Hammersmith: Backborough Lane (chapter sixteen)
Backborough Lane began with an infirmary, a blood-brick house with a high flight of steps and barred lower windows. These looked a handy vehicle for youngsters to clamber up and peer inside the treatment rooms. The angle of the house crowded the mouth of the lane, and the hucksters, competing for custom with crate and board displays—of patent medicines, artificial limbs, hernia-corsets—narrowed the entry further into overhanging umbrage. There was water close by, a smell of sewage; the lane otherwise was so impassible to omnibus or wagon, that Aimee saw the cobbles fairly clean.
And the only pedestrians making advances were there, at the center.
Hogben, undecided whether to plow ahead, or guard the rear, finished a series of “Uhs…”, with: “You’ve got that…that gift you brought along for your niece, safe tucked away, ma’am?”
“Monty, I’m going to pay up Carey’s rent. I’ll have to take Jane shopping… I hope you’ll come along?” She was interrupting herself, but what to do with Monty, since she couldn’t afford to lose him, pressed, as a question.
“By your side and at your service.”
Fair enough. She thought he had mumbled this, a rote gallantry no customer was expected to take up.
“I’m only telling you I know better. That’s what you mean to ask me, isn’t it? I’ll make arrangements, somehow, to have meals delivered. I won’t leave her with more than a dollar or two, cash, and send Carey along with the rest, when he can be there to look after them.”
Of course, there might be no “them”. If Cynthia grew up in her aunt’s house, where she might well be regarded a daughter among siblings, how would that not serve for the best? Yet the child was the only tie capable of binding.
Aimee knew from the priest who would not baptize Cynthia, though she couldn’t let on, as her nephew insisted it was not so…that Carey and Jane were not, in the eyes of authority, mister and missus. Too poor to pay for a license when they had thought themselves in love, too mired today in the consequences.
She followed Monty’s ushering hand through a passage about the width of a footpath. They had reached the end of the lane, a fence behind which new construction was rising…and there seemed no Krabill’s, no number 203. They retraced their steps.
“She keeps a sign in the window,” Carey had said. “To Let. There’s never any time Mrs. Krabill can’t find a bed, long as you pay cash. So it’s always to let.”
Hogben said: “You think they tore it down? I read in the paper how the city’s growing overnight.”
“I think we’re lost. Someone along here knows the way.”
“Krabill’s! Looking for Krabill’s!” They both called it out.
“What! You want the lodging house? You come down too far!” A voice, from a window overhead.
This passage, almost a tunnel under further awnings and laundry, opened wide at its egress. Perched cattycorner where the lane curved, bringing them back to the fencing, the jackhammering, the crane swinging its wrecking ball, the echoing thud and strain of a brick wall giving…but not quite, not yet…was a pleasant, whitewashed house.
And Carey’s sign: Krabills To Let, on cardboard in the parlor window.
Above a corner porch was another; Aimee’s first thought being that Mrs. Krabill’s indifferent management had spoiled her nice housefront. Yellowed newsprint was taped to a window behind a torn screen. Someone had nailed a crazy quilt over another, and a third, part visible through a hand’s-breadth of uncovered glass, bore a piece of gingham cloth—not stitched into an actual curtain, but hanging from a row of tacks.
Hogben already had mounted the steps and jerked the bell.
“I’m getting rid of those people up there,” the apparent Mrs. Krabill told them, nudging aside the servant who’d cracked the door. “I told that girl… Ma’am.”
Ma’aming her back, Aimee tilted at the threshold, while the maid retreated as far as the telephone table. Hogben inched into a niche by the umbrella stand.
“Not that you need to care about it. But if the little girl can go to her sister, she can too. He’ll find her if he ever comes back looking. Love,” Mrs. Krabill said, not believing it, “makes a way.”
They oozed, the four of them, further into a vestibule at the foot of the stairs.
“Get out, Rita,” the proprietress said, moving Rita by the apron strings to a door under these. “See if those bedsheets have got dry. Now come on in the kitchen, you two. What’s your name, Mister? I’ll get it down on paper.”
“Uh,” Monty said.
“I think,” Aimee said, “that girl is my niece.”
Christmases, she and Mrs. Frieslander made baskets…assembled them, rather, having spent the year making them. Carey and Jane’s was filled with socks and mittens, handkerchiefs, nuts and oranges, a tin of cocoa, a box of cough drops, a picture book, a toy, a novel, Demorest’s holiday number. A number also in the Businessman’s Everyday Handbook series (as close to prodding her nephew towards a career, as Aimee liked going).
She did not meet them at whatever rooming house they were living in. There had been three in as many years. She found them on Market Street, her beanpole nephew spotted in last year’s plaid cap, his small, pinched wife wearing her rabbit collar, both reconciled over a day of fun…a day, at least, of letting Aunt Bard buy them a restaurant lunch, stroll the baby through Sugarplum Village, the Snow Queen’s Palace, or whatever Wanamaker’s was up to that season. Jane would have dressed Cynthia too earnestly, the child angry at the hat tied under her chin, refusing to walk in the shoes she never (otherwise) had to wear.
Jane and Carey knew this a looking tour, that Aimee’s money was better spent stopping their latest eviction. But they ambled ahead, his arm around Jane’s waist, her hand pointing, their heads bent together.
Littler was written on a card; the card slid into a brass holder screwed to a door, one at the hallway’s end unlike the others, in that two shutters were hammered either side to fill some sort of gap. Wind gusted, lightening the smell of the tenantry with spring-scented air. A breeze on such a day was welcome, a relief from sweat and cabbage. But Jane’s little porch in winter must be drafty as a barn.
Hovering without the resolution to knock, Aimee could hear the Singer go whucka-whucka-whucka. Pause. Murmur of irritation. Whucka-whucka-whucka.
“Jane! It’s Aunt Bard.”
This brought instant silence.
The door handle began to work. The door wobbled in its frame, but held, and Jane’s face peered out, eyes seeing Aimee and passing her by, traveling to the head of the stairs.
“No,” she said. “He didn’t come. You come in, though, ma’am. I want you to know…”
It was not a simple matter, getting in.
Having a Treat
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)