Aberdeen, Autumn 1878
Deafening roars of laughter rent the room, drowning out the clatter of metal colliding with wood and the scream of shock as four pints of ale sloshed into the lap of an unsuspecting man.
Katy cursed as her hands slammed the tabletop, the tray slipping from her fingers. Its contents flowed freely across the table and dripped onto the now empty chair. The man had leapt to his feet, snarling about the state of his breeches, trying furiously to wipe off the excess.
Gingerly, she straightened up, her wrists ached and she felt something at her ankle. Looking down she saw her boot, poking from beneath her underskirt, caught in the end of a walking stick. An old man doubled up with laughter was pulling senselessly at it, not to remove it, but to add to his amusement. Hell bent on attempting to make her fall further still.
She realised that someone was talking to her. Through the haze of smoke, the continuous laughter and banging of fists it was hard to be sure.
‘Are you hurt?’
The companion of the man she had just covered in four tankards of beer was addressing her kindly.
‘I’m just fine,’ she muttered, extricating her ankle from the offending stick. She picked it up and slammed it in front of the old man.
‘Watch where you put it in future,’ she said.
The laughter intensified. Katy grabbed the tray and returned to the bar. No physical hurt was manifest, she felt only deep humiliation, the ground opening to swallow her up couldn’t happen soon enough.
She avoided the stare from the man waiting behind the bar. He seemed intent on filling more flagons but she knew he was watching her closely.
‘It’s only for one night, lass,’ he said.
She perceived the faintest trace of concern in his voice.
‘You said that three weeks ago and I can’t take much more of this.’
The man didn’t reply.
‘I thought you had this in hand?’ she said, ‘you told me you’d found someone.’
‘Well, I have,’ said the man, defensively ‘it’s just taking a bit longer, but you’re doing fine, you’ll get used to it.’
‘I don’t want to get used to it!’ said Katy, ‘you promised I’d never have to do this, it’s your work not mine. I thought you wanted me to be a ‘lady’? What was the point of all those ridiculous lessons, all that money? For this! You can kiss goodbye to that stupid notion, what ‘lady’ ever worked in an inn serving vermin like this? I don’t know what kind of lady you were dreaming of.’
‘Hush,’ muttered the man, ‘just don’t worry, it’ll be fine you’ll see, trust your old dad.’
Katy loaded another tray, clanging down the tankards with irritation. Beer frothed over the sides and trickled down the cold pewter. That was his answer to everything, he always assured her, everything would be fine, but was he ever right? She’d endured enough, following his dreams, picking up the pieces of his life.
Noisy banter had resumed accompanied by fist banging and the occasional song, in no recognisable key. Tankards clanged one to another with punctuating toasts of ‘slange’. She wove between the tables carrying the fresh tray, avoiding the route with the offensive stick. The thick air obscured her vision and partly hindered her progress, it was almost as good as being part invisible, her progress went unnoticed until…
‘Over here, lass!’
Cries from the corner, coupled with more fist banging.
‘Aye, mind and no trip now!’
More roars and guffaws, a few wolf whistles.
She continued slowly, maintaining the little dignity she had left. The bustle she usually cursed proved a godsend as filthy pinching fingers from each passing table missed her flesh by a good few inches.
‘You’re a bonny one!’ yelled a grubby man from the corner table, his tangled beard looked infested.
Katy laid the tray on the table, not acknowledging the comment.
‘Aye, shame you canny keep yer feet! You been on the ale yersel’ tonight!’
Ignoring him, she lay the tankards on the table.
‘Where’s the other lass?’
‘Ay, you’re a new one!’
‘She’s ill,’ replied Katy, lifting the tray and making to head off.
‘Ill!’ replied the fattest occupant. The loudest roar of the evening ensued, one of the men seemed close to a fit, or maybe he was really choking. She couldn’t bring herself to care. If he choked it would be one less piece of scum to deal with.
‘What’s wrong with her?’
The fat man could hardly get the words out through his inebriated hooting.
‘The clap!’ roared the grubby beard, ‘no, I know, she’s got a bun in the oven!’
‘Ay, and I heard it was the baker that done it!’
The roars rent the air and Katy took the opportunity to leave.
Her path was obstructed by the man she had covered in beer.
‘What are you going to do about this?’
He indicated his soaked breeches, the sodden patch was in a very unfortunate position.
‘Take them off and I’ll hang them in front of the fire,’ suggested Katy.
The man stared at her, filled with outrage.
‘Don’t give me any of that sauce, how dare you.’
She raised her eyebrow, ‘well, what do you expect me to do? You can go stand in front of the fire wearing them if you like?’
‘It was your fault,’ snapped the man, ‘you should do something.’
His companion was tugging on his sleeve, indicating he should sit back down but he took no notice.
‘My fault?’ said Katy, ‘my fault that some old fool left his stick poking out? You think I did it on purpose? I only walked this way to throw beer all over you?’
‘Actually,’ interrupted Katy, ‘if I’d known what an arrogant devil you were I would’ve come and chucked the beer down you, or better still, up ended it over your insufferably ugly face.’
She left the man gaping, as she neared the bar she heard him calling, ‘you haven’t heard the end of this, mark my words.’
She ignored him, accepting another tray.
‘What was all that about?’ asked her father, ‘you better not go upsetting the customers, I’ve got a reputation to keep up.’
‘Ha,’ scoffed Katy, ‘like I need to be careful, you’re good at ruining that yourself.’
She lifted the tray and conveyed it to a pair of weathered old fishermen, one of them so ancient he was practically a corpse, his skin gnarled and lined deeply like an old oak.
He nodded, as she laid a foaming mug before him.
‘Ye’re a good lass,’ he croaked, nodding compulsively, ‘hold yer pretty head high and you’ll do well.’
She smiled. He seemed almost childlike as he raised the pint tremulously to his lips, she didn’t believe in signs or fortune-telling but she liked the look of him. She decided to believe him, at least for the night. Tonight she would hold her head high and try do well, to please the old man. Apart from the man with sodden trousers, he was a special case.
Feeling heartened, she returned to the bar. The door in the passageway banged. Expecting further guests, she began lifting tankards from the shelf below the bar, the door banged again, then again.
‘Go and shut that flaming door!’ her father’s voice boomed.
‘Yes, your royal majesty,’ she grunted
She made to slam the heavy door but stopped suddenly. A huge flash rent the dark sky followed by a long low rumbling. She felt a slight breeze brush her face then the slow tap of raindrops started to patter on the cobblestones. Another flash lit the sky, the rain steadily increased as the thunder rumbled on.
‘Shut that flaming door will you!’
Her father appeared behind her, a menacing look on his face.
‘I’m doing it, I was just watching the lightning.’
‘Lightning? Good! That’ll keep the punters in here for hours, we’ll make a fortune.’
Katy slammed the door so hard that the groans of thunder were momentarily drowned out. The rain began to lash the mullions very heavily; it was audible even over the rowdy band in the corner. They’d started a new game, roaring at every flash of lightning then counting loudly and deliberately in unison, waiting for the thunder clap. Each time declaring that it was getting closer, or must, at this very moment, be right above them. In order to play this game properly they needed more ale.
Every inch of their filthy clothes and grubby faces disgusted Katy. They had week’s worth of dirt smudged across their mugs, with shiny beads of sweat making streaky marks. But she marvelled at their ability to count in order after the amount of liquor they’d tossed back that evening.
As she returned the empty tray to the bar, she heard the door in the passage banging again. Before her father could yell, she headed for it. Swaying slightly, it creaked in the wind and raindrops beat the edge of the mat. She slammed it fast. No sooner had she clicked it shut but it opened again, she made to push it but met resistance. She let go.
A smartly dressed man carrying a small case entered.
‘I’ll thank you, young lady, to let me in,’ he said, with a crack like a whip in his voice, his well-cut coat was saturated and beads of rain dripped from the brim of his top hat. He hastened to take it off, shaking the excess water onto the doormat. ‘I am quite wet enough as it is, if you insist on shutting me out on the street I’ll probably drown.’
Katy bit back the word good. She remembered that she was ‘doing well’ tonight and did her best to look pleased, not offended, by this comment.
The man was looking around the gloomy passageway, he looked totally out of place in these grim surroundings. His face was clean, so clean he looked pale and ghostly, his hair neatly combed and his short sideburns were trimmed to fit his face perfectly. Apart from being soaked with rain, his clothes were immaculate, he might have walked out of the tailor’s five minutes before. His expression however was unimpressed.
‘This is a boarding house?’ he said, looking sceptical.
‘An inn,’ said Katy.
‘Is there a difference?’ he said, not troubling to hide his disdain, ‘in essence they’re the same. You have rooms?’
‘Good, I require one. This weather has completely scuppered my plans.’
‘I’ll check,’ said Katy. She knew there were rooms free, but making the man worry that he might have to continue out in the rain, or even drown, gave her a mischievous pleasure. She chanced a look back before she entered the bar, he was looking about with an air of deepest apprehension. Perhaps he’d never been anywhere so deficient in his life or even imagined such a place could exist.
A smart spoken customer in his hallway called for dramatic action. Katy’s father whipped off his apron and almost knocked her over in his haste to meet the guest. Katy could hear his voice talking gently in the passageway, she hoped the well-dressed man had brought lots of cash, he was about to be fleeced for all he was worth. Of course if he objected to the terms, he could always try his luck out in the rain and who knew where the next boarding house was to be found.