The Empress On The Corner

PART FOUR

 

They weren’t done that night. She could hear her mam moaning and crying through the wall. Annabelle tried to sleep but it wouldn’t come. All she felt was fear. Her mother’s coughing was worse, she was certain of it.

In the morning she came down the stairs, determined to stay at home and do all she could to help. That was more important than a job. Someone had to look after things in the house.

‘You’ll not be doing that,’ her father said firmly when she told him. ‘You’ll go off to the mill and do as you’re told.’ He hadn’t shaved and the lines seemed to be carved into his other face. ‘I’ll see the others get off.’ He handed her a slice of bread with a thin coat of dripping.

‘What about my dinner?’ Annabelle asked.

‘You’ll have to go hungry,’ her father said. ‘I don’t have time to make you owt.’

Outside, she waited for Mary. They went down Leather Street arm in arm.

‘Is she going to live?’ Mary asked finally, the high brick wall of the mill in sight.

‘I don’t know.’ It was the question she’d asked herself all through the night. ‘I haven’t a clue.’

All day she stood, ducking deftly around the machines when she was needed. But her mind wasn’t there. Three times she stumbled, once cutting her hand and staunching the bleeding with a greasy rag the overseer gave her.

‘You watch yourself,’ he reprimanded her. ‘Pay some attention.’ He cuffed her round the head hard enough to make her mind spin.

Dinnertime was bitter and empty, the afternoon dragging on. She was tired to her bones but there was no choice but to work and to concentrate on the doffing. The last thing she needed was to be sacked on her second day.

At the end of the shift she ran home as fast as she could, offering up prayers and bargains to God. Make her well and I’ll be good, I’ll do everything anyone wants.

The house was silent. Her father sat in the scullery, arms resting on the table, staring straight ahead. He didn’t even seem to have noticed her come in. The other children must have been taken somewhere else.

‘Da…’ she began.

Slowly he turned his head and focused his eyes on her.

‘Your mam’s dead,’ he said in a tone she’d never heard before. So empty and bleak. So lost. ‘Go upstairs and kiss her on her way.’

She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t refuse. Even so, it took her a long time to climb, stopping after each step and holding her breath before she dare move on.

She was laid out in her best clothes on top of the bed, a dress Annabelle didn’t remember ever seeing before. The blue matched her eyes. The body had been washed, her hair combed and put in a bun on top of her head. She looked prettier than she had in life.

Very gently Annabelle leaned forwards, putting her lips lightly against her mother’s cheek. The skin felt lifeless, waxy. Standing there she began to cry.

Pain at the loss. Anger that she’d gone and left them. Fury at God for letting it happen and at her father for not being strong enough to save her. She cried until the tears stopped and all she could manage were snuffles and sobs.

St. Mary’s was full for the funeral, the way it was for everyone in the neighbourhood. They all came out to remember.

For days before, people had brought food. It filled the table in the scullery, so much that she didn’t know what to do with it all. She’d fed the younger ones. Nothing had been said. It was understood that it was her job now to look after everyone and still work a full shift. It was how things were and she accepted it.

In the church it was both harder and easier to kiss her mother as she lay in the casket.  She led the other children, lifting them then pulling them close as they cried. Her father said little. He’d barely spoken in the last few days. She’d had to remind him to shave before the funeral.

It was sunny when they buried her. It seemed like a mockery. A glorious day, off work, and for something as bad as this. Then everyone came back to the house. The women in the front room, drinking tea she had to keep making and eating all the food that had been prepared. The men gathered in the kitchen. From nowhere, bottles appeared and were passed around. She moved among them, offering pieces of pork pie, cake.

Annabelle had spent her life around girls and women. Men smelt different. Rawer. And suddenly, she noticed, they were treating her differently, as if something had changed. There was more respect about them. Suddenly she understood.

She was the woman of the house now.

 

Annabelle is also back in Two Bronze Pennies, published in the UK at the end of April. Read an extract here and you can order the book here.

PART THREE

 The mill was noisy and cold. She’d dreaded it for months, knowing the time was coming closer. She’d have to put away the schoolbooks and bring home a wage. But knowledge didn’t make it easier. Annabelle was close to tears as she walked to Black Dog Mills for the first time, holding on to her father.

‘You’re going to be a doffing girl,’ he explained to her the evening before. She was looking down at the boards in the scullery, scared to stare him in the face in case the crying began. So far she’d managed to hold it all back until she was alone. One thing she refused to do was let anyone see her weakness. She’d loved to learn, she’d been good at it. It hurt inside to have to leave the order of lessons. But she’d never let anyone know. She’d accept it and find a way out.

Now she stood in the chill on the mill. The machines racketed and roared, echoing off the walls and high windows. The light caught all the most of dust and fibres spiralling in the air. Annabelle could feel them catching in her throat and nose.

The job was simple enough. Simply run and exchange the bobbins of spun wool. But it meant ducking and running around the machinery. Inside it, from the way she’d been shown by a grinning lad who’d been doing the work for two years.

Her mam had washed the dress and apron for her first day. She stood, barefoot, feeling the cold rise through her legs. The doffers always went barefoot, that’s was what the overseer told them all as they removed their clogs. Less danger of slipping and being hurt.

Her mam…she’d seen Annabelle off with a sad glint to her eye. For the last few months she’d been too ill to work, plagued by a cough that bent her double each time it came. That meant a hole in the family income. Things had been tight, she knew that. Less food on the plate, the house often cold without fuel for the fire. Annabelle’s wage wouldn’t fill that, but it would help a little. Still, on Leather Street it was nothing unusual.

She glanced across at Mary, standing a little down the line. There were ten of them starting today, all nervous, all scared.

‘You,’ the overseer shouted, pointing at Annabelle. His voice was raw enough to cut through all the sound. ‘Go and change that bobbin.’

Her heart thumping, she crept into the machine, moving slowly, aware of all the danger around. She remove the full bobbin, exactly the way she’d been shown, dropping the empty on in its place, then made her way back out, head reeling.

‘Fair,’ the man said with an approving nod. ‘But too slow. You should have been able to do four or five in that time.’

 

By the end of the first day she could dart in an out, handling ten machines on her own, as if she’d been doing it all her life. There was little to the job except the boredom of waiting until someone shouted for a fresh bobbin.

The clock on the wall moved slowly to six o’clock. Her legs ached from standing for so long. Twelve hours, with a break for her dinner, a few scraps she’d gathered from home and carefully wrapped in paper. Not enough for a growing girl, but all she could spare.

She walked back to Leather Street with Mary, the pair of them too tired to play or even talk. There would be tomorrow, and all the days after it. Doffing, then maybe weaving when she was older. Year after year. Annabelle turned to look over her shoulder at the mill, so large and forbidding. That would be her life, right there, in that place.

As soon as she opened the door of the house she knew something was wrong. Too many unfamiliar voices, the smells of people crowded into a room. Her father spotted her, didn’t even ask how work had been.

‘Your mam’s been taken poorly,’ he said quietly, squatting down to talk to her. ‘Mrs. Loughlin’s with her now, and Mrs. Grady.’

Mrs Laughlin: Mary’s mother. And Mrs. Grady, she’d been a nurse in some war abroad. No more than a skivvy to hear her tell it. But she’d know what to do.

Annabelle tried to push past him, up the stair to see her man. But her father held on to her wrist.

‘Not now,’ he told her, a mix of fear and anger in his eyes. ‘Wait till they’re done.’

Scroll down for the earlier episodes.

PART TWO

Annabelle was dressed in a uniform someone had given to her mother. Too big, darts added so the dress fitted around her. It was dark blue, faded and worn at the elbows, with a white pinafore that had been starched and bleached too many times, and black stockings that didn’t want to stay up on her thin legs.

‘You look a picture,’ her mother said when she stood back.

Annabelle knew it was a lie. She felt awkward, not herself. Scared. What was school going to be like, any road?

Everything was going to be very ordered, she learned quickly. The classroom, in one of the new stone buildings next to Mount St. Mary’s, seemed cold, even in the September sun. Warmth never seemed to pass through the windows, and there was no fireplace inside. She shivered as one of the nuns told her where to sit, nowhere near Mary. She looked longingly over her shoulder.

She knew many of the faces here, girls her own age from around the Bank. Every one of them looked as terrified as her, and just as ungainly in the uniforms handed down or bought second- and third-hand.

There were long desk, each holding four girls, slates and chalk. The wooden seats were hard and uncomfortable. And Sister Beatrice, standing in front of them, forbidding in her habit, walking around carrying a ruler, told them the rules. Praise God, never answer back, respect to the nuns and even more to the priests. All the things they couldn’t doo – an interminable list, it seemed to Annabelle. The sister hadn’t even been talking for five minutes before the ruler came down on a girl’s knuckles.

‘Don’t fidget, girl. Pay attention.’

Annabelle risked a glance across, seeing the girl holding her hand, red-faced and trying to stifle the tears.

But once the learning began, the sense of how awful everything seemed, with the smell of disinfectant that seemed to seep out of the walls, vanished. From the moment the nun wrote ‘a’ on the blackboard, she was rapt, carefully copying everything down. Her tongue squeezed out between her teeth as she tried to make the shape as perfect as possible.

 

Within a week the routine of school seemed perfectly normal, as if she’d been doing it forever. On the way to the church she could play in the street with the other girls, meeting Mary and Catriona, the girl who sat next to her. She was dull and rebellious, punished two or three times a day. Not that Annabelle went without; twice she’d had to hold out her hands, palms up, to have the quick sting on the rule and the pain that seemed to last for hours.

Monitors took some of the lessons. They were older girls who’d come to school early to learn, then pass on their knowledge to younger ones later in the day. Mostly, though, it was Sister Beatrice with her worn, angry face and strong Wicklow lilt. Every day began with prayers, the priest leading them, everyone gathered together in the hall among the heat of bodies.

All she wanted was for the prayers and sermons to pass so she could begin learning. By Christmas she was already able to read most of the books, even if her tongue struggled over many of the longer words. She could write. It wasn’t a fair hand, but it would suffice. And she could count.

School had opened the door and she walked through it into a world of learning. Sometimes Annabelle felt as if she couldn’t take it all in quickly enough, that someone would snatch it away when she’d hardly begun to devour it.

But they were all meant for the mill or for service. The nuns told them so, day after day, when they had their lessons in sewing, how to clean properly, the basics of a woman’s life. Work and then marriage and children of their own. A girl’s only worth was the extra money she could bring into a house until some man took her away.

Annabelle listened, did as she was told, but these lessons held nothing for her. Her mind was full of words and numbers. She left the others in her class behind, striding far ahead of them in her learning. It wasn’t becoming, the nuns told her mother.

‘They said it’s not right for girls.’

‘I can’t help it.’ She tried to explain, but she simply didn’t have the words and they didn’t have the understanding. They were proud that she was attending school, but Annabelle knew that all too soon she’d have to leave and begin earning a wage. That was why she clawed at every crumb of knowledge.

‘You’ll leave when you’re eight,’ her father said from his chair by the stove. ‘Not a day after. That’s time enough to store everything in your head.’

She felt grateful, knowing it cost him to allow that much. But she also felt cheated. After just a taste, the meal would be gone.

 

 

Some of you might already know Annabelle Atkinson. She’s one of the main characters in Gods of Gold, the first in my series of Victorian mysteries set in Leeds – and she’ll be in the books that follow, too. She first visited me a couple of years ago in a short story, Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw. After that, she wouldn’t let me be. Not content with a small appearance, she wanted more. First the novel, where she told me what happened during the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890, then another couple of short Christmas stories I wrote for Leeds Book Club. But she had an eventful life before she met Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and I’ve finally given in to her and started to tell her story. An episode a month until it’s done. And if she interests you, there are links to the other stories at the bottom. You could, of course, also buy Gods of Gold. It’s available as a hardback and ebook, and it’s good (honest).

PART ONE

 

She stared at the mirror. The light flickered in the gas mantle, reflecting on the jet buttons of her dress. In black, from head to toe. Even the lace and the petticoats and the new leather boots that pinched her feet.

She picked the funeral hat off the back of the chair and arranged it on her head, spreading the veil in front of her face. Her hand was raised, ready to pin it all in place, when she tore it off and sent the hat spinning across the room.

She turned to the photograph on the mantelpiece. A shiny silver frame. Herself, younger, happy on her wedding day, arm in arm with her husband. Mr. and Mrs. Atkinson.

‘You sod,’ she said quietly. ‘You bloody sod.’

They’d all be waiting downstairs in the pub. Will’s sister and her children, Dan the barman, the two servants, and all the neighbours and friends from round Sheepscar. The hearse was outside, the horses with their sober ebony plumes.

She breathed deeply, gathered up the hat and set it in place again, hearing the footsteps on the stairs, then the tentative knock on the door.

‘Annabelle, are you ready, luv?’ Bessie, her sister-in-law. ‘Only it’s time.’

A last glance in the mirror and at the picture.

‘Yes,’ Annabelle Atkinson said. ‘I’m coming.’

 

 

If you come from the Bank you’ll never amount to anything. That’s what the respectable folk said. But what did respectable people know about life? They never had to go without anything, never felt the hunger in their bellies day after day.

You came from the Bank, you learned how to survive. Annabelle knew.

 

She remembered the scrape of the fiddle. On a Saturday night all the neighbours came together. A few buckets of beer, someone cooked some potatoes, people brought whatever the might be able to spare to help feed everyone. Never much, but it didn’t matter. The families were there, relatives and friends in one house or another. Every Saturday night was a party to life the weight of the week.

The children, too, were in with everyone else, crying or fighting, sometimes laughing, sometimes sleeping in a corner. And after the first round of talking was done, her da would take out his fiddle. It had probably never been a beautiful instrument when it was made, but now it was a battered old beast, most of the varnish gone. Chips in the wood, gouges along the neck where it had been dropped a time or two.

He’d tighten the bow, the old horsehair ragged, not so many strands left, then tuck the fiddle under his chin, turning the pegs to put it in tune. Then with a grin and a flourish he’d begin to play.

It was always the old tunes, Annabelle remembered. The ones Sean Doughty had learned from his father and brought over from Ireland 13 years before. He didn’t play well. He seemed to sketch the melody rather than paint it, some notes suggesting plenty of others that were left out. His large hands moved clumsily. But everyone loved it. The fast pieces for dancing, when it seemed like all the heavy boots and clogs would go right through the floor. The slower ones for singing, the voices growing more drunken as the night went on.

She must have gone to the evenings from being a bairn. She was sure of that; everyone was there. But the first she recalled was when she was three years old and Martin O’Leary pulled her braid so hard that she cried.

Annabelle was proud of her hair, brushing it every night in the scrap of mirror the family had in her room. When he yanked at it, at first she thought it had come right off in his hand and she began to scream. The music stopped and the room fell silent except for her wailing.

‘What’s got into you, child?’ her mam asked. She tried to explain, but the tears and sobbing got in the way. When the words finally did come, it was a smack for her, just for interrupting things, and a harder one for Martin, who stood in the doorway, glowering at her and trying to hide his own crying.

On Leather Street, all over the Bank, that was where the Irish lived. In rooms, a lucky few with entire houses for a single family. For the first few years of her life, it seemed to Annabelle that all she heard was an Irish accent. When someone English did come by, very rarely, the words jarred against her ear.

Her da worked at this and that. She never knew quite what his job was. It seemed to change from month to month, sometimes week to week. He’d leave in the morning and come back late. Sometime he smelt of beer, sometimes not. But there was always a worried, hunted look in his eye and his thick fingers would drum impatiently on the table.

Mam was at Black Dog Mills. Six days a week on the loom, from early until evening. Annabelle spent her days with the neighbours, the Loughlins. Ma Loughlin treated her as one of her own, feeding her, playing with her when she had a spare minute, clouting the same way she belted her own little ones. And Mary Loughlin was the same age as her, her best friend.

Then Annabelle had a little brother, Gerald, and after that a younger sister who died before she reached a month. Two more who passed just out of the womb, and finally Louise, a pretty little thing who gurgled and cooed in her basket.

Annabelle heard the grown-ups talking, some of them saying quietly that the baby seemed to have no heart, no fight, that she was another one destined for an early grave. She’d take her sister’s tiny hand and squeeze it lightly, willing her to live. And it seemed to work.

When she was five, her mother told Annabelle that she had to start going to school every day. She didn’t understand. What was school? Was it like Black Dog?

‘You’ll learn things,’ her mam said.

‘Like what?’ She knew about Leather Street. She knew she lived in Leeds. What more did she need?

‘Oh, I don’t know. Wonderful things, I suppose. Like how to write words and how to read them. Things your da and me never had the chance to know. You’ll be able to make something of yourself.’

‘But I want to stay with Mary every day!’

‘She’ll be going to school too, pet.’ Her mother smiled. ‘Don’t be putting up a fuss. You have to go, or the English will come and take you away forever.’

The other Annabelle Atkinson short stories (just follow the link)

Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw

Family

Christmas 1890