Authors: Janet Tanner
With a visible effort, she regained control. “As soon as you like, Rector.”
“Then perhaps we could agree upon that. Without prejudice, you understand.”
She nodded. The phrase meant nothing to her. She only knew that the jobâand the wage that went with itâwas hers.
The Rector opened the study door, and Caroline Archer appeared as if from nowhere.
Charlotte, trembling still from reaction, felt a swift shaft of fear. Was it possible Mrs Archer had been listening?
“I have offered the job to Mrs Hall,” Andrew Archer said smoothly. Charlotte's fear deepened as she noticed the angry narrowing of the other woman's eyes, above her falsely smiling mouth.
She had beaten the Rector's wife, and she would not easily forgive. If she had overheard, her knowledge would be her weapon of revenge. But Charlotte was sure she was not a woman to show her hand too soon. It could be that she would prefer to keep her on pins for years with a hint here, a veiled threat there, knowing always she had the power to destroy in the end.
Charlotte shivered. But as she emerged into the June sunshine, she tried to console herself that it was a chance she had had to take. And besides, the study doors were thick. God willing, Caroline Archer would have heard nothing.
As for herself, she must push the things of which she had just spoken to the deepest recesses of her mind. For twelve years she had told no one, had not even allowed herself to think about them. She must not break the habit now. What was done was done. It was the only way.
THE WEATHER broke that afternoon with a sky-rending crack of thunder and bright vertical forks of lightning as the day-shift miners from South Hill Pit were making their way home.
Charlotte, standing at the window to watch the storm, saw them turn along the rank, too weary to hurry themselves though the rain was soaking their shirts and dripping from the brims of their cloth caps. She opened the door for them, laughing at their faces, striped black and white where rivets of rain had washed away the coal-dust.
“Come on in, you poor things. You look like drowned rats!”
They came, their boots leaving black-puddles on the strip of lino that covered the scullery floor a small, compactly-built man of around forty, and two youths whose bright hair was thick with coal-dust.
Jim was seventeen, the oldest of the family, and the image of his father. Fred, two years younger, was the quiet one. Nothing ever perturbed him, and it showed in the set of his face.
“Where's Ted?” Charlotte asked as they took off their caps. “Hadn't he finished when you came up?”
James Hall unbuttoned his shirt with wet, grimy hands. “He had a few more loads to cart. He won't be much longer, unless he starts playing the fool again.”
“I thought you were supposed to be keeping an eye on him.”
“So I do. But you don't expect me to stay down there with him when I've finished for the day, do you? Give over worrying, Lotty. He's all right.”
Charlotte turned away, wondering how it was that Jim and Fred always managed to be ready to come home when their father did although they too were carting boys.
“As long as he's not up to mischief,” she said briskly. “ Get out of those wet things now, and I'll have your bath ready in two ticks.”
She hurried ahead of them into the kitchen. The tin bath already stood in front of the fire and she lifted the pans of boiling water from the hob, pouring them in until the bath was more than half full. The boys followed her in, stripping off their shirts and loosening the waists of their rushyduck trousers.
“Out of the way while your father washes,” she told them, and obediently they moved to one side to let James through.
This was the accepted daily ritual, and they followed it religiously. First James would wash the upper part of his body in the fresh hot water, then the boys, in order of their age, would follow. Then the same performance would be gone through for the lower part of their bodies, while the water grew steadily blacker and thicker.
Today, however, with Ted not yet home, the rota was completed more quickly than usual, and when Charlotte bustled in with clean towels and clothes, she found James and Jim already waiting for her and Fred bent double over the tub.
She handed James the towel and glanced at Fred's bare back. Around his waist, the hated ring of hard skin stood out brown and ridged, reminding her once again of the news she had to break to the family this eveningâthat Jack was not going to join them down the pit, but train as a teacher.
She'd have to tell James first, of course, and there would be no better time than after dinner when he was full of his favourite eye-piece stew. But she wasn't looking forward to it, and she knew she'd have to choose her moment with care. In the cramped house, it was not easy to talk without letting the rest of the family in on the conversation. Only in the bedroom at night were she and James alone, and these days he was usually asleep and snoring by the time she was ready to blow out the lamp and climb the stairs. Still, she'd find a way. She'd have toâor someone else would.
The men were deep in a discussion on Jeffries and Johnson, the two adversaries in The Great Glove Fight that was going to take place in Reno on the fourth of July, and Charlotte drew the eye-piece stew back onto the hob, skimming it absently.
The baby had begun pressing on a nerve, and the discomfort gave her yet another reason for breaking the news as soon as possible. If the baby came early, she'd be at a real disadvantage. And besides â¦
Charlotte remembered Peggy Yelling's warning and shivered. It was eight years since Amy had been born, and she was no longer as young as she had been. She knew of more than one, as healthy as she, who had haemorrhaged and died, and there was one poor soul in Glebe Terrace who had never walked since twins had completed her family in the spring.
Putting the unwelcome thoughts aside, Charlotte set the lid back on the stew pan with a clatter. It was no good to meet trouble half-way. But she'd be glad when it was over and done with.
James and the boys were upstairs dressing when the sound of boots being kicked off in the scullery told Charlotte that Ted was safely home. She replaced the cover on the stewpan and crossed the kitchen to meet him.
“You're late, my son,” she greeted him. “What have you been up to?”
Ted grinned, irrepressible as always. In build, he was like the others, with the same fair hair and blue eyes. But just as Fred's nature showed in his face, so did Ted's. As a child he had been known as the scamp of the family, and he had not changed much since. Now, he met her stern question with a twinkle. “ Never mind about
, Mam. What have
been up to?”
“Me? What do you mean?” she demanded.
“Come on,” he teased. “You know what I'm on about”
“I do not. Get on with your wash, and don't be so cheeky.”
He grinned. “It's you with the cheek, Mam, the way I heard it.”
Her cheeks flamed suddenly. “Look here, Ted, just because you're at work now doesn't mean you can talk to me as if I were one of your mates,” she admonished him. “ Now mind your manners, do you hear?”
He took off his jacket and laid it across the back of the settle.
“All right. But I'd give a week's wages to know what our Dad's going to say when he gets to hear about it.”
Too late the creak of the stairs warned him of his father's approach. He just had time to see Charlotte's agonized expression before the door opened and James emerged, buckling a belt at the waist of his clean trousers and looking from one to the other curiously.
“What's our Dad going to say about what?” he enquired.
Ted looked sheepish, and Charlotte flustered, but neither replied.
“Well? Won't somebody tell me what's going on?” James demanded.
Unnoticed, Ted slipped away, and Charlotte wiped her hands in her apron and turned to race James. “ Since the subject's come up, I might as well confess,” she said evenly. “ What Ted has heard, I expect, is that I've got myself a job, cleaning, at the Rectory. I went down to see them this morning, and I'm starting right away.”
For a moment there was no sound in the small room but the bubbling of the stew on the hob and the low chesty rattle of James' breath. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” he asked at last. “Haven't you got enough to do here? And with another baby coming too?”
“It's the money â¦” she protested.
“We manage, don't we?” he interrupted her. “ God knows, you get my wages with little enough taken out of 'emânot like some women who only see what their men are too drunk to spend! And with Dolly and the boys working, and Jack starting too â¦”
“That's just it,” she cut in. “ Jack isn't starting work yet a while. He's stopping on at school. That's why I want the moneyâto keep him there.”
“Stopping on at school?” James repeated incredulously. “Whatever for? He's passed his labour exam last March.”
“Labour exam!” she snorted. “A bit of paper that's no good to anybody! It's a disgrace, that labour exam, pushing the bright children out before the dull ones. Well, I've made up my mind, no more of my sons are going to suffer through it. Jack's going to stop on at school and train to be a teacher. I've been to see Mr Davies, and â¦”
“You've done what?” James thundered, angry now.
“Been to see Mr Davies, and he says â¦”
“I heard you first time and I can't believe my ears! Oh, I know you've got a bee in your bonnet about the pitsâyou always have had. And you've always tried to make a big softy out of our Jack, too. But to do all this behind my back! Going to Daviesâgetting yourself a job! I won't have it, Lotty!”
Her chin came up. “ You don't own me, James Hall!” she cried. “And you don't own Jack either!” Then, as if afraid of what she was about to say, she turned away, pressing her hands over her mouth.
Involuntarily, James raised his hand. In all their married lives he had never struck her, but in that moment he was closer to it than ever before. But as he realized what he was doing, his anger died as quickly as it had come. His hand fell limply to his side, and he shook his head sadly. “ Oh, Lotty!”
She swung round then, and her eyes were bright with unexpected tears. “ I'm sorry, James,” she said quietly. “ Perhaps I did wrong, not talking it over with you. But I was afraid you'd put a spoke in it. You've had your way with the others, and â¦”
“For the likes of us, there's no other way,” James told her with patient conviction. “There's security for a miner. People are always going to want coal, and the stuff we bring up here in Somerset is good quality, even if the seams are narrower than most. As long as a man doesn't get himself blacklisted as a trouble-maker, there's no reason why he shouldn't stay in the pits all his working life.”
“And how long is that?” Charlotte snorted. “Till his lungs are so clogged up with dust he can't breathe any more, or till he gets brought home in a coal cart with his back broke? And what sort of a life do you call it anyway, shut away hundred of feet under the earth.”
“Our Jack isn't going underground. He's going on the screens.”
“And how long would that last?” she demanded. “Just a few months, and then he'd be carting like the othersâa human donkey in harness. He's not cut out for it, James. I don't like the idea of any of them doing it, but if you force our Jack down the pit, it'll break my heart.”
Some of her desperation reached him, and he rubbed a blue-veined hand across his chin.
“Does it really mean that much to you, Lotty?”
“Yes, James, it does.”
“Even if it means nothing but hard work and disappointment.”
“I'm willing to take that chance.”
Rain beat a steady rhythm on the window. With the sun still covered by thunderclouds, the little room was dim, but the glow from the fire showed Charlotte's face in a soft relief of light and shadow: chin raised, eyes afraid, mouth determined.
Looking at her, James was reminded of the shop assistant he had rescued from the gang of rowdies almost twenty years ago. She hadn't changed, he thought. She was still the same Lotty, spirited, stubborn, and, in spite of her practicality, a bit of a romantic at heart. Life had dealt harshly with her, but it had not cowed her, and in this light it was almost impossible to see the passage of time in her face.
Unexpected tenderness flooded through him and he shook his head, smiling suddenly. “If it weren't for your condition, Lotty, I'd put you across my knee,” he said.
A muscle moved in her cheek “You mean â¦ you'll let Jack stay on at school?”
He nodded. “ When you're this set on something, it would be a brave manâand a daft oneâwho tried to stop you. I'll give it six months, Lotty. I don't think you'll keep it up longer than that. All I hope is, you don't kill yourself in the meantime.”
She smiled, the fear leaving her eyes, and replied as she had that night in the wash-house: “Don't worry, James. I don't intend to die yet. I'll see my son a schoolmaster first, if that's what he wants. And I'll have enough life in me to be real proud of him.”
The baby came on the first Saturday in August, on the day of the annual Foresters FÃªte.
It was always an occasion in the townâthe procession led by the men of the Ancient Order of Foresters with their banners and regalia, winding its way to the Glebe Field for a full afternoon's programme of sports, followed by dancing in the evening, and although she was a week overdue, Charlotte went far enough down the hill to watch them pass.
Afterwards, she always maintained that it was the cornets and drums of the town band that âstarted her off', and whether or not that was true, by the time the last carriage-load of children in fancy dress had passed, the first uncomfortable twinges had become recognizable pains, and as the last men on horseback disappeared from view, Charlotte knew it was time to head for home and send for Peggy Yelling.