Close your eyes. Lose track of time for a moment -- just long enough to be overtaken by a hundred and thirty years. It's December, 1872. Feathery snow is falling on that dubious part of London between Regent Street and Soho, a hodgepodge of shops and houses crammed between the opulent avenues of the well-to-do and the festering warrens of the poor. Welcome to Silver Street. Here umbrella-makers, scriveners, piano tuners, unsuccessful playwrights, dressmakers and prostitutes live side by side, each pursuing their trade under worsening weather. Snow makes everyone and everything look equal, as if God has lovingly applied a thin layer of white icing to rooftops, street-stalls, carriages, and the heads of beggars. Suffering and decrepitude are scarcely recognisable under such a pretty disguise.
On this frigid December morning, you have entered a brothel known as Mrs Castaway's, and are peeking into an upstairs bedroom. What have you found? A girl called Sugar. She's 17, and you are watching her inspect her tongue in a hand-mirror.
Do you know Sugar? If you are a man, there is a good chance you have known her in the Biblical sense. She's a prostitute, and at this point in Queen Victoria's reign the ratio of prostitutes to the overall population is 1:36, or 1 per 12 adult males.
If you are a respectable woman, you ought to pretend you never heard such statistics, and ought to hurry past Sugar in the street, fearful of suffering a stain on your reputation. But perhaps you are not as respectable as all that, for you have not passed by. You are here, watching Sugar inspect her tongue in a brothel.
Do not be scandalised by Sugar's age. The age of consent for girls is 12. In 2 years from now, it will be raised to 13. Sugar is an old hand at this game.
She sits in her rumpled bed, holding the mirror to her face. Her tongue, she notes, is grey in the middle, not bright pink the way it ought to be. She drank too much last night, and here is the evidence.
Last night was Christmas Eve, now it's the morning after. December 25th, a day like any other. Sugar has the lamps lit, because her bedroom window is small and the sun is lost behind the grey swirl of snow. The fireplace spits and hisses; the floorboards creak by themselves. The old-fashioned erotic prints on the walls are, as ever, the only decorations; Mrs Castaway does not encourage her girls to deck their halls with boughs of holly.
To be frank, none of the shabby Georgian houses jumbled behind Silver Street is the best place to see evidence of Yuletide festivities; for that, you would need to go to the West End, or the suburbs. Only in the splendour of the Burlington Arcade can there be a wholesale celebration of gift-giving; only in the villas of the respectable can fairytales of Virgin Birth survive.
Sugar takes one last look at the inside of her mouth. How odd, she thinks, that red wine can turn a pink tongue grey. The miracle of the body's perversity.
A knock at her door makes her jump. At this time of the morning, she knows it can't be a customer. It must be little Christopher, come to collect the bed-linen.
"I'm 'ere for the sheets," says the boy, when she opens the door to him. He's blond, blue-eyed and as innocent-looking as a shepherd's lad from a Nativity scene. Not exactly dressed in rags, although his shirt and trousers would benefit from some mending here and there. Amy, his mother, is not the mending type. Her specialty is thrashing grown-up men until they whimper for mercy.
How old is little Christopher? Sugar can't tell. Far too young to be a drudge in a brothel, but Amy has put him to work this way, and he seems grateful to have a purpose. Perhaps if he washes and dries a million bed-sheets, he will finally make amends for his original sin -- of being born.
"Thank you, Christopher," says Sugar.
He doesn't reply, merely begins folding the dirty sheets into a stack he can carry away. Outside in the street, a fruity voice begins to sing:
"On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree..."
"It's Christmas, then," says the boy, lifting the pile of linen to his chest.
He nods, as if confirming something he knows inside out, something he mentioned only for conversation's sake. Chin resting on a wad of soiled linen, he walks to the door and is about to leave, then turns and asks,
Sugar blinks, momentarily stumped. "It's the day Jesus Christ was born," she replies.
"I knowed that," says the boy.
From outside: "Four collie birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree..."
"He was born in a manger," adds Sugar, to make the story more interesting for him. "A big wooden tub for animals to eat from."
Christopher nods. Making-do and poverty is the way of the world, he knows.
"... my true love gave to me, five gold rings..."
"Some folk," observes the boy, "gives presents at Christmas. To each uvver, like."
"So they do, Christopher."
The child shakes his head, like a little old man bemused by the pointlessness of giving someone sixpence in exchange for sixpence. He hugs the bed-sheets tight to his chest and walks out of the room, craning his head sideways to make sure he doesn't break his neck on the stairs.
"Six geese a-laying," carols the voice from the streets outside, "five gold rings, four collie birds, three French hens..."
Sugar shuts her bedroom door; there's a draught getting in. She throws herself back onto the half-stripped bed, irritable, wishing the day was over instead of scarcely begun. The pillow-cases smell of men's hair-oil and spirits; she ought to have sent them downstairs with the rest of the washing.
The carol-singer loitering in the street outside Mrs Castaway's seems indefatigable. Snow continues to whirl through the sky, the windowpanes rattle and creak, but still those damned partridges and turtledoves proliferate. Passersby must be tossing coins to this bawling nuisance; better they should throw stones.
After a few more minutes, Sugar can stand it no longer. She leaps up and gets properly dressed, putting on stays, fresh warm stockings, a demure black-and-grey striped dress with a quilted bodice, a smart purple jacket. She brushes her hair and winds it into a tight chignon, then pins a charcoal-and-purple bonnet to her scalp. She might be a fashionable widow in half-mourning.
By the time Sugar leaves Mrs Castaway's and steps onto the snowy cobblestones of Silver Street, the snow has stopped falling, and the carol-singer has melted away.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Not all the shops are open, Sugar finds. A worrying trend. Are we heading for a future when everything shuts at Christmas? God forbid.
Still, there are enough establishments open for her purposes. The stationer's has a full display of Christmas cards in the window, garlanded with tinsel, cotton-wool snow and robins made of fabric remnants. After long deliberation, Sugar chooses a card that performs an amusing trick when a paper tag is pulled -- an angel whose wings flap. Such clever things they make nowadays; there seems no end to the ingenuity of modern manufacture.
In a confectioner's a few doors along, she seriously considers buying a prettily-packaged box of chocolates, but fears the assortment will not be to her taste. Instead, she bids the shopkeeper fill a paper bag with dark chocolate pralines, her favourites.
The poulterer's shop is slightly disappointing by comparison. All the fine, plump birds which she recalls hanging there only a few days ago -- chickens with rosettes pinned to their breasts, huge turkeys with comically dangling heads, clutches of ducklings -- are gone now, gobbled up by the ovens of the prosperous. At this moment they're no doubt filling the busy kitchens of respectable houses with the smell of roast meat and savoury stuffing. Here in the poulterer's shop on Christmas afternoon, only a few scraggy birds remain. Sugar chooses the best of them, a chicken.
In the street, tempting the impetuous and the dirt-poor, hawkers are selling toys and trifles for children -- balloons, paper windmills, mice made of sweet dough. Sugar buys several mice from a leering old man, bites the head off one, chews thoughtfully, spits it out.
With every step of her superior black boots, Sugar ventures deeper into the network of poorer streets hidden behind the thoroughfare. From a greengrocer's barrow she buys a few carrots and potatoes, and walks on, swinging an increasingly heavy basket alongside her skirts. The farther she moves away from Regent Street, the more the opulence of the West End seems an absurd dream, punctured by the reality of squalor.
At last she finds a bakery whose stock-in-trade is not fancy cakes and pastries, but copious amounts of cheap bread. Its clientele is the poor wretches who live in the crumbling lodging-houses and hovels all about here. A queue of customers -- ragamuffins, street vendors, Irishwomen -- jostles in the doorway and spills out into the street; this baker not only bakes bread but cooks entire dinners for families who don't possess an oven. Hours of roasting can be bought for a pittance, and, for an additional halfpenny, a generous ladleful of the baker's own special gravy is thrown into the bargain.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Sugar waits for 90 minutes near the baker's. She could have gone home and waited there, but waiting on the street is something she is good at. She takes refuge for a while inside a chandler's, pretending to be interested in buying some stolen goods. When her toes have defrosted and the chandler is beginning to annoy her, she moves on. Three passersby offer to rent her affections; she refuses.
At the appointed time she returns for her Christmas meal. The baker greets her with a distracted smile; his brown beard is powdered white with flour. Ah, yes, the lassie with the chicken, he remembers now.
The dishes and bowls into which the piping-hot food has been transferred are chipped and stained, barely fit for a drunkard's street-stall, but even so, the baker obliges Sugar to pay him a shilling, as a security in case she fails to return them. He can tell she's never done this before; other customers bring their own pots and crockery.
"Mind you come back tomorrow," he warns. Sugar nods, though she hasn't the least intention of returning this miserable bric-a-brac. She can earn a shilling in ten minutes of lying on her bed.
"Merry Christmas," she winks, as she balances her heavy-laden basket in the crook of her arm.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By the time Sugar has walked back to Mrs Castaway's, the food has lost a good deal of its heat. This hiring of ovens is, after all, a service designed for labourers' families waiting hungrily around the corner from the baker's, not for prostitutes in Silver Street. Moreover, by the time Sugar has located Christopher and summoned him up to her bedroom, and the basket's contents are finally unveiled to the astonished boy, the chicken is barely lukewarm. Nevertheless it releases a delicious smell, and the roast vegetables twinkle in their juicy dishes. It may not be a feast borne by servants in a halo of steam, but by the standards of Mrs Castaway's on a snowy afternoon, it's an exotic surprise.
Sugar carves a hunk off the chicken's breast, another off the drumstick, and doles these onto a fresh plate along with some potato and carrot. She adds a big spoonful of the baker's special stuffing, scrapes some gravy from the bottom of the dish.
"Here," she says evenly, handing the plate to Christopher. "Merry Christmas."
The boy's face is inscrutable as he takes the food from her; he might almost be accepting a pile of washing. Nevertheless, he sits on a footstool and balances the plate on his knees. With his fingers, he begins to transfer the food to his mouth.
Sugar eats with him. There's a vaguely muttony taste to the chicken, suggesting that two very different animals sat side by side during their sojourn in the communal oven. Even so, it's good.
"I should've bought something to drink," she mutters. Next to the bed, there's half a bottle of red wine left over from last night; too potent for a child who's accustomed to diluted beer.
"I don't need nuffink," says Christopher, popping another roast potato into his mouth.
"Here's a card, too," says Sugar, and produces it. Observing that his fingers are otherwise occupied and greasy, she demonstrates the action of the paper angel's wings by pulling on the tab. Christopher smiles broadly. She can't recall ever seeing him smile before.
Outside in the street, a tuneless female voice begins to sing. It's not "The Twelve Days of Christmas" this time, nor even a festive song. Instead, this worthy woman, employing her considerable lungpower in the attempt to penetrate the walls and windows of Mrs Castaway's, bawls:
"My life of Sin is over
And I must surely die
Now, will I gain admission
To God's mansion in the sky?"
Christopher's smile broadens. He is almost unrecognizable, with deep creases in his cheeks, a twinkle in his eye, and a dark grease-smudge on his nose.
"Have a sip of wine," says Sugar, handing him the bottle. "Not too much, though; it will turn your tongue grey."
Christopher takes a swig from the bottle. Do not be scandalised: he's had strong drink all his life, and wine is cleaner than water.
"And will the portals open
To me who sinned so long
Filthy, vile and burdened
With this great weight of wrong..."
"Here, have a mouse," says Sugar, setting one of the sweet dough fancies on the floor in front of him. "They're not very good. Scarcely fit for mice to eat."
Christopher, having scoffed his Christmas meal, takes a cautious nibble at the confectionery.
"Nuffink wrong wiv it," he pronounces, and bites the creature in half.
Sugar is relieved he likes it; she'd meant to give him some chocolates, but her own greed got the better of her, and she ate them all while waiting for the meal to be cooked. There is a limit to human generosity, even at Christmas.
"That's me finished," says Christopher suddenly. "Give me them pillercases."
Sugar stares at him uncomprehending for a moment, then removes the pillow-slips from her pillows and hands them to the boy.
"Forgot," he remarks. It's not clear which of them he is blaming for the oversight.
Somewhat awkwardly, he walks to the door, hesitates, then ducks back to claim his angel card with the moving wings.
"I'll bring it back," he assures her.
Sugar yearns to tell him there is no need, it's his, and that he should've had chocolates if she weren't such a greedy, hard-hearted girl; that he should've had a pile of proper presents if his mother hadn't been Amy; that he should've had a decent home and a father and nice clothes and schooling if the world weren't such a pitiless and grubby place. She imagines herself embracing him, pressing him hard against her bosom, peppering his head with kisses -- all the expressions of unfeigned affection she has read about in stories.
"No need," she says hoarsely.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
When Christopher has disappeared downstairs, Sugar lies back on her bed. The stripped pillows still smell of hair oil and alcohol; only the passing of time will get rid of it. Outside, the evangelist has given up and moved on; thank God for small mercies. The snow has started again, tentatively, with the lightest possible flakes. All over London, these feathery wisps are settling on the rooftops of rich and poor alike, melting instantly where there is warmth, accumulating into a soft white blanket where there is none.
It is almost time to open your eyes; the twenty-first century is waiting for you, and you've been among prostitutes and strange children for too long. Come away now. Sugar is tired, even though it's the middle of the day. Tonight her work will begin anew, so where's the harm in her taking a snooze while things are quiet? Half-asleep already, she leans in front of the looking-glass, wipes her face clean with a damp cloth, and sticks her tongue out.
Fancy that: her tongue is pink and healthy-looking. How quickly the human body recovers from its abuses! It's a miracle, hallelujah. Merry Christmas now, and sweet dreams.