Authors: Mary Jane Staples
About the Book
Maggie Wilson was only thirty-three, but life in the teeming streets of Walworth was not that easy in 1908 â not if you were a widow with four young daughters. It was pretty much a hand-to-mouth existence and without the lodger Maggie really wouldn't have managed at all.
Constable Harry Bradshaw thought the Wilsons were a gutsy and brave little family â from the youngest and cheekiest, Daisy, up to the elegant Trary, thirteen-years-old and quite the young lady. But the one who won most of his admiration was Maggie herself, fighting her lonely battle against total poverty.
And his fears for her concerned more than just their lack of money. For a murderer was loose in South London â a rather sinister strangler who obviously knew the local streets and alleys very well indeed. A full scale investigation was put in hand, and Harry was told, in particular, to inquire into any new lodgers who had moved into the district. And there was something very peculiar indeed about Maggie Wilson's lodger.
Miss Russell, the history teacher at West Square School for Girls, put another question to her class concerning the unfortunate monarch, Charles I.
âWhat was the date of his execution? Yes, Ellen?'
âIt was in the winter, Miss Russell,' said Ellen Noakes.
âCan't we do better than that? Can you, Trary?'
Trary Wilson, refreshingly engaging, said, âJanuary thirty, 1649, Miss Russell.' Miss Russell smiled. Trary Wilson was bright in every way.
âQuite right, Trary. Can anyone tell me what followed his execution?'
âThe Commonwealth, miss!' cried a dozen girls.
âAnd what did that do for the country?'
âIt let Parliament rule instead of the King,' said Agnes Moore.
âBlessed bliss that was, I don't think,' said Trary.
âWould you like to stand up and enlarge on that remark?' invited Miss Russell, and Trary came willingly to her feet in her old school frock.
âWell, Miss Russell, I think â '
âShe's off,' said Agnes Moore, but most of the girls sat up in happy anticipation. Most were Trary's champions, even if she was awfully poor.
âNo interruptions, if you don't mind,' said Miss Russell, fifty-four years old and highly practised in the art of maintaining order. âProceed, Trary.'
âWell, Miss Russell, first I think Oliver Cromwell had a blessed cheek signin' the order for the King's execution after what he'd done himself, rampagin' up and down the country â '
âPardon?' said Miss Russell. âWhat was that word?'
âRampagin', Miss Russell,' said Trary, born in 1894 and very ready on this April day in 1908 to show that the years in between had not been wasted. âWell, that's what it was, I think, all his persecutin' of people who weren't Puritan, breakin' up religious images, damaging castles, puttin' the King's Cavaliers to the sword, and then cuttin' the King's head off. And he didn't really let Parliament rule, everyone had to do what he said. He stopped people dancing and singing, and havin' country fairs and puttin' up maypoles. He told them they'd all got to live in misery because God didn't like people goin' about smiling, specially on a Sunday.'
The girls giggled. Trary Wilson was a riot once she got going.
Keeping her face straight, Miss Russell asked, âDid he tell them that, Trary?'
âOh, I'm pleased you asked, Miss Russell, and don't you think Oliver Cromwell accusin' the King of being an absolute monarch was like the pot callin' the kettle black?'
âYes, we might argue that, Trary, but you haven't answered my question.'
âWhat question was that, Miss Russell?'
âDid Oliver Cromwell tell the people they'd all got to live in misery?'
âWell, Miss Russell,' said Trary, âI don't think he actu'lly told them, I don't think he knocked on their doors and said it, I think he let it be known.'
âLet it be known? Yes, I see.' Miss Russell's gravity masked her appreciation of Trary's entertainment value.
âYes, you can let things be known if you're a king or a Lord Protector, Miss Russell. I'm sure the people didn't like livin' gloomy lives, I think it made them rotten ratty.' Trary paused for thought. âWell, imagine no dancing or singing, and not being able to do a knees-up, and 'aving to read the Bible all day every Sunday.' Trary dropped an unusual aitch.
âAll day every Sunday?' enquired Miss Russell, entranced.
âOh, as good as, don't you think so, Miss Russell? I think the Bible's very religious, and that bits of it ought to be read during Scripture lessons, but not all day every Sunday.'
âIs there anything more you'd like to say?' asked Miss Russell.
âWell, only that I don't think it was right the King's head being cut off in front of all the people in White'all.' Another aitch went absent. Trary, conscious of her slip, frowned at herself. âThe King couldn't have liked that very much, it was a cryin' shame, really, because he was a husband an' father as well as a monarch. That's all, Miss Russell.' Trary sat down.
âWell, class?' said Miss Russell, and the girls clapped.
âOh, you are a laugh, Trary,' said Jane Atkins, seated next to her.
âI didn't say anything funny,' declared Trary.
âWe'll begin our next history lesson by discussing some of the points raised by Trary,' said Miss Russell, at which point the bell signalling the end of classes was heard. âOver the weekend, think about everything she said. Now, kindly tidy your desks. Then you may leave, and without treading on each other.'
The girls made short work of tidying up, after which there was the usual rush for the door, which brought a rebuke from Miss Russell. She detained Trary, but waited for the classroom to clear before she spoke, except that Trary spoke first.
âDid I say something wrong, Miss Russell?'
âOn the contrary, you were very good. Perhaps you oversimplified one or two things, but that's better than making too much of a meal of them.' Miss Russell eyed the thirteen-year-old girl kindly. âIs everything all right at home?'
âYes, thank you.' Trary answered politely. She just couldn't confess how awfully hard-up her mum was, and how she and her sisters were suffering hungry days.
âWell, look, if you don't mind getting home a little late, would you do an errand for me? I meant to do a little shopping after school, but there's a teachers' meeting, and the grocers down the road may be shut by the time it's over. Would you go and shop for me? I've made a little list of the things I need, and I'll give you my shopping bag, and threepence for going, of course.'
âThruppence?' said Trary. That kind of errand was usually done for a ha'penny or a penny, and either coin was always gratefully received. âThat's an awful lot, Miss Russell, for an errand just down the road.'
âYou'll be doing me a great favour,' said Miss Russell. It was one way of giving a little something to a girl who could look obvious poverty in the eye and challenge it to do its worst. For her part, Trary recognized kindness, but hoped her shabby frock didn't make her look as if the workhouse was looming for her and her family.
She did the errand at the grocers in St George's Road. The half-crown Miss Russell had provided her with felt a rich coin. It purchased tea, sugar, dried fruit, barley, rice, Scott's Porage Oats and two nutmegs, and still brought a little change from the till. She took the shopping back to the school. Miss Russell was at the teachers' meeting, and Trary left the items on her desk in the classroom, together with the change. On the desk was a little note of thanks from Miss Russell, and a silver threepenny bit.
Then, in her old straw boater and her rather limp-looking school frock, Trary made her way home to Charleston Street, close to St John's Church, Walworth. She began to think how to spend the threepence to the very best advantage. Three pounds of potatoes? No, you could get four pounds for threepence. Or half a loaf of bread and a pennyworth of cheese? Or a pound and a half of tomatoes? Or some sliced brawn? Or, if the Maypole Dairy had any cracked eggs left, six for the threepence? Eggs, yes. Mum could scramble them and serve them on toast for tea. Mum was ever so worried about being hard-up. Eggs would be best, or baked potatoes with salt and marge. Did they have any marge in the larder? Even if they did, baked potatoes would take a long time and use up such a lot of gas. Yes, eggs were favourite, if she could get six cracked ones.
She went to the Maypole in the Walworth Road, not far from home. Just inside the doorway stood the basket where cracked eggs were usually placed. But there were only three. She spoke to Mr Cummings, a nice man who served behind the long white marble counter. Did they have only three cracked eggs? She wanted six. Mr Cummings disappeared. He returned with four eggs in a small basket.
âHere we are, Trary, all fresh-cracked,' he said.
âOh, you didn't just go an' crack them, did you?' she asked, glancing at the manager, who was talking to a customer at the far end of the counter.
âWell, no, that wouldn't be right, would it?' said Mr Cummings. He put the four eggs in a brown paper bag, went to the doorway basket and added the eggs there to the bag. Trary said she'd only got thruppence for six, he'd given her seven. Mr Cummings took the threepenny bit with a smile and a wink. âWell, we don't want one cracked egg sittin' here all night, Trary. By the way, regards to your mum, and tell her our marge is down to a bargain price.'
âThanks ever so much, Mr Cummings.' Trary took the bag of eggs. A couple were a little wet, but the cracks weren't ruinous. Holding the bag with care, she left the shop. As she did so, a young woman passed by. Such a nice little hat sat on hair which was as fair and bright as sunshine. A man coming the other way cast dazzled eyes at her. Blindly, he blundered into Trary, who almost dropped the bag of eggs. As it was, one plopped out and fell, breaking on the pavement. The man stopped, startled and apologetic. He wore a gas-company uniform, and beneath his peaked cap his blue eyes regarded her ruefully.
âSorry, girlie, wasn't looking where I was going, now see what I've done.'
âIt's all right,' said Trary, although she sorrowed for the lost egg.
âDon't move, stay there, won't be a tick, stay there now,' he said, and hurried into the Maypole. He was out again quite quickly. With a smile, he gave Trary another bag, a white one, containing three eggs.
âOh, but I only bought cracked ones,' said Trary, âand I only lost one, and you're giving me three new ones.'
âIt's to make up for my clumsiness, you might've lost the lot,' he said.
âOh, that's awf'lly kind,' she said. He smiled and went on his way, and she carried all nine eggs home to her hard-up mum and three sisters. Served scrambled on toast they were a golden feast, and Trary was voted best girl in the family.