Emma Brown is a happy-go-lucky child, content to work hard at school, and to play hopscotch with her friends on the pavement outside her house in the run-down Nechells area of Birmingham. As long as everything is alright at home with her Ma and Pa, her little sister Joyce and brother Sid, then life is good. But after Em's mother Cynthia has her baby she just doesn't seem to be able to cope. Her life-long friend and neighbour Dot helps as much as she can, but she has children of her own, and no man to hand; Cynthia's husband Bob, too, does his best, but begins to feel that he's losing the wife he has loved so much; and little Em just can't find enough hours in the day to do all the washing and cleaning. Soon, it seems, the only thing is for Cynthia to go and stay across the city with her tyrannical older sister.
With Cynthia away, life only gets harder for Em. Her best friend Kate ostracizes her, leaving only poor, stinky Molly Fox at her side, and when the Board Man comes to call, wanting to know why she's not at school, things are really bad. When Bob stays out later and later in the evenings, always the worse for wear, and spending too much time with a local very merry widow, Em decides to travel across Birmingham to fetch her mother home, but the mother she discovers is a far cry from the proud, upright and loving figure she has known so well . . .