Excerpt: Aloise by Medini Summers
Author: Medini Summers
‘Whitechapel be a bed o’ roses compared to the Seven Dials.’ The lanes and alleys of the Seven Dials, City of London, are noisome with putrid decay and dark, devilish deeds. Mired in prostitution and violence in this human cesspit-privy, Aloise is reckless to escape. To avoid the specter of starvation she must sell her only asset. And to remain independent of the Cash Carriers, she is goaded into a fatal assault on her protectors.
Fortuitously, a flicker of hope arises, emigration to a far exotic country – New Zealand. However, the Canterbury Colonization Society demands an upright character and respectability. Aloise’s profession is discovered and her application for NZ denied. Eventually, Caroline Chisholm, a philanthropist, adopts Aloise as a sound, strong-minded prospect for the new colony. She is offered free passage and a contract of employment with John Jones of Waikouaiti in the Province of Otago, South Island, New Zealand.
A voyage aboard a square-rigged schooner, ‘Isabella Hercus,’ awaits.
Medini Summers has been writing for twenty years. Two books have been published in traditional format, five novels are now on Amazon Kindle Books and two collections. Medini lives in quake-wrecked Christchurch beside the ocean with her sister and five feline companions.
London – Seven Dials:
I do wish he would hurry on, I think, mentally totting me costs for the week. Me four shillin, what I is now earning, is tucked up safe in the inside pocket I stitched for the purpose, just below me left titty. I leaves the buttons undone when I is ticing to add a bit of the old allure. Then I cin shove me shillins in me safe place afore the business takes place. There’s me rent – two shillin, food – four shillin, bath house – sixpence, and clothes – eighteen pence. I gotta put something away for a new gown. This here be worn to a friz.
The young gent, with whom I be cavorting, against the wall of the very grim Boyd’s alley, which cuts between Great St. Andrews and Queen Street, begins to pant. He speeds up the action, bumping me against the damp stone wall. His legs is bent at the knees, because I ain’t very tall. It must be blooming hard work, but he don’t seem to notice. I would say he’s too wild, but I’ve had worse. A person does have feelings, after all. But stead of complaining, I croons to him, “There’s me beautiful man, that’s loverly, come on,” rubbing frantically on his tail-coated back. The encouragement speeds up the coursing charger, who dashes to the post a clear winner.
What a relief. But stead of whisking off to me next job of work, I tends to him, professional like; straightens his upright collar, ties his neck cloth into the pretty winged arrangement, what fashion dictates, smoothes the gold and red vest, picks up his topper and brushes the muck off it, before returning it to his wavy-haired noggin. “Nice titfer you got, sir. There, that’s better. Don’t tell your missus. Will I see you at Evans, same time next week?”
“Very likely, pretty Aloise. But don’t look for me outside. I’ll meet you round the corner at one of the clock.”
“Ow!” That’s put me in me place. Musn’t be seen with em what’s above me. Me filth might taint em, being that they is so respectable.
“Are you all right?” inquires my gentleman of the night publics, “I was a bit on the rough side.”
“Never you mind, sir. I be fair enough. I’ll walk you back to your carriage, ifin you don’t mind.” This seems as good a scheme as was ever invented, us being protection for each other. I ain’t scared of the shadders, but with the state of him, if he meets a bludger or a blagger, he’d be dead meat. Saucy minx that I am, I takes his arm and we march along as happy as you like, just as though we was a real couple. Only, he is dressed for the toff and I is – well… We saunter up Queen Street, past me very own building and on toward St. Georges.
Even though Queens is a main road way, it still be narrow, the tall, wretched tenements leaning drunkenly (they be on the grog) over the mud-paved track. It’s hard to say what keeps em standing; probably the filth. It glues em together. And the stink. The smell be worse in the back alleys, where all manner of filthy rubbish has accumulated – old weges, dead cats and dogs and the night buckets, which is emptied there. There’s a masma, a thickness in the air, that’s so solid you could cut it with a knife. Out on Queens, it be positively haromatic. We toddle across Neal Street.
“Do you like living in St. Giles, little Aloise?”
I looks up at him utterly at a loss. “Well, sir, it be a perticular beautiful part of the city,” I say with a smirk. I adopt me cultured tone of voice, the one I be learning to put on to suit me high-stepping clientelliers. “You can have a very fine view to the countryside.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. Where can I do that?”
So I explains, “Top of Great St. Andrews at number fifty two, from the window of the garret on the fifth floor. You can see the tops of the trees beyond St. Giles.”
“Aloise! How droll! What a funny creature you are!”
“The likes of me cin afford to be funny.”
By now, we are approaching Evans Hotel on Dudley Street. His carriage has just arrived. Evans has a low dark entrance, no ornament, and no sign that it be a place of entitainment. So it’s only them what’s in the know that gets to go in. Supposed to fool the bobbies, but it ain’t shassing no one.
“I’ll leave you here,” he says hastily. “I’ll see you next week, Friday evening.”
“Morein likely, sir.”
I watch him cross the street safely, then inside the vehicle, miffed for having me charade of the ladylike companion cut short. “Just you wait, Mister Freddy, whatsishandle. One day, when I’m a lady, I’ll be looking down me snoz at you and your kind. When I’m respectable. When I have earned me place by me very own cleverness.” This Freddy ain’t so high n mighty that he cin look down on the likes of me. But he do and so do almost everyone else. I be from the dung heap, the lowest of the low, a trollop from the Rookeries.
After he’s been carried off, I bethink meself of me next employment. I is still four shillin short for the week, so I had better gird me loins, lure another fine reveller to those very parts. It’s getting a bit late for me trade, only a few stragglers be trickling out. I won’t be able to charge much. By another hour I be all done up, having been standing about for most of the night, one way or t’other. Trying to look beguiling hour on hour, be the worst on it. But if I doesn’t pot em tonight I’ll be on the cadge again tomorrow. Gotta stick it out or I’ll be hungry before long.
Submerging me loathing ain’t working no more. It’s worming its way inside. It’s filling every part of me. If I continue in this way for much longer I’ll become like the other hussies.” Those gin-soaked filallies, what don’t care about anything. If you ask em, they’ll tell you, they’d just as soon be dead. The only thing what keeps em going is the grog. They love it. It’s their god, their dearest friend. They got no feelings whatsomever. In fact, they’re dead inside. As these women gets older they loses their looks and their price goes down. They drifts into the cheaper areas, where it’s more than likely they’ll get their froats cut. How many of me friends have ended up in the fleet ditch? That’s where I be headed, sure as cheese. No doubt I will deserve it.
I sigh with frustration, miserable and cold. It don’t look like no trade be coming me way tonight. Just about all the late clients of Evans be drunk and not inclined for the dabbing. I’m a thinking again. Lou’s sharp now. I be well known for being able to look out for meself. I don’t take the white satin to console me, but I sure have been tempted. Neither have I worked in a disorderly house, just to be preyed on by them Abbess and Abbot. I keeps meself independent. That way me shillins is mine.
I be lolling against a doorway at the top of an alley, just beyond Evans Hotel, when an iron arm goes round me froat. Before I cin shout I be on me back, with a heavy boot on me chest. It pushes down on me windpipe, until I am choking, then eases off.
“C’mon, tart, cough up. Where’s your takings?”
Thinking fast, I squeak, “Got nothing. I spent me last sixpence on a pie from Cock ’n Pye Pie Shop round on Great St Andrews.”
“Your lying! C’mon, where’ve you hidden your coin?”
The nasty looking cove, with a grizzled face, has a billycock and a flash waistcoat. He obviously fancies himself. This one starts groping round me skirts, but I chose the hiding place well. The coins be packed in tight so they don’t jingle.
I gotta do something quick. “Now look here, gents. I is well and truly got. Since I don’t have the means to pay you I will offer payment in kind. How would that suit you?” I sees they’s wavering. They’re really after coin. But me charms have won the day, because, by this time, they be on display for all to view. That be what decides it. First the cove gets stuck in, then his sidekick, a part Blackamore, hauls me up, having a good try at grinding me into the wall.
“Yer our tart now,” the billycock says, most jolly, when the testing of goods is done. “We’ll be back, soon as a gown can be arranged to suit yer ladyness. You be workin fer us after this.”
“Not likely,” I mutter as limp as a rag doll. “I be working for meself. You’re not having me shillins.” With a nasty grin the cove slips down the alley, his Blackamore at his heels.
“Bastards!” I cry after them, shaking me fist. Those coves be cash carriers, sure as hell. They’ll show up again to try to git me on their side. “Devils, bloody beggaring men! You can’t! I’ll never let you get the better of me!” I’ve had a frightful lapse in me concentration – what was the cause of this cerfuffle. I’ve bin stupid. Me innards has turned to mush and the creeping misery is claiming me mind, a sick disgust that has me ready to vomit. However, I didn’t get a walloping and me shillins is safe. Now me thinking be in terms of comfort. I drags me weary body back toward the Dials.
It’s darkish in Great St. Andrews, but some carts is plying, their lazy donkeys plodding slowly up from the Garden with their loads of cabbages and spuds. Art Chimsey, me perticular friend, is setting up his stall, in his usual spot, in hopes of getting ahead of the rest. This clever fellow is also a chaunterer, having copies of his songs to sell at a penny a sheet. I cin see em poking out from beneath the taters. He do sing as sweetly as any blackbird whatsomever. Art, by his cleverness, makes enough dookin to feed his four chavies. His wife be a laundry woman.
“Evening, me old cock sparrer,” I chirp, glad of a friendly face, at least one that will not rob, wallop or cheat me. “It’s good to see you, Arty. Makes me think things are not so bad after all.”
“Morning, me little darling, me lady Aloise.” He does a comical bow of deference. “You look as though yer bin through the mill.”
“So I have, so I have, but I don’t want to talk on it.”
“That’s alright, I’m sure. I wish I could help. I keep tellin yer, Lou, you’re too good for this here life. If anyone deserves somethin better, it be you. Let me escort you home, me dear.”
Arty’s words always lift me, reminding me of a better life. If it weren’t for the likes of him, where would I be? “You’re too kind, Arty, me old friend. But don’t leave your stall. They’ll be down on it like a flock of swine. I’se hungry and I’m after a pie and a sup of something.”
“Keep away from the liquour, darlin, you know you should. Yer can’t be a lady if you’re a drunk. Ifin you start to imbibe, you’ll put yerself in danger. Keep sharp, me good gal. It’s the only way to go. Have you heard about Bessie?”
“No, Art, what’s up?”
The sludge inside me belly twists up into hard knots. “Not, Bessie. Our little Bessie. No, dear lord, where will it end?”
“Bessie Bird were a drunk. It were only ever a matter o’ time. Ifin you can’t think straight, how are yer to look out for yerself?”
“Ae, I know, Arty, I know.”
Though, I’m thinking I’m not up for advice, me friend Bessie’s fate has rattled me thoughts. Arthur Chimsey’s cautions are well meant. I pass by the bird fanciers’ emporium. The turtle doves, blackbirds, parrots, thrushes, larks and canaries are belling in a chorus of wakening. I do wonder at their joy, when they are imprisoned in their tiny cages. Puppies for sale in the back of the premises is doing their squeaky, lonely bark. I feels sorry for em all, shut up in their cages. I would free em if I could.
Next the birds, is the print shop, what pressed Art’s song sheets during the night. They also do religious tracts. If that’s what you is about. After that is the aquarium then more bird shops. A surly clobberer is lurking in his shop doorway before getting on with the day. He’s the second-hand wizard, rejuvenating old coats, hats and sich like. Several more of the same kind, then the translators’ establishments. I knows something about that trade. Beyond are the rag and bone lurks, filled with every kind of rubbish, dark and dingy. I would never lower meself to purchase clothing from em. Mostly they sell to the factories at Leeds, where the rags is munched up and has wool added, so that a new type of cloth can be churned out. Clever that.
Next the clothing dives, be the Cock ’n Pye Pie Shop. At once me heart lightens, because they makes me favourite game pie. If I sneak in the back door, I cin get one for cheap. I peer in the wide glass winda. Within, everything is clean, lamplight flooding the rows of bread loaves on the wooden shelves, ready for sale at nine of the clock. Sliding in the back kitchen, I see that Sim is just removing a paddle of pies from the big clay oven, where the embers is glowing brightly. Snapper, his prentice, gets me a piping hot game pie, as big as me face, wraps it in an old pamphlet and relieves me of me sixpence.
“Loverly!” I exclaim. “Thankee! Thankee!”
“Come on, Lady Aloise, outa here. There be no room for gawpers,” Sim chivies. “We have fifty more pies to bake.” He gives me a friendly shove toward the back entrance. I be loath to go. ’Tis a favourite place of mine. The warmth, the aromas of fresh-baked pies, the cheerful, golden lamplight; me spirits rise just a bit. Lucky they have, because next door is the grog shop. Me mind has bin focused on knocking back a drain of the golden liquour. Stuffing me face, I walks straight on by and up toward the circus of the Dials. Arty’s words have had their effect. What a dear fella he is, even if he does go on a bit. He’s only looking out for me.
I cin see the column on which the dials used to rest, each prong pointing to one of the lanes. The seven diverging roads of that circus are Great and Little Earl Street, Great and Little St. Andrews Street, Great and Little White Lion Street and Queen Street.
Beggars are huddled in doorways, some consumptive, some starving. But I is immune to that. However, I do drop a crust beside a bleary-eyed child, who exposes one weepy ball. She plucks up the morsel to force it into her tight little maw. The chile be beyond saving. The food ain’t going to help. “What a waste of me delicious pie!” Ignoring the loungers against posts, the same ones I saw yesterday, like they’ve got their name graved on their very own post, I fetch up at the circus court of the Dials. There be donkey cart owners, beggars, blaggers, loiterers, chavies and pedestrians taking up their daily vigils; crooked night time hoperators and worn out tarts are returning home to their rest in the tenements, hovels and cellars of the Rookeries.
Here I espy me friend, Lawless Letty, a harlot of fearsome reputation, a woman who’se the accepted leader of the street girls of the Dials. Dear Letty does her utmost to take care on us, fighting those who would abuse us mostly fiercely. She’s as strong as an ox, beating many a big beggar in a bout of fisticuffs. She’ll be out to get the evil bastards who did for poor little Bessie Bird. I’m almost feeling pity for what’s a coming to em.
“Aloise! Have you heard about Bessie?”
“It were just a matter o’ time. She never was a survivor. Not like you and me, Lou.”
Letty’s scarred eyebrow twitches, her crooked nose sniffs as tears fall from her black eyes. Her boat-race is battered from all the routs she’s been a part of. “You should let this be a warning, me deary. You should get out of here as soon as you can. I’ve always said, Lou, you‘re the one whose most likely to make a go of it.” She takes me arm in her vice like grip. “Some toff is going to fall for yer. You could get married and be secure for ever more. Have a nice house, servants and all, be the lady in yer own little domain.”
“The only codger who’se going to marry the likes of me will be some wizened up old blighter who can’t get a decent woman. Who wants to be married anyway? I don’t need it. I’ll make me own way. To be tied to some beastly man for evermore – uh!”
Ignoring me protests, Letty says, “What if you liked un, Lou. Marryin might not be so bad. Remember how Bessie used to go on. She wanted to fall in love, get married and have a swag o’ baby birds.”
“And look where that got her. If she’d been tougher. That nonsense just weakened her. Love! It’s not for the likes of us.”
Letty looks at me for a moment. “Bein tough might suit me but you ain’t that kind, me lovely.”
“Gor blimey, Letty, you don’t half go on. Leave it off.” Letty gives me one of her fierce hugs, the only kind she knows and slopes off in pursuit of the murderer of Bessie Bird. “Stick it to the beggars, Letty!” I shout. “Give em one for me!” She’ll get em right enough. Just as she gets her tups, frightening the gents into it then forcing em to pay her above the usual fee.
Away I trot down Queen Street to me rickety, rackety building, half way along. There be the usual assortment of rag and translator emporiums, then the print shop. I takes a look at the flyers and handbills for entitainments. There be theatre, an artist what will draw your phisog for half a crown and a sheet about emigrating to somewhere called the Canterbury Settlement.
Within this flyer be a picture of a fine vessel, fully rigged, and the words – ‘Emigration of the Working Classes.’ Arter that, there be something about the Archbishop of Canterbury, a list of names, then – ‘The Association of Canterbury will grant Assisted Passages to Port Lyttleton in the Canterbury Settlement in ships to sail during February & March to a limited number of Working Classes, being Gardiners, Shepherds, Farm Servants, Labourers, and Country Mechanics. The Emigrants must be of the highest Character for Reliability, Steadiness & Respectability, as certified by the Clergyman of their Parish. Full particulars, (smaller letters) with forms of Application, may be obtained from the office of the Canterbury Association, 9 Adelphi Terrace, London. H. F. Alston, Secretary.
Distractedly, I thinks on the weirdy notion of emigrating to a new life in a far away land. The thought sends shivers up me back. Then I lands back to meself with a crash. Certified by a clergyman – the likes of me. And I don’t have a trade like what is listed on the sheet. Though, this gal is in a trade, being of great service to humanity. But it be no more recognised than a turkey’s service to gluttony. We be reviled, the lowest of the low. Though, that be only by em what’s above us. Round here, my profession be most common and acceptable.
Dismissing this notion of escape from me present lot, I enter the black doorway of me lodging; it be crusty with mouldy, greasy, black filth. I climb the apples, which be rotted and lurching in places then come to me door on the third floor. I flicks me key out from amongst me coin to let meself into me tiny room. It has a low bed with a worse for wear, straw mattress and a patch-worked, woolly blanket, made of linen and wool, a family treasure, folded neatly at its foot. This little touch gives the chamber a welcoming appearance. Add to that the dried-out, dusty flowers pinned to the dirt-blackened walls – it has a homely feel. A meagre morning light struggles through the grimy, cracked casement. Old rags are stuffed into several holes in the glass. If I could only get the landlord to fix it, but the Jews aren’t known to respond to our pleas. The floor be modestly clean. I does it with a little brush, what I have purchased. Should the winda open, I would throw the muck out into the street. As it is, it gits shoved into the corner. This is where I chucks me pie wrapper. I be thirsty, but there’s no water. I gets it at the bath house tomorrow. I’d rather die than take the water of the canals. That’s where the foul stuff of the alleys empties. Some as stands that water in a bucket for several days till the muck sinks to the bottom, then scoop the water off the top for drinking and cooking. That be a fair way to kill yourself.
With that waggish thought, I flops on the bed, coddles meself in the patchwork and scrunches up tight against the cold, swooning away from me pleasing reality. A dream born on the hopeless wishes of Bessie Bird slips below me defences. I is walking hand-clasped with a handsome youth. Strangely pleasing feelings invade me senses. Sweet sensations fill me body. The dream shifts and warps into darkness. The covey bastard is looming over me, shaking a tawdry piece of chiffon in me face. “You’re ours now, Aloise. We own yer body. Your soul belongs to us.”
“No, you can’t have me. Not you or any man,” I shout, the disgust coiling in every part of me. “I’d sooner die.” I wake sweating in the cold room.