Authors: Mary Jane Staples
Horace was ten, Ethel seven, when Jim Cooper, home from the trenches, minus an arm and just about managing on his own, found them huddled in a doorway on a wet night in Walworth. Slightly against his better judgement he took them in, fed them cocoa, and put them to sleep in his bed. A few days later he found that â somehow â he had become the unofficial guardian of Horace and Ethel. It was him, the orphanage, or separation for the gutsy little pair who would have to be farmed out to anyone who would take them, and Jim felt a sudden affinity for the two cheeky cockney kids. The first thing he had to do was find fresh lodgings for them all.
Miss Rebecca Pilgrim was a woman of strict Victorian principles, eminently respectable, and determined to keep her privacy intact. She had reckoned without her new lodgers â Horace, Ethel and, above all, the irrepressible Jim Cooper. And thus began the humanizing of Miss Pilgrim, who turned out to be younger, prettier, and far gentler than any of them had suspected.
The little house in Deacon Street, Walworth, had been enduring sombre days, and today was the most sombre of all. But at least the funeral itself was over, the deceased couple laid to rest. Back from the cemetery, Aunt Glad had done what she could to comfort the two orphaned children, speaking gently to them in their kitchen before tactfully leaving them to themselves for a few minutes while she went to join the grown-ups and her husband, Uncle Perce, in the parlour. There, the talk was solemn and sympathetic, although everyone was relieved to cast aside the subdued and awkward whispering that had prevailed in the mournful church and at the even more mournful cemetery. Still, at least it had been a good Christian burial. There'd been just enough money from the insurance man to pay for the hearse, four black horses and two coffins. Life was hard for people these days, and not too good to them even when they were dead.
The dreadful flu epidemic, having arrived, had swept Mr and Mrs Withers away as if they had never existed. They had taken to their bed on a Thursday and passed away on the Sunday. Miraculously, their two children, a boy and a girl, had been spared. But how much of a miracle was it, a neighbour asked of Uncle Perce, when it left them orphaned in times as hard as they were now? It was rainy April, 1921. The country was still suffering the impoverishment brought about by the Great War, and unemployed ex-servicemen were still tramping the streets of London looking for jobs, any jobs.
It was best to leave the children in the kitchen for the moment. Pitying talk couldn't take place in front of them, especially as it was needful to discuss what was to happen to them. Aunt Glad, with the help of a kind neighbour of the deceased, had supplied a funeral breakfast of sandwiches, biscuits and tea.
Ten-year-old Horace and his sister Ethel, just seven, sat at the kitchen table eyeing the food without much appetite. They called each other Orrice and Effel, as did everyone else, except their schoolteachers. Effel wore an old blue frock dyed black for the funeral day, and given to her by a neighbour. She also wore grey socks and black boots, the boots shiningly polished for her by Orrice out of respect for their mum and dad. An old boater with a black band sat on her dark brown hair, which hung down her back. Her little face was tear-stained. She had taken just a single bite out of a paste sandwich, and had hardly been able to swallow that small mouthful.
Orrice, a huge old dark blue cloth cap with a soft peak on his head, wore a navy blue jersey and black serge trousers, the latter also gifted by a sympathetic neighbour. It hadn't seemed right, expecting the boy to go to his parents' funeral in his patched grey shorts.
He put an arm around his woebegone sister.
âDon't cry no more, Effel,' he said.
âWe ain't got no-one now, no-one,' said Effel, a dry sob shuddering through her slender body. She couldn't understand it, she couldn't believe her solid, beefy mum and sturdy dad had gone, that she'd never see them any more. And she and Orrice had no grandparents. All four had passed away years ago.
âWe got each other,' said Orrice. âI'll look after yer, Effel, don't worry.' He felt like a good cry himself, but he couldn't, not in front of his unhappy sister. New tears welled in her hazel eyes and rolled down her smudged cheeks. âDon't cry, sis, we got to be brave.'
They had been good parents, his mum and dad. They'd never had much, but there'd always been something to eat, and Dad had regularly brought fruit home from his job in the Covent Garden market. And there'd always been a fire in the kitchen in winter. And if he and Effel had seldom had new clothes, their mum always got them good second-hand stuff. Orrice wasn't quite sure where any kind of clothes were to come from now. He felt very sad about the day and troubled by what lay ahead.
âWe just ain't got nobody,' said Effel bleakly.
âWell, we 'ave really,' said Orrice, âwe got Uncle Perce and Aunt Glad.'
âAin't goin' to live wiv their kids,' said Effel. âDon't like 'em.'
âEffel, it ain't no good not likin' them,' said Orrice, who could only see help coming from his aunt and uncle. Aunt Glad was their mum's sister. The only other relative they knew was their dad's brother, but he had gone to Australia years ago. âWe got to put up with some fings, sis.'
âAin't puttin' up wiv that soppy Nellie, nor wiv that Alfie and 'is runny nose,' said Effel, referring to two of Aunt Glad's five children.
âAlfie's just got ad'noids, that's all,' said Orrice. âWell, I fink that's what 'e's got. Effel, we got to 'ave a home.'
âWe got this one,' said Effel, âwe just ain't got a mum and dad no more, that's all.' Her eyes brimmed.
âEffel, where we goin' to get money to pay the rent?'
âWe can 'ide when the rent man comes,' said Effel in mournful hope.
âNot all the time, we can't,' said Orrice. He put down a half-eaten sandwich. âCome on, let's go an' see what they're saying. We got to see, we got to talk to Aunt Glad.'
Reluctantly, Effel went with him. They stopped before they reached the open door of the parlour. They stopped because of what they heard.
âOrphanage? I wouldn't let no kids of mine be put in any orphanage.'
âI s'pose Dr Barnado's? D'you s'pose Dr Barnado's, Mrs Figg?'
âThat's a sort of orphanage too, ain't it?'
âLet's talk sense.' That was Uncle Perce's voice.
âI was only sayin' to Mrs Davisâ'
âNo, you was to me, Mrs Figg.'
âDon't let's talk like this.' That was Aunt Glad. âIt's all up to me and me 'usband, anyway.'
Orrice and Effel went back to the kitchen. They sat down at the table in silence. Effel began to cry again.
âI ain't goin' to no orphanage,' she sobbed.
âCourse you ain't, sis,' said Orrice. âNor me. Mum an' Dad wouldn't want us in no orphanage, I betcher. Don't you worry.'
Effel wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her frock.
âOr Dr Banano's?' she said with a gulp.
âNor 'im, neither,' said Orrice stoutly.
Uncle Perce came in. He was a street cleaner who kept bitter company with muck, litter and horse manure, but if he disliked what he had to tidy up daily, it hadn't affected his inherent tendency to be philosophical about what life could throw at people. He was like most cockneys, resilient. He gave Orrice a pat on his shoulder, and he gave Effel a little smile.
âWe'll sort things out for yer, Effel, an' you, Orrice. We'll take yer 'ome with us in a bitâ'
âAin't goin',' muttered Effel.
âWhat's that, Effel?'
âIt's all right, Uncle Perce,' said Orrice, âexcept Effel don't feel too good just yet.' Manfully, he blinked away a traitorous tear. âNor me,' he admitted.
âWell, course yer don't, Orrice,' said Uncle Perce. âWell, none of us is too 'appy, yer know, yer mum an' dad were friends of mine, good friends. Your Aunt Glad an' me, we'll fix things for yer some'ow. 'Ere she is.'
Aunt Glad entered the kitchen. A bosomy woman of thirty-seven, with a hard-working husband and five children to look after, she had much to endure and not a little to complain about. She directed her complaints mostly at Uncle Perce, off whom they bounced as if they had never been spoken, which made her tell him he was getting very aggravating. On the other hand, she wouldn't hear a word against him, which was entirely typical of a cockney housewife.
âThere you are, poor loves,' she said. âPerce, what you been sayin' to them?'
âJust tellin' emâ'
âDon't you go upsettin' them, they been upset enough. Orrice, yer kind neighbours is goin' now, an' soon as me and Uncle Perce 'ave tidied up, you can come 'ome with us.'
âWon't,' muttered Effel.
âNow, Effel loveâ'
âStayin' 'ere,' said Effel.
âAin't she a pickle?' said Uncle Perce.
âNow, don't say things like that,' said Aunt Glad, respectfully dressed in black, including her straw hat, âthat won't do Effel no good. Effel love, you got to come 'ome with us, don't yer see? And while you're with us, me and Uncle Perce will see what's to be done for you and Orrice.'
âYes, don't fret now, little 'un,' said Uncle Perce.
Effel, head bent, closed her eyes and squeezed back tears. Aunt Glad sighed, and Uncle Perce grimaced. It was so difficult. They had five children of their own, the youngest being four and the eldest thirteen. Their little house in Kennington, rented, felt crowded out at times. Uncle Perce's wage just kept them going and no more. Two extra children to house and to feed would be a daily strain. But for a while, at least, until a solution was found, they had to take Orrice and Effel in, they had to give their orphaned niece and nephew a roof and a place to sleep, and they had to feed them as best they could.
âEffel, we got to go with Aunt Glad,' said Orrice.
âAin't,' muttered Effel.
âShe'll come, Aunt Glad,' said Orrice. âSoon as I go out the door with you, she'll foller me. I can't go nowhere without she don't foller me.'
âWell, I've 'eard that's true,' said Uncle Perce. âNow, if there's stuff you want to bring with yer, Orrice, you can collect it up. Me an' yer Aunt Glad won't be goin' for another fifteen minutes or so.'
âYes, all right, Uncle Perce,' said Orrice, but he didn't really feel like taking anything with him except his sister. He had to look after his sister, his mum and dad would expect him to.
At the home of her uncle and aunt, Effel gritted her teeth when she found she was going to have to sleep in a bed with her three cousins, Nellie, Edie and Cissie. She hated the idea, she'd always had her own bed. And Orrice was going to have to share a bed with Alfie and Johnny. Orrice already felt sort of squeezed in this little house in which there were seven people living as well as him and Effel. Meanwhile, in the evening, with their cousins sent out of the way, Aunt Glad and Uncle Perce gave them some cocoa and biscuits, and talked to them in the kitchen.