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‘Another beer?’

Henry smiled and shrugged. ‘Why not.’

It was Bamford’s shout and he bought beers for the whole bar. Henry watched him pay with a fistful of coppers and wondered if they were some of the same ones collected from members at the meeting. Next shout was Henry’s. The beer dulled his senses and eased the pain of his cuts and bruises.

His pot was topped up at each shout and he lost track of time as he talked and laughed and played cards with his new radical friends. With each drink, everything spun a bit more, not like the feeling he had when they threw him out of the meeting, but a more pleasant feeling, a warm and happy dizziness that took away his troubles and made him light and carefree. He didn’t notice the onset of darkness outside. Later he found himself drinking with a group of fancy women who lived close by and had heard the noise coming from the hotel. He thought he saw Bamford disappear upstairs at one stage, arm in arm with a well-endowed young lady, both giggling and falling over each other. Bamford’s exploits were legendary, and getting married hadn’t changed his reputation. It was said his wife knew what he got up to but ignored it for fear of bringing shame to her family and of what the community would say.

Another beer, and to Henry the bar spun faster and faster. He wobbled about and fell into the arms of a woman he didn’t know. She tugged at his coat and he toddled along behind her, vaguely aware of people cheering and laughing at them. She almost dragged him up the stairs. Another couple, their purpose apparently accomplished, pushed past them at the landing and made their way downstairs.

A piece of hessian hanging from the ceiling marked the entrance to the tiny room above the bar. Two bodies occupied the far bed, heaving and gasping, hurrying as if the wife or maybe the husband was going to walk in at any moment. Henry sat on the near bed, not because he was eager to initiate anything, but because he had trouble standing up. The bed was still warm. He caught a glimpse of the woman in the half-light. She was well built, long hair, smiling, mid twenties, perhaps a local lass out of work or with young mouths to feed or abandoned by her husband. She removed his jacket. Coins jingled and he saw her searching the pockets.

‘Hey, what are you doing?’ he said, struggling to get up.

‘Payment before service,’ she replied. ‘No money, no sex.’

‘I haven’t got any money,’ he said, slurring his words, ‘and I don’t want …’

‘What’s this then?’ She produced three shillings and held them up to him.

He tried to focus on them. ‘That’s my rent money. You can’t have that.’

‘But look, I do have it. You’re so drunk, you don’t know anything. It’s my rent money now.’

Without warning, she pounced on him. He wasn’t strong enough either mentally or physically to push her away. What use she would be to him in his present state, he didn’t know. She straddled him as she untied her bodice, lace by lace. Free of the garment at last, she leant forward. But to Henry, the bed felt like it was twirling out of control. He lay there hanging onto the bedposts with both hands. Something was smothering him and he realised she was pushing her bosom into his face. Her hands were untying the rope around his trousers. She rolled off of him and onto her side and pulled them down but didn’t discard them. Henry watched helplessly as she checked his trouser pockets and took out a coin.

‘Another sixpence,’ she said, grinning, and showed him.

‘You’re not just a whore but a thief too. They send people like you to New South Wales.’

‘Consider yourself lucky. I usually charge five shillings. I’m letting you off lightly.’

Henry was too weak to argue with her.

It was quite late when he left the Green Gate, penniless. He had wasted his three shillings and sixpence. It wasn’t the woman’s fault – the drink had got the better of him. He staggered home against a bitterly cold wind and driving rain. He hoped Sarah had kept him some supper, perhaps some potato, even a portion of the Sunday loaf.

‘Henry, where on earth have you been?’ Sarah said, opening the front door after she heard his groans outside. ‘I’ve been worried sick.’

‘It was a long meeting,’ he said, swaying about.

‘A likely story if ever I heard one.’ She stood in the doorway, blocking his path. ‘You’ve been boozing, haven’t you? With those Hampden Club troublemakers.’

‘They always have a keg after meetings. I had one beer.’ He hiccupped loudly and nearly fell over. ‘Let me in, Sarah.’

She didn’t move. ‘One beer, indeed. How is it you’re drunk and home so late then?’

‘It was a strong drop. Let me in, out of the rain.’

‘It’ll sober you up.’

‘I’ll catch pneumonia and won’t be able to work.’

A Weaver’s Web available from:

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http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H52SEEK

Amazon Australia:

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