Mr Morgan is watching me. ‘Work faster, boy!’ he bellows over the clack-clack of the looms. I heap loose fibres into the sack, just like every day, and hold my misery tightly inside.

He moves to the next worker, busy amidst whirring spindles. He’s yelling again but I can’t hear the words. Cotton fluff swirls around us like snow, but the room’s as hot as an oven. All the windows are shut, but I can see grey sky if I peep out when no one’s watching.

Being a mule scavenger suits me, they say. Suits them. I’m nimble and small, so I can work beneath a spinning mule. I curl myself up and scurry like a mouse underneath, gather fluff, then dart back out. The endless clatter of the roving cotton mule thunders in my ears until my heart beats along with it.

I’m gulping dust until I can scarcely breathe. Beads of sweat trickle down my neck and soak into my collar. Mr Morgan approaches again, so close I can see the wispy flecks clinging to his beard. He peers inside my bulging sack. ‘Don’t dawdle! Get this sack movin’!’ He’s worse than the last overseer. I hate his puffy red face and his grimy fingertips that brush the wisps from his sleeves.

Lying on my mat in the dormitory that night, curled away from a damp patch, I fantasise how to escape. Someone’s squatting over the chamberpot, and another vile stink rises in the darkness. The snoring boy beside me twitches then jabs his elbow into my ribs.

I can’t sleep; long to feel fresh air on my face again. At dawn I get up carefully, gather my paltry possessions in a cloth bag, and creep downstairs. I slide out of the back door so quietly, not even the dozing watchdog twitches an ear.

I hurry across the silent vegetable garden, the mill looming vast against the dawn. My footsteps quicken in the grey light as I scramble towards open fields. I’m running now, delighted by the new morning air. The last white wisps which cling to me are lifting and floating free.

Suddenly I stumble. Pain in my chest doubles me over. As my knees buckle, I drop my bag and sink onto the damp ground.

I’m fighting to breathe. My wheezing throat is blocked with cotton fluff, and the horrid sound of it frightens me. I can’t run anymore. The sky above me is darkening with smoky rainclouds. As I turn to face the mill, I know that it will keep me after all.

Tom Burton is a public-sector worker who lives and writes on the Devon coast. He is currently working on his third anthology of historical short fiction, and rehomes second-hand novels into charity shops in his spare time.

3 responses to “Scavenger”

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