THE SEAMSTRESS WAS indeed called Nelly but she preferred the name Annie. Sitting next to Annie, then, was Nell’s pastime for the next week or more, and as Mr Sharp had said, it didn’t take long to master her skills. Mastery was one thing, however, being quick at the work was another. Speed was the essence when it came to sewing tunics: Nell could finish only one to Annie’s three, and her limbs, unlike Nell’s, never seemed weary. Her constitution was good, as it needed to be. She was a raw-boned girl with a large head and thick-set rounded features, a creature whose voice was melodiously gritty and whose large hazel eyes were unusually bright. Here, in her squalid garret, the high born Nell and her low born companion lived on equal terms.
In some ways Annie reminded her of Betty, and those spells of intimacy with her old maid made it easier to rub along. Nell found her more amusing than pitiful. Her fingers were creased and gnarled, her thimble finger so bent that when she pointed at one thing Nell mistook it for another somewhere else in the room. ‘Fetch more thread,’ she’d say, pointing not at the shelf on the whitewashed wall but at the bucket where she’d shamelessly squat to piss, never bothering to draw the curtain. And yet the last laugh lay with Annie, for those fingers, twisted as they were, had hardened to supple wood over the years, while Nell’s novice extremities bled with the strain, and the colour of her blood matched well the Gloucester-dyed hue of the cloth.
‘The tunics are red, to hide the blood,’ said Annie, though it didn’t seem to worry her: she’d no time for sentimentality, only time to earn her victuals and feed her infant son, whose cradle she rocked by a chord attached to her bare foot. Sometimes, less humane by far, she’d hang his wriggling form on the wall in a wicker basket, like a highwayman at the crossroads in miniature. She called him Baby Jack, and Nell wondered at his short life all the way from swaddling clothes to grave clothes, with caging and pickling too if his luck was extra bad. And misfortune for poor boys like him included the battlefields in the vast and distant Americas where men were dying every day.
‘Soldiers bleed, soldiers die, and we make the uniforms for them to do it in,’ said Nell, pricking herself right on cue, scarlet for scarlet.
It wasn’t for the likes of Annie to question, Nell neither, she said, if she knew what was good for her, and who was Nell to say she was wrong? She thought of Mr Sharp whose single cause was enough, how the world’s problems were too many for one pair of shoulders to bear. Her own were bearing enough, more than they’d ever borne, more than they’d expected to bear even in her darkest dreams. But this was reality, not the comfort of her dreaming bed; it was London in the seventeenth year of good King George III. She’d glimpsed him in his gold coach the other day and thought of her father. She’d felt no servility, no awe in the passing presence of her monarch. What did he care that she went cold and hungry? – had little hope that life could get any better? He was in his palace and she was in her garret. Yes, hers now, for her time with Annie was passed and they’d said their fond farewells. ‘Adieu,’ she’d said, with a last glance at the baby on the wall. ‘I hope I’ve made a friend in you both. It seems we shall be neighbours,’ for true to his word Mr Sharp had found her a room nearby. He’d come to collect her, standing in the doorway with a nosegay. ‘Such a fine gent,’ Annie had whispered, ‘but why the flowers? – is the smell so bad? – is it me?’
No use telling what she already knew, and what Nell’s nose had grown accustomed to. Besides, she was more concerned at the activist’s news. He’d thought her ungrateful when she’d asked presumptuously, ‘A place of my own, you say? But not in the parish of St Giles?’
‘No, Helen,’ he’d said, guessing her thoughts, ‘in Spitalfields. There’s plenty of space between you and Olu if that’s what you wish.’
What she wished, was that he’d never mentioned her name. Olu’s name was like her father’s and Joe’s – it only added to her hardship. The way to manage best was to treat them as dead, expect nothing in the way of happiness. There seemed little chance of that, as the cold wind whistled through the cracks in the wooden walls and ceiling, rattled the doors and the sorry slits that passed for windows. Nell pulled her shawl close round her shoulders and went on with her labours. The pains of sewing, the search for that nugget of pleasure that pain was said to hold. Elusive so far, a Spitalfieds Eldorado like all pleasure in London’s slums. She must sing for it like her supper, and whistle while she worked; her only prize a bent finger that pointed like a finger of the dead. Keep stitching till her brain began to swim, stitch, stitch with eyes so heavy and dim. Dreaming of the thread, the buttons, sewing them on in the sleep she couldn’t afford. ‘Work on girl,’ said the Jewish merchant, Mr Tinker, when he brought the cloth. ‘There are orders to be met, so look to your gussets, eh? – those seams and bands. Those hems, collars and cuffs. All neat and tidy, eh?’ he’d add with insinuating grin.
And so each minute was the same. In the weeks and months to come she worked alone twelve, sometimes sixteen hours every day, more often than not in the iron cold. She stitched herself into a frenzy, she stitched herself so numb that the past became a blur. In the evenings she’d revive a little, begin to live anew – not a whole life, but a half life, a life between two nowheres, a life – there was Olu again! – in the space between. Though she’d often be working still, Mr Strong was there to keep her company. He came so often that he asked to share her room, cramped as it was, and its rent of a shilling a week. Only that morning Mr Sharp had railed about the profligacy, the debauchery, the immorality of modern London which took his honest breath away. But needs must, thought Nell, no matter what the great man might think. Two could live as cheaply as one, he’d be no trouble, he would help with the meals and the errands, so up the stairs he came that night with his truckle bed.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2