Set in 1919 and written from a first-person, past-tense perspective, Robert Newton’s Runner opens with Charlie Feehan, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, recalling the day he began working for local crime boss Squizzy Taylor. The day marks the start of heavy rains in his hometown of Richmond, Melbourne. That morning, Ma, Charlie’s mother, gazes up at menacing clouds and discusses with their neighbor, Cecil Redmond, how black the sky is. Mr. Redmond compares the black sky to his wife’s rotting teeth. As Charlie leaves for school, Ma tells him to sit front-row-center in class; he lies and says he will. Frigid wind whistles through Charlie’s ragged coat as he walks. Charlie comments that the cold killed his father; he had seen his father coughing blood until he died. In the slums of Richmond, people most crave warmth, and thus dampness is their enemy, as it rises inside the walls like a cancer. People strip the wood from their floors to burn it. To be poor is to be cold, Charlie says, but he refuses to let the cold take him.
Charlie digresses to explain that one night, he started running to keep warm. After a few miles around his neighborhood, he crumpled in an exhausted and warm heap. After the first night of running, Charlie took to the streets like a drunk takes to the bottle, swallowing them up. He ran for hours, jumping puddles and dodging drunks in seedy streets. His feet tore and burned in his father’s boots, which were the only thing the man had to give him. After months of running for warmth, Charlie found himself drawn to the sleazy streets. He grew bored with his books and school. He sat at the back with the daydreamers, thinking of flashing theater signs and the brothels of Little Lonsdale. The streets became his classroom, and Charlie was eager to learn.
Returning to the day the rains start, Charlie says he leaves his Ma on the porch and doesn’t go to school. Instead, he has an appointment at 18 Darlington Parade to meet Squizzy Taylor. Dasher Heeney answers and lets Charlie in. Three boys his age are waiting nervously in the front room. D hands him a bright red sash to wear; the other boys’ sashes are blue, green, and yellow. Squizzy Taylor appears; he is well-dressed in a bowler hat, long black coat, and fawn gloves. He carries a silver-topped cane and has a gold tooth. Squizzy Taylor comments on the many holes and newspaper stuffing in Charlie’s oversized boots. Fifteen men are in the room. One has a board with the boys’ colors next to betting odds. Charlie’s odds are lowest at ten to one, which he doesn’t think fair. He blames his boots for his poor racing performance. On the wall is a portrait of Squizzy Taylor. Charlie thinks he looks like a cunning, beady-eyed weasel.
Dasher announces that each boy will run with a jewelry box-sized parcel that they would race to deliver to an address—winner take all. Squizzy Taylor winks at Charlie and bets a fiver on him. Before the race begins, Jimmy Barlow—in yellow—insults Charlie by telling him that if he was a horse, they’d put a bullet in his head. At the starting line, Squizzy Taylor encourages Charlie and tells him to ignore everyone else. A thunderclap startles Charlie; heavy rain falls. The parcels are distributed and the boys are told each contains two eggs which they mustn’t break. The address is 200 Bourke Street, Melbourne, a drinking den called The Orient which is full of criminals. Charlie plots a course in his head. Blue’s address washes off in the rain and he asks Charlie if it was 200 or 300; Charlie gives him the correct address.
Charlie falls onto the wet ground as the others run off. Squizzy Taylor tips his hat and says he better get going. He sprints. He sees the others take a shortcut on wet grass, which Charlie knows will be slippery. He stays to the streets, which he can grip better when wet. He catches up to Barlow, whose breathing is labored and footsteps crashing. They run side by side until Barlow pushes Charlie into the path of a car, which swerves away. Charlie lands with skinned hands and knees but protects the eggs in his coat pocket. Barlow gains a lead, but Charlie manages to sprint and catch up. The two crash through the door of The Orient, where the bettors are waiting, at the same time.
Dasher says yellow beat red by half a head. They unwrap the eggs. Barlow’s have broken. Charlie wins because his are unbroken. However, Squizzy Taylor whispers that he hardboiled Charlie’s eggs that morning. Squizzy Taylor welcomes Charlie aboard. Charlie leaves worn out, but happy to be employed. Blue catches up and thanks Charlie, introducing himself as Norman Heath. Norman warns Charlie to be careful: Barlow’s family runs a boxing gym and they are violent people. The boys make plans to play football that Sunday. Charlie comments that Norman, whose eggs were unbroken, should have gotten the job with Squizzy Taylor. However, good fortune was rare, and boys like Charlie had to take any opportunity they could get.
On his block, Charlie can hear his brother Jack crying. Mrs. Redmond gives him a bowl of broth to take to Jack. Little Gracie Power is on Charlie’s verandah, there to give a bowl of scrap food. Ma comes out and asks why she’s crying. Gracie says the scraps were meant for her dog and it isn’t fair he doesn’t get them. Ma sends her away and says to tell her mother that she need not send leftovers to them. Charlie cleans up and dries off, then gives Ma a letter from Squizzy Taylor. In it, Squizzy Taylor tells her he is a businessman and not the criminal that rat-like journalists depict him as. She laughs and skips to the end, where Squizzy Taylor says he would like to employ Charlie as a runner. She tells Charlie she can’t allow him to work for a criminal. He says they would have money again and wouldn’t have to rely on handouts. She cuts off the conversation.
That night Charlie dreams of a pink-walled house full of firewood, steaming soup, and bread. He wakes to a cold room and grey and black walls. He makes a promise to himself that he will one day live in the pink house. He watches his mother sleep and recalls how they sat on the same bed for four days, waiting as his father died from the Spanish flu. He says he immediately stepped into adulthood when his father died. Charlie cuts a thin slice of bread and goes outside where Harriet, their duck who doesn’t lay eggs, floats on a makeshift pond. Since it is Saturday morning, Charlie goes to Stone’s Timber Yard in Fitzroy to gather splinters and pieces of bark to burn. Mr. Peacock says he’ll stop by tomorrow and asks Charlie if there’s anything his Ma needs, but pride stops him from reeling off the list of things they need. Charlie spends two hours raking and gathering wood scraps. He hides a couple of larger logs under the splinters. Ma smiles when he surprises her with the bigger logs, and he feels like the luckiest boy alive.
That afternoon, Charlie watches Harriet eat slugs in the yard. As Ma makes a rabbit stew, Charlie builds a fire in the stove the way his father taught him. The family sits before the warm stove as it cooks. Charlie jokes that he’s thinking they’ll have roast duck for Christmas dinner. After dinner, Charlie fills the copper pot with water and lights a fire beneath it, then transfers the warm water to the bath. They take turns bathing, with Charlie going last. He gasps when the water hits his wounded hands, knees, and feet.
The next day after lunch, Mr. Peacock visits. Charlie runs to tell his mother, who he forgot to tell. Ma is upset that she hasn’t had time to tidy the house. Peacock sits in Charlie’s father’s seat and hands Ma a chicken wrapped in newspaper. Charlie notices he has spruced himself up for the visit. Charlie is bored by the long and awkward conversation Peacock and Ma have. Norman arrives and the two go out back. Norman informs Charlie that he thinks he knows why the duck isn’t laying—Harriet should be called Harry. On the way to play footy, Charlie tells Norman about his father’s death, which happened two-and-a-half months earlier. The boys have fun pretending to Richmond football players until Barlow and five other boys arrive. B steals Charlie’s football and shouts at the others to “get him.” Charlie and Norman take off running. When they are safely away, Norman jokes that they will probably see B again and that if Charlie asks politely enough, maybe B will give back the ball.
The opening pages of Runner establish how fifteen-year-old Charlie begins to live a double life. Deceiving his mother into thinking he is going to school, Charlie is in fact heading to the gangster Squizzy Taylor’s residence to compete in a race to become Squizzy's new runner—an errand boy who delivers packages and collects payments.
The first chapter also introduces the themes of grief, class difference, poverty, and ambition. Charlie likens being cold to being poor, while imagery such as the cold wind whistling through his ragged coat and the dampness that invades the homes of people living in the working-class slums of Richmond complete the picture. We learn that Charlie’s father died of the Spanish flu, his immune system weakened by the cold. However, Charlie refuses to let the cold overtake him. It is his desire to stay warm at night that prompts Charlie to take up running. Thus he uses his desire to escape the cold to fuel his ambition. As the book progresses, Charlie’s ambition will lead him not only to become warm but to pull himself and his family out of poverty.
Though Charlie is smaller than the other boys in the egg race, Squizzy Taylor is confident enough in Charlie’s ability to place a large bet on him, perhaps because Squizzy Taylor is a man of slight stature himself. However, in an instance of situational irony, Squizzy Taylor whispers that he knew Charlie would cross the finish with an unbroken egg because Squizzy Taylor hard-boiled Charlie’s egg that morning. The moment reveals Squizzy Taylor’s deceitful nature, while simultaneously making Charlie feel Squizzy Taylor’s support and trust.
Charlie’s delight at having won the race and secured the job as runner is undercut by Ma’s reaction to Squizzy Taylor’s letter. She refuses to let her son become associated with a known criminal, and so Charlie’s double life begins in earnest, as he decides he simply won’t tell her.
Touching further on the themes of poverty and grief, Charlie details the family’s modest household rituals. Charlie and his mother rely on Mr. Peacock for scraps of firewood to burn to keep warm. They only have enough wood to heat the tepid water once a week for their shared bathwater. Even their duck refuses to yield any eggs. The reality of Charlie’s life contrast against the warm pink dream house he endeavors to one day attain. The Feehan’s poverty leads to desperation and dependence on Mr. Peacock, who will later use his power over Charlie’s mother to extort her into accepting his sexual advances.