At the tender age of fourteen, Charlotte Winifred Shelby knows two things to be certain:
- Her mother named her Charlotte after Charlie Chaplin. Her middle name is in honour of her cousin Karl’s father, who died before Charlotte was born.
- Like her, her mother had blonde curls and a penchant for singing.
When she is born, a red, squalling thing, unbeknownst to everyone her mother thinks – I could have easily passed her off as Clive’s.
But the rational part of Grace Burgess knows it is just as likely that her daughter could have been born a son instead, the baby’s hair remaining dark like its father’s instead of slowly fading in colour to match her mother’s. And the look in Tommy’s eyes makes Grace rid her mind entirely of such a ridiculous thought, for upon the sight of his daughter Thomas Shelby looks more like the animals he hunts than the leader of the infamous Peaky Blinders. Utterly terrified, and in complete awe, a finger outstretched to trace down the baby’s cheek.
Grace has chosen to be with him, despite the scandal, despite the gossip, and even though Polly scoffs upon seeing the newest addition to the Shelby’s, muttering something under her breath, Ada is quick to point out that the newly named Charlotte has their mother’s eyes. In the end, it doesn’t matter what Polly thinks – her daughter is a Shelby and there will be time enough for Grace to prove her loyalty.
Only, as it would turn out, there isn’t.
For God is cruel, and takes Charlotte’s mother from her before she has even realised how much she will need such a figure in her life. At the tender age of two a bullet ensures she is left without her mother, and although the maids take care of her, although her aunt Ada takes the time to tenderly brush a comb through her light curls, Charlotte knows there is something crucial missing. She won’t ever remember the day when her father told her that her mother is gone, but she knows nonetheless. She will forever remember the sound of a voice, a lilting accent, singing to her, the feeling of soft hands sweeping across her brow. The scent of jasmine haunts her dreams.
When she is older she will look in the mirror, and she will not see the dark hair of her father. Even though her hair might curl like Aunt Ada’s, even though her lips might quirk in a manner similar to Aunt Polly’s, even though her laugh might mimic Uncle Finn’s in its easiness, her father still often visibly startles when he sees her. Judging from the likenesses of her mother scattered throughout almost every room that comprises their grand house, she is the very image of her mother, and Charlotte often feels as though she must apologise for such a thing. She often wonders - would it have been easier if she looked more like a Shelby, more like her father? Or is it simply the mere fact that she is Grace’s daughter, that she is alive and thriving whilst her mother is buried six feet underground? Is that more than enough to unsettle her father?
Her father is far gentler towards her than he is towards Karl and the almost immeasurable amount of cousins she has courtesy of her late Uncle John. Even Billy, years younger than her, is treated more roughly than anyone would ever dare to treat her, Uncle Arthur clapping a hand a little too harshly on his son’s back whenever he does something of note. Charlotte is treated like as if she is made out of porcelain, and she abhors it.
She knows her father has other children beside her, her eyes clearly seeing the similarities shared between him and Lizzie’s daughter Ruby – the dark hair, the piercing gaze. And there are surely others, children that perhaps even her father is not aware exist. But she is his only legitimate child, and although Charlotte often wishes she had been born a son so the business of her inheriting Shelby Company Ltd. would be as easy as the act of taking a breath, she is the daughter of Tommy Shelby and Grace Burgess, and there is something to be said for that.
Like her mother before her, she is fully aware of the darker side of her father’s business. She has tended to his cuts and bruises far more frequently than she would like, and has observed the maids vigorously trying to scrub the blood out of his shirts. There are both legitimate and non-legitimate sides to Shelby Company Ltd., just as there are both legitimate and non-legitimate sides to her father. The legitimate side of her father is the man who delights in listening to her practice her scales on the piano and who happily dines with her, and the non-legitimate side of her father is the man who sneaks out of their grand house to meet up with some woman or another, desperate to temporarily fill the void in his heart that her mother’s death created and nothing, not even the presence of Charlotte herself, has ever proven able to fill.
Every year on the anniversary of her mother’s death, they head out into the uncultivated fields surrounding Arrow House. Underneath the light of the moon, they build two bonfires, piling sticks upon sticks until they are both satisfied with the height. On top of one bonfire her father places a neatly tied bunch of jasmine, splashing whiskey over the flowers before taking a healthy sip himself, and on top of the other Charlotte delicately places an article of her old baby clothing, the clothing her sibling should have worn, if they had ever seen a dawn.
Her mother’s bonfire is lit first, her father staring deeply into the flickering flames, before Charlotte takes it upon herself to light the other bonfire, murmuring a soft prayer for the sibling she never had the chance to meet. The baby’s demise had been told to her father almost as an afterthought, her mother lifeless in a stark white hospital bed despite the fact her father had seen her safely into the hospital. The little happiness left in Tommy Shelby had disappeared after that day, that is what everyone doesn’t dare to say.
It has been twelve years, and her father still mourns the loss of his wife as if she were taken just yesterday, falling to his knees and clutching at the dirt in an outward display of emotion that Charlotte has never seen replicated outside of this moonlit rendezvous. Her father will stay out in the fields all night, despite the chill, until the sun rises and the bonfire has burnt out. Once the sun has risen, he too will rise from his knees and don the cool exterior of Tommy Shelby once more, a lit cigarette firmly wedged between his lips.
When she turns eighteen, her father bestows upon her a gift, neatly wrapped in paper she is certain Aunt Ada had a hand in choosing. As he enters her bedroom just as the sunlight begins to stream in through her window, her father cannot hide the exhaustion that has settled on his face, glasses now almost perpetually perched on his nose to correct his deteriorating eyesight. His political duties as well as his obligations to Shelby Company Ltd. have caused his shoulders to droop, although he is certain to straighten them the moment he is in the public eye. But here, in his house, with his daughter, here he can be the man he has become – the man who even after sixteen years is still in desperate need of the wife cruelly stolen from him.
Charlotte shifts upright in her bed as her father hands her his gift, hair somewhat mussed from sleep. She is a woman grown now, and if she had been born a son, she could be in France at this very moment, fighting against the Germans. Charlotte suspects that the outbreak of war has made her father glad of her female status, for she knows his own memories of his service still haunt him. He has not made any declarations in favour of serving once more, and he will not ever freely volunteer to do such a thing, not if his destruction of their radio after Chamberlain’s declaration is any indication of his feelings.
As she unwraps her present, her father inhales deeply. Inside the paper is nestled a small box, and once she pries the lid off, inside that box is a gun. She quirks a brow at her father, brow noticeably furrowed in confusion, for she has always been strictly forbidden from handling a gun. Charlotte can clearly remember an occasion when Uncle Arthur left his gun on a side-table, and her father found her and Karl arguing over who should be first to touch it. Karl had been adamant that the fact that he was both older than her, as well as a boy, entitled him to go first, whereas she had been certain that the fact that they were currently in her house meant she should be the one to make first contact with the seemingly benign object. In the end, their childish attempts at reasoning with one another hadn’t mattered whatsoever, for upon coming across them her father had quickly taken hold of the gun and stormed off to berate their uncle, his voice echoing throughout the house.
“It was your mother’s,” her father says, his voice somewhat hoarse. Charlotte does not know what to say, so in lieu of a reply she carefully lifts the gun out of the box, fingers easily sliding around the handle. It is a perfect size for her hands, and if she closes her eyes she can almost imagine her mother holding the exact same gun, arms outstretched and aim true. She will have to rope either Finn or Michael into teaching her, for she has seen Karl shoot and she would actually like to be able to hit her target.
“Oh,” is seemingly all she can manage to say. Here, in her hands, is one of the few items her mother possessed. And now her father has freely given it away. Her mother’s clothes still hang in her wardrobe and her jewellery is still scattered across her dresser, but Charlotte has always been reluctant to ask her father if she might take possession of a few items. But here is something her mother once held, something her mother once touched.
“She would want you to have it,” her father continues, not looking at Charlotte. Instead of meeting her eyes he has chosen to stare out of her window, out at the sky. She knows why, knows that it is far too early in the day to force her father to look at her, not when all he will see is her mother. Charlotte merely nods, shifting the gun in her hands so she can stretch out and grasp one of her father’s hands, squeezing it tightly.
“Thank you,” she murmurs.
One of the maids has placed a posy of jasmine in a vase, and when they enter the dining room for breakfast Charlotte watches as her father visibly swallows at the sight, Tommy Shelby closing his eyes and tipping his head back, inhaling deeply. After a heartbeat of quiet reverence, her father looks over his shoulder at her and utters, “We’ll have to teach you how to shoot, eh?”
Charlotte nods, a grin stretching across her lips.