Adam slept well on the first night in his new home. He woke early on Sunday morning and took a brisk walk through the almost empty streets. In his former lodgings, the streets would have been almost as busy as a weekday, with many children of the less well-heeled spending the early morning of the Sabbath scouring the gutters and pavements for tiny pieces of coal that has been missed by the Saturday evening search patrols. Some scoured the back yards of food shops for half-rotten potatoes, a few, bad smelling leaves of cabbage or a crust of stale bread.
Later, the streets he now walked would be littered with children heading off to Sunday School before meeting up with parents at the church for their regular Sunday morning service. All of the children in Adam’s new, more affluent area, walked to church in their Sunday best clothes to be given bible tuition and made to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and the ten commandments before listening to a guest speaker. Sometimes it would be a vicar from a neighbouring parish, sometimes a fiery, American preacher, and sometimes, more interestingly, a missionary, fresh back from Africa with tales of man-eating lions and crocodiles the length of an omnibus.
In Paddington, Adam’s previous district, only the children of the religious poor attended Sunday School. The church official in charge of the poorest of the poor handled things in a very different manner. Unruly children were dragged unceremoniously to the front of the room and beaten with either a thick leather strap or, if the offence was considered blasphemous, a three-foot cane. Threats of hell and damnation would follow the children out of the hall and into the streets where the cursing and fighting would begin anew.
Adam counted three public houses and two, small but well looked-after, restaurants as he surveyed his new neighbourhood for the first time. The chalked-up blackboards outside each establishment showed prices for two or three course evening meals. Even the pubs seemed to have a reasonable menu. They were all twice the price of a meal in the eateries less then half a mile along the road, but he knew he would be enjoying a far superior meal and would have less chance of a seriously upset stomach during the night. Following the recent licencing restrictions, the pubs in this district at least were not allowed to open until 12.00 PM while all of the shops were closed and shuttered, as people adhered to the strict, Lord’s Day rules.
Adam switched from the cobbled streets to the pavement as the private hire and privately owned carriages came onto the roads and walked back to his new apartment at a brisk pace, lifting his hat or nodding to the few fellow citizens who were taking the chance to exercise in the almost deserted streets and the smoke-free air.
Adam had precured a small loaf, some butter, a lump of cheese and an onion on the previous afternoon and when he returned home, he made a pot of tea and sat down to enjoy the first meal in his new abode. Outside, in the hall, he could hear the sound of children’s laughter. He opened the door and looked out to see two girls aged between nine and eleven, wearing smock dresses and lace-up boots, along with a red-faced, wheezy boy, some years younger, sporting a checked knickerbocker suit, acting out a game of tag up and down the long corridor. They stopped dead as he appeared in the doorframe. The older of the girls looked particularly shocked.
‘Shut the door, mister,’ she begged, and began to back her way along the polished wood panelling that lined the bottom of the staircase. She held out her hand to the other girl. ‘Veronica, quickly now, come here.’
Never taking her eyes from Adam, the younger girl edged towards, who he assumed was her sister. She grabbed at her wrist and together they ran up the first three steps to the turn of the stair.
‘Don’t be afraid, children.’ Adam held out both hands. ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’ He turned to the boy who stood, mouth agape, only three feet away from him. ‘You’re not afraid of me, are you?’ He smiled and crouched down so he was at more or less the same height as the boy.
‘Stanley! Get yourself up here… NOW!’ the older girl commanded.
Stanley looked from Adam to the girl then back again, but remained glued to the spot.
‘Stanley?’ Adam spoke softly. He held out his hand towards the child. The movement seemed to wake Stanley from his stupor, and he spun around on one foot and hurled himself up the steps.
Adam straightened, and held out his palms again. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. Please, don’t be afraid.’
‘It’s not you we’re scared of,’ said the younger of the girls. ‘It’s what’s insi—’
‘Shh, Veronica,’ the older girl put her finger to her lips, ‘you’ll entice her out, then we’ll all be for it.’
Adam looked puzzled. He half turned and pushed the heavy door, open wide.
‘There’s no one here but me. See for yourselves.’
The girls looked at each other, the older of the two stretched her neck in an attempt to see past him. Adam stepped into the hallway and stood to the side so the girls had a clear view into his sitting room.
‘See? No one. I live here alone.’
‘Catherine, Veronica. Come along now, let me brush your hair, it’s almost time for Sunday School. Is Stanley with you?’
A tall, slim woman in a grey pleated skirt and a light pink, frilled-collared blouse, descended the stairs. Spotting Adam, she paused, then held out a slender hand towards the children. ‘Come now, we don’t want to be late.’
She began to turn away but stopped as Adam spoke.
‘I’m Adam Sears,’ he said quickly. ‘I appear to have frightened your children. I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.’
The woman smiled thinly.
‘I’m Felicity Parsons,’ she replied. Her face became softer. She ushered the children upstairs then walked elegantly down the stairs to the hallway. She held out a gloved hand. Adam took it as gently as he could.
‘I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance,’ Adam said. ‘I’m new to the district, I don’t know anyone around here. I’m sorry we seem to have got off on the wrong foot.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ Mrs Parsons replied, stretching to look over Adam’s shoulder and into the sitting room. ‘I hope you last a little bit longer than the previous tenant… previous three tenants, that is. No one seems to stay here long. It seems that just as we get to be on speaking terms, they disappear on us.’
‘I met Mr Parsons last night, he told me the same thing,’ said Adam. He looked back into the apartment, a puzzled look on his face. ‘It’s a lovely place, I really can’t understand what’s wrong with it for the life of me.’
Mrs Parsons patted his arm and walked quickly back to the staircase.
‘Let us hope you never do, Mr Sears,’ she said.