
“Oh, my darling, is *this* how they take their punishment in Montreal? ‘Tis no wonder the Frenchies lost their wars to the Upper Canadians, with such weak little mice as you to fight for them.”
They came back up the stairs: Grinder’s jaunty tromp, Monty’s dragging, beaten limp. Down the hall they came, and I heard poor Monty reaching out to steady himself, brushing the framed drawings of Grinder’s horrible ancestors as he went, and I flinched with each squeak of a picture knocked askew, for disturbing Grinder’s forebears was a beating offence at St Aggie’s. But Grinder must have been feeling charitable, for he did not pause to whip beaten Monty that morning.
And so they came into the dining hall, and I did not raise my head, but beheld them from the corners of my eyes, taking cutlery from the basket hung over the hook at my right elbow and laying it down neat and precise on the splintery tables.
Each table had three hard loaves on it, charity bread donated from Muddy York’s bakeries to us poor crippled kiddees, day-old and more than a day-old, and tough as stone. Before each loaf was a knife as long as a man’s forearm, sharp as a butcher’s, and the head child at each table was responsible for slicing the bread using that knife each day (children who were shy an arm or two were exempted from this duty, for which I was thankful, since those children were always accused of favoring some child with a thicker slice, and fights were common).
Monty was leaning heavily on Grinder, his head down and his steps like those of an old, old man, first a click of his steel foot, then a dragging from his remaining leg. But as they passed the head of the furthest table, Monty sprang from Grinder’s side, took up the knife, and with a sure, steady hand — a movement so spry I knew he’d been shamming from the moment Grinder opened up the cellar door — he plunged the knife into Grinder’s barrel-chest, just over his heart, and shoved it home, giving it a hard twist.
He stepped back to consider his handiwork. Grinder was standing perfectly still, his face pale beneath his whiskers, and his mouth was working, and I could almost hear the words he was trying to get out, words I’d heard so many times before: *Oh, my lovely, you are a naughty one, but Grinder will beat the devil out of you, purify you with rod and fire, have no fear –*
But no sound escaped Grinder’s furious lips. Monty put his hands on his hips and watched him with the critical eye of a bricklayer or a machinist surveying his work. Then, calmly, he put his good right hand on Grinder’s chest, just to one side of the knife handle. He said, “Oh, no, Mr Grindersworth, *this* is how we take our punishment in Montreal.” Then he gave the smallest of pushes and Grinder went over like a chimney that’s been hit by a wrecking ball.
He turned then, and regarded me full on, the good side of his face alive with mischief, the mess on the other side a wreck of burned skin. He winked his good eye at me and said, “Now, he was a proper pile of filth and muck, wasn’t he? World’s a better place now, I daresay.” He wiped his hand on his filthy trousers — grimed with the brown dirt of the cellar — and held it out to me. “Montague Goldfarb, machinist’s boy and prentice artificer, late of old Montreal. Montreal Monty, if you please,” he said.
I tried to say something — anything — and realized that I’d bitten the inside of my cheek so hard I could taste the blood. I was so dicombobulated that I held out my abbreviated right arm to him, hook and cutlery basket and all, something I hadn’t done since I’d first lost the limb. Truth told, I was a little tender and shy about my mutilation, and didn’t like to think about it, and I especially couldn’t bear to see whole people shying back from me as though I were some kind of monster. But Monty just reached out, calm as you like, and took my hook with his cunning fingers — fingers so long they seemed to have an extra joint — and shook my hook as though it were a whole hand.
“Sorry, mate, I didn’t catch your name.”
I tried to speak again, and this time I found my voice. “Sian O’Leary,” I said. “Antrim Town, then Hamilton, and then here.” I wondered what else to say. “Third-grade Computerman’s boy, once upon a time.”
“Oh, that’s *fine*,” he said. “Skilled tradesmen’s helpers are what we want around here. You know the lads and lasses round here, Sian, are there more like you? Children who can make things, should they be called upon?”
I nodded. It was queer to be holding this calm conversation over the cooling body of Grinder, who now smelt of the ordure his slack bowels had loosed into his fine trousers. But it was also natural, somehow, caught in the burning gaze of Monty Goldfarb, who had the attitude of a master in his shop, running the place with utter confidence.
“Capital.” He nudged Grinder with his toe. “That meat’ll spoil soon enough, but before he does, let’s have some fun, shall we? Give us a hand.” He bent and lifted Grinder under one arm. He nodded his head at the remaining arm. “Come on,” he said, and I took it, and we lifted the limp corpse of Zophar Grindersworth, the Grinder of St Aggie’s, and propped him up at the head of the middle table, knife handle protruding from his chest amid a spreading red stain over his blue brocade waistcoat. Monty shook his head. “That won’t do,” he said, and plucked up a tea-towel from a pile by the kitchen door and tied it around Grinder’s throat like a bib, fussing with it until it more-or-less disguised the grisly wound. Then Monty picked up one of the loaves from the end of the table and tore a hunk off the end.
He chewed at it like a cow at her cud for a time, never taking his eyes off me. Then he swallowed and said, “Hungry work,” and laughed with a spray of crumbs.
He paced the room, picking up the cutlery I’d laid and inspecting it, gnawing at the loaf’s end in his hand thoughtfully. “A pretty poor setup,” he said. “But I’m sure that wicked old lizard had a pretty soft nest for himself, didn’t he?”
I nodded and pointed down the hall to Grinder’s door. “The key’s on his belt,” I said.
Monty fingered the keyring chained to Grinder’s thick leather belt, then shrugged. “All one-cylinder jobs,” he said, and picked a fork out of the basket that was still hanging from my hook. “Nothing to them. Faster than fussing with his belt.” He walked purposefully down the hall, his metal foot thumping off the polished wood, leaving dents in it. He dropped to one knee at the lock, then put the fork under his steel foot and used it as a lever to bend back all but one of the soft pot-metal tines, so that now the fork just hand one long thin spike. He slid it into the lock, felt for a moment, then gave a sharp and precise flick of his wrist and twisted open the doorknob. It opened smoothly at his touch. “Nothing to it,” he said, and got back to his feet, dusting off his knees.
Now, I’d been in Grinder’s rooms many times, when I’d brought in the boiling water for his bath, or run the rug-sweeper over his thick Turkish rugs, or dusted the framed medals and certificates and the cunning machines he kept in his apartment. But this was different, because this time I was coming in with Monty, and Monty made you ask yourself, “Why isn’t this all mine? Why shouldn’t I just take it?” And I didn’t have a good answer, apart from *fear*. And fear was giving way to excitement.
Monty went straight to the humidor by Grinder’s deep, plush chair and brought out a fistful of cigars. He handed one to me and we both bit off the tips and spat them on the fine rug, then lit them with the polished brass lighter in the shape of a beautiful woman that stood on the other side of the chair. Monty clamped his cheroot between his teeth and continued to paw through Grinder’s sacred possessions, all the fine goods that the children of St Aggie’s weren’t even allowed to look to closely upon. Soon he was swilling Grinder’s best brandy from a lead crystal decanter, wearing Grinder’s red velvet housecoat, topped with Grinder’s fine beaver-skin bowler hat.
And it was thus attired that he stumped back into the dining room, where the corpse of Grinder still slumped at table’s end, and took up a stance by the old ship’s bell that the morning child used to call the rest of the kids to breakfast, and he began to ring the bell like St Aggie’s was afire, and he called out as he did so, a wordless, birdlike call, something like a rooster’s crowing, such a noise as had never been heard in St Aggie’s before.
With a clatter and a clank and a hundred muffled arguments, the children of St Aggie’s pelted down the staircases and streamed into the kitchen, milling uncertainly, eyes popping at the sight of our latest arrival in his stolen finery, still ringing the bell, still making his crazy call, stopping now and again to swill the brandy and laugh and spray a boozy cloud before him.
Once we were all standing in our nightshirts and underclothes, every scar and stump on display, he let off his ringing and cleared his throat ostentatiously, then stepped nimbly onto one of the chairs, wobbling for an instant on his steel peg, then leaped again, like a goat leaping from rock to rock, up onto the table, sending my carefully laid cutlery clattering every which-a-way.
He cleared his throat again, and said:
“Good morrow to you, good morrow all, good morrow to the poor, crippled, abused children of St Aggie’s. We haven’t been properly introduced, so I thought it fitting that I should take a moment to greet you all and share a bit of good news with you. My name is Montreal Monty Goldfarb, machinist’s boy, prentice artificer, gentleman adventurer and liberator of the oppressed. I am late foreshortened — ” He waggled his stumps — “as are so many of you. And yet, and yet, I say to you, I am as good a man as I was ere I lost my limbs, and I say that you are too.” There was a cautious murmur at this. It was the kind of thing the Sisters said to you in the hospital, before they brought you to St Aggie’s, the kind of pretty lies they told you about the wonderful life that awaited you with your new, crippled body, once you had been retrained and put to productive work.
“Children of St Aggie’s, hearken to old Montreal Monty, and I will tell you of what is possible and what is necessary. First, what is necessary: to end oppression wherever we find it, to be liberators of the downtrodden and the meek. When that evil dog’s pizzle flogged me and threw me in his dungeon, I knew that I’d come upon a bully, a man who poisoned the sweet air with each breath of his cursed lungs, and so I resolved to do something about it. And so I have.” He clattered the table’s length, to where Grinder’s body slumped. Many of the children had been so fixated on the odd spectacle that Monty presented that they hadn’t even noticed the extraordinary sight of our tormentor sat, apparently sleeping or unconscious. With the air of a magician, Monty bent and took the end of tea-towel and gave it a sharp yank, so that all could see the knife-handle protruding from the red stain that covered Grinder’s chest. We gasped, and some of the more faint-hearted children shrieked, but no one ran off to get the law, and no one wept a single salty tear for our dead benefactor.
Monty held his arms over his head in a wide “vee” and looked expectantly upon us. It only took a moment before someone — perhaps it was me! — began to applaud, to cheer, to stomp, and then we were all at it, making such a noise as you might encounter in a tavern full of men who’ve just learned that their side has won a war. Monty waited for it to die down a bit, then, with a theatrical flourish, he pushed Grinder out of his chair, letting him slide to the floor with a meaty thump, and settled himself into the chair the corpse had lately sat upon. The message was clear: I am now the master of this house.
I cleared my throat and raised my good arm. I’d had more time than the rest of the St Aggie’s children to consider life without the terrible Grinder, and a thought had come to me. Monty nodded regally at me, and I found myself standing with every eye in the room upon me.
“Monty,” I said, “on behalf of the children of St Aggie’s, I thank you most sincerely for doing away with cruel old Grinder, but I must ask you, what shall we do *now*? With Grinder gone, the Sisters will surely shut down St Aggie’s, or perhaps send us another vile old master to beat us, and you shall go to the gallows at the King Street Gaol, and, well, it just seems like a pity that…” I waved my stump. “It just seems a pity, is what I’m saying.”
Monty nodded again. “Sian, I thank you, for you have come neatly to my next point. I spoke of what was needed and what was possible, and now we must discuss what is possible. I had a nice long time to meditate on this question through last night, as I languished in the pit below, and I think I have a plan, though I shall need your help with it if we are to pull it off.”
He stood again, and took up a loaf of hard bread and began to wave it like a baton as he spoke, thumping it on the table for emphasis.
“Item: I understand that the Sisters provide for St Aggie’s with such alms as are necessary to keep our lamps burning, fuel in our fireplaces, and gruel and such on the table, yes?” We nodded. “Right.
“Item: Nevertheless, Old Turd-Gargler here was used to sending you poor kiddees out to beg with your wounds all on display, to bring him whatever coppers you could coax from the drunkards of Muddy York with which to feather his pretty little nest yonder. Correct?” We nodded again. “Right.
“Item: We are all of us the crippled children of Muddy York’s great information-processing factories. We are artificers, machinists, engineers, cunning shapers and makers, every one, for that is how we came to be injured. Correct? Right.
“Item: It is a murdersome pity that such as we should be turned out to beg when we have so much skill at our disposal. Between us, we could make anything, *do* anything, but our departed tormentor lacked the native wit to see this, correct? Right.
“Item: the sisters of the simpering order of St Agatha’s Weeping Sores have all the cleverness of a turnip. This I saw for myself during my tenure in their hospital. Fooling them would be easier than fooling an idiot child. Correct? *Right*.”
He levered himself out of the chair and began to stalk the dining-room, stumping up and down. “Someone tell me, how often do the good sisters pay us a visit?”
“Sundays,” I said. “When they take us all to church.”
He nodded. “And does that spoiled meat there accompany us to church?”
“No,” I said. “No, he stays here. He says he ‘worships in his own way.'” Truth was he was invariably too hung-over to rise on a Sunday.
He nodded again. “And today is Tuesday. Which means that we have five days to do our work.”
“What work, Monty?”
“Why, we are going to build a clockwork automaton based on that evil tyrant what I slew this very morning. We will build a device of surpassing and fiendish cleverness, such as will fool the nuns and the world at large into thinking that we are still being ground up like mincemeat, while we lead a life of leisure, fun, and invention, such as befits children of our mental stature and good character.”
Here’s the oath we swore to Monty before we went to work on the automaton:
“I, (state your full name), do hereby give my most solemn oath that I will never, ever betray the secrets of St Agatha’s. I bind myself to the good fortune of my fellow inmates at this institution and vow to honor them as though they were my brothers and sisters, and not to fight with them, nor spite them, nor do them down or dirty. I make this oath freely and gladly, and should I betray it, I wish that old Satan himself would rise up from the pit and tear out my treacherous guts and use them for bootlaces, that his devils would tear my betrayer’s tongue from my mouth and use it to wipe their private parts, that my lying body would be fed, inch-by-inch, to the hungry and terrible basilisks of the Pit. So I swear, and so mote be it!”
There were two children who’d worked for a tanner in the house, older children. Matthew was shy all the fingers on his left hand. Becka was missing an eye and her nose, which she joked was a mercy, for there is no smell more terrible than the charnel reek of the tanning works. But between them, they were quite certain that they could carefully remove, stuff, and remount Grinder’s head, careful to leave the jaw in place.
As a the oldest machinist at St Aggie’s, I was conscripted to work on the torso and armature mechanisms. I played chief engineer, bossing a gang of six boys and four girls who had experience with mechanisms. We cannibalized St Aggie’s old mechanical wash-wringer, with its spindly arms and many fingers; and I was sent out several times to pawn Grinder’s fine crystal and pocket-watch to raise money for parts.
Monty oversaw all, but he took personal charge of Grinder’s voicebox, through which he would imitate old Grinder’s voice when the sisters came by on Sunday. St Aggie’s was fronted with a Dutch door, and Grinder habitually only opened the top half to jaw with the sisters. Monty said that we could prop the partial torso on a low table, to hide the fact that no legs depended from it.
“We’ll tie a sick-kerchief around his face and give out that he’s got ‘flu, and that it’s spread through the whole house. That’ll get us all out of church, which is a tidy little jackpot in and of itself. The kerchief will disguise the fact that his lips ain’t moving in time with his talking.”
I shook my head at this idea. The nuns were hardly geniuses, but how long could this hold out for?
“It won’t have to last more than a week — by next week, we’ll have something better to show ’em.”
Here’s a thing: it all worked like a fine-tuned machine.
The kerchief made it look like a bank-robber, and Monty painted its face to make him seem more lively, for the tanning had dried him out some (he also doused the horrible thing with liberal lashings of bay rum and greased its hair with a heavy pomade, for the tanning process had left him with a smell like an outhouse on a hot day). Monty had affixed an armature to the thing’s bottom jaw — we’d had to break it to get it to open, prying it roughly with a screwdriver, cracking a tooth or two in the process, and I have nightmares to this day about the sound it made when it finally yawed open.
A child — little legless Dora, whose begging pitch included a sad little puppetry show — could work this armature by means of a squeeze-bulb taken from the siphon-starter on Grinder’s cider brewing tub, and so make the jaw go up and down in time with speech.
The speech itself was accomplished by means of the horsegut voice-box from Grinder’s music-box. Monty surehandedly affixed a long, smooth glass tube — part of the cracking apparatus that I had been sent to market to buy — to the music-box’s resonator. This, he ran up behind our automatic Grinder. Then, crouched on the floor before the voicebox, stationed next to Dora on her wheeled plank, he was able to whisper across the horsegut strings and have them buzz out a credible version of Grinder’s whiskey-roughened growl. And once he’d tuned the horsegut just so, the vocal resemblance was even more remarkable. Combined with Dora’s skilful puppetry, the effect was galvanizing. It took a conscious effort to remember that this was a puppet talking to you, not a man.
The sisters turned up at the appointed hour on Sunday, only to be greeted by our clockwork Grinder, stood in the half-door, face swathed in a ‘flu mask. We’d hung quarantine bunting from the windows, criscrossing the front of St Aggie’s with it for good measure, and a goodly number of us kiddees were watching from the upstairs windows with our best drawn and sickly looks on our faces.
So the sisters hung back practically at the pavement and shouted, “Mr Grindersworth!” in alarmed tones, staring with horror at the apparition in the doorway.
“Sisters, good day to you,” Monty said into his horsegut, while Dora worked her squeezebulb, and the jaw went up and down behind its white cloth, and the muffled simulation of Grinder’s voice emanated from the top of the glass tube, hidden behind the automaton’s head, so that it seemed to come from the right place. “Though not such a good day for us, I fear.”
“The children are ill?”
Monty gave out a fine sham of Grinder’s laugh, the one he used when dealing with proper people, with the cruelty barely plastered-over. “Oh, not all of them. But we have a dozen cases. Thankfully, I appear to be immune, and oh my, but you wouldn’t believe the help these tots are in the practical nursing department. Fine kiddees, my charges, yes indeed. But still, best to keep them away from the general public for the nonce, hey? I’m quite sure we’ll have them up on their feet by next Sunday, and they’ll be glad indeed of the chance to get down on their knees and thank the beneficent Lord for their good health.” Monty was laying it on thick, but then, so had Grinder, when it came to the sisters.
“We shall send over some help after the services,” the head sister said, hands at her breast, a tear glistening in her eye at the thought of our bravery. I thought the jig was up. Of course the order would have some sisters who’d had the ‘flu and gotten over it, rendering them immune. But Monty never worried.
“No, no,” he said, smoothly. I had the presence of mind to take up the cranks that operated the “arms” we’d constructed for him, waving them about in a negating way — this effect rather spoiled by my nervousness, so that they seemed more octopus tentacle than arm. But the sisters didn’t appear to notice. “As I say, I have plenty of help here with my good children.”
“A basket, then,” the sister said. “Some nourishing food and fizzy drinks for the children.”
Crouching low in the anteroom, we crippled children traded disbelieving looks with one another. Not only had Monty gotten rid of Grinder and gotten us out of going to church, he’d also set things up so that the sisters of St Aggie’s were going to bring us their best grub, for free, because we were all so poorly and ailing! It was all we could do not to cheer.
And cheer we did, later, when the sisters set ten huge hampers down on our doorstep, whence we retrieved them, finding in them a feast fit for princes: cold meat pies glistening with aspic, marrow bones still warm from the oven, suet pudding and jugs of custard with skin on top of them, huge bottles of fizzy lemonade and small beer. By the time we’d laid it out in the dining room, it seemed like we’d never be able to eat it all.
But we et every last morsel, and four of us carried Monty about on our shoulders — two carrying, two steadying the carriers — and someone found a concertina, and someone found some combs and waxed paper, and we sang until the walls shook: *The Mechanic’s Folly,* *A Combinatorial Explosion at the Computer-Works,* and then endless rounds of *For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow*.
Monty had promised improvements on the clockwork Grinder by the following Sunday, and he made good on it. Since we no longer had to beg all day long, we children of St Aggie’s had time in plenty, and Monty had no shortage of skilled volunteers who wanted to work with him on Grinder II, as he called it. Grinder II sported a rather handsome and large, droopy mustache, which hid the action of its lips. This mustache was glued onto the head-assembly one hair at a time, a painstaking job that denuded every horsehair brush in the house, but the effect was impressive.
More impressive was the leg-assembly I bossed into existence, a pair of clockwork pins that could lever Grinder from a seated position into full upright, balancing him by means of three gyros we hid in his chest cavity. Once these were wound and spun, Grinder could stand up in a very natural fashion. Once we’d rearranged the furniture to hide Dora and Monty behind a large armchair, you could stand right in the parlor and “converse” with him, and unless you were looking very hard, you’d never know but what you were talking with a mortal man, and not an automaton made of tanned flesh, steel, springs, and clay (we used rather a lot of custom-made porcelain from the prosthetic works to get his legs right — the children who were shy a leg or two knew which legmakers in town had the best wares).
And so when the sisters arrived the following Sunday, they were led right into the parlor, whose net curtains kept the room in a semi-dark state, and there, they parlayed with Grinder, who came to his feet when they entered and left. One of the girls was in charge of his arms, and she had practiced with them so well that she was able to move them in a very convincing fashion. Convincing enough, anyroad: the sisters left Grinder with a bag of clothes, a bag of oranges that had come off a ship that had sailed from Spanish Florida right up the St Lawrence to the port of Montreal, and thereafter traversed by rail-car to Muddy York. They made a parcel gift of these succulent treasures to Grinder, to “help the kiddees keep away the scurvy,” but Grinder always kept them for himself or flogged them to his pals for a neat penny. We wolfed the oranges right after services, and then took our Sabbath free with games and more brandy from Grinder’s sideboard.
And so we went, week on week, with small but impressive updates to our clockwork man: hands that could grasp and smoke a pipe; a clever mechanism that let him throw back his head and laugh, fingers that could drum on the table beside him, eyes that could follow you around a room and eyelids that could blink, albeit slowly.
But Monty had *much* bigger plans.
“I want to bring in another 56 bits,” he said, gesturing at the computing panel in Grinder’s parlor, a paltry eight-bit works. That meant that there were eight switches with eight matching levers, connected to eight brass rods that ran down to the public computing works that ran beneath the streets of Muddy York. Grinder had used his eight bits to keep St Aggie’s books — both the set he showed to the sisters and the one where he kept track of what he was trousering for himself — and he’d let one “lucky” child work the great, stiff return-arm that sent the instructions set on the switches back to the Hall of Computing for queueing and processing on the great frames that had cost me my good right arm. An instant later, the processed answer would be returned to the levers above the switches, and to whatever interpretive mechanism you had yoked up to them (Grinder used a telegraph machine that printed the answers upon a long, thin sheet of paper).
“56 bits!” I boggled at Monty. A 64-bit rig wasn’t unheard of, if you were a mighty shipping company or insurer. But in a private home — well, the racket of the switches would shake the foundations! Remember, dear reader, that each additional bit *doubled* the calculating faculty of the home panel. Monty was proposing to increase St Aggie’s computational capacity by a factor more than a *quadrillionfold*! (We computermen are accustomed to dealing in these rarified numbers, but they may boggle you. Have no fear — a quadrillion is a number of such surpassing monstrosity that you must have the knack of figuring to even approach it properly).
“Monty,” I gasped, “are you planning to open a firm of accountants at St Aggie’s?”
He laid a finger alongside of his nose. “Not at all, my old darling. I have a thought that perhaps we could build a tiny figuring engine into our Grinder’s chest cavity, one that could take programs punched off of a sufficiently powerful computing frame, and that these might enable him to walk about on his own, as natural as you please, and even carry on conversations as though he were a living man. Such a creation would afford us even more freedom and security, as you must be able to see.”
“But it will cost the bloody world!” I said.
“Oh, I didn’t think we’d *pay* for it,” he said. Once again, he laid his finger alongside his nose.
And that is how I came to find myself down our local sewer, in the dead of night, a seventeen year-old brassjacker, bossing a gang of eight kids with 10 arms, 7 noses, 9 hands and 11 legs between them, working furiously and racing the dawn to fit thousands of precision brass push-rods with lightly balanced joints from the local multifarious amalgamation and amplification switch-house to St Aggie’s utility cellar. It didn’t work, of course. Not that night. But at least we didn’t break anything and alert the Upper Canadian Computing Authority to our mischief. Three nights later, after much fine-tuning, oiling, and desperate prayer, the panel at St Aggie’s boasted 64 shining brass bits, the very height of modernity and engineering.
Monty and the children all stood before the panel, which had been burnished to a mirror shine by No-Nose Timmy, who’d done finishing work before a careless master had stumbled over him, pushing him face-first into a spinning grinding wheel. In the gaslight, we appeared to be staring at a group of mighty heroes, and when Monty turned to regard us, he had bright tears in his eyes.
“Sisters and brothers, we have done ourselves proud. A new day has dawned for St Aggie’s and for our lives. Thank you. You have done me proud.”
We shared out the last of Grinder’s brandy, a thimbleful each, even for the smallest kiddees, and drank a toast to the brave and clever children of St Aggie’s and to Montreal Monty, our saviour and the founder of our feast.
Let me tell you some about life at St Aggie’s in that golden age. Whereas before, we’d rise at 7AM for a mean breakfast — prepared by unfavored children whom Grinder punished by putting them into the kitchen at 4:30 to prepare the meal — followed by a brief “sermon” roared out by Grinder; now we rose at a very civilized 10AM to eat a leisurely breakfast over the daily papers that Grinder had subscribed to. The breakfasts — all the meals and chores — were done on a rotating basis, with exemptions for children whose infirmity made performing some tasks harder than others. Though all worked — even the blind children sorted weevils and stones from the rice and beans by touch.
Whereas Grinder had sent us out to beg every day — excepting Sundays — debasing ourselves and putting our injuries on display for the purposes of sympathy; now we were free to laze around the house all day, or work at our own fancies, painting or reading or just playing like the cherished children of rich families who didn’t need to send their young ones to the city to work for the family fortune.
But most of us quickly bored of the life of Riley, and for us, there was plenty to do. The clockwork Grinder was always a distraction, especially after Monty started work on the mechanism that would accept punched-tape instructions from the computing panel.
When we weren’t working on Grinder, there was other work. We former apprentices went back to our old masters — men and women who were guilty but glad enough to see us, in the main — and told them that the skilled children of St Aggie’s were looking for piecework as part of our rehabilitation, at a competitive price.
It was hardly a lie, either: as broken tools and mechanisms came in for mending, the boys and girls taught one another their crafts and trade, and it wasn’t long before a steady flow of cash came into St Aggie’s, paying for better food, better clothes, and, soon enough, the very best artificial arms, legs, hands and feet, the best glass eyes, the best wigs. When Gertie Shine-Pate was fitted for her first wig and saw herself in the great looking-glass in Grinder’s study, she burst into tears and hugged all and sundry, and thereafter, St Aggie’s bought her three more wigs to wear as the mood struck her. She took to styling these wigs with combs and scissors, and before long she was cutting hair for all of us at St Aggie’s. We never looked so good.
That gilded time from the end of my boyhood is like a sweet dream to me now. A sweet, lost dream.
No invention works right the first time around. The inventors’ tales you read in the science penny-dreadfuls, where some engineer discovers a new principle, puts it into practice, shouts “Eureka” and sets up his own foundry? They’re rubbish. Real invention is a process of repeated, crushing failure that leads, very rarely, to a success. If you want to succeed faster, there’s nothing for it but to fail faster and better.
The first time Monty rolled a paper tape into a cartridge and inserted it into Grinder, we all held our breaths while he fished around the arse of Grinder’s trousers for the toggle that released the tension on the mainspring we wound through a keyhole in his hip. He stepped back as the soft whining of the mechanism emanated from Grinder’s body, and then Grinder began, very slowly, to pace the room’s length, taking three long — if jerky — steps, turning about, and taking three steps back. Then Grinder lifted a hand as in greeting, and his mouth stretched into a rictus that might have passed for a grin, and then, very carefully, Grinder punched himself in the face so hard that his head came free from his neck and rolled across the floor with a meaty sound (it took our resident taxidermists a full two days to repair the damage) and his body went into a horrible paroxysm like the St Vitus dance, until it, too fell to the floor.
This was on Monday, and by Wednesday, we had Grinder back on his feet with his head reattached. Again, Monty depressed his toggle, and this time, Grinder made a horrendous clanking sound and pitched forward.
And so it went, day after day, each tiny improvement accompanied by abject failure, and each Sunday we struggled to put the pieces together so that Grinder could pay his respects to the sisters.
Until the day came that the sisters brought round a new child to join our happy clan, and it all began to unravel.
We had been lucky in that Monty’s arrival at St Aggie’s coincided with a reformer’s movement that had swept Upper Canada, a movement whose figurehead, the Princess Lucy, met with every magistrate, councilman, alderman, and beadle in the colony, the sleeves of her dresses pinned up to the stumps of her shoulders, sternly discussing the plight of the children who worked in the Information Foundries across the colonies. It didn’t do no good in the long run, of course, but for the short term, word got round that the authorities would come down very hard on any master whose apprentice lost a piece of himself in the data-mills. So it was some months before St Aggie’s had any new meat arrive upon its doorstep.
The new meat in question was a weepy boy of about 11 — the same age I’d been when I arrived — and he was shy his left leg all the way up to the hip. He had a crude steel leg in its place, strapped up with a rough, badly cured cradle that must have hurt like hellfire. He also had a splintery crutch that he used to get around with, the sort of thing that the sisters of St Aggie’s bought in huge lots from unscrupulous tradesmen who cared nothing for the people who’d come to use them.
His name was William Sansousy, a Metis boy who’d come from the wild woods of Lower Canada seeking work in Muddy York, who’d found instead an implacable machine that had torn off his leg and devoured it without a second’s remorse. He spoke English with a thick French accent, and slipped into *Joual* when he was overcome with sorrow.
Two sisters brought him to the door on a Friday afternoon. We knew they were coming, they’d sent round a messenger boy with a printed telegram telling Grinder to make room for one more. Monty wanted to turn his Clockwork Grinder loose to walk to the door and greet them, but we all told him he’d be mad to try it: there was so much that could go wrong, and if the sisters worked out what had happened, we could finish up dangling from nooses at King Street Gaol.
Monty relented resentfully, and instead we seated Grinder in his overstuffed chair, with Monty tucked away behind it, ready to converse with the sisters. I hid with him, ready to send Grinder to his feet and to extend his cold, leathery artificial hand to the boy when the sisters turned him over.
And it went smoothly — that day. When the sisters had gone and their car had built up its head of steam and chuffed and clanked away, we emerged from our hiding place. Monty broke into slangy, rapid French, gesticulating and hopping from foot to peg-leg and back again, and William’s eyes grew as big as saucers as Monty explained the lay of the land to him. The *clang* when he thumped Grinder in his cast-iron chest made William leap back and he hobbled toward the door.
“Wait, wait!” Monty called, switching to English. “Wait, will you, you idiot? This is the best day of your life, young William! But for us, you might have entered a life of miserable bondage. Instead, you will enjoy all the fruits of liberty, rewarding work, and comradeship. We take care of our own here at St Aggie’s. You’ll have top grub, a posh leg and a beautiful crutch that’s as smooth as a baby’s arse and soft as a lady’s bosom. You’ll have the freedom to come and go as you please, and you’ll have a warm bed to sleep in every night. And best of all, you’ll have us, your family here at St Aggie’s. We take care of our own, we do.”
The boy looked at us, tears streaming down his face. He made me remember what it had been like, my first day at St Aggie’s, the cold fear coiled round your guts like rope caught in a reciprocating gear. At St Aggie’s we put on brave faces, never cried where no one could see us, but seeing him weep made me remember all the times I’d cried, cried for my lost family who’d sold me into indenture, cried for my mangled body, my ruined life. But living without Grinder’s constant terrorizing must have softened my heart. Suddenly it was all I could do to stop myself from giving the poor little mite a one-armed hug.
I didn’t hug him, but Monty did, stumping over to him, and the two of them bawled like babbies. Their peg legs knocked together as they embraced like drunken sailors, seeming to cry out every tear we’d any of us ever held in. Before long, we were all crying with them, fat tears streaming down our faces, the sound like something out of the Pit.
When the sobs had stopped, William looked around at us, wiped his nose, and said, “Thank you. I think I am home.”
But it wasn’t home for him. Poor William. We’d had children like him, in the bad old days, children who just couldn’t get back up on their feet (or foot) again. Most of the time, I reckon, they were kids who couldn’t make it as apprentices, neither, kids who’d spent their working lives full of such awful misery that they were *bound* to fall into a machine. And being sundered from their limbs didn’t improve their outlook.
We tried everything we could think of to cheer William up. He’d worked for a watch-smith, and he had a pretty good hand at disassembling and cleaning mechanisms. His stump ached him like fire, even after he’d been fitted with a better apparatus by St Aggie’s best leg-maker, and it was only when he was working with his little tweezers and brushes that he lost the grimace that twisted up his face so. Monty had him strip and clean every clockwork in the house, even the ones that were working perfectly — even the delicate works we’d carefully knocked together for the clockwork Grinder. But it wasn’t enough.
In the bad old days, Grinder would have beaten the boy and sent him out to beg in the worst parts of town, hoping that he’d be run down by a cart or killed by one of the blunderbuss gangs that marauded there. When the law brought home the boy’s body, old Grinder would weep crocodile tears and tug his hair at the bloody evil that men did, and then he’d go back to his rooms and play some music and drink some brandy and sleep the sleep of the unjust.
We couldn’t do the same, and so we tried to bring up William’s spirits instead, and when he’d had enough of it, he lit out on his own. The first we knew of it was when he didn’t turn up for breakfast. This wasn’t unheard of — any of the free children of St Aggie’s was able to rise and wake whenever he chose, but William had been a regular at breakfast every day. I made my way upstairs to the dormer room where the boys slept to look for him and found his bed empty, his coat and his peg-leg and crutch gone.
“He’s gone,” Monty said, “Long gone.” He sighed and looked out the window. “Must be trying to get back to the Gatineaux.” He shook his head.
“Do you think he’ll make it?” I said, knowing the answer, but hoping that Monty would lie to me.
“Not a chance,” Monty said. “Not him. He’ll either be beaten, arrested or worse by sundown. That lad hasn’t any self-preservation instincts.”
At this, the dining room fell silent and all eyes turned on Monty and I saw in a flash what a terrible burden we all put on him: saviour, father, chieftain. He twisted his face into a halfway convincing smile.
“Oh, maybe not. He might just be hiding out down the road. Tell you what, eat up and we’ll go searching for him.”
I never saw a load of plates cleared faster. It was bare minutes before we were formed up in the parlor, divided into groups, and sent out into Muddy York to find William Sansousy. We turned that bad old city upside-down, asking nosy questions and sticking our heads in where they didn’t belong, but Monty had been doubly right the first time around.
The police found William Sansousy’s body in a marshy bit of land off the Leslie Street Spit. His pockets had been slit, his pathetic paper sack of belongings torn and the clothes scattered and his fine hand-turned leg was gone. He had been dead for hours.
The Detective Inspector who presented himself that afternoon at St Aggie’s was trailed by a team of technicians who had a wire sound-recorder and a portable logic engine for in-putting the data of his investigation. He seemed very proud of his machine, even though it came with three convicts from the King Street Gaol in shackles and leg-irons who worked tirelessly to keep the springs wound, toiling in a lather of sweat and heaving breath, heat boiling off their shaved heads in shimmering waves.
He showed up just as the clock in the parlour chimed eight times, a bear chasing a bird around on a track as it sang the hour. We peered out the windows in the upper floors, saw the inspector, and understood just why Monty had been so morose all afternoon.
But Monty did us proud. He went to the door with his familiar swagger, and swung it wide, extending his hand to the Inspector.
“Montague Goldfarb, officer, at your service. Our patron has stepped away, but please, do come in.”
The Inspector gravely shook the proffered hand, his huge, gloved mitt swallowing Monty’s boyish hand. It was easy to forget that he was just a child, but the looming presence of the giant Inspector reminded us all.
“Master Goldfarb,” the Inspector said, taking his hat off, and peering through his smoked monocle at the children in the parlour, all of us sat with hands folded like we were in a pantomime about the best-behaved, most crippled, most terrified, least threatening children in all the colonies. “I’m am sorry to hear that Mr Grindersworth is not at home to the constabulary. Have you any notion as to what temporal juncture we might expect him?” If I hadn’t been concentrating on not peeing myself with terror, the inspector’s pompous speech might have set me to laughing.
Monty didn’t bat an eye. “Mr Grindersworth was called away to see his brother in Sault Sainte Marie, and we expect him tomorrow. I’m his designated lieutenant, though. Perhaps I might help you?”
The inspector stroked his forked beard and gave us all another long look. “Tomorrow, hey? Well, I don’t suppose that justice should wait that long. Master Goldfarb, I have grim intelligence for you, as regards one of your young compatriots, a Master –” He consulted a punched card that was held in a hopper on his clanking logic engine. “William Sansousy. He lies even now upon a slab in the city morgue. Someone of authority from this institution is required to confirm the preliminary identification. You will do, I suppose. Though your patron will have to present himself post-haste in order to sign the several official documents that necessarily accompany an event of such gravity.”
We’d known as soon as the Inspector turned up on St Aggie’s door that it meant that William was dead. If he was merely in trouble, it would have been a constable, dragging him by the ear. We half-children of St Aggie’s only rated a full inspector when we were topped by some evil bastard in this evil town. But hearing the Inspector say the words, puffing them through his drooping mustache, that made it real. None of us had ever cried when St Aggie’s children were taken by the streets — at least, not where the others could see it. But this time round, without Grinder to shoot us filthy daggers if we made a peep while the law was about, it opened the floodgates. Boys and girls, young and old, we cried for poor little William. He’d come to the best of all possible St Aggie’s, but it hadn’t been good enough for him. He’d wanted to go back to the parents who’d sold him into service, wanted a return to his Mam’s lap and bosom. Who among us didn’t want that, in his secret heart?
Monty’s tears were silent and they rolled down his cheeks as he shrugged into his coat and hat and let the Inspector — who was clearly embarrassed by the display — lead him out the door.
When Monty came home, he arrived at a house full of children who were ready to go mad. We’d cried ourselves hoarse, then sat about the parlour, not knowing what to do. If there had been any of old Grinder’s booze still in the house, we’d have drunk it.
“What’s the plan, then?” he said, coming through the door. “We’ve got one night until that bastard comes back. If he doesn’t find Grinder, he’ll go to the sisters, and it’ll come down around our ears. What’s more, he knows Grinder, personal, from other dead ones in years gone by, and I don’t think he’ll be fooled by our machine, no matter how good it goes.”
“What’s the plan?” I said, mouth hanging open. “Monty, the plan is that we’re all going to gaol and you and I and everyone else who helped cover up the killing of Grinder will dance at rope’s end!”
He gave me a considering look. “Sian, that is absolutely the worst plan I have ever heard.” And then he grinned at us the way he did, and we all knew that, somehow, it would all be all right.
“Constable, come quick, he’s going to kill himself!”
I practiced the line for the fiftieth time, willing my eyes to go wider, my voice to carry more alarm. Behind me, Monty scowled at my reflection in the mirror in Grinder’s personal toilet, where I’d been holed up for hours.
“Verily, the stage lost a great player when that machine mangled you, Sian. You are perfect. Now, get moving before I tear your remaining arm off and beat you with it. Go!”
Phase one of the plan was easy enough: we’d smuggle our Grinder up onto the latticework of steel and scaffold where they were building the mighty Prince Edward Viaduct, at the end of Bloor Street. Monty had punched his program already: he’d pace back and forth, tugging his hair, shaking his head like a maddened man, and then, abruptly, he’d turn and fling himself bodily off the platform, plunging 130 feet into the Don River, where he would simply disintegrate into a million cogs, gears, springs and struts, which would sink to the riverbed and begin to rust away. The coppers would recover his clothes, and those, combined with the eyewitness testimony of the constable I was responsible for bringing to the bridge, would establish in everyone’s mind exactly what had happened and how: Grinder was so distraught at one more death from among his charges that he had popped his own clogs in grief. We were all of us standing ready to testify as to how poor William was Grinder’s little favorite, a boy he loved like a son, and so forth. Who would suspect a bunch of helpless cripples, anyway?
That was the theory, at least. But now I was actually stood by the bridge, watching six half-children wrestle the automaton into place, striving for silence so as not to alert the guards who were charged with defending the structure they were already calling “The Suicide’s Magnet,” and I couldn’t believe that it would possibly work.
Five of the children scampered away, climbing back down the scaffolds, slipping and sliding and nearly dying more times than I could count, so that my heart was thundering in my chest so hard I thought I might die upon the spot. Then they were safely away, climbing back up the ravine’s walls in the mud and snow, almost invisible in the dusky dawn light. Monty waved an arm at me, and I knew it was my cue, and that I should be off to rouse the constabulary, but I found myself rooted to the spot.
In that moment, every doubt and fear and misery I’d ever harbored crowded back in on me. The misery of being abandoned by my family, the sorrow and loneliness I’d felt among the prentice-lads, the humiliation of Grinder’s savage beatings and harangues. The shame of my injury and every time I’d grovelled before a drunk or a pitying lady with my stump on display for pennies to fetch home to Grinder. What was I doing? There was no way I could possibly pull this off. I was wasn’t enough of a man — nor enough of a boy.
But then I thought of all those moments since the coming of Monty Goldfarb, the millionfold triumphs of ingenuity and hard work, the computing power I’d stolen out from under the nose of the calculators who had treated me as a mere work-ox before my injury. I thought of the cash we’d brought in, the children who’d smiled and sung and danced on the worn floors of St Aggie’s, and —
And I ran to the policeman, who was warming himself by doing a curious hopping dance in place, hands in his armpits. “Constable!” I piped, all sham terror that no one would have known for a sham, “Constable! Come quick, he’s going to kill himself!”
The sister who came to sit up with us mourning kiddies that night was called Sister Mary Immaculata, and she was kindly, if a bit dim. I remembered her from my stay in the hospital after my maiming: a slighly vacant prune-faced woman in a wimple who’d bathed my wounds gently and given me solemn hugs when I woke screaming in the middle of the night.
She was positive that the children of St Aggie’s were inconsolable over the suicide of our beloved patron, Zophar Grindersworth, and she doled out those same solemn cuddles to anyone foolish enough to stray near her. That none of us shed a tear was lost upon her, though she did note with approval how smoothly the operation of St Aggie’s continued without Grinder’s oversight.
The next afternoon, Sister Mary Immaculata circulated among us, offering reassurance that a new master would be found for St Aggie’s. None of us were much comforted by this: we knew the kind of man who was likely to fill such a plum vacancy.
“If only there was some way we could go on running this place on our own,” I moaned under my breath, trying to concentrate on repairing the pressure gauge on a pneumatic evacuator that we’d taken in for mending.
Monty shot me a look. He had taken the Sister’s coming very hard. “I don’t think I have it in me to kill the next one, too. Anyway, they’re bound to notice if we keep on assassinating our guardians.”
I snickered despite myself. Then my gloomy pall descended again. It had all been so good, how could we possibly return to the old way? But there was no way the sisters would let a bunch of crippled children govern themselves.
“What a waste,” I said. “What a waste of all this potential.”
“At least I’ll be shut of it in two years,” Monty said. “How long have you got till your eighteenth?”
My brow furrowed. I looked out the grimy workshop window at the iron grey February sky. “It’s February tenth today?”
“Eleventh,” he said.
I laughed, an ugly sound. “Why, Monty, my friend, today is my eighteenth birthday. I believe I have survived St Aggie’s to graduate to bigger and better things. I have attained my majority, old son.”
He held a hand out and shook my hook with it, solemnly. “Happy birthday and congratulations, then, Sian. May the world treat you with all the care you deserve.”
I stood, the scrape of my chair very loud and sudden. I realized I had no idea what I would do next. I had managed to completely forget that my graduation from St Aggie’s was looming, that I would be a free man. In my mind, I’d imagined myself dwelling at St Aggie’s forever.
“You look like you just got hit in the head with a shovel,” Monty said. “What on earth is going through that mind of yours?”
I didn’t answer. I was already on my way to find Sister Immaculata. I found her in the kitchen, helping legless Dora make the toast for tea over the fire’s grate.
“Sister,” I said, “a word please?”
As she turned and followed me into the pantry off the kitchen, some of that fear I’d felt on the bridge bubbled up in me. I tamped it back down again firmly, like a piston compressing some superheated gas.
She was really just as I remembered her, and she had remembered me, too — she remembered all of us, the children she’d held in the night and then consigned to this Hell upon Earth, all unknowing.
“Sister Mary Immaculata, I attained my eighteenth birthday today.”
She opened her mouth to congratulate me, but I held up my stump.
“I turned eighteen today, sister. I am a man, I have attained my majority. I am at liberty, and must seek my fortune in the world. I have a proposal for you, accordingly.” I put everything I had into this, every dram of confidence and maturity that I’d learned since we inmates had taken over the asylum. “I was Mr Grindersworth’s lieutenant and assistant in every matter relating to the daily operation of this place. Many’s the day I did every bit of work that there was to do, whilst Mr Grindersworth attended to family matters. I know every inch of this place, ever soul in it, and I have had the benefit of the excellent training and education that there is to have here.
“I had always thought to seek my fortune in the world as a mechanic of some kind, if any shop would have a half-made thing like me, but seeing as you find yourself at loose ends in the superintendent department, I thought I might perhaps put my plans ‘on hold’ for the time being, until such time as a full search could be conducted.”
“Sian,” she said, her face wrinkling into a gap-toothed smile. “Are you proposing that *you* might run St Agatha’s?”
It took everything I could not to wilt under the pity and amusement in that smile. “I am, sister. I am. I have all but run it for months now, and have every confidence in my capacity to go on doing so for so long as need be.” I kept my gaze and my voice even. “I believe that the noble mission of St Aggie’s is a truly attainable one: that it can rehabilitate such damaged things as we and prepare us for the wider world.”
She shook her head. “Sian,” she said, softly, “Sian. I wish it could be. But there’s no hope that such an appointment would be approved by the Board of Governors.”
I nodded. “Yes, I thought so. But do the Governors need to approve a *temporary* appointment? A stopgap, until a suitable person can be found?”
Her smile changed, got wider. “You have certainly come into your own shrewdness here, haven’t you?”
“I was taught well,” I said, and smiled back.
The temporary has a way of becoming permanent. That was my bolt of inspiration, my galvanic realization. Once the sisters had something that worked, that did not call attention to itself, that took in crippled children and released whole persons some years later, they didn’t need to muck about with it. As the mechanics say, “If it isn’t broken, it doesn’t want fixing.”
I’m no mechanic, not anymore. The daily running of St Aggie’s occupied a larger and larger slice of my time, until I found that I knew more about tending to a child’s fever or soothing away a nightmare than I did about hijacking the vast computers to do our bidding.
But that’s no matter, as we have any number of apprentice computermen and computerwomen turning up on our doorsteps. So long as the machineries of industry grind on, the supply will be inexhaustible.
Monty visits me from time to time, mostly to scout for talent. His shop, Goldsworth and Associates, has a roaring trade in computational novelties and service, and if anyone is bothered by the appearance of a factory filled with the halt, the lame, the blind and the crippled, they are thankfully outnumbered by those who are delighted by the quality of the work and the good value in his schedule of pricing.
But it was indeed a golden time, that time when I was but a boy at St Aggie’s among the boys and girls, a cog in a machine that Monty built of us, part of a great uplifting, a transformation from a hell to something like a heaven. That I am sentenced to serve in this heaven I helped to make is no great burden, I suppose.
Still, I do yearn to screw a jeweller’s loupe into my eye, pick up a fine tool and bend the sodium lamp to shine upon some cunning mechanism that wants fixing. For machines may be balky and they may destroy us with their terrible appetite for oil, blood and flesh, but they behave according to fixed rules and can be understood by anyone with the cunning to look upon them and winkle out their secrets. Children are ever so much more complicated.
Though I believe I may be learning a little about them, too.
About the Author
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist and journalist. He is the author of many books, most recently RADICALIZED and WALKAWAY, science fiction for adults; HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM, nonfiction about monopoly and conspiracy; IN REAL LIFE, a graphic novel; and the picture book POESY THE MONSTER SLAYER. His latest book is ATTACK SURFACE, a standalone adult sequel to LITTLE BROTHER; his next nonfiction book is CHOKEPOINT CAPITALISM, with Rebecca Giblin, about monopoly, monopsony and fairness in the creative arts labor market, (Beacon Press, 2022). In 2020, he was inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
About the Narrator
Grant Baciocco is a content creator and performer on the forefront of all things new media. He then went on to work for the Jim Henson Company as the creator, producer and host of the Henson.com Podcast. His comedy music act, Throwing Toasters, has toured clubs and colleges across the country, played a sold-out show at the Tokyo Dome in Japan, had several #1 hits on the Dr. Demento show and opened for “Weird Al” Yankovic. For 5 years he served as an associate producer on Joel Hodgson’s Cinematic Titanic. He can also be seen weekly as a ringside interviewer on Championship Wrestling from Hollywood. He is also the creator/owner of Saturday Morning Media, a trans-media company focused on creating quality family friendly content.