Copyright © 2005 by Anna Jacobs
First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Hodder and Stoughton
An Hachette UK Company
The right of Anna Jacobs to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Epub ISBN 978 1 444 71439 5
Book ISBN 978 0 340 82142 8
Hodder and Stoughton Ltd
An Hachette Livre UK Company
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London NW1 3BH
He went up to tell Meg but found her asleep, her long dark lashes still wet with tears.
Ginny stared at him from the bed. ‘She were crying,’ she whispered. ‘Our Meg doesn’t usually cry. An’ look at her forehead. It’s all bruised.’
He leaned forward to ruffle his little sister’s hair and, when her arms came up for a hug, he drew her to him and kissed her cheek before whispering back, ‘Meg won’t be crying when she hears my news in the morning. Now, get yourself to sleep, young lady.’
As he went down he told himself he was doing the right thing . . .
This book is dedicated to the people of
Lancashire, whose history and culture
have inspired me all of my life.
eg Staley hurried down Weavers Lane looking for her younger brother Shad, who was no doubt getting into mischief again. Her mother had gone wild when he hadn’t come home on time and since her older brother Jack was still at his reading class, Meg had offered to go and find Shad. Anything was better than staying home when her mother was in a temper.
She tried to avoid the drunken men clustered round the doorway of the Black Swan, but one of them caught her by the arm.
‘Let go of me!’ she snapped, tugging away from him.
He laughed and his grip tightened. ‘Give us a kiss an’ I will.’
She kicked out at him, struggling to get away, but he didn’t seem to feel her blows and his grip didn’t slacken. With a sinking heart she realised he was so blind with booze that he didn’t know what he was doing. ‘Will no one help me?’ she yelled.
Another man lurched forward, also well gone in drink, and she winced, terrified he would grab her too. Then she recognised him. Well, she knew most people by sight in Northby, it was such a small town, and Ben Pearson had once lived in their street. Now he lived near the bottom end of Weavers Lane, the less respectable end.
To her relief he took his companion’s arm and said, ‘You’re frightening the lass, Ted. Let her go.’
The drunken man blinked at him, then his grip on her slackened and he muttered, ‘Sorry.’
‘Thanks.’ Meg turned away but to her dismay Ben followed.
‘You shouldn’t be out on your own at this hour,’ he said, still in that slurred voice.
‘I’m looking for my little brother.’
‘I’ll help you.’
‘I don’t want your help. Go back and lap up some more booze with your friends. You’re all sots!’
‘You’re sharp-tongued tonight.’
‘I’m tired. An’ I don’t like tosspots.’
He stayed with her, frowning now. ‘Is that what I am?’
‘Everyone knows you spend all you earn on drink. An’ I’ve seen you myself many a time staggering down the street.’
He laid one hand on her arm. ‘Eh, I don’t like to think of that, you being so scornful about me.’ After a pause during which he studied her face, he added softly, ‘I’d give up the drink for a lass like you.’
‘Don’t be silly! Why should you do that for me?’ She didn’t pull away because somehow she didn’t feel frightened when this man held her. In fact, she felt sorry for him. He’d been married once, then a couple of years ago his wife had died in childbirth, the baby too. It was after that he’d taken to the drink.
He smiled at her. ‘Why? Because you’re special. If I give up the booze will you walk out with me, Meg Staley?’
She gaped at him. ‘
Walk out with you?
You hardly know me.’
‘I’ve known you since you were a little ’un.’
Before Ben could speak again, she saw her brother and yelled across the street, ‘You come here, our Shad.’ When she pulled away from Ben he let her go, but she was conscious of his eyes following her as she and Shad started walking back up the hill. Giving in to temptation she turned round, but he hadn’t moved, was still watching her, smiling as if he liked what he saw.
She tossed her head and didn’t look round again. Drunks would say anything. He’d have forgotten all about it in the morning. Anyway, she didn’t want to walk out with him or anyone else. He was years older than she was – twenty-four to her sixteen – though he was a nice enough fellow and had treated his wife well.
She sighed as her home came into sight. The only thing she really wanted at the moment was a bit of peace from her Mam’s nagging . . . and more to eat.
But she wasn’t likely to get either of those.
A few days later, after her shift at the mill ended, Meg slipped along to the outer edge of the reservoir and sank wearily down on the low wall that separated it from the moors, letting the chill, clean air fill her lungs. This was as far away from other people as she could usually get and was one of her favourite places. The remaining lights inside the mill shone across the water, but where she sat was in shadow. She didn’t want to go home yet, couldn’t face her mother’s carping. There was always something wrong when she got back from work. It’d be better to wait until her brother Jack went home. Mam was never as bad when he was around.
Meg sighed as she wrapped her shawl more tightly round her head and shoulders, wishing she had some warmer clothing. But her mother held the purse strings and always had some excuse for not buying her anything new.
As she looked across at the mill Meg scowled. She hated working there, and thought it unfair to be paid only a few shillings for her fourteen hours a day. She wouldn’t get a woman’s wages until she turned eighteen in just over a year’s time. They pretended she worked under the supervision of Jen Foster. As if she needed supervision! She was as good as any of the other women, quick with her fingers to piece together any threads that broke so as to keep the machines running all day – the weaving machines that made Mr Rishmore rich and young women like her so exhausted that by the end of the day all most of them wanted was to get home and sleep.
But where else was she to find work in a small town like Northby? She didn’t know anything but working in the mill and if she didn’t work, how would her family manage? Since her father’s death, they were hard put to cope as it was.
She heard feet crunching on the frosty ground coming towards her, but didn’t turn round. With a bit of luck, the person would walk straight past. When she heard the footsteps slow down and stop, she turned and glared at the man who had disturbed her peace. ‘What do
want, Ben Pearson?’
‘To see you, lass.’
She bounced to her feet. ‘I’ve already told you, I don’t make friends with drunkards.’
He put out a hand to stop her leaving. ‘I haven’t touched a drop since last time we met.’
She hesitated, finding this hard to believe.
‘I’d do anything to make you think better of me, Meg.’
‘I don’t know why.’
He chuckled. ‘Eh, you’re a blunt one.’
She shrugged and folded her arms tightly round herself as she waited for him to answer. When he didn’t, she asked again, ‘Why?’
‘Because of the way your eyes sparkle when you’re angry. Because I think you’re pretty—’
‘Hah! That’s a lie for a start. We both know I’m not pretty.’ She looked down at herself scornfully. ‘I’m too thin an’ my cheeks are hollow.’
‘Only because you work so hard an’ don’t get enough to eat.’
His sympathy made her feel uncertain how to deal with him and she could hear her voice coming out more softly. ‘How do
know what I eat?’
‘I know from what Jen’s said the sort of thing you bring to work for your dinner. Poor pickings, that. An’ everyone knows what your mother’s like. She thinks the sun shines out of your Jack’s backside. I bet it all goes to him, the good food. Does
know how little she gives the rest of you?’
‘It’s none of your business. Leave me alone!’ She pushed past him, afraid his sympathy would make her cry. She hated people to see her cry.
‘I’ll not be drinking tonight,’ he called after her. ‘An’ I’ll not let you alone till you start walking out with me.’
She stopped dead on those words, then turned round and stared at him. ‘You’re just making mock of me.’
‘I’m not. Never that.’
His gaze was level and steady this time and his voice wasn’t slurred today. He had a nice voice, gentle and light in tone.
‘Will you?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. We’ll see how long you can go without the booze. A few days is nowt to a drunkard.’
‘Hard words. I s’ll prove you wrong, though.’
She moved away, feeling a warmth run through her. He hadn’t forgotten and if he did give up drinking, if he really did . . . Well, other lasses had fellows, so why not her?
Ben stood and watched her till her outline blurred into the darkness as the last lights inside the mill were turned off. He sat down right where she’d been sitting, feeling it linked him to her. He was living in lodgings, sharing a room, and had little privacy there, so he understood the need to seek places where you could have a quiet little think.
He sighed. It was hard giving up the drink, much harder than he’d expected. Yesterday he’d got as far as the door of the pub before he came to his senses. The lads he usually drank with were teasing him about it at work, but he’d set his mind to it, so he’d do it. He’d do anything for Meg. He didn’t know why he fancied her so much. He’d never felt this strongly about his wife, just married her when he found they’d made a child together. And she’d died so soon after he’d felt guilty, as if he’d killed her on purpose.
He smiled. There were other lasses much prettier than Meg, but somehow she made them seem like pale imitations. Her brown eyes glowed with such life when something made her angry, as it often did, that his breath caught in his throat to see it. And her eyes were nearly as dark as her hair, brown with golden glints. She must wash her hair more often than other lasses did, because it always looked nice. And that said something about her, because water had to be fetched by the bucket from the stand pipe at the end of each street to the tiny terraced houses Rishmore provided for his workers. It wasn’t easy to keep clean. Ben had seen how hard it had been for his wife.
Jem Staley, Meg’s father, had been killed in the machine-breaking riots – eh, that must be two years ago now! – and the eldest son had been transported. The mother had gone to pieces, leaving Jack to hold the family together – a sixteen-year-old lad at the time – helped by young Mr Rishmore’s charity. He was a great one for offering charity Mr Samuel was, but cold with it, so that you’d rather not trouble him unless you had to.
Ben shuddered at the memories. He’d been too ill to join the rioters that night and considered himself lucky. The incident had shaken everyone in town. Northby folk weren’t the sort to riot, not usually. And it had made no difference to the damned machines. There the new ones were, clanking and clattering all day, tended by poor slaves like Meg while other slaves like him tended the mill’s horses and drays.