Authors: Dilly Court
About the Book
Eighteen-year-old Irene Angel lives with her parents in a tiny room above the shop where her crippled mother ekes out a living selling pickles and sauces, whilst her charming but feckless father Billy gambles away what little money they do manage to earn. And it is all Irene can do to keep the family together.
Billy’s addiction soon leads him into trouble. Despite having been brought up by her father to fear and distrust the police, Irene finds herself forced to collaborate with them to save her father from ruin. But Billy’s errant ways finally catch up with him and he is imprisoned in Newgate jail. With her mother away from home, a desperate Irene has little choice but to seek help from Inspector Edward Kent – her sworn enemy. For only she can clear her father’s name and unite the family once more …
About the Author
Dilly Court grew up in North-east London and began her career in television, writing scripts for commercials. She is married with two grown-up children and four grandchildren, and now lives in Dorset on the beautiful Jurassic Coast with her husband and a large, yellow Labrador called Archie. She is also the author of
Mermaids Singing, The Dollmaker’s Daughters, Tilly True, The Best of Sisters, The Cockney Sparrow, A Mother’s Courage, The Constant Heart, A Mother’s Promise, A Mother’s Wish, The Ragged Heiress
A Mother’s Secret
. She also writes under the name of Lily Baxter.
Also by Dilly Court
The Dollmaker’s Daughters
The Best of Sisters
The Cockney Sparrow
A Mother’s Courage
The Constant Heart
A Mother’s Promise
A Mother’s Wish
The Ragged Heiress
A Mother’s Secret
For Irene, Tony, Adrian and Christine, with love
Wood Street, Cheapside 1865
SHE WAS ALONE
on a bleak street corner; daylight was fading and the grey stone buildings towered above her like eyeless monoliths. Tiny, terrified and just five years old, Irene bit her lower lip in an attempt to prevent herself from crying. She shivered as pellets of sleety rain slapped her cheeks and pooled around her bare feet. The pavement was ice cold and her threadbare garments were no protection against the elements. Soon it would be completely dark and she had lost sight of her father, who was so busy taking illegal bets that he seemed to have forgotten her existence. She wanted to go home to Ma, but she did not dare move. She was on the lookout for coppers. It was her job and she must not let Pa down. Cops were the enemy – Pa said so. In desperation she sought shelter in the doorway of a big building but a man in uniform appeared from the interior, scowling at her and telling her to clear off. His bewhiskered face loomed above her and she stared transfixed by fear at the purple threadlike veins that spread like a spider’s web across
cheeks. His breath smelt like sour milk and a dewdrop hung from the tip of his bulbous nose. The brass buttons on his jacket were as big as pennies and she was certain he was one of them. ‘Pa,’ she screamed. ‘It’s the cops.’ But there was no reassuring reply to her agitated cries. Blind panic overtook her and she began to run …
Gripped by a cold sweat, Irene opened her eyes and snapped into a sitting position. She breathed a sigh of relief as she realised that it was the noisy, quarrelsome inhabitants of the ancient plane tree on the corner of Wood Street who had awakened her from the recurring nightmare which had haunted her since childhood. For once she welcomed the dawn chorus of rooks cawing to each other like a raucous band of fishwives. She yawned and stretched her stiff limbs. It was just a dream after all, and she was safe at home in the family’s cramped living quarters above the pickle shop. Heaven knows, she was used to lying on the floor with only a straw-filled palliasse between her body and the rough-hewn bare boards, but the nights were growing colder now that autumn was here. Soon winter would claim the city. Pea-souper fogs would smother the streets in an evil-smelling blanket, and then the frosts would set in followed by rain and
. She raised herself to a kneeling position, moving slowly so that she did not disturb her sleeping parents, but a quick glance at the old iron bedstead revealed just one small shape huddled beneath the coverlet.
She shook her head. So Pa was up to his old tricks and had not come home last night after all. He must have had a good hand of cards to keep him from his bed, although it was not uncommon for him to return in the early hours of the morning reeking of cheap grog and tobacco smoke, more than a little tipsy, but never violent. She sat on her haunches, deliberating whether or not to go looking for him. It wouldn’t be the first time she had gone on such a mission and found him sleeping off the excesses of celebrating a good win, or having imbibed too freely in order to drown his sorrows after making a heavy loss. Pa would gamble on anything from a toss of the die, a dog fight, or even two flies crawling up a windowpane. When his luck was in he would bring home his winnings, which would sometimes be enough to keep them in relative comfort for a whole year, but of course the money never lasted that long. Billy Angel could never allow a sure thing to pass him by. Money slipped through his fingers as fast as the waters of the River Thames flowed through London.
A muffled moan from the bed and the groaning of rusty springs indicated that her mother was also awake, and probably in pain from the chronic arthritis that gnawed at her joints, twisting her fingers and toes into gnarled lumps like the knotted branches of the plane tree. A sliver of anxiety shafted through Irene’s stomach. She hated to see her much-loved mother suffering from the debilitating illness. Ma had always been a tower of strength before she was laid so low. She had borne the trials that had beset the family with such courage and good humour that it seemed unfair she should be the one to suffer now. Irene wished with all her heart that there was something she could do that would relieve Ma of her pain. ‘Are you all right?’ she whispered.
Clara Angel raised herself with difficulty but she managed a smile. ‘Just a bit stiff, ducks. Nothing to worry about.’ She glanced at the empty space in the bed and her lips trembled. ‘I stayed awake half the night waiting for the sound of his key in the lock, but now I’m really worried. I hope he’s all right.’
Irene scrambled to her feet. ‘Of course he is, Ma,’ she said, forcing herself to sound cheerful. ‘It ain’t as if it’s the first time Pa’s stayed out all night. He’ll probably turn up any minute with a bad head and a pocket full of money.’
‘Then he’ll be gasping for a cup of tea. I’ll get
fire started if you’ll fetch water from the pump, Renie.’ Clara swung her legs over the side of the bed and her face contorted with pain. ‘Silly old legs are playing up a bit this morning. There must be rain in the air.’
‘Take it slow, Ma. There’s no need to rush.’ Irene reached for her stays and fastened them over her shift. She yanked at the laces, reducing her waist to a mere hand’s span before slipping on her much-darned cotton blouse and linsey-woolsey skirt, which had also seen better days. Lastly, she thrust her bare feet into her ill-fitting second-hand boots and she bent down to tie the laces. ‘I’m off then. I’ll call in at the dairy and get some fresh milk.’
‘Get a loaf too, love. There should be just enough money left in the tin. Your pa will be starving when he gets home.’ Clara slid off the bed and pushed her feet into an old pair of men’s dancing slippers; the only form of footwear that would accommodate her deformed feet without causing her excruciating pain.
Irene took the battered cocoa tin from the mantelshelf and tipped its contents into the palm of her hand. Twopence was not going to go far, but it was all they had. ‘Is there anything I can do for you before I go, Ma?’
‘I’m fine, ducks,’ Clara said, with a ghost of a smile. ‘Just give me a minute to get me old
moving. I’ll be down in the shop before you get back from the bakery.’
Irene knew better than to argue or to appear over-sympathetic. Ma might be as fragile as a jenny wren, but she was a proud woman, and not one to give in easily to infirmity. She snatched her shawl from its hook behind the door, wrapping it around her shoulders as she descended the steep wooden staircase to the tiny shop below. With its crudely plastered whitewashed walls and low ceiling it was little larger than a cupboard, but the small income it provided had kept them from the workhouse when times were bad. The pungent smell of pickled onions and vinegar caught at the back of her throat, causing her to cough as she crossed the flagstone floor in two steps to take the milk jug from beneath the counter. She picked up a wooden pail and looped the handle over her arm before unlocking the shop door and stepping outside.
The air was pleasantly cool and the sun was just breaking through a bank of grey clouds. The sound of the rooks squabbling in the plane tree was louder than a school yard filled with noisy children. The flapping of their wings sent showers of dead leaves floating down to carpet the pavement in bronze and gold like a hoard of pirates’ treasure. In stark contrast the cobbled street was strewn with mouldy straw,
dung and the occasional carcass of a dead rat, left half eaten by the feral cats that roamed the city after dark. The night soil collector was doing his rounds and the stench from his cart preceded him. An aged crossing sweeper leaned against his broom, still apparently half asleep, until a brewer’s dray pulled by two sturdy carthorses almost knocked him down. He leapt out of the way, shaking his fist at the driver who shouted a stream of obscenities with a cheerful grin and a rude gesture as he drove on.
Irene picked up her skirts and started off towards the pump, but there was a long queue of people waiting to take their turn and she decided to go to the dairy first. Having filled her jug with creamy milk, she went on to the bakery where she bought a loaf of bread hot from the oven. When she returned to the pump she found just a handful of people standing patiently in line, and with a resigned sigh she took her place behind young Sal Hawker, a maid who worked for the silk merchant whose house was situated a few doors away from the shop. Sal was always ready to impart a tasty bit of gossip, and not seeming to have any luck with the dour-faced matron standing in front of her she turned her head and spotted Irene with a delighted smile. Once started, Sal was only too pleased to pass on the news that Janet,
daughter of Rattray the fan maker and his snooty wife who thought herself a cut above the rest of the neighbourhood, was in the family way by a married man.
Irene could not share Sal’s obvious pleasure in this piece of news. She was extremely sorry for Janet. The poor girl was unlucky enough to have a toffee-nosed mother and a father who would not say boo to a goose, let alone his domineering wife. Mrs Rattray had always made it clear that she looked down on the daughter of a notorious gambler and a woman who sold pickles for a living, and Irene wondered how she would react to the news that her one and only daughter was about to have an illegitimate child. She made appropriate noises in response to Sal’s tittle-tattling, although it was almost impossible to get a word in edgeways. Irene was quite relieved when it was Sal’s turn at the pump as the strenuous exercise of drawing water kept her quiet for a few minutes. A shout from an upstairs window of the silk merchant’s house sent the maid scurrying off in response to an angry summons from a red-faced woman wearing a white mobcap. Taking Sal’s place, Irene filled her bucket and was about to heft it off the ground when a man’s hand covered hers. ‘Allow me, young lady.’