Tom sensed nothing out of the ordinary when he encountered Mrs. Cole the next morning. The woman was very ordinary in her reaction to him, colder than the weather outside. As he made his way to the table to eat breakfast a terrible thought came to him, something that he had not thought about before.
His birthday was coming soon and he would have to spend it, like all of the ones before it, in this place with that woman. It rather hurt when he heard Mrs. Cole wish another child a happy birthday and knew that it would not happen with him. She treated the day like any other New Year’s Eve, finding any reason at all to hide in her office where she could drink in private, at least that was what she thought because everyone knew the truth but were afraid to say anything about it. The next day she would have a terrible headache and be a horror to be around. Even the slightest noise would earn its maker her wrath.
Tom remembered enjoying this fact only two years ago when the woman, suffering from a severe headache that she put down to “having one of her spells”, was in the dining room at the table when a large rack containing many pots and pans fell off of the wall. The cacophony that it produced created agony in the woman and she barely made it to the girl’s lavatory before being sick into one of the toilets. When she emerged from the lavatory, the front of her dress coated with the vomit that hadn’t made it into the toilet, she stumbled to her quarters to clean up and change before lying down.
Nearly everyone else, with the exception of Tom, was mystified about how the rack could have torn loose from the wall and fallen. The noise had frightened many of them terribly and the kitchen staff had bemoaned the work that the catastrophe had produced. Tom and the remainder of the orphans had been shooed into the classroom to play, as it was extremely cold outside. The noise that this arrangement had created further antagonized the woman and, in the end, to avoid discipline being meted out to them the children were sent to their rooms.
He watched the woman carefully and, once he had decided that she wasn’t going to go into another tirade about something that he had done, and he couldn’t think of anything that he had done that she would be aware of, quickly ate his breakfast. When he finished, he walked with his bowl into the kitchen where the sink was filling with heated water. It was his chore today to do the breakfast dishes and he set about doing so as they came to him after being scraped clean of the heavy remains of food.
The boy worked quickly and efficiently at his chore while also being careful not to damage the dishes. A girl had once broken a dish and the matron had gone crazy. In the end the girl had spent many hours writing lines over and over again about being careful with orphanage property. The lines that she had left on the blackboard had stayed over the weekend as a warning to the other children to be cautious when doing dishes.
Martha stepped into the room as he was stacking another dish on the rack that held them to dry and smiled at his progress. Tom wasn’t afraid to work and actually did a very good job at anything that he was assigned to do; unfortunately Mrs. Cole was less cognizant of that fact with every passing day. The woman wondered if the matron wasn’t starting to slip and was afraid of what would happen when she did.
A sharp rap on the front door announced a visitor and she left the kitchen to greet whoever was brave enough to go out on a day like today. She pulled the door open and was stunned to see Alfred Clemmons, the master of Brower Orphanage, waiting to be admitted. He gave her a rather perfunctory glare before speaking.
“Are you doing to admit me, or do I need to freeze to death out here before you act?”
The greeting took Martha by surprise and she stepped aside to admit the man.
“I am so sorry, Mister Clemmons, we were not expecting you. How can I help you?”
“I need to speak to Mrs. Cole. Is she available or have I made the trip in this blizzard for no reason?”
“She is in her office, Mister Clemmons.”
“Thank you,” he responded as he shoved the coat and scarf that he had removed into her arms. “See that those get hung so that they can dry and warm.”
Martha shrank a bit and finally nodded meekly. She hurried away from the man to hang his things and could only watch as he entered Mrs. Cole’s office and the door went closed behind him. This was trouble, she was certain of it, and she wondered who it was trouble for.
Mrs. Cole looked up at the master of the other orphanage and smiled. Alfred Clemmons had been in the Royal Navy during the war and had a reputation for being extremely strict with the orphans under his charge. He tolerated no trouble and was not afraid to discipline, sometimes harshly, children who misbehaved. The man was actually quite fond of the switch that he had in his office, marks carved into it representing each child who had felt it. He sat down in the chair across the desk from her and finally spoke.
“Virginia, why is it that you need my help with this Tom Riddle? I have never known you to be unable to deal with a problem before. Why is this one different?”
“The boy is incorrigible, Alfred. He has resisted all attempts to be corrected and the only respite that I receive is when he is gone to school for the duration of the term. He lives here during his holiday breaks and summers and makes everyone miserable. I have tried everything that I know and it has been to no avail. He is a liar, a thief, a bully and much more. I caught him just the other day with a young girl and, had I not intervened, I fear that he would have tried to have his way with her.”
Clemmons recoiled in his chair as his eyes widened in surprise at her statement.
“Surely you do not mean that he was about to…”
“I feel that he had that intention, but I interrupted his plot.”
“Can you not just send him back to his school?”
“I do not know how to reach them or I would. Apparently it must be rather strictly run, I have never heard anything from them bad or otherwise concerning him.”
“How long will it be before he returns to school?”
“It will be after the first of the year.”
“And then he is back for summer break?”
“Exactly,” she responded.
“Virginia, how am I to know that he will not decide to carry on with one of the young ladies at my orphanage?”
“You have girls there now? I thought that you had only incorrigible boys.”
“I did have only boys, at least until they closed down Martin’s Orphanage. The girls needed to go somewhere and I got most of the lot! Some of them are just as bad as the boys and at least two are in a delicate condition, which means that very soon I shall have two babies on my hands.”
“Good Lord, Alfred, I had no idea…”
“I was willing to take him until you told me what you did. I do not need another boy with those intentions in my building, I caught one just this morning preparing to move on one of the girls. He would have accomplished it too, had I not walked in to the room that they were in.”
“But I need him gone, Alfred, I really do,” she answered as frenzy entered her voice.
“Perhaps one of the workhouses would take him,” the man offered, “they are always looking for new help.”
“I thought about that, and it would work if he was older, but the ministry is quite adamant. He is too young to set adrift and go to one of those facilities.”
Alfred shook his head.
“I am sorry, I know that I owe you a favor and am happy to make good on it but this time, in light of what you have told me about young Mister Riddle, I cannot and will not.”
“No Virginia,” he added as he rose from the chair after draining the glass that had been poured for him, “there is nothing that you can say that would make me change my mind.”
She watched as he walked to the door and then opened it to step back out into the corridor and run directly into a dark haired boy, who stumbled backwards in his shock at the sudden encounter. The man reached out to steady the boy and then speak softly to him.
“Sorry about that, lad.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And what might your name be?”
“Tom Riddle, sir.”
Tom noticed the sudden shocked intake of breath that the man had and the way that his eyes grew wary. It was at this time that Tom wondered just exactly what had been going on in the office of Mrs. Cole.
“May I go, sir?”
“Yes, yes, by all means.”
“Thank you, sir.”
As he walked away from the stranger, Tom spotted Mrs. Cole in her office surveying the situation. He wondered what the adults had been discussing but, by the way that the man had reacted to his name, he knew that it had to be about him. Tom hurried on his way and then darted up the stairs. When he reached the top of the stairs he stopped on the landing to watch through the window as the man, now dressed in his coat and scarf walked across the courtyard to get into a car that had writing on the door. He squinted hard and was able to make out the words on the dark metal.
It all made sense now, the secret meeting in Mrs. Cole’s office and the stranger that had been in on it. They intended to send him away! Mrs. Cole and the man had been working out a plan to make him leave the only home, other than Hogwarts, that he had ever known. It wasn’t much of a home, but it was his home while away from school.
Anger grew within him as he watched the car begin to move on the icy streets and he remembered the cursing that Mrs. Cole had done when she had been forced to bring him to the orphanage from King’s Cross. The trip had been treacherous and many times he had feared that they were going to crash. The anger growing within his mind about the plot against him spilled over and he lashed out silently at the man in the car.
Alfred Clemmons didn’t like the trip that he had to make, the streets were dangerous and his trip would take him through many areas where they were not maintained. A smart man would have waited until daylight to travel to Wool’s Orphanage to speak to Virginia Cole and he regretted not doing so. Many times on the trip to his destination his car had threatened to careen out of control and he had had to fight mightily to prevent ruin. He turned down one of the streets that he needed to use and cursed as he remembered the fact that he had to risk a short, but steep, hill along the way. Slowing the car, he approached this barrier and inched forward carefully while muttering orders to a crew that was not present.
“All ahead slow.”
He did this sometimes, calling out orders to a crew that he no longer commanded and had not for years.
Unfortunately, the car was not a feeling, listening being and he abruptly felt the first signs that all was not right. Sliding suddenly as the incline increased, the tires of the vehicle lost their grip on the roadway and the weight of the front part of the car and the passenger pulled the rear of the vehicle quickly downward.
“GOOD LORD!” he cried out as the vehicle, now out of control, slid down the hill towards what lay at the bottom. A large brick building stood there, uncaring and immobile as the collision became imminent.
The vehicle slid downward at an increasing speed and then stopped suddenly and harshly as it slammed into the structure. All might have been well save the fact that the car sheared off a column that supported an overhanging roof. Shorn of its support, the roof collapsed onto the car below it and then behind it as the weight of the first section pulled the rest down. Trapped in the pinned car, Clemmons could only sit there in a car that was becoming colder with each passing minute, waiting for help that likely would not come for hours.
Tom walked into his room and closed the door behind him before moving to his bed and sitting down on it.
‘So she wants to be rid of me, does she? Maybe it is time that she hurts again!’
He flopped back onto his bed and stared up at the ceiling while he thought about what needed to happen. Mrs. Cole had attempted treachery and now needed to be punished for it. To prevent him from seeing Sarah was bad enough, but for her to have acted like he wanted to do what she had accused him of was worse, and this was horrible! Tom concentrated for a moment and then thought hard about the matron.
She was sitting at her desk when it hit her, a sudden nausea unlike any that she had ever felt before. Rising from the chair that she occupied, she hurried towards the door and then suddenly stumbled to fall to the floor. As she attempted to regain her footing, the retching began and she fought to control the sudden and violent expulsion of the contents of her stomach on to the floor and the front of her clothes. She gagged repeatedly as she was sick onto the rug below her and felt her arms weaken as she tried to rise.
Martha, who had been walking past the door to the matron’s office, heard the unmistakable sound and carefully pushed the door open to find the woman in a terrible state.
The woman hurried to her superior’s side to help her to the chair that Clemmons had occupied and began to do what she could to help. She had tended to many children who were ill over the years and this was no different except for the obvious smell that the vomiting had betrayed. She, as a child, had smelled that very same odor before when her father, a hopeless drunkard, would become ill after being out at night drinking. More than once she had been a dutiful daughter and cleaned up the offensive mess while he acted as though nothing at all had happened.
It had gotten worse when her frail mother had died and she had been left to rear her younger siblings while also caring for the home and preparing meals. She had learned about budgeting what money they had and often hoped that her father didn’t decide that he needed a drink. Hunger had been a constant companion in those days and she had often wondered if life would have been any better if she had been an orphan. She soon found out.
One night, drunk and full of bravado that would have served him better at a different time, her father had challenged a younger man to a fight after a card game that had gone bad. A bottle, swung hard, had nearly crushed his skull and he had died as he had lived his final years, without feeling.
Suddenly Martha, herself only fifteen years old, found herself an orphan and trying to be a parent to the five other children that her parents had produced. She had managed to find a job in a local market, ending her education in the process, and was actually doing quite well in her endeavor when the church found out that the children were living in a home that was little more than a hovel, that one of them was very ill and that there were no adults in the house. A knock on the door when the children were eating a meager meal announced the arrival of the constables and their removal from the house. They soon were separated and sent to different places, the younger ones finding homes quickly while Martha and her younger brother found themselves being sent to orphanages.
Martha still remembered walking through the door of Wool’s Orphanage as a frightened child. They had gotten her cleaned up, fed and in a warm bed where she had found sleep impossible as she wept for her lost family. She hadn’t seen any of her siblings since.
She had finished growing up in the orphanage, gaining what education she could and learning to help in the kitchen that fed her. Happy with the new help that had come to her, the matron had hired Martha and the girl had been happy with her new situation. That had changed when her mentor suddenly passed away and Virginia Cole had walked into her life. Long exiled and forgotten demons reemerged in the memories of the young woman and she wondered what she had done to be punished like this once again.
Mrs. Cole had made a terrible mess of herself and the floor in front of her and now sat in the chair while she struggled against the nausea that was still battling her. The woman felt extremely weak and wondered which childhood disease she had been blessed with this time. It had all come on so suddenly, one moment she had been right as rain and now she was like this. Martha fussed over her as she tended to this unexpected patient and wondered if the illness that the woman had suffered had come from the bottle instead of the body. The other woman who helped with chores around the orphanage stepped into the room and took in the scene before turning a bit green herself.
“Charlotte, go fetch Doctor Barlow,” Martha commanded, knowing that the woman would have to walk as she didn’t know how to drive. Hesitantly the woman walked to the closet where their cloaks were kept and soon was stepping out into the storm which was still dumping snow onto the city and whipping it with the wind that rushed between the buildings. The doctor would drive back to the orphanage in his car and be here soon enough.
“Thank you, Martha,” Mrs. Cole managed to croak while fighting back more nausea, the results of which she deposited in the waste can that she had been handed. A strange sound was echoing in her head and Virginia Cole wondered what it was because it was certainly familiar. She settled back into the chair and watched as the woman who ran the kitchen vanished to retrieve a remedy that she often gave to children who were ill.
The noise repeated itself again and she glanced downward into the vessel that she held before recoiling just the same as the previous occupant of the chair had done. She hadn’t vomited much into the can, there wasn’t that much left in her stomach, but the contents of the container were rising swiftly towards her. Virginia Cole watched in horror as the offensive contents seemed to hurtle towards her and tried to cast the can aside, only to find that it seemed to be clinging to her fingers. She tried to scream as it leapt out of the trash can towards her face but no noise would come and Martha reentered the room to find her boss covered with the stinking mess and gasping for breath.
Martha cast the can aside and helped the woman out of the chair, out into the corridor and into the lavatory to at least clean some of the mess off of her. She gagged at the smell that Mrs. Cole was enveloped in and began to believe that she was going to add her own breakfast to the mess if something didn’t happen soon. Silent children watched with wide eyes as the matron, who seemed near to collapse, was assisted into the room to be cleaned up.
Virginia Cole thought that she was dying, she couldn’t command her legs or arms to do anything and she was weaker than she had ever been. She was grateful for the assistance that Martha was giving her but wondered if it was going to be enough. Arriving at a chair in the lavatory, she managed to control herself enough to sit down onto it without falling. The noise in her head was maddening and she struggled to determine just what it was.
A spoon appeared before her and she didn’t hesitate to take what it offered. She had often seen Martha give reluctant children the home remedy and it had helped them quickly. The woman didn’t care what it tasted like; if it would help she intended to take it. The foul elixir coursed down her throat and she felt like she wanted to vomit again as the smell reached her, but she fought back the urge as another spoonful appeared in front of her. She opened her mouth and accepted the next dose while Martha looked her patient over.
“That might not taste the best, Mrs. Cole, but it should do the trick.”
The ill woman nodded slowly and looked up at the woman who had come to her aid. Martha was just getting the woman ready to be cleaned up when the dispatched woman and the doctor that she had summoned hurried in from the freezing maelstrom outside.
Doctor Barlow could smell it, but kept silent, he knew about the vice that the woman kept secret and would honor her decision. It benefitted him to do it, because she had more than once sent a child who really didn’t need a doctor to him thus helping his pocket. He helped the women with the still very weak matron as they prepared to free her of the mess and then quietly departed the room once she was being readied to be bathed. He deposited a small bottle with some pills in it on the table in the dining room along with the bill for his visit.
There was nothing wrong with the woman that staying away from a bottle wouldn’t solve, but who was he to argue with his patient. It kept him in business and he intended to let her have her way and do what she wanted to as long as it helped him.
Later that day, cleaned up, doctored and ordered to stay in bed, Virginia Cole thought once again about the noise that she had heard in her head. It had been a familiar sound, she had heard it many times before when it had pleased her, but now it terrified her.
It had been the laughter of a child.
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