Authors: Lizzie Lane
Lovingly, he caressed the works of Hoagy Carmichael, Ella Fitzgerald and Caruso. Amongst them all he found a performance of
The music wafted over him, salve to a tormented soul. The memories returned. Fearing to face them and blaming the music for their resurgence, he went to bed, but even there he could not escape. The past was too recent, too raw.
Behind his closed eyelids he was back there, in 1929, pledging allegiance to the Nazi Party. To do otherwise would have isolated him completely from his friends, the young men he’d known for most of his life.
The dream was pleasant enough, but unfortunately led into the later nightmares. He wasn’t ready to face them, and wasn’t sure he ever would be.
In the morning, Michael checked his inheritance. The pledges – so he had found them named in his uncle’s ledger – were stacked on shelves, in cupboards and drawers, each labelled as to their content: watches; gold, watches; silver, bracelets, necklaces, rings; miscellaneous silver; miscellaneous gold – the latter, he discovered, included a number of gold teeth. He wondered what misfortune had occurred to necessitate the obvious discomfort of having a filling ripped from one’s mouth.
Furniture was stacked and labelled in a back room, clothes parcelled and placed on myriad shelves.
Some of the items pledged saddened him; a child’s clothes – pledged to pay for a funeral, it said in scrawled writing. So Crombie was right. His uncle had been too sentimental for his own good. The clothes were shabby, never likely to be sold on or reclaimed. He threw them into the pile he was making of items to be disposed of. It was growing swiftly.
Other items almost made him laugh out loud or certainly raise his spirits.
A glass eye?
A pair of black lace garters. Never worn.
He didn’t hazard a guess as to the reasons why any of them had been pledged. After checking the dates – years ago – he threw the items onto the pile, had second thoughts about the black lace garters and retrieved them.
The next thing he did was to destroy the family photographs. He didn’t want them staring down at him. He didn’t want to remember who and what they were because in doing so he would be reminded of what he had done.
One week later, Mrs Riley came in response to Mary Anne’s letter, sneaking along the back lane like a thief in the night, just as instructed.
Mary Anne looked up as the back gate creaked open, the sound making her stomach churn. As she eyed the quick, thin figure scurrying up the garden path, her instinct was to curl her hand over her stomach. God knows, every mother’s first instinct was to protect the new life within.
But you can’t keep it. Harry will hate you being pregnant just as he did the other times. And you have to live with him – if you can call it that.
The formalities were quickly dispensed with. Mary Anne wanted no friendship with this woman. The bottle was as small and brown as the person who brought it. She clenched her jaw as she handed over the two pounds she was being charged. Two pounds! She didn’t doubt that the canny old woman had made enquiries first to see how much she could afford. She had a shrewd face and small, quick eyes, the sort that eyed up everything in order to weigh up its worth.
Mary Anne did a few sums in her head. With a bit of luck, she should make that amount up within the next week or so with a few hocked items from women wanting to give their
men a good send-off, or provide extra winter clothes before the war economy really started to bite. And even if she didn’t … well … the final outcome had to be worth it … if it worked, that is.
Mrs Riley spat on the pound notes before folding them in quarters and sliding them into the large bag she carried. Mary Anne tried to avoid studying the bag, but its purpose drew her more so than its details. Made of thick tapestry fabric with wooden handles heavily soiled with sweat and other stains she didn’t want to think about, the base bulged with what could have been balls of wool. The tip of a bone knitting needle pierced the tight bud of a stylised square rose. Along with the brown bottle, the needle was one of the tools of Mrs Riley’s trade.
‘Will it work?’ Mary Anne asked, carefully averting her eyes from the tip of the knitting needle. She wasn’t a fool and knew well what else it was used for. Pray God she wouldn’t need it to end her predicament.
Mrs Riley, infamous for helping women out when they were in that ‘certain’ predicament, jerked her chin high and nodded like a braying donkey. ‘Oh aye. A dollop in the morning, a dollop at noon and a dollop at night should shift it, me darling. There’s a good bit of Penny Royal in that, liquorice, senna and some old gypsy herbs that you wouldn’t know about.’
Mary Anne felt her stomach tightening as she nodded an acknowledgement. Her mouth was too dry for words. Penny Royal was one of the best things going for passing the unwanted from the body. It hadn’t worked so far, but perhaps the secret gypsy herbs might make a difference. Despite the feelings of guilt and shame, it was something she had to do. You’re too old to be expecting, she’d told herself after two months’ bleeding had been missed. A third month and the old familiar feelings of bloat, painful breasts and instinct confirmed that she was.
The liquid in the bottle glugged and gurgled as she rolled it around in her palm. Her thoughts were so involved with her ‘little problem’ that she hardly noticed the Riley woman was slow in leaving.
‘There’s one other thing before I go,’ Mrs Riley said, sniffing back a nostril of snuff while delving into the depths of her copious bag. ‘What will you give me on this?’
A snow-white tablecloth shone like the moon in the dim coldness of the washhouse.
Mary Anne’s eyes widened as she fingered the gleaming fabric as a thought came to her. The whiteness was dazzling; too white for the likes of Mrs Riley to have laundered and ironed.
‘It’s damask. Where did you get it?’
Mrs Riley’s smile revealed yellow, irregular teeth in a face as round as a suet dumpling. ‘You could say it was a gift – for services rendered.’ Her grin widened. ‘Even the toffs need my services; they did in the past, and they will now we’re at war with Germany again. There’ll be a lot of women enjoying themselves too much, their men away fighting and the few left behind able and willing to do them a service. Women gets lonely being left trying to make do with what the rations allowed, and I ain’t just referring to the food. Sometimes they’re left with a little problem, so they call for old Mrs Riley. So there you are! Best damask there is. Will you give me five bob for it?’
Mary Anne couldn’t take her eyes off it. She imagined it covering her table with a Sunday tea laid out on best china. Five shillings! It was worth far more.
Only rarely did she hope that someone never came back for the item they’d hocked. She’d lent money against everything from a tanner for a tin of pre-war sardines to two pounds for a wedding ring. But this was an exception. Mary Anne loved the
look and feel of good quality linens – and five shillings was such a tiny pledge. It had to be worth more than that.
‘It’s very fine …’
She couldn’t help hesitating. Her visitor didn’t look rich enough to possess such a fine cloth and she didn’t entirely believe it to be a gift. It was on the tip of her tongue to say so.
Seeing her hesitation and guessing at the reason, Nellie Riley made a smacking sound with her lips and went on to explain. ‘It belonged to a lady’s maid up in Clifton. She ’ad a problem, you see. The master of the ’ouse was a bit too free and easy with her. Poor cow was beside ’erself and the dirty old sod denied all knowledge. Threatened to throw ’er out on the streets if she kept on accusing ’im. Wouldn’t pay a penny towards what ’ad to be done, so me dear, I took payment in kind plus five shillings he finally gave her when she threatened to tell ’is wife. But just look at it! What in the name of the Blessed Virgin am I going to do with a white tablecloth that size in my place in Old Market? It’s big enough to cover me place twice over. And it’s a shame to waste it, though it’s not that I’m that ’ard up, but seein’ as I don’t have no use for it…’
Mary Anne fingered the soft whiteness while fighting the urge to bury her face in the crisply beautiful fabric, just like her own washing after a day of blowing in a stiff breeze. The prospect of turning a shilling couldn’t be overlooked, though there was nothing to gain by appearing too keen.
She decided that Mrs Riley was as hard up as anyone and would do anything for an extra shilling; hence the damask cloth … and the dark liquid in the small brown bottle.
Mary Anne pushed her personal worries to the back of her mind, hid how she really felt about the tablecloth and adopted the shrewdness for which she was famous thereabouts. ‘I can’t give you much.’
‘I’ll trust you to give me what it’s worth, and if you don’t then I can take it down Uncle Bob’s.’
‘Uncle Bob’s dead,’ said Mary Anne, referring to the foreign owner of the proper pawnbroker’s at the bottom of Bottle Lane off East Street where the three ball sign swung above a lopsided door. She didn’t know what his real name was. Everyone called him ‘Uncle Bob’. ‘His shop’s closed until one of his family takes over. I hear it’s a family member from abroad.’
Mrs Riley made the sign of the cross over her scrawny breasts. ‘God rest his soul, poor heathen that he was. It won’t be easy for them to come quickly, foreign as they are. Polish or some such like and still over in them parts. There is a war on, though saying that, I can’t be waiting until someone turns up and I knew of your reputation. I know you won’t fleece me. Besides, who knows … if the syrup don’t work, you may be needing some closer attention so a bit of generosity won’t go amiss.’
Mary Anne stiffened at the thought of the same needle that knitted a woolly hat or gloves also being used to terminate a pregnancy. She’d go down on her knees before sleeping tonight and pray the contents of the brown bottle worked. It took a lot of effort, but she swallowed her revulsion.
‘Five shillings,’ she murmured, taking her notebook and pencil from its home beneath the boiler. ‘I’ll need your details for my register.’
‘If you could hurry. It’s almost six.’
Mary Anne jerked up from what she was writing. ‘Six? It can’t be!’
It was, and her shrewdness turned to panic as a sudden hammering echoed through the house and out into the backyard.
Mrs Riley nodded squirrel-like at the crack in the door towards the back of the house.
‘Sounds like yer old man’s home. Been down the Red Cow no doubt and now wantin’ feedin’.’
Mary Anne bristled and pursed her lips. Henry was her problem. She wanted to say ‘Mind your own business,’ but she wanted Mrs Riley to leave and quickly. ‘Here’s your receipt.’
A slim slip torn from the bottom of the notebook, the bottom corner numbered to coincide with the top corner, was swiftly exchanged for the five shillings.
‘You’d better go now.’ If she sounded rude, she didn’t care. She didn’t like Mrs Riley. She didn’t like her sort. She was only here on sufferance because she was in a pickle.
Thrusting two half-crowns into Mrs Riley’s podgy palm, Mary Anne bundled the woman out of the door, pointing her towards the back gate. ‘Get out that way. I don’t want my husband to see you.’
Mrs Riley waved a hand as though she were swatting a fly. ‘I knows what you means. That five bob ’uld be over the bar of the nearest pub. I used to ’ave one like that – drunk before dinner and sozzled before supper … Powdered glass – put that in his grub. That’ll calm ’im down,’ said Mrs Riley. ‘Killed mine stone dead.’
‘Be on yer way. I’ll mark you down and trust you without yer signature. You’ve got the five bob, now it’s five and six if you want the tablecloth back. You’ve got a week.’
She wondered whether Mrs Riley really had used powdered glass to do away with her husband.
‘You know where to find me, Mrs Randall. Every woman around here knows where to find me …’ Hesitating, she grinned as though there was a secret bond between them that would forever remain that way – if she chose it to be so. ‘You might be needin’ to see me again, specially if the stuff don’t work.’
Mary Anne replied through gritted teeth. ‘Well, let’s hope it do.’ Mentally, she promised herself she’d do all in her power not to allow the situation to arise again, though how she’d keep Henry Randall from claiming his ‘rights’ would be far from
easy. He sulked if she refused him, his temper building up like a spoiled child about to throw a tantrum, although in his case it was normally a fist.
The hammering at the front door intensified. He never came round to the back door – thank God. Slamming the ledger shut she hurriedly put it back into its hiding place.
‘All right, all right,’ she shouted, safe in the knowledge that he couldn’t possibly hear. ‘That door will be off its hinges going on like that.’
She threw the tablecloth in the cupboard above the boiler. She had a sneaking suspicion Mrs Riley wouldn’t be back for it. She certainly hoped not. The vision of it sparkling on her parlour table wouldn’t go away.
She hid the bottle behind the boiler with the ledger. No one must know she had it, and no one would. It was rare for her girls to help her with the washing, and then only under duress and later in the day when her clients had all done their business. Some husbands worked shifts. Few wives were inclined to let their other halves know that their wages had to be supplemented; men had pride. Still others didn’t want their husbands to know that they had vices. It was amazing what went on in Kent Street – some women drank, some couldn’t resist a flutter on cards or on the horses and still others couldn’t stop buying hats or shoes.
Henry Albert Randall was still beating the hell out of the front door and singing in a deep baritone that must have all the neighbours hanging out of their windows. Her husband’s efforts to find the keyhole when he was drunk always attracted an audience, and her face reddened at the prospect. Why did she put up with it? She knew why. For her children.
The sound of raucous singing …
Onward Christian soldiers, Marching as to war …