Brigid awoke on the old grandfather clock’s sixth chime with a slow, deep breath, the last thread of her dream slipping away. She chased its warmth — something to do with summertime, a crisp breeze blowing through her hair, Tommy’s lips at her throat. The quilts had tangled around their feet in the middle of the night, and Brigid felt as frigid as the dead of winter. As her skin pricked with gooseflesh, she considered tucking her nose into the warm dip of Tommy’s neck.
But the seventh chime echoed throughout the otherwise silent house, and even though she could sense that the sunlight had yet to sneak through the heavy velvet curtains, Brigid was out of time. Seven o’clock was her final warning, no matter Tommy’s seductive warmth and the steady feel of his heart against her ribcage.
Sighing, Brigid savored the last bit of darkness behind her eyelids before shifting her weight to the edge of his bed. The draft sneaking in through the poorly insulated window swept across her shoulder, and her bare feet recoiled on the scuffed wood.
Stockings? She searched the room with bleary eyes to discover them in a limp and wrinkled pile by the wardrobe. An amused smile quirked on her lips. They had covered an impressive distance after Tommy’s burning fingers stripped them from her, but in the soft light of morning, it seemed an impossible span to cross on bare feet. Her teeth chattered as she considered it.
It was rough with sleep, gravelly and low in the morning quiet, and he slipped a chilled arm around her belly from behind as he moved closer. She could feel the soft brush of his lips at her hip, sending a different kind of shiver through her.
Brigid’s hand fell to his soft hair. “Can’t.”
“Cruel woman.” But his lips curved against her pebbled skin, tracing what must have been a smile.
They had spent an entire evening joined together in every way that man and woman could be — hot, open-mouthed kisses broken up by breathless laughter, dragging hands and scratching nails, whispering nothing and everything into each other’s skin.
Brigid loathed to ruin the memory, and so decided not to remind Tommy that until he wed her, it would be quite unseemly for her to be caught in his bed past daybreak.
After all, she had to cross three lanes and two blocks back to her own home before the sun could stretch down the street and catch her out. She had just forty-five minutes before her father would stumble, tired and ashen after third shift, through the front door and expect a steaming cuppa to be waiting for him.
So instead, she reached for the abandoned quilt and tossed it up and over him. “Not as cruel as this chill. Get Lovelock to reseal that window, would you?”
“Go, then.” He didn’t have the wherewithal, as early as it was, to put true disdain in his voice, and instead came off as little better than a petulant child. “Run back to your own bed before da figures out where his girl has been all night.”
Affection at his teasing welled in her chest and brought a smile to her face, but as he rolled away, it wasn’t warm enough to fight the wintry bedroom. She dashed across the room on light feet — Polly was too perceptive not to know that Brigid had been sleeping under her roof, but Brigid still wasn’t keen to wake the older woman — and pulled up her stockings with stiff fingers. Brigid dressed in the dim light by muscle memory alone, her puffy eyes still drooping with sleep. Though she would have liked to keep her mess of curls down for added warmth, she took care to arrange them into a neat chignon in Tommy’s dusty mirror.
Small Heath was full of busybodies, after all, and if an early riser heard her heels clicking on the cobblestones and decided to peek through the drapes, she refused to look as if she’d just had a man’s fingers in her hair.
Finally, she pulled on her coat, her cold hands slipping into the ermine-lined pockets on instinct, and gave the room a last look for anything she had missed. She had thought Tommy would have fallen back asleep, but instead, she found his eyes open and watching her, his hands resting behind his head. The plains of his face were smooth and untroubled, his eyes tracing her in that soft way he seemed to allow only when they were alone. With his hair mussed, he looked more innocent, flushed with life and bright with the promise of manhood, than any veteran bookmaker and soldier had right to.
The thought hardened in Brigid’s throat — in the dim light, he could have been the Tommy that used to appear at her door in the early morning, wondering if she’d like to go for a ride in the country with him. So much time had passed since those early days, and yet when he looked at her like that, she felt seventeen again.
Though she stood beside the door, Brigid crossed the room back to him. His lips parted, pliant and full, beneath hers with a familiarity that still, two months since his return to civilian life, seemed to evade them more often than not. She couldn’t help but curl a hand around the nape of his neck, fingers slipping into the close-shorn hair at the back of his head.
“Go on.” He broke the kiss to trace a callused thumb across her cheekbone. “Tell James I said hello.”
Brigid pressed a final kiss to the corner of his mouth, thankful for the laugh that bubbled up past her lips. Intimacy came so easy to them during the warm night, but it felt so heavy in the cold day.
“I certainly won’t,” she whispered, pulling away to return to the door. The silence stretched between them, and she busied her tingling hands with pulling on her matching gloves.
She could still remember the grip of his hands at her waist, the feel of his teeth against her skin. Almost too casual, she said, “He hates the night shift, you know.”
It was a familiar refrain, one that Brigid had slipped into conversation before. Though a return to first shift would put a damper on her nightly rendezvouses with Tommy, her father would be ever thankful for a full night’s sleep, and Brigid hated seeing him so downtrodden.
“It can pay to have someone loyal on the night shift, love.”
A familiar response — indicative and equally vague, as Tommy so often was. With no time to press her point, she gave him one last smile and kept the knob turned, muffled, as she shut the door behind her, dodging the creaky steps on her way down.
When Brigid stole out the front door, the sun had begun to paint the navy sky golden along the horizon, but the stars still winked above. February had been blustery — strong winds had swept indiscriminately down the lanes, snatched washing from the lines and stirred shop signs, a creaking that melded with the distant factory clamor to create a unique sort of orchestra — and this morning was no different. The chill crept underneath her coat, through the thick wool of her stockings, and would have made Brigid hurry even without the threat of her father returning home before her.
The city was beginning to stir, a change marked by the first lamps lit in the front parlors, the fresh smoke rising from chimney after chimney. If the rain hanging in heavy, slate-grey clouds could hold, no doubt laundry would be strung up across the empty lines soon. Brigid had their washing to tend to as well, but she would have only enough time to cook the morning meal before she was due back at the betting shop. With Kempton upcoming, they were expecting a marked increase in bets, and hopefully even a long-term upswing to bring them out of the slow winter season.
As the factory bell released tired droves of soot-blackened men back to their homes and wives, Brigid turned the corner toward her house. The windows of the quaint house she shared with her father were blessedly still dark, the curtains drawn tight. It seemed the first-shift foreman had not relieved him early.
Still, she shot a skittish look down the lane as she dashed across to her door. And not for the first time during a harried walk home, Brigid felt that she was getting too old for this. Tommy had said, just weeks ago, that he wasn’t ready, that he needed more time, that he wouldn’t marry her until he had a legal betting license to his name. She intended to bide her time, willing to wait for him, but nevertheless, it weighed heavy on her heart.
But it was time — had been time — for her and Tommy to share their own home.
By the time Brigid returned to the kitchen in a laced blouse and long woolen skirt, black hair freshly coiled, the kettle was whistling and the post sat piled on the mat. She stooped to collect it, finding only the morning paper and a heavy parchment envelope postmarked from Belfast with her Uncle Peter’s address in the top corner.
They hadn’t heard from their family since the holiday, and curiosity tugged in her mind. Her fingers itched to slip under the seal, but the letter was addressed to her father, so Brigid placed it at the head of the table next to his teacup.
Her father arrived as she pulled a rasher of bacon from the icebox, accompanied by the wind slamming the door behind him and the twin thumps of the heavy work boots he deposited underneath the coat rack.
“Morning, da,” she called. “Paper’s already here.”
He approached from behind as she arranged the sliced bacon in a deep iron pan, adjusting the flame, and pressed a quick kiss to her temple, just as he had done which she was no more than a slip of a girl with twin plaits down her back. His lips were cold, as were the large hands he cupped around her shoulders, but Brigid felt a curl of warmth in her chest.
“Mornin’, dear.” His voice was gritty with exhaustion, rough from eight hours of smoke and hot coals and bellowing to keep men in line.
She quirked a smile, meeting his tired gaze before he dropped into his chair at their scrubbed old table. A callused hand scrubbed across his face, and his shoulders sagged with a sigh in the soft morning light.
At the sight, she turned fully from the hob to face him. “Are you feeling well?”
“Oh, I’m fine.” He dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand, but he didn’t quite manage to smooth his furrowed brow. “What about you? Were you warm enough last night?”
Their old, rusty radiator had given out last week, plunging the house to icy temperatures, and it had taken days to get a repairman out from Birmingham proper after their neighbor and no less than four Peaky boys not willing to admit defeat had a go at it. Lest she caught her death, she truly had spent the night with the Shelbys then, curled up on a spare cot in Ada’s bedroom — or so her father thought.
Heat rushed to her face, inspiring Brigid to turn back to the bacon that now popped in the pan. “Positively toasty.”
It wasn’t a lie, so to speak, if perhaps not the whole truth. Tommy did run hot.
She used a spatula to turn the bacon, and then busied herself with a loaf of bread, slicing it to fry in the hot grease after the bacon finished. “There’s a letter from Peter and Ellen,” she said. “Do open it before I die of curiosity.”
Her father’s sister, Brigid’s Auntie Ellen, was known for two things: being long-winded, and treating every piece of news as if it were the shiniest bit in her gossip cabinet.
His laugh was low under the sizzling hob, and they fell into a contented silence as her father unfolded the letter and slurped at his tea. Brigid replaced the bacon in the pan with thick slices of bread, just ten seconds on each side until it was crispy (and not nearly-stale). By the time he tossed the heavy parchment back to the table, Brigid had fried up five eggs, three for him and two for herself, and neatly arranged their two sandwiches on matching porcelain plates.
They had never used the porcelain when her mother was alive apart for holidays and occasions, but the thin, curling blue vines around the edges of the plates had always reminded Brigid of her mother, and so she tried to pull them out every day.
“What’s the news?” Setting his plate down, Brigid settled across from him with her own. “Is everyone healthy?”
“It would appear so,” he said, taking a fork to his sandwich. “Apparently Julia has found a beau and he’s already asked for her hand, but they think she’s still too young. Jack’s found a new job. Jimmy and his wife are expecting another sometime this summer.”
A smile tugged at Brigid’s lips. She’d never met her oldest cousin’s two young children — they hadn’t even been to Belfast since before the war, of course — but they’d received a photo with the annual Christmas card of two beaming, flaxen-haired cherubs, the older boy holding up his swaddled sister for the camera. It had reminded her so immediately of an old, faded portrait of her and Patrick that it took her breath away.
“That’s lovely. Perhaps we could visit in the autumn to meet the new babe, as well as the others?”
“Perhaps.” It fell flat, punctuated by the bite of bacon and bread, dripping in egg, that he shoved in his mouth without looking up.
He folded the letter, his brow furrowed, and tucked it in the pocket of his work shirt before she could ask to read it, and he still looked far away in the eyes. Though he’d attempted to wash his face, dark lines of soot still traced down his neck and shadowed the discontent on his face.
Brigid fiddled with her food. “Are you sure you’re all right, da?”
Each morning since he switched to third shift, her father had done little else apart from complain about being on third shift. Brigid could hardly blame him. Hours spent at the B.S.A. were hours spent sweating in the blazing heat, deafened by the constant clamor. The environment was insufferable even when the sun was high in the sky. Truly, the only perk he had yet to relay was that the Communist agitators — dynamic Freddie Thorne and his band of unionists — preferred, in a rare display of common sense, to agitate at midday.
And so the near-silence was troublesome.
“Oh, I’m fine, love.” Eyes down, he heaved a deep sigh. “Just a little behind schedule and workin’ hard, is all.”
She hummed, swallowing the last bite of her sandwich, but the chiming clock prevented her from pressing him any further. “As am I, it happens.” She stood, placing the fragile plate in the sink basin. “I need to get to the shop — Kempton’s up next week.”
If her father minded the depth to which she had become involved with the Peaky Blinders and their business while he was away at war, he had yet to express it — though, he didn’t often express anything of much importance any more. The War had resigned him to isolation and silence as it had so many of the others. It had invited a heavy, oppressive silence into their lives, an unwelcome guest around the parlor fire and the supper table in the spot that Patrick and his charm had occupied for so long.
“Will you be here for supper?”
The question punctured her heart, and she leaned down to press a kiss to his temple, just as he had done to her when he arrived. “No, I’ll be working at Thompson’s through the evening.”
Resigned, he nodded. “I love you, dear.”
Brigid’s hand fell gently to his shoulder. “Love you too, da.”
As she dashed to the front door, Brigid reflected on what Tommy had said that morning — that having a loyal man on the night shift could pay dividends — and decided that having a well-rested father was more important.
Small Heath was no stranger to smoke and ash, but that evening, it hung heavy in the air. The damp was acrid on her tongue, and Brigid coughed into the fur of her coat in an attempt to clear her throat, though she knew the reprieve would hardly last. Both the Austen and the B.S.A. lined her route to Watery Lane, and the smog clung so heavily to those four blocks that women couldn’t wear their white dresses unless it was just after a heavy rain.
But her stomach was begging for dinner, and so she picked up her pace. Mrs. Thompson had tasked her to inventory their extensive thread offerings before she left, and the undertaking had kept her past closing, made her quite ravenous, and left her barely able to tell the difference between slate, nickel, and marengo — eventually, all greys started to look the same, especially once the sun sunk below the horizon.
Ahead, a pair of coppers manned the cobbled street corner under a gas lamp, easily spotted — one exhaled a large plume of tobacco smoke, while the end of the other’s cigarette bloomed bright in the dark night. Both wore their caps low, evading recognition. Unease pricked the back of Brigid’s neck, urging her to step off the pavement and cross the street.
She never usually passed coppers on her return from Thompson’s, and in Birmingham, increased police presence was often cause for concern rather than lowered guard. Careful to maintain her speed, Brigid kept her face down.
“Oi — boy!” Sharp, commanding, the directive could have only come from the pair.
But curiosity got the better of her. From under the brim of her hat, Brigid watched as one of them clapped a hand onto the back of a slight boy of perhaps ten, clad in a threadbare overcoat too large for him and a Peaky cap.
The boy shrugged the first copper off, only to be grabbed by the other. “Let go of me!” he protested, and Brigid sighed in disapproval.
“Finn!” Her voice cut through the gloom, echoing off the three-storied, black-bricked terraced houses that lined the street.
The tussle stopped as all three turned to watch her approach, and Brigid clucked her tongue. Raising her hat so the coppers could see her face, she smiled. This close, their golden nameplates glinted in the lamplight, emblazoned with names she did not recognize.
“Mum’s told you not to run, Finn — I apologize for my brother, officers.”
“He belong to you?” The thinner one leered at her, beady eyes dragging up and back down, but she straightened her spine, unwilling to cow to him.
“Yes. My younger brother, as I said,” she replied, crisp, brooking no argument as she turned her gaze down to Finn. “What are you doing running about?”
He jerked his arm from the fat copper’s grip, and at only ten, he was unable to hide the dirty look he threw the copper’s way. “You’re late. Mum got worried.”
His brow had furrowed with her ruse, but he was smart enough to not throw it away.
She sighed with well-practiced concern. “Yes, Auntie Ellen needed more help with the babes than anticipated.” Fluttering her lashes, she gave the fat copper a much kinder gaze than Finn’s. “Our aunt’s just had twins, you see. I was helping her put them down, but one of them’s colicky — ”
“Yeah, yeah,” the thinner one cut her off, his mouth twisting into a frown. He shooed them away. “Get on — and make sure he behaves.”
Finn took the gloved hand she extended to him without prompting, and with the other, she tipped her hat to the coppers. “Of course. Have a good evening, officers.”
The pair offered no farewell of their own, and so Brigid coaxed Finn alongside her, his hand gripped in hers. Their eyes felt heavy on her back, and she fought every instinct to turn, to cross the street, to speed up. They made it a full block before she let Finn pull away from her with a disgruntled sigh.
“You know better than to fight coppers, Finn,” she said, attempting to hide a smile that he might mistake as approval.
He snorted, still smarting from the copper’s reprimand in the way only a proud ten year old could. “They should know better than to — ”
“They weren’t ours,” Brigid interrupted him, recalling their nameplates. “I look at the payroll every week. They aren’t on it.”
Taking in the information, Finn reached up to straighten his cap. It was still without the trademark razor blades that would have revealed him instantly to the coppers. “Then you should be careful. They don’t usually patrol down this way.”
This time, she couldn’t stop her smile. “You’re right, they don’t. Have you heard why they might be out?”
He brightened. “Arthur’s called a family meeting — that’s why I was coming your way in the first place! Reckon he might know something.”
“Well, then, we better get on,” she said as she picked up her pace, and Finn skipped to keep up with her.
They passed by the clanging Austen, the ringing B.S.A., and finally were in sight of Watery Lane, where every lamp was lit in the windows of Number Six. A fat, hot raindrop landed on her cheek, and Brigid urged Finn ahead of her to the front door, which he swung open with little fanfare.
Though he didn’t stop to relieve himself of his coat and cap, Brigid paused to hang hers neatly on the rack, followed by her hat, its navy velvet spotted with rain. No hook was bare — Polly’s fur and Ada’s silk joined a whole shop’s worth of black woolen coats, and so she tucked it over the pressed one she knew to be Tommy’s.
Voices and heavy footfalls echoed throughout the house, but as she crossed the dim parlor to the kitchen, Brigid found the table empty, its chairs kicked back haphazardly. Three ham sandwich halves left amid the crumbs on a burnished silver platter were all that remained of supper, but she was nonetheless grateful.
“Finn, bugger off,” Arthur was scolding from the betting shop, his voice slurred around a flask.
Brigid swept the sandwiches onto a china plate from the cupboard, and she couldn’t help but laugh as she passed Finn on her way into the smoky betting shop, the put-out boy following his brother’s command with a practiced sigh. The shop, filled to the brim with black-clad Peaky Blinders, stretched across the main floors of Numbers Four and Five Watery Lane, haphazard, cramped, and dim. It was littered with old betting slips and cuttings from the Birmingham Evening Dispatch, rickety chairs and smudged crystal ashtrays — and all of it, no matter how hard Brigid tried, remained covered in a thin layer of chalk dust.
“Shut the door.” Polly sat at the table they had gathered around, dignified, and held her magnifying glass to the evening paper in front of her without sparing a glance.
“Not fair,” Finn whined.
But Brigid did as she was told, balancing the plate in one hand as she nudged the dark green, chipped double doors with her hip. Through the crack, she winked at Finn, careful to school her face before turning to the rest of the Shelbys and Peaky boys.
Her eyes came first, as they always did, to Tommy, leaned forward, hands braced atop the back of the only empty chair at the table. He stood tall between Polly and Ada, who was becoming an unreliable attendee, her laced ivory gown a sharp contrast to the harshly tailored suits of her brothers and the exposed brick walls.
When Brigid paused, shifting in front of the door, Tommy met her eyes.
He pulled out the chair, and the scratch against the floorboards cut through the quiet. “Now that we’re all here — Arthur?”
Brigid hurried forward, slipped between Lovelock and one of his sons, and took her seat as Arthur cleared his throat. Tommy pushed her chair in, ever the gentlemen, but was careful to not touch her as he drew his hands away. When she turned over her shoulder to whisper her gratitude, he had already leaned against an exposed, weight-bearing wooden beam, the gas lamplight flickering in the hollows of his cheekbones. He inclined his head only briefly, but a warmth welled in Brigid’s chest nonetheless.
It was good to know that even with the men back from war, she was still considered to be family, to be an integral part of the Shelby business.
“Arthur?” Tommy’s voice held more finality this time, as if it were a final warning. Though Arthur, as the eldest brother and the one who had called the meeting, held authority, these days it only ever seemed to be with Tommy’s permission.
“Right,” Arthur said, dropping his tin flask to the table with the finality of a judge’s gavel. “I’ve called this family meeting because I’ve got some very important news. Scudboat and Lovelock got back from Belfast last night — they were buying a stallion to cover their mares.”
Through a bite of her first ham sandwich, Brigid smiled at Scudboat. At her behest, he had checked in on her Belfast family and relayed first thing that morning that they were in good health. After the rough months they had been through, it was nice to know that the positive sentiment Auntie Ellen had implied in her letter seemed to be the truth.
Scudboat’s dark eyes met hers, and he winked.
“They were in a pub on the Shankhill Road yesterday,” Arthur continued. He moved forward, collecting a stack of leaflets tossed on the table in front of him. “And in that pub, there was a copper handing out these.”
Arthur handed the leaflets to Lovelock, who began to pass them around to all those assembled. Brigid knew from experience that approximately a third of the men couldn’t read, but they each took one nonetheless, unwilling to contradict Arthur.
John, ever impatient, ripped Ada’s from her hands to observe it with furrowed brows. As Brigid acquired one of her own and began to skim, he recited the bolded text at the top. “If you’re over five feet and can fight, come to Birmingham.”
“They’re recruiting Protestant Irishmen to come over here as Specials.”
Arthur had crossed his arms and taken a deep breath, his voice booming with revelation, echoing around in the crowded front room of the shop, but Brigid’s focus was sharp on the notice in front of her. Something like dread, like familiarity, twisted in her stomach. As she smoothed the leaflet down beside her plate, the paper rustled under her shaking hands.
“To do what?” Ada interjected, soft and confused, for once breaking her own, new-found rule about staying out of Peaky business.
Her heart racing, and before Arthur or any of the others could answer, the words tumbled out, heavy on her tongue. “To clean up the city.”
Brother, we are at a loss. We don’t know where to turn or what to do, her Auntie Ellen had written.
The letter had failed to make it to her father in France, so the Army instead forwarded to his Birmingham address. Brigid had opened it with shaking fingers, sick with dread, fearing that the moment had finally come — Jimmy or Jack had been drafted, she was sure.
Instead, the letter read, We haven’t seen Joseph in three weeks, and the police won’t even open a file! That damned Chief Inspector Campbell says he probably ran off, or is drunk in a ditch somewhere, but Joe would never do that. These policemen just don’t trust honest Catholics anymore…
But Arthur bristled as if she had stolen his thunder, his hazy eyes focusing on her with something like jealousy. “And how do you know so bloody much?”
Her cousin had been nineteen at the time, quick to laugh and quicker to talk, and he never did turn back up.
As she came to, a tickle ran down Brigid’s spine and raised the hairs on her neck. She felt as if she were being watched, and she was, of course — the floor creaked under Tommy as he shifted his weight.
“Because he’s been cleaning the I.R.A. out of Belfast for years.” She steadied her trembling fingers around the damp, icy glass of the stout John had poured her, before continuing. “And he killed my cousin while he was there.”