‘Coo, it stinks of piss in that archway,’ said Lizzie Albrook, walking through the covered entrance to Miller’s Court, and coming to a halt in the small, stone flagged yard.
Mary looked up from the apron she was washing, the enamelled wash-bowl standing upon a chair. ‘I’ll throw this water down there when I’m done.’
Half perched upon the window-sill, Kate laughed. ‘It’s not the piss yer need to worry about.’
‘Yes,’ said Lizzie, her round, country girl’s face taking on an earnest expression. ‘You got to watch your step – ’specially in the dark. I reckon it’s them bloomin’ dogs down at number eleven.’
‘I reckon it’s not,’ grinned Kate.
Lizzie looked blankly at her, then came a few steps closer. ‘Wotcha doin’, Mary?’
‘What does it look like?’
‘No, I mean what else you got to wash? Only I see you’re doin’ your aprons, and I was just wonderin’…?’
Mary looked at the girl’s stained pinafore. ‘Yes, alright. Give it to me.’
‘Thanks, Mary. I’ll just go and get the rest.’
‘’Ere,’ chuckled Kate as Lizzie ran down the court and disappeared into a doorway. ‘You’re gettin’ to sound just like Joe.’
Kate roared with laughter. ‘There yer go again!’ She began turning her head from side to side in imitation of a ventriloquist’s dummy. ‘’Ere, Joe, fancy a beer? – A beer? – Yes, a beer. It’s alright I’m payin’ – I’m payin’? – Oh, well if yer insist, Joe, thanks very much.’ She stopped and looked at Mary. ‘Don’t tell me yer ’aven’t noticed?’
‘It’s not his fault.’
‘I ain’t sayin’ it is – but it don’t ’alf get on yer nerves. I don’t know ’ow yer stand it. What with that, an’ the stutterin’ – must be like livin’ with a b-b-b-bleedin’ parrot.’
Mary let the apron she’d been wringing fall back into the water. ‘I can’t stand it, Kate. Not because of how he talks, that’s nothing. It’s… everything else. It’s getting so I can’t stand to be with him – but even worse, I can’t stand myself for feeling that way. He’s a good man… in so many ways, but…’
‘Then move out.’
‘How can I? He doesn’t even realise anything’s wrong. He tells me I’m the best thing that ever happened to him. That he wouldn’t know how he’d cope if I was ever to leave him. How can I turn round and tell him I can’t stand to be in the same room with him? What do I say?’
‘’Ow about b-b-bugger off, Joe?’
Lizzie reappeared with her arms full of linen. ‘What you two laughin’ about?’
‘Grown-up’s talk,’ said Kate.
‘I’m grown right enough.’
‘’Ow old are yer?’
‘Twenty – gettin’ on for, anyway.’
‘Well, yer’ve got to be twenty-one before yer proper grown, see?’
Mary took the bundle of washing, adding it to her own few things. ‘Don’t mind her, Lizzie. She’s just teasing you.’ She sighed, taking the apron from the soapy water and wringing it out. ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do, Kate. I’m just so sick of this life.’
‘Then come to the pub, ducklin’.’
‘That won’t help tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, will it.’
‘It will if yer go again tomorrow, an’ the day after, an’ the day after that.’
Lizzie’s face was a picture of confusion, and Mary gave the apron one last, savage twist, then looked into her eyes. ‘You take good notice of me, Lizzie. Mark what I do – then be sure not to do it, and I reckon you won’t go too far wrong in this life.’
‘Yes,’ said Kate. ‘Yer don’t want to turn out like our Mary. Regular bad ’un she is. Why, what she ain’t done ain’t worth doin’. An’ what she ’as done yer couldn’t write a book about without bein’ locked up. Ain’t that right, ducklin’?’
Lizzie’s eyes widened. ‘You don’t go out on the streets, do you, Mary?’
‘Ooh, I should say so,’ laughed Kate. ‘Blimey, she ain’t so much an unfortunate as a downright bloody unlucky, if yer want the truth of it.’
‘You’re a silly cow,’ said Mary with a grudging laugh.
Kate’s face split into a grin. ‘Oh, come on. Leave the bloody washin’ an’ come down the pub. I can’t go without yer,’ she laughed again, ‘’cos I’m soddin’ well skint.’
‘I can’t. I’ve got Joe’s shirt to do.’
‘And my few bits,’ prompted Lizzie.
‘Look, I’ll see about coming out tonight. I’ll talk to Joe when he comes home.’
‘Oh, for Chris’ sake don’t bring ’im!’ pleaded Kate. ‘I already knows everythin’ I wants to know about the ins an’ outs of a c-c-cow’s arse.’
Joe took up his pipe and ran the lighted match over the bowl. ‘I do hope the ladies won’t m-mind if the gentlemen smoke?’ he asked, leaning back, one elbow resting on the table.
‘Of course not,’ replied Mary, just as she did every evening.
He let the smoke trickle from between his lips. ‘Disturbing item in the newspaper today. A woman attacked in B-Brick Lane.’
‘Not anyone we know?’ asked Mary.
‘Anyone we know? No. No, a woman called Emma. Emma…’ He lifted his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Hang on, it’ll come to m-me in a m-minute.’
The newspaper lay folded by Joe’s elbow, and suddenly apprehensive, Mary crossed to it. ‘Is it in here?’
‘In here? Yes, that’s the one, alright.’
She made to pick it up, but catching his disapproving look, she withdrew her hand. ‘Why don’t you read it to me.’
Wearing an expression of satisfied propriety, he took up the newspaper, his lips moving imperceptibly as he read in silence for a moment or two. ‘Ah, here it is. There’s a lot of rather gruesome details, I’m afraid – well, we won’t b-bother with those, b-but here we are. Her name was Smith. Emma Smith.’
‘Does it say why?’
‘Yes, why?’ said Mary, more sharply than she intended. ‘Does it say why she was attacked?’
‘There’s no need for raised voices, M-Mary.’
She turned away, going to the fire and raking it over. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just… upsetting news.’
‘Upsetting news? Yes, I should certainly say so. It’s fortunate I spared you the details. Not very nice reading.’ He turned the page. ‘Oh, look, here’s something a little m-more interesting. Let m-me read you this b-bit about a chap who’s done a survey on how m-much m-manure the average horse produces every day. Heavens! Can you imagine, M-Mary? The gross tonnage that has to b-be cleared from the London streets every day is…’
‘Actually, I was thinking I might go out this evening – just for a short while. I’ve been in all day and…’
He looked up. ‘Do you know, I b-believe you m-must be a m-mind reader.’
‘A mind reader?’ Finding herself repeating him, she drove her nails deep into her palms in irritation. ‘I mean – you were thinking of going out, too?’
‘There’s a lecture over at the Working Lads Institute tonight. From Strolling Players to the B-Barrel Organ – A History of Itinerant Street M-Musicians.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘I thought we m-might stroll along.’
‘The thing is…’ Mary turned to face him. ‘… I said I’d meet Kate.’
‘Now you know I don’t approve of her, M-Mary.’
‘I know, but she’s my friend. If you just got to know her better…’
‘No, M-Mary. No. I absolutely forbid you to go.’
‘Forbid?’ She stared at him. ‘You forbid me to go? Look, Joe, I don’t know who you think you are, but you stroll along to your lecture.’ She snatched her shawl from the back of the door. ‘I’m going to meet Kate – whether you bloody well like it or not!’