Ring Of Truth – Episode 02

AT this early hour Cassie had reckoned on finding the pump standing idle, the queue of women jostling with their pails yet to appear. But she was not, after all, the first to fill up for the day.

Young Peter Jennings, a scrawny little lad of seven, was furiously pumping the handle. He looked almost comical, his cloth cap at least a size too big and remaining on his head only by resting on his ears.

“I’m sorry, miss. I’d let you go first, with you having two to fill, only our Alfie’s grisly an’ bawling for his skilly,” he explained, using the local word for what was nothing more than a thin gruel, made with oatmeal and water.

“This’ll do for now,” he decided, a steely pride in his voice as he grabbed the pail that was as yet only half filled. “Our Daisy’s no need o’ more than half a pail. All yours, miss.”

He turned on his heel to go, but in spite of the minutes ticking past and the need to not only fill her pails before the rest of Rose Court swarmed out but also to be on her way to Chiswell Street this side of supper, Cassie caught hold of Peter’s sleeve.

“Peter, wait. If Alfie’s hungry and Daisy’s got to cook, well, Aunt Annie and me, we’ve some porridge left in the pot.”

Peter’s expression hardened.

“No, ta, miss. Ain’t no need o’ that. Our Daisy’s got a pan o’ skilly on the go – least she will have when I get this here water to her.”

He turned away once more, a thin scrap of a lad who looked for all the world like he’d no strength in him to lift an empty pail, never mind one with water in it.

But, like most children who had no option if they were to exist in the mire and hardship that was the slums of Spitalfields, he’d a strength beyond his years.

His sister, Daisy, herself no older than ten, was the same − industrious, stubborn and proud as a peacock.

She was the oldest Jennings child and, since their ma’s passing on the night of their Alfie’s birth two years ago, the woman of the house.

Daisy was the one who scrubbed their one-roomed home, took herself out every day to mind horses for a penny and made every farthing she earned do the work of two on a Saturday evening.

That was when she scoured the market for meat and vegetables on the turn which wouldn’t last until Monday so were sold off cheaply.

Their pa, Fred Jennings, was no use. He was a weaver by trade but he’d had no work this past year.

With his Bess gone, leaving him three children he’d no energy to care about, it was a good job their Daisy was the little mother she was.

She emerged from their home now, baby Alfie snuggled on her hip and fretting, his little head buried in her tangle of thick, russet brown hair.

“Peter! Ain’t you done yet?”

“I’m on me way, our Daisy,” Peter said. It was perhaps the pitiful sound of Alfie crying on his sister’s shoulder for want of a full belly that led him to add, “Cassie says she’s some porridge left in their pot if we want it. For our Alfie, I mean…”

It was clear that he knew he’d said the wrong thing as soon as the words left his mouth.

If Peter were a thin little scrap, for her age Daisy was no bigger than tuppenceworth o’ copper, as Aunt Annie put it, and nothing on her but bones and a scowl. Her eyes were wide and the palest blue, enormous in her thin face, and her lips pursed even thinner as she approached Cassie.

“We’ve no need o’ charity, miss.”

“I know that, Daisy.”

She was distracted, her attention caught by the sound of hooves on cobbles, this little girl who’d no choice but to run a home and look after her brothers but was still a child with a love of animals.

She turned to hear the cheerful tones of Jem Clements seconds before his head appeared around the corner of the alley that led out to Rose Street.

“Miss Daisy? Ah, there you are. Might you be so kind as to take over Dolly duty for me for five minutes?”

How was Daisy to mind the horse that pulled Jem’s rag cart, gentle and docile old lady that she was, with a baby in her arms, crying for his breakfast?

But she would do it, Daisy would. She would hold on to Dolly for as long as needed and gladly pocket the penny Jem gave her in return.

It wasn’t that she no longer cared if her baby brother went hungry. It was more that she was going to have a penny in her hand with which to ensure he didn’t go hungry later.

Cassie touched her thin shoulder as she headed towards the alley where Jem was waiting.

“Daisy, wait. I can take Alfie while you mind Dolly.”

Daisy’s stubborn expression, when she turned briefly to fix her with a hard stare, confirmed it.

“I can manage, thank you. Got two hands, ain’t I?

With her head held high she whirled around and carried a snivelling Alfie along the alley and out on to Rose Street, where she took the reins of a dozing Dolly from Jem.


Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!