The Life We Choose – Episode 24

It had been a difficult day. Sarah suddenly felt very tired as she looked around her new schoolroom, which had seemed so neat and orderly that morning and now, a few hours later, bore signs of the chaos wrought by her pupils.

It had been a miserable day, with darkened skies and a constant downpour. There was a trail of muddy footprints across the floor, several pairs of boots steaming gently on the fender, a fire which was threatening to fill the room with smoke and a draught from the back door which had been left open when Abie Mackin had decided that he’d had enough of lessons for the day. Benjamin, Abie’s three-year-old brother, had helped himself to a box of brightly coloured wooden counters and was playing with them on Pate’s hearthrug.

His last raid on Miss Bunty’s wardrobe, now the schoolroom’s cupboard, had left its contents tumbled, its doors swinging open. In the front row, a child had fallen asleep, his head slumped wearily on his arms.

Sarah clapped her hands.

“Everybody sit up straight and fold your arms. If you sit nice and quiet, I’ll tell you a story before you go home,” she said brightly. The sleeper slept on and Benjamin left his playthings on the rug and disappeared towards the back door in search of his big brother, but the rest of the children did as they were told and waited expectantly.

Sarah’s story ended with the words, “And they lived happily ever after.” The girls smiled; the boys looked doubtful.

“Time to go home. Let’s make a line and march out like soldiers,” Sarah said, knowing that she was ending the school day early, but that she would need the time to tidy up the room, mop the floor, bank down the fire and look again at the Wee School’s register.

The distant drumbeat of miners’ boots as they came off shift had long since died away.

Daniel would be home. At the thought, she was galvanised into action.

“I waited back tae help, Mistress Morrison.” Rachel, the eldest of the Mackin children, stood uncertainly by the door. “That’s if you let me.”

Sarah smiled at her.

“Of course, Rachel. It was very kind of you to think of it.”

The little girl smiled and pushed up her sleeves.

“Right, then. Whit’s first?”

Before Sarah knew it, her helper had taken charge, clearing up the mess and sorting out the cupboard.

“Ye need a key for this, Mistress Morrison.” She tapped the wardrobe door. “There’s a keyhole but nae key.”

As they got on with everything, Rachel kept up her chatter and stream of suggestions. She lingered on as Sarah banked up the fire.

“If I’m your helper, will ye let me stay, Mistress Morrison?” she asked uncertainly, shifting from one foot to the other.

Sarah remembered that she’d pointed out to Rachel that morning that at eight years old, she was too big for the Wee School and should be going up to the proper school with the new dominie. Even as Sarah remembered that exchange, Rachel took the opportunity of pleading her case.

“Mammy says I’ve to keep an eye on my wee brothers an’ oor Ruth, ’cause she’s just five. An’ Benjie’s only three, but he follows us an’ greets if he doesna get in, forbye. An’ oor Abie’s aye in trouble an’ willna learn his lessons if I dinna keep an eye on him, Mammy says.” She paused for breath and eyed Sarah uncertainly. “An’ I help Mammy in the hoose, so if I help you here . . .”

Her voice petered out and her eyes welled up with tears as she went on.

“If you have time to give me harder lessons, I’ll try to get them right. I used t’ go up to Master Ogilvie’s school an’ he said I was clever at my lessons, but I didna go after a wee while, ’cause Da said I had to help Mammy wi’ the wee yins an’ it was too far for them to go away up to the Big School.”

Sarah’s heart melted at the sight of dark eyes brimming with tears, at sleeves rolled up over stick-thin arms.

“Of course you can stay, Rachel,” she said gently. “You can be my special helper, too, because you’re very good at that, I can see. And we’ll both try to make sure that you learn as much as you can, because that’s the most important thing of all, isn’t it?”

Rachel gave a sigh of delight, rubbed her sleeve across her eyes and nodded agreement.

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”.