The Mile End | Stepney | September 1908
Halfway down the Mile End Road in the scullery of The Mile End public house, Tilly Fletcher stood hunched over the big Belfast pantry sink and wept into the washing-up water.
Tilly cried with her mouth open and her nose running, her tears dripping into the water with a syncopated pittering, clearly audible above the buzzing of bloated autumn flies butting against the filthy window. She was oblivious to the looming piles of greasy plates and smudged glasses on the sideboard next to the sink. She didn’t hear the feeble whirring of the flies or the chill echoes of footsteps in the morning-after-the-night-before public bar. She didn’t notice the stale, hoppy smell of bitter beer and cheap gin in the big, battered tin pail standing by her feet under the sink.
The slops and the heel ends of hard bread crusts and pork chop bones in the pail would be carried out after the midday trade to the sty in the back yard where the landlord, Old Penny Holly, kept a couple of cheerfully alcoholic sows. There was no such word as waste in Old Penny’s vocabulary.
Tilly used to visit these vast, black-spotted pink boozers regularly before the baby was born, smuggling them out a bowl of barrel-end porter when she thought Old Penny wasn’t looking, resting her growing belly on the sty wall and scratching their backs as they snorted the stout ecstatically out of their wooden trough. It was said that you could get tipsy on half a dozen rashers of the Mile’s best back bacon, but the pigs had long since given up snuffling along the wall top in hopes of a drop they might have missed, and Tilly’s tears had blotted out any memory of her affection for their slobbery companionship.
Weeping over the sink, she was oblivious to the pigs, the flies, the washing up, and the ragamuffin maid-of-all-works, staggering under another tray of dirty glasses on her way to the scullery, who stopped dead in her tracks for a moment and then fled silently away from this terrifying spectacle of naked grief. These sudden storms of weeping could overwhelm Tilly without any warning, anywhere and at any time, and there was nothing she could do to control or hide them. They brought her no relief, and left her as drained and unrelieved as a bout of dysentery.
A hank of her thick auburn hair escaped the careless bun she had tied blindly that morning, and hung down unheeded over her right eye. Charlie always joked it was a toss-up which had attracted him most when he first saw her two years earlier, her eyes, or the glorious confection of shining hair piled on her head, gleaming in the glittering lamplight of the Mile’s enormous public bar.
It was the same hair, unwashed and uncared for now, that he had stroked helplessly at five o’clock that morning, trying desperately to find any word of comfort as she lay curled in a foetal ball in their bed. He had known how to make her laugh before the baby died, but in the face of this inconsolable mourning there was nothing he could say that seemed to help, and he had hurried out of their lodgings into the chilly September dawn, baffled, guilty and seething with resentment at his wife’s dull-eyed hopelessness.
A year ago Tilly’s eyes had gleamed in the lamplight too, and they’d been worth a hundred quid a week in extra takings to the landlord of the Mile. Not that Old Penny Holly would ever admit to it, as Tilly had pointed out whenever Charlie urged her to ask her employer for a rise. It may be just a little old penny to you, Old Penny would say lugubriously, shaking his head at a customer hoping for a penny’s grace on his tab, but a penny to you’s worth two in the bush to me. No-one was quite sure of the logic behind this but it seemed to make good business sense. As well as the Mile, Old Penny owned two shops on the high street and a string of tenement lodging houses in Stepney Green, including the two cramped rooms in Parfitt Court that Charlie and Tilly called home.
The Mile End was the biggest public house in the area, and Old Penny prided himself on employing the prettiest barmaids to run his big front bar. A year ago Tilly had been the pick of the bunch, the star of Stepney Green and an irresistible flame to the regular moths drawn to the Mile each evening on the chance of a word or a smile from the belle of the bar.
After the baby had died the light had gone out in her eyes, and in the six months since there had been not one flicker of a sign that it might return. So Old Penny had moved her first into the small, dim Ladies’ bar at the back of the building, and then into the scullery, cutting her wages both times, hoping for a return of the old sparkle, but running out of patience as his casual trade moved on to ogle other barmaids in rival pubs.
Charlie had begun to dread opening the door to their pokey lodgings at the end of a long day on the bus. Before the baby was born Tilly would fly across the room to him and wrap her arms around his neck, full of the news of the day, most of it consisting of just when and how hard the baby had kicked inside her. Now she barely looked up to greet him, and she remained as removed from him by her grief as if she had been a widow.
In the fly-humming scullery, Tilly pushed herself upright and wiped her nose on her forearm. She lifted the first teetering column of smeared glasses into the lukewarm water, and began washing them.
She was just twenty-two. Charlie was twenty-six. They had been married fifteen months and they hadn’t made love since a fortnight before the baby was born.