The Steel – Tony Crisp
In Dedication to my grandmother Emma
and my mother Betty.
In my heart I believe this is the story of
the times and the heartbreak the women
in their line survived,
leaving them ‘the steel’
and the ‘fierce passion’ of love.
When she had the leisure of time to stand on the rising ground of her later life and look back, Bess saw the convoluted alleyways of her youth, and caught a glimpse of herself there running. This view enabled her to understand for the first time why she had never asked who her father was.
Her understanding was a private thing, but in explaining it to herself she described it by saying, “As a child I didn’t know enough, and my ignorance was such that I didn’t have wit enough to ask that question, or even to know why I was without a father. My whole span of attention was filled with avoiding things and doing things, and trying not to get trapped or involved.” She explained it to herself in this way because she had taught herself to write late in life. In practising her writing she started a journal in which she made an effort to expose in self confession the pain she lived with.
Somewhere in those pages she said, “I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I constantly lived with the feeling that one had to ‘watch out’. There were so many people grabbing at you, you had to have a sharp eye. You had to be able to kick. You had to be able to run. You had to be able to bite quickly without restraint. You had to look as if you weren’t afraid, and to act as if you weren’t afraid. You had to appear as if you were the same type of creature as the thing that was grabbing at you. You had to be able to distract them.
“I was so busy living my life, running, biting, distracting, I didn’t think about, or know about having a father.”
The childhood world Bess lived in was complicated, but certain parts of that world were very clear and simple. There was no question that the very pivot upon which Bess’s world turned was her mother Catherine. This fact was the most profound reality Bess knew. As a child it wasn’t that she had thoughts to realise this truth. She was almost totally a feeling and reacting creature, honed sharp and as dangerous as her childhood would allow her to be. Her knowing was out of her lightning fast reflexes and feelings. For it was these that kept her alive and gave her a level of shrewd perception she could not put into words, but which enabled her to walk through the dark pits of the streets at night and survive.
And that was the second great fundament of her world – survival.
It was her mother, Catherine, who was the whetstone that vigorously and with hard passion scoured her into sharpness. “Betsy” her mother said to her, often enough for it to have become a ritual, “You got to hope for somefing. If you don’t hope you might as well walk right out this minute and lay in the nearest ditch and stay there. There’s plenty a rough places to walk barefoot while your hoping – I know that. So just hitch your skirts up and keep on going over the stony bits.”
This was usually said to her after having been thumped by her mother as a means to keep Bess from some action Catherine disapproved of. Hope seemed to be Catherine’s religion. So the ritual incantation was like a sermon, not that Bess understood this, but it was thumped into her so frequently she had unknowingly taken it in. Sometimes Catherine would add as an afterthought, “Once you’re dead you’re dead. There aint nofing you can hope for then. While your quick though, somefin might come of it.”
Death wasn’t something hidden in the roads of Bess’s childhood world. In the narrow wet dirtiness of what were her playground, her school and the arena in which she must do combat with the unleashed villainy hopelessness that ran loose there, death often lay on her path. People lived and died on the streets. Her mother’s beatings and sermons inculcated into Bess the drive to stay alive, even if the place you were alive in was a deep dank pit.
Bess’s view of all this was narrow. She was unable to read or write and knew only the streets around her for a small distance – to go beyond ones territory was dangerous for one her age and Catherine never moved far. Bess could have told you that she lived in the East of London, and could have repeated what the year and month was. But these had no meaning for her. She knew nothing of history or the past, so the year was irrelevant to her. She knew there were other places than London, but the edge of her known world was the place on a street beyond which she had not walked. Further than that point was mystery protected by a veil of fear. For to walk into the unknown was full of risk.
Therefore, the two supporting columns of Bess’s life, or the engines that drove it – her mother and survival – were interwoven with knots too difficult to untangle. And Bess, in her ignorance, had no idea there were other ways of living than her own. Nor had she ever put into words that her mother faced the trials of her life through what was akin to a religious faith. Catherine expressed this faith as the belief that if they could simply stay alive, even without quality, they might arrive at a better life.
Bess both loved and feared her mother. It was obvious to Bess’s unschooled mind that Catherine cared for her deeply, and the love was born of this. The fear was generated by Catherine’s uncompromising and iron rules for survival in a difficult world. Catherine was herself untutored as far as spending time in a classroom was concerned, but she had spent all her life in the hard school of her times. And though in many ways a shallow woman, there was a bright fire of shrewdness in her, gathered from generations of women struggling to endure, which gave her strength and wit enough to commit acts that were otherwise beyond herself.
Over many years Catherine had developed a means of existence that was akin to building a house of cards. It had started when she succeeded in renting a room in a house filled with other boarders. At that time, with a baby carried with her, she had managed to eat and pay her way by washing and cleaning for other people. Then, established in that, another room had become vacant in the same house. Catherine had taken on the rent of both her own and the second room. She was supported in this through her knowledge of someone who was looking for accommodation, and her bold plan was to sublet at a pittance more than she was paying for the room.
It worked. Gradually she used the same method to rent the other rooms in the house and sublet them. It was a house of cards in that if just one of the rooms remained empty for too long, the whole system would collapse, with Catherine taken to the courts for debt. But the more rooms she had, the greater buffer existed between her and the courts. Therefore, although not completely impoverished, the shadow of debt was never far away.
These were the woven strands of the life Bess had been born into. The forming forces around her had, like the hands of a potter working the clay, drawn her into a particular shape. From the skilled work of this shaping, the very fibres of her body and soul knew the fine art of balancing risk and personal sacrifice against the need to survive. Even when a small child, she had, like dry earth absorbing rain, drawn into herself the skill of abiding in a shelter within her own mind that was in some manner separated from the events impinging upon her body. In this shelter she could close heavy doors to oppose the words and actions frequently launched against her like arrows. But the heavy doors made for loneliness with its feeling of isolation. For it is usually only in vulnerable nakedness that we meet another person in a way to feel loneliness melt.
In the middle of Bess’s ninth year one of the rooms her mother was renting and subletting remained empty for some weeks. The dark clouds of feelings emanating from Catherine deepened. They gathered depth and hinted at internal struggles where lightning flashed but no thunder was heard – nor did rain fall. Bess felt fear without knowing exactly what it was. She kept away from her mother as much as possible, feeling as if she ought to have something to help in the difficulty, but seeing herself as empty handed. At that time she was working in a small soap factory, carrying and wrapping, so it wasn’t hard to be out of the house. It wasn’t good to be indoors during the day. The space in the one room was too cramped to eat, live, sleep and not get involved in her mother’s thunder clouds.
But Bess had to go home sometime. As late as it was, Catherine appeared to be waiting for her. “You’re late tonight”, Catherine remarked, without any hint of the stormy tension that had been undeniable for weeks.
“Old Mr. Siddell made me stay and finish packing an order they want for tomorrow”, Bess replied, feeling cautious about her mothers mood. “Is the room let?” This was a daily question, but it was asked as a finger in the water to test the heat.
“No Betsy, but something’s come along that might take care of it. I want to talk to you about it. But there’s some food waitin for you. Eat first then I’ll tell you what’s a way around this fuss.”
Catherine smiled firmly and Bess’s fear crawled back out of the shadows again and began to move around in her belly, and up her arms and legs. It made eating less of a pleasure, but Bess needed the food and filled her stomach, giving the fear less space to crawl around in. She ate silently though and Catherine chattered on as if trying to sweeten Bess, moving the saucepan of food off the side of the fire onto the hearth. Then, as Bess finished eating, she sat beside her on the mattress that was their common bed.
Bess sat still, arms around her up-drawn knees, waiting, staring ahead. She knew something was strange in her mother’s manner, but could find no glimpse of the creature that was pattering about.
“Don’t go all quiet on me Betsy” Catherine said. She reached out and laid her hand on Bess’s shoulder, but feeling no response removed it again and stood up. She was quiet for a while, with her back to the fire, being careful of her skirts. “This aint any fun Bess, and you know it. We aint born ladies so lets not make ourselves like we were.”
She paused. “Look at me Bess.”
“You know why! There aint no ease in this fix we’re in and you know it. If the room doesn’t get took in a few days we gotta run for it. Either that or do somethin desperate. Either way it’s a stony path with no shoes on your feet.”
Bess relaxed a little, holding on less tightly to her knees and looking at her mother. “Where would we go if we bolted for it? I heard some people live on farms. P’rhaps we could do that. In a barn maybe”
Her mother sighed, returning her gaze. “I don’t think I could muster enough strength for farm work Bess, ‘cept maybe milkin cows. People want somethin from you if they’re givin you a roof. Same as ‘ere. We could certainly run, though I don’t know where to. Though that’s a heap o’ money better ‘n bein put down the hole, an never gettin out, an you not bein with me, but in an orphanage somewhere.”
“So when’re we goin to do it? It’s not winter for a while, and we could get away from here and get work in one of them grand houses – both of us. I can work hard Ma.”
“I know you can Betsy, but it’s not that easy. Those people want to know who your great grandma is an whether she had fleas! They don’t just say, ‘Your a fine lookin woman Catherine, please come and eat our grub and scrub our floors.’ You know yourself what old Mr. Siddel’s like. He’d think he was doin you a favour if he gave you the droppins off ‘is nose to eat. Different if I had some family to go to, but I don’t know where my sister or my brother is. If I knew, then I’d give it a go. Without them we’d ‘ave to be beggars on the street.”
“I don’t see what to do then Ma. If we stay ‘ere, you’ll go to jail; and if we bolt for it we’ll be beggars.” Bess wasn’t far from tears. They were welling up in her eyes, pushing out from the conflict she felt and which was pulling at her body.
Catherine was calm, with eyes fixed on Bess. “There’s a way we can still keep what we’ve got ‘ere, an we don’t need to run, but it’s up to you, ‘cause someone’s made you an offer.”
Bess suddenly stopped feeling tearful and wiped the moisture away from her eyes with quick movement. Instead she was watchful with the quiet alertness that only experts in danger can maintain, even in the face of violent action. “What d’you mean someone’s made me an offer? What sort of offer? Is it money?”
Catherine looked at the fire in a sideways look, slightly wistfully as she spoke. “Yes, it’s money, enough to get us through.”
Bess was still in the state of poised alertness, like a bird crouching to fly as it looks around for possible attack, but she butted in with a clear strong voice. “For what! Work? Tell me!”
“I was in the middle of tellin you. I’ve been trying to tell you. Don’t you see that?” Catherine paused and went on. “It’s that Mr. Osler upstairs. He wants you to live in his room with him nights. He’s got a fancy for you and he’ll pay double ‘is rent if you say you will.”
From the posture of the crouching bird Bess stood up. She stared at her mother and Catherine stared back. Bess’s heart raced and her mind raced. The locked eyes of mother and daughter were in some strange way also linked minds, and Bess with swift thoughts sped through all the possible arguments she could raise against the monster Mr Osler, and all the counter justifications her mother could reply with. So there were no words between them, just the subtle shifting of their gaze and all the language spoken by their expression to each other. For Catherine’s face was not hardened, perhaps there was even a hint of pleading in her eyes, but overall there was resoluteness. Bess could read it, as she had so often in her mother’s face. It was determination to walk barefoot down the stony road, because the other roads are seen to be full of glass and hidden pits. It was a firmness which said “I’ve looked at the other roads, and you can look for yourself. If you can find an easier one, tell me.”
Bess looked and she couldn’t see an easier road, but it didn’t lighten her heart or help her break her silence, only deepened the heavy darkness pulling at her inside. Suddenly a thought passed through her mind with a flash of light, and it must have shone out of her for a moment. And because their minds were one place still, Catherine said, almost quietly, “I offered Bess, but he aint got no desire in ‘im for me.”
Their gaze broke. The light in Bess went out. She had no argument, but the fear and hurt in her still said “No!” Without warning she turned and bolted out of the house. In moments Catherine was at the door. She shouted after Bess into the darkness, “Four days Bess – then we go.” There was no reply.
Bess had never run away before. She had often stayed out of the house for hours in a sulk to keep away from Catherine, but this time she felt different. She didn’t have the desire to worry or hurt her mother as previously, she wanted to get away. Exactly what sleeping with Mr Osler meant wasn’t clear to her, but she had seen enough drunken couples in the streets, and heard and glimpsed things in the rooms of the place she lived, to have developed feelings about it. She hadn’t reached an age when curiosity or some measure of urge within her made ‘sleeping’ with men exciting. But she had heard what Catherine called to her in the dark, and was carrying it with her.
Old habits cared for Bess as the night deepened. It was September. Apart from dampness, there was no problem with being cold that night, and she had just eaten. She moved from place to place with pauses to listen. It was unwise to simply walk in the street without constantly checking with all your senses. There were worse people than Mr. Osler, and it would be as witless as a street idiot to run from him into the dirty hands of one of the night people. Her nightmares weren’t filled with awful animals or mythical monsters, but by someone who emerged from a pool of darkness at the end of a slimy, slop smeared alley. Usually the figure who grabbed at her, causing her to wake herself and her mother with her cries, looked as if he had been dead for some time. So her rational and irrational fears of dark places kept her senses sharp.
There was no conscious thought in Bess’ mind as to where she was going. Her thoughts were too full of reaction to the conversation with her mother, and strange unwelcome images of Mr Osler. These were punctuated with feelings of anger and pain from a sense of betrayal. But none of it would quite harden into a determined rage. Catherine’s words kept echoing in her mind to push all the pieces of the puzzle into a new muddle again – “I offered”. Tears ran down Bess’ face without any sobs. It was a strange feeling.
Despite all this Bess was making her way street by street West. She only realised it herself when she turned a corner and saw St. Bartholomew’s church ahead of her. She paused, long enough for the realisation of her unconscious plan to become clear. Drumby Street, for that’s where she was, lay in a slow curving arc around a grand area of houses just beyond it. St. Bartholomew’s was supported by a few of the wealthy from that district, but was itself in a poorer parish and street. Bess had once delivered a parcel to the church one evening and had stayed on awhile afterwards. The beauty of the many candles producing islands of light in the great dim space of the church had sent trembling pleasure up her spine. There had been someone singing who she couldn’t see. Their voice had been so pure it gave Bess the slight feeling of her hair standing on end. She wasn’t used to the upper registers of her emotions, so it had felt strange and unearthly. But she had also noticed at that time the people asleep huddled in corners, or lying under the pews. And as the memory of this came back to her standing in the darkness of Drumby Street, she knew why she had made her way to St. Bartholomew’s while her emotions were wrestling with Catherine and Mr. Osler.
Going into the church was quite difficult. The door was closed, although not locked. Its bigness and metal studs made it feel like the barrier it was. Bess was sure everyone would look at her if she moved that massive door. And who and what was inside anyway? But she made herself push past the obstacle of her fear and turn the handle. It was well greased and she slipped into the church with barely a turned head. Still watchful as if she were on the street, she sat in the nearest pew in order to give her time to see and sense the place. The space smelt musty with old wood, candles and the smell sleeping people give off. After some minutes Bess felt safe enough to move. There were a few people praying even at this late hour. But it appeared acceptable to find a place to sleep. So she moved further away from the door where there was less light, and curled up as best she could on a pew to avoid the coldness of the stone floor. It was difficult to sleep though. She had never been away from her mother or home, and although her body was young, the wood soon felt as hard and as cold as any stone floor. People coughed or murmured in their sleep. The door to the church occasionally opened, and it was difficult for Bess to stop herself from raising her head to see who it was each time. But even that wasn’t the main source of her discomfort. The suffering she most felt arose out of feeling that a huge change had fallen upon the world. In one day, difficult as her life might be judged to be, she still had a home and a mother and a place to sleep, with food waiting for her. The change had torn that away, leaving her separated from everything she had known. It was a devastating feeling to have nowhere and no one to be connected to. Growing in her was an awareness that she could, out of the aloneness, commit acts of desperation, criminal acts to the degree she had never considered before. Connection and family had unknowingly given her a barricade against an internal riot that would hit out at others. With the barricade down, even though so recently, the internal mob were shouting angrily. Bess didn’t understand the fine points of this, she simply felt like something was crushing her from the inside, and she trembled, not from the cold.
At some point in the early morning, just as Bess had finally fallen deeply into sleep. someone laid a hand on her bare leg. Without thought, and not needing to wake properly, her body went into a frantic kicking struggle and shouts. One of her feet caught whoever it was near her a square kick in what felt like an area to the side of the lower ribs. She heard the wind blow out of them, but then a hand went over her mouth to stop her shouts. Again, purely as a reaction without hesitation, she bit and held on. All the internal mob whose shouting had kept her awake were now directing their anger into that tearing bite. The person screamed and other people in the church were shouting and moving. Suddenly Bess was alone again. Whoever had touched her had disappeared into the shadows out of which they had emerged.
The next few days were difficult. As wise to street life as she already was, Bess was quickly pushed into realising there were areas of it’s activity she had never directly confronted before. The person who had slid their hand along her leg, who could arrive from and disappear so smoothly into the shadows, was the first touch of something that felt like the creature of Bess’s nightmares. There was something that lived in the shadows of London’s streets that even during daylight might emerge. But at night it was more daring, and if you were marked, the beast not only showed itself in its real form, but hunted you, sniffing your scent, eager and sure.
Bess had to realise that the mark the beast recognised was now on her. The clear recognition of this came to her on the first day of her departure from home as she stood in a doorway watching for an opportunity to carry off some apples that had fallen from a display outside a shop. As she observed the movements of the people in the shop and those arriving and leaving, she saw a young woman arrive in a private carriage and alight to visit another shop nearby. The carriage waited for her. Bess envied her and idly wondered how the young beauty would manage without her carriage and groom. She entertained herself by imagining the woman having to walk back through the muddy streets to her house if her servant deserted her. This led Bess to see that with each level of protection the young woman lost, she became more available to the beast. The beast would emerge more confident, for who would dare place a hand on the woman’s leg now, with all her servants and her family around her. Even if not there, an invisible presence of her family’s power surrounded the woman. Peel this away, and with each layer gone the woman’s jewellery, her clothes, her body, became more obtainable to desire, or perhaps more available as objects to sell. Then the beast would come out of its shadowy place. In its human form it would no longer disguise itself as respectable, but would come and lay hands on the woman, for she would have the mark. Her erect head, her failure to look furtively around to see if she were being watched or followed, her washed face and hands, the lack of fear in her eyes, showing her as without the mark, would have gone. Then she would be prey. The very fact of Bess standing in a doorway with dirty face and uncombed hair, and her quick watching eyes, gave her the mark. And in the very moment of recognising this Bess quickly searched the street once more to see if she were being looked at with that special inquisitive regard which arises out of the shadowy place.
It was fortunate for Bess that insight into the darker side of human nature had come so soon and so clearly. For as she roamed the streets scouring the markets looking for dropped or half rotten food, she was accosted several times in different ways. Once as she bent to search for stale bread at the back of a bakers, a well dressed man caught her eye and offered her cakes and new bread. But he kept them just out of her reach and by his movements and eyes suggested she must go into a house with him some way along a side road to get the food. Bess walked a few paces with him, but felt her body get ready for flight, and knew she was being led into a snare that would tighten around her neck or leg if she went further. That was lesson one – do not get off the street or go into any place where there were no other people. Never go into a house. One might as well walk into a cage. Once the door was closed, any appearance of normality could be dropped.
On the second day Bess was walking away from a line of street stalls eating the remains of a bread roll she had found when a woman, also carrying a few pieces of fruit she had obviously picked up, joined her. “Find any good pickins?” the woman asked.
“A couple of rolls” Bess replied, still eating.
“Best not to eat your stuff on the street” the woman said, “too obvious. Some of them traders get annoyed, even if they did throw the stuff away. They don’t like seeing a body get anyfing wivout payin.”
Bess looked the woman over. She had a fairly young face which, although smiling, had etched into it the permanent wary and cynically hard look of someone who has spent too many years being hurt, but hasn’t become submissive or cowed yet. Her clothes had more the appearance of a colourful bundle of material wrapped around her for warmth rather than taste. Having looked Bess asked, “Where do you eat?” Bess’s loneliness and her hopes of having found some slight companionship led her to drop her guard slightly.
“It’s under cover” the woman said, still looking at Bess. “I got a fire as well, so I can cook fings too. Come and see.”
Without replying to the invitation Bess walked along with her. They were heading into an area Bess didn’t know, moving slightly down hill toward the Thames. After some general talk about how stingy stall keepers were the woman asked “You pickin just for yourself?
Bess could feel the woman’s full attention on her. “No my ma’s not well so she cant do her laundry work. I’m keepin us eating for just a few days till she’s well again” Bess lied.
The woman laughed quietly. “You better not finish eatin that last roll then, if your poor sick ma is goin to get any”.
Looking slightly taken aback Bess started to say “I’m going to get some more” when the woman’s hand shot out as fast as a whip and caught Bess’s wrist. There were a few people about so this surprised Bess enough to stifle any immediate reaction, but she started yelling. But the woman yelled back.
“Don’t shout at your mother like that” the woman screamed, shaking Bess. “Aint I done enough for you wivout you treatin me like this? I’m takin you ‘ome and your pa’s goin to give you a thick ear when he knows what you been up to.”
All surprise was gone from Bess now. Her mouth was at the woman’s wrist, her teeth ripping at the flesh, biting down hard on the underlying bone. The woman screamed and swung her left hand above Bess’s head and then backwards smashing her fist into Bess’s face. The blow hit Bess on the left eye and sent her flailing onto the floor, rending the woman’s flesh.
For a moment the woman hesitated nursing her wrist, but then was after Bess, bending to gain another hold. As her face came down so Bess’s foot went up straight into the woman’s neck and jaw. The woman must have bitten her tongue because some blood came from her mouth, and she was struggling to breath. Bess didn’t wait. Dizzy from the blow she staggered off, as near to a run as she could manage. The woman was trying to shout something, but only whispering croaks came out.
Her left eye was soon partly closed, with heavy bruising around it. Bess felt sick and hurt, not only from the eye. She wanted to cry, but without thinking about it dare not. Not only would it attract attention when she dearly wanted to be invisible, but also it would bring emotions Bess was strongly resisting. She found her way back to St. Bartholomew’s and crawled into the darkest corner behind some drapes, making herself as small as possible. Her breathing slowed until it was barely noticeable, and she felt herself drawing further away from the world and even her body. She didn’t sleep, but seemed to be a thousand miles away from all feelings and thoughts. It was the only place to find peace. In that place there was nothing she desired and nothing she responded to. Her body lost its sensation of the cold floor, and the pain of her body and of her heart melted away.
Hours passed as Bess bathed her wounds in the emptiness and quiet beyond thoughts and emotion. There was no hurt in this uninhabited realm, no fear to run from, no hopes to struggle for, only the barest suggestion of Bess herself. But Bess was too vital to stay long in that place of withdrawal as some do. A faint flicker of desire to return to life eventually arose and reached out through her body, giving it form and substance. She could feel one of her hands a long way off and moved a finger, which suddenly brought her body’s shape and sensations crowding back. With her fuller breathing came the intense cold and deadness of her legs and hands. Pain made her move and stretch to bring her circulation into cramped limbs. She had come back to life, and life was there waiting for her.
Bess moved out from the drapes that had hidden her, still stiff with the cold that had permeated her from the stone floor, and clumsy. As soon as she emerged she heard someone say, “There she is!”
It was the woman with whom she had struggled, bitten and kicked. The woman was now with a man. He had a sullen smile on his face, which appeared to be a permanent feature. Bess had seen the look before on people who were purposely lying and were pleased with the results. She tried to run, but was slow from cold. But her heart was already thudding from fear, and heat was flooding her, waking her to even more fear as the smiling man ran at her from one direction and woman from another. As he ran the man was saying loudly, “Run away from home would you! Well my little flighty bird, we’ve got yer now!” And his hands were on Bess’s arms like steel traps. She kicked and shouted, but he held her close to him so her blows had not distance to give them strength. Then the woman was on her too with a blow that knocked Bess nearly senseless.
“That’s fer kicking me you bitch.”
When Bess began to regain her awareness of what was happening she was being led by the man and woman toward the doors of the church to leave. The man was on her right with his iron grasp on her arm, and the woman was holding her left arm only slightly less painfully. Bess heard the man say quietly to the woman, “Old man Bingle’s going to pay us good for this one. Ow did yer know she wuz there?”
“I follered ‘er after she kicked me. Then I sent Charlie to fetch yer. I knew she woz in ‘ere somewhere.”
Bess tied to struggle but the couple held her in such a way she was almost off the ground, and being pulled to each side to make her arms helpless and legs ineffective. She started to shout, but the woman raised her hand and Bess stopped. She knew that if she was hit again, this time it would knock her senseless, then there would be no hope.
Now they had reached the doors and were walking out toward the street when they were confronted by the vicar walking toward them. Immediately Bess called to him in an obviously distressed voice. “Sir, please help me. Please help. I’m bein carried off!”
The vicar, a well built man in his forties with a rather sombre intelligent face stopped walking and stood on the path before them barring their way. He didn’t say anything but looked intently at the group before him, unabashed, as if he were every day meeting such groups and such claims.
The man squeezed Bess’s arm even more fiercely as if to warn her of what would come to her later if she persisted. The woman stood slightly turned toward Bess as if in surprise, looking at her and saying, “Now that’s a lie. She ran away from ‘ome sir and we’re takin ‘er back. But blow me if she aint already tryin to run orf agin.”
“Sir, sir” Bess almost cried, “I live at 28 Hogshead Lane with my mother. I don’t know who these people are”.
The man spoke, still with his fixed smile, which had brightened now as if amused. “Well, aint that just where we’re takin you now! Your mother’s been sick worrid about you, and arsed us ter find yer.”
For the first time the vicar smiled and looked full at Bess, momentarily scrutinising her bruised dirty face. “Well, that’s settled then” he said, as if about to walk off – and Bess felt a deluge of panic. “So you can all be seen to do the right thing, I’ll walk along with you to Hogshead Lane to find out if this young lady is telling the truth.” And he walked firmly up to the woman, removed her hand from Bess’s arm, and took Bess’s hand firmly in his.
“Well, as yer wish sir” the man said, his smile becoming almost beatific. And they walked out to the road, where, now within the wider space, the man and woman started to run frantically without a word or a backward look, dodging people and horses as they disappeared.
The vicar now stopped and looked at Bess again. “It seems you were lucky I came when I did. Those two had some mischief planned for you I think. Perhaps someone has prayed for you with a good heart young woman, and God put me here to upset those plans.”
It wasn’t a question and Bess didn’t reply, except to say in a low but sincere voice, “Thank you.”
The vicar held her hand all the way back to Hogshead Lane. He told Bess his name was The Reverend Bicksley, and she could always come to St. Bartholomew’s again if she needed help. Bess didn’t say much except to surrender her own name when he asked. It was difficult to do after several days on the streets, where telling someone else ones name and past felt as if it gave them some sort of power.
As they walked Bess felt relief growing in her from knowing that she was going home. It was not without some shadow of the desperation that had led Bess to run away from her mother and live on the streets. But the desperation had been diluted to a reasonable level by the events of the past hours. A knowledge had grown in Bess that she could not escape from some form of misery. In just a few days she had gone up the ladder of emotional age several years. The misery that might be from Mr Osler at least had the comfort of happening within her own home. Bess thought to herself that a splinter in the arse is far easier to deal with at home with some warm soup than locked in some stranger’s cold attic.
When they arrived at the door, the reverend Bicksley stopped for a while and chatted earnestly with Catherine. Bess had not said anything to the vicar about having been roaming the streets for days. She knew her mother would never mention this either to the vicar, who was an obvious person of authority. It was too deeply ingrained in both of them that you never told anything important to authority unless you had to – as Bess had done in her dire need in saying where she lived while held captive. As Catherine often said, “If you don’t tell nothin to no one, then nothin can creep up on you when you aint lookin and grab you by the neck.” The imagery of the neck referred to the hangman’s noose that might catch you if you were caught or suspected of being up to no good.
Catherine said nothing of Bess running away. She held Bess and thanked the vicar profusely for protecting her from the couple. Catherine and Bess never talked about it again.
Sid Osler wasn’t a man to create any feelings of respect or fear in others. He was an inch or more shorter than medium height, with a wiry body, slightly round shouldered. For a man in his thirties his face was still boyish, as if some part of him had not grown past a certain age. This didn’t make him look stupid, but it did give the impression that his mind had not gained a level of complexity that produces full adulthood.
Along with this he was a man who didn’t seem to have any friends other than those he worked with at the brewery nearby. Bess had the feeling that a river in him had dried up or been blocked somewhere. Not that she ever entertained such feelings consciously, but it was obvious when looking at Sid Osler that little was flowing out of him in the way of conversation or even body movements. When he did speak the words came out without apparent colour of emotion attached to them. And Osler had a way of looking at people as he spoke, or as he listened, that gave one the strange sense you were in the presence of a sleeping person. It wasn’t that he looked drowsy or unfocussed, only that he barely responded. It therefore puzzled Bess in later life how Osler had managed to communicate to Catherine that he wanted Bess to share his bed.
Catherine however was clearer with Bess. They hadn’t spoken much to each other for a day after the Reverend Bicksley had brought Bess home. But the following evening Catherine drove into the subject of Mr Osler with resolution. “I got it clear wiv ‘im Bess. I told ‘im your a child and ‘e aint got no call to ‘andle you like you were a woman. If ‘e does anyfing else but ‘old you, tell me. An ‘e might want you to ‘old ‘im too sometimes. D’you know what I’m tellin you?”
Bess didn’t speak but shook her head while looking straight at her mother.
Catherine was silent for a while watching Bess. “This aint no time to dally round the lanes Bess. I got a give it to yer in a straight line. But you aint wivout knowin any of this. You’ve seen the tom cats fightin an scrawling over the females. You’ve watched the ‘orses gettin frisky when there’s a mare about. An no bridle or bit in their mouth gives ‘em much ‘esitation when they get that excitement bubblin in ‘em.”
Catherine paused for a while and sat on the box that served them for a chair and looked into the fire for moments. Then in slightly more thoughtful tones, as if perhaps thinking to herself, she continued, “Sometimes it might look like the mare’s just standin around wivout much intrest in the ‘ole business. But if you’ve seen enough ‘orses, then you know some mares will give that old stallion a kick to rouse ‘im up a bit, an let ‘im know she wants ‘im to get on ‘er back.”
Catherine then refocused on Bess. “But I don’t see that in you Betsy. Not yet anyway. So all you need remembering now is that as quiet as ‘e looks, Osler ‘as a bit of tom cat or stallion in ‘im. An occasionally ‘e either needs to remind ’is self of it, or ‘e needs to let it run and ‘owl a bit.”
Catherine looked back at the fire, where the kettle was standing off the heat. “It’s like that kettle Bess. If it gets on the heat then the lid starts jumpin up an down, and it’s fit like it’s goin to bust. Then you lift it off and all that blowing an ‘eavin goes quiet. Women are the same. So wiv Osler, remember ‘e will go on the heat sometimes, an it might be a sight more comfortable for you if you lift ’im off the fire fairly quick. My reckonin is that ‘es never bin wiv a woman. So wiv you in bed wiv ‘im for the first time, ‘es goin to get pretty well boiled up quick. ‘es been workin at that brewery since ‘e was your age. So you could say ‘es ‘ad the bit in ‘is mouth from early on. ‘Es like one of them brewery ‘orses that ‘as been so long between the shafts of the dray ‘is belly moves ‘is arms and legs wivout ever ‘is ‘ead ‘avin to work at all.”
“D’you mean like when the drayman falls asleep an the horse just goes home through all the street itself with the reins slack?” Bess asked.
“Completely what I mean Betsy. When my Pa was alive ‘e used to say that made it smooth for the masters to make life sweet an easy for theirselves. You see, if you get the men doin the work wivout ever thinkin about what their doin, they don’t get into mischief, and the Masters can go to sleep. But what I was leadin to was that Osler, even though he walks about like a dray horse, ‘e aint been made into a geldin see, so a day comes when he feels like a stallion again, even if ‘e is strapped into the shafts of the cart. If ‘e didn’t ‘ave that Betsy, ‘e might just lay down between the shafts and give up. I think that’s ‘ow I would feel if I didn’t ‘ave you.”
The first night with Sid Osler was difficult, but not like Bess had feared. Catherine had stitched and mended an old night-dress that fitted Bess fairly well, and sent her up to Osler’s room telling her he wouldn’t be there, and to get into bed and go to sleep.
Bess went into the strange room, lit by a single candle, climbed into the bed, but couldn’t sleep or even close her eyes. At first she felt she was trespassing in someone else’s room, and was tense. This faded as she brought to mind why she was there, and her fears of what this might mean. Her years of street life made it difficult for her to sustain anxiety for long however. Long trains of thought were not yet part of her life. Reactions and shifting feelings had come to be her survival strategy. So she couldn’t help but go beyond concern and see and feel the difference in Osler’s room compared with the one she shared with Catherine. The bed itself was a new experience after having spent years on a bad mattress on the floor. Not that the bed was fine, but it had a decent mattress, proper pillows and clean sheets, and Bess could feel the cleanness penetrating her and making her feel different. It was a good feeling, even if it was mixed with fear and repulsion of what she was doing. There were also several books near the bed, and a good chair with a high back that added a bit of comfort and class to the room, which was otherwise bare and drab. Being unmarried and without too many bad habits, Osler’s room was a better place to be than the other rooms in the building.
Bess looked at these things, unconsciously absorbing them and knowing things about Osler, and waited.
She heard him coming before the door opened. He had a fairly light tread, and a slightly cautious way of doing things. So when the door opened it was steady and slow, as if he didn’t know what to expect. Bess could see the door from her position on the bed. Their eyes met. Bess froze and couldn’t look away. She saw Osler’s breath come quicker as he quietly closed the door and stood with his back to it for a while looking around the room as if he were seeing it for the first time. The presence of Bess in the bed had altered everything for him and he was getting his bearings. He had obviously had several drinks, but he was nowhere near drunk, only a bit slower and more capable of looking directly at Bess than usual.
After about twenty seconds, which seemed hours to Bess, he walked toward the bed, and stood near her, still looking at her. Strangely, the nearer he got, the further away he looked to Bess. Something peculiar was happening to her eyes, and Osler appeared to her a long way off, and just another object in the room, which itself seemed like a scene viewed in a curved mirror. She was barely breathing.
Osler looked at her with changing expressions. He had never learnt many skill in dealing with people, but he had lived with horses and dogs for most of his life. Both had been very honest with him, and some had taken to him and shared their fears, anger and love with him openly. So as he looked at Bess now, softened and made less anxious by drink, he could see her tension and wide slightly glazed eyes. He reached out a slow hand and touched her head, and talked to her like she was a mare. “Whoa there Bess. Steady … go steady old girl. Just stand easy there. Aint no ‘arm about for you or me. I’ve just come into the stable like, and I’m movin about wivout no ‘arm to you. So just rest easy.” Then he took his hand away and stood looking at Bess like she was a new puppy bitch he was really pleased with.
Bess felt herself slipping into the state one goes into just before sleep, where the mind doesn’t focus and the body feels far away. This was odd because she still felt afraid in some part of herself. Perhaps it was a way of escape, or perhaps it was the way Osler had talked to her and touched her – whatever it was she was suddenly asleep.
Bess woke just before the grey of dawn. What she thought to be Catherine’s arm was laid across her chest, but things didn’t feel right. It took a long time for the memory of where she was to soak through from wherever she had stored it during the night. For a while her heart raced, but she slowed its pace by making herself remain unmoving for fear of waking Osler prematurely. He would be up at dawn to work, then the heavy door of her trap would open by itself. All she had to do was wait. She had waited in the bed for Osler to come in and the trap to close. Now she was waiting again for it to open.
Not being able to fall into the easy passivity of sleep, Bess managed to be still for an hour, after which her stillness became intolerable and she shifted position, causing Osler’s arm to slip off her chest. He woke with a start and with enormous strength his hand reached out in the darkness for her head and neck. Bess cried out and his hand relaxed and pulled back. He mumbled something that might have been an apology, and Bess could feel his shyness and inner distance grasp him again.
Later he got up, dressed and was gone without any word to Bess. Then she too left the bed and went to Catherine to ready herself for work also.
When she got into the bed for the second time it was with less apprehension than the night before. But the hand at her throat and the silent withdrawn Osler was still the last image of him Bess had seen. So she was still watchful and alert when she heard his quiet footsteps coming and the door opening. The man who entered was the Osler she had met the night before, the one whose hand had reached out slowly without malice, the one who could speak.
Once more he stood at the door for a while looking at Bess and the room, savouring some pleasure. Then he slowly walked and stood beside Bess. She could see he had been drinking again, but it reassured her as she recognised this meant the ‘night’ Osler was active. Even so she didn’t take her eyes off him and the look of pleasure on his face. She watched as his right hand came up slowly, and just as slowly, so as not to startle her, reached out and touched the bruised flesh around her eye where she had been hit. There was no pressure, only a touch, and the hand stayed without moving until she relaxed. Then Osler stroked her hair twice and moved away to sit in the chair, still in Bess’s sight.
After a few moments Osler took his boots off with a sigh. They looked heavy, unyielding, yet pushed and pummelled into shape by physical labour, with the dirt of the streets and the workplace on them. Osler looked tired. His long dark hair was damp from the drizzle outside and hung close to his head. For a while, as Bess watched, he looked beaten. But then he looked up at Bess and his expression shifted, having more light. He got up from the chair as if his body was stiff, took off his coat, and removed a small book from one of its pockets. He moved the candle to a place nearer the chair and sat down again still holding the book.
Osler sat turning the pages for a while then began to read aloud, directing his voice to Bess. He wasn’t a fluent reader. He stumbled occasionally and his reserve was evident. But some driving passion in him was strong enough to communicate feelings in the words even with his lack of skill.
Bess was startled and surprised by the whole thing. She had never before been read to, and it took some moments for her to realise there was no need to respond in any way to what Osler was saying. This wasn’t conversation. This was something new. From Osler’s manner she understood she was being encouraged to simply listen. What she heard was a story about a dog carrying a bone who sees its own reflection in water. It thinks the reflection is another dog with a bone. Being greedy it wants the other bone, so drops its own and thereby loses it as the bone sinks beneath the water. The story ended with the words “Beware that you do not lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”