The Jewel of Gresham Green
- Tuesday, August 26, 2008
"Why are you home early? Got one of those woman complaints?"
Jewel's cheeks burned.
Becky held out a pigeon feather, her face pinched with worry. "I found this for you, Mummy."
"It's lovely, Becky," Jewel said, grateful for the excuse not to reply to his coarse question.
That was the most maddening thing about being in the company of Mr. Dunstan—having to maintain the charade that he was just an ordinary decent person. To pretend not to notice the lust in his eyes, bad enough when directed toward her, but terrifying when fastened upon Becky.
Rumors added fuel to that fire. Such as the reason the Kents moved out last month, with their two young daughters. Mr. Kent's job at the foundry paid twice what Jewel earned at the factory, so they could afford that luxury.
"Good day, Mr. Dunstan," Jewel forced through a tight smile, while thinking, Norman would wipe that leer from your face! But two years ago he and another bricklayer had perished when scaffolding collapsed at the unfinished Castle Maltings building on Tower Street.
She dragged Becky by the hand, up the steps and through the doorway. Without knocking she turned the knob to number seven and entered. Mrs. Platt sat rocking a pair of sleeping infants. A tot squatted in a corner, picking at the straws of a broom. Another lay upon the filthy threadbare rug, playing with his own feet. Both ceased activity to send Jewel open-mouthed stares.
"Mrs. Platt!" Jewel said with a shaking voice. "Becky was outdoors!"
"Mrs. Libby, mind you'll wake the babies," the woman said through teeth as gray and crooked as old gravestones. "She whined to play with the older 'uns. She's too big for the babies. What was I to do?"
"What I pay you to do, that's what," Jewel said with less volume but more intensity. "Mr. Dunstan had her hand! God alone knows what would have happened if I hadn't come home early."
One infant stirred and whimpered. Mrs. Platt frowned above its downy head. "There you go again, harpin' on Mr. Dunstan, when he's the soul of mercy."
"Mercy? He pays too much attention to little girls."
"You should be grateful ... your poor fatherless baby." A bony hand moved from the infant's back to shake a crooked finger at Jewel. "If you'd been here in Mr. Archer's time, you'd appreciate Mr. Dunstan. Gin on his breath, even in the mornings! A hairsbreadth late with the rent, and you're out on your ear."
"I don't appreciate having my instructions ignored. Keep her with you, or I'll find someone else." As if she had not already tried, but Mrs. Platt did not have to know that.
Grimy landing windows provided the only illumination on the staircase, sticky and reeking of urine and sour spilled beer. Those forced to take the steps at night carried candles or lamps. Chest burning, Jewel hitched Becky up to her hip and kirtled her skirts with her left hand.
"I'm sorry, Mummy," the girl said halfway up the staircase.
"Don't speak now, Becky," Jewel said.
In the corridor, she set Becky on her feet and fished the key from her pocket. The door to number twenty-one opened to a tiny parlor that led to a smaller kitchen and still smaller bedroom. Washing up was done in the scullery, with water carried up from a tap in the piece of bare earth that served as the courtyard. Chamber pots saved nighttime trips to the privy, only yards away from the tap. Furnishings were sparse. Shortly after Norman's burial, Jewel was forced to sell off most of their secondhand furniture before moving herself and Becky from the small but cozy back-to-back house on Hurst Street.
Jewel locked the door behind her and turned to Becky. The tears brimming in the brown eyes, the trembling lips, broke her heart. Had hardship driven from her all memory of what it was like to be a child?
"Ah, Becky," she said, kneeling to pull her into her arms. She stroked her back as sobs wracked the small frame. "My dear, brave little girl. I love you so much."
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