Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 16- Oranges

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XVI. 

ORANGES.

A GOOD story might be made out of the adventures of an orange. In some bright sunny garden of the Azores, planted with an undergrowth of lupins and water-melons, the green balls dangling from the dark-leaved, fragrant-blossomed trees grow and golden into constellations, starring a "green night" with lemons and limes, citrons, guavas, and loquats ripening around them. Shrouded in leaves, the "fair Hesperian fruit" is crowded into bulging coffins, buried in a ship's hold, and tossed upon the sea. Knee-breeched porters, trotting in single file, issue from cavernous river-side alleys, bearing the punchy fruit-boxes on their horse-collar like knots; and after lying perdu again for a while in mine-like stores in the cramped purlieus of Lower Thames Street, the juicy gold sees the light once more - at Covent Garden, for distribution amongst the middle class and the wealthy - at Duke's Place, to be sold by rich Jews to some of the poorest of London street-sellers, for resale to the mighty army of our strugglers. From the blue sky of the Western Isles, on which it hung embossed, to the foiling blue basket-paper in which the [-240-] orange, enters some stifling Holborn court, the change is wide and widely suggestive.
    That Duke's, or St. James', Place fruit mart I have mentioned is a favourite resort of mine. Its slovenly dinginess, and miry litter, contrast so quaintly with the glow and the gloss of its wares - its Sunday morning bustle with its sabbatical Saturday afternoon calm. The whole place - even to the unglazed shops - is such a squalid bit of Orientalism let into London - Jewish faces, Jewish names, now and then a turban or a robe-like garment; a synagogue looking down upon the market with dim eyes; and round about in husk-strewn narrow lanes, beetle-browed Jewish houses of call, secondhand Hebrew bookshops, and advertisements of Hebrew teachers, and Jewish almanacks, supplied with "C. E." equivalents to the Hebrew dates. Not the least curious of the houses of call is one for Jewish jewellers, at which at times there is a show of gold and gems that, were London suddenly given up by blunder to plunder, would make a loot-lover's eyes sparkle as brightly as itself.
    Coming back from market with his basketful of oranges through Mitre Street, I met the little fellow whose history, according to my custom, I am about to give in his own words: a squalidly dressed, stunted touzled-headed urchin, with not much more prominence of nose than that on the monkey-faces at the end of the [-241-] shaggy-shelled cocoa-nuts round about; with a mere slit of a mouth, but with white teeth in it, and a merry smile upon it, which, ugly though he was, made a sunshine in that shady place. He spoke with an Irish accent, hut with scarcely anything that was distinctively Irish in his phraseology; so I will make no attempt to reproduce his brogue by peculiarities of spelling. By-the- bye, it is very seldom, that Englishmen do succeed in reporting Irishmen in that way. I have written down what they have said to me, almost hot from their lips, and have thought at the time that I had exactly echoed,-if by a somewhat Irish figure a pen may be said to echo,-their turns of speech; but have found afterwards that I had fallen into the common error of making Irish people talk, not as they do talk, but as Englishmen somehow fancy they must talk. "Double all your r's, sound every e like an a, and throw in a good many Ould Oireland's, seems to be the received Canon of English reporting of Irish. It is as faithful for the most part as Scotch or American imitations of Cockneyese.
    This is about what the orange-boy told me when I had a chance of getting a chat with him:- 
    "I was born in London. Mother told me so, and sure she ought to know. No, she wasn't Irish; she was English; anyhow she wasn't Irish. Father was Irish, and he was a Roman. [-242-] Mother was a Protestant. Yes, they're dead, both. I don't know that he wanted us to be brought up Romans. Anyhow, he died, and mother had the bringing of us up. There were four of us then. There's only two now, me and Jenny. That's my little sister that lives with me. My name's Mike. Father came from Ireland, because there was no food there. I don't remember father, but mother's told me about it. The folks ate green things out of the ditches, and lay about the fields like dead cats.
    "Father wasn't anything in particular. He did just what he could get. I don't know whether he was good to mother. I never heard that he was worse than other chaps. Of course, mother had to work while father was alive - how was she to keep herself without? Yes, mother was good to us. Me and Jenny hadn't to go out selling when she was alive. The two others did. One of them was run over by a postman's cart, and died at the hospital. That was Pat. Larry was took ill of a fever through sleeping out in the rain. Perhaps they were good boys to mother. I never heard mother say so. They weren't good to me and Jenny. Pat used to whop me, and Larry would have whopped me too, only he couldn't. Oh, I don't bear them no malice. I'd just as soon hear they were in heaven as not. What good would I get by wishing of 'em out? Yes, mother used to tell us something about heaven. I can't [-243-] remember exactly what, except that it was a fine place up above the clouds, where there was bands playin' all day long, an' nuffink to pay.
    "I don't know if she went to church. No, I know she never read her Bible. How could she when she didn't know how? No, I can't read. Well, yes, I think I should like to. I should like to know what's in the newspapers. There's a chap I know goes out with 'em to the houses of the people that buy 'em, and he'd let me get a read. Besides, it's easy to get hold of a newspaper at the lodging-houses. No, and I can't write neither, but I can make the figures with chalk. I should like to know how to figure well. Chaps say you can't make much money if you don't know that. It would be of more use to me than reading and writing, I expect.
    "Yes, me and Jenny used to have games sometimes when we were little uns. Mother used to lock us up in her room all day when she went out.
    "Oh, yes, she left us a bit of bread, when she'd got it. Our games was at making the chairs fight till they killed theirselves, and then burying of 'em under the bed; and we made believe the holster was a slop, and shied at it round the corner; and jolly games, such as that. Mother couldn't give us smart clothes of a Sunday, but she'd wash Jenny's things [-244-] when she'd the chance. There was a priest wanted to get us, because father was Irish. He seemed a kind gentleman. Me and Jenny wanted to go, but mother wouldn't have it. No, she never sent us to a Protestant school, but she said we shouldn't be Romans, and she'd take the poker to the priest if he came after us again. There was no Romans in our court, but lots in the next to it, and there was pretty near always fighting going on, women as well as men.
    "Mother didn't use to fight, though she did talk about the poker. That was only to scare the priest. But sometimes she'd get knocked down as she was coming home. Once for ever so long she'd a bump as big as a black egg on her forehead, and another time she'd her ribs broke. What did she do when she come home of a night? Why, she'd give us some food, if we hadn't had none, and then she'd go to bed. What would she do? She didn't care about drink, and she was too tired to go anywhere. Besides, she'd got no money. She used to sell in the streets-oranges and nuts; that's how me and Jenny took to it when mother died.
    " When we got a bit older, she didn't keep us locked up at home. We played in the court with the other boys. Oh, we had very jolly games. We used to stop up the gutter till there was a pool, and swim barges, and splash the water at people. Sometimes they'd try to hide [-245-] us, but we cut away. If anybody welted Jenny that I could fight, I'd fight him; and if I couldn't I'd shy stones at him; and Jenny used to shy stones if anybody got hold of me.
    "Me and Jenny never quarrelled, and we don't mean to. Sometimes mother d take us out with her. That's how we came to know how to market. Leastways, I buy for Jenny, and we share. We never went selling till after mother died. She was took ill so that she couldn't go about, and the things were seized for rent, and she had to go into the workhouse, and we didn't see her any more, because she died. Yes, I would have liked to, and so would Jenny. Both of us cried when we heard that mother was dead. I don't know why the neighbours didn't let us go into the house along with mother, but they didn't. They kept us for a bit turn and turn about, and then when mother was dead one of 'em gave us a penny, and another o'em gave us a penny, for stock, and so we started.
    "No, we don't feel so very lonesome now. Why should we? Sometimes we go out selling together, and there's plenty of people at the lodging-house when we get back. Yes, we live at lodging-houses - sometimes one, sometimes another. Some of the people are good, some ain't, but not often. And I can take my own part, and Jenny's too. Sure you don't think I'd let her be put upon, and myself stand-[-246-]ing by handy? There was a big chap tried to take the herring away she was toasting, and I sent a potful of hot water over him, I did; I was standing by convenient; and the folks wouldn't let him welt me for it, though the missis scolded me for wasting of her boiling water. Me and Jenny always go to market together, but it's me that buys. When we're hard up, and haven't the tin for a half-hundred, I'll get a chap that's bought a lot to sell us a few to work, and mostly they'll do it. Yes, they take their profit. Sure you. couldn't expect otherwise; but it ain't nigh so much as they might get if they sold 'em to them that didn't want to sell again. But then again they might have 'em left on their hands, instead of getting rid of 'em certain, right off.
    "Yes, I've often heard tell of boiling oranges. There's some that do it, so they say. I can't tell. The folks that buy 'em must be fiats, I should say. There's the fruit for 'em to feel. Now and again I've bought specks and sold 'em again at a profit, because, you see, they cost me so little. After all, it's fancy - all that about the look. The jammy ones is just as juicy as the tothers, and every bit as good sometimes, but then folks want to please their eyes as well as their mouths. No, we never worked lemons. Nuts we do, and pretty nigh anything we can buy, according to the season.
    "Oh, we sell to anybody that'll buy, any-[-247-]where we go-who else is there to sell to? Did I ever think it would be nice to give away anvthing? I've often wished I could give a chap a punch in the head when I couldn't, because he could have eat me if I'd turned saucy. Oh, in the way of being kind and that, is it? It ill be time enough to talk about that when I've got anything to give away, any way. It's as much as me and Jenny can do often to get food, and sometimes we can't do that, and have to sleep anywhere we can, like the sparrows, but not half as snug. If you've got anything to give away, I've no objections. Mind I didn't ask you for anything-mother used to tell us not to beg - but Jenny would be none the worse of a new pair of boots. Them she's got are as full of holes as a colander. Well, no, mine ain't what you may call a new pair, but I ain't asking for myself. Now and again we've had things given us, but not often. Once on a bitter day an old lady called Jenny in, and gave her a warm by her kitchen fire, and a good tuck in, and a pair of cloth boots, for she could hardly walk for the chilblains, poor girl. She hadn't had anything to eat all day before, and she walked into her tea at a good rate, but all the same she was putting by some of the bread-and-butter for me; and when the old lady saw her slipping of it into her frock, and asked her why, and Jenny told her, if she didn't give her a half-quartern loaf for the two [-248-] of us; and she asked Jenny where we was lodging, and said that she'd send some one to make inquiries about us. But she never did. I expect she forgot all about us. The frost had broke in the night, and it wasn't nigh so cold the next day. We would have been glad of a sixpence, but I wasn't sorry she didn't send anyone after us. Most like they'd have parted us and cooped us up somewhere, and that wouldn't have suited neither of us. I should like to learn figuring, but I should choke if I was cooped up in a school, and me and Jenny mean to work together always. We're safe not to cheat each other, and one don't grudge the other full share of anything that's going, and that's more than you can say of a good many of them that work together.
    "Shan't neither of us marry? There's plenty of time to talk about that, and what's to prevent our working together if we did get spliced? I'd see her man didn't beat her, and she'd keep my gal from cheating of me."

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