Chapter 1: She is My Heart
From her position on the couch, Nellie moved her eyes from her knitting to look across her daughter sitting by the fire, her own ball of yarn abandoned beside her. It took only a second for that affectionate squint, reserved especially when looking at her daughter, to reach Nellie's eyes.
Her daughter looked so much like a replica of her younger self. From her dark auburn hair tamed in plaits, brown eyes with an intense stare to match her own, down to the tint of her pale skin. And truth be told, that was all Nellie could have wished for from the moment she knew she was expecting. Nellie has never thought much of herself as a beauty. She has always reserved that compliment to golden-haired angels with blushing cheeks. But surely, her dimpled little pumpkin was quickly blossoming into a redhead beauty.
And even clothed in her plain work dress, in her young age of fourteen, her daughter looked refined. It was always with a blow in the gut that Nellie wondered how her daughter managed to carry herself with an air of a girl from an affluent upbringing. For years, they have managed to scrape enough for three square meals and a change of clothes, just getting by. A persistent nagging in her mind which Nellie consistently tried hard to ignore told her that it was a trait from her father's daughter. Before her thoughts went to a downward spiral, Nellie was distracted out of her musings with her daughter's harrumph.
"I'm bored." As if the look in her eyes was not enough for her mother to believe, she emphasized her point by blowing a wayward strand of hair out of her face.
"Well then, it's time for your bed, poppet." Nellie knew she was grasping at straws in trying to avoid the inevitable here. It has been a normal occurrence in a quiet evening for Nellie to provide for her daughter's entertainment. True enough, the girl was crawling her way to Nellie and gingerly settled herself by her mother's legs. So as soon as the girl's head was leaned on her knees, Nellie sighed, "Which game for tonight will cure boredom out of your pretty little head?"
"Five Questions!" her daughter replied without missing a beat. Nellie has fallen into her trap again.
"Make it three questions and you may start now." Nellie combed her fingers through her daughter's tresses while praying to anyone who would listen that this motherly gesture was enough to avert them from an upsetting discussion tonight.
"Why did you choose that color for my scarf?" An easy first question. It seemed that someone was listening to Nellie's prayers at the moment.
"Well, it suits you. Matches the color of your hair, it does and – "she paused midsentence and narrowed her eyes to stare at her daughter. "You're not telling me you don't like it?"
The response was too slow for Nellie's liking. "I do like it, mum."
The girl suddenly tilted her head to meet her mother's stare. "I'm really thankful, mum. I am. You don't even have to buy it. My old scarf can still fight the cold. Better to have save your penny for a rainy day."
Nellie placed her daughter's head back on her knees and continues combing her hair. "Hmm, hmm. But I want to get it for you. We have survived enough rainy days as it is, and I bet you have a better chance to survive a few more bundled snuggly in a new scarf. So don't you worry your head about it." And she can feel the girl nodding against her hand.
"Oh well then I just wish it were a brighter color", piped her daughter in a quick mumble. The little sneak. Before Nellie could utter a response, the girl had already closed the topic.
"Okay next question. What do you want for your birthday?" Nellie could still hear the hint of masked excitement in her voice and anticipated the incoming disappointment.
"That's one other thing to not worry about, poppet." The girl was quick on her feet, crossed her arms to her chest and with great indignation asked her mother, "And why not? I've been saving my tips and I really want to get you something special."
But Nellie would not back down. "You just said so yourself that it's better for us to keep our pennies for rainy days."
"It's different!" Nellie only raised one brow in response. "It's your birthday. It's a special day. One can splurge on a special day. 'Sides, I'll get you a gift whether you name one or not. So, you better tell me what you want so it'll not be a waste of pennies."
Mother and daughter were now locked in a staring match. Nellie knew perfectly well that her daughter can match her stare for stare. She planned her next moves only thinking to spare this night from bitter tears. Without breaking the stare with her daughter, she lifted herself from the couch and tackled the girl to the floor.
The ensuing shriek was enough proof for Nellie that the night has been saved. She kept the girl's hands trapped while mercilessly tickling her side. The girl could only huff "Mum! Mum!" in between her peals of laughter. Nellie did not let up until she heard her daughter surrender.
In between her gulps for air, the girl managed to squeak, "I give up, mum. Please, please I've had enough." When the girl calmed down from her laughing fit, she wrapped her arms around her mother and purred in her chest, "I love you, mummy."
Nellie held her girl tighter, closed her eyes, and buried her face in the girl's hair. Then warm, loving fingers brushed off the tears of laughter from her daughter's face before she put a kiss on her cheek. "Time to bed, my heart."
The stillness of the house was a welcome deviation from the usual clatter of pots and pans, rustling of skirts, and pitter patter of boots. Though she was very much a woman who thrived with noise, Nellie sometimes craved for this kind of quiet to sort her thoughts. She was thinking about her daughter, as always, while she made her way to the kitchen craving so much for a spot of tea. Just last month, she was knocked off her boots with the realization that the girl was as tall as her already. When did she shoot up like that? Still vivid in her memory was the image of the girl, pulling at her skirts and asking to be flown around the pie shop. Surely that was not that long ago? She stopped her ambling when she spotted her daughter's still form at the counter. Flour, eggs, and baking tools lay forgotten in front of her.
Leaning on the doorway, a warm tug settled in Nellie's heart as she observed her daughter. The girl was in her usual daydreaming mood, her head on the clouds. She always caught her like that, lost in her own world or that of the book she is reading, when left to her own devises. Suddenly, she was no longer seeing her daughter's faraway, dreamy look. It was replaced with an image of an equally dreamy Benjamin from another lifetime. She shook her head and the image out of mind before she got trapped in her own daydream.
Deciding it was high time to shake the girl out of her reverie, Nellie cleared her throat. Nothing. The girl had still not registered her presence. She slowly made her way towards her daughter. The girl still did not stir. So, when Nellie was directly behind the girl, she leaned down and blew in her ear. "Boo."
Good thing Nellie anticipated her daughter's reaction, and her quick reflexes avoided the girl's head as she jumped out of the chair completely startled.
"Muuum! A thousand times I begged you not to scare me like that!" The girl had both hands clutching her throat and Nellie almost pitied her. Almost.
But Nellie looked so smug as she offered an apology, they both knew meant nothing, "Sorry, poppet, mummy just can't resist."
"Care to share what makes you stare at nothing from hours on end?" She asked her daughter as she made a beeline to the stove to boil some tea.
The girl picked up the battered book on the kitchen counter and traced her fingers to its cover. "I was just thinking how lucky Pip was. Well, he wasn't really that lucky being an orphan and all. But he was given the chance to go for his dreams, be a gentleman."
There was a pause then the girl dreamily added, "How I wish that by some turn of fate, I'll be given a chance like that. Wouldn't it be nice, mum, to see your girl as a proper lady?" And the girl continued on with the things she would like to learn and places to visit, unaware of the inner turmoil brewing in her mother's mind.
Nellie had not escaped the proverbial guilt ever present in any mother's heart when they could not give their children the world. She had always convinced herself that her daughter would be better off living with her; where a mother's love could all compensate lack of material possessions. But is it really the case? Had she withheld her daughter from a better life?
"I'm sorry you grew up poor, poppet." Nellie had not meant to utter her sentiments out loud.
"Oh," the girl whimpered and opened and closed her mouth seeming at a loss for words. "You know I don't mean it that way, mum." She finally said earnestly, willing her mother to believe every word. "I would rather stay here— "
"Shhh, shhh." Nellie crossed the space between them and puts a finger to the girl's lips, hushing her mid-sentence. "Of course not, poppet," Nellie said as she kissed her daughter's head. There is no need to distress the girl because of an old woman's sentiments. Luckily, Nellie had mastered the trick of diverting her girl from any unwanted discussion from years of only having herself as companion. She only hoped that it remained that way, being able to pull this trick for as long as she needed to. It was getting more difficult now as the girl add on in years.
Nellie eyed the mess in the counter. "That for my birthday?"
The girl smirked and said cheekily, "Actually it is for Mrs. Lynde. Old lady told me she has huge hankering for a fruit cake."
"I just hope that fruit cake is no liniment cake or down the drain that cake goes." Nellie gave a hearty chuckle at the girl's expense. Her first attempt at a cake turned out as a disaster. It looked as scrumptious as any fluffy cake could be, but the flavor is enough to make their stomach turn. Instead of putting on treacle in the mix, the girl poured out a generous helping of liniment oil. Granted, Nellie was partly to blame for putting the liniment in the empty treacle bottle without telling her daughter. But the girl did not have any sense yet to smell it out before draining the content. Out of sheer embarrassment, the girl refused to bake any cake for months after the incident. Only a promise of good spanking from her mother has gotten her back to the kitchen.
The girl stuck her tongue out to her mother. Nellie got a little kick knowing that despite her perceived maturity, her girl is just as childish and scatterbrained as her. And she was shooed out of her own kitchen upon voicing those thoughts.
The pie shop was in its common ironic state of organized disarray. No matter how big the effort both mother and daughter put in to straighten things out and find every object its own space, the place still retained its cluttered ambiance. Who was to say it wasn't the charm of the old shop?
However, small bits of alterations have managed to creep in through the past years. The gloomy old curtains were replaced with the color of peach; her girl had thrown a tantrum wanting them to be of bright yellow, but Nellie had put her foot down. No reminder of a blonde would she let grace the window of her shop. Then a stem or bunch of gillyflowers would always be in the vase by the counter to lighten up the room. And in the wall near the entrance of the shop's kitchen was Nellie's favorite addition of all. There was a mural of sorts made purely of her daughter's pinned up artworks. There were doodles from when the girl was four and Nellie would put her in one of the booths with a crayon and parchment, while she went about serving her customers. There were some pretty impressive sketches too, most of which were kittens her daughter were never allowed to keep at home.
That evening, a handful of customers were loitering about with a pie and a glass or two of ale for their early dinner. It may only be her imagination but it seemed that her customers are dwindling by the week. She supposed that she should already be grateful that when she switched her meat pies to fruit pies, she has still managed to keep her business running.
Nellie had just finished serving the dewy-eyed couple who took to the farthest booth, probably hiding from their teasing peers. One glance at the shop showed her daughter cleaning after the good-natured blokes who waved her goodbye. Well, she hoped they left a good tip too. There was nothing left to do but to face the dirty dishes piled on the sink, but she figured that could wait. For the meantime, she decided, she would rather indulge in some unneighborly gossips. So, Nellie picked up the jug of ale and marched straight to the woman occupying the center booth. She topped the glass of ale on the table and poured one for her own. With a dramatic heave, she deposited herself on the opposite bench and took a sip of her drink, bracing herself on the juicy bit of news her old pal would surely deliver.
"Mrs. Mooney is selling meat pies again. Haven't sampled them myself but seeing the growing number of customers in her shop, it seems that your rival has made a comeback." This piece of news was certainly not giving Nellie her gossip-induced thrills.
"Such a shame you don't serve veal anymore, Nellie. Used to be the best pies in London, that they did." But the woman did not stop in taking generous bites of her lime pie.
"Just how can she buy meat? We can barely afford meat for our own meals let alone to put into pies. Do you think she— "
"No," Mrs. Lynde cut her off, having been able to follow her train of thought. "I would know if her shadow has so much as to darken White Chapel. Besides, we both know no one would have her."
"So where does her meat come from?"
"Does it matter?"
Her daughter, having followed her to the booth, piped in, "I think I know." Her daughter was born with the gift of being able to connect dots. Maybe it was intuition or strong gut feel but she can always put together details and more often than not, arrived at the right conclusion.
"Do spill, my girl." Mrs. Lynde prompted the girl who really did not need any encouragement to continue.
Lowering her voice to that conspiratorial tone of hers, the girl added, "I passed her by the other day carrying a huge sack of moving and mewing things. Plus, have you noticed the bleeding scratches on her hands?"
"Say, Rachel, do you want me to feed you pussies, eh?"
"Bloody no." Mock retching sounds accompanied the woman's words.
"Good. I thought so too." Nellie punctuated each word with a nod of her head. "With the price of meat, you will not get veal in my shop any time soon."
"Maybe there is a way." Mrs. Lynde started slowly. "That old butcher, Mr. Oakley, down Newgate Street is looking for a wife." She suggestively wiggled both her brows to Nellie. Subtlety is really not a strong suit for any resident of Fleet Street.
Nellie could not believe her ears. Was the woman seriously trying to pair her with the butcher? Apparently, the answer was yes.
"It'll be like with Albert before, god bless his soul. You'll have free supply of meat for your pies and not have to worry about it ever. Unless, of course, Mr. Oakley dies too. And then we'd know for sure that you've been cursed into widowhood. But a baker and a butcher, I'd say that's a perfect match."
And that was not the end of Mrs. Lynde's dialogue. She waggled her chubby fingers at Nellie effectively impeding her attempt at interruption. "Besides, it's high time you get your daughter a father. Poor thing doesn't have one all her life. I've been telling you this a decade now; Albert will agree with me on this one if only his ghost could speak."
Nellie had heard enough. And before she can throw away years of friendship, she quickly excused herself from the booth. "Better get back to work. Those plates will not wash themselves."
She was in the middle of her rant when her daughter followed her to the kitchen. "Wifty woman that Mrs. Lynde is. Meddling with my love life, playing match maker she is." She couldn't help but transfer her agitation to the dirty plates on the sink. Possibly afraid for the fate of the plates suffering in her hands—which they could not afford to replace, the girl bumped her from the sink and took over the washing.
It is only halfway through the task when the girl voiced out her thoughts. "We both know she means well, mum. And maybe it'll do us good if you follow her advice." No trace of mirth was present in her daughter's voice.
A complete sense of contentment washed over Nellie as she strode through the streets of London in this bleak, chilly afternoon. Adjusting the wrap of the new shawl around her frame, she stole a glance at the humming girl beside her. The girl has given her a knitted shawl of deep crimson color, the same shade as the scarf presently wrapped around the girl, this morning as a birthday present. "I want you to be protected for rainy days too," the girl said.
Nellie felt the girl's pace quicken to a half jog, and a tug in her arm looped around her daughter's prompted her to match the stride. The girl was intently looking ahead at her favorite tree, very much decided to claim it as their usual spot. Surely there was no need to rush. A quick scan of the park told Nellie that no one but them was contemplating picnic at this weather. But then there was also no harm in indulging her girl this time, and so she let go of the girl's arm and raced her to the tree.
As soon as they were both settled on the blanket, the girl turned to her basket and out came the homemade fruit cake she placed in between her and her mother. She promptly stuck one long white candle in the middle and when it was lighted, she looked expectantly at her mother. "Make a wish, mum."
Nellie gladly obliged, closed her eyes, and crossed her fingers for good measure. Her daughter clapped in glee as she blew the candle.
"What do you wish for?"
There was no use in denying the girl of an answer as Nellie knew she would not hear the end of it. So, taking her daughter's hands, she told her. "I just wished for days like this to come aplenty. You and me, forgetting all the care in the world, wrapped up in our happy bubble." And it was really what Nellie wished for. But what she refrained to tell the girl was that when she closed her eyes, she also saw Benjamin with them, joining in their little family celebration.
With a full tummy and a chilly wind combined, Nellie was lulled into a short nap. She opened her eyes only to automatically seek out her daughter's form. The girl was also lying in the blanket with her head pillowed on Nellie's lap. Although her eyes are closed, Nellie could tell that she was awake from the way her hands are gripping the book faced down on her chest.
"Bun head penny for your thoughts?"
The girl opened her eyes and offered her mother a small smile that does not quite reached her eyes. It is evident that she has been disturbed from contemplating some deep thoughts in her pretty little head. "Only the book, mum."
Sensing that she will not get a full response in one go, she launched into her inquest. "So, what is it with Pip now that is occupying you?"
"No, no, not Pip. I am thinking about Estella."
"What about Estella then?"
The girl closed her eyes again. "I could not believe how uncapable of feeling she was." She paused, debating with herself if she should continue. But she shouldered on. "If only she grew up with her father who loved her so much, she would turn out differently."
"Are you worried, poppet, that you'd turn out like that—cold and unfeeling—because you never had a father?"
The girl rose up and took her mother's hands. She shook her head and smiled. This time, the smile brightened up her face. "You are worth a thousand fathers, mum. And you are no Miss Havisham." But in her mind, the girl knew that her mother and Miss Havisham have one thing in common. That despite appearances, they are both waiting for the return of their unrequited love.
"For my birthday though, you can get me a father, mum. I'd love that. Maybe Mr. Oakley would make a good dad." That got Nellie to pinched the palms of the hand holding her own.
"Oi, don't get those ideas in your head. It isn't funny."
"Who says I'm trying to be funny? When you're old and crinkly, mum, you'll need someone to help tie your corset."
"Surely you wouldn't leave your dear old mum here alone, would you?"
The gleam in her daughter's eyes told Nellie that she was in for some teasing. "You know I'll catch the eye of some handsome chap with great expectations, and he'll whisk me off this place." She turned solemn when she put her head on her mother's shoulders. "Nah. Wherever I go, you come with me." And with the tight clinging in her arms, Nellie did not need to look at her daughter's eyes to know that she meant it. It would take the world to peel her daughter off her side.
"But it'll be nice for you to have someone else besides dear little Cordelia."
After years of lurking here in fanfiction, I'm finally posting my own fic. I hope you like it. I'm just so sorry that there's no Sweeney yet. I'll deliver him soon, promise!
My infinite thanks to my loves Angelfire274, Ratty Darling and Beneath the Skin for all the encouragement. X
PS. Metanoia - (n.) the journey of changing one's mind, heart, self, or way of life