“The Grocer looked like he had enough help.” Frankie said as we walked. “And a girl can’t be of any help to a butcher. The lady at the draper’s had a horrible scowl, I wonder if she works there or was just an early customer?”
“What about down the end of the street.” I say. “We could sell flowers like those girls there.”
“That’s hardly a steady job.” Frankie said. “You have to buy the flowers first to sell them and if you don’t sell them then you’re out of pocket. It’s day by day work which means any lodgings are offered on night by night terms. This is a small place and the girls will have their own customers loyal to them. If it were a big city we might do better…” We came to corner leading to a small street.
“We don’t want to go down here, do we?” I asked
“Are you new here?” The young girl who had been tying flowers into bunches came up to us. “Has somebody just move in? We didn’t hear of it, or are you new staff for one of the big houses? You look very young, you can’t be much older than I am. I’m seven and three quarters.” I smiled at the girl, she was very well spoken for a street flower seller and I wondered what her story was.
“We are new.” Frankie said. “But we’re lookin’ for work, do you know of anywhere needing someone?”
“Well, I don’t know. Are you wanting work in one of the houses?”
“No.” Frankie said.
“I didn’t think so. But I won’t say anything.”
“Thank you.” Frankie said. I was a bit puzzled by this exchange but I kept my mouth shut for the moment.
The two looked at each other for a while longer.
“If you’re not afraid of hard work, then you might try Mrs Tomson’s round the corner. If you’re very desperate.”
“Thank you. What buildin’ is it?”
“Oh, you’ll know when you see it all right.”
We parted ways and we headed off to the small street the girl had pointed at.
“She’s a good girl, she is.” Frankie said to me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She knows we’re runaways, but she won’t say nothing. We should think up names.”
“If people are looking for a Bobbie and a Frankie, we don’t want to be Bobbie and Frankie.”
“Oh, not Bertha again!”
“Naw. What’s somethin’ you like and can remember but isn’t too fancy?”
“I’m sure I’ll still call you Frankie!”
“Well, I’ll pick Frances. That way if you start to say Frankie it won’t be as noticeable. Now, what Highlander names start with ‘B’.”
“Well, there’s Bonnie.”
“Maybe a little close to Bobbie. What else?”
“Well…” I racked my brains. This was harder than it sounded. “I suppose there’s Bella. Short for Annabella.”
“That’s pretty. Well, you’re Bella and I’m Frances, remember that?”
“I hope so!”
“Well, it’s better than Bertha at any rate! Come on.”
The street was the sort of street I would have once avoided but now walking down here was a chance at safety and security. I made sure to stand close to Frankie and to keep my eyes open.
“You need to be putting that spine into it! I cannot be getting on with my work if must be I’m in here doing half your work for you! You young gels you dance in and you dance out never minding poor Petty here left to try and make this meet that!”
“That sounds like the place the girl was talking about.” Frankie said.
“Over there.” I pointed.
“Yes… I see what she meant about not being scared of hard work.”
“Maybe they just need more help?”
“It’s a washer woman’s house. The whole lot is hard work. Come on.”
We made our way to the house and up the steps. Suddenly the door opened and a large figure, with just as large gold hoops in her ears, towered over us.
“Well?” She said looking at us. “Are your tongues with the cats?”
“If you please Madam.” Frankie said, “We’re looking for Mrs Tomson”
The woman in front of us burst out into loud, right pearls of laughter. My heart sank, had we gotten wrong information?”
“No one calls me that gel, Petty’s good enough for the likes of old Petty! Who might you be?”
“I’m F-Frances and this is Bella. We’re new in town and looking for work.”
“Oh just relying on poor Petty to get you by, where are you headed?”
“Well, here. There’s a room for us at Mrs Beats’—”
“Dance in and dance out you young gels. Take young Mira, was such a hard worker and promises to stay and then off she goes with some young fella and a swollen belly and poor Petty just can’t cope with that she can’t, no she can’t.”
“Well, we’re a bit young for fella’s yet” Frankie pointed out.
“Yes, well you’re a bit young for a lot of things. What experience do you have? Do you have a reference?” She looked from Frankie to me. “Do you?”
“I didn’t think so.”
There was an awkward silence then the door behind Petty burst open.
“Oh Petty, you’re needed at once!” I looked up at the familiar accent and saw a young lady who could only be described as a “lass from the Flatlands” was speaking.
“At once! At once? What is this at once?”
“Mrs D’s Shawl, the pink chiffon one, the stitching on part has come unstitched and the lace there has come off!”
“Then stitch it back on gel! You’ve fingers!”
“Oh, that I know, but there was a rolled hem and that’s come undone there too and I can’t do as a fine one that was there.”
“And my old eyes aren’t what they were once. You young gels, where’s that Mira when you want her? Gone she is.”
“Bella can do it!” Frankie interrupted.
“Bella?” Petty looked back at Frankie. “Who is Bella?”
“I am.” I said. Petty looked at me closely with a slight frown then pulled my hands towards her as if to inspect them.
“These hands have seen hard work recently but they ain’t used to it. That they’re not.” She said.
“They’re more used to holding a needle and thread than a scrubbing brush.” Frankie admitted. “But she’s a hard worker. Same as I.”
“Well. Let me see your hands then gel.” Petty said. Frankie held out her hands for inspection. “Well, hard work is used to you.” Petty said after looking at them. “Well, Bella, is that what we’re calling you gel?” Petty asked me. I nodded. I wasn’t sure if it was just her odd way of phrasing things or if she had an inkling that wasn’t my real name.
“Well then. Lets see if you can stitch as fine as your friend praises. Come on in.”
We all followed old Petty into the building.
Thank you Jo, I thought to myself, remembering all the time she spent teaching me how to do the hems on my dress I made and had planned to wear to the soiree before my life changed forever. If only I knew then that I’d bee using what she’d taught me to try and earn enough for a place to eat and food to eat in this strange place so far from home.
Still, it was only for a week or two. I could last that. Then I’d be Bobbie again and maybe, just maybe things wouldn’t be so bad.