1829 had been a wonderful year. The best year. A year when Ned Bennett had let himself dream that he could just be the next Edmund Kean. Halfway through a run of Cinderella at no less prestigious a house as the Theatre Royal, he returned each evening to Lambeth with more money in his pocket than he’d ever had before. On New Year’s Eve he left the theatre earlier than most, stopping only for a quick sherry after he came off stage. He was eager to treat Sean to a drink and bring in the new decade together. Sean’s brother was over from Dublin at the time and the siblings had been celebrating for a long while at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand where Mick (not his actual name – Ned couldn’t pronounce that, especially after a few pots of ale) was staying before travelling back to his ship the next day.
‘Well look at you, then, all fancy like,’ Sean pulled at Ned’s new jacket, bought with his newly expanded wage packet that week.
‘I got my standards to uphold now don’t I?’ Ned spoke in jest but heartily hoped it was true. Until his recent success, he’d never had a week when he hadn’t been scrounging for the last few pennies, on occasion even wading out into the muck and slime of the Thames in search of lost treasures. Once he’d struck lucky and found a set of good silver spoons, cast aside by one who had been born with such bounty in their mouth. It had been a once in a lifetime find though, and the life of a mudlark was not for him.
Sean ordered more beer, and a gin for Ned since he was late to join and therefore needed to catch up on the two Irish lads. Ned vowed to himself to take it slowly; these two had harder heads for the booze than he. He had entered the pub with blinkers on, his eyes searching for his friends and blindly passing over all other occupants, and so he was awestruck when he looked upon the young maid who dropped their order onto the table.
Dropped was the right word, for she let go of the tankards with some distance between them and the already saturated table, splashing good beer like a wave off rocks. None of the men complained, for one reason: her beauty. In a place like this, not the worst but certainly not the most salubrious of establishments, the women tended to be past their best, in the diplomatic words of Sean. The younger ones were usually after payment for their time, the older ones had lived too hard a life for pups like this trio of optimists. This girl was different. Newer and fresh faced, yet not naïve. Already tired of the drunks and the friendly hands that tried to sneak around her waist as she walked to and fro.
‘What’s a pretty girl like you doin’ in a dive like this?’ Mick slurred at her, rewarded by a tight smile.
‘Leave the poor woman alone.’ Ned was glad to be sober. Next to his companions he would present a far more attractive prospect.
‘Don’t worry, sir, I can look after myself.’ She dismissed him easily.
‘Sir! Ha! Hark at your girl there. Sir! Lady, this man is no gentleman.’ Sean laughed so hard he almost lost his seat.
‘In comparison to you he is,’ she retorted, smiling at Ned to thwart the Irishman.
‘Thank you kindly, miss,’ Ned latched on to this turn in his fortune. ‘I do apologise for my friends but we are celebrating the occasion of the new year are we not. May I buy you a drink?’
She stared hard at him a moment before nodding.
‘Here you are then, Miss…’ he paused, the invitation clear as he counted out the coins, making sure not to look her in the eye. Easy does it Ned, he reminded himself.
‘Maggie.’ She snatched the money from his upturned palm. ‘Maggie Lenahan.’
‘A good Irish name,’ Sean approved.
‘Happy new year then, Maggie.’ Ned resisted the temptation to share his own name, forcing her into an enquiry.
‘Same to you Mr…?’
‘Ned. Ned Bennett.’
It was the last time he held the upper hand against Maggie Lenahan.