Chapter 2

The temperature inside the cottage was colder than without when Mary returned;  in her absence no-one had thought to stoke the fire. Susan and Grace sat either end of the rickety table winding silk onto spools while the baby mithered in his makeshift cot.

                “He’s damp, poor little thing. Here you are Susan, you change him, you need to learn how to do it, it shouldn’t have to be me who does it every time.”

                She poked the embers in the fire place sending sparks shimmering , released, they dance briefly before fluttering down into the ash and dying. Have stirred the fire into some sort of activity  she blew life into it with the bellows and quickly tossed a handful of kindling into the embryo flames. Satisfied that the fire had taken  hold she rather more carefully arranged three logs and sat back on her heels.  Having done that she set the kettle upon the trivet, by which time Susan had changed the baby.  Mary took him from her sister’s arms and  stroked his downy. “ I’ll mix you some oatmeal,” she reassured him. “Don’t you fret, Billy, when I get some work I’ll make sure you get much milk as you need.”

                At midday her father returned and flung a handful of coins onto the table.

                “That’s all there is,” he announced. “ Six and threepence and the harvest is all in.  I shan’t be needed again until ploughing begins in the spring.”

                “Won’t the parish help out?” asked Mary.

                “We’ll get Ma’s loom out and make a few ribbons. I know we didn’t sell many yesterday but there is bound to be a call for  them soon.  I’m getting quite good at weaving the borders that London folk are asking for now.” This was Susan speaking.

            Joe Fennic sank onto a chair and scraped it across the floor towards the tble where he sat for a moment head in hands. Mary took Billy from Susan’s arms and began to spoon the newly mixed oat pap into his mouth. He protested at first, instinctively turning his head towards her in search of milk until hunger persuaded him to accept the watery gruel. Mary continued to spoon the food into his birdlike mouth in silence. Susan and Grace sat before the fire watching their father warily. Suddenly he rose, banging his fists on the table.

            I ain’t no use to you as a father. I can’t put bread on the table. You will be better off without me.”
            “Pa, what do you mean?”  Granted, he was not the most agreeable of fathers but he was their Pa. He couldn’t leave them, surely.

            “The parish will make up the cost of bread this week, but what about next week and the week after? The overseers will find a reason to cease payment but four children alone, they’ll be duty bound to care for. Meanwhile I’ll find work in another parish. A landlord is more likely to take a on labour outside his area since. A stranger will have no claims on the system no matter how low a wage he receives. I’ll maybe pick up work where they’ve still got potatoes and beet to harvest.”

            He gathered up the coins and handed them to Mary. “Take this and make it last,”  he told her. “Go to the vicar and apply for relief. With bread the price it is you should be given a couple of shillings more.”

            “The rent’s due at month’s end.”

            “Sir Roger a reasonable landlord He won’t evict you because of one month’s arrears if there is a good explanation and I’ll be back with a second month. I may as well be going, no sense hanging around now my mind is made up.”

            He broke a hunk of bread off the loaf and put it in his pocket. “Give me the threepence,” he said to Mary. “A man can’t be on the road with no money at all to his name.” She handed over the three pennies. He pocketed them and left his daughters and baby son without a backwards glance.

                                                            #

                Mary  practised what she would say as she walked along the deep-sided lane towards the village where lay The Griffin.  “I’m hard working,”   she Sid to the birds in the hedgerow, “I’ve been keeping house for Pa these last three months, I can cook, sew and launder and I can read and write and do ‘rithmetic. “

                She hoped that she might see Jack one last time  before departed but the yard was empty; the only evidence of the recruitment effort were a few tattered handbills floating in the wind. Mary picked one up and smoothed it out.  The letters G R in Gothic headed the sheet, and below it,

Wanted for his majesty’s twenty fourth Warwickshire Regiment

 footguards,

16 guineas bounty for unlimited service, 11 guineas for limited service.

                Mary wasn’t sure what was meant by bounty, but it sounded like riches beyond her wildest dreams. It was impossible to imagine eleven guineas, let alone sixteen.  She folded the handbill neatly and pushed it into her pinafore pocket.  It might one day be useful to know which regiment Jack had joined.

                Across the stable yard the black beamed Griffin Inn appeared lifeless. Not even a wisp of smoke from the four tall chimneys protruding from the thatch. Mary crossed the yard and banged on the studded door.  

                “We aren’t open yet. Where’s your patience?” came the voice from within.

                “I ain’t here for a drink. I heard that you are hiring.”   

                The door opened a crack.

                “Éxcuse me, are you the mistress?” Mary asked as politely as she knew.

                “I am.”

                “My name is Mary Fennic. I’m looking for work.”

The door opened wider and Elizabeth Pink studied the girl who stood before her.

                “Are you Joe Fennic’s girl?”

                “I am.”

                “I was sorry to hear about your Ma. Step inside and let me have a look at you. How old are you?” Elizabeth Pink asked.

                “Thirteen.”

                “References?”

                “No.”

                “Why not?”

                “I’ve not worked for anyone before. I’ve been keeping house for my Pa and looking after my baby brother since my Ma passed away. Before that I helped my Ma with her weaving and before that I was a scholar.”
                “Alright, that’s far back enough. I don’t need your life history. Who will be looking after your Pa if you come to work here?”  

                “My sister.”   She couldn’t bring herself to say that he’d deserted them.

                “Because I can’t have you disappearing at a moment’s notice because you are needed at home.”
                “That won’t happen Ma’am I promise, ”  Mary  said earnestly.

                “ I need a general maid. Someone to scrub floors and polich the taps in the bar. Can you launder? General washing, bed linen?  Mr Pink is very particular about his shirts, as I am about my aprons. We like them to be bleached,scrubbed, starched and ironed. Think you are up that?”

                “Of course Ma’am.”

                “Two  and ninepence a week with a midday dinner provided. Will that suit?”

                “”It will. Thankyou Ma’am, you won’t regret it I promise you.”
                “You make sure I don’t. Otherwise you’ll be out on your ear without a reference.  Be here tomorrow morning  seven o’clock sharp.”

                Mary ran home lighter of heart. With Pa gone and her own dinner provided by Mrs Pink Susan would only have to find food for herself and Grace. Pa’s six shilliongs would last a while and with her own wages she could make sure that Billy got all the milk he needed to grow strong.  

                The Griffin was a long, low ceilinged Inn built  century of so earlier, consisting of a flagged bar  and tap room  downstairs,  a three bedrooms above, two of which were let to travellers, and a dormitory below the thatch where  slept  sundry others –  poor travellers who could not afford the luxury of a room and therefore paid sixpence to for a straw pallet in the loft together with any live-in servants there might be.

                Mary arrived shortly before seven, a thin shawl drawn tightly around her shoulders as insulation against the first frost of the year. She pushed open the door of the inn. Smoke hung in the air still, together with the smell of stale beer. The soles of her clogs were gripped by the sticky residue on the floor and threatened to desert her feet at every step.

                “Mrs Pink,” she called, her voice echoing in the empty space.  Mrs Pink, sans her customary cap  and with her grey hair hanging down in a thick plait, appeared at the foot of the stairs which emerged one side of the bar.

                “Oh, it’s you, the new girl,” she said without much enthusiasm. She yawned widely. “Do excuse me, we were particularly late closing last night. Come her, let’s have another  look at you.”

                She scrutinised Mary carefully. “Mmm, you’re small. Come with me.” She took Mary into a kitchen  at the back of  the bar and handed her a sacking apron. “Put this on. You’ll need it for the dirty work.”

                A cast iron range upon which two kettles boiled  stood in the kitchen. Mrs Pink handed her a bundle of cloths and a basin of soapflakes. All the tables  need a good wash down, the floor sweeping and washing with hot soapy water, the bar counter has to be cleaned and the  taps polished. Off you go, I’ll be back to inspect in and hour.”

                Mary set to work. The table tops were sticky with beer.  Mary purloined a knife from the side board with which to dislodge from the crevices crumbs from  many a meal and the ash spilled carelessly from clay pipes.  She washed away greasy, beery residue and buffed the table top unti it almost gleamed.

                “Very nice,” remarked Mrs Pink upon her return, “but you’ve three more to do remember and the floor to wash.”

            Mary resumed her work.  At ten thirty the first stage pulled into the in yard; the passengers piled into the bar and demanded porter and pies to sustain them on the remainder of their journey  to Derby. In the yard all was a flurry of activity as the horses were freed from the wagon and rubbed vigorously with straw to remove the sweat from their flanks; afterwards they were lad to the trough to drink.  Upon hearing the bugle sound inn emptied of customers. Silence descended upon the inn.  Mary  began to clear away the  dirty plates and empty tankards.

At five  in the afternoon which the occupants of The Griffin gathered around one of the tables; Mr and Mrs Pink, Ned the barman, Rob the potboy, Maggie the housemaid and Peg-Leg Pete who despite his wooden stump managed to carry out a variety of odd jobs. Also at the table were three gentleman and a lady travelling to Manchester by stage coach.  A cauldron of stew hung above the fire, from which each was able to ladle as much as they wished, three loaves, butter and a large cheese were on the table. It had been a long while since Mary had eaten as much as she desired.

                                                                                                #

            The brick built wash house stood in one corner of the inn yard.

“Here’s the copper,” Mrs Pink said, pointing to the  tarnished urn set atop a brick fireplace.  Have you used on before?”

“No Ma’am.”

“You must fill it with water from the well. Mean while Mr Pink will light the fire beneath the copper. When the water is hot open the tap at the bottom of the copper and fill the wash-tub. There is a bar of soap on the shelf and paring knife. Use the soap sparingly and give all the washing a good dollying. You can give everything a final rinse in the copper, and boil my aprons and Mr. Pink’s white shirts in the copper too. The washing line is at the back of the stables.”

She laughed upon seeing Mary’s face. “Don’t worry girl. You won’t be alone. I’ll be helping you.

At the end of the day Mary’s hands were red from the carbolic and arms ache as  they never had done before from relentlessly pounding the dolly. The temperature inside cramped wash house rose as the day wore on and Mary was grateful for the frequent ventures outside to peg out the wet clothes. Before  the afternoon light faded the clothes were brought into the washroom and any item still damp hung over the wooded clothes horse.

“Well done girl, you’ve worked hard,” Mrs Pink said finally. “Come into the bar now and have refreshment.”

Mary followed her new employer into the tap room.

“Ned, give the girl a small beer,” and Mary was presented with pewter tankard of weak ale.

            From time to time a newspaper from London was left by a passing guest; Mr Pink was won’t to read aloud snippets of information and gossip to his household as they were gathered around the table.

            “Bloody Frenchmen,” her declared with indignation one dinner time. “ listen to this; the  crew of a French navy frigate  has boarded and captured the Windham and the Ceylon – the ships had left The Cape and were bound for Madras. They carried each thirty guns and had four hundred soldiers on board belonging to the twentieth fourth regiment of foot – why that’s the regiment of the Warwickshire lads! A general Officer, a Colonel and the colours were on board which accounts for their obstinate resistance.

            “Mary, you’re looking quite pale, what’s the matter with you girl?” asked Mrs Pink.

            “Nothing Ma’am. I was just thinking of the Warwickshire Lads in the hands of the frenchies. Does it say where they are being held, Mr Pink?”

            He scanned the broadsheet. “Mauritius in the Indian Ocean it seems. Oh dear, it seems that the Prince has been taken poorly again.”

            Mary thought not of the prince but of Jack Flowers, who may right at the moment be a prisoner of the French.

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.”

A blog about creating a novel

My first novel, a domestic saga entitled Woven Threads, is at the ‘putting out to an agent stage.’ I have had the manuscript scrutinsied by a developmental editor, had rewritten passages which she felt did not quite cut the mustard so to speak, and proof read it myself so many times that I am sure that if pressed, I could recite the entire novel from memory.

Now it is time to commit to my second novel. I write historical novels, fiction from fact. Woven Threads is based on the lives of my maternal great grandmother, great aunt and aunt.

I have yet to decide who write about next. There are characters who intrigue me. There is my great great great grandmother, Hannah, who was born on board ship, a British East Indiaman as it rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Then there is Harriet, my great grandmother, who was a publican, joined the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, was one of the first women to be elected to sit on a town council. Or I could write about who George volunteered to fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and psoobly left behind a baby daughter after the Battle of Teruel.

Any response or ideas would be gratefully received.

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