Actions

Work Header

Clean Dresses, Brass Tits, and the Importance of a Good Hatpin

Work Text:

I. Never sign anything you haven't read.

It was never really a secret that Polly hated reading.

Ada remembers being very young - four or so, John was just out of babyhood, Finn wasn't born, and Dad was still around - and running through the kitchen to find Mum and Polly. She'd loved Peter Pan then, so had the boys, and she'd brought the book, begging Polly to read it to her. She can't remember the look on Polly's face, though it would have involved a raised eyebrow, but she remembers being lifted onto Mum's lap. Polly had left, saying "Mum will read you your book, Ada, I think the boys have managed to set the parlor on fire".

Which was Polly-speak for "girl-children still make me sad", and Ada had known it even then, just as she'd known not to ask about Sally and Michael anymore.

It wasn't until much later that Ada figured the rest out, though. Years later, Mum was dead, Dad was gone, and her brothers had gone to France. It was her and Polly and Finn, in the early days when they thought the war would be done in a year and Finn was still trying to run away every night to join the army. Polly was up all night in those days, trying to put the business in order. She hired out for bagmen and protection, but no one but family was allowed to keep the books. That meant Polly, fixing Dad's messes again.

Ada was seventeen, worrying about dresses and shopping, seeing her school friends. She was still ashamed of being a Shelby, only worked in the shop when she absolutely had to. This was before rationing and air raid drills, before they needed to get "real" jobs and before she really understood what the business was. Back when it was still the boys and Polly, before family meetings and everything done open.

For the first six months of the war, they tried to carry on as normal as possible. Polly would say later that she knew it couldn't last, that things were bound to go wrong. Mum used to say Polly had a touch of the Sight, but even Finn knew you didn't remind Polly she was half Romani unless you wanted to be dragged to church.

Ada remembers walking down by the Cut with Patrick Greene. He was a terrible kisser, and he made her miss Freddie even more. She'd left Patrick, gone to the shop to find Finn because he'd stolen her inkwell at school, and found him gone, a bunch of men backing Polly into the office. It was the Atkinson boys, they ran a pitch down by Stourbridge that her brothers sometimes used to rent out. They were a bunch of cowards, though, didn't join up with the rest of the town, didn't even help the war effort like a lot of the men who'd had to stay.

There were four of them in the office, all of them with a foot and two stone on Polly, and Ada forgot, sometimes, that Polly wasn't that terrifying when you weren't her kin. They were all yelling, Polly included, shouting about an illegal pitch and cheating someone out of a Lucky Fifteen, doubled odds on no return, and none of it made any bloody sense.

And then one of them had taken a swing at Polly, blacked her eye, knocked her into the wall of the office, and Ada's seen that on her aunt, too. Dad had even done it once, and Ada was tired of it, so she did what she was supposed to do when there looked to be trouble - she screamed very loudly for Constable Murphy, who may or may not have existed, didn't matter, because no one who meant harm would stand around for a copper.

One of them still got another lick in on Polly before they cleared out, a punch to the stomach that got him a set of her nails across his eyes.

Ada had only ever seen Polly cry twice before (once late at night, just after she came to live with them, it was Ada's birthday which meant it would have been Sally's birthday two weeks later; the other time was when Mum died, and everyone else was crying too), but Polly hates anyone fussing over her. She'd sent Ada into the kitchen to make supper, called Finn out from the cupboard where she'd sent him to "play", and threw everyone out of the shop. Ada certainly wasn't going to bother her, and she squared her shoulders and told Curley to stand guard in the hallway, everyone was going to place bets there, and they were going to place them with her.

Ada's been able to map a point spread since she was eight, known how to write out a proper book since she was twelve (when Dad left and Tommy took over). She chops up beef and vegetables for stew, and writes up the bets on bits of her maths notebook. The men laugh at her apron and her school dress and the way she dots her "i's" with a heart, but their bets get placed and she quotes the odds on every race they can think of just as quickly as any of her brothers could.

Polly came in for supper with a clean dress and makeup carefully covering her eye - a trick she'd later teach Ada. She didn't say much, but later, she'd pulled out a contract from her pile of papers, and asked Ada to take a look at it: a standard pitch agreement with a stipulation added to guarantee the punter half the bet returned even if no single bet won. It had Polly and David Atkinson's signatures on it, and when Ada had looked back up at Polly, her aunt had stared at the wall above Ada's head before speaking, very quietly.

"Did you read the stipulation?" Ada nodded. "Can you tell me what an accelerator is?"

Ada shook her head. "I don't - wait, an accumulator? Yeah, that's why they thought they were cheated. 'Cause a Lucky Fifteen with an accumulator is guaranteed fourfold return to the punter, they get half their initial fourfold bet returned even if none of their bets win. Tommy hates 'em, says they'll lose us more money than we make."

Polly looks stunned. "You paid attention to that?"

"I like numbers. And it made Dad laugh to hear me talking shop."

Predictably, Polly doesn't say anything but a thinning of her lips at the mention of their father, but she stays very, very quiet. And Ada thinks about the way Polly had misread "accumulator". Thinks about the way Granddad had Mum or one of the boys read to him. Thinks about Mum bundling her and the boys off to school with admonitions that she and her sisters had never been allowed to attend the town school. Thinks how Polly flat-out ignores signs in shop windows, never orders off a pub menu, and has all the prayers for mass memorized.

So she pretends she hasn't figured it out, and picks up another contract from the pile. "What if we both read all the contracts?" she suggests, airily. "The important ones. So we know nothing's missed?"

Polly leans over to kiss the top of Ada's head and tuck a piece of hair behind her ear.

"Can't hurt," she says.

It's the beginning of Ada learning the ins and outs of the business, but it's also the beginning of Polly making sure to read something every night until the boys come home. Ada can tell she hates it, but it means no more visits from the Atkinsons, or anyone like them.

***

II. Jewelry should always have a double purpose and be handy to reach.

The year Ada turns eighteen, the war's been going for a year and a half.

She's learned how to ration, and how to work the black market to trade for what she really wants. She's trained as a nurse in quiet, peaceful nights and in screaming air-raid sirens. She knows what guns and bombs do to people, not just the abstract idea of death being a Shelby gave her. The BSA factory is hiring women, and Polly gets a job on the munitions line. She pours metal for casings and gunpowder for shells, and she and Ada's paychecks keep food on the table. Even Finn gets a job sorting scrap metal, though Polly says an extra rosary every night in penance for letting a seven year old have a job.

They need the money. The business still has to be run, because even with a war on, there are still horse races and football and boxing matches to lay odds on, and someone's got to sort that out, but people have a good deal less money to fritter away on bets. They make enough, Polly tells her, to keep the shop open, pay Curley and the others, and bribe the usual authorities, but not enough to turn a profit or run the house.

So they do what they can. Make the operation smaller, only a book, a pitchman, a bagman, and a lookout, and that tends to be just Ada, Polly, Curley, and Finn. They count the take every night, and they take bets during lunch breaks and at closing time on the loading docks of the BSA factory. They have to resort to more things like accumulators and point spreads to get punters to lay bets, if they can't fix the race or event entirely.

Working at the factory keeps food on the table, but it also teaches Ada a few things about labor unions: they don't like women, they don't like the Shelbys, and they do like causing trouble. Even when she marries Freddie, years later, she'll never see eye-to-eye with him on unions. The workers at the BSA send her and Polly a few "friendly" warnings to stop using the loading dock to take bets, but since the foreman's mad for footy and the income tax is due, Polly told Ada they were staying the course.

They keep at it, until Warren Matthews and his mates pay them a visit.

Chickenhawks, the lot of them, drinking away their paychecks and letting other men go to war. One of them, Benny McCarthy, slaps Ada around as a warning to stop the bookmaking, and Polly's livid. She drops a word in the ear of the foreman, and Benny and Warren find their hours cut and their whiskey ration "missing". They confront Polly, she pleads complete ignorance and signals for Mick Reardon to walk her out to the car, and round they go until one night, eight of them corner Ada and Polly.

They're usually more careful, but it's a race weekend, and she and Polly have close to fifty pounds on them. It's more money than Matthews and any of his brutes have seen in a lifetime, and there isn't a soul to be found who might help Ada and Polly. Curley's bringing the car. Mick's chasing down a couple punters who still owe them. Dennis has got the influenza and Henry's left for the day.

She and Polly manage to surprise them, at the beginning. Everyone in Birmingham knows you don't fuck with the Peaky Blinders, cut you as soon as look at you, but they assume that all the dangerous ones are in France. They think Polly Grey and little Ada Shelby are weak. But Ada grew up with three brothers who taught her to use her fists, her teeth, and everything else at her disposal, and there isn't a man alive her Aunt Pol couldn't take in a fight. Ada bloodies Billy Godwin's nose and kicks Fergus Donnel right in the bollocks. Polly rams Micah Case's head into a brick wall and gets Zeke Tramper in the arm with her hatpin.

The men are cursing, Polly's shouting, and Ada finds herself caught by Benny McCarthy. Polly gets another swipe in on Gene Fisk before Fisk and Andy Skelton get her by the wrists, hold her down. Matthews has a sick smile on his face as he pulls Ada's hair hard enough to make her yell, and Ada would be shocked at Polly knowing that many swear words if her head didn't hurt so much.

"Benny, get the little bitch on the table. Soon as I'm done with her auntie, she's next."

"You fucking arse-faced cowards," Polly spits, and almost breaks free, but Skelton slams his boot into her kneecap. She nearly falls, but they keep her upright as she shouts through her teeth and raises her voice again. "Matthews, you touch that girl and you're dead. You harm a single fucking hair on her head, and it won't be her brothers you'll have to worry about taking a razor blade to your prick, it'll be me."

They start pawing at Polly's dress while Benny gets Ada bent over the table. Ada tries everything she can think of, but Benny's strong and fast; he was in Arthur's year at school, played rugby and boxed. She shuts her eyes, can't watch this, and suddenly, it goes quiet, a gurgling sound all she can hear. Ada opens her eyes to see Polly's hatpin buried in Matthews' throat, and Benny's shocked enough to give Ada enough slack to get her hand down her bra.

"Oi, McCarthy, you like punching girls?" she asks, curling her fingers into the cold metal and winding up. Right cross to the jaw, just like Arthur taught her, and Benny goes down.

Fisk drops his shotgun, and Polly goes for it. She comes up shooting, and while she doesn't kill anyone, she shoots them where they might die slow. Ada steps over Godwin and takes their money back from Matthews, and Polly lets Micah and Zeke scurry home to their families with an admonishment to think twice before they go after Shelby women again.

When they get to the road, where a stunned-looking Curley is waiting with the car, Polly slumps into the backseat, pulling Ada up after her. She winds her hair back in a twist, replacing the pin in it, and nods toward Ada's fist.

"Which of the boys did you pinch those from?"

"Arthur," Ada says, carefully easing her knuckles out of the metal. "His idea. Tommy wanted to give me a knife, but I liked these better."

Polly laughs, though she sounds more frightened now than she did on that dock. "I'll throw him another bloody parade for it. Keep those about you from now on, understand?"

"Yes, Aunt Pol."

Years later, they'll make "brass tits" jokes about Ada Shelby, but they start that night of the BSA factory.

***

III. We're nearly always smarter than any copper who tries to cause us trouble.

Most of the coppers in Birmingham leave No. 6 Watery Lane alone.

If the others on the force don't warn them and the bribes don't work on them, then they soon become acquainted with Polly's temper and the Peaky Blinders' protection men. Sergeant Rufus Moss has always been the exception to the rule, and when he arrives in Small Heath, he thinks he's the top dog. He harasses them in petty little ways, and neither Polly nor Ada can stand him.

Until he plucks up the courage to do something major.

It's the week they show The Battle of the Somme at the penny crush. All of Birmingham scrapes together enough to go, and they're no different. Finn thinks he can spot one of the boys in nearly every scene, and Ada doesn't say anything when he hides his eyes in Polly's coat during the artillery barrage. He swears he isn't frightened, but the nightmares he has every night say otherwise.

And if Polly and Ada both close their eyes during the bits of the infantrymen in the trenches, flinch when they show off their rifles, well - so do Rosie Owen and Irene Thorne and Jesselyn Strong. They're all seeing their boys up there, never mind that the lads in the movie are from Liverpool, not Birmingham. Reading Tommy's letters (he writes for all three of them, John can't spell for anything and Arthur hates writing) are nothing compared to seeing what was really going on between the lines of those letters.

Ada, Polly, and Finn come home to an infestation of coppers, tramping through the house and sniffing around the shop. Moss is in command, though as Polly says, that's like dubbing the junkyard dog Deputy Mayor. He's sitting at the kitchen table, mucky boots dripping onto the tablecloth, and Ada sucks in a breath because the last time someone dared to put their feet on Polly's table, John couldn't sit down for a week.

"You're not in a pub, Sergeant," Polly snaps, though anyone could tell she's biting back the worst of her temper. "I'll be charging the department for that tablecloth."

Moss doesn't move, just smirks, and it makes Ada's skin crawl. "Got a tip you ladies have been nicking ration books, selling them black market. Not to mention that big room out there ain't your sewing parlor. Toss it, boys."

They are selling black market, but it's not to oafs like Moss who just want another tin of butter. Most of their stock goes to people like Old Mrs White, her husband dead, both her boys lost to a destroyer on the German coast. Or like Tessie Bayard, four little ones to feed and her husband with the Spanish flu, not long for this world.

People who need it.

"Try and find a damned thing," Polly says. "You've no proof we've been doing anything. All my pantry is bought and paid for legally."

"See, that's not what Marjorie Russell says. She told us about the ration books, and what's more - she says you're the ones running the black market. Only folk in Birmingham who know when and where to buy, who's selling what."

Ada crosses her arms. "Us? Keep track of an entire city?"

"Sergeant," Polly says, disdain in every syllable, her hand on Finn's shoulder. "If we could do that, we wouldn't be living in sodding Small Heath."

Moss ignores her, and he and his men turn both the house and the shop upside down. They confiscate the twenty pounds of last night's take, a tin of biscuits they'd been saving for Finn's birthday, and a packet of coffee Ada had just bartered for this morning. They empty drawers and turn over chairs, strew papers and photos about the place. Ada and Polly will be sweeping up for days, tidying for months.

Finally, it's clear they're not going to find anything else - and they're certainly not smart enough to knock on the loose floorboards to find Polly's liquor stash - and so Moss orders the men out. Through the house, of course, and he stops by the mantle to pointedly tip over the portraits of Ada's brothers in their uniforms. Arthur's he just knocks down, John's he kicks a little bit, but apparently he knows who runs the Shelby family, because he steps on Tommy's photo, shatters the glass.

"Tell the boys a big hello for me," Moss says, clomping out the door.

Ada grabs for Finn's collar. Polly had had a firm grip on him and kept him quiet the entire time, but she must have let go when Moss went for the photos. She stands there white with anger while Finn squalls and thrashes, and Ada knows how he feels, but you don't muck about with coppers unless you've got numbers on your side. One of the few useful things Dad had ever taught them.

They start tidying up, and as Finn busies himself with putting the drawers back into place, Polly asks Ada very quietly to fetch her the list. It's their accounting of black market prices and the barter system - it wouldn't have told Moss and the rest very much, but it'd be enough to get them hauled in, and Polly's insistent that they alternate days to hide it.

Polly claps a hand over her mouth as Ada picks up the photos of the boys, retrieves three pieces of paper folded into the frames, and places them in order.

"Thank Christ Moss didn't look down," Polly says, gathering up the sofa pillows, brushing them off. "We'd be having this conversation in a jail cell. What's Leah Jennings charging for a cake?"

Miz Jennings has taken over the bakery. Her cakes are far better than her husband's, but she overcharges.

"How big?"

"Biggest we can get."

There's a vicious little glint in Polly's eyes, and Ada knows the look her aunt gets when she's plotting. Mum must have had it; Tommy gets the same look.

"Full sheet's going for 6 bob. We could do 4 bob, and then the rest in ration books and those nylons Ellie traded me for tomorrow's race odds. Miz Jennings won't shut up about how sick she is of drawing on her stockings."

"I've got the fix for us in the Coventry races. Georgie Sudbury owes us for that scotch I had Dennis run for him - go see her and see if she'll make us two sheet cakes in trade for a half-crown, along with the nylons and a bottle of scotch."

"You planning a party, Aunt Pol?"

"I'm planning on inviting the entirety of Small Heath this Sunday to fill the Garrison and liberating one of Georgie's cases of scotch. No one's had cake or whiskey since the war began, and we'll make the entrance fee a full-cover bet on one of the Coventry races."

What she doesn't tell Ada is that she's also arranged for Johnny Rats down at the smithy to start a minor disturbance to distract the police while they have their party. They make nearly 70 pounds that day, between placed bets, booze, and the black market trading that Polly strikes up in the snug for people who don't care for races. Enough to heat both the house and the shop for the next two winters, pay the house taxes, and keep the car in order.

Sergeant Moss gets busted down in rank for allowing gambling and alcoholism to go on, never mind that he still can't arrest anyone for the black market. He can't pin it on Polly, either, though he tries, and he goes purple with apoplexy when he sees Polly and Ada walking in the lane with their new furs (they'd snuck a few shillings out of the take, an early Christmas present, Polly had called it). He can't do a damned thing, but he'll remember it, long after the war's over and the boys are home.

The real impact, though, is on Small Heath. People remember this gesture, that Polly Grey and the Shelby family thought of others and used their illicit funds to do something good. People remember that not a single person got pinched that night, that for one single night, the war was further away. People are loyal to the boys out of fear, but fear isn't always enough. It's Polly and Ada they think of as family.

And that's the first rule Ada Shelby ever learned - trust only family.