Nancy pretends not to like little Maggie Wells when she first turns up at Quigley’s door. She is a little slip of heaven, naively entering the gaping hole of hell. She is an angel with a dirty face and an even dirtier mouth. But Nancy’s scrubbed clean face carries the the hard edges of abuse and pain. And trusting others is a risk she is not willing to take. So she frowns at the little urchin when she might have smiled at her plucky attitude, her bright, blue darting eyes.
“Why you looking at me so sour? You got an ache in your face?” Is the first thing Little Maggie says to her.
Nancy is taken aback for only a moment before she retorts.
“How can you even see my face through all the dirt on yours? You look like a little mudpie.”
“You watch yourself,” Maggie says, but the beginning of grin is spreading across the dirt. “My mudpies are the most celebrated in all of London and I’ll make you eat them if you are not careful!”
Nancy can’t quite stifle a bark of a laugh. But then Maggie laughs as well and it is like someone has struck a match in a dark room and a warmth grows around Nancy’s heart.
Nancy helps to scrub Maggie clean and change into the pretty dress Quigley gave her. When she’s all fixed, Nancy steps back to appraise her work. Maggie is sweet and heavenly dressed in silks and satins. Oh yes, Little Maggie Mudpie will do well here. If she is careful and plays her hand clever, she might avoid some of the rougher sort of culls. Not like Nancy. Nancy is carved of hell and hurt. She always looks out of place in her pretty dress, like a rotten doll in Mrs. May’s collection- only fit for breaking.
“What’s that?” Maggie asks.
Nancy’s hand immediately grasps her ring. It is always there, hanging round her neck like a little gleaming piece of hope.
“Was my Ma’s,” she says gruffly. “She left it with me at the Foundling Hospital. It’s my foundling token… left with me to show me her love.”
Maggie’s lips tremble and she raises her chin defiantly.
“My ma just sold me for a poxy pair of shoes.” Her sharp blue eyes suddenly soften, pooling with tears.
“I know,” Nancy says softly. She doesn’t know if she should reach out to the girl or not. She’s only ten and has just been thrust out of her Ma’s care.
“It’s alright,” Maggie says blinking her eyes violently to keep the tears back. “The shoes Quigley gave my Ma are probably worth more than that thruppeny pinchbeck ring your Ma left you.”
Nancy should punch her for that but she is so little and alone. She looks like she needs someone to hold onto, something sure and strong that could keep her afloat in the violent storm she’s suddenly found herself thrown into. But Nancy isn’t strong. At twelve years old she’s already brittle and bone weary. Her tight jaw toughness is just an act and she’s afraid if she bends, she will break. Still…
Nancy pulls Maggie toward her and folds her into her arms. Maggie goes rigid at first, as if she is unused to gentle touch, but she slowly melts into the older girl’s arms and clings to Nancy, letting her tears flow freely. When they finally break apart, both little girls feel stronger. Maggie looks up at Nancy and trails her thumb from the bottom of her lip down the slight cleft of her chin. It is an unconscious, childish gesture and though Nance normally shrinks from touch, she is fine with Maggie’s.
“Thanks Ache-face,” Little Maggie Mudpie says as she plants a kiss on Nancy’s lips. They are two little girls in hell. But that kiss. Maggie’s kiss tastes like the promise of heaven.
They grow and they learn until they are young women. They learn how to bring a man off until his pintle is gushing gold with just a jerking of the wrist, how to spice and sweeten the swells, how to handle the rougher culls. Well, Mags learns this. Nance seems to be learning more about liniments and ointments for the deep cuts and welts left behind from the bite of the whip or the hammering of fists, how to heal her quim when one of her culls near splits it in two, how to grit her teeth and smile through the pain. She is the worst at that- the smiling.
Mags is better at this. Mags is Quigley’s “own sweet girl.” Though Nance notices that fact doesn’t make Mags smile with pride as she use to. They both have learned not to look for a mother in Quigley, not to seek the fallen angel in the Devil’s dam.
“You look bluer than a parson’s whirligigs,” Nancy says one night as she cuddles up against Mags in bed for warmth.
“She is having me help her Nance… on her virgin hunts. Cajole them. She tells me. Tell them what they want to hear. I smile and pretend I’m her very own daughter- that they are being offered employment as maids.”
Nancy tenses behind her and Mags turns her head away and shrinks into herself.
“You despise me,” she whispers into the darkness.
“No.” Nance says firmly as she draws Mags back to her. Nance could never despise Mags. For Nance has been learning more than just pain and hurt. She has also learned the shape of Maggie’s smiles and the curve of her breasts. She has memorized the exact brightest of the blue in her eyes along with the sharpness of her laugh. She has learned to allow her heart to sprout wings whenever Mags sings a tune in an evening. And she has learned that when Mags gaze alights on hers, she feels an aching pain like fire deep between her thighs.
“How can you not?” Mags turns back to her, her eyes are brimming with tears. “You would never do it.”
“We’ll find a way to get out,” Nancy says, “We’ll escape this fiery hole.”
Nancy doesn’t trust herself to speak, her own tears are already clawing up her throat. So she leans forward and kisses Mags as her answer. The kiss is sweet and chaste at first. Nancy just touches her lips to Maggie’s. But then she lingers… waiting… asking… Mags lips part ever so slightly allowing Nancy’s tongue entrance. And then it is Mags tongue that is gently prodding inside Nancy’s mouth. Their lips and tongues dance awkwardly. Neither of them have much experience with something as romantic as a kiss, but oh, how sweet it tastes.
Soon they find their pace and suddenly the kiss becomes hunger and need. Nancy feels the space between her thighs throb and her legs tense as Mags breaths heavier and clutches at her desperately. Nancy slips her hands under Mags shift and together they grasp heaven.
When Mags’ belly grows round, Nancy half believes that the child is hers, though she knows that is impossible. But she swears on all the saints and devils in existence that she will charge through fire to protect them both. At night, Mags lets her feel the kicks and Nancy’s heart swells with pride at the sheer strength of the tiny Wells babe growing inside of little Magpie.
But Mags is full of anxiety. “I pray it is a boy,” Maggie whispers one night. “I don’t know what I’ll do if it’s a girl.”
“We won’t be here long. After you deliver, we’ll find our way out.”
They know it is safer to wait until after the birth to leave. Birthing a babe was no small matter. Countless things could go wrong. Beneath Quigley’s roof, Mags will have help. Mags is one of her best girls, after all, and Quigley doesn’t want her goods damaged. There could possibly even be a midwife and healing drafts should things turn sour, which is more than Nancy could hope to procure out in the gutter.
But Nancy knows the thought of birthing the babe in captivity went hard on Mags. As well as her fears what would happen after the birth. Quigley has sent other brothel babes to the foundling hospital, but Nancy assures Maggie she won’t let that happen. But how will she prevent it? Murder Quigley? A shiver goes down her spine whenever she allows herself to think of it. She knows she is capable of it. There is a dark streak inside of her that wants to hurt and punish and it fills her with shame and fear. Murder is a weak and desperate act. But she’d commit it if there were no other way. She’d sell her soul to the devil himself to get Mags away from his putrid dam.
The labor does not go easy and for a time Mags hangs in the balance between worlds. Then finally Charlotte bursts out into the world, kicking and screaming.
When she is all cleaned up, the midwife is about to place the babe in Mags’ hands.
“I will hold her,” Quigley demands cruelly as the midwife is about to give the babe to Mags.
Maggie, bleeding, exhausted, rises up in the bed, her eyes filling with desperate tears.
“Nance… Nance,” she pleads. But Nancy can do nothing. She looks down at her feet, keenly feeling her first failure as protector.
Charlotte is not an easy baby. She does nothing like what the girls said babies would do. She hates to be swaddled, hates sleep, always wants to be up and playing. Breastfeeding often resembles a wrestling match between Mags and Charlotte in the early days. But at least she isn’t stricken with excessive wailing. No, if that were the case, Quigley would have drowned her herself, like an unwanted kitten. But Charlotte has charmed her way into Quigley’s good graces, so she is able to stay, for now.
“She’s already a Wells Woman,” Mags says, “sweetening up her bawd.” But her words are bitter. And Nance knows that when Quigley is the only one who can mollify the crying babe, it is like a knife in Maggie’s heart.
Mags should be joyous. She is allowed to keep her daughter for now and Charlotte and her are both healthy… but it is like the light has gone out of her eyes. One night after a particularly difficult cull, Nancy finds Mags on the bed staring at nothing, Charlotte, surprisingly asleep for once, in her cradle.
Nancy sits down and tentatively strokes Mags’ arm.
“We’re never going to get out,” Maggie whispers. “And she will make Charlotte hers. She will make her just like us.”
The despair in the room is deafening.
“She should have given you longer to recover,” Nancy murmurs.
“Charlotte’s head split me wider than any cock,” Maggie says. It almost sounds like a joke but there is no smile on her lips, nor mirth in her eyes.
It is a perfect time to offer a joke in response, even a bad one. Yet Nancy can’t. She can’t think of one thing that would make Maggie laugh. And she knows it is time to leave.
They don’t make their escape plans with joy or anticipation. They make them with the borrowed energy of instinct fueled survival. Strangely, the first thing they need to procure are clothes. If they are nabbed escaping from Quigley’s she can haul them before the justice and accuse them of stealing her clothes. Countless bawdy house girls have been sent across the herring pond or hung because they escaped with the “stolen” clothes on their back. So they use their arts on their culls… well Mags does at least.
She manages to convince two of her culls to bring her mens clothing. “Just think how my legs would look… in a pair a breeches…” she tells them with her cockish smile. The culls bring her the clothes. They hide them.
There is no plan really, they just have to wait for their opportunity. It comes on the night that Quigley is auctioning off a new virgin. They wait until everyone is deep in their cups. Mags flirts with the bully and brings him a drink. It has a bit of laudanum in it. When Nancy Ache-face and little Maggie Mudpie leave through the front door that night, the bully is so out of it that he merely registers that two boy servants left with some sort of bundle in their arms.
The tears stream down their faces as swiftly as their shoes clatter against the cobblestones, as freely as their laughter busts from their breasts. And when they duck into an alleyway for a moment of rest, Mags draws Nancy to her and captures her mouth in her own. In that dirty alleyway, with the night sky sparkling above them and baby Charlotte sleeping between them, Nancy tastes heaven.
They find a place in Crosby’s Bawdy House in Covent Garden. Crosby, unlike most bawds of her ilk, likes babies enough to let Mags keep Charlotte with them. It might have had something to do with the fact that she was getting on in years and had buried all three of her own precious children before their time.
Crosby is the first one to put the birch rod into Nancy’s hand and introduce her to her new trade. She helps Mags as well, teaching her the ins and out of running a cunny house. This is not to say she is not as stingy as a miser but still much better than Quigley ever was. She runs a tight ship and never plays the mother. But Mags and Nance find that suits them just fine.
When Crosby passes she leaves the house to Mags, who had been her best girl. Maggie was always everyone’s best girl. She was Nancy’s best girl for a time. She was her only girl. Yet finding a rhythm of love between them was difficult. There was the house to run, the little ones to mind, first Charlotte, then Lucy. And of course there were the seemingly limitless queues of cock stands eager to have Mags for their own. First Nathaniel Lennox and the man who may be Lucy’s Pa (who they never talk about.)
In between these lovers, Mags and Nance continue to share their kisses and the occasional tupping. But Mags demands the entirety of a person.
“Why are you always such a fucking secret!” She exclaims one night when Nancy wouldn’t let her touch her. “You can trust me!” Mags all but shouts in her face. But her eyes were the saddest thing, so needful, so hurt. So wanting to know her fully. But Nance can only slink away feeling beneath her touch. She won’t have the words until much later to tell Mags how she finds her greatest peak in pleasuring her. How she can find the sweetest release by bringing Mags to hers. She didn’t have the words for that. She doesn’t know how to tell Mags that she trusts her more than she has trusted anyone in her life. She has given her and shown her more than she has shown anyone else. Nor does she have the words to say, “Be with me and only me.” Partly because she is afraid to lose her- afraid to hear her say no. And partly because she feels that Maggie deserves much more.
When Mags mets the young boxer, William North, Nancy knows he is the much more that Mags deserves. He is the only man Nancy ever met that fits that bill. Some of the other cuffins under Maggie’s spell make Nancy feel like she would revel in the chance to crack her birch rod clean against their faces. But Will always feels like meeting a fellow traveler in a country they both love. So when Mags set her heart to his, Nancy moves out.
She doesn’t move far, only to Russell Street, yet Mags is cross as crabs about it.
“You know I’m scaring away your fine clientele,” Nancy tries to mollify her. Mags does know that. Nancy is now a mistress of perversions, she represents the seedy side of the trade. She does not fit in with Mags’ ambitions of having a fine house in Soho one day. “Now no more arguing. Just kiss me and tell me goodbye,” She says.
The kiss tastes bitter from the salt of Maggie’s tears. Nancy ignores the tears in her own throat as she kisses heaven goodbye.
Sitting in the cell with Mags, Nancy’s words come out hollow and desperate
“For years we only had each other. And then we grew and you gained Will and the little’uns. But you’re still all I have.” It is the biggest confession about her feelings toward Mags that she has ever allowed herself to make. She is surprised how easily it spills out of her.
And when it is time for her to say the last goodbye, she feels rooted to the spot. She has never felt more incapable of moving in her entire life. If she could sit still and keep the earth from turning, keep within Maggie’s orbit for one more minute, for one more second, she would.
Finally she steels herself and rises to say that dreaded farewell. She stares into Mags’ face. Maggie looks resolute and ready, but Nancy can see the fear in her heart. She realizes that this is why she had been so cruel to her for her murder. Not because she couldn’t understand it, but because she knew it could only lead to this. To Mags and her being severed forever. And the world holds no color without the sight of the gleam in Maggie’s eyes. And the world holds no melody without the unbridled cackle of Maggie’s laughter.
She leans in and takes Maggie’s mouth into her own. She kisses her right there in front of Will, for she knows he understands. She kisses her fierce. She kisses her openly, with no more secrets hidden. Every part of her exposed and aching, like a wound with bone and sinews sticking out of it. When they finally part, the tears flow down her face.
“Goodbye,” she says, “Little Maggie Mudpie. The dirtiest urchin that ever turned up at Quigley’s door.”
“Farewell Nancy Face-Ache. The only little girl the culls were scared of.”
Mags trails her thumb from Nancy’s bottom lip down the slight cleft of her chin just as she did when they first found each other in hell. It is like they are those two little girls once more. Just two little girls, clinging to each other for solace in a cold, cruel world that wants to break them. They may break Mags’ neck, but they can’t break her wild, stouthearted spirit.
Their last kiss never happens. Perhaps it could have. Had Mags not risen from the dead with a new Husband in tow. Or if Nancy had not become a vile murderer. But all the death and destruction is clinging to them, weighing them down so that it feels impossible to reach for heaven.
“Kiss me and tell me goodbye.” Mags pleads.
For a moment Nancy is stuck, frozen to the spot, unable to move. But she knows if she goes down that path again. If she exposes her whole heart again. Tells her how she unravelled this year without her. How she is a ghost of herself now. If she does that, she will be Mags’ forever. And she will not give her her soul again no matter how much she wants to. She turns her head away.
“Kiss my arse and fuck off,” she says.
Maggie does fuck off. She fucks right off to America. But not before saying simply, “You’ve been my whole life, Nancy Birch.”
You’ve been my whole life.
You’ve been my whole life.
Nancy beds down at night and wakes up in the morning to those words circling around in her head like a ring of flames. Those five small words that uplifted and shattered her heart in one stroke. In the end, Mags had been the brave one. She had said what Nancy had been trying to say for years. Mags had given her that, and she had flung it back at her. And the guilt of her own cowardice is like to chaw her right through.
Her lips burn with the fiery fury of that kiss that never happened. She yearns for Maggie and it’s not at all like promise of heaven or the devastation of hell. It’s all muddled up, twisted and torn. She dreams of Mags and dreams of America.
“You’d do well in America,” the memory of Mags’ voice urges her. “You could be anything you wanna be. A frontierswoman. You’d hold your own against the bears and the wolves.”
"That may be, Mags... That may be..." She drifts to sleep where she doesn’t dream of heaven or hell but of a whole life with Margaret Wells.