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 one


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.

 

Chapter Text

two


 

For a long while, I had known that some of the eldest girls did more than just pickpocket at the markets or work in the factory for Esther. Before she sent the girls off in the dead of night, before that pinkish warmth, Esther trained the girls to set out tables with napkins and proper cutlery which she stashed beneath the floorboards in the flat, never for us, never for proper use, but rather for these lessons in manners and etiquette. Esther bought uniforms with starched aprons, soft stockings and bonnets for the girls. She taught them all the correct phrases, fabricated entire stories for each girl.

I understood that the girls posed as maids. I just never understood more until I was dressed in this pair of soft stockings and this starched apron for myself. She had tamed all those frizzy strands from my hair, smoothed them into tight curls. I was taught words like madam and sir. I learnt the placement of the plate alongside each spoon and neatly-plied napkin. I was furnished with false references, because I had never had them before, I asked what they meant.

Esther was in a sour mood. She rolled her eyes toward me with a withered expression. “Christ, Willa, don’t tell ‘em that you’re thick in the skull, all right? Pretend to be even a little bit smart, would ya, pretend you got an ounce of a brain, yeah? I should hope they don’t ask you to fuckin’ read or write nothin’ for ‘em. You cost me this job and I’ll crack through that skull of yours, see if you can’t read then, bloody dunce, fuckin’ dimwit you are, Willa – …”

Alfie followed me out of the factory; all the way from the backyard of the factory, right after the boys had been handed hefty envelopes, he followed me into Victoria Lane and outward toward Sanford Road. All those blocks we walked, and not once did he speak, not until we reached Brixton Street. He never slowed or stopped at all, never even glanced at me. He simply said, “‘ow long will you be gone for, then?”

I continued alongside him, aware that our shoulders occasionally bumped together. Naturally hoarse, my words always came out in a light rasp, and I replied, “Couple of weeks, I think. Who told you that I was leaving, anyway?”

Something that I had learned about Alfie: he asked questions and expected answers for them, but rarely did he answer any questions for himself. “Right. I suppose that means I got no choice but to sit on that wall in Ivor Square by me-self and wait for ya. But don’t be too long, eh? I’ll be chewin’ the ends o’ me scarf from boredom if you go too long.”

I smiled, my cheeks aflame. I dipped my chin toward my chest so that my long hair slipped from my shoulders and shrouded me behind a dark curtain. “I guess that means I’ll have to make a lot more scarves for you, Alfie. I could make as many as you like, you know.”

He nodded with this soft, warm hum resonating from his chest. He looked upward at the rotted slates of the roofs on Brixton Street, his lips pursed. “Been thinkin’ ‘bout some gloves too. Might need a cap while we’re at it, eh? It’s nippy out in the backyard, innit? Can’t have me catchin’ a cold, eh, whole factory might fall apart without me there to manage it. Yeah –…” at this, he drew in a sharp breath, blew out his lips in a raspberry and nodded – “… I reckon I’ll need the whole kit, I will.”

“Then I guess I have to come back to you, don’t I?” I said. I glanced up at him, afflicted still by my shyness around him, my odd giddiness and eagerness to even look at him. It was nothing like me, but it felt – it felt nice, which sounded girlish and strange coming from me, but it was the truth, all the same.

“You do, Willa,” he nodded, unsmiling. There were no jokes from him, no humour, for once. “You do.”

Along came Rosewood with its lavish shrubbery much like Charterhouse. It had acres upon acres of land and horses, sprawling fields with ponds. There was the house nestled within the trimmed hedges and there were the little yips of the dogs, small little dogs flitting around about our ankles and plodding alongside Mr William Yaxley whose hands had been gloved in leather after a morning chase around the fields, settled tall upon his stallion. I had curtsied before him like Esther had taught me.

I called myself Elizabeth; not chey, not Willa, not dummy, not dimwit, not dunce, none of those things anymore. Yaxley looked through me as if I was transparent – he looked beyond me, into the fields. He told me that I reminded him of an old friend, a dear old friend, because people like Yaxley talked like that, always with words like dear and quaint and terribly and awfully and dreadfully so

All this came three weeks before he cornered me in the pantry and tried to push his hand up my skirt.

The maids slept in the house in another section sealed off from Yaxley and his wife whose name was never quite said aloud. She was simply ma’am or missus or my lady and not much else. She allowed charities to be held at Rosewood Manor so that she might maintain inauthentic friendships with other ladies whose names had been ma’am or missus or my lady and not much else. I liked the older maids because they became quite motherly toward me, and I had always lived with women, always liked to be with women, felt more comfortable around them than I did men.

Their hearts had already been made soft by their own children, and that meant that these older maids smoothed out the crinkles in the bedsheets I had tried to pin against the mattress. They straightened the picture-frames after I dusted them. They made all those little touches which I may have missed because I was not a proper maid, but they only thought that I was new and nervous, therefore forgetful and sloppy.

There had been Cecilia and Nora, Elise and Mary – kindly ladies, whose hands had been roughened by the trade, whose attitudes and workmanship had been brisk and unafraid of tasks rattled out by ma’am or missus or my lady in the pinkish warmth of the mornings.

It was Cecilia who first hinted that I should never find myself alone with Mr Yaxley if possible. It was Nora who mentioned, hours afterward, that Yaxley liked stockings, but that he liked them on younger legs. He liked dark eyes, but his wife had pale eyes, always watering. It was Elise who had noted, quite blankly, that Yaxley had watched me from the yard that evening and that she would very much like to follow me into the kitchen later – for reasons unspecified, although I had been startled to discover Yaxley already there upon our arrival, as if she had expected it. She had expected it. She had protected me, even if I had not yet understood it.

Women are attuned to the ways of men, Mary told me one night between dustings, because God granted them this gift among many others. But that does not mean that always they can be protected – but it comes from the gut, this instinct, women sense things from the gut and it travels upward into the brain, so that all of the body understands it from that point onward.

She asked, do you feel that in your gut yet, Elizabeth? Has it yet reached your brain, so that all your body has understood it? If not, my girl, my sweet, then what I feel should surely pass to you – women are like that, too, they can speak to one another with just the eyes. Another gift from God.

In the pantry had been many sachets of dried-out seasonings and other jars half-full of ripe strawberries and raspberries and blackberries fleshly plucked at dawn, because there would be another charity-event in Rosewood Manor that evening. The dessert would be a French dish that I could hardly pronounce. I held a jar of blackberries all soft and ground into mush and then I turned toward the door and found Yaxley there. He had been tall and slim. His shirt had been untucked. I could not quite tell why that bothered me so much.

Like roots burrowing into the soil, my feet had planted themselves into the tiles of the pantry and I felt the slow crawl of branches all around my limbs, until seedlings sprung from my tongue and I said something like, is there something that you need, Mr Yaxley?

From my gut came that gift which had been granted to women by God, it spread around the roots and poured itself into my veins so that I hummed like a bumblebee from it, vibrated from it and felt it spill outward so that he could feel it, too. It made him stand straighter - that was how I knew he could feel it, that was how I knew that my roots had intertwined with his and that that was why he blocked the door with his shoulders and he blocked me from the rest of the house which thus seemed small and distant behind him, narrowed into a tunnel which had no end, that house which had never felt homely, never felt loved.

He came toward me, corralled me into the corner between those dried-out seasonings and those other jars half-full, held me there, he did. I could feel the heaviness of his breath and the heaviness of his intentions all at once. His hand went toward my skirt, held itself there, then shimmied upward. It trailed upward along the bare flesh of my thigh, that hand, as if it was not still attached to him, some tumorous leech on his person, it slithered upward toward parts unknown.

He called me kitten between his breathy huffs against my throat. His other hand pawed at my chest, his lips tasted like salt. He had been everywhere, so that I felt I could not escape him, that I had been contained in a jar of my own. His hand brushed my knickers, which until then only the other girls had seen – which until then, had been mine and only mine, but he was here, spoiling it, spoiling me, ruining me and he-…

I dropped the blackberries.

I dropped the blackberries and the sickly-sweet blackness of its contents spattered our legs in thick droplets which dripped downward onto his leather-shoes and my trembling stockings and I felt it dribble into my shoes, too, that sickly-sweetness, felt it pool there. He did not look away from me – and even if his eyes had been all bluish-light, I saw that blackness in him. Mary was behind him. He did not know it. His hand was beneath my chin, tipping it upward at him. I saw her behind him, she was there.

Mary said, “Mr Yaxley.”

He knew, then. His hand left my chin, left it cold, left it hurt. His eyes flicked toward her.

“Mr Yaxley,” Mary said, “I do believe that Mrs Yaxley has requested your presence in the foyer.”

Off he went, his leather-shoes slick and squelching in sickly-sweet blackness and I stood there in blank numbness before I thanked God for this gift which came from the gut for women and I thanked Him, too, for Mary. I had never spoken to God before that moment in the pantry, but I knew that His name was written with a capital letter even if I could not write myself.

I looked at Mary. We spoke to one another with just our eyes. Our gift from God.

She scrubbed the blackberries from my stockings. She spared me a sliver of dessert from the charity event. I ate it in the kitchen between the flurry of waiters slipping around me like fish in a river. I went out into the field and spewed it back into the damp earth, spat out that sickly-blackness.

I let the soil consume it instead. 

I stole quite a lot of jewellery from the Yaxley family that same night. I could wait no longer. I dumped all that jewellery into a little pocket in my coat and tucked pearls into my shoes, plopped the earrings into the lining of my cuffs and pushed the bracelets into the hidden slits that Esther had made beneath my coat. I saw his shirts, steamed and pressed. I took a pair of scissors and snipped through them all. I did not rip the dresses of his wife nor did I ruin her shoes. I went into the pantry and found another jar of blackberries and brought them back into the bedroom. I smeared them into the folds of his shirt, smeared them all over the bedsheets.

Suddenly, the bedroom-door opened and there stood Mary. Her eyes trailed toward that pile of clothes, blackened and spoiled like I had been in the pantry. She saw me. I was not transparent for her. I suppose that she had known, without words, because of our gift from God, that I had stolen from the family. She stood there like I had stood in that damned pantry before she turned around and left. I stood still, too. I stood for the screams and shouts that would alert Yaxley and ma’am or missus or my lady out in the gardens for the charity event.

Nothing ever came. She never screamed, never shouted. She never sold me out. She spared me the beatings, she spared me the noose. Another gift from God, she had given me.

Sitting in the kitchen of the flat alongside Esther, I watched her count the coins and notes which came from my spoils. Esther had brought the jewellery into an old shop on Brixton Street, because it was just about the only place which would take her wares anymore if they were not sent through Butcher. Ruth had been there, Daisy and Beth and Rosie and Nellie, too. I had made more than the other girls ever had, in that one night. Esther said, “Chey will need to stay in the flat for the next couple a weeks, keep her head low. But you made a fine job of it, you did, chey.”

“I don’t want to do that anymore,” I mumbled.

“The maid job?” Nellie asked. “Easiest in the world, if you ask me.”

Esther had been watching me closely. She asked, “Did he try to fuck ya, chey?”

“Should ‘ave let ‘im, Willa,” Rosie said. “Could ‘ave gotten more gifts as ‘is mistress.”

I looked away from her. “He made me – uncomfortable.”

The girls glanced around at one another. Then came laughter – sudden, intense laughter all pointed at me, but Esther watched me without even the flicker of a smile, eyes full of sickly-sweet blackness. I awaited a slap, I awaited a punch or thump against me, but nothing more came than the snickers and snorts of the other girls.

“If that’s all a man ever made me,” Ruth snickered, “then I wouldn’t be complainin’, Willa.”

“I don’t want to do it anymore,” I repeated.

“All right. No more, chey,” Esther said.

It was the only time I could remember that Esther never went against her word nor tried to manipulate its meaning.

The flat had become a womb. Curtains drawn, the bedroom was filled in feeble oranges and red from the candlelight. Charlotte roused me for card-games. Otherwise, I slept in the bedroom, slept in the mornings, slept in the evenings. It was still fresh, all that had happened in Rosewood. I dreamt of foreign hands pressed against my thighs, spread apart, trickling toward – toward the scratch of fingertips edging toward – and I could breathe the scent of blackberries, which threw me from sleep and forced me into a stuttered consciousness. I never told Charlotte about the dreams. Still, she slept alongside me like she always had, curled herself against the bumps of my spine and held herself between them.

“If you dream badly, Willa, only tell yourself that I am there with you,” she whispered, pressed against the crook of my neck, her words soft and warm in the swirl of my eardrum, as if each syllable looped around and around my cochlea and settled there for comfort.

Charlotte had fallen asleep and it was only then that I could let the words out at the sight of her parted lips and gentle exhales into the cool air of night – only then could I let myself be held.

“He never even saw me,” I told her, one night. “I was not myself – just another jar in the pantry, he reached out for me, like another jar –…”

I was not there for him; it did not matter if I was there, only that I was there. I said it so much, so much in my own head that I had fumbled the words and it all came out backwards, spun itself around, so that it made no more sense to me than it would have made to Charlotte if I dared say it aloud. So, I would never say it again, I decided – no more. I would never speak of Yaxley. He would stay in the pantry and I would stay in the flat, separate from one another.

Charlotte had said that I could tell myself that she was there with me, but I never wanted her in that pantry, where he could touch her. I wanted her with me, safe and asleep and unaware of men like Yaxley, unaware of foreign hands on thighs, spread apart, trickling toward…

I stitched more slits into my coat, stitched them alongside all those others made for theft. I put them there for pocketknives.

Knocking; there was a harsh, heavy knocking at the front-door of the flat and it rattled the furniture, upset the wallpaper, left the floorboards in a tremble until I drifted into the hall and watched a silhouette stood in the frost of the windowpanes, composed of black clothes and a slip of white around its neck, dipped onto its chest in thick lines, just two – a scarf of white, formed beneath the harsh growl of my sewing-machine. I stumbled toward the door in surprise because I knew that it was Alfie. I gripped the door-handle and tasted its metal in my mouth. I swallowed and let it slither downward into my throat – into me.

“Open the door, Willa,” he said. “C’mon, darlin’ – I been sittin’ on that wall waitin’ for ya – I’ve eaten me scarf, yeah, ain’t got nothin’ but me socks left, so you might need’ta crack on with sewin’ or I’ll be starkers outside your door, and what impression would that give to your neighbours, eh, confronted with my unsightly –…”

I pulled at the door-handle, found him stood there with one arm leaned against the brick-wall and the other looped around his belt. He looked the same and I felt different. I wondered if he could see it, could taste it like I could taste metal. He wore a hat which I had never seen on him, round and black. He tipped it toward me, straightened and looked right at me – at me, not through me.

Because Alfie always saw me. I wasn’t transparent for him. He didn’t look beyond me.

“I been sittin’ on that wall, Willa, waitin’ for ya, right,” he repeated. “And your Charlotte comes ‘round to tell me that you been back three days and you ain’t come and found me? Wounded, I am, darlin’, truly wounded.”

“I was tired,” I told him.

Somewhere behind him, I heard giggles and voices drifting toward us and knew that the girls were coming back from the factory and that Alfie had just made it ahead of them. I felt prickly from it, bothered that they would come while he was here and probably make assumptions from his presence.

“Tired from tryin’ to nick some spoons and forks off some old fella?” Alfie snorted.

“Yes, Alfie, tired.”

He studied me – that usual dart around me, from face to shoulders, down toward my boots, all around, always he studied me. “What ‘appened to ya?”

“Nothing happened to me,” I said.

“Well you could ‘ave written me a fuckin’ letter to tell me so, Willa, could ‘ave-…”

There was laughter behind him, shrill and sudden and all around us. “You’d be waitin’ a while for a letter from our Willa, Alfie.”

It was Beth, stood with the other girls, flustered and thrilled by the sight of Alfie because it meant that there was some gossip for them. Alfie had been right that the neighbours might wonder, that it might spread in the tenements that a young lad had been spotted outside our flat without Esther there – it might be a brothel, the neighbours might wonder, a whore-house in Bell Road, when before that had only been at Fetter Road, and didn’t one of their girls die on Fetter Road, their Elsie –...

I noticed Charlotte was there, her hands in a twitch from nerves, her eyes wide and lost in a wild spin between myself and Alfie and Beth and all the others, over and over. 

Alfie turned, his shoulders hunched together. He had an awful danger about him, as if the sight of Beth stirred some dormant temper. “You gonna keep natterin’ on, Beth, yeah, or are you gonna say what you really wanna say?” he drawled out, slow and deliberate.  

Beth stilled at his dark stare. She licked her lips – tasted metal too, perhaps. “T’was just a joke, is all, Alfie, on account of Willa not bein’ able to write or nothin’ – and besides, you’d be waitin’ what with ‘er new fella what liked ‘er so much, old Yax-…”

I slammed the door shut.

Soaked in yellowish light, the courtyard was asleep, the dogs dozing in the doorways and the bedsheets fluttering in a tired breeze from laundry-lines strung between the railings. I marched toward Victoria Lane before all the other girls could even stir or mutter jokes about Alfie and jokes about Yaxley. The girls knew that Yaxley had hurt me, somehow. Only there had not been bruises. I could still stand; my mouth had not been made slack from him like Daisy, I never had to hop about like Ruth.

So, for the other girls, that meant that I was not hurt. It meant that the girls said, what girl has not been felt up by some fella on the maid job, what makes you so special that you can’t do it again, Willa, you think you’re better than us, is that it, because Esther calls you chey, you think that makes you special –…

There were no bruises. I could still stand. I could still speak – but the words never came out, remaining hardened lumps in my throat. I turned toward Princeton Avenue, hands stuffed into my pockets. In the past few days, I had spent more time out on the streets in order to avoid Alfie, but I had had trouble with stealing from pockets if those pockets were attached to the coats of men.

It had spread through me like some disease, what Yaxley had done or had not done or almost did or wanted to do. I was not afraid that I might be caught by men in the streets with a hand in some pocket, but rather afraid of what might happen after it – thrown into an alleyway, would there be sickly-sweet blackness?

I thought about how the girls had looked at me as if I was demented, as if I was being pompous and spoiled to be so upset over what had happened or almost happened or not happened with Yaxley. I thought: should it really be like that? Should I have let him? Is it supposed to be like that with men?

It had infected my sewing-machine, this illness, it tangled the thread and bunched the material before I could catch it. I stood from the table, turned to toss the ruined fabric into the bin, only to find Alfie behind me in the emptiness of the room. His hat was not there, neither scarf nor coat. He was dressed in a shirt – its buttons were wonky, drifting toward the left, its right sleeve just an inch more in length than the left.

It was the shirt that I had made him weeks beforehand, that I thought he had thrown away because it had come out daft from my lack of experience. Only he wore it now, right in front of me. Somehow, it made me laugh. It made all that tension held tight in my stomach unwind like a rubber-band, snapped and unfurled, so that I could hardy stop my laughter and did not want it to stop either, because the shirt was daft and made him look daft.

“Oh, that’s charmin’, innit, mockin’ the lad what’s wearin’ your craft, I’ll remind ya, Willa,” he said, and I only laughed harder. “Well, I thought I was wearin’ the ‘eight of fashion, me, thought I’d match all them posh lads up in Charter’ouse with me new kit –…”

“You kept the shirt,” I replied, still giggling. 

“I kept the shirt, yeah.”

I heard some subtle shift in his tone, which stilled my laughter. I saw his eyes swell with that odd look, that I could not quite pin, but it was much like how Elsie had looked at me after Esther had bashed my skull against the countertop when I was a child and later how Charlotte had looked at me when she held me after my nightmares and – and I never thought that Alfie would look like that toward me. Not for me.

And he stepped forward while I stepped backward, so that we were never closer than we had been.

He said, “Willa, what ‘appened out at Rosewood, eh? Why won’t you tell me?”

He had asked that outside the flat, before the girls had come and spoiled it, ruined it – ruining me and he-… But he was not Yaxley, I told myself. Alfie was nothing like him – and I looked into that gift from God to be sure of it and felt only warmth toward him, pinkish warmth. He had never come near me with blackness in his eyes.

“What do you care about it?” I asked meanly, because my hands were trembling like those other hands trembled after a line of snow, but I had not taken any and never had, but it seemed as if it had gotten into me all the same. It angered him, my tone and my dismissal of him. It angered him. I saw it in how his chest heaved like it had in the backyard after that fight and I could see it in his eyes, blown wide.

“I care about it, all right. Cared enough to come ‘round yours after Charlotte found me, cared enough to know that you weren’t ‘idin’ yourself away in that flat just because Esther told ya to do it. You’re doin’ it because you’re afraid o’ somethin’ and it wasn’t somethin’ you were afraid of before Rosewood and before this fuckin’ Yaxley bloke. So, I care about it, or I wouldn’t be fuckin’ standin’ ‘ere in this poxy shirt what you made for me, wouldn’t be ‘opin’ that despite what ‘appened that you might still tell me, Willa!” His voice rose at the end, rose into a shout not like anything I had never heard from him.

“I don’t know how to tell you,” I said.

And there it was, the truth of it all.

“I wanted to – and I tried – but it comes out all wrong,” I continued, “like my mouth can’t figure it out, like it comes out backwards and wrong.”

“Then let it come out backwards and wrong,” he said, “so long as it comes out.”

So, I told him. I told him, stuttered and slack and nervously wringing my hands. He listened. For once, I was speaking in a wild ramble and it was Alfie who listened, whether it came out backwards and wrong, so long as it came out. Afterward, it was my chest that heaved, my eyes that were blown wide, I was sat against the table and I looked at him. I asked him, “Alfie, is it supposed to be like that – with – with men, I mean, is it supposed to be –…?”

“No,” he answered. “No, it’s not supposed to be like that. Not supposed to be like that at all.”

He was not looking at me. He would not look at me. “Alfie, are you – are you ashamed of me now?”

His eyes snapped toward me, his jaw ground so tightly that his words came out rasping. “Ashamed of ya? Why would ya ever think somethin’ so stupid?”

Stupid, I thought. He’s right, you bloody dunce, bloody fuckin’ dimwit…  

“Stop that,” he said. “Stop thinkin’ that stuff, stop thinkin’ like that about yer-self.”

I never said it aloud, but he heard it anyway – a gift that God had given Alfie, I suppose.

“Esther did that to ya, made ya think like that, didn’ she? She put you in that fuckin’ position too, didn’ she, let you be where that fuckin’ nonce could ‘ave at ya like that – I bet she ain’t said sorry for it neither, ‘as she?”

“She said I wouldn’t have to do it anymore,” I muttered, feeling shifty and awkward in front of his blazing stare.

“No,” he said. “You won’t ‘ave to do it anymore, Willa."

In the earliest light of dawn, Alfie stood in the courtyard of Bell Road beneath the shelter of a canopy and scratched the dogs behind the ears while he waited for me. I was confused, asked him what he was there for, why he was there so early. He never answered. I had learned that about Alfie but asked him anyway.

He brought them small chunks of meat, folded in a bundle of cloth stuffed in his pockets, so that all the dogs had come to him with drooling mouths and eager snouts sniffing around him, surrounding him. He fed all of them, even the smallest strays scarpering toward him from the other tenements. Once finished, Alfie walked alongside me toward the factory and I glanced at him warily, unsure of what he was doing or what he wanted.

But that gift from God only ever told me to trust Alfie. So, I did. I trusted him and followed.

“Sit down, Willa.”

I sat at my usual table and watched him pull another alongside me before he went toward the office – that sparked me through me like a lightning-bolt, especially once Alfie pulled out a small pin from his pocket and shoved it into the keyhole, fiddled around until the lock clicked. I wanted to tell him that Butcher would murder him, chop off his limbs and hang him from railings until all his blood had been drained, like animals in butcher-shops, but Alfie had already come back out with some pens and paper in hand. He fixed the lock and sat alongside me, slapping the paper onto the table.

He caught my stare and said, “Give over, Willa, you ain’t gonna scold me for nickin’ these when that’s ‘ow you make a livin’, are ya?”

“I don’t want Butcher to hurt you,” I told him.

He did that funny thing that Alfie often does after I said certain things, when his eyes followed mine, followed my movements, inspected me and assessed me until he looked away, his stare distant and distracted. He took my hand – the touch startled me, made me flit toward thoughts of a pantry but soon I found comfort in the warmth, because this was not Yaxley, not the pantry. I trusted Alfie. He pushed a pen into my hand as if I could not figure out how to hold it myself.

Suddenly, I understood.

“No, Alfie –…”

“No, what? You don’ wanna learn? Want Esther to keep you under ‘er boot forever, is that it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Alfie looked at me, deadpan. “Don’t you think it’s beneficial to Esther that you don’ know ‘ow to read or write yet?” – he ignored the splotches of red on my throat, my flighty eyes, unable to look directly at him anymore – “…you’re one of ‘er top earners, ain’t ya, Willa? Well, Esther seems to think that she’s got you good ‘ere, don’ she? You steal for ‘er, make ‘er aprons. She don’t think you can do nothin’ else, so she thinks that you ‘ave to stay with ‘er, yeah, that you ain’t got a choice. She’s wrong on that one. Show ‘er that she’s wrong, darlin’.”

He had two sheets of paper, one for himself and another for me. He drew a squiggly line, attached it to another. He plopped down another, and another, until the whole sheet was filled. He wanted me to copy it, wanted me to follow him with the sounds even when I felt completely embarrassed in front of him.

I mumbled, “Alfie, I don’t want to do this – I feel – I feel stupid, I don’t want to –… Mine are coming out all wonky and wrong, you see –…”

“So long as it comes out,” he said. “So long as it comes out, Willa.”

It became our routine to reach the factory before all the others. He brought paper, brought pens; we practiced my writing where the other girls could not see, practiced my reading too, he wrote sentences for me to read out in my slow, careful way – each sound, each syllable. I felt so stupid at first, but he never stopped me, never really did more than wait and correct me or encourage me to repeat a certain word, rewrite a certain letter until it looked more like his in comparison.

“Al-fie,” I read once, “…is very han-…han-sum –…”

Handsome, I realised, my eyes shooting toward him. He smirked from his seat, bumped my shoulder with his, so that my cheeks burned, and my hands became clammy.

“Now who wrote that, eh? Blimey, I’m flattered, Willa, but I try to keep me-self ‘umble, don’ I –…”

Behind him came the groan of the factory-door squeaking open, wobbling on its rail. I heard the girls, heard giggles and shrieks and laughter. Quickly, I scooped the papers from the table, all the pens, stuffed them in the drawer of my own table and looked to find Alfie watching me, having not moved at all. It was private, my lessons with Alfie, just between us. He pushed his chair from the table and stood slowly, reluctantly.

Just before he left, he leaned close and said, “I’m not the one feelin’ ashamed of you, Willa. I never was.”

He left for the backyard and I watched him, my skin fiery and red from that same feeling of regret. I pulled open the desk of my drawer, looked at the papers and felt my heart thump. I read the next sentence, slowly, slowly – but I really read it by myself, read each word! My heart stopped its thumping, fell into my stomach, settled there like a stone which then burst into a hundred butterflies and swooped upward again once I had sounded it out, sorted the letters, understood it.

He had written: Willa is smarter than she thinks.

Another morning, I strolled out into the courtyard and expected us to continue onward toward the factory, but Alfie merely fed the dogs and stayed unusually quiet. He fed the dogs, scratched floppy ears, and I sat and watched him. Eventually, he slipped off the ledge that he sat on, stood and said, I want to show you something. Instead of walking out toward Victoria Lane, he went toward the staircase – the staircase which led upward into the tenements, which creaked beneath our boots, all the way toward the fifth floor where our flat was.

The row was angled in the shape of an ‘L’ – this meant that the staircase opened onto a small stretch of landing and then turned, so that there was a long row which had the doors of each flat dotted along it, six of them in total, and our flat was the fourth.

Alfie strode right by it and stopped in front of the sixth flat at the end of the row, with its peephole faced toward the row. He fished around his pocket. I heard a jangle and saw him fiddle with the keyhole. The door opened and I stared at him as he stepped into the flat. He glanced behind and said, “You comin’ or what, Willa? Fuckin’ freezin’ out, it is, and you’re there wastin’ precious ‘eat from my flat, you are –…”

I found my words, formed my mouth around them. “You live here?”

“Come inside, Willa.” His response had been flat, his eyes glancing toward me, filled with an oddly pleading sheen. “Come inside, darlin’, yeah?”

Coaxed toward him, I stepped into the hall and then into his front-room. There was not much in the way of homeliness here, for the furniture was coated in thickened sheets of dust. There were boxes laid about the flat, piled one upon the other, untouched. He held still in all that dust. Gingerly, I stepped around the room and tried not to disturb anything. Only there came a moment in which Alfie cleared his throat and I looked at him.

“Been tryin’ to clear it out, ain’ I? Was me Mum’s flat. I jus’ – I ain’t been ‘ere in a while, you know. That’s how I got the job from Butcher, because Esther knew me fam’ly, back when we was livin’ on Bell Road. Like I said, I ain’t been ‘ere for a long time and I – I got this letter from me brother, right, sayin’ he’s gettin’ outta the big ‘ouse in a couple weeks. I wanted ‘im to ‘ave somewhere nice to go, yeah, he’s been in there a while now. I was thinkin’ – and you know, I gotta get some o’ this stuff shifted fast, but I –…”

Alfie continued along like this, mumbling and rambling while he picked up a book and placed it atop a table only to then return it to its place, fiddling with his uneven cuffs and shrugging his shoulders. I let him do it for a little while, because I felt myself flooding with this tenderness toward him, as if I was melting in sunlight, melting gladly, melting happily, for him.

I knew that Alfie was sharing something significant with me – something that meant a lot more to him than I had first understood when I stepped into the flat.

It occurred to me that I had never asked Alfie where he lived, never knew that he had a brother nor that his brother was in prison, never talked about his mother, never even tried to discover these things because I had been trying so hard to remain aloof and distant from him, afraid that the girls might mock me about him just like they mocked me for my illiteracy – which was slowly changing, changing because of him.

Gently, I interrupted him while he was still telling me that the paint could do with another coat, that he could clean the skirting-boards. It was somewhere between that and the part about the fireplace that I interrupted and said, “Maybe we could start with finding the things that you really want to keep, Alfie. Place them into a pile and put them in another room while we clean out the rest together. We can make it look really nice for your brother, I think. We’ll do it all – skirting-boards and all.”

He had listened to each word, his lips held tight together. He nodded. For once, he did not say anything. He picked up a book, tilted it toward me, and nodded again. I knew what he meant. I took it from him and placed it carefully on the sofa. He handed me another book. He was quiet all the time, until he found a red book beneath the others and he mumbled, “My Mum really liked this one.”

I was reaching for it; my hand brushed his and this time there was no pulling away from one another, no pretending to be unaware of it. He let me rest my hand against his, let me stay there with him in the flat, until its dust had been swept clean, its books stacked, its skirting-boards cleaned.

Afterward, we walked to the factory. Somewhere along the line, my arm had started to loop around his. Somewhere along the line, I leaned against him; never mentioned, but there it was between us all the same.

The Blacksmith was a bar on Brixton Street which had been full to the brim with drunken crowds spilling out from the doors on the night that I went there to meet Alfie. He never drank alcohol, but the bar was just about the only place that we could meet easily and without the other girls there to surround us and interrupt us.

Spinning around in wild dances and separating only for fights, the crowd swallowed me in its fold. I thought that I might never find him in this swell of people, pushing around one another with pints-in-hand, beer slopping onto others and starting more fights from the confusion. I slipped around them, looking for a familiar black hat and white scarf – the one that I had made for him, which he always wore, which stirred another bout of warmth in my stomach and cocooned me against the chill of the evening. I saw coppers outside The Blacksmith, so I ducked inside and tried there instead.

Alfie was behind me, out of the blue, turning me toward him and planting my hands on his arms. His breath was heavy against my ear whenever he leant close enough to tell me something against the loud noise of the crowds. It tickled and made me shiver against him, trying to wiggle away when he would only pull me closer toward him. He made us dance – made us, in his stubborn way, dip and shimmy and wobble around, and it only made me laugh from how silly it all was, his horrible singing and his terrible dancing, it made me laugh and laugh.

Alfie always liked to make me laugh.

He leaned close once more. I thought that he wanted to tell me something and I leaned toward him in response, automatically; his lips were pressed against mine, soft and gentle and slow, his lips kissed mine and it was – it was complete blankness in my brain, for just a brief moment, before I found his rhythm and followed it, before the shrieks and laughter around us became a bubble and I felt my hands grip his shirt and bring him closer, forever closer.

His mouth trailed along my throat, kissed it, softly, gently, slowly. He found my earlobe, nipped at it. He said, “It’s supposed to be like this, Willa.”

I pulled away from him, staring into his eyes. He smiled, and it was a proper smile from Alfie, not one of those coltish, sly, teasing smiles he often used instead of allowing himself to be genuine. I found I liked it far more, this proper smile, because it was made of the same softness and gentleness that had been in his kiss. 

“Do it again,” I said.

He did, over and over. He said, “I want you to write me letters, now that you can.”

In this daze of kisses and being close against him, I tugged at his hair and realised that he liked it a lot when I did that, so I did it all the more. I had thought that he was joking with me, playing like he always did. “Why would I write you letters when you’re with me in the factory, Alfie?” I asked.

“Write to me all the time, won’t you, Willa, like I taught you,” he said, his words breathed into the skin of my throat, etched there, eternal. “I want your letters, written by you, my girl, my Willa –…”

Some fella got shot over in Sar-jay-voo, Esther said the next morning. That was how I learned about the war. Some fella got shot, she said, and now all our fellas have to be shot along with him.

I understood what he meant by writing him letters, now.

Chapter Text

three


 

The war was another thing never mentioned. In the early mornings, we met in the courtyard and fed the dogs small shreds of meat. Our boots slapped against cobbled streets toward the factory and we continued onward like we always had, together. I made aprons and he hauled crates filled with those same aprons into trucks before we walked to the butcher-shop on Brixton Street and he bought more meat for the dogs, tucked safely into his pocket, later peeled into lighter strips for the pups that soon surrounded him on Bell Road. One evening, Alfie pulled a mutt onto his lap and let it lap against his face with its panting tongue, drooling in thick, whitish streams all over the newest shirt that I had made him.

I watched him with the strangest feeling that he was already saying his goodbyes to me, somehow.

It had been tapped out between the syllables, it had been settled between the pauses in his speech, his goodbye. I heard it, too. I understood it because of that old gift from God in my gut or just from how he held my arm a little tighter in the evenings before we separated and from how he wanted me to read and write for him more than I ever had before and maybe from how he had told me that he loved me. The words had been spoken in the blend of greyish dawn streaked in slashes of blue out in the backyard. In between had been the faint patter of droplets against the roof of the factory, the sinking of mud beneath boots, the loss of warmth against my hands because he had pulled himself from me in all senses. He had resigned himself.

Afterward, he said, “I think we should visit the fairground this weekend, Willa.”

In other words: goodbye, Willa.

There had been fuzzing orbs of orange all around us, on the carousel; it seemed that there was no war, that never had there been a Sar-jay-voo nor a fella shot on its soil, and all those posters about patriotism dotted around Bell Road had been swept away in a sudden downpour, and there had never been headlines about some borders invaded, about soldiers deployed. Blurred, the headlines had dripped into smeared blobs of wet paint from the wild spin of the carousel until I fell against Alfie in breathless laughter, felt the warmth of him, felt the strength of him, felt him pull me against him so that we could spin together, further and further from all those soldiers deployed, all those borders invaded. I thought, what does all that nonsense over there have to do with him, anyway? Here he is, with me. What does it have to do with him?

Stumbling from the carousel, we had found a booth for photographs. Alfie wanted two photographs, paid for both and pushed us into a line, smoothing out his collar and licking both his thumbs to sweep against his eyebrows before he leaned close and pretended to inspect me with this displeased look on his face, tutting and huffing while I laughed at him and tried to pull his wrists away from me, blushing madly at his affectionate touch. Alfie liked to stretch his arm around my shoulder and pull me close against him, tuck me there beneath his chin and let me lean backward against the warmth of his chest, especially in the crisp, bitter chill of night.

Nestled in a field, the fairground had been far from London; the stars had been brighter there, sparkled with more intensity, sprinkled all over the blackness. I was shuffled forward by Alfie, pushed first toward the photographer and Alfie made it clear that he wanted this photograph to be without him. Embarrassed, I stepped away from that white sheet and toward him instead, cheeks stained in redness at the thought of standing alone in front of all those people. Alfie was not that much taller than me, but he always seemed it, straightened by his confidence, not that I ever had much of that, which Alfie knew, because he also knew that I could suffer from sudden bouts of shyness if I was made to pose in front of others.

Gypsy Girl had posed. Gypsy Girl had done all that, a long time ago – not Willa.  

Alfie caught me by the shoulders and turned me so that I could not glimpse the crowds behind him, so that I could only focus on him. He said, “Willa – look at me, darlin’ – I want just one photograph of ya, yeah? I want it because I’m a selfish man and I’d like to be able to look at ya even when you ain’t with me. Don’ you think I want all them other lads out there in the world to know I got me-self the most beautiful girl on me arm, yeah, want them to see that she ain’t afraid of nothin’, my Willa, especially not afraid o’ takin’ some poxy photograph in front o’ these fuckin’ strangers out ‘ere -…”

In some butchered form of harmonisation, I found myself nodding just like Alfie was nodding, because his eyes were pleading with me and I knew what the photograph really meant for him, I heard it just like I had heard it out there in that blend of greyish dawn streaked in slashes of blue out in the backyard; I love you, Willa Sykes – now, goodbye. I suppose that that was the reason for which I let him turn me around toward that white sheet and stand me there, like a doll with limbs manipulated, so that the photographer could bend behind his little flap and fiddle with buttons.

All the while, I looked right at Alfie, never looked away from him. Just as the photograph was taken, I thought, he will never stop fighting and that is why it has everything to do with him.

In the photograph, I stood with lips held in a timid smile, shyness making me half-turn from the lens of that camera. Alfie traced the outline of me held in this photograph that he had wanted so badly, trailed his fingertip across my thin, narrow eyebrows, drew around my sweetheart jawline and finished with my eyes, which were dark like the colour of coal. While still a bairn, Esther used to tell me that Gypsies were always the prettiest because of those dark eyes. Only I had grown and learned that she only ever said those things so that the other girls would become upset and spiteful. There was not much difference in the darkness of my eyes and those of Ruth or Daisy, really, both brunette and dark themselves. It was not an accident that Esther had filled a flat with pretty girls. Pretty girls made more coins for her.

I told him, “That’s the first photograph of me. The only one of me, Alfie.”

Gently, he put it in his pocket; it was never mentioned after that.

For the second photograph, Alfie stood alongside me with his shoulders held straight and his arm still around me. He wore a smart coat, had that faithful scarf that I made him draped around his shoulders. He wore his Jewish cap too, round and black. The photographer pulled himself out from beneath that flap and glanced at Alfie before his mouth crinkled and he looked at me. He said, “Would you mind tellin’ your fella to get rid of that yid-cap for this photograph, sweetheart?”

Alfie launched himself at the photographer, grabbled with him, suffered a punch himself just before he gripped the photographer by the hair and threw him against some railings behind us, cracked his face against the steel so that his nose spurted blood and his mouth was filled with it, hot and red and pouring from him. Alfie forced him to turn his head toward me and apologise for having said ‘sweetheart’ just before he made him apologise for ‘yid-cap’. Alfie tore him upward, positioned him behind the stand once more. Calmly, Alfie stepped right around him and straightened out his cap and coat. He put his arm around me once more.

In the photograph, Alfie’s left eyelid was almost entirely shut from the swell of a black eye. He had his other hand lifted to tip his cap toward the photographer – and he was grinning.

Plucking cotton-candy from a cone, we sat on a bench and Alfie told me that he had allowed a family to take the sixth flat on the fifth floor of our tenement and that was a hard punch into my chest because it was another form of goodbye, left unsaid. Sullenly, I asked, “What family?”

“Jewish fam’ly,” he answered.

I pulled a strip of pinkish fluff and plopped it in my mouth. I pulled another and he leaned forward, mouth open. I almost placed it on his tongue before I snatched it back, ate it, and smiled at his groan of frustration, my sadness momentarily forgotten. I glanced around us, looking at all the other couples wandering around between the booths. “Well, that narrows it down, Alfie. What, you want to be a landlord now?”

“I ain’t chargin’ ‘em,” he muttered lowly.

Sharply, my eyes darted toward him. “What? Really?”

“Really.”

“Why not?”

I had been so distracted by him that I had forgotten about the ball of cotton-candy still held in my hand until he reached around my shoulders and yanked it from me, shrugging his shoulders as he put it in his mouth. He mumbled something and I only heard two words ‘sick – mum’ before he feigned a cough.

“Alfie.”

Pursing his lips, he tried not to look at me. Alfie had a soft spot for me – and it was more than just soft from some affection between us, he was soft on me completely, never liked to upset me, never liked to refuse me anything, never liked to lie to me either. So, I tore off another curl of cotton-candy for him and held it out toward him and waited. Slowly, his eyes flicked from the carousel, toward the distant trailers. Finally, reluctantly, they settled on me.

His resolve crumbled and he let out a low sigh because he knew that he was soft on me, too.

“Well, this Jewish woman – she’s got a son, yeah, what looks after ‘er, because she ain’t well, is she? And they ain’t got much in the way’a money, mind. I figure, I ain’t usin’ the flat – me brother ain’t gonna be usin’ it – not now we got this whole –…” – he almost said war, but it dropped from his mouth and became muffled by the mud so that we could pretend it had never been there at all – “… and she ‘elped me Mum out when she first came to London. So, I tol’ ‘em to ‘ave the flat but not to mess up our good cleanin’ job on it, o’ course. And -… Oh, don’ you give me that look, Willa –…”

“Alfie Solomons, saviour of stray dogs and sickly women – oh, and their sons,” I whistled, grinning at him, delighting in how he shifted on the bench and rolled his eyes.

“Right, well, we can’t let this get out to anyone, all right, darlin’? Can’t ‘ave ‘alf of London thinkin’ I’m some kind of – messiah, yeah,” he replied.  

“Oh, I’m sure half of London thinks many things of you, Alfie, but nothing close to messiah.”

“Is that right, is it? Well, Ms Sykes, what do they say about Alfie Solomons, eh?”

“That he beats photographers in his spare time, and he can’t throw a ball into a bucket to save his life,” I retorted, smirking at him. I nodded my head toward a nearby booth full of little trinkets that could be won for just that, tossing a ball into a bucket at different distances. Alfie glanced over and then grinned, jumping from the bench and taking me with him by the hand.

“We’ll see what they think after this, won’t we, Willa?”

Off he went to war. Off went almost all the boys and men of Bell Road along with him. There was still a handful of them left behind, those who suffered a wonky leg or funny heart, those who feared war and fled into the countryside, those who had rich parents with rich connections who could find the right paperwork which exempted them from that old muck and tumble on the frontlines. Butcher never left, but most of his boys did. It got worse in the war, given that all our fellas were being shot and that meant the women had to fill boots not usually made for them. Somehow the earth still seemed to spin even without the men; especially without the men.

The war meant that Butcher finally looked around himself and saw that he had suddenly become vulnerable, exposed. His enemies who had also avoided that old muck and tumble on the frontlines knew it, too. The war also meant that Butcher was sniffing – always sniffing, scratching at his nostrils which had been raw and sore from snow, from nerves and from anxiety and from an addiction he would not admit. His hands were always lost in tremors. He used to sit in the office because he had become weirdly paranoid, told himself that the coppers would come for him and if not the coppers, then some old enemy from some older time, because people like him did not live very long. He said it repeatedly, shouted it even, so much so that it became routine.

But nobody really listened to him, anymore.

Charlotte had found herself a beau, a little scrawny lad all of sixteen, and 'beau' was what they said over in France for a boyfriend, Esther told me, though how she knew that, I was not sure. He filled the spot of the lads gone off to war, sorted out the boxes of aprons and snow, but that had all slowed down quite a bit. Charlotte liked him because he liked books, she told me, he could quote characters and he could talk about themes, talk about abstract things which most of us never really considered worth talking about, at least not in the flat on Bell Road where the most important thing was who had stolen what and for how much it might sell.

Even Charlotte herself had never read books until this lad came around – and came around he did. He stood in front of the flat for our Charlotte, he did. I made him anxious, made him twitch because I used to stand in the doorway while he waited and watch him, look him up and down. I had this shoddy imitation of the way Alfie studied people, drank them in the first time that he saw them and assessed them. I had to do it. Esther was rarely there. Beth had tired of being Best Girl, she often dismissed her duties in favour of nights spent out with other girls from other neighbourhoods. I bathed the youngest girls. I clothed them. I settled them into makeshift beds. I brushed through tangled hair. I thought about Alfie in between. Who else would do it?

So, Charlotte had found herself a beau, this scrawny lad of sixteen.

The dogs filled the courtyard looking for Alfie; warm, chocolate stares blinked out from doorways, awaiting scratches behind floppy ears, drooping muzzles dripping in white froth. But soon the dogs realised that Alfie was occupied by that old muck and tumble on the frontlines, so they drifted off into other tenements, sniffed around other bins for small morsels of food left behind. I strode through the courtyard of Bell Road, toward Victoria Lane. I was always first at the factory; an old habit which continued from my mornings spent with Alfie.

Once there, I rustled around my drawer and pulled out some paper. For a little while, I could only stare at its white, mocking blankness and think of what I was supposed to tell him, because what could possibly interest him over there? I started off about Charlotte, in my childish handwriting, started off in my terrible spelling. I told him about Bell Road and its sameness – told him about the dogs, too, because he had always been fond of them and I knew that he would think about them.

I told him that I missed him. I told him that I thought about him a lot. I asked if I was allowed to send him packages, because I had already started on some scarves for him. I was not sure if it was cold in France. I was not sure of anything about France, other than the fact that Alfie was there.

I told him that I would send the scarves anyway.

Esther had started on the snow, too. Her hands trembled badly. She was rarely there. If she was, it was only in the physical sense. Butcher had made her like that. He had made her want it, he had made her hands tremble like his and in between the trembles, he told her that he loved her. I understood that what Butcher had done was not from love – he had wanted Esther to depend on him more than she could herself. Only he got it wrong. She depended on the snow.

Not him.

I started to feed the dogs for Alfie. I could hardly afford meat. I had small pieces of bread, some pieces of fat which seemed enough to please them all. I scratched floppy ears, wiped drool, and it meant that I had a couple of dogs trailing behind me into the courtyard or plodding alongside me toward the factory. Usually, the dogs drifted off into other alleyways. I wrote about it in another letter. He never wrote any letters of his own. I wasn’t sure that the soldiers could write out there in the trenches.

I wrote a whole pile of letters left unsent, for a little while, on top of all the others that I did send, if only because I had told too much of myself in those unsent letters, told too much of my worries. I worried that there was something very wrong with Esther and I worried that it was becoming too hard for me to balance it all without her and I worried that Charlotte and her lad had become too close and I worried that myself and my lad might never be close again and I worried that I was not able to call him my lad at all, given the lingering ambiguity of us, having never fully admitted any attraction.

I wrote it all, in my wobbling scrawl that he had taught me, with words spelled out just like how they sounded for me.

I stuffed those too-much-of-me letters in the drawer; never mentioned after that.

Bundling a towel around Josephine, I kneeled on the tiles and brushed through her ratty locks, smiling while she told me about her trip into Cannon Market with Charlotte. Josephine had been here only four months. She was ten, just a little wisp of a girl. She pressed a small hand against my shoulder, lifted a leg and shimmied around the towel. Once finished, she leaned forward and wrapped herself around me in a hug. I was speechless, surprised by her boldness – or fondness, rather.

“Thanks, Willa,” she said.

Thickened layers of condensation fogged the windowpanes and filled the bathroom in a hazy warmth which was perhaps what drew out some muffled memories from the depths of my skull. Suddenly, I could remember Elsie and how she had once dried me off like I had just done for Josephine. The girl left me there, in the bathroom, to scoop the towels and drain the basin of its lukewarm water. Josephine had been the last girl to bathe in the whole flat, because she was both the newest and also the youngest.

Before I could do anything more, I sat there and wondered: when had I last thought about Elsie?

Esther had never claimed the body. Elsie had been buried somewhere out there, amongst the plots and flowers of other graves, but hers had never been visited. Elsie shared the soil like she had shared all other things in her life. I started to tell the other girls in the flat about her; frantically, obsessively, I told them. The girls listened, although it had come across like some uncharacteristic rambling on my part because never had I spoken so much before, never had I mentioned something so deeply personal. I told them that Elsie had been Best-Girl and that she had taught me tricks to unclip bracelets or pull necklaces. Josephine listened, alongside the other girls. I never told them about her death, rarely talked about death at all.

Given the war was in its second year then, there had been enough talk about death. There were widows in the streets now, children huddled around them, lost and penniless from war and the loss of fathers, loss of income for families ravaged by the war, all their boys and men plucked from them and left somewhere in the soil of France.

Esther had looked at those women one morning whilst I walked with her. She sniffed.

“Too much competition,” she said. “Don’t they know we were here first?”

Eventually I heard from other girls that soldiers had sent letters for them even if nothing had ever come from Alfie, which hurt me more than I could admit, because I thought it meant that he had tired of me. I had sent off letters attached with packages almost weekly, never certain that he had even received anything from me. I sent off those letters and sent off almost sent every inch of me along with them, but Alfie never answered – that was the thing about Alfie, expecting answers, rarely giving. I just kept that old routine; rose early, fed girls, fed dogs, fed myself somewhere in between, walked toward the factory and whittled out apron after apron for two bosses so spent on snow that it seemed meaningless, returned to that flat, fed dogs, fed girls, fed myself somewhere in between, bathed myself, bathed girls, tucked them into makeshift beds.

Sometimes, though, I found myself in the kitchen, smothered in the comfort of the girls’ chatter and I sat there only to think about the trenches and what it must be like there. I thought about those telegrams and I thought that maybe Alfie had lost interest in me and then I thought – I thought, what if Alfie had died? Where would that telegram go? His brother was in those same trenches with him; his mother had been buried many years now.

If Alfie Solomons died in those trenches in France, who other than God would know about it?

Finally came: a letter from Alfie, composed of a few simple lines. He wrote:

Willa,

Thanks for the scarves. Could really do with some socks. Sorry I didn’t write sooner. They made me Captain. I have the most scarves of all these soldiers, so that must have counted for something when they were deciding on whether to make me Captain or not. Could easily clothe both our side and the enemy’s side by now with them.

I miss you, Willa. Every second that I’m here, I miss you.

Alfie.

I cried from it, cried from laughter and sadness and something in-between. I cried even more because I thought it had been a telegram that first time that I saw it in the hands of the postman, thought that somehow, they had figured out who to send it to, thought that somehow, God had found finally told me all the way from the trenches. Captain, he wrote. I folded that letter, tucked it into the pocket of my skirts and scrunched my cuffs around my fist to smear away the tears which stained my cheeks, still wearing this goofy smile, the smile that only he ever brought out of me, even all the way from France.

Settling into the rhythm of the sewing-machine, I stitched socks for Alfie. I slid them into my pockets for his packages. I had practiced, over and over. Distracted by my thoughts, I heard the rattled screech of the rail once the steel-door was wheeled apart and thought that it was just the girls strolling in from those languid lunch-breaks spent lounging around the benches outside.

I heard the echoed shouts, the thump of boots. I understood very quickly.

Coppers.

Before I could sprint from them, I pulled the drawer open in a wild crack, tried to pull out all the papers that Alfie had written while he taught me to read and write, those papers which meant so much to me that I could not think to run without them. But the coppers were already on me, had already slammed the drawer on my right hand, had already hauled me upward and slammed me against the table – and I felt one of them behind me, in a position that was much too like that sensation in the pantry of hands in places which were not permitted by me, a body pressed too close against mine, pressing and pressing into places which were mine, mine and only mine, so that I bucked and kicked like some wild animal –…

I felt a hand grip my hair and slam my face against the table, like Esther had slammed me against the countertop years beforehand. I went limp just like I had then, too. I slumped against some foreign body which shouted at me about stolen goods. I was taken somewhere cold and damp and it rattled me like my teeth had rattled after I was thrown against the table. I was in this wagon, tossed around, dragged out again and I must have mumbled something because one of the coppers lifted me by my hair and said, “Listen to this one, eh, another fuckin’ bog-trotter over ‘ere stealin’ what she can before she fucks off back to her caravan in Ireland, eh, fuckin’ paddy-girl thinkin’ she can-…”

His punch was sudden and hard and knocked me right out.

Sometime around midnight, I cracked the crust from my bruised sockets and saw that I was in a cell with Nellie and Rosie. I was laid out on a cot like some corpse, hands folded over my chest, and my right-hand was slit open from the drawer crushing it but still I could wiggle my fingers. Blood drippled even more. I winced from the pain of it, from the grind of my bones. In all the years that the factory had been there, the coppers had never even come close to a raid because Butcher had always paid them off. Stunned, I said it aloud, too, said it through a mouth which felt numb and slack and which I hoped that I would not end up like Daisy with soft words all sloppy and poured from lips left dysfunctional.

“He ain’t the top-dog anymore, Willa,” Nellie whispered fearfully. “He lost control of Harrow. Didn’t Esther tell you?”

It turned out that Esther had not told me a lot of things about Butcher; she had not told me that most of the lads who had worked for him simply left the factory altogether, either for the frontlines or another place, left out of spite for him or left out of desire for the kind of wealth that Butcher could no longer offer, not after he spent all that cash from the aprons on piles and piles of snow snorted into nostrils now coated in thickened scabs from some kind of infection in his septum. He had lost Harrow and it spilled into territory around Bullock Road. He had only a quarter of Camden Town left and even that was a loose grip.

“Didn’t Esther tell you?”

☼ 

Held in a small, blackened cell, I was chained to a chair and held beneath a bright, crackling light. The coppers came in and out, in and out. Rosie and Nellie had been released hours beforehand, but I was still there. It made my skin feel prickly and sore. Finally, I was let out. While I walked out of the cell and into the hall, a pair of coppers smiled at me – smiled, so that it made my stomach churn, and I had the feeling that I had been left out of some joke, left out of some loop again, and that there were so many loops that I felt myself surrounded by them, like the nooses of a hangman. I turned from Rowland Street, turned onto Dilworth Avenue.  I turned and turned and turned for Bell Road.

I wanted to find Esther.  

There had been no dogs in the courtyard. There were always dogs in the courtyard, always a handful of them sniffing around barrels, others sat around the doorways, summoned by the clatter of my boots which had become familiar to them. Neither were there the children who usually ran between the bedsheets. Neither were there any women. Neither were there babies with those women. Slowly, I squelched through the mud which soaked the courtyard and clambered upward onto the staircase, my boots creaking against it, my legs oddly numb.

I stepped onto the landing of the fifth floor. I came around the corner of the row, looking for the fourth flat, our flat.

And its door was open.

And there was sickly-sweet blackness on its threshold.

I had stumbled. Never was that door left ajar, unlike the other neighbours’ doors on this row, because the neighbours’ children liked to dip in and out of the flats between playtime, but ours was different. I could feel a trickle along my spine, like a cold droplet of water which had slipped beneath my collar and slid downward toward my tailbone. I thought the tenements had shifted beneath me, wobbled and slipped into the wet earth of the courtyard but I looked around and saw that it was all still there, but this still felt like some horrid dream, the way that my limbs moved as if I did not control them, as if I was suddenly in a place without having really walked there, having simply appeared there  – only this was real and I had walked here and I was here.

And I could feel that there was something in that flat and that it was still there just like I was still here.

I heard voices and knew that I was right.

I heard them as if I was underwater and the words floated down toward me, popped in my brain, all sharp edges, those words, but somehow the meaning was lost on me. Then, a man came and stood in that threshold. Willowy and dark, his arms were raised in thick, lumpy scars which wiggled like worms beneath the flesh.

He glanced toward me.

Smothered beneath all that water in my brain, it occurred to me that he had not yet recognised me as one of Esther’s girls. 

I was still stood there, like in the pantry. I stood there because I knew why there had been no dogs and no women and no children. I knew it perfectly and suddenly all at once. The dogs had fled the gunshots, the screams; the doors of each flat, rows upon rows, had been bolted and shut and women stood with children clutched against them behind those same doors. Rows upon rows.

Only ours had been open.

Again, that man glanced over. His dark eyebrows furrowed, a small crinkle held there between them, his suspicion seeping through into the lines of his skin. He opened his mouth, as if he might speak. As if he might say, aren’t you one of Esther’s girls?

Cracking apart in a wild clatter, the door of the sixth flat sprung open behind him. Out stepped a thin, young, lanky boy who said, “Lizzie, did you remember to get Mum her medicine?”

Bewildered, I fumbled for a response, but sickly-sweet blackness filled my mouth, seeped out from my gums, drizzled onto my boots in some dumb muteness. Perhaps he had expected my inability to form words, too stunned to find them within myself, because he added, “Oh, don’t tell me you forgot – fine, I’ll go get it. Just come inside and help me run her a bath, will you?”

He had a crop of black curly hair barely contained beneath a small, black cap and thick eyebrows held tight over intelligent eyes, eyes which screamed: please, please get inside this flat before he realises that we do not know each other and please, please, please –….

 The other man had watched all of this, that crinkle still there between his eyebrows. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette and plopped it between his lips. The blister-worms on his arms seemed to shift with his movement. He looked off toward the other side of the hall, bored and dismissive.

In that moment, that one moment, I was able to look behind his legs. I saw Esther there, slumped against the wall. Her skull was like the blackberries had been in that jar in the pantry, all soft and ground into mush. She sat there like a limp doll, and my legs almost went because I saw other bodies slumped behind her, but I tore my eyes away and looked upward at that boy, still there in the doorway, still on its threshold.

He held my stare and mouthed, “Please.”

Please, please, please –…

Jolted into action, I nodded, stepped forward and said, “I got it, Harry, I got the medicine.”

He held the door open. He held it open and I stumbled toward him like an infant in its first steps, stilted and awkward and fumbling until I found the hall; the door shut behind us, softly, gently. The warmth of the hall reached beneath my coat and curled around me. The roots crept upward from the floorboards, like in the pantry, latched around my limbs and held me tight in a merciless grip, sprouted in an anxiety which announced itself in the form of goosepimples on my skin.

I collapsed against the floorboards, right there in his home. I was trembling, sinking my sharp nails into my scalp, into my skull, sinking into me. There was bile in my throat; it smothered all my words, all my thoughts, trapped there, like stones.

Despite the sandpaper touch of my tongue, I said, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you –…”

It was my nerves which made me say it, too, not only my gratitude, because each bundle had become so fraught that I felt myself sizzle and burn beneath each crackle and I had to say something, or I would have fizzled out myself. It made me jittery and distraught in front of him. He fidgeted with his hands, glancing fearfully at the door behind me, as if he suddenly realised that I was right and he regretted it – but a steely look filled his eyes and he nodded, lips held in a tight line. The ringing in my eardrums dimmed into a rattle, like a tambourine clapping itself against my temple and I realised that he had spoken, that he was speaking – and he said, he said –…

“O-Oliver – but everyone calls me Ollie, you know.”

 ☼ 

Chapter Text

four


Soaking in a bowl, Ollie lifted a damp cloth, wrung out its wetness, folded it, and then placed it against her forehead; her purple eyelids flickered weakly from the cool touch of the cloth, disturbed by droplets which slipped around her temples and which fell like tears against her chest. Slumped against an armchair with legs curled beneath me, I blinked through raw, tender sockets, unseeing. I had drained myself of moisture, drained myself of thought, left myself tired and slow.

Subdued by those soft, foreign words which Ollie mumbled for his mother, I found myself fixated on the gentle movements of his slim, delicate hands, like the conductor of an orchestra, entire symphonies held between his fingertips. I looked at my own hand, the right one butchered from that copper slamming a drawer against it; it had become sore, lined in a rusted outline of infection, I could feel it beneath the skin – like worms, worms beneath the skin, like that man who had stood outside the flat –…

Soon enough, I had drifted into some faint in-between, held in slumber but still aware of these unfamiliar shapes and silhouettes around me. Sleepily, I watched Ollie, watched him until his form had blended into all the others, a mass of black and silver contours. Flickering against the candlelight, those wild shapes shifting upward against the wallpaper stirred distant memories of the wagons sinking into the wet fields of Ireland, wherein boy-cousins of mine held contorted hands against the tarp and painted stories in shadows, told folklore in the dip and curl of each digit.

I had buried those stories in the soil of those fields, those same fields that the old Gypsies thought would become my grave if I had not made it beyond my first month. I had been expected to be buried with all those other infants whose lungs withered and whose lips turned blue.

The old Gypsies had different prayers for those infants, only for those infants; prayers withered and blue.

Curled against the sofa, Ollie had long since fallen asleep, his long limbs splayed out around him. He shifted and let out a sigh. I stepped around him, pulled apart the front-door and winced at its harsh creak.

Ollie never stirred.

Pale slivers of moonlight sliced through the railings of the tenements, filled its halls in breaths of white and illuminated those tacky puddles of blood outside the flat. Esther was still there, slumped against the wallpaper. Her mouth was held apart and her hands were clasped in her lap as if she was in prayer, a position I doubted she had ever really been in. I felt an unbearable tightness in my chest which constricted my fingers and made them scrunch in a harsh knot once I reached toward her and I felt the heat of fresh tears.

Esther often said that girls in our world never made it more than twenty-eight years on this earth and she had always said it with this odd reassurance in herself, as if it made her stronger to acknowledge that she might hang from a noose or she might be beaten by coppers in the pinkish warmth of an alleyway or that she might be beaten by Butcher or beaten by some other man, because it would only ever be a man to kill her, she said.

Esther had been thirty-seven, which meant nine years more than she had needed or expected for herself. Yet I sat alongside her on that floor in that flat on Bell Road and there was no great sense of resolution for her, no sense that Esther had held the foresight of the old Gypsies and settled some old score within herself, that had only ever been for herself, nothing to do with anyone else.  

Instead, it felt very much like she had been caught unawares, shot in the chest and in the skull. She blinked once in colour. She blinked again and saw blackness.

I thought, too, that Esther might never be mourned. I held tears but not one of them had ever fallen for Esther. I cried for the other girls collapsed behind her. Nellie had dropped in the kitchen, surrounded in shards of glass from the shattered windowpane behind her. Rosie had been in the bedroom, Beth thrown alongside her. Behind Esther, I had caught sight of Daisy with her slack-mouth held open from mouthfuls of blood. Ruth sagged against her chest.

But Esther – I looked into the blankness of her, the blackness of her. I was not sure that I had ever loved her. I felt something toward her; it was just a feeling that had never been described, never been given much of a name. It was just a feeling there, within me. It existed, and there was not much else that I could do about it. I turned toward the bathroom and saw another form there in its threshold. I was in that dream-state again. I appeared in spots around the flat, never fully understanding how I had come to be there.

Dust glittered all around, left untouched from the night beforehand.

Josephine had been in the bathroom. She was still in the basin; her lips had been blue, just like all of her had been blue and bloated and made of blankness but this bothered me more than it had with Esther, made me slap my kneecaps against the tiles to crawl toward her and some part of me had thought that she was still awake – awake, as if she had been asleep, a childlike thought of mine. I could feel the dampness of the basin spreading against my chest, spreading outward like it did within my chest, too.

I touched her. I never should have touched her.

I felt her dampness like I felt mine. She tilted forward, limp and flaccid and it sparked some horror within me to witness it, made me let out this wretched sound that balanced between a scream and a moan – I was trembling so badly that I thought that I was composed of the same rippling which ran through the water in her basin – and I saw – in that pinkish water – I saw her small hands, the hands that had held me after I had bathed her, before she thanked me –…

She was ten, I said aloud, into a flat that listened in swirls of dust. I said, Josephine, can you hear me? I’m here, Josephine.

I thought that she could hear me. I convinced myself that she could hear me, that all the girls could hear me. I smeared my hands against my cheeks to clear away those tears which blurred all that I could see, threw myself against the tiles and frantically searched for a towel. I told myself that I could take her out of that bath. I would bundle her in the warmth that she had lost. I never thought about what might come after – I dipped my arms into the water and looped beneath her armpits; the stiffness of her limbs had not occurred to me and still I wanted to lift her, but I never had the strength and her cheek lolled against mine.

I fell and she fell along with me, dipped low into the bathwater. I was still speaking aloud, I realised, I was speaking as if she could hear me and I told her, come back – I told her, you had eighteen years more, eighteen years stolen from you – and I told her, I’m so sorry – and I told her –…

Ollie stepped into the flat. I heard him in the hall, heard him separate the dust. I was in the bathroom, I stroked her hair, I told her – well, what did it matter? Ollie hovered in the threshold, held in that in-between, and I knew that this all disturbed him because his hands did that anxious swirl around each other. I could hear him through an echo that existed solely for me.

He said, “Willa, it really isn’t safe, in here – and I know you want to say your goodbyes –…”

“I’m tired of goodbyes,” I told him. “I heard enough of them, and he never even said them out loud, you know.”

Ollie cleared his throat. “Right, um – I just think we should really leave –…”

I heard his words from earlier and momentarily turned from Josephine, my words stained in distrust. “How did you know my name? I never told you last night.”

He blinked. His cheeks flushed pink, a better colour than his typical pallor. “O-Oh. Um – Well, Alfie asked me to look out for you while he was in France – just to make sure you were all right –…”

Droplets slipped along her cheek. I felt some of my own right along with it. I was very tired, all of a sudden, very tired. I said, “All right.”

He mumbled, “Please, Willa, could you come back in the flat? I can’t leave my Mum too long.”

“And I can’t leave her,” I croaked. I let out a breath, ran a hand against my face and felt the water and sweat there which coated me. “How do I leave her? What will happen to her?”

“I know some people, good people,” he said softly. “I can ask them to bury the girls, do it respectfully. I promise you, these are good people.”

“Does Alfie know them?” I asked slowly.

“He does.”

It reassured me more than I could admit knowing that Alfie knew them, these good people. “Can I visit them?”

Ollie looked confused. “Well, yes of course – yes, I mean – I can find out where they will be buried, bring you to them. But Willa, please – I can’t leave my Mum –…”

It occurred to me suddenly, made me feel stupid and careless. Charlotte was not here.

“Charlotte,” I called out into the flat, as if she might appear, as if she had been hiding from us all this time. I went to stand but my boots slipped from under me because of the water sloshed from the basin in my scramble to – to what, exactly? Had I wanted to pull her out, to put her on the tiles?

Ollie winced as if he had fallen with me.

I said, “Ollie, my Charlotte isn’t here – do you think she got out? Do you think I can go find her?”

His lips were pursed, his eyebrows wrinkled in pity. His voice was firm but still there was his gentle nature laid beneath it. “Willa, Alfie has a lot of friends in our community. I’m going to call each of them and we’re going to sort this out – I’ll find your friend, too, I’ll figure out what happened. But we’re not staying here. We’re going back to the flat, all right?”

“All right,” I said. I was so tired. “All right, Ollie.”

Uncertain of himself, he stepped forward but held still for a moment, looking me over as if he did not know how to approach me, how not to startle me. He bent with his awkward limbs and helped me stand for myself, but I was still in that dream and so the walk to his flat never happened. I was just there, in the bedroom where his mother slept, sat upon the armchair as if I had never left it, as if I had never been unfurled by some abrupt and savage madness.

Draped against my shoulders came an alien denseness. I flinched from it and sank into the heavy folds of the armchair, thinking that I could sense foreign hands like the crawl of insects on bare flesh, trickling downward toward parts that had only ever been mine – I could feel the thickened corners of the pantry all around, closing inward. Constricted in the chest, I panted like dogs in the courtyard against the sudden pressure held there until the smudge cleared and I found Ollie there with hands held in surrender.

Slipping from my shoulders, a blanket thumped against the floorboards in bunched pleats. Ollie looked frightened, his mouth fumbling for proper words, balanced on his haunches in front of me. Dimly, I understood that he had only placed a blanket around me, perhaps even tucked it beneath my legs so that it might not fall off if I shifted around. Ollie was pale, his sharp cheekbones hollowed by candlelight.

“I never meant to frighten you, Willa. I only thought you might be cold, you know. You could have my bed, if you like, but I was afraid to offer. I used most of the blankets for my Mum, she feels the cold more than I do,” he explained. He lifted the blanket and held it out.

“Thank you, Ollie,” I replied quietly. I took it from him, and he smiled; all soft edges, all dimples.

Yet I dreamt of graves, unvisited.

Dawn filtered through the doily-curtains dotted around the bedroom; his mother dozed, her mouth held around rattled wheezes, her skin already taut and waxy, her fingernails sharp and stained in a bluish colour. I knew that his mother was not well. I watched her, because the old Gypsies in those wet fields used to say that there were worlds other than ours in existence and that his mother was balanced on the cusp of another.

I was not sure who had done this to the flat on Bell Road, who had killed all the girls – because it had been killing, it had been slaughter. I thought about Butcher. I thought about whether there might be someone who would come for me, now, strike me down somewhere, alone, beaten into sickly-sweet blackness. Alfie might never hear about it, not from the trenches, so far from here. I would be buried like Elsie, in soil shared, in land left overgrown. I listened to rattled wheezes and slipped off into another sleep.

And I dreamt of my own grave, unvisited.

Because other than God, who would know about it?

“Willa,” Ollie whispered. I felt him in front of me. He never touched me. I sensed him there. I pulled myself up from the armchair, peeled that blanket off. He said, “It’s done, Willa. The girls are buried. Do you want to go there now?”

“Charlotte?” I asked.

“Still looking for her,” he answered. “Do you want to go now?”

Squelching through the mud, I struggled to pull dense legs from the dirt and find the plots in the fields. I was oddly disturbed by the fields, reminded me too much of childhood, reminded me too much of Ireland which had always been so damp, so wet. It was a field that sat just beyond the outskirts of the tenements, a square patch of greenery outlined in wooden fences that we jumped over, but it was not really used for anything in particular, this field – so now it was the graveyard for the girls from that flat on Bell Road.

I saw them, then, the graves. I saw each plot surrounded in fresh lumps of soil. I saw wooden planks in the earth with names attached. Ollie had only distantly known the girls, he said, he had known about Esther and heard about the factory through Alfie, had seen the girls in passing while he and his mother lived in his flat. So, he wrote the names himself. I could read them – because of Alfie, I could read them. I thought of him. Alfie was twenty-nine, now.

One year more than Esther expected.

And it was always killing for Alfie, always slaughter for him. He had stepped into many flats of his own, but his flats had been the trenches, he had lifted bodies limp and flaccid and lolled against him.

Did he hold them like I had? Did he convince himself that they could hear him when he had spoken to them?

There was another woman in the flat. She called herself Francine, but she was Franny to all her friends. She had this small purse with her, a neat little purse with a golden clasp and she popped it open, settled herself on the chair beside the kitchen table. I stood with Ollie, my eyes tracing her lithe movements. I trusted Ollie already. Alfie had trusted him, too – that was enough for me. Ollie had shown his worth, anyway. He found the plots and he had written the names. I stood there for a while with him in the kitchen until I felt the pressure of his stare and looked at him.

“Your hand, Willa,” he explained. “She wants to help clean your hand.”

Holding my hand aloft, I looked at the raw gash which sliced through my right hand, congealed in a thickened mucous, speckled in dots of red. I had forgotten about it. It had burned, itched. I had made it worse. I picked at its wetness and felt the pain. I shuddered from it. I had not thought to clean it properly. I could tell that it was more than likely infected, because that whitish fluid was a poor sign.

Francine had small strips of cloth and bandages laid out across the table in neat bundles. She said, “I’d like to help you, Willa. Would you mind if I tried?”

I was very detached from it all. I was still in the flat, mentally. I was in imagined trenches with Alfie.

So, I did not mind if Francine tried. I settled alongside her because Ollie had herded me toward her, without ever touching me, he simply led me there through his own shuffled gait. Francine lifted my hand onto cloth and squeezed out dollops of ointment onto the skin, so that it burned. I went to pull my hand from her, but she had expected it.

“It has to burn first, to heal,” she murmured; she spoke like one speaks to a child – not a child like the children in the flat on Bell Road had been spoken to, because Esther never felt there was much point in childhood, but Francine spoke like I heard parents speak to children whenever I was out on streets like those posh ones in Charterhouse, with gentle holds on small hands and loving touches of affection.

I used to watch that from afar and wonder was it was like to spoken to like that.

I understood it now; it felt like that first trickle of warmth against my skin whenever I stepped into sunlight in the mornings just before I met Alfie in the courtyard, before we walked to the factory together, our arms linked, leaned against one another, and God – he could be dead over there and I could die here and we might never see each other again, in this world, we might never see each other again.

Who other than God would know about it?

Francine had just finished the stitches, having sewn me together, having repaired me through reams of thread. Ollie came into the kitchen. He was made of anxiety; his hands were fluttering all over like butterflies. He said, “I found Charlotte, Willa. I found her.”

Ginger curls, rosy cheeks – Charlotte had only been eleven when she first arrived in Bell Road. She was now fourteen; she was still timid in her own way, but she had become womanly in others, developed the hint of a bust, the slight indents of a waist, but she had always been small.

Ollie opened the door and there she stood at the end of the row of flats, her eyes drawn toward our old one, but she looked toward me and ran – threw herself at me and I caught her, crumbled with her, cradled her.

I held her like a child, and I spoke to her like Francine had spoken to me, all sunlight. I kissed her cheeks, brushed away stray curls and held her skin against mine just to bathe in its warmth, in its certainty that she was here, with me.

“I was with him,” she stuttered out. “I know I shouldn’t have been, Willa, I knew Esther would have – I knew she would have –…and Butcher is dead, Willa, shot by Harry Reed, he –…”

I shushed her apologies. I could not bring myself to care about the beau or Butcher or this stranger called Reed – what did it matter, now? It spared her from that flat. I held her and held her.

I only separated from her at the sound of Ollie behind me.

“I think I have another blanket around here, somewhere.” 

Ollie’s mother died in the last few months of 1917 – she breathed out another rattled wheeze like all the others that had come before and then her chest stilled and the flat was terribly quiet, much too quiet, so that we had known in an instant. Ollie left the flat and returned hours later. He never said where he went, and I had never asked him. Charlotte had begun to stay with George – that was the beau who lived on a flat in Chesterfield Avenue. I had planned to find another place before his mother had died, but after she passed, he said, “Just stay, Willa. I told Alfie I would look out for you. Stay.”

I heard it in his tone, what he really meant. He was in that dream-state. I had just appeared around him, he could not recall just how he or I had come to be here. I watched him cut a hole in her shirt above her chest, watched him from the doorway, just before her body had been taken from the flat. He was very silent for that, until midnight came, and he was still sat in the kitchen, slouched against the chair with this distant glaze to his stare.

He mumbled, “I have no proper shirt for the burial. I need – I can’t be there without a good shirt – and…”

It was not about the shirt. He knew that and I knew that.

Still, I stood and left the flat by myself for the first time in a while. I found Victoria Lane. I stepped into the factory and saw that its dust glittered all around, left untouched.

There was still thread and material, aprons stacked alongside sewing-machines. I pulled one out and brushed its fabric. I threw them all into a bin, cleaned out the dust and sat at my old table. I looked at the drawer which had so badly damaged my hand. The wound was now a hardened line of red scar-tissue, rough around its ridges. I stretched out a long roll of white fabric, snipped out the shapes that I needed and slipped it into the sewing-machine. I was afraid to touch it, afraid of its growl that had once been so familiar, as if the machine was alive.

I had made many shirts for Alfie, made him socks and scarves and gloves.

So, I started with the sleeves and I smoothed out the new collar and I made Ollie a shirt from scratch; the first thank-you for what he did that night outside the flat. I used the best rolls of fabric that Esther had been so mean about – because really, what did it matter, now?

Ollie wore the shirt. I stood with him at the burial, unable to understand Hebrew but able to understand how the rippling ran through him like it had run through me in the flat after I had found Josephine. I understood that more than anything.

Soon after came the bombings. There had been silver blobs held between the clouds, speckles of light distant and far from us, so distant and far that the rumble which followed them was an afterthought. Coastal towns suffered the most, peppered in sudden assaults, then reported in the morning newspapers. It was sudden for Bell Road, too, evacuated in sirens and wails.

I was with Ollie, because I was almost always with Ollie.

I had become used to him, never minded his touch anymore, even when he grabbed my arm and hauled me off toward a synagogue – which I thought was just his first response because of his faith, but it turns out that many had taken shelter in its tall, sturdy walls, Jewish and Catholic and Protestant and all those things in-between. I was not quite one or the other. I was the in-between.

The children were afraid because the ground was grumbling and white paint fluttered from the ceiling in small flakes, sprinkling their coats. The candlelight was barely there. I saw the world crumble from inside this holy place where I had never been before, and I held out my hands against the light of the walls.

I made shapes like I had once seen from the inside of a wagon – because that was somewhere that I had been before, even if I had tried never to think about it, not since before my ninth summer.

I made dogs with my hands. I made swooping birds and fluttering wings for bats. I painted stories, for a little while, until the ground outside did not cry out in shrieks of stone and dirt, until the screams softened into sirens, drowned out, and the doors of the synagogue were drawn open. The world was still there, even if some of its people had been lost in rubble and fire.

Between the bombings, I brought the sewing-machine into the flat and I made another shirt for Ollie and then another for his Jewish friend and then another for another Jewish friend of that first friend – and it went onward and onward, because I barely charged for the shirts and the war meant that most had little coin to spare anyway. I made them because I had too much to think about. I tried to send Alfie letters but found that my hand could not spell out those words. I could not tell him about what had happened in the flat, not yet. I had heard whispers of Harry Reed and his little gang sprouting all around London, spilling into those spots left behind by Butcher.

Butcher, too, had died and been forgotten. Nose had been blown off, skull caved inward. It struck me that Butcher had died and there had been little reaction. I used to imagine his downfall as some grand affair, shot dead, splashed all over the walls in blood and splashed all over in the newspapers in ink.

Nobody mentioned him.

Soldiers had died in the trenches and Butcher had died in an alleyway; no sense of resolution, no score settled. It just happened. Butcher blinked once in colour. He blinked again and saw blackness.

Finally, there was an end for the war, an end which came in 1918; shouts of victory, jubilation in the streets between shouts and screams that were not from fear of bombs and not from telegrams placed into open palms – shouts and screams of happiness and that was alien for those of us left behind. There was a rash of parties all over London.

From the row of flats, I watched the celebrations in Bell Road with Ollie. I was always with Ollie. He saw the women with arms thrown around men and saw the children lifted onto shoulders and he said, “Alfie should be back soon, Willa.”

Only Alfie was not back soon. Other soldiers limped out from the train-stations all around England with jaws held together in wooden splints and legs blown off from landmines and sashes held around sockets torn clean of eyeballs and those soldiers wandered around, displaced in a land which had become foreign to them. I saw wives sweep toward husbands disfigured, saw children step uncertainly toward fathers with vacant stares but whose arms automatically held open for them.

Alfie was not amongst all those men pouring from trains.

I stuck my legs between the railings on the tenements and I watched the courtyard for the slightest sign of him. Only he was not back soon. Had he died in the trenches? Had he been buried in the scarves that I had made for him?

Because who other than God –…

It happened once I was out with Charlotte. He had come around and met with Ollie. He had not asked for me. Ollie did not say it, but I knew it all the same. He had come around when I had not been there, because he knew I had not been there. He had come back, but he had not come back for me, I told myself. He had not come back for me. Ollie had watched me carefully after he had told me, watched me nod as if it had not torn me apart to know it. Ollie stood from his chair and prepared himself to step out for prayer.

He glanced back at me, just once, and said, “But he was wearing your scarf, Willa.”

Chapter Text

five


 

Soon enough, I was spinning out shirts for most of the Jewish blokes around Bell Road, stretching into Harrow. Even more lads came from the flats along Osmington, another Jewish neighbourhood which bordered ours. Ollie brought them around the flat, introduced them all. Most of his closest friends were devout and wore the same sort of skullcap that Ollie wore, the skullcap which he called a kippah. I learned that the sideburns held in tight curls were called payot. I wanted to understand it all for Ollie, because there were all these rules in his religion, all this structure which outlined what a man was meant to be. I wanted to understand it if only because I wanted to show Ollie how much I respected him.

These rules were also the reason for which most of his friends never touched me, not even for handshakes, and also the reason for which they always maintained a respectful distance, too. They even preferred that Ollie was present in the room whenever I handed over their shirts, which Ollie had explained with cheeks stained beetroot. I noted his embarrassment, noted his discomfort, and understood that he thought I might be offended by the formality, the possible insinuations.

Instead, I was overjoyed.

Before Alfie Solomons, Johnny was the only man who had ever held me softly in my life. I had never been offered the choice in touch. Coppers snatched me around the arms, pinned me by the chest against walls, held me against furniture and kicked me around, sometimes just for the fun of it. I had been thrown into that pantry with Yaxley and felt the true force of touch; pure, unwanted touch.

From all that Ollie had told me of his Jewish friends, I realised that Alfie had been much the same, even I had never really noticed it. I touched him first – touched him in the office that first time he had fought another lad in front of me and I had handed him a cloth to clean off the blood from his skin, touched him after I handed him the first shirt that I had ever made him.

I found trust in him before I found touch.

Somehow, it had just never occurred to me that I could be held softly by men other than Johnny nor had it occurred to me that I could also not be held at all; that is to say that I could simply state aloud that I never wanted to be touched, even if the other person did not listen just like coppers never listened. It never occurred to me that I could express this aversion to touch in ways which was not just my small body contorted by stiffness, limbs shrivelled inward against myself, lips pursed so that the flood of revulsion could not spill from me and cause offense. Then again, I hardly ever spoke much at all in that flat, especially after Elsie had been murdered.

I expected touch because all the touch that had come after Johnny and Elsie had been rough, never soft, always made in grips and strangulations and bruising slaps.

Even when Charlotte came into the flat, I restrained myself if I could. I allowed Charlotte to sleep alongside me, limbs entangled, but I never initiated it, never thought that touch could be more than anything more than something which had to be tolerated, because it had always been so rough.

Rough. Never soft.

The world had not been soft until Alfie had appeared in it, made it soft, made it more than grips and strangulations and bruising slaps, and Alfie was still here, unlike most other men because of that fella who had been shot in that other place, and whose death meant that all our fellas had been shot along with him.

And Alfie was still here, even if his touch was not.

Coated in a blanket of mist, curling upward from the damp soil like restless spirits, the field had been dampened by drizzle and left slick beneath my boots, so that each step was an upward battle toward the plots. I balanced bouquets in both arms, bought in the richest market-stalls of Charterhouse with all the coins made from the shirts. I plucked out the nicest flowers and placed them against each plot, watched them sink into the wetness of the soil, petals speckled in dirt, soiled once more. Esther had been buried a foot from the other girls of Bell Road. I talked while I placed the flowers, told the girls about Ollie and told the girls about the shirts.

Crouched low on my haunches, I lifted a hand to brush away stray tears once I reached Josephine and felt the smudge of dirt on my cheeks; it reminded me of all those days spent in London as Gypsy Girl, hopping around in skirts to amuse rich folk – oh, look at the little savage, darling! – and it made my eyes drift toward Esther’s plot.

I let the flowers be returned to the earth, swallowed into its yawning mouth.

Afterward, I sat with the dogs and shared out small slices of meat, held out in a flat palm then lathered in slobber. Some of the dogs hopped onto the small wall upon which I sat and rested alongside me, sopping jowls pressed against my thighs. I talked to the dogs, too. I found comfort in those chocolate eyes which followed me, tails swept languidly against the ground, occasionally flopping over so that I could scratch at pink bellies.

Eventually, I pulled myself from the pile of dogs dozing in the warmth and stepped forward into the courtyard. I climbed the staircase and considered all the rolls of material that I would need for the shirts. Ollie had run himself ragged around London in search of a job that might keep us afloat and the shirts had been my contribution to the flat. Even if Alfie had never charged a penny of rent, there was still other costs like food. I liked to make just that little bit more for the meat, make a little bit more for Ollie too. I owed him more than I could make through shirts.

Ollie never wanted to take the cash.

Still, there were other methods of payment for Ollie. He had become fond of these new pieces of jelly layered in a fine, sugary powder which had come out just after the war. Ollie had pretended not to care for them, because the sweets had been meant for children. Yet if I dropped a bag of them in the kitchen and left for a couple of hours, I was guaranteed to return and find a crumbled, scrunched little bag with its powder licked clean.

Ollie feigned ignorance – or he tried, until I pointed out that he still had powder around his mouth.

Clambering onto the fifth floor of the tenements, I turned onto the row of flats and found myself frozen in my spot at the sight of a man stood in front of our flat – our old flat, which had been left abandoned, stilled in dust and rot. Like that old tambourine that had been used in the days of Gypsy Girl, my heart rattled in its own frantic thump, rattled louder against the shouts which came from that man, the flesh of his throat blotched in scarlet and his fists rained against the door in a constant rhythm; it reached its crescendo and finished in his panting breaths, his forehead leaned against the doorframe while he whispered curses – curses that had come out in a language that I had not heard in many years, a language which I had only ever heard while bounced upon his knee and in the night, before bed, when he spun his stories and tucked me beneath the blankets and –…

“Willa?”

I blinked, unaware that he had turned from the doorway. He swept toward me, arms held apart. I stood blankly, unmoving. I willed my limbs to respond, willed myself to return the gesture, especially once his smile faltered and his arms dropped to his sides and his wrinkles became more prominent. I just could not understand that he was here.

Johnny Dogs was here.

He was here as if he always had been here; as if never had there been an ounce of space between us.

Through the din in my eardrums, I heard his soft lilt and I heard the reflection of my accent in his own. The sound filled me with an odd tenderness for him, but there was something more bubbling in my chest and it had been brewing for quite some time now, it had been festering.

“Willa, you weren’t answerin’ me letters,” he explained softly. Between his hands, he held his paddy-cap, wrung it out. “I wanted to find ya – sent all our kin out in London to find ya, scattered all around these parts for ya and I heard – I heard that Esther had been – Christ, chey, I thought I lost ya –…”

It unravelled me, the gentle nature of his tone whenever he said chey – it made all that tension around touch drip into nothingness, so that I allowed his arms around me, allowed him to stroke my hair and hold me like he had held me when I was a child, between the stories and the trips around in the sulky on those patchwork roads in Ireland.

“You wrote letters?” I croaked. I could not recall just when I had started to cry but I did not brush away the tears this time.

“Ah, I tell a lie – Shelta writes ‘em – you remember your cousin Shelta, don’t ya, darlin’? She writes ‘em for me. Never was good with a pen, me, but I can tell a good story when I get goin’. You always understood me there, didn’t ya, chey?”

“I can write now, Johnny,” I told him, and my voice cracked. “I can read, too.”

Johnny was surprised, at first. Then, slowly, another expression spread across his face and I recognised it as the same expression I had once seen on Alfie after I had written my first sentence a long time ago, written it without his help or prompting.

It was pride, pure and simple. It was pride in me, pride in what I had told him.

He was proud of me.

“I told them since you were a girl – didn’t I tell ‘em, Willa, that you had brains to burn in that head of yours, girl,” he said, his words stained in a rasp of his own from emotion.

He looked me over and pulled me against him once more, his hand cupping the back of my head so that I nestled against his shoulder and breathed the scent of fresh soil turned over, the scent of smoke from a firepit and smoke from cigarettes, too, all blended into a heady scent that was so familiar, so full of that feeling which came whenever he said chey.

I had never known my mother, never known my father; she had died in childbirth, died in that damp soil which birthed me, been buried in it, too, and from what I understood, my father had been buried there many months beforehand, shot through the skull after a dispute which sparked war between families and which Johnny himself had been heavily involved in because my father had been his older brother.

I had never known the hold of my own mother, never known the hold of my own father.

But I always thought that to be held by either of them would be much like how it felt whenever Johnny held me, all the same.

I could feel it in how his hands trembled once he grasped me and how his eyes had welled with joy because he had found me here in the tenements of Bell Road, that I had not been shot with the others and that he could still hold me like he always had.

“Who did it to ‘em, chey?” he asked.

I knew what he meant even if he hadn’t titled his head toward the old flat. I cleared my throat and felt the lump still there no matter how much I swallowed. “Esther got herself caught up with some bad people, Johnny. She worked with a fella named Butcher – he was killed by another man named Harry Reed. Reed came for Esther and the girls, too.”

“Harry fuckin’ Reed?” Johnny repeated, shaking his head. He eyed me warily and added, “D’you think he’d come for you, Willa?”

“I thought about it,” I said. “But he might not know I worked for her at all – might not care, either, not now he’s become top-dog and all that.”

Johnny was very quiet for a moment, his eyes filled with that foresight that the old Gypsies held. “Men like that always care about it, chey. Men like that never sleep. It’s never enough to become top-dog for ‘em. It takes a lot more to stay top-dog than it does to become it, darlin’.”

“Then I’ll try not to be noticed,” I mumbled.

“I have a better idea, sweetheart,” he replied easily. “Come back to Ireland with me, for a little while, stay with your cousins, your kin.”

I felt my mouth become strangely dry from the eagerness in his eyes, the simplicity of his words. “Oh, Johnny, come on – I can’t just up and run – we haven’t talked in years, you think I would –…”

“I sent me letters,” he interrupted. “You got me letters, chey.”

I had been so shocked by his sudden appearance that I had not taken the time to think about what he had first said when he spoke of those letters, because I had understood what he meant but somehow had not fully realised that he really had sent them. He drank in my confusion with hurt in his eyes, his lips wobbled as if he might let out some sound of pain, but he held firm and straightened his shoulders.

Johnny was not a man of much aggression; the only times that I had ever witnessed his anger had been if one of my boy-cousins hurt me accidentally and he would cuff them around the ears for it, send them off and away from me.

“I had Shelta write letter after letter to ya, with my own words in them, chey, meant only for you,” he uttered darkly. “And I got one back every couple of weeks from Esther who wrote them because – because you couldn’t write yer-self, not like you can now. But she told me that she read them to ya, that every word she wrote in it came from you.”

Letters; letters like those that I had written during those times of muck and tumble in the trenches, and all the while, Johnny had written letters of his own and waited for answers, answers which came but were not really mine. I felt the fury in the shaking of his hands held around mine, before he held me against him again and I felt myself cry along with him.

I said, “Why didn’t you come for me?”

“I thought you were happy,” he murmured; full of regret, full of sadness. “The letters – darlin’, I thought that you wanted to be with her and I thought you wanted out of this life – the only life that I could provide you, chey, a life on the road and a life that – that me own daughters never seemed content with, and I thought if I could make even one of ye happier and –…”

He rambled onward, unaware that he had placed me there with his daughters, finally acknowledged it aloud. Johnny had always cared for me, his chey.

For him, that word had never meant anything but daughter.

There had never been any other meaning, for him.  

He asked, “Where are you stayin’, sweetheart? D’ye need a place? Are you fed, are you comfortable?”

I said, “I was spared, Johnny – a fella named Ollie saved me that night outside the flat, when I found out that Esther had been – he came out, pretended I was his sister, saved me, he did. I’ve been with him, he lives in that flat right behindyou. Fed, I am – comfortable, too.”

“Then I want you to think on this, Willa,” he told me, his face pinched in solemnity. “I will take you back to Ireland tomorrow if that is what you want. No letters, this time, I want the words from you, chey. I won’t force ye – I would never take you there if you didn’t want it. But you have kin. No matter what Esther told you, you have kin – and you’d be safe from this Harry Reed if he ever did find out about you bein’ spared that night. You could work with me, instead.”

“Never was a singer, Johnny,” I smiled warmly, feeling the roughness of his hands in mine.

“Oh, you can sing, chey, but you’d only crack the glass of every pub window in England and Ireland,” he grinned. “But you can dance better than any girl in all the world, you can.”

I squeezed his hands and looked away from him, because I never wanted to admit it. I had loved to dance, once. I loved to dance like the Gypsies danced, before Esther took it and made it into a caricature of what it was meant to be, drained it of passion and heritage, left it limp and full of rigid movements meant to be followed rather than expressed.

Oh, for there had once been things that I had loved; and the loss of them had been slow and torturous but the realisation of all that I had lost had been sudden – sudden and painful and stinging eternal.

Now stood one of those things that I had thought lost before me, hands held, full of love for me – for me and not the coins that I could offer him. For me; whether I was Willa or chey or Gypsy Girl or all those other things in-between.

He crushed me against him, held me closely. He whispered, “You have kin, Willa – think on it tonight and I’ll come for you in the mornin’.”

Somewhere in the first trickle of pinkish light from the sunset, there was a knock that filled the flat in its harshness. I was in the bathroom, having just filled a basin with warm water, folding a towel alongside me. I had not yet undressed myself, but I had planned to steep myself in that water and think through the offer that Johnny had offered me. I liked it better when I could really work through every possibility and figure out the benefits.

Still, that knock came and I left Ollie to answer it. It was another Jewish friend, because I heard the clap of a handshake and the gruff words muttered in Hebrew before heavy footsteps passed through the hall and the chair in the kitchen scraped against the floorboards. I had spent the evening at the sewing-machine, and I figured that Ollie could bring out the shirts which had been ordered as his part of the job. He was quite good with organisation, always scratched out the sums and figures of what was owed, dealt with measurements and sketched the details.

I had begun to stitch more patterns into the shirts if required. I had also started to dip into embroidery for those skullcaps, drew out the star of David before I had even known what it was called – Ollie told me just like he had told me all that other stuff about kippah and payot. He had expected me to respond with more attitude than I had. Ollie was finely attuned to verbal abuse that had occasionally broached into physical all because of his faith; that was the reason for which he often bought his wares only from Jewish market-stalls and Jewish vendors because he had received comments and remarks whenever he strayed too far from the surrounding neighbourhoods.

He used to think that I was odd, until he walked with me through Brixton Street one morning and some copper had turned and said, “Oi, paddy-girl – off to nick some more of our goods for all your cousins, eh, all two hundred of ‘em, breedin’ like fuckin’ animals –…”

Ollie never questioned me after that.

I was pulling off my boots when there came another knock – at the bathroom door, this time.

Ollie called out, “Willa, there’s a problem with the shirt.”

I held one of my boots by its laces, hopping on one foot while I dropped the boot and let it thump against the tiles. “There’s never a problem with the shirts, Ollie.”

He was quiet for so long that I thought he might have left after all. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Well, there’s a problem with this one.”

Gritting my teeth, I glanced at my bathwater still steaming with wisps licking at its surface. I looked at the door as if I could see Ollie through its wood and growled out, “Well, tell him I can make another tomorrow!”

“Tell me yourself, Willa Sykes.”

I heard the gruff rumble of his words as if I had already lowered myself into the bathwater in the basin, as if I had sunk beneath its warmth and let it swallow me, like that soil had swallowed the flowers; it was Alfie Solomons out there in the hall, I knew, and it made my breath quicken to know it, made my chest swell to know it.

I felt the pinprick of tears behind my eyeballs and felt the heat of them already, but I was glued against those tiles, my limbs once again filled in lead like they had been in front of Johnny. I was torn between frustration and the fierce urge to tear apart that door – torn, too, between whether to beat him or hold him.

“Willa, come out into the kitchen,” Ollie said. “Please.”

Please. The same word that he had said in front of the old flat on that night that the girls had been killed. Please, please, please –…

I heard them turn for the kitchen and still I could not seem to follow.

I was struck by his boldness, that he had walked into this flat and summoned me after weeks of silence on his part. I was even more annoyed that Ollie had let him. Alfie had visited Ollie, but Ollie had tried to maintain neutrality by never really mentioning it beyond the bare minimum of information before he quickly switched to a more placid, safe conversation about how many buttons we might need to purchase for the new batch of shirts.

I saw myself in the mirror, then. I saw thick curls, sprung outward, never tamed. Esther used to scrape a comb through my curls and tie them all into a neat braid whenever I was not playing Gypsy Girl. Another thing that I had lost and never acknowledged, my curls, flattened and made docile.

After I saw Johnny, I felt the shame in all that taming of the girl he had known in the fields. I could not yet fully confront her, but I realised that I had not braided my hair since Esther had passed. I had lined my eyes in kohl like I had seen the other Gypsies do in the wagons when I was a child. Ollie had noticed but had never commented.

And it was like a spark through me, the thought of Johnny and the thought of kin, out there. I was not alone, anymore. Johnny had found me. Both Willa and Gypsy Girl had always prayed that Johnny would find them and take them from that flat on Bell Road. Now, I had that option.

So, I tore open the door of the bathroom and stepped into the threshold of the kitchen.

And there was Alfie Solomons; there were his broad shoulders held straight and proud, his hat taken off and settled on the tablecloth, dark silhouette and dark stare flickering in candlelight.

“’ello, Willa,” he said.

Ollie sat alongside him, but it seemed as if he had sat on pins because of how he shifted around, his hands clasped awkwardly in his lap, between his legs. “Willa,” he nodded.

“Out, Ollie,” I ordered.

Ollie blinked, his eyes flitting toward Alfie.

“You ‘eard the woman, Ollie,” Alfie cut in, nodding with a pleasant smile and bumping his shoulder against Ollie. “Time for the adults to talk, innit?”

Ollie threw him a withered glance before he stood and walked toward me. I blocked his path, my eyes meeting his for a brief moment to warn him that he would hear all about this. He swallowed, his throat bobbing up and down, up and down. I stepped aside and he bolted before either of us could trap him there any longer.

I stood and collected myself, then walked around the table and flopped into the chair across from him. He was still smiling as if this was a meeting between old pals – because what had we ever been, anyway? – and I wanted to shout and scream at him, but I had never done that with Alfie before, never been so furious with him before.

Never been so hurt before.

All the times that Esther had battered me, and I had never been so hurt before.

It was something much stronger, I realised, to be hurt on the inside. It was deeper, more like a disease, held in the marrow.  

“I’m back, Willa,” he said.

“You’ve been back a while, Alfie.”

“’ave I?” he asked. “I don’t feel like I ‘ave.”

I looked away from the intensity of his stare but not before I witnessed the death of that smile. He had an odd sheen in his stare, which was aimed toward me but never focused on me. It was the first time that Alfie Solomons had ever looked through me, beyond me. The war had done that to him. Alfie was looking into the other worlds that the old Gypsies spoke about. He was balanced on the cusp of another world, right then.

“I brought you somethin’,” he said suddenly. He had leapt from the ledge of the other world and landed back in ours, because he looked at me again, really looked at me. He reached into his pocket and fiddled around with an exaggerated effort before he pushed a little stack of parchment across the table, its paper soft and delicate, held together by a purple sash.

I truly did appreciate it. So, I bit through the anger, chewed it up and swallowed it before I said, “Thank you, Alfie.”

He nodded. He nodded again, then again. He pursed his lips. “D’you want to take a walk ‘round Ivor Square tomorrow?”

I stared at him, the parchment still held in my hands. “Are you joking with me, Alfie Solomons?”

“I ‘eard we’re due a bit o’ sunshine,” he continued, as if I had never spoken. He hummed and there was that bizarre nod again, as if he could not help himself. “I thought we could go ‘round the markets first and then take a walk down to Ivor Square.”

“Alfie, you haven’t talked to me properly since you got back from France. Now you’re asking if we can go for a walk?”

“Yeah,” he said simply. “I’m askin’ you, yeah, I am.”

“I want to know what happened to you, Alfie, I want to know if you’re all right, I want to know if you were hurt, or if you –…”

“You fed the dogs.”

Thrown by his interruption, I struggled for words. I tried to find the best response, the one that would coax him out of this trance that he was in, in which his eyes watched me and his hands were doing funny twitches that Alfie had never made before and I thought – I thought, dear God, is he like those other soldiers that I saw out there in the streets with those other families, alive and here but looking around as if they thought bombs would fall at any moment?

He was here. He had not lost limbs, he was not bruised or horrifically scarred that I could see from where I sat.

But I had long since learned that scarring could be held in the marrow as much as it could be held on the skin.

“I fed the dogs, Alfie,” I murmured gently. “I kept them fed for when you would come back to us.”

“I came back,” he echoed. Another nod, and then another.

I understood, in some silent way, that Alfie was trying to tell me what he could not say so bluntly: did I come back?

He was looking at me as if he wanted me to pull the words from him like I pulled threads from the sewing-machine, stretch him out and stitch him together like I did with all those shirts. He opened his mouth, closed it again.

I said, “I’ll walk with you to Ivor Square, Alf.”

He held his lips close together. Then came the flood. “I was – I thought that you ‘ad – I thought you ‘ad stopped writin’ to me there, in the last months o’ the war –…” here he let out a scoff and threw his eyes up at the ceiling to control that sheen behind his eyes before he found me again – “…lots of lads ‘ad girls what stopped writin’ to them after the first couple o’ months, y’know, and I could still say, ‘my girl’s writin’ to me’ even when ‘alf o’ them same lads weren’t even there anymore ‘cause they’d been shot or blown away or – but I could still say, ‘my girl’s still sendin’ me all them scarves so I don’t get cold in the trenches, sendin’ me socks so I don’t get rot in me feet’ – I could tell ‘em that, them what were left in the end.”

I could feel the blister of tears again. I had cried enough today, dried myself out – and still the tears came, still I felt my heart stutter. But I did not interrupt him. I knew that if I did it then, he would never speak like this ever again.

And it would kill him in the way that the bullets or the bombs would have killed him, if he did not speak.

“I came back,” he repeated. He drew in a breath. “I came back, and I went to the dogs, first. Hm. I did, I went to the dogs. I thought about what I was supposed to tell you, Willa. Couldn’t get the words out. Think only the dogs can understand me, now.”

I thought of what he had told me in the factory all those years ago after the incident with Yaxley and it was me who could not speak, it had been my sentences which had been choppy and slow.

Then let it come out backwards and wrong, he said, so long as it comes out.

“Backwards and wrong, Alfie,” I reminded him.

He looked at me and I saw the first spark of uncertainty in him. Before, Alfie had never hesitated to tell me anything. But this was not minor gossip in the factory, not a throwaway comment about his brother or his thoughts about Esther and Butcher. This was war. This was trauma – his trauma.

“Backwards and wrong,” he breathed out. “But not now, Willa – please, not now.”

Alfie had never pleaded for much from me or anybody else on this earth, I knew that much.

I knew I could not force him, either. I thought first of Johnny and then said, “Okay, Alfie. Not now.”

He swallowed his relief. I watched it trail along his throat. “Can I ‘old you, Willa?”

It was another thing that Alfie had never really done before – ask for touch and sit in precarity until the answer came. He had never turned away from my touch, but he had also never really asked for it either, because Alfie was typically very casual about that stuff. He let me touch him if I wanted to do it. He would place his hand on my arm and look at me to ensure that I was all right with it.

Otherwise, it had never really been asked.

But that had been before the war.

Now we sat in its aftermath, because that had been before the war, and here we were now, where there were no bombs and where there were no fallen soldiers, and still we looked at each other as if the sirens were screaming and still we looked at each other as if there was rubble all around us and still we looked at each other.

And I wanted that nervousness to end here and now in the kitchen, that trepidation between us. I knew that he was only holding himself back because he thought that I would not forgive him for not speaking to me in that first month.

So, I stood from my chair and I came toward him and he stood at the same moment that I reached him and it was all touch, it was skin against skin and my words and his words both blended together. We were remembering all those little touches that had once been automatic and familiar, now clumsy and timid because we had been apart for so long.  

He said, “I missed you, Willa”.

I said, “I was so scared for you, Alfie”.

“I wanted to see you when I got back, I really did – and I couldn’t –…”

“I know,” I said quietly.

“I couldn’t –…”

“I know, Alfie.”

“I ‘eard what ‘appened in the flat,” he whispered into my hair. “I ‘eard from Ollie when I came ‘round that first night. Never expected you to be livin’ there – thought it was still goin’, that the factory was still goin’-…”

“Ollie saved my life,” I mumbled against his chest.

“Well, if ‘e fuckin’ ‘adn’t saved ya, I’d ‘ave upped ‘is rent somethin’ terrible.”

I snorted, smiling despite myself. “Upped it from nothing?”

He was quiet. “After all the times I ever fuckin’ prayed over in them trenches for God to spare me fuckin' life so I could come back 'ere, I still don’t think I ever prayed as ‘ard as I did after Ollie first told me that the girls in the flat ‘ad been killed.”

I felt the stiffness of his body then. Another emotion that he had not shown much before the war had been fear.

Alfie continued, “Ollie said, ‘the girls were killed, Alfie, Esther too’ and I was sittin’ there thinkin’ that all this time over in France I'd been tryin' to survive and now me final death would come ‘ere in Bell Road, because Ollie never said if you ‘ad been in there or not, ‘e only explained after what ‘e ‘ad done for ya. For me. And I prayed to God for the first time since France that you would be alive, Willa. I prayed and I fuckin’ prayed.”

I was standing very still against him, feeling the wild thump of his heartbeat against my cheek and his hands around me, one scrunched in my hair, the other around the nape of my neck, lowering my head against his chest. He was being so open, so blunt in his words now that I thought this was the result of all that he had held inside of himself.

“We’ll take that walk to Ivor Square,” he finished. His voice was hoarse. “Feed the dogs, yeah?”

Within myself, I heard what Johnny had said after all that happened in the flat and what he thought about Harry Reed: come back to Ireland with me, for a little while, stay with your cousins, your kin.

“Willa?” Alfie called.

“Ivor Square,” I echoed. “And the dogs.”

I’ll come for you in the mornin’.

 ☼ 

Chapter Text

six


 

Stepping into the old flat, I breathed the scent of copper which had soaked into the floorboards; rusted patches of dried blood stained those wooden planks, stained its crusted splinters. Faint moonlight bloomed through the frosted windowpanes and bathed me in its coldness. I felt the heaviness of my boots, tattered and worn at the laces. I trailed through the hall and stood at the bathroom, looked into its blue depths and sensed a sudden dampness spreading within my chest. I flinched at the sight of the basin, turned from its silver taunting. I went to the bedroom and settled in its dust.

I sat there like another piece of furniture.

Eventually, I pushed numb hands around the cot, scratched sharp nails against its edges and felt for a familiar cut in its fabric. I knew that Esther had hidden a small box in its folds. I could recall late nights and faces cast in candlelight, arms propped beneath my head for a pillow, eyelids lowered so that Esther might not realise that I watched her wriggle her hand into that fold and pull out the little box, its speckled shell glinting against the orange flicker.

I never knew what Esther put in there.

I was too afraid of her to attempt a search in her absence, especially because I was never alone in that flat. I was always surrounded by other girls. I was never able to be alone. Besides, I knew quite well that if Esther had ever stumbled into the bedroom and caught me with a hand stuffed into the folds of her cot, she would have surely beaten me to death right there in flat; it was something that I had known like I had known that a dog which spat foam from its muzzle and which become rabid with disease would be shot by fathers of Bell Road, who would drag it out into the fields behind the tenements and press the barrel against its skull just before the bullet came.

I was the dog and Esther had stood in the same place as all those fathers.

It had always been like that between us. I had just never understood how bad it had become until Esther died and the gun had been pulled away from my forehead and all that foam had dripped away from my muzzle and I realised that I was sat alone in a field, not too sure just how I had been spared when all those other dogs had been put down before me.

It had always been like that. And I had never really questioned it.

Then my fingertips brushed the crinkle of paper, letters plied into many folds, like the folds in which they had been hidden and I knew that Esther had to have been made of a special kind of cruelty to hide Johnny’s letters from me. She never destroyed them, but rather kept them in this small box inches from where I slept. I suddenly understood that Esther liked power too much to pull the trigger and put the dog out of its misery.

It was as simple as that. I thought there was not much point in prolonging it, no point in attempting to understand her reasoning for what she had done. Esther had just been like that.

So, I just pulled the trigger and read the letters for myself.

Chey, Johnny had written through the hand of my cousin Shelta, I hope you are doing well in England – we miss you so much here – the weather there is not so different but please wear the coat that I gave you – and I want to come over soon to you, show you all the sights in London – I told you to stay dry so please wear that coat – and I told Esther to take care of you until I can come there and do it myself –…

It went onward and onward like that until the pile of letters dwindled into nothingness and still my hands reached and hoped to clamp onto something – like the memories of that coat, lined in a rich fur. I had barely remembered it until I read about it in his letters, and I could not exactly recall just what had happened to it either.

I knew that Esther had probably sold it and that the coat had been another thing loved and lost in this old flat on Bell Road.

I felt the loss like I felt the pressure of a barrel against my forehead and the whip of cold wind in the fields blown against a frothing muzzle just before the bullet came – and come it did, for he had signed: for my cheywith love always, Johnny.   

I slumped against the cot and stayed there.

Creaking footsteps echoed in the hall. I stirred, aware that the inky blackness which came through the curtains had become brightened smears of orange blended into streaks of pink from the first call of morning. I had not fallen asleep, not quite – I was fully there, but I had just drifted off into other worlds, dreamt of other places. I dreamt of wagons. The flat was cold, terribly cold. I breathed out in puffs of white, saw tendrils swirl before a silhouette stepped into the doorframe and filled its edges with its broadness.

And I thought that perhaps Harry Reed had really come to kill me.

Only I knew that silhouette. I could have traced the bumps of its shoulders, could have easily outlined its bow-legged stance with its frame hunched forward; Alfie.

Oh, how I knew my Alfie.

Because somewhere along the line, he had become my Alfie. I knew he was my Alfie, because I had etched him into my brain many years beforehand. I had painted him every day that the war had lasted. I scrapped the canvas at night and begun anew at dawn.

I had always been his Willa. He said that once, without even an ounce of doubt in his tone. He knew it before I did. He knew it well, felt secure in it.  

So, he came into the flat, the first time that he had ever done so. His boots scuffed the floorboards and he lifted a hand to scratch at his stubble. He loomed in the bedroom because of his large frame, but he tried to make himself small, crouched low and sat on the cot alongside me. I saw his pale eyes flick around the room, before he said, “I always wondered what it was like for you, whenever we were apart.”

I drew my eyes toward him properly, half-tilted myself toward him.

“I used to think about what you thought about in this room,” he continued. “I walked ‘ome to me own place and thought ‘bout you all the way there. I used to think about it in France, too. Now, I’m sittin’ ‘ere with ya and I’m still wonderin’ the same thing.”

I felt an odd emotion; it was guilt, guilt which came from those letters held in my hand and guilt from having never known that Johnny had written to me and guilt that I had not yet told Alfie that Johnny had told me that he could resettle me with kin in the wet fields. It swirled in my chest, around and around. I put the letters on the bed and reached for his hands, held them in mine, felt the scarring there, around his wrists.

“Alfie, I need to – I want to tell you something,” I said. “And I need you to let me tell you it.”

I saw it in his stare; he thought that his Willa had become the Willa of another, because in this month, many wives had left husbands because of their sudden night-terrors or odd bursts in temper.

“I can tell you what I am thinking about, Alfie Solomons. I am thinking about a man who came to see me yesterday.” I almost winced at my wording because his eyes darted from mine and his jaw became tight, his hands gripped around mine, unaware of his tight and painful hold. I quickly added, “His name is Johnny Dogs, Alf. He came ‘round to see me – he’s my uncle.”

His hands were softer. Gruff, coated in lingering uncertainty, he muttered, “Never talked ‘bout your fam’ly before.”

“Never thought I had any.”

He shrugged his shoulders in an oddly helpless manner, his mouth opening for words which never came. Finally, the sounds fell out in flatness. He said, “What’s this Dogs fella want then, anyway? Why ain’t he been ‘round before?”

“He asked if I wanted to come back to Ireland with him. He tried his best to come see me, Alfie. Never worked out.”

Alfie drew in a sharp breath. I think he only heard the first part. “Right.”

“He told me that he had sent me letters,” I told him. “Esther kept them from me. Johnny tells me that I have kin – more kin, more than just him.”

“Right,” he said. He shifted his weight. His hands fell from mine, fell onto his lap. “Right.”

He had reacted poorly. I knew that he thought this was final, that I was only telling him all this out of formality before I packed suitcases and packed myself along with it – his Willa, now the Willa of anybody and nobody all at once. But he surprised me more once he took my hands again, drew in another breath and said, “Might be good for ya, to know your kin. What Esther took from ya, y’know.”

I watched him closely. I caught the twitch of his jaw. His eyes could not meet mine. “You really mean that, Alfie?”

“Yeah,” he said; it echoed into the room and reverberated against the walls, came back and slapped us both into momentary silence. He broke it first. “Yeah. Deserve kin, you do, Willa. Deserve to know yourself better than you do. I want that for ya. Want you ‘appy even if it means I ain’t part o’ it.”

“Would you ever come with me?”

His eyes were distant, fogged in the mist that I thought had once floated over those trenches in France. “Can’t leave London, me. ‘ad enough of an ‘oliday in France, didn’ I? Got all me postcards over there, darlin’, don’t need any more o’ them. Over in France, I was always tellin’ me-self that we could make a trip to Margate, you and me, Willa. But you have a chance to meet your fam’ly and – and it could be good for ya. Yeah. Hm. I want you to be ‘appy, I do.”

I smiled, but it was not full, not whole.  “You really thought about that in France, did you?”

He was made of the same coldness which dried out the flat. I regretted that I had ever tried to make a joke out of it, because it had become harder to tell just what amused Alfie and what stung him. “I used to think about what you thought about in this room, Willa. I thought about whether you were safe or not, whether any of them thoughts in your ‘ead were about me –…”

“They were always about you, you big lug.”

His lips curved upward, and I felt a rush of heat in my stomach. “Well, after the first letter came – and then the second, and the third – I thought you’d used up all the fuckin’ paper left England to write to me. So, I knew that you thought about me. And I thought about you in the trenches. I thought about you and I stood there on that beach in Margate every time the sky exploded, and the earth went up in flames along with it, y’know. ‘elped settle me nerves, it did, to think o’ us out there on that beach where there weren’t none of this noise in London and none of this fightin’ with fellas who, in another life, I might’a been friends with, ya know. But I thought ‘bout you and I thought ‘bout us in Margate, I did.”

He turned toward me. I sensed the shift in him.

“But Willa,” he went on, “…if you told me that you wanted to go back there to Ireland, that you wanted your kin and you wanted to be with your uncle, then I would bring you to the ship me-self and I would watch you go because I ain’t Esther and I ain’t gonna be the ball that she chained ‘round your ankle to keep you in this place. I ain’t gonna do it to ya.”

I was sad. It was a childish word to use, sad, so plain and simple, but that was what it was for me. It was this powerful sadness which made me ache for him. I saw how badly it hurt him, saw him shrivel inward from me at the thought of separation, another separation with more letters sent between us.

Oh, how I knew my Alfie; for I had etched him, I had painted him.

Now I had him here before me and it seemed that he was still made of watercolours, faded around the edges, spilled outward into lighter shades.

I thought of Johnny and all that could have been between him and his chey in her fur-lined coat before she had been shipped off to England. But that had been a mistake on his part, to pass me off onto Esther, even if it had not been his intention to permanently pull us apart. I thought of kin that I had imagined with eyes like mine, lined in kohl and the familiarity of a family which I had never gotten to know because that was just how it went for dogs with foaming muzzles shot in wet fields.

I looked toward the letters from Johnny, looked at his second-hand words.

I brought my eyes to Alfie once more. His jaw was still locked but his thumbs smoothed warm circles against my knuckles. He had that sheen to his stare which had been foreign before the war; now it was all him, because it was what the war had done to him, made him look away toward other worlds, other trenches around himself even if I could not see them. I thought about what might become of him, if I did walk out of this flat.

I thought about what might become of me.   

There could be all the kin and wet fields in the world that might fill the blank spots of my childhood, fill the holes which Esther had dug out of me, but I could not see the point in resurrection for chey in her fur-lined coat. She had been buried in the soil. The girls of the flat had been buried in the soil. I was still here – most of me was still here. After all that I had told him, he had not tried to convince me that to be with him was to be happier, because he never thought that he could be the one to decide that for me.

Chey had been buried in the soil; the girls buried alongside her.

“I heard that sand gets everywhere,” I started tentatively. “But I also heard that the best fish and chips in England are always found at the seaside, too. I bet it would be beautiful, Margate…”

It started in his chest, which puffed out, expanded by something which might be called hope, because then it flooded his eyes and he was pulled from the trenches, the mist had been blown clear. He knew me like I knew him, knew what I was telling him; he had etched me, painted me, too. He was quiet. He let me speak, and I could tell that he was hanging onto this – he had reached out, hoped to clamp onto something –…

And that was why his hands squeezed mine because here it was, all that he held onto.

He understood. He understood that I had made the decision. He leaned forward and kissed me and in the rush of emotion which fizzled between us, I realised that it was our first kiss since France – the first proper kiss, not like those frantic, peppered kisses in the kitchen of the flat, made in a heated moment of uncertainty between us. This was slow and warm and full of – of love, and I knew that that was what it was, because his watercolour pallor bloomed into stronger shades and mixed with mine.

Before Johnny Dogs came around, I stood in the hall and repeated my part of the conversation with him, imagined what it would be, because I wanted to ensure that I did not hurt him. I saw his spritely form from behind the frosted windowpane of the door and watched it come closer and closer, larger and larger. He knocked and I pulled open the door, prepared my words like I had ever since Alfie had left. Johnny looked me over, his smile still bright and cheerful – only his eyebrow quirked upward, his smile dripped into a contemplative scrunch of his lips.

“Aye, I thought as much,” he muttered. “Fuck it, if Tilly ain’t always right in what she dreams about.”

Tilly was a cousin of mine that I had long since forgotten, but her name sprouted memories of a wispy girl in a pale dress. I had been unaware of her apparent foresight. “Oh, Johnny –…”

“Tell me, Willa, is he a soldier or a workin’ man?”

“What’s the difference between them?”

He smiled too, but his was weighed down in ruefulness. “I knew it was a long-shot, Willa, to ask you to leave all that you’ve known here. But I ain’t gonna be far from you. I’m movin’ back me-self for a little while to see our kin in Ireland. I won’t be long. Had an old friend contact me in Birmingham. Cousin of yours, he is.”

“Who isn’t a cousin of mine, Johnny? Seems half of England is my cousin.”

He held his arms out and I stepped into them. I let myself be held and felt the comfort of knowing that he was here, that we had planted the first brick in the bridge now stood between us.

“Are you cross with me, Johnny?”

“Never, chey,” he said gently. He brushed aside my hair and cupped my cheek. “Proud of you, I am. I’ve only ever been proud, Willa.” He hesitated, then added, “But if this soldier wants any claim on ye that could be recognised by Gypsies, he’ll have to come talkin’ to me about it.”

“How did you know he was a soldier?” I asked, eyes narrowed.

Johnny grinned. “Tilly ain’t the only one with dreams, girl.”

He turned to walk off, seeming quite satisfied with himself.

Before I closed the door, I called out, “He’s a fucking Captain, Johnny.”

Pinned against the table had been a note written in his handwriting, which read: IVOR SQUARE, 3PM – TELL OLLIE HE ISN’T INVITED AND TO FUCK OFF. I glanced behind at Ollie, who was unaware of the note and who stood in front of the mirror to fix his skullcap against his curly hair. He must have sensed my eyes on him, because he found me through the mirror and his eyebrows scrunched together.

“What?”

I quickly grabbed the note and crumbled it in my fist. “Alfie sends his best wishes, that’s all.”

Ollie’s eyebrows dropped, his expression deadpan. “He told me to fuck off, didn’t he?”

I hesitated, then nodded with a sympathetic purse of my lips.

“Right,” Ollie muttered, his skullcap fixed against his head, turning for the door. “Orders are orders, I suppose.”

“Take your scarf, Ollie,” I told him.

He paused, casting me an exasperated look.

I shrugged. “Orders, Ollie.”

The front-door slammed behind him. He had taken the scarf, after all.

Shrugging on a coat, I walked toward Ivor Square with my hands bundled into my pockets because of the bitter chill which spread between the narrow paths and seeped deep into my skin. It was toward the end of December and the air was damp, but its bitter cold peeled at my cheeks and turned the tip of my nose a splotchy red. I had tried not to walk around Ivor Square since the war came along, because it reminded me too much of Alfie and those languid strolls which we had taken together; arms linked, leaned against him.

I walked there now with a spring in my steps. I thought that he might want to sit on our old wall, surrounded by its pretty greenery from the small park nestled in its centre, the houses dotted around it in a ring, its cobbled walls which were so familiar to us.

There he was – sat upon a wall with a cane held between his legs that I had never seen before, his hat still there in its round blackness, dipped low to shroud his eyes from those strangers who passed him without another glance. His scarf was draped around his shoulders; it had a blue zig-zag stitched into its ends, which I had put there myself. I was warmed by the sight of it. He glanced sideways and saw me, standing from the wall only to wince and grip the cane.

Startled, I rushed toward him, placed my hands around his arms to steady him. “Alfie, are you –…”

“All right?” he cut off. “Fuckin’ made of sunshine and all good things, I am, Willa. Slept funny, is all, darlin’ – don’t be worryin’ yourself about me, sweet’eart. Even them Germans couldn’t hurt me more than that fuckin’ mattress in me old place – wreaks ‘avoc on me back, it does.”

I knew that he brushed it off with humour, but his hand still gripped the cane so much that his knuckles flushed white and I wanted him to settle back against the wall. Instead, he looked outward at the park behind us and said, “Pretty little place, innit?”

My eyes drifted downward toward his cane. “Alfie –…”

“I was thinkin’ some more.”

I inhaled deeply and tried to smooth out my frustration. “What about?”

Expansion. Betterment. You know, them words what businessmen say when they ain’t really sayin’ nothin’ o’ substance. I met a businessman today, actually. He said a lotta words – like expansion, like betterment. I listened, right, and I ‘eard nothin’ but some facts and figures.”

“Alfie –…”

“So, I said to me-self –…”

“Alfie!” I barked, which surprised both of us. It surprised him enough that his mouth snapped shut and he looked sheepish. “Stop interrupting me and tell me what you really mean, or I’ll bring Ollie next time, no matter what your note says.”

“Treason, that is,” he replied. “Mutiny of the ‘ighest order. Shockin’ behaviour from a lady like yer-self. Right. Well. I went to meet a fella what said them words – I shan’t repeat ‘em, but ‘e said them over and over again until I suddenly found some keys in me ‘and I was lookin’ up at Number Seventeen of Ivor Square with its lovely garden and de-light-ful windows that allow a good bit o’ sunlight in, y’know, spacious and all that – he said that word too, spacious, called it top-o’-the-line, called it –…”

Still lost in his ramble of words, I barely noticed how his hand loosened from the cane and reached out for mine, thought that he just wanted to hold it until he plopped some keys there in my open palm. I looked at them with wide eyes, mulling his words over – Number Seventeen of Ivor Square. I turned around, scanning the long row of tall, prim houses with all those things he had said; lovely gardens, delightful windows for sunshine and spaciousness and all those things that this businessman said.

“You bought a house,” I stated, stunned.

“Hm. Yeah. I bought a house,” he nodded. “I did, yeah.”

I was baffled, amazed, confused. “But what about Ollie?”

“Ollie ain’t a fuckin’ poodle, Willa,” Alfie responded tersely. “Despite what ‘is ‘air might make you think. The boy’ll be fine.”

“You bought a house,” I repeated. “For us?”

“No,” he replied. “For the King, thought ‘e might fancy a ‘oliday ‘ome to get away from Bucking’am Palace every once in a while.”

Lightly, I slapped at his chest, rolling my eyes at him.

“Bought somethin’ else, too.”

I eyed him warily. “An actual poodle? To keep Ollie company, be with his own kind?”

Har-har. No – Got us a bakery.”

I stared at him with a very blank expression and waited for him to smile or laugh or do anything that might suggest he was messing me around, but he was very serious. He did not even twitch, but rather lifted his chin upward so that his hat tilted backward, and I could see all of him, every detail.

“Where did you get the money for it?”

“Saved up from what I had left after Butcher – never spent much o’ it, never had much to spend it on, with me brother locked up and me Mum –…” Alfie swallowed and then cleared his throat before he continued, “Saved up me money from the army, too. I got a discount from some old friends, worked it out between us.”

“And why did you buy a bakery?”

“Love bakin’, me. Bake all sorts,” he replied.  

“Name one thing you have ever baked, Alfie Solomons.”

“Oh, ‘ang on a minute Willa, me back is actin’ up somethin’ terrible again,” he moaned, placing his hand against his lower back and hunching forward.

“Very convenient timing, Alf.”

“I’m not sure I appreciate your tone – and fuck, if all these accusations aren’t only makin’ me worse – never seen the likes of it, a lady upsettin’ a man when ‘e is already in so much pain –…”

“Show me the house, Alfie.”

He straightened quite suddenly, that cane momentarily pushed aside in favour of looping my arm around his and shuffling us toward the houses, away from that greenery. He walked us along the footpath, like any other couple in a nice, respectable neighbourhood.

I felt very out of place, at first, until he turned us into the garden of Number Seventeen on Ivor Square and I was too overwhelmed to think much about anything other than the house itself. I craned my neck up at the rich, black paint of its front-door with its golden knocker, its neat little letter-box, the beautiful staircase leading up to that door stabled into its beige exterior.

“Suppose Ollie could sleep in the servant’s quarters,” Alfie mumbled absently, scratching at his beard.

“Garden seems to have enough space for him,” I replied, dazed by its size.

“Nah, need it for a dog, we do. Although Ollie could share the kennel.” Alfie shook his head.

I cracked first, letting out a sputter of laughter. Alfie could hold a straight-face much longer than I could, glancing down at me in feigned confusion.

“What?” he grumbled “Ollie would only piss all over the ‘ouse, y’know. Best keep it just between us, yeah?”

Sprawling rooms had been left without furniture and Alfie had asked that it not be filled apart from a mattress and bed-sheets in the master bedroom. I had only ever heard of a master bedroom when I stayed in Rosewood Manor. I had never slept alone. I had never spent a night alone even in Rosewood, where I was surrounded by the other maids. I sat on the mattress and thought it was a lot like how the cotton-candy had been at that fairground before the war – because it was only ever before the war, after the war, now. It was all fluff and softness, so that I sank into it and felt my bones melt into lightness. I stretched my arms out, stretched them wide to take up all the space.

“You like it, then.”

I never moved or looked around me but sensed him in the bedroom all the same. I always seemed to be aware of Alfie, attuned to his presence; hoping for it, praying for it, wanting him always to be close. “I could stay here forever.”

“Well, can’t be doin’ that, with a bakery to run.”

I blinked at the ceiling, then forced myself upward to look at him. “You were serious about this bakery, then?”

“When am I ever not serious, Willa?”

I dodged the bait. “What do you really want it for?”

“I’ll need aprons, mind,” he rattled onward. Alfie usually rambled like that whenever he was about to drop another bombshell and I could feel myself preparing for it, watching his eyes flit around the room and his hands flow with his explanation. “What baker don’t have aprons with all that flour and sugar flyin’ ‘round, eh? Well, I’ll have to do interviews, find the right person for the job.”

Again, I avoided the little carrot that he had dangled in front of me. His lips pressed into a hard line.

“Right. Well. It was always gonna be you, anyway.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Rum,” he told me, rolling the word.

“Rum?”

“Aye. Rum. What soldiers who still ‘ave their ‘ands screwed on like to drink and like to drink a lot, don’ they? And them what lost their ‘ands in the war like to drink, too. You look at the United States, right, all them lads what want to drink too – and there’s a market for it there, market for it ‘ere in London. Could make a right livin’ outta this bakery, Willa. Set ourselves up very nicely.”

Alfie had taken to talking about ‘us’ and ‘we’; Alfie and Willa, one and the same. I had never noticed it so much until we sat in that house on Ivor Square and he spoke of his future now intertwined with mine all because I had agreed to Margate and agreed to him.

I must have looked doubtful.

“The bakery would have Jewish lads workin’ for me, Willa, lads we can trust to make the rum and keep up the idea of a bakery on top while the distillery runs underneath it.”

I must have looked doubtful, but only because I was doubtful. I thought of Butcher and Esther – the factory. I thought that there was not much difference between them, but Alfie swept toward me and bent onto his knees despite the crinkle between his eyebrows which made me think that perhaps his back-pain had not been entirely faked for humour.

“I’ll take you to it, show you want I got planned, darlin’. I’ll show you the whole buildin’. We’ll get Ollie workin’ with us, you’ll know all the Jewish lads already from makin’ ‘em shirts and caps, yeah? I’ll take on the distillery business, you can ‘elp me maintain the bakery side of it, keep makin’ them aprons and we’ll do it together, Willa.”

His eyes were filled with a feeling that I had not seen in a long time, not since the carousel when the orange lights had warmed his colouring.

“You won’t ‘ave to rob anymore, Willa,” he said. There was the slightest hint of yearning in his voice, yearning to convince me and yearning to show that he had thought this all through for the both of us. “Won’t ever ‘ave to even worry ‘bout makin’ enough to live or worry ‘bout sharin’ rooms for the rest o’ your life. You want to stay in that dump with Ollie?”

Bristling, I replied, “That was your flat, too, Alfie.”

“Yeah, and that’s why I’m able to call it what it is,” he said. “I reckon we work for a couple years, yeah, make our way up to the top and get enough cash what can give us a good life out on the seaside. Get ourselves our dog, hm, and bring ‘im with us. Eat fish and chips every day, lookin’ out at the ocean.”

“You’re making it sound too easy,” I mumbled.

“Because it can be, love. It can be. You trust me, don’ ya?”

“That’s not fair, Alfie, you know –…”

“You trust me, don’t you?” he repeated more strongly, reaching upward to really grip my hands.

I looked into his eyes, eager and pleading. “I do,” I answered finally.

He leaned his forehead against mine. “Trust me now, Willa. Trust me, darlin –…”

I saw the mirror behind him, which showed his damaged spine curved before me, his large and bulky body held against my legs and I saw myself in a smudge of wild hair and dark, dark eyes, Gypsy eyes.

Soldier, workman, baker, distillery-worker; what was the difference between them, anyway?

Emerging from the clammy warmth of the bathroom, I saw him still on the bed and I had not fully copped that we would share it. He was half-asleep already, eyelids fluttered shut. I had never slept beside a man before – apart from boy-cousins and Johnny and that never really counted because it had been kin. Alfie was different. Alfie was always different, always separate from all those other experiences in my life. Briefly, I debated slipping out into the hall and taking to the floorboards for sleep because I was unsure of what he expected. I was not some innocent, unaware soul. I had heard the girls talk about boys and men and bees and birds but the girls in our flat never used bees or birds and preferred words like fuck and romp for the act.

Only Alfie had never been very forceful, never rough or mean.

I settled on the bed alongside him, rigid and uncomfortable and unaware of how I was supposed to lie with him when I had only ever really slept closely with the other girls. I was used to Charlotte slumped on top of me and I had often awoken to find myself pressed against Josephine’s armpit or with Rosie’s foot near my face because we never had much space.

Alfie rolled over against the cushions and blinked, eyes bleary with sleep. “What you doin’, Willa?”

Awkwardly, I muttered, “Thinkin’.”

“’Bout what?” he mumbled. I did not answer, but he pushed himself upward and asked, “Are you afraid to sleep beside me, is that it?”

I blushed furiously. I both loved and hated that he could tell such things about me, as if I was an open book for him.

He flopped against the cushions and grumbled, “Ain’t gonna do nothin’.”

“I didn’t think you would.”

“Yeah, you did. And you’re allowed to. Yaxley made you nervous. Ain’t gotta be sorry for it, Willa.”

Yaxley had never really been discussed any further between us and the sound of his name shot through me, made me prickly and anxious – nervous, was right. He patted the cushion beside him, and I sank against it, limbs tucked against me, flat and looking toward the ceiling. I turned my head toward him and thought that I would like to be close with him despite all my worry. Alfie was not Yaxley. He had never forced his touch upon me, and he had never tried anything that I had not also wanted from him.

I scooted toward him. The mattress rippled against my weight and I felt myself dip toward him because the mattress was lower beneath him.

He lifted his arm. He waited. He did not order me to move closer, did not expressly say that that was what he was implying.

But it was very simple, like a puzzle-piece slotting right into place and it made it easier for me to do it – to just be with him.  

“G’night, Willa,” he whispered sleepily.

I felt the rumble of his words against my throat.

“Goodnight, Alfie.”

Chapter Text

seven:


 

Billowing clouds of blackened smoke sputtered from the towering chimneys of the factories all along Bonnie Street. The heavy drone of machinery swallowed its cobbled street. Men moved between the barrels, hauling large sheets of tarp between them or rolling carts into warehouses. Great spurts of fire crackled from pits scattered in the courtyard. I shrank from those abrupt licks of heat against my skin, eyes downcast, hands held in pockets and boots clacking against the ground.

Between those hot tendrils of smoke, the bakery unfurled in its red-bricked glory; its sprawling yard was much larger than the old factory had been. Its door was not made of a dense steel but rather wood, painted in a rich chocolate. Ollie stood alongside me. His eyes drifted from the barrels toward the trucks sat in front of the building before he finally looked at Alfie who strode just ahead of us, shoulders straight and hand latched around his cane.

Bundling into the soft folds of my scarf, I breathed in its floral scent. I spotted a couple of lads in the yard already, hunched from the large sacks slung across their shoulders. I noticed that almost all of them were Jewish and from the neighbourhoods around Bell Road, which soothed my nerves; I had made the very shirts on their backs, after all. I heard about mothers and siblings from idle chatter between them while handing out shirts, heard about fathers in trenches and brothers blown away. Therefore, I was not so nervous around them.

It was the bakery itself that made my nerves fizzle and spark beneath my skin.

I was nervous because we had been here before, we had seen bullets shot through skulls for a bit of scum and grime slathered across bricks, seeping from its pipes; that had been the factory which made aprons stuffed with little sachets of snow in the linings, that had been the factory run by Butcher and Esther. I had seen sickly-sweetness blackness bubble from splintered bone and slip between glazed eyes for factories like this – and here Alfie stood, arms held aloft as he spun in the courtyard, his light stubble glistening gold in the sunlight.

“Well, what d’you think, eh?” he called out, his words echoing around the courtyard.

I thought of the dogs shot in the fields. I thought of the girls shot in the flat.

I said nothing; he had not really stopped to listen, anyway.

Tucked within the labyrinth of the basement, held between the endless towers of barrels, had been an office with oak cabinets and a rich rug which was soft beneath our boots. I saw, in the corner, a sewing-machine and rolls upon rolls of fabric neatly slotted into shelves behind it, made in a criss-cross pattern so that each roll could be easily plucked and then cut with all the utensils lain out across its beautiful table, its chair decorated in a very plump cushion.

I glanced around even more at the trinkets in this office, its green lamps with golden trimmings, baskets and countless drawers already stuffed with documents that I had not read. Alfie had done all of this quite hastily and without much explanation.

Yet I stood in its confines and felt much like I had whenever Esther had brought me into her office to discuss certain things – I had looked at the papers, been unable to read them at the time. I had also been left out of the loop so much that I was almost blind in all that was to do with that factory.

Only I could read, now. And still I felt utterly stupid.

I felt like that because I had been disconnected from the more intricate layers of his organisation. The boys flitted in and out of the office to bring other files, other papers, and I stood there motionless like a wax figure, limbs pressed against my sides. I noticed, too, that no boy would glance at me and I thought it odd.

In the flat, it had been an issue between myself and men of my own age, but here – well, I was not sure why the younger boys thought me so frightening that I received cursory glances and had to witness frantic scuttles out into the workroom.

“You want me in the same room as you,” I noted, tilting my head toward the sewing-machine. “Won’t the noise bother you?”

“Nah,” he muttered. “Like the noise, me.”

I caught his flighty eyes too, thinking that perhaps Alfie had not wanted us to be apart even in the most tame of settings. I also knew that Alfie did not like noise – not a lot of it, anyway, especially after he returned from France. He liked the house quiet, he liked it almost silent.

I turned toward the office and said, “Okay, Alf.”

“What d’you mean?”

I blinked at his tone, looking at him. He had sounded defensive, oddly postured so that his fists pressed into the wooden table and his shoulders hunched forward. I had seen him look at the boys like that – never at me, like that.

“What do I mean by what, Alfie?”

“You don’t sound like you like it,” he replied. “But I tried to make it nice for ya, I did.”

“I know, Alfie,” I mumbled awkwardly. “I just – I’m worried.”

“Worried about what?” he barked. “It’s some fuckin’ rum, Willa. Fuckin’ ‘ell…”

I watched him come around the table much too quickly and I saw frustration in the tightness of his shoulders. I saw the grind of his jaw and I looked toward his fist, still held in a scrunch so that the rings squeezed knuckles and those same knuckles turned white. I stepped away from it – from him. Alfie had never hit me, Alfie had never even been that rough at all.

It was not even him that I was even really afraid of, in that moment when he came toward me.

It was Esther. It was Yaxley. It was all coppers who had battered fists against my body curled in upon itself in alleyways.

I had seen all those other people who had ever cut me down stood there in his stance, saw a hand raised for a slap against my cheek already stinging, saw bruises in the earliest light of dawn, and I was trembling before him.

But his hands were at his side. He had never even raised them at all.

I was not even sure just what had happened to me. I had never felt that with him before, but perhaps it had come from the way he had spoken or how he had glared at me and how fast his movements felt to me, so that my head felt as if it was spinning, like it had after Esther had slammed my skull against the countertop of the kitchen in that flat on Bell Road.

Now it was Alfie who stood there; utterly stupid, disconnected.

“I weren’t gonna do nothin’ to ya, Willa,” he whispered.

He looked hurt. He looked wounded by it, that I had stepped away from him so quickly.

“You know I’d never do nothin’ to ya, Willa,” he added. “Don’ you know that, sweet’eart?”

“You came around the table too fast,” I said, cheeks stained in red. “I-I don’t know why I did that – I’m sorry, Alfie –…”

“Don’t say sorry. Don’t you ever apologise to anybody on this fuckin’ earth, Willa,” he replied fiercely. “They don’t deserve it from ya. I don’t neither.”

His eyes were filled with an odd emotion, glistening in the strength of his conviction. He did not move toward me, but I could tell that he wanted to do it, that he wanted to hold me but had restrained himself because I was still in that in-between where his movements had mirrored Esther, mirrored Yaxley, mirrored the coppers.

He said, “I wanted to make it nice for ya, is all. I never meant to upset ya, darlin’. I’ll find you another office, if you’d like. I could pay someone else for the aprons if you don’ wanna work ‘ere, Willa, you know that, don’ ya?”

I felt very exposed. “No, I – I want to be here, Alfie, I was just -…”

“Scared,” he finished. “Not just worried, Willa – you’re scared, ain’t ya?”

I thought of Johnny Dogs, suddenly. “Never enough to become top-dog, Alfie.”

“Now you’re speakin’ riddles to me,” he replied.

But his lips quirked upward like he knew.

Because he knew, I realised. He knew that this bakery – distillery – was the first leap into the pit with the other dogs snapping and snarling and he was baring canines of his own, but Alfie liked that. He had never liked too much noise.

Then I thought to myself, had it always been like that, before the war? Or had it come after it?

“You know it, don’ ya, Willa? You know that I wouldn’t ever ‘urt ya,” he insisted.

I had thought that I might lose him in the trenches on some field in France. I had been grateful to have him back at all – and he had all his limbs, although scarred and now often riddled in spasms of pain around his spine, but here he was – and I knew that if he liked noise now, it was only in the same way that he liked to fight other dogs snapping and snarling.

He liked it because it meant he never had to dwell too much on what had happened to him on those trenches on some field in France, the things which he had never even told me about, because it was always ‘not now, Willa’.

So, I took a step toward him. I saw his eyes fill with warmth and relief. Usually, it was Alfie who held me because he was a little taller and he liked to be the one in charge, but he let me hold him, this time, stooped himself so that I could wrap around him, feel him against my collarbone while he inhaled, suddenly calmed.

I stroked his hair while I reflected on his temper, wrathful and abrupt, easily incited.

I thought to myself, had it always been like that, before the war? Or had it come after it?

In the next two months, we filled the house with furniture; wardrobes, tables, chairs, flowers and paintings. I had never loved a house so much, never even thought it possible to love a house so much. I loved that feeling of shutting the door and knowing that it was just us, together – what had happened in the office had been mostly forgotten, lost in the swell of joy that came with the house and with him. Alfie bought me coats with lush fur and shiny buttons, he bought handbags and hats and all sorts of things that I had never really worn before, because I had never been able to afford it. I had only ever stolen it and worn it in the flat with the girls just before Esther came around.

We used to parade around in the jewels and pretend to be rich Duchesses.

Now, I wore the pearl-bracelet which he had bought me all the time. I wanted to sleep with it, I loved it that much. I knew that it was not even the bracelet that I loved so much, but rather the fact that it had come from Alfie.

Sometimes, though, I looked at the barrels of rum and I looked at the boys in the courtyard and I counted out each pearl from sudden spikes of anxiety.

The old Gypsies had not called it anxiety; they had called it foresight.

Sitting in a park with Charlotte, I listened while she talked about her beau, George – and beau, Alfie explained, was not the word for boyfriend in French, after he had picked up some of the language over there. Esther had gotten that wrong. I wondered about all the other things she could have been wrong about and I thought about what had happened with Alfie in the office that morning so many weeks beforehand. It had not crossed my mind that often, but I wanted to talk to Charlotte. I always trusted Charlotte.

“George wants to find a proper job,” Charlotte said. He was working in another factory yard somewhere in London, and she was still nicking purses in between. I didn’t want it for her, but Charlotte had little options. I had thought about asking Alfie if she could work for him once he had fully established himself. She continued, “And he wants to get us a proper place, you know –…”

“Charlotte, do you ever think about how Esther treated us?”

Charlotte blinked at me. I had always thought her very pretty in a fragile sort of way, because her skin seemed like porcelain and her eyes were soft and doe-like. “Treated us?” she laughed. “What d’you mean?”

“All the slapping and the hitting,” I said.

“Kids can be bold,” she shrugged. “Lots of other kids got it like that, Willa. We weren’t the only ones in Bell Road what knew what it was like to get a slap on the bottom. What makes you say all this, eh?”

“It was on my mind.”

She watched me carefully, seeming confused by my words. “Esther fed us, clothed us. Taught us all we needed to survive, too.”

“I know.”

“She took care of us,” Charlotte went on, “…even when she didn’t have to. Could have thrown us out on the street, turned us out.”

I wanted to say, she turned out Elsie, turned out other girls that you don’t remember because you were too young, she let Beth hurt Daisy and Ruth, she pit us against one another, she – …

I said, “I know.”

Every night, Alfie stood from the table and came around it – slowly – toward me, shifting around me to pull our coats from the stand by the door and helping me put it on, before he ensured my scarf was snug around my neck. Only then would he loop his arm with mine. I liked these little walks because they reminded me a lot of our olden days, before the war, walking around Ivor Square back when we had worked in the old factory.

Then came the night that we stepped out of the courtyard and onto the street, taking our usual twists and turns and we heard a shout from behind us: “Solomons!”

Alfie had an iron grip on my arm. He turned us toward the man but held himself in front of me, stood taller and broader than he had been. I felt my skin become clammy and hot beneath my coat, felt red splotches on my throat at the sight of a man rushing toward us, his own skin beetroot in anger.

“You think you can make my boy do your dirty work, is that it?” he roared.

“Nathaniel,” Alfie called out, his words coated in false amity. “Frankly, mate, ain’t got the foggiest what you’re on about, right, and I think you oughta think about what you’re doin’, mate –…”

“I almost lost that fuckin’ boy out there in France! You think I’d let him be taken from me ‘ere, in fuckin’ London, in my own fuckin’ neighbourhood, from you –…”

“I gave the boy an opportunity to make ‘is own way,” Alfie told him. I could not see his face, being held behind him, but I could sense it – he was full of anger and it vibrated through him, made him tremble from it. I was still holding his arm, but now I thought that I was only holding to keep him here. “And I think you oughta remember that you’re in the presence of a lady, mate, with all this cursin’, frightful behaviour outta you, Nathaniel – …”

The man let out a bitter, harsh laugh. “Oh yeah? Does the lady know what you’ve been doin’, mate, sendin’ them fuckin’ boys out there to do your biddin’, hm?” – at this, his eyes found mine and I flinched like I had been struck, struck by the sheer rage held within them – “…D’you sleep well, do ya, my lady? Oh, I bet you do, with what money my son brings to your man ‘ere?”

“Alfie?” I whispered, squeezing his arm.

His lips were pressed tight together, but he glanced at me. “Ain’t important, Willa.”

“Ain’t important?” the other man wheezed incredulously. “My son lost ‘is fuckin’ eye because you sent ‘im out there! ‘e lost – ‘is fuckin’ – eye – because of – you!”

Never before had I fainted in my life, but I thought that I might fall then, because my legs had become slow and fluid. I stepped away from Alfie like I had in the office. He was breathing very heavily, his body half-turned toward me, half-turned toward his man, as if he was not sure which way he was supposed to go.

I asked, “What did you do, Alfie?”

It came out hoarse. It came out full of fear.

“Go on, Solomons,” the other man sneered. “Nothin’? I’ll tell ‘er, then, shall I? Your fella ‘as sent out all our boys into these streets offerin’ protection to the pubs and businesses ‘ere, made ‘em sell that fuckin’ rum he’s pushin on ‘em – ain’t ya, Solomons? Forced it on ‘em – and it’s our boys what ‘ave to deal with them who don’t wanna pay no fees to your fella, and when they don’t pay, ‘e sends them ‘round to sort it. Only some o’ them fight back, you know. Some of them know ‘ow to use weapons just like you do, Solomons. They took ‘is fuckin’ eye out and ‘e can’t – and ‘e…”

The man was lost in his sorrow, he spun away from us and screamed, and the sound rattled through me, cut straight through me, I was stepping further and further from him until Alfie caught me at the arm and said, “It ain’t that simple, Willa! Look, just let me –…”

“Let go.”

Alfie scraped his lower lip between his teeth. “Willa, you gotta listen to me, yeah?”

“Let go, Alfie. Now.” I had spoken harshly first, but I was scared, and I was so, so disturbed by the wails of that man behind him, so that my next words came out softer, more pleading. “Please, Alfie, let go – just let go, now.”

He did. He did, because Alfie was soft on me, always had been.

“You fuckin’ kike and your bog-trotter bitch, right –…”

I had not immediately noticed that the man had started to scream at us again, his hands embedded in his scalp, pulling madly at his hair. He was wild from his anger. He spat out those words in a froth of spittle, thrown from his lips pulled into a hateful snarl – snarling and snapping and baring canines.

Alfie had been turned toward me, entirely toward me, but he heard those words and I saw a shift in his expression. He lost that warmness toward me. He blinked as if dazed, then turned away. He looked at the other man.

“What did you just call ‘er?”

It was me, now, breathing heavily. I felt my fingertips ghost the pearls of my bracelet. I felt it there, felt each white, hardened bead, spun frantically, twisted obsessively, in my hands. I plucked and plucked at the bracelet. Alfie is not himself, I told myself, that snarling mouth is not the same mouth that kissed me earlier, those hands not the same as those that held me, too, not himself at all –…

“My son!” the man repeated.

“Say it again,” Alfie ordered. “What you just called ‘er, say it again.”

Alfie!” I warned.

I was far from him now and still he spun around and roared, “Fuckin’ stay out of it, Willa!”

He turned back, turned from the hurt which filled me. He said, “Say it again.”

“Say what? About you bein’ a fuckin’ kike?”

Alfie watched him, stalked toward him like some savage creature.

The man bared his teeth and laughed. “Oh, no! Not that, eh? You’re fumin’ because I called ‘er what she is, ain’t ya? A bog-trottin’ fuckin’ bitch, a little Gypsy slut-…”

Alfie was like an animal. He rushed at this man, whose son had lost an eye, and held him against the wet ground of the street, which was black and empty and now swelling in the sound of flesh against flesh. Purple veins peeled from Alfie’s forehead because he was squeezing the other man around the throat, before he began to throttle him. He was punching him, over and over until I thought that there was nothing left of the other man’s skull, just sickly-sweet blackness, but he was still alive. I saw him move.

Blood splattered Alfie’s face. It dripped from his chin and stained the shirt that I had made him.

And he stood up and he turned toward me, and I thought, why are you so surprised, Willa? He had his teeth latched around another lad’s throat when you first met him. What’s so different, now?

There had been nobody around to stop him from doing it other than me. I had done nothing. I had been too afraid to do it myself, because he had been so frightening, so rabid.

I would never have been able to stop him, even if I had tried.

Had it always been like that, before the war? Or had it come after it?

Slumped in the bathtub and soaking in piping-hot water that left my skin raw and pink, I could hear him shuffle around the bedroom on the other side of the door. We had not spoken since we left that street and he had not looped his arm around mine and there had not been much touching at all between us. In front of the house, he had tried to place his hand on the small of my back to guide me into the hall once I had unlocked the door, but I had stepped away quickly – and it was this stepping forward, stepping backward with him that had me tired. He took off my scarf, too. He held onto it longer than he had needed to, before he folded it and left it by the door.

After that, we had separated, moved around one another as if we could not see each other; I was stood in his blind spot and I was afraid to become visible. I could not scrape the image of that man from my mind, saw him always screaming, heard him always moving, like he was here in the bathroom with me, telling me, “My son lost ‘is eye because of your fella!”

Alfie was outside the bathroom.

The man came closer to the bathtub. I saw him move. “Lost ‘is eye! D’you ‘ear me, you bog-trottin’ bitch, you little Gypsy slut!”

Alfie was speaking – I heard him say, “I left your nightgown on the bed, yeah? I won’t come near you, Willa. I’ll stay in the other room, sweet’eart. I left your slippers out ‘ere, too, be sure to put ‘em on, yeah? Can’t ‘ave you catchin’ a cold, eh? Just – just come out soon, all right? You been in there a while. You’re gonna look like a prune, ain’t ya? All right, Willa. I’m – I’m goin’ now, darlin’ – I ain’t far. I’ll just be in the other room.”

And I felt worse because I never wanted him to leave.

It was the first time since we had moved in that we had not slept beside each other.

Around midnight, I heard him in the house. He was not sleeping either. I heard him in the hall, outside the bedroom. While he shuffled by, I heard him pause and my breath paused with him, until he slowly moved away and I was left to watch the ceiling, aware of him in all senses.

He was like this before the war. He is like this now, after the war, too.  

It was first time since we had moved in that I did not sleep at all.

And nothing has changed except for me.

In the morning, I rose from the bed-sheets and drifted toward the wardrobe to pull out an old dress; not one that he had bought me, because I heard the screams of a father whenever I brushed the fabric, felt his grief catch in the threads and fall from between the folds. I took out a dress that I had worn while he was in France, black, simple, lined in large buttons. I heard him in the hall again. I heard him dither there, unsure of himself, before he spoke through the wooden frame of the door.

He said, “I’m gonna walk to the bakery now, Willa. D’you wanna walk with me, eh?”

I never answered him, but I was looking at the door as if I could see him there. Through each splinter, I could see him there.

“All right, love,” he mumbled softly. “All right, Willa. I’ll be off now.”

He hesitated. I heard it in the creak of the floorboards.

“I meant what I said. You ain’t gotta be afraid of me, Willa.”

He sounded tired, remorseful. I heard that in the creak of his bones, too, heard it in the tap of his cane because his back had been hurting him more and more, lately. I waited until he was gone, and I went into the dining-room and brought some paper with me.

I wrote a letter to Johnny in my own words, wrote about how it was one of the best moments in my life to find him again. I told him about the bakery and my newfound job in it, with the aprons and jotting down little notes and messages for Alfie, that sort of stuff.

I reached the last paragraph in which I had planned to tell him a little more about Alfie, because I wanted Johnny to like him. I wanted it so badly, his approval of Alfie. Only I pressed my pen against the paper and the ink blotched, smudged from my hand. I looked at the stains on my skin and found myself frustrated by it more than I would have been on any other day.

I ripped up the letter, scrunched it tight in the palm of my hand and tossed it aside.

Eventually, I slid off my chair and threw that ball of paper into the rubbish-bin in the kitchen. I wished Johnny was closer. I wished that perhaps I really had considered Ireland more, because then I might have known more kin, had more advice for moments like this.

But I still had my Charlotte.

So, I went to find her.  

From stalking around her neighbourhood on Milton Road, I figured out that she had long since left for Charterhouse and that is where I went, strolling between its numerous stalls and looking for a glimpse of red hair. I felt a harsh bump against my shoulder from an older gentleman stepping off a curb and I caught the flash of the pocket-watch out of habit, because it swung from his chest, attached to a small chain, and I had always been trained to look for shiny objects, like a magpie.

He swung around, which caused that glint of gold, until my eyes lifted, and I saw the sneer on his face.

“Watch it,” he grumbled. “Pure ignorance, that is.”

You bumped into me,” I replied testily.

“Well, be more aware!”

He was lost in the crowd and I felt a rush of anger flood through me before I followed after him. I was not intent on a fight – that was Alfie with all the fists and fury, but I did find him by a bookstall with his hands latching onto a book to lift toward his grubby face.

I took that opportunity to slip my hand into his pocket and unclip the pocket-watch. I felt a sick satisfaction that I never normally felt whenever I stole; there was no need for it, this time, I had plenty of spare cash from the aprons at the bakery and I had a house with Alfie – I had a home with him.

And yet I felt the weight of the pocket-watch in my palm and smiled to myself all the same. I always had a talent for it. If Esther had ever told the truth about anything, it was about that. I slipped off into the crowd but stayed close enough that I could watch him pat around his pockets, his reddened face flushing even redder once he found his pocket-watch had been taken.

I swung the pocket-watch around and around until it fell into my own pocket.

“Be more aware, you prick,” I muttered to myself.

I found Charlotte a couple of minutes afterward and I threw the pocket-watch toward her. She caught it with wide eyes, turning it this way and that in the sunlight to examine its lettering and golden numbers. She let out an excited squeal and threw her arms around me.

“Worth quite a lot, this, Willa – oh, you’re a talent,” she grinned. “Bring it to Bix, shall we, see what you can get for it?”

“All yours, Charlotte,” I replied.

She looked at me in surprise. “You’re kidding me, ain’t you, Willa? That’ll be worth a fortune!”

“Don’t want it.”

“Why’d you bother, then?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Just making sure I still have it in me.”

Charlotte eyed me up and down, then said, “Was it your lover-boy who made you so moody today?”

I smiled and let out a laugh. She walked alongside me, our arms looped.

I said, “You must have Gypsy blood in you, Charlotte.”

“Only Scottish and Irish mixed together,” she replied easily. “So, just as bad.”

I snickered at her and shoved her arm.

Charlotte continued, “I’m right then, am I?”

I became more solemn, shrugging my shoulders again for no real reason. “He’s been doing things he hasn’t told me about.”

Charlotte looked over at me, dipping her head lower to catch my expression. “Slept with some other woman, has he?”

“He’d be dead if he had, Charlotte.”

She hummed. “Then what could be worse?”

“That’s just it – I’m not sure what it is, exactly. He’s been running the bakery –…” – at this, her eyes flashed with amusement and I rolled my own eyes because I had told her all about this bakery – “…and I had been under the impression that all was going well, until some fella stopped us in the street to say his son had been attacked and Alfie had been using boys to enforce protection.”

Slowly, we turned into an alleyway and stopped completely. Charlotte had listened all the while, then pursed her lips. “Butcher did the same thing, didn’t he? You weren’t so ready to denounce him, Willa. You made a good penny off of him, actually.”

“But I didn’t care for Butcher. Did you?”

“’Course not,” she answered. “Didn’t feel one way or the other, really.”

There it was again, that odd feeling in the pit of my stomach. Butcher had died, and nobody had felt anything for him. He was with the worms, now; it would all start anew.

“Esther did it too,” I tried again.

“Hm. And she ended up much like Butcher.”

“I don’t want that for Alfie,” I mumbled.

“You don’t control things like that,” Charlotte said. “You can’t ever control things like that.”

“This man who stopped us – he said his son had lost an eye trying to secure these businesses for Alfie. He said certain things about Alfie – about me – and Alfie just – lost it. He beat him, Charlotte.”

“And what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Esther beat a lot of people. Butcher beat a lot of people. Coppers beat us, beat Esther and Butcher, beat – well, you get the idea. There’s a lot of beatings in this world, Willa. What does it matter who they come from? Only matters what you get from it.”

She pulled out the pocket-watch and tried to swing it around like I had done. She had always tried to learn how to do that but forever missed the edge of her own pocket, so that the pocket-watch fell and dangled in front of her. She let out an annoyed huff.

“I’m not saying it’s right, Willa. Not even saying I like it or that you should accept it. I’m simply saying that that is how the world works, doesn’t it? And we’re just living in it. And you do what you can to survive in it. Like steal pocket-watches, for example. And during that lovely in-between, you try to enjoy it.”

“But – it was so violent –…”

“Leave him,” she stated.

I stared at her. “You what?”

“Leave him,” she repeated. “And feel righteous for it. And move onto some other neighbourhood in some other place and find out that the men beat other men there too, and find that you’re beaten along with them, and you’re back to stealing pocket-watches. And you’ll find there’s not so much to enjoy during the in-between.”

“I don’t want to leave him, you know that.”

“I do,” she agreed, nodding her head. “Because you love the fella and he has a temper- so, what? Most men what came back from the war barely have any emotions at all, and the ones that do, have too much for them to cope with, you know. You’ll be pressed to find a man what doesn’t think of the war all day, every day, Willa.”

“When did you become so worldly and knowledgeable?”

She smiled. “After I met Willa Sykes, who taught me that there are things such as hierarchy, pecking-order –…”

“Things which must be followed,” we said unanimously.

“But is it right, Charlotte? Shouldn’t I try to convince him that he shouldn’t have beat that man, that we should –…”

“That we should bring this pocket-watch right back to the gentleman you stole it from, apologise, ask if he would like some help tying the noose around our necks or should we just wait for the executioner himself to do it?”

Lightly, I pushed at her shoulder. “I just – I felt bad about it. Like I should have done something.”

“Probably should have,” she nodded. “And maybe you can do it next time instead. Maybe set some rules, I don’t know. You did enough of that in the flat when I was younger. ‘Charlotte, do this, Josephine, pick up them towels, Rosie, get the dinner ready’ – no wonder you went off with a Captain, Willa.”

“I made a good Captain myself, didn’t I?” I grinned.

“The best.”

Her sincerity made me squirm and glance away from her for a moment, before I found the strength to look at her again. I asked her, “D’you ever miss the girls? D’you think about them as much as I do?”

“All the time,” she said. “And someday, we’ll end up there with them, Willa. You know what Esther used to tell us about this world. Until then – enjoy the in-between, yeah?”

I reached out for her and held her against me, cupped her head and let her rest against my chest like she had as a child. I took the pocket-watch from her once I pulled away. I spun it three times and let it fall into my own pocket, delighting in her dismayed expression.

I pattered her cheek with one hand and placed the pocket-watch back into her hand with the other. “Another thing that I taught you which didn’t get through nearly as good as all that malarkey about hierarchy, Charlotte – it’s about technique.”

She tried again. The pocket-watch flopped uselessly against her stomach, having missed the mark, and she playfully glared at me, lips puckered.

I smiled at her. “Well, I suppose it does help to have Gypsy blood in you after all, Charlotte.”

Orange warmth filled the office that night, around nine. I walked into the bakery, weaved between its barrels to find him. He had slipped low in his chair, hands strung together over his chest as he stared blankly ahead. I opened the door, pushing into the stifling heat of the room. It seemed he had locked himself away in here and not bothered with opening the windows or allowing himself a fresh puff of air. I stood in the doorway, left it open to clear out that stuffiness.

“I already told ya, Ollie, to fuck off,” he uttered monotonously. “And I ain’t tellin’ ya again.”

“I doubt he would listen even if you did,” I replied. “You know how Ollie is.”

He was still for a moment, but I saw it in the flicker of his eyes, suddenly alight. He licked his lips and sat up in his chair before he looked at me. Quickly, he tried to smooth out his messy hair all clumped together, tried to straighten his collar furled inward. I felt that familiar bloom of fondness in my chest for him.

He stood, uncharacteristically jumpy in his movements, and said, “Willa, darlin’ – didn’t expect ya. Would ‘ave cleaned up a little more, if I ‘ad.”

“No, you wouldn’t have, Alfie,” I smiled warmly at him. It made him unfurl those shoulders just an inch, his own lips twitching upward.

“Nah, you’re fuckin’ right. I’d 'ave made Ollie do it.”

“Or one of these boys working for you.”

He swallowed and licked his lips again. Perhaps it was low of me, but I knew what I wanted to say to him. I had practiced it all the way here, like I had practiced my speech with Johnny – and just like that speech, this one had not quite followed the pattern that I had anticipated, because he said, “Yeah, one of them. And I ain’t gonna stop, neither, Willa.”

It was not that I had expected him to grovel, but I had rather hoped he might try to consider why I was against it.

Apparently, he had.

“I know you didn’t like ‘ow Esther controlled you girls, but there is a difference, Willa, right. I ain’t makin’ ‘em do nothin’ – they don’t live with me, I don’t make ‘em steal nothin’ and I don’t pretend to care about ‘em when I don’t, yeah?”

I recoiled at that, feeling hurt bloom in my chest. He saw it. He felt it.

“I don’t mean she didn’t care at all. I mean she didn’t care enough,” he continued. “I ain’t offerin’ these boys anythin’ more than money, Willa. I’m givin’ ‘em the choice to work for me and it ain’t on me if they choose to do it, all right? And yeah, people get ‘urt, people lose – they lose parts, don’ they, but lots of lads lost parts in the war, y’know. And nobody’s screamin’ at the fuckin’ King in the streets, callin’ ‘im a kike, callin’ ‘is – …”

He trailed off. I would not know what he deemed me to be, exactly, in his mind.

I said, “This isn’t war, Alfie.”

He looked away from me and I knew what he wanted to say without him ever saying the words aloud: but one day it will be.

“I told ya I was selfish, didn’ I?” he mumbled. “All them years ago at the fairground, I told ya. And I’ll tell you now that I’m still selfish, and I’m still as fuckin’ bad-tempered as I was then, but I’m tryin’ to make somethin’ good for us, Willa. Can you understand that?”

“I can.”

His eyes shot toward me in surprise, eyebrows raised, having expected more of a battle. “You can?” he repeated.

“I can,” I nodded, crossing my arms. “But this has to change, Alfie. I can’t be left out anymore. I won’t be, because then it’ll just be Esther and Butcher all over again. I’ll be working for someone without ever knowing what’s really happening. I want to work with you – not for you.”

He came around the table quickly. Almost immediately, he paused in his rush toward me and I saw how he slowed himself down, arms held upward in surrender. He had not come too quickly toward me. He had listened to me. He had understood.

I prayed that he would listen again. I prayed that he would understand.

“I want to know what you’re doing, Alfie. I want to be a part of it, or this ends now,” I told him. “You can trust me.”

He was being very careful, holding his hands out so that they hovered over my arms before he finally touched me; and the relief which filled him when I did not pull away was enough to make me feel more than a rush of fondness but rather full-blown love for him.

“It was never about trusting you or not trusting you, Willa,” he whispered. “I was afraid you might not want to – that you might –…”

I heard Charlotte as if she stood there between us: leave him.

“I ain’t always thinkin’ straight, y’know,” he explained awkwardly, lifting a hand to smooth it across his forehead as if all his thoughts and feelings were bunched up there, held in the soft wrinkles which formed on his skin at his admission. “I ain’t a good man, not even really a nice one.”

I cupped his cheek. “I don’t think that about you, Alfie.”

“Only one that doesn’t think that,” he breathed out. “Only one that ever thought anythin’ good ‘bout me other than me Mum, y’know.”

“I know.”

“Always cared for ya, Willa,” he said.

“I know, Alfie.”

“I’ll tell you all of it,” he swore. “I promise ya, Willa. Even if it ain’t what I wanna do, if I’d rather keep ya out of it all. I know what you’re sayin’. Just please don’t be afraid of me again, yeah?”

I kissed his jaw, kissed his cheeks and kissed the crinkle between his eyebrows, soothing all those thoughts and feelings so that his skin smoothed out and he let out a soft sigh, his hands warm against my arms.

“I’m here, Alfie,” I told him. “I’m here with you, sweetheart.”

“I know,” he whispered, his eyes shut. “I know.”

He let me hold him again.

Chapter Text

eight


 

Spinning beneath wild flashes of colour, I felt his arms clamp around my waist to hold me there, in the bolts of electric blue, shocks of red, mellow splashes of purple and swirls of yellow from the lights and his breath was warm against my cheek, my jawline too. His lips pressed against that gentle dip between my breasts. His stubble scratched against the softness of my skin, rubbed in all the right places.

He held me so that we would not be lost in the ebb and flow of this crowd around us; the rhythm from the singers on the stage rippled though my limbs, rippled upward into my brain and shook it around so much that I pecked him and pulled at him and I felt arousal – mine and his, his and mine, intertwined; one could not be separated from the other, anymore.

Somewhere along the line, my eyelids lowered like blinds, snapping shut at the pressure of his rough hands cupping against the parts of me which had once been unknown, cupped for blissful friction.

I thought about Yaxley even if I never wanted to think about him, especially not in that moment with hands pressing hard, holding there, so that my legs became jelly and my breath stuttered. Despite all that, I thought about how Yaxley once made me think that love – the act of it, the physicality of it, the manifestation of it – was composed of force and repulsion.

But it was not like that in this glorious cocoon with Alfie, whose broad form shielded us from the crowd behind him, just enough that he could hitch my thigh that little bit higher against his hip, rub that a little bit closer until I unravelled and I felt his warm hand grip my chin and turn my eyes toward him so that he could see it, so that he could revel in it.

His eyelids had lowered, too. I peeped between his blinds and saw the sort of black desire which could not be solved in this bar, not with all these people pushing around us with drinks and loud shouts. He shuffled me, half-limp, toward the front of the bar and whistled for a lad to bring a car around. I had never been drunk, but I felt the swirl of something more in the dense warmth of that backseat while some lad from Bell Road drove us toward Ivor Square.

Again, Alfie slipped a hand beneath the hem of my skirts. I shot him a warning glance and tilted my head toward that lad whose gaze was elsewhere, catching Alfie by the wrists. He smirked and touched a spot still tender so that I jolted, squeezed his wrists tight.

“Are you all right, Willa?” he asked loudly. “You look a little flushed, darlin’.”

The lad from Bell Road glanced behind, not quite enough to notice more than he should. “Ms Sykes?”

I turned red and mumbled, “Y-Yes, thank you – t-the bar was just a little hot.”

“It was indeed,” Alfie hummed; his fingertips moved forward, and I really had to grip his wrists tight to hold in an awful sound which sat somewhere between a breathy moan and a shocked yelp. “It was indeed, Willa.”

His eyes followed mine. He watched all my movements as if that brought him more pleasure than anything else. He leaned close against the cradle of my eardrum, licked at the lobe, and said, “I could fuckin’ take you – and take you now, in this fuckin’ car, and I don’t give a fuck about that lad bein’ there – but, oh, Willa, if ‘e tried to look at you while you’re like this, I’d kill ‘im – I’d kill any man what looked at you, sweet’eart, because that’s just for me, you understand? I’m the only one what gets to see you like this. Ain’t that right, my girl?”

Then came more pressure, that delicious pressure which soon turned into slow, languid circles that made me melt against him, the coil held tight in my stomach.

He said, “You’re mine, Willa. You understand that, don’ you, darlin’?”

I mumbled weakly against his throat. “Alfie – please –…”

“You beggin’ me, sweet’eart, yeah?” he asked, pressing a kiss against that unnoticed spot behind my ear before his hand moved faster beneath my skirts. I looked at that lad in the front and thought about how he might glance behind at any moment, which oddly thrilled and worried me all at once.

Suddenly, Alfie gripped my chin like he had before, held it so tightly that it hurt, twisted me toward him – and somehow that was fine, too, because I found that I liked his roughness and his demands, liked that he liked to be in control, at least in this context.

“Eyes on me, Willa,” he ordered lowly, spoken just between us, like gospel. “…God, my beautiful fuckin’ girl…”

I could not look away from him even if I wanted to do it, because the coil had sprung itself loose and I went slack against him, trembling, breathing into him, but he merely stroked my hair and held me as if I was tired from the night – and that was not entirely untrue.

Grinding to a halt, the engine cut off and Alfie slipped the lad a couple of quid for the fare, even though the boy was just a baker – and even if his shirt still reeked of rum because of it. The boy blinked at the thick wad of cash. Alfie hardly heard his gratitude sputtered out, because he was already rushing me from the car, hauling me into the house and we never made it beyond the hall; he had been too impatient, he tore my skirts and pushed me against the wall; and it was all roughness and all demands and all swirling colours behind eyelids lowered like blinds.

Sometimes, I liked to feign sleep because I noticed that Alfie had a bad habit. Often, in the dead of night, he would rise from the bed and slink off toward the bathroom, only to return and flop alongside me. If I had rolled away from him or moved even an inch, he would pull me against him, tuck me against his chest and rest his chin over my head, then curl himself around me. I would test him and attempt to wiggle away with a soft sigh, as if totally unaware.

He always pulled me back. He always held me against him.

He nuzzled me, too.

Drowsy after all that happened in the hall and with only a couple of hours of sleep on top of it, I murmured, “Getting comfortable, are we, Alfie?”

He paused behind me, momentarily taken aback that I had been awake all along. He cleared his throat. “Just checkin’ you don’t ‘ave lice, darlin’.” He lifted a hand to brush it through my hair and then said, “Hm, yeah. Looks all clear.”

I smiled to myself, scooting away from him. “All clear? No need to hold me, then, is there?”

He hesitated before his arm tightened around my waist and he hauled me back against him. “Well, I should prob’ly check a little more, y’know. Oh, think I spotted one, I did.”

I turned awkwardly in his arms to look at him, eyebrows scrunched together. Alfie pretended to pluck something from my hair. I huffed and slapped lightly at his chest, shrinking away from him. He pinned me gently beneath himself and ruffled at my hair even more, widening his eyes. He let out a gasp and crooned, “Proper infestation, this, gonna ‘ave to shave ya bald, Willa, like we did some o’ the lads on the frontline –…”

“Get off, Alfie, you weigh a tonne,” I grumbled; my laughter betrayed me.

“Oi, be gentle now, I’m sensitive ‘bout me size, I am,” he replied, “Didn’t mind me on top of ya earlier, did ya –…”

Alfie!”

“If I recall, you very much enjoyed it – ain’t my fault you got lice, is it? Need a scrub, you do, and I’d be kind enough to offer my assistance in that area, bein’ the gentleman that I am, hm,” he said huskily, pecking at my jawline again.

Out of the blue, he hissed and recoiled from me, his hand darting away to brush his hip. I lifted myself onto my elbows and rubbed his shoulders, feeling how he had completely cramped up against the mattress. In the thick silver of moonlight, I glimpsed beads of perspiration on his forehead, lips pressed into whiteness. I traced the bumps of his spine to soothe him and mumbled words in my old tongue which I had hardly spoken since I left the wet fields in my ninth summer.

Now it was his head tucked beneath my chin and my arms around him, stroking his arms and clucking like some hen to comfort him through the tremors that ran through his spine and radiated in his hip. He had always hated that I saw him in pain – he thought it made him feeble. Still, he allowed those gentle touches which lasted until the pain blurred into a distant hum and he could straighten himself out, like some porcelain doll with stiff limbs cracked.

“Thank you, Willa,” he muttered, his humour lost.

I brushed the back of my hand against his cheek bristled in stubble. I scratched at his hair and pretended to pluck out some imagined louse. “Your lice are my lice, Alfie.”

“Very romantic, that,” he replied. “I’m swoonin’, I am, knees bucklin’ –…”

“Go to sleep, Alfie.”

He was quiet for a very long time. Just before I drifted off, he muttered, “I think you’re a little bossy when you’re tired, ain’t ya, Willa?”

I rolled away from him; his arm latched onto me quickly, pulled me back against him.

Ripley Lane had a cluster of odd shops all strewn together with laundry-lines and balconies overhead for the flats. Settled at the end of its long row was a shop with funny trinkets in its windows, stood between a whole cluster of bottles and ointments, along with some bizarre spices and foreign herbs. I had sent Johnny a letter almost a week after Alfie had suffered that spasm in bed and he had finally answered with some advice he had received from kin – your kin, Willa, he had called them. I lied and told him that I had pain in my own hand rather than tell him about Alfie and his issues. I hoped that Johnny would not have any dreams which might tell him otherwise.

I stepped into the shop and inhaled the hazy cloud of scents which washed over me. I saw a young girl with a broom in one hand, her hair like a nest. I saw her mother, too, and walked toward her with my mouth opened for speech which never came.

“Johnny’s lass, isn’t it?”

I blinked. I felt a little sheepish to really call myself that aloud but nodded all the same.

“Contacted me already, he did,” she said. “I got it ready for ya.”

She pulled out a little bag which clinked as if full of glass. Once she handed it over, I saw that it was indeed filled with small jars, black and mushy. It had a soft, sweet scent – a little too sweet, like fruit. I paid her quickly and turned for the door.

“Do give Johnny my love, eh?” the woman called out. “Not that that little prick hasn’t given his love to all the fuckin’ women in England already…”

Rustling around the bedroom, I pulled out the bag from beneath the bed. I tried about how I could be subtle about it, tried to think about how I could convince him to let me use the ointment on his hip and back without him thinking it was out of pity for him. Once he opened the bathroom door, his eyes looked around and immediately found me on the bed with this bag in my lap. He was stood in his boxers, shirtless. I saw the scarring which scattered his stomach, two deepened lines on the small of his back, saw the raised mark on the left-hand side of his ribcage.

I had asked him about it, before.

He said, not now, Willa.  

I looked down at the bag in my lap. “Alfie, I wrote a letter to my uncle Johnny. I asked him about pain – I mean, solutions for it, you know, to help with your back and your hip.”

He watched me, but his expression was not open and warm. It was pinched, even annoyed. “What did you do that for, Willa?”

I felt my skin rush with heat from a feeling which was nothing like I had had in that bar the other night. But I had prepared myself for this. I held strong and said, “I just told you what I did it for.”

“Solutions,” he nodded, then cocked his head as if confused. Only he was not confused. I knew him too well to fall for it. “Hm. Did you tell Johnny that I got problems with me back, then, did ya? Uncle Johnny, ‘ow ever can I ‘elp me crippled fella, eh –…”

“Don’t call yourself that.”

He cast me a sardonic look. “What, your fella?” he snarked.

He knew full well what I had meant, but he liked to twist words whenever he was in a mood.  

“I told him that I was having pain in my hand.” I lifted my left hand and turned it toward him, showed him that scar which still marred the skin there from when a policeman had bashed a drawer against it, the scar which he often liked to trace like I had traced his spine and I found myself wondering, was that really so long ago that I had touched him lovingly? “Never mentioned you. Glad I didn’t, now.”

He let out a low whistle. “Why? Didn’t want precious Johnny, sacred Johnny to know about me? You ashamed, Willa?”

Coolly, I met his hard stare and echoed his words from years beforehand. “I’m not the one feeling ashamed, Alfie.”

He swallowed. “Yeah, well, I don’t want your uncle knowin’ shit about me. Don’t ever want to meet ‘im, neither.”

Those words stung me more than I could have imagined; I asked myself, what made you so horrid in France, Alfie? My eyes ghosted over those scars and I thought that perhaps something had seeped beneath his skin and settled in his marrow to upset his temper so easily.

Alfie was always humorous and cheeky and full of affection for me.

Until he wasn’t.

Until some trivial word, some insignificant movement, some thoughtless expression upset him, and then he became wrathful, and all those colours which had once swirled around us in the bar flickered into blackness; the same blackness which filled him then filled me; me and him, him and me, intertwined.

But the same acid which bubbled in his words frothed into mine and I said, “Good. At least we can agree on something, then.”

Alfie scrunched his cheek between his teeth, bit hard on his own flesh.

“I don’t want none of that Gypsy nonsense rubbed on me skin, Willa,” he hissed. “Prob’ly ‘orseshit and leaves mixed together by some old witch in some wagon to sell to some stupid fool willin’ to part with enough cash for it.”

I had prepared myself for this, yet I was crumbling fast before him. He heard his words and their implications, and his jaw went all tight, his forehead wrinkled with regret. I wanted none of it. I threw the bag onto the bed and heard the clinking of small jars. I stood up suddenly and stormed for the door.

“Where are you fuckin’ goin’?” he called out, thundering down the stairs right after me. “Willa, it’s fuckin’ dark out, it’s rainin’, you ain’t goin’ out in that –…”

I grabbed my coat and reached for my scarf, but he was quicker than me and snatched it first. Childishly, I said, “Give it back, Alfie.”

“I told ya, you ain’t goin’ out. It’s dangerous,” he said. “Someone could ‘urt ya, Willa –…”

“Oh, I wonder how that’d feel,” I spat viciously, reaching forward to snatch the scarf from him. His hand, in an automatic attempt to push me away, latched around my throat in a loose hold, but enough that it startled me and made me slap at him. “Don’t touch me, Alfie!”

His hand was tighter now that I struggled. He wanted me to be still. Somehow, I could not do more than push and scratch at him. I was not sure if he was attempting to carefully restrain me or really force me to stop, and the panic rushed through me like a riptide. Suddenly, I was motionless. I only moved to latch my hands around his and glared at him through my lashes, breathing heavily.

I let out a bitter laugh and said, “Tell me not to be afraid of you again, eh, Alfie, with your hand around my fucking throat, tell me –…”

His hand dropped immediately, but the other still held my scarf aloft. “Don’t be fuckin’ stupid, Willa, just listen to me –…”

I’m not fucking stupid!” I screamed. “I am not stupid! Don’t you ever insult me or my uncle or Gypsies again, Alfie Solomons! I tried to help you! Yeah, I parted with my own fucking cash because I hated to see you in pain! And you know what, I wish I hadn’t bothered trying to find something that might help you. I’ll let you suffer because you fucking deserve your pain, do you know that?!”

I never cursed that much. I certainly never cursed as much as Alfie did, which is probably what caused his wide eyes, his mouth held apart in shock. His hand released the scarf and it dropped between us, forgotten. I thought, what was all the fuss for it in the first place?

I was tired of tempers. I had had enough of them from Esther. I never wanted to fear Alfie in the same way that I had always feared Esther. I never wanted to tread on eggshells around him. I looked at the door behind him, saw the droplets of rain glinting against the windowpane and I suddenly felt exhaustion swell within me; the hurt was there along with it.

Hoarsely, I said, “Alfie, I can’t do this anymore.”

“Do what?” he asked, his own words slick with trepidation, eyes flicking around me wildly.

“I’m going to bed, Alfie.”

“Do what, Willa?”

I climbed the staircase. I found the bedroom as if we had never left it, the bag still there on the bed. I pushed it aside and let it fall onto the floorboards with a harsh clatter. I slumped against the bed. His temper had always been there, it was not some grand revelation between us to know it. I heard him come into the bedroom.

This time, I feigned sleep, but it was not because I wanted him to pull me against him. I wanted him out. I almost wished that I had tried to make him leave instead, but Alfie was not a man to be moved unless he really wanted it.

The mattress dipped from his weight. I felt its heaviness; felt his heaviness. He picked the bag up from the floorboards and pulled out a jar. I squinted at him through eyelids held close together, watched his silvery outline smooth and stretch while he moved around. I heard him open the lid of one jar. I heard its wet squelch and I saw him lift his fingertip against his forehead to draw a thickened line there and I did not fully understand his reasoning until he asked, “Will it fix me ‘ead, too, eh?”

I was very still but I knew that he could tell that I was still there, still awake.

“Got a lot of thoughts runnin’ me ragged in ‘ere,” he continued slowly, gently. “Makes me see things that aren’t there, make me say things that I don’t always wanna say, makes me meaner than I wanna be, ‘specially to you, darlin’. I don’t wanna be ‘round me-self any more than you wanna be ‘round me when I’m like that Willa, y’know. Wish I could pull out me brain and look at it, right, see what damage was done, clean it off and pop it back in. That don’t sound right, does it? Sounds mad. But it’s what I’d like to do.”

Croakily, I mumbled, “I never told Johnny that it was for you, Alfie.”

“I know, love,” he replied. His voice was soft and low, a quiet rumble from deep within his chest. “I know. I thought – your Johnny is well-connected, ain’t ‘e? What if ‘e uses it against me one day, eh?”

I blinked, pulling myself upward from the pillows, unsettled by the hint of paranoia in his tone. “What do you mean, Alfie? He has no reason to use it against you. Who would he ever tell, anyway?”

Alfie watched me again. He brushed aside fallen strands of hair from my face. His eyes were distant. “You’re right, angel. Who would ‘e tell?”

I had a pit within my stomach because his eyes always got that glazed, faraway look whenever he strayed toward thoughts of trenches or the bakery or boys whose eyes had been taken from them and their fathers who had come to torture him for it.

He still had the jar in his hands. He scooped out another swipe of black mush. He put it on my left hand; smoothed it into that scar there. “I wish I ‘ad killed that policeman.”

I stared at him, afraid to look away. “Alfie, I never meant to say what I did. You don’t deserve any pain. I don’t want you to feel it, I want you –…”

He was speaking as if I was not here and as if he was not here, either. He spoke in an echo and its reverb somehow never reached us; if it did, it came back distorted, unintelligible. He pulled out another scoop and placed it on a scar on his forearm. He said, “Bullet missed me. First month in the trenches. First time I got hit. I was pumpin’ blood, almost passed out, and me commandin’ officer said, ‘chop off the arm or continue fightin’, lad, before I put a bullet in your fuckin’ skull me-self for disobedience.’”

He took another and smeared his right cheek on a thin, bare strip where his stubble never grew. “Another one. Second. Just a scrape, but I did pass out from the hit that time. I did, yeah. I passed out.”

Another on his thigh. “Pushed a lad out the way. Third.”

Another on his back. “Fourth.”

Another smudged the scar which stretched from his chest, just beneath his sternum. “I was sittin’ in the trench and I looked up to find the sun was gone. The enemy stole that, too. Only it was a German what made it into me trench. Never ‘appened before, that. Never ‘appened after, neither. I was readin’ one of your letters. I thought the sun ‘ad left me. ‘e had this – shovel, or somethin' like it, somethin' that ‘e ‘ad made into a splint and ‘e was proper swingin’ at me, slashin’ – and I barely made it. Slashed me right up the middle, ‘e did. I got ‘im in the throat. Better in the throat, hm.”

His eyes looked through me, beyond me.

“Bled out in me trench, this German, who I thought ‘ad stole the sun – ‘ow fuckin’ daft is that, eh? It was different to see ‘em up close, y’know. Far away, it didn’t feel good to shoot a man neither, but it don’t feel nearly like it does when you see’ ‘em there in front o’ ya, up close. Feels like ya knew ‘im, somehow, like ‘e was just another lad on your street. Like you knew ‘im, even when you didn’t. Feels like you’re lookin’ at yourself in a different place, in a different time – but still you, somehow.”

Finally, he placed another line of black on that puckered scarring on the left-hand side of his ribcage and said, “Got shot. Fully shot, no scrapes or near-misses. Shot.”

“Alfie.” I had not realised that I had sat up from the bed, that I had brought myself closer to him. I inhaled the sweet scent of that blackened mush. “Alfie, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to – don’t do it out of guilt, sweetheart. Do it because you want to do it.”

I always wanted to fuckin’ do it,” he hissed, drawing in a wounded breath. His words cracked and I saw a wetness on his cheeks that I had never witnessed before; tears from Alfie Solomons. “Now, Willa. It ‘as to be now, because I always wanted to fuckin’ tell you and every time that I tried – you could never talk about Yaxley, you remember? Said it got caught in your throat. I couldn’t talk about that fuckin’ German. Could ‘ave ‘ad kids, that fella. But what does that matter, anyway? What difference does it make if ‘e did or if ‘e didn’t? Still died in a trench in a country what weren’t ‘is.”

“Why didn’t they send you home?”

He was not looking at me. His lips were swollen but we had never kissed. He had bitten them enough. His eyelids were stained in red, his blinking slow and dim. “I wouldn’t let ‘em do it. Told ‘em – give me three days, yeah, and I’ll be back, I’ll be fuckin’ ready for ‘em.”

I repeated his name. I wanted to say more; but what difference did it make, anyway?

“I was ready in two days,” he said. “And I still see that German lyin’ in front o’ me when I sleep.”

His eyes met mine. There was no glazed sheen, no distance. He was here, in the bedroom, with me.

“I don’t like to sleep, Willa. But I do when you’re here.”

Gently, I smoothed that black mush against his back and rubbed it into his skin. I hushed his jolts and soothed his grumbles, his shoulders tight and drawn close together. I used it on his hip, that supposed horseshit and leaves mixed together by some witch in a wagon. Soon, though, his rigid form relaxed He told me, tiredly, that it did not hurt so much, anymore.

Afterward, he lay his head in my lap. I brushed through his hair, kissed his forehead, and I whispered, “I know that you hurt in more ways than just your bones, Alfie. But there will be no more of this temper against me. I will listen when you speak about the trenches, I will listen when you speak about your days at work. I will be here when you need me, like you will be here for me.”

I placed my hand against his throat, light and barely there, but enough that his eyes followed mine. I leaned close, so that there could be no misunderstandings. “But if you are ever that cruel to me again – if you speak of Johnny or the Gypsies like that again – and if you try to restrain me – I will walk out that door and you will not be able to stop me, Alfie Solomons, and you will never sleep again.”

I kissed his forehead and smoothed the blackened mush into his skin until it disappeared.

Outside Number Seventeen of Ivor Square the next morning, I found Charlotte sat on our doorstep with her pale flesh turned red, her eyes rimmed in thick lines of red. She sniffled like a child. Between her rasping sobs, she stood from the stoop and came toward me with numb legs.

Her hands drifted toward her stomach. I saw the swell there.

“It was a mistake, Willa,” she whispered.

 ☼

Chapter Text

 nine


 

Soaked through to the bone from the downpour, Charlotte held my arms while her teeth chattered and her eyes flit around the hall of the house, her parted mouth snapping shut at the sight of Alfie atop the staircase, his expression left purposefully blank. Alfie had met Charlotte many times beforehand.

He looked at her now, though, watched my hands pull off her dampened coat and toss it aside. He followed the fall of that coat, followed the rise of my hands, the sweep of my thumbs against her cheeks, smoothing out those droplets from rain and tears alike. I tasted her salt; her sorrow, an aftertaste.

I turned and looked up at Alfie, half of his broad form cloaked in blackness from the lack of light in the hall, the other half illuminated in golden warmth from the candles in the bedroom, seeping outward.

Quietly, I said, “Alfie, could you please run Charlotte a bath?”

He was already slinking off toward the other bedroom. Although unused, it still had a bathroom and we had simply never bothered to fill it with more than the bedframe and mattress, along with bed-sheets that I hoped had not become stale. I turned and found her hands patting at the wallpaper as if she had never seen it in another place.

Croaking through her wobbling voice, she whispered, “Got it good here, you do, Willa.”

I ignored the niggling guilt in my stomach which stirred at her words. “Come upstairs, Charlotte.”

Sinking into the bathtub, Charlotte let out a tired breath which released all the tension in her, so that it was caught up in the tendrils floating from the surface of the water and lost in condensation. I found myself looking at her stomach and breasts as if there might be some clue there; how far along is she, exactly?

I knew nothing about babes but had witnessed the birth of them in wet fields a couple of times before I left for London. I had seen the faces of women contorted in hideous trauma, legs parted for the hands of the old Gypsies to pull out some small creature with limbs held tight against itself, coated in thickened mucous and eyelids sealed shut in purple slickness. I had rarely held them. I saw them always bundled, sometimes held against a breast, other times bounced around on a lap.

“One month,” she mumbled. “Maybe two months. I don’t know. How do I know?”

I plucked a damp strand of hair from her forehead and pushed it aside. “I have only held babies fully grown, Charlotte. Where’s George?”

“I looked for blood in my knickers,” she said. “Like a mad woman, I looked for days and days. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t true. How could it happen to me?”

“Charlotte…”

I saw her hands aflutter before she became very still in the water. I was sitting behind her and the sight of her body now shriveled and blue from the cold of the rain reminded me of Josephine in a terrible way.

I felt my breathing become stuttered and tight, lungs constricted, so that I had to look away from her and hold my own hands against my chest to quell that spreading dampness there. I swallowed a bitterness which coated my gums, seeped into the nerves, each root overcome.

“Liverpool,” she cried suddenly. “I went to his house. He lives in a lovely little red house on Clare Avenue. I used to dream of a house like that for us, y’know. His youngest sister answered the door. I asked for him – for George. She said he left for Liverpool.”

“Had you told him already?”

She nodded. She stared at the little cluster of towels alongside her. “I told him the night before he left. I never thought he would – but he said –…”

She became very quiet. She scrunched her hands, over and over. I was not sure what she was holding, in her mind.

“I want it out,” she said. “I want it out, Willa.”

 “You have to think carefully about this, Charlotte.”

“I prayed for blood,” she said. “I looked for it, prayed for it, like a mad woman…”

Guiding Charlotte into the bedroom, I saw that Alfie had left out one of my nightgowns and a spare pair of slippers for her – along with a warmed mug of milk on the drawer, a slice of sweet bread alongside it. I tucked her into the bed-sheets and sat with her for a long time. I cradled her like I had cradled her when she was just a young girl in the old flat. I brushed through her hair, leaned my cheek against her head.

“Was it really that long ago, Charlotte, that we were just some kids working for Esther, eh?” I smiled, but it was held tight with sadness, that smile. “I’ll take care of you now, like I took care of you then. I’ll share my blankets with you like I did then, too. Nightgown and all.”

I found her fast asleep already. I talked to her anyway.

After a couple of minutes there, I carefully pulled away from her and settled her into the sheets by herself. I brushed out my skirts and went into the hall, shutting the door behind me. I took only a couple of steps before I realised that the hall light was still bright. I turned for the staircase and saw Alfie was still there at the bottom, by the door, as if he had never left it. Only he had this envelope in his hand, and he turned it this way and that. But I saw that it had already been opened.

“Alfie?” I called out softly.

“Is she asleep, love?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Go to bed yourself then, Willa. I’ll be right there.”

Standing in the bedroom, pulling off my skirts, I heard the shatter of glass in the kitchen.  

He came into the bedroom and said that he had accidentally dropped his drink. The envelope was not with him. I knew that he was keeping something to himself because there was nobody left to write to Alfie; all his soldier-friends had been blown away from him and those left often had no hands or never had the words or patience for letter-writing and his brother had been arrested once more and Ollie had no reason to send a letter when he could just come around the house or wait until we saw him at work and it was just us, really.  

It was just us. I looked at him in the bed and wondered, who wrote to you, Alfie?

His eyes met mine in that moment. He heard the question, unspoken. He looked away.

I heard the shatter of glass again, though nothing else that I could see seemed to have fallen.

Perched on the edge of our own mattress later that night, while Alfie slept behind me, I thought about kin; never had Johnny feigned that our kin could not do certain unsavoury things if required, like the breaking of bones and sawing of flesh. I had never quite considered really calling in favours from faraway family – until I sat there in the bedroom and convinced myself that I had kin in Liverpool who could find George, break his bones and saw his flesh. I could do it myself with the wrath which flushed through me in waves.

I heard the sleepiness in him and then the languid stretch of his arm held outward to find me and pull me against him; he patted around the curls and wrinkles of the sheets and his form shot upward, his rapid switch in demeanour drawing me from darker thoughts to look back at him, startled. His eyes, slowed by the dim light, looked about the bedroom and latched onto me, his shoulders dipping downward in – relief.

“What are you doin’ down there, Willa?”

“Thinking,” I answered.

“Oh, fuck,” he groaned, flopping backward against the mattress. He held his arm over his face. “I never worry more in me life than when you tell me you’re thinkin’.”

“Is that right? Then what were you so worried about when you woke up, hm?”

His arm fell away from him, but his expression was not any more transparent than it had been before. “Sometimes I dream that you’re not ‘ere anymore.”

“Do you look for me, then?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Hm, yeah. I look for ya. Get up and walk ‘round the ‘ouse and wait for ya. Never do find ya. I open doors, close doors, move around the bedrooms and go into the kitchen until I –…”

I watched his lips move silently in the dark, after that. Softly, I asked, “Until what, Alfie?”

“Stupid fuckin’ dream,” he whispered, his hands reaching to root themselves in his scalp and pull at the strands, just to distract himself. He drew his hands along his face. “What were you thinkin’ ‘bout?”

“Charlotte,” I answered. “George – how he never should have left her.”

“But he did,” Alfie said. “And it won’t make no difference ‘cause she’s gonna get rid of it, anyway.”

Struck mute by his bluntness, I stared at him in the blackness of the night. I had heard Charlotte say that she never wanted it, that it had been a mistake – but the words came from Alfie and somehow felt more real. He never tried to say it kindly. He said it in the same way that he told me about the rain outside before he brought me my coat or that he would rather skip his breakfast to be at the bakery sooner. He said it like that; it left me bereft, afloat in a vast sea which was far too tumultuous for me to swim through, dragged further and further outward into its depths.

He said, “I used to think that I would want a son, me.”

I felt a tightness in my throat; we had never talked about children. I tried to hold a lightness in my tone which was not there, so that my words came out awkward and awash in trepidation. “A son, Alfie?”

His eyes had swelled in haziness. He was in a sea of his own, now. “I thought I wanted a son until the war came and I stopped wantin a son. I was countin’ ‘ow many other sons died out there in front o’ me. I thought about all their mothers gettin’ them little telegrams what tell you they’re dead but don’ tell you ‘ow they went out. Makes a difference, that does, knowin’ ‘ow they went out. So, I thought I wanted a daughter, after that.”

“Don’t you still want one?”

“I ‘eard that there were women in villages when soldiers from the other side started comin’ in and – and assaultin’ ‘em, y’know, before our lot got there and started fightin’ from the trenches. Women and – and girls, too. I ‘eard about it from other soldiers who ‘ad talked to the nurses while in the infirmary. I ‘eard ‘bout it from them ‘cause no woman wanted to talk about it. Ashamed, they were. Cast out by their own people ‘cause of it. Hm. I saw them girls what were taken in by the nurses me-self and I thought I couldn’t take it, not if it were me own girl. No. Hm. Not a son. Not a daughter, neither.”

“But the war is over, Alfie,” I said quietly.

“And it’ll come again,” he mumbled. “I would rather fight me-self out there a thousand times over than ‘ave me son do it, y’know. I’d do it all again to spare ‘im. I’d rather that than me daughter see what men can do, hm. Even soldiers. Especially soldiers.”

I was not sure just when it had happened, but the wetness in my eyes had spilled over onto rosy cheeks quickly wiped. He rooted his hands against his scalp again and pulled – pulled and pulled harder then, so that it frightened me. I scrambled forward to tug his hands away and hold them against me instead. He rested his head against my chest, breathing raggedly.

“I never wanted to tell you that,” he said.

“It’s okay, Alfie,” I whispered into his hair. “You’re supposed to be able to share these things –…”

“Let ‘er be rid of it, Willa,” he told me, his hands cupping my cheeks to look at him. “Don’t persuade 'er otherwise, if that is what she decides. She knows what I do. She knows it. Neither son nor daughter. Not in this world.”

I stared at him, unseeing.

Bundling her coat around her, I leaned forward to kiss Charlotte between the wrinkle of her eyebrows drawn together in worry. I smoothed out the crinkles in her coat, tugged her scarf between the lapels, like Alfie had often done for me. She was embarrassed around him, after all that had happened.

I promised her that Alfie left for the bakery much earlier. He had left around dawn and I had told him that I would be there once I had walked with her to Heath Street. She wanted to meet with some woman; some strange, mystical woman who could – rid – her of it, this little dot in her stomach now swirling larger.

“I want to do it alone,” Charlotte said. “I don’t want you in there while I talk to her, Willa. I want to do it myself. I heard from another girl that she meets us first, asks us questions – to see we aren’t trying to catch her out with the coppers, mind. Then she’ll arrange the real date.”

“Well, can I join you then? On that real date?”

“On that date,” she nodded. “You can be there for me then, Willa.”

Sinking into the mud, I went to the wet fields with the girls buried there. I looked out at distant shrubs and trees beyond the fences, branches wrapping around the wooden frames and pulling them inward into the blackness. I cleaned out the old flowers, rotted and worn. I plucked the tired petals scattered around. I spoke with the girls. I never told Esther about Charlotte, even then.

I took the flowers from her plot.

I grabbed them harshly and threw him harshly, too. I let out a loud, echoing scream into the fields and felt it ripple outward across the earth, so that all people could hear it – the soldiers in those other countries, the women cast out, sons and daughters alike. I screamed and screamed until my throat ached and I was silent.

I threw the flowers down and walked out of the wet fields.

Turning into Bonnie Street, I had my hands stuffed into my pockets and my shoulders hunched against the wind which curled across the barrels and clapped against my skin. It was wet. It was always wet in London and always the cobbles glinted like black eyes, blinking in flashes of light from the reflection of the silver clouds hung low from the heavens.

I heard the thump of wooden crates hauled from trucks. I heard the clang of metal. I heard the shriek of tyres and the slam of doors before the pepper of gunfire; only I had never been a soldier and had never known the sound of that clacking recoil, that sound of bullets against metal doors and metal sheets, so much metal in that courtyard that all noise echoed around me and confused me. Blistering pain shrieked from my throat and soon in my right arm – it came from my stomach, too, ripped apart from bullets shot somewhere behind me.

I had been standing beneath the red-brick arch of the bakery.

I had been standing beneath it and I saw it yawn over me once I collapsed backward against the ground. I felt it swell around me, the wetness of it. There was blackness blended into the mud, the mud which squelched between my hands, pushing deeper into the sludge in an attempt to pull myself from the earth, separate myself from the wet soil. I thought of dogs shot in fields and I thought of the girls in the flat. I thought of Alfie somewhere in between.

And I thought, that blackness is my blood pouring from me now.

And I thought, I was born in soil like this. I am dying in soil like this.

There was a man overhead. He blocked the clouds, and his hands scooped beneath my wounded throat to haul me upward. I waited for him to lift me further and find help. Only he plucked a cigarette from his lips and held it out before me, so that I could watch the flicker of its ash. He used his other hand, awkwardly curled beneath me, to lift my wrist and look at it. His eyes flashed to find mine.

How could it happen to me?

He said, “Sabini sends his regards.”

He pressed the butt of the cigarette against my right wrist, where those blue veins were, and held it there until a blackened dot had fizzled into the skin. He stood and I fell from him.

I fell from him and fell further still, fell into swirls of colour; electric blue, shocks of red, spun around and around. I felt as if I was in that dream that Alfie had had, stood in the house which flashed in those colours. I opened doors, closed doors. I walked into the kitchen to find him. I called out for him. I opened the door for the bathroom and found Josephine there, bloated and purple from the bathwater around her. She said, “Thanks, Willa.”

I nodded at her and turned into the bedroom. The old Gypsies watched me while I did this, looked at me while I stood in the bedroom and called out for Alfie. They stood in the corner and watched me. Charlotte was sitting on the bed. She could not see the old Gypsies, but they could see her. I knew that.

So, I turned back into the bathroom and out into the hall, and I was by the front door. There was an envelope on the floor, but I walked away from it, toward the mirror instead. I saw myself there, in that mirror. I had a smudge of soil on my cheek which could not be wiped away no matter how much I scrubbed at it.

And I saw my mouth move, and it said, “You’ll be all right, darlin’ – because I’m ‘ere, ain’t I –…”

Drawn upward from the mud once more, I awaited the sizzling burn of a cigarette against my wrist but breathed the familiar scent of rum and mint mixed together. I was hauled against a strong chest, lifted from the earth, held beneath my legs and jumbled around so that all of my organs slipped around each other, never returned to the right place.

There was a cotton shirt in front of me, rubbing against my cheek. I knew it because it belonged to him and I had plucked every thread and stitched every button into that shirt. I made all his shirts. He never wore any other shirts than those that I had made him.

“You’ll be all right, darlin’,” he said. “Because I’m ‘ere, ain’t I-…”

The nurses plucked every thread and stitched every button; I was sewn together, cleaned first of those stray bullets embedded in the back of my right arm, which was slow and sluggish now, another pulled from the back left of my side, another had scraped the right side of my throat and left a heavy slash in the skin but it had not torn through it. I would have died, if it had.

I was in a bed with scratchy sheets and drugged so much that I could not dream anymore. I could only sit in the blueness of the room, isolated behind a thick curtain of white. My eyelids were sticky. There was a lot of noise in the hall. I heard Alfie shout. I peeled my eyelids apart to hear it – then my eardrums followed, in some disconnected fumble. I heard another shout. It was different, this time.

It was warm, familiar. It called out, “Willa Sykes!”

I started to weep; for it was weeping, quiet and soft, there was no shouting in it, just little sniffles and wet cheeks, wet from soil. I lifted a hand to wipe away that smudge but found nothing there. I wept because it was Johnny in the hall, it was Johnny who was warm and familiar and who burst through those doors and flung apart the curtains to find me.

Alfie was behind him. I saw him just before the curtains fluttered shut.

Johnny leaned frantically toward me, cupped my cheek. His eyes flit around me. He murmured in our tongue, clucked and soothed me in his own way. I looked behind him at the fold in the curtain. I saw Alfie’s silhouette still there behind it, before it drained and disappeared entirely. I wept all the more.

“I don’t understand what happened, Johnny,” I whispered croakily. “I only walked to Bonnie Street – and there was all this noise –…”

He stroked my hair and held his forehead against mine for a moment before he pulled away and sat on the edge of the bed. I heard footsteps behind him and thought that perhaps Alfie might return. Instead, a nurse opened the curtains, her lips pursed tight. She barked, “Mr Dogs, as I have already sufficiently informed you, you cannot –…”

“You’d best fuck off out of this room fast,” Johnny snapped, standing suddenly. “Before I call all my kin to come and wait in the hall like I have fuckin’ waited! D’you want that, do ya? All of us, in here, in your precious fuckin’ ward! No? Then leave us be!”

The nurse hesitated for a moment, as startled by his outburst as I was. Soon, she collected herself and mumbled an incoherent string of words before she scuttled out. Johnny breathed heavily, his eyes having watched her all the way out. Once she had left, he came back to me, sat on that bed with his hands held around mine. I had been so afraid, in that soil. I had seen blackness. I felt that fear now. Only it was smothered by confusion and he saw it in my stare, which never left his, never strayed.

“Tell me, Johnny.”

“You were walkin’ into Bonnie Street, aye,” he explained slowly. “And from ‘round the bend came a car which stopped behind ya and out came some Italians. Shot at anybody on that street, they did. Your fella heard it from the bakery, so he tells me. Came runnin’ out, but weren’t the Italians already long gone from that place. Left you there in the dirt. Left you bleedin’ and –…”

I saw the ripple of fury rise in this throat and wished to hold it off a little bit longer. I asked, “Why the Italians, Johnny?”

“He started war with them, your fella,” Johnny spat. “Just back from a war, and he wants another, the fuckin’ ki-…”

“Don’t call him that, Johnny.” I lifted myself from the bed and gripped his hands. “Don’t ever call him that, you hear me? I’ll throw you out before that nurse can, if you say that word!”

I was trembling from the effort of holding myself up. Johnny panicked and rushed to gently push me back against the pillows, his expression shifted into that of remorse. He smoothed away the sweat which stained my forehead and nodded, his lips held in a tight line.

“Aye, chey, I won’t say it. I didn’t mean it, girl. I just want you safe, love,” he whispered. His voice cracked and I cracked with it, more tears spilling out so that Johnny blurred into colour. Electric blue, shocks of red. “Had some choice words with him, I did, out in the hall. Told him you’d be back in Ireland by the time you could stand. I’d have all our kin there to help you heal, chey.”

Somewhat amused, I asked, “And what did he have to say to that, then?”

“Mostly sounds, not quite words,” Johnny mused. “Went for me throat, too. Animal he is, that fella.”

“He has a name, Johnny. Alfie,” I muttered tiredly. “And he always goes for the throat.”

“I’ll use his name when he shows me that he’s worthy of it. Got you into this, he did. Did he tell you about this war with the Italians, chey?”

The silence which followed was his answer. I hated that he seemed pleased with the fact that he had guessed correctly.

“What good would it have done me?” I asked weakly, aware that I was grasping at straws. “They got me anyway, didn’t they?”

I was very tired from speaking, tired from moving around in the bed. I felt myself slump against the pillows and the stroke of his thumb against my knuckles drew me into a delicious half-slumber.

“They did,” he nodded. His words were filled with emotion, his hands shook in mine. “But you have that Gypsy blood, don’t you, chey? Too strong for ‘em. And when you wake, my love, I’ll still be here, yeah? Okay, sweetheart. I remember when you were a wee girl, and you –…”

I did not hear the rest of it, not a word of those tales from when I was a wee girl.

Floating in that other world that the old Gypsies spoke of, I dreamt of the flat that we had lived in on Bell Road and I dreamt of Butcher and all the men that had ever gone against him. I dreamt of Esther and all the men that she had bested – until she hadn’t. I dreamt of the Italians, shrouded in a veil that meant I could not fully see them.

I only understood that they were there, in the same way that the old Gypsies had been in my dreams. Just before I woke again, I heard what Johnny had said outside the flat months beforehand: never enough to become top-dog for ‘em. It takes a lot more to stay top-dog than it does to become it.

 ☼

There was a gentle pressure on my wrist. I felt that first. I felt the starched whiteness of the room second, because it burned my tender eyes, dried-out from tears, and filled my mouth with cotton. All my limbs were too heavy to lift. I let him hold my wrist. I watched him from between a narrow slit of sight, because my eyelids were still dense and sticky, barely held open.

It was not Johnny there.

Johnny did not have that small strip of bare skin on his right cheek where the stubble never grew. Johnny did not have a tattoo on that little stretch of skin between his thumb and index. Johnny never said Willa in the same way that Alfie did, either.

“Willa, sweet’eart, can you ‘ear me now, angel?”

“Supposed to be together, we are, Alfie,” I slurred through lips which flapped like blubber, numbed from drugs. My eyelids spasmed, flickered open.

“We are,” he rasped. His elbows were pressed into the mattress, hands clasped as if he had been in the midst of a prayer, but his eyes dipped low toward the tiled floor. “We are together.”

“You told me that you can trust me,” I whispered. “You said we could work together, Alf. But you couldn’t tell me about the fucking Italians? That you started war with them? Johnny had to tell me, because you couldn’t –…”

I never fuckin’ started it!” he yelled, slamming his hands against the bed, his chair shrieking against the tiles as he pushed himself backward. He heard himself. He understood where he was, who he was with, and sank back into the chair. “I never fuckin’ started it. Darby Sabini fuckin’ did. Sabini started it and I will fuckin’ end it. I was gonna tell ya, Willa. You were busy with Charlotte, ‘ad enough to worry about. But I was gonna tell ya.”

“Oh, when you visited my grave, were you? Probably would have waited until they were lowering me into the ground before it crossed your mind to mention the fucking Italians, Alfie.”

“Well, I wouldn’t ‘ave wanted to spoil such a lovely fuckin’ reunion with all your kin, not after meetin’ your fuckin’ uncle – what a joy that was!”

“Very sorry that I couldn’t have intervened, Alfie,” I retorted.

“No.”

“What?” I asked, blinking at his blank expression and how he shook his head. “What d’you mean, no?”

“No,” he repeated. “No, this isn’t ‘ow I wanted it. I wanted you to wake up, because I was gonna tell you ‘ow fuckin’ scared I was, right, to see you out there bleedin’, thought you were dead or dyin’ or already gone from me. This was meant to be between myself and that fuckin’ wop and ‘e will fuckin’ regret this, Willa. I wanted to tell you that I love you, I won’t ever let ‘em ‘urt you – again, because it ‘appened, didn’t it, I let you down, I might as well ‘ave ‘eld that fuckin’ gun me-self –…”

“Was it that envelope, Alfie?”

He paused and licked his lips. “It asked if I would like to have a drink with him, enjoy some Italian cigarettes.”

“Did you respond?”

“Told ‘im to shove the cigarettes up ‘is fuckin’ wop arse with all the other things ‘e puts up there, didn’t I?”

I stared at him, aware of the burn on my wrist from those same cigarettes, finally understanding the message. “So, that’s why they burned me with a cigarette. I hope it wasn’t the same one he put up his arse and all.”

Despite the circumstances, we smiled at one another and I rubbed his cheek, took comfort in his stubble and how he returned the affection, leaning against my palm.

I was lost in thought, looking at him. I knew that the Italians would not quit. I had already been hit and the next time it might be Alfie, might be Ollie, might even be Charlotte. It was not enough to wait in this bed for the next bullet to come. I could not shrink from what Alfie was, either. I had embraced it. I had promised him that he could trust me, whether he had told me this or not. There would always be retaliations because there would always be men out there like Butcher, like Harry Reed, like Darby Sabini –…

Like Alfie Solomons.

Never enough to become it.

“Have you considered what you might do now?” I asked.

Alfie looked at me, eyebrows raised. “What?”

“Sabini must know you’re here in the hospital with me, Alfie. He thinks you’ll be here for a while. He thinks he’s bought himself a couple of days. Show him that he was wrong to think he was safe, Alfie. Wrong to think that he had any time at all.”

Alfie was watching me, his expression a rich blend of surprise and some sick delight, his lips quirking upward with each word.

It takes a lot more to stay top-dog than to become it.

“He got me with three bullets,” I said steadily. “Now he deserves four shot right back at him, you understand? You find where it’ll hurt him most and then you shoot. Hit him hard. Hit him with all you have and do not take a rest, either, Alfie.”

“He’s got pubs. He runs the races,” Alfie replied. His eyes swirled with that same glow which often came after he had beaten someone; it was also the look that came from his arousal.

And I had to admit that I felt it, too.

“Take his alcohol. Use it to set his fucking pubs on fire. Kill his horses – or better yet, kill his best jockeys. Then bring me some pillows from the house, because these are useless,” I muttered, slapping a hand at the flaccid pillow beneath me.

His smile dripped away into nothingness. He was solemn, his eyes dark. “I meant it, Willa. I thought you were dead.”

“And what would you have done then?”

“Slaughtered him and every other Italian on this fuckin’ earth.”

“So, I’m not dead. But do it anyway.”

 ☼

Chapter Text

ten


 

Blinking through the crust of sleepiness, I felt the rustle and shift of blankets around me. I was lifted gently and laid upon fresh pillows, familiar blankets placed against me, tucked beneath my body so that the sheets would not slip off during the night. I was still warm from drugs. I floated somewhere far away and returned only in brief flashes to that room lathered in blueness. I felt the dip of the mattress, skin against skin, hushed murmurs in Hebrew.

I forced apart eyelids coated in lead, found myself in that hospital-room shrouded in a veil of that bleak, watery light which blooms just before dawn. I was stiff. I felt that my limbs were not mine, anymore; alien, as if attached to me but taken from other bodies. I heard his words shift into ones which I could understand, soft words like love and sweet’eart and please don’t leave me now angel, yeah

Plucking at foreign tendons, I felt the spasm of my fingertips first. In a feeble squeeze, I held his hands which so carefully touched mine, as if I was some precious jewel. I felt the spread of another warmth which was not from the flow of drugs spread into tired veins.

Instead, it was the warmth which came at the sight of his own eyelids fluttered shut from a tremor through his spine, expression cast in hopeful anticipation before he looked upward – and his eyes found mine and the wetness of his stare spilled over onto me, onto the skin of my hands, so that his relief soaked into me. I absorbed it all; his and mine, mine and his, intertwined.

“Three days,” he told me.

I had suffered an infection in the flesh of my right-arm, which had been ravaged in a ring of blackness where the bullet had split through the skin. It was a blackened pit in otherwise blank paleness, sore and damp and oozing white fluid. I had collapsed in front of him, but I could barely recall that moment after I had stood from the bed and felt as if the earth tilted as it had the evening in front of the flat, after the girls had been murdered. I had stood, tilted, slapped against cold tiles and felt each bead of sweat bloom and burn against hot, frothing skin.

I had a fever and it rippled through my flesh like the water in the bathtub had rippled once I tried to pull Josephine from its coldness. In my feverish dreams, I fell in there with her, fell into the pitch-black depths of lukewarm water. I tried to swim upward but only ever sank downward into its folds.

Three days, he told me. I was in that dream of black water for three days.

I tried to speak. I drooled, instead. Embarrassed, I tried to pull hands from him, but he jolted from his chair, which scraped against the tiles. He found tissues in the drawer, held them against my chin and shushed me, leaned forward to rest his own chin against my hair. He spoke in a rush of Hebrew anew, and its lulling rasps in his throat soothed my shame.

Silent tears slid across reddened cheeks and I rested limp against his stomach, too tired to hold myself like I had always done before I had met him. I thought of how I had held Charlotte like he now held me. I wanted her, then. I said her name, slurred and quiet.

“She was here this mornin’,” he explained. “But you were still asleep, darlin’.”

Once cleaned, he tossed away the tissues and sat once more. He swept his hands around mine out of habit. I saw purplish marks beneath his eyes. I watched him scratch at his eyes and saw that his stubble had grown into a thickened beard. I liked it and lifted a slack hand to brush at it with a weak smile. His eyes closed. He leaned into my touch. He had not slept without me, I knew.

 “Come lie beside me, Alfie,” I whispered, stroking his cheek with my left hand.

“No,” he said, his eyes still closed. “I’d only ‘urt ya.”

“You’d never hurt me,” I replied. He watched me, as if mulling it over in his mind. I added, “Please, Alfie. I’m sick and I’m tired. So, you have to do what I say, don’t you?”

“Don’ I do that already? Fuckin’ told ya before that you’re bossy when you’re tired, Willa...”

Hauling himself from the chair, he tried to poise himself on the edge of the mattress so that I had all the space, but he was much too large for it and was already half-balanced. I scooted over and over until I hit the other side of the bed and then pulled him toward me with all the strength that remained in my left arm – the right was still riddled from the infection, so that it lay flaccid and useless alongside me.

Alfie did what he always did once we lay alongside each another: he shuffled me against his chest and gently curled his arm around me, his chin rested against my hair as it had been earlier. I felt him tense for just a couple of seconds. Although he never said it aloud, I knew that it was his spine and his hip.

Breathing in his scent, I thought about those jars of sweet mush that I used to soothe the stiffness of his bones and worried that he had forgotten to use them while he was in here with me.  

“Alfie,” I murmured into his skin, “…I need to get you more of those jars for your back and your hip, I need to –…”

“Right as rain, I am, Willa,” he replied, his words muffled against my hair. “Never felt better than I do right ‘ere and now, sweet’eart.”

“Tomorrow” I mumbled, overcome by another rush of tiredness. “I’ll get up tomorrow, I’ll go and get them from the house…”

“All right, love,” he said softly, letting me ramble even though he knew that I could not possibly stand from that bed. “All right. Just stay with me a little while longer, yeah?”

His eyes shut almost immediately. I thought of something he had said a while ago: I don’t like to sleep, Willa. But I do when you’re here.

On the second of those three days in which I had been fast asleep, Alfie had lined a squadron of Jewish lads in the basement of our bakery and doled out orders. Ollie had been stood alongside him. He sent a handful of those same lads toward the racetracks; those first lads drugged the horses, shot jockeys in the kneecaps. Then, Alfie sent out another handful and those lads took alcohol from Italian pubs and locked the doors of the same pubs with Italian patrons trapped within; alcohol soaked into the floorboards and the lads lit Italian cigarettes that were then thrown onto the floors.

Alfie had note pinned onto the ash and ruin of the last pub once its fire had finally fizzled out, watered down by bewildered authorities carting out charred corpses. On it, he wrote: had to light up five of your pubs before I could use the fire to get even one of your wop cigarettes to burn for me to even have a smoke. Shameful, that is. 

The last handful of Jewish lads shot any Italian within the territory owned by Sabini. This sent them scrambling for shelter and the lads shot them there, too. Alfie estimated that it was twenty men, a nice chunk of Italian protection in that area. Suddenly, Alfie had visits from other owners of pubs and shops in that street. He had visits from the Jewish folk still left in Bell Road and those stretching outward toward Harrow. He had thickened wads of cash placed into his palm. He passed them onto Ollie to place in a safe in the office of the bakery.

Alfie told me all this in the hospital after the infection had passed. He paused in his speech and awaited some form of response. So, I gave it to him.

“Ruining his racing business, his pubs, turning his own people against him – that’s three bullets.”

“And the last one, love?”

“To put through his fucking skull.”

Hobbling from the bed, I caught sight of myself in the mirror; a tangled mass of black hair, pale skin and cheeks flushed of colour. Slowly, I wobbled toward the armchair which held my possessions, placed there that morning by Alfie. I was half-naked in a gown which left me cold and much too exposed for my liking. I pulled out my old dress and wondered if it might rest painfully on the bandages around my stomach. Healed in most other parts, the nurses were still preoccupied with that wound on the back of my right-arm, but because the infection was cleaned, I was expected to remain at home with only a couple of visits to ensure the whitish fluid did not return. I pulled out the dress and a little drop against the ground told me that something had rolled out with it.

Carefully, I placed a hand against the bed, prepared myself to bend despite the traumatic pain which darted through the wound on my stomach. Before I could even do much more, I heard the door scrape apart and I heard a deep sigh.

“Willa, let me get it,” Ollie said. “You’ll do yourself even more damage and I’m not sure I could take another week of dealing with Alfie in a temper.”

Smiling to myself, I replied, “While you’re down there, would you please grab my boots, Ollie?”

He perched on the edge of the mattress and fished beneath it for the fallen object – it was kohl, which I took with a mumble of gratitude, shuffling toward the only mirror in the room. Ollie pulled out my boots. I balanced a hand on his shoulder and let him pull them on. He only just slipped on the left boot before I had to sit, unable to take the strain.

Ollie stood to help me flop onto the bed, his hands all anxious and jerky once more. Ollie panicked a lot more easily – he was all ruffled feathers, our Ollie. Even while I sat, his hands were there, hovered just an inch from my arms as if I might somehow tumble off the bed.

“Ollie, it’s all right,” I told him. “I’m fine, now that I’m sitting.”

“I-I saw you,” he blurted out. I stared at him, which made him swallow anxiously. “Alfie found you in the yard and I saw you when he was carrying you. I thought you were dead. You looked awful, Willa.”

“I told you I’m all right now.”

“Alfie says that. Alfie says that if I ask him. Says he’s all right. Or he tells me to stop asking or to fuck off. He tells me that he’s all right, but I don’t believe him.”

I counted the pockmarked dents in the ceiling like I had done for days. I felt Ollie finish with the laces and start on the other boot. I was terrified that the nurses had gotten it all wrong; that the dizziness and sweats and pain and sudden rushes of nausea might never leave. My limbs were too dense, my right arm was agony to lift. I did almost everything with the left. I was afraid, too, of cracking sounds.

One night, the night-nurse had dropped a bedpan in the hall and its clanging metal smacking against the tiles had shot through me like another round of bullets, so that I jumped and jerked in the bed as if I was hit here and there, over and over.

“I’m all right,” I murmured distantly, eyes still latched onto those dents in the ceiling.

“I don’t believe you,” he said.

“Then stop asking or fuck off,” I replied, looking at him and smiling.

Pulling into Ivor Square, I let out a sigh of relief and felt Alfie squeeze my hand, eyes flashing toward mine. He had Ollie bring in the bags behind us. I took the staircase which led to our door in slow, gentle steps with his hand around my waist to support me. I breathed in a fresh, floral scent once Alfie pushed open the door; that scent was familiar and welcome after that acid coldness of the hospital.

Ollie stood in the threshold with hands clasped, glancing around. Alfie turned toward him, tilted his head at him, indicating for him to take a step backward, which Ollie did, his eyebrows raised in confusion.

Alfie raised his boot and kicked the door so that it banged shut.

I could almost envision Ollie's expression on the other side, but the boy was more than used to Alfie and his bluntness. He had been around him for years.

Alfie spun around to grasp my arms and lead me into the front-room to sit on our sofa. I collapsed there with him and felt the exhaustion in both of us. I thought of how we were still so young and little snickers escaped me until I burst into full-blown laughter. Alfie looked over at me, eyebrows raised like Ollie's had been just before the door slammed shut on him.

“We’re acting like an old couple,” I said, sputtered between breathless giggles. “Your bad back, your hip – me, always being tired now, worn out. I forget that we’re still young.”

Alfie smiled, but it was not one of his proper smiles. “Don’t feel young, me. Ain’t felt young in a long time. Last time mighta been when we went to that fairground. Maybe just before it, when we went to that bar on Brixton Street. What was it called, again?”

The Blacksmith,” I answered. “I remember after you walked me home to the old flat and Esther was there. She told me about the war.”

“I didn’t wanna tell ya. I didn’t want to ruin the night. Just couldn’t pluck up the courage, in the end. Then it was too late. Hm. Always too late with me, innit? But fuck, Willa – if it weren’t a fun fuckin’ night, eh?”

I smiled and nodded, before I looked at the fireplace. “You know, we should light the fire tonight, Alfie. Let’s stay here for a while.”

He hummed. “Probably best. Could do some damage to me-self with all that dancin’. Christ, Willa, you’d do more damage to the people ‘round us with your dancin’.”

I laughed, the sound echoing into the emptiness of the house. “Gypsies dance a little different, Alfie.”

“That they do,” he nodded. He stood and stepped toward the fireplace to grab some coal and toss it on the rack, but soon winced, his hand clamping onto his back.

Quickly, I stood to help him, even if I was equally a little worn. A wave of dizziness sparked through me, so that I fumbled and had to place one hand against the wall to balance myself. Alfie looked at me, and it was that simple – we burst into laughter again, half-bent. I saw the large print of his own hand on his shirt from where he had pressed it, made from the stain of coal on his palm. I pointed it out to him.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” he groaned. “Gonna need you to start rattlin’ out more shirts as soon as you can, Willa. No more sleepin’ on the job, eh?”

I lost my laughter at the sight of that crinkled furrow between his brows again, realising that it was not very funny at all, the state of us. It hit me very suddenly, this sullen mood. Perhaps he felt it as well, because he licked his lips and looked away from me, moving back toward the sofa to sit there. I was still across from him, hand pressed against the wall.

I said, “You need to see the doctor, Alfie.”

“Doctor? What good can a doctor do me, eh? Can’t fix nothin’, doctors. Ply you with medication, what makes you slow and dim, yeah – and sometimes, right, them doctors tell you that you’re imaginin’ ‘alf your pain, don’t they?”

I watched him carefully. “What d’you mean?”

“I got mates what can’t tell left from right no more, Willa.”

His eyes were cast in that cold and distant light which always filled him once words of war came out. He hardly blinked; it had always been that which disturbed me most, how long he could last without a blink, as if a film was flickering behind his eyelids, one that he was forced to watch.

“I got mates what can’t walk right – can’t talk right, neither. I got mates what get outta bed to work and I got mates what can’t never get out of bed again. Ain’t got the capacities, do they? I got mates what talk to our other mates even though they ain’t there anymore. And the doctor tells ‘em, ‘all you need is a stiff upper lip, my lad’. Got loads of mates, I do. Or I did. I – I shot one of me mates before, y’know.”

I felt a cold chill rattle through me, aware that Alfie was too far removed from me to hear himself. He had just admitted something that cut right through the laughter which filled us only moments beforehand. I had said it before, too – Alfie had no mates apart from Ollie. Yet he had spoken as if all those friends stood in our house now and his eyes searched for them between those folds in the curtains, between the gaps of the furniture, never found. It had been such a long while since he had spoken that I jerked at his next words, eyes drawn toward him and away from those gaps that I had searched myself. I was not sure what I had thought I might find, but it had not been there.

“It was a mate what deserted in 1917. ‘e trained even before the army years, y’know?”

I nodded, although it did not matter what I did, because I was not there for him anymore. Even if I had walked out of that room and into the kitchen, I knew that I would only need lean my ear against the wallpaper to hear him speak, because Alfie would continue whether I was there or not. He had these odd, disconnected moments; in the same way that I felt my limbs had been disconnected, all his memories came out chopped and dissected, as if he had been handed the photographs which composed the life of another man whom he had never met, and he just pieced them together himself with little thought behind it.

Here was another jigsaw memory, taken from some darkened spot in his brain and slotted into some other place where it did not quite belong and certainly never fit.

“They wanted ‘im to be made into an example,” Alfie said. “But what was the point of it? We ‘ad plenty o’ examples o’ dead men out there. I told ‘em, what good is another? Well, they ‘ad the lads line up and shoot, y’know. Only they missed. I think they wanted to miss. They all knew ‘im. Trained before the army years, ‘e did. Did I tell you that?”

“You did, Alfie.”

“Hm. They got ‘im in the shoulder. So, I ‘ad to put ‘im down. Couldn’t watch it. And you wanted to ‘ear this, didn’t ya?” he said, his eyes finally looking into mine. I flinched from it. “I don’t want to tell you these things, but they come out anyway. Can’t ‘elp it, me. What do we always say, Willa? Backwards and wrong. That’s it. Backwards and wrong.”

His mood, much like mine, had shifted so much that I was unsure what else to do with myself. I stood there in front of the fireplace. I had become the furniture, immobile. He looked at me, his eyes glistening, and he hauled himself up from the sofa with great effort.

“I’ll run you a bath, Willa.”

He knew that I was not meant to take a bath so soon, that the nurse had to come around for the bandages in the morning and to check all the wounds. He had paid out of his own pocket for it. He knew that and I knew that. And still I said, “Okay, Alf.”

He hesitated in the doorway. He turned, just slightly. His gaze was not focused on mine. “I won’t let nothin’ ‘appen to ya, Willa.”

“Okay, Alfie.”

“I’m glad you’re ‘ome. I’m ‘appier now.”

“I am, too." I debated asking, but finally decided on it. "Are you - Are you okay, Alfie?"

“I’m okay, darlin’.”

He nodded. He nodded again, although nothing more had been said. The door shut behind him. The fireplace had been forgotten, left unlit. Ollie flashed through my mind, all of a sudden.

I don’t believe him.

Shuffling around in the bathroom, I heard him fiddling around with the cupboards. I never heard that familiar thunder of gushing water from the faucet, never heard him lay out towels nor a nightgown like he had always done for me whenever he ran a bath. I felt a dull ache in my right arm, felt another in my stomach – but there was another part underneath it formed from tension, a thickened layer of it wedged between my organs, because something had happened within him, something had cracked or loosened or fell apart entirely.

I heard him in the bathroom, heard an abrupt round of loud bangs; he had ripped the rack of towels from the wall and I heard it clatter against the tiles. I jumped and jumped against the bangs which sounded so much like bullets shot from somewhere behind me. I clamped trembling hands against my eardrums and leaned forward to bury myself between my knees, breathing heavily.

“Willa,” Alfie called out. I looked up and saw that he was on the other side of the room, by the bathroom. He stayed away from me. I knew something was really wrong with him. Alfie rarely ever stayed away from me. “Willa, I’ve been lyin’ to ya, love. I’ve been lyin’ to ya this whole time.”

I asked a question which came out croaky and dry. “About what, Alfie? What did you do?”

I always suffered a terrible numbness in my limbs because of words like that. I felt those familiar red patches around my throat. I thought of our whole life together. I thought of our house – our home – and our business. I thought about other women, which had never really crossed my mind before with him. I trusted him. I looked at him now.

Do I trust you?

“Charlotte didn’t come to see you.”

I swallowed. “Did you tell her where I was? She could be busy, Alfie. ”

“She didn’t come, love,” he said. “Because she tried to get rid of it, Willa. She was very ill. She – Just listen, love, right…”

It was like a pit in my stomach, a pit which was then filled with stones. Once I stood, the stones shifted and knocked my weight to one side so much that I stumbled. Nausea overwhelmed me. Alfie was coated in a light sheen of sweat; he looked very much like the boy I had seen in the courtyard with his teeth held against the throat of another lad, prepared to rip it out, back in the days of the factory. He looked trapped and poised to defend himself. Some part of me understood what he meant; the other part feigned ignorance.

“That woman on Heath Street,” I said, “…she did it for lots of girls, Alfie. I went there with her. I’m supposed to go with her again, on the proper date – the real date for it. I’m going with her.”

I was moving around the bedroom now. I was smoothing out the bed-sheets that had crinkled beneath me and I was shuffling the shirts around in the drawers and I swept around him into the bathroom to pluck at the towels. All the while, I was saying, “That woman on Heath Street was telling her that she wanted to make sure the coppers didn’t find out about it, you know. I told her, find out the proper date and I’ll come with you. She didn’t want me there for the discussion, but you know, she just wants me in there for the procedure –…”

I was trembling so badly and he was following me between the bedroom and the bathroom with all of these useless towels and clothes in my hands that I placed down, then picked up, then placed down again and he was talking too, talking over my rambling, but I talked louder and faster and always I was picking up things and placing them down until he blocked me at the bathroom and I screamed, screamed and screamed –…

“She got it on that day, Willa,” he explained. “She got something from that woman on ‘eath Street on the same day that you went with ‘er – I don’t know what it was, I don’t know when exactly she took it, yeah, but I tried to find ‘er for ya, Willa – I wanted ‘er there when you came ‘round, I knew what it would mean to ya. I had Ollie out with the lads from the bakery. They found her in a flat. She’d been dead and gone – gone a long while, love.”

“Where? What flat?”

“Some place on Fetter Road,” he answered.

I felt like the fabric which I pushed beneath the thumping needle of the sewing-machine after it became caught and tangled and all its threads unfurled and the thumping was still there, pricking away at me until I was threadbare, unusable in all senses, thrown aside. Fetter Road. I had heard him against the pounding ringing in my eardrums. Elsie had sold her own body on that road many years beforehand. I had told Charlotte about it. I had told all the girls in the flat about it in those dark months when I was temporary Best-Girl. I told her

I said, “I told her about that place – that the girls – they sold themselves and our Elsie died there – a long time ago, before I had even met you. D-Did she use this place, Alfie?”

Did this place use her?

Alfie tried to placate me, like always, holding me in place to stop all this fluttering and moving around. I saw it in his eyes and still I needed the answer. He licked his lips. “From what I ‘eard, yeah. Weren’t enough to be stealin’ pocket-watches anymore for the girl, darlin’. 'ad to make a livin', was strugglin' after the whole racket in the flat ended and Esther weren't 'round no more.”

“She would have told me,” I whispered. I pushed away from him. I was focused on him, on the anger that I felt for him because it was so much better than focusing on the pit of stones still in my stomach. “You told me she was there – that she came and saw me. Why did you say that, Alfie?!”

He stared at me incredulously. “You’d just been fuckin’ shot, Willa! What did you want, eh? You got that infection, you were barely awake – it woulda been too much for you. I couldn’t risk it.”

“Couldn’t fucking risk it,” I spat bitterly at him. I was hurting him. I knew I was hurting him because I saw it in his eyes and still I was pushing onward with it. “Where is she?”

“I ‘ad ‘er buried, Willa.”

“Buried?” I repeated. I was crying without wanting it. I wanted to be furious, wanted to thump and hit and scream. But I didn’t quite believe him, either. I told myself that she was all right. He had been mistaken – but was Alfie ever really mistaken about things like this? I knew he would never lie about it. Yet I still said, “You’re wrong, Alfie.”

“I’m not wrong.”

“I told her I would go with her. She wouldn’t take anything without telling me. Why would she do that?”

“I can’t tell you, darlin’ – but she mighta known she wanted to do it alone.”

I thought about the lad, George, who ran off to Liverpool. “Was it even his?”

“The sprog?” Alfie asked. He chewed at his lip and shrugged. “Mighta been.”

I caught how his eyes flit from mine and my anger rushed upward in a swarm. “What do you know?”

“Won’t do you any good to know it, Willa,” he warned.

“Alfie, you will tell me – now,” I hissed. I was becoming anxious all over again, hands starting to pick at skin, at wounds that were not there. I found the ones that were instead, reached for the bandages around my stomach and wanted to unravel them so that I could – well, what did I want to do then? He caught my hands again, as if he knew what I had intended to do. Frantically, I mumbled, “Tell me, Alfie – please, don’t lie – just tell me –…”

“She was there a few months. Ollie ‘eard it from the girls workin’ there. Told that George fella that it was ‘is but ‘e knew the chances were slim an’ all. Booked it outta town, took the first train to Liverpool. What was the girl meant to do, Willa?”

“Tell me!” I screamed. “She should have told me!”

It was in the stomach, first; a shrieking pain that had me bent double before him, falling onto kneecaps which slapped against the floorboards, the impact rattling upward into me and dislodging all those stones then thrown up into my throat. Alfie fell along with me, tried to hold me beneath my arms and lift me, but he accidentally hurt my right arm in his attempt, and I rolled against him from the sheer agony of it. He held us still to let the pain rush through me and I breathed in ragged gasps until it went.

"I'm sorry, love."

For which part he meant, exactly, I was not sure. 

“I need to see her,” I told him.

“Not now, Willa.” His tone was strict, warning. His temper was flaring, blending into mine. I knew that he wanted to rein it in, but he struggled because of the circumstances. “I know you lost someone. But I ain’t willin’ to lose you, too. I ‘ad the girl buried with the others.”

I let out an agonised moan. He only held me tighter.

He continued, “I ‘ad her buried. She’ll be safe there now, won’t she?”

“I told her about Fetter Road, Alfie, about the work there,” I whispered, pressed against his chest. “I told her when she was so much younger. She only went there because of me telling her. She didn’t tell me about what the woman gave her. I was supposed to go with her.”

“I’ll take you to ‘er once you’re better, yeah?” he went on. I realised that his cheeks were damp against my hair. I had not understood just how much my pain had affected him. “I’m gonna put you into bed now, Willa. In the mornin’, the nurse’ll be ‘round, won’t she? Change your bandages, make you all better, hm. Proper fighter, you are.”

“I’m tired of fighting, Alfie,” I whispered. “All the girls in the flat, gone. There were two of us, this morning, last time that I checked. One of us, this evening. Just me.”

He drew in a sharp breath.

He lifted me from the floorboards, despite his own pain. I was tired of pain, too. I let him settle me in the bed because I knew it brought him comfort to think that I was calmed; and perhaps it was just because that same old part of me thought that he had made a mistake. I resembled a child which could not grasp the concept of death. I convinced myself that he had made a mistake somewhere and she was still here. I had not seen her death like I had seen the others – there had been no sickly-sweet blackness and she was so young; but Josephine had only been ten, so what difference did that make?

Alfie rested on his side of the bed, closest to the door, his arms crossed. He looked ahead, toward the wardrobe. He looked between the gaps. He found no mates there and so he looked away. I was sat upright, leaned against the headboard – slumped against it, absent from myself.

“Thank you, Alfie.”

“What for?”

“Burying her.”

“Buried lots of people, me.”

“I still don’t think I can believe it,” I told him. “She isn’t gone, Alfie.”

“Used to think that, too, over there,” he replied lowly. “Used to see fellas fall and when evenin’ came ‘round I’d still call out their names for rations without even realisin’ it. Takes time, Willa.”

“How much time?” I asked childishly, reluctant to accept it.

“I still call ‘em out, sometimes,” he said. “Still waitin’ for ‘em to answer, too.”

“I’ll keep calling out for her,” I said. “I know I will.”

He was quiet, thoughtful. “Then I’ll just call with you. She’s bound to ‘ear one of us, ain’t she?”

Out of the blue, a couple of moments later, he stood from the bed. I thought that he might slip into the bathroom, but I heard him near the wardrobe. He knew perfectly well that I watched him move about the bedroom, watched him fiddle with the bottom piece of wood in the wardrobe, lifting it upward to reveal a hidden space just beneath it that I had not known about.

“What are you doing, Alfie?”

I loathed the tearful rasp in my voice, loathed the pitiful way that my hands scrunched the bed-sheets for something to do other than tremble. He never answered. He pulled out some small box that I had never seen before. I saw how carefully he held it, standing from his crouch to bring it over onto the bed.

He plopped it in front of me and pulled off the lid to show a cluster of letters bound together in a delicate sash of purple, much like the sash tied around the paper he had brought me after he returned from France. He bent before the bed to show me, elbows pressed into the mattress.

“November 1916,” he said, pulling out the first letter. “You told me about the dogs on Bell Road. One of them had a funny ear – kind of bent over like folded paper. I remember that dog. Soft little fella, ‘e was. December – you told me about the little gift you got your Charlotte, some toy you stole in Charter’ouse. 1917. Wrote about your Josephine, you did. Told me about them problems with Beth. Told me about 'ow Eleanor ‘ad outgrown ‘er shoes and you’d need to rob another pair. You ‘ad cut Rosie’s ‘air for ‘er. That was in February, mind.”

Somewhere along the line, his eyes had left the letters. He was speaking the same words written upon each letter, words that I had forgotten myself, especially those little details about the flat on a Sunday morning and the long walks through the streets and how dull it was without him. He was saying it all aloud, never even glancing at those letters. He had memorised them.

“Next one – you told me ‘ow proud you were that I was made Captain, remember? Said you never felt more proud in all your life. Sent me two scarves. I remember those, too. All the lads envied them scarves, Willa. And then you wrote to me about ‘ow you missed me. And ‘ow you loved me. That was 1918. January. It was in January.”

I blinked through tears to look at him, pulling apart each letter, drinking in my own spidery scrawl. I had never thought about what he did with the letters, but he had kept each and every one of them. I brushed at the strokes of dirt which stained some of the letters, noted a couple of tears in the paper and crinkles, some dots of rusted blood, all of them worn around the edges. Nestled at the very bottom of the box was a photograph that I had not seen since the fairground: it was the photograph of us. He was stood with his arm around me, his eyelid swollen from that punch after a fight with the photographer.

He dipped into his shirt pocket and pulled out another photograph from the fairground; it was me.

It was Willa from before the war, because there had been another Willa. She had been the Willa before all the girls had died, before Alfie had returned with odd spells in his mood, before the bombings, before the shirts made for Jewish lads, before the bullets shot into me. I traced my own face – my old face – and thought that I looked so young, terribly shy, eyes still searching for Alfie in the crowd. I was very pretty.

I did not feel like that in the bed with him, after all the sorrow had settled in me. I felt much too tired for prettiness and youth. And the Alfie in that other photograph was not here either. He had aged, too. He had lines where before there had only been laughter.

Yet I looked at him and found that I preferred him, lines and all, moods and all.

I saw the stain of dried blood which soaked the rim of white around the photograph of me once I turned it over. Alfie watched me and said, “Was in me pocket when I got shot.”

“You had it with you, over there?”

“Every second. Every – fuckin’ – second in that fuckin’ pit that was the trenches. Every time I ‘ad to jump out the fuckin’ trench and run at the enemy – you came with me, didn’t ya?” He smiled. It was a weak one, but it was one of his real smiles, warm and soft. “The girls in that flat are gone, Willa. But you ain’t, love. You’re ‘ere with me, ain’t ya? And it ain’t just you, alone. I loved you in January of 1918, too. I loved you before it. I love you now, Willa. So, when I tell you Charlotte’s gone, darlin’ – I mean it, don’t I?”

I nodded weakly and he reached to wipe the tear that fell. He clambered onto the bed again to hold me. He brought me against him, rested me against his chest. I allowed it, too dazed to do more than shuffle toward him.

“I know you do,” I whispered. “I just – it hurts so much, Alfie.”

“It does,” he replied simply. “Hm. It does, yeah. It’ll ‘urt tonight and it’ll ‘urt tomorrow. Just ‘ow it fuckin’ goes, ain’t it? But I’ll tell you ‘ow it goes, now. I’ll bring you to ‘er once you’re better, and you’ll be able to understand it better then, Willa. And the day after that, we’ll be fightin’ the Italians and we’ll be makin’ our aprons and our rum and it’ll ‘urt all the time while we’re doin’ it. Stiff upper lip, darlin’.”

I nodded along with him, nodded and nodded.

“And then, the day will come when we’ve made enough, yeah? And we’ll be on that beach in Margate lookin’ at the ocean and it might ‘urt then, too, but we’ll ‘ave made it. We’ll be there, and the rest of 'em can fuckin’ burn for all we’ll care.”

I listened to the warm rumble of his chest against me, soothed by it. I stretched to kiss his cheek and felt a scabbed patch of skin there, just beneath the stubble of his sideburns. It was red around its edges, inflamed. I lifted a hand to touch it, unsure of what it was. He caught my wrist and held it against his chest.

“Tomorrow is the time for fightin’, Willa. You ready for it, darlin’?”

The letters were strewn between us. I caught glimpses of Willa from 1916, saw her again in 1917, saw her finished in 1918. I spotted those little snippets of complaints about sharing a blanket with Eleanor and how Charlotte had grown so fast that I had to let her borrow some of my skirts and that I missed him so much and how is the wether in Frans, Alfie, I can send more scarfs and do you need soks and I hope the war ends soon.

“I’m ready, Alfie,” I told him.

Chapter Text

eleven


 

Soaking in golden sunlight streaming through the curtains, I slept beneath the blankets for most of the morning. Around ten, I heard the gentle tinkle of the doorbell and then came muffled conversation from below in the hall, followed by the rasping creak of the staircase.

Tapping against the wooden doorframe, Alfie pushed into the bedroom with a slim, petite nurse behind him; her skin was like porcelain, her lips delicate and dabbed in a light pink. Her hands clasped around a large bag and she stepped in the bedroom quite nervously. Often, she glanced upward at Alfie, and her hands would tighten around the strap of her bag.

Alfie hauled an armchair from the other bedroom and placed it alongside me, motioning for the nurse to take it. She sank against the cushion, all the while watching his movements, keeping him in her peripheral.

Once he finished, he plopped himself onto the bed and splayed his hand against my thigh, effectively engulfing it in the heat of his palm. Inwardly, I noted his stern expression and his stare latched onto the nurse, almost as if he was counting each roll of plaster that she pulled out.

Shifting from my slumped position, I sat upward against the headboard and smiled weakly at the nurse. She flicked her eyes toward Alfie before she said, “I will need to remove your nightgown, Mrs Solomons. Perhaps you might like some privacy, or –…”

“Privacy?” Alfie repeated, mentioning nothing of the mistake in surname. “In our own fuckin’ ‘ouse?”

“Alfie,” I murmured, casting him a warning glance. “Please, I’d rather he stayed here.”

I reached for the crinkled hem of my nightgown with a soft grunt of effort, but his hands soon replaced mine and he carefully rolled it upward across my thighs and over my hips. Then, I had to lift myself to fully pull it off. I could not find the strength to be shy about it. I had been naked in front of many women before.

I had bathed in rivers beside the wagons in the old fields, surrounded by breasts in blackened water, somehow unaware that my boy-cousins had not possessed the same parts until my sixth summer. I had also stood in the hall of old flat, nude and trembling from the cold, until one of the older girls slipped out from the bathroom and it was my turn for a lukewarm scrub.

I was coated in a light sweat, trembling now – not from cold, but rather from strain. I flopped against the pillow and soon felt a cloth pat against my forehead. I blinked open heavy eyelids to find Alfie there. I lifted a hand to catch his wrist and bring him close so that I could press my lips against his hands, too grateful for him to put it into words.

The old Gypsies had once told me that there were words which humans had not yet found the syllables for, because we had never been able to make sense of certain emotions; so, the words floated out there in the unknown, unpronounced, words that were meant for feelings which humans had known for centuries but had never been able to name.

I kissed his hands and knew what the old Gypsies had meant about man being unable to name his own emotions, those which came more complexly than love, burned more brightly than passion, touched more softly than his fingertips ghosting my jawline and finishing at the plumpness of my lips.

Prickling spikes of pain shot through that blackened pit in my right arm once she peeled away bandages stained in yellowish marks and it felt as if she had unfurled layers of my flesh along with it. I curled with the turn of the bandage, curled at the spine, sinking sharp nails into the pillows. While she wrapped fresh bandages around my arm, Alfie whispered soothing words against my hair.

I scrunched his shoulder once she lifted another roll and I bucked against the skin which lifted with it. I glanced behind at the bandage in her hand and paled at the gooey string of blood which trailed with it. Quietly, I leaned back and spoke into his ear, his stubble scratching against my cheek.

I said, “All you went through in France, Alfie, and I can barely take the bandages being changed, eh?”

He shushed me, pressing his lips against my burning temple. “Ain’t the same, love,” he replied.

The nurse rubbed some foreign liquid against a piece of cloth and brushed it against my skin; its sharp, harsh sting made me grip him just a little harder. I let out a small yelp, bending forward from her touch.

In a sudden burst of fury, Alfie spun around to face the nurse and roared, “Are you fuckin’ tryin’ to ‘urt ‘her, are ya – what kinda fuckin’ nurse are ya, anyway? Fuckin’ three-legged dog would ‘ave more grace and fuckin’ delicacy in his min’strations than you …”

Startled by his outburst, the nurse dropped the bottle and a thick, oozing liquid spilled onto the rug in a dense patch of brown. Alfie was silenced by it, his eyes drifting slowly downward toward the bottle, lifting upward to the nurse whose small frame shivered in her armchair. I was sweating badly and breathing heavily, glancing between them both, unsure of the reason for his poor temperament around her.

I reached for the roll of bandages left on the bed, still half-wrapped around me. Alfie rushed to grab it from me, his eyebrows still furrowed from anger, glaring at that nurse, perched at the edge of her seat as if she might bolt at the slightest sign of renewed fury from Alfie. I grabbed his arm and pulled him close against me.

“You take her downstairs,” I told him, “…and you apologise, and you pay double what she asked for. I expect you to have one of the lads take her home after that, Alfie.”

Alfie looked in my eyes and opened his mouth; perhaps he ran the speech through his mind, his response and mine, before he inevitably pressed his lips shut and settled on a simple nod.

“All right, darlin’. You rest there, yeah, and I’ll be right back? You don’t move an inch, darlin’, right, ‘cause I’ll be back sharpish. Gotta see out the nurse, don’ I?” he rambled.

The nurse had not heard what I said. Therefore, her first indication that she was permitted to abandon her post came from Alfie – and she looked so relieved that she almost forgot to gather her tools from the bed, scrambling to collect them all and hurry after Alfie into the hall, keeping him at arms-length with her bag held tight against her chest. I was still bent on that bed with knees embedded into mattress. I gripped the bandage, saw the white crease of my knuckles once I began to pull the roll around and around like the nurses had done for days in the hospital, but soon I felt my right arm weaken, until I could hold the plasters no more, panting like a tired dog – three-legged and all.

The door creaked.

“Willa,” Alfie groaned.

I saw him in the threshold and rolled my eyes at him. “Mean old man.”

“Never mean, me,” he retorted. “She was bein’ far too rough with ya, weren’t she?”

“What did you say to her downstairs?”

“I did what you asked. I paid her, said I never meant to be brash, yeah, but a bleedin’ donkey could hold a fuckin’ plaster better than she could, yeah. Pure fuckin’ ‘onesty on my part,” he replied.

“Not then. Earlier. The girl was afraid of you before she ever even made it to this bedroom. So, what did you say to her before that?”

Alfie blinked and pursed his lips. “Don’t know what you mean, treacle.”

I was watching him very closely. I heard it said anew: Mrs Solomons. I thought that perhaps the nurse had not made a mistake, but rather she had been misinformed. “Did you tell her that your wife is much too delicate for any kind of manhandling, hm? The wife who has been punched and kicked and hit all her life?”

I spoke with amusement but glanced over to find him still there in the threshold; my eyes dropped and saw his hands furled into fists, knuckles bled white like mine. Alfie had an awful coldness about him once he bordered between his moods and it was not always a coldness narrowed toward me, exactly, but rather toward some faint, unseen figure behind me, because his eyes drifted there, as if he saw into that deep unknown, where words of man had not yet been created, where syllables floated around, unpronounced.

“I told ‘er that you suffered enough, yeah.”

I felt myself soften, looking away from him. “Alfie, just – just come over here, please.”

Slowly, he approached, his gaze full of that same frustration. I held out the bandages for him, imploring him to continue with the rolls which had loosened from my stomach and fluttered around my knees. Alfie was gentle, moving with the wrapping and bending to rip off the ends with his teeth. I could lean against him, rest an arm around his shoulder to support myself. Absently, I stroked my fingers through his hair while he worked, pulling at strands here and there. He liked that. He always had.

“Much better nurse than the other one,” I murmured. “Must keep you around.”

“More like your fuckin’ man-servant, me,” he grumbled, but his tone was lighter. Once the nurse had been removed, he was much more relaxed. “And do tell, my lady, what did your last servant die of, if you don’t mind me askin’?”

“He asked what the servant before him had died of,” I replied. “So, I had to do him in. Though I can’t quite recall exactly what I did to him, for what it’s worth. Been so many of them.”

Alfie whistled. His smile was wide, his eyes still focused on the bandages, pressing them together into folds which meant the plaster would not peel off. “Oh, you are cruel, my lady. Fuckin’ brutal, you are.”

“Does it bother you? I can always find another manservant, if this position does not suit you.”

“Oh, I can think o’ plenty more suitable positions,” he huffed. “Some of ‘em do involve this bed, mind, but most others –…”

I slapped at his shoulder lightly, laughing.

“And there won’t be any other fuckin’ manservants, I can tell ya that much,” he muttered.

“Oh, don’t be jealous, Alfie.”

“Jealous, me? Nah, I’m just sayin’ I ain’t sharin’ me little pantry what you make me sleep in with any other servant, that’s all.”

“I’ll have you sleep in a cupboard if you keep this attitude up.”

Smirking, he checked my arm, too. He liked to reassure himself. He was quiet and I revelled in watching the smaller details of his face whenever he was distracted; furrowed brows, bluish-green eyes swirling thoughtfully.

He said, “I like it when you laugh, Willa.”

My lips twitched upward, my cheeks flushing red.

“Like it when you smile, too,” he said. “Like it when you blush. Like it more when I’m makin’ you do those things.”

I dared myself to ask him what had been in my mind ever since the nurse had said it aloud. “Why did she call me Mrs Solomons, Alfie?”

He shrugged his shoulders, sweeping the unused bandages from the bed-sheets, before he dropped all of it and looked directly into my eyes with a soft sigh. “’Cause I been callin’ you that since we first met, ain’ I? Always said it, in me ‘ead. Figured I might say it out loud for a little while. ‘ear it, taste it.”

I stroked his cheek. “Do you like it how it sounds, then? Like how it tastes, too?”

He grinned and leaned into my hand. “Ain’t any words that I know to describe it, darlin’.”

I watched him, thinking of old Gypsies and the limits of man’s tongue. So, I leaned to kiss him, because it was something that I knew more than words, the feel of him. He cupped me at the nape, pressed his forehead against mine. I could feel the swell of dizziness which flooded through me, the ripple of nausea in my stomach from those strange spells.  

I said, “If I had died there in the flat that night with all the others, or died in front of the bakery, then I would have died happier than I had ever been, Alfie.”

“Don’t talk like that,” he breathed into the hollows of my collarbone.

“Died happier,” I told him, “because I was never truly happy in that flat. All those years spent in there, and not one of them happy – and isn’t that the same feeling of a word that hasn’t been made for us yet? I could call it sadness, call it some missed chance for a life with Johnny in the wagons. But I don’t think it’s enough, anymore.”

“You’re burning up, Willa,” he whispered, his brows pinched together in worry. He held the back of his hand against my forehead and pulled it away with his jaw locked.

He shifted us and pulled my legs from beneath me, lay me against the bed-sheets. I felt the coolness of them against skin, prickling in an uncomfortable heat. I watched him reach for a damp cloth to smooth against the redness of me, the sweat and strain.

“Nurses said it will pass, this, just a couple more days, angel –…”

“The Gypsies used to tell me that there was another world other than ours and sometimes souls got trapped in there – those souls died in houses with mirrors,” I explained, “and the souls saw themselves in the mirrors and became trapped between the glass, in our world and another. During the war, I was in there, Alfie, trapped and waiting with the dogs for you, you know –…”

“I know,” he said. “I know, love. I’m back now.”

 “Cover the mirrors,” I told him. “Or I’ll be trapped there, and –…”

He stretched himself out alongside me, tucked himself just underneath me and said, “I know, I know –…”

I know that I dreamt of myself in a bath of lukewarm water. I was bloated and composed of mottled blue skin, just like Josephine had been when I found her. I stood from the water and turned into a pantry full of jars, filled in thickened lumps of sickly-sweet blackness. There was a knock on its door, which had been shut sometime before. I turned toward it and heard her outside the door. I heard her ask, “Do you feel it in your gut yet? Has it reached your brain yet, so that all your body has understood it?”

Beside me, Esther pulled a jar from the shelf and popped open its lid. She scooped out its mush onto her flat palm and dipped her fingertips into it, then lifted them to smear against my forehead. She licked off the remains, before she dropped the jar. The glass shattered. Black mush coated the walls.

There was a dog, in the pantry, with a funny ear bent like paper, folded over. It sniffed at the mush and began to lick at the floors like Esther had licked off those trickles from her skin. I looked at her and saw her skull was caved inward; it had not been like that before, but it was now.

There was another knock on the door, harsh and heavy, so that all the jars trembled on the shelves and rattled toward us as if they might fall off. I went to catch them and heard him say, “I been sittin’ on that wall, Willa, waitin’ for ya, right, and your Charlotte comes ‘round to tell me –…”

I felt a sudden wetness in my shoes and glanced down at them, only to find them filled in that sickly-sweet blackness. I heard the sound of shattering glass, but nothing had fallen.

All the jars sat there and watched me with blinking eyes.

There was another feminine murmur in the bedroom once I came around; the curtains had been drawn and the bedroom was dulled by the heaviness of those drapes, coated in staleness. I saw a woman sat in that armchair. I squinted at her soft blonde hair in curls around her shoulders, then trailed my eyes along her arms and saw that her hands were like songbirds flitting around my limbs, stretching for bandages, snipped with proper scissors, held down in proper strips of plaster. I watched her. I saw blue corpses behind her, corpses from the flat. I blinked fast and the corpses blinked right back, cracking bluish eyelids like shattered porcelain, like the nurse had been made of porcelain.

“D’you remember me, then?” the woman asked softly. “Met you when you first got this lovely mark –…” – here she paused to stroke that blistered scar on my hand from the coppers smacking a drawer against it – “…in Ollie’s old flat. D’you remember that, hm?”

Sifting through old memories, I searched for her in the thunder of a headache. “Francine,” I answered finally, realising that she was the same woman who had been there after I had found the girls dead in the flat, after I saw seen blue corpses made of porcelain.  

She smiled. “Alfie called. He said that if I came ‘round and had a look at you, he would let Ollie take this Friday off – wants to take me to the pictures, he does. Awful romantic, my Ollie.”

I stared at her. She had said ‘my Ollie’ with the same dreamy whisper that I had often said ‘my Alfie’ and I heard the soppiness in it, all of a sudden. “Ollie? Our Ollie?”

Francine was very beautiful. I had not thought about it much, the first time that we had met. I had been distracted by what had happened in the flat. I had hardly even comprehended much beyond pushing one foot in front of the other, then. I looked at her now and wondered how I had missed it. We were nothing alike, because her hair had been tamed, her lips painted in the lightest shade of red, her skin pale and not at all marked. I was made of black tangles and black eyes; darker than coal, my eyes. Gypsy eyes, Esther had called them, and the kohl made them blacker, black like the bogs in winter.

“Your Ollie,” she nodded, and her cheeks had become a lovely rosy shade. “I had been wanting him to ask me for so long, you know. He tried, that night at the flat – he told me a long time after it that he had wanted to do it, but he had lost the courage once we stepped outside the flat. Only took him another few years to find it again!”

“Are you a nurse?” I asked.

“Sort of,” she shrugged. “Started with my brothers, I did. Stitched them up after fights – not easy for the Jewish lads out there, is it? Well, any lad tried to say anything about the Jews, my brothers stood right up and went for them.”

“Alfie’s like that, too,” I said proudly.

“Oh, I know. Stitched him up once or twice too. Started charging somewhere along the line, you know. Needed to put food on the table somehow. Lord knows my brothers weren’t about to pay for it. I only take care of Jewish folk, though. Make my rounds whenever people need me, charge them less than a – a real nurse might charge, y’know.”

“You must be good if Alfie trusts you.”

“Alfie doesn’t trust me,” she replied lightly. “Doesn’t trust anyone. He trusts you. Maybe he trusts Ollie. But others, he tolerates – out of necessity, he lets me be here.”

“Then I’m grateful you came,” I told her.

“I brought you something which might help settle your fevers,” she nodded. “Made from a recipe that my grandmother used for my grandfather after he hurt his leg in an accident – Jewish secrets and all, can’t be telling you what’s in it, but I do hope you can trust me more than Alfie does.”

“Not even a little bit,” I said, smiling at her. “I tolerate.”

She laughed, but soon her eyes gleamed in a distant thoughtfulness. “From what I have heard, Willa, you’ve tolerated more than enough these past few years, haven’t you?”

I felt sickly-sweet blackness spread across my tongue. I shrugged my shoulders and made some flaccid sound with lips which tingled and vibrated as if insects sat beneath the skin and burrowed there.

Francine was quiet. She smoothed the bandages beneath her fingertips. I found her to be much more gentle than the nurse before her. I noticed that Alfie had left us alone; perhaps he did trust, sometimes, in certain people. I looked at Francine and had the sense that she was one of those special few alongside myself and Ollie. Otherwise, he would be sat in here, watching her like he had watched that nurse.

I had warmed to her. I was not sure of the reason for it. I felt at ease around her, because I had become familiar with the ways of women, found comfort in that female bond – and it was like that because I had been with women all my life, temporarily placed between boy-cousins and Johnny alike. I had been formed by the hands of women, been shaped by them, understood them like I had never been able to understand men before – because me, to me, had only ever been coppers and governors and wardens and judges and executioners. Otherwise, I used to think like that about most men until I met Alfie.

I used to think that God had spent longer on women.

Sometimes, I looked at women like Francine and Elsie and Charlotte, and I wondered if I still thought that.

“Alfie tells me you can sew brilliantly, Willa,” Francine continued. “Tells anybody with ears, he does. Tells them more than once, too. You know, I’m meeting with some friends this weekend – a friend called Ruth has a little night in her house, almost every Friday. Nothing special, mind. We just drink a few pots of good tea and have a nice natter between us.”

I scoffed. “Did Alfie ask you to do this, hm? Felt sorry for me, is that it?”

She cut off a strip of plaster and went very still. She swallowed and said, “You know, the night before I came to the flat to fix your hand, I found out that my brother had died in France. Never had enough to bury him. Can you believe that? The height of that lad, the size of him – and there was nothing of him left to bury after the bombs got him. I never could get my head around that.”

“You still came to the flat, even after that?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Ollie told me what had happened to you and I thought that perhaps I could do for you what I was never able to do for my brother. I had stitched him up enough times in his life. Just never realised that once he put on that uniform and went to France, the stitches might not reach him.”

I looked away from her, unsure of how to compose myself.

She drew in a shuddered breath. “Well, what difference does that make to you, eh? But the world can be a lonely place if no one feels even a little bit sorry for you, you know. Better that than no one cares for you at all.”

I understood what she meant, and that maybe this little meeting with her friends had helped her more than I had first thought. So, I licked my lips and shrugged. “I suppose I’ll consider it, Francine.”

“Franny,” she said. “The girls call me Franny – as well as other choice names if I take all the biscuits during those little meetings.”

“Should I bring a tin of my own, if I come along?”

“No,” she replied. “Rachel brings them. Her only contribution, those biscuits. She sure as fuck can’t offer anything in the way of conversation, you’d get more talking to a brick than you would talking to her – awful bitch, too. She’d be livid if you brought biscuits.”

I blinked at her, surprised by her words. Then I caught her smirk and smiled myself. “I used to rob for a living – I can take the biscuits without her ever knowing it, clean off the plate before she gets a chance to even talk at all.”

“Finally, a girl who understands me,” Franny grinned wickedly, unphased. I figured Ollie had told her, or she had already known about that flat on Bell Road beforehand. “Could you rob a statue?”

“Depends how big it is.”

Franny pursed her lips. “Got it as a gift from Rachel for my birthday. I’m sure she did it as a joke. Big gaudy thing, this statue. A horse. When have I ever shown an interest in horses? I’m sure she did it to piss me off. At least if I said it was robbed, she might not hold it against me.”

“I’m a little worse for wear and out of practice,” I replied. “But I like the challenge.”

Franny smiled at me. “I knew Alfie had picked a good’un.”

Shuffling from the backseat, I stepped into puddles and mud. I heard Alfie slip out on the other side, heard his boots squelch until he came around the side of the car and reached me, stretching out his hand. I gripped it, hauling myself out with a grunt at the discomfort of each step toward that courtyard.

Blackened clouds clotted the heavens overhead while Alfie brought us beneath the arch. I looked upward at it and remembered how its metal had glinted in the dim light as I fell backward from the impact of the first bullet. I half-turned as if I might scramble into that backseat and urge the young lad in front to press against the pedal and spare me the trauma of all this – and Alfie had loosened his hold as if he might let me, too.

I pushed forward. I looked at the wooden doors where Ollie stood. I watched him, found it easier once I recalled that night in front of the flat when Ollie had stood before me and called me toward him. He called me now and said, “Willa, got some orders for you already. Your shirts were badly missed.”

“Just the shirts?” I asked. “What about me, eh?”

“Suppose the dogs missed you,” Ollie shrugged, his lips lifting into a grin. “Been sniffing around the barrels, they have.”

“’e don’t mean it,” Alfie muttered. “’ad one of the lads feed them ones what come into the yard.”

“Now we got all the strays,” Ollie grumbled.

“Yeah, that’s ‘ow we got you, weren’t it, Ollie?” Alfie replied. “Fuckin’ stray, sniffin’ ‘round me yard, eh, lookin’ for scraps…and I fed ya, didn’ I? Now I can’t get fuckin’ rid of ya…”

Settling into my old chair, I pulled little spools of thread between my fingertips and pulled tight, tight enough that my flesh turned purple and became numb. I stared into nothingness while I did it and thought of Charlotte in that flat on Fetter Road, alone. I thought of all the men that used her. I thought of how she could not tell me about it; men had reached for her like Yaxley had reached for me in the pantry. Another jar, chosen because it was wanted just that once. I had bathed Charlotte. I had clothed her, fed her. But she had not come to me, in the end.

I stood from the table. I had not made a single shirt. I wanted to find Alfie. I was not sure what I really wanted from him, but I knew that I wanted to see him. I wanted to feed the dogs with him, I told myself. That was it.

Droplets sputtered from a pipe in the workroom of the bakery and soaked the tiles beneath the barrels in brown sludge. I walked slowly. I had not thought about where to look for him. I walked toward the staircase and glanced at the door at the end of the hall just before the stairs. It held bags of flour and sugar, rarely brought out. I had been drawn toward it by the sound of thumping. I saw its wooden frame tremble.

I saw sickly-sweet blackness seep outward onto the tiles and blend with those brown pools.

The door sprung open and out strode a lad. I had often seen him lift sacks from trucks.

In the narrow slit of light which came from behind him, I saw a body curled inward on itself. I tasted the sting of copper in the air. I saw the flash of a baton lifted and then brought down swiftly, cracked against bone –…And that bleeding face peered out at me, opened it lips to speak, but a river of blood spilled out and splashed the tiles. His socket had been crushed inward. It was the only way that I could describe the horrendous way in which his skull seemed dented at the brow, pushed inward. I saw strips of skin dangle from his face and I thought of those gooey strips of skin pulled from me, before.

The boy who had just left the room glanced up from where he wiped his hands against his apron. I understood, then, that I had made that apron. I had made every inch of it. His eyes met mine and he stopped walking. The droplets continued to plop against the puddles and the earth spun around us. I saw the bobble of his throat in a swallow. He tried not to look at me anymore, and moved forward to rush around me, out into the courtyard.

I turned to watch him and found Alfie there behind me.

He had his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched forward. He chewed at his mouth from the inside. I saw it in the scrunch of his jaw. Then he walked forward. And he walked around me, beyond me. He went toward that room at the end of the hall and opened it. He stepped into it, closed it behind him.

The cries and screams stopped. The thumping did not. The puddle of blood grew larger and reached my boots. I never stepped away from it. I let it soak into the soles. 

Alfie looked at me, his eyes flashing in a sudden splash of orange light from outside the car. It was pouring, out there, but we sat in our little cocoon, away from all that. I saw figures slip around the car, crossing the road, couples with arms linked and babes in prams. I saw the lad that Alfie hired to drive this car and it made me think about how I had never been in a car like this before, so sleek and so posh, paid for with all those envelopes that had been brought to Alfie, brought in trembling hands, spines bent in reverence toward him.

Spoken into the warmth which fuzzed between us, he said, “’e was the one who shot ya. I made ‘im swallow a bullet – made ‘im swallow three. Brought what was left o’ ‘im to the Italians. Dropped ‘im outside Sabini’s own street.”

I looked out at the orange orbs from the windows of houses dotted around ours and thought of that old carousel from the fairground, before the war. I leaned my forehead against the coldness of the glass and felt the dampness there. Softly, I told him, “We should get a dog, Alfie. A great big one, too, not the small yapping kind – not that I don’t like them, but I always loved those big dogs on Bell Road with drooping muzzles, always drooling. Reminds me of you on the couch every night.”

“Cheeky fuckin’ minx,” he huffed. “What made you want a dog, anyway? Ain’t it enough that we feed ‘alf the fuckin’ population o’ dogs in this city, eh, always humpin’ and bringin’ us more pups. Fuckin’ ‘ell…”

“Ollie mentioned them in the yard,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders. Really, it had come from that dream in which I had watched a dog clean the blackened mush from the pantry. I was not sure what it meant, if it meant anything at all, but dreams were sacred things for Gypsies, I knew. “I think it would be nice, to have a dog sleep at the end of the bed. Safer, too.”

“On the fuckin’ bed? When you already take all me fuckin’ blankets off me in the night, leave me fuckin’ shiverin’ in just me bleedin’ socks?”

I grinned at him. I knew Alfie well enough to know that, for all his jokes, he was already planning where he might find a dog with a drooping muzzle, always drooling. I reached for his arm and looped it around mine. I told him that it might make me feel safer, which was a little cruel on my part because it only poked at the soft spot in Alfie for me, but then I had not told him a lie. I really thought the dog might make me feel better.

Through the downpour, a blue figure approached the window of the car and I breathed very slowly. I wondered if it was Sabini or another corpse with porcelain eyelids out there in the cold, its stiff limbs breaking to lift a gun toward us.

Only the door opened, and Ollie said, “I opened the front door for you, Alfie. Had the lads check inside, too. All clear.”

So, it was like that now.

In the mornings, we stirred from sleep and dressed ourselves, a gun slipped into its holster for him, pocketknives tucked into those familiar slits in my skirts for me. There was always a car waiting for us, anywhere that we went. Alfie had it checked for bombs almost hourly. He had lads check the streets, had lads walk alongside us to the car. Outside the bakery, too, there had been lads – all with Jewish families, always known by Alfie. Still, he never trusted. He tolerated. In the evenings, those same lads repeated that routine, hounded the streets and checked the house, stood outside it at night.

It was like that now.

But there had been a carousel, once.

Colourful houses filled Benson Avenue with neat gardens all around. I stepped out of the car and made sure to pull the bag out with me, stepping toward Franny whose arms opened to reach for me. I was stiff while she hugged me and smiled tightly at her. Behind her, I saw a sallow woman with dark hair like mine, pinned beneath a delicate scrap of cloth.

She welcomed me into her house and brought me into this front-room and I was handed a teacup – little plate and all, with a wafer plopped alongside it. I noticed that some of the women had glanced out at that car sat out front with two lads leaning against it, caps dipped low. I knew that none of their husbands had insisted on protection for some little tea-party between women. I had no husband, I told myself. Alfie had not talked to Johnny. There was tradition to think about. Hierarchy. Things that had to be followed.

I was still against coming to the house, despite it all. I thought it was bizarre and weak and feeble to want to sit in a room on a Friday evening, having spun out countless shirts while sat in the office with Alfie across from me, his glasses slipping low on the bridge of his nose while he leafed through papers. I thought it was bizarre and weak and feeble to want to sit here with women I had never met all because I liked Franny, and it did not matter that all the women were Jewish and I was not, nor did it matter that they all knew each other and I was the odd one out, nor did any of it matter, really. The hands which had formed me, shaped me, had fallen away and I could not feel their touch anymore.

So, bizarre, weak and feeble it was, perhaps, to want the presence of women around me because I had lost all the others who had ever loved me. 

I had seen her grave, that morning. He had brought me there. Alfie had shown me Charlotte there, beneath all that mud and soil. And I cried for her like I had cried the night before it, the morning before it, all those days and times before it. I felt the pain of knowing that Charlotte had probably never felt those emotions that floated out there, unpronounced, because life had gone too fast for her to be able to feel it, to latch onto it.

“Willa?”

I jolted from thoughts of worms and crows in the wet fields, the sinking of mud beneath boots and the drizzle which soaked through my coat. I saw that Franny was watching me – all the women were watching me, and I followed the tilt of her chin toward the bag in my hands, the bag that I had long forgotten about.

“Well, did you bring a gift?” Franny asked.

I nodded and reached into the bag, gripping the tin of biscuits which slopped around. I pulled it out, dropped it onto the small table in front of all the women and watched their eyes flick cautiously toward one woman in particular; Rachel, I assumed, who looked down at the tin of biscuits and then looked at Franny with her jaw held in a tight grind, lips pressed into a line.

I looked into Franny’s eyes and said, “Thought they’d be a conversation starter, you know. In case my conversation is dry as a fucking brick.”

Her lips stretched into that wide, wicked smile, which crinkled the skin just beneath her eyes. I smiled right back at her and thought that perhaps it was not so bad to be bizarre and weak and feeble, for a little while; the world would be a lonely place, otherwise.

☼ 

Chapter Text

twelve


 

Sitting behind his table, its surface engulfed in endless papers and documents slopping from piles, the workroom seemed distant and fuzzed behind the windowpanes which surrounded me. I chewed idly at the tip of a pencil and stared out into that blurry mirage of workers rushing around in a wild flurry between the tables, arms laden in sacks or carting bottles stacked on carts, clinking against one another. Often, I looked out there and thought of that old factory that Esther and Butcher maintained, before bullets had sliced through their skulls, shot by top-dogs who had been more rabid and ferocious than them.

I thought, too, of that delicate scale which balanced between us and the Italians, momentarily dipping in our favour but soon to tip for them; it was all about the tipping of that scale and all about whoever stood at the other end and all about what weight sat upon their shoulders, and I knew that that scale had been there long before Alfie had ever stepped onto it.

“Willa?”

Stirred from my thoughts, I looked toward the door and saw Ollie there with an unfamiliar figure huddled behind him. I beckoned him into the room. The woman shuffled in with her cloak around her, a headscarf tucked around her light-brown hair which floated around her in wisps. I could already tell that she was Jewish, from both her outfit and the respectful manner in which she held herself, stood proud, politely dismissed Ollie and his offers of tea with biscuits. Instead, she settled into the armchair on the other side of the table. I prepared myself to stand and walk out, expecting Alfie to follow soon, but Ollie quickly stepped forward.

“Mrs Allman would like to speak with you, Willa.”

I had never attended a meeting in which Alfie was not the person sought out for a discussion. Ollie had anticipated my confusion. He stepped backward and closed the door but hovered outside for a moment as if to ensure that all went well. Alfie frequently had meetings in the evenings, bordering into the night, meetings with all sorts of people. Even if these meetings were supposed to be held in privacy, Alfie never asked that I remove myself from the office. I mulled over what Franny had said when she had come to clean my wounds: Alfie doesn’t trust me – doesn’t trust anyone. He trusts you. Maybe he trusts Ollie.

Whittling out shirts, aprons and decorated skullcaps all day meant that I sometimes skipped sitting in those meetings with him and chose to take a car with Ollie to the house instead. I wanted only to drop into the warm comfort of our bed. Still, I remained there some nights with him even if I was tired because I knew that Alfie hated it if I went home without him. He hated it so much that sometimes it soured his temper. He took it out on the lads, and those meetings festered in a dark tension which also meant whatever the person asked of him was either denied or offered with numerous strings attached.

“Mrs Solomons,” the woman said, “I waited until I knew Mr Solomons would be – preoccupied.”

She had become more and more prominent, this Mrs Solomons; the nurse had mentioned her and almost all of the lads out in the courtyard called me that, unaware that I had never married Alfie and there was no sign of proposal. Alfie was reluctant to meet with Johnny Dogs after what had happened in the hospital, and he typically scoffed before he said that a piece of paper was nothing more than a formality, that we were bound in ways more powerful than paper.

Esther had always said that marriage was only ever about possession for men; his wife became part of the property which came with it, like the house and the furniture within it – men never married for love, only for possession. Yet whenever I heard that call of Mrs Solomons, I felt some attachment to this elusive woman from some other world, who possessed a ring, possessed that paper along with it; possessed him.

Because did it not work both ways?

Alfie was an enigma in his beliefs. He was firm in his faith, believed in God, especially if he suffered from what he considered to be some form of punishment – he thought that the fact I had been shot outside of the bakery was his punishment for having made rum there in the first place, that blood had to be spilled there and that it could not be his own because God knew that it would not hurt Alfie as much if the blood had come from his own veins; he had spilled enough of it in France to settle his dues with God, he said, and it would hurt much more for him if it was my blood which soaked the soil than if it had been his.

He was liberal in a lot of ways that most men were not, my Alfie. His workers were male, all of them, but that was for protection and lugging around large barrels of rum, although he had recently considered maids for the house and it had lingered between us, if only because I was hesitant about it. He never told me what I should or should not do if it was not directly linked to some fear for my safety with the Italians. In almost all aspects, I was equal – apart from occasionally asking that I remain cordial, if not entirely cold around other men, but that came from both his faith and certain attitudes attached to it, as well as his own pride and jealousy.

Alfie never treated me as if he possessed me at all; he had always said that I was his, but no more than I ever called him mine.

And so Mrs Solomons floated there in my peripheral.

“How can I help you, Mrs Allman?” I asked, clearing my throat. “I’m sure there must be a reason you didn’t want Alfie around.”

“Indeed, there is, Mrs Solomons,” she replied. “Are you Jewish, Mrs Solomons?”

Alfie rarely discussed his faith with me, but sometimes small details came through the cracks, especially if he attended what he called shabbat, which he sometimes did. Usually, it came more from candles which appeared around the house for special weeks of observance and he would sometimes attend ceremonies, unmentioned between us. I never prodded him too hard about it. I knew Alfie well enough by now to know that if he really wanted to tell me, then he would have said the words already; it was simply a question of patience on my part.

Despite all this, I also knew that Alfie probably would like to ask if I might convert for him, if I might consider donning that scarf that most married women around these parts wore after their wedding, if it ever did happen between us, and if I might attend some of those ceremonies with him.

I had tried not to think too much about it. I thought about scales loaded with Italian weights instead.

Mrs Allman watched me before she lifted a hand to brush at her mouth. She nodded as if I had spoken, but the silence had evidently confirmed enough for her. “I am a devout woman myself, Mrs Solomons. Always have been. Proud of it, too,” she continued. “But lately it has been hard to understand just what these trials I endure are meant to tell me – is this punishment or is it a sign?”

I was a little thrown by her words, unsure of her intentions. “What trials, Mrs Allman?”

She lifted her eyes to meet mine and I was greatly disturbed by that frothing misery held in the sheen of her stare, the curl of her lip into a snarl, her hands gripping her handbag with such ferocity that her knuckles whitened. “The war – that dreadful war which left my husband an invalid in all senses but physical. He drinks, Mrs Solomons. His hands tremble something terrible. He lost his job. What does he tell the kids, when nothing is left in the cupboards for dinner? ‘Eat the dirt, like we did in France’, he tells them.”

“Then what do you want from me?” I asked softly. “What could I possibly do for your husband?”

“I wanted Mr Solomons to offer him a job here,” she explained, her words cracking in the strain of her conviction, “...it would put him on the straight and narrow, Mrs Solomons. He is afraid of your husband, very afraid of him. But he respects him, too.”

“Why would you not ask Alfie himself?”

She hesitated. “My husband is a proud man – just about the only thing the war did not manage to take from him is that damned sense of pride, you know –…” – her pink lips lifted into a bitter smile, sapped of all humour – “…and he would never think to come here and ask Mr Solomons even if it meant the betterment of his family. He speaks to ghosts, in our house. It frightens the children, how he speaks. He asks the ghosts for his rations, lifts some imagined can. He sits beneath the staircase and holds his arms over his head and tells them that the bombs will fall soon. He flinches, Mrs Solomons. He flinches.”

Silent tears slipped along her cheeks and her eyes never left mine, not once. I was unsettled. I turned to pull open the drawer of the table if only for the chance to look away from her on the pretence of finding tissues. My fingertips ghosted over some cold metal and I glanced down to find a gun there, tucked beneath the folds of an envelope. I looked at Mrs Allman and found that my throat had become oddly dry so that I swallowed in painful gulps and strained to lift my tongue from its place, so that it slapped and flopped against my teeth, now numb.

I had forgotten about the tissues.

I was more focused on the fact that Mrs Allman was too close in age for comfort; she looked to be in her late twenties or perhaps the earliest part of her thirties, she had a husband affected by war, she had seen ghosts in his eyes and the only difference was that Alfie rarely spoke to his own if I was around. He spoke to them in his sleep, sometimes. I never told him about it. He knew that it happened, knew that I knew about it.

Alfie had his pride, too.

“I will speak with Alfie tonight, Mrs Allman.”

“Judith,” she corrected. “Thank you, Mrs Solomons.”

“Willa.”

Judith stood from her seat and nodded in acknowledgement. As she reached for the handle of the door, I blurted out, “I’m not married to Alfie, Judith. I’m not really – not really Mrs Solomons.”

Judith turned, her skin soft and warm in the orange glow of the office in the evening with all its candles and lamps. I fiddled with my hands in a failed attempt at nonchalance. I had felt compelled to tell her, felt that I was fraudulent if I did not say aloud what bothered me so much. Yet Judith only smiled and said, “Oh, but you are, Willa. Mr Solomons has made our community more than aware of it – especially our men.”

Startled, I found that my words were consumed by that familiar dryness and only a tight, uneasy smile twitched at my lips, contorted by the spasm of my muscles. Judith was escorted out and I sat in silence without her, mulling over men cowered beneath staircases and unusual candles until there was another knock.

I looked up at Ollie, his hands then clasped in front of his apron, always diligent and burning with some mute awareness in his eyes. Sometimes, I wondered if Ollie was clairvoyant, for he seemed to sense and predict things before he should – and I saw in his dark stare that he had foreseen Judith Allman and her problems.

Especially our men, Judith said. Had Esther been right? Had it only ever been about possession?

Ollie watched me, his eyes glinting in the dim light.

I drew my eyes away from him, looked toward those lads still swarming outside the office, shifting documents and rum while Ollie ordered them about in the absence of Alfie. I recalled each anxious exchange that I had had with those lads, whose hands had remained firmly bolted against themselves, whose eyes often found the floor beneath us to be more interesting and whose lips sometimes trembled in speech if I approached too much. I had always contributed these blunders to religious faith or maybe some respect for me. Perhaps it was nothing fear.

“Did he warn them away, Ollie?” I asked quietly.

Like an owl, his eyes blinked slowly, knowingly. “Yes.”

I had expected some effort to mask what Alfie had done or at least some attempt to soften it. Because he had not done either, it stung just a little bit more. “Does he not trust me, then? He thinks that I might run off with some other man?”

Ollie remained incredibly neutral in his expression. “Very silly of you to assume that Alfie did any of that out of distrust in you, Willa.”

Drinking in his odd choice of words, I understood that Ollie was dropping his usual hints. Yet I had always preferred bluntness. “Have it out, Ollie.”

“Alfie had warned all men in this bakery to stay away from Jewish women – lined them up in the basement, made his rules clear. He does it for all new lads when they start in this place, too. And he doesn’t do it out of any distrust in you, Willa. He does it because he knows what runs through their heads, sometimes. He knows what happens when one man thinks he can hurt another man – if even indirectly.”

I turned from him, looking at the cabinets. It was too hard to look at him. “I am not a Jewish woman.”

Ollie licked his lips and shifted his weight. I narrowed my eyes at him. He finally relented, mumbling, “He might have mentioned you, specifically.”

Ollie had prepared himself for fury and found only quiet acceptance. I understood the reason for which he had expected some anger, some indignation that Alfie had spoken on my behalf – but the truth of the matter was that I preferred it like that, with men afraid of me, even if it meant through fear of Alfie. I had never told Ollie about Yaxley and memories of that pantry swirled within my chest and furled upward into my mouth. I felt the wetness of my own eyes once I turned them toward him, and I saw the genuine surprise in his own at the sight of such vulnerability in me.

Ollie had seen me in some of the darkest hours of my existence, but he had never stood in that pantry alongside me. He had never been reached for like another jar amongst shelves upon shelves of others. He had never been called kitten, with hands prowling into parts unknown. He had never been reduced; because it had felt like that, a reduction, a shrivelling of all that had been inside of me into some darkened spot in the pantry where his hands could not reach me – but he had reached for me, reached into me, and I had been kitten and I had been shrivelled, reduced.

“Willa?” Ollie called worriedly. “Are you all right?”

“Backwards and wrong,” I mumbled absently to myself, transfixed on some scuffmark on the carvings of the cabinet cross from me.

“What?”

I looked at him and there was a coldness on my cheek from a tear which bled into the skin, absorbed and forgotten. I let out a slow, rattled breath and wiped away the tears, smiling weakly at him. “Never mind, Ollie. Never mind. Alfie is a good man, is all.”

Uncertain of what had made me react so weirdly, he only nodded in response. Gently, he said, “Alfie called earlier. He said he might be late, but he wants me to ask if you want to be taken home now. Getting a little late. He says you’re an awful crank when you’re tired, Willa. Very bossy, too.”

Warmth spread through some deepened part of my chest and cast light on that other half shrouded still in the darkness of the pantry, drove away all fear of it. “I’d like very much to go home. And you know, Ollie, you can get rid of that smug look on your face – Franny tells me things about you, too.”

His lips parted, his shoulders straightening out. He cleared his throat. “Right, well, no need for us to go into depth, is there, Willa? I’ll bring the car ‘round. Grab your coat.”

“And I’m the bossy one, eh?” I called out as he bolted for the hall.

While he fetched the car, I looked at that scuffmark on the cabinet and tried not to sink into that black spot within myself, made of embarrassment and resentment and bitterness and the strongest sense of hatred; it was so intense, that hatred, which came whenever I thought that pantry so many years ago and it hurt more because it had been so many years ago, so why were they still here, those feelings?

And it hurt all the more because I held that hatred for Yaxley as much I hated myself for having gone into the pantry at all, that evening. I had been warned about him, told not to step into secluded spaces. I heard something that Charlotte had once said then, her words coated in slick fear, echoed against the coldness of the tiles in the bathroom.

How could it happen to me?

Rustling around the bedroom, I heard him shrug off his coat and grumble beneath his breath while he pulled off his boots. I scrubbed the sleepiness from my eyes to find his silhouette in the inky blackness of the room before I reached for the lamp. I also heard him curse once the yellow light of the lamp bloomed, because Alfie always tried not to disturb me in the night. I sat up from the bed and felt him approach.

Blindly, I plucked at the buttons of his shirt and mumbled something incoherent when he pressed his lips against my cheeks while I worked, pulling the shirt off and tossing it aside. He unbuckled his own belt. I fished around the drawer for a familiar jar of mush. He came around to his side of the bed and settled there, rubbing at his own eyes.

Delicately scooping out some of that sweetly-scented, grainy mush from the jar, I spread it across his shoulders and along his spine, taking another dollop for his hip and pecking his neck once I finished. I went to the bathroom to clean my hands, because the mush sometimes stained my skin, padding across the bedroom to slip back into bed alongside him. I smiled to myself once he pulled me against him, feeling the bitter chill of the night on his skin before the blankets warmed him.

“Thank you, Alfie,” I whispered.

His brows furrowed, eyes already shut. “For what?”

I scooted upward to kiss him and smiled at his sigh, full of content. “Go to sleep, sweetheart.”

“Bossy,” he mumbled.

“Too right.”

I brushed his hair from his face, tracing his eyebrows and lips with my fingertips. He drifted off, his breathing slow and gentle. I remembered how I used to dream of Alfie during the war; outlined his shoulders, scratched the shading of his arms and legs, spent hours on the details of his eyes, all within my own head. So, I watched him a little while longer. I stroked the pads of my fingertips against his hairline and stilled at the rough patches of skin there, that I had not noticed just at the very tip of his forehead, little patches of reddened skin, dried and sore.

It had not been there, in those old paintings of him that I had made mentally before the war. I touched them softly, afraid to hurt him or wake him from his sleep. I felt the crack of his skin, like scales; a small dot of blood oozed out onto my own skin and I thought, that woman on Ripley Lane will have something for that, just like she made that mush for his bones – she’ll make him right, right as rain, as he always says even if he thinks it is just horseshit and leaves mixed together by some Gypsy witch in a wagon.

I leaned forward again, pressed my lips against that dried skin. “I’ll make you better, Alfie,” I told him softly. “Make you right as rain, my love.”

In the morning, I took a long stroll between the market stalls of Kensington Avenue and turned toward Crescent Street with the intention of finally cutting through an alleyway onto Ripley Lane. I weaved between these streets that I had always known, because I used to be chased by coppers into darkened strips of cobbled footpaths and thrown myself over fences into gardens, scattered into alleyways and hopped large barriers onto other streets, blended into thresholds and ducked beneath bridges. Esther had always taught us to prepare an escape-route before our hands ever twitched toward pockets unprotected. Crescent Street had a crop of paths in between its shops and I paused to look into one strewn in old newspapers, drifting about in a light breeze.

I had been beaten down there, once. I never anticipated the fence at the end with wires poking outward from its length, pricking the bare flesh of my legs and catching on the folds of my skirt. I had been torn off it by a copper, beaten and thrown about by the arms, bruised and battered; ten years old, I had been.

I had never told Alfie about that, I realised. I could count the alleyways in London in which I had been beaten by coppers – ten, eleven, twelve, I could have listed the ages along with them, apart from those fuzzy dates which came from a skull which had been knocked about a little bit too much. I thought of the other streets around me and figured out that Salem Road was another couple of streets from here. I had danced there once, leapt and twirled about as Gypsy Girl.

Had it really been that long ago?

I was jostled between the crowds dipping in and out of the shops on Crescent Street, bumped around at the shoulder. I looked into the windows of each shop and felt an odd disconnect in myself, knowing that I could now afford those jewels sat on velvet cushions, whereas before I had only ever been able to steal them, although I had never strayed into shops too often – people had been able to spot a Gypsy child and soon chased me out of it. I saw a ring sat upon one cushion in particular and pressed myself against the window for a good look at it; it was a simple golden band with little grooves which looked quite like the letter W lined together, like a chain. Alfie liked rings. He liked gold, too.

The bell tinkled. I felt a rich rug shift beneath my boots. I felt the prickle of wary eyes along with it, aware that customers and workers looked at me alike.

Gypsy child, those eyes called out accusingly, what are you doing in our midst?

Scuttling toward me, some hunchbacked jeweller tried to humour me. “Good morning. Might you like to see our recent collection – although it is all rather expensive, I must admit –…”

I felt him follow me about the shop, frantic in his movements and with a beady stare latched onto my hands in particular. Inwardly, a rational part of me rationalised his worries by reminding myself that I had been a thief for most of my life. I still had all the skills for it. I could have taken jewels from his very hands if I wanted it – and that was the more logical side of me, telling myself that, because the other side hissed: I am not the savage between all of us here today.

“I want the ring on the red cushion out on your window,” I told him.

“Limited edition, very expensive,” he wheedled, nodding repeatedly and hurrying toward it.

I pulled apart the folds of my coat and dragged my hand along its inner-lining to find the slit, watching his stare trail along with my hands, swallowing nervously. I found the slit and reached into it, pulling out thick wads of cash rolled together. I tore off the rubber-band, threw a handful of notes onto the table alongside me and watched him dance instead, made him parade about in his skirts and twirls and leaps like I had once done.

Suddenly, I had become madam and my lady and may do I do anything else for you today, madam, my lady?

I leaned over the table and looked into his eyes. “Yes, actually. You can get fucked.”

He blinked, his skin ashen and pale. I pushed away from the table, taking the bag holding the ring with me and stepping out onto Crescent Street once more. I was still frustrated from those foreign eyes, looking at the old Gypsy Girl and awaiting – almost anticipating – some altercation and excited calls for coppers to cart off this wild creature, and it reminded me too much of those old days of oh, look at the little savage, darling!

Distracted, I bashed into a man. I let out a small grunt of pain from the throb in my shoulder, turning on my heel to apologise. I had seen him once before stained in beetroot; that same dark colour soon flushed his pallor once his eyes latched onto mine and recognition filled them. Struck mute and motionless in horror, my eyes followed his arms to find them latched around a younger lad with a sash around his left eye, the other swivelling around its socket to find his father; the pale, colourless nature of his good eye rippled through me in waves of nausea, its constant bloodshot stain around its lack of colour only making it look white and blind, but the boy could see through it, for he saw me there and I thought that I might collapse.

“’ark, Adam, the Gypsy bitch has bought ‘erself jewels with ‘er blood-money,” his father crooned bitterly, his lips locked in a horrid grimace. “Did your man Solomons pay you to lie in ‘is bed again, did ‘e?”

“Dad, please,” the younger boy whispered, gripping at the wrinkles in his father’s shirt. “Please –…”

“A whore is a whore, son,” his father said, “but a Gypsy is somethin’ different all together, lad – she is whore and thief and bog-trotter all in one. Show us, then, what my son’s eye was worth in jewels for you!”

Mumbling apologies and confused words, I was tripping backward away from him, aware of all those eyes around us, asking once more, Gypsy child, what are you doing in our midst? Gypsy whore, thief, bog-trotter, savage! I remembered his spiteful glare from the street that night when he had approached Alfie and screamed at him for what had happened to his son, whose sashed slipped downward in his struggle to control his father and pull him away – and I saw the crinkled line of skin there, the eyelid split over raw flesh, socket exposed, saw into some darkened pit in his skull and I really tripped then, bumped into a brick-wall, scraped my hands against it.

Pikey bitch!” the father yelled. “’ow much was his eye worth? A bracelet, a ring? Will you melt it down and sell it onto your cousins over in Ireland, will ya? Or will you wear it when you fuck Solomons and consider it your pay like all the rest of it, I bet you –…Will ‘e try and bash my skull in again, will ‘e? Let ‘im do it, let your man come and kill me, like ‘e kills all that ‘e touches. Your man is a disease, like rot in wood, ‘e rots the people of this city, corrupts them as much as ‘e is corrupted inside ‘imself –…”

“I’m so sorry,” I told his son; it came out chattered from the rattle in my teeth. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry – I am so, so sorry –…”

It was drowned out in the cries of his father. I pushed through the crowd which had swelled around us and spun around in my confusion, breathing wildly, lathered in sweat and disgust and there was that hatred for what had happened all those years ago in the pantry and now for what had happened to that boy with one eye, whose sash had fallen and shown me socket and skull, such bitter hatred that filled my mouth and I had to spit it out, but it came out in thickets and waves from all that nausea in my stomach, spewed into an alleyway and I looked around myself in a daze.

I looked around myself and realised that I had stumbled into the same alleyway in which I had been beaten, all those years ago. I felt the same now as I did then. I felt curled into a ball and kicked, thrown around and punched and I was pikey-bitch now just like I had been pikey-bitch then. I fell against the wall and dropped onto the ground, sat in the wet puddles and felt them soak into my skirts, soak into my skin so that I trembled.

I dipped a hand into the puddles and scooped out black dirt, smeared it onto my cheeks and looked up at the bluish clot of weeping clouds beyond the towering flats around me; I was born in soil like this and I will die in soil like this, I thought, and when it comes, I will dream of black water, because there can be no colour, after that, there can be no –…

Stepping into the bakery with its heady scent of rum washing over me, I could already spot Alfie on the other side of the room, nestled behind the windows and walls of that office. Butcher had sat in an office like that once, too. Esther had been there beside him. I caught sight of myself in the reflection of a windowpane and wondered how I ever thought that what I did was any different than her. I sewed aprons for him like I had sewn aprons for her. The only real difference was that he never asked for any snow to be put placed inside the linings of the aprons.

But would he ask for that, one day? Would he speak to ghosts aloud and ask them for rations? Would he hide himself beneath the staircase?

Would he hide himself from me?

I saw him moving around the office and wondered what he was doing in there, because he was bending and dipping behind the wall as if scouring the floorboards for something important. I took aching steps toward him, watching him shift around the room in a wild scramble. I had an awful knot in my stomach, sprung tight so that each step was stilted and wounded, more like a limp. It was late, I realised. It was just him in here, in all this emptiness, darting around his office. I felt my eyeballs crack around a dried-out skull – like his socket had been there on Crescent Street while his father had screamed, only deep and black and void.

I hated this bakery, suddenly. I despised it. What had drawn us here? Some faint dream of Margate, it had been, and –…

“Love?”

Startled, I jumped in fright and stumbled backward and that was perhaps the worst reaction of all, for his arms quickly found me and he smoothed my hair away and he tried to calm the ripple of my lips with his own, foreheads pressed together. He was rubbing my arms and I realised that he wanted to rid me of this awful chill, but it had seeped into my marrow. I wanted to tell him, there is no getting it out now, Alfie.

“Willa, sweet’eart, I need you to answer me, yeah?” he whispered against my ear. I had not heard him speak before, although I had seen his mouth was shifting around and that his tongue had pushed out those sounds which seemed too difficult for mine to produce on its own. So, he coaxed them from me. “Did someone ‘urt ya, darlin’? D’you need me to call Francine, love? I-I can call ‘er now, bring ‘er down ‘ere, 'ave you right as rain –…”

Make you right as rain, my love.

Alfie had stuttered, which was not normal for him, and the tears came hot and dense and stuffed my nostrils so that my next words came out smothered. “No, I’m fine, Alf. I was thinkin’ about Charlotte. I want to visit her again, you know. And –…”

And I am lying to you, because if I tell you, you will kill that man.

“And I just miss her,” I croaked, continuing onward. “I really miss her. And I needed to ask you about a man called Mr Allman, too. His wife came and asked if you might offer him a job, because –…”

Because he is too afraid of you to do it himself and I know that his fear comes from stories of boys who lost their eyes for this bakery and for the ring in this bag and for your pikey-bitch to lie beside you at night.

“So, maybe we can talk about that in the morning,” I finished, smiling at him as much as I could.

Alfie looked ghostly in the moonlight which streamed through the windows overhead, his eyes drained of colour from the silvery aura spread around him; it made his eyes pale, colourless. I could not stand to look at him because of it and tried to step around him, but his hands were hard around my arms, painfully hard and I knew that I had treaded into that cold and detached part of Alfie which came from the trenches, which came from the war and from those moments in which he thought the enemy had stolen the sun from him, too.

“I want you to start over, Willa,” he ordered, his tone lathered in warning, “and I want you to tell me the truth, this time.”

“Please, Alfie –…”

He shook me very harshly and I let out a frightened cry from it, so worn from what had happened that it weakened me and left me more tearful than ever – and I hated those tears like I hated this bakery now, when before I had loved it like I loved that house on Ivor Square. Had I not called it home, just this morning? And had I not warned Alfie that I would walk out if his temper ever resurfaced, like it swirled between us now?

“I bought you a ring,” I started slowly. “It has a carving on it that looks like a W – for Willa. I wanted it for you, even if the jeweller thought that I looked like a thief, because I am a thief, Alfie, and a Gypsy thief at that. I came out of the shop and bumped into a man. His son lost his eye. Do you remember that man and his son, Alfie?”

His lips were deathly white. He resembled a corpse. “I remember ‘im.”

I was silent, unable to pull the words from a throat which had slowly tightened. I looked away from him and it sparked him off, because he pushed around me and went for the door and I had to scramble in front of him to hold him at his chest and force him backward.

“Please, Alfie – Stop, just –…”

“You won’t tell me,” Alfie hissed, “…so, I’ll go and find this fuckin’ prick and I’ll get it out o’ ‘im before I break ‘is jaw, make sure ‘e don’t ever speak to ya again, I’ll fuckin’ snap ‘is neck along with it –…”

I was really pushing him now, hands pressed flat against his chest with all my might and he was still moving forward, until he tired of my shoving and his hands gripped my wrist in a tight hold and I wondered how we had gotten here again, after all that had happened in the house, after he had moved around me, afraid to touch me because of it.

“You can’t hurt everyone who hurts me,” I screamed hoarsely.

He caught me at the throat like he had done that night, too. He held me with his grip loose, but with enough force that we were thrown into a standstill. “Yes, I fuckin’ well can, Willa – and I will, and nothin’ you do will ever stop me from doin’ it, neither. You do that for the people you love.”

“You don’t hurt them by doing it, though, do you?” I spat out, my hands reaching to latch onto his and pull them away. “If you loved me, you would –…”

He let out a harsh bark of laughter. “If I loved you? If I fuckin’ loved you? Don’t you start that fuckin’ shit with me, Willa Sykes. I ‘ave always fuckin’ loved you and always shown it, too. Who bought the ‘ouse for us, who got this bakery runnin’, got us an income and some fuckin’ protection goin’ –…”

“Protection from what you bring to the door of that house, of this bakery?” I retorted. “Who took the hit for both of us, hm?”

I lifted my shirt, showed him those dark stains on my stomach from a bullet torn out and he drew in a sharp, wounded breath. “Willa,” he whispered. “Please, don’t – don’t do that to me when I already do it to myself, baby –…”

“Do what?” I screamed. “Do what, Alfie? He was right, you know. He said that I’m no better than a whore because I take the money you make here and I buy you rings and I buy myself nice things and we live in a nice house Alfie, in a neighbourhood that never would have accepted us and still doesn’t – and it’s always gonna be that way for us, isn’t it?”

Alfie was staring off into the distance and it infuriated me all the more, because I wanted to know just what it was that he was seeing when he did that, where he was looking and what he was thinking. He looked oddly infantile when he did it, his shoulders hunched. I pushed at him, slapped his chest.

“Are you even listening to me? He said you pay me like men pay whores,” I choked. “Pikey bitch, old Gypsy whore. I hate that it hurts, Alfie, but it does. And I still don’t want you to hurt that man or his son any more than we already have.”

“Allman. I know ‘im. I remember ‘im. I was ‘is Captain in the trenches,” Alfie mumbled in a daze. “Almost got 'it by a shell, ‘e did.” He blinked, his eyes finding mine. “I got you somethin’, sweet’eart.”

Confused by his change in demeanour, I watched him walk around me and toward the office. He paused halfway there, turned back to look for me, and seemed more distraught that I had not followed. Still, he went over and pushed open the door, stepping backward and looking down at the ground. I watched him with my eyebrows scrunched.

“Think you scared ‘im, with all that shoutin’,” Alfie called out softly. “Good lad, that’s it. Come out and meet your Mummy, eh?”

Out scarpered a little body with paws clicking against the floorboards, a small bundle of fur barrelling toward me and only stumbling to sniff around the barrels before he poked around beneath my skirts and brushed his nose against my boots. I stared at this little puppy, its rolls and wrinkles, wet snout and dark muzzle. I had asked for a dog.

If you loved me, I had said. When had Alfie ever denied me anything?

Suffering from a thumping headache, I dropped backward onto the staircase and held my head in my hands. The pup struggled onto the first step, its legs too short to steady its balance and I bent forward to scoop him into my arms, but Alfie was faster, picking him up and plopping him onto my lap. I felt his comforting warmth and his wet tongue lashing at my throat in excitement, tail batting against my legs. Alfie stepped onto the staircase and sat beside me. The dog shifted between us and Alfie scratched absently at his ears.

“I’ll find a place for Allman,” he said quietly, eyes still lost in that faraway place where I could never reach him. “And I’ll ‘elp out ‘is fam’ly in the meantime. Nathaniel – the fella what yelled at you ‘bout ‘is son – I gotta send someone ‘round to talk to him, darlin’. Talk. Not ‘urt. Not kill. Ollie is diplomatic, ‘e can do it, if it makes you feel better, yeah?”

“Alfie,” I whispered. “I am so sorry.”

“I’m sorry too, darlin.”

“I love you,” I told him. “I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to fight with you. I was just afraid to tell you.”

“I know, love.”

I could feel the sting of tears anew. “I just wanted to get you that ring and not let them tell me that I couldn’t just because I have Gypsy blood in me.”

“And I’ll wear it every day, sweet’eart,” he said, “…every fuckin’ day o’ the year, ‘til they gotta chop off me finger to get it off me, yeah? When I’m old and pissin’ me-self in some ‘ospital bed, that’s what they’ll ‘ave to do to get it off me.”

I let out a small laugh and it only encouraged him.

“I’ll ‘ave you beside me, o’ course, snorin’ your pretty ‘ead off like you always do,” he went on. I slapped his shoulder lightly, rolling my eyes and mumbling that if anyone snored between us, it was him. “Suppose the stray’ll be with us – Ollie, that is, and the dog too. Proper little fam’ly, we’ll ‘ave. Won’t matter to us what some poxy fuckin’ dick’ead said to ya on the street one day ‘cause we’ll be better off by ourselves, eh? And you won’t cry anymore, Willa, won’ ya? Please don’t cry anymore, treacle. ‘is tongue ain’t big enough to lap up all them tears yet. I’ll ‘ave to do it for ‘im, won’ I?”

Alfie leaned forward, sticking his tongue out just like the puppy and I burst into laughter despite myself, pushing him away. I brushed his cheek with my thumb and asked, “Can we go home then, Alfie? I want to show him his new bed. You’ll have to take the guest bedroom, now.”

“Charmin’,” he muttered, his eyes dropping to the dog. “I knew she’d prefer you. But you wait until I tell ‘er that you pissed on her fabric what she makes aprons with, eh?”

I smiled, scratching the dog behind his ears. “What will we name him?”

“Little shite,” Alfie muttered. “No, that don’t work, I use that for Ollie. But I was thinkin’ ‘e looks like a Cyril. Good name for ‘im, I think.”

I hummed, holding the dog against my chest and feeling him burrow against me for warmth. “Cyril,” I agreed, kissing him between his eyes, on that little dip in his forehead. His eyes blinked tiredly up at me, his little snout still sniffing around. “Come on, Cyril. Let’s show you your new home, eh?”