The Life We Choose – Episode 15

“Tricky Binnie’s been flung oot again,” Mary Ellen explained, calmly pouring the tea.

“Work shy,” Pate added. “Magrit’ll no’ stand for it much longer.”

Tea drinking was interrupted by an urgent knocking on the door.

“Excuse me a wee minute,” Mary Ellen said.

There was a murmured conversation on the doorstep, a man’s voice rising to querulous complaint. It was stopped by Mary Ellen, who raised her voice to something approaching a bellow.

“Pull yoursel’ thegither, Binnie, and away down to the pit office and get a start. Rushforth’s away the day and the colonel’s at the pit office, so ye have a chance. Magrit’s right. You’re no’ sick, or delicate or injured – just lazy! And you wi’ a pack o’ bairns to feed.”

She shut the door with some force and came back to resume her conversation with Sarah as if nothing had happened.

The short distance round to the Back Raw and the new schoolroom took longer than usual because Mary Ellen had two calls to make, One was to deliver a jug of soup to a young mother who was awaiting the birth of her second child.

“Young Jeanie Fullarton,” Mary Ellen told her. “No’ makin’ much o’ it. And this one . . .” she paused to scoop up a begrimed toddler playing by the front step “. . . is Wee Jeanie. She has her mammy run off her feet.”

The little girl beamed at Mary Ellen, then at Sarah. Her blonde curls were unkempt, her hands and face in need of a wash, but her little face was alive with mischief.

The next delivery was beef tea for Mrs Fyfe, who was, in Mary Ellen’s opinion, suffering from bloodlessness.

“Three sons, a’ man-big, and there’s no’ one o’ them that’ll do a hand’s turn in the house. They come in off their shift and expect to be waited on hand and foot for the rest o’ the day. Beef tea’ll do Mrs Fyfe a world o’ good.” Mary Ellen made a swift delivery and eventually she and Sarah reached what was already known as the Wee School.

The miserable, neglected house had been transformed into a welcoming place. The door and window-frames were freshly painted, there was pipe clay on the step and window ledges, and snowy lace curtains were drawn across the window.

“We dinna want any nosy folk spyin’ on the new teacher,”
Mary Ellen explained.

Inside there was warmth, colour and the smell of fresh varnish. Sarah clapped her hands in delight.

“Mary Ellen,” she began, “this is just perfect. I don’t know how you managed this in such a short time.”

Mary Ellen allowed herself the slightest smile of pleasure.

“Just you take a wee look round, Miss Ogilvie, and make sure that everything that’s needed is here,” she suggested.

A fire had been lit in the big black range. In front of it was one of two bright rugs, patterned with splashes of red.

“Pate made these,” she added, pride in her voice.

Three long benches with tables formed seating for the children.

“Just the right height for the little ones.” Sarah smiled.

A kitchen table had been varnished and stood at the front. It looked much less threatening to children than the high, pulpit-like structure which had been used by Master Ogilvie.

“There’ll be a chair forbye. Daniel’s makin’ it. He’s clever at makin’ things, but he’s aye away on his long walks of an evenin’, an’ doesna put the time in that’s needed to finish it.”

Sarah looked away, feeling her cheeks burn.

“What’s that, Mary Ellen? It looks like a wardrobe.”

She pointed to a large piece of furniture which all but took up the space along the back wall of the room. It was walnut, polished to a rich glow, with elaborate carving on the double doors.

“Miss Bunty gave us that. Sent it doon on a cart frae the Big House. It’s a wardrobe, right enough, but look inside.”

Sarah opened one of the doors. Inside, there was neat shelving.

“Daniel did that.” Mary Ellen smiled. “Made it inta the teacher’s cupboard. It’ll keep everything neat and tidy. A’ we need now is a blackboard. Maybe we could cadge one frae the school?”

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”.