Daisy was washing windows the day Florence first walked along Rotten Row.
She was standing on one of the kitchen chairs, washing the windows. Water formed grey rivulets down the glass, carrying specks of coal to puddles on the sill. Had those smuts come far? From the coalfields of Woodhorn, Vane Tempest or Monkwearmouth? Peculiar names for places she would never see. Whatever distance they travelled, the coal dust dropped from the viaduct in fat drops of water ‒ or when the wind blew hard along the house fronts, in a fine mist ‒ coating the glass until looking out was like peering through a widow’s veil.
The street always seemed more interesting reflected in the window – the same world but distorted by ripples. She saw Mrs Dobson’s sagging front wall, buddleia exploding from the guttering in purple fountains. And Mrs Gordon’s clothes horse with her red flannel drawers, warning flags snapping in the wind. Daisy thought they looked cheerful – the red against sooty grey stone – though Queenie disapproved of women showing their underwear to the street, even if it was only to get it dry.
That day, Daisy glimpsed a woman’s hat. It wasn’t the kind of hat Ida would wear – all tousled ribbon curls, wax cherries and stuffed house martins. This was spotless emerald felt, a velvet ribbon band cinched with a silver buckle. Daisy had always thought hats like that were made to sit in the milliner’s window, a hint of what the well off in London or Bath or the decent parts of Manchester wore. A world so clean and smart and comfortable, the folk on the Row couldn’t even imagine it.
Daisy so wanted to see who owned such a beautiful thing, she turned quickly, the thin sole of her boot slipping on the damp wood. She wobbled, grabbed the window frame, water splashing from the bucket over her toes. In the glass she glimpsed her brother Albert’s mousey hair, the pink Critchlow ears that stood from his head like jug handles. He was just twenty, the only one of her older brothers still at home.
Albert was a scruffy lad. Shirts never stayed tucked in when he wore them, cuffs always frayed. His clothes always needed more darning and patching than the rest of the boys put together. To see him with a spotless collar, hair parted and slick … It was as miraculous as if she’d seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.
The girl on Bertie’s arm was pale, without a single freckle, her cheeks flushed, though not with the ruddy puce of an afternoon in the snug. Daisy was fascinated. Every woman on the Row had soot ingrained in her complexion, dulling her hair, as if always cast in shadow.
As the couple passed through the front door, the girl muttered,
‘Missed a bit,’ and smiled from under her tipped brim, showing a row of straight white teeth.
That afternoon over tea and fruitcake with Queenie, Daisy learned that Florence Matthews was twenty-two and a dressmaker’s assistant. Her father was the purser on a White Star liner called the SS Majestic, though he’d begun working on ships at the age of sixteen as a stoker. Daisy had noticed that as the older Critchlow boys went into the railway as train drivers and guardsmen and signalmen, their wives also came from railway families. The girls who took up with her brothers who had carpenters or draymen for fathers were never invited into the parlour, rarely visited more than twice and were never, ever offered an engagement ring. Queenie said that as her grandsons came kicking into the world, she wanted to see each breathing out steam and sucking on coal. Daisy hoped that a ship’s stoker was a job filled with enough smoke and filth to be classed as an honourary railwayman.
After Albert and Florence left, Daisy busied herself clearing the plates and brushing crumbs from the tablecloth. Queenie sat in her red velvet chair, stroking the nap back and forth with her fingertips.
‘What do you think of her?’ Queenie asked.
Daisy stacked the plates on the tray. ‘She has very fine manners.’
Queenie nodded. ‘She ate your cake with her gloves on.’
Daisy picked at the cloth for imaginary crumbs. ‘White kid gloves.’ That was another thing that Daisy had never seen on the Row. People only wore good gloves to funerals and those were always black.
Queenie put her feet up on the low stool. ‘Got airs, than one. Eating with her gloves on … And that hat. There’s more than a month’s wages there. Albert’s lucky there’s no such thing as a debtors’ gaol anymore – she’d have him banged up in three years flat.’
Daisy looked at Queenie’s velvet chair, the chenille throw tucked in around her knees. If she took them to Hawkin’s pawn shop down by the canal, how much would he give her? Enough to buy brisket for the week? Enough sausages for next week too?
Daisy didn’t care how much the hat cost. All she remembered was the way Florence had rested her hand on Albert’s arm when he’d said something clever. ‘She loves him.’
Queenie slurped the last of her tea and nodded. ‘You’re right. Fancy a dormouse like you seeing that.You been reading newspapers again? I’ll have to find you more work to do. Well,’ she said, pushing off her boots and wriggling her toes, ‘let him have his fancy Miss. If her father can make purser I shall expect no less than station master for Albert within ten years. Another cup of tea, Daise, and be careful how you wash that service. I don’t want chips in my roses because you’re busy daydreaming.’