Remember, remember!/The fifth of November,/The Gunpowder treason and plot;/I know of no reason/Why the Gunpowder treason/Should ever be forgot! (English folk verse c. 1870)
We were out gathering sticks for the bonfire. Vic had Teddy in her arms and I followed behind like always. William ran ahead looking for firecrackers. Vic said we should go down to Little Venice and gather sticks along the shore. We weren’t supposed to. It was dangerous, Pa said—there were rough men working the barges who’d slit your throat soon as look at you.
“Pa won’t know if you don’t tell him and you won’t if you know what’s good for you.”
When we had as much wood as we could carry we stood on Chapel Bridge and filled our noses with the smell of dirt and dead fish and watched the poor bone-rack horses straining to pull their loads of coal up from the wharf. Vic pointed out the boys scrambling in the oozing mud, big boys but some little ones too covered with slime up to their eyes. Mudlarks, she said. It sounded like birds but they were all dirty from looking for nails and pieces of coal to sell.
One of them yelled and held up a drowned cat and the others laughed when he twirled it by its tail over his head and threw it further out into the water. I didn’t laugh. I like cats.
We were never to go near the water. It stinks especially in summer and Mama says it carries disease. She says it’s stagnant which is like being dead and when the bubbles come up we’re to stay well away because those bubbles are full of poison. When Mama was a girl they dug it all out but the next year it smelled just as bad.
Pa says there are things they could do about the canal basin but the company that owns it cares more about making money than people getting sick and won’t pay for the dredging and the counselors get their pockets filled and turn a blind eye. I asked why they were blind but Pa just laughed and said there’s none so blind as those who cannot see which is one of those things that sounds like it means something but doesn’t.
Further on was the cemetery which is called Kensal Green. Papa took us there for picnics on his birthday. His is the only birthday we celebrate, he says it’s because he was born in April and April is the best month for celebrating birthdays but Mama says it’s because he can never remember her birthday and children aren’t important enough to have a day all their own. The only place Pa wants to go on his birthday is the old burial ground because he says it’s good to remind yourself on the day you were born that the day you’ll die isn’t far off.
There are famous people buried there. Not so famous that you’d know their names right off but famous in the way Papa says is important because they did important things that made people’s lives better. There’s a man who made copper lithographs and invented a way to make cloth and paper waterproof and an Irishman who wrote operas and the man who built the first tunnel under the Thames. Papa knows about these people. He stands in front of their gravestones and tells all about them even though the stone might only say Balfe the Composer.
Sometimes I get bored and go off to pick flowers or search for bird nests but Vic always stays and pays attention and if Pa asks her about it later that night when we’re home she always knows the answers. You’re his girl Mama says, you’re your father through and through. She makes it sound like it’s not a completely good thing but Vic is proud of it. Well she would be wouldn’t she because who would want to be like Ma?
After a while Vic said it was time to go home. She shifted Teddy to her other shoulder and looked around for William. He was gone.
We started running. Up and down the shoreline but we couldn’t run fast because we had to dodge the navvies and prossies and rats and coster barrows and we kept tripping over piles of rope and stumbling in the messes of dung from all the stray dogs and cats. For over an hour we called for him, caught a glimpse every other minute of a boy that surely was William, bare legs dangling from Pa’s old trousers cut off at the knees. Too many skinny pale-faced boys, they all could be William but none of them were.
It began to grow dark. The gas flares streamed and fluttered in the wind and it was me who finally said it. “We have to go home. We have to tell.”
Vic said nothing.
“He might be there already. He might have went back on his own.”
It was a thought—a hope—yes, that’s what happened. He went back on his own. Did he know how to find his way home? He was only three but lots of children find their way about the streets at that age. It isn’t so unusual.
“Come on then,” Vic said, “hurry up. You take the sticks, I’ll carry Teddy.”
He was home. We were so glad we didn’t see right away that Mama was looking worried. I wanted to give William the marble I found down by the water. It was blue glass and smooth like a robin’s egg. It was nicer than any of the ones he had in his collection.
Mama said he was asleep in her bed and to leave him as he was hot and fretful and didn’t want his tea.
The next day Pa went out looking for work and William didn’t want to get up or have his breakfast. He said his head hurt and his throat was sore and his skin was hot to touch but he was shivering and couldn’t get warm. Mama sent us to the apothecary and the man said it sounded like scarlatina. He gave us a bottle of white powder and said to mix it with barley-water and give it to William half a teaspoon every three hours.
By the time Pa got home there were red spots all over William’s body and he was crying and saying there were monsters in the room. Papa picked him up and walked with him out into the street to cool him off. He was talking to him, telling him how it was going to be all right and he was going to be better in the morning, the way he did with me the time I had the Hooping-cough.
Only this was worse. Mama said to bring him to the hospital but Pa didn’t want to because of Pieter Smits the little Dutch boy who used to live next door. Pieter got scarlatina and went to the hospital and he died. Pa said he wouldn’t take his boy there, he’d get better on his own. Pa sat up and held him all night and in the morning Ma got up to check and Pa was asleep with William in his arms and Mama said for us to run and get the doctor—now!
We took the short-cut through the park to the house on Maida Vale and knocked on the door and rang the bell and yelled for the doctor until the maid finally came and when she opened the door she was mad at us for making a racket but when we told her about William she was nicer and said to wait on the step and she’d go see. When she came back she said she was sorry but the doctor was on his way out, he had calls all morning and surgery in the afternoon but he’d come at the end of the day. She said if we were worried we should take William to St Mary’s. We didn’t like to go home without bringing the doctor but there was nothing we could do.
When we got back to Park Road the boys were building up piles of wood for the bonfire at the end of the street. I wanted to stay and watch but Vic said we had to go in and tell Mama what the girl had said. She said I had to go with her. She didn’t want to tell on her own.
Pa was walking up and down with William in his arms and Mama’s face was wound up tight with worry. “When? When did he say he’d come? Did you say it was urgent?”
We told her what the maid said, that we should take him to St. Mary’s but Mama said he was too sick to be moved and Papa swore and called the doctor a bad name. Mama told Vic to take me and the baby to Gran’s and stay there for the day. She said Gran would bring us home when it was safe. Vic said safe meant when William was better as we might catch it if we stayed. I thought she meant catch it from Ma with a stick but she said she meant we might get sick, too.
Gran was sewing shirts. She gave Vic and me each a collar to work on and when we were done she put brown wrapping paper on the table and gave us charcoal for drawing. I couldn’t think what to draw so Gran took her willow pattern platter down from the shelf and said to draw what was on it. Vic didn’t need the platter. She drew a man on a horse riding in a field of flowers and trees and Gran said Vic was going to be an artist when she grew up.
I said I wanted to be an artist too but Gran said I would be a poet instead. This is because of the poem I made up last year. The one Gran wrote out and keeps on the wall next to her picture of the Church of St. Padarn: “First it’s pig/Then it’s pork/Then you stab it/With your fork. The End.” I made Gran write The End after it because that’s how it is with stories and poems, you always put The End so people will know to stop reading. If it’s a story you put Happily Ever After but if it’s a poem you just put The End.
Gran knows about The End because she has books. She says if you have books you are richer than if you have money and she has read all the books in her flat even the ones with no pictures. She has one called The Princess and the Goblin about a Princess who lives in a castle on top of a mountain. Her name is Irene and her father’s the king but he’s not around very much, and there are goblins who live in a mine deep inside the mountain. And oh! it’s just the very best story. I could listen to Gran read it every night.
When we were finished drawing we helped Gran get supper ready and when Uncle Arthur came home he picked me up and swung me high in the air and said, “How’s my little cock sparrow today?” Gran shook her head and he said, “Oh, dear, I was hoping for better news. I know, shall we go see them light the bonfire?” Gran said we might but be careful and stay close to Uncle Arthur and come back as soon as the fire’s gone out. We ran down the stairs and out to the street and it was almost like daytime with all the torches and the fireworks going off. We got near as we could, near enough to feel the heat on our cheeks, and Uncle Arthur put me on his shoulders so I could see past the big boys in front.
There were three Guys. One was the Pope and one was a Zulu king and the biggest one with the most awful painted face, the one that reached up to the sky, Uncle Arthur said that was Guy Fawkes. He was the last to burn and he almost didn’t as the fire was flickering down and wasn’t getting to him and some big boys took sticks and set them on fire and threw them at him till he caught fire and everyone laughed and booed and hissed and said down with the Pope and death to Guy Fawkes and it was ever so exciting. There was no fighting but some boy stole a bobby’s helmet and ran off with it but he was jumped on and they got it back.
When we got back to the flat Mama was there with Teddy and you could see she’d been crying and Gran looked like she was trying not to cry and so we knew. Gran looked up when we came in the door. “The girls, Annie, hush now.”
But Mama was too angry to care. “And the doctor,” she said, “he won’t sign the death certificate. He wants an inquest.”
“What on earth for? The child is dead—isn’t that enough?”
“He says it’s the bruises on his chest and forehead. But it’s the insurance. I know it. He asked if we had enough to bury the child and I said we had burial insurance. And now he thinks I’m a murderer—he thinks I killed my child for the insurance!”
Gran tried to quiet her but Mama wouldn’t be quieted. She sat in Gran’s kitchen and rocked herself back and forth and it was scary how she cried. After a while she stood up and took the baby from Gran.
“You can spend the night,” Gran said, but Mama said no, and took us home in the dark. We heard bottles breaking on pavement and shouts of people getting into fights but Bonfire Night was mostly over. Papa says it’s not like it used to be, when Protestant and Catholic gangs swarmed the streets and you couldn’t go anywhere for fear of getting beaten up or arrested. He was arrested one Bonfire Night when he was only twelve. It was when he still lived in Devon and he and his friends went to Exeter to see the fires. He was put in jail for throwing a bottle at a policeman and the next morning he had to appear in court and pay a ten-shilling fine. When he got back home his mother said he was breaking her heart and his father said he was Going to Hell in a Hand-cart and they were signing him on as a printer’s apprentice in London.
“Best thing that ever happened to me,” Papa said, “getting myself arrested like that. Made my folks take steps to keep me out of trouble. And it worked.”
When we got home Papa was out and there was no sign of William. I wanted to ask where he was but Vic said not to and when we went to bed it felt strange there being just the two of us with no William in the middle. In the morning Mrs. Jordan from down the street came by and said be sure to call her to do the laying-out. She said she was sorry and it was a shame about the inquest but it would be all right in the end. You’ll have your boy back, she said, and I thought maybe William wasn’t dead after all but Vic said she meant have him back to bury him.
Mama was upset. “That bloody infernal woman! How on earth does she know when nobody else does? Does she have spies listening at every door?”
It was Gran who did it, though, when they brought William back to the house. “He’s my grandson,” she said. “I’ll do for him.”
When she was done we went in and there he was, clean for once and his hair brushed smooth, dressed in his best shirt and a pair of trousers from cousin Charlie, lying on Mama’s bed with the curtains drawn. I went to kiss his pretty little lips and Vic took hold of me. “Don’t. Don’t touch him.”
I pulled away from Vic and kissed him and his mouth was cold and not like William at all but I was proud because I did something Vic couldn’t.
The neighbours all brought food and Mama said there were more things to eat than we could manage in a week—cold ham and beef with pickles and bread and butter. But it was only Vic and me and our cousins that ate. The grown-ups were thirsty, though. Pa drank with his friends and Ma, too, had a little beer—“to take the edge off, dearie.” And the coachmen with the black hat-bands and gloves came inside and Pa gave them gin to drink for waiting outside in the rain.
The vicar came and then it was time to get in the coach and ride to the burial ground. It rained all along the Harrow Road, all the way to the graveyard. We passed the wharf and the places where the bonfires had been, and I thought of the sticks we’d gathered still lying in a heap outside the front door. When we got to the cemetery at Kensal Green the rain stopped and the sun came out and the vicar said, “And God said let there be light, and there was light and God saw that the light was good,” just as if he’d planned it that way. Maybe he did—maybe he asked God to make it stop raining for William. “Rejoice in our grief,” the vicar said, “that this child of God is now singing the praises of our Redeemer. He is happier now than he ever was in his short, sweet life, and we must be happy for him.” I watched the smoke rising from the gas works across the canal and wondered why I ever loved this place.
When it was over Pa took a handful of dirt and dropped it on the top of the box and Mama did the same. They looked at the box not at each other. Then it was our turn. Vic and I each put a flower on the box like Gran told us to and everyone was crying and not trying to hide it. Pa shook the vicar’s hand—something I never thought to see him do—and gave him a pound note. Then he and our uncles and the other men went to the pub and the rest of us went back to our flat, and Mama kept washing things and sweeping up and finding things to do and she wouldn’t lie down until Gran sent for Mrs. Jordan to make her tea with laudanum and pretty soon she lay down and fell asleep and everyone went home.
Pa didn’t come back until it was late and everyone had gone and there was no one to put on a show for. Ma was still asleep but we were awake. Come with me, girls, your pappy has something to give you. His voice was slurry and thick, the way it went when he was at the pub, and this made us nervous because it meant that after a while Mama would wake up and they would fight because he’d been drinking. But we went with him, out the house and down the back steps into the courtyard. It was freezing cold on our bare feet.
Pa reached into his pocket and took out two shillings and gave us each one. A shilling! Money was for buying food and whiskey—it was not to be wasted on children.
I asked if it was because of William and he said no it was for us to remember him by. “I’m leavin’ tomorrow, darlin’, and I won’t see you again for a very long time.”
I tried to give him back the shilling but he wouldn’t take it. “No, no—put it somewhere you won’t lose it. There now, Edie, don’t cry now.”
“Where are you going?”
“Well, I’m goin’ to a very far place—it’s called Cape Town and it’s in Africa.”
“Do they have newspapers there?”
Papa is a compositor. When he was still in work he brought home a freshly printed newspaper every Saturday night, laid it on the table and cut the pages, and then let us take turns reading to him while he ate his supper. A compositor’s family might not always have bread on the table but they always know how to read. That’s what Papa says. Vic learned to read when she was three and she and Papa taught me. At Sunday School they almost always pick Vic to read the lesson but sometimes they pick me instead.
Now Papa said yes, there were newspapers in Africa—good English papers looking for hard-working printers like himself. “But maybe I’ll do something else.”
He waited for us to ask. Vic said nothing—she wouldn’t look at him. She took the shilling, though. She wasn’t stupid.
So I asked. “What, Pa? What will you do?”
“Well, I’m thinking I’ll get me a prospecting license and go out and dig for diamonds.”
Diamonds! Now that was something!
“Really, Papa? Can you do that? Can you find diamonds?”
“What? Would I lie to you?”
Pa said he’d bring back the shiniest ones he could find and give us each a diamond of our own. “You can go round showing off your diamonds to your little friends and tell ’em they came from your Pa and ain’t he just the best Pa in the whole damn world? Ain’t he?”
“You could give one to Mama—”
But Pa didn’t want to talk any more. “’Stime you were in bed, now. Off you go. And remember—those shillings are for you, not your bloody Ma. Put ’em somewhere safe, somewhere she won’t find ’em, you hear?”
So we stopped and came back and Pa grabbed us and hugged us, squeezing us together like oysters in a sandwich. He smelled like beer and tobacco and sweat and my feet were freezing but I wanted him to keep hugging me, I wanted to smell him always.
“Best Pa in the whole goddam world, you hear? Don’t you forget it—no matter what your Ma says, you just remember—your Pa loves you, and he’s the very best Pa in the whole world!”
Later that night when it was dark and we were curled up together in bed being careful not to lie in the place where William slept, I whispered to Vic, “What will you do with your diamond, when Pa gives it to you?”
There was no answer and at first I thought Vic was asleep. It was only when I put my hand on her cheek to give her a tickle that I felt the wetness and knew that Vic was crying.