Read an Excerpt
The Beggar Bride
By Gillian White
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Gillian White
All rights reserved.
Silk, satin, muslin, rags.
This year, next year, sometime, never.
Coach, carriage, wheelbarrow, muckcart.
Rich man, poor man, beggar man ...
But they never would let poor Ange stop at the first prune stone so soggily parked on the side of her plate, although she detested the wrinkled things. Prunes. Runes. D'you think that if they had, her future might have been brighter? I mean—look at her now, look at her and her beggar man sleeping.
PRH—Letters entwined, their legs and arms immodestly touching like three lovers frisking in bed. What can they possibly mean?
Are these the initials of lovelorn fools dead and buried long ago in some leafy country churchyard or memories chiselled into the bark of some great forest oak? A dainty embroidery upon a Victorian pillowcase perhaps, or could the emblem be etched on the back of a silver heart on a chain, or cigarette case? I wonder ...
No, nothing so coy I'm afraid, merely the monogram of the Prince Regent Hotel, done in moulded plastic and stuck on the door of a small whitewood wardrobe with a round, metallic handle just too large comfortably to accommodate a hand.
A souvenir of the days when the Prince Regent Hotel was grand, with a canopy over the door and the servants lived on the top floor. None of the staff live in any more, not even the chambermaids.
Now it awakes like a puffing beast uncurling from its basement lair. Steam from its mighty boilers rises to meet a cold London dawn the colour of mother-of-pearl tinged with fleecy cloud. The increasing sound from the tiny lorries and vans and taxis way down below are the first signs of a new day dawning.
But these are not the sounds that wake poor Ange this morning. She turns and turns in her bed, needles of feeling, and her eyes only open to the cries of children and the pounding of feet in the corridor outside. Listen to that. The smell in the room is of mouldy carrots withering. It always smells like this when the cardboard food box is empty—bananas from the Windward Islands. She wakes, as usual, with a measure of disbelief that she, who dreamed, who once wanted so much, has come to this. If Eileen Coburn, her last and most proper foster mother who paid for all those elocution lessons and showed her how to make lemon mousse so that Ange might not let the family down at barbecues in front of their friends, if Eileen, with her melony boobs and her skin of peaches and cream, should see Ange reduced to this she would flinch with a stab of superior disgust.
Ange wakes with the idea still with her, an idea so potent, so gripping that she wants to go back to sleep and stay with it. Starved of hope for so long, she can no longer think of it without a shortness of breath, a pounding of her heart and a hunger in her throat that is almost a sickness. A fantasy, certainly, but sometimes you have to depend on your dreams. She cannot share it, oh no, not yet, it's so new it feels agreeably conspiratorial. She must concentrate on something else to quiet the surge of life that makes her hand shake so.
Billy, already awake beside her, lies flat with a fag in his mouth and his eyes hard on the ceiling. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief?
Is he, too, nursing a secret dream? She is loath to interrupt him.
'What time is it?'
'Give it ten minutes and the bathroom'll likely be free.'
Thank God little Jacob is sleeping. Between seven and eight is the worst time. Then it's a frantic battle if he's early and needing his bottle with Ange calling, cursing and caterwauling with the rest of the women in cardigans and bare feet, to get the pan to the taps, the night nappies to the slop bucket, herself to the loo while she's got the chance, and the chain won't work because of the rush.
Hey, maybe there's time for her to have a smoke, a peaceful smoke while she's got the chance.
'Come on, give us one, Billy.'
He leers at her. Sexy thing. Only joking, with his curls bobbing around his face. And puts a fag in her waving hand. 'Clap hands, Daddy comes, with his pockets full of plums.' But Billy wouldn't think to put plums in his pockets to bring home to his family. And if, by some off chance, he found his pockets full of fruit he would try to exchange it for Samson Shag.
It doesn't take long for the small, narrow room to fug up like carriage B on an Intercity train. Billy suffers a fit of coughing. The sturdy iron radiators come on at full blast at 6.30 am and to open the window means admitting the roar of the rush hour racket. Between the double bed and the cot, between the wardrobe and the cooker, there's only a passage of thinly carpeted floor left, a lick of brown. Baby Jacob mainly lies and kicks on the bed ... it's big and lumpy and he loves it. He has learned to roll over by himself and he'll soon be crawling, the nurse says, and then he'll be clamouring to get to the corridor, the bright-red, noisy world outside this room.
Ange's heart takes a tumble—they can't stay here, they can't lie in today and watch all those hours of boring telly like worn out, wasted people. At ten o'clock they have to be at the housing office, the only way to get to see them is by appointment and she made an appointment by phone last week. She hasn't told Billy yet. The very thought of it—getting there, queuing, dealing with the forms, their complacency and their questions—is all too much for Billy, he is so used to drifting along with circumstances that never change, waiting for some new factor that never, ever emerges.
'There's no point,' he'll groan, 'and it's cold out there.' He'll shiver, clutching her to him, grinning, 'No, stay here and cuddle with me.'
'But we have to try,' she'll urge him, shrugging him off like a mother with an embarrassing, clinging child, 'Billy, look at it, it stinks, it's foul, we can't stay here!'
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. They can't stay here in this room out of time, out of place. Jacob can't be allowed to grow up here. He is paying attention now, and laughing and making talking sounds. Oh God, no, don't let his first precious memories be formed here.
'Jesus, don't wake him!'
'Don't worry. I'm not going to wake him!' She climbs over Billy, wincing as the hard woven floor pricks her feet. Her thin, overwashed nightdress hides nothing. She takes her brown mac from the hook on the door, revealing the rules of the house in plastic-covered yellowed card, as she does so.
The management request:
Hah, that's a laugh. None of the fire doors will open.
The management request:
that all televisions and radios be off by 11.30 pm, as a courtesy to fellow guests;
that the back staircases are used by residents up to the sixth floor where the duty lifts are available;
that the cooking of food in rooms is conducted strictly between the hours of 7 am and 8 pm;
that residents pay due regard to decent standards of cleanliness at all times;
that residents' children are properly controlled;
that residents do not use the hotel bars or dining-rooms or guest telephones.
If only she could make requests in that imperious way and stick them on doors and walls all over London.
Angela Harper requests:
that all buses wait at the stop until she gets there;
that she be the first in every queue;
that all the delicatessens close down and become supermarkets instead;
that next Saturday they win the lottery.
The thin red-carpeted corridor, all pattern perished long ago, stretches into the distance like a long and steady sadness. Only the white BATHROOM AND WC signs break the solid red line, and a few brown doors, propped open. Ange wends her way between bouncy balls, pedal cars and folded pushchairs. A crying child sits snottily against the wall, parked and harnessed tight in an old pram.
She's in luck today. Only three women with children queue for the lavatory sign to show free, and she doesn't mind waiting five minutes. In the meantime she fills her pan, still occupied with her secret thoughts. Some of the women look awful, pale, haggard and tired, hair fraught and undone. Their hands, at their children, are hard and quick. No time for softness as they go about these necessary morning ablutions. She doesn't know many of them well, they come and go, guarded women with frightened eyes, no time, no time for gossip, not the place for friendships.
There's thieving. There's violence. Most of them will resort to anything for money.
And some are well known to cause trouble.
Ange has known another life, a better, softer, gentler life. Eileen Coburn would call it a sad waste, she'd accuse her of 'ending up here', but she's not ended up anywhere, ended up suggests no future at all. When does fantasy become reality? When the need drives hard enough? Hers is a driving determination but is her ambition large enough to carry her through the obstacles?
But perhaps there will be good news today. News of a flat, a place of safety for her and Billy and Jacob. She sniffs. Newly painted ... in cream and beige, or pink and white, with a fluffy carpet and armchairs, second-hand if you like, Ange isn't fussy. And a kitchen where you can hang your pots and pans from a pine beam, like she's seen in magazines, and have room on the table for a potted plant or a bowl of flowers or a blue jug.
Perhaps one day, they used to say to each other.
Not any more.
Or a house, even, with a garden. And if Billy is too tired to mow the lawn then Ange will. Hell, she can even smell the mowings now, and they might have bonfires in the autumn, duffel coats and wellington boots ... and this is not just a dream any longer but forming the brink of a more aching hunger ...
Oh yes, she's old-fashioned, Billy is always telling her so. And no one gets married these days, but Ange had insisted, she did not want her baby to be born out of wedlock. Billy could jeer as much he liked. She changed her name from Brown to Harper just three weeks before Jacob's premature birth, four pounds in weight and lucky to live, but he's never caught up no matter how hard she tries. Still tiny after six months in the world. They criticise her when she goes to the clinic. They say they don't mean it that way, that she's over-sensitive, but she almost stopped going because of it, afraid and ashamed to take part in the competition between the mothers. Just married. She'd dragged Billy to the register office, swollen, hobbling, hardly able to keep herself upright and to think she had dreamed of a church with roses.
She keeps the Baby Belling top clean with tin foil.
'What's the bloody hurry?'
'We're going out,' states Ange.
'I'm not going out,' says Billy. A kind of attack.
'We are all going out,' Ange says bossily. 'To the housing.'
Typical. He thinks she's joking.
Ignoring him, she continues to dress while the pan of water bubbles to the boil. Inside is Jacob's bottle of milk and his jar of breakfast cereal. They will use the boiled water for coffee. Waste not want not.
'You shouldn't use these expensive brands, Angela my dear, you're not stupid. Surely you know that a proper cereal breakfast, with some toast, perhaps, and an egg, would be far better for Jacob now he's getting that little bit bigger.'
Balls. So what does Sandra know, ugly old frump, miserable old spinster? Easy to say, when you're in work and you've got the facilities. Social workers are well paid, aren't they? How's she going to get fresh milk daily when it's heavy to carry and difficult to manage, like huge packets of cereal, when you're climbing up six flights of stairs with pushchair and child? The milk would go off in no time, and powdered's cheaper, it lasts longer. And eggs and babies are so sodding messy ...
At least she knows that these Heinz foods have all the right vitamins and minerals. Just because they're poor and homeless Jacob's not going to suffer any more than he has to!
'We have to keep pestering, you know that. And we're moving up the list, that's what they told us last time.'
'They tell you what they want, just to see the back of you.'
'Billy,' Ange says strictly, brushing her long night-black hair ready to pin in an untidy knot, 'we're going. And while we're out you can look in the job centre again.'
'Shit, Ange, I was there last week ...'
'Or I will.'
She's not going to put up with this. She's not even going to discuss it. She's heard his arguments so many times but other people get jobs don't they? OK, they're not the sort of jobs you'd choose, but one thing leads to another and who knows? You can't be negative all the time.
But Billy can.
She puts her arms around his neck and snuffles his ear and tells him everything is all right.
Ange has worked it all out. There are only a few ways to be free and she's ruled out all but one.
Look at them now, this little family. The dispossessed. The homeless. What do the Harpers possess which they could utilise in a practical manner to break free from their present shackled predicament? What do they have of value in today's cruel, money-dominated world?
Forget about particular talents. Qualifications. Ambition. Power. Forget it.
What they have is Angela's beauty and no, she's not being vain, and nor is her beauty the sort to exist in the eye of a few aesthetic beholders. Hers is a topical, up to the minute, Marie Clare, Elle kind of beauty. Since childhood she has been beautiful and up to now it has always been something she's tried to underplay and regarded as a handicap, personal experience taught her this. She keeps her beauty shabby, scrubs it and wraps it in second-hand clothes. She deprives it of make-up. For the wrong kind of men are attracted to beauty, and women dislike it, distrust it.
Many times, just lately, she has wondered if she should have been a model ... when you read what they earn, my God. But her one experience of that twisted world had turned her off it for life. Encouraged by Billy she had screwed up her courage and crept down to the basement studio, following the arrows, attracted by the advertisement.
She must be naive, she thought, when the young man asked her to take off her clothes. She ought to have known she would have to do that. As a model it was something she would surely have to get used to.
She posed, blushing to the roots of her hair, on a furry stool that twizzled round, and when he asked her to rub her nipples to make them stand up, she obliged.
'Oh you're lovely,' leered the acned young man, moving her into new and ever more shameful positions. 'I'll be in touch as soon as the pictures develop,' he told her before she stumbled back up the steps, puce with embarrassment.
Of course he was never in touch.
'Soft porn,' snorted Billy who is supposed to be streetwise. 'Should've guessed. We've been had. You'll be circulating in men's mucky pockets for a couple of quid by now.'
She could feel the shreds of tobacco, the sticky sweet papers, the dirty, useless, one penny coins. She could taste the metal in her mouth. 'I should have stayed on and taken my exams,' said Ange, 'instead of shacking up with you.'
Ange is fed up with being dependent, desperate, taken for a ride by politicians, landlords and fly-boys.
Old people are miserable because they could have had fun but they didn't. Scared. Trapped by worry and responsibilities. Ange and Billy had fun.
No one can say they never had fun.
The trouble was getting pregnant.
Now she feeds Jacob with her back propped against the wall, slumped across the bed, watching Billy's reluctant progress. His clothes go on as they came off, T-shirt and sweater bonded together, pants and jeans as one. Not bothering to queue in the bathroom he brushes his strong white teeth in the saucepan water, now tepid. He pushes a flannel over his face, runs a comb through his tangled blond hair.
Oh, he might be a screwball but she loves him, she loves him. She can't blame Billy, not for anything. Billy has done his best. If there'd been work he would have taken it. He'll put his hand to anything, hod-carrier, dishwasher, cleaning on the Underground, waiter in a Pizza Hut, and once his boyish good looks got him a job as doorman at a tourist hotel, far posher than this one. He wore a splendid uniform and looked like a drummer boy in a picture, brave, proud and good, on his way to war with a flag. The wages were poor but the tips were amazing. But then they discovered that he had no licence and was moving customers' expensive cars. He is so unlucky. Something always goes wrong to bugger him up, not his fault.
What will he think when he hears of her plans? Are they plans?
Excerpted from The Beggar Bride by Gillian White. Copyright © 1996 Gillian White. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.