ORbits presents a selection of stories which made the shortlist of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2013. Our second story is Richard Lakin’s ‘The Cut.’
Three days he’d spent cracking and smashing the ice. He blew on his knuckles and shivered, clutching his feet. His shoes came from a drowned boatman called Bloor, but that was three years back and they wouldn’t be mended again. He’d got rags, little more than scraps of sacking, and bound them to his feet with twine. He rocked back and forth, kneading his toes and heels with his thumbs trying to get the blood coursing. A long line of barges stretched beside the spiky white towpath grass and the glistening trees. Harsh sunlight made the cut shimmer and sparkle, but there was little warmth in it. The barges were belching out smoke and grease from their tiny stoves. Joe sniffed, drawing wood smoke and cooking smells deep inside his growling gut. Rook was frying bacon, taunting him. Rook would be wiping his battered plate with fried bread, smacking his lips and gulping down tea in the cramped kitchen of the lockkeeper’s cottage.
There’d been no coal for days. Rook had broken up some old boxes, but the flames had licked and swallowed them and the heat was soon spent. Joe swept up the coal dust that hadn’t fallen between the boards and scattered it on the flames. It sparked and spat, gone in a cloud of black smoke like a magic trick. Joe’s clothes were damp and he rubbed his spine, peeling his shirt from his skin. Rook crowded out the fire, and what heat remained, like a shaggy old dog. Joe sat in the corner, trying not to lean on the mouldy plaster, shivering. His teeth chattered and his fingers trembled. The plaster was damp and cold as porcelain. Rook took off his hat, peeling his matted fringe from his forehead.
‘You’d better find some firewood, hadn’t you?’ he growled, ‘fore I catch my death.’
He twitched his feet before the dying embers. A horny toenail poked through his woollen stocking. Joe went back into the snow. He stared back at the cottage. Rook was in the window watching. He raised a bottle of brandy, tilting it in an ironic toast as Joe crossed the bottom field stumbling on frozen clumps of marsh grass, grimacing each time the thin sheet of ice cracked and a jet of puddle water spurted up his calf and drenched his feet.
It was silent and gloomy in Wilkes’ Wood. Joe was unable to escape the sense he was being watched by gnarled, knobbly stumps of rotting oak and hornbeam like old men’s faces. He found logs and snapped branches, but they were covered in a carpet of moss or sodden with rain and useless as firewood. Dogs yapped and barked in the distance. Wilkes’ Wood belonged to Jacob Boon and Joe had no right being there. He crouched behind an oak, listening. A voice rang through the trees, bellowed at him to stop or they’d set the dogs loose.
Joe gulped a lungful of air and took off, tripping and stumbling over roots and rocks as he ran. The dogs were loose. He heard their yap and their growl, imagined the earth shaking beneath their paws. He gritted his teeth and sprinted for the marsh-meadow. He cried out as his ankle twisted on broken bricks, the forgotten houses overtaken by the wood. He reached the barn, gasping and light-headed, as the dogs broke from the trees. He squeezed through a loose panel, slamming it tight and dropping to his knees. His breath came in sobs as the hounds sniffed and scratched, pawing at the panels. A dog struck a panel and Joe was showered with dust and feathers and bird shit falling from the joists. He crouched down and huddled, knees to chest. He had nowhere to run, so he closed his eyes and prayed. A shrill whistle came from the woods. The scratching stopped and the dogs’ whimpering and yapping grew distant.
He hobbled back to the lockkeeper’s cottage and inched through the door, twisting the handle by degrees. He stood back pressed to the wall listening. Rook was snoring by the fireside, so Joe crept along the hallway. A loose floor tile chinked. He froze, his bare foot hovering. A gust of wind buffeted the side of the cottage. The stairs groaned and Rook began to snore again, his gut rising and straining against his breeches. Joe eased the kitchen door to, leaving it ajar so he could hear Rook’s snores.
The cupboards were bare, except for Rook’s flat beer and a stiff loaf that trailed crumbs like sawdust. Above the stove was a tilting shelf with a japanned steel box and some crumpled newspapers bound in parcel string. Joe leaned against the stove and stretched. His fingertips grazed the shelf, but he couldn’t reach the tin. He was up on tiptoes stretching when he realised he could no longer hear Rook’s snoring. Joe listened to the wind whistling round the eaves and counted to fifty before Rook began to snore again. He stretched up on his toes, straining every sinew. His knees were blackened with dust and grime, but elsewhere his legs were pale as snow. When he stretched on tiptoe it was possible to see his scorched soles where the flames had licked about his heels.
It was Christmas Day when the chimney caught fire. Rook bawled at Joe, forcing him onto the roof and passing buckets from the well till he’d doused the smouldering birds’ nest. The cracked, jumbled bricks hissed and bubbled where he’d splashed them and black smoke curled high above the cottage. Joe rubbed his stinging eyes with balled fists and inched along the rooftop, away from the searing heat. His hair was singed and sooty. Rook poked him with a boathook. Joe wobbled, pressing himself flat to the tiles for fear of falling. He got a hand on the ladder and made his way down, leaden-footed and trembling.
‘Now you can sweep,’ Rook growled. He gestured at the chimney. Joe shook his head. Rook seized him by the shoulders, pinning his arms to his sides.
‘Now, see here,’ he growled, ‘we don’t have money for sweeps.’
‘I’ll get stuck,’ Joe said.
He’d met young sweeps crippled by the work, crookbacked and starved of daylight.
‘You don’t sweep, you don’t eat,’ Rook said.
And so on Christmas Day, when the vicar and the Boons sat down to goose and mulled wine and Rook smacked his lips at the thought of turkey, Joe shinned up the tiny lockkeeper’s cottage chimney, spluttering on soot and grime and shaking ancient birds’ nests from his hair. His shoulders pressed hard against the bricks and his head was forced down so his chin was buried in his chest. He feared the bend in the chimney and this was where he became stuck, his knees jammed hard against the bricks and his shoulders wedged tight. It was hot and airless. He kicked his feet, thrashing about, scrambling to get free. Joe saw Rook’s shadow pass across the hearth, heard his laughter. He wriggled and twisted but his shoulders wouldn’t budge.
‘There are ways,’ Rook said, chuckling.
It wasn’t until Joe heard the snap of kindling and scratch of a flint that he realised what Rook was doing. The old man coughed, a wheeze seizing his chest, and spat in the hearth. He spread the wood, sparked a shaving and blew. Joe screamed for him to stop. He thrashed and kicked at the chimney, tearing the flesh from his knees and nails from his fingertips. All the time he heard Rook’s rasping laughter. The fire forced him free, but he tumbled into the flames.
Joe pushed the tin with a fingertip. It tipped back against the wall. He gave it another push. The tin rocked on the shelf for a moment and tipped forward. Joe caught it in his palms, offering up a silent prayer that he hadn’t dropped it. He clutched the tin to his chest and smiled. He was opening it when something struck him hard on the neck. His legs folded and his knees smacked into the cold tiles.
‘Caught you, didn’t I?’
Joe rubbed his forehead. The lines in the tiles seemed to wriggle like snakes.
‘Don’t belong to you,’ Rook hissed.
Rook slapped his palm with the cudgel. Joe got to his feet groggily.
‘Where’s the firewood?’ Rook barked.
His mouth hung open, exposing crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. A shaft of light pierced the dirty glass in the front door and Joe walked towards it, lurching from stair-rail to wall.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Rook said.
Joe stumbled along the hall as Rook beat a rhythm with the cudgel in his palm. Joe fumbled the door handle as Rook stomped down the hallway, boots clattering on the boards. The door snagged on a tile, but Joe shouldered it. The door gave way, squealing and scuffing across the tiles. Joe stumbled onto the doorstep, his legs buckling.
‘She put you out on the ice.’ Rook prodded him with the cudgel. ‘She didn’t want you. Then I come along, don’t I? And I save you from drowning you ungrateful bleeder.’
Joe staggered down to the lock-gate.
‘Your own mother,’ Rook said.
He feinted with the cudgel and Joe flinched. Rook licked his teeth. Joe stepped back, woozy but mindful of the cut.
‘I should have left you out on the ice. Good for nothing little…’
He brought the cudgel crashing down on the lock-gate. The blow cracked the whitewash and shuddered through the wood. Rook shuffled forward raising the cudgel above his head. His feet slid on the mossy stones. He shrieked and tumbled headfirst into the lock, arms flailing as he fell. His head cracked against the slick stones. Joe waited, blood roaring in his ears, unwilling to look. He couldn’t say how long had passed when he crept to the edge of the cut, gripped the lock-gate and leaned out. Rook bobbed in the brown waters of the cut, face down. His scalp was cleft, raw where it’d struck the stones and leaking lifeblood into the murky waters. His greatcoat bagged around him, bloated and bubbles spread from his nose or mouth, floating on the scummy surface like frogspawn. His leg twitched, in spasm. Joe rubbed his head, sat on the lock-gate thinking. He ran to the cottage, picked up his pack and chucked in a blade, some stale bread and the last of the brandy. He drew the cord tight and slung it over his shoulder. In the hallway, he remembered the tin. He picked it up and stuffed it in his shirt, keeping one eye on the door, dreading Rook would come back. He ran with the steel box rattling beneath his arm. He didn’t stop running until his feet began to bleed and he could bear the pain no longer. He found a hollow in a tree, raked up some leaves and sheltered as snow began to fall drifting against the hedgerow.
Joe woke with a start. The last of the day’s sun was a ball of orange fire beyond the hedgerow. Fresh snow had begun to settle on the fields and lanes. He was stiff with cold and cramp, mindful of the tin sticking in his ribs. He cracked the lid and rummaged inside. There were coins, bone dice, a scrap of red ribbon and a bundle of papers. A tiny purple flower, pressed in the fold, fell out. The papers were brittle with age, mottled and weathered through handling. They were scratched with a flourish of ink, but might as well have been hieroglyphics for Joe had no reading, no way of knowing what his mother had written for him. He shrugged, folded the note and set on his way glad the coins would buy him a bed and a pie.
Richard Lakin  is a writer from Staffordshire.