For Sam with love
November 1930, Floodgate Street, Birmingham
‘It’s a hovel. Nothing but a filthy hovel!’
The words forced out through Peggy Mills’s lips, full of bitter resentment. Rachel, a sturdy five-year-old, clutching a floppy old doll, looked up at her mother with anxious grey eyes.
Peggy was a slender woman of thirty, her frizzy brown hair fastened back under a hat with a narrow brim and a thin face with a waxen complexion. Her usually pretty features were soured with rage at
the sight of their new home. In her arms, as they stood there in the winter dusk, she was hugging the last remaining bundle of their possessions.
‘It’s even worse than . . .’ She whispered the words, but even so, Rachel could hear the intensity of her bitterness. ‘Look at it – a
. What can it be
like inside –
. . . Oh!’ There was a shudder in her voice. ‘I can’t bear to go in. My God, look what he’s reduced me to. I’ll be begging on
the street next.’
It was the last in a row of mean back-to-back terraces, crouched hard up against one of the soaring, blue brick arches of the viaduct. As they stood there a train rumbled deafeningly overhead,
raining down smuts. The window frames were caked in soot and grime and the bridge cast the place into permanent shade.
They had walked here, from the comfortable villa in which they had lived in Sparkhill, along the busy Stratford Road towards the middle of Birmingham. The further in they progressed, the more
closely crammed together were the factories, the tiny, dark workshops and cramped, rotting dwellings. The air had thickened, smoke and fumes filling their nostrils. Along the streets, through the
chill afternoon air, came the clang of metal against metal, the drone and roar of machines whose heat sometimes breathed, dragon-like, in their faces as they passed the factory doorways. Male
voices could be heard shouting over the racket of machines and the wheels of carts clattered by on the road. The cold air was gritty and sour with a mixture of smoke and metallic dusts, sharp with
chemicals, and ripe with the stench of horse manure trodden into the cobbles and refuse piled in the crowded back courts of houses. This was the old quarter called Deritend.
People passed them in the gloom, some eyeing them curiously, others with heads down, wrapped up in their own business. White breath streamed from them in the cold. Peggy flinched away from
anyone who came too close. All she wanted was to get safely inside where prying eyes could not see her or guess that she might be the wife of that man named in the newspapers . . . But now that she
was in front of the house, she hesitated, looking fearfully at it.
‘I can’t bear to open the door,’ she said. ‘God knows what’s behind it – and I don’t suppose there’s even a nub of coal in this godforsaken
As they stood there, a man emerged from an entry along the street and moved towards them with an odd, shuffling gait. He was small of stature and dressed in black. As he drew near, Rachel shrank
back closer to Peggy, seeing that the man had a terribly misshapen face, distorted by a hare lip. Brown, angry eyes fixed on them from under his cap. Peggy tried to move away, reaching for
Rachel’s hand. The man addressed them, barking out a series of abrupt sounds that made no sense. Saliva hung in a string from one corner of his mouth.
‘Get away from us,’ Peggy cried, her voice shrill. Rachel felt her mother’s fear in the sharp tug of her hand, pulling her frantically towards the house, which suddenly seemed
like a haven. ‘Come on – get in!’ she hissed, shoving the door open.
Leaving the man still addressing them, mystifyingly, they almost fell inside and shut the front door – a row of parched, nibble-edged planks somehow hanging together – hard behind
After the shadowy street, the gloom was even greater inside, the cold even danker. At first there were the smells: long-dead ash, a rank, vegetable odour and underlying all of it, a stink of
damp. Something scuttled and squeaked in the corner. Rachel shivered and gripped her mother’s hand. As their eyes cleared they took in the filthy iron range, the ash and rubbish scattered all
over the floor, the stained walls. Otherwise the room was bare except for a lopsided table and two chairs, one with the two back legs missing so that it was keeled over, resting on the back of the
seat. Peggy stepped over, peered at the surface of the table and blew across it before putting her bundle down. Without removing her neat black coat, she went to the stairs. Not wanting to be left
down there, Rachel followed her up the rotten treads. In the waning afternoon light, through the narrow windows of two mean rooms looking over the street, they saw that the only furniture, in the
larger of the rooms, was a thin mattress slumped up against a wall, covered in stained ticking. Peggy said not a word.
Downstairs, she sank onto the one useable chair, her hands bunched into fists. Her breaths came loud and fast as if she were an angry pair of bellows. Rachel felt her insides knot with dread.
Mom looked as if she was going to burst.
Rachel stood still and waited. Already, during these terrible weeks, she had learned to keep a little secret part inside her locked away from her mother, to take her mind somewhere else because
Peggy’s rage and bitterness were so terrifying. She wanted to make things better for Mom but she did not know how and she was starting to feel as if she might burst herself. Her thoughts
escaped to the horse she had seen further along the street, an enormous creature with a thick black mane, its face pushed into a nosebag. As they passed, the munching animal had lifted its head and
stared at them – at her, she was sure. That horse is my friend, she thought. She wanted to go outside again and find it, to pat it and rub her cheek against its neck for comfort.
She knew to stand quiet, not to interrupt her mother’s rages. It was something she had had to learn in these weeks since her father’s disappearance, since the day his body was pulled
out of the Grand Union below the Camp Hill locks. And that was only the beginning of the life they had known being snatched away from them.
‘Look at me!’ Peggy’s words jolted from her. ‘Look at what you’ve done to me, Harold Mills – made me into a pauper! Damn you . . .
Her fist slammed on the rotten table. ‘You stupid, feckless fool! As if I had anyone else to turn to – oh, I can’t bear it!’ She pulled herself upright, then turned suddenly
on her daughter with a burning expression of loathing in her eyes.
‘And you – always there like a millstone round my neck. I never wanted children, you know that, don’t you? Oh no! I let him have one, just for the sake of it! One child! One
rock – that’s enough to drown you!’ She gave a horrible, harsh laugh. ‘If it wasn’t for you, I could get away from here and have a life. Look at this place
–’ She looked wildly around the room. ‘This is our life now – thanks to
. Poor, outcast and living in a slum – that’s our life now. So
you’d better get used to it!’
‘Get back, you silly girl – how many more times’ve I got to tell you?’ Peggy snapped as Rachel tried to follow her up the path to the front door of
the big house. ‘Stay behind that wall out of sight.’
This outburst brought on another bout of Peggy’s coughing. She leaned groggily against the wall for a moment, curling forward as her chest rattled and she gasped for breaths of the cold
Rachel, now a solemn-eyed seven-year-old, used to doing exactly as she was told to try and please her mother, shrank back into the gloom outside the imposing gateposts. In her arms she held
their little bundle of the day so far, wrapped in a sheet. As her mother’s coughing died down she heard her give a low groan. Rachel wanted to put her fingers in her ears. Mom kept making
these terrible, frightening noises. Her chest sounded so bad. Peggy had insisted that Rachel come with her after school, though when they set out she hardly seemed to have the strength to get
along. Some of the people today had been so rude and nasty, so Mom was upset and angry as well as poorly.
They were outside another of the big Edgbaston houses which all seemed like palaces to Rachel. She shifted so that she could see through the gate. The glow of electric lights through the long
windows showed glimpses of the curves of deep red curtains fastened back at each side, the elegant symmetry of a china vase, its blue and white patterns lustrous, on the sill inside. It was all so
grand and beautiful! How she longed to creep along the path and slip inside, to lie by the fire which she knew must be crackling in the grate in the big room, a soft hearthrug in front of it for
her to relax into and feel her frozen limbs uncurl in the warmth . . .
In the front garden was a horse chestnut tree, its remaining leaves wizened into autumn colours and glowing in the dusky light like a shower of bronze. She wanted to gaze and gaze at it. Fancy
having an enormous tree right outside your house! When they stepped out of their house it was straight onto the narrow street with not a blade of grass in sight. Until recently she had forgotten
that there were such houses as this, or places where the air was not thick with smoke and factory smells. She thought they were only in stories, not in Birmingham.
She put the bundle down on the ground behind her. It was nice and soft and she thought about sitting on it but decided she’d better not. It was dark and growing colder, a late October
evening with the mist beginning to seep along the streets. Rachel shivered. Under a navy gaberdine, so big it reached most of the way down her shins, she had on the little grey tunic which Mom had
made for school. The sleeves of the gaberdine were too long and the cuffs frayed so Mom told her to keep them rolled up. Now, defiantly, she pulled them down to try and warm her hands, but the cold
air seemed to slither its way up the sleeves and across her chest. After a moment she crossed her arms and pushed each hand up the opposite sleeve, hugging herself. She was a pale child, her grey
eyes looming large in her face. Her mouse-coloured hair just reached her shoulders and was parted on one side and pinned back with two kirby grips. On her feet were scuffed black boots that they
had been given at one of the houses. The soles were worn thin and they were too large as yet, so that she slopped along in them and it was hard to run in the school yard. But they were not
boots, handed out as charity by the local newspaper! Mom said over her dead body was she ever wearing those – she’d pawn her wedding ring first.