No Naked Ads -> Here!
No Naked Ads -> Here! $urlZ
Fall of giants, p.14
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Fall of Giants, p.14

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
slower 1  faster
Chapter 14

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN - February 1915

  "I went to the doctor," said the woman next to Ethel. "I said to him, 'I've got an itchy twat. '"

  A ripple of laughter ran around the room. It was on the top floor of a small house in East London, near Aldgate. Twenty women sat at sewing machines in close-packed rows either side of a long workbench. There was no fire, and the one window was closed tight against the February cold. The floorboards were bare. The whitewashed plaster on the walls was crumbling with age, and the laths beneath showed through in places. With twenty women breathing the same air the room became stuffy, but it never seemed to warm up, and the women all wore hats and coats.

  They had just stopped for a break, and the treadles under their feet were briefly silent. Ethel's neighbor was Mildred Perkins, a cockney of her own age. Mildred was also Ethel's lodger. She would have been beautiful but for protruding front teeth. Dirty jokes were her specialty. She went on: "The doctor says to me, he goes, 'You shouldn't say that, it's a rude word. '"

  Ethel grinned. Mildred managed to create moments of cheer in the grim twelve-hour working day. Ethel had never known such talk before. At Tŷ Gwyn the staff had been genteel. These London women would say anything. They were all ages and several nationalities, and some barely spoke English, including two refugees from German-occupied Belgium. The only thing they all had in common was that they were desperate enough to want the job.

  "I says to him, 'What should I say, then, doctor?' He says to me, 'Say you've got an itchy finger. '"

  They were sewing British army uniforms, thousands of them, tunics and trousers. Day after day the pieces of thick khaki cloth came in from a cutting factory in the next street, big cardboard boxes full of sleeves and backs and legs, and the women here sewed them together and sent them to another small factory to have the buttons and buttonholes added. They were paid according to how many they finished.

  "He says to me, 'Do your finger itch you all the time, Mrs. Perkins, or just now and again?'"

  Mildred paused, and the women were silent, waiting for the punch line.

  "I says, 'No, doctor, only when I piss through it. '"

  The women hooted with laughter and cheered.

  A thin girl of twelve came through the door with a pole on her shoulder. Hanging from it were large mugs and tankards, twenty of them. She put the pole down gingerly on the workbench. The mugs contained tea, hot chocolate, clear soup, or watery coffee. Each woman had her own mug. Twice a day, midmorning and midafternoon, they gave their pennies and halfpennies to the girl, Allie, and she got their mugs filled at the cafe next door.

  The women sipped their drinks, stretched their arms and legs, and rubbed their eyes. The work was not hard like coal mining, Ethel thought, but it was tiring, bent over your machine hour after hour, peering at the stitching. And it had to be done right. The boss, Mannie Litov, checked each piece, and if it was wrong you did not get paid, even though Ethel suspected he sent the faulty uniforms off anyway.

  After five minutes Mannie came into the workroom, clapping his hands and saying: "Come on now, back to work. " They drained their cups and turned back to the bench.

  Mannie was a slave driver, but not the worst, the women said. At least he did not paw the girls or demand sexual favors. He was about thirty, with dark eyes and a black beard. His father was a tailor who had come over from Russia and opened a shop in the Mile End Road, making cheap suits for bank clerks and stockbrokers' runners. Mannie had learned the trade from his father, then started a more ambitious enterprise.

  The war was good for business. A million men had volunteered for the army between August and Christmas, and each one needed a uniform. Mannie was hiring every seamstress he could find. Fortunately Ethel had learned to use a sewing machine at Tŷ Gwyn.

  Ethel needed a job. Although her house was paid for, and she was collecting rent from Mildred, she had to save money for when the baby came along. But the experience of looking for work had made her frustrated and irate.

  All kinds of new jobs were opening up for women, but Ethel had quickly learned that men and women were still unequal. Jobs at which men earned three or four pounds were being offered to women at a pound a week. And even then the women had to put up with hostility and persecution. Male bus passengers would refuse to show their tickets to a woman conductor, male engineers would pour oil into a woman's tool box, and women workers were barred from the pub at the factory gate. What made Ethel even more furious was that the same men would call a woman lazy and shiftless if her children were dressed in rags.

  In the end, reluctantly and angrily, she had opted for an industry in which women were traditionally employed, vowing she would change this unjust system before she died.

  She rubbed her back. Her baby was due in a week or two, and she was going to have to stop work any day now. Sewing was awkward with a great distended belly, but what she found most difficult was the tiredness that threatened to overcome her.

  Two more women came through the door, one with a bandage on her hand. The seamstresses frequently cut themselves with sewing needles or with the sharp scissors they used to trim their work.

  Ethel said: "Look you, Mannie, you ought to keep a little medical kit here, with bandages and a bottle of iodine and a few other bits and pieces in a tin. "

  He said: "What am I, made of money?" It was his stock response to any demand by his workforce.

  "But you must lose money every time one of us hurts herself," Ethel said in a tone of sweet reason. "Here's two women been away from their machines nearly an hour, because they had to go to the chemist's and get a cut seen to. "

  The woman with the bandage grinned and said: "Plus I had to stop at the Dog and Duck to steady my nerves. "

  Mannie said sarcastically to Ethel: "I suppose you want me to keep a bottle of gin in the medical kit as well. "

  Ethel ignored that. "I'll make you a list and find out what everything would cost, then you can make up your mind, is it?"

  "I'm not making any promises," said Mannie, which was as close as he ever came to making a promise.

  "Right, then. " Ethel turned back to her machine.

  It was always she who asked Mannie for small improvements in the workplace, or protested when he made adverse changes such as asking them to pay to have their scissors sharpened. Without intending to, she seemed to have fallen into the kind of role her father played.

  Outside the grimy window, the short afternoon was darkening. Ethel found the last three hours of the working day the hardest of all. Her back hurt, and the glare of the overhead lights made her head ache.

  But, when seven o'clock came, she did not want to go home. The thought of spending the evening alone was too depressing.

  When Ethel first came to London several young men had paid attention to her. She had not really fancied any of them, but she had accepted invitations to the cinema, the music hall, recitals, and evenings at pubs, and she had kissed one of them, though without much passion. However, as soon as her pregnancy began to show they had all lost interest. A pretty girl was one thing, and a woman with a baby quite another.

  Fortunately, tonight there was a Labour Party meeting. Ethel had joined the Aldgate branch of the Independent Labour Party soon after buying her house. She often wondered what her father would have thought, had he known. Would he have wanted to exclude her from his party as he had from his house? Or would he have been secretly pleased? She would probably never know.

  The scheduled speaker tonight was Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the suffragettes, campaigners for votes for women. The war had split the famous Pankhurst family. Emmeline, the mother, had forsworn the campaign for the duration of the war. One daughter, Christabel, supported the mother, but the other, Sylvia, had broken with them and continued the campaign. Ethel was on Sylvia's side: women were oppressed in war as well as peace, and they would never get justice until they could vote.

  On the
pavement outside, she said good night to the other women. The gaslit street was busy with workers going home, shoppers putting together their evening meal, and revelers on the way to a night on the tiles. A breath of warm, yeasty air came from the open door of the Dog and Duck. Ethel understood the women who spent all evening in such places. Pubs were nicer than most people's homes, and there was friendly company and the cheap anesthetic of gin.

  Next to the pub was a grocer's shop called Lippmann's, but it was closed: it had been vandalized by a patriotic gang because of its German name, and now it was boarded up. Ironically, the owner was a Jew from Glasgow with a son in the Highland Light Infantry.

  Ethel caught a bus. It was two stops, but she was too tired to walk.

  The meeting was at the Calvary Gospel Hall, the place where Lady Maud had her clinic. Ethel had come to Aldgate because it was the only district of London she had ever heard of, Maud having mentioned the name many times.

  The hall was lit by cheerful gas mantels along the walls, and a coal stove in the middle of the room took the chill off the air. Cheap folding chairs had been put out in rows facing a table and a lectern. Ethel was greeted by the branch secretary, Bernie Leckwith, a studious, pedantic man with a good heart. Now he looked worried. "Our speaker has canceled," he said.

  Ethel was disappointed. "What are we going to do?" she asked. She looked around the room. "You've already got more than fifty people here. "

  "They're sending a substitute, but she's not here yet, and I don't know if she'll be any good. She's not even a party member. "

  "Who is it?"

  "Her name is Lady Maud Fitzherbert. " Bernie added disapprovingly: "I gather she's from a coal-owning family. "

  Ethel laughed. "Fancy that!" she said. "I used to work for her. "

  "Is she a good speaker?"

  "I've no idea. "

  Ethel was intrigued. She had not seen Maud since the fateful Tuesday when Maud had married Walter von Ulrich and Britain had declared war on Germany. Ethel still had the dress Walter had bought her, carefully wrapped in tissue paper and hanging in her wardrobe. It was pink silk with a gauzy overdress, and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever owned. Of course she could not fit into it now. Besides, it was too good for wearing to a Labour Party meeting. She still had the hat, too, in the original box from the shop in Bond Street.

  She took her seat, grateful to get the weight off her feet, and settled to wait for the meeting to begin. She would never forget going to the Ritz, after the wedding, with Walter's handsome cousin, Robert von Ulrich. Walking into the restaurant she had been the focus of hard looks from one or two of the women, and she guessed that, even though her dress was expensive, there was something about her that marked her as working class. But she hardly cared. Robert had made her laugh with catty comments about the other women's clothing and jewelry, and she had told him a bit about life in a Welsh mining town, which seemed stranger to him than the existence of the Eskimos.

  Where were they now? Both Walter and Robert had gone to war, of course, Walter with the German army and Robert with the Austrian, and Ethel had no way of knowing whether they were dead or alive. She knew no more about Fitz. She presumed he had gone to France with the Welsh Rifles, but was not even sure of that. All the same, she scanned the casualty lists in the newspapers, fearfully looking for the name Fitzherbert. She hated him for the way he had treated her, but all the same she was deeply thankful when his name did not appear.

  She could have remained in contact with Maud, simply by going to the Wednesday clinic, but how would she have explained her visit? Apart from a minor scare in July-a little spotting of blood in her underwear that Dr. Greenward had assured her was nothing to worry about-she had had nothing wrong with her.

  However, Maud had not changed in six months. She walked into the hall as spectacularly well dressed as ever, in a huge wide-brimmed hat with a tall feather that stuck up out of the hatband like the mast of a yacht. Suddenly Ethel felt shabby in her old brown coat.

  Maud caught her eye and came over. "Hello, Williams! Forgive me, I mean Ethel. What a lovely surprise!"

  Ethel shook her hand. "You'll excuse me if I don't get up," she said, patting her distended belly. "Just now I don't think I could manage to stand up for the king. "

  "Don't even think about it. Can we find a few minutes to chat after the meeting?"

  "That would be lovely. "

  Maud went to the table, and Bernie opened the meeting. Bernie was a Russian Jew, like so many inhabitants of London's East End. In fact few East Enders were plain English. There were lots of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. Before the war there had been many Germans; now there were thousands of Belgian refugees. The East End was where they got off the ship, so naturally they settled there.

  Although they had a special guest, Bernie insisted on first going through apologies for absence, the minutes of the previous meeting, and other tedious routines. He worked for the local council in the libraries department, and he was a stickler for detail.

  At last he introduced Maud. She spoke confidently and knowledgeably about the oppression of women. "A woman doing the same job as a man should be paid the same," she said. "But we are often told that the man has to support a family. "

  Several men in the audience nodded emphatically: that was what they always said.

  "But what about the woman who has to support a family?"

  This brought murmurs of agreement from the women.

  "Last week in Acton I met a girl who is trying to feed and clothe her five children on two pounds a week, while her husband, who has run off and left her, is earning four pounds ten shillings making ships' propellers in Tottenham, and spending his money in the pub!"

  "That's right!" said a woman behind Ethel.

  "Recently I spoke to a woman in Bermondsey whose husband was killed at Ypres-she has to support his four children, yet she is paid a woman's wage. "

  "Shame!" said several women.

  "If it's worth the employer's while to pay a man a shilling apiece to make gudgeon pins, it's worth his while to pay a woman at the same rate. "

  The men shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

  Maud raked the audience with a steely gaze. "When I hear socialist men argue against equal pay, I say to them: Are you permitting greedy employers to treat women as cheap labor?"

  Ethel thought it took a lot of courage and independence for a woman of Maud's background to have such views. She also envied Maud. She was jealous of her beautiful clothes and her fluent speaking style. On top of all that, Maud was married to the man she loved.

  After the talk, Maud was questioned aggressively by the Labour Party men. The branch treasurer, a red-faced Scot called Jock Reid, said: "How can you keep on moaning about votes for women when our boys are dying in France?" There were loud sounds of agreement.

  "I'm glad you asked me that, because it's a question that bothers many men and women too," Maud said. Ethel admired the conciliatory tone of the answer, which contrasted nicely with the hostility of the questioner. "Should normal political activity go on during the war? Should you be attending a Labour Party meeting? Should trade unions continue to fight against exploitation of workers? Has the Conservative Party closed down for the duration? Have injustice and oppression been temporarily suspended? I say no, comrade. We must not permit the enemies of progress to take advantage of the war. It must not become an excuse for traditionalists to hold us back. As Mr. Lloyd George says, it's business as usual. "

  After the meeting, tea was made-by the women, of course-and Maud sat next to Ethel, taking off her gloves to hold a cup and saucer of thick blue earthenware pottery in her soft hands. Ethel felt it would be unkind to tell Maud the truth about her brother, so she gave her the latest version of her fictional saga, that "Teddy Williams" had been killed fighting in France. "I tell people we were married," she said, touching the cheap ring she wore. "Not that anyone cares these days. When boys are going
off to war, girls want to please them, married or not. " She lowered her voice. "I don't suppose you've heard from Walter. "

  Maud smiled. "The most amazing thing happened. You read in the newspapers about the Christmas truce?"

  "Yes, of course-British and Germans exchanging presents and playing football in no-man's-land. It's a shame they didn't continue the truce, and refuse to fight on. "

  "Absolutely. But Fitz met Walter!"

  "Well, now, there's marvelous. "

  "Of course, Fitz doesn't know we're married, so Walter had to be careful what he said. But he sent a message to say he was thinking of me on Christmas Day. "

  Ethel squeezed Maud's hand. "So he's all right!"

  "He's been in the fighting in East Prussia, and now he's on the front line in France, but he hasn't been wounded. "

  "Thank heaven. But I don't suppose you'll hear from him again. Such luck doesn't repeat itself. "

  "No. My only hope is that for some reason he'll be sent to a neutral country, such as Sweden or the United States, where he can post a letter to me. Otherwise I'll have to wait until the war is over. "

  "And what about the earl?"

  "Fitz is fine. He spent the first few weeks of the war living it up in Paris. "

  While I was looking for a job in a sweatshop, Ethel thought resentfully.

  Maud went on: "Princess Bea had a baby boy. "

  "Fitz must be happy to have an heir. "

  "We're all pleased," Maud said, and Ethel remembered that she was an aristocrat as well as a rebel.

  The meeting broke up. A cab was waiting for Maud, and they said good-bye. Bernie Leckwith got on the bus with Ethel. "She was better than I expected," he said. "Upper-class, of course, but quite sound. And friendly, especially to you. I suppose you get to know the family quite well when you're in service. "

  You don't know the half of it, Ethel thought.

  Ethel lived on a quiet street of small terraced houses, old but well-built, mostly occupied by better-off workers, craftsmen and supervisors, and their families. Bernie walked her to her front door. He probably wanted to kiss her good night. She toyed with the idea of letting him, just because she was grateful there was one man in the world who still found her attractive. But common sense prevailed: she did not want to give him false hope. "Good night, comrade!" she said cheerfully, and she went inside.

  There was no sound or light upstairs: Mildred and her children were already asleep. Ethel undressed and got into bed. She was weary, but her mind was active, and she could not fall asleep. After a while she got up and made tea.

  She decided to write to her brother. She opened her writing pad and began.

  My very dear young sister Libby,

  In their childhood code, every third word counted, and familiar names were scrambled, so this meant simply Dear Billy.

  She recalled that her method had been to write out the message she wanted to send, then fill in the spaces. She now wrote:

  Sitting alone feeling proper miserable.

  Then she turned it into code.

  Where I'm sitting, if you're alone you're not feeling yourself either proper happy or miserable.

  As a child she had loved this game, inventing an imaginary message to hide the real one. She and Billy had devised helpful tricks: crossed-out words counted, whereas underlined words did not.

  She decided to write out the whole of her message, then go back and turn it into code.

  The streets of London are not paved with gold, at least not in Aldgate.

  She thought about writing a cheerful letter, making light of her troubles. Then she thought: to hell with that, I can tell my brother the truth.

  I used to believe I was special, don't ask why. She thinks she's too good for Aberowen, they used to say, and they were right.

  She had to blink back tears when she thought of those days: the crisp uniform, the hearty meals in the spotless servants' hall, and most of all the slim, beautiful body that had once been hers.

  Now look at me. I work twelve hours a day in Mannie Litov's sweatshop. I have a headache every evening and a permanent pain in my back. I'm having a baby no one wants. No one wants me, either, except a boring librarian with glasses.

  She sucked the end of her pencil for a long, thoughtful moment, then she wrote:

  I might as well be dead.


  On the second Sunday of each month an Orthodox priest came from Cardiff on the train up the valley to Aberowen, carrying a suitcase full of carefully wrapped icons and candlesticks, to celebrate Divine Liturgy for the Russians.

  Lev Peshkov hated priests, but he always attended the service-you had to, to get the free dinner afterward. The service took place in the reading room of the public library. It was a Carnegie library, built with a donation from the American philanthropist, according to a plaque in the lobby. Lev could read, but he did not really understand people who thought of it as a pleasure. The newspapers here were fixed to hefty wooden holders, so that they could not be stolen, and there were signs that read "Silence. " How much fun could you have in such a place?

  Lev disliked most things about Aberowen.

  Horses were the same everywhere, but he hated working underground: it was always half-dark, and the thick coal dust made him cough. Aboveground it rained all the time. He had never seen so much rain. It did not come in thunderstorms, or sudden cloudbursts, to be followed by the relief of clear skies and dry weather. Rather, it was a soft drizzle that drifted down all day, sometimes all week, creeping up the legs of his trousers and down the back of his shirt.

  The strike had petered out in August, after the outbreak of war, and the miners had drifted back to work. Most had been rehired and given back their old houses. The exceptions were those the management branded troublemakers, most of whom had gone off to join the Welsh Rifles. The evicted widows had found places to live. The strikebreakers were no longer ostracized: the locals had come around to the view that the foreigners, too, had been manipulated by the capitalist system.

  But it was not for this that Lev had escaped from St. Petersburg. Britain was better than Russia, of course: trade unions were allowed, the police were not completely out of control, even Jews were free. All the same, he was not going to settle for a life of backbreaking work in a mining town on the edge of nowhere. This was not what he and Grigori had dreamed of. This was not America.

  Even if he had been tempted to stay there, he owed it to Grigori to go on. He knew he had treated his brother badly, but he had sworn to send him the money for his own ticket. Lev had broken a lot of promises in his short life, but he intended to keep this one.

  He had most of the price of a ticket from Cardiff to New York. The money was hidden under a flagstone in the kitchen of his house in Wellington Row, along with his gun and his brother's passport. He had not saved this out of his weekly wage, of course: that was barely enough to keep him in beer and tobacco. His savings came from the weekly card game.

  Spirya was no longer his collaborator. The young man had left Aberowen after a few days and returned to Cardiff to seek easier work. But it was never difficult to find a greedy man, and Lev had befriended a colliery deputy called Rhys Price. Lev made sure Rhys won steadily, and afterward they shared the proceeds. It was important not to overdo things: other people had to win sometimes. If the miners worked out what was going on, not only would it be the end of the card school, but they would probably kill Lev. So the money accumulated slowly, and Lev could not afford to turn down a free meal.

  The priest was always met at the station by the earl's car. He was driven to Tŷ Gwyn, where he was given sherry and cake. If Princess Bea was in residence, she accompanied him to the library and entered the room a few seconds before him, which saved her having to wait too long with the common people.

  Today it was a few minutes after eleven by the large clock on the reading room wall when she entered, wearing a white fur coat and hat
against the February cold. Lev repressed a shudder: he could not look at her without feeling again the sheer terror of a six-year-old seeing his father hanged.

  The priest followed in a cream-colored robe with a gold sash. Today, for the first time, he was accompanied by another man in the garb of a novice priest-and Lev was shocked and horrified to recognize his former partner in crime Spirya.

  Lev's mind was in turmoil as the two clergymen prepared the five loaves and watered the red wine for the service. Had Spirya found God and changed his ways? Or was the clerical outfit just another cover for stealing and cheating?

  The older priest sang the blessing. A few of the more devout men had formed a choir-a development their Welsh neighbors approved of heartily-and now they sang the first amen. Lev crossed himself when the others did, but his mind was anxiously on Spirya. It would be just like a priest to blurt out the truth and ruin everything: no more card games, no ticket to America, no money for Grigori.

  Lev recalled the last day on the Angel Gabriel, when he had brutally threatened to throw Spirya overboard for merely talking about double-crossing him. Spirya might well remember that now. Lev wished he had not humiliated the man.

  Lev studied Spirya throughout the service, trying to read his face. When he went up to the front to receive communion he tried to catch his old friend's eye, but he saw no sign even of recognition: Spirya was totally caught up in the rite, or pretending to be.

  Afterward the two clergy left in the car with the princess, and the thirty or so Russian Christians followed on foot. Lev wondered if Spirya would speak to him at Tŷ Gwyn, and fretted about what he might say. Would he pretend their scam had never happened? Would he spill the beans and bring the wrath of the miners down on Lev's head? Would he demand a price for his silence?

  Lev was tempted to leave town immediately. There were trains to Cardiff every hour or two. If he had had more money he might have cut and run. But he did not have enough for the ticket, so he trudged up the hill out of town to the earl's palace for the midday dinner.

  They were fed in the staff quarters below stairs. The food was hearty: mutton stew with as much bread as you could eat, and ale to wash it down. The princess's middle-aged Russian maid, Nina, joined them and acted as interpreter. She had a soft spot for Lev, and made sure he got extra ale.

  The priest ate with the princess but Spirya came to the servants' hall and sat next to Lev. Lev turned on his most welcoming smile. "Well, old friend, this is a surprise!" he said in Russian. "Congratulations!"

  Spirya refused to be charmed. "Are you still playing cards, my son?" he replied.

  Lev kept the smile but lowered his voice. "I'll shut up about that if you will. Is that fair?"

  "We'll talk after dinner. "

  Lev was frustrated. Which way was Spirya going to jump-righteousness or blackmail?

  When the meal was over, Spirya went out through the back door, and Lev followed. Without speaking, Spirya led him to a white rotunda like a miniature Greek temple. From its raised platform they could see anyone approaching. It was raining, and the water dripped down the marble pillars. Lev shook the rain off his cap and put it back on his head.

  Spirya said: "Do you recall my asking you, on the ship, what you would do if I refused to give you your half of the money?"

  Lev had pushed Spirya half over the rail and threatened to break his neck and throw his body in the sea. "No, I don't remember," he lied.

  "It doesn't matter," Spirya said. "I simply wished to forgive you. "

  Righteousness, then, Lev thought with relief.

  "What we did was sinful," Spirya said. "I have confessed and received absolution. "

  "I won't ask your priest to play cards with me, then. "

  "Don't joke. "

  Lev wanted to grab Spirya by the throat, as he had on the ship, but Spirya no longer looked as if he could be bullied. The robe had given him balls, ironically.

  Spirya went on: "I ought to reveal your crime to those you robbed. "

  "They won't thank you. They may take revenge on you as well as me. "

  "My priestly garments will protect me. "

  Lev shook his head. "Most of the people you and I robbed were poor Jews. They probably remember priests looking on with a smile while the Cossacks beat them up. They might kick you to death all the more eagerly in your robe. "

  The shadow of anger passed over Spirya's young face, but he forced a benign smile. "I'm more concerned about you, my son. I would not like to provoke violence against you. "

  Lev knew when he was being threatened. "What are you going to do?"

  "The question is what you're going to do. "

  "Will you keep your mouth shut if I stop?"

  "If you confess, make a sincere contrition, and cease your sin, God will forgive you-and then it will not be for me to punish you. "

  And you'll get away with it too, Lev thought. "All right, I'll do it," he said. As soon as he had spoken, he realized he had given in too quickly.

  Spirya's next words confirmed that he was not so easily fooled. "I will check," he said. "And if I find you have broken your promise to me and to God, I will reveal your crime to your victims. "

  "And they will kill me. Good work, Father. "

  "As far as I can see, it's the best way out of a moral dilemma. And my priest agrees. So take it or leave it. "

  "I have no choice. "

  "God bless you, my son," said Spirya.

  Lev walked away.

  He left the grounds of Tŷ Gwyn and headed through the rain back into Aberowen, fuming. How like a priest, he thought resentfully, to take away a man's chance of bettering himself. Spirya was comfortable now, food and clothing and accommodation all provided, forever, by the church and the hungry worshippers who gave money they could not afford. For the rest of his life, Spirya would have nothing to do but sing the services and fiddle with the altar boys.

  What was Lev to do? If he gave up the card games, it would take him forever to save enough for his passage. He would be doomed to spend years tending pit ponies half a mile underground. And he would never redeem himself by sending Grigori the price of a ticket to America.

  He had never chosen the safe path.

  He made his way to the Two Crowns pub. In Sabbath-observing Wales pubs were not allowed to open on Sundays, but the rules were lightly regarded in Aberowen. There was only one policeman in the town and, like most people, he took Sundays off. The Two Crowns closed its front door, for the sake of appearances, but regulars went in through the kitchen, and business was done as usual.

  At the bar were the Ponti brothers, Joey and Johnny. They were drinking whisky, unusually. The miners drank beer. Whisky was a rich man's potion, and a bottle probably lasted the Two Crowns from one Christmas to the next.

  Lev ordered a pot of beer and addressed the elder brother. "Aye, aye, Joey. "

  "Aye, aye, Grigori. " Lev was still using his brother's name, which was on the passport.

  "Feeling flush today, Joey, is it?"

  "Aye. Me and the kid went to Cardiff yesterday for the boxing. "

  The brothers looked like boxers themselves, Lev thought: two broad-shouldered, bull-necked men with big hands. "Good, was it?" he said.

  "Darkie Jenkins versus Roman Tony. We bet on Tony, being Italian like us. Odds of thirteen to one, and he knocked Jenkins out in three rounds. "

  Lev sometimes struggled with formal English, but he knew the meaning of "thirteen to one. " He said: "You should come and play cards. You are. . . " He hesitated, then remembered the phrase. "You are making a lucky streak. "

  "Oh, I don't want to lose it as quick as I won it," Joey said.

  However, when the card school assembled in the barn half an hour later Joey and Johnny were there. The rest of the players were a mixture of Russian and Welsh.

  They played a local version of poker called three-card brag. Lev liked it. After the initial three, no further cards
were dealt or exchanged, so the game went fast. If a player raised the bet, the next man in the circle had to match the raise immediately-he could not stay in the game by betting the original stake-so the pot grew quickly. Betting continued until there were only two players left, at which point one of them could end the round by doubling the previous bet, which forced his opponent to show his cards. The best hand was three of a kind, known as a prial, and the highest of all was a prial of treys, three threes.

  Lev had a natural instinct for odds and would usually have won at cards without cheating, but that was too slow.

  The deal moved to the left every hand, so Lev could fix the cards only once in a while. However, there were a thousand ways to cheat, and Lev had devised a simple code that enabled Rhys to indicate when he had a good hand. Lev would then stay in the betting, regardless of what he was holding, to force the stakes up and enlarge the pot. Most of the time everyone else would drop out, and Lev would then lose to Rhys.

  As the first hand was dealt, Lev decided this would be his last game. If he cleaned out the Ponti brothers he would probably be able to buy his ticket. Next Sunday Spirya would make inquiries to find out whether Lev was still running a card school. By then Lev wanted to be at sea.

  Over the next two hours Lev watched Rhys's winnings grow and told himself America was coming nearer with each penny. He did not usually like to clean anyone out, because he wanted them to come back next week. But today was the day to go for the jackpot.

  As the afternoon began to darken outside he got the deal. He gave Joey Ponti three aces and Rhys three threes. In this game, threes beat aces. He gave himself a pair of kings, which justified him in betting high. He stayed in the betting until Joey was almost broke-he did not want to collect any IOUs. Joey used the last of his money to see Rhys's hand. The expression on Joey's face when Rhys showed a prial of treys was both comical and pitiful.

  Rhys raked the money in. Lev stood up and said: "I'm cleaned out. " The game broke up and they all returned to the bar, where Rhys bought a round of drinks to soothe the feelings of the losers. The Ponti brothers reverted to drinking beer, and Joey said: "Ah, well, easy come, easy go, isn't it?"

  A few minutes later, Lev went back outside and Rhys followed. There was no toilet at the Two Crowns, so the men used the lane at the back of the barn. The only illumination came from a distant streetlight. Rhys quickly handed Lev his half of the winnings, partly in coins and partly in the new colored banknotes, green for a pound and brown for ten shillings.

  Lev knew exactly what he was owed. Arithmetic came naturally to him, like figuring the odds at cards. He would count the money later, but he was sure Rhys would not cheat him. The man had tried, once. Lev had found his share to be five shillings short-an amount that a careless man might have overlooked. Lev had gone to Rhys's house, stuck the barrel of his revolver into the man's mouth, and cocked the hammer. Rhys had soiled himself in fear. After that the money had always been correct to a halfpenny.

  Lev stuffed the money into his coat pocket and they returned to the bar.

  As they walked in, Lev saw Spirya.

  He had taken off his robes and put on the overcoat he had worn on the ship. He stood at the bar, not drinking, but talking earnestly to a small group of Russians, including some of the card school.

  Momentarily, he met Lev's eye.

  Lev turned on his heel and went out, but he knew he was too late.

  He walked quickly away, heading up the hill to Wellington Row. Spirya would betray him, he felt sure. Even now he might be explaining how Lev managed to cheat at cards and yet seem the loser. The men would be furious, and the Ponti brothers would want their money back.

  As he approached his house, he saw a man coming the other way with a suitcase, and in the lamplight he recognized a young neighbor known as Billy-with-Jesus. "Aye, aye, Billy," he said.

  "Aye, aye, Grigori. "

  The boy looked as if he was leaving town, and Lev was curious. "Off somewhere?"

  "London. "

  Lev's interest quickened. "What train?"

  "Six o'clock to Cardiff. " Passengers for London had to change trains at Cardiff.

  "What is it now?"

  "Twenty to. "

  "So long, then. " Lev went into his house. He would catch the same train as Billy, he decided.

  He turned on the electric light in the kitchen and lifted the flagstone. He took out his savings, the passport with his brother's name and photograph, a box of brass bullets, and his gun, a Nagant M1895 he had won from an army captain in a card game. He checked the cylinder to make sure there was a live round in each chamber: used rounds were not automatically ejected, but had to be removed manually when reloading. He put the money, the passport, and the gun in the pockets of his coat.

  Upstairs he found Grigori's cardboard suitcase with the bullet hole. Into it he packed the ammunition plus his other shirt, his spare underwear, and two packs of cards.

  He had no watch, but he calculated that five minutes had passed since he saw Billy. That gave him fifteen minutes to walk to the station, which was enough.

  From the street outside he heard the voices of several men.

  He did not want a confrontation. He was tough, but the miners were too. Even if he won the fight he would miss his train. He could use the gun, of course, but in this country the police were serious about catching murderers even when the victims were nobodies. At a minimum they would check passengers at the docks in Cardiff and make it difficult for him to buy a ticket. In every way it would be best if he could leave town without violence.

  He went out of the back door and hurried along the lane, walking as quietly as he could in his heavy boots. The ground underfoot was muddy, as it almost always was in Wales, so fortunately his footsteps made little noise.

  At the end of the lane he turned down an alley and emerged into the lights of the street. The toilets in the middle of the road shielded him from the view of anyone outside his house. He hurried away.

  Two streets farther on he realized that his route took him past the Two Crowns. He stopped and thought for a moment. He knew the layout of the town, and the only alternative route would require him to double back. But the men whose voices he had heard might still be near his house.

  He had to risk the Two Crowns. He turned down another alley and took the back lane that passed behind the pub.

  As he approached the barn where they had played cards, he heard voices and glimpsed two or more men, dimly outlined by the streetlamp at the far end of the lane. He was running out of time, but all the same he stopped and waited for them to go back inside. He stood close to a high wooden fence to make himself less visible.

  They seemed to take forever. "Come on," he whispered. "Don't you want to get back into the warm?" The rain dripped off his cap and down the back of his neck.

  At last they went inside, and Lev emerged from the shadows and hurried forward. He passed the barn without incident, but as he drew away from it he heard more voices. He cursed. The customers had been drinking beer since midday, and by this time of the afternoon they needed frequent visits to the lane. He heard someone call after him: "Aye, aye, butty. " Their word for friend was "butty" or "butt. " Its use meant he had not been recognized.

  He pretended not to hear, and walked on.

  He could hear a murmured conversation. Most of the words were unintelligible, but he thought one man said: "Looks like a Russky. " Russian clothes were different from British, and Lev guessed they might be able to make out the cut of his coat and the shape of his cap by the light of the streetlamp, which he was quickly approaching. However, the call of nature was usually urgent for men coming out of a pub, and he thought they would not follow him before they had relieved themselves.

  He turned down the next alley and disappeared from their view. Unfortunately, he doubted whether he had gone from their minds. Spirya must by now have told his story, and someone would soon realize t
he significance of a man in Russian clothes walking toward the town center with a suitcase in his hand.

  He had to be on that train.

  He broke into a run.

  The railway line lay in the cleft of the valley, so the way to the station was all downhill. Lev ran easily, taking long strides. He could see, over the rooftops, the lights of the station and, as he came closer, the smoke from the funnel of a train standing at the platform.

  He ran across the square and into the booking hall. The hands of the big clock stood at one minute to six. He hurried to the ticket window and fished money from his pocket. "Ticket, please," he said.

  "Where would you like to go this evening?" the clerk said pleasantly.

  Lev pointed urgently to the platform. "That train by there!"

  "This train calls at Aberdare, Pontypridd-"

  "Cardiff!" Lev glanced up and saw the minute hand click through its last segment and stop, trembling slightly, at the o'clock position.

  "Single, or return?" said the clerk unhurriedly.

  "Single, quickly!"

  Lev heard the whistle. Desperately, he looked through the coins in his hand. He knew the fare-he had been to Cardiff twice in the last six months-and he put money on the counter.

  The train began to move.

  The clerk gave him his ticket.

  Lev grabbed it and turned away.

  "Don't forget your change!" said the clerk.

  Lev strode the few paces to the barrier. "Ticket, please," said the collector, even though he had just watched Lev buy it.

  Looking past the barrier, Lev saw the train gathering speed.

  The collector punched his ticket and said: "Don't you want your change?"

  The door of the booking hall burst open and the Ponti brothers rushed in. "There you are!" Joey cried, and he rushed at Lev.

  Lev surprised him by stepping toward him and punching him directly in the face. Joey was stopped in his tracks. Johnny crashed into his older brother's back, and both fell to their knees.

  Lev snatched his ticket from the collector and ran onto the platform. The train was moving quite fast. He ran alongside it for a moment. Suddenly a door opened, and Lev saw the friendly face of Billy-with-Jesus.

  Billy shouted: "Jump!"

  Lev leaped for the train and got one foot on the step. Billy grabbed his arm. They teetered for a moment as Lev tried desperately to haul himself aboard. Then Billy gave a heave and pulled Lev inside.

  He sank gratefully into a seat.

  Billy pulled the door shut and sat opposite him.

  "Thank you," Lev said.

  "You cut it fine," Billy said.

  "I made it, though," said Lev with a grin. "That's all that counts. "


  At Paddington Station next morning, Billy asked for directions to Aldgate. A friendly Londoner gave him a rapid stream of detailed instructions, every word of which he found completely incomprehensible. He thanked the man and walked out of the station.

  He had never been to London but he knew that Paddington was in the west and poor people lived in the east, so he walked toward the midmorning sun. The city was even bigger than he had imagined, a great deal busier and more confusing than Cardiff, but he relished it: the noise, the rushing traffic, the crowds, and most of all the shops. He had not known there were so many shops in the world. How much was spent in London's shops every day? he wondered. It must be thousands of pounds-maybe millions.

  He felt a sense of freedom that was quite heady. No one here knew him. In Aberowen, or even on his occasional trips to Cardiff, he was always liable to be observed by friends or relations. In London he might walk along a street holding hands with a pretty girl and his parents would never find out. He had no intention of doing so, but the thought that he could-and the fact that there were so many pretty well-dressed girls walking around-was intoxicating.

  After a while he saw a bus with "Aldgate" written on its front, and he jumped aboard. Ethel's letter had mentioned Aldgate.

  When he decoded her letter he had been very worried. Of course he could not discuss it with his parents. He had waited until they left for the evening service at the Bethesda Chapel-which he no longer attended-then he had written a note.

  Dear Mam,

  I am worried about our Eth and have gone to find her. Sorry to sneak off but I don't want a row.

  Your loving son,


  As it was Sunday, he was already bathed and shaved and dressed in his best clothes. His suit was a shabby hand-me-down from his father, but he had a clean white shirt and a black knitted tie. He had dozed in the waiting room at Cardiff station and caught the milk train in the early hours of Monday morning.

  The bus conductor alerted him when they reached Aldgate, and he got off. It was a poor neighborhood, with crumbling slum houses, street stalls selling secondhand clothes, and barefoot children playing in noisome stairwells. He did not know where Ethel lived-her letter had not given an address. His only clue was I work twelve hours a day in Mannie Litov's sweatshop.

  He looked forward to giving Eth all the news from Aberowen. She would know from the newspapers that the widows' strike had failed. Billy seethed when he thought of it. The bosses were able to behave outrageously because they held all the cards. They owned the mines and the houses, and they acted as if they owned the people. Because of various complex franchise rules, most miners did not have the vote, so Aberowen's member of Parliament was a Conservative who invariably sided with the company. Tommy Griffiths's father said nothing would ever change without a revolution like the one they had had in France. Billy's da said they needed a Labour government. Billy did not know who was right.

  He went up to a friendly-looking young man and said: "Do you know the way to Mannie Litov's place?"

  The man replied in a language that sounded like Russian.

  He tried again, and this time got an English speaker who had never heard of Mannie Litov. Aldgate was not like Aberowen, where everyone on the street would know the way to every place of business in town. Had he come this far-and spent all that money on his train ticket-for nothing?

  He was not yet ready to give up. He scanned the busy street for British-looking people who seemed to be about some kind of business, carrying tools or pushing carts. He questioned five more people without success, then came across a window cleaner with a ladder.

  "Mannie Litov's?" the man repeated. He managed to say "Litov" without pronouncing the letter t, instead making a noise in his throat like a small cough. "Clouvin fectry?"

  "Pardon me," Billy said politely. "What was that again?"

  "Clouvin fectry. Plice where vey mikes clouvin-jickits an trahsies an at. "

  "Um. . . probably, yes," Billy said, feeling desperate.

  The window cleaner nodded. "Strite on, quote of a ma, do a rye, Ark Rav Rahd. "

  "Straight on?" Billy replied. "Quarter of a mile?"

  "Ass it, ven do a rye. "

  "Turn right?"

  "Ark Rav Rahd. "

  "Ark Rav Road?"

  "Carn miss it. "

  The street name turned out to be Oak Grove Road. It had no grove of anything, let alone oaks. It was a narrow, winding lane of dilapidated brick buildings busy with people, horses, and handcarts. Two more inquiries brought Billy to a house squashed between the Dog and Duck pub and a boarded-up shop called Lippmann's. The front door stood open. Billy climbed the stairs to the top floor, where he found himself in a room with about twenty women sewing British army uniforms.

  They continued working, operating their treadles, taking no apparent notice of him, until eventually one said: "Come in, love, we won't eat you-although, come to think of it, I might try a little taste. " They all cackled with laughter.

  "I'm looking for Ethel Williams," he said.

  "She's not here," the woman said.

  "Why not?" he said anxiously. "Is she ill?"

  "What business is it of yours?" The woman got up from her machine. "I'm Mildred-who are you?"

  Billy stared at her. She was pretty even though she had buckteeth. She wore bright red lipstick, and fair curls poked out from under her hat. She was wrapped in a thick, shapeless gray coat but, despite that, he could see the sway of her hips as she walked toward him. He was too taken with her to speak.

  She said: "You're not the bastard who put her up the duff then scarpered, are you?"

  Billy found his voice. "I'm her brother. "

  "Oh!" she said. "Fucking hell, are you Billy?"

  Billy's jaw dropped. He had never heard a woman use that word.

  She scrutinized him with a fearless gaze. "You are her brother, I can see it, though you look older than sixteen. " Her tone softened in a way that made him feel warm inside. "You've got the same dark eyes and curly hair. "

  "Where can I find her?" he said.

  She gave him a challenging look. "I happen to know that she doesn't want her family to find out where she's living. "

  "She's scared of my father," Billy said. "But she wrote me a letter. I was worried about her so I came up on the train. "

  "All the way from that dump in Wales where she's from?"

  "It's not a dump," Billy said indignantly. Then he shrugged and said: "Well, it is, really, I suppose. "

  "I love your accent," Mildred said. "To me it's like hearing someone sing. "

  "Do you know where she lives?"

  "How did you find this place?"

  "She said she worked at Mannie Litov's in Aldgate. "

  "Well, you're Sherlock bloody Holmes, aren't you?" she said, not without a note of reluctant admiration.

  "If you don't tell me where she is, someone else will," he said with more confidence than he felt. "I'm not going home till I've seen her. "

  "She'll kill me, but all right," Mildred said. "Twenty-three Nutley Street. "

  Billy asked her for directions. He made her speak slowly.

  "Don't thank me," she said as he took his leave. "Just protect me if Ethel tries to kill me. "

  "All right, then," said Billy, thinking how thrilling it would be to protect Mildred from something.

  The other women shouted good-bye and blew kisses as he left, embarrassing him.

  Nutley Street was an oasis of quiet. The terraced houses were built to a pattern that had become familiar to Billy after only one day in London. They were much larger than miners' cottages, with small front yards instead of a door opening onto the street. The effect of order and regularity was created by identical sash windows, each with twelve panes of glass, in rows all along the terrace.

  He knocked at number 23 but no one answered.

  He was worried. Why had she not gone to work? Was she ill? If not, why was she not at home?

  He peered through the letterbox and saw a hallway with polished floorboards and a hat stand bearing an old brown coat that he recognized. It was a cold day: Ethel would not go out without her coat.

  He stepped close to the window and tried to look inside, but he could not see through the net curtain.

  He returned to the door and looked through the flap again. The scene inside was unchanged, but this time he heard a noise. It was a long, agonized groan. He put his mouth to the letterbox and shouted: "Eth! Is that you? It's Billy out here. "

  There was a long silence, then the groan was repeated.

  "Bloody hell," he said.

  The door had a Yale-type lock. That meant the catch was probably attached to the doorpost with two screws. He struck the door with the heel of his hand. It did not seem particularly stout, and he guessed the wood was cheap pine, many years old. He leaned back, lifted his right leg, and kicked the door with the heel of his heavy miner's boot. There was a sound of splintering. He kicked several more times, but the door did not open.

  He wished he had a hammer.

  He looked up and down the road, hoping to see a workman with tools, but the street was deserted except for two dirty-faced boys who were watching him with interest.

  He walked down the short garden path to the gate, turned, and ran at the door, hitting it with his right shoulder. It burst open and he fell inside.

  He picked himself up, rubbing his hurt shoulder, and pushed the ruined door to. The house seemed silent. "Eth?" he called. "Where are you?"

  The groaning came again, and he followed the sound into the front room on the ground floor. It was a woman's bedroom, with china ornaments on the mantelpiece and flowered curtains at the window. Ethel was on the bed, wearing a gray dress that covered her like a tent. She was not lying down, but on her hands and knees, groaning.

  "What's wrong with you, Eth?" said Billy, and his voice came out as a terrified squeak.

  She caught her breath. "The baby's coming. "

  "Oh, hell. I'd better fetch a doctor. "

  "Too late, Billy. Dear Jesus, it hurts. "

  "You sound like you're dying!"

  "No, Billy, this is what childbirth is like. Come by here and hold my hand. "

  Billy knelt by the bed, and Ethel took his hand. She tightened her grip and began to groan again. The groan was longer and more agonized than before, and she gripped his hand so hard he thought she might break a bone. Her groan ended with a shriek, then she panted as if she had run a mile.

  After a minute she said: "I'm sorry, Billy, but you're going to have to look up my skirt. "

  "Oh!" he said. "Oh, right. " He did not really understand, but he thought he had better do as he was told. He lifted the hem of Ethel's dress. "Oh, Christ!" he said. The bedsheet beneath her was soaked in blood. There in the middle of it was a tiny pink thing covered in slime. He made out a big round head with closed eyes, two tiny arms, and two legs. "It's a baby!" he said.

  "Pick it up, Billy," said Ethel.

  "What, me?" he said. "Oh, right, then. " He leaned over the bed. He got one hand under the baby's head and one under its little bum. It was a boy, he saw. The baby was slippery and slimy, but Billy managed to pick him up. There was a cord still attaching him to Ethel.

  "Have you got it?" she said.

  "Aye," he said. "I've got him. It's a boy. "

  "Is he breathing?"

  "I dunno. How can you tell?" Billy fought down panic. "No, he's not breathing, I don't think. "

  "Smack his bum, not too hard. "

  Billy turned the baby over, held him easily in one hand, and sharply smacked his bottom. Immediately the child opened his mouth, breathed in, and yelled in protest. Billy was delighted. "Hark at that!" he said.

  "Hold him a minute while I turn over. " Ethel got herself into a sitting position and straightened her dress. "Give him to me. "

  Billy carefully handed him over. Ethel held the baby in the crook of her arm and wiped his face with her sleeve. "He's beautiful," she said.

  Billy was not sure about that.

  The cord attached to the baby's navel had been blue and taut, but now it shriveled and turned pale. Ethel said: "Open that drawer over by there and pass me the scissors and a reel of cotton. "

  Ethel tied two knots in the cord, then snipped it between the knots. "There," she said. She unbuttoned the front of her dress. "I don't suppose you'll be embarrassed, after what you've seen," she said, and she took out a breast and put the nipple to the baby's mouth. He began to suck.

  She was right: Billy was not embarrassed. An hour ago he would have been mortified by the sight of his sister's bare breast, but such a feeling seemed trivial now. All he felt was enormous relief that the baby was all right. He stared, watching him suckle, marveling at the tiny fingers. He felt as if he had witnessed a miracle. His face was wet with tears, and he wondered when he had cried: he had no memory of doing so.

  Quite soon the baby fell asleep. Ethel buttoned her dress. "We'll wash him in a minute," she said. Then she closed her eyes. "My God," she said. "I didn't know it was going to hurt that much. "
  Billy said: "Who's his father, Eth?"

  "Earl Fitzherbert," she said. Then she opened her eyes. "Oh, bugger, I never meant to tell you that. "

  "The bloody swine," said Billy. "I'll kill him. "

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment