Ruby Darke found out the hard way that when you are about to die, your past life really does ﬂash by in front of your eyes. She was working late in her ofﬁce at her ﬂagship store near Marble Arch in London. Her assistant Jane, who had been with her since almost the beginning of the Darkes department store phenomenon, had gone off at ﬁve with a cheery ‘See you tomorrow’. Not realizing, of course, that she wouldn’t be seeing Ruby tomorrow at all.
All afternoon, with total concentration, Ruby had been mapping out her ideas for the expansion of the childrenswear departments throughout the chain. She wanted to include more daywear. A fuller range of gorgeous party frocks. To call in a new designer for some fresh ideas to zap up the baby range, where sales were ﬂat. And schoolwear. Why had Darkes never thought to do schoolwear?
Now it was getting late. Finally, Ruby stretched, stood up, locked her papers away. She gathered up her black cashmere coat and stepped outside. Rob looked up expectantly from his chair. Rob was her minder. Courtesy of Michael Ward, who was her lover and – not to put too ﬁne a point on it – a big-time crook. She liked Rob, and found the young man’s big, solid presence reassuring – but she hated the necessity of having him with her. Rob was in his mid-thirties. He had the muscled bulk of a rugby centre forward. Treacle-blond crew-cut hair.Watchful khaki-green eyes.And a minimal line in chat.
‘Ready then?’ she asked, forcing a smile. It wasn’t Rob’s fault she’d been threatened, after all.
He nodded and stood up, and together they went down in the lift and through the long corridor to the staff exit at the back of the store. They passed the night security guard, just coming on duty. Rob swung open the heavy ﬁre door, and Ruby stepped outside ahead of him while he paused for a word with the guard. Slowly, the door swung closed and she was standing outside alone.
Ruby inhaled deeply, glancing around, blinking, trying to acclimatize her vision as she’d come from strip lighting to almost total darkness. The night was frosty, the air bitingly cold.
There was a motor running somewhere out here in the back alley; her car, with her chauffeur at the wheel.
It wasn’t glamorous out here. Front of Darkes department store was immaculate, chic, polished and brightly enticing. She often paused outside the frontage of one or another of her stores to cast a ﬁercely proprietorial eye over the window displays to make sure that they were perfect. The staff quivered with nerves whenever she did this, or when she stalked in unannounced, as she liked to do. Service and quality had to be just so. She wasn’t called the Ice Queen of Retail for nothing.
But here was the belly, the bowels of the store. Packing crates. Bins. Not much lighting. Big sliding warehouse doors for goods inwards and out.
Ruby shivered a little.The motor she could hear had been idling, but now – suddenly – it roared. Ruby glanced around, trying to locate the car she could hear. Ben, her driver, never drove like that. Her car was a sleek purring Mercedes, and Ben was old. Too old for boy-racer stunts.
‘What the . . . ?’ she wondered aloud, and then a set of headlights blazed on, blinding her with their glare.
The engine screamed.
The car was coming straight at her.
The noise was deafening, a high, shrieking whine. For a moment she stood there, frozen in place, disbelieving.When the car was nearly on top of her, she got her legs to move. She threw herself to one side. Felt herself being jolted and scraped as she hit the cobbles and rolled. She connected painfully, full-speed, with the back wall of the store, knocking all the breath from her body.
She crawled to her knees, dazed, disbelieving, and stared after the car that had – Jesus, so nearly! – mown her down. Its red tailgate lights were lit up like the eyes of a demon. It screeched to a halt twenty yards away.
Then white lights came on.
She saw a faint shadowy ﬁgure behind the wheel move, look back.
Heard the hurried crunch of gears.
The car shot back towards her, its exhaust steaming in the cold night air.
She was rigid with fear, unable to get to her feet. Her eyes were glued to the car that was going to crush the life out of her. And as she stared at it, the past unravelled in her head – a blurring kaleidoscope of love and loss, hope and death. Rob wasn’t there. It had all been for nothing. She was never going to ﬁnd
the answers to it all. She was going to die.
Book One: 1
Ruby Darke was eighteen the ﬁrst time her dad’s belt drew blood. It was a Sunday and as usual Ted Darke was maudlin and moody after a heavy Saturday night’s boozing. Also as usual, he had been to church, clutching a tatty little bouquet of wild ﬂowers to lay upon his wife’s grave in the church cemetery.
Since his wife’s death, all Ted wanted to do was pray to God and drink himself into a stupor. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the beneﬁts of one might cancel out the other. Ruby’s eldest brother Charlie had gone to church with him, as always. They were mates together, Dad and Charlie, although Charlie wasn’t really much interested in any sort of gospel – except the gospel according to Charlie Darke.
Dad and Charlie drank together, and held more or less the same views: that God helped those who helped themselves, and that the powers that be had never done them any favours – so they lived by their own rules and to hell with anyone else’s.
Her other brother Joe was twenty-three, and he was different to Ted and Charlie. Big, quiet, strong as a bull. He had none of Charlie’s ﬁre and aggression. None of Dad’s bone-deep belligerence.
Today when Dad and Charlie came back from the church it was obvious they’d stopped off at the pub on the way home. Their rolling gait and their loud-mouthed utterances made Ruby step very carefully around the place. She made the tea, keeping her head down.
She wished they’d stop going to the bloody church. Even more, she wished they wouldn’t visit Mum’s grave afterwards. It seemed like something Ted Darke felt he was duty-bound to do, but it depressed him; then he would stop at the Rag and Staff and get plastered. And come home and cuff Joe, big as he was, round the ear, and then lay into Ruby.
Ruby, most of all.
And of course she deserved it.
After all, it was through her birth that Ted Darke had lost his wife Alicia, and his children their mother. He said so often enough, mostly while he rained blows down upon his daughter’s cringing head.
‘Why did the good Lord inﬂict you on me?’ he’d wheeze, hobbling on his bad foot. ‘God curse you!’
Ruby had asked once if she could go and visit the grave too. Dad had reacted with fury.
‘You don’t go near there, you bitch!’ he’d yelled, and slapped her.
Because he was right, wasn’t he? It was all her fault.
If she hadn’t been born, her mother wouldn’t have been lost.
She never asked again.
‘Little black cow,’ he spat at her.
Then he’d get tearful and ramble on, addressing Ruby sometimes and at others his dead wife. ‘Why’d you do it, girl, eh? My lovely Alicia. You loved me once, I know you did . . .’
Not even Joe, big amiable Joe, dared intervene. And Charlie just sat there and sneered.
Sometimes Ruby stood in front of the mould-spotted mirror in her bedroom and repeated her father’s words back to herself.
Little black cow.
But she wasn’t black. Not really. The mirror told her that she was the colour of pale milky coffee, and her features weren’t like those of what everyone around the East End of London called coloured folk, the ones who were fresh off the boat from warmer climes. Were those people mad? Given the choice, she’d have stopped in Jamaica – stuff this place. What with Hitler raining bombs down on their heads every night and the English weather, it was weird to consider that some people actually came here by choice.
No, she wasn’t black. Her reﬂection told her that her nose was straight and almost delicate. Her lips were full, her eyes were dark but glowing with warm chestnut ﬂecks. Her hair was wavy, but not tightly curled. She wasn’t black. Not full black, anyway. In fact, she had heard really black people passing in the street, pointing her out, whispering she was ‘high yellow’ – whatever that meant. She was tall and well proportioned. She was attractive. But no one ever told her so. To her family, to all the people who lived around here, she was a curiosity; a misﬁt. The whites looked down on her, and the few blacks she’d come across eyed her with suspicion.
She wanted to shout back at her father, but the habits of the beaten and abused were too deeply instilled in her. So she took the beatings, the endless beatings, suffered the bruises – always on the body, rarely on the face; he wasn’t a complete
drunken fool, even though he behaved like one. And she deserved it. Didn’t she? Because she was half-caste. And she’d killed her mother by being born to her. She wasn’t the same colour as Charlie and Joe. Not at all. They were white as pints of milk, both of them. She tried to work it all out, to make sense of it. But she couldn’t.
There were no pictures of their mother anywhere in the house, not a single one. No one would explain to Ruby why she was dark and the rest of her family was pale-skinned. Not even Joe, who never treated her badly, who was out in the yard, in the privy when it happened. No one would say they had different mothers, or that the mother who had given birth to two handsome white boys had later indulged in some sort of dalliance that had resulted in a tar-brush ‘mixture’ like Ruby.
‘Cross between a bull bitch and a window shutter,’ her dad said of her, eyeing her with disgust.
But he’d kept her. Put a roof over her head, seen that she was fed and clothed.
Yeah, because I’m his burden, thought Ruby. I’m the cross he has to bear, to make himself look good among those holier-than-thou old farts down the church.
The whole thing boiling and fulminating in her mind, she kept her head down as always. Quiet, timid little Ruby. Tomorrow she would be in Dad’s corner shop, helping out like she always did. Charlie and Joe never helped in the shop. She knew damned well they should have been signed up and over in France by now, doing their bit for King and country, but they weren’t.
‘It’s the land of the greased palm,’ Charlie would say with a grin. ‘Pay a wedge and people soon look the other way.’
It seemed to be true. Charlie and Joe and the gang of hoodlums who had trailed around after them ever since school stripped lead and iron from emergency homes. They stole hurricane lamps used in the blackout to mark obstructions. They insinuated themselves into workplaces and then pilfered food and cigarettes from the canteens and sold them on to hotels at a proﬁt.
Dad was unbothered by all this ungodly activity going on right under his nose. Charlie could do no wrong in Dad’s eyes. But Ruby always felt uneasy at what Charlie and his gang got up to – it was always Charlie who was the instigator, never Joe – but you didn’t snitch, you never did that. You couldn’t grass up your family, not even if you despised them. It just wasn’t done.
So Charlie, Joe and their boys ducked and dived, dodged around streets looting bombed-out buildings and ﬂogging the proceeds far and wide.While she, the hated one, worked her arse off in Dad’s corner shop, weighing out rations to moaning housewives.
She poured the tea – and then it happened.
The pot dripped from the spout. It always did, it was an old enamel pot and heavy; her arm trembled when she had to lift it. The scalding liquid fell on her father’s leg, staining his best suit trousers, burning through to his skin.
‘You stupid bitch!’ He shot up off his seat, swatting at the wet place, his whole face suffused with redness as temper grabbed hold of him.
‘Sorry! Sorry, Dad,’ Ruby said hurriedly, putting the pot down. ‘I’ll get a cloth . . .’
‘You’ve burned me, you silly mare,’ he roared.
‘Sorry! I’m sorry, Dad, really,’ Ruby gabbled.
‘You fucking well will be,’ he said, pulling his belt from around his waist. Despite his bad foot, he could move horrifyingly fast. He lunged forward and whacked the strip of leather around her bare legs.
‘No!’ Ruby screamed. All the time she was aware of Charlie sitting there, grinning. Finding it funny that his sister was being beaten.Tears of humiliation and pain started to course down her cheeks. ‘No!’
The belt was drawn back and whipped around her arms. The buckle caught her, tearing her ﬂesh.
‘What’s going . . .’ asked Joe, coming through from the privy, buttoning his ﬂy. He saw what was happening and turned on his heel. He went back out into the yard. Ruby would always remember that.
The belt struck again, again, again.
Ruby cringed, saying, Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to do it, and still the belt kept lashing her. The pain was awful, and blood was spattering down on her Sunday-best dress, the cornﬂower-blue one she loved so much. It would be ruined.
‘Stupid little whore,’ spat Ted, and then he was gone, lurching away from her, reeling out into the pantry to get to the sink and get the stain out of his trousers before it set.
In the sitting room, the only sound was Ruby sobbing.
Charlie stood up.
‘Ah, shut yer yap,’ he said, and slapped her, hard, across the face.
Excerpted from Nameless by Jessie Keane. Copyright © 2012 by Jessie Keane.
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