A young woman leaned against the wall of the pub in affected nonchalance. Her face was damp from the fog outside, and she barely maintained an unwilling smile. Her eyes were large and gray, and her red-brown hair hung in tangled curls over the shoulders of a red dress with cheap, fraying lace cuffs. Her thin face was painted with stolen rouge and lipstick. She smelled of liquor and perfume.
If a man glanced in her direction, she twisted her smile into a coquette's, watching him from beneath lowered eyelashes. If he walked up to her, she led him quietly to a back room for a few minutes. Then, re-lacing her dress, she returned to her spot at the pub wall, where she pushed her money into her purse and her smile back onto her face.
Nancy's earliest memories were of Fagin, the laughing old man with the band of orphan thieves. She learned from him how to steal, and she laughed at all the jokes that she didn't understand. Fagin was her god.
By the time that, at thirteen or fourteen, Fagin turned her over to Bill Sikes, she had learned how to stand up to Fagin, how to argue and bother and persist until he gave in. She would contradict him, and he would threaten her with blows or death or worse, but she would laugh, and he eventually gave in, and wandered around looking dejected and sulky.
She thought, when she first went to live with Bill, that it would be the same with him.
Bill Sikes was a regular gentleman. "Get me the gin," he said, upon introduction to Nancy, who laughed, tossing her curls over one shoulder.
She searched the cupboards until she found the requested drink. Finding a cracked wine glass, filthy with the residues of other days, she rinsed it in the sink with water from the jug nearby, and callously dumped the excess out the window. She offered him the glass, which he took from her hand and downed in a few seconds. She stood before him for a moment.
"Fetch some more, would yer, girl?" he asked. She again obliged him, returning to the kitchen to fill the glass. She brought it back; it wasn't more than a few minutes before he pushed it into her hands, empty. She began to set it down on the side table, but Bill grunted a warning.
Nancy rolled her eyes and said, too saucily for her own good, "Well, we don't want you getting drunk, now, do we?"
Bill narrowed his eyes. "Get me the gin, girl." His eyes flashed.
She laughed. "What're you gonna do to me, Bill, if I don't?" she teased. "What'll you do, Bill?"
Bill Sikes couldn't refuse a challenge.
"Ha," he said, humorlessly, rising from his chair. His black eyes were narrowed, his hair tangled and wild-looking. Nancy stepped back involuntarily.
"Yer think it's funny?"
Nancy took another step back.
She retreated and he advanced. She shook her head mutely, her lips pressed tight against each other. He stepped again. She made to move back, even as she felt the pressure of the wall against her spine.
After that, her memory only came in pieces. She remembered him striking her so hard across the face that she fell to the ground from the sheer force of it. She remembered the bruises on her side that matched the tread of his boot, and she remembered him cursing under his breath.
She remembered the dress sliding from her shoulders. She remembered fighting back tears without knowing why. She remembered his hot breath smelling of liquor, and she remembered squeezing her eyes shut with nothing with which to imagine herself away.
She remembered dressing afterwards, too: putting her dress back on and huddling against a wall. She remembered sitting there for a long time, her thoughts fractured into incoherence. And when Bill roared her name, she jumped up and went to him. She poured him some gin and sat in a chair, watching as he stared into the fireplace and the reflection of the flames danced in his eyes.
Nancy had learned now how to argue with Bill. It wasn't the same as arguing with Fagin, for she used to be able to stop his reckless fists. Bill wasn't calculated, certainly, but he was blind. His fury made him terrifying and invincible. Nancy merely learned to avoid the worst, danced around his sharpest edges with words that only sounded careless.
She, fifteen or sixteen now, was wrapping up in an old coat. Bill had gone to meet flash Toby Crackit somewhere around eight, but midnight was approaching and he hadn't returned. She pushed open the door of the pub.
She had been walking in the snow for perhaps a quarter of an hour when she saw Bill coming down the lane. He was stumbling, a little drunk, but when he saw her he started that way without faltering, and let go with a string of curses.
"Damn it, Nance!" he thundered. "Get back on home, or I'll be beatin' yer brains out o' yer skull, ye hear me?'
Nancy shuddered. "Good night, Bill," she said, so softly he couldn't possibly have heard, and she turned around and walked back home.
Bill returned nearly an hour later, his temper but not his drunkenness appeased. His feet were heavy on the floor, and his breath came in long rasps. He was holding a bottle. "Up, Nance," he said roughly. "Come; get me somethin' to eat, would ye?"
"Yes, Bill," she sighed, rising from the chair, her hair disheveled from a fitful sleep. "What d'you want?" After casting a bored look at the stove and cupboards, she turned her attention to Bill. "We don't got much, but I could whip up some soup, if you've a mind for it."
He nodded, curtly, and sprawled in a chair, sipping from the bottle. Nancy pulled out several vegetables in various states of decay and lit the stove.
She finished, and brought it to him. He ate it in spoonfuls and declared, in no uncertain terms, that Mr. Crackit was the worst kind of idiot. Nancy smiled thinly.
When he had finished, they went up the stairs: she before him with the candle, he behind her, the bottle still clutched in his fist.
She set the candle on the nightstand and sat down on the bed in the relative darkness. Bill, suddenly laughing, offered the bottle. "'Ere, Nance, have a drink."
"No, Bill, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not." She set her shoulders and looked at his face, unevenly lit by the candlelight.
"'Druther not? I think yer would. Don't both'r me with this nonsense—take a drink, there."
"No, Bill," she said sharply, and then amended, more softly: "Well, I had too much today already, di'n't I?" She was pleading now, her eyes wide as she looked at him.
Nancy had grown strong and stubborn in the past few years, but Bill was stronger. She stood, straight-backed, as he hit her (once, twice) and then (thrice) fell to the ground and forced herself not to cover her head against the swings of his heavy boot, for fear of angering him more.
After a few moments, he grasped her arm and again pulled her to her feet. She waited for him to strike again, but instead she felt his fingers touch her hair, his rough lips brush her cheekbone. Then he left, silent and hulking.
Nancy curled up on the bed, pulling the thin blanket over her body to try and ward off the winter air. She lay there, feeling bruises swell on her aching flesh, and whispered into the mattress:
"Damn you, Bill Sikes. Don't dare make me love you. Don't dare."