I had shed my moderately respectable garments and was arrayed in broken shoes, an old blouse and skirt, holy coat, and a ventilated black straw hat.
On my way I saw two poor mortals, they were making their way to a well-known night-shelter in which one of them had previously received succour.
I went with them, I thought hard things about myself for not having even a copper with me, for they were hungry. It was a nasty species of hunger – it made them draw their breath and tighten their lips when they saw a cook-shop; it made the younger girl sum up the possibilities of anyone catching her if she broke a window and made a dash for it.
We dragged our way through the poorer parts of the city; and I tried to remember funny stories with which to beguile the journey, and, indeed it was easy enough to make them laugh. I drew an imaginary word picture of the place we were going to, and spoke of feather-beds eiderdowns, fires in our bedrooms, good suppers, and hot water bottles, and favourite books to lull us to rest.
At last we came to a big, prison like building. We turned down a by-street, and Lucy – the girl who had been before, knocked on the side door. The wood behind a little grating shot back, and a voice darted out the word, “Well!”
Lucy – who had cultivated the approved tone of a pauper – a tone suggesting self-abasement, quilt, and whining sycophancy – pleaded, “Please matron, may I come in?”
“What’s your name?” said the unseen one.
The name was given.
“You should have been here three hours ago, you know the rules – you’ve been here before.”
“I had to see a lady about some work this evening, It’s – it’s awful cold and wet, matron.” Said the wretched child – she was no more.
“Well, you can come in tonight. Who’s that with you?”
The other girl advanced.
“It’s me.” She murmured in a voice that was a complete apology in itself, for the fact of her existence “May I come in to?”
“Eh! How old are you?”
Poor Lizzie was thirty five but admitted thirty.
“This is a shelter for girls, we can’t take you.”
The poor creature turned hopeless eyes to the dreadful night.
“Oh do let her come in.” I protested.
“The rain is pouring and its very cold.”
Lizzie pulled my coat in warning, and the voice attacked me.
“You mind your own business.” It told me.
“Who are you anyhow?”
“I want to come in.” I said, meekly.
“Oh, indeed, and how old are you?”
After a few more questions I was told I could stay.
I did not like the idea of poor Lizzie wandering about alone, but she assured me she knew a shopkeeper a few miles away who would probably let her sleep in her kitchen. So as we heard the clanking of keys, and saw the big door spring back, we said, “good night.” And Lizzie slipped away into the very bad night.
The matron was a harsh faced woman who treated us as if we were vermin with which she had become afflicted but dare not kill.
We followed her silently into a long room, with bare, wooden floor and whitewashed walls. Half a dozen beds were placed down one side, two were occupied, and the others covered with white sheets.
The only heat a hand full of half-dead cinders in a little stove. Great patches of damp showed on the walls, save for the absence of the dripping rain, it was as chill as outside. There was a scrubbed table with benches on either side which we silently took our places.
“You’ve no right to supper this time of night.” We were told.
However, we were given a pint mug of tea and two huge slices of bread and margarine. We were told to go straight to bed when we had finished.
I went across and pulled down one of the sheets. The mattress and pillow were covered with cold, shiny, black leather – American cloth, I think it is called.
“Is this all the bedclothes?” I whispered to Lucy, showing the single sheet.
“Oh, you mustn’t use that! that’s only for keeping it clean, you’ll find some bits of leather there if the others haven’t taken it all.”
We found three pieces of leather and I gave two to Lucy.
Undressing was out of the question. It was bad enough to feel ones cheek against the cold pillow; yet our clothes were dripping wet. We removed, hats, coats and shoes, but wet as they were we had to use our coats as bedclothes.
During the night I felt myself getting stiffer and colder as the night dragged on, and I know the others didn’t get much rest. Still, there was a silence except when someone sneezed or sighed as they tossed about in a vain attempt to find a warmer position.
Next morning at about 5am, a troupe of young women clattered down from an upper apartment and passed through our room on their way through a side door, this administered a beautiful draught of fresh air, the best air I’d ever smelled.
They were laundry workers going to work in another part of the building.
We were told to get up at 7am, it was scarcely light and very bleak. It was a wretched feeling forcing one’s cold feet into wet shoes, and ones cold body into damp clothes.
Between us we were told to wash the beds, and scrub the long floor and table and clean the stove. Being so early we could only get cold water.
After that we left our floor clothes for inspection and tidied ourselves up the best we could.
Then we received a breakfast similar to the supper and a nun came in and entered our names and occupations into a book. We all described ourselves as out-of-work servants, and were going to seek employment that day.
After breakfast we washed the utensils and gladly escaped back into the outer world. A girl can only stay in the shelter for upwards of three nights, my one night was enough.
Copyright 2002 / To date