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.

Link to Archive of Our Own

Gone to London: My Roisin

Summary:

Roisin Sullivan is an immigrant, working for a family in London because that’s the only job she can get. She came to London because her family needed the money, the family she’s working for came a century or so ago for basically the same reasons, and now is focused on getting ahead. 

Is this the America of today? No, it’s nineteenth century London. We’re still playing the same games though, and putting up with the same savage inequalities. Only the cast of characters have changed. There are always reasons why people who are different can’t have the same opportunities as the rest of us. 

In this installment, Roisin (called Lucy, because her Irish name is too foreign, even for the Jewish family she works for) gets some bad news.

My Roisin, 

We will bury your mother and your sister today. Famine fever took them, as it has so many others. Please, on no account try to come home! The countryside is emptying as Dublin fills to bursting. The money you sent arrived yesterday, and I thank God for it for it has helped to give Michael and I the means to leave this deathly place. There is nothing but starvation in Ireland now. We will be sailing for America by the time you read this. I hope you will take care now and wait for word, as we will bring you out as soon as we find work. I will send your ticket as soon as we can get it. Carry our love with you until then, and may you stay safe and well in London, my darling girl. 

Your loving father 

The hand holding the letter slowly drifted down to my lap. I sat on the edge of the bed, dry-eyed, wordless. 

“Lucy?” Sarah seemed to appear from nowhere in the doorway of my tiny garret room, the candle in its rough pewter holder casting a pool of light  into the now dark room. “Mrs. Rosenthal is asking for you.” 

“Mrs. Rosenthal can go hang.” 

The circle of light wobbled as Sarah set the candle on our dresser. “What?” she said. “She’s not best pleased. The laundry is still in the yard and you’ve not laid the fire.” She came closer to look me in the eye. “Lucy?” 

I felt my hands clenching into fists, and as the letter began to crumple I remembered, and dropped it as if it were a burning coal. The last thing I might have from my family. I dropped to my knees and smoothed it out against the clean wooden floorboards. I laid it carefully on the dresser.

“Lucy, what’s happened?” 

I took a deep breath, and the rage receded, just enough for me to remember that Sarah was my employer’s niece, not my friend, even if she was kinder than the rest of them. She had nothing to do with the stealing of my life. “My mother–” The tears came, I couldn’t stop them if I’d wanted to. I was surprised to feel arms around me, and if they weren’t the ones I wanted, they were kind, and I could pretend that there was still someone in the world who cared for me. 

It was a long time before I was quiet. Sarah rose from the bed where she’d sat me down and got a cloth. She wet it with water poured into the basin from the pitcher I’d filled and brought up with the letter. The last ordinary act of a day that had my family in it. When she tried to  wash my face, I took the cloth and bathed my hot eyes. She understood, it seemed, and left me alone. 

Morning came, and I didn’t care. Sarah appeared at the door and called to me. 

“Lucy, you must get up. My Aunt is looking for you.” 

I said nothing. The bed was warm, and I wanted to go back to sleep. I pulled the covers closer. I didn’t see her take my letter from the dresser as she left. 

“Lucy?” 

A hand on my shoulder and a gentle shake. “Lucy?” 

It was Mrs. Rosenthal. 

I turned to face her, and sat up. My letter was in her hand, and my feet were on the floor. I snatched it from her. 

“Lucy!” The look of concern fell from her face, and her fists hit her hips. “How dare you!” 

“Where did you get that!” I shouted back. 

She took a deep breath. “I know you’ve had a shock, my girl, and I’m sorry for your loss, but I’ll thank you for remembering your place! This is my house, and I have a perfect right to know what goes on under my roof. I’ll thank you to get dressed and get to work.” 

Mechanically, I pulled open a drawer. Her footsteps receded down the stairs and I closed it, lay back down, tears streaming down my face. 

Sarah came up long after dark, a bowl of cold stew obviously filched from the kitchen  in her hand. I knew it hadn’t come from Cook. For a moment the ice where my heart should be began to thaw. She was kind, but she wasn’t my friend. My letter lay between us, even though I had it tucked under my pillow. 

The smell of food woke my body to its needs, and as I ate the floating, bodiless feeling I hadn’t noticed receded. I listened with half an ear to Sarah as she told me what I must do, to obey her aunt and do my work. I nodded at the right moments, said “yes,” and “I’m sorry,” and anything else she wanted to hear until at last she left me alone again. 

I lay down, crying silently until I drifted into darkness. 

The next morning my limbs were like lead, my spirit grey as the rough blanket covering me. I closed my eyes again and turned my face to the wall. 

I woke to Mrs. Rosenthal pulling the blanket back from my face. I pulled it out of her hand and turned back to the wall. 

“Lucy?” she said, more quietly than I’d expected. “You must get up now. This cannot continue.” 

If I stayed silent, surely she’d see reason and let me be. Instead, she stripped the blanket from me, grabbed me by the wrist, and pulled me from the bed. She stood in the doorway while I shivered my way into my clothes. As she turned I grabbed the letter and stuffed it into my pocket. I followed her downstairs, the picture of the obedient servant I’d been for the last fifteen years. 

I laid the fire in the sitting room with all the coal in the scuttle. I put Mr. Rosenthal’s’s newspaper on as well and lit it. I left it blazing on the hearth and went out into the yard. I didn’t collect the linens, I didn’t fill the coppers. I didn’t light the fires. I just stood there. 

The house didn’t burn. Mrs. Rosenthal found the flames licking at the mantel and ran to the scullery for a bucket of water. She sent Sarah to sit with me, and though I know she spoke to me, I have no recollection of what she said. Mrs. Rosenthal soon returned with my small case. She took me by the hand and walked me through the scullery to the back door. The cook looked daggers at me from her place at the stove as we passed through the kitchen. 

Mrs. Rosenthal walked me outside, out of earshot of any of the household. “I can’t have you here, Lucy,” she said quietly, “I’m sorry for it, but you all but had the house in flames. My home, my family aren’t safe with you under our roof.” She took my fingers and wrapped them around a handful of coins. “Go, my girl, and I pray you find some peace, but if I see you near my home again I’ll call the law.” 

I walked. Our court met the street, then a larger one, and then I was on the high road leading to the river. See me again? She never would. I walked along the river until I found a place where the walkway passed over the water.  I dropped the bundle I carried at my feet and looked down at the tumbling water below. I set my hand on the low wall and began to pull myself up on it. 

To Be Continued

Link to Archive Of Our Own: https://archiveofourown.org/works/32247553