Read The Black Mountains Online

Authors: Janet Tanner

The Black Mountains (6 page)

BOOK: The Black Mountains
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Peggy arrived and immediately set about organizing the house-hold. The boys had already left for the fête, planning to get their names down early for the hundred-yard and the egg-and-spoon races. So Rosa, the eldest of the Clements children from next door, was called in to take Amy to look for them. As for James, Peggy pushed him out to sit in the yard.

“It's a fine day, so you won't come to any harm,” she told him with midwifery authority. “You'll be out of the way there, but on hand if we should need you to go for the doctor.”

At first James protested, wanting to call the doctor straight away. But the women overruled him.

“Doctors mean bills,” Charlotte told him, breaking off to catch her breath sharply as a pain spread through her like a crushing steel band, and Peggy, helping her friend up the stairs, agreed.

“I've brought more babies into the world than that Oliver Scott, in any case,” she said comfortingly. “ He's only a bit of a lad. Lotty'll be all right, you'll see.”

Neither of them mentioned her earlier prediction that the birth might prove difficult. To Peggy's experienced eye, everything seemed to be going well, and she was right. It was all over by the time the boys returned home with Amy for a late tea.

Peggy had collected her dues and gone, and Dolly, fetched down from the big house, had arrived to take charge. Charlotte was sitting up in bed and in the cradle behind the bedroom door was the newest and smallest Hall—a red-faced creature almost hidden in a bonnet and gown several sizes too big for him.

The boys stood looking down at him, curious, but not wanting to show their curiosity; Amy, however, bobbed up and down with excitement.

“Oh, Mammy, can I hold him? Oh, isn't he pretty? What are we going to call him, Mammy?”

“I don't know yet,” Charlotte said. “ I haven't thought.”

They all began to speak at once, piling suggestion upon suggestion until the baby began to cry. Dolly looked at her mother's tired face and pushed her brothers out, telling them to go downstairs and keep quiet.

But in the silence that followed, Ted, as always, had to have his say. Until a few moments earlier he had never given a single thought to the baby, beyond being embarrassed by his mother's swelling body, and the occasional uncomfortable pondering on how such an enormous lump could ever get out.

Now, however, he looked at the crying red face beneath the white bonnet, and for no reason that he could think of, said, “I think he looks like a Harry.”

“Harry! Harry Lauder Hall!” Jim jeered, but Charlotte only smiled.

“That's a good name, Ted. I like it. I think that's what we'll have.”

And Ted, more used to scoldings than praise, flushed with pride to think that it was his suggestion that had found favour and determined to be quiet and not disturb his mother for that evening at least.

FOR AS LONG as he could remember, Ted had been branded as the scallywag of the rank. He fell out of one scrape and into another with artless ease, never giving a thought to the consequences.

It just didn't occur to him that if he gave Amy a ride in the tracks used to collect horse-manure for the gardens, she would go home with her dress and knickers stinking to high heaven. And when he got his Sunday suit muddy one day going across the fields to play truant from chapel, he was surprised that washing it in the river made it worse, not better.

He felt it wasn't his fault that everything he did seemed to turn out that way, and he couldn't work out why his shirt should always be hanging out when everyone else's was tucked in, his knees far dirtier than theirs, and the toes of his boots, mended in exactly the same way, kicked through in half the time. But he enjoyed his reputation.

It was fun to lead a game of knock-out ginger even if he was caught in the end and got his ears boxed. And if he was the one who got the blame every time an unexpected parcel was found on someone's doorstep, only to be jerked away on a long string before it could be picked up, he decided he might as well have the fun of actually doing it.

As for the apples on the tree at the end of Captain Fish's garden, they were just asking to be picked, and the previous autumn Ted and Redvers Brixey had helped themselves to far more of the sharp green fruit than they could eat at one sitting. They had buried the rest in James's potato patch for safe keeping, but the tale was still told in the Hall household of how James had come in, straight-faced, and reported to Charlotte: “ Well, Mother, that's the first time I've planted potatoes and dug up apples!”

But for all his mischief, Ted chose his victims with care. The old and infirm were left alone, and instead it was people like Martha Durrant, his pious and much-hated neighbour from number ten, who were singled out for his tricks.

Of all those in the rank who complained about Ted and his high spirits, it was Martha who complained the loudest and the longest, believing as she did that it was ‘only for his own good'. She was a strict chapel woman, who would not even have a pack of cards in the house. If she was not airing her views on Ada Clements at number twelve, who often did the washing for her tribe of children on a Sunday, and sometimes even dared to hang it out to dry, she was thumping the tub about moral decline among the young. And on the fateful day when Ted had skipped chapel and muddied his suit, his mother had been ready and waiting for him when he got home, informed by Martha that he had been missing from his pew.

“Old busy-body,” Ted had muttered shamefacedly, but Charlotte, angrier than he had ever seen her, had taken her neighbour's side.

“It's a good thing she's there to keep an eye on you!” she told Ted. “ I can't be everywhere at once and it seems I can't even trust you to go to chapel now. Well, you may be sure if you think of doing such a thing again, Mrs Durrant will be in here to tell me about it before you can say Jack Robinson!”

Ted had wriggled away, subdued, and since that day had sat obediently each Sunday with the other boys in the hard, ricketty pew, enduring the agonies of a stiff collar. But he had not listened to the service, for he was too busy dreaming of ways to get his own back on Martha, who sat directly behind him and reminded him all the while of her presence by her daunting soprano voice and her irritating habit of holding the notes a beat or two longer than anyone else.

Yes, if Martha was good, Ted decided, she was a living reminder of how much more fun it was to be bad. For all the goodness in the world didn't seem to have made her very happy—or persuaded others to like her!

On the last Sunday in August 1911, however, as he lay in bed luxuriating in the glorious knowledge that this morning, at least, Charlotte would not be after him to get up or be late for work, Martha Durrant was far from his thoughts. The baby, crying for his early feed, had woken him, and unlike his brothers, he had not gone back to sleep. Carefully he raised himself on one elbow and looked at them.

Beside him in the narrow bed they had shared since they were children, Fred was snoring peacefully, while in the second bed, set at right angles to theirs, Jack and Jim lay side by side. Of Jim, there was nothing to be seen but a lump under the blankets, but the sunlight that streamed through the window in broad bands made Jack's sleeping face look younger and more childish than ever.

It was probably just as well he was going back to school, thought Ted; Jack wasn't really cut out for working at the pit. Mam had been right about that. And Ted wasn't even sure he wanted him there. The men could be very crude sometimes, and although he was less than two years older than his brother, he felt oddly protective of him.

Ted lay back, pillowing his head on his arms, and thinking back to the day he had started work at South Hill Pit. He'd been proud, so proud, swinging down the hill with his father and brothers, his sandwiches tied in a clean red handkerchief and his can of cold tea banging against his thigh.

He hadn't minded the ribbing he'd taken from the men. He hadn't even minded at first that he was only working on the screens, sorting coal, hour after tedious hour. It was enough that he could no longer be termed a schoolboy, and that at the end of the week he would collect his first wages. But soon boredom set in, and Ted was looking for ways to make the day pass more quickly and raise a laugh.

Before long he had a reputation not unlike the one he had in the rank. And one day he had played a prank that made him chuckle even now to think of it.

On his way to work, he found a pair of pink flannel bloomers in a bush. How they had got there, he could not imagine, but Ted did not stop to investigate. Seeing the fun to be had, he rolled them up and took them to the pit with him. During a lull in the morning's work, he pulled them on over his pit trousers and pranced about, pretending to be the bow-legged wife of the gaffer. The other lads fell about laughing, until the gaffer came over to investigate.

He had no way of proving that the caricature was of his wife, but Ted knew he suspected and should have been warned. But typically, he took little notice. He stuffed the bloomers under a tub, until later in the day he managed to get behind one of the hauliers who was waiting for a load of coal, and then pinned them to his jacket.

The haulier was blissfully unaware of what had happened. He strutted about the yard, only mildly puzzled by the hoots of laughter that followed him. Then, when his cart was loaded, he drove off, the bloomers blowing behind him. Ted and the other lads thought it so funny they hardly took gaffer seriously when he came over and told Ted furiously that was the last trick he would play under his control.

Just how serious he was, however, Ted learned that evening when James got home.

He came in, white with anger, and called Ted into the kitchen.

“I've never been so ashamed in all my life!” he told him. “O'Halloran himself sent for me when I came up this afternoon, and told me the gaffer can't do a thing with you. He was all for getting rid of you there and then as a trouble-maker, but as a favour to me, you're getting another chance. You're starting underground tomorrow, as my carting boy, but if you don't behave yourself, that'll be it.”

Ted said nothing. He was sorry his father had taken a carpeting over something that was not his fault, but he was not sorry to be going underground—he had been looking forward to it. And he knew, from the very first moment when the cage began its descent through the dank earth, taking him to the seams where coal was hewed, that he would never regret pinning the bloomers on the haulier and getting on the wrong side of the gaffer.

Carting was painful, he soon discovered. It was hot, sweaty work, and there were times when so many parts of his body ached that he could hardly separate one from the other. But it had its compensations. Scraped knees and a raw waist were a small price to pay for the privilege of squatting alongside the colliers, tea can between knees, munching cogknockers of bread and tossing crumbs to the mice that scuttled up from everywhere as soon as they smelled food. And who wouldn't drag a little extra coal in their putt if it also meant a little extra pay at the end of the week? Ted soon realized how much he liked money when he discovered how the thought of it could ease the sting of a raw wound in the middle of the night.

As for the other things he learned, some of them could still make him blush, especially when his father was in earshot. But he listened with open-mouthed interest as the older lads swopped tales of their conquests among women, and discussed the prices of the local whores, who, it seemed, demanded anything from a glass of cider to a whole week's wages for their favours.

He learned too to gamble, on ‘anything that moved,' from the twist of a playing card to the speed of a cockroach, and he watched betting slips change hands well out of reach of the law. His vocabulary grew to include the sort of words he would never be able to use at the Sunday dinner table, and he tasted his first Gold Flake, walking across the pit yard after a long day's shift.

All this before he was fourteen years old. Fourteen.

The thought reminded him that next month would bring his birthday. Suddenly restless, he pushed back the bed-clothes and swung his bare feet onto the rag rug.

The trouble with his birthday was that it heralded the beginning of the winter, and the endless weeks when he saw daylight only on a Sunday. That was no fun. Just give him mornings like this one, he thought.

Quietly he padded over to the window and pulled back the curtain to look out.

Not a soul in the rank was stirring yet. On the opposite side of the yard, the doors of the privies and wash-houses were firmly closed, the only sound being the patient clucking of the Clements's hens in their pen in the gardens beyond.

Ted leaned on his elbows, letting his gaze run idly over the wash-house blocks and the bits of gardens he could see between them—small segments of rich, brown earth broken up by potato haulms, cabbages and runner beans.

Then he stiffened suddenly, his eyes narrowing. What was that down at the end of the Durrants' garden, moving slowly among the feathery green parsnip tops?

A fat muddy-pink pig moved lazily and methodically through the parsnip patch.

The Durrants' neighbours all complained about the pig, but Martha had always overruled them. She was very partial to home-cured pork and bacon, and one pig had succeeded another in the wooden sty at the end of the garden.

Now, the current one had got out, and was having the time of her life, turning the vegetable patch into a sea of mud.

Unable to contain his delight, Ted snorted with laughter. There was no need to worry that the pig might get into their garden for Martha had persuaded her poor hen-pecked husband to surround their ground with chicken wire, believing her neighbours at number nine to be encroaching on her vegetable plot. Now, that was serving as a barrier to keep the pig in!

Ted's laughter disturbed Fred.

“What the devil's going on?” he muttered raising his head from the pillow, and Jack, too, opened his eyes and kept them open to see his brother hanging out of the window.

BOOK: The Black Mountains
5.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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