Billy-boy sits in the Box with his apple, his bell and his ball.
He must do as he and Ma and Gentleman have rehearsed or there’ll be no meat pie tonight.
Today I am seven. I have my apple, my bell, my ball.
Ma says to keep tight hold of the string, not like last time. Last time I let the apple bump too early and nobody was half as Amazed and Flabbergasted as they should have been.
So I hold the string in my hand and listen hard just like Ma taught me.
Gentleman helped me into the Box when the lights went out. He has on his silk kerchief and his pocket-watch tonight and says he will let me have a nip of his fire water if I am a good boy. Since it is my birthday he has even promised me a wiper of my very own.
The string is hot and sticky in my fingers. I wind it round and listen hard to what’s going on outside in the parlour cause if I miss my cue it will mean no meat pie for me. Worse still, we might get nibbed.
I have excellent ears, Gentleman says. Ma says he spoils me; I will get all rotten like a bad apple, she says. But I like it when Gentleman tweaks my ear and gives me sixpences and Fox’s mints.
Though I can’t see her I can picture Ma at the head of the tipping table. She’s all dressed up to the nines in her fine muslin and good silk stockings, taking her place with the ladies. Her pocket-purse will be fat with coins, all of them sovereigns and all of them good.
“We’ll be swells too one day, Billy-boy,” she said, before smothering me with kisses that smelled of cinder toffee and snuff.
Apple. Bell. Ball.
I scratch my scabs and listen hard. Ma’ll be going under soon; I can hear the catch in her throat.
If I hold my breath I can hear:
The ladies whispering and rustling.
Ma’s breath going deepdeepdeep.
The ticking of Gentleman’s pocket-watch.
My heart small and quick.
The tiniest sound of me scratching at my leg.
My ankles are scabbed with flea bites. Back in our kitchen, Mr Gladstone the blind old terrier has been scratching and worrying at his hind leg like he would tear strips from it. I twist the string and try not to think of the itching like hot little needles jumping and wriggling over my skin.
My left leg is twisted from where a cab-wheel caught it. It means I am smaller than I ought to be and that is good for prigging. Ma is not my real Ma. She found me curled up tight as you like when my real mother died, so she says, never a word did I speak, not for all the cinder toffee she could tempt me with.
Her being such a kind soul, heart as soft as lambs wool, she scooped me up and declared she would have me for her own, there and then. That first night, after she pulled me way from my poor cold mother, she took me to her room and we lay, spooned together in the narrow bed, her rubbing at my feet to warm them, stroking flat my fine baby hair. Where my real mother had been string-thin like me, Ma is fat as butter.
She fed me up, but not too much. She had plans for me and my being a shrimp fit in just fine. After all, Ma is the boldest handsomest betty on Cleet Street.
I can feel the cold hard edge of the bell against my foot, which is greasy with blacking. Ma rubbed my feet and hands and face hard with soot before we left for our Most Spectacular and Genuine Unveiling.
Ma’s voice calls out, only a bit muffled on account of all the chiffon she has stuffed in there. She and Gentleman have rubbed it with goosefat so it will slide out nice and smooth when the time comes.
“John Quinn, John Quinn, John Quinn, are you coming?”
She has tried muslin and cheese-cloth and even chewed paper but says her chiffon wedding veil works best and Ma knows cause she is the Most Remarkable and Prodigious spiritualist in London.
Besides me, Gentleman coughs.
I am ready.
Taking the string, I raise it high and quiet and drop it so the apple bounces.
There is a cry from one of the ladies.
“John Quinn, are you here to see your dear Mamma?”
“Can you tell us how old you were when you passed to the spirit world?
Three is harder cause you have to time the bounces just right.
Bump bump bump
A sigh, heavy and sweet from the sitters.
“Do not break the circle,” reminds Ma.
It was on the day I was five she announced it was time to earn my keep. No-one knew when my birthday was so Ma made me take it on Jubilee Day seeing as that was the day she found me.
“All right my dear,” she said, spitting snuff juice into a little jug she keeps, looped over her finger. “You are ready for work. You and me and Gentleman are going to be Most Astounding and Spectacular, and don’t you ever forget it.”
Then she coaxed me into the Box with a piece of hot meat pie, and sang to me in the dark till I forgot my tears and ate it all up quick as you like. I have an appetite you wouldn’t believe even though I’m small. Skinny-diddles, Ma calls me.
There is an oooh from the sitters and I know that Gentleman has done his table-tipping. That means it is only the bell and the ball left. I need to be careful not to touch the ball cause it is all full of water for the poor drowned little ones.
Ma specialises in children that have gone to Heaven early.
I reach the bell with my toes and lift it, careful now, and just have room to shake it.
It is loud and clear as cut glass. It is the sound of angels.
There is a little moan from the room outside and I know that one of the ladies has fainted.
“Keep your hands together. Do not break the circle,” drones Ma. Her voice is going all husky cause she’s sucking up the spirit now. She’s being transfigurated and this is her favourite part.
When she and Gentleman have had a pitcher of wine, he pinches her and says she should be on the stage, that she should. I like it when Ma goes all girlish cause that’s when she hugs me most, squeezing and pinching like she can’t get enough of me.
Soon, real soon, Gentleman is going to let me out the back of the Box and that is when I am to perform my real business.
“The veil is thinnest at this hour,” Ma intones, voice all growly and deep. “It is a time when the Oneness and Earthliness join together. All our little ones cross over on their tiny spirit feet.”
Gentleman undoes a secret catch on the Box and it splits open like a crackerjack.
I untwist my poor numb feet and there’s no time to rub life into them. Gentleman lifts me out of the Box and I crouch on the floor, nearest the tipping table as I can. After being in the Box this room is bright as daylight to me or near enough, though all the swells can’t see me.
There are six pale ladies with their eyes shut tight as fists, pale arms stretched forward over the table. Each pale hand is clasped it the neighbour’s wrist but of course Ma has fixed it so she has a free hand. There she is at the head of the table, with her cheeks all swollen cause of her veil, and there’s Gentleman, posed with his fishing-rod.
One of the ladies sways and moans. She has light shining hair like an angel, and has narrow wrists, like they’d snap like sugar if she’s not careful.
Silent as a sigh, I pad my sooted foot on the floor and then another, quick and light as anything. I go to the swaying lady first; tip-toe over and crouch down, stroke her cheek with my small hand.
“Aaah,” she says, and smiles like all her wishes have come at once; someone’s released a bird in a cage and set her free. She leans her head against my hand and I let her, but only for a moment cause Gentleman is fixing me hard. He’s wanting me to go round and give each of them a turn before Ma’s Grand Spectacular Finale.
“Aieeeeeaieeeeeeeaieeeeee,” intones Ma. She’s building up now, she’s been practising in the kitchen.
I move close as you like to a large lady in swags and feathers, and pluck a feather out of her hair.
“My Johnny, my Johnny,” she moans.
Next, the water.
I breathe, moth-soft, on her softly folded neck. Then I squeeze the ball till it drips.
Ma opens one eye. I see it gleam bold in the gloom.
“Your poor spirit son, was it a drowning?” she breathes.
“Yes, yes,” gasps the lady. Her head is jerking up and down like the madwoman we once saw bundled out of her house on Cleet Street.
The water trickles down the frill of her dress as Gentleman takes the fishing-rod. Jiggles it so that the tambourine on its hook shivers and shakes.
“He’s calling,” bawls Ma. “Hark at his little voice like bells.”
“Oh my boy, my boy,” Swagged Lady says.
I duck and dive, touching and tapping and poking till the ladies gasp and buck and stream with tears.
The air is damp with scent and ladies’ sweat.
“My boy came to me. I felt him.” An old lady’s voice, racked with sobs.
“He touched me too,” breathes another. It is Angel Hair; her mouth is a wide O. “A hand, small and soft upon my cheek.”
“Taken by the fever,” another whispers.
All is going well. This may be the Most Astounding Breath-taking Sitting Ever. I think of the meat pies we’re going to have, hot and steaming and dripping with gravy.
I see an old lady dressed in widow’s weeds gazing at Gentleman still crouched with his fishing-rod. Her eyes are bright with staring. Has she seen? Quick as thinking I reach with the feather and tickle her cheek.
It is a close one. She closes her eyes and gasps like one who has just woken up after years and years of sleep-walking. Gentleman presses the rod back into itself, over and over till it’s small as a poker and slips it under his good twill trousers. Slides into his seat without breaking contact. He’s a marvel, is Gentleman.
Ma is almost done.
“Whaooowhaooowhaooo,” she says and the parlour is hushed cause this is the part where the lady’s poor dead spirit boy comes out of Ma’s mouth.
Ma lets out a howl and everyone falls silent as ectoplasm, yards and yards of it, uncoils from her mouth and falls wriggling to the floor.
When the ladies leave the parlour, they are laughing and murmuring about their spirit children. Swagged Lady has looped her arm in Angel Hair and they are giving each other special smiles and squeezes. The old Black Widow has unwrinkled a line ot two of skin like paper that’s uncrumpling. She too has seen her poor dead spirit child, has felt the pats on her ancient cheek.
Gentleman joins them of course. He bows his head and nods, very serious. He offers two pale ladies an arm each and glides with them out of the room. There is soot upon their faces.
Ma looks after them and smiles all tender-like.
“Poor dear ones with their hearts mended now their sweet little angels have come visiting.”
She pats her pockets and sighs with satisfaction.
Soft as butter Ma is, and no mistake.