The Life We Choose – Episode 43

Mary Ellen pulled the kettle forward on the range and gave the fire a ferocious poke before answering.

“Aye. Somebody had to. Somebody wi’ a bit o’ common sense.”

Pate waited until Mary Ellen had made them both a reviving cup of tea, knowing that only then would he hear the full story.

“I just told them what it would be like for the womenfolk, the bairns. Told them what I thought o’ them for keepin’ their meetin’ a secret frae these same womenfolk, when they were the ones that would suffer along wi’ the bairns and a winter comin’ on. Barefoot bairns on a winter’s day? Hungry bairns wi’ no bread to put on the table? Sickly bairns that could die in the face o’ that, and no’ a thing that could be done to save them.”

As she spoke, Mary Ellen’s voice strengthened and her imposing presence returned.

“And a’ this callin’ a strike, when the colonel’ll be back any day. A’ this commotion is playin’ right into the hands o’ that Rushforth.”

She poured herself another cup of strong tea. There was a pause while she drank it.

“Rushforth. A bad manager. The worst manager they’ve ever had here,” Pate said.

“Worse than that.” Mary Ellen set her cup down with a clatter. “He’s ane o’ they unfortunates that has a grudge agin the whole human race. Trouble is beef to his bones. He takes pleasure in trouble, in causin’ it, an’ in watchin’ it grow. Aye, a strike would suit Rushforth fine. I told the men to wait for the colonel and to tell him how things are at the coal face, and to call another meetin’ an’ do things right and proper this time. The colonel’s an honourable man, like his father was before him. He’ll do the right thing. He’ll get rid o’ Rushforth.”

Pate shook his head, almost disbelievingly.

“So you stopped a strike, Mary Ellen? You’ve done maist things in your day an’ time, but this must top them a’.”

Mary Ellen smiled.

“No. I only called them to order. It was Sarah who stopped the strike.”

Pate waited.

“When I’d finished speakin’, the men quietened down a bit and Sarah suddenly pulled hersel’ up on the hay bale where I was standin’. The men were that taken aback that they went a’ quiet. Sarah took her chance and started to speak. ‘How many of you,’ she asked, her voice as clear as a bell. ‘How many of you have sons working alongside you in the pit, daughters on the pithead?’

“Things went very quiet then, and Sarah started to tell them about the bairns she teaches in the Wee School and how they do her biddin’ and are keen to learn. ‘The children have better sense than you,’ she said. ‘They know that if they work hard at their lessons they’ll have a better chance in life. But all of them, womenfolk and children both, depend on you, the men of Langrigg. Strikes will hurt those children most of all. Colonel Grant’s a good pit owner. He’ll listen to your spokesman if he talks about improving things at the pit. Just have the patience to wait a little longer, for the children’s sake’.”

As she finished speaking, Mary Ellen shook her head, seemingly in wonder.

“That young Sarah was that calm and well spoken that I’m no’ the only one that’ll remember what she said, word for word. The men were very quiet when she finished speakin’. Then, just before she got down from the hay bale, she looked at the men.

“‘I go to the Wee School every day to try to give the children a chance in life. You go down the pit for the same reason. If we can agree tonight, we’ll be working together for the children’.”

There was a silence for a while. Pate puffed on his pipe, deep in thought.

Mary Ellen stared into the fire, then Pate broke the silence.

“And Daniel? Where was he when a’ this was goin’ on?” he asked.

Mary Ellen sighed. When she spoke, she sounded tired.

“Oh, he came back to the front to take the vote. Gey white in the face he was. By that time, Sarah had ta’en to her heels and when I caught up wi’ her, she was weepin’ as if her heart would break. Then Josh Makin caught up wi’ us, a’ oot o’ breath wi’ runnin’. He said he wanted to thank us, shook our hands. Said the menfolk like him would ha’ lost the vote and had to strike.”

Pate tapped out his pipe as Mary Ellen began to bank up the fire with dross.

“I’ve an early start in the wash house,” she remarked. “And it’ll no’ be this in the mornin’.”

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”.