Backborough Lane: Hammersmith (sixteen)
Backborough Lane began with an infirmary, a blood-brick house with a high flight of steps and barred lower windows; these a handy place for youngsters among the throng waiting to be admitted, to clamber up and peer in at the treatment rooms. The angle of the house crowded the mouth of the lane, and the hucksters, competing for custom with their improvised crate and board displays—of patent medicines, artificial limbs, hernia-corsets—narrowed the entry further into overhanging umbrage. There was water close by, a smell of sewage; otherwise the lane was so impassible to omnibus or wagon, that Aimee saw the cobbles fairly clean. And the only pedestrians who seemed to be making advances were there, at the center.
She was having difficulty with Hogben, who couldn’t make up his mind whether to plow ahead of his companion, or guard the rear.
“You’ve got that . . . that gift you brought along for your niece, safe tucked away, ma’am?”
“Monty, I’m going to pay up Carey’s rent. I’ll have to take Jane shopping . . . I hope you’ll come along?” She was interrupting herself, but what to do with Monty, since she couldn’t afford to lose him, pressed, as a question.
“By your side, and at your service.”
Fair enough. She thought he’d mumbled this, a rote gallantry.
“I’m only telling you I know better. That’s what you mean to ask me, isn’t it? I’ll make arrangements, somehow, to have meals delivered. I won’t leave her with more than a dollar or two, cash, and send Carey along with the rest, when he can be there to look after them.”
Of course, there might be no “them”. If Cynthia grew up in her aunt’s house, where she could well be regarded—though Aimee hadn’t been told it—a daughter among siblings, how would that not serve for the best?
She knew from the priest who would not baptize Cynthia . . . and couldn’t say, because her own niece and nephew (imagining the argument lay in her disapproval) insisted it was not so . . . that Carey and Jane were not mister and missus. Too poor to pay for a license when they’d been in love, and no longer in love.
She followed Monty’s ushering hand, through a passage about the width of a footpath that looked as though it might become a street. They got to the end of the lane, to a fence behind which new construction was rising, and there seemed to be no Krabill’s, no number 203. They retraced their steps.
Carey had said, “She keeps a sign in the window. To Let. There’s never any time Mrs. Krabill can’t make a bed for a paying tenant. So it’s always to let.”
“You think they tore it down? I read in the paper how the city’s growing overnight.”
“I think we’re lost.” Aimee was keeping hope firm. “Someone along here knows the way.”
“Krabill’s! Looking for Krabill’s!” They both called it out.
“What! You want the lodging house? You come down too far!”
The voice had come from a window overhead. Possibly.
The passage, almost a tunnel, under further awnings and laundry, opened wide at its egress. Perched catty-corner where the lane curved, bringing them back to the fencing, the jack-hammering, the crane swinging its wrecking ball, the echoing thud and wobbly sound of a brick wall giving . . . but not quite, not yet . . . was a pleasant white-washed house. Here was Carey’s sign: Krabills To Let, cardboard in the parlor window.
Upstairs above a corner porch was another, and Aimee thought at first Mrs. Krabill’s indifferent taste had spoiled her nice house-front. Someone had nailed a crazy quilt over one set of windows, another had yellowed newsprint pasted behind a torn screen. A side window, part visible through a hand’s-breadth of uncovered glass, had a piece of gingham cloth, one not stitched into an actual curtain, hanging from a row of tacks.
Hogben had already mounted the steps, and jerked the bell.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)