1902, Watery Lane, Small Heath, Birmingham
“Mum, where’s Dad?” Five year
old Michael lifted his head from the pillows. He would be six in eight days.
“Dad’ll be home soon, darling. He’s out with your uncle Arthur.” Polly tucked the coverlet around her son, and dropped a kiss on his forehead. She toyed with the Gypsy amulet around her neck as she gently shut the door. Polly opened the next door a crack, and smiled at the sight of her peacefully sleeping daughter, three year old Anna. Polly blew a kiss, a rare act of open affection for the woman who was usually so stoic with others, and pulled the door closed.
Polly hated lying to her boy, but it couldn’t be helped. She had to shield all the children from their fathers as best she could. Her husband, Michael, was down at the Garrison, drinking. Her brother, Arthur, was down at the Garrison, whoring.
Arthur was 15 years older
than her, so Polly was closer to his children, her niece and nephews, than she
was to him. 22 year old Arthur, named for his father, who told great stories,
funny, charismatic Tommy, who was 20, gentle 17 year old John, and fearless,
girly 14 year old Ada.
Polly quickly checked that Ada was in her room, and she was, reading a magazine. They exchanged quick ‘Good Night’s and Polly went downstairs.
Arthur and John sat by the fire, smoking and chatting quietly. Tommy sat slightly apart from his brothers, smiling, and drinking whiskey. Polly crossed the room, and sat next to her nephew. She pulled out a cigarette for herself, and offered one to Tommy. He took it with a wider smile, and struck a match, and lit both of their smokes.
The four of them sat
peacefully, laughing at Arthur’s jokes, for a few hours, until Polly decided to
go to bed. Polly stood, kissed each boy on the cheek, and went upstairs. Just
before she got into bed, she went over to her simple dresser, and collected her
rosary beads from the little black box inlaid with ivory, a gift from Tommy.
She knelt at the foot of her bed, clasped her hands and began saying her
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Polly could hear someone,
Tommy probably, going to the door and opening it. She heard boots stomping
“Michael Gray, please Mr Shelby. I would like to speak to Michael Gray.”
Polly was so intent on her listening that she didn’t hear she son slip into the room.
“Mum? Why do they wanna see me?” Michael sat down next to her. Polly crossed herself, and pulled herself up to sit on the bed. She patted the spot next to her, and took her son’s hand.
“They wanna see your dad, not you, my sweet boy. Did they wake you up?” Michael nodded and Polly pulled her son to her, and whispered in his ear.
“You go back to bed darling. I'll talk to them. I love you." Polly stood up and hugged her boy, kissed him, and walked him down the hall to his room, kissed him again, and went downstairs.
She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders as she walked into the front room. Tommy jumped up as soon as he saw her and strode over to her.
"Poll, someone complained," He talked in quiet, quick tones.
"About how you look after your kids. They're from your parish. I'll deal with it, right Poll? Don't worry." Tommy put his heavy arm around her shoulders in a comforting gesture.
"Are you Elizabeth Gray, formerly Elizabeth Shelby? The wife of Michael Gray? You have two children?" A man in a smart gray pinstripe suit stepped forward.
"I'm Henry Brown, Mrs Gray, and I'm the head of the parish board of births, deaths, and adoptions."
"You're not bloody taking my kids! You hear me?! You're NOT!!" Polly pushed past Tommy and glared up at Henry Brown. He towered over her diminutive figure, but she didn't back down. She was a Shelby. She might not carry the name anymore, but she had the Shelby fire in her blood still.
"We are not here to take your children, Mrs Gray. We are just following up on a letter we received. May we see," he paused for a moment and looked at his typewritten page, "Michael and Anna?"
"No," Polly still glared at the two men, "They're sleeping." She walked over to the table by the fire and grabbed one of Tommy's cigarettes, leaning down to John for him to light it.
She straightened up and took a deep drag as Mr Brown took another step towards her.
"We have been informed that you have stolen goods in this house, Mrs Gray. We have the authority of God to search this house."
"Aunt Poll? What's going on? I heard shouting?" Ada appeared in the doorway.
"Nothing, Ada. Go back to bed. These men will leave soon." Polly turned back to Mr Brown and Ada left the room hesitantly.
"Mrs Gray, I am afraid we must also ascertain whether your children have a safe and happy home here. That they are not being exposed to men of questionable morals." Mr Brown smiled condescendingly at Polly.
“I’m sure you understand. I would like to introduce my colleague, Mr Wilkins, who will be examining your children’s circumstances.” A fat, short, balding, upper middle-class man stepped forward.
“Good evening Mrs Gray.” he spoke in a slippery voice.
“It’s not a good bloody evening! All you want is to take my children! I’d like to see you try!” Polly spoke in a sharp voice but Tommy could see the tears glistening in her warm, brown eyes. He poured a glass of Irish Whiskey and handed it to his only aunt. Polly slugged the whole drink and slammed the glass down on the table. For such a small woman, Tommy always marvelled at how well she held her liquor.
One Hour Later
“Mum, where we goin’?” Anna’s
sleepy voice called out. Polly jumped up and ran into the hallway.
“You can’t take my Anna! You CAN'T!” She reached for her daughter but Mr Brown stepped in front of Mr Wilkins, who was holding Anna, and blocked Polly’s path.
“Mrs Gray, we have reached the conclusion that you and your family are not providing a satisfactory residence for your children. As you are all members of the Catholic Parish of Small Heath, and as we are members of the governing board of that Parish, we have the right to remove your children and place them in suitable, God-fearing homes.” Mr Brown had a self-satisfied lilt to his voice and it incensed Polly. She flew at him, screaming and crying, but before she could reach him, she felt strong arms wrap around her waist, swinging her around, holding her tightly to him.
“Tommy, TOMMY! LET ME GO! LET ME GO NOW THOMAS SHELBY! THEY CAN’T TOMMY! LET ME GO! “ She pummeled him with her fists, and kicked his shins with her small, slippered feet.
“Tommy, they can’t “ Polly began sobbing into Tommy’s chest, as he rubbed her back with his big, rough hands.
“Mum? Mama?” Michael’s small voice called out from the staircase, and broke Polly out of her sobbing. When she looked up, she had tears pouring down over her high cheekbones, and her eyelashes clung together with more salty tears. Polly let out one last, involuntary whimper when she saw her son standing there, confused and worried.
“Come on Mike, I’ll tell you a story. How ‘bout that, eh?” John’s falsely cheery voice convinced Michael as he took his cousin’s hand and followed him back up the stairs.
“What’s wrong with Mum? Johnny?” Michael’s questions echoed down to the group in the hallway.
“Actually, Mrs Gray, Mr Shelby, Michael needs to come wi-”
“FUCKING NO! YOU FUCKING CAN’T! YOU CAN’T TAKE MY BOY!” This time it took the strength of both Tommy and Arthur to hold Polly back, as she thrashed and kicked and screamed.
“Mrs Gray, you are making a scene. If you surrender you children quietly, you may be granted visitation rights.” Mr Brown spoke in a smug voice, betraying his pleasure at seeing this usually composed, and dignified mother breaking down.
Polly was now screaming, wailing, and sobbing incoherently.
“Aunt Poll? Tommy, why do
those men have Anna? Where’s Michael and John?” Ada had come downstairs, and
the young girl had no idea what was happening.
“Who are those men? Where’s Dad? And Uncle Michael? And why-”
“ADA! Shut up for a minute. Go and ask John. He’s in Michael’s room.” Tommy still had his arms wrapped securely around Polly’s slender frame, which was heaving with wracking sobs.
“Actually Miss Shelby, if you could ask your brother to bring young Michael down here please.” Mr Brown attempted a fatherly sort of expression as he looked down at Ada, who had inherited her aunt’s slight stature.
“Who d’you think you are? Telling me whatta do? Just cos I’m a girl. I’m a fucking Shelby too, and no one tells a Shelby whatta do!”
“Miss Shelby. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. Go and fetch Michael and John.”
Ada stood proud, her sharp chin tilted up, and her petite shoulders thrown back. She glanced at her brothers out of the side of her eye, waiting for direction. Tommy gave a discreet nod, at which Ada stomped upstairs, and Polly started screaming again, knowing that the men really meant to take her children.
Ada came back downstairs five minutes later, with John and Michael in tow.
As soon as Polly saw her son, she wrenched herself free of her nephew’s grip, dropped to her knees and wrapped her son in her arms. She whispered soft ‘I Love You’s and ‘It’s Okay’s into his hair.
“Mr Brown, surely you can see
that Polly loves her children very much. We will take your direction, if
needed, to improve our care of Mike and Anna. Just give Poll a chance.” Tommy
had slipped over to Mr Brown and spoke softly to him.
“Mr Shelby. We cannot condone the rearing of children in the house where innumerable illegal and borderline activities take place. We understand that you boys are all members of the Peaky Blinders?” It was a rhetorical question, and Tommy had no intention of answering it.
“The children will be coming with us tonight. Mr Shelby. Good Evening.” Mr Brown now raised his voice a little.
“Mrs Gray, we will need to take Michael now.”
“NO! PLEASE! PLEASE NO! PLEASE! “ Polly was still on her knees, but Mr Wilkins had taken Michael by the shoulders and pulled him away, standing in the doorway, with Anna also in his arms.
Mr Brown took in Polly’s red
eyes, tear stained face, and wild brown hair, and allowed a small smile to pull
at his obscenely thin lips. He turned toward the door, and Polly barrelled into
the unsuspecting man. She knocked him right over, and began punching, slapping,
and scratching the man under her.
Tommy took in the scene for a few minutes, watching the normally relatively gentle, and god-fearing Polly beat the shit out of the church man. The he nudged Arthur and the two men took Polly by the shoulders and lifted her off Mr Brown. John also stepped forward and also took hold Polly who was trying to run out to the car where Mr Wilkins had taken Anna and Michael.
Mr Brown stepped out of the house, his nose bleeding, probably broken, and his eye alreading bruising. He walked to the car, and climbed in, signaling the driver to drive away.
When the car started moving, Polly again hauled herself out of the boys’s grip, and ran into the middle of the raining street. She was quickly soaked, but she didn’t notice.
All Polly saw was the car taking away her children. She let out an unholy wail, and collapsed in a drenched, sobbing heap in the muddy street.