Rosie waited for her father to take his lunch break. He marched to the front of the shop, locked the door and turned the sign to closed with a flick of his veiny wrist. He always took his lunch in the back room between the piles of musty papers, and he always closed the door so the smoke from his pipe wouldn’t drift into the shop.
‘Tony’s Sweetshop’ the white sign said above the door outside, but for ten minutes each day it was Rosie’s. Cherry drops and Bon-bons, Cola bottles and Gummy bears. Glistening rows of glass jars bursting with colour, sat shoulder to shoulder along thick wooden shelves. It was every child's dream, and she hated it.
She listened to her father settle into his squeaky chair next door, then creeped over to the nearest sagging shelf. Eight years old, she had to stand on tiptoes to reach the lowest row and it took both hands to lift the jar down. Pear drops, Tom’s favourite.
Pink fingers plucked out five sticky sweets and she resisted the urge to gobble one. Her father kept a set of shiny scales behind the counter and she walked over to weigh her prize. Six grams. From her sock, she pulled out three small pebbles stolen from Mrs Beasley’s driveway and placed them on the scale. Rosie didn’t like to steal from old Mrs Beasley, who sometimes waved from her kitchen window.
Six grams. Perfect. She was getting good at judging. The pebbles went into the bottom of the jar where they couldn’t be seen and the Pear-Drops were stuffed into her socks.
Now the liquorice for Duke. She had barely finished putting the lid back on the second jar when her fathers chair squeaked. Scrambling, she nearly dropped it, as she bundled it onto the shelf
She froze and stepped away.
“What are you up to girl?” Her father never smiled at her, but his words brought relief. She hadn’t been caught. Not yet.
“We shall see.” he said. He strode over to a jar of sour dummies and carried it easily in one hand to his scales. He was a big man. Margret Green’s son said it was from eating all the sweets, but Rosie never saw her father eat any. He was strong though, she knew that.
Her father never looked in her direction as he weighed each jar from the bottom shelf. He only frowned at the numbers, almost as if he wanted it to be wrong. Rosie shifted from foot to foot, the sweets felt huge in her socks. They both knew what would happen if she was caught.
“Two more weeks and you’ll be back in school” her father said as he placed the final jar back in its place with a definitive clink.
She couldn’t wait to return to Riverdale. The rooms were cold, the beds were scratchy and the girls would whisper cruel words when they thought she was asleep. She didn’t care, she was used to cruel words.
She would miss Tom and Duke. The thought of leaving them behind made her feel like she’d eaten a full bag of fudge. It was for the best though, her father would discover the pebbles eventually. They could visit her at school, it wasn’t far on the train. She wasn’t sure if Duke liked trains but Tom would convince him.
Her father walked over to the front of the shop, where a small queue of eager faces pressed against the glass door. He smiled as he flipped the sign to open, and the shop bell chimed as the door swung open. A group of giggling boys jostled their way in, sticking out their noses and savouring the smell. He always smiled at other children.
Rosie waited until it was dark and her father was asleep. He slept in his chair in the back room, clutching a bottle of bitter smelling drink that made him angry or sleepy or both.
Her bedroom was above the shop. The glare of a nearby street-light outside her window wasn’t stopped by thin curtains and it struck her face when she lay in bed. Back at the start of the holidays, when she prayed for a swift return to her itchy Riverdale bed, she opened the window and tried to throw a blanket over it. It was then she discovered that she could escape.
She climbed down the cold metal drainpipe with more confidence than she had those first few times, though she was still grateful when the ground kissed her feet. After a quick check to make sure she still had the treasure in her socks, she hurried left down the street towards the distant tower of the church.
It was summer, but a chilly wind rippled her pyjamas and she regretted not wearing a jacket. She headed down Forrest lane with its line of sad trees taking care not to tread on the cracks.
At the bottom of the hill, Rosie found Tom where she always did, sitting beneath the St George underpass on a rotten mattress, singing softly with a voice that could melt chocolate.
He stopped when he heard her footsteps.
His voice echoed past the light of his small fire, and down wet stone walls painted in bright colours and words she didn’t understand. Toms wrinkled face split into a grin when he saw her. Duke scampered from his bed on the torn pillow and wagged his tail as she knelt to ruffle his fur.
“I have something for you boys,” she said reaching into her socks. Duke rushed to snaffle the liquorice and she giggled as his rough tongue tickled her fingers.
Tom showed more restraint as she offered him the Pear Drops. She worried for his teeth, or the few he still had, but he always sucked them with patience.
“Too good to us, you are Rosie. Isn’t she Duke? Say thank you, say thank you boy”
Duke barked and they both laughed.
“Are you cold? You look cold.” Tom said, “running about in your pyjamas, you’ll catch a chill. Here take this.”
Tom passed her a mouldy sweater from his small bundle of belongings in an old shopping basket.
“Thanks.” She expected to recoil from the smell, but it carried the friendly odour of burnt wood. She pulled it low to cover the bruises on her legs, and nestled into her spot facing Tom. A turned over bucket he used to collect water.
“How we gunna to repay you? Tom said when he’d finished his sweet. “Story or song?”
Rosie thought about it for a moment, Tom was equally skilled at both.
“Song” she said quietly “Something happy.”
“Happy then” he said,
Tom may have been old, and missing some teeth but his voice carried like a king’s, and even the birds stopped their chatter to listen. The song was about love and how much it mattered. Rosie was crying when he finished.
“Hey, hey, Tom stopped with a look of concern
“Whats wrong Rosie?”
“Nothing” she said wiping her face with the back of her hand.
It was one of their unspoken rules. They never spoke about that sort of thing. In the three weeks since she’d first perched on that bucket after hearing his song from the road, she had never asked him why he lived beneath an underpass, and he had never asked her why she ran away from home each night. As long as it stayed that way, he would still like her, and they would stay friends.
“Seems like we’re gunna have to help you grow some thorns little Rose. Toughen you up a bit. Like Duke here. You're a killer aren’t you duke?”
The dog gave a high pitched bark and Rosie laughed. She had never seen a less scary dog in her life. Tom had that way about him. A way that made her feel better. He had holes in his shoes and his throne was a stinking mattress; but to Rosie he was a friend.
“Same time tomorrow?” Tom said when she handed him back his jumper, and he handed her the last Pear Drop. He always gave her the last one.
“Same time tomorrow.”
She stopped on her way home to fill her socks with pebbles from Mrs Beasley’s driveway. The cold had lost some of its bite and she climbed up the drainpipe and squeezed back through the window. Her father was still asleep, she had to be quiet. She slipped in to bed and that night she dreamed that she was a princess.
It was two days later, on a rainy afternoon when her father came back from his lunch break with his face a little redder than usual. A sour smell on top of the smoke told Rosie he had already drunk from the bottle kept in the top drawer of his desk.
It was times like this when she feared him most. She took a step back as he stood over her, and her elbow banged against the glass jars. He didn’t bother to look at the scales, just grabbed her roughly by the arm. Her eyes flew to shop window, it was the middle of the day.
“I’ve got something to tell you.” he said, thick fingers marking her arm.
“What is it Father?”
She refused to cry out but fell still under his grasp. She'd learned it was always better to be still. He glared down, and curled his lip into a sneer.
“We don’t have enough money,” he said and looked away. Rosie turned her head to his room in the back. He had growled in there over the past few days.
“What does that mean?”
“It means” he said “I can’t afford to keep sending you to that fancy school. I’ve called the headteacher she knows you won’t be coming next term.”
“Wha, what father I don’t understand.”
A horrible thought rippled through her mind.
“What don’t you understand girl? You won’t be going to Riverdale next term. You’ll stay here and go to Weston like all the other children round here.”
The ripple surged to a wave that crashed over her soul. She ripped her arm away from his grasp and was surprised when her father let go. She fell onto her back with a crash and a small stick of liquorice bounced from her sock. Rosies face went pale.
Her father didn’t notice, he had already turned to open the shop. The bell chimed and her hand shot out to snatch the sweet. She squeezed it tightly in her palm. She still had Tom and Duke.
Rosie stood up before the customers could see her on the floor.
It was a full moon that night, and her father was snoring like a dragon in his chair. The door to his room was never locked and Rosie wormed through the narrow gap so the hinges wouldn’t squeal.
Stinking pipe smoke invaded her nostrils and she clasped a hand over her mouth to silence a cough. He slept with one arm on his desk, surrounded by the evil stacks of papers and his meaty hand twitched as Rosie reached towards the top drawer.
The keys were the old type, gold and heavy like the keys to a castle. They looked jangly and she gripped them tightly and lifted them with care. Her fathers hand moved again and she crept backwards out the room.
The Sweet shop floor looked different in the dark. Vibrant colours became washed out greys in the moonlight, and it took a moment to find the right jar. She found the Pear drops by their shape, and the liquorice by its smell.
No pebbles this time, she was taking the lot. Tom would look after her. They would sing songs and eat sweets forever, or until they felt sick. She loved him, she realised. He might be old and wrinkly but that didn’t matter, he was her king. She loved Duke as-well, she couldn’t wait to see his shaggy face when she showed him a whole jar of liquorice. The three of them together thats all she needed.
Rosie gripped the jar, lifted it down and dropped it next to the Pear Drops. Too hard, and a bump cut through the silence. Her fathers chair creaked and she dashed to the front of the shop. It took two go’s to find the right key and the door to the sweetshop swung open.
The bell chimed. She forgot about the bell. She threw the keys and picked up the jars. One wrapped under each little elbow. Straining with the weight she staggered out the door.
It was a long way to Tom, her arms burned and her legs felt heavy but she didn’t dare stop. Panting and dribbling snot, she turned down Forrest lane and tried to ignore it when her shoes touched the cracks.
Tom’s singing cut out when he saw her stagger into the underpass.
“Woah Woah, Rosie Whats going on? What have you got there?” “I’ve run away,” she said. Plonking the Jars down with a crack as Duke rushed out to sniff her.
“I want to stay here with you and Duke.”
“What? Rosie I.. Rosie you can’t. Whats happened?” It was the first time she had seen Tom look scared and she wanted to run over and hug him.
“We can be happy,” she said, her eyes blurred with tears. “Sing me a song Tom. Please”
“Darling you don’t understand. Its not right, you can’t stay here. I… I’m sorry.”
“You don’t love me do you?” She said bitterly. No-one did.
Tom opened his mouth to speak but heavy footsteps stopped him.
“ROSIE!” Her father bellowed, and the sound thundered down the underpass. He stood in the shadows of the entrance, a beast framed by the light of the moon. Duke whimpered and backed away towards Tom.
“You think you can steal from me girl!” her father said as he advanced down the tunnel swaying.
“You think you can run away from me.” Rosie froze, her legs turned to Jelly.
“I will show you what happens girl” The clawed hands of the monster reached out to grab her, but a hand pulled her back.
“It was me that stole.” Tom said, as he pushed Rosie behind him and stood up bent backed. “I stole the sweets. She chased me here.”
In the dim light Rosie saw her fathers red eyes focus on Tom for the first time.
“You?.” Confusion in his voice.
“Yes me.” Tom said. She had never seen him stood up before, he was terribly thin, more bone than man and his head barely reached her fathers chest.
“No, thats no…” Rosie started but Tom stopped her with a hard squeeze on her arm. He looked down at her and winked. “Run Rosie.”
Her father fell on him with a roar. Savage punches and kicks that drove Tom to the ground. Rosie ran. Behind her she could hear the grunts of her father and the heavy force of his blows. Tom didn’t cry out, but Duke barked and a jar smashed as she bolted out of the tunnel.
The room was too white and the carpets were too clean, but Mrs Beasley had a kind smile and she made good cookies. Rosie hadn’t eaten any the night she first arrived, banging on the door and screaming for help. It was two days before she ate anything. She didn’t talk either, not to Mrs Beasley, her husband or even the police when they told her she had to.
On the third day Mrs Beasley had touched her arm with a a sympathetic hand.
“He’s not coming back Rosie. You don’t have to see him again.”
Rosie was glad, but there was only one man she cared about.
At night she tried to sleep in Mrs Beasley's daughter’s old room. She didn’t like the flowery decorations, it felt too childish. There was a window though. A window with a drainpipe.
Rosie didn’t pause when she saw the cracks on Mansfield road. She ducked under the police tape and into the underpass. She felt sick when she saw the blood and the shattered glass. Tom’s mattress was there and his basket of belongings. His mouldy jumper smelled like him and Rosie tried to imagine it was his voice, not the wind that was singing softly down the tunnel. Scattered on the muddy floor, a line of Pear Drops lay like a giant's tears that had fallen for her king. The ones on Rosies cheeks didn’t feel any smaller.
A growl made her turn.
The scruffy dog crawled out from beneath a discarded cardboard box. She picked him up and he licked her face. They cuddled for a while beneath the underpass and listened to the wind.
Do you like cookies boy?” Rosie said. She kissed him on the nose and carried him away.