Read Katy's Men Online

Authors: Irene Carr

Katy's Men (14 page)

Katy
saw he had only a few coppers left, and answered, ‘Oh, yes.’

He
glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and said, ‘I’ll be back tonight.’ Then he was gone, waving a hand as he ran down the stairs. Katy called after him, ‘Goodbye.’ Then she went on with her work, but thoughtfully. She knew she would have to earn her keep in this place. Matt could only support her and Louise if she put something in by way of exchange. She was determined she would. When Beatrice finished her breakfast Katy ate hers — but only bread and jam.

Katy
spent the day in a whirlwind of work. She had spotted a clothes line strung, sagging, between two posts behind the office. Investigating further, with five-year-old Beatrice by her side asking questions, she found a little washhouse at the back of the office, with copper, mangle, poss stick and tub. Katy stooped to pull open the door under the boiler and peer inside.

Beatrice
stooped beside her and asked ‘Why are you looking in there?’


To make sure it’s empty. I’m going to light a fire in there and boil some water.’ Katy stopped there to let Beatrice get her question in.

It
came: ‘Why?’


It’s a fine day so I’m going to do a load of washing.’ Then anticipating as Beatrice opened her mouth, ‘Because it needs doing.’

There
was a tap on the outside wall of the washhouse and she used a bucket to fill the boiler from this. She started the fire by digging a shovelful of glowing coals from the fire in the kitchen and carrying them down to the boiler. Then she topped them up with fresh coal. While she waited for the water to boil she tidied the flat and collected all the dirty clothes she could find. There was an old woollen cardigan of hers which now had holes in it. She decided it would serve a purpose and put it with the rest. At the end of a morning spent possing the clothes with the stick, scrubbing and mangling she had a line full of washing that flapped and cracked in a stiff breeze. And somehow on the way she had fed Louise and managed to keep Beatrice amused. She thought that, after a cup of tea, she would just have time to go to the shops.

Katy
knew from her search for work that the nearest were in Dundas Street, five minutes walk away. She found them busy, with a butcher, grocer and greengrocer. She spent two shillings out of the money given her, the two largest items being a pound each of meat and bacon pieces — cheaper than the full rashers. As she moved from shop to shop, with Louise in her arms and Beatrice trailing along by her side, there was a succession of demands: ‘I want some sweets . . . that dolly . . . chocolate . . .’ Katy refused them all, partly because the money was not hers to spend but also because she had a feeling Beatrice had been used to getting whatever caught her eye. The little girl was mutinous and sulking but Katy jollied her along as they walked back to the yard: ‘Do you want to help feed Louise?’

That
cheered Beatrice: ‘Can I?’


And then we’ll have a game.’


What game?’


You’ll see.’


Tell me!’


Guess.’


Skipping?’


That’s one.’


Is there another?’


Lots.’

Beatrice
said forlornly, ‘I don’t know any more.’

Katy
paused, stricken, and looked down at her: ‘Don’t you?’ And when Beatrice shook her head, ‘Well, I’ll teach you.’

So
when Louise had been fed and put to bed in her pram, Katy prepared a thick stew and set it in the oven to cook, then led Beatrice out into the yard. There was a rectangle of concrete by the stable where the Dennis had stood. Katy swept it clean of straw, stones and oil then grinned at a watching Beatrice, ‘We’ll start with itchy-dobber.’ She hitched up her skirts, and with an empty boot polish tin, demonstrated the art of hopscotch.

Katy
had left a window open so she would hear if Louise woke and cried but she only returned to the flat in the dusk with a grubby, tired and quiet Beatrice by her side. Katy carried a basket filled with the washing from the line and told Beatrice, ‘Now we’re going to play: ‘Helping with the ironing.’ She did it on the table, using the smoothing iron heated on the fire, and with the pram close by so she could watch and talk to her tiny daughter.

With
the ironing done she descended to the office and set about dusting and tidying the desk — the room itself, she decided, would be a full day’s job. She glanced through the books and saw how they were made up and how the business was run. She also saw that a lot of work was done for very little payment. Matt’s blankets lay under the counter as he had left them that morning. She made up his bed there again before climbing the stairs with Beatrice, replying absently to the child’s chatter while deep in thought.

The
thoughts were not cheering and all through what was left of that afternoon she wondered when Matt Ballard would return — and would he have changed his mind and decided he did not want to be bothered with her.

It
was dark when he drove the horse and cart into the yard. Katy saw him from a window of the flat where she was keeping watch. She hurriedly dressed Beatrice in her coat then ran down the stairs as she pulled on her own. Matt found her, breathless, at his elbow as he lit a lantern to hang up at the stable door. Katy panted, ‘I’ll help you to finish out here.’ Then she asked, ‘Was it a good day?’

Matt
nodded and replied, briefly as usual, ‘Aye.’

Katy
said brightly, ‘Oh, grand.’

He
watched her for a while as they both worked at the stabling of the horse. He saw that she was quick on her feet, deft with her fingers and knew what she was doing. He knew she would have learned at the Spargo yard. He listened to her seemingly light-hearted talk: ‘. . . and we played itchydobber. Didn’t we, Bea? Then we got in the washing and ironed it . .

He
made his monosyllabic replies, but then as she paused for a second, he asked, ‘Are you trying to get round me?’

They
were in the darkness of the stable now, talking over the back of the horse, their faces only half-lit by the lantern. Katy was silent for a moment, stroking the back of the horse. Then she looked up to meet Matt’s gaze and answered honestly, ‘I was trying to — please you.’

He
said, ‘You don’t have to. I thought I made that clear.’

Katy
winced at the rebuff. ‘Yes, you did.’


That’s all right, then,’ said Matt, relieved.

But
it wasn’t. They worked on in silence and when finished returned to the flat. Katy served the meal and Matt ate heartily, but she managed only half of her small helping. Afterwards he sat by the fire and immersed himself in the newspaper; he had brought home a copy of the
Sunderland
Daily
Echo
. Katy returned to her room and fed Louise then laid her down to sleep in the pram. Beatrice followed soon, after Katy had told her a story.

As
Katy came out of the bedroom and closed the door, Matt lowered the paper and said, ‘Bea seems a lot quieter — and more cheerful.’

Katy
answered only, ‘Yes.’ She sat down and picked up some sewing she had seen needed doing when she was ironing. Her head bent over it.

Matt
laid the paper aside. ‘You’re quiet tonight, too.’ ‘Yes.’


I suppose that’s because of what I said when we were putting the Sergeant to bed?’

Katy
thought he cared more for the Sergeant than he did for her. She saw wry humour in that and almost smiled. But she also understood it. She had only been there for twenty-four hours while the Sergeant had been Matt’s workmate and companion for months. She answered again, ‘Yes.’


Well, I don’t mind you talking but I don’t want you to think you have to.’

Katy
laid down the sewing and faced him. ‘I didn’t talk because I thought I had to but because I wanted to please you. You’ve been good to us, me and my baby, giving us a place to live. I want to earn my keep and I know I can’t, can I? If I cook and clean and care for Beatrice, I am still taking money out of your pocket, not bringing it in.’ Matt stared at this summing up. Katy demanded, ‘That’s true, isn’t it?’

Matt
nodded.

Katy
took a breath, then asked, ‘Can I run the office for you? I still wouldn’t be making money but at least it would leave you more time to work outside.’ She could cope with Louise, who slept a lot of the time, and Beatrice would be back in school after the holidays.

There
was an edge of exasperation in Matt’s voice when he replied. This woman, though well-meaning, was wanting to interfere with his routine, change his organisation. ‘You can try, but I won’t be able to show you the ropes for a while.’ He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, then returned to Katy. ‘I have to go out tonight. I expect I’ll be back late so don’t worry if you hear me downstairs.’


Very well.’ Katy’s head was bent over her sewing again. Matt fetched his suit and other clothes from the bedroom, going on tiptoe so as not to wake the children, then washed and dressed downstairs in the washhouse.

He
returned briefly to the head of the stairs to say, ‘If Bea wakes and asks for me, tell her I’ve gone to see Fleur.’ Katy looked up, questioningly, ‘Fleur?’


That’s right. The young lady I’m engaged to, Fleur Ecclestone.’ Then he was gone, running down the stairs.

Katy
thought, Fleur. Engaged. And: She’s welcome to him. But then she thought that, when he married this Fleur, he would bring her to the flat and she would care for Beatrice. There would be no place for Katy and Louise. She tried to put that fear out of her mind, telling herself that there was no sign of a wedding yet. But thoughts of its consequences were to haunt her through the coming months.

Now
she saw he had left his notebook on the table. It was his order book in which he kept a record of the jobs he had to do. Katy read through the entries, pencilled but neatly written, and at the end she had a good idea of the planned pattern of his work for the next week or two. And of the gaps when he would be seeking work. She made her own list of those then put the book back on the table.

*

‘I thought you had gone for good.’ Fleur’s greeting was both acid and cool when she opened the door to Matt.

He
paused on the threshold and reminded her, ‘I told you I couldn’t get out on account of young Beatrice.’

Fleur
replied tartly, ‘Neither can I. You should never have taken on the child. I said so at the beginning.’


I had no choice. I’d promised Joe.’ That edge of irritation was back in Matt’s voice.

Fleur
noted it and became cautious; she would not push this tall young man too far. She was still convinced he was headed for success. Hadn’t he plenty of money before that stupid Joe Docherty lost it all — and saddled Matt with debts? Now he said, ‘And I’m here to take you out now. It will only be a couple of seats at the Empire because that’s all I can afford.’ He still had debts to pay and was paying them. The seats at the Empire would consume his spending money for the week.

Fleur
decided to settle for what she could get and smiled, ‘I’ll get my coat.’ As he held it for her she asked, ‘What has happened to that child tonight?’


Mrs Merrick is looking after her.’

Fleur
questioned sharply, ‘Who?’


Mrs Merrick. She’s married to a sailor away at sea. She’s got a baby daughter.’

Fleur
relaxed, ‘And it gives you some freedom. That sounds like a sensible arrangement.’ Because it seemed to her advantage; Matt would be able to escort her again.

Matt
was still not sure about the arrangement, but Fleur took his arm then, smiled up at him and they set out.

It
was close to midnight when he returned to the yard. Katy had long since gone to bed but she heard him moving below. She thought that he was engaged but by his own admission still in debt. He was sheltering Katy and Louise when he needed all his money to marry one day. Katy had to make it up to him. Somehow . . .

 

Chapter Twelve

 

MONKWEARMOUTH. DECEMBER 1910.

Katy
had been living above the office for a week when, glancing out of the kitchen window at mid-morning, she saw the stranger cross the yard to the office. He was burly, roughly dressed and unshaven. It was a grey, bitterly cold winter’s day and there was not another soul to be seen, in the yard or the street outside. She told Beatrice, playing with her dolls, ‘You stay here. I’ll just be downstairs.’ Then she looked to see that the fireguard was in place and ran down to the office. She was not taking fright at the man’s appearance because she had seen many such when she was at the Spargo yard, honest men dressed for honest toil. But she was aware of her vulnerability, alone in the yard.

As
she reached the foot of the stairs there came a hammering at the door. Katy smoothed down her apron and opened it, disclosing the stranger with his fist raised.

He
lowered it then and asked, ‘Now then, lass, where’s the boss?’


Mr Ballard’s out on a job.’


Aw, blast it!’ He started to turn away.

Katy
asked quickly, ‘What did you want? Something moving? Maybe I can help.’

He
scowled at her over his shoulder, ‘Don’t be daft, lass. I can’t see you shifting half-a-ton o’ bricks.’


When? Where?’


What?’ He turned back to her, the scowl still there but now he was puzzled.


When do you want them moved?’


Today. I’m doing a building job just round the corner in the next street and another in Fulwell. I want the bricks I’ve got left here over there for a start tomorrow morning. My cart’s gone out Seaham Harbour way and won’t be back till after dark.’


We’ll do it this afternoon.’ Katy knew, from his order book, where Matt would be while she was speaking. She also had a good idea, from her own experience and studying his books, what he would usually charge. But this customer wanted the job done urgently . . . ‘It’ll be five shillings.’


Five bob! That’s near a day’s work and it won’t take him more than a couple of hours!’


If he thinks it’s too much he’ll knock the price down. But I doubt if you’d get it cheaper from anywhere else. I think Spargos across the river would charge the same, but you could try them.’ If memory served her correctly, Spargos would charge four shillings. She said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you keep us in mind for any work you want doing and I’ll book the job at four and six.’


This afternoon?’ And when Katy nodded, he grinned. ‘Thought I could knock you down a bit. I wasn’t born yesterday. Done.’


Done.’ Katy had got the price she had wanted from the beginning. ‘Now where are these bricks and where do they have to go, Mr . . .?’


Billy Nicholson.’

Katy
got the addresses from him and before he had reached the gates she was running up the stairs. She bundled Beatrice into her coat and pulled on her own.

Beatrice
clasped her doll to her chest and asked, ‘Where are we going?’


To see Uncle Matt.’ Katy picked up Louise, wrapped her in a shawl and preceded Beatrice down the stairs.

Out
in the street she walked quickly and found Matt where she had calculated, a mile or so away, unloading furniture from the cart at a house in Southwick on the northern border of Sunderland. He turned from the cart with an armchair in his hands and paused, staring. Then he asked as she hurried up, ‘What are you doing here?’

Katy
caught her breath, smiling, ‘I’ve booked a job for this afternoon.’

Matt
set the armchair down carefully and straightened. He asked coldly, ‘You’ve done — what?’

Katy
heard the irritation in his voice again but replied patiently, ‘A man called Billy Nicholson came to the yard. He wanted some bricks moved from just round the corner

from
the yard to Fulwell, today. I knew you only had the one job at the start of the afternoon so I said you’d do it.’ Matt asked, ‘How did you know? And how did you know where to find me?’

Katy
admitted, ‘I saw your order book. I’ve been reading it so I knew what was going on — in case I could help. I didn’t think it was private, just part of the business. Are you annoyed?’

Matt
thought about this for a moment, while Katy changed Louise from one arm to another. He asked, ‘Why are you carrying her? Why isn’t she in the pram?’

Katy
explained, ‘It has a broken spring. Look, I wasn’t prying. I just thought that if anyone came along wanting some job done I could deal with them rather than send them away.’

Matt
shrugged. ‘I don’t mind you looking at the book. It seems it’s just as well you did. But you say you booked the job. How much did you ask for?’


Four and six.’

What
! Matt shook his head in disbelief. ‘You’ve got a nerve.’


Did I do right?’ asked Katy.


You did — and better. I would have taken four bob and thought myself lucky.’

Katy
smiled, ‘I let him beat me down from five shillings because he promised to give us any carting jobs he has in the future.’

Matt
burst out laughing. ‘You cheeky—’ He stopped there, and asked instead, ‘Right°, then, tell me where to find this job.’

He
thanked her when he returned to the yard that night. Katy ran down with Beatrice to help him stable the horse and Matt dug in his pocket then opened his hand to show her a jumble of silver and copper. ‘What I made this morning — and four and six from Billy Nicholson. You did well.’ He passed the money to her: ‘Put it in the cash box and book it.’


Thank you.’ Katy put it in the pocket of her apron, smiling. She had been accepted. And before they left the stable, as she stroked the back of the gentle beast, she asked, ‘Why do you call him “Sergeant”?’

Matt
laughed, ‘It’s Sergeant O’Malley if you give him his full title. Joe Docherty called him that because he reminded us of a sergeant we had once. He used to nod his head when he was drilling on the square, just like the Sergeant here.’ Katy laughed with him.

Later,
after they had eaten, Matt said, ‘That was a good bit of business today.’

Katy
ventured, ‘We’re going to need a lot more before we’re rich.’ And when he blinked at her, startled, she added, ‘I mean, with a horse and cart you can only handle small loads and those from the cheaper end of the market, people who can’t borrow a cart to shift their stuff themselves.’ Katy knew this from her time at Spargos. She also knew the scarcity of loads Matt could handle meant that, to earn a few shillings, he sometimes had to buy coal or vegetables at the market and sell them off the cart around the streets.

Matt
was impressed: ‘Aye. You’ve got the right of it.’ Now he went on, ‘When Joe and me had the Dennis — the lorry, that is — we could get the jobs that paid better.’ He was silent a moment, then sighed, ‘Thinking back, I can see where Joe went wrong. He took a long lease on this yard and it’s far too big, for me now and the pair of us when he was alive. He was planning to expand, had big ideas, but his illness put an end to that.’

Katy
tried to cheer him: ‘You can expand in the future — when you’ve paid off the debts.’

Matt
grimaced, ‘A long way in the future. My profit at present won’t allow me to clear them for months. And as for buying another lorry, that’s wishing for the moon.’ Then he looked at the clock and shoved back his chair. ‘I’m off out to see Fleur. I’ll be late back.’ Then he turned at the head of the stairs and grinned at Katy, ‘It was a good thing you got this job for me today. It will put food on the table for Beatrice and all of us.’ And he thought that now he might use a few shillings from his meagre savings to buy a Christmas present for Fleur. He clumped down the stairs.

Talk
of Fleur set Katy to clear up in silent bad temper, but then she told herself she didn’t care. When she had put the children to bed and then retired herself, she was more cheerful. It was clear now that she would be running the office. Despite their poverty she felt that she and Louise would be safe there. She was more optimistic than she had been for nearly a year.

The
next day dawned cold but bright with sunlight and a clear, blue sky. In the afternoon Katy took out the children, Louise in her arms and Beatrice dancing alongside. She walked through the ravine of Roker Park and so down to the beach. The big rollers came crashing in from the North Sea to pound the shore and Beatrice ran shrieking and laughing as they threatened to wash around her shoes. Katy showed her how to throw stones so they skipped across the waves.

Beatrice
shouted a dozen times, ‘I want to go plodging!’

Katy
always refused to let her paddle, shouting back, ‘It’s too cold!’

They
walked home in the dusk, Louise heavy on Katy’s arm and Beatrice with dragging feet.

Katy
was surprised to see the cart already in the shed and the Sergeant in his stable with his head poked enquiringly over the half-door. Matt was in the office, tossing a collection of tools back into their box. The pram stood beside him. Katy commented, ‘You’re early. Is anything wrong?’

Matt
closed the lid on the box. ‘No. I finished the day’s jobs quicker than I expected and found another spring in a scrap yard so I’ve mended the pram.’ He pushed it back and forth to show her: ‘There you are, runs smooth as. you like.’


Oh, Matt, thank you!’ That came from the heart. ‘This child is breaking my arm. We’ve had a lovely afternoon, but if only I could have taken her in the pram.’

Matt
laughed and took Louise from her: ‘From now on, you can.’

That
evening, Katy wrote to Winnie Teasdale in Malta, in her usual cheerful vein. She explained that she had not written recently because she had been on the move, but she was now settled. Katy paused for a moment then, to reflect wryly that she could not afford to go anywhere. But then she went on to write enthusiastically of her new home and work. She did not mention Louise, not wanting to shock Winnie. She described her new employer: He has a quick temper but he has been fair to me. He is certainly better than the Spargos.

Katy
spent a lot of time in the office in the week that followed. Once she had it cleaned and organised to her liking — and Matt’s — she sat in the swivel chair and knitted, with Beatrice and Louise for company. This paid dividends because three times in the first week there were callers looking for Matt to carry some load. Katy asked them, ‘If I hadn’t been here would you have come back later?’ All replied that they would have looked elsewhere, two of them mentioning Spargos.


That’s good,’ said Matt. ‘Those orders will keep me busy until the New Year. I’m pleased.’ So Katy was, too.

Christmas
was frugal — dinner was a bacon joint cooked by Katy — but a cheerful occasion. Matt brought in a bunch of flowers on Christmas Eve and gave them to Katy, saying awkwardly, ‘Happy Christmas.’ She thanked him and next day gave him a pair of woollen gloves. He was taken aback: ‘That’s very good of you, to remember I needed them.’ Then he added, embarrassed, ‘But you shouldn’t have spent your money.’

Katy
laughed, ‘I knitted them.’ From the old cardigan she had washed and unravelled.


Just the same . . ; Matt rubbed the gloves gently between his big hands, feeling their softness. ‘I think I can pay you some wages from now on. Not much, but

something.
You’re earning it and I’m making a little more now.’

Katy
was grateful, but for a moment was unsure whether to accept. She knew how much money he made and how little he spent on himself. After providing her with housekeeping and setting aside a sum towards settling the remaining debts, he was left with only a few shillings — and these he spent on Fleur. From casual comments he had made, Katy knew that when he went to see his fiancée at the weekend it was only to take her to the modestly priced seats at a theatre or picture palace. And if the weather was fine he took her strolling in Mowbray Park. Katy gathered that Fleur liked to be seen. Now she thought that she could find a use for these wages and said, ‘Thank you.’

That
was a happy day, at least until the evening, when Matt left with a carefully wrapped parcel under his arm, on his way to eat another Christmas dinner with Fleur and her mother in their apartment. Katy lay in bed listening to the breathing of the children with their occasional catch of breath and little sigh. Her thoughts drifted idly between Matt and the business. The latter because of the problem facing Matt — and therefore herself, because the sanctuary she had found there was fragile. If the business should fail . . . So she wondered how she could help and determined on certain lines of action. And she wondered if this Fleur was the right girl for him . . .

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