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At that moment, the hooter blew and, in just a few seconds, a throng of people were released from the three brass foundries and sundry other establishments into Cromwell Street. Some headed towards The Junction, some in the other direction towards The Dog and Partridge and The Sailor’s Return.
Another dog, a cross between a Jack Russell and a Scots terrier, picked up the same scent and joined the first animal sniffing at Percy’s feet. Yet another emerged, panting, from Granny Wassall’s entry in Cromwell Street. Soon there was a whole pack of dogs yapping at Percy’s heels, and his own labrador bitch escaped by jumping up onto the ledge of the lower half of the stable door and over the back wall, to join the hunt.
Most of the workers bid Percy good day, and some asked why he was accompanied by so many excited dogs. Percy was happy to tell them, so it was with great anticipation that those walking in his direction lingered at Jack Hardwick’s little butcher’s shop to watch the sport, gathering more dogs as they went, all crazed at the scent of the beef.
As Percy mounted the steps to the shop, the dogs tried to gain entrance with him. He kicked out to fend them off, but they interpreted it as a sort of game and were greatly encouraged to try harder. Jack Hardwick rushed round his counter to shut the door, but two of them got in and were up at the sides of bacon and the sheets of lights hanging from the walls.
Jack hated dogs. Relishing the sudden opportunity to inflict some harm on the first, the Jack Russell cross, he seized it by the scruff of its neck and hurled it outside with a kick between its back legs to help it on its way. Percy tackled a bigger animal that bore a faint resemblance to a sheep dog, but was bitten for his trouble. While this commotion was going on, Jack’s mother, Amy, alerted by the barking, whining and shouting, came in from the brewhouse where she was rinsing out her bloomers, wielding a wooden maiding dolly. She had the presence of mind to grab a couple of bones, which she threw out to the dogs in the street to create a diversion.
By now, a sizeable crowd had gathered outside Jack’s shop, watching with amusement as the dogs fought and snarled over the bones. Jack Hardwick, still unsettled, and fearful that they would invade his shop again, bounced out with his mother’s maiding dolly and began flailing at the dogs, but it had no effect.
‘This is all your bloody fault, Percy Collins,’ Jack yelled angrily. ‘Fancy bringin’ a pack o’ dogs into a butcher’s shop. Yo’ must want your head lookin’.’
Percy laughed. ‘It ai’ me what’s attracted ’em, it’s the mate yo’ sell, Jack.’
‘Well, it’s good mate. It’s the best.’
‘It’s the bloody dearest. Though these dogs mightn’t know the difference.’ The animal that had some sheep dog ancestry decided that squabbling over a couple of bones was a lost cause and headed again for Percy’s boots. ‘See what I mean?’ he said, kicking out at it.
‘I doh know what yo’m on about, Percy Collins, but I wish to God as yo’ and the bleedin’ dogs would sling your ’ooks.’
‘Listen, you. I’m on about the mate yo’ sold my missus.’
‘What about it?’
‘What about it? I should’ve thought it bloody obvious.’ He raised his boot, showing the sole to Jack. ‘That’s it, there, on the sole o’ me shoe. It was that damned ’ard it was good for nothin’ else.’ He handed Jack the parcel he carried under his arm. ‘And if yo’ doh believe me, here’s the rest of it. Yo’ try it, and if yo’ can eat it, I’ll gi’ yer a sack o’ taters for your trouble. But yo’ll need a wairter-cooled jaw.’
‘There’s nothin’ wrong with my meat. It’s the way it’s roasted.’
‘Then you’d best tell Walter Wilson, Jack, ’cause he roasted it in his bread oven, same as he does for a lot of folk.’
Suddenly, there was a loud collective guffaw from the workmen gathered round, but the butcher and the greengrocer, engrossed in their impassioned dispute, ignored it.
‘Fancy askin’ a baker to roast a joint o’ beef. What the ’ell’s he know about roasting beef?’
‘Whether or no, I want me money back,’ Percy countered. ‘Yo’ ought a be ashamed chargin’ what yo’ charged for this rubbish.’
Another cheer went up and hoots of encouragement, inciting Percy to greater things. He was evidently doing well in this argument; better than he’d anticipated.
Then someone called out from the crowd. ‘Is this your dog here, Percy?’
Percy turned. The man who called him pointed to the group of baying and panting animals. The sheep dog derivative had mounted another animal and was thrusting into her wholeheartedly, his eyes glazed with determination, hell-bent on relief of some sort, if not his hunger. Percy’s labrador bitch was on the receiving end of all this canine passion, and it suddenly dawned on Percy that this was why they were all cheering.
‘Oh, Jesus Christ. That’s all I need. Jack, lend me the dolly to part ’em, afore it’s too late.’
‘You must be joking,’ Jack replied vindictively. ‘Mother’s gorra do the washin’ with that.’
‘Fetch us a bucket o’ water, then, so’s I can chuck it over ’em.’
Jack shook his head, walked back into his shop, smiling, and closed the door behind him.
Next morning, workers noticed that the sign over Jack’s shop, which the day before bore the legend ‘J. F. Hardwick, High Class Butcher’, had been whitened out, and altered to: ‘J. F. Hardmeat, Purveyor of Shoe Leather’.
Chapter 4 (#u0959affe-76a4-586d-9f5d-9f35f87c69ab)
Old customs prevailed. Eve’s abiding routine of looking after a family continued unaltered. Nothing changed, even though there was no longer a house full to worry about. Saturday night remained the start of the week, when she mixed the Sunday fruit cake after tea and put it in the oven at the side of the grate, so there was something to offer any visitor who might drop by. That in its turn meant a roaring fire, which would get the room nice and warm for bath time. They would fill the tin bath with hot water carried from the boiler in the brewhouse and top it up as required. The back door bolted, Lizzie would be first to bathe, but her thick hair seemed to take ages to dry after Eve washed it for her.
On Sunday, it was best clothes, and friends or family often invited round for tea; then church in the evening. Years ago, for convenience, Eve would fry up vegetables left from Sunday dinner for when the children came home from school on a Monday, which was washing day. Nowadays she was satisfied with a cheese sandwich, by herself, and there was no need to hurry because what little there was to launder was usually finished by dinnertime. Eve always used to do her ironing on a Tuesday, but often now she could manage it on Monday afternoons if it had been a good drying day.
She had a day for cleaning the bedrooms and scrubbing the stairs, for polishing the best furniture and the linoleum in the front room, for cleaning the windows and the front door step. On Wednesdays, the fire wasn’t lit till late because that was the day the grate was blackleaded. To her credit, May still called round and did the job for her on her Wednesday afternoon off, assisted by Lizzie of late.
Eve was feeling her years and, though she was by no means old, all this housework was getting harder. The joints in her hands were becoming lumpy; when she walked any distance her legs ached, and she found herself out of breath doing tasks she would have found easy just a year or two ago. Because of a persistent thirst, she was drinking noticeably more water than she used to and visiting the privy umpteen times a day in consequence. Once or twice, too, she found herself wobbly at the knees well before mealtimes. She put it down to hunger, since eating seemed always to alleviate it.
While Eve felt she was withering, she only had to look at Lizzie to see that she was blooming. She said nothing, but regretted that Lizzie should reach this state of optimum physical womanhood when she was in no position to make the most of it, for the finest looks faded over the years. The girl needed good, fashionable clothes to show herself off to best advantage; to enhance her self-esteem; as did every young woman. But financial constraints precluded it. Her other daughters, Maude and Lucy, had blossomed when the family was comparatively well off; when Isaac was earning good money and Ted and Grenville were bringing home a wage.
Yet the lack of money never stopped Lizzie looking her best. Although many of her clothes were old, they were always spotlessly clean and immaculately ironed. Eve made some admirable creations from old garments, and Lizzie took pleasure in wearing them. She only wished that she, too, had a similar talent, rather than none at all.
Eve silently worried about Lizzie. The girl was sensitive and easily hurt, and she wanted so much for her to meet the right man; not necessarily a rich man, but a kind and loving one. If he turned out to be comfortably off as well, then so much the better. But no Jack-the-lad who fancied his chances with other women, like Isaac. A decent, honest, ordinary sort of chap who was prepared to do an honest day’s work would do nicely, so long as he would cherish Lizzie. As yet, though, there was no sign of any young man in her life; but she was young yet. Oh, Lizzie was sweet on Stanley Dando and no two ways, but his joining the army had thwarted that.
Eve could also see that her youngest daughter was not without admirers. She was most aware of it when they walked to church on a Sunday evening in summer. Not only men’s heads would turn but women’s, too, and Eve would feel so proud. There were one or two eligible young men at church every week who went out of their way to speak to Lizzie, but they must surely be tongue-tied or over-awed when it came to asking her out.
Not least of the admirers, Eve could see, was Jesse Clancey. Even though he was courting Sylvia Dando he still had eyes for Lizzie. But Eve did not wish to encourage that. She did not wish to encourage it at all. It would not do for Lizzie to get mixed up with him. It would not do for Lizzie to be upset by Ezme’s evil tongue. Not at any price. Sylvia Dando was fine for Jesse. Perfect, in fact. She hoped they would stay together and get married.
It was in September that Lizzie renewed her friendship with Daisy Foster, the girl she used to work with when she first left school. They met again when Lizzie went out with May and Joe one sunny, Sunday afternoon to hear the Cradley Heath Prize Band playing in Buffery Park. Seats had been specially laid out around the bandstand and they were early enough to find three together near the front. At the interval, Lizzie stood up to stretch her legs and smooth the creases out of her best skirt, when, on the opposite side, facing her, she espied Daisy with another girl and two lads, aged about nineteen. She went across to say hello.
‘You look ever so well, Daisy.’
Daisy was slender and nicely dressed in a loose-fitting green dress and a wide, straw hat adorned with flowers. Her ready smile was marred only by two slightly crossed teeth, which somehow seemed more noticeable now, but which didn’t detract from her prettiness; rather they were the imperfection that added to it.
‘And so do you, Lizzie. You look lovely.’
‘It’s been ages.’
‘I know. We should get together and have a rattle. Are you working in Dudley now?’
‘Theedhams? Fancy. And I only work in the Market Place. Why don’t you meet me one dinnertime?’
‘How about Wednesday? I have Wednesday afternoons off.’
‘That’s my afternoon off as well. I could meet you at the Midland Cafе, if you like.’
Lizzie smiled, a broad smile of pleasure at re-establishing contact with her old friend. ‘Yes. About ten past one? I couldn’t get there before then.’
‘I’ll keep us a table.’
Meanwhile, the lads occupied themselves in conversation with the other girl, though Lizzie couldn’t help noticing one of them. He was wickedly handsome, with sparkling blue eyes and almost black hair that was immaculately trimmed. And he kept looking up at her, trying to catch her eye with an interested smile when the other girl wasn’t aware.
On the appointed day, the two girls turned up for their reunion under umbrellas, for the weather had turned. A steady drizzle all morning had been drenching everything. Market stall holders were packing away, loading their carts with unsold merchandise ready for the next day; for there would be few, if any, customers this dreary afternoon.
When Lizzie and Daisy had let down their brollies and shook them they entered the cafе and took a vacant table in the window. They ordered a pot of tea, with tongue and cucumber sandwiches.
‘It was such a shock to see you on Sunday,’ Lizzie said, beaming, tucking a strand of hair under her hat. ‘You were the last person in the world I expected to meet.’
Daisy shuffled and leaned forward expectantly. ‘I know, but it was a lovely surprise. Did you say you’re working at Theedhams now?’
‘I was in Theedham’s just last week. It’s a wonder I didn’t see you. It must’ve been your dinner time or somethin’. I work in the Public Benefit Boot shop. I left Chambers’s Saddlery ages ago. Pullin’ on the leather and stitchin’ and that played havoc with me hands, I couldn’t stand it. Then I found this job, and I like it. Besides, I get me shoes cheap.’
‘Oh, anytime you want some new shoes cheap come and see me, Lizzie.’
‘I’m desperate for some new shoes, Daisy. I’ll have to come and see you … Are you courting now, then?’
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