I met Ruth Randolph while her husband spoke terms with Adam. We were so full of hope, gushing at our good fortune at having secured a room so close to the shipyards. A job and a room! I could hardly hear a word the tenement manager’s wife said.
“The bath houses open on Tuesdays and Fridays,” she went on as we strolled along the chilly courtyard between several low-rise buildings on Market Street. I clutched my shawl, partly from the chill but also because I’d noticed how her eyes kept appraising me as though I were livestock.
The young boys played stick ball while the girls sang songs. Older women hung ragged clothes on the lines while a few drunks staggered about. Mrs. Randolph eyed me again.
“My you are something. I presume you have no children?”
I shook my head. A small smile emerged from her eyes, spreading to her lips as we turned back, still under the shadows of the cluster of similar buildings overhead.
“Well, stay indoors at night, never be alone in the alleyways.”
I nodded along, unbridled happiness filling my steps until we skidded to a halt. Mrs. Randolph snatched my arm in her hand, her tone went harsh,
“Do not set foot in the basement.”
I searched her eyes but she offered nothing. Then the warm smile returned to her face.
“Welcome to the building.”
I took vinegar to the walls and floors, our first floor room held a stench that rivaled the filthiest rats in all of Dublin. We grew accustomed to the music filtering through the planks. Piano and laughing. The occasional laugh or clink of glass. No matter, those first weeks were glorious, we never stopped smiling, huddled together for warmth.
The room was a beginning, not an end. With Adam at the shipyard, he would often come home too tired to do anything but sleep, so I would listen and hum along, looking forward to spring when I hoped we could move.
That hope perished a month later, when Adam woke up ill. My strapping husband, reduced to a clump on that floor. I stayed with him, a damp rag on his forehead as his skin turned pale, then ashen. I held him in my arms and felt him melt away. A week later I was a widow.
The rent was due, then due again. As was the hospital bill. Then I returned home one night from the textile factory to find Mr. Randolph, waiting for me, fiddling with his hat in his hand and his eyes cast low.
“Mrs. Collins, it’s come to,” he fumbled along, “I’ve uh, I must ask that you to be out.”
I started to plead, to beg for just one more week when the lust in his stare caught my voice. We stood there, our visible breaths between us, something unspeakable in the cold night air.
“Tomorrow, Mrs. Collins. One last night to get your affairs together.”
I lay in my bed, tight against the wall. A ball with guilt. I spoke aloud to Adam, my dearest, in the dark, as the piano mocked my heartbreak. A woman’s laugh shook the floor. I wiped my eyes and pulled myself to my feet.
I lifted my skirt to keep from stepping on the hem. The stairs were narrow, rickety and wet but leading to warmth. The music and laughter—however at odds with such conditions—reminded me of my mother, singing in the kitchen, the tingle of magic in her hands when she stroked my hair.
A drunken man reached out from the darkness, grasping at my calf. Slobbering and drooling, a short kick to the head put him back to sleep.
My hand found the forbidden door. For a flickering moment I was on that boat with my husband, giddy with wonder, our futures still intact, waiting across the sea for us to unwrap. Now they were nailed shut in a coffin.
Mrs. Randolph sat on the piano—some form of her anyway—with a hair chain and headpiece, her dress yanked to the garter on her thigh. Her mouth was adorned with the stem of her cigarette holder and her voice possessed an even confidence of a woman who had her way in the world. She turned to me, standing in the doorway and exhaled a plume of smoke.
“Ella,” she said as though she’d been expecting me all along. A simple lift of her gloved hand and the music fell. Edgar Randolph, the property manager, peeked over the top, to me, and even with the pistol within his reach he his eyes flickered like a shy schoolboy.
Two men smiled on. Drunk and flushed, cards and coins scattered on the table. One had a young girl in his lap. Another girl danced, even as the only music in the room was the hiss of the coal furnace. Mrs. Randolph slid off the piano and onto the Persian rug with practiced ease.
“Have a drink, girl.”
I had no delusions as to my surroundings. In my darkest hour an even darker opportunity presented itself. The gin burned away my pride. Again I felt those eyes, like a tape measure across my breasts, waist, to my bottom. Madame Ruth’s smile glowed like a chandelier as she studied my face. I said a prayer, a final goodbye to my beloved Adam, just as Mrs. Randolph took my cheeks in her hands.
“Oh Edgar, I do believe you were right about this one.