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Authors: Jenny Oldfield

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BOOK: After Hours
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Hettie frowned. ‘You ain't heard him, Frances.'

‘Exactly. I could kick myself. We missed him by five minutes. But you say he shows up here every Saturday?'

‘Now the weather's turned bad, yes.'

Frances took a deep breath. ‘Right, here's what we'll do. We'll wait a week. Then we'll come back early in the evening and talk to him.' She quietened Sadie's protest. ‘A week ain't long to wait after all these years. We don't say nothing before then. Not a word.'

‘But maybe we should warn Annie?' Hettie had had more time to consider this option. ‘If it was me, I think I'd want to be the first to know, not the last.'

Frances knitted her brows. ‘I don't know, Ett. What difference does a week make, like I say?'

‘And what about poor Annie? She'd be like a cat on hot bricks.' Sadie imagined how their stepmother would feel. ‘Not knowing if it really is Wiggin or not. That don't seem right.'

So Hettie gave in. She saw that it was two to one, and she trusted Frances's judgement most of all. ‘Next Saturday, then,' she agreed.

Frances and Sadie pulled on their gloves and tucked their collars up around their chins. They kissed Hettie on the cheek and she waved them goodbye, watching them brave the army of lost souls who had been locked out. Then she went back to her calling.

Chapter Six

Now every tramp in the streets of Southwark seemed to pose a threat to the happiness and security of the Parsons family. Hettie's description of ‘Wiggin' as just over five feet tall, thin, bent by age, undermined by drink, a tiny, shambling figure of a man, could be taken to include many of the more hopeless cases taking shelter under the railway arches, staggering out to beg for a few small coins.

More than once that week, gazing through the window of her chemist's shop, beyond the bright purple, blue and red carboys on display there, Frances had cause to start and wonder. An old tramp would thrust his nose up to the window, tattered grey coat hanging wide, his body wrapped in woollen rags, his trousers shiny with grease and many sizes too big. Or she would be behind her counter, sorting loofahs and sponges to size before pricing them, when she would glance up at another of these fearful sights; rheumy-eyed, skin lined and engrained with dirt, holding out a skinny hand for a close of black draught to help ease his permanent hangover. Once, a man so scared her on her evening route home, as he lurched out of a derelict shop doorway and crumpled into a heap at her feet, that she rushed on and fled upstairs to the comfortable flat she shared with Billy. There she poured out the whole story of ‘Willie Wiggin'.

Billy Wray was startled by the state his wife was in. He promised whatever help he could. They'd been married for six years, following a decent period of mourning for his first wife, Ada, and he was still devoted to Frances. Like most of the rest of the world, he put her on a pedestal, admiring her cleverness, her interest in good
causes, always respecting her opinion. For her part, Frances trusted Billy with her life, often went to him for advice, and gave wholehearted support to the workers' publications which Billy edited and composited from a back room of the Institute. He was a self-taught printer, having given over his newspaper stall on Duke Street to young Tommy O'Hagan, and he put his painstakingly acquired skill to work in support of the many new unions for shop and factory workers which were springing up in the East End. Now in his late forties, he had mellowed into a sinewy, spare-framed man; his fair hair had turned grey and thinned at the temples, but he was still very upright and smart.

He greeted Frances's distressing tale with concern, then shook his head. ‘Ain't no getting away from it, it sounds like bad news,' he told her as he brought a cup of tea from the kitchen and got her to put her feet up by the fire. ‘It's turned you into a bag of nerves for a start.' Personally he thought it unlikely that fate would push this very same tramp into a ragged heap at Frances's feet. He heard from her that a police car had pulled up at the kerbside when they spotted her in trouble, and hauled in-the vagrant for a breach of the peace. This had upset his sensitive wife all the more.

Frances sipped the tea. ‘That ain't the point though, Billy. The point is Annie and Pa. What'll this do to them if it turns out to be true? If this really is Wiggin come back after all these years?'

He sat opposite her, leaning both elbows on his knees. ‘Don't you think you owe it to Annie to let her know as soon as possible?' he asked softly.

She stared back, bit her lip and sighed. ‘Not yet, Billy. Not when it's coming up to Christmas and all. Let's wait until Saturday and we can see what's what.'

Saturday the 20th was when things would come to a head. Frances kept in close touch with Hettie by phone. On the Friday she took another call from the pub. It was eight-thirty on a cold, clear night. Hettie asked if she and George Mann could pay them a visit.

They arrived at the Institute within the half-hour. Billy shook
George's hand and showed them both up to the tasteful modem room which Frances had made into a home suitable for the respectable, childless couple they were. A valve radio stood on a sleek, veneered sideboard, with a pair of headphones hung neatly to one side. The pictures on the walls were light, modem watereolours in ash frames which Billy had made himself. The rows of books on the alcove shelves were to do with social issues such as education and family planning, or else slightly controversial modem novels, many by women.

Frances made their visitors feel at home. Billy offered to send down to the local pub for beer, but George shook his head. It seemed matters were too serious.

‘What is it, Ett?' Frances stood up and took off her steel-rimmed glasses which she'd lately taken to for reading. Her own hair was greying at the temples, but it was cut into a good, shoulder-length bob which gave her an up-to-date air. ‘It's Wiggin again, ain't it?' She dreaded the next day and their planned return to the Mission.

Hettie nodded. She nudged George's arm. ‘It's bad this time, ain't it?'

The cellarman hung his head and. studied the backs of his own broad hands, placed squarely on his widespread knees. All eyes were on him and he wished it otherwise. Reaching up to ease his necktie, he coughed. ‘I'm afraid it is.'

‘Well?' Frances's anxiety broke through in a schoolmistressy prompt.

‘I bumped into him,' George said apologetically. ‘Without intending to, you understand.'

Frances felt the stuffing go out of her. She leaned forward in her own chair. ‘Oh, George, no! What happened? Tell us, quick!'

‘It was earlier today,' George began. He felt his colour rise. Frances scared the living daylights out of him, if-the truth be known. ‘I heard the dray roll up for a delivery, and I went out to meet it.' He stared at the fawn, flowered wallpaper for inspiration. Hettie nudged him again. ‘Well, there I was lifting the barrels off the cart, and I'd just stopped for a chat with Harry Monk, the carter. We call him Harry the Priest on account of his name . . . and anyhow,
we're chatting ten to the dozen, then I turn to roll the first barrel down the slope. But instead I bump into this old heap of rag and bones. He was standing in the road, waving and going on something shocking.'

‘What was he saying?' Frances gasped. It seemed as if the old runaway had found his way to the court after all.

George breathed out through his long, straight nose. ‘Not a lot. Just a name. Annie's name. He kept shouting it over and over.'

‘And did she hear?'

‘No. I reckon she was out down the market.'

‘Let's be thankful for small mercies,' Frances breathed, composing herself by folding her hands in her lap. ‘What do you think, Ett? Does it seem like Willie Wiggin to you?'

Hettie nodded. ‘George told me the second I-got back home from the shop. Then I rang you. Course, George here didn't have a due who the old man was, and when he tells me, he's all of a puzzle about it.'

George came back in. ‘I was thinking, what's the old sod want, shouting for Annie like that? I'm hoping Duke don't come out and hear. It wouldn't look too good, you know. So Harry and me, we hoiked him up on to the old dray cart and laid him out comfy under one of the horse blankets. He was asleep as soon as his head touched the boards.'

‘Drunken stupor, more like.' Frances failed to muster any charitable feelings towards the old tramp, but then her gaze dropped under Hettie's reproachful stare. ‘So what happened next, George?'

‘Harry said he'd take him right on up the Mission for me. He has to pass that way anyhow.' He turned to Hettie. ‘I knew you and your pals could fix him up, and I knew Harry had only to drop off another four barrels before he makes his way back to the brewery. So I says yes, that's the best thing for him, and that's the last I saw of the old chap. As far as I know, the Mission's where he ended up.'

Billy broke the silence that followed. ‘Like I said, it's a bad business. It was a narrow squeak, only saved by George's quick thinking. What if Annie
had
been in this afternoon? Or what if
Duke had heard the row and come out to investigate? What if Duke had been the one to spot him?'

Both Frances and Hettie froze at the very idea. So far, their plan had been to keep the tramp away from Annie until the case was proved either way. But the effect on Duke had also preyed on everyone's minds.

Billy continued. He stood, arms behind his back, back to the fire, offering his best advice. ‘Look, you plan to visit the old man tomorrow, don't you? Well, my idea is that you should talk to Annie
before
you go, give her the chance to come along with you. It's
her
old man, when all's said and done.'

‘
May be
her
ex
-old man!' Frances protested.

‘No, if it is him, then there's no ex about it. That's a knot you can't untie for love nor money. If I was a betting man, I'd lay money on it,' Billy said quietly. ‘How come he found his way back to the Duke otherwise?'

‘Coincidence,' Frances, suggested. ‘And where's he been all these years?' She still felt it was impossible; like a man rising from the grave. She sprang to her feet and began to pace the floor. ‘And if so, even if it is him, what right's he got to come back now and upset everything?'

‘What's “right” got to do with it?' Billy shook his head. But his wife looked stricken, so he went and put an arm around her shoulder. ‘Don't take on. Let's wait and see.'

George waited a decent interval for Frances to recover, ‘I think the same as Billy,' he told Hettie. ‘Annie's gotta be in on this. I can't look her in the eye no more, knowing what's brewing behind her back!'

Hettie's eyes filled with tears. ‘You're a good man, George, and you're right. We gotta tell Annie!'

‘Tomorrow,' Frances insisted. ‘Let them have one more night's peace together. We'll tell her tomorrow!'

Sadie had planned a full day before the dreaded visit. She spent Friday evening at Jess's house, stopped over, got up at six when the household was still fast asleep, then made herself breakfast of
boiled egg and toast. She changed into her work blouse and dark blue skirt, brightened up her outfit with the red hat and coat, then hurried out to the Underground.

She sat all morning at her desk in Swan and Edgar's office, checking through bills and typing out invoices. For once, as long as time flew by, she didn't mind working on a Saturday morning. That afternoon, she would stop off at Duke Street market to buy small Christmas gifts for the family; a new striped tie for Ernie, a box of Ashes of Roses face powder for Jess. That was if the family managed to celebrate Christmas this year. Fear of what lay ahead if this really did turn out to be Annie's husband made her shudder and pull her coat close. She clocked out of the building at twelve sharp, and set off down the cold street.

‘Hey, missie, what do you call this?' her supervisor, Eric Turnbull, called after her. He came rushing out in his pinstripe waistcoat and shirt-sleeves; his glasses perched on his forehead, hissing at her with his affected lisp. ‘You don't call this a letter to a valued customer, I hope?' He came and thrust a piece of paper under her nose.

Sadie wrinkled it and stepped smartly back. ‘Is something wrong, Mr Turnbull?' She was afraid she'd been genuinely caught out; her concentration had been poor all morning and the shiny typewriter keys had swum before her eyes.

‘Wrong? That's putting it mildly, I'm afraid, Miss Parsons.' He stabbed at the paper with his forefinger. ‘Look, here's a capital F! Who ever heard of a capital F for “faithfully”? And this here, this is a comma where there should be a full stop. And here, a full stop where we all know we need a comma!' He looked aghast. ‘Where did you go to school, may I ask?'

Sadie sighed. ‘I'm sorry, Mr Turnbull. I've got a lot on my mind.'

Turnbull, who saw his job as a balanced combination of bullying and humiliation, was about to continue his tirade, when Sadie's ears picked up the familiar hooter call of one of Rob's taxis. Her spirits lifted at once. She hadn't expected a lift and supposed that it was either Rob or Walter turning up to do her a favour. ‘I'm sorry, Mr Turnbull, I gotta go. That's my taxi!' She fled across the
pavement. ‘I'll put it right first thing on Monday morning. I already clocked out, you see!'

‘Taxi?' The supervisor choked on the word. He watched Sadie step on to the running-board. Even he, in his elevated position, had to catch a bus home. How could Sadie afford to take a cab?

Sadie had collapsed with a loud sigh of relief into the front seat before she realized that the driver was neither Rob nor Walter, as she expected, but Richie Palmer. Immediately she stiffened and sat up straight. But it was too late. Richie rejoined the flow of traffic, his hands firm on the wheel, his chin jutting forward.

BOOK: After Hours
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