Reading was boring. Writing was boring, too, but at least you were doing something. Writing was like drawing but in a secret code. Reading was just, well, dumb.
Finny was shocked out of her thoughts by a not too gentle smack on the back of the head. Then Joe's hand appeared, his fingers snapping in front of her nose.
"Hand it over."
The eight-year-old closed her eyes and groaned. In her boredom, she had been playing with the locket which hung around her neck from a genuine pre-Fall bootlace.
Ok, the bootlace had several knots in it where it had snapped and been tied back together,
but Finny liked it because it was black and very old and made by somehow weaving all the strands of whatever it was made from into an intricate kind of plaiting.
Bootlaces these days were just any old bits of string, unless you were rich of course.
"It's mine." She said, but the defiant words were kind of redundant because she was already pulling the bootlace over her head. She put the locket into Joe's outstretched hand.
At the very moment Finny's fingers broke contact with the treasured keepsake she felt the first heart-tugging pang of loss and her throat tightened.
Joe held the locket up to the light and Finny could do nothing but watch as the boss's thick, nicotine-stained fingers handled her most precious thing in the world.
She watched him appraise it like the pawnbrokers did when poor people, but still much richer than her, brought their belongings in to get some money, some 'chips', 'just 'till pay-day'.
She watched him weigh it up and down in his hand, guessing the weight of the silver, weighing its worth. As if He would know what it was worth to her.
Now the first tiny flame of red-haired anger wrapped itself around her loss, and Finny's fists clenched tightly in her lap.
Joe looked down at her, holding the locket between finger and thumb for her to see. He sighed for effect.
"You know the rules, Finn."
Finny knew the rules. Rule number 5 'No Metal Objects Allowed Outside Of The Coat Room.' She knew the rule. She knew the reason for the rule; metal leads to sparks.
Sparks in an ammunition factory could lead to the sudden and violent deaths of everyone inside and anyone unlucky enough to be passing by on the street.
The only bare metals allowed anywhere near the, often open, explosives in the factory were brass, lead and copper. Even the buckle on her brown felt belt was brass.
She knew the rules, and now Anger and Loss abruptly took second place to another familiar emotion. Hello Fear.
There were very few rules in the factory that could lead to a whipping. Putting everyone's life in danger of a horrible fiery death was absolutely one of them.
Finny's eyes darted to the side of Joe's desk where a thin cane, like the ones carried by the overseers on the factory floor, hung by a piece of dirty string from a small brass hook.
Finny's mouth was suddenly very dry, and a scary light-headedness washed over her. Although it was rare, she had seen others caned often enough to have learned that it must hurt like hell.
She dragged her eyes back up to where Joe was looking down at her. Finny swallowed, and the next couple of seconds seemed to take up half of her eight-year-old life.
Joe looked hard at her and then he opened his mouth to pass sentence.
"Your little doo-dad here is made of sliver. Silver and gold are like brass and copper; they don't make sparks. They just cost too bleedin' much to use in the factory.
" Joe waved the locket to emphasize his words. "If this had been tin or anything like that, you'd be getting your arse tanned."
Relief flooded through Finny like a tide. Her fear was washed away to some other time and some other foul-up yet to be made.
But then her precious locket disappeared into Joe's hand just as fast and just as magically as if done by a man in a top hat and cape in a wandering magic show.
"I'm confiscating this. Teach you a lesson. Consider yourself lucky, young lady."
Joe took the locket back to his desk where he reached down into a bottom drawer and pulled out what the kids knew as the 'Ditty Box'.
The box where all the confiscated items went to live after they stopped belonging to you.
Loss and Anger grew again in Finny's chest. Stronger than before as Finny helplessly watched while Joe relocked the Ditty Box with her locket now inside.
Injustice joined with Fear and Anger, and they began to whisper together.
The rest of the afternoon wore on with an uncomfortable rising tension. When called on to read, Finny did so resentfully.
Her three companions around the little table slowly sank lower and lower in their seats.
Finny's growing sullen hostility to the lesson was acting like a lightning rod in the stormy sky of Joe's impatience, and they didn't want to catch any stray bolts.
When it was their turns to read, One Tooth, Casper and Worms would falter over their words, waiting for Joe's patience to finally snap.
Fortunately for everyone in the claustrophobic office,
the ancient oven timer on Joe's desk rattled into life and danced across its tea-stained surface before being crushed into silence by Joe's frustration-fueled fist.
The headlong flight of the three boys drew attention from the factory floor below.
However, this quickly shifted back along the walkway to the arms crossed, thin-lipped measured stomp of a very pissed off Finny who followed them to the coatroom.
One of the few pluses of being in Joe's reading group was that there was nothing to clean up and put away at the end of the working day.
Consequently, the four youngest orphans employed in the factory always got back to the orphanage in time to be at the front of the queue for the first dinner serving.
This time though, there would be one less around 'their' table. Finny turned away from the orphanage and headed towards the square instead.
She was not in the mood for company, and her footsteps led her along the still hot late afternoon sidewalk towards the familiar noises and smells she had known since she was little.