a weaver's web, Albert Wakefield, Benjamin Wakefield, Catherine Wakefield, Emily Wakefield, England, factory orphan, flooded cellar, Henry Wakefield, historical fiction, historical novel, Manchester, Sarah Wakefield, Thomas Wakefield
Earlier, Sarah had made her way home. She stood near the steps to their cellar and glanced up at the apartments above street level. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in one of those, she thought, but they couldn’t afford it, especially as she was expecting next month and would be unable to work for a while.
It had been raining and that meant their house, in a terrace built along a natural gully to save money, would be flooded again. She descended the dozen or so steps to the door. The bottom step was ankle deep in water.
Weary, she pushed the door open and went inside. She saw the mess. The front room floor had several inches of dirty, putrid water. Most of it had run down the steps and the rest had seeped through the walls. Henry had pulled the loom apart and had stacked it on top of the table. The benches had gone over on their sides, though the armchair was still firm on the floor. She noticed both chamber-pots floating near the back room. These items were well used – the nearest privy was fifty yards away at the end of the terrace, had no door, stank, and the landlord charged families a shilling a week to use it. Sarah knew a woman who used it without paying and the landlord took her to court for trespassing.
Ignoring it all for the moment, she waded to the back room where she made out Emily sitting on a bed minding Thomas and Catherine who were both asleep. The floor sloped towards the front of the house, so the back room was slightly dryer. And that was where the family lived – or rather sat on beds – when it rained. But this room flooded too if the rain was hard or lasted long, and with no window it was stuffier than the front room. That day, much of the back room floor was under an inch of water.
‘Has your father gone to the Cloak and Dagger?’ she asked Emily.
‘I suppose so.’ Emily stayed on the bed, her face blank. ‘He left just before you got home.’
‘That’s typical,’ Sarah said, trying to find the shallowest spot to stand. ‘Did you go out and play today?’
‘In the morning, before the rain.’ Emily coughed several times. She had coughed all winter. Sarah was relieved she hadn’t succumbed to something more serious.
‘What about Thomas and Catherine? Have they behaved?’
‘Thomas got into another fight with the boy down the street.’ She frowned. ‘And he knocked over a potty.’
Sarah shuddered at the thought. ‘Have they been asleep long?’
‘A while. I think they’ll wake for supper soon.’
‘There won’t be any food until we clean up.’
Sarah could have sat at the table and cried at the sight of the murky water covering the floor, but she was stronger than that. She took her pinafore from the trunk and got the bucket. Wading through the water, she scooped up a gallon or so and went outside and up the steps, pouring it into a ditch in the street. She did this several times. Soon exhausted because of her condition, she called Emily and made her take the bucketfuls up. They were careful not to fall in the hole Henry had dug as a drain at the lowest point of the front room. So far, it was only a foot deep by a foot wide and made little difference to the amount of water on the floor. But he had promised to dig deeper, to three or four feet, and wider, like the drains residents in adjoining cellars had dug.
An hour later the water was much shallower and confined to the area around the well. Sarah emptied it, filling the bucket several more times for Emily to take outside. Then Sarah got the mop and sponged the floor dry before sweeping it with a broom and covering the hole and relaying the mats. It was hard work for someone heavy with child. She was thankful the rain had stopped and no more water was coming in.
She and Emily struggled to move the loom parts back to where they belonged so the table could be set for supper. It was mutton and potatoes, which Sarah boiled in a pot on the hearth. Emily, who would get plenty of practice as assistant mother in coming months with the impending birth, woke Thomas and Catherine and brought them to the table. Sarah worried about Benjamin. He was normally home before this. She dished up, putting his meal on the edge of the hearth where it would stay warm.
They were eating supper when he came in.
‘Watch out, it might be slippery,’ Sarah said to him as he barged through the door and raced across the room. ‘Slow down. We haven’t eaten it all.’
‘Mum,’ he said, gasping for breath, ‘I saw Albert.’
(cover of A Weaver’s Web showing scene from the Peterloo Massacre)
They stopped eating.
‘Where?’ she said, standing up. ‘Didn’t he come home with you? Where is he?’
‘At the factory.’
‘Yes, I saw him.’
‘But you’ve been there months. You’d have seen him before today. Surely it was someone else.’
‘No, it’s him. He’s in leg-irons like a convict and works at night with the bad orphans. He must live at the factory.’
‘Oh dear, my poor Albert.’ She put her hands over her face and trembled. ‘Did you speak to him?’ Her voice was slow and wavery.
‘There’s no talking, and I was already in trouble for being late this morning.’
‘Did you get caned again?’ Thomas said smiling.
‘None of your business.’
‘Did you cry?’
‘Be quiet, Thomas,’ Sarah said and gave her attention back to Benjamin. ‘You’ll have to go to bed earlier so you can get up on time.’ She sighed. ‘I’ll get you something from the medicine box to put on your sores after supper.’ She cast her eyes to the ceiling and prayed for Albert. ‘Oh, let it be him, Lord. Have mercy on him. He’s suffered enough.’
‘Let’s go and get him,’ Thomas said. ‘We know where he is.’
‘It’s not that simple,’ she replied. ‘They won’t just let him go. They think he’s an orphan.’
‘We’ll get him tomorrow then.’
‘We’ll do no such thing.’ She thought for a brief moment. ‘But your father might. I hope he will. I mean I hope he can.’
‘Let’s have a welcoming party when he comes home,’ Emily said, ‘with dumplings and treacle.’
‘Come on, eat up, all of you. We can’t do anything tonight.’
Benjamin got his meal from the hearth. He ate ravenously and asked for more, but there wasn’t any. Soon after he finished, he was nodding off to sleep. Sarah jolted him and made him rub a special ointment on his injuries, one she had made from plants they collected. She heard more rain outside and hoped it wouldn’t be heavy or prolonged.
– end of excerpt –
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