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Bonny’s Christmas Angel
Isle of Dogs
Dad was an expert at holes. He could dig six feet down, a body-width wide, in half a day. And there wasn’t a coffin on the island which wouldn’t lower to the bottom and fit as tight as a pea in its pod. This was what I, Bonny Sharp, would boast of at school.
While my friends’ fathers were dockers, costermongers and city gents pushing pens, mine was an East End gravedigger. Having learned the tricks of the trade from me Dad, I would do Emily Pankhurst proud as England’s first lady digger. I was nine-years-old and nobody was going to change my mind.
‘From that empty space,’ quoted my father as we’d sit by an opening, savouring our bread and dripping, ‘comes an eternal silence. A vanished energy. If you listen gel, when there’s a proper headstone on top, you’ll maybe hear a word or two of thanks from the sleepers.’
‘Will I, Dad?’ I regularly enquired, fascinated by the old, word-perfect story. ‘What shall I hear them say?’
But by this time, the light would be fading around us and our churchyard wrapped in the chilly arms of evening. Dad would ruffle my unruly mop and he’d answer, ‘Bonny, you’ll hear the best sound you ever heard. Angel voices telling you the sleeper is safe in their arms. And thank you very much for making the bed so comfortable.’
‘I haven’t heard even the smallest whisper, Dad,’ I’d complain, afraid to disturb the mound we were sitting on, just in case the sleepers were about to voice an opinion.
‘You won’t hear them yet,’ came the affirmative reply. ‘Not until you learn to listen properly. Takes a bit of doing that does. But when you do, my girl, you’ll know it.’
Then, as regular as clockwork, a pair of gulls flying off the river would settle on the fence in the twilight, cackling their evensong over the bonfire’s curling cord.
Dad and I would drag on our duffles and place a handful of sturdy boards across the hole we were digging. Our last duty was to tie a white handkerchief to a stick in the ground, warning any night roamers to beware of the opening. Finally, in the sweet, roasting smells of autumn, along with the tang of salt from the docks, we would traipse home, singing or whistling our content.
On winter Saturdays, near to Christmas, I’d be along with Dad, pausing on our way to collect rusty relics from the half frozen mudflats. Or polishing marble headstones and sharpening my mind in the ways of my future profession. Never was I happier, even in the frosts and snow, than being in the churchyard. It was here, on this horseshoe of land skirted by the noble River Thames, that my youthful spirits gusted high up into the bare branches of the plane trees and found freedom.
But for all my self-will and determination, I could not avert the discovery of Angel and the slowly changing pattern of my life.
One night, at the supper table, as she was ladling off soup from her hot oven, Mother said, ‘What have you got there Bonny, that you’re so anxious to hide?’
Misguidedly, I owned up. ‘She’s a doll, a bit raggedy, but I’ve named her Angel. With a bit of cleaning, she’ll come good as new.’
‘Child!’ Mother cried, dumping the pot and snapping the treasure from my filthy hand. ‘How many times have I told you? Never bring graveyard rubbish into this house. All clogged with earth, and heaven know’s what else, maybe even disease!’ She sighed deeply, her clean, wholesome face a stark contrast to the miserable bundle. ‘I suppose your father dug it for you, did he?’
‘I got me hand right in the hole before the spade came down and spliced her in two!’ I was swift to confess, not wanting to land Dad in hot water. ‘It was pure good luck that saved her!’
‘I beg to differ with you, madam,’ Mother said haughtily. ‘You know I ain’t superstitious (she was – very!) and luck is reversed when it comes to stealing from the dead. They have their patch and we have ours. There’s a boundary fence between us that keeps good luck on our side. The sleepers don’t need it.’
My tongue almost strangled itself to keep quiet, for finding Angel felt like I’d been given a Crown Jewell. My scarlet expression must have revealed my rebellious thoughts, as Mother wrinkled her nose and shook Angel roughly with her thumb and forefinger. ‘She’s falling-to-bits, gel! Aside from her collapsing, have you tested for the worm? Cos I suspect she’s ridden with it!’
‘I’m gonna look her over good and proper,’ I promised rashly. ‘Soak her in Naptha and give her a squirt of Dad’s horse liniment. And sew on a button eye and – ‘
‘I’m sorry, but the answer is no,’ Mother interrupted heartlessly. Nearing the fire, she suspended my parcel of rags above the flames. ‘I ain’t being hard-hearted, Bonny, but we’d be living in a museum if I let you and your father have your way. Not to mention the bad luck, worse even than breaking a mirror.’
‘Please Mother,’ I cried, leaping to my feet in unbridled passion. ‘Don’t burn her! She ain’t stolen. In fact, I reckon that’s a rotten old lie about the sleepers being bad luck!’
Mother stared at me disbelievingly, as though I’d spoke in tongues. She pulled herself upright, as stiff and strong as a mizzenmast and cast me her evil eye. ‘Sit back and mind your manners, girl!’ She was iron-faced firm and I respected the quick hand she kept by her apron. ‘I’ll have none of your cheek, Bonny Sharp. Don’t assume you can order me like you order your father! And I don’t bloody care what anyone says about them sleepers. We’ll have none of their belongings under this roof!’
Mother rarely swore and I knew I’d pushed my own luck to its limits. I sat back, soundly chastened. For it was true. I could wind Dad around me little finger as easy as pie. Like Mother often accused, we was peas in a pod and often, in secret, joined sides against her. But all the same, I didn’t eat. I pushed me spoon around the plate and looked moody, well knowing this would irritate her much deeper.
‘And you’ll not give me that black look,’ Mother decreed. ‘You’ll eat your supper or else you’ll be served with the same every day till the week is out. I’ll have no waste of good food in this house Not even a crumb.’
Accepting I was beaten, I opened my mouth in a pretence of hunger. But with no appetite and the impending fate of the swinging bundle, I must have looked genuine sad. For out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mother’s brief hesitation. Angel didn’t drop; she was still swinging perilously close to the roaring pyre.
‘Change Mother’s mind.’ I prayed to the child-loving angel who I’d named my doll after. (The same angel who I asked for a sleeper’s message one day.) ‘Save my treasure’s life and I promise never to give cheek ever again. Or at least, till Christmas.’
And so, the miracle, as I saw it, did happen. The very first miracle of my life that I was privileged to witness on an inclement winter’s day, just weeks before the biggest miracle of all.
Mother’s fingers remained tight on the dancing rags, but suddenly changed direction! Slowly, very slowly the flames receded. As if Mother guessed that giving me a heartfelt scolding was punishment enough for my audacity.
We spoke not one word as Angel tumbled into the hearth, escaping the conflagration by a whisker. Once again, from the corner of my eye, I beheld the sad package; fragments of muddy cloth reflected in the spinning light of the fire. But when I studied Angel’s poor china face turned towards me, I saw a transformation. Little by little, that face changed. The wormy hole where her eye was missing seemed to contain a faint sparkle. Beneath her flattened nose, the faded, painted ruby lips appeared to turn up at their corners.
I shivered all over. Was I dreaming? Had Mother witnessed this apparition too? I was certain when I looked at Mother she also, would be breathless and staring.
But no such luck.
She had her back turned on us and was washing wildly at the dishes, making far more noise than was necessary as protest for her clemency. And while she worked at earthly duties, it was me, Bonny Sharp who had witnessed with me own eyes, a divine intervention.
Needless to say, I finished my supper, shoving it away heartily so Mother would approve and let me further off the hook.
I decided (for once) to keep my observations to myself. Though I was fairly busting to relate what I’d seen. Mother had met me half way with saving Angel and I remembered my promise to keep a check on the ill-judged words that all too often rushed out of my mouth and were met with a clout round the ear.
Later that evening, Mother sat beside me, listening to my times tables as was our unbreakable habit before bedtime. Ever since I was turfed out of class for my arithmetic ignorance she never trusted me to learn on my own again. She would grill me into perspiration until I was parrot-fashion perfect. My reward after, was the mug of cocoa she made and tonight I basked in the glory of approval.
Stringing out the cocoa and the warmth of the fire, I let my eyes sneak down to the hearth where Angel lay. To my disappointment she looked lifeless again. No sparkle from that eye or wistful smile, just a raggedy heap, no doubt crawling inside with the worm.
My pain was acute. I’d imagined a miracle. My distress reignited. For what is something that is stone cold dead, when you saw it so alive?
Perhaps Mother read my thoughts and took pity on me. For she spoke then and with a tenderness that was rare. ‘I’ll leave your Angel to dry over night in the hearth,’ she explained putting on an indifferent tone. ‘I’ll have a good look at her later after you’re in bed and I’ve given your father his supper. If she’s no worm, mind, and we don’t have a case of the bubonic on our hands, p’raps you may keep her. P’raps.’
But it was not me that reacted to Mother’s decision, it was Angel! For I beheld the sparkle that I’d seen before and the curling up of the lips and my joy was so great that I was about to leap up and babble it all out.
But prudence stayed me. Mother was looking at Angel too, her gaze unruffled. In that moment I knew she couldn’t see what I saw. I knew I was witnessing something special and rare, something that would make me look daft if I said it.
So I didn’t. I used discretion and sat quiet instead, full of secret pleasure. Keeping my busy tongue in check, I glowed inside.
My common sense reasoning was thus; things had come right for me. I had Angel and Mother, her pride. It was an exchange I delighted in. And though I dare not voice it, my triumph seemed far superior!
That night, I lay awake, making fairy pictures from the snowy diamonds on the window, watching moonlight streamers fall across my bed. The docks, like empty vessels half-filled with stones, rattled away their noises and fell into silence. Every now and then, a bat hit the glass and flew away zig-zag back to the roofs of the factories.
It was as I heard the midnight caller, our cat screaming at her mate across the tin roof of the yard closet, that Mother crept in. She left the small item smelling sharply of Lifebuoy and a dash of carbolic, on the bedside table.
‘At least it’s a doll,’ sighed Mother to herself as she straightened the bedclothes. ‘I was beginning to think it would always be spades.’
As sleep overtook me, on the borderland of dreams, I fancied I nearly heard the sleepers. Very nearly. Like Dad told me I would one day. But somehow, even with Angel beside me – I couldn’t quite hear them. Couldn’t quite get the gist of what the sleepers were saying.
Angel was my companion wherever I went. At school, strapped to my satchel. Or at the churchyard, tucked in my overalls as I worked alongside Dad. Mathilda Josephs, a girl in my class once teased me. ‘Grave robbing, that’s what you do, Bonny Sharp. I know, see. My dad says the law puts you in prison for pinching from the dead!’
So for that, Mathilda got a fist in her face. And I got satisfaction along with a sore rump from our teacher.
‘Such is life,’ reasoned Dad cheerfully, when I explained why I could not sit down properly by the bonfire to eat our picnic. ‘Your friend, it appears, had a touch of the green eye.’
‘No Dad,’ I objected with a cheeky grin. ‘A black one it is. A very dark black one.’
Dad smiled and advised me not to mention the business to Mother. An unnecessary warning, as we both knew. But as it happened, there was no need for secrecy, for that night, our lives marked a turning point beyond all others.
At the supper table, Dad and I were nicely escaping Mother’s interrogations, when Old Gran, who doubled as a midwife, burst in. Her grey, tangled hair flew wild as a witches, matted with the first flakes of snow.
‘Charlotte!’ she cried, her old coat drenched from the frightful storm outside. ‘I need your help. Florrie Moore started her labour too early. She’s gone off her head with the pain, so she has!’
This sort of behaviour was rare on the island, for most of the women were usually in on the deliveries. Old Gran performed most of them, with her carpet bag full of tools that was always snapped closed the minute you tried to peer in. If there was an uncommon case of hysteria one or the other of the women would provide a remedy. There were fatalities, though rare. But it happened this time, that things appeared to be on the downward slope. ‘It’s all hands to the pump, Charlotte. Be quick!’
‘Father’s not home yet,’ Mother fretted as she pulled on her coat. ‘He’s had trees as big as giants toppling in the churchyard. Though what he can do all on his own, I can’t imagine.’
‘Aye, and I doubt if we’ll see a yard in front of us either.’
Being far from reassured, Mother turned to me. ‘You’ve heard Gran, Bonny. I have to go and help. Now you’re nearly there, (meaning I was almost ten and in those days, thought of as practically full grown). I don’t want you moving from the house. Not one inch over that doorstep, do you hear me? Father won’t be long I’m sure.’
She had no need to say, did Mother, for there was only one way to go out of our door and that was by the cemetery. And though I loved the churchyard by day, it became a mysterious and foreign world at night. I’d once gone with Dad to help carry back his tools left by an opening. The foggy night had surrounded us and the tombstones stuck up like teeth ready to snap. Dad had warned me to stay close lest we should be parted. And I remained like a shadow on his heels. We paused at the opening of the grave and looked down into that six foot abyss. I imagined the restless sleepers; lost they were, trying to find their way. My imagination overtook me once more and Dad had cause to shake me roughly. After that, I never accompanied him at night again.
But on this stormy December evening, Mother had gone to help Gran deliver Florrie’s baby and I sat alone. The turmoil outside increased, and as time passed I wondered how long it would be before Dad walked in the door. It couldn’t be much longer, not even if the trees were down. He’d have to leave them till light broke. As Mother said, what could one man do on his own?
At ten o’clock and wide awake in bed, I feared this was to be the longest night of my life. The fire had burned low, no safe crackling in the front room to reassure me. The howling outside my window was like the devil himself. All through the house things rippled. Like an invisible hand was ferreting about. Searching.
I got the willies and hid under the blankets holding Angel tight to my chest. ‘Dad’s in trouble, he is,’ I whispered to her. And a frenzy of fear filled me. I saw him under a tree, legs squashed as flat as pancakes. I saw him stuck in the bog and calling for help. I pictured him fighting his way through the storm and covered head to toe in icy splinters.
My fear increased with each vision. And tears smarted, like nipping pin pricks.
Then, just as I was about to weep full pelt, something very strange happened. Fear for a father whom I loved more dearly than anything on God’s earth, brought me a revelation.
If Dad was in trouble, it was up to me to save him. I had Angel, didn’t I? She was my charm, my miraculous guardian. As if of their own accord, my legs dropped to the floor. Next I was dressing; jumpers and trousers and coat and hat and boots tied firm with laces. And there I stood, with Angel, ready to brave the night. My hand reached out to the latch and did the exact opposite of what Mother had told me.
It opened the door.
Or rather the door opened itself and I was promptly swept off my feet. Staring up into the night I saw a monster. Snow and wind roaring, flying in all over Mother’s polished boards and onto her neatly swept rugs. It was this, the fright of such a disturbance to Mother’s housekeeping that acted like a trigger.
Swallowing my fear, I bolted into the night. Off Angel and I did go, gales slapping my skin in freezing lashes and trying to tear away my coat.
Skidding about like a drunken sailor, feeling unmentionable horrors at my ankles, I was soon through the gate and into the churchyard.
The first wrong turn brought me slap on top of Old Wainright’s grave! By day, his crimes seemed but a mischievous story. Hanged for his crimes by a lynch mob of dockers, Old Wainright struggled on the rope like a twisting eel till his face turned blue and bloated. Every soul on the island knew there was never such a murderous, cunning, devilish fellow as Old Wainright!
But as the church clock struck twelve, the picture was not so rosy! It would have been just my luck, I decided, for him to have called out to me and not the good Lord’s sleepers.
A fog horn on the river sounded and that did it! I ran blindly, heaving my boots from the snow and falling often, losing my battle with the elements.
At last I came to north cemetery. And here, just as my courage had come, so it vanished. Dad was nowhere to be seen. In the stormy blackness the squalls of snow were illuminated greenish white. I began to tremble.
‘Run,’ I heard an inner voice advise. ‘Run home, Bonny, for all you’re worth, or else they’ll get you.’
‘Who are they?’ I mumbled feeling the snowflakes freeze my cheeks and fearing more what I couldn’t see than what I could. By day this place was heaven but now it was hell. A hell I was scared stiff by, dreading punishment for my many sins. All my crimes came back to me as the wind swirled and the snow turned even deeper. All the sounds of night were magnified. Did the sleepers peaceful whispers now moan in their graves, all tormented and full of anguish?
I was alone with devils and their howls of agony. My conscience told me; I’d cheeked Mother and betrayed her by loving Dad more. I’d skipped school and lied and procrastinated. On Sunday as I’d listened to the vicar in his pulpit, I’d wished every second away, longing to be free and un-suffocated. I’d avoided my learning with such energy, I’d caused Mother bitter disappointment. My childhood descended on me as if I was already in that burning coffin. I saw my rebellious character as others saw it. Bonny Sharp, the misguided soul, the impudent pretender. It was only Dad who I loved and now I’d lost even him.
I turned towards home, my breath short and despairing. At last I knew why I never heard those sleepers voices, like Dad said I would. I was unworthy, unfit for the hearing of daylight whispers. It was the dark sleepers I’d brought on myself, the fearful remains of hell’s curdling brimstone. Destiny had brought me to them, my rich reward for a life of misbehaviour.
North cemetery howled, sucking me down in the drifts of snow and unable to stagger further, I stood with the tears freezing on my lashes. I was to become a frozen image of badness. In the morning, they would discover me and say rightly, “She never learned her lessons, that Bonny Sharp. Old Wainright has claimed her.”
So I gave up my struggle and waited for my fate, shivering, trembling and frozen. I accepted heaven’s rejection as the snow swallowed me deeper.
Then, as my strength ebbed and the end became clear, I heard a whisper. It took me some minutes to distinguish and even then she was faint. But I heard the voice of Angel who I still clutched in my mittened hands. ‘Turn around,’ Angel told me calmly. ‘I’m with you. And so is all of heaven.’
I looked down at her. The flakes of snow had washed away her painted rosy cheeks that I’d so carefully coloured. But her lips were turned up and her button eye sparkled. ‘Over there, Bonny,’ she guided me. ‘Just a short way, now.’
I did as she bade me. Turning somehow in the drifts, wondering at my own actions, I pressed on and into the snow.
‘Dad!’ I screamed, thrashing through the snow-covered thickets. ‘Dad, where are you? You must come home now. Mother says so!’
I had no clue as to what I was saying or why I was braving it. Only that Angel and all of heaven was with me. Deeper and deeper into the darkness I plunged. Drowning it felt like, in the churning of north cemetery.
By the time I spotted Dad’s Tilley lamp, I had begun to recall other memories. Like a warm coat they enveloped me, returning the blood to my frozen limbs. Dad’s laughter on crisp spring mornings. The day he pulled me out of the peat bog and plunged me in the horse trough to clean. The cake Mother baked on my birthday which cost her every penny in the emergencies tin.
The memories grew rosy again and spurred me on. And when I saw that tiny spec of light, the dark sleepers were quiet and resting as they should be.
I tumbled through the snow towards the Tilley’s brilliance and came all of a sudden upon an opening in the ground. I should have missed it and no doubt fallen into the hole had I not seen the stiff white handkerchief tied to the stick rooted close by. It was the signal. Dad’s warning to night roamers. And to me.
It was the end of my journey.
I peered carefully down, squinting my eyes in the swinging, swaying light. And there, at the bottom lay Dad. He was reflected quite still, coated finely in a sheet of pure white. A twisted and broken branch lay across him. But I could see his faint features; closed eyes, sunken cheeks, as if he was sleeping.
I had a job to steady myself, balanced there on the edge. The wind rattled the bare plane tree branches above and showers of snow fell thicker and heavier.
I suppose it was no great surprise I should drop my treasure. Angel fell awkwardly down, bouncing off both steep walls, and her head coming to rest eventually, against the human one.
There was Dad and there was Angel, my two best friends. Out of reach. While Dad slept, Angel was smiling her smile, as if she had willingly leapt from my hands and gone to comfort him.
‘Run, Bonny,’ she told me. Or at least, the voice in my head did. Or maybe it was the wind. Or perhaps the branches above. ‘I’ll stay here and keep watch.’
And then they were gone! Vanished! As though my eyes played tricks on me. The hole was just a hole, black and deep, without even the whiteness of snow. I gawped, I stared, I felt the flutter of fear in my ribs. And then, I remembered. Angel had whispered to me. Perhaps she was the sleeper’s voice I’d been waiting for?
Afterwards, I was to reflect how I managed to find the vicarage. Was it a nose for direction? Did I recall the way even in a storm? Perhaps. All I know is that I arrived there. The vicarage stood, a picture post card, its eaves and gutters spilling over with icicles. The gate squeaked my entrance, my footprints wound behind me and I fell on the old door.
‘Vicar! Vicar!’ I yelled, hammering away. ‘Wake up! It’s me, Bonny Sharp. And me Dad’s in trouble.’
The lights went on in a jiffy and the vicar welcomed me along with a flurry of snow. ‘You’ve got to come with me,’ I beseeched, standing soaked and shivering. ‘Dad’s fallen into an opening and he’s asleep. Well, he ain’t asleep I don’t suppose. But he can’t get out. There’s a branch over him and – ‘
‘Bonny, calm yourself now,’ interrupted the vicar who himself looked a bit tousled. His grey hair, what was left of it, was uncombed, his middle parting, usually drawn to perfection, was absent. He wore his coat with no pyjamas evident and very soon explained that he had just that moment arrived back from a rescue. ‘Tell me slowly what’s happened. And no exaggeration, just fact,’ he warned gently having been acquainted with my colourful past record.
‘It’s me Dad,’ I choked trying to be plain. ‘He was out searching the churchyard for fallen trees. But he didn’t come home and Mother’s gone to help Gran, cos Florrie’s baby’s got stuck and so I went out looking and I got a bit – well, lost, but in the end I found him and he’s down a hole and – ‘ Here I took a deep breath since the vicar’s eye was twitching. ‘I swear, honest to God, every word I’ve said is true.’
‘Hush,’ said the vicar firmly, swiping a drip from the end of his nose. ‘My wife has gone to help at the delivery too. So no swearing is needed. Just tell me where your father is.’
‘North cemetery, Vicar. He’s down a grave and he’s nearly dead,’ I burst out. ‘Oh you’ve got to come, or else he’s done for!’
I think I promised everything on that night; to attend Sunday class regular as clockwork, to join the choir and turn up for practice and sing me heart out. I promised a reform of character so complete, if only the vicar would go for Dad.
My delirious state was sufficient to send the vicar to his neighbour’s door, who in turn, got word to the Postie, the blacksmith and Mrs Hopkin’s backward son, Albert – all six foot six of him – to form a rescue party.
I wanted to lead the way and show them, but the vicar was firm against this, since I looked a sure case for pneumonia. He convinced me he was aware of the most recent opening in north cemetery. And when his wife returned, all bustling and brimming with good news, there appeared Mother too, alongside her.
Once again, an uncharacteristic urge filled me. I threw myself, sobbing, into her open arms. She held me tight. Tighter and closer than ever she had done before. And I reckon that was the moment I heard Angel again.
‘Goodbye, Bonny,’ she said simply and I gazed up at Mother, who features were soft and understanding. As if, this time, she could hear Angel too. As if we were reconciled and set straight for the future. For as we stood watching the men leave, their lamps vanishing into the driving snow, I suddenly knew I was grown.
‘We’ve found him,’ Postie announced early the next morning as he stood at our front door.
‘Thank God,’ Mother sighed, stepping back in a near faint. She had kept a vigil all night and I had joined her. We’d stoked the fire and dozed in front of it. And, being grown, I accepted the role soberly. I didn’t jaw, or complain, or even yawn. Mother had smiled from time to time, but I knew she was clever at hiding her fear. As I thought things through, I was full of a new respect, and understood her.
‘Just in time too,’ prattled on the Postie, ‘he’s on his way to the infirmary. No need to fret, Charlotte. He’s going to be right as rain.’
At the end of the adventure, I got a lecture from Mother for disobeying her and leaving the house, followed by a bacon sandwich for having saved Dad. I was instructed in the same breath not to let it go to my head, as children should be seen and not heard and lately, I was too much of both. But the lecture was unnecessary. For I had learned my lesson and was determined to prove it.
There remained one sadness. No one retrieved Angel for me. She was the single casualty of the incident. When I asked, there were frowns and raised eyebrows, a few um’s and ah’s and promises to search if anyone could remember.
But Angel was never found and the opening was occupied by a new sleeper. I was glad beyond measure it was Angel and not Dad who passed that day. So privately, on a golden Christmas morning in the churchyard when the quiet snow looked a picture of innocence, I did my own little service for Angel. She was now with a new sleeper and one day, perhaps, when I’d really learned to listen properly, I would hear her again.
The story of the rescue made headlines with the Island Gazette; Florrie produced two bouncing boys. Albert drank free ale at the Coach and Horses for carrying my Dad all the way on his back to safety. Gran was given a brand new bicycle, though she never learned how to ride it. And I kept my promises to the vicar. Though that Christmas was the last of my childhood it seemed. With the celebrations and Midnight Service, came the first inkling of a new interest. One of the choir boys took more of my attention than the vicar’s Christmas message, distracting me from concentration on prayers.
Not that I owned up to it. Nor did I return Rolly Palmer’s grin over his hymn book. Not immediately. Not until the next year, when I’d set a fresh course at school and found myself taller suddenly, growing out in places that were alarming at first, until I realized I was truly grown.
I’d join Dad still, on a Saturday, though it was with a secret reluctance as I thought of my new friends activities. The churchyard’s spell lingered, but not sufficiently to challenge other distractions.
One evening, close to the year’s anniversary of Dad’s rescue, I was sitting on the stairs, deliberating my homework. I overhead the conversation below, Dad saying enquiringly to Mother, ‘Bonny don’t work alongside me much these days, I notice.’
‘Tis only proper,’ chimed Mother as she sat, twisting her knitting needles, click-clack, as they sat by the fire. ‘She’s doing her learning now, as she should be. And she’s wearing skirts too.’
But Mother didn’t know the half of it, for I’d be meeting Rolly after school and letting him walk me through Island Gardens. It was not that I loved Dad or the churchyard any the less. It was just that others crept into my life a bit more. Growing, it appeared, caused nature to leave suspended the call of the sleepers.
And along with it, the memories of Angel.
Cowslips spread today, over Dad and Mother’s special place in the churchyard. For they left this earth almost together as if unable to be parted.
This spring, as I was brightening up their marble, arranging a posy of violets and cutting back the weeds, my nine-year-old daughter touched me lightly on the shoulder. I turned and saw my Charlotte holding a bundle in her hands.
‘I found it over there,’ she said, pointing to the plane tree. ‘She’ll come up good as new when she’s washed, Mum. Good as new.’
So it was, before I had time to answer, she pressed into my hands after many years of separation, a sightless, raggedy creature I never expected to see again and whom I once called Angel.
‘Listen,’ Charlotte whispered, staring down at the cowslip covered grave. ‘Do you hear them, Mum?’
In the fading afternoon light, with the gulls from the docks settling noisily over the embers of the bonfire, I heard again the rattling chorus of the churchyard.
And something else, too …
Just as Charlotte was hearing.
At last, after all this time, I heard the sleepers. Finally, with my daughter at my side and Angel in her hands, I had learned to listen properly.
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I hope you enjoyed these short stories from the East End of London. Read on for a sample chapter of LIZZIE of LANGLEY STREET, the first book in my Lizzie Flowers series set on the Isle of Dogs.
Lizzie of Langley Street
Isle of Dogs
Lizzie sat up in bed, her heart pounding.
The crash had brought her awake with a start. Taking care not to disturb her sisters, she slipped from their large double bed, glancing back at the two small forms snuggled together under the worn blankets. Nothing ever woke Babs or Flo. They managed to sleep their way through every disruption in the house, of which there were many. Lizzie pushed her tangled hair from her face and shivered in her thin nightdress. The temptation to climb back in beside them was enormous.
Resisting it, she opened the bedroom door. Once her eyes adjusted to the dark she saw the shapes of her two brothers on the half-landing. Bert’s huge bulk was unmistakable as he bent over Vinnie, who on all fours, appeared to be trying to crawl up the stairs.
When light from the gas-mantle flickered on in the passage downstairs, Lizzie’s heart sank. She waited for the inevitable, a full-scale row in the middle of the night. As she had feared, Kate Allen came belting up the stairs just as Bert and Vinnie staggered on to the landing.
Vinnie was promptly sick.
‘You filthy sod!’ Kate gasped breathlessly as she arrived beside her younger son. The stench was overpowering. But Vinnie didn’t hear. He had fallen flat on his face in his own vomit.
‘What have you two buggers been up to?’ Kate demanded of Bert who was still on his feet. ‘This is the second night running you’ve come in late!’
At only thirty-nine years of age, Kate Allen looked a haggard old woman. A darned woollen shawl was pulled around her nightdress, covering the straggly grey plait that hung down her back; her face was the colour of parchment and prematurely aged by deep lines of worry.
Lizzie watched Bert’s jaw fall open. His eyes were red and unfocused. She was well aware that Bert, at eighteen, was known throughout the Isle of Dogs as the gentle giant. His great shoulders, tree trunks of legs and barrel chest set him apart from other people. But despite his abnormal physique, he was not to be feared. Bert possessed a heart of gold, but unfortunately lacked any brains to go with it.
Lizzie had watched Vinnie capitalise on this. Though small and wiry in stature and a year younger than Bert, he was quick-witted with a sly, mean spirit. What she disliked most was the way he used Bert for his own ends, whilst Bert’s loyalty to Vinnie was unquestionable.
‘Well?’ demanded Kate, her face puffed and blotchy with anger. ‘What have you got to say for yerself, you dopey great lump?’
As usual when flummoxed, Bert fiddled with his cap, turning it round and round in his big, gnarled hands. ‘We just come from the pub, Ma,’ he mumbled, unable to meet Kate’s blazing eyes. ‘Got a bit ‘eld up on the way ‘cos Vinnie took ill, like. Something upset him he said – them eels, he thinks it was.’
Lizzie knew Bert was carrying the can for Vinnie who would have primed Bert earlier in the evening with the story of the eels, no doubt having a laugh at Bert’s expense.
‘I’ll give you eels. He ain’t poisoned, he’s pissed!’ Kate bellowed as she glared at the prostrate body on the landing. Vinnie’s mouth gaped open, a gurgle coming from the back of his throat. ‘Look at his face! It ain’t turned that colour from eating eels. He’s had another bashing by the looks of it.’
‘Yeah, he looks a bit peaky, don’t he?’ Bert agreed vaguely.
‘Peaky? Peaky!’ spluttered Kate. ‘He’s bleedin’ unconscious!’
‘You go back to bed,’ Lizzie told her mother gently, trying to avert disaster. ‘Me and Bert’ll clean up the landing and put Vin to bed.’ At fifteen and the eldest girl of the family, Lizzie was accused by Babs of being a bossy cow. Babs, at fourteen, was strong willed and already a beauty, with waist length auburn hair and innocent brown eyes that attracted the boys. She refused to be dominated by anyone, whilst Lizzie took her role of Kate’s helper seriously, even if Babs hated her for it.
Kate shook her head miserably. ‘God in heaven, help me. What have I brought into this world?’
‘Aw, don’t take it to ‘eart, Ma,’ Bert said, adding fuel to the fire. ‘You know what our Vin’s like. A bit ‘igh spirited when he’s had a few, that’s all.’
‘High spirits? Is that what you call it – ‘ Kate stopped, slapping her hand on her heart. What colour there was in her cheeks drained away. She reached out to grip the banister.
‘What’s the matter, Ma?’ Lizzie stepped over Vinnie and took her mother’s arm.
‘It was running up those stairs like that,’ Kate croaked. ‘I’ll be all right when I get back to bed.’
Bert helped to take his mother’s weight and slowly the three of them descended the stairs, turning into the gloomy passage below.
‘What’s going on out there?’ roared a voice from the front room. Lizzie’s heart sank to her boots. Their father was awake.
Bert pushed open the door of the parlour which had been converted to a bedroom. Tom Allen lay on a large iron bedstead, his bristly grey hair standing on end, his small eyes narrowed under gauzy cataracts, the result of mustard gas poisoning during the war.
Lizzie had never quite got used to the sight of her father as a cripple. She remembered him as tall and handsome, with two strong legs. Now he had only stumps where his legs had been. Blown up in the trenches of Flanders, Tom Allen was one of the few men to return alive.
‘It’s only us, Pa,’ Lizzie answered, fully aware she would now receive the backlash of his temper. The real culprit was laying unconscious upstairs on the landing and what was worse, she wouldn’t put it past Vinnie to remember nothing of the trouble he caused in the morning.
‘I know it ain’t Father sodding Christmas,’ Tom Allen yelled, clad in a pair of long Johns, the loose ends drawn up and pinned to his waist. He supported the weight of his torso by his muscular forearms, lifting the two small stumps in front of him in an agitated jerk. ‘Well? I asked yer a question, gel!’
‘Ma had one of her faintin’ spells,’ Lizzie answered swiftly, giving Bert the eye to keep quiet. ‘We’re just helping her back to bed.’
‘And in the morning I’ll ‘elp you lot to me belt,’ Tom Allen growled, an empty threat, as everyone knew, in his condition. Despite his anger, Lizzie felt a pang of compassion for him. She knew he had become more aggressive to compensate for his legs. But he was still her father and she loved him.
‘Leave the kids be for now, Tom. They mean no harm,’ Kate pleaded wearily, sinking down on the bed. She looked deathly white and Lizzie anxiously pulled the covers around her.
Tom Allen shuffled himself clumsily across the bed in order to make room for his wife. Lizzie averted her eyes from the covered stumps that never failed to fill her with a deep, pitying sadness. She was terrified it would show. Her father hated sympathy and was swift to discern it.
‘I know where I’d like to leave the bloody lot of ‘em. Now if I hear another sound, I’m taking me belt to all five of you, legs or no legs. And don’t forget, Lizzie gel, we’re up first thing for the market.’
Lizzie wanted to ask her mother if there was anything more she could do, but catching Bert’s arm, she led him away. Given half the chance he would open his big mouth, so causing another row.
The rift in the family had started in earnest when her father had returned from the war, unable to exert discipline over his household. In his youth, Tom Allen had worked as a stevedore on the big cargo boats that docked in the Port of London. His wage hadn’t made them rich, but it was regular work and they were no poorer than anyone else in Langley Street. Many of the dockers and their families lived in the smoke-blackened two-up, two-down, terraced houses that led down to the wharves. Dirty and overcrowded, their backyards brimmed with junk and washing lines. No one grew flowers or vegetables and weeds thrived.
On Friday and Saturday nights the men spent their wage in the pub. The women waited to duck the drunken punches on their return and pray a few pennies remained. Lizzie knew that unlike many households, her father never raised a hand to their mother. Despite all their troubles, he worshipped the ground she walked on.
Before the war, he’d ruled the family with an iron fist. Being strong and healthy, his rules were obeyed. That was the way things were; not a wonderful life by any means but they felt secure and knew their boundaries. After the war, it was a different story. Many men didn’t return at all. In the Allens’ case, it wasn’t death, but disability that ended the family’s happiness.
As half a man, Tom Allen lost respect in himself and without legs he would never regain it. A cold disregard had grown between Vinnie and his father. Lizzie knew there was nothing Tom could do about it, especially since they only survived with the money Vinnie brought in. Where it came from was a bone of contention. Vinnie worked for a villain, a hard man of the East End and it had broken his parents’ hearts.
As for Babs, she was almost sick at the sight of the stumps. She only tolerated the gruesome spectacle by ignoring her father. Flo, however, at ten, was too young to remember him clearly before he enlisted. She accepted him as he was and tried to do her best but Tom would have none of it. Lizzie knew he was frightened of seeing the same look of revulsion in Flo’s eyes as he had seen in Babs’.
Once out the passage, Lizzie glared up at her brother. ‘You’re daft, you are, Bert Allen. Ain’t you got no sense at all in that blooming great ‘ead of yours? I ask you, going on about eels, what good was that?’
Bert stared down at his muddy boots. ‘Vin told me to fink of a good story,’ he admitted sheepishly.
‘Well, he must’ve forgot that thinking ain’t exactly a natural state for you,’ Lizzie answered sharply, pushing her brother up the stairs. Then immediately regretting her words, she added gently, ‘Still, I ain’t having a go at you, Bert. When all is said and done, you probably saved him a worse hiding.’
Bert brightened at the unexpected flattery. ‘I ‘ope so, gel. ‘Cos our Vin was on one ‘ell of a bender ternight and nuffin’ I could say would stop ‘im. One minute ‘e was drinkin’ wiv ‘is mates, the next ‘e was in a fight out the back, all ‘is mates vanished.’
‘Fine friends our Vin has if they all do a bunk,’ Lizzie sniffed.
‘It ain’t Vin’s fault,’ Bert replied loyally. ‘He’s got ‘imself in deep with Mik Ferreter but ‘e says he’s gonna sort ‘imself out soon.’
‘What, as a bookie’s runner! Betting’s illegal and you know it, Bert Allen.’
Bert hung his head.
Again she regretted her tone, but she was worried for Bert, terrified he might get blamed on Vinnie’s account. She sighed as she stared down at Vinnie. The swelling was right up now, covering his close set eyes and distorting his thin mouth. It was strange how he resembled no one else in the family, Lizzie thought, not for the first time. She herself had long, curling black hair and deep green eyes, like their mother. Vinnie’s dark brown hair was straight as a dye and his eyes were jet black beads always moving in their small sockets. Babs’ big brown eyes were flecked with gold and Flo’s were a lovely soft brown, like a doe’s. Where Vinnie got his hard look from she didn’t know.
Perhaps Vinnie was a throwback, she thought now as she studied the unpleasant sight. Both maternal and paternal grandparents were born and bred on the Isle of Dogs but they had died long ago. Three of her uncles, Tom’s brothers, had been killed during the war. On her mother’s side there were two sisters, who had married and left the island, their own families scattered far and wide. So if Vinnie resembled any relative, they were destined never to know.
‘We’d better get ‘im to bed,’ Lizzie said as Vinnie stirred, ‘then I’ll clean up.’
‘I’ll sort out ‘is mess, gel,’ Bert said cheerfully. ‘Don’t yer worry, leave it ter me. You get yer ‘ead down.’
Lizzie watched Bert haul Vinnie over his shoulder as though he was lifting a sack of feathers. Brute strength and ignorance, she thought, smiling to herself. Vinnie’s dangling arms disappeared along the landing and she heaved a sigh of relief. Selfish and greedy, that was Vinnie. He gave money to Kate only to boast of his role as breadwinner. It gave him power to sneer at others, including Tom. Not that Kate had been able to refuse the money; with business at Cox Street market being so slack it was all that had kept a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Lizzie tiptoed downstairs to the scullery, squeezing past the Bath chair and its detachable tray on which were displayed the ribbons and souvenirs that were her father’s livelihood. The Seaman’s Rest Home at Greenwich provided sources of goods for disabled veterans. Lizzie had left school at thirteen, when Tom came home from the war and her mother needed help. For the past year she had pushed him in the Bath chair from Cubitt Town to Cox Street Market, Poplar, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, then all the way home again.
Lizzie lifted the galvanised iron pail that stood behind the back door. She filled it with cold water from the tap over the china sink. Next to the sink was the copper and beside this, during the day, a kettle boiled perpetually on the hob.
The bucket half full, Lizzie hauled it over the sink, careful not spill any water on the large oak table. Her mother scrubbed the table religiously and fed her family well on it. The few extra pennies she earned taking in sewing, all went on food. Lizzie glanced fondly at the big rocking chair squeezed in one corner. Her mother sat there at night, head bent over a needle that flashed incessantly through every cloth known to mankind.
A shiny black roach fell on the back of the chair. Lizzie watched it skid down a rung, keeping its balance with agility. The porous distempered walls were infested with bugs; skittish black insects that acrobatically stuck to any surface and were the devil to kill.
She ignored it, going quietly upstairs. The house was silent. It was music to her ears, no fights or rows taking place. Langley Street was where they had grown up, where her maternal grandparents had lived. All their history was in this house. A roof to call their own was more than a lot of families had. At school, one of her friends had been taken to an orphanage along with six of her brothers and sisters, her parents unable to pay the rent and evicted from their home. Destitution hadn’t happened to the Allens; and whilst she had breath in her body, Lizzie vowed it never would.
Upstairs she lowered the bucket to the boards. Bert had done the proverbial vanishing trick. She went and looked in their bedroom. Bert lay beside his brother on the big double bed, fully dressed, boots sticking up like tombstones. Despite his injuries, Vinnie snored loudly and Bert was no longer in the land of the living.
Lizzie returned to the landing and began to clean up the vomit. It was more trouble than it was worth to rouse either of her brothers. As usual, it was quicker to repair the damage herself.
At four o’clock in the morning, a sepia light filled the scullery. Always the first to rise on market days, Lizzie turned on the lamp. Her clothes were folded onto a chair and she struggled into them, pulling one jersey on top of another.
She cut a slight little figure. Most of her clothes were secondhand from Cox Street Market. Every stitch was someone else’s, darned, patched and lengthened. Several shades of blue ran around the hem of her skirt, a clue to its previous owners. The jerseys were darned and had squares of cloth from her mother’s workbox, sewn on the elbows. Her boots were outgrown by their neighbour’s daughter, Blakey’s hammered into their soles.
She reached behind her, scooped up her long dark hair and plaited it. Then she poured water into the kettle and warmed her hands beside it. Next, she sliced the big crusty loaf that was purchased from the baker’s roundsman, also referred to as the Midnight Baker because he delivered at night. Kate bought bread and milk from him twice a week. On Fridays, when she had money and on Tuesdays when she had none. Her debt was recorded on the slate. Lizzie knew it was robbing Peter to pay Paul but that was how people survived on the island.
When she had finished her chores, she went outside to the lavatory. The path to the wooden shed in the backyard was covered in frost. Sitting on the cold seat, she left the door wide open and shivered as she gazed up at the stars still lighting the sky. With luck, it would be a fine, dry day and business would be brisk at market.
Lizzie’s heart raced at the thought of Danny Flowers, the tall, blond-haired barrow boy whom she secretly worshipped. She thought of the silk ribbons lying on the tray, imagining them tied in her own curling black hair. Ribbons were all the rage, favoured by young women who travelled down from the West End. Gentry were always dressed impeccably. Lizzie was fascinated with their clothes and loved to study the fashions. It was the only opportunity she had to do so and she made the most of it.
Thoughts of Danny and beautiful clothes vanished as she returned to the house, stifling a yawn. It was time to wake her father and she’d only had three hours sleep. All because of Vinnie. His drinking was becoming worse and so were his black moods.
The stink of disinfectant flowed out as she opened the bedroom door. It was the only antidote the islanders had to bugs and mice. Distributed free at the local park each week, Kate used it in the bedroom which, because of Tom’s injuries and the risk of infection, was priority.
Once acclimatised, Lizzie pushed the Bath chair up to the bed. Her father groaned as she parted the heavy curtains.
Kate woke and sat up on the edge of the bed. ‘Wait, Lizzie. I’ll help yer get ‘im into the chair. You’ll do yer back in if yer try it on yer own.’
‘I’ll manage, Ma, you couldn’t have got much sleep last night.’
‘Oh, I’m all right now, love.’ Still sitting, Kate wound her long grey plait into a bun. ‘Let’s get your father dressed, then,’ she sighed, rising slowly.
As usual, Tom complained throughout the performance. It was not until he was washed and fully clothed that Lizzie had time to notice how ill her mother looked.
‘You sure you feel all right, Ma?’ Lizzie asked at the breakfast table.
‘I’ll be right as rain when I get me second breath.’ Kate poured tea into three enamel mugs. ‘Spread the drippin’ gel, will you?’
Lizzie’s mouth watered as she spread the thick, juicy paste scooped off the top of the stock. Kate rarely cooked a joint of beef now. They wouldn’t eat another one for at least a month. Lizzie remembered how, every Sunday before the war, they ate thick slices of succulent roast beef, the left-overs fried as bubble and squeak the next day. The rich, brown juice was made into broth, eked out over the week. They had taken the beef for granted then. Now, even the dripping was a delicacy.
‘Eat up, you two,’ Kate told them briskly. ‘You won’t get much more before the day’s out.’
Lizzie bolted her food. She noticed Kate hadn’t eaten a crumb. ‘Why don’t yer go back to bed, Ma? Babs could take Flo to school today.’
‘Aw, stop fussing,’ Kate scolded. ‘Anyone would think I’m on me last legs.’
‘It’s them lazy buggers upstairs that’s the cause of the trouble,’ muttered Tom angrily, pushing himself away from the table, his breakfast uneaten. ‘They treat this house like a bloody lodgings. I tell yer, I’ve had enough of it. If they can’t abide by the rules they can clear out. Idle good for nothing layabouts – ‘
‘I’ll get yer coat and scarf, Pa,’ Lizzie said quickly, catching her mother’s look of dismay.
‘And wrap up warm,’ Kate called after her. ‘I don’t want yer both coming down with pneumonia. And who knows, if the weather holds, yer might have a good day and we can settle the rent with old Symons.’
A remark that didn’t make Tom Allen any the happier as, swathed in coats, scarves and mittens they left the house and Lizzie began the long push from Cubitt Town to Poplar. It was a sombre beginning to the day, but Lizzie knew their spirits would lift when they saw their friends. For her, one in particular, Danny Flowers.
The Isle of Dogs was still asleep as she pushed her father through the empty streets of Cubitt Town. Only Island Gardens, the park where she brought her sisters to play, was alive with birdsong. Soon they had reached the Mudchute, years ago a mountainous health hazard of rotting silt. Now the islanders grew vegetables there. It was barricaded with wooden fences so the kids wouldn’t get in.
Lizzie was proud of the island’s ancient roots. She had learned at school that the Isle of Dogs had first been recorded on the maps in the sixteenth century. Over time, the rough horseshoe of land surrounded on three sides by water, had become the centre of the capital’s trade and industry.
Glancing seaward, she spotted a tall ship’s mast over the roofs of the tatty cottages. Hooters echoed, oil and tar blew in on the wind, another day of sea trading had begun. Her grandfather and great-grandfather had sailed on the big, ocean going vessels, The Triton and Oceanides.
It had been nothing once, to see the bowsprit of a ship leaning over a backyard. Children swung from the long poles, pretending to be pirates and up above them, the main masts seemed to pierce the sky. Lizzie could remember her brothers playing along the wharves. She could see them now, scavenging under the furnaces of the factories, black with ash. Bert had a deep voice even as a boy. He’d often sung sea shanties with the sailors and Vinnie had dug in the silt, convinced he’d find treasure.
The war had seemed a long way off then.
Her father huddled down under his scarves. His jaw jutted out against the wind and she pushed on, her efforts keeping her warm as the November day dawned, bright and clear. Horses and carts trotted by, women whitened their doorsteps.
“A Good Pull-Up at Carmen,” announced a notice over one door. Lizzie waved at the owner, standing outside his café fastening his apron. The Carmen was no more than a shack, with a corrugated roof and a flap that came down over the front. But the smell of cheesecake was tantalising. She’d never tasted the pastries covered in thick coconut, but they were always lined up on trays inside. The aroma of hot dough and coconut made her mouth water.
On they went, her load heavier now. Some of the girls from the pickle factory said hello. They all looked and smelled the same. Their hair was hidden under white caps and they walked noisily on their clogs. Their white coats were stained with yellow from the onions and they stank of vinegar.
Lizzie had always feared having to work at the pickle factory. Then one day her mother had remarked, ‘It’s better than the sacking factory. The dust fills up your lungs and chokes you to death. Listen to the women coughing and you know they work with sack.’ After that, the pickle factory seemed like heaven.
As they skirted the docks a small band of men huddled on the stones. ‘There must be a skin boat in. Poor sods,’ her father sighed. These were older men, casual labour, waiting for work. No man in his right mind would work with animal skins from abroad, her father had once commented. The skins were riddled with disease. And there were rats. Vermin as big as dogs. But these men were starving and they’d resort to anything to feed their families.
Lizzie shivered. There were always anthrax deaths on the island. The stories were gruesome. At least Bert and Vinnie had never had to unload skins, she thought more cheerfully. Perhaps being a bookie’s runner wasn’t so bad after all.
The market stalls were suddenly in sight and Lizzie quickened her step. Would Danny be there with his barrow? Eagerly she looked for his fair head and broad shoulders, her heart beating fast as her eyes scanned the crowd. Colour, laughter and early morning jokes abounded. The traders were busy erecting stalls and insulting one another. Fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, materials, china. It was all there, like Aladdin’s Cave, spread out over the tables.
It seemed as though she hadn’t lived until this minute.
The East End of London UK, is the backdrop to my gritty sagas and family dramas. My books are bestsellers on the Sunday Times lists and have gained a well-established presence on the internet. All the stories spring from the warm-hearted and resourceful neighbourhoods of the East End – the heart of London’s docklands. The writing is simple, but my rough-tough Cockney characters tell it like it is, leaving you in no doubt, I hope, that the Rivers feisty heroines are a force to be reckoned with.
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Copyright © Carol Rivers 2017
All Rights Reserved
No part of this short story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organisations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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