Gone To London: The River

The hand I placed on the stones was full of Mrs. Rosenthal’s money. I’d forgotten I even had it. I truly think I would have done it, not because I wanted to die, but because I didn’t see any way to live or anything to live for. No more letters from my Mam. No way to receive any from my Da now that my place was gone. All those years spent washing and working, sending my wages to support a family that was lost to me now. After what I’d done, I couldn’t even go back to see if a letter arrived. The events of the day hit me like the cold water below, and the shame of what I’d done drove me to my knees. I would have thrown myself into the water then, had I been able to stand, but all I could do was curl up in a ball and cry, that handful of money clutched to my heart.

Mrs. Rosenthal had been kind, as employers went, though we were never close. Hiring me had been a mark of how far they’d come up in the world, able to afford a real servant, not just a girl who came to help on the Sabbath. Being Irish and Catholic, I was hardly going to be part of the family, but it was a good place. I was lucky to have it. Jewish families in London could hardly attract English servant girls, and the English would not hire us. We were dirty, unskilled and lazy, they said.

In Dublin, my prospects were poor. So many girls in my position went to England or America where we could earn so much more than we could in Dublin, and send money back to our families. Why shouldn’t I do the same? If I went to America I’d never see home again, but if I went to London, perhaps our family’s prospects would be better in a few years. I was fifteen and knew there was nothing for me in Dublin. I was ready to see what London had to offer.

I’d done so much more than washing at first. Mr. Rosenthal was still doing contract work for the tailor who’d taught him the trade, and when he found I could already sew well enough to keep the family’s clothes respectably mended as well as washed, he saw an opportunity. I was glad to learn as much of the tailor’s trade as I could, but in the end he used my labor to acquire premises of his own and my services as a seamstress were no longer required.

By then, Mrs. Rosenthal had had her second child and I was needed more and more as maid of all work. I began to feel as if I was carving a path through an endless mountain  of laundry until I could at last go home to Ireland and perhaps start a family of my own. It was exactly the sort of life I’d come to London to avoid, but at least it wouldn’t be forever. One thing I’ll say for the Rosenthals–as they prospered, they paid me what I was worth. They considered it their duty, according to their faith. Most employers wouldn’t do that. I passed every penny I could on to my family in Dublin, hoping to go back where I belonged all the sooner. I lived on hope, and letters from home.

The Rosenthals moved, not far, but into a home, instead of rooms above the workshop. They hired a cook, who hated me on sight simply because I was Catholic, and Irish. Sarah, the daughter of Mr. Rosenthal’s brother, moved in shortly after to help with the two boys, and then the third son was born. As the family stepped closer and closer to respectability, they became more English and more distant. To their credit, the family never came to hate me, but the proper relationship between servant and master for their future station was established and maintained. As Mr. Rosenthal said, he had established himself through hard work and high standards, and there was no reason I could not do the same.

I was still curled up against the wall next to the river, but no longer willing to let London break me. If the Rosenthals wanted to be English, then good luck to them. I opened my hand and just stared for a moment. There were ten shillings there. A month’s wages from a woman whose house I had tried to burn down. Mrs. Rosenthal was not yet as English as I thought. Perhaps there was a way to get back on my feet and find my way to Boston, to join Da and Michael.

A tall man, whiskered and with a top hat that had seen better days had stopped on the path and was looking my way. He took a step towards me. I scooped up my bundle and ran back down the path, heart pounding, my hand tightly wound around the first money that was just mine since I’d arrived in this dirty, crowded place. I was alone, but I was free to do as I pleased for as long as it lasted.

I ran all the way back to Eastcheap before I stopped, my lungs heaving, my legs burning. There was no sign of Top Hat, and I sank down on my bundle. My stomach cramped as the smell of fried fish and potatoes reached me. The street seller coming down the street had a tray around his neck full of food, and I realized just how long it had been since I’d had a proper meal. Tuppence bought me a large portion and I held out a kerchief from my bundle for him to put it in. I gnawed at the food as I walked, unable to wait till I could find a crate to sit on by the side of the road and get at it properly. The hot food was a greasy blessing on my new freedom and though I still ached for my lost family, I was a different girl from the one who had nearly thrown herself in the river. Sitting there, wiping my oily hands on my dirty kerchief I felt myself returning to life. My next problem was finding a place to sleep. Tomorrow I’d have to find a way to make a living.

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