Little Maudie is sulking. Her Ma has used the last scraps of her favourite petticoat to tie around the tower of wickerwork that she’s now carrying on her back down Sydney Street towards Whitechapel. Maudie clutches a posy basket and totters behind. It’s a misty autumn morning in 1895 and, even though they got up before dawn, her Ma thinks it’s too late to get a pitch outside the hospital and blames Maudie. Such a fuss!
Maudie watches the bundle of baskets weave amid the crowds and listens to her Ma calling her name, grumbling and urging. The only familiar things are the horses trundling carts laden with hay, or barrels, milk churns, sacks or coal just like the ones they’d followed all the way from Essex. The buildings are tall brick towers, shop fronts obscured by strings of goods; hawkers shout in front of barrows tumbling with all sorts. Across the road there are musicians gathering with shiny brass trumpets, tambourines and drums.
The band strikes up- it’s not like the songs her granddad plays on his fiddle that make her want to dance. This is more doo-de-doo than diddly dee. They start marching- there are women too!- and Maudie turns to share the moment with her Ma. But she’s gone. There are no bouncing baskets. Just hats, feathers, umbrellas. Maudie ponders: she can keep going forward- but she doesn’t know what the hospital looks like; she could stay still and sell her basket then buy herself some sarsaparilla. The hawkers around her are still shouting- some at her. There isn’t a friendly didykoi among them. Could she make her way back to the coal merchant’s yard where Dad unloaded the charcoal from the cart? She sets off southwards…
Deb’s maternal grandmother, Mabel Maude Thomas, was a Romany Gypsy whose family were charcoal burners in Epping Forest. It’s likely that they made baskets too. Romanys came in to Whitechapel to sell their wares and that’s where, later, Mabel Maude took the pledge when she was 19 and laid off the drink for life- though the 6 sons and 3 daughters that survived her all enjoyed a good old knees up!
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