I surveyed the party over the top of my glass. My younger sister Beauty was trailing after some over-polished young man with a simpering smile on her face, batting her eyelashes and tossing her uniform ringlets.
‘Hopeless alone is an apt enough description, Envy darling. She’s such a silly girl.’ Pride sipped his drink. ‘Dear God, I’d give my right hand for a smoke.’
I took another glass from a passing waiter. ‘Can’t we just go? I’m bored out of my skull here. There are far better ways to spend New Year than at one of Mother's silly affairs.’
‘I know. They’re all so stupid… aristocrats,’ Pride said scathingly, ‘All flitting around like peacocks; the men act like bloody ballerinas! They look absolutely laughable.’
‘So do we.’ I reminded him, tugging his necktie. ‘Let’s go now, we’ll go right to Oscar and Charlie's. Although we can’t go like this, and we can’t change before we leave, lest someone sees us!’ I cursed angrily. ‘I refuse to go to a party like this!’
Pride soothed my temper gently. ‘I gave him a case of clothes and such when I was collecting last week. Now lets go.’ He grabbed our coats (well, I had a pathetic little jacket) and we slipped out the servant’s door It was pitch dark outside and icily cold. I began to shiver instantly but Pride wrapped his thick overcoat around me and gave me his scarf.
‘It’s just a stone’s throw away if we go down Adela’s Alley; you’ll be warm again soon.’
I nodded, teeth chattering violently. At least Charlie’s was always cosy.
I surveyed the party over the top of my glass. My younger sister Beauty was trailing after some over-polished young man with a simpering smile on her face, batting her eyelashes and tossing her uniform ringlets.‘Hopelessly enamoured, isn’t she, Pride?’
We turned down the street next to the butchers. The houses were ample but modest terraces here; middle class houses that my stupid mother and sister would turn their noses up at. I knew very well the classier house on the end - it was Oscar Hornbeam’s art & photography studio, where Beauty had been taken for the portrait in the dining hall last year. Of course, Mother didn’t know very much about Oscar and his “business partner” Charles.
I scuffled through the hole in the fence where the estate ended, Pride close behind. Adela’s Alley: the path to working-class houses; thickly lined with whores. They weren’t here tonight though; they were a little way away near the public-house, where customers would be frequent as they celebrated New Year.
There was one woman though, illuminated by a lone lamppost, tarty but handsome with a cigarette between her slim fingers.
‘How are you, Adela?’ Pride spoke graciously.
‘Wonderful, Pride. Smoke?’
He took the cigarette, leaning against the lamp. Adela hugged me tightly, kissing the top of my head. She smelt of vanilla perfume and a rather distinct green aroma.
‘Envy sweetheart, I haven’t seen you for such a time! Is your sister still a little terror or have you killed her?’ She laughed, and I laughed with her.
‘I’m still plagued with fear, Addie. Come on, it’s icy out here.’ I tugged impatiently.
‘I haven’t finished, though!’ Pride whined.
‘Is it so impossible to walk and smoke at the same time, Pride?’
Addie dragged him along with us and we gossiped happily on the way to Charles’ (and more or less Oscar’s) house. Addie was older than the other prostitutes in the area - younger was often perceived as better by the aristocratic scum on my estate - and very kind. Since Olive had given up on me I’d been rather lost, like a lamb without its ewe. However, at that unspeakable joke of a party last June, Oscar and Charlie invited us to our first night with them and I met Adela who’d quickly taken to me; becoming a mother of sorts.
We walked out of the shadowy alley into the glow from the windows of the public house. It wasn’t like the place near the river, where my father occasionally visited after work; it was a real raucous place where the only the odd gentleman was caught among the working and middle class, and then he was only after a girl. There were a lot of girls around, some with men and some without, quite a lot that I knew from being in Adela’s care. We trudged up the hill to the lopsided, inviting little place. It was full to bursting inside and thick with smoke and drunken laughter. Christobel, the barmaid, waved to me as I came in. Her little sister Florrie was sat on the bar, singing to some of the more sentimental regulars that gave her pennies for a song. We weren’t there for this crowd though; we went through the door next to the bar and up the narrow staircase. There was another party going on in the flat upstairs.
I was met with a fierce hug from a doe-eyed young man with wavy dark hair: Oscar Hornbeam.
‘Envy, how are you?’
‘I’m good thank you, Oscar, but Pride and I could do with a little… medicine, if it’s not too much trouble.’ Pride winked at him and he giggled like a little girl.
‘Go see my sweetheart; he’s in the kitchen passing a hookah around.’
‘Actually, he’s right here.’ Charlie appeared behind Oscar, sliding his arms around Oscar’s slim waist. ‘Are you going to join us, darling? Everyone seems to be doing fine in here.’
Indeed, the crowd of young people in the sitting-room seemed rather merry with or without Oscar; Florrie must have been sent to bring drinks up a hundred times for everyone to be so carefree and ruddy. Oscar allowed himself to be marched into the smoke-filled kitchen and we followed close behind.
Oscar’s lovely sister Emiline, was sat at the scrubbed table with a large, flip-top canvas purse,; a rough young boy - perhaps fourteen or fifteen - was sat beside her, and Brynne, one of the slight Welsh girls that had moved over here, beside him. She wore no makeup, giving her a pale, childlike appearance, and her hair was light. Emiline was quite fair too, but rouge brought tone to her round cheeks and a little clever barbering made her dirty blonde hair a warm honey. Unlike Oscar and Em (who were a lighter porcelain than even me), Charlie was lightly tanned and freckled with untidy blonde-brown hair and a permanently childish beam. I liked photographs of Oscar and his sweetheart; the contrast was rather complementary.
Brynne pushed the purse towards me. I didn’t know her very well as she was new to the group, but she didn’t seem at all bad.
‘Your share,’ she informed me. 'As we’ve smoked the rest.'
Oscar giggled again, leaning into a slightly red-eyed Charlie. 'That we have. I don’t even think James can stand up.’
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Pride cast a glance at the young boy, whom was face-first on the table.
‘Is he alright, Oscar? He only looks young.’ Despite his concern, Pride appeared quite amused by the boy’s state.
‘Aye, he’s fine now he’s done throwing up, Pride, don’t you worry.’ Brynne rolled her eyes. 'First time, bless him, and Emiline here just abused having a fresh specimen, didn’t you?’ Brynne chortled, tickling Emiline’s ribs. She squealed, batting her away.
‘Well,’ she said, a little breathless, ‘We don’t have them often enough, do we?’
‘Am I not new enough for you, Em?’ I arched my eyebrows at her, smiling seductively.
‘You’re getting tolerant to it, Envy.’ She looked up, blushing at my expression. ‘But I can have a go at breaking you tonight. In more than one way!’ she added, smirking, the blush gone and confidence replacing it.
‘I wouldn’t say no to that.’ I winked. ‘We’ll knock into my share and then how about you come help me get out of this corset?’
‘The clothes are in your room, Envy.’ Oscar put in. ‘And Pride, yours are in ours.’
‘Well then,’ purred Emiline. ‘That sounds like a marvellous plan.’
Oscar, Charlie, Pride and myself all took a seat around the flamboyant hookah on the table. I picked up my purse, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Now, this was certainly a better way to spend New Year.