Authors: Alison Rattle
The smells of roasted meats from the chop-house drifted out on to the street and made her mouth water. She watched in envy as smart suited gentlemen greeted each other at the doorway then went inside to take their fill of all that was on offer. The little ones pressed their noses to the window of the chemist shop. Its display of coloured bottles, reds, greens, blues and yellows, glittered like polished jewels. They stood and gawped for so long that the chemist himself came out and shooed them away with a broom.
Queenie’s favourite window was the draper’s. She stared longingly into it at the rolls of glossy satin, the silks, ribbons, muslins and froths of lace. Queenie chose the colour silk she would have; green to match her eyes, with a trim of creamy lace and layers of muslin petticoats. She wished she could go inside. But instead she imagined the hushed air of the shop and the softness she would feel as she ran her hands over the rolls of cloth. Then Kit began to whine and she turned to see the little ones looking up at her, their snotty faces wizened by the cold. ‘Sugared almonds then,’ she sighed.
Mam wasn’t home when they got back. The room smelt of damp coal and mouse droppings. Queenie lit a candle by the stove and sorted through the coal for some dry nuggets. She soon had a weak flame burning and the little ones settled themselves close to it. Queenie listened out for Mam, hoping madly that she’d come home alone.
‘Tell us a story,’ asked Tally as he rested his head on Queenie’s knee. ‘Go on . . . tell us one of your stories.’
‘I ain’t in the mood,’ said Queenie.
‘Why not?’ asked Tally.
‘I just ain’t, all right?’
‘Mam won’t tell us any no more,’ whispered Tally. ‘Don’t see why you can’t instead.’
‘Cause maybe I’ve run out of stories too!’ shouted Queenie. ‘Besides, I got other things on me mind, right?’
Tally was silent. Queenie felt a twinge of guilt. None of it was his fault, she thought. But then it wasn’t her fault either. She hadn’t asked for this life, she didn’t want this life. The baby was well out of it. She was glad it had died. It wouldn’t have to grow up with hunger and cold and dirt being the only things to wake up to in the mornings. It could just sleep forever.
The door banged open suddenly and Queenie turned round expecting to see Mam. But it wasn’t Mam. It was a man in a dark overcoat with glaring eyes and a whiskery chin. He was carrying a cane and swaying slightly where he stood in the doorway.
‘So,’ he said, looking around with a sneer. ‘Here’s the place for a spot of pleasure, I believe.’
‘Who are you?’ asked Queenie, moving closer to the little ones. ‘What do you want?’
‘I don’t believe that is the way things are done,’ said the man as he removed his gloves. ‘Discretion is the word, is it not? Now do you have another room for us to go to? I draw the line at an audience.’ He nodded towards Tally, Kit and Albie.
Queenie felt a knot of fear rise in her throat. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ she said. ‘And I don’t know what you want. But I think you’ve come to the wrong place.’
‘The wrong place?’ said the man, raising an eyebrow. ‘I don’t think so. A green-eyed, dark-haired beauty? A gem amongst all the squalor? I am in the right place, I assure you. Although you are somewhat younger than I was led to believe. Now let’s not waste any more of my time, girl.’ He pulled a purse from his pocket and emptied two coins into his hand.
‘No!’ shouted Queenie in a panic. ‘You’ve got it wrong. I ain’t that sort of girl. Please, sir. Please go!’
‘Ooh, a feisty one, are you? Well, any way you like it, but I will have what I came for.’ He threw the coins on the floor then stepped towards Queenie and grabbed her by the arms.
‘No!’ she screamed. ‘Get off me! Tally, get help!’
They stumbled backwards into the hanging sheet and it was pulled to the floor. The man laughed and threw Queenie on Mam’s bed. He leaned over and pushed his face into hers. She could smell beer, tobacco and the thick, sweet scent of his hair oil. Queenie turned her head to one side in time to see Tally scamper from the room, his eyes wide with fright. The man held her arms down on the bed and pressed his mouth to her neck.
‘Get off me!’ yelled Queenie as she twisted from side to side. The man started to breathe heavily and he let go of one of her arms and began to push her skirt up and dig his fingers into her thighs. Queenie battered at him with her free hand and pulled at his hair. But he didn’t stop. He began to fumble with his trousers, grunting with the effort. As his grip loosened, Queenie brought her head up and bit hard on his ear. The man fell backwards off the bed and let out a roar of pain.
‘You little bitch!’ he yelled.
Queenie scrambled to her feet. She could taste blood in her mouth and her legs were shaking. She needed to get out quick. She needed to get away. But Kit and Albie were standing motionless on the other side of the room. Before she could move, the door opened again and Mam walked in.
‘Queenie? What’s going on? Tally said to come quick. You haven’t been upsetting this gentleman, have you?’
‘Wha . . . what?’ stammered Queenie. ‘Upsetting him? Mam! He tried to force himself on me. He went for me, Mam! He went for me.’
A flicker of some sort passed across Mam’s face. Then she blinked and said, ‘I’m sure that’s not true, Queenie.’ She pushed past Queenie and went over to the man. ‘There must have been some mistake. I’m so sorry, sir,’ she said.
The man had now got up from the floor and was holding a handkerchief to his ear, muttering
over and over to himself.
‘Can I help?’ asked Mam. ‘Get you another cloth maybe?’ The man looked at her as though she was mad.
‘Help?’ he said. ‘Help? You,’ he said to Mam, ‘and,’ he pointed at Queenie, ‘that filthy little cat, can go straight to hell!’ He stumbled out the door.
Queenie was shaking, her breath coming in short angry sobs. Tally had come back in and was standing behind Mam looking warily around the room.
‘Mam?’ Queenie whispered. ‘How . . . how could you be like that with him? He . . . he attacked me!’
Mam bent to pick up the coins from the floor. ‘He just thought you were me,’ she said. ‘That’s all. No harm done.’
‘No harm? But . . . but, if you hadn’t come back?’
‘Well, I did. I’m sorry, Queenie, but I can’t afford to upset customers. Word gets round fast, you know.’
‘But what about me?’ said Queenie, her voice wavering. ‘What about all of
‘All of you?’ shouted Mam. ‘All of you! And this one on the way?’ She jabbed her belly with a finger. ‘Who do think I’m doing this for? Do you think I want any of this? Do you think I have a choice?’
‘There must be another way,’ said Queenie, taking a deep breath.
‘Well, there isn’t,’ said Mam, her face closing up. ‘It’s this or the workhouse. You choose.’
‘But there’s people out there saying nasty things about you!’ said Queenie.
Mam ignored her. ‘I said, it’s this or the workhouse. You choose.’
Queenie lay awake all night. The close warmth of Tally, Kit and Albie gave her no comfort. Da wasn’t coming back and Mam was a stranger. She shivered, thinking of the man and how the weight of him on top of her had made her lose her breath; and how he had made her feel so small and useless and dirty. She thought of the woman with the pipe and her nasty words. And she thought of Mam not caring, and her coldness. She felt in her pocket for the torn advertisement and listened to the steady breathing of the little ones.
As the pale light of morning edged into the room, Queenie heard the door slowly creak open. She stiffened. Was it him again? The man from earlier? She looked towards the sound and saw the bulk of a male body filling the doorway. A shout rose up from her chest, but before it reached her throat, the body stepped into the room and Queenie saw the unmistakeable dark curls on Da’s head.
‘Da!’ she whispered loudly, relief relaxing her tightened muscles.
‘Sshh!’ he said, grinning at her like some dirty urchin. With one finger waving wildly in front of his mouth, he staggered over to the bed and fell on to it. Mam let out a startled cry which quickly turned to a soft moan. Queenie listened to their muffled whispers, the wet noise of their kisses and their breathing becoming faster and faster.
She couldn’t bear it. Wasn’t Mam even angry with him? Couldn’t Da smell the other men on Mam? Queenie pushed her fists into her ears. Was that it then? Everything back to how it always was. Until the next time Da buggered off? Would her and Mam take it in turns to do the whoring then? Mam had said there was no choice. Maybe there wasn’t for her; saddled with Da and the little ones. But Mam is Mam, thought Queenie. And I ain’t her.
The little ones hadn’t stirred and Queenie lay still too, shaping the thought in her head that was growing bigger and bigger. She took her fists from her ears. All was quiet as she fingered the torn advertisement again.
When the sound of Da’s breathing turned to heavy snores, Queenie rose quietly from the pile of straw and kissed first Kit, then Albie gently on the cheek. She looked at Tally and his serious little face, his constant frown relaxed in sleep. She whispered so as not to wake him, ‘You’ll be all right without me, won’t you? You’re a big lad now.’ She bent to kiss him too. Then with a last fleeting look at the heap of Mam and Da on the bed, Queenie crept out of the door.
Mary came to me the following morning fizzing with excitement. ‘Seems the young man will be with us for a while then, miss,’ she said.
‘What do you mean, Mary?’
‘They’re saying downstairs that he’s to be your father’s apprentice!’
‘Father’s apprentice?’ I breathed.
Mary nodded. ‘I believe so. It’ll do this house good to have another young person in it. Do you good too, to have the company.’
‘Oh, Mary!’ I stood and put my arms around her and hugged her tightly. I hoped that what she said was true. I hoped Jacob would stay long enough for us to get to know one another. For us to become friends, even.
Although Father made no official announcement, every day after that, Jacob left the breakfast table when Father did and rode with him in his carriage to the University College Hospital. After every silent dinner Father had Jacob in the drawing room and they talked about his studies and of things that made no sense to me. They barely noticed me sitting in the corner with my sewing. I did not even have Mother for company. She had taken to having her meals sent to her room; declaring herself too exhausted to come downstairs. It was not how I had wanted it to be.
Every day my head was filled with imagined walks around the garden with Jacob; imagined confidences and conversations. But all my imagined words were stuck in my throat with nowhere to go. I could only look at him from across the table or from across the room.
‘You must eat more, miss,’ Mary said to me. ‘Your gowns are getting loose.’
‘But I have no appetite. I have no interest in eating.’ I sighed. ‘I have no interest in anything, Mary. I cannot even read my books. What is wrong with me?’
Mary gave me a gentle smile. ‘You are just unsettled, miss . . . with the young man being in the house and all. And maybe you are letting your notions run away with you?’
I blushed and lowered my head. ‘What notions? I have barely even talked to Jacob. And besides,’ I protested, ‘he is my cousin!’
Mary laughed. ‘That is of no matter, as you well know!’ she said. ‘Our own Queen Victoria married her cousin!’ She winked at me. ‘He’s on your mind too much, isn’t he, miss? That’s exactly what is vexing you.’
She was right; she knew me too well. ‘Oh, Mary, what am I to do? I cannot think of anything else but him. I only want to be his friend. But there is never the opportunity to talk. I do not think he even notices me.’
‘Nonsense, miss. Of course he notices you. I have seen the way he glances over at you when you’re not looking. He notices you. Mark my words.’
‘Truly? Does he, Mary?’
‘He does, miss, I assure you.’
‘But how we will ever get the chance to get to know each other?’
‘Just you wait, miss. Be patient and your time will come. In the meantime try and eat a little more. A true lady should never come to resemble a bag of bones, believe you me.’
Mary’s words came true the very next day. Jacob did not appear at breakfast. Father left for the hospital by himself and Mary whispered to me that Jacob had asked for tea to be brought to him in the library. I looked at her in surprise. She winked at me and said, ‘I can’t see there’ll be any harm in me bringing two cups. Can you, miss?’
Before I could answer, Mary picked up a tray of unused dishes and bustled out of the dining room. I sat at the empty breakfast table, thinking of Jacob just a few rooms away. A moment later I found myself walking along the hallway towards the library, my heart thumping loudly beneath my morning gown.
The library door was closed. I reached out for the handle, but could not bring myself to turn it. Suddenly all the imagined conversations disappeared from my head. He was in there, behind the door, all on his own. I could just walk in right now. I knew I should not. It was against all that was proper. But what harm could come of it? I had no idea what I would say. What if he
to be on his own? What if I was an annoyance to him? I swallowed hard. I would just go in, I decided, and pretend I had lost a book. If he seemed in need of company I would stay. If not, I would quickly leave.
I opened the door and walked in. Jacob was leaning back against a bookcase with his arms folded looking straight at me. ‘Good morning, Ellen,’ he said. ‘I knew you’d come.’
‘How . . . how . . . how did you? I am . . . I am just looking for my book,’ I said hurriedly. ‘I thought I might have left it in here.’
Jacob spread his arms wide. ‘Do you see it anywhere?’
‘I . . . I do not know,’ I said. I began to search the bookshelves. I pulled out books and examined the covers. I dropped a couple on the floor and hastily put them back in place. I picked up a book left on a table and began to flick through the pages. It was a medical dictionary, I realised, and I was holding it upside down.