Authors: Freda Lightfoot
* * *
Livia was put on the lingerie counter in the charge of a Mrs Denham, whose task it was to enlighten her on boudoir caps and
crêpe de santé
petticoats, the relative merits of heavy-duty Directoire and sheer silk Milanese knickers; nightgowns, bodices and chemises of every description.
Livia’s new mentor was a kindly lady with a curvy, voluptuous figure tending towards plumpness now that she was past forty. Dressed in a smart black dress she was never seen without a tape measure around her neck, jostling against a pair of spectacles hanging from a chain.
‘There are Spencers in merino wool and fragile Indian muslin; petticoats that are kilted, ruched, pleated, frou-frou or in a more sensible flannel,’ the good lady explained, continuing her litany.
Livia felt almost sick with excitement as she tenderly fingered a lacy camisole, only to have Miss Caraway snatch it from her, as if she’d no right to touch such a precious item.
‘I do hope you are paying attention, Miss Lavinia? Listen to what Mrs Denham has to say and you may be of some use. Stand up straight, please, shoulders back, and listen and learn.’ Whereupon the supervisor strode away, head high, spine as rigid as her rules.
Livia did her best to concentrate as the good
lady proceeded to explain the mysteries of the many drawers.
‘An onerous task, I must confess, dear. It will take some time for you to memorise all the contents, as I am sure you are aware, Miss Lavinia.’
‘Please call me Livia.’
The woman beamed at her. ‘And you can call me Mrs Dee, everyone else does. Much less formal than Mrs Denham.’
‘Except when Miss Caraway is around.’
They chuckled conspiratorially together. In her line of business, fitting ladies into their corsets and bloomers, Mrs Denham was nothing if not discreet.
The older woman pushed her spectacles onto her blob of a nose and made it clear that Livia would not be allowed to actually serve a customer for some time, not until she had carefully studied how things were done at Angel’s Department Store. ‘You can watch and learn, and the sooner you acquaint yourself with the stock, the sooner you will be let loose on a customer.’
Livia started on the job right away, reciting each item to herself rather like the Kim’s game she, Maggie and Ella had used to play as children, memorising items set out on a tray. Later, she watched carefully as Mrs Dee served a lady with a pair of gloves, offering a paper
of pins in lieu of a farthing change. When the customer had gone, she asked why she’d done that.
‘It’s store policy.’
‘Is that because Father saved money that way?’ Livia asked, and Mrs Dee giggled at her astuteness.
‘Indeed, I suspect that must be the case since you can buy pins for no more than twopence a gross. The cost of a paper of fifty-two is considerably less than a farthing, but—’
‘The customer doesn’t know that and thinks she is getting a bargain?’
‘Pricing is all about perception, dear, else why would we charge one shilling and eleven pence three farthing for something in the first place?’
Oh, yes, Livia thought, she was going to enjoy working with Mrs Dee. The woman was frank and uncomplicated, although Livia suspected there was much more to the lady than immediately met the eye.
When later she stood on the steps to reach down a box of handkerchiefs for a customer, Livia caught a glimpse of a scarlet frilled petticoat beneath the sober black, and sheer black silk stockings with embroidered clocks on the ankles. Yes indeed, there were hidden depths to Miss Dee.
The doors were locked at seven precisely, when the shop girls and young male assistants all trudged wearily up the back stairs to the staff dining room. The food was served on long trestle tables and there was much scraping of benches, chink of crockery and clatter of knives and forks, although precious little in the way of chit-chat. Most of the shop assistants were too tired to talk. Several cast Livia sidelong glances then turned their back and ignored her. Not that she blamed them for that. She realised it would be difficult for them to treat her as one of their own, despite her pleas that they should.
It took no more than a mouthful of the watery stew to confirm that the food was indeed diabolical. Wrinkling her nose in
distaste, she pushed her plate away untouched.
‘Aren’t you going to eat that?’ young Dolly asked.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Livia lied.
‘I’ll have it then,’ scraping the rapidly congealing stew into her own dish.
‘She can afford to be fussy,’ grumbled someone lower down the table.
Livia instantly recognised her mistake. She’d given the impression she could go out and buy herself a meal if she wanted, whether or not that was the case. ‘I suppose it’s because this is my first day and I’m too tired to eat,’ she tried by way of excuse. Her new colleagues just looked at her, unconvinced, and the speed with which they spooned down the greasy mess demonstrated their own hunger.
Bowls of sago pudding were dished out next, and just as someone was handing Livia her portion, a large girl, Stella, who had bad teeth and smelt of stale sweat, made a grab for her own and knocked Livia’s out of her hand.
‘Oh dear, sorry about that,’ she purred, the gleam in her eyes saying the exact opposite. ‘Still, you wouldn’t have wanted it, I suppose.’
Livia went to bed hungry that night, feeling more than a little sorry for herself. What had she let herself in for? Her first day had started as fun but had grown increasingly difficult as more and
more rules and instructions were thrust at her. She’d seemed to spend the entire time running errands for Mrs Dee, that’s when she wasn’t memorising the bewildering contents of the lingerie department. Her head was buzzing, and she’d made a bad mistake in not eating her dinner. She was bone-weary, ached everywhere: head, back, legs, not forgetting her feet. As she pulled back the blankets and slid between the sheets her bare feet touched something cold and wet. Letting out a scream, Livia leapt from the bed.
The whole dormitory fell into peals of laughter.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Stella with feigned innocence. ‘I thought you might’ve changed your mind and want the pudding after all.’
Ripping back the sheets Livia glared at the glutinous mess of sago in her bed. She tried to laugh it off, knowing better than to complain. She did her best to scrape the pudding away, but with no hope of clean sheets she spent a cold, damp night in that bed. Livia hadn’t asked for any special treatment, and perhaps she was expecting too much in thinking the other girls would ever accept her. Nor did she expect much sympathy or assistance from Matthew Grayson. It seemed she occupied a no-man’s-land, somewhere between management and shop floor, and it was a very lonely place to be.
* * *
Mercy could feel the dark walls pressing in all around her. She could smell the musty damp of the packed earth, and, to her shame, urine. She felt the crawl of spiders over her legs and in her hair. Her legs ached from not being able to stretch them out, and her back burnt along the bloody scars made by the lash. Cowering in the depths of the filthy pit she heard the sound of approaching footsteps and shaded her eyes against the sudden blinding light as the lid of her prison was opened. A face emerged out of the gloom, leering at her, harsh laughter filling her ears as an arm was raised, birch in hand, the implement brought down upon her shuddering figure over and over again. She felt the agonising pain vibrate through her frail body, could hear nothing now but a terrible screaming …
‘Mercy, Mercy, wake up, love, wake up! You’re having another nightmare.’
Mercy woke shaking with cold sweat and fell with relief into George’s arms. ‘Oh, I – I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t apologise. Are you all right, love? That’s the worst in a long while.’
George brought her a mug of warm milk, held her in his arms while she sipped it, comforting her until her body had stopped trembling and she lay relaxed in his arms again. But Mercy knew it would be a long time before sleep would claim
her as she resisted it with all her might, unwilling to re-enter that stark world of horror.
She was constantly haunted by memories of the workhouse. She’d always known it was not a benign establishment, yet it had turned out to be even worse than she’d bargained for. Despite her hatred of Fellside, Mercy had soon come to view her old home with a fond nostalgia. She wouldn’t even have objected to the cramped pain she used to get in her lower back from spending too many long hours bent over the loom. Far better than having hands that were raw and bleeding from all the scrubbing and scouring she was made to do in the workhouse.
She’d worked in a ward where the patients were described as imbeciles. Once you got to know them she found they were harmless enough, just a bit simple, some of them little more than boys. Nurse Bathurst – the woman in charge, known as Batty Brenda because she was even crazier than the inmates and didn’t possess a single drop of sympathy in her entire body – never missed an opportunity to inflict pain. The woman was vicious.
Mercy had done everything she could for those poor creatures in her care. She’d let them have an extra portion of stew when no one was looking, and had quickly dried out wet pants without telling a soul. She wouldn’t say a word if
there was a minor skirmish – or even a fierce fist fight – if one should steal a sausage from another boy’s plate, pick a pocket, or play any of a dozen tricks that lads liked to play on each other. She’d speak to them calmly and make them see that such behaviour was rude and not to be tolerated.
And they’d come to love her as a result.
But then it was vitally important she protect them. Birching had been frighteningly common for what was, in effect, nothing more than silly horseplay. When she’d said as much in her blunt way, Batty Brenda had accused her of trying to undermine ward discipline. They’d been sworn enemies from that day forward.
Her own birching had come as a result of Mercy claiming that Josiah Angel was her pa. Worse, he’d been the one who’d ordered it, just because he was afraid of the scandal if the truth emerged. She’d been given twice the usual number of lashes, then thrown into solitary. Following several dark days in that dreadful black pit she’d no longer woken each morning filled with optimism and a resolve to make the best of things. She’d felt beaten, broken by the system, worn down by the harsh treatment.
But then, thanks to George, they’d both escaped and gone on the run in the Lakes. When they’d first met in the workhouse, he’d been wearing a dress and calling himself Georgina.
Later he explained that pretending to be not quite right in the head had allowed him free movement around the workhouse, which he’d used to their benefit.
Calmer now, Mercy half smiled at the memory as she curled against his warm body. They’d found work where they could, mainly on farms, but in the end had grown homesick for Kendal and returned home. Then Amos had offered George a job and they’d been thankful for the sanctuary. But living in the country didn’t suit Mercy one bit. It wasn’t where she wanted to be. She was a town girl, born and bred, and needed the rush and crush of people about her, not smelly animals and empty spaces.
Mercy lay staring out at the waxen image of the moon through the dusty window set high in the barn roof. Wasn’t it supposed to be unlucky to see a new moon through glass? Her life had been plagued with bad luck, so what did that matter? Besides, she had George now so was protected from anything bad happening ever again.
She reached over to stroke a stray lock of hair from her husband’s brow as he slept on. How she loved him. But did he love her half as much? She couldn’t be sure. He kept his feelings very much to himself. He was all she had now that her mother was dead and her father had rejected
her. She didn’t count her two half-sisters. They were merely putting on an act, pretending to care when really they didn’t. Mercy only knew that having got George to marry her, she meant to keep him. At whatever cost.
As she listened to his heavy snores, she thought with regret how there was precious little energy left over for making love these days. And when they did it was hasty and fumbled, over much too quickly. Farm work was grindingly hard from dawn till dusk, and they were both generally bone-weary by bed time.
Oh, and it didn’t help that he was so naughty. George was a good man, hardworking, outwardly placid, but a real box of tricks inside. How could she get him to behave himself and pay her more attention?
By morning, she had the answer.
Following that first disastrous meal and the episode with the sago pudding in her bed, Livia made a point of eating every scrap put in front of her, no matter how lumpy the potatoes or curdled the custard. Still no one spoke to her, conversations between the other girls largely conducted over her head. Today, however, seemed different.
‘Who’s coming to the meeting of the suffragettes early next month?’ one dark-haired girl suddenly asked.
‘That’s for the nobs, not for the likes of us,’ said another.
The girl, whom Livia remembered was called Connie, said, ‘Not a bit of it. The government is trying to bar women from attending political meetings. That’s not right, and we need to speak up.’ She banged her spoon on the table. ‘Just because the Liberals have got back in power doesn’t mean we have to give up. We have to make Asquith listen, whether he wants to or not. It’s a nonsense to say that wives are represented by their husband and don’t need the vote. Is a woman not entitled to a voice of her own? What if he’s a drunken lout, or beats the daylights out of her? And what if a woman isn’t married? So she gets the vote and married women don’t? That’s not right either.’
‘You don’t have to convince us, Con, we’re on your side.’
‘Well then, come to the meeting. The speaker is Emmeline Pankhurst herself. We’re honoured that she can spare the time but she has a soft spot for Manchester, since she used to live there herself. Annie Kenney will be with her, and since she was once a factory girl she talks a lot of sense to folk like us, being more down-to-earth, like. These brave women are willing to do whatever is necessary for the cause, and suffer any amount of torment. They hold rallies and demonstrations,
tie themselves to railings, disrupt political meetings, they’ve even been to prison. So far as I’m concerned, they’re all heroes.’
Some of the girls quietly mumbled about not wanting to risk losing their jobs, but Connie was relentless in her argument.
‘Who runs the country? Men. Who makes all the decisions in your house, girl?’
‘Me mam,’ said Dolly, and a few women laughed.
Connie smiled. ‘You’re lucky, our Dolly. It’s usually the fella. And do they give a tinker’s cuss what we need, what we want? Do they heck as like. We should have a say in what’s being done in our name. It’s time women had the vote so we can look out fer ourselves.’
‘I agree,’ Livia cried, moved by this impassioned speech and voicing her support without pause for thought. ‘I’d like to come with you, Connie, if I may.’
There was a startled silence as everyone turned to look at her. It was as if they’d forgotten she was there, and certainly had no right to speak.
‘This doesn’t affect you,’ Connie stiffly responded.
‘Why doesn’t it?’
‘You’re one of them, one of the nobs. You don’t have a problem.’
‘Why don’t I? I don’t have the vote either.’
‘Aye, but the authorities look on you differently, so you’re bound to get it afore us lot. They don’t even force-feed the posh folk, they let them go. Lady Lytton proved that. They let her off till she dressed as a working girl herself, only then did she get the same treatment.’
‘Lady Lytton didn’t give up, though, did she? We’re all women, same as you, and unlike lucky Dolly here, we’re controlled by men. I certainly was, by my own father, God rest his soul.’
There was a small silence as the shop girls remembered the tyranny of their former employer.
‘We’re all equal here,’ Livia pointed out, and the laughter in response to this comment was harsh with disbelief.
‘Aye, about as equal as the Queen is with our old cat.’
Livia laughed along with them at this, hoping to soften their attitude towards her. She hadn’t the first idea how to get them to accept her, but it certainly wasn’t going to be easy. ‘Are you a suffragette?’ she asked Connie.
‘I am, and proud of it. Not that I have as much time to get involved as I would like, seeing the long hours I work. That’s why the middle classes get to have most say, because they have the time. Yet what do they know about our problems? Nowt!’
‘They don’t suffer the old dragon’s fines for a start,’ said one wag, quickly hushed by her neighbour.
Livia said, ‘They may not have personal experience of some of your problems, Connie, but they have some of their own, I do assure you. Bullying and the power of men has nothing to do with class.’
‘She’s right there,’ one girl called out. ‘Our minister would preach nice little sermons every Sunday, then punch the life out of his poor wife come Monday.’
‘Going to a meeting isn’t going to stop men behaving like brutes,’ said another.
‘It is if we can get the law changed to stop ’em.’
Connie interrupted before the argument got quite out of hand. ‘This isn’t just about stopping men from beating up women. This is about getting the vote so we women have a say in how our country is run, and on what our future will be.’
‘Here, here!’ Turning impulsively to the listening girls, Livia said, ‘You should listen to Connie and as many as possible of you should go to this meeting. Women have been ignored too long. We need to speak up for our rights, otherwise how will we ever achieve independence? We need to stand up for ourselves
and not be bullied.’ Her voice had risen and grown more vehement. ‘I shall certainly go. Who will join us?’