Dougie trusts me. Now Da’s gone, I’m the man of the house. Billy and I work down the local pit and Ma takes in sewing and washing but, with the eight of us, nothing stretches far enough. Especially our home. We live crammed together, a single room for living, loving, despairing, dying.
Through the flaw in the wood, I see Dougie twisting his wee hands together. It’s one of his habits, one of the things I need to remember.
Ma’s done him up best she could. He howled as she combed out the thick brown midden of his hair but she’s trimmed it up neat. That jersey’s been on half the family but with her gift for the darning and it doesn’t look half bad. Alice, two years younger than me, bawled her eyes out as she buffed his shoes.
I want to break down the door, scoop him up and race back home, but this way he’s got a chance.
The guttering sound of one of those motor cars echoes in the narrow alleyway. Its chrome front stops just outside my hiding place. On the top is a silver figurine, leaning towards my brother, its wings unfurled. I’ll tell Ma when I get home that the family that took him have an angel watching over them.
A man and woman get out the motor. Their clothes don’t fit our streets and it’s like they glide rather than walk towards Dougie. The woman bends down in front of him and holds out gloved hands. In one she holds a beautiful stuffed bear and, with the other, she strokes my brother’s hair. I can see a fine sheen of tears on his ruddy cheeks. He wipes his face with a sleeve before reaching a tentative hand towards the toy.
She’s talking now. Though I can’t make out the words, her voice is soft, soothing, refined. Dougie takes her hand, his tiny mitt engulfed in her white silk grasp. His face is a knotwork of fear and fascination as she leads him towards, and into, the motor vehicle.
Now I can no longer see his face, only the tiny stubby fingers running along the pristine rim atop the door.
The car retreats around the corner and the man stands alone. I open the door and nod at him.
‘You be kind to him, please, sir. He’s a good kid.’
He doesn’t say anything, just hands me an envelope fat with small change for him, a lifeline for us. After touching the brim of his hat, he strides off in the direction of the motor and is gone.
In the sunlight I stare at the bundle of blood money and pray.
'Street Corner Angel' was first published on the National Trust for Scotland website in 2019