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 one


The coppers came around dawn; pinkish warmth had spilled into the courtyard from between the makeshift roofs of the tenements slopped against one another. There had still been puddles left between the cobbles of our street from the downpour which came around midnight. The coppers marched through that pinkish warmth and pooled behind the windowpane of our front-door like blackened liquid stretching upward and upward until a spindly limb pulled away from that coal blob and rapped knuckles against the windowpane. It almost seemed as if those coppers had been stitched together at the shoulder, almost as if each movement had been in tandem. One spoke while the other remained silent – it was like that, with coppers.

Bathed in fresh glimmers of delicate pink from what light strained through the windowpane, I had stood motionless in the hall at the sight of those blackened figures, struck dumb and mute, because I had always been afraid of coppers, whose presence in Bell Road usually meant an imminent raid or riot.

Stumbling backward, I slipped into the back-room filled with makeshift beds in the form of blankets and tattered cushions thrown together into a pile; the girls slept like dogs, limbs entangled, soft breaths, faint mumbles. Esther slept on the only cot in the flat, her willowy frame sprawled outward, a hand dangled from the edge of the mattress and dipped toward Eliza whose small body was tucked just underneath her. Eliza still had a swollen cheek, her lip split apart and there was a rusted crust upon her chin, cracked like worn paint.

Esther shifted in her dreams, her hand flexed. I glimpsed the bruises which coated her knuckles, the bluish splotches and the speckles of blood after she had beaten Eliza. Slowly, I crept around these sleeping girls, stood between the loops of half-bent arms and hopped over curled bodies until I reached Esther and squeezed her shoulder. Esther moaned and shifted more.

Softly, I whispered, “Esther, there are coppers outside.”

Esther startled, lifted herself from the cot. “Coppers?” she repeated. “’old ‘em there, Willa.”

Overcome by a sudden flush of trepidation, I hesitated, and it was an evident catalyst for her temper. Esther gripped me at the throat, cuffed me around the ear, slapped my face against the cot; the hot spark of pain came from my nostrils, sputtering hot blood into cupped hands, trembling hands, held together in prayer before her. I fell from her, fell from the bleak and watery blueness of the bedroom into the pinkish warmth of the hall and fumbled for the door through the sting of tears, as if the salt from these tears ground itself into my sockets; left them raw, left them exposed.

Blackened liquid stood there still, smudges of coal against pinkish warmth which now swelled into faint streaks of orange, seen through the dense folds of the curtains in the kitchen and seeping through the doorframe like a thin stream of light all around it. Opening that front-door was like a flood of colour, splashing all around me, flushing those dark figures in a surge of brightness.

The coppers stood encased in the strap of their hats which creased beneath wobbling jowls; one opened his mouth and the other remained silent. He said, “Tell Esther that Elsie was found dead in a flat on Fetter Road – tell her that she either claims the body or we toss it in with a pile of others in some unmarked place.”

Slinking off into the narrow paths between tenements, the coppers morphed into blackened liquid once more and spilled into the shadows. I felt a strange warmth on my feet, bare and suddenly foreign, as if my limbs were not mine anymore. I glanced down and found that the blood from my nostrils had dripped downward, splattered my chest first and then plopped in little speckles onto my feet.

From behind, I heard Esther and I turned toward her, found her at the other end of the hall, still flushed in the bluish light pouring from the bedroom and clashing with that pinkish warmth of dawn. Her mouth spat out words which seemed too far and distant as if she spoke from beneath water. Then, the flat tipped over and all the water drained out so that I could hear her.

She asked, “If I claim it, do I gotta pay for it?”

Scrubbing myself in the lukewarm water of the basin, the same lukewarm water in which the other girls had showered too, I could recall something that I had not realised in that dim moment in that hall – flaccid against her boots had been a bag, its leather crinkled inward. Esther had been half-turned toward the window with that bag there and that window led onto the fire-escape at the backside of the flats with ladders that led into a back-alley, and then further into a maze of terrace houses and their gardens. Hold ‘em there, Willa, she said.

She would have left us; had it been an arrest, had it been a raid. She would have left us.

Elsie had been her Best Girl, for a little while, because she could unclasp pearl bracelets from wrists, and she could unclip purses tucked beneath tight waistlines in thickets of crowds. Best Girl meant that she had to care for the other girls; teach the tricks, bathe them, clothe them, feed them in the pinkish warmth of early mornings, herd them into the watery blue of the bedroom for late nights. She used to do that for me, before she became ‘the body’ because that was all she was ever called after that night in Fetter Road and it made me itchy around the throat, made me splotchy and sore.

I dreamt of Elsie for many nights whilst tucked between the limbs of all those other girls stretched out across all those other blankets, in that flat on Bell Road. I dreamt of her because it seemed like nobody else did, anymore. I dreamt of the night that Esther had turned her out. I dreamt of her hold around me, the floral scent of her skin and the softness of her hair.

She had been murdered, our Elsie; skirts ripped from her, throat slashed. I heard it from the mothers of the neighbourhood stood around with babies balanced upon cocked hips and I heard it from drunken fathers whose words had been slurred from liquor, heard that she had sold herself like the other girls on Fetter Road, heard that a customer did it. Somehow, these people, who had never known Elsie, could call her by her name, but Esther could only ever say ‘that girl’ or ‘the body’. I dreamt of her a month after her death like I had every night since it had happened. I dreamt of her arms around me.

It was the last time that I ever dreamt of Elsie.

After that month, Beth became Best Girl. She was horrid, Beth, because her bitterness seeped into her expressions, secreted through her pores, pushing her features into a hideous contortion; it held her mouth in a tight scowl, squeezed the lines around that scowl in heavy folds, her thickened eyebrows pulled downward toward a sharp nose. Beth did not bathe us properly – she scrubbed us too hard, left our skin prickled and shredded, like feathers plucked from a bird. She plopped bowls of hardened gruel before us, told us to eat these lumps of bluish mould. Still, she had been made Best Girl, and that meant that all the nicest biscuits and little slivers of meat that Esther brought around were hers, firstly, and ours, lastly.

Beth beat us more than Esther ever did, too. Her slaps had been more like thumps, her kicks too solid. One night, she walloped Daisy with her boot. Daisy spoke with a slack mouth from that night onward, her lips unable to lift properly so that her words came out slow and slurred. It meant that most people thought Daisy was a drunken fool or just plain dumb because she sounded a little dim, but really it was just her mouth that could not function the way that her brain could. Beth made her like that. She had stomped on Ruth, another night, stomped on her hip, so that Ruth could only limp in an odd hop, almost like an injured rabbit.

Esther came around a little while after what had happened to Daisy and Esther came around a little while after what had happened to Ruth. She had placed a cigarette between her lips and considered them both, her eyes alight in a familiar gleam. She said, “Bring them ‘round Charterhouse tomorrow, Beth. In this world, them rich folk with only part with pennies for orphaned children and cripples sat in doorways – and ain’t it good that our girls are both of those now, eh?”

Charterhouse was a smart sliver of London with lavish gardens and tall buildings, all golden trimmings and sleek fences around the houses, leading out into a rich blend of stalls which sold everything from books to meat, clothes to trinkets, all through the line until Charterhouse whittled into a cluster of posh offices. Between all these stalls sat a little nook, a tiny crop of pallets and boxes left from the stalls piled upon one another and obscuring the alleyway that we could slip through in order to avoid the coppers.

Ruth had to hobble over that fence at its mouth just so that she could stand with us in the main square, her hands cupped and her limp more pronounced from that fence. Daisy had to call out for spare coins, so that strangers could spot her slack mouth and hear her slack words. I thought it was awful cruel of Esther to push the girls out there and make a mockery of what Beth had done to them, because Ruth had not been born with that stuttered limp and Daisy had not been born with that limpness in her lips. I found pity. Esther had just found profit.

Yet Ruth and Daisy looked at what I was made to do, and I saw that pity reflected in them just as much as within myself.  

Esther used to call me chey more than she ever called me Willa. The other girls bristled at this Romani word, afraid that Esther had become too fond of me. Esther liked to push the girls apart, unravel the girls and drip dissention into them before she slipped out of the flat. I used to hear her say ‘goodbye, girls – goodbye, chey’ just before the front-door slammed shut and I could almost taste the copper sting of the other girls’ stares in the aftermath of her departure. Sometimes, she lifted an absent hand to stroke at my cheek while she called me chey and it would remind me that only Elsie had ever done that – held me softly, that is, held me with care. Esther used to say, chey, come and sit by me. Chey, what have you brought me today?

It means girl. It means child. It can also mean daughter.

I was just never sure which word it meant for her. 

Esther used chey because I had come from the Gypsies. Birthed in a field, I had slipped out stained in blue, hardly breathing, deathly still and the eldest Gypsies did not think that I would make it beyond the first month. I had been called chey and for them it meant child, for them it meant girl and never daughter, because daughter meant attachment and there was not much point in attachment for a child that might soon be returned to that damp earth. In the second month, Johnny Dogs returned from England and told the Gypsies that he had heard the name Willa in a dream, and dreams are sacred things for Gypsies. I left those same fields in a wagon, left them as Willa, around my seventh summer.

I left with Johnny. I have not seen him in many years, many more than seven summers. He used to call me his chey long before Esther ever did. Before the dreams of Elsie in that flat on Fetter Road, I dreamt that Johnny might come and fetch me from this flat.

I learned that he played fiddle in the pubs after that for a bit of coin tossed into a paddy-cap laid before his feet. He had daughters of his own, anyway; cheys of his own, he had, but I knew what the word had meant for him last that he called me it; it had been said with love, said with fondness in him. Never had I heard it said again the way Johnny had said it.

I heard he has daughters of his own, now. So, the dreams went away, like all those dreams of Elsie in that flat on Fetter Road. What use would he have had for me, now?

It was in my ninth summer that I began to stay with Esther, separated from Johnny and the old Gypsies. I never did return to that damp soil which birthed me. I stood on cobbled streets and Esther had another lad clap out an old tune with a tambourine laid against his thigh so that I could hop about like some maddened creature, dance and leap with the shimmer of my skirts. She used to say, spare a coin for the Gypsy Girl – the wild girl, she said.

She told me that the people of London liked to look upon Gypsies as savages with dirt smeared upon their skin – but she never let them see that she would scoop little droplets of dirt from puddles in alleys and pat it against my cheeks, she would let my inky curls tangle and become frizzy from rain, so that I would look foreign and strange. I hopped and danced and leapt about for a couple of coins tossed into that damned cap and I felt myself dwindle with each twirl and spin because the people of London looked with eyes aglow in amusement.

After that, I withered from the word Gypsy, shrivelled from chey and cowered from Romani. I had not been born in a field, I had not been brought here in a wagon. I was not wild nor savage nor foreign nor strange, I told the other girls, I was never a Gypsy. I was never the Gypsy Girl even if Esther dressed me in plentiful skirts, left barefoot in unfamiliar streets to jingle my bracelets and whirl around in handstands and cartwheels for fruitless rewards, perhaps only a couple of pennies before dusk. I was not made of damp soil, I told the girls. Esther calls me chey for it is part of the act – which act exactly, I was not quite sure, but there was an act afoot all the same.

Somehow, Ruth and Daisy, for all the suffering subjected to them by Beth, still looked upon me with as much pity as they did for themselves.

What use would Johnny have had for me, then? All things must be useful, Esther said. If a girl cannot pluck handkerchiefs from a pocket and if she cannot pull a bracelet from a loose wrist, then there are plenty of opportunities for her in the sort of flats in which the only real skill required is an ability to hike up skirts and lay backward for strange men. On the night that she turned out Elsie, she had told her this – she had screamed it at her, and the words had turned the flesh of her throat red, it had made her veins rise like the strings of a violin, bluish lines which blended into all that redness. She hauled Elsie upward, threw her against the wallpaper of the kitchen and bashed her around. I had stood in the doorway. I could not recall just what had drawn me there, because all the other girls had lain across those blankets and listened. Esther had whirled around, saw me stood in the threshold between the safety of the hall and the danger of her kitchen.

Gripped by the scalp, she slammed my head against the countertop, and she did not call me chey, then, for it had been bitch and it had been whore. Never had it been chey. Never had it been spoken with love and never had it been spoken with fondness. Elsie had come between us, because Elsie always came between us, and she hauled me upward, but not like Esther had hauled her upward – she held me carefully, lolled my limp body against her chest and rocked me softly, so that I could breathe the scent of her skin and curl into the cocoon of her protection.

“Willa, my darlin’ girl,” she said, “Willa, my sweet.”

I heard her in the ripple of water which lapped against my skull from the thump against the countertop and I swam in her kindness, like a river which washed over me and drowned out Esther still in a rage behind her. She tore Elsie from me and turned her out because Elsie had become stronger than her and Esther feared girls stronger than her. I had not understood that then, because Esther told us that Elsie had stolen a bracelet, which was not the truth. She tore Elsie from me, that night. She told her that she was not useful, but all things had to be useful. She told Elsie that she could find a hike-up-skirts-and-lay-backward flat. Elsie had been bitch and she had been whore, that night, too.

I would rather she had stayed bitch and she had stayed whore; anything was better than ‘the body’.

The existence of Gypsy Girl ended in my eleventh summer. I had grown too much, had little buds for a chest and found blood in my knickers a couple of weeks into August which was early for some of the girls in the flat. They said that it was all that leaping about which must have dislodged something on the inside and started off all that blood-flow. The dirt was scrubbed from my cheeks, because my cheeks lost all that baby-fat and had become sharp, dipped downward toward a plump mouth. I could be Willa or chey, but never again would I have to be Gypsy Girl for a handful of coins.

 ☼

Sometime after that, Esther rented out this old factory on Victoria Lane; she told us that she had had an epiphany the night beforehand, that she had seen the blue sign of Victoria Lane in her dreams, and dreams are sacred things, I know. She used to sell her wares to a man named Bix on Sarsfield Lane, a safe bet, but Esther wanted more. She rented that factory from Benny Butcher for a couple of pounds for the premises plus a whole lot more for his protection.

It was Butcher in control of Camden Town all through toward Harrow, looping toward Bullock Road and cutting off at Preston Street; all pubs, all shops, all businesses which found themselves within those blocks were therefore the property of Butcher and forced to accept his protection, just like Esther had done. Butcher sliced the throats of those stupid enough to swindle him, he cracked skulls and caved them inward, he strung limbs from railings and dangled them there until all the blood had drained. Esther paid Butcher so that coppers never came around and she paid Butcher so that his men would stand around outside the factory and do just that – protect it. Some girls dared ask, from who?

Esther never answered.

Esther filled the factory with rows upon rows of tables, those tables topped sewing-machines nicked from some other factory in Liverpool by Butcher. Esther also bought these new chairs, coated in soft cushions. She had herself quite the racket, really. She organised it like this: the girls from the flat, usually the youngest, nabbed purses, handkerchiefs, typical desirables off the street.

However, the girls did not just bring all that stuff into our flat like before. Instead, the desirables were brought into the factory and some other girls would pluck out the markings or cut off the labels; those items were further distributed between the tables; at those tables sat other girls, whose nimble hands were already sewing the hem of an apron or the pouch on its front; the girls folded the material, stitched it so that it made an almost unnoticeable seam into which valuables could be placed; a line of thread would be sewn, checked by some other girls to ensure it was all safely sealed in there, little chance for a ring to be shaken out in transport; and then those aprons were brought out into the backyard which had some trucks; and some other girls loaded them into the trucks, those aprons. Some girls dared ask, where do all those aprons go?

Esther never answered this, either.

Charlotte came along around this time; she was eleven, made of ginger curls and rosy cheeks, but with the temperament of a lamb. She was much too timid, which meant she was target of the other girls’ mocking and constant abuse – tearing blankets off her in the night so that she shivered against the chill or scooping out dried clumps of porridge from her bowl in the mornings, aware that she would only sit and watch, blinking in doe-eyed sadness. I was seventeen.

I was one of the oldest in that whole flat which also meant that I was one of the most feared, too, but this came from a combination of age and temperament. Charlotte was not familiar with the flat, its functions, she did not realise that respect came from the willingness to lift a girl from her seat and take it, purely from desire for it. There came a morning in which Eleanor lifted her spoon and went for the bowl in front of Charlotte. I caught Eleanor around the throat, clamped my hand there and bent low from behind her.

“You leave the girl alone,” I said, and that was the end of it.

The Gypsies had told me that such things had been taught to the world by the soil which birthed me – the worm is in that soil, the bird comes and swallows the worm, before the cat comes and kills the bird, onward and onward until all things are settled by that first worm in the soil.

Hierarchy, pecking-order, I told Charlotte, ancient things which must be followed.

I spent mornings in Charterhouse with the girls, nicked handkerchiefs and scarves. I spent evenings in the faint light of the factory with a sewing-machine and aprons all around. I had a gift, Esther said. I could do in an hour what most girls did in three, she said. I liked the sewing-machine, liked its hum and rattle and growl beneath my fingertips like some rabid creature, spewing out reams and reams of aprons, then padded in stolen wares later sold off through Butcher. I spent nights in the flat, slumped between the girls, a blanket around me while the others fought over another – the oldest girls also had first-dibs because that was tradition which also came from the soil. I had a routine, comfortable and neat.

It was the first time that I ever had some semblance of stability in my life.

Esther had an office in the factory, nestled in the corner of the floor with all the tables and chairs with soft cushions. Her office had blinds against its windows which the other girls found much too professional, much too pompous. She had this large, bulky table scattered in paperwork. I asked what all those documents meant, before, while the door was still ajar. Esther heard it. She came out onto the floor and stood with limbs akimbo. She said, why would you bother asking, Willa, when that thick skull of yours cannot even read ‘em?

The other girls had laughed and laughed loudly.

Suddenly, I could feel the flesh around my collarbone and throat flower in hot, red patches. I had never admitted it aloud. Esther had told them that I was illiterate many times before then, but there had been other girls there, new and unaware. Once, she slapped a newspaper against my face and held my hair in her tight grip before all the other girls, told them that I was too dim to understand its words, that the other girls should treat me as if I was dumb because of it. I just never had much chance to learn how to read – never went into school, never had a teacher, never had anybody who might want to sit with me and show me the letters which seemed simple for them but somehow incomprehensible for me. Johnny could only read a couple of words himself, had trouble with letters too, saw them backwards and forwards and slanting from the page, slopping off the paper like wiggling caterpillars.

The letters did not wiggle for me. They just sat on those lines and watched me, unable to penetrate my thick skull.  

Autumn rolled around in crinkled leaves freckled in brown spots. Winter followed behind in thunder and rain, like a monsoon, its furious droplets splattered the cobbles of the streets and filled them, flooded them so that the trudge into the factory was wet and damp; it was just before Christmas that Butcher said expansion was necessary and that Esther must sell snow in between the packets of rings and bracelets.

Little sachets were padded out with this powder which was really just cocaine, sniffed into the nostrils, consumed in piles by people with trembling hands. Esther had been unable to refuse Butcher on this sudden change in what was sewn into the aprons. She was unable to refuse him that day or any other, really.

Slipping through another alleyway, I strode toward Victoria Lane and huddled further into the warmth of my coat against this bitter chill. Nellie, Daisy, Ruth and Eliza marched ahead in mindless chatter about the recent addition of new boys in the backyard of the factory. This addition had been another input from Butcher. Esther said that the lads had been hired because of the heavier boxes, but really it was just that Butcher had wanted more reassurance that the girls were not nicking pearls from bracelets or the odd ring from a pile of others.

I knew that it had to be about that, because those lads had started to stand in the doorways in the afternoons and stare at us while we tugged on our coats, beady stares latched onto our hands, wary of sudden lumps in our pockets or jingling bracelets stuffed into socks. There were a lot more lads than Esther had anticipated, added to the ones that had already been there from the start – maybe fifteen, half stood in the backyard to shift boxes, another half stood around the factory itself, watchful and silent.

Coated in thick sheets of mud, the backyard had become a sea of brown sludge on that bleak Tuesday morning. The clouds had sputtered in misty coughs, faint droplets settling on our skin, speckles of dew. It had been through those greyish folds of mist that I had first seen Alfie Solomons; blood had soaked his cotton shirt, had soaked into him. He slipped in mud and held another lad beneath him, almost bit into his throat had the other boys not held him beneath the arms and hauled him upward, gripped him like some rabid creature, some rabid dog in the streets.

Stood around him in a circle, there had been a crowd of lads and the girls swept toward them in excitement, because boys were foreign for them, foreign for me. Between the swell of bodies, I saw the limbs of another boy splayed out in the mud.

There had been odd, reddish grooves in the hollow of his collarbone, another cluster just beneath the curl of his jawbone. Alfie had almost torn his throat out.

Only I had not known Alfie then, had thought him wild and violent, thought him a stranger, just another lad from the backyard – an alternate Gypsy Boy, only there was nothing Gypsy in Alfie, it was all him. Madly, his chest heaved, his eyes had been blown wide from the fight, his mouth, his gums stained in blood, both from his own cuts and from the cuts of the other lad left there in the wet earth, like the worm, who looked upward at the clouds which cried down upon him.

I thought that he was dead.

Yet his eyelids flickered in some frenzied seizure, his limbs locked, and he shivered in panting trembles. Girls shrieked – and it was these frightened shrieks which brought Esther from her office, hurrying toward this spectacle with fists clenched.

Although she had been much shorter than Alfie, Esther could draw herself into great heights of anger. “Nellie, Eliza – bring that poor lad on the ground there inside before he chokes on his tongue! Willa, you can take this little thug into the office! Butcher will want a word with you, boy, you realise that, don’t you!”

Nellie and Eliza lifted the lad from the wet earth. His tongue flopped outward from between his lips, limp and purple, which made the girls drop him in fright. Esther became so furious that she was elevated even further in her anger, so that she touched those sputtering clouds and those clouds turned her dark and red like wine until her fury reached the girls and forced them into another attempt. His boots dragged and left thickened lines leading through the mud behind him, deepened trenches through which Alfie and I walked, our boots sinking into its dampness, dragged further and further into its depths.

Cocooned in the candlelight of the office, I held out a cloth and he took it from my hand. His hand briefly brushed mine and left my fingertips smeared in blood. His lip had been swollen as if stung by an insect, some bumblebee afloat in spring – but it had come from the clip of a ring against the skin, split it, oozing in thick red. He licked at it like a dog licks its wounds and again I saw rabid foam on his muzzle once his eyes met mine. I had little experience with lads and looked away from him, drawn toward the documents which still scattered the table.

He plucked his vocal-chords, prepared himself for speech; his jaw clicked from the movement. “Called me a kike. That lad out there. Called me a kike.”

Stood alongside him, I crossed my arms against my chest, like a barrier. I had become oddly awkward around him, much too aware of him. “What does it mean?”

His left eyelid glistened from a purplish swell. “Means Jew – means dirty, means greedy, means kike.”

I understood little about the Jewish faith if only because I understood little about any faith, but I nodded all the same. Having been born in Ireland, I was often called bog-trotter and paddy-girl by coppers; but the words had never fully hurt me more than the old taunts of dummy and dunce and dimwit which came from my illiteracy and which were usually screeched by the other girls if I could not read a headline shown by Esther in the mornings, that sort of thing. I understood him through that more than faith, understood the slump in his shoulders, understood the gentle furl of his fists, his knuckles cracked and sore.

“What should I call you instead?” I asked.

“Alfie,” he said. “Means dirty, means greedy – well, you get the gist, don’ ya?”

Blackened liquid swirled behind the windowpanes of the office, like those coppers had on that morning of pinkish warmth; but that was just Butcher and his lackeys out there, swirling around, slithering toward the other end of the factory. I saw that Alfie had blood around his collar. I thought that I could make him another shirt, but Esther filled the doorframe in her darkness and burst through, flooded the office like the rain had flooded the streets the morning that I found Elsie had been murdered.

She said that the other boy had survived and that was the only reason that Alfie had not been killed, but that did not mean he would not be beaten. Esther reached for him. I heard the harsh slap first, glimpsed his bruised cheek. I was swept out in the riptide, for Esther had gripped my arm and thrown me out there, slammed the door behind me; just before it clapped shut and I lost Alfie in the ripples, I saw her hand lift, heard it fall.

I flinched for him because he never did for himself. 

Bundled in chatter from the other girls, I pricked my fingertips with needles and mulled it over in my mind; a shirt was simple thing, just a couple of folds and seams for the collar, neat measurements for the arms, all the materials sat in a closet alongside me. I had never made a shirt. I sat there and pricked myself until I had finally decided on it. I plucked the buttons from a small box in another drawer. I dithered with aprons just until midday rolled around. Esther left for another break – hers had always been frequent and unquestioned, after all. I stitched in that quiet in-between while the other girls sat in the backyard around the benches.

Its buttons had been somewhat wonky, drifted left toward the bottom, its right sleeve just an inch more in length than the left. I found him and brought it to him anyway. I held it out and it fluttered like a white flag between us. I had expected confusion, but his hand reached out – not like Esther had reached for him, not fast and forceful and intent on hurt. There had been no words spoken. I liked that better.

His lips quirked. It was not quite a smile. There had still been blood on his gums.

In January, those little sachets became more numerous than the handkerchiefs and purses slipped into the pockets made on those aprons. Often, Butcher stayed in that office which had been meant for Esther and the blinds flickered shut. He strode by all the girls, looked at us all with a dip of his chin in acknowledgement. Something shifted. Butcher never bothered the girls, hardly even noticed if a girl was there or not – it was Esther that he cared for, Esther that he came for. He sniffed snow, too.

I knew because his hands trembled.

Sometimes, I walked with Alfie through an alleyway behind the factory toward Ivor Square which had this small patch of green and some cobbled walls where we could sit between our strolls. He was from another tenement, but he had known of Esther many months before he had even started this little job at the factory for his – well, he never did finish that line, it usually attached itself onto another ramble and I found myself lost in his turnabout words.

I had never felt much interest in anybody apart from Elsie and Charlotte and Johnny, but I liked Alfie. I liked his humour most of all. I had never felt that odd flash which struck through me like lightning if he came toward me in the backyard, had never felt that swoop in my stomach whenever he stood close, had never laughed more than I laughed at his jokes.

I stitched more shirts for him, in secret. I held an odd shyness toward Alfie and often feigned disinterest around him for some bizarre reason which I could not quite understand, tried hard not to glance out at him in the backyard and often tossed the shirts at him casually. I brought him another and he said, “Bit nippy out in that backyard, darlin’ – can your talents stretch for a scarf, ey?”

Hot patches flowered all around my throat in the same pattern that had once come from shame when the girls mocked me about my illiteracy, but I did not feel shame around him, just felt some giddiness in my stomach from that darlin’ said in grizzly roughness. So, I shrugged. I shrugged and already my hands had reached for more thread, like he had pulled the strings around my wrist and made the motions himself. I made him a white scarf, turned it over to him with little fanfare and strode inside as if it never happened, as if I had never prayed that he would like it. It was never mentioned, that scarf.

It was never mentioned, but he wore it every day.

 

Chapter Text

two


 

For a long while, I had known that some of the eldest girls did more than just pickpocket at the markets or work in the factory for Esther. Before she sent the girls off in the dead of night, before that pinkish warmth, Esther trained the girls to set out tables with napkins and proper cutlery which she stashed beneath the floorboards in the flat, never for us, never for proper use, but rather for these lessons in manners and etiquette. Esther bought uniforms with starched aprons, soft stockings and bonnets for the girls. She taught them all the correct phrases, fabricated entire stories for each girl.

I understood that the girls posed as maids. I just never understood more until I was dressed in this pair of soft stockings and this starched apron for myself. She had tamed all those frizzy strands from my hair, smoothed them into tight curls. I was taught words like madam and sir. I learnt the placement of the plate alongside each spoon and neatly-plied napkin. I was furnished with false references, because I had never had them before, I asked what they meant.

Esther was in a sour mood. She rolled her eyes toward me with a withered expression. “Christ, Willa, don’t tell ‘em that you’re thick in the skull, all right? Pretend to be even a little bit smart, would ya, pretend you got an ounce of a brain, yeah? I should hope they don’t ask you to fuckin’ read or write nothin’ for ‘em. You cost me this job and I’ll crack through that skull of yours, see if you can’t read then, bloody dunce, fuckin’ dimwit you are, Willa – …”

Alfie followed me out of the factory; all the way from the backyard of the factory, right after the boys had been handed hefty envelopes, he followed me into Victoria Lane and outward toward Sanford Road. All those blocks we walked, and not once did he speak, not until we reached Brixton Street. He never slowed or stopped at all, never even glanced at me. He simply said, “‘ow long will you be gone for, then?”

I continued alongside him, aware that our shoulders occasionally bumped together. Naturally hoarse, my words always came out in a light rasp, and I replied, “Couple of weeks, I think. Who told you that I was leaving, anyway?”

Something that I had learned about Alfie: he asked questions and expected answers for them, but rarely did he answer any questions for himself. “Right. I suppose that means I got no choice but to sit on that wall in Ivor Square by me-self and wait for ya. But don’t be too long, eh? I’ll be chewin’ the ends o’ me scarf from boredom if you go too long.”

I smiled, my cheeks aflame. I dipped my chin toward my chest so that my long hair slipped from my shoulders and shrouded me behind a dark curtain. “I guess that means I’ll have to make a lot more scarves for you, Alfie. I could make as many as you like, you know.”

He nodded with this soft, warm hum resonating from his chest. He looked upward at the rotted slates of the roofs on Brixton Street, his lips pursed. “Been thinkin’ ‘bout some gloves too. Might need a cap while we’re at it, eh? It’s nippy out in the backyard, innit? Can’t 'ave me catchin’ a cold, eh, whole factory might fall apart without me there to manage it. Yeah –…” at this, he drew in a sharp breath, blew out his lips in a raspberry and nodded – “… I reckon I’ll need the whole kit, I will.”

“Then I guess I have to come back to you, don’t I?” I said. I glanced up at him, afflicted still by my shyness around him, my odd giddiness and eagerness to even look at him. It was nothing like me, but it felt – it felt nice, which sounded girlish and strange coming from me, but it was the truth, all the same.

“You do, Willa,” he nodded, unsmiling. There were no jokes from him, no humour, for once. “You do.”

Along came Rosewood with its lavish shrubbery much like Charterhouse. It had acres upon acres of land and horses, sprawling fields with ponds. There was the house nestled within the trimmed hedges and there were the little yips of the dogs, small little dogs flitting around about our ankles and plodding alongside Mr William Yaxley whose hands had been gloved in leather after a morning chase around the fields, settled tall upon his stallion. I had curtsied before him like Esther had taught me.

I called myself Elizabeth; not chey, not Willa, not dummy, not dimwit, not dunce, none of those things anymore. Yaxley looked through me as if I was transparent – he looked beyond me, into the fields. He told me that I reminded him of an old friend, a dear old friend, because people like Yaxley talked like that, always with words like dear and quaint and terribly and awfully and dreadfully so

All this came three weeks before he cornered me in the pantry and tried to push his hand up my skirt.

The maids slept in the house in another section sealed off from Yaxley and his wife whose name was never quite said aloud. She was simply ma’am or missus or my lady and not much else. She allowed charities to be held at Rosewood Manor so that she might maintain inauthentic friendships with other ladies whose names had been ma’am or missus or my lady and not much else. I liked the older maids because they became quite motherly toward me, and I had always lived with women, always liked to be with women, felt more comfortable around them than I did men.

Their hearts had already been made soft by their own children, and that meant that these older maids smoothed out the crinkles in the bedsheets I had tried to pin against the mattress. They straightened the picture-frames after I dusted them. They made all those little touches which I may have missed because I was not a proper maid, but they only thought that I was new and nervous, therefore forgetful and sloppy.

There had been Cecilia and Nora, Elise and Mary – kindly ladies, whose hands had been roughened by the trade, whose attitudes and workmanship had been brisk and unafraid of tasks rattled out by ma’am or missus or my lady in the pinkish warmth of the mornings.

It was Cecilia who first hinted that I should never find myself alone with Mr Yaxley if possible. It was Nora who mentioned, hours afterward, that Yaxley liked stockings, but that he liked them on younger legs. He liked dark eyes, but his wife had pale eyes, always watering. It was Elise who had noted, quite blankly, that Yaxley had watched me from the yard that evening and that she would very much like to follow me into the kitchen later – for reasons unspecified, although I had been startled to discover Yaxley already there upon our arrival, as if she had expected it. She had expected it. She had protected me, even if I had not yet understood it.

Women are attuned to the ways of men, Mary told me one night between dustings, because God granted them this gift among many others. But that does not mean that always they can be protected – but it comes from the gut, this instinct, women sense things from the gut and it travels upward into the brain, so that all of the body understands it from that point onward.

She asked, do you feel that in your gut yet, Elizabeth? Has it yet reached your brain, so that all your body has understood it? If not, my girl, my sweet, then what I feel should surely pass to you – women are like that, too, they can speak to one another with just the eyes. Another gift from God.

In the pantry had been many sachets of dried-out seasonings and other jars half-full of ripe strawberries and raspberries and blackberries fleshly plucked at dawn, because there would be another charity-event in Rosewood Manor that evening. The dessert would be a French dish that I could hardly pronounce. I held a jar of blackberries all soft and ground into mush and then I turned toward the door and found Yaxley there. He had been tall and slim. His shirt had been untucked. I could not quite tell why that bothered me so much.

Like roots burrowing into the soil, my feet had planted themselves into the tiles of the pantry and I felt the slow crawl of branches all around my limbs, until seedlings sprung from my tongue and I said something like, is there something that you need, Mr Yaxley?

From my gut came that gift which had been granted to women by God, it spread around the roots and poured itself into my veins so that I hummed like a bumblebee from it, vibrated from it and felt it spill outward so that he could feel it, too. It made him stand straighter - that was how I knew he could feel it, that was how I knew that my roots had intertwined with his and that that was why he blocked the door with his shoulders and he blocked me from the rest of the house which thus seemed small and distant behind him, narrowed into a tunnel which had no end, that house which had never felt homely, never felt loved.

He came toward me, corralled me into the corner between those dried-out seasonings and those other jars half-full, held me there, he did. I could feel the heaviness of his breath and the heaviness of his intentions all at once. His hand went toward my skirt, held itself there, then shimmied upward. It trailed upward along the bare flesh of my thigh, that hand, as if it was not still attached to him, some tumorous leech on his person, it slithered upward toward parts unknown.

He called me kitten between his breathy huffs against my throat. His other hand pawed at my chest, his lips tasted like salt. He had been everywhere, so that I felt I could not escape him, that I had been contained in a jar of my own. His hand brushed my knickers, which until then only the other girls had seen – which until then, had been mine and only mine, but he was here, spoiling it, spoiling me, ruining me and he-…

I dropped the blackberries.

I dropped the blackberries and the sickly-sweet blackness of its contents spattered our legs in thick droplets which dripped downward onto his leather-shoes and my trembling stockings and I felt it dribble into my shoes, too, that sickly-sweetness, felt it pool there. He did not look away from me – and even if his eyes had been all bluish-light, I saw that blackness in him. Mary was behind him. He did not know it. His hand was beneath my chin, tipping it upward at him. I saw her behind him, she was there.

Mary said, “Mr Yaxley.”

He knew, then. His hand left my chin, left it cold, left it hurt. His eyes flicked toward her.

“Mr Yaxley,” Mary said, “I do believe that Mrs Yaxley has requested your presence in the foyer.”

Off he went, his leather-shoes slick and squelching in sickly-sweet blackness and I stood there in blank numbness before I thanked God for this gift which came from the gut for women and I thanked Him, too, for Mary. I had never spoken to God before that moment in the pantry, but I knew that His name was written with a capital letter even if I could not write myself.

I looked at Mary. We spoke to one another with just our eyes. Our gift from God.

She scrubbed the blackberries from my stockings. She spared me a sliver of dessert from the charity event. I ate it in the kitchen between the flurry of waiters slipping around me like fish in a river. I went out into the field and spewed it back into the damp earth, spat out that sickly-blackness.

I let the soil consume it instead. 

I stole quite a lot of jewellery from the Yaxley family that same night. I could wait no longer. I dumped all that jewellery into a little pocket in my coat and tucked pearls into my shoes, plopped the earrings into the lining of my cuffs and pushed the bracelets into the hidden slits that Esther had made beneath my coat. I saw his shirts, steamed and pressed. I took a pair of scissors and snipped through them all. I did not rip the dresses of his wife nor did I ruin her shoes. I went into the pantry and found another jar of blackberries and brought them back into the bedroom. I smeared them into the folds of his shirt, smeared them all over the bedsheets.

Suddenly, the bedroom-door opened and there stood Mary. Her eyes trailed toward that pile of clothes, blackened and spoiled like I had been in the pantry. She saw me. I was not transparent for her. I suppose that she had known, without words, because of our gift from God, that I had stolen from the family. She stood there like I had stood in that damned pantry before she turned around and left. I stood still, too. I stood for the screams and shouts that would alert Yaxley and ma’am or missus or my lady out in the gardens for the charity event.

Nothing ever came. She never screamed, never shouted. She never sold me out. She spared me the beatings, she spared me the noose. Another gift from God, she had given me.

Sitting in the kitchen of the flat alongside Esther, I watched her count the coins and notes which came from my spoils. Esther had brought the jewellery into an old shop on Brixton Street, because it was just about the only place which would take her wares anymore if they were not sent through Butcher. Ruth had been there, Daisy and Beth and Rosie and Nellie, too. I had made more than the other girls ever had, in that one night. Esther said, “Chey will need to stay in the flat for the next couple a weeks, keep her head low. But you made a fine job of it, you did, chey.”

“I don’t want to do that anymore,” I mumbled.

“The maid job?” Nellie asked. “Easiest in the world, if you ask me.”

Esther had been watching me closely. She asked, “Did he try to fuck ya, chey?”

“Should ‘ave let ‘im, Willa,” Rosie said. “Could ‘ave gotten more gifts as ‘is mistress.”

I looked away from her. “He made me – uncomfortable.”

The girls glanced around at one another. Then came laughter – sudden, intense laughter all pointed at me, but Esther watched me without even the flicker of a smile, eyes full of sickly-sweet blackness. I awaited a slap, I awaited a punch or thump against me, but nothing more came than the snickers and snorts of the other girls.

“If that’s all a man ever made me,” Ruth snickered, “then I wouldn’t be complainin’, Willa.”

“I don’t want to do it anymore,” I repeated.

“All right. No more, chey,” Esther said.

It was the only time I could remember that Esther never went against her word nor tried to manipulate its meaning.

The flat had become a womb. Curtains drawn, the bedroom was filled in feeble oranges and red from the candlelight. Charlotte roused me for card-games. Otherwise, I slept in the bedroom, slept in the mornings, slept in the evenings. It was still fresh, all that had happened in Rosewood. I dreamt of foreign hands pressed against my thighs, spread apart, trickling toward – toward the scratch of fingertips edging toward – and I could breathe the scent of blackberries, which threw me from sleep and forced me into a stuttered consciousness. I never told Charlotte about the dreams. Still, she slept alongside me like she always had, curled herself against the bumps of my spine and held herself between them.

“If you dream badly, Willa, only tell yourself that I am there with you,” she whispered, pressed against the crook of my neck, her words soft and warm in the swirl of my eardrum, as if each syllable looped around and around my cochlea and settled there for comfort.

Charlotte had fallen asleep and it was only then that I could let the words out at the sight of her parted lips and gentle exhales into the cool air of night – only then could I let myself be held.

“He never even saw me,” I told her, one night. “I was not myself – just another jar in the pantry, he reached out for me, like another jar –…”

I was not there for him; it did not matter if I was there, only that I was there. I said it so much, so much in my own head that I had fumbled the words and it all came out backwards, spun itself around, so that it made no more sense to me than it would have made to Charlotte if I dared say it aloud. So, I would never say it again, I decided – no more. I would never speak of Yaxley. He would stay in the pantry and I would stay in the flat, separate from one another.

Charlotte had said that I could tell myself that she was there with me, but I never wanted her in that pantry, where he could touch her. I wanted her with me, safe and asleep and unaware of men like Yaxley, unaware of foreign hands on thighs, spread apart, trickling toward…

I stitched more slits into my coat, stitched them alongside all those others made for theft. I put them there for pocketknives.

Knocking; there was a harsh, heavy knocking at the front-door of the flat and it rattled the furniture, upset the wallpaper, left the floorboards in a tremble until I drifted into the hall and watched a silhouette stood in the frost of the windowpanes, composed of black clothes and a slip of white around its neck, dipped onto its chest in thick lines, just two – a scarf of white, formed beneath the harsh growl of my sewing-machine. I stumbled toward the door in surprise because I knew that it was Alfie. I gripped the door-handle and tasted its metal in my mouth. I swallowed and let it slither downward into my throat – into me.

“Open the door, Willa,” he said. “C’mon, darlin’ – I been sittin’ on that wall waitin’ for ya – I’ve eaten me scarf, yeah, ain’t got nothin’ but me socks left, so you might need’ta crack on with sewin’ or I’ll be starkers outside your door, and what impression would that give to your neighbours, eh, confronted with my unsightly –…”

I pulled at the door-handle, found him stood there with one arm leaned against the brick-wall and the other looped around his belt. He looked the same and I felt different. I wondered if he could see it, could taste it like I could taste metal. He wore a hat which I had never seen on him, round and black. He tipped it toward me, straightened and looked right at me – at me, not through me.

Because Alfie always saw me. I wasn’t transparent for him. He didn’t look beyond me.

“I been sittin’ on that wall, Willa, waitin’ for ya, right,” he repeated. “And your Charlotte comes ‘round to tell me that you been back three days and you ain’t come and found me? Wounded, I am, darlin’, truly wounded.”

“I was tired,” I told him.

Somewhere behind him, I heard giggles and voices drifting toward us and knew that the girls were coming back from the factory and that Alfie had just made it ahead of them. I felt prickly from it, bothered that they would come while he was here and probably make assumptions from his presence.

“Tired from tryin’ to nick some spoons and forks off some old fella?” Alfie snorted.

“Yes, Alfie, tired.”

He studied me – that usual dart around me, from face to shoulders, down toward my boots, all around, always he studied me. “What ‘appened to ya?”

“Nothing happened to me,” I said.

“Well you could ‘ave written me a fuckin’ letter to tell me so, Willa, could ‘ave-…”

There was laughter behind him, shrill and sudden and all around us. “You’d be waitin’ a while for a letter from our Willa, Alfie.”

It was Beth, stood with the other girls, flustered and thrilled by the sight of Alfie because it meant that there was some gossip for them. Alfie had been right that the neighbours might wonder, that it might spread in the tenements that a young lad had been spotted outside our flat without Esther there – it might be a brothel, the neighbours might wonder, a whore-house in Bell Road, when before that had only been at Fetter Road, and didn’t one of their girls die on Fetter Road, their Elsie –...

I noticed Charlotte was there, her hands in a twitch from nerves, her eyes wide and lost in a wild spin between myself and Alfie and Beth and all the others, over and over. 

Alfie turned, his shoulders hunched together. He had an awful danger about him, as if the sight of Beth stirred some dormant temper. “You gonna keep natterin’ on, Beth, yeah, or are you gonna say what you really wanna say?” he drawled out, slow and deliberate.  

Beth stilled at his dark stare. She licked her lips – tasted metal too, perhaps. “T’was just a joke, is all, Alfie, on account of Willa not bein’ able to write or nothin’ – and besides, you’d be waitin’ what with ‘er new fella what liked ‘er so much, old Yax-…”

I slammed the door shut.

Soaked in yellowish light, the courtyard was asleep, the dogs dozing in the doorways and the bedsheets fluttering in a tired breeze from laundry-lines strung between the railings. I marched toward Victoria Lane before all the other girls could even stir or mutter jokes about Alfie and jokes about Yaxley. The girls knew that Yaxley had hurt me, somehow. Only there had not been bruises. I could still stand; my mouth had not been made slack from him like Daisy, I never had to hop about like Ruth.

So, for the other girls, that meant that I was not hurt. It meant that the girls said, what girl has not been felt up by some fella on the maid job, what makes you so special that you can’t do it again, Willa, you think you’re better than us, is that it, because Esther calls you chey, you think that makes you special –…

There were no bruises. I could still stand. I could still speak – but the words never came out, remaining hardened lumps in my throat. I turned toward Princeton Avenue, hands stuffed into my pockets. In the past few days, I had spent more time out on the streets in order to avoid Alfie, but I had had trouble with stealing from pockets if those pockets were attached to the coats of men.

It had spread through me like some disease, what Yaxley had done or had not done or almost did or wanted to do. I was not afraid that I might be caught by men in the streets with a hand in some pocket, but rather afraid of what might happen after it – thrown into an alleyway, would there be sickly-sweet blackness?

I thought about how the girls had looked at me as if I was demented, as if I was being pompous and spoiled to be so upset over what had happened or almost happened or not happened with Yaxley. I thought: should it really be like that? Should I have let him? Is it supposed to be like that with men?

It had infected my sewing-machine, this illness, it tangled the thread and bunched the material before I could catch it. I stood from the table, turned to toss the ruined fabric into the bin, only to find Alfie behind me in the emptiness of the room. His hat was not there, neither scarf nor coat. He was dressed in a shirt – its buttons were wonky, drifting toward the left, its right sleeve just an inch more in length than the left.

It was the shirt that I had made him weeks beforehand, that I thought he had thrown away because it had come out daft from my lack of experience. Only he wore it now, right in front of me. Somehow, it made me laugh. It made all that tension held tight in my stomach unwind like a rubber-band, snapped and unfurled, so that I could hardy stop my laughter and did not want it to stop either, because the shirt was daft and made him look daft.

“Oh, that’s charmin’, innit, mockin’ the lad what’s wearin’ your craft, I’ll remind ya, Willa,” he said, and I only laughed harder. “Well, I thought I was wearin’ the ‘eight of fashion, me, thought I’d match all them posh lads up in Charter’ouse with me new kit –…”

“You kept the shirt,” I replied, still giggling. 

“I kept the shirt, yeah.”

I heard some subtle shift in his tone, which stilled my laughter. I saw his eyes swell with that odd look, that I could not quite pin, but it was much like how Elsie had looked at me after Esther had bashed my skull against the countertop when I was a child and later how Charlotte had looked at me when she held me after my nightmares and – and I never thought that Alfie would look like that toward me. Not for me.

And he stepped forward while I stepped backward, so that we were never closer than we had been.

He said, “Willa, what ‘appened out at Rosewood, eh? Why won’t you tell me?”

He had asked that outside the flat, before the girls had come and spoiled it, ruined it – ruining me and he-… But he was not Yaxley, I told myself. Alfie was nothing like him – and I looked into that gift from God to be sure of it and felt only warmth toward him, pinkish warmth. He had never come near me with blackness in his eyes.

“What do you care about it?” I asked meanly, because my hands were trembling like those other hands trembled after a line of snow, but I had not taken any and never had, but it seemed as if it had gotten into me all the same. It angered him, my tone and my dismissal of him. It angered him. I saw it in how his chest heaved like it had in the backyard after that fight and I could see it in his eyes, blown wide.

“I care about it, all right. Cared enough to come ‘round yours after Charlotte found me, cared enough to know that you weren’t ‘idin’ yourself away in that flat just because Esther told ya to do it. You’re doin’ it because you’re afraid o’ somethin’ and it wasn’t somethin’ you were afraid of before Rosewood and before this fuckin’ Yaxley bloke. So, I care about it, or I wouldn’t be fuckin’ standin’ ‘ere in this poxy shirt what you made for me, wouldn’t be ‘opin’ that despite what ‘appened that you might still tell me, Willa!” His voice rose at the end, rose into a shout not like anything I had never heard from him.

“I don’t know how to tell you,” I said.

And there it was, the truth of it all.

“I wanted to – and I tried – but it comes out all wrong,” I continued, “like my mouth can’t figure it out, like it comes out backwards and wrong.”

“Then let it come out backwards and wrong,” he said, “so long as it comes out.”

So, I told him. I told him, stuttered and slack and nervously wringing my hands. He listened. For once, I was speaking in a wild ramble and it was Alfie who listened, whether it came out backwards and wrong, so long as it came out. Afterward, it was my chest that heaved, my eyes that were blown wide, I was sat against the table and I looked at him. I asked him, “Alfie, is it supposed to be like that – with – with men, I mean, is it supposed to be –…?”

“No,” he answered. “No, it’s not supposed to be like that. Not supposed to be like that at all.”

He was not looking at me. He would not look at me. “Alfie, are you – are you ashamed of me now?”

His eyes snapped toward me, his jaw ground so tightly that his words came out rasping. “Ashamed of ya? Why would ya ever think somethin’ so stupid?”

Stupid, I thought. He’s right, you bloody dunce, bloody fuckin’ dimwit…  

“Stop that,” he said. “Stop thinkin’ that stuff, stop thinkin’ like that about yer-self.”

I never said it aloud, but he heard it anyway – a gift that God had given Alfie, I suppose.

“Esther did that to ya, made ya think like that, didn’ she? She put you in that fuckin’ position too, didn’ she, let you be where that fuckin’ nonce could ‘ave at ya like that – I bet she ain’t said sorry for it neither, ‘as she?”

“She said I wouldn’t have to do it anymore,” I muttered, feeling shifty and awkward in front of his blazing stare.

“No,” he said. “You won’t ‘ave to do it anymore, Willa."

In the earliest light of dawn, Alfie stood in the courtyard of Bell Road beneath the shelter of a canopy and scratched the dogs behind the ears while he waited for me. I was confused, asked him what he was there for, why he was there so early. He never answered. I had learned that about Alfie but asked him anyway.

He brought them small chunks of meat, folded in a bundle of cloth stuffed in his pockets, so that all the dogs had come to him with drooling mouths and eager snouts sniffing around him, surrounding him. He fed all of them, even the smallest strays scarpering toward him from the other tenements. Once finished, Alfie walked alongside me toward the factory and I glanced at him warily, unsure of what he was doing or what he wanted.

But that gift from God only ever told me to trust Alfie. So, I did. I trusted him and followed.

“Sit down, Willa.”

I sat at my usual table and watched him pull another alongside me before he went toward the office – that sparked me through me like a lightning-bolt, especially once Alfie pulled out a small pin from his pocket and shoved it into the keyhole, fiddled around until the lock clicked. I wanted to tell him that Butcher would murder him, chop off his limbs and hang him from railings until all his blood had been drained, like animals in butcher-shops, but Alfie had already come back out with some pens and paper in hand. He fixed the lock and sat alongside me, slapping the paper onto the table.

He caught my stare and said, “Give over, Willa, you ain’t gonna scold me for nickin’ these when that’s ‘ow you make a livin’, are ya?”

“I don’t want Butcher to hurt you,” I told him.

He did that funny thing that Alfie often does after I said certain things, when his eyes followed mine, followed my movements, inspected me and assessed me until he looked away, his stare distant and distracted. He took my hand – the touch startled me, made me flit toward thoughts of a pantry but soon I found comfort in the warmth, because this was not Yaxley, not the pantry. I trusted Alfie. He pushed a pen into my hand as if I could not figure out how to hold it myself.

Suddenly, I understood.

“No, Alfie –…”

“No, what? You don’ wanna learn? Want Esther to keep you under ‘er boot forever, is that it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Alfie looked at me, deadpan. “Don’t you think it’s beneficial to Esther that you don’ know ‘ow to read or write yet?” – he ignored the splotches of red on my throat, my flighty eyes, unable to look directly at him anymore – “…you’re one of ‘er top earners, ain’t ya, Willa? Well, Esther seems to think that she’s got you good ‘ere, don’ she? You steal for ‘er, make ‘er aprons. She don’t think you can do nothin’ else, so she thinks that you ‘ave to stay with ‘er, yeah, that you ain’t got a choice. She’s wrong on that one. Show ‘er that she’s wrong, darlin’.”

He had two sheets of paper, one for himself and another for me. He drew a squiggly line, attached it to another. He plopped down another, and another, until the whole sheet was filled. He wanted me to copy it, wanted me to follow him with the sounds even when I felt completely embarrassed in front of him.

I mumbled, “Alfie, I don’t want to do this – I feel – I feel stupid, I don’t want to –… Mine are coming out all wonky and wrong, you see –…”

“So long as it comes out,” he said. “So long as it comes out, Willa.”

It became our routine to reach the factory before all the others. He brought paper, brought pens; we practiced my writing where the other girls could not see, practiced my reading too, he wrote sentences for me to read out in my slow, careful way – each sound, each syllable. I felt so stupid at first, but he never stopped me, never really did more than wait and correct me or encourage me to repeat a certain word, rewrite a certain letter until it looked more like his in comparison.

“Al-fie,” I read once, “…is very han-…han-sum –…”

Handsome, I realised, my eyes shooting toward him. He smirked from his seat, bumped my shoulder with his, so that my cheeks burned, and my hands became clammy.

“Now who wrote that, eh? Blimey, I’m flattered, Willa, but I try to keep me-self ‘umble, don’ I –…”

Behind him came the groan of the factory-door squeaking open, wobbling on its rail. I heard the girls, heard giggles and shrieks and laughter. Quickly, I scooped the papers from the table, all the pens, stuffed them in the drawer of my own table and looked to find Alfie watching me, having not moved at all. It was private, my lessons with Alfie, just between us. He pushed his chair from the table and stood slowly, reluctantly.

Just before he left, he leaned close and said, “I’m not the one feelin’ ashamed of you, Willa. I never was.”

He left for the backyard and I watched him, my skin fiery and red from that same feeling of regret. I pulled open the desk of my drawer, looked at the papers and felt my heart thump. I read the next sentence, slowly, slowly – but I really read it by myself, read each word! My heart stopped its thumping, fell into my stomach, settled there like a stone which then burst into a hundred butterflies and swooped upward again once I had sounded it out, sorted the letters, understood it.

He had written: Willa is smarter than she thinks.

Another morning, I strolled out into the courtyard and expected us to continue onward toward the factory, but Alfie merely fed the dogs and stayed unusually quiet. He fed the dogs, scratched floppy ears, and I sat and watched him. Eventually, he slipped off the ledge that he sat on, stood and said, I want to show you something. Instead of walking out toward Victoria Lane, he went toward the staircase – the staircase which led upward into the tenements, which creaked beneath our boots, all the way toward the fifth floor where our flat was.

The row was angled in the shape of an ‘L’ – this meant that the staircase opened onto a small stretch of landing and then turned, so that there was a long row which had the doors of each flat dotted along it, six of them in total, and our flat was the fourth.

Alfie strode right by it and stopped in front of the sixth flat at the end of the row, with its peephole faced toward the row. He fished around his pocket. I heard a jangle and saw him fiddle with the keyhole. The door opened and I stared at him as he stepped into the flat. He glanced behind and said, “You comin’ or what, Willa? Fuckin’ freezin’ out, it is, and you’re there wastin’ precious ‘eat from my flat, you are –…”

I found my words, formed my mouth around them. “You live here?”

“Come inside, Willa.” His response had been flat, his eyes glancing toward me, filled with an oddly pleading sheen. “Come inside, darlin’, yeah?”

Coaxed toward him, I stepped into the hall and then into his front-room. There was not much in the way of homeliness here, for the furniture was coated in thickened sheets of dust. There were boxes laid about the flat, piled one upon the other, untouched. He held still in all that dust. Gingerly, I stepped around the room and tried not to disturb anything. Only there came a moment in which Alfie cleared his throat and I looked at him.

“Been tryin’ to clear it out, ain’ I? Was me Mum’s flat. I jus’ – I ain’t been ‘ere in a while, you know. That’s how I got the job from Butcher, because Esther knew me fam’ly, back when we was livin’ on Bell Road. Like I said, I ain’t been ‘ere for a long time and I – I got this letter from me brother, right, sayin’ he’s gettin’ outta the big ‘ouse in a couple weeks. I wanted ‘im to ‘ave somewhere nice to go, yeah, he’s been in there a while now. I was thinkin’ – and you know, I gotta get some o’ this stuff shifted fast, but I –…”

Alfie continued along like this, mumbling and rambling while he picked up a book and placed it atop a table only to then return it to its place, fiddling with his uneven cuffs and shrugging his shoulders. I let him do it for a little while, because I felt myself flooding with this tenderness toward him, as if I was melting in sunlight, melting gladly, melting happily, for him.

I knew that Alfie was sharing something significant with me – something that meant a lot more to him than I had first understood when I stepped into the flat.

It occurred to me that I had never asked Alfie where he lived, never knew that he had a brother nor that his brother was in prison, never talked about his mother, never even tried to discover these things because I had been trying so hard to remain aloof and distant from him, afraid that the girls might mock me about him just like they mocked me for my illiteracy – which was slowly changing, changing because of him.

Gently, I interrupted him while he was still telling me that the paint could do with another coat, that he could clean the skirting-boards. It was somewhere between that and the part about the fireplace that I interrupted and said, “Maybe we could start with finding the things that you really want to keep, Alfie. Place them into a pile and put them in another room while we clean out the rest together. We can make it look really nice for your brother, I think. We’ll do it all – skirting-boards and all.”

He had listened to each word, his lips held tight together. He nodded. For once, he did not say anything. He picked up a book, tilted it toward me, and nodded again. I knew what he meant. I took it from him and placed it carefully on the sofa. He handed me another book. He was quiet all the time, until he found a red book beneath the others and he mumbled, “My Mum really liked this one.”

I was reaching for it; my hand brushed his and this time there was no pulling away from one another, no pretending to be unaware of it. He let me rest my hand against his, let me stay there with him in the flat, until its dust had been swept clean, its books stacked, its skirting-boards cleaned.

Afterward, we walked to the factory. Somewhere along the line, my arm had started to loop around his. Somewhere along the line, I leaned against him; never mentioned, but there it was between us all the same.

The Blacksmith was a bar on Brixton Street which had been full to the brim with drunken crowds spilling out from the doors on the night that I went there to meet Alfie. He never drank alcohol, but the bar was just about the only place that we could meet easily and without the other girls there to surround us and interrupt us.

Spinning around in wild dances and separating only for fights, the crowd swallowed me in its fold. I thought that I might never find him in this swell of people, pushing around one another with pints-in-hand, beer slopping onto others and starting more fights from the confusion. I slipped around them, looking for a familiar black hat and white scarf – the one that I had made for him, which he always wore, which stirred another bout of warmth in my stomach and cocooned me against the chill of the evening. I saw coppers outside The Blacksmith, so I ducked inside and tried there instead.

Alfie was behind me, out of the blue, turning me toward him and planting my hands on his arms. His breath was heavy against my ear whenever he leant close enough to tell me something against the loud noise of the crowds. It tickled and made me shiver against him, trying to wiggle away when he would only pull me closer toward him. He made us dance – made us, in his stubborn way, dip and shimmy and wobble around, and it only made me laugh from how silly it all was, his horrible singing and his terrible dancing, it made me laugh and laugh.

Alfie always liked to make me laugh.

He leaned close once more. I thought that he wanted to tell me something and I leaned toward him in response, automatically; his lips were pressed against mine, soft and gentle and slow, his lips kissed mine and it was – it was complete blankness in my brain, for just a brief moment, before I found his rhythm and followed it, before the shrieks and laughter around us became a bubble and I felt my hands grip his shirt and bring him closer, forever closer.

His mouth trailed along my throat, kissed it, softly, gently, slowly. He found my earlobe, nipped at it. He said, “It’s supposed to be like this, Willa.”

I pulled away from him, staring into his eyes. He smiled, and it was a proper smile from Alfie, not one of those coltish, sly, teasing smiles he often used instead of allowing himself to be genuine. I found I liked it far more, this proper smile, because it was made of the same softness and gentleness that had been in his kiss. 

“Do it again,” I said.

He did, over and over. He said, “I want you to write me letters, now that you can.”

In this daze of kisses and being close against him, I tugged at his hair and realised that he liked it a lot when I did that, so I did it all the more. I had thought that he was joking with me, playing like he always did. “Why would I write you letters when you’re with me in the factory, Alfie?” I asked.

“Write to me all the time, won’t you, Willa, like I taught you,” he said, his words breathed into the skin of my throat, etched there, eternal. “I want your letters, written by you, my girl, my Willa –…”

Some fella got shot over in Sar-jay-voo, Esther said the next morning. That was how I learned about the war. Some fella got shot, she said, and now all our fellas have to be shot along with him.

I understood what he meant by writing him letters, now.

Chapter Text

three


 

The war was another thing never mentioned. In the early mornings, we met in the courtyard and fed the dogs small shreds of meat. Our boots slapped against cobbled streets toward the factory and we continued onward like we always had, together. I made aprons and he hauled crates filled with those same aprons into trucks before we walked to the butcher-shop on Brixton Street and he bought more meat for the dogs, tucked safely into his pocket, later peeled into lighter strips for the pups that soon surrounded him on Bell Road. One evening, Alfie pulled a mutt onto his lap and let it lap against his face with its panting tongue, drooling in thick, whitish streams all over the newest shirt that I had made him.

I watched him with the strangest feeling that he was already saying his goodbyes to me, somehow.

It had been tapped out between the syllables, it had been settled between the pauses in his speech, his goodbye. I heard it, too. I understood it because of that old gift from God in my gut or just from how he held my arm a little tighter in the evenings before we separated and from how he wanted me to read and write for him more than I ever had before and maybe from how he had told me that he loved me. The words had been spoken in the blend of greyish dawn streaked in slashes of blue out in the backyard. In between had been the faint patter of droplets against the roof of the factory, the sinking of mud beneath boots, the loss of warmth against my hands because he had pulled himself from me in all senses. He had resigned himself.

Afterward, he said, “I think we should visit the fairground this weekend, Willa.”

In other words: goodbye, Willa.

There had been fuzzing orbs of orange all around us, on the carousel; it seemed that there was no war, that never had there been a Sar-jay-voo nor a fella shot on its soil, and all those posters about patriotism dotted around Bell Road had been swept away in a sudden downpour, and there had never been headlines about some borders invaded, about soldiers deployed. Blurred, the headlines had dripped into smeared blobs of wet paint from the wild spin of the carousel until I fell against Alfie in breathless laughter, felt the warmth of him, felt the strength of him, felt him pull me against him so that we could spin together, further and further from all those soldiers deployed, all those borders invaded. I thought, what does all that nonsense over there have to do with him, anyway? Here he is, with me. What does it have to do with him?

Stumbling from the carousel, we had found a booth for photographs. Alfie wanted two photographs, paid for both and pushed us into a line, smoothing out his collar and licking both his thumbs to sweep against his eyebrows before he leaned close and pretended to inspect me with this displeased look on his face, tutting and huffing while I laughed at him and tried to pull his wrists away from me, blushing madly at his affectionate touch. Alfie liked to stretch his arm around my shoulder and pull me close against him, tuck me there beneath his chin and let me lean backward against the warmth of his chest, especially in the crisp, bitter chill of night.

Nestled in a field, the fairground had been far from London; the stars had been brighter there, sparkled with more intensity, sprinkled all over the blackness. I was shuffled forward by Alfie, pushed first toward the photographer and Alfie made it clear that he wanted this photograph to be without him. Embarrassed, I stepped away from that white sheet and toward him instead, cheeks stained in redness at the thought of standing alone in front of all those people. Alfie was not that much taller than me, but he always seemed it, straightened by his confidence, not that I ever had much of that, which Alfie knew, because he also knew that I could suffer from sudden bouts of shyness if I was made to pose in front of others.

Gypsy Girl had posed. Gypsy Girl had done all that, a long time ago – not Willa.  

Alfie caught me by the shoulders and turned me so that I could not glimpse the crowds behind him, so that I could only focus on him. He said, “Willa – look at me, darlin’ – I want just one photograph of ya, yeah? I want it because I’m a selfish man and I’d like to be able to look at ya even when you ain’t with me. Don’ you think I want all them other lads out there in the world to know I got me-self the most beautiful girl on me arm, yeah, want them to see that she ain’t afraid of nothin’, my Willa, especially not afraid o’ takin’ some poxy photograph in front o’ these fuckin’ strangers out ‘ere -…”

In some butchered form of harmonisation, I found myself nodding just like Alfie was nodding, because his eyes were pleading with me and I knew what the photograph really meant for him, I heard it just like I had heard it out there in that blend of greyish dawn streaked in slashes of blue out in the backyard; I love you, Willa Sykes – now, goodbye. I suppose that that was the reason for which I let him turn me around toward that white sheet and stand me there, like a doll with limbs manipulated, so that the photographer could bend behind his little flap and fiddle with buttons.

All the while, I looked right at Alfie, never looked away from him. Just as the photograph was taken, I thought, he will never stop fighting and that is why it has everything to do with him.

In the photograph, I stood with lips held in a timid smile, shyness making me half-turn from the lens of that camera. Alfie traced the outline of me held in this photograph that he had wanted so badly, trailed his fingertip across my thin, narrow eyebrows, drew around my sweetheart jawline and finished with my eyes, which were dark like the colour of coal. While still a bairn, Esther used to tell me that Gypsies were always the prettiest because of those dark eyes. Only I had grown and learned that she only ever said those things so that the other girls would become upset and spiteful. There was not much difference in the darkness of my eyes and those of Ruth or Daisy, really, both brunette and dark themselves. It was not an accident that Esther had filled a flat with pretty girls. Pretty girls made more coins for her.

I told him, “That’s the first photograph of me. The only one of me, Alfie.”

Gently, he put it in his pocket; it was never mentioned after that.

For the second photograph, Alfie stood alongside me with his shoulders held straight and his arm still around me. He wore a smart coat, had that faithful scarf that I made him draped around his shoulders. He wore his Jewish cap too, round and black. The photographer pulled himself out from beneath that flap and glanced at Alfie before his mouth crinkled and he looked at me. He said, “Would you mind tellin’ your fella to get rid of that yid-cap for this photograph, sweetheart?”

Alfie launched himself at the photographer, grabbled with him, suffered a punch himself just before he gripped the photographer by the hair and threw him against some railings behind us, cracked his face against the steel so that his nose spurted blood and his mouth was filled with it, hot and red and pouring from him. Alfie forced him to turn his head toward me and apologise for having said ‘sweetheart’ just before he made him apologise for ‘yid-cap’. Alfie tore him upward, positioned him behind the stand once more. Calmly, Alfie stepped right around him and straightened out his cap and coat. He put his arm around me once more.

In the photograph, Alfie’s left eyelid was almost entirely shut from the swell of a black eye. He had his other hand lifted to tip his cap toward the photographer – and he was grinning.

Plucking cotton-candy from a cone, we sat on a bench and Alfie told me that he had allowed a family to take the sixth flat on the fifth floor of our tenement and that was a hard punch into my chest because it was another form of goodbye, left unsaid. Sullenly, I asked, “What family?”

“Jewish fam’ly,” he answered.

I pulled a strip of pinkish fluff and plopped it in my mouth. I pulled another and he leaned forward, mouth open. I almost placed it on his tongue before I snatched it back, ate it, and smiled at his groan of frustration, my sadness momentarily forgotten. I glanced around us, looking at all the other couples wandering around between the booths. “Well, that narrows it down, Alfie. What, you want to be a landlord now?”

“I ain’t chargin’ ‘em,” he muttered lowly.

Sharply, my eyes darted toward him. “What? Really?”

“Really.”

“Why not?”

I had been so distracted by him that I had forgotten about the ball of cotton-candy still held in my hand until he reached around my shoulders and yanked it from me, shrugging his shoulders as he put it in his mouth. He mumbled something and I only heard two words ‘sick – mum’ before he feigned a cough.

“Alfie.”

Pursing his lips, he tried not to look at me. Alfie had a soft spot for me – and it was more than just soft from some affection between us, he was soft on me completely, never liked to upset me, never liked to refuse me anything, never liked to lie to me either. So, I tore off another curl of cotton-candy for him and held it out toward him and waited. Slowly, his eyes flicked from the carousel, toward the distant trailers. Finally, reluctantly, they settled on me.

His resolve crumbled and he let out a low sigh because he knew that he was soft on me, too.

“Well, this Jewish woman – she’s got a son, yeah, what looks after ‘er, because she ain’t well, is she? And they ain’t got much in the way’a money, mind. I figure, I ain’t usin’ the flat – me brother ain’t gonna be usin’ it – not now we got this whole –…” – he almost said war, but it dropped from his mouth and became muffled by the mud so that we could pretend it had never been there at all – “… and she ‘elped me Mum out when she first came to London. So, I tol’ ‘em to ‘ave the flat but not to mess up our good cleanin’ job on it, o’ course. And -… Oh, don’ you give me that look, Willa –…”

“Alfie Solomons, saviour of stray dogs and sickly women – oh, and their sons,” I whistled, grinning at him, delighting in how he shifted on the bench and rolled his eyes.

“Right, well, we can’t let this get out to anyone, all right, darlin’? Can’t ‘ave ‘alf of London thinkin’ I’m some kind of – messiah, yeah,” he replied.  

“Oh, I’m sure half of London thinks many things of you, Alfie, but nothing close to messiah.”

“Is that right, is it? Well, Ms Sykes, what do they say about Alfie Solomons, eh?”

“That he beats photographers in his spare time, and he can’t throw a ball into a bucket to save his life,” I retorted, smirking at him. I nodded my head toward a nearby booth full of little trinkets that could be won for just that, tossing a ball into a bucket at different distances. Alfie glanced over and then grinned, jumping from the bench and taking me with him by the hand.

“We’ll see what they think after this, won’t we, Willa?”

Off he went to war. Off went almost all the boys and men of Bell Road along with him. There was still a handful of them left behind, those who suffered a wonky leg or funny heart, those who feared war and fled into the countryside, those who had rich parents with rich connections who could find the right paperwork which exempted them from that old muck and tumble on the frontlines. Butcher never left, but most of his boys did. It got worse in the war, given that all our fellas were being shot and that meant the women had to fill boots not usually made for them. Somehow the earth still seemed to spin even without the men; especially without the men.

The war meant that Butcher finally looked around himself and saw that he had suddenly become vulnerable, exposed. His enemies who had also avoided that old muck and tumble on the frontlines knew it, too. The war also meant that Butcher was sniffing – always sniffing, scratching at his nostrils which had been raw and sore from snow, from nerves and from anxiety and from an addiction he would not admit. His hands were always lost in tremors. He used to sit in the office because he had become weirdly paranoid, told himself that the coppers would come for him and if not the coppers, then some old enemy from some older time, because people like him did not live very long. He said it repeatedly, shouted it even, so much so that it became routine.

But nobody really listened to him, anymore.

Charlotte had found herself a beau, a little scrawny lad all of sixteen, and 'beau' was what they said over in France for a boyfriend, Esther told me, though how she knew that, I was not sure. He filled the spot of the lads gone off to war, sorted out the boxes of aprons and snow, but that had all slowed down quite a bit. Charlotte liked him because he liked books, she told me, he could quote characters and he could talk about themes, talk about abstract things which most of us never really considered worth talking about, at least not in the flat on Bell Road where the most important thing was who had stolen what and for how much it might sell.

Even Charlotte herself had never read books until this lad came around – and came around he did. He stood in front of the flat for our Charlotte, he did. I made him anxious, made him twitch because I used to stand in the doorway while he waited and watch him, look him up and down. I had this shoddy imitation of the way Alfie studied people, drank them in the first time that he saw them and assessed them. I had to do it. Esther was rarely there. Beth had tired of being Best Girl, she often dismissed her duties in favour of nights spent out with other girls from other neighbourhoods. I bathed the youngest girls. I clothed them. I settled them into makeshift beds. I brushed through tangled hair. I thought about Alfie in between. Who else would do it?

So, Charlotte had found herself a beau, this scrawny lad of sixteen.

The dogs filled the courtyard looking for Alfie; warm, chocolate stares blinked out from doorways, awaiting scratches behind floppy ears, drooping muzzles dripping in white froth. But soon the dogs realised that Alfie was occupied by that old muck and tumble on the frontlines, so they drifted off into other tenements, sniffed around other bins for small morsels of food left behind. I strode through the courtyard of Bell Road, toward Victoria Lane. I was always first at the factory; an old habit which continued from my mornings spent with Alfie.

Once there, I rustled around my drawer and pulled out some paper. For a little while, I could only stare at its white, mocking blankness and think of what I was supposed to tell him, because what could possibly interest him over there? I started off about Charlotte, in my childish handwriting, started off in my terrible spelling. I told him about Bell Road and its sameness – told him about the dogs, too, because he had always been fond of them and I knew that he would think about them.

I told him that I missed him. I told him that I thought about him a lot. I asked if I was allowed to send him packages, because I had already started on some scarves for him. I was not sure if it was cold in France. I was not sure of anything about France, other than the fact that Alfie was there.

I told him that I would send the scarves anyway.

Esther had started on the snow, too. Her hands trembled badly. She was rarely there. If she was, it was only in the physical sense. Butcher had made her like that. He had made her want it, he had made her hands tremble like his and in between the trembles, he told her that he loved her. I understood that what Butcher had done was not from love – he had wanted Esther to depend on him more than she could herself. Only he got it wrong. She depended on the snow.

Not him.

I started to feed the dogs for Alfie. I could hardly afford meat. I had small pieces of bread, some pieces of fat which seemed enough to please them all. I scratched floppy ears, wiped drool, and it meant that I had a couple of dogs trailing behind me into the courtyard or plodding alongside me toward the factory. Usually, the dogs drifted off into other alleyways. I wrote about it in another letter. He never wrote any letters of his own. I wasn’t sure that the soldiers could write out there in the trenches.

I wrote a whole pile of letters left unsent, for a little while, on top of all the others that I did send, if only because I had told too much of myself in those unsent letters, told too much of my worries. I worried that there was something very wrong with Esther and I worried that it was becoming too hard for me to balance it all without her and I worried that Charlotte and her lad had become too close and I worried that myself and my lad might never be close again and I worried that I was not able to call him my lad at all, given the lingering ambiguity of us, having never fully admitted any attraction.

I wrote it all, in my wobbling scrawl that he had taught me, with words spelled out just like how they sounded for me.

I stuffed those too-much-of-me letters in the drawer; never mentioned after that.

Bundling a towel around Josephine, I kneeled on the tiles and brushed through her ratty locks, smiling while she told me about her trip into Cannon Market with Charlotte. Josephine had been here only four months. She was ten, just a little wisp of a girl. She pressed a small hand against my shoulder, lifted a leg and shimmied around the towel. Once finished, she leaned forward and wrapped herself around me in a hug. I was speechless, surprised by her boldness – or fondness, rather.

“Thanks, Willa,” she said.

Thickened layers of condensation fogged the windowpanes and filled the bathroom in a hazy warmth which was perhaps what drew out some muffled memories from the depths of my skull. Suddenly, I could remember Elsie and how she had once dried me off like I had just done for Josephine. The girl left me there, in the bathroom, to scoop the towels and drain the basin of its lukewarm water. Josephine had been the last girl to bathe in the whole flat, because she was both the newest and also the youngest.

Before I could do anything more, I sat there and wondered: when had I last thought about Elsie?

Esther had never claimed the body. Elsie had been buried somewhere out there, amongst the plots and flowers of other graves, but hers had never been visited. Elsie shared the soil like she had shared all other things in her life. I started to tell the other girls in the flat about her; frantically, obsessively, I told them. The girls listened, although it had come across like some uncharacteristic rambling on my part because never had I spoken so much before, never had I mentioned something so deeply personal. I told them that Elsie had been Best-Girl and that she had taught me tricks to unclip bracelets or pull necklaces. Josephine listened, alongside the other girls. I never told them about her death, rarely talked about death at all.

Given the war was in its second year then, there had been enough talk about death. There were widows in the streets now, children huddled around them, lost and penniless from war and the loss of fathers, loss of income for families ravaged by the war, all their boys and men plucked from them and left somewhere in the soil of France.

Esther had looked at those women one morning whilst I walked with her. She sniffed.

“Too much competition,” she said. “Don’t they know we were here first?”

Eventually I heard from other girls that soldiers had sent letters for them even if nothing had ever come from Alfie, which hurt me more than I could admit, because I thought it meant that he had tired of me. I had sent off letters attached with packages almost weekly, never certain that he had even received anything from me. I sent off those letters and sent off almost sent every inch of me along with them, but Alfie never answered – that was the thing about Alfie, expecting answers, rarely giving. I just kept that old routine; rose early, fed girls, fed dogs, fed myself somewhere in between, walked toward the factory and whittled out apron after apron for two bosses so spent on snow that it seemed meaningless, returned to that flat, fed dogs, fed girls, fed myself somewhere in between, bathed myself, bathed girls, tucked them into makeshift beds.

Sometimes, though, I found myself in the kitchen, smothered in the comfort of the girls’ chatter and I sat there only to think about the trenches and what it must be like there. I thought about those telegrams and I thought that maybe Alfie had lost interest in me and then I thought – I thought, what if Alfie had died? Where would that telegram go? His brother was in those same trenches with him; his mother had been buried many years now.

If Alfie Solomons died in those trenches in France, who other than God would know about it?

Finally came: a letter from Alfie, composed of a few simple lines. He wrote:

Willa,

Thanks for the scarves. Could really do with some socks. Sorry I didn’t write sooner. They made me Captain. I have the most scarves of all these soldiers, so that must have counted for something when they were deciding on whether to make me Captain or not. Could easily clothe both our side and the enemy’s side by now with them.

I miss you, Willa. Every second that I’m here, I miss you.

Alfie.

I cried from it, cried from laughter and sadness and something in-between. I cried even more because I thought it had been a telegram that first time that I saw it in the hands of the postman, thought that somehow, they had figured out who to send it to, thought that somehow, God had found finally told me all the way from the trenches. Captain, he wrote. I folded that letter, tucked it into the pocket of my skirts and scrunched my cuffs around my fist to smear away the tears which stained my cheeks, still wearing this goofy smile, the smile that only he ever brought out of me, even all the way from France.

Settling into the rhythm of the sewing-machine, I stitched socks for Alfie. I slid them into my pockets for his packages. I had practiced, over and over. Distracted by my thoughts, I heard the rattled screech of the rail once the steel-door was wheeled apart and thought that it was just the girls strolling in from those languid lunch-breaks spent lounging around the benches outside.

I heard the echoed shouts, the thump of boots. I understood very quickly.

Coppers.

Before I could sprint from them, I pulled the drawer open in a wild crack, tried to pull out all the papers that Alfie had written while he taught me to read and write, those papers which meant so much to me that I could not think to run without them. But the coppers were already on me, had already slammed the drawer on my right hand, had already hauled me upward and slammed me against the table – and I felt one of them behind me, in a position that was much too like that sensation in the pantry of hands in places which were not permitted by me, a body pressed too close against mine, pressing and pressing into places which were mine, mine and only mine, so that I bucked and kicked like some wild animal –…

I felt a hand grip my hair and slam my face against the table, like Esther had slammed me against the countertop years beforehand. I went limp just like I had then, too. I slumped against some foreign body which shouted at me about stolen goods. I was taken somewhere cold and damp and it rattled me like my teeth had rattled after I was thrown against the table. I was in this wagon, tossed around, dragged out again and I must have mumbled something because one of the coppers lifted me by my hair and said, “Listen to this one, eh, another fuckin’ bog-trotter over ‘ere stealin’ what she can before she fucks off back to her caravan in Ireland, eh, fuckin’ paddy-girl thinkin’ she can-…”

His punch was sudden and hard and knocked me right out.

Sometime around midnight, I cracked the crust from my bruised sockets and saw that I was in a cell with Nellie and Rosie. I was laid out on a cot like some corpse, hands folded over my chest, and my right-hand was slit open from the drawer crushing it but still I could wiggle my fingers. Blood drippled even more. I winced from the pain of it, from the grind of my bones. In all the years that the factory had been there, the coppers had never even come close to a raid because Butcher had always paid them off. Stunned, I said it aloud, too, said it through a mouth which felt numb and slack and which I hoped that I would not end up like Daisy with soft words all sloppy and poured from lips left dysfunctional.

“He ain’t the top-dog anymore, Willa,” Nellie whispered fearfully. “He lost control of Harrow. Didn’t Esther tell you?”

It turned out that Esther had not told me a lot of things about Butcher; she had not told me that most of the lads who had worked for him simply left the factory altogether, either for the frontlines or another place, left out of spite for him or left out of desire for the kind of wealth that Butcher could no longer offer, not after he spent all that cash from the aprons on piles and piles of snow snorted into nostrils now coated in thickened scabs from some kind of infection in his septum. He had lost Harrow and it spilled into territory around Bullock Road. He had only a quarter of Camden Town left and even that was a loose grip.

“Didn’t Esther tell you?”

☼ 

Held in a small, blackened cell, I was chained to a chair and held beneath a bright, crackling light. The coppers came in and out, in and out. Rosie and Nellie had been released hours beforehand, but I was still there. It made my skin feel prickly and sore. Finally, I was let out. While I walked out of the cell and into the hall, a pair of coppers smiled at me – smiled, so that it made my stomach churn, and I had the feeling that I had been left out of some joke, left out of some loop again, and that there were so many loops that I felt myself surrounded by them, like the nooses of a hangman. I turned from Rowland Street, turned onto Dilworth Avenue.  I turned and turned and turned for Bell Road.

I wanted to find Esther.  

There had been no dogs in the courtyard. There were always dogs in the courtyard, always a handful of them sniffing around barrels, others sat around the doorways, summoned by the clatter of my boots which had become familiar to them. Neither were there the children who usually ran between the bedsheets. Neither were there any women. Neither were there babies with those women. Slowly, I squelched through the mud which soaked the courtyard and clambered upward onto the staircase, my boots creaking against it, my legs oddly numb.

I stepped onto the landing of the fifth floor. I came around the corner of the row, looking for the fourth flat, our flat.

And its door was open.

And there was sickly-sweet blackness on its threshold.

I had stumbled. Never was that door left ajar, unlike the other neighbours’ doors on this row, because the neighbours’ children liked to dip in and out of the flats between playtime, but ours was different. I could feel a trickle along my spine, like a cold droplet of water which had slipped beneath my collar and slid downward toward my tailbone. I thought the tenements had shifted beneath me, wobbled and slipped into the wet earth of the courtyard but I looked around and saw that it was all still there, but this still felt like some horrid dream, the way that my limbs moved as if I did not control them, as if I was suddenly in a place without having really walked there, having simply appeared there  – only this was real and I had walked here and I was here.

And I could feel that there was something in that flat and that it was still there just like I was still here.

I heard voices and knew that I was right.

I heard them as if I was underwater and the words floated down toward me, popped in my brain, all sharp edges, those words, but somehow the meaning was lost on me. Then, a man came and stood in that threshold. Willowy and dark, his arms were raised in thick, lumpy scars which wiggled like worms beneath the flesh.

He glanced toward me.

Smothered beneath all that water in my brain, it occurred to me that he had not yet recognised me as one of Esther’s girls. 

I was still stood there, like in the pantry. I stood there because I knew why there had been no dogs and no women and no children. I knew it perfectly and suddenly all at once. The dogs had fled the gunshots, the screams; the doors of each flat, rows upon rows, had been bolted and shut and women stood with children clutched against them behind those same doors. Rows upon rows.

Only ours had been open.

Again, that man glanced over. His dark eyebrows furrowed, a small crinkle held there between them, his suspicion seeping through into the lines of his skin. He opened his mouth, as if he might speak. As if he might say, aren’t you one of Esther’s girls?

Cracking apart in a wild clatter, the door of the sixth flat sprung open behind him. Out stepped a thin, young, lanky boy who said, “Lizzie, did you remember to get Mum her medicine?”

Bewildered, I fumbled for a response, but sickly-sweet blackness filled my mouth, seeped out from my gums, drizzled onto my boots in some dumb muteness. Perhaps he had expected my inability to form words, too stunned to find them within myself, because he added, “Oh, don’t tell me you forgot – fine, I’ll go get it. Just come inside and help me run her a bath, will you?”

He had a crop of black curly hair barely contained beneath a small, black cap and thick eyebrows held tight over intelligent eyes, eyes which screamed: please, please get inside this flat before he realises that we do not know each other and please, please, please –….

 The other man had watched all of this, that crinkle still there between his eyebrows. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette and plopped it between his lips. The blister-worms on his arms seemed to shift with his movement. He looked off toward the other side of the hall, bored and dismissive.

In that moment, that one moment, I was able to look behind his legs. I saw Esther there, slumped against the wall. Her skull was like the blackberries had been in that jar in the pantry, all soft and ground into mush. She sat there like a limp doll, and my legs almost went because I saw other bodies slumped behind her, but I tore my eyes away and looked upward at that boy, still there in the doorway, still on its threshold.

He held my stare and mouthed, “Please.”

Please, please, please –…

Jolted into action, I nodded, stepped forward and said, “I got it, Harry, I got the medicine.”

He held the door open. He held it open and I stumbled toward him like an infant in its first steps, stilted and awkward and fumbling until I found the hall; the door shut behind us, softly, gently. The warmth of the hall reached beneath my coat and curled around me. The roots crept upward from the floorboards, like in the pantry, latched around my limbs and held me tight in a merciless grip, sprouted in an anxiety which announced itself in the form of goosepimples on my skin.

I collapsed against the floorboards, right there in his home. I was trembling, sinking my sharp nails into my scalp, into my skull, sinking into me. There was bile in my throat; it smothered all my words, all my thoughts, trapped there, like stones.

Despite the sandpaper touch of my tongue, I said, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you –…”

It was my nerves which made me say it, too, not only my gratitude, because each bundle had become so fraught that I felt myself sizzle and burn beneath each crackle and I had to say something, or I would have fizzled out myself. It made me jittery and distraught in front of him. He fidgeted with his hands, glancing fearfully at the door behind me, as if he suddenly realised that I was right and he regretted it – but a steely look filled his eyes and he nodded, lips held in a tight line. The ringing in my eardrums dimmed into a rattle, like a tambourine clapping itself against my temple and I realised that he had spoken, that he was speaking – and he said, he said –…

“O-Oliver – but everyone calls me Ollie, you know.”

 ☼ 

Chapter Text

four


Soaking in a bowl, Ollie lifted a damp cloth, wrung out its wetness, folded it, and then placed it against her forehead; her purple eyelids flickered weakly from the cool touch of the cloth, disturbed by droplets which slipped around her temples and which fell like tears against her chest. Slumped against an armchair with legs curled beneath me, I blinked through raw, tender sockets, unseeing. I had drained myself of moisture, drained myself of thought, left myself tired and slow.

Subdued by those soft, foreign words which Ollie mumbled for his mother, I found myself fixated on the gentle movements of his slim, delicate hands, like the conductor of an orchestra, entire symphonies held between his fingertips. I looked at my own hand, the right one butchered from that copper slamming a drawer against it; it had become sore, lined in a rusted outline of infection, I could feel it beneath the skin – like worms, worms beneath the skin, like that man who had stood outside the flat –…

Soon enough, I had drifted into some faint in-between, held in slumber but still aware of these unfamiliar shapes and silhouettes around me. Sleepily, I watched Ollie, watched him until his form had blended into all the others, a mass of black and silver contours. Flickering against the candlelight, those wild shapes shifting upward against the wallpaper stirred distant memories of the wagons sinking into the wet fields of Ireland, wherein boy-cousins of mine held contorted hands against the tarp and painted stories in shadows, told folklore in the dip and curl of each digit.

I had buried those stories in the soil of those fields, those same fields that the old Gypsies thought would become my grave if I had not made it beyond my first month. I had been expected to be buried with all those other infants whose lungs withered and whose lips turned blue.

The old Gypsies had different prayers for those infants, only for those infants; prayers withered and blue.

Curled against the sofa, Ollie had long since fallen asleep, his long limbs splayed out around him. He shifted and let out a sigh. I stepped around him, pulled apart the front-door and winced at its harsh creak.

Ollie never stirred.

Pale slivers of moonlight sliced through the railings of the tenements, filled its halls in breaths of white and illuminated those tacky puddles of blood outside the flat. Esther was still there, slumped against the wallpaper. Her mouth was held apart and her hands were clasped in her lap as if she was in prayer, a position I doubted she had ever really been in. I felt an unbearable tightness in my chest which constricted my fingers and made them scrunch in a harsh knot once I reached toward her and I felt the heat of fresh tears.

Esther often said that girls in our world never made it more than twenty-eight years on this earth and she had always said it with this odd reassurance in herself, as if it made her stronger to acknowledge that she might hang from a noose or she might be beaten by coppers in the pinkish warmth of an alleyway or that she might be beaten by Butcher or beaten by some other man, because it would only ever be a man to kill her, she said.

Esther had been thirty-seven, which meant nine years more than she had needed or expected for herself. Yet I sat alongside her on that floor in that flat on Bell Road and there was no great sense of resolution for her, no sense that Esther had held the foresight of the old Gypsies and settled some old score within herself, that had only ever been for herself, nothing to do with anyone else.  

Instead, it felt very much like she had been caught unawares, shot in the chest and in the skull. She blinked once in colour. She blinked again and saw blackness.

I thought, too, that Esther might never be mourned. I held tears but not one of them had ever fallen for Esther. I cried for the other girls collapsed behind her. Nellie had dropped in the kitchen, surrounded in shards of glass from the shattered windowpane behind her. Rosie had been in the bedroom, Beth thrown alongside her. Behind Esther, I had caught sight of Daisy with her slack-mouth held open from mouthfuls of blood. Ruth sagged against her chest.

But Esther – I looked into the blankness of her, the blackness of her. I was not sure that I had ever loved her. I felt something toward her; it was just a feeling that had never been described, never been given much of a name. It was just a feeling there, within me. It existed, and there was not much else that I could do about it. I turned toward the bathroom and saw another form there in its threshold. I was in that dream-state again. I appeared in spots around the flat, never fully understanding how I had come to be there.

Dust glittered all around, left untouched from the night beforehand.

Josephine had been in the bathroom. She was still in the basin; her lips had been blue, just like all of her had been blue and bloated and made of blankness but this bothered me more than it had with Esther, made me slap my kneecaps against the tiles to crawl toward her and some part of me had thought that she was still awake – awake, as if she had been asleep, a childlike thought of mine. I could feel the dampness of the basin spreading against my chest, spreading outward like it did within my chest, too.

I touched her. I never should have touched her.

I felt her dampness like I felt mine. She tilted forward, limp and flaccid and it sparked some horror within me to witness it, made me let out this wretched sound that balanced between a scream and a moan – I was trembling so badly that I thought that I was composed of the same rippling which ran through the water in her basin – and I saw – in that pinkish water – I saw her small hands, the hands that had held me after I had bathed her, before she thanked me –…

She was ten, I said aloud, into a flat that listened in swirls of dust. I said, Josephine, can you hear me? I’m here, Josephine.

I thought that she could hear me. I convinced myself that she could hear me, that all the girls could hear me. I smeared my hands against my cheeks to clear away those tears which blurred all that I could see, threw myself against the tiles and frantically searched for a towel. I told myself that I could take her out of that bath. I would bundle her in the warmth that she had lost. I never thought about what might come after – I dipped my arms into the water and looped beneath her armpits; the stiffness of her limbs had not occurred to me and still I wanted to lift her, but I never had the strength and her cheek lolled against mine.

I fell and she fell along with me, dipped low into the bathwater. I was still speaking aloud, I realised, I was speaking as if she could hear me and I told her, come back – I told her, you had eighteen years more, eighteen years stolen from you – and I told her, I’m so sorry – and I told her –…

Ollie stepped into the flat. I heard him in the hall, heard him separate the dust. I was in the bathroom, I stroked her hair, I told her – well, what did it matter? Ollie hovered in the threshold, held in that in-between, and I knew that this all disturbed him because his hands did that anxious swirl around each other. I could hear him through an echo that existed solely for me.

He said, “Willa, it really isn’t safe, in here – and I know you want to say your goodbyes –…”

“I’m tired of goodbyes,” I told him. “I heard enough of them, and he never even said them out loud, you know.”

Ollie cleared his throat. “Right, um – I just think we should really leave –…”

I heard his words from earlier and momentarily turned from Josephine, my words stained in distrust. “How did you know my name? I never told you last night.”

He blinked. His cheeks flushed pink, a better colour than his typical pallor. “O-Oh. Um – Well, Alfie asked me to look out for you while he was in France – just to make sure you were all right –…”

Droplets slipped along her cheek. I felt some of my own right along with it. I was very tired, all of a sudden, very tired. I said, “All right.”

He mumbled, “Please, Willa, could you come back in the flat? I can’t leave my Mum too long.”

“And I can’t leave her,” I croaked. I let out a breath, ran a hand against my face and felt the water and sweat there which coated me. “How do I leave her? What will happen to her?”

“I know some people, good people,” he said softly. “I can ask them to bury the girls, do it respectfully. I promise you, these are good people.”

“Does Alfie know them?” I asked slowly.

“He does.”

It reassured me more than I could admit knowing that Alfie knew them, these good people. “Can I visit them?”

Ollie looked confused. “Well, yes of course – yes, I mean – I can find out where they will be buried, bring you to them. But Willa, please – I can’t leave my Mum –…”

It occurred to me suddenly, made me feel stupid and careless. Charlotte was not here.

“Charlotte,” I called out into the flat, as if she might appear, as if she had been hiding from us all this time. I went to stand but my boots slipped from under me because of the water sloshed from the basin in my scramble to – to what, exactly? Had I wanted to pull her out, to put her on the tiles?

Ollie winced as if he had fallen with me.

I said, “Ollie, my Charlotte isn’t here – do you think she got out? Do you think I can go find her?”

His lips were pursed, his eyebrows wrinkled in pity. His voice was firm but still there was his gentle nature laid beneath it. “Willa, Alfie has a lot of friends in our community. I’m going to call each of them and we’re going to sort this out – I’ll find your friend, too, I’ll figure out what happened. But we’re not staying here. We’re going back to the flat, all right?”

“All right,” I said. I was so tired. “All right, Ollie.”

Uncertain of himself, he stepped forward but held still for a moment, looking me over as if he did not know how to approach me, how not to startle me. He bent with his awkward limbs and helped me stand for myself, but I was still in that dream and so the walk to his flat never happened. I was just there, in the bedroom where his mother slept, sat upon the armchair as if I had never left it, as if I had never been unfurled by some abrupt and savage madness.

Draped against my shoulders came an alien denseness. I flinched from it and sank into the heavy folds of the armchair, thinking that I could sense foreign hands like the crawl of insects on bare flesh, trickling downward toward parts that had only ever been mine – I could feel the thickened corners of the pantry all around, closing inward. Constricted in the chest, I panted like dogs in the courtyard against the sudden pressure held there until the smudge cleared and I found Ollie there with hands held in surrender.

Slipping from my shoulders, a blanket thumped against the floorboards in bunched pleats. Ollie looked frightened, his mouth fumbling for proper words, balanced on his haunches in front of me. Dimly, I understood that he had only placed a blanket around me, perhaps even tucked it beneath my legs so that it might not fall off if I shifted around. Ollie was pale, his sharp cheekbones hollowed by candlelight.

“I never meant to frighten you, Willa. I only thought you might be cold, you know. You could have my bed, if you like, but I was afraid to offer. I used most of the blankets for my Mum, she feels the cold more than I do,” he explained. He lifted the blanket and held it out.

“Thank you, Ollie,” I replied quietly. I took it from him, and he smiled; all soft edges, all dimples.

Yet I dreamt of graves, unvisited.

Dawn filtered through the doily-curtains dotted around the bedroom; his mother dozed, her mouth held around rattled wheezes, her skin already taut and waxy, her fingernails sharp and stained in a bluish colour. I knew that his mother was not well. I watched her, because the old Gypsies in those wet fields used to say that there were worlds other than ours in existence and that his mother was balanced on the cusp of another.

I was not sure who had done this to the flat on Bell Road, who had killed all the girls – because it had been killing, it had been slaughter. I thought about Butcher. I thought about whether there might be someone who would come for me, now, strike me down somewhere, alone, beaten into sickly-sweet blackness. Alfie might never hear about it, not from the trenches, so far from here. I would be buried like Elsie, in soil shared, in land left overgrown. I listened to rattled wheezes and slipped off into another sleep.

And I dreamt of my own grave, unvisited.

Because other than God, who would know about it?

“Willa,” Ollie whispered. I felt him in front of me. He never touched me. I sensed him there. I pulled myself up from the armchair, peeled that blanket off. He said, “It’s done, Willa. The girls are buried. Do you want to go there now?”

“Charlotte?” I asked.

“Still looking for her,” he answered. “Do you want to go now?”

Squelching through the mud, I struggled to pull dense legs from the dirt and find the plots in the fields. I was oddly disturbed by the fields, reminded me too much of childhood, reminded me too much of Ireland which had always been so damp, so wet. It was a field that sat just beyond the outskirts of the tenements, a square patch of greenery outlined in wooden fences that we jumped over, but it was not really used for anything in particular, this field – so now it was the graveyard for the girls from that flat on Bell Road.

I saw them, then, the graves. I saw each plot surrounded in fresh lumps of soil. I saw wooden planks in the earth with names attached. Ollie had only distantly known the girls, he said, he had known about Esther and heard about the factory through Alfie, had seen the girls in passing while he and his mother lived in his flat. So, he wrote the names himself. I could read them – because of Alfie, I could read them. I thought of him. Alfie was twenty-nine, now.

One year more than Esther expected.

And it was always killing for Alfie, always slaughter for him. He had stepped into many flats of his own, but his flats had been the trenches, he had lifted bodies limp and flaccid and lolled against him.

Did he hold them like I had? Did he convince himself that they could hear him when he had spoken to them?

There was another woman in the flat. She called herself Francine, but she was Franny to all her friends. She had this small purse with her, a neat little purse with a golden clasp and she popped it open, settled herself on the chair beside the kitchen table. I stood with Ollie, my eyes tracing her lithe movements. I trusted Ollie already. Alfie had trusted him, too – that was enough for me. Ollie had shown his worth, anyway. He found the plots and he had written the names. I stood there for a while with him in the kitchen until I felt the pressure of his stare and looked at him.

“Your hand, Willa,” he explained. “She wants to help clean your hand.”

Holding my hand aloft, I looked at the raw gash which sliced through my right hand, congealed in a thickened mucous, speckled in dots of red. I had forgotten about it. It had burned, itched. I had made it worse. I picked at its wetness and felt the pain. I shuddered from it. I had not thought to clean it properly. I could tell that it was more than likely infected, because that whitish fluid was a poor sign.

Francine had small strips of cloth and bandages laid out across the table in neat bundles. She said, “I’d like to help you, Willa. Would you mind if I tried?”

I was very detached from it all. I was still in the flat, mentally. I was in imagined trenches with Alfie.

So, I did not mind if Francine tried. I settled alongside her because Ollie had herded me toward her, without ever touching me, he simply led me there through his own shuffled gait. Francine lifted my hand onto cloth and squeezed out dollops of ointment onto the skin, so that it burned. I went to pull my hand from her, but she had expected it.

“It has to burn first, to heal,” she murmured; she spoke like one speaks to a child – not a child like the children in the flat on Bell Road had been spoken to, because Esther never felt there was much point in childhood, but Francine spoke like I heard parents speak to children whenever I was out on streets like those posh ones in Charterhouse, with gentle holds on small hands and loving touches of affection.

I used to watch that from afar and wonder was it was like to spoken to like that.

I understood it now; it felt like that first trickle of warmth against my skin whenever I stepped into sunlight in the mornings just before I met Alfie in the courtyard, before we walked to the factory together, our arms linked, leaned against one another, and God – he could be dead over there and I could die here and we might never see each other again, in this world, we might never see each other again.

Who other than God would know about it?

Francine had just finished the stitches, having sewn me together, having repaired me through reams of thread. Ollie came into the kitchen. He was made of anxiety; his hands were fluttering all over like butterflies. He said, “I found Charlotte, Willa. I found her.”

Ginger curls, rosy cheeks – Charlotte had only been eleven when she first arrived in Bell Road. She was now fourteen; she was still timid in her own way, but she had become womanly in others, developed the hint of a bust, the slight indents of a waist, but she had always been small.

Ollie opened the door and there she stood at the end of the row of flats, her eyes drawn toward our old one, but she looked toward me and ran – threw herself at me and I caught her, crumbled with her, cradled her.

I held her like a child, and I spoke to her like Francine had spoken to me, all sunlight. I kissed her cheeks, brushed away stray curls and held her skin against mine just to bathe in its warmth, in its certainty that she was here, with me.

“I was with him,” she stuttered out. “I know I shouldn’t have been, Willa, I knew Esther would have – I knew she would have –…and Butcher is dead, Willa, shot by Harry Reed, he –…”

I shushed her apologies. I could not bring myself to care about the beau or Butcher or this stranger called Reed – what did it matter, now? It spared her from that flat. I held her and held her.

I only separated from her at the sound of Ollie behind me.

“I think I have another blanket around here, somewhere.” 

Ollie’s mother died in the last few months of 1917 – she breathed out another rattled wheeze like all the others that had come before and then her chest stilled and the flat was terribly quiet, much too quiet, so that we had known in an instant. Ollie left the flat and returned hours later. He never said where he went, and I had never asked him. Charlotte had begun to stay with George – that was the beau who lived on a flat in Chesterfield Avenue. I had planned to find another place before his mother had died, but after she passed, he said, “Just stay, Willa. I told Alfie I would look out for you. Stay.”

I heard it in his tone, what he really meant. He was in that dream-state. I had just appeared around him, he could not recall just how he or I had come to be here. I watched him cut a hole in her shirt above her chest, watched him from the doorway, just before her body had been taken from the flat. He was very silent for that, until midnight came, and he was still sat in the kitchen, slouched against the chair with this distant glaze to his stare.

He mumbled, “I have no proper shirt for the burial. I need – I can’t be there without a good shirt – and…”

It was not about the shirt. He knew that and I knew that.

Still, I stood and left the flat by myself for the first time in a while. I found Victoria Lane. I stepped into the factory and saw that its dust glittered all around, left untouched.

There was still thread and material, aprons stacked alongside sewing-machines. I pulled one out and brushed its fabric. I threw them all into a bin, cleaned out the dust and sat at my old table. I looked at the drawer which had so badly damaged my hand. The wound was now a hardened line of red scar-tissue, rough around its ridges. I stretched out a long roll of white fabric, snipped out the shapes that I needed and slipped it into the sewing-machine. I was afraid to touch it, afraid of its growl that had once been so familiar, as if the machine was alive.

I had made many shirts for Alfie, made him socks and scarves and gloves.

So, I started with the sleeves and I smoothed out the new collar and I made Ollie a shirt from scratch; the first thank-you for what he did that night outside the flat. I used the best rolls of fabric that Esther had been so mean about – because really, what did it matter, now?

Ollie wore the shirt. I stood with him at the burial, unable to understand Hebrew but able to understand how the rippling ran through him like it had run through me in the flat after I had found Josephine. I understood that more than anything.

Soon after came the bombings. There had been silver blobs held between the clouds, speckles of light distant and far from us, so distant and far that the rumble which followed them was an afterthought. Coastal towns suffered the most, peppered in sudden assaults, then reported in the morning newspapers. It was sudden for Bell Road, too, evacuated in sirens and wails.

I was with Ollie, because I was almost always with Ollie.

I had become used to him, never minded his touch anymore, even when he grabbed my arm and hauled me off toward a synagogue – which I thought was just his first response because of his faith, but it turns out that many had taken shelter in its tall, sturdy walls, Jewish and Catholic and Protestant and all those things in-between. I was not quite one or the other. I was the in-between.

The children were afraid because the ground was grumbling and white paint fluttered from the ceiling in small flakes, sprinkling their coats. The candlelight was barely there. I saw the world crumble from inside this holy place where I had never been before, and I held out my hands against the light of the walls.

I made shapes like I had once seen from the inside of a wagon – because that was somewhere that I had been before, even if I had tried never to think about it, not since before my ninth summer.

I made dogs with my hands. I made swooping birds and fluttering wings for bats. I painted stories, for a little while, until the ground outside did not cry out in shrieks of stone and dirt, until the screams softened into sirens, drowned out, and the doors of the synagogue were drawn open. The world was still there, even if some of its people had been lost in rubble and fire.

Between the bombings, I brought the sewing-machine into the flat and I made another shirt for Ollie and then another for his Jewish friend and then another for another Jewish friend of that first friend – and it went onward and onward, because I barely charged for the shirts and the war meant that most had little coin to spare anyway. I made them because I had too much to think about. I tried to send Alfie letters but found that my hand could not spell out those words. I could not tell him about what had happened in the flat, not yet. I had heard whispers of Harry Reed and his little gang sprouting all around London, spilling into those spots left behind by Butcher.

Butcher, too, had died and been forgotten. Nose had been blown off, skull caved inward. It struck me that Butcher had died and there had been little reaction. I used to imagine his downfall as some grand affair, shot dead, splashed all over the walls in blood and splashed all over in the newspapers in ink.

Nobody mentioned him.

Soldiers had died in the trenches and Butcher had died in an alleyway; no sense of resolution, no score settled. It just happened. Butcher blinked once in colour. He blinked again and saw blackness.

Finally, there was an end for the war, an end which came in 1918; shouts of victory, jubilation in the streets between shouts and screams that were not from fear of bombs and not from telegrams placed into open palms – shouts and screams of happiness and that was alien for those of us left behind. There was a rash of parties all over London.

From the row of flats, I watched the celebrations in Bell Road with Ollie. I was always with Ollie. He saw the women with arms thrown around men and saw the children lifted onto shoulders and he said, “Alfie should be back soon, Willa.”

Only Alfie was not back soon. Other soldiers limped out from the train-stations all around England with jaws held together in wooden splints and legs blown off from landmines and sashes held around sockets torn clean of eyeballs and those soldiers wandered around, displaced in a land which had become foreign to them. I saw wives sweep toward husbands disfigured, saw children step uncertainly toward fathers with vacant stares but whose arms automatically held open for them.

Alfie was not amongst all those men pouring from trains.

I stuck my legs between the railings on the tenements and I watched the courtyard for the slightest sign of him. Only he was not back soon. Had he died in the trenches? Had he been buried in the scarves that I had made for him?

Because who other than God –…

It happened once I was out with Charlotte. He had come around and met with Ollie. He had not asked for me. Ollie did not say it, but I knew it all the same. He had come around when I had not been there, because he knew I had not been there. He had come back, but he had not come back for me, I told myself. He had not come back for me. Ollie had watched me carefully after he had told me, watched me nod as if it had not torn me apart to know it. Ollie stood from his chair and prepared himself to step out for prayer.

He glanced back at me, just once, and said, “But he was wearing your scarf, Willa.”

Chapter Text

five


 

Soon enough, I was spinning out shirts for most of the Jewish blokes around Bell Road, stretching into Harrow. Even more lads came from the flats along Osmington, another Jewish neighbourhood which bordered ours. Ollie brought them around the flat, introduced them all. Most of his closest friends were devout and wore the same sort of skullcap that Ollie wore, the skullcap which he called a kippah. I learned that the sideburns held in tight curls were called payot. I wanted to understand it all for Ollie, because there were all these rules in his religion, all this structure which outlined what a man was meant to be. I wanted to understand it if only because I wanted to show Ollie how much I respected him.

These rules were also the reason for which most of his friends never touched me, not even for handshakes, and also the reason for which they always maintained a respectful distance, too. They even preferred that Ollie was present in the room whenever I handed over their shirts, which Ollie had explained with cheeks stained beetroot. I noted his embarrassment, noted his discomfort, and understood that he thought I might be offended by the formality, the possible insinuations.

Instead, I was overjoyed.

Before Alfie Solomons, Johnny was the only man who had ever held me softly in my life. I had never been offered the choice in touch. Coppers snatched me around the arms, pinned me by the chest against walls, held me against furniture and kicked me around, sometimes just for the fun of it. I had been thrown into that pantry with Yaxley and felt the true force of touch; pure, unwanted touch.

From all that Ollie had told me of his Jewish friends, I realised that Alfie had been much the same, even I had never really noticed it. I touched him first – touched him in the office that first time he had fought another lad in front of me and I had handed him a cloth to clean off the blood from his skin, touched him after I handed him the first shirt that I had ever made him.

I found trust in him before I found touch.

Somehow, it had just never occurred to me that I could be held softly by men other than Johnny nor had it occurred to me that I could also not be held at all; that is to say that I could simply state aloud that I never wanted to be touched, even if the other person did not listen just like coppers never listened. It never occurred to me that I could express this aversion to touch in ways which was not just my small body contorted by stiffness, limbs shrivelled inward against myself, lips pursed so that the flood of revulsion could not spill from me and cause offense. Then again, I hardly ever spoke much at all in that flat, especially after Elsie had been murdered.

I expected touch because all the touch that had come after Johnny and Elsie had been rough, never soft, always made in grips and strangulations and bruising slaps.

Even when Charlotte came into the flat, I restrained myself if I could. I allowed Charlotte to sleep alongside me, limbs entangled, but I never initiated it, never thought that touch could be more than anything more than something which had to be tolerated, because it had always been so rough.

Rough. Never soft.

The world had not been soft until Alfie had appeared in it, made it soft, made it more than grips and strangulations and bruising slaps, and Alfie was still here, unlike most other men because of that fella who had been shot in that other place, and whose death meant that all our fellas had been shot along with him.

And Alfie was still here, even if his touch was not.

Coated in a blanket of mist, curling upward from the damp soil like restless spirits, the field had been dampened by drizzle and left slick beneath my boots, so that each step was an upward battle toward the plots. I balanced bouquets in both arms, bought in the richest market-stalls of Charterhouse with all the coins made from the shirts. I plucked out the nicest flowers and placed them against each plot, watched them sink into the wetness of the soil, petals speckled in dirt, soiled once more. Esther had been buried a foot from the other girls of Bell Road. I talked while I placed the flowers, told the girls about Ollie and told the girls about the shirts.

Crouched low on my haunches, I lifted a hand to brush away stray tears once I reached Josephine and felt the smudge of dirt on my cheeks; it reminded me of all those days spent in London as Gypsy Girl, hopping around in skirts to amuse rich folk – oh, look at the little savage, darling! – and it made my eyes drift toward Esther’s plot.

I let the flowers be returned to the earth, swallowed into its yawning mouth.

Afterward, I sat with the dogs and shared out small slices of meat, held out in a flat palm then lathered in slobber. Some of the dogs hopped onto the small wall upon which I sat and rested alongside me, sopping jowls pressed against my thighs. I talked to the dogs, too. I found comfort in those chocolate eyes which followed me, tails swept languidly against the ground, occasionally flopping over so that I could scratch at pink bellies.

Eventually, I pulled myself from the pile of dogs dozing in the warmth and stepped forward into the courtyard. I climbed the staircase and considered all the rolls of material that I would need for the shirts. Ollie had run himself ragged around London in search of a job that might keep us afloat and the shirts had been my contribution to the flat. Even if Alfie had never charged a penny of rent, there was still other costs like food. I liked to make just that little bit more for the meat, make a little bit more for Ollie too. I owed him more than I could make through shirts.

Ollie never wanted to take the cash.

Still, there were other methods of payment for Ollie. He had become fond of these new pieces of jelly layered in a fine, sugary powder which had come out just after the war. Ollie had pretended not to care for them, because the sweets had been meant for children. Yet if I dropped a bag of them in the kitchen and left for a couple of hours, I was guaranteed to return and find a crumbled, scrunched little bag with its powder licked clean.

Ollie feigned ignorance – or he tried, until I pointed out that he still had powder around his mouth.

Clambering onto the fifth floor of the tenements, I turned onto the row of flats and found myself frozen in my spot at the sight of a man stood in front of our flat – our old flat, which had been left abandoned, stilled in dust and rot. Like that old tambourine that had been used in the days of Gypsy Girl, my heart rattled in its own frantic thump, rattled louder against the shouts which came from that man, the flesh of his throat blotched in scarlet and his fists rained against the door in a constant rhythm; it reached its crescendo and finished in his panting breaths, his forehead leaned against the doorframe while he whispered curses – curses that had come out in a language that I had not heard in many years, a language which I had only ever heard while bounced upon his knee and in the night, before bed, when he spun his stories and tucked me beneath the blankets and –…

“Willa?”

I blinked, unaware that he had turned from the doorway. He swept toward me, arms held apart. I stood blankly, unmoving. I willed my limbs to respond, willed myself to return the gesture, especially once his smile faltered and his arms dropped to his sides and his wrinkles became more prominent. I just could not understand that he was here.

Johnny Dogs was here.

He was here as if he always had been here; as if never had there been an ounce of space between us.

Through the din in my eardrums, I heard his soft lilt and I heard the reflection of my accent in his own. The sound filled me with an odd tenderness for him, but there was something more bubbling in my chest and it had been brewing for quite some time now, it had been festering.

“Willa, you weren’t answerin’ me letters,” he explained softly. Between his hands, he held his paddy-cap, wrung it out. “I wanted to find ya – sent all our kin out in London to find ya, scattered all around these parts for ya and I heard – I heard that Esther had been – Christ, chey, I thought I lost ya –…”

It unravelled me, the gentle nature of his tone whenever he said chey – it made all that tension around touch drip into nothingness, so that I allowed his arms around me, allowed him to stroke my hair and hold me like he had held me when I was a child, between the stories and the trips around in the sulky on those patchwork roads in Ireland.

“You wrote letters?” I croaked. I could not recall just when I had started to cry but I did not brush away the tears this time.

“Ah, I tell a lie – Shelta writes ‘em – you remember your cousin Shelta, don’t ya, darlin’? She writes ‘em for me. Never was good with a pen, me, but I can tell a good story when I get goin’. You always understood me there, didn’t ya, chey?”

“I can write now, Johnny,” I told him, and my voice cracked. “I can read, too.”

Johnny was surprised, at first. Then, slowly, another expression spread across his face and I recognised it as the same expression I had once seen on Alfie after I had written my first sentence a long time ago, written it without his help or prompting.

It was pride, pure and simple. It was pride in me, pride in what I had told him.

He was proud of me.

“I told them since you were a girl – didn’t I tell ‘em, Willa, that you had brains to burn in that head of yours, girl,” he said, his words stained in a rasp of his own from emotion.

He looked me over and pulled me against him once more, his hand cupping the back of my head so that I nestled against his shoulder and breathed the scent of fresh soil turned over, the scent of smoke from a firepit and smoke from cigarettes, too, all blended into a heady scent that was so familiar, so full of that feeling which came whenever he said chey.

I had never known my mother, never known my father; she had died in childbirth, died in that damp soil which birthed me, been buried in it, too, and from what I understood, my father had been buried there many months beforehand, shot through the skull after a dispute which sparked war between families and which Johnny himself had been heavily involved in because my father had been his older brother.

I had never known the hold of my own mother, never known the hold of my own father.

But I always thought that to be held by either of them would be much like how it felt whenever Johnny held me, all the same.

I could feel it in how his hands trembled once he grasped me and how his eyes had welled with joy because he had found me here in the tenements of Bell Road, that I had not been shot with the others and that he could still hold me like he always had.

“Who did it to ‘em, chey?” he asked.

I knew what he meant even if he hadn’t titled his head toward the old flat. I cleared my throat and felt the lump still there no matter how much I swallowed. “Esther got herself caught up with some bad people, Johnny. She worked with a fella named Butcher – he was killed by another man named Harry Reed. Reed came for Esther and the girls, too.”

“Harry fuckin’ Reed?” Johnny repeated, shaking his head. He eyed me warily and added, “D’you think he’d come for you, Willa?”

“I thought about it,” I said. “But he might not know I worked for her at all – might not care, either, not now he’s become top-dog and all that.”

Johnny was very quiet for a moment, his eyes filled with that foresight that the old Gypsies held. “Men like that always care about it, chey. Men like that never sleep. It’s never enough to become top-dog for ‘em. It takes a lot more to stay top-dog than it does to become it, darlin’.”

“Then I’ll try not to be noticed,” I mumbled.

“I have a better idea, sweetheart,” he replied easily. “Come back to Ireland with me, for a little while, stay with your cousins, your kin.”

I felt my mouth become strangely dry from the eagerness in his eyes, the simplicity of his words. “Oh, Johnny, come on – I can’t just up and run – we haven’t talked in years, you think I would –…”

“I sent me letters,” he interrupted. “You got me letters, chey.”

I had been so shocked by his sudden appearance that I had not taken the time to think about what he had first said when he spoke of those letters, because I had understood what he meant but somehow had not fully realised that he really had sent them. He drank in my confusion with hurt in his eyes, his lips wobbled as if he might let out some sound of pain, but he held firm and straightened his shoulders.

Johnny was not a man of much aggression; the only times that I had ever witnessed his anger had been if one of my boy-cousins hurt me accidentally and he would cuff them around the ears for it, send them off and away from me.

“I had Shelta write letter after letter to ya, with my own words in them, chey, meant only for you,” he uttered darkly. “And I got one back every couple of weeks from Esther who wrote them because – because you couldn’t write yer-self, not like you can now. But she told me that she read them to ya, that every word she wrote in it came from you.”

Letters; letters like those that I had written during those times of muck and tumble in the trenches, and all the while, Johnny had written letters of his own and waited for answers, answers which came but were not really mine. I felt the fury in the shaking of his hands held around mine, before he held me against him again and I felt myself cry along with him.

I said, “Why didn’t you come for me?”

“I thought you were happy,” he murmured; full of regret, full of sadness. “The letters – darlin’, I thought that you wanted to be with her and I thought you wanted out of this life – the only life that I could provide you, chey, a life on the road and a life that – that me own daughters never seemed content with, and I thought if I could make even one of ye happier and –…”

He rambled onward, unaware that he had placed me there with his daughters, finally acknowledged it aloud. Johnny had always cared for me, his chey.

For him, that word had never meant anything but daughter.

There had never been any other meaning, for him.  

He asked, “Where are you stayin’, sweetheart? D’ye need a place? Are you fed, are you comfortable?”

I said, “I was spared, Johnny – a fella named Ollie saved me that night outside the flat, when I found out that Esther had been – he came out, pretended I was his sister, saved me, he did. I’ve been with him, he lives in that flat right behindyou. Fed, I am – comfortable, too.”

“Then I want you to think on this, Willa,” he told me, his face pinched in solemnity. “I will take you back to Ireland tomorrow if that is what you want. No letters, this time, I want the words from you, chey. I won’t force ye – I would never take you there if you didn’t want it. But you have kin. No matter what Esther told you, you have kin – and you’d be safe from this Harry Reed if he ever did find out about you bein’ spared that night. You could work with me, instead.”

“Never was a singer, Johnny,” I smiled warmly, feeling the roughness of his hands in mine.

“Oh, you can sing, chey, but you’d only crack the glass of every pub window in England and Ireland,” he grinned. “But you can dance better than any girl in all the world, you can.”

I squeezed his hands and looked away from him, because I never wanted to admit it. I had loved to dance, once. I loved to dance like the Gypsies danced, before Esther took it and made it into a caricature of what it was meant to be, drained it of passion and heritage, left it limp and full of rigid movements meant to be followed rather than expressed.

Oh, for there had once been things that I had loved; and the loss of them had been slow and torturous but the realisation of all that I had lost had been sudden – sudden and painful and stinging eternal.

Now stood one of those things that I had thought lost before me, hands held, full of love for me – for me and not the coins that I could offer him. For me; whether I was Willa or chey or Gypsy Girl or all those other things in-between.

He crushed me against him, held me closely. He whispered, “You have kin, Willa – think on it tonight and I’ll come for you in the mornin’.”

Somewhere in the first trickle of pinkish light from the sunset, there was a knock that filled the flat in its harshness. I was in the bathroom, having just filled a basin with warm water, folding a towel alongside me. I had not yet undressed myself, but I had planned to steep myself in that water and think through the offer that Johnny had offered me. I liked it better when I could really work through every possibility and figure out the benefits.

Still, that knock came and I left Ollie to answer it. It was another Jewish friend, because I heard the clap of a handshake and the gruff words muttered in Hebrew before heavy footsteps passed through the hall and the chair in the kitchen scraped against the floorboards. I had spent the evening at the sewing-machine, and I figured that Ollie could bring out the shirts which had been ordered as his part of the job. He was quite good with organisation, always scratched out the sums and figures of what was owed, dealt with measurements and sketched the details.

I had begun to stitch more patterns into the shirts if required. I had also started to dip into embroidery for those skullcaps, drew out the star of David before I had even known what it was called – Ollie told me just like he had told me all that other stuff about kippah and payot. He had expected me to respond with more attitude than I had. Ollie was finely attuned to verbal abuse that had occasionally broached into physical all because of his faith; that was the reason for which he often bought his wares only from Jewish market-stalls and Jewish vendors because he had received comments and remarks whenever he strayed too far from the surrounding neighbourhoods.

He used to think that I was odd, until he walked with me through Brixton Street one morning and some copper had turned and said, “Oi, paddy-girl – off to nick some more of our goods for all your cousins, eh, all two hundred of ‘em, breedin’ like fuckin’ animals –…”

Ollie never questioned me after that.

I was pulling off my boots when there came another knock – at the bathroom door, this time.

Ollie called out, “Willa, there’s a problem with the shirt.”

I held one of my boots by its laces, hopping on one foot while I dropped the boot and let it thump against the tiles. “There’s never a problem with the shirts, Ollie.”

He was quiet for so long that I thought he might have left after all. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Well, there’s a problem with this one.”

Gritting my teeth, I glanced at my bathwater still steaming with wisps licking at its surface. I looked at the door as if I could see Ollie through its wood and growled out, “Well, tell him I can make another tomorrow!”

“Tell me yourself, Willa Sykes.”

I heard the gruff rumble of his words as if I had already lowered myself into the bathwater in the basin, as if I had sunk beneath its warmth and let it swallow me, like that soil had swallowed the flowers; it was Alfie Solomons out there in the hall, I knew, and it made my breath quicken to know it, made my chest swell to know it.

I felt the pinprick of tears behind my eyeballs and felt the heat of them already, but I was glued against those tiles, my limbs once again filled in lead like they had been in front of Johnny. I was torn between frustration and the fierce urge to tear apart that door – torn, too, between whether to beat him or hold him.

“Willa, come out into the kitchen,” Ollie said. “Please.”

Please. The same word that he had said in front of the old flat on that night that the girls had been killed. Please, please, please –…

I heard them turn for the kitchen and still I could not seem to follow.

I was struck by his boldness, that he had walked into this flat and summoned me after weeks of silence on his part. I was even more annoyed that Ollie had let him. Alfie had visited Ollie, but Ollie had tried to maintain neutrality by never really mentioning it beyond the bare minimum of information before he quickly switched to a more placid, safe conversation about how many buttons we might need to purchase for the new batch of shirts.

I saw myself in the mirror, then. I saw thick curls, sprung outward, never tamed. Esther used to scrape a comb through my curls and tie them all into a neat braid whenever I was not playing Gypsy Girl. Another thing that I had lost and never acknowledged, my curls, flattened and made docile.

After I saw Johnny, I felt the shame in all that taming of the girl he had known in the fields. I could not yet fully confront her, but I realised that I had not braided my hair since Esther had passed. I had lined my eyes in kohl like I had seen the other Gypsies do in the wagons when I was a child. Ollie had noticed but had never commented.

And it was like a spark through me, the thought of Johnny and the thought of kin, out there. I was not alone, anymore. Johnny had found me. Both Willa and Gypsy Girl had always prayed that Johnny would find them and take them from that flat on Bell Road. Now, I had that option.

So, I tore open the door of the bathroom and stepped into the threshold of the kitchen.

And there was Alfie Solomons; there were his broad shoulders held straight and proud, his hat taken off and settled on the tablecloth, dark silhouette and dark stare flickering in candlelight.

“’ello, Willa,” he said.

Ollie sat alongside him, but it seemed as if he had sat on pins because of how he shifted around, his hands clasped awkwardly in his lap, between his legs. “Willa,” he nodded.

“Out, Ollie,” I ordered.

Ollie blinked, his eyes flitting toward Alfie.

“You ‘eard the woman, Ollie,” Alfie cut in, nodding with a pleasant smile and bumping his shoulder against Ollie. “Time for the adults to talk, innit?”

Ollie threw him a withered glance before he stood and walked toward me. I blocked his path, my eyes meeting his for a brief moment to warn him that he would hear all about this. He swallowed, his throat bobbing up and down, up and down. I stepped aside and he bolted before either of us could trap him there any longer.

I stood and collected myself, then walked around the table and flopped into the chair across from him. He was still smiling as if this was a meeting between old pals – because what had we ever been, anyway? – and I wanted to shout and scream at him, but I had never done that with Alfie before, never been so furious with him before.

Never been so hurt before.

All the times that Esther had battered me, and I had never been so hurt before.

It was something much stronger, I realised, to be hurt on the inside. It was deeper, more like a disease, held in the marrow.  

“I’m back, Willa,” he said.

“You’ve been back a while, Alfie.”

“’ave I?” he asked. “I don’t feel like I ‘ave.”

I looked away from the intensity of his stare but not before I witnessed the death of that smile. He had an odd sheen in his stare, which was aimed toward me but never focused on me. It was the first time that Alfie Solomons had ever looked through me, beyond me. The war had done that to him. Alfie was looking into the other worlds that the old Gypsies spoke about. He was balanced on the cusp of another world, right then.

“I brought you somethin’,” he said suddenly. He had leapt from the ledge of the other world and landed back in ours, because he looked at me again, really looked at me. He reached into his pocket and fiddled around with an exaggerated effort before he pushed a little stack of parchment across the table, its paper soft and delicate, held together by a purple sash.

I truly did appreciate it. So, I bit through the anger, chewed it up and swallowed it before I said, “Thank you, Alfie.”

He nodded. He nodded again, then again. He pursed his lips. “D’you want to take a walk ‘round Ivor Square tomorrow?”

I stared at him, the parchment still held in my hands. “Are you joking with me, Alfie Solomons?”

“I ‘eard we’re due a bit o’ sunshine,” he continued, as if I had never spoken. He hummed and there was that bizarre nod again, as if he could not help himself. “I thought we could go ‘round the markets first and then take a walk down to Ivor Square.”

“Alfie, you haven’t talked to me properly since you got back from France. Now you’re asking if we can go for a walk?”

“Yeah,” he said simply. “I’m askin’ you, yeah, I am.”

“I want to know what happened to you, Alfie, I want to know if you’re all right, I want to know if you were hurt, or if you –…”

“You fed the dogs.”

Thrown by his interruption, I struggled for words. I tried to find the best response, the one that would coax him out of this trance that he was in, in which his eyes watched me and his hands were doing funny twitches that Alfie had never made before and I thought – I thought, dear God, is he like those other soldiers that I saw out there in the streets with those other families, alive and here but looking around as if they thought bombs would fall at any moment?

He was here. He had not lost limbs, he was not bruised or horrifically scarred that I could see from where I sat.

But I had long since learned that scarring could be held in the marrow as much as it could be held on the skin.

“I fed the dogs, Alfie,” I murmured gently. “I kept them fed for when you would come back to us.”

“I came back,” he echoed. Another nod, and then another.

I understood, in some silent way, that Alfie was trying to tell me what he could not say so bluntly: did I come back?

He was looking at me as if he wanted me to pull the words from him like I pulled threads from the sewing-machine, stretch him out and stitch him together like I did with all those shirts. He opened his mouth, closed it again.

I said, “I’ll walk with you to Ivor Square, Alf.”

He held his lips close together. Then came the flood. “I was – I thought that you ‘ad – I thought you ‘ad stopped writin’ to me there, in the last months o’ the war –…” here he let out a scoff and threw his eyes up at the ceiling to control that sheen behind his eyes before he found me again – “…lots of lads ‘ad girls what stopped writin’ to them after the first couple o’ months, y’know, and I could still say, ‘my girl’s writin’ to me’ even when ‘alf o’ them same lads weren’t even there anymore ‘cause they’d been shot or blown away or – but I could still say, ‘my girl’s still sendin’ me all them scarves so I don’t get cold in the trenches, sendin’ me socks so I don’t get rot in me feet’ – I could tell ‘em that, them what were left in the end.”

I could feel the blister of tears again. I had cried enough today, dried myself out – and still the tears came, still I felt my heart stutter. But I did not interrupt him. I knew that if I did it then, he would never speak like this ever again.

And it would kill him in the way that the bullets or the bombs would have killed him, if he did not speak.

“I came back,” he repeated. He drew in a breath. “I came back, and I went to the dogs, first. Hm. I did, I went to the dogs. I thought about what I was supposed to tell you, Willa. Couldn’t get the words out. Think only the dogs can understand me, now.”

I thought of what he had told me in the factory all those years ago after the incident with Yaxley and it was me who could not speak, it had been my sentences which had been choppy and slow.

Then let it come out backwards and wrong, he said, so long as it comes out.

“Backwards and wrong, Alfie,” I reminded him.

He looked at me and I saw the first spark of uncertainty in him. Before, Alfie had never hesitated to tell me anything. But this was not minor gossip in the factory, not a throwaway comment about his brother or his thoughts about Esther and Butcher. This was war. This was trauma – his trauma.

“Backwards and wrong,” he breathed out. “But not now, Willa – please, not now.”

Alfie had never pleaded for much from me or anybody else on this earth, I knew that much.

I knew I could not force him, either. I thought first of Johnny and then said, “Okay, Alfie. Not now.”

He swallowed his relief. I watched it trail along his throat. “Can I ‘old you, Willa?”

It was another thing that Alfie had never really done before – ask for touch and sit in precarity until the answer came. He had never turned away from my touch, but he had also never really asked for it either, because Alfie was typically very casual about that stuff. He let me touch him if I wanted to do it. He would place his hand on my arm and look at me to ensure that I was all right with it.

Otherwise, it had never really been asked.

But that had been before the war.

Now we sat in its aftermath, because that had been before the war, and here we were now, where there were no bombs and where there were no fallen soldiers, and still we looked at each other as if the sirens were screaming and still we looked at each other as if there was rubble all around us and still we looked at each other.

And I wanted that nervousness to end here and now in the kitchen, that trepidation between us. I knew that he was only holding himself back because he thought that I would not forgive him for not speaking to me in that first month.

So, I stood from my chair and I came toward him and he stood at the same moment that I reached him and it was all touch, it was skin against skin and my words and his words both blended together. We were remembering all those little touches that had once been automatic and familiar, now clumsy and timid because we had been apart for so long.  

He said, “I missed you, Willa”.

I said, “I was so scared for you, Alfie”.

“I wanted to see you when I got back, I really did – and I couldn’t –…”

“I know,” I said quietly.

“I couldn’t –…”

“I know, Alfie.”

“I ‘eard what ‘appened in the flat,” he whispered into my hair. “I ‘eard from Ollie when I came ‘round that first night. Never expected you to be livin’ there – thought it was still goin’, that the factory was still goin’-…”

“Ollie saved my life,” I mumbled against his chest.

“Well, if ‘e fuckin’ ‘adn’t saved ya, I’d ‘ave upped ‘is rent somethin’ terrible.”

I snorted, smiling despite myself. “Upped it from nothing?”

He was quiet. “After all the times I ever fuckin’ prayed over in them trenches for God to spare me fuckin' life so I could come back 'ere, I still don’t think I ever prayed as ‘ard as I did after Ollie first told me that the girls in the flat ‘ad been killed.”

I felt the stiffness of his body then. Another emotion that he had not shown much before the war had been fear.

Alfie continued, “Ollie said, ‘the girls were killed, Alfie, Esther too’ and I was sittin’ there thinkin’ that all this time over in France I'd been tryin' to survive and now me final death would come ‘ere in Bell Road, because Ollie never said if you ‘ad been in there or not, ‘e only explained after what ‘e ‘ad done for ya. For me. And I prayed to God for the first time since France that you would be alive, Willa. I prayed and I fuckin’ prayed.”

I was standing very still against him, feeling the wild thump of his heartbeat against my cheek and his hands around me, one scrunched in my hair, the other around the nape of my neck, lowering my head against his chest. He was being so open, so blunt in his words now that I thought this was the result of all that he had held inside of himself.

“We’ll take that walk to Ivor Square,” he finished. His voice was hoarse. “Feed the dogs, yeah?”

Within myself, I heard what Johnny had said after all that happened in the flat and what he thought about Harry Reed: come back to Ireland with me, for a little while, stay with your cousins, your kin.

“Willa?” Alfie called.

“Ivor Square,” I echoed. “And the dogs.”

I’ll come for you in the mornin’.

 ☼ 

Chapter Text

six


 

Stepping into the old flat, I breathed the scent of copper which had soaked into the floorboards; rusted patches of dried blood stained those wooden planks, stained its crusted splinters. Faint moonlight bloomed through the frosted windowpanes and bathed me in its coldness. I felt the heaviness of my boots, tattered and worn at the laces. I trailed through the hall and stood at the bathroom, looked into its blue depths and sensed a sudden dampness spreading within my chest. I flinched at the sight of the basin, turned from its silver taunting. I went to the bedroom and settled in its dust.

I sat there like another piece of furniture.

Eventually, I pushed numb hands around the cot, scratched sharp nails against its edges and felt for a familiar cut in its fabric. I knew that Esther had hidden a small box in its folds. I could recall late nights and faces cast in candlelight, arms propped beneath my head for a pillow, eyelids lowered so that Esther might not realise that I watched her wriggle her hand into that fold and pull out the little box, its speckled shell glinting against the orange flicker.

I never knew what Esther put in there.

I was too afraid of her to attempt a search in her absence, especially because I was never alone in that flat. I was always surrounded by other girls. I was never able to be alone. Besides, I knew quite well that if Esther had ever stumbled into the bedroom and caught me with a hand stuffed into the folds of her cot, she would have surely beaten me to death right there in flat; it was something that I had known like I had known that a dog which spat foam from its muzzle and which become rabid with disease would be shot by fathers of Bell Road, who would drag it out into the fields behind the tenements and press the barrel against its skull just before the bullet came.

I was the dog and Esther had stood in the same place as all those fathers.

It had always been like that between us. I had just never understood how bad it had become until Esther died and the gun had been pulled away from my forehead and all that foam had dripped away from my muzzle and I realised that I was sat alone in a field, not too sure just how I had been spared when all those other dogs had been put down before me.

It had always been like that. And I had never really questioned it.

Then my fingertips brushed the crinkle of paper, letters plied into many folds, like the folds in which they had been hidden and I knew that Esther had to have been made of a special kind of cruelty to hide Johnny’s letters from me. She never destroyed them, but rather kept them in this small box inches from where I slept. I suddenly understood that Esther liked power too much to pull the trigger and put the dog out of its misery.

It was as simple as that. I thought there was not much point in prolonging it, no point in attempting to understand her reasoning for what she had done. Esther had just been like that.

So, I just pulled the trigger and read the letters for myself.

Chey, Johnny had written through the hand of my cousin Shelta, I hope you are doing well in England – we miss you so much here – the weather there is not so different but please wear the coat that I gave you – and I want to come over soon to you, show you all the sights in London – I told you to stay dry so please wear that coat – and I told Esther to take care of you until I can come there and do it myself –…

It went onward and onward like that until the pile of letters dwindled into nothingness and still my hands reached and hoped to clamp onto something – like the memories of that coat, lined in a rich fur. I had barely remembered it until I read about it in his letters, and I could not exactly recall just what had happened to it either.

I knew that Esther had probably sold it and that the coat had been another thing loved and lost in this old flat on Bell Road.

I felt the loss like I felt the pressure of a barrel against my forehead and the whip of cold wind in the fields blown against a frothing muzzle just before the bullet came – and come it did, for he had signed: for my cheywith love always, Johnny.   

I slumped against the cot and stayed there.

Creaking footsteps echoed in the hall. I stirred, aware that the inky blackness which came through the curtains had become brightened smears of orange blended into streaks of pink from the first call of morning. I had not fallen asleep, not quite – I was fully there, but I had just drifted off into other worlds, dreamt of other places. I dreamt of wagons. The flat was cold, terribly cold. I breathed out in puffs of white, saw tendrils swirl before a silhouette stepped into the doorframe and filled its edges with its broadness.

And I thought that perhaps Harry Reed had really come to kill me.

Only I knew that silhouette. I could have traced the bumps of its shoulders, could have easily outlined its bow-legged stance with its frame hunched forward; Alfie.

Oh, how I knew my Alfie.

Because somewhere along the line, he had become my Alfie. I knew he was my Alfie, because I had etched him into my brain many years beforehand. I had painted him every day that the war had lasted. I scrapped the canvas at night and begun anew at dawn.

I had always been his Willa. He said that once, without even an ounce of doubt in his tone. He knew it before I did. He knew it well, felt secure in it.  

So, he came into the flat, the first time that he had ever done so. His boots scuffed the floorboards and he lifted a hand to scratch at his stubble. He loomed in the bedroom because of his large frame, but he tried to make himself small, crouched low and sat on the cot alongside me. I saw his pale eyes flick around the room, before he said, “I always wondered what it was like for you, whenever we were apart.”

I drew my eyes toward him properly, half-tilted myself toward him.

“I used to think about what you thought about in this room,” he continued. “I walked ‘ome to me own place and thought ‘bout you all the way there. I used to think about it in France, too. Now, I’m sittin’ ‘ere with ya and I’m still wonderin’ the same thing.”

I felt an odd emotion; it was guilt, guilt which came from those letters held in my hand and guilt from having never known that Johnny had written to me and guilt that I had not yet told Alfie that Johnny had told me that he could resettle me with kin in the wet fields. It swirled in my chest, around and around. I put the letters on the bed and reached for his hands, held them in mine, felt the scarring there, around his wrists.

“Alfie, I need to – I want to tell you something,” I said. “And I need you to let me tell you it.”

I saw it in his stare; he thought that his Willa had become the Willa of another, because in this month, many wives had left husbands because of their sudden night-terrors or odd bursts in temper.

“I can tell you what I am thinking about, Alfie Solomons. I am thinking about a man who came to see me yesterday.” I almost winced at my wording because his eyes darted from mine and his jaw became tight, his hands gripped around mine, unaware of his tight and painful hold. I quickly added, “His name is Johnny Dogs, Alf. He came ‘round to see me – he’s my uncle.”

His hands were softer. Gruff, coated in lingering uncertainty, he muttered, “Never talked ‘bout your fam’ly before.”

“Never thought I had any.”

He shrugged his shoulders in an oddly helpless manner, his mouth opening for words which never came. Finally, the sounds fell out in flatness. He said, “What’s this Dogs fella want then, anyway? Why ain’t 'e been ‘round before?”

“He asked if I wanted to come back to Ireland with him. He tried his best to come see me, Alfie. Never worked out.”

Alfie drew in a sharp breath. I think he only heard the first part. “Right.”

“He told me that he had sent me letters,” I told him. “Esther kept them from me. Johnny tells me that I have kin – more kin, more than just him.”

“Right,” he said. He shifted his weight. His hands fell from mine, fell onto his lap. “Right.”

He had reacted poorly. I knew that he thought this was final, that I was only telling him all this out of formality before I packed suitcases and packed myself along with it – his Willa, now the Willa of anybody and nobody all at once. But he surprised me more once he took my hands again, drew in another breath and said, “Might be good for ya, to know your kin. What Esther took from ya, y’know.”

I watched him closely. I caught the twitch of his jaw. His eyes could not meet mine. “You really mean that, Alfie?”

“Yeah,” he said; it echoed into the room and reverberated against the walls, came back and slapped us both into momentary silence. He broke it first. “Yeah. Deserve kin, you do, Willa. Deserve to know yourself better than you do. I want that for ya. Want you ‘appy even if it means I ain’t part o’ it.”

“Would you ever come with me?”

His eyes were distant, fogged in the mist that I thought had once floated over those trenches in France. “Can’t leave London, me. ‘ad enough of an ‘oliday in France, didn’ I? Got all me postcards over there, darlin’, don’t need any more o’ them. Over in France, I was always tellin’ me-self that we could make a trip to Margate, you and me, Willa. But you have a chance to meet your fam’ly and – and it could be good for ya. Yeah. Hm. I want you to be ‘appy, I do.”

I smiled, but it was not full, not whole.  “You really thought about that in France, did you?”

He was made of the same coldness which dried out the flat. I regretted that I had ever tried to make a joke out of it, because it had become harder to tell just what amused Alfie and what stung him. “I used to think about what you thought about in this room, Willa. I thought about whether you were safe or not, whether any of them thoughts in your ‘ead were about me –…”

“They were always about you, you big lug.”

His lips curved upward, and I felt a rush of heat in my stomach. “Well, after the first letter came – and then the second, and the third – I thought you’d used up all the fuckin’ paper left England to write to me. So, I knew that you thought about me. And I thought about you in the trenches. I thought about you and I stood there on that beach in Margate every time the sky exploded, and the earth went up in flames along with it, y’know. ‘elped settle me nerves, it did, to think o’ us out there on that beach where there weren’t none of this noise in London and none of this fightin’ with fellas who, in another life, I might’a been friends with, ya know. But I thought ‘bout you and I thought ‘bout us in Margate, I did.”

He turned toward me. I sensed the shift in him.

“But Willa,” he went on, “…if you told me that you wanted to go back there to Ireland, that you wanted your kin and you wanted to be with your uncle, then I would bring you to the ship me-self and I would watch you go because I ain’t Esther and I ain’t gonna be the ball that she chained ‘round your ankle to keep you in this place. I ain’t gonna do it to ya.”

I was sad. It was a childish word to use, sad, so plain and simple, but that was what it was for me. It was this powerful sadness which made me ache for him. I saw how badly it hurt him, saw him shrivel inward from me at the thought of separation, another separation with more letters sent between us.

Oh, how I knew my Alfie; for I had etched him, I had painted him.

Now I had him here before me and it seemed that he was still made of watercolours, faded around the edges, spilled outward into lighter shades.

I thought of Johnny and all that could have been between him and his chey in her fur-lined coat before she had been shipped off to England. But that had been a mistake on his part, to pass me off onto Esther, even if it had not been his intention to permanently pull us apart. I thought of kin that I had imagined with eyes like mine, lined in kohl and the familiarity of a family which I had never gotten to know because that was just how it went for dogs with foaming muzzles shot in wet fields.

I looked toward the letters from Johnny, looked at his second-hand words.

I brought my eyes to Alfie once more. His jaw was still locked but his thumbs smoothed warm circles against my knuckles. He had that sheen to his stare which had been foreign before the war; now it was all him, because it was what the war had done to him, made him look away toward other worlds, other trenches around himself even if I could not see them. I thought about what might become of him, if I did walk out of this flat.

I thought about what might become of me.   

There could be all the kin and wet fields in the world that might fill the blank spots of my childhood, fill the holes which Esther had dug out of me, but I could not see the point in resurrection for chey in her fur-lined coat. She had been buried in the soil. The girls of the flat had been buried in the soil. I was still here – most of me was still here. After all that I had told him, he had not tried to convince me that to be with him was to be happier, because he never thought that he could be the one to decide that for me.

Chey had been buried in the soil; the girls buried alongside her.

“I heard that sand gets everywhere,” I started tentatively. “But I also heard that the best fish and chips in England are always found at the seaside, too. I bet it would be beautiful, Margate…”

It started in his chest, which puffed out, expanded by something which might be called hope, because then it flooded his eyes and he was pulled from the trenches, the mist had been blown clear. He knew me like I knew him, knew what I was telling him; he had etched me, painted me, too. He was quiet. He let me speak, and I could tell that he was hanging onto this – he had reached out, hoped to clamp onto something –…

And that was why his hands squeezed mine because here it was, all that he held onto.

He understood. He understood that I had made the decision. He leaned forward and kissed me and in the rush of emotion which fizzled between us, I realised that it was our first kiss since France – the first proper kiss, not like those frantic, peppered kisses in the kitchen of the flat, made in a heated moment of uncertainty between us. This was slow and warm and full of – of love, and I knew that that was what it was, because his watercolour pallor bloomed into stronger shades and mixed with mine.

Before Johnny Dogs came around, I stood in the hall and repeated my part of the conversation with him, imagined what it would be, because I wanted to ensure that I did not hurt him. I saw his spritely form from behind the frosted windowpane of the door and watched it come closer and closer, larger and larger. He knocked and I pulled open the door, prepared my words like I had ever since Alfie had left. Johnny looked me over, his smile still bright and cheerful – only his eyebrow quirked upward, his smile dripped into a contemplative scrunch of his lips.

“Aye, I thought as much,” he muttered. “Fuck it, if Tilly ain’t always right in what she dreams about.”

Tilly was a cousin of mine that I had long since forgotten, but her name sprouted memories of a wispy girl in a pale dress. I had been unaware of her apparent foresight. “Oh, Johnny –…”

“Tell me, Willa, is he a soldier or a workin’ man?”

“What’s the difference between them?”

He smiled too, but his was weighed down in ruefulness. “I knew it was a long-shot, Willa, to ask you to leave all that you’ve known here. But I ain’t gonna be far from you. I’m movin’ back me-self for a little while to see our kin in Ireland. I won’t be long. Had an old friend contact me in Birmingham. Cousin of yours, he is.”

“Who isn’t a cousin of mine, Johnny? Seems half of England is my cousin.”

He held his arms out and I stepped into them. I let myself be held and felt the comfort of knowing that he was here, that we had planted the first brick in the bridge now stood between us.

“Are you cross with me, Johnny?”

“Never, chey,” he said gently. He brushed aside my hair and cupped my cheek. “Proud of you, I am. I’ve only ever been proud, Willa.” He hesitated, then added, “But if this soldier wants any claim on ye that could be recognised by Gypsies, he’ll have to come talkin’ to me about it.”

“How did you know he was a soldier?” I asked, eyes narrowed.

Johnny grinned. “Tilly ain’t the only one with dreams, girl.”

He turned to walk off, seeming quite satisfied with himself.

Before I closed the door, I called out, “He’s a fucking Captain, Johnny.”

Pinned against the table had been a note written in his handwriting, which read: IVOR SQUARE, 3PM – TELL OLLIE HE ISN’T INVITED AND TO FUCK OFF. I glanced behind at Ollie, who was unaware of the note and who stood in front of the mirror to fix his skullcap against his curly hair. He must have sensed my eyes on him, because he found me through the mirror and his eyebrows scrunched together.

“What?”

I quickly grabbed the note and crumbled it in my fist. “Alfie sends his best wishes, that’s all.”

Ollie’s eyebrows dropped, his expression deadpan. “He told me to fuck off, didn’t he?”

I hesitated, then nodded with a sympathetic purse of my lips.

“Right,” Ollie muttered, his skullcap fixed against his head, turning for the door. “Orders are orders, I suppose.”

“Take your scarf, Ollie,” I told him.

He paused, casting me an exasperated look.

I shrugged. “Orders, Ollie.”

The front-door slammed behind him. He had taken the scarf, after all.

Shrugging on a coat, I walked toward Ivor Square with my hands bundled into my pockets because of the bitter chill which spread between the narrow paths and seeped deep into my skin. It was toward the end of December and the air was damp, but its bitter cold peeled at my cheeks and turned the tip of my nose a splotchy red. I had tried not to walk around Ivor Square since the war came along, because it reminded me too much of Alfie and those languid strolls which we had taken together; arms linked, leaned against him.

I walked there now with a spring in my steps. I thought that he might want to sit on our old wall, surrounded by its pretty greenery from the small park nestled in its centre, the houses dotted around it in a ring, its cobbled walls which were so familiar to us.

There he was – sat upon a wall with a cane held between his legs that I had never seen before, his hat still there in its round blackness, dipped low to shroud his eyes from those strangers who passed him without another glance. His scarf was draped around his shoulders; it had a blue zig-zag stitched into its ends, which I had put there myself. I was warmed by the sight of it. He glanced sideways and saw me, standing from the wall only to wince and grip the cane.

Startled, I rushed toward him, placed my hands around his arms to steady him. “Alfie, are you –…”

“All right?” he cut off. “Fuckin’ made of sunshine and all good things, I am, Willa. Slept funny, is all, darlin’ – don’t be worryin’ yourself about me, sweet’eart. Even them Germans couldn’t 'urt me more than that fuckin’ mattress in me old place – wreaks ‘avoc on me back, it does.”

I knew that he brushed it off with humour, but his hand still gripped the cane so much that his knuckles flushed white and I wanted him to settle back against the wall. Instead, he looked outward at the park behind us and said, “Pretty little place, innit?”

My eyes drifted downward toward his cane. “Alfie –…”

“I was thinkin’ some more.”

I inhaled deeply and tried to smooth out my frustration. “What about?”

Expansion. Betterment. You know, them words what businessmen say when they ain’t really sayin’ nothin’ o’ substance. I met a businessman today, actually. 'e said a lotta words – like expansion, like betterment. I listened, right, and I ‘eard nothin’ but some facts and figures.”

“Alfie –…”

“So, I said to me-self –…”

“Alfie!” I barked, which surprised both of us. It surprised him enough that his mouth snapped shut and he looked sheepish. “Stop interrupting me and tell me what you really mean, or I’ll bring Ollie next time, no matter what your note says.”

“Treason, that is,” he replied. “Mutiny of the ‘ighest order. Shockin’ behaviour from a lady like yer-self. Right. Well. I went to meet a fella what said them words – I shan’t repeat ‘em, but ‘e said them over and over again until I suddenly found some keys in me ‘and I was lookin’ up at Number Seventeen of Ivor Square with its lovely garden and de-light-ful windows that allow a good bit o’ sunlight in, y’know, spacious and all that – 'e said that word too, spacious, called it top-o’-the-line, called it –…”

Still lost in his ramble of words, I barely noticed how his hand loosened from the cane and reached out for mine, thought that he just wanted to hold it until he plopped some keys there in my open palm. I looked at them with wide eyes, mulling his words over – Number Seventeen of Ivor Square. I turned around, scanning the long row of tall, prim houses with all those things he had said; lovely gardens, delightful windows for sunshine and spaciousness and all those things that this businessman said.

“You bought a house,” I stated, stunned.

“Hm. Yeah. I bought an 'ouse,” he nodded. “I did, yeah.”

I was baffled, amazed, confused. “But what about Ollie?”

“Ollie ain’t a fuckin’ poodle, Willa,” Alfie responded tersely. “Despite what ‘is ‘air might make you think. The boy’ll be fine.”

“You bought a house,” I repeated. “For us?”

“No,” he replied. “For the King, thought ‘e might fancy a ‘oliday ‘ome to get away from Bucking’am Palace every once in a while.”

Lightly, I slapped at his chest, rolling my eyes at him.

“Bought somethin’ else, too.”

I eyed him warily. “An actual poodle? To keep Ollie company, be with his own kind?”

Har-har. No – Got us a bakery.”

I stared at him with a very blank expression and waited for him to smile or laugh or do anything that might suggest he was messing me around, but he was very serious. He did not even twitch, but rather lifted his chin upward so that his hat tilted backward, and I could see all of him, every detail.

“Where did you get the money for it?”

“Saved up from what I 'ad left after Butcher – never spent much o’ it, never 'ad much to spend it on, with me brother locked up and me Mum –…” Alfie swallowed and then cleared his throat before he continued, “Saved up me money from the army, too. I got a discount from some old friends, worked it out between us.”

“And why did you buy a bakery?”

“Love bakin’, me. Bake all sorts,” he replied.  

“Name one thing you have ever baked, Alfie Solomons.”

“Oh, ‘ang on a minute Willa, me back is actin’ up somethin’ terrible again,” he moaned, placing his hand against his lower back and hunching forward.

“Very convenient timing, Alf.”

“I’m not sure I appreciate your tone – and fuck, if all these accusations aren’t only makin’ me worse – never seen the likes of it, a lady upsettin’ a man when ‘e is already in so much pain –…”

“Show me the house, Alfie.”

He straightened quite suddenly, that cane momentarily pushed aside in favour of looping my arm around his and shuffling us toward the houses, away from that greenery. He walked us along the footpath, like any other couple in a nice, respectable neighbourhood.

I felt very out of place, at first, until he turned us into the garden of Number Seventeen on Ivor Square and I was too overwhelmed to think much about anything other than the house itself. I craned my neck up at the rich, black paint of its front-door with its golden knocker, its neat little letter-box, the beautiful staircase leading up to that door stabled into its beige exterior.

“Suppose Ollie could sleep in the servant’s quarters,” Alfie mumbled absently, scratching at his beard.

“Garden seems to have enough space for him,” I replied, dazed by its size.

“Nah, need it for a dog, we do. Although Ollie could share the kennel.” Alfie shook his head.

I cracked first, letting out a sputter of laughter. Alfie could hold a straight-face much longer than I could, glancing down at me in feigned confusion.

“What?” he grumbled “Ollie would only piss all over the ‘ouse, y’know. Best keep it just between us, yeah?”

Sprawling rooms had been left without furniture and Alfie had asked that it not be filled apart from a mattress and bed-sheets in the master bedroom. I had only ever heard of a master bedroom when I stayed in Rosewood Manor. I had never slept alone. I had never spent a night alone even in Rosewood, where I was surrounded by the other maids. I sat on the mattress and thought it was a lot like how the cotton-candy had been at that fairground before the war – because it was only ever before the war, after the war, now. It was all fluff and softness, so that I sank into it and felt my bones melt into lightness. I stretched my arms out, stretched them wide to take up all the space.

“You like it, then.”

I never moved or looked around me but sensed him in the bedroom all the same. I always seemed to be aware of Alfie, attuned to his presence; hoping for it, praying for it, wanting him always to be close. “I could stay here forever.”

“Well, can’t be doin’ that, with a bakery to run.”

I blinked at the ceiling, then forced myself upward to look at him. “You were serious about this bakery, then?”

“When am I ever not serious, Willa?”

I dodged the bait. “What do you really want it for?”

“I’ll need aprons, mind,” he rattled onward. Alfie usually rambled like that whenever he was about to drop another bombshell and I could feel myself preparing for it, watching his eyes flit around the room and his hands flow with his explanation. “What baker don’t 'ave aprons with all that flour and sugar flyin’ ‘round, eh? Well, I’ll 'ave to do interviews, find the right person for the job.”

Again, I avoided the little carrot that he had dangled in front of me. His lips pressed into a hard line.

“Right. Well. It was always gonna be you, anyway.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Rum,” he told me, rolling the word.

“Rum?”

“Aye. Rum. What soldiers who still ‘ave their ‘ands screwed on like to drink and like to drink a lot, don’ they? And them what lost their ‘ands in the war like to drink, too. You look at the United States, right, all them lads what want to drink too – and there’s a market for it there, market for it ‘ere in London. Could make a right livin’ outta this bakery, Willa. Set ourselves up very nicely.”

Alfie had taken to talking about ‘us’ and ‘we’; Alfie and Willa, one and the same. I had never noticed it so much until we sat in that house on Ivor Square and he spoke of his future now intertwined with mine all because I had agreed to Margate and agreed to him.

I must have looked doubtful.

“The bakery would 'ave Jewish lads workin’ for me, Willa, lads we can trust to make the rum and keep up the idea of a bakery on top while the distillery runs underneath it.”

I must have looked doubtful, but only because I was doubtful. I thought of Butcher and Esther – the factory. I thought that there was not much difference between them, but Alfie swept toward me and bent onto his knees despite the crinkle between his eyebrows which made me think that perhaps his back-pain had not been entirely faked for humour.

“I’ll take you to it, show you want I got planned, darlin’. I’ll show you the whole buildin’. We’ll get Ollie workin’ with us, you’ll know all the Jewish lads already from makin’ ‘em shirts and caps, yeah? I’ll take on the distillery business, you can ‘elp me maintain the bakery side of it, keep makin’ them aprons and we’ll do it together, Willa.”

His eyes were filled with a feeling that I had not seen in a long time, not since the carousel when the orange lights had warmed his colouring.

“You won’t ‘ave to rob anymore, Willa,” he said. There was the slightest hint of yearning in his voice, yearning to convince me and yearning to show that he had thought this all through for the both of us. “Won’t ever ‘ave to even worry ‘bout makin’ enough to live or worry ‘bout sharin’ rooms for the rest o’ your life. You want to stay in that dump with Ollie?”

Bristling, I replied, “That was your flat, too, Alfie.”

“Yeah, and that’s why I’m able to call it what it is,” he said. “I reckon we work for a couple years, yeah, make our way up to the top and get enough cash what can give us a good life out on the seaside. Get ourselves our dog, hm, and bring ‘im with us. Eat fish and chips every day, lookin’ out at the ocean.”

“You’re making it sound too easy,” I mumbled.

“Because it can be, love. It can be. You trust me, don’ ya?”

“That’s not fair, Alfie, you know –…”

“You trust me, don’t you?” he repeated more strongly, reaching upward to really grip my hands.

I looked into his eyes, eager and pleading. “I do,” I answered finally.

He leaned his forehead against mine. “Trust me now, Willa. Trust me, darlin –…”

I saw the mirror behind him, which showed his damaged spine curved before me, his large and bulky body held against my legs and I saw myself in a smudge of wild hair and dark, dark eyes, Gypsy eyes.

Soldier, workman, baker, distillery-worker; what was the difference between them, anyway?

Emerging from the clammy warmth of the bathroom, I saw him still on the bed and I had not fully copped that we would share it. He was half-asleep already, eyelids fluttered shut. I had never slept beside a man before – apart from boy-cousins and Johnny and that never really counted because it had been kin. Alfie was different. Alfie was always different, always separate from all those other experiences in my life.

Briefly, I debated slipping out into the hall and taking to the floorboards for sleep because I was unsure of what he expected. I was not some innocent, unaware soul. I had heard the girls talk about boys and men and bees and birds but the girls in our flat never used bees or birds and preferred words like fuck for the act.

Only Alfie had never been very forceful, never rough or mean.

I settled on the bed alongside him, rigid and uncomfortable and unaware of how I was supposed to lie with him when I had only ever really slept closely with the other girls. I was used to Charlotte slumped on top of me and I had often awoken to find myself pressed against Josephine’s armpit or with Rosie’s foot near my face because we never had much space.

Alfie rolled over against the cushions and blinked, eyes bleary with sleep. “What you doin’, Willa?”

Awkwardly, I muttered, “Thinkin’.”

“’Bout what?” he mumbled. I did not answer, but he pushed himself upward and asked, “Are you afraid to sleep beside me, is that it?”

I blushed furiously. I both loved and hated that he could tell such things about me, as if I was an open book for him.

He flopped against the cushions and grumbled, “Ain’t gonna do nothin’.”

“I didn’t think you would.”

“Yeah, you did. And you’re allowed to. Yaxley made you nervous. Ain’t gotta be sorry for it, Willa.”

Yaxley had never really been discussed any further between us and the sound of his name shot through me, made me prickly and anxious – nervous, was right. He patted the cushion beside him, and I sank against it, limbs tucked against me, flat and looking toward the ceiling. I turned my head toward him and thought that I would like to be close with him despite all my worry. Alfie was not Yaxley. He had never forced his touch upon me, and he had never tried anything that I had not also wanted from him.

I scooted toward him. The mattress rippled against my weight and I felt myself dip toward him because the mattress was lower beneath him.

He lifted his arm. He waited. He did not order me to move closer, did not expressly say that that was what he was implying.

But it was very simple, like a puzzle-piece slotting right into place and it made it easier for me to do it – to just be with him.  

“G’night, Willa,” he whispered sleepily.

I felt the rumble of his words against my throat.

“Goodnight, Alfie.”

Chapter Text

seven:


 

Billowing clouds of blackened smoke sputtered from the towering chimneys of the factories all along Bonnie Street. The heavy drone of machinery swallowed its cobbled street. Men moved between the barrels, hauling large sheets of tarp between them or rolling carts into warehouses. Great spurts of fire crackled from pits scattered in the courtyard. I shrank from those abrupt licks of heat against my skin, eyes downcast, hands held in pockets and boots clacking against the ground.

Between those hot tendrils of smoke, the bakery unfurled in its red-bricked glory; its sprawling yard was much larger than the old factory had been. Its door was not made of a dense steel but rather wood, painted in a rich chocolate. Ollie stood alongside me. His eyes drifted from the barrels toward the trucks sat in front of the building before he finally looked at Alfie who strode just ahead of us, shoulders straight and hand latched around his cane.

Bundling into the soft folds of my scarf, I breathed in its floral scent. I spotted a couple of lads in the yard already, hunched from the large sacks slung across their shoulders. I noticed that almost all of them were Jewish and from the neighbourhoods around Bell Road, which soothed my nerves; I had made the very shirts on their backs, after all. I heard about mothers and siblings from idle chatter between them while handing out shirts, heard about fathers in trenches and brothers blown away. Therefore, I was not so nervous around them.

It was the bakery itself that made my nerves fizzle and spark beneath my skin.

I was nervous because we had been here before, we had seen bullets shot through skulls for a bit of scum and grime slathered across bricks, seeping from its pipes; that had been the factory which made aprons stuffed with little sachets of snow in the linings, that had been the factory run by Butcher and Esther. I had seen sickly-sweetness blackness bubble from splintered bone and slip between glazed eyes for factories like this – and here Alfie stood, arms held aloft as he spun in the courtyard, his light stubble glistening gold in the sunlight.

“Well, what d’you think, eh?” he called out, his words echoing around the courtyard.

I thought of the dogs shot in the fields. I thought of the girls shot in the flat.

I said nothing; he had not really stopped to listen, anyway.

Tucked within the labyrinth of the basement, held between the endless towers of barrels, had been an office with oak cabinets and a rich rug which was soft beneath our boots. I saw, in the corner, a sewing-machine and rolls upon rolls of fabric neatly slotted into shelves behind it, made in a criss-cross pattern so that each roll could be easily plucked and then cut with all the utensils lain out across its beautiful table, its chair decorated in a very plump cushion.

I glanced around even more at the trinkets in this office, its green lamps with golden trimmings, baskets and countless drawers already stuffed with documents that I had not read. Alfie had done all of this quite hastily and without much explanation.

Yet I stood in its confines and felt much like I had whenever Esther had brought me into her office to discuss certain things – I had looked at the papers, been unable to read them at the time. I had also been left out of the loop so much that I was almost blind in all that was to do with that factory.

Only I could read, now. And still I felt utterly stupid.

I felt like that because I had been disconnected from the more intricate layers of his organisation. The boys flitted in and out of the office to bring other files, other papers, and I stood there motionless like a wax figure, limbs pressed against my sides. I noticed, too, that no boy would glance at me and I thought it odd.

In the flat, it had been an issue between myself and men of my own age, but here – well, I was not sure why the younger boys thought me so frightening that I received cursory glances and had to witness frantic scuttles out into the workroom.

“You want me in the same room as you,” I noted, tilting my head toward the sewing-machine. “Won’t the noise bother you?”

“Nah,” he muttered. “Like the noise, me.”

I caught his flighty eyes too, thinking that perhaps Alfie had not wanted us to be apart even in the most tame of settings. I also knew that Alfie did not like noise – not a lot of it, anyway, especially after he returned from France. He liked the house quiet, he liked it almost silent.

I turned toward the office and said, “Okay, Alf.”

“What d’you mean?”

I blinked at his tone, looking at him. He had sounded defensive, oddly postured so that his fists pressed into the wooden table and his shoulders hunched forward. I had seen him look at the boys like that – never at me, like that.

“What do I mean by what, Alfie?”

“You don’t sound like you like it,” he replied. “But I tried to make it nice for ya, I did.”

“I know, Alfie,” I mumbled awkwardly. “I just – I’m worried.”

“Worried about what?” he barked. “It’s some fuckin’ rum, Willa. Fuckin’ ‘ell…”

I watched him come around the table much too quickly and I saw frustration in the tightness of his shoulders. I saw the grind of his jaw and I looked toward his fist, still held in a scrunch so that the rings squeezed knuckles and those same knuckles turned white. I stepped away from it – from him. Alfie had never hit me, Alfie had never even been that rough at all.

It was not even him that I was even really afraid of, in that moment when he came toward me.

It was Esther. It was Yaxley. It was all coppers who had battered fists against my body curled in upon itself in alleyways.

I had seen all those other people who had ever cut me down stood there in his stance, saw a hand raised for a slap against my cheek already stinging, saw bruises in the earliest light of dawn, and I was trembling before him.

But his hands were at his side. He had never even raised them at all.

I was not even sure just what had happened to me. I had never felt that with him before, but perhaps it had come from the way he had spoken or how he had glared at me and how fast his movements felt to me, so that my head felt as if it was spinning, like it had after Esther had slammed my skull against the countertop of the kitchen in that flat on Bell Road.

Now it was Alfie who stood there; utterly stupid, disconnected.

“I weren’t gonna do nothin’ to ya, Willa,” he whispered.

He looked hurt. He looked wounded by it, that I had stepped away from him so quickly.

“You know I’d never do nothin’ to ya, Willa,” he added. “Don’ you know that, sweet’eart?”

“You came around the table too fast,” I said, cheeks stained in red. “I-I don’t know why I did that – I’m sorry, Alfie –…”

“Don’t say sorry. Don’t you ever apologise to anybody on this fuckin’ earth, Willa,” he replied fiercely. “They don’t deserve it from ya. I don’t neither.”

His eyes were filled with an odd emotion, glistening in the strength of his conviction. He did not move toward me, but I could tell that he wanted to do it, that he wanted to hold me but had restrained himself because I was still in that in-between where his movements had mirrored Esther, mirrored Yaxley, mirrored the coppers.

He said, “I wanted to make it nice for ya, is all. I never meant to upset ya, darlin’. I’ll find you another office, if you’d like. I could pay someone else for the aprons if you don’ wanna work ‘ere, Willa, you know that, don’ ya?”

I felt very exposed. “No, I – I want to be here, Alfie, I was just -…”

“Scared,” he finished. “Not just worried, Willa – you’re scared, ain’t ya?”

I thought of Johnny Dogs, suddenly. “Never enough to become top-dog, Alfie.”

“Now you’re speakin’ riddles to me,” he replied.

But his lips quirked upward like he knew.

Because he knew, I realised. He knew that this bakery – distillery – was the first leap into the pit with the other dogs snapping and snarling and he was baring canines of his own, but Alfie liked that. He had never liked too much noise.

Then I thought to myself, had it always been like that, before the war? Or had it come after it?

“You know it, don’ ya, Willa? You know that I wouldn’t ever ‘urt ya,” he insisted.

I had thought that I might lose him in the trenches on some field in France. I had been grateful to have him back at all – and he had all his limbs, although scarred and now often riddled in spasms of pain around his spine, but here he was – and I knew that if he liked noise now, it was only in the same way that he liked to fight other dogs snapping and snarling.

He liked it because it meant he never had to dwell too much on what had happened to him on those trenches on some field in France, the things which he had never even told me about, because it was always ‘not now, Willa’.

So, I took a step toward him. I saw his eyes fill with warmth and relief. Usually, it was Alfie who held me because he was a little taller and he liked to be the one in charge, but he let me hold him, this time, stooped himself so that I could wrap around him, feel him against my collarbone while he inhaled, suddenly calmed.

I stroked his hair while I reflected on his temper, wrathful and abrupt, easily incited.

I thought to myself, had it always been like that, before the war? Or had it come after it?

In the next two months, we filled the house with furniture; wardrobes, tables, chairs, flowers and paintings. I had never loved a house so much, never even thought it possible to love a house so much. I loved that feeling of shutting the door and knowing that it was just us, together – what had happened in the office had been mostly forgotten, lost in the swell of joy that came with the house and with him. Alfie bought me coats with lush fur and shiny buttons, he bought handbags and hats and all sorts of things that I had never really worn before, because I had never been able to afford it. I had only ever stolen it and worn it in the flat with the girls just before Esther came around.

We used to parade around in the jewels and pretend to be rich Duchesses.

Now, I wore the pearl-bracelet which he had bought me all the time. I wanted to sleep with it, I loved it that much. I knew that it was not even the bracelet that I loved so much, but rather the fact that it had come from Alfie.

Sometimes, though, I looked at the barrels of rum and I looked at the boys in the courtyard and I counted out each pearl from sudden spikes of anxiety.

The old Gypsies had not called it anxiety; they had called it foresight.

Sitting in a park with Charlotte, I listened while she talked about her beau, George – and beau, Alfie explained, was not the word for boyfriend in French, after he had picked up some of the language over there. Esther had gotten that wrong. I wondered about all the other things she could have been wrong about and I thought about what had happened with Alfie in the office that morning so many weeks beforehand. It had not crossed my mind that often, but I wanted to talk to Charlotte. I always trusted Charlotte.

“George wants to find a proper job,” Charlotte said. He was working in another factory yard somewhere in London, and she was still nicking purses in between. I didn’t want it for her, but Charlotte had little options. I had thought about asking Alfie if she could work for him once he had fully established himself. She continued, “And he wants to get us a proper place, you know –…”

“Charlotte, do you ever think about how Esther treated us?”

Charlotte blinked at me. I had always thought her very pretty in a fragile sort of way, because her skin seemed like porcelain and her eyes were soft and doe-like. “Treated us?” she laughed. “What d’you mean?”

“All the slapping and the hitting,” I said.

“Kids can be bold,” she shrugged. “Lots of other kids got it like that, Willa. We weren’t the only ones in Bell Road what knew what it was like to get a slap on the bottom. What makes you say all this, eh?”

“It was on my mind.”

She watched me carefully, seeming confused by my words. “Esther fed us, clothed us. Taught us all we needed to survive, too.”

“I know.”

“She took care of us,” Charlotte went on, “…even when she didn’t have to. Could have thrown us out on the street, turned us out.”

I wanted to say, she turned out Elsie, turned out other girls that you don’t remember because you were too young, she let Beth hurt Daisy and Ruth, she pit us against one another, she – …

I said, “I know.”

Every night, Alfie stood from the table and came around it – slowly – toward me, shifting around me to pull our coats from the stand by the door and helping me put it on, before he ensured my scarf was snug around my neck. Only then would he loop his arm with mine. I liked these little walks because they reminded me a lot of our olden days, before the war, walking around Ivor Square back when we had worked in the old factory.

Then came the night that we stepped out of the courtyard and onto the street, taking our usual twists and turns and we heard a shout from behind us: “Solomons!”

Alfie had an iron grip on my arm. He turned us toward the man but held himself in front of me, stood taller and broader than he had been. I felt my skin become clammy and hot beneath my coat, felt red splotches on my throat at the sight of a man rushing toward us, his own skin beetroot in anger.

“You think you can make my boy do your dirty work, is that it?” he roared.

“Nathaniel,” Alfie called out, his words coated in false amity. “Frankly, mate, ain’t got the foggiest what you’re on about, right, and I think you oughta think about what you’re doin’, mate –…”

“I almost lost that fuckin’ boy out there in France! You think I’d let him be taken from me ‘ere, in fuckin’ London, in my own fuckin’ neighbourhood, from you –…”

“I gave the boy an opportunity to make ‘is own way,” Alfie told him. I could not see his face, being held behind him, but I could sense it – he was full of anger and it vibrated through him, made him tremble from it. I was still holding his arm, but now I thought that I was only holding to keep him here. “And I think you oughta remember that you’re in the presence of a lady, mate, with all this cursin’, frightful behaviour outta you, Nathaniel – …”

The man let out a bitter, harsh laugh. “Oh yeah? Does the lady know what you’ve been doin’, mate, sendin’ them fuckin’ boys out there to do your biddin’, hm?” – at this, his eyes found mine and I flinched like I had been struck, struck by the sheer rage held within them – “…D’you sleep well, do ya, my lady? Oh, I bet you do, with what money my son brings to your man ‘ere?”

“Alfie?” I whispered, squeezing his arm.

His lips were pressed tight together, but he glanced at me. “Ain’t important, Willa.”

“Ain’t important?” the other man wheezed incredulously. “My son lost ‘is fuckin’ eye because you sent ‘im out there! ‘e lost – ‘is fuckin’ – eye – because of – you!”

Never before had I fainted in my life, but I thought that I might fall then, because my legs had become slow and fluid. I stepped away from Alfie like I had in the office. He was breathing very heavily, his body half-turned toward me, half-turned toward his man, as if he was not sure which way he was supposed to go.

I asked, “What did you do, Alfie?”

It came out hoarse. It came out full of fear.

“Go on, Solomons,” the other man sneered. “Nothin’? I’ll tell ‘er, then, shall I? Your fella ‘as sent out all our boys into these streets offerin’ protection to the pubs and businesses ‘ere, made ‘em sell that fuckin’ rum he’s pushin on ‘em – ain’t ya, Solomons? Forced it on ‘em – and it’s our boys what ‘ave to deal with them who don’t wanna pay no fees to your fella, and when they don’t pay, ‘e sends them ‘round to sort it. Only some o’ them fight back, you know. Some of them know ‘ow to use weapons just like you do, Solomons. They took ‘is fuckin’ eye out and ‘e can’t – and ‘e…”

The man was lost in his sorrow, he spun away from us and screamed, and the sound rattled through me, cut straight through me, I was stepping further and further from him until Alfie caught me at the arm and said, “It ain’t that simple, Willa! Look, just let me –…”

“Let go.”

Alfie scraped his lower lip between his teeth. “Willa, you gotta listen to me, yeah?”

“Let go, Alfie. Now.” I had spoken harshly first, but I was scared, and I was so, so disturbed by the wails of that man behind him, so that my next words came out softer, more pleading. “Please, Alfie, let go – just let go, now.”

He did. He did, because Alfie was soft on me, always had been.

“You fuckin’ kike and your bog-trotter bitch, right –…”

I had not immediately noticed that the man had started to scream at us again, his hands embedded in his scalp, pulling madly at his hair. He was wild from his anger. He spat out those words in a froth of spittle, thrown from his lips pulled into a hateful snarl – snarling and snapping and baring canines.

Alfie had been turned toward me, entirely toward me, but he heard those words and I saw a shift in his expression. He lost that warmness toward me. He blinked as if dazed, then turned away. He looked at the other man.

“What did you just call ‘er?”

It was me, now, breathing heavily. I felt my fingertips ghost the pearls of my bracelet. I felt it there, felt each white, hardened bead, spun frantically, twisted obsessively, in my hands. I plucked and plucked at the bracelet. Alfie is not himself, I told myself, that snarling mouth is not the same mouth that kissed me earlier, those hands not the same as those that held me, too, not himself at all –…

“My son!” the man repeated.

“Say it again,” Alfie ordered. “What you just called ‘er, say it again.”

Alfie!” I warned.

I was far from him now and still he spun around and roared, “Fuckin’ stay out of it, Willa!”

He turned back, turned from the hurt which filled me. He said, “Say it again.”

“Say what? About you bein’ a fuckin’ kike?”

Alfie watched him, stalked toward him like some savage creature.

The man bared his teeth and laughed. “Oh, no! Not that, eh? You’re fumin’ because I called ‘er what she is, ain’t ya? A bog-trottin’ fuckin’ bitch, a little Gypsy slut-…”

Alfie was like an animal. He rushed at this man, whose son had lost an eye, and held him against the wet ground of the street, which was black and empty and now swelling in the sound of flesh against flesh. Purple veins peeled from Alfie’s forehead because he was squeezing the other man around the throat, before he began to throttle him. He was punching him, over and over until I thought that there was nothing left of the other man’s skull, just sickly-sweet blackness, but he was still alive. I saw him move.

Blood splattered Alfie’s face. It dripped from his chin and stained the shirt that I had made him.

And he stood up and he turned toward me, and I thought, why are you so surprised, Willa? He had his teeth latched around another lad’s throat when you first met him. What’s so different, now?

There had been nobody around to stop him from doing it other than me. I had done nothing. I had been too afraid to do it myself, because he had been so frightening, so rabid.

I would never have been able to stop him, even if I had tried.

Had it always been like that, before the war? Or had it come after it?

Slumped in the bathtub and soaking in piping-hot water that left my skin raw and pink, I could hear him shuffle around the bedroom on the other side of the door. We had not spoken since we left that street and he had not looped his arm around mine and there had not been much touching at all between us. In front of the house, he had tried to place his hand on the small of my back to guide me into the hall once I had unlocked the door, but I had stepped away quickly – and it was this stepping forward, stepping backward with him that had me tired. He took off my scarf, too. He held onto it longer than he had needed to, before he folded it and left it by the door.

After that, we had separated, moved around one another as if we could not see each other; I was stood in his blind spot and I was afraid to become visible. I could not scrape the image of that man from my mind, saw him always screaming, heard him always moving, like he was here in the bathroom with me, telling me, “My son lost ‘is eye because of your fella!”

Alfie was outside the bathroom.

The man came closer to the bathtub. I saw him move. “Lost ‘is eye! D’you ‘ear me, you bog-trottin’ bitch, you little Gypsy slut!”

Alfie was speaking – I heard him say, “I left your nightgown on the bed, yeah? I won’t come near you, Willa. I’ll stay in the other room, sweet’eart. I left your slippers out ‘ere, too, be sure to put ‘em on, yeah? Can’t ‘ave you catchin’ a cold, eh? Just – just come out soon, all right? You been in there a while. You’re gonna look like a prune, ain’t ya? All right, Willa. I’m – I’m goin’ now, darlin’ – I ain’t far. I’ll just be in the other room.”

And I felt worse because I never wanted him to leave.

It was the first time since we had moved in that we had not slept beside each other.

Around midnight, I heard him in the house. He was not sleeping either. I heard him in the hall, outside the bedroom. While he shuffled by, I heard him pause and my breath paused with him, until he slowly moved away and I was left to watch the ceiling, aware of him in all senses.

He was like this before the war. He is like this now, after the war, too.  

It was first time since we had moved in that I did not sleep at all.

And nothing has changed except for me.

In the morning, I rose from the bed-sheets and drifted toward the wardrobe to pull out an old dress; not one that he had bought me, because I heard the screams of a father whenever I brushed the fabric, felt his grief catch in the threads and fall from between the folds. I took out a dress that I had worn while he was in France, black, simple, lined in large buttons. I heard him in the hall again. I heard him dither there, unsure of himself, before he spoke through the wooden frame of the door.

He said, “I’m gonna walk to the bakery now, Willa. D’you wanna walk with me, eh?”

I never answered him, but I was looking at the door as if I could see him there. Through each splinter, I could see him there.

“All right, love,” he mumbled softly. “All right, Willa. I’ll be off now.”

He hesitated. I heard it in the creak of the floorboards.

“I meant what I said. You ain’t gotta be afraid of me, Willa.”

He sounded tired, remorseful. I heard that in the creak of his bones, too, heard it in the tap of his cane because his back had been hurting him more and more, lately. I waited until he was gone, and I went into the dining-room and brought some paper with me.

I wrote a letter to Johnny in my own words, wrote about how it was one of the best moments in my life to find him again. I told him about the bakery and my newfound job in it, with the aprons and jotting down little notes and messages for Alfie, that sort of stuff.

I reached the last paragraph in which I had planned to tell him a little more about Alfie, because I wanted Johnny to like him. I wanted it so badly, his approval of Alfie. Only I pressed my pen against the paper and the ink blotched, smudged from my hand. I looked at the stains on my skin and found myself frustrated by it more than I would have been on any other day.

I ripped up the letter, scrunched it tight in the palm of my hand and tossed it aside.

Eventually, I slid off my chair and threw that ball of paper into the rubbish-bin in the kitchen. I wished Johnny was closer. I wished that perhaps I really had considered Ireland more, because then I might have known more kin, had more advice for moments like this.

But I still had my Charlotte.

So, I went to find her.  

From stalking around her neighbourhood on Milton Road, I figured out that she had long since left for Charterhouse and that is where I went, strolling between its numerous stalls and looking for a glimpse of red hair. I felt a harsh bump against my shoulder from an older gentleman stepping off a curb and I caught the flash of the pocket-watch out of habit, because it swung from his chest, attached to a small chain, and I had always been trained to look for shiny objects, like a magpie.

He swung around, which caused that glint of gold, until my eyes lifted, and I saw the sneer on his face.

“Watch it,” he grumbled. “Pure ignorance, that is.”

You bumped into me,” I replied testily.

“Well, be more aware!”

He was lost in the crowd and I felt a rush of anger flood through me before I followed after him. I was not intent on a fight – that was Alfie with all the fists and fury, but I did find him by a bookstall with his hands latching onto a book to lift toward his grubby face.

I took that opportunity to slip my hand into his pocket and unclip the pocket-watch. I felt a sick satisfaction that I never normally felt whenever I stole; there was no need for it, this time, I had plenty of spare cash from the aprons at the bakery and I had a house with Alfie – I had a home with him.

And yet I felt the weight of the pocket-watch in my palm and smiled to myself all the same. I always had a talent for it. If Esther had ever told the truth about anything, it was about that. I slipped off into the crowd but stayed close enough that I could watch him pat around his pockets, his reddened face flushing even redder once he found his pocket-watch had been taken.

I swung the pocket-watch around and around until it fell into my own pocket.

“Be more aware, you prick,” I muttered to myself.

I found Charlotte a couple of minutes afterward and I threw the pocket-watch toward her. She caught it with wide eyes, turning it this way and that in the sunlight to examine its lettering and golden numbers. She let out an excited squeal and threw her arms around me.

“Worth quite a lot, this, Willa – oh, you’re a talent,” she grinned. “Bring it to Bix, shall we, see what you can get for it?”

“All yours, Charlotte,” I replied.

She looked at me in surprise. “You’re kidding me, ain’t you, Willa? That’ll be worth a fortune!”

“Don’t want it.”

“Why’d you bother, then?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Just making sure I still have it in me.”

Charlotte eyed me up and down, then said, “Was it your lover-boy who made you so moody today?”

I smiled and let out a laugh. She walked alongside me, our arms looped.

I said, “You must have Gypsy blood in you, Charlotte.”

“Only Scottish and Irish mixed together,” she replied easily. “So, just as bad.”

I snickered at her and shoved her arm.

Charlotte continued, “I’m right then, am I?”

I became more solemn, shrugging my shoulders again for no real reason. “He’s been doing things he hasn’t told me about.”

Charlotte looked over at me, dipping her head lower to catch my expression. “Slept with some other woman, has he?”

“He’d be dead if he had, Charlotte.”

She hummed. “Then what could be worse?”

“That’s just it – I’m not sure what it is, exactly. He’s been running the bakery –…” – at this, her eyes flashed with amusement and I rolled my own eyes because I had told her all about this bakery – “…and I had been under the impression that all was going well, until some fella stopped us in the street to say his son had been attacked and Alfie had been using boys to enforce protection.”

Slowly, we turned into an alleyway and stopped completely. Charlotte had listened all the while, then pursed her lips. “Butcher did the same thing, didn’t he? You weren’t so ready to denounce him, Willa. You made a good penny off of him, actually.”

“But I didn’t care for Butcher. Did you?”

“’Course not,” she answered. “Didn’t feel one way or the other, really.”

There it was again, that odd feeling in the pit of my stomach. Butcher had died, and nobody had felt anything for him. He was with the worms, now; it would all start anew.

“Esther did it too,” I tried again.

“Hm. And she ended up much like Butcher.”

“I don’t want that for Alfie,” I mumbled.

“You don’t control things like that,” Charlotte said. “You can’t ever control things like that.”

“This man who stopped us – he said his son had lost an eye trying to secure these businesses for Alfie. He said certain things about Alfie – about me – and Alfie just – lost it. He beat him, Charlotte.”

“And what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Esther beat a lot of people. Butcher beat a lot of people. Coppers beat us, beat Esther and Butcher, beat – well, you get the idea. There’s a lot of beatings in this world, Willa. What does it matter who they come from? Only matters what you get from it.”

She pulled out the pocket-watch and tried to swing it around like I had done. She had always tried to learn how to do that but forever missed the edge of her own pocket, so that the pocket-watch fell and dangled in front of her. She let out an annoyed huff.

“I’m not saying it’s right, Willa. Not even saying I like it or that you should accept it. I’m simply saying that that is how the world works, doesn’t it? And we’re just living in it. And you do what you can to survive in it. Like steal pocket-watches, for example. And during that lovely in-between, you try to enjoy it.”

“But – it was so violent –…”

“Leave him,” she stated.

I stared at her. “You what?”

“Leave him,” she repeated. “And feel righteous for it. And move onto some other neighbourhood in some other place and find out that the men beat other men there too, and find that you’re beaten along with them, and you’re back to stealing pocket-watches. And you’ll find there’s not so much to enjoy during the in-between.”

“I don’t want to leave him, you know that.”

“I do,” she agreed, nodding her head. “Because you love the fella and he has a temper- so, what? Most men what came back from the war barely have any emotions at all, and the ones that do, have too much for them to cope with, you know. You’ll be pressed to find a man what doesn’t think of the war all day, every day, Willa.”

“When did you become so worldly and knowledgeable?”

She smiled. “After I met Willa Sykes, who taught me that there are things such as hierarchy, pecking-order –…”

“Things which must be followed,” we said unanimously.

“But is it right, Charlotte? Shouldn’t I try to convince him that he shouldn’t have beat that man, that we should –…”

“That we should bring this pocket-watch right back to the gentleman you stole it from, apologise, ask if he would like some help tying the noose around our necks or should we just wait for the executioner himself to do it?”

Lightly, I pushed at her shoulder. “I just – I felt bad about it. Like I should have done something.”

“Probably should have,” she nodded. “And maybe you can do it next time instead. Maybe set some rules, I don’t know. You did enough of that in the flat when I was younger. ‘Charlotte, do this, Josephine, pick up them towels, Rosie, get the dinner ready’ – no wonder you went off with a Captain, Willa.”

“I made a good Captain myself, didn’t I?” I grinned.

“The best.”

Her sincerity made me squirm and glance away from her for a moment, before I found the strength to look at her again. I asked her, “D’you ever miss the girls? D’you think about them as much as I do?”

“All the time,” she said. “And someday, we’ll end up there with them, Willa. You know what Esther used to tell us about this world. Until then – enjoy the in-between, yeah?”

I reached out for her and held her against me, cupped her head and let her rest against my chest like she had as a child. I took the pocket-watch from her once I pulled away. I spun it three times and let it fall into my own pocket, delighting in her dismayed expression.

I pattered her cheek with one hand and placed the pocket-watch back into her hand with the other. “Another thing that I taught you which didn’t get through nearly as good as all that malarkey about hierarchy, Charlotte – it’s about technique.”

She tried again. The pocket-watch flopped uselessly against her stomach, having missed the mark, and she playfully glared at me, lips puckered.

I smiled at her. “Well, I suppose it does help to have Gypsy blood in you after all, Charlotte.”

Orange warmth filled the office that night, around nine. I walked into the bakery, weaved between its barrels to find him. He had slipped low in his chair, hands strung together over his chest as he stared blankly ahead. I opened the door, pushing into the stifling heat of the room. It seemed he had locked himself away in here and not bothered with opening the windows or allowing himself a fresh puff of air. I stood in the doorway, left it open to clear out that stuffiness.

“I already told ya, Ollie, to fuck off,” he uttered monotonously. “And I ain’t tellin’ ya again.”

“I doubt he would listen even if you did,” I replied. “You know how Ollie is.”

He was still for a moment, but I saw it in the flicker of his eyes, suddenly alight. He licked his lips and sat up in his chair before he looked at me. Quickly, he tried to smooth out his messy hair all clumped together, tried to straighten his collar furled inward. I felt that familiar bloom of fondness in my chest for him.

He stood, uncharacteristically jumpy in his movements, and said, “Willa, darlin’ – didn’t expect ya. Would ‘ave cleaned up a little more, if I ‘ad.”

“No, you wouldn’t have, Alfie,” I smiled warmly at him. It made him unfurl those shoulders just an inch, his own lips twitching upward.

“Nah, you’re fuckin’ right. I’d 'ave made Ollie do it.”

“Or one of these boys working for you.”

He swallowed and licked his lips again. Perhaps it was low of me, but I knew what I wanted to say to him. I had practiced it all the way here, like I had practiced my speech with Johnny – and just like that speech, this one had not quite followed the pattern that I had anticipated, because he said, “Yeah, one of them. And I ain’t gonna stop, neither, Willa.”

It was not that I had expected him to grovel, but I had rather hoped he might try to consider why I was against it.

Apparently, he had.

“I know you didn’t like ‘ow Esther controlled you girls, but there is a difference, Willa, right. I ain’t makin’ ‘em do nothin’ – they don’t live with me, I don’t make ‘em steal nothin’ and I don’t pretend to care about ‘em when I don’t, yeah?”

I recoiled at that, feeling hurt bloom in my chest. He saw it. He felt it.

“I don’t mean she didn’t care at all. I mean she didn’t care enough,” he continued. “I ain’t offerin’ these boys anythin’ more than money, Willa. I’m givin’ ‘em the choice to work for me and it ain’t on me if they choose to do it, all right? And yeah, people get ‘urt, people lose – they lose parts, don’ they, but lots of lads lost parts in the war, y’know. And nobody’s screamin’ at the fuckin’ King in the streets, callin’ ‘im a kike, callin’ ‘is – …”

He trailed off. I would not know what he deemed me to be, exactly, in his mind.

I said, “This isn’t war, Alfie.”

He looked away from me and I knew what he wanted to say without him ever saying the words aloud: but one day it will be.

“I told ya I was selfish, didn’ I?” he mumbled. “All them years ago at the fairground, I told ya. And I’ll tell you now that I’m still selfish, and I’m still as fuckin’ bad-tempered as I was then, but I’m tryin’ to make somethin’ good for us, Willa. Can you understand that?”

“I can.”

His eyes shot toward me in surprise, eyebrows raised, having expected more of a battle. “You can?” he repeated.

“I can,” I nodded, crossing my arms. “But this has to change, Alfie. I can’t be left out anymore. I won’t be, because then it’ll just be Esther and Butcher all over again. I’ll be working for someone without ever knowing what’s really happening. I want to work with you – not for you.”

He came around the table quickly. Almost immediately, he paused in his rush toward me and I saw how he slowed himself down, arms held upward in surrender. He had not come too quickly toward me. He had listened to me. He had understood.

I prayed that he would listen again. I prayed that he would understand.

“I want to know what you’re doing, Alfie. I want to be a part of it, or this ends now,” I told him. “You can trust me.”

He was being very careful, holding his hands out so that they hovered over my arms before he finally touched me; and the relief which filled him when I did not pull away was enough to make me feel more than a rush of fondness but rather full-blown love for him.

“It was never about trusting you or not trusting you, Willa,” he whispered. “I was afraid you might not want to – that you might –…”

I heard Charlotte as if she stood there between us: leave him.

“I ain’t always thinkin’ straight, y’know,” he explained awkwardly, lifting a hand to smooth it across his forehead as if all his thoughts and feelings were bunched up there, held in the soft wrinkles which formed on his skin at his admission. “I ain’t a good man, not even really a nice one.”

I cupped his cheek. “I don’t think that about you, Alfie.”

“Only one that doesn’t think that,” he breathed out. “Only one that ever thought anythin’ good ‘bout me other than me Mum, y’know.”

“I know.”

“Always cared for ya, Willa,” he said.

“I know, Alfie.”

“I’ll tell you all of it,” he swore. “I promise ya, Willa. Even if it ain’t what I wanna do, if I’d rather keep ya out of it all. I know what you’re sayin’. Just please don’t be afraid of me again, yeah?”

I kissed his jaw, kissed his cheeks and kissed the crinkle between his eyebrows, soothing all those thoughts and feelings so that his skin smoothed out and he let out a soft sigh, his hands warm against my arms.

“I’m here, Alfie,” I told him. “I’m here with you, sweetheart.”

“I know,” he whispered, his eyes shut. “I know.”

He let me hold him again.

Chapter Text

eight


 

Spinning beneath wild flashes of colour, I felt his arms clamp around my waist to hold me there, in the bolts of electric blue, shocks of red, mellow splashes of purple and swirls of yellow from the lights and his breath was warm against my cheek, my jawline too. His lips pressed against that gentle dip between my breasts. His stubble scratched against the softness of my skin, rubbed in all the right places.

He held me so that we would not be lost in the ebb and flow of this crowd around us; the rhythm from the singers on the stage rippled though my limbs, rippled upward into my brain and shook it around so much that I pecked him and pulled at him and I felt arousal – mine and his, his and mine, intertwined; one could not be separated from the other, anymore.

Somewhere along the line, my eyelids lowered like blinds, snapping shut at the pressure of his rough hands cupping against the parts of me which had once been unknown, cupped for blissful friction.

I thought about Yaxley even if I never wanted to think about him, especially not in that moment with hands pressing hard, holding there, so that my legs became jelly and my breath stuttered. Despite all that, I thought about how Yaxley once made me think that love – the act of it, the physicality of it, the manifestation of it – was composed of force and repulsion.

But it was not like that in this glorious cocoon with Alfie, whose broad form shielded us from the crowd behind him, just enough that he could hitch my thigh that little bit higher against his hip, rub that a little bit closer until I unravelled and I felt his warm hand grip my chin and turn my eyes toward him so that he could see it, so that he could revel in it.

His eyelids had lowered, too. I peeped between his blinds and saw the sort of black desire which could not be solved in this bar, not with all these people pushing around us with drinks and loud shouts. He shuffled me, half-limp, toward the front of the bar and whistled for a lad to bring a car around. I had never been drunk, but I felt the swirl of something more in the dense warmth of that backseat while some lad from Bell Road drove us toward Ivor Square.

Again, Alfie slipped a hand beneath the hem of my skirts. I shot him a warning glance and tilted my head toward that lad whose gaze was elsewhere, catching Alfie by the wrists. He smirked and touched a spot still tender so that I jolted, squeezed his wrists tight.

“Are you all right, Willa?” he asked loudly. “You look a little flushed, darlin’.”

The lad from Bell Road glanced behind, not quite enough to notice more than he should. “Ms Sykes?”

I turned red and mumbled, “Y-Yes, thank you – t-the bar was just a little hot.”

“It was indeed,” Alfie hummed; his fingertips moved forward, and I really had to grip his wrists tight to hold in an awful sound which sat somewhere between a breathy moan and a shocked yelp. “It was indeed, Willa.”

His eyes followed mine. He watched all my movements as if that brought him more pleasure than anything else. He leaned close against the cradle of my eardrum, licked at the lobe, and said, “I could fuckin’ take you – and take you now, in this fuckin’ car, and I don’t give a fuck about that lad bein’ there – but, oh, Willa, if ‘e tried to look at you while you’re like this, I’d kill ‘im – I’d kill any man what looked at you, sweet’eart, because that’s just for me, you understand? I’m the only one what gets to see you like this. Ain’t that right, my girl?”

Then came more pressure, that delicious pressure which soon turned into slow, languid circles that made me melt against him, the coil held tight in my stomach.

He said, “You’re mine, Willa. You understand that, don’ you, darlin’?”

I mumbled weakly against his throat. “Alfie – please –…”

“You beggin’ me, sweet’eart, yeah?” he asked, pressing a kiss against that unnoticed spot behind my ear before his hand moved faster beneath my skirts. I looked at that lad in the front and thought about how he might glance behind at any moment, which oddly thrilled and worried me all at once.

Suddenly, Alfie gripped my chin like he had before, held it so tightly that it hurt, twisted me toward him – and somehow that was fine, too, because I found that I liked his roughness and his demands, liked that he liked to be in control, at least in this context.

“Eyes on me, Willa,” he ordered lowly, spoken just between us, like gospel. “…God, my beautiful fuckin’ girl…”

I could not look away from him even if I wanted to do it, because the coil had sprung itself loose and I went slack against him, trembling, breathing into him, but he merely stroked my hair and held me as if I was tired from the night – and that was not entirely untrue.

Grinding to a halt, the engine cut off and Alfie slipped the lad a couple of quid for the fare, even though the boy was just a baker – and even if his shirt still reeked of rum because of it. The boy blinked at the thick wad of cash. Alfie hardly heard his gratitude sputtered out, because he was already rushing me from the car, hauling me into the house and we never made it beyond the hall; he had been too impatient, he tore my skirts and pushed me against the wall; and it was all roughness and all demands and all swirling colours behind eyelids lowered like blinds.

Sometimes, I liked to feign sleep because I noticed that Alfie had a bad habit. Often, in the dead of night, he would rise from the bed and slink off toward the bathroom, only to return and flop alongside me. If I had rolled away from him or moved even an inch, he would pull me against him, tuck me against his chest and rest his chin over my head, then curl himself around me. I would test him and attempt to wiggle away with a soft sigh, as if totally unaware.

He always pulled me back. He always held me against him.

He nuzzled me, too.

Drowsy after all that happened in the hall and with only a couple of hours of sleep on top of it, I murmured, “Getting comfortable, are we, Alfie?”

He paused behind me, momentarily taken aback that I had been awake all along. He cleared his throat. “Just checkin’ you don’t ‘ave lice, darlin’.” He lifted a hand to brush it through my hair and then said, “Hm, yeah. Looks all clear.”

I smiled to myself, scooting away from him. “All clear? No need to hold me, then, is there?”

He hesitated before his arm tightened around my waist and he hauled me back against him. “Well, I should prob’ly check a little more, y’know. Oh, think I spotted one, I did.”

I turned awkwardly in his arms to look at him, eyebrows scrunched together. Alfie pretended to pluck something from my hair. I huffed and slapped lightly at his chest, shrinking away from him. He pinned me gently beneath himself and ruffled at my hair even more, widening his eyes. He let out a gasp and crooned, “Proper infestation, this, gonna ‘ave to shave ya bald, Willa, like we did some o’ the lads on the frontline –…”

“Get off, Alfie, you weigh a tonne,” I grumbled; my laughter betrayed me.

“Oi, be gentle now, I’m sensitive ‘bout me size, I am,” he replied, “Didn’t mind me on top of ya earlier, did ya –…”

Alfie!”

“If I recall, you very much enjoyed it – ain’t my fault you got lice, is it? Need a scrub, you do, and I’d be kind enough to offer my assistance in that area, bein’ the gentleman that I am, hm,” he said huskily, pecking at my jawline again.

Out of the blue, he hissed and recoiled from me, his hand darting away to brush his hip. I lifted myself onto my elbows and rubbed his shoulders, feeling how he had completely cramped up against the mattress. In the thick silver of moonlight, I glimpsed beads of perspiration on his forehead, lips pressed into whiteness. I traced the bumps of his spine to soothe him and mumbled words in my old tongue which I had hardly spoken since I left the wet fields in my ninth summer.

Now it was his head tucked beneath my chin and my arms around him, stroking his arms and clucking like some hen to comfort him through the tremors that ran through his spine and radiated in his hip. He had always hated that I saw him in pain – he thought it made him feeble. Still, he allowed those gentle touches which lasted until the pain blurred into a distant hum and he could straighten himself out, like some porcelain doll with stiff limbs cracked.

“Thank you, Willa,” he muttered, his humour lost.

I brushed the back of my hand against his cheek bristled in stubble. I scratched at his hair and pretended to pluck out some imagined louse. “Your lice are my lice, Alfie.”

“Very romantic, that,” he replied. “I’m swoonin’, I am, knees bucklin’ –…”

“Go to sleep, Alfie.”

He was quiet for a very long time. Just before I drifted off, he muttered, “I think you’re a little bossy when you’re tired, ain’t ya, Willa?”

I rolled away from him; his arm latched onto me quickly, pulled me back against him.

Ripley Lane had a cluster of odd shops all strewn together with laundry-lines and balconies overhead for the flats. Settled at the end of its long row was a shop with funny trinkets in its windows, stood between a whole cluster of bottles and ointments, along with some bizarre spices and foreign herbs. I had sent Johnny a letter almost a week after Alfie had suffered that spasm in bed and he had finally answered with some advice he had received from kin – your kin, Willa, he had called them. I lied and told him that I had pain in my own hand rather than tell him about Alfie and his issues. I hoped that Johnny would not have any dreams which might tell him otherwise.

I stepped into the shop and inhaled the hazy cloud of scents which washed over me. I saw a young girl with a broom in one hand, her hair like a nest. I saw her mother, too, and walked toward her with my mouth opened for speech which never came.

“Johnny’s lass, isn’t it?”

I blinked. I felt a little sheepish to really call myself that aloud but nodded all the same.

“Contacted me already, he did,” she said. “I got it ready for ya.”

She pulled out a little bag which clinked as if full of glass. Once she handed it over, I saw that it was indeed filled with small jars, black and mushy. It had a soft, sweet scent – a little too sweet, like fruit. I paid her quickly and turned for the door.

“Do give Johnny my love, eh?” the woman called out. “Not that that little prick hasn’t given his love to all the fuckin’ women in England already…”

Rustling around the bedroom, I pulled out the bag from beneath the bed. I tried about how I could be subtle about it, tried to think about how I could convince him to let me use the ointment on his hip and back without him thinking it was out of pity for him. Once he opened the bathroom door, his eyes looked around and immediately found me on the bed with this bag in my lap. He was stood in his boxers, shirtless. I saw the scarring which scattered his stomach, two deepened lines on the small of his back, saw the raised mark on the left-hand side of his ribcage.

I had asked him about it, before.

He said, not now, Willa.  

I looked down at the bag in my lap. “Alfie, I wrote a letter to my uncle Johnny. I asked him about pain – I mean, solutions for it, you know, to help with your back and your hip.”

He watched me, but his expression was not open and warm. It was pinched, even annoyed. “What did you do that for, Willa?”

I felt my skin rush with heat from a feeling which was nothing like I had had in that bar the other night. But I had prepared myself for this. I held strong and said, “I just told you what I did it for.”

“Solutions,” he nodded, then cocked his head as if confused. Only he was not confused. I knew him too well to fall for it. “Hm. Did you tell Johnny that I got problems with me back, then, did ya? Uncle Johnny, ‘ow ever can I ‘elp me crippled fella, eh –…”

“Don’t call yourself that.”

He cast me a sardonic look. “What, your fella?” he snarked.

He knew full well what I had meant, but he liked to twist words whenever he was in a mood.  

“I told him that I was having pain in my hand.” I lifted my left hand and turned it toward him, showed him that scar which still marred the skin there from when a policeman had bashed a drawer against it, the scar which he often liked to trace like I had traced his spine and I found myself wondering, was that really so long ago that I had touched him lovingly? “Never mentioned you. Glad I didn’t, now.”

He let out a low whistle. “Why? Didn’t want precious Johnny, sacred Johnny to know about me? You ashamed, Willa?”

Coolly, I met his hard stare and echoed his words from years beforehand. “I’m not the one feeling ashamed, Alfie.”

He swallowed. “Yeah, well, I don’t want your uncle knowin’ shit about me. Don’t ever want to meet ‘im, neither.”

Those words stung me more than I could have imagined; I asked myself, what made you so horrid in France, Alfie? My eyes ghosted over those scars and I thought that perhaps something had seeped beneath his skin and settled in his marrow to upset his temper so easily.

Alfie was always humorous and cheeky and full of affection for me.

Until he wasn’t.

Until some trivial word, some insignificant movement, some thoughtless expression upset him, and then he became wrathful, and all those colours which had once swirled around us in the bar flickered into blackness; the same blackness which filled him then filled me; me and him, him and me, intertwined.

But the same acid which bubbled in his words frothed into mine and I said, “Good. At least we can agree on something, then.”

Alfie scrunched his cheek between his teeth, bit hard on his own flesh.

“I don’t want none of that Gypsy nonsense rubbed on me skin, Willa,” he hissed. “Prob’ly ‘orseshit and leaves mixed together by some old witch in some wagon to sell to some stupid fool willin’ to part with enough cash for it.”

I had prepared myself for this, yet I was crumbling fast before him. He heard his words and their implications, and his jaw went all tight, his forehead wrinkled with regret. I wanted none of it. I threw the bag onto the bed and heard the clinking of small jars. I stood up suddenly and stormed for the door.

“Where are you fuckin’ goin’?” he called out, thundering down the stairs right after me. “Willa, it’s fuckin’ dark out, it’s rainin’, you ain’t goin’ out in that –…”

I grabbed my coat and reached for my scarf, but he was quicker than me and snatched it first. Childishly, I said, “Give it back, Alfie.”

“I told ya, you ain’t goin’ out. It’s dangerous,” he said. “Someone could ‘urt ya, Willa –…”

“Oh, I wonder how that’d feel,” I spat viciously, reaching forward to snatch the scarf from him. His hand, in an automatic attempt to push me away, latched around my throat in a loose hold, but enough that it startled me and made me slap at him. “Don’t touch me, Alfie!”

His hand was tighter now that I struggled. He wanted me to be still. Somehow, I could not do more than push and scratch at him. I was not sure if he was attempting to carefully restrain me or really force me to stop, and the panic rushed through me like a riptide. Suddenly, I was motionless. I only moved to latch my hands around his and glared at him through my lashes, breathing heavily.

I let out a bitter laugh and said, “Tell me not to be afraid of you again, eh, Alfie, with your hand around my fucking throat, tell me –…”

His hand dropped immediately, but the other still held my scarf aloft. “Don’t be fuckin’ stupid, Willa, just listen to me –…”

I’m not fucking stupid!” I screamed. “I am not stupid! Don’t you ever insult me or my uncle or Gypsies again, Alfie Solomons! I tried to help you! Yeah, I parted with my own fucking cash because I hated to see you in pain! And you know what, I wish I hadn’t bothered trying to find something that might help you. I’ll let you suffer because you fucking deserve your pain, do you know that?!”

I never cursed that much. I certainly never cursed as much as Alfie did, which is probably what caused his wide eyes, his mouth held apart in shock. His hand released the scarf and it dropped between us, forgotten. I thought, what was all the fuss for it in the first place?

I was tired of tempers. I had had enough of them from Esther. I never wanted to fear Alfie in the same way that I had always feared Esther. I never wanted to tread on eggshells around him. I looked at the door behind him, saw the droplets of rain glinting against the windowpane and I suddenly felt exhaustion swell within me; the hurt was there along with it.

Hoarsely, I said, “Alfie, I can’t do this anymore.”

“Do what?” he asked, his own words slick with trepidation, eyes flicking around me wildly.

“I’m going to bed, Alfie.”

“Do what, Willa?”

I climbed the staircase. I found the bedroom as if we had never left it, the bag still there on the bed. I pushed it aside and let it fall onto the floorboards with a harsh clatter. I slumped against the bed. His temper had always been there, it was not some grand revelation between us to know it. I heard him come into the bedroom.

This time, I feigned sleep, but it was not because I wanted him to pull me against him. I wanted him out. I almost wished that I had tried to make him leave instead, but Alfie was not a man to be moved unless he really wanted it.

The mattress dipped from his weight. I felt its heaviness; felt his heaviness. He picked the bag up from the floorboards and pulled out a jar. I squinted at him through eyelids held close together, watched his silvery outline smooth and stretch while he moved around. I heard him open the lid of one jar. I heard its wet squelch and I saw him lift his fingertip against his forehead to draw a thickened line there and I did not fully understand his reasoning until he asked, “Will it fix me ‘ead, too, eh?”

I was very still but I knew that he could tell that I was still there, still awake.

“Got a lot of thoughts runnin’ me ragged in ‘ere,” he continued slowly, gently. “Makes me see things that aren’t there, make me say things that I don’t always wanna say, makes me meaner than I wanna be, ‘specially to you, darlin’. I don’t wanna be ‘round me-self any more than you wanna be ‘round me when I’m like that Willa, y’know. Wish I could pull out me brain and look at it, right, see what damage was done, clean it off and pop it back in. That don’t sound right, does it? Sounds mad. But it’s what I’d like to do.”

Croakily, I mumbled, “I never told Johnny that it was for you, Alfie.”

“I know, love,” he replied. His voice was soft and low, a quiet rumble from deep within his chest. “I know. I thought – your Johnny is well-connected, ain’t ‘e? What if ‘e uses it against me one day, eh?”

I blinked, pulling myself upward from the pillows, unsettled by the hint of paranoia in his tone. “What do you mean, Alfie? He has no reason to use it against you. Who would he ever tell, anyway?”

Alfie watched me again. He brushed aside fallen strands of hair from my face. His eyes were distant. “You’re right, angel. Who would ‘e tell?”

I had a pit within my stomach because his eyes always got that glazed, faraway look whenever he strayed toward thoughts of trenches or the bakery or boys whose eyes had been taken from them and their fathers who had come to torture him for it.

He still had the jar in his hands. He scooped out another swipe of black mush. He put it on my left hand; smoothed it into that scar there. “I wish I ‘ad killed that policeman.”

I stared at him, afraid to look away. “Alfie, I never meant to say what I did. You don’t deserve any pain. I don’t want you to feel it, I want you –…”

He was speaking as if I was not here and as if he was not here, either. He spoke in an echo and its reverb somehow never reached us; if it did, it came back distorted, unintelligible. He pulled out another scoop and placed it on a scar on his forearm. He said, “Bullet missed me. First month in the trenches. First time I got hit. I was pumpin’ blood, almost passed out, and me commandin’ officer said, ‘chop off the arm or continue fightin’, lad, before I put a bullet in your fuckin’ skull me-self for disobedience.’”

He took another and smeared his right cheek on a thin, bare strip where his stubble never grew. “Another one. Second. Just a scrape, but I did pass out from the hit that time. I did, yeah. I passed out.”

Another on his thigh. “Pushed a lad out the way. Third.”

Another on his back. “Fourth.”

Another smudged the scar which stretched from his chest, just beneath his sternum. “I was sittin’ in the trench and I looked up to find the sun was gone. The enemy stole that, too. Only it was a German what made it into me trench. Never ‘appened before, that. Never ‘appened after, neither. I was readin’ one of your letters. I thought the sun ‘ad left me. ‘e had this – shovel, or somethin' like it, somethin' that ‘e ‘ad made into a splint and ‘e was proper swingin’ at me, slashin’ – and I barely made it. Slashed me right up the middle, ‘e did. I got ‘im in the throat. Better in the throat, hm.”

His eyes looked through me, beyond me.

“Bled out in me trench, this German, who I thought ‘ad stole the sun – ‘ow fuckin’ daft is that, eh? It was different to see ‘em up close, y’know. Far away, it didn’t feel good to shoot a man neither, but it don’t feel nearly like it does when you see’ ‘em there in front o’ ya, up close. Feels like ya knew ‘im, somehow, like ‘e was just another lad on your street. Like you knew ‘im, even when you didn’t. Feels like you’re lookin’ at yourself in a different place, in a different time – but still you, somehow.”

Finally, he placed another line of black on that puckered scarring on the left-hand side of his ribcage and said, “Got shot. Fully shot, no scrapes or near-misses. Shot.”

“Alfie.” I had not realised that I had sat up from the bed, that I had brought myself closer to him. I inhaled the sweet scent of that blackened mush. “Alfie, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to – don’t do it out of guilt, sweetheart. Do it because you want to do it.”

I always wanted to fuckin’ do it,” he hissed, drawing in a wounded breath. His words cracked and I saw a wetness on his cheeks that I had never witnessed before; tears from Alfie Solomons. “Now, Willa. It ‘as to be now, because I always wanted to fuckin’ tell you and every time that I tried – you could never talk about Yaxley, you remember? Said it got caught in your throat. I couldn’t talk about that fuckin’ German. Could ‘ave ‘ad kids, that fella. But what does that matter, anyway? What difference does it make if ‘e did or if ‘e didn’t? Still died in a trench in a country what weren’t ‘is.”

“Why didn’t they send you home?”

He was not looking at me. His lips were swollen but we had never kissed. He had bitten them enough. His eyelids were stained in red, his blinking slow and dim. “I wouldn’t let ‘em do it. Told ‘em – give me three days, yeah, and I’ll be back, I’ll be fuckin’ ready for ‘em.”

I repeated his name. I wanted to say more; but what difference did it make, anyway?

“I was ready in two days,” he said. “And I still see that German lyin’ in front o’ me when I sleep.”

His eyes met mine. There was no glazed sheen, no distance. He was here, in the bedroom, with me.

“I don’t like to sleep, Willa. But I do when you’re here.”

Gently, I smoothed that black mush against his back and rubbed it into his skin. I hushed his jolts and soothed his grumbles, his shoulders tight and drawn close together. I used it on his hip, that supposed horseshit and leaves mixed together by some witch in a wagon. Soon, though, his rigid form relaxed He told me, tiredly, that it did not hurt so much, anymore.

Afterward, he lay his head in my lap. I brushed through his hair, kissed his forehead, and I whispered, “I know that you hurt in more ways than just your bones, Alfie. But there will be no more of this temper against me. I will listen when you speak about the trenches, I will listen when you speak about your days at work. I will be here when you need me, like you will be here for me.”

I placed my hand against his throat, light and barely there, but enough that his eyes followed mine. I leaned close, so that there could be no misunderstandings. “But if you are ever that cruel to me again – if you speak of Johnny or the Gypsies like that again – and if you try to restrain me – I will walk out that door and you will not be able to stop me, Alfie Solomons, and you will never sleep again.”

I kissed his forehead and smoothed the blackened mush into his skin until it disappeared.

Outside Number Seventeen of Ivor Square the next morning, I found Charlotte sat on our doorstep with her pale flesh turned red, her eyes rimmed in thick lines of red. She sniffled like a child. Between her rasping sobs, she stood from the stoop and came toward me with numb legs.

Her hands drifted toward her stomach. I saw the swell there.

“It was a mistake, Willa,” she whispered.

 ☼

Chapter Text

 nine


 

Soaked through to the bone from the downpour, Charlotte held my arms while her teeth chattered and her eyes flit around the hall of the house, her parted mouth snapping shut at the sight of Alfie atop the staircase, his expression left purposefully blank. Alfie had met Charlotte many times beforehand.

He looked at her now, though, watched my hands pull off her dampened coat and toss it aside. He followed the fall of that coat, followed the rise of my hands, the sweep of my thumbs against her cheeks, smoothing out those droplets from rain and tears alike. I tasted her salt; her sorrow, an aftertaste.

I turned and looked up at Alfie, half of his broad form cloaked in blackness from the lack of light in the hall, the other half illuminated in golden warmth from the candles in the bedroom, seeping outward.

Quietly, I said, “Alfie, could you please run Charlotte a bath?”

He was already slinking off toward the other bedroom. Although unused, it still had a bathroom and we had simply never bothered to fill it with more than the bedframe and mattress, along with bed-sheets that I hoped had not become stale. I turned and found her hands patting at the wallpaper as if she had never seen it in another place.

Croaking through her wobbling voice, she whispered, “Got it good here, you do, Willa.”

I ignored the niggling guilt in my stomach which stirred at her words. “Come upstairs, Charlotte.”

Sinking into the bathtub, Charlotte let out a tired breath which released all the tension in her, so that it was caught up in the tendrils floating from the surface of the water and lost in condensation. I found myself looking at her stomach and breasts as if there might be some clue there; how far along is she, exactly?

I knew nothing about babes but had witnessed the birth of them in wet fields a couple of times before I left for London. I had seen the faces of women contorted in hideous trauma, legs parted for the hands of the old Gypsies to pull out some small creature with limbs held tight against itself, coated in thickened mucous and eyelids sealed shut in purple slickness. I had rarely held them. I saw them always bundled, sometimes held against a breast, other times bounced around on a lap.

“One month,” she mumbled. “Maybe two months. I don’t know. How do I know?”

I plucked a damp strand of hair from her forehead and pushed it aside. “I have only held babies fully grown, Charlotte. Where’s George?”

“I looked for blood in my knickers,” she said. “Like a mad woman, I looked for days and days. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t true. How could it happen to me?”

“Charlotte…”

I saw her hands aflutter before she became very still in the water. I was sitting behind her and the sight of her body now shriveled and blue from the cold of the rain reminded me of Josephine in a terrible way.

I felt my breathing become stuttered and tight, lungs constricted, so that I had to look away from her and hold my own hands against my chest to quell that spreading dampness there. I swallowed a bitterness which coated my gums, seeped into the nerves, each root overcome.

“Liverpool,” she cried suddenly. “I went to his house. He lives in a lovely little red house on Clare Avenue. I used to dream of a house like that for us, y’know. His youngest sister answered the door. I asked for him – for George. She said he left for Liverpool.”

“Had you told him already?”

She nodded. She stared at the little cluster of towels alongside her. “I told him the night before he left. I never thought he would – but he said –…”

She became very quiet. She scrunched her hands, over and over. I was not sure what she was holding, in her mind.

“I want it out,” she said. “I want it out, Willa.”

 “You have to think carefully about this, Charlotte.”

“I prayed for blood,” she said. “I looked for it, prayed for it, like a mad woman…”

Guiding Charlotte into the bedroom, I saw that Alfie had left out one of my nightgowns and a spare pair of slippers for her – along with a warmed mug of milk on the drawer, a slice of sweet bread alongside it. I tucked her into the bed-sheets and sat with her for a long time. I cradled her like I had cradled her when she was just a young girl in the old flat. I brushed through her hair, leaned my cheek against her head.

“Was it really that long ago, Charlotte, that we were just some kids working for Esther, eh?” I smiled, but it was held tight with sadness, that smile. “I’ll take care of you now, like I took care of you then. I’ll share my blankets with you like I did then, too. Nightgown and all.”

I found her fast asleep already. I talked to her anyway.

After a couple of minutes there, I carefully pulled away from her and settled her into the sheets by herself. I brushed out my skirts and went into the hall, shutting the door behind me. I took only a couple of steps before I realised that the hall light was still bright. I turned for the staircase and saw Alfie was still there at the bottom, by the door, as if he had never left it. Only he had this envelope in his hand, and he turned it this way and that. But I saw that it had already been opened.

“Alfie?” I called out softly.

“Is she asleep, love?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Go to bed yourself then, Willa. I’ll be right there.”

Standing in the bedroom, pulling off my skirts, I heard the shatter of glass in the kitchen.  

He came into the bedroom and said that he had accidentally dropped his drink. The envelope was not with him. I knew that he was keeping something to himself because there was nobody left to write to Alfie; all his soldier-friends had been blown away from him and those left often had no hands or never had the words or patience for letter-writing and his brother had been arrested once more and Ollie had no reason to send a letter when he could just come around the house or wait until we saw him at work and it was just us, really.  

It was just us. I looked at him in the bed and wondered, who wrote to you, Alfie?

His eyes met mine in that moment. He heard the question, unspoken. He looked away.

I heard the shatter of glass again, though nothing else that I could see seemed to have fallen.

Perched on the edge of our own mattress later that night, while Alfie slept behind me, I thought about kin; never had Johnny feigned that our kin could not do certain unsavoury things if required, like the breaking of bones and sawing of flesh. I had never quite considered really calling in favours from faraway family – until I sat there in the bedroom and convinced myself that I had kin in Liverpool who could find George, break his bones and saw his flesh. I could do it myself with the wrath which flushed through me in waves.

I heard the sleepiness in him and then the languid stretch of his arm held outward to find me and pull me against him; he patted around the curls and wrinkles of the sheets and his form shot upward, his rapid switch in demeanour drawing me from darker thoughts to look back at him, startled. His eyes, slowed by the dim light, looked about the bedroom and latched onto me, his shoulders dipping downward in – relief.

“What are you doin’ down there, Willa?”

“Thinking,” I answered.

“Oh, fuck,” he groaned, flopping backward against the mattress. He held his arm over his face. “I never worry more in me life than when you tell me you’re thinkin’.”

“Is that right? Then what were you so worried about when you woke up, hm?”

His arm fell away from him, but his expression was not any more transparent than it had been before. “Sometimes I dream that you’re not ‘ere anymore.”

“Do you look for me, then?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Hm, yeah. I look for ya. Get up and walk ‘round the ‘ouse and wait for ya. Never do find ya. I open doors, close doors, move around the bedrooms and go into the kitchen until I –…”

I watched his lips move silently in the dark, after that. Softly, I asked, “Until what, Alfie?”

“Stupid fuckin’ dream,” he whispered, his hands reaching to root themselves in his scalp and pull at the strands, just to distract himself. He drew his hands along his face. “What were you thinkin’ ‘bout?”

“Charlotte,” I answered. “George – how he never should have left her.”

“But he did,” Alfie said. “And it won’t make no difference ‘cause she’s gonna get rid of it, anyway.”

Struck mute by his bluntness, I stared at him in the blackness of the night. I had heard Charlotte say that she never wanted it, that it had been a mistake – but the words came from Alfie and somehow felt more real. He never tried to say it kindly. He said it in the same way that he told me about the rain outside before he brought me my coat or that he would rather skip his breakfast to be at the bakery sooner. He said it like that; it left me bereft, afloat in a vast sea which was far too tumultuous for me to swim through, dragged further and further outward into its depths.

He said, “I used to think that I would want a son, me.”

I felt a tightness in my throat; we had never talked about children. I tried to hold a lightness in my tone which was not there, so that my words came out awkward and awash in trepidation. “A son, Alfie?”

His eyes had swelled in haziness. He was in a sea of his own, now. “I thought I wanted a son until the war came and I stopped wantin a son. I was countin’ ‘ow many other sons died out there in front o’ me. I thought about all their mothers gettin’ them little telegrams what tell you they’re dead but don’ tell you ‘ow they went out. Makes a difference, that does, knowin’ ‘ow they went out. So, I thought I wanted a daughter, after that.”

“Don’t you still want one?”

“I ‘eard that there were women in villages when soldiers from the other side started comin’ in and – and assaultin’ ‘em, y’know, before our lot got there and started fightin’ from the trenches. Women and – and girls, too. I ‘eard about it from other soldiers who ‘ad talked to the nurses while in the infirmary. I ‘eard ‘bout it from them ‘cause no woman wanted to talk about it. Ashamed, they were. Cast out by their own people ‘cause of it. Hm. I saw them girls what were taken in by the nurses me-self and I thought I couldn’t take it, not if it were me own girl. No. Hm. Not a son. Not a daughter, neither.”

“But the war is over, Alfie,” I said quietly.

“And it’ll come again,” he mumbled. “I would rather fight me-self out there a thousand times over than ‘ave me son do it, y’know. I’d do it all again to spare ‘im. I’d rather that than me daughter see what men can do, hm. Even soldiers. Especially soldiers.”

I was not sure just when it had happened, but the wetness in my eyes had spilled over onto rosy cheeks quickly wiped. He rooted his hands against his scalp again and pulled – pulled and pulled harder then, so that it frightened me. I scrambled forward to tug his hands away and hold them against me instead. He rested his head against my chest, breathing raggedly.

“I never wanted to tell you that,” he said.

“It’s okay, Alfie,” I whispered into his hair. “You’re supposed to be able to share these things –…”

“Let ‘er be rid of it, Willa,” he told me, his hands cupping my cheeks to look at him. “Don’t persuade 'er otherwise, if that is what she decides. She knows what I do. She knows it. Neither son nor daughter. Not in this world.”

I stared at him, unseeing.

Bundling her coat around her, I leaned forward to kiss Charlotte between the wrinkle of her eyebrows drawn together in worry. I smoothed out the crinkles in her coat, tugged her scarf between the lapels, like Alfie had often done for me. She was embarrassed around him, after all that had happened.

I promised her that Alfie left for the bakery much earlier. He had left around dawn and I had told him that I would be there once I had walked with her to Heath Street. She wanted to meet with some woman; some strange, mystical woman who could – rid – her of it, this little dot in her stomach now swirling larger.

“I want to do it alone,” Charlotte said. “I don’t want you in there while I talk to her, Willa. I want to do it myself. I heard from another girl that she meets us first, asks us questions – to see we aren’t trying to catch her out with the coppers, mind. Then she’ll arrange the real date.”

“Well, can I join you then? On that real date?”

“On that date,” she nodded. “You can be there for me then, Willa.”

Sinking into the mud, I went to the wet fields with the girls buried there. I looked out at distant shrubs and trees beyond the fences, branches wrapping around the wooden frames and pulling them inward into the blackness. I cleaned out the old flowers, rotted and worn. I plucked the tired petals scattered around. I spoke with the girls. I never told Esther about Charlotte, even then.

I took the flowers from her plot.

I grabbed them harshly and threw him harshly, too. I let out a loud, echoing scream into the fields and felt it ripple outward across the earth, so that all people could hear it – the soldiers in those other countries, the women cast out, sons and daughters alike. I screamed and screamed until my throat ached and I was silent.

I threw the flowers down and walked out of the wet fields.

Turning into Bonnie Street, I had my hands stuffed into my pockets and my shoulders hunched against the wind which curled across the barrels and clapped against my skin. It was wet. It was always wet in London and always the cobbles glinted like black eyes, blinking in flashes of light from the reflection of the silver clouds hung low from the heavens.

I heard the thump of wooden crates hauled from trucks. I heard the clang of metal. I heard the shriek of tyres and the slam of doors before the pepper of gunfire; only I had never been a soldier and had never known the sound of that clacking recoil, that sound of bullets against metal doors and metal sheets, so much metal in that courtyard that all noise echoed around me and confused me. Blistering pain shrieked from my throat and soon in my right arm – it came from my stomach, too, ripped apart from bullets shot somewhere behind me.

I had been standing beneath the red-brick arch of the bakery.

I had been standing beneath it and I saw it yawn over me once I collapsed backward against the ground. I felt it swell around me, the wetness of it. There was blackness blended into the mud, the mud which squelched between my hands, pushing deeper into the sludge in an attempt to pull myself from the earth, separate myself from the wet soil. I thought of dogs shot in fields and I thought of the girls in the flat. I thought of Alfie somewhere in between.

And I thought, that blackness is my blood pouring from me now.

And I thought, I was born in soil like this. I am dying in soil like this.

There was a man overhead. He blocked the clouds, and his hands scooped beneath my wounded throat to haul me upward. I waited for him to lift me further and find help. Only he plucked a cigarette from his lips and held it out before me, so that I could watch the flicker of its ash. He used his other hand, awkwardly curled beneath me, to lift my wrist and look at it. His eyes flashed to find mine.

How could it happen to me?

He said, “Sabini sends his regards.”

He pressed the butt of the cigarette against my right wrist, where those blue veins were, and held it there until a blackened dot had fizzled into the skin. He stood and I fell from him.

I fell from him and fell further still, fell into swirls of colour; electric blue, shocks of red, spun around and around. I felt as if I was in that dream that Alfie had had, stood in the house which flashed in those colours. I opened doors, closed doors. I walked into the kitchen to find him. I called out for him. I opened the door for the bathroom and found Josephine there, bloated and purple from the bathwater around her. She said, “Thanks, Willa.”

I nodded at her and turned into the bedroom. The old Gypsies watched me while I did this, looked at me while I stood in the bedroom and called out for Alfie. They stood in the corner and watched me. Charlotte was sitting on the bed. She could not see the old Gypsies, but they could see her. I knew that.

So, I turned back into the bathroom and out into the hall, and I was by the front door. There was an envelope on the floor, but I walked away from it, toward the mirror instead. I saw myself there, in that mirror. I had a smudge of soil on my cheek which could not be wiped away no matter how much I scrubbed at it.

And I saw my mouth move, and it said, “You’ll be all right, darlin’ – because I’m ‘ere, ain’t I –…”

Drawn upward from the mud once more, I awaited the sizzling burn of a cigarette against my wrist but breathed the familiar scent of rum and mint mixed together. I was hauled against a strong chest, lifted from the earth, held beneath my legs and jumbled around so that all of my organs slipped around each other, never returned to the right place.

There was a cotton shirt in front of me, rubbing against my cheek. I knew it because it belonged to him and I had plucked every thread and stitched every button into that shirt. I made all his shirts. He never wore any other shirts than those that I had made him.

“You’ll be all right, darlin’,” he said. “Because I’m ‘ere, ain’t I-…”

The nurses plucked every thread and stitched every button; I was sewn together, cleaned first of those stray bullets embedded in the back of my right arm, which was slow and sluggish now, another pulled from the back left of my side, another had scraped the right side of my throat and left a heavy slash in the skin but it had not torn through it. I would have died, if it had.

I was in a bed with scratchy sheets and drugged so much that I could not dream anymore. I could only sit in the blueness of the room, isolated behind a thick curtain of white. My eyelids were sticky. There was a lot of noise in the hall. I heard Alfie shout. I peeled my eyelids apart to hear it – then my eardrums followed, in some disconnected fumble. I heard another shout. It was different, this time.

It was warm, familiar. It called out, “Willa Sykes!”

I started to weep; for it was weeping, quiet and soft, there was no shouting in it, just little sniffles and wet cheeks, wet from soil. I lifted a hand to wipe away that smudge but found nothing there. I wept because it was Johnny in the hall, it was Johnny who was warm and familiar and who burst through those doors and flung apart the curtains to find me.

Alfie was behind him. I saw him just before the curtains fluttered shut.

Johnny leaned frantically toward me, cupped my cheek. His eyes flit around me. He murmured in our tongue, clucked and soothed me in his own way. I looked behind him at the fold in the curtain. I saw Alfie’s silhouette still there behind it, before it drained and disappeared entirely. I wept all the more.

“I don’t understand what happened, Johnny,” I whispered croakily. “I only walked to Bonnie Street – and there was all this noise –…”

He stroked my hair and held his forehead against mine for a moment before he pulled away and sat on the edge of the bed. I heard footsteps behind him and thought that perhaps Alfie might return. Instead, a nurse opened the curtains, her lips pursed tight. She barked, “Mr Dogs, as I have already sufficiently informed you, you cannot –…”

“You’d best fuck off out of this room fast,” Johnny snapped, standing suddenly. “Before I call all my kin to come and wait in the hall like I have fuckin’ waited! D’you want that, do ya? All of us, in here, in your precious fuckin’ ward! No? Then leave us be!”

The nurse hesitated for a moment, as startled by his outburst as I was. Soon, she collected herself and mumbled an incoherent string of words before she scuttled out. Johnny breathed heavily, his eyes having watched her all the way out. Once she had left, he came back to me, sat on that bed with his hands held around mine. I had been so afraid, in that soil. I had seen blackness. I felt that fear now. Only it was smothered by confusion and he saw it in my stare, which never left his, never strayed.

“Tell me, Johnny.”

“You were walkin’ into Bonnie Street, aye,” he explained slowly. “And from ‘round the bend came a car which stopped behind ya and out came some Italians. Shot at anybody on that street, they did. Your fella heard it from the bakery, so he tells me. Came runnin’ out, but weren’t the Italians already long gone from that place. Left you there in the dirt. Left you bleedin’ and –…”

I saw the ripple of fury rise in this throat and wished to hold it off a little bit longer. I asked, “Why the Italians, Johnny?”

“He started war with them, your fella,” Johnny spat. “Just back from a war, and he wants another, the fuckin’ ki-…”

“Don’t call him that, Johnny.” I lifted myself from the bed and gripped his hands. “Don’t ever call him that, you hear me? I’ll throw you out before that nurse can, if you say that word!”

I was trembling from the effort of holding myself up. Johnny panicked and rushed to gently push me back against the pillows, his expression shifted into that of remorse. He smoothed away the sweat which stained my forehead and nodded, his lips held in a tight line.

“Aye, chey, I won’t say it. I didn’t mean it, girl. I just want you safe, love,” he whispered. His voice cracked and I cracked with it, more tears spilling out so that Johnny blurred into colour. Electric blue, shocks of red. “Had some choice words with him, I did, out in the hall. Told him you’d be back in Ireland by the time you could stand. I’d have all our kin there to help you heal, chey.”

Somewhat amused, I asked, “And what did he have to say to that, then?”

“Mostly sounds, not quite words,” Johnny mused. “Went for me throat, too. Animal he is, that fella.”

“He has a name, Johnny. Alfie,” I muttered tiredly. “And he always goes for the throat.”

“I’ll use his name when he shows me that he’s worthy of it. Got you into this, he did. Did he tell you about this war with the Italians, chey?”

The silence which followed was his answer. I hated that he seemed pleased with the fact that he had guessed correctly.

“What good would it have done me?” I asked weakly, aware that I was grasping at straws. “They got me anyway, didn’t they?”

I was very tired from speaking, tired from moving around in the bed. I felt myself slump against the pillows and the stroke of his thumb against my knuckles drew me into a delicious half-slumber.

“They did,” he nodded. His words were filled with emotion, his hands shook in mine. “But you have that Gypsy blood, don’t you, chey? Too strong for ‘em. And when you wake, my love, I’ll still be here, yeah? Okay, sweetheart. I remember when you were a wee girl, and you –…”

I did not hear the rest of it, not a word of those tales from when I was a wee girl.

Floating in that other world that the old Gypsies spoke of, I dreamt of the flat that we had lived in on Bell Road and I dreamt of Butcher and all the men that had ever gone against him. I dreamt of Esther and all the men that she had bested – until she hadn’t. I dreamt of the Italians, shrouded in a veil that meant I could not fully see them.

I only understood that they were there, in the same way that the old Gypsies had been in my dreams. Just before I woke again, I heard what Johnny had said outside the flat months beforehand: never enough to become top-dog for ‘em. It takes a lot more to stay top-dog than it does to become it.

 ☼

There was a gentle pressure on my wrist. I felt that first. I felt the starched whiteness of the room second, because it burned my tender eyes, dried-out from tears, and filled my mouth with cotton. All my limbs were too heavy to lift. I let him hold my wrist. I watched him from between a narrow slit of sight, because my eyelids were still dense and sticky, barely held open.

It was not Johnny there.

Johnny did not have that small strip of bare skin on his right cheek where the stubble never grew. Johnny did not have a tattoo on that little stretch of skin between his thumb and index. Johnny never said Willa in the same way that Alfie did, either.

“Willa, sweet’eart, can you ‘ear me now, angel?”

“Supposed to be together, we are, Alfie,” I slurred through lips which flapped like blubber, numbed from drugs. My eyelids spasmed, flickered open.

“We are,” he rasped. His elbows were pressed into the mattress, hands clasped as if he had been in the midst of a prayer, but his eyes dipped low toward the tiled floor. “We are together.”

“You told me that you can trust me,” I whispered. “You said we could work together, Alf. But you couldn’t tell me about the fucking Italians? That you started war with them? Johnny had to tell me, because you couldn’t –…”

I never fuckin’ started it!” he yelled, slamming his hands against the bed, his chair shrieking against the tiles as he pushed himself backward. He heard himself. He understood where he was, who he was with, and sank back into the chair. “I never fuckin’ started it. Darby Sabini fuckin’ did. Sabini started it and I will fuckin’ end it. I was gonna tell ya, Willa. You were busy with Charlotte, ‘ad enough to worry about. But I was gonna tell ya.”

“Oh, when you visited my grave, were you? Probably would have waited until they were lowering me into the ground before it crossed your mind to mention the fucking Italians, Alfie.”

“Well, I wouldn’t ‘ave wanted to spoil such a lovely fuckin’ reunion with all your kin, not after meetin’ your fuckin’ uncle – what a joy that was!”

“Very sorry that I couldn’t have intervened, Alfie,” I retorted.

“No.”

“What?” I asked, blinking at his blank expression and how he shook his head. “What d’you mean, no?”

“No,” he repeated. “No, this isn’t ‘ow I wanted it. I wanted you to wake up, because I was gonna tell you ‘ow fuckin’ scared I was, right, to see you out there bleedin’, thought you were dead or dyin’ or already gone from me. This was meant to be between myself and that fuckin’ wop and ‘e will fuckin’ regret this, Willa. I wanted to tell you that I love you, I won’t ever let ‘em ‘urt you – again, because it ‘appened, didn’t it, I let you down, I might as well ‘ave ‘eld that fuckin’ gun me-self –…”

“Was it that envelope, Alfie?”

He paused and licked his lips. “It asked if I would like to have a drink with him, enjoy some Italian cigarettes.”

“Did you respond?”

“Told ‘im to shove the cigarettes up ‘is fuckin’ wop arse with all the other things ‘e puts up there, didn’t I?”

I stared at him, aware of the burn on my wrist from those same cigarettes, finally understanding the message. “So, that’s why they burned me with a cigarette. I hope it wasn’t the same one he put up his arse and all.”

Despite the circumstances, we smiled at one another and I rubbed his cheek, took comfort in his stubble and how he returned the affection, leaning against my palm.

I was lost in thought, looking at him. I knew that the Italians would not quit. I had already been hit and the next time it might be Alfie, might be Ollie, might even be Charlotte. It was not enough to wait in this bed for the next bullet to come. I could not shrink from what Alfie was, either. I had embraced it. I had promised him that he could trust me, whether he had told me this or not. There would always be retaliations because there would always be men out there like Butcher, like Harry Reed, like Darby Sabini –…

Like Alfie Solomons.

Never enough to become it.

“Have you considered what you might do now?” I asked.

Alfie looked at me, eyebrows raised. “What?”

“Sabini must know you’re here in the hospital with me, Alfie. He thinks you’ll be here for a while. He thinks he’s bought himself a couple of days. Show him that he was wrong to think he was safe, Alfie. Wrong to think that he had any time at all.”

Alfie was watching me, his expression a rich blend of surprise and some sick delight, his lips quirking upward with each word.

It takes a lot more to stay top-dog than to become it.

“He got me with three bullets,” I said steadily. “Now he deserves four shot right back at him, you understand? You find where it’ll hurt him most and then you shoot. Hit him hard. Hit him with all you have and do not take a rest, either, Alfie.”

“He’s got pubs. He runs the races,” Alfie replied. His eyes swirled with that same glow which often came after he had beaten someone; it was also the look that came from his arousal.

And I had to admit that I felt it, too.

“Take his alcohol. Use it to set his fucking pubs on fire. Kill his horses – or better yet, kill his best jockeys. Then bring me some pillows from the house, because these are useless,” I muttered, slapping a hand at the flaccid pillow beneath me.

His smile dripped away into nothingness. He was solemn, his eyes dark. “I meant it, Willa. I thought you were dead.”

“And what would you have done then?”

“Slaughtered him and every other Italian on this fuckin’ earth.”

“So, I’m not dead. But do it anyway.”

 ☼

Chapter Text

ten


 

Blinking through the crust of sleepiness, I felt the rustle and shift of blankets around me. I was lifted gently and laid upon fresh pillows, familiar blankets placed against me, tucked beneath my body so that the sheets would not slip off during the night. I was still warm from drugs. I floated somewhere far away and returned only in brief flashes to that room lathered in blueness. I felt the dip of the mattress, skin against skin, hushed murmurs in Hebrew.

I forced apart eyelids coated in lead, found myself in that hospital-room shrouded in a veil of that bleak, watery light which blooms just before dawn. I was stiff. I felt that my limbs were not mine, anymore; alien, as if attached to me but taken from other bodies. I heard his words shift into ones which I could understand, soft words like love and sweet’eart and please don’t leave me now angel, yeah

Plucking at foreign tendons, I felt the spasm of my fingertips first. In a feeble squeeze, I held his hands which so carefully touched mine, as if I was some precious jewel. I felt the spread of another warmth which was not from the flow of drugs spread into tired veins.

Instead, it was the warmth which came at the sight of his own eyelids fluttered shut from a tremor through his spine, expression cast in hopeful anticipation before he looked upward – and his eyes found mine and the wetness of his stare spilled over onto me, onto the skin of my hands, so that his relief soaked into me. I absorbed it all; his and mine, mine and his, intertwined.

“Three days,” he told me.

I had suffered an infection in the flesh of my right-arm, which had been ravaged in a ring of blackness where the bullet had split through the skin. It was a blackened pit in otherwise blank paleness, sore and damp and oozing white fluid. I had collapsed in front of him, but I could barely recall that moment after I had stood from the bed and felt as if the earth tilted as it had the evening in front of the flat, after the girls had been murdered. I had stood, tilted, slapped against cold tiles and felt each bead of sweat bloom and burn against hot, frothing skin.

I had a fever and it rippled through my flesh like the water in the bathtub had rippled once I tried to pull Josephine from its coldness. In my feverish dreams, I fell in there with her, fell into the pitch-black depths of lukewarm water. I tried to swim upward but only ever sank downward into its folds.

Three days, he told me. I was in that dream of black water for three days.

I tried to speak. I drooled, instead. Embarrassed, I tried to pull hands from him, but he jolted from his chair, which scraped against the tiles. He found tissues in the drawer, held them against my chin and shushed me, leaned forward to rest his own chin against my hair. He spoke in a rush of Hebrew anew, and its lulling rasps in his throat soothed my shame.

Silent tears slid across reddened cheeks and I rested limp against his stomach, too tired to hold myself like I had always done before I had met him. I thought of how I had held Charlotte like he now held me. I wanted her, then. I said her name, slurred and quiet.

“She was here this mornin’,” he explained. “But you were still asleep, darlin’.”

Once cleaned, he tossed away the tissues and sat once more. He swept his hands around mine out of habit. I saw purplish marks beneath his eyes. I watched him scratch at his eyes and saw that his stubble had grown into a thickened beard. I liked it and lifted a slack hand to brush at it with a weak smile. His eyes closed. He leaned into my touch. He had not slept without me, I knew.

 “Come lie beside me, Alfie,” I whispered, stroking his cheek with my left hand.

“No,” he said, his eyes still closed. “I’d only ‘urt ya.”

“You’d never hurt me,” I replied. He watched me, as if mulling it over in his mind. I added, “Please, Alfie. I’m sick and I’m tired. So, you have to do what I say, don’t you?”

“Don’ I do that already? Fuckin’ told ya before that you’re bossy when you’re tired, Willa...”

Hauling himself from the chair, he tried to poise himself on the edge of the mattress so that I had all the space, but he was much too large for it and was already half-balanced. I scooted over and over until I hit the other side of the bed and then pulled him toward me with all the strength that remained in my left arm – the right was still riddled from the infection, so that it lay flaccid and useless alongside me.

Alfie did what he always did once we lay alongside each another: he shuffled me against his chest and gently curled his arm around me, his chin rested against my hair as it had been earlier. I felt him tense for just a couple of seconds. Although he never said it aloud, I knew that it was his spine and his hip.

Breathing in his scent, I thought about those jars of sweet mush that I used to soothe the stiffness of his bones and worried that he had forgotten to use them while he was in here with me.  

“Alfie,” I murmured into his skin, “…I need to get you more of those jars for your back and your hip, I need to –…”

“Right as rain, I am, Willa,” he replied, his words muffled against my hair. “Never felt better than I do right ‘ere and now, sweet’eart.”

“Tomorrow” I mumbled, overcome by another rush of tiredness. “I’ll get up tomorrow, I’ll go and get them from the house…”

“All right, love,” he said softly, letting me ramble even though he knew that I could not possibly stand from that bed. “All right. Just stay with me a little while longer, yeah?”

His eyes shut almost immediately. I thought of something he had said a while ago: I don’t like to sleep, Willa. But I do when you’re here.

On the second of those three days in which I had been fast asleep, Alfie had lined a squadron of Jewish lads in the basement of our bakery and doled out orders. Ollie had been stood alongside him. He sent a handful of those same lads toward the racetracks; those first lads drugged the horses, shot jockeys in the kneecaps. Then, Alfie sent out another handful and those lads took alcohol from Italian pubs and locked the doors of the same pubs with Italian patrons trapped within; alcohol soaked into the floorboards and the lads lit Italian cigarettes that were then thrown onto the floors.

Alfie had note pinned onto the ash and ruin of the last pub once its fire had finally fizzled out, watered down by bewildered authorities carting out charred corpses. On it, he wrote: had to light up five of your pubs before I could use the fire to get even one of your wop cigarettes to burn for me to even have a smoke. Shameful, that is. 

The last handful of Jewish lads shot any Italian within the territory owned by Sabini. This sent them scrambling for shelter and the lads shot them there, too. Alfie estimated that it was twenty men, a nice chunk of Italian protection in that area. Suddenly, Alfie had visits from other owners of pubs and shops in that street. He had visits from the Jewish folk still left in Bell Road and those stretching outward toward Harrow. He had thickened wads of cash placed into his palm. He passed them onto Ollie to place in a safe in the office of the bakery.

Alfie told me all this in the hospital after the infection had passed. He paused in his speech and awaited some form of response. So, I gave it to him.

“Ruining his racing business, his pubs, turning his own people against him – that’s three bullets.”

“And the last one, love?”

“To put through his fucking skull.”

Hobbling from the bed, I caught sight of myself in the mirror; a tangled mass of black hair, pale skin and cheeks flushed of colour. Slowly, I wobbled toward the armchair which held my possessions, placed there that morning by Alfie. I was half-naked in a gown which left me cold and much too exposed for my liking. I pulled out my old dress and wondered if it might rest painfully on the bandages around my stomach. Healed in most other parts, the nurses were still preoccupied with that wound on the back of my right-arm, but because the infection was cleaned, I was expected to remain at home with only a couple of visits to ensure the whitish fluid did not return. I pulled out the dress and a little drop against the ground told me that something had rolled out with it.

Carefully, I placed a hand against the bed, prepared myself to bend despite the traumatic pain which darted through the wound on my stomach. Before I could even do much more, I heard the door scrape apart and I heard a deep sigh.

“Willa, let me get it,” Ollie said. “You’ll do yourself even more damage and I’m not sure I could take another week of dealing with Alfie in a temper.”

Smiling to myself, I replied, “While you’re down there, would you please grab my boots, Ollie?”

He perched on the edge of the mattress and fished beneath it for the fallen object – it was kohl, which I took with a mumble of gratitude, shuffling toward the only mirror in the room. Ollie pulled out my boots. I balanced a hand on his shoulder and let him pull them on. He only just slipped on the left boot before I had to sit, unable to take the strain.

Ollie stood to help me flop onto the bed, his hands all anxious and jerky once more. Ollie panicked a lot more easily – he was all ruffled feathers, our Ollie. Even while I sat, his hands were there, hovered just an inch from my arms as if I might somehow tumble off the bed.

“Ollie, it’s all right,” I told him. “I’m fine, now that I’m sitting.”

“I-I saw you,” he blurted out. I stared at him, which made him swallow anxiously. “Alfie found you in the yard and I saw you when he was carrying you. I thought you were dead. You looked awful, Willa.”

“I told you I’m all right now.”

“Alfie says that. Alfie says that if I ask him. Says he’s all right. Or he tells me to stop asking or to fuck off. He tells me that he’s all right, but I don’t believe him.”

I counted the pockmarked dents in the ceiling like I had done for days. I felt Ollie finish with the laces and start on the other boot. I was terrified that the nurses had gotten it all wrong; that the dizziness and sweats and pain and sudden rushes of nausea might never leave. My limbs were too dense, my right arm was agony to lift. I did almost everything with the left. I was afraid, too, of cracking sounds.

One night, the night-nurse had dropped a bedpan in the hall and its clanging metal smacking against the tiles had shot through me like another round of bullets, so that I jumped and jerked in the bed as if I was hit here and there, over and over.

“I’m all right,” I murmured distantly, eyes still latched onto those dents in the ceiling.

“I don’t believe you,” he said.

“Then stop asking or fuck off,” I replied, looking at him and smiling.

Pulling into Ivor Square, I let out a sigh of relief and felt Alfie squeeze my hand, eyes flashing toward mine. He had Ollie bring in the bags behind us. I took the staircase which led to our door in slow, gentle steps with his hand around my waist to support me. I breathed in a fresh, floral scent once Alfie pushed open the door; that scent was familiar and welcome after that acid coldness of the hospital.

Ollie stood in the threshold with hands clasped, glancing around. Alfie turned toward him, tilted his head at him, indicating for him to take a step backward, which Ollie did, his eyebrows raised in confusion.

Alfie raised his boot and kicked the door so that it banged shut.

I could almost envision Ollie's expression on the other side, but the boy was more than used to Alfie and his bluntness. He had been around him for years.

Alfie spun around to grasp my arms and lead me into the front-room to sit on our sofa. I collapsed there with him and felt the exhaustion in both of us. I thought of how we were still so young and little snickers escaped me until I burst into full-blown laughter. Alfie looked over at me, eyebrows raised like Ollie's had been just before the door slammed shut on him.

“We’re acting like an old couple,” I said, sputtered between breathless giggles. “Your bad back, your hip – me, always being tired now, worn out. I forget that we’re still young.”

Alfie smiled, but it was not one of his proper smiles. “Don’t feel young, me. Ain’t felt young in a long time. Last time mighta been when we went to that fairground. Maybe just before it, when we went to that bar on Brixton Street. What was it called, again?”

The Blacksmith,” I answered. “I remember after you walked me home to the old flat and Esther was there. She told me about the war.”

“I didn’t wanna tell ya. I didn’t want to ruin the night. Just couldn’t pluck up the courage, in the end. Then it was too late. Hm. Always too late with me, innit? But fuck, Willa – if it weren’t a fun fuckin’ night, eh?”

I smiled and nodded, before I looked at the fireplace. “You know, we should light the fire tonight, Alfie. Let’s stay here for a while.”

He hummed. “Probably best. Could do some damage to me-self with all that dancin’. Christ, Willa, you’d do more damage to the people ‘round us with your dancin’.”

I laughed, the sound echoing into the emptiness of the house. “Gypsies dance a little different, Alfie.”

“That they do,” he nodded. He stood and stepped toward the fireplace to grab some coal and toss it on the rack, but soon winced, his hand clamping onto his back.

Quickly, I stood to help him, even if I was equally a little worn. A wave of dizziness sparked through me, so that I fumbled and had to place one hand against the wall to balance myself. Alfie looked at me, and it was that simple – we burst into laughter again, half-bent. I saw the large print of his own hand on his shirt from where he had pressed it, made from the stain of coal on his palm. I pointed it out to him.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” he groaned. “Gonna need you to start rattlin’ out more shirts as soon as you can, Willa. No more sleepin’ on the job, eh?”

I lost my laughter at the sight of that crinkled furrow between his brows again, realising that it was not very funny at all, the state of us. It hit me very suddenly, this sullen mood. Perhaps he felt it as well, because he licked his lips and looked away from me, moving back toward the sofa to sit there. I was still across from him, hand pressed against the wall.

I said, “You need to see the doctor, Alfie.”

“Doctor? What good can a doctor do me, eh? Can’t fix nothin’, doctors. Ply you with medication, what makes you slow and dim, yeah – and sometimes, right, them doctors tell you that you’re imaginin’ ‘alf your pain, don’t they?”

I watched him carefully. “What d’you mean?”

“I got mates what can’t tell left from right no more, Willa.”

His eyes were cast in that cold and distant light which always filled him once words of war came out. He hardly blinked; it had always been that which disturbed me most, how long he could last without a blink, as if a film was flickering behind his eyelids, one that he was forced to watch.

“I got mates what can’t walk right – can’t talk right, neither. I got mates what get outta bed to work and I got mates what can’t never get out of bed again. Ain’t got the capacities, do they? I got mates what talk to our other mates even though they ain’t there anymore. And the doctor tells ‘em, ‘all you need is a stiff upper lip, my lad’. Got loads of mates, I do. Or I did. I – I shot one of me mates before, y’know.”

I felt a cold chill rattle through me, aware that Alfie was too far removed from me to hear himself. He had just admitted something that cut right through the laughter which filled us only moments beforehand. I had said it before, too – Alfie had no mates apart from Ollie. Yet he had spoken as if all those friends stood in our house now and his eyes searched for them between those folds in the curtains, between the gaps of the furniture, never found. It had been such a long while since he had spoken that I jerked at his next words, eyes drawn toward him and away from those gaps that I had searched myself. I was not sure what I had thought I might find, but it had not been there.

“It was a mate what deserted in 1917. ‘e trained even before the army years, y’know?”

I nodded, although it did not matter what I did, because I was not there for him anymore. Even if I had walked out of that room and into the kitchen, I knew that I would only need lean my ear against the wallpaper to hear him speak, because Alfie would continue whether I was there or not. He had these odd, disconnected moments; in the same way that I felt my limbs had been disconnected, all his memories came out chopped and dissected, as if he had been handed the photographs which composed the life of another man whom he had never met, and he just pieced them together himself with little thought behind it.

Here was another jigsaw memory, taken from some darkened spot in his brain and slotted into some other place where it did not quite belong and certainly never fit.

“They wanted ‘im to be made into an example,” Alfie said. “But what was the point of it? We ‘ad plenty o’ examples o’ dead men out there. I told ‘em, what good is another? Well, they ‘ad the lads line up and shoot, y’know. Only they missed. I think they wanted to miss. They all knew ‘im. Trained before the army years, ‘e did. Did I tell you that?”

“You did, Alfie.”

“Hm. They got ‘im in the shoulder. So, I ‘ad to put ‘im down. Couldn’t watch it. And you wanted to ‘ear this, didn’t ya?” he said, his eyes finally looking into mine. I flinched from it. “I don’t want to tell you these things, but they come out anyway. Can’t ‘elp it, me. What do we always say, Willa? Backwards and wrong. That’s it. Backwards and wrong.”

His mood, much like mine, had shifted so much that I was unsure what else to do with myself. I stood there in front of the fireplace. I had become the furniture, immobile. He looked at me, his eyes glistening, and he hauled himself up from the sofa with great effort.

“I’ll run you a bath, Willa.”

He knew that I was not meant to take a bath so soon, that the nurse had to come around for the bandages in the morning and to check all the wounds. He had paid out of his own pocket for it. He knew that and I knew that. And still I said, “Okay, Alf.”

He hesitated in the doorway. He turned, just slightly. His gaze was not focused on mine. “I won’t let nothin’ ‘appen to ya, Willa.”

“Okay, Alfie.”

“I’m glad you’re ‘ome. I’m ‘appier now.”

“I am, too." I debated asking, but finally decided on it. "Are you - Are you okay, Alfie?"

“I’m okay, darlin’.”

He nodded. He nodded again, although nothing more had been said. The door shut behind him. The fireplace had been forgotten, left unlit. Ollie flashed through my mind, all of a sudden.

I don’t believe him.

Shuffling around in the bathroom, I heard him fiddling around with the cupboards. I never heard that familiar thunder of gushing water from the faucet, never heard him lay out towels nor a nightgown like he had always done for me whenever he ran a bath. I felt a dull ache in my right arm, felt another in my stomach – but there was another part underneath it formed from tension, a thickened layer of it wedged between my organs, because something had happened within him, something had cracked or loosened or fell apart entirely.

I heard him in the bathroom, heard an abrupt round of loud bangs; he had ripped the rack of towels from the wall and I heard it clatter against the tiles. I jumped and jumped against the bangs which sounded so much like bullets shot from somewhere behind me. I clamped trembling hands against my eardrums and leaned forward to bury myself between my knees, breathing heavily.

“Willa,” Alfie called out. I looked up and saw that he was on the other side of the room, by the bathroom. He stayed away from me. I knew something was really wrong with him. Alfie rarely ever stayed away from me. “Willa, I’ve been lyin’ to ya, love. I’ve been lyin’ to ya this whole time.”

I asked a question which came out croaky and dry. “About what, Alfie? What did you do?”

I always suffered a terrible numbness in my limbs because of words like that. I felt those familiar red patches around my throat. I thought of our whole life together. I thought of our house – our home – and our business. I thought about other women, which had never really crossed my mind before with him. I trusted him. I looked at him now.

Do I trust you?

“Charlotte didn’t come to see you.”

I swallowed. “Did you tell her where I was? She could be busy, Alfie. ”

“She didn’t come, love,” he said. “Because she tried to get rid of it, Willa. She was very ill. She – Just listen, love, right…”

It was like a pit in my stomach, a pit which was then filled with stones. Once I stood, the stones shifted and knocked my weight to one side so much that I stumbled. Nausea overwhelmed me. Alfie was coated in a light sheen of sweat; he looked very much like the boy I had seen in the courtyard with his teeth held against the throat of another lad, prepared to rip it out, back in the days of the factory. He looked trapped and poised to defend himself. Some part of me understood what he meant; the other part feigned ignorance.

“That woman on Heath Street,” I said, “…she did it for lots of girls, Alfie. I went there with her. I’m supposed to go with her again, on the proper date – the real date for it. I’m going with her.”

I was moving around the bedroom now. I was smoothing out the bed-sheets that had crinkled beneath me and I was shuffling the shirts around in the drawers and I swept around him into the bathroom to pluck at the towels. All the while, I was saying, “That woman on Heath Street was telling her that she wanted to make sure the coppers didn’t find out about it, you know. I told her, find out the proper date and I’ll come with you. She didn’t want me there for the discussion, but you know, she just wants me in there for the procedure –…”

I was trembling so badly and he was following me between the bedroom and the bathroom with all of these useless towels and clothes in my hands that I placed down, then picked up, then placed down again and he was talking too, talking over my rambling, but I talked louder and faster and always I was picking up things and placing them down until he blocked me at the bathroom and I screamed, screamed and screamed –…

“She got it on that day, Willa,” he explained. “She got something from that woman on ‘eath Street on the same day that you went with ‘er – I don’t know what it was, I don’t know when exactly she took it, yeah, but I tried to find ‘er for ya, Willa – I wanted ‘er there when you came ‘round, I knew what it would mean to ya. I had Ollie out with the lads from the bakery. They found her in a flat. She’d been dead and gone – gone a long while, love.”

“Where? What flat?”

“Some place on Fetter Road,” he answered.

I felt like the fabric which I pushed beneath the thumping needle of the sewing-machine after it became caught and tangled and all its threads unfurled and the thumping was still there, pricking away at me until I was threadbare, unusable in all senses, thrown aside. Fetter Road. I had heard him against the pounding ringing in my eardrums. Elsie had sold her own body on that road many years beforehand. I had told Charlotte about it. I had told all the girls in the flat about it in those dark months when I was temporary Best-Girl. I told her

I said, “I told her about that place – that the girls – they sold themselves and our Elsie died there – a long time ago, before I had even met you. D-Did she use this place, Alfie?”

Did this place use her?

Alfie tried to placate me, like always, holding me in place to stop all this fluttering and moving around. I saw it in his eyes and still I needed the answer. He licked his lips. “From what I ‘eard, yeah. Weren’t enough to be stealin’ pocket-watches anymore for the girl, darlin’. 'ad to make a livin', was strugglin' after the whole racket in the flat ended and Esther weren't 'round no more.”

“She would have told me,” I whispered. I pushed away from him. I was focused on him, on the anger that I felt for him because it was so much better than focusing on the pit of stones still in my stomach. “You told me she was there – that she came and saw me. Why did you say that, Alfie?!”

He stared at me incredulously. “You’d just been fuckin’ shot, Willa! What did you want, eh? You got that infection, you were barely awake – it woulda been too much for you. I couldn’t risk it.”

“Couldn’t fucking risk it,” I spat bitterly at him. I was hurting him. I knew I was hurting him because I saw it in his eyes and still I was pushing onward with it. “Where is she?”

“I ‘ad ‘er buried, Willa.”

“Buried?” I repeated. I was crying without wanting it. I wanted to be furious, wanted to thump and hit and scream. But I didn’t quite believe him, either. I told myself that she was all right. He had been mistaken – but was Alfie ever really mistaken about things like this? I knew he would never lie about it. Yet I still said, “You’re wrong, Alfie.”

“I’m not wrong.”

“I told her I would go with her. She wouldn’t take anything without telling me. Why would she do that?”

“I can’t tell you, darlin’ – but she mighta known she wanted to do it alone.”

I thought about the lad, George, who ran off to Liverpool. “Was it even his?”

“The sprog?” Alfie asked. He chewed at his lip and shrugged. “Mighta been.”

I caught how his eyes flit from mine and my anger rushed upward in a swarm. “What do you know?”

“Won’t do you any good to know it, Willa,” he warned.

“Alfie, you will tell me – now,” I hissed. I was becoming anxious all over again, hands starting to pick at skin, at wounds that were not there. I found the ones that were instead, reached for the bandages around my stomach and wanted to unravel them so that I could – well, what did I want to do then? He caught my hands again, as if he knew what I had intended to do. Frantically, I mumbled, “Tell me, Alfie – please, don’t lie – just tell me –…”

“She was there a few months. Ollie ‘eard it from the girls workin’ there. Told that George fella that it was ‘is but ‘e knew the chances were slim an’ all. Booked it outta town, took the first train to Liverpool. What was the girl meant to do, Willa?”

“Tell me!” I screamed. “She should have told me!”

It was in the stomach, first; a shrieking pain that had me bent double before him, falling onto kneecaps which slapped against the floorboards, the impact rattling upward into me and dislodging all those stones then thrown up into my throat. Alfie fell along with me, tried to hold me beneath my arms and lift me, but he accidentally hurt my right arm in his attempt, and I rolled against him from the sheer agony of it. He held us still to let the pain rush through me and I breathed in ragged gasps until it went.

"I'm sorry, love."

For which part he meant, exactly, I was not sure. 

“I need to see her,” I told him.

“Not now, Willa.” His tone was strict, warning. His temper was flaring, blending into mine. I knew that he wanted to rein it in, but he struggled because of the circumstances. “I know you lost someone. But I ain’t willin’ to lose you, too. I ‘ad the girl buried with the others.”

I let out an agonised moan. He only held me tighter.

He continued, “I ‘ad her buried. She’ll be safe there now, won’t she?”

“I told her about Fetter Road, Alfie, about the work there,” I whispered, pressed against his chest. “I told her when she was so much younger. She only went there because of me telling her. She didn’t tell me about what the woman gave her. I was supposed to go with her.”

“I’ll take you to ‘er once you’re better, yeah?” he went on. I realised that his cheeks were damp against my hair. I had not understood just how much my pain had affected him. “I’m gonna put you into bed now, Willa. In the mornin’, the nurse’ll be ‘round, won’t she? Change your bandages, make you all better, hm. Proper fighter, you are.”

“I’m tired of fighting, Alfie,” I whispered. “All the girls in the flat, gone. There were two of us, this morning, last time that I checked. One of us, this evening. Just me.”

He drew in a sharp breath.

He lifted me from the floorboards, despite his own pain. I was tired of pain, too. I let him settle me in the bed because I knew it brought him comfort to think that I was calmed; and perhaps it was just because that same old part of me thought that he had made a mistake. I resembled a child which could not grasp the concept of death. I convinced myself that he had made a mistake somewhere and she was still here. I had not seen her death like I had seen the others – there had been no sickly-sweet blackness and she was so young; but Josephine had only been ten, so what difference did that make?

Alfie rested on his side of the bed, closest to the door, his arms crossed. He looked ahead, toward the wardrobe. He looked between the gaps. He found no mates there and so he looked away. I was sat upright, leaned against the headboard – slumped against it, absent from myself.

“Thank you, Alfie.”

“What for?”

“Burying her.”

“Buried lots of people, me.”

“I still don’t think I can believe it,” I told him. “She isn’t gone, Alfie.”

“Used to think that, too, over there,” he replied lowly. “Used to see fellas fall and when evenin’ came ‘round I’d still call out their names for rations without even realisin’ it. Takes time, Willa.”

“How much time?” I asked childishly, reluctant to accept it.

“I still call ‘em out, sometimes,” he said. “Still waitin’ for ‘em to answer, too.”

“I’ll keep calling out for her,” I said. “I know I will.”

He was quiet, thoughtful. “Then I’ll just call with you. She’s bound to ‘ear one of us, ain’t she?”

Out of the blue, a couple of moments later, he stood from the bed. I thought that he might slip into the bathroom, but I heard him near the wardrobe. He knew perfectly well that I watched him move about the bedroom, watched him fiddle with the bottom piece of wood in the wardrobe, lifting it upward to reveal a hidden space just beneath it that I had not known about.

“What are you doing, Alfie?”

I loathed the tearful rasp in my voice, loathed the pitiful way that my hands scrunched the bed-sheets for something to do other than tremble. He never answered. He pulled out some small box that I had never seen before. I saw how carefully he held it, standing from his crouch to bring it over onto the bed.

He plopped it in front of me and pulled off the lid to show a cluster of letters bound together in a delicate sash of purple, much like the sash tied around the paper he had brought me after he returned from France. He bent before the bed to show me, elbows pressed into the mattress.

“November 1916,” he said, pulling out the first letter. “You told me about the dogs on Bell Road. One of them had a funny ear – kind of bent over like folded paper. I remember that dog. Soft little fella, ‘e was. December – you told me about the little gift you got your Charlotte, some toy you stole in Charter’ouse. 1917. Wrote about your Josephine, you did. Told me about them problems with Beth. Told me about 'ow Eleanor ‘ad outgrown ‘er shoes and you’d need to rob another pair. You ‘ad cut Rosie’s ‘air for ‘er. That was in February, mind.”

Somewhere along the line, his eyes had left the letters. He was speaking the same words written upon each letter, words that I had forgotten myself, especially those little details about the flat on a Sunday morning and the long walks through the streets and how dull it was without him. He was saying it all aloud, never even glancing at those letters. He had memorised them.

“Next one – you told me ‘ow proud you were that I was made Captain, remember? Said you never felt more proud in all your life. Sent me two scarves. I remember those, too. All the lads envied them scarves, Willa. And then you wrote to me about ‘ow you missed me. And ‘ow you loved me. That was 1918. January. It was in January.”

I blinked through tears to look at him, pulling apart each letter, drinking in my own spidery scrawl. I had never thought about what he did with the letters, but he had kept each and every one of them. I brushed at the strokes of dirt which stained some of the letters, noted a couple of tears in the paper and crinkles, some dots of rusted blood, all of them worn around the edges. Nestled at the very bottom of the box was a photograph that I had not seen since the fairground: it was the photograph of us. He was stood with his arm around me, his eyelid swollen from that punch after a fight with the photographer.

He dipped into his shirt pocket and pulled out another photograph from the fairground; it was me.

It was Willa from before the war, because there had been another Willa. She had been the Willa before all the girls had died, before Alfie had returned with odd spells in his mood, before the bombings, before the shirts made for Jewish lads, before the bullets shot into me. I traced my own face – my old face – and thought that I looked so young, terribly shy, eyes still searching for Alfie in the crowd. I was very pretty.

I did not feel like that in the bed with him, after all the sorrow had settled in me. I felt much too tired for prettiness and youth. And the Alfie in that other photograph was not here either. He had aged, too. He had lines where before there had only been laughter.

Yet I looked at him and found that I preferred him, lines and all, moods and all.

I saw the stain of dried blood which soaked the rim of white around the photograph of me once I turned it over. Alfie watched me and said, “Was in me pocket when I got shot.”

“You had it with you, over there?”

“Every second. Every – fuckin’ – second in that fuckin’ pit that was the trenches. Every time I ‘ad to jump out the fuckin’ trench and run at the enemy – you came with me, didn’t ya?” He smiled. It was a weak one, but it was one of his real smiles, warm and soft. “The girls in that flat are gone, Willa. But you ain’t, love. You’re ‘ere with me, ain’t ya? And it ain’t just you, alone. I loved you in January of 1918, too. I loved you before it. I love you now, Willa. So, when I tell you Charlotte’s gone, darlin’ – I mean it, don’t I?”

I nodded weakly and he reached to wipe the tear that fell. He clambered onto the bed again to hold me. He brought me against him, rested me against his chest. I allowed it, too dazed to do more than shuffle toward him.

“I know you do,” I whispered. “I just – it hurts so much, Alfie.”

“It does,” he replied simply. “Hm. It does, yeah. It’ll ‘urt tonight and it’ll ‘urt tomorrow. Just ‘ow it fuckin’ goes, ain’t it? But I’ll tell you ‘ow it goes, now. I’ll bring you to ‘er once you’re better, and you’ll be able to understand it better then, Willa. And the day after that, we’ll be fightin’ the Italians and we’ll be makin’ our aprons and our rum and it’ll ‘urt all the time while we’re doin’ it. Stiff upper lip, darlin’.”

I nodded along with him, nodded and nodded.

“And then, the day will come when we’ve made enough, yeah? And we’ll be on that beach in Margate lookin’ at the ocean and it might ‘urt then, too, but we’ll ‘ave made it. We’ll be there, and the rest of 'em can fuckin’ burn for all we’ll care.”

I listened to the warm rumble of his chest against me, soothed by it. I stretched to kiss his cheek and felt a scabbed patch of skin there, just beneath the stubble of his sideburns. It was red around its edges, inflamed. I lifted a hand to touch it, unsure of what it was. He caught my wrist and held it against his chest.

“Tomorrow is the time for fightin’, Willa. You ready for it, darlin’?”

The letters were strewn between us. I caught glimpses of Willa from 1916, saw her again in 1917, saw her finished in 1918. I spotted those little snippets of complaints about sharing a blanket with Eleanor and how Charlotte had grown so fast that I had to let her borrow some of my skirts and that I missed him so much and how is the wether in Frans, Alfie, I can send more scarfs and do you need soks and I hope the war ends soon.

“I’m ready, Alfie,” I told him.

Chapter Text

eleven


 

Soaking in golden sunlight streaming through the curtains, I slept beneath the blankets for most of the morning. Around ten, I heard the gentle tinkle of the doorbell and then came muffled conversation from below in the hall, followed by the rasping creak of the staircase.

Tapping against the wooden doorframe, Alfie pushed into the bedroom with a slim, petite nurse behind him; her skin was like porcelain, her lips delicate and dabbed in a light pink. Her hands clasped around a large bag and she stepped in the bedroom quite nervously. Often, she glanced upward at Alfie, and her hands would tighten around the strap of her bag.

Alfie hauled an armchair from the other bedroom and placed it alongside me, motioning for the nurse to take it. She sank against the cushion, all the while watching his movements, keeping him in her peripheral.

Once he finished, he plopped himself onto the bed and splayed his hand against my thigh, effectively engulfing it in the heat of his palm. Inwardly, I noted his stern expression and his stare latched onto the nurse, almost as if he was counting each roll of plaster that she pulled out.

Shifting from my slumped position, I sat upward against the headboard and smiled weakly at the nurse. She flicked her eyes toward Alfie before she said, “I will need to remove your nightgown, Mrs Solomons. Perhaps you might like some privacy, or –…”

“Privacy?” Alfie repeated, mentioning nothing of the mistake in surname. “In our own fuckin’ ‘ouse?”

“Alfie,” I murmured, casting him a warning glance. “Please, I’d rather he stayed here.”

I reached for the crinkled hem of my nightgown with a soft grunt of effort, but his hands soon replaced mine and he carefully rolled it upward across my thighs and over my hips. Then, I had to lift myself to fully pull it off. I could not find the strength to be shy about it. I had been naked in front of many women before.

I had bathed in rivers beside the wagons in the old fields, surrounded by breasts in blackened water, somehow unaware that my boy-cousins had not possessed the same parts until my sixth summer. I had also stood in the hall of old flat, nude and trembling from the cold, until one of the older girls slipped out from the bathroom and it was my turn for a lukewarm scrub.

I was coated in a light sweat, trembling now – not from cold, but rather from strain. I flopped against the pillow and soon felt a cloth pat against my forehead. I blinked open heavy eyelids to find Alfie there. I lifted a hand to catch his wrist and bring him close so that I could press my lips against his hands, too grateful for him to put it into words.

The old Gypsies had once told me that there were words which humans had not yet found the syllables for, because we had never been able to make sense of certain emotions; so, the words floated out there in the unknown, unpronounced, words that were meant for feelings which humans had known for centuries but had never been able to name.

I kissed his hands and knew what the old Gypsies had meant about man being unable to name his own emotions, those which came more complexly than love, burned more brightly than passion, touched more softly than his fingertips ghosting my jawline and finishing at the plumpness of my lips.

Prickling spikes of pain shot through that blackened pit in my right arm once she peeled away bandages stained in yellowish marks and it felt as if she had unfurled layers of my flesh along with it. I curled with the turn of the bandage, curled at the spine, sinking sharp nails into the pillows. While she wrapped fresh bandages around my arm, Alfie whispered soothing words against my hair.

I scrunched his shoulder once she lifted another roll and I bucked against the skin which lifted with it. I glanced behind at the bandage in her hand and paled at the gooey string of blood which trailed with it. Quietly, I leaned back and spoke into his ear, his stubble scratching against my cheek.

I said, “All you went through in France, Alfie, and I can barely take the bandages being changed, eh?”

He shushed me, pressing his lips against my burning temple. “Ain’t the same, love,” he replied.

The nurse rubbed some foreign liquid against a piece of cloth and brushed it against my skin; its sharp, harsh sting made me grip him just a little harder. I let out a small yelp, bending forward from her touch.

In a sudden burst of fury, Alfie spun around to face the nurse and roared, “Are you fuckin’ tryin’ to ‘urt ‘er, are ya – what kinda fuckin’ nurse are ya, anyway? Fuckin’ three-legged dog would ‘ave more grace and fuckin’ delicacy in 'is min’strations than you …”

Startled by his outburst, the nurse dropped the bottle and a thick, oozing liquid spilled onto the rug in a dense patch of brown. Alfie was silenced by it, his eyes drifting slowly downward toward the bottle, lifting upward to the nurse whose small frame shivered in her armchair. I was sweating badly and breathing heavily, glancing between them both, unsure of the reason for his poor temperament around her.

I reached for the roll of bandages left on the bed, still half-wrapped around me. Alfie rushed to grab it from me, his eyebrows still furrowed from anger, glaring at that nurse, perched at the edge of her seat as if she might bolt at the slightest sign of renewed fury from Alfie. I grabbed his arm and pulled him close against me.

“You take her downstairs,” I told him, “…and you apologise, and you pay double what she asked for. I expect you to have one of the lads take her home after that, Alfie.”

Alfie looked in my eyes and opened his mouth; perhaps he ran the speech through his mind, his response and mine, before he inevitably pressed his lips shut and settled on a simple nod.

“All right, darlin’. You rest there, yeah, and I’ll be right back? You don’t move an inch, darlin’, right, ‘cause I’ll be back sharpish. Gotta see out the nurse, don’ I?” he rambled.

The nurse had not heard what I said. Therefore, her first indication that she was permitted to abandon her post came from Alfie – and she looked so relieved that she almost forgot to gather her tools from the bed, scrambling to collect them all and hurry after Alfie into the hall, keeping him at arms-length with her bag held tight against her chest.

I was still bent on that bed with knees embedded into mattress. I gripped the bandage, saw the white crease of my knuckles once I began to pull the roll around and around like the nurses had done for days in the hospital, but soon I felt my right arm weaken, until I could hold the plasters no more, panting like a tired dog – three-legged and all.

The door creaked.

“Willa,” Alfie groaned.

I saw him in the threshold and rolled my eyes at him. “Mean old man.”

“Never mean, me,” he retorted. “She was bein’ far too rough with ya, weren’t she?”

“What did you say to her downstairs?”

“I did what you asked. I paid her, said I never meant to be brash, yeah, but a bleedin’ donkey could 'old a fuckin’ plaster better than she could, yeah. Pure fuckin’ ‘onesty on my part,” he replied.

“Not then. Earlier. The girl was afraid of you before she ever even made it to this bedroom. So, what did you say to her before that?”

Alfie blinked and pursed his lips. “Don’t know what you mean, treacle.”

I was watching him very closely. I heard it said anew: Mrs Solomons. I thought that perhaps the nurse had not made a mistake, but rather she had been misinformed. “Did you tell her that your wife is much too delicate for any kind of manhandling, hm? The wife who has been punched and kicked and hit all her life?”

I spoke with amusement but glanced over to find him still there in the threshold; my eyes dropped and saw his hands furled into fists, knuckles bled white like mine. Alfie had an awful coldness about him once he bordered between his moods and it was not always a coldness narrowed toward me, exactly, but rather toward some faint, unseen figure behind me, because his eyes drifted there, as if he saw into that deep unknown, where words of man had not yet been created, where syllables floated around, unpronounced.

“I told ‘er that you suffered enough, yeah.”

I felt myself soften, looking away from him. “Alfie, just – just come over here, please.”

Slowly, he approached, his gaze full of that same frustration. I held out the bandages for him, imploring him to continue with the rolls which had loosened from my stomach and fluttered around my knees. Alfie was gentle, moving with the wrapping and bending to rip off the ends with his teeth. I could lean against him, rest an arm around his shoulder to support myself. Absently, I stroked my fingers through his hair while he worked, pulling at strands here and there. He liked that. He always had.

“Much better nurse than the other one,” I murmured. “Must keep you around.”

“More like your fuckin’ man-servant, me,” he grumbled, but his tone was lighter. Once the nurse had been removed, he was much more relaxed. “And do tell, my lady, what did your last servant die of, if you don’t mind me askin’?”

“He asked what the servant before him had died of,” I replied. “So, I had to do him in. Though I can’t quite recall exactly what I did to him, for what it’s worth. Been so many of them.”

Alfie whistled. His smile was wide, his eyes still focused on the bandages, pressing them together into folds which meant the plaster would not peel off. “Oh, you are cruel, my lady. Fuckin’ brutal, you are.”

“Does it bother you? I can always find another manservant, if this position does not suit you.”

“Oh, I can think o’ plenty more suitable positions,” he huffed. “Some of ‘em do involve this bed, mind, but most others –…”

I slapped at his shoulder lightly, laughing.

“And there won’t be any other fuckin’ manservants, I can tell ya that much,” he muttered.

“Oh, don’t be jealous, Alfie.”

“Jealous, me? Nah, I’m just sayin’ I ain’t sharin’ me little pantry what you make me sleep in with any other servant, that’s all.”

“I’ll have you sleep in a cupboard if you keep this attitude up.”

Smirking, he checked my arm, too. He liked to reassure himself. He was quiet and I revelled in watching the smaller details of his face whenever he was distracted; furrowed brows, bluish-green eyes swirling thoughtfully.

He said, “I like it when you laugh, Willa.”

My lips twitched upward, my cheeks flushing red.

“Like it when you smile, too,” he said. “Like it when you blush. Like it more when I’m makin’ you do those things.”

I dared myself to ask him what had been in my mind ever since the nurse had said it aloud. “Why did she call me Mrs Solomons, Alfie?”

He shrugged his shoulders, sweeping the unused bandages from the bed-sheets, before he dropped all of it and looked directly into my eyes with a soft sigh. “’Cause I been callin’ you that since we first met, ain’ I? Always said it, in me ‘ead. Figured I might say it out loud for a little while. ‘ear it, taste it.”

I stroked his cheek. “Do you like it how it sounds, then? Like how it tastes, too?”

He grinned and leaned into my hand. “Ain’t any words that I know to describe it, darlin’.”

I watched him, thinking of old Gypsies and the limits of man’s tongue. So, I leaned to kiss him, because it was something that I knew more than words, the feel of him. He cupped me at the nape, pressed his forehead against mine. I could feel the swell of dizziness which flooded through me, the ripple of nausea in my stomach from those strange spells.  

I said, “If I had died there in the flat that night with all the others, or died in front of the bakery, then I would have died happier than I had ever been, Alfie.”

“Don’t talk like that,” he breathed into the hollows of my collarbone.

“Died happier,” I told him, “because I was never truly happy in that flat. All those years spent in there, and not one of them happy – and isn’t that the same feeling of a word that hasn’t been made for us yet? I could call it sadness, call it some missed chance for a life with Johnny in the wagons. But I don’t think it’s enough, anymore.”

“You’re burnin' up, Willa,” he whispered, his brows pinched together in worry. He held the back of his hand against my forehead and pulled it away with his jaw locked.

He shifted us and pulled my legs from beneath me, lay me against the bed-sheets. I felt the coolness of them against skin, prickling in an uncomfortable heat. I watched him reach for a damp cloth to smooth against the redness of me, the sweat and strain.

“Nurses said it will pass, this, just a couple more days, angel –…”

“The Gypsies used to tell me that there was another world other than ours and sometimes souls got trapped in there – those souls died in houses with mirrors,” I explained, “and the souls saw themselves in the mirrors and became trapped between the glass, in our world and another. During the war, I was in there, Alfie, trapped and waiting with the dogs for you, you know –…”

“I know,” he said. “I know, love. I’m back now.”

 “Cover the mirrors,” I told him. “Or I’ll be trapped there, and –…”

He stretched himself out alongside me, tucked himself just underneath me and said, “I know, I know –…”

I know that I dreamt of myself in a bath of lukewarm water. I was bloated and composed of mottled blue skin, just like Josephine had been when I found her. I stood from the water and turned into a pantry full of jars, filled in thickened lumps of sickly-sweet blackness. There was a knock on its door, which had been shut sometime before. I turned toward it and heard her outside the door. I heard her ask, “Do you feel it in your gut yet? Has it reached your brain yet, so that all your body has understood it?”

Beside me, Esther pulled a jar from the shelf and popped open its lid. She scooped out its mush onto her flat palm and dipped her fingertips into it, then lifted them to smear against my forehead. She licked off the remains, before she dropped the jar. The glass shattered. Black mush coated the walls.

There was a dog, in the pantry, with a funny ear bent like paper, folded over. It sniffed at the mush and began to lick at the floors like Esther had licked off those trickles from her skin. I looked at her and saw her skull was caved inward; it had not been like that before, but it was now.

There was another knock on the door, harsh and heavy, so that all the jars trembled on the shelves and rattled toward us as if they might fall off. I went to catch them and heard him say, “I been sittin’ on that wall, Willa, waitin’ for ya, right, and your Charlotte comes ‘round to tell me –…”

I felt a sudden wetness in my shoes and glanced down at them, only to find them filled in that sickly-sweet blackness. I heard the sound of shattering glass, but nothing had fallen.

All the jars sat there and watched me with blinking eyes.

There was another feminine murmur in the bedroom once I came around; the curtains had been drawn and the bedroom was dulled by the heaviness of those drapes, coated in staleness. I saw a woman sat in that armchair. I squinted at her soft blonde hair in curls around her shoulders, then trailed my eyes along her arms and saw that her hands were like songbirds flitting around my limbs, stretching for bandages, snipped with proper scissors, held down in proper strips of plaster. I watched her. I saw blue corpses behind her, corpses from the flat. I blinked fast and the corpses blinked right back, cracking bluish eyelids like shattered porcelain, like the nurse had been made of porcelain.

“D’you remember me, then?” the woman asked softly. “Met you when you first got this lovely mark –…” – here she paused to stroke that blistered scar on my hand from the coppers smacking a drawer against it – “…in Ollie’s old flat. D’you remember that, hm?”

Sifting through old memories, I searched for her in the thunder of a headache. “Francine,” I answered finally, realising that she was the same woman who had been there after I had found the girls dead in the flat, after I saw seen blue corpses made of porcelain.  

She smiled. “Alfie called. He said that if I came ‘round and had a look at you, he would let Ollie take this Friday off – wants to take me to the pictures, he does. Awful romantic, my Ollie.”

I stared at her. She had said ‘my Ollie’ with the same dreamy whisper that I had often said ‘my Alfie’ and I heard the soppiness in it, all of a sudden. “Ollie? Our Ollie?”

Francine was very beautiful. I had not thought about it much, the first time that we had met. I had been distracted by what had happened in the flat. I had hardly even comprehended much beyond pushing one foot in front of the other, then. I looked at her now and wondered how I had missed it. We were nothing alike, because her hair had been tamed, her lips painted in the lightest shade of red, her skin pale and not at all marked. I was made of black tangles and black eyes; darker than coal, my eyes. Gypsy eyes, Esther had called them, and the kohl made them blacker, black like the bogs in winter.

“Your Ollie,” she nodded, and her cheeks had become a lovely rosy shade. “I had been wanting him to ask me for so long, you know. He tried, that night at the flat – he told me a long time after it that he had wanted to do it, but he had lost the courage once we stepped outside the flat. Only took him another few years to find it again!”

“Are you a nurse?” I asked.

“Sort of,” she shrugged. “Started with my brothers, I did. Stitched them up after fights – not easy for the Jewish lads out there, is it? Well, any lad tried to say anything about the Jews, my brothers stood right up and went for them.”

“Alfie’s like that, too,” I said proudly.

“Oh, I know. Stitched him up once or twice too. Started charging somewhere along the line, you know. Needed to put food on the table somehow. Lord knows my brothers weren’t about to pay for it. I only take care of Jewish folk, though. Make my rounds whenever people need me, charge them less than a – a real nurse might charge, y’know.”

“You must be good if Alfie trusts you.”

“Alfie doesn’t trust me,” she replied lightly. “Doesn’t trust anyone. He trusts you. Maybe he trusts Ollie. But others, he tolerates – out of necessity, he lets me be here.”

“Then I’m grateful you came,” I told her.

“I brought you something which might help settle your fevers,” she nodded. “Made from a recipe that my grandmother used for my grandfather after he hurt his leg in an accident – Jewish secrets and all, can’t be telling you what’s in it, but I do hope you can trust me more than Alfie does.”

“Not even a little bit,” I said, smiling at her. “I tolerate.”

She laughed, but soon her eyes gleamed in a distant thoughtfulness. “From what I have heard, Willa, you’ve tolerated more than enough these past few years, haven’t you?”

I felt sickly-sweet blackness spread across my tongue. I shrugged my shoulders and made some flaccid sound with lips which tingled and vibrated as if insects sat beneath the skin and burrowed there.

Francine was quiet. She smoothed the bandages beneath her fingertips. I found her to be much more gentle than the nurse before her. I noticed that Alfie had left us alone; perhaps he did trust, sometimes, in certain people. I looked at Francine and had the sense that she was one of those special few alongside myself and Ollie. Otherwise, he would be sat in here, watching her like he had watched that nurse.

I had warmed to her. I was not sure of the reason for it. I felt at ease around her, because I had become familiar with the ways of women, found comfort in that female bond – and it was like that because I had been with women all my life, temporarily placed between boy-cousins and Johnny alike. I had been formed by the hands of women, been shaped by them, understood them like I had never been able to understand men before – because me, to me, had only ever been coppers and governors and wardens and judges and executioners. Otherwise, I used to think like that about most men until I met Alfie.

I used to think that God had spent longer on women.

Sometimes, I looked at women like Francine and Elsie and Charlotte, and I wondered if I still thought that.

“Alfie tells me you can sew brilliantly, Willa,” Francine continued. “Tells anybody with ears, he does. Tells them more than once, too. You know, I’m meeting with some friends this weekend – a friend called Ruth has a little night in her house, almost every Friday. Nothing special, mind. We just drink a few pots of good tea and have a nice natter between us.”

I scoffed. “Did Alfie ask you to do this, hm? Felt sorry for me, is that it?”

She cut off a strip of plaster and went very still. She swallowed and said, “You know, the night before I came to the flat to fix your hand, I found out that my brother had died in France. Never had enough to bury him. Can you believe that? The height of that lad, the size of him – and there was nothing of him left to bury after the bombs got him. I never could get my head around that.”

“You still came to the flat, even after that?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Ollie told me what had happened to you and I thought that perhaps I could do for you what I was never able to do for my brother. I had stitched him up enough times in his life. Just never realised that once he put on that uniform and went to France, the stitches might not reach him.”

I looked away from her, unsure of how to compose myself.

She drew in a shuddered breath. “Well, what difference does that make to you, eh? But the world can be a lonely place if no one feels even a little bit sorry for you, you know. Better that than no one cares for you at all.”

I understood what she meant, and that maybe this little meeting with her friends had helped her more than I had first thought. So, I licked my lips and shrugged. “I suppose I’ll consider it, Francine.”

“Franny,” she said. “The girls call me Franny – as well as other choice names if I take all the biscuits during those little meetings.”

“Should I bring a tin of my own, if I come along?”

“No,” she replied. “Rachel brings them. Her only contribution, those biscuits. She sure as fuck can’t offer anything in the way of conversation, you’d get more talking to a brick than you would talking to her – awful bitch, too. She’d be livid if you brought biscuits.”

I blinked at her, surprised by her words. Then I caught her smirk and smiled myself. “I used to rob for a living – I can take the biscuits without her ever knowing it, clean off the plate before she gets a chance to even talk at all.”

“Finally, a girl who understands me,” Franny grinned wickedly, unphased. I figured Ollie had told her, or she had already known about that flat on Bell Road beforehand. “Could you rob a statue?”

“Depends how big it is.”

Franny pursed her lips. “Got it as a gift from Rachel for my birthday. I’m sure she did it as a joke. Big gaudy thing, this statue. A horse. When have I ever shown an interest in horses? I’m sure she did it to piss me off. At least if I said it was robbed, she might not hold it against me.”

“I’m a little worse for wear and out of practice,” I replied. “But I like the challenge.”

Franny smiled at me. “I knew Alfie had picked a good’un.”

Shuffling from the backseat, I stepped into puddles and mud. I heard Alfie slip out on the other side, heard his boots squelch until he came around the side of the car and reached me, stretching out his hand. I gripped it, hauling myself out with a grunt at the discomfort of each step toward that courtyard.

Blackened clouds clotted the heavens overhead while Alfie brought us beneath the arch. I looked upward at it and remembered how its metal had glinted in the dim light as I fell backward from the impact of the first bullet. I half-turned as if I might scramble into that backseat and urge the young lad in front to press against the pedal and spare me the trauma of all this – and Alfie had loosened his hold as if he might let me, too.

I pushed forward. I looked at the wooden doors where Ollie stood. I watched him, found it easier once I recalled that night in front of the flat when Ollie had stood before me and called me toward him. He called me now and said, “Willa, got some orders for you already. Your shirts were badly missed.”

“Just the shirts?” I asked. “What about me, eh?”

“Suppose the dogs missed you,” Ollie shrugged, his lips lifting into a grin. “Been sniffing around the barrels, they have.”

“’e don’t mean it,” Alfie muttered. “’ad one of the lads feed them ones what come into the yard.”

“Now we got all the strays,” Ollie grumbled.

“Yeah, that’s ‘ow we got you, weren’t it, Ollie?” Alfie replied. “Fuckin’ stray, sniffin’ ‘round me yard, eh, lookin’ for scraps…and I fed ya, didn’ I? Now I can’t get fuckin’ rid of ya…”

Settling into my old chair, I pulled little spools of thread between my fingertips and pulled tight, tight enough that my flesh turned purple and became numb. I stared into nothingness while I did it and thought of Charlotte in that flat on Fetter Road, alone. I thought of all the men that used her. I thought of how she could not tell me about it; men had reached for her like Yaxley had reached for me in the pantry. Another jar, chosen because it was wanted just that once. I had bathed Charlotte. I had clothed her, fed her. But she had not come to me, in the end.

I stood from the table. I had not made a single shirt. I wanted to find Alfie. I was not sure what I really wanted from him, but I knew that I wanted to see him. I wanted to feed the dogs with him, I told myself. That was it.

Droplets sputtered from a pipe in the workroom of the bakery and soaked the tiles beneath the barrels in brown sludge. I walked slowly. I had not thought about where to look for him. I walked toward the staircase and glanced at the door at the end of the hall just before the stairs. It held bags of flour and sugar, rarely brought out. I had been drawn toward it by the sound of thumping. I saw its wooden frame tremble.

I saw sickly-sweet blackness seep outward onto the tiles and blend with those brown pools.

The door sprung open and out strode a lad. I had often seen him lift sacks from trucks.

In the narrow slit of light which came from behind him, I saw a body curled inward on itself. I tasted the sting of copper in the air. I saw the flash of a baton lifted and then brought down swiftly, cracked against bone –…And that bleeding face peered out at me, opened it lips to speak, but a river of blood spilled out and splashed the tiles. His socket had been crushed inward. It was the only way that I could describe the horrendous way in which his skull seemed dented at the brow, pushed inward. I saw strips of skin dangle from his face and I thought of those gooey strips of skin pulled from me, before.

The boy who had just left the room glanced up from where he wiped his hands against his apron. I understood, then, that I had made that apron. I had made every inch of it. His eyes met mine and he stopped walking. The droplets continued to plop against the puddles and the earth spun around us. I saw the bobble of his throat in a swallow. He tried not to look at me anymore, and moved forward to rush around me, out into the courtyard.

I turned to watch him and found Alfie there behind me.

He had his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched forward. He chewed at his mouth from the inside. I saw it in the scrunch of his jaw. Then he walked forward. And he walked around me, beyond me. He went toward that room at the end of the hall and opened it. He stepped into it, closed it behind him.

The cries and screams stopped. The thumping did not. The puddle of blood grew larger and reached my boots. I never stepped away from it. I let it soak into the soles. 

Alfie looked at me, his eyes flashing in a sudden splash of orange light from outside the car. It was pouring, out there, but we sat in our little cocoon, away from all that. I saw figures slip around the car, crossing the road, couples with arms linked and babes in prams. I saw the lad that Alfie hired to drive this car and it made me think about how I had never been in a car like this before, so sleek and so posh, paid for with all those envelopes that had been brought to Alfie, brought in trembling hands, spines bent in reverence toward him.

Spoken into the warmth which fuzzed between us, he said, “’e was the one who shot ya. I made ‘im swallow a bullet – made ‘im swallow three. Brought what was left o’ ‘im to the Italians. Dropped ‘im outside Sabini’s own street.”

I looked out at the orange orbs from the windows of houses dotted around ours and thought of that old carousel from the fairground, before the war. I leaned my forehead against the coldness of the glass and felt the dampness there. Softly, I told him, “We should get a dog, Alfie. A great big one, too, not the small yapping kind – not that I don’t like them, but I always loved those big dogs on Bell Road with drooping muzzles, always drooling. Reminds me of you on the couch every night.”

“Cheeky fuckin’ minx,” he huffed. “What made you want a dog, anyway? Ain’t it enough that we feed ‘alf the fuckin’ population o’ dogs in this city, eh, always humpin’ and bringin’ us more pups. Fuckin’ ‘ell…”

“Ollie mentioned them in the yard,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders. Really, it had come from that dream in which I had watched a dog clean the blackened mush from the pantry. I was not sure what it meant, if it meant anything at all, but dreams were sacred things for Gypsies, I knew. “I think it would be nice, to have a dog sleep at the end of the bed. Safer, too.”

“On the fuckin’ bed? When you already take all me fuckin’ blankets off me in the night, leave me fuckin’ shiverin’ in just me bleedin’ socks?”

I grinned at him. I knew Alfie well enough to know that, for all his jokes, he was already planning where he might find a dog with a drooping muzzle, always drooling. I reached for his arm and looped it around mine. I told him that it might make me feel safer, which was a little cruel on my part because it only poked at the soft spot in Alfie for me, but then I had not told him a lie. I really thought the dog might make me feel better.

Through the downpour, a blue figure approached the window of the car and I breathed very slowly. I wondered if it was Sabini or another corpse with porcelain eyelids out there in the cold, its stiff limbs breaking to lift a gun toward us.

Only the door opened, and Ollie said, “I opened the front door for you, Alfie. Had the lads check inside, too. All clear.”

So, it was like that now.

In the mornings, we stirred from sleep and dressed ourselves, a gun slipped into its holster for him, pocketknives tucked into those familiar slits in my skirts for me. There was always a car waiting for us, anywhere that we went. Alfie had it checked for bombs almost hourly. He had lads check the streets, had lads walk alongside us to the car. Outside the bakery, too, there had been lads – all with Jewish families, always known by Alfie. Still, he never trusted. He tolerated. In the evenings, those same lads repeated that routine, hounded the streets and checked the house, stood outside it at night.

It was like that now.

But there had been a carousel, once.

Colourful houses filled Benson Avenue with neat gardens all around. I stepped out of the car and made sure to pull the bag out with me, stepping toward Franny whose arms opened to reach for me. I was stiff while she hugged me and smiled tightly at her. Behind her, I saw a sallow woman with dark hair like mine, pinned beneath a delicate scrap of cloth.

She welcomed me into her house and brought me into this front-room and I was handed a teacup – little plate and all, with a wafer plopped alongside it. I noticed that some of the women had glanced out at that car sat out front with two lads leaning against it, caps dipped low. I knew that none of their husbands had insisted on protection for some little tea-party between women. I had no husband, I told myself. Alfie had not talked to Johnny. There was tradition to think about. Hierarchy. Things that had to be followed.

I was still against coming to the house, despite it all. I thought it was bizarre and weak and feeble to want to sit in a room on a Friday evening, having spun out countless shirts while sat in the office with Alfie across from me, his glasses slipping low on the bridge of his nose while he leafed through papers. I thought it was bizarre and weak and feeble to want to sit here with women I had never met all because I liked Franny, and it did not matter that all the women were Jewish and I was not, nor did it matter that they all knew each other and I was the odd one out, nor did any of it matter, really. The hands which had formed me, shaped me, had fallen away and I could not feel their touch anymore.

So, bizarre, weak and feeble it was, perhaps, to want the presence of women around me because I had lost all the others who had ever loved me. 

I had seen her grave, that morning. He had brought me there. Alfie had shown me Charlotte there, beneath all that mud and soil. And I cried for her like I had cried the night before it, the morning before it, all those days and times before it. I felt the pain of knowing that Charlotte had probably never felt those emotions that floated out there, unpronounced, because life had gone too fast for her to be able to feel it, to latch onto it.

“Willa?”

I jolted from thoughts of worms and crows in the wet fields, the sinking of mud beneath boots and the drizzle which soaked through my coat. I saw that Franny was watching me – all the women were watching me, and I followed the tilt of her chin toward the bag in my hands, the bag that I had long forgotten about.

“Well, did you bring a gift?” Franny asked.

I nodded and reached into the bag, gripping the tin of biscuits which slopped around. I pulled it out, dropped it onto the small table in front of all the women and watched their eyes flick cautiously toward one woman in particular; Rachel, I assumed, who looked down at the tin of biscuits and then looked at Franny with her jaw held in a tight grind, lips pressed into a line.

I looked into Franny’s eyes and said, “Thought they’d be a conversation starter, you know. In case my conversation is dry as a fucking brick.”

Her lips stretched into that wide, wicked smile, which crinkled the skin just beneath her eyes. I smiled right back at her and thought that perhaps it was not so bad to be bizarre and weak and feeble, for a little while; the world would be a lonely place, otherwise.

☼ 

Chapter Text

twelve


 

Sitting behind his table, its surface engulfed in endless papers and documents slopping from piles, the workroom seemed distant and fuzzed behind the windowpanes which surrounded me. I chewed idly at the tip of a pencil and stared out into that blurry mirage of workers rushing around in a wild flurry between the tables, arms laden in sacks or carting bottles stacked on carts, clinking against one another. Often, I looked out there and thought of that old factory that Esther and Butcher maintained, before bullets had sliced through their skulls, shot by top-dogs who had been more rabid and ferocious than them.

I thought, too, of that delicate scale which balanced between us and the Italians, momentarily dipping in our favour but soon to tip for them; it was all about the tipping of that scale and all about whoever stood at the other end and all about what weight sat upon their shoulders, and I knew that that scale had been there long before Alfie had ever stepped onto it.

“Willa?”

Stirred from my thoughts, I looked toward the door and saw Ollie there with an unfamiliar figure huddled behind him. I beckoned him into the room. The woman shuffled in with her cloak around her, a headscarf tucked around her light-brown hair which floated around her in wisps. I could already tell that she was Jewish, from both her outfit and the respectful manner in which she held herself, stood proud, politely dismissed Ollie and his offers of tea with biscuits. Instead, she settled into the armchair on the other side of the table. I prepared myself to stand and walk out, expecting Alfie to follow soon, but Ollie quickly stepped forward.

“Mrs Allman would like to speak with you, Willa.”

I had never attended a meeting in which Alfie was not the person sought out for a discussion. Ollie had anticipated my confusion. He stepped backward and closed the door but hovered outside for a moment as if to ensure that all went well. Alfie frequently had meetings in the evenings, bordering into the night, meetings with all sorts of people. Even if these meetings were supposed to be held in privacy, Alfie never asked that I remove myself from the office. I mulled over what Franny had said when she had come to clean my wounds: Alfie doesn’t trust me – doesn’t trust anyone. He trusts you. Maybe he trusts Ollie.

Whittling out shirts, aprons and decorated skullcaps all day meant that I sometimes skipped sitting in those meetings with him and chose to take a car with Ollie to the house instead. I wanted only to drop into the warm comfort of our bed. Still, I remained there some nights with him even if I was tired because I knew that Alfie hated it if I went home without him. He hated it so much that sometimes it soured his temper. He took it out on the lads, and those meetings festered in a dark tension which also meant whatever the person asked of him was either denied or offered with numerous strings attached.

“Mrs Solomons,” the woman said, “I waited until I knew Mr Solomons would be – preoccupied.”

She had become more and more prominent, this Mrs Solomons; the nurse had mentioned her and almost all of the lads out in the courtyard called me that, unaware that I had never married Alfie and there was no sign of proposal. Alfie was reluctant to meet with Johnny Dogs after what had happened in the hospital, and he typically scoffed before he said that a piece of paper was nothing more than a formality, that we were bound in ways more powerful than paper.

Esther had always said that marriage was only ever about possession for men; his wife became part of the property which came with it, like the house and the furniture within it – men never married for love, only for possession. Yet whenever I heard that call of Mrs Solomons, I felt some attachment to this elusive woman from some other world, who possessed a ring, possessed that paper along with it; possessed him.

Because did it not work both ways?

Alfie was an enigma in his beliefs. He was firm in his faith, especially if he suffered from what he considered to be some form of punishment – he thought that the fact I had been shot outside of the bakery was his punishment because God knew that it would not hurt Alfie as much if the blood had come from his own veins; he had spilled enough of it in France to settle his dues with God, he said, and it would hurt much more for him if it was my blood which soaked the soil than if it had been his.

He was liberal in a lot of ways that most men were not, my Alfie. His workers were male, all of them, but that was for protection and lugging around large barrels of rum, although he had recently considered maids for the house and it had lingered between us, if only because I was hesitant about it. He never told me what I should or should not do if it was not directly linked to some fear for my safety with the Italians. In almost all aspects, I was equal – apart from occasionally asking that I remain cordial, if not entirely cold around other men, but that came from both his faith and certain attitudes attached to it, as well as his own pride and jealousy.

Alfie never treated me as if he possessed me at all; he had always said that I was his, but no more than I ever called him mine.

And so Mrs Solomons floated there in my peripheral.

“How can I help you, Mrs Allman?” I asked, clearing my throat. “I’m sure there must be a reason you didn’t want Alfie around.”

“Indeed, there is, Mrs Solomons,” she replied. “Are you Jewish, Mrs Solomons?”

Alfie rarely discussed his faith with me, but sometimes small details came through the cracks, especially if he attended what he called shabbat, which he sometimes did. Usually, it came more from candles which appeared around the house for special weeks of observance and he would sometimes attend ceremonies, unmentioned between us. I never prodded him too hard about it. I knew Alfie well enough by now to know that if he really wanted to tell me, then he would have said the words already; it was simply a question of patience on my part.

Despite all this, I also knew that Alfie probably would like to ask if I might convert for him, if I might consider donning that scarf that most married women around these parts wore after their wedding, if it ever did happen between us, and if I might attend some of those ceremonies with him.

I had tried not to think too much about it. I thought about scales loaded with Italian weights instead.

Mrs Allman watched me before she lifted a hand to brush at her mouth. She nodded as if I had spoken, but the silence had evidently confirmed enough for her. “I am a devout woman myself, Mrs Solomons. Always have been. Proud of it, too,” she continued. “But lately it has been hard to understand just what these trials I endure are meant to tell me – is this punishment or is it a sign?”

I was a little thrown by her words, unsure of her intentions. “What trials, Mrs Allman?”

She lifted her eyes to meet mine and I was greatly disturbed by that frothing misery held in the sheen of her stare, the curl of her lip into a snarl, her hands gripping her handbag with such ferocity that her knuckles whitened. “The war – that dreadful war which left my husband an invalid in all senses but physical. He drinks, Mrs Solomons. His hands tremble something terrible. He lost his job. What does he tell the kids, when nothing is left in the cupboards for dinner? ‘Eat the dirt, like we did in France’, he tells them.”

“Then what do you want from me?” I asked softly. “What could I possibly do for your husband?”

“I wanted Mr Solomons to offer him a job here,” she explained, her words cracking in the strain of her conviction, “...it would put him on the straight and narrow, Mrs Solomons. He is afraid of your husband, very afraid of him. But he respects him, too.”

“Why would you not ask Alfie himself?”

She hesitated. “My husband is a proud man – just about the only thing the war did not manage to take from him is that damned sense of pride, you know –…” – her pink lips lifted into a bitter smile, sapped of all humour – “…and he would never think to come here and ask Mr Solomons even if it meant the betterment of his family. He speaks to ghosts, in our house. It frightens the children, how he speaks. He asks the ghosts for his rations, lifts some imagined can. He sits beneath the staircase and holds his arms over his head and tells them that the bombs will fall soon. He flinches, Mrs Solomons. He flinches.”

Silent tears slipped along her cheeks and her eyes never left mine, not once. I was unsettled. I turned to pull open the drawer of the table if only for the chance to look away from her on the pretence of finding tissues. My fingertips ghosted over some cold metal and I glanced down to find a gun there, tucked beneath the folds of an envelope. I looked at Mrs Allman and found that my throat had become oddly dry so that I swallowed in painful gulps and strained to lift my tongue from its place, so that it slapped and flopped against my teeth, now numb.

I had forgotten about the tissues.

I was more focused on the fact that Mrs Allman was too close in age for comfort; she looked to be in her late twenties or perhaps the earliest part of her thirties, she had a husband affected by war, she had seen ghosts in his eyes and the only difference was that Alfie rarely spoke to his own if I was around. He spoke to them in his sleep, sometimes. I never told him about it. He knew that it happened, knew that I knew about it.

Alfie had his pride, too.

“I will speak with Alfie tonight, Mrs Allman.”

“Judith,” she corrected. “Thank you, Mrs Solomons.”

“Willa.”

Judith stood from her seat and nodded in acknowledgement. As she reached for the handle of the door, I blurted out, “I’m not married to Alfie, Judith. I’m not really – not really Mrs Solomons.”

Judith turned, her skin soft and warm in the orange glow of the office in the evening with all its candles and lamps. I fiddled with my hands in a failed attempt at nonchalance. I had felt compelled to tell her, felt that I was fraudulent if I did not say aloud what bothered me so much. Yet Judith only smiled and said, “Oh, but you are, Willa. Mr Solomons has made our community more than aware of it – especially our men.”

Startled, I found that my words were consumed by that familiar dryness and only a tight, uneasy smile twitched at my lips, contorted by the spasm of my muscles. Judith was escorted out and I sat in silence without her, mulling over men cowered beneath staircases and unusual candles until there was another knock.

I looked up at Ollie, his hands then clasped in front of his apron, always diligent and burning with some mute awareness in his eyes. Sometimes, I wondered if Ollie was clairvoyant, for he seemed to sense and predict things before he should – and I saw in his dark stare that he had foreseen Judith Allman and her problems.

Especially our men, Judith said. Had Esther been right? Had it only ever been about possession?

Ollie watched me, his eyes glinting in the dim light.

I drew my eyes away from him, looked toward those lads still swarming outside the office, shifting documents and rum while Ollie ordered them about in the absence of Alfie. I recalled each anxious exchange that I had had with those lads, whose hands had remained firmly bolted against themselves, whose eyes often found the floor beneath us to be more interesting and whose lips sometimes trembled in speech if I approached too much. I had always contributed these blunders to religious faith or maybe some respect for me. Perhaps it was nothing more than fear.

“Did he warn them away, Ollie?” I asked quietly.

Like an owl, his eyes blinked slowly, knowingly. “Yes.”

I had expected some effort to mask what Alfie had done or at least some attempt to soften it. Because he had not done either, it stung just a little bit more. “Does he not trust me, then? He thinks that I might run off with some other man?”

Ollie remained incredibly neutral in his expression. “Very silly of you to assume that Alfie did any of that out of distrust in you, Willa.”

Drinking in his odd choice of words, I understood that Ollie was dropping his usual hints. Yet I had always preferred bluntness. “Have it out, Ollie.”

“Alfie warned all the men in this bakery to stay away from Jewish women – lined them up in the basement, made his rules clear. He does it for all new lads when they start in this place, too. And he doesn’t do it out of any distrust in you, Willa. He does it because he knows what runs through their heads, sometimes. He knows what happens when one man thinks he can hurt another man – if even indirectly.”

I turned from him, looking at the cabinets. It was too hard to look at him. “I am not a Jewish woman.”

Ollie licked his lips and shifted his weight. I narrowed my eyes at him. He finally relented, mumbling, “He might have mentioned you, specifically.”

Ollie had prepared himself for fury and found only quiet acceptance. I understood the reason for which he had expected some anger, some indignation that Alfie had spoken on my behalf – but the truth of the matter was that I preferred it like that, with men afraid of me, even if it meant through fear of Alfie.

I had never told Ollie about Yaxley and memories of that pantry swirled within my chest and furled upward into my mouth. I felt the wetness of my own eyes once I turned them toward him, and I saw the genuine surprise in his own at the sight of such vulnerability in me.

Ollie had seen me in some of the darkest hours of my existence, but he had never stood in that pantry alongside me. He had never been reached for like another jar among shelves upon shelves of others. He had never been called kitten, with hands prowling into parts unknown. He had never been reduced; because it had felt like that, a reduction, a shriveling of all that had been inside of me into some darkened spot in the pantry where his hands could not reach me – but he had reached for me, reached into me, and I had been kitten and I had been shriveled, reduced.

“Willa?” Ollie called worriedly. “Are you all right?”

“Backwards and wrong,” I mumbled absently to myself, transfixed on some scuff-mark on the carvings of the cabinet cross from me.

“What?”

I looked at him and there was a coldness on my cheek from a tear which bled into the skin, absorbed and forgotten. I let out a slow, rattled breath and wiped away the tears, smiling weakly at him. “Never mind, Ollie. Never mind. Alfie is a good man, is all.”

Uncertain of what had made me react so weirdly, he only nodded in response. Gently, he said, “Alfie called earlier. He said he might be late, but he wants me to ask if you want to be taken home now. Getting a little late. He says you’re an awful crank when you’re tired, Willa. Very bossy, too.”

Warmth spread through some deepened part of my chest and cast light on that other half shrouded still in the darkness of the pantry, drove away all fear of it. “I’d like very much to go home. And you know, Ollie, you can get rid of that smug look on your face – Franny tells me things about you, too.”

His lips parted, his shoulders straightening out. He cleared his throat. “Right, well, no need for us to go into depth, is there, Willa? I’ll bring the car ‘round. Grab your coat.”

“And I’m the bossy one, eh?” I called out as he bolted for the hall.

While he fetched the car, I looked at that scuff-mark on the cabinet and tried not to sink into that black spot within myself, made of embarrassment and resentment and bitterness and the strongest sense of hatred; it was so intense, that hatred, which came whenever I thought that pantry so many years ago and it hurt more because it had been so many years ago, so why were they still here, those feelings?

And it hurt all the more because I held that hatred for Yaxley as much I hated myself for having gone into the pantry at all, that evening. I had been warned about him, told not to step into secluded spaces. I heard something that Charlotte had once said then, her words coated in slick fear, echoed against the coldness of the tiles in the bathroom.

How could it happen to me?

Rustling around the bedroom, I heard him shrug off his coat and grumble beneath his breath while he pulled off his boots. I scrubbed the sleepiness from my eyes to find his silhouette in the inky blackness of the room before I reached for the lamp. I also heard him curse once the yellow light of the lamp bloomed, because Alfie always tried not to disturb me in the night. I sat up from the bed and felt him approach.

Blindly, I plucked at the buttons of his shirt and mumbled something incoherent when he pressed his lips against my cheeks while I worked, pulling the shirt off and tossing it aside. He unbuckled his own belt. I fished around the drawer for a familiar jar of mush. He came around to his side of the bed and settled there, rubbing at his own eyes.

Delicately scooping out some of that sweetly-scented, grainy mush from the jar, I spread it across his shoulders and along his spine, taking another dollop for his hip and pecking his neck once I finished. I went to the bathroom to clean my hands, because the mush sometimes stained my skin, padding across the bedroom to slip back into bed alongside him. I smiled to myself once he pulled me against him, feeling the bitter chill of the night on his skin before the blankets warmed him.

“Thank you, Alfie,” I whispered.

His brows furrowed, eyes already shut. “For what?”

I scooted upward to kiss him and smiled at his sigh, full of content. “Go to sleep, sweetheart.”

“Bossy,” he mumbled.

“Too right.”

I brushed his hair from his face, tracing his eyebrows and lips with my fingertips. He drifted off, his breathing slow and gentle. I remembered how I used to dream of Alfie during the war; outlined his shoulders, scratched the shading of his arms and legs, spent hours on the details of his eyes, all within my own head. So, I watched him a little while longer. I stroked the pads of my fingertips against his hairline and stilled at the rough patches of skin there, that I had not noticed just at the very tip of his forehead, little patches of reddened skin, dried and sore.

It had not been there, in those old paintings of him that I had made mentally before the war. I touched them softly, afraid to hurt him or wake him from his sleep. I felt the crack of his skin, like scales; a small dot of blood oozed out onto my own skin and I thought, that woman on Ripley Lane will have something for that, just like she made that mush for his bones – she’ll make him right, right as rain, as he always says even if he thinks it is just horseshit and leaves mixed together by some Gypsy witch in a wagon.

I leaned forward again, pressed my lips against that dried skin. “I’ll make you better, Alfie,” I told him softly. “Make you right as rain, my love.”

In the morning, I took a long stroll between the market stalls of Kensington Avenue and turned toward Crescent Street with the intention of finally cutting through an alleyway onto Ripley Lane. I weaved between these streets that I had always known, because I used to be chased by coppers into darkened strips of cobbled footpaths and thrown myself over fences into gardens, scattered into alleyways and hopped large barriers onto other streets, blended into thresholds and ducked beneath bridges. Esther had always taught us to prepare an escape-route before our hands ever twitched toward pockets unprotected. Crescent Street had a crop of paths in between its shops and I paused to look into one strewn in old newspapers, drifting about in a light breeze.

I had been beaten down there, once. I never anticipated the fence at the end with wires poking outward from its length, pricking the bare flesh of my legs and catching on the folds of my skirt. I had been torn off it by a copper, beaten and thrown about by the arms, bruised and battered; ten years old, I had been.

I had never told Alfie about that, I realised. I could count the alleyways in London in which I had been beaten by coppers – ten, eleven, twelve, I could have listed the ages along with them, apart from those fuzzy dates which came from a skull which had been knocked about a little bit too much. I thought of the other streets around me and figured out that Salem Road was another couple of streets from here. I had danced there once, leapt and twirled about as Gypsy Girl.

Had it really been that long ago?

I was jostled between the crowds dipping in and out of the shops on Crescent Street, bumped around at the shoulder. I looked into the windows of each shop and felt an odd disconnect in myself, knowing that I could now afford those jewels sat on velvet cushions, whereas before I had only ever been able to steal them, although I had never strayed into shops too often – people had been able to spot a Gypsy child and soon chased me out of it. I saw a ring sat upon one cushion in particular and pressed myself against the window for a good look at it; it was a simple golden band with little grooves which looked quite like the letter W lined together, like a chain. Alfie liked rings. He liked gold, too.

The bell tinkled. I felt a rich rug shift beneath my boots. I felt the prickle of wary eyes along with it, aware that customers and workers looked at me alike.

Gypsy child, those eyes called out accusingly, what are you doing in our midst?

Scuttling toward me, some hunchbacked jeweller tried to humour me. “Good morning. Might you like to see our recent collection – although it is all rather expensive, I must admit –…”

I felt him follow me about the shop, frantic in his movements and with a beady stare latched onto my hands in particular. Inwardly, a rational part of me rationalised his worries by reminding myself that I had been a thief for most of my life. I still had all the skills for it. I could have taken jewels from his very hands if I wanted it – and that was the more logical side of me, telling myself that, because the other side hissed: I am not the savage between all of us here today.

“I want the ring on the red cushion out on your window,” I told him.

“Limited edition, very expensive,” he wheedled, nodding repeatedly and hurrying toward it.

I pulled apart the folds of my coat and dragged my hand along its inner-lining to find the slit, watching his stare trail along with my hands, swallowing nervously. I found the slit and reached into it, pulling out thick wads of cash rolled together. I tore off the rubber-band, threw a handful of notes onto the table alongside me and watched him dance instead, made him parade about in his skirts and twirls and leaps like I had once done.

Suddenly, I had become madam and my lady and may do I do anything else for you today, madam, my lady?

I leaned over the table and looked into his eyes. “Yes, actually. You can get fucked.”

He blinked, his skin ashen and pale. I pushed away from the table, taking the bag holding the ring with me and stepping out onto Crescent Street once more. I was still frustrated from those foreign eyes, looking at the old Gypsy Girl and awaiting – almost anticipating – some altercation and excited calls for coppers to cart off this wild creature, and it reminded me too much of those old days of oh, look at the little savage, darling!

Distracted, I bashed into a man. I let out a small grunt of pain from the throb in my shoulder, turning on my heel to apologise. I had seen him once before stained in beetroot; that same dark colour soon flushed his pallor once his eyes latched onto mine and recognition filled them. Struck mute and motionless in horror, my eyes followed his arms to find them latched around a younger lad with a sash around his left eye, the other swivelling around its socket to find his father; the pale, colourless nature of his good eye rippled through me in waves of nausea, its constant bloodshot stain around its lack of colour only making it look white and blind, but the boy could see through it, for he saw me there and I thought that I might collapse.

“’ark, Adam, the Gypsy bitch has bought ‘erself jewels with ‘er blood-money,” his father crooned bitterly, his lips locked in a horrid grimace. “Did your man Solomons pay you to lie in ‘is bed again, did ‘e?”

“Dad, please,” the younger boy whispered, gripping at the wrinkles in his father’s shirt. “Please –…”

“A whore is a whore, son,” his father said, “but a Gypsy is somethin’ different all together, lad – she is whore and thief and bog-trotter all in one. Show us, then, what my son’s eye was worth in jewels for you!”

Mumbling apologies and confused words, I was tripping backward away from him, aware of all those eyes around us, asking once more, Gypsy child, what are you doing in our midst? Gypsy whore, thief, bog-trotter, savage! I remembered his spiteful glare from the street that night when he had approached Alfie and screamed at him for what had happened to his son, whose sashed slipped downward in his struggle to control his father and pull him away – and I saw the crinkled line of skin there, the eyelid split over raw flesh, socket exposed, saw into some darkened pit in his skull and I really tripped then, bumped into a brick-wall, scraped my hands against it.

Pikey bitch!” the father yelled. “’ow much was his eye worth? A bracelet, a ring? Will you melt it down and sell it onto your cousins over in Ireland, will ya? Or will you wear it when you fuck Solomons and consider it your pay like all the rest of it, I bet you –…Will ‘e try and bash my skull in again, will ‘e? Let ‘im do it, let your man come and kill me, like ‘e kills all that ‘e touches. Your man is a disease, like rot in wood, ‘e rots the people of this city, corrupts them as much as ‘e is corrupted inside ‘imself –…”

“I’m so sorry,” I told his son; it came out chattered from the rattle in my teeth. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry – I am so, so sorry –…”

It was drowned out in the cries of his father. I pushed through the crowd which had swelled around us and spun around in my confusion, breathing wildly, lathered in sweat and disgust and there was that hatred for what had happened all those years ago in the pantry and now for what had happened to that boy with one eye, whose sash had fallen and shown me socket and skull, such bitter hatred that filled my mouth and I had to spit it out, but it came out in thickets and waves from all that nausea in my stomach, spewed into an alleyway and I looked around myself in a daze.

I looked around myself and realised that I had stumbled into the same alleyway in which I had been beaten, all those years ago. I felt the same now as I did then. I felt curled into a ball and kicked, thrown around and punched and I was pikey-bitch now just like I had been pikey-bitch then. I fell against the wall and dropped onto the ground, sat in the wet puddles and felt them soak into my skirts, soak into my skin so that I trembled.

I dipped a hand into the puddles and scooped out black dirt, smeared it onto my cheeks and looked up at the bluish clot of weeping clouds beyond the towering flats around me; I was born in soil like this and I will die in soil like this, I thought, and when it comes, I will dream of black water, because there can be no colour, after that, there can be no –…

Stepping into the bakery with its heady scent of rum washing over me, I could already spot Alfie on the other side of the room, nestled behind the windows and walls of that office. Butcher had sat in an office like that once, too. Esther had been there beside him. I caught sight of myself in the reflection of a windowpane and wondered how I ever thought that what I did was any different than her. I sewed aprons for him like I had sewn aprons for her. The only real difference was that he never asked for any snow to be put placed inside the linings of the aprons.

But would he ask for that, one day? Would he speak to ghosts aloud and ask them for rations? Would he hide himself beneath the staircase?

Would he hide himself from me?

I saw him moving around the office and wondered what he was doing in there, because he was bending and dipping behind the wall as if scouring the floorboards for something important. I took aching steps toward him, watching him shift around the room in a wild scramble. I had an awful knot in my stomach, sprung tight so that each step was stilted and wounded, more like a limp. It was late, I realised. It was just him in here, in all this emptiness, darting around his office. I felt my eyeballs crack around a dried-out skull – like his socket had been there on Crescent Street while his father had screamed, only deep and black and void.

I hated this bakery, suddenly. I despised it. What had drawn us here? Some faint dream of Margate, it had been, and –…

“Love?”

Startled, I jumped in fright and stumbled backward and that was perhaps the worst reaction of all, for his arms quickly found me and he smoothed my hair away and he tried to calm the ripple of my lips with his own, foreheads pressed together. He was rubbing my arms and I realised that he wanted to rid me of this awful chill, but it had seeped into my marrow. I wanted to tell him, there is no getting it out now, Alfie.

“Willa, sweet’eart, I need you to answer me, yeah?” he whispered against my ear. I had not heard him speak before, although I had seen his mouth was shifting around and that his tongue had pushed out those sounds which seemed too difficult for mine to produce on its own. So, he coaxed them from me. “Did someone ‘urt ya, darlin’? D’you need me to call Francine, love? I-I can call ‘er now, bring ‘er down ‘ere, 'ave you right as rain –…”

Make you right as rain, my love.

Alfie had stuttered, which was not normal for him, and the tears came hot and dense and stuffed my nostrils so that my next words came out smothered. “No, I’m fine, Alf. I was thinkin’ about Charlotte. I want to visit her again, you know. And –…”

And I am lying to you, because if I tell you, you will kill that man.

“And I just miss her,” I croaked, continuing onward. “I really miss her. And I needed to ask you about a man called Mr Allman, too. His wife came and asked if you might offer him a job, because –…”

Because he is too afraid of you to do it himself and I know that his fear comes from stories of boys who lost their eyes for this bakery and for the ring in this bag and for your pikey-bitch to lie beside you at night.

“So, maybe we can talk about that in the morning,” I finished, smiling at him as much as I could.

Alfie looked ghostly in the moonlight which streamed through the windows overhead, his eyes drained of colour from the silvery aura spread around him; it made his eyes pale, colourless. I could not stand to look at him because of it and tried to step around him, but his hands were hard around my arms, painfully hard and I knew that I had treaded into that cold and detached part of Alfie which came from the trenches, which came from the war and from those moments in which he thought the enemy had stolen the sun from him, too.

“I want you to start over, Willa,” he ordered, his tone lathered in warning, “and I want you to tell me the truth, this time.”

“Please, Alfie –…”

He shook me very harshly and I let out a frightened cry from it, so worn from what had happened that it weakened me and left me more tearful than ever – and I hated those tears like I hated this bakery now, when before I had loved it like I loved that house on Ivor Square. Had I not called it home, just this morning? And had I not warned Alfie that I would walk out if his temper ever resurfaced, like it swirled between us now?

“I bought you a ring,” I started slowly. “It has a carving on it that looks like a W – for Willa. I wanted it for you, even if the jeweller thought that I looked like a thief, because I am a thief, Alfie, and a Gypsy thief at that. I came out of the shop and bumped into a man. His son lost his eye. Do you remember that man and his son, Alfie?”

His lips were deathly white. He resembled a corpse. “I remember ‘im.”

I was silent, unable to pull the words from a throat which had slowly tightened. I looked away from him and it sparked him off, because he pushed around me and went for the door and I had to scramble in front of him to hold him at his chest and force him backward.

“Please, Alfie – Stop, just –…”

“You won’t tell me,” Alfie hissed, “…so, I’ll go and find this fuckin’ prick and I’ll get it out o’ ‘im before I break ‘is jaw, make sure ‘e don’t ever speak to ya again, I’ll fuckin’ snap ‘is neck along with it –…”

I was really pushing him now, hands pressed flat against his chest with all my might and he was still moving forward, until he tired of my shoving and his hands gripped my wrist in a tight hold and I wondered how we had gotten here again, after all that had happened in the house, after he had moved around me, afraid to touch me because of it.

“You can’t hurt everyone who hurts me,” I screamed hoarsely.

He caught me at the throat like he had done that night, too. He held me with his grip loose, but with enough force that we were thrown into a standstill. “Yes, I fuckin’ well can, Willa – and I will, and nothin’ you do will ever stop me from doin’ it, neither. You do that for the people you love.”

“You don’t hurt them by doing it, though, do you?” I spat out, my hands reaching to latch onto his and pull them away. “If you loved me, you would –…”

He let out a harsh bark of laughter. “If I loved you? If I fuckin’ loved you? Don’t you start that fuckin’ shit with me, Willa Sykes. I ‘ave always fuckin’ loved you and always shown it, too. Who bought the ‘ouse for us, who got this bakery runnin’, got us an income and some fuckin’ protection goin’ –…”

“Protection from what you bring to the door of that house, of this bakery?” I retorted. “Who took the hit for both of us, hm?”

I lifted my shirt, showed him those dark stains on my stomach from a bullet torn out and he drew in a sharp, wounded breath. “Willa,” he whispered. “Please, don’t – don’t do that to me when I already do it to myself, baby –…”

“Do what?” I screamed. “Do what, Alfie? He was right, you know. He said that I’m no better than a whore because I take the money you make here and I buy you rings and I buy myself nice things and we live in a nice house Alfie, in a neighbourhood that never would have accepted us and still doesn’t – and it’s always gonna be that way for us, isn’t it?”

Alfie was staring off into the distance and it infuriated me all the more, because I wanted to know just what it was that he was seeing when he did that, where he was looking and what he was thinking. He looked oddly infantile when he did it, his shoulders hunched. I pushed at him, slapped his chest.

“Are you even listening to me? He said you pay me like men pay whores,” I choked. “Pikey bitch, old Gypsy whore. I hate that it hurts, Alfie, but it does. And I still don’t want you to hurt that man or his son any more than we already have.”

“Allman. I know ‘im. I remember ‘im. I was ‘is Captain in the trenches,” Alfie mumbled in a daze. “Almost got 'it by a shell, ‘e did.” He blinked, his eyes finding mine. “I got you somethin’, sweet’eart.”

Confused by his change in demeanour, I watched him walk around me and toward the office. He paused halfway there, turned back to look for me, and seemed more distraught that I had not followed. Still, he went over and pushed open the door, stepping backward and looking down at the ground. I watched him with my eyebrows scrunched.

“Think you scared ‘im, with all that shoutin’,” Alfie called out softly. “Good lad, that’s it. Come out and meet your Mummy, eh?”

Out scarpered a little body with paws clicking against the floorboards, a small bundle of fur barrelling toward me and only stumbling to sniff around the barrels before he poked around beneath my skirts and brushed his nose against my boots. I stared at this little puppy, its rolls and wrinkles, wet snout and dark muzzle. I had asked for a dog.

If you loved me, I had said. When had Alfie ever denied me anything?

Suffering from a thumping headache, I dropped backward onto the staircase and held my head in my hands. The pup struggled onto the first step, its legs too short to steady its balance and I bent forward to scoop him into my arms, but Alfie was faster, picking him up and plopping him onto my lap. I felt his comforting warmth and his wet tongue lashing at my throat in excitement, tail batting against my legs. Alfie stepped onto the staircase and sat beside me. The dog shifted between us and Alfie scratched absently at his ears.

“I’ll find a place for Allman,” he said quietly, eyes still lost in that faraway place where I could never reach him. “And I’ll ‘elp out ‘is fam’ly in the meantime. Nathaniel – the fella what yelled at you ‘bout ‘is son – I gotta send someone ‘round to talk to him, darlin’. Talk. Not ‘urt. Not kill. Ollie is diplomatic, ‘e can do it, if it makes you feel better, yeah?”

“Alfie,” I whispered. “I am so sorry.”

“I’m sorry too, darlin.”

“I love you,” I told him. “I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted to fight with you. I was just afraid to tell you.”

“I know, love.”

I could feel the sting of tears anew. “I just wanted to get you that ring and not let them tell me that I couldn’t just because I have Gypsy blood in me.”

“And I’ll wear it every day, sweet’eart,” he said, “…every fuckin’ day o’ the year, ‘til they gotta chop off me finger to get it off me, yeah? When I’m old and pissin’ me-self in some ‘ospital bed, that’s what they’ll ‘ave to do to get it off me.”

I let out a small laugh and it only encouraged him.

“I’ll ‘ave you beside me, o’ course, snorin’ your pretty ‘ead off like you always do,” he went on. I slapped his shoulder lightly, rolling my eyes and mumbling that if anyone snored between us, it was him. “Suppose the stray’ll be with us – Ollie, that is, and the dog too. Proper little fam’ly, we’ll ‘ave. Won’t matter to us what some poxy fuckin’ dick’ead said to ya on the street one day ‘cause we’ll be better off by ourselves, eh? And you won’t cry anymore, Willa, won’ ya? Please don’t cry anymore, treacle. ‘is tongue ain’t big enough to lap up all them tears yet. I’ll ‘ave to do it for ‘im, won’ I?”

Alfie leaned forward, sticking his tongue out just like the puppy and I burst into laughter despite myself, pushing him away. I brushed his cheek with my thumb and asked, “Can we go home then, Alfie? I want to show him his new bed. You’ll have to take the guest bedroom, now.”

“Charmin’,” he muttered, his eyes dropping to the dog. “I knew she’d prefer you. But you wait until I tell ‘er that you pissed on her fabric what she makes aprons with, eh?”

I smiled, scratching the dog behind his ears. “What will we name him?”

“Little shite,” Alfie muttered. “No, that don’t work, I use that for Ollie. But I was thinkin’ ‘e looks like a Cyril. Good name for ‘im, I think.”

I hummed, holding the dog against my chest and feeling him burrow against me for warmth. “Cyril,” I agreed, kissing him between his eyes, on that little dip in his forehead. His eyes blinked tiredly up at me, his little snout still sniffing around. “Come on, Cyril. Let’s show you your new home, eh?”

Chapter Text

thirteen


 

Resting against a countertop in the kitchen, clasping a steaming cup of tea between my hands, I heard the clatter of the letterbox and looked along the length of the hall to find an envelope pushed between its metal folds. Cyril lifted his muzzle from his lush throne made of rich cushions and soft bedding, before he lowered himself once more, his jowls crinkling upward so that his chocolate eyes blinked out from behind his wrinkles.

Alfie had told me the breeder had called Cyril a well-bred, well-trained beast prepared to sink his canines into the flesh to protect his owners. Alfie had been told a lot of things about Cyril and his supposed ferocity; Alfie then said that he had been sold a chocolate teapot for all the use Cyril offered him in terms of protection.

It never bothered me, though. I loved Cyril. I loved that he was all drool and softness.

Often, Cyril hauled his chubby rolls onto the couch and crushed my legs beneath him, panting into my face in hot, rolling breaths that had radiated the scent of meat. In the first month, he had pissed on three coats of mine, chewed the socks that I had made Alfie, eaten through the leather of his best shoes at the end of the bed, and left brown gifts on the lush rugs which coated the hall so that Alfie had to toss them all in a rubbish-tip. Cyril also liked his long walks in the evenings and the mere sound of the leash taken from its hook had him fumbling from his bed, barrelling toward me and knocking me over in his awkward lollop.

And I loved him.

Throughout those cold nights in which Alfie was not there, Cyril clambered onto the bed-sheets, buried me beneath his heaviness and slept alongside me. He never liked the shrill rattle of the doorbell, never liked mud on his paws and he absolutely loathed rain, our little chocolate teapot. I bought him fresh sausages from the poshest butcher-shop on the weekends, even if Alfie scrunched his nose at those slabs of meat that Cyril gobbled in slobbery chomps, thickened strips of drool wobbling from his mouth.

I had special blankets for him. I bought beds for him all around the house, even in the office, because he slept beside me there while I worked, too. Cyril followed me almost everywhere, until he spotted his bed and dropped there for a little while, awaiting his sausages and scratches.

Alfie said that the only competition he had ever faced had always come from Cyril; he loved me, too, that dog – followed me all around, he did, sat with me on the couch until I drifted off into half-formed dreams and Alfie came in from the bitter chill of night and shuffled us both upstairs into bed, Cyril plodding faithfully behind us. It was moments like that which were tame and domestic and made of utter bliss, because I had never had anything like that before.

In the old flat, I only had the stability of a couple of blankets on the floorboards, the promise of a more solid job in the factory rather than stealing around market-stalls for a couple more coins than usual, skulking into the flat at night purely because I feared the girls might not be fed or bathed if I was not there to ensure it. 

I had only been a child when I lived in the wet fields. After that, I was treated like a woman and there was no softness and drool in womanhood before, only harsh slaps and smacks for speaking out of turn around Esther, no cuddles and calls of beloved chey from Johnny.

I had never been little after my ninth summer and I had hardly remembered what it was like after the tenth summer to not flinch from lifted fists or tremble from violent shouts. Alfie tried not to shout around the house. In the office, his temper was sometimes set off, and some wild thumps and roars followed, but not anywhere near me, if he could help it. Cyril never liked much noise, either.

And there was still that envelope in the hall, settled on the soft rug at the entrance.

From upstairs, Alfie asked, “Willa, where did ya put me socks with them blue lines ‘round the top?”

“Bottom drawer,” I called back, slipping around Cyril and strolling into the hall, stooping for the envelope.

I saw the looped, handwritten scrawl on its front and felt my stomach swirl, momentarily glancing up at the staircase as if Alfie might appear there, before I slowly peeled apart its seal and pulled out the letter. Its paper was crinkled, as if written between the bumps of a wagon rambling along a dirt road.

It had written by the hand of my cousin Shelta, but the words had been his own. It had been the bare bones of a letter with little formality, just a handful of questions around my health. In the final lines, he had written that he was in Birmingham, but he was about to return to Ireland, where his cousins told him the mountains were black, which meant that there was soon to be thunder and damp.

He wrote that perhaps that had been because Rosella had died the night beforehand, and she had always liked stormy weather.

Rosella was the mother of his children, therefore an aunt of sorts, but Rosella had been wild like some ferocious animal and no man had ever caught hold of her reins, not even Johnny – especially not Johnny. She had spun around him like those savage winds which swept over the mountains and downward into the wet fields, blew him backward into the soil and left him there while she continued onward without him.

Gypsy women are like that, Willa, Johnny wrote, like storms sweeping over mountains, brushing past their men unable to contain them; unwilling to contain them, because the graves do that for us, in the end. They will have a wagon ready for her in Tipperary, and I will go there soon to be with her. We want to do it beside your cousin Patrick. She was always close to him before he passed.

I will say goodbye to the last wind of her storm – always was a poet in my letters, I am. Never find these words when I speak out loud, though. Gypsy curse, I suppose. Perhaps that was what drew me and Rosella together in the first place.

But those days are finished, now, chey. I will go there soon to be with her. Perhaps I might find a Gypsy fellow for you while I am there, in sweet Tipperary. There was much talk after what happened, chey.

I will return and find you in London. Should my next few letters not reach you because of this war in our land, let me only say that I hope you are well and that you might consider coming to Ireland with me one day again. For all the war in our country, I still believe you would be safer with kin than you would be over there, despite what foreign voices might tell you. Do not let yourself be tethered when there are still storms to be had.

I must visit Birmingham first before I come to you. When I do, there are things that we will need to discuss. Until then, I will continue to think of you. Only say the word and I will come and fetch you.

Before I finish, I wanted to tell you that I received the letters you sent me a few weeks ago. I showed all your cousins and told them that you had written them all yourself. I keep them with me wherever this life takes me, Willa. I take them over the fields and mountains. I will bring them even further.

For my chey – with love always, Johnny.

Folding the letter, I slumped against the staircase and settled on the bottom step, staring blankly ahead of myself. In those few months before my ninth summer, I remembered an afternoon spent climbing the ruins of an old castle which had been left without stone floors, only crumbling staircases in the form of spirals, and I leapt between open windows with boy-cousins of mine.

I had not yet known Esther and I had not yet known the art of theft, but there had been castles left abandoned decades beforehand and Johnny listed the surnames of all those dead folk whose families had once been rulers in those fields where now we placed our wagons.

Nestled in the countryside lanes of Tipperary, that castle had been; we climbed between the shattered remains of ruling families, dipping between arched entrances and scratching ourselves on ragged stones.

Like Elsie, he had been killed, that cousin of mine; left in a ditch, he had been. His name had been Patrick, and it had been a long time since I thought about him, only reminded by the mention of him in that letter.

I remembered the day of his death in particular because Johnny had ran through the fields to find us, splotched in reddened patches from his breathless terror. I saw him while suspended from a loosened pole from some imagined dungeon in our minds, saw him upside-down with a goofy smile plastered on my face, hands reaching out for him.

Johnny ripped me from that pole by the armpits, hauled me around and pushed me toward the wagons then loosened from the fields and set off onto dirt-roads. He had been killed the night beforehand, my cousin. He had been there all that day while our kin searched for him.

Johnny told me, your cousin was killed for his blood, Willa – the locals hurt him for his blood, blood which spilled into their ditches and their soil and which will bring them no fortune for it, now.

I became afraid of that, afterward; afraid of what it must be like to lay in a ditch at night, while kin called out for you in the fields nearby but never found you until the birds had already sung their morning songs.

The older cousins that I had told me that he had been killed because the locals never liked Gypsies and so they had strung him up by his own laces and left them there. Johnny had run himself ragged to find us, petrified that the locals had found us like they had found our cousin, that they had left us in ditches of our own.

I never told anyone about that, after my ninth summer. I was in England by the end of that year. I never told anybody because I wanted to pretend that Esther had been mistaken and I was not a Gypsy. I thought I might be killed for it, if I told them. And I was ashamed. Already, I was ashamed.

All that shame stuffed into a ditch and left there. I had not thought about that cousin of mine in a long time. In a way, he had never left that ditch even though they had burned him in a wagon and his soul had been let free because of it. Still, in my mind, that was where he was, where he had always been. I had not been able to understand that hatred when I was a child. I had not been able to understand blood. Not like how I understood it now.

Like Elsie, my cousin had been around sixteen then; around it, because Gypsies distrusted authorities and never registered the birth of babies, especially if the babe came out in a wagon – what town could be its home, if its feet had first touched soil unmarked, if the camp was set up somewhere between here and there?  

I was somewhere around twenty-seven myself and that scared me something terrible, because Esther had always said that girls in our world never made it much beyond twenty-eight and Gypsies hardly ever saw more than was already decided for them by some other power, in some other world.

Rosella, the late wife and aunt of sorts, would have been around thirty. She had birthed three babes between herself and Johnny and now she was supposed to be burned in Tipperary with its rolling fields and dense forests, crops of trees where she had once been alive and well.

I was somewhere around twenty-seven. I was the last of all the girls who had lived in that flat on Bell Road. I had outlived that attempt on my life outside the bakery. I had survived that first month after my birth when the old Gypsies thought that the earth would surely take me back into its warmth, because I had skin stained in blue, lungs feeble and flaccid.

I was still here, because there were still storms to be had, and I always had a little more time, I told myself. I told myself that and I thought that perhaps that Esther had told herself that, too, that my cousin had told himself that, that Rosella had told herself that, that Elsie and Josephine and Charlotte and –…

I was the last of all the girls in the flat and I could taste copper on my tongue because of it.

Plucking at the stubborn threads of a new shirt, I heard the footsteps in the hall and looked up to find Franny there with Ollie. Alfie sat across from me, plopping on his glasses to skim new papers freshly delivered that same morning. I watched Ollie wrap his sinewy arms around Franny and hold her close, stroking her hair. I smiled to myself and looked away only at the sound of Alfie clearing his throat in a harsh grunt.

“Nosey,” he muttered, picking another paper from the pile.

“I am not nosey!” I huffed indignantly. “Just happy that Ollie and Franny found each other, is all.”

Alfie scoffed and finally lifted his eyes to meet mine. “Too soft, you are, love.”

There was a brief knock before Franny opened the door. Alfie swiftly stood from his chair, drawing her into his arms and pecking her cheek politely. Alfie had known Francine for many years, even before Ollie had ever taken the chance to ask her out and court her properly. Alfie claimed that Ollie only found his courage because Alfie had given him a speech, which always caused Ollie to roll his eyes, his cheeks turning a lovely shade of pink.

I stood and allowed her to wrap her arms around me, too. I had become accustomed to Franny and her frequent touches, little hugs and pecks at each greeting and each goodbye that followed. Alfie scooted back around his chair and held its arms before he glanced up and saw that Franny was watching him with narrowed eyes, clearly hinting for him to leave us alone for a little while.  

What?”

“I came to see Willa,” Franny replied, her chin tilted high at the sight of his deadpan expression.

“And there she is behind ya, Fran. Miracle, ain’t it?”

“Alfie.”

His eyes shifted over to me and his willpower weakened. He stood to his full height and reached for his coat. I watched him grab his cane and put on his coat with aching slowness, stepping out into the hall with an exaggerated limp, grumbling, “Fine, fine. I know when I ain’t wanted. Thrown out on me ear, out into that cold weather. If I catch a cold, on your ‘ead be it, Franny.”

Franny gripped the handle of the door and called out “Heaven forbid!” before she slammed it behind him, shaking her head and settling into the armchair across from his table. I walked around to his side of the table and sank into his chair, feeling his warmth lingering there. She peeled her scarf from around her throat and tucked it alongside her.

There was a beat of awkward silence in which I wondered why she seemed so restless and antsy in her movements.

“I’m pregnant, Willa,” she said suddenly.

She lifted her shirt and showed me the swell of her stomach. I felt much like I had that hazy morning when I found Charlotte on my doorstep with a swell of her own; it was a mistake, Willa. I remembered how I had taken her into the house and warmed her bones, hugged her against me, soothed her worries and promised that I could take care of her. She had been in that old hike-your-skirts-and-lay-backward flat on Fetter Road by then, already for a couple of months. I had never known about it.

She had died before me. There was something unnatural in that, something that had to be righted.

 “Don’t cry, Willa,” Franny choked through her smile, her eyes glassy and warm. “You’ve set me off now, you have…”

Slowly, I lifted a hand to touch my cheeks and found them damp, although I had not realised it. I had not known it. Oh, for all the things I had not known.

I was trembling and Franny swept around the table, took my hands in hers and pulled me against her chest to hold me. She was trembling too. She trembled from bliss and I trembled from something that felt like the last wind swept from a storm curling over the mountains, the last wind, blown through the thistles and weeds.

She held my against her stomach, held it there even when I flinched from it and thought of Charlotte in the bath, praying for blood.

“I’m afraid to tell Ollie,” she whispered. “If my mother finds out before we marry –…”

I’ll take care of you now, I had told Charlotte, like I took care of you then.

Franny continued onward about the community and yet I could only see that darkened flat on Fetter Road flickering on the wall behind her, like jerky flashes from a picture-film. I saw unfamiliar hands reaching out to Charlotte, hands that reached like hands in a pantry reached for blackberries crushed in jars, reached without caring for what was on the other end, not if it had warm flesh and breasts and parts unknown; and so what did it matter if her heartbeat stuttered and slowed from fear, anyway?

Had Charlotte been called kitten like I had been called kitten, once?

“I’m happy for you, Franny,” I told her. I had to tell her something, for she had paused in her ramblings and noticed the distant fog in my stare. “It won’t matter, what anybody else says. Only what Ollie says, only what you say.”

She smiled, her beautiful eyes lined in bloodshot happiness. “I want to tell him tonight. I asked him to meet me at The Bell Quarter for dinner – would you meet me beforehand, Willa? I need the support. What if he turns me away, or he –…”

“He won’t. Ollie isn’t like that.”

She watched me closely. “Are you all right, Willa?”

“Just – overwhelmed,” I answered weakly. “There are Gypsies who can tell you what you will have, you know. Boy – girl – one baby, twins. All of it.”

She grinned. “I want the surprise. One baby, twins, whatever it might be. I want it happy and healthy, Willa. That is all I want.”

“Probably better. Gypsies can get it wrong, sometimes. They thought I would die before I was meant to,” I told her. “But there is no such thing as dying before you’re meant to, for Gypsies.”

Franny pulled me against her chest once more, letting out a deep sigh. “We’ll meet at Fulton Road this evening, yeah? I’ll buy us a drink in The Chestnut Bar and then I’ll meet Ollie. And I’ll tell him, Willa. Tonight, I’ll tell him,” she swore. “I won’t chicken out. I’ll just have to tell him, and figure the rest out later.”

“All right, Franny. I’ll meet you there for six.”

Once the door clapped shut behind her, I squeezed my eyes tight together to block out that film still spattered there on the walls, the flashes of Charlotte and her mistake, that little child in her stomach that had never touched soil like it was meant to, never reached around twenty-seven like I had, never –…

“Willa?”

Alfie filled the threshold with his bulky frame. He wore his coat and scarf, his cane held in his hand. I thought he looked handsome, stood there in that orange warmth. He looked younger, somehow. Softer.

And I loved him.

“Are you all right, treacle?”

I went to him and melted into his arms which he held out for me, let him cup my nape and rock us in that office as if we stood before a stage of musicians crooning some gentle tune just for us, swaying slowly to our own rhythm. I heard footsteps behind him, muffled against his coat.

“Alfie, there’s another delivery in the yard,” Ollie explained. “We need to –…”

“Fuck off, Ollie, yeah?” Alfie murmured.  

“Fuck off,” Ollie repeated, turning on his heels immediately. “Right. I’ll sort it.”

I thought of Franny. “Ollie deserves a raise, you know, Alf.”

“A raise? What for? Sittin’ on ‘is arse and givin’ me grief?”

“Well, you pay me quite well for it,” I grinned, brushing out the wrinkles in his shirt.

“Very fuckin’ cheeky. But I’ll consider it.”

Breathing in his scent, I smiled to myself and said, “I think you’re the soft one, Alfie. Not me.”

“Soft on you, Willa,” he corrected. “And fuck if you don’t know it, darlin’.”

 ☼

The Chestnut Bar was this small pub with black walls and a garden dotted in tables, sitting just between the border of Italian and Jewish territory, with its patrons largely unattached to either side. I had spent most of the last few hours assuring Alfie that this little afternoon with Franny was an innocent outing between two friends and that the war with the Italians should not force me into confinement in the house, even if I wanted nothing more than to be with him and Cyril, curled up on the couch with warmth of the fireplace crackling in front of us.

Alfie had only relented on the condition that two Jewish lads accompanied me and sat outside the bar, armed and prepared for the slightest hint of an ambush to guide us out into the car waiting in the back-alley.

Nestled in the nook of the bar, Franny had been separated from the other patrons by a wooden divider which had a small window for drinks to be passed through. We stuck with a teapot between us, taking turns to pour out steaming lashes of tea and stirring sugar-cubes into our cups. I still thought about Charlotte, but I found myself more capable of concentrating on Franny and her words.

I tried not to think about Charlotte too much.

Instead, I tried to envision this nursery which Franny had already painted in her mind, the toys which scattered the floorboards, those first steps. I tried to imagine the dumbstruck expression which would surely come from Ollie once told about his child. I even imagined Alfie and his response – a kiss on the cheek for Franny, an overly-dramatic slap for Ollie on his shoulder before the lewd jokes would surely come, only to embarrass the lad, who Alfie cared for in his own way. He would offer him that raise a couple of weeks later. I knew that he would, and he would blame me for it, when really, he probably would have given it to him anyway, even if I had never mentioned it.

Alfie was good like that. He had a good heart, a warm soul. It was just the rubble from the war that had fallen upon him and which he could not fully shake off that made it seem as if only thin beams of light shone through him for others, but I saw his light. I saw him, rubble and all.

The small window shot open in a loud crack and the barman pushed through its small frame to shout, “Mrs Solomons, you need to –…”

There came the cracking of gunfire. I recognised them now. I felt the memory of bullets pepper my skin in some faint, hazy dream, as if I stood outside the bakery again, as if I watched its arch swoop over me as I fell. I felt Franny grip my hands in hers from fear.

The door of the nook swung open and there stood a pair of coppers; one spoke while the other remained silent. It was like that with coppers. I had learned that many years ago, in another place, in another street, but it was true here, too.

“You are Mrs Solomons, I presume?” the first copper droned.

I realised that the rest of the bar was quiet when before there had been chatter and laughter and the clinking of glasses. The earth had settled. It was silent, now, and I knew that there was not much that I could do, not with Franny there. So, I nodded, but held my lips in a tight purse in the hopes that these coppers might not notice my trembling hands.

I said, “I am.”

“Your friend should step out for a moment.”

I swallowed the blossoming lump in my throat. “I want her to stay with me.”

“She steps out,” the copper said, while the other remained mute, “…or we come in and take her out.”

I saw blackness in his eyes and said, “Franny, out you go. I’ll be with you soon, all right?”

“No, Willa, you –…”

I turned sharply toward her, bent against her ear and hissed, “Think of the baby.”

Reluctantly, she stood from her seat. I watched her walk out of the nook, glancing behind at me. She mouthed, I’m sorry.

The nook was confined, tiny in its space. Somehow, without her, it loomed around me like a cage and I felt it closing in around me, as if its walls were collapsing and I was crushed beneath them. I focused on the flowerpots dotted along the windowsill and their spindly vines drooping over the seats in front of me, hearing the distant creak of the floorboards and the hum of some old song, its words foreign, unfamiliar –…

Italian.

Flickering toward the door, my stare latched onto a short, dark-haired man dressed in an expensive suit, pulling off his gloves with an exaggerated flourish. A man stood alongside him and collected the gloves as if he had just been handed precious jewels, bowing ever-so-slightly once finished.

The first man stepped into the nook, looked around it, and then sniffed before he stood in front of me.

He gripped my arms, pulled me toward him. He kissed me first on my right cheek, then my left, and then once more on the right. It took everything that I had not to recoil from him and scream, curl away from that hideous touch. He sat and his position crushed the vines of the flowerpots, ruined by his back pressed against the seat. He lifted his chin and looked at me as if I was made of the same dirt which sat around those roots behind him.

Then he clicked his fingers and the window behind me opened, a fresh teapot slid into the nook by a different barman, for it seemed that ours had long since been hauled away. I heard faint murmurs from the Italian men standing outside the nook, surrounding it, and I knew that it was Darby Sabini sat in front of me.

I watched him pull a cigarette from his pocket, pausing to flick his eyes up at me.

“Do you mind, Mrs Solomons?”

I shook my head. “Not at all.”

His eyes lingered on the burn-mark on my wrist from those same cigarettes that he now pulled out, placing one against his lips and returning the others to his pocket. “Always gasping for one, I am. I find myself wanting them even in more in times of great change – and the world has changed, hasn’t it, Mrs Solomons? The Jews and the Italians on top of London. Now who would have seen that coming, only a few years ago?”

He took the teapot and poured out cups of tea for the both of us. The fumes of his cigarette curled around the fine glass and swirled upward toward me so that I could breathe his fury.

“Giovanni Ricci was a very good man,” he continued. His moustache, black and greasy, rippled above his lips with each word, like some sentient creature. “Imagine my horror and surprise to find him dumped outside my street with his throat slit. Very upsetting for the neighbours, you understand.”

“Imagine my horror and surprise,” I replied, “…after being shot by Ricci in the first place, Mr Sabini.”

He smiled; it was slick and wet and made of repulsion. He lifted his teacup and a small droplet of tea fell, plopping onto his shirt. Suddenly, he threw the cup and it shattered against the wall, making me jump and flinch from him. He screamed in Italian, screamed so loudly that his lackeys opened the door with guns trained between us, eyes flitting about for the threat. Sabini roared at them, too, and dismissed them with a wave of his hands.

I felt as if my stomach had fallen out and lay between us on the floor.

“My apologies,” he murmured, stretching for a napkin and dabbing at the stain. “I should find myself a good seamstress, perhaps one who could make my shirts. I hear there are plenty of those available in London, these days.”

I looked into his eyes. “There are very many indeed, Mr Sabini. If you were looking for any recommendations, I would be more than happy to supply them. There used to be a good place on Chester Street, but then the pub beside it burned down in an unfortunate accident, and they couldn’t reopen. Too afraid to reopen, I heard.”

That stung him, because Chester Street was property of the Italians and that pub which had burned down was set alight by Alfie himself after I had been shot – the fire had reached the shops around it, including an Italian seamstress’s premises. Sabini peeled apart his lips, lips which stuck against his gums in some hideous caricature of a smile.

“I’m sure you know many good seamstresses, but not ones that the Italians would be willing to use. You see, Italians have a certain – standard that the Jews do not possess. The Jews will work with anyone, if the price is right. Even with those of unfavourable blood.”

“Gypsy blood, Mr Sabini?” I asked, feigning ignorance.

The scale was tipping between us, lifting upward on one side, falling flat on the other.

He drew another puff of his cigarette. “If there is one thing that the Jews, the Italians, and the Gypsies share –… - his nose crinkled again, his disgust seeping from his pores – “…it is a sense of tradition. That is something we can agree on, isn’t it, Mrs Solomons?”

He repeated this false surname so much that I knew it was a provocation and certainly a mockery of both myself and Alfie, even if he was not here to bear witness to it himself. I knew my vulnerability in this place. I knew that the boys who had been sent with me were already dead, probably even before they had realised the Italians were all around them in the same way that they were around me now.

I nodded tersely. “I suppose we can agree on that.”

“And if there is a difference between the Jews, the Italians, and the Gypsies, Mrs Solomons,” he drawled, “…then it would be that only the Italians have made any real contribution to the betterment of man – the arts, literature, culture – it all comes from us. What did the Jews give us? Nothing much. Funny hats and a reluctance to eat pork and fucking shellfish, perhaps. And the Gypsies? Disease and illiteracy.”

“Oh, not only that, Mr Sabini,” I corrected. “The Italians also showed us how pitifully an Italian man depends on his mother to take care of him even once fully grown. What do they call it? A mamma’s boy? Are you like that, Mr Sabini? Still suckling from Mamma?”

Sabini did not smile this time. He took his cigarette and ground it into his napkin. “Did Solomons allow you to be here alone, hm? Very foolish of him, I should think.”

“Oh, I should think,” I nodded, “…that you’re confusing the Italians and the Jews, Mr Sabini. Italian men might control their women and tell them what to do, but Gypsies and Jews know better. Their women have more…power. Like a storm, their women.”

I stared into his eyes and saw the flicker of pure and bitter hatred; the same hatred that had left my cousin dead in a ditch all those years ago.  

“More power?” he repeated with a hum and a nod of his head. His fingers tapped a stuttered rhythm against the table. “You must feel very powerful now that you’re surrounded by your enemies.”

Dramatically, I blinked and glanced around myself. “Why, Mr Sabini, I only see you before me. And you are not my enemy. An enemy is required to induce, even if one is reluctant to admit it, a sense of respect. And looking at you now, Mr Sabini, I can certainly confirm that you are not my enemy.”

I smiled at him, baring canines.

Staring at me with that same blackened hatred swirling in his eyes, he was motionless for a couple of seconds, lips still curled against his gums and his fingertips now stiff from rigor-mortis, his pallor corpse-like and rotten. Then, he licked his lips and burst from his seat to scream in Italian. The door sprung open and his lackeys finally swept into the nook, gripping me around the arms and hauling me out from that tiny space. I felt a hand snake into my hair and push me forward into a half-bent stance while I was carted out.

It was a copper that held me, I knew. I saw his leather shoes; those shoes had cracked my ribs, before.

I was lifted at the waist for all my struggles and I looked around me to find those two boys slumped at the car, skulls cracked open from the slice of a bullet. I breathed in a wild froth of spittle and fear, now. I saw that I was being taken toward an alleyway and I kicked and kicked. I was thrown into that damp, wet bleakness in the alleyway and immediately I swept back up on my feet to bolt from it, looking for a fence or staircase that I could climb, frantic and trapped like some wild animal, some – …

It was a punch in the chest that stilled me. Another in the stomach, until blood filled my mouth and I spat it out from lips lost in a wild spasm. I was kicked all around, and it had been such a long time since a copper had dared touch me that I had forgotten what the harsh crack of leather against skin felt like, what the black swell of their uniforms around me looked like, blended together, until all the world seemed to be made of coppers and uniforms and the flash of badges in a dim light.

I was picked up and placed against the wall; placed there, with a knee held between my legs for balance because I slumped forward – a hand clamped around my chin and lifted that, too, to draw my swollen eyelids and squinting eyes toward the snarling face of a copper.

“Oh, you are a pretty one,” he crooned. “For a pikey, you sure are fuckin’ pretty. That’s always the pity with your people, innit? Sometimes your women look good on the outside, but only hold the fuckin’ clap on the inside.”

“If they have it, it’s only because you gave it to them,” I spat, words slurring together. “I know what you coppers do –…”

“What’s that, kitten? Do speak up,” he barked, slapping at my cheek. “You know what we do, do you? Shall I remind you? Shall I show you again, sweetheart? Bet you’d enjoy it, you would – your type tries to pretend, but I know what you like –…”

He held me at the throat and leaned forward, gripped me tight so that I could not turn away from him, my body jerking in wild convulsions. He pressed his lips against mine and I pulled back and bit him. I bit down hard, and he howled at the sudden gush of blood from his tattered lip, because I simply refused to release him even once he slapped and slapped at me. I only drew away from him once I needed to breathe myself, and I saw that wounded string of flesh pulled from his lip and I grinned through a mouthful of blood.

His hand scrambled for his gun and I felt its barrel press against my temple.

“I’m gonna spatter your brains on this wall,” he said, “and only your fuckin’ kike will miss you.”

“Release her,” another voice called out.

I watched that torn flesh swing once the copper turned his head toward the other end of the alley, his eyes ablaze. I knew that the other person who had spoken was Italian from the accent and the glimpse of an expensive suit in my peripheral.

“She tore my fuckin’ lip off!” the copper screamed.

“Then you should know better than to get close to a Gypsy,” the other man said. “Like rabid fucking dogs, these Gypsies.”

I was dropped against the dirt of the alleyway and there came another kick for good measure. All my bones had been taken from me, it felt like, so that I was made of liquid against that ground, pooled in a puddle of redness which came from me. I watched footsteps leave the alleyway but could not hear them because of an awful ringing in my right eardrum, a constant rattle that made me clutch my hands against my head and curl from the sound.

Sabini had left me alive, if not a little more damaged than I had been, and although I was relieved – I knew that it meant there was something more that he wanted to do, for I could feel the noose around my neck, lifting me upward, letting my legs dangle beneath me. He had planned more than this, I knew that much.

I just didn’t know how much more.

Smacking against the wet, cobbled street, I heard his shoes first and felt his arms scooping around me second; Ollie had held me many times, but this time, I was too limp to help him, and he struggled to pull me to the car idling on the street behind him. He whistled for the Jewish lads to help, and through the squint in my eye, I saw them hesitate to touch me.

“Mr Solomons said –…” one man mumbled, his hands motioning toward me uselessly.

“And I’m saying, if you don’t fucking help her now, Alfie will break your fucking necks with his bare hands,” Ollie spat back.

“Where’s Franny?” I slurred.

My blood drooled onto his shirt and stained it. I reached mindlessly for the stains and thought of how Sabini had accidentally spilled tea on himself. I could not control the roll of my eyeballs, thrown upward toward the heavens and swivelled downward toward the ground, and there was still that aching rattle in my eardrum.

“Safe,” he answered.

“Are you telling the truth?” I asked. “Alfie lied before, when I was last hurt, because Charlotte was already dead. Did he tell you that, Ollie?”

When I was last hurt; the words echoed between us and his jaw was set in a tight grimace, pity and remorse filling his features.

Ollie held the door of the car open with his leg stretched out, attempting to pull me in with him while another man hauled my legs up. “I’m telling you the truth,” he answered, his teeth gritted from the effort. “And he did tell me that, too, when it happened.”

“Tells you more than he tells me, I bet,” I mumbled.

I felt an odd, loose sensation in my mouth and reached into its wet, blood-filled darkness to pull out a tooth from the back left-hand side. It fell onto the floor of the car and Ollie fell backward against the seat, breathing hard, panic in his eyes.

“Christ, Willa,” he wheezed. “Oh, Christ –…”

I looked at him in a daze and saw that his left eye was swollen in purple. He could hardly see through it. I looked down at his body and saw his right arm was curled against his chest, as if he could not quite stretch it, but he had worked through the agony to pull me into this car and for that I placed my hand over his and said, “Thank you, Ollie.”

Ollie nodded, his lips trembling.

I whispered, “He called me kitten before he tried to kiss me, Ollie.”

A dampness spread from my chest and I snorted out blood from my nostrils, before my eyes rolled up and I dropped for good.

Springing from my mattress, I scrambled for light in the blackness of our bedroom, hands wildly patting around for the lamp. I felt something warm shift around beside me and in my scrambled thoughts, I assumed it was Alfie, but Alfie never had a tail or floppy ears that I had noticed before. Instead, it was Cyril, pushing from the bed-sheets to press his muzzle into my face and lapping at me with his tongue. Bruised and tender, I tried to move him away from me with gentle murmurs to soothe him, scratching at his ears just how he liked.

“Alfie?” I called out, my voice laced in terror. “Alfie!”

The bedroom-door flung open and I rushed to pull myself from the bed so that I could run to him like I had in the office. Only I saw the small, slim frame of a woman in the blinding orange light of the hallway and I fell against the bed, distraught, slumping against the floor.

“Where is he, Franny?”

She brushed away tears. “They arrested him. The coppers – Sabini’s been paying them. T-They work for him now. They raided the bakery and arrested Alfie – they beat him, Willa. Hauled him off and beat my Ollie when he tried to stop them. They said they’re going to kill him.”

And there it was; the taste of copper on my tongue had come true.

Chapter Text

fourteen


 

Hysterical, I slumped against the floorboards, where some horrid wail rose from somewhere in the depths of me, sprouting from those darkened gaps in my gums where a tooth had fallen out. I rasped in hideous wheezes because my lungs had become flaccid, my limbs were not mine and still I lifted foreign hands to grip the bed-sheets and haul myself upward onto stiff legs. I fell toward the wardrobe, bashed myself against it, sank into its shirts to find a coat buried in its dense folds. I had stuffed it there after Cyril had chewed its hem into threadbare disuse.

I shrugged it onto weakened shoulders and stumbled toward the hall, collapsing onto the floorboards once more, gripping the rugs and crawling forward. Foreign hands touched me – Franny touched me, her mouth moving in a ripple of spasms yet somehow, I heard no sound, for there was only some thick, rattling din in my right eardrum.

Finally, I found tattered boots in the hall and I yanked them onto those unfamiliar feet, unattached and still in movement, as if invisible strings had latched themselves around my ankles and some unseen puppeteer danced me about the house, dragged me limp through the hall upstairs, dotted my footsteps against the stairs in a light patter, pushed me into the hall and held me there, motionless.

I awaited the twitch and tug of string, looked for the loom of a shadowed figure behind me, but there was only Franny, her silhouette shrouded from her spot atop the staircase. Her lips formed sounds left unheard, swallowed in that rising din, which swelled and swelled until I could hear nothing else.

The earth tilted once more; always tilting, like it had titled that same night in front of the flat and there had been blackened mush on that night, from skulls caved inward – had his skull been caved inward, already? Had all those thoughts and memories of us been ground into sickly-sweet blackness, already? I thought that I had more time with him. I always thought that I had more time with him. I stopped in the hall, snipped strings and thought: after all that God had thrown at him in the trenches, his death comes in the damp hollows of London, and our Margate shall never be, never be – and…

There came some rumbling moan from the living-room. Ollie stumbled into the hall in front of me, his left eyelid coated in a sheen of purplish trauma, puckered from his eyeball so that all he saw in this world came through a slit of flesh clipped together. He was lisping through that splintered tear on his lip, his words stained in blood.

He chattered as if cold, but the house was warm and bright when it should never have been that way without Alfie. Franny had stoked the fire and she had closed all the windows, shut out that bleak dew from drizzle peppering the streets. But he was not here, and that was not how it was meant to be without him.

Feverish, I spat out droplets of my own from that darkened gap in my gums where my tooth had fallen out. I thought that if I reached into my mouth, I could just latch onto that darkened gap, and then all bad things could be pulled from me, pulled out on a pearl-like string, stretching ever further. Pulled like threads from a sewing-machine, pulled and pulled until I had spools upon spools of myself splayed out upon the floorboards. I could unfurl that rattle in my eardrums. I could unravel myself and start anew.  

I am made of bad things, I told myself, and these bad things stole me from kin, stole me from Johnny, placed me in some foreign country with foreign people. I am made of bad things and they fester in my gums.

Cracking against me like the curl of thunder over Irish mountains, there was a frightful thumping upon our front-door. While I was still chey in the wet fields, I had always been terrified of thunder and Johnny had defended me from the cruelty of boy-cousins who had mocked me for my fright. Johnny once told me that thunder came from God shifting furniture around in Heaven; and what is there to fear in that, chey?

 “Willa, if you go out there tonight,” Ollie warned, “you will not return.”

There was something knocking around my skull like it was knocking against the door. With each turn, it rolled along the bumps of my brain and smacked against its edges, thrown backward, until all coherent thoughts were crushed beneath it. I heard him like his words filtered downward from that distant place beyond the rattle, where all things were soft and nothing like the thumping shriek of a tinny whistle in my eardrums, nothing like the knocking in my skull.

“If what Franny told me was the truth, Ollie, and the Italians took him to kill him,” I murmured slowly, staring absently ahead of myself, “…then my death has already happened.”

Trembling hands stretched for the latch. Those hands were not mine, but I moved them all the same. I pulled off the chain and my skin bristled from the cold wind which blew into the hall, ruffled the coats and stirred my skirts. There stood Death before me; he wore a black cap drawn low over his dark brows, and a cigarette dangled from lips chapped like old turf, lips that he peeled apart for speech. His words had been hoarse and soft, warm and gentle.

In a tongue that I had not heard since I last spoken with Johnny, he said, “Spared your man from the fire, tonight. Killed the Italians what tried to kill him first. You married me, once, outside the caravans we had that night in Bonny Glen. I crafted you a ring from paper and placed it upon you, recognised by some other power.”

I knew the purpose of what he had told me; trust. I looked at him closely, because even if the language had not told me, his features promised that he was kin – or that his blood was that of the Gypsies, at least, and I recalled a paper-ring from Bonny Glenn, memories that had long since been smothered by those years spent in that flat on Bell Road. His name was Kelly Lee, I realised. His brother had been murdered in a ditch many years ago, but that had been a time before paper-rings and promises recognised by other powers.

I drank in the pallor of his cheeks with just the faintest trace of red behind them. He was one of those boy-cousins who had mocked me for my fear of thunder yet asked for my hand in marriage like children did back then, just for the fun of it, tossing decorations onto the tree-branches and passing paper-rings between us. I had once called myself Willa Lee, as a child. I had shed myself of Sykes and shrugged his heritage onto me instead, like a coat, because all the girls had wanted to be married. It was a pastime event to push the girls toward a lad and craft paper-love for them along with it.  

“Where?” I asked.

I had not said his name nor more than a word, but Kelly Lee had understood it just fine and plucked his cigarette from his mouth to look out toward the blackened street that watched us, its orange eyes glittering from the streetlights and sheets of rain pattering against it. He said, “Warehouse, down by the docks. Shot the skulls of Italians like we shot through the horses what could not ride anymore, in Bonny Glen. Do you recall that, do you?”

“And now?” I asked.

“In a house with old furniture,” he answered. “It breathes, that house – more easily than he does, that house.”

“Take me to him.”

“Willa –…” Ollie called from behind, his tone laced in suspicion, for he had not understood our words. “You don’t know this man, he could –…”

“She knows me, for she married me once before,” Kelly Lee interrupted, his coal stare swirling into mine, for both of us had the eyes of the Gypsies. “She is kin – Johnny’s and ours. He sent us, though the Shelbys do not know it. Johnny went against his orders for you, chey.”

I had not heard the call of chey from cousins in such a long while that it washed over my skin like that cool breeze which often followed that first call of thunder from faraway over the hills and mountains, that nickname from another life. I had heard rumours about the Shelbys in childhood and in recent months. I had met a couple of them in passing when I was a girl, but most of the Shelbys had settled in Small Heath, a small slice of depression plopped between the other working-class burrows of Birmingham.

Separation from other cousins and families had been gradual. Some cousins thought the Shelbys too pompous after they had begun to live in houses, while other cousins mourned another family lost to settlement in a world that had wanted to weed out the nomads for centuries. It simply happened like that, for Gypsy families. Some left for towns whose houses were carved from soot, soot that had been put there by the choking lungs of its factories. Others had left for coastal towns and looked out toward the sea, more isolated than they had ever been.

Yet if there was anything that settled Gypsies shared with nomadic Gypsies apart from blood, it was this: both were hated in equal measure, whether their homes had wheels or brick, whether their tongues clicked in familiar or foreign tongues, whether their eyes had come out black and hardened from the dirt roads or cobbled streets. It was all the same, to them.

Kelly Lee had lost his brother to such hatred.

“Come, Willa,” Kelly Lee murmured.

“Please, Willa – just wait –…”

Reaching for my wrist, Ollie tried to tether me. Only I could never let myself be tethered when there were still storms to be had. I shook myself from him but cupped his cheeks and held my forehead against his own like I had often done with Alfie, because it felt as if some of my thoughts seeped into him. Once I pulled away, Ollie nodded as if he had understood. Or perhaps he had simply resigned himself to the fact that he could never hold me there.

“Call me if you can, from wherever you are. Let me know that you’re all right.”

His hand fell from mine and we were pulled apart. I stepped out into the blistering rain which sliced my skin in its harsh, needling pin-pricks. I darted toward the car that idled by the curb. Kelly Lee followed, his cigarette cast from him in a final spin of light, fizzling out into the sewers. He sidled into his side of the car and clapped his door shut behind him. The rain was softened, the cocoon of the car muffling its harshness.

“Ready yourself,” Kelly Lee said, “for your man is not well. He balances, chey.”

I understood that, too. He balanced between our world and another. “Alfie has always balanced there, Kelly. He likes the challenge. He takes pride in it, he does.”

Kelly Lee looked at me in the black of night. “Then his pride will line his coffin.”

Rattling through dirt-roads, I saw the flash of white eyeballs from the foxes peeking out from behind the shrubbery, pale glimpses from the woodlands of the creatures buried within. There were very few houses dotted along this winding path whittled between the trees, made of faint dots bleeding orange into the night. It disturbed me, those houses out there. Passing each house, I wondered if that was the house. I wondered if Alfie sat behind those orange windows and waited for me.

“What did you mean,” I began, “when you said Johnny went against the Shelbys?”

Kelly Lee glanced out toward the trees which sprinkled rain onto the roads, soaked them so much that they looked like black rivers and rippled like the tongue of the devil, forked and licking at us from below.

He shrugged his shoulders. “The Shelbys are looking to move into the London scene. Their lad Tommy has made quite a name for himself. A proper name. He wanted the Lee boys for some protection, to establish some kind of base before he brings the rest of his lot to the city for a takeover. Johnny was only meant to scout the place for a week or so, but he left some lads behind and asked that they keep watch over you. Never told Thomas Shelby, from what I understand, given that I was one of them.”

“And where were you earlier?” I asked drily.

“Earlier,” he hummed. “Well, earlier, I was questioned by a copper when I went into Ivor Square – for what would a pikey be doing in a nice neighbourhood like yours if not stealing from it, eh? The Jew has brought you much wealth, has he not, chey?”

I bristled at the bitter undertone which filled him, because it was filled with that same old mockery of those settled, of those with bricks beneath their feet rather than soil. I was also ruffled by that loathing which dripped from him once he spoke of Alfie and his faith, along with this fixation on his wealth.

“Much more,” I replied tightly. “And the rings that Alfie brings me never disappear in rain, Kelly Lee.”

The foxes watched us from the fields and the devil laughed in black rivers.

The windowpanes had been coated in thickened dust which meant that the watery, yellow colour from within the house seeped out in a weak trickle, barely reaching the gravel which scattered the driveway. The roof was made of patchwork slates and the paint on its walls had been chipped, its garden overgrown in thistles which rustled and sang in the bleak downpour which speckled our skin and soaked us through to the bone.

Kelly Lee tapped his familiar rhythm against the splinter of a wooden door which stood before him, its knocker in the form of a lion having long since lost its golden shine. He murmured codewords in a particular order and the door cracked open, the sheen of a barrel slipping into the waistline of another cousin. It was Mitchell Lee – another brother, who had not yet been murdered in a ditch.

Chey.”

Stepping around Mitchell with a curt nod, I looked about the withered heart of this house and I never saw my own held within it. I ached all the more for it. I had hoped he might be there, stood in its hall, prepared for the journey back to the city despite possible wounds and bruises. I had tried to pretend that Kelly Lee had exaggerated in some futile attempt to protect myself from the truth.

I had known Kelly Lee well enough to understand that he had never lied about much in his life apart from two things: the first lie had been that he was not desperate for revenge after the death of his older brother, and the second lie had been that he had never truly wanted to marry me with that paper-ring at all.

I knew this because Johnny had mentioned him once in those letters found in the flat on Bell Road, those letters which had been hidden from me by Esther and in which Johnny had written: Kelly Lee often mentions you, chey.

It was a hint, although not a very subtle one, from Johnny. Johnny might not have completely approved of a marriage between us, but he had hoped for some kind of elopement before I turned fifteen or sixteen, because all the girls in our families married around then, usually. I was just the exception.

Yet I noticed how Kelly Lee hovered close and wondered if he thought that it could be resolved despite the fact that we were not children anymore. I thought that because I glanced around and saw all the mirrors covered in dense blankets to conceal them; our custom which came from a fear that the souls of the dead might become trapped in that little slice of glass, trapped between one world and the next.

And they thought that Alfie might die.

“Just a curtesy, chey,” Mitchell muttered in his gruff manner, leading us through the halls of the house.

Shattered furniture was scattered around, the fabric of sofas tattered and riddled from moths, curtains drawn in depression, shards of broken plates speckled on mouldy carpet and cracking beneath our boots. The wallpaper was peeling in great sheets, yellowed and crinkled around its edges. Laundry-lines had been strung between chairs and rafters, draped in damp shirts and pants – some of them belonged to the Lee brothers, but I recognised a shirt as one that I had made, a shirt that had been made just for him. He had always worn every shirt that I had made him. Even when he had been shot, he had been in a shirt that I had made him.

His socks were there, too. Although I was not sure of the reason, that made me weep more than all the rest.

Climbing the staircase, I saw more ruined bedrooms along a narrow strip of hallway. Plasterwork had lined the ceiling of the master bedroom in swirling patterns of delicate flowers with petals stretching outward, vines trickling downward toward wallpaper now torn off in strips, as if some maddened creature had ripped it all apart along with himself in this place.

Fluttering in pale tremors, there was a thin sheet of lace attached to the windows, exhaling a ghostly light into the staleness of the bedroom. There was a portrait too, its subject slashed. It was a woman, I realised, her pale eyes blinking out from the curl of her canvas folded over. The fireplace was collapsed inward, dust from its stone spat out onto the rug in front of it.

And there he was; swallowed in the pleats of the bed-sheets, arms spread outward, he looked toward that detailed plasterwork but saw nothing of its petals.

He had been mangled by them.

Looking more closely, I saw that his left arm was oddly bent, his wrists swollen in purple. I glimpsed the gash in his forehead, which split his right eyebrow and left crusted blood around his socket. I dropped onto the floorboards, crawled toward him, gripped his limp hands and bowed my head against the mattress, sobbing even more after I heard his rasping breaths. I saw the stuttered rise of his chest and its violent fall.

They had covered the mirrors for him. I saw him now and knew that they had been right to do it.  

Looking behind, I saw Mitchell Lee slink from the bedroom, his large boots crinkling against shreds of newspaper. Kelly stood in the threshold for just a moment more, his eyes looking into mine, before he went after his brother and left us in this bedroom, in this house that was not ours. I knew that if Alfie had a choice, he would have chosen to remain in our home in Ivor Square, where there was warmth and love. This house had once held that; but now it was a husk, and its rotting innards stared at us in blank detachment.

“Willa,” he called out, unseeing.

“I’m here, sweetheart,” I whispered, stroking his hair with the lightest touch. I was afraid to hurt him, to damage him more than they already had.

“Ruined another shirt you made me, I did. I’m sorry, treacle.”

I let out a weak laugh, smiling at him. “Don’t fret, Alfie. I have loads more waiting for you at home.”

Squeezing his hands, I leaned forward and pressed my lips against his own in a quick peck, intending to pull away from him. Instead, he raised a hand with fingers swollen at the knuckles, unable to bend, but he cupped my nape and held me against his chest. I felt him burrow himself into my hair and I felt him inhale so deeply. His thumb swept awkwardly against my cheek, rigid and stiff. His lips pressed against the hollow of my throat and probed the bruises there.

“Fuck, I never thought I’d see your fuckin’ smile again,” he told me.

He was quiet for a little while, breathing into me.

Then he said, “I didn’t fear me own death nearly as much as I feared yours after they told me Sabini ‘ad come ‘round to talk to ya, Willa. And they ‘ad the fuckin’ gun against me ‘ead and I weren’t ready for any goodbyes just yet, ‘cause we ain’t seen Margate yet, ‘ave we? But I thought, ‘least Willa might get there even if I don’t’ –…”

“It’s all right, Alfie,” I hushed, still stroking his hair. “Here we are, together. And it isn’t Margate, but that doesn’t matter when I’m with you, darling.”

His eyes had fluttered shut, bloodshot and worn. He had heard me, anyway. I felt it in how his thumbs still tried to brush my knuckles like he had always done, even when it hurt him to do it. I stood and tucked blankets around him, settled a pillow beneath his head. I sat beside him then, let him rest his head in my lap and prayed to God for the first time since the pantry that he would make it through this night and all others ahead of us.

Stepping out into the garden, where the Lee brothers stood beneath a tarp in front of an old shed with its windowpanes smashed, I breathed dew and fire blended together. Kelly Lee looked at me, the smoke of his cigarette curling upward and caressing his sharp cheekbones, shrouding him in a heavy veil behind which I thought there had once been a boy of nine with love in his heart for me. He lifted his hand to pull that cigarette from his mouth and crushed it beneath his heel.

“Tell me about this Thomas Shelby.”

Mitchell shrugged his shoulders. “You knew him as a lad, chey. What more is there to tell you?”

“Made a name for himself,” I said, looking directly at Kelly. “You told me that yourself. What kind of name has he made, that he wants to come to London? He wants this for himself, does he?”

“Thomas has been beaten himself, you know,” Kelly murmured. “Laid out on beds like your man with blood in his mouth. He has established himself, Willa. He runs Birmingham now. He wants to branch out.”

“Then he needs connections, friends – kin,” I replied.

“You would do well to stay away from the Shelbys,” Mitchel told me. “Or your man will not lie on a bed but rather on cold ground. The Shelbys are cursed, always have been. Involve yourself with them, Willa, and you will carry that curse on your own shoulders.”

There was a faint rumble from beyond the mountains; the heavens cried in lightning and thunder came slowly from over the hills, between the drizzle and wind. I was not so afraid of it anymore. It was a dark night, out there in a place that had no name, and the Lee brothers blended into that darkness with bleak expressions. I heard their words and thought best to heed them, until I thought of the Italians and that call of kitten from a copper in an alleyway, felt alien hands touch me in some bastardised imitation of how Alfie touched me, all strokes and gentle squeezes. I was tired of being touched, tired of the scale tipping more in favour of the Italians than Alfie.

“You are involved with them, aren’t you?”

“And look at our fucking shoulders now,” Kelly retorted harshly. “It was an arrangement that formed between our family and theirs – Esme married into the Shelbys, made a pact that cannot be broken.”

Esme had been another cousin, much more faintly remembered for her dark eyes and darker wit, and her husband had probably since learned that she was a woman made from fire. She had always fizzled and burnt and grew ever more powerful in her own way. I had always admired her for that.

“And Johnny?” I asked.

“Middleman,” Mitchell answered. “Used his golden tongue and wove a bond between us all, while he sits pretty. But Thomas has drawn him in more and more lately. He came to London not two weeks ago.”

“He never told me.”

Kelly laughed. “Johnny is a wise man, Willa. He dances around his words the same way he dances for pennies. Whistles his own tune, does Johnny. And that is how he has made it this long, when all the old Gypsies thought Johnny would never make it more than a summer.”

Outwardly, I maintained a cool expression. Internally, I felt a swell of shock at what he had said, given that Johnny had never mentioned that the old Gypsies thought that about him in the same way that they thought that about me, when I was born. But Kelly had been right: Johnny had used words, danced around others, used mind over brawn, made the bonds that Kelly had described, and almost always managed to slip out of things through those same bonds. He used words.

He used words.

Sinking into a dented basin, he let out a deep, grateful sigh and settled there while I dipped a cloth into that steaming water and wet his hair. I cleaned the blood from his cuts and kissed each one, before I brushed a fresh bar of soap around his arms, over his chest. He sunk beneath the water for a moment. I sat on the stool and watched him, wiping my brow.

It had taken me and the Lee brothers together to fill this basin with the buckets found littered around the house. Then, the brothers had hauled him into the bathroom, and I had tried to carry his legs, despite the pain in my own bones from the effort. I trembled from it but tried to still my hands around him, knowing that it would only upset him.

“He looks at you.”

Alfie had resurfaced, droplets plopping from his eyelashes. I knew that he meant Kelly, because it had only been a few days in this house and already Alfie had recovered more quickly than expected, spurred by his desire to return to London and retaliate against Sabini.

“We knew each other when we were kids, Alfie. His family are kin.”

Alfie stared at me. He was so still that the water barely even rippled around him. “Right.”

“Jealousy does not become you.”

“Jealous? Me? Nah,” he scoffed. “Only worried that I won’t ‘ave anyone ‘round to scratch me arse if you fuck off with your own fuckin’ cousin. And I don’t reckon the other brother would be so willin’ to wash me bits and bobs, neither.”

I laughed and picked a jug from the ground to scoop water from the basin, washing the lather from his hair. He leaned back against the basin, letting me clean away the dirt and crusted blood while I massaged his scalp. I smiled fondly at him. The wind howled outside and rattled the windowpanes. There was no warmth in this house other than the warmth that came from him whenever I held him, touched him, spoke with him.

Alfie was my warmth in this foreign place out in the fields, a terrain that I had long since forgotten, like I had long since forgotten distant cousins, like I had long since forgotten paper-rings and Bonny Glen, like I had forgotten lions that had long since lost their shine.

“We married when we were children,” I explained softly. He was pliant in my palms. He let me speak, his eyes staring ahead at things that I could not see. “But it was a game for children, then, marriage. Nothing real, just for fun. He made me a little ring out of paper, and I took his surname for the week that we lived in the same field, before we had been separated. His brother died, I remember. Killed for his blood. His family went their own way. Johnny went another, took me along with him. Off to England, soon enough. Perhaps he was afraid for me, after Kelly’s brother had been killed. People hated the Gypsies then as much as they do now, Alfie.”

Despite his jokes, I knew that Alfie was bothered by Kelly Lee and his watchful eye upon me. Kelly had not approached me in any forceful manner, never called me kitten, never even touched me if it was not necessary. But he lingered there, in my peripheral. I often noticed how his eyes followed me and wondered if he had wished for Alfie to die on that bed in a house that was not his own.

“It was a game for children, Alfie,” I murmured, chasing the suds from his skin and smiling at how he relaxed beneath my hands. “And if it had been Kelly Lee that I wanted, I would be there with him now.”

“You prob’ly should be there with ‘im,” he replied, closing his eyes when I kissed his jawline. “Could do with a fuckin’ wash – fuckin’ stinks, ‘e does. Smelled corpses in the trenches with better ‘ygiene than ‘im.”

“Now you’re just being petty.”

He was distracted by my wandering hands, my sleeves becoming damp from dipping beneath the water to reach for him. “Petty? Me? Nothin’ o’ the sort –…” – I gripped him, and he hissed, letting out a surprising moan at my touch – “…fuck, Willa –…”

“Only washing your bits and bobs, like you said. Although perhaps I should stop,” I mused. “You are injured, after all.”

Suffered more wounds in the war,” he said, “than a couple o’ slaps from a wop what ‘its like a little girl. Still me-self, ain’t I?”

I bit lightly at his earlobe and whispered, “Then prove it to me, Alfie Solomons.”

Moonlight filled the hall where Kelly Lee stood and cleaned his guns. His silhouette echoed in blue frost, his shoulders hunched close together over his weapons. Mitchell had gone out into the garden and looked around its hedges, a routine check of the land. He looked for footprints in the soil, peered into the blackness of our surroundings for the flash of white eyeballs.

I thought that Kelly had not noticed me, until he asked, “Won’t you come and join us for some dinner, Willa?”

I followed him into the front-room, where a small pit of stones and dirt had been gathered. A rabbit sliced of its pelt and plucked of its organs lay flaccid and limp across a Persian rug, its glassy eyeballs staring ahead into nothingness. I sat upon a stool much like the stool in the bathroom. He settled in an armchair across from me.

“Remember the first time I saw a car, me,” he said suddenly. “Thought it was some beast with orange eyes, blinking out at me from a laneway. Ran from it like I ran from real beasts. Your man owns a car, Willa.”

“He owns many.”

Kelly nodded. “And what have all those cars brought him, when he lies up there on that bed?”

“Out with it, Kelly.”

He licked his lips. “There are many in our family who think you were wrong to tie yourself to the Jew, chey.”

 “Do you count yourself among them?”

He hesitated, but finally nodded. “You were taken from kin, put in a world that was not yours. Johnny offered you a chance to be welcomed back into it.”

Bristling, I remembered what Johnny had written in his letter: perhaps I might find a Gypsy fellow for you while I am there, in sweet Tipperary. There was much talk after what happened, chey. I looked at Kelly Lee and figured that he had hoped to be that Gypsy fellow and that the talk had come from him as much as it had come from all his kin, because Alfie was both foreign through his non-Gypsy blood and even more foreign for his Jewish faith, all of which made him a prime target for distrust and wariness.

“I have not rejected my kin, Kelly. Only added to it.”

He let out a bitter laugh. “Esther and her lot first, eh? And without them, then, you settle for the Jews.”

“I settle for nothing.”

“And if Solomons had died at the hands of the Italians, would you have married another?”

“I am not married now,” I told him. “And still I would not marry after.”

He drew back into his chair. “What would Johnny think of that, eh?” he asked.

“He would think it a missed opportunity for an open bar at the reception of a wedding that never took place.”

“How do the Jews marry, then?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “With rings and love and lots of dancing. Much like Gypsies, it seems.”

“Not so different after all, is that it?” he smiled, the bitterness drained from his tone. “I lost you a long time ago, chey. It was another place, another time – for children, it was. But if I worry for you, it is only from what Johnny has told us. You took bullets for that man that lies above us. He has already started digging your grave. He will be the one to place you in it, too. He denies it, only because he believes that denial. But I look at him and I see the shovel in his hand and the dirt on his hands already. I know what is coming.”

“You think that you hold the foresight that your grandmother holds, Kelly Lee?” I asked tensely.

“Not all things must come from foresight and Gypsy blood, chey,” he told me, his eyes glistening in the diluted moonlight from beyond the curtains. “Some things come from another kind of knowing, made from something else. Not foresight, but something close to it. Experience, perhaps. I have seen many Gypsies put in ditches by those who could not understand them, Willa. By those who thought they could control them.”

I paused at the mention, however indirect, of his brother. I looked away from his harsh stare and found another portrait across the hall, in a dining-room with patches of mould sprouting from its skirting boards. In it, many horses stood in poses with strong legs lifted and mouths frothing against reigns, twisted bodies turned against stormy skies behind them, tails whipped into powerful frenzies. In the midst of all those horses, there stood a black stallion in perfect stillness.

“I need you to send a letter for me, Kelly Lee,” I said quietly. “And I need you to do it tonight, while Alfie sleeps.”

I told him what I wanted in it and he listened with his mouth held in a tight line, before he eventually pulled another cigarette from his pocket and placed it between his lips. “Adding more to your kin, Willa?”

“No,” I replied. “Not adding. Only rediscovering the kin lost long before my ninth summer.”

Clunking over bumps in the dirt-roads in these rolling fields, the car finally reached much smoother lanes and Alfie straightened tense shoulders, his hand occasionally gripping the seats from the pain which rushed his spine and tightened him at the hip. Sometimes, his eyes rose to glare at the Lee brothers. He had convinced himself that the brothers purposefully drove over hard lumps to bother him. He would have preferred it if a couple of Jewish lads had come out to collect him, I knew. Still, I saw the relief in his eyes at the sight of Camden Town and especially the first glimpse of our house on Ivor Square.

It had been a month since we had seen it; a month that we had spent in that house with rusted buckets and finely-decorated ceilings crumbling to dust.

Opening the door, I held still for a moment and listened. The sound came very suddenly, a loud clacking and a sudden bundle of fur barrelling toward me, smacking right into my stomach and winding me. I held him tightly against me, scratching him and kissing him all over his soft floppy ears.

“Hello, my beautiful boy, how I have missed you,” I mumbled, pressing my face into Cyril’s neck.

“Didn’t even show me that much affection,” Alfie grumbled behind me. “Always for the fuckin’ dog, never for ol’ Alfie –…”

“I showed you plenty, if you recall,” I replied. “In the basin, in the bedroom, in the –…”

“Please, don’t say anymore.”

Both Alfie and I glanced up at Ollie. He walked out of the kitchen with a pained wince on his face, drying his hands on a towel. I burst into laughter and rushed to hug him, squeezing him tightly. Alfie shuffled forward, his limp so pronounced that even a cane could not mask it for the moment, not until it healed properly, because he already had problems with his hip and spine and the Italians had only worsened it.

“If you don’t forget what you ‘eard, Ollie,” Alfie said, passing by him, “you’ll never get that fuckin’ raise.”

“But you already gave it to me,” Ollie mumbled, his eyebrows knitting together in confusion.

I grinned, eyes widening. “Is that right, Alfie? After you told me you’d only think about it?”

“Right, well,” he groaned, “must’a slipped me mind – what with an Italian stompin’ on me skull and all that. Makes you go fuzzy, don’ it, gettin’ your loaf knocked about by a wop?”

“Speaking of loaves, Alfie, about the bakery –…” Ollie started. However, he looked at Alfie and his words died a sudden death.

I glanced behind Ollie and spotted the wounded dip in Alfie’s shoulders once he lifted his foot to pull himself onto the first step of the staircase. I took off my coat and placed it on the stand. I shifted around Ollie and thanked him for taking care of the house before I followed Alfie, gently placing my hands on his arms.

“Come on, Alfie,” I whispered, “your turn to run me a bath now, isn’t it?”

“Do I get to wash ya like you washed me, eh?”

I grinned at the wicked look in his eyes.

Behind us, Ollie called out, “I can still hear you.”

Reaching the top of the staircase, Alfie promptly turned around and said, “Fuck off, Ollie.”

Sometime in the evening, I heard his light breaths and watched his chest rise more gently now, without all those stuttering rasps and pained moans. I stroked his stubble and fixed the collar of his pyjamas, inwardly praying that he might recover even sooner. I was grateful to hold him, touch him, lie beside him in this house – our house, the only home that I had ever really known and the only home that I had ever loved. I leaned forward and pressed a kiss against his cheek, on that patch of stubble which never grew properly.

Then, I stood from the bed and shushed Cyril who tried to trot after me. I bent and kissed him between his eyes and whispered, “You stay here, darling. I need you to take care of our old man, don’t I?”

Cyril returned to his bed, resting his muzzle on his paws and watching me step out into the hall. I closed the door carefully, taking to the staircase with very delicate steps. Ollie was in the guest bedroom, too, probably reading a book since it was still light out. I tread into the hall downstairs and pulled my coat from the pile. I grabbed a scarf and tied it around my throat, wincing after I accidentally bumped against some faded bruises.

I looked at myself in the mirror by the door; there was power in the eyes that looked back at me.

Rich, golden curtains had been draped upon the arch which stood at the entrance, glittering overhead as I stepped into the swirl of heady smoke from cigars and the sweet tang of liquor floating underneath it. Slowly, I walked by couples pressed against walls with legs lifted and hands pressing into certain parts. Pretty girls passed in shimmering dresses with pearls strung around prominent collarbones, clacking in heels with lips pouted in scarlet. Gaudy statues lined the hall, made of large breasts and lithe waists, dreamy expressions contorted in pleasure, hands clasped around bowls of fruit.

I had lined my eyes in blackened kohl but left my lips bare. I wore a black dress, too, plain and made of glinting buttons along its centre. I felt the eyes of patrons looking toward me. It was a predicament for them. I was a Gypsy with tangled, black hair that sprung outward like a mane. However, I was also with Alfie Solomons in all senses, and that made them hesitate to approach and chuck me out of their establishment for fear that he might burn it down within the hour.

Cold, greyish tendrils of smoke parted; he sat between the folds of that same smoke, which had been blown from his own lips.

He seemed to be alone, but I knew that he probably had men all around him, hidden behind the clinking bottles and shrieking fits of laughter from clients whose nostrils had been lined in snow. He had pale, ghostly eyes. The colour reminded me of the light that had filled that house in the countryside, left it void of warmth and love. It made me want to look away from him.

And because of that, I never let my eyes stray from his.

Chey,” he murmured softly, the sound of it soon swept away in the waves of drunken cacophony all around him. “What a pleasure it was to receive your letter – a surprise, as well, I must admit.”

“Well,” I said, settling into my chair and shedding my coat. “I thought it was about time I welcomed my kin to the great city of London.”

I smiled at him and felt the fresh tingle of bad things in my gums once Thomas Shelby returned it.

☼ 

Chapter Text

 fifteen


Thomas Shelby drew faint memories of a bridge; its metal had been crusted in brown flecks from rust, its rafters overhead caved into what resembled a ribcage with beams bowed and bent, along with wooden planks spat downward into the river below with its surface coated in thick patches of algae. It had been on the outskirts of Galway in a field somewhere, consumed by the earth so that all its arches had been swallowed.

It had small ladders along its bottom stones that we could clamber onto and pull ourselves onto the bridge. I could distinctly remember how Tommy had woven his fingers around one another and allow me to push my muddy boots against his palms and push myself onto a ladder with him close behind.

His oldest brother, Arthur, had been there, pushing their only sister upward and holding himself behind her to ensure she could not fall. I had never liked heights, but Ada had never been afraid of anything – all her brothers had learned that before Ada had even reached the age of four. I never remembered much about that trip apart from the jump into the river below.

Arthur had leapt first, his hand latched around Ada so that he would not lose her even in the calm ripple of the water. I had balanced there on a ledge with nails sticking from loosened planks, shards of metal poking from great sheets stripped from the arches, looking into the murky waters beneath and thinking that perhaps I might just climb the ladders until I felt soft, crinkling grass beneath my feet once more.

But Thomas Shelby had held my hand before the fall; its cool dryness had been a comfort.

I turned my head toward him and saw that same coolness reflected in his stare – and his lips twitched upward into a smile made of total mischief before he tugged at my hand and then came the sudden rush of wind whipping against a smile of my own. His hand was still wrapped around mine once we hit the water, drawn into its depths.

I swam through the billow of my skirts around me, dense and like heavy weights soon shed once we reached the muddy shoreline, scrunching our clothes and turning our boots around to drain the puddles of river-water which lined the soles.

Before the war, that had been. Before his father had come into that field in a drunken stupor and tried to haul Ada out by her sleeves and slapped Arthur around the face for stepping between them. The eldest Gypsy men had drawn him away with Johnny leading them far from the children. I could not recall where his brother John had been or what had sparked that cruel tirade from his father.

I suppose those small details had never affected me in the way that moods and atmospheres affected me; the heaviness of the turf and its billowing smoke cast between the murmurs of the Gypsies who spoke of the Shelbys had remained more prominent than the whereabouts of John and the rotten illness of the Shelby father. 

Tommy looked at me now. His lips twitched, but there was no smile there, no faint sign of recollection for that river on the outskirts of Galway in a field somewhere – perhaps he could recall moods and atmospheres better so that all that came from that trip onto the bridge and that leap into the river had been his father asking if Arthur wanted another slap or the sniffles from Ada before she was swept into the arms of the Gypsy women, cooing and clucking and smoothing ruffled sleeves.

Nobody had soothed Tommy whose cool stare drifted far over the fields, beyond his drunken father. I always wondered what he had seen out there on that day that we had leapt from the bridge.

He never told me and I never saw him after that, anyway.

Ireland had whittled into a distant, hazy dream for him. His father had taken them back to Birmingham, never more to set foot on our wet fields and never to answer letters nor calls from certain members of our kin who had tried to calm his father that day. Johnny had become quite blue after those months in which he heard nothing about the Shelbys and refused to even speak about them for a while.

Another thing that I could not recall was the moment in which he had begun to talk about the Shelbys; that had been another mood which looked much like the murky water had just before the fall, and that was all there was to it.

“Willa Sykes,” he breathed out in a cool swirl of cigarette-smoke, “sends me a letter, out of the fucking blue, in which she asks for my presence in a posh little restaurant in London, where the gin is strong and the music rattles in my skull from all that drumming and snapping. And so here we are, the pair of us together in this place. Yet she waits for me to speak first, for Willa Sykes has not changed in the years since we last saw each other.”

I smiled, amused. “Perhaps I am simply surprised that you came at all, Tommy.”

His eyes drifted toward a bar situated behind me, its lavish chandelier dripping strings of golden beads and sprinkling light on the women stood beneath it. “Are you, Willa? Because it seems to me that the only rational deduction that I can make from your sending a letter in the first place must come from the fact that Kelly Lee was recently in London on my behalf. It is widely known in our community that Kelly Lee has never formally married, for his heart is still taken by the young girl who lived with him in our fields many years ago.”

Slowly, he ground his cigarette into the pile of ash and leaned forward, his eyes flashing in the dim light overhead. All the noise behind him faded into a muffled din. His tone was terribly harsh, like the tip of a needle pressed against bare flesh, penetrating into it, drawing blood. I could no longer see the glittering sheets of lights behind him nor hear that droning drumming-and-snapping either, for all I could understand in that moment was Tommy.

If there was truly a scale which tipped between the Jews and Italians in London, then Tommy Shelby stood at its centre and used his own weight to push it to one side, then pushed it to the other when it best suited him.

“Kelly Lee,” he resumed, “had been asked to return to Birmingham soon after he came to London with Johnny Dogs, a fact that I am sure you were well aware of before ever sending that letter. Kelly Lee – again, as I am sure you are aware, Willa – did not come back to Birmingham, because Kelly Lee is soft of heart and sentimental. He clings to the fantasy that you, someday, might marry him because he still remembers you as that little girl in the fields, the same girl who he gave daisies to all those years ago.”

His eyes flashed and I knew that he was aware of all it. I knew that he could, if prompted, describe each step that I had taken through Bell Road that night when all the girls had been murdered and how the staircase had creaked beneath me and he could also trace those weeks before it happened. He could probably count the spools of thread used for the scarves that I had made for Alfie, detail just how the moonlight had felt the night that Alfie had walked me back to the flat, the same night that Esther told me about that man shot which set off the war.  

Tommy could do all of that, if prompted, because he was like a tree with all its roots spilling outward, spindly and trickling out from his place in Birmingham and just now touching the other roots of London; intertwining, overtaking. He knew all of this because he had researched it all before he had come to London and he had already had boys here from the Lee family. The tipping of the scale had stilled.

“It was this fantasy that loosened his lips on matters which would normally not have affected him,” he concluded. “It was Kelly Lee who told you that I have plans to establish myself in London, but it was you who wrote that letter, Willa, because those plans might benefit you in this war with the Italians.”

Finally, Tommy lifted his hand, his tall form slumped in his seat as if all that speech had deflated him, and he murmured to the waiter who quickly scuttled over to take his order. While we waited in perfect silence, watching one another, I thought that Tommy seemed oddly agitated and I was not entirely certain that it came purely from this reunion between us after such a long time apart. His fingertips tapped more frantically against the tablecloth and he pinched his nostrils with the other hand, sniffling and then using that same hand to pull out another cigarette.

With his whiskey placed in front of him, his eyes met mine and he asked, “Did I miss anything, then?”

“Well,” I hummed. “You forgot to say whether or not I was right to think like I did.”

He let out a sigh that reminded me of the sighs that had come from Alfie during those late, quiet evenings in the office spent pouring over documents with lists upon lists of things to be done, all those requests from the people in his neighbourhood and all those threats from those around it. Those things-to-be-done never stayed in the office once its door was locked, but rather rested on his shoulders and came home with us in the car.

“Did you ever think that two Gypsies like us could sit in a posh little restaurant like this one in London, where the gin is strong and the music rattles?” I asked him softly.

“Different world now, Willa,” he said, his stare distant and glazed. “But it seems like there was always some kind of drumming and snapping in it.”

Tommy had aged through more than just time.

I had the sense that what was resting on his shoulders was more than I had anticipated and it was much more than lists of things to be done, for him. I said, “I never sent any lackeys after you, Thomas. I never asked them to check if you had come, never asked them to sit around us now and watch – and for what, anyway? In case you might shoot me? Cross me? I have been shot and I have been crossed, for what it matters. No, Thomas – I did none of that. I knew you would come.”

“And how did you know that, then?”

“For you are soft of heart and sentimental,” I told him. “And because Kelly Lee was not the only boy to bring me daisies.”

His lips twitched again. “Well, Ada lives here now. I thought I could come and visit her, make a little time for you, too. And now all your cards are on the table.”

I glanced at the table with an eyebrow raised. “I see cards, but certainly not all of them.”

“Is that right?” he mused.

“Tell me, Thomas, just what you plan to do in London. Establish yourself, you said. But just where, exactly? Camden Town all through toward Harrow is taken by the Jews. Owned it since the death of Benny Butcher, the Jews, and then you reach Preston Street. Suddenly, you have that little strip of path that separates us from the Italians, South Chester Street. Only Farringdon Road has been an issue between them for quite some time. I think it would suit you quite nicely, that road. Pubs, offices – what else could you want for Shelby Company Limited? But if not, would you go to war against the Jews and the Italians?”

Thomas was silent for a while. Then, he said, “Us.”

I frowned, eyebrows drawn in confusion. I felt a hot rush spread from my throat and splotch my cheeks in a rosy shade once I mulled over my words and realised that I placed myself with the Jewish people, against the Italians. Even separate from him and kin, through my phrasing of it.

Thomas must have had some kindness still left in his heart, for he simply continued, “So, you think all those roads and streets and avenues that the Italians will lose, could be offered to…us.”

Or he had no kindness left at all.

“It seems to me that Alfie Solomons is on the losing side of this war if we were to tally up the scores. If memory serves, Solomons killed a good few Italians, particularly one of Sabini’s best men. Left him outside his front door, I’m told. Solomons bombs his pubs, shoots the kneecaps of all his best jockeys. Sabini, on the other hand, has shot more Jewish men, prevented the remaining Jewish men from working Epsom and other racetracks, burned Alfie’s pubs. And most of all, Willa – he shot you.”

Inwardly, I was fuming at his insults against Alfie, implying that he could not handle some war with the Italians. Still, I tried to maintain an indifferent expression.

I said, “War has casualties, Thomas. I thought you of all people might know that. Did your war with Kimber not have them, too? Always some kind of drumming and snapping in this world.”

He licked his lips, but said nothing more. I knew that if we continued, it would only be another round of back-and-forth with him. So, I stood from my chair and fixed my coat around my shoulders. He watched, drawing from his cigarette in a slow inhale.

“When you next come to visit London, Tommy – and it will be very soon, this visit,” I told him, “then you really ought to consider bringing your brothers to show them the sights. Especially Arthur. I think they would very much enjoy visiting the Eden Club while in town.”

He blew out all that smoke which licked at his skin in tendrils. “I’ll keep that suggestion in mind.”

“And Thomas –…” I leaned toward him, hands placed flat on the table – “…Alfie keeps a gun in the drawer of his desk. But don’t think it’s the only one.”

He smiled; it was one of his warmer smiles, much more familiar and much more like that smile which had followed our jump into murky waters.

Slipping into the hall, I peeled off my scarf and set it on the stand, shrugging off my coat and brushing aside my damp hair. I had walked from the meeting with Thomas, too intent on reciting his words in my mind to care much about the drizzle and damp seeping through the cobbled stones and into my boots. It was already quite late, around ten.

I could hear a faint sound from the kitchen and walked toward it, realising that it was a harsh, crackling static that filled the room and poured outward into the hall. I pushed open the door and found Alfie sat at our table, his hair stuck upward from tossing in his sleep and his skin deathly pale. He had a hand pressed over his mouth, his glazed eyes staring blankly ahead.

It was the radio behind him that buzzed with static, occasionally spitting out words soon swallowed in the sound. I crossed the tiles and turned it off before I finally stood in front of him.

Bending in front of him, I whispered, “Alfie? Are you all right, love?”

He never blinked. He only said, “Did ‘e call ya kitten, hm?”

Hot, horrid nausea flushed through my stomach when he lifted his eyes and looked at me. He stood and caught me at the arms so that I never fell in my surprised stumble, but rather the small of my back bumped against the counter-top and he blocked me.

His hands were still around my arms, loose but present. I was not afraid of Alfie, exactly. I was more afraid of his temper and his inability to think ahead once it clouded him, left him in a fog like that which had rolled across the trenches and filled his foxhole.

“In the car, before you passed out,” he said slowly, “you told Ollie that ‘e ‘ad called you kitten before ‘e fuckin’ kissed ya. Who, Willa?”

I saw the perspiration on his forehead, felt the heat of his skin on mine. “Alfie, you’re not well, you need to –…”

He shook me, just like he had done in the bakery that night and it shook me more to think that this was not the first time that we had fought and that it had become physical; I had slapped him, he had held me against walls and I had pushed him and he had thrown me aside in fights and – and wasn’t it always like that for me, in all the places I had lived before? Johnny had never slapped me, never thrown me about – but Esther – Esther had always hurt and thrown and punched and screamed and – and I did it now, too, pushing him and shoving him just for some space, because I did not like to be held, contained –…

“Fuckin’ tell me, Willa!” he yelled.

I winced from it, it came too close to my eardrum and set off that tinny whistle. I bent from him, hands held over my ears as if that might muffle it and drown it out – like a jar held over a candle with its wick still burning, so that the flame flickered and spun and finally died.

Alfie tried to haul me up and I rolled uselessly against his tight hold, too limp from the whistle to hear him at first, until it came through that whistle and hurt me even more.

“Did you meet Franny, did you? Anyone else there? Before Sabini came along, maybe, spoiled your little date –…”

I recoiled from him, disgusted. “What are you saying, Alfie? I was with somebody else when Sabini – another man? Ollie tells you that and the first thing you think is –…”

“The first thing I think when I wake up, right, is that I look ‘round and only Cyril is fuckin’ lookin’ back at me,” he snarled. “And I ask Ollie – ‘e don’t know, but what’s fuckin’ new there? And ‘e calls Franny, but she ain’t ‘eard from you neither – and you come back smellin’ like whiskey and cigarette smoke?”

I almost laughed; almost, but held it in because his expression was thunderous and I had always feared thunder as a child, rolling over those mountains, rolling toward me. He was still holding me and I knew that there was little point in pushing him away because he only ever moved if he wanted to move. He allowed the pushes and the slaps, a futile attempt to shove him off, but Alfie was bulkier. I was so hurt, too, that I looked at him and felt the bitterness build from somewhere in my throat.

“I have only ever been loyal to you, Alfie Solomons,” I croaked. “Faithful.”

“Then where did you go, hm?”

“I can’t go for walks now,” I said. “I can’t go to market-stalls, either, not like I used to. I get accosted by men whose sons lost their eyes for you. I can’t go to bars, because your enemies come and find me. I can’t come home, because you stand here and accuse me of terrible things. Where should I go?”

“I’m sure Kelly fuckin’ Lee would take ya in,” Alfie snapped. “Followin’ you ‘round more than Cyril does, that fuckin’ pikey –…”

His mouth moved but the sounds did not come out, because he had heard himself and his eyes filled with instant regret. He stepped away from me. Finally, he stepped away from me. He hit the table behind him, bumped against it and looked oddly lost, his eyes lowering to the ground, dazed.

I let out a small hum. “He would. He would take me back to my pikey family in our pikey fields and I would have all his pikey babies. I would steal for us, because that is what pikeys do, isn’t it, Alfie? In between making the pikey medicine that soothes the ache in your bones, of course, the same fucking medicine that I have rubbed into your skin for months. But I’m sure that in between all that, I was off gallivanting with all the pikey men, because maybe that father was right – a Gypsy is only ever a bog-trotter, a thief, a whore –…”

“Stop it,” he whispered, still not looking at me.

“All the time you spent in France, did you think I was with other men, too? When you came back in that first month and never spoke to me, was I with them then? Kelly Lee and Mitchell Lee and all the fucking Lees on this earth, every last one of them – to have all their pikey fucking babies, Alfie –…”

I was rattling with anger, so riddled with it that I was cornering him instead and he contorted against the table, his skin now completely flushed and his breath panting from the effort of standing, from his pain.

“Your jealousy consumes you but it will never consume me,” I spat at him.

And I was hurt. It stung so badly, his jealousy and distrust, that I cried from it and I hated to cry from it, this hatred only inducing even more tears from rasping sobs. I sat on the chair beside the table, scrunching the cuffs of my blouse to brush away the tears. I watched a clock in the corner, unseeing, my eyes sore and tired from tears.

“You will never be happy with a Gypsy,” I told him. “You should have found yourself a Jewish girl. Still time for you to do it.”

He was very quiet. He pulled out another chair and dragged it toward mine, set it just in front of mine and sat there, his elbows resting on his knees as he leaned forward.

“Don’t want a Jewish girl,” he murmured weakly. His hand reached to squeeze my thigh, and his chin dipping against his chest when I did not respond. “Got me girl right ‘ere, don’ I?”

“Do you?”

He sucked in a breath. “We’ll have Margate, Willa –…”

I let out a low, pained groan and hid my face with my hands. “Margate, Margate – fucking Margate – always with this fucking fantasy in your head. I want it too, Alfie – but what does it matter when you never trust me? You trust Ollie more than you trust me!”

“Don’t trust Ollie to 'old a loaf of bread, me,” he replied, maintaining a light and dismissive tone in an attempt to placate me, “and we ain’t even got any in the bakery, mind –…I told Franny, don’t let ‘im ‘old that sprog of yours, can’t even ‘old a pair o’ scissors without doin’ ‘imself a mischief, our Ollie…”

“We’ll never have kids of our own,” I said absently.

Alfie was very stiff, his eyes flighty and unsure. “D’you want ‘em, Willa?”

I was not sure why those words had come out. I was combing through other things, thrown by Alfie's accusations and from seeing Tommy for the first time in a while, from thinking that Alfie was dead at the hands of the Italians, finding out Franny was pregnant – all of these things swirled together and the words had simply fallen out in the midst of it all.

“Neither son nor daughter, in this world,” I told him, grinding my clenched fist against my forehead to smooth out all the thoughts crinkled there. “You said that.”

“Willa,” he mumbled weakly.

“It was a copper,” I said suddenly. “Sabini sent him to beat me in the alleyway after we spoke in that pub and the copper held me up against the wall and tried to kiss me. I tore off his lip with my teeth. He called me a pikey, too. A pretty one, he said.”

Alfie fell from the chair on his knees and pressed his hands into mine, drew them against his chest and listened with fury furrowing through his jaw, grinding it, filling him up until he spilled over.

“And I bit his lip,” I continued slowly. “I felt his blood in my mouth and I swallowed it. He wanted to kill me. He put a gun to my head and if it were not for one of the other Italian men who stopped him – he would have done it, I know. Because he hates pikeys like you hate pikeys.”

“I don’t,” he protested. “I don’t, love –…”

“And you know, maybe you’re right. Kelly Lee would take me in, all right. I would have all his pikey babies, like I told you. Because we will never have kids of our own, Alfie, never hold a child made of me and you, together. And maybe Kelly Lee and I would be happy, in our little caravan somewhere. I would be Willa Lee like I was before, as a little girl. And you would still be here, Alf, and the world would go on anyway, like it went on during the war. But it was a copper who kissed me, who called me kitten, like –…”

I choked on it, felt it constrict my throat, that dreaded name.

“Like what?”

“Like Yaxley did.” I ducked my head from him, ashamed. “I never wanted his name to be said in this house, Alfie. I wanted it cleansed of all that he did. I wanted one part of me to exist, just one part that he hadn’t spoiled. But here he is.”

“Yaxley is gone, Willa,” Alfie hissed. “Dead. And if ‘e ain’t, I’ll find ‘im, and I’ll –…”

“Kill him,” I finished for him. “And what difference would it make, Alfie? He's up here" - I tapped at my head - "So, just leave it, now.”

“I’m sorry.”

It was rare for him to apologise with proper words rather than gestures.

“All right.”

“I mean it.”

“I know.”

I stood from the chair and left the kitchen before he could say more. I reached the stand where my scarf dripped a blooming puddle on our floorboards and glanced up to see that he was still there. He knelt on the ground and his hands tore at his hair, scratched at the skin of his throat as he looked up at the ceiling and then slammed his palms flat against his temples.

I turned and left him there.

In the morning, I rolled onto his side of the bed and found it bare; his familiar warmth lingered across those wrinkled bed-sheets, his scent pressed into the pillow. I lay there for a little while, arms out-stretched. I scrubbed my hands over my sleepy eyes and finally hauled myself from the bed, padding toward the bathroom for a wash. I opened the wardrobe afterward and pulled out a lilac dress, soft and gentle against my skin.

Then, I noticed a couple of dresses were not there. I looked around for newer boots, plucked from their spots. Still, I went downstairs and he had already left. Fiddling with the bent collar of my coat, I opened the front door with one hand and stepped out. I had not noticed him at first, until I fixed that collar and glanced up with a huff to blow aside a frustrating strand of hair from my face.

Alfie stood at the bottom of the steps with suitcases around his feet. I felt my stomach clench in fear, my hands clammy and my legs turned funny. I thought of all those dresses torn out from that wardrobe while I slept and my boots along with them.

I’m sure Kelly fuckin’ Lee would take ya in.

“Get in the car, Willa,” Alfie called out. “Been waitin’ ages for ya, me trotters are achin’ and I wanna get us on the road, don’ I?”

Taking a cautious step forward, I replied, “Where are we going?”

“Margate.”

“Margate,” I repeated dumbly. “What about the bakery, the house, Cyril –…”

Popping his head from the backseat, Cyril panted and drooled all over. Alfie reached through the open window to scratch him, letting his drool drip all over his wrists and soak his cuffs. Alfie had never cared too much about things like that.

“Ain’t a thing to worry ‘bout with the ‘ouse and the bakery. Got Ollie for that lot, don’t we?”

“Last night you said you wouldn’t trust him to hold a loaf of bread.”

Alfie looked around himself. “Well it’s a good thing I ain’t got any bread on me, ain’t it?”

I laughed, rolling my eyes at him. “Alfie, you don’t have to –…”

“No, Willa, darlin’ - I ain’t always fair on ya,” he said. “I know that. So – let me be fair to ya for once. Let me take ya to Margate. Won’t be some poxy fantasy then, will it?”

Cyril whined and dipped behind the door where I could not see him.

“Besides, if you leave me with the fuckin’ dog, I’ll do me nut in,” Alfie added. “All ‘is fartin’ and snorin’ – be like I brought Ollie with me instead o’ you. Proper nightmare. Got all your dresses in the suitcases, but you can go starkers if you like, I wouldn’t complain…”

“All right, Alfie.”

He grinned and opened the door of the car for me. “In you pop, my lady.”

Gushing through the window, a warm, salty breeze brushed through my hair and swept over my skin, my lips lifted into a bright smile, a hand held over his while he drove us between country lanes toward Margate and Cyril stuck his head from his window, slobbering and panting against the heat. There had been sun in my childhood and small glimpses of it in between that old time before womanhood had come, but here it was and it set my soul alight.

I felt like gold; shining, powerful. The sunlight poured over him, too, brought out those faint blond strands in his beard and made him smile more than he ever had.

He pulled over for strawberries sold on the side of the road, shared between us; the juice ran along our chins and all down our wrists, staining our shirts, but never did we think to care about it. Afterward, we wound through a street dotted in small, cute little shops with stalls in front; huge crowds strolled by, couples linked at the arms, ice-creams shared between them. I saw the sign, printed bright before us: MARGATE.

Sinking into the sand, I took out my boots and went barefoot for the first time in a while, leaping about and kicking at it, wanting to feel every grain against my skin. All over the beach, large sun-chairs were thrown around with people lounging beneath the first glimpse of summertime in this country. It was rare in England for there to be even a drop of heat, and it seemed that Margate kept all the droplets in her fold. Boats drifted over gentle waves in the distance, so that I had to scrunch my fists over my eyes against the harsh sun, looking  at those distant sails in wonder.

Alfie was behind, the bottom of his pants rolled up and Cyril plodding alongside him. He had bought us ice-cream and I took mine from him, snorting once he bent to let Cyril take a lick from it. Alfie never cared for stuff like that, either. He had never cared what others thought of him, not that anybody knew him then. He had strolled along the beach and looked out at that horizon. I hopped onto a small, cobbled wall and balanced there.

Automatically, he lifted a hand for me, helping me to hold myself on its rocky parts. I slipped slightly, skimmed my kneecaps. He pressed a kiss there and onward we went, until we had looped the beach and started back again onto the pier.

I went to jump from the wall, but his arm looped around my legs, just beneath my bottom and he spun me around onto the sand, grinning at my startled shriek.

“That one,” he said, his stubble scratching my jaw.

I looked down at him. “What d’you mean, Alfie?”

“That ‘ouse up there,” he replied, pointing up at a house settled on a hill far beyond the shops. “That will be ours, when we move ‘ere.”

Seagulls flew overhead with soft caws and old newspaper fluttered across the street in a crisp breeze. Beneath that wooden pier, I watched the water lap at the shoreline in wisps of foam. Eventually, we sat at the very end of the pier and looked at that blanket of endless blue ahead. He brought cotton-candy in lilac cones that matched the colour of my dress.

Melting in our mouths, I remembered that hazy time before the war when we had spun around a carousel and the world had spun with us, around and around until it all blurred together.

I pulled off strips of cotton-candy and fed him, laughing when he tried to bite at my fingers. It became a little game between us, to pull away fast enough that he could not catch me. It bloomed into a proper game then, like children, when I stood and tried to dart around him, but he soon caught me at the waist and spun me right back around. Cyril ran around us, tail wagging back and forth, barking as he tried to jump at Alfie.

“Oi, fuck off, you,” Alfie tutted. “I feed ya every fuckin’ day and still you prefer ‘er over me, don’t ya, ya little traitor –…”

“Put me down, Alfie,” I laughed breathlessly, slapping at his hands. “You’ll do your back in again!”

“Oh, don’t be worryin’ ‘bout my fuckin’ back – I’m still ‘ere, ain’t I? Can carry you an’ all, I can,” he grinned, spinning us around wildly. “And the day that we move ‘ere, I’ll carry you up that fuckin’ ‘ill an’ all to that ‘ouse up there, I’ll paint all its walls whatever colour you want, yeah, I’ll even let you pick your side o’ the fuckin’ bed – not that you won’t just push me outta it when you’re sleepin’ like you do now – and then I’ll put in all the furniture –…”

“Or you’ll get the boys to do it,” I grinned at him.

He stopped our spinning, settling me on the ground and helped steady me. “Won’t be no boys with us just like there ain’t none now, Willa. I meant it – I won’t do the bakery no more, won’t sell rum. I’ll sit in an armchair, right, and ‘ire someone to do some massages for me back and ‘ip –…”

I slapped his shoulder. “Hire who, exactly? A woman, is it?”

In a higher pitch, he replied, “Your jealousy consumes you –…”

“Oh, that is not how I sound! You always do that voice, I sound nothing like that.”

“Right, well, it’s me and Cyril what ‘ear you shriekin’ the most ‘round the ‘ouse, so I feel like we’d be the best judges o’ that, wouldn’t we boy?”

Cyril had become distracted by some chips left in a newspaper wrapping at the far-side of the pier. He had stuffed his face into that newspaper which slapped at him and we could hear his loud slobbering.

Alfie rolled his eyes. “Sounds just like Ollie when he’s chompin’ on a butty in the mornin’.”

“You leave him alone. Run ragged, is Ollie. Could do with a holiday to Margate of his own.”

“In ‘is fuckin’ dreams is Ollie comin’ ‘ere. No. I’d throw me-self off that fuckin’ pier before I let ‘im ‘ere, ‘specially when Franny pops out that sprog and it follows us ‘round screamin’ and shittin’ and –…” He caught my warning glance and pursed his lips. “And we will ‘appily look after it, to give ‘em a small break – very small, that is, with a bakery to run.”

I reached up to kiss him and stroked his hair, resting my hand on the nape of his neck and pulling our foreheads together. “I knew you were soft.”

“Soft,” he nodded. “Made me that way, you did.”

I patted his stomach. “Think that was all the ice-cream and cotton-candy that you ate, Alf.”

“Oi, cheeky fuckin’ mare,” he grinned. “Bring ‘er to Margate and what does she do? Break me fuckin’ ‘eart.”

There had never been a war, I decided, neither one in Europe nor another in London with the Italians. Instead, there was only a distant hum faraway over that horizon, but it never mattered because nothing could reach us on this beach in Margate, where sandcastles were made and washed away in the tide by smiling children, where lovers stretched out across their chairs to drink in the last of the dying sun; we were there amongst them, because all the sunshine in our lives had been held in Margate.

Chapter Text

 sixteen


 

Vibrant ribbons of canary-yellow sunlight reached through the cotton curtains and sprinkled the rugs on the floorboards, stirring us from sleep with paper-eyelids flickered open against that harsh light. I felt him shift and awaited the first touch his hand around my arm to pull me toward him. Soon, it came; the warmth of his chest, moulded against the curve of my spines. His chin rested against my hair. I relished in the scratch of his stubble against my skin, the roughness of his fingertips drawn along my arms, settling there on bare skin.

Half-asleep, I turned toward those looming doors which led out onto our balcony, overlooking the ocean beneath. Last night, we had stayed there and watched its whitish curls of foam and froth swirl below our feet, licking at its own shoreline, its own cliffs; eroding itself, over and over.

Slowly, I traced his jawline, outlined his lashes and pressed my fingertips against his lips. He pretended to bite off my fingers, nibble at my wrists, turned into kisses peppered along my arms. His eyes trailed toward that black, rounded dot embedded in the back of my arm from a bullet wrenched out by nurses in white masks, hands gloved and foreign.

Gently, I touched those smaller patches of dried skin all along his forehead, fluttering from him in little shreds of white, those patches which had blossomed around his nape and just beneath his hairline.

Gripping his hair, I felt the heat of his bare skin on mine once he was pulled flush against my chest, felt his hands drift along the dip of my spine, as if the vertebrae were the chords of some instrument strummed beneath his languid fingers. I brushed against the golden flecks of his stubble with the tip of my nose, breathed the scent of him and finally kissed his lips.

In this dreamlike existence, I spoke against his skin and dared say, “Stay here. Leave behind that old life in London, it has never been worth its hassle. Tell Ollie that he can take it., it can all be his now – or he can sell it, for he will have children of his own to protect. Stay here, with me.”

Soon, it came; he untangled himself from me, lifted himself from our warmth. He stumbled toward those shutters and fastened the latch so that all the light was smothered, barely straining through the wooden slits. I watched him shift the suitcases and whistle for Cyril while I remained on that mattress with arms outstretched, until he came to summon me.

He wore an old shirt that I had made him, and he held his round black hat in his hands. His eyes had grown cold. The gold had been plucked from his stubble and it left him mean, for something had soured his mood.

“Willa,” he called, “get a move on, yeah.”

There was warning in his tone. I was resting against those pillows with my eyes latched onto his dark silhouette across the bedroom. I saw the flash of his eyes once I remained motionless, simply watching him. He stepped further into the bedroom. The suitcases sat by an idling car. Alfie had made that perfectly clear, because there was always an idling car in his peripheral. There was always motion for him; even in Margate.  

“Whistle for me like you whistled for the dog, Alfie,” I told him.  

He sucked his lip between his teeth and bit down hard, his jaw set. “I’ll sit in that car and wait for ya, Willa. But if you ain’t out in an ‘our, I’ll take the dog and I’ll fuckin’ leave without ya, right –…” – he turned on his heel and marched out, so that his words echoed in the hall – “…and then you can follow the sound of my fuckin’ whistlin’ all the way back to London, can’t ya?”

In the car, he tried to place his hand over my thigh, but I curled away from him and looked out at the passing fields between those countryside towns with neat gardens and wells. London was there behind it all, hidden in a plume of blackened smoke which furled upward and festered in our lungs. Apart from myself, Ollie was just about the only other person who had witnessed these odd spells in Alfie that came in unexpected waves. Most people only ever saw glimpses of his humour or his temper, or some strange blend of both. Alfie had always had other feelings which brewed beneath the surface of his eyes. His own foam and froth lay around his pupils.

Blue moods, Ollie called them, because Alfie walks around as if the world is made of one colour and that colour is blue.

In the hall of our house, I pulled off my coat and felt the sudden and hollow emptiness in my chest at the loss of Margate, because it had felt like a loss. I had withered at the sight of London and its alleyways, its streets and its squares like a map etched into my skin so that I felt at every turn, at every corner, at every aching crawl toward that familiar bleakness which never quite reached Ivor Square, spared from all that darkness in the city. Still, I had wanted Margate because I was afraid of what might come now that we had returned to our old town. I was afraid for him.

Behind me, he said, “Leave me be, Willa.”

Slamming the door behind him, his blueness stuffed the kitchen to the brim. Cut off from him, its dense blueness seeped from that narrow slit around the door frame, and I stepped into the staleness of the living-room to escape it. I looked at its looming windows left unopened for the past two weeks, its curtains barely drawn.

I settled in an armchair and left them all like that, because I felt the first lick of blue myself, lashing at the tattered leather of my old boots and curling upward until all of me had been consumed in its coldness. I scrubbed a hand over my face and looked outward at those passing smudges of colour which dashed beyond our window, umbrellas held over expressions dropped low toward the cobbled streets, made of deep greens blended into fresh purples and smears of blackened paint, as if I stood in the vast halls of some gallery, observing.

Soon, it came: that harsh crackle of white noise from the kitchen which echoed into the house, startled its dust and frightened its furniture – frightened me with its sudden buzzes and ticking clicks, words thrown frantically into its fuzzed sound and tossed aside just as quickly.

If paper had been placed before me, a pencil left in my limp hand, then perhaps I could have sketched him in that kitchen even if I was not able to see him. I imagined him there, with chair drawn over those tiles toward the radio tucked in the corner of our kitchen, having rested his heaviness on that wooden frame with the dial turned until static bloomed loudest over all those other voices muted in all that other sound.

Shoulders hunched, elbows pressed into his thighs, he would lean forward and grasp his hair like I had done for him just that morning in Margate, before he pressed his right ear against the radio until it hurt him to hear all that crackling and popping – that drumming and snapping. Then and only then might he allow himself to smile in contentment because all other thoughts had been crushed in the riptide which crashed around his head and swept away all memories of trenches from the shoreline; eroding himself, over and over.

And I left him be.

For a moment, I had been adrift in that ocean of static so much that I barely heard the faint tinkling of the telephone. I went into the hall, plucked the telephone from its cradle and placed it against my ear, thinking that it might be Ollie – and it was all right, if it was Ollie, because he might catch that harsh crackle from the other end, and he would understand all this blueness in our house.

Only it was not Ollie, but rather the feminine whisper of a smoker with rasping warmth in her tone. She said, “The tide is turning. Find Ada on Ripley Street tomorrow. Might be working, or she might be with her Communist pals. And chey - bring yourself a gun.”

Then came silence. It was such a complete and all-consuming silence that it hit me suddenly and I fumbled with the telephone, spooked by the scuff of shoes behind me. I turned to find him stood at the threshold of the kitchen, because the radio had been switched off. He looked much better, in spite of all his blueness. His bruises had faded into yellowish stains and his hip fared better with a little sunshine soaked into his bones.

And still his hand always searched for that cane often left alongside him.

“Who was it, Willa?”

I swallowed, setting the telephone in its cradle. “Franny just called to ask if I might come with her on Friday to see Ruth and the other ladies.”

Lodging itself between the rungs of my esophagus, that lie was like some hideous lump from a disease and it bloomed larger and larger at the dip in his shoulders – because he believed me, and that was worse than all the rest of it.

He grumbled, “Be good for you, love. Jewish women make good biscuits and cake, hm, could bring me some when you come ‘ome.”

It was an olive-branch of an apology held out between us, and I knew that there was a lot worse to be said for certain soldiers in this country, especially those left behind in London. I had heard of wives beaten and bloodied, falsely taken for enemies in the first fuzzy moments after a nightmare. I had heard of husbands wandering into fields with guns in their pockets, raised against temples, painting the sunflowers in more than just blueness.

So, I went to him and I touched the lapels of his coat still on him, for he had not taken it off.I felt its dampness from the drizzle outside, slipping my hands beneath its shoulders to pull it from him. I draped it over the stand and felt his hands rest on my hips, pulling us together and swaying us from side to side, although there was no tune sung and no rhythm to explain his gentle movements.

Softly, I kissed his forehead and felt the wrinkles of his forehead smooth against my lips, felt his body sag against mine.

“Be good for you to make some more friends,” he said. “Get out the ‘ouse, away from the bakery.”

“I happen to like the house and the bakery,” I murmured, smiling.

In another slow spin, he turned us, his hand now grasped around mine and holding it aloft, while his other hand still held my hip. He hummed against my hair. “You just fancy the gentleman what owns that ‘ouse and what runs that bakery, I should think.”

“You think that, do you?” I replied. “You’re a very presumptuous man, Alfie Solomons.”

“Some call me that, yeah,” he said. “Others just call me a cunt.”

I burst into laughter. His lips twitched, but it never quite reached his eyes. We swayed around and around the hall. I leaned my cheek against his chest, and he rested his chin against my hair.

“Bet you wanted to call me that this mornin’, didn’t ya? Ruined Margate for ya, I did.”

“I can’t pretend to know or understand what you feel, Alfie,” I told him, “But I know that France is just as real for you now as it was those first few days after you came back to England.”

“More than France,” he muttered. “More than France, in me ‘ead. Got lots of things up ‘ere, rattlin’ in me skull. In Margate, I ‘ad a dream –…”

I sensed his hesitation and looked up at him through my lashes, drinking in that discomfort which marred his handsome features. He never liked to talk about nightmares nor dreams – Gypsy talk, he called it, lacking that usual spite in his tone. Instead, he always displayed some strange wariness whenever it came to Gypsies and dreams. I believed in dreams and foresight, believed in feelings and moods, but Alfie thought himself more practical.

Yet both of us knew that if it was a Jewish woman who had told him the same thing that a Gypsy might have told him, he would have been more inclined to believe it.

If God wants you dead, Willa, he once said, ‘e don’t send a fuckin’ goat in your dreams to tell ya, does ‘e? ‘e sends a fella ‘round with a gun or a knife, and your throat bein’ slit open should be enough of a fuckin’ message for ya. Not some fuckin’ riddle that a Gypsy will charge you five pounds to un-fuckin’-ravel.

It was just about the only time that I had laughed more than I had gotten angry with him for mocking Gypsy traditions, and even he had been surprised by it.

“What happened in the dream, Alf?” I prodded lightly, smoothing hair from his forehead, now lined in wrinkles from his furrowed brow.

“I dreamt that I was walkin’ ‘round a field in France, ‘round all them soldiers left behind with letters for Mum still in their pockets,” he answered absently, “and I saw a wreath in all that mud, withered and made of twigs. All its flowers had been pulled off. I saw ‘em in the soil, them petals. And then I looked down at me own ‘ands and realised that I was the one pluckin’ ‘em off in the first place. ‘ad been all along.”

From the kitchen behind us, I could hear the dripping of the faucet, not fully turned. It was a hard bead of water splattered against porcelain, resembling the heavy ticking of a clock. It grew steadily louder, louder and louder.

I was certain that Alfie could not hear it in the same way that I could hear it.

“I looked down at me legs, then,” he continued, “…and saw that I was runnin’ through snow, sinkin’ into it, feelin’ it right up to me thighs. I ‘eard the sound of cloppin’ ‘ooves comin’ from over the ‘ills behind me, ‘ills what weren’t there before. There were Cossacks atop them ‘ills with their ‘orses, comin’ for me. I was lookin’ at my legs like I looked at me ‘ands, like I weren’t the one movin’ ‘em, but I was runnin’ all the same. Chasin’ me through the snow, they were, like – like me Mum was chased, ‘unted like some animal in the wild. And that was what was ‘appenin’ to me, too. I knew it, without ever really thinkin’ ‘bout it.”

I had not realised just how much my hands trembled until I held them against his chest, and he pressed his over mine to settle me. I felt his fear, as if he really was still running through that field from Cossacks over the hills, composed in some feverish dream. I was more disturbed by the hazy fog which clouded his eyes and which drew him deeper into a world of wreaths and petals.

Finally, he said, “I ran until there weren’t nothin’ more for me to do but turn ‘round and face ‘em. And I did. I turned right ‘round, but all them Cossacks were gone – in their place, stood in all that snow, were all the soldiers what ‘ad been on the ground before, just standin’ there – starin’ at me. Never sayin’ nothin’, not one word, but just – just watchin’ me. They were all Jewish, Willa. I knew it somehow. No one said it, but I knew it, just like I could understand them without them sayin’ nothin’.”

The telephone rang once more, shooting through me and making me jolt in surprise. He squeezed my hands and then released me in order to reach for it. I felt the thudding of my heart at the prospect that it might be that sultry, rasping voice speaking to him, but felt lighter once he rolled his eyes at me, mouthing the words: Only Ollie.

I nodded, smiling weakly.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell, Ollie. I’ll sort it tomorrow. What d’you want me to do, come down the bakery now? In me fuckin’ underwear, I am,” he muttered.

I raised an eyebrow at him, tilting my chin at his trousers and shirt.

He waved me off with one hand, trying to hear Ollie. “Margate? Well, it’s Margate, mate. What can I say about it? Too many fuckin’ seagulls tryin’ to nick me fuckin’ chips, innit. Could ‘ave put a chapter in the ‘oly Book ‘bout Margate. They forgot to mention that when Satan fell, ‘e fell right onto that beach in Margate, didn’t ‘e?

He winked at me and I rolled my eyes, climbing halfway up the staircase and leaning over the banister to watch him beneath me, hoping that he might finish soon and we could finally go to bed.

“Yeah, yeah. Glad to be back, I am. Knew the place would fall apart without me.” He turned from me, distracted by whatever it was that Ollie was telling him on the other end. “Yeah, and you tell Franny that Willa will be there on Friday for Ruth’s little shindig, yeah? No matter ‘ow much she tries to wiggle out of it.”

I felt that lump become heavier and heavier. It held me against the staircase and even once he hung up on his end, it was there, crushing me, consuming me. I swallowed through the pain of it and said, “Margate was Hell, was it?”

“Only said that so Ollie wouldn’t try come and visit us once we move there, didn’t I? Always thinkin’ ahead, me,” he retorted.

Somehow it brought me great joy to witness that puff in his chest and that focus in his eyes once Ollie had told him all that he had missed in the bakery while we were away. Ollie had read out an entire list of those things-to-do and it seemed to do Alfie the world of good to hear it, despite his feigned annoyance. And I thought about how much I had loathed our return to London, yet I had never been happier to see him happy.

That is love, I decided. The purest and most simple part of love; to want only for him to be happy. Even if it means choking on the fucking fumes of London and never really moving to stay in Margate, so long as it settles all that hurt in him to be here instead.

“Didn’t wanna tell ‘im neither,” Alfie started, taking the first step onto the staircase. I sensed a sudden playfulness in him, coming from the crouch in his body and how he looked as if he might leap at me, a rush of very bizarre, very girly excitement sparked through me. “…that I ‘ad quite the time with the most beautiful fuckin’ woman in all of England. Never left our fuckin’ bed, we did –…”

His hand stretched for my leg and I scooted my bottom up onto the next step behind me to escape him, thrilled by his grin. His blueness was left at the bottom of the stairs, cast aside like our gloves and hats had been, shed and left there while we climbed higher and higher.

“Only England?” I asked coyly.

I squeaked once his hand wrapped itself around my ankle and tugged me back down, my bottom smacking against the step. I leaned forward and nipped at his lower lip, dragging it between my teeth before I released it. He loomed over me and I felt his heat like I had felt it this morning in Margate and my head tipped back to let him touch and hold and love.  

He gripped me under my legs and pulled me up and never did he listen if I warned him about his back, bringing us into the bedroom and pushing me onto our bed in his haste, tugging at my stockings, fiddling with the buckle of his belt. He crawled over me, caged me beneath him, aroused and more than happy to show it once he pressed himself against me, kissing at my throat.

“The whole fuckin’ world,” he corrected. “And all them other worlds beyond it.”

Clacking against the cobbled streets, my boots were wet and slick from the puddles left behind in that downpour that had lasted throughout the night. I had slept in while Alfie left for the bakery. I told him that I would unpack and deal with all the clothes, our washing and drying and chores. He had not thought too much about it, because he knew that I liked to sort his shirts and socks, the ones that I had made him. I liked our house to look its best even without visitors, because it was the only house that I had ever loved – ever called home, too.  

In another sense, Ireland had been home once, too. It was those wagons that had brought us over dirt-roads, and it was the first scent of dew in those hazy mornings spent in a field with all my kin. But that had been a long time ago, before Esther and Bell Road. I often thought of Johnny and hoped that he was safe, wherever he was on this earth.  

I touched the gun in my pocket and hoped the same for myself.

I had taken it from beneath the bedframe where Alfie had hidden it. He had guns hidden all around the house. He kept one at my bedside, too. I left that one in its place. I thought it might be the first one that he would notice if he came home earlier than he usually did. Alfie usually stayed at work well into the late hours, but it had taken him a while to leave this morning and I prayed it might delay him all the more, especially because it was his first day back at the bakery.

Turning onto Ripley Street, I was that it was mostly offices and a handful of flats dotted in between. I was not sure which one belonged to Ada, if any of them did, or if I was supposed to stand around and wait for her. So, I leaned against a wall and hoped that there were not many coppers around who might try and move me – or worse, if they worked for Sabini.

I knew that I had not told Alfie about that whispering voice because I had been quite certain of its owner. It was, of course, the same woman who wore more kohl around her eyes than even I did, whose pale lips parted only to speak in riddles and warnings, whose hands were always poised to hold a cigarette: Polly Gray.

Distantly, I had known her and watched her carefully in my childhood, for even then I had known that any person with an ounce of sense in them should have always kept Polly in their peripheral. I admired all her charm and wit – many a Gypsy man had fallen at the feet of Polly Gray, and she had only smiled and lifted her boot to push them further into the mud.  

Yet Ada had only been a girl the last that I had seen her. There had been no charm and wit in her then, just skinned knees and laughter while we ran through the wildflowers with her brothers, before their drunken father had come and spoiled it. He had carted them back off to England, and that had been the end of it.

Tommy had mentioned that she was in London. I was mildly surprised by it. She had left behind her brothers and their supposed business. She had left behind Birmingham in its misery. I had once asked Alfie if he had ever visited Birmingham and he replied: Dante wrote that there were nine circles in ‘ell, right. But ‘e were wrong, weren’t ‘e, ‘cause there’s ten circles – the tenth one is Birming’am.

“Get the fuck off me!”

Glancing over the tops of cars, I saw men file from a building across the street from where I stood. A hard bolt of fear rippled through me and left me oddly liquid, my legs all funny and fumbling to move forward, my mouth dried out. I feared men that grabbed and tussled like those men did with the women held between them, hauling her toward an idling car – because there was always an idling car.

And I felt the stickiness of the gun in my hand, sticky from my sweating palm pressed against it.

And I saw that it was Ada in their arms.

And so I stepped forward.

I stepped forward and forward, until I looked down at my legs and saw them already moving – and I was lookin’ at my legs like I looked at me ‘ands, like I weren’t the one movin’ ‘em, but I was runnin’ all the same – and there was a terrible itchiness spreading along my wrist, setting me alight, an itchiness which came from the realisation that I had never properly shot a weapon, never wanted to shoot the wild hares out in the fields like my boy-cousins had done, never wanted to hurt another creature nor see its blood froth and foam, licking at me, upward and upward –…

I fired.

The recoil was sudden. The cracking bang of the gun startled me even more, so that I almost dropped the damned thing but held onto it anyway because all my bones had tightened, solidified, all my joints welded together. I saw shards of glass sprinkling the floor before I heard another shot. I realised, quite faintly, that I was not the one who shot the second time.

Dust blew from the bullet hole which sank into the wall alongside me, shimmering spots of white fluttering onto the footpath, like the white curtains had fluttered in Margate around the doors that led onto our balcony and looked out onto that great ocean.

I looked at it, that hole in the wall behind me. It had almost gone through my left hip. I would never have walked again if it had.

I remembered an arch yawning over me.

Turning back around, I saw that car race forward from Ripley Street onto Cheston Avenue, turning in a wild spin. I ran after it, in some stupid attempt to chase her, as if I might keep pace with a car whizzing away from me.

But I had seen hands reaching out for her like a jar in a pantry and I had seen her spoiled. I heard her let out the kind of screams that I had never been able to release when it happened to me in that same place with calls of kitten.

Perhaps that was the reason for which I ran after that car. I was much more out of the breath than I would have been years beforehand after all those times running from coppers with the girls behind me – more out of breath from our laughter at those furious coppers left behind a fence that they could not climb to catch us, from coppers who stumbled and fell in their useless attempts to squeeze through a gap in another fence like we could; breathless, too, from our ribcages being bruised so badly that we could not breathe too quickly or too much without stuttering gasps of pain coming out instead.

That came whenever we were caught.

You just have to make sure you never get caught, Esther once told me. And if you do, you just have to hope they don’t kick hard enough to kill you this time.

I heard the crash before I saw it.

It happened on Cheston right before I turned onto its corner and saw the cars just ahead. I heard gunfire and momentarily ducked behind the wall, peeping out at the other men who emerged from the car which had crashed into the one that I had chased. I saw Ada, torn from all those men who had stolen her, and I rushed forward.

She kicked a man in a place that Alfie often called his Crown Jewels.

I heard her scream, “I am not a Shelby!”

Suddenly, I understood her presence here in London rather than that tenth circle of Hell that was Birmingham and I understood the call from Polly Gray all the more. She had said, the tide is turning. I suspected, then, that Tommy had underestimated the trouble he might have found when encroaching on London territory and some small, devilish part of me was more than delighted at the prospect of Tommy Shelby regretting his assumption that Alfie was on the losing side because he might now reconsider dimissing a partnership.

Jogging after her, I reached for her shoulder and barely dodged the vicious slap that followed once she spun on her heels, her cheeks painted in an indignant pink and her lips contorted in fury.

“I told you –…”

“I heard you. What do I call you, then, if not Shelby?”

Ada recognised me, I could tell. Her eyes drifted downward toward my boots and shot right to my face with only a minor ripple of shock, quickly suppressed and replaced with cool indifference. “Ada was always enough in the old days for you, wasn’t it, Willa?”

Perhaps I had been wrong to assume that wit had not been in Ada during those days of girlhood. It had only been buried and brought out in womanhood, because Ada squared against me as if wanting the challenge of a good scrap between us. I also thought that, though she might have shirked the name Shelby, she had certainly not lost it in her mannerisms.

“Tommy sent you, did he?” she spat. “Oh, I should have fucking guessed! I knew you were in London. He had to send his little spy after me, eh? Another fucking spy!”

“Wasn’t quite Tommy that sent me,” I interrupted. “Unless his voice has become much more womanly since last I saw him.”

Ada bit at her lips and looked very much like a frustrated child, crossing her arms. “Polly, then.”

“Polly,” I repeated. “But if you want the truth, Ada –…”

“No offense, Willa, but my days of expecting truth from this family are long over.”

Somewhat annoyed with her, I continued, “I wasn’t expecting any sort of bother. I thought I was just coming to find you – that was all I was told.”

She looked behind me at those men still stood around the car who had saved her. Blinders, I realised, noting the dipped caps. They hovered far from her, hands over crotches, afraid of the wrath that might come from Ada regardless of her surname. There was more fear in them for her in her current state than they probably ever felt for Tommy.

If Alfie had blue moods, then Ada only had bright, shrieking moods of pure scarlet.

She had cooled just a little, enough that she remembered all her bruises and cuts. She lifted a hand to wipe a dribble of red from her chin, looking away from me with great reproach.

“Come back to mine, Ada,” I pleaded. “Just for a couple of hours, until you’re sure that your place is safe, yeah?”

“No. I bet anything Tommy will be there waiting for me, or Polly.”

I watched her look out toward the green park ahead of us. She watched the couples entwined in loving embraces on those benches and I saw some bitterness float in her eyes, drowned out by sudden tears. She was worn from all that had happened to her, despite the fire still burning within her. I knew that it would take only a minor spark to set her off once more, because I recognised that tiredness that she was feeling, the same tiredness that I usually felt after a fight with Alfie.

I glanced down and saw her dress had been split, all its buttons popped off.

Between her breasts, there were marks from teeth sunk into her flesh.

I swallowed hard and looked at her again. “You know, I make clothes now, Ada. Well, not the best in all of London, but I like to make shirts. I can fix the buttons on your dress, if you’d like.”

She looked down at herself as if she had not realised it. Hastily, she scooped the tattered fabric of her dress and pushed them together as if that might solve it, but the fabric flopped open uselessly once released.

“Would only charge you a pound per button,” I added, smiling at her to soften it. “Oh, come on, Ada, give me a chance for some practice. I only ever make men’s shirts, let me try a dress.”

Still bubbling with spite, she said, “Last I heard, you make your living from robbing folks of their valuables.”

“Last I heard, you became a Communist,” I retorted. “So, I thought you’d be pleased with my stealing valuables. Only redistributing all that wealth to the poor, aren’t I? Isn’t that all your lot preach about, eh?”

Despite herself, she smiled. She rolled her eyes and bumped my shoulder with hers. “Always were quick, weren’t you, Willa?”

“Not enough, if I shot at those fellas in your car without even thinking about my aim,” I replied. “God, Alfie will kill me.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Alfie Solomons?”

“You know him?”

“Heard of him,” she corrected carefully, eyes flicking around my body again – studying me. “All right, then, Willa. You got me. I’ll come with you – but I need to contact the woman looking after Karl, my son. Ask if she can’t take him another two hours or so. I don’t want –…” – she hesitated, chewing at her lip again – “I don’t want him to see me like this, you know.”

I knew she felt uncomfortable and exposed. “I’ll put you in one of the shirts I make for the men. Just as bad if he sees you in that, eh?” I tried, taking her arm and placing it around mine. “The boy will wonder if his mother hasn’t lost the plot, wearing one of my dodgy shirts.”

“Lost it a long time ago,” she replied. “Lost it the moment I came out a fucking Shelby.”

“Ah, I thought we’d left that behind in Birmingham.”

“Yeah, well,” she muttered, scuffing the ground with her broken heel. “All those things left behind in Birmingham have a way of coming back to bite you on the fucking arse. Tommy is a prime fucking example.”

Having witnessed all this, I had plotted it out in my mind that Tommy might come to Alfie if his sister was exposed in London. Looking at Ada now, with her lip pumping blood and her words so harsh, I wondered if I had already made a mistake in thinking that Tommy Shelby should come to London and make those same connections. I wondered if it even mattered, for there was nothing that could really prevent Thomas Shelby from taking his spot in London if he really wanted it.  

I had leapt from a bridge with him as a child. I thought that I was about to do it again as a woman.

Dabbing a ball of cotton against her mouth, watching its white colour dampen into a deep red, I cleaned her lips and pressed plasters against the cuts on her arms. I found a bigger plaster for that bite on her chest. I had told her that she could place it there if she preferred, but she had only sipped at the whiskey I put in front of her and shrugged her shoulders.

I had not asked any questions about Ada after I heard from Polly Gray, if only because I never had the time for it, not with Alfie around. I also knew that if I had asked around, it would only have reached him within the hour.

It might have been a mistake on my part, because I was more than unsettled by her pallor and how her bitterness was not fresh nor derived purely from this assault – not even from recent months with her brothers, I suspected. I assumed that this bitterness had been brewing for quite some time before that, maybe even since those days of wildflowers and skinned knees.

Her eyes glanced around the house, taking in the details of the wallpaper and the books in Hebrew that Alfie left about the house, occasionally plucking one from the pile to leaf through once her hands had been wiped of all dirt.

There had been gravel embedded in her palms, gravel which now scattered the table.

“I thought you were living in a kip,” she said bluntly.

“Last you heard,” I reminded her. “Lots of things have changed since then, Ada.”

“Aye,” she nodded. “Lots.”

“What about you? Got your own place here in London, have you?”

“Tommy hasn’t provided you with an entire Bible on my fucking life, hm?” she sniped.

“He did, but I never made it beyond the first page of Genesis,” I shrugged. “Too fucking boring.”

She snorted, smiling at me. “Well, Willa, I had love. Proper fucking love, too. Can you imagine that, for a Shelby?” – she caught my narrowed stare and rolled her eyes, a habit of hers – “Fine, a renounced Shelby. But I had it. And it was ruined, all because of this fucking blood running through my veins, the same blood that stains your kitchen table. Shelby blood, as much as I deny it. Tommy got in the way. Tommy always gets in the fucking way. And my lover died.”

I thought the alcohol had much to do with her flimsy movements, her hand thrown outward as if to slap at some imagined form of Tommy beside her.

“And I brought my son – my son – to London to spare him all that misery in Birmingham. I don’t want that life for him,” she spat. “I never want him to come home plastered drunk like Arthur does, punching at his enemies from France that he imagines to be in his bedroom – and I don’t want him to be like John, who thinks that happiness can be found only between a woman’s legs – however many fucking children that might follow it –…”

Despite her frustration, I smiled to myself, fixing another plaster on her neck.

“And Tommy. God, Willa – I never want him to be like Tommy.”

Her pale eyes were now dark and swirling from more than just whiskey.

“Tommy went to France,” she whispered hoarsely. “But the fight that he carries out – the blood on his hands – it never started there. It came before the bombs. He used to be able to hide it, then, you see. Now, he doesn’t even bother. He doesn’t need to, for the world sees what he does and applauds him. Him and Polly, thick as thieves, using their Gypsy blood…”

She trailed off, drawing in a wounded breath.

“Are you ashamed to be of Gypsy blood, Ada?” I asked softly.

Viciously, her eyes looked around the room, almost pointing out every object around us, before finally her cold stare latched onto mine and she lifted a hand to reach out and touch the necklace that I wore; a golden necklace with a ruby at its centre, gifted to me by Alfie months beforehand, one of the most expensive gifts that he had ever given me.

She licked her lips, which were held in a cruel smile, and said, “Are you?”

She stood from her chair and grabbed her hat, storming out of the house.

☼ 

Chapter Text

seventeen


 

While cutting through strips of fabric and plucking buttons from a tray alongside me, I heard the clatter of the barrels and furious shouts from the workroom. Most mornings, barrels of rum were rolled out into the courtyard for the trucks that waited to prepare them for deliveries. First, though, large sacks of flour were loaded onto the shoulders of those young Jewish boys who worked early hours for Alfie; just for show, those sacks, thrown into a useless pile and usually sold off to a proper Jewish baker for a discounted price.

Lately, I needed to squint at the small holes in those buttons to pull the thread and Alfie always made little comments that perhaps I should consider glasses. For the most part, I had dismissed his suggestions, especially if followed by his devilish grin. Yet I felt the worn prickle of exhaustion behind my eyes from the strain and soon dropped my needle in frustration, blowing out my lips and looking upward in surprise, drawn by the loud bang of the office door once Alfie stormed in, Ollie stumbling behind him.

Coated in a thick layer of flour, Alfie stood in all his wrath, reaching for a cloth. Ollie struggled to blink with eyelashes lined in white, his lips turned into a grimace once he tasted the flour on his tongue. Alfie lifted his eyes and found me looking at him with a devilish smile of my own, leaning backward in my chair. I raised my eyebrows at him, pursing my lips.

“Not a word, Willa,” he warned.

I raised my hands in surrender.

“Ishmael dropped a bag of flour from the truck,” Ollie explained. “Happened to be standing right beneath it, and –…”

I burst into laughter, unable to help myself. I pushed forward and my chair clapped against the floorboards, my laughter so loud that it muffled the sound. Alfie flopped into his own seat, cursing and glaring at Ollie before tossing him a rag. Ollie mumbled his gratitude and tried to scrub off the white flour from his throat and jaw first, but it only fell in clumps onto his shirt and coat.

“Yeah, you keep laughin’, Willa,” Alfie muttered, narrowing his eyes at me, “but you’ll be the one makin’ me and Ollie new shirts, won’t ya?”

He leaned his elbows on his table to point at me. I only laughed all the harder once a small lump of flour plopped from the tip of his nose and landed right on his papers. Even Alfie had to loosen up and laugh, shaking his head and running his hands through his hair to shake out all that white powder which fluffed around him like a cloud. I stood from my chair, still a little breathless from all that laughter and scooted around his table to help him. I grabbed a cloth and rubbed it around his skin, gentle on those parts which were still raw and sore.

“Takin’ it out o’ Ishmael’s fuckin’ wages, that flour,” Alfie grumbled.

I wiped around his mouth and smiled at him. “No, you won’t. Accidents happen, Alfie.”

“You should have seen Ishmael after he dropped the flour,” Ollie said, standing behind the table. “He took one look at Alfie and I bet his life flashed before his very eyes. I thought he might piss himself – or laugh like Willa did, looking at his boss like that.”

I felt bubbles of laughter bloom once more, brushing that cloth around his nose and pecking at his cheeks once I wiped them clean of flour. I sat on the edge of his table and lifted my boots onto his chair, pulling him toward me. He rested his hands on my legs as I worked, taking pleasure in this little pampering.  

“Gets in all the fuckin’ cracks,” Alfie huffed. “Be scrubbin’ it outta ‘em for weeks.”

Recoiling from him, I scrunched my lips in disgust and slapped at him with the cloth. “Oh, Alfie –…”

“Fuck, look at me fuckin’ rings –…” he cursed, finding them completely encrusted in flour all around the details.

“We can get them cleaned, you big grump,” I said. I took his hands, about to take off his rings when he pulled his hands away, suddenly quite sheepish. “What, Alf?”

“I ain’t taken that one off since ya gave me it,” he uttered lowly, eyes momentarily flashing toward Ollie. Ollie was too preoccupied with shaking his head to rid of his ears of flour. Alfie turned the ring with little carvings of ‘W’ all around it edges, and I recognised it as the ring that I had bought him on Crescent Street. “Don’t want to take it off, neither.”

I squeezed his hands and said, “Just for a cleaning. Now, that you can take from Ishmael’s wages, can’t you?”

His lips lifted into a reluctant smile, both of us knowing that he would do nothing of the sort. “Too fuckin’ right.”

Behind us, I heard a pained cough. I shifted around to look at Ollie, who lifted a hand to his forehead, feigning a feeble sigh of resignation, before he said, “I think the flour reached my lungs. Might need the rest of the day off, Alfie – to recover and all, you know.”

All that annoyance rushed back into Alfie so swiftly that he stood from his chair, pointing right at Ollie. “Oh, you’ll recover all right, recover from the fuckin’ wallopin’ I’m about to fuckin’ give ya, Ollie – you listen to me, you little –…”

Ollie went out into the hall to avoid that scolding, but Alfie soon followed him, his shouts echoing around the bakery. Suddenly, the boys in the workroom found other tasks to do that meant they could rush out into the courtyard or clean the closets to dodge Alfie in his rants. I sat on the table, the cloth limp and forgotten in my hand. With a fond smile on my face, I lifted my hand to scratch my cheek and accidentally slapped a great cloud of flour against my own skin from the cloth.

Hopping from the table, I thought I might toy with Ishmael myself and shouted his name into the bakery, hands on my hips.

If there were any boys left behind after Alfie had swept through the workroom, they ran all the faster at the sight of me stood in front of them.

Collapsing against an armchair, Franny let out a deep moan of discomfort and shimmied out of her coat, which strained against her swollen stomach. She eyed those cupcakes left on platters in front of her and reached for them before the rest of the women had even settled in their own seats, chatting amongst one another. I had suspected that Alfie was hopeful a little exposure to these women might corral me into making friendships with them and perhaps even consider attending weekly rather than just a handful of times over passing months, like I usually did. It was not that I disliked the women, either.

On the contrary, I found Ruth was a fountain of wit and dry humour, while Dorothy often came out with some shocking remarks on just about everything – but her husband in particular, which always made the women titter and spill little secrets about their own husbands. Edith was shy and it took her quite a while to speak, but she spoke with her mind once she opened her mouth and I found myself more and more comfortable with them.

I only maintained some distance because I felt an odd disconnect between myself and the women, sometimes, like some insurmountable difference.

It sprung out in little ways, this difference. Firstly, none of these women knew much about Gypsies nor did they know much about life in London for those with less cash in their pockets. Most had come from decent families and I thought it was a little amusing that I probably would have stolen the bracelets on their slim wrists had I passed them in Charterhouse in those years before the war.

Secondly, I was not Jewish, and I had never been inside a synagogue. I heard gossip between the women about those trips there, talking about the women from other neighbourhoods and general nonsense about the younger girls, that sort of thing. It was harmless, that gossip, but it only highlighted how little I knew about their community. I had been well exposed to the Jewish men who worked for Alfie. I learned about their families through them, but only in the most vague sense.

I knew who had daughters, I knew who had sons. I knew about wives, I knew about girlfriends.

Finally, I felt a weird sense of betrayal to the Gypsies. It seemed that I had smothered my blood for them, left out little details of me, whole parts of me, just to sit there and share crumpets – and the worst part of it all was that the women were all very nice, apart from the snooty grimace of Rachel. I knew that Franny had never cared that I was of Gypsy blood. But sometimes – just sometimes – I heard my accent and I felt my movements which clashed with all of theirs, like we had been cast from the same mould, but the minute details had been carved by different artists, cutting out chunks for me, colouring in other parts for them.

In those moments when I sat with the women and their talking faded into the floral wallpaper all around us, I saw myself in an empty room instead, as if all the women had left and there I was, alone. Until I saw the old Gypsies with weathered skin sitting across from me, silent. I saw the blackness of their eyes; like bogs in winter, Esther had said, eyes just like mine and always watching.

I felt like a fraud beneath those black eyes, always watching, always silent.

“Brings me a bouquet of flowers,” Dorothy snarked.

Blinking, I looked over at her, thrown from my thoughts. The women watched Dorothy, balancing teacups in their laps, poised for delicate sips but also prepared for her snipes and jabs. Franny had icing all around her mouth, a hand reaching out for another slice of cake. She saw that I was looking at her and rolled her eyes.

“What? No one else is eating them,” she mumbled.

“No one else wants their hand bitten off if they try,” Ruth replied, smirking at her. “I made enough to feed all the poor children of London, there.”

“Well, there’s one more child in here, isn’t there?” Franny retorted, tapping her stomach. “And this child thanks you for your kindness, Ruth.”

“He brings me a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates,” Dorothy continued.

“But you hate –…” Edith started.

“Hate chocolate,” Dorothy nodded.

Hate chocolate? What kind of woman are you?” Franny gasped.

The women glanced at her, noting that same chocolate smeared on her fingers, their eyebrows raised.  

“A woman who knows how to use a napkin, Fran,” Dorothy snorted, reaching to toss her one from a pile on the table. “Well, I suppose he made an effort to apologise.”

“What was he apologising for, anyway?” Ruth asked.

Dorothy tapped her chin, shrugging her shoulders. “Can’t remember. He does so many stupid things in a day that I lose count by the time night rolls around.”

Shifting around on the sofa between Dorothy and Edith, Rachel leaned forward to sip her tea and latched her eyes on Franny. “What about your Ollie, then?”

Franny smiled, all her pretty features made fresh from love and warmth. “Oh, he tries to do everything for me lately. Worries all the time. He thinks that if I even walk a little faster, I’ll do some kind of damage to the baby.”

“Enjoy that while it lasts,” Dorothy said. “Once the first one is out, he’ll jump right back on you –…”

“Dorothy!” Franny laughed. “He can jump as high as the stars, I won’t be putting myself through this again!”

“I said the same on Aaron,” Edith smiled. “And then Joshua, and then Josephine –…”

The sound of that name that I had not heard aloud in so much time sent a little shiver along my spine: Josephine. I saw the bathroom and saw her in the bathtub with skin bloated and blue, saw her hair damp from lukewarm water and red-hot blood. I let the shiver ripple through me, its wavelets fading with each wobble away from my core until my mind cleared and I could smile along with them, taking a slice of cake even if I did not want to eat it. I just wanted to move my hands before I became frozen and stuck on that chair, somehow.

“And you, Willa?”

Surprised, I looked at Rachel blankly. “What d’you mean?”

“Well, does Alfie ever annoy you?” she asked. “Does he bring you gifts to make up for it?”

The other women bristled at her question and I felt the sudden flood of tension in the room, crawling over the wallpaper and settling like branches from some deadened tree. I glimpsed the black sheen in her pale eyes and knew that she desired gossip or some kind of picking-apart of Alfie, because most of the women here had husbands who worked for Alfie or hung around him in a more general sense.

Rachel had been married for five years to a man named Adam. I had seen him many times because he worked for Alfie in the bakery. He drove trucks full of rum for him, all around the country, and Franny had warned me about her because of it. Rachel had often remarked on Ollie and his position in the bakery, stood right there beside Alfie. She thought, in her own way, that that was the sort of position her husband should have had.

So, I knew that it bothered her that her husband had never been top-fucking-dog. I knew she was baring canines because of it. I just knew I could bare my own, too.

“He brings me gifts,” I answered carefully. “But those gifts are usually given out of love or just to surprise me.”

Rachel peeled back her lips in a bastardised form of a smile. “Alfie does quite well, I’m sure he can afford some fine gifts.”

I heard the undertone, the suggestion, and returned that smile. “Quite well,” I repeated. “He does so well, in fact, that your husband can afford to buy gifts for you at all with the wages given to him, Rachel. Or pay your fucking rent.”

Beside me, half of the cake that Franny held in her hand broke off and plopped onto her plate, its muffled drop cutting through the silence. Not one woman even looked at the fallen cake. Instead, they glanced between Rachel and I, eyes wide.

She leaned backward as if slapped, her teacup sloshing some cold liquid onto her lap. “I was only joking, Willa, asking if he gets you gifts when he annoys you. I never meant to offend you nor Alfie –…”

Although she had not said it, we all heard it: especially not Alfie, who might break my husband’s legs for it.

“I only asked because I was admiring your necklace,” she went on, motioning toward the ruby at its centre. “I heard Gypsies like stones like that one. I’ve heard they like them a lot.”

It had never been mentioned in these little gatherings, that little word: Gypsy. Rachel had lathered the word in a light coat of casualness that was accompanied with a faint shrug and an appeasing smile, but the other women had winced and quickly lifted teacups against mouths pursed in worry. Rachel walked a tightrope in their minds, because she had mentioned two things that usually were not discussed in these parties: Alfie and Gypsies.

Alfie was off-limits not only for his aforementioned connection to their husbands as owner of the bakery, but he was also not mentioned because most of the women here held a great respect for him, along with some ounce of fear and wariness in speaking about him – apart from Franny. If his name ever cropped up, it was hastily joined with all sorts of pleasant adjectives like dedicated and generous and thoughtful for all the times he had donated cash to his community or helped Jewish families trapped in a financial bind.

And the word Gypsy was off-limits purely because nobody ever wanted to acknowledge it; its adjectives usually became much less pleasant, too, treading into territory of crafty and greedy and let’s talk about the crumpets, instead.

I hummed. “You’re right, Rachel. We do like stones, us Gypsies. We also like robbing them. Is that what you wanted to say next, but your coward tongue would not allow it?”

 “Willa, I never meant –…”

“I am given many gifts from Alfie,” I interrupted. “But I make my own money, too. I can buy my own stones for myself. Can you do that?”

She chewed the inside of her mouth.

I settled back in my seat. “And to answer your earlier question, Rachel – no, Alfie doesn’t annoy me. But I can certainly think of another bitch in this room who does.”

I smiled at her, looking directly into her eyes. She licked her lips and feigned a tittering laugh as if this was some private joke shared between friends, her eyes flitting about the room and finding the other women silent and awash in discomfort.

“Ruth,” Franny announced, drawing all stares toward her. “I think we ought to bring out a fresh pot of tea, don’t you? I don’t know about you ladies, but I’m feeling quite parched.”

Dazed, Ruth blinked slowly at her before she then jumped from her seat. “Tea, yes – of course. Would you like some more cake, Fran? How about you, Dorothy, some chocolate – oh right, well, I can just sort out some –…”

Never did I look away from Rachel, whose cheeks burned in splotches of red and whose hands fumbled with her teacup.

The old Gypsies turned their black eyes toward me and smiled.

Having looped her arm around mine, Franny was bent double in laughter once we left the house. We strolled toward the car waiting for us at the end of the street. She had almost eaten her weight in cake and had slipped another slice into her purse, wrapped in a napkin. It was drizzling and I held an umbrella between us, smiling at her giddiness and guiding her to the car. I saw Caleb stood against its side, arms crossed and smoking a cigarette while he looked around the street. He glimpsed us huddling together from the rain and quickly rushed around to catch the door.

“Her face,” Franny giggled. “And I thought Dorothy had a sharp tongue.”

“Never as sharp as a Gypsy tongue,” I replied.

I glanced around us, always aware of my surroundings after what had happened with Sabini. Caleb held the door open for us. I helped Franny clamber in first because of her rounded stomach and her awkward struggle to lift herself into its backseat. Caleb looked quite distressed, holding out his arm to catch her if she fell backward, but really it was just her giddy mood that had her so loopy as she finally flopped against her seat and let out another rush of laughter.

“Had too much sugar at the party,” I told him.

He nodded, flustered. “My aunt Tilly always gets like that after parties once she’s had a bottle or two of wine – not that I mean Francine was drunk – I mean – and…”

“Your aunt Tilly and I have a lot in common then,” Franny snorted. “Well, if I didn’t have this one in me now…”

“Pop into the front, Caleb. I’ll sort the umbrella,” I said, smiling to reassure him.

Caleb ran around to his side and I pulled down my umbrella, shaking out its droplets. Normally, if Alfie was around, Caleb did all that, but I still thought it unnecessary to make the lad do every little chore. While I shook it out, a man passed, and I had not seen him. I thought that I had sprinkled his trousers in light droplets. Although I had not done it intentionally and it was still drizzling, I turned to apologise anyway, lifting my eyes and taking in his features with a sudden drop in my stomach.

I had seen him once before as a young lad, stood in front of our old flat on Bell Road. I saw him now and he was no longer a lad, his cheekbones sharpened and shed of baby-fat, dressed in a suit made of lush material, more expensive that I had ever anticipated. He heard my mumbled whisper of sorry as it was swept off in the wind around us, barely even finished, before he smiled brightly.

“Not to worry,” he said, glancing at me. His eyes narrowed, his throat bobbing once he recognised me. “Willa Sykes? Sorry – I didn’t realise –…”

He walked onward in a hastened dash, his hands stuffed into his pockets. I watched him, a little crouched from having bent to close the umbrella. He turned a corner and was swept off into that same wind, far from me.

“Mrs Solomons?”

I fumbled with the door of the car and fell alongside Franny, closing the door and letting her lean against me. Caleb glanced behind worriedly, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion, but I waved a hand at him and soon we rattled along the cobbled streets, away from Benson Avenue. Franny rambled about Rachel and I stared into another world through the window, a world in which I had slept on a floor with limbs entangled, dressed in clothes always taken from another girl who had outgrown them, a world in which I had once dreamt that Johnny would come and take me away to the fields again, where I might marry Kelly Lee or be free of Esther in some form.

A world in which Charlotte was still around.

I looked into that world because the man on that street had been George; her beau, her lover who had left for Liverpool before she had died, who had known about Fetter Road even when I had not, who had found himself that proper job that Charlotte had once told me he would find.

“Willa, are you even listening?” Franny asked, shaking my arm.

He had all the right in the world to continue onward without Charlotte, for she was in the soil. She had been in the soil for a long while, now.

“I’m listening,” I replied.

“Are you going home, Willa? Can I call you this evening?”

“I prefer to wait for Alfie to finish his business at the bakery,” I told her. “So, I suppose I’ll be home about ten, if you’re still up that late.”

Perhaps she noticed the faint sheen in my eyes and the shortness of my answers, because she gently squeezed my arms and rested her head against my shoulder. Her laughter had left her. She settled into looking out at the other worlds like I did, out through those windows around us, until the drizzle washed them away and all that was left was the London of our time, looking right back at us.

Slinking through the hall which hummed in a fuzzing yellow from the light-bulbs overhead, I brushed damp strands of hair from my face and shivered in my damp coat. I had left the umbrella in the car with Caleb, too distracted by thoughts of Charlotte to care much about the rain. I felt the familiar warmth of the bakery crash against me once I finally reached the bottom of the staircase, my boots letting out heavy squelches. I bent low on my haunches, arms held out. Cyril lolloped from his bed to come and lash me in his licks and slobber, his tail sweeping in a wild scramble of excitement.

I pushed my face against his wrinkled fur and stood once more to greet those few lads still pushing barrels around and collecting aprons from the pile where I had left them. I was always greeted, usually through mumbles of Mrs Solomons and faint tips of a hat or nervous hand gestures thrown in. I felt watched, like I had felt in the living-room, as if the old Gypsies had been sitting all around me.

Yet I looked around and glimpsed faces quickly turned away, the men scuttling out toward the yard or ducking to lift the barrels.

There was a thickness in the hall that came not from the strong scent of rum nor the fuzzing wires which ran along the walls and crackled in the quiet. I took aching steps forward, as if my boots had been filled with lead and each lift of my heel from the stones beneath me pulled apart joints and muscle. I saw Ollie stood outside of the office with his shoulders hunched. I pushed around him and felt my stomach drop much like it had once I saw George, because in front of me sat another ghost, and its pale blue eyes turned as if he had sensed me, too.

Leaking from his nostril in a thin, dense trickle came a sliver of blood. He lifted a hand to wipe it away, wiggling his nose. He nodded at me in acknowledgement and I saw the blood on his fingertips. Alfie held a gun, its barrel gleaming in brilliant orange beneath the lights of the office.

He aimed it right at Thomas Shelby, who still did not look away from me.

I stepped into the office, sliced open its orange colour to let the blue coldness of the hall spill into its space. Alfie trembled in his wrath and I felt each tremor ripple into the floorboards, ripple right toward the soles of my boots and upward into my bones, rattling me around inside.

“Evening, Willa,” Tommy murmured coolly, his hands clasped in his lap.

“Tommy,” I said hoarsely. I felt as if my throat was coated in the same flour that had been thrown over Alfie, so that my words came out dry and rasping. I licked my lips and looked at Alfie, whose blazing eyes were still latched onto Tommy – but his lip curled, and I saw his finger inch toward that trigger. “Alfie –…”

“Tommy ‘ere comes to me this evenin’ and tells me that ‘e wants to make friends, yeah?” Alfie drawled. “Tells me that ‘e reckons that we could take care o’ Sabini together. I ask ‘im where ‘e got such a fuckin’ grand idea…” – Alfie paused, finally dragging his eyes to meet mine – “…and Tommy tells me that ‘e got some inspiration from a cousin what already lives in London and what already went to see ‘im many months ago, just before ‘e got ‘is nut kicked in by Sabini.”

“Mr Solomons,” Tommy tried. “Perhaps we should –…”

“And I think to me-self, right, I think – well, Gypsies got lots o’ fuckin’ cousins, don’t they? Breed like rabbits, them Gypsies, so that every man with Gypsy blood must be a cousin – or every woman,” Alfie continued, completely ignoring Tommy who shifted in his seat and let out a sigh. “But then ‘e tells me that ‘e thinks our alliance would only be stronger ‘cause I’m with Willa Sykes – ‘you are with Willa Sykes, aren’t you, Mr Solomons?’ Almost like ‘e don’t fuckin’ know.”

In any other moment, I might have laughed at his imitation of Tommy, accent and all, but I only felt a clamminess in my hands that made my palms itch. I knew that red patches flourished on my throat like they always did in times of great distress, because Alfie was so furious that I knew he did not care if he mocked the Gypsies, even if it insulted Tommy or frustrated him – not even if it hurt me in doing so. That was the whole point, for Alfie.

Suddenly, Alfie dropped the gun.

“But then I said, well, y’know, I fuckin’ love a good fam’ly reunion with Willa’s side, don’t I? Oh, fuckin’ love it, I do. Always been very fuckin’ agreeable for me to ‘ave ‘er fam’ly ‘round. Never been anythin’ but pure joy on my part. Ain’t it, Willa? What you lookin’ so worried for, darlin’? Come on, sit beside your cousin there, that’s my girl. Move over, Tommy, be a fuckin’ gentleman – oh, that’s right, they don’t ‘ave gentlemen down in Birming’am, do they? Only ‘ave the clap and terrible fuckin’ rum down there, I ‘ear. I know a fella what makes great rum what could do you a deal, don’t I?”

I slid into the seat alongside Tommy, still watching Alfie warily. He tossed a rag at Tommy with much less kindness than he had done for Ollie earlier.

“Y’know, I always thought you’d ‘ave a great big fuckin’ gold ring in your nose,” Alfie grinned at Tommy, leaning back in his seat.

From my peripheral, I saw Tommy shift his jaw almost tiredly, seeming unbothered by Alfie and his taunting. I crossed my arms over my chest, narrowing my eyes at Alfie, whose eyes flickered over to me. I saw only cool blankness while Tommy was present. Alfie looked boyish and youthful, all of a sudden, as if the orange light cleansed him of his harshness. Alfie always seemed happier if he was balancing on that scale that I had imagined, throwing himself into the fight. He looked at Tommy and I saw some swirl of pleasure in him, because some part of Alfie liked the war with Sabini in the same way that he liked the radio blared in the kitchen to drown out his thoughts during his blue moods.

“I am sorry. Go on,” Alfie smiled facetiously at Tommy. “Tell us your plan.”

Afterward, I stood with Tommy and walked him into the hall. In the dim light, I saw the harsh gashes which had sunken into the flesh of his cheek and which would leave a scar there. He would see it every time that he looked into the mirror, like I saw the burn on my wrist from an Italian cigarette. Alfie stayed in the office, Ollie now in the seat that Tommy had left. Tommy pulled a cigarette from his pocket and tilted its container toward me, but I shook my head. He rubbed the butt against his lips. I noticed even more intelligence in him than there had been as a child, a calculating glimmer in his eyes once he looked around.

“If I had had the time, Willa,” he said quietly, “I would have warned you that I was coming.”

“Probably better off,” I muttered. I rubbed a hand over my forehead, hoping to smooth the first bloom of a headache that flourished there.

“I plan to visit Ada while I’m here.”

I snorted softly. “Not sure she would want to see you, Tommy.”

He shrugged his shoulders, a small puff of smoke slipping from his lips. “Not many people want to see me, Willa,” he replied. He looked at Alfie in the office behind me. “But see me they do.”

“Be easy on her, whatever she says to you,” I told him. “She was not treated well by those men, I’m sure you know. But she got a good kick in, hit them right where it hurts most for a man.”

He nodded. “Sounds like our Ada.”

I smiled. “Hasn’t changed in all these years.”

It seemed as if we were finished and I reached for the handle of the door when Tommy suddenly said, “What you did for Ada was greatly appreciated, Willa.”

He cleared his throat. I knew that Tommy skirted around the simple words of ‘thank you’ much like Alfie did, but I saw the sincerity in his blue stare.

“You’re welcome, Tommy,” I replied. “I wanted to help her, anyway. Only taught me that I need to learn how to use a bloody gun properly.”

“I thought Alfie would have shown you.”

“Oh, it is Alfie now, is it?” I grinned at him. “Not Mr Solomons? ‘Oh, Mr Solomons, please can we be best pals, please Mr Solomons’ –…”

He rolled his eyes and I thought I caught the faintest twitch of a smile. “Good evening, Willa. Next time, I’ll try to warn you before I come here.”

“Where would be the fun in that, Tom?” I called to him as he walked away.  

He flicked his cigarette onto the ground as he left, unfinished. Although I could not see his face, I was sure that he had smiled.

Rigidly, I sat in the backseat of our car and felt Alfie slide into the seat alongside me. His hands latched around mine, pulling them into his lap, held there even when I felt the tension pool around us in the car, filling it like water sloshing around our legs. He hummed some old Yiddish song beneath his breath and tapped his foot idly, ducking low to look out the window and nodding as if he had confirmed something to himself. He rubbed at Cyril who lay at his feet. I was not sure how to handle him like this, especially when he seemed to touch me delicately, not at all as angry as I had expected. He had not slammed doors, had not yelled at any lads in the yard either. He had not even called Ollie some variation of twat or dickhead.

Pulling into our neighbourhood, Alfie got out first with his usual grumbles and came around to my side. He opened the door and held out his hand, helping me onto the footpath. I glanced at him, but he only handed an even plumper wad of cash to Caleb than usual and told him to stay there until Aaron came for his watch of the house. I followed him into the house, looking behind at Caleb who lifted his hand in a wave. I smiled weakly, turning back.

Alfie whistled for Cyril and the whistle shot through me, startling me. Cyril had been sniffing around the garden but came barrelling after Alfie, skidding into the hall. He looked for his bed almost immediately, sniffing first at his bowl and then huffing when he found that it was not yet filled.

Shedding my coat, I placed it on the stand and moved into the living-room. I heard him moving around the kitchen. I sat on an armchair, mulling over the plan that Tommy had proposed, all the men that he had promised and the final tipping point that would come for Sabini, sending that scale right in our favour if it worked out. I thought of Ada, too. I wanted to see her and ensure she was all right, especially after our last meeting.

“Bit o’ tea, love?” Alfie called.

Almost comically, he came into the living-room with an apron around his waist and a tray in his hands, laid out with a steaming teapot, two cups, spoons and a little bowl of sugar-cubes with biscuits all around the plates. He set it on the table before me, clapping his hands together. I watched him pull the strings of his apron and toss it aside, sensing that I was falling into some kind of trap.

“From what I ‘eard, you won’t be invited to any more fuckin’ tea parties with women in this town – Jewish or otherwise, given your absolutely shockin’ and unladylike disposition at Ruth’s,” he stated with great amusement in his tone, dropping onto the seat in front of mine.

He lifted the teapot and filled a cup, pushing it toward me. He threw three sugar-cubes in there and stirred, knowing I liked it sweet, much too sweet. I reached for the cup, taking a slow sip. “Rachel had a lot to say about Gypsies, Alfie,” I muttered.

Oooh,” he said, drawing it out. “I should ‘ave fuckin’ guessed it, eh? Somethin’ to say ‘bout Gypsies. Lots of people got stuff to say ‘bout Gypsies, Willa.”

“Are you one of them?”

His eyes flashed. “Oh, I am. See, I think that Gypsies often get a bad reputation. People say they only stick with their fam’ly, yeah, don’t trust people what don’t ‘ave the same blood. Inbred too, ‘cause of that, some people say. But I don’t think that.”

I shot him a withered glare, but he only smiled.

“No, I don’t think that at all. And some people reckon that Gypsies always lie and try to trick you outta your wits, y’know,” he continued. “Don’t think that neither, me. But I reckon most people don’t ‘ave lads what will follow their missus into London when she meets ‘er cousins in bars and don’t ‘ave them same lads what will report back and tell ‘em just who their missus was talkin’ to. Hm.”

It had always been a possibility with Alfie, but I thought that if he had suspected it or known about it, then he would have mentioned it by now. It was almost embarrassing to think that he had known about it and never said it, if only because it made me feel all the more like a liar. Tears sprung to my eyes, needling at them.

“I also reckon they don’t get to know ‘bout letters sent, ‘specially if that letter were sent by some cousin what wants to be with their missus. Like I said – seems them Gypsy lads only ever want babies with the cousins what share blood with them, eh?”

“Alfie, why didn’t you say anything if you knew?”

“Thought it might benefit me more to stay quiet.”

I felt the hard lump of hurt which squeezed through my throat. “Weren’t you furious with me?”

Alfie pursed his lips and tapped his fingertips against his armchair. “At first. Almost said it, that night we fought in the kitchen over – over Kelly Lee. But then we ‘ad Margate – and I thought, if I work with Shelby, maybe we’ll get there all the fuckin’ faster, eh?”

I never told him that I always worried that he did not want Margate as quickly as I wanted it. I had seen the delight in his eyes during his little back-and-forth with Tommy. I thought that I might not see the foam and froth of that ocean in Margate for many more years, but now was not the time to delve into it, not when Alfie balanced between this reasonable attitude and his other rage that simmered underneath.

“I went to Tommy because I knew it was our best shot against Sabini.”

“Best shot,” he repeated. “Yet it failed, because Tommy turned you down.”

I put down the teacup, turning fully toward him and scooting forward on my seat to reach for his hands. “Tommy turned me down because he didn’t think we could win this war with the Italians. Look at him now, Alf. He came to you. Now, you’ll have extra men on your side, Sabini won’t see it coming –…”

“You think Darby fuckin’ Sabini won’t see it comin’? A ‘undred Gypsy lads comin’ up the canal and you think Sabini will look at ‘em and say, ‘Oh, must be a Gypsy fam’ly what come to London for their ‘olidays, they must ‘ave fancied a change from the wagons and caravans’. You think that, eh?”

Standing from my armchair in a sudden rush of anger for my own part, I shouted, “You would rather mock the Gypsies and turn away the only chance you have against Sabini because of your pride, Alfie, always thinking you’re better than us –…”

Us?” he repeated, bolting from his seat. “And just who are you lumpin’ yourself with, eh, Willa?”

I recoiled ever so slightly from the sudden difference in height, with Alfie towering and hunching his shoulders in a subconscious effort to corner me. I looked into his eyes and felt my own watering spill over onto cheeks that had once been covered in flour. “Alfie, I am not Jewish. You wanted me to sit with those women –…”

For your own fuckin’ good, to make friends, to –…”

“And I don’t fit in right,” I continued softly. “And it isn’t because I’m not Jewish, is it? I didn’t fit in there just because I didn’t – simple as that.”

“A fuckin’ tiff between some natterin’ women and you think you don’t fit in with what? The whole fuckin’ community what lives ‘ere?”

“You’re making it about sides,” I replied. “You’re making it Jewish or Gypsy and nothing in between. I went to Tommy because I thought we could work together with him – we. You and me, Alf. Jewish and Gypsy. What does it matter? Same enemy, same fear –…”

“I ain’t afraid o’ that fuckin’ wop!”

“I am,” I said. “I’m scared of him. I’ve been scared of him since I got shot, Alfie. I’ve been scared of him shooting you. Did you ever think about what I would do then, if you died?”

He opened his mouth and I saw the wrath and bitterness around his gums, poisoning his words.

“Don’t say that I would go to Kelly Lee,” I interrupted before he could speak. “Don’t say that I would run off with that man when you know I would never do it, Alfie. I have never known another man other than you. Never want to know another. Maybe I would stay with Johnny, or maybe I would stay in this house with Cyril. Which would you prefer, hm? You know I would never be able to cope with you dying, Alfie, not at the hands of Darby fucking Sabini.”

He straightened, his jaw tight and his brow furrowed. “I prepared for it.”

The river had been cold that day that I leapt into it with Tommy, back in times of childhood. I felt that sudden coldness splash against my skin now once again. “What d’you mean?” I asked hoarsely.

“Sorted me will, ain’t I?” he muttered uncomfortably. “After you got shot, Willa. I thought about it. I thought about if it ‘ad been me what got shot, right, what would ‘appen to ya? Kept me up at night, it did. So, I got it sorted. You wouldn’t need to worry ‘bout money or needin’ some place to stay. Wouldn’t need to be stealin’ nothin’ to get by. Wouldn’t be left alone in this ‘ouse with all them worries on ya. You could keep the bakery or give it away. Left you the choice.”

Stunned, I hardly felt his hands on my arms until he leaned close to me and pulled me into his chest, surprising me with a hug. He rested his chin on the top of my hair and I felt him chuckle.

“Always could make ya speechless, couldn’t I? Only one that fuckin’ could, with your gob,” he murmured.

I snorted, lightly smacking his chest. “Watch it, Alfie.”

“Bit of a wild spark, that Tommy Shelby.”

“Where does he get that from?” I mused.

“Betrayed Billy Kimber, ‘e did. Works with coppers, too.”

I pulled away from him to look into his eyes. “Wouldn’t that be better, Alfie? Not having to think about police raids or being arrested out of the blue just because Sabini snaps his fingers.”

“It were a policeman what beat you in that alleyway.”

I was momentarily thrown by the softness of his words, how his hand glided along my jawline. He traced it like he had traced me in that photograph taken at the fairground, all those years beforehand, the same one that he kept in the pocket on the chest of his shirt everywhere that he went.

I swallowed. “There are a lot of beatings in this world, Alfie. It never matters who they come from – the only thing that matters is what you get from it.”

His eyes were dark. “If I work with Tommy now,” he uttered, “it does not mean that I will always work with ‘im, Willa. It don’t make us friends. If I work with ‘im, I will work with ‘im like I work with every other fucker in this city – to me own fuckin’ ends, and that end is in Margate with you. I need you to understand that.”

I wanted to protest, but I knew better. “All right, Alf. I understand.”

“Tommy Shelby ain’t your real fam’ly, neither. Whether your Johnny Dogs calls ‘im cousin for lack of any other word, whether ‘e was your fuckin’ brother and you didn’t even know it – ‘e ain’t your fam’ly, Willa. ‘E would sell you out in a second if it meant ‘e got what ‘e wanted. I saw it in ‘is eyes, in the office. Saw ‘ow ‘e looked at me. I know ‘cause it’s the same look in me own fuckin’ eyes when I meet with men like Sabini or any other man what thinks ‘e can outdo me in me own fuckin’ game.”

I looked away from him, but he quickly caught my chin in a tighter grip and turned me right back to him.

“I will not be kind to Thomas Shelby,” he whispered, dangerously close to me. “I will do whatever I think is fuckin’ best for us, for our fuckin’ people, for us – us, yeah – and if I ‘ave to go ‘round ‘im to get what I want, I will do it.”

“Tommy is a smart man,” I warned him. “He always ran rings around everyone when we were younger.”

“Yeah, well, we’re a lot fuckin’ older, and Tommy’s in London now, Willa. So ‘e best start fuckin’ runnin’ to catch up with the rest of us, eh?”

Chapter Text

eighteen


 

Holding the handle of the bathroom door, I took a deep breath and pulled it open, stepping out into the bedroom and blinking in the sudden clarity of its warm ruby-red colour; it filled the creases of the bed-sheets, breathed its gentle hue across the pages of his Bible spread over his lap, his lips parted to recite paragraphs that he had long since memorised. Often, I lay alongside him with arms held beneath my head like a pillow, turned onto my left side to listen while he spoke in Hebrew, which lulled me into sleep if only because I never understood the words. He sat there now, his mouth shaping around sounds that meant nothing for me and everything for him.

Gypsies rarely looked beyond the clouds like Alfie did, toward some veiled spectre there. Gypsies felt the soil beneath bare feet, but he had never understood my beliefs around the soil and how it sorted all that existed in the world, and I had never thought much about things beyond the clouds.

Filled with an unusual shyness around him, I took slow steps across the bedroom to settle before him, careful not to crush his legs beneath me, smoothing out the creases in the sheets with my fingertips. I had not been timid around Alfie since that distant time in which Butcher and Esther had stood upon some imagined throne, spent on snow with nostrils coated in blood from continuous snorts. I had been afraid to touch him then. I had tried fruitlessly not to look at him, tried not to laugh at his jokes in a useless attempt to seem aloof and uninterested – and look where that led us.

Slowly, his eyes lifted from the pages and he saw what had made my cheeks flush in a redness masked by this ruby light all around us, and his lips stilled in speech. The Holy Book was momentarily forgotten. He raised his hand to stroke at my cheek, finally touching the golden rims of the glasses that he bought me – those glasses which had caused all this trepidation in me, bashful and afraid to admit that I needed them.

I had never known my age for certain, often mumbling that it was now somewhere around twenty-nine, maybe thirty and for that I always suffered from confused expressions in return. Ollie had once asked, but how do you not know your age?

The old Gypsies had spoken of children snatched by authorities, sold off to richer families who resided in supposed suburban bliss. Those children had been stripped of heritage and duped about their blood until drawn out through darker vices; Gypsies bore heavy souls, and it came out in things like the sort of blue moods that Alfie had.

The Gypsies thought that paperwork meant the authorities knew where to find them, so that meant that dates of birth and dates of death blended into the same days of the year as all others. Other Gypsies had never learned to read or write like I had – nobody had written the date of my birth nor the death of my mother and father. Both had blended into the soil.

But I had understood it tonight: I was twenty-nine or something more.

Slowly, I had trailed my fingertips along those gentle lines around my mouth, made from laughter. Alfie had etched each of those lines with his humour. I had trickled along those fainter crinkles which came around the edge of my eyes from smiles. I had touched my frown through the furrow in my brow, those three dense dips in my skin that pinched my eyebrows together in worry. I had plucked at my hair in a frantic search for silver, but I had been spared there.

As if she stood alongside me, examining my lines herself, I heard Esther say: girls in our world never make it much beyond twenty-eight.

Even more, I still had to squint at myself because I had long since worn away my eyesight from long nights spent over shirts in an office with dim light or nights in the old flat on Bell Road, labouring to pluck initials from handkerchiefs – that was what forced me to put on the glasses in the first place and wear them in front of Alfie.

 “They look lovely on you,” Alfie murmured. “Proper smart, like you write columns in a newspaper.”

It drew a fond smile from him, the scoff that I let out, and he caught my hands before I could fully pull off those glasses and place them on the bedside table. His hands cupped mine before his left hand dipped and his thumb swept across my cheek in a delicate stroke. I was sure that he felt the fire which burned beneath my skin from his touch and from this odd sense of exposure in the glasses, as if he saw me more than he ever had before. Even in the nude, I had not felt so open and bare.

Because now I was twenty-nine or something more.

“Better for your eyes, love,” he told me, “all them shirts ain’t doin’ you no good, are they? I told Ollie to get you a proper lamp at your table – should be there tomorrow for you, and if it ain’t, then I’ll use me own lamp to wallop Ollie ‘round the ‘ead. And I told you that I think you look beautiful in ‘em. The fella what sold me ‘em told me they were the newest on the market, best quality and that – told ‘im I’d be chewin’ on fuckin’ coal for the next few weeks, wouldn’t be able to afford a fuckin’ loaf o’ bread after payin’ for ‘em – but I’d give you me own fuckin’ eyes if they weren’t as fucked –…”

Alfie rambled onward, all jokes and soft touches; some strange sensation washed over me while I took in his words with a fond smile of my own, and that sensation felt much like that first hug from his arms after he had finally returned from France or that lovely lavender scent which coated the pillows after a wash or those absent-minded caresses that came from him on late nights spent on the sofa curled against one another, the hot lashes of warmth from the fireplace crackling in front of us, the dense weight of Cyril against my feet. It felt much like that, to look at him then.

It passed in its own pace and I never leaned forward to kiss him or silence him at all, but rather scooted over onto my side of the bed, shuffling my pillows around. Carefully, he took the glasses from me and placed them with his Bible on the bedside table before he reached for the lamp.

“Do you think Ollie will make jokes about them?” I giggled, feeling his breath against my arm while he shuffled me against him. I rested against his chest and felt it rumble with his words now coated in a tired rasp.

“If Ollie says one fuckin’ word ‘bout them to ya, then ‘e would need a pair ‘imself after I knock ‘is thick skull all ‘round the bakery.”

I laughed at him. “Thank you, Alfie.”

“For knockin’ Ollie ‘round? Thought you liked the lad.”

“For the glasses.” I paused. “And for knocking him around, if he does say anything.”

“S’why you keep me around, innit? Do nothin’ else, me.”

“Oh, here we go,” I groaned, attempting to roll away from him.

He caught me at the waist. “I’m just sayin’, right, that I ain’t all brawn, y’know – got feelings in ‘ere, me, but nobody sees ‘em, do they – oh, that’s just Alfie, the big fella with all the muscles –…”

“No one says that. They say you’re an arsehole.”

“And ‘is missus just orders ‘im about the gaff,” he continued, “‘cause she’s the real brains behind it all.”

“Well, you got something right for once.”

“Cheeky mare.”

From the hall, we heard a familiar whine and scratch. Alfie and I remained very still. Even in the dark, I caught the flash of his eyes looking to find mine, his eyebrows raised hopefully. I scoffed and pulled at the blankets to tug them closer around me.

“Not a chance, Alfie.”

He cursed immediately, falling from his side of the bed. “That fuckin’ dog – never needs a piss when I take ‘im out before bed – minute I get me trotters up, ‘e wants a wee in the fuckin’ garden – and ‘er Majesty won’t get out of bed at all, too pampered –…”

“What was that, Alfie?”

He pulled a coat from the chair and slung it over himself. Feigning a loving smile, he turned back and crooned, “Oh, nothin’, darlin’, love of my fuckin’ life – I only said you should get your rest, I’ll take the dog out, don’t you worry.”

“Sounded like grumbling to me,” I called back, grinning.

“Grumblin’? From me? Never. Always obligin’, me. ‘appy to take the dog out in the dead o’ fuckin’ night and freeze me arse off while ‘e sniffs ‘round the gaff lookin’ for a spot what suits ‘im.”

“Do hurry then, Alf. The bed is so warm.”

He opened the door to the hall, but turned back again, raising a hand to point at me. “You’re doing it tomorrow night if Cyril starts ‘is whingin’.”

“You say that every night.”

He looked at me, lips pursed, hand dropping to his side. “Fuck, I do say that every night, don’ I? And ‘ere I am in me slippers.”

I laughed so hard at his deadpan expression before the door clapped shut behind him that I was certain it would add another line, one deeper and more pronounced than all the others, but it didn’t bother me as much as it had in the bathroom.

Because there I was, twenty-nine or something more, and happier than I had ever been in all that other time left unaccounted.

Slinking around the tables in a restaurant made of golden trimmings and large chandeliers overhead, I marvelled at the Shelby family in London. Their name had been whispered in alleyways and mentioned in pubs, spreading through the tenements and even around Charterhouse in its maddened frenzy. Thomas Shelby had destroyed the Eden Club and cracked the bones of quite a few Italians in his first month here – and there he sat right in the middle of it all, pale eyes slowly drawn all around the room until he found me in its swollen crowd, and he stood from his chair to welcome me with an unusual peck on each cheek, before he settled back against his seat and raised his glass toward me.

Catlike in his observations, Tommy watched while I took off my coat, its cuffs and collar lined in rich black fur, a nearby waiter stepping forward it to take it from me. I took the chair directly across from Tommy and felt an odd sense of pushing into another verbal battlefield with him, because he drew his cigarette from his pocket and patted it against his lips before he reached for his lighter. He took his first puff, opened his lips to speak – and was cut off by the fumbling of two men who bumped against our table and collapsed onto the seats on either side of us.

Startled, it took a moment for me to realise that these two men were his brothers. Arthur sat on my left with his brown hair flopping against his forehead, drawing in a deep, snorting breath through his nose before he slammed his palm flat against the table and roared at a waiter for a whiskey. I looked at John on my right and watched his wandering eyes follow the plump bottoms of passing women, his lips turning upward.

John still looked youthful, not quite like Arthur who seemed much older and more spent on snow, quite frankly. I knew the tremble of his hands because I had seen that same tremble in Butcher and Esther. I saw his nostrils twitch and his eyes fill with paranoia once he looked about the room, narrowed in suspicion at those who dared pass around Tommy in particular.

Finally, I looked at Tommy himself once more and found that he had never looked away from me. He blew a thick puff of smoke from between his lips and raised one eyebrow as if he wanted to know what I thought – I would have told him, too, had Arthur not snorted in that unsettling manner before his eyes turned and he saw me there alongside them.

I awaited some kind of recognition, perhaps a peck on the cheek like I had received from Tommy, but there came only a blank stare before he drawled, “Now, why didn’t anyone fuckin’ tell me, right, that the most beautiful women in this fuckin’ country are ‘ere in London, eh? ‘Cause you, love, you’re a right fuckin’ jewel, you are.”

Scrunching my lips to smother laughter, I turned to Tommy who only lifted his hand to order three more whiskeys. He glanced at me and I shook my head. I had never had alcohol and looking at Arthur Shelby only convinced me all the more that I should avoid it.

“Fuck off, Arthur,” John muttered, dragging his hand along his face and blowing out his lips. His eyes were bloodshot, I noticed, as if he had spent the night gulping the same whiskey that was then placed before him by the waiter. “Who says she’s interested in you, anyway?”

His eyes flashed to mine, smirking.

“Willa Sykes,” Tommy announced. “I am sure you remember Arthur and John. If memory serves, the last time that you saw John, he pissed himself after he was thrown from a horse.”

I had not actually remembered that at all, but it explained his absence from that jump off the bridge all those years beforehand. I saw how Tommy revelled in the slow realisation which dawned across his brothers’ faces, their mouths becoming slack and wide, looking at one another, whiskeys momentarily forgotten.

“Fuck.” Arthur sloshed more whiskey on himself, looking at his lap. “Oh, fuck –…”

“Would you believe, Willa,” Tommy drawled onward, his cold eyes ghosting over the crowd, “that Shelby Company Limited has recently introduced equality between its male and female workers? Shocking, isn’t it? But we try to lead good examples, don’t we?”

Willa Sykes?” John repeated. “You’re fuckin’ kiddin’ me. What ‘appened to you? Last I ‘eard, you was workin’ for that one – what was ‘er name –…”

“Esther,” I answered. “That ended a long time ago, John.”

“Fuck,” Arthur said again, making my eyes swivel toward him instead. “Willa, love, y’know I didn’t mean nothin’ by it, eh? Only messin’ around, me and John. Tommy never mentioned you comin’ to see us, never even said you was in London.”

“Is that right?” I glanced at Tommy in amusement.

“That is right,” he hummed. “Thought I might surprise my dear old brothers.”

“Surprise us you fuckin’ well did, Tom,” Arthur huffed. “Give us an ‘ug, Willa, come ‘ere –…”

Surprised, I stood and let Arthur wrap his arms around me, hugging me tightly – so tightly that it hurt. He shook me a little, slapping my shoulders painfully hard. He snorted again, drew in a deep breath and collapsed in his chair. I thought that he had taken a line of snow before he had sat with us.

Judging from that dark stare in Tommy as he watched us, I assumed that he thought the same thing.

His eyes lingered on his brother for a few moments afterward, too. Arthur seemed to sense it and kept his own eyes fixated on the table as if nervous to look anywhere else.

“Willa helped arrange the deal with Alfie Solomons,” Tommy explained. “Billy Kitchen will be here by tomorrow with his boys and we can get started.”

“Cause for a celebration,” Arthur slurred, lifting a limp hand to summon another waiter.

Blooming from the bottom of my stomach, I felt an unease when I watched Arthur. He spasmed around his face as if he could not control his own features. His hands constantly patted against the white tablecloth in a frantic rhythm that nobody could follow, not even himself. He smiled at me in slow drips, like he could not hold up the corners of his mouth for long enough, so that one side slouched a little more than the other.

But it was his eyes that disturbed me most of all – he could not look at me for more than a second, his gaze so unfocused that he looked through me, into worlds unknown.

Tommy bordered some dangerous line in his temper, I could tell. His fingertips tapped out the rhythm that Arthur could not maintain, his mouth curled upward in a scowl whenever his brother moved too suddenly or startled the people around him. John looked oddly subdued, as if he could feel that simmering tension just like I could. He looked at his shoes, sipped at his whiskey and slouched back in his seat, playing out some imagined indifference. Only he licked his lips far too much and pulled at the collar of his shirt for it to be believable.

“I heard you married Esme, John,” I started kindly. “Kelly and Mitchell Lee told me about it.”

“I did, yeah,” he nodded.

“Is she here in London, too?”

Arthur let out an ugly snort. “Fuckin’ firecracker, Esme – as if John could tell ‘er where to fuckin’ go, she’d string ‘im up by the balls. Still in Birming’am, she is.”

I caught the glare that John shot him. I settled on some bland words that might appease both of them, because Arthur lifted his whiskey and tipped it at his brother, smiling at him without any humour.

“Shame,” I said, “I was hoping to see her.”

Loudly, Arthur slammed his glass against the table. “Well, that’s simple, ain’t it, Willa? You come to us! Down to Birming’am, show you all the old places. Get Ada back down, too.”

He rambled onward, his words blurred together into a confused mush that became harder and harder to decipher. I knew that he was lost in his own world, because there was little chance of Ada taking some dreamlike, idyllic trip to Birmingham with her brothers – along with me, stuck between them all – and even Tommy knew it for he crushed his cigarette against the ashtray with particular loathing in his expression.

While Arthur rambled, a young waiter passed behind me and around toward his side of the table, but Arthur pushed his chair back in one of his jerky movements and knocked into the man whose tray then tumbled and spilled all over my lap. It was a maddened flurry of motion around me, the shock of cold liquid seeping through my skirts and soaking my skin and the rush of apologies from the waiter before Arthur simply attacked him.

I felt bizarrely separated from it for just a brief moment, because Arthur gripped the man at his lapels and smacked him against the table right in front of me, snatching him at the scalp and thumping him over and over again against the plates and cutlery which cut at his skin. I heard the screams and shouts all around me in an echoed tunnel directed at me but somehow not quite hitting me, for that tinny whistle had started in my eardrum again.

“Apologise to ‘er!” Arthur roared. “What were you fuckin’ doin’ anyway, ya fuckin’ –…”

His skin was stained in a beetroot colour and veins protruded from his forehead in harsh bulges, his lips foaming in spittle. I stood from the table, pushing backward. Arthur scared me, petrified me, especially when his hand reached out blindly for a knife on the tablecloth that I had not even noticed until he lifted it.

I saw it gleam in the golden light of the restaurant before he brought it down, slashing right through the cheek of this man still screaming and screaming, legs kicking wildly behind him. I thought I saw the man’s tongue through the slit of skin, a flash of blubber and pink, flopped around.

John scrambled around the table and caught Arthur at the shoulders, hauling him backward.

Quivering, Arthur collapsed against the ground and held his head in his hands before he looked around himself and saw the frightened eyes watching him. He stood again, shoved John away and screamed at those people stood huddled together.

“You watchin’ me like I’m some fuckin’ freak, eh, some fuckin’ freak – fuck you, fuck all of you, you fuckin’ –…”

After this entire affair had simmered into Arthur throwing his arms around at people, shouting vaguely at them, Tommy appeared. I had forgotten him somehow, my stunned eyes following him as he clapped his hands against Arthur’s cheeks and stroked his hair from his face, leaning close to speak to him. I hardly heard the words over that whistle in my eardrum, crackling louder and louder the more that I watched the room around me. He shushed his brother, spoke to him like he was a horse that had been spooked.

He spoke to him like he was an animal, frightened and corralled.

Staggering toward me, Arthur lowered his eyes in shame. I wanted to step away from him, but my legs were not quite mine anymore. Instead, I stared at him as he approached, terribly aware of the harsh thumping of my heart against my chest.

Gruffly, he rasped, “Are you all right, Willa? D’you wanna borrow me coat, yeah, ‘til you can clean up your clothes proper like?”

I swallowed a lump in my throat and looked back at Tommy, who made no motion at all as to what I should do. So, I spoke very softly and said, “It’s all right, Arthur. Just a little bit damp, is all. Had much worse, haven’t I?”

He nodded, childlike in his movements now. “Just damp, yeah. S’all right, then, just damp. Will I walk you ‘ome?”

That was all the more bizarre and I knew because of how John glanced at his brother, confused.

“There’s a car outside for me,” I explained gently. I spoke so carefully, never in a shout, because there was still a lingering madness behind his stare, frozen on the carpet and never raised to meet mine. I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “Would you like a lift somewhere, Arthur?”

“You’re all right, love,” he wheezed. “Just – gonna go back to me ‘otel and ‘ave a lie-down. Feelin’ tired, me. Gonna wait for Tommy and John, I am.”

“I’ll walk you out, Willa,” Tommy stated, sweeping around his brother and walking ahead with the tails of his coat fluttering behind him. He whistled for another waiter who stared at him in shock for a moment before he jumped and realised that Tommy wanted my coat to be brought out from the back-room.

“It was nice seeing you John, Arthur,” I mumbled awkwardly.

Behind him, the waiter lifted his scarred face from the floor and let out a long, agonised wail.

Sitting in the car with my hand held against my mouth, I felt the first trickle of tears that came out in a sudden rush; my hands shook, my heart still fluttered. I had been badly frightened by Arthur, disturbed by him and his furious temper which seemed even worse than Alfie’s had ever been. He had switched so suddenly that I had barely even been able to comprehend it.

I had seen the spurt of blood that followed the slitting of skin and saw it pour onto the table in heavy pools of red. I had seen his tongue.

I tried to remember just what Tommy had been doing when it all happened. I had not taken much notice of him, only realised that John had swept around to control his brother. I smoothed my palms against my cheeks and tried my hardest to remember.

It came to me out of the blue: Tommy had not done anything but lean backward in his seat to avoid blood dripping on his suit.

Suddenly, I was terrified that I had just made the worst mistake of my life by bringing the Shelbys to London.

Rattling around my eardrum, that whistle had not dimmed even by the time that I had reached the yard of the bakery. I took out some cash from my purse and passed it over to Caleb who mumbled his gratitude. I suppose he had noticed that I was unsettled, but he had decided not to mention it, seeming distracted himself. I walked through the mud of the yard and nodded toward the lads who greeted me, feeling much safer in the confines of the basement of the bakery, especially once Cyril peeped out from his spot beneath the staircase and followed me into the office.

Alfie sat with a mountain of paperwork scattered all over his table. He never glanced up from his scrawling against the paper he had before him. I dropped onto the chair in front of his desk, rubbing at my forehead tiredly.

“In the Bible, right,” he said, “there is a perfect description o’ what comes to bad men once they kick the bucket, yeah? But I think, yeah, that ‘ell ain’t a bunch of little devils what poke your arse – it’s paperwork and more paper-fuckin’-work…”

Cyril rested at my feet, his heavy frame stretched out over my boots. I reached to scratch at his belly, since he had given enough hints by lifting his paws and whining pitifully. I looked down at him, smiling when his mouth stretched in what looked like a lazy grin of his own, drool dripping onto the wooden floorboards.

“Right, then,” Alfie said suddenly, drawing my attention. He dropped his pen and looped his fingers together, resting his chin on them. “What’s wrong with ya?”

I laughed softly, shrugging my shoulders. “What d’you mean, Alf?”

“You met with Tommy fuckin’ Shelby – what could be right with ya, after that?” he muttered, leaning back against his chair and throwing his boots up onto the table, soiling all those papers he had been working on before I came into the office. He seemed unbothered by it. “Nice of ‘im, weren’t it, to send a letter requestin’ your presence.”

“Wanted to give his ‘dear old brothers’ a nice surprise,” I nodded, rubbing at Cyril’s drooping muzzle.

“You don’t like surprises.”

“Neither do you.”

He hummed. “And what ‘appened?”

“I thought you had your spies following me around,” I grinned.

“Oh, I did,” he replied. “But you got ‘ere before ‘em, so I’ll ask you instead.”

I was not entirely sure if he meant it or not, but I figured that Alfie would learn about it sooner rather than later and I would rather have been the one to explain it in a way that might not set off his temper. I stood and came around to his side of the table, perched myself on the edge of it. I took his hands and let out a deep sigh.

“That’s always a good sign, innit,” he smiled. “When someone’s ‘bout to tell you somethin’ and they let out a great big sigh like that.”

He poked my stomach and I laughed, shoving his hand away. “I met Tommy, all right. And he had not lied about his brothers coming along – he just hadn’t told them that I would be there, is all. I think Arthur had a different idea until he recognised me. Well, John and Arthur soon realised that they knew me – had known me a long time ago, too – and…”

“What d’you mean?”

I blinked, confused. “About what?”

“‘Arthur ‘ad a different idea’, you said. What d’you mean by that?”

“He thought I had been paid by Tommy, y’know, like a wh-…” I cut off, knowing that it would upset him more. “It isn’t important, Alfie. You’re focusing on the wrong bloody part already.”

“Right,” he huffed grumpily.

I rolled my eyes. I pinched at his cheeks, snorting when he refused to let me force him into a smile by pinching at his skin. “Oh, Alf. It was a mistake. Arthur hasn’t seen me in years and even when we were kids, I never saw him much. He’s from Birmingham, if you remember! He only came to Ireland for his holidays. But we tried to talk about normal things. Esme, John’s wife, she’s kin.”

“Oh, add another to the list,” he groaned. “More kin. Fuckin’ beamin’ me, only gets better when one of your lot come out the woodwork, makes me life a fuckin’ dream.”

It was hard to maintain a straight face around Alfie. He made me laugh quite easily and I knew he took great pleasure in it – it had gotten him out of a few arguments with me before.

“A waiter dropped some drinks on me, Alf,” I explained slowly. “And Arthur just – he lost it. He had the waiter against the table, and he sliced his cheek open with a knife – and Tommy sat there, while John tried to get him off.”

Alfie rested his hand on my thigh and rubbed slow circles into my skin. His eyes were glazed. “Did Arthur do anythin’ to ya?”

“No.”

“Then we move on from it.”

I stared at him. “Really?”

He nodded, but he reached around me for a piece of paper and squinted at it without his glasses. “Yeah, really.”

“You don’t think that was – I don’t know, a bad sign?”

“Signs,” he muttered. “Gypsies and their fuckin’ signs, eh? And what does this sign tell us, eh? That Arthur ain’t got all ‘is marbles in ‘is skull? Hm. I ‘eard as much about ‘im.”

“You heard it. And never mentioned it.”

“Yeah, didn’t mention it. Like you didn’t mention meetin’ Tom in the first place.”

“Alfie!” I groaned. “I apologised. I told you –…”

“Yeah, yeah, deepest apologies an’ all that,” he hummed. “But don’t you think it was wise o’ Tommy not to step in, hm?”

“Why would it be?”

“There are other gangs in London other than the Jews and the Italians, Willa,” he retorted, throwing me a sharp look. “Ain’t just us that Tommy is workin’ with – or against, for the Italians. So, what does it ‘urt ‘im if people ‘esitate to come after Tom if they think ‘is brother goes ‘round slittin’ open the cheeks o’ waiters what dropped water on a cousin, eh?”

“But Arthur isn’t well, Alf, not in his head.”

“Went to France, didn’t ‘e? Sounds like ‘alf the soldiers what came back, to me. Likes ‘is snow, too, I ‘eard. Snorts most o’ the blow in London.”

“I noticed.”

I looked away from Alfie, worried, wondering if Tommy would really allow his brother to suffer so much just for a slice of London. Arthur had seemed so frantic, his eyes always darting around for threats that seemed invisible to me.

“You’re thinkin’ that you fucked up, somehow.”

I watched him, biting at my lip to hold in the barrage of fear that I never wanted to spill out. I settled for a much shorter, “Maybe. He was like an animal, Alf. I wasn’t sure when he would stop – if he would stop.”

“You seen me do worse,” Alfie said. His words surprised me and he knew it, because he made sure to look into my eyes.

“I know. I know it isn’t fair to think that of Arthur. But I was frightened of him. Tommy took a risk, letting Arthur stay in London instead of John.”

“Strategy, I told ya. Tommy knows what looks better for ‘im – a brother with a few screws missin’ what can scare off the first round o’ competition ‘fore the Italians. Tommy ain’t a fuckin’ dummy, Willa. ‘e got the brains in that fam’ly.”

“You still haven’t met Polly Gray,” I grinned at him.

“Oh, no – no more fuckin’ kin, I’m tellin’ ya. You tell me you got one more fuckin’ cousin, one more fuckin’ aunt or uncle from some side o’ the fam’ly – I’m not listenin’. Your fam’ly tree ends ‘ere, Willa. Ain’t been nothin’ but grief.”

I laughed. “Well, you still have to introduce me to your side properly, Alf. You have a nephew and I haven’t even met him.”

“All the fuckin’ better,” he muttered lowly. “Better off just you and me, darlin’ – I don’t want no one else in this fuckin’ –…”

Ringing loudly between us, the telephone rattled in its cradle and Alfie reached for it. He held it against his ear, letting it slide against his shoulder to balance it. His hand still held my thigh. I watched his expression stay curiously blank while the telephone crackled on the other end.

Finally, he said, “Hm. Yeah. Got it. Very good. Right. Hm? Oh, yeah. Will do. All right.”

He set it back in its cradle and rested his hands against his stomach, pursing his lips.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “What?”

He looked at me innocently and repeated, “What?”

Alfie –…”

“Oh, was Ollie on the ‘orn, there.”

I waited expectantly and then slapped his arm.

“Ow – fuckin’ ‘ell, Willa, for such a small fuckin’ thing you got some strength when you’re mad – it was Ollie, all right,” he huffed. But his lips twitched, and he smiled despite his efforts. “Just wanted to tell me that Franny went and ‘ad the sprog this evenin’. Won’t make it in tomorrow, I suppose. Always findin’ excuses to skip a day o’ work, our Ollie.”

Leaping off the table, I threw my arms around him in excitement and felt him grab my waist to steady us. I pulled away and quickly rushed to grab my coat, throwing my scarf haphazardly around my neck. Cyril lolloped after me and I cursed, spinning on my heel to tell Alfie that we needed to drop him at the house first, but I stopped in my tracks once I saw that Alfie had returned to his seat, sifting through papers.

“What are you doing?”

“Gotta finish up ‘ere, Willa.”

“No, you don’t. We’re going to the hospital! I want to see Franny and Ollie – I want to hear if he gave it some terrible name, because I heard the suggestions Ollie was making. Might have been the horror of them that set off Franny in the first place.”

“You wanna see the sprog.”

I threw my arms out, exasperated. “I just told you – Alfie, what is wrong with you?”

“You might want one, after you see it.”

I paused, taken aback. “We talked about this, Alf.”

“Not proper.”

“Don’t do this now. Don’t ruin their moment by making it about us, starting a fight over some stupid –…”

“But it ain’t stupid, is it? You might want ‘em, one day. And I ain’t sure that I do, not with – the way this life goes. Willa, I ain’t pretendin’ with ya. You got shot. You think I could take that if it was our child ‘it too, eh?”

I had opened the door into the hall and felt its coldness seeping into the office, spoiling its warmth and laughter. I fixed my scarf around my throat. I said, “I understood what I was signing up for, Alfie. I never had the sort of life that afforded the luxury of safety before I met you, either. You know that and I know that.”

He was looking at me very seriously, not a hint of humour in him anymore. “Kelly Lee could offer it.”

“Alfie, I have had enough of this nonsense with Kelly Lee! How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t want to be with that man, that nothing could change my mind about it –…”

“That’s not what I mean, Willa. I meant that ‘e could give you that – that stuff that I ain't sure we’d ever ‘ave. What Franny and Ollie ‘ave now.”

Children, he meant. Children, the word that he could not bring himself to say.

Tightly, I muttered, “Get your scarf and coat, Alfie.”

Marching out into the hall, I felt the cool chill of the evening sweeping across us and I begged him to follow, begged him not to speak of it any further. Cyril came along with me, his paws thumping against the wooden floorboards. I turned toward the staircase and glanced behind myself, my body limp with relief once he stepped out from the office and closed it behind him. I wanted no more talk of babies from him nor word of Kelly Lee and what could have been.

I never wanted it, because I knew what Alfie meant: because you are twenty-nine or something more, and there might not be much time for it in the future.

Resting against the pillows, Franny looked pale and tired, but she had this gentle smile on her face that reminded me of Margate, somehow. She drifted off into a heavy slumber after we had arrived and I left large gifts at the bottom of her bed, filled with little toys and outfits, along with some small socks that I had made myself. Ollie had taken one look at them and wrapped his arms around me, taking me by surprise in how his eyes glistened and he had held onto those socks the longest. He had stepped into the hall with Alfie, who had clapped his arms around him, too. Alfie, despite any denial, was very soft on Ollie. He had always been soft on him.

I saw the small crib that was set alongside Franny and heard the gentle noises there from a small bundle wrapped in a downy blanket. I thought of Charlotte and the babe that she might have had when I glimpsed those small fists thrown about and heard little gurgles.

I was afraid to hold him.

Because it was him, not it – not some chey whose parents had not lived long enough to know him, not some chey passed onto foreign hands in a foreign country, not some chey who had stitched herself a patchwork quilt of kin because she had never known them properly to have anything better.  

Franny had told me that I could hold him before she had nodded off and I looked at her now. I wanted to ask her how I was meant to hold him without hurting him – without passing on these pieces of me that had been put into that patchwork, without filling him with the same blueness that sometimes filled me, and which had plagued Alfie ever since he stepped into the trenches. I was scared to hold him. I thought that my hands alone would spoil him.

So, I sat alongside him instead. I peered down at him and watched him wiggle and writhe beneath his blankets.

“You don’t like to be contained either, do you?” I whispered to him. “All those blankets around you, you want to be out of them, free to move as you like, eh?”

He made little noises which softened some hardened parts of me, moved them all around and filled the spots in-between with a heavy sense of love and sadness blended together. He lifted his hand, so small and so fragile with those dense reddened lines on his palm, and I dared touch my finger against it. His skin was soft and delicate, but he curled his small hand around my finger and squeezed so hard, with all the strength that he had been given by God – and he seemed to smile with just his gums, his lips stretched, legs in a wild kick outward and outward, bouncing against his bedding.

I had never told Alfie that I was afraid that there was something in me which had been broken a long time ago – or maybe it had never worked at all, because we had been together many times, for so many years, and never had I fallen pregnant. He never talked about it. Perhaps he never even thought about it, because he had not allowed himself to dream of babies for us. He stuffed those thoughts away, buried them beneath Margate.

My throat was filled with something hot and painful, not quite a lump but something heavier. I knew, now, why Alfie had not wanted me to see him, had not wanted me to be near him.

I reached for him, even with all my fears, because he had reached for me and I could not let him stay there alone. I scooped an arm beneath his blankets and held him up against my chest to cradle him.

And I dared pretend, for just a little while.

Chapter Text

 nineteen


 

Soon enough, a nurse came and took him from me, settled him into the crook of the arms of his mother, arms which were not mine and still I held them outward in some bizarre imitation, before they fell limp at my side and I looked at the tiles beneath me, scuffed and worn. The nurse stirred Franny from her sleep. Gently, she helped lower the collar of her gown, exposed her breast, helped guide her son toward it because he might not latch onto it so easily; the art of nursing a babe, the nurse said.

I stood from the bed and fiddled with the pearl bracelet around my wrist. I forced out this horrid pretence of a smile which made my cheeks wobble and ache when Franny looked over at me. I swallowed my bitterness like the baby swallowed milk and that was all that I could do, then. I unfolded my coat and stepped around the curtain, sweeping it shut behind me to allow Franny her comfort in a hospital filled in cold blue.

I heard the cries of babies all around me, in that hall; that stuff that I ain’t sure we’d ever ‘ave – what Franny and Ollie ‘ave now.

I saw his silhouette at the end of it. His broad frame was leaned against a wall painted in powder green, his back turned against me, uncomfortable in the rush and swell of nurses all around him – the war had made him like that, and all those nights spent with me after I had been shot had made him like that. Still, he waited and suffered through his intense dislike of loud noises and distant bangs from the corridors like a labyrinth all around him, a constant echo washed against him. I glimpsed the harsh spasms in his shoulders, rolled against the sounds. I watched his hand lift and scratch at those raw patches of skin on his hairline to hurt himself anew.

He waited there for me while he bled and tore himself asunder.

I had waited like that for him while he was in France. I still bled from it, and all my parts had not been made whole. I could not function in some places because of it. Was that why my arms raised for a bundle that had already been taken from me?

Alfie had filled my arms with other things. He had placed in them the material of each apron made by my hands, jewels slopping from between my fingertips, Cyril curled in my palms when he was still a pup. He had given me gifts that could not be held because he had taught me to read and write, taught me that love was not made of scratched blankets and a small bowl of porridge pushed toward me only if I had stolen enough handkerchiefs and purses for that night. After he had come back from France, he had left me alone for a month. Ever since then, we had never been apart; we slept together, rose and ate and worked together.

I heard the cries of babies all around me.

I wondered what he loved about me that made him want me in the way that he did.  I was sure that if I asked him right there in the hall, he would have named each piece and part, even those parts that I feared were broken. He said that he never wanted babies because of this life that we were in, made of dog-fights and bullets and all that other stuff that kept him awake some nights, sealed in his office with blue moods along its seams.

But surely, he must have dreamt of another life with a Jewish girl who understood his rituals and who could hold out their child in her arms, made of his nose and her mouth, his hair and her complexion?

Alfie twitched even more, unsettled by the sudden jerk of metal from carts rattled forward by straight-faced nurses milling around him. I saw some limp body stretched out on a gurney with blood pouring from between its lips and I knew that it was too much for him, that perhaps it had set off some faint memories of France.

I rushed toward him and rested my hands on his arms, reached upward to hold him in a hug against my chest, stroking the nape of his neck. He held me so tightly that it made me think of Arthur for a moment, that frantic hold with hands trembling against the fabric of my blouse. I knew that if he would have hated for anybody else to see him in such a state.

His eyelids fluttered, his blank stare drawn toward me in bewilderment, as if he had forgotten that he was here in the hospital. He croaked, “Thought I were in France, after that fella slashed me up in the trenches – I told ya ‘bout that, didn’t I, Willa? Did I tell ya?”

“You did, Alfie,” I murmured, “But I’m right here with you. You’re not in France, anymore, sweetheart.”

“Not in France,” he repeated.

“I bet Cyril is waiting for us,” I told him softly, brushing his cheek with my hand. “Probably wondering where his dinner is, by now. I’m wondering the same thing.”

He smiled and although it was shaky, I knew that the worst of it was over for him, his arm settling into the crook of my elbow and leading us out toward the street where a car awaited us. Stepping out of the hospital, he replied, “I don’t know who I fear more when they’re ‘ungry – you or the fuckin’ dog.”

But we would have made beautiful babies, all the same. I dreamt of that child, suddenly; his nose and my mouth, his hair and my complexion.

I looked at him in the car and thought: if he dies in this war that he has made for himself, there will be nothing left of us, nothing worth wrapping in a blanket – nothing made of him and nothing made of me, not now that he has already planned his death, accepted it. He made that will for you, he has said his goodbyes to you like he said them before France. The only difference between that one and the ones which came just before the war is that this one was written on paper and you will be alone. And with him you share a bed and a workplace and love in-between, so what will it matter to anyone else?

You don’t share his surname.

Orange light warmed him from a passing streetlight, softening his skin. His hands held mine, like they always did in the cars and in the house and just before bed when he kissed them, kissed my cheeks, kissed me, and I felt myself wilt from the pressing guilt of thinking all these things, petals furled inward and withered. I let him take off my coat and I let him kiss at my throat, my collarbone, his fervent expression of love that felt more like apologies for the hospital and for arms left unfilled.

Only that was not his fault and had never been his fault, because he had never lied about it, never said that he wanted them or that it might happen at some other point – but he said that it would not happen in Ivor Square and it would not happen in that house upon the cliffside in Margate, so when else could it be, for us?

With his lips pressed against mine, I knew that he wanted to muffle the words which might have spilled out from me if he had not done it, because he had felt that heaviness draped around me like a coat after I held that little child with his skin mottled in shades of pink from birth, his mouth licking at words not yet capable of being formed.

I felt his frustration and worry with each feverish peck against my skin, felt pushed into some blank form of movement with hands placed on his shoulders and foreheads pushed together. He kissed those spots that he knew excited me, his lips shrivelled into pain once I was still placid and compliant against him, not at all made of passion.

But I could only look at the world and see it in one colour; and that colour was blue.

“I told you,” he said, “I told you, Willa.”

“I know,” I said. “I know.”

His kisses found my jawline, tried to lift my mouth into a smile with his own, tried fruitlessly to push it into any shape other than the wobbling line that it was in before he finally pushed away from me, strings of the same instrument pulled apart. He scrunched the cuff of his shirt in his hand and wiped at his forehead and lips as if to rid himself of me. He parted his lips not for another kiss, but rather for words that never came, not yet capable of being formed.

He whistled for Cyril and went into the kitchen. I heard the crackle of the radio soon afterward, blared so loudly that it echoed throughout the emptiness of the house; and yet still it did not feel full enough.

In the morning, he brought me a breakfast made of toast and eggs and a teapot shared between us with all the more sugar because he knew that I liked it sweeter than he did. The looming windows in the bedroom had wide ledges with black railings stabled around them, ledges which overlooked the street like the balcony in Margate. He had opened those windows in the fuzzy grey of dawn. I heard the pattering of rain against the cobbled street outside while he placed the breakfast on my lap with a kiss against my temple.

Alfie had always been soft on me.

I finished my toast and drank that sweetened tea before I stood and went toward the wardrobe. I pulled out a fresh shirt for Alfie and found his favourite golden bands for his sleeves, smoothing out the creases while I placed it against the bed. I took brief glances at him, his eyes looking out at those droplets plopping from overhead our windows.

His hand scratched Cyril who sat alongside his chair, his chocolate eyes taking sneaky glances at the toast which was still left from our breakfast, thickened drool then drooping from his muzzle in anticipation. Cyril liked warm toast with butter, and he knew that Alfie rarely finished his food, especially in the mornings when his thoughts were elsewhere.

He was terribly clever, our Cyril, because he knew that Alfie was just as soft on him as he was on me.

“Willa,” Alfie called. “Come ‘ere.”

Confused, I turned to him with his pants still curled over my arms. I placed those on the bed, too, just beneath the pressed shirt before I padded toward him and took his hand outstretched, surprised once he hauled me against him and settled me on his lap. I felt one hand rest right against the small of my back, the other holding the hand that I had placed against his chest.

“Today, all them lads what Tommy sent are comin’ ‘round to the bakery. Billy Kitchen and Tommy will be comin’ with ‘em, settlin’ in ‘em,” he told me gruffly. “And I am gonna bring ‘em into the office, give ‘em their documents and the aprons what you made ‘em. But I want you to stay away from ‘em, right.”

I scoffed, pushing from him to stand, because I thought it was just another rush of jealousy from Alfie much like that night in the kitchen and I was tired of accusations and suggestions when I had only ever been faithful to him. But his hands clamped tight on me, held me there against him with such force that I almost stumbled in shock, taken aback by the severity of his stare and the tightness of his grip.

“I ain’t messin’ with ya, Willa,” he warned. “They ain’t lads what I know from me younger days, and they ain’t lads what I knew from France. They don’t know us ‘round ‘ere, don’t know ‘ow it goes in London. Some of ‘em might look at it like an ‘oliday, yeah? But they’ll learn soon enough. If you go ‘round the bakery, you try and go with Ollie or me-self, right? Even Cyril – they don’t need to know that ‘e drools more than ‘e fuckin’ bites.”

I looked at him closely. I traced the furrow of his brow and his mouth turned downward, felt the harsh hold of his hands and his eyes blazing in a plea to understand the meaning behind them, because all that had happened in the pantry all those years beforehand had not only affected me, I realised. He had not stood in its dryness with me, had not felt hands in places that had once only belonged to him. I knew that he cared enough, that he loved me enough to make all those rules in his bakery.

So, I leaned forward and kissed that furrow between his brow and whispered, “Old man, always telling me what to do, eh?”

He dipped me backward from his lap, his hand latched around my waist to ensure that I did not tumble from him, grinning at my shriek of laughter and scramble to catch his neck. “Old man – is that right? We ain’t that far apart, y’know – I’ll be givin’ you that cane o’ mine soon enough –…”

“Let me up –…”

“I quite like you this way, actually. Your skirt is slippin’ up, Willa, gettin’ a proper show ‘ere.”

I let out an indignant yelp, releasing his neck in an effort to push down the hem of my skirt and slapping at his hand which reached to push it even further up my thighs. He pulled me up and held his lips against mine and it was nothing like the night beforehand, when I had been too blue to do much more than let him. I kissed him with all the heat that I had in me. I was a little too forward in cupping his cheeks too, because he placed his elbow on the table behind him to steady us both but knocked into his plate of toast which slid sideways.

Cyril leapt forward, snatching the crust and pulling the plate along with it, which smashed against the floorboards. He blinked once, toast still in his mouth, then turned to find his bed to eat in comfort.

Cyril, you fuckin’ –…”

Alfie trailed off because my laughter drowned him out, his own annoyance slipping into amusement. He placed his arm beneath my legs and the other at my back, hauling me up into the air once he stood, grinning at how I rushed to hold on his neck once more.

“Alfie, your back, you’ll do yourself a mischief carrying me around like this –…”

“Being a gentleman like me Mum taught me, ain’t I? Can’t ‘ave a beautiful lady steppin’ on all this glass,” he replied, bouncing me in his arms.

Then it came: he bent forward, his face contorted in a sudden burst of agony. He almost dropped us both against the floorboards with how his pain rippled through him. I quickly shook myself from his arms and caught myself, standing properly to hold his arms and guide him toward the bed. I rushed for that jar of mush still in the drawers, scooping out lumps to smooth against his back and hip. He arched against the mattress at the touch of my skin against him, but soon relaxed into the pillows, rubbing off the sweat that had formed on his temples from the pain.

I dabbed it around his hip and playfully murmured, “Old man. I’ll protect you from those bad fellas from Birmingham today, don’t you worry.”

He let out a sound between a laugh and a hiss from the pressure. “Seein’ ‘ow you dealt with Rachel, I ain’t worried at all, darlin’.”

“I told you not to carry me. Didn’t I tell you?”

“Old woman, always tellin’ me what to do.”

I pinched his arm and delighted in the slew of cursing which followed. Cyril hopped onto the bed, his large paws sinking into the blankets and stepping all over the clothes that I had left out for Alfie. I found myself unable to care too much about it, too full of the giddiness and lightness which cast out all the blue for a little while. I watched the dog shuffle forward and place his muzzle against Alfie, in the crook of his neck, coating him in drool and butter.

“As soft as you are, Willa, this fuckin’ dog,” Alfie said, reaching his hand back to rub Cyril. “Always stealin’ me fuckin’ toast like you do, too.”

“I’ll tell Ollie that you couldn’t make it in today,” I told him, putting the jars back into the drawer.

“You do that,” he smirked. “And tell Tommy that I was lookin’ forward to seein’ ‘im, yeah, but stickin’ nails in me eyeballs seemed just as fuckin’ enjoyable.”

I rolled my eyes and went toward the wardrobe to find him another shirt when he called out, “Willa?”

I turned, looking at him expectantly.

He said, “Thank you, love.”

Lined along the barrels with tweed suits and lowered caps, the men from the city of Birmingham filled the basement in a hum of chatter and laughter, almost like schoolboys. I settled behind Alfie and leaned against the cabinet with a clipboard balanced on my hip, ticking off names for him while he threw out documents. On our left, Ollie tossed out aprons that I had made over the last few months, the pile dwindling with every man who stepped through our doors.

Another man marched into the office, tall and proud by the straightening of his shoulders in front of us, his eyes drinking in Ollie first, flashing toward me with a brief nod, and then settling on Alfie with a fiery sort of determination in himself.

“Name,” Alfie drawled.

“Billy Kitchen.”

“Occupation?”

“Head baker,” he stated.

I felt the crackle of tension which followed and lowered my eyes to look at Alfie, even if his expression was obscured from my position behind him. He simply pressed out the folds of the documents that Kitchen would have to fill out and threw it toward him, telling him to do exactly that, but his eyes followed the large man as he took the apron that Ollie handed him. He watched him all the way out and muttered, “Tommy Shelby, mate. Never give power to the big man, what did I tell you, Ol, hm? Willa, I warned you ‘bout these blokes, didn’t I?”

I saw the silhouette of Billy Kitchen behind the frosted windowpanes of the office and saw the defiance in his shoulders still held proud and tall and I wondered if Alfie really had been right about them.

Afterward, I sat alone in that office with my legs thrown up on the table, leaned backward in the chair with my hands rested against my stomach, staring blankly into the orange glow of the lamps so that the colour blinded my vision, blurred it outward into softer smudges. I could hear the thumping of boots scuffed against the dirt floors down the hall which led out into the courtyard through great wooden doors, heard the shouts of one man, the men gathered in front of him like soldiers.

I never heard what was said, but I knew that it was probably much along the lines of what Alfie had described that morning; avoid Jewish women and pretend to be bakers, which was what he told all men in that basement.  

Soon, Alfie appeared in the doorway with our coats in his hands. “Finished, Willa. Get your coat on, I’m bringin’ you and Ollie to that nice place what opened up in Charter’ouse last week.”

I stared at him. “Really?”

“Really.”

“For what reason?”

“Well, Franny popped out the ol’ sprog and I suppose she’s a little busy, ain’t she, can’t ‘ave our Ollie wastin’ away to nothin’ while she’s in the ‘ospital.”

I narrowed my eyes, wary. “Right. Or you just want to treat him because you care about the lad.”

“Hm? Sorry, love,” he said, “couldn’t ‘ear you properly, eardrum is all blocked up, innit? Right, well, like I said, I’m takin’ Ollie with me, so if you wanna come – or you can go ‘ome and ‘ope that Cyril left you some toast, yeah?”

Pushing myself out of my chair, I snorted at him and took my coat. “You can deny it all you like. You care about Ollie.”

“Still can’t ‘ear you, darlin’ – must get to a doctor ‘bout me ears, eh, only seem to go funny when you start talkin’ rubbish to me, don’t they”

He walked ahead of me, shrugging on his coat, Cyril slinking from his bed to chase after him. I locked the office behind me, but in the dim light left from the hall outside, I saw his cane settled by the table. I almost called out to him that he had forgotten it, although he sometimes only carried it for the sake of it. I almost did it until I caught a wet sheen at the bottom of the cane and realised that blood coated the wood, glinting dully in the faint light which filled the hall and poured into the office in glimmering sheets of silver.

“You comin’, Willa?” Alfie called out.

“Yeah,” I answered absently, looking away from that cane. “I’m coming.”

Parting like the red sea at the sight of Alfie, the crowd at The Diamond was composed of rich socialites and drunken lovers entangled at the entrance. Ollie trailed behind us, a little uncertain in himself because Alfie had simply told him that he was eating with us and had left Ollie with little opportunity to do more than sink into the backseat of the car with us, blinking around himself in bewilderment. Franny was still in the hospital and Ollie had tried to stay with her and the baby as much as possible, but even he could not deny Alfie when he was in a certain mood.

In the heart of the restaurant, he looked all the more adrift, floating between the bodies all around him, his dark mop of hair cast in shimmering gold from the chandeliers overhead. It had all those gaudy markings, too, all golden trimmings and marble horses around the edges with lavish curtains draped in front of the private rooms. I heard that old drumming and snapping from the musicians and thought of Tommy, sat in a restaurant much like The Diamond, a cigarette placed between his lips and sickly-blackness in his eyes.

Alfie pulled my chair out for me, let me settle against it before he helped me shuffle it toward the table. He passed my black coat over to the waiter who hovered nearby, then took off his own. Slowly, Ollie dropped into the chair on my left and looked around himself again, blinking like a lost puppy in search of its mother. Alfie, on the other hand, took the seat on my right and clapped his hands together.

“The birth of a son,” he announced, “is a brilliant fuckin’ thing, Ollie. Your legacy, your namesake – you ain’t picked a name out for ‘im yet, ‘ave ya?”

Ollie drew his eyes from the sparkling sheets of diamonds behind the musicians and croaked, “Uh, um – well, I thought Oliver Junior was nice.”

“Oliver Junior,” Alfie repeated flatly, his smile dropping. “Oliver fuckin’ – nine months that sprog ‘as been in Franny and you came up with Oliver fuckin’ Junior? When did that bright idea pop into your skull, Ol, the minute the little lad breathed ‘is first gulp? You ain’t thought o’ nothin’ else, mate?”

Ollie swallowed. “Elijah.”

“Elijah,” I mused. “I like that.”

“So does Franny.”

“Yeah, well, she pushed ‘im out, so she gets the say, don’t she?” Alfie shrugged. “I like it, anyway.”

Ollie blinked rapidly, seeming dazed. “You do?”

“Strong name, innit? Elijah. Miracle worker, weren’t ‘e, in the ‘oly Book? The boy would want to be, given ‘e got ‘alf your fuckin’ blood in ‘im. Needs all the miracles ‘e can get, don’t ‘e?” Alfie replied, but his lips were held in a grin and his eyes sparkled with humour.

Ollie relaxed, nodding. “Elijah. It does sound nice.”

“Aye,” Alfie agreed, “much better than Oliver fuckin’ Junior. Franny would be puttin’ ‘im right back in there until you thought o’ somethin’ better –…”

“Alfie,” I scolded, although my laughter cut through the harsh tone that I intended to hold.

“Right. Time for grub, innit?” he said, summoning a waiter with his hand.

All the while, a candle flickered between the three of us and cast the men in a delicate glow of yellow and orange blending together with each twirl of the flame. Alfie kept us laughing and, in one moment, I noted that Ollie was much more at ease than before, sipping at water and occasionally choking if Alfie said anything particularly rude or blunt. I realised that Alfie had really tried to make the lad laugh throughout the starters, although it was never very hard for him to do it. He had tried to help Ollie settle in this place where he had never been before, where he felt he was out of place and exposed without Franny. Alfie did that for him.

Underneath the table, I reached to find his hands and squeezed them, smiling at him.

He assumed that it was for another joke he had made, but it came from that warmth which swirled in my chest for him, even in the blueness. I stood from the table and excused myself before I turned to find the bathroom, smiling at the sound of laughter from Ollie.

Jostled between foreign shoulders, I felt the same crushing sense of being completely surrounded that Ollie had felt, but it hardly bothered me because I had spent a lot of time sneaking between crowds as a child, stealing purses and necklaces and bracelets while I did it. It had been easier in a crowd, because if the person felt a bump or a jolt, they often dismissed it because of the sheer number of people around them. Even if they did look behind themselves, they rarely thought to look down for a child disappearing into the folds, darting off to alleyways and tenements.

Slipping into the bathrooms, I glanced around at all the sweeping statues of marbled women with arms held in feminine poses. I took a stall, having waited behind a long line of women. I pulled down my skirts and found blood in my knickers. I stared at it as if I had never seen blood there before, never had a period nor felt my innards scrunch tight from the pain of it. It made my heart drop, somehow.

I saw all that red right then and there; the blueness just came after.

Finishing quickly, I passed the women who lined the mirrors, retouching powder and painting pouted lips in scarlet. I had to shuffle around them to reach the hall. I turned, momentarily confused in which direction I had come from. I was stood in a hall which split into three directions; the first went toward the bathrooms, another toward the cloakroom, and the last toward the entrance whose doors were held open, letting a crisp breeze from the street billow into this hall and swirl around the people stood in its length. I turned and bumped against a gentleman who sloshed his drink on himself.

I thought of Arthur. I thought of a cheek slit open by a knife, tongue poking through its horrid redness; you watchin’ me like I’m some fuckin’ freak, eh –…

“I am so sorry,” I apologised, looking around for a napkin when I suddenly glanced up at the man and fell totally still.

His hands had been gloved in leather, much like that first day that I had met him, his coat pulled around him as if he had just been about to leave the restaurant. His shirt was tucked in, this time, tucked despite a bulging gut that pressed against it, for he had gotten older, much older. His hair was white and sparse, thinly spread against his scalp. His eyes were rimmed in watery redness, his skin speckled in liver-spots.

He had gotten older.

And yet still his eyes looked through me.

“Quite all right,” he said.

The last time that I had heard him speak, he had called me kitten. It had been etched into my skin by his poisonous lips and it had been there from that moment onward, with the cold air of night lashing at it like an open wound that had long since been infected. I felt, suddenly, as if I was a young girl stood in stockings and a little bonnet all neatly pressed, reaching for blackberries and finding him there behind me, hands pulling at me, tugging at me, forcing me into a corner and holding me there.

Because it was William Yaxley stood before me.

“Don’t you remember me?”

He fixed the cuffs of his coat and glanced around himself. Seeming thoroughly disinterested, he paused only to ask, “I beg your pardon?”

I turned back toward the bathrooms and passed the women who stood there waiting for their turn, went right around them and took a stall. I heard them grumble and curse at me, smacking at the wooden frame, but the noise softened into a faint rattle because that tinny whistle bloomed in my eardrums. I cracked my knees against the tiled floor, gripped the marbled seat and spewed into the toilet, spewed out sickly-blackness until I collapsed in weakness, choking on the heavy blackness left in my mouth. I fell against the wall behind me, banged my skull against it.

I banged it again, harder and harder until I blinked in flashes of white and swirls of black.

I was crying, I realised. I was crying so much that it stuffed my nostrils and stained my cheeks in dark patches of red, sore and tender to the touch from scrubbing them with the cuffs of my blouse. I heard another rush of thumping against the door, those women still cursing at me, cursing over and over until finally I hauled myself onto unsteady feet and pulled it open.

I saw the blur of faces around me, the confusion and realisation blended together.

“Are you all right, Mrs Solomons?”

I swallowed bile and nodded. I went toward the mirror, aware of the women who watched from behind me with eyes wide. I held out a hand and rasped, “Powder, please.”

Shuffling through her purse, the woman alongside me found her own case and handed it over without another word. I assumed that it was a blend of worry at my fraught appearance and the fact that they had called me by Solomons, that surname which floated always in my peripheral, never fully mine.

I thanked the woman, but found my hands trembled too badly to press the powder against my skin. I looked around myself in confusion, not quite sure what I was meant to do, trembling so much that the woman simply took back her powder and I thought that that was the end of it. But she touched my shoulders and drew back at my flinch, uncertain, before she slowly took the brush and stroked the powder along my cheeks with it, around my nose and down toward my throat where reddened patches flourished.

She had soft blonde hair left in loose curls, bopping against her shoulders. She was pretty in the way that I imagined an angel was pretty, all delicate features and lips pulled into some perpetual serenity. She found red lipstick in her purse and dabbed it against her fingertip to darken my lips, her own mouth held open as she focused. She pulled back to admire her handiwork.

“There,” she murmured kindly, “you look much better, Mrs Solomons. Would you like to come outside with me? I can find Mr Solomons if you like or find you a cab. Which do you prefer?”

“I’m all right,” I told her. I cleared my throat, ridding myself of that horrid croakiness. “Really. Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Daisy,” she answered. “Daisy Rothman.”

“Daisy,” I repeated. “Daisy Rothman.”

She watched me with her green eyes, intelligent and knowing. “If you ever need to talk, Mrs Solomons, I work in a café on Milton Avenue. Your husband might know my father, Michael Rothman.”

I heard her words, but I was swimming in blueness. I was swimming in it so much that I only nodded and slipped around her. I swam toward those tables and saw Alfie still sat there with Ollie. It felt as if we had been apart for an eternity until I sat in my seat and realised that it had not been that long at all, because Alfie only glanced at me with a smile and Ollie was telling this story about the baby throwing up on his shoulder for the first time and it felt too much, then, to sit and listen and know that the whole time we had been here, William Yaxley had been there right along with us.

But he was always there, always had been, ever since I was just a girl in stockings and a bonnet, stood in that pantry –…

“Alfie,” I said. I heard that shaky attempt to remain smooth and calm. “I’m not feeling well. I think I might ask Caleb to take me home. You should stay with Ollie.”

Alfie leaned toward me. “You ain’t feelin’ good? What, was it the food ‘ere? I’ll talk to that fuckin’ manager –…”

I grabbed his arm to hold him in his seat, shaking my head. “No, Alf – I just – have woman problems, y’know.”

Alfie often suffered the same response that came from many men once informed of these mystifying and other-worldly woman problems. He looked at me blankly, then glanced down as if he could somehow see through the fabric of my skirts, and mumbled sheepishly, “Oh, right. Well, we can finish ‘ere.”

“You haven’t even had the main course, Alf. Go ahead. I just want to go home and run myself a bath, all right?”

He looked conflicted. I was cruel enough to touch his cheeks and peck my lips against his, patting his arm with my other hand. Ollie stood from his seat and I hugged him tightly. Alfie was still looking as if he might follow after me, his eyebrows drawn tight, scrunching his lips together. I hugged him, too, felt his arms wrap around me, cut out all that music thumping behind him, from the musicians on that stage; different world now, Willa, but it seems like there was always some kind of drumming and snapping in it.

Caleb was half-asleep in the car, his pale face slumped against the window with his lips pasted against it, fogging the glass with his breath. I tapped at the window, but he hardly stirred at all. I slapped my palm at it, and he jolted, banging his forehead against it. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes, looking around himself and then blanching in surprise when he saw me outside the car, shivering in my coat. He tried to claw at his door, but I had already opened the passenger side, which shocked him even more because I always sat in the backseat.

“Mrs Solomons, I am so sorry, I only nodded off for a minute –…”

“Could you call me Willa, please, Caleb?” I asked him. “And you can sleep as much as you like when the engine isn’t on, you know.”

He looked even paler. “A-All right, Mrs – Willa. Is Mr Solomons joining us?”

“No.”

“Oh – Ivor Square, then?”

“No,” I muttered tiredly, brushing hair from my forehead. “Not yet.”

In the office, I found three bottles of rum and the keys to a flat that had long since been forgotten by him, but that he still paid for it every month because it meant so much to him. I glanced at that cane still slumped against the table, the blood dried and crusted now. I shifted aside some papers and saw the glint of a pistol in his drawer. I slammed it shut, my hands trembling again. I left the office before I could think too much about what I could have done with it in that hall with Yaxley stood in front of me – what I would have done.

What I had wanted so badly to have done.

Climbing the creaking staircase, I heard the shrieking echoes of children rushing between the flats and the scolding of mothers with babies held on cocked hips stood in the doorways. I trudged by them all, around and around the staircases until I found the fifth floor. I looked out at the fog of smoke which breathed across the tenements from the factories nearby and inhaled that heaviness into my chest, let it curl around the stones that had settled there. I glanced at the old flat, the fourth one down, its door sprung open by a little girl who ran out with her brother chasing behind her. She never looked at me, but I saw the hall behind her.

I had seen sickly-sweet blackness there, once.

I went further toward the sixth flat at the end of the row and jabbed the key into its worn lock, cracking open the door and finding myself in a cloud of dust. I stepped into the flat and locked the door behind me for good measure. I kicked off my boots and let them clatter against the floorboards of the hall before I took off my coat and scarf, too. I dragged myself toward the bathroom of the flat which had not been used in years, its bathtub layered in white dust and spiders in its corners. I plopped myself on the edge of it and pulled that rum from my purse, squinting at its label.

I had never had alcohol before, never even tasted it. I had looked at Arthur and thought that I could never want it, but I figured that Arthur had suffered through his own kind of Yaxley in his life and rum made it wash down a little better – better than the snow had ever done, anyway.

I lay backward into the bathtub and felt the dust sink into the fabric of my blouse and skirt, settle into me. I took the first taste, swirled it around my mouth and swallowed; it was sweeter than I had expected, sweet like the tea that Alfie had made for me that morning, but there was a deeper spice laid beneath it. It stung my throat to drink it, so I drank it all the more, until I forgot to take little sips and took great big gulps of it instead, letting my eyeballs water and my chest ache for breath; the art of nursing a babe.

I thought of Alfie.

Always, I thought of Alfie.

In my fuzzy dreamlike state, I imagined it there like the pictures, splashed against the cracked tiles of the bathroom that had once belonged to Alfie and his family. I had warned Caleb what to do if Alfie accosted him. I knew that Caleb would tell him that I was not at the house and perhaps he might spin that tired story I had made up in which I would say that I was with Ada – but I knew that Alfie was much too clever, he spotted fibs like that or he had probably had people following behind, more spies in a crowd of people who watched me anyway, watched that elusive Mrs Solomons stumble from bathrooms.

I had finished the first bottle, but it had not knocked me out like I had anticipated. I was made of fluff and faded warmth, but I could still clamber from the bathtub. I tripped and tumbled only once when bending for my boots. I wanted Ada. I wanted it to be the truth that I was with. I wanted to tell her about Charlotte, all of a sudden, and tried to find the keys in the pile of clothes left scattered around. I had taken off my blouse, I realised, unbuttoned it. I felt too hot and scrambled to fix the buttons while I looked for the keys. I found them at the bottom of the bag, between the other bottles clinking together.

There was a telephone box only a block from the tenements and it felt more like ten blocks from how I slunk along the stairs like a shattered doll, my limbs all bent out of shape, my eyes squinting through bleary tiredness to find it. It had gotten darker out, much darker.

And he had gotten so much older. And he had never even looked at me.

I found the telephone, fell into that box like I had fallen out of the bathtub, until all the world seemed to turn with me, and I had to grip at its walls to hold myself up. I pulled it against my ear and dialled for her, mumbled her address. I heard the little buzzes and chimes and hummed along with them, some song that I had made for myself, until there came a sudden click and a sharp inhale of breath.

“Tommy?”

“No,” I mumbled. “No, not Tommy.”

There came a drawn-out pause. “Willa? Is that you?”

“It’s me,” I slurred out. “Can you see me?”

“What?”

“Can you come and see me, Ada?” I asked.

“Well, where are you?” she replied. “Are you drunk?”

“Just tired,” I told her. “Can you come and see me?”

Another pause followed the shuffle of clothing and a deeper sigh. “All right, Willa. Where are you?”

I went back into the bathtub but left the door unlocked for her. I had cried again, somewhere along the line, cried like a child – only I had never really cried as a child, not that much. I never even cried when Esther thumped my skull against the counter-top in the old flat. Perhaps that was what had jumbled my brain around and made it the way that it was, switched all colour from weakened splashes of pinks and oranges and yellows into muted blue. I saw what Alfie had always seen. I blinked very slowly, feeling as if my eyelashes had been stuck together with honey, too hard to pull apart.

I had found blood in my knickers and not once had Alfie ever asked if there was a reason that I had never fallen pregnant, after all those times together. I had never asked until I held Elijah. I had never wanted to ask it. It felt childish and immature to want something only after holding it, in the way that a child envied another child for a doll that they did not possess. I blinked through honey and dipped my head backward, feeling a heavy bump there from when I had bashed it against the wall in the bathroom of The Diamond.

“Was your wife with you then?” I asked aloud. “In that restaurant? Did she know about it?”

The flat answered in echoes of dust.

“Did she know what you did? Does she know what you still do? I bet you do it,” I continued. “And if Mary had not come in then – if you had only –…”

Maybe I never wanted children. I knew that I understood what Alfie had said, that our life was not for them. But John had plenty of them and I was certain that Esme would soon push out more of them. How could he have so many, when my arms raised for – and Yaxley had not recognised me, anyway. Would it have been any better if he had?

My eyelids twitched, my mouth was slack. I drooled like Cyril and wiped it away with a limp hand.

“Do you think he knew me, Charlotte?” I whispered. “I don’t think he did. I don’t think it mattered one bit who I was – who I am, now.”

I thought that she could hear me from the flat on this row, just two jumps from this one. I tried to lift myself from the bathtub to find her but fell against it. I felt weighed down, consumed. I blinked through honey.

“Alfie never talks about it,” I said. “And I really miss you, Charlotte.”

☼ 

Chapter Text

twenty 


Pinkish warmth streamed into the flat in ribbons, shredded by the curtains. I lifted those bloodshot eyes of mine with eyelashes still coated in honey so that all the world had become blurred by it, smudged in golden hues that reflected against the furniture of this old flat and stirred the spiders in their drooping cobwebs from sleep, thin limbs threading silken threads in the corners. I had been cracked from porcelain, like a shell that had been broken open.

From its coldness, I was born anew with the heady taste of rum slick on my tongue. It slurred all my words and made my mouth slack. I sounded like Daisy had when I spoke aloud to myself, bending for clothes left in sloppy piles, plucking at my blouse and looking around for my old boots. I had never bothered with a new pair. I walked in the boots that had been mine since I was a girl; a little girl in stockings, starched apron and bonnet.

Ada stepped into the doorway and cut out all that pinkish warmth behind her, clothed in a heavy coat of beige, lined in rich fur fanned outward as if it was her own, some fierce creature whose face did not contain that same meanness, because she softened when she looked at me. She held my arms, settled me back against that bathtub. Its prickling coldness swept up my thighs and into the marrow that made me, pushed back into that old shell which closed around me.

I had only temporary moments of rebirth, snatched back into old bodies trapped in the wet soil. It seemed that Gypsies never died just once in this life, but suffered many deaths, over and over – this was just another death that had swept over me.

Ada kicked aside those bottles of rum and found a cloth which she dipped beneath a gushing tap, lifting my arms and washing beneath them, around my collarbone and over my face. She took powder from her purse, smoothed a brush against my cheeks and dabbed lipstick against my lips like that girl had done in the bathroom of The Diamond. She left the bathroom, shuffled around the hall for some time and returned with clothes in her arms, fresh and soft in a floral scent that wafted over me.

I felt it in my nostrils, swirled around until it tickled some part of my throat and I leaned forward to vomit into the toilet while she stood behind me. She waited patiently, perched on the bathtub herself, slim legs crossed.  

Once I finished, she dressed me with a sharpness about her movements. My arms lifted automatically for her, chin turned up toward the ceiling so that she could button the high collar of the blouse which had been borrowed from her own wardrobe, bending to tighten the laces of my boots and tug at my slipping tights. Then, she straightened herself out and stood so close that our chests bumped together, and she said, “In the days after my Freddie was arrested, I sat in my bedroom and starved myself because I thought death was a better thing than to be without him.”

“And now?”

“I die a new death every morning as soon as my eyes open and I remember that Freddie was not arrested,” she told me, “but rather taken by pestilence before his great revolution could take place – before he could have told our son Karl about his own life rather than have it explained to the boy through photographs and old letters – rather than have him made through second-hand memories and tales from our youth, which seemed it would never end, at the time.”

I looked away from that burning sadness which swirled in the blueness of her stare and thought that she very much resembled Tommy because she was all narrow angles and shrewdness. She touched my cheek so gently, her own chin raised high against the rising tide of blue that lapped at us from beneath, some great ocean which filled this bathroom and crushed us in its strength.

“Tommy never lets himself rest,” she continued. “Have you ever noticed that? Never, because if he does, he looks toward bottles coloured brown and he smokes more than he should, stuffs his lungs in all that smoke so that he cannot possibly breathe anything more – not pain, not remorse. Did the rum do that for you, Willa? Did it fill you so that all the rest of it had to be washed out and swept away?”

I shook my head and swallowed the painful stone which sat in my throat, plopped downward into my stomach. “When I was younger,” I whispered, afraid that the spiders might overhear, “I did some things for Esther that put me in a bad place – I saw one of those things from my bad place last night.”

She watched me knowingly. “And did it kill you, this bad thing?”

“It felt as if I went further than I would in death,” I replied distantly, “because there is only black after death – I don’t believe in colour, after that. It felt like it killed me.”

“So, you opened your eyes and you died you first death of the day,” she said, “and you will die many more of them for the rest of it, whenever you think of that bad thing from your bad place.”

“And then?” I asked. I gripped her hands in mine, held them like I had often held Alfie’s.

“And then you will keep walking,” she answered. “Because your world is not yet made of black and there are still many colours to look at until then, anyway.”

She smoothed away the hairs which fell against my forehead and she pulled me into her arms, stroking at the nape of my neck as if she cradled her son more than her cousin. I fell against her in all my numbness which thawed in her hold and I told her, “I’m afraid that I will never have children with Alfie, Ada.”

I had said it aloud when never before had it left my lips with more than dust around to hear it. But Ada had heard it and her arms were tight around mine. “I called him this morning,” she said, her tone filled with typical straight-forwardness, “called him before the sun had risen and told him that you were alive. He was very quiet for a while. I knew he was still there, on the other end. I heard him breathe like he had not breathed in hours and I had allowed him the first shred of air into his lungs.”

I felt her untangle us and arrange my limbs for me, hold my arms against my sides when they seemed to flop uselessly without her.

“And I told him that I would not tell him where you were even if he sent all his men in London after me,” she smiled, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, “and he said that he would never have sent them ‘round for me anyway, because you would only string him up afterward. I heard it in his voice, Willa. I heard what I used to hear when I spoke with my Freddie. What I hear in myself now when I speak to my Karl.”

“What did you hear?” I croaked.

“Love,” she answered simply. “Love and worry and affection and devotion – the things that make those little deaths hurt a little less than they do right in that moment when they first come to you. You might have children, or you might not have them. I cannot tell you what the future holds, not when there are Gypsies out there who could tell you for a pound or more. But there is another option for you.”

I looked into her eyes and saw that familiar flash of Tommy in their depths.  

“You take the love that you have with him,” she stated bluntly, “and let it be enough for you, before he becomes someone that you can only tell people about through photographs and old letters.”

The house was quiet, all its curtains drawn. I stepped into the hall and felt the crunch of glittering shards beneath my boots from frames thrown against the wallpaper, strips peeling from the impact, along with the wooden coat-stand cracked and squeaking against the floorboards once pushed aside. Pushing further into the hall, I heard the shriek of the radio which remained on that station somewhere in-between all the others, grinding out harsh crackles and frantic spikes of sound from voices barely captured. I went there first to switch it off, then turned for the staircase. It creaked against my boots, like the floorboards had creaked in that old flat for Ada.

In our bedroom, amidst the rubble of his sheer fury made from the print of his boot crushed into the door of the wardrobe and books plucked of pages, I found him fixing the buttons of his shirt in front of the mirror, also broken. He fiddled with his cuffs and I saw his knuckles were formed from shredded skin and pools of blood dried against his calloused skin. He turned around, his movements brisk and formal.

With that same detached remoteness in his tone, he said, “Sabini reached out – wants a chat.”

He approached and hovered alongside me, his mouth twisted toward my throat as if he might just bite down and wound, but he had already had enough hurt for the night. He never looked at me but pressed his lips coldly against my cheek and hissed, “I want you to go into that bathroom while I’m gone, yeah, and wash that fuckin’ scent o’ rum off your skin, and then I want you to go to fuckin’ sleep for a while, ‘cause you look a right mess – the sight o’ ya, Willa, does nothin’ but fuckin’ embarrass me right now.”

I felt each syllable spoken like the slash of a knife against my skin, brutal and bubbling fresh with blood. I looked around at all those shattered pieces of furniture and counted myself among them, which made me shrivel against the swell of tears which spilled over, tears that he normally would have wiped away. He heard the sniffle that I tried to contain, my shaky hand raised to hold against my nose in shame, but he soon marched around me and toward the hall. I winced at the sound of his footsteps halting there in the threshold, because I knew that he had not finished, that he was so bitter in his feelings toward me that he wanted more slashes, wanted more blood.

He balanced on that threshold between the outside world and ours, and said, “You know what Ollie asked me last night? Asked me why I ain’t never married you after all this time we been ‘ere together. I can look at you now and tell ‘im exactly why I ain’t never asked.”

There it was: another death, but not the first of this day, for that had come much earlier. I blinked against its sudden blackness and opened my eyes once again to find colour, the redness of his cheeks left flushed from his rage and the brown shades of the floorboards beneath us and the crisp white of the curtains billowing in a faint breeze from the street and I was still there after this bad thing, added to the long list of all other bad things that had come for me before I had even reached this age of twenty-nine or something more.

I dared whisper, “I never turned you away when you were blue, Alfie, when you wanted to be alone with your r-radio –…”

Rushing violently back into the bedroom, his sudden movement startled me, and I stumbled away from him, frightened. He clapped his hands against my arms and contained me there. I knew that it had been the mention of that radio that rattled him, because it had never been mentioned between us – and there had been a long history of things left unmentioned between us, ever since those first days when we had walked together around Ivor Square, and those things had festered and they had become deepened sores in our wounds already infected.

So, here we stood, simply picking at them, pulling scabs, peeking beneath to see which one of us bled the most.

Snarling against my ear, he said, “If I have ever been fuckin’ blue – then it’s ‘cause I ‘ave seen men shot down in fields and I ‘ave seen ‘em get blown to fuckin’ pieces so suddenly that I couldn’t even tell who was Jack and who was John – who was me friend and who was me enemy – all the fuckin’ same when their legs and arms and all parts what didn’t get blown away are thrown together, innit?”

I still tasted rum, I still saw silken cobwebs spun and woven before me, still felt the remnants of that porcelain shell around me. I was trembling and I felt his hands sinking into my flesh.

“And y’know, that’s ‘ow I look at your Tommy and this fuckin’ mess with Sabini – could be me friend, could be me enemy, and it don’t make a fuckin’ difference to me. Y’know what I’ll do? I’ll work with Sabini if ‘e offers me somethin’ better.”

“You would work with the man who shot me?”

His eyes were deranged, his pupils blown wide. I looked at him and thought of Arthur. “I already told ya, I would do what it fuckin’ takes to get to Margate. I told ya that. Don’t make me out to be the fuckin’ liar between the pair o’ us, hm, ‘cause you got that well-fuckin’-covered, Willa.”

“Margate,” I repeated. “You would do it for Margate, would you?”

He turned toward the door once more, smoothing out the creases in his jacket. “Yeah, I fuckin’ would.”

“And would you like it there, alone?” I asked slowly.

He paused, his body motionless but his head somewhat turned in my direction. Very hoarsely, he whispered, “What did you just fuckin’ say?”

“Would you live there in that big house that we dreamed about,” I asked him, “if I was not there with you? Because I could not be with a man who thought that I was nothing more than an embarrassment to him, Alfie, not with a man who thought that it was better to work with the man who almost killed her rather than marry her, who thinks she is lower than him for her blood.”

He laughed, a bitter and cruel sound. “I think that, do I? Well, why don’t you tell me then, what made you so fuckin’ blue, eh? What was it, babe, eh? Wantin’ another puppy or a new sewin’-machine? Feelin’ down ‘cause Esther ain’t ‘round to beat the blue out o’ ya? Charlotte, too –…”

I tried to look at the floorboards, so flushed with tension and spite that I wanted only to push from him and rush off to the bathroom, but he grabbed my chin and twisted me painfully to look at him. Alfie smiled, stretching the corners of his mouth wide in mockery.

“Don’t,” I pleaded tearfully. “Don’t talk about Charlotte, Alfie, don’t you dare –…”

“Precious Charlotte, eh,” he crooned. “Let’s all ‘ave a little sob for old Charlotte, eh? Let’s throw in another for all them other girls from that fuckin’ kip on Bell Road while we’re at it, ‘cause we can’t forget ‘em, can we? Not Willa, anyway – she ain’t been given enough to make ‘er ‘appy. All ‘cause of some fuckin’ sprog –…”

“Why can’t you ever call him what he is? Why is it always sprog and never baby?”

“Because I look at ‘im, right, and I think ‘bout all them things what we’ll never ‘ave,” he roared at me, “and I know what you fuckin’ want, Willa – don’t think I’m fuckin’ blind to it, but didn’t you ever think that maybe it was just as fuckin’ ‘ard for me to ‘old ‘im, yeah? To think ‘bout what my son could ‘ave been like. Nah. You’re the only one what ‘urt from it. You don’t think ‘bout nothin’ else, ‘cause you’re too busy chuggin’ fuckin’ rum to wonder. But I’ll tell ya what I reckon – I reckon that maybe we ain’t supposed to ‘ave one ‘cause we’d only ever ruin it – sprog, child, baby, whatever you wanna call it, we’d fuckin’ ruin it.”

I stared at him, unaware of how close he had gotten and how his hands still gripped me until they loosened, and he pulled himself away from me, still frothing and foaming at the mouth. He had scented blood and he was picking even harder, scraping at me, hollowing me out the best that he could.

“Esther never fuckin’ loved you,” he told me, “and Johnny fuckin’ Dogs don’t neither, ‘cause it was obviously a whole lot easier for ‘im to leave you ‘ere than bring you back to Ireland all them years ago. And you know what else, darlin’?”

He leaned close again, his lips almost brushing mine.

“I’m startin’ to see ‘is fuckin’ reasonin’.”

I had never stood so perfectly still in all my life while all my innards floated away from me into some great unknown, out from my lips left parted, occasionally caught on the dried-out patches of my mouth, dry like cotton.

I turned from him and we separated – that was the only way to say it, because he went one way and I went another and still it never seemed far enough that his words might be softened, because I had never heard signs of that supposed love in him then; never love, never worry, never affection, never devotion. I heard hatred and bitterness and annoyance and perhaps that last one hurt most of all. I had annoyed him, bothered him. I embarrassed him.

And it turned out that I bled the most, after all.

I sat in that porcelain bathtub in our bathroom and scrubbed at skin which was not mine, for he had peeled it all off and laid me bare before him and I still could not clean between tendons and lift muscle to wash out all that sickly-sweet blackness that had been there for such a long time. I wanted to pluck off this mask which had been placed on my face in my ninth summer, but I could never catch it around its rim with my fingernails, so that I only scratched myself. I stood from lukewarm water and let myself step on glass just to know if that porcelain shell had really cracked at all or if I had simply dreamt it.

And it hurt, but even shards of glass embedded in bare flesh was not enough, for the blood soon slowed while the wounds from his words stung ever sharper.

I dreamt of that sensation of being afloat from the rum; adrift in a great big sea, washed away in whitish curls of froth and foam, outward and outward in those gentle waves, away from the sharp edges of his words and the spiteful glower in his eyes when he looked at me. He had spoken about Sabini only because that was my punishment, now. Alfie had never wanted the Gypsies here. He had barely tolerated it and had always looked at Tommy as something temporary in his path, soon to be blown aside, washed away like chalk in the rain. He would sooner shake hands with the man who had put a bullet in me rather than share pacts with Gypsies.

So, what had he ever wanted from me?

I looked around at the furniture around me as if I had not noticed it before – but I had, and it had only barely struck a chord in my tired state. I looked around at the lampshade that he had crushed beneath his boot and the petals ripped from flowers, vases smashed against the wall, the drawer cracked. I settled in its wreckage, settled on the floor, undressed.

I thought of rum and things afloat.

Between those gentle waves rippling in a great big sea, I thought of how it must have been when he had come home last night and felt the coldness of the house, his own porcelain shell, and how it must have been to step through each room and know that I was not there. He had told me about a dream like that once, in which he had opened doors, closed doors, walked between rooms that all blended into one, because he could not find me. I had made that real for him. I had woven his dream from silken threads.

He had surely thought that I was dead.

I remembered the night that I thought the Italians had killed him, before Kelly Lee had knocked on my door and spoken of paper rings in Bonny Glen. I had wailed, clawed at the floorboards, tore myself open at the thought of him buried alone in the soil without me there to hold him, because it had only ever been us in these last few years – all the others had seen that blackness and stayed there, but he had moved with me toward better things and he had done all of that for us.

It had never been Gypsy or Jew in that little us whispered between ourselves; it had meant Alfie and Willa.

Sabini had almost slaughtered me in that courtyard in front of the bakery.

How much did I matter to Alfie if he could still shake that hand stained in my own blood?

I had breathed the blue scent of the hospitals for weeks and perhaps that was how it laid itself in my marrow, all that blueness, but Alfie had been there, wiping drool and yellowish stains and peeling off bandages coated in thickened crust from dried blood and he had slept alongside me through nights made feverish from an infection.

Now he wanted an end to it all, an end that still meant Margate.

Because Tommy was not in Margate and Sabini was not in Margate. Alfie looked at them both in front of him and he only saw the limbs of maybe-Jack and maybe-John and he went with whomever could push him further toward Margate; all the fuckin’ same.

I wanted the rum, too, because it would have warmed the agony which came after he had spoken about Johnny – it hurt more than Alfie had said it, because I loved Alfie more than I loved anybody on this earth. He had said it because he knew that it would hurt me. He said it because he knew that it would tear me apart.

So, I had really hurt him.

He never would have said those things if I had not hurt him first. I had let him suffer in that dreamlike world, opening doors and closing doors, passing through the rooms until there was nowhere left for him to search and he had to understand that I was not there, anymore. I remembered that night when I had held Alfie, his body composed of blue and black and purple bruises, his ribcage barely lifted from the pain of each breath drawn out, after those Italians had almost killed him.

He had almost been killed and I had almost been killed, too. He had been keeping score and that score led him to sit with Sabini and balance the scales that had long since been tipping against us.

And what did I ever do for him? How much did he matter to me if I refused this alliance with the Italians, this alliance which meant Margate might come sooner for us, that dream of Margate which had been wilting between us for a while?

It was wilting only because I did not think that Alfie truly wanted it yet. He had this war with the Italians, and he was still raking in more than he ever had; his wealth was at its height, his power over the Jewish community unquestioned, and most of all, he enjoyed this little game more than he liked to admit.

I had acknowledged that a long time ago. But I knew that he had not done that yet.

The only thing that I had not acknowledged was exactly what he had said: how hard it had been for him to hold that baby and know that we might never hold our own, how rough it had been after I had been shot for him, how much it hurt him that I had lied and spent last night sipping on the kind of alcohol that I had never touched before, how he knew that if I had not called Ada, then he might have thought it was the Italians who had taken me and killed me for a lot longer than he had.

And maybe he knew just by looking at me that I probably would have tried to drink that same rum again, even then.

So, what had he ever wanted from me?

I saw that dent in the wardrobe and crawled toward it on hands and knees already splintered, but that had come from here or it had come from the flat in which I had drank myself into a stupor, thought that the spiders had danced for me and then danced myself, that old Gypsy Girl kind of dance until I had tired myself out and I had slept it off to the tune of coins tinkling against that cap held out in the hopes that passing strangers might feel pity for the savage and the crippled girls stood alongside her; Ruth and Daisy, my old friends.

I glimpsed the fold of paper at the bottom of our broken wardrobe, its shelves caved inward from his wild and frenzied assault that must have come after he had realised that I was not in the house. I saw the letters that I had written for him tucked in that box he kept them in, half-spilled onto the floorboards. I plucked them from shards of glass and smoothed them out. I read the words of that old Willa who had written to him about the dogs that she had seen that morning and asked if France was as nippy as England had been the past few weeks and if he wanted a blanket because she had heard that it really was that nippy. She had sent it to him anyway.

She had been made of stronger things, that Willa.

I miss you very much, Alfie, she had written, and the dogs miss you to. May be you can get a dog when you are bak from Frans. I am really proud of you for being Capten. I can make a speshul poket on the shirt that I send for you – for the medal.  

I almost laughed at those mistakes in spelling, the funny dip of my handwriting toward the bottom and how I had so carefully folded it into the envelope for him. I had tried to be funny, tried to make him smile even over there. I was more than touched that he had not torn them up after seeing how badly I had written them back then, especially when I had gotten so much better and hardly ever made mistakes anymore. But he said that they meant something to him, that they had kept him sane in the trenches.

He said that it meant I had been with him all that time.

I knew what he wanted from me. Ada had named them all, those things that he had wanted from me, the things that she had heard in his voice.

I stood from the floorboards, brushed those shards of glass and plucked the first dress that I saw from the wardrobe, a dress made of deep purple and pulled tight at the waist. I usually wore black dresses that were loose and comfortable, because that was how I had always dressed. I chose the clothes that best let me climb walls and leap over fences if coppers chased me – not those flowing dresses which often snagged on wooden splinters or caught on stray wires.

I cleaned my face of its reddened pallor and layered myself in more powder, coloured my lips in the lightest shade of red and swept my curly hair back from my shoulders with a clip holding it in place, although some strands sprung outward. I touched those lines on my skin and felt proud of them, because I was twenty-nine or something more and I had made it further than most girls of Gypsy blood who had been made to dance like that, all those years ago, by a woman who had never known our world and never even loved it.

By a woman who had never loved me, either.

But he had always been soft on me; he had always loved me.

Crowding the courtyard of the bakery had been a handful of Italian men stood with cigarettes and liquor pulled from beneath the flaps of their expensive vests, casting wary glances at the Jewish men on the other side. I passed them all and felt those eyes follow me in confusion, especially on the Jewish side, and it sparked a sudden rush of tension once an Italian man stepped forward and blocked me, arms swept wide so that he formed a physical barrier – then his hands touched my shoulders and I heard the cocking of guns behind me from the Jewish men, the entire yard descending into a stand-off once the Italians lifted their own weapons in response.

I raised my own hand very slowly, my eyes boring into his own before I called out, “Take it easy, lads.”

The Italian licked his cigarette from one side of his mouth and rolled it toward the other end, then said, “I want to check you for weapons.”

I nodded. I had not anticipated it, but I understood that it looked suspicious, because Sabini was in a basement with his own enemy about an alliance and I had appeared halfway through it, perhaps brandishing a weapon and shooting that weasel straight through his skull. I could not tell this man that it never crossed my mind, either, but I let him pat around my waist and down my thighs, scrunching my eyes tight against the horrible sensation of it.

He lifted my arms and turned my right wrist toward him, looking at that burn from a cigarette – he had not looked for it, but rather looked as if he knew exactly where it was. He rolled his own cigarette again, and drawled, “It healed nicely.”

I snatched my wrist from him, slowly realising that he was the same man who had burnt it in the first place. I had not recalled his face. There had been too much pain and blood and soil for that. I would know it from that moment onward, because he smiled and his teeth were yellowed, his moustache weak and greasy. I would remember him.

“Mrs Solomons?”

I heard that familiar voice and turned, unaware of how badly my hands trembled until I used them to push out the folds of my dress. I saw that Caleb stood behind me, his cropped hair dampened by the drizzle and his brown eyes blinking between myself and the Italian. It dawned on me that the boy had stepped forward from that line of Jewish men and approached despite the danger of it, his slim body half-turned as if he was still not sure that he should have done it at all.

“Mrs Solomons, I can take you downstairs,” he said.

The Italian clicked his tongue behind me. “Gotta check him, too.”

Caleb lifted his arms and allowed his pistol to be taken, plopped on a barrel alongside the doorway before he motioned for me to follow him. I was a little surprised by the formality of this meeting and I knew the reason for it once he reached the basement. I breathed the thickness of the tension and heard the shouts behind that door, heard raised voices blooming ever louder.

“Mr Solomons never told us that you were coming, Mrs Solomons,” Caleb mumbled. “He went in there with Mr Sabini a while ago. Are you sure that you want to go in there, too?”

“You know, Caleb,” I muttered, peeling off my coat, “a good friend of mine once told me that it doesn’t matter who the beatings come from as long as you can get something out of it.”

He almost dropped my coat once I threw it to him, his eyes wide. He scrambled to catch the hem of my coat and fold it properly, but he was so bewildered that the sleeves flopped from his hands. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, Mrs Solomons –…”

“I’m about to take that beating,” I told him. “And didn’t I tell you that you could call me Willa?”

I pushed my hands against those large wooden doors and prepared myself for the onslaught, both from Sabini and Alfie. I stepped into the room and closed the doors behind me. I only closed them to cut away from the sudden silence that engulfed the room, its large space ballooning in an even heavier form of tension than before. I walked toward the table in its centre as if it had always been planned that I was meant to be there. I sat on the right of Alfie and felt his fury bubble anew. He breathed out, just once.

It was enough to smother it.

“’Bout time, Willa,” he announced cheerfully. He had always been adaptable, pretending that he had expected me all along. Even Ollie leaned forward from his spot, his eyebrows scrunched, before he sat back and seemed to have accepted that Alfie had simply never informed him of my impending arrival.

Beneath the table, his hand found mine and held it, smoothing his thumb across my knuckles.

I was thrown by Alfie holding my hand at all, but looked upward at Sabini and understood it right away, because I had last seen Sabini in that bar before a copper had kicked me around an alleyway and kissed me, called me kitten, beat me so badly that my tooth had fallen out in the car afterward and I had passed out from the pain of it. I tasted that copper sting whenever I looked at Sabini.

He smiled, curling those pale lips against his gums because he could taste it, too.

“Willa Solomons!” he cried out. “What a pleasant surprise. You never mentioned, Alfie, that your lovely wife would be joining us.”

Alfie smoothed over that jab about the lack of a marriage between us. I had caught it, though, seen it in the flinch of his shoulders soon rolled out in a pretence of a shrug. It had stung him. He cleared his throat and held his arms out, shrugging his shoulders again. “Willa was busy, weren’t she? Weren’t ya, love?”

“Very busy,” I repeated. “My apologies, Mr Sabini. I had really been looking forward to meeting with you again.”

“Yes, well,” he simpered, “it is perfect timing for me to present my apologies to you. Just perfect, isn’t it?”

He turned to his right and nodded to the battered man who sat alongside him and watched us all with his lips turned upward in a permanent display of utter contempt and disgust for us all. Sabini tapped his arm once, then tapped it a lot more forcefully and the man jolted, shifting his swollen sockets toward Sabini and reluctantly grumbling, “Perfect.”

“I am so very sorry for what happened after our meeting in The Chestnut Bar. I reprimanded that policeman for his crude actions.”

“Water under the bridge, Mr Sabini,” I smiled. “How was his lip after all that nonsense then?”

Sabini stuck his tongue between his teeth and bit down hard for just a moment. “He had to receive some treatment. Stitches, you know. Left him with a very prominent scar.”

“Well, you never know what you get when you wind me up.”

Alfie squeezed my hand in warning, clearing his throat once more to draw the attention back to him. “Your apologies are appreciated. Willa, darlin’, you’ll be glad to ‘ear that the border between the Jews and the Italians ‘as gone back to Farrington Road, innit?”

Sabini sucked his teeth, almost as if he wanted to muffle a snarl at the thought of it. “Yes, well, Farrington Road and Camden Road – …”

Speaking over him quite loudly, Alfie rambled, “A very diplomatic and kind offerin’ on the part of our Italian comrades ‘ere, to allow that border to be amended –…”

“That is old, old history between our people, a history that we can discuss later,” Sabini wheedled.

“A border which I find to be very pertinent, very significant, very relevant – I’m thinkin’ o’ all the synonyms, me, and which –…”

“Because there are other things to be discussed that are far more –…”

“I remember walkin’ down there when I was a lad, yeah, and that road was for the Jews –…”

Sabini slammed his fist against the table and held his jaw so tightly that it looked like the string of a bow which had been plucked, vibrating from a violent tremor. “Because what we need to discuss are the fucking Gypsies, Alfie! You remember what we said about them?”

Alfie sucked in his cheeks and blew them out, looking around the room as if terribly bored. “I do, as a matter o’ fact, hm.”

“War against the Gypsies,” Sabini stated.

I let my hand fall slack from Alfie’s grip, landing limply between my thighs. I had expected it. It had been the whole purpose of sitting here and accepting that Alfie had made his choices for us, but it never settled well in my bones like I had hoped that it might.

Sabini looked into my eyes and lifted those hideous lips into that caricature of a smile, tapping his tongue against the back of his teeth. I watched each roll of that pink blubber and thought of how Arthur had slit open the cheek of that waiter. I wished he was here now. I wished I could put a knife in his hand and ask him to do the same thing to Sabini.

But Arthur was not here, and this was my beating to take for the Gypsies.

Settling into my old seat at the sewing-machine, I pulled a loose thread between my fingertips and squeezed hard, letting my fingertips become numb and purple so that it hurt to touch them with my other hand. Alfie reclined in his chair across from me and held his hands over his face, clasped together in some butchered form of prayer. He had sent Ollie off and left Caleb to wait at the car for us but had done little else since then, other than sit in this chair and shroud his face from me. I knew that it was now well past midnight and I saw the pale slivers of bluish light beyond the windowpanes. He scrubbed at his skin and finally pulled his hands away.

“I don’t want you in the bakery anymore.”

It ripped through me, that statement. Somehow, I stayed upright against the rush of stabbing pain in my chest. “Okay, Alf.”

He hummed, satisfied. “You can make shirts at the ‘ouse.”

I almost tore through my cheek with my teeth. “All right.”

“And you will take Cyril out if ‘e needs to piss tonight.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine.”

“And when Tommy comes down tomorrow night to see me ‘bout my deal with Sabini, you can put a smile on that fuckin’ mug o’ yours or the man’ll think we do nothin’ but fight.”

I snapped the thread between my fingertips and felt the pressure loosen, looking at him with eyebrows raised. “What?”

Alfie snorted and kicked his legs onto the table. “I been doin’ it all the time, takin’ that fuckin’ dog out, and ‘e pisses like a fuckin’ race-‘orse. Your cousin would know all about that, eh? Might buy an ‘orse. Think it’d scare Ollie.”

I was breathing quite slowly, afraid to believe him. “Tommy. I meant Tommy, Alfie. What d’you mean?”

“Hm? Oh, yeah, ‘e called me up recently, told me that ‘e would be willin’ to sell me a good portion o’ ‘is business if I let Sabini believe I was crossin’ the Gypsies. More than what Sabini was willin’ to part with, eh, cheap fuckin’ wop that ‘e is.”

I stood from my chair and moved around the table to come close to him, worried that he might push me away, but he only dropped his boots from the table and held his arms open. I fell against him, stunned when he stroked my hair and nuzzled my neck, seeming just as relieved to hold me as I was to be held by him. I felt the well of tears and sniffled.

This time, he wiped the tears away.

“Alfie, I am so sorry,” I whispered.

“I never meant what I said, Willa,” he replied softly. He cupped my cheeks and made me look directly into his eyes. “Not one fuckin’ word. Not ‘bout Johnny, not ‘bout Charlotte – none o’ that. I only wanted – I just – I know that it ‘urt ya, seein’ the – the baby. Ollie and Franny’s baby. But darlin’ – it might ‘appen someday for us. And we won’t give ‘im some fuckin’ name like Oliver Junior, like our Ollie was plannin’, eh? We would name ‘im somethin’ much stronger.”

“Well, you named Cyril, so I don’t have much hope for your choices,” I sniffled, grinning at him.

“Cheeky fuckin’ – you weren’t complainin’ when I first said it!”

“I had to be nice to you, you got me a dog. But Ollie thought it sounded a little pompous.”

Pompous? Ollie said that? Well, I’m surrounded by fuckin’ traitors, me,” Alfie grumbled, but his lips turned upward into a smile and he traced my cheekbones with his fingers.

I sank onto the floorboards in front of his legs, overwhelmed because Alfie seemed to have forgiven me, even more relieved that he had planned against Sabini too – but most of all I was still distraught because I knew that I had to tell him what had really happened at The Diamond. He had sensed it, his fingers slowing at my lips and pulling the lower one down, like he wanted to force the words to flood from me.

“It was hard to see the baby,” I explained gently. “You’re right, Alf. But last night, I was – I was just – if I had known in advance then maybe I could have prepared for it, but it just happened outside the bathrooms –…”

He straightened in his seat and leaned forward, eyes locked on mine.

“I saw William Yaxley,” I told him. “And it killed me.”

Because that had been another death from another day; seeing Alfie crumple there in front of me was one more, piled upon all the others.

He fell backward as if he had been struck, the breath taken from him. I pushed onto my knees and held his arms, frightened by that unfocused sheen in his eyes as if he ran through every moment in the restaurant but could not understand how Yaxley had sat anywhere close to him and Alfie had not known it. But there was no reason to know it, because Yaxley had been placed in our past, far behind us, in that part of me still made of stockings and starched aprons and a bonnet; sometime after paper-rings but somewhere before letters from the war.

“I can find ‘im,” Alfie whispered. “I’ll do it for you, love. I’ll choke ‘im with my bare ‘ands. Then you can rest better, sweet’eart, yeah? ‘Cause you’ll know ‘e ain’t there and you’ll know that you don’t need fuckin’ rum to make you feel better ‘cause I’ll ‘ave done it me-self, yeah –…”

He rambled like he had rambled in front of Sabini, but his words became more frantic and violent. I held his cheeks like he had held mine and shushed him, kissed his forehead and his lips and tried to muffle the sounds that hurt me.

“You’ll feel safe,” he told me. “I’ll make you feel safe, Willa.”

I felt his tears blend against my own once I touched his cheeks against mine, my hands trembling from the pain in his voice. “I do feel safe, Alf.”

“No, no – I failed ya, you couldn’t even fuckin’ tell me, I let you down like the first time ‘round –…”

I was confused by his words, caressing his hair and letting him rest against my chest. “Alfie, I didn’t tell you because – because I was not myself after I saw him. I wanted to be far from that place and I didn’t want Yaxley to take over the house like he took over the old flat on Bell Road and he took over the factory back then.”

I inhaled sharply, blinking through the blistering prick of tears that kept falling no matter how much I tried to steady my breathing.

“I wasn’t thinking right. Because he looked at me and he didn’t even recognise me, Alfie. He didn’t – it was like he didn’t even remember it,” I croaked, “and that hurt more than anything because – because it means that he did it more than once, doesn’t it? He must have done it so many times and I was the lucky one who got away before it – and I couldn’t cope with it. I know it isn’t France, Alfie, I know it’s not the same and I shouldn’t cry over it – the girls used to tell me that I was dramatic because there weren’t even any bruises from it, like it never happened, but it did –…”

He cupped the nape of my neck. “You don’t ever listen to that, Willa. It ‘appened and it don’t mean a fuckin’ thing if there weren’t any bruises – and it don’t matter what ‘appened in France, neither. I said that ‘cause I was angry with ya, I was – I was scared. I was fuckin’ terrified. I ain’t never been the sort o’ man what don’t know what to do. They made me Captain ‘cause I can think on me feet. But in that ‘ouse, I stood there and I didn’t know what to do. Couldn’t even think to lift the phone and call Ollie. Couldn’t even think at all.”

I looked into his eyes, my own heart thumping.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I thought you was fuckin’ dead and I wanted to be there with ya if you was.”

“Don’t say that,” I pleaded, “don’t ever say things like that, Alfie.”

But I had said the same thing the night that the Italians had taken him.

“You told me once that I should ‘ave found me-self a good Jewish girl,” he said softly. “But I ain’t never wanted nobody in this world except for you, Willa. And Ollie did ask me why I ain’t married ya. And I weren’t – I weren’t embarrassed. Another stupid fuckin’ thing that I said ‘cause I wanted to see you ‘urt the way that I did. I told ‘im that I wanted it. I always wanted it. I just been –…”

I felt his hands trail toward mine. His touch was kind and warm.

“After you were shot, your uncle came to the ‘ospital. We stood in the ‘all, yeah, and I ‘eard them nurses movin’ you ‘round and I wanted to be with ya – but your uncle, ‘e turns to me and ‘e says, ‘you put my girl in there, and even if she survives it, you will put ‘er there again and again until you kill ‘er.’ ‘e told me that you would wake up one day and realise that I ain’t never done nothin’ but trapped you with me, like Esther trapped ya.”

I bit hard on my own lip to hold it in, that scream which boiled in my throat and burned me in its wrath.

Alfie drew in a deep breath and added, “’e said that when ‘e looks at me ‘ands, ‘e sees dirt. ‘e says that all the Gypsies can see it when they look at me. But I didn’t understand what ‘e meant.”

I heard the words of Kelly Lee and a shiver rippled through me, making me look away from Alfie and shake out my limbs from the coldness of it. I smiled weakly at him and said, “We can prove them wrong, Alfie. We’re stronger together, aren’t we?”

He nodded, childlike in his movements. “And Willa?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“I don’t want you out the bakery,” he said. “I was only windin’ you up, darlin’.”

I let out a laugh. “That’s good, because I have no intention of getting out of bed when Cyril needs the toilet tonight.”

He smiled, intertwining our fingers. “I knew that was pushin’ it. But I need to ask somethin’ of you now.”

Surprised by the severity of his eyes once he lifted them to look at me, I stilled beneath his stare and felt a hard lump in my throat form. He released my hand and it prompted me to call his name. “Alfie?”

“You don’t disappear on me again. You don’t ruin yourself with rum,” he pleaded. “You don’t fuckin’ disappear on me like that, ever again –…” – he had become agitated, his fist hit the table – “you promise me now in this office in this bakery that belongs to us, ‘cause I ain’t goin’ through that again, yeah, I ain’t fuckin’ doin’ it –…”

His leg bounced, his fist hit the table again and again.

“And this is the last night that you’ll be Willa Sykes.”

I stared at him, my eyes sore and tired from tears. “What?”

“Tomorrow,” he stated. “We marry tomorrow, and we do just that – we prove ‘em all fuckin’ wrong.”

☼ 

Chapter Text

twenty-one


 

Sewing a thin line of thread around the cuff of a new shirt, I could not help but think only of those voices which floated from the other end of the basement. It was a blend of gruff murmurs and sudden shouts which made me wince and bounce my boots against the floorboards, my glasses slipping from the bridge of my nose and hastily pushed upward once more. I heard the heavy groan of the latch lifted from those doors at the end of the hall, the clap of hands, the footsteps which followed. Then I glimpsed the inky silhouette of Gypsies passing through the hall before the door of the office swung open in a wild clatter.

There stood Kelly Lee with his black cap lowered over his face, his expression cast from an iron fury that marred his handsome features.

He stepped forward and the floorboards cried beneath each step. I quietened my sewing-machine and felt its rattling din hush into nothingness. I was made mute from his blackened stare, for his eyes were that of coal, much like mine, but those harsh shades came not from natural colour but rather a deepened sense of remorse and something more.

In our tongue, he told me, “Johnny has shaken the hand of your Jew – it has been settled now. You are to be his wife.”

I shifted in my seat, the rush of euphoria swelling from my fingertips upward into my arms, all around my chest and into my heart, so that it beat all the faster and set my blood alight. Only Kelly Lee had taken another step forward and it shushed that thunderous flutter of my soul beneath my rib-cage and it cooled my fiery blood, because his mouth had furrowed around Jew in such a cruel manner that it wounded me. It had never bothered me that Alfie was Jewish. I had always loved him, and his faith had only been another part of him, unfolded.

And I knew that Kelly Lee hated the simplicity in that.

“Then I would like for you to attend the ceremony,” I replied politely. “Your kin in London, too –…”

“Oh, I can ask them,” he retorted bitterly. “But d’you think they’d come and sit in a fuckin’ synagogue?”

I stood from my seat with an iciness in my movements that soon forced him to straighten his spine and swallow, his eyes looking toward the floorboards for just a brief moment before he dared drink in my dark stare; for we had the same colouring, now, all coal and something more.

“It will not be held in a synagogue, if that pleases you, Kelly Lee,” I snarked. “It will be held in a registry office and we will hold our own ceremonies after it.”

He let out this horrid laugh, held between a scoff and a shuddered gasp of breath. “A fucking registry? The man can’t even let you be in a fucking church, is that it?”

I bristled but soon steadied myself. “I love that man. I have always loved that man. Church, synagogue, register – I wish to marry him, and it does not matter where it happens for us. It was only Johnny who had the power to deny it.”

“And if he had?” Kelly asked. “If he had denied it, d’you not see that your man would have forced him to accept it? D’you not see that you would have been married whether your man had followed our rules or not?”

“He followed our rules by asking Johnny.”

After the proposal! He never asked him for permission to propose to you, to allow any other man –…”

His lips formed words left unheard; only the sounds seemed to float toward me, somehow made tangible, so that all the letters slipped around me in a jumbled swirl and I could pluck them from air and arrange them for him – he had wanted to be that suitor, he had wanted that chance for permission that might truly have been given because there was a hierarchy which came from the soil, things which had to be followed. Johnny sat in the place of my father at that table. He had spat on his own palm and shook hands with the man that I wanted to marry.

And I thought that that killed Kelly all the more, for he had long since known that Johnny had the choice to spit on the floorboards instead and turn Alfie away because of the bad blood that existed between them, turn him away for his faith like most Gypsies had anticipated – and he would have walked out of there alive, because he had been surrounded by kin as part of the arrangement to even sit with Alfie at all. If Johnny had wanted it, then he could have forced me to take another man chosen for his stature and blood; a man whose surname might have been Lee, after all.

“He is not of our world, Willa. He mocks our traditions, scoffs at our beliefs. But he expects you to take on his own. What can he bring you, hm? Happiness? Is that what he tells you? He is not a man driven by love!”

I looked him over, his tall frame with shoulders hunched in misery. “Is that what you are, Kelly Lee? A man driven by love?”

He licked his lips and his eyes became glassy. “I would understand you better. I would not change you.”

“We were children playing in a field,” I retorted irritably. “You realise that, don’t you? I mean, we hardly understood marriage – we put those rings on because we were playing a game.”

 Kelly was quiet for a moment, pinching his nostrils together to hold in some harsh snort before he spun for the door and that I thought that this might end, but he turned right back and splayed his hands against my table, leaned forward.

“He shot you, that man. He might not have held that gun, but he put you in the hospital and he will do it again. He will do it until the only other fucking place that he can put you in is a fucking grave, Willa! All the Gypsies know it. Granny looked into the branches of the sycamore trees and told me that she saw –…”

“She probably saw an owl,” I snorted. “So, what did that great owl tell her, hm? What did those rustling branches reveal to her, Kelly? Did they tell her that even after all these years, that I have only ever wanted fifteen children and a caravan in Bonny Glen with you?”

He recoiled from me, eyes widened from hurt. I had slipped back into English, too upset to think clearly in our tongue, a language that I rarely had the opportunity to use and which meant I had become rusty and weak in it. I think he knew it. I think he thought it proved a point. I felt the familiar flame of tears behind my eyes and reached to wipe away those which fell in heavy trickles along my cheeks.

He said lowly, “Your Jew would have said something like that. He would have mocked the things that we know and how we know them. D’you feel better for it now, hm? Having laughed at your own people?”

“You have done nothing but insult him,” I mumbled, crossing my arms over my chest. I was embarrassed by what I had said, but I had felt pushed to defend myself and Alfie. “You never bother to call him by his name. Only Jew. Did you think about how that made him feel?”

“Feel?” he repeated, his features twisted in revulsion. “That man feels nothing but fucking greed for the money that Tommy Shelby can provide him, that a hundred dead bodies beneath his fucking boots can provide him, what you can provide him – …”

He sank his hand into the material that I had tucked beneath the needle of the sewing-machine, which I had used especially for Alfie and this marriage, because I had made his shirts for years now. I had stitched it so carefully around the collar, measured each cuff and sleeve, lovingly pressed a pocket on his chest and felt as if I had kissed each stitch with my own lips through that machine which hummed beneath my hands. I knew his measurements more than I knew my own, knew every inch of him. It meant more to me than this man could have understood.

And Kelly Lee tore it upwards, so that the fabric caught on the needle and ripped in his rage, flopping uselessly from his grip.

“D’you know what will happen to you, d’you? Oh, he will make you happy for the first few months – he will bring you jewels and nice clothes and he will have you in that house what beats some fucking caravan in Bonny Glen. But d’you know what, Willa – one day you will look around at all its furniture and all the riches he gave you along with it and you will wonder how it’s still so fucking empty all the time -  and then you will ask yourself if you should have wanted your fifteen children and a husband what would understand your ways and take care of you and protect you rather than put a fucking bullet in you just to push himself all the higher in this London game by balancing himself on your fucking corpse to do it!”

He stopped, his mouth coated in a slick layer of spittle that he wiped from his chin with his coat. He was hearing his own words spoken back to himself by some distant echo and it rattled him through him, flattened out his shoulders and smoothed that furrow in his brow. He collected himself, plucked all pieces of his wrath from the floor.

“Willa,” he started. “Willa, I never meant to upset you like this. I only wanted to talk to you – to make you see sense before he ruins you.”

I was trembling like froth and foam in a great ocean, lapping beneath my feet, swirling upward in whitish gulps. “Please, get out,” I whispered.

The silence which had laid itself between us was sentient, I thought, because it stretched over our bodies like a blanket and smothered us. Kelly stepped around the table, arms raised in surrender, his expression made of remorse and something more. I panicked all the more because I was trapped between the table and that cabinet behind me, filled with papers and pens and countless rolls of material. I felt that blanket open my mouth and push itself inside; it dried out my mouth and furled along my throat, soaked up its wetness and left me stuffed in a dense pressure that made it hard to push my chest out at all, so that each breath came out rushed and stuttered.

“I think you oughta listen to ‘er, mate.”

Blinking rapidly, I cleared the bleary smudge which coated my eyes like pulling open our curtains in our bedroom each morning and taking in the street, seeing clearly each cobble and puddle there. Only now I saw that it was Alfie stood at the threshold of the office with his cane and his knuckles turned white around it, his eyes unreadable.

Kelly Lee never broke his stare from mine but he did move backward, skirting around the table, his hands still held upward to reassure me of his intentions all the while Alfie watched. Then, Kelly Lee cracked the bones of his neck in an odd roll of his shoulders and turned to face this man whom I had always loved; and it seemed to shatter him all the more to do it.

Finally, still in our tongue, Kelly Lee spoke to me without looking back at me. He said, “If you ever do find yourself in that house what he buys for ye, Willa, and you fear its emptiness – you need only look for me in Bonny Glenn.”

Although he might not have understood the sounds, Alfie simmered in his tension, his jaw wound tightly and his hands gripping that cane as if he imagined it to be the throat of Kelly Lee crushed between his hands. He remained there, in that threshold, until Kelly Lee approached him and there came a terrifying moment in which I was not certain that Alfie would shift aside for him, so darkly did those men watch each other.

“Alfie,” I whispered, my eyes flitting between them.

Slowly, Alfie dragged his stare to find me in the warmth of our office, with its lamps smouldering, before he looked over at his table with its papers held in tight bundles. He swallowed thickly and I glimpsed that heavy coldness in him, which had come that night he had beaten Nathaniel after he had called me all those names, that same bleak greyish light which found itself in his eyes, festering there.

Alfie stepped aside and the room seemed to deflate as if he had been the cork in a bottle of fizzing champagne popped open. Kelly Lee looked between us once more and then stormed into the hall, his coattails whipping behind him. Mutely, I watched him frame disappear between the thick cracks in the frosted windowpanes, swallowed into the blackness of the hall. I felt as if I had reached inside my mouth and tugged on that folded blanket, pulled out its length, dropped it on the floorboards between us. I shuddered from it, felt those tremors dissipate and yet still my hands were shaky until Alfie held them and kissed my knuckles.

His gaze dropped to look at my wrists but peered into the gap between them, noting that tattered material there, unspooled. He knew that I had wanted to sew this shirt for him with the best and richest fabric that he had ever bought, so he plucked it from its curled state and that same coldness flushed through him.

Wrapped in nausea, a faint realisation rolled through me and I thought, if this had been any other night and I was not here with him, Alfie would have killed that man. He would have murdered him and put him beneath the floorboards upon which we now stand.

Frantically, I took the shirt from him, jolted by some spasms in my arms, so that I patted at the piles of thread around the table and pricked myself from needles poked between each spool. Alfie caught my wrists and pressed his lips against my temple, curling his arms around me.

“I can mend it,” I told him.

“I know, love.”

He was very quiet and so much calmer than he had been that it relaxed me, too, but still I could only think about how I had mocked Kelly Lee and his grandmother, which hurt more than I wanted. I had felt cornered, surrounded. I was always poised between the Gypsies and the Jews, forced to defend both of them, forced to separate them before harsh, intense moments like tonight.

 “I just wanted it to look nice for you.”

“I know. I know.” He sighed, stepping away from me and leaning against the table. “But frankly, darlin’, I could marry ya in one of them sacks what we use for flour and the only thing that would matter is that piece o’ paper what says we’re married, innit?”

“Well,” I mumbled, toying with his fingers. “I think you might frighten off the guests if you wore that.”

“Watch it, you,” he smirked. “Or I might just do a runner ‘fore the ceremony.”

I laughed, all those dark feelings from Kelly Lee slipping into some faint place. “Johnny would hunt you down if you even thought about it.”

Alfie blew a raspberry between his lips, shaking his head. “D’you know, if Tom weren’t in there, right, I thought your uncle might ‘ave fucked off altogether them first few minutes we sat there. ‘e made it perfectly clear that ‘e don’t want you convertin’ for me.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Willa, if it were such a big fuckin’ problem for me, I would’ve asked you to do it a long time ago,” he smiled, “and I ain’t asked, ‘cause I know what it means to ya to be Gypsy, yeah? And if you asked me if I would move to some fuckin’ field, yeah, and sit there in the rain and misery with Kelly fuckin’ Lee – what I’m tryin’ to say, love, in me own roundabout way, is that if I ain’t changin’ nothin’, then why should you? Kelly fuckin’ Lee, eh –…”

“He had a point.”

Alfie guffawed, his eyes narrowing. “You what?”

I looked at those lamps which fuzzed and bloomed behind him, like great big sunflowers. “Kelly spoke of dreams and foresight and I mocked him for it. And he looked at me like I was –…”

“Like you was what?”

“Unrecognisable,” I answered, releasing a slow breath. “Or just a traitor. When I only wanted him to leave me alone.”

“D’you want this marriage, Willa?”

Startled, I looked at him through my lashes from his lowered stance. I felt my chest clench in pain, pain that he must have felt too, for he sighed; and it was all sighs between us tonight, when I missed that sweet sense of euphoria once Kelly told me that Johnny had allowed the proposal. I wished I had held onto it longer, savoured it, kept it within myself like some treasure.

“I have never wanted anything more in all my life, Alfie.”

He watched me, his eyes warm and soft for me. “I’m gonna marry ya, Willa Sykes, and it don’t matter if we do it Jewish-like or Gypsy, yeah? ‘Cause I don’t care ‘bout none o’ that. I only care that them papers say that you are Mrs Solomons, darlin’.”

He jumped from his seat, caught my arms and forced one hand on his shoulder, the other on his hip, the same hip that had always brought him so many problems. I let out a laugh at his sudden playfulness, bopping us this way and that around the office. He kissed my jawline, my collarbone, lingering at the mounds of my breasts, holding himself there for a moment, before his hand loosely grasped my throat and he tilted my chin up.

He looked the same way that he often did when he prayed; his eyes were focused on my skin as if he saw Holy words etched upon each line and dip of my body, because he had memorised me how he memorised those long-winded paragraphs about punishment and redemption, whispered between his lips each night, and it felt as if he had found what he sought after once he nudged open my legs with his own, let me feel his hardness against my inner-thigh and heard the soft moan which left me.

His hands scrunched the fabric of my skirts, pulled them up against my thighs so that I was left bare and he could touch me, touching like we had never been allowed to hold each other before and we had become famished and crazed from a savage hunger for each other. He fumbled with his belt which quickly dropped to the floorboards, cracking with a heavy thud that echoed my heartbeat. I felt my own slickness while he palmed at me, circled me with his fingertips, tracing that pattern which stirred and shocked me and which he had always known, right before he parted pages to push himself into me.

He held one arm around my waist, for I had tilted backward from the sheer fullness of him and the languid manner in which he rolled his hips forward, seeking that rhythm which soon came for him. He thrust into me even more, lifting me to lick at my breasts and knead them beneath his hands, suckling in a way that made me tremble. I felt our sweat and breaths swirl together when he straightened, pulling me closer to him, letting my lips kissing at the hollows of his collarbone, upward toward his throat and all around his jaw coated in that wiry stubble, catching myself on it, so that all sensations blended into some great crescendo and I scrunched his hair in my hands, held him tight, rocked with him.

I saw flashes of those sunflowers behind him when he moved all the faster. Ever so lightly, his left hand ghosted my throat once more until he gripped it and pushed his fingertips into those gentle dips just beneath my jaw; the pressure made my eyes roll backward and I thought it was terribly sick of me to think of all those other men he had strangled in his life, but I liked it whenever Alfie took control. I knew that he liked it, too, how I had reacted to him. I felt it in heaviness of his body curled around mine, pushing deeper and deeper until I fell apart, my legs shaking, breasts lifting from the rapid nature of my breathing. He followed soon afterward, and I revelled in the low groan that came from him, his hand still around my throat, felt him twitch inside of me before he pulled out and I missed the fullness of him.

For a little while, we stayed together, unmoving. Then, slowly, he pulled down my skirts and he grabbed our coats and surrounded me in warmth, tucking my arm around his and leading us toward the car that waited for us. In that same car, he held me like he always did, rested against his chest, talking with that gruff, rumbly voice of his about all the things that would happen tomorrow with the wedding, about my beautiful dress, about the party afterward. I had never known a man like I had known Alfie. I had never known a man like I had known him.

And so I tried not to think about what might have been whispered to Kelly Lee’s grandmother through the branches of that sycamore tree.

 ☼

Ada had come around seven with an armful of bags and a scowl on her face, mumbling that Tommy had visited her just that morning and it had soured her for the hour which had followed. It was that hour, unfortunately, which cut into the preparation for the ceremony and which meant she plopped all her things onto our bed with particular vigour. I glanced across the bedroom through the mirror in front of me and almost laughed at the expression that Franny wore as she watched Ada, her eyebrows raised and her lip worried between her teeth. I stood and swept toward Ada, catching her by the shoulders and turning her firmly around toward Franny.

“Ada, love,” I announced. “This is Franny. Franny, Ada.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Ada,” Franny smiled amicably.

Ada let out a neutral hum and nodded, her arms crossed over her chest. I squeezed her shoulders tightly and she yelped, smacking my arm. She glared at me, then glimpsed my hardened stare laid upon her. She rolled her eyes like a petulant child and turned properly to Franny. She held out her hand and looked just as surprised as I had the first day that I met Franny, because the woman opened her arms and curled them around Ada.

“Right,” Ada said uselessly. “Well, better get on with it.”

“Very kind way to start off my wedding, Ada.”

“You can blame Tommy for that. Always thinks he knows best.”

“Usually does,” I replied, grinning at how she spun around and looked as if she might smack my arm all over again.

“Is Tommy your husband?” Franny asked.

Ada let out a very loud snort of disgust. “Any woman mad enough to marry him would want a separation shortly after.” She saw that Fran was still confused and added, “My brother. Pain in my backside since the day I was born – he knows it, too.”

“Will he come to the party afterward?” I asked her, amused.

“I should hope not,” she spat. “But he says that he will, if he manages to take care of some business first. Knowing Tommy, if we hear an explosion or witness a murder, then that business has been taken care of.”

Franny looked surprised at her bluntness, because I was usually very reserved about what Alfie did and what Franny did know about the business came from simply being around the bakery or picking up on smaller things from Ollie. Even Ollie himself knew that it was best not to speak too much on matters of the bakery. Alfie had a lot of rules about rum and bread. Still, Franny tried to be polite.

She offered a weak smile and said, “Oh, right. Is your brother in the rum business like Alfie, then?”

Ada threw her a withered glance. “There is not a vice on this earth that Tommy has not dabbled in. The devil would have cleaner hands than my fucking brother.”

There was a knocking against the bedroom door that spared Franny from the wrath of Ada Shelby – or rather, Thorne – and Franny looked all the more relieved to rush over and answer it. Alfie stepped into the room with his usual gait, scratching at his stubble beneath the questioning stares of the women around him, seeming uncomfortable. Ada had only met Alfie when he answered the door and she seemed to look at him then with that usual sharpness in her eyes, noting details that others might have glossed over.

“Uh, I would like to speak with Willa, if that’s all right, ladies,” he grumbled.

Franny glanced at Ada. “Of course, Alfie.”

Franny walked out into the hall with her usual diligence, but Ada hovered for a moment longer, looking at Alfie. Then, finally, she nodded and passed him coolly. I would have given anything to peek into her thoughts like looking through the window of a shop. Ada was a lot like Tommy in how she studied people around her, however much she would have hated to hear it.

Alfie cleared his throat once Ada and Franny had left. “Right, Willa – I want to put your veil on.”

I stared at him. “I need to put the dress on, first, Alf.”

“Yeah, I know. But it – it can be a tradition for us, yeah, and I know we ain’t goin’ into traditions and all that ‘cause it would start another fuckin’ war with my people and yours, yeah, and your lot got all them rituals on their side, y’know, scatterin’ locks o’ me ‘air on some cow-shit and cursin’ me for the rest o’ me days. But I wanted to ask ya if you would let me do it, before the weddin’.”

I smiled at the unusual nervousness in him, deciding not to scold him for his jokes about the Gypsies. I had tried to understand that there was nothing off-limits for Alfie when it came to jokes, and sometimes the only way that he could express himself was through a snipe at some group or another.

I tried not to think about that look in Kelly Lee’s eyes all the same.

“Alfie, I would love for you to do that.”

“And there was another thing, yeah,” he mumbled. “Right, well, I ain’t done it the proper way. I ain’t ‘ad it done up the way we do it at Jewish weddings or nowt, but I wanted to do for it ya, y’know, like a little – well, a promise, innit?”

Confused, I watched as he approached me and fell onto his knees in front of me, his hand reaching into the pocket of his shirt and pulling out a sheet of paper, so delicate that I was almost afraid to touch it, smoothing out its creases and drinking in its intricate petals and flowers shaped around its words written in Hebrew, spreading out into the trees grown all around.

“We call it a ketubah, which is like a contract,” he explained gently, “between the groom and ‘is bride, ‘cause the groom is meant to write all them things what ‘e promises to provide for ‘is wife, right, like food and clothin’ and sex and – well, usually, you ain’t fucked before the weddin’ ‘cause your bride is meant to –…”

Alfie must have heard himself and backtracked quickly, wincing at himself.

“What was that, Alfie?” I asked coyly, smirking at his discomfort. “You’re making an awful face.”

“Yeah, well, some o’ your Gypsies cousins must ‘ave already used that cow-shit to curse me good lucks in that case, eh? Anyway, I’m meant to write all the things that I want for you – for us, yeah. It ain’t official like, don’t do nothin’ for us but show you that I – that I want it to be good for us, Willa, y’know. I want you to be ‘appy with me, love.”

I felt the rise of tears and quickly swallowed them, smiling at him and holding that paper so gently in my hands, afraid to ruin it.

“And I know you can’t read all them funny letters, but I taught you to read before so I can teach you to read ‘ebrew, someday,” he continued, his hand resting on my knee. “But I can tell you what it does say now, eh? I said that I would provide an ‘ouse, love, all them things what the rabbi thought would be best to start out with. And I wrote the rest o’ it by me-self, ‘cause it’s only meant for you and me.”

I figured that he was speaking so calmly and soothingly purely because I was emotional, my voice choked from it, and Alfie was just as soft on the inside, even if he denied it.

“And it tells you down ‘ere,” he continued, “that I won’t ever leave ya, that I will always be loyal to ya – that means no shaggin’ other birds or nothin’, but they got nicer words for it in ‘ebrew than us, so I put it that way, didn’t I? And I said that I would never toss you out for them cold feet o’ yours when we’re in bed, and I would always be the one to take Cyril out for a piss, and I would do the dishes for ya on Mondays, Thursdays, maybe Fridays –…”

I burst into laughter, pushing at his shoulder. “You did not write that!”

“I bloody well did, you can call the rabbi down if you don’t believe me,” he replied. “Right, next part, I said that I would take care o’ ya if ya were sick the same way I take care o’ ya when you’re on your trotters and doin’ well. Said I would never let anyone talk down to ya. I want you to know that I’ll keep ya safe, I’ll always provide for ya, protect ya, like. And when you’re blue again, darlin’, I’ll be blue with ya, and we’ll go through it together.”

He smiled, and it was the most honest and endearing smile that had ever come from him, and it was all meant for me. He looked only at me like that. He had only ever looked at me like that.

“I would do a lot o’ things for you, Willa, what I can’t put into words in any o’ the languages what I know. Ain’t enough meanin’ in them words in ‘ebrew, and English is even worse. So, I’ll settle by showin’ ya, won’t I, durin’ our marriage?”

The tears came out even if I had tried to slow them, but he had spoken so sincerely that I felt that euphoria again, leaning forward to hug him against me, gripping him tightly. I had never known a man like him, that had always been the truth. But I knew that I never wanted to know another. I believed that he had always been mine even in those hazy times when we had worked in the factory, and he had probably accepted it faster than I had, because I had been so afraid to admit that I liked him – loved him, too, much later. I knew what he meant, for the Gypsies had long since told me about it; words that were meant for feelings which humans had known for centuries but had never been able to name.

When he pulled away, I glimpsed the wonky pattern of his buttons on his shirt and my eyes widened, my hands gripping his arms to hold him still. “Alfie, is that the very first shirt that I made you?”

“Hm?” he glanced down, feigning indifference. “Oh, yeah, it is.”

“You’re wearing it?”

“Very observant, Willa, love.”

I scoffed at him, rolling my eyes. “I meant you’re wearing it today – for the wedding?”

“Yeah, I am. I’ll wear the other one that you made me after the weddin’ is over, all right? But this one means the most, don’t it, the very first one?”

I looked down at this contract and I realised that I had never felt that hot, thundering warmth in my chest for anybody in my life except for him. I had loved a lot of people; Elsie, Charlotte, Johnny. I had just never loved them in the same way that I loved Alfie – totally and completely, so that it felt natural to think of him before all else. I never had much family, only ever really counted Johnny for blood and cousins like Tommy floated out there on some faraway plain, not really considered more than an acquaintance who happened to share blood somewhere along the line. Even for this ceremony, most of the guests were Jewish or related to the business more than him.

But there was a great comfort to be found in knowing that Alfie was tied to me through more than just blood; or maybe it was that he was all the blood and feelings and soul that existed in me, in many ways.

“I have promises for you too, Alf,” I smiled. “I promise all the things that you did – I will love you, take care of you, protect you –…”

“Protect me, eh, the size o’ ya,” he huffed. “Couldn’t fight off a cold, you.”

And,” I said, drawing out the word to shush him, “I won’t get mad at you when you complain about my cold feet, because I know that you will complain, no matter what this contract says. I will take Cyril out to pee only on Mondays, Thursdays, maybe Fridays –…”

“Now you are bein’ sacrilegious, right – mockin’ me contract what I made for ya.”

“And,” I continued again, “I would never shag another man –…”

“Too fuckin’ right,” he muttered.

“I will carry every burden that you do, Alfie. Whatever you cannot tell another soul, you can tell me,” I said.

“I know. I always knew that, love.”

“And I will be blue with you,” I told him finally. “I’ll be blue and all those other colours with you, every day that we have together.”

The wedding itself was more formal than most. There were no chiming bells or a long stride down an aisle, though Johnny had looped his arm with mine and stood outside that office with me as if there would be, his own eyes curiously wet and his cheeks red. I snickered at him and he quickly muttered that it was just damp weather that had made him weepy. I stared ahead at that looming mahogany door in front of me, behind which Alfie waited for me, and it was not the same as a church, it was not the same as some great affair with hymns and pews.

But I had never imagined any of that, because I had never imagined any of this.

All that time in girlhood, and not once had I ever thought much about love and weddings. I had seen the Gypsies married and sent off in carts, saw hands held and lips pressed together, but I never put myself there in that place with them, never imagined myself as a bride, never imagined myself as a wife. I had never thought of what might become of me beyond that flat on Bell Road, because Esther had always said that girls in our world never made it much beyond twenty-eight.

And there I was, twenty-nine or something more; bride and wife and far beyond Bell Road, all at once.

“You look beautiful, Willa,” Johnny spoke softly beside me. “You always were radiant, girl. Everyone said it to me, y’know – you watch out, Johnny, eh, your girl will be a heartbreaker for all men –…”

“Seems they got it wrong, eh? Only one, for me,” I grinned. I fixed the lapels of his jacket, touched that tweed and felt nostalgic for it, the fabric of the patches on his elbows reminding me of how he had held me as a little girl and balanced me on his arm. I was overwhelmed by a strong swell of love and worry for Johnny, the same worry which filled each brush and graze and word spoken through tears and tenderness between us. “Thank you for accepting his proposal, Johnny. He is a good man, you know.”

“There are no good men in our world,” Johnny replied, his eyes lost in a distant fog. “But there are men who are only good to those who matter to them – your man falls into that category for me and I can only ask for that.”

“Johnny –…”

“I looked at it me-self, chey. I thought of how he had stayed with you in the hospital. I spoke with him then and I saw regret in the way he held himself. I knew that he would do what he could to prevent anythin’ like that from happenin’ again. He could fail – but sure, so could Tommy in his own right. But most of all, chey, I know that you are happy with him. Happy in the way that I never made you. Happy in the way that my mistakes never allowed you to be.”

His throat bobbed and his gaze dropped, his shoulders trembling from his conviction. I threw my arms around him, hugged him closely against me and felt the strength of him, felt all those hard years of labour which had worn away at him and made his flesh tougher and more rugged than most. He had the body of a Gypsy man who had made his way through a life that had only ever thrown obstacles at him, and for that I looked at him in a fresh light.

“I love you, Johnny.”

I had never told another man that I loved him other than Alfie, but there had never been a lot of them in my life, not a lot of permanent people at all.

The door opened and I saw him there in its parting, a white sliver of light spreading over him from those windows behind him, that wonky shirt that I had made all those years beforehand on him now, and it took all of me not to cry already. I never thought that it was meant for me, those things within that room. I had not imagined myself as that bride or wife, never thought much about love and things beyond twenty-eight.

But there it was, held in that room before me.

It was there in the signing of those papers and rings exchanged, there in the gleam of his eyes which shone much like Johnny’s had in the hall, and mine which filled with tears never held back. I saw it there in the tremor of his hands, the soft way that he swallowed when it was all finished and he knew that I was Mrs Solomons after all, with only Ollie and Johnny there to witness that name spoken for the first time with papers to prove it, but I had been that woman for a long time. I had worn that title for longer than I had ever realised.

I knew that he had meant everything that he had written in that contract because he had been doing those things ever since we had first met; and there had been some failures between us, some subtle shifts in meaning, but he had always been mine.

And there were so many ways to say I love you that could come in Hebrew or English or all those other languages in between. But he settled with a little phrase that said it all, for us.

He leaned forward and said, “Every colour, Willa.”

Drunk from that same euphoria, sitting in the car, I told him, “I want that great big house with you Alfie, so we can look out at the ocean every morning and count the seagulls – and a chandelier, yeah, one great big chandelier for us – and a gramophone, a proper one. And I want us away from London, away from the bakery. We can paint every room ourselves, Alf – and we need a bed for Cyril, need him comfortable –…”

I glanced over at him and found him watching me, his lips lifted into this warm smile. He said nothing, but I knew what he meant, anyway.

The hotel was the poshest that I had ever seen, its marbled floors sweeping into walls of pure white, all toward dangling chandeliers like those we had spoken about in the car. The party had been planned quickly, but there was not one hotel in London who had tried to refuse once they found out the name on the billing. I was not blind to the Jewish men who stood at the doors and who lined the halls with wary eyes watching those strangers not part of the celebrations, because the party itself would be held in a reception room at the very end of a long hall. I found Ada there with Franny and it seemed that the women had warmed to each other, chatting closely.

“You see, Franny,” I called out to her, “she isn’t all bad, is she? Even for a Shelby.”

I thought it was all the more telling once Ada did not correct me. She drew me into her arms and laughed. “I told her – it was only Tommy who –…” – her eyes ghosted behind me and her tone became flat – “…ah, fuck.”

Surprised, I looked along the length of the hall to find Arthur Shelby at the end with his arms held out, a bright grin on his face. Behind him, Tommy tossed a cigarette aside and John took off his cap, striding forward with great purpose and ignoring all those curious glances from other people stood around them. I spotted a lanky boy between them, seeming out of place and looking around as if he knew it. I figured that that was Finn, who had only been a babe the last that I had heard of him.

Arthur looked much better than he had the last time that I had seen him. He wore a posh suit, his hair slicked back, his skin fresher and his eyes more focused than they had been. I was not afraid of him as much when he reached his arms around me, held me close against him. He was much more gentle, too, no slamming pats on the back or tight squeezes that left me breathless and wounded. I hugged John and Tommy, then looked at Finn, who had his hands stuffed into his pockets and his shoulders hunched forward, looking all the part of a teenager forced to attend a family event that bored him, but who was too polite to do more than suffer through it.

I knew that Tommy had probably brought him to London with the promise of more exciting things, like the kind of vices that Ada had spoken about earlier. So, I hugged him like I had hugged his brothers and leaned close to his ear to whisper, “I can at least slip you some alcohol, eh, Finn?”

“Oi, Willa, step away from the lad, eh?” Arthur called out loudly. “Married woman, you are now, and our Finn is on the lookout for a London girl of ‘is own, ain’t ya, Finny boy?”

“I’m not too sure the Jewish girls in attendance would want this greasy mop,” John mused, slapping at Finn. “Can you read the Torah, eh, Finn?”

“The what?”

“You might learn tonight,” Tommy said calmly. “Don’t say we don’t ever bring you on educational trips.”

Only a handful of the Lee family had appeared. I was relieved that Kelly Lee had not shown up to simmer in his darkness, but Mitchell had arrived with a Gypsy woman of his own, Maggie Ward, who drank more than all the men at her table and held it better than them, too. The Jewish sat on one side, grouped with some partners who worked with Alfie, along with a couple of other associates who aligned with neither side.

I watched Tommy look them over, like a housecat with a mouse already dead in its mouth but looking only for fresher blood. I wondered if this had not just been some part of a plan for his place in London. Still, he stayed with the Gypsies, blended into the Lee crowd and sipped at his drink all night, even danced with Ada once a whiskey had loosened her scowl.

Then came Maggie Ward, who stepped onto the large spaced reserved for dancing, and she threw out her arms in a wild shimmy before she twisted and turned, stomping her boots against the floorboards and shaking her hips before she began her first leap around the place, her hair unfurled from its clip. I glanced over at those who had come mostly for Alfie and saw some surprised expressions, but Maggie burst toward me, uncaring.

In our language, she said, “Come and dance, Willa!”

I had allowed Alfie to lead us in short, muted waltzes but I had still not danced in a long time – not the dance of Gypsies. I felt her warm grip around my hand and I thought of all that happened that day; of those who were not here to witness those things which had come for me after twenty-eight, neither Charlotte nor Esther nor any other girl buried out in those fields with them. Gypsy Girl had died with them. The sycamore trees that told Kelly Lee and his grandmother things which swirled in my stomach and I wanted them out like I wanted Gypsy Girl out and I wanted Esther and all those other bad things out, so I took her hand more firmly and let her lead the first dance.

She threw her whole body into her dance, used every limb and every inch of her for movement, spun and spun until the room melted into blends of beige and white, glittering shards of gold scattered in between. I was breathless with her, laughing so hard at the wildness of her, and I felt the roots of an older life return to me, like they had been spun from the floorboards between us, upward around our ankles and into us, pushing forth each jump and leap, each kick and shimmy.

I saw her eyes lined in kohl and saw mine reflected within them, felt her bracelets rattle like our bones did with each crack of our boots against the ground, felt our language come from her lips like a prayer that I had forgotten.

And it was somewhere between those spins that I saw Alfie, who watched me as if he saw those same sunflowers that I had seen earlier, as if they had sprouted from my mouth and filled the room; because that had always been how it had, when our spoken words in Hebrew and English could not sufficiently describe love in the way that we felt it, and the only thing left for us was colour.  

☼ 

Chapter Text

twenty-two


 

TWO YEARS LATER

Breathlessly rushing behind him through a labyrinth of halls, I gripped his hand even tighter and followed him into yet another kitchen. Wild laughter bubbled from my chest like smoke whipped from a frothing cauldron and I looked behind at long stretch of hall behind us where a maid stood with her arms crossed and her expression pinched in frustration. I rushed behind him, slapping his arms to hurry him forward, excited by the sudden sound of her kitten-heels cracking furiously against the floorboards.

I felt his arms slither around my waist and lift me to throw us into a closet. We crashed against mops and stray brushes which smacked against his face and bumped my arms. I yelped from the hard thump of a handle against my cheek, but he soon clapped a hand over my mouth and shushed me.

Strained against the door, I heard the familiar tip-tapping of those heels while she passed our hide-out.

Slowly, his hand fell from my mouth and he relaxed against the wooden walls behind him with a sigh that bloomed into heavy laughter, his pale eyes alight in the dim, yellowish light of this closet. I laughed with him deliriously. I leaned backward too, unaware that a bucket of soapy water was behind my boot until it sloshed all over the floorboards and drenched both of us around the ankles and feet. I stumbled, falling backwards.

In his blindness, he reached to catch me and bashed his forehead against a shelf overhead. I was half-bent against the walls, arms spread out and he was awkwardly balanced to avoid falling into me – and our laughter returned, great barks of laughter even from how we stood in that closet with limbs contorted.

Suddenly, the door slammed open and I trailed my eyes from those kitten-heels upward along a pressed skirt and starched apron to find that maid stood there with her scowl set even deeper.

“Fuck, did we miss the lovely couple cuttin’ the cake, eh?” Alfie asked her. “Pity. Well, why don’t you wrap us up a slice, yeah, plop it in a napkin and we can eat it in the car – ‘ow does that sound?”

I felt my boot slip from underneath me and I bashed my bottom against the floorboards, the fabric of my dress immediately soaked in that lukewarm water. I moaned from the pain. Alfie stepped forward to help me only to clap his forehead against that shelf once more and I was struggling to help him through gulping fits of laughter.

“Twice,” he grumbled. “Twice, I bashed me fuckin’ loaf off that shelf – and me poor wife ‘as only gone and pissed ‘erself from the stress o’ it all. She ‘as these accidents, see, gets proper embarrassed and I was only tryin’ to find a nice quiet bathroom for ‘er –…”

“You bloody liar!” I shrieked at him, slapping his legs. “I spilled the –…”

Innocently, he looked at the maid and moulded his features into one of great pity for his ailing wife, one hand pressed against his hip and the other held over his forehead as if he was so stressed and worried. “She gets very upset, y’know. I think you oughta give us a moment ‘ere, I need to clean ‘er up – you won’t tell Mr Shelby, will you? Very embarrassin’ for me wife, like I said –…”

Glancing between us venomously, the maid turned and marched off down the hall. I stared at the spot where she had been and then thumped his leg with my boot. He was laughing too much for it to have even bothered him. He stopped to scoop beneath my armpits and haul me from the floorboards, but then he crashed against me when his shoes went slack against the water and I cried out when his forehead battered mine.

“Oh, fuck – that was the last o’ me brains in there, knocked right out,” he grumbled. “Look ‘round them floorboards and see if you can’t find bits o’ them brains down there. Try shove ‘em back in ‘fore I go all soft and funny on ya, darlin’.”

“Too late for that.”

“You’re a cruel fuckin’ woman,” he retorted. “When they cart me off to one o’ them places where they keep them simple-minded people, you’ll be fuckin’ sorry, won’t ya? Sittin’ in me armchair, droolin’ all over me-self! You’ll be sorry –…”

I pushed at his shoulders, giggling madly. “Get off, Alfie, you’re crushing me!”

“Oh, you got me all sensitive now, wonderin’ if I ain’t gained a few pounds from eatin’ three plates worth o’ starters. Though I suspected I would throw it all up once Tom made ‘is little speech ‘bout fam’ly. Spoutin’ all sorts o’ nonsense, ‘e was. I think Tom mighta bashed ‘is thick skull off this shelf a few times ‘imself, what d’you reckon?”

“I reckon,” I grinned, “that we should get ourselves some of that cake like you said and go home. I miss Cyril and my own bloody bed.”

“All right, all right,” he replied. “I got a plan in mind, yeah, to get us outta ‘ere without lookin’ too rude ‘bout it. ‘Cause y’know ‘ow it can look for business partners if you fuck off in the middle o’ their weddings. I’ll bring Tom over real nice like, tell ‘im we loved all them fancy fuckin’ songs in the church and I thought them swans were a nice touch for the shape o’ them napkins.”

Snickering at him, I brushed aside his hair and smiled at him, nodding along. He kissed my wrists and I laughed at him again, amused by the funny expressions that he made just for me.

Smacking his lips and raising his eyebrows, he continued, “Then you can piss yourself again, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I am terribly fuckin’ sorry, Tom, my lad, our Willa just can’t control ‘er fuckin’ bladder and she’s only gone and wet ‘erself over your Persian rugs and we ain’t brought spare clothes for ‘er, so we must be off now – thanks for the shitty fuckin’ ‘our we spent waitin’ for you and your missus with all them screamin’ fuckin’ children and them old biddies chattin’ shite into me ear at the church, yeah, okay? Bye, Tom’ –…”

I slapped his chest and my head fell back while I groaned. “Alfie!”

“Ain’t nothin’ to be embarrassed ‘bout, love, ‘appens to the best o’ us, don’ it?” he replied. “That maid ‘ad a fuckin’ look o’ thunder on ‘er face though, didn’ she? Thought she’d ‘ave Tom ‘imself chasin’ after us.”

“Well, we weren’t supposed to be down here at all, Alf,” I smirked. “And Tommy has very dedicated staff in his mansion, it would seem.”

“Too fuckin’ right – d’you think I could replace Ollie with that fuckin’ maid? She ‘ad a face like a slapped arse, but she’d get them lads movin’ in the bakery, wouldn’t she?”

“And what would Ollie do?”

“Follow you ‘round with a mop an’ clean up your messes,” he answered.

“Yeah, well, your own pants are wet now, too,” I told him.

Confused, he glanced down, because he had landed on his knees and so the rest of his pants had been left dry – but I gripped the bucket beside us and splashed the last puddle against him, grinning at his shout of surprise.

I will tell Tom that you had an accident and then we can get out of here.”

“Right, well, only if you can get me three slices o’ cake. I only told that maid I wanted one ‘cause I think she saw me scoffin’ down them starters, too. Don’t want any nasty rumours spreadin’ ‘bout me eatin’ ‘abits.”

Struggling from our slumped spots, I patted around the walls to find anything that I could pull myself up with, still giddy. Only I slowed when I noticed Alfie was terribly still, his shoulders hunched, his face creased from pain. All that laughter left me, and I shifted around the mops and brushes to settle in front of him, cupping his cheeks.

“Alfie?” I whispered. “Are you all right?”

“Just me fuckin’ back,” he mumbled.

“Is it that pain going up your spine?” I asked gently.

He chewed at the soft, fleshy inside of his cheek and nodded tightly. “Will pass in a minute, just – just wait a second, love.”

I leaned forward and kissed his forehead where he had bruised himself. I waited like he said; waited for that blistering spike of agony to roll along his spine, which he said was like the tyres of a car pressing along each bone and ridge that lined his back until it finally petered out into echoing rounds of a fainter, lesser pain. I stroked his hands until I watched his mouth loosen and his legs straighten. Then I stood and helped him.

“Alf,” I mumbled, “I really think you should see the doctor about it, sweetheart. I know you hate visiting the doctor, but I’m really worried. It’s happened more and more this last month.”

Hobbling out into the hall, he leaned against the wall and let out a slow sigh. We had discussed this visit to the doctor many times over, but he had always dismissed it and denied that the pain was too much even if it made him stand like a statue. He dragged his hands over his face and said, “Fine.”

I blinked. “Really?”

“You bring me four slices o’ cake and I’ll call for an appointment tomorrow. And not them scraggly slices what them other fuckers picked at, mind – strawberries and icin’, the whole works.”

I beamed at him. “You got it.”

“And you’re tellin’ Tommy that we’re fuckin’ off.”

“Fine, fine. You call for Caleb.”

“In my condition? No, no, I think I best stay ‘ere an’ wait for me cake.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, you know you really milk it every time, Alfie.”

“What’s that ‘bout milk, darlin’? Me vision is goin’ on me, I’m feelin’ fainter with every word – I see a great big white fuck-off light down that ‘all there. D’you see it too? Oh, if only I ‘ad some bit o’ cake to keep me strength up.”

I fixed my dress. “All right, all right.”

“And I would recover much faster if it was cake with them strawberries and icin’, like I said,” he called out as I walked away from him. “And make sure Arthur ain’t touched it, I don’t want the clap!”

Sweeping arches led out into the driveway of his mansion. I found him there between the pillars, looking out into the blackness of the night as he smoked a cigarette. I wondered if he felt comforted by that blanket of pure coal over the fields around his home, because it only unsettled me. I had become accustomed to the sparkling lights of London and the fuzzing hum of lamps and the movement of neighbours in the houses around ours. I was comforted by it, but Tommy seemed to prefer silence with only the faint, intermittent croak of birds or a glimpse of foxes slithering between the glittering leaves of the shrubbery around him.

“It was a beautiful wedding, Tom,” I called out. “Grace is a very lovely woman.”

“And nothing to be said for the groom, eh?”

“He has a terrible smoking habit, if that counts.”

“If only that were his worst habit,” he replied. “Are you off, Willa?”

“Alfie finds it hard to tolerate fresh air,” I told him. “Prefers the dense fumes and misery of London.”

Somewhere in the fields, a horse nickered, and hooves were stomped into dirt. Tommy was quiet for a long time. Then, he turned and hugged me briefly, before he said, “Perhaps I am not the only one with old habits, then. Goodnight, Willa.”

 “Tommy?” I called out.

“I’m happy for you, you know,” I told him.

In truth, I had wanted to ask him: what haunts you now, Tom? Did it start in France or had it been there long before all that?

He stood just a couple of feet away from me in the hall of his own home and somehow, I felt that distance more than ever. He had married this Irishwoman whom he had always loved and yet his eyes held that fog which rolled over the black fields behind us and I always felt that more words lingered in his mouth that he wanted to say, words with much more meaning, but that the smoke muffled them. I glimpsed those words there at the cusp of his tongue, but they never came out.

Instead, he nodded, and I watched him disappear into those looming halls that seemed much too large for him; he was swallowed by them, and I was left out there with the foxes and the birds.

Held in a beautiful golden frame, I placed the ketubah in the bedroom, wiped all smudges and fingerprints from its glass and kissed its edges. I showed it to Cyril as if he might understand its foreign letters, its promises written in columns, its gentle pattern of trees and branches all around. Curling against Alfie with blankets piled around us in the bitter chill of winter, I felt the crackling warmth of the fireplace and the comfort of his rumbling murmur while he read portions of the Torah aloud alongside me.

My eyes trailed toward that little frame to drink in its scripture – because it was scripture for me, the purest and most devout form of gospel that I had ever acknowledged in all my life. There was a pilgrimage made through every paragraph and revelation came at its end.

While he spoke in Hebrew, I imagined that he was reading the promises in that contract, envisioned those sounds etched into my skin as words that I could read, its beauty contained in those soft breaths taken between verses, those quiet swallows made in his throat for those harsher syllables which dragged along his tongue and plopped from his mouth in rasps.

I had never thought much about those things beyond the clouds, but in those moments, whenever Alfie whispered in Hebrew and his hand absent-mindedly reached to rest against my thigh while he did it, I understood holiness in a way that I never had before.

Carefully, he pulled himself from me and placed the Torah on the drawer alongside our bed, then stooped with muffled grumbles to put out the fire and scratch Cyril just before he slipped back into the sheets and shuffled me against him. He kissed my temple and his hands quickly reached for the blankets to tuck around our bodies pressed together, ensuring that I was comfortable and safe like he had written in his contract, but that was just another thing never mentioned between us.

It was never mentioned in the same way that we never mentioned how Alfie worried that I had become too cold in his absence and tried to wrap the blankets around me more than him nor how he had chosen the side closest to the door because he said that he preferred it and never was it mentioned that I had felt every single one of those kisses placed by him upon my temple from the first night that we had stayed together in this house.

Stepping out into the backyard, I felt my boots sink into the mud, torn back out with vigour. I followed behind the men, breathing in whitish wisps which burst from my lips and floated upward to line the edges of the clouds overhead. I shuffled behind Ishmael and Eli Allman with my heavy coat bundled tight around me, gloved hands latched around a clipboard which contained a list of numbers and names for each barrel due to be delivered. I was meant to scratch off the number of barrels lowered from the truck and then follow into the basement once finished to tick each name and assign a number, a task which was usually assigned to Ollie, but Franny had come down with an awful flu and needed a hand with Elijah.

Smouldering in a thick, yellowish fog which curled from the lamps in echoing breaths, the basement was composed of mud and damp from the barrels rolled across its floorboards. I glanced at Allman, who chatted with Ishmael and I smiled to myself, pleased that he had fit in well ever since his wife had first visited me in the office and pleaded with me to find him a place here.

I trailed behind them with my clipboard and then danced around the entrance to warm myself the moment we stepped in the basement, earning a couple of amused snorts from the men who had done this same job every morning for the past few months.

Shooting them a playful glare as I pulled off my gloves, I stuttered through blue lips and told them, “All right, I’ll start on making some gloves and scarves for you all. Aprons hardly seem enough to warm you out there.”

“Liftin’ the barrels soon warms us, Mrs Solomons,” Eli grinned. “And Mr Solomons offers a good portly bottle of rum sometimes.”

I snorted. “The brown stuff?”

“The brown stuff,” Ishmael answered.

“If your mother knew you drank that, Ishmael –…”

He blanched, looking fearfully at me from behind the rim of a barrel held in his arms. “She would break me arms and put me in one of these barrels ‘ere, y’know.”

Dropping the clipboard, I looked behind him, drawn by a pair of legs which appeared behind the banister, legs dressed in a powder-blue suit, a pale hand lifted to plop a cigarette between paler lips. I watched a stranger settle at the bottom of the steps with his eyes ghosting around the basement and I thought that he was Irish. It was something familiar in him that made me think it. Alfie had not mentioned anything about a meeting with another buyer and it made me wonder if there was a good reason for that – there was no meeting.

Yet this man had walked through the courtyard and made it this far without much fuss.

So, I approached him.

Peeking from his cap were strands of black hair, cropped and tight against his skull. His eyes were cool-green in colour, set against dark lashes. His eyebrows were wide-set, his nose straight and narrow. He was fairly handsome in his own way. He was much taller, too, made taller from the confidence that came from being in his twenties and wearing a suit that rich. I craned to look at him and he glanced down at me, curling his lips into a smile that seemed far too friendly already.

“Mrs Solomons, I presume? My name is Jack Murphy.”

I recognised that accent, a funny blend of an English tone mixed with Irish parentage that produced some lilt that balanced in-between, tipping toward Irish in his emotion and ticking back toward English in his slang.

“Pleasure to meet you, Mr Murphy. Is Alfie expecting you?”

“I heard you were pretty,” he mused, clicking his tongue. “And I heard you were a Gypsy.”

“And looking at me now, what would you think for yourself?” I asked testily.

“I would think,” he replied, “that there is no smoke without fire – and you are very fiery, Mrs Solomons.”

I snorted and crossed my arms over my chest. “D’you try that with all women, Jack?”

“Oh, I try a lot of things. But I do prefer it when a woman takes charge, you know,” he shrugged, flicking the cigarette from his lips and letting it fizzle on the dirt beneath us. He leaned forward, his lips stretched into a wide smile, as if he was in the midst of a very exciting game and the ball had just rolled into his corner. “Like when a woman decides to call me Jack rather than Mr Murphy – now that drives me proper mad, that does. In a good way, I should say.”

I kept my eyes locked on him and never returned his smile. Instead, I called out, “Ishmael, would you be so good as to tell Alfie that he has a guest?”

Jack flicked his eyes behind me, presumably looking at Ishmael. I heard the boy set down the barrels and walk toward the office. Jack clicked his tongue again and murmured, “Ishmael? Now, you don’t hear that kind of name ‘round Poplar, I can tell you that. We have a hundred girls named Mary and another hundred boys called Patrick – but an Ishmael, you will not find.”

Beneath his light, casual tone, I heard that mockery. I snarked, “Must not be creative people down ‘round Poplar then, Jack.”

“Got us there,” he smirked. “Now, a name like – like Elijah – that seems on the rise ‘round your parts, eh? I have heard of lots of babies named Elijah ‘round here.”

I stared into those pools of cool-green and my stomach swooped as if I had fallen from a great height; he had used that name as if it had been plucked from his brain at random, but it had left his lips in a trail of knowing – knowing that Ollie and Franny had a baby named Elijah, knowing that the name would bother me, knowing that I could not accuse him of anything more than having chosen it out of the blue.

But his smile was enough for me to know that he was no buyer or seller – that he was no friend of ours.

I heard the familiar tap of a cane behind me and my chest swelled in relief, because Alfie was right there behind us. Ishmael stood with him purposefully, because the boy was tall for his age, broad around the shoulders and arms, having carted barrels around this basement for months. Eli Allman had paused in his work to stand with them, looking over Jack Murphy like he was made of the same rot that soaked through the rafters overhead.

Alfie always had an act around new people. He brought that cane even if his spine was untouched by that spasm in his nerves and he often rolled up his sleeves for this casual touch, as if he had not even bothered to prepare himself for an introduction. Jack Murphy looked at Alfie, but Alfie looked at the dirt and then pursed his lips while he glanced over at the barrels.

“Mr Solomons,” Jack began. “I just met your lovely wife. She does you great justice, you should know.”

Alfie shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, well, mate, I picked me wife the same way I did all this rum – best quality, sweet an’ all, makes you loopy after a while.”

Another gimmick that he pulled was this playful, disinterested response to men like Jack Murphy. But his eyes then dragged across the barrels to look directly at Jack and there was that cold, disconnected sheen that had birthed itself in France all those years beforehand. Jack saw that darkness; it was reflected in his own eyes.

“Willa, darlin’, did you offer ‘im a bit o’ our rum, hm?” Alfie asked. He licked his lips and it was like I could hear what he wanted so badly to say, but which he could not when Jack watched him so closely. He wanted to say: come away from this man, Willa, ‘cause you are not safe ‘round Jack fuckin’ Murphy.

Alfie had always had good instincts and I moved forward, just a couple of steps. I cleared my throat and said, “No, Alfie.”

“Then I will offer you a sample of me own in the office, yeah, Jack Murphy?”

Jack had never told him his name. It made him preen in delight that Alfie knew it.

Slinking around me, Jack turned and walked backward in order to face me for just a moment longer, his lips still held in that frustrating smirk. He called out, “Pleasure was all mine, by the way, Mrs Solomons. You are as pretty as they say, all right.”

Behind him, in the dim and flickering light of the hall, Alfie slowed until he stopped completely, and my breath caught in my chest, afraid that the snipe had upset him enough to act rashly. But he rolled out his shoulders and continued forward into the office. Jack turned to face the direction in which he walked, hands stuffed into his pockets with a casual saunter.

“Are you okay, Mrs Solomons?” Allman asked.

“Fine, Eli,” I replied distantly. “Thank you.”

“I don’t like that bloke,” the older man huffed. “I do hope Mr Solomons sends him packin’.”

“I’m sure he will.” Eli walked off into the backyard and I finally looked at Ishmael and saw how worried the boy looked. It softened that dread which washed over me after I had first spoken with Jack and I felt touched that the boy cared for Alfie in the way that he did. “Ishmael, I think you should take one of those brown bottles tonight. Share it with some friends, eh?”

He startled, looking at me in surprise. “Really?”

I smiled at him. “Be quick about it. If Alfie ever finds out, tell him that I let you have it.”

“T-Thank you, Mrs Solomons!”

Ishmael rushed off into the cellar and I leaned against a barrel, my eyes latched onto the warm orange colour of the office; a bitter chill had filled the basement and it came not from the winter outside but rather from a powder-blue suit and pale lips parted.

Lined in wooden panelling, the office was small and clustered in all sorts of odd photographs and artwork, paintings of abstract figures stretched around one another, colours blended into one blob of murky green washed out into pale reds. I sat with my legs crossed, nervously scratching at the scar on the back of my hand. It was oddly soothing to rub those ridged, pink furrows and then press hard against it to feel that faint, muted bubble of pain underneath it. All around me, women and children sat in chairs and men stood around the desk behind which a secretary sat, a sporadic melody clacked from her typewriter, folders shuffled like a chorus in-between.

Alfie had wanted a Jewish doctor. It just turned out that most of his community had wanted one, too.

Once Alfie had shuffled into this small, watery-blue space with its funny paintings and slick chairs, many men had shaken his hand and many women had kissed his cheeks, whispered gratitude for recent donations for their babies or grandchildren. I had trailed behind him and those same women pecked my cheeks, too, and the men tilted their hats toward me respectfully.

It had been like that ever since I had officially become his wife. I had to let my wrists be held by elderly Jewish women with leathery skin and return delicate smiles and memorise the names of children and retain this strange persona of Mrs Solomons as she was viewed by the community. I actually quite enjoyed it, for the most part. It was wonderful to be looked on fondly by the people within his community.

Suddenly, the door clattered, and Alfie stepped back into the waiting-room with a cheerful smile. I stood from my chair and stepped toward him. The doctor spoke to him in a low rumble, clucked out his goodbyes and shook hands with Alfie before he called another name and a pale slip of a woman passed into the office. I waited for speech or some sign, but he only rested his arm around my shoulder and guided us out of the practice. I saw smudges of murky greens and pale reds and then the beige of the hall muted my vision.

“Alfie?”

The doctor had his practice overhead the office of a solicitor, so we had to shuffle downstairs into another hall and open the front-door of what looked like a house on the outside. I reached for the latch, but Alfie pushed me into that hall and hugged me against him, hugged me so tightly that I could only put my hands on his arms.

Frightened, I peeled his arms off me and whispered, “Alfie? What happened? What did he say?”

“Told me it was me sciatica – a problem with a nerve in me back, what runs down me ‘ip and all ‘round me spine and arse, like,” he explained bluntly. “And it acts up sometimes. Told me I could do some kinda exercises for it, take a bit o’ medication, use ice or warm cloths to settle it.”

“Did you tell him about that stuff I got from Ripley Street?” I asked worriedly. “I told you to ask him, I think it really helps –…”

“It’s all right, Willa,” he murmured, cupping my cheek. “Didn’t I tell you not to upset yourself? You was goin’ mad over this bloody appointment. It’s done, now. The old man gave me a list o’ things I can put on it tonight – creams like that one what you got off Ripley Street. Be right as rain, tomorrow. I’ll be carryin’ them barrels with Eli and Ishmael by next week, just you watch.”

I breathed out, my hands wrapped over his own. “Okay. Come on, we can pick them up on the way home – I want you to start using them tonight, Alfie.”

He groaned. “Willa, I thought if I went to see this fuckin’ doctor, you would stop all this fussin’.”

“It isn’t fussing!”

“Franny doesn’t worry ‘alf as much ‘bout Elijah as you do ‘bout me.”

“Yeah, well, Elijah is more capable of looking after himself,” I smiled. “Needs less attention, too.”

“Cheeky.”

Leaning against the bonnet of the car, Caleb watched the passing crowds, bored out of his mind. He had really grown into his gangly limbs and lost that boyish fat in his cheeks, but he was still a young lad for me. He dropped his cigarette from his mouth when he glimpsed us coming out of the practice, but Alfie only waved him off and told him that we could walk to buy these creams just down the street. Caleb settled back against car and looked forlornly at the waste of his still-smouldering cigarette.

“Jack Murphy made a comment about the name Elijah,” I started hesitantly. “D’you think that was just coincidence?”

Alfie glanced around for cars before we stepped down onto the cobbled streets. “Nah. Nothin’ is fuckin’ coincidence with that Murphy lad. But we ain’t sayin’ nowt to Ollie ‘til we got a reason to worry ‘bout it.”

“What did you talk about, in the office?”

“Oh, daisies and lilies and sunflowers,” he answered. “And which flower best brings out the lovely colour of me eyes.”

Alfie.”

Reluctantly, he said, “Jack Murphy only came ‘round to remind me o’ the recent struggles what Sabini ‘as been goin’ through with them lads what trashed ‘is businesses and battered ‘is men up at the races last month. I told ‘im that I ‘ad very intently been followin’ every misfortune what followed my good and dear friend ever since the first ‘it on ‘is bar.”

“That was it?”

“It were in ‘is tone,” Alfie added. “What ‘e really wanted to say.”

“And what was that?”

“That Sabini’s misfortunes could spread,” Alfie muttered. “That ‘e ain’t the only fella what got people lookin’ at ‘im for protection.”

I noticed how his hands tightened around my arm even if he was unaware of it and I felt that those people that Jack had mentioned included me.

“You have coppers and more men on your side,” I told him, brushing my hand up and down the sleeve of his chunky coat reassuringly.

Alfie nodded. “S’what ‘e said. But ‘e also said that the Irish are a resilient people against all oppression and efforts to undermine ‘em. I told ‘im that the Jews and the Irish ‘ad that in common, all things considered.”

I looked down at the cobbled stones beneath my boots. “So, he’s part of an Irish gang, then?”

“Plenty o’ those in London. But ‘e works with the Titanic. Got a little more footin’ in the game than most Irish gangs ‘cause o’ what went down with Sabini. Left a gap that Jack Murphy is more’n ‘appy to fill.”

“Then we can wait until Ollie is back tomorrow and figure out the next move, Alf.”

“Next move?”

“Well, Jack made his by coming into the bakery, didn’t he? So, what?”

“So, you want us to go to fuckin’ war with ‘im for that? Ain’t smart, Willa. Gotta do more research into ‘im, find out ‘ow ‘e operates.”

I huffed at him. “I would have made a much better Captain,” I joked. “Go in there, guns blazing –…”

“Yeah, send your men right into a fuckin’ battle without seein’ what the enemy might ‘ave on ‘is side.”

I squeezed his arm and smiled at him. “I can bet there are a lot more people on yours.”

Alfie looked away. “Yeah. That’s what I’m worried ‘bout.”

Milton Avenue had not changed much in two years; its shops were still bustling with Londoners dipping between each door and glancing in the windows, its street lined in stalls and vendors who shouted out into the crisp air. The Rothman café was sat at the very corner which turned onto Galton Street. It was painted in a delicate mint-green colour with beautiful cakes displayed in its windows.

I stepped into its warmth and heard the tinkle of the bell which rattled overhead. Daisy was already sat with Ada and Franny, sipping from steaming cups of tea. Daisy stood and shuffled behind the counter to prepare a fresh teapot for us.

“Sorry, sorry!” I called out.

Ada grinned. “What kept you, Willa? Oh, don’t tell us – Alfie swept you into his arms and –…”

“I got stuck in a line behind a lot of older Jewish ladies down on Baton Road,” I huffed, flopping into a chair alongside her.

“Oi, nothing wrong with old Jewish ladies!” Daisy shouted from behind the counter.

I grinned at her and pulled off my gloves. “Nothing wrong until they see Alfie and surround him. Can’t get away for all the things they want to tell him.”

Franny took a biscuit from the plate left out by Daisy. “Oh, I think Willa sounds a little jealous of some old women chasing after her husband.”

“Does Alfie like them better when they have no teeth?” Ada asked, spitting through a mouthful of cake.

“No, he likes them better with their mouths closed,” I replied, tapping at her chin.

She grinned. “I thought we were with friends, here! No judgement, eh?”

A couple of months beforehand, I had remembered meeting Daisy Rothman in a bathroom in a bar called The Diamond and I had thought it might be a good idea to thank her for her kindness. I had asked Ada and Franny if they wanted tea in a café owned by the Rothman family and then found Daisy there with her crumpets and cakes. She had been a little unsure of herself, at first. She had looked at me and thought that I was just Mrs Solomons, that sniffling woman she had met in a bathroom, whose skin she had dusted in powder. But I convinced her to take a tea-break and sit with us for a little while.

And somewhere along the line, it had just become tradition for us to meet every few days in her café.

 I thought it had worked out much better than it ever had with Ruth and her tea-parties because it never felt like I had to peel away parts of myself just to be there. Ada had Gypsy blood just like me and Franny had never looked at me as anything other than a friend. Daisy was the youngest of us all, but she had fit right in with us.

“Arthur got rightly fucked at the wedding,” Ada told us.

“Linda was that good, was she?” I asked.

Ada rolled her eyes. “If God asked her to part her legs, she would – if Arthur asked her…”

Daisy blushed. “What’s wrong with being a little religious, then?”

“Daisy, you’re Jewish. Linda is just crazy,” Ada replied. “There’s a big difference.”

“Well, it sounds like she’s good for your brother,” Franny said. “Didn’t you say he was lonely?”

“I said he was fucking braindead,” Ada smirked. “But you’re very kind to pretend I said something nicer, Fran.”

“I heard Arthur sang a few songs with Johnny,” I added. “Johnny loves to sing old rebel songs whenever he has some whiskey in him.”

“Oh, he sang rebel songs and gospel songs and any other bloody song you could imagine!” Ada snickered. “And he still got himself a woman at the end of the night to go off with him!”

I groaned in disgust. “Ada!”

“What, you can get some, but Johnny can’t?”

“Not if I have to hear about it!”

Daisy placed a fresh teapot in front of us and sat on her own seat beside Franny. “I would love to find myself a lovely fella, you know.”

I shared a look with Ada. “Well, if you think Johnny sounds lovely –…” I started.

Daisy scrunched her face in disdain. “Not Johnny Dogs! No offense, Willa.”

“Oh, none taken. But I could always ask Alfie about the most eligible men left in London,” I winked at her.

“And have my father throw a fit?”

“Your father is only protective,” Franny said. “He thinks those lads are only looking for one thing –…”

“Yeah, and they rarely find it,” Ada interrupted. “Rubbing and pawing at you like you’re an old bottle covered in dust and surprised when you can’t cu-…”

“Ada!” Franny scolded.

I cleared my throat. “Right, well, we all know how Ada’s sex life has been going.”

“It hasn’t been ‘going’ anywhere,” she huffed. “Stagnant, that’s what it is. Men hear the faintest whisper of Shelby and they run.”

“Then I have the perfect solution for you, Ada,” I grinned. I raised my teacup out to her. “Marry a fucking gangster.”

Padding around the bedroom in my slippers, I chatted to Cyril while I folded our clothes and placed them in the wardrobe. He was slumped across his bed, paws stretched, his muzzle pressed into wrinkled folds. I told him all about that afternoon spent with the other women and hummed in appreciation when he yawned and rolled himself onto his side. I smiled fondly at him and moved to close the doors of the wardrobe. I gathered a clinking bag of jars for Alfie and swept downstairs to find him. I had heard him shuffle around the living-room and caught him with a book in his hands, his glasses slipped low on the bridge of his nose.

“Alfie.”

“Hm?”

“We’re supposed to be putting on your creams and you should be taking your medicine now. I found some cloth that I can warm up so we can put them on your back, too, like –…”

“Oh, God,” he moaned. “That does make me sound fuckin’ ancient, don’ it? Me fuckin’ medicine and warm old cloth! What bloke my age ‘as to say that, eh?”

I rolled my eyes at him. “The doctor told you –…”

“I know, Willa. Can’t we do it later?”

“What, after you fall asleep on the couch, drooling on yourself?”

“Right, well, that certainly reassures me that I ain’t an old fuckin’ man,” he retorted.

“You promised you would put it on tonight.”

“Love, why are you so fuckin’ insistent on this, eh? The doctor said it weren’t nothin’ but me nerves.”

I stepped around the sofa to stand in front of him. “Because, Alf, it worries me. Whenever it happens to hurt you, I can only –…”

Shattering behind me, the windows of our living-room cracked inward from the force of a brick thrown against them, a brick which thumped against the rug and sat there. Frightened, I had flinched from the sudden sound but turned to look at that brick in confusion. Then came another brick thrown through the window which bounced against the first one and rolled into the corner of the living-room, closer to a bookshelf there. I squinted at it and realised that it was not quite shaped like a brick at all.

Thrown into the hall, I felt him push us toward the kitchen until he grabbed me and forced us against the floorboards. I cried out at the pain which radiated from my arms when he crushed me. Even on the ground, he tried to shuffle us toward that kitchen, and I was not sure of the reason for it until there came a wild burst of sound behind him – an explosion burst from the living-room behind us and ruined my ears.

I heard only that screaming whistle in them, but he clamped his hand around my head and pushed my face into the hollow of his throat, held me there with his body curled around me.

Eternity passed; he moved only to look behind himself and I saw those roaring flames, like some breathing creature which licked at the hall and scorched the floorboards just by his boots, searching for us in its hunger. His mouth moved, his hands pulled me like a puppet from the ground and he pushed me back toward the kitchen.

The first thing that I heard other than those crackling flames behind him were faint, howling whimpers. I found strength in my legs and tried to stand, tried to push around him, but he gripped my waist and shoved me back toward the kitchen. I slipped and fell against him, frantic in my need to get around him.

“No – No!” I whispered hoarsely. I could not hear myself speak, but I knew that he could, because Alfie looked down and shook his head. “Cyril is still there – Please, Alfie, I have to get him –…”

“You go out into that fuckin’ garden and you wait there, Willa – do not go out the front yet, you understand? They could still be waitin’ for us there! Please, Willa – I’m gonna go get ‘im, yeah? But I can’t go until I know you understand me –…”

“Y-You can’t go –…”

Willa,” he roared, “stay out there and wait for us!”

And finally, I nodded. I nodded and I nodded.

He kissed me and I thought that it was the first time he had said goodbye like that since those fuzzy days just before he left for the war.

Like the maestro of an orchestra, he raised his arms and I carefully followed, an instrument plucked to his movements. I unfolded myself from my crouch, straightened out my spine like a resounding chord. Pushed out toward the back door of the kitchen, I fumbled with its latch and fell into the narrow strip of path that we had out there, rarely used and which only held a few plants and a patch of grass. It led to all the other gardens behind us and I saw those houses sitting quietly, undisturbed, while ours flickered and burned.

Soon, I heard the wail of sirens and looked upward at the stars like I might find some help there instead, but I only saw fiery embers fill the clouds and burst in cracks of colour which soon fizzled downward toward me, resting on the dewy grass and dying out with faint sighs.

I tore at my scalp and tried to peel myself open to release the agony and terror which flooded me, bubbled up, spewed over in a scream when another bang rattled through the house. I moved forward to that back door and I wanted to rush into it. I wanted to find Alfie and Cyril in its blazing orange stain. But Alfie had been in France, he had held grenades and guns and he knew about fire. He had breathed it, lived it.

I thought of Alfie in that house, made of embers, cracks of colours, soon fizzled out. He would rest there and die out with a faint sigh. And if he died in there, I would have let myself choke on fumes to be with him anyway.

Because who other than God would know about it?

I bolted for the back door and touched its handle. In my blind fear, I had not thought about the heat behind it and I ripped my hand away with a scream of pain. I kicked at the door with my boot and tried to look into the kitchen, but it was clogged in blackened clouds. I choked on it, reeled back and tried to push forward again, but I saw a silhouette pool from the hall and drop against the floorboards, its arms laden with a whimpering shadow.

“Alfie,” I breathed out, but it soon turned to a scream. “Alfie!”

Stumbling out the back door, he dropped Cyril and the dog scarpered with his tail between his legs. Our poor boy was unable to understand the flames and he barked as if that might squash them out. I fell with Alfie and touched his chest, leaned against it and heard his wheezed breaths. His skin was coated in a thick layer of soot and he trembled badly. I tried to rub away that soot with my hands, but they were shaking so much that I smeared it around his sockets and saw that he was awake, aware.

“Stay in the garden,” he croaked. “Don’t go out front, Willa –…”

I nodded. “I’m here, Alf, it’s all right –…”

His eyes rolled up. “Oh, fuck –…”

He turned and vomited into the grass, spewed out a thick and blackened string of drool. He reached under his shirt and tugged at something slipped beneath his vest. He pushed them into my hands and fell back onto the ground, his breathing much more ragged. He pulled a tattered, half-burnt fabric from his waistband and held it in his hands, gripped tightly as if someone might steal it from him. Cyril had stopped his barking and whimpered all the more, spinning himself in circles. I looked down at my hands, blinking stupidly at the papers which he had put there.

Alfie had saved them; the ketubah, the letters that I had written for him during the war, the photograph of us from the fairground – the fabric in his hand was the first shirt that I had ever made him. He had saved them before he had saved himself.

“I’m here, Alf,” I rasped. I breathed soot, tasted it, felt that I was made of it. “I’m here, sweetheart. Can you hear me, Alfie? Please, just – if you can hear me –…”

More words lingered in my mouth, words with much more meaning; the smoke muffled them.

Chapter Text

twenty-three


 

The halls were painted in the same sickly lime-green colour that they had been all those years beforehand when I had lain in the scratchy bedsheets of a cot, when I had watched nurses flit behind opaque curtains like a macabre puppet-show for children, all shadows stretched upward by unseen strings and flung around. The curtains around him were different, hollowed by an orange lamp alongside him which pooled the light around him, made him the shadow which never moved or twitched at all, for he had long since fallen asleep.

He breathed like some wounded animal, his lungs coated in a thin lining that he coughed into bowls placed around him like the ceremonial pieces of a ritual. I held out the bowls for him and watched that blackish phlegm spat from his mouth. I ignored the nurses who asked if I would rather return home and pull off the clothes that I had worn for three nights straight.

I never answered them. I never spoke in all that time there.

I took the cloths and cleaned him, swept those damp rags around his throat and chest. I stilled at patches of red, scaly skin that clotted his sternum and spread outward in sporadic spots all around his ribcage and traced his spine like wings plucked and torn from him.

I asked the nurse for creams like those that we had bought him, because he had trouble with dry skin and little clumps of scab-like wounds which bled and oozed from an odd black spot in the middle of all that redness. The nurse gathered the bowls and glanced over those marks all over him. She turned away from them and took the bowls out into the hall.

I cleaned those trails of blood and placed plasters over those patches which cracked and wept the most; nobody told me otherwise.

Moonlight washed through the windows like the stream of a gentle river, but that silver hue made him look like a corpse and I stood to close the curtains, disturbed by it. I wanted him in our bed, tucked into our blankets with that floral scent that he liked, but he breathed soot and the alcohol they wiped over his skin and his own blood. I took off my scarf and tucked it around him and smiled when he seemed to sink into its folds with a heavy sigh, as if he recognised that it was mine even in his sleep.

I thought he was cold, so I stood and looked for another nurse in those halls which ran onward and onward in scuffed linoleum pathways. I heard tiny gurgles and glanced left into a bedroom where a sleeping woman cradled her new-born in the crook of her arm. He drooled over his scrunched fists and grinned with just his gums.

I went back into his bedroom and settled on the chair with my legs beneath me, curled into its padding. I held his hand, swept my thumb over his knuckles.

I had never felt so alone in all my life.

But soon Franny and Ollie were there, and I could not complain of loneliness. Instead, it was another one of those words that had not yet been formed for something more passionate than love and more bleak than sorrow and it splashed against me while Franny placed flowers upon his bedside, fluffed drooping petals and asked if I liked the colour. I looked at them but saw no colour there and wondered how the moonlight had washed it away even if I had left those dense curtains closed.

Ollie pulled a chair close against the railings of his bed and spoke with him in low hushes. Arrangements were made, and I was arranged along with them, mentioned somewhere before hotels but after calls to empty a safe stashed in a house out in the countryside someplace, someplace where the devil laughed in black rivers.  

“We’ll ‘ave to stay in an ‘otel, mind,” he croaked. “Just for a little while. Ain’t safe, where we were, in our ‘ouse. But it won’t be for too long, yeah?”

Black phlegm stole his speech. I held the bowl, cupped the nape of his neck and felt each tremor that ran through him while he spewed out that sickly-sweet blackness. I nodded. I was limp from it, all that nod-and-smile business. I was limp from it, because all that I could think was that I really hated this life now, really hated that bricks came through our windows and our clothes carried the scent of rum and he had pistols stashed beneath our pillows and I felt a cold sweat whenever I heard thumping footsteps in the hall, convinced that it was another stranger who wanted to kill him and I knew that it was not like this for other couples out there. 

I looked at my bracelets and coats and wondered if I would ever have to sell them if he died.

No, I thought, he has made a will for me. He has ensured that if he dies, I will always be comfortable.

And I wanted to take one of those pistols from beneath one of our pillows and place it against my temple at the mere thought of it, all those days spent alone in some great big house without him, with only the jingling pearls on my bracelets for sound, only the rich coats he had bought me around my shoulders for warmth. I dreamt of that pistol there, its cold barrel against the heat of flesh. I dreamt of it over and over.

He pulled away from the bowl and fell against his sheets. I held a cup against his lips and let him drink from it, a cold shot of water which soothed his throat.

“Okay, Alf,” I told him. “Just for a short while.”

My index finger twitched and twitched with each word spoken. 

The nurses had seen his surname and I was brought a cot with plump pillows and lavish blankets draped over its skeleton-frame which creaked beneath my weight. I perched on its edge and felt its coiled springs cut into my skin. I had not slept well. I wore heavy stains of purple around my eyes and withered like the flowers upon his bedside did, furled inward and rotted. It seemed that all the while he recovered, that illness spread into me instead, coated my throat in black phlegm and made me tired. I wept in that bedroom whenever he slept, and I held it in whenever he was awake.

He had charmed those nurses with his humour, poked at the doctors so much that they stood around him with these permanent smiles while they peeled away the bandage which coated his right forearm. I had cried from the sight of it, the brief glimpse that I got of that wet, raw flesh was criss-crossed from the gauze pulled away by a nurse. Its bumpy edges were lined in yellowish pus and she assured him that it was a minor reaction that she would soon heal with more creams and medication.

Alfie had made some joke about being an old man, and I could only think, you might never become old because this life will never let you.

Butcher had faded away. I had never heard anybody talk about him in years, apart from the occasional recollection from Alfie. If his name ever floated from obscurity, then all descriptions of him were layered in a disinterested tone, because he had just been some gangster from Camden Town who had his brains blown out by another gangster, who had his brains blown out by another gangster and another and another until nobody remembered how it started in the first place.

And it was Charlotte who had told me that Butcher had been killed and it was Charlotte who had first used that tone, that tone that meant: he died and we’re still alive and so who cares, anyway?

Nobody spoke of him with photographs and nobody spoke of him with letters he had written, like Ada did to let her boy remember his father. I hardly remembered what Butcher had really looked like, anymore. I remembered him like I remembered the local men from Bell Road; in little shreds, sometimes with stubble or drooping brows, but perhaps that had been another man, and perhaps that had been the father from the first level of flats or that other man on the third.

I looked at Alfie and I became terrified that boys like Elijah and Karl might only ever remember him as that gangster who used to own a slice of Camden Town before he had his brains blown out because he was a gangster shot by another gangster, or his home had been bombed while he was still in it or his wife had been shot on the street while she crossed it and even their dog had been a target, because that was how it went for people like that, for gangsters shot by other gangsters – and they died and we’re still alive and so who cares, anyway?

And that would be all there was to it.

And I knew that if he died, this loneliness would be eternal, because it was only us.

There were friends around us, but Ada had Karl while Franny had Ollie and Elijah. She had already talked about another baby wanted between the both of them. Tommy had always been somewhat distant. Johnny rolled between different families around both England and Ireland. I had Cyril and the ketubah and letters from another time; his life would be retold with photographs scattered in-between those little details about him that I would tell people about until my throat became raw from it. But who would want to hear about it, anyway?

Because who other than God –…

 Scuttling along the hall, a nurse told him that Mr Thomas Shelby wished to speak with him, but that the telephone could not be removed from reception. Alfie had hauled himself from the bed, ignored all my warnings to watch his arm, and strolled through the hall with that nurse while I waited in his room. I folded his shirts into a suitcase and placed it with the others that Ollie had brought around earlier – all of our possession squeezed right into those little boxes, prepared to be pulled out and placed anywhere we liked.

I fiddled with the locks and sat on my cot again.

I worried that some gunman might float toward Alfie, having emerged from blackened depths in another hall, only to find him exposed. But he returned a few moments later and stretched across his bed, his hand rested on his stomach, a bright smile on his lips. He told me that Tommy had offered him a safehouse as well as an invitation to a charity that Grace planned to host the following night. But all of that meant a trip to Birmingham.

Alfie had told him, “If I wanted to visit ‘ell, Tom, I would ‘ave stayed in that burnin’ ‘ouse, yeah?”

The nurse cleaned his wounds once more and I watched from behind her. He hardly even winced when she peeled off that first layer once more and the yellowish pus had changed to a softer red, which made the nurse smile and pat his other arm reassuringly. Alfie was not bothered by the burn on his arm. Instead, he looked at it like he looked at all other cuts and jagged scars all over his body; just another mark from another battle, shrugged off and hastily buried beneath bandages and sleeves. The nurse glanced over those patchy ridges of skin beneath his hairline and scratched out the names of softer creams that she recommended for dried skin like that.

Once she left, I took the note and placed it in my pocket, because I knew that he would not buy them for himself. Alfie was always recognised in the Jewish areas and it made him reluctant to buy those creams and pills for himself. He thought that it made him look weaker in front of the Jewish community. So, I would buy all these things for him.

I glanced over the list and mumbled, “I’ll get this all for you, Alf. But the Gypsy stuff is better.”

“Why do you think I married one?” he replied, grinning toothily at me.

Tuesday unfolded in bleak greyness. I walked through the halls with him and felt a thudding church-bell cracking against my forehead from the pressure held there. I thought if I coughed, my lungs would slither up in my throat and fall onto the linoleum tiles, flaccid. I was convinced that if he stepped out onto the street and went to the car that waited for us, there would be another stranger out there with more than a brick in his hand, more than a grenade thrown at him. It would be more certain, without a mistake this time. They would make sure they got him, and I felt a prickling in my right arm where I had been shot myself and –…

Because I had been shot, too. I had been shot and burnt and beaten, just like he had been shot and burnt and beaten. It had been like that our whole lives.

And just when had we simply accepted it?

“Willa?”

I had become stationary behind him, forgot that I was supposed to follow when all I could think about in this hall was how it felt as if a clock loomed overhead and counted out each second – I was not sure what was at its end, but it was there all the same.

Or maybe I did know, and I was too scared to admit it.

“You can be afraid, love.”

Thrown from my thoughts, I looked at him and saw that he watched me as if he understood it all, every little panicked fear that flit through my brain. I melted beneath him, my eyes filling with tears. It was not meant to be like this for couples only married for barely two-and-a-half years, threatened and followed and watched. I shook my head, scrunched my lips tight together to stem those horrid, racking sobs.

“I’m not afraid for myself, Alfie,” I told him solemnly.

“Not ‘ere,” he said.

His words had been curt and harsh. He held my arm tightly and looked around himself, peering into those same corners, taking in the strangers who rushed around us. Paranoia simmered between us and when he finally looked at me, he saw the hurt which radiated from me, saw the worry and fear held within me. I felt his heaviness just like mine. His lips twitched as if he might speak.

But I was hurt, and I was tired.

So, I pushed around him and repeated, “Not here.”

The Ritz had a lobby with a sweeping staircase and a beautiful chandelier dripping golden light overhead, our suitcases quickly swept from our hands by a bellboy. I walked with Alfie along a hallway toward looming doors made of gold trimmings which were pulled open to a massive living-room fit with a fireplace and another chandelier in its centre. I stared at the rich curtains pooled around in lavish beige and glittering gold, its red armchairs dotted around, its bedroom filled with mahogany wardrobes and a massive bed for us.

Alfie crossed the living-room and collapsed onto a sofa, brushing his hands over his face. I sat on his left side and took his arm in mine, leaning against his shoulder. I brushed my thumbs over his knuckles and felt the dried skin there, cracked between his fingers and pooling over his palms in sore patches just like his back. I had never thought that I would ever sit in a place like the Ritz when I was a little girl, never thought that I could pay for it with what little I made from snatching bracelets and necklaces.

But I looked around now and wondered what had ever been so special about it.  

The telephone startled us both and I glanced at him worriedly, afraid that somebody had already located us.

Alfie dropped his hands onto his lap and said, “Christ, Willa, if it were the fella what wants to kill me, d’you really think ‘e would give us ring ‘round first to ask if we was all right with ‘im comin’ ‘round now rather than later to suit us better, eh? It might be Tom or Ollie, they know where we are.”

I rolled my eyes at him and shuffled along the sofa to take the telephone from its cradle. I listened to the rush of words which came from the other end, spoken in a feminine voice that came from neither Tom nor Ollie, and a numbness spread from my ankles once I heard what Ada Shelby told me, her words hoarse and stuttering.

She had been in a crowd which soon scattered at the sudden crack of a gun. She turned and watched the fall; the fall of Grace Shelby in the arms of her brother and his fall along with her, though she soon realised that he had fallen so much further than she had fallen once her lips turned blue and her eyes became glassy. Ada had watched Arthur by the staircase with the gunmen beneath him, blood on his knuckles and a wildness in his eyes. She told me about the funeral as if it had been planned already and I dropped the telephone because of it.

Alfie held it to his ear but heard nothing. Ada had already left for the hospital or morgue, someplace.

Because that was where Grace had been brought and that was where Tommy would sit with her until she was brought out to the wet soil and placed there.

There was knowing in Alfie’s eyes. He would have known it even if I was not made of trembling hands and wide eyes – glassy eyes – and he still asked, “What was that about, Willa?”

His voice betrayed him; it cracked before he could finish, and I knew that it had not come from soot.

And I saw her with lips turned blue before I answered him.

“Grace Shelby was shot. She died in his arms.”

I never had to explain whose arms, for Alfie knew well enough, and a small curse slipped from him once he fell backward against his seat with his eyes blown wide. His hand covered his mouth, drawn along his stubble toward his chest where it lay there, limp from his own shock. I believed in signs and I believed in soil. I knew that it could have been Alfie killed in that house and I knew that it could have been me on that telephone to call Ada.

My index finger twitched again – again and again.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell. Tom ain’t gonna – Tom ain’t gonna come back from that,” Alfie murmured.

Ada had not spoken about who might have been behind it. I looked at Alfie and wondered if he had known the name of this murderer before Ada had because he knew some of the darker things that Tommy dabbled in, but Alfie was looking at the fireplace still unlit. The curtains behind us had been pulled apart and some pale light washed around his shoulders, cast his face in flickering shadows.

“That could have been you, Alfie,” I told him finally.

“Willa,” he groaned. “Don’t start on this – it ain’t the fuckin’ same. Grace Shelby were shot and I –…”

“And it is a bullet or a knife or a bomb that makes the difference, is it?” I asked him. “You think that it makes a difference to Tommy? Would it have made a difference to me if you still ended up dead?”

“But I made it out. And I am sittin’ with you now.”

“And I fear the day when you won’t be, Alfie. I already imagine how it will sound when I am called your widow and not your wife, d’you know that?”

He sucked in his cheeks and blew them out as if that had really hurt him. He steeled himself and muttered, “I know you are upset, yeah, and you’re shaken from what ‘appened at the ‘ouse. I understand that, love, but you’re runnin’ away with these things. Some prick tried to usurp me – ain’t the first time, is it?”

“So, we just move into another house until another prick tries to burn that one down, too, and we continue until another prick –…”

“You know,” he cut me off, speaking loudly. “You told me that you knew what you were sacrificin’.”

I bubbled in anger, scrunched my fists tight and glared at him. “I said that after we talked about children,” I spat, “and I said that when we talked about safety. But I never meant that I was willing to sacrifice you, Alfie.”

He scoffed and looked away. “Don’t be so fuckin’ dramatic ‘bout it, Willa. I dealt with bigger men than Jack Murphy.”

“So, it was him, then?”

“Who else would it ‘ave been?”

“Oh, Alfie, come off it. Who else? Could have been Sabini, who was attacked this month himself. Maybe it was whoever went after Tommy and his wife –…”

“Tom is involved in transactions what don’t involve me, Willa,” Alfie snapped. “And ‘e got fucked over it by it.”

He got fucked over? What about Grace, hm?”

“Well, I suppose Grace prob’ly told ‘im that she knew what she was fuckin’ sacrificin’ just before the bullet went in, eh?! Maybe Grace realised that all them nice things ‘round ‘er were comin’ from takin’ on men what knew where best to shoot and maybe if she ‘ad survived it, she would ‘ave grown a fuckin’ spine and she would ‘ave accepted that this is what comes from a life like this one!”

As if he had slapped me, I sank back against my seat and stared at him, shocked by his words and how he had leaned forward to scream them, his cheeks stained red and veins torn from his throat. I was not afraid of him, but I felt shaky and unwilling to be around him right then. The house and its loss had been minor in comparison, because he and Cyril had made it out. But there was another loss layered beneath it. It was the loss of safety; not mine, for I had given up on that many years before I had even known him, but for his own.

It was the feeling that I once had, when we could close our doors and leave the business behind and I would have felt better knowing he was with me, away from all that – but it had seeped beneath the doors and it had spread across the hall just like the flames had.

“You tell yourself those same words the day that you bury me, Alfie,” I told him.

I stood and left him there while I went into the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind me.

I heard that her family had wanted her buried in Ireland. The Shelbys had wanted her closer to Tommy, but Ada said that he had not been around the house much at all. He had taken his favourite horse and left for the black fields, the same fields that he watched that night of his wedding when I had stood in the hall with him. In the bedroom, Alfie listened while I spoke on the telephone. I asked if she wanted me there, but she said she knew I had my own issues in London, and she would return shortly herself. There was no talking to Tommy anymore.

“He’s gone someplace where I cannot find him,” she said, “even when he’s standing right in front of me. Does that even make any sense?”

I looked at Alfie through the slit in the doorway. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, it does.”

The next morning, I took my purse and turned for the door, but I heard him right behind me. I had the list of creams folded in my hand, its soft crinkles smoothed out beneath my thumb. I held the handle with my other hand and my purse slid along my arm, settling in its crook. I thought of that infant I had seen in the hospital, all wet fists and wet gums.

“Don’t go out by yourself, Willa. Let Ollie do it, yeah?”

“And let him be attacked, so that Franny and Elijah might be left without him? No,” I muttered. “I’ll do it myself. I know this life very well, Alfie.”

I stepped into the hall and closed the door behind me, storming along the carpet so sharply that I imagined holes torn out in chunks from each piercing slam of my heel against it. I soon heard cushioned, padded footsteps behind and looked to find Alfie hastily pulling his coat around himself, chasing after me with his usual grumbles.

“You don’t need to come with me,” I called to him.

“Yeah, well, need to stretch me legs. Tired of them ugly portraits in the room, too.” He walked alongside me, purposefully bumping my shoulder with his own and smiling warmly.

I rolled my eyes at him, but my smile betrayed me when he bumped me again and again.

“Stop it, Alfie.”

“Make me.”

Once we reached the top of the staircase which led into the lobby, I looped his arm with mine. I worried about his hip and these stairs, although he could have taken the elevator. Alfie was too proud for certain things. He liked the show of it, preferred that anybody in the lobby who knew him or had heard his name, looked at him as powerful. I had always looked at him like that, but never quite in the way that he had probably intended. I just marvelled at his determination, his tolerance for pain.

His bloody stubbornness.

“We should find some good flowers,” I told him. “For Grace. And a card, for Tom.”

Alfie hummed as we stepped out into the street. “Don’t think Tom will care for cards at the moment. But ‘e might appreciate it later.”

“D’you think he’ll – he’ll be all right, Alf? Or is that a stupid thing to ask?”

“’Course it ain’t stupid. But Tom ain’t ever been ‘all right’. If I ‘ad to tell ya – I’d say ‘e were lucky to ‘ave that lad of ‘is. Or Tom would ‘ave taken one of ‘is great big ‘orses and went off into the fields by now. ‘e wouldn’t ‘ave come back, either.”

I thought, if it had been me, what would Alfie have had left? Only our Cyril and the bakery.

“I want him with us, y’know. Cyril, I mean,” I said. “I know they aren’t keen on dogs in that hotel –…”

“You want ‘im there, so ‘e will be there,” Alfie replied firmly. “I pay ‘em enough for that room, Willa – if you asked for a fuckin’ elephant, there ain’t a soul in that buildin’ what can tell me I can’t put one in there.”

I laughed and looked up at him in the warm light that spilled between the buildings around us. There was a deep ring of brown around his sockets. I knew that he had not slept well the night beforehand, because we had both thought of Tommy and Grace and that little boy left behind between them.

“Then Cyril better be there by tonight,” I grinned at him. “Or I’ll throw a proper fit.”

“Oh, I ain’t never seen you do that before.”

I squeezed his arm. “I’ll pick out the flowers, you can get the card.”

“They didn’t order me ‘round in the army ‘alf as much as you do now.”

“Well, you were a Captain. Who bosses them around?” I snorted.

“Willa Solomons does,” he grumbled.

I heard him in the bedroom that night just before I left the bathroom. He sat upon the bedsheets with his Torah spread open before him and he whispered in Hebrew, turning its pages. He held his hands together for just a few seconds before he closed it and rested against the headboard. He pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a sigh.

Leaning against the doorframe, I asked, “What was that about, Alf?”

He had often translated verses and paragraphs, but he was oddly silent. Then, he said, “It weren’t from the book. Just – said what I wanted to say, really. Said that – Well, I ‘oped Grace didn’t suffer much, y’know, ‘cause she already put up with Tommy in her life so she prob’ly ‘ad enough sufferin’ already. And I ‘oped that their kid don’t get ‘urt by what Tom does.”

I softened, smiling gently at him. “And did you pray for Tommy?”

“I don’t pray that much for men what are like me,” he told me. “Ain’t prayed like that since France. We ain’t blind in this world, Willa.”

“I’m not blind either. I know what you do. I’m part of it.”

“Not the same,” he said. He looked at the Torah. “Tom understands. Always ‘as understood it, just like ‘e understands punishment, too.”

“Her death is not punishment for him. She can’t be reduced to that.”

“I never said it was. It came for ‘im a long time ago,” he said. “And Grace were just part o’ it.”

I was unsettled by that. I swallowed and muttered, “Go wash up, Alfie. You need to put on those creams.”

For once, he did not make any jokes. He stood from the bed and walked around into the bathroom. While he was in there, I prepared the small jars and read each label carefully, plopped them out in order. I was almost finished when there was a sharp knocking at the door. I paused, my heart immediately tapping out that frenzied beat. I stepped toward it with stones rattling around my legs, feeling each pebble thrown around between my bones. I touched the handle and imagined that burning heat which followed the night I had touched the handle at the house, having burnt my hand but not nearly as badly as his arm had been burnt.

I threw it open and felt the splash of relief that came when I saw a familiar uniform. It was an employee of the Ritz with the manager alongside him, his face twisted in annoyance. Stood between them, Cyril slobbered and barrelled forward into my legs, almost knocking me over.

I quickly wrapped my arms around him and kissed his forehead, scratched his ears. Cyril then plodded to the first sofa that he saw and attempted to clamber onto it, accustomed to the way it was in our old house. In his effort, he drooled all over it.

The manager seemed flustered and pale. He said, “Mrs Solomons, it really is against our policy to permit an animal on our premises, however much your husband insisted. I am afraid this can only be temporary, and I really must insist –…”

“Yes, well, I would also insist on allowing your guests a good rest,” I replied. “Thank you for bringing him. I promise he won’t make too much of a mess. And he usually only chooses one pillow to hump, anyway. So, goodnight.”

I closed the door and turned to smile at Cyril.

“Who were that, Willa?” Alfie called from the bedroom.

“Room service with a special delivery,” I answered.

Alfie appeared in the doorway, his eyes finding Cyril almost immediately. He grinned and clapped his hands together to get his attention, crouching low despite his bad hip to let the dog run at him. He kissed him just like I had and cooed at him like a mother. I watched him, smirking at the sight of it. Alfie looked at me and hastily cleared his throat, standing up.

“Right, well. Better crack on with them creams an’ all.”

“Are you sure you don’t want another few minutes for cuddling?”

“Cuddlin’? Don’t know what you mean.” He turned back into the bedroom and Cyril followed loyally.

Alfie had to haul him onto the bed, because the dog had grown even more in the past few months, his fur now made of rolls of chubbiness and his jowls even heavier. He immediately rolled onto his side and wagged his tail. Ollie had evidently fed him well.

“That’s it, you big fuckin’ mutt, take my side o’ the bed like you always do. Wouldn’t even think to take Willa’s, would ya? ‘eaven fuckin’ forbid,” Alfie grumbled to himself.

Alfie took off his shirt and sat on an armchair in front of me, his trousers soon slid off afterward. I might have made some little joke about his near-nakedness, just to make him smile, but I saw that scab on his chest; it had grown a little darker, almost as if it might peel from his flesh and fall off itself, without any prodding. It had white scales flowered around it, spread outward – the petals of a flower, furled inward and rotted.

I touched him and he drew in breath, but it was not from pain. His eyes watched the fireplace, inhaled its stone. I brushed away his hair and saw the crusted remnants of skin which clotted the curl of his ears, settled between its creases, lumpy and sore.

“Did the doctor examine your skin, Alf?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, “said it were a condition with me skin. Prob’ly got it from me family, somewhere along the line, maybe even from me Mum or Dad. But it can be worse for some and better for others. Just depends.”

I took the cream and smeared it against his chest, rubbed it gently into those spots which cracked beneath my light touch. I fretted about those other scabs which pooled with blood, even if he only shrugged it off. I was pressing little scraps of tissue around his throat when I saw his smile and paused, looking into his eyes for an answer.

“All they tried to throw at me,” he said, “and I still got me wife and me dog right ‘ere with me. And I don’t feel so bad ‘bout losin’ the ‘ouse when I think like that. Don’t worry ‘bout me skin or the pain o’ these fuckin’ creams touchin’ it.”

“So, you do admit that it hurts?”

“I don’t admit nothin’. That’s why they never got me in a cell back durin’ them days I worked for Butcher at the factory.”

“That was a long time ago, Alf,” I sighed. “You know that you can tell me if you’re hurting. I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”

“Just ‘bout the only person what don’t want that, you,” he replied lightly. He held my hip with his hand. His skin was warm, and I relished in it, because I had spent so many nights worried about the time when he would be cold, and I would only be able to touch him in a hospital or morgue, someplace.

Because Tommy had touched Grace when she was like that and it felt too real, now.

“I’m scared, Alfie.”

“You can be scared,” he said. “But you were scared when the Italians came after me too, Willa. And I’m still ‘ere.”

I watched him from where he sat beneath me, his skin composed of a patchwork of smooth squares then cut with choppy circles of scabs and flaking blotches stained in red. “Do you really want Margate, Alfie?”

His eyes darkened. “’Course I want it, Willa. I work every fuckin’ day so we can get there.”

“But why not now? Why not take those suitcases and leave London? What’s holding us here?”

“There are people what depend on me,” he said. “People what got families to feed, what got ‘ouses and what need food and –…”

“And those people will still have all that even if we left for Margate or we stayed here, Alfie. Why is that on your shoulders?”

“I made promises. I got responsibilities.”

He tried to catch my hands when I stepped away from him. He only just managed to grasp my wrists. I looked at the fireplace and felt coldness despite its crackling heat. I had always wondered it, but I saw it in his eyes, and I felt it in his hands.

“I knew it. I knew it,” I whispered. “You don’t want it.”

He will have you in that house… and one day you will look around at all its furniture and all the riches he gave you along with it and you will wonder how it’s still so fucking empty all the time.

Because he might not be there, in that house in Margate. He would be buried in his work with the bakery or he would be buried in the wet soil.  

“Three years,” he said suddenly.

I looked at him, eyes narrowed. “What?”

“Give me three years, Willa.”

“You’re bargaining with me like you bargain with your buyers,” I hissed. “You want more time, so you can make another excuse – if we’re even here in three years. Grace died, Alfie. Do you see any other girl from Bell Road around me? Do you see Esther, Butcher? I’m sure they would have asked for three years more, had they known what was coming for them.”

“In three years, I can make sure all them men what work for me now got other options or – or somethin’ to fall back on, yeah? ‘Cause these people ‘round me, Willa, these Jewish fuckin’ people – they need me. You can’t walk ‘round London without some prick tryin’ to put them down, tryin’ to mock us. I ain’t lettin’ it be that way. I’m givin’ ‘em a chance to fight back on their own terms – our terms.”

I had not pulled away from him yet. It only encouraged him.

“I gotta make enough that I can do that and I gotta make enough what I can give Ollie to let ‘im live comfortably, right, ‘cause ‘e got Franny and Elijah to take care of, now, don’ ‘e?” he continued, pleading with me through his eyes. “I ain’t lettin’ ‘im struggle to find work just ‘cause people associate ‘im with me, don’ they? And Willa, if we wanna be in Margate eatin’ grapes and sittin’ on our arses all day, we gotta ‘ave enough in the bank what means we don’t need to ever stop doin’ that. Money runs out, eventually. I gotta put things into place, is all.”

Blood oozed from a scab on his upper-left shoulder and trickled downward.

“Two years,” I told him weakly. I felt that clogging pressure in my chest again, felt it stuffed behind my forehead.

“Two years,” he repeated, kissing my hands.

I picked up a warm cloth and washed away his blood.

☼ 

Chapter Text

twenty-four


Lounging in the shimmering pink light of dawn, I scrunched low in my armchair and looked out across the roofs of the buildings around us. I wondered about the life that had led Jack Murphy to where he now stood. It had seemed so insignificant, that narrow sliver of space left behind by the Italians, whose roots had become splintered. One branch went with Sabini and another slithered off with newer, younger bosses. It was common, Alfie said, because men like Murphy looked at London much like starving dogs who fought one another for the smallest shred of meat dropped between them; and that meat was territory in London.

Tommy had forgotten about London in a sea of grief, which swept him toward rocky shores and battered him with each passing thought of Grace. I had known those shores myself. I had felt each sharp and jagged edge at the sight of a postman with a telegram walking toward me during the war. I had swallowed mouthfuls of blood and touched unseen bruises from a leap into that same sea.

Yet Alfie slept beneath the rich sheets of the bed behind my armchair and Grace had long since been buried. She slept in wood. She slept in porcelain. Tommy never slept at all.

But it had been like that for him before Grace had died, too.

I placed the pad of my thumb against my lips and looked at Alfie while he shifted around in his blankets. Even in slumber, he often searched for me with his brows furrowed and his mouth held in a frown. His flat palm smacked against the creases of my half of the bed, his face rolled into my pillows as if he sought out my scent lingering there, before he jolted forward like he always did when he realised that I was not there with him.

He still had that dream in which he wandered the rooms of a house that was not there anymore. He looked for me between those tight gaps between wardrobe and chair, found dust in those tiny nooks of black between books on a shelf, never found.

His eyelids fluttered and fought against the sunlight which streamed through the curtains in front of me.

“Willa?” he called.

I smiled to myself, warmed by his worry. “Right here, Alf.”

He mumbled words which fell between the pillows. I dangled my bare legs over the arm of my chair and looked back out at those buildings with rectangular windows lined in slick black frames and whose panels were coated in blinds that made those passing shadows behind them seem like a pantomime of characters; a thin, reedy silhouette which crossed from one frame and leapt into another, in which a fatter blob lifted limbs and they became blurred together, then separated. I dreamt of the lives held behind those frames.

The blinds of one frame sprung open and I stared into the pale, angular face of a woman. She flew from sight before I could really catch her.

He had promised that Margate would be ours within two years. I let my head fall backward with a gentle thump against the padding of my armchair and tasted those sugary pools in my mouth from tufts of cotton-candy plucked from cones bought on a pier. I was afraid that Alfie had never meant it and that he had spat out that number only because he wanted to placate me. I worried that two years would come faster than he had anticipated, and he would soon drop little hints that meant he wanted to avoid it.

I knew him from all those sketches of him that I had drawn out in my head during the war. I knew him even better after all those years after it, in which I had had time to colour inside his lines and flesh out those little details that I had learned about him.

And I knew his mind even more.

Before there could be Margate, though, there was still Jack Murphy. Alfie had risen sometime that night to sit in this same armchair and only returned to bed once he had settled on some great plan, but he had mumbled that it was better to discuss it in the morning. I had been full of sleep and half-formed dreams. I had let him pull me against his chest rather than really question him.

I watched those blinds unfurl to reveal brief flashes of faces soon lost in the frames all while I thought about Jack Murphy and I felt unsettled because of it, as if he knew that I thought of him in that exact moment, as if he had sensed it somehow.

As if he stood in that building across from ours and unfurled his blind, but never moved from the frame, and let me look into his pale face, smiling still. 

Soft pelt butted at my hand and I startled at the tongue which soon lashed at my wrist until I realised that Cyril had scooted himself against the arm of my chair. I lightly clicked for him to come around to my legs, which he did awkwardly and with his usual funny lollop, settling there between my knees with his drooping face gazing up at me. I bent to peck his forehead and whispered sweet little words to him about how much we loved him. I had asked for a breakfast with lots of sausages this morning just for him – the drool which poured from him told me that he had known that his breakfast would be here soon even if I had not murmured it right into his ear.

Cyril had seemingly recovered from what had happened in the house. He thought only about sausages in the mornings and big bowls of slop in the evenings. Between that, he settled into the cushions of the sofa or the pillows of the bed and slept there for hours. Sometimes, if brought for walks, he simply dropped onto the footpath and ignored all tugs at his leash or curses from Alfie, preferring to blink around lazily at the people who passed him by with their own pups and dogs. He had never been too bothered about walks, our Cyril. He much preferred his afternoon naps.

“Two years, Cyril,” I told him softly. “I can get you a great big sofa of your own in Margate. We can sit and eat our sausages together in the mornings and then walk out onto the pier. Or I can drag you by your leash if you’re being particularly lazy. And I can drag Alfie, too. You can eat all my fish and chips if you’d like. Just two years, sweetheart! We can do that, eh?”

Alfie had all his men held in the basement for his big speech, which I heard only in small chunks. I played with Elijah in the office, bounced him on my lap and let him shuffle around the papers on the table. Somehow, in just a couple of months, he had become much heavier and it took a lot to haul him onto my cocked hip or lap like I had always done since he was a baby and Franny had first asked if he might look after him.

He shifted and dug his small shoes into my stomach by accident, holding a pen in his fist and shaking it wildly in excitement. I smiled and traced his rosy cheeks with my fingers, brushing my nose against his own little button-nose, snickering at his giggles.

Like Ollie, he was quiet and reserved until he really knew somebody. Then, he became more like Franny.

And I had loved him from the first moment that I had held him. I loved him even more every other time since then that I had been able to hold him, even if Alfie had watched with a worried frown. I had always loved him. I melted whenever he said my name, softened with each giggle that escaped him whenever I swept him into my arms or each soft breath exhaled when he slept against my chest, felt a rush of warmth if I ever made him laugh or smile.

He threw his own small, chubby arms around my neck and burrowed into my skin. He turned and flopped down onto my legs, looking for Cyril whose bulky form was stretched alongside me. Elijah bent and rubbed his palm across Cyril with a shriek of laughter, because he had always found something funny about Cyril. He liked to grasp his floppy ears and hold them out like the wings of an airplane, but I had warned him to be gentle. I held him against my chest and bent low to let him play with our dog.

“Cyril is very lazy,” I told him, smiling. “He likes to sleep.”

“Sleep,” he repeated. “Cyril!”

Lazily, Cyril rolled sideways and blinked at us both. I rolled my eyes at him. “Come on, Cyril. Wake up for Elijah!”

“Up!” Elijah giggled. “Up, Cyril!”

Cyril blinked again, then dropped back onto the floorboards, eyes closed.

“He pretends he can’t hear us, Elijah,” I said. “He thinks if he closes his eyes, we can’t see him, either.”

Elijah stared at the dog, his scrunched fist held over his mouth. He seemed deep in thought and I found it quite adorable, because he looked very much like Ollie. He had the same dark brows pinched together and his mouth pursed in a little pout. I brushed aside his hair from his face and looked up at the sound of the handle rattling.

Alfie came into the room. He nodded at me and his eyes lingered on Elijah in my arms.

Alfie worried just like he always did. He had never forgotten the night that I had disappeared on him and spent hours tucked in a bathtub with a bottle of rum in my hand. He thought about it each time that he saw Elijah around me. He soon stuffed those worries into some darkened part of himself and shuffled forward, tossing his cane aside and running his hands through his hair.

Bouncing Elijah up and down on my knee, I asked, “How was it, Alf?”

“The lads know what they’re meant to do.”

Alfie never talked properly if Elijah was around. He alluded to certain aspects of the bakery and he coated his words in a friendlier tone that passed right over the little boy who played with the buttons on my blouse. But I caught that furrow in the lines around his mouth, the curl of his shoulder blades drawn tight as he approached me. I knew that he had planned to send his men out into the streets to retaliate against Jack Murphy, but it seemed to do little to ease his strain. I hoped that Ollie might finish with his final orders to the men and collect Elijah, because Alfie looked worn and I wanted to speak with him without little ears listening.

Behind him, there were shouts and thumps. The staircase screamed from thundering boots. Through the windowpane, I watched our men thrown against the ground and I heard the heavy thud of a weapon smacked on bare flesh; it was that dull thud which reminded me of a countertop and a hand scrunched in my hair.

And I thought that Jack Murphy had sent his men to kill us all right then and there, in the openness of the bakery.

I clutched Elijah against my chest and stood, my mouth filled in liquid pools that tasted nothing like that sugar I had imagined earlier. Instead, it burned my tongue and sizzled against my gums. Frantically, I looked to Alfie and saw that he held himself much more steadily, his eyes fixated on those shadows which danced and spun behind the glass like figurines from one of Elijah’s little music-boxes. I watched him smooth out his cuffs and crack the bones of his hands. He walked those few slow steps toward the table and placed himself between us and the door.

“Alfie?” I whispered. “Are those Jack’s men?”

I felt soft puffs of warm air against the hollow of my collarbone. Elijah had pressed his head in the crook of my neck, tucked his chin downward and held one small hand over the top buttons of my blouse, the same buttons that he had played with earlier. He was perfectly still, but he whispered, “Mummy?”

My heart clenched. I held him tightly, one arm looped around his legs and bottom to balance him on my hip, the other held over his hair to comfort him. “Elijah, sweetheart, your Mummy will be here soon, all right? We’ll call her and she’ll come and pick you up. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Morosely, he nodded. But I felt his uncertainty like I felt his weight in my arms.

“Those are coppers out there,” Alfie said suddenly.

Coppers?” I repeated, inching toward him.

“Stay where you are, Willa,” he said. “And if they don’t take Ollie, then ‘e will sort me out – and if they take ‘im, you call Fran. Tell ‘er to call Nachman, she knows who ‘e is –…”

The door cracked open from the force of the coppers behind it, seeping into the room like a flood of dark, black water swirling toward us, crashing over us. I stumbled backward against the cabinet and felt its sharp edge line my spine, because the coppers gripped Alfie around his arms and pulled him forward and I thought that they had only wanted him – but the next copper pushed around him and I realised that he wanted me, too.

Alfie had been limp, at first. He had accepted his arrest even if it made little sense. He had paid off all coppers in Camden Town for months on end, ever since Tommy had first arranged it. It had almost seemed too surreal for him to be arrested, because I had never seen him held like that by coppers, as if he was any other criminal – any other gangster from around these parts.

But then he saw that the coppers came toward me, saw their hands reach to grip me and tear Elijah from me, and he bucked like an animal, so suddenly and so forcefully, that the first copper who had come for me soon split away to control him.

One copper held him from behind, tried to hold his arms at his sides and another strangled him by his throat, but the last copper who had left my side pulled out a baton and lashed at his legs.

I lost sight of him once foreign hands tried to touch Elijah and I twisted away from him, curled myself around him and tried not to let him be torn from my arms. I felt the copper’s painful hold on my arms tighten even more, trying to wrench him from me, but I felt Elijah’s small fists sink into my blouse in his fear, heard his frightened wails in my ears like a constant echo that drowned out all other sound. The dampness which spread on my throat came from his tears blended in those which dripped from my own cheeks.

I was terrified that he would be taken like the children that the Gypsies had once talked about, ripped away and thrown out for adoption by the coppers.

And more than anything, I was afraid that Franny and Ollie would lose their only son because I had not been strong enough.

The ringing in my ears dimmed; I heard Cyril snarl and snap. I screamed at the copper who dared raise a baton at my dog as if he might smack him and my wild, glistening eyes saw Alfie behind them. He struggled with those coppers who held him and roared back at the ones surrounding me, shouting, “You get off ‘er! Get your fuckin’ ‘ands off my fuckin’ wife, or I’ll fuckin’ kill all of ya! Don’t touch the boy, you leave ‘im –…”

“Give him to me!” a copper snarled at me. “Damned pikey bitch –…”

I felt the hard crack of that baton against my own legs, against my arms, lashed at any part of me that was exposed. Another copper sank his arms around mine and tore Elijah away. I rushed forward immediately to take him back, devastated by his ruddy cheeks, his mouth held wide in a scream as his small hands reached for me. A copper stepped between us and slapped me so violently that I crashed into the cabinet and sank against it in a daze, spinning in my own skull, all thoughts chopped and whirred from the hit.

I tried to stand and grab Elijah, but one copper snatched my arm and twisted it painfully, threw me back against the cabinet and seemed to delight in my wild scramble to push him away from me. He leaned much too close, his lips almost against mine and I grunted against his weight pressing into my back, my eyes looking around madly for Elijah still held by the other copper behind us.

“I heard from a friend that you liked to bite,” he cooed into my ear. “Tore his lip off, you did. So, I told him that I would let you know just how I felt about that.”

His hand flattened around my hair, squeezed it tight, and then slammed my cheek into the corner of the cabinet.

I swam through flowering patterns of colour all around me, from the orange light of the lamps crackling into the warm mahogany of the table, to the blistering white of the papers and the soft red leather of the sofa. I coughed. Blood stained my lips from where I had bitten into my cheek, though I had not realised it. I slumped on the floorboards and felt my eyelids flutter like the wings of a butterfly; rapidly, so that all the world flashed around me in brief, sporadic glimpses of the office before black chopped through my vision.

I saw leather shoes step into the room. I heard Cyril rumble with a low growl. I reached for him blindly, felt his fur beneath my palm and stroked him to calm him down. He bumped against my legs.

“Did I tell you to hit her?”

“Mr Murphy, she attacked a good friend of ours,” one copper said. “A colleague.”

“And tell me, is he my colleague? Is he my good friend?”

“N-No.”

“Then hand her the child and leave.”

Even if his name had not been spoken, I would have known it was Jack from the smoothness of his voice and the casual manner in which he took the chair on the other side of the table. I felt one copper lift me onto Alfie’s chair. Elijah was placed in my lap. Immediately, he latched onto me, curled his arms around my throat and his legs bent awkwardly around my waist, terrified. My cheek was swollen, my left eyelid tender and bruised.

I looked at Jack, who settled in his chair with his arms clasped in his lap, one leg crossed over the other.

“Just a short while ago, I sat in this very chair with your husband, Mrs Solomons. I spoke with him about modernisation in London. Fascinating term, isn’t it? In other words, it simply means that the world will always move on with or without you. And you either move with it, or it moves you.”

He clucked his tongue and reached into his pocket. I shifted, turning Elijah away from him, thinking that he held a knife or a gun in his pocket. He raised his hands in surrender. Slowly, very slowly, he inched his hand toward his pocket again and pulled out a handkerchief which he then tossed to me. I tasted fresh blood trickling onto my lips and understood that I had a nosebleed.

I moved Elijah onto my right side and took the cloth, scrunching it against my nose. Jack watched me all the while and then said, “I wish they hadn’t done that. I never told them to touch you or the boy. I was unaware of any prior bias on their part toward you for hurting their – colleague, was it?”

Spitefully, I threw the handkerchief right back at him; its white folds soaked into redness.

He licked his lips. “May I call you by your first name, eh? Formality seems beyond us, now.”

I felt cornered by him. I thought it best not to tempt any more rash actions, not while Elijah still sat on my lap. So, I nodded.

“As I said, Willa,” he resumed, “I spoke with your husband, but I knew he had not understood the finer points of what I was trying to tell him. But you – well, I think you would understand just fine.”

“Where did they take him?” I croaked.

“Not very far. I only wanted him out of the way – just while we spoke, Willa. After that, he can return to you and the boy. Is he yours?”

Jack had changed his tone into this soft, warm murmur as he looked at Elijah. The boy quickly turned his head and Jack smiled even more. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his eyebrows pulled into an annoyingly open and gentle expression.

But I could only breathe the scent of copper and mahogany, so his efforts were wasted.

“No,” I replied tersely.

Jack hummed. “Well, he is cute. I love kids, me. I have nephews and nieces of my own, you know. Spoil them rotten, I do. I would do anything to keep them safe. Wouldn’t you?”

Again, I could only nod. I was so unsettled by him that I felt there was not much more to do. I wanted to see Alfie, too.

“Right. I want to be honest with you, Willa. I told Alfie that the Titanic group wanted a good portion of what was left behind by Sabini. Alfie was not very hospitable to our arrival – too close to Camden Town for his liking, he said, but he made a great big riddle out of it. He likes to talk, your husband. Much more than you seem to. Now, I was happy to cut a proper deal with him. You get this half, I get this half – like kids on a playground, you know? You can play on this side, but I can play on this side. It just seems your husband does not like to play at all.”

Elijah moved. He looked at Cyril, who remained in his usual spot by my boots. He sniffled and turned away. I rubbed his back soothingly, caressing his hair.

Jack followed the movement of my hand for a moment. Eventually, he looked directly at me and said, “I figured that we could change our rules. Kids do that in playgrounds, too. They forget about sides. So, that was what happened with your house. It was not my idea, not even something that I really wanted to do. But this was about showing how things go when you try to play fair, but the other kid doesn’t want to. Alfie didn’t want to, Willa. And so the rules changed for him.”

I swallowed, my eyes flitting behind him. I looked at the orange lamps whose colour smeared outward from the hot, barbed spike of tears behind my eyes.

“And the coppers?” I asked, staring into his eyes.

Jack smiled. “With an old bakery like this, Willa, you should really be wary of old, rusting pipes. They can cause all sorts of leaks, you know. Even one little leak can lead to an awful lot of rot in your walls. Could take down the foundation of your whole empire, if you let it.”

If I had not been balancing Elijah against me, I might have fallen apart at his words. We had never distrusted the men who worked here. Alfie had only ever chosen men from families that he knew – always Jewish, always familiar, always loyal.  

“So, what do you think I’m going to do, Jack? Tell Alfie to hand over your part of the playground?”

“I expect you to tell Alfie that he is acting foolishly,” he replied. “And that no one can stay at the top for too long before it all topples over.”

Whispered from somewhere behind me, I heard its echoes ripple over me: it’s never enough to become top-dog for ‘em – it takes a lot more to stay top-dog than it does to become it, darlin’.

“And if I don’t tell him, what happens then?”

Jack shrugged his shoulders. “Then, I do not ask for half. I do not even ask for the whole piece. I take it.”

“There are more out there than just us,” I spat at him. “Other men who own other parts –…”

“Sabini has been kicked off the playground and Thomas Shelby is too busy looking around the grassy side for a place to bury his wife,” Jack interrupted. “And I am sure Alfie does not want to look with him, Willa.”

Cold, heavy fear ran along my throat as if I had swallowed it; it pooled in my stomach and sat there as if it formed a stone, so that I became too heavy, unable to pull myself from that chair ever again. I was trapped there, trapped by him and trapped by his stare.

“I prefer not to involve women and children,” he added. “But sometimes, that is not something in my control. So, Willa, I beg of you – don’t wait around to die.”

Jack stood, looming on the other side of the table like a spectre who stretched further and further upward until he seemed unending, eternal, made of whiteness and terror. He fixed the buttons of his coat, looking over me so coldly that his eyes seemed to peer through me.

“I will ask for your husband to be brought to that lovely hotel of yours,” he told me. “Room 203. Quite a beautiful view from that bedroom, eh? Can see all sorts, there. Watch for peeping-Toms, eh, in those flats across from yours. Never know who’s watching these days, do you?”

I trembled and dropped my eyes, drinking in the scarred criss-cross scratches on our floorboards.

“It was a pleasure to speak again, you know. I do hope that you see more sense than your husband ever did. Goodbye, Willa. Goodbye, Elijah.”

Slinking from the office, Jack was swallowed into the windowpanes, his black outline blended into the cold blue lights out there. I was totally motionless, my hands still held around Elijah, staring blankly ahead. Out in the workroom, there was a sudden rush of noise from the men who stood and moved around, who pushed aside crashed barrels and who called out for those left behind by the coppers. And still I sat there.

Because I had never told him Elijah’s name, not directly. But he knew all the same.

Numbly, I thought about how he had suggested that somebody in the bakery had betrayed Alfie to him; our leaking pipe. I was afraid to say it aloud, afraid to even consider it. But Jack knew a lot of things about us. I had not realised how exposed we were and yet I knew very little about Jack other than what he chose to tell me, or those little details which slipped from Alfie. Jack was a blurred shape in my peripheral that slowly approached closer and closer with each blink until he surrounded me, until he stole my sight and smothered my breath.

It had become dark outside a little while ago, and now it felt dark where I sat, too.

And I knew that nobody around us now could be trusted. It had always been Alfie and I – us, intertwined.

But I thought of those who drifted further, and my hand reached for the telephone, torn from its cradle. I knew that he was out in the black fields, but I knew that he would come if called. I dialled the only number that I had for him and hoped that he might still be there on the other end, summoned by the tinny rattle of a telephone in a box on the side of the road.

It was not him. It was another cousin, who called another cousin, who called another until it seemed that all of Ireland had been shaken from slumber to hear a telephone sing into the wind and draw them out from their beds.

He spoke calmly and surely. “I’m here, chey. Like I always told you that I would be.”

I cried, first. I told him the truth, second.

And he listened while I held a child who was not mine in my arms and he said, “Two days, chey.”

Furiously, Franny swept into the hotel room and hauled Elijah into her arms, smothered him in kisses, checked over his arms and legs as if Ollie had not already done so. Ollie had appeared an hour beforehand. He had been dropped off a couple of blocks from the hotel and told to walk to the rest of it, but he had not seen Alfie since they had been taken out of the bakery together. He had not suffered any bruises, though his shirt was coated in dirt from where he had been thrown around in the backyard. I watched him stand by the sofa, looking forlornly at his family.

“Fran,” he began, “we never expected –…”

“Don’t you say a word!” she spat. “I know very well who Jack Murphy is, Ollie. I hear the rumours just like you do. If Alfie knew –…”

“He never knew,” I interrupted swiftly. “Alfie loves Elijah, he would never put him in any danger.”

“Alfie is the danger! He feeds off it – he enjoys it! And my son could have been – he could have –…”

Franny sobbed, sinking her face into the collar of Elijah’s blue coat. Gently, Ollie came around the sofa and placed a hand on her shoulder. Seeing that she did not slap him or throw him off, he dared bend and take her in his arms.

“I never want him in that bakery again,” Franny hiccupped. “And I never want Alfie near him –…”

“Franny, please,” I begged. “He never knew that Jack would take over the coppers. He would do anything to –…”

“You say that all the time,” she retorted. “You always say that Alfie would do anything to keep Elijah safe. What, like he kept you safe from Sabini? Before you got shot? Are you really that blind, Willa? Really that stupid?”

I had not been called stupid in a very long time, but it stung as much as it had every time that Esther had said it when I was a child. It stung just as much, if not a little more, because I cared about Franny a lot more than I had ever cared about Esther.

Through the dull, throbbing pain in my chest, I looked at Ollie. He looked away.

I was alone.

Elijah wrapped his arms around her legs, and she hardened even more, scooping him into her arms.

“You might not have a child of your own, Willa,” she said, “but I know you care about my son just as much as if he was your own blood. I only wish you had the same care for yourself. To think what that man could have done to you –…”

“Franny,” Ollie mumbled, looking miserable and awkward as he stood between us.

“No, Ollie! Someone has to say it! What kind of life is it – with Alfie and this bakery –…”

“Enough people say it,” I replied. I was very tired, so tired that it came out in my voice and I crashed against the sofa, rubbing at my eyes.

“But you pretend not to hear.”

“Cyril!” Elijah called out. He clapped his hands over his ears and shut his eyes. He remembered how Cyril liked to feign sleep to ignore us, as if he could not hear. I smiled and it only set off Franny all the more.

“Ollie, we’re leaving. Now.”

“Listen, Franny –…”

“If Alfie Solomons causes the death of your son, will you still stand around and do his bidding for him? Does Alfie need you more than your own child, hm?”

Frustrated, Ollie snatched his coat from the sofa beside me and stormed for the door. Franny watched him, eyes aflame. Ollie opened our door and there stood Alfie, dishevelled and seeming more exhausted than wounded or hurt. It was completely silent for a few moments as they stared each other down. Then, Ollie walked around him, marching down the hall. Franny followed behind him, making sure to pause and glare at Alfie before she, too, rushed away.

And it was just us.

Because it was only us. It had always been just us.

He closed the door behind him. I watched him walk closer and closer until he could touch me, and then he unravelled and fell into my chest and became part of me, another limb, as if we had been forged from the same metal. But Alfie was not cold like metal – he was soft and pliant and he moved when I pulled him onto the sofa with me. I checked his skin, those parts not flecked in dryness and patchy scales. I found he was unharmed, apart from some purple bruising on his legs and a ring of swollen red around his right socket from a punch.

And his fingertips rushed over my skin for bruising, too, touched my socket because we mirrored each other.

“Did ‘e ‘urt you, angel? Did ‘e touch ya?”

“No, Alf. I’m all right.”

“I’ll kill ‘im,” he said. “I’ll kill all o’ ‘em.”

“Someone in the bakery worked with him.”

Alfie drew in a stuttered breath. “Fuck. And ‘e paid the coppers more than I ever did. Work for ‘im, now.”

“He knew who Elijah was. He had made that little comment about his name before – but he knew this time, Alf. He knew the number of our hotel room, too. Even suggested someone watches us.”

“Fucking ‘ell,” Alfie muttered. “Fuck.”

“He wanted to talk to me alone. But I think it was more than that. I think he just wanted to show that could – he could talk to me, he could do whenever he wanted, wherever he wanted. He just could.”

Alfie fell onto the couch alongside me. His hand took mine, held it tightly. I breathed more easily, then.

Two years had not seemed so far away this morning. It had seemed tedious and off-putting, but possible – possible in a way that it was not anymore, not after this afternoon. And when I blinked my eyelids in that butterfly manner, like I had in the office after I had been slapped, I saw chopped sheets of black and streaks of Jack sat across from me in-between, clasping his hands on his lap and smiling serenely back at me.

And those two years had somehow become streaked in that same blackness until it ruined the whole reel, swallowed it whole, and there were no chunks of anything else that I could see.  

And if there was another Jack Murphy in our life, then two years would become four and four would become six and Margate would never become anything more than something we used to dream about, a long time ago.

“Franny ‘ates me guts, then,” he mumbled.

“Give her time,” I said. I sighed and lay my head back against my seat, looking at the glittering chandelier overhead. “She was scared. She heard her son was in a room with Jack Murphy. What was she supposed to feel?”

Weakly, he said, “I would do anythin’ for that lad, Willa. I’d do anythin’ to keep ‘im safe. I would do anythin’ to keep you safe, too, darlin’.”

I felt those shards of gold sparkling over me blear outward, just like the orange lamps in the office had done earlier. “I know, Alf. I know.”

“Don’t cry, Willa. Please, love.”

I saw gold and only gold.

Alfie held me even tighter that night. I had drawn the curtains, sealed together, but not before my gaze had lingered on those flats across from ours, peering into those photograph-frames, into alternate worlds. He stroked my hair and he talked about that house of ours, two years from now, with tiled floors in one room, wooden floorboards in another. It had become a game of ours, somewhere along the line, to name the things that we wanted in our new house.

It was nice to pretend, if only for a little while.

“Blue walls in the bathroom,” he whispered. “And a great big white bathtub, with them funny claws on the bottom. Made o’ gold.”

“White curtains in the living-room,” I replied. “Makes it look brighter. Spacious.”

“Paint the front door red or black?”

“Blue,” I said. “Like the ocean. And a guest bedroom for Franny and Ollie, and another for Elijah, when they visit.”