Authors: Monica Dickens
‘What’s she done?’ he asked suspiciously, not moving.
‘I’ll tell you later. I must go now. It’s urgent.’ Let him think the child had had an accident if that would bring him down. ‘Please, George. I’ll make you a fresh pot when I get back.’
Seeing him safely though slowly starting downstairs, she flew through the shop in her blue overall and the bandeau she wore to keep her hair away from the food, into the turmoil of the Portobello Road on a Friday evening.
The market was in full swing. All along the kerb as far as the railway arch, the stalls were almost touching. Vegetables, fish, buttons and elastic, vegetables, toys, eels and shrimps, old Mother Trumble’s junk, fruit, more vegetables.
‘Strawb’ries, ripe strawb’ries!’
‘Oh yes! Oh yes! We’ve got it. Any colour you like, now, any colour you like! Twopence a yard, dear. All the one price on that tray.’
‘Fine fresh codling! Kippers and bloater – two pair a tanner! ‘Ere’s ‘addock! I say! ‘Ere’s ‘addock and codling!’ The heavyweight in the tarpaulin apron slung the corpses about on his dripping, fly-infested stall. Portwine’s men, purple and sweating
under their straw boaters, were roaring out the week-end meat bargains, keeping up a strident commentary as they chined joints and slammed kidneys into newspaper, and nicked at the sausages festooned in the window.
Ellison’s was a seething mass of women’s backs. The pavement along the front of the stalls was thick with people, butting each other with shopping baskets, jerking whining children, ploughing unconcernedly through with prams, hurrying sharp-elbowed, or sauntering and stopping to chat while the stream divided round them.
The crowd overflowed into the road among the cabbage stalks and squashed plums and broken ice-cream cones that the children had dropped. Scarcely anything on wheels tried to get through, for the Portobello Road on market day was no longer a carriage-way. It was the people-way. Any car or cart rash enough to take it had to go at a foot’s pace with children clam-bermg on the mudguards, or jeering from the tailboard of a van whose driver had not the elbow room to whip behind.
This was no place for Jo. She could not be out in this rowdy market alone. Ever since the child could first stagger, Mrs Abinger had fought against the fascinating influence of the streets. Other children were turned out to play, but never Jo. She was
going to be a Portobello child, no matter where she lived. But oh, this neighbourhood! ‘The Lane’, as they called it. If only it
been a country lane.
Mrs Abinger, flat-footed in her old working shoes, dodged among the crowd, peering this way and that through her gold-rimmed oval spectacles for the yellow dress and the bouncing chestnut bob with the yellow butterfly how. Fending off loiterers with the flat of her hand, panting down people’s necks, she fought her way through the bottle-neck outside Ellison’s and ducked under an awning to get into the road.
‘Hey – mind what you’re doing, Ma!’ A beery man shouted at her as she knocked into the handle of his barrow and sent some tomatoes rolling into the gutter.
‘’Ere!’ He grabbed at her, his face as red as his ripe tomatoes, his voice coarsening horribly with rage. ‘’Ere, what’s the game? I’ve had to pay for them toms. You can’t get away with that!’
‘Let me go!’ Mrs Abinger, who was usually so polite, thrust him off and plunged on into the crowd, intent only on Josephine.
‘Jo!’ she called. ‘Jo!’ But her voice was lost in the market’s babel, above which still rose the righteous: ‘Where’s the Coppers?’ of the tomato man, who had never been on the side of the Coppers in his life, but knew there were none within earshot.
‘What’s up, Ellie?’ One or two acquaintances stopped Mrs Abinger, and smiled at her distress without understanding it. Their own children were encouraged to play in the street; it kept them mercifully out of the house, but Ellie treated that kid like a china doll. She was an awful worrier for one so stout.
‘Jo! Where are you? Jo!’ Mrs Abinger called right down to the end of the market as far as the shabbiest, most rickety stalls that offered, without hope, odd shoes and bundles of rag and chipped gramophone records. But her only answer came from a gang of small boys, who capered grimacing round her, jeering: ‘Jo, Jo, sitting on her po!’
Mrs Abinger’s head was a confusion of anxieties. By the time she had struggled back through the market, she had imagined Jo in every possible mishap, from a grubby dress and getting ‘things in her head’ from the alley children, to an accident with pools of blood, and even a kidnapping. She saw herself going to the police, to the hospital. Panting and dishevelled, she even worked herself up to a vision of the mortuary.
Meeting George’s sister-in-law Phyll, with a string bag weighing down each arm and what looked like another one on her head, Mrs Abinger’s excitement was deflated. She felt relieved but foolish as Phyll laughed down at her from her gaunt, gawky height, with the easy-going, gap-toothed grin to which she would never give the bother of a dental plate.
She had left Jo playing with Violet, said Phyll, resting with one hip stuck out like a tired carthorse. The old Loscoe was just trying to make trouble. And if Jo were grubbing about in the street, who cared? It had never done any of Phyll’s children any harm.
No, thought Mrs Abinger, puffing round to Denbigh Terrace
to see for herself, but then your children aren’t my Jo, who might be of titled blood. She had never told anyone, not even George, that Josephine might be Joy Stretton, She had promised herself to forget it, but Jo growing up so dainty and ladylike was a constant reminder and a charge on Mrs Abinger’s conscience to redeem as far as possible her stolen birthright.
Violet Abinger, her head a mass of greasy ringlets, was sitting on the front steps, rocking a doll self-consciously.
Mrs Abinger called up from the pavement: ‘Where’s Jo?’
Violet shrugged her shoulders, smirking.
‘What have you done with her?’
‘I ain’t done nothing with her,’ said Violet, who, although said to be ‘quite a little wonder’ to the younger Josephine, pinched and bullied her when no one was about. ‘She wouldn’t play with me.’ She whined the last word, making a grievance of it.
‘Where did she go then?’
‘I don’t know, Aunt Ellie.’ Violet fluttered her eyelids. ‘She wouldn’t play with
She went off and left poor Susie.’ She picked up Josephine’s sprawling doll, which had cost Mrs Abinger so much last Christmas, and rocked it, looking to see if she were being admired.
said her aunt. ‘That’s the last time I send Jo to play with you.’
‘I don’t care,’ said Violet, sing-song. ‘She don’t play the games I like. And she ate nearly all the cakes at tea. Your hair’s ever so untidy, Aunt Ellie, if you want to know.’
Josephine was swinging on the posts of a dirty little alley by the railway bridge, watching the Goldner boys eat the cakes she had brought in her pocket from Denbigh Terrace. She was a delicately made, straight-legged child with an impish, sparkling face and thick chestnut hair that was washed every week and brushed every night.
The Goldners were never washed or brushed. Arthur, the youngest, had a Mongolian nose and a huge, flat-topped head that had recently been shaved for ringworn. His voice, half strangled by neglected tonsils, came through hoarse and garbled, so that Norman often had to interpret him. Twelve-year-old
Norman was good-looking under the dirt. He had fine gypsy eyes and a mass of curly black hair, which he tossed back arrogantly when he gave an order, which was often.
Arthur crouched about round-shouldered; Norman stood lithe and upright on strong, battle-scarred legs, ready to fight anyone of any size at a moment’s notice. His fists were almost permanently clenched, his elbows working like a prize fighter, his tramp’s boots practising footwork in the gutters. Arthur was slow and simian. Norman was agile and spry, and slippery as an eel to catch, as many a policeman could tell you.
Each morning, before she went off to clean at the hospital, Mrs Goldner turned her sons out of the house with a slice of bread and jam and fourpence for their dinner. They would go to school to answer the roll call, but unless there was a treat promised or a fight developing, they escaped at the ten o’clock break by their own secret route: through the boiler room, up the coal chute, over the mound of coke in the yard to the ten-foot drop into the Convent garden. Dodging among the bushes, with a wary eye on the pacing nuns who told their beads along the cinder paths, Arthur and Norman would shin up the drainpipe to the chapel roof, bandy a grimace with the gargoyle, and so over another high spiked wall to the freedom of the street.
School was a waste of time, fit only for kids. Arthur and Norman, worldly wise, always had some dark and desperate scheme on hand which kept them aloof from the marble-rolling, crank-baiting, petty pilfering gangs of Portobello urchins whom they despised as amateurs.
Of the girls of the Lane, most of whom were too busy mothering a pushcart full of small brothers and sisters to play with the gangs, the Goldners took no notice. They would pull a pigtail
or echo, without knowing what it meant, the lewd epithet of a bigger boy, but they had no use for girls. Girls wore skirts and could not run so fast; they got in the way, and they sneaked.
Josephine Abinger, they felt, was different, although they could not have said why. There were things about her which fascinated them against their will. Her daintiness and clean, cared-for air were alien to everything that made up their world,
yet they did not mock her, as they mocked affected girls like Violet. They suffered her because she did not sneak, and she brought them cake and sweets and biscuits from the shop. She did not get in the way. At six-and-a-half, she was nimble enough to follow Norman almost anywhere, and could often outstrip the bandy, stertorous Arthur.
Her talent for inventing preposterous wonders appealed to their own adventurous fancy. She idolized Norman, and curses, threats, and even stones would not send her home if she had made up her mind to be with them. So they let her tag on to some of their schemes, keeping her always half in the dark to enhance their importance and mystery.
Arthur, bolting the last cake like a starving animal, spoke through it.
‘What’s ’e say?’ asked Josephine, who talked broad cockney when she was with the Goldners, although at home she spoke as nicely as even Mrs Abinger could wish.
‘’E says you better cut along home if you ain’t got no more grub,’ Norman translated. ‘Art and I got a big job on.’
‘I’m coming too.’
‘Not this time you ain’t. This is somefink extra.’
‘Strewth no. ’S a deadly secret, ain’t it, Art?’
‘Yers, ‘cos there’s others in it too see, what’s counting on us,’ he rumbled darkly.
‘Oh tell us.’ Josephine swung on the post, resting her cheek coyly on the knob worn smooth by years of leap frog. ‘I won’t split, honest. If you tell, I’ll fetch you a tin of treacle, Norm, straight I will.’
Arthur’s eyes glistened. His thick lips opened, but before he could speak, Norman, stronger-willed, tossed back his greasy forelock and said: ‘I told you –
! So shut up narkin’. We’re in on this alone, if it’s a fight till death. We don’t want no girls.’
‘I’m as good as you.’ She faced him with clenched fists and stuck out lip, ridiculously aggressive in her starched cotton frock and big yellow bow. ‘I can fight till death. I killed a man once,’ she said wildly.
‘What with?’ asked Norman suspiciously.
‘With a – with a air gun,’ she blustered.
Norman laughed, but Arthur, more gullible, said: ‘Coo, you could swing for that.’
‘Talking of which,’ said Norman, getting up from the kerb, and feeling his biceps, ‘we got better things to do than stay jawin’ ’ere all day. Come on, Art.’ He jerked his head and his brother got up too. Josephine followed them gaily down the alley, turning right with them into the Portobello Road.
Norman pointed sternly up the hill to the left. ‘’Ome,’ he said, ‘I told you. And look ‘ere, young Jo, if you try and follow us, I’ll tear your liver out and fry it, and give it to young Art ’ere for ’is dinner.’
Josephine laughed, but she was crestfallen. Her wistful face and drooping attitude made Norman feel uncomfortable.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘we’ll tell you all about it arterwards, honest.’
‘When’ll that be?’
‘Ooh, ages. This is a long job, this is. A week maybe. Or never.’
‘We may never come back alive,’ growled Arthur impressively.
‘Garn,’ said Jo, ‘I know what you’re up to. It’s your Dad, ain’t it, Norm? You said you was going to – ’
‘Shut up for Chrissake!’ Norman clapped a smelly hand over her mouth and dragged her back behind some dustbins in a doorway of the alley. ‘The Coppers is everywhere.’ He peered furtively out. It’ll be a Lifer for us if we get caught, not to mention what they wouldn’t do to Dad.’
‘Torture ’im,’ whispered Arthur with guttural relish, crouching like a self-camouflaging grub, the same shape and colour as the dustbins.
‘What you going to do then?’
‘Dig ‘im out,’ said Norman airily, unable to resist boasting to her sparkling, excited blue eyes.
‘Norm, you never! Oh
‘Shut up, I tell you. D’you want to get us copped? You can’t come. It’s too far to the Scrubs; we has to jump a ride. And you wouldn’t be ‘ome by
’ He made a mockery of the word. ‘We stays there ’alf the night sometimes, diggin’.’
‘What’s your Mum say?’
‘She don’t care what time we get in. You want to see the tunnel though. Yuge, ain’t it, Artie?’
A hoarse whisper came from behind a dustbin.
‘That’s right,’ translated Arthur. ‘Big’s a sewer. Show you one day, kid, if you ‘op it now.’
‘I want to see it now. Where is it?’
‘Ah.’ Norman put his finger to his nose and winked. ‘That’d be tellin’. I’m not so green as I look, young Jo, to have you come snoopin’ our secret place and spoiling everyfink.’
‘I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t spoil it!’ Angry at being belittled, she stepped out into the alley and shouted at him like a small virago.