TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK
It is quite possible that emily bedlam was simply a very good woman, but to her son, Tom, she appeared insane. She was the embodiment of Christian virtue. “God Bless!” she would say to the surliest stranger with a giddy and well-meaning smile. When she received a fearsome oath in reply, Mrs. Bedlam held no grudge. She tried again the next day. And the next. She never spoke in scorn, nor did she gossip or disparage her neighbors. She provided for her only son through her employment at Todderman & Sons Porcelain & Statuary, and remained faithful to her husband though he had deserted her many years before. Never had the boy met a woman as selfless and self-effacing. She had been robbed, sworn at, and gossiped about, but she always turned the other cheek. Since Tom had never seen an angel, he was tempted to assign his mother’s virtues to a category of folk he had seen on the rough city streets—the simple, the touched, the witless. In Vauxhall, southwest of the City of London, Tom accompanied his mother to the factory every morning. Through the wrought-iron gates and across a windswept courtyard, they would pass Mr. Todderman greeting his employees from a parapet on the second floor of his domain. Behind him, two smokestacks from the factory released a black smear across the London skyline, while next to him, the cripple, Brandy Oxmire, clutched a slate for the purpose of marking down absences and latecomers. “Morning, Mrs. Bedlam!” her employer shouted. “God Bless, Mr. Todderman!” came the gay reply, “and thank you for Mrs. Todderman’s shoes!” Then she’d pause to display the gaudy red-leather shoes on her feet. Todderman acknowledged them with a weary growl. “It was a pleasure, Mrs. Bedlam.” She’d been thanking him for his wife’s castoffs for weeks, even though he’d subtracted a small fee from her wages in compensation for them. “You need not thank him,” Tom had whispered many times. “Nonsense, Tom,” replied his mother. “D’you know what these shoes are worth? If nobody acknowledged a good turn, just imagine what an unkind city London would be.” Tom needed no imagination. He’d seen their tenement landlord turn out folk on the second of the month for missing the rent; there was always a supply of desperate faces at Mr. Todderman’s gates looking for work; and of course, there was the daily unkindness of the street—the strangers who mocked his mother’s patrician manners because she wore secondhand clothing, the neighbors who joked about her married name, and the factory biddies who told his mother to bless herself, for she needed more blessing than they did. Was she stupid? No, for there was a solid Christian philosophy behind her disposition. Three dog-eared Bibles on her bookshelf confirmed it: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; and Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. But as Tom accompanied his mother through the glazing rooms and the clay shops of Todderman’s factory, he couldn’t prevent her cheery greetings to her co-workers. “Morning, Esther! Hello, Mary! God Bless, Bonnie! . . . Oh, Mrs. Mudd, you look very nice today!” The replies were rare. As for Mrs. Mudd, her pudding face—round, mottled, and grimy at the edges—didn’t acknowledge the compliment; she grunted and spat, striking the heel of one of Mrs. Todderman’s precious shoes with a milky clod of phlegm. Mrs. Mudd knew her workmate was more valued and chose to believe that it was not Mrs. Bedlam’s skill with clay but her genteel accent that earned her a shilling more a week. “You’re disgusting!” Tom cried in his mother’s defense, but Mrs. Mudd shook off the nine-year-old’s protest with a sneer. “God Bless, Mrs. Mudd,” said his mother faintly as she wiped her heel and took a seat at her bench. “It doesn’t help that you forgive her so easily,” the boy whispered. “It was a mistake, my love,” his mother replied. “What sort of world would it be if we took offense at every mistake?” Would Mrs. Bedlam’s blithe philosophy change the world for the better? Tom looked doubtfully at Mrs. Mudd. She was a notorious slut who tried to shock his mother with her spitting and raunchy language. He never forgave a remark he had heard from her lips: “What a pathetic ’un with that barmy smile, every bloody morning, and a son who’s never seen his father!” Mr. Todderman made a considerable profit from reproducing the delicate figurines that were popular in Paris and Dresden, and Emily Bedlam had a remarkable talent for imitation; she could fashion anything from the fine white porcelain clay—miniature duchesses, dukes, swans, amorous goatherds and coy shepherdesses. Each delicate figure subtly echoed Emily Bedlam’s own naïve features. Ten hours a day, his mother labored here. Above, a skylight admitted the occasional ray of sun, reflecting a million tiny white particles. It was always snowing in the porcelain factory; everybody had a cough; and the mucus was always milky white. When Tom was ten, he was employed to run errands between the various departments. Mr. Todderman needed a few boys of Tom’s size, small enough to retrieve pieces at the back of the kiln and navigate the warehouse without damaging the stock. Tom did many odd jobs, taking messages to the glazing shops, the furnaces, the accounting department, and fetching pieces from the cramped underbasement, where racks and racks of identical dukes, duchesses, and shepherdesses (not to mention the busts of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria) were stored for shipment. On the factory rooftop, where silt rained down from the two billowing smokestacks like black hail, Tom took refuge from Mr. Todderman’s heavy-lidded scrutiny. On this roof he surveyed the grimy streets of Vauxhall, the muddy brown ribbon of the Thames, and the grander vista of the City of London that lay beyond Westminster Bridge. “Looking for your papa?” Brandy the cripple grinned. He had followed Tom up there this morning. “Well, I won’t find yours, will I?” Tom replied. Brandy was an orphan. His right foot had been mangled in an explosion in the kilns when he was fourteen. Dubbing him Brandy for the scar tissue over most of his face, Todderman used him as his eyes and ears about the factory. The cripple’s distorted face on the parapet every morning also assured the other workers that their employer had some tender, fatherly spirit in him. “Todderman’ll gimme this here factory when he dies, I reckon,” said Brandy, pausing to stoke a little white clay pipe. “He has a nephew. You’ll get nothing,” Tom replied. “I have a living,” Brandy declared, squinting as the wind changed direction and black smoke wafted down from the stacks, showering particles across his distorted features. “What did your father ever give you? Only a name I reckon!” Prompted by such challenges to learn more about his father, Tom might as well have asked the miniature dukes and shepherdesses for an answer. His questions to his mother rarely elicited more than an assurance that she was legally married to Mr. William Bedlam, that he was away on business and would return someday hence. Then Tom was reminded not to listen to the gossips. “Do you think I’d take a name like Mrs. Bedlam for no reason, Tom? I married for love, and gave up much for it,” she would say, though she would never explain the nature of her sacrifices. And what kind of a man had married a righteous woman like his mother? Was Mr. Bedlam righteous too? Or did he stray from the flock? None of Tom’s many questions were answered to his satisfaction. The reply was always the same: “I wouldn’t be telling stories about your father, Tom,” she said. “He toils under God’s blessing, same as the rest of us. And if you can’t speak pleasantly about a person, it’s best to say nothing at all.” Because his mother considered tact one of the prime virtues and would reveal nothing more about her past or his father’s present circumstances, Tom sincerely hoped that William Bedlam would make his appearance soon and speak for himself. A WISH GRANTED The room they shared was in a tenement that leaned against Todderman’s factory. there was an imploring quality to the structure; its cracked windows dimly reflected the sky, and its front door was ajar in the same way that the mouth of a bitter man gapes open. The bricks were caked with black silt from the smokestacks next door, the stairway was a fresco of grubby finger marks, and the steps were dusted with fine porcelain powder. Every inch of this building bore the stain of Todderman’s factory, as did most of its tenants. Rooms were divided and subdivided as necessity warranted. A hole in the floor of the entrance hall tripped unwary visitors. Tenant outrage over the building’s condition matured into apathy and her offspring—acceptance and willful damage. Every week the hole grew; perhaps somebody thought that improvement would come about only by making the structure even more squalid and treacherous. In one corner of the tenement room Tom shared with his mother, he would press his ear to the wainscoting, listen to the visceral clamor of the building, and try to make sense of it, just as he listened to the beat of his own heart with his fingers pressed tightly to his ears. It was a wet autumn evening in London. The cries of the eel fishermen could be heard echoing across the muddy Thames at high tide as Mrs. Bedlam counted her savings. Her system was simple: she collected her coins until they could be exchanged for paper money, then the note would be deposited in one of her Bibles, a one-pound banknote for each chapter. Currently, the Bible contained twenty-five pounds. When she reached Revelation, Mrs. Bedlam expected to have enough money to move to the country with her son. Far from the white dust that collected in milky tears in the corners of their eyes, far from the stifling black smoke in the skies, far from the filth that contaminated the streets, and the offal house nearby, Tom could have an education, and his mother could raise chickens, a cow, and perhaps some sheep. “It won’t be long until we’re living in the country, Tom,” she promised with a frail, giddy smile. “And it won’t be long until you go to school.” Tom said nothing; this promise was all too familiar. With his ear against the wainscoting, he identified the footsteps of his neighbors in the same way a country boy quickly distinguishes the call of a wren from that of a curlew. Mr. Bottle, for example, always dragged his feet slowly up the stairs in anticipation of the verbal taunts he would receive from his bedridden and demented daughter. The Limpkin children stampeded to the second floor with peals of laughter. The entire Limpkin family could be seen outside the building on the twenty-ninth of any month offering up their pots and pans, furniture, clothing (and sometimes Mrs. Limpkin’s pastries) in a desperate attempt to raise funds for the rent. Mr. Hull, whose head hung below his muscular shoulders, ascended the staircase with bovine snorts much as the Minotaur must have stalked Theseus in the labyrinth. Tom had learned about the monster from Oscar Limpkin, a boy Tom’s age, whose fertile imagination was matched by an incredible grasp of mythology. Suddenly Tom heard new footsteps. The pace, the weight of each tread, and the agility of the person were unfamiliar. Usually he expected a shout and a curse as every newcomer misjudged the widening hole in the foyer—but today this obstacle was nimbly traversed without even a scramble. As Tom changed his position by the wall, Mrs. Bedlam looked up from her counting. “Who is it, Tom?” “A man, I think.” “There’s a new man on the fourth floor,” suggested his mother. “He works in the furnaces. Dear me, such an awful place.” But Tom’s ear remained pressed to the wainscoting as the strong footsteps came up the first flight, paused on the landing, and proceeded to the second. A stranger always took a moment to consider the smells emanating from sixteen households, the trick step (seven up from the landing) that promised a bruised shin, and the spokelike shadows of the banisters on the grubby walls; but this person proceeded up the second flight without such contemplation. It seemed obvious to Tom that he knew somebody here. But what surprised Tom next was the silence that greeted the second floor, his floor. There was no creak from the spinster’s door, and no sound from the Limpkins’, whose children could be counted on to greet any creditor with shrieks of hostility (and any friend with jubilant cries). Tom rose from his bed and stared at the crack at the bottom of the door. A pair of feet blocked the dim red glow of gaslight. For a long moment they remained in place, as if their owner were staring directly through the wooden door at Tom. A sudden rat-a-tat-tat on the door was made with a flourish, like a stage knock. The sound startled Emily Bedlam. Like a jointed doll pulled rigid by a string, she became taut, eyes wide, mouth trembling. She snapped the Bible shut and hid it among the other books on a shelf while casting one tentative glance in Tom’s direction. Then, hurriedly preening herself, she went to the door to release the bolt. WILLIAM BEDLAM He was tall, with a shock of silvery hair and a black woolen overcoat, the high collar thrust up to his ears. His silhouette was distinct, and his nose ramrod straight—a prominent profile, handsome, even in the dim gaslight. Tom watched his mother open the door a crack. There was an urgent exchange between her and the visitor; Mrs. Bedlam was firm, but the visitor persisted; his voice was, by turns, explosive, cajoling, merry, and despairing until she relented and withdrew, permitting him entry. In the next instant, the stranger sprang across the room and knelt by Tom, assuming both his height and an absurdly innocent expression. “Hello then,” he said, in reaction to Tom’s scrutiny. It seemed to Tom that the man was pretending to be a boy. Not a very convincing one, but the sort who gets laughs on a stage. The man rubbed his nose carelessly, tousled his own hair, and playfully flicked his ear with a finger. “Who have we here, eh?” he said. “What’s yer name?” Tom stared at his interlocutor, puzzled by such mockery, and puzzled also that he needed to identify himself in his own home. “You named him Tom, remember?” Mrs. Bedlam replied. “Tom, yes—of course!” The fellow stood up slowly, now mimicking Tom’s serious expression. “You must be ten years old. Good heavens!” He frowned. With a tilt of his silver mane, he bowed, sweeping one hand elaborately while offering the other. “William Bedlam at your service!” The man’s coat was drenched, and his boots whistled through their damp stitches; yet even in this condition he seemed most concerned with Tom liking him. Bedlam spoke to his wife in an obvious stage whisper. “What’s the matter with him?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Tom Bedlam by George Hagen. Copyright © 2007 by George Hagen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.