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Authors: Kitty Neale

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Nobody’s Girl

BOOK: Nobody’s Girl
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KITTY NEALE

Nobody’s Girl

 

For Rita McAneny.

We have worked together, laughed together, shared sadness and tears, my precious friend for over twenty years.

Many places and street names mentioned in this book are real. However, others, and some of the topography, along with all of the characters, are just figments of my imagination.

The moon was in its first quarter as the man climbed out of his car. A high wind wailed through the skeletal branches of trees, the sound echoing that of the tiny bundle clutched in his arms. He ignored the cries, uncaring, feeling only disgust as he held the bundle away from his body.

His face was grim. He was going to make his daughter pay for almost ruining the family name, and her bastard would pay too. It would cost him dearly, yet worth it to watch her suffer, not once, but twice. My God, he had thought her perfect, his only child, but she had turned out to be a slut.

He reached the end of the lane, his eyes flicking from side to side as he turned onto a small, built-up road. He had chosen well. There were no houses, and with a wartime blackout in force, no streetlights pierced the dense blanket of darkness.

The building loomed, but still he was cautious, looking swiftly over his shoulder before roughly laying the bundle on its concrete steps. The wrapping fell to one side, the infant mewling, but the man was heedless of the cold night air.

At first he had wanted the bastard dead, but then decided it would be too easy for her, the slut’s suffering short. No, he’d bide his time, watch her grieve, and then one day, when the time was right, he’d tell her the truth. And when he did, he’d watch as she suffered all over again.

His smile thin, he swung on his heels now, swiftly walking away.

He was only just out of sight when a door swung open. A woman emerged, running swiftly down the steps and, taking up the baby, she carried it inside.

 

Battersea, South London, 1956

Dolly Dolby picked up a thick white plate from the stack and scowled. ‘Gertie, get in here!’

Up to the elbows in hot water, Gertrude Wilson sighed and, grabbing a tea towel, she hurriedly dried her hands before leaving the small, cramped washing-up area. She was used to Dolly’s moods and met her ferocious gaze with equilibrium.

‘What do you want now?’

Dolly stiffened with annoyance. She was a woman at odds with her name: there was nothing doll-like in her appearance. Tall, formidable, and big-boned, with a broad flat face above wide shoulders, her only saving grace was long, thick, chestnut-brown hair. However, the only person likely to see it was her husband when she let it down at night. In the kitchen she wore it pulled back tightly and covered with a thick hairnet.

Scowling again, she indicated the remnant of dried egg on the rim of the plate. ‘What do you call this?’

‘I do me best, but I ain’t feeling too good today.’

‘What, again? Mrs Neverwell, that’s you. If it ain’t your bleeding varicose veins, it’s your arthritis. Maybe I should think about replacing you with someone who can wash up properly.’

It was an empty threat, but one Dolly enjoyed. Gertie had been working in the café for over ten years, and in her own way Dolly was fond of the woman. There weren’t many who would put up with the conditions in the small washing-up room, which contained just two deep Belfast sinks with wooden draining boards. There was a tiny window looking out onto the yard, and now, in July, it was like working in a hothouse.

‘After all the years I’ve worked for you, you’re threatening to sack me over one dirty plate,’ Gertie whined, her small brown eyes filling with tears.

‘All right,’ Dolly placated, ‘don’t start with the waterworks. I’m just spouting wind and you know that. Just make sure that in future you wash up properly.’

‘Two full breakfasts with black pudding and fried bread,’ Rita Marriner shouted as she hurried into the kitchen, slapping an order slip onto the table.

Dolly glared at the young waitress. ‘Didn’t you hear the bell? Those two breakfasts have been standing there for nearly five minutes.’

Rita’s eyes blazed as she picked up the standard meal of sausages, bacon, fried eggs and beans. ‘No, I didn’t hear the bell. I’ve only got one pair of hands and it’s a bit much expecting me to cope with all the tables. It’s about time you found another waitress.’

‘Don’t give me any lip, young lady. You’re getting paid extra so you ain’t got much to complain about. Now get those breakfasts out of here and make sure you ask them if they want bread and butter with it.’

Clutching the two plates, Rita pushed the swing doors with her bottom, saying as she reversed out of the kitchen, ‘Why don’t you stick a bloody broom up me arse and I’ll sweep the floor at the same time!’

Dolly’s mouth opened and shut like a fish floundering out of water. She turned her eyes on Gertie, taking her anger out on the thin, middle-aged woman as she yelled, ‘What are you looking at? Get on with the washing-up.’

As Gertie scurried off, Dolly slapped four rashers of bacon into a frying pan, her shoulders rigid. Rita had been working in the café for only about two months, but the young madam would have to go. It was always the same with youngsters nowadays: they gave you lip, and she wasn’t putting up with it. Mind you, with only one waitress at the moment she’d have to stay her hand until she found a replacement.

‘Two eggs on toast, and one full breakfast,’ Rita yelled again, the door abruptly swinging shut.

The pace was picking up, costermongers from the market ready for their breakfasts. Two more rashers joined the pan, all Dolly’s concentration now focused on the morning rush.

Bernard Dolby stood behind the counter, a large stainless-steel pot in his hand as he poured tea into thick, white china cups. The antithesis of his wife, Bernard was quite short and thin, except for a slightly protruding beer belly. He had light brown hair that was thinning, and most of the time his grey eyes carried a mild expression.

Rita came running up, looking harassed as she picked up the cups of tea, calling out as she hurried away again, ‘Two slices of bread and butter please, Bernie.’

He turned to the work surface behind him, spreading butter on the bread before cutting the slices into neat triangles. ‘Who are they for, Rita?’

‘Table two.’

‘Morning, Derek,’ Bernie said as he took the plate across the room and placed it beside the man.

Derek Lewis looked up, his pug-nosed face breaking into a grin. ‘Watcha, mate. I won me fight last night.’

Bernie smiled, wondering what the other amateur boxer looked like. One of Derek’s pale blue eyes was swollen, the start of a nice black eye visible. ‘How many rounds did you go?’

‘Only six, then I knocked him out just before the bell.’

‘Well done,’ Bernie said, but seeing two customers waiting to pay for their meals, he went back to his post.

‘Right,’ he said, taking the first slip, ‘that’ll be one and six, please.’

Bernie picked up the two shillings proffered. ‘There you are, a tanner change. Dolly’s doing her steak-and-kidney pie for lunch.’

The man licked his lips. ‘That’ll do us. Save a couple of slices, Bernie.’

‘Will do.’ And taking the other man’s slip he added, ‘Egg and Bacon, plus bread and tea – that’ll be a shilling.’

The two young men left and, as the café filled with more customers, Bernie refilled the large teapot, ready for the rush.

It was nine thirty before Bernie drew breath, a sheen of sweat on his forehead as the last customer paid his bill.

‘Rita, when you’ve finished clearing the tables, you can have your break.’

‘I’m dying for a fag. Can’t I have a breather now?’

‘If my wife comes out of the kitchen and sees the state of the place, she’ll have your guts for garters.’

‘It ain’t my fault. It’s impossible to do double my tables
and
clear them at the same time.’

Bernie exhaled loudly. He sympathised with the girl, but knew what Dolly would say if she saw the mess. He came out from behind the counter, saying with a placatory note in his voice, ‘Come on, if I give you a hand they’ll be cleared in no time.’

The girl heaved a sigh, but began stacking the plates on table two as Bernie started on the next one.

Dolly stuck her head out of the kitchen door. ‘Rita, get me a cup of tea.’

‘I’m busy,’ she replied shortly.

Bernie held his breath, but knew what was coming as his wife marched into the room.

‘What did you say?’

‘You heard me. I’ve been rushed off my feet since six thirty this morning. These tables need clearing and I ain’t had a break yet. If you want a cup of tea, I don’t see why you can’t get it for yourself.’

Dolly’s face suffused with colour as she glared at the girl. ‘You, miss, are on a week’s notice.’

‘Huh, is that a fact? Well, sod your week’s notice. I’m going now and you can stick your bleedin’ job.’

Dolly’s jaw dropped as Rita ripped off her apron, threw it on a table and then marched out of the café, only to reappear moments later to grab her handbag from under the counter. Briefly she glowered at them both, but then as a parting shot, before slamming the door behind her, she spat, ‘Do you know something, Dolly Dolby? You’re a miserable old cow and I ain’t surprised you can’t keep a waitress for more than five minutes.’

For a moment there was a shocked silence, but then Bernie sighed heavily, turning to his wife. ‘Now you’ve gone and done it. How are we supposed to manage the lunches?’

‘I’ll get Kevin down here to do the counter. You’ll have to do the serving.’

Bernie, knowing what a lazy young bugger their son was, said with a doubtful shake of his head, ‘I don’t think he’ll take kindly to that. And anyway, he’s probably still in bed.’

The bell pinged and both glanced towards the door again as a young woman came in, her head low as she looked at them shyly from under her lashes. She was a small, mousy-looking creature, wearing a shapeless, grey cotton dress that hung on her tiny frame. Straight, light brown hair sat on her shoulders, parted at the side and fastened with a slide.

For a moment they gazed at her. Then, gathering his thoughts, Bernard asked, ‘What can I get you, love?’

‘I … I saw the notice in the window for a waitress.’

‘Oh, right, then you’d best speak to my wife.’

Dolly took in a great gulp of air, her eyes momentarily looking heavenward before she spoke. ‘I’ve just lost a waitress so your timing is perfect. Sit down,’ she offered, her voice unusually soft.

Bernie listened as his wife began to question the girl. She had arrived at an opportune moment, but she looked so slight that a puff of wind could blow her over.

‘Right, what’s your name?’

‘Pearl Button.’

‘Blimey, your parents must have a sense of humour.’

The girl’s voice was quiet, barely above a whisper. ‘I … I’m an orphan. When I was left on the orphanage steps, they found a tiny button clutched in my hand. That’s how I got the name.’

‘Gawd, if it wasn’t so tragic, it’d be funny. Anyway, how old are you?’

‘I’m sixteen, but I’ll be seventeen in October.’

‘Speak up, girl, I can hardly hear you. How old did you say you are?’

‘I said I’m sixteen.’

‘Christ, you’re just a kid. Have you been a waitress before?’

‘Er … no, but I can start straight away, and I’m quick at picking things up,’ she said, for a moment her expression animated.

Dolly brushed some crumbs from the table, obviously thinking it over as Bernie urged, ‘Give her a try, love.’

He watched as his wife continued to ponder, but it seemed that need overcame her doubts. With a small nod she said, ‘All right, the job’s yours. It’s Tuesday, but if you really are willing to start straight away, we’ll give you a full week’s wage on Saturday.’

‘Oh, thank you,’ Pearl said, and as she smiled for the first time Bernie saw a flash of beauty. The girl had an elfin face with a pointed chin. Huge brown eyes seemed to take up most of her face, but they were hidden again as she lowered her head.

‘You don’t know what the hours are, so don’t thank me yet. Your shift will start at six thirty in the morning, ending at three thirty in the afternoon. You’ll get an hour for lunch between eleven and twelve.’

‘That’s all right. And … and the pay?’

‘You’re only sixteen so it’s two quid a week. Until we get another waitress I’ll give you a bit extra, and you should pick up some tips too.’

‘That’s fine.’

‘Hearing you speak it’s obvious that you don’t come from these parts. Where do you live?’

‘I have a bedsit over an empty shop further along the High Street.’

‘Don’t tell me you’re renting one of Nobby Clark’s rooms?’

‘Well, yes, my landlord is Mr Clark.’

Bernie and Dolly exchanged glances, both knowing what a dodgy character the young man was. The premises had been left to him by an aunt, but he had run the grocery shop into the ground. He had a reputation for shady deals, and some said that letting the upstairs rooms was just a front for his other activities.

Sixteen, Bernie thought, the kid is only sixteen and living alone in one of Nobby’s grotty bedsits. As he coughed she looked up at him, her vulnerability making him swallow. God, once Dolly showed her true character the girl wouldn’t last five minutes. He forced a smile, saying kindly, ‘Well, love, if you can start straight away I’ll show you the ropes, but first, how about a nice cup of tea?’

‘Make it a quick one,’ Dolly said sharply. ‘This place looks like a bomb’s hit it and I want it cleared ready for the lunchtime rush. While you’re at it, Bernie, you can pour a cup of tea for me and Gertie. Pearl can bring it through to the kitchen and I’ll introduce her to Gertie before I start on the lunches.’

Bernie moved behind the counter, and when his wife was out of earshot he decided that if they wanted to keep this waitress, it wouldn’t hurt to put her in the picture. He beckoned Pearl forward, handing her a tray with three cups on it. ‘Now listen, love. Before you take these through to the kitchen I should warn you that my wife can be a bit sharp at times. It’s just her way, but it’s lost us a few waitresses in the past. My best advice is to ignore her if she’s in a bad mood, and for Gawd’s sake, don’t answer her back.’

For a moment Pearl appeared disconcerted, whilst Bernie hoped he hadn’t put his foot in it. They needed a new waitress desperately, but now he might have scared her off.

Her amazing eyes were wide as she looked at him, but then with a faint smile she said, ‘Thanks for warning me.’

Bernie watched her as she walked to the kitchen, thinking it was like seeing Daniel going into the lions’ den. Yet there wasn’t only Dolly to contend with, there were the costermongers too. Rita, with her dyed blonde hair, thick make-up and hardened appearance, had given as good as she got, enjoying their ribald jokes. Pearl, on the other hand, looked as innocent as a lamb and he doubted she’d cope. They were a good crowd really, who looked after their own, and maybe he could tip them the wink, asking them to lay off the girl. He’d start with Derek Lewis. The man might look like a hard nut, but underneath Bernie knew he had a soft spot for waifs and strays – a category that Pearl Button certainly fitted into.

BOOK: Nobody’s Girl
3.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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