Authors: Lizzie Lane
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Lizzie Lane
Trapped in a marriage to the wrong man ...
Struggling to make ends meet, Mary Anne Randall is offered no help by her drunk and abusive husband. A pawnbroking business run from the wash house at the back of her home is the only way she can hope to keep her three kids fed and clothed.
But, as storm clouds gather over Europe, can Mary Anne break free from her loveless marriage for what might be a last chance at love ...?
Previously published as
Lizzie Lane was born and brought up in South Bristol and has worked in law, the probation service, tourism and as a supporting artiste in such dramas as
, which are both set in Bristol.
She is married with one daughter and currently lives with her husband on a 46-foot sailing yacht, dividing her time between Bath and the Med. Sometimes they mix with the jet set and sometimes they just chill out in a bay with a computer, a warm breeze and a gin and tonic!
A Christmas Wish
It was two weeks following Prime Minister Chamberlain declaring war on Germany that Mary Anne Randall knew for certain she had a little problem.
Her neighbour Biddy Young crossed one knee over the other, puffing and wheezing in an attempt to straighten a stocking seam. ‘Done the hot baths?’
They were sitting in Mary Anne’s washhouse, a brick-built lean-to tacked on to the back wall. The house nestled in a squat terrace built in the nineteenth century and typical of many in the city of Bristol and way beyond. It had a door and a window and a hole in the pan tiles where the stack puffed steam from the boiling washing.
Mary Anne grimaced as Biddy tugged the grimy toe of her stocking through the hole of her peep-toed shoe. Biddy had a tinsel-bright glamour, face powder and lipstick applied after the briefest of washes and stockings worn until the toes were black or the legs laddered beyond repair.
Normally, Mary Anne wouldn’t have taken much notice. Biddy was entertaining and usually made her laugh, but not today; her body was telling her things weren’t quite the same and it worried her.
Fixing her mind on the subject of conversation helped
overcome her queasy stomach. So did looking at the top of Biddy’s peroxide-blonde head rather than her feet.
‘I’ve tried Penny Royal and senna pods, plus half a bottle of gin; I even rode our Lizzie’s bike over the cobbles, but that didn’t work either.’ Wincing at the memory, she rubbed her backside. ‘And I’ve still got the bruises.’
Biddy chortled, her face reddening with the effort of laughing and still trying to straighten her seams.
Even now in the midst of her trouble, Mary Anne touched the moss-covered brickwork with something akin to reverence. The washhouse was far more than somewhere to boil the bed sheets. It was a sign of defiance, of independence. Its damp bricks made her fingers tingle like the high note of a chilly tune.
Biddy pursed her bright red lips. Even when she wasn’t going anywhere, she never forgot her lipstick.
‘Not a good time to get in the pudding club – not with a bloody war looming.’
‘And not at my age,’ added Mary Anne, trying hard not to stare at the bristles lining Biddy’s upper lip. She shook her head in exasperation. ‘It’s just so … so …
Biddy looked at her as though she could well understand why her old man, Henry Randall, had found her hard to resist. Mary Anne hadn’t run to fat like a lot of forty-plus women around, certainly not like Biddy whose belly sat like a blubbery doughnut on her equally flabby thighs. ‘You’re good fer yer age, Mary Anne.’
Mary Anne barely stopped herself turning bright red. The years had been kind. The reflection she saw every day in the mirror had wide-set greyish-green eyes, a neat chin and shoulder-length hair a few shades duskier than the gold of her youth, and a glorious complement to her smooth complexion. Her legs were long, her waist trim and she walked
as though the best years were still ahead of her and ripe for the taking.
Reading the look in Biddy’s eyes, Mary Anne touched the pinpoints of crimson erupting on her cheeks despite her attempts to control them. ‘I didn’t entice him, Biddy. I believe in acting my age, and so should he.’
Biddy mumbled as she placed her pudding of a foot back on the ground. ‘Fat chance you got of getting him to do that. My Alf certainly don’t act ’is age. He’s just a bloody, big kid who thinks he’s Kent Street’s answer to Rudolf Valentino.’
Mary Anne smiled though her thoughts tapped like nervous fingers in her head. Snatches of conversation she’d had when counting out coins into a desperate hand in exchange for a pledged item – a nice piece of china, a clock, even a wedding ring; everyone was desperate at some time or another, some for the same reason as she.
‘I hear there’s a woman in Old Market …’
‘Mrs Riley! Oh, yeah, she’ll get rid of it for you all right, but mind,’ said Biddy, one well-bitten finger held up in warning, ‘she do know how to charge, by Christ if she don’t!’
‘I can pay.’
Biddy sniffed as her gaze wandered around their shabby surroundings. The bare bricks of the washhouse wall were green with moss and mould, natural in a place continually absorbing the steam from a wash load of boiling sheets. Her eyes finally came to rest on the set of cupboard doors set into one wall. They were big and bare of paint, but Biddy knew what was behind them. Mary Anne ran a thriving business – thanks in part to her.
Married to a bloke who put a third of his wages over the bar of the Red Cow didn’t make for an easy life. For years, Mary Anne had scouted round for ways in which to make ends meet. At first she’d bought clothes at jumble sales, washed, pressed
and sold them to needy neighbours in the area. From there it was a skip and a hop to pawnbroking.
The business had started three years ago. Biddy had been in need of money. The pawnbroker – a proper shop complete with the three balls hanging above the door – was shut.
‘I need a shilling for Fred’s tea and “uncle’s” is shut,’ she’d wailed, brandishing a pair of children’s boots. ‘The Sally Army gave ’em to me. They’re almost new.’
Mary Anne had eyed the boots enviously, wishing the Salvation Army had given them to her. Not much chance of that, she thought with a mix of regret and pride. She wasn’t as poor – or as careless – as Biddy, thank God.
Stanley, her youngest, had been without a pair at the time. Her thoughts had turned to the little bit of money inherited from a penny policy her mother had paid into all her life. So far she’d managed to keep the windfall secret from Henry, but had not quite decided what to do with it for the best. Biddy had given her an idea.
‘I’ll give you a shilling against them,’ she’d said after a closer inspection. ‘Your Cyril grown out of them already?’
Biddy had shrugged and held out her hand. ‘He’s used to going without boots.’
Biddy’s youngest was eight years old, smoked butts he picked up from the gutter, and swore almost as much as his father. Alf Young worked on the docks when he could, weighing-on like a lot of men, sometimes working and most days not, depending on whether his face fitted with the foreman. In Mary Anne’s opinion, quite understandable in a way: he had an ugly face. God knows what Biddy had ever seen in him.
he drank too much!
Her own thoughts pulled her up short suddenly.
Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle black!
She’d laughed at the thought and called herself a fool. Who
was she to speak? Look at Henry. Look what he’d turned into, not that he’d always been that way. Their marriage might have been different if she’d kept her mouth shut and the truth to herself, but at the time he’d been overjoyed to have her. The First World War had taken the life of her sweetheart, Edward. Henry had been her parents’ choice and she’d been happy to go along with it at the time, but she’d misjudged him badly. His character had changed after she’d told him she’d given birth to Edward’s child before they were married. The child had been adopted, and she’d explained that Edward had been killed. It was then that he’d seen through her parents’ collusion and felt duped, his pride hurt and his affection for her vanishing overnight.
Adjusting to the new circumstances of their relationship she had doted on her family, making sure they had the best of everything she could give them. Loving them helped compensate for Henry’s shortcomings and eased her guilt.
In the process of paying for the boots, Mary Anne had rolled up her skirt and rummaged in the pocket sewn on the leg of her knickers.
Biddy had eyed the lace-edged pocket.
‘I might sew on one of they meself. Keep my Alf’s hands off it. Does it work with your Henry?’
‘Safer than the Bank of England. It’s not my knickers he’s after – it’s what they cover!’
Biddy laughed. ‘Men! Like bloody animals they are!’
Mary Anne handed her the money. ‘I lend you a shilling, you pay me back one shilling and thruppence or I sell the boots.’
That was how it had started. Biddy never did pay back the money and Mary Anne kept the boots, only selling them once Stanley had grown out of them. But there were other times and other neighbours needing a loan to tide them over, and so her business had grown. She’d turned a good profit.
The whole neighbourhood – or at least the women in it – had got wind of what she was doing and as her rates were cheaper than the real pawnbroker and it wasn’t so far to go, she didn’t have a bad little trade.
‘You’ve got a good business ’ere,’ said Biddy. ‘And yer kids are grown up. Love ’em as you may, babies can cramp yer lifestyle. They certainly did mine, and as we get older, well …’
‘I’ll send her a note,’ said Mary Anne. ‘I’ve got a stamp somewhere.’
‘You could send a note with Muriel Harrison’s husband,’ suggested Biddy.
Mary Anne shook her head. Muriel’s husband was a bus driver used to taking notes a bit wide of his route – not that Old Market was any problem. He was on that route – Knowle West to Eastville. All he’d have to do was pull up, say he was off to take a leak and nip round the back of Old Market to where Nellie Riley lived.
‘I prefer to keep my business to myself.’ She threw Biddy a warning look. ‘And I’d prefer you to do the same if you don’t mind.’
Biddy threw up her hands as though astonished that Mary Anne could possibly suspect her of doing otherwise.
‘I won’t breathe a word. Everything will be fine. Give it a fortnight and you’ll be right as rain. Her concoctions don’t taste all that grand, but they do work – I’ve heard hundreds say so, and anyway, even if it don’t, she’s got other methods, if you know what I mean.’
Mary Anne tried to ignore the last comment. The thought of having to resort to anything other than drinking one of Mrs Riley’s brews was anathema and she shivered at the thought of it.
‘I hear she’s discreet,’ she said thoughtfully, pulling on her boots so she could return to digging up potatoes from the
garden for dinner. She liked gardening, was proud of her busy little plot, but only grew things that could be eaten. Rows of cabbages divided potatoes from peas, runner beans climbed up canes and raspberries, gooseberries and blackcurrant bushes stood shoulder to shoulder against the fence.
‘She is, but don’t hurt to give her directions. After all, you’re the one paying. Up to you how you wants things done.’
‘I’ve got Stanley to think of.’
‘You mean if he has a good day, he might be wandering about.’
Mary Anne nodded. Stanley had a bad chest at the beginning of the year and she’d been sick with worry. He was puny for a ten-year-old and caught any coughs, colds and sneezes that were going around. So she protected him, some said too much.
‘I’ll send her it by post,’ said Mary Anne. ‘I want to keep it a secret. I don’t want Henry to find out.’
Biddy sipped at the tea slowly going cold in the cup balanced on the boiler. ‘Of course you don’t, love.’
Before closing the cupboard door, Mary Anne glanced over her shoulder. Biddy was a gossip; a little bribery, she decided, wouldn’t go amiss.
‘No. Here,’ she said, handing her a pair of silk stockings. ‘I don’t know who pledged these but it was over six months ago. Can you make use of them?’
Biddy’s eyes grew round as she fingered the fine silk. ‘Ooow! They’re nice. If you’re really sure …’
‘Go on. You might as well have them.’
‘Thanks, I will.’ After rolling the stockings into a ball, Biddy shoved them down her cleavage.
Mary Anne shook her head. ‘Haven’t you got a pocket?’
‘Not in this frock. It’s like a second skin. Must ’ave shrunk in the wash. You know ’ow it is.’
Mary Anne moved a pile of washing from chair to boiler lid in order to hide her smile. Biddy had a good appetite; her body had got larger, not the dress smaller.
The rolls of fat resettled in different positions as she got up to leave. ‘Well I ’ope I’ve been of some help. Best of luck with Mrs Riley. And thanks for the stockings.’ She looked like the cat that got the cream.
Mary Anne smiled. ‘What are friends for?’
Biddy sighed with satisfaction and swigged back the last of the cold tea.
If she knew the stockings were a bribe, she didn’t let on. Biddy might be a friend, but she gathered and gave out gossip quicker than the milkman delivered two pints of gold top. Mary Anne hoped she had given her enough for her silence.
Michael Maurice handed his passport to Mr Abner Crombie of Crombie, Benson and Spyte, Attorneys at Law in Small Street. He sat rubbing his hands together, uncomfortable in alien surroundings in a building as dark as his thoughts.
The office walls were panelled in dark oak and the floorboards squealed underfoot as though being tortured. Lead-paned windows opened out over the cobbled street outside where costermongers sold fruit from barrows, and barrels from a brewery dray thundered into the cellar of the Assize Court pub next door.
Mr Crombie raised his eyebrows. ‘A British passport?’
‘I was born here.’ Michael spoke slowly and precisely, anxious to impress by clear pronunciation that he had indeed been born in England.
‘Mr Rosenburg was your mother’s brother-in-law.’
‘That is true.’
Mr Crombie nodded without taking his eyes from the black and white photograph of a serious-looking Michael taken three years previously.
‘And you have lived in Amsterdam for most of your life.’
Michael nodded. ‘That is true.’
The lie rolled easily off his tongue. He’d decided it was
sensible not to mention having lived in Germany since he was twelve years old. He was in England now and anti-German feelings were running high.
Mr Crombie gave him a direct look, blinked and said, ‘I see.’
It occurred to Michael that the solicitor knew the truth. He swallowed the fear that rolled into his throat like a ball of wire. He couldn’t know. It wasn’t possible. The letter had come to him via a cousin’s address in Amsterdam. His cousin had known that the family had moved on from Holland but had not divulged the truth to this solicitor, a fact for which Michael was grateful.
The smell of dust and drains drifted through the window. Michael refrained from wrinkling his nose. He did not want to cause offence.
For his part, Mr Crombie, though not appearing to, studied Michael Maurice more intently than he would have before war was declared. He was not at all what he had expected, too young in his opinion to be left any business at all. His uncle had been swarthy, dark and very stout. The dark blond locks of the man sitting in front of him curled over his coat collar. No Englishman would wear his hair that long, thought Crombie, who had an inherent distrust of anyone who didn’t conform to his own, musty and very old English style. Although he admitted Michael Maurice had an open face, such faces, in Crombie’s experience, could be deceiving. On top of that, he didn’t like being scrutinised quite so intensely. An Englishman wouldn’t study another person to such an extent, certainly not until they’d met on a number of occasions. That didn’t mean, however, that he couldn’t do exactly the same thing and form an instant opinion. His opinion was that Michael Maurice had what he termed ‘presence’. Deep-set blue eyes gazed steadily at each movement he took. His shoulders seemed tense,
though perhaps they were just muscular; if so, they matched the strength in his face.
‘Everything seems in order,’ said Crombie, handing him back the passport plus a brown envelope containing a bundle of crisp five-pound notes. ‘As I told you, there is only a small amount of cash.’
The solicitor nodded. ‘Times have changed. There’s a lot of competition in the pawnbroking business nowadays. I’ve heard of people doing business from their front parlours.’
‘Not proper shops?’ Michael sounded surprised.
‘No. Not really legal either.’
‘I will make the shop better profitable.’
profitable,’ Crombie corrected.
Michael flushed at his slip in grammar. ‘That is right.’
‘I have the keys here.’ He reached into a desk drawer and brought out a bundle of keys. ‘Thomas Routledge, the caretaker I placed in your uncle’s shop following his demise, is still in situ. Morose would be the best word to describe him. Would you like me to come with you in case he takes to being surly?’
‘I can manage,’ said Michael, rising to his feet at the same time as taking the bunch of keys from Mr Crombie’s hand.
The two men shook hands. ‘It won’t be easy for you, especially seeing as you’ve never ran a business before.’
‘I will learn.’
‘I’m reminded of an old saying that there’s no sentiment in business. I’m afraid your uncle did not adhere to those words. He had a soft heart.’
Michael blinked but said no more. He didn’t want to say that his heart was dead or that ruthlessness could easily override sentiment if survival was involved. He didn’t want to mention anything about his flight from Germany – nothing, nothing at all. At least, not yet: the memories were too painful.
The solicitor stayed behind his desk watching as Michael ducked beneath an overhead beam before gaining the door. It occurred to him that Michael had not smiled even once: a grim man for one so young.
Three brass balls hung above the shop door. Wooden shutters hid the windows and the door was firmly shut, the paintwork faded and peeling like burned skin.
Shielding his eyes from the bright September sunlight, Michael took a step back into the road and regarded his inheritance: at least one room on the ground floor, plus the shop, perhaps two above that and perhaps one or two attic rooms at the very top.
There was no sign of the caretaker, so he took it upon himself to enter. The key grated in the lock. An overhead bell jangled as he pushed the door open into a small porch enclosed by wire screens. Another bell hung beside a hatch arrangement. The notice above the hatch said that in the interests of privacy, only two people at any one time would be dealt with. The rest must wait outside.
He wasn’t sure whether this was more to do with security than privacy.
No one came in answer to the bell. He looked around for a door into the rest of the premises but could see nothing. The wire screens finished about two feet from the ceiling, blocking his view. Taking hold as far up the screen as he could, he laced his fingers into the holes, placed one foot on the polished counter, and heaved himself up and over.
He found himself surrounded by glass-fronted cupboards filled with all manner of china, cameras, scientific and navigation instruments, musical instruments and, in barred and locked cupboards, an assortment of guns, sabres and assegais. Labels sprouted from brown paper parcels heaped along the
shelving at the back. There were also drawers marked ‘gold’, ‘silver’, ‘wedding’ and ‘engagement’. A pile of ledgers sat in a corner on the counter.
He’d expected to see the caretaker, but no one appeared.
The living room at the back of the shop was exactly how he’d imagined it would be. Sepia photographs of family ancestors in stiff poses hung from the walls. The paintwork was dark, the wallpaper from the previous century unbearably ornate and furry beneath his fingertips. A chenille pelmet hung from the high mantelpiece and a tea caddy made to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria sat next to a black onyx clock.
There was a kitchen beyond the living room where a teapot and two cups and saucers sat on the table. He reached out and touched the teapot. It was still warm and there were dregs of tea at the bottoms of the cups, a trace of lipstick around the rim of one. Someone was in the house. He listened intently, heard a small noise and looked up at the ceiling.
If Thomas Routledge was up there, why hadn’t he heard him? What was he doing that distracted his attention?
The stairs were so narrow that his shoulders grazed the walls. The landing at the top was surprisingly wide and there was an arched window at one end. He paused as the heavy lace curtain billowed inwards in the breeze. The window, attractive as it was, looked out on a backyard and a tree vivid with red leaves.
A floorboard squeaked beneath his foot and brought an exclamation from behind a bedroom door followed by frenzied muttering.
Without preamble, Michael opened the door. The room smelled of sweaty bodies and recent sex. The man was naked. The girl was young, possibly no more than fourteen, though she had a worldly face.
The man pulled the bedclothes over his lean shanks. ‘We’re closed!’ he barked, but looked nervous.
The girl giggled, her small breasts jiggling in sympathy.
‘No. It is open,’ said Michael. ‘You were supposed to be running the business not lying in bed.’
Realising who he was talking to, the man adopted a nervous grin. ‘I can explain—’
Michael stayed his tongue but made his feelings very obvious. The curtains tore as he pulled them back, the window jamming then squealing as he pushed it open. Fresh air funnelled in.
‘’Ere, just a minute …’
Michael pointed at him. ‘Get out of my shop, and take the girl with you.’
The girl opened and closed her legs, giving him an unobstructed view of what was on offer. ‘I only charge ten shillings, mister,’ she said, her rouged lips smiling invitingly as though she were the most glamorous woman he’d ever set eyes on.
She aroused no desire, but only memories of beds once slept in and events he’d prefer to forget.
‘Out,’ he said, his words as controlled as in the solicitor’s office. ‘Out,’ he said again, his fingers tightly gripping the door handle.
Routledge shuffled his trousers before putting one hairy leg inside the brown, cheap material, closely followed by the other. ‘I’m still owed five pounds,’ he grumbled.
Michael regarded Routledge with contempt. He’d met plenty of his sort, the coarse exterior hiding a matching though cowardly inner soul. His inclination was to take hold of the man by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and throw him out through the window, glass, shutters and all, but he couldn’t. He mustn’t. He had to tread carefully in a country where foreigners were viewed with more suspicion than they’d ever been.
Although it grieved him, he peeled off a fiver from the pile in the envelope.
‘And then there’s expenses …’
Michael hardened his look.
Routledge was wily enough to know when he was pushing his luck. He rubbed at the three-day growth of stubble sprouting from his cheeks and chin. ‘I can see you think I’ve had more than a fair share.’ He glanced at the girl. ‘Maybe you’re right, sir, maybe you’re right.’
The girl squealed as he took her elbow and pushed her out of the door in front of him, even though she was only half dressed.
‘You owes me,’ she whined.
‘Let’s go down the pub. I’ll pay you there.’
Michael followed them out to the door, where he wrenched the spare set of keys from Routledge’s hand, then locked and bolted the door behind them.
Once it was closed, he sighed with relief, glad to be inside the shuttered building even though the smell of neglect was strong and the sound of water dripping from a faulty tap echoed like halting footsteps.
Out in the meagre kitchen, he found a larder containing tins of food, some cheese, ham and bread. He also found a bottle of Camp Coffee, made himself a thick, black cupful, and winced as the bite of chicory crawled along his tongue.
The living room was comfortable though dark. After eating and half finishing the coffee, he settled down to doze, the tiring journey, the fear of what the future held finally catching up with him – except he didn’t sleep. Something caught his eye.
In the corner of the room, he saw – wooden, old-fashioned, but compelling – a gramophone. Next to it was a pile of records. Like a man starved, he slid one after another off the pile, his
eyes widening and his heart lifting. Jazz, popular songs of the day and classical; the latter were in the majority.
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 …