I’ll tell you what I know for a fact. My name is Anne Prunty McKeever but they call me Nan, and always have. I might have been born at Chatham, or Portsmouth, or any other dockyard town, in the month of April 1806, and as my mother could no more call to mind the exact day than she could the place, I keep the 23rd as my anniversary, which is the feast day of St George and good enough for any Englishwoman. This much is certain: my first memory is that I’m sitting in my shift on a cold flag floor. I think I have a peg doll in my hand. Suddenly there’s a great rumbling, more felt than heard, and the window above me seems to unmake itself. Wood and glass rain down on me, and then a leg, a man’s leg, or rather the lower part of it, lands beside me, black and smouldering, and a voice says, ‘Lord alive, I reckon that’s Harry Pipes’s boot.’
That was my mother’s voice, and she was right. The leg blown into our house did belong to Harry Pipes. The rest of his body was discovered on the outhouse roof of the Crown and Anchor, composed in eternal slumber, and the cause of the mishap was that Soapy Mary had been doing her wash on the foreshore and decided to rest a while and take a smoke. She’d tapped out the bowl of her pipe, which was still warm and so chanced to set a spark to a trail of powder leaked from barrels when they were unloaded. And sadly for Harry Pipes, and many other unfortunates who happened to be in the vicinity, the trail smouldered and exploded those same barrels that should have been shifted to a magazine but weren’t. They were still piled on the quayside. Which explosion was a famous occurrence in Portsmouth in the summer of 1809. And that’s how I know that wherever I came into the world, by the time I was three we were dwelling in Pompey. I didn’t learn to call it Portsmouth till I’d had the benefit of an education.
When I was a child I believed Pompey was the centre of the world. There was a constant traffic of people and ships and the town smelled of turpentine and freshly sawed timber, which signified that there was employment for every man and woman who wanted it. And as if that wasn’t evidence enough of our importance, the summer I was eight or perhaps nine, the Emperor Alexander came all the way from Russia to admire us. He was brought to Portsmouth by the Prince Regent for a review of our glorious fleet and, as I remember it, for three days and nights there was no work done at the dockyard and very little sleep was had. The whole town was filled with eminences. The King of Prussia came, and at least three of our own royal dukes. It seemed as if there were cannon salutes every minute.
Every morning, barges all done up in gold and scarlet took the eminences out to Spithead to watch manoeuvres, and in the evenings there were dinners at the Governor’s House and illuminations as soon as it grew dark. Mother ran an alehouse in those days. Old-timers still called it the Duchess of Fife, even though she had renamed it the Duchess of Prunty and had a painted board to advertise the fact. As Mother was kept very busy at business, I was free to roam about and see all the comings and goings for the fleet review. You may be interested to learn that the Duke of Clarence had a considerable belly, but the Duke of York’s was bigger and the Prince Regent’s rounder still, which seemed the correct order of things, like a set of Chinese boxes.
A dockyard town is a lively, prosperous place as long as there’s a war to feed, but when peace comes, especially a great, settled peace such as we had after Waterloo, times grow very hard. Sailors were paid off, ships were laid up in ordinary, and riggers and caulkers and coppersmiths, men who’d always found work, lost their places. Still, even in thin times men will have their drink, and we should have survived if Mother hadn’t had the taste for it herself and poured the profits down her throat. Eventually she forfeited the alehouse and tried her hand at a grog shop, but that failed too, and we were obliged to move to Lombard Street, to one room above the Shipwright’s Arms.
At first Mother said it was no loss, that she was tired of grog shops anyway, listening to men’s tall tales, winkling their money out of them and pushing them out of the door when it was time for them to go home. She said she’d never been without work in her life and it was simple enough – she’d take in sewing. But with so many men idle, other women had the same idea, and I imagine they had more refinement than my mother. Certainly they’d have had steadier hands. We pawned everything but the clothes we stood up in until at last it came to it that I should have to earn our keep. I was ready to do it. I’ve never been afraid of work. The only thing I didn’t care for was the trade my mother put me to.
I was fourteen, strong and healthy, and starting to have the shape of a woman. It was night work. The tariff was a halfpenny for a feel of me under my skirts, and a penny for a rub of a man’s misters, enough to bring him off. I wasn’t to offer a full bill of fare. Mother said I was too young yet for that and, besides, if I allowed a man full congress I was liable to catch for something we didn’t need: another mouth to feed. Do you see what I did there? That mark is called a colon and now I’ve used it once I find I’ve lost my fear of it. Perhaps I am a writer after all. My principal place of business was the Town Quay, but if the moon was very bright I’d take a customer into Pig Alley or down some dark cowl where we shouldn’t be observed. The other girls gave me no trouble. We were all there out of necessity. The only friend I ever quarrelled with was Mary-Jane Gage and I’ll get to her presently. The dockyard girls were all right. We looked out for each other and on a slow night we’d stand together for company.
There was business enough for all of us, and after seven bells we younger ones often went home and gave the old harridans the chance of our leavings. The later it gets in the night, the more a man has drunk, the less he cares about a handsome mantelpiece, just so long as there’s a bit of a fire for him to poke. Town Quay was a good place to find business, if you caught them while the urge for a woman was upon them and before they’d spent all their money on drink. And Town Quay was where I met my salvation.
A man asked me my name. They did that sometimes. As long as they had a penny to give me it was all the same to me. ‘Nan,’ I said. ‘Well, Nan,’ he said. ‘Are ye hungry? See here what I have for you.’ I laughed at him. I was hungry. In those days my belly was always rumbling, but it was money I wanted to see, not what he had under his surcoat. He was old too, or seemed it, bent over and with a hobbling step. It wasn’t that I was over-particular, but old men can take a long time to get to the point and if you’re in business you can’t afford to linger too long over one customer.
But it wasn’t his old cock-a-doodle he meant to show me. He took a snowy white handkerchief from his pocket, and when he opened it there was the smell of hot baked potatoes. My mouth waters now just thinking of it. He had salt too, in a twist of paper.
He gave me two potatoes and he didn’t want any payment for them. I could blush now, to think how I’d mistaken his intentions. He asked me did I know my letters. I hardly did. Mother never managed to send me for any schooling.
‘Would ye like to learn?’ he said.
And that was Mr Pounds who lived on Mary Street with his cat and his nephew with the crooked feet.
John Pounds was a cobbler, which is a trade people generally reckon to be conducted by contrary, uncharitable men, but Mr Pounds in no wise fitted that picture. He had the most generous heart. He only took good care not to make a great sentimental show of it. I went to his house the next morning, and every morning after, and it was the oddest arrangement you ever saw. Half of Pompey’s ragamuffins were crammed there into his workshop.
Sometimes there were so many of us that we spilled out into the yard, and while Mr Pounds mended boots he taught us reading and writing and Bible stories and how to reckon up.
Other things too. One time he showed us girls how to make a thrifty suet pudding with an onion in one end and a spoon of jam in the other, an entire dinner to be boiled in one cloth.
Mother said, ‘I could of taught you that.’
I said, ‘You didn’t though, did you?’
Mr Pounds did what he did out of pure Christian charity. He hated to see a young life wasted and he believed education was the ladder out of want and hopelessness. He could be sharp. He had no patience with boys like Georgie Woodmore who played about, but he was kindness itself to those who attended properly to what he said and he never once asked me if I still went to business at night. I saw him once. I was coming out of the Fish Shambles, just earned a penny from a drunken tar, and he was doing his rounds with his baked potatoes. I stepped back into the dark so he shouldn’t see me.
Six days a week he taught us. On Sundays he put on a clean shirt and went to church, and he expected us to do the same; and afterwards, if the day was fine, we’d walk about the town with him. John Pounds was a great enthusiast for the benefits of fresh air. That was how I came to climb Portsdown Hill one summer’s afternoon and see at close quarters the seamark that they call Nelson’s Monument. ‘Why is it called Nelson’s Monument?’ one of the boys wanted to know. ‘Listen now,’ said Mr Pounds, ‘while Nan reads what the inscription says.’
Consecrated to the memory of Viscount Lord Nelson by the zealous attachment of all those who fought at Trafalgar, to perpetuate his triumph and their regret.
I remember I stumbled over ‘zealous’ and ‘perpetuate’. They were new words to me, but I got through it, and then John Pounds gave us a full account of what it meant. I thought it was such a fine story I ran home to tell it to Mother.
‘Lord Nelson won a great sea battle and saved us from the French, but he died from a French bullet and was brought home in a barrel of rum and now he’s buried in London in a great marble tomb, and his flagship is here in Pompey, laid up in ordinary.’
Mother said, ‘Barrel of rum! That cobbler should make sure of his information before he tells a story. It was spirits of wine we kept him in, not rum. I should know. I helped lay him in it.’
Well now, I should go back a ways and tell you I knew my mother had been to sea. She’d been a sail-maker and she still had her stitching palm and her canvas ditty bag to prove it. There were plenty of women in Pompey, Navy wives, who’d gone to sea, but I didn’t know of any other that had had a trade. Mother had a few stories too, but they slipped and changed every time she told them, so I didn’t pay them close attention. I’d certainly never heard her speak of Trafalgar.
I said, ‘You were there? At the battle?’
‘I was,’ she said. ‘And so was you, though you were nobbut a whisper. I had my suspicions, but I wasn’t far enough along to know I was carrying you.’
She said she’d worked that day in the cockpit of the Victory, as assistant to a surgeon called Mr Westenberg.
‘Up to our armpits in gore,’ she said.
And when I asked her why she’d never told me she said, ‘Because it breaks my heart to speak of it. Because my Lord fell that day and left you without a father.’
I was a war baby, you realise. I was nearly ten years old before the peace was signed. In those days it was nothing remarkable to grow up without a father, especially in a Navy town. When Mary-Jane Gage walked to chapel every Sunday holding her father’s hand, I did sometimes quiz Mother to know where my father was, but I made so little progress I soon gave up asking.
‘Fell in battle. Left us without a farthing. Now don’t get me choked up.’
A wave of the hand. Subject closed.
But now she had spoken of him.
‘What father?’ I asked. ‘What Lord do you mean?’
I’m sure my heart must have raced. It races a little even now, remembering it. ‘My Lord Nelson,’ she said, ‘Vice-Admiral of the White and Duke of Prunty, as gave you his name and his long nose too.’ So suddenly I went from no father to a father who was a Duke and a Viscount, who had a monument on Portsdown Hill.
I asked Mother if Lord Nelson had been her husband, though I knew he couldn’t have been. If my father was a duke, even a dead one, we wouldn’t have been living over the Shipwright’s Arms.
She said, ‘There was complications. He had prior entanglements.
But he was my husband in his heart and in mine, and that’s all I’ll say.’
There was a thing Mother did when she’d taken drink, twisting her lips this way and that and rolling her tongue over her gums as though she was chewing on a secret. It was her way of signalling, ‘You’ll get no more out of me today.’
Well, I couldn’t leave it at that. I ran directly to Mr Pounds’ house.
It being his day of rest, there was nobody else to overhear what I had to tell him. He was stitching a tear in his nevvy’s workaday shirt and he listened while Mother’s story tumbled out of me: that I was conceived at sea, on the Victory, the very ship he’d told us about that afternoon, and that my father was Lord Nelson, none other, but with prior entanglements.
‘I see,’ he said.
I didn’t care for his lack of excitement. He seemed to be dousing my great news in cold water.
‘And that’s why,’ I told him, ‘my name is Prunty. Do you see? Because Lord Nelson was the Duke of Prunty.’
He said, ‘I’ll tell ye what I think. If Lord Nelson did beget ye that would be a father to be proud of. And if he didn’t, well no matter, he was a brave and dutiful soul and ye could do worse than look to him for a pattern. Ye must fathom it for yourself, Nan. His Lordship’s dead these fifteen years so ye can’t apply to him.’
He bit the end off his sewing thread and left it at that.
There was no living with me that summer. I told everyone about my father, the great hero, strong and handsome and England’s saviour. Georgie Woodmore used to take his arms out of his jacket whenever he saw me and flap his empty sleeves. Mary-Jane Gage, who had golden curls and thought she was the cat’s whiskers, began curtseying and then sticking out her tongue, and when Mother walked in the street boys would cry out, ‘There goes the Duchess!’ Not that she minded. I suppose she thought it was no more than she was due. What she did mind was that I now didn’t like to go to business, no matter how short we were.
She blamed John Pounds, for teaching me to read and giving me airs, but that wasn’t it at all. I didn’t like deceiving Mr Pounds and I wanted to be more worthy of my father. Lord Nelson wouldn’t have wanted me lifting my shift for grubby, rutting men.
I asked Mr Pounds to help me find a position. He spoke to Mr Moody who had a cooperage at Weevil’s Yard, and Mr Moody said he’d take me for his wife to try out for a maid.
I rode on the wherry across to Gosport to be inspected by Mrs Moody. She was a pleasant woman, but fuddle-headed. What she needed was a sensible girl to tell her what she wanted done. A daughter might have served, but she had no daughter, only a son, Edgar, a chinless runt who was receiving the finest education money can buy at Eton College, and was intended for the law. He was confidently expected to be Lord Chancellor some day.
The Moodys had done very well out of the war. Barrels for beer, barrels for salt pork, barrels for gunpowder. They’d built a grand new house at Cold Harbour, quite up in the world from their old friends and neighbours, and Mrs Moody hardly knew where to begin spending her husband’s money. It took no great skill for me to trim myself to fit the hole in her life.
Mother wasn’t happy, but, as I explained it to her, with twenty pounds a year all found, I’d be in a better position to help her, and she could hardly have expected me to stay at home forever. I was to have my own room at Cold Harbour and four gowns made, two for summer and two for winter. That was something I’d never known. I was very sad to leave Mr Pounds though. ‘Now Nan,’ he said, ‘I’ve taught ye all I know. Go forth and lead a good Christian life. And if ye’ll take my advice ye’ll say no more about this Nelson nonsense. It buys ye nothing, and to people who don’t know any different it could give the impression ye’re half-puddled. Off with ye, then, and don’t come back till ye’ve found a good husband.’
I didn’t always follow Mr Pounds’ advice – not about Nelson at any rate. One time, Edgar Moody got me that riled, looking down his beaky nose at me and expecting me to pick up his coat where he’d purposely dropped it, I had to say something. He laughed in my face.
‘Nelson’s daughter!’ he said. ‘My Ma’s maid? I should say not! Lord Nelson had no children, and as a matter of fact he was the Duke of Bronte, not Prunty, as any relative of his would know.’
That made my cheeks burn. It was just like my Mother to be approximate. Prunty, Bronte – whatever.
On Mothering Sunday, 1822, I went to call on her. It was early afternoon by the time I found her, in the back room of the Sallyport, and the drink was already talking.
‘Look what the tide washed up,’ she said. ‘Here she is, Miss High and Mighty, come to drop a few shillings on her poor lonely old mother. Come to ease her conscience.’
You never knew with Mother which way the drink would take her. She could be weeping into her cup and then suddenly grow quarrelsome. That day, she began by spoiling for a fight. She had a new companion sitting beside her, a grizzle-haired, dark-skinned man, deaf as an adder. His name was Nat Highseas. He was a Maltese, a marine out of Valetta, and he had a Trafalgar pension.
Mother said, ‘Best head of hair I ever seen on a man. But his ears have gone.’
I said, ‘I’m glad you’ve found someone.’
‘Oh, never worry about me,’ she said. ‘I’ve always took my knocks. Left a poor war widow, and now my only child’s gone off and left me. But it’s nothing to me. I could go to the Admiralty and get a pension myself, but, I’d hazard to say, if ever I was to land in clover I shouldn’t know what to do with it. Born to hardship, that’s me.’
Nat Highseas didn’t say anything. He just squeezed Mother’s knee and winked at me.
Excerpted from The Liar’s Daughter by Laurie Graham. Copyright © 2013 by Laurie Graham.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus Editions Ltd. Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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