Henry’s business had had a number of setbacks, including broken machinery …
Next morning at six the workers arrived and went upstairs. He watched as Perrywinkle placed some fibre in the mule. It was working and spinning began. Henry breathed a sigh of relief, the force of which must have been felt by all in the room. He was about to go downstairs when he saw one of the women unsteady on her feet. She started giggling, and that was as bad as talking on the job as it distracted the other workers. She lost her balance and nearly fell into one of the machines. The master was busy at the far end of the floor and didn’t see what happened, so Henry rushed over to her.
‘What’s the problem, woman?’ he said.
She looked up, silent at first, then burst out laughing. She was drunk. Should he lay her down in a corner to sleep it off? Or send her home? Or dismiss her? He didn’t think highly of drunken women. Once, soon after the family moved to Manchester, Sarah had a bit too much gin. He had bolted the door so nobody could come in and see her, and warned her he never wanted to see her like that again and made her go to bed. He told the children she had a headache.
This woman had come to him with plenty of spinning experience, but had a liking for drink. Out of his respect for the working class and the goodness of his heart, he would give her a chance to redeem herself. He helped her downstairs and led her to the store.
‘Here, lie on these cotton bags till you feel better.’
She didn’t say anything, just laughed and lay down.
Later he woke her and went to pull her up, but she tried to drag him down on top of her, calling ‘Charlie, Charlie.’
‘I’m not Charles. Come on, get up, now. You’ve got work to do. And you’ve already lost three hours’ pay.’
‘Charlie boy,’ she said, running her hands over his body.
‘If you don’t cooperate this instant, I’ll discharge you.’
‘Oh yes, I’ll cooperate.’ She laughed again.
Henry lost his footing and slipped over onto the cotton bags and lay beside her. Suddenly, there was a man’s voice nearby.
‘Ah, Mr Wakefield, Sir, sorry to disturb you.’ It was Perrywinkle. ‘I was after more cotton. I’ll come back.’
Henry struggled to get up. ‘Wait a minute,’ he called. ‘It’s not what you think. This wretched woman is still drunk and must think she’s home with her husband or someone.’ Every time Henry tried to push her away, she became more forceful. ‘Get her off me.’
Perrywinkle reached down and rolled her off. She was quite heavy. Henry got up and straightened his jacket and dusted down his trousers. A bottle of gin, having evidently fallen out of her clothing, remained on one of the cotton bales.
‘Any wonder she’s no better than before,’ the master said. ‘She just kept drinking.’
‘You’re dismissed,’ Henry shouted at the woman, but she didn’t seem to care. He picked up the gin bottle and she lunged at it. He gave it to her and bundled her out into the street. Now he would have to find another spinner.
In the days that followed, he wondered if he would ever complete his first order. He was supposed to have yarn ready for the merchant before long, but he’d had nothing but trouble. The mule broke down again. He found a new spinner, but two apprentices got sick. He had to take out another loan to meet the first week’s wages. On top of that, the lender came to collect an instalment on the original loan. The best Henry could do was give him Sarah’s and the children’s pay as part payment. This meant he had no money for the house rent and not much for food.
Somehow he got most of the order ready on time and the merchant came to collect it. But the man wasn’t one of the big merchants and had no money until the weavers he would sell the yarn to paid him for it. Henry was given an IOU. He now couldn’t pay the wages and he knew his workers would be irate. It was late Saturday afternoon and they were expecting their money before leaving work that night. He sat slumped at his desk, wishing he had never gone into business. At six o’clock a dozen sweaty faces appeared at his office door. There was no escaping.
– end of excerpt –
My historical novel A Weaver’s Web is available at Amazon and elsewhere.