CAPE OF GOOD HOPE COLONIAL MAIL LINE, carrying her Majesty’s mails. – DONALD CURRIE and Co.’s LONDON LINE of STEAMERS leave Dartmouth for Capetown every alternate Friday, and Capetown for Plymouth every alternate Tuesday. Loading in London at the South West India Dock. Apply to the Owners, 4, Fenchurch-street, London E.C.
The London Daily News (November 1879)
“We’re going to Africa?”
Vic hushed me and looked to see if anyone heard.
“Yes, but I told you—it’s a secret.”
“How will we get there?”
“The boats go from Southampton and Plymouth but Plymouth is too far so we’ll go from Southampton.”
“You have to take a boat?”
Vic rolled her eyes. “Africa’s across the ocean—you can’t just walk there. You get on a boat and you stay on it till you get to Africa. And then once you get there you get a train to Kimberley where Papa is. But first you have to get to Southampton.”
I’ve never been on a boat. I was on a train once when we went to seaside but I was too little to remember. But I do know that if you want to take a train or a boat somewhere you have to have a ticket. And we had no money for one, not even to go Third Class which Mama says is the cheapest you can go anywhere.
But Vic had thought of this. “We’ll go to Paddington station,” she said, “and tell the porter our Ma’s just coming with our bags and she sent us ahead to ask where you get the train to Southampton. When the train comes we’ll get on just like everybody, but we’ll keep near someone who looks like she could be our Ma. Like we’re all together.”
“What if they ask to see our tickets? When we’re on the train?”
“We’ll tell him our Ma’s in the next coach. Long as they think we’re traveling with someone we’ll be all right. We’ll do the same when we get on the boat. Whenever anyone comes along we’ll just pretend our Ma is right around the corner, or taking care of Teddy. Anything like that. And when we get to Africa we’ll do the same thing to get to Kimberley. You can do anything so long as you look like you’re not trying to hide anything.”
She thought of everything. This was what she’d been doing all those times she went off by herself and didn’t take me along. Figuring things out. It wasn’t like when she was six and ran away to the seaside. That time she left in the morning but she couldn’t find the sea and only got as far as Regent’s Canal. The water was dirty and full of trash so she changed her mind and came home and Mama didn’t know she’d been gone. When Vic told her Mama laughed and said if you’re going to run off it’s best to stay away for more than an hour. She said it doesn’t really count if nobody knows you’ve left.
This time, though, it was different. We were going to run away to Papa—I couldn’t wait. I asked her how she knew about where to get on the boat and everything and she said she asked Uncle James. He’s Papa’s younger brother. Two days after Papa left Uncle James came and knocked on the door. “He’s gone, Annie. He shipped out this morning on the packet to Cape Town.”
When he left Vic followed him out to the street and caught up with him at the corner. She asked him what a packet was and he said it’s the name they give to the steamships that carry mail to Africa. They carry people, too.
“And Papa went on one of those?”
“I’m afraid he did, sweetheart. I’m sorry.”
“What was it called? The packet.”
“Isn’t that a bird?”
“It is, my love. And it’s the name of a ship.”
A few weeks later Uncle James came ’round again when he heard we were going to the Union. “Is there anything I can do, Annie? Anything at all?”
“There’s no point making empty offers. Maybe you should remind your parents about their duty to their grandchildren. Or are they too ashamed of what their son has done to show their faces here?”
He said if he and Aunt Clara had room we could stay with them. It wouldn’t happen. Aunt Clara doesn’t like us—at least, she doesn’t like Mama. It has to do with Mama being a dairyman’s daughter and Aunt Clara’s father being a brewmaster who kept his own carriage. Mama says that’s as may be but it doesn’t change the fact that Clara had to go out and work as a domestic when her father died and her mother takes in washing by the day. It’s because of Aunt Clara that Uncle James doesn’t come by very often.
“I’m sorry, Annie. I wish it could be different.”
He looked sorry, standing there twisting his cap in his hands, and it made me sad but Mama just tightened her mouth like she does when she’s angry. She said if wishes were horses and he’d better be off as she had a lot to do and had wasted enough time already. Vic followed him out again and this time she showed him the newspaper scrap. She didn’t like to say where she got it so she told him they were reading newspapers in school and she had to read this aloud to the class and say what it was about. Vic is clever and she’s a good liar. She can make you believe just about anything.
So Uncle James explained about Southampton and Plymouth, and which was the farthest from London, and how once a week there were ships sailing to Africa. Vic wanted to know was it expensive to sail to Africa and Uncle James said it was but little children usually travel for free when they’re with their parents. Vic asked how little and he said five and under and then she asked how you get to Southampton and he laughed.
“Why? Are you planning to sail away to Africa yourself?”
Vic said she only wanted to know so she could explain it when the teacher called on her and our uncle said you take a train from Paddington Station and then he said she was a good girl for being conscientious about school and gave her a penny and one for me.
“Give it me!” I said. “You owe me a penny.”
“Never mind that. Just remember, when we’re on the boat if anybody asks I’m five and you’re four.”
It was the most wonderful plan of all the plans you could ever think of. And Vic thought it through all by herself without telling anyone.
“You’re like Princess Irene,” I told her. “It’s like we’re trapped in the goblins’ cavern and you’re going to get us out.”
“Yes, but you can’t tell anybody. You swore, remember? If you swear and you break your promise you’ll go to Hell.”
“Papa says there isn’t any Hell.”
“Yes, but Mama says there is and so does Gran so it’s two against one and anyway, if you tell I’ll thump you and you’ll be sorry.”
I said I wouldn’t tell. I thought about finding Papa in Africa and getting picked up and lifted high up in the air like he does and it was like when Gran is making jam and she gives you a spoonful before she puts it into jars and you close your eyes and wait for it to cool. You want to taste it but you want to wait, too, because it’s the best thing and you want it to last forever.
It was quiet now in the room. Girls were sitting on their beds and some were lying down. Vic turned over and I thought she might be asleep. I nudged her in the back and she turned around again.
“What if he doesn’t want us?”
“Don’t be an ass. Of course he wants us.”
“Are you sure?”
It didn’t sound like he did with what he said to Mama the morning he left.
I’m leaving now for good. I won’t be back.
I said good-bye to the girls last night. They’ll be all right. You will too.
You have a family—you have a wife and children—you can’t just leave.
My son’s dead and I’m leaving.
He meant William. There was Teddy still but he never looked at Teddy, didn’t ever call him son or hold him in his arms. The fighting got worse after Teddy was born. It was like Papa couldn’t bear to be in the same room with any of us. He went to the pub and stayed till it closed and came home when we were asleep and then left in the morning before we woke up.
That’s when Gran started taking Vic and me on Saturdays and keeping us till Sunday night. It’ll be grand she said having you here to keep me company. She said her eyes were getting bad and she needed help with her sewing but we never did much sewing when we were there just a few buttons and cuffs. Sunday morning we went with her to church and then afterwards we went for a walk.
Which is all you can do on Sundays. There can be no sewing and no playing cards. Even no reading the paper as only the Bible can be opened and we get enough of that in church. I asked Gran why God made Sundays so boring and she said it’s because God made the world in six days and on the seventh He rested and it is fitting that we do the same in His honour. Everything you do on Sunday should be to the Glory of God.
Which makes me wonder what God thinks about my Uncle Arthur. He never goes to church. He sleeps late on Sunday and spends the afternoon up on the roof tending to his birds. Uncle Arthur is a pigeon-fancier. He keeps them in a wire cage he calls a dovecote but it’s really just a big cage. Gran says if she had her way she’d stick them all in a pie and be done with it. She doesn’t mean it though because Uncle Arthur would never eat his pigeons. Their names are Dickie and Jo-Jo and Black Beauty and he has two all-white ones called Princess Alice and Princess Louise. Dickie is the tamest one. He will sit on your shoulder and rub his head in your hair and sometimes he’ll nibble your ear not hard just being playful. Uncle Arthur says pigeon droppings are lucky and he should know because Gran is always washing out the stains from his coat and pants and even his hat.
I would love to hold one of the Princesses but Uncle Arthur says that can’t be allowed. “They’re royalty, you know, and they don’t let you forget it. They make you stand on ceremony those two, just like the princesses they’re named for.”
Once he offered to give me a pretty blue pigeon called Babe but Mama wouldn’t have it in the house. She says they’re no better than rats and if I want to get friendly with pigeons I can take myself down to Trafalgar Square and rub elbows with all the pigeons I like. When I asked how to get there Mama said she was making a joke and I thought it was a pretty poor joke when it wasn’t even the littlest bit funny.
Once Vic asked Uncle Arthur why he wasn’t married. He said it was because he was too busy working to have a lady friend but Papa says it’s because Uncle Arthur is a Nancy Boy.
What’s a Nancy Boy?
Someone who doesn’t like women.
Uncle Arthur likes women. He likes Gran and she’s a woman.
But why? Why doesn’t he like women?
No idea, sweetheart. Ask your mother.
Mama said Papa was just trying to upset her like always and Papa said he didn’t see why speaking the plain truth should upset her and what did it matter anyway? If he was the way he was—and Papa was pretty sure he was—wasn’t it a good thing? It meant he’d be the one to stay home with Gran and take care of her in her old age and Mama and her sister wouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck with her.
Why do you hate me?
I don’t hate you. I just know you better than most people, that’s all.
That’s how they carry on, like angry birds flapping their wings at each other, squawking and taking nips out of each other when they think no one is looking. I’m looking all the time but not because I want to. I might miss something if I look away is all.
At six o’clock one of the grannies came in and said it was suppertime.
“Come with me, you lot, and be quick about it.”
We didn’t have to be told twice. In single file we followed her down the hallway to the dining room and lined up on one side of a big green double door. A group of boys some of them smaller than me were lined up on the other side. You could see the hunger in them and how they were thinking only about the food waiting for them once the door was opened. Maybe they were wondering just like me if there would be Afters and would it be all right to ask. No one said a word nor looked at the person next to them we all looked only at that great green door and waited for supper.
When it opened we were like statues hardly breathing for fear it would close in our faces. Miss Humphrey stood in the doorway, arms folded across her chest and studying us like we were a bad smell.
We held out our hands and kept them out while she marched down the corridor, checking us out. What was she was looking for and what would she do if she found it?
When she came to Vic at the end of the queue she took hold of her hands—both of them—and turned them over so hard that Vic bit her lip not to cry out.
“A nail-biter, I see. You’ll want to break yourself of that, my girl, or we’ll do it for you. Nail-biting is an infraction of the rules and we’ll have no infractions under my watch. Understand?”
“What do you say?”
She turned and marched up the other side, checking out the boys who didn’t look too clean to me but she didn’t seem to care so much it being only boys. It was so quiet you didn’t dare breathe. When she got back to the door she gave a nod and we all shuffled into the dining hall boys on one side and girls on the other. Vic and me ended up at the end of a long table between two bigger girls—the one next to Vic had a spotty face and she looked at us like she’d already decided she didn’t like us not even a bit. The one on my side seemed nicer—she smiled at me and moved over a bit to make room. Just a bit though, as we were scrunched together like winkles in a jar. The tables were long and narrow and there were maybe ten of them in a row on each side of the hall. The benches were only on one side of the table so you sat facing the front of the room, staring at the back of the head of the girl in front of you. Nobody was moving—nobody said a word.
A door at the front of the room opened and four old grannies trundled out, each pushing a supper trolley. They stopped at every table and handed plates of bread, butter and cheese to the children nearest them, who then passed them down the table and kept passing them down until everybody had a plate. Then the women pushed their wagons to the next table and served those children. There was milk and tea for us girls and the smaller boys and mugs of beer for the bigger lads.
Our table was far away from the front and the old ladies were so slow on their feet I thought we wouldn’t get served ever. Then when we got it we had to wait while Miss Humphrey said the Blessing. It was the same thing Gran always said: “Oh Lord bless this food which we are about to receive and make us truly thankful.” You have to say Oh Lord when you’re talking to God so’s to get His attention. At the end everybody said Amen which meant the Blessing was over and now we could eat.
There’s a blind beggarman at the corner of our street who has a dog and if you throw the dog a crust of bread or a bit of bacon he snaps it into his jaws and swallows it whole and if you’re not careful he’ll take your finger with it. That’s what they were like here, tearing at the bread and stuffing it into their mouths almost whole like they hadn’t eaten in a week and were afraid it was going to melt into the air and disappear.
Mama would be horrified. When she worked as a domestic she waited at table and saw how people of quality eat. Different spoons for soup and dessert, different knives and forks for fish and oysters, different forks again for eating your cake. We might only have ordinary knives and forks and eat our dinner on second-best china but Mama likes knowing that if she’s ever called on to set a proper table she’ll know what to do. She says when we go out in the world we’ll be judged on our table manners. “If you want people to think you grew up in a barn, then go ahead and eat like a pig. Otherwise, sit up straight and don’t talk with your mouth full. And do not eat your peas with your knife.”
I thought it might be interesting to grow up in a barn and sleep with a lamb for a pillow, with horses nearby to keep you company. But when Mama says this she’s making a point and when she’s making points she doesn’t like you interrupting and spoiling what she’s trying to say.
I tried to remember about chewing slowly and not gulping my tea but I’d had nothing to eat since morning and when I was done I was still hungry. But there was no point in asking for more. It’s clear that you get what you’re given and that’s it. There are no Afters.
When everyone was done Miss Humphrey picked up a bell from the table in front of her and rang it. This meant supper was over. Everyone handed their plates down to the end of the table, and then we stood and lined up again, girls in one line, boys in the other, just like before. Miss Humphrey waited in the doorway and made us hold out our hands as we filed past her.
A little girl behind me whispered in my ear: “Lookin’ for bread.”
“What happens if she finds any?”
Back in the dormitory we were joined by some of the older girls—there were six or seven of them and they all knew each other by name. The one that sat next to me at dinner was called Rose and she was friends with the spotty-faced girl whose name was Liz. They worked in the kitchen, sweeping and washing up, and they said it was rotten work and the super was a flippin’ bat only they didn’t say flippin’ bat they said two bad words. Then they laughed and some of the others did too but I didn’t nor Vic because Mama would scrub our mouths out with soap if we ever said even one of those words.
Rose said the super had hit her with a spoon for nothin’. She rolled up her sleeve and showed us the mark and said she’d get the super back tomorrow, she’d spit in the soup.
“You don’t want to do that,” Liz said. “We got to eat it then, don’t we?”
“I didn’t think of that,” Rose said. “You’re right. But I’ll do something. She’ll be sorry.”
Then the granny came in and told us to get ready for bed and be quick about it, don’t take all night. Everyone in this place is always either telling you to hurry up or making you wait and do nothing. We took off our shoes, hung up our smocks, and put on our nightgowns. After folding our caps and aprons away in our night table drawers we lined up to wash. You couldn’t take long, the floor was cold and there was pushing and shoving to hurry and dip your one flannel into the water and rub it across your face and use the other to pat your cheeks dry. I remembered to wipe my teeth like Gran said—Vic did too but we were the only ones.
Jane took the longest because of her leg but finally she too pulled on her nightgown and washed herself and climbed into bed. Then the old lady left and locked the door behind her. The light was still on and I was glad of that. I thought about how it would be when they turned off the lamps. Vic says I’m an ass for being afraid of the dark but when the lights go out ghosts can come out of the walls and get you if you’re still awake. Mama says there are no ghosts but Gran says different. When she was a girl in Llandbadarn Fawr she climbed to the top of the old square tower on the banks of the river Rheidol where Owain Glyndwr held court after beating the English. He was the Prince of Wales and he was never caught and never betrayed and no one knows where he is buried. Gran stood there and shut her eyes and far away she heard the shouts of soldiers and the clashing of swords. It was the sound of the battles fought long ago in the Rising.
Gran says we’re related to Owain through her mother’s side which makes us a bit like royalty. But Mama says it’s only that all the Welsh are related if you go back far enough and it doesn’t mean anything. But I think about it sometimes.
Vic got up to use the privy and that’s when the trouble started. If Vic stayed it would’ve been her doing the talking not me. None of it would have happened if she’d been there.
Rose who got hit with the spoon plunked herself down on the bed across from me and took a plug of tobacco from her smock. She bit off a chew and handed some to Liz and then she tucked the rest back in her pocket. “You’re new, ain’t you?” she said. “You and your sister.”
I didn’t understand her at first as she was chewing and her mouth was full which is Bad Manners but then she said cat got your tongue and I understood that all right so I told her we came this afternoon.
She turned her head and spit and it made a dark brown glob on the floor. I made sure to remember where it was so as not to step in it in the dark.
“Don’t worry, it can be scary at first but you’ll get used to it. And you won’t be here long. Next week they’ll send you to school—out to Ashford, most likely.”
“No, we’re not staying. We’re running away on Monday. Right after breakfast.”
Soon as I said it I remembered it was a secret. Vic said I wasn’t to say it to anyone. She made me swear.
“Is that right? Make a stuffed bird laugh, you would. All by yourself, is that it? What do you think, Liz, this one says she’s not stayin’. Says she’s runnin’ away on Monday.”
“Is that so? Got somewhere to go? Someone expectin’ you—is that it?”
Then they both laughed like it was the funniest thing they ever heard.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Well, Edith, you got lots to learn about getting’ on in here, that’s all I can say.”
Vic came out of the lavatory. She saw the girls laughing so I had to tell her what happened.
“You’re a stupid cow you know that? I told you not to blab.”
Before I could say anything they started in on Vic.
“Your sister says she’s plannin’ to bolt. On Monday, she says.”
Vic pretended not to hear her but the girl wouldn’t let it alone.
“Come on, the secret’s out—where is it you’re goin’?”
“We’re going to find our Pa, actually.”
“Ack-chully! Ack-chully, is it?”
“Oh, lordie, ain’t we all la-di-da! Watch out for this one, Rose—she’s ack-chully goin to find her Pa!”
Rose spit on the floor again. “If you’re such a bloomin’ toff, Miss High-and-Mighty, what you doin’ here then?”
“None of your business.”
“Ooh, Liz, it ain’t ack-chully none of our business.”
“Really? Is it ack-chully not?”
Vic hates to be teased. Those girls were just bored and they might have stopped if she didn’t say anything but Vic can’t ever let people get away with things. Mama says she’s her own worst enemy. I said does that mean Vic has lots of enemies and Mama said no I was the missing the point as usual.
Then Vic said the worst thing. She looked right at the spotty-faced girl and said, “Shut your face.”
The girl looked like she couldn’t believe what she heard. “What did you say?”
I was thinking take it back Vicky say you’re sorry. But she didn’t, she never takes it back.
“You heard me.”
Rose hooted like it was the funniest thing but the other one wasn’t laughing any more. “You little shite. Who d’you think you’re talkin’ to, then?”
“Dunno. A dirty slut?”
Rose howled. “Oh, Lizzie, can you credit it? A little toughie—she ain’t backin’ down, is she?”
Liz threw herself at Vic and pushed her to the floor and they started rolling about scratching and kicking at each other.
“Let her alone, Liz,” Rose said. “She’s just a kid.”
Liz was taller and heavier but Vic’s a good fighter, she knows how to use her teeth and fingernails. I’ve seen her take on boys her age and older. She might’ve done real damage if Jane didn’t cheat by grabbing one of Vic’s feet and pulling her off. Everyone booed and hissed like it was Punch and Judy and Jane let go of Vic and backed off.
I was no help at all. It’s always this way when there’s a fight. It’s like I can’t move, not even to run away. I sat there twisting my hair round my fingers and wishing I could bang my head like when Mama and Papa fight. Emily came over and sat on the bed with me. She took hold of my hand and squeezed it. “It’ll be all right. They’ll come and stop it soon as they hear all the noise.”
Vic was getting the worst of it now with the girl on top of her and holding her down so she couldn’t scratch or bite. She heaved and twisted on the floor and when she couldn’t get free she did a spit right into her face. Liz raised a hand to wipe her cheek and Vic got her foot up and gave her a good hard kick in the belly. The other girl fell back onto the floor and Vic wriggled out from under her and scrambled to her feet.
Except for Rose who just sat there chewing her tobacco the girls were all rooting for Vic: “Give her another kick—that’s the way to do it—give it her good!”
Liz got Vic back down on the floor and she was sitting on top of her to hold her down when the door opened with a bang and there was Miss Humphrey with the old granny and a porter right behind her. Her face was stony cold like Mama’s could be but worse because Mama would give you a rap on the back of the head and it was over but who knew what they would do in this place?
“You two! Get up off the floor this instant—don’t make me tell you twice.”
When they were both on their feet you could see that Liz’s nose was bleeding and there was a long scratch on the side of her face. Both their caps were on the floor and Vic was missing the two top buttons of her nightgown.
“So you’re not only a nail-biter, you’re a fighter as well, are you? Well, it didn’t take you long to find the worst girl in the ward. Yes, Woodman, I’m talking about you. How long have you been here? Five years? Six?”
“Six. Six years as an inmate and you still haven’t learned the rules about disorderly conduct. Well, you can spend the night in the Refractory and we’ll see what Matron has to say tomorrow. You were thrashed last time, I believe. Perhaps this time they’ll send you away for good. As for you . . .”
She turned to Vic who was looking miserable and shame-faced and I was almost glad to see it as it’s been ages since Vic looked sorry for anything. But we were friends now and Vic was taking me with her to Africa so I mustn’t think bad thoughts about her nor be happy she was getting into trouble.
“You will stand in that corner with your face to the wall and you will not speak to anyone or move a muscle until you’re told you may. Do you understand?”
“Go along, then. And if I hear that you’ve disobeyed me you’ll be joining your friend in the Refractory cell. The rest of you get into bed and go to sleep. I’m turning out the light.”
I made up my mind not to go to sleep till Vic came to bed. I lay there in the dark and could just make her out in the far corner, a shadow standing perfectly still not moving a muscle like she was told. It was cold in the room—the floor felt like ice and the nightgowns came down to just below your knees so the rest of you was bare and shivery. Vic would be freezing . . . how long would she have to stand there? She had no blanket or shawl and nothing on her feet.
Downstairs the clock in Matron’s office struck the hour: nine chimes. Nine o’clock. Gran says when you really want something you should pray about it, especially if it’s something that will help someone else. You shouldn’t pray for yourself unless you’re praying for forgiveness. God doesn’t listen when you’re only being selfish but He likes when you show compassion for others. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed: Dear God forgive me for telling our secret and getting Vic into trouble. Please make Miss Humphrey come back and let Vic come to bed. It was all my fault, it should be me standing in the corner not Vicky.
If Miss Humphrey walked into the room right then it would mean I was forgiven. I’d be ever so good after that. I’d go to church and think about God and listen to the minister and not think about ponies or food. I’d stop pulling at my hair and I wouldn’t ask questions no matter how much I wanted to know. Only let her come in now and tell Vic she can come to bed. I prayed all that and when I was done I remembered to say “In Jesus’ name Amen” before I opened my eyes.
The door stayed shut. Maybe God didn’t understand that I needed Miss Humphrey to come right away. I closed my eyes: Dear God I need you to make her come right now. Please. Amen.
I waited to hear footsteps but it was quiet everywhere. The world had gone to sleep and forgot about my sister. Perhaps even God had forgot seeing as He’s so busy and all. It was past nine o’clock. He might even be asleep.
Well, I wasn’t asleep. And I didn’t forget. I sat up and saw that Emily in the next bed was awake. I put back the blanket and placed one bare foot on the floor but Emily shook her head and put a hand out as if to stop me. “Don’t get out of bed. If they come in they’ll see you and you’ll be in trouble too.”
I got back into bed. I wouldn’t sleep. I’d stay awake so that when Vic finally came to bed we could make spoons like at home and I’d wrap my arms around her and warm her up. Because we were friends now and on Monday we were running away to Africa.