On Daisy’s thirteenth birthday, Queenie made an announcement.
‘You’re too big to share a bed with me anymore. Besides I can’t be doing with the rubbish you bring in. Cluttering my dressing table with feathers and snail shells and a quarry’s worth of stones.’
Under Queenie’s direction, Daisy’s brothers built two extra rooms on the back of number five Railway Cottages with soot-stained bricks they’d taken from the line after a signal box had been demolished by a runaway coal truck, and old sleepers instead of proper rafters. It meant Daisy’s new bedroom smelled of oil and smoke even before she’d lit her first fire. She’d expected her mother to be the one to move, but Queenie declared the room too close to the kitchen. She didn’t want her new chenille throw – the colour of port wine – to smell of liver and onions. Daisy didn’t mind the smell, or that the walls leaned outwards or that a dropped bobbin would roll to the same corner each time. At least she didn’t get into trouble for collecting pine cones anymore.
At that time, her little brother Barty and all five older brothers, Sidney, Albert, Cedric and the twins, George and William still slept head to toe in two beds in the middle bedroom. It seemed an alien space to Daisy, stuffed with shirt collars and long johns and a peculiar, earthy smell that made her hold her nose as she passed the door. Sometimes she wondered if the stench of men would drift along the landing and choke her as she slept. From her older brothers she learned words that Queenie didn’t think a woman should use. Every evening as she undressed for bed, Daisy would practice the words, savouring how they distorted her mouth into unfamiliar shapes.
One of Daisy’s jobs was to dust the photograph of her father that hung above the sideboard in the parlour. He’d been station manager at Barnard’s Junction for thirty years, had won commendations for his diligence and conduct and he had a grey handlebar moustache and a beard that cut a neat ‘V’ shape over his uniform. She’d learned all of this from the photograph and a clipping from the local newspaper trapped along with it under the glass – Britain’s finest railwayman dies at his post.
‘That’s all you need to know,’ Queenie always said.
Daisy only remembered his absence – if he wasn’t working he was in the Public Bar at the Railways Arms. He resembled the sailors who gathered by the dockside to smoke and pass around bottles that smelled of Christmas pudding. In her dreams he walked unsteadily, as if on board a storm-tossed ship – in the morning, Daisy always woke feeling sea-sick.
Queenie was the hub of Rotten Row. If a wife received a beating for singeing the gravy or a husband lost his wages on a nag that fell at the third, then it was Queenie who spread the news faster than a man could shout it. When Mrs Cooper put a dent in the kitchen wall with a fire iron because Mr Cooper moved quicker than he had for the previous twenty years, it was Queenie who turned up on their doorstep, telling Mrs Cooper to either get used her husband seeing the barmaid from the Bull’s Head, or get a better aim.
Every day Queenie would stand by the front door, arms crossed and if Daisy was scrubbing the hall floor or sweeping the stair carpet, she would be close enough to Queenie’s look-out post for snatches of conversation to float over the clouds of carbolic and dust.
‘Morning, Mrs Critchlow.’
‘Morning, Sarah. How’s your mother keeping?’ After a pause and the sound of retreating footsteps Queenie would call behind her ‘Says her mother’s doing well, but I saw her yesterday when the fish man came round. Yellow as a buttercup, she was. I give her a week.’
Soon another neighbour would walk by.
‘Morning Ida, you’re looking bonny, love.’
‘Ooh, thank you, Mrs Critchlow.’
Daisy listened for the click of retreating heels then,
‘Should’ve seen her, Daisy. Got another new hat, big as a chamber pot. And the stuff on it! She’s got more fruit on her than Bury market. You watch, she’ll be fat as a sow and waddling down the aisle before she’s come of age.’
Find Part One here