The baby was screaming. His cries seemed to crack every wall in the Anchor a further few inches. Katy wondered if Esther would trouble herself to do anything about him. he seemed ready to burst a vein. But as she hadn’t bothered since the second he was born, Katy had little reason to expect this time would be any different. The parlour floor was covered in the remnants from the party that had just left, a working men’s club celebrating an early Christmas. Struggling to clear the place her nerves jangled as her new brother continued to bawl. Eventually she couldn’t take anymore, she stormed up the stairs and into the room. Esther was nowhere to be seen, baby Bill was howling as if trying to empty his lungs for good. His face was red and livid. Lifting him she tried to quiet him. His tiny body stiffened and tensed with each blasting scream.
‘Hush, hush,’ she said, ‘where is your mother.’
She carried him downstairs, where she found her father looking serenely indifferent to the insufferable racket being made by his son.
‘Where’s Esther? She needs to feed him or he’ll bring this place down.’
‘No idea,’ said her father.
She saw half a glass of whisky sitting on the bar, it was too early for punters, was he reverting to his old habits? As she left the bar she caught in the corner of her eye the sight of him downing the rest of the glass, her suspicions were confirmed. Just what she needed on top of all this, her father inebriated once more.
The door in the passageway opened and Esther appeared, her coat was wet and she looked cold.
‘What are you doing to Bill? Why are you making him scream like that? Give him to me.’
Snatching him from Katy, in an unwise move, Katy gasped, she thought Esther had not caught enough of him.
‘As if I’d drop him,’ she said, scornfully. Her expression couldn’t hide her relief that she’d managed to cling to him, ‘I don’t think he likes you, he wants his mummy.’
‘Well, you should be there when he starts screaming for you the next time, where were you?’
‘Getting some air, but it’s too cold and wet to stay out, anyway, I’m allowed to leave the house, I’m not confined any more.’
‘Then take him with you the next time, will you. Some of us have work to do.’
The door clicked open, and without thinking, Katy pushed it shut.
‘And shut the dreaded door properly,’ she yelled, as Esther headed into the kitchen with the screaming Bill.
The door opened again, ‘in the name of…’ Katy began, but a man stepped over the threshold and she stopped dead.
‘Young lady, you seem to have an unfortunate habit of trying to keep your guests out in the cold, it’s a wonder you make a living at all with that attitude. I’d like a room if you please and no trickery this time.’
Katy stared at the man, his face cleaner than ever, eyes like chips of blue-tinged ice and an immaculate coat with a fur-trimmed collar and cuffs.
‘Trickery? I don’t know what you mean?’
‘You know perfectly well what I mean. You can tell me if you have a room free, no need to call the ringmaster. I’ll take whatever room is available, at the standard rate. No ridiculous excess payments for services that I don’t require or that don’t exist. If you play straight, then maybe it’ll be to your advantage.’
Katy tried to read his face, what did that mean? Was he going to tip her royally if she treated him like a duke or was he being facetious? The book remained closed, no change of countenance affected him.
‘Follow me,’ she sighed.
His intense dislike of the place was almost palpable, like a sinister hand creeping up her back.
She let him into the best room, it was still poor compared to his standards, she knew that by the look he cast it.
‘I’ll light the fire,’ she said, ‘it’ll take a while to warm up mind, you can wait in the bar ‘til it warms up if you want.’
‘No thank you, I’m not in the mood for company.’
‘Fine,’ she said.
‘In the morning…’ he said.
‘I know, you want water brought up and ‘good fair’ for breakfast, oh, and a morning paper. Well, I’ll do what I can, your lordship.’
She cursed her wayward tongue for rattling on like that, she needed at least to try and remember her manners but when she managed to raise her eyes to the man’s face she saw a small movement at the corner of his mouth, the very faintest smile, the trace of humour on the well-scrubbed face.
‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘at least you have a good memory, even if your manners are somewhat lacking. And I require hot water sent up directly and supper, in here if you please. As I say, I have no desire for company this evening.’
‘Very good, sir,’ she said, ‘I’ll attend to it right away.’
He nodded as she shut the door.
‘What were you doing up there?’ her father snapped, ‘I’ve been looking for you.’
‘We have a guest,’ she said, ‘he wants supper in his room, I better get him something.’
‘Who is it?’
‘No idea,’ said Katy.
‘Well dressed or a tink?’
‘Just normal sort,’ she lied.
‘Damn, charge him extra anyhow, we need the money tonight. It looks like heavy snow coming, we might not get many punters venturing out tonight.’
‘No,’ said Katy, ‘he’s sorting the money, he already asked me the price, I can’t change it now.’
‘Leave him to me, I’ll go up.’
‘You better not,’ said Katy, ‘he said he didn’t want to be disturbed, if you bother him he might go away and not pay at all.’
Her father stopped with his foot on the bottom step, then sighing, he turned and shuffled into the bar. Before he went in he shouted, ‘if any more guests arrive send them to me, they’re getting charged double tonight.’
Katy headed straight into the kitchen and set a pot up to boil. The leftover food from the party might make a better supper than usual though she knew it was unlikely to please a smart dressing customer like him up the stairs.
When the water was ready, she lugged it up the stairs, not daring to call her father. If he realised who was in this room he would sniff gold and who knew what mischief he’d get up to.
The landing was cold and bare. She knocked, looking at the floor, perhaps with a good scrubbing and some varnish it might clean up not too badly. The door opened, stopping her musings. The man looked down at her, he had removed his coat and jacket and was rolling up the sleeves of a pure white shirt. She wondered what they’d used to launder it so white. His face looked more ghostly than ever next to his dazzling collar.
‘Your water,’ she said, heaving it into the room, protecting her hands with two white flannels that looked grey compared to his white garment.
‘Haven’t you got a man to carry that,’ he said.
‘Yes, but he’s on strike,’ said Katy.
‘Yes, and its good for me to get some exercise, saves me from sitting about getting bored,’ she said sardonically, ‘now, anything else you require before supper?’
‘Very good, shall I bring it up now then?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
She left the room, feeling his eyes following her. She knew what he must be thinking, how rude and insolent she was, but she didn’t care. He may be well dressed but he had no hold over her, there was no need to behave any better than she ever did, if he didn’t like her manners, he could find somewhere else to stay, it made no difference to her.
Returning with the supper, she observed that he had succeeded in scrubbing a further degree of whiteness into his face, his shirt was unbuttoned at the top and his thin neck was just as pale as his face and shirt. She wondered if he had blood. Royals had blue blood she’d heard, maybe this man had white blood, or maybe he was so cold he had none at all.
‘Here’s your money,’ he said, handing her an envelope, ‘if there’s any left over from the price of the room, keep it for yourself. You work very hard, you deserve it.’
She reached out and took the envelope. Their hands touched briefly and she felt a little jolt, his hand was indeed as cold as ice. She wondered as she went downstairs if that was possible, could people have cold blood? Colourless blood? But despite the coldness in his demeanour he had just given her a compliment, told her she worked hard. She couldn’t remember anyone ever saying that to her before, in fact, she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had ever complimented her on anything.
Esther appeared in the kitchen as Katy was removing the money from the envelope. She counted it and her brow furrowed, he’d paid for the room twice over, she couldn’t let him give her that much extra, not just for carrying the water up the stairs, not after she’d abused him so dreadfully and been so rude.
Before she had decided what to do, Esther snatched the money from her hand.
‘Well, this is good. William will be pleased, how many nights is this guest staying?’
‘Eh,’ said Katy, ‘just one.’
‘Really, oh well done, your father was convinced you were too honest to get an extra penny out of him, and you managed to get double, you fly wee beggar. What did you do for it?’
‘Nothing, give it back, he’s overpaid by mistake.’
‘Not a chance,’ said Esther, ‘its all part of little Bill’s livelihood, wait ‘til I show William, how amazing.’
She danced out of the room looking thrilled. Katy leaned on the worktop, she hated crying, she hated weakness and she hated self-pity but it didn’t stop a tear forming at the corner of her eye. It wasn’t even the money that was causing the pain, not really. Everything about this repulsive place grated on her nerves leaving her feeling raw and abandoned. She wished she had a shoulder to cry on, someone to pat her on the back and tell her things would get better.
In reality all she had was another miserable trip up the creaky wooden stairs, to collect the empty supper plates from the man, she was glad to see he’d left them outside for her to pick up, she didn’t think she could face him, seeing him or anyone else. She wanted the evening to end, to go to bed and weep. It wouldn’t do any good in the end, but the relentless toil bore into her and she still had to go back to the bar and wait on all those ghastly customers. She wondered if she would last the night.
It was freezing, below freezing. Katy couldn’t see a thing as she fumbled to find the lamp and the matches. The alarm metallic drilling of the alarm clock had ceased and its rhythmical ticking resumed. She shivered as she felt her way around the room, her feet like blocks of ice and her hands so numb it was a near impossibility to get on her clothes.
Holding the lamp high, she made her way downstairs. The passageway was even colder than her bedroom. She unbolted the front door and looked out, the street was white, light flakes still fluttered by, a peaceful and romantic image compared to the usually grim, grey road to the dock.
She closed the door on the fantasy world and headed into the cold reality of the kitchen. She set about lighting the fire and began heating some water, an almost impossible task as the jugs were icy. Heading to the parlour, she knew she had to at least try to make it welcoming. How nice it would be to remain in bed, a proper bed with a soft mattress, warm and comfy with someone to light the fires for her and bring her breakfast in bed. That’s what the lessons had been for, pumping her up so she could marry a duke and lead the life of a duchess. But how many dukes frequented this place! The swell upstairs was about the most top class customer they’d ever had and his behaviour said volumes. He may have called her a good worker but he thought she was dirt, a servant no better than a dog, why should anyone else be any different. She had no chance of being anything better than an innkeeper’s daughter, in all likelihood from here on in her life was likely to go down not up. It wasn’t a cheerful thought and it filled her with dread, the idea of being forced to marry one of the workies who frequented this place every night, or live in a ramshackle old tenement like Esther’s mother, perhaps with several children all screaming like Bill. The shiver that ran down her spine was not wholly caused by the chill in the kitchen.
Some natural light was beginning to creep through the window, intensified by the reflective quality of the snow. Katy thought it was best not to put off the inevitable, she put on her coat, gloves, hat and a very thick scarf and ventured onto the street. There were hardly any footprints, a few very large sets were scattered here and there, some brave souls trying to forge a days work.
She was not heartened when she reached the corner, the newsagent looked dead. If that shop was closed then it must be bad. She’d come this far however and it was nearly completely daylight. She crossed the road, though there was no real telling where it was, climbing through the great snow drift she came to the door of the shop and tried to open the door. It was locked.
She heard a creaking sound from within and saw the outline of a figure walking towards her.
‘Oh, it’s you Miss Kelso,’ said the newsagent, looking very surprised, ‘what you after?’
‘I don’t suppose you have a morning paper.’
She felt stupid even asking.
‘No, no. We won’t be getting any papers today I don’t reckon, don’t think anything much will be happening today, this kind of snow brings everything to a standstill, its michty bad for business so it is.’
Katy nodded, commiserating with him. She picked her way back over the ridge of snow, unprecedented numbers of children seemed to have appeared in what was usually the junction of the main road and the way to the docks, they were throwing snowballs and trying to bury each other, disturbingly enough, quite a few adults were joining in too. She wondered what it must be like, feeling free and happy enough to abandon everything for an impromptu snowball fight. She couldn’t see her father or Esther wanting to join her in such a pursuit.
The gloomy passageway felt slightly warmer than outside, the glow now coming from the parlour now looked positively convivial, something she’d never thought about this place before. Unravelling her scarf from her neck, she went along to check that it felt warm enough. It was almost blissful. The kitchen too was much warmer and the water was bubbling away. She didn’t expect to see Mrs McAllen today, snow like this would be the best excuse she’d ever had for keeping to her own house.
Removing her outer-garments, she began to trek up the stairs with the water. When she reached the door she paused. Should she knock or leave it, or just walk in? A teacher once told her that’s what servants did in big houses, they just came and went without knocking so they didn’t disturb their masters, they had to act invisible. Perhaps this man expected her to invisibly enter with the water and light the fire, even though she could think of nothing ruder, if someone walked in on her like that, she’d be furious, especially if she was in a compromising state of undress. This thought settled the matter, she knocked.
‘Yes,’ called the man, ‘who is it?’
‘It’s Katy, I’ve got the water.’
‘Leave it at the door, if you please. Thank you.’
She did it and went to start the breakfast.
For the Anchor Inn it was impressive, Katy thought so anyhow. She had laid the table in the parlour and made it look moderately respectable, stepping back to admire her handiwork, she jumped as she collided with something solid.
‘Watch your step, young lady.’
The well dressed man had arrived, he took a pronounced step away from her, perhaps he thought she had a contagious disease that might contaminate his purified skin.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but I didn’t know you were there, you might’ve given me some warning, not go creeping up on people like that.’
‘I wasn’t creeping, I was walking in my usual fashion, I didn’t exactly have time to warn you, you stepped into me before I could open my mouth.’
‘Yes, yes, so I did, and what a wicked girl I am for it. Now, why don’t you sit down and have some tea or coffee, or anything you can put in your mouth will do.’
‘There’s no need for that attitude,’ he said, taking a seat.
‘What attitude?’ then mimicking his own tone, she added, ‘this is just my usual attitude, I didn’t know I was required to change it for you.’
Shaking his head, he lifted the teapot and examined the contents. Katy waited for the criticism.
‘Have you got…’
‘No,’ she said, not waiting for him to finish, ‘no I don’t have your morning paper, I went to the paper shop, but as there’s about a foot of snow out there, I’m afraid you’re out of luck, and if you don’t believe me you can go and ask…’
‘Stop, please, I wasn’t going to say that, I was going to ask if you had any milk. What were playing at going out in that, just for the paper?’
Katy stared, feeling utterly incredulous.
‘Just for the paper? After the fuss you made about it, I thought your life must depend upon it, yes of course we have milk, I must’ve forgotten it, that’s all.’
She stormed back to the kitchen.
On her return she saw that he was watching her closely, she made to slam the milk jug on the table in front of him. He grabbed her wrist.
‘Gently, if you please, we don’t want to be crying over spilt milk.’
Narrowing her eyes she glared at him, pure loathing seeping into her veins, he let go. She rested the jug down softly then backed off, too infuriated to speak.
‘Thank you,’ he said. It only fuelled her anger, ‘not for that, for going out in the snow to fetch my paper, that was over and above the call of duty. You’ve added some quality to this place, give yourself credit for that and be satisfied.’
‘I’ll be satisfied when you’ve left,’ she muttered, as she left the room. She hoped he hadn’t heard. With a pang, she remembered the money he’d handed her, the money that had probably already been used to line her father’s pockets, but was intended for her. He’d tried to be kind to her but all she could do was snap and be bitter.
Steeling herself to make a big effort, she delivered his breakfast and forced out the biggest smile she could.
‘I hope you enjoy it.’
Henry Cranston watched her leave. She was an unusual young woman despite her vulgar tongue and her intolerable moods. She had admirable spirit though her condition was objectionable. Perhaps not her fault, he should reproach her for that, her mode of speaking suggested she’d fallen on hard times, her language was uncouth but her accent wasn’t like that of the locals, it had a refined air about it.
The door to the parlour opened, he wondered what she had forgotten this time or maybe she’d come in to give him another earful for good measure. But a completely different woman entered, her face was skinny and drawn and she looked sloppy, her costume was badly fitted and her hair was untidy.
‘Who the devil are you?’ she said, jumping when she saw him.
‘I’m a guest.’
‘Oh,’ she said, her tone becoming instantly smooth, ‘you’re the posh fella’, well, I hope you’re enjoying your breakfast.’
She spoke with the local brogue, even rougher than some, but she evidently thought the silky tone would make her sound more genteel.
‘Yes, it’s fine, but I’d like to enjoy it in peace, if it’s all the same to you.’
‘Oh ay, I agree. I hate being pestered when I’m eating, I’ll tell Katy to keep her nose oot, she’s ay annoying me at meals. Whining that the babby’s crying, like I canny hear him. did ye ken I was the mistress of this place, ay…I bet she didn’y bother to tell ye that.’
The fact that her presence was unwelcome didn’t seem to have perforated into her conscience and she went on. Henry shuffled with irritation, leaving seemed like a good plan, whether his breakfast was eaten or not. This interference was as intolerable as that at home.
‘I dinny think Katy’s ever forgiven me for that, I’m married to her father, did you ken? Katy tried to stop us, of course. She played some stupid prank on me wi’ a pair of stained breeches, I never worked oot what she meant by it, had some stupid excuse as always, but she’s ay been a good little liar.’
‘Esther!’ said Katy, appearing at the door, ‘what are you doing? Get out of here, he’s a guest.’
‘You dinny have the right to…’
‘I’ve got every right to do what I like, now get out or I’ll make you.’
Esther looked ready to reply, but Katy now resembled a Spanish bull.
Feeling immensely uncomfortable at this spectacle, Henry watched in horrific fascination as Katy approached the chair. Esther leapt up.
‘I’m going,’ she said and left abruptly, Katy followed, muttering.
A smile spread over Henry’s face, he’d love to bring Prudence and his mother here, just for the sport of watching Katy play with them.