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The week before christmas, the smell and taste of it were in the air, a kind of excitement, an urgency about everything. Geese and rabbits hung outside butchers' shops, and there were little pieces of holly on some people's doors. Postmen were extra busy. The streets were still gray, the wind still hard and cold, the rain turning to sleet, but it wouldn't have seemed right if it had been different.
Gracie Phipps was on an errand for her gran to get a tuppence worth of potatoes to go with the leftovers of cabbage and onion, so Gran could make bubble and squeak for supper. Spike and Finn would pretty well eat anything they could fit into their mouths, but they liked this especially. Better with a slice of sausage, of course, but there was no money for that now. Everything was being saved for Christmas.
Gracie walked a little faster into the wind, pulling her shawl tighter around her. She had the potatoes in a string bag, along with half a cabbage. She saw the girl standing by the candle makers, on the corner of Heneage Street and Brick Lane, her reddish fair hair blowing about and her arms hugged around her as if she were freezing. She looked to be about eight, five years younger than Gracie, and as skinny as an eel. She had to be lost. She didn't belong there, or on Chicksand Street-one over. Gracie had lived on these streets ever since she had come to London from the country, when her mother had died six years before, in 1877. She knew everyone.
"Are yer lorst?" she asked as she reached the child. "This is 'Eneage Street. Where d'yer come from?"
The girl looked at her with wide gray eyes, blinking fiercely in an attempt to stop the tears from brimming over onto her cheeks. "Thrawl Street," she answered. That was two streets over to the west and on the other side of Brick Lane, out of the neighborhood altogether.
"It's that way." Gracie pointed.
"I know where it is," the girl replied, not making any effort to move. "Me uncle Alf's bin killed, an' Charlie's gorn. I gotta find 'im, cos 'e'll be cold an' 'ungry, an' mebbe scared." Her eyes brimmed over, and she wiped her sleeve across her face and sniffed. " 'Ave yer seen a donkey as yer don't know? 'E's gray, wi' brown eyes, an' a sort o' pale bit round the end of 'is nose." She looked at Gracie with sudden, intense hope. " 'E's about this 'igh." She indicated, reaching upward with a small, dirty hand.
Gracie would have liked to help, but she had seen no animals at all, except for the coal man's horse at the end of the street, and a couple of stray dogs. Even hansom cabs didn't often come to this part of the East End. Commercial Street, or Whitechapel Road, maybe, on their way to somewhere else. She looked at the child's eager face and felt her heart sink. "Wot's yer name?" she asked.
"Minnie Maude Mudway," the child replied. "But I in't lorst. I'm lookin' fer Charlie. 'E's the one wot's lorst, an' summink might 'ave 'appened to 'im. I told yer, me uncle Alf's bin killed. Yesterday it were, an' Charlie's gorn. 'E'd 'ave come 'ome if 'e could. 'E must be cold an' 'ungry, an' 'e dunno where 'e is."
Gracie was exasperated. The whole story made no sense. Why would Minnie Maude be worrying about a donkey that had wandered off, if her uncle had really been killed? And yet she couldn't just leave the girl there standing on the corner in the wind. It would be dark very soon. It was after three already, and going to rain. "Yer got a ma?" Gracie asked.
"No," Minnie Maude answered. "I got an aunt Bertha, but she says as Charlie don't matter. Donkeys is donkeys."
"Well, if yer uncle got killed, maybe she don't care that much about donkeys right now." Gracie tried to sound reasonable. "Wot's gonna 'appen to 'er, wif 'im gone? Yer gotta think as she might be scared an' all."
Minnie Maude blinked. "Uncle Alf di'n't matter to 'er like that," she explained. " 'E were me pa's bruvver." She sniffed harder. "Uncle Alf told good stories. 'E'd bin ter places, an' 'e saw things better than most folk. Saw them fer real, wot they meant inside, not just wot's plain. 'E used ter make me laugh."
Gracie felt a sudden, sharp sense of the girl's loss. Maybe it was Uncle Alf she was really looking for, and Charlie was just an excuse, a kind of sideways way of seeing it, until she could bear to look at it straight. There was something very special about people who made you laugh. "I'm sorry," she said gently. It had been a little while before she had really said to herself that her mother wasn't ever coming back.
" 'E were killed," Minnie Maude repeated. "Yest'day."
"Then yer'd best go 'ome," Gracie pointed out. "Yer aunt'll be wond'rin' wot 'appened to yer. Mebbe Charlie's already got 'ome 'isself."
Minnie Maude looked miserable and defiant, shivering in the wind and almost at the end of her strength. "No 'e won't. If 'e knew 'ow ter come 'ome 'e'd a bin there last night. 'E's cold an' scared, an' all by 'isself. An' no one but 'im an' me knows as Uncle Alf were done in. Aunt Bertha says as 'e fell off an' 'it 'is 'ead, broke 'is neck most like. An' Stan says it don't matter anyway, cos dead is dead jus' the same, an' we gotta bury 'im decent, an' get on wi' things. Ain't no time ter sit around. Stan drives an 'ansom, 'e goes all over the place, but 'e don't know as much as Uncle Alf did. 'E could fall over summink wifout seein' it proper. 'E sees wot it is, like Uncle Alf said, but 'e don't never see wot it could be! 'E di'n't see as donkeys can be as good as a proper 'orse."
Not for a hansom cab, Gracie thought. Who ever saw a hansom with a donkey in the shafts? But she didn't say so.
"An' Aunt Bertha di'n't 'old wif animals," Minnie Maude finished. " 'Ceptin' cats, cos they get the mice." She gulped and wiped her nose on her sleeve again. "So will yer 'elp me look for Charlie, please?"
Gracie felt useless. Why couldn't she have come a little earlier, when her gran had first told her to? Then she wouldn't even have been here for this child to ask her for something completely impossible. She felt sad and guilty, but there was no possible way she could go off around the wet winter streets in the dark, looking for donkeys. She had to get home with the potatoes so her gran could make supper for them, and the two hungry little boys Gran's son had left when he'd died. They were nearly old enough to get out and earn their own way, but right now they were still a considerable responsibility, especially with Gracie's gran earning only what she could doing laundry every hour she was awake, and a few when she hardly was. Gracie helped with errands. She always seemed to be running around fetching or carrying something, cleaning, sweeping, scrubbing. But very soon she would have to go to the factory like other girls, as soon as Spike and Finn didn't need watching.
"I can't," she said quietly. "I gotta go 'ome with the taters, or them kids'll start eatin' the chairs. Then I gotta 'elp me gran." She wanted to apologize, but what was the point? The answer was still no.
Minnie Maude nodded, her mouth tightening a little. She breathed in and out deeply, steadying herself. " 'S all right. I'll look fer Charlie meself." She sniffed and turned away to walk home. The sky was darkening and the first spots of rain were heavy in the wind, hard and cold.
When Gracie pushed the back door open to their lodgings in Heneage Street, her grandmother was standing with a basin of water ready to wash and peel the potatoes. She looked worn-out from spending all day up to her elbows in hot water, caustic, and lye, heaving other people's wet linen from one sink to another, shoulders aching, back so sore she could hardly touch it. Then she would have to lift the linen all again to wind it through the mangles that would squeeze the water out, and there would be some chance of getting it dry so it could be returned, and paid for. There was always need for money: rent, food, boots, a few sticks and a little coal to put on the fire, and of course Christmas.
Gracie hardly grew out of anything. It seemed as if she had stopped at four feet eleven, and worn-out pieces could always be patched. But Spike and Finn were bigger every time you looked at them, and considering how much they ate, perhaps no one should have been surprised.
The food was good, and every scrap disappeared, even though they were being careful and saving any treats for Christmas. Spike and Finn bickered a bit, as usual, then went off to bed obediently enough at about seven. There wasn't a clock, but if you thought about it, and you were used to the sounds of the street outside, footsteps coming and going, the voices of those you knew, then you had a good idea of time.
They had two rooms, which wasn't bad, considering. There was the kitchen, with a tin bowl for washing; the stove, to cook and keep warm; and the table and three chairs and a stool. And there was the bench for chopping, ironing, and baking now and then. There was a drain outside the back door, a well at the end of the street, and a privy at the bottom of the yard. In the other small room, Gracie and her gran had beds on one side, and on the other they had built a sort of bed for the boys. They lay in it one at each end.
But Gracie did not sleep well, in spite of being very nearly warm enough. She could not forget Minnie Maude Mudway, standing on the street corner in the dusk, grieving for loneliness, death, a donkey who might or might not be lost. All night it troubled her, and she woke to the bleak, icy morning still miserable.
She got up quickly, without disturbing her gran, who needed every moment of sleep she could find. Gracie pulled on her clothes immediately. The air was as cold as stone on her skin. There was ice on the inside of the windows as well as on the outside.
She tiptoed out into the kitchen, put on her boots, and buttoned them up. Then she started to rake out the dead ashes from the kitchen stove and relight it so she could heat a pan of water and make porridge for breakfast. That was a luxury not everyone had, and she tasted it with pleasure every time.
Spike and Finn came in before daylight, although there was a paling of the sky above the rooftops. They were full of good spirits, planning mischief, and glad enough to eat anything they were given: porridge, a heel of bread, and a smear of dripping. By half past eight they were off on errands for the woman at the corner shop, and Gran, fortified by a cup of tea, insisting it was enough, went on her way back to the laundry.
Gracie busied herself with housework, washing dishes, sweeping, and dusting, putting out slops and fetching more water from the well at the end of the street. It was cold outside, with a rime of ice on the cobbles and a hard east wind promising sleet.
By nine o'clock she could not bear her conscience anymore. She put on her heaviest shawl, gray-brown cloth and very thick, and went outside into the street again and down to the corner to look for Minnie Maude.
London was an enormous cluster of villages all running into one another, some rich, some poor, none worse than Flower and Dean Walk, which was filled with rotting tenements, sometimes eight or ten people to a room. It was full of prostitutes, thieves, magsmen, cracksmen, star-glazers, snotter-haulers, fogle-hunters, and pickpockets of every kind.
Oddly enough, the boundaries remained. Each village had its own identity and loyalties, its hierarchies of importance and rules of behavior, its racial and religious mixtures. Just the other side of Commercial Street it was Jewish, mostly Russians and Poles. In the other direction was Whitechapel. Thrawl Street, where Minnie Maude said she lived, was beyond Gracie's area. Only something as ignorant as a donkey would wander from one village to another as if there were no barriers, just because you could not see them. Charlie could hardly be blamed, poor creature, but Minnie Maude knew, and of course Gracie did even more so.
At the corner the wind was harder. It sliced down the open street, whining in the eaves of the taller buildings, their brick defaced with age, weathering, and neglect. Water stains from broken guttering streaked black, and she knew they would smell of mold inside, like dirty socks.
The soles of her boots slipped on the ice, and her feet were so cold she could not feel her toes anymore.
The next street over was busy with people, men going to work at the lumberyard or the coal merchant, girls going to the match factory a little farther up. One passed her, and Gracie saw for a moment the lopsided disfigurement of her face, known as "phossie-jaw," caused by the phosphorus in the match heads. An old woman was bent over, carrying a bundle of laundry. Two others shared a joke, laughing loudly. There was a peddler on the opposite corner with a tray of sandwiches, and a man in a voluminous coat slouched by.
A brewer's dray passed, horses lifting their great feet proudly and clattering them on the stones, harnesses gleaming even in the washed- out winter light. Nothing more beautiful than a horse, strong and gentle, its huge feet with hair like silk skirts around them.
A hawker came a few yards behind, pushing a barrow full of vegetables, pearly buttons on his coat. He was whistling a tune, and Gracie recognized it as a Christmas carol. The words were something about merry gentlemen.
She walked quickly to get out of the wind; it would be more sheltered once she was around the corner. She knew what street she was looking for. She could remember the name, but she could not read the signs. She was going to have to ask someone, and she hated that. It took away all her independence and made her feel foolish. At least someone would know Minnie Maude, especially since there had just been a death in the family.
She was regarded with some suspicion, but five minutes later she stood on the narrow pavement outside a grimy brick-fronted house whose colorless wooden door was shut fast against the ice-laden wind.
From the Hardcover edition.