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The Wicked Lady

Chapter Text

Tommy was having nightmares again. His screams and oaths disturbed the household at regular intervals. Or at least they did when he was at Arrow House. What was happening when he was away in London or elsewhere was a complete mystery to Arabella.

Since the family had received their pardons, Tommy had become increasingly distant from her. He would be missing for days at a time without a word of warning or explanation, and then crawl into their bed in the early hours of the morning, reeking of booze, tobacco and blood. Sometimes, on the worst nights, Arabella thought that she could also identify the heady scent of opium clinging to his hair and skin.

No matter the cause of his late arrival, he would bury his nose in the curve of her neck and press his lean body along the length of hers, and then sigh deeply.

'Hold me love', he would whisper. 'These people I have to work with… I need your goodness to wash their filth off me.'

Then she would pull him in closer and use her hands, mouth and body to comfort him. Sometimes he was so drunk or wired it took a while to coax an erection out of him but once he was inside her they would reach a semblance of their old intimacy. Somehow that made it worse.

When Tommy had spent himself in her and fallen asleep, she would creep into his dressing room so as not to wake him and sob as quietly as she could. She had usually barely gone back to sleep herself when his nightmares started, and it always took a long time to calm him back to restfulness once the screaming was over.

Mornings sadly never seemed to bring either of them any comfort. On most occasions, Tommy was gone by the time she awoke. On the rare occasions when he slept in, he was cold with her, evasive even when he woke. She never dared to try to seduce him over the breakfast table as she once had.

Isolated from Tommy's activities, Arabella continued to busy herself with the management of the clubs and casinos. They were running well and growing in popularity and she felt a small glow of pride when she reviewed the books. As far as she could tell, other than the on-track betting operation, they were the family's most profitable income stream.

She booked some of the biggest acts she could find to perform cabaret sessions and concerts at the Shelby Family's venues. She even managed to convince Charlie Chaplin to do a skit one night at their place in Edgbaston between a singer and a couple of dancing girls. There was no doubt that their venues now formed a significant part of the fashionable social life of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

***

Trips to London became the highlight of Arabella's life.

She had a couple of rooms set aside for her and Tilda's use in Ada's large and well-appointed London home and she spent many happy afternoons there with her sister-in-law and nephew talking about politics, books, and music. As this was a nominally Communist house Tilly was invited to join the family as often as she wanted and her education as a lady's made continued apace.

Arabella's evenings were usually spent in various clubs and restaurants around town, sometimes accompanied by Ada, sometimes accompanied by Alfie Solomons, but always accompanied by Tilly.

In defiance of all logic, Alfie proved to be one of Arabella's most loyal and reliable friends during that time. Although he could be both erratic and violent, he nevertheless treated her and Tilly with an exaggerated level of courtesy which would not have seemed out of place in her mother's social circle. Yet at the same time he was not above providing them with plentiful quantities of drugs and alcohol.

'You will never find me wanting', he would often say. 'Not in word, not in deed, not in hospitality neither. Bread and salt will always be waiting for you in my house – even if the bread is liquid and cocaine does the job of salt.'

That would always set her to giggling. He was such a card! Even though she knew he was a dangerous man she could not truly see him as one and her relaxed towards him bled over to Tilly.

When Archie introduced her and Tilly around town, with a remarkable lack of interest in social class (his opinion being at all non-Jewish women were all of the same status) it made her giggle further. When he did indeed keep them filled with rum and china she simply allowed herself to feel grateful for his thoughtfulness. That his presence meant that Tommy was neglecting her was a fact she tried desperately to ignore.

***

Arthur had found his family a lovely red brick house just off the main road to Solihull, which had come parcelled with a good-sized plot of land. Bribing the previous owner with an obscene pile of cash, he had moved his family in in record time and then bought chickens, and a few goats, and then had the gardens laid out for fruit and vegetables.

Arthur had proved to be quite a natural worker of the land and, although his hands always itched for the axe and the saw to express his violent nature, he had taken surprisingly easily to the Quaker lifestyle. The lack of alcohol and drugs had been a distinct advantage in tempering both his mental health and his daily behaviour.

Linda, however, for all her demands for peace and the religious life, had not fitted in quite so well. This had surprised her, but they were both committed to providing little Billy with the life that they dreamed of for him, so she ducked her head and behaved. If Arabella saw them rarely, Tommy saw them not at all.

***

John had always been the most easy-going of the brothers and he had, despite his wife's annoyance with the family business, never truly tried to break off contact with Tommy and the others. That said, he had promised Esme that he would take her and the children to live in the countryside once the Russian business was over and he kept his word.

After his release from prison, John had taken his money and bought a fancy new vardo from Dunton and Sons down in Reading. Esme had been ecstatic when it had arrived. The ornate carving and fancy paintwork (not to mention the gold detailing) had done much honour to her family – but it had also confirmed to her that he respected the Romany way of life.

John had also bought a large estate to keep the wagon on, with fishing rights on a broad stream that ran through it, a small area of well-managed woodland, and a good-sized house they could use whenever they needed to impress someone. It was peaceful and beautiful and gave them all a chance to heal.

Then, to Esme's grave displeasure, John had a phone line installed so that he could keep in touch with Tommy.