In the slums of Richmond, Melbourne, in the year 1919, Charlie Feehan watches storm clouds gather with his mother and their neighbor Cecil Redmond. Charlie’s mother sends Charlie to school, and as he walks through the cold, he remembers how his father Mr. Feehan suffered in the cold as he died. Charlie believes that “to be poor [is] to be cold,” but he wants to be an exception. He has taken up running laps around his neighborhood to keep warm, and the habit has made him an “unstoppable” runner.
Charlie carries his grief for Mr. Feehan throughout the story, and beginning the book with a memory of Mr. Feehan establishes the extent to which that grief impacts Charlie. Charlie’s belief that “to be poor [is] to be cold” also shows that he is keenly aware of the unjust suffering that people in poverty endure. However, he refuses to accept that this suffering is inevitable and instead finds an opportunity for social mobility by literally moving his body and developing his skill as a runner.
Charlie remembers a night he went running. After hours racing through the streets, his feet ache in his father’s hand-me-down boots. Mr. Feehan gave Charlie the boots the last time they sat together, since the boots were all he had to give. Charlie wears those boots every time he goes running. Charlie admits that he runs not only in search of warmth, but also because the “sleazy streets” of Richmond have “seduced” him. He stops caring about school and spends his classes fantasizing about the theaters, bars, and brothels of the city.
The Feehans are too poor for Mr. Feehan to leave Charlie anything but his boots, rendering those boots Charlie’s only tangible reminder of his father. Charlie treasures the boots as a way to hold on to his father, and he wears them every day, even though they are old and worn. Charlie’s passion for running also exposes him to the world of organized crime, which he romanticizes. To him, the “sleazy streets” are not dangerous: they are exciting and glamorous places that easily “seduce” him. The language of seduction foreshadows that Charlie’s perception might be naïve and inaccurate, however.