The Urchin's Song
Copyright © 2002 Rita Bradshaw
The right of Rita Bradshaw to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2010
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
eISBN : 978 0 7553 7587 5
This Ebook produced by Jouve Digitalisation des Information
HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
An Hachette UK Company
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
Table of Contents
Rita Bradshaw was born in Northamptonshire, where she still lives today with her husband, their children and two dogs.
When she was approaching forty, Rita decided to fulfil two long-cherished ambitions - to write a novel and to learn to drive. She says, ‘The former was pure joy and the latter pure misery,’ but the novel was accepted for publication and she passed her driving test. She went on to write many successful novels under a pseudonym before writing for Headline using her own name.
As a committed Christian and fervent animal-lover, Rita has a full and busy life, but she relishes her writing - a job that’s all pleasure - and loves to read, walk her dogs, eat out and visit the cinema in any precious spare moments.
Rita Bradshaw’s earlier sagas, ALONE BENEATH THE HEAVEN, REACH FOR TOMORROW, RAGAMUFFIN ANGEL and THE STONY PATH, are also available from Headline.
For our first grandchild, Samuel Benjamin Thompson, born 18th October, 2001 - the most gorgeous, beautiful and precious little baby in the world. Thank you, Cara and Ian, for letting us share the day of his birth so generously. We love you all so much.
As always, thanks to all the staff in the many wonderful libraries and museums authors rely on for research material, but especially Sunderland’s City Library and Arts Centre’s great Local Studies department; Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens’ Archive department; the Beamish Museum; and Phil Atkins, librarian, at the National Railway Museum, York. Lastly, a sad farewell to The Big Bookshop in Sunderland - thanks, Steve, for all the great research material your books have provided through the years.
It would be impossible to list all the resources and books I’ve called on for the history of the music hall in Britain, but the following were particularly useful:
The Northern Music Hall
by G.J. Mellor;
British Music Hall - An Illustrated Who’s Who from 1850 to the Present Day
by Roy Busby;
Music Hall in Britain
by D.F. Cheshire;
The Last Empires - A Music Hall Companion
by Benny Green;
A Hard Act to Follow
by Peter Leslie.
A special thank you to my lovely husband, Clive, who somehow manages to track down the most obscure facts and dates for me, and who will never accept defeat!
The Urchin’s Song
Give me a song that touches the soul
From a heart that is tender and true,
A song that transcends this dark mortal vale
And reaches to heights unseen.
A song of beauty and sweetness and light
With words yet only dimly perceived,
And I’ll give you a song from the heart of a child
That makes kings and queens of us all.
The night was bitterly cold, but the big blowsy woman who was just about to enter the Mariners’ Arms on Custom House Quay was well padded against the icy mist rising off the river. Not so the two little girls huddled in front of the wooden barrels standing on the filthy, muck-strewn cobbles.
In spite of the raw winter chill, they wore only dirty ragged dresses, with tattered strips of sacking round their thin shoulders passing as shawls. Their legs and feet were bare and they wore no underclothes, but the eldest one, a little scrap of nothing who looked to be about five or six, managed to speak despite her wildly chattering teeth. ‘Spare a farthin’, missus?’ Her tone wasn’t hopeful. She knew from experience the regulars of the riverside pubs were more generous when they left, normally heavily intoxicated and merry and therefore inclined to throw the odd coin or two her way.
‘Ee, this is no night for bairns to be out.’ The child sank back against the questionable protection of the barrels; she recognised a refusal when she heard one. But then, instead of the ‘You get yerself home now, lass,’ she saw the plump face peer closer, and the voice was softer when it said, ‘You’re one of Shirl’s bairns, aren’t you? Shirley Burns? I grew up next door to your mam in James Williams Street, although she was Shirl Pearson then. Good friends at one time, me an’ your mam were.’
The woman smiled, but when there was no answering smile on the child’s face and the little tot just put a skinny arm round her sister, drawing the smaller child in to her, the stout figure straightened. ‘Worst thing Shirl ever did, marryin’ Bart Burns,’ the woman muttered to herself, before she said, her voice louder, ‘You waitin’ for your da, hinny? He inside then?’
The child shook her golden-brown curls, limp with months of grease and dirt and clearly harbouring vermin, and now her great brown eyes with their thick lashes looked down at the black slimy cobbles as she whispered, ‘Me da . . . me da’ll skin us alive if we go home. We’ve not got enough yet.’
‘Enough?’ And then as the small girl raised her gaze again the woman understood. ‘By . . .’ It was said on a long, slow exhalation of breath.
Vera Briggs was a hard-headed, pragmatic woman and not given to sentiment, but the plight of these two small infants who dared not return home until they had begged enough pennies to satisfy their drunken thug of a father couldn’t be ignored.
Of course bairns like these ones were ten a penny in Sunderland’s notoriously squalid East End, where the rank odours of excrement and slow decay were rife summer and winter amid such diseases as consumption, dropsy, rickets and a hundred and one other culling devices that took the weakest - but these were Shirl’s little lassies, Vera reminded herself, as she stood on the greasy step of the pub hesitating.
The beginning of icy drops of sad winter rain drumming on the barrels made up her mind. ‘You hungry, hinny?’ The dark eyes were answer enough. ‘Look, lass, our Horace is meetin’ me here in a minute or two an’ he’s bringin’ a bite with him. You an’ your sister come with me an’ at least you’ll go home with full bellies the night.’
Vera’s magnanimity did not run to putting any of her hard-earned wages from the corn mill into Bart Burns’s pocket, but at least this way she could do something for a couple of poor Shirl’s bairns. She held out an encouraging hand to the children, and when an icy little paw answered the gesture, Vera’s big full mouth tightened. Ee, he wanted shooting, that Bart Burns. If ever there was an out-and-out wicked so-and-so on God’s earth, it was that man.
As Vera opened the door of the pub, her hand still clasping that of the child, who had the smaller tot hanging on to her skirt, the smell and noise were overpowering. The air was thick with Shag tobacco smoke from myriad pipes, and the filthy sawdust on the floor was congealed with black globs of spittle, dried urine from the skinny little mongrel dogs that accompanied their masters, and bits of this and that which had been carried in on boots from the quayside.
Vera’s narrowed gaze under her faded black bonnet swept over the cauldron of humanity, and her popularity was evident by the number of voices which greeted her. She replied to one or two as she made her way to the far corner of the crowded room, and on reaching a wooden bench set against the wall, pushed at one of the occupants, saying, ‘Move over, Ray, an’ let us have a seat, man. Me legs are killin’ us the day. An’ get us a gin, an’ a couple of squibs for the bairns. Horace’ll make it right with you when he comes.’
‘Aye, all right, lass.’ The man was short and thickset, with a droopy moustache stained orangey-yellow at the edges from the regular soaking it got in Burton’s bass, but his tone was not unkind as he nodded at the children pressed against Vera’s legs. ‘Who’re they then? One of your brothers’ bairns?’
‘You think any of my flesh an’ blood would let their bairns out on a night like this, clothed in rags an’ lousy?’
Vera’s voice had been sharp and Ray scuttled off to the bar without further pleasantries. Vera was a grand lass, none better, but she had a tongue on her that’d cut steel, he told himself, allowing a full minute to elapse in the hope that she would have cooled down before he asked the landlord for the measure of gin, along with two tiny glasses of the same spirit known as squibs sold specially for young children.
‘There you go, lass.’ He handed Vera her glass and then brought his tubby frame bending towards her, saying in an undertone as if conveying a secret, ‘An’ here’s the squibs for the bairns.’
‘Ta, thanks, man.’ Vera’s tone was conciliatory, and reassured, Ray said, ‘You lookin’ after ’em or summat?’ nodding at the two little girls as Vera placed the miniature glasses in their hands.
Vera swallowed half the contents of her glass in one gulp before shaking her head, saying briefly, ‘I used to know their mam years ago, an’ they were beggin’ outside.’ And then they both laughed as the eldest child, having taken a tentative sip of her drink, coughed and spluttered until her eyes streamed.
‘You get it down you, hinny, her an’ all. It’ll put fire in your belly an’ keep the cold out, an’ there’s not many as needs it as much as you. Eh, Ray?’
‘Oh aye, Vera, aye. You’re right there, lass.’ Ray nodded his head, his grimy cap sitting like a pancake on top of his wiry hair. ‘Poor little blighters.’ But it was said without any real feeling. For every bairn that reached five, one or two died, that was the way of things and nowt’d change it. Why on earth Vera had taken it upon herself to waste good money on these ’uns who looked to be on their last legs, he didn’t know. Barmy, he called it.
However, when Horace - a tall, thin man who was the very antithesis of his plump wife - appeared, and on Vera’s instructions handed over a hot meat pie to each child, even Ray was moved at the children’s stunned bewilderment and delight. They ate so quickly that Vera was compelled to reach out a restraining hand, saying, ‘Slowly, hinnies, slowly does it. You’ll be makin’ yerselves sick now,’ as she glanced at the two men and shook her head.
Replete for the first time they could remember in their short lives, the two small girls sat docile and quiet in the sawdust at Vera’s feet. They had licked their grubby fingers clean of every little morsel and taste of food; the younger one falling immediately to sleep as she sat propped against the security of her sister’s bony shoulder. Not so the elder; her huge brown eyes were wide open as she stared at the scene in front of her, which grew louder and more bawdy as the night progressed.