Book extract: Missy, By Chris Hannan

In Chris Hannan's novel, a laudanum-addicted prostitute flees a murderous pimp in America's Wild West

I went to bed wishing I hadn't promised to quit. It was like I'd borrowed a large sum of money I couldn't afford, and all I could do from now on was put off the day I paid it back. But for the time being I had kept us all together; and next day the four of us got fixed up inside an hour, a saloon on D Street called the Empress.

Now, look here, it's none of my funeral if you stay where you are, what are you making, two dollars a day? The Ohio coal region: I hear you miners make two chips a day. You'll take home a little more supposing you're a carpenter or you sharpen tools in the blacksmith's shop, three dollars if you're a big bug like a foreman or an engineer. Well, you'll earn twice that here. The poorest miner in Virginia City won't strip off for less than four scads. Us girls might take off our shirts for six but only after we've squawked about it; we generally earn more per diem than a senator, and our reputations are less spotted in the eyes of the public.

The Empress was kept by a Mrs Bird; she wanted for us to work the saloon for free, receiving no money and bestowing no favors but just, you know, being square company for the boys, writing their letters to sweethearts and mothers, sympathising with their tragedies and falling in with their moods and humors. We were by way of an attraction; saloons are plentiful here, the company of females scarce; and Mrs Bird had drink to sell. Before the bar closed we were to pull a sam in the bar and get up a jollification in the parlor. Then it was seven dollars a single jump, twelve to spend the night. Mrs Bird took three dollars a day board. She had fired her whole crew of girls the night before, after one of them got sore and set fire to another girl's bed while she was asleep. She held the reference we showed her from Mrs Liberty at arm's length, as she read it; it could just as easily be a fraud, she said, but unfortunately she was a trusting fool who got bitten every time.

The saloon opened onto D Street, but the backside of it (seeing the town is built on a mountain slope) was nearer to E; that was where the parlor and our rooms were, down some stairs at the back of the saloon. Ness and me bunked in one room, Sadie Marx and Cordelia took the other; and all hands declared themselves happy. But five days after we started at the Empress I ran out of Dr Golly's Painless Medical Cure and was obliged to hide the bottle of Black Drop I'd brought in case Ness found it and was disappointed in me. I snuck into my bedroom to have a sip of it, about a quarter after eleven, got back to the parlor to find Sadie Marx entertaining the boys in fine style.

Sadie Marx is a genius in a parlor full of gems. She talks about Tweed and the machine as though he used to boss New York City from her apartment; and if the boys like anything better than to talk corruption it's to talk corruption with a wicked-looking girl in a bodice while her breasts peep out like sleek-headed seals. When we gathered around the piano later; one of the mugs sang a song about a man that has lost his path in life and hopes the memory of his dear dead silver-haired mama will help him mend his ways. After he finished the lades wiped their eyes and the chump who had sung the song said, when he thought of his sins on the one hand and his dear departed ma on t'other, why, his soul shrank with shame like paper thrown on a fire.

"Thanks be," he said, spreading himself, "I do have shame. I'm not like some fellows that don't appear to know any different; maybe I was raised better, but I suffer the stings of remorse plenty, I can tell you. When I think of my mother waiting for me on the echoless shore" (he shook his head in dismay), "well, I expect I'll catch it, that's all."

Most of the time I'd sooner fuck a sam than listen to him.

"You know," I said, "that song makes me think of my own mother. I've been asking for her all over. Seems she's disappeared off the face of the earth."

"Well, what's her name?''

"Isobel McQueen.''

"You don't say. There's an Isobel McQueen who's a waiter girl in the Last Chance, corner of E Street and Washington. I heard her sing once. You could have knocked me down. She had a voice as pure as a lark."

That sounded like Mama, all right. Soon as we got through, Ness and me skipped out for Washington Street.

"I didn't like it here at first," I said, "but now I think it's amazing. Don't you?"

"It's a mining town. I don't see anything to get enthusiastic about."

The atmosphere, that's what. The mines and the stamp mills are on the go day and night. When you're varnished, the pounding of the engines gets into your blood; it's like you're in the engine room of a big liner. It even smells good, even though it doesn't, if you know what I mean. "I wish you were a little happier," I said. "I suppose it's too much to hope you'd abandon yourself or anything."

"I'm happy enough."

"Didn't Sadie Marx look delicious tonight? I don't know what on earth you can mean when you call her a ghoul. She's the same as she always was, far as I can see."

"She's the most awful example I ever saw. I've seen it happen to other girls but not to someone I liked. Don't you get that way."

"What way?"

"It can happen in a day. They get scared to quit."

"I can imagine that."

"If a girl is scared to quit, well, she knows she has to quit else she'll get mean and hacked; so if she's afraid, it gets so she don't like what she sees when she looks in the mirror. She starts to drink all day. She don't know what to do with her cash, so she spends it for trifles. She's got no reason to keep humping but she's scared to knock off. That girl is a ghoul."

The Last Chance was shut. As we backtracked, I said, "Well, I'll know to quit before that happens. I'll see the signs."

"I hope you do."

"I will." I wanted to know how long I had left to enjoy myself so I said, "I'll quit just as soon as I've made my pile. That shouldn't take more '*five or six months."

Ness fell as quiet as the grass in the shadow of a tombstone. "Five months?"

"You'll wait for me, won't you? I got to have my fun first before I work in a dry-goods store."

Ness didn't say another word the rest of the way home and I snuck off to my room, feeling I'd let her down. n

© Chris Hannan

'Missy' by Chris Hannan is published by Chatto at £12.99

About the author

Chris Hannan was born in Clydebank, Scotland, the son of a shipyard worker and a teacher. After graduating from Oxford, he worked with the homeless in Glasgow, before becoming an award-winning playwright. His plays have been staged by the RSC, The Old Vic and National Theatre of Scotland. 'Missy' is his debut novel