Tate Modern HomeworkersCrossbones
Yes mistress Hennecy it is a scandal really it is, all them old bones sticking up out of the ground and the stench, we’ll it’s more than a Christian body should have to put up with, really it is.
Letters to The Times was there, fancy. Well let’s hope that does some good. Always slow they are at coming forward with money for anything South of the river. Look how long it took them to pull down them old stews. Yes, best to avoid walking that way if at all possible.
Yes. that’s right Madam, it’s this afternoon that that young Miss Hill’s coming to see me. Yes of course I’ll wear a clean apron and cap and mind my Ps and Qs I will.
Real good of you it was to arrange it for me, what with you and the master moving out to Hampstead. No, no, I’d never settle out way there away from Southwark, really I wouldn’t. Born and brought up here I was, and I don’t want to move away at my time of life, I like being near the Chapel and suchlike. You know the Chapel of the Sacred Blood. Yes that’s the one. That’s right known too as Our lady of Walsingham.
I do hope she’ll find me suitable. I know you’ve given me good references, but I’ve never gardened before, an’ I hear she’s right strict about her tenants keeping up the bit of ground in front of their house. I expect I’ll learn.
Yes I know she expects the rent to be paid weekly, and on time, and for her tenants to be sober and hardworking, How will I pay? We’ll I can take in some of that homework that the merchants in Pageantmasters Court, up in the city, near Fetter lane send over here. I could have a bookbinding frame at home, they supply them for you to use you know, and sew pages together, my friend does that, or maybe make fringing, or sew gloves, or embroider, oh there’s all sorts of things I could do. If I have time I might even go over to that place at Bloomsbury and make toys for the Ragged School children. I used to make toys from old stockings for my own grandchildren, the ones that are now in Battersea. Their Father’s a waterman and they go to that school founded just for them. They’re good as gold they are.
Wonder how it will be to pay rent, remember my mother struggling to find the money every week for the landlord. She lived in terror of being evicted .
Oh. Yes she ended up in the poorhouse, that’s why I came to work for your mother and father, you were just a little girl then, just a bit younger than me. Of course you won’t remember them days. Determined she was ‘not to end up alongside them Winchester Geese and their brats’ she used to say, but yes, I’m sorry to say she did madam. Yes maybe madam, but I’d rather not think about that, the thought of her poor bones exposed to all weathers really upsets me really it does. That’s all right Madam, you weren’t to know.
Madame once I’d brushed out your wig, might I go to get ready for my visitor? Thank you. If she accepts me I might even be able to show you my own rent book with my own name on it. Mrs Jollet, widow, that’ll be a fine thing to have before I die won’t it.
The Piece Worker
As she walked in Aunty Dot was sitting at her kitchen table, its printed Formica top covered in plastic corgis, piles of cellophane packets and cardboard labels.
To one side, a tangle of bunting and larger labels over-printed by crowns. By the sink, a chipped mug filled with shrivelled gravy-brown tea bags.
She could have said “Aunty, you’re looking dog tired.” But she really was and so it wouldn’t be helpful, or funny.
Instead, she said “Hi Aunty, want a hand?”
Aunty smiled a coral lipsticked smile. “I’ll get 100 quid at the end of the week as long as it’s all packed properly when they come to collect.”
“And” she added, “it’s for her.” She pointed at her coronation mug with Maj and Phil on the side, he handsome and blonde and the queen slightly crimped in her crown, and wearing a sash.
“She’s done so much for us all. Some of the youngsters today don’t appreciate it.”
“Christ” thought Octavia “how can she think that when she’s had such a bloody awful life?”
Octavia. Odd looking. Fierce. Clothes worn, never styled. Principled. A post grad at King’s researching Angela Burdett-Coutts and the pioneers of social reform.
And yet she was sitting here with her pensioner aunt, doing piecework for a pittance.
“Dot, will you promise me something?” she said, whilst forcing three blue corgis into a bag with three white and three red. Who the fuck bought this stuff?
“What’s that, dear?” Dot answered, “Would you like a cuppa? I’ve got some custard creams on the side.”
“No thanks, I’m fine. I just don’t want you to ever do work like this again. If you need the money I’ll help you find something else.”
“That’s nice,” replied Dot. “ You’re faster than me, doing this.”
Aunty Dot had little twisted hands, festooned with knoblets of arthritis. On the shelf of her little kitchen dresser sat a photograph of her daughter Maureen. She worked on a cosmetic counter at Bentalls in Kingston. Lots of blue eyeshadow. Didn’t visit much.
“How long is it since you’ve had a break?” asked Octavia. “ A proper break, I mean. Out of the flat?”
“I went down the shop yesterday, love. Got a few bits.”
“And how long have you been at it today?”
”Started at 6.30” she replied.
“Tell you what” Octavia said, “ Lets go for a little walk. Go and visit your nan at Cross Bones and pay our respects.”
“I’d like that, doll. But if you can help me for a bit afterwards? It’s all got to be done by Friday.”
Dot’s nan, eldest of eight. Buried at Cross Bones with all those corpses of young girls just piled up. Horrible.
“Just a minute. I’ll get my bag. Got something nice in there to leave.”
It was a warm day. No need for coats. They took the lift, one, two, three floors. It smelled of pee. Walking out, they looked up at the Shard.
“Owned by foreigners so I’m told. What do they want it for?” Dot asked.
Octavia smiled her wide lopsided smile and hooked some unruly hair behind her ears. She was momentarily distracted as she remembered that one of the queen’s corgis was called Susan. Was Susan red white or blue? Blue, she supposed.
They turned into Red Cross St. A girl was doing some modelling work for a young photographer, his skin bearing a film of tan make up.
“Come here Milo!” He was shouting at a small dog, lifting its leg against the wall of St Mary of the Precious Blood.
Dot and Octavia stopped at Cross Bones in silence. Every week the contents weaved on the fence changed. A knitted doll. A crocheted doily. Teddy bears. A picture of a woman with 80’s hair wearing a Nordic jumper Dot fumbled in her plastic leopard print shopper. Out of it she produced several lengths of Dior ribbon.
“Maureen gets it for me from work” she explained, “she’s a good girl.” They tied it to the railings. Octavia opened her own brown bag and took out a slim volume, Edna Healey’s biography of Angela Burdett-Coutts. She rolled it up and tucked it through the wire behind a grubby pink jar that once held face cream.
She put an arm through Dot’s and wondered what she was really thinking.
Astrid Sutton Sharkey
Smile at Messager’s toys,
playful pictures on sticks,
bears and dolls on poles,
propped against walls.
But look again,
these toys are spiked,
trapped in tights,
netted in nylons,
hung under war maps,
or watercolour scenes
of raping and maiming.
Seek the clear air.
Follow the wall-plan,
down to the river. Turn right,
walk six hundred yards,
blink, open your eyes
four hundred years back.
Dodge crow-pecked eyeballs,
avoid the confused beetles
dropping from empty sockets,
flakes of falling tarred skin,
congealed drops of blood
from impaled heads of refusers,
rebels and famous regicides
displayed on London Bridge.
Though these cleft heads are from
those who had a chance,
with some power for change.
No-one spiked and displayed
the head of Doll Gray,
with no choice but to be
a Winchester Goose:
played with, used up,
her crossed bones,
unprayed for, limed white,
tumbled into waste ground
crushed and hidden
with fifteen thousand
of the unnamed,forgotten.