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Authors: Dilly Court

The Cockney Angel (2 page)

BOOK: The Cockney Angel
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She straightened up and smiled with genuine
pleasure
at the sight of her oldest and best friend. ‘Hello, Artie. You’re up and about early.’

Arthur Greenwood doffed his top hat and grinned. ‘Haven’t been to bed yet, girl.’ He lifted the heavy bucket with ease and fell in step beside her.

‘You’re as bad as my pa,’ Irene said, with a heartfelt sigh. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen him recently, have you?’

‘Didn’t the old devil come home last night?’

She shook her head.

‘As a matter of fact I did see Billy,’ Arthur said, dodging a large turnip that had fallen from a costermonger’s barrow. ‘He was at the Sykes brothers’ place in Blue Boar Court.’

‘What time was that?’

‘Past midnight. I wasn’t exactly keeping an eye on the clock.’ He winked at her and patted his jacket pocket. ‘Won a packet, I did. D’you fancy a night out?’

‘Not at the sort of places you’d be likely to take me.’

‘That’s not fair. I know how to treat a lady.’

Irene pulled a face. ‘That’s ripe, coming from a fellah who once took me ratting. I was sick for a week afterwards.’

‘Well, I admit that wasn’t one of my better ideas, but it was a long time ago.’

‘It was three years ago and I was just fifteen.’

‘I was just a boy then.’

‘You were two years older than me and you should have known better.’

‘I won’t make the same mistake again,’ Arthur said, tweaking a lock of Irene’s hair that had worked its way loose from the knot at the nape of her neck. ‘C’mon, Renie, I’m flush for a change thanks to my winning streak.’

Irene frowned. ‘What am I going to do with you? You’ve got to stop gambling now, before it takes you like it did my pa.’

‘I said I would, didn’t I?’ Arthur said with a mischievous grin. ‘Last night was the last time. Honest.’

‘I’ve heard Pa say that more times than I can count. You’ve got to mean it, Artie. Stop now, or it will be too late.’ Despite her stern words, Irene couldn’t help smiling. It was impossible to be cross with Arthur for long, even if he did sometimes drive her to distraction. When he smiled his green eyes crinkled at the corners and his cheeks dimpled, giving him the look of a mischievous satyr. He was always joking and teasing her, but just being with him made the day seem brighter.

They had arrived outside the shop and Arthur stopped, setting the bucket down on the step. ‘I won’t get like Billy, that I can promise you.’

‘I hope not, Artie, I really do.’ Irene unlocked
the
door and opened it. ‘Are you coming in to see Ma?’

He shook his head. ‘Not now. In fact, I’d better get a move on or I’ll find myself looking for another apprenticeship. My old man might be the best silversmith in London but I’m sure he’s the worst-tempered man in the city.’

‘When do you take your journeyman’s exam?’ Irene asked, changing the subject. She had seen Cuthbert Greenwood in one of his tempers and she knew that what Arthur said was no exaggeration, but it wouldn’t do to dwell on it just now.

‘In less than a month’s time. If I happen to pass, which I rather doubt at this moment, I’ll be able to work for myself and I won’t have to listen to the old devil ranting at me and saying I’m a disappointment to him.’

‘Fathers!’ Irene said with feeling. ‘I love mine even though he drives me mad at times. I wish I knew where he was at this minute.’

‘Stop worrying about Billy and say you’ll come out with me tonight. We’ll sample some of their steak pudding at the Old Cheshire Cheese and maybe go to a penny gaff afterwards. What d’you say to that?’

‘It sounds fine, but if my pa doesn’t turn up soon I’ll have to spend the rest of the day looking for him. It could take a while to go round all his old haunts.’

‘I think you’re wasting your time. Anyway, they won’t let you in. Women aren’t allowed in the gaming rooms.’

‘I know that, and I don’t hold with gaming hells or any kind of gambling, but sometimes I’m just a little curious to see inside one. I can’t think what the attraction is and I’d like to find out first hand. Then just maybe I could understand Pa a bit better and try to persuade him to mend his ways.’

Arthur shrugged his shoulders. ‘I think it’s more complicated than that, Renie. Gambling is like a fever that gets into a fellow’s blood. It’s not easy to stop. Anyway, I’d best get to work.’

‘Good boy,’ Irene said, giving him a gentle shove. ‘Go and make something splendid in silver for the toffs to eat off or drink out of, while I go and sell pickles and sauces. You may think you’re hard done by, but sometimes I think I’ll never get the smell of onions and vinegar out of my hair.’

He leaned towards her and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. ‘My favourite perfume, ducks. See you tonight.’ He doffed his hat with a flourish and swaggered off in the direction of Silver Street.

Somewhat reluctantly, Irene stepped over the threshold into the gloomy interior of the shop. Having deposited the milk and bread on
the
counter, she went back to retrieve the heavy bucket of water, taking care not to spill any of the precious liquid, as it would have to do for all their needs until she made a return visit to the pump. She looked up hopefully as she heard a footstep on the stairs, but it was just her mother making her painful descent.

‘Oh, it’s you, Irene,’ Clara said, pausing to catch her breath. ‘I thought it might be your dad come home.’

‘No, it’s only me. I’ll make us some tea and then I’ll go looking for him.’

‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea, love. You know it makes him angry when we fuss. Anyway, I need you in the shop this morning. Mr Yapp will be making a delivery and me hands is too painful to stack the bottles and jars on the shelves. But a cup of tea would be lovely, and a piece of toast would go down well. I got the fire going upstairs so it shouldn’t take long.’

After a hasty breakfast of tea and toast, Irene insisted that her mother went back to bed in order to catch up on some of the sleep she had lost worrying about her errant husband. Sometimes Irene despaired of Pa and this was one of those moments. With all the love in the world she had to admit that he had many faults. It was true that he could charm the rooks from the plane tree if he put his mind to it, but at the best of times he was
irresponsible
, and at his worst he was outrageously feckless. At forty-five he was still a handsome devil, with flashing brown eyes and hair that gleamed black like the best coal. He loved life but never took anything seriously, especially when it came to earning an honest living and providing for his family. And yet, for all his many failings, to Irene he was a dashing corsair and she could never hold his misdemeanours against him – at least, not for long. She struggled to cope with his addiction to gambling and she grew impatient with him when he showed little concern for her mother’s ill-health. Then, by something close to a miracle, he would redeem himself by coming home with some frippery that he had picked up in a street market, or a bunch of flowers that were more than likely to have been stolen from a graveyard, which he would present to his wife with the aplomb of a great stage actor. Irene smiled to herself at the very thought of it. Occasionally, she felt that she was his senior and he was little more than a wayward child, and that made her feel even more protective towards him.

She spun round at the sound of the door opening, but it was only Yapp’s boy, Danny Priest. ‘Delivery for you, miss.’

Through the grimy windowpanes Irene could see Yapp’s cart laden with wooden crates
and
wicker baskets lined with straw and filled with bottles and jars of pickles and sauce. ‘Ta, Danny. Bring it in, if you please.’

He backed out of the door gazing at her with moonstruck eyes. Irene gave him an encouraging smile. Danny could not be more than twelve or thirteen, and he was a skinny little monkey of a boy, all gangly arms and legs that did not seem to be properly coordinated. He blushed beneath his freckles whenever she spoke to him and he was so eager to please her that he almost fell over himself in his efforts. She watched him rush to the cart and lift off a box which was so heavy that he had to bend almost in two in order to prevent it from dropping onto the cobblestones. With an obvious effort, he straightened up and staggered into the shop, turning red in the face, with his pale blue eyes bulging. He managed to heft it onto the counter, setting it down so hard that the glass jars jangled together. A look of consternation puckered his face. ‘Old Yapp will beat the daylights out of me if I’ve broke anything.’

‘I’m sure there’s no harm done,’ Irene said, keeping her eye on Yapp, who was perched on the driver’s seat of his cart with a clay pipe clenched between his teeth. He peered through the window, scowling at Danny, and his hand went automatically to clutch the large
horsewhip
at his side. Irene smiled and waved to him. ‘Morning, Mr Yapp,’ she mouthed.

He nodded curtly and she saw his fingers relax on the whip handle.

‘Ta, miss,’ Danny said, gazing at her as if she had sprouted wings and a halo. ‘You’re a blooming angel, that’s what you are.’

‘If only that were true,’ she said, patting him on the shoulder. ‘Best get on with your work, or you’ll be in real trouble with old Yapp and I wouldn’t want that to happen.’

Danny made a grab for a basket of bottles and shot out of the door, dodging a cuff round the ear from Yapp as he deposited the basket of empties in the cart and picked up one that was ready for delivery. He staggered back into the shop and dumped his burden on the counter.

‘Cash on delivery, the boss says,’ he said breathlessly.

Irene reached beneath the counter for the cash box. She opened it and frowned. Yesterday’s takings had been reasonably good, but all that remained now was a threepenny bit and a handful of coppers. There was only one person who would rob the till and he still had not made an appearance. She looked up and met Danny’s anxious gaze. ‘I’m afraid I can’t settle the account in full, but I will have the right amount later in the day.’

Danny shook his head and his bottom lip trembled. ‘He’ll beat me if I don’t get the cash, miss. You know he don’t allow credit.’

She emptied the coins onto the counter and pushed them towards him. ‘Take this to Mr Yapp and tell him that I need an hour or two, but he will be paid by close of business today. I promise.’

‘I’ll tell him but he won’t like it.’

A shout from Yapp made Danny glance nervously out of the window. He scooped up the coins and hurried from the shop. Irene watched as the boy handed the money to his master, receiving yet another clout round the head for his pains. Yapp stood up in the well of the cart and for a moment Irene thought that he was going to climb down and come blustering into the shop, but he shook his fist at her mouthing words that she was glad she could not hear. Having apparently vented his feelings he slumped down on the seat and cracked the whip over the horse’s rump, causing the poor animal to lurch forward. Danny was left to run along behind until he gathered enough speed to take a flying leap onto the footplate at the back of the cart.

Praying silently that Pa would return home soon with at least some of his winnings intact, Irene set about the task of stacking the shelves with jars of Yapp’s Best Pickled
Onions
, beetroot and mustard pickle. She lined them up like soldiers on the parade ground, and having satisfied herself that all the labels were clearly visible and any stickiness had been wiped clean, she started on the bottles of sauce. Taking each glass container from its nest of straw, she wiped and polished them until they sparkled in the shredded shafts of sunlight that filtered through the small windowpanes.

Tomato, anchovy and hot chilli sauce with tamarind were all specialities created by Obadiah Yapp, as he was proud to tell anyone who was prepared to listen. As a young man he had joined the army and when his regiment was sent to India he had developed a taste for hot and exotic foods. On his return home he had missed the spicy condiments with which they flavoured their food, and had experimented until he discovered the exact recipe that would titillate the taste buds of Londoners. Irene had heard the story so many times that she knew it by heart.

She set the last bottle on the shelf and stacked the boxes and baskets beneath the counter to await collection. It was still early and trade was slow, but as the morning wore on a gradual trickle of customers came through the door to make their purchases. Irene kept glancing anxiously at the clock on the wall, and every time the door opened her hopes
were
raised, only to be dashed when it was not her father who walked into the shop.

Clara came downstairs at midday, looking pale but slightly less drawn than she had first thing. She leaned against the newel post at the foot of the stairs. ‘He hasn’t come home then?’

Irene was quick to hear the note of despair in her mother’s voice and she forced herself to smile cheerfully. ‘Not yet, but I’m sure he’ll arrive any minute now with a sore head and feeling very sorry for hisself.’

‘I don’t know, Irene. I got a bad feeling about this. He’s usually home afore noon. I heard the church clock strike twelve and that’s what woke me.’

‘Do you want me to go looking for him, Ma?’ Irene glanced out through the window at the sunny street. Suddenly she longed to be free from the dark little shop with its low ceiling supported by beams that resembled the spreading roots of the great plane tree. Sometimes it felt as though the tree itself was reaching into the room to strangle and overpower her. Spending twelve hours a day behind the counter was not her idea of fun, nor was it her chosen path in life, but Ma needed her. Unless Pa mended his ways, which was very unlikely, she knew that there was little chance of leading her own life. Sometimes she almost envied her older sister Emmie who
had
married the first man who came along as a means of escape.

She had married Josiah Tippet, a middle-aged draper with a taste for mustard pickles and a house in Love Lane. He had buried two wives and had apparently been on the lookout for a third when he came into the shop and had laid eyes on Emily, who was quick to spot the main chance. Emmie was a sweet girl and a loving sister, but Irene had to admit that she had always had ideas above her station, and now she fancied herself as quite a lady, wed to a man who was a well-respected member of the Drapers’ Company and cherished hopes of becoming an alderman before too long.

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