As soon as I stepped inside the heat hit me like a fog. Petty led us behind the front counter and to a small sewing station at the back.
On our right we passed rows of stoves and coppers steaming like anything.
“Well me gel.” Petty said to me. “Lets see if you can do a stitch as fine as your friend here sez you can do. Take the chair, there you go.”
I sat down and the flatlands girl handed me the shawl and needle and thread. Doing a rolled hem isn’t hard, Jo always told me, you just have to have the patience to put the needle where it’s supposed to go and work on keeping your stitches neat and even. The hem will work out all on its own if you make the stitches right. As I was hemming I used my lower stitches to catch the lace and attach that at the same time.
“Well.” Petty said when I was finished. “Have a look with your young eyes Yasmin and tell me what you think of that.”
“Ohh,finer than Mira could ever do it even!” the flatlands girl, Yasmin, said. “Where did you learn lass?”
“From a young lady.” I said, quite truthfully.
“You been in service then?”
“Yes.” I hoped she didn’t ask any more questions.
“Yes, well, you can all get to find out more about each other later.” Petty said.
“Later?” Frankie beamed.
“Oh trial only, mind!” Petty said wagging her finger. “You young gels come in here and expect me to ask no questions, well, bless me kind heart but that I won’t, but there’s be an eye with you, two if I can spare them. You gel, what are we calling you?”
“Frances.” Frankie answered. “Yes, well, you can help Yasmin and Cora in the laundry and you,” She turned to me, “Will need to help them also unless there’s stitchin’ needing those fingers of yours. You’ll start tomorrow. Now, if you don’t want that old Beats to be rentin’ your lodgings to someone else ye better git goin’ to secure them. Just you tell her old Petty has a place for you here and the work is nice an’ steady an’ if your mind forgets to mention it’s jut trial only then I’ll not say nothin’.”
“Oh, thank you!” Frankie said.
“Yes well. Now before you git goin’ you just see Yasmin and she’ll help you, you might both look smart but there’ll be some old clothes in the cupboard you can wear, look less like where you’ve come from and more like where yer goin’.”
We thanked Petty and followed Yasmin.
“You lasses got yourselves into a spot of bother then?” She said. “Well, Petty won’t ask many questions and she’s a good soul really. You’re safe with her.”
“We’re very thankful.” Frankie said.
“Lets find you something to wear.”
The clothes were mostly old and worn but at least they were clean. Apparently as well as cleaning and mending clothes they bought up old clothes, fixed them up then sold them to those who couldn’t afford new clothes. I felt funny wearing someone else’s old things but Petty was right, we did look like girls straight from service. Even the girl selling flowers could see it. We changed into our ‘new’ things and Yasmin helped us to tie our old clothing up in our bundles to take back with us. Then, after saying goodbye to Yasmin and Petty until tomorrow, we headed off.
“Well, that’s the hard part done.” I said.
“Mrs Beats has to let us a room first.” Frankie said. “I’m not sure she’ll be as understanding as Petty.”
“I like Petty.” I said. “She’s a little strange, but I think I like her.”
“Hello!” We’d reached the corner and the young flower girl came running up to us. “Looks like you had some luck.”
“Ye, we did.” Frankie said. “Thanks to you.”
“Petty is good like that.” The girl said.
“If you know she’s caled Petty, why did you tell us Mrs Tomson?” I asked.
“Oh, she wouldn’t have liked strangers calling her Petty. She won’t have anyone calling her Mrs Tomson but she has to ask you to call her Petty. She’s a bit funny about that.”
“Speaking of names, we were never introduced before.” Frankie said. “I’m Frances, and this is Bella.”
“I’m Eliza.” The girl said. “And over there is my sister Clara. I should get back to helping her now, but it was nice to meet you properly.”
“Same!” Frankie said. “And we need to be seeing Mrs Beats.”
“Oh, are you staying there?”
“Well, we know she has a room free. Unless you know somewhere else we can try?”
“I don’t, sorry. Make sure you mind Mrs Beats, she’s a grumpy old crown but a stickler for good manners in everyone else. Good luck!”
Eliza ran off to rejoin her sister.
“Well, nothin’ to do but to do it!” Frankie said. We approached the house and it looked even more forbearing than it did before. We stood at the base of the steps, held hands and walked up together.
It was cooler in between the buildings and I felt a shiver run up my spine.
“She’s only a cranky old boarding house woman.” Frankie said, I think more to herself than to me.
“Well, then come on.” A bit of highland courage was what was needed, so I walked straight up to the door and knocked on it.
“Well?” Mrs Beats said the moment she opened the door, a scowl on her face. “What do you pesterin’ kids want? Don’t come round botherin’ me, whatever yer sellin’ I’m not byin’!”
“Oh, if you please Madam.” Frankie said. “We were lookin’ for lodgings and we was told to come and see Mrs Beats because she is a good moral woman of good standin’ and would make sure a respectable place was found for us.” I’d never heard Frankie sound so humble before, but it did the trick.
“Oh, well, now that’s a different story, ain’t it. Why didn’t yer say so at once?”
“And how are yer to be payin’ fer a room?”
“We have places with Petty.” Frankie said.
“Oh, yer are are ye? Two kids all on their own? What are ye doin’ here?”
“I– our friend set us up with Petty, Madam, but she can’t offer us any place to stay. She did say if we we were good girls and well behaved then you might have a place for us here” It was almost true. We’d only just met Eliza but she had been a friend to us in this place.
“Hmm. Well, there’s always clothes to be mended an’ washed. There’s always work tgheir. I’ll be speakin’ to Petty mind!”
Mrs Beats invited us inside and we found ourselves in a dark and bare hallway.
“Ye’ll be wantin’ to see the room.” Mrs Beats said before leading up a staircase just just as long and narrow as the hall.
We went up several flights of stairs and Mrs Beats stopped when we reached the top landing.
“This is the free room.” She said before opening the door and leading us in.
We followed her into the room. It was larger than our little attic room at Lady D’Winter’s and there were windows but they let little light in.
We had a double bed, that was something, and a bit more furniture including a proper table and chairs. I shook my head. How feelings changed over such a short time that I was grateful for a roughly made table and chairs.
I let Frankie talk the financials with Mrs Beats though I listened closely. We had to pay most of our small savings upfront but we had a small amount left over.
Then Mrs Beats went through the rules.
She had quite a list but most of them were things I’d never have imagined doing anyway. Finally she left us to settle in.
“Well, it’s better than it could be.” Frankie said. “Lets get some light in here and set our things about.”
We set about lighting lamps and candles and the room soon brightened.
“I’m starving.” I said, suddenly realising it was true. And I was exhausted. We’d eaten some food during our walk but had barley dozed since… since the night before last.
We pulled out the last of our bread from our supplies and sat down at our table to eat it.
I could hardly keep my eyes open but forced myself to stay up and finish my food. It was like now that we had a safe space the highlander blood that had been pushing me all this time was saying “safe, sleep now.”
Frankie helped me into my nightdress and if you can fall asleep before your head touches your pillow, I did just that.