Half an hour later, flushed with cheap gin and chewing on ginger biscuits of dubious origin, they were pushing their way through the heaving mass that was Petticoat Lane market, their ears ringing to the shouts of stall-holders, and their noses besieged by the reek of old clothes and unwashed bodies, pickled fish and pickled cucumbers, sarsaparilla, hot chestnuts, and hot potatoes.
‘Just like bloomin’ Regent Street, ain’t it?’ said Julia, mimicking the prevailing accent.
On a nearby fish stall, a man with a peppering of grey whiskers about his chin stuck his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat. ‘Yer won’t get nuffink in Regent Street what yer can’t get ’ere fer a quarter o’ the price, gel. ’Ere, come an’ look at this.’ He picked up a large mackerel, holding it level with his face and looking into its dead eyes. ‘Lovely ain’t it? If it was a woman, I’d tickle it under the chin an’ give it a kiss, that I would. It’s yours for thrupence. Yer old man’ll think ’is ship’s come in when yer serve ’im this for ’is supper!’
Julia held up her left hand, fingers splayed to show the absence of a ring. ‘Ain’t got no old man, ’ave I!’
The man remained unflustered. ‘Well, you buy this ’ere fish an’ yer soon will ’ave! It’s the best way to a bloke’s ’eart.’ Then, seeing them pushing on, he called, ‘’Ere, what about yer friend? Can’t I tempt you, luv?’
‘I don’t think so,’ laughed Mary as she followed Julia through the milling throng. ‘I’d rather ’ave the fish.’
A little further on there was a stall selling old jewellery, and Mary stopped to look. It was mostly cheap stuff, but amongst the jumbled boxes were a few pendants of varying shapes and sizes. Tentatively she began picking through the tangled mass of chains.
‘Oh, don’t bother with that,’ said Julia, pushing back through the crowd and grabbing hold of her sleeve. ‘Come and watch this, it’s really funny.’
Reluctantly, Mary let herself be drawn away to where a small crowd was gathered about the light from a flaring naphtha lamp, beneath which a stout, middle-aged Jewish woman was standing on a trestle placed in front of a stall laden with all manner of goods.
‘So what you want? You want money back?’ The woman struck her forehead with the heel of her hand. ‘Well, I don’t argue. I give you back money. But first you tell me. How long you have this sheet?’
At the front of the crowd, a sour-faced woman in a shawl hesitantly raised a clean white sheet, a threadbare hole in the centre. ‘Five years only!’
‘Five years? Five years? I don’t believe it! You buy from me five years? How many children you got?’
‘Children? You ask me about children?’
‘Sure, I ask you. That sheet. It guaranteed last ten years – maybe more! I think your husband must make lot of children on that sheet, huh? I think you have fifteen, at least, for so much wear!’
The complaining woman looked perplexed, unsure of how to answer. ‘I want my money back.’
‘Okay. Okay. Mrs Kapinskya no argue. I give you back money – no, wait. I give better! I give two new sheets. Then you can go home and make thirty more children!’ She picked up two folded sheets from the stall and tossed them to the woman. ‘Now, anyone else want personal guaranteed linen? Finest in London. Two shillings, only.’
Two or three hands went up from the crowd, and the woman handed them out, shoving the money into the pocket of her skirt before turning back to the sour-faced woman. ‘What? You here, still? What you want? To bleed Mrs Kapinskya dry? Well, I no sell to you. Next I got something special – for people who see bargain when they hear it!’
Standing at the back of the crowd, Julia leaned close to Mary. ‘The woman at the front isn’t really complaining. I’ve seen this before. She’s just the stooge – you know, to draw people in?’
Mary nodded. ‘Well, she’s not very good, is she.’ Then, with the bravado of four penn’orth of gin, she said, ‘Shall we have a go?’
A gleam came to Julia’s eyes. ‘Alright. You lead, I’ll follow.’
Taking her drawers from her pocket, Mary pushed her way to the front of the crowd. ‘’Ere,’ she said, holding out the white, frilled underwear. ‘I ’ave a complaint, too.’
Mrs Kapinskya eyed her suspiciously. ‘Oh yes?’
‘Yes. I bought these ’ere drawers from you six years ago.’
‘Six years?’ Mrs Kapinskya turned to the crowd. ‘You see! Six years! Up and down like fiddler’s elbow – and still good like new!’ Then, studiously ignoring Mary, she picked up some towels. ‘Now, here I got …’
But Mary had aroused the interest of the crowd. ‘Who you tryin’ t’ kid?’ shouted an old woman at the back. ‘They ain’t six years old.’
‘Oh, ain’t they?’ said Mary, looking tearful. ‘Well a lot you know. I bought ’em to go on my ’oneymoon, I did – and that was six years ago this very week.’
‘What, just come back, ’ave yer?’
Mary pretended to be upset, ‘No. No, I ain’t – but it feels as though I ’ave.’
‘So what’s yer complaint?’ asked the old woman.
‘They won’t wear out,’ wailed Mary, burying her face in her hands, her body heaving with great sobs.
‘There, there,’ said Julia squeezing into the small clearing and putting her arm about Mary’s shoulder. ‘No good upsettin’ yerself, darlin’.’ She turned to confront the crowd. ‘Leave ’er be, won’t yer. Yer don’t know the trouble she’s had since she bought these ’ere drawers from this woman.’
Angrily, Mrs Kapinskya reached down and took the garment from Mary’s hand. ‘What game you play with me, huh?’
Julia met the woman’s accusing stare. ‘Ain’t no game,’ she said, giving her a sly wink. ‘Why, this poor girl’s ’ad a miserable life since yer sold ’em to ’er.’ She turned back to the crowd.
‘Yer wouldn’t believe the ’orrible tale she ’as to tell. Why, yer wouldn’t find the like of it in no penny-dreadful, an’ that’s a fact! ’Orrible to contemplate, it is. Enough to make yer ’air turn white.’
‘Well, I’m ‘alf way there already,’ called the old woman at the back. ‘So – are yer goin’ t’ tell us about it or not? I can’t stand about ’ere all day. I got my old man’s tea t’ get on.’
‘Well, it’s like this,’ began Julia, pretending to comfort Mary. ‘But ’ere – why don’t she tell yer, ‘erself?’ she said, quickly stepping back to join the crowd.
Mary lowered her hands from her face to find herself the sole centre of attention. ‘W-ell,’ she began hesitantly. ‘It’s my ’usband, see …’
‘’E’s taken to wearin’ ’em, ’as ’e?’ called a skinny youth.
‘No, I wish ’e would. But it’s me what’s got to wear ’em. ’E likes me in ’em so much, ’e won’t let me wear nothin’ else.’
‘Nothin’ else?’ laughed the lad. ‘Blimey, must be interestin’ comin’ to tea at your ’ouse.’
Warming to her role, Mary lowered her head, as though hiding a blush. ‘Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t think it so funny if ’e was to come kissin’ and cuddlin’ you all day – much as you might like it to begin with.’
The crowd roared with laughter, and the boy went a deep crimson.
‘I just wish they’d wear out, and I could be done with ’em,’ continued Mary. ‘I’m sure I should be left in peace then.’
‘Your ’usband sounds a right dirty bugger!’ chortled the old woman. ‘Still, wait till yer get t’ my age an’ yer’ll be left in peace alright. My old man wouldn’t care if my arse was ’angin’ in diamonds!’
Towards the back of the crowd a couple of soberly dressed people walked away in disgust, but the mood of the remainder had brightened considerably. Picking up on it, Mrs Kapinskya pulled several new though inferior pairs from her stock, tugging forcibly at the stitching. ‘You don’t never wear them out,’ she said, proudly. ‘Made to last! Only very best material. Strong as two horses couldn’t tear. My guarantee!’ She shrugged and rolled her eyes. ‘But effect on your husband nothing to do with me.’
‘You got some in my size?’ shouted the old woman.
‘I got all size, all shape. Ten shilling in West End shop – but I sell for only eighteen pence!’
‘Go on then, give us a pair.’
‘No, please …’ Mary’s eyes widened in horror, and she looked imploringly at the crowd. ‘You mustn’t. You don’t know what you’re doin’. These ain’t just pairs of drawers …’
Mrs Kapinskya tapped a finger to her head. ‘Don’t listen to crazy girl! She mad – from too much love. Now, I busy woman and only have few left. Who want them? Eighteen pence and I make myself pauper!’
The crowd had grown to double the size and a forest of hands shot up.
‘Miriam,’ Mrs Kapinskya called to where the sour-faced woman still clutched her sheets. ‘Don’t stand doing nothing. Take money from these good people.’
Mary continued to beseech them with all the fervour of a fire and brimstone preacher, warning of the awful consequences, and pleading as if their very souls were at stake, while garment after garment flew over her head and into the eager hands of customers – and the more she pleaded, so the more they laughed and reached for their purses and pocket books. ‘Well,’ she said at last as Mrs Kapinskya’s stock of underwear came to an end. ‘I’ve tried to warn you. Lord knows I ’ave!’ She caught sight of Julia who was clutching her sides with laughter, ‘So on your own ’eads be it. I only ’ope you are of great ’eart – and of even greater stamina – and I shall pray for the souls of those who aren’t. Good evenin’ – and a very merry Christmas.’
No one in the crowd had been taken in by the performance, it had merely put them in good humour and the mood to spend, and both Mary and Julia received hearty slaps on the back as they pushed their way through. Then, suddenly, Mrs Kapinskya was standing squarely in front of them. ‘What for you do that?’ she asked suspiciously.
‘It was a dare,’ said Julia.
‘A dare? What is dare?’
‘It was just for fun,’ explained Mary. ‘I’m sorry if it annoyed you.’ She saw the woman’s uncomprehending look. ‘If it made you upset – angry?’
Mrs Kapinskya flapped her hands dismissively. ‘Ach, I know annoyed. I know annoyed better than no one. My sister, Miriam, always for her I am annoyed. Never can she do it right – but you, you do it very right. You have chutzpah. You come back with me now. I give you job.’
‘She has a job, thank you,’ smiled Julia.
‘Hah, what job? All day on knees?’ She wagged her head from side to side. ‘Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am? You come with me. I give you good job. We make good business, good money.’
Mary caught Julia’s look of amusement and tried not to laugh. ‘Can I think about it?’ she asked.
‘Yes, think – think, all you want.’ She watched them go, ‘But think quick – before Miriam make me crazy – like you!’