Katy's Men

 

© Irene Carr 2014

 

Irene Carr has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 2001, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published in 2000 by Hodder and Stoughton

 

This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd

 

Chapter One

 

WALLSEND-ON-TYNE. DECEMBER 1890.


Not another lass?’ Barney Merrick was the first man in Katy’s life. He glowered down at his newborn daughter, her pink face contorted and squalling under a little cap of black hair. His own voice came out strangled, in mingled disbelief and rage, from his face suffused with blood. He was a man on whom glowering fitted naturally. Barney had crinkly hair lying close to his bullet head. He was not tall nor broad but his chin always stuck out pugnaciously. His fists were clenched now as if ready to strike.


Hell’s flames! There’s no bloody justice! That’s three lasses now!’ His red-veined, pale blue eyes shot furious glances around the room. There was little to see. It was on the ground floor of a two down, two up house in a long terrace of fifty or more, one end of it almost in the dirty waters of the Tyne. Another family lived in the two rooms above. There was a bed, a chest of drawers and a chair, and underfoot was cracked, old and cold linoleum. A fire burned in the grate, a rare luxury, only lit because of the confinement of the woman in the bed. Ethel Merrick lay exhausted, the first delight at the birth now gone. In truth there had already been four girls, not two, but one had died at birth and another after only a few weeks of life. Ethel’s heart had been broken more than once. She was a thin, dark-eyed, gentle woman. She smiled pleadingly at her husband as his enraged gaze rested on her and it won her some small clemency.

He
turned that glower accusingly on Betty, the midwife, who cradled the child in her arms. ‘Another lass!’ But this time the rage was tinged with resentment. He turned away from mother and child, stamped out of the bedroom and through the kitchen where a little group of women — neighbours, in dresses from neck to ankles and beshawled — sat around the fire. His two older daughters, Ursula and Lotte, aged four and three, slept on a couch as they always did. The neighbours avoided his eye and he passed them without acknowledgment. They listened to the tramp of his boots as he strode down the uncarpeted passage, then the slam of the front door that reverberated through the house. Only when the echoes of that had faded away did they relax and grin wryly at each other.

One
jabbed the poker into the fire to prod the smouldering coals into flame, and said, ‘It sounds like he’s got another lass.’

Another
answered, ‘And he’s not pleased.’

They
were able to chuckle because Barney was not their husband.

Next
door, in the bedroom at the front of the house, his wife could only smile. The child lay in her arms now and was quiet, while Betty was tidying up. Winnie Teasdale, plump and red-cheeked and Ethel’s friend from school days, sat on the edge of the bed and leaned forward to peep in at the little girl’s fat and crumpled face. Winnie tried to cheer Ethel: ‘Don’t worry, pet, Barney will come round.’


Oh, aye,’ Ethel agreed, but neither believed it. She said reluctantly, ‘You’ll have to be getting home.’ Because Winnie lived a mile away. ‘It’s after nine o’clock and pitch dark out there.’


Fred knows where I am.’ Fred was Winnie’s husband. But she went on, ‘Still, I’d better be getting back home. Mind, I’m glad I’ve seen her.’ She bent to plant a light kiss on the child’s brow and then another on Ethel’s cheek. ‘She’s a bonny little lass. What are you going to call her?’

Ethel
answered, ‘Katy.’

*

Barney strode down the street towards the Tyne. The shipyard cranes standing storklike by the river seemed to hang over the houses. The slate roofs glistened black from the recent rain and the sky above was a thick ceiling of low cloud and hanging smoke. Every little terraced house had its chimneys and from most of them the coal smoke trailed acridly. Barney did not notice it, was used to the smell of it as he was to the salt tang that came in on the wind from the sea. That bitterly cold, winter wind was now bringing in a fine drizzle on the heels of the rain but Barney was used to that as well.

He
turned into the Geordie Lad, the public house at the end of the street, with its brass-handled front door. Inside there was more smoke drifting around the yellow gaslights. One jet burned a naked flame so men could light their pipes and cigarettes. This time the smoke was only partly from the fire glowing in the hearth and most from the tobacco in the pipes of the thin line of men standing at the bar. Barney shoved through them and banged a fist down on the scrubbed but beer-stained surface: ‘Give me a pint.’ The barmaid was neat in high-collared white blouse and a white apron over her skirt that brushed on the sawdust covering the floor. She pulled the pint, set it before Barney and he thrust the coppers at her in payment.

The
girl was a neighbour and now asked, ‘How’s Mrs Merrick?’

Barney
answered curtly, ‘All right.’ And then told her what she really wanted to know: ‘A little lass.’


She’s had a little lass!’ The girl beamed. She called to the publican at the other end of the bar, ‘Barney’s wife has had a little lass!’

The
man standing next to Barney, a neighbour living a few doors away, said, ‘Another one? So, that’s three!’

Barney
’s hard little blue eyes swivelled around towards him. ‘What about it?’

The
neighbour picked up his glass and moved further down the bar but he revealed another man, a stranger and taller, broader who grinned down, amused, at Barney. ‘You’ve got three lasses. No lads?’

The
publican came hurrying, scenting trouble. ‘Now then, lads, I want no bother.’

Barney
demanded, ‘Who’s this?’ He cocked a thumb at the big man, who was still grinning mockingly.

The
publican replied, ‘Joe Feeny. He’s from over the river.’ He meant from the south side of the Tyne. Barney said, ‘He wants to mind his own business.’ ‘Now Barney —’

Joe
Feeny’s grin had flickered at Barney’s curt, slap-in-the-face tone but it widened now. He taunted, ‘Three lasses. I reckon you’re not man enough to get owt else.’

Barney
’s clenched fist took Feeny square in the mouth and he staggered back along the bar, scattering the drinkers. Then he steadied and wiped blood from his chin on the back of his hand. He swore and told Barney, ‘You cheeky little bugger! I’ll give you a hiding for that!’ He knew he could. He had height, reach and weight in his favour and at twenty-eight was ten years younger. And he did. In the street outside he knocked Barney down time and time again. But Barney always got up. And in the bitter, bloody end it was Barney who stayed on his feet and Joe Feeny who lay stunned and defeated.

Barney
looked around the crowd, glaring out of the one eye still open, and challenged, ‘Anybody else?’ Then he pulled on his jacket and stumbled unsteadily up the street and in at his own front door. The crowd, silenced, lifted the dazed Feeny and carried him, legs trailing, into the pub. There they revived him and saw him fit enough to get home before they sent him on his way.

Barney
washed, wincing at the water on his cuts and bruises, then went to his bed, but first he paused to look into the cradle that stood on his wife’s side of the bed.

The
child was sleeping but her small face was set, it seemed in determination. He thought in that, at least, she took after him. And her little fists were clenched. He muttered, ‘She’s going to be a fighter, then.’ He found some satisfaction in that. Then he wondered, ‘We’ll see if that rich auntie of your mother comes up with anything.’ But experience replaced hope as he turned away and he said sourly, ‘She never gave owt towards the others, though, not even the price of a drink.’

A
month later he had confirmation of that. He came home from his work in Swan Hunter’s shipyard and found his wife and Winnie Teasdale sitting by the fire, which was half-hidden behind a clothes horse draped with damp washing. He nodded to Winnie curtly and demanded of Ethel, ‘Where’s my dinner?’

Ethel
rose hastily to her feet. ‘I’m just going to put it on the table.’

Winnie
was holding the baby on her knee while the other two girls, Ursula and Lotte, played in a corner. But now Winnie said tactfully, ‘I’d better be getting back to give Fred his dinner.’ She had no liking for Barney. Minutes later the front door closed behind her and Ethel held little Katy in the crook of one arm as she served up the dinner, first to Barney then to the two little girls and lastly herself.

As
Barney ate, Ethel said, Vinnie came with me today when I went to see Aunt Augusta.’

Barney
paused with loaded fork lifted to his mouth. ‘Did she give you anything?’

Ethel
managed a smile. ‘She said all she had would be mine when she went, but she was hard-pressed to pay her bills at the moment. I thought she was going to ask me for help.’

Barney
snapped at the food and chewed moodily. ‘She made a mint in her time on the halls and that husband of hers left her well provided for. She can’t have spent the lot. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she did, just to spite us.’ He pointed his knife at Ethel, ‘Just remember, when she goes, I want to be there first.’

Ethel
looked down at her plate. ‘I’ll remember.’

When
Barney had finished his meal and pulled up his armchair to the fire, he spared a glance at his daughter, Katy. She lay in her pram while Ethel washed up in a bowl of water set on the table. He stared down into the pale blue eyes, so oddly like his own under the black hair, and saw her little fists were clenched. He muttered, ‘Aye, you’ll need to fight for anything you want in this life.’

*

‘That’s mine!’ Matthew Ballard pushed away the other boy. At four years old he had already discovered the truth of Barney Merrick’s remark. The broad waters of the Tyne flowed between them but they shared one trait of character — Matthew was as ready to fight as was Barney. Because his father was unemployed, Matt and his younger brother were fed daily by the guardians of the parish. Forty or fifty children crowded into a bare hall, the boys in shorts or knickerbockers and woollen jerseys or jackets, the girls in dresses and white pinnies, but all their clothes were ragged or patched. They were given bowls of broth and hunks of bread to be eaten at the trestle tables ranked down the room.


Gerroff’ the boy snarled at Matt. He was seated next to Matt on the wooden form, was a year or two older —and bigger. He reached out to grab the crust of bread by Matt’s bowl. ‘Or I’ll punch you!’ He received no warning or threat to prepare him. Matt had lost part of his dinner before in this fashion and was not going to suffer it again, but his reaction was wholly automatic. He lashed out, a wild swing, but his small fist landed on the dirty nose of the other boy, who yelled and pulled back. He still held the bread but now Matt tore it from him. He yelled again and put a hand to his bloody nose and Matt’s next swing took him on the ear.


Stop that, the pair o’ yer!’ One of the women serving out the meal came hurrying, a ladle still in her hand, to elbow them apart. ‘Fighting like cat and dog! Away you go!’ And she ran them out of the door into the street. ‘Behave yourselves tomorrow or you’re out for good!’

The
bigger boy clasped his nose and looked hatred out of his watering eyes but Matt held onto his bread and his fist was still balled and held ready. His dark hair had been cut short with clippers so it stuck on end and his thin face, when wearing his usual happy grin, made him an engaging if dirty child. But now he scowled determination and the other boy shambled away. Matt set off for home, chewing on his bread, and was soon smiling again.

The
woman who had put him into the street returned to her task in the hall. Another, sawing up loaves of bread, asked, ‘What was all that?’


Little Matty Ballard. I think the other lad tried to steal his bread but Matty will have a go at anybody.’


Aye? He always seems a bonny little lad and well-mannered.’


He is,’ her friend said grimly, ‘but he’s a scrapper.’ The other smiled fondly. ‘I think he’ll have a few lasses after him when he’s grown.’

Her
friend dug her ladle into the steaming cauldron of broth and predicted, ‘Whatever lass gets him will be lucky.’

 

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