The Quietness

When fifteen-year-old Queenie escapes from the squalid slums of nineteenth-century London, she has no idea about the dangers of the dark world she is about to become embroiled in. Initially thrilled at being taken on as a maid for the seemingly respectable Waters sisters, Queenie comes to realise that something is very wrong with the dozens of strangely silent babies being 'adopted' into the household. Meanwhile, lonely and unloved sixteen-year-old Ellen is delighted when her handsome and charming young cousin Jacob is sent to live with her family. She thinks she has finally found a man to fall in love with and rely on, but when Jacob cruelly betrays her she finds herself once again at the mercy of her cold-hearted father. Soon the girls' lives become irrevocably entwined in this tension-filled drama. THE QUIETNESS is a novel of friendship and trust in the darkest of settings.

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3. Queenie

Queenie was woken by a low moaning noise. She opened her eyes. It was morning, and from her straw bed by the far wall, Queenie could see the baby lying still on the floor, his thin blanket rucked around his middle so his little legs poked out, all dry and bent like twigs. Mam was sitting slumped on the edge of her and Da’s bed, her mouth wide open, and her arms dangling.

Da roared, ‘Shut up, will you!’ and Queenie saw him sitting in the corner of the room, rocking back on his heels. He had that same hard look in his eyes as when he’d been on the beer, and he’d taken his prized neckerchief off and was twisting it round and round in his fingers.

‘Is the baby dead?’ asked Queenie.

Mam started to moan louder. The sound maddened Queenie and she wanted to tell Mam to shut up too. Babies came and went all the time. It had been a weak little scrap anyway, always whining for the titty. And Queenie knew there was another one on the way. There always was. Da had got into the habit of passing Mam his portion of bread again and her cotton gown was pulling tight across her belly. Queenie wanted to ask them why the devil they brought any of them into the world when there was never enough money for them to eat proper, let alone enjoy themselves. But she didn’t. Not with Da in that mood. She just stayed on the straw and let the little ones press close to her.

Da wouldn’t look up from the floor, like it was his fault the baby had died. Queenie watched as he stood and gath- ered the baby up with quick angry movements and parcelled it in the blanket. Without his neckerchief tied at his throat, Da looked unfinished. The green silk with its yellow flowers belonged around Da’s neck and not in his hands. It told the world who he was: a seller of fruit and vegetables. A costermonger. He was so proud of his green silk; it was a bad thing that he’d taken it off. He’d be taking it to the pawnshop, Queenie knew. Hoping for a few shillings to bury the baby. He didn’t try to comfort Mam or even kiss her before he slammed out the door.

After he’d gone, the room seemed smaller. Mam had finally shut up and was lying down on her bed with her face to the wall. The little ones were tugging at Queenie and wailing for their breakfast. She shook them off and they straight away hunched together again: a pile of wide eyes and jutting bones. Queenie could hardly tell who was who any more. Which was Tally? Which was Kit? Which was Albie? They were all of them shrunk to skin and bone with tatty hair and smudged-out faces. Queenie couldn’t bear to look at them or to watch Mam lying there with her arms all empty. Besides, hunger was growling around her insides like a mad dog on the loose.

There’d be nothing to sell today, Queenie knew that. No spare shillings to buy pears from the market to fill her basket, not with a burial to pay for now. But she couldn’t stand to stay in the sadness of that room, not when there were other ways of cadging a penny or two; plenty of other ways.

Outside, great slabs of fog, the colour of dirty linen, hung in the passageways as she trailed her fingers along the walls of houses to find her way out on to the streets. The fog was always bad here, being so close to the river, and the lingering smells it brought with it were enough to make a cat retch. But Queenie never minded it. She liked to disap- pear in it; it made her feel free somehow, and made for easy pickings if you were of a mind to relieve a careless gentleman of his purse.

She would walk to Waterloo Bridge, she decided; there were always plenty of people about there. By midday the fog turned a murky yellow, and she liked to stand on the bridge and watch how the tall chimneys of factories and the bulky warehouses on the banks of the river got blurred in the greasy veil and were turned into mysterious golden palaces.

There would only be six of them now, she thought, living in their pokey little room. One less mouth to feed. And she felt lighter somehow, and unbuttoned and easy, and she even noticed a faint tongue of sunlight licking its way through the fog. Just the sight of it warmed her insides.

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