A chilly Sunday morning whisked deep into the dreams of one Sweeney Todd, gooseflesh erupting upon his bare arms and legs, the limbs covered in sweat and the blanket tossed haphazardly in the floor beside his stained shirt and black pants. He lay on his back with his face to the ceiling wearing only his knickers. His eyelids twitched in his dreams. By the window, thick flakes of snow fell, and his fire only smoldered, as he hadn’t awoken to feed it since the wee hours of the morning when he had finally retired.
Ordinarily his dreams were tormented enough to dissuade him from sleep. But not this morning. This morning he saw the first Christmas he had spent with Johanna—the last he had spent with his family. They swirled in front of a small green tree and opened meager gifts and laughed, and then Lucy sang to the crying baby until she fell asleep. He took the infant from his wife, and Johanna promptly burst into tears again. Lucy began to croon softly a lyrical lullaby he had never heard before: “May there always be angels to watch over you, to guide you each step of the way, to guard you and keep you safe from all harm, loo-li loo-li lai-lay…”
His reverie fell away as a sing-song voice echoed up the stairwell, and the newly awakened barber sprang out of bed to fumble for his pants. “Good morning, Mr. Todd! I made us some breakfast!” Mrs. Lovett rapped three times upon his door, but before he had the chance to call out that he needed one more moment, she barged in on him. “My, oh my, you must be freezing!” She dropped her platter of steaming food onto the desk, and then she whirled to stoke the fire. “I keep telling you, there’s no shame in having a rest downstairs with me sometime. It certainly never gets this cold.” He bent over to pick up the bloody shirt from yesterday, but she swiped it from his grasp. “Ah-Ah! This is over a week worn. Smells like you’ve got a body mouldering away inside it. It gets washed today, Mr. Todd.”
He frowned. He supposed many men didn’t have their widowed neighbor doing their laundry, but then again, he didn’t care to do it himself—and the way his clothes often turned out after a day’s work, he wouldn’t know where to start. Before he dared to broach an argument, Mrs. Lovett spun around and stared at herself in the cracked mirror to adjust her dark hair. “Now, hurry up with breakfast. I need you to go with me to the grocer, let you pick out something to eat. Trouble with you married men, none of you know how to cook a lick. My ole Al couldn’t have warmed a pot of water if he tried. Now, some bachelor comes in the shop, he tells me how to roll my crust.”
Tongue darting tentatively over his lips, Sweeney found himself at a loss for words; the presence of Mrs. Lovett often left him speechless. She was so simple yet so enigmatic. In the years of his absence he hadn’t thought once of her nor of her fat pig of a husband, yet now she was his closest friend and arguably the wittier one of them. So regularly she reflected upon Albert, but she didn’t mourn him, not the way he mourned for Lucy. It seemed she relished in his absence, or at least had a new sense of freedom without him there. He could never fathom an appropriate response to her when she mentioned the late bloke.
Any mention of their old lives, save for the necessary discussions of the judge and the beadle, made Sweeney Todd incredibly uncomfortable. “What about business?”
“It’s a Sunday in December, Mr. Todd.” Hair now pulled down to frame her face, she lifted a finger to the window. “Nobody be wanting a shave today, I don’t suppose, unless he’s in the mood for an awfully cold face.” The shopkeeper smoothed down the hem of her dress. “Besides, we’ll have two or three days of meat anyway from that bloke you offed yesterday. Fat fellow, he was. Don’t suppose anyone will miss him?”
Shaking his head, he replied, “Cab drivers are a dime a dozen.” He eyed the steaming plate and scratched awkwardly at his bare chest, one eyebrow quirked upward and the other hovering low over his eye. The mixed feelings of exposure and embarrassment and hunger stimulated him.
She met his eye in the mirror. “Nah, sir. Not that breakfast. I’m losing the taste for it, myself, you know.” Her hand held her hair in place and twirled it around once, twice, thrice, and then it held in place. “Figured you were too. Many butchers are vegetarians, is that what they say? Now, can’t understand that myself, but, well, maybe it’s the knowing. Toby sure doesn’t have a problem downing them.” She spun delicately on her heel with a grace like a dancer and rapped her fist on his chest like she had the door. His face quirked up, and his hand glided smoothly upward to cover the place that she had touched. “Eat your breakfast. Need you for the grocer. Half an hour good?”
A hesitant nod.
“Perfect.” She clipped back out of the door. The snow muffled the sounds of her boots on the stairs.
In her wake, he stared at the cloud of snow that wafted into the small room. He scratched at the thin wad of hair where she had touched his chest with an absent look on his face. Then, walking on the balls of his feet like a cat, he approached the steaming bowl of noodles and sat down to nibble at them. Buttery. Wholesome. Ought to run a noodle shop. They’d sell better. The bowl vanished before his very eyes, and like a little boy, he ogled at the bowl like he wished it would refill itself. Don’t suppose you could chop up a corpse into noodles.
“Mr. Todd, are you coming?” shouted the infernal cook from downstairs. “Come along, you tortoise!”
In a flash, he secured a clean shirt around his chest and buttoned up a coat over it, then he started searching for a hat, but no sooner than he opened his wardrobe, she barged in yet again with a hat in hand. “Here you are, I’ve been meaning to give it this to you. Done stuffed the brim with tissue for you. Suppose I found something you’ll eat, then—” She plopped the hat onto his head, and he pulled it down so he could see just the rim of the brim at the top of his eyes. “Now, that’s just fine on you.” There she went again, hands patting his shoulders. He didn’t push her away. “Can we go, or are you waiting for a customer to materialize to avoid my company?”
“You do like a rush, ma’am.”
“Make the most of your time. Never know when you’ll just drop dead, and then some ole barber may be chewing on my old bones.” The bell on the door tinkered as she took his arm and started down the stairs. “Toby, love!” The boy stuck his head out of the door of the pie shop. “Stay off the gin until we’re back. Tend the fire. Have yourself a toffee or two!” She blew him a kiss, and the boy echoed, “Yes, ma’am,” down the quiet, snowy street.
Sweeney glanced back at him as he retreated into the shop. “You’ll rot all the teeth out of the boy’s head at this rate.” He pressed his hands into his pockets to warm them. “I wasn’t trained to pull teeth, you know.”
She chuckled and squeezed the inside of his elbow. “No? I thought that was an old skill of the barber-surgeon.” She elbowed him pointedly in the ribs, not enough to hurt, but more like a nudge for his attention. It took no genius to see that she swooned under his watchful eye. “You’re jealous that I don’t offer you toffees.” He glanced down at her mischievous dark eyes and smiled as they trod down the street. She winked playfully. The quiet December snow muffled their muted conversations and blurred their vision. “I do hope the grocer is open. I’m going to need flour before tomorrow’s dinner. Nothing on the person quite substitutes for that, I’m afraid.”
“Grind the bones.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works, love.” Mrs. Lovett shushed abruptly when she eyed two beggar men watching them. They had curled side by side on the sidewalk with their backs to the building. The older man’s hands trembled as he struggled to lift a mug to his lips. “Let’s hurry,” she urged, and she tugged at his elbow to rush him to the grocer. The door swung open easily as he held the door open for her, and they both stomped off their boots at the front mat.
Behind the counter, a fat, tan man rested on a stool. “Oye! Customer! Martin, boy, wait on the dear Mrs. Lovett!” The man stood and stumped around the counter. He had a badly built peg leg and bent at the pelvis. One blue eye fixed onto Sweeney before it slid back to Mrs. Lovett. “The usual, my dear? Still don’t know what you do without Martin delivering. No matter, can’t have him delivering on a day like today. Visibility too low for the horses, you know. Must hurt your knees and feet.” Fingers tapping, the crippled man stumped around with the boy. “Anyhow, give us a few minutes. We’ll have it rounded up. You want enough for a couple weeks, I’m supposing? The papers say this blizzard is going to flood us in for awhile, you know.” His peg leg slammed onto the wooden floor loudly as he bagged the butter and flour and other assorted items.
“Is it? We don’t get the paper.” Mrs. Lovett exchanged a glance with Sweeney. He pressed his lips into a thin line before he forced a smile onto his countenance.
The shopkeeper kept his gaze fixed on the woman. “Is he slow?” he asked after a moment, gesturing to Sweeney with a flick of his finger.
Mrs. Lovett snorted. Sweeney’s eyes narrowed, eyebrows drooping in a harrowing threat. “Slow? No. My second cousin, Sweeney Todd, just moved here above my shop. He’s got a barber shop above my meat pie store.”
“Oh? Well, that’s fine, isn’t it? I think there used to be a barber up there some years ago, too, you know. Never met the bloke myself. All the men getting shipped off nowadays over petty things, suppose it’s better than hanging by the neck. I’ve never afforded a barber, sir, but Mrs. Lovett is quite the lady—you know, I may just drop in once the weather’s a little better.”
The smile returned, this time with more ease and a glint to the eye. “I’d wager a close shave would do you some good, sir, with the ladies, I mean.” He held the grocer’s gaze until Mrs. Lovett clinked several coins onto the counter and the boy laden them with bags.
The door clinked behind them, and they started down the street. Mrs. Lovett shuffled close beside him, though she couldn’t take his arm for the bags. “Is he...up for grabs?” ventured the barber, eyes to the side of the streets. The beggar men had vanished or been buried in the snow, which now reached over his ankles. The bitter cold ate into his hands and face. How he had missed English winters!
“Afraid not. His oldest sons are officers, and the beadle is his wife’s cousin. Takes great pride in that, too. Got nothing else to be proud of, I suppose.” She rolled her eyes. “Rather silly, I think, but I’ve never had nothing to be proud of. I’d probably take great pride in it, as well.”
Eyes fixed forward, Sweeney only hummed in agreement and slammed into her when he didn’t see her halt in front of another shop. “Aye! What’re you doing?” She swatted the snowflakes off of his coat. “Let’s go in here. I’ve been wanting to grab some flowers for the shop, you know, and it mightn’t kill you to brighten your place up a little, too.”
“It’s winter,” complained the barber. “All the flowers are dead.” She ignored him as she barged into the small floral shop—surprisingly open. He followed her with a grumble under his breath. The dimly lit shop smelled of flowers and had dead petals on the floor all around, little trinkets decorating the walls and shelves with price tags. The counter was unoccupied. Mrs. Lovett made to start between the shelves, but he seized her by the side of the neck with his cold hand, wet nearly to the skin from the snow. “Wait.” She gasped at the frigidness of the cloth against her bare skin. “There’s someone else here.” He licked his pale lips, then, settling one hand over the razors in his pants pocket, he called out, “Is there anyone here?”
From the back room, a stout old woman waddled forth. She may have been a beggar, but she had kind, sane eyes. “Oye, Mrs. Lovett and her new man-friend, what’s-the-name, Dodd? Sodd? Oh, bother. Fancy seeing you all here. Grab anything you like. Beadle Bamford’s around looking at the flowers, too—what’s left of them. This time of year, it’s just what I can manage to keep alive, not much, think I’ve got one living bouquet left, but I’ve got a couple imitations if you need, plus the odd trinket.”
Sweeney tightened like she had plunged a dagger into his gut. Mrs. Lovett patted his shoulder, mouthing, “Settle,” as she made to head to the back aisle. He started after her, but she pushed him away by the chest, and he ducked into the next aisle over to look at the small picture frames and delicate hanging pictures, ears attune for any sound coming around from Mrs. Lovett or the beadle.
“Why, hello, Mrs. Lovett.” His throat pinched up, teeth digging into his tongue. It bled. “I thought I saw you on your way to the grocer. Now, I was just looking at these flowers for a dear woman friend of mine.” Say nothing, say nothing, don’t move. His tongue wouldn’t do. He bit his hand. “Unless you need them for your shop? I would never scorn a lady in need of a bouquet, especially in this rather bleak, flower-less season of the year.” He could hear the sneering smile in the beadle’s voice.
Mrs. Lovett’s girlish voice sang back at him like a fresh lass skipping home from church. “You take your flowers for your lady friend, Beadle Bamford.” He heard her pat his shoulder. Rage boiled within him. He snatched a snow globe from the shelf and rushed to the counter to purchase it. Then, with a quick duck out of the shop, he hurled it against the side of the building. The flash of glass in the faint light filled him with satisfaction. It tinkered, but the snow muffled the sound. He approached and crunched the glass with his boot.
A moment later, Mrs. Lovett and the beadle emerged from the shop together. The greasy man held his bouquet just under his chin as if to smell the flowers. The beady black eyes gleamed soullessly out at the world like a rat’s. “Now, to give these to my lady friend.” He turned to face Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney shrank back into the brick wall. Narrow eyes watched the woman’s careful countenance as the beadle offered the bouquet. “Mrs. Lovett, I would be flattered if you would accompany to dinner sometime this week.” A greasy dark lock fell into the man’s face, and he blew it away.
The widow crinkled her nose as the breath touched her face, and with some indulgence, he grinned as she replied, “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Bamford, but I’m afraid I’m already occupied for most of the week. I do have my own business to run, you know. Mr. Todd, come along. We’ve got to get lunch in the oven.”
He held the smile as he approached from behind, and she slipped her arm delicately into his. Their hands folded together neatly. With her other hand, she accepted the bouquet. “But I’m sure I’ll put this as a centerpiece in the shop.” The shocked beady eyes glinted back at them. She winked playfully. He couldn’t wipe the smug smirk from his face much as he tried to erase it, to indicate less of his intentions at heart. The poker face wouldn’t return to him.
“Right, right…” The beadle tapped his fingers together. Fury colored the bulging vein in his flabby neck. He chewed a bit harder on his tobacco, and then he spat it. It stained Sweeney’s boots. “I suppose I’ll see the two of you around, then, won’t I?” He nodded with feigned politeness to the both of them and started down the street, vanishing quickly into the blizzard.
Mrs. Lovett shuddered and pulled her hand from his. “My lord, I think that’s the most awkward thing I’ve endured in months. Ick!” She spun her hand through her hair and then lifted her groceries. “Let’s hurry home. Toby’s apt to come looking for us. Say, are you alright? I thought you would burst an eyeball before I got rid of him. Don’t I keep telling you to wait, love? It won’t do to spill blood in the middle of the street.”
“It would flow away with the snowmelt,” he muttered in response. He trudged after her, the snow thickening faster than ever. “I didn’t know you were smart enough to save yourself.” He shot her a half-teasing look out of the corner of his eye. But half-not teasing, as well. The thought of that slimy vulture laying a hand upon Mrs. Lovett made his heart quiver in hate and rage.
She cackled. “Would you think me daft, Mr. Todd? I’m not as fickle as I seem.”
“True? Fickle to me.”
“Fickle only to you.” She sauntered like a cat ahead of him in the street, a sultry sway to her hips like he’d dropped a few coins into the pockets of a dollymop. “I’m not daft, Mr. Todd. That man’s a hyena. Dark cully if I’ve ever seen one. Most of them are, anyway. Never met a grown man pure in the heart.” She winked back at him. He could scarcely see it in the snow blown into his face. The flakes arranged a crown in her hair and brimmed around his hat.
Toby had lit a lantern outside the shop to illuminate the sign to great fortune, as Sweeney supposed he would have trudged right past it while fixing his eyes upon her. The door creaked at their entrance, and they each stamped off their boots on the front mat. Mrs. Lovett tramed to the counter and dropped the flowers in a vase. “Now, don’t these look just lovely,” she hummed. Shedding her coat, she said, “Thanks a mite for your company, Mr T. Toby! Come here and help me fill the pantry, boy!” Around the corner the boy rushed with a big grin on his face. “Do you remember where everything goes?”
“That’s a good lad. Now you just ask if you’ve any questions, you hear? And stay away from the cellar. Remember what I tell you about the cellar, son?”
“Never, ever go near it unless you or Mr. Todd tells me directly to go inside,” parroted the child. He wiped his face with his sleeve. Since Mrs. Lovett had taken him in, he appeared more cleanly and well-kept, not so ragged with less soot around his face and a more genuine expression. Sweeney watched the boy empty their bags and fill the nearly empty pantries while, almost in rhythm with him, Mrs. Lovett set out pans to cook.
They had no need for any of his skills; they operated perfectly without him. And his razors needed cleaning and sharpening. He licked his chapped, cold lips and peered out at the merciless weather. He started toward the door to head back upstairs, but Mrs. Lovett called after him. “Mr. Todd?” He paused. “I’ll bring lunch up to you when it’s done, so keep your damn clothes on.” His neck colored in embarrassment, and his jaw shifted. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay down here, love? It’s much warmer.”
The yearning in her voice festered upon his skin like an itchy sore, both attracting him and repelling him somehow in the same way. “I’ve got to clean my razors and neaten up.” Some of those stains in the floor needed a mop taken to them, but he’d done his best to keep everything looking relatively tidy. Perhaps in a few years the wood would warp from the constant exposure to the moisture, but by then, he would probably be long gone. By the sea, where Mrs. Lovett wanted to go—he would follow her, once the judge and the beadle were finished and Johanna was free, once they had enough money to support themselves and stay under the radar of any local governing. He’d no reason not to follow her.
“Well, alright. Don’t get too cold up there.” The disappointment upon her face shrank as the flour filled the wrinkles that it left behind. He purchased the illusion and stomped back up to his shop.