Northern Lights – Episode 09

Press gang members were selected for their intimidating stature, but Jeremiah Cuthbert stood a head above the tallest. He was broad shouldered and muscular.

“Too late, blacksmith. This lad’s needed to serve King and country.”

“Look yonder where white water breaks.” Jeremiah pointed out to sea. “His Majesty’s warship, York, foundered and sank wi’ the loss o’ all hands on that treacherous hidden shoal.”

The man shrugged.

“What’s that to us?”

The smith frowned.

“It was a tragic loss o’ men and fighting power. The sinking forced through an Act of Parliament authorising a lighthouse to be built on the rock as a matter o’ urgency.”

“Politicians!” The leader spat.

Jeremiah folded muscular arms across a mighty chest.

“I offered my services as blacksmith to the lighthouse project and this lad is my assistant. You have no right to take him from this vital work. If you proceed I’ll see you men suffer the full weight o’ the law.”

They muttered together, then the leader hauled Alec to his feet.

“Go serve your master, but if this war drags on we’ll be back looking for recruits.” He jerked a thumb seawards. “You’d better be out there, working upon that accursed rock, or I swear I’ll have ye for a powder-monkey.”

He looked at Jeremiah.

“Take your weedy loon, smith. It’s men we need.”

The blacksmith grabbed Alec and hustled him away.

“Thank ye for saving me, Mr Cuthbert,” the lad said, a catch in his voice.

The blacksmith wiped his brow with relief. It had been a close call.

“Thank your granny. She ran like the wind to fetch me.”

Alec digested this. Fancy his grandmother doing that when her grandchildren had treated her so unkind!

He was ashamed.

Tomorrow was the end of the seven-day pact their grandmother had made with Maggie. His sister had mastered the knack of fire-lighting with their grandmother’s tuition. Alec had no doubt that tomorrow morning the old woman would be shown the door.

*  *  *  *

Maggie Cargill scrubbed steps and washed shop windows in Arbroath, accepting payment in copper or kind.

Coppers went into a capacious pocket in her skirt’s folds; apples, onions, potatoes and marrowbones were stored in receptacles sewn within the apron.

It was hard work in winter. This November morning, the dirt on stone doorsteps from muddy boots had to be seen to be believed. Maggie collected buckets of soapy water donated by householders and set to work with scrubbing brush and mop.

An afternoon on the weekly rota of shop windows called for a more respectable appearance.

Maggie washed her face and hands at the horse trough and sponged mud from her skirt and apron.

Her fingers were red and swollen, itching with a promise of chilblains, but at least they were clean.

Starting with a haberdashery run by two spinsters fallen upon hard times, Maggie worked her way round the regulars.

She paid particular attention to the butcher’s establishment – the owner was responsible for a recent donation of beef shin as a reward for cleaning out his back premises.

This rare treat was simmering slowly to succulent tenderness at home for a memorable supper now Maggie had mastered the fire.

Maggie’s last job was at Cameron’s grocery store. As she balanced stretched on tiptoe with her leather cloth to eliminate every trace of dust, bird droppings and mud sullying the gleaming glass, she dreamily viewed the mouth-watering window display of provisions.

Maggie was unaware of the beguiling picture she made as she moved. But Samuel Cameron saw.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!