London, September 1916
I can’t help looking down as I cross the bridge over Bow Creek. The high tide heaves, rising with the Thames, grey oily water sucking and slapping against the muddy banks. This water can swallow you in an eye-blink, whether you want to be swallowed or not. Women trip on trailing skirts; dockers overstep in the fog. Too long in the pub and even a lighterman could ﬁnd himself falling.
People forget that water needs air to survive. Aitch-two-O.
As I look in the river, I think of Beatrice and I wonder whether her drowned breath still breaks the surface, swirled up somehow with the coal dust and the rotten cats and the centuries of London ﬁlth.
After Beatrice died, I refused to cross the water. Six years old and stubborn, I would sink onto the cobbles wailing at the sight of a bridge. Instinct told me it went against nature, keeping things up with nuts and bolts. I couldn’t understand this peculiar magic, however much Dad tried to explain. It was surely only a matter of time before the bridge collapsed, I thought. Why not at that moment, the very moment I was stepping across?
For a time I conquered my fear.
A gust of wind batters in from the east and now the bridge seems to shift, a lurch downwards. I put my hand on the iron parapet and try to shake the dizziness away, the sense that I am falling. There’s a little trick I play. I imagine Dad teasing me in the way he always did – Daft old Hannah-Lou, daft old Hannah – and I chant the words silently, over and over, as I cross to the East India side. It comforts me as I hurry along, past the Blackwall Tunnel, over the dock bridges, until ﬁnally I’m in Cubitt Town.
A ship’s whistle sounds as I turn into East Ferry Road. The wind is sharp, demented; it tugs at my hair and ﬂings grit into my eyes, so I have to squint and hold my hat down hard on my head. An old greengrocer is standing in front of his shop, arms crossed, with his apron ﬂapping in the squall. I walk up to him, smiling.
‘Yes, miss,’ he says, smiling back and jangling the coins inside his apron pocket.
‘I was just calling about a job.’
‘What job?’ He’s frowning now and the coins fall silent.
‘Just any job.’
‘Sorry, dear,’ he says, turning to rearrange a display of small apples. A terrier pads out from the shop and the greengrocer shoos him back inside.
‘Thank you, anyway, sir.’ I carry on walking, head held high.
I try the newsagent two doors down, then the chandler’s and even the sweetshop on the corner. No luck.
At the crossroads, I turn right into Glengall Road. I’ve not been this far down the Isle of Dogs in ages, not since Dora dragged me to a bazaar at the Liberal and Radical Association because a boy she liked was running the dipping tub. That was a warm spring day, but this morning everything is darker. Two men in oil-specked waistcoats lean against a wall outside the George pub. Beyond them rise the blackened arches of the railway viaduct. ‘Morning,’ one of them says, while the other whistles a long, low note. Lecherous beggars, they are. Got to be careful with men like that, keep your eyes straight ahead.
There’s a cafe opposite the pub, double-fronted and the windows busy with advertisements and chalkboards so that it’s hard to see inside. Sticking out of the roof guttering is a crooked tin teapot. Flowers are growing from the spout, those pink jobs you see all over the show. Vandal root, we call it – posh name valerian. Supposed to be good for the nerves.
I cross the road towards the cafe and the closer I get to the teapot, the further I crane my neck up to see it. I should know better, really I should, because it sets off that feeling again, the sense of falling. I steady myself against a lamp post, try to breathe in deep, but all I get is a lungful of kipper stink from the ﬁsh shop nearby.
What I need now is a cup of hot tea, plenty of sugar. There’s a sign in the cafe window that says, NESTLE’S MILK. OPEN. When I push the door, a tiny bell rings.
It’s busy inside, the air all chewy with tobacco smoke and grease. Squat dockers with thick wrists and sloping shoulders stare at me over half-raised spoons. I make for the woman at the counter.
‘Morning,’ she says. She’s older than me, forty-ish and fat, wearing a plain apron over a high-necked blouse. Her hair is folded into a white net, and when she smiles, her wide-spaced teeth and little pink-rimmed eyes put me in mind of the Lipton’s pig.
‘Cup of tea, please.’ Soon as I’ve said it I wonder where I’ll sit. Might be easiest to stand at the counter, keep my back to the men.
Next to a jar of pickles on the counter is a plate piled with currant buns. A small square of cardboard rests against the plate – BUNS ½d, written in pencil. I take out my purse and put a coin on the counter.
‘I’ll have a currant bun ’n’ all,’ I say.
The woman claws at the top bun with a pair of tongs and places it on a plate.
I nod and there’s a whoosh inside my mouth. Ravenous, I am.
The woman slices the bun, then spreads each half with margarine – ﬂick, ﬂick – all smooth and graceful, like the bone-handled knife is part of her body, an extra ﬁnger. She turns to a high shelf behind the counter and picks a china cup rather than the tin mugs lined up on the shelf below. From a huge pot she pours my tea; the steam curls from the spout in a lazy mist and suddenly my legs feel weak. I have the curious feeling of wanting to lie down right there on the ﬂoor and sleep for a long time.
She adds two heaped spoonfuls, pushing the second spoonful down so that the wet crystals crunch in the bottom of the cup.
‘Lovely as you like,’ she says under her breath, with such private satisfaction, surprise almost, as if this might be the ﬁrst time she has ever served anyone tea and a bun. She looks up. ‘And you’ll be wanting a seat.’ She nods towards the table nearest the counter.
A man is sitting there. His shirt sleeves are rolled up, and he’s reading the Daily Mirror. This man, he’s not like your average docker. He’s well built all right, strong like you have to be, but there’s something unusual about him. A word comes to my mind – elegant – and I tell myself not to be so daft. It isn’t a word I’ve ever thought before, let alone said. He’s just a plain old labourer. You can tell from his ragged ﬁngernails and the hairs on his forearms, laced with dirt.
The woman sees me staring. ‘Don’t you worry about him,’ she says, leaning forward so that I can smell her tea-sweet breath. ‘Soft as kittens they are, these boys. Would never insult a lady.’
The man looks up at me, straight-faced. His hair is too long and falls across his forehead. At the corner of his eye, a pulse jumps, like there’s the tiniest creature under his skin. ‘Just leaving anyway,’ he says, tucking the newspaper into his jacket pocket. He doesn’t wear the jacket, though, just holds it, all bunched up in his ﬁst, not bothering about the creases. As he walks past, there’s the sharp smell of metal and something softer: peppermint, could it be? He touches the peak of his cap in our direction, but I don’t smile. ‘Good day, Mr Blake,’ says the woman, and the bell jangles him out.
The silence in the cafe lifts. An old boy coughs into a handkerchief, and two men near the window laugh. ‘God’s honest,’ one of them says. ‘Found ’er up the Commercial Road.’
Mr Blake’s chair is still warm. I think about moving across to another, because it doesn’t seem proper, soaking up the heat of him, but I stay put, sipping my tea. I eat the bun slowly, aiming for dainty, savouring the sweet stickiness of the currants, the cold layer of marg and the hot, heavenly tea cutting through it all.
‘Not often we see a young lady in the shop.’ The woman is leaning over the counter again and I have to turn sideways, try and face her to be polite. ‘Unless they’re looking for work, of course. And then they don’t bother buying nothing.’ She shakes her head as she wipes down the counter, her greying rag swishing damp circles into the wood.
‘Well, since you mention it . . .’ I say, placing the last piece of bun back on the plate. I can feel the blush rising, but I can’t pass up the chance. ‘Since you mention it, I am looking for a position.’
‘A position, is it? Well, I’ll tell you, Miss . . .’
Her eyes ﬂicker to my left hand and for a second I’m tempted to produce the wedding ring from the chain round my neck. Instead I raise my hand to my throat, press the curve of the thin gold through the wool of my buttoned-up coat.
‘I’ll tell you, Mrs Loxwood, Mr Stephens – he’s the proprietor – Mr Stephens has been considering an extra assistant. My knees are playing up and the prospect of another damp winter –’ she twists her lips together and sucks in a stream of air ‘– it don’t bear thinking about. You local, dear?’
‘Poplar born. Just over the creek now, in Canning Town.’
Her nose wrinkles in a tiny sniff. She thinks she’s a cut above, here in Cubitt Town. Don’t blame her.
‘Husband work at the docks?’
‘East India. Did work there, I mean. He’s joined up.’
‘Oh, bless you, dear. You must be very proud.’
I don’t reply. She stares at me, her head to one side.
‘But no nippers, I take it, little slip of a thing like you. You’re no age.’
‘I’m twenty-four, and I’ve got two children, boy and a girl. My sister’ll look after them. When I get a job, I mean.’ I think of Jen laying down the law with Alice and Teddy. She’ll look after them all right, even if it turns her red hair grey.
She asks whether I’ve ever worked in a shop or a cafe before and I tell her no, but I was a kitchen maid at a house in Chelsea before I was married.
‘Well, that’s useful, at least,’ she says. ‘But can you write, Mrs Loxwood? Only you’d have to take down orders, and there’s the totting-up.’
‘Oh yes, I won prizes for my handwriting. Headmistress wanted me to stay on, but . . .’ I trail off. She doesn’t want to hear my sob story.
‘You’d be amazed how many girls come in here unlettered.
Heaven knows what they got up to at school.’
They didn’t bother going, I want to answer, but surely she’s seen the children just as well as I have, mudlarking at low tide, scrabbling in the sludge for scrap iron or a good length of twine. Still, I sometimes wonder what’s worse, never having a chance, or thinking you had one, then ﬁnding it got taken away.
Lipton’s lady smiles. ‘I’ll put in a good word with Mr Stephens. You come back same time tomorrow and we’ll see about a position.’
‘I’m much obliged to you, Mrs . . .’
‘Stephens. Mrs Stephens, for my sins.’
Mrs Stephens disappears into the kitchen and I stand up, slipping the leftover morsel of bun into my coat pocket. When I get back to Canning Town, I’ll divide it between
Alice and Teddy, tell them to shut their eyes and open their gobs and then they’ll have a surprise.
Walking home, the sun comes out, ﬂashing on the shop windows and the drain covers so that the street looks almost cheerful. At the top of East Ferry Road, glass glints up from the rubble of Beasley’s milk yard. Mr Beasley wouldn’t leave the yard, my friend Dora said, not even when the Zeppelin was cruising right overhead. What killed him wasn’t the bomb itself; it was the ﬂying glass from his milk bottles, great big shards of it. That’s Dor’s account, anyway, but she always has been prone to melodrama. She’d be right at home on the stage; everyone says so.
Vandal root is ﬂowering around the edges of the rubble. Gets everywhere, this stuff. I never could resist a posy, so I bend down to pick a few sprigs, digging my thumbnail into the juicy stalks – squeeze, snap – and threading them into the buttonhole of my coat. When I walk back past the grumpy old greengrocer’s, I smile, jaunty as you like with all that sugar in my belly and the tiny pink ﬂowers nodding from my buttonhole. ‘Up yours,’ I whisper, and the wind takes my words, lifts them high above the Thames.
A wool ship is locking into South Dock and the barrier comes down to shut off the swing bridge. Rotten luck to catch a bridger. I could be stuck here for twenty minutes now, and this is the very last place I’d choose to wait, this shadowy stretch of Manchester Road, not ten yards from the exact spot where they laid out Beatrice.
The swing bridge creaks as it turns a half-circle across the basin. A crowd gathers on the pavement around me: a gentleman in a bowler, an old Chinaman sucking on a pipe, three girls from Morton’s smelling of pickles. One of the girls smiles at me and rolls her eyes, as if to complain about the hold-up, but I don’t want to get involved in their chatter. I keep my eyes ﬁxed straight ahead as the ship clears the lock and slowly the girders swing back into place. The crowd surges across the bridge, but I hang back. The footway is ever so narrow: too much of a crush and you could lose your balance. Daft old Hannah-Lou. I’d rather be daft than drowned.
Someone is crossing from the other side, a tall man who’s reading a folded-up newspaper as he walks. He grasps the paper tightly, and his shoulders are set, as if he’s trying to pour his whole body into those ﬂimsy pages. When we pass on the bridge, he doesn’t look up. It strikes me then why this man seems so familiar. The cafe, of course. Mr Blake. By the time I turn in to Sabbarton Street my ﬂowers have wilted and the clouds are threatening rain. I think of Jen inside the house, poking coals in the stove, sweating and sighing, Alec skulking in the doorways, the children bickering and telling tales the minute I walk in the door.
The piece of bun is like a jewel in my pocket and it dawns on me that what Alice and Teddy have never known they’ll never miss. I take out the bun, doughy from the heat of my ﬁngers, and push it into my mouth.
George’s letter is propped up against the button box on the hall shelf, a dusty footprint stamped across the front of the envelope. All those mornings I’ve been stuck indoors wondering what the postman might bring. Minute I go out, a letter comes, and it gets trodden on for good measure.
‘Any luck?’ yells Jen from the scullery.
I pick up the letter and walk through. She’s slicing bread, sleeves rolled up to show her arms, all dimply and mottled.
Her hair’s the usual mess, gingery curls escaping from her bun. Jen doesn’t look at me standing there, just keeps slicing with a tight grip on the loaf and a frown on her face.
‘What do you mean, “not exactly”?’
‘I mean nothing deﬁnite. But there might be a job in a cafe. I have to go back tomorrow.’
‘You’ll be wanting me to mind the children again?’
‘If that’s all right.’
She sniffs, and right on cue a howl starts up from the yard. I squeeze past Jen and step through the open door. Alice is standing in the corner of the yard, back pressed against the sooty brick wall. Her right hand is stretched up high above her head, dangling Teddy’s Ducky. It’s a little sock puppet that George brought back from the training camp on his leave. He’d stitched it together himself: two odd buttons for eyes and a yellowish piece of sacking for the beak. Teddy takes it everywhere, and now he’s started to call it Daddy.
‘Want Daddy, Daddy,’ he’s shrieking, but Alice is still waving the puppet above her head, her black curls teased by the wind.
Teddy sees me and rushes over, grasping me around the knees. I run my hands through his knotty hair, press the damp heat of his head.
‘Alice Loxwood, give the baby his duck,’ I say.
Alice cackles louder, and although she leaves off the dangling, she keeps Ducky close to her chest.
‘I didn’t do nothing,’ she shouts. ‘It was him what kicked me.’
‘He’s two years old and you’re four. You should know better. Now give it back or you’ll get a smack.’
‘Back, smack. Back, smack,’ Alice chants. ‘You done a rhyme!’
I know Jen will be looking at me through the scullery window. Something about Jen’s way with the children always makes them see sense. I swear they save all their playing-up for me.
‘I ain’t telling you again.’ My teeth are clenched and my head feels tight, like someone’s lifting my scalp with a fork. The vandal root winks up at me from my buttonhole. Good for the nerves? What a joke. ‘Give it back now.’
Alice throws the puppet onto the cobbled ground near the privy. It lands on a patch of moss, yellowed after the dry summer. Teddy breaks away from my knees and toddles across the yard, lunging at the puppet so that he tumbles right onto it. ‘Daddy,’ he says, screwing up his small hand and putting it inside the sock. He lies on the ground, rubbing Ducky against his cheek, but his eyes are open all the while, watching Alice, guarding.
The rain starts, just a few blustery drops that blow in on the wind, smelling of autumn. Half a mile away, children are shouting and singing in the playground at St Luke’s, a peculiar ghostly sound. Alice is still stuck in the nursery class, mornings only. She’s longing for January, when she goes up to the infants.
‘I’m ’ungry, Mummy,’ she says, then springs her skinny legs up against the yard wall in a handstand.
‘Play nicely and I’ll get you some bread and sugar.’
‘Or you’ll have your uncle Alec to answer to.’
I hadn’t heard Alec come into the yard. He’s like that.
Always creeping up.
I spin round and attempt a smile. ‘That’s right, Alice. Your uncle Alec don’t want to come home to a racket.’
Alec is standing close behind me now, so close I can hear the wheeze of his chest.
‘And it’s ever so dark in the coal ’ole,’ Alec says, winking and blowing a stream of fag smoke past my ear. ‘Don’t make me put you in there, little Alice.’
Alice doesn’t say anything. She’s still upside down, toes pressed against the brick wall. Her dress has fallen right over her head so that her drawers are on show. She’ll be poking out her tongue underneath that skirt; I’d put money on it.
I turn to go inside, but Alec is blocking my path to the back door.
‘Letter from George, is it?’ he asks, nodding down at my hand.
‘I haven’t read it yet.’ From the look on his face I reckon he expects me to open it there and then, read aloud so he’s ﬁrst in the picture. Nosy beggar. ‘I’m saving it for the evening,’ I say, ‘once the kids are in bed.’
‘Saving what?’ calls Alice from under her dress. ‘Never you mind.’
There’s nothing for it but to brush past Alec. As I step towards him, though, he stands aside, bending low in a fancy bow like I’m some grand lady of the house and he’s the footman.
‘After you, madam,’ he says, and though he keeps his hands to himself, I know he’s looking at my backside. Sizing me up.
Alice and Teddy are tucked into bed. I stand against the bedroom door, watching them now they’ve ﬁnally dropped off: little Teddy ﬂat on his back with his arms clasped behind his head, snoring. He’s the spit of George, with his high forehead and wide mouth, the bottom lip protruding in that gormless way George has. Alice is on her side, spine arched towards Teddy and a tangled curl draped over her cheek. There’s a small palliasse on the ﬂoor where Alice is supposed to sleep, but she won’t stay down there. ‘Lumpy and cold,’ she says. ‘Spiders under the ﬂoorboards.’ I want to tell her that spiders ain’t the half of it, but best to keep my trap shut. So every night I ﬁnd myself sharing the creaking iron bedstead with the two of them, squashed along one edge of the mattress. It’s a good job the war has turned me so skinny. Can’t even keep my wedding ring on my ﬁnger these days. I ought to nip in the waistband of my skirt, tighten the seams of my blouse, but I like my clothes loose. Loose means less for Alec to stare at.
Through the bedroom window I can see the banks of Bow Creek, thick mud gleaming in the September dusk. A rowing boat rocks on the water as an old man leans over, scooping up ﬂotsam for winter ﬁrewood. If he leans any further, he’ll be in the creek. He stretches slowly for a jagged plank, grasps it and bends his body back into the boat. Delicate, measured. He’s an expert, this old boy. Understands the weight of things, the art of balance.
Beyond the creek rise the chimneys of the treacle reﬁnery and the ironworks, black as the swelling tide. George is wrong. I’ll never get used to living in Canning Town. I’m stranded out here, the wrong side of the water.
Downstairs, the front door slams. That’ll be Alec, out to the pub. Now Jen will spend the evening getting the scullery straight; then she’ll go up to bed with a warm milk if there’s milk spare and a copy of the Pictorial. She’ll blow out the candle when she hears Alec sway back home, steel herself for her husband, because if there’s one thing she wants more than to be left alone, it’s a baby.
Alice stirs as I shake creases from her pinafore and fold it over the end of the bedstead. I undress as quietly as I can, slip on my damp nightgown and pull it close around me to warm the cold cotton with my skin.
In the corner of the room is an upturned barrel that serves as a washstand. I’ve put George’s unopened letter in an old toffee tin underneath the barrel. It’s not much of a hiding place, but it’s the best I can ﬁnd. I don’t think for one minute that Jen or Alec haven’t unearthed that tin and had a good old poke around.
There’s enough daylight to read by. I take the wash things off the barrel and slide the tin out. You can still smell toffees when you open the lid. George’s letters are at the bottom, under my herb book with the ﬂower remedies and the copy of Barter’s Guide to Beautiful Handwriting. George promised he’d look at Barter’s, but he never did, not once, so I always have to read his writing a few times before I can work out his peculiar spellings and the tiny letters that he squishes up so close. When I open this latest letter, a couple of fag cards for Teddy drop out and a purple ribbon, which I guess is meant for Alice. Where he gets hold of these things in a war I couldn’t say.
There’s been a ﬂare-up, George says, but it’s all settled now. Nothing to worry about. Hot sunshine and plenty of rashons, he says. The lads are a smashing bunch.
The whore in the room next door is noisy tonight. Anyone would think she was enjoying herself. The thought intrigues him, which leads to the next thought, and then he can’t help himself. Afterwards he washes in the freezing water that is still standing in the bowl from this morning. The cloth catches on a chip in the china and water sloshes over the sides. Now there are murky pools on the old wooden stand. He uses his cloth to wipe up the spill, though the washstand is already covered in watermarks and scratches: the carelessness of tenants past.
He is naked, but not cold, and the ﬂush of his cheeks is still visible in the pocked oval mirror that hangs from the picture rail. The landlady was particularly proud of the mirror when she showed him round the room. ‘Only two rooms has got a looking glass,’ said Mrs Browne, stroking the curve of the oval so that the mirror rocked gently on its string. ‘You can wash and brush up beautiful with this. Not that you need any help, ﬁne-looking feller like you,’ and then Mrs Browne appeared to wink.
The murmur of voices from the whore’s room, the sound of a door closing quietly. He stands at the window to watch her customer leave the house. There is something conﬁdent in the soldier’s step as he strides across the road, past the public baths and the bronze statue of a long-dead philanthropist patting his pet dog. The soldier’s arms swing loosely by his sides; they are not drilled into coat pockets or wrapped around his body as if to deny the pleasure he has just taken. No, this punter may as well be whistling.
Gaslight shines on dewy cobbles. A cat picks its way across the road, pausing when it reaches the other side, its back arching so that he can see the silhouette of inky fur, raised in matted spikes. The cat twists down an alley near the railway station, its body so close to the blackened bricks that he soon loses sight of it.
The whore is now singing to herself. Sonia, was it, her name? Terrible tuneless voice, she has. He can’t make out the melody. He wonders whether he should knock on the partition wall. Knock on her door, even? She’d make him welcome; he’s sure of that. Sonia doesn’t seem to be anyone’s doxy; she is a free-trading tart, if such a thing exists. He counts out his money and doubts it will be enough. Another night, perhaps.
He takes his nightshirt from the back of the chair and shakes it. A large spider drops out and scuttles into a crevice between the skirting and the ﬂoorboards. Bad time of year for spiders. So many creatures coming in from the cold.
The candle is very low now, but there should be enough light to read for an hour, perhaps two. Then it will be dawn, and if he still cannot sleep, there will be light from the window. Next to his bed is a stack of tattered volumes: books he has bought or bartered; books he has been given by Lady Tolland; books he has borrowed but intends to return.
He sleeps, ﬁnally, and dreams of Esther. Her hair has turned wavy in the rain, and she is standing in Lady Tolland’s garden, rocking the third baby. He calls, but she seems not to hear, and then she wades into the lake, the autumn-brown reeds catching on her skirts, her sleeves, the baby’s feet, as they disappear under the surface.
On Wednesday I walk over to Poplar to call in on Mum and Dad. Jen’s keeping an eye on the kids. Dad’s not so good and Mum doesn’t like the children to see him when he’s ill.
They live in a tenement block now, on the fourth ﬂoor. It’s only half a mile from where we grew up, but it feels a world away from the Ellesmere Street terrace with its sunny backyard where Dad would grow vegetables and ﬂowers in half-barrels ﬁlled with earth. Sometimes Mum complained about the barrels – they took up too much room, she said, got in the way of the washing when it was drying on the line – but she loved the ﬂowers all right, dainty snowdrop posies in February, daffodils in March and by August the brazen sunﬂowers growing taller than the privy roof.
My breath starts to catch as I reach the fourth ﬂoor. I hate to think of Mum and Dad perched up here with so many stairs to climb. There’s danger in these tall buildings; you only have to look at the rusting banisters, the rough plaster over the stairwell cracks. They have their own front door at least. It’s quieter than usual on the landing, only the drip of a pipe from the communal tap.
‘Mum,’ I call, soft as I can, because Dad might be sleeping.
The key turns in the lock and Mum appears, an index ﬁnger pressed to her lips. She steps out onto the landing.
I glimpse Dad through the half-open door. He’s curled in his bed under the tiny window, his back to me. It’s only a week since I last saw him, but he looks shrunken. On top of his blanket is the rag rug from the ﬂoor. He must have felt cold in the night. This person, it isn’t really my dad. It’s a kind of dumb creature, something wounded you have to care for. It’s not even a proper ailment – rheumatism or heart trouble or the gallstones that killed Dor’s dad. ‘Nerve weakness’ was old Dr Evans’s diagnosis. Then there was the fancy doctor who had a fancy name for Dad’s condition but no cure either. ‘Circular insanity,’ Mr Bloor-Stephenson said, and that’s all we got for our two pounds.
‘Shocking night,’ whispers Mum. ‘“The crows,” he kept saying. “The crows. They’re leaving the tower.” And he was trying to get out of bed, crawling over to the door. I had to hide the key in the end. He’s asleep now, thank God.’ She ﬁngers the gold chain round her neck. ‘It’s no good, Hannah – I’m going to have to take him down there again.’ With the back of her hand she wipes her eyes; they seem to have sunk even further into her face, red-rimmed, with oil in the wrinkles where she’s rubbed in her ointment. ‘But it’s jam-packed down there, I’m told. Full of soldiers. Some of them don’t recognize their own mothers. Do you remember Ciss from Ellesmere Street, Hannah – Ciss with the piano? Her boy Peter is in a terrible way. I saw her on the tram and she was half mad herself with the worry.’
It upsets me to think of it. I was fond of Peter before I went up west. When I was barely fourteen and he was a couple of years older, he winded me with a snowball the year of the heavy snow. He put his arm round my shoulder till I got my breath back and for months I would conjure him in my daydreams, imagine him playing piano for me, his delicate ﬁngers on the keys. It’s terrible to picture him in that hospital, the bright white walls that hide so much darkness. And then I think of George. If he came back touched, I have no idea how I’d manage, what sort of a wife I’d be.
‘Peter was always a nervy sort,’ says Mum. ‘Not like your George. You heard from him?’
‘There was a letter on Monday. He seems to be all right. Hot sun and plenty of rations, he said.’
‘Well, let’s be thankful for that.’
‘And I’ve just got a job, Mum, in a cafe down Cubitt Town. Called in Monday and went back yesterday and they offered it to me there and then. Waitressing and kitchen work, meals included . . .’
She’s staring off into the distance beyond the railings. There’s no view to speak of, only the rows of greasy windows and the shifting grey laundry of the tenements opposite. I’m not sure if she’s heard a word I said about the job. Her hands are clasped together, crooked and knobbled from working the Singer.
‘Mum? Waitressing work. So there’ll be a bit more money coming in. I can help you and Dad out.’
‘You’ll do no such thing,’ she says, facing me now. ‘You’ll keep every penny for those children. I won’t have them going short.’ She shivers and pulls the rolled-up sleeves of her blouse back down to her wrists. ‘You’d better come in for a cup of tea. Dad’s bound to wake up soon and he’ll want to see you.’
I wonder if that’s true. Last week he barely seemed to know me. But I follow Mum inside. The room is tidy – Mum is forever fussing around – but however hard she works at keeping the place decent, somehow the squalor blows in. Newspaper is laid over the ﬂoor to keep the draughts down. Mould creeps from a corner near the window. Behind the front door, piles of ﬁnished shirts are folded neatly into tailors’ boxes. She’s been busy, trying to keep up the rent on this wretched room.
Mum strikes a match for the gas and Dad starts awake. He sits up in bed and wipes a dried crust of saliva from his mouth. He blinks at me. ‘Beatrice?’ he says. ‘Whatever are you thinking of?’
Excerpted from Before the Fall by Juliet West. Copyright © 2014 by Juliet West.
First published 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.