My name is Eli Bradshaw. I'm 18-year-old and I work at Mill. Sometimes I wish I could walk away from this place and never come back. But it's no good wishing, I'm the breadwinner in our family. Back when I were 11-year-old, I were as proud as a bantam cock when me Dad took me to Mill for first time. It were Christmas then, just like now, and at 6 in the morning as dark as black-lead. Some of the workers wished me well as me Dad walked me between the rows of looms, all lit up by gas mantles hissing on the walls. I felt grown up. Then the looms burst into life. The mill became a fearful, deafening place, throbbing like hell itself. I grabbed at me Dad's sleeve and didn't care who saw me. And right then I just wanted to run back to our cottage and me Mam. But me dad's steady hand fell on my shoulder. Then he pulled himself away and left me to it, his eyes worried for me.
I well remember that day, but by summer I were so used to Mill it seemed I'd known nowt else. On good days we'd lie out in the sun to eat our baggin. There were a carter named Sailor, used to tell us stories and make us laugh. He wore an ear-ring and had tattoos on his arms, and he talked funny. That were because he came from Liverpool, me Dad told me, the place were the ships came in loaded with bales of wool.
Sailor had a rope, forty foot long, said he. He used to flick it into a perfect coil on the floor of his cart. One day he winked at me dad and said "let's see what they learned you in school, Youngun. See this fine hemp rope here? Goes right round my cart and over the top of them bales, right! So, question is: is it long enough to go right round the world?"
"Wouldn't even reach to Barley End," said I, laughing.
"Ah! That's where you're wrong," said Sailor. "This old rope's sailed all the seas and oceans on a fine big ship. Been right round the world times over. Ha, ha. Never learned you that at board school, eh, Youngun?"
I didn't mind them laughing, it were all in good fun. And Sailor had set me wondering. "What's the sea like, Sailor'?”
“What's the sea like'?” said he, “How can a man describe the sea? It's not like a pond or a stream, or even a river.” Then he grabbed the rope in his two big fists and twisted it, showing clean fibres deep inside. "Come and put your nose to this, Youngun.” I did as he told me and what I sniffed up were so strange and wild and salty it's never left me to this day.
"That's what the sea's like," said Sailor.
I envied Sailor as he set off in his cart up Mill Road and round Limestone Hills to Barley End Village. His journeys took him on past Elmslea village, then way beyond Fazakerly Copse to the sea. To this day I've yet to go beyond Fazakerly Copse.
Work at Mill's not that bad. Oh, it's wearisome and deafening enough. There's no peace in the place. But there's many who'd be glad of it. Them working like moles in the colleries and coughing up coal all night. And farm labourers paid almost nowt for wages. Aye, there's worse than Mill.
There's Flora too. I only see her at Mill because her mam keeps her close to home the rest of the time. Not that we talk much. Well, you can't talk properly in Mill. But we look, and I smile at her, and sometimes she smiles back. I'm not bold enough yet to ask her to go courtin'. What if she says no? Still, when I go to Mill before daybreak I know I'll see her face. And when I tramp back home in the dark I have her smile to think on.
Flora's a fine lass but I doubt even she'd keep me at Mill if me Dad hadn't got wool sorter's disease last year. Anthrax, the doctor called it. Comes in the wool from hot countries. He started coughing over his sorting in the morning and before dark the next day he were dead. It were terrible in our cottage. Me mam were crying and the girls were crying and and I were telling them we'd be all right. This will be our first Christmas without him.
The girls are still at school, so they can't work. Me mam used to work at Mill until one day she were tired and let her eyes close. Her arm got caught up. Now she's stiff on one side and too slow for Mill. Not that we've owt to complain of, mind. Owners a good un. He paid for me Dad's burial and gave us an extra week's wages. We've Mill cottage at cheap rent. We've warm clothes and plenty of coal, and we've pork and potatoes and mutton and Kale. There's lots of folk would change places with us. But if I didn't go ramblin' on the Sabbath I'd go as daft as poor Nelly over Barley End way. Me dad said ramblin' were good for the soul. He said God made the sky and the heath and the creatures who live on it. And God wouldn't frown on my joy in his handiwork. Especially as I do an old woman a good turn on my rambles. So I don't care what the Parson says about chapel. Ramblin' I’ll go.
Out on the heath I take great swallows of clean air and feel it cold and fresh on my face. And so quiet! In spring the linnets twitter and the skylarks soar and wheel all over. Sometimes I disturb a cock pheasant, all crimson, green and purple, flapping heavy wings up from the heather. There's times on the heath when just the fullness of it bring tears to my eyes.
From the hill tops I look down the valley. The road winds around three villages; Barley End, Elmslea, and Fazakerly Copse. Church steeples poke through the fuzz of trees. My eyes always seem to stray Fazakerly way.
Last summer I saw the young folk from the Manor on the road. They were riding them new cycles with air-filled tyres. Hardly made a sound as they went by. If I had a cycle like that, I thought, I could be in Fazakerly as quick as a skylark.
Winter doesn't stop me ramblin'. When the snow covers the heath and cakes hard under my boots, finches still dart around, and it's never too cold for robins. But the days are too short to go beyond the far side of Barley End. That's where old Glad' lives. I first met Glad' when I stopped at her cottage for a drink of water one hot day. She just took to me. I didn't know then that she doesn't take to many folk. I heard she were a sea captain's fancy woman when she were young, and some folk in Barley End have looked down their noses at her ever since. But that's none of my business.
She's different is Old Glad'. She gets me talking, things I'd not say to anyone else. She were 73-year-old when I met her two year ago. Oldest person I'd ever seen, and in fine fettle too. The eyes in that wrinkly old face had more life in them than some of the young lasses at Mill. But lately Old Glad's been poorly. She'd never say it but I think she relies on me calling and chopping her wood and suchlike.
When I started out on my ramble this morning it seemed no different to other winter mornings, except it were the last Sabbath before Christmas. The sky were still grey and dozy when I closed the door softly and planted my boots in the snow , Big, lazy snow flakes landed on my overcoat, so gentle you'd think they knew folks were still in bed. I tucked my neck into my collar, felt for the bottle sticking out of my pocket, and set off down
the row of sleeping cottages. I passed the chapel and the manager's house and the manor, before climbing the style to the footpath over the heath. Least it would be a footpath if the snow didn't lie over it like a quilt. I didn't look behind as I climbed limestone Hill. Behind were mill with its noise and it's air thick with wool fibres. I put my back to the rows of worker's cottages, and the great smoke stacks so black even the snow couldn't soften them. I were headed over the hill to a gentler world. I were warm and breathing hard from the climb before the chapel bells pealed. I'd left a fire going and a kettle on the hob for
me mam's cup of tea. She'd be glad of a warm kitchen before she called the girls for chapel. She'd not begrudge me my view from the hill, looking down a valley at daybreak, feeling as free and rich as any mill owner.
I saw Nelly from a long way off. Nelly's a bit soft. She lives in an old farm cottage that's falling to bits. Her mam and dad are a rum old couple. They hide when they see me coming. Nelly was skipping around the fowl house talking to her hens. She were clutching one of them, and stroking it with her red hands. Her feet must have been cold too but she didn't seem to notice. She'd no coat on neither. just an old mucky frock with straw all over it. She looks about my age, does Nelly, but she's like a child.
"Mornin Nelly. Go on inside, Lass. You'll catch your death." She laughed and let the hen flutter away and pointed."1 saw you up hill and I waiting for you," she said, looking shy and nervous the way she does, with her eyes looking just above my head. "I going to chapel at Barley End."
“Oh Aye, that's good Nelly. " But her eye had fallen on the bottle sticking out of my pocket. "What's that?"
I pulled the bottle out to show her. “It’s oil from elderberry for rubbing on babies."
"Can I see?"
"Aye, but you can't touch. It's for Old Glad' on the other side of Barely End. Me mam made it for the oId woman’s skin. Here, I'll let you have a smell. Give me your hand." I tipped a drop of the honey coloured oil on the back of her hand. She spread it around with her finger then smelled the lavender and sighed. She rubbed and rubbed until I were sure she'd wear a hole in her skin.
I left the lost soul, tempted to leave the bottle of oil with her. When I looked back she were still standing there looking after me, tatty hair sticking out like a scarecrow.
Barely End's a big village with shops and an ale house and all sorts. But it were the blacksmiths I were interested in. I'd heard he had a nearly new cycle with air tyres. But the place were always closed on the Sabbath and all I could do was peer through a grimy window every time I went past. I'd never seen more than a bit of a wheel. But on this day the door were open. I looked in. There were no fire in the forge and the blacksmith didn't have his apron on. He were just sort of mooching about the way men do when they've nowt but waiting to do.
"Mornin." said I, but I couldn't help my eyes darting around until they found the cycle machine. The blacksmith followed my eyes and smiled." So, you heard about it, then?"
"Aye, it's a grand machine," said I, moving closer. It were gleaming black with thin gold lines on the frame.
"First in village," said he. "Safety cycle they call it. Wheels have got pneumatic tyres.
"Pneumatic!" said I, squeezing the tyres like I knew what he meant. They were funny to feel, soft but hard too. I wager you could slip along as smooth as silk on these wheels," said I. "How much would it cost to buy'?" I couldn't bear to look at him.
"Two sovereigns and ten shilling, and a good price at that."
"Aye," said I," but it might well be a hundred." I rubbed my hand over the polished leather saddle one last time and carried on to old Glad's cottage. I thought of my twenty-one
shillings a week wages and decided it were best if I didn't look at the cycle machine again. It were not for the likes of me. But as I walked through the churned up snow of the village, I couldn't help smiling, thinking of myself out on the road spinning those pneumatic tyres.
There were no smoke coming from Old Glad’s chimney. I knocked and waited, then knocked again fearing the worst. She were a stubborn old woman. She'd not turn to her neighbours. She liked to be left alone. When the door finally opened Old Glad' looked sick. Her eyes were pale and her face had no life in it. But her voice were still warm.
"Hello, Eli, lad. You're a daft one to come all this way in the snow. Come on in."
"You've no fire,Glad'."
"Aye, well I've been a bit poorly." She wrapped her blanket tighter round her shoulders and eased down on sofa, where she'd been sleeping. I got the fire started. "I'll have you a hot cup of tea as soon as the fire's going, Glad'"
"You're a good lad, Eli."
"Good lad nowt. You should have someone doing for you."
"Aye, well, you know my answer to that so don't waste your breath. "Now leave me be." She closed her eyes as though I weren't there. But I were pleased to see she had some of her old spirit still.
By the time the fire were warming the room up, I had the kettle steaming on the hob, and toast and cheese to tempt Old Glad' She lifted her head up. "Ee' that's a grand smell, Eli. Maybe I'll just have a bite."
After I'd cleared away, Old Glad' said: "Stop fussing over me, lad. Tell me what’s happening with this young lass of yours?" I could feel my face going red. I wasn't properly courtin' Flora, except in my mind. So I told Glad about the safety cycle with the pneumatic tyres, stretching the word out on my tongue. And for a while her eyes were wide like they used to be when we talked of things. Then I remembered the bottle. "Me mam sent it." I took her hand and rubbed the oil gently into her dry skin. "Merry Christmas, Glad’.”
"Tell your mam she's an angel, lad," she sighed. "Now, bring me that box over." I lifted down a polished box from the mantle piece. Old Glad' took out three envelopes. "For your mam and your sisters. Wish them a merry Christmas for me." Then she brought out a roll of bright paper bunched at the ends and tied with bonny ribbons. A Christmas cracker. I reached out to pull one end.
"Not with me, lad. I'm sure your Flora can find something to wish on. And when you wed that lass, you tell her from a grateful old woman, she got a good man." Then Old Glad looked straight at me quiet like. "Eli, I'll not see many more days, lad." I looked at the fire. “No need to fret on it. I've had a good life and I'm ready to meet my maker. You’ll pray for me?”
"Aye, I'll pray for you, Glad'."
When I left and passed through Barely End, I kept my eyes busy looking at the grey sky, the shape of trees and the holly on cottage doors. But all I could think of was that I'd be the last one to wish Old Glad' a Merry Christmas. I held my tears back until the cottages were behind me. Then the crying emptied out of me in great grieving sobs, for me dad as well Old Glad'.
It were Nelly who finally brought me to myself. "Eli crying'?" said she, out of nowhere.
"No, just wind in my eye," said I, wiping my face. She pointed to my sleeve where a tip of colour was showing. When I pulled the cracker out, her red hands went to her mouth like she'd never seen anything so pretty. Like a big fool, I told her what it was. She reached out to pull it. "No. It's for someone else, Nelly. I'm away now."
"For Your lass'?"
"How do you know I've got a lass'?"
"People in village have lads and lasses. I get me a lad"
"Aye, well, Im off now. Merry Christmas, Nelly." I didn't mean to look back, but I did and there she were with her head down looking ever so sad. I'd never be bold enough to give it to Flora anyway. "You never pulled a cracker, Nellie'?" Her head came up. "You can pull this one with me if you like." She were slow to catch on at first but then it were like the sun rose in her eyes. She clasped her hands together like she couldn't hold herself in. “Now, get ready for a big crack, I told her, putting her hand on the cracker, "and wait till I’ve counted to three before you tug, real sharp like. One .. Two .. Thr ... and crack! We both fell backwards. Nelly squealing her joy. then her eyes picked up a tiny tin whistle in the snow. She looked at me.
"Aye, you can have It. Blow it. " She rubbed the shiny metal gently with her finger. Then put it slowly to her mouth and blew, the shrill sound carrying over the snow. She looked so surprised. Then she smiled proudly and blew again and again, running to her chickens, blowing and laughing at their fluttering. I picked up what looked like a piece of flat bone, and wiped snow from it. It were an ivory hair slide with long teeth and clasped hands carved into the top of it. I made my mind up right then, that hair slide were for Flora, and I’d just have to find the boldness to give it to her. I picked up the torn half of the cracker Nelly had dropped and unwrapped more paper. Three dull sovereigns looked at me. My
breath stopped. I looked at them, counted them, turned them, and counted them again, finally believing. Without thinking, I turned. "Merry Christmas Nelly." I yelled, my legs taking me back to the Blacksmiths. Even as the snow gathered under my hurrying boots I could see the sun shining on the smooth, dry road. I were racing spring skylarks, wheeling swift and silent towards Fazakerly Copse, and the sea beyond.
© Chris Horan