‘I do hope he’s all right, Henry,’ Sarah said for the umpteenth time since Albert disappeared. ‘It’s been more than three months.’ She was in the armchair mending Henry’s trousers while he sat at the table, wrapped in sacking.
‘The boy will be fine,’ he said, fed up trying to reassure her. ‘He’ll be in Manchester at a mill or a workshop, slaving from dawn to dusk for a few shillings. Eventually he’ll come to his senses and come home.’
‘I’m sure they keep him in chains and don’t feed him properly.’
‘We don’t know that. He might be making his fortune,’ he said to try and cheer her up. ‘One day he might ride up here in a magnificent carriage drawn by a team of horses.’
‘Boys of twelve don’t make their fortunes, Henry. They’re exploited by men in their quest to make a fortune.’
Henry got up, poked at the fire with a long rod and put more coal on it as rain beat down on the roof. It was midsummer and while the days had been mild the nights were cold and miserable. One of the children, who had all been in bed for an hour, started coughing. It was Emily. She appeared at the doorway complaining she felt sick and couldn’t sleep. She was weak by nature and susceptible to every epidemic. Her small stature and sickly appearance had concerned Sarah for some time. Sarah jumped up and gave her another drink of water with a dash of gin and more medicine and sent her back to bed.
‘I’m so worried about him,’ she said, resuming her sewing.
‘We know he’s in the city.’
‘Because he was always talking about it.’
‘That may be where he headed, but he might have come to grief on the way, or changed his mind and gone somewhere else.’
‘Stop worrying, Sarah.’
She put her sewing down on her lap and looked at him hard. ‘How can you say that, Henry? Your own son.’
‘What am I supposed to do – go to the city and knock on thousands of doors and ask every Mancunian if they’ve seen him?’
‘It’s your fault he ran away,’ she cried.
‘I had nothing to do with it, you confounded woman,’ he said, standing up.
‘You wouldn’t let him work and we couldn’t afford to send him to school. What did you expect him to do?’
Henry had no answer, infuriating him even more. ‘Sarah, there is no blasted work for the boy.’
‘Oh? I thought you said he was working in Manchester.’
‘No work here, damn you.’
‘Yes there is, and when Emily is old enough to mind Thomas and Catherine all day, which will be soon, I’m getting a job in a factory, as a spinner.’
‘You won’t,’ he yelled.
‘It’ll pay me eight shillings a week.’
‘That’s in Manchester.’
‘Then I’ll run away and join Albert.’
‘You can’t just take off, Sarah. You’re a married woman.’
‘Eight shillings a week, Henry. Think of it.’ She knew this would calm him a little. She had no intention of running off to Manchester, of course, and she was sure he knew this. But she had made up her mind to work locally whether he liked it or not. She was sick of the family going without.
(cover of A Weaver’s Web showing the Peterloo Massacre)
He sat down and thought of what he might do with an extra eight shillings – go to taverns, buy more food, a new suit.
‘Henry, wake up,’ she said, seeing he was daydreaming.
The lines on his face and its hardness came back. ‘As my wife, you must obey me,’ he said, continuing their argument as if there had been no break. ‘It was in our marriage vows.’
‘How can you talk of marriage vows? You don’t even go to church any more.’
‘It’s the same at any place of worship, Sarah.’
‘Those heretics at the chapel wouldn’t know anything about marriage vows.’
‘They treat us better than the church did.’
‘At least they don’t have those stupid reform meetings any more – Hampden Club.’
‘They still have meetings, but in secret.’
‘And what good will they do?’
‘Better pay and conditions, including for weavers, that’s what.’
‘And factory workers?’
‘Yes, but …’
‘Henry, if it wasn’t for the factories, half the people in all Lancashire would be out of a job. And if people like you could accept them, Albert would still be here.’ She laid down her sewing and put her hands to her face and sobbed. She had been strong and optimistic for so long, through all the wage cuts and the price rises, which in the end meant they could hardly afford to eat, but the disappearance of her eldest son had been her undoing. She had cried many times since he left but never in front of Henry, until now.
‘Pull yourself together, woman. It doesn’t become you, crying. And it won’t help anything either.’
She stopped crying, put her hands on her lap, and stared at the floor in front of her but said nothing.
‘When he comes back he can do some weaving on a regular basis. It won’t mean more pay but it’ll give him something to do, and I won’t have to work seven days a week.’ Henry hadn’t let Albert or Benjamin do much weaving lately, fearing the merchants would detect a change in quality between his own weaving and that of young, inexperienced boys, and the merchants had thousands of weavers to choose from.
‘What if he doesn’t come back and we never see him again? What if he’s dead, Henry?’ She screwed up her face in anguish and started crying again, only this time she wasn’t worried he saw her.
He knelt on the straw matting and put a hand on her knee. ‘Sarah, we’ve got each other and we’ve got a roof over our heads, even if it leaks, and we usually have three meals a day, even if they’re all potato and often small, and we know where our children are, four of them anyway.’ He gave a gentle chuckle each time he qualified what he had just said.
Wiping her eyes, she couldn’t help but laugh with him, though some of it sounded more like a sob. Then she wondered what they were laughing about, and said: ‘Let’s pray for him, Henry.’
He nodded and they closed their eyes and bowed their heads and prayed with all their might for Albert, that he was safe and well and would be home soon.
‘Albert, don’t be afraid to come home,’ Sarah said as part of her prayer. ‘You won’t be caned or handed over to the authorities or made to eat soap. I promise. Please come home.’
Henry prayed silently.
— end of excerpt —
My historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, is available from the following outlets:
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