There wasn’t a single person who failed to hear her shrill scream. Perhaps it was because it was the cry of a young girl. Had it been the calls of an older man or a scream tinged with the hint of a foreign accent, they might have ignored it completely. But, as her scream echoed down the lane fluttering on the chilly breeze like a bird over the rooftops, each of the villagers of Barclay’s Hollow stopped and turned. And – for a moment – they all considered doing something to help.
And yet not one of them moved.
It all happened so quickly.
The girl’s toes snagged on a protruding stone on the cobbled street. Her face contorted with terror and her hands clawed out uselessly as her head plunged towards the rock-hard surface beneath her. Her skirt fell upwards, caught in the gust of quick moving air revealing her red petticoat beneath, whilst the advancing horses snarled down at her.
To everyone who saw it, the child was doomed. The cart was moving too fast, uncontrollable for the driver who clung to the reins for dear life. The bystanders watched in silence, waiting for the inevitable to happen – waiting for the sickening crack, the scream of horror and the slump of her broken body crushed beneath the relentless wheels…
Conroy acted instinctively.
He darted out of the shadows and barrelled on to the road. His great hands reached down and seamlessly scooped up the falling child before taking cover on the opposite pavement just as the cart ploughed past them.
‘Oy. What’s her game then?’
Conroy pulled back his hood and glared up at the disappearing driver. The two only locked eyes for a second, but it was long enough. The driver’s indignant swagger evaporated as he slumped forward to try to hide his face. His irritated and malicious eyes dulled and grew wide with terror, and his face paled so quickly that he looked as though he might vanish before Conroy’s eyes like some ghostly apparition.
He didn’t slow his cart – on the contrary, he seemed to spur his horses on faster. The vehicle cluttered around the bend at the bottom of the village and hurtled off along the Dorchester road, disappearing in a puff of grey dust kicked up from the rickety wheels.
Conroy muttered a quiet curse before turning to the young girl in his arms. She was barely half-grown - maybe ten at the most – and her complexions reminded him of his own beloved Ciara: flowing red hair, flashing blue eyes and a smile that could melt the devil’s own heart.
She was smiling now.
Her eyes stared into his – not in fear as the others did – but in respect and unshakable gratitude.
For the first time in a long while, Conroy felt human again.
He gently turned her around and stood her up on the pavement, not letting his great hands go of her waist until her feet were steady against the stones. He patted the dirt from her dress and adjusted it to hide her petticoat once again.
‘There,’ he muttered. ‘Good as new.’
The little girl smiled again, fluttering her dress back and forth as she inspected it. With a nod of satisfaction, she turned back towards him and gave a little curtsey.
‘Thank you, sir.’ Her voice sounded as angelic as her appearance. ‘You saved my life.’
Conroy shook his head. ‘Now, there we disagree,’ he replied, drawing himself up to his full height. ‘You may have been broken, but I doubt you would have died.’ He gave a nod of confidence. ‘With a little luck, you may well have walked again…’
The girl’s face dropped. Her eyes walked their way up Conroy’s body, winding their way up his gigantic figure until they landed on his sly smile.
Like many others in Barclay’s Hollow, she was unsure of the towering butcher. His unwashed and blood-stained shirt reeked of fresh meat and his grease-glistened hair stood rigid in the harsh breeze. He was as wide as she was tall and Conroy knew all too well that the parents in the village would frighten their children with tales of those who’d been gobbled up by the fearsome giant. If the stories were to be believed, his bulging hands had shattered their fair share of wayward children’s bones and his chipped teeth had chewed on more than enough hunks of adolescent meat.
The children of this village were not scared by tales of the Sandman or Spring-Heeled Jack, but of being whisked away by the Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow.
Most of them would keep their distance. If they ever saw Conroy walking down the street towards them, they would cross to the other side of the road and keep a tight hold of their parent’s arms.
But this girl was different.
She put aside her fear and allowed herself to join Conroy in nervous laughter. She leapt forward, barrelling into Conroy’s chest and wrapping her short arms as far around his stocky body as she could. Ignorant of the sighs and groans of disapproval from the watching crowd, she reached up to his tree-truck neck and buried her face deep into his chest. There she remained for a good long while – content, happy and safe.
Conroy enjoyed the moment. It had been so long since he had felt the warmth of a child’s embrace that he had forgotten what it was like. As her body clung to his own, he lowered his head and allowed his face to press tightly in amongst her red hair and his giant, calloused hands reached up and gently patted the girls back.
‘It was a pleasure, darlin’,’ he whispered. ‘Anything for a pretty face.’
Mrs Bell’s shrill voice cut through the air like a blunt and rusted knife. The crowd parted to reveal a woman, dressed in black and carrying a basket of groceries. Thin and brittle looking, the woman glared across the street at Conroy, her clay-like fingers gripping the top of her basket whilst her mouth curled with displeasure from beneath her beaky-nose.
Even Conroy, for all his giant stature, couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the sharp woman who stood, arms open to receive back her child.
Hannah quickly released Conroy’s neck, dropped to the ground and ran to her mother, excitedly telling her about her near miss with the grocer’s cart. Mrs Bell listened carefully, her eyes never leaving Conroy, even as her daughter relayed the story of her dramatic escape from death.
Taking his cue, Conroy shuffled a little closer to them, hunching himself down to try to appear as unthreatening as possible.
‘The little darlin’ nearly had an accident, Mrs Bell,’ he explained, giving a little wink to the girl. ‘I only did what anyone else would do.’
He reached out to pat the girl on her head, but Mrs Bell’s resolve was both quick and strong. Finding his hand barred by her twig-like body, Conroy gave a little nod and retreated back a step or two, trying his best to avoid the accusatory look in the mother’s eyes.
She continued to stare through him, her lips pursed together and her whole body visibly rigid beneath her dress. As she stared, Conroy caught the faint whiff of incense as the wind picked up down the street, blasting his face with the icy breeze. Once again he felt vulnerable and detached and, not for the first time that day, he remembered why he truly didn’t belong.
Mrs Bell raised her head a little, staring down her nose at him as though he were some unpleasant insect that needed to be squashed.
‘I appreciate your efforts, Mister Conroy,’ she said. ‘And I am grateful for my daughter’s life.’
Her bony hand stretched out and gently manoeuvred Hannah behind her as she stepped forward. She leaned in close to him, lowering her voice to little more than a whisper:
‘But you will not speak to her again. I trust I am understood.’
Conroy nodded slowly. ‘Perfectly, ma’am.’
Mrs Bell gave him no more consideration. She span around, her dress billowing out dramatically around her, and quickly marched Hannah off across the street.
The rest of the crowd around them dispersed in a second. Not a single man or woman gave Conroy so much as a second glance as they carried on about their business…
All save one man.
A tall, gangly fellow, who loitered casually beside the door of the Royal Oak, stepped out on to the street when the crowd was all but gone. His eyes were fixed firmly on Conroy, shimmering with glee as he took a couple of steps towards the butcher, bringing with him the aroma of gin and sweat. He sneered through his toothless grin and attempted to draw himself up to Conroy’s height, although he was more than aware that he stood at least a head beneath the butcher’s stature. Once he was balanced firmly on his toes, he reached forward and, with an unnecessary amount of force, patted Conroy on the shoulder.
‘When are you going to realise, Irishman?’ Tommy Watson asked, putting on a mock Irish accent as he shuffled past. ‘You’re not wanted here.’
He gave a half-laugh and carried on down the street. As he did, he shook his head back and forth and repeated his own words as though they were the funniest he had ever heard.
Conroy shook his head and brushed himself down. He looked up the street to the baker’s shop where, perched on a stool by the door, Miss Hannah Bell waved subtly at him whilst her mother wasn’t looking. Conroy grinned to himself, turned towards a side street, and started his journey back to his shop.
Another new friend.