Read The Lights of London Online

Authors: Gilda O'Neill

Tags: #Chick-Lit, #Family Saga, #Fiction, #Love Stories, #Relationships, #Romance, #Women's Fiction

The Lights of London

BOOK: The Lights of London
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Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Gilda O’Neill

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Postscript

Copyright

About the Book

The lights of London burn brightly for runaway Kitty Wallis, but their sparkle soon fades when she finds herself alone and destitute in the notorious fog-bound streets of London’s East End. Knowing nothing of surviving in the big city, Kitty comes close to meeting a tragic end, until Tibs Tyler, a young prostitute, steps in.

Responsible for finding food and shelter for her innocent companion, Tibs bluffs their way into a dock-side music hall, and a friendship springs up between the two girls. But Tibs must keep looking over her shoulder: she is being stalked by a sinister figure from her past, a brutal pimp who doesn’t care who he hurts to get his own way. And Tibs has a secret, someone she must protect, no matter what …

Tracing the two girls’ struggle to overcome hardship and danger to find happiness,
The Lights of London
is a rich, dramatic saga of murder and obsession set against the glittering backdrop of turn-of-the-century London.

About the Author

Gilda O’Neill was born and brought up in the East End. She left school at fifteen but returned to education as a mature student. She wrote full-time and continued to live in the East End with her husband and family. Sadly she died on 24 September 2010 after a short illness.

Also by Gilda O’Neill
FICTION

The Cockney Girl

Whitechapel Girl

The Bells of Bow

Just Around the Corner

Cissie Flowers

Dream On

Playing Around

Getting There

The Sins of Their Fathers

Make Us Traitors

Of Woman Born

Rough Justice

Secrets of the Heart

Lost Voices

NON-FICTION

A Night Out with the Girls: Women Having Fun

My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London

Our Street: East End Life in the Second World War

The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London
East End Tales (Quick Reads)

The Lights of London
Gilda O’Neill

In memory of Dolly, my much-loved and much-missed mum

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

M. Louise Haskins

The Desert
(1908)

Prologue

Editorial:
Daily Messenger
, 4 March 1899

With no more than months left until the beginning of the new century, the focus of our concerns must be the signs we see around us of a deterioration in the national character. There is the degeneration of a once moral people, careering down in a giddy, headlong descent to barbarism. This not only alarms decent men and women, but emphasises the ever greater divide between the haves and have-nots, with the feckless poor being encouraged by anarchists and the continual threat of violence in our once safe land.

Everywhere we see evidence of an underclass, creatures whose lives are dominated by crime, loutishness and sexual licence. Brutes made more brutish by their daily diet of cheap, popular entertainment, alcohol and drugs. Lives lived in gaudy imitation of the less edifying aspects of the USA.

These individuals – many of them homeless, some openly unmarried but still with children, others begging on the streets – complain of lack of opportunity and unemployment, but we all know there are jobs to be had, and places to stay, for any who choose, or can be bothered, to look for them.

It isn’t only the unsightly presence of these low-lifes which makes our streets unsafe for decent people; there is now the increasingly unavoidable menace of motor cars congesting our roads and choking our children.

What, we ask, are the police doing to protect us from all of this? Most of us know the answer to that question. They are more concerned with harassing honest citizens over petty rule-keeping than with the real criminals; leaving them to carry on with their nefarious activities, as they laugh at the stupidity of the do-gooders who call for ever softer punishments, while the hapless victims are left without thought or sympathy. This is without even mentioning the troubles in Africa.

Men who once ruled the home are now in second place to the so-called New Women. There is nothing new in behaving like Jezebel.

This is Great Britain, our country, the centre of an Empire of which we could once be proud. Let us act before it is too late. Let us make our country worthy of the new century.

Chapter 1

The dank night air resonated with the bass moaning of fog-horns, as craft – from the grand to the all but derelict – made their way cautiously up- and downriver through the dense, rolling mist blanketing the Thames.

But, unlike most other people in the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods east of the great City, Kitty Wallis was oblivious of their mournful warnings. She felt too sick, too weary, too dazed, to register their existence. In fact, she had long since ceased to notice anything of the wintry London nightscape which surrounded her, even though she was standing so high up and the cruel west wind was stinging her face, whipping around her legs, and pulling and flapping at her patched, filthy skirts. After the terrifying, icy climb to the top of the bridge, just remaining upright took every scrap of strength she had left in her.

But exhaustion, cold and fear weren’t her only problems; nor was it the hunger gnawing away at her guts that was making her so despondent; nor even the stomach-churningly rancid stench that rose up from the bitterly cold waters swirling far below.

Kitty was beyond all that. Beyond even the reach of the nuns who had preached of the wickedness of the sin she was about to commit.

As she had stood there, clinging to the low parapet that ran the span of the bridge, her fingers growing numb with the cold, she had worried, over and over again, about what choices she had, what she could
possibly do next. What she could come up with, this one last time.

Finally, she had come to the tragic conclusion that she had no choice. It was either this or going through the further agonies of starving to death.

For a few glorious weeks she had been fool enough to believe that getting the skivvy’s job in the big house was going to be her salvation, that things were, at last, improving in her short, hard life. But then, like a slap in the face when she had been expecting a kiss, it had all gone wrong.

She should have known. Things turning out badly was obviously Kitty’s lot. Even when she had been starving in the gutter and, in wild desperation, had tried to follow the example of others in her situation by stealing an unwanted morsel of food, Kitty had been unable to bring herself to take what wasn’t hers. She had staggered away, her empty belly screaming and burning in protest, rather than slip a stale, moulding loaf into the folds of her shabby skirts.

She almost smiled.
Things turning out badly
. That was hardly a description to suit her situation. Things were worse than that. Almost unbelievably worse.

To have come to this …

With a deep, sobbing breath, Kitty loosened the grip of her aching fingers from the rough, unyielding stone and leaned forward.

All at once she was tumbling; down and over she went in the bitterly cold air, a plunging, accelerating arc of flailing limbs, ragged clothes and shattered dreams.

She was unconscious before her frail body had even touched the filthy, unforgiving waters.

Her fall went unnoticed, or maybe unheeded, by the wild-looking creatures on the river bank. They were too busy trying to warm their chilled bones by the
crackling, spitting bonfires to bother themselves with yet another soul lost to the river.

‘I’m telling you, Buggy,’ Teezer slurred, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m getting out of this game.

‘Oh yeah,’ sneered Buggy, his voice only slightly less the worse for drink than his governor’s, ‘how’s that then, Teeze?’

Buggy was as bored as Teezer with rowing up and down the Thames for the best part of every day and night, selling glasses of purl to a bunch of big-mouthed, mean-minded ingrates, who were as likely to cosh you over the head as pay you, but he’d heard his boss – who was also his supposed best mate – complain too many times before to take him seriously.

‘I’m gonna find myself a few pretty girls, ain’t I?’ Teezer continued. ‘Have someone graft for me for a change, while I take it easy. Get some proper money in me pocket for once. It’s gonna be the new century soon, the twentieth century, Bugs. Just think about it.’ He paused, a far-away look in his drunken, unfocused eyes. ‘Things have gotta change. Gotta be different.’ He let go of the oars, flexed his aching shoulder muscles and scratched thoughtfully at his unshaven chin. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the future, see, and I reckon …’

‘Oi, watch it, Teeze!’ yelled Buggy, as the bridge suddenly loomed up at them out of the thick, yellow-grey fog. ‘If you ain’t bleedin’ careful we won’t
have
no future to worry about. And what d’you mean, you wanna get people working for you? What am I here for, bloody decoration?’

Teezer, despite the half-dozen measures of purl – the potent mixture of beer and gin, flavoured with ginger and sugar – he’d already swallowed that night, was
immediately alert. He ignored Buggy’s whining and concentrated on leaning hard on his left oar, setting the little skiff spinning away from the bridge’s massive stone and iron columns. But as the boat pitched there was a sudden unexpected impact and a shower of sparks flared from the brazier set on the floor between them.

With Teezer now pulling wildly at both oars and the boat bucking like an oat-fed pony, Buggy burrowed his head under the skirt of his leather apron to protect himself from the now decidedly unsteady container full of flaming coals. Having a fire on board was a hazard even on calm, sunlit waters, but they couldn’t do without it; it was an essential part of their trade, as their customers – the sailors, stevedores and lightermen – only considered purl to be palatable if taken piping hot. But when the bloke steering the boat was as pissed as Teezer, having a blazing, unsteady cauldron so alarmingly close to your private parts was rather more of a hazard than usual. A bloke who’d been drinking all night could go up like a firework.

Buggy breathed a weary, muffled sigh from under his leather canopy. He was that fed up. It wasn’t as though having your bits singed was the only drawback to being a purl-man. There was the almost continual state of drunkenness that most of the trade found themselves in. You couldn’t escape it. And not only did it mean you felt fit for nothing most mornings, it also meant you earned very little for your efforts, as you were always too woozy to realise that you were being conned rotten by the customers, who must have been laughing up their sleeves, as they beckoned from their barges and ships and along the wharves, for the little boat to come closer and ply its alcoholic wares.

‘We’ve hit something,’ mused Teezer, staring squiffily into the water.

‘I know that, you great lummocking piece of driftwood,’ Buggy snarled, as he slapped his apron back into his lap. ‘What’s got into you tonight, Teeze? That’s twice you’ve nearly had us over. Do you wanna get us drowned like puppies,
and
roasted to death like a pair of mutton chops? ‘Cos if you do …’

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