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Chapter OneCopyright © 2005 by Linda Holeman
I had been put to work for men by Da in the winter of my eleventh year. He was dissatisfied by the small wage I earned at the bookbindery and had recently been laid off his job at the rope makers for turning up tip one too many times and spoiling the hemp in spinning.
It was a wet November night when he arrived home with Mr. Jacobs. I suppose he met him in one of the public houses; where else would he meet anyone? I heard Da say the man's name over and over, Mr. Jacobs this and Mr. Jacobs that. One or both of them were stumbling, and the knocking into the few pieces of furniture, as well as the loudness of their voices, woke me from my sleep in the blankets I laid down behind the coal box each evening. It was warmer there, close to the fireplace, and I felt I had at least a tiny degree of privacy in the one rented room on the second floor of a sagging dwelling off Vauxhall Road, in a court on Back Phoebe Anne Street.
"She's here somewhere," I heard Da say, "like a wee mouse, she is, scurrying about," and then, before I had a chance to try to make sense of why he would be looking for me, I was dragged out of my blankets and into the middle of the low-ceilinged, candlelit room.
"I thought you said she were eleven." Mr. Jacob's voice was hoarse, the words clipped with impatience.
"I told you right, Mr. Jacobs. Past eleven, now. Had her birthday well before Michaelmas."
"She's awfully small. Not even much of a shape to her yet."
"But she has a quim, sir, that you'll find soon enough. It's just delicate she is, a delicate slip of agirl. And she's a right pretty lass, you can see that for yourself," Da said, pushing back my long hair with calloused hands and pulling me closer to the candle in the middle of the table. "Where have you last seen hair like this? Golden and rich as summer's sweetest pear. And like I told you, she's pure. You'll be the first, Mr. Jacobs, and a lucky man indeed."
I pulled away from him, my mouth opening and closing in shock and horror. "Da! Da, what is it you're saying? No, Da."
Mr. Jacob's thick bottom lip extended in a pout. "She's nothing special. And how do I know you haven't duped a hundred men before me, you and her?"
"You'll know you're the first, Mr. Jacobs. Of course you'll know. Tight as a dead man's fist, you'll find her."
I yanked my arm away from Da's grasp. "You can't make me," I said, backing toward the door. "You'll never—"
Mr. Jacobs stepped in front of me now. He had only a ring of graying hair and the top of his head shone greasily in the flickering light. There was a cut, crusted over with dried blood, on the bridge of his nose. "Quite the little actress, aren't you?" he asked. "You can stop all your bluster now. You'll not get a penny, you nor your father, if I find you're not what's been promised."
In one stride, Da took my arm again, pulling me into a shadowy corner of the room. "Now, girl," he wheedled, "it's bound to happen sometime. And better here, in your own home, than somewheres out in the rain in a doorway. Many a lass does help out her family when they've fallen on hard times. And why should you be any different?"
Of course I knew a number of the older girls from the bookbinders—as well as those from the sugar refineries and the glassmakers and the potteries—who worked a few hours now and then on the twisting narrow streets down by the docks to bring in extra shillings when money was short at home. But I had always known I was different. I wasn't like them, I told myself. It was in my blood, this difference.
"Come on now. He'll pay handsomely." Da put his mouth to my ear. I smelled the sourness of his breath. "You know we've no other way, what with me put out of the job. I've always looked after you; now it's your turn to bring something in, something more than the few pennies you earn. And it's no terrible thing. Weren't I buggered meself, over and over on the ships, when I were not much older than you? And it did me no harm, did it?"
I backed away again, arms wrapped over my chest. "No, Da. Mum would never—"
Da grabbed my upper arms, giving me a rough shake. "There'll be no talk of your mother."
At an impatient snick from Mr. Jacobs, Da called over his shoulder, "Now, sir, sit yourself there, on the settle, and I'll talk some sense into my lass here."
But of course there was no talk that made sense, only—when I screamed "You can't make me" and tried to run for the door—a knock across my jaw that sent me flying. I felt my cheek hit the damp cold of the floor and then I knew nothing more until I was jarred back to consciousness by hot, urgent breath on my face. My shift was pushed up around my waist, and Mr. Jacobs's body was heavy on mine. His rhythmic rutting scrubbed my bottom painfully against the splintered wood of the settle and the top of my head banged against the wall with each thrust. The searing inside of me was a fresh explosion that matched his grunts, and I saw the corresponding throb of the blue vein that ran down his forehead, thick and raised as a great worm. Sweat gleamed on his upper lip, even though the fire was out and the room cold as a tomb.
But almost worse than the pain and horror of what was happening at the mercy of Mr. Jacobs was that Da—when I turned my head to look for him, hoping he might somehow be moved to come to my rescue—watched from his stool, his face fixed in a look I'd never seen before, one hand busy under the table.
I turned away, squeezing my eyes tightly, and lay limp under Mr. Jacobs. I knew I should fight but was strangely detached. My body burned raw at its center and yet my mind tripped and ran, stumbling away from Mr. Jacobs's pulsing vein and the image of Da staring with that strange attentiveness. And then I heard my mother's voice, faint but clear. She recited the second stanza of The Green Linnet, the Wordsworth poem that had been her favorite, and from which she drew my name:
One have I marked, the happiest guest
In all this covert of the blest:
Hail to Thee, far above the rest
In joy of voice and pinion!
Thou Linnet! in thy green array,
Presiding Spirit here today,
Dost lead the revels of the May;
And this is thy dominion.
I heard it in its entirety three times, and just before the start of its fourth repetition Mr. Jacobs gave a great shuddering groan and lay still until I feared I would be smothered. I wanted my mother's voice back, wanted to hear her again, for while I listened my body had become numb, but now she was gone, and with the absence of her voice I grew aware of everything with a terrible clarity. I felt the position of my legs, splayed impossibly wide, torn wetness, pain I had never known or imagined, Mr. Jacobs's unbearable weight. I heard the fretful wail of the baby in the room next door and the rattly breathing of Mr. Jacobs. I smelled the rankness of his flesh. I kept my eyes closed so that I saw dark starbursts on my inner lids. It seemed that time had stopped.
Finally he moved off and away but I stayed as I was, eyes shut, unmoving through the rustle of clothing being fastened and the exchange of a few words and then the rasp of the door scraping along the floor as it opened and closed.
More minutes passed, and I carefully pulled my knees together, my fingers trembling as I pulled down my shift, and still, without opening my eyes, lowered myself to the floor and crawled on hands and knees back to my little nest behind the coal box. The only sounds in the room then were my father's muttered counting and the clink of the coins and the sputter of a dying candle. I lay on my side and twisted my blanket around me, knees brought up to my chest and hands tucking my shift into the bleeding, sticky mess between my legs, weeping for my mother even though she'd been dead for a whole year, and for what was forever lost.
Later that night, when I lit a candle and washed away the dried blood and spunk from my thighs, I swore that I would never again cry over what a man might do to me, for I knew it would do no good. No good at all.
I was born Linnet Gow, although known as Linny Munt. My Christian name was given to me by my soft and dreamy mother, Frances Gow, thinking of the songbird with its twenty-four variations of a note. Munt was the surname of the man who took her in four months before my birth.
Ram Munt, the man who sold me that first time—and through the next two years—wasn't my real da, and not even my stepfather, for he and my mother had never married. He was, however, the only father I'd known, although I knew he never looked on me as his daughter. I was simply Frances's child, a burden, someone who needed to be fed.
Ram Munt had two favorite stories. The first was about his years aboard ship. He'd been little more than a boy, come alone to Liverpool from a small village in the north. Looking for a better life, he was caught by a press-gang and hauled aboard ship for an eight-month voyage. There he was introduced to sea life in the cruelest way. When the ship eventually returned to Liverpool and dropped anchor, he tried to run but was caught by another press-gang before he'd even left the docks. He sailed again but by this time he was older and stronger and wouldn't be bullied. By the time his second voyage was over the sea was in his blood and he worked on board until he had been injured one too many times by rolling barrels and the cruel, swinging hooks and the sudden mishaps on rising and falling slippery decks, and there were younger and stronger and more agile men than he to be taken on. He was hired as a spinner at the ropewalk near Williamson Square after that, his thick, damaged fingers still able to deftly wind the hemp fibers together and walk them down to the end of the room to wrap them around the reel, repeating the process all day. He retained his coarse shipboard language and his back bore the scars of many lashings, and his hands smelled of pine tar from dipping the ropes to make them stronger.
His other story was about how he'd come to take in my mother and he told it more often than his sailing tales, usually late on a Saturday night after he'd spent all evening at the Flyhouse or Ma Fenny's.
He'd pull my mother and me out of our bed—she preferred to share a pallet with me, although Ram still called her to him a few times a week—and make us sit at the table and listen while he recounted his tale of heroism, of how he'd found my mother one wet spring night. With a bully's thrust of his chest he'd go on about how he'd discovered her, drenched to the skin and wandering in the rain without a penny to her name.
Mother kept her head lowered as he told his story. She was always tired, exhausted after her fourteen-hour days at the sewing press in the Pinnock Room at the bookbinders, surrounded by piles of schoolbooks waiting to be covered: Goldsmith's England, Mangnall's Questions, Carpenter's Spelling, and, of course, the towering stacks of Pinnock's Catechisms.
"I was never one to turn away a maid in distress," Ram would go on. "I took her in, didn't I, took her in and gave her a meal and a strong fire to warm herself. She might have been proud at one point, aye, but it didn't take long to persuade her that my roof and my bed were a damn sight better than what waited for her out in the streets."
Sometimes he changed the details; in one version he stopped her as she was about to throw herself off the miasmal banks of the River Mersey into the cold gray water. In another he fought off a band of longshoremen who were trying to force themselves on her in the shadow of the old grave dock where the ships of the slave trade had once been repaired.
"In due time I even let her use my name, so she didn't have to carry the shame of a bastard child," he'd go on, looking into my face. "This is where you come from," he'd usually add at this point, glaring at me now as if I were about to argue. "And don't you forget it. No matter what fancy tales your mother puts into your head, you were born and raised on Back Phoebe Anne Street. You've the smell of the Mersey in your nostrils and you've been marked by the fish; there can be no mistake about the origins of one what bears the mark of the fish. You're the daughter of a sailor. Any fool could figure that out."
He was referring to the birthmark on the soft skin on the underside of my forearm, just above my wrist: a small, slightly raised port-wine stain in an elongated oval with two small projections at one end. It did have the shape of a tailed fish, I had to admit, but I didn't believe it had anything to do with the blood that coursed through me.
While the man I then called Da ranted this old and tedious story about his saving of my mother, I sat, like her, impassive, but only because she kept her cool thin hand on my arm, her broken thumbnail, rimmed with ink, absently stroking my birthmark. It was so much harder for me to sit quietly than it was for her, and I don't believe it had anything to do with my age. I saw then, young as I was, that she had nothing left in her to stand up to him or anyone; she accepted Ram Munt and his rude manners in a way I couldn't understand. I burned with shame for her and with hatred for him for as long as my memory went back.