‘What is the clamour, Mercy dear?’
My boss at the milliner’s, Miss Flint, had appeared on the pavement behind me, stern as a figurehead, eyeglasses wedged on her bulbous nose. She pongs of rotting feathers and mothballs like any hat maker, but when I brush against her what I smell most is Macchione the organ grinder, though that last could be my fancy. Miss Flint says that what passes through my head would be better to stay there, as most of it ain’t respectable.
‘Don’t know, Miss Flint,’ I said, which was the truth.
The ruckus was not of the day-to-day variety; usually between breakfast and supper, there’s not a thing that will stir Miss Jessie Flint from her workroom, her stool and her stitching. Polly says that if the Good Lord came calling, Miss Flint would ask if he could take a pew while the tea mashed and she tied off a ribbon or made fast an edging.
‘Is that sword swallower back? Feeble-minded way to earn a crust, that.’ Polly was in the doorway, her apron stuck with needles trailing coloured thread, sleeves prickling with pins, like a startled hedgehog in a rope corset. There was a hat in her fist so confused with net and bugle beads that the glass-eyed hummingbird quivering on the brim would scarce be able to stretch its stumpy wings. If it weren’t dead as a doornail, that is.
Miss Flint scowled. ‘Polly, why are you out here gaping? Mrs Younger’s touring hat will be steeped in drizzle and have a waft of the chophouse when you’re done. Must I alter her bill of sale to explain that the fug of red beef and a hint of the Thames are included in the seven and six charge?’
Polly smiled, showing teeth blackened by years of smoking a daily pipe of navy cut. ‘I’ve got ta put you right there,’ said Polly, ‘on account of the sun shining and there being no hint of wet. Also, the breeze’ll blow out the whiff of last night’s mutton, which is worse than an undertaker’s parlour in July.’ She knocked me with her spiky elbow. ‘Anyhow, Mercy’s watching.’
Miss Flint crossed her arms so tight I was sure she’d burst her stay lace. ‘Mind your cheek, Miss. Mercy is on the street to sell what you make and if she fails, we all go hungry.’
That’s me, by the by, Mercy Lynch, She-Barker. I’ll collar anyone passing‒ toffs or Haymarket Hectors, ladies or night flowers‒ give them a bit of patter and send them on their way fuddled as new-borns, juggling bonnets and toppers with pockets many shillings the lighter.
‘Must the entire staff of Flint and Flint stand on the street like costers? Mr Turnbull will rub his hands to think that we have so little custom,’ sighed Miss Flint.
‘Old man Turnbull’s nosing too,’ said Polly. And there, across the street, was Mr Alfred Turnbull Esq, Milliner to Ladies of Quality, standing on an orange box, shirtsleeves rolled back to scabby elbows. ‘Curious happenings,’ said Polly. ‘I know. Oi, Bill! What’s ‘appening?’ A bill-sticker was watching the to-do, leaning on his cross pole, gluepots swinging at his hip. Polly calls all the bill-stickers ‘Bill’, and strange to say every one answers to the name.
‘Eviction from Paradise,’ he shouted, scratching his nose with a brush handle. ‘There’s a Ma, a babe in arms, and six‒ mebbe seven‒ barefoot scraps in tow.’
‘Ah,’ said the three of us.
Little Paradise is a rookery crushed between Cranbourne and Bear Street with roofs so low you must palm your hat or lose it, alleyways so dark, narrow, and thick with trapped smoke your outstretched hand will vanish as if sliced off at the wrist. You’d think the Fleet’s been channelled over the roof, looking at the filthy water that runs down the walls, at the mud and rotting stuff that slides under your boots. The whole mess would fall towards Leicester Square if the landlords hadn’t wedged joists against the walls. They remind me of dying men held up by crutches. Little Paradise ain’t the Old Nichol, but it makes me thankful for my pallet bed and for a bowlful of eel stew to warm on the range.
Some gents waiting on repairs had filled Hawdon’s Tailors and Outfitters’ narrow doorway, their borrowed coats striped like humbugs. Mr Hawdon, a froglike chap with a greasy baldpate, stayed crooked over his work, the only soul on Cranbourne Alley whose head wasn’t turned. Delivery boys buzzed round, stumbling into the road, unmindful of ruts, horse apples and an unhappy-seeming constable. Then a dray shouldered through, the boys skipping left and right as giant horse hooves threatened to mash one after another.
A lopsided version of ‘Daisy Bell’ started from a handbarrow organ, jumbling with the cry of a wink man. ‘Fresh periwinkles- Daisy– a penny a pint- crazy…’
‘Ooh, look, Miss Flint, if it ain’t Mr Macchione,’ shouted Polly, pointing at the organist. She caught me again with her elbow, my arm stinging from the pins.
Miss Flint reddened. ‘Enough of that! The spectacle’s over.’
She was right. The winkles and the organ grinder’s string puppets had lured away the boys, the gents had returned to their waiting. The family from Little Paradise vanished before I even saw them. I wondered where they’d sleep: St Martin’s workhouse? Under a damp railway bridge?
‘Back to work,’ said Miss Flint. Perhaps she fluttered a lash at Macchione, but that could just be my fancy again. As she followed a chattering Polly into the shop, she turned, saying, ‘There’s a mourning bonnet that was home to a family of mice ‘til an hour ago. It’s half price, so look out for widow’s weeds.’
I breathed deeply. ‘Bonnets! Bonnets! Parasols to shield the sun from faces fair!’
Images of chattering teeth, of goose pimples raised in the damp shadow of Waterloo Bridge were my close companions until well past sunset.
Then each day, nominate another blogger to carry on this challenge.
Accepting the challenge is entirely up to the person nominated, it is not a command. Today, I’m inviting bluechickenninja to join the challenge.