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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5. Queenie

It had been three days since the baby died and Da was still not home. Queenie sat on the musty straw in the corner of the room shivering. The little ones were sleeping next to her, and Mam still hadn’t moved off her bed. Mam had done nothing but sleep or stare at the walls. She’d stopped sobbing at least and the little ones had stopped mithering, but the quietness was the wrong sort.

Da would be drinking, Queenie knew, but he’d never stayed away for this long before. Sometimes when he didn’t come home all night Mam would send her out in the morning chill to search the streets and gin-shops. She’d peer down dim alleyways and into doorways, hoping like mad that one of the lumps sleeping under their jackets would be Da; his pockets empty and his breath stinking of stale beer. She’d pray to catch a glimpse of the green and yellow of his neckerchief, bright against the stubble on his face. Often as not she’d find him curled under a table, snoring gently into the early morning silence of a gin-shop; an empty mug still held in his hand and a pack of cards scattered across the table. After she’d shaken him awake, they would hold tight to each other as she steered him through the streets back home.

But it had been three whole days, and she’d run out of places to look. There was only the workhouse now, or Horsemonger Lane Gaol, and she hoped he wasn’t in either of those places. People never came out of those dark holes.

Queenie hadn’t fared too well out on the streets the last few days. She’d managed to snatch a hot pie from a street vendor, and to hide herself quickly while his angry hollers got swallowed up in the fog. But then a quick-witted gentleman had smashed her leg with his walking stick when he felt her hand creep into his coat pocket. Now Queenie was bruised and sore and knew she wouldn’t be able to outrun a swift stranger.

Queenie got up from the pile of straw and limped over to the bed. ‘Mam,’ she said, ‘Mam! Get up now. Come on. The little ’uns are starving. We need you. Come on!’

It was Mam, but not Mam, who eventually turned to look at her. It was Mam’s face, but there was something wrong with her eyes. They were flat and dead like the glassy eyes of the bloaters down at Billingsgate.

‘I’ve looked all over for Da,’ said Queenie. ‘I can’t find him nowhere. Maybe he ain’t coming back this time.’ She shook Mam’s shoulder hard. ‘Come on! You need to get up now!’

Mam sighed deeply and slowly rose from the bed. She stood up and began to tidy herself. Queenie watched her scrape her fingers through her hair and wash her face with spit on a rag. Her hair was black and velvety. Da always said it was like a dark summer’s night. When she unpinned it a shower of dust flew out, and curls rolled down her back stopping just short of her waist. Da was mad for her hair. He would take a thick length and bury his face in the depths of it and cry out, ‘Thank you, Lord, for my own sweet Dollymop!’

Mam would push him away and tell him to keep his filthy hands to himself, but her eyes would be laughing as she tied her hair back into place. But Da wasn’t here now and Mam wasn’t laughing.

‘Mam,’ Queenie said. ‘How’re we going to eat? There’s no money to go to market. Why’s Da buggered off again? Don’t he care a bit?’

‘Your Da’s a proud man,’ said Mam quietly, like she was talking to herself. ‘With the baby gone and that . . . he thinks he’s failed us. But I’m not proud, and I won’t see another of my children starve.’

She hung a sheet across the middle of the room and told Queenie to keep the little ones quiet. It wasn’t hard. They barely murmured when she pulled them close and whis- pered them stories of talking rats and hidden treasures. Tally, the eldest, was learning his letters and Queenie helped him to shape them using a stick to scrape in the dirt floor. Soon the little ones grew tired and drifted off to sleep curled up tight to each other.

Mam was in and out all that day, bringing strange men with her, one at a time, into the room. Queenie never saw them, only heard them as they wheezed through the door and dropped their trousers on the floor. They didn’t speak much, just grunted and sniffed or coughed and spat. Some of them banged the bed against the wall for an age, but others only took a minute to let out a groan of satisfaction, like they’d dined on a plate of good roast beef and couldn’t eat another morsel. Mam didn’t sigh like she did when she was with Da. She hardly made a sound; only cried out a couple of times like she was hurting.

Queenie knew what she was doing and thought of the bloated faces in the gin-shop and grubby fingers fumbling beneath her own skirts. She was glad it was Mam this time.

Mam was quiet a long time after the last of the men had paid up and left. Queenie fell asleep and dreamt of fat pigs gobbling up troughs of plums and Da spinning Mam around the room, faster and faster, her hair flying across her face and Da laughing and laughing.

‘Queenie, Queenie . . . come on, now. Quick. Take this.’ Mam was shaking her awake and pressing coins into her hand. ‘Go on now and fetch some coal. And some bread and dripping. Oh, and best get a pennyworth of tea while you’re at it.’ She’d taken the sheet down and pinned her hair back up. Queenie grabbed the coins and hurried towards the door. She glimpsed a man’s felt cap lying on the floor beside the roughed-up bed and wondered for a moment how Da would feel about his space being borrowed by dirty strangers. He could think what he bleedin’ well liked, she decided. He’d be here if he cared that much.

They had the finest meal in all of London that night. Mam made the tea strong and hot and she covered door- steps of bread in a thick layer of white dripping that tasted like heaven. They ate until their lips and cheeks were shiny with grease. The coals in the stove turned ashen and Mam began to sing softly to herself as she stroked her mound of belly.

 

Cry baby bunting


Daddy’s gone a-hunting

Gone to fetch a rabbit skin

To wrap the baby bunting in.

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