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The pretty one

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Lizzie Parks was the sensible sister, and Jane was the pretty one. They both knew this from a very young age, just as Lizzie knew that it was her responsibility to look after Jane after their mother died. Their father was a drinker, and might sometimes not come home for days on end, so Lizzie would do all the cooking and make sure Jane was washed and was kept in clothes that didn't look too shamefully threadbare (her own hand-me-downs – she took in Mum's old dresses to fit herself.)

When she got the job in the kitchen of the factory in Isleworth, it meant leaving home early in the morning, before it was light, and often not getting back again until after dark. Jane was old enough then to take care of herself, though, and so Lizzie only felt a little guilty. The money was needed, after all, and at least it was honest work.

Jane didn't seem to mind pulling more weight around the house. "You've slaved long enough for both of us," she would say to Lizzie, smiling as she made her sister a cup of tea when she got home, tired and sore-footed. Lizzie, for her part, tried not to complain if things weren't kept quite up to her standards, but she couldn't help flicking a cloth along the shelves when she noticed they hadn't been dusted lately. Jane pretended not to notice.

One day, a boiler burst at the factory, and everyone was sent home early. Lizzie wasn't sure if she'd be docked half a day's pay, but the treat of getting to go home by noon was too splendid to worry about. She picked up a pair of currant buns on the way home, thinking to surprise her sister with the treat. She walked in and found Jane kissing Tom Wilson, one of the boys who worked at the greengrocers. His hand was halfway up her skirt when Lizzie shrieked at him to get off her sister and get out. He left without putting up a fight, but Jane was furious with her. "I can't leave you home like this," Lizzie told her before bed, "not if you can't be trusted." Jane only sniffled miserably. Lizzie frowned, unsympathetic. "Tomorrow you're coming to the factory with me, and I'll make them take you on."

She was as good as her word, marching Jane down there at six in the morning. There were no openings in the kitchen, though – the best she could do was to get Jane a job in the factory itself. But the work would keep her out of trouble, and it was nearly all girls who worked there. They'd keep an eye on her, surely.

The owner of the factory, William McCordle, came in to inspect the place once or twice a month. Whenever they knew he was coming, the kitchen staff would make a special dish just for him. Lizzie learned that he liked treacle tart before she knew anything else about him. One day, the head cook was out sick, and Lizzie had to make it herself. He liked it so well, he asked to thank the cook who had made it, and so she was brought before him, up in the posh office he used. She curtseyed politely and kept her eyes modestly lowered, and thanked him for his kind words about the meal. "Look up, girl," he said kindly. She did as she was told, and soon learned that he was not as old as she'd expected a factory owner would be, and not so bad looking either. Then he locked the door and asked her to do other things for him. Lizzie was afraid of losing her position, so she did what he said, uncertain at first, but growing in confidence as he encouraged her. After that, whenever he came back to the factory he would ask to see her, and she came to simultaneously anticipate and dread his visits – anticipation because she enjoyed their time together (guiltily), but dread at what would surely happen if she was caught out.

She realized she was in trouble in May, and found reasons to avoid seeing William the next few times he visited. She managed to keep it a secret until August, when even letting out her mother's dresses couldn't hide her shape any longer. She didn't even tell Jane – she felt so ashamed, and such a hypocrite, that she couldn't. When she finally told William, he only shrugged and told her the choice – keep the job and give up the baby, or the other way around. Then he dismissed her from the office without so much as a farewell. She managed to keep from crying until she got home, when she couldn't hold it in any longer. She confessed everything to Jane, unburdening herself in a way she hadn't permitted herself to do in years. And to her surprise, her sister started to cry too. When Lizzie had been 'too busy' to see William, he'd asked the foreman – jokingly, perhaps – if she had a sister. And the foreman had fetched Jane off the factory floor and up to Mr. McCordle's waiting arms. And she thought now that she might be in trouble too…

"It'll be all right," Jane whispered. "We'll give them up. He says they go to good families. Maybe they could even go to the same family, like brothers or sisters."

"I can't," Lizzie said, horrified. "To give up my baby to strangers…I just can't!"

Jane's pretty face grew hard at that. "What will you do, then, with no job and a little one to feed? You'd be one step from becoming a whore." In that moment, it was as if their roles switched forever, with Jane becoming the sensible, responsible one, and Lizzie knew that she should listen to her, but she couldn't. Nor could she ever forgive herself for her role in her sister's downfall, for not seeing how her heart had grown cold since she'd started working at the factory. She was supposed to look out for her, and she'd failed on every count.

"I'll make him take you back," Jane said when Lizzie's baby was born. "He'll do it if I ask him, I know he will." Lizzie knew then that she hadn't stopped seeing William, not because she still cared for him despite everything he'd done, but because it was the sensible thing to do. Somehow that knowledge was worse than anything else.