- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781761040733
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $32.99
The Eighth Wonder
Manhattan, May 1884
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope. He peered through it and ran his gaze across the filthy peaks and gloomy canyons of the Lower East Side slums, and then further, to the magnificent gleaming arches of the Brooklyn Bridge. He breathed deeply to steady his knees, trembling with the notion of what might be about to become of him. His mouth was dry and his heart thumped in a way that almost matched the haphazard rhythm of the Hester Street markets four storeys below. Hester Street was a broken old jigsaw of a road, gridlocked with pushcarts, peddlers, hustlers, half-starved horses – and kids like him, street Arabs, darting through the unsuspecting throng, scouring cobblestones and coat pockets for anything they could lay their grubby fingers on.
Ethan teetered on the edge of his decision, feeling like a baby bird ready to take flight from its nest. Only this wouldn’t be his first flight and this place wasn’t even his nest. He’d had this very same feeling six months earlier, the day he’d leapt from the orphan train all by himself before it shunted him away from Grand Central Depot to some ol’ Ma and Pa out west. He had left all the other orphans rounded up by the Children’s Aid Society to a fate unknown, forced to be grateful to those who just wanted an extra set of hands, however small, to muck out the sties and cart hay. That close call still made Ethan shiver. He had bigger things planned.
Bigger things had finally found him that afternoon, when a wily wind rose, warm and sour from the depths of the East River, while he was packing up his Dog and Boy Show. He’d seen the twister speeding towards him and his pup Honey from all the way down Delancey Street, scattering drays and hagglers, peppering his face with grit and lifting paper trash from the sidewalk to swirl high like puppets on invisible strings. He’d jumped off his apple-crate stage and shielded Honey with one arm, but the bluster had died momentarily, ditching a poster at his feet that rippled in a ‘catch me if you can’ kind of way. He’d snatched it up the moment he’d spied the marvellous picture and the gay red type trumpeting a rare invitation and ran home so fast it felt like the sidewalk had been bouncing off his old boots; then he and Honey had raced up the fire-escape of the tenement where he’d lived these past months, with his best friend Jacob, Jacob’s mother Galina and younger sister Petra, to share his news.
Ethan swung around, watching the rooftops of Manhattan blur through the end of his telescope till it encircled the setting sun on the verge of melting gold into the Hudson River. Its rays glinted off the top of the fire-escape stairs where Honey was perched like a sentry, still dressed in her red tutu, and keeping an eye out for Jacob. The wiggle of her caramel backside foretold Jacob’s arrival and Ethan raced inside the three-sided humpy clubhouse built from rotted wood they’d found washed up around the Fulton Street docks.
He leant an elbow on their meeting barrel, palmed his chin all casual-like and wiggled his wobbly front tooth with his tongue as if he had nothing better to do. And he certainly wasn’t about to suggest something Jacob was sure to object to.
The fire-escape rattled before Jacob appeared up over the edge, bird-eyed and curious, his lanky frame now a liquorice-stick silhouette against the first pink-crimson watercolour drippings of dusk. He seemed much taller than his ten years. Ethan took another deep breath, hearing the thump of his heart in his ears, and hoping, no, praying Jacob would not run and tell his ma what Ethan was planning.
Jacob gave the secret knock – rat-a-tat-pause-tat – on their clubhouse shingle.
‘Enter, brother. I have some b-i-g news,’ Ethan boomed, through the poster, now a megaphone.
‘Tell me, Etin!’ His best friend grinned and clapped a hand on his shoulder. ‘What is this emergency?’
Ethan buttoned his lip to make sure he didn’t tell Jacob off for getting his ‘th’ sounds wrong again. Jacob’s Russian accent seemed to stick like glue to the tip of his tongue.
‘Patience. Be seated,’ Ethan said, and waited for Jacob to take his seat on the little red ottoman they’d ‘borrowed’ from his ma’s seamstress shop that occupied the street-level floor of the building. ‘Now, the first rule of the Hieronymus Club is “all for one”, isn’t that so?’
Jacob nodded with one cautious eyebrow raised.
‘Just remember that while I give you the news.’
‘News?’Ethan stood to attention, snapped his suspenders up over his shoulders, then, with a level of ceremony befitting the big men on the steps of City Hall, he slowly and with delicious anticipation peeled his poster apart, to reveal all.
He watched his friend’s face pale as Jumbo’s trunk unfurled majestically ahead of the rest of his noble body.
Ethan cleared his throat. ‘P. T. Barnum and a peerless parade of pachyderms will traverse the Brooklyn Bridge tonight to prove the bridge a providential marvel of engineering.’ Ethan raised his brows and grinned. ‘Jacob, do you know what “providential” means?’
Jacob combed his hand through his dark curls, less enthusiastic than Ethan had hoped, and gave a one-shouldered shrug that looked very much like “I don’t care”.
‘Well,’ said Ethan, tapping his recently pilfered Webster’s dictionary as if he were deciphering the contents with Morse code, ‘I believe it means “effective”. Or it could mean lucky, fortunate, incidental, that kind of thing. And that’s what I am planning to be tonight. Providential and lucky. Are you feeling providential, Jacob?’
Jacob looked unsure. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Jacob,’ Ethan said. ‘Will you come to the parade?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think Ma will let me but maybe I could—’
‘Good. Then I declare this meeting closed. We must be on our way.’
Ethan didn’t wait for further protest. He grabbed Jacob’s arm with one hand, scooped Honey up with the other, took one last look at the humpy and then hustled them both down the fire-escape stairs.The Great White Way looked different tonight with all the families bunched up excitedly under the ripple of electric lights.
‘Woohoo!’ Jacob sang, squeezing Ethan’s shoulder, miraculously enthused by the idea of the parade now that his backside was beyond the reach of Galina’s small but surprisingly effective wooden spoon.
‘Tonight’s gonna be big,’ Ethan said, stopping when Honey cottoned on to an irresistible scent at the base of a lamp post.
‘Humungous,’ Jacob opened his dark eyes wide, so they looked like saucers.
‘Jumbo sized,’ yelled Ethan as he shimmied up the lamp post to get a better view.
From up there, the crowd running down Broadway looked like a colourful flotilla of hats and bonnets bobbing in a calm, moonlit night. He stayed for a moment to take in the twinkling magic that scalloped its way up to the Brooklyn Bridge and then over the East River before he slid down and wriggled his fingers at Jacob in their code.
Ethan wove his way through the spectators with the ease of silk stitching and lots of ‘Sorry’, ‘Excuse me’ and ‘Have you seen my mother?’, all the while slipping his fast fingers in and out of carelessly proffered pockets and handbags. He had already nabbed a big golden orb of a pocket watch, a silver snuff box and eight silver coins.
‘We can’t do any more thieving,’ Ethan said, counting out his stash in a dark alleyway behind a vacant sulky. ‘My pockets are full.’
Jacob nodded, though he’d come back empty handed, as Ethan suspected he would. His friend was too honest for his own good, too much of a mama’s boy to take to thieving. But then, that was understandable. He was the one with a mama and a home to call his own. He was more adept at using his nimble fingers to sketch pretty pictures and sew perfectly straight seams than filch like a common street kid.
‘Doesn’t matter. Take this big pocket watch and give it to your ma. I got enough for both of us.’ He grabbed Jacob’s somewhat reluctant hand and perhaps as a last parting gesture, he wasn’t sure yet, slapped the gleaming timepiece into his palm.
‘But nothing. C’mon, I hear trumpets. The parade is starting. We’ll find a flagpole or a fire-escape to watch from.’
Ethan pulled Jacob towards Broadway, where they scoured the street corners for a vantage point. But as far as the eye could see, all available flagpoles and ladders were covered, like barnacles on pier pylons, with kids. Ethan ploughed headfirst through the forest of arms and legs, dragging Jacob and Honey to find the front row, where a tall, expensively suited man made space for them on the ground in front of him and his dark-haired young daughter. The little girl was clutching a fine-looking blue felt elephant dressed in an admiral’s jacket, and she was leaning heavily on a walking stick. Her serious grey eyes were upturned to her father, trying to decipher his words over the din of the crowd. Ethan and Jacob sank cross-legged in front of them to watch the double-humped camels and dancing harem girls flash by in whirls of silk and clangs of bell-laden bellies. Honey snuggled into Ethan’s lap.
‘But, Papa, why are the animals walking across the bridge again?’ the little girl yelled up to her father, catching Ethan’s ear. He leant back on one arm, pretending to look up at the bridge but stealing a glance at the pair and listening intently.
Her father bent down. ‘People are scared that the bridge isn’t safe for people to cross.’She looked puzzled. ‘Well, if it’s not safe for people, why would they want to send animals? Why don’t they just send the man who built it?’
Her grey eyes flashed Ethan’s way, as though she did not care for his eavesdropping.
‘Actually, it wasn’t just a man who built this bridge. It was a lady, too. A lady called Emily Roebling. Mrs Roebling had to finish the bridge when her husband, Washington, got sick, and she’s been across it many, many times. She’s probably even been down there’—he pointed towards the East River—‘into the caissons underneath the water. They help to make the bridge stable,’ he explained.
‘A lady,’ repeated the little girl, and stared up at the towering arches, roadways and webs of crisscross ropes. ‘But don’t ladies just do needlepoint and tea parties?’ She turned back and studied her father’s face like she was looking for a trick.
He laughed and tapped her nose. ‘Some ladies are different, because they know a secret.’
Ethan shuffled his backside closer still, intrigued.
‘They know they can do everything a man can. And even more!’
‘Of course you can, if you work hard and set your mind to it.’
The little girl leant hard on her walking stick, sweeping her dark hair back from her face and narrowing her eyes in concentration.
Ethan turned to face the pair, wanting to study them more closely. A smile tickled the edges of the girl’s rosebud mouth, but it disappeared when she caught Ethan staring again. She opened her eyes at him, wide as a hoot owl, and pointed down the street with her stick, as though Ethan should be minding his own business and paying more attention to the pageant.
He flicked his eyes away as an avalanche of cheering swept Jacob to his feet. Ethan resisted and stayed seated for a moment. He rested his chin on his fists and closed his eyes, imagining that the cheers were for him. He was in the centre of a spotlight in a circus ring, shining like a star in his crisp white jodhpurs and a tall black top hat. People were shouting bravo to the boy and his famous dog, Honey, who was twirling on her back legs and leaping from the back of one galloping palomino to another.
The hullabaloo of the crowd got louder and louder as people began to cry out, ‘Here come the elephants! Here comes Jumbo!’ Ethan’s dream evaporated and his eyes popped open to see, disappointingly, a couple of dull-eyed hokies strolling along wielding giant sticks. But then his royal sacredness came into view around the corner and Ethan gasped. Jumbo was so gigantic, so majestic in his bearing, that he needed no fancy costume like the other animals. He simply plodded down the street in his birthday suit, showing off his enormous grey flanks, and holding his wrinkled trunk up to his head like an upside-down question mark. Jumbo led the rest of his elephant tribe dressed in towering head feathers of red, blue, oranges and pinks and saddled with matching vibrant silk blankets. Ethan’s breath shortened and his heart pounded as he tried to capture the image in his mind, to hold it there forever.
Then he noticed a tiny set of legs among them all. A miniature elephant poked her head out, then skittered free, away from the herd, and dashed for the adoring crowd. She waved her trunk around gaily and shook her little black tufted head, as playful as a pup. She looked like a creature that thought very happy thoughts. Ethan stood up, fizzing with excitement. He had thought there would never be a finer sight than Jumbo. But he had been wrong. This little version made him feel all warm inside.
He focused hard and willed the little elephant to pick him out of the crowd, clicking his tongue in the way that usually brought animals to attention for him. And, as if by God’s hand, the little calf turned. Her glittering eyes were on him and Ethan felt that familiar snap of a connection.
Honey tensed and growled. And before Ethan had a chance to clamp her tight, she sprung out of his arms and barrelled towards the calf, barking a tirade as she rounded on it like a sheep dog, nipping and barking at the baby’s heels. The baby elephant shied and trumpeted a long, high call of distress, bringing the elephant herd to attention.
‘Honey!’ Ethan screamed, realising with horror what was about to happen as the elephants broke free of their handlers. But his voice was lost to the commotion as the elephants bore down on the crowd with unimaginable speed, trunks raised, blaring like sirens. Cheers turned to shrieks of terror and people fell back like dominoes, pushing and shoving, toppling over one another to escape the crush. Jacob was sucked away in the torrent of panic but Ethan managed to push his way out. He sprinted onto the road and was almost across the trolley tracks when he lost his footing and found himself airborne. The crowd blurred in the background as the roadway sped towards his face.
He landed with a thud, his lip splitting and his chin scraping along the ground as he skidded to a halt, losing his wobbly front tooth. Gravel meshed into his hands. For a moment he just lay there, hurting all over, blood gushing from his mouth, unable to think. He felt the ground tremor like an earthquake beneath him as he tried not to cry. Then he looked up.
The furious mother elephant stood before him, her ears flapping like great grey sails. She held her foot aloft, so close that he could see the cracks in her weathered soles, toenails as big as his fists, hovering, fixing to squash him like a bug. Ethan’s mouth dried in terror. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled and fear ripped down his spine. The elephant growled. Ethan closed his eyes.
But for a long while, nothing happened. The cacophony of the crowd melted into a kind of cooing noise. It was a sound Ethan knew by heart. It was the same sound he heard after Honey finished her backflip routine in their show.
Ethan, sensing the arrival of safety, opened his eyes.
Between him and the elephant stood the little girl with the walking stick.
Just a tiny girl. Calm, in the eye of a storm.
Her stuffed elephant was gone, and her free hand was reaching down. She glanced sideways, just momentarily, her serious grey eyes catching his.
‘Here, take my hand,’ she whispered, eyes returning to the elephant.
Ethan blinked incredulously and slipped his hand into hers. She helped him to his feet, then he scooped Honey into his arms and shuffled back to the sidelines, knees trembling, lost in a rare moment of speechless awe. A troupe of elephant handlers surrounded his saviour, hooks and rifles at the ready, as the little girl offered up an apple to the mother elephant.
Ethan could almost feel the thump of her heart in his own chest. The elephant’s amber eyes regarded her curiously, trunk sniffing and huffing all over her dress, in a cautious kind of howdy do. The elephant lowered her foot and the whispers rippled through the crowd as a leather-skinned old man in overalls limped up behind the girl and took her hand.
‘There, Daisy, there’s the girl,’ the man said. ‘No one’s gonna hurt your baby. Take the apple.’
Daisy bowed her head, swung her trunk and took the apple from the girl’s hand as gentle as you please, then swung it to her baby.
The spellbound crowd burst into applause. Rifles were lowered and the girl was ushered away from the scene by her ashen-faced father. A cold sliver of agitation ran down Ethan’s spine and a strange mix of urgings bubbled up inside. One part was thrilling, like firecrackers and candy. The other part was jagged and razor-edged. He’d never felt this small and useless before. He wished he could wind back time. He wished he’d been the one to step up in the face of danger. It should have been him helping the elephant. Holding the crowd captive. But now here he was. Just another ordinary boy with a dream bigger than his worn brown boots.
He hugged Honey to his chest and his heart sank as he watched the elephant train and his dream trail away from him over the bridge. Then he looked back towards the safety of the place he had called home. To the bedroom with the peeling mustard-coloured paint that he shared with Jacob; to Galina, the woman with the flinty blue eyes, blooming red cheeks and heart of gold who had taken pity on him and Honey one freezing December evening after discovering them huddled by her front stoop. He’d miss her garlicky kitchen and he’d miss . . .
He stopped himself and searched for Jacob in the sea of faces around him, but he didn’t really try. Not really. This was the leap he knew he had to take.‘Goodbye, Jacob,’ he whispered and bolted for the circus train till all he could hear was the thump of his boots on the pavement and the sound of his lungs pumping out peppy little white clouds into the fresh night air, Honey tucked safely under his arm.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
Dear Amelia, There was an attempt to escape from the jail last night and a small riot ensued. Most unusual.
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
Dear young girls, Home again from the deserts and oases of the Sheikdoms I find your enthusiastic letters on my desk.
York – 1915 The argument had been tame, polite even, but there was no doubt in her mind that if she didn’t make a decision, it would be made for her.
There was one other Arab onboard the ship to Marseille. His name was Faruq al-Azmeh, and the day after leaving port in Alexandria he approached Midhat at breakfast, with a plate of toast in one hand and a string of amber prayer beads in the other.
Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it.
The stink from the bags of rubbish piled against a wall in Scotts Road made Amelia involuntarily gag and cover her nose.