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Authors: Jenny Oldfield

Paradise Court

BOOK: Paradise Court
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hidden talent rediscovered

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Jenny Oldfield

Jenny Oldfield

Jenny Oldfield is one of the most successful writers of popular fiction series for children. Trademarks of her work are compelling plotting and a sense of adventure and fun. Her latest series is Muddy Paws (Hodder). Ten-year-old cousins and best friends Lexi and Lily are poles apart when it comes to personality. They don't always see eye to eye . . . but they are united by their love for all animals and the summer holidays sees them conjure up animal mayhem . . .

Jenny also writes fiction under several pseudonyms including the Dark Angel and Beautiful Dead trilogies as Eden Maguire. Young, Gifted and Dead and Killing You Softly appear under the name Lucy Carver, while in the Stardust Stables series Jenny writes as Sable Hamilton.

Jenny was born and brought up in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Even as a child she wrote stories and made tiny books complete with illustrations. She still lives in Yorkshire and enjoys walking, playing tennis, riding and travelling.


For my mother and father

Part One
November 1913
Chapter One

Tommy O'Hagan waited in the dark alley for a signal from his sister Daisy's dressing room. His worn jacket gave no protection against the swirling November wind. ‘Come on, Daisy,' Tommy muttered through chattering teeth. He was starved as well as freezing, and this waiting was getting him down. ‘I can't stay here all day!' In the dim, grey light he looked no more than a huddled bag of bones.

At last a shapely hand and wrist emerged through a window and beckoned him. Tommy nipped down to the stage door, Daisy opened it and he slipped in out of the cold afternoon.

‘Thanks, Daisy,' he said, though at first he couldn't swear it
her under all that muck on her face. Then she spoke.

‘Get a move on, Tommy. If they catch you hanging about backstage my name'll be mud!' She propelled him forward by the shoulder. He blundered down a long, cream corridor with open doors to left and right through which he caught the heady impression of feathers, frills, silky dresses and limbs, and the heavy scent of greasepaint and powder. He paused to breathe it all in, but Daisy gave him another hefty push. ‘And don't never say I don't do nothing for you!' she cried, shoving him through a narrow door at the far end of the corridor.

Tommy heard it thud shut behind him. The muggy warmth hit him and he waited for his eyes to get used to the huge, dark auditorium. Better than hanging about the street-corners, he thought. Not that he'd have paid tuppence to see Daisy prancing about up there. But seeing it for free was different. Practicality, not principle,
gave Tommy this cast of mind for he'd never in all his fifteen years had the tuppence in his pocket to pay for a ticket.

Daisy hurried back to her crowded dressing room to finish fixing her hair.

Hettie Parsons caught her friend's reflection in the mirror as she pinned a cockade of purple ostrich feathers into her own dark coils. She felt a tiny stab of envy; though she was only twenty-five herself, Daisy's youthful figure seemed to her to be hour-glass perfect. ‘Who's it this time, another new gentleman friend?' she asked casually. Her long fingers clipped the head-dress firmly in place. Daisy would be getting into bother one of these days.

Daisy snorted. ‘I should say so! No, that was my little brother, Tommy.' She sat alongside Hettie and stole a couple of hairpins. Expertly she wound her long auburn hair into full, soft folds on top of her head.

‘You got to be more careful,' Hettie warned. ‘One of these days someone's gonna tell Mr Mills and then you're done for.' She'd seen it happen before. If one of the other girls got it in for you, they could easily go telling tales to the manager.

But Daisy just shrugged. ‘Here, have one last pull at this lace of mine, will you?' she asked, standing up and turning her back. She breathed in deeply to let Hettie pull the bottom stay holes as tight as they would go.

‘If you get much thinner round your waist, you'll vanish,' Hettie warned. But she pulled hard, as requested. Though Daisy's waist was slim, her stays showed the round fullness of her breasts.

‘Thanks.' Daisy gave a pert glance at the mirror; chest out, stomach in. Then she went and struggled into her costume, stuffing yards of white petticoat inside the bustled, frilled confection of purple satin and lace.

Up in the gods, Tommy O'Hagan lounged against a brass rail and watched the curtain go up. The lights came on and he squinted down at the stage for a sight of Daisy, but since it was too far for his short-sighted eyes to see he soon gave it up. It was warm and dry, an ideal place for a kip. He slumped in his corner, his one shot at luxury, and caught up on some sleep.

Hettie and Daisy stood side by side in the chorus line in their low-cut frocks. They swayed to the music. This wasn't exactly the Alhambra or the Empire, and they weren't Marie Lloyd. So what? They were young and pretty and sang like larks. The Southward Palace lay open beneath them; row upon row of upturned faces sitting in their plush new velvet seats. They saw the tiers of balconies and boxes, all carved into grapes and cherubs, and painted gold. The heat of the coloured electric lights at their dainty feet and the curling cigarette smoke beyond made them light-headed. They drank in the applause from the galleries. They sang their hearts out before they left the stage to give way to the mother-in-law jokes of Archie Small, resident comic and ladies' man.

Hettie's feet were killing her inside her pointed boots, and her ribcage felt bruised and sore from the rigid whalebone stays. Her own figure was wearing well; still round in the right places, still slender at the waist. Her luxurious, dark, wavy hair was one of her best points. She held her head high, knowing she could still put on a good show against the likes of Daisy O'Hagan and Mr Mills's newer recruits. And she knew her way around better than they did.

Gratefully she eased out of her costume and changed into her street clothes, eager for an hour or two at home with her feet up in front of the fire before they had to come back for the evening show.

A couple of stage-hands came down the corridor, one with a ladder, the other with coils of cable slung over his shoulder. They leaned in at the dressing-room door and winked at the girls.

‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,' they crooned.

Daisy had a sharp retort ready for each of them.

‘We going to be here all day?' Hettie asked irritably. Sometimes she wondered why she'd got in with Daisy O'Hagan. After all, she was only a kid of nineteen, new to the halls and too cheeky by half. Though there were only six years between them, Hettie herself was very steady by comparison. Perhaps she felt Daisy needed keeping an eye on. Anyway, she lived close by, just down the court
from Hettie, with that ragged family of hers. They shared the same tram ride home.

At last Daisy put on her thin, shabby outdoor coat and she and Hettie stepped through the stage door into the cobbled alleyway and the cold November afternoon. The lamplighters had already been by and brought their small cheer to the main street, so the girls jumped the dark puddles and hurried up there. They soon caught a tram and rode home together past the new Town Hall, across Park Road into the maze of closes and courts just south of London Bridge.

Here they alighted and once again braved the narrow streets.

‘Your dad in work just now?' Hettie asked. She buttoned her collar tight and walked quickly past a row of tenements where the gangs hung out.

Daisy shook her head. ‘It's been three months since he lost that last job washing bottles. He says it's women's work and wild horses wouldn't drag him back there again. You should've seen his hands though. Cut to shreds they was by that job.'

‘And what you lot living on?' Hettie demanded. She knew Daisy was the oldest in a family of six or seven kids. She'd lost count. With old man O'Hagan out of work, there couldn't be much money coming in.

But Daisy stuck her chin out. ‘We manage!'

Hettie stopped on the pavement. ‘You'll come in and have a cup of tea then?' she asked kindly.

They stood under the lamp at the corner of Duke Street and Paradise Court. Daisy would carry on into the court to reach her home three floors up in one of the old boarding-houses, where she shared just two rooms with her mother and father and all those brothers and sisters. Hettie would step through the double doors of the Duke of Wellington public house, advertising its fine ales in big gold letters and offering a bright welcome to all the thirsty carmen, dockers, railway workers and builders who lived hereabouts. For Hettie and the Parsons tribe, this was home.

Daisy, pale without her make-up under the gaslight, nodded gratefully. ‘Don't mind if I do,' she said grandly, taking up the hem
of her skirt and sweeping past a group of young lads lounging on the doorstep.

‘'S'nice night, Ethel!' one cawed, his Adam's apple working up and down his scraggy throat. He wore a peaked cap, but no neck scarf around his collarless shirt.

‘I should shay sho!' Daisy called back, unabashed.

The boy's mates went wild with delight. ‘You clicked there,' they shouted in a raucous band. ‘She your bird?' and, ‘Hey, Smudge just got off?' they cried.

Daisy stepped inside the swing doors of the pub into a room full of mahogany tables and shiny mirrors. There was a strong smell of mingled beer and sawdust. The boys' catcalls drifted through. ‘Bleeding monkey parade,' she said, her grin as bright as a button. Who do they think they are?'

‘Did you see that one with the big belt and the white silk scarf?' Hettie giggled. ‘Really loves himself, he does.' But she pulled her face straight when she caught her father's severe eye behind the bar. ‘Come through,' she whispered quickly to Daisy. ‘Come upstairs and put your feet up.' And she led the way.

Arthur Ogden, lounging against the bar, watched them go and heard the boys' surge of raw laughter outside. He hunched over his porter and beckoned to the landlord, Wilf Parsons, known as Duke. ‘That girl of yours still working the halls?' he asked. ‘Can't you get her into decent work?'

Carefully Duke dried and polished the glass in his hand. He breathed on it and rubbed it sparkling clean. He wasn't going to rise to Arthur's easy bait. Arthur Ogden was a work-shy wastrel with two kids of his own just growing old enough to begin to cause him a problem or two. Duke would defend his own to the hilt, but he didn't want a scrap. So he went carefully. ‘Thought you went about for a bit with a girl from the halls?'

Arthur's dull eyes lit up. ‘Did once, and that's the God's honest truth. Lovely looking girl, she was, by the name of Maisie.' He sank into reverie.

‘Would that be before or after you hitched up with your Dolly?' Duke put in. Arthur Ogden was all hot air as far as women and
work went. Besides, mention of his wife, Dolly, was guaranteed to shut him up.

Where Arthur was small and weedy, Dolly was ample. Where Arthur shirked, she grafted. While Arthur boasted and boozed, Dolly would stand and nod with a grin on her wide face until it cracked in two. ‘Arthur Ogden,' she'd yell down the street in perfect good humour whenever she heard of his shenanigans, ‘that's sixteen women you've had since we tied the knot to my certain knowledge! And according to you every one a stunner!' And Arthur would have the grace to look at his boots and grunt guiltily. ‘It's no wonder you nod off by the fire when you get home nights,' Dolly would tease.

Upstairs, the kettle sat singing on the hob. Daisy O'Hagan warmed her feet by the fire and sighed. ‘Didn't see hide nor hair of our Tommy after the show,' she grumbled. ‘Cheeky little hooligan, ain't got no manners.' She stretched her long legs luxuriously and hitched her skirt well clear of her slim ankles.

‘Leave the poor little blighter alone,' Hettie said. She too settled comfortably in a chair on the far side of the hearth. ‘Looks as if he could do with a slap-up supper, he does.' Though things had sometimes been tough at the Duke, what with their mother dying when Sadie was born, and their dad being left to cope, the Parsons kids had never gone short of a good square meal at the end of each day.

Hettie felt sorry for kids like Tommy. You saw them everywhere; without so much as a decent pair of shoes to their name, dressed in jackets three sizes too small, ragged-arsed and skinny. Only last week she'd seen young Tommy, desperate to earn a penny, chasing rats for Annie Wiggin down the bottom of the court. Annie hated rats and was prepared to part with real money to be rid of them. ‘I'll give you a penny for a pair!' she declared. ‘They've got to be still warm, mind you, and none of that rigid mortis. You bring them to me hanging by their horrible little tails. I don't want no stinking old ones you dug up to try and trick me with! Fresh ones, you hear!' And she'd stumped off into her front room to dust, clean and box the stuffing out of her one easy chair.

Hettie waited until Daisy had finished her mug of tea and the doorstep wedge of bread and dripping that she'd given her before she made a move away from the cosy fire. She checked her hair in the mirror over the mantelpiece, and smoothed and tucked her lacy white blouse inside the tiny waistband of her skirt. ‘Ain't you got no home to go to?' she grumbled softly. There was no sign in the house of either her older sister, Frances, or of young Sadie. ‘Well, it's either get yourself off home or help me with the spuds,' she said She went through to the kitchen to begin making supper for her father and the boys.

Daisy leapt up, scattering crumbs and swigging down the last of her tea. ‘Better go.' She winced at the chilblains on her toes as her warmed feet made contact with the Parsons' hearthrug. ‘Ma wants me to mind the little ones. Ta for the tea.'

She was already on her way downstairs when she bumped into Robert Parsons.

‘Steady on, where's the fire?' he called He grabbed her round the waist as she half fell against him. ‘Or has our Frances been having a swipe at you two lovely girls again?' He grinned and took a second or two longer than he needed to set Daisy back on her feet. ‘She's a bit strait-laced, is Frances. Is that why you're in such a rush?'

With the way down blocked by Hettie's brother, Daisy retreated coyly upstairs. ‘Frances ain't in. Hettie's cooking supper,' she reported breathlessly. She felt herself colour up under Robert's brazen gaze. His handsome, moustached face was still grinning below her as she backed off. Beyond him, she caught sight of poor Ernie, trailing after.

‘And you mean to say you was on your way without so much as saying hello to me and Ernie?' Robert put his arm around her waist again and swept her back into the living room. ‘Even knowing how it makes our day?'

Daisy was reduced to blushes and giggles. Robert Parsons overwhelmed her with his teasing, though she was bold enough with other men. He did it to all the girls, but Daisy was half in love with his hazel eyes and bristling dark moustache.

BOOK: Paradise Court
11.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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