The Life We Choose – Episode 44

Sarah shivered as the chill of the stone wash house floor struck up through her boots. Mary Ellen was feeding the fire under the boiler with more coal.

“I’ll have to wait till the water heats,” she said, looking a bit flustered. “Daniel didna light the fire before he started his shift at six. He must have forgot.”

Sarah winced at the mention of her husband’s name. He hadn’t spoken to her when he got back from the meeting, but had slouched in a fireside chair all night, deep in thought, while Sarah had lain sleepless in the next room. Eventually, she had fallen into a fitful sleep and when she awoke, he had gone off to work. His water bottle lay forgotten on the sink board in the scullery.

Sarah’s eyes welled up with tears at the memory of his silence, the resentment that lay behind it.

“I said it’s an east wind the day, so the washin’ will have to go on the pulley,” Mary Ellen said.

Sarah stared at her. Was this yet another wash-house mystery?

“The east wind blows coal dust up fae the pit. Put out the washin’ and it’ll no’ look very braw even if it does get dried.”

“I don’t have much today, Mary Ellen.” Sarah began to unpack her basket. “I still manage some of my washing in the scullery.”

Mary Ellen glanced at her. She was pale, with the dark smudges of sleeplessness under her eyes.

“I’ve told you already, Sarah,” she said. “You canna do the Wee School, keep a nice tidy wee house and take on a washday forbye. I can do your wee bit washin’ along wi’ mine. It’s no’ as if you have a houseful to wash for.”

Sarah shook her head.

“No, Mary Ellen. I can’t let you do that. I don’t want the Langrigg women to think that I’m developing airs and graces, or that I’m above doing the things that they have to do. But I’ll be glad if you let me share your washday for a bit longer.”

“Whit’s a’ this aboot a meetin’ up at Rankin’s ferm?” Village gossip Nellie Burnett stood just inside the wash house door.

Mary Ellen didn’t turn round.

“Oh, it’s yoursel’ Nellie. You’re up early this mornin’ for a change,” she said drily. The other took no notice.

“One o’ the women said she heard her man talkin’ to his neebor aboot a meetin’, but there was nae sign o’ the men at the pit gates. I waited a while, mind, an’ then Ah saw two or three o’ them gauin’ up the ferm road.”

Her back still to the questioner, Mary Ellen lifted her scrubbing board.

“Away an’ make yoursel’ a cup o’ tea, Nellie, then read the leaves. They’ll answer a’ your questions.”

Nellie turned her attention to Sarah.

“They say your man was speakin’ at the meetin’, Mistress Morrison.”

Sarah didn’t look up from her tasks at the sink in the corner, but before her questioner had time to go on, two more women joined Nellie Burnett.

“They say there was a strike bein’ called,” one said.

“Aye, an’ you stopped it, Mary Ellen,” the other chimed in.

Sarah kept her head down, wishing that the women would get away from the doorway so she could make her escape. If Mary Ellen gave no secrets away, attention would be turned to her and she knew she was no match for Nellie Burnett and her ilk.

Her head swam at the very thought and she gripped the side of the sink to quell her dizziness. One chance remark could cost Daniel dearly. If the slightest whisper of the meeting, of Daniel being elected as spokesman for the miners, got back to Rushforth, all would be lost – Daniel’s job, his prospects, their home.

“It’s time you were away.” Sarah started as Mary Ellen spoke behind her. She was drying her hands and arms on her apron. “News of last night’ll no’ get back to Rushforth.” Then, raising her voice, she said, “Away home, Sarah Morrison, or the bairns’ll get a shut door at the Wee School.”

Leaving Mary Ellen to finish her washing, Sarah fled.

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”.