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Wicked Hands

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Mother Oldershaw was unhappy with me tonight, and gave me a frightful scolding. She has always told me that I have wicked hands, and that the devil will fast find work for ’em. But she was none-too-pleased when I refused to put them to evil service for the odd, well-dressed gentleman who approached us after the exhibition down at Caversham market today. I suppose she was after the shilling or two that he was offering for the use of one as young as I. Perhaps he imagined me an innocent. Exposed as I might have been to a gentleman’s ways in this world, the thought of taking that ungainly creature’s manhood in my palm was enough to make even my well-tried stomach flip a somersault.

Then old ma Oldershaw got on to her other gripes. My hair is not lush and silky enough; my skin might well be ivory, but it lacks the rosy bloom that Mr Oldershaw requires if his special tonics are to sell. According to Ma, I have not been swallowing enough of the iron pills that she has, in her wisdom, prescribed, and she says that I will be left to fend for myself if things do not pick up presently. Or worse still, returned to the fearful baby-farmer who raised me. I protested that it is hardly my fault if her quack of husband cannot shift his potions, powders, and pastes. The strange gentleman at the marketplace admired my red locks greatly, I was bound to say. Then – and I blush at the very thought – I reckon that the hair on my head wasn’t the only thing he was after seeing. Those remarks earned me a neat slap about the face.

I take up my battered copybook and resume work on the sketch that I began yesterday. It is a copy of a fancy lady with hat and parasol, taken from one of Ma’s old picture postcards. She claims to have bought it in Paris, back in the days of her youth. The drawing is turning out fine and, in this respect at least, Ma seems proud of what she has taught me. She reckons I’ll make a nice little forger in years to come, so perhaps the work of my hands can be turned to the good.

I have gleaned more than that from Ma, of course, though I like to keep my learning dark. Plenty of times I have watched her and her feckless husband stumble about the place like blind apothecaries, mixing up remedies as one might boil a cabbage stew. It soon became apparent which label marked out “poison,” as Ma panics when Oldershaw adds too much to his preparations for ladies’ skin complaints. Luckily they are often in drink, so I have time to explore for myself. I have prepared a nice cooling balm out of the kinder ingredients, which I apply to my lips on the nights when Mr Oldershaw has had me down on my knees for him, as his thingy don’t half chafe at times. There have been other experiments, naturally, and I have a tiny bottle of something much stronger tucked away in my petticoat for use in an emergency.

Of course it would be an awful sin to actually use it. Then it strikes me that Ma is growing tired of his rough ways in any case. Just a few drops from my toxic bottle carefully administered in his morning coffee, and that would be one less gentleman for these wicked hands to worry about.