London Short Fiction: Old Nichol

Photo: Arnold Circus, built on the rubble of the Old Nichol.

Photo: Arnold Circus, built on the rubble of the Old Nichol. By M@.

Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week, Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End…

Old Nichol

Two shillings he wanted, and two shillings he would have, he told her, if she didn’t want to be evicted. He collected the rent every Monday; ‘Black Monday’ the women called it, as they queued up at the pawnbrokers to raise the sums required. Edith Morris was in the thirty-eighth week of her pregnancy, and all she had were the clothes she stood in, rags hanging awkwardly over her expanded belly, and a few coins clutched in her hand. Her last two shillings she handed over to the landlord’s agent.

You made clothes pegs in the damp and dark of the room you call your home, Edith, and the rats scuttled outside the door, in the warren of underground passages. Plenty of work, but the pitiful wages fell, and fell again. When you had nothing left to pawn, you serviced a gen’leman or two, your pinched, white face turned to the clammy walls while you cleared your debts. Little Edith, a Foundling, barely grown into a woman, and now abandoned once more. A sapling denied the light, sickly and moon-pale, carrying a gen’leman’s child of your own.

Edith pushed open the door to the yard that stank from the heaps of refuse and steaming piles of excrement, for the costers’ donkeys were herded in there at night. Past the filthy lavatory, where fish were strung up to dry, to the tap on the back wall. Water flowed for just a few hours each day. She shivered. It was a fine April day in Bethnal Green, but in Old Nichol, the daylight backed into shadowed corners and stayed hidden. Spring recoiled from this place, stared fixedly at the small patch of sky that hung in a colour-washed square over the yard, and refused to bring her fresh new life into the worst slum in London. All that bloomed here was venomous — diphtheria, small pox, tuberculosis — and in the cellared dark, children failed to thrive for want of the sun and wilted like dying flowers, their bodies shrunken and bones twisted.

You fill your jug from the tap, Edith, and then they come, red-hot, iron claws squeezing your womb. The contractions come, in mounting waves, another rolling through your belly almost as soon as the previous one has died away, and you hang on to that jug’s handle with a white-knuckled grip as though it is a raft to lift you through this storm of pain. I hear your gasp. Beads of sweat are running across your forehead, but you know what to do. You put the jug down, and folding your arms around yourself, as if afraid the baby will fall out, there and then, onto the dank passage-way, you knock on Vera’s door.

Vera had delivered many of the babies whose unfortunate first encounter with the world was in one of these dilapidated tenements. Not that she was a midwife in any formal way; she worked in the match factory, did Vera, so at least she would always have a few spare in her pocket for lighting fires and candles.

‘Ain’tcha got no fire lit or nothing, dearie?’

‘Nothing left to burn,’ whispered Edith.

‘You wait ‘ere; we need boiling water and clean rags and some newspapers to keep yer mattress from soiling’ – she peered at Edith’s sheet-less mattress – ‘Well, keep it from gettin’ even worse, with all the blood and that.’

It is a long labour, a long night for you, Edith. How grateful you are for Vera’s presence; a rough diamond to be sure, who can booze and fight with the hardest of the men in the drinking dens around Redchurch Street. But here she is, rubbing your back, and whispering comforting words.

‘Soon be ‘ere now will littl’un, not long now Edie.’

‘I’ve got nothing left, Vera. I can’t do this.’

‘I ain’t never heard such nonsense. Fine, ‘ealthy girl like you! Now you push for me. Come on, I want this child out now, Edith.’ Edith bore down one last time with a drawn out, haunting moan that came from the depths of her soul.

The baby was limp, her skin had a greyish tinge. Vera snatched up the tiny form, turned the infant upside down, heard no cry, placed her mouth over blue lips and breathed into them gently. She tried all the techniques she’d learned from other Handywomen, those untrained, unqualified women who passed their midwifery skills, one to the other, in the despised parishes outside the City’s boundaries. Finally, defeated, Vera placed the inert, cooling body into Edith’s arms,

‘It’s for’a best, Edie, it’s for’a best. ‘er soul’s wiv the angels.’

She went banging on old Ma Rawlings’ door, that vile old biddy who ran a good business in loans and extortions, profiting from the poverty all around her.

‘Make us a cup a’ tea Ma Rawlings and put a good nip a’ gin in it an’ all! I’ll pay yer t’morra when I gets me wages, and you needn’t think about adding no int’rest to the debt neither, if yer knows what’s good fer yer.’ And she took the drink to Edith who lay white-faced and exhausted, cradling her child. ‘Now you get this down yer, and I’ll be back later and we’ll sort out about getting some ‘elp off of the Parish to give your littl’un a proper Christian burial.’ Salt of the earth, that Vera.

Gentle Edith, I could not cling onto life. I slipped into the endless dark even as you bore me into this gloomy place. Your tears rain down on the tiny body that might have been mine to inhabit. But take comfort, I am here with you still, the spectral haze that rises from the musty floor, to hover and watch over you. Save your prayers; there is neither a heaven nor a hell, just this spiritual half-world of shadows and fog. Find me, sweet mother, in the steam rising off the cobbled alleys, in the mist dancing over the Thames.

Copyright Jill Fricker, 2013.

Submissions for this column should be sent to fiction@londonist.com. Entries must be no more than 1000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.

Previously in this series

Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.

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