On Monday morning, Charlie wakes early and stuffs his boots with fresh newspaper. He eats porridge for breakfast and reflects that he feels bad about lying to his mother. She thinks he is going to school, but he plans to report to work running messages for Squizzy Taylor. At Darlington Parade, a woman named Dolly welcomes Charlie in and gives him a pair of shiny black leather boots—a gift from Squizzy Taylor. Dolly removes his old boots and says she can throw them out, but Charlie says he’d rather keep them. Tears spring to Dolly’s eyes when she learns the boots belonged to Charlie's father. She tucks the old boots in the box the new boots came in. Squizzy Taylor enters and jokes that he hopes Charlie isn’t trying to steal his girl. Charlie tries the new boots on; he has never felt anything so soft. Squizzy Taylor takes Charlie to his office and Charlie admits Ma didn’t approve of him working for Squizzy Taylor. Squizzy Taylor says he wouldn’t normally go against the wishes of a mother but he needs a runner badly. Squizzy Taylor says he will talk to Mrs. Nagle, Charlie’s teacher, and make sure she sends a report card home to Ma with good grades. Charlie is shocked that he won’t have to go to school anymore.
The running jobs in Charlie’s first week of work are small, simple errands. He wonders if Squizzy Taylor is testing him. Between jobs he washes Squizzy Taylor’s car. Squizzy commends Charlie for his initiative. At the end of the day, Charlie trades his new boots for his old ones to go home in. After his first week, Charlie receives an envelope of cash. Squizzy says tomorrow night there’s a job for two. Charlie says he can bring Norman to help. Charlie shakes as he leaves, unable to believe this isn’t a dream. He opens the envelope a withdraws a pound note. He looks to the heavens and winks at his father. In the morning, Charlie goes as usual to collect scrap wood from Peacock. However, Peacock tells him he can’t take any wood today, and that he should go home and tell his Ma so. Charlie leaves, stunned by Peacock’s bluntness. He walks home thinking about the agreement his father had made with Peacock before he died; Charlie witnessed the men shake hands and promise that Charlie could come collect wood once a week. At home, Ma cries when she hears what Peacock said. She tells Charlie it isn’t his fault. She gives him the saddest smile he’s ever seen and says not to worry; she knows what to do.
That afternoon Charlie goes to Norman’s house. Charlie meets his parents, who have baked a sponge cake. Norman reveals the good news: he has been picked to play with the Richmond Hill football team; he starts training on Wednesday. After cake, the boys take Clarrie, Norman’s dog, on a walk. At the park, they let the dog off-leash and it catches five wild rabbits, whose necks Charlie wrings. Charlie tells Norman about the job that night. Later they meet in the rain just before eight. A man answers at Darlington Parade and says Dolly and Squizzy Taylor are at the theater. There are written instructions for a liquor run between two addresses. As the boys head to Goodwood Street, Charlie comments that they’re probably going to pick up from Henry Stokes, known as a good samaritan who in reality is a bootlegger of alcohol who supplies after-hours liquor at inflated prices. Norman is nervous to be meeting Stokes. Charlie assures him they’ll be done in half an hour.
The boys pick up two whisky bottles, a bottle of gin, and half a dozen bottles of beer. Norman takes the hard liquor in his coat and Charlie carries the beer in an old cement bag. Charlie teases Norman for struggling to carry the beers when he takes a turn. They see a cop and hide in a thick bush until he passes. At the door, a man with a neat mustache answers and tells them they need not have worried about the cop because the man is a police inspector himself. The inspector gives them a shilling and passes on his thanks to Squizzy Taylor. They see the cop at the gate and he asks what they’re up to. Charlie says it was a business call and smiles as the cop understands what he means. Charlie comments that it isn’t just the money he loves about working for Squizzy Taylor: it’s the power.
Charlie wakes Sunday to see the shape of a strange woman in the mold pattern on his bedroom wall. He imagines various women appearing in succession until he gets out of bed. His mother is distressed that Jack is cold, as they have no firewood. But Ma refuses to let Charlie ask the neighbors for wood. Charlie comments that ever since Peacock’s visit the previous Sunday, Ma has been troubled by something. Charlie goes out for a run. When he returns, Charlie smells Peacock’s cologne and hears his mother moaning. He finds them pressed against the sink. Ma is crying as Peacock kisses her neck. The sight makes Charlie’s stomach turn. He goes to bed and covers his ears. That night, he comments, he turns sixteen years old. The next morning he can’t bear to look at Ma. Charlie is ashamed of her, commenting that his father has only been gone three months. He leaves the house without saying goodbye. Though he needs fresh air, the air in Richmond is full of the stenches of tanneries, rendering factories, cork factories, and a garbage dump.
Over the next two weeks, Charlie throws himself into work with enthusiasm. He runs day and night, because it is all he has. At home he feels more like a tenant than a son. He prefers to spend time with Squizzy Taylor, D, or Norman, with whom he doesn’t need to pretend. One night he arrives home to see Ma trapped in a corner of the kitchen and Peacock slurring obscenities at her. There is broken glass on the floor, and Charlie sees Ma’s lip is split open and one of her eyes is swollen. Peacock hits Charlie with a right hook. Charlie goes to his room and takes out his cricket bat. He returns to the kitchen to find Peacock hitting his mother again. Charlie cracks him over the skull with the bat. Peacock’s limp body drops to the ground. They aren’t sure if Peacock is dead, but they wrap his bleeding head in towels. When Peacock moves his arm, Ma sends Charlie to fetch Mr. Redmond, who runs into the house.
Charlie panics and realizes he should have hit Peacock’s legs. He runs to Squizzy Taylor’s house. Squizzy Taylor answers the door dressed as a jockey; Dolly appears with a paintbrush, as she was painting his portrait. Dolly asks about the blood on his shirt and Charlie explains what happened. Squizzy Taylor says he’ll send someone to wait outside the house in case Peacock tries to attack her again. Charlie falls asleep and Squizzy Taylor wakes him in the morning. Squizzy Taylor explains that one of his men paid Peacock a visit at the timber yard. Peacock wanted to press charges against Charlie, but Squizzy Taylor’s men talked him out of it. Now Peacock can’t remember a thing. He’ll also allow Charlie to collect wood again. Squizzy Taylor reminds Charlie of his father in his ability to make things right again. He nearly hugs Squizzy Taylor, but Squizzy Taylor says it’s Dolly he should thank. At home, the blood is gone, but Charlie can’t believe it is still his mother—her face is so battered he barely recognizes her. She whispers his name and they hug. She apologizes. She is shaking, so he holds her tight and they stand locked together for a long time.
It takes a week for Ma’s eye to heal, so Charlie starts doing the shopping, since Ma doesn’t want to leave the house and let rumors circulate. As her bruises heal, the skin moves through every color of the rainbow. Ma sweeps and dusts the house endlessly, and Charlie notices she holds a ladle at all times, which she claims is to hit cockroaches. Her smile is gone. She talks to the walls rather than addressing Charlie directly. She continues to cover her face in white powder long after the bruises heal.
Charlie is unnerved when the Redmonds refer to Ma’s “condition” and calls Charlie the man of the house. He feels he is too young to fill his father’s shoes. Mr. Redmond offers to train Charlie to be a boxer. Charlie is excited by the idea and returns the next night. Charlie is eager to start punching the bag Redmond set up, but Redmond says he has to learn footwork, pushups, and mental sharpness before he’s ready for the bag. Charlie is embarrassed when Redmond makes him skip rope, as he associates skipping with little girls. Mrs. Redmond counts and shouts "pat a cake, pat a cake" as he skips to help get the rhythm. He struggles at first but manages to make fifteen jumps in a row. Charlie is pleased and thinks he’ll be ready for the bag soon.
On his first day working for Squizzy Taylor, Charlie receives a pair of new boots to replace the worn, oversized boots he inherited from his father. The two pairs of boots symbolize Charlie’s dual lives. While his work boots are supple and comfortable, and represent the easy money he makes for sacrificing his moral integrity, his father’s uncomfortable boots are Charlie’s connection to his humble origins. Squizzy Taylor’s girlfriend Dolly understands Charlie’s sentimental attachment to his father’s boots, as she sheds tears when she learns they belonged to the dead man.
Newton introduces the theme of power when Squizzy Taylor offers to have a word with Charlie’s teacher to ensure she continues to send home report cards even though Charlie has stopped attending school. Squizzy Taylor’s power is evident in his casual and confident manner: he has no qualms about sending someone to intimidate or pay off a schoolteacher. Charlie is so shocked by the ease with which the problem is solved that he is blind to how Squizzy Taylor is using his power to take advantage of a child by pulling him out of school to assist in criminal endeavors.
Although power is exercised over Charlie and his family in insidious ways, Charlie himself discovers that his association with Squizzy Taylor allows him to wield power over people whom he would normally fear. On the liquor delivery he executes with Norman, Charlie hides from a policeman, only to discover, in an instance of situational irony, that he is delivering liquor to a police inspector. With this knowledge, Charlie encounters the same cop he hid from and confidently informs him that he was working a business call. Charlie learns that power is as rewarding as money.
The theme of power is also at work in Peacock’s advance on Ma. Just as everything seems to be going well for Charlie, he is blindsided by Mr. Peacock’s sudden change in attitude and refusal to let him take any scrap wood. Similar to how Charlie’s youth keeps him naïve about Squizzy Taylor taking advantage of him, Charlie doesn’t detect how Peacock intends to use his power over Ma to take advantage of her sexually. Because Charlie is ignorant of the dynamics of power and desperation at play, the image of Ma allowing Peacock to kiss her neck simply makes Charlie’s stomach turn. Rather than holding Peacock accountable for taking advantage of a desperate person who relied on him, Charlie feels ashamed of his mother for moving on when his father has been dead only three months.
After a period of estrangement from his mother, Charlie comes home one day to find Peacock drunk and attacking Ma in the kitchen. The theme of power—in this case, physical power—arises again as Charlie knocks Peacock out with a cricket bat. As the blood pours from the man’s head, Charlie regrets that he didn’t take out Peacock’s legs instead. However, the repercussions Charlie expects don’t come. Squizzy Taylor uses his men to intimidate Peacock into dropping any charges. Peacock also is now obliged to let Charlie take as much firewood as he likes.
But despite the assistance Squizzy Taylor provides, the eruption of violence leads Ma to enter a traumatized state. Though Charlie has no word for it, Ma is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. She no longer smiles, she cleans the house compulsively, she can’t look Charlie in the eye, she covers her face in white powder to conceal her bruises, and she holds a ladle at all times to protect herself. The mix of anger and confusion and need to fight leads Charlie to accept Mr. Redmond’s offer to train him as a boxer. Charlie is eager to learn how to hit back as a means of releasing his teenage aggression. However, Mr. Redmond makes Charlie skip rope and establish a rhythm to his training through reciting nursery rhymes before he can hit the bag. The type of training involved contrasts against Charlie’s masculine fantasy of becoming a boxer; he associates jump rope and nursery rhymes with little girls.