September 1856 - Staffordshire, England.
Glass splintered and tumbled. The kettle screeched on the stove. Behind her, legs stopped swinging beneath the table and a child sniffed back tears. Emma pressed her fingers to her forehead and breathed slowly. The smell of carbolic was making her eyes sting. Outside spirals of smoke pummelled the grey autumn sky and hung over the cottages like a heavy blanket. She watched a dirty pigeon sail past the window and away from them. Reaching into the sink to gather up the broken glass, a sliver sliced into her thumb. Emma swore under her breath. The chair at the table behind her scrapped back and little feet padded towards her.
"It’s alright Mam," Gloria wrapped her small arms around her mother’s waist and hugged her back.
The momentary relief the warmth of her daughters embrace brought Emma was quickly replaced by exhausted sadness. Gloria’s skinny body was bony and small, smaller than it ought to be at seven years old. Emma considered the meagre cluster of potatoes in the spud tub and prayed they would feed the five of them for two more days. Gloria released her mother.
Emma turned around and looked into the pair of large hazel eyes that were peering up at her.
“You’re too bonny for scrubbing laundry,” she said with a glance at the dry reddened hands of her child, “you’ve helped enough for today lass,” Emma sucked at the thin flow of blood from her thumb. “Fetch me a bit of rag and I’ll get rid of this glass, then you go play out for a bit.” Emma watched her daughter’s dark ringlets bounce away and thought of Jacob. Did he ever imagine how his children looked now, after six years away from them? Her eyes flickered to the unopened letter on the dresser and wondered at the contents. She did not want to consider what his life was really like.
Gloria came back with a torn off bit of tattered fabric. Emma took it and smiled. She remembered the frock it had once belonged to, handed on from one of the neighbours when Gloria had been much smaller. It had been well worn then, and by the time Gloria had grown out of it, it hadn’t been fit for anymore use, so she had ripped it up into dish rags. Emma wrapped it around the glass shards,
“Now go on lass, go play for a bit.”
“Just be careful...” Emma began to call but Gloria was already out the door. Emma shook her head and rubbed at the cramping nerve at the small of her back.
“This laundry won’t wait for God to do it,” she said to herself and went back to the scrubbing.
Grinding wood creaked and water dripped. Damp cloth squeezed through wooden rolls and sank like a long sigh into the basked below. Emma’s back was sending painful warning signs into her hips and up into the nape of her neck. She needed to sit down for a while but there were still three piles to go. Mrs Craven’s were mostly clothes but the lot from The Hall included a basket of bedding and towel linen. The thought of working on after tea made her head hurt, but if it didn’t get done she wouldn’t get paid on Friday. There was a click. Emma glanced towards the kitchen door.
“Alright, Mam?” Albert’s face was smudged with soot and his arms and knees black as night.
“What in God’s name have you been doing?” Albert was the fourth child she had brought into the world and older than Gloria by almost twelve months. He looked down at his knees and grinned.
“We was ‘elpin’...
“We were...” she corrected with a sigh.
“Me an ‘arry were...” he took extra and somewhat exaggerated care of the ‘were’, “‘elpin’ Mr Feldman sweep out the coal yard before t’delivery.” The child had the innocence of an angel on his face. Emma smiled despite her best effort not to.
“You were supposed to be with Mrs Feldman,” she attempted to chastise. But she could hardly tell him off for working hard. She opened her mouth to ask but the lad saved her the breath,
“Mrs F said she’d teach us for free if we ‘elped out.”
For a moment Emma was offended, but at least it wasn’t plain charity. If Albert and Harry could earn their lessons, then it was tuppence more a week in the food pot. She had been determined that her children would learn their letters, even Gloria in time and Sunday school just wasn’t enough. Emma
“Then where is the tuppence?”
Albert looked down and scuffed his shoes.
“Albert! What did you do with it?” She was about ready to clip his ears when the boy’s mouth twisted into a pout of concession. He dug in his pants pockets for a moment and then held out his hand to reveal the pair of copper coins she had given him earlier. Emma examined his grubby face. His dark eyes shone as bright as the coal he’d been clearing and his smiling lips glistened like garnets from beneath the dirt. He had his father’s charm alright. She rubbed his head playfully.
“So where’s your brother?”
Albert screwed up his face,
“He’s down the road playing kickabout wi’ Arthur and Gypo.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call him that.” Gypo wasn’t the child’s real name but just because his mam was Irish that’s what the other kids called him. Albert shrugged,
“He dun’t care.”
“But I do and I’m your Mam...and it’s ‘doesn’t.’” Emma considered whether she could have Mrs Feldman teach them to speak properly as well.
“What does it matter how he speaks, Mam?”
Startled she hadn’t heard the door open, Emma looked up to see Jack tugging off his boots by the kitchen table.
“Because I want you all to have a chance to do better for yourselves. Better than me at any road.”
Jack looked even taller than he had this morning. This growth spurt had made him look long and lanky like a beanstalk. His trouser legs were too short and his shirt sleeves were well above his wrists. How on earth was she going to buy him new ones?
“It’s not like we’ve got much choice here, Mam,” Jack put his boots by the back door and washed his hands in the sink. He smelled of sweat and coal dust.
“We owe the Feldman’s more than I dare think,” she said on reflection. Not only was Mrs Feldman tutoring her younger children for a pittance but Mr Feldman given Jack his current living. She was not certain what she had done to deserve such kindness but she was grateful for it all the same. So what if Jack was only delivering coal for the time being, he was artistic like Jacob, so maybe one day... Emma put the thought away. After what his father did it was unlikely the potteries would even look at his son.
“You get that shirt off and I’ll heat a bit of water so you can have a proper wash. You too, Bert,” she added spotting Albert was about to reach a grubby hand out to move a pile of clean laundry.
“And I wish you’d stop growing.” Jack shrugged again.
“Sorry, can’t help it,” He pulled off his shirt and parked himself on the only kitchen chair not piled with laundry baskets. Emma put the kettle on.
“What’s for tea?” asked Albert when his stomach growled audibly. Emma rubbed her hands over her face.
“Bubble and Squeak,” she said after a minute. The aging spuds would stand that and there was just enough cabbage to make it decent. “Sorry it’s a bit late.”
“Don’t worry about it, Mam, you’ve got a lot of work this week.” Jack offered graciously. Emma took another look at Albert’s filthy limbs and tugged the bathtub out from the panty.
“Bert, go fetch your brother, no doubt he’s as mucky as you. I recon you both need a good scrub down. Jack gets it first mind,” she added and set the tub in front of the stove where it was warmest. Metal clunked on dusty stone and her child groaned.
“Awww, Mam, do I ‘av to?”
Emma shoed him out the door telling him to find Gloria whilst he was at it. She picked up a basket of finished laundry from a kitchen chair. As she carried it through to the front room she looked again at the letter that had been sitting on the dresser since a little after breakfast. Crumpled paper and long dried ink. She picked it up and ran a finger over the scrawled writing.
“I almost forgot,” she said turning to Jack and handing it to him, “something came from your father, would you be a love and read it to us after tea?”
“Course, Mam,” he answered, but he was looking at her with an odd expression on his face.
“What is it?” Emma asked cautiously, not altogether sure she wanted to know.
“Don’t look so worried, Mam, I’ve got some good news, but I want to wait ‘til everyone’s here before I tell you.”
(C) 2013 Liah S Thorley, all rights reserved