STOCKPORT, CHESHIRE, ENGLAND
DEATH AND BIRTH
The keening began on the first day of the wake for young Nan Elliott. By sunrise of that May morning, her body had been laid out and dressed, then tenderly arranged on the worn timber table, her fair hair brushed and the new wedding shoes placed on her feet. Her parents, Nancy and John, fussed over her for a few moments, placing her hands across her chest, arranging the skirt of her blue muslin wedding dress in folds over her wasted legs and gently lifting her head to slip on the blue and white bonnet to cover the bare patches of scalp where Nan’s hair had fallen out. They stepped back and looked at their daughter with exhausted tears sliding down their haggard faces. She had been so beautiful, but despite the best efforts of the women who had so lovingly laid her out, there was no hiding the fact that Nan’s had been a hard death.
The winter of 1822/23 had been a particularly harsh one in northern England. For Stockport families who were still feeling the devastating effects of the 1817 Blanketeers March and the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, the weeks of bitter cold, endless rain and fierce winds seemed too much to bear. Then the Great Snow Storm of the 8th of February 1823 had left their town under so much snow that roofs caved in, windows cracked, walls groaned, and men, women and children with small shovels and bare hands were forced to tunnel their way out of their own houses and along the streets buried deep under snow to reach the mills. For they must work, even when it meant risking their lives to get to their stations at the looms, the spinning mules, the printing tables and the dye pits. No work meant no wages. No wages meant no food and no wood or coal for the fires. No fires meant a soul could freeze to death inside their own home. And some ended their lives that way during that terrible blizzard.
The wind cut into the mill workers as they made their way to work in the dark on the morning of that eighth day of February. The snow was already up to the knees of a grown man, but they’d seen many a snow storm before and this one began as they all did, with freezing winds, black clouds and snow swirling about them as they left their homes. As the day progressed, the wind became a screeching howl that could be heard above the din of the mill machinery. The mill workers went about their business, but there was no going home for the morning or midday break. Without exception, all chose to stay inside their workplaces, making do with the bread, cheese and pies they carried in their pockets and lunch pails.
They expected the storm to have passed by the time their twelve hour shifts were done, but it was not to be. They were forced to battle their way home in the dark through much deeper snow which came up to the chest of the tallest men, their bare hands creating a deep trench through the snow as they did so. Children were hoisted onto to shoulders or joined hands to hold themselves steady against the onslaught. The snow drove horizontally into their bare faces like stinging needles and the wind caught at their breath so that they must bend into it to keep moving forward.
John Elliott shepherded his family through the deep drifts, feeling the shock of the bitter cold as he came out of the warm mill. He pulled his flat cap down over his forehead, buttoned his jacket and wound the thick wool scarf tighter around his neck, then ensured that his children were equally prepared before stepping outside. He’d not brought a lamp with him, as the light from all the unshuttered windows was usually enough to navigate their way in the dark, but many others had thought to bring lamps and he followed their specks of light along the darkened streets, squinting his eyes against the fierceness of the gale. No light pierced the windows of the cottages and houses around him on this night as curtains had been drawn and shutters latched against the gale force winds early in the day.
It was normally only a short walk between the old mill built along the banks of the River Mersey on Mill Street, through the Market Place, up Little Underbank to his cottage on Lower Hillgate, but tonight it seemed endless. Eighteen year old Nan and fourteen year old Ellen pulled their shawls tighter around their heads and shoulders as they closely followed their Da. Their calico mob caps provided scant warmth under their shawls. Twelve year old Joseph and seven year old Johnny copied their father by pulling their caps down and buttoning their jackets, but it was no protection from the elements. When young Johnny slipped on the icy footpath, his vigilant father scooped him up and held him tight to his chest. Joseph grasped the back of his father’s coat and concentrated hard on keeping up and not losing his footing. The girls stayed in their father’s wake, reassured by his confident strides through the darkness. John glanced back frequently to ensure they were close by.
One by one, doorways opened around them as snow was pushed aside and workers disappeared into the shelter of their homes. On this night, John was grateful that they lived on Lower Hillgate and not further up the side of the valley on the steep road south that became Middle Hillgate and Higher Hillgate, for those mill workers must battle the incline as well as the wind and snow. He knew some of them would stumble through their doors completely spent simply from the effort of getting home. And not all of them had warm fires and loving families waiting for them. He had much to be thankful for.
Finally, they reached their own cottage. They were chilled to the bone and wet through. John pushed the door open to find Nancy waiting for them with relief visible on her face. She gave them flannel cloths to dry off with and hot sweet tea to warm them. The atmosphere in their small thatched cottage was reassuring and welcoming. The fire in the deep inglenook fireplace was roaring, bread straight out of the bread oven was cooling on the oak mantel above the fireplace, the table was set with the white tablecloth for their evening meal, two year old Sammy was playing happily in the wooden play pen next to the table and Dahdo Joe, too frail now to work alongside his son-in-law John in the mill, was there to help them off with their wet clogs and outer garments. Once the children were inside, John pushed the door shut behind him, drew the heavy curtain across the doorway to exclude the draft that seeped in under the door, and tended to his family. He prayed that the storm would blow itself out before the morning, for the trip to the mill must be made again before sunrise.
As John and the boys removed their wet trousers, woollen hose and jackets, Nan and Ellen slipped off their blouses, skirts, flannel petticoats and stockings, sponged off the grime from the hems and hung them with the boys’ clothes over the drying rack which was lowered from the ceiling and raised again when full. They turned before the fire until their damp chemises felt warm and dry, then Mam handed them their woollen night shawls to drape around their shoulders at the table.
Joseph and Johnny, clad only in their long winter shirts, quickly cleaned and polished everyone’s wooden-soled clogs, rubbed the leather uppers with linseed oil and arranged them neatly on the hearth. Shoes were expensive and Mam insisted that they be diligently cared for. A few moments were spent turning and turning again before the fire to dry off any dampness in their shirts, the old slate floor warm under their bare feet. Sufficiently dried out and their evening chores done, they washed their hands in the basin on the sideboard after their sisters, let their mother check that they were clean and respectable, wrapped their night shawls around their shoulders and pulled up their chairs at the table.
Nancy arranged a heavy shawl around her husband’s bony shoulders, put the still-warm bread and the pan of stew in the centre of the table and the evening meal commenced.
All was well.
Nan started coughing while they ate their bacon stew. Nancy moved her closer to the fire, but the cough persisted. She’d had an irritable cough for weeks now, but so many of the mill workers had the same cough brought on by the ever present cotton dust inside the mills and aggravated by the cold winter. For many it cleared up when the winter was over, but for some it stayed and became the brown lung, a fearful condition that took many lives too soon, or the bleeding lungs of consumption which needed no cotton dust to aggravate it. Nancy watched over her daughter with great care. The cough tonight was dry and for that, Nancy was grateful. It was the wet cough and the shortness of breath that was feared so much.
Despite her cough and the fatigue that was common to all of them after a day at the mill, Nan was full of chatter about her forthcoming wedding to her fiancé, Billy Harrop who lived at the top end of their street at Upper Hillgate. The banns had been read in church and the date set for the second week of June. Nancy had bought a length of fine pale blue muslin with white lawn to line it and dark blue ribbon to trim it and had already cut out the wedding dress. Tomorrow she would begin stitching it. It would be in the latest style that young Nan liked so much: low in the neckline, short puff sleeves and the skirt caught into gathers under the bust to fall softly to the ground. The short stay that lifted the bust was being made by the corset maker. Then there was the bonnet to make and the leftover fabric to be taken to the shoemaker for the wedding slippers. Nancy knew her daughter and young Billy had a life without luxuries ahead of them and she wanted the pretty girl to have something lovely, just once in her life. Although Nan normally paid for her own clothes out of her own wages, Nancy would carry the expense of the wedding. She’d worked hard at her dressmaking and saved scrupulously to ensure there were coins to spare for just such an occasion. It was to be the first wedding in the family and they were all excited by the prospect.
Nancy Elliott was renowned in the old part of town for her fine stitching and it was her dressmaking money that afforded her the privilege of staying at home with her children before they began their working life in the mill when they turned six. Not all mothers were so fortunate as to have a skill like Nancy’s. Many of them went back to work a month after their babies were born, leaving their infants in the care of a children’s nurse, usually a neighbour too old or frail to work in the mills. Such a woman, Old Nellie, lived next door to the Elliotts. The babies were kept clean and safe, and were taken to the mill in an old handcart three times during the day to be fed by their mothers until they were weaned after their first birthdays. Then they were fed porridge and milk by the nurse until the day’s work was done and the anxious mothers returned home. Although it was well known that Old Nellie was a kindly soul who took her responsibilities seriously, there were days when Nancy heard those babies crying and she knew it was their mothers they cried for. Nancy knew she was blessed, more so than most.
As the meal progressed, Nan stopped chattering and coughed less often, but she looked more tired than usual. Nancy felt an unease when she looked at her daughter’s pale face. She needed sunshine and warm clean air, but both were a long way off yet in this bitter winter.
After the plates and cups had been cleared and washed, Nancy lit the night candle, lifted a tired and grisly Sammy out of the playpen and went upstairs with the children to prepare for bed. The upper room had a double casement window at the front which overlooked the street, and another smaller window at the back which faced the steep hill that rose up behind their cottage. That slope had once been a field with grazing sheep, wild berries and fruit trees, and Mam had grown turnips, potatoes and onions there to begin with, but a narrow road called High Street which came off Lower Hillgate had been built to climb the slope and now houses crawled up the side of the hill. A mill was being built near the crest and the Elliotts had heard that a tunnel was being dug to channel water from the river to the mill. Nancy thought this to be a remarkable feat, one of many such marvels in Stockport.
Despite the houses looming over their old thatched cottage, a tiny plot of land remained at the base of the hill which gave them just enough room for a deep cesspit for their refuse. Because of the cesspit’s smell, the narrow downstairs back door next to the sideboard was kept closed. It was well known that miasma, the bad smell that came from privies and cesspits, caused disease, so Da dug a new hole and filled in the old cesspit every summer and, for a few brief weeks, the back door and back upstairs window could remain open. The rest of the year they remained shut, except to briefly open the door and throw out the kitchen scraps and the contents of the chamber pots.
The small upstairs sleeping chamber was crammed with furniture. Nancy and John’s bed was pushed up against the front wall, with a blanket box at the foot of the bed and a chest of drawers with mirror, wash basin, jug and brushes upon it. A small cot sat by the head of the bed. The boys’ narrow bed was against the back wall with the girls’ bed between, leaving just enough space for a couple of people to stand between beds at any given time. Shelving above the beds held clothing and personal items, and hooks by the door allowed the dresses and coats to be hung to keep them from creasing. Other possessions were kept in boxes under the beds. As small as it was, the room was a testament to Nancy’s good organisational skills.
The wide chimney breast took up valuable space in the room, but it gave out a gentle warmth which was much welcomed during the winter months, although on this night there was definitely an extra chill to the air. The girls considered themselves fortunate to be closest to the chimney breast and away from the windows in winter, but in summer it made the room stuffy. The boys sometimes complained that the small back window leaked cold air, but John told them that a room must have some air and boys should not complain of such things. He and Nancy also felt a draft from the front window above their bed, but they just pulled their blankets up higher and so should the boys.
Nancy changed Sammy’s nappy and tucked him into the cot while Nan and Ellen brushed and braided each other’s hair. She then supervised them all with crisp instructions, fussing over the flannel nightdresses and nightshirts worn over their winter underclothes, pulling their woollen nightcaps down over their ears and their thick knitted bed socks up to their knees. Each in turn used the chamber pot under the girls’ bed and cleaned themselves with the old rags kept in a basin nearby. Their mother chided the boys for missing and made them mop up the dribbles on the floor boards, all the while noting that their aim was getting better, for they’d missed the rag rug between the beds tonight. Nancy would normally carry the chamber pot downstairs and empty it out the back before retiring, but tonight the chamber pot was pushed back under the bed. If there was too much snow to open the back door in the morning, it could be emptied out the back window. She put the basin of soiled rags by the door to take downstairs to rinse out later.
The children sat on the edge of their beds, bowed their heads while their mother prayed for the Holy Mother to watch over them as they slept, then gratefully snuggled down, top to tail, under the layers of flannel sheets and woollen blankets. Sammy watched on with sleepy eyes. Feeling the chill of the air on her cheek, Nancy pulled extra blankets from the blanket box at the end of her bed and added them to her children’s bedding. As she walked out with the candle in her hand, she saw young Nan reach over and pat little Sammy gently to get him off to sleep. She knew they would both be asleep within minutes.
As Nancy put her foot on the top step, she heard an unfamiliar cracking sound above her and looked up. The heavy rafters and thick thatch had withstood many storms and several feet of snow before, but she wondered just how much it could take. Many times she’d been grateful for the hill behind them, for it often provided protection from the prevailing south-westerly winds. But the blizzard seemed to be coming from the north now, screaming its way unchecked along Lower Hillgate. The storm this night was like nothing she could remember before.
Downstairs, John and Dahdo Joe took up their places on the cushioned bench seats either side of the fireplace, their mugs of ale and pipes giving them the evening comfort that preceded a good night’s sleep. Joe’s bench seat would become his bed in another hour, with the pillow and blankets stored under the seat used to cover him. It was the warmest place in the cottage and he never complained about the narrowness of the bench. He wasn’t a big man and, coming as he did from the deprivations of a particularly brutal childhood, he always said he didn’t need much in this life to bring him contentment. A good fire, a full belly and a clean bed were more than enough. Nancy often felt especially blessed with her gentle father. And doubly blessed with the good man who was her husband.
Nancy took up her mending and sat closest to the fire where the light was best. And the warmth. She felt the cold more than the men folk, despite her heavy flannel petticoat and woollen stockings. There was an ache to her hands tonight as she stitched, but she thought it not worth mentioning when she looked over at her father’s hands, twisted and deformed with the rheumatism, and his bad knees and thin legs barely able to hold his skinny body upright. She knew her Da to be in terrible pain some days and there’d been occasions when laudanum had been needed to comfort him, but mostly he passed little comment about it. The example was set for her and she considered it an admirable one.
Usually, there was talk around the fireplace about the mills or the latest workers’ protest meeting and who might be speaking at the next one, or about the children. Sometimes, there was gossip to be shared and other nights, especially during the warmer months, John might produce his fiddle and Nancy and Joe would join him in a song from the old country. But there was little idle chat this night with the howling gale outside.
It wasn’t much later, though, when John suddenly looked up and said, “The wind’s down.”
Nancy listened. It was indeed quieter, but in the relative silence they heard other noises, unfamiliar noises, as if the cottage was straining hard against something. A strange creaking sound was heard near the front door. She looked at her husband and father uncertainly, then rose and went to the window. She’d shut the window against the cold several days ago, but that morning, as the wind had picked up, she’d also pulled the heavy timber shutters across and dropped the strong iron latch in place to secure them. Now she pulled the curtain aside, raised the latch on the shutters, opened them and gasped. John and Dahdo Joe were by her side in an instant.
Compacted snow pressed against the glass window right up to the top, dirty white in the orange glow of the fire. The entire double casement window, made up of small diamond shaped panes of glass, was bowed inward. As they looked, a sound like a pistol shot was heard as some of the glass shattered and flew apart around them. John hastily reached over his wife’s shoulder and pushed the timber shutter closed again, dropping the latch to secure it. He pulled Nancy and Joe away, quickly checking to see they’d come to no harm and dropped the curtain back in place. As he did so, they heard another loud cracking sound from upstairs, this time much deeper and louder. Alarmed, the three adults hurried up the steep, narrow stairs with a candle, fear giving Dahdo Joe’s bad knees the impetus to keep up.
All looked well at first. The children were still soundly asleep. Then Nancy felt a draft across her face and looked up. “Mother of God preserve us!” One of the heavy oak rafters had cracked and was sagging under the visibly sinking thatch.
John cried urgently, “Get the children downstairs!” He flung the blankets off the sleeping boys. “Johnny, Joseph, wake up!”
Dahdo Joe reached forward, lifted the smaller boy into his arms and started moving toward the door on his rickety old legs. Joseph awoke as his father pulled him from the bed. “Downstairs, boy! Make haste!”
Nancy roused the girls quickly, lifting Sammy out of the cot and handing him to Nan. “Quickly, Nan. Take care down the stairs!” Confused and still not quite awake, the children stumbled their way down the stairs with Dahdo Joe, then waited at the bottom, looking up to see what would happen next.
Once the children were safely downstairs, John and Nancy began frantically gathering up the bedding, the three straw filled mattresses, their clothing and what possessions they could carry and took them downstairs. The rope beds, blanket box and chest of drawers would have to stay where they were, but John was able to get the cot downstairs without too much effort. The roof continued to crack and groan. After several anxious trips up and down the darkened staircase with ears peeled and eyes cast upward, John finally secured the thumb latch on the rarely used door at the base of the stairs. If the roof did cave in, they’d need as much between them and the upstairs as possible. The stairwell door was lighter than the heavy oak front door, but solid enough to provide another layer of protection.
Breathless from the exertion, Nancy, John and Joe comforted the frightened children. Nan, still cradling Sammy in her arms, asked tremulously, “Will it come down atop us, Da?”
John reassured her, although he was not entirely convinced by his own words. “Come down it may, dear, but not upon us.” He pointed up at the low beams above their heads. “The rafters be strong. They will take the weight of all that God be sending us this night, never you fear.” He hoped what he said was true, for it would be the upper floor trusses that had to hold. The two hundred year old floor was solid oak with heavy beams carrying the weight of the upper storey on the two-foot thick stone walls of the cottage. It was built like a cave in a mountainside. Surely it would hold. It must hold!
Nancy began bustling around, busying herself with arranging the bedding and belongings in the small downstairs room and issuing instructions in her usual manner, which were obeyed without question by all. The table was moved against the wall and John and Dahdo Joe pushed the benches apart to make room for the mattresses on the floor. Nancy made them up with the bedding and pillows and the younger children quickly huddled under the blankets. Nan was more aware of the danger and could not settle, so she sat up with her parents, Sammy cradled in her arms, her face fearful as the house cracked and moaned around them. She began to cough a little. Her grandfather put a shawl around her and Sammy and held them close. “Be calm, child, all will be well. We’re in the Holy Mother’s hands now.” He patted her shoulder. “You be laying your head on my shoulder and closing your pretty eyes. And say your sleeping prayers for our good fortune. Our Lady will be hearing you, even through the storm.” Nan nodded wordlessly and laid her head against him. Sammy slept peacefully in her arms.
Nancy watched as exhaustion overcame anxiety and the younger children slipped back into sleep. She took her rosary beads from her pocket and fingered them without praying. She could not concentrate enough to pray with the noises of the imperilled cottage all around her, but just the feel of the worn wooden beads gave her comfort. They had been her grandmother’s grandmother’s and been held just so on many an anxious occasion.
Nancy saw John scanning the thick ceiling beams that ran the length of the room and whispered. “Will it hold if the roof comes down?”
He whispered back, “I’ll not be knowing that, Nancy. I’ve no way of knowing how much snow is atop us.”
Dahdo Joe said quietly, “There may be a sight of it on the other side the street. From the upstairs window?”
“Indeed, there may be, but it be perilous up there.”
“I’ll be going up to look, John, for I need to be knowing myself.”
John looked thoughtfully at his father-in-law a moment, then said, “Aye, I need to be knowing, too.” He rose and put a restraining hand on Dahdo Joe’s shoulder. “You be staying here with Nancy, Dahdo. Those knees be suffering enough for one night.”
Nancy held him back by the arm. “Tis not safe, John!”
“I’ll be taking care, Nancy dear. I’ll be back down those stairs quick as lightning if I’m afeared.” He gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, lit the night candle, unlatched the stairwell door and cautiously went up. No further damage could be seen, although the terrible noises continued unabated. John went to the front bedroom window, lifted the latch and pushed the window out. In an instant, the candle went out and he was plunged into blackness.
The wind was howling up the street, but for some reason not coming in through the window as John expected. In fact, he felt almost sucked towards the window as if it had become a chimney, drawing him out like smoke from a fireplace. He was mystified. John put his hand out to feel the wind and was clear of the eave above the window before he felt the force of the gale and the icy snowflakes cut into his skin. He withdrew his hand quickly and leaned out as far as he could without getting his face into the wind. After a moment, his eyes adjusted to the blackness and he could make out the shadow and shape of things. It was a sight that filled his heart with dread.
The snow came right up to the first floor of the cottages and houses lining the entire length of Lower Hillgate. It was as if the street had disappeared. It took another moment to get his bearings, then as the wind gusted he saw glimpses of glowing chimney tops. His eyes adjusted a little more and suddenly, through a gap in the driven snow, he saw a glimpse of a candle in the window of the cottage directly opposite him. The McNamaras were doing the same thing he was. And in that glimpse, John saw the outline of the McNamara’s roof, a slightly lighter shade of blackness than the sky behind it. The roof was buried under so much snow that it looked like another storey had been added to it. It was far worse than he could have imagined, for he knew the roof above his head carried equally as much snow. And the houses on the hill behind his cottage as much again. If that came down, his cottage would be buried under an avalanche.
John closed the window quickly, feeling the freezing air seeping under its old frame, then made his way toward the stairs and carefully navigated down by the glow from the fire. He closed the door at the bottom and dropped the latch quietly. He did not want to alarm his family any more than they were already, but there would be little sleep that night.
Nancy and Dahdo Joe looked at John expectantly. He instructed his wife, “Keep the fire high,” and went to check on the latched front and back doors, now knowing the snow to be packed high behind both. They were solid enough. The wooden window shutters were solid, too, and the stone walls over two feet thick. As long as the first floor trusses held, they should survive if the thatched roof came down. What might happen if the snow broke free from the roofs of the houses behind the cottage was another matter. He would not bring that to his wife’s attention, for there was enough to worry her already.
Nancy said anxiously, “Is it bad?”
“It is, Nancy, there’s no denying it. But there’s nowt we can do.”
“Your Da and your brother and Betty and the bairns…” Nancy’s face reflected her fear. John’s father, Jimmy Elliott, and his brother, Jim lived on the same road further up the valley on Upper Hillgate. Their cottage was old, thatched and sturdy, too, unlike the newer houses being built to the west of Hillgate. John knew his father and brother to be capable men. They would be doing much the same as he was tonight.
“They must fare as best they can, just as we must. Upper Hillgate will be much the same as here. There’ll be none spared this storm tonight, rich and poor alike.”
Nancy shivered. “There be a draft coming in under that stair door.” She rose to gather up some cloths to block it off.
Dahdo Joe said, “Leave it, girl. Tis all the air we’ll be getting til this be over. You’ll be suffocating us if you block that off.”
Nancy pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Her father was right. She’d heard of whole families found suffocated in closed up cottages after severe storms, their fireplaces using up the air, the people inside drifting into unconsciousness without realising the danger. A little cold air was a small price to pay.
She stepped over the children to put more wood on the fire and wondered briefly, as had her husband, how the people in the new part of town were faring. The houses there were poorly constructed with thin brick walls that you could hear the neighbours through, flimsy looking slate tiled roofs and those small coal fireplaces that she disliked so much. She didn’t believe they gave out the same heat that the deep wood-burning inglenook fireplaces did. And coal fires smelled wrong to her. She liked the smell and colour of wood smoke. Only stinking black smoke came from the coal burning fires, like the smoke from the mills. But there was little choice for the workers who manned the mills and who seemed to be pouring into the town in ever increasing numbers. The mill owners, interested only in profits, built cheap houses for their workers with little regard for the comfort and needs of those living in them.
The streets of new terrace houses were appearing at a staggering rate. On a crisp, sunny day at the end of last autumn, Nancy had left young Sammy with Brigitte McNamara and had walked up the side of the valley, through the fields along Lord Lane to the west of Hillgate, right up to Weaver’s Row to visit an elderly woman she knew who came from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, her birthplace in Ireland. Then she’d strolled back towards Upper Hillgate to visit her sister-in-law, Betty Elliott, on her way home. She’d been amazed at the many streets and houses that had not been there six months earlier. There was a whole new town being built there. She knew Nan and Billy were planning on finding lodgings there after they were wed.
All the young people wanted to be in the new part of Stockport and she wondered what the appeal was. But then, when she and John were young, they had not wanted the old ways either. They had wanted a new way of living, a better way, which is why they’d left Ireland and come to England. When they’d found the cottage on Lower Hillgate, they felt they’d already come up in the world, for it was larger than the tiny low roofed croft they’d shared with the other Elliotts in Enniskillen, and back then they’d still had the hillside behind them to grow vegetables and keep poultry before High Street had been built and the hillside covered in houses and manufactories. She supposed that Nan and Billy felt the same way about moving to one of the modern terrace houses in the new town.
Before she’d left Weaver’s Row that day, Nancy had looked west to where the New Road was being constructed. She could hear the sounds of the workers from where she stood and, from this high up, could see the road running north-south to connect Manchester to the London road. The road would span the Mersey River west of the old Lancashire Bridge and would be higher and wider than the old bridge, crossing over old Chestergate road on tall brick arches. A marvel to behold indeed. John had come home from the public house a few weeks earlier to tell her that the road would be called Wellington Road and the bridge Wellington Bridge, even though they were referred to as New Road and New Bridge for now. Grand names for grand constructions. There was talk of fine buildings to be constructed along the road in the next few years. They were to bypass old Stockport completely. From where she stood, the road looked level and straight as an arrow, a departure from the steep, narrow, winding roads of the old town. She was impressed.
Across the New Road was the beginning of an enormous construction on Spring Bank, another mill which John had told her would reach six stories and provide employment for hundreds of spinners and weavers in the new town. The old Mill Street mill that John worked in had stood in Stockport for over twenty years, but was only three stories and considerably smaller, employing only two hundred men, women and children.
John had told her many times that the old mill was a fire trap, built of timber, whereas the big new mills were built of steel and brick and supposedly fireproof. Mill fires were not uncommon and feared greatly. The looms in the Mill Street mill were out of date compared to the machinery going into the new mills, but he was familiar with the ways of the old mill, the mill owner had not lowered the wages as much as many of the larger mills and so he felt no inclination to go elsewhere.
Nancy had then looked down the slope towards the river. There was talk of Lord Lane being built up, too, the pretty fields buried under a new sea of roads, mills, businesses and red brick houses. Nancy felt it a pity that these open spaces would soon be gone. They’d been a destination, an escape for the mill workers on warm summer Sundays, a safe place to stroll without having to go far out into the countryside. Then she would think of the lush Irish countryside of her childhood and the accompanying hardship of failed crops and no work, and decided the sacrifice of pretty fields for food on the table and a roof over their heads was well worth it.
She’d walked back along the new streets and thought the row upon row of brick slate-roofed terrace houses to be harsh and charmless in appearance, each street looking just like the next one, even the shop fronts and public houses. There were no garden plots behind the houses. Instead, narrow lanes, courts and alleys had been built behind every cobbled street, some of the courts only connected to the street by a low narrow passage between houses. As far as Nancy could see, a single privy or cesspit served the needs of many houses. She thought that was unsanitary, having always had her own cesspit, and wondered whose responsibility it would be to maintain them. She shuddered at the thought.
Although building was still being carried out around her, people were moving in as she walked past, their possessions in hand carts and the heavier items on carter’s wagons. There was talk of a gasworks being built in Stockport and street lighting installed, but she saw no sign of that in the new town yet.
From Weavers Row she’d walked along Ridgeway Street, then through one of the little passage ways into Foggs Court, through another passage into Edward Street, turned right at Bradshaw Street, crossed Bamford Street, along a winding alley between tall houses and into Mottram Street. On the south side of Mottram Street were labourers marking out fields for a new mill and reservoir. She walked on past them into Ratcliffe Street and climbed Cross Street.
At the end of Cross Street, she saw the foundations being laid for the new church of St Thomas’s, a very modern construction without the traditional steeple of St Mary’s or St Peter’s. Instead there were columns at the entrance. Brigitte had told her it was being built in the Roman manner and they’d wondered if the Holy Father lived in such a place. It was to be a daughter church to St Mary’s, which overlooked the Market Place in the old part of town, built to accommodate the influx of people to the new town. John had mentioned that it was expected to be less draughty and more comfortable than the much larger St Mary’s, or St Peter’s west of the Market Place, and he’d a mind to attend it, which had surprised Nancy. Whilst she and John held to the Old Irish Catholicism of their ancestors in their hearts, they’d been spat on and openly abused in the street for their nationality and beliefs, and John was adamant that his English born children would not suffer the same fate. They’d attended both the Anglican St Mary’s and St Peter’s several times and found little difference to the masses of the Old Faith. And John had reminded his wife that St Mary’s had, after all, originally been consecrated in the Old Faith before the time of that evil King Henry and the English Reformation. A Catholic could be buried in the church cemetery knowing that it was acceptably consecrated ground, as indeed their own dear departed children had been. But St Thomas’s would be another matter. They would need to think upon that.
Nancy turned left into the relative quiet of Small Street and then she was in Upper Hillgate. It was suddenly as busy and noisy as Lower Hillgate, where the amount of traffic going past her front door had become, at times, a riotous jam of people, horses, coaches and carts. Most of the passing traffic was connected with the building going on in the rapidly growing town. It indicated a level of prosperity that was heartening, but increasingly difficult for Nancy to cope with. Perhaps the New Road would siphon off some of that traffic and a little order would be restored to Lower Hillgate. She could but hope.
While she’d rested over a cup of tea with her sister-in-law, Betty, she’d reminisced on how quiet Stockport had been when she had first moved there in 1802. She and John had left Ireland with her father, Joe Ridel, her sister and brothers and their families, as well as John’s parents, Jimmy and Ann Elliott, and his brother, Jim. All accomplished weavers, they’d seen the demise of their prosperous cottage industry as the manufactories were built in ever increasing numbers across the Irish Sea. John’s other brothers had chosen to emigrate to America and most of Nancy’s family to Canada, but the voyage to such far flung destinations was too much for Joseph Ridel and Ann Elliott, who both suffered terrible sea sickness crossing the Irish Sea, so they stayed in Liverpool and opted for the growing textile industry of northern England. The separation from their families was hard, but inevitable, and was the fate of many at that time.
They’d heard about the new mills of Manchester and made their way east, but found the booming town already too busy, dirty and crowded. Word of the fine market town of Stockport in the neighbouring county of Cheshire had encouraged them to cross the Lancashire Bridge where they quickly found work. Weavers experienced in the management of looms and fine cloth were in great demand. Wages were good and rent was cheap back then.
The cottage in Lower Hillgate suited them all very well to begin with. Then Nancy’s first child was on the way and Jim had met Stockport born and bred Betty. After the wedding, Jim and Betty found their own cottage in Upper Hillgate, a little bigger than the Lower Hillgate cottage, with two small rooms upstairs, and had taken his parents to live with him there.
Back in the present, as the snow storm continued to rage across northern England, Nancy fondly remembered that sunny autumn day strolling through the new part of Stockport and the comfort of that cup of tea with Betty, and again she felt sadness at the loss of her mother-in-law, for Ann Elliott had died of fever this past August. Her father-in-law, Jimmy Elliott, pined for her still. She knew her husband also missed his mother, although he was not one to show it.
Nancy had never known her own mother after whom she was named. Nancy Ridel had died giving her life. It was many years ago now and yet her father still spoke of it as if it was as recent as the loss of Ann Elliott. The bonds of love could not be broken by something as simple as death.
Nancy was suddenly jolted out of her midnight reminiscences into the moment as another sharp cracking sound was heard above her. She felt a real surge of fear as she looked up.
Nan had fallen asleep in Dahdo Joe’s embrace. The noise had not woken her. Nancy rose, took Sammy from her arms and laid him in the cot. He did not stir. She straightened up.
And then the baby inside her quickened for the first time. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Vigorously. And her concern was transferred to the new life inside her.
This pregnancy was taking a toll on her that she’d previously not known. Normally a woman of great energy, the sickness now laid her low each morning, she battled fatigue with every step and her usually high spirits were flagging. When she’d told John that there would be another mouth to feed, he’d smiled his gentle smile through his unkempt grey beard and said, “Then I’d best be putting aside another penny a week for him.” He’d dropped a penny into the cracked jar on the great oak mantel above the fireplace where they kept their rainy day money, patted her belly lovingly, and poured himself an ale before taking his seat by the fire. “And you’ll not be lifting that wood bucket when it’s full, Nancy love. You’ll be getting help or waiting til we get home. We’ll not be losing this one.”
“And I’ll be obeying you, will I?” she’d replied playfully as she gratefully returned his smile. He chuckled.
“You’ll obey me only as you see fit. As you have always done. And I’ve nothing to be complaining about there.”
“Ahh Johnny boy, I did something good to deserve you.”
“That you did, for what a fine catch I am, Nancy.” He grinned, baring what remained of his tobacco stained teeth. The two front teeth at the top were missing and the sight of his cheeky toothless grin always amused her. That grin still belonged to the handsome boy she’d fallen in love with so many years ago when he’d had all his teeth and his hair was thick and blonde. For a brief moment, she felt her spirits lift, then the sickness came upon her and she reached for the pail. It was hard work being a woman.
Nancy had delivered ten children and buried five. It was the way for most women, she knew that, but the grief and sorrow was no less for knowing it. For her, children were a blessing, not a burden, and she believed that she and John were tasked by God with providing for them, however hard that might be. At times, it had seemed almost too hard, and yet they were still here, still fighting to make a better life for their children, still struggling every week to stretch the pennies a little further, and still battling for their rights to have fair wages and work conditions. That battle had taken a heavy toll on their family with little to show for it. Whilst John had the patience and forgiveness of a saint in the ongoing struggle, Nancy was quick to anger and action, a born fighter with what had once seemed unlimited determination. But this pregnancy was draining the will to fight from her and she’d grown weary of it.
Now, as the baby inside her moved, she put her hand on her belly and looked up at John. “It would seem the storm has woken the babe.”
John reached over and placed his hand over hers. “Is he strong?”
“That is well, for he’ll need to be in this world.”
Dahdo Joe smiled at his daughter. It was a bright moment in this tension filled night.
Nancy said, “It might yet be a girl, John. Will you be minding?”
“I’ll not be minding. But if it be a girl, she’ll need to be stronger still, for tis harder in this world for girls than for boys, as well you know.”
The sudden sound of glass breaking behind the shutters made them all jump. Nan woke with a start on Dahdo Joe’s shoulder and looked around fearfully. Then she began to cough, only this time it was a wet cough from deep in her chest. Nancy and John looked at each other. They knew the sound of that cough and it filled them with dread.
Dahdo Joe held Nan firmly while she coughed and coughed, her hand up to her mouth. She seemed unable to stop. Nancy quickly fetched a cup of warm tea from the kettle and tried to give it to her, but Nan could not stop long enough to sip it. And then as suddenly as it had begun, it ended, she pulled her hand away and looked down at it. Bright red blood had splattered across the palm. She looked up at her parents in shock. “Mam? Da?”
Nancy’s heart tightened as she gave her daughter the cup of tea. “This’ll be warming you, Nan.” She watched the girl sip her tea, then felt her forehead. There was no fever. She asked tentatively, “Is there pain in your chest?”
“There is, Mam. Like it is … pinching inside.”
John took the cup. “You’ll be needing to sleep, sweet girl. And don’t you be worrying now.” He patted her cheek. It was cool, despite her closeness to the fire. “Are you warm enough?”
Nan shivered. “I’m feeling the cold, Da.”
“Tis a fearsome cold night, Nan, there’s no denying that. We’re all feeling the chill.”
Dahdo Joe took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped away the blood on Nan’s hand. “Best you be lying down now, child. Nearest the fire. Twill be warmer under the blankets.” He helped her onto the mattress and tucked her in next to her sister. She lay on her side facing the fire, exhausted from the coughing fit, and was soon asleep.
Nancy, John and Dahdo Joe sat in silence, their shoulders slumped with the knowledge of what was to come. There was nothing to be said. If they survived the blizzard, they faced losing Nan.
Nancy had lost a brother and sister to the consumption before they’d come to England, as well as two of her own children here in Stockport, and seen many other families suffer the same. It was an all too common fate.
This terrible night was one they would never forget. And yet, with the fearful blizzard raging around them and their beautiful Nan facing the inevitable weeks ahead, the baby inside Nancy continued to move and kick, busy with its own life force, unconcerned for the struggles around it. It gave its mother a glimmer of hope.
They only realised the storm was abating when the draft under the stair door eased. John opened the door cautiously and was surprised to see daylight at the top of the stairs. Leaving the children still sleeping by the fire, the three adults tentatively climbed the stairs. The roof rafter had held firm, despite the deep crack across it and the thatch sagging under the weight of the snow. They went to the front window, pushed it open and looked out. The sight was almost too unbelievable to take in.
Snow still fell softly, the wind no longer driving it. To the north could be seen the last of the cold front that had brought the extreme weather as it passed swiftly over the town. Behind it was blue sky, something they hadn’t seen much of for many months. The clouds would be gone before the hour was up.
Stockport was buried. The snow came up to the bottom of the upstairs window and, even as they looked, first floor windows were being opened up and down the street as chamber pots were emptied out. There was no choice, for ground floor doors were sealed shut by the deep snow. The surface of the snow already looked pock marked with yellow and brown stains and would worsen over the coming days.
The old cottages on the other side of Lower Hillgate were nothing but a row of windows above the snow, topped by more snow on the high pitched roofs. The taller chimneys poked their way up through the snow. They’d been built tall to prevent cinders from setting alight to the thatch, but they’d served another purpose this past night. John knew his own cottage mirrored those across the street. Further up the street toward Middle Hillgate, they could see the more modern two and three storey houses with their shorter chimneys not visible, and they wondered how the occupants had faired. Had they been able to keep their fires burning? Upper Hillgate was nothing more than a blur in the distance. John could only hope for the wellbeing of his father and brother and their family.
Smoke from some of the tall mill chimneys struggled upward through the still falling snow only to be carried back down with the snowflakes, creating the grey greasy snow so familiar to those living in the industrial towns in northern England. It was already covering the pristine white snow of the blizzard. But for once the smoke was a welcome sight, for smoke meant life.
The window directly opposite opened and the faces of William and Brigitte McNamara appeared. Although ten years younger, Brigitte was Nancy’s closest friend. They’d know each other as children in Enniskillen and when Brigitte had turned up in Stockport, a young bride married to an older widower with four children in tow, an abiding friendship had formed.
Brigitte saw Nancy and called out, “Did you fare well, Nancy?”
“We did, Brigitte, but the roof has not fared so well.” Their voices seemed muffled as if the surrounding snow absorbed the sound, despite the women being only a few yards apart.
John said, “The rafter cracked under the snow, but tis holding. For how long, only the Holy Mother knows.”
William asked with concern, “Are your children safe?”
“Indeed they are, but we will be living downstairs until the thaw. There’ll be no repairs while this snow lies atop us.”
William was looking along the row of cottages that flanked John and Nancy. His eyes suddenly opened wide. “Godalmighty! Old Nellie’s roof has caved in!”
John and Nancy strained to see their neighbour’s cottage without success. “Is it bad?”
“Terrible bad, John. The whole top floor has caved in. Tis nothing but pile of straw and snow I see there.”
“That would account for the fearful noises we did hear through the night.”
“Ahh, Nellie, Nellie…” William shook his head sadly.
Brigitte exclaimed, “We must go to her!”
“Indeed, we must.”
John and William exchanged a sombre look, knowing full well what they were likely to find next door. “Do you have a shovel at hand, William?”
“Then we must do what we can.”
“And with haste. My boys will help. How is it on this side, John?”
John peered up and down the street. “I can see smoke from all but the blacksmith’s house and the shoemaker’s.” He looked up at the snow covering the McNamara’s roof. “Twill be a fair avalanche if the snow comes off the roof.”
“We must be mindful of that when we leave our homes.”
“But we cannot stand by and do nothing. There will be many in need of help.”
“Well then, we must begin with Old Nellie.”
Their eyes met, acknowledging the grim task before them. “We be miners instead of weavers this day, William.”
“That we will, John. There’ll be none making it through to the mills. The looms will stand idle for now. We best be make a start.”
John nodded towards the excrement stains on the snow. “We best take care how we go or we be wearing yesterday’s breakfast.”
“What a mess twil make when it thaws!”
The men nodded to each other and turned to go, leaving the women at the windows.
Brigitte called, “Are you well, Nancy dear?”
“I am, the saints be praised. The babe quickened last night.”
“I’m that pleased to hear it.” Brigitte was the nurse midwife in Lower Hillgate and took a strong interest in the welfare of her female neighbours. “Is it moving as it should?”
“It is, but…”
Brigitte’s brow furrowed with concern. “What bothers you, Nancy?”
“Young Nan. Tis the bleeding lung, Brigitte. She was poorly last night.”
“Ahh, no, I’m troubled to hear it.” There was the sound of children’s voices behind Brigitte. “I’ll come to you as soon as I can. My own bairns be calling me.”
“And I must tend to mine.”
The women nodded to each other and closed the windows.
The aftermath of the storm was felt for many weeks. There was loss of life and property damage. Tunnels were cut through the snow until there was a network of them criss-crossing the town. Despite the conditions, workers returned to their stations within days, fearing for their jobs if they didn’t turn up. John, Ellen, Joseph and Johnny were back at the mill three days after the storm, but there was no knocker-upper to tap at their windows each morning at 6am to wake them, and so they were sometimes late. But so was everyone else. The mill owners had to be grateful they turned up at all.
The rescue work continued for a week. Frozen bodies found inside homes had to be left where they were, for they could not yet be buried. Without a lit fire, their bodies remained preserved until the freeze was over. The injured were tended to and the homeless taken in. And then when it seemed as though the good people of Stockport could take no more, the thaw began and there was flooding in the low lying parts of the town as the snow turned to filthy water and began its journey down the side of the valley towards the river. The Elliott’s cottage sat high on the sloping road with six deep steps down to the footpath and so was clear of the worst of it. Even so, Nancy still needed to seal up any gaps around the front door and closed window shutters with rags, but it was impossible to keep it all out. The narrow strip of land behind the cottage was steep enough to carry the thawing snow away, but not before it oozed through the gaps around the back door and kept her busy mopping it up.
When the funerals finally began to wend their way down the street to St Mary’s Church, Old Nellie’s was one of the first. Many more followed. Not all of them had died during the storm. There was sickness following the thaw, mostly fevers and stomach complaints that took the young and strong, as well as the children and the frail elderly. Nancy blamed it on the stench of the emptied chamber pots in the streets that had become overpowering as the snow turned to water and receded. It seemed a daily parade of grief passed her home.
A malaise settled on the town and was felt by all.
Nancy experienced it deeply. As her pregnancy advanced, she became more exhausted with each passing day. She went about her tasks without complaint, but her heart was heavy. Young Nan was slipping away from them and there was nothing they could do for her as the coughing spasms increased in frequency and severity. The cottage was filled with the sounds of her distress. After a few weeks, she was too weak to eat and could only take sips of warm tea. Brigitte came daily to bring comfort and relief, sometimes taking Sammy back to her own cottage so that Nancy might get some rest. But rest wasn’t easy. Although her body yearned for sleep, she was too afraid to close her eyes for fear of waking to find that Nan had gone from them while she napped.
Dahdo Jimmy Elliott, Uncle Jim and Aunty Betty visited Nan on Sundays with baskets of pies and pastries, their young family in tow. Betty, pregnant with her own baby, sat with Nancy and they quietly stitched away at the bonnets and smocks for the forthcoming babies. Little was said, but much comfort was gained.
Billy Harrop had turned up at the cottage two days after the storm, unable to conceal his pain when John told him of Nan’s condition. He visited her every evening on his way home from the mill. The two young lovers held hands and looked at each other longingly. Sometimes Billy stayed for the evening meal and only left when Nancy began readying the other children for sleep. It was after one such visit that Nan begged her mother to finish the wedding dress and bonnet, and to have the wedding slippers made, for she wished to be buried in them. With her heart breaking more as each day passed, Nancy sewed the dress and bonnet while Nan looked on. The young girl seemed to accept her fate without bitterness. Death was part of life. It was simply the way of the world.
The landlord came to inspect the cracked rafter upstairs. He told Nancy that he’d suffered much damage to his properties in the storm and he could not afford to rebuild Old Nellie’s cottage next door, nor could he afford to replace the rafter and re-thatch the roof for some time. He’d been a good landlord who valued tenants like the Elliotts and so he did what he could to make the cottage liveable. He sent two workmen to fix a couple of sturdy timber struts under the cracked rafter and the sagging thatch. Nancy moved her family back upstairs, the beds squeezed in around the intrusive beams in the middle of the bedroom. There was nothing more to be done there.
Nan stayed downstairs with Dahdo Joe. It was warmer there. And getting her up and down the steep stairs had become too difficult. As the baby in Nancy’s belly grew, the stairs became a trial for her, too, and she slept when she could on the bench seat opposite her father, Nan on the mattress between them.
The last week of Nan’s life was fraught with sorrow, with little comfort coming from the faith that Nancy and John had been born into. Despite still being devout Irish Catholics in their hearts, they’d fallen out with the old Stockport priest many years earlier over how much of their weekly wages they should provide to the Church. The priest was London-born, a nasty fellow, too full of the ale and a hatred for the Irish whom he regarded as unwelcome intruders in England. While he treated his few English parishioners with a small degree of respect, the Irish received little regard when he was sober and open contempt when he was drunk. It was well known that the donations of the hard working and often poor Stockport Catholics had not gone towards the maintenance of the church, but rather to the filling of the old priest’s ale jug and other more sinister habits that were only whispered of.
He had come to their home one evening, not long after the death of their firstborn son, supposedly to discuss burial arrangements. Instead, drunk and abusive, he railed against the filthy Irish and, in particular, the Elliotts, for putting their mortal needs before the welfare of their holy priest by spending money on a coffin for the small boy rather than giving coin to the church. Dahdo Joe, who had long ago turned his back on the church for reasons he was loath to discuss, had gone upstairs, too angry to stay in the same room as the priest. John had thrown the priest out and refused to attend his church ever again. It was then that John and Nancy had looked towards the Church of England for their children’s salvation, even though their own hearts would always belong to the Old Faith in its untainted Irish form.
But for the dying, the last rites of the Old Faith must be performed and, as far as Nancy was concerned, the Church of England had no substitute for that. So she reluctantly sent John for the old priest to administer the last rites to her dying daughter, for surely he could not refuse. But it wasn’t the old priest who came. The priest who came was a young man, Irish-born and recently arrived from County Down. He informed the Elliotts that the old priest had retired and gone back to London. Nancy was relieved. Stockport was the young priest’s first English parish, he had a kindly manner about him and his gentle Irish speech was a welcome sound to Nancy’s ears. He did not stay long, for his duties were many, but he did what was needed for Nan, blessed Nancy and the baby in her belly, and shook his head sadly as he left. The sick girl’s suffering had moved him deeply.
Nan mercifully slipped into a coma in the final days, her face grey and gaunt, her skeletal frame hardly visible under the blankets, her breath coming in short, shallow gasps. The struggle for life finally became too much and, cradled in John’s arms, she breathed her last during the night of the ninth of May, Nancy and Dahdo Joe weeping softly by her side.
John laid his daughter back on the pillow. Nancy placed a lit candle in the window and, within the hour, Brigitte had arrived with one of her older sons in tow. She’d risen from her bed to feed her baby and seen the candle. She sent her son off to fetch some of the neighbours – Charlotte West, Beth Taylor, Sarah Pollitt and Betty Wignall, all good friends who had helped out over the terrible weeks of Nan’s illness. Another son was dispatched to John’s brother, Jim and an hour later Betty Elliott joined the women. They came quietly with basins and cloths, sent John and Dahdo Joe upstairs to sleep and began the business of laying out the body, for it must be done quickly, before the limbs stiffened.
But before they cleared the table to make room for the body, the women, deeply concerned by Nancy’s gaunt appearance, bedded her down on the bench seat. Despite her growing belly, she’d become very thin and pale whilst caring for her daughter. The dark circles under her eyes and the slump of her shoulders testified to the weariness she felt. She was not due to deliver the new baby for another month, but Brigitte, ever the midwife, commented that she looked ready now, for the baby was lying low underneath the cotton dress.
Nancy lay down without objection and watched in silence as her friends gently laid the body on the table, undressed it and began to wash the rank stench of sickness off her daughter. She closed her eyes gratefully and woke again as the knocker-upper tapped at the upstairs window to wake the family. The knocker-upper was an old man, no longer able to stand all day at the looms, but still needing to pay the rent and feed himself. His job was to rise early and walk the streets with the long sturdy pole that tapped on the windows of the workers who were willing to pay him a penny a day for his trouble. As he passed, he saw the candle in the window and quickly took his hat off, nodding respectfully to Charlotte and Beth as they went to the pump to collect water. It was a familiar sight to one who had lived so long, but it still saddened him. He put his hat back on and moved on to the next house.
Nancy rose awkwardly, the baby in her womb indeed feeling low and heavy. But it moved as she stood up, so for now she need not be concerned for it. She went to her daughter. Her friends had completed their task and cleaned up around them, the clothing and linen rolled up in their baskets to be taken to their own homes, washed and brought back after the funeral. The smell of lye soap was strong in the warm room.
Nancy had a moment alone by her daughter’s side. She was rendered numb by her grief and could only stare at what had once been a bright, beautiful girl. The women turned away respectfully to give her the moment and quietly busied themselves with preparations for the wake.
John came downstairs, his black armband in place over his black coat sleeve and stood on the other side of the table. The wedding bonnet still lay next to Nan’s head. The women had known that Nancy would want to do this last part of the laying out ritual herself. Together, Nancy and John lifted their daughter’s head, slipped the bonnet over the thinned hair and tied it gently under the chin. Then they folded her gloved hands across her chest and arranged the fabric of her blue wedding dress over her wasted legs. The wedding slippers looked too big on the skeletal feet. One of Nan’s eyes would not close completely, making her haggard face look distorted. It was a pitiable sight indeed.
It was too much for Nancy and she sobbed. John came to his wife and embraced her, their exhausted tears running unchecked down their faces.
Then Dahdo Joe and the children came downstairs and stood around the table with tearful eyes and lowered heads. Dahdo Joe and the boys wore their black armbands and Ellen had dressed in the simple black cotton skirt and blouse that young Nan had so recently worn after their grandmother’s death. Ellen held young Sammy in her arms. The toddler stared at the body of his sister uncomprehendingly. Brigitte took him from Ellen, gave him a crust to chew on and put him in the playpen. Ellen and the boys began to weep. John and Nancy comforted them and, in doing so, were lifted a little out of their own grief and felt more able to go on.
Sarah, Beth, Charlotte and the two Betty’s picked up their baskets, farewelled the Elliotts with a few kind words and left to go to their own homes. Brigitte was making porridge over the fire. She called the family to breakfast, reminding them gently that they must not be late for the mill, then crossed the street to tend to her own family. All but Nancy and Dahdo Joe sat on the bench seats and silently ate their breakfast, their bowls warm in their hands. They would be back in two hours for the morning break and another meal of porridge and bread. The midday meal would be potatoes slathered in the gravy from the stew that Betty Elliott had brought them the evening before.
Dahdo Joe left to go to St Mary’s to see the curate, the grave digger and the coffin maker. A funeral must be arranged. Ellen kissed Sammy in the playpen, and the Elliotts went to work just as if it was any other day. But it was not just another day.
The wake would have to begin without them.
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