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The Dressmaker’s Daughter

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Lizzie smiled again, modestly. ‘I keep thinking about his lips, May … and how much I want him to kiss me. I only have to think about him and my legs go all wobbly. D’you think I’m falling in love?’

May shrugged. ‘So you’m not interested in Jesse Clancey any more?’

‘Well I would be if he’d asked me out. But he seems more interested in our Sylvia.’

*

Kates Hill lay about a mile south east of Dudley town centre, overlooked only by the old Norman castle on the next high ridge. It was a warren of narrow cobbled and muddy streets, each like a gorge, lined with rows of red brick terraced houses and little shops. Some of the streets were steep, others only gently inclined. Not one could you claim was flat, and few failed to host at least one public house. The houses, many of them back-to-back, were built during the early part of the nineteenth century to house the influx of workers who came seeking jobs in the burgeoning foundries, forges, coal mines and ironworks. There were many other factories tucked away, small concerns, some squeezed between houses, some crammed at the back of them, or down alley-ways that the ever-present wind funnelled heedlessly through. Most were concerned with the shaping of metal. Furnaces still glowed in many streets after dark as workers toiled on, striving to earn a few pence extra to bring some comfort to their spartan lives. Three brass foundries and a forge all stood within shouting distance of each other, so there was always the sound of hard work within earshot; the ringing of metal; the steady, reassuring gasps of Boulton and Watt steam engines built practically next door in Handsworth. Everywhere a great confusion of chimney stacks volleyed columns of grey smoke up into the obliging sky.

The Bishops’ house was roughly in the middle of an unbroken terrace that ran the whole length of Cromwell Street on one side. It was not a regular terrace, though. Some houses, those inhabited by better off families, stood further back from the horse road than others, with iron railings at the front and long flights of stone steps up to the painted gates of their entries. The Bishops’, however, was none such; their front doorstep directly met the footpath with its criss-crossed, blue, paving bricks.

There were three bedrooms. Two were on the front, one of which was a box-room where Lizzie slept. At one time she and her sister Lucy used to share it, till Lucy found a job at the Station Hotel which meant her living-in. Her three brothers used to share the bed in the other little front bedroom, to raucous guffaws and irreverent cursing, especially at bed time in winter if they were arguing over who should warm his feet first on the wrapped fire brick. She could hear just about everything through the thin wall of wooden laths that separated her from them. But, nowadays, all was quiet. Ted and Grenville had wed and moved out, which meant that Joe had the bed to himself.

When she parted her curtains in a morning, Lizzie could see St. John’s church in the middle distance through the gap between The Sailor’s Return public house and the brass foundry opposite. Beyond the church was the castle keep, looming grey over the trees at the top of its steep, wooded hill.

To Lizzie, the castle seemed no higher than Cromwell Street. Indeed, tradition had it that Oliver Cromwell himself had supervised the castle’s destruction from that very spot, because of its elevation; hence the street’s name. Certainly, Cromwell’s forces besieged it from these heights.

The back bedroom, overlooking the yard, was where Eve slept in her big, brass bed. The scrubbed, wooden stairs rose directly from the scullery into that bedroom, so access to the others was through it. When Isaac, their father, was alive they all had to be home and in bed before it was time for him to retire. If any of them came home after he went to bed, they were condemned to sleep all night on a chair in the scullery, or face the verbal equivalent of a firing squad for disturbing him.

Downstairs, the scullery seemed all cupboards and doors, from floor to ceiling, of brown varnished wood; a door to the stairs with a single stair jutting out, and next to it the cellar door. There was the middle door as well, to the front room that seemed only ever to be used for weddings, for funerals, or at Christmas time. A chenille fringe adorned the edge of the mantel shelf, and Eve laid a matching cloth on the table every Sunday, without fail.

Isaac had always ruled the roost. Because he was the main breadwinner, his needs and desires came first, though none of the family ever wanted for anything. His job had always paid a steady wage, and with other sons working many neighbours envied their standard of living. Meals were regular and substantial, and they always had good clothes and stout shoes to wear, even if they were shared from time to time.

It was not until some time after her father’s funeral that Lizzie began to miss him and his death started to have any real meaning. The evenings at home in their small house were quiet as she and her mother sat companionably in front of the coal fire that burned agreeably. Joe, her youngest brother, was nineteen then and, whilst he had a steady job in a forge and handed over his money every Friday night, it was hard work, and to relax he was out drinking with his friends most evenings. Lizzie missed her father’s wit. She missed his presence; the little things, like his cursing if anyone accidentally nudged him while he was shaving with his cut-throat razor in front of the fire, and his mug on the mantelpiece. She missed the aroma of Turner’s Brass Foundry that used to linger on him when he came in from work. She missed him polishing her boots at night. She missed all sorts of things.

After the funeral she would daydream, reading by candle light in the prevailing silence but, when she glanced at her mother sitting quietly in her high-backed chair, she would sometimes see the firelight reflected in tears rolling down her cheeks. She would watch Eve lift her spectacles without a murmur and wipe her eyes with a dainty handkerchief, then return to her newspaper, which she always scoured from front to back, whispering every word she read. Lizzie began to understand even then that those tears were not just for her father; they were for all the other loved ones lost, perhaps for opportunities lost. Sometimes, she was moved to weep herself, but she would stifle the tears and put on a brave smile, then go over to her mother and give her a hug.

Lizzie had been confused by her mother’s reaction, though. She had grieved more at the loss of Major, the son who died of enteric fever in a field hospital in Bloemfontein during the Boer War.

*

On the Wednesday, May came to tea, as was lately her custom. She arrived with Lizzie during the afternoon, since every Wednesday they were both given a half day off. May liked to spend time with Eve, black-leading the fire grate for her before lighting the fire, and sitting out on the yard in the sunshine on chairs taken from the scullery, peeling potatoes. When Joe returned from his chainmaking, Eve served up liver faggots and grey peas with boiled potatoes. When they had finished eating and everything had been cleared away, they informed Eve that the Dowtys’ house might become vacant over the next week or two.

‘If the landlord agrees to rent us the house next door, we’ll do it up and get married. What d’you say to that, Mother?’

Eve smiled, a self-satisfied smile. ‘It’s about time, our Joe. And you won’t find e’er a nicer wench, either.’

He looked proudly at May. ‘So we’ve got your blessing?’

‘Yes, you’ve got me blessing. Be sure to look after her.’

Lizzie looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was just after eight. If the Dandos were coming they should arrive at any minute.

‘Well, one thing about it – we shan’t be a million miles away so, if I don’t look after her, you can always come round and give me a good hiding.’

Eve caught every word. ‘And you can be sure as I would. There’s ne’er a chap living that’s too big for a good hiding off his mother, specially if he knows he deserves it. Anyroad, I’ll have a word with the landlord for you.’

‘You’ll be needing some furniture,’ Lizzie suggested.

‘Yes, and I’ve been thinkin’,’ May said, ‘our Travis has got a table and chairs he wants to get shut of. It’ll be all right to start off with.’

‘You’ll get a few things as wedding presents,’ Lizzie said. ‘I’ll buy you something nice if you tell me what you want.’

Joe got up from his chair to poke the fire. ‘Don’t go spending your money on us, our Lizzie. You’ll need all you can get for yourselves, you and mother. We can fend for ourselves. We’ll pick up a bargain or two at any decent pawnshop.’

‘Pawn shop? I don’t want other folks’s left-offs, Joe. I’d rather have new.’

‘We’ll buy some new things, May. We’ll buy a new bed. But as regards the rest, we’ll have to see how we’m fixed for the old spondulicks.’ He peered into the coal scuttle as an afterthought. ‘Bugger me, this blasted thing’s empty again. Every time I look it’s soddin’ empty. Our Lizzie, fetch some coal up, my wench, and I’ll give yer a silver threepenny bit.’

‘Go yourself and keep your silver threepenny bit.’ There was sisterly contempt in her voice. ‘Why should I get all mucked up? Aunt Sarah and Uncle Tom will be here in a minute.’

May raised an eyebrow. ‘Not to mention Stanley.’

Lizzie glanced guiltily at her mother, but Eve had heard nothing. It was then that they heard footsteps in the entry, and Lizzie’s heart started to pound.

‘Aye up. Sounds like they’m here now,’ Joe said, disappearing into the cellar with the coal bucket.

The back door opened and in walked Tom and Sarah. Tom sat himself in the armchair and Sarah sat on its arm, her back towards her husband while they talked. Joe returned from the cellar, heaving the bucket of coal. He set it down on the hearth and made up the fire while Lizzie waited for Stanley to come in. But there were no more footsteps in the entry. No more opening of the back door. The flutter of excitement under her rib cage became an ache. Usually, either Stanley or Sylvia accompanied their mother and father. Tonight, there was neither. Lizzie felt a fervent desire to cry out. Where was Stanley? Why hadn’t he come? But conversation about May’s and Joe’s plans was already in full spate, so she let it be.

‘Well, I reckon as we should go and have a drink on it,’ Tom suggested. ‘Let’s pop up The Junction and celebrate.’

‘That’s all you think about,’ Sarah complained. ‘Beer, beer, beer. I wonder as you don’t drown in it.’

‘No, that’s a bostin’ idea, Tom,’ Joe agreed. ‘Gi’ me a minute to wash me hands. Come on, Mother. Get your lid on. We’m off for a drink to celebrate.’

So everybody, except Lizzie, began sprucing themselves up and smoothing the creases from their clothes. When they were about to leave, Tom asked her why she wasn’t joining them.

‘I’m not old enough to sit drinking in public houses.’ She felt desperately sorry for herself.

‘You can sit in the children’s room, my darlin’. I’ll bring you some pop.’

‘The children’s room? No thanks, Uncle Tom.’

‘But it’s a celebration.’

Lizzie preferred to stay at home. Stanley was sure to arrive sooner or later. After all, he’d promised. She would wait, and be alone with him when he did arrive.

*

But Stanley broke his promise. He did not come to see her that evening; nor the following Sunday evening at church; nor on the Wednesday after that when his parents came visiting again. Stanley wasn’t even mentioned. His continued absence stung Lizzie. If he cared anything at all he would surely have appeared by this time and apologised for not being able to see her before. His feelings on that first Sunday evening of July were too obvious for her to be mistaken. And yet she must have been mistaken. She must have misinterpreted his signals. Something did not add up. Something was wrong, and she couldn’t fathom it out. Had he been merely stringing her along? Was he practising on the nearest girl to see how she might respond to his advances? Perhaps he was. But she could have sworn …

Lizzie decided that next Wednesday when the Dandos came round she would be out. She would be out returning the compliment, visiting their house in the hope that Stanley would be at home. She had to see him; this not knowing was driving her mad. The least she deserved was an explanation. Besides, she knew Stanley well enough to be able to visit him uninvited.

Or did she? This intimacy, which had befallen them so easily, had changed everything. Somehow, it complicated their accessibility to each other, which they could have freely enjoyed before. Lizzie was no longer sure of her ground. But she just had to know whether he loved her.

By the time Wednesday came round again, the weather was uncomfortably hot and humid. The whole country was sweltering in the grip of an intense heat-wave. Lizzie wore a cotton shirt and light cotton skirt. Her long underskirt seemed to stick to her moist, bare legs in the heat, and she wished the day would come when cooler, shorter skirts might be considered seemly. In this sort of weather they would certainly be more comfortable. She stood talking to Gert Hudson and Ida Wassall in Cromwell Street, her hair elegantly done, while she discreetly awaited the arrival of Tom and Sarah. When she saw them she waved but, as she’d anticipated, neither Stanley nor Sylvia accompanied them. So she took her leave of Gert and Ida, and made her way to the Dando’s house.

Certain that this contrived meeting would sort things out and thus settle her mind, Lizzie strode purposefully on. As she turned into Pitfield Street, where Phyllis Fat lived, half a dozen small children were playing in the gutter, throwing stones at a passing cat. One of them was naked, the rest in rags, their faces grubby, their hair matted with filth. The street was long and narrow, with a long line of crumbling back-to-back terraced houses on each side. Chimneys leaned precariously, slates were missing from the roofs, and paint peeled from faded front doors and window frames. A few people, mostly elderly, sat on the steps of their open front doors in open-mouthed, toothless silence. In some houses the floor was dirt – no quarries, no floorboards, no linoleum. Coal was heaped under the table in those houses that had a table. Often, Eve had warned Lizzie not to venture down Pitfield Street alone, but no ill had ever befallen her. It cheered her to see the occasional house with sparkling windows bedecked with pretty curtains and a bunch of fresh flowers, and a front step conscientiously whitened at those houses where respectability defied poverty.

As she left it all behind her and walked on to Dixons Green Road, the contrast was marked. Dixons Green was where the well-to-do merchants of the town had established substantial homes. And, although there was a malthouse opposite The Shoulder of Mutton, it did not intrude.

Lizzie walked on, past The Bush Inn, an old public house with a wooden porch on the front that reminded her of a pigeon loft. Men wearing collarless shirts and braces were leaning against the wall and railings outside, drinking beer, laughing, swearing, enjoying the warm weather, and several of them whistled and hooted after her. From here you could look west and, on a clear day, see the green Clent Hills, but the humidity and stillness of the last few days meant that the atmosphere was thick and hazy now. You could see no further than the old mine workings and pit mounds of Mudhall Colliery, grey and foreboding against the reddening sky; and the old Buffery Clay Pit at the bottom of the hill. And this scarred and barren landscape, relieved only by the tower of St. Peter’s church, a hazy silhouette in distant Netherton, was overlooked by the Dandos.

As she turned into Grainger Street, Lizzie’s pulse was racing. She had arrived. The Dando’s home was fairly new, built only in 1903. The windows gleamed and an aspidistra sat majestically in a shining, brass pot in the centre of the front room window. They had their own gate at the top of the entry and a private back yard, too, with a garden and flowers that Sarah tended with loving care. Nervously, Lizzie tip-toed through the entry, quietly opened the gate on the right, and walked onto the foreyard. She tapped tentatively on the back door, feeling weak at the knees, wishing now she hadn’t come and hoping that even though she had, Stanley would not after all be at home. After all, there was still Jesse Clancey. She could always turn her attentions to Jesse.

She waited, and was just about to turn tail and run, when the door opened a fraction. Sylvia’s flushed face appeared, bearing a sheen of perspiration.

‘Lizzie!’ She stepped outside and Lizzie could see that her hair was untypically ruffled. She held her stomach in to tuck her blouse into her skirt. ‘What brings you here? Mother and Father have gone up to your house. Is there anything wrong, Lizzie? D’you want to come in?’

‘No, no, Sylvia.’ She was retreating backwards slowly down the entry. ‘I … I just thought I might see Stanley, that’s all … If he’s not in, it doesn’t matter.’

‘Our Stanley went out, Lizzie. I expect he’s out with his mates for a last drink. Can I give him a message?’

Still retreating, Lizzie shook her head. ‘No, it’s all right, Sylvia …’

At that moment, a man appeared at Sylvia’s side, and peered intently into the entry. Lizzie gasped. It was Jesse Clancey. His blonde hair was tousled also, his shirt crumpled. As soon as he could make out Lizzie in the dimness of the entry, he ran his fingers through his hair to try and smarten it up.

‘Oh, it’s Lizzie Bishop,’ he said. ‘How are you, Lizzie?’
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