“Yer know what money, lad. The money what yer owe me. A bob, I said, an’ yer agreed so I want what’s comin’ ter me or I’ll run ter’t police station on St George’s Road an’ fetch a copper.”
“Yer’ll get what’s comin’ ter yer, yer soft bitch, an’ it won’t be no bob. An’ don’t you threaten me wi’t coppers, neither. I’m a respectable bloke, I am, an’ don’t need ter pay fer the likes o’ you. Now get out o’ me way or I’ll land yer one.”
“A respectable bloke!” Mam shrieked. “Then what the bloody ’ell are yer doin’ round ’ere? Now, give me me money or I’ll scream soddin’ place down.”
“Scream then, yer daft cow. ’Oo the ’ell’s going ter take any notice of a whore like you? Now, are yer goin’ ter get out o’ me way or am I gonner make yer?”
Mam stood before the door that led into the street, her arms outstretched dramatically across the frame. Her hair, so like her daughters’, and the only pretty thing left of which thirty-one-year-old Kitty Brody could be proud, sprang about her head in a tangle of curls, lively with vermin but snapping with life and colour. True, it was filthy but its former glory was still evident. She was shapeless now after bearing fourteen children in as many years, her breasts barely discernible in the midst of her sagging flesh, her waist non-existent. She was bloated, which was extraordinary really, for she was half starved. After her girls were fed she spent every spare penny on gin, the only bit of comfort she was blessed with in her miserable existence. She was a familiar figure in Angel Meadow but the constable looked the other way, for she was harmless and when all was said and done she had to feed her children somehow. Most mothers sent their children to the cotton mills, of which there were hundreds in Manchester, the moment they were big enough to be taken on, but not Kitty. She had a strain of decency in her that had not been eroded by the life she had led nor the poverty and deprivation she had suffered. The loss of eleven children, each of which had devastated her at the time, though she had not wanted any of them, had slowly sucked the life out of her. She had no idea where the fathers of any of them were, nor did she care. Paddy Brody had buggered off at the birth of the eighth and the reason these three had survived was due only to the fact that for the first formative years of their lives she had taken in a lodger, a nice chap in decent work and kind to her in bed and who had given some stability to their lives. When he died in an accident in the mill it had left an enormous gap in her life but at least she had her three girls who, because of him, were made of stronger stuff than the rest. But she could not get work. She was turned away from every factory and workshop she applied to in Angel Meadow because of her growing addiction to gin, which made her unreliable, dangerous even when you considered the menace of the machines she would be in charge of and so she had taken to the only profession a woman like her could, that of prostitution, and they had survived.
The man lifted his arm and gave her a savage backhander across her face and she screamed in agony as the force of it flung her head sideways, crashing her cheek against the wood. Still her hands clung to the door frame and with an oath he prised them loose, flinging her across the room until she finished up at the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes squinted dazedly up at her children, one already beginning to close and, as though their childish frightened faces, their reliance on her to put a bit of food into their mouths had stiffened her spine, she sprang up, mouthing a few obscenities of her own.
“Mam . . .” the eldest girl whispered imploringly, beginning to inch her way down the stairs on her thin buttocks, her sisters behind her, wanting to tell her mother to leave it but she had an Irish temper on her, did Kitty Brody, and no bugger was going to gyp her out of what was owed her.
The “bugger” was out of the door by now, turning for a moment to grin in triumph at Kitty, then he was off down the street in the direction of Style Street, Ashley Road and the bridge that crossed the River Irk.
“Come ’ere, yer bastard,” Kitty shrieked, her hair standing like a dandelion clock about her furiously red face. “Yer owe me a shillin’ an’ if I ’ave ter chase yer ter whatever ’ole yer crawled out of, I’m havin’ it. I don’t work fer nowt, yer know. I’ve bairns ter feed an’ me rent ter pay just like all’t rest in’t street.”
“Oh, sod off, yer old tart,” he shouted at her over his shoulder as he disappeared round the corner.
She began to run after him. Her legs pumped and her arms flailed, her hands forming fists as though, the minute she had hold of him, she would knock him senseless, but it was a long time since Kitty Brody had run anywhere and he was getting away from her. He was younger than she was and when she reached the corner he was just turning into Angel Street, the sound of his great enjoyment at having cheated her floating back between the narrow row of mean houses.
Breathing raggedly, she continued to follow him.
The three little girls stood on the doorstep in their thin shifts, watching as their mother tore round the corner into Style Street, even then not moving as she vanished from their sight. For several more minutes they remained there, expecting to see her come grumbling back round the corner, swearing she’d get her money
next time, telling them not to worry, she’d think of something, wondering if Nancy, her eldest, were to slip up to Ma Siddons at the gin-shop Ma’d give her a jug of gin on tick. She’d need it to settle her nerves, they all three knew that, for it didn’t take much to unsettle them, and this encounter with the brawny man which had robbed her of a whole shilling she would look on as a disaster. What were they to eat tomorrow? she’d beg them to tell her and they would reassure her, as they had done a hundred times before, that something would turn up. She’d drink her gin – if she could get some – then fall into a drunken stupor, four of them in the bed which, now that the man had gone, they would drag downstairs in front of the fire. It was November and cold and the upstairs room, unlike downstairs, had no heating so during the winter they didn’t use it. Except to hide in when Mam brought a man home! As soon as they heard a man’s voice at the door mingling with their Mam’s, they were up the stairs like three little rabbits at the sight of the fox.
“Well, I dunno where she’s got to,” Nancy said at last, not unduly worried, for her mother was known to be unpredictable. “’Appen she’s found another customer.” She was nine years old but already wise in the ways of the world: at least her world which was encompassed in the square mile of Angel Meadow.
“She’ll bring ’im back ’ere, then,” Mary, the second eldest said practically. “We’d best not bring bed down just yet. Let’s sit by’t fire, then if she fetches someone we can run upstairs.”
“Aye, ’appen yer right. She’ll not be long. See, Mary, put kettle on’t coals an’ when she comes in we’ll all ’ave a cup o’ tea.”
The kettle was filled with an old tin cup kept for the purpose from the bucket which Nancy had filled at the communal tap at the corner of Church Court earlier in the day and with a sigh of pure enjoyment, for it was not often they had a fire of such decent proportions, the three children crouched over it. Nancy took Rose, still called the baby though she was seven years old, on her knee while Mary squatted on the stool recently vacated by her mother.
“She’ll not be long,” Nancy repeated, holding her little sister close to her, seemingly unaware of the squalid condition of the room that had been her home since the day she was born. Though the place stank, the child, having lived in it for so long, did not notice it. The floorboards were moist and rotting and the unpainted walls were streaked with grime which had been there for years. The window frames were spongy and rotten, ready to blow in at the first stiff breeze and the door to the street hung quite precariously to its frame. There were cracks in the plaster of both ceiling and walls from which little things scurried, forming and re-forming in patterns, and from the skirting board a mouse wandered, sat up, cleaned its whiskers, then, sensing the lack of anything edible in this place, skittered back down its hole. At the window, miraculously unbroken considering the urchins who played in the street all day and threw anything they could lay their hands on, was a scrap of fluttering fabric, thin, torn, but at least affording some privacy from prying eyes.
A cat yowled from somewhere in the street and another answered. A dog barked hoarsely and footsteps, clogs by the sound of it, rattled on the cobblestones. For a moment Nancy’s eyes flew open, thinking her mother had returned, then, as the footsteps continued past their door, they drooped again and with Rose warm against her thin chest and Mary leaning against her, her head comfortably on Nancy’s lap, the three little girls fell asleep.
It was broad daylight when they awoke, which meant it was late, for this was November when days were short, especially in the dark, deep caverns of the streets of Angel Meadow. Church Court was no more than five feet across with a gutter running down its centre, the windows of the back-to-back houses staring into the windows of the houses opposite or at the bare blank walls of mills, the towering forest of mill chimneys. Angel Meadow was a warren of narrow, packed streets, courts and alleys, which bred vice and disease, running out in each direction from St Michael’s Church. The church and the paupers’ burial ground about it was the only open space in that square mile of deprivation and destitution and it was here a horde of children, those not yet forced into the mills, played and shrieked, the Brody girls among them. Those who wanted to could find work in the dye works, the print shops, the foundries, the factories and workshops that abounded in Manchester but most families were employed in the cotton mills as spinners and weavers, as scavengers and piecers and all the other jobs that were a part of the trade on which the great city had founded its equally great wealth.
The fire still had a flicker in it, and with great patience and skill, Nancy coaxed it back to life, adding little slivers of wood bit by bit, then when it was drawing properly adding small pieces of the precious coal that stood in a cardboard box beside the grate. The water was still warm in the kettle they had put on the fire for their mam’s cup of tea so, bringing it back to the boil and taking down the tea caddy, she spooned a mere half-teaspoon into the chipped brown teapot, pouring enough boiling water on to it to make one cup of tea apiece. With their hands round their cups, the little girls stared mesmerised into the fire, the warmth that they seldom enjoyed giving them an unusual sense of ease. With their feet tucked up under their shifts, they sipped the hot tea. There was nothing to eat.
“What we gonner do, our Nancy?” Mary said at last, tipping her head back to get the last drop of pleasure from her cup of tea. “Where d’yer think our mam’s got to?”
“She’ll be back soon, chuck. ’Appen that chap she ran after wanted another go.”
“He never paid fer’t first, our Nancy. She’d not be likely ter give ’im another.” Mary’s voice was scathing.
“I ’ope she brings summat back to eat. I’m bloody hungry.” Rose sighed and huddled up closer to her sister. “Is there nowt?”
“There’s nowt, our Rosie, so give over about it.”
“I were only askin’.” Rose’s voice was aggrieved. For several minutes the sisters sat in silence. Usually their mother would be snoring her head off on the mattress on the floor, or upstairs sleeping off the worst excesses of the night before. They would get their own breakfast, whatever it happened to be. Thin porridge on bad days with stale bread and lard, or perhaps, if their mam had had a few customers, paying ones, a bit of bacon or even an egg apiece. Mam like them to drink milk, which she insisted a friend of hers who had worked as a skivvy at a big house and was privy to kitchen gossip swore was good for your teeth and certainly theirs were all sound. She sent them to the market last thing on a Saturday night to buy vegetables that had not been sold, and bits of meat or fish or poultry, anything that would not last until Monday, again on the advice of her friend whose employer had been a doctor. They were thin as lathes, the three of them, but they didn’t seem to ail like many of the children in Angel Meadow, nor were they stunted or deformed. But then they had never worked in a cotton mill.
“Well, I suppose we’d best get dressed,” Nancy said practically. “Now, promise yer won’t tell Mam when she gets back but I’ve a penny or two put by . . . no, don’t ask me,” as both her sisters clamoured to be told where she had hidden it, and, more to the point, how she had managed it. “Whenever I could,” meaning when her mam had been too drunk to notice, “I . . . I pinched a farthing an’ put it away, hid it so’s Mam wouldn’t know or else she’d have ’ad it fer gin.”
Mary and Rose nodded their heads in perfect understanding, their identical golden brown eyes wide and gleaming in admiration of their sister’s cleverness.
“Now, I’m not sayin’ yer’d do it on purpose but just in case . . . well, by mistake like, yer let it out, I’m goin’ ter go an’ get it. It’s upstairs an’ yer not to come with me. All right?”
They nodded again, watching her as she climbed the steep narrow stairs that led to the empty room at the top. It was not entirely empty, for it was here that Nancy and her sisters, guided by Nancy, stored any old bit of what their mam called “junk” that they found or could pinch, but which Nancy thought might come in useful. They had nothing in the way of furniture, the Brody family, except the mattress and the frame on which it stood, the old armchair, the stool and the deal table. The rest was clutter, odds and ends of old pots and pans, the bucket that Mick O’Rourke had mended for them since it had had a hole in it, several eating utensils and a few dribs and drabs of bedding. Whatever was not in immediate use was kept upstairs in the one room with the tiny window that looked out over Church Court and directly into the window of the house opposite where, Nancy noticed vaguely, Mr Murphy was giving Mrs Murphy a good hiding.
She went directly to the far wall and with a bit of picking and pulling loosened a brick, putting it carefully down on the floor. Reaching inside the hole it left, she brought out a scrap of material in which something clinked. Unwrapping it as though it contained diamonds, she quickly removed eight farthings, then hurriedly wrapped the rest up again, looking over her shoulder as though suspecting her mam, her mam who did her best for them but who would drink it all up in an hour, was watching her. Thrusting the small package back in the hole, she replaced the brick then stood back to see if it was noticeable. Satisfied, she crept downstairs again. Triumphantly she opened her dirty hand to reveal to her sisters the eight farthings which added up to two whole pence.