Sunday at the Cross Bones
SUNDAY AT THE CROSS BONES
To my darling Sophie – an inspiration, always
For years I have been known as the Prostitutes’ Padre – to me the proudest title that a true priest of Christ can hold. I believe with all my soul that if He were born again in London in the present day, He would be found constantly walking in Piccadilly.
– Reverend Harold Davidson
‘The Working Girl’s Life’
Monday in the nursery ward,
Tuesday in the schoolyard,
Wednesday painting lipstick on,
Thursday going with George and John,
Friday at the Crown with Billy,
Saturday weeping down the ’Dilly,
Where will she rest from her tears and moans?
Sunday at the Cross Bones
– Old rhyme, c. 1880
Well go ahead and call the cops –
You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops
– Tom Waits
Journals of Harold Davidson
Central Beach, Blackpool 6 September 1932
Some child of Satan has deposited a quantity of candyfloss in my hair. I suspect it may have been the gormless boy in the Edwardian sailor suit, four or five at most, whose mother lifted him up in her meaty arms to be kissed by the famous rector. A sulky, unbiddable young man with a face that Raphael himself would have found it a burden to render adorable, he performed his task with reluctance, turning his putty cheek away so that my lips found only his ear, and leaving me the inestimable gift of sticky spun sugar clamped to my snow-white locks. By the time I realised the damage that was done, she and he were long gone. I must have greeted a dozen visitors looking like a Lancashire barmaid permed and pink-rinsed for a night on the tiles.
Cramped legs; sticky hair; kissing babies; enduring the sniggers of the ungodly. These are hardly the ideal circumstances of the modern clergyman, no matter how nationwide his renown. But then neither is this barrel in which I sit for the second morning of my ten-day-long stint. I do not say it is uncomfortable. Mr Gannon has kindly provided me with a cushion upon the narrow seat where I perch like a maiden aunt. The structure of the barrel has been cut away to allow me a kind of counter upon which to rest my arms, or to write in this journal, or to sign autographs – that puzzling new phenomenon, as though the inscription of one’s name on an envelope or ticket stub forged a connection of sorts with a complete stranger, who will display it later as proof of his having met me, as though a lion in Chessington Zoo might have volunteered to him a paw-print of brotherhood.
Above my head, raised on a metal stalk, a wooden roof houses a small electric fan to circulate the late-summer air and disperse the cigar fumes. ‘We generally disapprove of the exhibits having a smoke, Padre,’ said Mr Gannon with his habitual air of a man supervising an event of vast importance, ‘but we’ll make an exception for you.’
On my left is Mr Gavin Tweedy’s World-Famous Flea Circus, a ludicrous entertainment constructed from a plywood door laid across two steel drums, upon which tiny insects are encouraged to jump over obstacles, walk through hoops, pull tiny carts and dance together to a tinny foxtrot. If Jonathan Swift were to walk by this bonsai extravaganza, what a metaphor he would find for human endeavour: the vanity of display, the pointlessness of striving, the folly of courtship, the puniness of ambition! On my right, a Miss Barbara Cockayne sits in a barrel similar to mine. Her beard is remarkable, an elaborate, flourishing beaver similar to that of Lord Rosebery, or St Jerome as imagined by Rubens. She has a limited repertoire of conversation, contenting herself with growls and oaths and lavatorial remarks; I suppose it must be hard for her to find subjects of chatty inconsequence to share with those who have paid twopence merely to come and gawp at her hairy chin.
I suppose I should be grateful that twopence is also the tariff they pay to come and inspect me, in my snug, brandy-scented wooden casket. It would be a little too cruel if I were paid less than the bearded lady and the waltzing fleas. As to the fee structure enjoyed by my other neighbours here on the strand – the Dog-Faced Man and the Three-Legged Boy of Italy – I am in the dark.
The soft crash of the incoming tide from the Irish Sea can occasionally be heard when the music – that endless, jaunty, soul-deadening jingle-jangle of popular tunes further down the promenade, played apparently on a broken pipe organ – comes to a blissful halt for a moment or two. It fills my heart with sadness, for it reminds me of the waves on the Norfolk strand at Wells-next-the-Sea, where Mimi and I would take the children for Sunday picnics in happier days, the breeze from the salt marshes stinging our nostrils, the gulls flapping and barking over our heads. Those lines from Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ come unbidden into my head:
… the stormy Hebrides
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world.
For there is no doubt that I have found the bottom of the monstrous world here, in Blackpool. I, who have devoted my life to the betterment of others, sit now like Diogenes the philosopher, a man who gave up the luxuries of the material world to find enlightenment, to end his days in a barrel in the Athenian marketplace. Have I found enlightenment? No. Instead, I wrestle with the events of the last two years, picking over the past, looking for the reasons why I find myself here, gazing across a multitude of day trippers, sunburned holidaymakers, squalling children, ignorant matrons perusing their puzzle magazines, scrofulous bank clerks surreptitiously kissing their new girlfriends on the lips as if amazed at their daring. They have come to see me, a line of several hundred scorched and moronic spectators, some way down the devotional scale from my kindly, God-fearing flock at Stiffkey. There, in the pulpit at St John’s, I would survey the expectant faces and know that I was called by the Lord for a purpose. But my purpose here? It is inscrutable. They pay their twopence. They shuffle past. They offer their compliments. (Some, even, their abuse; and one, a generous gout of his saliva.) I thank them, utter some words about the trial, call on their support in my appeal against the bishop, and bless them on their way with a raised hand. What have I, or we, achieved except a hollow exchange between an adventitious ‘celebrity’ (me) and a curious, sympathetic but morally indifferent public?
Mr Gannon will soon, I hope, regale me with tea and biscuits, and, when twenty or thirty of them have gathered round, I may deliver my little speech of self-exculpation and warning about the conduct of the Church of England. But let me put down this journal and think for a moment of the road that led me to the Palace of Amusements. To this place where I no longer enjoy a small congregation. I have only a huge audience.
Two years earlier …
Notebooks of Charlie Norton, Evening Standard London 1 July 1930
I’d just popped into the Old Coal House on the Strand for a few sharpeners after the final edition had been put to bed, and I was nursing a whisky and water with Benny from the Gazette when this guy comes in. Little short-arse he was, five foot two or so, but with an air about him. Bustle, bustle, Hi there, girls, little wave to the barmaids, and he sits down in the snug like he owns the place, and looks about him. He gestures to Bella, the fat lass from Scarborough, with a raised clump of fingers signalling a glass of beer in anyone’s language. Only, when it came, it looked like a pint of orange squash with a foaming head an inch thick.
Orange squash? In the Coal House?
I had him down as a masher of the old school, the kind of gutter swell you’d have seen ten years ago, smarming down the Haymarket with a carnation in his buttonhole and two iffy tarts hanging on his elbows, but this fellow was a masher down on his luck. His greatcoat was too long, it skimmed the pub’s scabby floor. His shirt cuffs were frayed, his collar was open, revealing a turkey neck, lined and wattled, and his corduroy breeches had seen better days. And his shoes! I’m not one to offer advice to geezers about what they choose to adorn their plates of meat, but this was bordering on the offensive. These were brogues that could’ve been through the trenches – shabby, flappy, held together with some kind of surgical tape.
‘Who’s he?’ I asked Benny.
‘Oh, him,’ said Benny, with that annoying, I-know-everything tone of his. ‘Surely you’ve seen the rector.’
The little chap in the snug was a reverend father? No dog collar, no black suit, no prayer book? What kind of clergyman was this?
‘He’s always in here,’ said Benny. ‘Right character he is. He sets up house at the same table every Tuesday, drinks dandelion and burdock, sarsaparilla, you know, kids’ drinks, and buys lemonade for kids that come in. Kids and brasses.’
Brasses, eh? I looked round the pub. The Coal House wasn’t the most respectable dive in Christendom, but you wouldn’t come in here to try your luck with Fanny Hill, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t that kind of billet. Old guys in the corner yarning about the war, young shavers from the City talking about the money they’d rescued from the Crash by investing in South African diamond mines, ash-lapelled lawyers talking in whispers about dodgy wills, I was used to that level of clientele. But this was the wrong milieu, pardon my French, for chaps out for a spot of how’s-your-father with ladies of the night. Or kids. That’s just disgusting. We’re not keen on that stuff down here. In Fleet Street and the Strand, we don’t hold with that Oscar Wilde rigmarole.
Anyway, me and Benny got talking about other things. Benny’s chasing a story about a racehorse owner down at Goodwood whose wife has been dancing the blanket hornpipe with some junior political at the Treasury. He’s been heard swearing and cursing to his pals about how he’ll have him put away if it doesn’t stop. There’s a stable lad Benny knows who’ll sing like a canary about terrible things that’ve been said, or hinted at, by the horsey grandee at point-to-point meetings and stockbreeder dinners, about the shocking state of morals in public office, that kind of thing.
Benny’s very funny about it, though he’s never met the cove in question. ‘How can this government,’ he rants, taking off the guy’s high rhetorical style, ‘seek to impose yet more swingeing taxes on the innocent, hard-working men of this country, when they themselves are mired in corruption, one hand in the Treasury till and the other down the undergarments of their malodorous doxies?’
‘But where can you go with it, Ben?’ I asked, laughing, ‘I mean, where’s the story? You can’t get the chap to admit what’s really buzzing in his breeches, can you?’
‘No, and there’s the problem,’ said Benny. ‘Of course, we can’t write a line about the adultery side because we are, you know, the Gazette, and we don’t do fuck stories.’ He poured a little water into his cloudy glass, reducing the amber fluid to the shade of afternoon wee. ‘But there may be some mileage in the Treasury chappie.’
‘Constituency politics, old boy. Cherchez les politiques locale. He’s MP for Beckenham, wife and four kids, supposed to be a solid citizen, loving family man, et cetera. His father-in-law’s Lord Silchester, the peer with the bee in his bonnet about family life. Makes speeches all over Kent and Surrey about the importance of the family hearth and the awfulness of the modern world. If we can hint to the old martinet that his own son-in-law is having it away with a lady that’s not his wife, and furthermore that she’s connected to a leading light of the turfing demi-monde, well, I could predict some fireworks.’
‘I can’t see it, Ben,’ I observed. ‘These are powerful people.’
I took our glasses to the bar for refreshment. Up beside me comes the parson geezer, still in his long coat despite the warmish fug in the place. He only comes up to my shoulder, but he signals to Bella with a show of impatience, as if he’s seven foot tall.
‘Two large Johnnie Walkers, please,’ I say, since it’s my shout. ‘Ice in the glass and water on the side.’
He looks at me as if I’d just spat in his eye.
‘Bella,’ he says, his voice commanding and surprisingly deep for such a small man, ‘has Dolores been in tonight?’
His voice was like chocolate, smooth, low, melting, oddly caressing.
‘Dolores?’ says Bella, yanking the Bass pump so the maternal bosom inside her drawstring blouse wobbled like a milk pudding. ‘Haven’t seen her for three days.’
‘She should be here by now,’ he says, his fleshy lips working themselves into an extravagant pout. ‘I specifically asked her to join me here by seven o’clock.’
‘Sorry, Reverend,’ says Bella, ‘but brasses don’t keep strict working hours.’ Her lips were pursed like a cat’s arse.
‘She is a troubled young woman,’ says the parson with a hint of asperity, ‘and is worthy of your respect, if not your sympathy. Will you let me know if Miss Knight comes by this evening? I may be occupied in the snug.’
‘Mm-hmm,’ says Bella, disapprovingly. ‘If she comes swannin’ in here, I’ll make sure you hear about it.’
I picked up the glasses. I wanted to say something, but he’d gone by the time I turned his way. Back to the little cubicle where he stayed, hunched and preoccupied, for an hour over little bits of paper spread before him. I took the drinks back to Benny, and we shot the breeze about the stable boys, the politician and the errant wife.
‘How’s tricks at home?’ said I, changing the subject. ‘Married life going well?’
‘Oh, that’s all fine,’ said Ben, leaning back and stretching expansively. ‘Me and Clare are snug as moles in a hole. She goes to ballet Tuesdays and Thursdays, night class in fine art on Wednesdays, we stay in and play French horn together Friday evenings, and most Saturdays we head for the Dog in Dulwich and have a few laughs and bit of a sing with her sister and brother-in-law. Every marriage should have, you know, a structure.’
‘French horn?’ I asked. ‘What’s that, some kind of polite term for it?’
‘What? Oh, I see. No no no.’ Benny was laughing now, a bit pissed. ‘You silly sod, no, I don’t mean that. We first met playing actual French horns together in the Vintage Musick Ensemble in Whitechapel. You knew that.’ He chuckled, man to man. ‘No, believe me, we don’t have to make a special evening of the old how’s your father. Christ, we’ve only been married six months. She’s still keen as mustard, she is.’
‘Benny,’ I said, waving a hand, ‘spare me the details, old son.’
‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘she’s always on for a touch. Sometimes, in the mornings, it’s all I can do to pull her off the old –’
Nice chap, Benny, but I really didn’t want to have to visualise his larks in the morning. Seeking a distraction, I looked around the pub.
The vicar was still in the snug, his pint of squash dangerously low. He wasn’t alone any longer. There was a boy beside him, about ten, with a dozen evening papers under his arm. He was a last-edition runner, the kind employed for tuppence ha’penny an hour to take the final round of the Standard to pubs and railway stations around town when the street vendors have packed up for the night and gone home to their lady wives. I assumed the kid was trying to flog the news to the old geezers, but there was something about his pinched demeanour which made me think he was waiting for something more.
I know these runners. They’re little more than urchins and strays, most of them, trying to make a few bob before heading home to their alky dads and their vicious mothers and their yowling siblings wandering around eating dripping sandwiches at nine o’clock at night. They should be in bed, after a day when they should be in school, but aren’t because they’re hanging around Smithfield Market, hosing down the stalls for a tanner or pinching offcuts of scraggy veal for their supper. Those that have homes, I mean.
I don’t have a social conscience, most of the time. I just report on things. But sometimes I get a bit hacked off about kids that age selling newsprint, with their dirty little faces and their weirdly deep voices, like they’ve been smoking Players since they were two.
Benny was still on about married bliss. He felt I should know that his wife sometimes cooks him lamb chops standing in the kitchen wearing an apron and nothing else. Now I’ve met Clare, just once. A nice girl and a whizz on the French horn, no doubt, but she wouldn’t start a riot at the peepshow. I tried to shake the vision of her aproned rear out of my head.
‘We should go out in a four some time,’ I said, not really meaning it. ‘You and Clare, me and Sal. One Friday, we could meet in town and have a bit of a carouse.’
‘Ooh. I see the rector’s making friends.’
I looked. The clergyman and the boy had been joined by an older man, a churchy greybeard in a black suit, side whiskers and droopy eyebags. Man of the cloth or manager of a chapel of rest, there was a whiff of the mortality business about him. The kid stood between them, as awkward as a bullock in a fishmonger’s.
‘What they up to, Benny, you reckon?’
‘Couldn’t say, old son. The kid’s flogging newspapers, but our friend hasn’t bought one. The old cove looks like a headmaster, so maybe the kid’s been bunking off school and the rector’s rounded him up. Either that or he’s selling him into white slavery.’
‘Be serious, Ben, this is interesting.’
‘Go and find out if you’re so keen. Go on. I’ll still be here. I got my paper.’ He tapped my arm. ‘But don’t get bogged down. Half an hour of bollocks about the Undeserving Poor and Homeless, you’ll wish you never started.’
So I went to the bar again, but this time I passed by the snug and hovered until the men stopped their chat and turned to me.
‘Can I help you?’ said the vicar.
‘I’ve had a bit of a windfall,’ I said, using an ancient ploy, ‘and I’m standing everyone in the pub a drink. Would you gentlemen care for a tipple on me?’
They looked at each other.
‘No thank you,’ said the whiskered loon, ‘I don’t care to be bought drinks by strangers.’
Well, excuse me, I thought. I looked at the kid, who just stood there, the fingers of his right hand the colour of beetroot because of the weight of the newspapers he carried. His head was bowed, poor chap, because it would never have occurred to him that he might be included in a round.
‘Yourself, sir?’ I nearly called him ‘Reverend’.
‘Come now, Mr Forsyth,’ the vicar said, turning to his surly chum, ‘surely every impulse of philanthropy should be encouraged, no matter how random its provenance.’ He talked like a Victorian gent, though he couldn’t have been all that old, and he smiled at me, his piercing eyes suddenly fixing on mine. ‘Thank you, my friend. I will take another orange cordial with a slice of lemon and plenty of water.’ He was so fastidious in his order – like a man demanding Angostura bitters in his gin Martini.
I came back with the drinks into an awkward silence.
‘Can I just ask you a question or two?’ I asked him.
‘My time is limited,’ he said. ‘I have many affairs to transact. What would you like to know?’
‘I won’t pretend with you, Vicar –’ I began.
‘– Rector, if you don’t mind.’
‘Rector. I’m a reporter on the Evening Standard. I’ve been hearing about your work among the less fortunate members of society. I wondered if maybe –’
‘Gerald.’ He cut across me, addressing the spotty youth with the newspapers. ‘Do not stand there so passive and round-shouldered like some professional mute. Mr Forsyth is your new benefactor. He will be your friend and employer. He can furnish you with a livelihood which will, with the Lord’s help, keep your family solvent and your poor mother able to furnish your table with meat and greens until Christmas. And if – mind me now – if you prove to be a good and biddable boy, and do as you are told, and fetch messages to and from the turf accountants, your work will stretch well into the new year.’
Gerald stood blinking pathetically, as if longing to get away. Who could blame him? He was a child still, as uninterested in the prospect of work as a pit pony being apprised of a favourable pension scheme.
‘I gotta –’ he ventured.
‘I want you now,’ said the rector, turning his remarkable eyes upon the raggedy kid’s, ‘to shake Mr Forsyth’s hand and promise to come to his office on Monday in your best jacket and shorts, and conduct yourself like the admirable young man I take you to be.’ He smiled at the spotty boy. ‘Remember St John’s Gospel. “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness.” You have followed me this far. Mr Forsyth will guide your steps henceforth.’
The boy nodded. The rector touched the boy’s pustular cheek softly, like a duchess fingering an ermine tippet.
‘I gotta go,’ said the boy unhappily. ‘Gotta be in the King’s Arms.’ And he was gone.
Mr Forsyth – revealed, for all his grave demeanour, to be only a common bookie – swallowed some beer and, avoiding my gaze, addressed the clergyman.
‘I’ll do my best, of course, Harold. But I cannot …’ He sighed. ‘I cannot guarantee he won’t disappear out the door on day three like the last delinquents you sent me.’ He swigged more pale ale. ‘You cannot keep passing these runaways on to me, to transform into citizens. I am a businessman –’
‘A man of honour,’ said the rector, ‘a man of moral rectitude, whose indulgent interventions in the lives of these unfortunates have, as I’ve said many times –’
‘Harold, there is no need for this –’
‘Let me finish. Whose kindly impulses –’
‘Harold, really –’
‘– not only do you credit in the public arena, but rack up untold credits in the balance sheet of Heaven. I speak to you in the language of the businessman, but my admiration is that of a minister of a higher power.’
‘Ahem,’ I said. I’d been standing witnessing these interchanges like a gooseberry.
‘My dear fellow,’ said the rector, ‘I’d forgotten you were there. Forgive me. There were urgent matters at hand.’
‘You mean finding news runners jobs as bookies’ runners?’ I said, perhaps unkindly.
He regarded me coldly. ‘You evidently know nothing of my work. Yet you said you were acquainted with it. Explain yourself.’
‘I’m a news reporter on the Standard. I’m doing an article about poverty in London, how much it’s worsened in the last couple of years, who’s doing anything about it, private individuals, I mean. I want to ask about your experiences.’
He seemed hesitant.
‘Sorry about just now,’ I went on. ‘I got a bit of a short fuse where these newspaper kids are concerned. I hope you didn’t –’
‘Have you indeed? In that case, my dear fellow, we shall get on very well.’
Giving a rather curt wave to the grumpy sod from the bookie’s, he indicated I should get out notebook and pen. But just at that moment, the pub door opened and these two young dames strode in.
Very dramatic they were, one tall, one short, both dead swishy in their long rustling skirts, tight bodices and fancy hats. You’d have thought they’d have come straight from the Windmill Theatre, though whether part of the audience or part of the stage ensemble, it was hard to judge. Modern girls, you see, the kind we write about in the ‘Trends’ pages – a little shocking, a little too damn pleased with themselves. They were no strangers to the Coal House.
‘Ah, Dolly,’ said the vicar, ‘I was beginning to worry.’ He seized the hand of the smaller one – the one with the huge brown eyes under the rakishly tilted cloche hat – and kissed her on the cheek.
The eyes of the pub followed him. He was short, as I’ve said, and his hair was snow white and he had terrible rabbity teeth, but here he was talking to a brace of posh young flappers like they were at a cocktail party in Henley.
‘And this is …?’ he says, indicating her friend, a plump piece of work in a French hat with a torn veil covered in spots, possibly to match her complexion.
‘This, Harold, is Jezzie,’ says the bird in the cloche. ‘She started out as Jessie, changed it to Eleanora, then Zuleika, then Maudie for a while, then some horrible swell called her Jezebel in a pub one night, and made her cry, so we told her, Use it, darling, don’t let him put one over on you, and she’s been Jezzie ever since.’ She paused and looked around the snug. ‘Flip me, what’s a girl got to do to get a drink around ’ere?’
The reverend ignored her. He was too busy gazing at Jezebel (well named, what with her crimson petticoat peeping out from under her long crackling skirt) and trying to see the face through the spotty veil.
‘You have the look,’ he said, or rather breathed in her ear, or would’ve done if she hadn’t stood a good six inches taller than him, ‘of Miss Greta Garbo. You must surely have seen Flesh and the Devil?’
Jezzie regarded him with a mild stare, the way girls do when they can’t believe you’re taking liberties exactly ten seconds after meeting them.
‘What, Greta Garbo? Me?’ she said and went off into a spasm of titters.
I took the only initiative I could, and said, ‘Would you ladies care for a drink?’
Why yes, they’d love a drink, though they’d have been better off at night class in needlework than hanging round in the Strand. They both fancied Brandy Alexanders.
I went to the bar for the fourth time that night. Benny tried to stick around and ingratiate himself with the dames, but he didn’t have the lingo to handle two young poules de luxe. They could probably sniff him as an off-limits married man right from the word go.
‘I’m going home,’ he said. ‘You got your hands full here.’
‘See you next week, Ben. Give Clare one for me, all right?’
In the snug, the girls sat together on the cracked-leather divan, leaning together in a sisterly fashion, sometimes swaying a bit to right and left as if in a chorus line. The rector leaned forward a lot, his long face inches away from the girls’ cheeks, turning his shining eyes first to Dolores, then to Jezzie. He did 90 per cent of the talking. For minutes they smiled vacantly, like little girls listening to an elderly grandpa grinding on about the war, hoping that they might get a chocolate biscuit. Reckoning I’d bought myself an introduction, I took the stool beside him, and listened in.
‘… and Mrs Lake will, I’m afraid, no longer countenance your irregular hours and gentlemen callers, Dolores,’ he was saying. ‘I spoke with her on Tuesday. She has developed a singular aversion, I’m afraid, to your Maltese gentlemen friends, whom she describes, with a singular lack of racial accuracy, as Hottentots.’ His face essayed a brief, high-table smile. ‘She does not want, she says, “them swarthy chancers” dropping in and out of her establishment at all hours. So we will have to find you some new haven. I have asked about your secretarial studies at Mrs Moody’s and I fear – no, do not interrupt – you have failed to honour your commitment. I hear your morning session last week saw Mrs Moody cooling her heels for an hour with no sign of your –’
‘I can’t go studying squiggles in the middle of the bloody night,’ said Dolores, grumpily.
‘Nine o’clock in the morning is hardly the small hours. I told Mrs Moody of your circumstances, and she agreed to take you on at a very reasonable rate. It hardly repays me, or her, for our considerate impulses if you choose to spend every morning lying in bed reading rubbishy magazines and drinking chocolate.’
‘I didn’t come here for a lecture,’ said Dolores, an astonishingly self-confident young thing for her age. ‘I thought you was going to introduce me to Ivor Novello, so I could tell him about my singing.’
Jezzie giggled (again). ‘Ivor Novello?’ she said, sneeringly. ‘Ivor pain in my rear end, more like.’
The rector looked hurt. ‘You underestimate my contacts in the world of what the Americans call show business. Though I have never met the delightful Mr Novello, I have friends who’ve had the pleasure of meeting him backstage. They say he is charming to strangers, polite to ladies and friendly to young persons starting out on the musical scene.’
Jezzie unfurled herself from the banquette and took herself off to the Ladies. We all watched her go. Her sizeable young rump, tightly encased in the crackling shiny material, had a distinct wiggle.
‘Charming,’ said the rector with the fond appreciation of an uncle, ‘though unfortunate to bear such a name, whatever the eccentricity of its genesis. Have you known her long?’
‘Couple of weeks,’ said Dolores. ‘We met at the Hippodrome, hanging round the stage door for Jack Buchanan. Bloody freezing it was, and when he came out he just whisked past us and got in a cab. Not as big as you’d have expected neither.’
‘Where does she live?’
‘Oh –’ she waved a vague hand – ‘here and there.’
‘You can be a little more precise,’ said the rector.
Dolores, or Dolly, regarded him steadily. ‘I dunno what you’re thinking, right this minute, Harold, but you’re not to start with her.’ She brazenly took out a cigarette case, extracted a Virginia and lit it. ‘All right? Just don’t start in on her, the minute my back’s turned.’
The rector looked around, with a faint whinny of disavowal. ‘My dear girl –’
‘And who’s this geezer, anyhow?’ demanded the young harpy. ‘What the hell does he want?’ She leaned forward, her dark eyes lit up with suspicion.
‘This is a gentleman from the press, who seeks information about my pastoral work.’
‘Oh great,’ said Dolores, rising to her feet. ‘Bloody reporter, that’s all I need. Informer, more like.’
‘There is no reason to fear –’
‘I’m going to see what’s happened to Jezzie,’ she said, and flung herself away from our table, leaving a hefty waft of Woolworths scent and brass’s armpit.
That left us together.
‘I’m afraid I’ve upset your young friends, Padre,’ I said, as airily as I could. ‘All I was after was a few facts about your crusading work. Perhaps I should leave you to it.’
He put his hand on my arm, a gentle and insinuating gesture. ‘Stand your ground, my boy,’ he said, opening his greatcoat and taking out a huge cigar from a pocket within. ‘They will be back. These young girls regard me as their only hope in this vale of sin. They cleave to me instinctively, as though to an oak in a torrent.’
He crinkled the cigar – it was huge, I couldn’t afford a cigar like that – then picked up Dolly’s box of Swan vestas and lit it. Clouds of expensive blue smoke briefly enveloped his head in a foggy halo. He appeared to devour the enormous tube, running it two inches inside his distended lips, then sucked at it with hungry kisses – mpuh! mpuh! mpuh! – until the tip glowed wide like an orange sun, and the smoke poured from his nose and mouth like some kind of sulphurous ectoplasm.
‘Perhaps I should go,’ I said. ‘They obviously don’t like newspaper men.’
He studied the end of his Havanan torpedo. ‘No, no, I have always been convinced of the power of the press to do good rather than mischief. Without the help of journalists, we shall never reveal to the world the troubles of the homeless, the young strays and runaways, the army of fallen women.’
‘Perhaps,’ I ventured, all innocent-like, ‘we should concentrate on the work of one man. Readers don’t like being told depressing tales about kids dying in poverty and girls on the game. But a story about One Man’s Quest to take care of, you know, tarts who don’t want to be …’
He looked at me coldly. ‘Nobody, my young friend, wishes to be a prostitute. Any girl who finds herself in such employment has not sought it volitionally. It is not a matter of choice. They are driven into lives of degeneracy by the circumscription of choice. Young girls in their natural state are the innocent lambs of Creation. Without worldly knowledge, they would have no will to sin.’
‘And how can you help them?’ I asked, puzzled.
He sucked on his cigar again. ‘By showing them a route back to righteousness. By befriending them, and revealing there is a finer life, a life of the mind and of the soul, in which they may find redemption, a career in the arts or the drama.’
At that moment, the girls came back. Such a transformation! Dolores was all smiles. Jezzie carried her hat, with its spotty veil, in her hand, her face now revealed in all its seventeen-year-old wonder: her fat cheeks aglow, her hair blonde and fine as a pedigree Saluki’s, her eyes shining. You’d think they’d just won some money, these lambs of Creation.
‘We made some new friends,’ said Dolores, ‘in the public bar. They was very nice, weren’t they, Jez?’
‘He was lovely,’ breathed the other one. ‘They’re taking us to a party in a while, to meet some people who are going to put on a show at the Palladium.’
‘What an amazing stroke of luck,’ I said. ‘Don’t tell me they happen to be looking for two young actresses of no previous experience to appear in the chorus?’
‘Yeah, as a matter of fact –’ Her young face hardened. ‘How’d you know that?’
‘Oh, journalist’s instinct.’
‘Don’t listen to him, Jez,’ said Dolores. ‘He’s taking the mick. They’re all the same, fucking news hounds.’
I wondered if the rector had heard the obscenity, or if he had learned to ignore the startling rudeness of his young charges.
He turned to Jezzie. ‘Where did you say you lived?’
‘Mmm?’ said Jezzie, still dreamy from her recent brush with the arrow of Eros. ‘Oh, Spitalfields. I got this horrible landlady, she cooks greasy breakfasts, and ticks you off for using too much toilet roll. And no pets and no men in your room after 10 p.m., and if you want to have a bath –’
‘But your address?’
‘Oh right, 16 Fournier Street. What, you going to write to me?’
The rector, with an operatic flourish, opened his big coat wide, and ferreted about in the lining. He buried his head under his armpit, like a swan having a kip. He appeared to search in one aperture, then another, a third – Jesus, how many pockets did he have in there?
– and pulled out a red ledger, the kind a fellow might keep a note of his expenses in, and gravely inscribed the name of young Jezzie’s fragrant domicile. Then he pressed a business card into the girl’s hand. ‘And here is my address. I gather you are but recently arrived in the metropolis. I hope you will ring me on this number, Vauxhall 9137, if you are assailed by feelings of loneliness or desperation or feel in need of conversation.’
Jezzie tucked the card away in her blouse. Dolores regarded her cigar-puffing benefactor with a look of warning.
‘Harold,’ she said, evenly, ‘we’ve got to talk.’
The rector snapped the ledger shut, returned it to its home in the gaberdine folds, glanced at Jezzie’s newly enlivened presence – her mountainous blonde hair, her even more mountainous bosom and smiled at his young protégée like a fond uncle at a family reunion.
‘We are among friends, my dear, and can talk freely about your future employment –’
‘It’s not about the bloody job, Harold,’ she hissed. ‘It’s about Max. What you done with him?’
He suddenly looked a little nervous. ‘Max?’ he asked. ‘Was that the man I met you with outside the National Gallery?’
‘You know perfectly well. And you put the law on him,’ said Dolores. ‘How could you? The bloody peelers.’
My ears were out on stalks, if that’s the phrase. I seemed to have stumbled into an interesting little row. The vicar, the tart, the villain, the mystery disappearance, the constabulary … All my antennas were quivering.
They were quivering a little too obviously. The vicar and the girls were suddenly all looking at me, none too friendly. Dolores’s enormous gob had lost its pouty allure and was thin as a Gillette blade. The rector’s cigarry animation had evaporated, leaving him with a look on his face like a man just kneed in the nadgers. In this pub snug, there was suddenly an Arctic chill. Even the birdbrain Jezzie could feel it.
‘I think,’ said the rector, and I was relieved to hear anyone saying anything to break the silence, ‘we must not keep you any longer from your friends. If you wish to interview me about my work, you must make an appointment by telephone. I keep irregular hours. It has been pleasant to make your acquaintance.’ And with that, he turned his whole chair, away from me so I was looking at his back, as he leaned into the girls again.
‘I was just going, Reverend,’ I said, rising sheepishly. ‘Unless you fancy one more drink, on me, I mean, and we could …’
He ignored me. Dolores, the little bitch, turned a look of pure contempt my way. ‘You still ’ere?’ she said. ‘Thought you were goin’. And takin’ your big flappin’ ears with you.’
And that was that. I gathered my dignity, my jacket and briefcase and left. At the door, I looked back. The reverend and the two girls were the best of friends again, laughing and yarning away. It was after eight. The pub was now as smoky as Hades, crushed as a Calcutta omnibus, the young lawyers and Friday-night demoiselles getting noisily hammered, the guy at the piano singing ‘Paper Moon’, and I was sorry to leave. I’d just met the oddest geezer I’ve come across in years. I rather envied him his funny entourage, and I itched to find out more about their set-up. So I’ll ring him tomorrow on Vauxhall 9137 and see if there’s a story in it. His old-fashioned way of talking, it ran through my head on the way home. And his coat with all the special pockets. And the girl with the torn veil who’d said, ‘What, you going to write to me?’ like nobody’d ever written her a letter in her life.
Journals of Harold Davidson London 1 July 1930
The newspapers are full of Iraq. It seems that Britain has agreed to the recognition of Iraqi independence, and the dismantling of our protectorate, set up during the war by the Sykes – Picot Agreement. I am far from convinced that this is a beneficial move. The presence of Europeans in the Ottoman territories is, of course, seen as an outrage by the Muslim hordes. They may admire our scientific advances and our armaments in war, but they resent our occupation of their land – and they bridle when they see our distaste for their corrupt and primitive ways. Most of them would wish Mr Sykes and M. Picot at the bottom of the Tigris and the Euphrates, picked clean by sharia fish. And yet, is it not imperative that we bring modern European ideas to this benighted territory? Could any Iraqi look at the clockwork precision of London life, the fruits of the Enlightenment in our libraries, the technical advances in our roads and in the air, the literacy of our common folk, and not wish the same for his own community?
Perhaps I should preach about this on Sunday. Through conversations at St Ethelreda’s with Henry, an Arabist of many years’ study, I know how passionately some enlightened Muslims wish to replace the religious tyranny of their lands with a liberal constitution, a monarchy of restricted powers and a parliamentary representation of the people’s will. It was Henry who lent me Admonition to the Nation, a striking work of far-sighted intelligence by Sheikh Mohammed Husein Naini, one of the leading intellectuals of Najaf, who draws connections between the tenets of the Qur’an and the secular policies of British governance. He argues that to curb the tyranny of rulers is an act worthy of the Shia, and to establish a government bound by a constitution may be interpreted as the return of the ‘Hidden Imam’ – the twelfth imam in the succession from the Prophet, who disappeared from view (i.e. died, in Western terms) or has been miraculously concealed by God since 934, and who, some believe, will return one day to usher in an era of perfect justice and perfect government.
It is just one of their myriad madcap beliefs – so bizarre, so capricious and fanciful, when set beside our own happy certainty of the Second Coming of Christ and the promise of eternal bliss in His sight.
An admirable subject for high-table debate, though perhaps a little too sensational for a sermon in Stiffkey. We must see if Iraq subsides into the Ottoman murk where she lay stagnant for so long, or if she embraces the modern light of the West.
Humph. How metaphorically unhelpful that the West is where the light declines, while the East is where it increases and is constantly reborn. Most inconvenient.
A pleasant evening in the Old Coal House with Dolores Knight, despite her continued aversion to any kind of hard work, study or kindly counsel. I told her of Mrs Lake’s objections to the gentlemen callers and Mrs Moody’s exasperation over the secretarial course. Dolly laughs them away. Now I have rescued her from the sordid company of St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping, found her accommodation in Whitechapel, brought a doctor who would treat her unfortunate condition (‘Mat’ low’s Clap’ they call it, rather brutally, in dock regions) and paid her regular visits to discuss her future, I ask myself: What more can I do? The great Schweitzer himself, in the jungles of wherever-it-was, could not work harder at the sharp end of salvation than I, without expectation of reward, but in the hope of seeing results. In the case of Miss Knight, my labours have produced only a bored, disaffected girl, unwilling to embrace the opportunities offered by a virtuous life. Instead, she complained last evening – in front of complete strangers – that I had caused her unpleasant gentleman friend Max to be taken into custody. I may have hinted to the constabulary that he appears to own a great quantity of French brandy, which he retails in small barrels from a back room in the George Inn, London Bridge. I did not say he was a smuggler; that was their interpretation. But he was no good for Dolores – I am quite sure he was a former client, returning to his prey – and she is better off without him. She is bitter, though, and will take some placating.
She brought with her a delightful young friend, comically named Jezebel (!), a thickset, giggling, foolish, boy-loving ninny of a girl in a torn veil. She may well be in danger (from the company of Dolores, as much as from any man). I gave her my card and may call on her tomorrow. Around 1 a.m.
Met a journalist, from the Evening Standard, who wishes to know more about my work and publish feature. Excellent. Seemed nice enough chap, but with tendency to linger and eavesdrop. Ah well, that is the nature of the beast. I have little time for scandal sheets and penny dreadfuls. They deal in such foolish, trivial stuff. I represent something deeper and more serious, at the coalface of modern urban life where the battle every day is between the largest armies of all: sin; damnation; virtue; redemption. But I will grant him an interview if he calls.
Feature article, Evening Standard 5 July 1930
AT HOME AMONG THE HOMELESS How an unusual clergyman is working for the betterment of London’s poor
By Charles Norton
Sam Gillespie was six years old when his parents were drowned in a boating accident. Orphaned, bereaved and shocked, he was taken in by an aunt who lived in Wapping, then sent to nearby Tower Hamlets School. Unable to stomach the cruel taunts of fellow pupils about his parentless state, he regularly played truant. His aunt could not feed him from her limited stipend. Finding it hard to gain work because of his extreme youth, he turned to crime, stealing bicycles. Now fifteen, he has been in prison twice. It is hard for him to secure a job with legitimate enterprises. He is in danger of having to look for a livelihood among the criminal fraternity. What is a boy such as Sam to do?
Step forward, the Reverend Harold Davidson, 54, one of the most remarkable clergymen in England, a man who has brought life and hope to hundreds of misfortunate men, women and children. Davidson is the founder of a number of charities for homeless men, destitute boys and women forced into a life of vice. His work takes him to all corners of London, looking for young people in danger of falling into bad company. ‘It is fortunate that I seldom sleep,’ laughs Davidson, ‘for I find myself summoned to my ministry from morning to night. London is bursting with runaways, who have come here in search of jobs and excitement, and found nowhere to live. For 10 years, the public parks have been their only refuge in snow and rain. Every day they risk arrest for vagrancy; the girls risk fines and imprisonment for soliciting, quite unjustly. Their crime is not prostitution but destitution. Something must be done.’
Davidson’s crusade is the more remarkable because he is not based in London. He is rector of the Norfolk parish of Stiffkey and Morston where he lives with his Irish wife, Moyra, and their five children, Sheilagh, Nugent, Patricia, Arnold and Pamela. He teaches religious instruction at the local school, recites poetry and presides over amateur dramatic productions. ‘I used to do a bit of acting, in my student days and after,’ he recalls with a smile, ‘and I fear there’s still a bit of the ham about me!’ He is a frequent visitor to the theatres of London’s West End. While barely past his school examinations, Davidson set up an organisation to help child newspaper sellers – always a prey to bullying and exploitation – acquire a basic education. After gaining a degree at Oxford University, he helped to found the Young Lads’ Apprenticeship Fund, looking to provide an artisanal career for otherwise unemployable youths. ‘It is the most worthwhile work imaginable,’ he told me, ‘attaching these lost boys to employers and helping them become future plumbers, bookbinders and carpenters …’
He is also the founder of the Runaway Boys’ Retreat, where street urchins, on the run from difficult domestic circumstances, are fed and tended by older boys and given a basic education. Davidson has also become known to Londoners for his work with streetwalkers, finding them work and decent dwellings, ‘helping them’, as he puts it, ‘emerge from the crepuscular alleys of sins, the dim corridors of corruption and return to the stony but sure pathway to the Light. These women are often scarcely more than children, young girls preyed upon by men no better than the slave owners of yore. It is my gift sometimes to discover them before they have strayed, and to divert the course of their lives from Perdition. To the fallen, I can offer help and succour. I will go on doing so while there is breath in my body, and friends able to assist in this most necessary and demanding work. I owe it to the girls.’
When we parted company, he was on his way to the Kardomah restaurant in Holborn, to meet another prospective employer of the poor unfortunates to whom he represents a kind of earthly Saviour. Motivated by simple Christian good-heartedness, Harold Davidson is too modest of his achievements to accept such an appellation; but it is deserved nonetheless.
Journals of Harold Davidson
London 7 July 1930
As I was passing the Lyons Corner House tea room in the Strand today I saw, through the window, a remarkable sight. A young girl, evidently a waitress, wearing a thin raincoat and no hat, was sitting on a chair the wrong way round. Her knees were spread wide around the chair’s backrest, her arms folded along the top. In this posture, she was talking to the lady by the till, who seemed to find nothing unusual in her friend’s wanton arrangement of limbs.
I walked in. My usual table to the rear of the tea room was occupied, and I was forced to sit by the window. I dug into my Stationery and Publications Pockets, and set to work making notes on the findings of the Bishops’ Conference in Liverpool, until I saw the young girl on the chair cease her conversation, and I felt able to intervene.
‘Good evening, my dear,’ I said, giving a grave bow. ‘Am in the presence of Miss Marlene Dietrich?’
‘You what?’ said the girl, blankly. ‘Who’s that? Who’re you?’
‘I see I am mistaken,’ (I smote my brow theatrically), ‘but surely you must be aware of Miss Dietrich, the German actress. Why, you resemble her so closely, I could have sworn it was she sitting on this chair.’
‘You mean I look like her?’
‘It is not just the look, my dear. It is the pose. You must have seen Miss Dietrich’s new film, The Blue Angel, in which she plays a nightclub entertainer, who sits, upon the stage, in precisely the same attitude in which you are sitting now?’
‘No I haven’t. I can’t afford to go to the flicks.’
‘Dear girl, are you destitute? Have you no work to bring you a living wage?’
‘I work here,’ she said, coolly. ‘Only, I’ve just come off duty and now I’m going home.’
‘How fortunate. And do you find the work in this tea room congenial?’
‘What you mean, congealing?’
‘Congenial, my dear, do you find the work pleasant?’
‘Yeah, it’s all right. It’s nice when everyone’s friendly. But we get some right tough characters. The other day, this bloke, he comes in throwing his weight around, he looks at me and goes, “Oi, you! Get me some hot chocolate!” like he’s ordering some squaddie around.’
‘And did you retaliate?’
‘We’re not supposed to say nothing, in case they turn nasty. So I just got his drink and brought it over. Yvonne, my friend, she reckoned I should have upended it into his lap.’ She beamed wickedly at the prospect.
‘I hope you are not abused by gentlemen on a regular basis?’
‘What? No chance. Miss Tewkesbury here, she doesn’t take no cheek from people who’re rude.’
She was a sweet-faced young thing, not a beauty but a healthy, clean-skinned innocent girl, nervous of men. Yet, given a moment’s rest from her labours, she falls into the wayward, legs-apart posture of Lola in The Blue Angel, like the most shameless poule de luxe! Something must be working upon her; some malign influence has her in its grip. I have an antenna for when a girl is going to the bad – or, if not yet going, then disposed in time to slide towards corruption.
Her parents were in Evershot, she said, a village near Yeovil, in Dorset. They had (thoughtlessly, I feel) allowed her to leave school and travel to London with her older sister, to seek employment. The girls live in Camberwell, off the Dog Kennel Hill, and the sister, Delia, has a ‘young man’ who takes her cycling at weekends. She herself (Sandra) has no young man, she says, though she is all of seventeen. Some of the gentlemen who came in for tea made rough jokes about taking her ‘up the town’ one night, but they never (she says) mean it and she wouldn’t wish to. I asked how she spent her evenings. At the Camberwell room, it seems, reading and listening to the radio, although sometimes she and Delia go to the nearby park and drink cider with her gentleman friend and his associates. ‘It reminds us,’ she said, ‘of home.’ My godfathers. I know a girl in imminent trouble when I hear one. But one small light gleamed out from her blank revelation of a blank life. Every so often she goes to the Quakers Hall on Camberwell Church Road, to watch girls from the local school rehearsing their end-of-term drama.
The dear child. So bleakly comforted by so little! Impetuously, I leaned forward.
‘Would you do me the honour of accompanying me to the theatre?’ I asked. ‘I am fortunate to have two tickets to The Young Idea by Mr Coward at the Hippodrome this Friday, and I would like you to come.’
‘Well, I dunno,’ she said, untwining her legs from the back-to-front chair, ‘I don’t know you. You might be a murderer for all I know, mightn’t you?’
I gave a light laugh. ‘I am a clergyman, my dear, and I assure you that murder is the last thing on my mind. To speak plainly, I feel you may have a considerable future as an actress. Please do not smile. I am perfectly serious. Before I took to the cloth, I was a professional actor in London, in Kent, Surrey and Hampshire, and I know talent when I see it. You have no business waiting at tables where boorish men speak to you roughly. There is a world out there of achievement, of glamour and fame, where a girl like you will not have to fetch and carry for a pittance. Perhaps on Friday you will let me introduce it to you?’
She stood before me in her mackintosh, her mouth open (to reveal charmingly white but crooked teeth) in surprise.
‘Call in tomorrow, and ask me again,’ she said, ‘and I’ll see.’
‘I appreciate your caution,’ I said, delighted. ‘And I’m glad to say that you are about to enter, come Friday, a world of sublime happiness.’
When I left she was smiling. A splendid evening’s work. I must look in at the Hippodrome later, to acquire some free tickets from dear Ivy, whom I rescued from a life of vice only last spring.
London 9 July 1930
THINGS TO DO:
1. Elsie Teenan to Mrs Teasdale, 15 The Close, Bermondsey. Rent 3/9 wk. No dogs. Persuade E to part with Biscuit. Poss work at Vincent’s seamstress factory? Must ask.
2. Check employment roster at Labour Exchange, Stratford Road, Battersea. Maids, cooks, etc. in good houses. Lily Beane, Sally Anstruther, Joanna Dee still unplaced.
3. Boots pharmacy. Fresh supplies of rash salve, shingles ointment, gingivitis balm, surgical spirit, bathroom tissue, etc. Wrights Coal Tar soap for Elsie. Special offer beauty soap/shampoo still avlbl? Box set to Marina Carter – bthday 28 July. Mauve ribbons for Patricia. Soft toy for Pamela.
4. Lunch, Monsignor Coveney, Mount St, Weds. We need cash for Christian Rehabilitation of Immoral Youth fund or will surely go under.
5. Visit Fenella Royston-Smith, Ch X Hotel. NB bring Dream of Gerontius for her. Urge her to join Virtue Reclamation League and enlist Kenya friends.
6. Sandra from Strand T-rooms to The Young Idea, Friday, Hippodrome. Tickets from Ivy Bareham.
7. While at it, tkts to see Journey’s End at Her Majesty’s. Cheap dress-circle seats to 1 Sept.
8. 6 p.m., meeting with Eddie Bones & Howard Shiner, Runaway Boys’ Retreat.
9. New girl, Jezebel (!) friend of Dolores Kt. In danger. 16 Fournier St, Whitechapel.
10. Ring Mimi. There must be emergency boilerman somewhere in Norfolk.
11. Sermon – St Augustine? ‘Salus extra ecclesiam non est’.
London 12 July 1930
Delightful evening with Sandra Hunt, the young waitress I befriended in the Strand on Monday. I popped in on Tuesday to renew my invitation to the theatre and found she had all but forgotten about it! How thoughtless are the young about things that should most demand their attention. Said she thought I had been ‘throwing her a line’ in inviting her to the West End. Reassured her I desired only her company in Hippodrome stalls, mentioning that I was a widower who enjoyed the thrill of live drama. She finally accepted. Angry glances from the dragon-lady in charge of tea room, who kept telling the put-upon girl to return to work.
She was waiting for me on Wellington Street, wearing the same blue raincoat as when we met, silky blonde hair quite straight, except for one charming kink where it falls over her right ear. Caught my breath as I realised how much her face reminded me of –
Enough. She had never been to theatre before! Not just in the West End – she had never been in any theatre, not even a school play, nor even mummers calling in her Hardyesque home village. She loved the stalls, the proscenium arch, the programme, the ladies in their finery nodding at us (doubtless counting us as father and daughter), the velvet curtain. ‘Is there a big screen behind the drapes?’ she asked, in her artless way. She loved the play, its clipped and brittle rallies corresponding to many young girls’ notions of sophistication. She even essayed twirly little dance on the cobbles of Covent Garden Market. Delightful. Bought her sausages and chips at the Brigham Café, and learned more of her family. She has not, after all, been abandoned. Parents sent her and her sister on rail journey to the metropolis with cash subvention, and are coming to London next month to check their progress. So Sandra has no immediate need of guardian and protector against baser instincts. Excellent.
Sandra asked me about our first conversation in the café. Which film star had I taken her for? I explained about Miss Dietrich and The Blue Angel.
‘She plays a performer,’ I said. ‘A kind of exotic dancer in a club, wearing only underwear and a top hat, and sitting astride a chair.’
‘Is it good?’ said Sandra. ‘I mean, would I like it?’
‘I know nothing of your taste in such things, but it is a remarkable study in moral corruption, one that may hold lessons for a young person, about the power of sensual gratification.’
‘So there’s dancing and singing, and this woman in a hat?’ she said. ‘Isn’t there a story? I like a nice story.’
‘Indeed there is,’ I said, ‘a story about a respectable man, a professor, who falls in love with a femme fatale, gives up everything for her and ends his life as little more than a clown.’
‘Ooh,’ said Sandra, ‘I think I’ll go and see that. It sounds great.’
Even as I described the plot, I felt a tintinnabulation of alarm. It occured to me that, though it served as a conversational topic, The Blue Angel is perhaps not a film impressionable young girls should be encouraged to see.
I got the bill. We caught a cab and I dropped this sweet-faced young girl outside her cramped lodgings in Camberwell Green.
London 15 July 1930
Yesterday my fifty-fifth birthday, a day for sober self-examination, yet I rose in excellent spirits, like one – thank God! – perpetually reborn to the fray. Surveyed my ageing flesh in the silvered bathroom mirror. A touch of rheum about the eyes, a deal of sag about the neck, and the brow-lines now feature a cross-hatched complexity like a Piranesi drawing; but on the whole, no need to send for the mortician yet! In a sudden impulse of vanity, I sought out the nail scissors and snipped at the profusion of hairs extruding from my auricular cavities. The eyebrows too have a new tendency to bolt and straggle, and with them too I dealt severely.
Mrs Parker cooked a celebratory breakfast of kippers and scrambled eggs with too much milk in the beaten eggs (comme d’habitude, alas!), and we clinked teacups in a domestic parody of a banqueting toast. The feast day of St Alice of Ravenna, that sweet young flower of sixteenth-century martyrdom. Too few Renaissance paintings commemorate her uncomplaining death, crushed between millstones by Moorish brigands in the Saharan wastes. She will remain, I fear, a dim footnote in the history of North African missions unless I single-handedly rescue her from obscurity.
There was no time to regret my lack of anniversary cards from the children. M, I fear, is preoccupied with our houseful of lame dogs, and the state of the boiler. I should have telephoned. By 10 a.m., I was patrolling Fleet Street – the sunlight blazing off the noble frontage of the law courts, a divine birthday gift.
In Somerset House, I endeavoured to find Elsie Teenan’s birth certificate, in the hope of locating her errant mama, but only an unmannerly crew of Teahans, Teemans and Teamonts appeared beneath my flicking fingers. Most frustrating.
I will not give up on poor Elsie. I will not have her spend one more night outside Waterloo Station among the taxis, flagging for custom in her grey Tipperary shawl. There is no sight in London more pathetic than a young harlot who has found no clients by 3 a.m. I wish she would cease her doomed attempts to sell her body (or to ‘find some young feller to go home with’ in her cluelessly romantic turn of phrase) and embrace a more virtuous life as, say, a maidservant, until she finds a passing Dublin construction worker who will recognise her potential, embrace her spindle-framed loveliness, sing to her from Moore’s Irish Melodies, stop her complaining mouth with appreciative kisses and bear her away to a fulfilled life of twins and St Patrick’s Day shamrock in the new suburban Eden of Tooting Common. I have seen it work. One can build a Jerusalem, of sorts, in London’s green and burgeoning suburbs.
At noon, I popped into St Paul’s where a funeral was in full swing. Nobody I knew, but I derived a cold comfort from the dignified obsequies, the profusion of flowers, the fume of expensive cathedral incense. I was cheered at this sad event by the sight of the dead man’s family. The widow was a handsome woman in her fifties, ‘piss-elegant Mayfair’ as Rose would have said. The lady’s dignified bearing softened by the swell of her bosom in a well-cut black crape gown, she extended an eloquent arm around the waist of her eldest daughter as the Bishop flapped the fuming censer around an expensive mahogany coffin. The daughter laid her head on her mother’s shoulder in a gesture both needy and sweetly supportive. I gazed at this charming tableau of womanhood, admiring their mutual support. I longed to go up and interpose my body between them, to extend caring arms about their waists and tell them they had nothing to fear, since the Life Eternal had embraced their husband and father – yet something stopped my impetuous impulse. So I remained at the end of the pew, singing the climactic hymn, ‘As We Walk the Paths of Sorrow to the Shores of Galilee’, remarking inwardly how similar is the tune to the chorus of ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, a great favourite of mine.
I popped into the offices of the Church Times in Fleet Street, hoping to interest Mr Humphrey Goodman in the progress of our charitable work at the Runaway Boys’ Retreat in Whitechapel. I brought along a score of the new leaflets (a piteous tableau of a woman clutching her luckless infant, driven from her father’s door into a snowy field populated by expiring robins, above the legend ‘More To Be Pitied Than Scorned!’ – surely an image to melt the sternest heart) hoping to persuade him that one might be reproduced on the front page with a suitably affecting editorial. But Mr G, despite his Bunyanesque name, was ‘engaged’, they told me, ‘in writing up the Bishops’ Conference’ and could not spare ten minutes.
Luncheon at the Jolly Farmers with Vincent Doughty, whose clothing manufactory goes, he tells me, from strength to strength. He has started to take snuff! Every fifteen minutes, he punctuates our discussion by flourishing a tin box, extracting from it a ‘pinch’ of the brown powder in his sausagey fingers, and ramming it up his nose. ‘Fancy a go?’ he asked me several times. He is an oaf, a boor and a man of few spiritual leanings, yet he has undoubtedly been of assistance to the girls. They almost always leave his workplace for more elevated positions, sometimes for a dress shop in the provinces, sometimes for a career in catering. I have little opportunity to ask them about this gratifying advancement. Usually, I am brought the news of their departure by a third party. I am convinced that Vincent gives them a little ‘pep talk’ about their future prospects, and directs them towards more congenial employment.
‘That Erica,’ he said, as we smoked cigars after the veal-pie crumbs had been cleared away, ‘the young one from Swansea, she was a lively piece of work. A demon at pressing she were, pressing and folding, pressing and folding, like she was born to it. Lovely young thing. Had a bit of sass to her as well, talked back to the lads on the pressing machines, gave as good as she got. I got to hand it to you, Rector, you can pick ’em. Sad she had to go.’ He took another elaborate pinch of snuff, shedding much of it on his serge trousers. ‘She wasn’t open to all the opportunities on offer.’
‘And where exactly did she go?’ I enquired.
‘Oh, Beckenham way, I believe.’ He seemed suddenly vague. ‘Got an aunt there, runs a flower shop or some such. Lovely girl, though. If you got any more like that, I hope you’ll send ’em over. There’s always room for more of your lively young folk, ’Arold. Always raises the morale in the factory, a bit of new blood.’
Heartened by this endorsement, I told him about Elsie Teenan and her efforts to find work. ‘A naive girl,’ I confided, ‘but strong and healthy, charmingly grateful to all who try to help her.’
‘That so?’ said Vincent. ‘Sounds ideal. Send her over for a little chat with me, soon as you like.’ What a good, solicitous fellow he is!
Evening. It is years since I celebrated my birthday with a dinner party, or any communal meal, unless in Stiffkey on the day itself, consuming mutton chops with Mimi. Settled instead on a visit to Maddox Street, to see Emily Murray and Nellie Churchill in their charming ‘bed-sitting room’. Nobody could accuse me of having favourites, but the presence of Miss Murray is always a delight.
‘Oh, Harold, how lovely,’ she breathed as she opened the door. ‘I’ve been longing for you to come by, so I could show you my new friends.’
She led me by the hand into a room in which the fume of cheap scent battled for the upper hand with the odour of fish and stale nicotine.
‘Close your eyes!’ she cried. ‘I must make them presentable to such a noble guest.’ I complied, and was led across an unappealingly sticky carpet to her bed. ‘You mustn’t look, Harold, or it will be too naughty of you. Dickens and Jones are all tumbled and listless, and I must smarten them up. Sit up, you bad boys. All right, Harold, you may open your eyes.’
I did, and saw upon the coverlet the familiar profusion of soft toys, lolling drunkenly over half its area. There must have been close on forty wool bears and rag dolls. In pride of place were her new acquisitions, a flop-eared rabbit and a cross-eyed giraffe, humorously arrayed so that one of the giraffe’s soft legs encircled the rabbit in fond camaraderie.
‘You see what friends they are!’ cried Emily. ‘I found them in Bermondsey Market, and adopted them and took them in, and now they have such larks together, I can scarcely bear to leave them to go to beastly work. Don’t you love them too, Harold?’
‘Delightful, Emily,’ I said. ‘Quite the nicest-looking fauna I have encountered outside Chessington Zoo.’
It was the wrong thing to say. ‘Oh, Harold, how can you? I couldn’t bear to think of my darling Dickens and Jones in a horrid zoo. The keepers might be cruel to them, they might be hungry and cold in the night.’ She made a show of pulling the counterpane over the wool creatures, as if to warm them. ‘No harm is going to come to them here, not if I must stay home and starve.’
‘Is Nellie not home this evening?’ I asked, keen to change the subject.
‘No, my dear, Nellie is off with one of her gentlemen friends,’ said Emily with a sweet smile. ‘One of the newer kind, which means she will be home later, rather than staying out all night. I fear she is grumpy with me, Harold. We never have a conversation when she returns home, as we used to.’
How delicately she spoke of her previous life of rampant prostitution. She behaves as a child but is twenty-three. When I met her, just four months ago – in Soho, outside a pub in Rupert Street – I remarked then on the sweet passivity of her nature, her simple acquiescence towards one whom she felt she could trust.
‘Hello, sir – Do you want me?’ were her opening words. They could have been the assistant in a hat shop saying, ‘Can I help you?’
I have learned that you must attend to what Emily says, however foolish, because her utterances come studded with information in code. So I asked, ‘Nellie is grumpy with you? In what way grumpy?’
‘She says she is too tired to speak, or to heed what I am saying, or kiss me goodnight. She sleeps until 3 p.m. on a Sunday, and scratches her arms until they are quite bleeding and welcomes gentlemen who come to the door with little messages contained in tiny envelopes.’
I glanced across the room to the other bed, in the dark corner. It was brutally utilitarian. Beside it, the wall was covered with notes and scraps of paper, addresses, times of appointments. Nothing gave a hint of character, or smacked of comfort or adornment.
‘I hoped you might be free tonight, Emily,’ I said. ‘I have two tickets to see Mister Cinders at the Adelphi. It is light as a soufflé, but full of appealing tunes that will lift your spirits.’
She impetuously kissed my cheek. ‘Harold! You know how I adore the theatre. Give me five minutes to get ready in my going-out frock and I – oh but wait. Perhaps I shouldn’t.’
For a moment, I feared that I might have to reassure her that Dickens and Jones would not object to being left alone. But no.
‘Tomorrow I start work, thanks to you, my dear friend, at the Café Royal. Perhaps it would be better if I had an early night. I should not wish to disappoint my new employers by arriving late.’
It is very satisfying to me that she should respond so willingly to my placing her in a job at the kitchens of the distinguished Regent Street restaurant, away from her life of sin. I was moved to find how seriously she was taking it.
‘Your worries do you credit, Emily, but I was not planning on a late night. Decide what to wear tomorrow and put the clothes upon a chair. Set your alarm clock for 7 a.m. We shall go to the play, eat a light supper at Brown’s, I shall see you home and you will be tucked up in bed with, ah, Marshall and Snelgrove –’
‘Dickens and Jones, Harold. How can you tease me like this?’
‘– with your charming menagerie by eleven o’clock, and will awake refreshed to start your new employment and your new life.’
‘Oh, Harold –’ she clutched my arm – ‘I’ll get changed.’ I made a gesture towards the door. ‘There’s no need to go out into the horrid cold wind. You might look away, though, while a lady is dressing.’
I sat on Nellie’s unyielding bed, talking inconsequentially and listening to the noises behind me of rustle and snap, the tiny ladylike grunt that accompanied the fastening of hooks and eyes, the sigh of a lady’s arm sliding into a silken sleeve, all the sonic paraphernalia of a woman at her toilette. Some men might find the scene erotically promising, but I am inured to such things. Ten years of dealing with the sisterhood of vice have left me overfamiliar with the female boudoir. Odd to think I have been in hundreds of bedrooms over the last decade, but none has been that of a woman of decent moral address. Not one. What a curious state of affairs.
The door opened and Nellie came in. It was, frankly, awkward timing.
‘Oh,’ she said, seeing me first. ‘What are you doing here?’ I rose and glanced to Emily for guidance – to find her seated on a wooden chair, attaching the top of a silver stocking to the rubber flange of some item of corsetry. Her left leg – rather a beautiful sight! – was fully exposed.
‘Am I interrupting?’ In the doorway Nellie glanced from Emily’s leg to me, where I had half risen from the bed. ‘Shall I go?’
‘No, you silly thing,’ said Emily with a girlish laugh, ‘I was changing. Harold’s taking me to a play. You know lovely Harold, don’t you?’
‘We’ve met,’ she said shortly. ‘When was the last time? The Windmill Theatre, or the Carter woman’s cathouse in Drury Lane?’
‘I cannot recall,’ I said. ‘Perhaps the latter. How is life treating you, Miss Churchill?’
She didn’t reply, but crossed the room to her bed and began rooting around underneath it. Miss Churchill does not like me. Her presence casts a pall on every occasion. She seems to regard me with a suspicion I find frankly offensive. Of course, her experience of men is limited almost entirely to clients, clubland swells and prostitutes’ bullies. Show her a man intent only on the welfare of sinners, and she is puzzled, discomfited and keen to infer the worst.
‘I don’t know what you two are up to, but could you finish it and leave me in peace?’ she said. Her long face was blank with hostility. ‘There’s some things I need to do, and I could live without spectators, if that’s all right with you.’
Emily raised to me an enquiring eyebrow. How could I have communicated, in dumbshow, that her friend was looking for her supply of narcotics, her syringe, etc., without which she could not venture to Oxford Circus for an evening of drugged soliciting in alleys and cheap hotels?
‘Of course, Nellie,’ I said lightly. ‘Emily and I are just off to see Mister Cinders. I shall have her back here in bed early, because tomorrow she starts her exciting job at the Café Royal.’
Nellie’s face set in a sneer. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘She told me. Washin’ up for toffs. Hands in the sink from morning to night. Very exciting.’
‘It won’t be like that, Nellie, you beast,’ said Emily, in a hurt, schoolgirl voice. ‘I’ll probably be waiting on Ramsay MacDonald himself in the restaurant by Christmas. That’s what Harold says, anyway.’
‘It won’t be long,’ said Nellie, ‘before you’re dying to be back on the street. Or dying of boredom. Or dead on your feet. Go on and do it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
If I were a young woman, I would sooner share living quarters with Cassandra, or Medea, or Lady Macbeth and all three witches, than Nellie Churchill. It took all my powers of persuasion to convince Emily that her life would soon change for the better.
She loved the play, however, and left the theatre, humming and chattering about the loveliness of the costumes.
Over a Spanish omelette, I assured her about the dignity of service, especially in so elevated a venue as the Café R, and promised to visit her in a couple of weeks. Home in Maddox Street, I instructed her to brush her teeth and say her prayers.
‘I’m so glad you took me, Harold,’ she breathed. ‘All them men who promised to care for me. Only you ever did. I’m ever so grateful.’
She pulled me towards her. I laughingly desisted and told her to get some sleep, for it was already 11.05 p.m.
‘Ain’t you going to tuck me up,’ she said, ‘and give me a little kiss?’
I would have helped her to bed, and bestowed a chaste kiss on her brow. But the image of Nellie seemed to loom from the dark bed in the corner. Before I left, I taught Emily to say, in bed every night, the words:
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
Bless the bed that I lay on, Ever this night be at my side, To light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.
‘I had a friend once called Mark,’ she said dreamily, ‘and one called Luke. And lots called John, or so they said. No Matthews, though. They all promised to take care of me, but they were all pretty rude in the end, all of them.’
I hastened away, to let her sleep, and wake in the arms of the Lord. It has been a most happy birthday.
Stiffkey 20 July 1930
Church attendance low this morning, fifty-five in all, but my sermon well received. Inspired by Mr Charles Sheldon’s fascinating book, Our Exemplar (1898), I took the simple proposition, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ and enjoined the congregation, each and every one, to act on it in their daily lives.
Tired of modern sermons that offer mere exegeses of Bible texts, or dilate on abstractions (I have seldom heard a sermon on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity that conveyed any sense of their being more than a family vaudeville act – a conjuror impersonating simultaneously the Father, the Son and the Ghostly Dove), the congregation was gratifyingly, audibly, startled by my bold innovation.
Asking them to make a habit of rethinking their daily actions in the light of Christ’s teachings is, if I may immodestly call it so, a masterstroke. It sends them back to the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, searching for clues to correct behaviour. I smile to imagine Mrs Redwood, say, and her charming daughters perusing the Gospel of St John the Beloved in the same spirit that sends my young metropolitan friends, Madge and Agnes, to the advice pages of Peg’s Paper and Women’s Illustrated for counsel about the correct deployment of a hatpin in the fashionable bonnet.
How would it be if every question about modern life could be answered in relation to the teachings of Jesus? If every mystification were clarified by reference to what Jesus said and did, his actions and sermons, his attitude to the woman caught in adultery, the moneylenders in the Temple, the thieves on the Cross … The mind reels at the prospect.
Some of them slunk away from the porch without catching my eye, and headed home as if I had been trying to enlist them in some branch of the armed forces. The majority, Lord be thanked, crowded round me to ask how they might begin this wondrous, emulatory adventure. ‘I have seldom felt more inspired, Rector,’ said Mrs Russ, ‘and I want to start right away. But apart from cooking lunch for Mr Russ and his sister, my day holds little prospect of moral drama. So how exactly …?’
‘My dear Margaret.’ I smiled at her willingness to enter the fray of the Church Militant while roasting parsnips. ‘I do not mean you must seek out occasions of Christlike activity while performing everyday chores. It is only in time that you will discover the moral crossroads which will make demands on your conscience. And only in your own conscience that you will find the answer to the question I have adumbrated today.’
‘But what kind of thing will it be, Rector?’ she asked. ‘I mean, where will the question … turn up?’
Sometimes I feel a Sunday-school teacher in the local mixed-infants class would be of more use than I, when dealing with Mrs Russ.
‘Well – imagine a starving beggar came to your front door, looking for, say, cold cuts of meat, or a drink of buttermilk, or a bed for the night. Will you turn him away, or will you say, “Enter, poor misfortunate traveller, and eat with me, and drink with me, and sleep with me, if that is what your wretched condition requires …”?’
Mrs Russ pursed her mouth into an unbecoming moue.
‘… Or if a young woman, recently abandoned by her family, should meet you in the street and say, “I’m cold and lonely and pregnant, and need to be taken in and found a doctor,” will you ask yourself –’
But Mrs Russ’s look of benign imbecility had changed to one of outrage.
‘Indeed. Good day to you, Rector.’
Fortunately, my other parishioners were more relaxed about applying my radical tenet to their lives. I spent a happy forty-five minutes discussing the practical applications of my plan. I asked them to give me, in a week’s time, tales of how they put into practice what I preached.
The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, was the major. He has sat and brooded in the front pew, these last few weeks, like a wounded old soldier – which of course is what he is, having served his country in the Boer War. He bears the legacy of that elderly conflict in the extraordinary succession of physical jerks and twitches he displays, both at rest on the wooden seat (he rarely kneels to pray) and before the altar. I have allowed him, for a whole year now, the luxury of reading the lesson, in his sonorous militiaman tones. But there is, I fear, evidence these last weeks that he is in the grip of some mental convulsion. Not just in the bizarre spasms of arms and elbows with which he punctuates his readings, but in his odd vocal technique.
In today’s lesson, for example, a beautiful passage from the Book of Proverbs, the major swayed before the lectern like a rating before a force-niner, and intoned the words: ‘There be three things which are too wonderful to me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.’
A simple enough text, yet the major, a man lately too preoccupied with his local ambitions, and too enthralled by the lure of his wine cellar, delivered these lines in a roaring theatrical style. To evoke the eagle, his voice rose to a high falsetto, swooping down to the serpent in a low, basso profundity; then the ship – he drew himself up to a high Admiralty bellow, as if he had spent years of barnacled hardship before the mast, rather than bullying his men out of their trenches and into the firing line; before finally mangling the climactic revelation of ‘the way of a man with a maid’ (what a charming wistfulness lies in that circumlocutory ‘the way of …#x2019;) in a disgusted mutter, completely spoiling the beauty of the image. I love that passage – in which the thought of making love to a woman is ‘too wonderful’ to be borne, like the prospect of flying. Such an eloquent rapture from the beating heart of the celibate! And the words were thrown away by a broken-veined, harrumphing, venal boor of a military charlatan. I stood watching him read, and my heart darkened. I felt a wave of anger. I could have struck him!
Forgive me, Jesus, for what I have said. I have given way to thoughts of violence on thy Sabbath. But he infuriates me so. I shall not allow him to desecrate future services in St John’s. I shall confront the major, no matter what the cost.
Letter from Miss Joan Tewkesbury, Proprietor, Lyons Corner House, The Strand, to Mrs Elvira Samuel, Head of Personnel, Lyons Ltd
30 July 1930
Dear Mrs Samuel,
I have had ocasion to write to you before on the matter of the underseribales who to offen frekwent the premisses of our Corner Houses. You have always been kind enoght to advise me as to the correck proceedor and I want your help regarding one spechial case.
He is not your ushal rodwy. He is not a drunk nor a tramp, in fact he come on like a perfeck gent, he does not try and nick anything, he is not one to start a sing song in his cupps, fact is he dont drink annything but tea, he is not one of the yellers or screemers after the pubs shut. And that is the truble. Nothing he dose is ever bad enoufh to mean we got to call the constabbulary. But I feer he is a bad influence on the young wimmin we employ.
He comes by every other night, 9pm reglar as clockwork, he comes sidling in wearing the same gastly long coat, he orders tea and a bun. He sits in the same place, table 5, hes always there fiddling in his pokets and scriblign things down in his horible purpel writing, looking arond him, talkign to peeple on the tables rite and left, chat chat, natter natter, how are you wot splendid wether were having, like evryones his pal. And then it happens. A yong Nippy – take Sandra, only come on the staff last month he clocks she’s a new girl and calls her over. As you knoe, we try and teach new girls, be frendly to the customers, you taut me that yourself when I started Mrs Samuel, but inside five seckons, he starts on em. ‘O hello, my, youre beoutiful, my word youre the dead spit of Binnie Hale, she’s lovely like you, you should be on stage sumwhere. What lovly hair etcetera. Do you like Noel Coward, O shurely youve seen his work, a classy girl like you. Ive met him menny times, only the other nigth I was out with him and CB Cockrain, surely you must know the great impressario. You must be a singer, far too good to be working in a clapped out teashop like this, the bloody nerve of it, clapped out indeed, anyway he says, would you care to ackompany me to a play in the West End on Teusday, it will be my pleshure.
I tell the Nippiess, first rule of waitressing, be friendly but dont get involved with male customers. Theyre lonly men, or they wodnt be in here at 9 o clock of a Saturday night loking for sympathy. If they was respectable, theyd be at home with there wives and sproggs. But some of these girls, they gets taken in so cruel like they think, O blimey, a real show, the Qwality go and see them, maybe if I go then I’ll be qwality too, poor delooded saps. And next thing you know, theyve had the big nigth out and theyre all diffrent in the morning, tired and droopy and wistful, you cant make them do any washing up for starters and theyre offhand with the customers, they drop plates and canot reckoin bills and go off for a weep in the Toilets. Then the bliter comes in two days later and treets them like old mates, hell stand with an arm round em, talking and talking and skweezing their waste, need, need like its a wodge of doe, and theyre eyes ull shine all angelic like they seen a vishion but before you know it theyll be in the Ladies agen having another big weepin seshon. I know that within a week theyll be gone and I dont know where but it aint to anywhere thats good for them.
Ive said to him, now look here, Ive lost six or seven good girls, nice girls who was happy at there work before you started in on them, so Id be obliged if you take your custom elsewhere. Well thats no good because he just starts puffin on his big old cigar and qwoting the Bibel at me and giving out about the fall of man and such like until Im reddy to screem and brane him with a spatuler.
So what am I to do Mrs Samuel? I cant call in the law becoss he aint done nothing wrong. Can I tell him to buger off and bar him like from a pub when he comes back? Pleese advise. We cant go on like this. Sandras just come back from the ladies (for the third time) and handed in her notice. She says she wants to be in modern dramer for which she has a Magicall Talent. Her exack words, the birdbrain.
Yours in dessperation,
Joan Tewkesbury (Mrs)
Journals of Harold Davidson
London 6 August 1930
I have met the most extraordinary young girl. In my long experience of dealing with the fallen, she stands out (already) as a case that will require all my ingenuity and moral strength to bring into the Fold.
I met her at lunchtime outside the travel-luggage shop beside Marble Arch. I was standing, becalmed in thought, wondering if a turn in Hyde Park might be productive, when she passed by my side. She was an attractive young thing, by no means yet grown to womanhood but sturdy and strong, with rich ropes of curly brown hair, always an index of health in a young girl, and strong (if shockingly discoloured) teeth, disclosed in a charming smile as she walked past, perhaps amused to see a gentleman (I wore no dog collar that day) standing still in the bustle of Oxford Street, apparently lost in the blinding sunlight.
I caught and held her glance of appraisal – her eyes were enormous dark marbles, full of intelligence – but could not quite read her expression.
Summoning up all my Christian charisma, I gained her side in an instant and said, ‘Can I possibly be the first, my dear, to remark on your extraordinary resemblance to the American actress Mary Bryan?’
She scrutinised me coolly.
‘Well, that’s a new one,’ she said. ‘I get Miriam Hopkins sometimes, I get Esther Ralston from the really blind boys, but never Mary Bryan before.’
‘I assure you, the resemblance is uncanny. You could be sisters.’
‘Go on, you old charmer. You say that to all the girls, don’cha?’
‘Well,’ I conceded, ‘only the exceptionally pretty ones.’
‘How long you been standing there in your big coat,’ she asked. ‘Poor old duck, you look like you’re going to melt.’
‘I am a little warm. Do you happen to know where one can find a water ice? I am enfeebled with dehydration. I fear I may soon expire in this parching heat.’
‘Come with me this instant,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to ’ave your death on my hands.’ She linked my arm in a forthright manner, as impetuous modern girls will, and led me up Edgware Road, as if we were adventuring friends. ‘I’m saving your life,’ she said, looking at me as though I were some sort of domesticated pet. ‘You and me’re going for a little stroll and I’ll find you a cool billet out of the sun’s rays, and you’ll buy us both a lovely ice-cream sundae. OK with you?’ I could hardly refuse this comely girl’s kind offer, couched though it was in the tones of a young gold-digger looking for a victim. But we conversed amiably enough en route to the Alhambra tea rooms.
‘Nice,’ she said, looking around her, unbuttoning her linen jacket. Beneath it she wore a white cotton blouse with charming blue, heart-shaped buttons. It was evidently a garment purchased some time ago. The buttons, when she leaned forward, strained against her newly maturing figure. A heady whiff of scent enfumed the café air.
I summoned the waitress, a bored-looking slattern in an unflattering ochre tunic. ‘Bring me a long glass of iced tea, my dear, as deliciously cold as your facilities will allow. And for my young guest’ – I waved my hand in choose-anything-you-like largesse – ‘perhaps an ice-cream sundae …’
‘Nah,’ she said, suddenly businesslike. ‘You got any lamb chops? I’m starving. Two, no, make it three lamb chops, and spuds and some veg, and plenty of gravy if you don’t mind. Bread and butter on the side. And a glass of milk, no, make that a beer, you need something more thirst-quenching in this blinking heat, don’t you?’
‘That all?’ said the waitress, scribbling with a stub of HB pencil. ‘Don’t fancy a few dumplings an’ lardy cake as well, do you?’ Her tone was indefinably hostile. Perhaps she wasn’t used to receiving such commands from a customer young enough to be her granddaughter.
‘If anything else takes my fancy,’ said my new friend coolly, ‘I’ll be sure to let you know.’
The waitress raised her eyes heavenwards and left.
‘This place,’ said the girl, ‘used to be all right. They’d let you come in an’ have a little sit-down with tea and a penny bun for an hour, when you was tired. Now they fire you out of here if you’re not spending a whole quid.’ She shook her head – such nostalgia from a mere child of –
‘How old are you, exactly, my dear?’
Her upper lip curled. ‘I’m old enough,’ she said. ‘I’m sixteen.’
‘And what is it that brings you strolling in Oxford Street in your best frock at two o’clock in the afternoon?’ I asked, as neutrally as possible.
She picked up the à la carte menu, a redundant gesture since her sizeable repast had already been ordered. ‘Same as you, I expect. Looking for a bit of company to while the hours away.’
‘Mmmm,’ I said, unsure of my ground. It was inconceivable that this lively, shining-eyed young woman could be a professional sinner. Yet she had clearly outgrown any institutions of learning. The confidence of her bearing suggested employment at some thriving business. Had I learned that she presided over a superior hat shop in Bond Street, I would not have been surprised.
‘What kind of company do you seek out in your lunch hour?’ I asked. ‘Have you a passion for the conversation of strangers?’
She sat back and made a lattice of her fingers. Blue nail polish made lapis lazuli jewels of their extremities. ‘I can talk to anyone,’ she said, with a hint of pride. ‘I’m very … flexible. My old dad used to say it’s the most underrated virtue, flexibility.’
‘Indeed so. I admire your father’s wise counsel. “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, / Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch …”’
‘Kipling,’ I said. ‘Surely a well-educated lady like you must know “If”?’
‘Oh yeah. Course. A bloke asked me about him one day in the park. “Do you like Kipling?” he says. “I dunno,” I says right back. “I don’t believe I ever Kippled.”’ She laughed. ‘I didn’t make it up, though. I got it off a seaside postcard down Southend.’
The waitress returned, sulkily, with the food and drink. My cold beverage was a far cry from the Long Island Iced Tea I have enjoyed on occasion at the Savoy. Tea, undoubtedly. Cold, up to a point. An enterprising soul in the kitchen had added two spoonfuls of sugar, as if for a workman, and a slice of lemon floated like a shipwreck victim in its caramel depths.
When I looked up, two of the three lamb chops had been stripped to the bone and the girl was wolfing down mashed potato in sweeping forkfuls.
‘You seem to be enjoying that,’ I said indulgently. ‘God bless your appetite.’ I forbore to confide that I always found a hearty appetite an attractive trait in a young woman. A hunger to devour … strange that it should make the gentle sex more appealing than alarming.
Three minutes of silence passed. I have seen stevedores at Tilbury Docks, onshore after months at sea, demolish their meagre ration of Cornish pasty and greens with more decorum. I watched as a hunk of crusty bread was ushered back and forth through the lees of gravy and the detritus of lamb fibre and popped between her fleshy, pouted lips.
‘I trust it was to your liking,’ I said. ‘Can I interest you in pudding?’
She wiped her greasy mouth with a paper napkin and, still masticating the last of her lunch, delivered herself of this remarkable speech.
‘For afters, I have it in mind that we could get better acquainted. I got a room only a cab ride away in Camden Town. Ten minutes from now, you can come up the stairs behind me, looking at my fleshy arse in my tight skirt, and when we get to my room you can lift it up and look at my black stockings and these really nice white knickers I got on today, with little teeny pink roses on the front, and you can undo these blue heart buttons on my chest that you been staring at for the past half an hour and suck my big tits, only not too hard ’cause they’re real sensitive, and you can lay me down on the divan in my sunny blue room and fuck me hard as you like until you’re done. It’s two quid for an hour, ’cause after that I’ll have to kick you out. And if you’re real sweet beforehand and bung me ten bob extra, I could give you a chew before we get down to business, only I don’t take it down the throat because I’m a nice girl, and anyway you really want to finish up buried to the bollocks in my furry quim, don’t you, that’s what you gentlemen want, isn’t that right?’
Well, well. A harlot, after all. In ten years of dealing with ladies of the night, I have met the gamut – every age, every colour, every disposition, every temperament (even every class!) and I am no longer shocked to discover the base occupation of seemingly decent girls. But in this case I felt a distinct disappointment. My initial suspicion, that she was a lady of uncertain moral direction, was proved correct. But the suspicion had been eclipsed by a growing appreciation of her strength of character, her forthrightness. It is easy to grow close to prostitutes as friends, to feel fond of them as substitute children who have strayed from the Path. One never, however, feels admiration. Knowing the moral dereliction that is their daily choice precludes any possibility of such private approbation. Yet I had begun to admire this young woman, in our brief acquaintance – and to feel that, because I admired her, she could not be one of the sisterhood.
‘What is your name?’ I asked, a little sadly.
‘They call me lots of things round ’ere,’ she said. ‘But you can call me Barbara.’ She stretched out a hand. ‘Barbara Harris.’ Her cotton sleeve trailed across the table, soaking up tea spill and gravy puddle. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘Barbara,’ I said sternly, ‘as you can see, or should be able to surmise, I am not a man given to dallying with ladies of the street –’
‘All I can see,’ she retorted, ‘is, you’re a man, no different from any other, for all your long words.’
‘– and I wish only to befriend you. I would not dream of honouring your outrageous suggestion.’
Barbara took a swig from her beer glass. ‘You familiar with the music hall?’
‘Indeed I am,’ I said. ‘I used to perform on the public stage in my youth.’
‘You sound like one of them burlesque routines. D’you know the one I mean? The bloke’s tellin’ his pals – “She offered her honour. I honoured her offer. And all night long, I was on’er and off’ er.” D’you get it?’ She chuckled, a noise like perfumed bathwater escaping. ‘That’s all you really want, isn’t it?’
The grim waitress was back. ‘We’re closing,’ she said. ‘You want anything else?’
‘We’re just leaving,’ said Barbara, looking round for her jacket. Her self-assurance startled me. I could see in the fish-eyed glance of the slattern, how we must have looked. One well-fed lady of business and one middle-aged client, about to depart to consummate their lunch transaction. Her face was a mask of contempt.
‘Lamb chops three-an’-nine, veg platter sixpence, beer and tea one-aner and tea one-an’-six, that’s five-an’-ninepence, ta,’ said the waitress. ‘Sure I can’t get you anythin’ more?’ She rolled her eyes to heaven.
I paid the bill. Outside, the Edgware Road was bathed in strong sunlight. Motor cars puttered by with frightening celerity, myriad walkers bustled past, a man pathetically encased in a ‘sandwich board’ announced a sale of haberdashery at Selfridges, as we stood awkwardly on the pavement.
‘Well?’ she said.
‘Miss Harris,’ I announced, as plainly as I could, ‘I am sorry our first meeting has ended in this awkward fashion. I would enjoy making your acquaintance, but in a less, ah, businesslike context. I would like, if you allow me, to take you under my wing and find you a more congenial occupation than your current one.’
‘Oh yes?’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘So you want to be my pal. And what would be the point of that? What would be in it for you?’
‘I see in you a young woman who deserves a better life than you currently inhabit. A girl whose impulses towards decency have been fatally compromised by circumstance.’
‘What are you, some kind of sky pilot?’
‘I will tell you in due course. All you need know for now is that I wish you well, and will endeavour to improve your lot. I shall not accompany you home but, if you give me your address, I will call on you during the week to discuss your future.’
‘Number 14, Queen Street, Camden,’ she said. ‘Ground-floor flat. There’s lots of bells. Call any time. It’s pretty rare for me to entertain gentlemen callers after midnight, but you never know your luck.’
‘My luck?’ Once again, I was shocked almost beyond words. ‘I hope you do not imagine for one second that I –’
‘And while I’m partial to a little discussion, no praying, all right? Any suggestion we kneel down together, an’ I’ll kick you out. Got that?’ She smiled. ‘You can ’ave me kneel down in front of you, but that’s your lot.’
Mystified by her meaning, I made to search in my Stationery Pocket for pen and notebook, with which to inscribe her address. But the press of passers-by was so busy – and their looks so disapproving – that I stayed my hand. Anyone seeing this vivid strumpet by my side could only have their suspicions confirmed, were I to be seen taking down her address in the street. I committed it to memory, and we shook hands. A passing motor cab rattled dangerously close to the pavement, and I ushered her aside with a touch of my hand on her waist – a simple, Samaritan gesture that she greeted with a laugh, as though I were guiding her into a dance. Her lace-gloved hand came lightly down on my shoulder.
‘What you tryin’ to do?’ she asked. ‘Sweep me off my feet?’
‘I was merely trying to protect you from –’
‘OI, CAB!’ she cried, in the tone of a fishwife. The vehicle stopped dead, five yards away. ‘Got to go. Bye now,’ she said, looking at me with curiosity. ‘I get the feeling we’ll meet again soon, one way or the other.’
By the time I had divined her meaning, she had gathered her skirts into the motor cab and was gone.
London 9 August 1930
THINGS TO DO:
1. Visit Arthur Trench, Holborn, about Ladies’ Academy, ask re Esther and Matilda as poss. vocational students?
2. Boots pharmacy: talcum powder for Madge P, bunion cream for Sally A, sal volatile for Joanna D, deodorant for Bridget C.
3. Runaway Boys’ Retreat – talk to Eddie and Howard re funding.
4. Previews of Coward’s Private Lives at the Phoenix start soon. Cheap tickets on sale, Friday a.m.
5. Call on Emily M, Café Royal. Lunch at Bradley’s?
6. Sermon: Galatians 5:22 – ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance …’
7. Lady Fenella R-Smith. Time for action re her rich Africa friends?
8. Somerset House for records of Lily Beane’s parents?
9. Sandra (Lyons C House) – speak to Marina re possible stage work?
10. Barbara Harris. 14 Queen Street, Camden.
Stiffkey 10 August 1930
Summer has filled the meadows with vivid primary colours, bright yellow oilseed rape, light green corn waving in abundance, red poinsettias blooming early, heady smell of jasmine. It is blissful to be out in the fresh air. Rose early and drove bike v fast to Sheringham in high spirits. Made 65mph around Weybourne. How speed invigorates a mind stupefied by London.
I have been looking at motor-bicycle catalogues, gazing with frank covetousness at the Brough Superior SS100, a wonderful machine with elegantly serpentine exhaust pipes curling sinuously all its length and doubling back. Its headlamps are a joy to behold. It is the Rolls-Royce of motorbikes. It is also £170, which I cannot afford. I shall go on riding my beloved 500cc Ariel Squarefour until something turns up!
Sermon well received. ‘Nice to find you in such a jolly, positive frame of mind,’ said Briony Jones. ‘It must be the weather.’
Mrs Willoughby hung back after 11 a.m. service to say how pleased she is to put into practice my ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ advice. When approached last Thursday by young pedlar from Gt Yarmouth on doorstep, selling dusters, tea cloths, kitchen paraphernalia, instead of sending him about his business with flea in ear, she invited him into kitchen, fed him tea and scones and enquired about his life. Discovered that he was student of philosophy, trying to raise enough cash to fund college studies for new term at Oxford. She bought frankly ill-advised number of clothes pegs, gave him £10 and kissed him goodbye on Welcome mat. Unfortunately, seen by troublesome neighbour, and soon her largesse was talk of village. Had he been a plausible crook, not Oxford chap at all? Husband not impressed, particularly by loss of £10, supposed to be put towards summer vacation to Hunstanton.
What could I say? Assured her she was on right track re spiritual impulses. 4.53 p.m., received telephone call from Emily Murray, in tearful state. Job at Café R not working out. ‘Horrible, horrible’ working conditions was all she would impart. Must visit her, get back on straight and narrow. Perhaps Friday? All she needs is a little fortitude.
London 15 August 1930
In Regent Street, looked in at the Café Royal to see what has become of Emily; she did not last long in the kitchens. I should have predicted this. I never liked the maître d’ here, a stern-faced bully who today looked at me with cold, jellied-eel eyes when I stated my business, listened with infinite ennui as I enquired after the poor girl, as though it could be no interest to him, then dismissed me with the words, ‘If there are no other relevant questions, I’m afraid you must excuse me.’ Relevant? As if the whereabouts of a suddenly penniless girl in London are of no moment when weighed against the vital importance of feeding Sir Ambrose This and Lord Benjamin That.
Asked in the kitchens, when MD’s back turned. Head shakes all round. No, we don’t know where she’s gone. She left on Wednesday, there were raised voices in the Hot Beverages area, a flung teapot, tears and shouts, a dented silver sugar bowl and a slammed door. No payment, sadly, because she was taken on as probationary. No forwarding address. I am aghast at the level of neglect in this once respectable establishment.
I decided to call on her, at her shared rooms in Maddox Street, where I saw her so recently – my birthday! – with Nellie Churchill.
Found Emily gone and Miss Churchill abed with fever.
‘Oh, it’s you, Reverend,’ she said. ‘I’m not well. Caught a chill from hanging about Vauxhall Gardens, and it went straight to my lungs. If it weren’t for the neighbours upstairs, I don’t know what I’da done.’ She coughed violently.
‘Where is Emily?’
‘Emily? She’s gone. Somewhere up on the north side, she said she was headed. Maybe to her sister Flo, who’s got a little place she rents, I think it’s in one of those Guinness Estate blocks.’
‘Why is she no longer here?’ I had to fight internally, to keep dislike and suspicion of this human icicle out of my voice.
‘Why’d you think?,’ said Nellie with a sneer. ‘She wasn’t enjoying it. They were nasty to her at the café, like I told her they would be, she done a bunk, came back here crying about having no future, and next thing I know, she’s gone.’
‘Would it be the case,’ I asked, ‘that you sent her away by crowing, in your unpleasant way, over her inability to keep a legitimate job? Would that be it? I can hear it in your voice. I can imagine how you would have jeered at her, and told her of her folly in – Oh!’
I startled myself with a horrible thought.
‘Oh what?’ asked Nellie, coolly.
‘She has not gone back to a life on the street, has she, Nellie?’ I was becoming very severe, and she knew it. ‘Tell me that she has not returned to the embrace of prostitution, spurred on by your jeers and scorn?’
‘No she ain’t,’ said Nellie, with a flounce. ‘Whatever’s happened to her, it’s not my fault. If it’s anyone’s it’s yours.’
‘Mine?’ I almost shouted. ‘How can it be my fault? All my energies are spent in saving girls like Emily from vicious ways.’
‘If you wanna see vicious ways, Reverend,’ said Nellie grimly, ‘you shoulda seen the way they treated her in the sinkroom at the Café. She was miserable as sin. She tried to come the kid, doing all that little-girly wide-eyed routine, and it went down bad, Rector. It might work with a gentleman client, but not with the bitch skivvies. Someone must’ve blabbed about her past, for they started calling her Skittles, after that royal mistress, and the boys would slip their hands round her waist and fiddle with her chest as she stood with her arms in the sink, and instead of giving them a sound wallop, she’d just weep, which made them worse. So it wasn’t much of a favour what you done her.’
‘It was work, Nellie, honest work for an honest wage. Better by far than taking money for intimate liaisons forbidden by the state and by God.’
‘If I remember,’ replied the foolish girl, ‘the only intimate liaison that’s forbidden in the Commandments is adultery. Everything else that’s forbidden was added on afterwards by people like you. No screwing, no kissing, no dressing nice for gentlemen, it all came under the heading of adultery, didn’t it? It doesn’t make sense.’
‘Nellie, you are a simpleton when it comes to scripture. I fear the delirium of fever may have rendered you more argumentative than you might wish.’
She seemed chastened. ‘You got anything for a bloody horrible cough? It keeps me awake all night.’
‘You must visit the physician in Glasshouse Street,’ I said. ‘He is called Dr Ledger and will help you. For your present needs, however, if you tell me where Emily has gone and where I can find her, I may have something here …’
I delved in my Pharmacy Pocket and from a mass of ampoules, pill packets and ointment tins extracted a tiny phial of tinct. Laudanum.
‘Boil a kettle, Miss Churchill, dissolve this in five parts water, and sip the result over thirty minutes. You will find it promotes refreshing sleep and interesting, sometimes inspiring, dreams.’
She looked pleased. ‘Well, thanks, Reverend. Good luck finding Emmy, if you can. And all right then, it’s true we had words and I regret what I said, about her being a hopeless tart and then a hopeless washer-upper, that was a bit mean and I didn’t expect her to flounce out, but Christ, she’s so stupid sometimes. Anyway, she’s somewhere in Islington or Highbury, I got an address somewhere, could hardly read her writing, something like Herbert Street, number 140 or 142. She said she’d be staying with friends of her sister Flo, and beyond that I don’t know nothing, OK? And now I’m a bit tired and I think you should go.’
‘Does this Florence work?’ I asked, cautiously, ambiguously. When asking pros about other pros, one has to be wary of giving offence. That word ‘work’ is itself capable of a dozen interpretations.
‘She’s a chanteuse in a Palace of Varieties,’ said Nellie, closing her eyes. ‘It’s not what you’re thinking, either. She makes proper money from her voice, and she’s given up the other, I mean the alternative employment.’
‘That is most encouraging,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you might yourself benefit from her example.’
‘I just don’t care, to tell you the truth, Harold,’ said Nellie. ‘I really couldn’t care less about anything any more.’
I left her to her thoughtless life and her laudanum dreams. My thoughts were for poor Emily, ensconced in squalid surroundings in north London, her apartment abandoned, her job aborted, her morale dismally low, her soft animals unlooked-after, her flatmate comatose with narcotics. How has it come to this, when all was so promising, barely a month ago?
Should I write a stern letter to the Café Royal, demanding to learn the details of her foreshortened employment? Should I have shaken Nellie, and told her to go and find her former pal and fetch her back? Should I give the whole thing up as a failure? But then I applied to myself the words, ‘What would Jesus do?’ and my course was clear. I will set out to find Emily Murray, and bring her safely home.
Letter from Mrs Moyra Davidson
Stiffkey Rectory 15 August 1930
My dearest Oona,
Sometimes I think I’m going off my head here. I spent the morning searching for a screwdriver, because the lock on the bathroom door is half off and Mrs Maitland is coming to tea today to discuss the Home Management classes and there is nobody in the world more dainty than Mrs M when she puts a mind to it. I simply cannot have her sitting in there terrified someone’s going to come in and catch her with her best bloomers round her ankles. I asked the colonel if he’d perchance have an implement of that nature in his box of tricks, and he said, ‘My dear Mimi, you will recall I arrived here one day with a suitcase and two boys, and one day I will depart with a suitcase and, God willing, the same two boys, but at no time did I ever acquire a toolbox, I would be a strange house guest if I were to begin kitting myself out with a saw, a chisel and a set of nails, for you might reasonably wonder what could possibly be my intentions.’ (This is the way he goes on.) I asked Nugent, who was writing letters in the parlour, to run down to the shop and find me a screwdriver, so I may reattach the lock on the bathroom door, and he did as I asked after only, ooh, an hour or two because he’s writing to apply for a job in the Civil Service, very swagger I’m sure, he has the confidence of the devil, but then sure he’s only just out of the college and why wouldn’t he be bursting with energy and ambition after being pumped with learning for three whole years like a Strasbourg goose? I wish young Sheilagh would find proper employment for a young intelligent girl instead of (rainy days) floating round the house all day reading books or (fine days) riding Joshua Judges at point-to-point meetings in Holt and Wells. I keep urging her to go into nursing like her mother did, but she wrinkles her nose and tosses her hair and complains about having to manhandle the sick and dying all day, that she’d rather hang on for something on the stage. She’s had her hair ringletted like Helen Twelvetrees, that actress in the films who’s always weeping, but I can’t really see my darling S as an actress, she’s too earnest, she doesn’t have a fluent technique. I tell her nursing is a fine career for a girl looking to make a difference in the world, but she says well, why, in that case, Mother dear, did you yourself abandon nursing to go on the stage? And I haven’t an answer for that, except to say I was following a dream buried deep within me.
Anyway, Nugent came back after God knows how long and reported that he couldn’t find a hammer to buy anywhere, I could have boxed his ears, it was a screwdriver I wanted.
I’m tired of this stupid story. What’s really bothering me is the major. Did I tell you about the galloping Major Hammond? He was one of the nouveau grandees who came along twenty years back, when the land around these parts was sold at auction by the Townshends who used to own it and a yelping battalion of new squireens moved into the neighbourhood, ex-army types who fancied themselves as landowners because they’d bought the deeds to a few acres for a song. You could hear them in the Townshend Arms telling their mess pals, with their civvy suits and their suburban wives, ‘Oh yairs, I own all the fields around here as far as you can see to yonder copse.’ Jesus, yonder copse forsooth, they wouldn’t know a copse from a hole in the wall, but they give themselves such airs, it makes me sick – me who’s been here since King Edward was on the throne.
Anyway, the good major, ever since he bought the old hall at Morston, he’s been dropping hints left, right and centre about wanting the churchwarden’s job.
My friend Cathy Dineen is on the JP bench at Holkham, hearing cases of trespass and poaching and aggravated affray at Cromer on bank holiday weekends. She cannot stand the way the major runs the bench and tells everyone how to think. Take poor young Edward Fenny, a simple-minded lad who’s been caught fecking ripe pears from the orchard beside Blakeney Church, and selling them by the side of the road. Not a trace of compassion for the poor lad will you find in the major. ‘Speaking as the local magistrate,’ he says, making it sound like it’s Speaking As Your Commanding Officer, ‘I feel we must apply the full force of the law to this unwashed miscreant. There can be no pleas in mitigation. We must press for a conviction.’
Cathy says, ‘Just a minute, Your Honour,’ and he won’t even look at her, like he’s heard some tiny sound in the courtroom but he can’t identify where it’s coming from. ‘All that’s been stolen here are a few dozen piece of ripe fruit that nobody’s breaking their necks to pick off the trees, and nobody’s livelihood is threatened by a bit of schoolboy scrumping. Why are we discussing this, and conspiring to send to jail a young simpleton who is only trying to make, what, three or four shillings to buy himself a pair of shoes?’
‘He Is A Thief,’ says the major with that awful slow politician voice he puts on in public, ‘a furtive trespasser on Church lands, a stealer of Church property. Would you, Mrs Dillon, be equally sanguine about his crime if he were to break into the church and abscond with the silver Communion chalice and the gold platter? Would you find that no matter for judicial inquiry? I rest my case.’
Well, it’s Mrs Dineen, as a matter of fact, not Dillon, and it’s not a chalice either, it’s called a ciborium, you dish out the communion wafers from it, and the plate for the breaking of bread, that’s a paten for God’s sake – platter indeed, he’s spent too much time in roadside hostelries being asked if he’d like the seafood platter, if they can interrupt his drinking, you know he drinks like a bloody fish. Poor Cathy, she’s sitting there like a fish herself, opening and closing her gob with amazement that anyone could be so unfair, but she says, nonetheless, ‘The pears are not holy objects. The fruit on the trees are not consecrated to God. Simony is not the issue here. Young Edward Fenny may have stolen the fruit, but it would have rotted on the branch. Rather than send him to rot in prison like one of the pears, we should applaud his enterprising spirit and encourage him to direct it into more legal and lucrative arenas.’
It was no good. The major directed the bench to find him guilty of theft and he was sentenced to three months banging metal panels in Norwich Prison. But while giving his summing-up, the major made a point of saying the purloining of property from Church premises must be discouraged in the parishes and he himself was the man to do it. Listen to him: ‘We need a tighter deployment of manpower to ensure no recrudescence of such casual felonies. If the church warden at Blakeney were doing his job, this unfortunate youth would not now be losing his liberty. The work of a churchwarden must not be undertaken lightly. I shall be looking into the current arrangements in all the outlying parishes of north Norfolk, and recommending changes.’ Which was pretty well saying, ‘ME! Me, I’ll be churchwarden around here. Just you try and stop me.’
What Mr Reynolds, our churchwarden these twenty-three years, will make of it, I cannot imagine. He and Mrs R have been our neighbours and best friends as long as we’ve been in the village. Mr Reynolds is a dear, good man, a devout churchgoer and helpful handyman. He is not equipped to fight the likes of the major, with his fearsome eye and the broken veins in his cross old face, and his blustering ambitions and his running the bench like some American lawman.
There will be a fight, mark my words. As I told you, there’s no love lost between him and H and I’m fearful of the outcome. In fact, Oona dear, I think I’ll go round to the Reynoldses right this minute, so had better close. Write and tell me all the news from Dublin. God, I miss the place something awful, these days, I get so lonesome with H away so much. But maybe at least Mr R will have a screwdriver to save Mrs Maitland’s blushes.
Your loving friend,
Journals of Harold Davidson
London 19 August 1930
Set out this morning to find poor Emily. Took the omnibus from Waterloo Station north to Islington Green. Had only sketchy information from Nellie Churchill, whom I left slumbering. I asked many strangers for Herbert Street and was rewarded with directions to all four points of the compass.
New shops are springing up all along Upper Street – furniture and brass appliances, dresses and hats and bolts of silk and cotton, pie and sweetmeat emporia, ironware, stationery, wine and cigars. A gratifying sign of prosperity in these doldrum times. We may not be suffering a Depression as badly as has befallen our friends in the United States, but we are far from enjoying an Elation. A new world of things, though, an outbreak of colours, can be relied upon to raise the spirits. Who would have thought the eye could be so thrilled by the sunlight gleaming on a mass of brand-new copper piping in Balcombe’s Yard, or the heart so lifted by the sight of a paint lorry unloading vats of pigment, their lids leaking creamy half-moons of crimson, yellow and aquamarine?
Speaking of our transatlantic cousins, a potent image of their current state of mind has appeared in the window of the Gilbert Gallery, on Essex Road. It is a new painting called American Gothic by Mr Grant Wood and depicts a poor farmer, presumably from one of the ‘Dustbowl’ states, standing in front of his run-down homestead with his helpmeet by his side. They are clearly a long-married couple but there is something severe and unyielding about the man’s looks – an unappeasable steel in his eyes, a cruelty of aspect symbolised by the pitchfork he holds – that is matched by the indomitable gracelessness of his lady wife. One extends Christian sympathy for their resilience in the face of poverty, yet one also feels sympathy for anyone dependent on their assistance, or indeed their hospitality, for five minutes.
But the title, American Gothic? I know only a Gothic style of church architecture, popularised by Mr Pugin and characterised by spires and spikes, whether on arches, windows, doorways or ceilings. What application can the word have to this portrait, unless to suggest that the Church in America is in the hands of these unsmiling (and incontrovertibly spiky) rustics?
And the Church of England? What arrangement of features, what painted, unsmiling visage would sum up the Church today? Why, surely a portrait of my old friend Cosmo Lang, once the greatest duffer that ever tried to construe Catullus in front of a teacher, more recently famous as the holder of the highest religious seat in the country. In this notional picture, he would be seated on a throne, noble as St Peter, arrogant as Saul and all-conquering as Neptune, fingering the purple satin of his archiepiscopal glory, luxuriating in his triumph, wholly unable to see how the vast majority of his co-religionists live, on the long flat shore between need and comfort.
Cosmo Lang, well, well. I simply cannot understand his elevation to the See of Canterbury, and his pre-eminence over all of us. I am reminded of what F. E. Smith, the Earl of Birkenhead, as a young advocate, said to a judge one day, when he had inadvertently begun to instruct the jury on their duty. ‘What do you suppose, Mr Smith,’ said the judge, ‘I am doing here on this bench?’ ‘It is not for me, Your Honour,’ Smith replied, ‘to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.’ Quite so.
Half a mile down the Essex Road, I found a Herbert Street, but no number 140 or 142. Instead, a dismal terrace of small stucco houses petered out into a ghost estate of shuttered and condemned hovels. I had been directed to the wrong street. Tsk. I uttered a silent prayer for Emily, and set off again. Seven streets later, a friendly publican cashed a cheque for me and, on hearing my enquiry, said there was a Halberd Street not half a mile away. My satisfaction at the news was tempered by the wretched environs through which I passed on the way. The hovels of Herbert Street were like the Taj Mahal, compared to the sights which now met my eyes.
The cramped rows of two-storey brick houses – acres of them, winding into the distance like a hope fading into the future – were bad enough. So were the stinking courtyards I passed, pieces of wasteland randomly flooded with pools of stagnant water and, here and there, the backwash from the sewage. So were the horrid cellars I glimpsed from the pavement as I passed – dreadful, Miltonic catacombs, seen but peripherally, before one’s eye recoiled in horror from the upturned faces below, the dim lights in the gloom of noonday, the white limbs seen through the gratings, the grim sense that perhaps a dozen human souls must live and have their being down in these shabby dungeons. I nearly turned back in despair and headed for the cheerful daylight of Essex Road. But I prayed to St Jude, patron saint of lost causes, to steady my resolve.
The worst was soon upon me. Round the corner of Halberd Street, looming over it like a beetling grey cliff, a huge tenement building, six storeys high, reared up from the pavement. There was no front door in this cliff of masonry – or rather, there were several doors but none that would admit a caller from the street. Instead, the vile construction spread tentacular concrete legs, each entwined by a mass of spiral stairwell, over half an acre of land. Through pillars, archways and walkways, one could catch glimpses of the dwellers in this morale-sapping prison. I went in as far as I could bear, and found a dozen grubby children, no more than three or two years old, playing on the stone stairs, their jerseys streaked with what I hoped was mud, their ears assaulted with the hiss and whine of the gas jets that lit their greasy faces like Caravaggio beggars.
They had no sky to look out upon, no sun or moon to tell them it was day or night, no sight of grass or river, nothing of the outside world to meet their eye, only more concrete roofs and angles, walls and stairs, gas jets and hellish courtyards. Wherever they looked, blankness looked back at them.
I felt a surge of indignation, such as I have seldom experienced, that children should have to live like this. For thirty years, I have campaigned ceaselessly to find homes for homeless boys and girls. But when I look at the homes in which the poorest are expected now to live, I could cordially wish them an early death and a roomy grave. God forgive me, it is not a Christian thought. Give me strength, dear Jesus, as thou wert strong in the garden of Gethsemane when faced with the knowledge of thy imminent suffering and death, although at least thou didst not have to put up with the foul stench that came from the great metal bins ranged along the far-left wall. I took just one step in their direction, then froze to see a score of furry bodies writhing and tumbling over each other in a frenzy to consume some vestigial fragments of pie on a cardboard tray.
I found number 142 on the fourth floor, a vertiginous climb. The door opened the thinnest of cracks. ‘I am looking for Emily Murray,’ I told a single eye, a thin nose and a twisted mouth, through the crack. ‘I am her friend, Mr Davidson. They tell me she has moved here. It is imperative I speak with her.’
‘What’s she done?’ said the twisted mouth.
‘She has done nothing wrong,’ I said. ‘She is not in any trouble. I wish to speak to her and satisfy myself that she is well.’
‘I told you. I am a clergyman. Mr Davidson is my name. Miss Murray is a protégée of mine. I have been directing her steps and finding her work and it is vital –’
‘We don’t need no sermons here,’ said the face, expressionlessly. ‘It’s about the last thing we need.’
‘Will you let me see Miss Murray?’ I practically shouted. The face betrayed no emotion and I could see it was about to close the door for good. I changed tack. ‘Let me in, and I will pay you ten shillings as – as an entrance fee.’
A hand appeared at chest level, or at least some very thin fingers, cupped together in a beggar’s cringe. ‘Let’s have it then,’ said the face.
‘Five now, and five when I have had satisfaction,’ I said.
‘Satis—Well, why didn’t you say that’s what you was after?’ She opened the door and I was admitted into a room perhaps the size of Mrs Parker’s kitchen in Vauxhall. The only light was a dim electric bulb, poking down from the low ceiling. One bed and two mattresses on the floor took up most of the space, although a table and two chairs appeared, half hidden behind the figures. For in the room, apart from myself and the lady doorkeeper, there were five women.
Foolishly, seeing an older lady in their midst, I took them to be a mother and her many daughters, a family in straitened circumstances. But a second look quickly disabused me. The women were of many ages ranging from a barely pubertal thirteen to a prematurely lined two-and-thirty. Their clothes shone with the kind of greasy patina that comes of much hand-wiping and no washing, and a rank odour of overhung lamb and citric perfume pervaded the room. The youngest girl was round-faced and ringletted, and looked up expectantly from her vantage point on one of the mattresses, like a little girl playing with her dog in a Pears soap advertisement; but she was dolled up in skirts and high-heeled shoes, quite unsuitably. The eldest, whom I had momentarily taken for the mother, sat at the table, still as a Maltese madonna, a shawl around her shoulders. Her dark eyes reflected the light from a single half-curtained window, but she would not look in my direction. The thin-faced woman who had opened the door stepped back into the shadows, gripping my five shillings in a fist. On the bed, a dark-haired girl in a dirty green blouse and a Negress in a white lace garment that accentuated her powerful amplitude, lay side by side against a bolster talking with an absorption from which no stranger’s arrival could distract them.
‘What’s he doing here?’ said a voice. ‘What you let him in for?’ and the sixth woman came up beside me. She had a pronounced nose, but a handsome enough face with a generous mouth, which opened to reveal surprisingly fine teeth. Her hair appeared red but may have been dyed with henna in the gypsy style.
‘He’s looking for Emily Murray,’ said the thin-faced one, ‘and then he said he was after satisfaction. So I thought –’ She glanced around the packed and fetid room, as if identifying several places where sexual activity might be conducted in comfort and privacy.
‘No, no, no!’ I said. The stupid girl. I repeated my quest and looked around the room with a sudden wild suspicion. Could one of these defeated slatterns be my dear Emily, whom I saved from the travails of sin at the hands of a procurer in Soho? Could Fate have so changed her features that I now did not recognise her?
‘… and so I am here,’ I concluded. ‘Can you help me?’ I drew closer. ‘Can it be that –’ I faltered – ‘that one of you ladies knows of her whereabouts?’
There was a silence apart from the chatterers on the bed (‘Well, ’e fuckin’ never dunit ter me,’ one was remarking to the other).
‘In fact,’ I asked, ‘is one of you called … Flo?’
‘That’s me,’ said the red-haired termagant. ‘What’s it to you? An’ what’s a protterjay when it’s at home?’
‘But this is marvellous,’ I cried. ‘I am getting somewhere at last. You are a singer in the local Palace of Varieties, I believe?’
‘You what? Girls, did you ’ear that?’ She gazed around the room, taking in her venal sisterhood in a glance. ‘I’m a well-known singer down the Palais according to his lordship here.’
There was raucous laughter. ‘Yeah,’ said one, ‘me too. An’ I always sing much better with me knickers off.’
‘Does your sister come to see you perform?’ I persisted. ‘emily, I mean?’
‘Sister? She’s not my sister. I ain’t got no sister. I know her, she lives here, on and off, but that’s it. She’s not, like, family. Someone’s been telling porky pies, mister.’
‘She lives here?’ I waved a hand that took in the squalor, the smell and the defeatedness that hung in the room like a miserable fog. I meant to imply, ‘How could anyone else fit in here?’ It came out as ‘How could anyone at all live here?’
‘She lives here when there’s room,’ said the thin woman from the shadows. ‘Been turning up and going again for three weeks. Stayed here last weekend when Katrin was off working, but she came back and Em had to go. Any more’n six, and the landlords complain the privy’ll break down and they threaten to boot us all out, even though the rent’s paid regular.’
‘But where would she have gone when there was no room for her?’ I cried.
The thin woman pursed her lips and blew a little puff of air between them. The henna-haired one, Flo, said, ‘Where’d you think? She went on the street. Probably met a fancy gent with one of them new Bentleys, who took her back to his place and fed her sherry and cake and tucked her up nice with a little story.’
The others laughed again. Flo seemed to be the humorist in this sorry sorority.
‘And if she met no fancy gent?’ I asked with some asperity. ‘What would have befallen her?’
The thin woman puffed her cheeks out again. ‘She’ll take her chances. We all take our chances.’ She raised her fist and jingled the five shillings within. ‘You going now? Some of us have to get on. If she calls, we’ll say you was asking for her.’
I could not wait to depart from that Calcuttan hole. ‘Please take this note and make sure she receives it,’ I said, writing my address and the Vauxhall telephone number. ‘It is vitally important that I speak with her soon. Here is five shillings more for you – and there will be a substantial cash reward if you bring us together. Do you understand?’
‘Oh, we understand, sir,’ laughed Flo, the non-chanteuse. ‘You can be sure you’ll ’ear from us the minute she comes back from Park Lane.’
I hurried away. The smell of decay, of month-worn bloomers and stale semen, of leaking gas and bletted fruit, of lies and tidal sewage, of traded flesh and cascading rubbish bins, of twining and scrambling and greed-frenzied rats, seemed to stick to me as if it would hang around me and cling to my coat for ever. I strode through Islington like a swimmer coming up from the depths, rising up gasping, lung-burstingly, towards the light.
Letter from Mrs Moyra Davidson Stiffkey Rectory 19 August 1930
My dear Oona,
Lovely to get your letter with all your exciting news. I am so glad Finbar’s violin lessons have paid off, it is a marvellous thing to be able to fill the house with music, I mean real music played on instruments, not just having the radio on all the time like Sheilagh and Nugent. I thought all this flapper nonsense was over and done with, but not at all. Here I am in the rectory study, trying to collect my poor thoughts and in the next room the wireless is playing Jack Hylton and his Orchestra and he’s singing ‘If I Had a Talking Picture of You’. Such nonsense. I get distracted by thinking, well, if I did have a talking picture of H, it’d be a step up from what I have now, which is a silent picture of him in the living room, a framed photograph of him sitting in a chair holding one of his big cigars and looking – well, rather more crafty than sacred, truth to tell, and sometimes when it gets too quiet around here, I wish I could make it talk to me. I’ve got used to not seeing him all week, I mean, literally all week except for Sundays. Sometimes I feel lucky if he turns up for the Sabbath itself. Sometimes it’s so late on Saturday night, I can’t be bothered waiting up for him, and I go off to bed and read lovely Charlotte Yonge instead. The first I know of the presence of the Lord is when he’s eating a boiled egg in his study on Sunday morning and trying to cobble a sermon together from a dozen scraps of paper and the Bible. And then God help me if I interrupt to tell him about the dead seagull in the chimney, or the liberties that the Du Dumaine children have been taking, using my writing paper for crayon likenesses. He’ll only shush me and wave a hand as if to say, ‘Not now, don’t bother me with this trivial nonsense.’
‘Harold,’ I say, ‘this is a home. I know it is a haven for the sick and misfortunate, a confessional for the sinful and the desperate, a place of succour and retreat for the spiritually confused. But it is first and foremost, Harold, a home, where your children live and I live, and Cook and Mrs Henryson and Enid and Polly and the dogs and, while I’m at it, Colonel Du Dumaine and his sons. It’s a home where people live whom you love or at least are supposed to love when you get five minutes to devote to them in between showing your love for your fellow man in every fiddly backstreet in London, and it’s no use your sitting there with your breakfast egg and your sermon text playing the great Shepherd with his Flock if you cannot even spend five minutes with your own domestic flock where they need you most, namely here in the home.’
He’s surprised by this unaccustomed outburst. ‘I am shocked, my dear Mimi, shocked,’ he says, wiping crumbs from his lips, ‘by this imputation of neglect. That I, who spend the lion’s share of every day the Lord sends in working for the betterment of my fellow creatures, should be so cruelly accused of failing in my duty …’ He shakes his head, like he’s trying to get my words out of his ears. ‘Would you like to suggest, in the few minutes that remain before I go to address the village congregation on matters of Heaven and Hell, where my sin of omission lies?’
All I can think to say is, ‘You’re never here,’ and ‘You never talk to me, not properly any more, and you never take me out the way people take their wives out, not even to see the pierrots at the Hunstanton Empire.’ But it sounds so foolish and trivial and clingy. I know exactly what he’s going to say, because he always brings up St Matthew: ‘Need I remind you of the ocean of want that surges all around us? It is laid down in the Gospel of St Matthew: “For I was an hungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in …”’ I try to stop him around this part, because his voice takes on a bleating quality, and I know how it is going to end, but he is unstoppable: ‘“Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.” Now my dear,’ (this is how he goes on, it drives me crazy) ‘nowhere in St Matthew, to the best of my recollection, can be found the words, “I was a touch bored at home and ye came and took me to a dinner dance in Holt.” You may search the Gospels for a month without finding the words, “I was restless and bored from spending all day gossiping with Mrs Reynolds, and ye took me to see Mr Coward in Private Lives at the Phoenix Theatre.” I must be at my work, my darling, among the genuinely conflicted and truly wretched. But that is not to say I cannot listen to your aches and woes with a sympathetic ear. Perhaps after lunch we might discuss what is troubling you.’
You see the real trouble, Oona? I have to make an appointment to see my own husband. And that casual mention of the theatre, he knows how it cuts me to the quick. It reminds me what a stage-struck pair we were when young, him on the boards with the comic monologues, me with the lovely singing voice. I was a mezzo of course.
Did I ever tell you of the first day we met, at the Oxford Playhouse? I was part of Miss Horniman’s company of Abbey Singers, and we were visiting the students from the University Drama Society. Some of us were invited to tea with the president, Sir Reginald Kennedy-Cox, and there to welcome the Irish songbirds was Harold. He stood out, not because he was tall or handsome, but because he was older than the rest of the students, properly grown-up at twenty-three or twenty-four, and he’d seen life and was a proper actor. He’d performed at the Wigmore Hall and had lived off his stage earnings to pay for his time at college. People spoke of him with respect, they called him the ‘Holy Actor’ as though it was amazing to find a theology student able to stand up onstage and declaim comic monologues about young boys being eaten by lions at the zoo. I liked him because all the evenings spent onstage had given him a very easy manner. His voice was low, never harsh nor quarrelsome, quite deep and musical, it sort of flowed along but slowly, a river of chocolate. Of course he was ‘theatrical’, but not in the way people use the word to say someone’s false and untrue, he was theatrical as a way of putting a point across. He’d fix you with his intense brown eyes, and tell you about the poor boys in the East End of London he was trying to help by setting up a club where they could get warm food and play games at nights instead of fighting. He argued the case for giving every street child a proper education and start in life and training and an apprenticeship so they wouldn’t need handouts from grand ladies such as myself, and he argued with such passionate eloquence, I was won over to the cause, to him and to his big brown eyes. As he got to the climax of his speech, I looked down and found his hand had been gripping my forearm for so long, I’d lost any feeling in it. You could have jabbed a pin into me and it wouldn’t have hurt. ‘Why, Mr Davidson,’ I said, ‘you have become quite carried away.’ Harold clutched my little white hand in his and impetuously kissed it, with the ardour of a desert sheikh. ‘I am sorry to have spoken with such heat,’ he said, ‘and sorry to feel your hand so cold. But perhaps something of what I have said has penetrated into your heart, my dear Miss Saurin.’ And of course it had, for I never knew anybody could so arouse an audience as Harold, with that voice reverberating like the throb of an Underground train. I began to fall for him at that moment, Oona, though of course there was no question of anything happening, with him being so poor and my father expecting great things for me and the Cartwright boy in Castle Lambert. But it started then all right.
Dear me, Oona, how I’ve rattled on again. No time for proper news, except to say the major has been up to even worse tricks. Apart from his public attempts to wrest the churchwardenship from poor Mr Reynolds, he’s taken to drinking in the middle of the day and making a scene in the church. On Wednesday, he shambled in and made a scene at the war memorial in the porch, complaining about the presence in the list of someone he hadn’t liked or who was unworthy, and someone else whose name should have been there but wasn’t. Mostly I just walk away from any such dispute, but this time I caught such a waft of whisky off the major’s breath I had to ask him to leave. He swayed about and glared at me with such desperate eyes, I was scared for my life. That man is capable of anything. But, please God, Harold will deal with him, should he ever get home from ministering to the hungred, thirsty, naked, ill and imprisoned.
My love to you,
Journals of Harold Davidson London 21 August 1930
Emily Murray’s breasts are a miracle of nature. Though she is lying on her back, they do not loll towards her armpits but poke upwards like proud hills, like Sheba’s mountains in King Solomon’s Mines, and draw the hand to them as if the first impulse of mankind were not shelter, food, drink or conquest but the impulse to stroke and caress this firm softness, these astounding hills.
Her skin is white as milk, save on her forearms and the V of her throat, which have been burnished by sunlight. I believe it is called a Farmer’s Tan, the product, not of Côte d’Azur beaches, but of working in the open air under the summer’s rays with sleeves rolled up and top shirt-button undone. The tanned flesh of a working girl, as she was when I found her, and as I persuaded her not to be for a moment longer; a working girl when she resumed the calling merely two weeks ago despite all my efforts, and a working girl as she remained until yesterday.
Her eyes are closed, but her lips are set in a charming pout, the face of a young woman sure of getting her way. Her teeth were always a joy to behold, so tiny and regular but for the two in front, which stuck out in a small, enchanting overbite, to rest on the soft cushion of her lower lip. Below her ribcage, the skin is taut as a sand tarpaulin, a soft down of hair making a golden meadow of her abdomen. The pudenda are neatly hidden behind a tangle of dark curls, surprisingly black and springy when her hair was always so fair and smooth. I gaze at this secret jungle, musing on Shakespeare’s lines on his mistress’s body – ‘If snow be white, why then, her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head’ – and thinking, Why, these are genuine wires – the electrical circuits of Emily’s secret self, masked by her street finery, her hair dye and the stews of north London where her dismal journey took her. Here, in this jungle of wires lies the truth. Maybe the wires could be likened to a telephone exchange, a seemingly incoherent Gordian knot of flex and string which nonetheless connects disparate parts of the self, the conscience to the hand, the brain to the soul …
It’s no good. All sermons have deserted me. To wring metaphors from every corner of experience is second nature to me; yet even I cannot elaborate a seam of instruction from the dark pubic hairs of a dead blonde woman.
My poor Emily. Only four days after my encounter with the dismal sisterhood in Islington, I am here, called upon by the authorities, to identify her body. The ladies of Halberd Street, those oily-faced wretches, gave my name as her next of kin, in order to save themselves from implication in a police inquiry.
I asked the mortuary sergeant the reason for her death. He hummed and hawed and muttered about Exposure and how she was found sleeping on a park bench in Highbury Fields. I pointed out that it was August, and the weather not unseasonably cold. He countered by saying that, while living in an overcrowded tenement building, she had been bitten during the night by the dreadful bug known as the Cimex lectularius, which brought her arm up in pustules and turned her blood septic. A night or two in the open, far from airing the wound, only worsened it and when she returned to the crowded apartment, she was turned away by the sextet of b*tches and directed to go off and find a hospital that would treat her gangrenous limb.
‘And consider as well,’ said the sergeant, his plausible manner not quite making up for the vagueness of his words, ‘what she’s been up to lately. It’s not just the sleeping in the parks, is it? It’s doing the business with strangers behind bushes and against trees, isn’t it? No telling what extra diseases they pick up in the middle of the night, is there?’
‘I am surprised to hear a supposed medical orderly speak such nonsense,’ I said in a voice like iron, ‘but one thing is clear. Despite the evidence of insect bites, exposure, neglect and sexual abandon, she did not die from any of them.’ I paused, in the vain hope that he might take in my words. ‘She died of poverty.’
This was no Disraelian flourish. Being poor, being a woman and being in London did for her as surely as a knife stabbed in her back. I have seen it happen again and again until I am wearied in contemplating the scale of the problem. The last four years have seized the festering sores of poverty and prostitution, and made them infinitely worse, blown them into cancerous lumps on the metropolitan body. Since the General Strike, that brave, doomed public uprising, the working class has lost its energy, its indomitable spirit. Jobs are being shed by the score every week. The roads are filling up with unemployed carters and dockhands, farm labourers and lathe operators, colliers and shipmen. For a woman of the working class, what work is there but domestic service, or drawing beer in a saloon, or seeking a position exhibiting herself to artists or the public in a coarse revue? And when she has learned that the secret of success in each of these workplaces is to find more inventive ways of pleasing men and doing their bidding, why, what is to stop her proceeding down the final half-mile to whoredom and moral decay?
Poor Emily. She is – was – no more than twenty-three. When I met her, just six months ago, outside a pub in Rupert Street, I noticed the passivity of her nature. I took her to a café in Dean Street where I learned little of her recent circumstances but much of her younger days, her brothers and sisters, her pets, her attic bedroom, the trees in the yard in whose branches she used to hide from her indulgent, tree-climbing papa. It was like talking to a child of a mildly emetic sweetness. She seemed a girl stuck firmly in her infant world, who clapped her hands together with delight if you bought her a pastry, who laughed with the angelic tinkle of Christmas chimes if you told her stories of parishioners’ follies, and who probably responded to the brutal business of sexual penetration by cries to the perpetrator to cease tickling her.
It was all a pretence. The childhood was an invention, drawn from a dozen storybooks of nursery, bathtime and barnyard adventures, of a loving mother and father, of exciting discoveries in the secret woodland. It was all make-believe. So was her breathless, ingénue surprise at everything. It was as though she had never been taken out to a beef supper before (‘Is this where lords and ladies dine?’), nor to a cathedral (‘But how could the painters have done them lovely pictures up so high?’); nor even for an innocent walk in Green Park in the moonlight: ‘Why have you brought me here?’ she would say in a breathy mumble, one hand over her mouth. ‘You are not going to – use me, are you?’
She was an actress who seldom left off playing a virgin – a woman in her early twenties playing an urchin child in ragged skirts and off-white pants. It was a pose that, she confided to me, ‘many gentlemen like’. Presumably it appealed to the kind of feeble-minded City clerk who felt himself to be a gentleman because a feathery young strumpet discerns him to be one. I cannot bear to think of the poor girl suffering in her last extremities. Nor suffering the torments of employment at the Café Royal, a position I found her, specifically to rescue her from being nightly brutalised in Soho, as she explained about her pet lamb into the ears of her straining and pounding clients. But must I blame myself? My wish was only to help her, to protect her – very well then, to save her, as one would save a robin with a crushed wing on one’s front doorstep.
I am assailed with doubts. Should I have left her alone, with her babyish fantasies? Did I make her life worse or better by taking her from gutter to decency, from Soho to Regent Street? Now she lies before me on this slab, her beauty fled, her childish patter dead as carbon.
She seems to accuse me. I cannot stand to hear her say it again, for her body to breathe the words at me, through her breasts and her ringlets and her pale skin:
‘Why have you brought me here? Harold? Why have you brought me here?’
Journals of Harold Davidson
London 1 September 1930
Rather an exhausting day. The 8.05 from Wells ran thirty-five minutes late, and I suffered the ennui of sharing a carriage with Mr Hagerty, the Blakeney surveyor, all the way to Piccadilly. A dull man in a dull employment to which he is admirably suited, presiding over the placement of new traffic lights and pedestrian walkways, he seldom leaves the vicinity of Norfolk, and I had to suffer his foolish blatherings for the best part of two hours about the great Adventure of visiting the metropolis. He has been there on two occasions in the last eight years, and every detail is imprinted on his bovine, provincial memory. I learned more than I could endure of his sister’s delightful home in Peckham Rye, the wonders of its indoor plumbing and drawing-room gramophone, her husband’s fulfilling hobby of visiting racetracks – not horses, mind, but Bugatti automobiles – and returning home with printed catalogues of motor cars over which he pores for hours of acquisitive greed. I learned of Hagerty’s forays into music halls and cinemas, which he finds racily modern, his encounters with London policemen with whom he likes to converse regarding their experiences of riots and affray in the General Strike, his plodding notations of London fashions – ‘I saw a man wearing shoe-spats in Regent Street, and it were only lunchtime,’ he said wonderingly – and his prurient fascination with urban vice. Like English tourists returning from Paris forty years ago, he dilates upon the ‘sinfulness’ of London with that mix of condemnation and shivery excitement that marks the furtive voyeur. If only he knew the grubby truth about the poor girls whose lives I seek to better! Perhaps he feels on safe ground employing the word ‘sin’ with me, anent the moral shortcomings of city behaviour. He expects some answering repertoire of clucking disapproval about the frightful times we live in, and hopes for salty anecdotes about my colourful female charges. If so, he was disappointed. I avoided any yellow-paper revelations of sordid liaisons, and recommended he visit the lovely side chapels of Southwark Cathedral for inspiration. We were both, I think, glad to see the back of each other when we parted at Piccadilly Station and he shambled off carrying his theoloditic paraphernalia, like one of Hardy’s overambitious sons of toil stumbling into the heady glare of Christminster.
I was met with a show of hostility from Mrs Parker at the lodging house. Dolores and Jezzie had both called to see me on Sunday night, at midnight, then again at 1 a.m., to seek moral guidance and, discovering I was from home, voiced their disapproval to my landlady, as she stood (I can imagine the ghastly sight all too clearly) in her mildewed shift and berated them for calling at an hour when, she said, ‘good Christian folk should be slumbering’. She has a charmingly Victorian turn of phrase. I tried to make her see that the impulse towards confession, the redemptive nature of simple talk, knows no time or formal appointment. But Mrs P was adamant. ‘I would not admit a gentleman caller at such an hour,’ she stated flatly, ‘and nor would I let the likes of them wake up the household with their big voices and their brassy boots when everyone’s in bed. I’ve told you six times before, Rector,’ she bleated, ‘I don’t know what ministry they’re expecting at such an hour, but it’s got to stop.’
No matter. Monday is my day for Holborn. I cut some sandwiches (hard-boiled egg and tomato, ham and lettuce), packed them into my pilgrim’s scrip with two apples, distributed supplies of salve, ointment, surgical spirit, tissues, soap, shampoo, etc., in my Pharmacy Pockets, included Bible pamphlets 103, 112 and 149, Dream of Gerontius plus theatre tickets in my Literature Pockets, updated files on Elsie, Marina, Bridie, Lily, Sandra, Esther and Matilda in the Needy Cases Pocket, and set off.
Unusual crowds around the British Museum, summer tourists, idle road-builders work-shy in the morning sunshine, a brace of school parties, forty or fifty young scholars milling about in their uniforms. Fell into conversation with a crowd of youngsters headed for Tutankhamun exhibits who benefited, I felt, from my extemporised dilations on the Egyptian cult of worship and burial. Charming young teacher, no more than twenty-four, auburn curls, fetching dimple, was puzzled at first by my interest in her brood but responded to my little sermon on the misguided heathen fixation on Golden Sepulchres vs the Life Eternal.
One girl, charming blue eyes, shining teeth, asked about mummies and the binding of bodies – were they so apparelled, she asked, in order to meet their Maker in robes of white rather than black funeral shrouds? At a loss, momentarily, I explained they were so bound as to keep the late lamented from putrefaction while journeying homeward to Heaven’s door. Why, she asked, did not Christian burial ‘think also of wrapping up the dead so they’ll look their best’? I told her of the Four Last Things and the certain hope of resurrection, body intact, at the Day of Judgement. ‘But what will my body be like by then?’ she wailed. Her teacher, the dimpled one, took me aside and said that the poor child recently lost her uncle and should not be encouraged to brood on such things. I desisted, only telling her, as she was led away, that we will all met again, reconstituted in body and soul, looking as we did at our best in this life.
Passed down Museum Street, wondering if my explanation was theologically sound. When we meet again, all these Christian souls now disporting themselves in these sunlit thoroughfares, shall we all look as we look now? The teacher will never appear better than in her current incarnation. Nor the blue-eyed scholar, with her finely enamelled incisors. I myself will return on that awful day looking, I presume, as I do now, in my fifty-five-year-old prime. But others? It remains a puzzle. One for the Stiffkey pulpit, perhaps. Made note in Notebook 6 from Stationery Pocket.
Looked in at Museum Tea Rooms, but nothing. Glanced through windows of George’s Café in Coptic Street, received insipid wave from poor, defeated-looking Catherine, but I was not disposed to enter. Too awkward. One tries to provide pastoral aftercare, but I cannot stand bleatings about ‘lack of custom/why am I here/my life is slops and insult/O woe is me that I am not on the Hippodrome stage/you promised me this, you told me that’ etc. There is no fathoming the mystifying ingratitude of the Saved.
Walked to Southampton Row, looked in at Gerry’s Fishmonger’s and spoke with Sally Anstruther. ‘It’s a living, Harold,’ she said, ‘if you can stand gutting a sinkful of pollock at eight in the morning, but it’s not what I had in mind. There’s tea and biscuits at eleven. I’m not saying I’m not grateful. I just wish I didn’t always go home reeking of salt cod. Nothing will shake it off. They make fun o’ me in the Princess Louise.’
I pressed some Wrights Coal Tar soap into her hand and told her to pray for strength. ‘A present?’ she said. ‘I haven’t had nobody buy me soap since my mum died.’ Her buxom young frame seemed to heave with emotion. I have always been moved by the rural-milk-maid type, especially when seen in disarray, with a ringlet of sweaty blonde hair falling over one eye. Small, yet bursting with goodwill, her generous hips suggesting a natural disposition to child-rearing, Sally will do well when she finds a husband among the fish-loving customers of Bloomsbury, one who will not mind her daily delving in piscine entrails, when he is guaranteed each night the God-given delights of her unsheathed bosom.
I told her of my enquiries at the labour exchange for a position as lady’s maid in Chelsea, and she perked up appreciably. Gerald, the boorish owner, interrupted our sweet embraces and told her to get back to filleting the haddock or whatever duties she had to endure that morning, and I went away rejoicing. A delightful, almost-fulfilled woman with, at nineteen, a real future ahead of her.
Turned into Theobald’s Road, where motor carriages and omnibuses are more plentiful than I have ever seen them. Will everyone soon own a motor car? In Doughty Street, I paused at number 48, Chas Dickens’s house in 1837, the place where he wrote the latter part of Pickwick Papers, all of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and the beginning of Barnaby Rudge, and all in two and a half years. It opened to the public five years ago, and is a place of wonder to me. Such concentration and energy! I look at his first-floor study, the writing table, the lock of his hair, the ‘Dingly Dell Kitchen’ with its pewter plates and warming pans, the reading desk he valued so much it accompanied him on his travels to America when he was nearing the end of his labours. One naturally imagines him alone, writing day and night to produce such prodigious masterpieces of imagination, busily inflamed with social concern, as if that were all his occupation in this tiny cell. But here was also the birthing scene of his daughters Mamie and Kate, and all the chaos and swaddling and cloacal atmospherics of tiny babies.
I know well how one is torn between fond indulgence at such familial sights and smells, and the guilty licence one gives oneself to depart from them at any pretext, and plunge oneself into the less claustrophobic arena of other people’s problems.
I remember the winter day (was it 1907? ’08?) when Sheilagh was yet a baby, and I arrived home from an exhausting week in London to discover she had been left for the afternoon at old Nanny Sedgwick’s, two miles from home in the hamlet of Binham, while Mimi was visiting her sister, over from Dublin and staying in Norwich. Snow had been falling all day across East Anglia, and the journey home from Wells in the pony and trap was a slow progress through drifts of white powder, waist-high. Mimi was home a half-hour before me, weeping that the roads to Binham were impassable, and the tiny infant must remain overnight with her aged companion.
‘Mrs Sedgwick is a mother three times over, and will know how to cope,’ I reasoned. ‘It is nine o’clock and the child will sleep till dawn, whereupon Sam can be dispatched to bring her home.’ Mollified, she poked the fire, we talked for a while and she readied herself for bed. Then – I have never forgotten this extraordinary event – she emerged from the bathroom in disarray, crying ‘Harold! Harold!’ I rushed to her side. She stood in the bathroom doorway, clad in her long cotton nightdress from the Liberty department store.
‘What is it?’
‘Sheilagh has woken up, and you must go and fetch her home,’ she said in a tone of voice that brooked no demur.
‘How can you possibly know?’ I asked. ‘Are you a mind-reader?’
In answer, she gestured to the front of her night attire, where two damp patches made clammy circles over her nipple region. The mysteries of the female anatomy were never more mysterious to me than at that instant.
‘Are you sure?’ I said.
‘Must I draw you a diagram?’ she cried. ‘Go and fetch her this minute!’
Understanding little of this mother-child collusion across the miles, I sought my bicycle, rejected it as no use in ferrying an infant, and telephoned Mr Phillips who plies a taxi service in the village. Twenty minutes later, we were stuck in an impassable snowdrift. Mr P handed me a shovel and together we dug the icy mounds from around the tyres and manoeuvred our craft – oh so slowly! – through the falling white Communion flakes.
Mrs Sedgwick greeted us like knights come to rescue a tiny Rapunzel from a castle. I took Sheilagh in my arms, swaddled in white blankets with young Anthony’s tweed cap protecting her membranous fontanelle, walked her through the icy path, treacherously frozen, and gained the taxi only after minutes of dangerous manoeuvre, skidding now this way now that, my free arm clinging to gatepost, fence and bramble hedge. My hands were frozen. I twice sank heavily to the icy cobbles, clutching my precious burden, trying to rise by the strength of my right arm alone, torn again and again on the thorns of the hedgerow. The brief distance to the taxi was, may God forgive the comparison, like the road to Calvary.
Mr Phillips rotated the starting handle, I bundled the baby into the back seat and we set off for home. The frozen engine began to roar, its note an angry crescendo of cold fury becoming hot passion in these frozen wastes. Exhilarated by the success of our rescue mission, I gazed at my firstborn and watched her sweet face as she woke, emerging from that unguessable foreign land of an infant’s dream. Her tulip mouth formed into a petulant moue and blew small, sucky kisses at the air. She was hungry. Mimi had been right, the secret evidence of her milky secretions confirmed. To distract the babe, I lifted her blanketed form in my arms – the lightest burden I ever carried! – and removed her cap so she could see through the windows.
‘My darling girl,’ said I, ‘this is snow. These white precipitations are flakes from Heaven, sent to settle upon the fields and hills, the houses and trees and streets of your village, and upon the people too, on Mr Phillips, our deliverer tonight, the gentleman whose back you see before you, and upon your mother, who is now standing on the Rectory porch wondering what has become of you, and upon your hapless father’s snow-white head, and upon you too. It is a boon of nature, for all its cold and sodden malignancy, for it settles on all things like divine grace covering the land and its inhabitants, binding us all, the virtuous and the unjust, in an eternal present, reminding us of the kindly folds of Redemption that will wrap us all, one day, in the bosom of the Lord, if we give up our sins and follow His precepts.’
My tiny daughter understood not one word of my elegant homily, but something happened that will never leave my memory. Her eyes gazed through the window at the falling snow, as incurious as if I had shown her one of those glass toys in which, when shaken, a snowstorm riots over a miniature hamlet. But then her eyes flicked into mine a look of steady interrogation, as though pondering these elevated sentiments, then flicked back to the window and the descending flakes, and she made, as if calling up a bitter-sweet memory, a secret smile. I held my breath – I had never seen her smile before – and thanked God for this small epiphany, and thanked Him also for the snow and ice that had occasioned it, no matter that we had to freeze and suffer for its arrival.
At home, Mimi seized the child, protested that never again would she let her stray from her loving arms et cetera, and fed her from both bursting breasts for full half an hour, while I plied Mr Phillips with hot brandy and water to thaw his frozen extremities. I built up the fire, procured some fruit cake from the larder and we ate it together like huddled refugees, and to this day I can recall no moment more redolent of family love, for all the strange upsets that befell us half a dozen years later, when I went away to war, and Mimi had a baby without my –
But these father’s tales are idle nostalgia. I left Dickens’s house, regained Theobald’s Road, went down Gray’s Inn Road and I lunched on a park bench set back from the road for the convenience of fatigued travellers, and fell into conversation with a young nanny who parked her black perambulator by the wooden seat. A comely girl of limited social graces, she met my enquiries as to her employment, her address and her current state of mind with a guarded hostility that one finds too often in young women nowadays. My genial enquiry as to which music-hall performer she would like to meet fell on stony ground. I turned the conversation to the Stimulation of the Infant Mind, and the folly of too early an exposure to language-learning, and we were away for half an hour, as she complained about her employers, their insistence on her holding up cards for the infant, showing the words ‘CAT’ and ‘APPLE’ and ‘BONNET’ and even ‘POLICEMAN’. I agreed vigorously about the importance of giving children the freedom to wander in the wild wood of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. She listened with interest to my tales of Sheilagh and Nugent in the nursery, their screams and laughter as we enacted together the tale of Hansel and Gretel and the crone in the Gingerbread House. But I went too far. Emboldened by our brief acquaintance, I acted the part of the Witch and, while demonstrating the scene in which she prods Hansel in the rib to determine if he was fattened enough to eat, the young lady took fright. Such a fuss, when I merely poked her playfully in the chest and said (in character, of course), ‘There needs to be more meat on this girl before she is ready.’ She shrank away, gathered the remains of her luncheon, her hat and the perambulator, and fled down Fetter Lane.
I watched her flight (women run so oddly, do they not?), tinged with concern that she may have misinterpreted my little performance as an attempt at seduction. How could she know that for years I acted on stages from Oxford to Bayswater, in student and amateur theatricals? I can, when occasion demands, impersonate a fearsome predator, as easily as I can a saintly family doctor. The stage has always been my second calling. I cannot help it if the suspicious-minded see the performance, rather than the kindly Samaritan behind it.
The afternoon passed agreeably in the Public Records Office, as I sought the documented provenance of Lily Beane. A splendid girl, full of vim and zest but with no discernible ambition, she channels all her energies to whatever is immediately in front of her: laundering (Oh! her rhythmic drubbing of a washboard), selling fruit from a stall at Greenwich Market, buttering rolls in licensed premises on the Strand, talking to men sixteen to the dozen – such undisciplined enthusiasm! How does Browning put it in ‘My Last Duchess’?
A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.’
I arrived in her life just in time to stay her from sliding into exploitation. I have an instinct for these things. I knew it would be only a matter of weeks before some foul opportunist enlisted her good-natured joie de vivre for venal purposes. I saw the way they looked at her in the Jolly Gardeners in Putney – the leery gang of off-duty lawyers’ clerks and fly-by-night office boys who beguile the female bar staff with lies about their status, and lure them to casual indecency in omnibus shelters. I know how these convivial evenings of conversation and piano-centred hilarity can conclude with invitations to less innocent revels elsewhere. ‘Parties’ – that simple word that covers a multitude of vices, the social obsession of the last decade, along with the multicoloured folly of ‘cocktails’ – have come to represent all the headlong sinfulness of the modern age. I am no wet blanket when it comes to social gatherings. Many are the times I have entertained the Rectory company with recitals – sometimes a little near the edge of propriety! – from the music hall and the dramatic stage. But the parties to which young Lily was invited, Friday after Friday, left me sitting in the snug chewing my fingernails with concern for the fate of the poor girl in the company of such reprobates.
As soon as I could, I engaged her in conversation at the bar, talked with fervour about the danger she faced from plausible youths with too much drink in them, how they would lead her astray with promises of love. She laughed at me. She laughed at me!
‘You don’t know much about the boys round here, mate,’ she said. ‘They’re a long way off talking about love. What century’re you livin’ in?’ She yanked the beer tap until a pronounced blue vein stood out on her cottoned forearm.
‘I assume a young woman of your disposition will not suffer local louts to paw you like a piece of veal when you are so evidently –’
‘I don’t let anyone take advantage of me, matey, thank you very much,’ she remonstrated – her bright brown eyes like button mushrooms agleam in a stew – ‘and I don’t so much as kiss a boy unless he’s told me about his folks. Once they tell you about their folks, you know they’re not wrong ’uns. And even then, it’ll take more than a bit of chat to make me go home with nobody, because I got to be up for work, dead early.’ She paused, handed over two foaming pints to a pink-cheeked, high-collared young City type, no more than eighteen, took his money with the words, ‘Thank you, ’andsome.’ You could almost hear the dereliction of her morals in the immediate future, crashing down in a matter of weeks.
‘You have a friendly disposition, Lily,’ I said. ‘It’s what makes you so popular. You are generous, good-natured, and wish to see the best in people. But do you not realise it is this idealistic nature that renders you a prey to ignorant men who misconstrue your warmth as – as an invitation to come closer?’
‘You don’t have to worry about me,’ she said with a brassy laugh. ‘I’m a good girl. I don’t go anywhere I shouldn’t with boys. Well, not unless they’re goin’ to treat me like a lady, and buy me a nice roast supper at the Stockpot.’
There, in one sentence, is the reason for my presence among these young victims! Poor creature, she could not see that she had already entered the sloping path that leads, with increasing celerity, to the shanty towns of Hades. Part of my mission is to educate foolish youth about the economic underpinning of impurity. Male behaviour which they would not countenance on sober first acquaintance, they will accept as due reward for being bought dinner and port wine at a squalid men’s chophouse in Panton Street. The first impulses towards prostitution, I have often said, arrive with the appearance of the à la carte menu. Sexual abandon that results from misconceived notions of love I can understand, as I have had to understand them in my own family. But sexual abandon that results from gratitude for soup and pork loin with gravy – that is an index of the corruption that threatens to engulf us.
I have worked at the cause of Lily Beane for months, removing her from the public taverns, finding her work as a life-class model in a respectable art establishment in Shaftesbury Avenue, where her sturdy physical architecture and winning smile have proved immensely popular.
I am glad to see Lily safe for the present. But there is no end in sight for my work among the fallen. At times I despair of my chosen occupation. An image comes to me in a dream, some nights, in which I am standing in a great corn meadow through which girls in white shifts are running – so many girls, spread out across such a wide region the eye can hardly take them all in – and I alone know that they are running towards a cliff, an unseen, mighty precipice over which they will surely tumble to their doom. I endeavour, in the dream, to catch them up in my arms, to break their headlong rush, to save them from perdition and put them down in a place of safety, but as they hurtle towards and past me, I see that only a handful can be saved, and a swoon of hopelessness comes over me, and my feet drag as though through treacle, and more and more of the wild children in their fluttering nightshirts appear over the horizon until I am tormented with frustration as to where to run first, trying to save the ones nearest, as they approach, speeding past my outstretched arms …
I ended the day in Drury Lane, with Marina Carter and her company of girls, professionally occupied in sin. We talked about Elsie Teenan, and about Joanna and Lily, and where they have gone to better their employment in this wicked town. Madge and Sara came by and we opened some bottles of sherry wine and elder-flower cordial, and one of the girls procured a modest fruit cake with three candles to represent Mrs Carter’s three decades on earth. There were toasts, and Sara played show tunes on the pianoforte and I was prevailed upon to sing ‘She was Only an Engineer’s Daughter’, a favourite of mine for all its bawdy sentiments, and was rewarded by Blanche, the Jamaican mulatto, sitting on my knee and giving me girlish kisses with her enormous juicy lips. The evening wound down with the arrival of some off-duty constables who were disposed to fuss but were ushered upstairs to ‘inspect the facilities’ as Mrs Carter charmingly put it. She was pleased with my modest gift of beauty preparations, and promises to divert some of her profits towards my Virtue Reclamation League. Another reason to celebrate this long day.
Called in on Jezzie at midnight, offering to take her for coffee at the Up All Night in Spitalfields, but she was slumbering. Called to rouse Dolores in Aldgate at 1 a.m., to reiterate the importance of her rising early for shorthand lessons; she remains grumbly and ill-tempered about the fate of Max, her fancy man, now awaiting trial, and sent me away (aided by her unpleasantly suspicious landlady). Home at 3 a.m., to find a note from Mrs P pushed under my door, saying a Miss Harris had been calling at the house, and that she, Mrs P, didn’t think she could stand ‘no more of this kind of thing’. I slumbered in my chair, dreaming of nannies, fish, gingerbread houses, birdcages and an urchin girl asking, ‘Why have you brought me here?’
Woke at 6 a.m., resolving to visit Barbara H as soon as possible.
Journals of Harold Davidson
London 8 September 1930
To the Windmill Theatre with Joanna Dee, my aspirant ballerina, saved since June from patrolling the streets of Fulham. A charming show, with new costumes and burlesque songs that I always enjoy at this venue, although a new crudeness has, I feel, crept into the stage tableaux. Naked girls in neoclassical posings, impersonating ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, offer an affecting sight to those who follow the charming tales from Homer, and who can, like I, look upon the pink areolae of the water babies without immoral yearnings. But I felt their sinuous writhings around the loins of a rather well-built Hylas went beyond the boundaries of strict classical authenticity. Delightful, nonetheless. Miss Ariadne Love (not, I suspect, her name at the baptismal font) was a dream in a lurid skirt of dangling bananas and cigars, singing ‘Take Me Back to Old Havana, Where the Jasmine’s Still in Bloom’ most affectingly. Dear Joanna thrilled by it all and clapped her hands together spontaneously in glee. I hope her enthusiasm will direct her steps at the Kennington Dance Academy towards more, shall we say, decorous roles in the classical repertoire than those on show tonight.
I spotted Sir Tristram Pope in the crush, and saluted him with a cry of friendship, hoping to introduce him to my young companion, who enjoys meeting titled men who may help fund her balletic studies. To my surprise he hurried away, like the Fleeing Man in a German melodrama, but not before I spied his lady companion – none other than Eleanora Gilpin, late of the Pig & Whistle in Bow. Well, well, how pleasant that she has found so eminent and moneyed a patron. And how splendid she appeared in her expensive broad-brimmed hat, though its elaborate finery, clamped to her shingled blonde mane with hair clips, is hardly the thing for an evening at the theatre. I must call on her, in her Bethnal Green apartment, to check on her progress, assuming she has not found herself in a more glamorous address!
London 10 September 1930
Paid a visit last night to my dear Rose Ellis in Camden. She is back with her parents for two years now, settled and comfortable, if a little frayed at the edges. Her father, retired at sixty from too many years’ exposure to building-work dust, greeted me with his habitual Irish decency and pressed upon me the bottle of potato poteen he keeps in a kitchen cupboard. It is a reflex action to him, to offer this moonshine concoction to every caller to his house. He should know my teetotal habit, he should remember the hundred times I have waved away his poisonous generosity when visiting Rose, yet still he persists. Poor man! His household is a dimly lit haven for Rose, after her many difficult years of confronting both the demon Alcohol and the sadness that periodically descends upon her beautiful violet eyes and pitches her beyond every stratagem of Christian reassurance.
Mr Ellis and I conversed desultorily for several minutes while waiting for Rose to appear. His talk is full of irritating Catholic asides: ‘I’ve a few good years left in me, Father, DV,’ he’ll say, meaning Deo volente, ‘God willing’, an admirable ejaculation maybe, but not one that is found on the lips of any responsible Protestant believer, smacking as it does of a Muslim Arab punctuating his pronouncements with ‘Insh’ Allah’ at every turn. And I am not ‘Father’ to him or anybody else except for my children. That tiny papist homage, that pregnant ‘F’ word, hangs between us with a small dusting of sarcasm, as if he regards me as a fake pastor, a second-best clergyman.
‘Rose, well, she has her ups and downs,’ he said, ‘but on her bad days, there’s no reasoning with her. A sponge of misery she is now, Father, soaking up every small hardship like the parched earth soaks up rain. I pray to the Blessed Virgin to intercede with the man upstairs to put the light back in her eyes, but, sure, what can you do when she spends all her time broodin’ and snifflin’ and …’
After fifteen minutes I could stand his maudlin defeatism no more (or his dreadful Mariolatrous heresy, or his insulting demotic about the redeeming God as a kind of first-floor lodger) and asked, with an abruptness bordering on incivility, if Rose was at home. He left the room, and I cooled my heels and examined their dingy wallpaper and endured the smell of greens and bacon, until the door reopened to admit my dear Rose, steered into the room by her rebarbative parents who stood alongside her like sheepish gaolers.
Her golden hair was matted into slender ringlets, making her long, soulful face even longer – an El Greco saint, or martyr. She was clad in an old-fashioned Victorian white blouse with an amber bijou clamped at the neck, an unbecoming brown skirt in some fusty fabric, the whole ensemble enveloped in a housecoat of patterned wool that reached to the floor.
‘Rose, my dear –’ I clasped both her hands, as I surveyed her over-lagged frame – ‘how good to see you! Forgive the lateness of this visit, but I was attending a homeless benefit in Euston, and my mind was filled with thoughts of you. It has been too long since our last meeting. I left you in June hoping that you might attend one of my Saturday soirées in Vauxhall. But seeing no trace of you, I reasoned that you had more pressing social engagements.’
I stopped. Released from the supporting hands of her parents, her body swayed back and forth like an aspen under the breath of a summer zephyr. Her eyes sought to focus on mine, and a sigh escaped her lips with a fugitive whiff of mint.
‘Harold,’ she said thickly. ‘Harold, I –’ As her thoughts struggled to form themselves into words, I realised she was the worse for drink. The aroma of toothpaste was overpowering.
‘I been dreaming of horses,’ she said, in a dull monotone, ‘great white horses with streaming hair, galloping along the seashore. I thought I was riding one of them, only the horses in front kept charging off to the right, and the others that rode faster than me were galloping off to the left and all I was doing was running towards the sea, with no horse under me at all, and what good was that?’
She was sadly disturbed, my lovely Rose. Her father gazed at the floor neutrally, as if this were an occasion of blame and, wherever the blame could affix itself, it was certainly not to him. Her mother held my gaze as if asking how much of her daughter’s current state was due to our friendship over the last ten years.
‘Rose,’ I said, ‘I am shocked to see you like this. Sit down beside me here and tell me how you are, while your mother –’ I waved an importuning hand, confident that no mother in England would refuse the classic clergyman’s request – ‘will bring us a cup of tea and leave us to discuss your troubles in private.’
Rose sank obediently down on the threadbare ottoman and, gathering her housecoat around her spindly shoulders, gave me her attention. Her parents slunk away. I had not criticised their obvious neglect of my old friend; and their relief was palpable.
‘I’ve been very bad, Harold,’ said Rose when her parents had departed to the dark regions of tea and kitchen smells. ‘Sometimes I don’t get up ’til three, when the light outside’s changing to dusk, and the day is gone. I don’t see no one for days. When there’s visitors to the house, Dad’ll say, “Put on some clothes and a bit of lipstick and come down to join the company for the love o’ God, or they’ll think we’ve murdered you and stuffed you in the attic.” So I do what he says, and I try to talk, but I never know what to say to anyone no more, since I stopped hanging around with Violet and Ruth and the girls. I can’t talk to people any more, that’s the truth. I lost the art, if I ever had it.’
‘Rose,’ I said, ‘you give up hope too easily. I had not thought domesticity would be such a trial. When you abandoned your old life, I thought steady work in the textile warehouse would give you a new community in which to thrive. When that failed, we tried the outdoors employment offered in the tulip beds at Kew Gardens, but you ran away from it –’ I clamped my hand on her arm – ‘you ran away, my dear, like a cat from a garden hose, saying it did not suit you. As if ministering to plants and flowers were not preferable to your ministering to strange men in Smithfield.’
‘I know, Harold,’ she said, shaking her sad ringlets. ‘God knows I’ve tried. But the girls in the warehouse were horrible to me, they’d make out I was low and stupid and in the canteen they’d say to the skivvy, give her more potatoes, them Micks live on potatoes, until I’d cry. And the gardens at Kew were lovely in the summer with red camellias and the foam of apple blossom. But I couldn’t stand the cold once October came, and the ground was hard and they made me poke the soil night and day. It was so hard, it was like poking sheets of iron with a thimble. And the gardening sergeant, he’d be nice one minute, and say, that’s a fine bed there, the drills of seedlings in nice straight rows, marvellous, and before you knew it he was putting his big hands round my hips and saying, “Rhythm rhythm, you’ve got to work with the soil, shoving in the seeds this way and this” – and all the time, Harold, he’d be behind me pushing away while pretending to apprentice me, pushing so rudely until I could feel something that wasn’t a dibber-stick at all.’
‘Rose,’ I said, ‘I am so sorry. There is no reckoning the base appetites of men. But I gather, from your father and from your appearance, that your stay at home does not fulfil you either?’
‘Bored, Harold,’ she said. ‘Bored bored bored. I’m so dull at home I could cry. And I do, every day.’
Her beautiful eyes were shining with liquid salt as she clutched my arm.
‘We had such laughs together, going to the music halls in the old days, meeting them funny people you used to introduce me to. Them days, I felt I could do anything because you cared for me. When we went around together, I felt like a real person. I used to think, so bloody what if the showgirls look at me sideways and ask, “Who’s she?” and “Who invited her backstage, into this bar or this hotel?” I could stand all their fish-eyed looks because I knew, well, at least the rector thinks I’m someone worth knowing. At least he talks to me like I got half a brain. I could endure anything because I knew you loved me.’
This was a little hard to take. Had I really told her such a thing, in those words? Of course I was fond of her and had taken her to shows, as I do so many of my young charges, to invigorate their sense of the wondrous drama that might one day fill their lives. But she has clearly been nursing a private delusion. I could not speak of love to her. I am a married man, the pastor to a village of dependants and a city of lost or about-to-be-lost souls. Love is an irrelevance in all this. Her solitude has invented a love between us.
‘Rose,’ I said, ‘let us strike a deal. You must pull yourself together, read from the Book of Job in the Bible and stop abandoning yourself to misery. In turn I will promise to take you away from here and find some employment, no, some adventure, that will return a spring to your step.’
She looked at me sadly. ‘I’d give anything to get away, Harold. But you won’t send me back to the gardens, will you? I couldn’t stand that.’
‘My dear Rose,’ I said, almost laughing, ‘I will not send you anywhere. I am no evil slave-driver, like Mr Svengali in Du Maurier’s book. Together, we shall find some employment that will fulfil and gratify you, until you are sufficiently invigorated to do something more cheerful with your appearance and dress. In three months, you shall be living in pleasant rented rooms in, I don’t know, Pimlico or Bloomsbury, with fresh flowers in the hall and a white linen cloth on the table –’
‘I’d love the white tablecloths,’ she whispered.
‘– and at the close of day, Rose, we shall meet as friends in the old delightful way, and visit the amusements of Shaftesbury Avenue and go on excursions to Tooting Common and Greenwich Park, and walk in the sunshine and watch the nannies and the bicyclists. You shall make new friends, and show off your finery on picnics. And you shall, perhaps, help me with my work sometimes when your own duties are not too arduous.’
‘I will, Harold, you must count on it,’ she said with new energy (my strategy was working better than I could have hoped). ‘For there is no kinder, sweeter man than you, and I would like to help with the poor misfortunates.’
As I left, I reflected that nothing guaranteed her rehabilitation more than her blindness to her own status as the most dismal girl of my acquaintance. Once a fallen woman starts to feel sympathy for the wretchedness of others, she is on the path to recovery.
I did not seek out her parents. I left with a glow of satisfaction, that I could restore the meanest of God’s creatures to life by a few simple promises.
Outside, I recalled that Barbara’s address – 14 Queen Street, Camden – was only a few roads away, and I made the journey in short order. No traffic came or went (it was well after midnight). It was an ugly street of brick tenements. The moon hung above a shut-up public house, the Greyhound – and a single gas lamp at either end of the street illuminated the dismal flagstones and doorways. I found number 14, a common lodging house on three storeys, with an array of eight doorbells, beside each one a name on a dirty oblong of paper. The lowest one read simply, ‘BARBARA’. Impetuously, I pressed the bell. A muffled jangle sounded inside the ground-floor window. Moments passed, a feeble light flicked on and was as quickly extinguished. Voices could be heard, one girlish and querulous, one male and indignant. I stood, inches from the window, uncertain as to how to proceed. When all had been quiet for minutes, I rapped softly on the window.
The reply was instant and unwelcoming. ‘Just piss off, will you? It’s one in the bloody morning.’
It was she. Miss Harris. I recalled her invitation to call ‘any time’, and was, frankly, disappointed. Seeing a crack in the curtains, I put my face to the glass, in the hope of perhaps alerting her to my presence.
Abruptly, the right-hand curtain twitched aside. A large black face looked out. The moonlight bounced off white teeth and the enormous whites of his eyes. Discretion was the better part of valour. I fled away.
London 12 September 1930
Visited Lady Fenella Royston-Smith. Her suite at Charing Cross Hotel is even more sumptuous than the one at the Ritz – which palatial address she has abandoned, pro tempore, after some altercation with the Food and Beverages staff over some detail of diet.
‘Onions, Harold, they would serve onions in every dish that appeared before me. There was no escaping the pungent under-taste in every soup, every ragout and roast, every luncheon omelette and teatime savoury. I told them, time and again, “No onions, not in casserole nor mixed grill,” but they would persist in their sickening, Frenchified obsession. I told Mr Ross, the general manager, onions do not agree with me, that my nervous metabolism cannot digest the damned things, that they bring up the colonic flux and leave me prostrate for hours on the chaise longue. Yet would they heed my simple requirements?’
‘It must be very troublesome, Fenella,’ I concurred.
‘Troublesome! Nobody knows the torments I suffer. The other day, in St Bride’s – a memorial service for Lady Henchard’s late husband – I was so crippled with indigestion, I was forced to forsake the family pew and take a turn around the graveyard to regain my composure.’
Lady R – S is a handsome woman and a steady benefactor of my work, but she can sometimes offer too much insight for comfort into the workings of her intestines. She enjoys the aristocrat’s conviction that every detail of her personal circumstances must be of interest to her confidants. I am glad to be one of this fortunate band, but sometimes the reports of her gastric eructations leave me at a loss, conversationally. (What am I to reply? ‘A huge fart can be a marvellous liberation at such moments, Your Ladyship …’?)
Since her husband, the brigadier, died face down in the mud along with a platoon of doomed infantry somewhere near the Belgian border in 1917, she has devoted herself to good works. A philanthropic soul, she has taken an interest in my Runaway Boys charity for many years. She has a wide social acquaintance with more liquefiable cash than they know what to do with. Without her, and their, monthly disbursements and ad hoc stipends, I could not continue my work among the Fallen. All she wants in return is some elevated literary conversation, and some shared outrage about public immorality.
‘That madwoman Mrs Stopes has established yet another clinic in London where women of any class may procure contraceptive devices, and has now written a book flagrantly recommending the introduction of some form of’ – she seemed to wince at the awful words – ‘rubber tubing into the marriage bed. She encourages the benighted and the shamelessly perverse to take their sordid pleasures with no thought to consequences, to couple together like hares in a field – and I should add, Mr Davidson, she claims divine sanction for her folly.’
‘No,’ I said, heatedly. ‘This is too bad. I have heard a great deal of Dr Stopes in the last few years, because my work leads me, as you know, into the realms of prostitution, where matters of sexual health are routinely discussed. But of her pretensions to religious endorsement, I was unaware.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Her Ladyship, vigorously nodding, ‘I heard it from my maid. The dreadful woman said in court somewhere that her zealotry in this murky business springs from a divine visitation she had one afternoon, under a yew tree in her garden in Leatherhead.’
‘My word,’ I said, stifling a guffaw. ‘A Home Counties Buddha – and a female to boot!’
‘Her disgusting sexual fantasies are bad enough,’ said Lady Fenella, ‘in encouraging loose girls and factory women to fornicate with men, free from concerns of pregnancy, let alone morality. But to claim that Our Lord recommended such a course of action, as it were privately, in the ear of an hysterical Surrey quack is just too much.’
‘I am almost accustomed to being shocked,’ I said. ‘Every day brings fresh news about the degradation of feeling and behaviour in modern life. That is why I wished to speak with you about –’
‘Immorality is all around us, Harold,’ said my old friend. ‘Have you seen the dimensions of the skirts worn by young girls in Knightsbridge today?’
‘I rarely venture to such select locations. My work keeps me confined to Piccadilly and Holborn. I rely on you, as in so many things, to keep me abreast of fashion.’
‘I’ve seen young women walking into Harrods, Harold, in a skirt that reveals their calves, sometimes almost to the knee,’ she said, her voice rising to a protesting squeak. ‘The other day, I was popping in to buy a crystal vase for Lobelia Graham’s wedding, and in front of me came this – this trollop in a long coat that opened to reveal a skirt so tight around the hips, it must have constricted her circulation. Were it not for a tiny flounce of fabric around the hem, it would have displayed the place where her hosiery ended! But I have shocked you, Harold, for your face has reddened alarmingly.’
‘Not at all,’ I said, applying a handkerchief to my brow. ‘Do continue.’
‘I thought she must be a tart, plying her trade in Brompton Road. But the doorman bowed with every sign of recognition, as if she were a regular customer.’
‘I can only hope,’ I said with feeling, ‘that such fashions, if that is the word for such immodesty, do not spread as far as my dear girls in Norfolk.’
We stood together, shaking our heads in a chorus of disapproval.
‘Fenella,’ I said, ‘my visit here today has a purpose beyond the delight of basking in your company.’
‘Oh?’ She rose from the sofa, smoothed her skirts and moved towards the window.
‘Not, I hasten to say, money,’ I reassured her, ‘for you are more than generous already to my young charges. I wish to ask you the favour of an introduction.’
‘Indeed. To whom?’
‘You have been good enough to bring my work to the attention of dignitaries from many walks of life,’ I said, ‘and I have forged several relationship that have been invaluable to my work. Words cannot express my gratitude for so many favours done in the past. Without the patronage of your cousin, Lord Strathclyde, there would be no Runaway Boys’ Retreat at Whitechapel. Without the intervention of your neighbour, Lady Kilfoyle, the Maidens in Distress Foundation at Bow would never have got off the ground. Had it not been for the generosity of Lord Staynes, and the Romany Rye Rehabilitation Unit, there would be a thousand homeless didicois on the streets of Sutton and Cheam. Were it not –’
‘Too kind, Harold,’ cut in Lady R-S, over her shoulder, as she peered through the glass to the view over the Strand. ‘Awfully glad to have been of help. But what you’re looking for now is …?’
I joined her at the window and, with slightly shocking directness, took her hand in mine. Did she flinch? Only for a second. Her long chilly fingers suffered the embrace of my insinuating touch (my hands are always warm) and seemed to thaw as I said, ‘Fenella, no man could wish for a finer benefactor than you, but that is not the point. For no man could wish, either, for a more sympathetic friend to turn to in the dark reaches of the night, a more understanding ally to draw close when all seems lost, a warmer image to summon up before him when one is surrounded by the cold winds of despair. Fenella –’
With (I admit) shocking presumption, I encircled her considerable waist with my arm, and turned her away from the window so that I was looking up into her eyes. It was, may God forgive my lack of gallantry, like turning a dreadnought battleship 180 degrees to port in the Solent, but it was worth it.
‘Fenella,’ I said, softly.
‘Yes, Harold?’ she whispered. It was a romantic moment, or would have been had she not towered a good eight inches above me. Her prodigious bosom, wrapped in some cantilevered phenomenon of whalebone and rustling red silk, protruded before me like a vast cushion. I looked up, like a besieger looking over a wobbling battlement, to her handsome, troubled face.
‘What you do, my dear Fenella, you do from many impulses – of noblesse oblige, of Samaritan generosity, of Christian decency. But I alone know that you do it from love.’
‘Oh, Harold,’ she breathed, ‘what do I know of love any more? Since Augustus died, I have been a stranger to the tender emotions. While all around me have danced through their middle years, and some have found other partners, I have kept faith with Gussie. My sister took me to a ball at Nancy Cunard’s, full of nigger minstrels and with a tiger from Sumatra and an ice statue of a swan whose beak some of the brazen flappers actually licked, and I was miserable throughout because there was no lovely Gus to lead me through the polka steps, and I went home early and cried into his dressing gown which stank of pipe tobacco, and I hugged it like a madwoman.’
‘My poor Fenella,’ I cooed into her bosom, startled to be allowed such intimacy. She laid her drooping head upon my neck and sobbed. Her cheek was hot against my skin.
We stood in an awkward embrace. I had, I confess, not the faintest idea what might happen next. I have known Fenella for years, ever since my work in London restarted after the war, and we have been through much together. Through night shelters in Pimlico and day-care homes in Stepney, I have introduced her to the needy and the profligate, to whom she has talked and proffered advice most helpfully over the years.
At first, the recipients of her advice did not find her engaging; she tended to address them like a duchess ticking off delinquent parlourmaids. She was always a little too intent on getting to the meat of their sufferings. Sometimes, it seemed she regarded them as turns in a burlesque show. ‘Are you an Alcoholic?’ she would ask. ‘Are you a Prostitute? Did you become a Prostitute in order to Feed a Baby Born Out of Wedlock? To what level of indignity did your employer abuse you?’ But I took her in hand, taught her to soften her voice, forsake her more intimidating hats, and learn to listen. It took a while.
Cynics might object to the enthusiasm with which she seeks out tales of sinfulness, and the relish with which she imparts the details of her findings to friends at lunch parties, but I know her impulses are pure. Disappointed by life, she has found a cause, as I have devoted my life to many causes, and she has stuck to it. Kindliness and sympathy have been her watchwords, and her transactions of money into my charitable funds have been the happy public outcome. Without her, I would eat bread and beef-dripping sandwiches every day, like the hapless masses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Was I wrong to embrace her thus, as she fretted over her dead husband? I am a tactile man. If it is a fault to translate emotional generosity into physical expression, then I own up to the fault unreservedly. The girls among whom I move in London are used to my gentle embraces, my occasional bestowings of chaste kisses. They know the innocent pressure of my arms around them, telling them not to fear. What harm can be done by offering the occasional close contact of the notional swain – the touch of love that we all secretly crave? And had our lips met yesterday, I would not have been surprised nor dismayed. There is a passion in the pursuit of virtue that must find an outlet sometimes, even in salivatory exchanges. I thought of my recent sermon: what would Jesus have done in similar circumstances? I have no doubt at all that he was a kisser. His relations with Mary must have involved a degree of embrace and osculation, I am sure. His visits to the house of Martha and Mary would have ended in a flurry of fleshy connections in the doorway. I allow myself the thought that, while the one busied herself with household chores and the other was devoted to prayer and virtue, Our Lord might have stolen a kiss from the former, while the latter had her eyes shut in supplication. I can imagine him encircling Martha’s aproned waist from behind, as her hands in the sudsy water paused in their cleansing digitations, and her lovely head (I see curly fair hair darkened by the sweat of her labours, white if irregular teeth, skin like a white Egyptian peach) turned round, her eyes half anxious, half incredulous that this could be happening, her Cupid’s-bow lips parting, as he bent forward …
Lady Royston-Smith withdrew from my arms quite suddenly, with a forcefulness that suggested I had gone too far.
‘You were, I believe, about to enlist my help in an introduction, Mr Davidson?’ Suddenly, we were back on formal terms.
‘I know, Fenella, that you are a friend of Sir Arthur and Lady Bassenthwaite,’ I said, pulling my clerical jacket around me.
‘Arthur and Frederica? Of course. They are old friends. Frederica’s mother knew mine in Ashford. But I haven’t seen them for years. I believe they live in Africa.’
‘Indeed, they have spent the last three years in Kenya. But I notice from today’s Times they are sailing for England, to resume residence in Eaton Square. I would not trouble you to bring my work to their attention, except that Lady Bassenthwaite has for years worked for a charity bringing comfort to distressed gentlefolk of the region. Now she is back in London, she may be looking for a fresh outlet for her kind work …’
‘And you thought she might have some spare cash to steer towards your – ladies?’ A steely note had entered her voice.
‘All I ask, Fenella,’ I said, ‘is that I can meet them, with your help, and lay before them the size of the social problem that surrounds, for several miles, their comfortable Belgravia home.’
‘Well –’ she seemed fatigued by being asked for one more favour – ‘I’ll have to see. They’ll be acclimatising to their new life, and I don’t want to burden them with –’
‘If I could guarantee a bishop would accompany me to the meeting?’ I said. ‘Might that smooth things?’
‘Of course, Harold.’ (Suddenly we were back to Harold and Fenella; how Lady R-S loves the purple.) ‘You envisage a tea party? Here?’
‘That would be ideal.’
‘Perhaps. I’ll have to speak to Frederica when she has docked. But apart from the expatriates and the bishop, is there anything else that might enliven the occasion?’
‘I fancy,’ I said, neutrally, ‘I could bring a misfortunate girl – or two – to join our company, purely to demonstrate the scale of the problem.’
She pondered the arrangement: teatime at the Charing Cross Hotel with one peeress of the realm, one rector, one bishop and at least one prostitute, possibly two.
It was too good to turn down.
‘Shall we say Friday fortnight?’ And with that, she ushered me out the door, banished from the scene of our brief, romantic intermezzo. (Alas!)
Journals of Harold Davidson
London 15 September 1930
Have finally made contact with Miss Harris! It has not been easy. The young lady, despite her iniquitous employment, seems to have a positive aversion to being At Home to callers. I have made the dismal trek to Queen Street, Camden, four times now, not counting the evening when I made the error of tapping on Barbara’s window and finding an intimidating face looking out. From my knowledge of the Profession, I am aware that mornings are slow (the girls invariably sleep in), lunchtime finds some vigorous activity under way, listless afternoons speed up – like cricket matches! – after the tea interval, then die down from what we have learned to call ‘the cocktail hour’ at 6 p.m. until the pubs start to empty around ten, which is the signal for a great unloosening of sin all over the city.
I called three times in the early evening. Each visit was as fruitless at the last. I stood before the door of number 14, pressing the lowest bell, but heard only a distant inner jangling – like the twanging of my nerves as I awaited yet another hostile confrontation like the last. Resolving to give it up after this final attempt, I called yesterday in the mid-morning, pressed the bell, looked sadly at the drawn curtains and rapped my knuckles on the glass pane …
The door flew open. A small girl stood before me, clad in a garment made of towelling material, off-white or cream. Her feet were bare. With her right hand she agitated a hand towel through curly brown locks and looked at me with her head in one side. I did not recognise her.
‘Miss Barbara Harris?’
‘Might be. Who’re you? And what, more to the point, is your problem, banging on a girl’s door at this hour of the morning?’
I examined my wristwatch. ‘It is ten thirty, Miss Harris. The world has risen and been about its business for three hours at least. I am Mr Harold Davidson. We met at Marble Arch some weeks ago. We had lunch in a café and I expressed a desire to call upon you to discuss …’ I faltered. What had we agreed to discuss? I blushed to recall our little colloquy.
‘Oh, I remember you,’ she said, ‘the gent sweating to death in your long coat. You bought me lunch and come on all innocent about the pudding.’ She laughed and towelled her curls. ‘Well, hello again. So you thought you’d give it a go, did you? After all your high earnest chat, you’ve spent a few weeks tossing and turning in your bed every morning and thinking, “Oooh, shall I? Shan’t I?” And here you are.’
Her face, suddenly revealed amid all the towelling, was not as I remembered it. In the morning light, she was a quite different proposition from the poised and soignée strumpet climbing aboard an omnibus. Before me stood a child, five feet nothing, in a childish towel gown.
‘May I come in?’
‘You’re a bit eager, aren’t you? I don’t usually entertain gentlemen until after elevenses. Sorry, but I’m not in the mood. Can’t you come back at lunchtime?’
It was not unlike calling upon one’s dentist without an appointment.
‘I have not called on you for – for that,’ I said. ‘I wish only to talk to you.’
‘Talk to me? What about?’ Under her curly brows, she was suspicious. ‘You’re not from some League of Decency?’
‘I come to see you as a friend, nothing more. A friend who brings you only good news. If you’d let me cross your threshold. I have’ – a brainwave struck me – ‘two small gifts for you, and an urgent message that cannot be conveyed on the street. Where, I notice, we are already becoming the object of enquiring glances.’
Two doors away, a vacuum-cleaner truck had halted and its driver was speaking to a rough-skinned matron in a housecoat and fluffy mules at number 10. Both were watching us with interest.
‘Don’t mind that old sow. You better come in. And if all this stuff about presents and news and messages means that I’ll be staring at some purple monstrosity two minutes from now, I swear to God I’ll bash it with a teaspoon, all right?’
Dazed by this onslaught, I entered the house, through a hallway filled with bicycles – one parked, as it were, halfway up the wall, hanging from two rusting bolts – and was suddenly in her living quarters.
It was a room such as I’d rarely encountered, even among the habitats of the wretched sisterhood. In one corner was a basin surmounted by a tiny mirror hanging from a nail. In the other, a rudimentary cooking hob with two gas burners was all but concealed beneath a junk-yard of blackened saucepans. Nothing, it seemed, had been washed in weeks. Against the wall, a table, stool and triptych mirror was submerged beneath an accumulation of jars, potions and powder receptacles, dead flowers, tickets, theatrical handbills, scent bottles with rubbery squeeze mechanisms. Every square inch of space was tumbled with the debris of decadence. Torn squares of magazine pages, bearing the likeness of Ivor Novello, ragged pieces of muslin veil, random photographs, undergarments in vivid shades of crimson and aquamarine – and across the side wings of the mirror, a long lilac feather boa was draped like tinsel across a Christmas tree from Gamages store.
The word ‘abandon’ hardly did justice to this wasteland of human depravity. Its centrepiece was the bed that lay before the window through which the noonday sunlight weakly shone. It was huge. Most tarts of my acquaintance count themselves fortunate to possess a single bed with a soft mattress and pillow, rather than a hard divan and a bolster. Miss Harris could boast a king-size bed, opulently arrayed with cotton sheets, a satin counterpane, an over-blanket in green chenille, and half a dozen pillows that would not have disgraced a Byzantine seraglio.
‘OK then,’ she said, sitting in the edge of the bed. ‘Where’s these little presents?’
I dug through the inner folds of my coat. From the Gifts Pocket, I located a small bar of Evening in Paris guest soap in a decorative box (special offer, 3/6, Boots pharmacy). In my Perishables Pocket, I found a bar of the new ‘Crunchie’ honeycomb-and-chocolate sweetmeat, and gave both to her with grave formality.
‘I offer you these small tokens of my esteem, Miss Harris, to mark the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful alliance, as together we walk the thorny path towards the light that forever gleams –’
‘That it?’ she said, gazing at her gifts with incredulity. ‘Small is right. I never been given a bar of chocolate by a gentleman before, not since I was ten. As for the soap,’ (she sniffed it suspiciously), ‘you’d be better off cleaning drains with it rather’n giving it to a girl and saying it’s a token of your blooming esteem.’
She looked boldly up at me, her brown curls bouncing on her brow like Medusan snakes. ‘You’re a beginner in this game, int’cha? D’you really think you can bribe people with chocolates and scent?’
I was hurt by her tone. All over London I am known for my generosity. In my missionary work, I have showered the Abigails and Idas, the Jennys and Pennys, with sweet-smelling concoctions and treats, until they welcome my arrival in their lives as children welcome Father Christmas. To call my little votive offering a bribe – it was an outrageous slur on my intentions.
‘Oh, don’t look so sorry for yourself,’ said Barbara. ‘I’ve had worse things given to me by gentlemen. And I do like a bit of chocolate round about now.’ She broke off a piece of the orange-brown snack and popped it in her mouth. ‘And I know you wasn’t offering it to get a screw off me – you just wanna talk, right?’
‘Well, if all you want’s a little chat,’ she concluded, ‘you won’t mind me going back to bed. On me own, I mean.’ Upon which, still clad in her towelling robe, she slipped her legs under the sheets, lay back luxuriantly on the pillows and groaned. I feared that she might have suffered some injury, but it was a moan of sluggardly pleasure, as the chocolate melted on her tongue. Her face on the pillow split into a wide smile, like the Cheshire cat’s. A beam of sunshine chose that moment to intrude through the dirty window and settle on her face in a long rectangle of saturated light, falling from brow to chin, bisecting the line of her mouth to make a perfect Christian crucifix.
She closed her huge brown eyes. ‘Lovely sunny morning,’ she observed. I stood by the bed, gazing in wonder, gripped by an epiphany such as I have seldom encountered. Lines from Keats’s ‘Eve of St Agnes’ settled on my heart – that moment when Porphyro, hidden in his beloved’s chamber, discovers her at her prayers:
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast, As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon; Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together pressed, And on her silver cross soft amethyst, And on her hair a glory, like a saint: She seemed a splendid angel, newly dressed, Save wings, for Heaven – Porphyro grew faint; She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.
Never was a romantic sentiment less appropriate to its context than Keats’s words to this reeking boudoir, with its debris of flimsy undergarments by my feet, its indescribable cheap vests and grey bloomers half concealed by the huge bed. Yet I gazed at the girl as she lay silently basking on her kohl-stained pillow, illuminated by sunlight that seemed to conspire with the contours of her face and, like Porphyro, I too saw an angel there. No other word would do. Her caramel skin was flawless, her teeth, bared by a sensuous smile, were strong. Her hair, newly washed and dried, lay freed from the cloche-helmeted ropes I had encountered at Marble Arch. It curled in rich profusion around her ears and temples.
‘Are you going to stand there staring at me like I’m an exhibit?’ she asked, her eyes still shut. ‘I’m not a piece of merchandise in a bleedin’ shop, you know.’ She laughed to herself, mirthlessly. ‘Well, I mean, I am if that’s what you’re after. But I’m not here for winder-shopping, all right?’
‘No, Miss Harris.’ I recollected myself. ‘I was merely speculating about how you live. I cannot reconcile the apparent squalor of your address with the richness of your sleeping arrangements.’
‘This bed, for example. I am older than you, yet I can only dream that some day I might possess a bed of such magnificence.’
‘Nice, isn’t it?’ She pulled herself upright, plumped the damask pillows into a fat double hillock and leaned back, like a plucky invalid – no, like a young duchess entertaining callers to hot chocolate and muffins at a breakfast levée in the days of Pope and Swift. ‘When I got this room a year ago, courtesy of a gentleman friend, he said, “Here’s a hundred quid, furnish it how you like,” so I blued half of it on a proper big bed. I reckon it’s where I ’ave the most fun by day as well as night, so I might as well get the best.’ She yawned. ‘You know they say people sleep for eight hours a night, so that’s like a third of a whole day? That means you spend a third of your life in bed. With me, it’s nearer half my life. So I like to be comfortable.’
‘Marvellous,’ I said, a little dazed. ‘I had not done the mathematical calculation before.’
‘What’s your bed like then?’ she asked. ‘Since we’re chattin’.’
I was nonplussed. ‘My bed? Why it’s, um, a solid cherrywood double divan for my wife and myself, with a large headboard. It cannot match this one for opulence, though it is very comfortable. The mattress is delightfully soft after a hard day’s labour, and –’
‘Hopeless,’ she said, crushingly. ‘Get rid of it.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Soft mattresses. They’re no good.’
‘No good for screwing on. No good for the old fucky-doodah. You can’t get any friction, or purchase, or whatever the word is. Soft bloody mattresses, they ride along under you, they go boingboing-boing up an’ down, but they’re no use if you’re into deep penetration, are they? I’m sure you knew that once, even if you managed to forget it down the centuries.’
I was unbothered by her rudeness. Few things are more delightful than provocative conversation with a young woman.
‘Sit down here,’ she said. ‘See what I mean?’
I sat down, keeping my coat about me for fear of misunderstanding. The mattress was indeed a splendid combination of suppleness and give, like the sprung dance floor at the Strand Palace Hotel.
‘Pass me the hairbrush,’ she said, pointing to the floor. I found it between an ivory silk camisole and a single balled-up stocking. She tilted her head and began to brush her damp locks.
As she did so, the front of her towelling robe opened a good four inches. I looked away, discreetly. My gaze fell upon a plate of breakfast debris, easily a week old, wherein a curdled mess of scrambled egg had been impaled by a cigarette butt. Revolted, I turned back to my hostess. Her left breast lay revealed from the white robe. As she brushed her hair, stroke after languorous stroke, her head on one side, her eyes shut once more. Her left hand caressed her white bosom.
‘I must go,’ I said. ‘I should not have intruded on your toilette. Forgive my impertinence.’
‘There’s no need to rush away, Henry,’ she said. ‘I still don’t know what you’re doin’ here, but if you’d like to give me a bit of a fondle – well, I shouldn’t mind. You’re nice company in a funny sort of way.’
‘Harold is my name,’ I said sternly. ‘And, as I have said, I have not sought your address in order to slake some carnal appetite. I am interested in you, Miss Harris, because you are a clever young woman doomed to a life of exploitation, the result of some wrong turning you have taken. I wish only to find out more about you, in order to rescue you from sliding further into moral disarray. I came here today to say that I am at your disposal, to guide, to advise, to befriend, to offer you a map out of the labyrinth of –’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ said the girl. ‘I’ve heard it all before. Lot of my older clients say the same thing.’ She adopted a music-hall voice of gruff, masculine gravitas. ‘“Let me take you away from all this, my dear. Let me find you a charming apartment just over a flower shop in Balham, where you won’t be a common tart no more, you’ll just be my personal private tart.” But I never said yes. I prefer to have my own place and entertain whoever I like.’
‘But, Barbara –’
‘Yes, Harold, go on then, explain how, “Oh no, it’s all different with me, I’m not like other men.” I collect excuses from men all over the place.’
The time had come to lay my cards on the table.
‘I am different, Miss Harris, because, you see –’ I drew in my breath and exhaled, with a certain drama – ‘I am a pastor, who wishes only to care for you and bring good things your way.’
‘Pastor? What’s that? Is that what they use to make milk taste better?’
‘A cleric, my dear. A clergyman. A priest. I am the rector of a parish in Norfolk called Stiffkey. But I tend to spend my working days attending to the needs of girls – ladies – in troubled circumstances in London.’
‘Oh, a sky pilot,’ she said. ‘Well, you didn’t act like one when we met. Why didn’t you tell me then? Where’s your dog collar?’
‘I tend not to wear one when going among the lower elements. Some of them find it … intimidating. A priest can be an alarming figure of authority, as well as an unwelcome reminder of the sanctity they have lost.’
‘Right,’ said Miss Harris. ‘So when you meet young girls on the game, you don’t tell them you’re in the Church, and you don’t tell ’em you’re going to save their souls either. So who do they think you are, apart from a stranger who might or might not be a client?’
‘A friend,’ I said, as gently as I could. She had such need of a true friend, for all her brash ways.
‘Oh yeah?’ She sat up in the bed with a rivalrous glint in her eye. ‘And in your friendly way, you take ’em for chops and mash in a café – and then what?’
‘Sometimes I offer them sustenance, it is true,’ I confessed, feeling a little defensive. ‘Sometimes I take them to the theatre. Many of my young charges have a romantic passion for the stage.’
‘Well, very nice of you, I’m sure. Young girl, in London, down on her luck, making a few bob off gentlemen callers, gets asked out to a West End play by charming gent in long coat, no strings attached, after which he’ll buy ’er supper then he’ll walk her ’ome, will he, and expect nothing in return?’
‘Right so far,’ I said shortly. I do not take kindly to being interrogated by children too young to vote.
‘And that’s it? Harry, I mean, who’s kidding who ’ere?’
I smiled at her. St Augustine himself must have encountered just such blank hostility, when conducting his saving ministry.
‘There is no question of “kidding”, Miss Harris,’ I said. ‘My strategy is simply to befriend these unfortunate girls, to become their ally and intimate, to establish close relations with them –’
‘I’ll say you want close relations. Close enough to get into their knickers.’
‘– in order to save them from a life on the streets, to find them work, to reunite them with their parents, to reveal the possibility of a better life. Perhaps a young girl such as you has never entertained the possibility that simple Christian altruism might govern human behaviour.’
‘Altruism. It means doing good to others without thought of recompense.’
‘And you get no reckon pence, do you, for all this work, and theatre dates and dishing out money for lamb chops?’
‘So at the end of the evening, they never give you a little kiss?’
‘I –’ I was not sure where this line of enquiry would take us. ‘I would not discourage any show of affectionate gratitude, within, of course, the bounds of decency.’
‘But would you encourage it, when they say, “Oooh, Harold, you’re so good to me,”’ (she adopted a fey, mincing tone, as of a child who has been bought an ice cream in Hyde Park), ‘“here’s a big kiss for all you’ve done for me, and there’s plenty more where that came from if you was to take me to the Adelphi on Saturday night”?’
I rose from the bed, aware that my hand on the counterpane was in close proximity to her unshielded breast.
‘I am a servant of Christ, Barbara. I am the rector of a flock who depend on me for guidance and enlightenment. It is no part of my morally directed strategy to solicit kisses from young women.’
‘But you do, don’t you?’ Her beautiful brown eyes were suddenly narrowed to unappealing slits.
‘I have a tactile nature. Many of these girls lack a father, or at least a father figure. I see no harm in enfolding them, occasionally, in the tender embrace of the Church, to reassure and soothe their flighty hearts, to offer them a solace that no other man of their rude acquaintance might bring.’
‘Aha! I knew it!’ she said. ‘The old harmless squeeze. We all know where that’s heading, don’t we?’
‘Not at all. My occasional embraces are paternal.’
‘So you don’t sleep with them?’
‘You just kiss them and hug them and leave it at that?’
A small tintinnabulation in my head told me it was time to move on from this potentially compromising discourse.
‘I told you I had an urgent message to convey to you,’ I said in a bustling tone. ‘It is this. My friend Lady Fenella Royston-Smith, a long-standing benefactor and supporter of the charities I have set up to help fallen women and runaway boys in the metropolis, wishes to meet you. She has agreed to introduce me to a couple of noble philanthropists, but to convince them of the importance of my work they wish to meet an example of the, ah, ladies I seek to help.’
‘Okey-dokey,’ said Barbara. ‘But I still don’t see why she’s invited me. I don’t think I know anyone called Fenella.’ She frowned. ‘Plenty called Smith of course.’
‘Do you not see, my dear Miss Harris?’ I said, my voice dropping to a confiding whisper. ‘This is your chance to move from your unfortunate occupation to a better life. To leave behind the sordid stews of prostitution, and find a position more worthy …’
Her eyes blazed. ‘I think it’s time you got one thing straight, Harold.’ She swept back the counterpane and stood before me, five foot nothing of child-woman self-righteousness. ‘I am not a bloody prostitute. Have you got that? Maybe I sleep with people, maybe I have sex with people I’ve just met, and maybe they might give me a little present now and again, to buy me a hat, but that’s it. I have boyfriends, lots of them, and they can stay here sometimes because they’re good to me and I like them. But I’m not flogging my body down alleys all night long, and I can’t be had just for money. And if your Lady Fifi What’s-’er-name wants to summon me round to some scabby hotel to show me off as a cheap tart, well, she can fuck right off, and so can you.’
Our conversation ended shortly afterwards. I will not inscribe in these pages the language used by Miss Harris to dismiss me from her premises. It was a fruitless encounter. I was unable to launch my usual campaign of prayers and spiritual exercises to cleanse her spirit. I could do nothing but try to defend my modus vivendi against this brazen, argumentative young wanton. I have never met a more obdurate sinner, so iron-clad against every prompting of moral decorum. Hopeless. I shall certainly not waste my time like this ever again.
London 17 September 1930
The papers are full once more of the exploits of Miss Amy Johnson who, after her remarkable circumnavigation of the globe in May, and her extended sojourn in Australia, has appeared back in London, to loud huzzahs. Frankly, I have been sceptical about the number of women who have taken to the skies in the last few years. Lady Heath, Lady Bailey, the elderly but intrepid Duchess of Bedford – their exploits in flying alone to far-flung bits of the empire, from Cape Town to Zanzibar, have become so commonplace, they seem merely a variant of the phenomenon of titled ladies racing sports cars at Brooklands, exchanging their Fortuny evening frocks for the problematic livery of mannish shirts, trousers and hideously unflattering goggles.
I have incorporated into my sermons the modern fascination of flight, and all the competitive, yearning spirit of women piloting their juddering crafts into hostile terrain, into Kalahari wastes and Nepalese foothills. I explained to the Stiffkey congregation on Sunday that all this aerial wanderlust is merely an emblem of mankind reaching for the heavens, trusting to the instruments on the dashboard, the ailerons and rudder, to steer them through the dangerous elements of wind, rain and gravity. Thus we all try to fly heavenwards on our journey of life, trusting to the guidance of Christ and the teaching of his apostles to carry us safely through the buffetings of corruption and sin. The less enlightened pilots may feel only a secular joy in flying above the territory of earth on which they once laboured, carried away by the exhilaration of freedom and amazed to feel they can land in Tartary or Samarkand in a matter of hours. But I know that their true impulse is not one of escape but of transcendence. They wish not to depart
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