When Megan got to the High Street she made her way to the Vulcan Inn by the side door, it was heaving with men, most looked like colliers like her Dad and ironworkers too, no doubt blowing off steam after a night’s graft. Some were spilling out into the alleyway, pewter tankards in hand. Their chatter and laughter echoing out into the busy main street, she jostled her way past them. The pubs seemed to be open all hours in the town. She found the barmaid Griff had spoken of and asked her if Griff’s Uncle Berwyn was around, but she hadn’t seen him since the previous day. Dis-spirited and head down, she made her way out of the pub.
Just as she was leaving the alleyway, a tall man in a shabby long tail coat and battered top hat, grabbed her by the arm, so forcefully, she almost dropped the basket she was carrying. “Say, Miss, how old are you?”
“Almost twelve,” she said, trying to not allow the fear to seep through into her voice.
“Hmmm nice and young and good looking too. Want to make some money?” He twirled his thick black moustache. If he cleaned himself up and wore nice clothing, she guessed he might be considered quite handsome. Though there was something about him that warned her not to hang around.
She blinked several times. This sounded too good to be true that she could make some money, but wouldn’t it help her brothers and sisters? It could help them get out of the workhouse now her mother was no longer alive.
“If you go over to the washhouse in China and tell them Twm Sion Watkin sent you, they’ll give you a job.”
The mention of a washhouse immediately put Megan off, she’d had enough of the laundry at the workhouse the other day, and her inner voice seemed to warn her he was bad news. Someone most people feared.
“’ere leave that gal alone!” The barmaid, Florrie, had followed her outside.
The man shook his head and scuttled off down the alley.
Megan blinked at Florrie in surprise. “Who was he?”
“Let’s just say he’s not someone you’d like to know. He’s a pimp, cariad. You need to keep away from people like him.”
A pimp? So that’s what a pimp looked like. She remembered Mrs Woodley’s words. “So is he something to do with a prost a something?”
“Yes, that’s the word. But what exactly are they?”
“Or ‘nymph of the pave’ as we sometimes call them. Bad ladies who do wicked things for money. Now I’d get out of ‘ere if I was you, it’s not safe.” Florrie shook down her dress as if shaking off the man’s evil presence.
“But I need to find my friend Griff,” she protested, her chin jutting out with determination.
The barmaid’s face softened. “I know the lad well as he comes in here often enough to take his uncle home when he’s in a state.”
“Any idea where Griff could be right now?”
“He runs around with a lot of bad lads called the Rodneys. They’re a bunch of barefooted urchins, some people don’t like them as they think they’re a load of pickpockets. But they’re just starving half to death, bless ‘em. Some like Griff, got no mothers or fathers and have fallen into bad ways. Two of them are due to go to court and my guess is they’ll end up transported to Australia. It’s not right, those kids are blooming starving.”
“They’d be better off in the workhouse where I am,” Megan said softly, remembering Griff’s recent theft of apples.
“Maybe,” the barmaid said, “but it’s become a way of life for them. They know no other. China is a dangerous place for a young lady like yourself to be. Please don’t go looking for Griff’s house on your own, will you?” She gave Megan a stern glance. “I’ll take you there myself, if you like, I’m due to finish soon enough. I know where he lives as I had to help him get his uncle home once.”
Megan beamed. “That would be grand. I’ll just go and get my shopping from the marketplace and meet you back here.”
“No, I’ll come with you right away,” the barmaid said. “If you go walking through there with a basket full of goods, you’re liable to get jumped. Some are starving half to death.”
Megan took heed of the barmaid’s cautionary words. “Very well and thank you, Miss. I don’t have a lot of time to spare as I’ll be missed from the workhouse and the goods I need to purchase are for dinner time.”
“Don’t worry, it shan’t take us long. I’ll just pop back inside and tell the landlord I’m due to finish.”
She was as good as her word and a few minutes later they were stood outside a small, dilapidated, grimy house in a dark narrow alleyway. The houses seemed to be on top of one another and the stench made Megan want to heave.
“That’ll be the open canals of people’s waste,” the barmaid began, “they throw it all out into the street and it finds its way into the River Taff. People blamed it all for the cholera outbreaks that took so many lives…”
Megan had heard all about that and some at the workhouse had died, but luckily most had been segregated to the infirmary part where they were isolated from the other inmates. Else it could have been far worse.
“This is Griff’s house,” the barmaid said, then she tapped on the door.
After a lot of shouting from inside, the ramshackle wooden door with its peeling paint, swung open. Griff stood there, blinking. “Megan, is it really you?” he asked.
She nodded. “Of course it is. I don’t have long as I’ve been sent from the workhouse kitchen to pick up some shopping. Would you like to come with me and we can walk and talk along the way?”
He nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll just tell my uncle I’m going out then. All that shouting was him, he’s in a bad mood as he has no money to buy booze.” He looked at the barmaid who gave a knowing smile.
“Well, I’ll be off then,” she said, turning back in the direction from whence she arrived, leaving Megan and Griff staring at one another.
She heard him shouting to his uncle that he was going out for a while to hear some muffled shouts from inside the home. She was so glad she didn’t have to live with an uncle who was permanently drunk, and she got the impression that Griff was more than happy to leave that little scene behind.