Authors: Deborah Challinor
This one is for my sister,
His Majesty’s Hotel
Across the Seas
On the Wing
November 1828, London
Friday Woolfe blew warm air onto freezing hands in fingerless gloves. Fog hung heavy over the street, deadening shouts and laughter from the nearby taverns and making a small yellow moon of the solitary gas light on the corner. It felt like it might soon snow.
‘Feels like that cold’s creeping straight up my fanny, Bets,’ she grumbled to her friend.
Betsy Horrocks, her hands jammed in her armpits, stepped back and inclined her head. ‘It is. Your skirts are all caught up at the back.’
They giggled madly as Friday reached around and rearranged her clothing: that’d teach her to squat in alleyways. She adjusted the angle of her straw hat with its silk rose, though she’d left her hair unbound as its bright copper colour never failed to attract the cullies.
God, when was the bugger going to come out? They’d freeze out here if he didn’t show his face soon. And he’d seemed so likely, too: waving his glass around, expensive claret slopping over the rim, haw-hawing drunkenly in the tavern’s parlour with his friends. He wasn’t a nob but he was certainly throwing his money about, him and his yellow ivory false teeth that didn’t fit right. But she and Betsy had caught his beady, hungry eye before the publican had tossed them out. Friday knew very well they had.
Perhaps they should have set their sights higher tonight. Gone after the young toffs — the ‘quality’ — swanning about Covent Garden Piazza, fancying themselves as intellectuals and wits, lording it loudly and drunkenly in the taverns, casinos and coffee houses around Drury Lane and the Bow Street theatres. But if they went for the big spenders the competition would be fierce, and who could be bothered with that?
Covent Garden in the 1820s had become a bustling marketplace offering an eclectic mix of flowers, vegetables, whores and entertainment and attracting thousands day and night. Friday and Betsy, never short of customers, found it just as easy, and equally lucrative, to work the peripheral streets that ringed the precinct, such as Bedford and Southampton, York and Brydges, or trawl Long Acre Street, on the northern side of which lay notorious Seven Dials.
At last Betsy spotted him: a small, middle-aged man weaving on bandy legs through the tavern doorway and out into the shadows of Henrietta Street, his shirt tucked in all crooked and his topper at a silly angle. God, what a ninny. ‘Here he comes,’ she murmured.
Flicking open the fastenings on her worn velvet jacket and feeling the usual sharp, almost vicious sting of anticipation, Friday stepped out to intercept him.
‘Good evening, fine sir,’ she said brightly. She tossed her head, knowing her hair would fan out beneath her hat and catch the light from the nearby street lamp. ‘Might you be looking for company?’
She stood close, her hip bumping his suggestively, hoping her uncommon height of five feet six inches wouldn’t intimidate him, but confident that the sight of the unfettered bosoms beneath her virtually transparent shift would have the opposite effect.
‘I most certainly am not!’ the man spluttered with affected indignation, the heels of his shoes scraping on the cobbles as he lurched backwards.
Friday followed him. ‘Oh, I think you are,’ she purred. ‘What’s your name?’
She smiled. They were
interested when they gave a false name. This one had a fat purse, too, they’d seen that earlier. And a heavy watch chain the muggins had on display for any light-fingered dip to covet, and a fine walking stick and good, well-made shoes.
A black cab clattered past, its cloak-shrouded driver almost invisible on his tiny seat high at the rear. The vehicle’s iron-clad wheels sent a wash of filthy, freezing water from the cobbles across the lower portions of Mr Smith’s trousers.
Friday leapt out of the way — her boots were near new — but Betsy flitted to Mr Smith’s other side and caressed his arm. ‘Never mind, love. We’ve got somewhere nice and cosy we can go. All three of us. Together.’
Mr Smith swallowed audibly, looked from Betsy to Friday, who had sidled back to him, then, as though he couldn’t help himself, at Friday’s voluptuous chest again. Small clouds of condensation hung before his face in the cold air as he breathed rapidly in and out. ‘I don’t usually do this sort of thing, you know.’
‘Of course not,’ Betsy agreed.
‘How much?’ he asked.
Two men ambled past, smirking. ‘Good weather for highway robbery,’ one remarked to the other.
Mr Smith tugged the brim of his topper down over his face.
Tars, by the look of them, Friday thought. She grinned. ‘Fancy some yourselves, do you?’ She turned back to Mr Smith. ‘That’s for the both us, mind. Twice the fun. And that includes books for you to look at…with
He rubbed his chin, as if calculating how much he could afford.
Friday stifled an irritated sigh and pulled at the ribbon holding her shift closed. It really was freezing and when the fabric slipped off her breasts her nipples sprang up into tight little marbles.
‘Afterwards,’ Mr Smith said quickly. ‘I’ll pay a pound, but afterwards.’
‘That sounds like a fine idea, Mr Smith.’ Friday snatched her jacket closed and slipped an arm through his.
Betsy, with a quick prayer of thanks for her friend’s attributes, took his other arm and they marched him round the corner towards Maiden Lane, where they’d rented a room for the evening in a boarding house.
Wreathed in shadows, Maiden Lane appeared, to Mr Smith anyway, to recede into darkness forever. They weren’t too far from the Thames here, only a few minutes’ walk, though the clamour of the traffic on the river also seemed flattened by the fog-thickened night. There were no gas lamps lighting the streets this far from the theatres, and Mr Smith had the eerie feeling he had stepped back in time at least a hundred years. In this area of London he could easily be assaulted and even murdered, his lifeless body hurled into the river’s putrid depths, not to be revealed until the ebb of some future tide. Nervously, he struggled to focus his smoke- and alcohol-reddened eyes and stepped clumsily around a pile of evil-smelling refuse on top of which sprawled a dead cat, its teeth bared in a feral, needle-toothed snarl.
‘This isn’t some sort of nefarious scheme, is it,’ he said suddenly, ‘whereby I’m about to be robbed?’
‘Don’t be a silly billy; of course not.’ Betsy cupped her hand around his scrawny buttock and gave it an encouraging squeeze.
They helped him up the rickety steps to the boarding house’s second floor and at last ushered him into the chamber they’d secured for the night. Its meagre furnishings consisted of an iron bedstead, a lumpy mattress on which sat a folded but threadbare blanket, and a single wooden chair. The temperature inside the room was almost as arctic as that outside.
‘This’ll warm us up.’ Friday knelt, reached into the far corner beneath the bed and produced two bottles of gin.
Mr Smith made a disparaging sound and said pretentiously, ‘I don’t drink Blue Ruin.’
Having unwound his muffler and removed his hat, leaving the greying hair on his head sticking up like errant feathers, he perched himself on the chair like a skinny little bird sitting on a gutter, its legs dangling improbably over the edge. Now that he was here he didn’t seem at all sure of what to do.
Bloody airs and graces, Friday thought, and from someone probably no better than a grubby little shopkeeper. ‘Well, you’ll have to. It’s all we’ve got.’ She turned a bottle so he could inspect it. ‘It’s proper distilled.’
‘It’s not what I’m accustomed to,’ Mr Smith said stubbornly.
Friday eased out the cork and took a swig. ‘You’re welcome to it, but suit yourself. Freeze to death then, go on.’
Betsy glanced uneasily at Friday: she’d been drinking all day and was turning sharp-edged now with the liquor. If Mr Smith carried on like this, she’d be likely to belt him one and really hurt him; she was a big, strong girl and lost all her tolerance on the jar.
But just as Betsy opened her mouth to diffuse the situation, Mr Smith himself piped up. ‘I understood we were going to…’ He gestured vaguely at Friday and Betsy. ‘Also, you mentioned books.’
Relieved, Betsy teased in her sweetest voice, ‘Lord, you’re a keen one, aren’t you?’ Loosening the kerchief at her throat she sat on the sagging mattress and slowly raised her skirts so Mr Smith couldn’t fail to see the curve of well-turned ankles above laced boots. ‘But me and her always have a few gins first. This is
gin, y’see. Makes us feel extra loving. Doesn’t it?’ She turned to Friday for confirmation, hoping she was still in the mood to play along.
Friday took a huge swig of gin and stifled a burp. ‘Not just us, either. Our customers swear it gives them a cockstand ’til nigh on sun up.’
She felt the sneer of disdain begin to form as soon as she’d said it but suppressed it with practised ease. They loved it when you came
out with dirty words, but it made her sick. Not the words — she could swear like a lobsterback and often did — it was the fact that they were so predictable and so easily manipulated. Say this and they’ll do this, touch that and they’ll do that. Like starving dogs.
Mr Smith went red to the roots of his fluffy, receding hair, but managed to gasp, ‘Distilled, you say?’
‘I swear on my mother’s life,’ Friday insisted. ‘None of your flavoured rubbish for
‘Perhaps just a taste, then.’
Mr Smith had more than a taste. Half an hour later he passed out and slid bonelessly off his chair. Friday dumped him on the bed, pleased they wouldn’t even have to lift their skirts to get what they were after. She and Betsy relieved him of his gold watch and chain, his purse and its twelve pounds, his walking stick, his fine linen waistcoat and his shoes. They also took his muddy trousers, to slow him down when he regained consciousness, which hopefully wouldn’t be until the morning. They did, however, cover him with the blanket.
Neither worked as part of a crew nor belonged to a flash man so they divided the swag between them — Betsy took most of the money, the vest, trousers and shoes and Friday the watch and chain and the walking stick. Betsy headed home but Friday went immediately to see her fence and sold the watch and chain, as always for a lot less than it was worth. She kept the walking stick, though, as she’d taken a fancy to the snake’s head that formed the handle. The glinting green eyes weren’t emeralds, just cut glass, but they were very pretty.
She rose early the next morning, her stomach growling, and made her way to the ordinary she favoured on Skinner Street, dodging drays and wagons and holding her shawl over her mouth and nose against the greasy, eye-watering stench of freshly slaughtered meat as she cut through Smithfield Market. It was a journey she made most days and it never smelt any better, though
in a way she loved it. Her streets were always vibrant, always teeming with butchers and livestock vendors and stallholders ready with a greeting or a ribald comment. The area had been a marketplace for livestock for centuries, and every morning as the sun rose the thoroughfares and streets — some of London’s narrowest and busiest — were jammed with thousands of lowing, bleating, squawking, squealing, shitting animals on their way to be butchered and dozens of shouting, whip-cracking drovers. By mid-afternoon the five-acre marketplace would be awash with blood and shite and heaped with tons of raw fat, much of which would be rendered for tallow, and great piles of hooves and bones and guts, which would eventually find their way into the Thames or be left in place to rot. The hides would be sent to nearby tanneries to be made into leather goods, rendering the air in the vicinity so foul as to be almost unbreathable, and the feathers from fowl sent to stuff quality pillows and mattresses.
Smithfield Market wasn’t the most unpleasant of her daily encounters, however. Ahead was something even worse, though it had long since ceased to turn her stomach. Exiting the market, she entered a narrow street and, in preparation, withdrew a handkerchief anointed with oil of cloves and bunched it beneath her nose. Nodding genially to passersby with similarly muffled faces, she hurried along until she came to the wall of an old churchyard from between whose bulging bricks oozed a thin, reeking brown liquid that formed a shallow puddle on the street. The wall was four feet tall and the ground within had been raised over the centuries by burial after burial to almost level with the top row of bricks.
At the lychgate she paused, as something interesting was happening inside. Near the church itself, these days looking as though it had been built in a pit, a pair of gravediggers were hauling up half-decayed coffins from a large hole and dumping them willy-nilly on a piece of oilcloth. The headstones had been wrenched up and pushed aside and now the men were clambering back into
the pit to retrieve more bodies, urged on by the arm-wavings of a supervising sexton.
It was common knowledge that bodies at the paupers’ end and in the cheaper plots of this churchyard had been layered and shuffled around for hundreds of years to accommodate incomers — that was so in all London churchyards. But it wasn’t expected regarding plots closer to the church, for which people paid a lot more to lie undisturbed after they’d gone to their long home. Obviously it
be expected, Friday thought, watching a coffin flying out of a hole and bursting open as it hit the ground, disgorging a half-rotted corpse with long hair and a decaying shroud tangling in the split wood. She herself had money put aside so she wouldn’t have to be buried ‘on the parish’, but if this is what you got being buried in the toffs’ area she might change her mind.
As the morning breeze shifted she pressed her handkerchief closer to her face. It was tragic, really. The relatives of whoever these rotted wretches were would turn up one day to have a good grieve, and there they’d be, weeping their hearts out over the wrong graves, their dearly departeds reburied twenty yards away. If they’d been reburied at all. It had long been rumoured that half the bodies disinterred weren’t even in churchyards any more, more likely to be found in the foundations of new roads or nourishing the market gardens of Kent. But her loved ones weren’t in this churchyard. They were elsewhere in bolted, solid lead coffins that had cost her the earth, safe from greedy sextons and the Resurrection Men, so what did she care?