NOW IN THE TOP TEN IN FOUR GENRES ON AMAZON KINDLE
The draughty, stone-walled corridor echoed Megan and Hattie’s walk to the Reverend Mother’s office. Within feet of it Megan paused and motioned Hattie towards the internal window. Using this as a mirror they checked their appearance. Making sure their grey, serge frocks were crease free and their stiff white collars immaculate.
With shaking hands Megan tried to tuck the stray, unruly locks of her auburn hair under her mobcap. As soon as she tamed one curl, another escaped. Hattie giggled at her attempts. Megan made a face at her, ‘It’s alright for you,’ Hattie’s smooth, dark hair always looked neat for next to no effort. Giving up the battle, Megan knocked on the door.
Reverend Mother’s tone cracked Megan’s already frayed nerves. Hattie squeezed her hand.
The small comfort the gesture gave dissolved the moment she trod the deep carpet and smelt the wax polish. Both a stark contrast to the cold flag-stone floors and the stench of carbolic soap and boiled cabbage of the quarters they, and the other, born-of-sin and orphaned children, occupied.
They waited for the Reverend Mother to acknowledge them. Megan’s eyes fixed on the butterfly wings of stiff, white linen cascading from each side of the Reverend Mother’s bent head. The sudden lift of the head made her jump. She tugged Hattie’s frock to bring her attention back from looking around the room.
‘Well, Megan Tattler and Hattie Frampton, you are now thirteen years of age and you are to leave us. And, I don’t have to ask to know how pleased you both are, do I?’
Neither of them answered, but Megan thought, if she did, it wouldn’t be to say she was pleased. Not altogether pleased as both she and Hattie had a lot of sadness in them at the thought of their pending separation.
‘Hattie, you go later today I understand – and, Megan, you are to leave tomorrow,’ The Reverend Mother’s eyes, shrouded by a brow squashed into a bulge by her veil, darted between them. Her smile pinched her face, ‘Now, Hattie, I see you have a very fitting placement, a scullery maid in the household of Lord Marley’s country residence. Very good! Are you prepared?’
‘Yes, Reverend Mother, but…’
‘No buts, Hattie. Lord Marley is one of our benefactors and has given many of our girls a good start in life by providing them with jobs. It’s up to you to make something of yourself.’
‘Yes, Reverend Mother.’
‘Good! So, Megan Tattler, it seems to me you think you can take up a placement far above your station. It is unheard of, someone of such low status becoming an apprenticed seamstress!’
The insult and the look that went with it froze Megan’s hopes.
‘However, Sister Bernadette has been very persistent on your behalf. And, though aware of the sinful circumstances of your birth, Madame Marie is still inclined to give you a chance. Therefore, I have had to give the proposal due consideration and am persuaded to agreeing after seeing what Madame has put in her letter to me. She states she is taking you on merit as you show exceptional talent in the drawings and the sample of stitches shown to her by Sister Bernadette. But, she makes it clear you will be expected to know your place and to keep it at all times. You are not to try to engage with any of the young ladies who are training there and you will have a room in the attic away from the others. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, Reverend Mother.’
‘I hope you do.’
Megan struggled to hold down the joy surging through her. She stood still, head held high as is befitting and polite. Knowing, Reverend Mother, aggrieved at having allowed her to take up the apprenticeship, would take it away from her if she gave her an excuse to do so.
The wings of the veil crackled as the Reverend Mother inclined her head, ‘You are dismissed. But remember, whatever you make of yourselves is up to you. If you work hard and stay true to the teaching you have received here you will prosper. If you don’t...’ The pinched smile reached her eyes, ‘The gutter is where you will find yourselves as many have before you.’
They turned to leave. The woman whose care they had been under since birth did not venture to say goodbye. Megan didn’t want her to and knew the same feeling would be in Hattie. She did turn as she reached the door, but only the top of the stiff veil remained visible. A feeling settled in Megan that she and Hattie had never existed in the Reverend Mother’s eyes. She closed the door, glad to be free of the tense atmosphere. Now she could give a release to her feelings. But, before she had time to, Hattie’s words dulled her joy, ‘Will we ever see each other again, Meg?’
‘Aye, we will. We’ll make sure of it. We’ll write regular. As soon as we get our first wage we can get paper and stamps…’
‘I’m not for working in service, Meg. I’ll be off from there just as soon as I can.’
‘What – why?’
‘’Cos, I’m scared of ending up like Daisy.’
‘Daisy? I didn’t know she’d been in touch, doesn’t she like her placement?’
‘I saw her on the day I had to go into
to have me tooth pulled. Sister Bernadette made me wait outside a shop. I
wandered up the street and bumped into Daisy. She told me she’d left her
‘You didn’t say…’
‘I know, I couldn’t think how because of what I found out, and you had worries enough over what would be happening to you. Anyroad, Daisy’s working the streets. She hadn’t eaten for two days so I gave her me cab fare as Sister’d pinned to me coat in case we got separated. I told Sister it must have come unfastened.’
‘Oh, Hattie, is that the gutter as the Reverend Mother spoke of, this working the streets?’
‘Aye, I reckon it is by the looks of Daisy. But she said things’ll get better for her. She’s being accepted on the patch and has a couple of customers of her own.’
‘But, what is it she has to do, is it cleaning or something?’
‘Oh, Meg! You daft ha’p’orth!’ Hattie’s giggling infected Megan and they both doubled over, but she couldn’t help feeling Hattie was party to something she didn’t know of.
‘They sell themselves. You know. To men. They let men do things to them. Things as men do to make you have babbies. Only they don’t keep having babbies ’cos they have ways to stop that happening.’
‘How do you know of such things, Hattie...?’
‘Daisy told me everything as a sort of warning because she knew I’d most likely end up in service. She wanted me to watch out for meself. She told me her master forced her to do it with him so she had to run away. She made her way to
Leeds and looked
for a job, but no one would take her on as she had no reference. She met
this girl who tried to help her, but in the end all the girl could do was to
take her to the house where she lived. Daisy said she had no choice after
that. There’s this bloke who owns the house and he made her work the
streets or she’d be for it.’
‘I know, it's why I’m scared, Meg. The girl said it happens a lot. Some top-drawer folk seem to think they have a right to do it, and him as did it to Daisy is known for it.’
‘What will you do?’
‘I’ll sort something. I'll work hard until Christmas and give them no reason not to give me a reference and then make up a story about having to leave. I don’t know what, yet.’
‘You know, Hattie? I don’t even know how – Well, how babbies happen. I’ve been on with thinking about it since we started our bleeding and Sister Bernadette sent us to Mrs Hartley.’
‘Aye, I know. I was the same. It was with Mrs Hartley saying we had to watch ourselves and not let boys have their way with us or we’d end up pregnant. It set me thinking on it too, but I know now. I could tell you if you like?’
Megan said nothing, wanting to know, but not wanting to say so.
‘Well,’ Daisy said, ‘the man…’
A tickly feeling in her private part, as Sister Bernadette called that part of them she never allowed them to expose, shocked and embarrassed Megan as she listened to Hattie. And all she could think to say was, ‘Does it hurt?’
‘Daisy said it did the first time, but it isn’t bad after that.’
‘I suppose it can’t be ‘cos women keep having babbies, don’t they? Anyroad, happen as poor Daisy was unlucky in the placement they sent her to. Where was it?’
‘I don’t know. With the shock of what she told me I forgot to find that out. Still, I shouldn’t be going on. Your placement doesn’t sound that good either, not with that Madame woman thinking of you as she does.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll be right. It’ll be worth it. Just think. I’ll be learning to make frocks and gowns. And, maybe something’ll come of me drawings. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, eh? To see me drawings being made up, out of satins and such like…’
‘Ahh, Megan, and Hattie, here you are.’
Megan held her breath. Being caught in idle chit-chat was one of the deadliest sins. She hadn’t heard the chinking of keys or the dull jangle of huge wooden rosary beads. Sounds, warning a nun approached. She peered into the dim corridor. The outline of a plump figure, hazed by a flowing cream habit, came towards them.
‘Eeh, Sister Bernadette, it’s you. You gave us a fright.’
‘I expect I did, Hattie,’ the twinkle Megan saw in Sister Bernadette’s eyes belied the strict retort, ‘I have been looking for you both this good while. Tell me, my wee ones, is it your placements Reverend Mother has been confirming with you? And are you happy now you know for sure where it is you are going?’
Megan and Hattie nodded, but the feeling that had taken Megan on hearing of Daisy’s plight and Hattie’s fears, deepened. Sister Bernadette was the only person they could share their worries with. But she couldn’t talk to her about this. Not with her being a nun, she couldn’t.
‘And you, Megan. Are you pleased to know at last you can go to Madame Marie’s?’
‘Oh, yes, Sister. I can’t believe it! Ta ever so much.’
‘It is the Good Lord you have to be thanking for giving you such a talent, Megan. Not that He missed out giving you something when He was at the making of you, Hattie dear. You have many virtues, your kind ways and a willingness to help others, amongst many others. You will do well, too. I'm sure of it.’
Tears rolled down Hattie’s cheeks as she nodded her head and Megan knew her own eyes to fill up at the sight.
Sister Bernadette patted Hattie on the shoulder, ‘The house you are going to, Hattie, is beautiful, so it is. Lord Marley’s Country residence is on the outskirts of Leeds on the road to
And, Megan, Madame Marie’s is in the centre of Leeds
itself and her salons are wonderful…’
The journey to and from the station on the motor-bus, a new experience for Megan, didn’t lift her. The suffocating nearness of the strangers travelling with them, the rumbling and vibrating of the engine and the discomfort of the jolting over cobbled roads, intruded on her feelings.
Sister Bernadette held her hand throughout the return journey but didn’t speak. Megan didn’t want her to. Never had she felt so miserable. She’d known the parting with Hattie wouldn’t be easy, but hadn’t expected to feel the utter desolation she did.
The pebbles crunched under her feet as they walked across the courtyard of the convent, Sister Bernadette squeezed her hand, ‘Megan, dear, I have things to tell you of, so I have, and ’tis as I am having something to give you which belonged to your dear mammy.’
The words spoken softly and in the lovely Irish lilt of Sister Bernadette, jolted an instant shock through Megan’s body. Her mam had never been spoken of. Questions had always been suppressed. All she knew of her birth was that it had taken place in St Michael’s, a convent for sinful, unmarried, pregnant girls.
Once they were inside the convent doors Sister Bernadette took her to her room, ‘Sit yourself down, wee one, whilst I am getting for you what I know will be very special to you.’
No thick carpet hushed the nun’s footsteps, or dulled the sound of her keys bouncing on her hip as she crossed the room to her desk. Megan sat on the cane chair next to the brass bed which, along with the desk, was all the sparsely furnished room, held. Square shaped and with only one small window, its flagstone floor resembled the ones of the children’s quarters except these had a shine on them as if painted with lacquer.
Tension, set up in her by the revelation she was to hear about her mam, fidgeted her, making her feel over-warm. She watched Sister Bernadette sort through her keys and insert one into a drawer before putting her hand inside. A panel to the side of the desk shot open making her jump. The sister pulled something from the opening, ‘Megan, what I have here is a locket. Inside is a picture of your granny and granddaddy,’ she paused and made the sign of the cross. ‘To be sure, ’tis sorry I am to have to tell you, dear, but…’ She crossed herself again and looked heavenward, ‘’tis as your poor mammy died just after giving you your life. I helped at the birth of you, so I did.’
The pain Megan had held in her chest since saying goodbye to Hattie expanded into her throat and threatened to strangle the life from her, ‘She – she can’t be. I have to find her. She…’
She had been about to say her mam had been the daughter of rich parents who’d turned her out of the family home and only allowed her back if she gave her babby away – but that had been the make-believe she’d lived along with Hattie, who'd always imagined her mam had been a princess shipped away in disgrace leaving her 'sin' behind.
‘Now, now, my wee one...’
The urge to shout: ‘I’m not your wee one. I’m nobody’s wee one,’ fought with the part of her that could never hurt Sister Bernadette. But though she didn’t utter the words she knew them to be a truth. The child she’d been, had gone. How could it not with all she had learned today?
Cold in her warm palm, the locket seemed to mock her. She clamped her fingers closed. She didn’t care that the clasp dug into her flesh, just as long as she couldn’t see it.
‘It will be better you look at it later, if that is what you have a mind to do, my wee Megan.’
The night hours ticked by with Megan lying awake, her mind in turmoil, wracked with emotion and confusion, and her hand never letting go of the locket. When the feeling came to her that she wanted to look at it she sat up. No one questioned her. She waited. If any of the girls she shared the dormitory with woke, they would whisper something. Nothing happened.
Cold shivered through her as she tip-toed towards the door leading to the corridor. Once there, she opened her cramped fingers. The light from the gas mantel shone through the window of the door and lit up the locket. Anticipation heightened in her, but she hesitated, almost afraid. Opening the locket would reveal her grandparents. Did she look like them? Had her mam looked like them?
Sister Bernadette had said her grandparents had died long before she came into being. That thought gladdened her. It meant they hadn’t abandoned her mam when she’d most needed them.
Turning the locket over, she read: ‘To Catch a Dream’ inscribed into the tarnished, dented silver. Had her granddad had that done for her granny? So many questions…
A tiny click and it opened. Two people looked up at her and though neither looked like a grandparent, the feeling within her as she gazed at them gave her a sense of belonging to someone. Her heart filled with tears.
Taken when they were young, her granny’s huge, smiley eyes, held love, and her granddad, though not smiling, had a twinkle in his expression. Both were beautiful. The tears dried and a warm feeling filled the space where they had been, taking the fear and coldness out of her as she saw she had some likeness to both of them. Granny had unruly, wavy hair, just like her own and the freckles on her nose were identical. Granddad had the same high-cut cheekbones as she had, and her eyes, with their slight slant upwards giving them a near, Oriental look, mirrored his.
The shades of brown of the images didn’t hide her granddad’s complexion having a darker tinge to it than her granny’s did. People often remarked, she had an olive skin, so in this too, she took after her granddad.
Sister Bernadette had said she couldn’t remember their names. She hadn’t written them down and she’d hesitated over her mam’s name as if she’d forgotten that, too, “I think her name was, Br…Brenda, that’s right, Brenda Tattler,” she’d said. Then she’d told her, her mam hadn’t been wicked and the conceiving of her had been the result of an attack by someone she’d trusted. She’d gone on to say: “Everything isn’t for being straightforward in life, Megan, and ’tis better you are not after dwelling on things how you would like them to be, but to get on with how they are. Just be thankful, your mammy left you something to hold on to.”
Getting back to her bed and laying her head on her pillow, Megan mulled the words over in her mind. She would do as Sister had said. She wouldn’t dwell on the sadness inside her of parting from Hattie, nor of finding out her mam was dead, or think on her fear of being alone in an attic and not being good enough to talk to the others at her placement. Instead she would think of her family and talk to them. You could do that with dead people. They watched over you and helped you.
The stagnant view of the symmetrical lawn bordered by a tall, tailored hedge epitomised what life had become for Laura Harvey as she gazed out at it from her window. Beyond, lay the view she wanted to see: fields coloured with crops, chimneys releasing the gasses from the bowels of the earth, where the men and boys sweated long hours to bring up the coal, the mainstay of hers and Jeremy’s income. And yes, the stables, once the centre of her life, but now a painful memory since her dream had been ended.
How often she’d wanted to have the hedge chopped down. But Jeremy had laughed at her. Thinking he knew better about what privacy she would need in her own little sitting-room, as he called it. He never referred to it as her study.
Yes, she’d had the two Queen Anne, carved sofas brought in, smothered them with soft cushions, and placed them each side of the ornate fireplace, making a comfortable sitting area. But the mahogany desk on the opposite side of the room, huge in its proportions and flanked on each side with floor to ceiling shelves stacked with all manner of books and files, told of the real purpose of the room.
Her father-in-law’s death whilst Jeremy still served as an Officer in the army had necessitated her running the estate and had been the original reason for commissioning this room.
The hedge hadn’t bothered her, then. The room had been a hive of activity. After all, the whole of Breckton breathed life from the Harvey Estate.
Her mind went over how she’d had to learn the ins and outs of the running of the colliery, the farm, and the stables as well as continuing to manage Hensal Grange, this grand twenty-bedroom house, she and Jeremy now rattled around in.
On top of all of that, overseeing the maintenance of the tied cottages had been her responsibility, as had the shops, the leased farms, and the buildings housing businesses, such as the blacksmiths.
The work involved in administering it all had been an immense task. Especially for her, a woman who had never worked in her life up to that point.
Every day had presented her with decisions and she’d risen to the challenge. Revelled in it, even, but now her life had become tedious. Household accounts she could do with her eyes shut and listening to the whining of the senior household staff were hardly riveting tasks. Even her marriage held nothing for her. Not since – No. She’d not dwell on that. Her loneliness would crowd her. Suffocate her.
Oh, how one hoped Emily Pankhurst would win through. Not that one altogether agreed with the woman’s methods, but to be liberated enough to have the vote would help towards being seen in a different light.
Turning away from the window she decided it best to sit at her desk to carry out the task facing her. Observing a certain formality would be less of an intrusion on the woman’s feelings. She allowed herself a moment of dread. Meeting with Tom Grantham’s widow wasn’t something she looked forward to doing.
The realisation of how much Tom’s death had shocked and hurt her, pulled her up. She’d always thought of staff as dispensable commodities. But then, Tom had been different. He had been an expert horseman and the best damn groom in these parts. His death had made her realise he’d become a kind of friend, a father figure of sorts.
‘God! What has one become when one has to seek companionship from one’s groom – and now, I’m bloody talking to myself!’
She would have to do something. Write to Daphne. Yes, that would be the thing. It wasn’t often she envied her sister. Daphne’s life as the wife of a Lord, the adorable Charles Crompton, meant she had a full social diary and had to embroil herself in charitable work.
The charitable work wouldn't suit at all, but she could do with socialising more. Jeremy just wasn’t interested since… Anyway, she’d ask Daphne to come to stay for a few days.
Daphne would probably insist she visited her in York, instead. She wouldn’t say so, but Laura knew Daphne found the cold, polite atmosphere of Hensal Grange embarrassing, to say the least. Still, it didn’t matter which. Just to be with Daphne and to talk silly talk, gossip about the latest goings on and maybe a dinner party, where young men would flirt with her and tell her she is beautiful, or just notice her even…
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts.
Isabella Grantham. One glance told this was a homely woman used to eating copious
amounts of her own cooking. She had the appearance of one who had scrubbed her
face until it gleamed, but this didn’t hide the sadness and apprehension in her
Laura knew the words of condolence she uttered sounded empty. She knew from experience they made no difference; they helped the speaker rather than the bereaved. She supposed she should offer the poor woman a chair, but thought she’d probably refuse.
‘I held Mr Grantham in high esteem and as a very valued member of my staff, Mrs Grantham. Consequently I want to do all I can to help you. The accident was most unfortunate. There being no warning the horse would kick out in that manner. I am very sorry. It is sad too, to think this has come at a time when your daughter is to leave to take up the placement I found her at Tom's – Mr Grantham’s, request. Are you still of the mind to let her go?’
‘Yes, Ma’am, I can’t see her waste a chance like this. I am grateful to you for getting it sorted for her. She leaves this afternoon.’
‘A good decision. Such placements are not easy to come by. I hope your daughter doesn’t let me down. Madame Marie took her solely on my recommendation. The type of employee she usually takes on are educated and from middle class families. Vicar’s daughters and the like…’
‘My Cissy is as good as the next one, I’ll have you know. Oh – I – I beg yer pardon, Ma’am…’
Although the woman had apologised, the outburst had shocked Laura, aware she had alienated her she had no idea why! Better to ignore it.
‘Now, about your own future, I understand you work at the local shop?’
‘Aye, I do, Ma’am, I do three days and some cleaning for Manny’s wife.’
‘Well, Mr Harvey and I have decided you may stay on in the cottage. There will be a rent of one shilling, three farthings per week and you will be expected to help out in the house from time to time to cover for staff sickness or any social events. We are not looking to employ a new groom in the foreseeable future so your tenancy is safe for some time to come. The new enterprise Mr Grantham and I were working on, the building of a stud farm, is not to go ahead at present.’
The act of telling someone gave her the reality of it. Jeremy had been adamant. Was it just another way to punish her? Or does he really believe war is imminent? She took a deep breath. If the woman noticed her pain she didn’t show it. She only showed a relief for her own position.
‘Ta. Oh, ta, ever so much, Ma’am.’
‘If we decide in the future to hire another groom we will inform you in good time and will re-house you. In the meantime, Henry Fairweather and Gary Ardbuckle are going to manage the stable. Henry hasn’t lost his skills. He taught your husband, as you know.’
‘Aye, Ma’am, he did. I can’t grasp yet how someone like my Tom could be killed by a horse. Not with him being best in County with horses and him being so strong.’
‘Yes. It is unbelievable…’
‘Me and my Tom thought as we had a lifetime together. We didn’t count on that being until I was forty-five and him just on fifty. We…’
‘Yes of course, I am very sorry. Do let me know if there is anything more we can do for you.’
She didn’t want or need to hear about how this woman’s hopes and aspirations had disappeared. She had enough of her own dashed hopes to contend with. Reaching behind her she tugged the bell cord.
Hamilton appeared immediately.
‘Do wish your daughter good luck in her position and remind her not to let me – us, down. Goodbye, Mrs Grantham.
take Mrs Grantham through to the kitchen. Give her some supplies…’
‘I don’t need none, ta very much, Ma’am! I have plenty in me pantry and me pot’s still full. Full enough for me own care anyroad, and I’ve no-one else to care for now, have I?’
‘Come along, Mrs Grantham,’
ushered her out.
Laura looked at the closed door in bewilderment. She shook her head. Whatever had she said to alienate the woman in that manner? Surely she didn’t blame her for the accident?
Opening her silver cigarette case released the tang of fresh tobacco. Her hands shook as she placed a cigarette in her holder and lit it. The smoke stung the back of her throat. Coughing brought tears to her eyes. Good God! She was going to cry! Damn and blast the woman! Damn and blast everything!