Early 1900s – Oyster Cannery.
Thomas adjusts my grip on the oyster shell. ‘Press the knife in, Rosy, and twist hard,’ he says.
As I twist, the blade slips and the metal bites into my palm.
‘Did it getcha?’ he gasps. His leather apron digs into my stomach.
‘Nah!’ I lie. I shove him back. ‘Get off, Tom.’ Not that he can see nothin’ anyway. My hands is so filthy with muck. I drop the slimy oyster into a bucket by my feet and pick up another from the pile in the wooden cart.
‘I told ‘em she was too young to work ‘ere,’ Thomas says to Mrs Lucas.
‘Am not!’ I snap. ‘I’m nearly nine.’
Thomas looks impressed. I know why. Half the kids working in the cannery don’t know how old they are. Can’t read or write neither. I change the subject.
‘How many pots you done yesterday, Tom?’
Thomas shrugs. ‘Almost thirty cents worth. Nuff to get me a pound o’ chocolate.’ Another shrug. ‘If I wanted.’
Mrs Lucas laughs. ‘You’ll be givin’ that money to your da, Thomas Brown.’
I pinch shut my nose. ‘And he’ll be buying you soap.’
‘When’s the whistle?’ I ask Mrs Lucas.
Thomas laughs. ‘You only just got ‘ere, Rosy, and you’re already asking when we leave?’
‘We start at three in the morning and finish at five in the evening,’ says Mrs Lucas, hushing Tom. She drops a shell onto the floor.
I look down at the bucket by my feet. There’s hardly anything in it. Tom has already filled a whole bucket and Mrs Lucas has almost done two. I’m tired and my hands are freezing cold and stinging.
Mrs Lucas sighs. ‘Smart girl like you should be in school.’
‘What about me?’ shrieks Tom.
Mrs Lucas winks. ‘What about you, Thomas Brown?’
It’s a long walk from the cannery to home and I’m so hungry I can hear my stomach growlin’. Fourteen hours work is too long says Mrs Lucas. My ma don’t think so, but then she needs the money.
Thomas waves and slides down the stack of empty oyster shells that lines the path. ‘He’s been hangin’ around again,’ he says, out of breath. ‘That fella I told you about yesterday. The one Mrs Lucas was goin’ on about.’
He’s talking about the tall man with round spectacles. For the last two days he’s been loitering – Thomas’ word – behind the sheds.
‘So?’ I say.
‘Mrs Lucas thinks he’s on the lookout. For kids who should be at school.’
‘What for?’ I snort.
Thomas frowns. ‘Mrs Lucas says some folks think it’s wrong that kids have to work. She says we should be gettin’ an education.’
I look around half expecting to see the man loitering behind us.
‘If he comes, I’ll hide,’ I say fiercely.
Thomas shakes his head. ‘Wouldn’t you rather go to school, Rosy?’
‘And who’s goin’ to earn enough to pay for the food we eat?’ I snap. ‘My ma can’t do everything.’ And now I’m so cross I won’t let Thomas walk with me after that.
‘You still mad?’ whispers Thomas the next morning.
It’s three o’clock and so dark I can hardly see my own feet.
‘Course not,’ I say. I look up at the stars as we walk. ‘Why d’ya wanna go to school so bad, anyhow?’
Thomas doesn’t answer for ages. ‘I wanna be somebody,’ he says eventually.
Now ain’t that a thought! ‘Like who?’ I ask.
Thomas shrugs. ‘Dunno. Maybe a salesman, like my uncle Mick.’
I screw up my eyes to see his face better. ‘What are you gonna sell, Thomas Brown?’
We hear voices and stop. There’s a stone in my boot. It’s stuck between my toes so I shake my foot.
Thomas grabs my arm. ‘Quiet!’ he hisses. ‘It’s him. The man.’
I strain to see where Thomas is pointing. There’s a tall shape beside the shed door. I almost scream when it moves. Tom’s right. It’s the man with the spectacles.
‘ – a couple of photographs will do,’ I hear him say. ‘I don’t need many.’
‘As long as you don’t stop no-one from doing their work.’ A second figure emerges from inside the shed. It’s one of the cannery bosses. The two men shake hands.
‘Did you catch all that?’ whispers Mrs Lucas when we slip in beside her.
I pick up an oyster. The cut in my hand makes it hard to hold properly. ‘He said he’s here to take photographs,’ I tell her.
Mrs Lucas drops an oyster into her bucket then taps the end of her nose. She’s already done three oysters to my one. ‘He says he’s here to take photographs of the machines.’
‘But you don’t believe ‘im, do you?’ Thomas says excitedly.
‘No, I do not.’ Mrs Lucas looks around to make sure the bosses aren’t listening. ‘Reckon he’s one of them child labour fellas.’
Shivers wriggle little fingers up and down my spine. I’m not sure what a child labour fella means, but it sounds like trouble.
Mrs Lucas chuckles. ‘He won’t hurt you, child. On the contrary. He’s here to help kids like you. It’s not right, you missing out on school.’
Thomas gives me an ‘I told you so’ look.
‘I don’t wanna go to school,’ I mutter. ‘I like working.’ Even though I don’t really. It’s harder than I thought it’d be. The sheds are cold and dark, and everything stinks of dead fish.
‘You say that now,’ says Mrs Lucas earnestly, ‘but wouldn’t you rather choose what you do? Don’t you have dreams, Rosy?’
There’s the sound of a cough, and we spin around. The man with spectacles is setting up a large black camera on three stick legs.
‘Would you mind,’ he says politely, ‘if I take your photograph?’
I turn my face away from the camera, stabbing my knife into an oyster. There’s a bright flash as the camera fires. I ignore it.
‘What’s he gonna do with a load of daft photographs?’ I mutter after he’s packed up and gone.
‘Show people,’ says Mrs Lucas. ‘People who can help make children’s dreams come true.’
I stare down at my swollen, muddy hands. I look at the cuts that already crisscross both palms. And I begin to think about what sort of dreams I’d choose – if I was given the chance to dream.
Using a variety of disguises, Lewis Hine took over 5,000 photographs of child labourers between 1906 and 1918, ultimately helping to reform the child labour laws in the U.S.
The Photograph above is the real-life Rosy who inspired the story.