No. 4, Whitehall Gardens – Episode 30

No. 4 Whitehall Gardens illustration by Sailesh Thakrar

In the home of William and his mother Mariah, things were not going well. Mariah was fretting.

“It seems wicked to say it,” she told her son, “but Molly’s as slippery as an eel, and though she tells me nothing, I know something is afoot.”

“Has she found work yet?” William asked.

He was polishing his work boots by the back door.

“Oh, she chatters on about that,” Mariah said, wiping mechanically back and forth at the table surface with a rag, though it already shone. “She’s vague. That lad of hers has been here often, and they sit in the alley behind the house with their heads together.”

“Don’t let her marry Silas Browne, Mother,” William said. “And I’d not refer to him as a lad, nor Molly a girl, both of them being seven and twenty!”

Mariah laughed.

“You’re right on that count, Will. She’s no thought of marriage, you know – she hasn’t got the sense for that.”

Mariah looked at her son’s back, encased in the smooth black gabardine of his uniform, and her mouth twitched into a smile of pride.

“I’m wondering if you’ve any ideas in that direction yourself, Will. I’ve seen you gazing into the distance like some lovesick boy.”

William didn’t turn round. He didn’t want his mother to see the strain on his face.

Since that day when Clementine had sent him away, just as though they had no interest in each other, his heart had been twisted up with distress.

“Not me, Ma,” he said in as light a tone as he could. “Not yet.”

“Well, any young woman would be lucky to have you, a rising man of the Runners, and set to be preferred for Mr Peel’s new force,” Mariah declared.

William could hear the pleasure in her voice, and the hope, and he closed his eyes and gripped the shoe brush.

The Peel name ought to be a source of joy, but Clementine had sent him away, and he was wretched.

But William’s mother quickly returned to the topic of his half-sister Molly and William knew why.

When Molly was brewing trouble there was always an atmosphere in the house – a nagging anxiety that mother and son both felt.

William remembered it from his earliest days. Even at age seven or eight he’d been aware that his mother was waiting up for Molly during one of her long absences, or that some new friend of Molly’s was frequenting the house.

He had looked up to Molly then, and adored her, but he’d known she was a source of trouble. He had learned to be good because of it; a stable counterweight to his half-sister’s unstable one.

At last Mariah stopped rubbing at the table. She picked up a tin of bread dough that had been proving by the grate, and went out to the bake house three or four streets away, returning 20 minutes later.

“There’s a lot of loaves waiting to bake,” she said, “so I’m to go back after dinner and fetch it.”

William was done polishing now, too, and he sat in a chair reading a day-old edition of “The Observer” newspaper. He commonly borrowed it from his superior officer at Worship Street.

His mother wandered round the tiny parlour, unable to settle to anything.

“Where is Molly?” William asked.

Mariah turned round and braced her arms against the dresser.

“I wish I knew, Will. With that man, I suppose, cooking up something.”

“You think she’s foolish enough to risk prison again?”

She looked at him, her lips pressed together.

“I thought of checking in her box upstairs.”

Molly, like many young women of the working classes, owned a locked box that was beneath her bed, in which she kept anything private. She shared a bedchamber with her mother, and privacy was hard to achieve.

“I don’t know,” William said quietly, but even as the words left his lips he knew they would look.

Abigail Phillips

Abbie is the newest member of the fiction team at the "Friend." She loves how varied the role is - every day is different and there is always a new story to read. She is keen to work closely with established writers and discover new writers, too.