Excerpt: The Body at the Tower

This is the fourth chapter of The Body at the Tower. Here, Mary arrives at the half-built St Stephen’s Tower (the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster). She’s disguised as 12-year-old “Mark Quinn”, it’s her first day of work, and she has zero experience of building sites.

Monday, 4 July 1859
On the road to the Palace of Westminster

It was only a short walk across the Thames from her new lodgings in Lambeth to the building site in Westminster. Nervous as she was about the first day of the assignment, Mary forced her attention outwards, to streets she would come to know well. All about her, men and women and children shuffled slowly workward, or perhaps home again after a night shift. The pubs did steady business as laborers drank their breakfast pints. Occasionally, a fresh scent – new bread from a bakeshop; a barrowful of lilies going to a florist’s – cut through the thick, earthy, acidic smells of the city. She dodged a wagon heaped high with sides of beef, and grinned at the pack of dogs trailing it hopefully.

Her destination, St Stephen’s Tower, loomed over all this. It was designed to look glorious and imperial, but the effect was spoiled from her angle by the missing hands on two of the clock faces. To Mary the tower merely looked blind, a spindly, helpless outcast marooned by the river’s edge. As she stepped onto Westminster Bridge, she realized was breathing shallowly. How foolish to think she could mitigate the odour of the river! She inhaled a careful breath and forced herself to take measure of its stench. Yes, it was still intensely familiar, if slightly less disgusting due to the cooler weather. After last year’s Great Stink, appalled Londoners had spent months arguing about the need to clean up the Thames. Campaigners crusaded, newspapers excoriated, politicians pontificated. But like most Londoners, Mary would only believe it once she saw the results. For now, she was grateful that the stink was no worse than last year.

She slowed her pace along the bridge, taking a long, deliberate look at the Palace of Westminster. Every child knew that this was the seat of government, where the Houses of Lords and Commons met. Yet she’d never paid close attention to the actual buildings, sprawling and imposing as they were. They’d been under construction since well before she was born. For most Londoners now, the Palace’s twenty-five year re-construction was merely an obvious, unfunny joke about government and the ruling classes.

Nothing moved inside Palace Yard. It was too early for the law-makers, and too late for the night watchmen. The entrance to the building site was separate and there would be no need to enter the Palace itself; no dangerous mingling of peers and working men. Even so, she made a circuit around the Palace proper, entranced now by its colossal mass, its relentless detail. It was a revelation: not beautiful in a restrained, classical way, but fierce and extravagantly Gothic. The intricacy of the design was hypnotic, overwhelmingly so, and the arrogance and tradition it represented made itself felt in the pit of her stomach.

She passed the length of the Palace in a daze, and on looping back up towards St Stephen’s Tower, had to stop to remind herself of who she wasn’t. She touched the back of her neck self-consciously. Although she looked the part of a 12-year-old boy, she didn’t quite feel it. Last night’s coaching session with Felicity – a pint and a cold meat pie eaten out of hand in a public house – had been of some use. But it had also intensified her awareness of the very different world of men. Years in an all-girl’s school had changed her. Behind the site fencing there would be swarms of men and boys, roaring and swearing and doing whatever it was builders did while preparing to work, and they would all scrutinize her and immediately know if something was amiss. Naturally, it was much too late to turn back. Mary took a deep breath, wiped her damp palms on her trousers, and marched through the narrow entrance gate into the building site proper.

She was braced for a wall of noise, an audience of raucous, suspicious humanity. Yet if anything, the building site was quieter than the street. Small clusters of men chatted as they unpacked tools, or swallowed the last bits of breakfast, or inspected the incomplete work. None looked up as she passed.

There didn’t appear to be much order to the site – not to an outsider, at least. A small shed to her right seemed to function as an office; at least, it contained a desk covered with several inches of papers, but no person. No one appeared to challenge her presence, so she walked about the site slowly, simply looking.

She’d imagined a building site to be like a cross between a factory and an anthill: scores of people milling about, busily doing nothing, until a giant bell rang calling them to work, at which point they would all fall into line. Yet what she saw seemed more leisurely and self-directed. Already a pair of bricklayers had begun to mix up some mortar, and other tradesmen seemed to be finding their places for the day. None took any notice of her, and she suspected that it wasn’t due to the excellence of her masculine costume.

At the south side of the building site, a cluster of perhaps half a dozen men and boys loitered purposefully in the shadow of the Palace. As she drew nearer, Mary realized they were all hovering about one man. He was perhaps in his late forties, with the usual beard and moustache and well-fed paunch. He was also the only man on site wearing a collar and tie, which meant chances were good that he was the site engineer, Mr. Harkness. The fact that he looked tired and harassed rather confirmed it.

“I understand,” he was saying, “that you’re short-handed at the moment. I shall try to find a man to assist you this week, but it is your responsibility to engage a new member for your gang.”

The workman he addressed – a tall, powerfully built man in his middle thirties – glowered with frustration. “Don’t I know it! But it takes time, that. We’re missing an experienced bricklayer, not some useless apprentice.”

A muscle jumped under Harkness’s left eye. “I know,” he said in a placating tone. “As I said, I shall do my best.”

The foreman pushed his way out of the crowd, face dark with anger. “‘I shall do my best,’” he simpered, imitating Harkness’s tones. “Bloody useless son of a – ” His eyes met Mary’s and flared with temper. “What the hell you staring at, boy?”

She quickly averted her eyes and edged deeper into the pack. So that man had been Wick’s workmate. She wondered if they’d been friends.

It took a long time for Harkness to give each laborer his directions. When Mary finally presented herself, he stared at her for a long moment with red-rimmed eyes. “Who?”

Had she not spoken clearly enough? “Mark Quinn, sir. I’m to begin today as an errand-boy, if you please.”

The twitch came again, and he pressed a weary hand to his disobedient eye. “As a general errand-boy?”

Mary tried to look confident. “Yes, sir.” What could have gone wrong? Had someone failed to organize the position? Did she – her stomach plunged at the idea – did she not look the part? A few men nearby had stopped and looked at her curiously as soon as she’d addressed Harkness. Perhaps they could tell, somehow…

Harkness scrubbed his face abruptly with one hand. “And how old are you – what did you say your name was?”

“Quinn, sir. I’m twelve.”

“Quinn. Twelve. And you want work as an errand-boy.”

“Yes, sir.” Mary was beginning to think Harkness very slow indeed.

“Hmph.” He eyed her speculatively. “Nicely spoken…”

Damn it all. She’d worked so hard to make her voice gruff and diffident, to get the accent just right, but she’d compromised the role from the start by using the wrong vocabulary. What sort of boy would say “begin” instead of “start”, or “if you please” instead of simply “please”? Five seconds into the job and she’d already made her first blunder.

Harkness fumbled in his inner coat pocket and pulled out a battered sheaf of papers. “Read that.”

Burning with shame, Mary took the bundle and read blankly, automatically, from the top. “The re-casting of the bell by the Whitechapel Foundry is merely the first – ” The papers were snatched from her grasp.

“Bless me, you can read.”

Of course she could – and the realization made her feel sick. Mary Quinn read fluently, but “Mark” Quinn wouldn’t read or write; he’d be fortunate to sign his own name. And she, of all people, ought to have known it. But she’d been so busy kicking herself for the first mistake that she’d compounded it with a second – perhaps even greater – error. Her pulse thudded and her cheeks were flushed. She was furious with herself, yet terrified of making a third and even greater faux pas. What was wrong with her? No wonder the labourers nearby stared at her.

Harkness fixed her with another shrewd look. “I ask you again: why are you here as an errand-boy?”

There was nothing to do but to brazen it out. “Sir?”

“You make a bad job of playing the fool, Quinn.”

He was right. But she’d try, nevertheless. Mary thrust her hands into her pockets and stared at the ground. “I can’t do anything else, sir. There’s no money for school fees or to buy an apprenticeship.”

Harkness folded his arms and looked interested for the first time. “For a bright boy like you?”

“No, sir.”

“No Christian charity willing to educate you?”

“No, sir.”

“Hm.”

There was a long pause, during which Mary concentrated hard on the toes of her new-but-old boots. This personal line of questioning wouldn’t stand up for long. The last thing she needed was for a kindly employer to research her story. Finally, she looked up. Her face was warm with tension, but Harkness must have seen what he was looking for.

“Never be ashamed to admit want, if it is not your fault,” he said quietly.

Mary nodded slightly. “Yes, sir.” Where was this conversation leading?

“I have nothing better for you at the moment, Quinn.”

Mary frowned. “Nothing better…?”

“Than a post as general errand-boy. Not right now.”

“That’s all I want, sir,” she stammered, trying to salvage her role. “I just need…”

But Harkness was shaking his head. “I don’t know when something more suited to your abilities will come along. But do your best and prove yourself, and we’ll see. He shall provide.”

“‘He’, Mr. Harkness?”

“The Lord, child.”

“Of course, the Lord.” She ought to have guessed.

“You’ll work under the bricklayers, assisting with any tasks they set you. Their foreman’s named Keenan. You’ll also be in charge of making tea in time for elevenses. One of the other boys, Jenkins, will show you the routine. Mine is a teetotal building site, Quinn, so if the men send you for spirits, you’re not to oblige. Hot tea is all that’s required to sustain the soul, not the offerings of the public house.”

Mary nodded. She wasn’t sure about souls, but she now had a good idea about Harkness’s popularity amongst the men.

“And – er – since you are better educated than the average errand-boy, Quinn, you may find that the others – well, they may not take to you as quickly as they might to someone of their own class. In those instances, remember, child, to turn the other cheek, and also that to whom much is given…” Harkness paused expectantly.

“Much is expected,” mumbled Mary. The look of gratification on Harkness’s face was familiar. “May I go, sir?”

Twitch. “Yes, yes, run along.”

She was only too relieved to flee. Three minutes and two colossal mistakes. At this rate, she’d not last the hour. After all that work – cutting her hair, Felicity’s coaching – she’d failed the very first challenge. Even more humiliating, the role of a poor working child was not unfamiliar to her: after her mother’s death, she had indeed been poor, uneducated and desperate. She’d been homeless, at times. She’d gone hungry. She’d passed as a boy to avoid rape. But today’s abysmal performance showed how deeply she’d lost touch with that part of her childhood. It came as a profound and unwelcome shock.

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