The Life We Choose – Episode 74

Sarah had often wondered how Mary Ellen Walker kept track of all the herbal cures requested of her, of all the requests for help that came her way. Suddenly, there it was. A small notebook and a pencil stub tucked into her apron pocket and connected by an invisible thread to her big notebook which was kept in the press in the bedroom.

While she consulted her notes on the ingredients saved for the Front Raw dumpling, and took a note of anything that the women might be able to contribute to put together some sort of wedding celebration, Sarah and Jeanie Makin were put in charge of making a cup of tea for the company.

“Keep Nellie Burnett oot o’ my scullery, Sarah, or she’ll be inta every cupboard in it,” Mary Ellen had whispered to Sarah.

Jeanie and Sarah chatted as they worked.

“Big Ella works on the pithead. You’ll have seen her. Big, jolly girl. Aye laughin’, though she’s no’ got much to laugh about. She’s the only wage earner. Looks after her father, an’ him an invalid, retired this last long time fae the pit,” Jeanie told her.

“Dreels Cox is a neighbour of the Gourlays. He lost his wife a few years ago. He’s been a great help to Ella lately. Goes in an’ has a wee chat wi’ the old man – keeps him fae wearyin’. Aye, he’s a great worker, Dreels Cox, an’ Ella’s a great cook. They’ll mak’ a grand pair.”

By the time the teacups were handed round, the business of the evening was all but complete. Mary Ellen made her last entry in her notebook and put it back in her pocket.

“That’s it a’ sorted out, then. I’ll make the New Year dumplin’ an’ Nellie’ll dae the weddin’ one. You’re in charge o’ the weddin’ purvey, Annie Maxton, an’ I’ll make a sit-doon dinner for the bridal party.”

There were a few murmurs of discontent about the cost of it all.

“We can each gie a wee somethin’ from the menage,” Mary Ellen said firmly.

Nellie Burnett protested.

“There’s Christmas comin’ an’ we’ll need the money we’ve saved,” she said indignantly.

“Aye. Your laddies’ll be expectin’ an orange each, an’ mebbe some coloured pencils come Christmas mornin’. Just like the rest o’ the weans,” Mrs Maxton offered.

There was a howl of laughter. Nellie Burnett’s boys were big fellows in their thirties, who didn’t dare turn a word on their mother.

As the teacups were handed round, Sarah took two into the bedroom, where she found Pate in deep conversation with Daniel. They stopped talking as she handed them cups of tea.

“Has a’ the squawkin’ no’ stopped yet?” Pate sighed. “It sounds like a henhoose through there.”

“What’s a menage, Pate?” Sarah asked.

“A sort o’ wee savin’ bank,” was the reply. ‘The women pit a wee thing by every week. Juist whatever they can afford. An’ they draw it oot for Christmas an’ New Year. Mary Ellen’s the banker.”

A sort of awkward silence fell then, making Sarah feel as if she had interrupted a private conversation between the two men.

“We’ll have to go soon, Pate,” she said at last. “There’s a lot still to do down at the house. Daniel will have told you that we’re moving up beside Jess and Sandy.”

Pate gave a rueful smile, “Well, dinna be strangers, the two o’ ye, for we’ll miss ye sairly, me an’ Mary Ellen.” Pate tried to smile, but failed. A silence fell for a moment or two.

“We came round to give you all our news, Pate, but we haven’t had the chance. We’ll come again tomorrow when things are quieter.”

Pate nodded, his eyes suddenly very bright. Something about those bright eyes moved Sarah to step forward and plant a kiss on his cheek.

“We could never be strangers, Pate,” she whispered.

Back in the kitchen, proceedings had been interrupted by indignant banging on the wall by Tricky next door.

“Keep that noise doon,” he bawled. “Ah’ve ma work tae get up for in the mornin’.”

Amid the laughter, Mary Ellen and Sarah escaped to the kitchen, where Sarah gave a hurried account of the removal to the farm cottage. Mary Ellen nodded approval.

“The right move, lass, as long as you keep the Wee School goin’ in the meantime. An’ you and Daniel can have your dinner here, mind,” she told Sarah as they parted company.

Sarah nodded happily. The thought of it comforted her.

“We’ll come back tomorrow and give you all the news,” she said, fetching her coat and taking her leave.

On the way home, and later, in the quietness of the house where they ate some bread and cheese, Daniel seemed preoccupied and said little. She didn’t know that behind his calm exterior, his mind was racing. Pate had told him of hearing noises in the night. Rumblings louder than those before, and lasting longer.

“The colonel’s back.” Daniel had done his best to reassure his friend. “I’ll go up to the house first thing in the morning and tell him and Miss Bunty about this. See what they make of it.”

Sarah shivered. She suddenly felt cold.

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”.