‘Facey tips him the wink. Shields nods and slips away. Jack Stirabout turns and warms his bum, but really he’s watching us, hooded eyes, black as printer’s ink, over his leather mug.’
Some Rise by Sin
By Sion Scott-Wilson
Published by Deixis Press
Now, Sammy Boy, pocket that twine,’ orders Facey. ‘Waste no time on thems that ain’t a coming back, for there ain’t no profit in it. You of all people should know that.’
Woolgathering. That’s what I’m doing. Took me a moment to realise I was running old Sausages’ string through my fingers. Should have kept him on that lead a bit more often. If I had of done he’d still be above ground.
‘Make a hole in that.’ Facey aims a meaty finger at my glass of shrub. ‘Be proper dark soon.’
I ram the twine back into the long greasy inner pocket of my overcoat where I feel the cold touch of the short iron crowbar. In my other pocket I sense the reassuring weight of its business partner, the broad chisel, along with a small tin box of freshly made up mortar. I have a good stout rope triple-wrapped around my waist. These are the tools of our trade. Mine, at any rate. Facey keeps other articles about his person, which carry the greater risk should we be searched by the Crushers.
Of a sudden Facey quivers like Sausages used to when he smelled viands cooking in the pan. Facey misses nothing.
‘Now then, Mrs Pigeon,’ he bellows over the noisy throng, ‘a little something to warm the cockles.’
Though Mrs Pigeon is only four feet and some few inches, Facey has been quick to spot the small black pudding of a figure across the busy wine vault cram-packed with bodies.
The woman trundles over to us like a skittle ball. ‘Oooh, Mr Facey, you’re a sight for sore eyes. I’m no tippler as all hereabouts can testify, but just this once I will take bracer of something to keep the chill from me bones.’
‘Well, gents, unaccustomed to spirituous liquors as I am, but seeing as how the melancholia must needs be kept at bay, I’ll break the habit of a lifetime and join you in a glass of something reviving. Geneva, just as you say, Mr Facey.’
Facey raps a coin on the counter to summon Fearon. Though there are plenty of customers in the vicinity who, in all honesty, have a prior claim to the man’s attention, Facey is not a man to be ignored or kept waiting. ‘A glass of your tuppeny best, Fearon. None of your sulphuric adulterations, if you please.’
‘Don’t be coming down on a man for making a living, Mr Facey. There’s plenty as prefers their concoction that way.’ Fearon expertly twists the stopcock of a small black barrel to release a crystal stream into his less than crystal receptacle.
Facey slaps his two coppers on the counter in exchange for the brimful beaker of gin.
He drops a shilling from under his palm into the beaker before extending it to Mrs Pigeon. ‘Well, Mrs Pigeon. This is, as you say, the good spirit what drives away the bad spirits of that melancholia, which you was just now mentioning. And if anyone is more deserving of the contents of this glass, I can’t think of them.’
She reaches for it with a trembling hand; Facey dangles it just out of her reach.
‘But first we need to know on what grounds these melancholic spirits have arisen and on account of who?’
‘Well, my dear Mr Facey, didn’t my aunt Pikelet get carried off with an ague just two days previous and isn’t she in the ground already this day? Who is to know the vill of God in this wicked vorld?’
‘Certainly, Mr Facey, a quantity of black crepe has been worn today in respect of my great aunt Pikelet, God rest her.’
Crepe is cant for the aged ones, denoting wrinkles. If the deceased party is young, Mrs Pigeon knows to say silk. Should some nosey party happen to stick his great flappers where they’re not wanted he would rate the conversation quite innocent, concerning only mourning garb.
Facey grimaces. There’s not so much profit in the old ’uns. Our customers like the merchandise young, smooth and in good health, notwithstanding they’re dead, of course. Silk is what we’d prefer to hear.
‘Age catches up with us all.’ Mrs Pigeon knuckles her eyes. ‘But I do take solace in the notion that my dear aunt Pieclott, is now gathered up and safe and sound in the arms of our Lord, having first been laid to rest most beautiful, inside the Shoreditch. God bless ’er.’
This is not good. Mrs Pigeon is telling us that the best she’s got is an oldster inside St Leonard’s rather than outside in the churchyard. Inside is always more risky. Takes longer on account of we’ve got to break in first.
I wait and see what Facey decides.
He allows Mrs Pigeon her glass of Geneva at any rate.
‘I thank you, gents. There’s not many that understand what it is on the nerves to be out there day in and day out, observin’ all them aspects of humanity put into the ground. It do make you feel a touch of maudlin. It do, Mr Facey. And that’s all I got for you today,’ she shrugs. ‘Middlin’ weather, you see, gents. ‘T’ain’t sufficient hot for the murdering miasmas of summer nor chill enough for them winter killing frosts what bring on the deadly croup.’
‘Well, you just take a bracer, Mrs Pigeon and no one can say you han’t earned it.’
Facey tips me the wink.
He wants to do it. I hate these churchy pulls.
Facey summons us closer. As we huddle, surrounding drinkers shuffle back a ways, allowing us a private word or two. There’s due respect here when business is being discussed.
‘The late Ma Pieclott, you say?’
‘Some ’at as like. Must of popped her clogs pretty sharp as they ain’t yet had time to carve a name into the memorial stone. But you’ll feature it, never fear. Blank slab, elm coffin.’ Mrs Pigeon tosses off the gin in one and gives us a wink.
‘Did you just drink off your perquisite, my love?’ asks Facey, grinning.
‘Fuck, I did an’ all. I’ve gone an’ dranked that shillin’ what you slipped into my glass’,’ belches Mrs Pigeon by way of reply. ‘The specie is already repeatin’ on me. I’m tasting the King’s silver here.’
‘Well then, Mrs Pigeon, you must go forth and meet the world arsey-versey.’
‘How so, Mr Facey?’
‘Why, you must shit before you can eat and not t’other way round.’
I snort my drink. Facey is not what you might call a wit under normal circumstances so this squib is something of a triumph for him. It shows he’s in a good mood, which is always welcome.
Mrs Pigeon is not amused. She scowls. ‘Funny, Mr Facey, funny. I hear there’s an opening for a warm-up man over at the Adelphi, which a man of your gifts might comfortably fill.’
Mrs Pigeon freezes. She’s overstepped and knows it. Facey’s upper lip is stretched tight across his front teeth. Not a pretty sight. Facey can dish it out all right but is never comfortable as the butt of another’s wit. I do take liberties myself but Facey and I have known each other since we were snotty street arabs in Portsmouth.
‘Now, now, Mr Facey, don’t take offence at an old woman’s poor attempt at fun. You’ve paid me well in both liquor and specie, even though I’ve dranked the money by mistake, it will keep, and I will have it to spend tomorrow, bowels and the Lord permitting. Like the goose what laid a golden guinea, I daresay. Only silver, and a shillin’ in this case.’
Facey’s lip relaxes. A moist, rumbling chuckle escapes from deep inside his chest. He produces another couple of coppers for Mrs Pigeon. ‘Pieclott then?’
‘Pieclott, Piecrust, something of that order. Don’t signify really. Won’t be of no help. Like I said, the slab were blank as yet.’
Facey grins. ‘Remember what old Pounds used to say, Sammy boy. Life is but a blank slate what is waiting for you to write something worthy on it. Or words to that effect.’
‘Or words to that effect,’ I murmur. Actually, what Pounds used to say was this: ‘Life is but a blank page, waiting for you to fill it with your dreams.’ But I’m not about to bandy words with Facey. Doesn’t like me parroting John Pounds. Never did.
Facey casts around for Michael Shields. The Feathers is Shields’ second home of an evening and, sure enough, we clock his dial over by the fireplace, yarning with Jack Stirabout, a pudding maker of dubious reputation. Facey tips him the wink. Shields nods and slips away. Jack Stirabout turns and warms his bum, but really he’s watching us, hooded eyes, black as printer’s ink, over his leather mug.
‘Best have the pins then,’ announces Facey, rubbing his hands. Facey keeps a set of pins at the Feathers and another at the Fortune of War up Smithfield way.
He raps a penny on the counter, ‘Penny for our pins, Mr Fearon.’
Fearon reaches under the counter and hands over two stout rolling pins. ‘No rest for the wicked then, Mr Facey.’ He pockets the penny.
Facey slips the pins into specially sewn pockets down the inside of each trouser leg. ‘The pastry won’t make itself overnight, Mr Fearon. And if Sammy and me are not there to do it, there’s many will go hungry without their breakfast bite tomorrow morning.’
‘You’re a pair of shire horses, Mr Facey: an example to us all. If every man adopted suchlike virtues of honest labour the world would be a better place. Truly it would.’ This is rich, coming from Fearon, whose establishment, the Feathers of Shoreditch, is famous for accommodating pretty well every vice known to mankind.
Facey beams. The pins are an absolute stroke, performing as they do no fewer than three different functions. A legacy of Facey’s less than glorious naval service, they are, in fact, belaying pins: teak, and hard as iron. Facey has simply carved a handle on the other end of each. In consequence, there are some few of our acquaintance who still believe us to be relatively honest bakers, a trade which accounts for our odd hours. Some nights, we even pat our hair and faces down with a little flour to gild the lily. In reality the pins are for slabwork. And they make a handy pair of cudgels should we have to resort to brute physicality, which, on occasion, we do.
Some Rise by Sin by Sion Scott-Wilson is published by Deixis Press, price £15.99
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