City Of Discoveries — Episode 06

Jennet’s stomach was roiling with nerves as she made her way among the thick press of folk shuffling towards the mill the next morning.

After the excitement of William’s news had died away, she’d lain awake puzzling over why Drew Fleming had been lurking in a close so near their house.

She was barely conscious of the cold and the damp January air hanging heavily over the city under a blanket of dark cloud and nearly impenetrable fog.

“Good morning, Meggie.”

Inside the mill, Jennet and Torie turned to the woman’s voice with its air of authority, as did Meggie.

Jennet realised the speaker was the young woman who she had noticed in the crowded street last night.

“I’ve come in early today because I heard from the school that two or three of the bairns have been missing lessons,” the woman continued.

“Aye, weel, ye’d need to ask their maws aboot that, Miss Smith,” Meggie said shortly, and carried on changing her outside boots for the thinner ones she carried in a cloth bag.

“Who is she?” Jennet asked as she moved on.

“Miss Smith? She’s wan o’ the owners, or the owners’ family, but being as how she’s a woman, she busies herself with our welfare,” Meggie said.

Picking up the woman’s reluctance to say more, Jennet let it go. Besides, Meggie had other news.

“I hear Fleming is being considered for a promotion,” she said as they unwound their shawls and rubbed their fingers to bring a bit of life and circulation into them before starting up the looms.

Jennet glanced at her new friend, startled.

“Promotion? Does that mean he’ll have even more chance to make our lives a misery?”

She hauled off her boots and slipped her feet into wooden clogs before checking carefully that her hair was tied up and out of the way of any machinery.

“It’s no’ guaranteed, like,” Meggie said. “He micht be moved over to one of the other mills an’ replaced here.”

Jennet drew a deep breath. Dare she hope? Would the Guid Lord listen to a prayer asking that the devil might be successful in his promotion?

She heard the clatter of the machines bursting into life and took up her own position.

“Guid o’ you to turn your attention to the job at last,” Fleming said in her ear.

He was behind her, hidden from most of the workers, but some would have seen him cross the floor and slide between her loom and the next.

“I’m shair ye understand how important it is that my workforce is on top of the outturns.”

He paused and Jennet wondered if he awaited an answer.

She couldn’t think of one and kept silent.

“These airs an’ graces are no’ doing you any good in my e’en, quine. Think on. When I take the trouble to point out your faults an’ how you could improve, I’m doing you a favour.

“I expect a bit of consideration in return.”

“I’m sure I work as hard as I know how, Mr Fleming,” Jennet said.

She shivered as cold sweat trickled down the back of her neck.

This was worse than any of his previous insinuations.

“Aye, but I think ye could be a wee bit mair nice in your attentions to me. I did suggest ye micht like to bring your piece out to the backyard, did I not?”

The backyard was a dingy space fenced off from the main yards and frequented by the foremen to smoke their pipes and sometimes, Jennet knew, to spend ten minutes with one of the women.

She would not trust Fleming if they were out of sight of the others.

Jennet shuddered and a thread snapped.

Nerves made her fingers clumsy and Fleming had to grab her hand before she lost a finger in her haste to repair it.

Fleming hitched his trousers around his belt and sloped off.

Jennet forced herself to concentrate. The risk of an injury was ever present and she could not afford to be laid off.

Twenty minutes later one of the bairns arrived at her loom.

“The overseer has telt me to tell you to gang to his office, Jennet Marshall.”

“The overseer?”

Jennet was breathless. Nobody was ever sent for by the overseer for a good reason.

She let the loom fall silent and tidied her skirts as best she could before crossing the floor to the overseer’s tiny office.

She knocked on the glass and went inside when he called.

“Jennet Marshall?”

“Yes, sir.”

Jennet was aware of Fleming standing to her left.

His breathing rasped into the cleaner air of the office which was cut off from the suspension of fluff on the factory floor.

“Mr Fleming tells me he’s no’ awfully pleased with your work,” the overseer began.

“Why, sir, that’s no’ fair. I maybe snapped a thread this morning, but ony body does from time to time,” she burst out without thinking what impression she would give.

“Do you interrupt me, Mistress Marshall? Who is Jennet Marshall to tell my experienced foreman anything?

“Listen to me, woman, there’s plenty can take your place.”

The door behind Jennet crashed against the wall and Miss Smith burst in.

She crossed the floor and leaned forward with both hands on the overseer’s desk.

Meggie’s words echoed in her head. One of the owners, but a woman.

But what now?

And what would become of her and William if she lost this job?

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.