Next day, Sunday, Benjamin left home as usual in the afternoon. He went directly to Charlotte’s house. She was still seeing her aunt, but the other occupants were there.
‘Have you brought us the money, rich boy?’ Nicholas said.
‘If you tell me where my brother Albert is.’
‘Give it here and we’ll tell you.’
Benjamin took the money from his pocket and held it out. Everyone in the room swarmed around him, jostling each other for a better look.
‘A ten shilling note and four shillings in silver,’ said one. ‘I’ve never seen so much money.’ He snatched at it.
But Nicholas pushed him aside and grabbed the money himself, before pulling back the sacking between the two rooms. Benjamin looked at him inquisitively, then peered into the back room.
‘Go on, then,’ Nicholas said.
It was very dark and Benjamin pointed to the candle. Nicholas nodded to him to take it. Benjamin saw there was someone in one of the beds, but couldn’t see if it was Albert. He went closer, and saw a face. It was still and the eyes were shut. For several seconds he studied it, searching for a familiar trait.
‘I can’t tell,’ he said.
‘You mean you don’t know your own brother?’
‘I haven’t seen him in years.’
Benjamin then recalled a peculiarity of his brother’s posture when asleep. His left arm was always straight by his side and the right one across his body, a legacy of having to share a bed for so much of his life. Whenever he put his right arm at his side, it used to fall out over the edge of the bed, while the left arm would hit Benjamin’s leg if not tight against his body. ‘He used to lie a certain way.’
‘Pull the blanket down and have a look.’
Gently Benjamin peeled off the bedding and saw the right arm draped over the midriff. Dumbfounded, he stared at the body before him. It was dressed in street clothes and a bit smelly, but he could see it was Albert.
‘He’s still recovering from last night,’ Nicholas said.
Benjamin stepped back as his brother stirred. The eyes opened, slits at first, trying to focus on whoever it was in front of him, then suddenly wider, startled. Benjamin, almost as alarmed, returned the look, nearly dropping the candle, while Albert pulled the blanket up over his head.
A moment later, he peeped out. ‘Benjamin?’
‘How did you find me?’
Benjamin glanced at Nicholas who gave him a threatening look and tipped his head towards where Charlotte usually sat. ‘It was …’ He didn’t want to inform on her, but he would rather face her than Nicholas and bullyboy George. ‘… Charlotte,’ he finally whispered.
‘I knew it.’ Albert sat up. ‘That little tramp.’
‘It wasn’t her fault. I made her tell me.’
‘Don’t dare say anything to the family. I’m happy doing what I do. I don’t want to go back.’ His face was sweaty and grimy and glowed in the candlelight.
‘Mum’s in the asylum.’
‘I suppose he put her there.’
‘Dad had to, because …’
‘… because it suited him not to have her around, just as it did to have me out the way.’
‘That’s not true.’
Albert got up. To Benjamin’s surprise, they were the same height. Being two years younger he had always been several inches shorter than his brother. He watched as Albert ran his hands through his hair and put his boots on.
‘Where are you going?’
‘The Crown and Anchor. Coming?’
(cover of A Weaver’s Web showing the Peterloo Massacre)
Benjamin had never been to a tavern, even during the week, let alone on a Sunday.
‘My shout,’ Albert said.
‘I won’t be drinking much. I’ve got to go home.’
‘Afraid of him, eh?’
‘No … yes, sometimes.’
They went up the steps to the street and walked a couple of blocks before Albert led them into a laneway between high buildings. It was dark and narrow and strewn with rubbish. They came to what Benjamin thought was someone’s workshop. Albert did a certain knock. The door opened and a man, the owner, waved them inside. There were two other men, customers, at a counter in a small room. Benjamin heard a woman’s voice and a child crying on the other side of a partition and presumed this was the bedroom, and the bar probably the man and his family’s living room when the tavern wasn’t open. The pair sat at a table in the corner.
‘Two specials,’ Albert said to the owner, who went behind the counter and poured a dark-coloured liquid from a barrel into two glasses.
Just the thought of what might be in it made Benjamin recoil. He sniffed his drink, but the room was full of so many others smells, he couldn’t tell what was in the glass.
Albert laughed at him. ‘It’s only poison.’
This made Benjamin push his drink towards his brother. ‘You have it then.’
‘I thought you were a man now.’
‘I’d rather be a live boy than a dead man.’
‘Charlotte thinks you’re a man. She’s told me about you. I think she likes you.’ Albert sipped his drink. As he swallowed it, he screwed up his face and gasped for air. ‘What did you put in this?’ he called out to the publican.
‘Secret home brew.’
‘It’s even worse than usual.’ Albert grinned and had another sip, a bigger one, and nearly fell off his chair.
Benjamin had seen enough, pushing his glass further across the table.
‘I’ll tell Charlotte you’re a coward,’ Albert said, his voice rasping.
He didn’t doubt his brother’s threat. What he did question was if Charlotte liked him. She had shown no signs. But she was the only girl, apart from his sisters, he had ever spoken to and felt at ease with. He reached over and picked up his glass and held it to his lips. Closing his eyes tightly, he let his top lip touch the drink before he put it down.
‘You’ll have to do better than that,’ Albert said.
Benjamin picked it up again and took the smallest sip, though he made it appear he had taken a larger one. His throat felt as if it was on fire. The heat travelled up to his mouth, which he opened wide. He blew hard, half expecting flames to burst out, like a dragon. His eyes watered and became sore. ‘Is that good enough?’ he said and coughed several times.
‘It’ll have to do. What do you see in her anyway?’
– end of excerpt –
My historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, is available fro the following stores:
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