Authors: Anne Doughty
For all my Canadian friends and cousins
known since childhood
or recently discovered
I must begin by apologising to the inhabitants of both Armagh and Peterborough, Ontario, for taking liberties with their commercial activities. Freeburn's in Armagh and Robinson Lumbering in Peterborough are entirely fictitious. Sleator's did exist in the 1930s, but I have modified it to suit my purposes.
As with all my novels I try to be accurate about both the social and the economic situation in which my character find themselves, together with the actual geographic setting where they live and work. While the city and countryside of Armagh is very familiar to me, I could not have been as confident about Peterborough, Ontario had it not been for the Canadian Library and Archives Service.
For an extremely modest fee they provided me with a ship's manifest which allowed me to locate the family of my great-uncle, who went away and never came back. With the help of a childhood friend, my cousins were contacted and my questions
about Peterborough answered with documents, photographs, old books and a bicycle ride around Quaker Oats.
Here in Belfast, I must thank the television company, now resident in my great-aunt's tall, terrace house, who let me stand on a chair among their computers so I could look out the attic window and refresh my memory of the Antrim hills and the view over Moonstone Street.
Ellie Scott is the gentlest of my protagonists, but she is typical of many Irish country girls. They have little formal education, but possess tenacity and common sense, virtues which stand to them whether they help to open up the Canadian forest at Scott's Plains or make a life and home in the difficult 1930s in a country town like Armagh.
Finishing this novel in the autumn of 2008 with the dark shadows of recession and unemployment making daily headlines, I hope this fiction may bring comfort to all those women who will do what Ellie does and make the best of all their capabilities at a difficult time.
Salter’s Grange, 1932
Robert Scott drained his mug of tea, retrieved his cap from the fender, pushed back his chair from the table and headed for the open door of the kitchen. Once outside, in the freshness of a fine May morning, he paused under the wrought-iron arch that framed the solid front door of his long, low dwelling. Though his eyes were dazzled by the light and still watering from the shimmer of fat smoking in the heavy pan his wife, Ellen, had used to fry soda bread for his breakfast, he gazed down the path to the forge, along the lane beyond, across the main road and up the sloping fields on the far side to where a clear, blue sky rested easily on the low, green hills he’d known throughout his fifty odd years.
All was quiet. As so often at this early hour, no vehicle moved on the county road, no cattle lowed in the cool of morning, no friend or neighbour came tramping up the short lane to his workplace.
He took a deep breath, drew in the familiar scent of hawthorn and glanced across the front of the
house. The windows reflected the almost cloudless sky except where they were dappled by the flutter of leaves on the flourishing climbing rose. There were tiny splashes of colour on the window sills where his youngest daughter, Ellie, had lined up a row of pots, the slips of geranium she’d cared for indoors over the winter.
He smiled to himself. She was taking no chances with them. If there’d been a thought of a frost at bedtime last night, she’d have had them into the kitchen should she have gone out in her nightdress to get them.
In the broad open space beyond the windows, the hens paused in their scratching and gave him quick, darting looks. It took but a flick of their bright eyes for them to see he was not the bearer of food. They returned at once to their random movement backwards and forwards across the stony area between the remains of the old ruined house where Ellie had her small garden and the well-tramped area beside the water barrel. Round this ran a path that passed under the gable and into the largest of the handful of orchards surrounding both the forge house and the neighbouring farm.
Having surveyed his territory, he limped quickly down the path, the surviving sign of his old injury so long forgotten he rarely noticed it.
The lower half of the forge door was closed, but the upper half stood open. He leant inside, silently
withdrew the bolt and stepped quietly over to his anvil, his eyes screwed up in the darkness as he peered towards a small space above the low lintel under which he had just entered.
Before he’d even had time to listen for the tiny seep, seep of the fledglings, a wren flew past him, inches from his face. She shot back out into the light, as indifferent to his presence as if he were a piece of machinery or the handle of the bellows.
All well there too, he said to himself. He raked out the cinders and added small pieces of coal to the smoored fire, till a thick, white rope twisted its way up from the hearth. It gathered in the broad chimney and then rose straight into the still air above the trees and bushes that enfolded his small parcel of land.
‘Cheerio, Da. See you tonight.’
He paused, turned from the hearth and saw his daughter standing outside his open door, the sun glinting from her hair and reflecting off a spotless white blouse.
‘Yer in good time the mornin’, Ellie,’ he said, surprised to see her, setting down the tongs he’d only just picked up. He wiped his sleeve across his forehead, the sweat already breaking from the heat of the fire.
‘Delivery,’ she said, laughing at his puzzlement and patting a large, brown paper parcel laid across the basket of her bicycle. ‘Drumsollen,’ she
explained. ‘The dressmaker’s coming to make new maids’ uniforms.’
‘Wou’d it not a been easier to drop it off last night on yer way home?’
She laughed again and threw out a hand in a light gesture.
‘Of course it would, Da. But nothing’s as easy as that with Missus Senator Richardson. There’s people coming over from London. I don’t know if it’s young Missus Edward’s family or Parliament people. She said
she specifically did not want a delivery in the early evening when they’d be arriving
. She shook her head, mimicking perfectly the haughty tone of the command.
Robert nodded and raised his eyebrows. The Senator’s wife was well-known for making her wishes clear. A different woman entirely from her new daughter-in-law. Young Missus Richardson was a favourite of his. She loved horses and understood them and unlike some of the local gentry who’d barley bid him the time of day when they came to have their horses shod, she’d stand and talk to him while he worked, never getting in his way while she made sure the animal was easy.
‘Must go, Da. Have to be at Drumsollen before eight. If she complains to the boss, I’ll get my head chopped off.’
‘Good customer, is she?’ he asked, stepping out into the sunlight to see her off.
‘The best. Pays cash. Boss loves to see her coming,’ she added over her shoulder, as she wheeled her bicycle carefully beyond the reapers and harrows awaiting repair, a sharp eye open for any bits of metal and rusty nails that might have found their way on to the short lane down to the road.
He stood watching her go, saw her wheel her bicycle to the far side of the road and catch up her dark skirt before she got on. As she took her weight off the ground, his heart was in his mouth, for the heavy parcel shifted under her restraining hand and the front wheel looked as if it might turn below her. But it was a moment only. It wasn’t the first time Ellie had delivered a bale of cloth to the big house and she was well used to coping with heavy loads on her bicycle. For her own sake and those she worked with, Robert hoped there’d be many more orders for Drumsollen.
He saw her pedal steadily down the slope and was about to go back to his work when her arm shot up in the air. She waved vigorously, though he knew rightly she didn’t dare turn her head to see him wave back.
In his family of four girls and two boys, Ellie was the youngest, now just nineteen and the only one with fair hair. It was so pale it seemed to pick up every hint of sunshine, even on a dull day. In any crowd of young people, he could pick her out a mile away.
‘There’s no knowin’ about these things,’ he said to himself, the glints of her hair in the morning light still alive in his mind’s eye. He laid a bar of one inch iron on his workbench, picked up his chalk and callipers and began to measure the four pieces he’d need to make shoes for Robinson’s big cart horse.
As far as he knew, there was no one in the Scott family with fair hair. His father had been dark before what little hair he’d had receded so fast and so thoroughly, he was seldom seen without a cap. As for his mother, he could hardly remember her, never mind her hair. Though his father said he was seven or eight when she died, it was only now and again some wee thing would even make him think of her.
If he saw a woman carrying a big Bible under her arm, or if he had to mend the metal straps on a horse collar, he would suddenly be aware of the smell of hard, yellow soap from her hands and her clothes. But the strange thing was he could never remember what she looked like.
His step-mother, Selina, a woman he’d loved from the first day his father brought her home, had asked him sometimes about his own mother. Once, he’d told her about the way a horse-collar would make him think of her and she’d said that in her young days women sometimes used a horse-collar to keep a child from straying when they had their work to do. Maybe, she’d said, gently, his mother had put him in one sometimes when he was very small.
Even when he’d talked to Selina like this, no further memory had stirred. But the more he thought of it, the surer he was that his mother must have been dark like his sister, Annie, or his older brother, James. Of course, his mother’s hair might have been thin and mousy like that of his own two sons, Bob and Johnny. He laughed shortly as another thought occurred to him. Wasn’t it a good thing neither Polly, nor Mary, nor Florence, had inherited hair like that and them so particular about how they looked and what they wore. Especially Florence.
He peered down at the chalk marks on his piece of iron and shook his head. He could barely make them out. He’d have to go round the back of the forge and cut the cow parsley. He couldn’t put it off any longer. It had grown waist high in the last weeks, the mass of feathery stems were topped with rich, creamy white flowers. Ellie said it was a pretty sight all along the road into Armagh, but it was hard on the eyes, for it made the light penetrating through his rain-streaked windows even dimmer and turned it greenish into the bargain.
He reached up above the long bench and took down a sickle from a row of hooks between the two windows. He tested its edge cautiously with his thumb, hurried out round the tall gable, walked a few yards along the short cut to Robinson’s farm, then turned aside to push his way through the
rampant growth brought on by the first real warmth of the year.
The sun was well up now, the light glancing off the high-pitched roof above him, the heat shimmering over the hot surface of the felt, the dew already gone from the luxurious vegetation which fell below his hand. He was no great hand with a sickle, so he cut down only the stems that grew immediately in front of his windows. He knew from experience they were always tougher than they looked.
‘God Bless the work.’
He looked up, startled, dazzled by the light. He’d been so absorbed in keeping his balance on the uneven ground he’d heard no step. The short, dark figure was blurred, but the slight sing-song note of the voice was quite unmistakable.
‘Ach Jamsey. How are ye?’
‘I’m the best at all. I have sweet milk for herself. Is she up?’
‘Aye, she is. She made m’ breakfast the day.’
Without another word, Jamsey walked past him and turned up the lane to the house, his total attention focused on the jug he carried, his thumbs jutting awkwardly as if they didn’t fit properly with his hands. The unexpected, late son of an elderly mother, Jamsey was a biddable child, once one made due allowances, as Robert and his family always did. Sadly, however, there were those who treated the young man’s abruptness and his
frequent, sullen silences as if they were intended.
Robert dragged the cut stems away from the windows with the point of the sickle and left them to ret down where they lay, tramped back to his workbench and wiped his blade with an oily rag.
‘That’s a bit more like it,’ he said, as he glanced down at his chalk marks and found he could now see them clearly.
As the sun rose higher and the shadow of the forge grew shorter, the air itself warmed up. A new and more delicate scent mingled with the familiar perfume of hawthorn. Before Robert had even stepped into the orchard behind his own house to refill the bucket of drinking water he carried to the forge every day, he knew what he would see.
Even so, it still amazed him, year after year, the way the fat pink and white buds of the apple blossom would linger and linger. Then, between one hour and the next on a warm afternoon, suddenly unfurl, the petals opening almost as you looked at them.
He paused only a moment to breathe the perfumed air, for even as he filled his bucket, he remembered yet another job he’d promised to have ready by the evening. How he was going to do it, he had yet to figure out.
He carried the white enamel bucket back to the forge and set it down beside the wooden seat just
inside his door. From the embrasure of the window behind, he took up a shoebox and brought out a clean, delph mug. With it, he baled cool spring water into the soot-marked tin mug that sat all day on the hearth within reach of the anvil. He drank deep, throwing his head well back to let the water rinse the dust from his throat. Then he put the delph mug back in its box with its fellow and from a nail on the wall nearby unhooked a square of material, patterned with daisies and neatly hemmed on all four sides. He spread it carefully across the surface of the bucket and picked up his hammer again.
‘Da, you can’t offer your customers a drink of water out of that mug of yours,’ Ellie had remonstrated. ‘And look at all those bits of soot and the metal flakes in the bottom of your bucket.’
She’d laughed when he protested it wouldn’t do them a bit of harm. They wouldn’t see the bits down at the bottom. What the eye didn’t see the heart didn’t grieve.
‘And what about the ladies?’ she’d come back at him. ‘What about the Misses Cope and young Missus Richardson,’ she’d added slyly.
So she’d gone away and found a pair of
mugs, not china, but not tinker’s delph either, and put them in one of the shoe boxes Florence had left behind, with a couple of pieces of tissue crumpled up in the bottom to keep them from chipping each other.
The cover she’d made was a remnant so small it had never sold in the shop. It was only just big enough to hang over the rim and cover the surface of the water, but it did keep out the soot and sparks that flew everywhere when he really started hammering.
As he shaped and curved metal the long, slow notes now echoing on the still air, carried as far as the parish church up on the hill, the small shop at Scott’s Corner a mile away towards Loughgall and, on the Armagh side of Robinson’s farm, as far as the stretch of bog that ended in a deep quarry and a projection of grey stone known as Reilly’s Rocks. The lighter notes from the hammer’s dance didn’t carry beyond the forge itself, but they punctuated the long steady strokes, the balancing rhythm his father had taught him to help ease the pain of throbbing muscles and keep at bay the dull ache of fatigue.
He worked steadily and without apparent haste throughout the long hours of the day, the list of jobs diminishing and then increasing again with every dark figure who stood in the doorway and greeted him. Even before it was time to stop for the evening meal, he was tired and he knew it, but that was the way it was at this time of year. Like the farmers who would be on the land as long as there was light to see by, he’d work on till the shadows filled the forge or his own fatigue got the better of him.