With apologies for leaving Daisy to scuff around Rotten Row on her own for so long …
The Sunday the family christened the replacement dinner service, Queenie beamed like a fog lamp the whole day. She was especially polite to Florence – asking after her mother, praising the silk camellia on her lapel – who remained pale and quiet throughout the steak pudding and gravy. Daisy had waited impatiently for the meal to be over, keen to get Florence alone in the kitchen to ask how she and Albert had afforded a new service so quickly. But Florence had stayed in the parlour, staring at the skirting board as the sisters-in-law discussed croup and the efficacy of morphine drops for ailing toddlers.
Daisy washed the bone white plates alone.
The first of the Critchlow boys to die was George, the eldest of the twins by twenty-five minutes.
Even as an old woman, Daisy always thought of George each time she saw a daffodil, because though he died at the beginning of April, winter had stayed late and hard and the golden trumpets were only then breaking through their paper husks.
It seemed George had finished his shift as usual and walked down the hill from the station into the centre of the town, straight into Dawkin’s hardware shop. He bought a shoe brush, a tin of beeswax and a ten foot length of fine rope. Mr Dawkins told the police that George had said little but was polite, as he would expect from any of the Critchlow brothers. The shopkeeper had thought nothing of his purchases or the lack of conversation – none of the boys were great talkers.
George was found under the old bridge at Hawton at five-thirty the next morning by a woman scrubbing the tracks for fallen coals. The surgeon couldn’t count how many of his bones had broken in the fall, although as Daisy laid him out, she could testify that his snub-nosed features remained perfectly smooth and untouched aside from a flap of skin three inches long that had opened up along his chin. At the coroner’s court, the verdict was suicide by hanging, the rope being unable to support his broad frame. The fresh brush and tin of beeswax were found at the base of a nearby oak tree. Beside them, his boots ‒ freshly polished.
George’s death was commented on very little at home. Queenie hung a photograph of him next to his father, with a ribbon of crinkled black crepe across the corner. His widow, Mavis, still came to Sunday lunch with her two children, all through her mourning – from black wool through grey and violet. She and her children would huddle together, sleeves rustling against each other as they pushed scraps of beef and potato around their plates for an hour before excusing themselves, drifting from the house as quietly as they had drifted in.
The only other member of the family apart from Daisy who truly missed George was his twin, William. For months after his brother’s passing, William grew paler with every visit, a little thinner. When the twins had lived at home, they had been the most boisterous, the ones most likely to be fighting, the ones most likely to be laughing. Now William slipped in and out of the house silently, barely disturbing the air around him. Each Sunday, Daisy tried to make the food he liked ‒ brawn, tripe and onions, one week she boiled a pig’s head ‒ until Queenie complained she’d never liked offal and didn’t see why she should be force-fed a slaughter house worth every week in her own home. Whatever Daisy served made little difference ‒ William merely picked at his plate like an invalid unused to anything more solid than beef tea.
When he succumbed to pneumonia no one seemed surprised. Queenie said one afternoon over tea as she folded another length of black crepe, that William was best gone because his heart had died with George.
After the incident with the dinner service, Florence gradually returned to herself. Albert would still shoot her warning looks when she became too gossipy and Florence would pretend she hadn’t them and carry on as usual. Daisy was relieved to have her friend back. She had missed Queenie spluttering into her tea as Florence recounted what the fishmonger had done with the coalman’s daughter.
One Sunday afternoon, when the washing up was nearly done and Florence’s hands were as pink as boiled hams from the water, she said to Daisy, ‘Your Ma doesn’t like me much.’ Her words were flat and colourless, a statement not a question.
Daisy returned the last plate to the dresser before she replied. ‘Queenie doesn’t warm to anyone. Not even her own children. Not even her own grandchildren. She likes you as well as she likes any of us.’
Florence smiled. ‘I can see the gears whirring in your head before you speak. All those things you think before you say a single word.’ She shook her head. ‘My words are out before I know I’ve thought them. You’re good at being kind.’
Heat rose from Daisy’s collarbone to her chin. She folded the tea towel and hung it carefully on the back of a chair, smoothing out the creases before she could bring herself to say any more. ‘Queenie has a way of … making people do what she wants. And you’re no good at doing what you’re told.’
Florence closed her eyes, as if concentrating. ‘Do you know how I imagine your Ma? I thought it the night I broke the plates, as I lay in bed with my face puffed from crying and Albert so angry he’d shouted himself quiet. She’s a spider. A big, bloated mother spider, sat in her web. Her legs are stretched wide on the silk, waiting for any tug or jiggle.’
Daisy felt a flutter bloom in her chest, a jittery, tingling feeling as if that giant spider was dancing from rib to rib, spinning its web across the inside of her chest, bundling up first one lung then another. She tried to smile. ‘You do have such queer notions. If Queenie’s the giant spider, then what are we?’
Florence opened her eyes. ‘Why, we’re flies of course. Tiny gnats and fat bluebottles, and we can’t escape, no matter how we struggle, for she feels us if we pull away. And the Critchlow sons, they’re worst off, because they’re wrapped tight like swaddled babies, unable to move, and the mother spider sucking them dry until there’s nothing left but silk and husk and a black ribbon on a picture frame.’
‘You all right, Flo?’ asked Daisy. She rested her hand on Florence’s shoulder, felt a shiver pass along her forearm.
Florence shook her head, and dragged one damp wrist across her nose. ‘I’m expecting.’
Daisy forgot the shiver, forgot the spider in her chest and threw her arms around her friend’s narrow waist, squeezing until Florence pushed her gently away. ‘That’s wonderful. I had thought … as you and Albert had been married so long …’
Flo nodded. ‘I thought there’d be no babies, too.’ She was crying now, fat drops that fell onto the bust of her dress, darkening the colour from silver to ash grey.
‘What’s to cry for?’ laughed Daisy. ‘I can knit a blanket for the baby and a shawl for you for when you’re nursing. And I’ll save bobbins, for Barty always loved to play with bobbins … Stop crying, Flo.’
Florence shook her head. ‘Another one trapped in the web.’