I went to the Dickens Museum because I’m an orphan all grown up, who once felt as
wretched as Oliver Twist. I went because, looking back, the eighties were the best of
times for so many, floating along in the world, when I’d sunk like a stone to the bottom
of things. I went to learn about the man who had somehow known so much about me.
I hadn’t planned on stealing someone’s seven-year-old.
I don’t begrudge children their parents. Mothers pointing to exhibits, saying “Look, can
you see?” Fathers hoisting their charges onto their shoulders when they couldn’t. Can’t
fault love when it’s all I’ve ever wanted.
I was just part of the wave flowing into the Christmas room. I had looked forward to this
and I was not alone. A Christmas Carol is the Dickens story children hear first, and
often. On the threshold of this room they all sighed together, like tired folks finally
Candle-flames like good luck pennies stood in rows atop beeswax plinths. Everywhere
wood, calling out a different character: a rich mantle in rich repose, a writing desk worn
out as the clerk at quitting time. And of course, the Christmas tree, its every arm open to
embrace, a green pagan giant draped in fussy Victorian fashion.
Did you know? The presents went on the tree, not under it: fruit, candies, coins and little
toys. On Christmas morning, children stripped it of its gifts, until it was but a tree again.
So said the sign before the spruce, and I smiled.
“Oh screw you, Frank.”
The woman wasn’t shouting and didn’t need to be. Her words were so unwelcome that
she could have mouthed them and I still would have turned, scandalized, to see her.
Her little boy was transfixed by one of many wonderful toys: a mechanical Ferris wheel,
with parachutes instead of seats. They shifted, left and right – floating down, rising up.
The boy was pulling on her pantsuit. She was on her cellphone.
“I can’t believe you. You’ve known about this trip for months.”
“Mom,” her son said. She picked his hand off of her pants.
We were poured into the next room, our stream of people. That little boy was drowning
right in front of us, his head disappearing from view sometimes in the crush of bodies,
and nobody cared. The worst of times within the best of times. My face was catching
We were in a sort of pantry now. I swam between people, to get closer to the boy. He
was at a tasting station, for “kachop.” A woman in a dark blue bustle – part of the wave,
oblivious to the swearing mother – asked the boy if he knew that the earliest forms of
ketchup didn’t contain tomato at all, that Dickensian varieties used mushrooms, nuts,
even fish. He hadn’t, and neither had I.
Would he like to compare? She gave him two tiny paper cups, one of some
interpretation of kachop and one of modern Heinz. I could tell the difference just by
looking, the more familiar sauce like a glossy puddle of acrylic paint.
“Mom,” said the little boy. He was afraid to try the kachop. “Mom, what’s it taste like?”
Pushing the cups into her free hand.
“It’s not like it’s a vacation, Frank, it’s my job, which I need—”
She paused. “Mom,” her son said again, and squished the cups into her palm, but it
wasn’t him she was listening to.
“As if I could live off what you send me. When I’m the one feeding Oliver five nights a
The kachop and the ketchup, both, were on her hand. She reached up to brush hair
away from her face, getting red on her neck, on her suit collar. She felt it. She looked
down, already yelling at Oliver, who had dived down to rescue the paper cups from the
floor. She pulled him up by his shirtsleeve. She swatted him as if he were a fly, and
when her hand came away there was red on his cheek.
Kachop, ketchup. Catch up. Fight or flight adrenaline, as I moved with the current to get
to him. I could sense a drop ahead, a waterfall. My stomach wrung itself, shriveled,
small enough to drain into my loins and threaten to pass out of me like piss. That
wretched Oliver Twist feeling – like a dog submitting to a mean master. I wouldn’t let the
kid go. If I could save him, I would. If I couldn’t – if we were going over – we would go
She was a speedboat dragging him, headed for the ladies’ room to clean her collar. He
looked around, for a lifeguard, but no one intervened. They were staring, just staring, all
together in the same direction so that the force was something I could physically feel.
Didn’t they know that doing nothing was doing something? That they were actively
ignoring an SOS?
And then they were turning away, lighthouses blinking out one by one, and to hell with
the ship still out to sea. That poor boy. As good as orphaned.
His mother had to part with one of the two things she held to open the bathroom door,
and her phone was most important, so she let go of her son. Expecting him to follow,
she passed quickly out of sight. I took up the hand she dropped. For a moment I was
close enough to hear the man on the phone. “Pay attention to me, airhead bitch,” he
shouted, growling through his teeth, and she did – rooted to the spot just inside the
door, shoulders trembling.
By the time she turned around, we would be too far upstream to be seen.
I didn’t come to steal someone’s seven-year-old. Oliver didn’t come to stain his mother’s
collar. And nobody pays good money to turn a blind eye to abuse and neglect. But there
we all were anyway.
Briana McGuckin lives in an old Colonial house called Brianogue. She has cerebral
palsy, two husbands instead of one, and a most excellent life. She is currently pursuing