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Authors: Kay Brellend

The Street

BOOK: The Street
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KAY BRELLEND

The Street

For Mum, to finish what you started

For Dad, to keep a promise

For Nan, Granddad, Great Nan, Great Granddad, remembering you with love and pride

For everybody who ever spent time in Campbell Road, later Whadcoat Street, a.k.a. ‘The Bunk’

Contents

Title Page

Dedication

 

Getting Older: 1913

   
Chapter One

   
Chapter Two

   
Chapter Three

   
Chapter Four

   
Chapter Five

   
Chapter Six

   
Chapter Seven

   
Chapter Eight

   
Chapter Nine

Getting Work: 1914–1917

   
Chapter Ten

   
Chapter Eleven

   
Chapter Twelve

   
Chapter Thirteen

   
Chapter Fourteen

   
Chapter Fifteen

   
Chapter Sixteen

   
Chapter Seventeen

   
Chapter Eighteen

   
Chapter Nineteen

   
Chapter Twenty

   
Chapter Twenty-One

   
Chapter Twenty-Two

   
Chapter Twenty-Three

   
Chapter Twenty-Four

   
Chapter Twenty-Five

   
Chapter Twenty-Six

   
Chapter Twenty-Seven

Getting Out: 1917–1918

   
Chapter Twenty-Eight

   
Chapter Twenty-Nine

   
Chapter Thirty

   
Chapter Thirty-One

   
Chapter Thirty-Two

Epilogue - Summer 1922

Pictures of The Street

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Author’s Note

Copyright

About the Publisher

‘Shut that brat up or I will . . . fer good.’

‘You don’t mean that, Mum. Little ’un’s hungry. I’ve been waiting up for you to come home so’s you can feed her. Why do you say horrible things?’ The small girl’s expression was a mixture of contempt and sorrow as she challenged the woman swaying on her feet. In fact she knew very well why her mother turned mean and brutal: it was due to the amount of Irish whiskey she had tipped down her throat in the hours since she’d left this squalid hovel that was their home.

Tilly Keiver narrowed her glassy gaze on her daughter. ‘You got too much o’ what the cat licks its arse with, my gel.’ The words were slurred but menacing. Unsteadily she shoved herself away from the doorjamb. ‘If I weren’t dog tired you’d feel the back o’ me hand and no mistake about it.’ She raised a fist raised to emphasise it was no idle threat. Slowly she let the hand fall so it might aid the other in grappling with the buttons on her coat. Irritably she shrugged the garment off and left it where it fell on rag-covered floor-boards. Small, careful steps took Tilly on a meandering path towards the iron bedstead. It was the dominant piece of furniture in a room cluttered with odd, dilapidated pieces.

Alice Keiver watched her mother, listening to her swearing beneath her breath as she bumped into a stick-back chair and sent it over. Then her ample hip met the wardrobe. If Tilly felt the hefty contact there was no sign: the volume of cursing remained the same. She was soon within striking distance and Alice shrank back into the armchair. She’d been huddled within its scratchy old embrace for two long hours whilst awaiting her mother’s return. Her thin arms tightened about the fretful infant wriggling against her lap. To soothe the hungry baby and quieten her mewling she again stuck the tip of her little finger between tiny lips. Little Lucy pounced on the fruitless comfort and sucked insistently.

Alice knew that once her mother had reached the bed and sunk onto the edge she was unlikely to rouse herself to retaliate, whatever she heard in the way of complaints. Soon that moment arrived.

‘You’re not tired, you’re drunk as usual.’ Despite Alice’s frail figure her accusation was strong and she lithely sprang to her feet, clutching the precious bundle of her baby sister protectively against her ribs as she paced this way and that.

‘Get yerself in the back, ’fore I use this on yer,’ her mother slurred, showing her a wobbling fist. But Tilly’s chin was already drooping towards her bosom.

Alice made a tentative move forward, and then tottered quickly back as her mother snapped up her head but, as she had correctly assumed, Tilly made no move to rise from the bed once she’d settled into the comfort of its sagging edge.

‘You’re a bleeding nuisance, you are. Worse’n all the rest put together. Now git! Let me get meself to bed. Cor, I’m all in.’

Tilly Keiver was a big-boned woman with a florid face topped by reddish-blonde hair. Usually she kept her beautifully thick mane under control: plaited and coiled in a neat bun either side of her head. But a night of roistering with her cronies in the Duke pub, and a painful stumble on the way home, had resulted in her crowning glory resembling a fiery bird’s nest. She yanked out two pins from one side of her head and a thick plait uncoiled sinuously onto a shoulder. She left it at that. The other side was forgotten.

After a few quiet minutes Alice thought her mother had dozed off where she slouched. But before she could act, Tilly managed again to rouse herself and, having folded forward, her callused fingers began pulling at her footwear.

Tilly’s new boots had been got, against fierce competition, just that afternoon from Billy the Totter. Carefully she tried to unlace them but the fancy double bow she’d fashioned when sober got the better of her. In a frenzy of impatience she used toe against heel to squash down the leather and prise them off. The last one freed was tossed from her foot against the wall in a fit of temper. Even in her inebriated state Tilly regretted rough-handling her prized possession. Her frustration resulted in coarse cursing that continued as she fumbled with her heavy skirt. She managed to work it to her ankles and shake it away. Done with undressing, she swung her feet up onto the mattress and momentarily lay quiet and still; the only sound from that side of the room was the settling bedsprings.

Alice moved quietly closer to help her mother cover herself. But Tilly’s flopping hand had finally located what it sought. After a few attempts she managed to swing the solitary blanket high enough to drift about her body.

‘Don’t go to sleep yet, Mum. Lucy needs feeding,’ Alice pleaded in a whisper. ‘And there’s no milk left. There was only a drop that’d gone sour and Dad put it in his tea before he went off to work.’ She gently shook her mother by the arm to rouse her.

Alice knew her mother was conscious but choosing to ignore her pleas, so now she must wait. In a very short while Tilly would sink so deeply into sleep that she’d hear and feel nothing. Alice gently placed little Lucy on the bed a safe distance from her mother’s twitching, and started to tidy the room. She must loiter until she heard her mother snore.

She picked up Tilly’s best coat from the floor, shook it, and draped it across the end of the bed. The small-back stick chair had been made even more rickety by rough treatment; nevertheless Alice moved it to neatly join the three still pushed under the table. The precious boots were collected and placed together out of sight beneath the bed. A rumbling sound drew her back, on tiptoe, to her mother.

‘Mum?’ she tested quietly. There was no response. Even when baby Lucy let out a wail Tilly stirred only to suck in another ragged breath. Alice tested her mother’s consciousness again, this time with more volume to her voice. Tilly snored on.

Quickly Alice’s nimble fingers unbuttoned her mother’s blouse. Deftly she positioned the baby close to a plump breast to nurse. Alice froze stock still, her fingers covering the baby’s mouth to stifle her whimpers. One of her mother’s hands had fluttered up as though she might swipe them both away, but after a moment, hovering, it fell back to the mattress.

Little Lucy’s face had become crumpled and crimson as though she sensed imminent comfort slipping away. But Alice was sure now that her mother was sufficiently stupefied. With furtive care she guided the baby close then snatched away her fingers, allowing the baby to latch on and feed.

Slowly Alice sank to her knees by the bed, feeling quite weak and exhausted. She guessed it must be past midnight. She began to gently move straggly hair away from her mother’s bloated face and when done with that she ran loving fingers over the fleece covering her little sister’s bony head. The gentle hum created by her mother’s rumbling breathing and her sister’s enthusiastic suckling made her drowsy and her lids fell a few times. She forced herself back to wakefulness before her forehead touched the mattress. Feeling chilled, she crept to the end of the bed and put on her mother’s coat. It pooled on the floor about her and she used the material to cushion her bony behind as she sat on the rough boards and looked about for something to do whilst she waited for her sister to finish her feed.

Drawing one of the boots from under the bed, she slowly turned it to inspect its fine quality. The laces had been tightened into small, hard knots by her mother’s clumsiness. Patiently she picked at them until they loosened. Smiling at the bows she had tied, she began to pull the leather at the heels until the ridges started to disappear. Satisfied with her handiwork, she slipped it onto her skinny foot and extended her leg to admire the boot, waggling it this way and that to inspect it from different angles. One day she’d buy herself such things . . . better things, she promised herself.

They were good boots. Quality. Billy the Totter had said he’d got them from a woman over Tufnell Park way. Alice knew a lot of women hereabouts charred for posh ladies over there in the better district of North London. But he’d said that they weren’t even that lady’s property. She’d got them off her sister who lived in Mayfair in one of the houses with pillars out front and servants out back. Alice reverently smoothed the soft leather with her fingertips.

Barely were the boots neatly back in position beneath the bed when she suddenly shot up to a crouching position. A loud thud from the floor below had curtailed her yawning and startled her into wakefulness. Her eyes darted to the bed but nobody was stirring.

The tenement house in which they had rooms was never peaceful. Day or night people came and went and constant noise was only a minor inconvenience to an existence in what was known as Campbell Bunk. In the rooms below lived her aunt Fran and her husband Jimmy. Alice had been partially aware of the ebb and flow of an argument issuing from those rooms the whole time she had waited for her mother to come home. But now it seemed the ruckus was about to turn nasty.

Aunt Fran and Uncle Jimmy were always at it and, judging by the increased din, their disagreement was about to take its usual turn and become violent. Even knowing it, Alice again jumped in her skin at the unmistakeable clatter of a missile striking a wall. Screamed abuse from her aunt immediately followed. Alice shot across the splintery floorboards on her bony knees to stare unblinking at her mother’s sagging face. But Tilly remained oblivious to her warring relatives, and her soft snores continued unabated.

The noise below had worsened and Alice was relieved to see that little Lucy had finished feeding and was also sleeping quite soundly, undisturbed by her aunt and uncle fighting close by. Alice remembered that she’d witnessed her aunt Fran pull a knife from a drawer in the table and rush at her uncle Jimmy. She remembered too that her dad had had his hand cut when he took it off her.

Nervously Alice shifted the baby aside, keen now to get herself and little Lucy to bed. She pulled her mother’s gaping bodice together and painstakingly refastened the buttons. Then the stiff, worn blanket was properly pulled over her so it might be of some small benefit against the cold March night. Alice opened out her mother’s coat to act as an extra blanket and spread that on top. Finally she did as her mother had told her over an hour ago and went into the back room.

‘Is Mum home? Heard something like a row goin’ on.’

‘Yeah, she’s back.’

‘Been boozin’, I s’pose, has she?’ the sleepy voice enquired from the murky shadows.

Alice looked towards the double mattress she shared with her sisters. It was the elder who had spoken. Sophy was almost a year and a half older than her. Bethany was just over three years younger. The sleeping infant in her arms was almost seven months old.

‘’Ere . . . make room,’ Alice grumbled and gave Sophy a nudge so she would shift over.

The elder girl squeaked indignantly. ‘Oi, get yer elbow out me face, will you.’ She, in turn, gave Bethany a little shove and the girl rolled over, still asleep, with a thumb trapped in her mouth.

‘What’s all the row about, anyhow?’

‘It’s Aunt Fran and Uncle Jimmy. They’re at it again.’

‘S’pose he’s been up the corner gambling and she’s found out . . .’

‘S’pose,’ Alice agreed and, having undressed to her under-garments, got beneath the covers. She immediately huddled close to Sophy for warmth and pulled one of the old ragged coats that served as makeshift blankets up to her chin. Carefully she drew baby Lucy into the protective nest of her arms.

‘Is Dad back?’

‘No,’ Alice replied. ‘He won’t be back for a long time yet.’

Their father had found himself a few days’ work at the market and would help overnight setting up the stalls for the following day. If he was lucky, he might stay on and take half-profits for helping old Mr Cooke sell his fruit and vegetables. Of course, if trade looked to be slow and pickings were hard, their dad would be sent home before ten o’clock with very little in his pocket for his night’s work.

‘Dad’ll go mad at her if she’s spent his bacca money on booze.’

‘I know,’ Alice whispered into the dark.

‘How old do you think we’ll be before we get out of this dump? Really old, I suppose. Might even be sixteen. Four-eyes Foster was sixteen before she got enough saved up to get a room in Playford.’

Alice laughed soundlessly. She knew bespectacled Annie Foster, of course. For as long as Alice could remember Annie had lived just a few doors away in Campbell Road. On Annie’s sixteenth birthday she’d finally dodged her step-father’s fists by running away from home. ‘That’s just round the corner!’ she derisively pointed out whilst frowning at the shadows on the ceiling. In her estimation, scarpering to Playford Road was hardly escaping. ‘When I go I’m going a real long way . . . a
real
long way. I’m makin’ a move when I’m thirteen. You can come too if you like.’

Sophy raised herself on an elbow and peered through the gloom at Alice. ‘Run away?’ she scoffed. ‘When you’re thirteen? You only just turned twelve last week and you’ve got no money.’

‘I’ve saved a few bob from me doorsteps, and I know old Miss Murphy wants me to do her brasses reg’lar. Done ’em once before and she said they’d never rubbed up so good.’

‘How much she give you?’ Sophy was most interested to know. Any chance of earning regular money from a good paying customer was news best kept to oneself. Sophy shifted closer, peering down into Alice’s face.

Alice pulled the coat up higher to her sharp little chin. She turned over, settling her head into her hand, regretting that she’d been unwisely boastful. ‘Go to sleep,’ she hissed over a raised shoulder. ‘We’ll never get up for school if we don’t get some shut-eye.’

‘Go on! How much did old Murphy give you to do her brasses?’

‘Ain’t saying, so don’t ask.’ Alice curved her small, thin body about her sleeping baby sister and determinedly closed her eyes.

‘I’ll come with you, if you like, when you go,’ Sophy promised quietly. ‘I’m older’n you and I know a lot more than you do.’

‘About what?’ Alice asked dubiously.

‘About everything,’ Sophy boasted. ‘I know about workin’ in good houses, which you don’t ’cos you’re not old enough to go. Mum’s took me loads of times to Highgate when she were working for Mrs Forbes and her daughter.’ Sophy paused, unsure whether to let on a secret of her own. ‘I got meself a nice few handkerchiefs out of Tufnell. Sold ’em for a good price, too.’

BOOK: The Street
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