The mean-faced woman looked at the pretty young girl with suspicion and hostility.
“Are you Mrs. MacAllister?” Louisa asked nervously.
“Yeah. Waddaya want?” the woman asked, her rasping voice harsh and aggressive.
“Excuse me, please,” Louisa stuttered, “but I am looking for a place to stay. The notice in your window says you have rooms to let.”
The said notice was water-stained, sun-bleached and fly-blown. It curled at the corners and gamely held on to the dirty window glass by a means that was not immediately determinable.
“Aye, I do.” The woman agreed. “Canyer pay?” she asked, eyeing-up Louisa’s grubby dress and noting her lack of luggage. “I ain’t no charity, yer know” she added coldly.
“Oh, I can pay!” Louisa said brightly. “Look, I have money.” She proffered a crumpled five pounds note to the landlady.
The transformation was remarkable. Mary MacAllister, she of the rasping voice, mean and confrontational demeanour and suspicious hostility straightened her back, retrieved a gap-toothed smile from somewhere remote and plastered it onto her once-pretty Irish features and opened the street door wider to admit her latest paying guest in to her home.
“Come on in, child!” she invited warmly, her mode of speech transforming as miraculously as her demeanour. She helpfully relieved Louisa of the burden of the five pounds note. “I have a delightful room that’s just right for a lady of means like you” she said as she carefully folded the note and tucked it securely into her bra. “Now, follow me, dearie, and let’s get you settled in, shall we?”
The room was barely more than a closet containing a steel-framed bed that was wedged into the limited space with a thin and stained mattress, a threadbare cotton sheet and two moth-eaten blankets. A wash-stand bearing a chipped bowl and jug took up a substantial proportion of the space that was left. A built-in recess served as a wardrobe.
It’s… perfect.” Louisa declared, the lie tripping on her tongue. She managed to keep her horror and disgust out of her expression as she and Mrs MacAllister discussed a weekly rate for the pokey dump.
“Six shillings a week, dearie, that’s me going rate.” Mrs MacAllister said, licking her lips greedily. “How many weeks would you like to stay?”
Had she had any other option Louisa would have answered ‘none’ and asked for the return of her five pounds note, but it had been a long and stressful day and she was too tired and emotionally drained to argue with the hideous woman.
Louisa was certain that Mrs MacAllister had doubled - - if not trebled - - her rent but she was beyond caring.
“Oh, just the two weeks for now.” She told her new landlady. “Perhaps we can look again after then?” Louisa suggested politely.
“Of course, dearie. Whatever suits you best. Shall I hold on to your money for now, just in case?” Mrs MacAllister asked in a tone that implied that there was only one answer she expected to hear, and it wasn’t ‘no’.
“Of course. How thoughtful of you. Thank you.” Louisa lied. A smile brightened her tired features and she made her mind to take up residence.
“Jus’ a couple’a house rules.” Mrs MacAllister said, her tone brusque and business-like now that the deal with the naïve young woman had been concluded.
“The street door is locked at seven-thirty sharp every evenin’. If you ain’t home, that’s your responsibility. That door don’t open again ‘till next mornin’.”
“Okay.” Louisa agreed.
“You’re out of the ‘ouse at seven so’s I c’n clean the place”
“Okay.” Louisa agreed again.
“An’, most ‘portantly of all, what with you bein;’ a young lass ‘n’ that, strickly no genel’men callers in yer room, ever! Got that?”
“Absolutely!” Louisa concurred. “And rightly so.” she added for good measure.
The look Mrs MacAllister shot at the pretty girl suggested she suspected that Louisa was perhaps being a little disrespectful.
“Them’s the rules, girl. Don’t you go fergettin’ ‘em!” she declared as she turned on her heels and stomped back down the stairs.
Had Mrs MacAllister turned around quickly she would have seen her new tenant cover her mouth with her hands to hold back the hysterical laughter that threatened to get her evicted before she had spent a single night in Mrs MacAllister’s dump of a room.
“Oh, my!” Louisa exclaimed when she had closed the battered and ill-fitting door behind her. “Clean the house?” Again, the young woman had to quickly cover her mouth to stifle her laughter. Even so, tears of merriment trickled from her eyes.
There was undoubtedly a slim edge of hysteria to Louisa’s amusement. It had been a difficult day and to have arrived at safe – if somewhat dubious standard – lodgings was more than she could have hoped for.
She had taken the first arrival that had been due at the small provincial station, a London-bound passenger train that chugged its way through the English countryside at a sedate pace, finally depositing its tired and soiled passengers at the cavernous mainline terminus.
Louisa’s first priority was to find somewhere to stay, which had brought her eventually to the doorstep of the redoubtable Mrs MacAllister. Louisa knew she had blundered badly by showing the horrible woman such a large denomination banknote. It was not a mistake she would make again in a hurry. Louisa had no illusions that she would ever see the money Mrs MacAllister was ‘looking after’ for her again. Mentally, she consigned the money to history and concentrated instead on more practical concerns, such as clothing and feeding herself as well as managing her personal hygiene needs.
The hours had slipped past rapidly. Already the sun had reached its zenith and the day was cooling by the minute. As she had tramped the streets seeking lodgings Louisa had passed several establishments that sold used clothing. Wearily rising to her feet she made her way down the ill-lit staircase and emerged into the dying light of the sunny afternoon.
A little over two hours later Louisa Tavistock stowed her new possessions in the dank-smelling recess. She had spent what felt like a small fortune – almost three pounds – on a meagre collection of dresses, a coat, a second pair of shoes, underwear and toiletries. It all fitted into a very small amount of space.
Louisa lay down on the bed and learned immediately that it was actually as uncomfortable and unpleasant and it looked. She determined that, come what may, she would find alternate – better – lodgings as soon as she possibly could. Her stomach growled in complaint at being unnourished since breakfast, but weariness would not allow the exhausted young woman to rise and go out again. Her eyes closed and sleep claimed her until the rattle of Mrs MacAllister violently coughing downstairs the following morning roused her from her slumber.
There was a new atmosphere around the country, one of celebration and optimism after the horrors and privations of the Great War. Young women were cutting their hair short, wearing shockingly short skirts and smoking and, most wonderfully of all, dancing outrageously to the new music they called ‘jazz’ that could be heard on the wireless. It was a good time to be young and, although still a teenager too young to drink and smoke and engage in some of the activities of the ‘flappers’, as the young girls were called, got up to, Louisa enjoyed their carefree attitude to life. She envied them their freedom from worry.
The money she had stolen from George Parsons, although a large sum, was not going to last forever. Already ten of those forty pounds had disappeared – in just one day! At that rate she would be penniless by the weekend if she were not more prudent with her spending. It was clear that some sort of employment would have to be secured, as soon as was practicable possible. Her beauty gave credence to the lie that she was older than her sixteen years. Claiming to be two years older than she actually was gave Louisa entrée into situations that might otherwise have been denied to her as a minor.
It was easier said than done, though. There were many returning war veterans who, more than three years after being demobilised, were still seeking gainful employment. Groups of young men of similar age and bearing were to be seen standing in orderly lines outside the Labour Exchange offices waiting to see what new openings had appeared since they last queued, just yesterday. The vacancies were becoming fewer and the queues growing longer by the week, so what chance a poorly educated, unskilled and inexperienced girl to be offered a precious place anywhere?
There were few real opportunities for women in the workplace anyway. Tradition dictated that women stayed at home and raised children while their menfolk earned the wages that kept the family going. The Great War had thrown that status quo into turmoil as women were drafted-in to fill the gaps left by the men who were fighting the War. However, with the end of hostilities there was glut of available labour and no place for women to continue as they had done. The status quo was restored.
However, traditional ‘women’s work’ roles, such as secretarial pools and shop work were still looked down upon by most men, unless it was as the business owner or manager. Sales clerk’s roles were still, in the main, positions filled by women. Louisa Tavistock found herself being turned away from retail establishment after retail establishment as her search for gainful employment proved fruitless and frustrating. She celebrated her seventeenth birthday alone, cold, hungry and rather depressed in her room at Mrs MacAllister’s home, more than a week after she had moved in. The following day she passed through the rather grand front doors to the umpteenth shop at which she had enquired about employment opportunities. The business’ name was Deschamps du Paris.
To be continued...