Northern Lights – Episode 28

Cathy Mary, though willing to help Lilias when required, had no intention of becoming involved in running the lodgings.

She knew her family felt she worked in poor conditions in an overcrowded basement, and certainly her workplace lay below street level.

But to the rear of the building the ground dropped away to form a sheltered courtyard with a drinking well and an old plum tree, laden with fruit in season.

The spacious basement area, where the workforce sewed breeks for jolly Jack tars, overlooked the courtyard and was amply lit by several windows.

The whole edifice had an enclosed, ecclesiastical look, fostering local belief that it had once served as an ancient convent to an order of nuns.

The women worked under the supervision of Mistress Jean Gray, a sailor’s widow. Though strict, she worked just as hard as her employees and cared for their welfare as if for the children she’d never borne.

Alert to signs of illness or fatigue in the workforce, Mistress Gray believed in the restorative power of a short rest, a gentle walk in the yard if weather permitted and oatmeal bannocks washed down with clear water from the well.

If Jean Gray had permitted herself to have a favourite employee, it would have been Cathy Mary Cargill. So it was to her she turned after missing her footing on some stairs and spraining an ankle.

She had managed to hobble around, but when fresh spools of thread were needed from the upstairs storeroom she asked Cathy Mary to fetch them.

The door of the storeroom was kept locked except when a delivery was expected or a completed order was to be collected. Armed with the key, Cathy Mary unlocked the door.

Bales of canvas duck required to make the men’s trousers were stacked high, along with spools of linen thread, boxes of buttons, eyelets, thimbles, needles and scissors.

But beyond these lay a sight Cathy Mary could hardly believe. Bales of woollen plaid, silver grey silk, sprigged muslin and white bleached linen packed the shelves, as well as some of deep blue worsted.

Hanks of expensive embroidery thread lay in boxes, ribbons and trimmings spilled from wicker baskets and fringes and lace filled open hat boxes. Smaller boxes occupied a lower shelf.

Cathy Mary’s excitement grew. What she could make with this! Her clever fingers itched to do it.

She collected the spools Mistress Gray requested, locked the storeroom door and returned to the basement.

Mistress Gray noted her heightened colour.


“Ma’am, could we no’ make women’s clothes?” Cathy Mary begged

“We’ve a profitable contract wi’ the Navy, girl. Besides, women dinna wear trousers and it’s said they bring bad luck to a ship.”

The girl shook her head.

“Plaid’s quick to sew. We could make skirts for the townswomen and still sew men’s breeks.”

Mistress Gray eyed her thoughtfully. She saw something of her former self in the girl standing before her.

“Very well, Cathy Mary. You will sew a plaid skirt and matching cape for me, to be done in one week.”

Cathy Mary gasped.

“I’ll need to measure ye, ma’am.”

“Indeed ye will.” There was amusement in Mistress Gray’s eye as she spread her arms and Cathy Mary reached for the measure.

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!