The coppers came around dawn; pinkish warmth had spilled into the courtyard from between the makeshift roofs of the tenements slopped against one another. There had still been puddles left between the cobbles of our street from the downpour which came around midnight. The coppers marched through that pinkish warmth and pooled behind the windowpane of our front-door like blackened liquid stretching upward and upward until a spindly limb pulled away from that coal blob and rapped knuckles against the windowpane. It almost seemed as if those coppers had been stitched together at the shoulder, almost as if each movement had been in tandem. One spoke while the other remained silent – it was like that, with coppers.
Bathed in fresh glimmers of delicate pink from what light strained through the windowpane, I had stood motionless in the hall at the sight of those blackened figures, struck dumb and mute, because I had always been afraid of coppers, whose presence in Bell Road usually meant an imminent raid or riot.
Stumbling backward, I slipped into the back-room filled with makeshift beds in the form of blankets and tattered cushions thrown together into a pile; the girls slept like dogs, limbs entangled, soft breaths, faint mumbles. Esther slept on the only cot in the flat, her willowy frame sprawled outward, a hand dangled from the edge of the mattress and dipped toward Eliza whose small body was tucked just underneath her. Eliza still had a swollen cheek, her lip split apart and there was a rusted crust upon her chin, cracked like worn paint.
Esther shifted in her dreams, her hand flexed. I glimpsed the bruises which coated her knuckles, the bluish splotches and the speckles of blood after she had beaten Eliza. Slowly, I crept around these sleeping girls, stood between the loops of half-bent arms and hopped over curled bodies until I reached Esther and squeezed her shoulder. Esther moaned and shifted more.
Softly, I whispered, “Esther, there are coppers outside.”
Esther startled, lifted herself from the cot. “Coppers?” she repeated. “’old ‘em there, Willa.”
Overcome by a sudden flush of trepidation, I hesitated, and it was an evident catalyst for her temper. Esther gripped me at the throat, cuffed me around the ear, slapped my face against the cot; the hot spark of pain came from my nostrils, sputtering hot blood into cupped hands, trembling hands, held together in prayer before her. I fell from her, fell from the bleak and watery blueness of the bedroom into the pinkish warmth of the hall and fumbled for the door through the sting of tears, as if the salt from these tears ground itself into my sockets; left them raw, left them exposed.
Blackened liquid stood there still, smudges of coal against pinkish warmth which now swelled into faint streaks of orange, seen through the dense folds of the curtains in the kitchen and seeping through the doorframe like a thin stream of light all around it. Opening that front-door was like a flood of colour, splashing all around me, flushing those dark figures in a surge of brightness.
The coppers stood encased in the strap of their hats which creased beneath wobbling jowls; one opened his mouth and the other remained silent. He said, “Tell Esther that Elsie was found dead in a flat on Fetter Road – tell her that she either claims the body or we toss it in with a pile of others in some unmarked place.”
Slinking off into the narrow paths between tenements, the coppers morphed into blackened liquid once more and spilled into the shadows. I felt a strange warmth on my feet, bare and suddenly foreign, as if my limbs were not mine anymore. I glanced down and found that the blood from my nostrils had dripped downward, splattered my chest first and then plopped in little speckles onto my feet.
From behind, I heard Esther and I turned toward her, found her at the other end of the hall, still flushed in the bluish light pouring from the bedroom and clashing with that pinkish warmth of dawn. Her mouth spat out words which seemed too far and distant as if she spoke from beneath water. Then, the flat tipped over and all the water drained out so that I could hear her.
She asked, “If I claim it, do I gotta pay for it?”
Scrubbing myself in the lukewarm water of the basin, the same lukewarm water in which the other girls had showered too, I could recall something that I had not realised in that dim moment in that hall – flaccid against her boots had been a bag, its leather crinkled inward. Esther had been half-turned toward the window with that bag there and that window led onto the fire-escape at the backside of the flats with ladders that led into a back-alley, and then further into a maze of terrace houses and their gardens. Hold ‘em there, Willa, she said.
She would have left us; had it been an arrest, had it been a raid. She would have left us.
Elsie had been her Best Girl, for a little while, because she could unclasp pearl bracelets from wrists, and she could unclip purses tucked beneath tight waistlines in thickets of crowds. Best Girl meant that she had to care for the other girls; teach the tricks, bathe them, clothe them, feed them in the pinkish warmth of early mornings, herd them into the watery blue of the bedroom for late nights. She used to do that for me, before she became ‘the body’ because that was all she was ever called after that night in Fetter Road and it made me itchy around the throat, made me splotchy and sore.
I dreamt of Elsie for many nights whilst tucked between the limbs of all those other girls stretched out across all those other blankets, in that flat on Bell Road. I dreamt of her because it seemed like nobody else did, anymore. I dreamt of the night that Esther had turned her out. I dreamt of her hold around me, the floral scent of her skin and the softness of her hair.
She had been murdered, our Elsie; skirts ripped from her, throat slashed. I heard it from the mothers of the neighbourhood stood around with babies balanced upon cocked hips and I heard it from drunken fathers whose words had been slurred from liquor, heard that she had sold herself like the other girls on Fetter Road, heard that a customer did it. Somehow, these people, who had never known Elsie, could call her by her name, but Esther could only ever say ‘that girl’ or ‘the body’. I dreamt of her a month after her death like I had every night since it had happened. I dreamt of her arms around me.
It was the last time that I ever dreamt of Elsie.
After that month, Beth became Best Girl. She was horrid, Beth, because her bitterness seeped into her expressions, secreted through her pores, pushing her features into a hideous contortion; it held her mouth in a tight scowl, squeezed the lines around that scowl in heavy folds, her thickened eyebrows pulled downward toward a sharp nose. Beth did not bathe us properly – she scrubbed us too hard, left our skin prickled and shredded, like feathers plucked from a bird. She plopped bowls of hardened gruel before us, told us to eat these lumps of bluish mould. Still, she had been made Best Girl, and that meant that all the nicest biscuits and little slivers of meat that Esther brought around were hers, firstly, and ours, lastly.
Beth beat us more than Esther ever did, too. Her slaps had been more like thumps, her kicks too solid. One night, she walloped Daisy with her boot. Daisy spoke with a slack mouth from that night onward, her lips unable to lift properly so that her words came out slow and slurred. It meant that most people thought Daisy was a drunken fool or just plain dumb because she sounded a little dim, but really it was just her mouth that could not function the way that her brain could. Beth made her like that. She had stomped on Ruth, another night, stomped on her hip, so that Ruth could only limp in an odd hop, almost like an injured rabbit.
Esther came around a little while after what had happened to Daisy and Esther came around a little while after what had happened to Ruth. She had placed a cigarette between her lips and considered them both, her eyes alight in a familiar gleam. She said, “Bring them ‘round Charterhouse tomorrow, Beth. In this world, them rich folk with only part with pennies for orphaned children and cripples sat in doorways – and ain’t it good that our girls are both of those now, eh?”
Charterhouse was a smart sliver of London with lavish gardens and tall buildings, all golden trimmings and sleek fences around the houses, leading out into a rich blend of stalls which sold everything from books to meat, clothes to trinkets, all through the line until Charterhouse whittled into a cluster of posh offices. Between all these stalls sat a little nook, a tiny crop of pallets and boxes left from the stalls piled upon one another and obscuring the alleyway that we could slip through in order to avoid the coppers.
Ruth had to hobble over that fence at its mouth just so that she could stand with us in the main square, her hands cupped and her limp more pronounced from that fence. Daisy had to call out for spare coins, so that strangers could spot her slack mouth and hear her slack words. I thought it was awful cruel of Esther to push the girls out there and make a mockery of what Beth had done to them, because Ruth had not been born with that stuttered limp and Daisy had not been born with that limpness in her lips. I found pity. Esther had just found profit.
Yet Ruth and Daisy looked at what I was made to do, and I saw that pity reflected in them just as much as within myself.
Esther used to call me chey more than she ever called me Willa. The other girls bristled at this Romani word, afraid that Esther had become too fond of me. Esther liked to push the girls apart, unravel the girls and drip dissention into them before she slipped out of the flat. I used to hear her say ‘goodbye, girls – goodbye, chey’ just before the front-door slammed shut and I could almost taste the copper sting of the other girls’ stares in the aftermath of her departure. Sometimes, she lifted an absent hand to stroke at my cheek while she called me chey and it would remind me that only Elsie had ever done that – held me softly, that is, held me with care. Esther used to say, chey, come and sit by me. Chey, what have you brought me today?
It means girl. It means child. It can also mean daughter.
I was just never sure which word it meant for her.
Esther used chey because I had come from the Gypsies. Birthed in a field, I had slipped out stained in blue, hardly breathing, deathly still and the eldest Gypsies did not think that I would make it beyond the first month. I had been called chey and for them it meant child, for them it meant girl and never daughter, because daughter meant attachment and there was not much point in attachment for a child that might soon be returned to that damp earth. In the second month, Johnny Dogs returned from England and told the Gypsies that he had heard the name Willa in a dream, and dreams are sacred things for Gypsies. I left those same fields in a wagon, left them as Willa, around my seventh summer.
I left with Johnny. I have not seen him in many years, many more than seven summers. He used to call me his chey long before Esther ever did. Before the dreams of Elsie in that flat on Fetter Road, I dreamt that Johnny might come and fetch me from this flat.
I heard he plays the fiddle in the pubs, now, does Johnny. I heard he plays the pipes and whistles a tune for coins tossed into a paddy-cap laid before his feet, now, does Johnny. I heard that he has daughters of his own, now; cheys of his own, he has, but I knew what the word had meant for him last that he called me it; it had been said with love, said with fondness in him. Never had I heard it said again the way Johnny had said it.
I heard he has daughters of his own, now. So, the dreams went away, like all those dreams of Elsie in that flat on Fetter Road. What use would he have had for me, now?
It was in my ninth summer that I began to stay with Esther, separated from Johnny and the old Gypsies. I never did return to that damp soil which birthed me. I stood on cobbled streets and Esther had another lad clap out an old tune with a tambourine laid against his thigh so that I could hop about like some maddened creature, dance and leap with the shimmer of my skirts. She used to say, spare a coin for the Gypsy Girl – the wild girl, she said.
She told me that the people of London liked to look upon Gypsies as savages with dirt smeared upon their skin – but she never let them see that she would scoop little droplets of dirt from puddles in alleys and pat it against my cheeks, she would let my inky curls tangle and become frizzy from rain, so that I would look foreign and strange. I hopped and danced and leapt about for a couple of coins tossed into that damned cap and I felt myself dwindle with each twirl and spin because the people of London looked with eyes aglow in amusement.
After that, I withered from the word Gypsy, shrivelled from chey and cowered from Romani. I had not been born in a field, I had not been brought here in a wagon. I was not wild nor savage nor foreign nor strange, I told the other girls, I was never a Gypsy. I was never the Gypsy Girl even if Esther dressed me in plentiful skirts, left barefoot in unfamiliar streets to jingle my bracelets and whirl around in handstands and cartwheels for fruitless rewards, perhaps only a couple of pennies before dusk. I was not made of damp soil, I told the girls. Esther calls me chey for it is part of the act – which act exactly, I was not quite sure, but there was an act afoot all the same.
Somehow, Ruth and Daisy, for all the suffering subjected to them by Beth, still looked upon me with as much pity as they did for themselves.
What use would Johnny have had for me, now? All things must be useful, Esther said. If a girl cannot pluck handkerchiefs from a pocket and if she cannot pull a bracelet from a loose wrist, then there are plenty of opportunities for her in the sort of flats in which the only real skill required is an ability to hike up skirts and lay backward for strange men. On the night that she turned out Elsie, she had told her this – she had screamed it at her, and the words had turned the flesh of her throat red, it had made her veins rise like the strings of a violin, bluish lines which blended into all that redness. She hauled Elsie upward, threw her against the wallpaper of the kitchen and bashed her around. I had stood in the doorway. I could not recall just what had drawn me there, because all the other girls had lain across those blankets and listened. Esther had whirled around, saw me stood in the threshold between the safety of the hall and the danger of her kitchen.
Gripped by the scalp, she slammed my head against the countertop, and she did not call me chey, then, for it had been bitch and it had been whore. Never had it been chey. Never had it been spoken with love and never had it been spoken with fondness. Elsie had come between us, because Elsie always came between us, and she hauled me upward, but not like Esther had hauled her upward – she held me carefully, lolled my limp body against her chest and rocked me softly, so that I could breathe the scent of her skin and curl into the cocoon of her protection.
“Willa, my darlin’ girl,” she said, “Willa, my sweet.”
I heard her in the ripple of water which lapped against my skull from the thump against the countertop and I swam in her kindness, like a river which washed over me and drowned out Esther still in a rage behind her. She tore Elsie from me and turned her out because Elsie had become stronger than her and Esther feared girls stronger than her. I had not understood that then, because Esther told us that Elsie had stolen a bracelet, which was not the truth. She tore Elsie from me, that night. She told her that she was not useful, but all things had to be useful. She told Elsie that she could find a hike-up-skirts-and-lay-backward flat. Elsie had been bitch and she had been whore, that night, too.
I would rather she had stayed bitch and she had stayed whore; anything was better than ‘the body’.
The existence of Gypsy Girl ended in my eleventh summer. I had grown too much, had little buds for a chest and found blood in my knickers a couple of weeks into August which was early for some of the girls in the flat. They said that it was all that leaping about which must have dislodged something on the inside and started off all that blood-flow. The dirt was scrubbed from my cheeks, because my cheeks lost all that baby-fat and had become sharp, dipped downward toward a plump mouth. I could be Willa or chey, but never again would I have to be Gypsy Girl for a handful of coins.
Sometime after that, Elsie rented out this old factory on Victoria Lane; she told us that she had had an epiphany the night beforehand, that she had seen the blue sign of Victoria Lane in her dreams, and dreams are sacred things, I know. She used to sell her wares to a man named Bix on Sarsfield Lane, a safe bet, but Esther wanted more. She rented that factory from Benny Butcher for a couple of pounds for the premises plus a whole lot more for his protection.
It was Butcher in control of Camden Town all through toward Harrow, looping toward Bullock Road and cutting off at Preston Street; all pubs, all shops, all businesses which found themselves within those blocks were therefore the property of Butcher and forced to accept his protection, just like Esther had done. Butcher sliced the throats of those stupid enough to swindle him, he cracked skulls and caved them inward, he strung limbs from railings and dangled them there until all the blood had drained. Esther paid Butcher so that coppers never came around and she paid Butcher so that his men would stand around outside the factory and do just that – protect it. Some girls dared ask, from who?
Esther never answered.
Esther filled the factory with rows upon rows of tables, those tables topped sewing-machines nicked from some other factory in Liverpool by Butcher. Esther also bought these new chairs, coated in soft cushions. She had herself quite the racket, really. She organised it like this: the girls from the flat, usually the youngest, nabbed purses, handkerchiefs, typical desirables off the street.
However, the girls did not just bring all that stuff into our flat like before. Instead, the desirables were brought into the factory and some other girls would pluck out the markings or cut off the labels; those items were further distributed between the tables; at those tables sat other girls, whose nimble hands were already sewing the hem of an apron or the pouch on its front; the girls folded the material, stitched it so that it made an almost unnoticeable seam into which valuables could be placed; a line of thread would be sewn, checked by some other girls to ensure it was all safely sealed in there, little chance for a ring to be shaken out in transport; and then those aprons were brought out into the backyard which had some trucks; and some other girls loaded them into the trucks, those aprons. Some girls dared ask, where do all those aprons go?
Esther never answered this, either.
Charlotte came along around this time; she was eleven, made of ginger curls and rosy cheeks, but with the temperament of a lamb. She was much too timid, which meant she was target of the other girls’ mocking and constant abuse – tearing blankets off her in the night so that she shivered against the chill or scooping out dried clumps of porridge from her bowl in the mornings, aware that she would only sit and watch, blinking in doe-eyed sadness. I was seventeen.
I was one of the oldest in that whole flat which also meant that I was one of the most feared, too, but this came from a combination of age and temperament. Charlotte was not familiar with the flat, its functions, she did not realise that respect came from the willingness to lift a girl from her seat and take it, purely from desire for it. There came a morning in which Eleanor lifted her spoon and went for the bowl in front of Charlotte. I caught Eleanor around the throat, clamped my hand there and bent low from behind her.
“You leave the girl alone,” I said, and that was the end of it.
The Gypsies had told me that such things had been taught to the world by the soil which birthed me – the worm is in that soil, the bird comes and swallows the worm, before the cat comes and kills the bird, onward and onward until all things are settled by that first worm in the soil.
Hierarchy, pecking-order, I told Charlotte, ancient things which must be followed.
I spent mornings in Charterhouse with the girls, nicked handkerchiefs and scarves. I spent evenings in the faint light of the factory with a sewing-machine and aprons all around. I had a gift, Esther said. I could do in an hour what most girls did in three, she said. I liked the sewing-machine, liked its hum and rattle and growl beneath my fingertips like some rabid creature, spewing out reams and reams of aprons, then padded in stolen wares later sold off through Butcher. I spent nights in the flat, slumped between the girls, a blanket around me while the others fought over another – the oldest girls also had first-dibs because that was tradition which also came from the soil. I had a routine, comfortable and neat.
It was the first time that I ever had some semblance of stability in my life.
Esther had an office in the factory, nestled in the corner of the floor with all the tables and chairs with soft cushions. Her office had blinds against its windows which the other girls found much too professional, much too pompous. She had this large, bulky table scattered in paperwork. I asked what all those documents meant, before, while the door was still ajar. Esther heard it. She came out onto the floor and stood with limbs akimbo. She said, why would you bother asking, Willa, when that thick skull of yours cannot even read ‘em?
The other girls had laughed and laughed loudly.
Suddenly, I could feel the flesh around my collarbone and throat flower in hot, red patches. I had never admitted it aloud. Esther had told them that I was illiterate many times before then, but there had been other girls there, new and unaware. Once, she slapped a newspaper against my face and held my hair in her tight grip before all the other girls, told them that I was too dim to understand its words, that the other girls should treat me as if I was dumb because of it. I just never had much chance to learn how to read – never went into school, never had a teacher, never had anybody who might want to sit with me and show me the letters which seemed simple for them but somehow incomprehensible for me. Johnny could only read a couple of words himself, had trouble with letters too, saw them backwards and forwards and slanting from the page, slopping off the paper like wiggling caterpillars.
The letters did not wiggle for me. They just sat on those lines and watched me, unable to penetrate my thick skull.
Autumn rolled around in crinkled leaves freckled in brown spots. Winter followed behind in thunder and rain, like a monsoon, its furious droplets splattered the cobbles of the streets and filled them, flooded them so that the trudge into the factory was wet and damp; it was just before Christmas that Butcher said expansion was necessary and that Esther must sell snow in between the packets of rings and bracelets.
Little sachets were padded out with this powder which was really just cocaine, sniffed into the nostrils, consumed in piles by people with trembling hands. Esther had been unable to refuse Butcher on this sudden change in what was sewn into the aprons. She was unable to refuse him that day or any other, really.
Slipping through another alleyway, I strode toward Victoria Lane and huddled further into the warmth of my coat against this bitter chill. Nellie, Daisy, Ruth and Eliza marched ahead in mindless chatter about the recent addition of new boys in the backyard of the factory. This addition had been another input from Butcher. Esther said that the lads had been hired because of the heavier boxes, but really it was just that Butcher had wanted more reassurance that the girls were not nicking pearls from bracelets or the odd ring from a pile of others.
I knew that it had to be about that, because those lads had started to stand in the doorways in the afternoons and stare at us while we tugged on our coats, beady stares latched onto our hands, wary of sudden lumps in our pockets or jingling bracelets stuffed into socks. There were a lot more lads than Esther had anticipated, added to the ones that had already been there from the start – maybe fifteen, half stood in the backyard to shift boxes, another half stood around the factory itself, watchful and silent.
Coated in thick sheets of mud, the backyard had become a sea of brown sludge on that bleak Tuesday morning. The clouds had sputtered in misty coughs, faint droplets settling on our skin, speckles of dew. It had been through those greyish folds of mist that I had first seen Alfie Solomons; blood had soaked his cotton shirt, had soaked into him. He slipped in mud and held another lad beneath him, almost bit into his throat had the other boys not held him beneath the arms and hauled him upward, gripped him like some rabid creature, some rabid dog in the streets.
Stood around him in a circle, there had been a crowd of lads and the girls swept toward them in excitement, because boys were foreign for them, foreign for me. Between the swell of bodies, I saw the limbs of another boy splayed out in the mud.
There had been odd, reddish grooves in the hollow of his collarbone, another cluster just beneath the curl of his jawbone. Alfie had almost torn his throat out.
Only I had not known Alfie then, had thought him wild and violent, thought him a stranger, just another lad from the backyard – an alternate Gypsy Boy, only there was nothing Gypsy in Alfie, it was all him. Madly, his chest heaved, his eyes had been blown wide from the fight, his mouth, his gums stained in blood, both from his own cuts and from the cuts of the other lad left there in the wet earth, like the worm, who looked upward at the clouds which cried down upon him.
I thought that he was dead.
Yet his eyelids flickered in some frenzied seizure, his limbs locked, and he shivered in panting trembles. Girls shrieked – and it was these frightened shrieks which brought Esther from her office, hurrying toward this spectacle with fists clenched.
Although she had been much shorter than Alfie, Esther could draw herself into great heights of anger. “Nellie, Eliza – bring that poor lad on the ground there inside before he chokes on his tongue! Willa, you can take this little thug into the office! Butcher will want a word with you, boy, you realise that, don’t you!”
Nellie and Eliza lifted the lad from the wet earth. His tongue flopped outward from between his lips, limp and purple, which made the girls drop him in fright. Esther became so furious that she was elevated even further in her anger, so that she touched those sputtering clouds and those clouds turned her dark and red like wine until her fury reached the girls and forced them into another attempt. His boots dragged and left thickened lines leading through the mud behind him, deepened trenches through which Alfie and I walked, our boots sinking into its dampness, dragged further and further into its depths.
Cocooned in the candlelight of the office, I held out a cloth and he took it from my hand. His hand briefly brushed mine and left my fingertips smeared in blood. His lip had been swollen as if stung by an insect, some bumblebee afloat in spring – but it had come from the clip of a ring against the skin, split it, oozing in thick red. He licked at it like a dog licks its wounds and again I saw rabid foam on his muzzle once his eyes met mine. I had little experience with lads and looked away from him, drawn toward the documents which still scattered the table.
He plucked his vocal-chords, prepared himself for speech; his jaw clicked from the movement. “Called me a kike. That lad out there. Called me a kike.”
Stood alongside him, I crossed my arms against my chest, like a barrier. I had become oddly awkward around him, much too aware of him. “What does it mean?”
His left eyelid glistened from a purplish swell. “Means Jew – means dirty, means greedy, means kike.”
I understood little about the Jewish faith if only because I understood little about any faith, but I nodded all the same. Having been born in Ireland, I was often called bog-trotter and paddy-girl by coppers; but the words had never fully hurt me more than the old taunts of dummy and dunce and dimwit which came from my illiteracy and which were usually screeched by the other girls if I could not read a headline shown by Esther in the mornings, that sort of thing. I understood him through that more than faith, understood the slump in his shoulders, understood the gentle furl of his fists, his knuckles cracked and sore.
“What should I call you instead?” I asked.
“Alfie,” he said. “Means dirty, means greedy – well, you get the gist, don’ ya?”
Blackened liquid swirled behind the windowpanes of the office, like those coppers had on that morning of pinkish warmth; but that was just Butcher and his lackeys out there, swirling around, slithering toward the other end of the factory. I saw that Alfie had blood around his collar. I thought that I could make him another shirt, but Esther filled the doorframe in her darkness and burst through, flooded the office like the rain had flooded the streets the morning that I found Elsie had been murdered.
She said that the other boy had survived and that was the only reason that Alfie had not been killed, but that did not mean he would not be beaten. Esther reached for him. I heard the harsh slap first, glimpsed his bruised cheek. I was swept out in the riptide, for Esther had gripped my arm and thrown me out there, slammed the door behind me; just before it clapped shut and I lost Alfie in the ripples, I saw her hand lift, heard it fall.
I flinched for him because he never did for himself.
Bundled in chatter from the other girls, I pricked my fingertips with needles and mulled it over in my mind; a shirt was simple thing, just a couple of folds and seams for the collar, neat measurements for the arms, all the materials sat in a closet alongside me. I had never made a shirt. I sat there and pricked myself until I had finally decided on it. I plucked the buttons from a small box in another drawer. I dithered with aprons just until midday rolled around. Esther left for another break – hers had always been frequent and unquestioned, after all. I stitched in that quiet in-between while the other girls sat in the backyard around the benches.
Its buttons had been somewhat wonky, drifted left toward the bottom, its right sleeve just an inch more in length than the left. I found him and brought it to him anyway. I held it out and it fluttered like a white flag between us. I had expected confusion, but his hand reached out – not like Esther had reached for him, not fast and forceful and intent on hurt. There had been no words spoken. I liked that better.
His lips quirked. It was not quite a smile. There had still been blood on his gums.
In January, those little sachets became more numerous than the handkerchiefs and purses slipped into the pockets made on those aprons. Often, Butcher stayed in that office which had been meant for Esther and the blinds flickered shut. He strode by all the girls, looked at us all with a dip of his chin in acknowledgement. Something shifted. Butcher never bothered the girls, hardly even noticed if a girl was there or not – it was Esther that he cared for, Esther that he came for. He sniffed snow, too.
I knew because his hands trembled.
Sometimes, I walked with Alfie through an alleyway behind the factory toward Ivor Square which had this small patch of green and some cobbled walls where we could sit between our strolls. He was from another tenement, but he had known of Esther many months before he had even started this little job at the factory for his – well, he never did finish that line, it usually attached itself onto another ramble and I found myself lost in his turnabout words.
I had never felt much interest in anybody apart from Elsie and Charlotte and Johnny, but I liked Alfie. I liked his humour most of all. I had never felt that odd flash which struck through me like lightning if he came toward me in the backyard, had never felt that swoop in my stomach whenever he stood close, had never laughed more than I laughed at his jokes.
I stitched more shirts for him, in secret. I held an odd shyness toward Alfie and often feigned disinterest around him for some bizarre reason which I could not quite understand, tried hard not to glance out at him in the backyard and often tossed the shirts at him casually. I brought him another and he said, “Bit nippy out in that backyard, darlin’ – can your talents stretch for a scarf, ey?”
Hot patches flowered all around my throat in the same pattern that had once come from shame when the girls mocked me about my illiteracy, but I did not feel shame around him, just felt some giddiness in my stomach from that darlin’ said in grizzly roughness. So, I shrugged. I shrugged and already my hands had reached for more thread, like he had pulled the strings around my wrist and made the motions himself. I made him a white scarf, turned it over to him with little fanfare and strode inside as if it never happened, as if I had never prayed that he would like it. It was never mentioned, that scarf.
It was never mentioned, but he wore it every day.