Chapter 1: i.
Brigid awoke on the old grandfather clock’s sixth chime with a slow, deep breath, the last thread of her dream slipping away. She chased its warmth — something to do with summertime, a crisp breeze blowing through her hair, Tommy’s lips at her throat. The quilts had tangled around their feet in the middle of the night, and Brigid felt as frigid as the dead of winter. As her skin pricked with gooseflesh, she considered tucking her nose into the warm dip of Tommy’s neck.
But the seventh chime echoed throughout the otherwise silent house, and even though she could sense that the sunlight had yet to sneak through the heavy velvet curtains, Brigid was out of time. Seven o’clock was her final warning, no matter Tommy’s seductive warmth and the steady feel of his heart against her ribcage.
Sighing, Brigid savored the last bit of darkness behind her eyelids before shifting her weight to the edge of his bed. The draft sneaking in through the poorly insulated window swept across her shoulder, and her bare feet recoiled on the scuffed wood.
Stockings? She searched the room with bleary eyes to discover them in a limp and wrinkled pile by the wardrobe. An amused smile quirked on her lips. They had covered an impressive distance after Tommy’s burning fingers stripped them from her, but in the soft light of morning, it seemed an impossible span to cross on bare feet. Her teeth chattered as she considered it.
It was rough with sleep, gravelly and low in the morning quiet, and he slipped a chilled arm around her belly from behind as he moved closer. She could feel the soft brush of his lips at her hip, sending a different kind of shiver through her.
Brigid’s hand fell to his soft hair. “Can’t.”
“Cruel woman.” But his lips curved against her pebbled skin, tracing what must have been a smile.
They had spent an entire evening joined together in every way that man and woman could be — hot, open-mouthed kisses broken up by breathless laughter, dragging hands and scratching nails, whispering nothing and everything into each other’s skin.
Brigid loathed to ruin the memory, and so decided not to remind Tommy that until he wed her, it would be quite unseemly for her to be caught in his bed past daybreak.
After all, she had to cross three lanes and two blocks back to her own home before the sun could stretch down the street and catch her out. She had just forty-five minutes before her father would stumble, tired and ashen after third shift, through the front door and expect a steaming cuppa to be waiting for him.
So instead, she reached for the abandoned quilt and tossed it up and over him. “Not as cruel as this chill. Get Lovelock to reseal that window, would you?”
“Go, then.” He didn’t have the wherewithal, as early as it was, to put true disdain in his voice, and instead came off as little better than a petulant child. “Run back to your own bed before da figures out where his girl has been all night.”
Affection at his teasing welled in her chest and brought a smile to her face, but as he rolled away, it wasn’t warm enough to fight the wintry bedroom. She dashed across the room on light feet — Polly was too perceptive not to know that Brigid had been sleeping under her roof, but Brigid still wasn’t keen to wake the older woman — and pulled up her stockings with stiff fingers. Brigid dressed in the dim light by muscle memory alone, her puffy eyes still drooping with sleep. Though she would have liked to keep her mess of curls down for added warmth, she took care to arrange them into a neat chignon in Tommy’s dusty mirror.
Small Heath was full of busybodies, after all, and if an early riser heard her heels clicking on the cobblestones and decided to peek through the drapes, she refused to look as if she’d just had a man’s fingers in her hair.
Finally, she pulled on her coat, her cold hands slipping into the ermine-lined pockets on instinct, and gave the room a last look for anything she had missed. She had thought Tommy would have fallen back asleep, but instead, she found his eyes open and watching her, his hands resting behind his head. The plains of his face were smooth and untroubled, his eyes tracing her in that soft way he seemed to allow only when they were alone. With his hair mussed, he looked more innocent, flushed with life and bright with the promise of manhood, than any veteran bookmaker and soldier had right to.
The thought hardened in Brigid’s throat — in the dim light, he could have been the Tommy that used to appear at her door in the early morning, wondering if she’d like to go for a ride in the country with him. So much time had passed since those early days, and yet when he looked at her like that, she felt seventeen again.
Though she stood beside the door, Brigid crossed the room back to him. His lips parted, pliant and full, beneath hers with a familiarity that still, two months since his return to civilian life, seemed to evade them more often than not. She couldn’t help but curl a hand around the nape of his neck, fingers slipping into the close-shorn hair at the back of his head.
“Go on.” He broke the kiss to trace a callused thumb across her cheekbone. “Tell James I said hello.”
Brigid pressed a final kiss to the corner of his mouth, thankful for the laugh that bubbled up past her lips. Intimacy came so easy to them during the warm night, but it felt so heavy in the cold day.
“I certainly won’t,” she whispered, pulling away to return to the door. The silence stretched between them, and she busied her tingling hands with pulling on her matching gloves.
She could still remember the grip of his hands at her waist, the feel of his teeth against her skin. Almost too casual, she said, “He hates the night shift, you know.”
It was a familiar refrain, one that Brigid had slipped into conversation before. Though a return to first shift would put a damper on her nightly rendezvouses with Tommy, her father would be ever thankful for a full night’s sleep, and Brigid hated seeing him so downtrodden.
“It can pay to have someone loyal on the night shift, love.”
A familiar response — indicative and equally vague, as Tommy so often was. With no time to press her point, she gave him one last smile and kept the knob turned, muffled, as she shut the door behind her, dodging the creaky steps on her way down.
When Brigid stole out the front door, the sun had begun to paint the navy sky golden along the horizon, but the stars still winked above. February had been blustery — strong winds had swept indiscriminately down the lanes, snatched washing from the lines and stirred shop signs, a creaking that melded with the distant factory clamor to create a unique sort of orchestra — and this morning was no different. The chill crept underneath her coat, through the thick wool of her stockings, and would have made Brigid hurry even without the threat of her father returning home before her.
The city was beginning to stir, a change marked by the first lamps lit in the front parlors, the fresh smoke rising from chimney after chimney. If the rain hanging in heavy, slate-grey clouds could hold, no doubt laundry would be strung up across the empty lines soon. Brigid had their washing to tend to as well, but she would have only enough time to cook the morning meal before she was due back at the betting shop. With Kempton upcoming, they were expecting a marked increase in bets, and hopefully even a long-term upswing to bring them out of the slow winter season.
As the factory bell released tired droves of soot-blackened men back to their homes and wives, Brigid turned the corner toward her house. The windows of the quaint house she shared with her father were blessedly still dark, the curtains drawn tight. It seemed the first-shift foreman had not relieved him early.
Still, she shot a skittish look down the lane as she dashed across to her door. And not for the first time during a harried walk home, Brigid felt that she was getting too old for this. Tommy had said, just weeks ago, that he wasn’t ready, that he needed more time, that he wouldn’t marry her until he had a legal betting license to his name. She intended to bide her time, willing to wait for him, but nevertheless, it weighed heavy on her heart.
But it was time — had been time — for her and Tommy to share their own home.
By the time Brigid returned to the kitchen in a laced blouse and long woolen skirt, black hair freshly coiled, the kettle was whistling and the post sat piled on the mat. She stooped to collect it, finding only the morning paper and a heavy parchment envelope postmarked from Belfast with her Uncle Peter’s address in the top corner.
They hadn’t heard from their family since the holiday, and curiosity tugged in her mind. Her fingers itched to slip under the seal, but the letter was addressed to her father, so Brigid placed it at the head of the table next to his teacup.
Her father arrived as she pulled a rasher of bacon from the icebox, accompanied by the wind slamming the door behind him and the twin thumps of the heavy work boots he deposited underneath the coat rack.
“Morning, da,” she called. “Paper’s already here.”
He approached from behind as she arranged the sliced bacon in a deep iron pan, adjusting the flame, and pressed a quick kiss to her temple, just as he had done which she was no more than a slip of a girl with twin plaits down her back. His lips were cold, as were the large hands he cupped around her shoulders, but Brigid felt a curl of warmth in her chest.
“Mornin’, dear.” His voice was gritty with exhaustion, rough from eight hours of smoke and hot coals and bellowing to keep men in line.
She quirked a smile, meeting his tired gaze before he dropped into his chair at their scrubbed old table. A callused hand scrubbed across his face, and his shoulders sagged with a sigh in the soft morning light.
At the sight, she turned fully from the hob to face him. “Are you feeling well?”
“Oh, I’m fine.” He dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand, but he didn’t quite manage to smooth his furrowed brow. “What about you? Were you warm enough last night?”
Their old, rusty radiator had given out last week, plunging the house to icy temperatures, and it had taken days to get a repairman out from Birmingham proper after their neighbor and no less than four Peaky boys not willing to admit defeat had a go at it. Lest she caught her death, she truly had spent the night with the Shelbys then, curled up on a spare cot in Ada’s bedroom — or so her father thought.
Heat rushed to her face, inspiring Brigid to turn back to the bacon that now popped in the pan. “Positively toasty.”
It wasn’t a lie, so to speak, if perhaps not the whole truth. Tommy did run hot.
She used a spatula to turn the bacon, and then busied herself with a loaf of bread, slicing it to fry in the hot grease after the bacon finished. “There’s a letter from Peter and Ellen,” she said. “Do open it before I die of curiosity.”
Her father’s sister, Brigid’s Auntie Ellen, was known for two things: being long-winded, and treating every piece of news as if it were the shiniest bit in her gossip cabinet.
His laugh was low under the sizzling hob, and they fell into a contented silence as her father unfolded the letter and slurped at his tea. Brigid replaced the bacon in the pan with thick slices of bread, just ten seconds on each side until it was crispy (and not nearly-stale). By the time he tossed the heavy parchment back to the table, Brigid had fried up five eggs, three for him and two for herself, and neatly arranged their two sandwiches on matching porcelain plates.
They had never used the porcelain when her mother was alive apart for holidays and occasions, but the thin, curling blue vines around the edges of the plates had always reminded Brigid of her mother, and so she tried to pull them out every day.
“What’s the news?” Setting his plate down, Brigid settled across from him with her own. “Is everyone healthy?”
“It would appear so,” he said, taking a fork to his sandwich. “Apparently Julia has found a beau and he’s already asked for her hand, but they think she’s still too young. Jack’s found a new job. Jimmy and his wife are expecting another sometime this summer.”
A smile tugged at Brigid’s lips. She’d never met her oldest cousin’s two young children — they hadn’t even been to Belfast since before the war, of course — but they’d received a photo with the annual Christmas card of two beaming, flaxen-haired cherubs, the older boy holding up his swaddled sister for the camera. It had reminded her so immediately of an old, faded portrait of her and Patrick that it took her breath away.
“That’s lovely. Perhaps we could visit in the autumn to meet the new babe, as well as the others?”
“Perhaps.” It fell flat, punctuated by the bite of bacon and bread, dripping in egg, that he shoved in his mouth without looking up.
He folded the letter, his brow furrowed, and tucked it in the pocket of his work shirt before she could ask to read it, and he still looked far away in the eyes. Though he’d attempted to wash his face, dark lines of soot still traced down his neck and shadowed the discontent on his face.
Brigid fiddled with her food. “Are you sure you’re all right, da?”
Each morning since he switched to third shift, her father had done little else apart from complain about being on third shift. Brigid could hardly blame him. Hours spent at the B.S.A. were hours spent sweating in the blazing heat, deafened by the constant clamor. The environment was insufferable even when the sun was high in the sky. Truly, the only perk he had yet to relay was that the Communist agitators — dynamic Freddie Thorne and his band of unionists — preferred, in a rare display of common sense, to agitate at midday.
And so the near-silence was troublesome.
“Oh, I’m fine, love.” Eyes down, he heaved a deep sigh. “Just a little behind schedule and workin’ hard, is all.”
She hummed, swallowing the last bite of her sandwich, but the chiming clock prevented her from pressing him any further. “As am I, it happens.” She stood, placing the fragile plate in the sink basin. “I need to get to the shop — Kempton’s up next week.”
If her father minded the depth to which she had become involved with the Peaky Blinders and their business while he was away at war, he had yet to express it — though, he didn’t often express anything of much importance any more. The War had resigned him to isolation and silence as it had so many of the others. It had invited a heavy, oppressive silence into their lives, an unwelcome guest around the parlor fire and the supper table in the spot that Patrick and his charm had occupied for so long.
“Will you be here for supper?”
The question punctured her heart, and she leaned down to press a kiss to his temple, just as he had done to her when he arrived. “No, I’ll be working at Thompson’s through the evening.”
Resigned, he nodded. “I love you, dear.”
Brigid’s hand fell gently to his shoulder. “Love you too, da.”
As she dashed to the front door, Brigid reflected on what Tommy had said that morning — that having a loyal man on the night shift could pay dividends — and decided that having a well-rested father was more important.
Small Heath was no stranger to smoke and ash, but that evening, it hung heavy in the air. The damp was acrid on her tongue, and Brigid coughed into the fur of her coat in an attempt to clear her throat, though she knew the reprieve would hardly last. Both the Austen and the B.S.A. lined her route to Watery Lane, and the smog clung so heavily to those four blocks that women couldn’t wear their white dresses unless it was just after a heavy rain.
But her stomach was begging for dinner, and so she picked up her pace. Mrs. Thompson had tasked her to inventory their extensive thread offerings before she left, and the undertaking had kept her past closing, made her quite ravenous, and left her barely able to tell the difference between slate, nickel, and marengo — eventually, all greys started to look the same, especially once the sun sunk below the horizon.
Ahead, a pair of coppers manned the cobbled street corner under a gas lamp, easily spotted — one exhaled a large plume of tobacco smoke, while the end of the other’s cigarette bloomed bright in the dark night. Both wore their caps low, evading recognition. Unease pricked the back of Brigid’s neck, urging her to step off the pavement and cross the street.
She never usually passed coppers on her return from Thompson’s, and in Birmingham, increased police presence was often cause for concern rather than lowered guard. Careful to maintain her speed, Brigid kept her face down.
“Oi — boy!” Sharp, commanding, the directive could have only come from the pair.
But curiosity got the better of her. From under the brim of her hat, Brigid watched as one of them clapped a hand onto the back of a slight boy of perhaps ten, clad in a threadbare overcoat too large for him and a Peaky cap.
The boy shrugged the first copper off, only to be grabbed by the other. “Let go of me!” he protested, and Brigid sighed in disapproval.
“Finn!” Her voice cut through the gloom, echoing off the three-storied, black-bricked terraced houses that lined the street.
The tussle stopped as all three turned to watch her approach, and Brigid clucked her tongue. Raising her hat so the coppers could see her face, she smiled. This close, their golden nameplates glinted in the lamplight, emblazoned with names she did not recognize.
“Mum’s told you not to run, Finn — I apologize for my brother, officers.”
“He belong to you?” The thinner one leered at her, beady eyes dragging up and back down, but she straightened her spine, unwilling to cow to him.
“Yes. My younger brother, as I said,” she replied, crisp, brooking no argument as she turned her gaze down to Finn. “What are you doing running about?”
He jerked his arm from the fat copper’s grip, and at only ten, he was unable to hide the dirty look he threw the copper’s way. “You’re late. Mum got worried.”
His brow had furrowed with her ruse, but he was smart enough to not throw it away.
She sighed with well-practiced concern. “Yes, Auntie Ellen needed more help with the babes than anticipated.” Fluttering her lashes, she gave the fat copper a much kinder gaze than Finn’s. “Our aunt’s just had twins, you see. I was helping her put them down, but one of them’s colicky — ”
“Yeah, yeah,” the thinner one cut her off, his mouth twisting into a frown. He shooed them away. “Get on — and make sure he behaves.”
Finn took the gloved hand she extended to him without prompting, and with the other, she tipped her hat to the coppers. “Of course. Have a good evening, officers.”
The pair offered no farewell of their own, and so Brigid coaxed Finn alongside her, his hand gripped in hers. Their eyes felt heavy on her back, and she fought every instinct to turn, to cross the street, to speed up. They made it a full block before she let Finn pull away from her with a disgruntled sigh.
“You know better than to fight coppers, Finn,” she said, attempting to hide a smile that he might mistake as approval.
He snorted, still smarting from the copper’s reprimand in the way only a proud ten year old could. “They should know better than to — ”
“They weren’t ours,” Brigid interrupted him, recalling their nameplates. “I look at the payroll every week. They aren’t on it.”
Taking in the information, Finn reached up to straighten his cap. It was still without the trademark razor blades that would have revealed him instantly to the coppers. “Then you should be careful. They don’t usually patrol down this way.”
This time, she couldn’t stop her smile. “You’re right, they don’t. Have you heard why they might be out?”
He brightened. “Arthur’s called a family meeting — that’s why I was coming your way in the first place! Reckon he might know something.”
“Well, then, we better get on,” she said as she picked up her pace, and Finn skipped to keep up with her.
They passed by the clanging Austen, the ringing B.S.A., and finally were in sight of Watery Lane, where every lamp was lit in the windows of Number Six. A fat, hot raindrop landed on her cheek, and Brigid urged Finn ahead of her to the front door, which he swung open with little fanfare.
Though he didn’t stop to relieve himself of his coat and cap, Brigid paused to hang hers neatly on the rack, followed by her hat, its navy velvet spotted with rain. No hook was bare — Polly’s fur and Ada’s silk joined a whole shop’s worth of black woolen coats, and so she tucked it over the pressed one she knew to be Tommy’s.
Voices and heavy footfalls echoed throughout the house, but as she crossed the dim parlor to the kitchen, Brigid found the table empty, its chairs kicked back haphazardly. Three ham sandwich halves left amid the crumbs on a burnished silver platter were all that remained of supper, but she was nonetheless grateful.
“Finn, bugger off,” Arthur was scolding from the betting shop, his voice slurred around a flask.
Brigid swept the sandwiches onto a china plate from the cupboard, and she couldn’t help but laugh as she passed Finn on her way into the smoky betting shop, the put-out boy following his brother’s command with a practiced sigh. The shop, filled to the brim with black-clad Peaky Blinders, stretched across the main floors of Numbers Four and Five Watery Lane, haphazard, cramped, and dim. It was littered with old betting slips and cuttings from the Birmingham Evening Dispatch, rickety chairs and smudged crystal ashtrays — and all of it, no matter how hard Brigid tried, remained covered in a thin layer of chalk dust.
“Shut the door.” Polly sat at the table they had gathered around, dignified, and held her magnifying glass to the evening paper in front of her without sparing a glance.
“Not fair,” Finn whined.
But Brigid did as she was told, balancing the plate in one hand as she nudged the dark green, chipped double doors with her hip. Through the crack, she winked at Finn, careful to school her face before turning to the rest of the Shelbys and Peaky boys.
Her eyes came first, as they always did, to Tommy, leaned forward, hands braced atop the back of the only empty chair at the table. He stood tall between Polly and Ada, who was becoming an unreliable attendee, her laced ivory gown a sharp contrast to the harshly tailored suits of her brothers and the exposed brick walls.
When Brigid paused, shifting in front of the door, Tommy met her eyes.
He pulled out the chair, and the scratch against the floorboards cut through the quiet. “Now that we’re all here — Arthur?”
Brigid hurried forward, slipped between Lovelock and one of his sons, and took her seat as Arthur cleared his throat. Tommy pushed her chair in, ever the gentlemen, but was careful to not touch her as he drew his hands away. When she turned over her shoulder to whisper her gratitude, he had already leaned against an exposed, weight-bearing wooden beam, the gas lamplight flickering in the hollows of his cheekbones. He inclined his head only briefly, but a warmth welled in Brigid’s chest nonetheless.
It was good to know that even with the men back from war, she was still considered to be family, to be an integral part of the Shelby business.
“Arthur?” Tommy’s voice held more finality this time, as if it were a final warning. Though Arthur, as the eldest brother and the one who had called the meeting, held authority, these days it only ever seemed to be with Tommy’s permission.
“Right,” Arthur said, dropping his tin flask to the table with the finality of a judge’s gavel. “I’ve called this family meeting because I’ve got some very important news. Scudboat and Lovelock got back from Belfast last night — they were buying a stallion to cover their mares.”
Through a bite of her first ham sandwich, Brigid smiled at Scudboat. At her behest, he had checked in on her Belfast family and relayed first thing that morning that they were in good health. After the rough months they had been through, it was nice to know that the positive sentiment Auntie Ellen had implied in her letter seemed to be the truth.
Scudboat’s dark eyes met hers, and he winked.
“They were in a pub on the Shankhill Road yesterday,” Arthur continued. He moved forward, collecting a stack of leaflets tossed on the table in front of him. “And in that pub, there was a copper handing out these.”
Arthur handed the leaflets to Lovelock, who began to pass them around to all those assembled. Brigid knew from experience that approximately a third of the men couldn’t read, but they each took one nonetheless, unwilling to contradict Arthur.
John, ever impatient, ripped Ada’s from her hands to observe it with furrowed brows. As Brigid acquired one of her own and began to skim, he recited the bolded text at the top. “If you’re over five feet and can fight, come to Birmingham.”
“They’re recruiting Protestant Irishmen to come over here as Specials.”
Arthur had crossed his arms and taken a deep breath, his voice booming with revelation, echoing around in the crowded front room of the shop, but Brigid’s focus was sharp on the notice in front of her. Something like dread, like familiarity, twisted in her stomach. As she smoothed the leaflet down beside her plate, the paper rustled under her shaking hands.
“To do what?” Ada interjected, soft and confused, for once breaking her own, new-found rule about staying out of Peaky business.
Her heart racing, and before Arthur or any of the others could answer, the words tumbled out, heavy on her tongue. “To clean up the city.”
Brother, we are at a loss. We don’t know where to turn or what to do, her Auntie Ellen had written.
The letter had failed to make it to her father in France, so the Army instead forwarded to his Birmingham address. Brigid had opened it with shaking fingers, sick with dread, fearing that the moment had finally come — Jimmy or Jack had been drafted, she was sure.
Instead, the letter read, We haven’t seen Joseph in three weeks, and the police won’t even open a file! That damned Chief Inspector Campbell says he probably ran off, or is drunk in a ditch somewhere, but Joe would never do that. These policemen just don’t trust honest Catholics anymore…
But Arthur bristled as if she had stolen his thunder, his hazy eyes focusing on her with something like jealousy. “And how do you know so bloody much?”
Her cousin had been nineteen at the time, quick to laugh and quicker to talk, and he never did turn back up.
As she came to, a tickle ran down Brigid’s spine and raised the hairs on her neck. She felt as if she were being watched, and she was, of course — the floor creaked under Tommy as he shifted his weight.
“Because he’s been cleaning the I.R.A. out of Belfast for years.” She steadied her trembling fingers around the damp, icy glass of the stout John had poured her, before continuing. “And he killed my cousin while he was there.”
Chapter 2: ii.
an admin thing: right now through the end of november, posts will be every other week. that's because this is going to be my nanowrimo project this year! i'm so excited, since this will be the first time i've attempted nano with fanfic - if you have any tips, leave them below! after november, i hope to get to a weekly update, since i should have many more words to play with :)
so excited to share this next chapter with y'all - i hope you like it! all of the comments and kudos on the first have just thrilled me, so please tell me what you think!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
After Brigid’s admission, silence fell in the shop that so rarely welcomed it, leaving Polly’s soft exhale and the shuffling of Finn’s feet on the other side of the double doors audible. Just that morning, Scudboat had told Brigid that her Belfast family looked well when he dropped in, but the connection left her feeling cold despite the warm, dusty air.
Inspector Campbell’s name on the leaflet seemed too eerie to be a coincidence.
John swore, his boots falling heavy onto the floor. “Your cousin was I.R.A.?”
“No,” she snapped, her mind jumbled with memories of her younger cousin, his bright red hair and infectious grin. She had first known him as a boy, as old as Tommy had been the first time she bloodied her knees on the Small Heath cobblestones and he’d helped her up with a strong hand.
“Joe was — young and stupid. He never knew when to shut his mouth, but he wasn’t I.R.A.” Seeking Tommy’s eyes, she turned. “Why are they sending the Inspector to Birmingham?”
She hoped that he would have the answers, that he could say something to immediately dissuade her fears. But his eyes were guarded, the ice there muddled and foggy. He watched her carefully and weighed his words even more so.
“There’s been all these bloody strikes at the B.S.A. and the Austen Works lately, and now the papers are talking about sedition and revolution.” He may have projected confidence, but his eyes belied his certain tone to her as he addressed the family at large. “I reckon it’s the communists he’s after.”
“So this copper,” Polly said, lowering her magnifying glass to level Tommy with a weighted stare, “he’s gonna leave us alone, right?”
“Most of the Irish in Green Lanes left Belfast to get away from him.” Without intending to, she had once again drawn the attention back to herself, and Polly’s dark eyes shone like coins in the lamplight. “Catholics who cross him in the night disappear, and they never seem to turn back up.”
Brigid sounded bitter even to her own ears, and she again tried to drink the taste of bile out of her mouth. The stout was heady, churning in her empty stomach, and left her neck and cheeks burning in the boiling, cramped shop.
“Well, we ain’t IRA — we fought for the bloody king.” His voice muffled around his toothpick, John leaned forward, elbows to his knees, and looked a true gangster with his razored cap low over his eyes. “And anyway, we’re Peaky Blinders. We’re not scared of coppers — ”
Arthur nodded, mustache bristling. “Right — ”
“If they come for us, we’ll cut ‘em a smile each.”
“The coppers in Belfast don’t care whether you fought for the king,” Brigid snapped at him, her beer sloshing dangerously close to Polly’s typewriter as she slammed it down.
An agitation had risen in her chest, heart clamoring heavy against her ribcage, and she found herself, not for the first time, frustrated with the soldiers who had replaced the brothers she had loved so much. They’d always been reckless. They’d always had chips on their shoulders and targets on their backs.
But they had never been stupid.
She continued, her breath rattling in her ears. “Those Proddy bastards cut first, and they cut deep.”
Many of the men with whom her father drank in the Black Swan Inn had sons or nephews, cousins or brothers, who had gone missing in Belfast. He would come home with stories — bodies washed up in the river, blood left on the pavement, wailing widows and mournful mothers left in the wake — and sigh into his evening tea as he tightened the laces of his work boots. There’s no more room for republicans in Ireland, he’d said once. This Inspector is making that quite clear.
She had pricked herself over her mending, thankful that the dark wool in her hands would mask it. Then it’s a good thing we’re not republicans.
“Keep talking like that and we’ll pass quite well for I.R.A., thank you.” Polly’s voice was snide as she pushed Brigid’s beer across the table and away from her paper.
But the humor was lost on Brigid. Cheeks burning, she chewed on the inside of her lip to prevent herself from saying any more.
They had been too careless since the men had returned, swaggering around town and playing fast with money and whiskey, cutting a few too many people. It wouldn’t matter how many coppers Tommy had on the payroll once Campbell started sniffing — the Cut was black enough to hide any bodies he dumped there.
“Arthur, is that it?” The sound of his boots startled Brigid out of her reverie as Tommy took a step forward into her line of vision, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
Though he had been handed back the meeting’s authority, Arthur paused. His eyes slid from Tommy, down to Brigid herself, and finally over to the matriarch of the family. “What d’you think, Aunt Pol?”
“This family does everything open,” she said. “You have nothing else to say to this meeting, Thomas?”
Pursing his lips, Tommy gave a single shake of his head. “No. Nothing that’s women’s business.”
Brigid couldn't hold in her dark laugh. Nearly five years had passed, and between Polly, Ada, Martha, and herself, they’d kept the doors open, the coins flowing, and food on the table of Number Six.
“This whole bloody enterprise was women’s business while you boys were away at war.” Polly raised her brows in a challenge, and the edge of control that she’d begun to cede to her nephews reared its fierce head once more. “What’s changed?”
Shaking his head, Tommy lifted a cigarette to his lips. “We came back.”
Yes, they came back to Small Heath — Brigid had wept hot tears on the train platform when she met them, had never felt a greater anxious, shuddering relief in her life.
But what had followed them here?
To calm her nerves, Brigid busied herself at the Shelbys’ looted upright piano, plucking out an old, mournful Irish tune. It was one her mother had taught her, a simple melody in a simple key, and one of the first Brigid could remember learning. It was meant as a duet — she’d first practiced it with Patrick fidgeting by her side. At six, Brigid had wanted nothing more than to please her mother despite her unrhythmic fingers, and at ten, Patrick, the truly intuitive player of the family, had wanted nothing more than to bolt.
And so when she reached the point where the partner was meant to join, she looped back to the beginning, and if anyone noticed, they didn’t mention it.
The familiar rhythm, though it lulled her into a sort of trance, did little to slow her thoughts. Inspector Campbell was coming to Birmingham, and they were none the wiser as to why. Brigid was inclined to believe Polly and her suggestive tone — Tommy certainly knew more than he was making public. And he might have claimed it was not women’s business, but he had not shared the information with his brothers either, if Arthur’s agitation was anything to go by. He’d been distant lately, captured by his thoughts in a way that had become, blessedly, less common since he’d opened up to her that foggy morning by the Cut —
“You should get home. James is due in soon.”
Brigid startled, and the ivory keys plunked discordantly under her fingers.
Behind her, Tommy leaned against the doorjamb, the cut of him dark and tailored against the soft orange light of the parlor, his arms crossed as he considered her. She could never grasp how he managed to look as fresh at the end of the day as he did in the morning — after a long morning pushing coins in the betting shop and an even longer evening pricking her fingers and counting threads, Brigid felt heavy and unkempt, her hair sagging with pins and the intermittent rain.
Before she could respond, the grandfather clock tolled the late hour. “Suppose so,” she finally said, a deep sigh escaping her lips. Her back and knees protesting, she rose from the piano.
He followed her like a black shadow to the front entry, helping her into her coat without prompting. These days, he rarely walked her home — she was lucky if he saw her to the door, and so she paused, expecting him to take his leave. Her throat was tight, uncertain, a tension making its home in the slopes of her shoulders.
But he donned his own coat, tucked his cap into place, and proffered his arm. She flushed, folding herself close into his side.
Watery Lane welcomed them with a short gust of wind that ruffled the ermine at her cheeks. The cobblestones shone black in the night, gleaming like oil on water, and she had to navigate carefully to keep up with him and avoid tripping. The street was thankfully empty of any glinting badges or curious eyes, of an imposing Irishman with the devil in his soul.
Glancing up at Tommy, Brigid hoped to find a hint of what churned underneath the impassive surface of his face — instead, she found it still enough to reflect her worries back to her. The uneasy silence skulking between them was as thick as the factory smoke, and Brigid knew not how to cut it.
Instead, Auntie Ellen’s letter looped through her mind — Campbell’s hatred republicans and Catholics, his self-righteousness, his blatant lack of care for her family’s pain. How could Tommy hope to protect them from a man who worked and lurked in darkness? What reason would the Inspector pick to target the Shelbys — the betting and patronage? Polly’s rosaries and Black Madonna locket? The booze and cigarettes? The razors in their caps?
As if he could read her troubled thoughts, Tommy slowed down, pulling her closer to the black-brick homes and out of the moonlit street. “What else do you know of this Inspector?” he said, his voice quiet. “What of your cousin?”
Brigid swallowed the hard lump in her throat, the cold night air burning her lungs. Of course, he didn’t know. Tommy had been in France for over two years by the time Ellen’s fateful letter ended up on her doorstep in Small Heath. Are you mad? Polly had caught her drafting a tearful note to her father with the news, and the older woman’s fingernails had dug maroon half-moons into the skin of her wrist. You write a letter claiming the Chief Inspector murdered your cousin and the British Army’ll string you up like a puppet.
“Three of Joe’s mates saw him lifted by coppers the night he disappeared, but the Inspector wouldn’t open an official report — said he must have run off. Then one of them went missing too, and he never turned up either.” Brigid met Tommy’s pale eyes and found him watching her carefully. “That seems to have been his method — snatching men up on their way home from pubs, and only the Lord knows what he did with them then. Ellen says he’s cruel.”
As if of its own accord, her hand rose to cross herself. The Shelby brothers might have lost their reverence in France, and Polly might have held more faith in ghosts and dreams, but Brigid had learned her prayers at Eleanor Murphy’s elbow, had cut her knobbly knees on the marbled floor of St. Michael’s from the time she could walk, and could only hope that her cousin, wherever he was, was resting in peace.
Tommy nodded, and his exhale clouded the air in front of him. “And you’re sure your cousin wasn’t I.R.A.?”
“Of course, I am!” She scoffed and pulled away, letting the cold February air chase away the ghost of him against her. Crossing her arms over her chest, Brigid determined to keep herself warm. “He was only nineteen, and Ellen keeps her boys on a short lead. He — ” She paused, pursing her lips. “Joe always talked big, but he was harmless.”
Despite her visible irritation, Tommy wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tugged her close to him once more. It was insistent, almost careless, like when they used to stumble together out of the Garrison, whiskey drunk and flushed hot from dancing, and he didn’t want to admit that he needed her help to stay standing. Now, his walk was steady, his boots clicking against the cobblestones, and it was Brigid who rested against him.
“I’ll tell the boys to be careful at night.”
She didn’t want to fight him. He meant well, even if the war had left him uncouth, and the surest cure to the acrid taste of fear in her mouth had always been his lips.
Brigid tucked her nose into the warm curve of his throat, feeling his Adam’s apple bob with a swallow. “You said he wouldn’t bother us.”
Tommy’s grip tightened as they slowed to a stop. They had reached her home — smoke curled from its chimney, and though the curtains were drawn, the oil lamp still burned in the front window. She sighed, not yet ready to depart.
“You said he doesn’t care whether we’re I.R.A. or not.”
His retort brought a laugh to her lips, and she muffled it by pressing them to the warm slope of his neck. The low hum in his throat vibrated against her lips, his cold hand nudging her up to meet his mouth. Despite the empty street, she felt watched as she curled her fingers into the front of his coat.
Her lips had barely parted underneath his before he broke away. “Do you still have your switchblade?”
Heat rose to her cheeks at the mention of the slim, varnished weapon. It hadn’t turned up in her bag in weeks, perhaps not since she had pulled it on him the night he appeared like the crack of a gunshot on the doorstep of Thompson’s to accompany her home. Frowning, Brigid backed away so that she had full access to her bag and its seemingly endless contents, and Tommy watched, unimpressed.
After a long moment, Brigid finally emerged victorious, presenting the blade on her open palm, only to find that he had pulled out a similar one from his coat. “Put that away,” she swore, flicking her own open to test and then snapping it closed. “I’ve got it.”
Rolling his eyes, he slipped the replacement blade back into his coat. “Keep that on you — not in your bag. Where you can get to it before someone can get to you.”
“I know how to take care of myself, Thomas — ”
“Aye, you do,” he said, too soft in the quiet evening, his eyes bright and on her. His broad hands came to her slim waist, thumbs resting under her ribcage. “But there are new coppers coming into town, and they’re all going to be interested in you when they see you sneaking home from my bed.”
Ignoring her frown, he tugged her close again, the space between them just wide enough for a breath. When she met his eyes, Brigid could see he did not mean it as a jape, even if it brought an embarrassed heat to her face. “Please, Bridie — be careful.”
The earnestness of it weighed heavily on her chest, welled up emotions in her throat that were almost too big to speak. A dark shadow seemed to loom behind him in the night, creeping ever closer.
“Tommy,” she whispered, her hands at his lapels, “love, you must be careful, too. Campbell won’t be bought, or bargained with.”
He shook his head, lashes fluttering on his high cheeks as he cast his gaze down. “There’s no reason to think we’ll need to — ”
“Don’t lie — you’re always thinking.” She leveled him with a hard stare, just as he had her not moments before. “These Irish coppers… Shall I write to Ellen? She could tell us more about him, about what to expect.”
“But I could help — ”
“I don’t need your help.” And before the hot irritation could spill from her lips, he continued, his knuckle nudging her chin. “I need you to stay safe.”
Brigid gaped just once before her lips pursed, something like embarrassment slinking down her spine, causing her to duck her head.
He had never done anything but keep her safe — even when she’d been naive and too brash for her own good, when she would sneak away from her mother in skirts with fallen hems that she had dreaded to mend to follow him and Patrick. Tommy had always been the one to catch her by the arm before any fighting broke out, to send her home with a wink and a promise to not tell her mum.
He would keep them safe.
“I promise I won’t meddle,” she whispered into his mouth, the words clumsy. “But please, don’t shut me out. I can’t stand it — ”
When Tommy met her lips in another kiss, she slipped her cold fingers through his coat, fisting into the warm wool of his vest, pressing against the hard planes of his chest. Brigid pulled him flush against her and got more than she bargained for — surefooted Tommy slipped on a slick cobblestone, forced to catch himself on the wall of the house behind her. She couldn’t help but laugh into his open-mouthed kiss, couldn’t bring herself to regret it now that every inch of him was flush against her. His beating heart pounding against her own, he let his hand wander down the small of her back. The knee that slipped between her legs drove a delicious warmth up her neck and to her cheeks, and blood rushed in her ears, keeping time with the clanging factories in the distance. Her lip stung where he bit it, her hair catching on the brick behind her.
But he pulled away, placating her with chaste kisses to the corner of her mouth, her cheekbone, her temple, while she gasped into his throat, her skin burning where he still held her against him.
They stayed close until their breathing had slowed, until the acute desire in her belly began to fade, and then Brigid said, “Should I come over later?”
“No,” he breathed, barely audible. “I’ve business tonight.”
Pouting, she turned her face up to his, hopeful that he would catch her swollen lips in another kiss. “No good business happens after midnight, Tommy Shelby.”
He gave in, just for a moment, and responded against her mouth. “Which is why you should stay safe at da’s.”
Brigid finally managed to extract herself from him, taking a full step back and a full breath into her lungs as she neatened her hair, straightened her blouse. She tugged her coat tight around her shoulders, hoping to hide the flush that still burned on her neck, and bid him goodbye with a squeeze to his hand. “You stay safe as well.”
Quickly, he brought their joined hands to his lips to kiss the cold platinum of the ring on her finger, and then, tracing a cigarette across the swollen line of his bottom lip, Tommy waited until she slipped inside. Brigid paused on the other side of the latched door, resting her heated forehead against the cool wood, butterflies and something much darker dueling in her belly.
She wanted to believe that they would be safe.
She wanted to help.
She wanted to believe him.
When the damp wind swept Brigid inside Number Six Watery Lane, John’s four children nearly toppled her over in the front door, racing barefoot through the parlor, their cold-chapped cheeks flushed from exertion.
“Oi!” Brigid braced against the door, slamming it behind her, and pulled off her cap to shake it after them. “Be careful. Aunt Polly has lots of delicate things.”
The only one to acknowledge her was Little John, turning on unsteady feet to flash her a wide grin over his shoulder before disappearing into the kitchen. She shook her head, noting that Tommy’s coat was missing from the rack — did he have early business as well, or had last night carried into the morning?
Sighing, she made to follow the children across the parlor, her bones heavier than usual. When the sun finally peaked over the back garden wall that morning, she had realized she couldn’t recall sleeping — she’d traced every crack and stain in the plaster ceiling, watching the stretch of shadows across the windowsill, and behind her eyelids, she had seen the loop of the Inspector’s signature at the bottom of Arthur’s leaflet.
Polly sat at the kitchen table, holding her teacup steady in its saucer as the children rumbled by, and Brigid helped herself to the pot resting at the center of the table.
“Early morning?” The strong, herbal steam rose to her face, and for a wink of time she felt invigorated until the fatigue crept in once more.
“Too early,” Polly drawled.
“Would you like help cooking something up for the kids?”
But Polly scoffed, waving a hand to the sideboard covered in crumbs and the remains of last week’s bread. “They have already raided the pantry to their satisfaction.”
Slurping at her tea, Brigid turned to sweep the crumbs into the sink basin. She tied up the remains of the hard loaf of brown bread in a tea cloth, a frown twisting her face. Did they not have food in the house? Not a week had passed since her last visit to Number Three, laden with fresh cracked bread; beets and fat onions and potatoes and a full head of cabbage; a cut of salted ham she’d had to carefully weigh before passing coins across the counter to the butcher.
“I’ll stop by the market on my way home.” She sighed, her shoulders already sagging with the weight of a phantom basket.
Polly’s dark, knowing eyes met hers in a level stare over her teacup. “It is not your responsibility to feed John’s children.”
“Someone has to do it.”
“Their father should do it.”
Polly’s gaze, as it was wont to do, crept down Brigid’s spine, and Brigid found that she could not make her heavy tongue explain herself, instead choosing to hide her frown behind another sip of tea.
Martha should have done it, but her dear friend was dead and cold in the ground, and Brigid would not, could not, let the children starve. Her pride was not worth that. Polly’s pride, on the other hand, was a three-headed beast, and two would grow back where one was chopped —
The tension swept out of the room like a hard exhale, and Brigid broke Polly’s stare to find Katie peering into the kitchen from the betting shop’s doors. Through them, John was already crouched in front of the board scratching out the day’s odds in the otherwise quiet shop, and the early morning sunlight shone on his leather boots.
“Bridie, could you fix my plaits?” The girl came forward, a heavy sheet of nut-brown hair loose over her shoulder. “The baby pulled out my ribbon.”
Brigid pulled out a chair at the table. “Come here, sweet girl.”
Katie skipped forward, sitting prim and rod-straight so that Brigid could sink her fingers into her hair, finding snarls at the base of her neck. Gently, she began to work through them and pulled the other plait loose, letting all of Katie’s long hair fall free.
“Who plaited your hair this morning, love?”
Instead of responding, Brigid let her goddaughter’s excited answer echo in the silence, meeting Polly’s gaze over Katie’s head — there was no reason for a seven-year-old to be tasked with dressing her younger sister for the day.
The older woman took a measured sip of her tea.
Casting her eyes downward, Brigid let the rhythm in her fingers take over, admiring the soft honey hues in the thick strands. Martha’s hair had been brown for as long as she had known her — and they’d met in primary school, after all, Mulligan and Murphy placed beside one another at a scratched, rickety desk — but her hair had shone golden on her wedding day under the hot summer sun. No one had commented, of course, on the gentle swell of her belly under the dropped waist of her ivory tea dress, but Brigid had been there when John proposed, had been cradling her best friend against her as she wept and trembled, before John burst through the door and promised to marry her, to be there, to be the kind of father he’d never had.
Brigid’s heart had felt fit to burst that day, but in the dim morning light of Number Six’s kitchen, her heart hurt for a very different reason. The dull, throbbing pain settled in her fatigued muscles. John might have returned home from war and moved his children back into the house he had shared with Martha, but he’d done little else to father his children since.
When he strode into the room, Brigid continued to methodically twist Katie’s hair into a neat plait, the same way her mother had taught her, the same way she used to practice on Martha, and was quite sure that if she looked at him, she would say something too wretched to ever retract.
“Bridie — need you to take this down to the Garrison.”
A fat, sealed envelope shook at the edge of her vision, and truly, she had always been too curious for her own good. Looking up, she regarded the yellowed parchment with raised brows, her lips pursed. It undoubtedly held a stack of banknotes, but when had any of them been authorized to hand out money from the betting shop’s safe without a family vote?
“May I ask why?”
When had John begun to tell her what to do?
They made eye contact just briefly, John’s Shelby blue eyes trailing down to her hands in his daughter’s hair. He appeared to swallow, working at the toothpick propped between his lips.
“Danny Whizz-Bang’s busted up the Garrison again. Tommy told ‘em to send us the bill,” he finally said. He tossed the envelope onto the table in front of her, where it landed with a hefty thunk.
Agitation rose hot in her chest, spreading like the bloom of blood from a wound. She wanted to tell him that she wasn’t his runner; that she was meant to be the one keeping track of the money, where it came from and where it went; that the odds he’d been scratching out on the chalkboard weren’t level —
Brigid held a soft spot in her heart for the older man. She’d spent close to a month caring for him as he convalesced in the Birmingham veterans’ hospital after his brush with death at the Somme, after Tommy had hauled them both out from underneath ten tonnes of French dirt, bleeding and caked in mud, when an artillery shell set off the sappers’ bombs before they could escape the tunnel. According to the official record, that was when they’d been shot — clean through, both of them. But where Tommy had convalesced in Paris and been sent back to the front the moment he could level a rifle, it had quickly become clear that something had rattled Danny’s brains.
Brigid swallowed a retort and focused on twisting Katie’s hair in the appropriate direction, untangling the loose ends that had knotted. “I’ll take it when I’m done plaiting your daughter’s hair.”
She shot him a quick look and found him regarding her carefully, and then, without responding, John turned back to the betting shop. She watched him go, her practiced hands tying off Katie’s plait with a velvet emerald ribbon.
“All done.” Brigid pressed a kiss to the crown of the girl’s head and barely managed to pull away before Katie hopped up, a bright thank you on her lips, and ran off to join her siblings in the parlor.
With her left the easy silence, and in its place, tension festered. Brigid slumped forward over the chair to reach her tea, and Polly finally broke the quiet with a slurp of her own.
“You don’t have to listen to him, you know.”
Heaving a deep sigh, Brigid collected the envelope, quickly thumbing through the bills. “Forty pounds, ten shillings.”
John would not have remembered to mark it in the ledger, and so Polly, who knew this as well as she, made a quick note in the margin of her paper.
Nevertheless, Brigid could feel her eyes prickling at her skin, searching, judging. She avoided the stare as she prepared to leave — placing the teacup in the sink basin, slipping the envelope into her skirt pocket, adjusting the neat tuck of her blouse. But when she stepped around Polly’s chair, the older woman’s thin, spindly fingers gripped Brigid’s wrist.
“I meant what I said.”
Brigid did not need that clarification, for Polly rarely said things she didn’t mean. After losing her children, after coming home to Small Heath to care for her brother’s, after years of scrimping and saving and scrapping, she had also learned when to put herself first.
But Brigid had learned quite young that she was better off taking care of others, and she had lost so much — her mother, Martha, and Patrick had taken almost her entire heart with them to their graves — that she decided God would have the rip the rest of them right out of her hands if he wanted them so badly.
Taking one last sip of her tea, she replied, “And I meant what I said — someone has to do it.”
Polly snorted, releasing Brigid’s wrist, and returned to her paper.
Outside, the streets had come alive, bustling with women laden with market baskets, washing baskets, and children. Brigid dodged a leashed dog leading an excited boy and wrapped a hand around the strap of her purse, cognizant of the hefty sum now sitting at the bottom of her bag, which felt heavier than ever.
Her job was to count the money, not to deliver it, and yet here she was. Lips turning into a frown, she kept her head down as she made her way down to Garrison Lane. Perhaps she and Polly had been naive to not acknowledge their wartime control of the business had vanished the moment that Army train pulled into Birmingham’s railway station. Not one of the brothers thought to consult either of them before pulling forty pounds, ten shillings from the safe, and the reality of it churned in her stomach, reminding her that women weren’t supposed to be in charge; that she could not, nonetheless, help the affront she felt.
Yet, approaching the Garrison, Brigid found that the banknotes in her bag were well-deserved. Broken chairs and the splinters of a pub table had been hauled to the curb outside, joining a bin of shattered liquor bottles and pint glasses. Danny’s episodes were becoming more frequent, and she knew that people had started to whisper about the need to commit him, but his wife Rose, like Brigid herself, kept hoping that the old Danny Owen would emerge again one day.
Inside the Garrison proper, the lamps were still snuffed, the oaken floors and leather booths lit only by the sunlight sneaking in through the foggy windows. She found a wide, empty berth in the front of the pub where the brunt of Danny’s tear had been felt, and though Harry had swept the broken glass from the floor, he’d yet to tackle the splintered dent in the front of the bar.
“Hello?” she called, peering behind the empty bar, only half stocked for the day. “Harry?”
There was a long moment of no response, though Brigid heard shuffling and the clinking of glass bottles from the back room. She called out again, and this time, a high, almost sweet voice that definitely didn’t belong to Harry responded.
“We’re closed.” It was a woman, voice lilting with the tenor of her family’s island. “Come back at noon.”
A beautiful woman, golden ringlets arranged delicately around her slim face, appeared through the open doorway, a crate of Irish in hand, and she paused when her gaze met Brigid’s.
“Dia duit.” Brigid smiled, remembering her courtesies. “I don’t think we’ve met?”
But the woman only moved forward to heave the tinkling crate up onto the bar top, regarding Brigid with poorly concealed suspicion as she did. Brigid fixed her smile, unsure herself of what to make of the newcomer — for she must have been new to Small Heath to not recognize Brigid, for Brigid to not recognize her after a lifetime of running up and down the muddy streets.
The delicate blouse the woman smoothed into her long grey skirt was embroidered in fine bright colors not often seen in this part of Birmingham, hanging around her waist in neat, tailored lines. Brigid was instantly reminded of the fine tulle dresses and soft, belted cotton tunics that Thompson’s brought in, out-of-season cast-offs from the manufacturing wealthy in the heart of Birmingham, and the pale, lovely girls with rouged cheeks who had once laughed at her and Tommy before the war, the one time they’d ventured to a candle-lit downtown club in their Small Heath finest.
The woman held out a hand across the bar. “Dia is Muire duit.” Though her accent was true, the words seemed unpracticed on her pink lips. “I’m Grace — Harry’s new barmaid.”
“Pleasure to meet you. I’m Brigid,” she said, taking Grace’s smooth hand in her own. “Are you kin? I’ve heard Harry’s mother was from Galway.”
Reserved, she said, “Not kin, no — just in need of work.”
She began to unload the whiskey, lining it up neatly beside a new stock of Scotch, her movements meticulous. Grace’s deflection was smooth enough, her voice just light enough, that Brigid sensed she should not press for more information. Instead, the barmaid continued. “What about you — you sound English, but you speak Irish?”
“I was born here, but my parents are from Belfast.” Brigid remembered the way her mother would always slip into Irish when irritated, or when she and Brigid’s father would sit late at night by the fire with a shared ginger beer, whispering to avoid waking up Brigid and Patrick. “Mum didn’t want us to forget where we came from, so she tried to teach us — but I was only a half-decent student.”
“It’s becoming less common in the Northern counties,” Grace said, tucking the now-empty crate underneath the bar. “Never learned myself.”
Brigid picked up enough of her mother’s greetings and prayers, her father’s curses and toasts, to hold her own in Irish, but in truth, she’d always preferred to mimic Martha’s rhythmic Brummie accent, eager to fit in with her classmates and the distinctly English neighborhood children.
But now that her mother was long gone, speaking her language was just one of many small ways Brigid tried to stay close to her. “Perhaps I could teach you, though I’ll warn you — I mostly know prayers and curses.”
They shared a laugh, and Grace shrugged, now using a fresh rag to dry off the dripping pint glasses sitting on the back of the bar. “Both are good things to know.”
“Speaking of Harry, though, is he here?”
“No, he’ll be out until we open.” Behind her, the glass bottles glistened in the dim sunlight filtering in from the high windows, casting her in an odd, almost angelic light. “Can I take a message?”
“If you could tell him I have a delivery from Thomas, that would be perfect.” Brigid readjusted her hat to step back out into the cold. “I’ll bring it back ‘round when he’s in.”
As innocent as Grace looked, Brigid had never been a fool — she knew better than to leave an envelope of cash with someone she had just met. Grace would have to learn that trust was not given lightly in Small Heath.
“Does Thomas have a surname?” Grace’s slim brow raised in a question — it would have outed her as a newcomer immediately, even if her accent had not.
“There’s only one Thomas who brings Harry deliveries.”
Inclining her head with a smile, Brigid took a step back. “It was lovely to meet you, Grace.”
But in response, Grace pulled two whiskey tumblers from below the bar, clinking together in her hands as she settled them in front of her. “Would you like a drink while I restock? These Englishmen are too stern.”
“That they are.” Brigid laughed, recalling John’s unfeeling swagger, Tommy’s steel-cold countenance. “And I’ve gone and become affianced to one!”
Brigid’s smile softened as she turned the ring on her finger, as familiar a gesture as any other. “The one and only.” She considered Grace’s smooth expression, the blue eyes that had observed her fidgeting. “I’ll tell you about him when I next see you.”
“Are you sure you won’t stay? I’d be grateful for more cheerful company.” Grace pushed a tumbler in her direction, even as Brigid shook her head. “We could start our lessons.”
Brigid considered her proposition and the cloudy old crystal, tilting her head just so.
The banknotes were heavy in her bag, it was too early for a drink, and the betting shop was no doubt now crawling with out-of-work veterans and fatigued third-shift workers placing their bets for Kempton. Something in Grace’s insistence crawled up Brigid’s neck, raising the soft hairs there, and so she took a step backward, moving closer to the door.
“I need to get to an appointment, unfortunately, but I’m sure we’ll meet again.” Brigid gave Grace a conciliatory smile. “That’s a beautiful blouse, by the way — the stitching is immaculate.”
“Oh, thank you,” Grace called, glancing down at the embroidery on her collar. “I’ll see you.”
Brigid waved, turning to exit the pub through the milky glass doors, accompanied by clinking crystal once more as Grace settled the tumblers underneath the bar.
Back in the hazy Small Heath sun, she reflected that she might like to know Grace the Barmaid better, even if her blouse’s stitching was too fine for a poor Small Heath barmaid.
Dia duit = Hello / God be with you
Dia is Muire duit = Hello back / God and Mary be with you
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Chapter 3: iii.
me, posting earlier than i said i would because i love writing this story? it's more likely than you would think.
i don't really believe in filler since all scenes should serve a purpose, but this is definitely 6k words of Fluff! because i love Fluff! and this is fanfic. pls love it.
(friendly reminder that this fic is rated M for mature.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“You’ll fatten her up.”
When Brigid twisted around, her heart jumping to somewhere in her throat, it was to find Tommy at the other end of the barn, hands tucked into his coat pockets, cap pulled low. The morning had been as quiet as it ever was in Small Heath, the sun stalled below the horizon — that he managed to sneak into Charlie’s ramshackle, water-logged barn without raising alarm impressed her.
She turned back to the horse stall, running a gentle hand down the flaxen nose of the mare stabled there. Ginger snorted, tossing her mane, and the hard exhale curled upward in the dimly lit, chilled barn to join the slow snores of the other snoozing horses.
“I want her to like me.” She held out the sugar cube in her palm to the mare.
As Tommy approached, old hay and rushes crunched under his feet. He paused, close enough that Brigid could feel the warmth of him. The early morning, not yet thawed, had flushed his cheeks, even though the dew on the weeds outside promised a warmer day than they had had in weeks.
“She already does.” Tommy propped a cigarette in his mouth, striking a match along the side of the tin, and the spark caused Ginger to stomp her hooves. “Curly’s the only other person she doesn’t nip.”
When he reached out to pat Ginger’s neck, the horse, offended, tossed her mane again. Brigid proffered a second sugar cube to her bared teeth — just as she had predicted, Ginger calmed and munched on her treat.
A smile curled on her lips, and she raised her brows at him as if relaying a secret. “Perhaps other people don’t give her enough sugar.”
He couldn’t properly smile as he took a drag of his cigarette, but she thought that his steel eyes sparkled.
Brigid remained bemused that the notoriously difficult mare had taken a liking to her given that she herself was not particularly inclined to horses. She’d been eleven when she skipped rope into one’s path and startled it into bucking its rider from the saddle. The crack of the man’s head against the cobblestones had rung in her nightmares for a fortnight, and his blood stained the street scarlet for days until their next rain.
“Why are you here so early?” The cigarette in his mouth muffled his words, and the heady cloud of tobacco smoke he exhaled enveloped her.
Now reminded of what had encouraged her to roll out of bed with the stars still winking above, the fat, waning moon bright on the dew in the back garden, Brigid flushed. The picnic basket she’d packed — laden with fresh scones and last summer’s apricot jam, garden apples and honey, hard bread and a heavy slab of salted ham — sat at her feet.
“You always come here first thing on your birthday.” Leaning against the stall door, she reached out to take his hand in hers. “I wanted to be the first to see you.”
Indeed, she had seen very little of him in recent days. Ever since he’d kissed her on the doorstep of her father’s house, they had shared little more than quick glimpses in the betting shop as she added up the day’s totals and he passed through. Once, he had paused to listen as she read to the children — she could feel his presence behind her, the weight of his gaze on her neck — but when it was time for her to herd them home and put them to bed, he had slipped away like a whiff of smoke, only the hint of tobacco and cologne left behind him.
But though his schedule had become unpredictable, the part of Tommy Shelby that loved horses would never change.
He finally pulled his eyes from Ginger to meet hers and brought their joined hands to his lips, pressing a kiss to the back of her gloved hand. “That’s it?” His gaze dropped, just briefly, down to her feet.
The confession slipped out in a rush. “I thought we might go for a ride — I’ve packed breakfast.” He seemed unimpressed, and so Brigid pressed on. “You can be back before you have any business, I promise.”
Polly had doubted Brigid’s ability to convince him, to entice him to celebrate the birthday that he always regarded with such little care. None of the Shelbys bothered much with birthdays — it was hard to celebrate with a father who drank away any spare coins that could buy a gift, who was more likely to deal out a sharp crack across the cheek than good wishes — but Brigid had always woken up on her birthday to newly knitted socks and sticky cinnamon buns fresh from the oven, to her mother’s smile and lilting song. Celebrating birthdays was a tradition she intended to pass on to her future children, and she would need to start with their father.
“Never cared much for birthdays.”
“Please, Tommy,” she said, her voice low. “The fresh air will be good for us both.”
She hoped that the open fields and heavy sun outside of Birmingham might relax whatever part of him had been so tightly wound in recent weeks, that she might be able to draw out his worries and his fears between apricot-flavored kisses. She knew that troubled thoughts lurked behind the impassive marble of his face, and, well — he’d told her not to meddle in the business, but she was worried about him.
“All right, then.” Matter of fact, Tommy took another drag of his cigarette, the end of it flaring bright in the dim barn, before squashing it under his heel into the mud.
Yet when he turned to Ginger, the lines of his face softened, the peaceful expression almost out-of-place on the hardened man who had come back from France. “Do you need help saddling her?”
“No!” A too-wide grin overtook Brigid’s face as she turned to Ginger’s saddle on the rack beside the stall. “I’ve gotten better.”
Tommy might have been raised on horses, might have been able to ride as well as he could walk, but Brigid hadn’t learned her way around a saddle until she was nearly eighteen. When he had finally convinced her to ride on her own, the only thing that kept her from bolting the first time a horse stomped at her was Tommy’s firm presence at her back.
But even though she had gotten better at saddling her own horse, Tommy tacked up his stallion, led it from the stall, and affixed the woven picnic basket to the back of his saddle before she finally had Ginger’s leather girth tightened to her liking. While she maneuvered the mare into her head-collar, he slipped his fingers between the girth and the horse’s warm belly.
“You’ll want to tighten this more.” But it was more instructive than anything else — he made the adjustments himself as he spoke. “She was holding her breath while you did it.”
Ginger bristled as Tommy adjusted the girth, and Brigid stroked the horse down her long nose. “Sneaky.”
When the mare was finally saddled, they led the two horses out into Charlie’s damp scrap yard. Ginger’s bay coat shone in the rising light, but Tommy’s dapple grey horse, Keir, looked almost otherworldly next to the glassy, pitch-dark waters of the Cut. The icy chill that had accompanied Brigid on her walk had since begun to melt away, and February’s tempestuous winds had also departed. With the sun shining over a cloudless horizon, Brigid said a little prayer in thanks for the good weather, feeling almost warm under her old coat.
Tommy tossed Keir’s reins around a cracked wagon wheel, gravel crunching under his boots as he approached. He didn’t ask for her permission before his large hands fell to her waist.
A lump grew in her throat, preventing her from protesting.
Of course, Brigid could mount a horse herself now — sweet Curly had shown her not long after Tommy left, the first time she’d dropped by to help him exercise the horses — but it had been four years since she and Tommy had ridden together. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might not know of her new-yet-old skill.
So Brigid tightened her grip on Ginger’s reins in one hand and the saddle’s pommel in the other, fixing her boot in the stirrup. Tommy’s fingers flexed, his cool thumbs pressing on either side of her spine, and then he was lifting her, aiding as she swung her other leg across the saddle. Ginger shifted and bristled, and Brigid let out a slow, bracing breath as she adjusted the reins in her hand. She swayed and shifted with Ginger as the horse adjusted, just as Tommy had instructed her all those moons ago — even if her belly still swooped at the feel of the whole world grumbling beneath her.
From behind, as he approached his own horse, Tommy still looked twenty-one. It would be so easy to pretend, at least for a minute, that they had just begun seeing one another, that he was off to show her the best horse trails in the pastures outside of Small Heath’s soot and ash, to show off his far superior equine skills.
He ascended to his saddle with almost divine ease. “Where to?”
The daydream was ruined — he never used to let her lead — but the thrill of it curled in her chest regardless.
“Johnson’s farm,” she said, watching as Keir fidgeted under him. “By that little brook.”
When he nodded, Brigid urged Ginger from Charlie’s yard, and the mare was eager, coming to a quick trot before Brigid could tug the reins to slow her down. Tommy caught up, and together they turned down the lane that would take them away from the city, a broad cobblestone street lit by the rising sun, their long shadows preceding them.
The morning was still new, the streets largely empty, leaving room for the horses’ hooves to echo in the silence between them. A million questions churned in her mind — what had kept him so busy in recent weeks that he barely stopped to eat? What news of Campbell and his Specials? Why hadn’t he lured her into his bed, or come to hers? What was she meant to be doing at the betting shop now that she’d successfully cut her hours at Mrs. Thompson’s at his bidding? — but Brigid found that none of them would make it to her lips.
He’d been short with everyone, taut as a grenade pin, in the days since she lost her temper at John during the family meeting, and after every potential question, she could hear his disaffected sigh, his scoff, his deflection.
I don’t need your help, he’d said.
It was a dewy, silvery, quiet morning, and Brigid didn’t want to fight — she and Tommy had exchanged a lifetime’s worth of barbs in the weeks since he’d returned, stumbling to re-learn the parts of each other they had forgotten and adapt to the new, darker cracks that had appeared in their time apart. As much thought as she had put into their feast, into rolling out the scones to the perfect thickness and picking the ripest apples, she found herself poorly prepared to fill a half-hour of silence.
And so, Brigid squeezed her heels.
The rested mare took the opening, off like a shot — Ginger immediately sped up to a trot, her mane tangling in the wind, and then a canter. Brigid’s stomach sunk to her knees as a peal of laughter sprung to her lips.
The wind whipped at her loose curls, and Brigid heard him call out, but his words were swept away, and so she kept going.
They’d played this game before. When they’d been younger, still green and naive and unscarred, he would give her a head start. If he managed to catch her, which he always did, he would kiss her until she could barely breathe — they never made it back into the city until the sun was already creeping below the horizon.
She didn’t know what she would get now if she won, but since he hadn’t truly ridden in years, she was determined to find out.
Breathless, thrilling minutes later, they traded the cobbled city streets for a muddy country road, and Brigid urged Ginger to a gallop with a sharp kick of her heel. Tossing her mane to the wind, the mare responded in kind, and the high grasses swayed from their momentum as they passed. Somewhere on the wind, she heard a bloody hell — another laugh bubbled up, spilling over her parted, gasping lips. Johnson’s brook, with its bare, weeping English willow and clear waters, was fast approaching, and Brigid leaned forward over Ginger’s neck, very aware that she might tumble from the mare’s back, nonetheless thrilled by the contest.
She could beat him. He was out of practice, after all —
“Woah — ”
Tommy appeared beside her, like Death upon a dirty horse, and his hand shot out to loop into Ginger’s reins.
“Oh, curse you — ”
She cut herself off with a laugh, trying to bat him away, but he tightened his grip with laughter of his own, and Ginger had no choice but to slow down. He reared Keir as well, and as the two horses slowed to a trot and then a walk, Brigid’s world righted again, the breath she had long since left behind catching up to her fluttering lungs.
“What the hell was that for?” His voice like gravel from the wind, Tommy reached up to run a hand through his hair, peaked cap tucked safely in the saddlebag.
Brigid’s lips twisted into a smirk, feeling coy, feeling almost eighteen again, and felt no need to explain to him that some part of her had dreaded the possibility of riding beside him for thirty minutes in utter, crushing silence.
“Wanted to see if you still had it.”
The Romany response dripped from his lips like molten gold, and though Brigid could not speak the language — and indeed, often forgot that he did — she imagined that he was bragging about being born on the back of a horse, though she knew very well he’d been born in his father’s longboat.
He pulled Ginger’s reins to bring her closer, and as the two horses nuzzled their damp noses, she felt her elbow brush his.
When they finally dismounted at the base of the craggy, wilting willow, Brigid ducked through the bare winter branches as he tied down the horses. Atop the basket was a large flannel blanket, which she shook out across the bank to create a sort of solace from the large smokestacks on greater Birmingham’s skyline and the smoke, acres in the distance, curling from Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse. He had never run them off his property, even when they had been younger and much more wild, but she didn’t care to be interrupted by the longwinded old man.
“You’d better eat these scones, Thomas Shelby.” Out of sight, his crunching footsteps crossed from one ear to another as he dealt with the horses. “I made them fresh just for you.”
Brigid had never possessed Martha’s God-given talent in the kitchen, but becoming the primary cook in her family at the tender age of twelve — back when her mother had been bedridden, a slim and sallow reminder of everything she had once done and now could not, and before the sickness had finally taken her — had at least taught her how to make an acceptable breakfast scone.
Curling her legs and heavy riding skirt underneath her, Brigid settled down to the blanket and arranged their wares — two of her mother’s porcelain plates and nearly a whole cutlery set, an insulated flask of strong breakfast tea and two teacups, matching linen napkins embroidered with small purple violets. The tea cloth tied around the scones still held the remnants of the hearth’s warmth.
It was then that Tommy himself appeared through the wooden curtain of willow branches, and he gave a low whistle. “It’s no wonder you nearly won — you weighed me down with the whole kitchen.”
“Nearly won,” she shot back. Her blood still sang in her ears and cheeks from the ride, and she found herself pleased with her performance nonetheless. “Suppose I never stood a real chance.”
“Not one,” he said through puckered lips, requisite cigarette now drooping in his mouth. The warmth of him next to her was enticing, thrilling, and he leaned over her lap for the flask of tea to slosh generous portions in both teacups. “The sooner you recognize that, the sooner you’ll have peace.”
The memory of the time he’d said the same to Patrick muffled her laughter to her own ears — she came by her competitive streak earnestly, after all, having spent nearly her whole childhood trying to beat her brother, whether it was at cards or in maths or at the piano. Long before she’d noticed the razor cut of Tommy’s jaw and the ragged draw of his eyes down her back, he had been the only one of her brother’s mates who could best him at anything, and for that, she’d admired him. The sooner you recognize that, Paddy, the sooner you’ll have peace. He had been laughing at her brother in their back garden, a silver shilling winking in the sunlight as he tossed it up with a laugh for some inane bet.
The wind had swept her chignon loose, leaving stray thick curls to tickle her sensitive neck, and so, instead of addressing the oppressive memory, Brigid dove into the bird’s nest at the back of her head to pull out the clip. She would need to start from the beginning to arrange it into the semblance of a presentable manner, especially without the virtue of a mirror.
Tommy, who had previously busied himself with the food, watched as her coal-tinged hair tumbled over her shoulders, across her neckline, down to nearly her waist, and apricot jam slipped from the silver spoon in his hand to splat on an open scone.
When she collected and twisted her heavy curls in one hand, Tommy’s said, “Leave it down,” and the sound of it clenched in her belly. Framed by the dazzling mist, his hair still windswept, he looked positively Dionysian — though his eyes matched the clear sky, they held something much darker.
Warm to her ears, she let the thick twist of hair fall over one shoulder. “A proper lady doesn’t leave her hair down in public — not even in 1919.”
“A proper lady,” he retorted, pointing at her and snuffing his lit match in one fell swoop, “doesn’t race horses, either.”
Something charged passed between them when their fingers brushed over the burning cigarette, and she welcomed the heady tobacco smoke into her lungs in a long drag. Normally, she would pass it back to him, but he looked beautiful through the haze of her exhale, and she wanted to keep him that way.
It was his birthday, but Brigid hadn’t brought him all the way out here for nothing in return.
“Eat an apple,” she said, rolling one across the blanket to him. “A good diet, whiskey and cigarettes do not make.”
As if his fingers were searching for something to do, anxious without a cigarette perched between them, he tossed the apple from hand to hand — it was a seductive move, one that felt more at home on a younger Tommy, and that niggled into the parts of her heart that still ached for who he had been.
He took a bite of the apple at her bidding, and Brigid exhaled again, propping the cigarette between two fingers to help herself to the scone he had in turn pushed across the blanket to her. The jam was sticky on her lips and fingers.
“How are things?” She sucked a drop of jam off her thumb, and Tommy watched, blatant, appreciative. That was well enough — anything to get him out of his head. “You’ve been busy these past few weeks.”
“I’m always busy.”
Brigid rolled her eyes. “More than usual, Tommy.”
A long-suffering sigh escaped his usually controlled mouth, and he considered the apple again, brow furrowed in contemplation. “Just been getting things in order before this new copper starts sniffing. Making sure all the wharves are locked up, none of the men have jumped ship — the usual.”
He leaned back against the willow’s trunk, the wool of his suit scratching, and the hairs on the back of Brigid’s neck stood at attention — though a cool breeze swooped through, rustling the bare branches, it was the mention of Campbell that plunged her into an icy sweat.
“Is he in town?”
Tommy responded, grim, his mouth flat. “Jeremiah saw him last night.”
Chief Inspector Campbell was in her city — haunting every nook and corner, his malevolent shadow stretching down the cobbled streets. Brigid knew not what he even looked like, but Ellen’s letter had sketched a vivid image of his righteous judgment.
“There’s been gossip out of the B.S.A.” She’d overheard Mrs. Smith and the widowed Mrs. Sanderson over the garden wall just the morning prior, stringing up the washing, and now wished that she had paid more attention. “Do you think he’s looking into whatever’s happened there?”
Tommy’s eyes cut across to her, something almost like anger twisting the statuesque lines of his face. “What do you think has happened?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Her shoulders wilting, Brigid busied her nervous hands with unwrapping the ham. She’d have been a fool not to notice the stream of coppers in-and-out of the factory in recent weeks, their immaculate uniforms gleaming in sharp contrast to the soot-blackened laborers, but at the look in his eyes, she faltered. “I just mean I’ve overheard Mrs. Smith in her back garden, talking about all the coppers asking questions. She works the phones there, you know.”
Of course, he knew — there wasn’t a person in Small Heath that Tommy hadn’t cataloged in his ledger, loyal or not, useful or not, enterprising or not. She pressed her lips together, something like hot embarrassment slinking down her spine when he raised his brows.
“Apparently the communists are slowing down operations, jamming machines, organizing on factory time. I reckon they’re just keeping the king’s peace.”
“So, you still think the Inspector is after the communists, then?”
Tommy tilted his head back against the willow, his exhale briefly white and heavy before curling up and away, his eyes averted up. It carried the hint of an eye roll, if not the outright admonishment. “Yes, I do.”
“Right, sorry — no meddling.”
Her heart hammered in her chest, her cheeks grew warm, and as she chewed on the inside of her cheek, Brigid felt as if the promise she’d made now loomed over her like a portent. Indeed, she hadn’t even dared to question her father. Though she had kept their house running as smooth as a racehorse for over a decade, he still regarded her as only a little girl where matters of importance were concerned — just as Tommy considered her only his little fiancee, no matter that she knew the books better than any of the men.
No matter that she knew more of this dreaded Inspector better than any of them.
Perhaps she would have been better off peering over the garden wall and asking Mmes. Smith and Sanderson her questions.
A displeased frown twisting her face, Brigid took another drag of the smoldering cigarette before stubbing it into the muddy bank, before reaching again for the scone. She knew Tommy’s tells — she knew that when he wouldn’t meet her eyes, he was even less likely to answer her questions. She knew the turn of his mouth when she asked questions to which she was better off not knowing the answers, the way he would don his Blinder mask when she pressed too close.
But though he had responded to her question as Mr. Shelby, when he spoke again, after the long silence between them had grown heavy and pregnant, it was with Tommy’s voice. “C’mere.”
His hand, palm turned upward, extended across the soft flannel, a callused, ivory olive branch.
Brigid sighed, twining their fingers together, and then he was tugging, persuading her up onto her knees, his fingers sticky with the juice of his apple, hers with jam, both of them cool beside the glacial, burbling brook. She had to gather her long skirt to inch closer to him, and when she was close enough to feel his warmth, he wrapped his free arm around her lower back.
To avoid careening forward into him, Brigid decided to slip a thigh over his hips. His breath was hot on her lips, on her hotter cheeks, his eyes dragging from her eyes to the bow of her red mouth to the line of her neck.
His lips followed. In the hollow underneath her jaw, he whispered, “I’m sorry I make you angry, even though you’re beautiful when you’re angry.”
Brigid was distinctly aware of the flutter of his lips at her neck, the muscles of his thighs shifting under her — a hot, syrupy desire dripped down her spine, lower into her belly, lower still.
“I’m not angry,” she lied, curling her fingers into his short hair. “I’m worried.”
“I’ve promised to be careful.” It ghosted down her throat, and the shiver that rippled through her was enough to make her forget what Mrs. Smith had said over the bricked garden wall.
Tommy was kissing the dip of her throat then, hot, open, insistent lips tracing the well-worn path that sloped down to her shoulder. The hand at her back found its way into her thick curls, and he used his leverage there to tug her head back, to better access the milky skin under the collar of her blouse.
She felt the gasp that tore from her mouth in her fingers, in her toes. “You’ve barely eaten,” she whispered. The ham was half-unwrapped, the scones would grow soggy, the tea cold —
He groaned when her knees gave out without her permission, letting her full weight settle on his lap.
“It’s my birthday.” He shifted underneath her, and the feel of him was forbidden and familiar, dangerous and delicious — it rocked the frustration right out of her.
“You hate your birthday — ”
“But I like doing what I want.”
Brigid’s unrestrained peal of laughter echoed between them under the willow branches after he muffled her with his mouth. He tasted like apples, like tobacco — he tasted like a cool day and a warm drink. Tommy, hand still twisted in her hair, pulled her closer by the nape of her neck, while the buzzing that had taken up shop in Brigid’s ears grew, every inch of her skin live, electric, where the cotton and wool kneaded between them. Her hand slipped from his hair, fingers curling around a low, knotted branch for purchase, and the bark bit at her palm. The gasp she let out was lost in the rushing in her ears, in the hot, heavy breaths exchanged between them.
The day had promised to be warm, but Brigid was burning, something exhilarating ignited in the pit of her belly. The heat crept up her neck and cheeks, down the slope of her waist and thighs — rather, that was Tommy. He’d untucked her blouse, his large, rough hand snagging the silk of her chemise, his fingers spreading across the soft plane of her stomach.
“Proper ladies don’t go without corsets.” His lips curved a smirk against her own, pleased with his joke, pleased with the way she shivered when he bunched the silk, searching for a way to her skin. “Not even in 1919.”
Her laugh erupted as more of a ragged gasp, stealing what little of her breath was left. “You try racing a horse in a bloody corset.”
When she met his lush mouth again, she let her own fingers begin to explore — she traced the line of his throat, found the buttons of his starched waistcoat and the cotton beneath it, dug her fingernails into his skin. Over the rush of blood in her ears and the absolute quiet of his gasp, she heard the branches above them rustle, creak, whine.
He tugged at her hair again, and this time, it was Brigid who whined, almost pitiful, shifting closer than she would have thought possible. “Tommy — ”
As if he read her mind, he released her curls, leaving her scalp smarting, leaving her wholly and terribly aware of the throbbing in her ears and her chest and between her legs. The day was bright when she opened her eyes, the fields hazy and still, and a flush bloomed high on Tommy’s cheeks, his hair mussed, his brow furrowed — and all of it hers, all of it her doing.
But his exploring hand navigated through the folds of her skirt, up to the apex of her thighs — his hard stomach flexed under her sharp nails — and Brigid gasped for air, drowning once again into him. A knuckle along the lace of her knickers ripped a sharp, surprised moan from her lips, horribly loud in the light of day.
Frenzied, wicked, Brigid could not move herself to care.
She felt his smirk, the cut of his teeth against her jaw, as he paused his ministrations there, and a part of Brigid that she didn’t recognize thought, Two can play this game.
Her own hands slipped, tugged, trailed — wasted no time finding his belt. The clink of the buckle was indecent outside of a bedroom. Even more indecent was the feel of his fingers when they slipped around the lace, causing her brow to furrow, her mouth to fall open. She had lost the wager before she even began, but it was only to her benefit. His heavy breathing washed down her neck, filled her ears, and Brigid canted her hips forward into him, her nails scratching the soft skin of his stomach.
“Bridie — ” His voice hitched, reverent, breathless, begging.
Her clumsy, thrumming fingers had finally… finally — hips shifted, clothing bunched, and Brigid whined again, this time when Tommy withdrew the two fingers curled deep inside her. But then she was sinking onto him, gasping into his mouth, swallowing the gravelly groan he gave in return, drinking him in like ambrosia. The willow rustled, and they pulled each other closer. His slick hand was back under her blouse, guiding her hips into his, while her fingers curled again around the low branch, gripping, pulling, leveraging. Woolen skirt on woolen trousers, skin on skin, time passed. A high ringing had drowned out any thoughts in her head other than Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.
Bracing her knees, Brigid faintly registered the clink of porcelain as her boot made contact with a teacup, but sweat was dripping down her temple, between her breasts, and Tommy’s lips had followed it down to her drooping neckline. His tongue was hot and dangerous against the swell of her chest and the line of lace he found there.
Her tongue had made sense of her thoughts. “Tommy, fuck, Tommy — ”
The snap of his hips punctuated her rhythmic prayer, and then, then he peaked hot inside her, a ragged groan vibrating against her lips, blocking out the sound of her own gasping voice. She raced to follow him, and though he sagged against the willow behind him, he held her close with an arm wrapped around the curve of her lower back, and — and —
His thumb rubbed where they were still connected, and that pressure burst forth, shattered and fractured, drawing out a high, keening moan that sounded foreign on her lips.
“Fuck,” she whispered, eyes still closed, hips stuttering, halting, continuing, her lips parted against the hollow of his cheek.
He tightened his grip around her waist. “Christ, Bridie…”
Gradually, gently, the brook, the willow, the soft flannel under her protesting knees emerged again through the haze. His chest heaving, his skin hot against her, Brigid’s hands found the hard line of his jaw, brought his swollen lips to hers — he still tasted like apples, sweet and hers.
Her knees trembled when she finally withdrew from him, stumbling on her long, wrinkled skirt. Crawling across the blanket to the picnic basket, Brigid took in the spilled teacup she’d kicked, the ham she didn’t remember unwrapping, with drooping eyes. Her early morning was catching up with her, sleep tugging with warm, seductive hands — the sharp strike of Tommy’s match kept her from letting her eyes fall closed, and she instead righted the teacup and poured the last bit of tea for herself.
The heavy tobacco smoke cleared away the thick heat they’d ignited between them, and this time, Tommy did not offer to share — he knew she didn’t favor cigarettes after sex.
Instead, she finished off the rest of her scone from earlier, pulled out the hard loaf of brown bread and softened butter, and set out to make herself a more substantial breakfast.
Behind her, Tommy snorted.
“You’re going to eat one as well,” she said.
“I’ve already had my fill.”
He winked when she turned to scowl at him, bringing a flush to her still-hot cheeks, but her response was to pass him half of the sandwich. She’d promised once that she would make sure he ate no matter how busy he became, and she intended to keep that promise.
When she moved back to him, muscles protesting, he welcomed her with a lazy hand, his arm draping around her shoulders like a heavy coat. Together, they savored their sandwiches, watching as the brook, still bloated from last week’s rains, splashed and gurgled. One of Mr. Johnson’s fat milk cows appeared over the line of the horizon, grazing, an unsteady calf behind her, and Brigid found herself smiling as she watched them, her skin prickling as the fresh sun crept higher in the sky, stretching scraggly shadows across their legs.
“I’d like to live out here someday.”
Tommy’s chest shook underneath her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she could hear his smile. “You wanna be a farm wife? Raise chickens and cows and a dozen babes?”
“Not a farm wife, no.” She pursed her lips, attempting to hide the grin that grew there, and forced herself to look up at him — the cut of his collar, the trim lines of his suit jacket — to get the image of Tommy in muck boots out of her head. “But I’d like to have a proper garden. To not hear a factory at all hours of the day, maybe even see the stars at night.”
His hand twisted in the curls at the nape of her neck, heavy, comforting, his thumb at the tender skin under her ear. Appearing to swallow, he considered her lips, traced his eyes along her hairline before his cool blue met her green.
“I’ll get you out of the city,” he said. Leaning forward, he made the promise against her mouth. “Gonna buy up one of those empty estates and we’ll pay people to take care of the garden — ”
“We don’t need a manor — ”
“Who the fuck says?” Laughing, he chased her when she pulled away. Brigid knew not whether he pushed her down or she pulled him after her, but then the flannel blanket was at her back, and Tommy’s nose was nudging her head back against the ground as he propped himself above her. “Who says, eh? I’ll buy you a manor, and I’ll buy you another.”
She curled her fingers together at the nape of his neck, holding him close, a bright, too-girlish giggle at her lips. A flush crept down her neck. “We could have stables, too. Room to ride, room for the Lees and the Boswells and the Strongs and whoever else — could host the fair.”
“The neighbors wouldn’t like that.”
“Who the fuck says we’ll have neighbors?”
Tommy covered her smirk with his lips, and the willow and the wind drowned out the sound of her laugh.
Brigid had promised — and indeed, intended — to return to Small Heath before Tommy was due for any midday business, but that assurance did not pan out. By the time they had folded the blanket and packed up the remains of the feast, the sun had peaked in the sky, lovely and bright.
Yet, Tommy seemed to be in no hurry — he held Keir to a walk on the road back to Birmingham, and she selfishly took his pace, seizing any additional time with him under the clear sun. They’d spent only blinks of time together since the British Army delivered him back to Birmingham: brief walks to and from the betting shop; even briefer snippets of conversation in the corners of Number Six before one of the kids would come begging or one of the Peaky boys brought in news; and nearly every evening in his bed, sharing kisses but so few words.
Ginger rocking underneath her, Brigid let herself think of their manor and their garden, their horses and hounds, and perhaps even a dozen babes. And, squinting ahead, she found their city didn’t look quite so downtrodden.
“Thank you for breakfast.” Tommy’s gruff voice pulled her from her reverie as they crossed back onto the city’s streets.
When she turned to him, his lips may have been pursed around a cigarette, but his eyes seemed to be smiling, which caused her heart to flutter. “Always.”
“And for the ride.”
The smirk that stretched across his face was positively wicked, like a portrait of Lust and Gluttony and Pride all in one. When her mouth fell open, words lost somewhere between her brain and her mouth, he quirked a brow in admonishment.
“I meant the horse ride, Bridie.” He nudged Keir closer until they were nearly elbow to elbow.
Hot from the insistent sun burning down on them, she scoffed and steered Ginger away. “I’m sure you did.”
But she leaned down to rub the mare’s damp neck to hide her own smile.
That morning, they may have escaped the city before it had come alive, but now, it bustled with skinny cats and carts, market stalls lively and lush, barefooted children racing to-and-fro. Though horses were becoming less common in the heart of the city, on the outskirts, they hardly stood out, and the passersby parted well in advance for them to weave the streets and lanes back to Charlie’s yard —
With a soldier’s instincts, Tommy reared his horse to a halt, and Keir bucked at the sudden change of course. Brigid was less responsive, comparative novice that she was, and doubled back to join him in the middle of the street. His sharp eyes scanned the crowd, the lines of his face taut, and unease settled into Brigid’s chest where delight had just been. Below them, anonymous faces passed, murmured acknowledgments, tipped caps.
He turned again, at a loss, leading Keir in anxious circles — Brigid had noticed Tommy’s hearing wasn’t as sharp as it had once been, a consequence of four years planting grenades and ducking from machine-gun fire.
“There!” Brigid pointed, finally picking out the high-pitched voice rising above all the others.
His cap askew, mud splashed up to his knees, Finn sprinted towards them with little regard to those he ducked and tripped up in his course. When he caught sight of his youngest brother, Tommy dismounted his horse in a fell swoop, and even high above him on Ginger’s back, Brigid felt small as she watched him stride to meet his brother.
“Finn.” He clapped a hand across the boy’s shoulder, leaning forward to meet him eye-to-eye. The brims of their peaked caps nearly touched. “What is it?”
But Finn was gasping for breath, the air now catching up to his empty lungs, and it took a long moment before he was able to respond.
“’S Arthur!” His words were slurred from the exertion, his cheeks flushed. “Coppers dropped him off — he’s bleeding somethin’ awful!”
you can pry aquarius tommy shelby from my cold, dead hands.
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Chapter 4: iv.
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i love this chapter, i hope you love it too, and now i'm returning to nanowrimo mode!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tommy leaned even closer to his youngest brother, his face hard. “Bleeding?”
Brigid felt as if a hand had wrapped around her throat, her mind’s eye concocting horrible image after horrible image — Arthur shot, Arthur gutted, Arthur —
“He’s been beaten!”
As quickly as the dread rose within her, Brigid released a heavy breath, crossing herself. As brash as he was, Arthur had been bloodied before; he wore bruises like a tailored coat.
“Right.” Tommy took in Finn’s rosy cheeks and the fear that lined his round face. Drawing himself up to his full height, he clapped a hand on Finn’s heaving shoulder. “Right — Finn, go back with Brigid.”
Steadying Ginger with a firm grip on her head-collar, he leveled Brigid with a stern look as Finn scrambled up into the saddle in front of her. “Keep him calm, and stop the bleeding if you can. I’ll fetch some rum for the pain.”
Fear thrummed in her chest like a startled bird, but Brigid nodded, wrapping her arms around Finn to take control of the reins once more. The boy was shaking, sweating, burning like a furnace in front of her.
When Tommy stepped back, collecting Keir’s reins in hand, Brigid urged Ginger to a trot. Though tired from their earlier run, her coat slick with sweat, the mare cut through the midday traffic will little hesitation. Crowds parted, trained by the sound of horse hooves on the cobblestones, but with the midday traffic so heavy, and with Arthur suffering at their destination, progress felt slow.
“Oi — get outta the way!”
“Finn,” she scolded, knocking her elbow into his side. The offending young man tipped his cap regardless, stepping out of Ginger’s path — but even in her distress, Brigid remained dedicated to her mission to raise the younger Shelbys into respectful, respectable people. “Be polite.”
The boy’s mouth dropped open as if to protest, but she clucked her tongue to cut him off. Ginger, encouraged by the empty side lane that opened up in front of them, picked up her speed once more. As they drew closer and closer to the inner belly of Small Heath, the terraced houses grew taller, the bricks sootier, the gardens smaller. Whereas the smoke on Mr. Johnson’s horizon had looked warm, almost friendly, in Small Heath, it was always dark, always pungent, ever-present.
They had ridden right past Number Six before Finn’s shout of alarm brought Brigid out of her churning storm cloud of thoughts, startling her into rearing Ginger in front of Number Four. The mare had barely taken her first full breath before Brigid was slipping down, stumbling on the long hem of her wrinkled skirt and unraveling her bag from the back of the saddle.
“Take her back to Charlie’s, Finn.” She handed him the reins, brushing loose curls behind her ear. “Let her go slow.”
“But — ”
“I’ll take care of Arthur,” she said, forcing herself smile, even if only for his benefit. “Promise.”
White as a sheet, the flush of exertion faded, Finn gave her a solemn nod, his cap slipping forward. She patted Ginger’s damp coat, thanking her silently for the luxury of the morning, and then Finn jerked the mare forward and away, down the familiar track of Watery Lane to Charlie’s scrapyard.
Brigid didn’t spare him another glance as she hurried back to the door of Number Six. At her feet, dark, congealed blood shone under the high sun, and her stomach swooped, just briefly, at the sight. She had done her time in the Birmingham veterans’ hospital, and in the trenches of Small Heath before that — she could handle cuts and bruises, blood and phlegm.
But the way it puddled on the doorstep of the Shelby home left her woozy.
Inside, the house was brightly lit, sun streaming in from the back garden and through the open door to the betting shop, illuminating the burning red that streaked down Arthur’s face, and stained his pinstriped suit.
“Christ, Arthur, what’s happened to you?” Collecting her skirt in her white-knuckled fists, Brigid hurried to his side.
Shelby women fluttered around him like startled birds, and Arthur opened his mouth as if to respond before groaning with pain, letting his head fall back against the chair. The hob rattled as Polly set the bronze kettle to boil, while Ada pulled towels and old blankets from the adjoining linen closet.
“There you are.” Perching in the chair next to Arthur, Polly shot her a critical look. “You said you’d be back by ten.”
“Didn’t realize I’d need to be on duty, did I?” Brigid grabbed the cooking apron that hung beside the stove, drawing it tight around her waist — experience had taught her that getting Peaky blood out of her clothing could be hell.
Arthur squirmed, winced, panted through gritted teeth. “Don’t make me laugh,” he grunted. “Hurts me face.”
He clenched one hand into a fist, huffing what might have passed for a laugh but instead came out a high-pitched wheeze. Brigid scanned his face with practiced eyes, noting the swelling around his brow, the cuts at his hairline and temples, the busted lip, the blood that leaked from his nose — nearly all of the damage was consolidated to his face. It could be good and bad, in her experience, since head injuries would bleed heavily from superficial wounds, but she was hardly qualified to diagnose any internal damage or trauma.
She’d never officially trained as a nurse — the pay just wasn’t up to scratch — but volunteering with the V.A.D.s for two years had left her with enough tricks up her sleeves to treat the Peaky Blinders’ usual mess.
“Pol, bind his thumb.” Arthur’s right hand shone, pale under the light as it tightened in a fist, but his left was frozen, the thumb bent at an awkward angle.
Only then did Brigid notice John, leaned against the open doorway to the betting shop, toothpick propped, lazy and irreverent, in his mouth. She barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes, something inside her boiling. “He’s fetching rum.”
“God bless him — ” Arthur cut himself with a sharp groan as Polly stabilized his thumb between two wooden slats, retrieved from the first aid supply kit they kept neatly hidden in the linen basket.
A ragged old tea towel wrapped around her hand, Brigid pressed firmly against the deepest cut on Arthur’s temple. He hissed, squirming away, and when she ordered, “Still,” his boot made contact with the table leg as it kicked out involuntarily.
The kettle’s squeal sliced through the kitchen, hissing just as Arthur had when Ada sloshed the boiling water into a large stoneware bowl at the center of the table. “Polly, I ought to do that. I’m trained.”
This time, it was Brigid who laughed. “One volunteer shift doesn’t make you a nurse, Ada.”
“Well, you’re not one, either.” Brown, drying blood stained the waist and sleeves of Ada’s lovely beaded dress from where she had hauled her eldest brother inside, and Brigid felt rather sheepish when she scowled.
After all, she hadn’t been there when Arthur was dumped on the steps of Number Six, too busy frolicking outside of the city like a girl with no responsibilities, too busy with Tommy’s lips on her hot skin and his hands under her skirt, and a frown twisted on her face. Bad things always seemed to happen when she let her passions take over.
Arthur’s hot blood soaked through the linen, and Brigid strengthened the pressure against Arthur’s head. “Hold this steady,” she instructed, waiting until his hand had replaced hers before pulling away.
Arthur groaned but nonetheless complied, his muscles straining, teeth grinding together. Meanwhile, Brigid dipped a fresh towel into the steaming water, the scarlet blood on her hands curling on the surface. Heat flushing her pale hands, she rung the towel out over the pink water and wiped down the untended parts of his face, attempting to discern what was an open wound and what was merely bruised and bloodied.
“They break your nose?” It had never been straight, not since a Black Country boy cracked it in a fight by the Cut when they’d been younger, and so it was hard to detect what the blood leaking from both nostrils indicated.
He coughed, his bloody spittle darkening her cotton apron, but Brigid was long past flinching. “Don’t think so — just busted it.”
Nodding, continuing to clean his face, Brigid judged the depth of the gash at his hairline where a boney set of knuckles had made contact. It should be stitched together, but she doubted that Arthur would let her get that far — she was lucky that she arrived at Number Six before he stumbled out onto the street looking for hot, whiskey-fueled revenge.
Now that she had him alive and brimming with fury underneath her, Brigid allowed herself to feel the semblance of fear, duty waning in favor of the dread that swelled in her belly. “Arthur, who did this?”
To herself, she sounded like a faint-hearted girl, like someone who had never seen danger and death and so, so much blood. But of course, she knew. How could she not? Brigid found herself nauseous again, knowing that they were lucky — his dead body would have sent the same message as his bloodied face.
Before he could answer, Number Six’s front door burst open on squeaking hinges, this time to reveal a determined, inscrutable Tommy. In his hands was a bottle of dark Navy rum, and a burning cigarette drooped from his lips.
“Let me see him,” Tommy said, muffled, uncorking the bottle as he approached.
Brigid took a step back, her blood-slick hands wiping on the apron. “Give him a swig.”
Though his eyes had begun to swell and bruise, she thought Arthur winked at her.
While Tommy dipped another cloth in the hot water, Arthur tossed his head back, sipping straight from the bottle. Abandoned in favor of liquor, the rags at his temple began to sag down, held to his skin by only a crust of dried blood. Brigid darted forward again to carefully peel back the linen, lest they rip open the wound once more.
When Tommy’s rum-soaked rag burned at his open cut, Arthur hissed, starting, and Tommy had to brace his brother’s head between his hands so that he couldn’t draw away. “You’re all right — ”
But Arthur grabbed Tommy’s forearm in a vise grip, his blood-matted mustache bristling, to focus his attention. “He said Mr. Churchill sent him to Birmingham.”
Brigid’s hands froze, twisting the bloody rags in her nervous fingers.
“National interest, he said.” Arthur’s voice grumbled like a factory machine, jagged through the heavy curtain of cigarette smoke that Tommy’s cigarette left between them. “Something about a robbery.”
His face stoic, Tommy backed away, leaving Arthur leaking blood and breathing heavily. Brigid found herself stood between them as Tommy braced himself against the sideboard, and she cast him a long look as she attended Arthur’s face once more. Now that Tommy had joined them, Arthur nearly vibrated with a frenetic heat.
What had Mrs. Smith said? Brigid sifted through her hazy memory — she’d been in a hurry, trying to string up the washing before the tea kettle boiled, trying to finish up the chores before she rushed off to another day at the betting shop. Morning inventory came up short — but of what? What could go missing from the B.S.A. to draw the attention of the War Secretary, Mr. Churchill himself?
“He said he wants us to help him.”
“We don’t help coppers.” John made himself known again, and his shirt strained against his metal sleeve garters as he crossed his arms.
As he spoke, Ada ducked around him, returning with a basket of gauze and tape, needle and thread, and Brigid dove in, busying herself with the gauze, her heart hammering somewhere in her throat as she spoke. “You look like you’ve been interrogated, not given an offer.”
“He knew all our war records,” Arthur said, gesturing between himself and his two brothers, and Brigid’s eyes slid from Arthur to Tommy. “Said we’re patriots, just like him.”
The nausea returned, rising like a tide right below her lungs — some patriot he was, to hunt down good, law-abiding British citizens outside of the law, to dump them in canals and rivers where their mothers could never find them.
“He wants us to be his eyes and ears. I said we’d have a family meeting, and take a vote.”
“Absolutely not.” The words spilled out before Brigid had the chance to form a logical argument, and Arthur tensed again, looking up at her, as Polly tied off the splint on his thumb.
His sharp, swollen eyes darted from her, to Tommy, and back to Brigid. “Why not?”
“Arthur — ” She spluttered, aghast. “He’s had you beaten. You’re lucky he didn’t cut you up and toss you in the Cut! And you want to work with him?”
Brigid shook her head, ripping off a length of tape that cut through the heavy, pulsating silence and punctuated her question with a morbid finality.
Arthur hissed when she pressed a piece of snow-white gauze across the largest cut on his temple — Brigid was long since past gentleness. “We’ve no truck with communists, or Fenians — we work with coppers all the time!”
“They work for us,” Polly said, her dark eyes glinting as she leaned forward to hold the gauze steady while Brigid taped it down. Though she only had a decade on Arthur, at that moment, she looked like a true matriarch. “There’s a difference.”
“Tommy,” he growled, his gaze sharp over Brigid’s shoulder, “there’s sense in this. He’ll start lifting our runners — we can leverage information to keep the business safe.”
From his perch by the sideboard behind her, Brigid couldn’t see Tommy, and yet the weight of his presence was palpable, the sound of his exhale harsh. The seconds passed like molasses, all of them waiting, Tommy silent.
“What’s wrong with you?” Arthur started, shifting as if to get up, and Brigid shoved him back into the chair, which groaned under his weight, so she could finish her ministrations. But Arthur’s eyes, razor-edged, sharp as broken glass, glared up at her now. “What the fuck is wrong with him lately?”
The turn of his fury to her left Brigid speechless, and she gaped, for Tommy had been so open with her just that morning, almost calm, even close to happy — the closest he’d come since returning from France. And yet now he stood, silent and immobile as a statue, once again burying his thoughts so deep that no one could hope to recover them in the trench she had so carefully uncovered.
“If I knew,” Polly interjected, almost pointed, as her gaze trailed over Brigid’s shoulder to Tommy, “I’d buy the cure at Compton’s chemists.”
Brigid’s face grew warm — from frustration, from embarrassment — silently begging for Tommy to answer. There was no reason to rile Arthur, to rip open the delicately healed wounds that marred their family. But when she turned around, it was to find him pulling his cigarette from his lips with sure fingers, his face solemn, mouth flat.
He pointed the cigarette at Arthur. “No votes,” and then at John, repeating his younger brother’s earlier words. “We don’t help coppers.”
And then he turned, stubbing the cigarette in a murky ash tray, tucked his hands neatly in his pockets, and made for the door.
“Happy fuckin’ birthday, then!” Arthur roared, nearly upending the chair underneath him, and Brigid danced backward, avoiding the clumsy fist he shot out as if to haul Tommy back in by his collar.
Tommy slammed the door behind him.
Aside from Arthur’s furious, heaving breaths, they were left in silence. Brigid’s face burned as she focused on the last of his serious cuts, wiping it down with rum, handing the rum to Arthur, taping the gauze down. The amber bottle nearly shattered when he slammed the bottle back to the table, his hot exhale heady with liquor.
“Damn, Bridie.” John broke the silence. Once again the focus of a Shelby brother’s frustration, she looked up in confused affront, this time unsure what she had done to draw such accusation. “You couldn’t have loosened Tom up a bit?”
The tension in the room had charged something live and ugly in her chest, and Brigid scoffed. “Oh, fuck you, John.” The roll of medical tape, stained with her bloody fingerprints, rolled off the table and across to his feet when she tossed it down. “You couldn’t have helped out for once instead of running your fat mouth?”
Brigid didn’t want to listen to his response. She tuned out his insulted swear, ripped the apron from her waist, and threw it down at the base of Arthur’s chair. Instead of responding, instead of taking the bait — she left Polly, words sharp as glass, to reprove John — Brigid stomped the well-worn path to the door, the scent of Tommy’s cologne and tobacco smoke still clinging to the dusty air, and paused only to fetch her bag from the coat rack before slamming the door as well.
Outside, the day had darkened. As bright and lovely as the sun had shone earlier, February’s rain had closed back in, the air sparking with pressure under heavy, pregnant clouds. But even though a cool wind swept down the lane, Brigid was burning, her skin prickling under her clothing, as anger coursed through her.
You couldn’t have loosened Tom up a bit?
Brigid was aware that she was stomping like a child, but John had truly vexed her. Hadn’t she?
She still ached between her legs — the good kind of ache, the kind that left her warm and loose for the rest of the day. They had made love twice more before the sunlight arched in the sky, tolling the time, reminding them of the people and the business and the world that awaited them back in Small Heath. He’d run his fingers through her hair, reverent, his hands so gentle she would have believed they had never held a gun. He’d promised he would keep her safe, that he would get them out of the city and the muck, that he was hers —
And, well, he hadn’t answered all of her questions, but then again, she hadn’t answered all of his either.
Morning inventory came up short.
She didn’t realize she was scowling until she passed Mrs. Smith herself, who looked positively alarmed at Brigid’s dark expression. Schooling her face, Brigid crossed the street with a purpose she didn’t actually have, hoping to avoid the older woman before she could inquire after her health and happiness.
Before she recognized where her feet were taking her, Brigid had made it to Garrison Lane. The eponymous pub stood sentinel at the end of the lane, its dark, golden letters glittering in the flickering light that erupted from the factory next door. The remains of Danny’s episode had been cleared, leaving the path to the doorway clear.
Damn — she’d never delivered the money to Harry.
Renewed with a purpose, Brigid stalked down the cobblestone street, dodging Jeremiah and his Bible with a wave of her hand.
She, at least, would do as she had been bid.
Inside, the dust was just beginning to settle from the midday rush to St. Andrews, pints and liquor bottles abandoned on every tabletop, the floor coated in a thick layer of muck and peanut shells. Not a soul remained on the patron side of the bar apart from weathered Mr. Auld, sleeping off his morning drink in the back booth. Harry, stooped from the busy opening hour, collected sticky glasses from empty booths and table, four to a hand, while Grace wiped down the bar.
“Afternoon,” Brigid called, catching both of their attentions.
“Brigid! It’s good to — girl, are you okay?” Harry’s eyes fell to her hands.
Confused by the alarm on his face, Brigid followed his gaze to find Arthur’s blood still staining the pale skin of her fingers, caked around her nails, dripped down her palms.
She forced herself to laugh around the taste of bile. “Oh, Finn fell, scratched up his knees — you know how he is.” Her tongue felt heavy, her cheeks burning under Grace’s gaze from behind the bar top and Harry’s poorly concealed alarm. “No wonder Mrs. Smith looked like she’d seen a ghost when I passed her. Could I use your washroom?”
Harry clapped a warm, broad hand across her slim shoulder, and she felt small. “Y’know the way.”
In the tiny washroom, Brigid scrubbed at her hands until the glacial water had chapped her hands, scraping blood out from under her fingernails with a tailor’s precision. The movement was methodical, almost calming.
Over the course of her life, she had found her hands stained bright scarlet far too many times for her liking — once after her mother cut herself chopping potatoes; too many times in the Birmingham veterans’ hospital; once when Patrick stumbled into Number Six under Tommy’s dead weight after they’d been jumped in Greet, blood leaking from his busted nose and the wound of Tommy’s first bullet. Her hands had shaken then — watching as Scudboat dug the bullet out of his shoulder and Tommy trembled, groaned, passed out from the pain — just as they did now.
To wipe the memory from her mind, Brigid looked up at herself in the mirror as she dried her hands on her skirt — her dark hair was haphazardly pulled back, her cheeks pale and washed out in the dim light as she came down from the hot flush of her anger. The neckline of her blouse had slipped, revealing a love bite on her collarbone that Tommy’s full lips had left for her that morning, back when they’d been so closely entwined that she couldn’t tell when she ended and he began.
Her stomach rocking, Brigid tugged her blouse back into place, took a deep breath, and pinched her cheeks to bring back some color.
Back in the front of the pub, Harry deposited eight smudged pint glasses atop the bar for Grace to sweep into the soapy sink basin, and so Brigid let herself behind the bar.
“Harry, I’ve something from Tommy,” she called, tugging open the bottom of the till. As she tucked the envelope of banknotes underneath the coin tray, shillings and pence clinked together. “Should cover all of it — maybe with interest.”
“Thanks, girl.” Harry waved over his stooped shoulder, now retrieving the broom to sweep up the morning dust.
Sighing, she forced the rusty till closed, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end from the sound — and the heavy weight of a gaze. At the other end of the bar, Grace stared, her blue eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Oh.” Brigid fumbled for the gate lock, slipping through to the appropriate side of the bar. “Sorry — not for patrons.”
Grace shook her head, her blonde curls sweeping about her shoulders, as if to bring herself out of a reverie. “I’m sorry myself,” she finally said. “Just remembering that I should keep that locked.”
“So, you should!”
They both laughed at Harry, who nudged Brigid with a knobbly elbow as he swept his way by her, peanut shells crunching under his boots. To busy her nervous hands, Brigid slid the collection of pint glasses and liquor tumblers down the long, scrubbed bar one-by-one so that Grace could collect them in the sink basin instead of coming to fetch them.
“Say,” she murmured, shoulders sagging when she finally settled on one of the cracked leather barstools, “could I take you up on that drink while you wash?”
The barmaid wiped her hands on her soft cotton apron, just as Brigid had not an hour prior, though, in her wake, she left only sticky ale stains instead of bright blood. “Of course,” she responded, prim. “What’ll you have?”
“Whiskey, please.” Brigid tucked a long, loose curl from behind her ear, briefly lamenting that the horse ride and the sex had ruined any chance of her looking presentable when Grace, even after a busy opening hour, still looked like a porcelain doll. “Irish.”
When she turned back from the glistening bar with the appropriate bottle in hand, Grace raised her brows, as if in conspiracy. “I’d have to disown you as a friend if you asked for anything else.”
She sloshed out a very generous three fingers into a fresh tumbler before sliding it across to Brigid, who snorted. Examining the fine, neat stitching on the waistband of her countrywoman’s skirt, she reflected that while Grace was certainly charming, friend might yet be presumptuous.
“Sláinte,” she said, raising her brow in turn, before tossing back a hearty shot.
Grace, lacking a drink of her own, held an empty, smudged pint glass aloft in a toast. “What brings you here, then?”
The whiskey sank, hot and alive, into Brigid’s chest, emanating from her ribs to her belly and down to her toes, and she followed the first burning sip with another. Quite some time had passed since she last indulged in whiskey. Indeed, it was hard to crave the drink that turned so many kind veterans into raging men — but as it sunk into her muscles, and she slumped forward onto her elbows, she understood.
Brigid nodded her head towards the till. “Finally delivering that money to Harry.”
“The very one.”
The sound of his name made her shoulders tense once more. She remembered his hands, hot on her waist and tight in her hair that morning; how they had been within a breath of one another, and yet his eyes never quite seemed to meet hers — even when he looked at her, he seemed far away.
Unease swelled in her belly, and she quashed it with another sip.
“I met him,” Grace said, sinking her hands into the deep basin of soapy water. It sloshed up and onto the bar top, and Brigid watched as the bubbles slid across the scrubbed oak. “He was very… severe. Is he always so?”
The unspoken question was apparent — is he the reason you’re drinking in a pub at half-one in the afternoon?
A frown turned Brigid’s face. He hadn’t mentioned meeting the Garrison’s new barmaid, and yet, as Arthur had articulated so eloquently, he didn’t mention much these days. This time, she savored the liquor before swallowing, and it burned just as much the fourth time as it did the first.
“Not always,” she reflected. “But I suppose all of the men came back more severe.”
“Everyone around here did. Called ‘em the Small Heath Rifles.” With her crystal glass sparkling in hand, she gestured to the street outside. “Now, they all act like they’re still fighting — brawling and yelling and staying out at all hours of the night.”
How many times had Arthur stumbled home so drunk he could barely keep his eyes open, let alone stand? How many times had Brigid herded the children back to Number Three and tucked them in herself, promising that their da would be there when they woke up, only to find him bloodied-knuckled and sleeping off the night in the betting shop the next morning?
“And Thomas does all of those things?” Looking up, she found Grace’s pale blue eyes fixed on her.
And Tommy —
She sounded like Polly, and it made her drink again.
“No, he doesn’t.” Brigid rested her chin in her empty hand, focusing on the delicate lace of Grace’s blouse instead of her strange, questioning eyes. “He’s not the same as before the War, but in that respect, he hasn’t changed.”
His easy confidence and friendly countenance had given way to a cold, calculating affectation. Tommy had always had his vices, smoking and drinking and gambling with the rest of them — but he always came home to her. He had promised he always would.
“You knew him before the War?” Glasses clinked together under the thick layer of soap suds, and Grace emerged with one in hand to scrub.
“Since we were kids — he proposed before he shipped out.”
Normally, she would have smiled — the thought of young Tommy and his bold, careless laugh could always bring a warmth to her heart — but something had frozen her face. Instead, she considered the ring on her finger, the small diamond flanked by creamy pearls, the delicate platinum filigree. The stone winked under the light streaming in from the high, cloudy windows. It remained an ever-present reminder of the mixed joy and terrible, terrible fear she had felt when he gave it to her all those years ago now, her heart tempestuous in her ribcage.
It had cut his face, when she slapped him after he told her about that French whore that seduced him in Paris — that he had let seduce him in Paris.
“You’re not married yet, though?”
Talking about Tommy had soured Brigid’s mood further in a way that felt too big to explain.
“No, we’re not.” Words clipped, she finally looked up, the crystal cool under her fingers, to fix Grace with a curious stare. “What about you? D’you have a beau?”
“Heavens, no.” When the barmaid shook her head, her perfectly coiled hair swept over her shoulders. “Men are too much trouble.”
“Hear, hear,” Brigid said, toasting her tumbler to Grace. This time, she was able to smile — she’d found herself missing the easy companionship of a woman, the kind that had kept her and Martha up, whispering and giggling under cold winter bedsheets, all through the night.
“What brings you to Small Heath, then, if not a man?” The barmaid had said she needed work, but there was far better work out there for someone who had clearly not spent much time, if any at all, actually working in a pub. “You’d need a good reason to wash up here.”
Grace’s mouth had quirked up in a matching smile as she scrubbed a slick, soapy tumbler with her towel.
But the door slamming behind Brigid prevented her from answering. Grace’s expression fell flat, and she averted her eyes down to the sink. Her tumbler clinking on the bar top, Brigid turned to see who had sobered Grace’s good humor so quickly, only to find John striding across the open front of the pub, still bare from Danny Whizz-Bang’s tear. He was capped and stood tall, requisite toothpick missing from his mouth.
“Mr. Shelby,” Harry muttered, tipping his head.
John didn’t acknowledge the barman as he passed, and the kindle of irritation in her chest that Grace had so briefly squashed flared again, ignited by the fresh wind that had followed John in. Turning her back to him, she took another sip of the amber liquor in her glass, hoping to finish her drink in peace. Her face still cast down, Grace nonetheless traced John’s approach over Brigid’s head, though she failed to welcome him as Harry had done.
A broad hand landed on her shoulder, much less comforting that Harry’s had been. “Bridie, can we talk?”
“We’re talking,” she responded, relishing the burn of whiskey in her ribs.
“You know what I mean.” He huffed, sounding put out — had she not known it to be him, Brigid would have thought it was his six-year-old son stomping his foot at her, demanding more pudding after his supper.
She let the pause between them drag on, heavy like a late summer afternoon, and finally met Grace’s gaze. The barmaid raised her eyebrows, just so, in that way women often did when men were present.
Finally, Brigid tossed back the last of her whiskey, and the sip went straight to her head, fuzzing the edges of her vision when she blinked. “Fine.”
Her boot heel caught on the barstool when she attempted to stand, forcing her to brace herself against the bar lest she trip and smack her nose against the polished oak. John’s hands, as quick as Arthur’s and as strong as Tommy’s, clamped around her waist to hold her steady. They were cool through the loose cotton of her blouse, trailing a little too long over her waist when she turned to confront him.
“I’m fine,” she said, blinking to clear her head of the shiver that raised the hairs on her arms. “What d’you have to say, then?”
His eyes slid over her shoulder. “Outside?”
“Slán go fóill, Grace the Barmaid,” Brigid muttered, pushing away from the bar.
This time, it was her that stomped like a child, crossing her arms as she passed Harry and his broom and his pointedly not-curious eyes. Behind her, she heard the clink of a coin on the bar, and then John’s footsteps followed.
In the bright, muddled chill of the afternoon, John nudged her into an alley to the left of the pub. They were sandwiched together between the grimy, soot-blackened bricks and an abandoned ale cask, and a flush rose to her cheeks at his proximity, at the heady whiskey rush in her head that hurt her eyes.
The liquor kept her from needing a coat to stay warm, but when she spotted her bag and coat tossed over his shoulder, she scrambled for them, not willing to thank him for his chivalry. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry if what I said upset you.” In the absence of his toothpick, John’s hands searched for something with which to fidget. They found the razored cap on his head, pulling it off and twisting it in pale fists.
“That’s not an apology,” Brigid accused.
“Course, it is — ”
“No, it’s not!” A hot fury welled within her, and she poked him in the necktie that she had ironed the day prior. When he took a step back, she drew a deep breath in the space he had left. “What Tommy and I do is none of — you don’t get to make me feel bad about him.”
“I didn’t — ”
She cut him off again. “It’s not my responsibility to — to loosen him up. I don’t know what has gotten into him lately, so you need to take that up with him, John Shelby, instead of taking it out on me!”
Breathless, anger hot on her cheeks, Brigid hugged her coat close to her chest, the wind stirring the curls that fell around her neck. The skinny alleyway prevented her from backing away any further, and so her outburst echoed, accusing, between them. The whiskey had left her feeling heavy, fatigued — she wanted to dash away once more, but she didn’t trust herself to do it without tripping, and she refused to trip in front of him.
John was staring at her, the lines of his face heavy, and he looked much older than his twenty-five years. Indeed, for once, he looked more like a father than a Peaky Blinder.
“I’m sorry,” he started again, “for what I said. It wasn’t fair.”
“Do you accept the apology?” Though his words had seemed genuine, annoyance clouded his face once more.
Out of respect for his attempt, Brigid frowned, chewed on the inside of her cheek to hold in her tirade. “I’m still not sure.”
A frustrated sigh burst from his lips. John raised his hands above his head, the peaked cap still twisted between them, as he took a step down the alley, wheeling around on one shined boot heel. Brigid stared, impassive, at the span of his shoulders, the wool of his suit jacket stretched between them, until he turned back to her.
His look was hard. “All right, listen.”
He pointed the cap at her, and Brigid would have laughed at the candor of the gesture if it hadn’t immediately sparked her rage again.
“You want me to — ”
“You know I couldn’t do any of this without you, yeah?”
His voice shrunk as he spoke, quietening until it was just above a whisper, as if every word cost him momentum. Brigid had to strain to hear, to comprehend, over the clanging B.S.A., and when her ears had finally strung his words together, the confession slipped into her lungs and made it hard to breathe.
“I don’t know how to do any of this,” he said, gruff, refusing now to meet her eyes. “I — I shipped out when Alice was only — what? Two? And I was never around anyway. I didn’t have to — I didn’t help Martha. I never learned.”
His dead wife’s name was softest on his lips, and the sound reached right into her ribcage and squeezed her hammering heart tight in its fist. The gaping part of her that still ached for her best friend could hardly stand to hear him say Martha’s name with such grief, not when he had used to say it with such starry-eyed wonder, not when it was the first time he’d uttered it since they reunited at the Birmingham train station weeks prior.
“John — ” Her voice cracked on his name.
“And you! The kids wouldn’t eat if it weren’t for you.” Scoffing, he tucked his cap back over his shorn hair, hands digging deep into the pockets of his overcoat. He continued with disgust. “Reckon they wouldn’t even have shoes.”
Turned away from her, John stared down the length of the empty, cluttered alley, high afternoon sun playing on his cheekbones. When she stepped forward, Brigid settled a hand in the crook of his elbow. “John, you’re…”
But the words left her. What could she say?
That he was doing his best? He certainly wasn’t — out at all hours of the night, letting them run amok, unaccompanied, down Watery Lane and terrorize the neighbors.
That he would learn? Not at his current rate, not when he hadn’t even thought to start leaving her money for their groceries until Polly confronted him, ferocious and protective.
That Martha would understand? Brigid couldn’t bring herself to utter that lie either, remembering the number of times she had dropped in on her dearest friend to find her nursing one of the twins, Alice clinging to her skirts, and hardly, barely, keeping it together.
Martha would have taught John how to parent their children, had he ever been around.
“I’m shitty at this,” he spat. “Don’t know how to take care of my own fuckin’ kids. You can say it.”
But Brigid sighed, unable to stop herself from leaning into him, the sharp memories of Martha settling into her fatigued, aching bones. Her head rested against his shoulder, and he tensed underneath her. “You were never meant to do it alone,” she finally whispered.
At the end of the alleyway, Small Heath ran like clockwork — men pushing wheelbarrow-loads full of coal to the factory, women hauling market wares back to their homes. Brigid nearly expected to spot Little John chasing James across the cobblestones.
They watched the city, tucked together, in a longer silence than John Shelby ever allowed. She thought she could hear his heartbeat against her ear.
“S’pose I’m not doing it alone.” His voice was gentle — they may have been hidden in a slim alleyway, but it felt almost too intimate for public. “Got you, don’t I?”
He rested a bare, callused hand atop hers, and the warmth was familiar and strange at the same time.
“They do feel like mine.”
The confession heated her cheeks. The girls, with their fine chestnut hair and rosy cheeks, were spitting images of Martha, and both boys had his full cheeks and Shelby blue eyes, but when she plaited the girls’ hair or mended the tears in the boys’ trousers, she thought of her own precious mother. Brigid thought of her mother’s fingers in her hair and remembered the number of times she had woken up on the chaise lounge over her own unfinished mending to her mother’s kiss at her temple, sending Brigid up to bed.
Don’t trouble yourself, love, Eleanor Murphy had said, her blue eyes lined with fatigue. I’ll finish it up. Gealltanas mé.
I promise. Her mother had always promised, no matter how full her plate was.
“And I don’t mind helping you, John, I don’t. But — ”
She would never tell him — could hardly admit it to herself — but when she held Little John in her arms, still squalling and slick from birth as Polly fluttered around Martha, Brigid had cried. She had thought of the baby she lost, and for the briefest moment, the blood and pain felt like a dream.
Brigid’s eyes were burning. “They’re not.” It was more to remind herself than anyone else. “They’re not mine. So, you need to help, too.”
Something like anger welled up in her again — whether at herself or John, she couldn’t say.
“I will.” He heaved a sigh. “I can try for you, Bridie.”
“No,” she said, sharp as broken glass. Her belly flipped, uneasy, as dangerous as leaning forward over a galloping horse. “Not for me — do it for your children.”
Slán go fóill = Goodbye for now
Gealltanas mé = I promise
hope you enjoyed this! please please let me know what you think below, and come hang with me on tumblr if you'd like
this is my nano project this year, so i may be slower than usual in responding, but responding to comments is the best writing break!
Chapter 5: v.
hello hello - thanks to everyone who's read so far! nanowrimo is going well-ish (i'm a few thousand words behind schedule, but given that i couldn't really start until the 4th, i'm not worried yet lol), and i'm really excited about how this story is shaping up. but i'll be the first to admit that i'm kind of drowning in words, so editing this felt kind of like an uphill battle. so if you see anything incorrect, pls let me know lol
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“God, are they singing?” Ada sniffed and tugged her delicate, fur-lined shawl closer around her shoulders, the displeasure clear on her face.
Ahead of them, the Garrison’s windows burned orange, dark shadows lively along the glass panes, and filtering out of the open door were dozens of rowdy, rousing voices carrying the same melody.
It brought a smile to Brigid’s lips, and she squeezed Ada’s arm, entwined with her own. “Oh, isn’t it lovely?”
“Absolutely not.” Ada had already taken a step back, slipping out of Brigid’s grip, and turned her nose up to the darkened sky. With the waning moonlight high on her cheekbones, she looked haughty, fragile, like an inner-city rich girl.
“Ada — ”
“Bridie, you know I love you, but I won’t listen to it.”
Frowning, Brigid took the younger girl’s hands in her own to prevent her from stalking back up Garrison Lane. “You’re no fun, Ada Shelby.”
“They’re no good, Brigid Murphy!” Ada laughed, pressed a kiss to Brigid’s cool cheek, and then slipped away once more.
Brigid pulled her coat tighter around her shoulders as Ada’s figure retreated, the lines of her growing fuzzy in the dark smog. “Be safe!”
A match flame flared, illuminating the hand that Ada waved over her shoulder in acknowledgment.
Distinctly put out, Brigid turned back to the pub, shifting her weight on uncertain feet. She’d anticipated a warm evening in the pub’s snug over a glass of gin, catching up with her soon-to-be sister-by-law after too many evenings spent cooking and cleaning, mending and balancing books. Weeks had passed since she was able to catch Ada before she snuck away to meet with the man about whom she’d been so tight-lipped, but Brigid’s brief victory slipped away as quickly into the night as the girl herself.
Now, standing alone in the middle of Garrison Lane, Brigid paused. She would have been better off curling up with a book, making sure the kids were locked up in Number Three — anything but going to a pub by herself, even if Tommy Shelby’s ring circling her finger would protect her from any untoward advances.
“I would say such wonderful things to you… There would be such wonderful things to do…”
The song, warbling like a scratched record, lacked accompaniment, and imaginary piano notes floated in Brigid’s ears. It had been so long since she played for anyone other than the children — a poor tribute to the hours she’d spent at her mother’s side on the piano bench.
“If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy!”
The final note gave way to vigorous applause, and Brigid made her decision.
On the other side of the rickety door, the pub thrummed with heat and energy, loud with conversation and the pattering of applause that tapered off as ruddy, soot-blackened men raised their pints to Grace. The barmaid stood atop a chair at the back of the pub, hands on her hips, face flushed with praise — she looked stately, statuesque, at the helm of the crowd.
And something uncertain, something heavy and jealous, crawled up Brigid’s throat.
“What next?” Mr. Edwards roared at the front of the crowd, his amber ale still held aloft. At his side, old Mr. Auld gave a toothless grin.
Grace, her smile wide, looked up from the pair to address the crowd with a wave of her hand. “Any requests?”
“Would you like accompaniment?” The question slipped out, unbidden, before Brigid could stop it.
The crowd quieted, turning in waves back to the door, as they sipped their pints and wet their lips for the next round.
“Do you play?” Grace’s smile shrunk, giving way to an expression that could have been impressed, that could have been a challenge. She swept her blonde curls over a slim shoulder.
“Does she play!” Harry’s deep, jovial voice cut through the crowd’s shouts of approval, and then he appeared, weaving through the crowd towards her with outstretched hands. “Course, she does — learned from her mum! Go on, girl, I’ll get you a drink.”
The barman nudged her forward, and a delighted laugh bubbled up from Brigid’s chest. The men parted, giving way for her to approach Grace’s pedestal at the back of the pub, and as Brigid approached, Mr. Edwards was already pulling out the old upright piano. She’d hidden it behind a stack of old barstools, in-tune and dust-free only due to her careful attention — every few weeks, she would stop by to keep it in working condition and entertain Harry while he swept, but it hadn’t yet felt appropriate to sing in the pub, not when it was so often a place for downtrodden veterans to mourn lost comrades.
“Do you have any favorites?” Grace looked down from atop her perch as Brigid took her seat at the bench, the question punctuated by the sharp smack Mr. Edwards gave the top of the piano as he passed by. The barmaid smoothed her rich burgundy skirt. “I don’t want to sing anything you might not know.”
Before she could respond, a dark pint was shuffled into her hands by Mrs. Donne, the frothy stout sloshing precariously close to the rim. Harry waved from behind the bar, and Brigid had to steady it to keep it from spilling out onto her nicest satin dress.
Mr. Auld, long past a younger man’s courtesy, japed, “You might want to ask yerself the question dear — she’s been singing’ in this pub since she would walk!”
Turning to Mr. Edwards, the old man laughed at his own joke, and Brigid couldn’t stop the grin that curled around the lip of the pint glass. As prone to exaggeration as he was, Mr. Auld was not entirely correct, since Eleanor Murphy had not let her daughter step foot in a pub until she was at least sixteen. Yet, Brigid and Patrick had plunked at the piano together on many long evenings before the war to a no less rowdy crowd than the one in front of her now.
Though she loved playing, she’d always been happy to let Patrick take center stage. He was the natural musician in the family, after all, and he had radiated, leading them through chorus after chorus with his lovely tenor, from the attention. The others might have been flushed from the drink, but he’d been flushed from the thrill of it all.
“You can surprise me,” Brigid said, flashing Grace a very Patrick-like smirk — she was still his sister, after all, even if the hole he’d left in her heart gaped open, bleeding and aching from grief.
Grace, as gracious as ever, tipped her head and turned back to the quietening, shuffling crowd.
Brigid’s bravado left with the noise, the hint of panic swelling in her belly, but she soothed herself with a deep breath, practiced fingers perched and ready atop the ivory keys — Patrick had never told her what song he had planned before he launched into the next, approaching his performance with the easy confidence with which he approached life. This was nothing new.
Grace’s voice, a low, sweet alto, rang clear. “Oh, say, let us fly, dear! Where, kid? To the sky, dear!”
Laughing, Brigid remembered how Patrick would lift his dark brows on every up! and jumped in to join Grace on the next verse, as did the crowd, rough and out-of-tune and lovely.
Within only moments, Brigid was flushed from the heat of the lamps and attention, but time nonetheless slipped away as they continued. Grace, though not as eager a performer as Patrick had been, led Brigid a similarly eclectic variety of songs — Someone Else May Be There While I’m Gone, Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty and Danny Boy, the last of which brought tears to sweet Mrs. Edwards’ eyes and ended with another toast to those they had lost.
Brigid wiped a stray tear from her cheek, blinking as she looked up at the barmaid. “Something happier, perhaps?”
Without waiting, her fingers launched them into I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am!, a plucky rendition that had always sent Patrick atop a barstool to conduct the crowd with a horrible London accent of his own to encourage the rest. He’d always fancied himself a performer, and Brigid supposed that if they hadn’t been born in Small Heath, if he hadn’t been sent to die in Flanders, he very well could have been.
The crowd was out of breath by the time the rousing song had ended, but Brigid didn’t give them a moment to come down from the high — Paddy McGinty’s Goat and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary quickly followed, Molly Malone and The Hills of Connemara capping it off, all jovial drinking songs she’d picked up over the years of requests.
Grace herself was out of breath, flushed and bright until the warm, glinting light, and as the crowd took full advantage of the outro to drink and fetch another round, she leaned down close to Brigid’s ear. “Reckon we should give them a break, you think?”
Drawing herself up to her full height, Grace sang over the low din of the pub. “I am dreaming, dear, of you, day by day…”
Patrick had never had much patience for slow, pensive songs, but if anyone could stand in front of dozens of men and play the role of sweetheart, it was golden, gracious Grace. They fell silent once more, swaying as the barmaid carried them through the first verse, humming along until Brigid swooped in with the accompaniment.
And Brigid had never been much of a singer herself, but she’d spent enough time in Mass to know when a harmony was needed.
So, on the chorus, she joined. “Let me call you ‘sweetheart,’ I’m in love with you… Let me hear you whisper that you love me, too…”
The warmth of a home hearth grew in the pub and Brigid’s belly, and she looked out at the crowd as she played — their eyes, their red cheeks, their smiles. It was lovely to be among them, to lift their spirits for the evening, to watch as husbands pulled wives up to dance in the crowded, cluttered pub.
But shadows were moving outside of the milky glass door, dark silhouettes framed by the oak, and then the door opened to reveal the Peaky Blinders, Tommy at their helm.
Brigid hadn’t needed to watch the keys as she played since she was a girl, but at the sight of him, when their eyes met over the capped heads of the crowd, her thumb slipped. Dissonant, almost like a death knell, it startled the men, who looked, shuffled and hunched, turning away from Brigid and Grace atop her chair.
But Grace didn’t stop. She stared across at Tommy, who removed his cap slowly, taking in the scene in front of him, and the Peaky boys came to a stop behind him. Her hands fell to her hips as if she had something to prove —
Brigid’s neck burned, the soft hairs there raising on end. She was all too aware of the matching sets of blue eyes — Tommy and John — that fell to her as her harmony swooped above Grace’s for the final verse. She stared, resolute, at her pale fingers against the ivory keys, and felt for a moment as if she’d been caught breaking the rules.
“Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true. Let me call you ‘sweetheart,’ I’m in love with you.”
This time, no applause accompanied their last note. Instead, it fell on deaf ears and downturned faces as men muttered into their pints, and in the silence that followed, Brigid busied her shaking hands with a long sip of her stout. Tommy still stood in the entryway, flanked by curious Peaky Blinders.
Above the embarrassed hamming of her heart in her ears, Harry’s footsteps carried. He stepped forward, slightly stooped, his humble grin marred by nerves. “We haven’t had singing in here since the War.”
Tommy’s cold eyes met hers, and through the dozens of grey men sat between them, Brigid felt laid bare, the breath leaving her lungs. “Why do you think that is, Harry?”
His gaze slid away, and then he turned, making for the snug, with the Peaky boys at his heels. His motion broke the dangerous stillness that had fallen in the pub, quiet conversations resuming between tilted heads, around foaming pints. The last to follow his brother into the private room, John shot Brigid an imploring look, toothpick working between his lips.
Was she the one meant to deal with this? In the front row, Mr. Auld’s stony stare seemed to indicate yes.
Resigned, Brigid stared into her murky, too-warm pint, not sparing a glance as Grace hopped down from her chair on gentle feet to join Harry behind the bar. A shuffle arose from the back of the pub as men grumbled, donning their coats and downing their ales, and exited out into the cold night through the path the Peaky Blinders had cleared.
She took her time — neatly tucking the upright back into its corner, slipping the bench underneath, tossing back the last of her pint even though the tepidity twisted her mouth. Her hair had begun to slip from its pins while playing, and so she meticulously tucked the loose curls stuck to her sweaty neck back into her chignon. Though she had approached the pub intending to curl up in the snug, she now dreaded it, dreaded facing whatever black mood had clouded Tommy’s eyes. Irritation and embarrassment dueled in her belly, and joining them, inexplicably, was grief.
Grief for the Small Heath she knew — no less dirty but much less scarred. Grief for the bounding warmth that had pulsed in the pub before the Peaky Blinders marched in.
Grief for Patrick.
In the snug, men had shed their coats on the rack by the door and parted to let her through, murmuring acknowledgments, tipping cats — Lovelock clapped a hand on her shoulder, passing by her to fetch a pint, and Brigid forced herself to smile at him before her eyes fell to Tommy. He was already nursing a tumbler of amber whiskey, unmoving, watching with pale eyes as Grace passed pints of ale through the window to the rest of the men. John, a dark specter by the window, spotted her when he turned around and passed her the fresh pint in his hand before grabbing another.
“You haven’t played like that in a long time, Bridie.” The heat of the small room reddened his cheeks. “Reckon you’re still the best in Small Heath.”
Brigid gave a wavering smile, the praise sinking down into her hammering heart, but before she could string together clumsy words in an acknowledgment, Tommy gestured to her with his whiskey glass, the crystal winking in the lamplight. “What the hell was that?”
The men averted their eyes, but Brigid forced herself to look at him, to take the same measured tone she used with the children when they needed reprimanding. “Singing — like we used to.”
“You think these men are in the mood for singing?” He scoffed, pulling out a cigarette.
Unceremoniously, she dropped the pint to the scrubbed table before her, ignoring the unintended force that caused the frothy, amber liquid to spill down the side of the mug. Brigid imagined that she had been carved of stone, expression immobile, as hard as the pit in her stomach.
“They seemed to enjoy it.”
“Of course, they did — why would they, when they get to watch you and that barmaid put on a show?”
He had always enjoyed watching her, as little as he seemed to remember it. The only time Tommy would come to the Garrison and not hole himself up in the snug was when she and Patrick were at the helm, watching them with heavy eyes from the back of the pub. He’d once told her that she’d never looked happier.
Dissatisfaction cracked her facade, and she longed for the pint she had slammed down, for something to quench the anger that flared in her chest. She had never wanted to embarrass Tommy in front of his friends and associates, but his heady eyes stared her up and down as if she were nothing more than a pretty bird he expected to decorate his arm.
“Have you considered, Tommy,” she began, hoping that the tremble in her voice was discernible only to herself, “that we’re trying to move on? That just because you’re miserable, it doesn’t mean everyone else has to be?”
He shook his head in what could have passed for disbelief. “Have you considered it’s not your job to make everyone happy?”
He might have slapped her — it would have hurt less. Someone gave a low whistle, and through the crack in the snug’s shutters, Grace’s blonde hair glinted.
“Well, someone has to,” she shot back, mouth flattening to prevent her lips from trembling. Something ugly and large and entirely too difficult to explain reeled inside her, and her mouth moved faster than her head. “I’ll be singing in this pub every fucking Saturday, whether you like it or not — come by when you’re ready to join us.”
The snug’s heavy door slammed behind her, cutting through the low din of the pub as effectively as her piano, and then she was marching out into the cold night. So much of her joy since the men returned from the War, since she found herself trying to keep the fractured pieces of Martha’s life and family together, since she had been left with only the whispered memory of her dear brother, had come from Tommy. It seemed only fitting that it was he who ripped this recovered delight from her.
Brigid made it a block before the tears were burning hot on her flushed cheeks.
The betting shop door burst open with a bang, bouncing on its hinges and then falling shut. From her perch in Tommy’s worn leather desk chair, Brigid lacked the vantage point to see who had entered the gloomy shop at such a late hour. Yet it took only a moment of careful attention to the heavy footfalls to discern.
After a day missing in action, Tommy had returned.
“Where are you?”
Arthur’s whiskey bottle slammed on a desk, the liquor sloshing out in a heavy wave, and then he strode out of sight. The whiskey puddled on the floor, candlelight dancing in its reflection.
“It bloody won! Monaghan Boy bloody won!”
His palpable fury was met with a long silence, and Brigid stared resolutely at the numbers in front of her, trying to tune it all out, even as the fog of dread clouded the edges of her vision.
Dozens of men had cycled in and out of the shop to collect their winnings after the news came in from the track, drumming up dust and hollering with victory. Raging over the horse’s win, Arthur had done little all evening apart from wear a track on the scuffed wooden floor, cursing, breathing down everyone’s neck. John swore at him after the fourth time Arthur challenged the odds he had set on Monaghan Boy’s race, sweeping out of the shop with his razored cap low over his eyes. Not an hour prior, Brigid had finally sequestered herself from the rest in Tommy’s office so that she could balance the accounts and come down from the day’s haste in peace.
Tommy was responding to Arthur now, hissing low. “And the third time we do it — ”
She had no desire to listen to the brothers fight, not when they’d done so little else since returning from France. The harsh words made her skin crawl, unable to reconcile the memory of their once-good natures with the restrained fury they now dealt.
“ — a thousand quid bet on the magic horse. And that time, when we are ready — ”
Brigid sighed, swilling the whiskey around in her tumbler, and tossed back a too-large sip that burned all the way down to her belly.
“Think about it.”
Tommy punctuated his admonition with the slam of a book. His footsteps, sure and strong, carried him closer and closer, and Brigid shrunk in his chair, not wanting to face him when his mood was so black, not when she hadn’t seen him since that dreadful confrontation in the Garrison’s snug. His wrath followed him like a death knell, and she hadn’t the vaguest idea of where he’d been all day, but it had twisted him until he was tight with fury and spat him back to Watery Lane.
She hoped he would pass by, that he would continue into Number Six where Polly was waiting for him.
“What are you doin’ in here?”
Brigid saw his boots, shining like oil on water, before she could bring her eyes up to his face. He was oddly pale even in the low lamplight, almost sickly. The ink from her pen dripped down on the margin of the accounts, and with a swear, she looked down to blot it away, but —
“There’s blood on your collar.”
She stared below his jaw, studying the dried brown spots, instead of meeting his eyes. Heaving a sigh, he tossed the heavy leather ledger in his hands to the flat of the desk, just to her right, rattling the fragile porcelain inkwell and the crystal lamp. His newly freed hands dug in his pockets for his cigarette tin.
“Well, I just shot Danny Whizz-Bang, didn’t I?” Voice breathless, he struck a match and lit the cigarette, only to exhale a thick cloud of tobacco smoke into the heavy pause he left.
Brigid gaped, her heart in her throat. “What — ”
“He’s alive.” Tommy raised his brows as if he couldn’t comprehend her shock, as if he didn’t know that she’d spent a month reading to Danny every day as he convalesced in the Birmingham veterans’ home. “Sheep’s brains.”
The explanation he tacked on made no sense. “Wh — why?”
He acted as if he’d done all necessary explaining, as if she should have read his mind and understood his motivations even when he did such a stellar job of hiding them from everyone, and most of all her. “He bayonetted an Italian, so we had to get him out of the city.”
Forcing herself to draw in a deep breath, Brigid leveled him with a blank stare, attempted to project an aura of calm, even as blood rushed in her ears.
“Does Rose know?”
“No.” Again, he looked at her as if she had grown a second head, or as if she were really as stupid as he could make her feel.
Brigid’s heart sank to her belly, remembering Danny’s devoted wife and the two shy boys that had accompanied her every day on her visits to the hospital, each of them spitting images of their father. Her breathing came quick — they would be devastated —
“Tommy — ”
“What are you doin’, eh?” He gestured to the open ledger in front of her with his cigarette.
“Think of his family — ”
“Was lookin’ for those.” He lurched forward as if exhausted, but when he leaned close over the book, the heady liquor on his breath was hot, potent. He’d always been able to hold his drink better than any of the rest of them, but it meant he didn’t know his limits, either — he was as like to stumble home drunk as John, and usually, much worse for wear.
Brigid sat back in his chair, the old wood creaking underneath her, and blinked away a hot rush to her eyes. “Tommy, love, Rose will be devastated.”
“I’ll not talk about this with you, and that’s final.” Hands braced on the desk, he let his head lean forward. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, but Brigid nonetheless felt small in his presence. “Now, why d’you have the books?”
Swallowing the dark, severe protest in her throat, Brigid pushed the book across the desk to him. Like a child, she curled her feet up under her, knees close to her chest. “We had a big day. I wanted to make sure everything added up, like always.”
An exhale of smoke clouded his face. “That’s John’s job.”
“I’ve always done the books,” she said, an ugly heat rising to her cheeks. She wasn’t doing anything improper, anything out of order — only what she’d been bid. He’d asked her to cut back on her hours at the dress shop so she could work more around Watery Lane.
“I want John on top of the books, not you.”
His tone brooked no argument, and even though they were alone, she felt just as humiliated as when he caught her serenading the entire Garrison, as when she stalked out of the pub in near tears, cheeks flushed from the drink and embarrassment. In an attempt to hide the swell of emotion in her chest, Brigid stood and tossed her pen down, forcefully casual, onto the open ledger.
She tried not to care as it dripped over the Daily Total column and blackened the figures she’d so carefully tracked and added. Reaching for her bag to busy anxious hands, she spoke to the desk. “What can I do around here, then?”
“Fuck,” he said, wincing, rubbing his hand across his forehead as if to soothe a headache. The cigarette still smoldered in the other, forgotten. “I don’t bloody know, I didn’t come here to — ”
“Fine.” When she heaved her bag onto her shoulder, the strap caught in her hair, tugging the heavy knot of curls loose, and they fell in a thick sheet down her back. “Tell me in the morning. Goodnight, Thomas.”
She had hoped to stay the night — hoped that after she embarrassed him in the Garrison, she might curry his favor again in bed, as they so often did these days. They might have struggled to actually talk to one another, but their mouths had never hesitated over each other’s skin.
But now, Brigid felt simply foolish, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth as she shouldered past him.
“Brigid — ”
For the second time in as many meetings, Brigid found herself striding away from him, a distinct, monstrous ache growing in her chest where her heart should have been.
Outside of his office, Arthur has collapsed against a desk, head cradled in his hands and a nearly empty bottle of whiskey at his side. The sight burned behind her eyes long after she had escaped the heat of the shop for the cool evening.
Tugging her threadbare cardigan closer around her shoulders, Brigid stooped to pull a damp pair of her father’s trousers from the basket at her feet. Stood in their small back garden, the wind stung at her chapped red hands, but the weak sunlight carried the promise of spring, and she would have been daft not to take advantage of the southerly wind, carrying the factory smog to the other side of the city, and string up the washing.
As she did, she added her own melody to the city’s clamor, an old Irish hymn that her mother had often hummed while doing her chores. Small Heath, after all, was never quiet. Ever during its slowest hours, the factories banged and clanged, men hollered in pubs, and children squealed, high-pitched, as they darted down the wide lanes in worn shoes. Mr. Robertson, four doors down, was nearly always yelling at his poor wife, and the canal crews coordinating their wares down the tight curves of the Cut three streets back shouted even more frequently.
To live in Small heath, one had to learn to tune out the din, and that had been a skill her mother held in spades, whether at the piano bench or singing as she strung up the washing. So it was that Brigid hardly noticed the violent knocks, the whistles and the dogs, until it was at her own front door.
“Police! Open up!”
Fear sucked the breath from her lungs, and the hymn died mid-chorus — tossing the trousers back to the basket, she wiped her shaking hands on her apron.
The windows shuddered from the force of another set of knocking, but as Brigid stepped back into the darkened house, there was no other announcement before the door was kicked in. Her blood ran cold, turning the corner to find no less than six coppers stomping through their front parlor, upturning cushions and rugs, emptying drawers and closets. The front door hung off its hinges, giving her a glimpse of the street outside — dozens of black-capped coppers swarming like ants, shattered windows and glinting glass on the cobblestones, her neighbors dragged shoeless from their homes in dressing gowns and handcuffs.
“Can I help you?” Brigid planted her feet firmly on the ground, arms crossed, projecting a confidence that her shaking voice betrayed.
An impassive pair of eyes met hers before slipping away as if they hadn’t even seen her. Two of the coppers disappeared upstairs, while another shouldered past her into the kitchen, knocking her into the wall. In the chaos, one upended their old chaise lounge, and the crack of the old oak against the floor cut through the hurried footsteps, the shouting in the street.
A heat had come to her face, and she stepped forward, hands on her waist. “You can’t just march in here — ”
But she cut herself off with a choke — one of the coppers ripped open her mother’s hutch and promptly began to sweep the delicate pieces out onto the floor. The blue and white porcelain shattered on the floor in a heavy, terrible wave, piling at his dark boots, crunching under his heels.
And Brigid was striding forward before she could think, before she could even process what she was seeing, hands outstretched as if to strike him.
“Stop — ”
He turned — grave, impassive — and then a heavy blow landed across her cheek.
The unexpected force sent her stumbling back on unsteady feet, brought the wicked-sharp taste of blood to her mouth. Brigid gasped, reeling, as white stars spun behind her eyes — the trembling hand she pressed to her throbbing mouth came away red. Her lip stung, hot pain radiating down to her jaw and neck, and as she blinked away the shock, the copper’s eyes slid over her as if she were little more than the scum on the bottom of his shined shoe.
For the briefest moment, Brigid felt frozen — small. The fury that had risen like an ugly tide in her chest had been smothered by the sad, shattered porcelain at her feet. She stared, and stared, and found herself gasping for air, her own scarlet blood dripping into her spread hands.
Until, through the clamor — the whistles and the shouts and the stomps, echoing loud and horrible, shaking the very foundation of the house — another man’s sure, casual footsteps crossed her threshold.
Aged, grey, he checked his pocket watch as if this were no more than a routine inspection. His bowler hat and drab trench coat marked him separate from the others in their inky uniforms, and he sported what could almost be classified as a smirk instead of a solemn frown. As he strode into the parlor, the weak morning sunlight and the destruction in his wake silhouetted him.
He had ordered this. Of that much, Brigid was sure.
Swallowing the blood in her mouth, Brigid fought to school her face, hoped that the heat and damp on her jaw was blood and not furious, humiliated tears. She was not a child, and she was not a frightened, anonymous damsel — she straightened her spine.
He slowed to a stop only feet from her, tall and impassable and inexcusably smug.
Brigid expected he might hit her as well, just to prove that he could. After all, was that not what this entire affair was? A show of power? It had been his bread and butter in Belfast — midnight and morning raids, cracking skulls and bones on the pavement, coshes and bludgeons whenever the people got a little too bold.
Instead, when he raised his hand, it was to pull an immaculate, ironed handkerchief from his inside suit pocket.
She thought she heard her blood drip on the scuffed wooden slats at her feet.
“For your lip, miss.”
If she had still held any doubts about his identity, the deep brogue would have confirmed her suspicions.
Her eyes slid from his face to the handkerchief, considering. Brigid had inherited her temper and her tongue from her mother, but Eleanor Murphy had taught her daughter a woman’s courtesy — her own hard-earned lesson. She knew the strength of a smile and nod, the power of a well-timed apology, the occasional necessity of acquiescence.
And so Brigid took the handkerchief, inclining her head. “Thank you, sir.”
The stiff cotton stung against her split lip, but nevertheless, Brigid wiped her face, meticulously, carefully to hide her shaking fingers, until his handkerchief shone red with her blood.
All the while, he watched her like he might watch a beetle scuttle across the floor — Brigid was acutely aware of her frayed old skirt and stained apron, the untamed, frizzy curls spilling from the clip at her neck, the blood that had dripped and dried on her blouse. It seemed that he, too, had learned his courtesies, though not as well as she. The disgust in his eyes was plain, and Brigid hoped that he could not find it mirrored in her own.
When she offered the scarlet handkerchief back to him, he denied her with a gloved hand. His lip curled. “Keep it.”
Brigid drew her hand back, forcing a placable smile that ripped open her lip, the pain almost blinding. “May I ask what you gentlemen are searching for? Perhaps I could help you.” The gentility of the statement curdled in her stomach like old milk.
But Inspector Campbell no longer studied her face. Rather, his eyes had fallen to her hand — tinged red, still clutched around his handkerchief, her small platinum ring winking in the light that shone through the open doorway.
“My, my,” he started, scoffing. “He steals the hard-earned money off every poor devil in this city, and that’s all he can buy you?”
Red-hot rage flared like a factory fire in her chest. Had she been younger — had she known a little less about the dozens of bodies he’d left piled up behind him in Ireland — she might have lashed out. She might have smacked him, leaving a bloody mark of her own.
But she wasn’t young, not anymore. Brigid had seen as much hardship and despair and death as anyone else, and she fancied herself to be quite canny. Whether he knew it or not, his statement had revealed his mission, and that, Brigid could not ignore.
He knew who she was, just as she knew him.
So, instead of striking the Inspector, Brigid let his handkerchief fall to the floor. She let herself twist her ring around and around her finger, feeling cold under his gaze, and if the movement was mostly to comfort herself instead of for show, well — he didn’t need to know that.
“I heard you never married, Inspector Campbell.” She weighed her words to keep her voice level, glancing up at him through her lashes. “One’s left to wonder what you know about rings, or what goes into buying them.”
The self-satisfied smirk had returned to deepen the lines of his face, as if to crack open his polite facade and reveal the horror underneath. “So, you know who I am, Miss Murphy?”
Inspector Campbell stepped forward, sure-footed, until he was so close that she could smell the stench of old tobacco. But Brigid refused to cow, no matter how fast her heart hammered in her throat. Instead, she found herself peering up at him — he was quite tall, taller than she would have expected for a man of his age and titanic tactics, who had to snatch up good, law-abiding boys from the shadows and rip mothers from their homes on Saturday mornings as a show of strength.
“Your reputation from Belfast does precede you, Inspector,” she said. “I’ve kin there, you know.”
Above her head, the other coppers rifled through their wardrobes, ripped the carefully pressed sheets from the beds, upturned trunks and cases — thirty years of their family’s lives at their mercy — and all the while, searching, searching, searching.
In the parlor, the air had gone still. Brigid could hear her heart as strongly as she could feel it.
Even as Inspector Campbell’s smile stretched higher, it failed to meet his cruel eyes. They had narrowed, staring down the long slope of his nose to meet hers. “And what else did your family tell you?”
“To not cross you in a dark alley, chief among others.”
It was a foolish statement, the kind more likely to drip from Patrick’s confident lips than her own — but a flush of triumph warmed her cheeks regardless. The silence that followed was thicker than the black smoke the factories spewed into the hazy sky, but the flurry of rage on Inspector Campbell’s pockmarked face cut through it with much more success than the sun ever had against Birmingham’s smog.
Brigid waited, unwilling to breathe. Her fingers had paused around her ring, the rounded cut of the diamond digging into her opposing thumb.
Soon enough, his expression settled — a slight, unsettling smile, as still as pond water. He leaned down until he was just centimeters away, tobacco and his morning tea still lingering on his hot, heavy breath.
“Then you’ll also know, Miss Murphy, that I’ve little patience for Fenian scum,” he said, voice adjacent to a snarl, and tilted his head as if she were a particularly complicated painting, “and no patience for liars.”
Her heart in her ears, Brigid matched his smile. “I’ve told you no lies, Inspector Campbell — I’m not so skilled in that theater.”
“You mean it doesn’t run in the family?”
Outside, a shattering sound echoed, a vase or liquor bottle thrown to the cobblestones, and Brigid hoped the Inspector did not see her startle. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re implying.”
Campbell watched her for another long moment, careful, and then, as if he realized that she refused to be physically intimidated, he took a step back. Brigid breathed into the space he had left, hoping that her relief did not show on her face. A tremble had taken up host in her fingers, and so she tucked her hands behind her back, locking them together.
The pieces of splintered porcelain crunched under his shoes, and it sliced through her chest. How dare he?
“Perhaps, Inspector” — Brigid’s voice trembled, but in her head, she was Patrick; tall and unafraid, always seeking the upper hand — “you might give me a hint as to why you and your officers are here in my home, rifling through my private property on a Saturday morning.”
He chuckled, plucking a tobacco pipe from his suit pocket, and shook his head. “The nerve.”
Brigid smiled, her cheeks aching from the extended courtesy, insides rocking like a shop sign in a wind storm, and did not answer. He struck a match, held it aloft to the pipe, exhaled a heavy cloud of smoke — an unremarkable act, one she’d watched Tommy perform thousands of times. Yet, where Tommy smoked a cigarette as if it were the means to an end, Inspector Campbell seemed to relish the act itself, as if he were a professor or businessman ready to impart invaluable wisdom. Even through the hot thrum of her heart, Brigid found it remarkable how men could so easily don arrogance, as quickly as they might a coat on a chilly evening.
“Do you know what I’m looking for, Miss Murphy?” The words growled through his pipe’s smoke.
Shifting her weight from one foot to another, Brigid regarded him carefully. “I’m afraid I don’t know what’s brought you to Birmingham, sir. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not in my home.”
As he paced, his eyes dragged across the destruction his raid had left: their only portrait — Brigid, sunburnt and smiling, sat next to her freckled mother; Patrick tall and gangly, his button nose upturned, stood beside their father, a hand on her shoulder — and the upended chaise lounge, the remnants of her sewing box and porcelain shards scattered across the floor.
A trio of heavy footsteps startled her, and Brigid tore her eyes from the Inspector for the first time since he’d entered the parlor. Behind her, the coppers that had torn through the upper levels had returned.
The middle one, clad in a sergeant cap, confirmed her claim. “Nothing suspicious, sir.”
The sergeant was unfamiliar, though clearly a Birmingham native. The first constable could have been a Special in a spare uniform, for all she knew, and the second —
Brigid would have laughed if she thought she could get away with it, if her mouth wasn’t bitter with the taste of bile. The second constable, pale in the cheeks, cap askew, observed her with poorly concealed horror — Edward Ferguson, twenty-one, lived in Green Lanes with his mother and two younger sisters and received five pounds every fortnight from the Peaky Blinders to slip them information from inside the Greater Birmingham Police Station.
“Very well,” Campbell said, huffing his pipe once more. “Keep on!”
The sergeant nodded, just once, as his heels clicked together, and then the three of them clambered toward the door. As he passed, Constable Ferguson’s wide eyes met Brigid’s, almost as if begging for mercy, as if wishing he could utter his last words when his tongue had already been cut out.
She kept her face impassive, but Brigid knew already that she wouldn’t tell Tommy — this time.
The house was left in silence, the dust settling. And though she was now truly alone with the Inspector, an eerie power coursed through Brigid’s veins, hot and terrible and marvelous.
“Listen to me carefully, Miss Murphy.” Campbell didn’t approach her again. Instead, he crossed to the open door, the shadows extending across his face. “I know the names and addresses of every member of your worthless family — Belfast and Dublin. Should any of them happen to visit you, I will know exactly what it is they’re here for."
Perhaps it was the sight of their only, precious family portrait handing precariously on its nail, or the contents of her hand-me-down sewing box strewn across the hearth, or the knowledge that Constable Ferguson now worked under Inspector Campbell and yet remained afraid of her, but a foolhardiness rose within her.
“I’ll be sure to pass their itineraries along to you, Inspector Campbell.”
The Inspector froze, and when he pivoted around on a shined heel, his eyes were cold. “Be sure that you do, Miss Murphy, or else you can reacquaint yourselves in the same prison cell.”
fun fact: this scene between brigid and campbell was the very first scene i ever wrote for this story - my old doc says it was drafted in june 2018 (lmao). i'm so excited to finally share it!
you should totally look up the songs name-dropped in this chapter in this chapter if you have time - wwi-era music was a laugh
let me know what you think below! and hang with me on tumblr if ya like
Chapter 6: vi.
i Did Not think that it would take me so long to get back to here, but here we are! bright side? i won nanowrimo!!! 50,426 words later, and november is finished! i'm really excited about most of what came out of it, and i can't wait to edit it up and share it with y'all!
this chapter is emotionally quite big, but in regards to space and time, it's very focused. i hope it that you enjoy it (and that it doesn't feel as short to you as it does to me?) <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Inspector Campbell finally stepped over the threshold and back into the bright, hazy morning, and the click of his heels had followed him down the lane to his next haunt, time languished, and Brigid stood. Dozens of coppers raced by the bright gash of the broken front door; shadows shrank across the cobblestones as the sun rose — indeed, Brigid might have stood there, frozen in the odd, liminal space between delirious cogency and utter terror, for hours, had her knees not given out.
She nearly collapsed, her skirts catching on shards of porcelain and sharp wooden splinters, as she stumbled. The devilish spirit of her daring and departed brother left in a shuddering breath — her face burning, breath coming faster, Brigid felt strangely frozen, statuesque, like she wasn’t in full control of her body.
So you know who I am —
How could she not know of the dreaded Inspector Campbell? She wasn’t the only one in Birmingham who’d received a flurry of letters from Belfast relatives in the wake of his posting. He was horrible, Death made flesh.
Brigid drew her trembling lip into her mouth — the split stung, the blood acrid on her tongue — and stretched her pale, freckled hands to the pile of shattered porcelain. The ivory and creamy blue glittered in the morning light.
Little patience for Fenian scum —
She wasn’t a Fenian. She wasn’t scum.
Digging through the porcelain, Brigid begged for a single unbroken piece — a saucer, a teacup, even a small sugar bowl — but the curling, gilded vines were a jumbled mess. Every bit was cracked, some of it crushed to fine, sandy dust underneath the coppers’ boots.
I know the names and addresses of every member of your worthless family —
“Fuck,” she hissed, choked —
A sharp pain curled her fingers, a shard stuck her palm, and when Brigid finally sobbed, the sound was ragged, broken like the porcelain. Shaking, she drew her hand to her chest, watching with watery eyes as hot blood traced an uneven, ruddy path down the lines of her hand, the curve of her wrist, the long plane of her arm.
The porcelain had been precious. A wedding gift to her parents, it was the finest thing they owned, always out of place in the dark, cramped terraced housing of Small Heath — and now it was worthless, too, broken and crushed and spattered with her blood.
I will know exactly what it is they’re here for —
Why would they be here? Why would —
Dizzy, her chest caving in, Brigid gasped in time with his heavy boots. “Tommy.” She sounded young, her voice warbled and foreign to her own ears. “Tommy, he — ”
But then he was on his knees in front of her, his face spirit-white and drawn taut. One hand came to the back of her neck, digging through the mass of black curls to find her heated skin, and Brigid wanted to — her tongue was stuck, unable to parse the words, to tell him that she’d never needed him so desperately —
“Brigid.” The other hand took her by the chin, smudging the sticky blood there, and his blue, blue eyes were hard and blazing and fixed on her. “Bridie, love, look at me.”
In her fist, the splint of porcelain still bit, dripping bright, ugly blood onto his trousers. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, clumsy — the shard fell, its edges gleaming like a red smile, and Brigid clutched at her old, well-worn apron, trying to dab at the dark stains.
Tommy tightened his grip at the nape of her neck, nudging her bloodied chin back up to meet his gaze. He nearly shook her. “Love, take a breath. C’mon, in — ”
And Brigid’s lungs finally gave, clawing for air, and it burned, metallic and acrid, in her chest. Nodding, encouraging, Tommy ran his fingers down through her curls, watched her swollen bottom lip as it trembled against his thumb from the force of another gasp.
Between them, her hand shook as blood pooled in the awkward cup of her palm — hot pain shot up her arm like lightning, landing in her shoulder, shaking the muscles in her arm and twitching her fingers.
“Fuck,” she whispered, close to a hiss, as adrenaline finally gave way to agony.
Tommy’s reflexes had been honed on a battlefield — ducking from incoming artillery and machine-gun fire, snuffing matches before the light made it across no-man’s-land, skittering up a rickety tunnel ladder before the mine blew them all to Hell — and his fingers clasped quickly, tightly, around her wrist. When he held it aloft between them, blood dripped, dropped, stained his fingers and wrist and the ivory shirt cuff that peaked out from underneath his suit jacket.
Inexplicably, the sight reminded her of John and Martha — they’d sliced their hands, held them aloft and together as the old Gypsy woman, her dark, wild hand pulled back with a golden band, hummed a lyrical verse Brigid didn’t understand, and then, like that, her dearest friend was married.
Brigid could have laughed. It bubbled up to her throbbing lips, lips that begged to ask if this was it, if this was all the Romany in him needed, until his hard, cruel eyes stole it all away.
“Who did this?” The words scratched like gravel under a wagon wheel, hardly above a growl, as his grip around her wrist tightened.
Gasping again, this time from the blinding ache, Brigid shook herself from her reverie — behind him, the empty hutch leered. “I cut myself — ”
“No.” A flush colored the hollows of his cheeks, and Tommy cut her off, cold with rage. “Who hit you?”
Wilting, as if the last string holding her up had been cut, Brigid felt the hot tears that had valiantly clung to her lashes finally fall. “I don’t know.”
“What did he look like?”
The syllables scraped together, grating, furious; Tommy’s eyes hadn’t strayed from hers. Brigid shuddered another breath — hot pain licked down her arm, melting her bones, leaving her little strength to keep her head up. What did it matter? It was done. She’d been bloodied and belittled and —
“Tom — ”
There was nothing they could do now, nothing that was off-limits to the coppers, not when they had the ruthless power of Inspector Campbell at their helm. Sniffing, Brigid swiped at her tears with her free hand, fingers marred pink.
“He was just some copper, Tommy.”
This didn’t satisfy him, and she hadn’t expected it would. Tommy knew as well as Brigid that she had their payroll memorized, and if — perhaps, if she searched her memory, she could recall his face, but his badge? His bars and insignia? Brigid dealt in names and ages, ranks and rates, all scratched neatly in the ledger by her own hand — not faces. Speaking with them, manipulating and commending them for a secret was Tommy’s forte, not hers.
“I’ll take his hand.”
“I pushed him, Tommy,” she whispered, finding her memory was hazy, clouded by the absolute, seething fear. Had she pushed him? “He was throwing the porcelain everywhere.”
He chewed on his words, teeth working against his lips — but then Tommy blinked away the hot wrath in his pale eyes, which fell to her split lip, the hand puddling with blood, down to the shattered porcelain all around them. Finally, his free hand dug into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, emerging with a fresh handkerchief — soft, snowy cotton, T.J.S. embroidered in her fine stitches.
“Hold your arm.” His tight fingers worked down the delicate bone of her wrist, giving her room.
Brigid did as she was told, taking her own wrist in weak, trembling fingers, and a gasp ripped through her when he wrapped the handkerchief around the flat of her palm. Her dark blood had stained their hands, their shirts, and, even as she watched, began to seep through the thin cotton.
His deft fingers securing the knot, Tommy didn’t look at her when he spoke. “If you see him on the street, you will give me his name.”
“You’ll have someone cut him.” Brigid’s lips trembled, her heart uneasy with the thought of someone losing their sight on her behalf, discomfited with the violence to which Tommy could so easily give in.
As if he read her mind and decided that he didn’t care, Tommy said, “I’ll do it myself.”
He acted as if he wanted to scrub his hands over his face, but given that they were both coated in her blood, he settled instead for covering her aproned knees. Exhaustion deepened the lines of his face, and Brigid’s eyes fell to specks of blood that had dried brown on his collar — blood that couldn’t have been hers.
“What’s this?” Quiet, she reached forward to smooth his collar, only to stop at the sight of her own stained fingers.
Tommy shook his head, eyes closed. “The Lees started a fight at the fair — not important.” And then, before she could press, he fixed her with his tired, lovely eyes and spoke, his voice like gravel. “What was all this about, then? Was it the Inspector?”
At the mention of his name, the horror of Inspector Campbell’s stare washed over Brigid like a cold wave; heartbeat wild in her chest, she trembled. “He knew who I was, Tommy. He mentioned my family, he mentioned you, he — ”
“Brigid.” Tommy cut her off, his blue eyes bright with focus. “What did he want?”
Right — business.
“They were looking for something.” Chastised, Brigid sucked in a deep breath, smoothing her bloodied skirts over her knees, trying not to think of the last time she had been covered in so much blood. “Whatever’s been lifted from the B.S.A., they’re hell-bent on finding it. He was… Tommy, he kept mentioning my family.”
Porcelain crunched under him as he shuffled closer, and a bloody hand came to her neck, his thumb brushing along the sticky line of her jaw. “He’s just trying to intimidate you.”
“He said that if any of them show up here, he’ll lock them up.” A blinding, righteous clarity struck her, seeming to brighten the dim parlor, and Brigid flushed as rage crawled up her throat. “He’s an arrogant bastard. He’s — hunting down Joe, coming here and tearing apart my home. Why does he care what my family does, Tommy?”
“I don’t know.” Tommy shook his head, the honesty plain on his face. “It seems he’s brought some grudges along from Belfast.”
Scoffing, Brigid straightened her spine, emboldened again by the distinct, horrible prejudice of it all. Her family were good, law-abiding British citizens — in the times she’d visited, they’d never even spoken of politics in the home, sticking only to japes and prayers. It was him — his self-righteous wrath, his bigotry, his cruelty — that started this vendetta, not her family.
“What is he looking for, Tommy?”
Brigid’s green eyes met his blue, and she found them impassive. When he shushed her, careful and delicate like he might a small child, a hot flash of anger ignited her in her chest, twisting her lips. “I don’t — ”
“No, Thomas Shelby, don’t you lie.” Brigid leaned forward until they were within a breath of one another, refusing to let him shut her out, to be silenced for the sake of his comfort and plots — it had been her home they ripped to shreds. “Not to me.”
“Thomas,” she repeated, almost chiding. Hot blood leaked down her wrist, but Brigid didn’t take her eyes from him, afraid that if she did, he would find the strength of a cover when she blinked. “Campbell is ruthless, and he’s cruel, and he doesn’t care if we’re innocent or if we’re guilty — but I do. What is he looking for?”
Releasing a heavy sigh, Tommy pressed his forehead to hers, his eyes closed, skin warm, and Brigid remembered the dozens of times they had whispered to one another — tucked under cool cotton sheets, hiding in dark alleyways, wrapped together in the Garrison’s snug while their mates laughed and carried on — in the eight years they had been together.
But this was different — this secret was not like the others, innocuous and naive, like in which month they would be married, or how much he couldn’t wait to get her home and giggling in his bed.
This secret was heady and pitch-black and too big for the slim space left between them.
“Machine guns. Rifles. Enough ammunition to light up a city,” he whispered as his eyelashes fluttered on his high cheekbones. “All bound for Libya before they were lifted from the proofing bay.”
The breath left Brigid’s lungs in a sudden exhale, a feverish dread slinking down her spine. It swelled in her lungs, making it hard to breathe, leaving her to whisper, “Fuck — Tommy, was it you?”
He released a slow, bracing breath, but he didn’t open his eyes. “No.”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head, his forehead rocking slowly against hers, and when he finally opened his eyes, Brigid’s heart stuttered. “Someone a lot bigger than us.”
Between them, Brigid’s hand throbbed, and she longed to wrap it around his neck, to hold him so tightly to her that Inspector Campbell could never get close — to her, to him — again. But her hands were sticky with drying, maroon blood, and she didn’t want to ruin his suit any more than she already had.
Instead, she leaned into him, his forehead and the hand still cupped around her jaw, and brushed her lips against his as she whispered, “Are we in danger?”
“We’re always in danger.” The wry tone in his voice tried to tug his lips up into a smile but failed, and in true fashion, the response did nothing to quell her fear. When she parted her lips to protest, he kissed her before continuing.
“Campbell is as much in the dark as we are,” he said, rubbing his free hand up and down her knee, over the dried bloodstains. “He doesn’t know either, and that’s why he’s pressing us. But we will be safe — I will keep you safe.”
Her uninjured hand rose of its own accord, and Brigid curled her sticky, stained fingers around his lapel. “Let me help you, Tommy. I know more about Campbell than any of the rest of you, I know what he’s capable of — ”
With little preamble, Tommy moved to stand, knees cracking — Brigid heard him groan, a vulnerability he only ever displayed when she was there and no one else was. His boots ground against the remains of her mother’s porcelain, and she scrambled to follow him. Ever the gentlemen, he held out a hand to pull her up, his other hand cupping the curve of her waist to steady her as a wooziness swept behind her eyes.
“Tommy — ”
“Bridie, love, look at me.” And he leaned down again, his eyes almost wild, and as he always did, the hand on her waist slipped up to tangle in the dark curls that fell down her back. “I want you to stay out of this.”
Brigid thought of what Inspector Campbell had done to Joe — dumped in the river like rubbish, never to be seen again — but in her mind’s eye, it was Tommy’s body, bloated and pale, that broke the oily veneer of the Cut. The image welled, ugly and dreadful, like bile. “You can’t fight this alone — ”
But, inexplicably, Tommy cut her off with a kiss — his lips searing, almost desperate, it tasted like her blood. The throbbing of her jaw melted down her neck to join the fluttering in her chest, and she pulled herself closer, ignorant of the blood and the pain, desperate for him to feel her.
When he broke off the kiss, his eyes were burning with something that might have been fear, a foreign expression Tommy Shelby. “Brigid, when we got back from the fair and saw what he’d done, I…”
In the utter silence of her parlor, his voice cracked. Tommy closed his eyes and pressed his lips to the corner of her mouth, like he needed her touch to unstick his tongue. “I should have gone to the shop with the boys, but I couldn’t. I needed to see you, make sure you hadn’t been — fuck, Bridie. I can’t think straight when I’m worried about you.”
A warm flush crept up Brigid’s cheeks, but her split lip burned as it twisted into a frown. “Do you want me to apologize?”
“No, no,” he whispered, shaking his head against hers. “I want you to stay safe — I want you to stay as far away from this mess as you can.”
And his eyes pleaded with her when they opened, bright in the dim parlor. “Can you do that for me?”
Brigid knew what she needed to say, even if it churned in her belly like a storm cloud. The warm desperation in his eyes slinked down into her chest, worming into her heart, and she’d never — she’d never been able to deny him anything, truly, not when he was looking at her like that.
“Yes, I will,” she whispered, halting. “I promise.”
The silence stretched between them, and Tommy nodded. He moved as if to pull away, taking a half-step back, before trailing his hands down her tender jaw, the long line of her neck, her shoulders and cool arms — gooseflesh followed, pebbling her skin under his touch — before finding a home around her waist.
“You know I love you, yeah?” His eyes had softened, his thumbs rubbing along the cut of her ribcage. “Don’t say it enough.”
Giving him a smile, even as something wan and watery swelled in her lungs and made it hard to breathe, Brigid said, “I know. I love you, too.”
“Come back with me.” Tommy tightened his hold around her waist as if to pull her to his chest. “Don’t like leaving you here alone.”
A sigh slipped from Brigid’s lips, and instead of looking at him — his gaze was too heavy to bear, too much for her fragile heart — Brigid glanced around the parlor. She hardly recognized the room — torn cushions spewed goose feathers, sewing and embroidery needles glinted on the scuffed floor, scattered book pages swept across the room on a damp breeze.
And underneath it all, it was her own. Where would she even begin? How could she hope to stitch it back together?
“I should stay here,” she murmured, injured hand throbbing, clumsy, as she gestured around. “Figure out what to do with all this.”
Tommy’s hands slipped away, sending tendrils of longing up her spine, until her waist was cold where his hands had been. “I’ll send some of the boys over, soon as I can. We’ll have to…” Casting is eyes up to the ceiling, Tommy let a hint of frustration deepen the lines of his face. “Gonna have to clean up the city, make sure people still trust us.”
The reality of his statement clenched around Brigid’s heart, reminding her of the state of their city just outside her door — she wasn’t the only person whose home had been ripped apart, whose heirlooms had been smashed, who’d lost whatever sliver of safety they’d once felt in Small Heath with the Peaky Blinders looking out for them.
A sad sort of smile curled on Brigid’s face, her lip hot from the stretch of it. “Take care of me last, Tommy,” she said, smoothing his blood-stained lapel with her good hand, not wanting to look into his eyes. “I can handle most of this mess.”
But Tommy’s brow furrowed when his eyes came to her again, and he brought up her injured hand, fingers delicate around the bloody handkerchief. She could feel the warmth of his lips through the fabric when he pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. “Give me an hour — John and Lovelock’s boys will be here to help.”
The next kiss he pressed was to her temple, and she felt the ghost of it there long after he’d slipped through the fractured front door to track the well-worn path to Number Six.
Brigid’s nose still stung with the cloying, saccharine scent of perfume when she stepped into her father’s bedroom. Above in her own room, the coppers who tore her home apart had given little care to the delicate top of her vanity — her only two perfume bottles shattered on the floor, staining the wood beside her upturned bed dark and sticky, the odor clinging to her hair and skin and anything else it could reach.
Regardless, it was better than the blood.
Brigid had only the energy to wish for a bath — boiling water in their largest copper pot and hauling it upstairs to the tiny water closet was a difficult task even with two hands, and nigh impossible with the gash across her palm, the tender swelling in her jaw that leaked down into her neck and twisted her shoulders tight.
The realization had hit her almost as hard as the copper’s fist, the misery of it welling in her chest, making it hard to breathe. Slumping against the kitchen sideboard, water already boiling, Brigid wilted, letting the frustrated tears well in her eyes for the dozenth time that morning.
Something fragile, something more intangible than her mother’s porcelain, had been fractured under the coppers’ heavy boots — Inspector Campbell’s raid had taken them unawares, Inspector Campbell’s coppers had torn apart her home with no care and even less respect, and Inspector Campbell himself had proved to be just as righteous and even more dangerous than she could have imagined.
But Brigid allowed herself only a moment to cry, her quiet sniffing the only sound to echo throughout their empty, broken home, before she straightened her spine. There was no use in wanting, in longing for rest. The day had, truly, only just begun.
Instead, she set about fixing herself in the tattered, shattered mess of their home. With blood slipped down her jaw and neck, dried brown around her fingernails, she settled for running a warm rag over her skin and tried not to imagine what it would feel like to sink down to her ears in a warm bath. She’d washed the deep wound on her palm with gin and bandaged it tightly, setting Tommy’s handkerchief to soak in the now tepid pot of water. Brigid then stripped from her stained blouse, the lace collar now ghastly, and ripped skirt to don a fresh outfit in time to welcome John, flanked by Eddie and Jimmy Lovelock. All three now argued downstairs about the best way to reaffix the front door to its hinges, but she’d left them to it.
As she forced herself into her father’s room, glass crunched under Brigid’s boot — God, would they ever get all of the fucking glass out of the planked flooring?
The beginning of a headache throbbed behind her eyes, adding to the acute pain that leaked down from her face to the rest of her body, as she averted her gaze down. Under her boot, Brigid found her parents’ wedding portrait — her mother red-cheeked and bright with youth, her father’s hair still thick and rich — which had been knocked from its bedside perch. The glass in the frame had shattered, the portrait below dusty and glittering.
And as she leaned down to retrieve the heavy pewter frame, Brigid felt that it was her own face staring up at her.
She’d still been little more than a child when her mother passed — hardly thirteen, round in the face, her curls still shining with her father’s auburn tint that had since given way to a rich, inky black. To Brigid, Eleanor Murphy had always been, first and foremost, a mother, her face lined, her hands busy, her eyes stern. But she’d been twenty-one when she married, and with a sharp pang that seared her chest, Brigid realized that she was now older than her mother had been in the portrait.
If she had once resembled her father, the years had worn away the fullness of youth to reveal Eleanor Murphy’s round cheekbones and delicate chin; Brigid’s hair had darkened to the same hue that shone through her mother’s gauzy lace veil; her eyes crinkled in the same way when she smiled.
Tears spilled over Brigid’s cheeks again, stinging the split in her lip, salty on her tongue — the sharp grief for the mother she had known, and the woman she had not, overtook her chest, swelling in her lungs until she could barely breathe. Before her tears could stain the precious portrait, she placed it facedown on the bedside table to protect the fragile parchment from any loose glass and gasped for air.
How horrible it was, that this is what she had become — crying over photographs, over shattered glass and torn cookbooks. How horrible that she would never know Eleanor Murphy as anyone other than the devoted, determined, disapproving mother.
Desperate for air, Brigid forced open the old window, sticking in its sill, until a spring breeze could sweep through. The bed pillows had been ripped open — as if they were hiding ammunition in the goose feathers, which ruffled and fluttered about her feet. The wardrobe had been thrown open, the floor littered with her father’s work trousers and holey cotton shirts, while the chest that held the bulk of her mother’s clothing — the bits that Brigid hadn’t claimed for herself — was upended, spewing practical cotton and wool alike across the dusty floor, interspersed with the spare satin and finer silk.
“Oi, need a bin down here, Scud!” John’s voice filtered in through the open window from the street below, grating against the sound of glass swept over the cobblestones.
Brigid dove into the pile of old skirts and stockings, gowns and blouses, folding each methodically, sorting by color and then by material. Along the way, Brigid admired her mother’s neat, tiny stitches — not for the first time, she found herself wishing she’d paid greater attention to her mother’s instructions. Her clothing wasn’t half as well made, and she had the luxury of Mrs. Thompson’s Singer treadle.
Underneath the pile of fabric, a hotchpotch of trinkets and possessions had spilled — a fat golden locket and a tangled string of yellow pearls; a wrinkled Bible with a thin rosary tucked between the pages; a spindly pair of spectacles too large for a woman’s head. Perhaps they had once belonged to John Byrne, the grandfather Brigid had never known? She folded them neatly atop the Bible atop her mother’s wedding dress — a frothy mauve satin, trimmed in silk brocade around the high collar, the sleeves fitted and the tulle skirt bustled. It was a work of art and love, she knew, sewn over six frantic months by her mother herself.
A glint caught her eye, and Brigid stooped to collect a set of four scuffed, leather-bound books, all embossed golden with the year — 1884, the year her parents had married and set off to Birmingham to start their lives. The spines were cracked, the lined pages well-loved and decorated with her mother’s utilitarian handwriting.
Something fluttered in Brigid’s chest, taking her breath as she ran her fingers over the top stamp and considered them. Her mother had never journaled — not that she could remember. Eleanor Murphy had never had the time, always washing and sewing and sweeping and cooking. As horrible as the day had become, as upside-down as their entire home had turned, holding the proof in her hands that her mother had lived and thought and recorded those thoughts nearly brought Brigid to her knees again.
Eagerly, the mess forgotten, she flipped open the first one: 29 March 1884 —
Shouting rose again, but this time, it wasn’t the dulcet tones of a Blinder crew — her father’s gruff, work-worn echoed up the stairwell, cracking with something like terror.
Her fingers slipping over the page, Brigid’s eyes cut to the open bedroom door. “Up here!”
Hardly another moment passed before he thundered up the stairs; his heavy footfalls indicated that he hadn’t even paused to shuck off his work boots, but Brigid, almost rueful, couldn’t mourn the soot he would track in. What did it matter what he brought in with him when their home was in shambles?
“Jesus Christ — ” Indeed, when James Murphy crossed the threshold of broken glass, his boots were pitch-black, his thin cotton shirt stained with sweat and ash, the lines of his face traced with soot, and yet he crushed her to his broad chest all the same. “Come here.”
A startled squeak slipped from Brigid’s lips, her ribs aching for the breath she hadn’t had time to catch, the hard binding of the journals digging into her belly. “Da, ‘m all right.”
She tried to pry her face from the smoky cotton of his shirt, straining to catch a glimpse of his face. Brigid found him wide-eyed, as if he was just, at that moment, taking in the destruction of his bedroom — the wardrobe that spewed his clothing across the floor, the upturned mattress and ripped pillows, her mother’s chest emptied and cracked. His grip around her loosened, just enough, so that she could catch a full breath.
“What’s happened? Took forever to get back — coppers at every intersection, checking work permits and bags, patting down — ” His flecked green eyes, so like her own, furrowed with worry as he took her in. “God, what’s happened to you?”
His rough, blackened hand came to her jaw, and Brigid winced, pulling back, as his callused thumb brushed the sensitive, swollen skin. Yet, when her father tilted her face to the side, it was with the same gentleness he’d used when she’d been just a girl and scraped her knees on the cobblestones; he traced under the split of her lip as if she were a porcelain doll, fragile like he had been when she scalded herself on the cast iron the first time she’d tried to cook supper all on her own.
Brigid knew she looked a fright — the tender ache of her jaw throbbed down the line of her neck and into her shoulders, mixing with the sharp, swollen pain of her lip.
“Some copper — ” Cutting herself off, Brigid sucked in a bracing breath. Had he already seen it? Had he crunched the pile of porcelain himself in his dash upstairs? “He was tossing around mum’s porcelain, and when I tried to stop him, he hit me — I tried to stop him, I swear it — ”
“Oh, girl,” he whispered, pressing a warm, dry kiss to the temple opposite her swollen cheek, “I don’t care about the porcelain.”
Tears burned behind Brigid’s eyes, and though she tried to stop them, they spilled over and down her hot cheeks, stinging the split in her lip and tasting salty on her tongue. “But it was mum’s — ”
“Brigid, when you’re as old as me, those things don’t matter.” His hand cupped the back of her head, fingers gentle in her loose curls, and Brigid felt like little more than an embarrassed child as she peered up at him through watery eyes. “You’re safe — that’s what matters. Everything else will work itself out.”
Brigid tried to match his smile, but her lips trembled, hardly able to stretch through the throbbing ache in her jaw. “I’ve been trying to clean up, but there’s just…” She sighed, letting her shoulder slump as the ghost of her civilities, exhausted underneath Inspector Campbell’s searching, righteous eyes, slipped away. “I hardly know where to start.”
Her father’s hand detangled from her unruly curls as he took step back, running a hand up and through his thinning hair. With an exhale, he said, “Tommy’s sent some lads?”
“John, and Lovelock’s boys, yeah.” She nodded her head to the open window, the hint of amusement quirking her lips — down below, they were swearing through their teeth, grunting, clumsy and ungainly as they refit the front door.
He nodded. “Let them take care of it. You should rest, love.”
“I’m fine,” Brigid lied. Martha had once told her that there was no shame in admitting when she needed help, when she was sad, when she needed a break — it was a lesson she hadn’t taken to lightly. “You want them going through mum’s things? They won’t put it all back right — she’d have a fit.”
But her father was stepping forward, his large hands extending to collect the set of journals still propped between her bandaged hand and her belly — her clumsy, stiff fingers couldn’t stop him before he was prying them away from her, a frown on his lips. Whereas Brigid had needed to hold them against her body, he balanced them between his two hands with ease.
“All of this can wait,” he said, shifting them under one arm. “Your mother would understand, I promise.”
Brigid deflated with a single exhale — just as her injured hand couldn’t stop him from taking her mother’s words from her, she found herself unable (or unwilling?) to fight him. Her eyes were protesting the light, the headache that throbbed behind her eyes a reminder of how many tears she’d spilled in such a short morning.
His free hand cupped her shoulder, comforting, and Brigid said, “I didn’t know mum kept journals.”
“Did you read them?” The question was pointed, his eyes wide — she wondered if he ever had, if it was too painful for him to remember Eleanor Murphy as she had once been, still round-cheeked and lovely, or if it felt like an invasion of privacy, even if his wife was a decade dead.
Brigid shook her head. “No — ” An unexpected yawn ripped itself from her lips, and a sharp pain shot down her neck, shuddering, causing her to whimper. “I’d like to, though.”
And when James Murphy smiled, it was sad.
as always, please let me know what you think! comments are so gratifying, and i swear y'all have better thoughts about my own story than i do. i so look forward to hearing what you have to say! and as always, come hang with me on tumblr if ya want :)