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Authors: Catherine Cookson

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Feathers in the Fire

BOOK: Feathers in the Fire
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Table of Contents

The Catherine Cookson Story

In brief:

Her books have sold over 130 million copies in 26 languages throughout the world and still counting . . .

Catherine Cookson was born Katherine Ann McMullen on June 27th, 1906 in the bleak industrial heartland of Tyne Dock, South Shields (then part of County Durham) and later moved to East Jarrow which is now in Tyne and Wear.

She was the illegitimate daughter of Kate Fawcett, an alcoholic, whom she thought was her sister. She was raised by her grandparents, Rose and John McMullen. The poverty, exploitation and bigotry she experienced in her early years aroused deep emotions that stayed with her throughout her life and which became part of her stories. Catherine left school at 13 and after a period of domestic service, she took a job in a laundry at Harton Workhouse in South Shields. In 1929, she moved south to run the laundry at Hastings Workhouse, working all hours and saving every penny to buy a large Victorian house. She took in gentleman and lady lodgers to supplement her income and took up fencing as one of her hobbies. One of her lodgers was Tom Cookson, a teacher at Hastings Grammar School and in June 1940 they married. They were devoted to each other throughout their lives together. But the early years of her marriage were beset by the tragic miscarriage of four pregnancies and her subsequent mental breakdown. This took her over a decade to recover from, which she did, often by standing in front of a mirror and giving herself a damn good swearing at!

Catherine took up writing as a form of therapy to deal with her depression and joined the Hastings Writers’ Group. Her first novel, Kate Hannigan, was published in 1950. In 1976, she returned to Northumberland with Tom and went on to write 104 books in all. She became one of the most successful novelists of all time and was one of the first authors to have 3 or 4 titles in the Bestseller Lists at the same time.

She read widely: from Chaucer to the literature of the 1920s; to Plato’s
Apologia
on the trial and death of Socrates (she said that here was someone who stuck to his principles even unto death); to history of the nineteenth century and the Romantic poets; to
Lord Chesterfield’s Letters To His Son
and the books and booklets that abounded in her part of the country dealing with coal, iron, lead, glass, farming and the railways. She disliked it when her books were labeled as ‘romantic’. To her, they were ‘readable social history of the North East interwoven into the lives of the people’. For the millions of her readers, she brought ‘an understanding of themselves or perhaps of their dear ones. Her stories do not bring in a realism in which the worst is taken for granted, but a realism in which love, caring and compassion appear, and most certainly hope. ‘This type of realism does exist,’ Tom Cookson said of her writing. There is nothing sentimental about her writing; she is unrelenting in the strong images she invokes and the characters she portrays. They were born of her formative years and her personal struggles. Many of her novels have been transferred to stage, film and radio with her television adaptations on ITV lasting over a decade and achieving ratings of over 10 million viewers.

Besides writing, she was an innovative painter and she believed that her father’s genes fostered the strength to work hard but also, in rare moments of freedom, to strive to better herself. Catherine was famed for her care of money but had given much to charities, hospitals and medical research in areas close to her heart and to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne who set up a lectureship in hematology. The Catherine Cookson Charitable Trust continues to donate generously to charitable causes. The University later conferred her the Honorary Degree of Master of Arts. She received the Freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, today known as Catherine Cookson Country. The Variety Club of Great Britain named her Writer of the Year and she was voted Personality of the North East. Other honours followed: an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1986 and she was created Dame of the British Empire in 1993. She was appointed an Honorary Fellow at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford in 1997.

Throughout her life but especially in the later years, she was plagued by a rare vascular disease, telangiectasia, which caused bleeding from the nose, fingers and stomach and resulted in anemia. As her health declined, she and her husband moved for a final time to Jesmond in Newcastle upon Tyne to be nearer medical facilities. For the last few years of her life, she was bed-ridden and Tom hardly ever left her bedside, looking after her needs, cooking for her and taking her on her emergency trips, often in the middle of the night, into Newcastle. Their lives were still made up of the seven day week and twelve or more hours each day, going over the fan mail, attending to charities and going over the latest dictated book, with Tom meticulously making corrections line by line, for Catherine’s eyesight had long faded in her 80’s.
This most remarkable woman passed away on June 11th 1998 at the age of 91. Tom, six years her junior, had earlier suffered a heart attack but survived long enough to be with her at her end. He passed away on 28th June, just 17 days after his beloved Catherine.

Catherine Cookson’s Books

NOVELS

Colour Blind

Maggie Rowan

Rooney

The Menagerie

Fanny McBride

Fenwick Houses

The Garment

The Blind Miller

The Wingless Bird

Hannah Massey

The Long Corridor

The Unbaited Trap

Slinky Jane

Katie Mulholland

The Round Tower

The Nice Bloke

The Glass Virgin

The Invitation

The Dwelling Place

Feathers in the Fire

Pure as the Lily

The Invisible Cord

The Gambling Man

The Tide of Life

The Girl

The Cinder Path

The Man Who Cried

The Whip

The Black Velvet Gown

A Dinner of Herbs

The Moth

The Parson’s Daughter

The Harrogate Secret

The Cultured Handmaiden

The Black Candle

The Gillyvors

My Beloved Son

The Rag Nymph

The House of Women

The Maltese Angel

The Golden Straw

The Year of the Virgins

The Tinker’s Girl

Justice is a Woman

A Ruthless Need

The Bonny Dawn

The Branded Man

The Lady on my Left

The Obsession

The Upstart

The Blind Years

Riley

The Solace of Sin

The Desert Crop

The Thursday Friend

A House Divided

Rosie of the River

The Silent Lady

FEATURING KATE HANNIGAN

Kate Hannigan (her first published novel)

Kate Hannigan’s Girl (her hundredth published novel)

THE MARY ANN NOVELS

A Grand Man

The Lord and Mary Ann

The Devil and Mary Ann

Love and Mary Ann

Life and Mary Ann

Marriage and Mary Ann

Mary Ann’s Angels

Mary Ann and Bill

FEATURING BILL BAILEY

Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey’s Lot

Bill Bailey’s Daughter

The Bondage of Love

THE TILLY TROTTER TRILOGY

Tilly Trotter

Tilly Trotter Wed

Tilly Trotter Widowed

THE MALLEN TRILOGY

The Mallen Streak

The Mallen Girl

The Mallen Litter

FEATURING HAMILTON

Hamilton

Goodbye Hamilton

Harold

AS CATHERINE MARCHANT

Heritage of Folly

The Fen Tiger

House of Men

The Iron Façade

Miss Martha Mary Crawford

The Slow Awakening

CHILDREN’S

Matty Doolin

Joe and the Gladiator

The Nipper

Rory’s Fortune

Our John Willie

Mrs. Flannagan’s Trumpet

Go tell It To Mrs Golightly

Lanky Jones

Bill and The Mary Ann Shaughnessy

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Our Kate

Let Me Make Myself Plain

Plainer Still

Feathers In The Fire

Davie Armstrong struggles hard for his place at Cock Shield Farm and finds himself at odds with the owner, a man of mordant temper and villainous pride. He watches as his master, Angus McBain, publicly thrashes young Molly Geary for refusing to name the man who made her pregnant. And yet, only an hour later, Davie sees the two of them alone in the malthouse, and learns that the child is McBain’s.

But the master’s wife is also pregnant. And a few months later the birth of the McBain’s son, Amos, unleashes violence and tragedy at the farm. Born emotionally and physically crippled, Amos will learn to wield the power of frightening intensity over everyone around him…

Feathers in the Fire
is a dark tale of love, loss and redemption set on a tenant farm at the end of the nineteenth century.

FEATHERS IN THE FIRE
Catherine Cookson

Copyright © The Catherine Cookson Charitable Trust 1971
The right of Catherine Cookson to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
This book is sold subject to the condition it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form.
ISBN 978-1-78036-014-0
Sketch by Harriet Anstruther
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described, all situations in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
Published by
Peach Publishing

BOOK ONE

1881

One

‘I tell you I know nothing about it. God in heaven! I’ve said it four times already, I didn’t give it her.’ Davie Armstrong turned on his father, crying, ‘An’ don’t say again it couldn’t get there on its own; bloody well I know it, it couldn’t get there on its own.’

‘All right, all right, lad.’ It was his grandfather speaking and he came towards him and patted his arm and, his voice soothing, said, ‘I believe you. We all believe you, lad.’ He glanced fiercely at his daughter and his son-in-law; then, looking at his grandson again, whom he loved better than he’d ever loved his one and only offspring, he added quietly, ‘But, you know, you’ll be given the blame, for you were courtin’ her.’

‘Courtin’!’ Davie glared at his grandfather now. ‘I might have been knockin’ on, but we weren’t courtin’; except for a dance in the barn and taking her to the fair and a nudge on the quiet, that’s all it’s been. I tell you, she ran off from me when we were at the fair, an’ I didn’t see hilt or hair of her till I got back here, eight o’clock. It must have happened then; but I wasn’t at t’other end of it, honest to God.’ He now looked at his mother, who was standing at the far side of the trestle table that was laid for a meal. She had her hands on the lid of a black cooking pot set on a square of wood; her fingers were beating an unconscious tattoo on the handle, while her eyes, unblinking, were riveted on her son; and now she said, ‘Come and sit up and have your meal, time is passin’.’

‘I want no meal.’

Her hand lifted the lid and she banged it down on the table and, her voice harsh now, she said, ‘You’ll eat, we’ll all eat. We’ve got to work, so we’ll eat.’ And at this she began ladling out thick mutton broth on to four plates. When they were filled she cut large shives of crusty bread and stuck one in the middle of each plate, which she then placed at each side of the table.

Ned Armstrong sat down, and old Sep sat down, but Davie still stood. He had his back pressed to the dresser, his square chin was thrust out and stiff with the tightness of his jawbones. His mother said to him quietly, ‘You know I won’t sit till you’re sat, so how long do you intend to keep me standin’?’

His head drooped to his chest, his lips pushed against each other as he sucked them inwards; then, thrusting his body from its support, he came to the table and sat down, but not before banging the high rail-back wooden chair hard on the stone floor.

Winnie Armstrong now sat down and picked up a spoon, and they all began to eat, and only the munching and the slopping of the stew filled the silence until old Sep, putting his spoon down on the bare table and placing his hands one each side of his plate, leant across towards his son-in-law and said, ‘You know summat, I smell a rat.’

‘How?’ asked Ned, gulping on a mouthful of food, his spoon held in mid-air.

‘Geary, that’s how, Geary.’ The old man’s voice was low and he jerked his head back and slanted his gaze in the direction of the fireplace and the wall to the side of it, the wall that divided their cottage from the Gearys’. Then, casting a glance, first at his daughter Winnie, and then at his grandson, he brought his attention back to Ned and said softly, ‘He finds their Molly has fallen an’ what does he do? He goes to the master and demands that she be chastised . . . flayed! There’s no woman been flayed on this farm since I was a lad sixty odd years gone, and then it was the master’s grandfather what did it, and then he had to be roaring drunk afore he could tackle it. You mind, I’ve told you ’bout Nellie Cassidy pinching the gold retriever watch, and he gave her the option of goin’ along the line or standin’ a flaying. She took the flaying. But Geary there’ – he again jerked his head back – ‘who’s got no feelin’ for either God, man, or beast, but he doesn’t lift a hand to her.’ He now turned and looked at Davie and said, ‘Lad, just think; imagine that house and Molly comin’ in and sayin’ she’s fallen; what do you think he’d do?’

Davie looked at his grandfather, then answered slowly, ‘Knock hell out of her.’

‘Aye, you’ve said it, lad, knock hell out of her and take joy in doin’ it. But he doesn’t knock hell out of her, he goes to the master and asks him to do it for him . . . I tell you, I smell a rat.’

The three men looked at each other; then they turned their gaze on Winnie and she stared back at them for a moment before saying, ‘Well, you’ve added up two and one, not two and two, you haven’t reached four yet, so what do you make of it?’

Her eyes came to rest on her son, and Davie answered her, ‘I don’t know, but I mean to find out.’

‘Do’ – she nodded her grey head slowly at him – ‘but go about things quietly. Remember, to all intents and purposes it’s you who are named; never was it so silently done, but never so clearly.’

As she rose from the table she said to no-one in particular, ‘Now I must be goin’. Flood, storm, or tempest, the master will want to eat. But how I’m goin’ to put up with that one flitting about me in the kitchen I just don’t know. I’ve always said she was a flighty-cum-jaunting-Sunday. I told you’ – she nodded towards her husband – ‘didn’t I, I told you I caught her dancin’ in the sitting room to the musical box when the mistress was out. Dancin’, mind, in the mistress’ sitting room.’

‘Aw, Ma.’ Davie’s chair scraped back over the stone floor as he got to his feet and, confronting his mother across the table, he said, ‘Let’s get things straight. There’s no harm in a bit of dancing.’

‘I’m not sayin’ there is, but there’s a time and a place for everything. And it’s how you dance. There she was with her skirt held right above her knees like any quay trollop.’

‘Quay trollop!’ Sep looked up at his daughter and, his good humour returning, he slapped out at her thigh with his hand as he repeated, ‘Quay trollop? You wouldn’t know a quay trollop, me girl, if you saw one.’

‘Wouldn’t I, Pa?’

‘No, you wouldn’t; so go on and get about your business.’

‘I’m goin’.’ She nodded her head sharply at him. ‘And you get about your business and see that you wash them plates up properly and don’t leave them stuck with thick grease.’ And on this she went out to her work.

The three men, left alone, said no word to each other, but Ned got up and, going to the mantelpiece, took from a rack two clay pipes and, picking out a long twist of brown baccy from a jar standing near, he cut two pieces off the end, then handed one of them together with a pipe to his father-in-law. When he sat down again, each worked the knot of tobacco loose by grinding it with the stub of his left hand into the palm of his right hand. When the tobacco was sufficiently shredded, almost simultaneously they filled their pipes and Ned lit them from the same spill.

While this was going on Davie had been standing looking out of the small window and along the mud-dried road that curved in front of the house to end abruptly, cut off by a railing that circled a dark mass of trees.

The Armstrongs’ cottage was the end one of the three labourers’ cottages farthest from the farmhouse, which was a hundred yards away. They had been built ninety years ago when the new additions had been made to the farm. There were no gardens at the front, but at the back of each was a piece of land as wide as the cottage, which was sixteen feet. It ran in a narrow strip for about seventy feet downhill to the brook which supplied water for all purposes. The ashes from their fires formed dry middens, the contents of which, together with that from the house, was collected once a week by a farm cart and dumped in the old workings of a lead mine half a mile away.

Davie had been born in this cottage, and up till this very day he had considered himself lucky to have been brought up on this particular farm, for the master, although strict in all ways, and narrow and churchy in his views, was a go-ahead progressive employer, as his efforts at modern sanitation proved – no stinking cesspools and middens near the house for him. He had once overheard him say, the excrement from animals was sweet compared to that of humans, and it was the badness in humans that made it as it was. Moreover the master had not allowed him to start work until he was six. No child on the farm started work until he was six, even at scarecrowing. And then, since the master took over, twenty years ago, every child on the farm attended Sunday School, and this was long afore school going was made compulsory. He had been very strict about them all going to Sunday School, and so they all learned their letters, those who could take them in. He himself had taken them in, sucked them in, he had lapped it all up. He still did; the older he got the more he knew there was to learn. He was proud of what knowledge he had; he could count, he could add and subtract, he could write a letter. However, he had never yet written a real letter to anyone, there was nobody to write to, but if it ever came to pass that he had to write a letter he would be capable of doing it. And he could read, oh aye, he could read.

He had got this far in book learning because he was interested. He wanted to learn something else besides milking cows and the other work on a farm, and Parson Hedley was out to learn anybody who wanted to learn. Not so Parson Wainwright; oh no, old-nose-in-the-air Wainwright only gave you his blessing when he knew how much money you were likely to leave to the church, or, to put it plainly, to him.

Parson Hedley had said only last week, ‘I’m going to lend you a book by Mr Dickens, Davie; it is called Great Expectations. And you know, Davie,’ he had added, ‘that is a very good title, Great Expectations; it’s based on hope, and hope is a mighty fine thing to carry you through. And by the way,’ he had ended, ‘bring Molly to the readings. She hasn’t been for a long time and she was getting along fine.’

Bring Molly to the readings! She hasn’t been for a long time. No, Molly had been otherwise occupied. Blast her! . . . But with who? Who? His granda was right about smelling a rat. There was a big stink here somewhere. Nothing escaped his granda.

He turned slowly and looked at him. He was puffing quietly at his pipe, his eyes were closed, his shoulders stooped; he looked old, worn out, yet mentally Davie knew he was much more alert, even at his age, than was his son-in-law.

He cared deeply for his grandfather and he always felt a pang of anxiety when he saw him sitting like this, his body sagging, his lids drooped, for then that vital spark of life which showed in his eyes was hidden. He said flatly, ‘I’m off,’ and at this his grandfather opened his eyes, his father lifted his head, and they both said, ‘Aye,’ and he went out of the front door on to the road.

He passed the Geary house, which was strangely quiet today. It wasn’t very often he passed this door without hearing Cassy Geary bawling at one or the other. If it wasn’t her husband it was the two lads, or Molly. It was worse before the three younger lasses went into service. The hardest worked part about Mrs Geary, he considered, was her mouth.

He passed the next house, which was always quiet, having only Will Curran in it. But even when Mrs Curran had been alive, and their grown-up son and daughter in the house, it had always been quiet; Will Curran was a domineering man who would be obeyed. He wanted to be a master did Will Curran, and he practised it hard under his own roof. His son had run off to sea and his daughter had done a moonlight flit with a fellow from across the valley.

He went on down the road and into the farmyard.

Everything here looked neat and spruce, especially since the mud was baked hard. There had been no rain to speak of for weeks, but it wouldn’t be long before they had it for the clouds were breaking up. He passed the house lying back to the left of him, then turned at right angles into the long yard that lay between the byres and barn at one side and the stables and store sheds at the other. He stepped over the channel of water which ran down the middle of the yard. Fed by inlets from the byres, it took the main part of the slush and muck.

When he entered the byres Fred Geary was already at work, which was unusual so early in the afternoon session. The man turned his small thin body and looked towards him, but didn’t speak, and Davie hesitated just within the doorway, wondering what he should do. His first impulse was to go up to him and say, ‘Look here; you can think what you like, but I know nowt about it.’ But he thought better of it; what had to be said he would let come from him first.

But when fifteen minutes had passed and Geary had said no word to him, good, bad, or indifferent, he covertly watched him as he clumped back and forth to the dairy. He still had the explosive look on his face that had been noticeable when they were all called into the barn to witness the chastisement . . .

The chastisement. He couldn’t get over it. When the bell had rung he had dashed from the beet field thinking there was a fire, for the bell was only rung to gather them together for the march to church on a Sunday or in case of fire or flood; it was also rung, merrily for a birth, slowly for a death. But this morning his granda had been pulling it at the rate he did on Sundays, and so he had cried at him, ‘What’s up?’ His granda had merely pointed along to the barn.

When he had reached the barn it was to see the master and Molly standing up on the weighing platform, and below them the five Gearys, Will Curran, his own mother and father, and the mistress and Miss Jane. The master had looked down on Miss Jane and ordered, ‘Go to the house and stay there,’ and the girl had hesitated a moment before doing as he bade her. Then the master had said, ‘There is trouble among us . . . Fred’ – he had nodded towards Geary – ‘Fred has come to me with bad news concerning his daugh— Molly here.’ He had hesitated over his words, which was unusual for the master, but it was plain he had no stomach for what he was about to do. Then he continued, ‘He tells me she’s in trouble and will not name the man, and because of her stubbornness he has asked me to chastise her. I have no heart for this, but he demands it be done as was usual . . . ’ It was at this point that his granda had cried out, ‘But them days are past, Master!’ and the master had replied, ‘I have already pointed this out to Fred.’ ‘Then why do it, Master?’ his granda had dared to question, and the master’s reply was, ‘If I don’t he will take her in hand himself, and I think in this case I am the lesser of two evils.’

At this he had asked Molly again to name the man, but all she had done was to shake her head. And then he had told her to grab hold of the stanchion post and he had laid his horsewhip across her back. She had on a cotton blouse and although his hand was not heavy she jerked at each of the five lashes, especially the last, for the tail-end of the thong caught her on the bare neck.

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