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Jane May

Lizzie's London

CHAPTER ONE
November 1920
The Isle of Dogs, London

Bert Allen's big jaw drooped open, his eyes red and unfocused. 'We just come from the pub, Ma. Got a bit 'eld up on the way 'cos Vinnie took ill, like. Something upset him he said – them eels, he thinks it was.'
'I'll give you eels - he's pissed!' Kate Allen glared at the prostrate body of seventeen-year-old Vincent Allen sprawled across the landing. His mouth gaped open, a gurgle coming from the back of his throat. 'Look at his face!' exclaimed Kate before Bert could reply. 'It ain't turned that colour from eating eels. He's had another bashing by the looks of it.'
'Yeah, he looks a bit peaky, don't he?' Bert agreed vaguely.
'Peaky? Peaky!' spluttered Kate. 'He's bleedin' unconscious!'
Bert clutched his cloth cap, turning it over nervously in his fingers. 'Well, yer, I s'pose you might say he is.'
Kate shook her head wearily. 'God in heaven give me patience. What have I brought into this world?' She looked back at her son and sighed deeply.
Bert's fifteen-year-old sister, Lizzie, appeared from a doorway, rubbing her knuckles in her eyes as she stood shivering in her nightdress. 'What's the matter, Ma? What's 'appened to Vin?'
'That's what I'd like to know,' Kate muttered grimly. 'But I'm not likely to get any sense out of the bugger tonight.' Kate reached out to support herself on the banister. 'What am I going to say to yer father, this time?'
'It were an accident, Ma,' Bert protested lamely. 'You know what our Vin's like. A bit 'igh spirited when he's had a few, that's all.'
'High spirits? Is that what you call it - ' Kate stopped and placed her hand on her heart as the colour drained from her face.
'What's the matter, Ma? Ain't you feeling well?' Lizzie took hold of her mother's hand and the rough, thin fingers tightened over her own.
'It was running up those stairs like that,' Kate croaked. 'I'll be all right when I get back to bed. Bert…Bert…take me arm will you?'
Bert stepped across his brother and gently took his mother's weight. Slowly the three of them went down the stairs and turned into the passage below.
‘What's going on out there?' roared a voice from the front room. Bert pushed open the door. In the pale gaslight his father lay on a large iron bedstead, his grey hair standing up in tufts, his small eyes narrowed under gauzy cataracts.
'It's only us, Pa,' Bert said, reluctant to enter the room.
'I know it ain't Father sodding Christmas,' cursed Tom Allen, dressed in a pair of long Johns, though no legs filled the garment since the ends were drawn up and pinned to his waist. He supported himself by his muscular forearms, lifting his torso and the two small stumps in front of him in an agitated jerk. 'Well?' he demanded once more. 'I asked yer a question, yer great useless lump!'
'Ma had one of her faintin' spells.' Lizzie answered swiftly, giving Bert the eye to keep quiet. 'We're just 'elping her back to bed, Pa.'
'And in the morning I’ll 'elp you lot to me belt,' Tom Allen growled as his wife sank down on the pillow with a sigh.
'Leave the kids be for now, Tom. They mean no harm.'
'I know where I’d like to leave the bloody lot of 'em,' he grunted, frowning up at his children. 'Now if I hear another sound, I'm coming up there and taking me belt to you all, legs or no legs. And don’t you forget, Lizzie gel, we're up first thing for the market.'
Eager to leave the room, Lizzie tugged her brother's arm. 'Night Ma, night Pa.' Once in the passage, she sighed. 'You're daft, you are, Bert Allen. Ain't you got no sense at all in that wapping great 'ead of yours? I ask you, going on about eels, what good was that?'
Bert looked down at his muddy boots. His big shoulders slumped, his head bowed. 'Vin told me to fink of a good story,' he told her sheepishly.
'Well, he must've forgot that thinking ain't exactly a natural state for you,' Lizzie answered sharply, pushing her brother ahead.
'Do yer fink Ma's gonna be all right?' Bert asked anxiously as they went up the stairs, treading softly on the boards.
'Dunno. She ain't been feeling herself lately. And I don't suppose it helps being dragged from bed at this time of night, does it?' Lizzie shivered in her thin nightdress wishing she was back in bed with her three sisters, oblivious to the problems her brothers had caused.
At the top of the stairs, Bert stood still, trying to modulate his deep voice. 'Vin was on a bender. I tried to stop him but he wouldn't have none of it. The next thing I know, Terry Baxter's tellin' me that Vin's in a fight out the back. Terry said he saw three of 'em scarpering off.'
'Fine friend that Terry is, then, if he had to come running to you for help,' Lizzie replied angrily.
'Oh, Terry ain't a bad sort,' Bert said in their friend's defence. 'Yer know what Vin is like lately. He's got 'imself in deep with that bookie, Mik Ferreter. Terry has a few bets now and then, but he ain't into runnin' professionally like our Vin.'
'Professionally, my foot! Bert, you want yer brains tested. Being a bookie's runner ain't a job, it's just asking for trouble and sooner or later, Vin's going to get it. I just hope you ain't impressed by all this, Bert Allen.' Lizzie said sternly.
Bert hung his head. 'Don't harp on at me, Lizzie. I do me best.'
Lizzie sighed as they stared down at the cause of the family's trouble. 'No, I ain't having a go at you, Bert. When all is said and done, yer probably saved him a worse bashing. You better get 'im to bed and I'll get something to clean up with.'
Bert nodded. 'I'll sort out 'is mess, gel. Leave it ter me.'
Lizzie watched Bert bend down and with one meaty hand, haul Vinnie over his shoulder. Brute strength and ignorance, she thought to herself as she watched Vinnie's dangling arms disappear along the landing. Poor old Bert, always dragged in to help when Vinnie was in a scrape. Selfish and greedy, that was Vinnie all right. Not that her mother had been able to refuse the money he had provided over the past weeks; with business up the market being so slack, it was all that had kept them in food and had paid the rent.
Lizzie tiptoed downstairs to the scullery and squeezed past the pre-war bathchair and its detachable tray on which were displayed the ribbons and souvenirs that were her father's meagre livelihood. Stepping past it, she lifted the pail that stood by the back door and filled it with water. Back upstairs she lowered the pail to the boards. There was no sign of Bert. She went along to the boys' bedroom and pushed open the door. Bert lay beside his brother on the big double bed, fully dressed, boots sticking up like tombstones. Despite his injuries, Vinnie snored loudly and Bert was no longer in the land of the living.
Lizzie returned to the landing and began to clean up the vomit. It was more trouble than it was worth to rouse either of her brothers. As usual, it was quicker to repair the damage herself.

London was crisp and icy the following morning. A sepia light filled the freezing scullery as Lizzie turned on the lamp and drew on the clothes that she had folded onto the chair last night. Kindling the fire under the boiler she poured water into the tin kettle, warming her hands before cutting the bread and setting out the mugs for breakfast.
The path to the wooden shed in the back yard was covered in frost. Sitting on the cold lavatory seat, she left the door wide open and shivered as she gazed up at the stars still lighting the sky. With luck, it would be a fine, dry day and business would be brisk at Cox Street market. Then Lizzie thought of Vinnie and her spirits sank. What trouble was he in now? Deciding she had enough to worry about without adding Vinnie's problems to the list, she completed her ablutions, washing her face and hands in the freezing water kept in the bowl by the mangle. Now it was time to wake her father.
Lizzie held her breath, allowing the smell of Naphtha to flow out into the passage before she entered. The chemical was distributed free at the local park each week and used to keep the bugs and mice at bay. Once acclimatised to the odour, Lizzie pushed the bathchair beside the bed and Tom Allen woke with a groan as she parted the heavy curtains. In silence, she helped him lower his two stumps over the edge of the bed, the movement bringing her mother awake.
'Wait, Lizzie.' Kate climbed wearily from the bed. 'I'll help yer get 'im into the chair. You'll do yer back in if yer try it on yer own.'
'I'll manage, Ma, yer couldn't have got much sleep last night.'
'Oh, I'm all right, lov.' Kate wound her long grey streaked hair onto her neck and pulled a shawl around her shoulders. 'Let's get your father seen to.'
As usual, Tom complained throughout the performance and it was not until he was washed, shaved and dressed and they were seated at the table in the scullery that Lizzie saw how sick her mother looked.
Kate poured tea from the pot into three enamel mugs and spread a layer of dripping over the slices of bread. 'Eat up, you two. You won't get much more before the day's out.'
'Why don't yer go back to bed, Ma? Babs could stay home from work and get Jessie and Flo off to school,' Lizzie suggested.
'Aw, stop fussing,' Kate scolded. 'Anyone would think I'm on me last legs.'
'It's them buggers upstairs that's the cause of the trouble,' muttered Tom, pushing himself away from the table, his bread and dripping uneaten. 'They treat this house like a bloody lodgings. I tell yer, I've had enough of it. If they can't abide by the rules of this house they can clear out.'
'I'll get yer coat and scarf, Pa,' Lizzie said quickly, catching her mother's look of dismay at the threat in his voice.
'And wrap up warm,' Kate called after her. 'I don't want yer both coming down with pneumonia. And who knows, if the weather holds, yer might have a good day up Poplar and we can settle the rent with old Symons when he calls on Friday.'
A remark that didn't make Tom Allen any the happier as, swathed in coats, scarves and mittens they left the house and Lizzie began the long push from Cubitt Town to Cox Street market.
The beautiful features of the young woman were enhanced by a soft smile as she drew the pink silk tails through delicately gloved fingers. 'How much are these ribbons?' she asked in a refined accent.
'A penny's worth there, Miss.' Lizzie gazed up, fascinated by the aura of wealth, the heart shaped face and smooth peach skin. 'They'd look lovely on you.'
'Do you think so? They are very pretty.'
'Off yer go, gel.' Tom Allen gave his daughter a nudge. 'Stop staring at the customers and go and find Dickie for me. Tell him to come up for a chat if he's done all his business.'
Lizzie was absorbed by the pale blue wool coat, the velvet hat with an upturned brim, the spotless gloves and peaches and cream complexion.
Tom Allen pulled down his scarf with an irritable jerk. 'Ain't yer awake yet, gel? Did yer hear what I said?'
'Yes, Pa.' Lizzie glanced one last time at their customer and walked away. She liked serving the customers, but it wasn't often she got the chance. Mostly she pushed the chair or ran errands. Dicki Potts was an old friend of her father's who sold newspapers on the corner of Cox Street and, as usual, Lizzie was dispatched to find him.
'Mornin' Lizzie!' Fat Freda waved from the veg stall. The market place was bustling, heads crowding over the freshest goods.
'Morning Freda.' Lizzie soon forgot her worries. 'Ow's business?'
'Not bad, lov. You done much yet?'
'Me Pa's got his first customer.'
'Enough brass monkeys for you?' Danny Flowers called from across the street, warming his hands over his barrow piled high with chestnuts. 'Come and have a warm up.'
'Can't yet, Danny. I'll come over later.'
'You make sure yer do.' Danny Flowers, tall, fair and handsome, winked as he tilted his cap. 'Me day don't start till you come over and have a chat.'
'Get on with you, you saucy bugger,' called Fat Freda from behind her stall. 'Leave the poor girl alone. She ain't got time to spend with the likes of you, silly sod.'
Lizzie laughed, but she caught Danny's eye again as she waved, pushing her way through the crowd. On the corner of the street Dickie Potts was counting his change and totting up the morning's sales.
'Where's yer Dad, Lizzie?' Dickie grinned displaying big brown, horse-like teeth. 'Ain't he sellin' round this way?'
'He's got a customer,' Lizzie told him, 'a pretty one. We're gonna stay up that end a bit today, I think.'
'Well, whoever she is, she ain't as pretty as you, Lizzie Allen. You looks like Mata 'Ari, that's what I always thinks to meself. You're gonna break all them boys 'earts one day. All that black hair and green eyes. Blimey, if I was twenty years younger I'd be after yer meself.' Dickie's grin grew wider. 'No bleeding legs and your father 'as all the women swooning over him. I wish he'd tell me his secret, gel. I'd saw me legs off too if I thought it'd do for me what it done for him.'
Lizzie wasn't offended by Dickie's remarks, for he too was a disabled war veteran. He had grown up on the Island and had survived Flanders, carrying the mustard gas in his chest that had ended the short lives of most of his regiment.
'Get a butchers at this.' Dickie lowered a newspaper and Lizzie was able to read the headlines. Like Dickie, her father didn't believe the printed word, but he wanted to hear the lies all the same and by the time the afternoon came, they would have chewed over almost every article in the paper.
Lizzie knew that the war had changed their beliefs, as it had millions of others who had survived and lived to tell the tale. The government's words, her father said, were at variance to its deeds. He'd heard all their promises and been the victim of the broken ones. No one came to relieve him or his mates in the trenches; from the minute he woke in hospital and saw his two stumps, he knew no one would help him and the promised acre of land and pig was a myth.
'Foch Salutes Warrior!' Spittle glistened on Dickie's quivering lips. 'Six blokes, six poor sods who had their faces blown off and nothing much else left besides. And one of 'em to end up in Whitehall on Armistice Day, would yer believe? It's a bloody mockery, that's what it is. Nothing's gonna bring them poor buggers back.'
Next week the Unknown British Soldier was travelling in his coffin from France to be buried in Westminster Abbey. The pints that were pulled then, the union men said, would be consumed with anger and bitterness by the working classes. The pubs would turn out the ex-servicemen and the unemployed, every one of them disillusioned with their meagre lot.
'Foch's sending over one 'undred sandbags of French earth. They're gonna line the grave with it. French earth or British, what does it matter? All earth's got worms, don't matter where it comes from. The maggots'll get a belly-full just the same. It ain't going to matter to the corpse, is it?'
Lizzie shuddered wondering if what some folk whispered of Dickie, was true. The belief was that he read the newspapers he sold over and over again, his mind hungry for whatever he could find to feed the appetite created by his terrifying experiences. 'Saw 'undreds o' worms, I did, saw 'em crawlin' over torsos and limbs, burrowin' their way inside flesh and bone. Worms has filthy 'abits. Worms ain't fussed wevver it's the Bosch or the Allies.' Dickie cackled lewdly. 'All rot tastes the same.'
A shiver went down Lizzie's spine. Sometimes Dickie gave her the creeps, but her father said there was no harm in him, just that the gas had taken over part of his mind.
'Then there's this,' said Dickie suddenly changing tack as he stabbed a filthy finger at the paper 'A big burglary up West. They coshed a night watchman and got away with two 'undred quids worth of stuff from a jewellers. One of 'em was seen by a passer-by. They think they can trace him with a bit of luck. Two 'undred smackers in one night, more n' I make in a lifetime.' Lizzie's mind was still on maggots until she realised Dickie had forgotten the subject of the Unknown Warrior and was off at a tangent. 'Big, 'e was, a bloody big bloke.' Dickie licked his lips thoughtfully. 'Says 'ere over six foot. Gotta big 'ed and long arms. Like a bleedin' great gorilla.'
Lizzie thought about Bert. He had a big head and long arms. 'When was it?' she asked, not wanting to hear the answer.
'Thursday,' Dickie read, 'in the wee small hours.'
Bert and Vinnie had been out on Thursday night. She recalled her mother's words as she had chased up the stairs. The second night on the trot.
Dickie folded away his paper and stuffed it in his pocket. He lifted his large bag over his shoulder. 'Come on then, gel. Lead the way.'
Lizzie walked through the market in a daze as Dickie's voice went in one ear and out the other.

Islander At War

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