Not a soul who lived on Rotten Row knew what happened to Daisy Critchlow. The mystery of her disappearance was the topic of conversation over boiling coppers and steaming pots of tea for five days. Then on the Monday after she last stood on her white-faced step, Father Basil ran off to Birmingham with two silver candlesticks and one of the girls from the match factory. And Daisy’s fate was pushed behind wash days and work days, High Days and holidays.
Later, when the neighbours thought of Daisy at all, they’d eye the peeling paintwork and stained windows of number five and creep upstairs to check their children as they slept.
It was a comfort to them that Daisy’s mother, Queenie, had already lost so much. What difference would losing a daughter make?
When Daisy was five, she asked Queenie why the chipped enamel sign on Mrs Mulligan’s end terrace house said Railway Cottages when everyone called their street Rotten Row. The question was asked just as Queenie – pinny wrapped tight over a bust heavy as a sack of sand – was showing her how to black the range. The leading brush left a bump the size of a cobble on Daisy’s head that took over a week to go down.
‘Have you nothing but soot in that head?’ said Queenie. ‘Look out the window and you’ll see why.’
Afterwards, skirt pulled up over her waistband to keep the hem clean, Daisy paused while sweeping the yard to stare up at the railway viaduct. Though she’d lived underneath it since the day she’d arrived (‘A mite too early and darn site too female’ according to Queenie), Daisy never really saw it until that day. It was like the pavement or the road or a mess of horse dung – part of life, but nothing to waste time watching.
But that day she saw how the grey stone arches made a second sky over the clusters of railway and factory terraces. How they funnelled and dripped sooty rain on the windows, as if they hid clouds jostling with chimneys.
Their house never truly saw the sun. Only a brief smile fell through the front parlour net curtains in late afternoon and then only in mid summer. And as each train passed – great lungs huffing and wheezing – the glasses on the sideboard tinkled like icicles falling on frozen ground.
Like living in a dragon’s cave, she thought. Though surely there would be more maidens and fewer stray cats with patchy fur and skin the colour of a healing scald.
From that day on Daisy was sure to check if Queenie was holding anything heavy before she asked a question.