Freddie wore my hats sometimes (even paid me sometimes! well, Freddie usually paid for them both of course, and one time another man did, who was visiting). And I’ve got several good customers, they tell each other about me, and I work hard in the right light (Ma always saying to watch my eyes, and she knows because of being a wardrobe mistress). They both, Freddie and Ernest, used to come often and watch me in my room, stare at how I was sewing brims and feathers and flowers, and Hortense having my hats hung on her when they was part-finished.
Freddie and Ernest always said, ‘Greetings, Hortense dear!’ when they came in to try more hats.
‘Why should Mattie have all the fun?’ they said to Ma. ‘Why should ladies have all the fun? – all the beautiful, elegant gowns and bustles and bosoms and boots and hats that ladies have, and look at us in our tedious gentlemen’s attire! We were born too late to be dandies!’ and they would laugh and take my half-finished hats and parade in front of the glass – they did it even when they were dressed in their men’s clothes. Ernest in particular was so fascinated by himself – how he could change himself, how much he could look like a woman – he stood in front of the mirror wearing my different hats I was working on and preened himself, turning and posing and staring, fascinated. At himself.
Once, one night late I was still up sewing with Hortense when Ernest came in alone. I heard him fall in the door almost, and I went hurrying down into the hall. His gown was covered in mud and his chignon a bit battered and he did smell a lot of brandy.
‘What’s wrong, Ernest?’
‘I’ve been to the Holborn Casino,’ he said, staggering against the wall. ‘I lost.’
He looked at himself in the glass in the hall and for a moment he made those chirruping noises at himself, like street ladies make when they’re trying to catch attention, and then he fell on the floor. I helped him up the stairs.
‘Dancing,’ said Ernest giggling. ‘I have no doubt my sister Fanny is dancing her head off!’ He was asleep, well, he passed out, before I got him properly on the bed.
By working really hard when I wasn’t cleaning the house and that, I earned £18/18/4d from my hats in the last year and although Ma panics sometimes because of the past, money isn’t one of our worries now, because Billy works at the Houses of Parliament on – listen to this – £90 a year now that he’s a clerk – and when he was promoted to be a clerk from a messenger I made him a silk top hat because clerks have to wear top hats and we laughed, Ma and me, at this new Billy. But he looked so splendid we also nearly cried with pride. And Mr Gladstone’s private secretary with an eye on him.
And we had our tenants – we were almost always full. So poor sad old Mr Flamp not being able to pay his rent was nevergoing to put us in the workhouse! And though we were just one of hundreds of boarding houses round Kings Cross there was a group of cotton salesmen from the North came back to us over and over, said we were pleasant and clean and reliable. Course the salesmen were always telling us how to run our boarding house better, make more money – some of them had their eye on Ma and the business, that’s what me and Billy used to reckon. Even me, some of them tried.
One of the cotton salesmen, Mr Plunger he was called, used to pinch my bottom in the hallway if I couldn’t get out of his way quick, and one week he presented me with a pretty cotton shawl that I would quite like to have kept (as long as I didn’t have to have him as well). ‘Shall I wear it?’ I asked Ma.
‘What, that Mr Plunger’s shawl? Well’ – she felt it with her fingers – ‘it’s very nice cotton – as long as he doesn’t plunge anywhere near my daughter without her permission!’ and I saw she was glad when I laughed too, I hadn’t been laughing much for a while.
So I wore the shawl