Picture by Nicobobinus: Caledonian Road
Shush there, everyone. Shush now. Callum, David, you as well. And come in close so you can hear, because tonight I’m going to talk about a little boy who was just like you. His name was Eldon, and he was a Scottish boy whose parents had died, so he came to live here in the Caledonian Asylum. He wore his tartan breeches, just like you; he studied in the classrooms where you study, and slept in the dormitories where you sleep. Sometimes he got fidgetty during sermons, and fought with the other boys, and sometimes he tried to sneak more than his fair share of porridge; but most of the time he behaved well, or else he tried to. He played pipes in the band, and if he wasn’t very good at it, it wasn’t for lack of practice.
Now one day Eldon noticed—as you might have noticed—that from the very top of the Asylum, you can see into the exercise yard of Pentonville Prison. Many of the men in Pentonville Prison are violent and cruel-hearted and mean only ill to orphans, but Eldon couldn’t tell this as he watched from a distance. There was a tall man with white hair, who would lean on the walls; Eldon called him Mr Slant. There was a young man who would start fights, and Eldon called him Fistgrabber. There was an older man with dark hair who would stop the fights that Fistgrabber started, and Eldon called him Thief.
Sometimes Eldon thought the men in the prison yard were just like him, or rather that he was just like them: that he was shut in the Asylum in the same way that they were shut in the Prison, that his life was regimented as theirs was, that he was told what to do and when to play just like them. Now, you and I know that the Asylum is here to look after children who would be cold and hungry and ill on their own, while the Prison is there to punish those who have stolen and murdered and swindled. But Eldon’s bed was hard, and so were his lessons, and some of the teachers and the older children were unkind; and he didn’t always remember the difference as well as he might.
Eldon, then, was restless.
One way to prevent yourself from feeling restless is to go on a long walk, just like you did this morning, but whenever Eldon went on a walk with the other orphans, they would travel past the Metropolitan Cattle Market, again just like you: and while he was there Eldon would think that perhaps he was less like a prisoner and more like one of the cows. Confused yet obedient; reluctant yet biddable. Tended and fed, but not sure where he was going.
And Eldon began to think about what would happen to him if he left the Asylum, and what would happen to a prisoner who escaped from Pentonville, and what would happen to a stray cow who made it out of the market. He thought that the prisoner would have to stay hidden, and would need someone to go into shops for him; and the cow would need feeding, and have wide warm sides; and that he himself would need someone to explain the world to him and someone to keep him from getting cold at night. And he thought, as he leant out of the very top window and watched the exercise yard below, that Thief was more interested in the fences than he used to be, and seemed occasionally to glance up at the Asylum window and almost to meet his eyes; and he thought as well that the men who ran the cattle market relied on the cows to be really quite stupid, and that a clever cow would be able to evade them easily.
And so one night—a bright night, like tonight—Eldon climbed out of a window and ran away from the Asylum. He stood in the dark between Pentonville Prison and the Metropolitan Cattle Market, and he waited.
He was a little scared, and a little cold, and for a moment he felt silly to have climbed out at all; but even as he worried, he didn’t really doubt. He knew that a thick-lashed wide-eyed cow named Daisy would come through the night to nuzzle him, and then Thief from the prison would arrive as well. They would smile at each other with recognition, and turn away from Caledonian Road and their disparate gaols for ever. Such adventures they would have, the three of them, thief and boy and cow! They would travel all the way to Scotland and back, they would eat pork pies, they would commit cunning robberies and make their fortune and then pay back everything they had stolen. He would never wear tartan or play the bagpipes again. He would be free.
But listen closely, especially you, David: Daisy and the dark-haired thief never came. Eldon waited until dawn, through the rattle of new cows on their way to market, and the bell that rings to wake the prisoners. He was dry-eyed and disillusioned when he got back to the Asylum, and there was no porridge left for breakfast.
You can learn from Eldon, if you’re willing. The moon may be large and the sky may be clear but it’s cold outside, so think carefully. Take a coat to pull around you as you wait for your companions, and leave a window ajar on the ground floor, because nine times out of ten the swashbuckling thief and the loyal cow won’t come.