Having made sure her front door was secure, Ma Grunter pulled the sack off her new charge.
Blinking in the sudden light, Daisy found herself in a narrow, rather dirty hallway, face-to-face with a very ugly old woman who was dressed all in black, a large brown wart with hairs growing out of it on the tip of her nose.
‘John!’ the old woman croaked, without taking her eyes off Daisy, and a boy much bigger and older than Daisy with a blunt, scowling face came shuffling into the hall, cracking his knuckles. ‘Go and tell the Janes upstairs to put another mattress in their room.’
‘Make one of the little brats do it,’ grunted John. ‘I ’aven’t ’ad breakfast.’
Ma Grunter suddenly swung her heavy, silver-handled cane at the boy’s head. Daisy expected to hear a horrible thud of silver on bone, but the boy ducked the cane neatly, as though he’d had a lot of practice, cracked his knuckles again and said sullenly: ‘Orl right, orl right.’ He disappeared up some rickety stairs.
‘What’s your name?’ said Ma Grunter, turning back to Daisy.
‘Daisy,’ said Daisy.
‘No, it isn’t,’ said Ma Grunter. ‘Your name is Jane.’
Daisy would soon find out that Ma Grunter did the same thing to every single child who arrived in her house. Every girl was rechristened Jane, and every boy was renamed John. The way the child reacted to being given a new name told Ma Grunter exactly what she needed to know about how hard it was going to be to break that child’s spirit.
Of course, the very tiny children who came to Ma Grunter simply agreed that their name was John or Jane, and quickly forgot that they’d been called anything else. Homeless children and lost children, who could tell that being John or Jane was the price of having a roof over their heads, were also quick to agree to the change.
But every so often Ma Grunter met a child who wouldn’t accept their new name without a fight, and she knew, before Daisy even opened her mouth, that the girl was going to be one of them. There was a nasty, proud look about the newcomer, and, while skinny, she looked strong, standing there in her overalls with her fists clenched.
‘My name,’ said Daisy, ‘is Daisy Dovetail. I was named after my mother’s favourite flower.’
‘Your mother is dead,’ said Ma Grunter, because she always told the children in her care that their parents were dead. It was best if the little wretches didn’t think there was anybody to run away to.
‘That’s true,’ said Daisy, her heart hammering very fast. ‘My mother is dead.’
‘And so is your father,’ said Ma Grunter.
The horrible old woman seemed to swim before Daisy’s eyes. She’d had nothing to eat since the previous lunchtime and had spent a night of terror on Prodd’s wagon. Nevertheless, she said in a cold, clear voice: ‘My father’s alive. I’m Daisy Dovetail, and my father lives in Chouxville.’
She had to believe her father was still there. She couldn’t let herself doubt it, because if her father was dead, then all light would disappear from the world, forever.
‘No, he isn’t,’ said Ma Grunter, raising her cane. ‘Your father’s as dead as a doornail and your name is Jane.’
‘My name—’ began Daisy, but with a sudden whoosh, Ma Grunter’s cane came swinging at her head. Daisy ducked as she’d seen the big boy do, but the cane swung back again, and this time it hit Daisy painfully on the ear, and knocked her sideways.
‘Let’s try that again,’ said Ma Grunter. ‘Repeat after me. “My father is dead and my name is Jane.”’
‘I won’t,’ shouted Daisy, and before the cane could swing back at her, she’d darted under Ma Grunter’s arm and run off into the house, hoping that the back door might not have bolts on it. In the kitchen she found two pale, frightened-looking children, a boy and a girl, ladling a dirty green liquid into bowls, and a door with just as many chains and padlocks on it as the other. Daisy turned and ran back to the hall, dodged Ma Grunter and her cane, then sped upstairs, where more thin, pale children were cleaning and making beds with threadbare sheets. Ma Grunter was already climbing the stairs behind her.
‘Say it,’ croaked Ma Grunter. ‘Say, “My father is dead and my name is Jane.”’
‘My father’s alive and my name is Daisy!’ shouted Daisy, now spotting a hatch in the ceiling that she suspected led to an attic. Snatching a feather duster out of the hand of a scared girl, she poked the hatch open. A rope ladder fell, which Daisy climbed, pulling it up after her and slamming the attic door, so that Ma Grunter and her cane couldn’t reach her. She could hear the old woman cackling below, and ordering a boy to stand guard over the hatch, to make sure Daisy didn’t come out.
Later, Daisy would discover that the children gave each other extra names, so they knew which John or Jane they were talking about. The big boy now standing guard over the attic hatch was the same one Daisy had seen downstairs. His nickname among the other children was Basher John, for the way he bullied the smaller children. Basher John was by way of being a deputy for Ma Grunter, and now he called up to Daisy, telling her children had died of starvation in that attic and that she’d find their skeletons if she looked hard enough.
The ceiling of Ma Grunter’s attic was so low that Daisy had to crouch. It was also very dirty, but there was a small hole in the roof through which a shaft of sunlight fell. Daisy wriggled over to this and put her eye to it. Now she could see the skyline of Jeroboam. Unlike Chouxville, where the buildings were mostly sugar-white, this was a city of dark-grey stone. Two men were reeling along the street below, bellowing a popular drinking song.
‘I drank a single bottle and the Ickabog’s a lie,
I drank another bottle, and I thought I heard it sigh,
And now I’ve drunk another, I can see it slinking by,
The Ickabog is coming, so let’s drink before we die!’
Daisy sat with her eye pressed against the spyhole for an hour, until Ma Grunter came and banged on the hatch with her cane.
‘What is your name?’
‘Daisy Dovetail!’ bellowed Daisy.
And every hour afterwards, the question came, and the answer remained the same.
However, as the hours wore by, Daisy began to feel light-headed with hunger. Every time she shouted ‘Daisy Dovetail’ back at Ma Grunter, her voice was weaker. At last, she saw through her spyhole in the attic that it was becoming dark. She was very thirsty now, and she had to face the fact that, if she kept refusing to say her name was Jane, there really might be a skeleton in the attic for Basher John to frighten other children with.
So the next time Ma Grunter banged on the attic hatch with her cane and asked what Daisy’s name was, she answered, ‘Jane.’
‘And is your father alive?’ asked Ma Grunter.
Daisy crossed her fingers and said:
‘Very good,’ said Ma Grunter, pulling open the hatch, so that the rope ladder fell down. ‘Come down here, Jane.’
When Daisy was standing beside her again, the old lady cuffed her around the ear. ‘That’s for being a nasty, lying, filthy little brat. Now go and drink your soup, wash up the bowl, then get to bed.’
Daisy gulped down a small bowl of cabbage soup, which was the nastiest thing she’d ever eaten, washed the bowl in the greasy barrel that Ma Grunter kept for doing dishes, then went back upstairs. There was a spare mattress on the floor of the girls’ bedroom, so she crept inside while all the other girls watched her, and got under the threadbare blanket, fully dressed, because the room was very cold.
Daisy found herself looking into the kind blue eyes of a girl her own age, with a gaunt face.
‘You lasted much longer than most,’ whispered the girl. She had an accent Daisy had never heard before. Later, Daisy would learn that the girl was a Marshlander.
‘What’s your name?’ Daisy whispered. ‘Your real name?’
The girl considered Daisy with those huge, forget-me-not eyes.
‘We’re not allowed to say.’
‘I promise I won’t tell,’ whispered Daisy.
The girl stared at her. Just when Daisy thought she wasn’t going to answer, the girl whispered:
‘Pleased to meet you, Martha,’ whispered Daisy. ‘I’m Daisy Dovetail and my father’s still alive.’
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