A memory of violets, p.1
A Memory of Violets, p.1Hazel Gaynor
For Mum—the diamond glints on snow
The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.
—George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, 1912
For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.
—Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market,” 1862
Not what we have, but what we use;
Not what we see, but what we choose—
These are the things that mar or bless
The sum of human happiness.
—Clarence Urmy, “The Things That Count,” inscribed at Woodbridge Chapel in memory of John Groom, founder of the Watercress and Flower Girls’ Mission
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Mammy once told me that all flowers are beautiful, but some are more beautiful than others. “Same with babies,” she said, ’cause I was after saying that little baby Rosie looked like a rotten old turnip, what with her face all purple and scrunched up. “All babies look like rotten old turnips at first,” Mammy said. “She’ll be all smoothed out by Lady Day. You wait and see.”
She was, too. All smoothed out. After turning into a real pretty little thing she was then, ’specially with that hair. Red as the flames in the costers’ smudge-pot fires.
“Sure, there’s no denying the Irish in that one.” That’s what Da said. Don’t think he ever spoke about Rosie again. Barely noticed her, other than to let out a roar at her or give her a wallop when she was after bawling too much. Awful mean to Little Sister, so he was, so I gave her all the love I could find in my heart, to try and make things nicer for her, like.
Truth be told, I loved little Rosie Flynn from the very first minute I set eyes on her—even with her squashed-up turnip face. I’d never had nothing of my own, not until Little Sister was born—my very own sister, what had lived. Not like them other poor babies what had been born all blue and quiet. Like wilted violets after the frosts, so they were. But not little Rosie. Pink as a carnation she was, bawlin’ good ’n’ proper in her vegetable-pallet cradle, and there I was, smiling at her like a great eejit. Loved her to bits, so I did.
When Rosie was small, Mammy’d throw her into the shallow with the stock money and we’d head off to Covent Garden in the soot-black dark. You’ve to get to the Garden good ’n’ early, see—four or five o’clock—so as to get the pick of the best blooms after the shopkeepers have bought their stock. We’d leave our cold, stinking room at Rosemary Court and walk by the light of the gas lamps, Rosie’s little turnip face peeping out o’ the basket and Mammy striding along like a great ox. “Keep up, will ye, Florrie Flynn,” she’d shout over her shoulder. “For the love of God, it’ll be Christmas before we get there at this rate.” And I’d gallop along behind, clinging to her skirts so as not to get lost or snatched away by one of them bad men what takes little children and teaches them thievin’ and such—like the natty lads. Unsteady as a tune on a hurdy-gurdy machine, so I was, going up and down, up and down, my good leg dragging my bad one along as best it could. Awful painful it was, for me to walk. My leg won’t grow proper, see, ’cause of the polio I had as a baby. I’ve an old stick for a crutch, but it’s about as much use as a frozen water pump.
While Mammy bought the stock for the day’s sellin’—a shillin’ for a dozen bunches—I’d coo at Rosie and sing songs to make her smile. She liked “The Dawning of the Day” the best. Mammy’d buy whatever blooms was lookin’ the prettiest and smellin’ the sweetest. “It’s the sweetness what sells the flowers, Florrie, sure it is,” she’d say. “The sweetness what sells ’em.” Most days, it’d be violets, primroses, or moss roses. Sometimes it would be stocks or wallflowers if they were in, or maybe pinks and carnations. I liked the spring months, when the oranges were in. We’d do better on the oranges than the flowers, and the smell of ’em was something else. All in the shallow it would go, so as little Rosie was covered from head to toe in lovely, sweet blooms. Reckon she’d have stayed in there forever if she could. Better’n smelling that stinking sewer and them fish heads and cabbage leaves all rotten, and the flies buzzing round.
We’d sit then with the other flower sellers, round the columns at St. Paul’s Church, across from the covered market. Mammy an’ Maudie Brennan would chatter away, about Ireland’s green fields and the smell of the turf fires, while we tied up our bunches and buttonholes by candlelight. Mammy’d do the tying and I’d pass the blooms. We’d tie them with the rush—we got that for nothing—then we’d add the leaves around the violets and primroses, and add the paper last, on the bunches that needed it. Mammy said I could make ten bunches of violets from thin air! I could, too, separating the flowers and fluffing them out. Then we’d sell ’em for a penny a bunch, and I knew me an’ Rosie might get a penn’orth of pudding that day from the pudding shop on the Strand. Them great fat raisins never tasted so nice as after a hard day’s selling, sure they didn’t.
Off we’d go then, Mammy, Rosie (in the basket), and me, hawking our flowers round the streets and at the railway stations and the theaters up the West End—they’re always good for trade—and the Covent Garden theater, what brings the ladies and gen’lemen out in their hundreds in the evenings.
“Two bunches of violets,” we’d cry. “Sweet violets.” “Buy y’r primroses. Two bunches a penny.” “All a-blowin’, all a-growin’.” That’s what you’d hear the sellers cry when the primroses were in and then you’d know it was spring for certain. And when the summer came to an end, it’d be “Lavender—sweet lavender!” and then the east wind’d start blowing for snow and the frosts’d come and the blooms’d wither up before you’d even sell a one of ’em. That’s when we’d start sellin’ the cresses. “Worter-creesss! Worter-creesss
Freezing to make your fingers turn blue that water was, at the pump where we’d wash the cresses. I’d start wailing with the cold, my feet all frozen against the cobbles. “Stop y’r bawlin’, Florrie Flynn,” Mammy’d say, “and puff them cresses out. Y’ve to make ’em look bigger so as the ladies’ll buy ’em.” So I would stop bawlin’ and puff out the cresses and we’d sell those what weren’t frozen and then we’d go back to that stinking room in Rosemary Court. I’d sing little Rosie to sleep, her in the vegetable pallet and me on the tatty old mattress on the floor. Miserable, so I was—cold and afraid and with an ache in my belly from the hunger. But when I saw Rosie’s little face smiling at me, I knew it would all be right come the morning, ’cause things don’t seem so bad when someone smiles at you, sure they don’t.
But that were all before the cholera came and took Mammy away.
I miss her, so I do. Maybe she couldn’t teach me to read nor write, but she taught me all the tricks of the market: how to gather the dropped walnuts for the fire, how to walk behind the fish barrows to catch a slippery herrin’ or two, how to tie the buttonholes and tussie-mussies. Taught me everything I know, so she did.
Things is different now, ’cause it’s just Rosie an’ me does the sellin’, and we can’t go too far, what with me on my crutch and Little Sister to be mindin’ like I promised Mammy I would.
“Oh, please buy my flowers, kind lady. Tuppence a bunch. Oh, please do.” That’s what we cry.
Sometimes the ladies buy an extra buttonhole from Rosie, or pay the price of two bunches for one, what with her being so small and thin looking. “A penny, my poor girl, here’s three halfpence for the bunch,” they say, and they always tell her what lovely red hair she has, and she smiles, even though she can’t see those pretty faces smiling back at her. Lives her life in the dark, so she does. Poor little Rosie with her useless eyes.
When the rains come and the ladies ain’t out, or the fog comes down so thick it’ll choke ye, and when the frosts come and the flowers is all frozen, we don’t sell nothing. Them are the nights when we don’t go back to Rosemary Court, ’cause I know that Da’ll beat me till I’m lavender, for certain. So me an’ Rosie sleep in a doorway, or under a market barrow, and my teeth ache with the cold and I hold Rosie’s frozen little hand in mine. We get as tight together as we can, so not even so much as a rose petal could fit between us, and I remember my promise to Mammy and say a prayer that the flowers won’t be frozen the next day and that we might get a bit of meat in our bellies if we’re good girls.
And then we wait for the morning to come and the flowers to arrive.
Just me an’ Little Sister. Waiting in the dark.
“Don’t let go, Rosie,” I whisper. “Don’t let go.”
Dear Mr. Shaw,
I hope you will forgive me the irregularity of writing to you without a formal introduction, but I cannot rest until I have filled this page with words of enthusiastic admiration for your work with the blind and crippled flower sellers. It is a most noble and honorable cause, sir, most noble and honorable, indeed.
I was fortunate enough to see a glorious display of the girls’ flowers at the Guild Hall this very day and must admit that I was quite taken aback! The ability of these young girls to produce such realistic copies of so many varieties of flowers—using only fabric—is quite, quite remarkable. If it is not impertinent of me to say so, it is even more astonishing when one takes into account the dreadful physical afflictions which blight their young bodies. That such delicate beauty can be created by those who have known only hardship and depravity is most admirable.
A very helpful young girl kindly told me all about the Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls (“the Crippleage”) that you have established in Clerkenwell. She informed me that you have some fifty girls housed there under your care, all of whom have been saved from a life of poverty selling flowers and watercress on the streets. She explained how they have been trained to make the artificial flowers in the workrooms of a nearby chapel.
I also read, with much concern, your recent note in The Christian Magazine: “The Plight of London’s Orphans.” It is shocking to learn of the dreadful conditions these poor little souls are living in and I am certain that many readers will respond to your appeal for additional funding for the wonderfully named “Flower Village” orphanage in Clacton.
To conclude, Mr. Shaw, I find myself so moved and affected by the bravery of the flower girls and the plight of the orphans that I wish to make a donation to your cause. I hope that the enclosed sum of one hundred pounds will assist you in your plans to construct a “Babies’ Villa” at Clacton, to house the very youngest orphans, whose pitiful existence must surely stir the soul of even the most hard-hearted of men.
I hope you do not find me discourteous at all in wishing to remain anonymous.
Yours in admiration,
March 25, 1912
She was already some distance from home when it first occurred to Tilly Harper that she might be running away after all. “Running away! Running away! Running away!” the pistons shouted as the wheels clattered and rattled along the tracks. It was as if the train could read her thoughts, calling out her secret to the armies of sunlit daffodils that swayed in perfect unison at the edges of the lush green fields. “Running away! Running away! Running away!”—the words coming faster and faster as the fireman shoveled more coal into the blazing furnace, pushing Tilly farther away from what was and closer toward what might be, in London. Running away, or running toward? She wasn’t entirely sure.
Lulled by the rhythmic motion of the train, she leaned her head wearily against the cool glass of the window, glad to have secured a seat at the platform edge of the compartment. She was quite sure she could easily fall asleep if only the knots in her stomach would unravel, and the glass would stop juddering against her cheek, and the boxes and trunks would stop shifting around in the luggage rack above her head, sending a steady flurry of dust-fall into her lap. She sighed, sat upright, adjusted her skirts against the upholstered seat in the hope that they wouldn’t be too creased when she arrived, and glanced, for the tenth time that day, at the letter in her hand.
Dear Miss Harper. I am pleased to confirm your appointment to the post of Assistant Housemother at Shaw’s Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls, Sekforde Street, Clerkenwell . . . Crochet caps and white aprons will be provided. Please supply a coarse apron and bib, a holland apron for bed making and dusting, and plain cotton gowns for morning wear . . . Please report for duty on the twenty-fifth day of March, at your earliest convenience . . . May the Good Lord grant you a safe and comfortable journey. Sincerely yours, Mrs. Evelyn Shaw.
It was Tilly’s mother who had first learned of Mr. Shaw’s workrooms in London, after she’d seen a display of silk flowers at a church fete in Keswick. “Quite brilliant replicas of the real thing,” she’d announced on her return home, “and all the more so for having been made by blind and crippled girls. You should write to this Mr. Shaw, Matilda. I believe they are looking for domestics to assist with the running of the homes the girls are housed in. You’ve the right sort of experience, after all. Doesn’t she, Esther?” There was no apology for the cold manner in which she’d said this. Tilly understood that none was needed. Her sister, Esther, had merely stared blankly at her across the gaping chasm of the kitchen table before cutting herself another slice of bread. The matter wasn’t discussed again. Tilly had sent her letter of application, attended an interview, and here she was, halfway to London, to start her new position. Running away? Perhaps.
With each turn of the wheels, each blast of the whistle as they entered another dark tunnel, she sensed the distance growing between herself and the dramatic Lakeland mountains and fells that had framed the twenty-
“Running away! Running away! Running away!” The train continued with its relentless chatter, sending startled rabbits bolting for cover into their burrows and birds fleeing from the hedgerows in a blur of dun and black against the clear blue sky. Tilly jumped at the screech of the whistle as the guard acknowledged a group of excited children who were balanced precariously on the struts of a gate, disregarding their mothers’ words of caution in their efforts to get a better glimpse of the locomotive. She smiled as small, enthusiastic hands waved to the disinterested passengers, the rush of passing air blowing hats and bonnets off their young heads. Part of her wanted to wave back. She lifted her hand a few inches before feeling foolish and returning it hastily to her lap. But how she envied their innocence, their ability to find excitement and joy in such a simple thing as a passing steam locomotive.
It wasn’t so long ago that she’d shared in their childish enthusiasm, running beside the fence at the edge of the field, grasping Esther’s hand to pull her along behind, laughing as they tried to outrun the approaching train: the low rumble of the engine; the distinctive phut, phut, phut of the smoke rising from the funnel, just visible above the tree line; the audible humming of the tracks signaling its approach long before the locomotive appeared.
“Here it is, Esther! Look! Here it comes! Here it comes! Run, run . . .”
A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes