Mary and Susan heard the strains of the fiddle before they reached the green where already the hiring fair was in full swing. They both carried baskets of ribbons, hoping to raise some money from their sale. Mary cast her eyes around looking for prominent position. She led Mary around the edge of the crowd to a spot where the ground rose a little. Here, they might me noticed, especially since they were in view of the hiring ring.
“Come and buy ribbons, pretty ribbons, “Mary began to shout, while Susan picked up half a dozen lengths and trailed them through her fingers the better to display the fine patterns. These were the last lengths woven by their mother before they had lost her in childbirth three months previously. Last year when Mary and her Ma had been at the fair the weather had still been warm, the skin on their arms had a golden hue from a summer spent outdoors and they had soaked up the last of the autumn sun. “Poor Ma, I thought I’d have you forever,” she said under her breath.
“What did you say?” Susan asked.
“Nothing,” Mary said briskly. No good dwelling on the past. This year the cold wet summer had reflected the coldness Mary felt in her heart, but it would get better, surely. She had to put on a brave face for Susan and Grace and the baby boy left without a mother.
“Ribbons,” she continued, “Come and buy a pretty ribbon for your sweetheart.”
By noon they had made barely a shilling. The cold, wet summer and the subsequent poor harvest meant few folk had coppers to spare for fripperies such as ribbon. Now if they were selling bread, that was a precious commodity in these times and they might have had more success.
All morning the hiring had been taking place in the tent. Groups of men offering their services as ploughmen, pig men and general labourers had entered the tent. Each time three or four had emerged smiling, hands shaken on a contract, while a dozen more had trailed home or on to the next fair disappointed and worried how they would get their families through the coming winter.
At noon Susan declared her hunger. “Can we spend one of these pennies on a pie apiece,” she pleaded.
“We’ll eat our bread first and then share a pie,” Mary compromised. And so they sat in the shelter of the hedge, for a cold wind had begun to blow, and ate hunks of bread washed down with a bottle of small beer purloined from the pantry before queuing up to purchase one of Ma Patterson’s pork pies. The pie wagon was close to the hiring tent around which a group of would-be servant girls were jostling.
“I’m going to see if I can get meself hired,” Mary declared, wiping juice from her chin. “You can’t do that without asking Pa,” Susan cried, shocked. “Besides, who will look after the house and babby?”
“Pa will be glad of one less mouth to feed,” Mary assured her. “As for caring for the house, well you’re old enough now, Susan, you’ve finished at school and you’ve helped me enough these last few week to be able to manage on your own. Tain’t no such big deal.”
“But I’ll miss you,” Susan whined, “you can’t leave home.”
“Everyone has to leave home someday,” Mary said stoically, “If Ma were still alive she’d be saying that I should be earning some money.”
“You are, we both are, by carrying on making ribbons like Ma.”
“But we ain’t as practised as Ma, and ribbons just ain’t selling at the moment! It’s a bad time for labourers as well as weavers. You know how worried Pa is at the moment and he’s as like let us starve to death as to ask for charity from the system. ”
“Alright. You go. I’m off to watch the fighting. Come and find me when you’ve got yourself hired.” She sniffed and strode off in the direction of the roped off ring where two brawny men were fighting fist to fist.
Mary joined the line of young girls offering themselves for service. As the man she recognised as Jeremiah Cooke from West End farm approached she pushed a strand of escaped hair back behind her ear and practised what she hoped was a demure smile. Jeremiah Cooke was in search of a dairymaid, a girl who could turn a butter churn and press a truckle of cheese. He walked past Mary and stopped before a tall blonde girl whose muscles were visible beneath her cambric blouse. He beckoned. She followed. The fest penny was handed over. The procedure was repeated thrice more before it was evident that no more masters were searching female labour. The girls trudged either homewards or towards the next fair. Mary made her way to find Susan.
An unruly throng had gathered around the roped off ring where the boxing was held. Half a dozen already bloodied assailants milled around, jeering. Mary, caught up with the excitement cheered booed with the best of the crowd while two brawny men fought. One of them having fallen Mary continued to watch as a slip of a lad danced light-footedly into the ring. His opponent, head and shoulders taller had stood solidly, beckoning the lad on, goading him to attack. Mary held her breath, fearful for the lad’s chances. After only a few moments a cheer had erupted followed by sympathetic applause for the foolhardy combatant. Mary watched as he staggered away, hand over his eye, then impulsively broke away from the crowd in pursuit.
“Let me look at it,” she’d said, catching up with him. He stood bemused as she dabbed away the blood with her handkerchief.
“What made you take on such a brute?” she asked.
“Money. Why else? ‘Tis a decent amount in the pot for whoever sees that fella off.”
“Money ain’t no use to dead man,” she reproved him and was gratified to see a smile play
about his lips.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
“I’m with my sister. I should find her.”
“May I walk with you?”
“If you wish. She should be nearby. She said she was going to watch the fighting. Oh I can see her.”
Mary had espied Susan in the crowd, arms linked with a friend. She pushed through and tapped Susan on the shoulder.
“Did you get hired?”
“No. Listen, like you I’ve met a friend. I’ll meet you by the hiring tent when the church clock next strikes the hour.”
Mary returned to the young man to whom she had taken a liking and followed him to the archery butts on the edge of the field where, with accurate aim he had sent home three arrows with three satisfying thuds.
He had handed Mary his prize of a silver sixpence.
“I couldn’t accept,” Mary had protested, “’Tis too much.”
“Please take it,” he had replied. “You have been kind to me.”
“I didn’t minister to you for payment.”
“I know that. Nevertheless take it. You can recompense me in some other way if it makes you happy.”
“I’m not that kind of girl, how dare you think that I am!”
“I only meant that I’d like your company for a while,” he had said. “I’m Jack Flowers, a journeyman weaver just passing through. Truth to tell I was hoping to be hired as a labourer for there is no money weaving at present.”
“It’s not easy this year. I offered myself but had no luck either,” she commiserated, “My sister and I hoped to sell more ribbons than we have,” and she had indicated her basket, still half full.”
“Then we must console one another. He took her arm and led her through the crowd towards the carousel.
Seated in front of him on the gaily painted horse she felt the pressure of his thighs as they sailed gracefully around.
She clung to his arm afterwards, feigning giddiness, until the aroma of meat pies proved a cure. Letting go of his arm she had until she espied the stall from whence the scent came. She had broken away from him, returned minutes later with two small and one large packages wrapped in paper. She handed him one of the smaller ones, saying,
“I’ve bought us a pie each, and a larger on to take home, with the sixpence you kindly gave me.” They devoured the pies, gravy running down their chins and afterwards she had allowed him to take her soaring above heads of the crowd on a swing boat, which, following on from the pie, made her feel sick. The church clock struck the hour.
“I must find Susan and make my way home. I’ve left my youngest sister looking after the
baby and promised to be back by five.”
“Can I will see you tomorrow?” he asked, “before I move on.”
“I expect,” she replied coyly “that I’ll be walking early to the village tomorrow for bread. About eight of the clock I’ll be there.”
Jack lay cocooned in his rough blanket aware of a commotion in the stable yard. He had slept in one of the outhouses of The Griffin Inn, all the rooms being taken on account of the fair. The stabled horses whinnied and pawed the ground sensing activity. An infantry regiment en route to Manchester had lodged overnight in the nearby barracks. The colonel in charge was under instruction to enlist recruits. Thus the recruiting sergeant was now addressing the shoddily clad men and boys who, upon reading the posters, had congregated in the yard of The Griffin. It was his voice which had penetrated Jack’s slumber.
“A shilling a day before deductions,” the sergeant cajoled, “come on lads, a shilling a day and a penny a day beer money on top. Which of you is willing to take the King’s Shilling?”
Jack Flowers had not lived much of a life up to this point; the youngest nine surviving
siblings he had always been last in the queue for food, clothing and affection. The vagaries of the ribbon trade meant that the family lurched from famine to feast and back to famine again; the fashion for scalloped silk had begun to trickle in from the continent and French ribbons had flooded the market of late. Hence his journey from Desford, a day away on foot, to the hiring fair, his hopes high.
Those hopes were soon dashed; the enclosure of the land round about meant a whole host of able bodied labourers were touting for work; Jack, with his slight build and milky complexion was overlooked in favour of the weather-hardened youths who had been working the land since boyhood. The sergeant’s bait was swallowed; any life had to be better than this, Jack reasoned; they said you got three regular meals in the army; his stomach had growled at the thought. Three meals a day and beer on top, what more could a lad want, leastways what more could a lad like him want. Jack crept forwards hesitantly, sick of the hunger, the cold and the constant search for work.
“Jack. Jack Flowers.”
Sixteen,” he lied and held his breath while the red coated officer scrutinised him. Held his
breath and drawn himself up to his full height of five feet six inches. Breathed a sigh of relief when the recruiting officer jerked his thumb in the direction of those already accepted. Jack fairly skipped, light of heart he was off to see the world’ he was going to wear a red coat and fight for King and Country. Though first he had to say goodbye to the girl, Mary, whom he had met the previous day. He’d promised to meet her again. He couldn’t just disappear into thin air. Maybe word would get around that the recruiting sergeant had been around and she’d realize what he’d done, but even so, he didn’t want to risk her thinking badly of him. Having signed his cross, sworn his allegiance and taking instruction to be assembled with the other recruits two hours hence he ran out of the village towards the cottage in the woods.
True to her word Mary rose at dawn to feed and change the baby and make her father’s breakfast tea before setting out, a basket on her arm, to collect the four loaves which would last the family for the week. After making her purchase she lingered in the street. There was no sign of Jack Flowers. Then church clock struck the hour. She began to walk slowly away.
Shortly she sensed someone running from behind and slowed her pace.
Mary,” Jack panted, catching up with her on the road. On hearing him call her name she
stopped singing abruptly.
“Jack,” she said shy this morning now without the charged atmosphere of the fair to
“Mary,” he said, “I’ve come to say goodbye.” Her face fell.
“Goodbye? But we’ve only just met. I thought we might be walking out sometime.”
“Mary, I’ve joined the army. I’m off to fight Napoleon.”
“Because there’s no future for me here. Because a soldier’s life is a good life.”
“So long as you don’t get killed.”
“That’s a risk I’ll take. Better a short life than a wretched one. But I’ll be back, Mary, don’t you worry. Jack Flowers has the luck of the Devil. And when I come back Mary, will you be my girl?”
“Go on with you Jack Flowers, I hardly know you.”
“Please Mary, say you’ll be my girl. Give me something to dream of when I’m lying abed in
foreign lands, something to keep me going when I’m staring Napoleon’s men in the face.”
She looked at his earnest face. She’d never been wanted by a lad before. She was only
thirteen, the Good Lord himself only knew what the future held for her and he wasn’t letting on. Why, she might be a grown woman with a home and babbies by the time Jack Flowers came home from war; still, if it made him happy, and if it meant she kept that warm fuzzy feeling of being desired, then what was the harm.
“Alright Jack Flowers,” she said, “I’m disappointed not to be going out walking with you on
Sunday but if you come back in one piece I’ll be your girl.” He punched the air in delight. Then, quietly
“Can you write?” he asked.
“Yes, now’t fancy but enough to get by.”
“I ain’t much of a scholar meself. Fact is I never went to school much. I can’t read or write.
But when I get to where they’re sending me I could ask someone to send you the poste restante then if you was to send me just a little note with your name Mary on it once in a while I’d know you were thinking of me.”
“Alright Jack, I’ll do that. It’s Mary Fennic, Washbrook, Desford, remember that when you
get to wherever you’re sent.”
“I will do, don’t you worry. By the Mary, you said yesterday as you were looking for work.”
“There’s a poster on the door of The Griffin where I put up for the night. The landlady there
is hiring general staff.”
He leant forward and placed a soft kiss on her lips. “Goodbye, Mary Fennic,” he whispered.
“Goodbye Jack Flowers. Remember to give that Napoleon one in the eye for me when you