Authors: Dilly Court
Tags: #Historical Saga
Born into poverty and living under the roof of her violent and abusive brother-in-law, young Kitty Cox dreams of working in a women’s dress shop in the West End – a million miles away from the reality of her life as a mud-lark, scavenging on the banks of the Thames.
Fate soon intervenes and Kitty finds herself working as a skivvy for Sir Desmond and Lady Arabella Mableton in Mayfair. Bullied by the kitchen maids, Kitty is soon taken under Lady Arabella’s wing and for the first time in her life Kitty dares to hope.
But Lady ‘Bella’ has a secret and unable to live with her domineering husband she decides to leave, fighting for custody of their daughter, Leonie. Kitty will do anything for her mistress but her loyalty is severely tested as all their lives are thrown into turmoil and Kitty faces a life of poverty and hardship in the slums of the East End once more …
Dilly Court grew up in North East London and began her career in television, writing scripts for commercials. She is married with two grown up children and three grandchildren, and now lives in Dorset on the beautiful Jurassic Coast with her husband and large, yellow Labrador called Archie.
is her first novel.
Also by Dilly Court
The Dollmaker’s Daughters
A long shadow fell across the muddy foreshore, jolting Kitty out of her daydream. A vicious clout round her ear sent her tumbling off the empty orange crate where she had perched, dabbling her bare feet in a pool of water warmed by the setting sun. Her mind had been far away from the city stench, the flapping, russet sails of the Thames barges, the hoots and throbbing engines of the steam ships. The gnawing hunger growling away in her belly had deafened her to the shouts of the lightermen and stevedores. She hadn’t heard the squelch of booted feet coming up behind her until it was too late, and she landed face down in the stinking mud, yelping with pain.
‘Bloody idle little slut.’
Grabbed by her hair, Kitty was jerked to her feet and shaken until her teeth rattled.
‘I weren’t shirking, Sid,’ Kitty cried, spitting out a mouthful of foul-tasting mud streaked with blood. Her eyes watered as he swung her by the hair, but she knew it was useless to struggle. Her brother-in-law’s breath reeked of stale beer and tobacco; the smell of Billingsgate Fish Market clung to his clothes and hands.
‘Give it me.’ Sid shook her again like a terrier with a rat. ‘Hand it over or you’ll be sorry.’
‘It’s for Maggie and your nippers. Me sister’ll skin us alive if I doesn’t bring something home.’
‘And I’ll give you what for if you don’t, so give it here!’
A fist bigger than a bunch of bananas, thrust in her face, was enough to convince Kitty and she fumbled in her skirt pocket.
Sid let her go and, prising her fingers apart, he tipped the coins into his palm. ‘That all?’
Kitty backed away from him. She pointed to a small pile of artefacts that had taken a whole day of back-breaking work to dredge from the silt, leaving her fingers mottled and swollen like beef sausages and her feet corpse-white, wrinkled and tingling with chilblains.
Grunting and swearing, Sid kicked out at the stack of empty bottles, broken clay pipes and potsherds. ‘Not worth tuppence, the lot.’ Raising his arm, Sid fisted his hand for a punch that never landed. Air exploded from his lungs as a bullet-shaped head butted him in the ribs, pitching him backwards into a shallow pool.
‘Run for it, Kitty.’
For a split second Kitty stared at Jem, open-mouthed with shock, but a furious bellow from Sid, flailing about on his back like an upturned beetle, brought her frozen limbs back to life. Bundling her skirts up around her thighs, she pelted after Jem, her bare feet skimming over the stones. Agile as an organ grinder’s monkey, she raced up the slippery wooden steps that led to Sugar Quay. Reaching the top and glancing over her shoulder, she saw Sid, clasping his belly and gasping for breath.
‘That’ll learn him,’ Jem said, chuckling.
‘You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face if he catches up with you, Jem Scully.’ But Kitty couldn’t help grinning now that she was out of Sid’s reach, even though it made her lip bleed again.
‘Get on home. Quick!’ Jem jerked his head in the direction of Sugar Alley, giving Kitty a gentle shove.
Kitty hesitated, curiosity getting the better of her. ‘What you doing here then? Why ain’t you working on the lighters?’
‘I’ve had enough of that lark. I’m off down the docks to find a ship’s master what’ll take me on.’
‘That’s daft. You’re too young.’
‘Nah! I can pass for sixteen, easy.’
Her ear was aching, but a new pain shot to her heart, and Kitty bit back tears. She had known Jem all her life; they had gone to the same school and he was her best friend. How could he talk about leaving and look so cheerful? ‘You’ll get drownded like your dad.’
‘Not me! I’m going to be a master like me old man and I’m going to make enough money to pay the doctor’s bills for our Polly. Then Ma won’t have to take in commercial travellers no more and –’ Jem stopped, turning to Kitty, his eyes shining with inspiration – ‘and you can come and live with us.’
‘Ta, but I couldn’t leave Maggie and the nippers, not with Sid spending all his wages in the boozer.’
‘And knocking you about when he’s had a bellyful. You got to get away from Sugar Yard.’
‘And I will,’ Kitty said, lifting her chin. ‘I’ve told you afore, Jem. I’m going to be a lady what works in a dress shop up West.’
‘Not like that you ain’t,’ Jem said, pointing at her bare feet. ‘Tell you what, though, Kitty. With me first pay packet I’ll buy you a pair of shoes and maybe a frock too, then you can go up West with your head held high and get yourself that fancy job.’
For a happy moment, Kitty had forgotten all about Sid, but a loud roar from behind her made her spin around. Cursing and swearing, Sid heaved himself onto the quay wall.
Shoving Kitty behind him, Jem clenched his fists, dancing about on his toes like a boxer. ‘Pick on someone your own size, you drunken old bastard.’
‘Stop it,’ Kitty cried, tugging at his arm. ‘He’ll murder you.’
Jem continued to prance about, shouting insults as Sid stumbled onto the cobbles. ‘Get off home, Kitty. He won’t catch me.’
One look at Sid’s purple face was enough to convince Kitty; she turned and ran.
At the end of a narrow alley slit between blackened warehouse walls, Sugar Yard opened into a small square festooned with lines of washing that hung, like tattered flags, dripping a permanent mist of rain onto the cobbles.
Maggie and Sid Cable rented two rooms in the four-storey building. One privy in the back yard served the whole house, and sewage pooled after a rainstorm, or if there was an unusually high tide. The smell of boiled fish and cabbage hung in a damp cloud and cockroaches scuttled across the floorboards, disappearing into cracks and knotholes. Kitty was not scared of roaches, spiders or mice, but she did hate the big black rats that slunk past, glaring at her with bold, red eyes. She raced up the stairs and hurled herself against the door.
Maggie was kneeling by the fire, coaxing heat from a smouldering pile of coal dust. Her eyes widened as she took in Kitty’s dishevelled condition. ‘Look at the state of you. What happened?’
‘I fell over.’
Maggie struggled to her feet, stepping over three-month-old baby Harry, who was lying on the rag rug, kicking his bare legs in the air and gurgling. She took Kitty by the chin, staring suspiciously at her bruises. ‘You fell onto some-one’s fist, by the looks of things. You haven’t been cheeking Sid, have you?’
Kitty shook her head. ‘No, honest I didn’t. He’s been on the booze.’
Maggie’s face crumpled like a wizened apple. ‘He promised, he swore he’d bring his pay packet home. Is he far gone?’
‘He took the five pence I’d found.’
‘Dear God!’ Maggie cried, scooping Harry up in her arms, rocking him and rubbing her cheek against his downy head. ‘It’ll be the Sally Army soup kitchen for us next week. I’ll not be able to hold me head up in Sugar Yard for the shame of it.’
‘Don’t get upset, Maggie,’ Kitty said, patting her shoulder. ‘I’ll go down to the river first thing. Pickings should be good after a high tide. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.’
‘It’ll never be right,’ Maggie said, settling Harry in the drawer that served as his cot. ‘Once the drink gets a man there’s no hope.’
‘I’ll get a job in the flourmill or the match factory. It pays better than the mudlark game.’
‘And end up with ruined lungs or phossy jaw? Never, not while I’ve got a breath left in my body,’ Maggie said, snapping upright. ‘I promised our ma on her deathbed that I’d take care of you and I’ll not go back on it for a few bob a week.’
‘I’m fourteen now – maybe I could get a job in a dress shop up West. I’d give all me money to you afore Sid could get his maulers on it.’
Maggie cast her a pitying glance. ‘D’you think they’d give a second look to a poor little cow in raggedy clothes, without a decent pair of shoes to her name?’
‘I’ll do it somehow, Maggie. One day I’ll make you proud of me.’
‘That’s as maybe, but you’d best eat your bit of bread and scrape and be in bed before he comes home.’ Maggie thumped her hand on the wall as muffled giggles echoed through the thin partition. ‘And you kids better go to sleep right now or there’ll be ructions.’
Kitty tiptoed into the room that she shared with the children, slipped off her top clothes and lay down on the straw-filled mattress, avoiding the damp patch where Frankie had wet the bed. Billy and Charlie, arranged top to toe as neat as sardines in a tin, snored softly, and two-year-old Violet snuggled up to Kitty like a warm puppy.
A jagged shaft of moonlight filtered through the cracked windowpane and, staring up into the night sky, Kitty imagined herself climbing that star-bright stairway to a heavenly place. Ma and Pa and her five baby brothers were already there, safe inside the Pearly Gates. She could barely remember what Ma and Pa looked like after all this time, but Ma had smelled nice, just the same as the violets sold on street corners up West. Pa had a husky voice and his moustache had tickled when he kissed her good night. Kitty closed her eyes with a sigh; up there, in the blue velvet sky, bedbugs didn’t bite, bellies were always full, and you didn’t get belted for nothing.
Next day Jem was waiting for her on the quay wall.
Kitty’s heart fell as she saw his triumphant grin. ‘You done it then?’
Jem tossed his cap up in the air and caught it with a whoop of glee. ‘I done it, Kitty. And guess what? Me dad’s old friend Captain Madison has agreed to take me on as a deck apprentice, and we’re sailing on the tide for New Zealand.’
Kitty tried to smile even though a lump the size of an egg was sticking in her throat. ‘New Zealand! That’s on the other side of the world.’
‘Don’t I know it? I’ve got a berth on one of them new refrigerated steam ships, the
, bound for Auckland.’ Jem hesitated, frowning. ‘Don’t look like that, Kitty. Ain’t you happy for me?’
‘What does your ma say?’
‘She’ll be pleased as punch,’ Jem said, grabbing Kitty’s hand. ‘Come with me now and see her face when I gives her the good news.’
Betty Scully covered her face with her apron, let out a low moan and sank down on the nearest kitchen chair.
‘That’s the ticket, Ma,’ Jem said cheerfully. ‘You’ll soon get used to the idea.’
‘You’re not to go. D’you hear me, Jem? I won’t allow it.’
Jem tweaked the material off her face and planted a kiss on her cheek. ‘Now, now old girl, don’t take on. You always knew I’d go sooner or later.’
‘The sea took my Herbert away from me and now you’re going too. I can’t bear it.’
‘Now see what you’ve done!’ Kitty said, frowning. ‘I don’t call that breaking it gently.’
Jem’s grin faded. ‘Look, Ma. I’m a man now and I’ll not stand by idle while you turn our home into a lodging house. You’ve fair worked yourself to a shadow, taking in commercial gents, not to mention spending your evenings sewing dresses and shirts until your fingers are red raw and your eyes pop out.’
‘Jem, I done it all for you and Polly, just as your father would have wanted.’
‘I know you have, but I’ve made up me mind. I’m going to sea with Captain Madison – you always said you liked him, Ma – and I’ve made an allotment to you from me wages. I’ll send home more if I can.’