Ring Of Truth – Episode 23

CASSIE’S heart sank as she turned from the unlit gloom of the rag yard, the pitiful whickering of Dolly for her oats and the eerie sight of Jem’s garret room with no candle in the window.

With no energy nor inclination to be anywhere but scouring every street, lane and alley until she found him, another fear, for Ruby rather than Jem, sent her swiftly towards Chiswell Street. A fear for Ruby’s safety should the mob who’d plundered first Lew Brody’s shop and then the pastry cook’s shop return, as surely they must, to complete their pillaging of Chiswell Street.

Ruby was indeed anxious; she had the shutters open and she was clinging to the wooden sill, in her eyes an almost haunted look as she eagerly awaited Cassie and news of her brother.

“I’ve not seen him, Ruby. He’s not been back to the rag yard.”

Cassie spoke quietly as she hung up her cloak, as if by confessing to her broken promise in little more than a whisper she could make the words hurt less.

She rested a hand on Ruby’s shoulder, which stiffened beneath her palm.

“He’ll be somewhere haggling over a copper pan or such like. He’s a rag man, it’s the nature of his work to trawl the streets from dawn till dusk. And now he’s to recompense Pa for the worth of Bess Jennings’s blanket, he’s even greater need to unearth as much of value as he can…”

For she would never lie to Ruby, who’d heard every word Tibbs had said. There was still every chance that in trying to reassure her – and herself, too, if she was honest – she unknowingly spoke the truth.

London was a vast, sprawling city, and Jem could be in any corner of it, having travelled there on foot because Dolly was under the weather, and then found himself a cheap boarding house in which to spend the night when darkness prevented him safely finding his way back to Spitalfields.

What could they do but wait for news?

In the meantime, they had a busy day ahead of them. On Sundays the mixing bowls, pots and pans were left to hang in the scullery, the range lit only to cook the modest meals scraped together by poor folk who’d no means of cooking them in their own homes.

“Make up a pot of soup,” Ma instructed Cassie, dispensing with the usual civilities as she burst through the door of the cookshop. “Use them peas you got from the market, and you could make up a batch o’ jam puffs while you’re at it.”

“It’s Sunday, Ma,” Cassie ventured. “We’ve no room in the ovens…”

“I know what day it is, lass!” Ma’s face was flustered, her cheeks as red as if she’d already spent an hour bent over a steaming stockpot. Her tone was sharp enough to cut stone, but was it any wonder, what with her new meat supplier leaving her empty-handed and the real threat that the mob had their eye on her cookshop?

“We’ll charge them thruppence a basin and half a basin for a penny,” Ma decided. “And a tray or two of your jam puffs’ll make us a bit to go in the pot.”

Cassie stared at her.

“Thruppence a basin and half a basin for a penny?” she repeated, and Ma glanced up at her irritably from where she was rubbing together flour and butter for the puffs.

“Aye! What of it?”

“But that’s cheating folk, Ma.”

Cassie chose her words carefully. Of old she knew the need to tread carefully if Ma was all of a fluster or had “one of her heads”. But no matter the frame of mind her errant supplier had put her in, it was not Ma Starling’s way to knowingly cheat her customers.

Maybe she’d got herself into such a dither that it was a simple mistake, and she would thank Cassie for pointing it out before she scrawled it up on the board outside and put folk’s backs up good and proper.

She didn’t.

“Daft enough to pay it, most of them, so mind you say nothing and we’ll make ourselves a bit extra for the pot.”

She knew what she was doing, then! It was no mistake. Ma Starling, whose kindness and motherly nature, the latter having earned her the nickname Ma in the first place, were known throughout Spitalfields and beyond, was choosing to cheat her customers of their hard-earned pennies!

“You can take that look off your face, madam!” Ma told her bluntly. “Ain’t nothing personal – just business! And you might want to think on your own job, and Ruby’s as well, before you get all high and mighty on me.

“There’s no meat in the pot for tomorrow, Cassie – we have to make up every lost penny from somewhere.”

“We’d sell more stew tomorrow if there was a taste of meat in it,” Cassie suggested. “Even a tiny one – folk sniff it out, Ma. I could nip to the Sunday market on Old Street and buy a bit of bacon!”

“Oh, aye? And who’s paying for it? Ain’t nothing so much as a farthing leaving that pot till there’s more in it than what’s coming out! You’ll have to make do with vegetables tomorrow – folk’ll have to lump it or go without!”

They would have to “lump it”, then − what choice did they have? Cassie was boiling up the peas for the soup pot, her mind ticking over recipes for vegetable soups and stews, when the bell over the door tinkled.



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!