Sea Harles and Boiled Cabbage

  Imagine the scene if you will; a leaden sky, a rain lashed pavement, shop awnings sagging under the weight of very British rain. My mother’s stockings, seamed, spattered with the muddied spray of passing car wheels.

An icy rivulet trickled down the back of my neck, seeped through my cardigan, inadequate protection against this sudden downpour. My toes squelched in the plastic beach shoes and the tin bucket decorated with starfish which I carried threatened to fill with water.

 I don’t recollect my brother being there, on the pavement, but he must have been; he appears in all the photos of the holiday up until this day, the day we had to quickly gather up our towels and other belongings and make a quick get-away from the beach as the storm rolled in and the gentle waves in which we had paddled became crashing rollers capable of dashing a body against the rocks. A harle, they call it in Lincolnshire.  “Theer’s an ‘arle coming in,” meaning a sea mist which descends suddenly, blown in by an easterly wind, turning a bright summer’s day into one of wetness and gloom.

I digress. My parents were walking a few paces ahead, hand in hand. My mother wore a white pac-a mac.  Suddenly she turned and gripped my father around the waist before sinking to her knees, keeling over and hitting the ground with a thud.  I thought that she was dead. My father reassured me that she had only fainted before dropping to his knees beside her.   I remember him saying, “Claire,” then more urgently, “Claire, Claire, wake up.”

Someone appeared from inside the steamy windowed cafe, reassured my father that an ambulance had been called.

“She’s just fainted,” my father said hopefully. Someone place a rolled up coat beneath my mother’s head.  At this point I recall my brother’s presence for we were led inside the cafe. I remember eating rich tea biscuits and peering through the misty glass at the knot of bystanders around my mother.

Eventually an ambulance arrived, a long -bonneted cream ambulance of yester-year with a flashing light and ringing bell. My mother was stretchered inside, the double doors closed with a bang. My father came into the steamy cafe, hair plastered flat to his head.  By now my brother was crying, snot running over his top lip. My father took us both by the hand and in silenced we walk back to the boarding house, which smelt of boiled cabbage and liver.

The front door was locked.  Whatever the vagaries of the British weather we were not supposed to return until dinner time at twelve thirty. My father rang the bell. The landlady opened the door with a frown. A hurried explanation and we were allowed entry to our room. My father hurriedly changed my brother’s wet clothes. I was old enough to pull off my own sopping shorts and tee shirt, exchanging them for a gingham skirt, white vest and hand knitted cardigan. We were told to be good, and not to leave the room.  My father kissed us goodbye and left for the hospital.

How many games of I-spy does it take to pass a morning?   Without our usual toys and books we were left to fall back on our own resources.  There was a wash basin in our room which we filled with water in order to sail our boats, but it wasn’t nearly so much fun as the seafront boating lake.

At twelve thirty five – I remember the time exactly because I had only recently learnt how to read the clock and as a reward had been given a Timex with a red strap which I consulted regularly – the landlady brought us our dinner on a tray. We were clearly considered too young and irresponsible to enter the dining room without adult supervision. We sat on my single bed, trays balanced on our knees, and ate lamb stew with carrots and Smash potato followed by jam roly poly with custard. I hate jam roly poly to this day.  Still the rain fell outside our window.  Still our father remained away.

Since my brother’s birth my mother had been a worried, fragile soul. I knew nothing then of post natal depression. I only knew that the fun-loving mother who had played make believe and read stories aloud  had departed and in her place was an anxious mother overly concerned that  that the house was kept tidy and quiet  and who was prone to tears for no apparent reason. I had been told on more than one occasion by my aunt that I had to be a good girl and not worry my mother because she was not well. Thus from an early age I learnt to amuse myself and more importantly keep my fears to myself. Did I blame my brother? I can’t remember, I don’t think so but who knows what goes on subconsciously in a child’s mind?

This particular afternoon, with the interminable rain and my parents absent, I knew that I had to keep him occupied. Bored with games of  I-spy and sailing boats in the wash-basin we looked around for other diversions.  Petey, that was his name, wanted to go outside but I knew that we shouldn’t; to keep him amused I pulled the pillows off the beds and built him a mountain to climb. When he tired of that I replaced the pillows and found the colouring books and crayons which I knew Mum had brought with her for some such rainy day.

At five o’clock, Mrs Pretty, the landlady, brought us tea on tray. She looked around the room suspiciously as she came in, but seeing us quietly occupied with colouring books she nodded approvingly.

                “I see you have been good children,” she said. “Your father has telephoned from the hospital. He’s staying there awhile longer. He says that you are to get into your pyjamas, brush your teeth and into bed at seven.”  Her voice softened. “Eat your tea up now. Since you have been well behaved would you like to come down to my private sitting room when I have finished serving the evening meal? There is a nature programme on the television which you might enjoy.”  We thanked her and tucked into our egg and cress sandwiches.

We did not have a television at home.  I had once seen Crackerjack at a friend’s. We were

therefore enthralled by the grainy pictures. I recall that the nature programme was Zoo Quest, presented by a young David Atttenborough who held our anxiety at bay for a while as we accompanied him on his quest to find honey badgers in the Serengeti. Mrs Pretty, who we could hear throughout rattling crockery in the adjoining kitchen,  bustled in as soon as the closing credits began to roll, declaring, “Time for bed now dears. Your father will be home before long I’m sure.”

                She ushered us through the door, into the hallway, past the steps down to the basement dining room and up to our first floor room.  “Goodnight dears,” she said.  The door closed firmly and were alone. Petey began to cry.

“I want Mummy,” he sobbed.

“She’ll be here soon, Daddy will bring her back. Put these on quickly.” I threw his striped pyjamas across the room. While he struggled out of his shorts and tee shirt I quickly wriggled into my floor length nightdress, using it as a tent beneath which to remove my skirt and knickers. We brushed out teeth at the washbasin and then I escorted Petey to the lavatory along the landing. When he had peed and scooted back to the room, I did the same.

He was already in bed when I returned.

“Will you cuddle me?” he asked in a small voice.   I climbed into the small bed pushed hard against the wall. Mine stood in the bay window.  I put my arms around him. “It will be alright, don’t worry,” I assured him.

We must have both fallen into a deep sleep for we did not hear my father return. When the early morning sun fingered its way beneath the curtains casting it’s brightness across our faces we sat up to see our father humped under the covers of the double bed. Petey called out to him. Our father called us to him. His eyes were bloodshot. He struggled to a sitting position and leant against the pillows. We climbed up onto the high bed and sat either side of him.  He put his arms around us and told us that our mother would not be returning home. We had arrived at the seaside a family of four and would be returning as a family of three.

My mother had died of a cerebral haemorrhage, I learnt later.  I was allowed to attend her funeral, Petey, deemed too young, stayed with a neighbour.

 Someone, whether my mother, or a Sunday school teacher, I don’t remember who, had once told me that after death a person goes to live with Jesus in heaven. My childish mind had therefore worked out that the coffin would be placed in the churchyard and we would witness it taken heavenward in a cloud, rather in the manner of Jesus’ ascension. When instead it was laid in a gaping hole and covered with earth I reasoned that if being taken up to Heaven was a lie then so was everything else I had been taught about Jesus.   

                It is true that children are resilient. Petey and I grieved for a while but we were loved, by my father and by our two aunts, my mother’s older sisters who lived together, having both lost their lovers in the war. In the fullness of time my father remarried; it would be dramatic to write of a wicked stepmother and resentment towards the fruits of that marriage, but the truth is my stepmother was kind.  I grew to love her, and remain close to my two half-sisters.

                And yet, I have never passed a milestone without wondering what my mother would have made of me, whether she would have been proud.  Would she have delighted in my eleven plus success, my O and A level passes, my graduation? She missed my wedding, the birth of her grandchildren.  What sort of grandmother would she have been?  What sort of grandmother will I be? I was denied the opportunity to learn.  

                And despite the passing of  half a century there is nothing which can arouse in me  a despondency and sense of loss more than the smell of liver and boiled cabbage and a rain-lashed British seaside resort.

A novel in progress

                                                                                Chapter 1

                                                                                1812

                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.

“Name.”

“Jack. Jack Flowers.”

“Age?”

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

embolden her.   

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.”
                “I did.”

“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

meet him.”

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