her?' she said then. 'Nancy? Why, I had her here an hour ago. She was
only beat a bit about the face. She has her hair curled different now,
you wouldn't know he ever laid his hand upon her.'
I said, 'Won't he beat her again though?'
She told me then that Nancy had come to her senses at last, and left Bill
Sykes entirely; that she had met a nice chap from Wapping, who had set
her up in a little shop selling sugar mice and tobacco.
She lifted my hair from about my neck and smoothed it across the pillow.
My hair, as I have said, was very fair then -- though it grew plain brown,
as I got older -- and Mrs Sucksby used to wash it with vinegar and comb
it till it sparked. Now she smoothed it flat, then lifted a tress of it
and touched it to her lips. She said, 'That Flora tries to take you on
the prig again, you tell me -- will you?'
I said I would. 'Good girl,' she said. Then she went. She took her candle
with her, but the door she left half-open, and the cloth at the window
was of lace and let the street-lamps show. It was never quite dark there,
and never quite still. On the floor above were a couple of rooms where
girls and boys would now and then come to stay: they laughed and thumped
about, dropped coins, and sometimes danced. Beyond the wall lay Mr Ibbs's
sister, who was kept to her bed: she often woke with the horrors on her,
shrieking. And all about the house-laid top-to-toe in cradles, like sprats
in boxes of salt-were Mrs Sucksby's infants. They might start up whimpering
or weeping any hour of the night, any little thing might set them off.
Then Mrs Sucksby would go among them, dosing them from a bottle of gin,
with a little silver spoon you could hear chink against the glass.
On this night though, I think the rooms upstairs must have been empty,
and Mr Ibbs's sister stayed quiet; and perhaps because of the quiet, the
babies kept asleep. Being used to the noise, I lay awake. I lay and thought
again of cruel Bill Sykes; and of Nancy, dead at his feet. From some house
nearby there sounded a man's voice, cursing. Then a church bell struck
the hour-the chimes came queerly across the windy streets. I wondered
if Flora's slapped cheek still hurt her. I wondered how near to the Borough
was Clerkenwell; and how quick the way would seem, to a man with a stick.
I had a warm imagination, even then. When there came footsteps in Lant
Street, that stopped outside the window; and when the footsteps were followed
by the whining of a dog, the scratching of the dog's claws, the careful
turning of the handle of our shop door, I started up off my pillow and
might have screamed -- except, that before I could the dog gave a bark,
and the bark had a catch to it, that I thought I knew: it was not the
pink-eyed monster from the theatre, but our own dog, Jack. He could fight
like a brick. Then there came a whistle. Bill Sykes never whistled so
sweet. The lips were Mr Ibbs's. He had been out for a hot meat pudding
for his and Mrs Sucksby's supper.
'All right?' I heard him say. 'Smell the gravy on this...'
Then his voice became a murmur, and I fell back. I should say I was five
or six years old. I remember it clear as anything, though. I remember
lying, and hearing the sound of knives and forks and china, Mrs Sucksby's
sighs, the creaking of her chair, the beat of her slipper on the floor.
And I remember seeing-what I had never seen before -- how the world was
made up: that it had bad Bill Sykeses in it, and good Mr Ibbses; and Nancys,
that might go either way. I thought how glad I was that I was already
on the side that Nancy got to at last -- I mean, the good side, with sugar
It was only many years later, when I saw Oliver Twist a second time, that
I understood that Nancy of course got murdered after all. By then, Flora
was quite the fingersmith: the Surrey was nothing to her, she was working
the West End theatres and halls -- she could go through the crowds like
salts. She never took me with her again, though. She was like everyone,
too scared of Mrs Sucksby.
She was caught at last, poor thing, with her hands on a lady's bracelet;
and was sent for transportation as a thief.
We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind
of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. If I had
stared to see Flora put her hand to a tear in her skirt and bring out
a purse and perfume, I was never so surprised again: for it was a very
dull day with us, when no-one came to Mr Ibbs's shop with a bag or a packet
in the lining of his coat, in his hat, in his sleeve or stocking.
'All right, Mr Ibbs?' he'd say.
'All right, my son,' Mr Ibbs would answer. He talked rather through his
nose, like that. 'What you know?'
'Got something for me?'
The man would wink. 'Got something, Mr Ibbs, very hot and uncommon...'
They always said that, or something like it. Mr Ibbs would nod, then pull
the blind upon the shop-door and turn the key -- for he was a cautious
man, and never saw poke near a window. At the back of his counter was
a green baize curtain, and behind that was a passage, leading straight
to our kitchen. If the thief was one he knew he would bring him to the
table. 'Come on, my son,' he would say. 'I don't do this for everyone.
But you are such an old hand that -- well, you might be family.' And he
would have the man lay out his stuff between the cups and crusts and tea-spoons.
Mrs Sucksby might be there, feeding pap to a baby. The thief would see
her and take off his hat.
'All right, Mrs Sucksby?'
'All right, my dear.'
'All right, Sue? Ain't you growed!'
I thought them better than magicians. For out from their coats and sleeves
would come pocket-books, silk handkerchiefs and watches; or else jewellery,
silver plate, brass candlesticks, petticoats -- whole suits of clothes,
sometimes. 'This is quality stuff, this is,' they would say, as they set
it all out; and Mr Ibbs would rub his hands and look expectant. But then
he would study their poke, and his face would fall. He was a very mild-looking
man, very honest-seeming-very pale in the cheek, with neat lips and whiskers.
His face would fall, it would just about break your heart.
'Rag,' he might say, shaking his head, fingering a piece of paper money.
'Very hard to push along.' Or, 'Candlesticks. I had a dozen top-quality
candlesticks come just last week, from a crib at Whitehall. Couldn't do
nothing with them. Couldn't give them away.'
He would stand, making a show of reckoning up a price, but looking like
he hardly dare name it to the man for fear of insulting him. Then he'd
make his offer, and the thief would look disgusted.
'Mr Ibbs,' he would say, 'that won't pay me for the trouble of walking
from London Bridge. Be fair, now.'
But by then Mr Ibbs would have gone to his box and be counting out shillings
on the table: one, two, three- He might pause, with the fourth in his
hand. The thief would see the shine of the silver -- Mr Ibbs always kept
his coins rubbed very bright, for just that reason -- and it was like
hares to a greyhound.
'Couldn't you make it five, Mr Ibbs?'
Mr Ibbs would lift his honest face, and shrug.
'I should like to, my son. I should like nothing better. And if you was
to bring me something out of the way, I would make my money answer. This,
however' -- with a wave of his hand above the pile of silks or notes or
gleaming brass -- 'this is so much gingerbread. I should be robbing myself.
I should be stealing the food from the mouths of Mrs Sucksby's babies.'
And he would hand the thief his shillings, and the thief would pocket
them and button his jacket, and cough or wipe his nose.
And then Mr Ibbs would seem to have a change of heart. He would step to
his box again and, 'You eaten anything this morning, my son?' he would
say. The thief would always answer, 'Not a crust.' Then Mr Ibbs would
give him sixpence, and tell him to be sure and spend it on a breakfast
and not on a horse; and the thief would say something like,
'You're a jewel, Mr Ibbs, a regular jewel.'
Mr Ibbs might make ten or twelve shillings' profit with a man like that:
all through seeming to be honest, and fair. For of course, what he had
said about the rag or the candlesticks would be so much puff: he knew
brass from onions, all right. When the thief had gone, he'd catch my eye
and wink. He'd rub his hands again and grow quite lively.
'Now, Sue,' he'd say, 'what would you say to taking a cloth to these,
and bringing up the shine? And then you might -- if you've a moment, dear,
if Mrs Sucksby don't need you -- you might have a little go at the fancy
work upon these wipers. Only a very little, gentle sort of go, with your
little scissors and perhaps a pin: for this is lawn -- do you see, my
dear? -- and will tear, if you tug too hard...'
I believe I learned my alphabet, like that: not by putting letters down,
but by taking them out. I know I learned the look of my own name, from
handkerchiefs that came, marked Susan. As for regular reading, we never
troubled with it. Mrs Sucksby could do it, if she had to; Mr Ibbs could
read, and even write; but, for the rest of us, it was an idea -- well,
I should say, like speaking Hebrew or throwing somersaults: you could
see the use of it, for Jews and tumblers; but while it was their lay,
why make it yours?
So I thought then, anyway. I learned to cipher, though. I learned it,
from handling coins. Good coins we kept, of course. Bad ones come up too
bright, and must be slummed, with blacking and grease, before you pass
them on. I learned that, too. Silks and linens there are ways of washing
and pressing, to make them seem new. Gems I would shine, with ordinary
vinegar. Silver plate we ate our suppers off -- but only the once, because
of the crests and stampings; and when we had finished, Mr Ibbs would take
the cups and bowls and melt them into bars. He did the same with gold
and pewter. He never took chances: that's what made him so good. Everything
that came into our kitchen looking like one sort of thing, was made to
leave it again looking quite another. And though it had come in the front
way -- the shop way, the Lant Street way-- it left by another way, too.
It left by the back. There was no street there. What there was, was a
little covered passage and a small dark court. You might stand in that
and think yourself baffled; there was a path, however, if you knew how
to look. It took you to an alley, and that met a winding black lane, which
ran to the arches of the railway line; and from one of those arches --
I won't say quite which, though I could -- led another, darker, lane that
would take you, very quick and inconspicuous, to the river. We knew two
or three men who kept boats there. All along that crooked way, indeed,
lived pals of ours -- Mr Ibbs's nephews, say, that I called cousins. We
could send poke from our kitchen, through any of them, to all the parts
of London. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would
astonish you. We could pass ice, in August, before a quarter of the block
should have had a chance to turn to water. We could pass sunshine in summer
-- Mr Ibbs would find a buyer for it.
In short, there was not much that was brought to our house that was not
moved out of it again, rather sharpish. There was only one thing, in fact,
that had come and got stuck -- one thing that had somehow withstood the
tremendous pull of that passage of poke -- one thing that Mr Ibbs and
Mrs Sucksby seemed never to think to put a price to.
I mean of course, Me.
I had my mother to thank for that. Her story was a tragic one. She had
come to Lant Street on a certain night in 1844. She had come, 'very large,
dear girl, with you,' Mrs Sucksby said -- by which, until I learned better,
I took her to mean that my mother had brought me, perhaps tucked in a
pocket behind her skirt, or sewn into the lining of her coat. For I knew
she was a thief. -- 'What a thief!' Mrs Sucksby would say. 'So bold! And
'Was she, Mrs Sucksby? Was she fair?'
'Fairer than you; but sharp, like you, about the face; and thin as paper.
We put her upstairs. No-one knew she was here, save me and Mr Ibbs --
for she was wanted, she said, by the police of four divisions, and if
they had got her, she'd swing. What was her lay? She said it was only
prigging. I think it must have been worse. I know she was hard as a nut,
for she had you and, I swear, she never murmured -- never called out once.
She only looked at you, and put a kiss on your little head; then she gave
me six pounds for the keeping of you -- all of it in sovereigns, and all
of 'em good. She said she had one last job to do, that would make her
fortune. She meant to come back for you, when her way was clear...'
So Mrs Sucksby told it; and every time, though her voice would start off
steady it would end up trembling, and her eyes would fill with tears.
For she had waited for my mother, and my mother had not come. What came,
instead, was awful news. The job that was meant to make her fortune, had
gone badly. A man had been killed trying to save his plate. It was my
mother's knife that killed him. Her own pal peached on her. The police
caught up with her at last. She was a month in prison. Then they hanged
They hanged her, as they did murderesses then, on the roof of the Horsemonger
Lane Gaol. Mrs Sucksby stood and watched the drop, from the window of
the room that I was born in.
You got a marvellous view of it from there -- the best view in South London,
everybody said. People were prepared to pay very handsomely for a spot
at that window, on hanging days. And though some girls shrieked when the
trap went rattling down, I never did. I never once shuddered or winked.
'That's Susan Trinder,' someone might whisper then. 'Her mother was hanged
as a murderess. Ain't she brave?'
I liked to hear them say it. Who wouldn't? But the fact is -- and I don't
care who knows it, now -- the fact is, I was not brave at all. For to
be brave about a thing like that, you must first be sorry. And how could
I be sorry, for someone I never knew? I supposed it was a pity my mother
had ended up hanged; but, since she was hanged, I was glad it was for
something game, like murdering a miser over his plate, and not for something
very wicked, like throttling a child. I supposed it was a pity she had
made an orphan of me -- but then, some girls I knew had mothers who were
drunkards, or mothers who were mad: mothers they hated and could never
rub along with. I should rather a dead mother, over one like that!
I should rather Mrs Sucksby. She was better by chalks. She had been paid
to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What's love, if that
ain't? She might have passed me on to the poorhouse. She might have left
me crying in a draughty crib. Instead she prized me so, she would not
let me on the prig for fear a policeman should have got me. She let me
sleep beside her, in her own bed. She shined my hair with vinegar. You
treat jewels like that.
And I was not a jewel; nor even a pearl. My hair, after all, turned out
quite ordinary. My face was a commonplace face. I could pick a plain lock,
I could cut a plain key; I could bounce a coin and say, from the ring,
if the coin were good or bad. -- But anyone can do those things, who is
taught them. All about me other infants came, and stayed a little, then
were claimed by their mothers, or found new mothers, or perished; and
of course, no-one claimed me, I did not perish, instead I grew up, until
at last I was old enough to go among the cradles with the bottle of gin
and the silver spoon, myself. Mr Ibbs I would seem sometimes to catch
gazing at me with a certain light in his eye -- as if, I thought, he was
seeing me suddenly for the piece of poke I was, and wondering how I had
come to stay so long, and who he could pass me on to. But when people
talked -- as they now and then did -- about blood, and its being thicker
than water, Mrs Sucksby looked dark.
'Come here, dear girl,' she'd say. 'Let me look at you.' And she'd put
her hands upon my head and stroke my cheeks with her thumbs, brooding
over my face. 'I see her in you,' she'd say. 'She is looking at me, as
she looked at me that night. She is thinking, that she'll come back and
make your fortune. How could she know? Poor girl, she'll never come back!
Your fortune's still to be made. Your fortune, Sue, and ours along with
So she said, many times. Whenever she grumbled or sighed -- whenever she
rose from a cradle, rubbing her sore back -- her eyes would find me out,
and her look would clear, she'd grow contented.
But here is Sue, she might as well have said. Things is hard
for us, now. But here is Sue. She'll fix 'em...
I let her think it; but thought I knew better. I'd heard once that she'd
had a child of her own, many years before, that had been born dead. I
thought it was her face she supposed she saw, when she gazed so hard at
mine. The idea made me shiver, rather; for it was queer to think of being
loved, not just for my own sake, but for someone's I never knew...
I thought I knew all about love, in those days. I thought I knew all about
everything. If you had asked me how I supposed I should go on, I dare
say I would have said that I should like to farm infants. I might like
to be married, to a thief or a fencing-man. There was a boy, when I was
fifteen, that stole a clasp for me, and said he should like to kiss me.
There was another a little later, who used to stand at our back door and
whistle 'The Locksmith's Daughter', expressly to see me blush. Mrs Sucksby
chased them both away. She was as careful of me in that department, as
in all others.
'Who's she keeping you for, then?' the boys would say. 'Prince Eddie?'
I think the people who came to Lant Street thought me slow. -- Slow I
mean, as opposed to fast. Perhaps I was, by Borough standards. But it
seemed to me that I was sharp enough. You could not have grown up in such
a house, that had such businesses in it, without having a pretty good
idea of what was what -- of what could go into what; and what could come
Do you follow?
You are waiting for me to start my story. Perhaps I was waiting, then.
But my story had already started -- I was only like you, and didn't know
This is when I thought it really began.
by Sarah Waters, Copyright (c) February 2002, Riverhead books, a division
of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
by Sarah Waters. © January 31, 2002 , Riverhead Books used by permission.