One day Daisy and her mother were sitting at the kitchen table. The canteen of cutlery was laid out, Daisy’s sleeves rolled back past her elbows to save them from being blackened by tarnish. Queenie sat low in her chair, heels resting on the kettle stand in the hearth.
‘Mrs Grant’s baby ‒ Violet is it?’ said Queenie. ‘Face like a slapped spaniel, just like her Ma. She’ll amount to nothing.’
‘She’s five months old.’
‘That face can’t help but make a soul slap it. Start with a slap, then comes a fist. Later comes a boot. She’ll be too long falling on her arse to make much of her life.’
A fight had broken out in the back alley the night before. Shouting – a bottle smashed. Daisy had dreamed of her father back from the grave, sitting in the Railway Arms, soil dropping from his cuffs onto the polished table tops, strewing the shrivelled lily of the valley Queenie had put on his chest as he was laid out on the kitchen table.
If Daisy had slept better, she may not have said, ‘She’s such a sweet thing, Violet. Fat as a butcher’s cat. You shouldn’t say such cruel things about a little baby.’
Queenie’s tea cup had rattled in its saucer. There’d been a moment when Daisy had thought her mother hadn’t heard. Then Queenie spoke.
‘Some say daughters are the best children for a mother. That they share the chores and save your hands from wearing down to nubs. They’ll tell you they’re boon and comfort, bringing you a bowl of hot puddin’ when the frost’s at your window, save you from being carted off to the workhouse to die with the other widows. I tell you that’s so much cod.
‘A stupid boy is more useful than a quick-witted girl. He works harder and brings more money in the house. Do you see a girl driving a train or running a station? And why do you think that is? They’re idiots, that’s why. Girls are only useful at getting themselves into trouble.
‘I tell you this, since I was a little girl I’ve seen men make iron and dig out coal and build bridges, while I scrubbed the front step and cleaned filthy arses. I’d rather have been a man for a day than a woman all my life.
‘And you flapping your mouth when you should know to shut up only proves what I say. Make me a fresh cup of tea. This is cold.’
From that day on Daisy thought often about being the only Critchlow girl among so many boys. It hadn’t always been that way. Queenie had survived eleven pregnancies and five of them had been girls, with Daisy being the eldest.
She remembered all of her sisters – at least she had memories that belonged to more than one tiny corpse. Sometimes they would pop into her mind unexpectedly, bobbing to the surface as she peeled carrots or tipped the damp tea leaves onto the ashes, as if dead babies were corks set to float on a pond. One of her sisters – she couldn’t remember the name and knew better than to ask Queenie – was still born, small enough to have a boot for a coffin. Another would’ve filled her sewing box if she emptied the tray of pins and needles.
The only sister Daisy properly remembered was the last, Constance. She’d lived for five months and had a smile like a wedge of red apple. The little fists had grabbed at Daisy’s fingers as she counted piggies, and Constance watched and giggled, and tried to suck the ones that got away. But then the baby didn’t notice when Daisy counted piggies, turned her eyes to the wall as if seeing something no one else could. And on the morning Queenie found her grey in her cot, Constance was bundled in sacking and left on the kitchen table like so much dirty laundry until the man in the smart black suit and tall hat came to take her away.
When Barty arrived two years later, Daisy was terrified. Queenie would beat her for hiding him in the coal hole in an apple crate, for laying him on a shawl under her bed. But as far as Daisy could see Critchlow babies were born to die and it was down to her to hide the little thing from whatever it was that took them away. It didn’t occur to her that she and her five older brothers had all been Critchlow babies once. Day after day she’d held the plump fist and waited. But instead of dying, Barty grew round and pink and blew shining bubbles of spit that made him blink when they exploded across his cheeks.
Barty always stayed close. He’d sit on the floor and play with bobbins, gnawing apples as she scrubbed the kitchen table, her hands pink from the lye. At other times she would sit him on the doormat and he would try to stack pebbles and catch unwary ladybirds as she washed the front windows. As he grew, it was Daisy he ran to when he cut his knee or took a black eye from the neighbours’ boy.
And it was windows Daisy was cleaning on the day Florence first walked down Rotten Row.