Carrie had been awake for some time. She never slept deeply unlike her sister who was curled up beside her in the narrow bed, like a nesting animal. When dawn began to smudge the tiny attic room window she leaned over and gazed on her face, full of what she imagined was the emotion mothers felt when they looked at their sleeping children. May was the prettiest girl alive but such a trial. It was only when she was asleep they weren’t squabbling.
But Leeds was already up and about; the heavy tramp of people on their way to the mills and factories not long before had told her she had no time for introspection.
‘Wake up, Mayflower. Market Day. Time to get a move on.’
May rolled over and rubbed her eyes. ‘It’s always market day,’ she grumbled.
‘Silly thing. It’s only once a week. That damp patch on the ceiling’s getting bigger. I’ll have a word with the rent-man when he next comes round.’
‘They should knock it down. This has to be the worst pub in Leeds.’
‘Nonsense.’ Carrie swung her feet put of the bed and wriggled her toes in the rag-rug. ‘Come on. The sooner we get going the sooner the day will end.’
‘That don’t make sense.’
‘And you know all about sense, don’t you, Miss Soft-Head?’
Leeds was full of inns from the coaching inns to cellars where cheap gin was dispensed to children. The Red Lion Inn by no means the worst pub in Leeds but it wasn’t the best, although those who knew it would never drink anywhere else. Half-buried up one of the many lanes off Briggate that it shared with a slaughterhouse and a tannery, both of which smelled appalling at the best of times, many a passer-by hurried past with a shudder. Had they been brave enough to duck beneath its lintel they might have been pleasantly surprised.
True, the walls were crooked, the plaster stained with damp, the counter pitted and scarred and the tables and chairs mismatched and rocky on their legs, but everything was as clean as a dirty, industrial town would allow. The beer arrived on Bob Old’s cart from Kirkstall where the river still had some sweetness in it and not the slops from a hundred latrines, factories and mills.
Carrie Hope may have been the youngest publican in Leeds but she didn’t stand for any nonsense from her customers and there was many a local lad who was banned, which may have had something to do with the small profits. She was a formidable figure behind the bar; tall, flame hair with angry green eyes and it would take a brave customer to get on the wrong side of her. She refused to give credit under any circumstances whatsoever and if any of her customers dared to drink more than they could handle, she made sure they were shown the door. She was even known to manhandle the miscreant herself although Bob was often around to give her a hand.
The building had a surprising amount of space for one so old and lopsided. The basement kitchen was large enough to swing a family of cats even if Carrie did have to wade through puddles whenever the Aire flooded, The tap-room on the floor above boasted a good fire and enough room for a weary man to stretch his legs after a hard day’s graft. A short flight of creaking stairs to the right of the bar led to another room which Carrie had furnished as a dining room for any customer who might require some privacy and a table to eat from instead of his lap.
A much narrower and steeper staircase led from that room to the attic bedroom that Carrie and May shared with two iron beds and a trunk that stood between them and was both dressing-table and clothes press. On the bare boards stood a collection of pots into which the rain dripped through the ceiling in a concerto of plinks and plonks.
When May finally emerged from beneath the blankets, she peered out of the skylight to confirm that it was indeed raining again. Dark clouds hugged the chimney pots. ‘I’ll light the candle,’ she said.
‘Certainly not,’ said Carrie, wriggling into her dress. ‘One of these days you’ll learn not to waste hard-earned money.’
‘One of these days you’ll learn not to be so bossy. Besides, if it’s waste you’re talking about—’ said May, leaping up onto the bed swinging a bucket in her hand. She opened the skylight and slung its contents down the slates, ‘—it’s that empty room downstairs. We could sleep there instead of up here and catch us deaths. It’s got a fire and it’s nearer to the privy. Or better still. I could sleep in it on me own so I wouldn’t be disturbed by your snoring.’
‘I do not snore.’
‘What a liar you are, Carrie Hope. You snore like a steam engine.’
‘Enough of your nonsense, Mayflower. Buck up. We’re on our own this morning. Bob had to go to Halifax and won’t be back ’til tonight.’
‘I hate market days,’ sighed May. ‘I never get a moment to think.’
‘Daydream, you mean. Here. Help me with my buttons.’ Carrie turned round.
May stood on tiptoes to reach the back of Carrie’s neck. ‘You’ve lost one. Take it off and I’ll sew another on for you.’
‘No time. It’ll have to do.’
‘I’ll have to pin it but if it sticks into you, it’s your fault. You could do with a new dress anyway. Why don’t I nip down the market when we’re quiet? There’s a lovely blue cotton one in Mrs Sturdy’s shop if it’s not already gone. She said the last owner was a mill owner’s wife from Headingley who jumped out of her bedroom window because her husband was carrying on with the parlour maid.’
Carrie pulled up her woollen stockings. ‘You shouldn’t listen to that woman. She’s a scurrilous gossip. Oh no! There’s a hole in this one.’
‘I’ll darn it for you tonight,’ May offered, ‘but don’t let it get any bigger. Any road, I was saying. That dress. All it needs is some new lace at the hem and neck and you’d look like a princess.’
‘I don’t want to look like a princess and I don’t like your being friendly with that Sturdy woman.’
‘Why not?’ May plonked herself down on her bed and began to brush her hair.
‘I just don’t. So do as you’re told.’
May put down her hairbrush and glared. ‘I know why. It’s because she keeps asking me to work for her. And she says that if I shape up I can do some proper dressmaking and—’
‘Out of the question. I need you here. We only just make enough now to pay the rent. So if I did let you work there—which I won’t—I would have to get someone else to take your place and pay her more than that woman pays you. So we’d be worse off. So there’s an end to it.’
May stuck out her tongue. ‘You just don’t want me to make something of missen, do you? Just because you’re happy to stop here, dishing out mutton pies and mopping up spilt beer, doesn’t mean I am.’
‘We won’t stop here. You know that. As soon as I’ve saved enough, we’ll find a little place in the country…’
‘Oh yes. The Hope Inn. In some dull village full of dull people and pigs and sheep, where nothing ever happens. You’re an ugly old maid already so it won’t make no difference to you but I don’t see why I have to go the same way.’
‘Less of your sauce. You’re still young enough for me to take across me knee and wallop you.’ She made a grab for the hairbrush.
May slipped off the bed and skipped to the door. ‘I’m not a baby. I’m twelve.’
‘And I’m eighteen.’
‘There you are then. An old maid.’
‘That does it!’ Carrie dived after May and they both clattered down the stairs, ending up in the tap-room breathless and giggling.
Grabbing a quick breakfast of cold bacon and bread, they set to work and before long the first customer of the day stomped to the bar, shaking rain off his hat. ‘Morning Mr Allsop,’ said May. ‘You’re looking very spick and span this morning. Off courting, is tha?’
Joshua Allsop was seventy if he was a day and bowed with rheumatism, but his eyes still twinkled. ‘If I were it would be you, my bonny lass. Pot o’ mild and a mutton pie and taters.’
‘On my way,’ said Carrie as the door opened again to admit three weavers from Skipton who came every week to sell their cloth and always stopped by at the Red Lion first. ‘Morning May. Got a kiss for me to cheer us up this wet morning?’ said the boldest of the three.
‘Less o’ your cheek,’ said May pulling Mr Allsop’s pint, ‘And don’t shake your coat over the counter I just polished, if you don’t mind.’ Carrie had to smile on her way down the stairs. May never polished anything if she could help it.
As the morning wore on Carrie could hear the tap-room buzzing above her head. Like a hive of contented bees, cloth and grain merchants, wholesalers and farmers sat back with their coats unbuttoned, their arms folded over stomachs swelled by buoyant trade, as the warmth from the blazing fire, Carrie’s cooking and the best beer in Leeds worked their magic.
Just before midday, May found herself surrounded by a gang of market traders who were celebrating someone’s birthday, so she didn’t pay much attention to the man who left a letter on the counter and called out before he disappeared: ‘For Miss Caroline Hope. Make sure she gets it.’
Two men held the door for him as he barged out and went into the tannery. The room fell silent for a moment not just because the two were strangers but that they weren’t the pub’s usual sort of customers.
For one thing, they were both under thirty years with clean, fresh faces and both stood upright without a hint of a stoop, a sure sign that they were gentlemen. They wore broadcloth coats and one was even carrying an umbrella of all things. One looked ill at ease but the other smiled as he leaned over the bar.
‘Excuse me, Miss, but do you happen to have a private room? Only my friend here is shy of company.’ He grinned at his companion who scowled.
‘…So that’s four Yorkshire puddings, two beef stews, one tater pie and three mutton pies…’ She looked up at the smiling stranger and grinned back. In the few seconds it took to calculate the cost of the meals in her head she also noted that whilst the speaker was not ugly, his companion was the most handsome man she had ever seen and was intrigued. She would like to have been able to find out more about him and not just who his tailor was and whether he was from Leeds. But he had already turned his back and more customers had gathered at the counter so all she could do was direct them up the stairs before turning back to the birthday revellers. ‘I make that four shillings and ninepence ha’penny.’ She held out her hand, received two half crowns and delving into her pockets handed back the correct change, all without appearing to draw breath.
The stranger continued. ‘And we’ll have a bottle of your best whisky, please, and whatever you recommend from the menu followed by apple pie, if you have it. Only when you’re ready. No rush. I can see you’re busy.’
‘Busy isn’t the word for it,’ she said, hoping that the other man would turn round. He didn’t. ‘Blow him, then, she muttered to herself as she dashed off downstairs to give Carrie the orders so she could be back up again before she was needed again.
‘See? I told you that room would come in handy,’ said Carrie when May passed on the news.
‘As long as they don’t mind the funny smell,’ May said from the door. ‘They look like they’re used to summat more elegant.’ Oh and do we have a bottle of whisky anywhere?’
‘Not sure. Nip out and get one if we haven’t. A good one, mind you. Tek the money from the drawer. And what do you mean about “a funny smell” and “more elegant”?’
‘Not got time to explain,’ said May dancing up and down with impatience. ‘Why can’t you go?’
‘You’ve got young legs. Now run along.’
‘I wish Bob was here. I could have sent him.’
‘Well he’s not. So hurry up.’
May pulled a face. ‘But you’ll have to take their dinners up. I’m rushed off me feet.’
After another bout of face pulling, May said, ’By the way, someone left this for you.’ May took the crumpled note out of her apron pocket and held it out.
‘Put it on the dresser I haven’t got time to look at it now.’
‘I think you should open it. It looks important.’
‘Are you still here?’
‘I’m going. And I might not come back!’
‘I won’t hold me breath!’ Carrie called after her but May had already gone.
© Sally Zigmond 2010