BeschreibungThis story should appeal to all those who tried to do what they thought was right.
It tells of one such effort made by a person named Nancy - the main character of the story.
We first meet her in 1909, when she leaves the protective time of childhood and enters the perilous years leading up to adulthood.
This leads into the years of the 1914-18 war, with all its horrors and social disruptions. We join her in her occupation at a gasmask factory, whose products she hopes will save some of the boys she saw queuing to join the war, to be exposed to its obscene gassing - to come.
We follow her life through a time when it appears to have "neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain" (to borrow a phrase from the poet, Matthew Arnold).
However, as we follow her life, we hope that she will find her way to things better.
Life can only be a journey of hope.
School and Friends
“Nancy,” her mother called, craning her neck to look around the corner of the stairway, “are y’u ready for school? Y’u’ll be late an’ I’ll be late fo’ work.” Then, after a pause: “Y’u’re not up there playing wi’ that doll of y’urs again, are y’u?”
“I’m comin’, Mam,” Nancy replied, leaning over the little rag doll she’d gently placed in its shoebox-bed. “Have a nice sleep, Victoria,” she whispered. Then, out loud: “I’m comin’.”
She hurried down the stairs – her shoes making a clatter on the bare wooden treads as her chestnut-brown curls danced upon her shoulders.
“I’ve told y’u not t’ run down stairs,” her mother called from the tiny front room where she poked the loose cobs of the dying fire – securing them from falling into the hearth. She straightened up as Nancy entered the room.
“There’s some cheese-butties ont’ table, int’ grease-proofed wrapping paper,” she said. “Put ’em in y’ur bag. Y’u can have ’em for lunch. Now come on, or y’u’ll be late fo’ school.”
They stepped out of the house into the acrid smell of burning coke and the dull thud-thud-thud of the Iron Foundry’s steam hammer drifting along the cobbles from the end of the street.
“Y’ur Dad’s hard at work an’ I’ll soon be doin’ same,” her mother remarked as she pulled the door shut. “An’ don’t wait fo’ y’ur friends. They’ll’ve all gone by now. So off wi’ y’u.” Her face softened: “An’ take care.”
“I will, Mam,” Nancy replied. She then began to
skip along the pavement with her worn school-bag swinging in her left hand and the calf-length skirt of her green dress swaying around her legs. She glanced back towards her mother to give a wave of her hand. Then, jogging along, she chanted happily:
“We’ll all go along the alley-alley-oh, the alley-alley-oh, the alley-alley-oh. We’ll all go along the alley-alley-oh, early in the morning…”
She was a happy eight-year-old, and – despite the less-than- generous diet that the economic circumstances of the district allowed – very lively. Any anxieties she might have were those usual for a child of her situation and circumstances.
Attending school was one of her delight. There, she could see her friends and have a giggle about something or other. However, not in class; because her teacher, Mrs Strickland – surreptitiously called Mrs Strict by her classmates – frowned on giggling. “You silly girls,” she would say. “Stop that! Stop that at once!”
The thought made her smile. She hunched then did a little skip – imagining having to dodge Mrs Strict who might be standing at the door, awaiting latecomers.
She turned right into Roger Street, then quickly skipped under the iron span of the Manchester-to-Radcliffe viaduct looming above the top end of that street. As she hurried across the cobbles of Red Bank to enter the slope of Lord Street, she could see the other children nearing its top and only just making their way to school. Among them, she could make out her friend, Liz, about to turn right into Cheetham Hill Road.
“Liz!” she called, with a wave of her free arm.
Her friend turned to wait for her to catch up.
“Liz, have y’u learned y’ur ten times tables?” Nancy asked – slightly out of breath from hurrying. “I learned ’em last night. Mi Mam helped mi.”
8217;em last night as well,” Liz replied. “Our Jim helped – after he’d stopped messin’ about.”
Nancy smiled; glad that her friend was well prepared for Mrs Strict’s test. Her smile also recognised Liz’s comment about her helpful but sometimes mischievous older brother.
Liz happened to be a few months older than Nancy, and inclined to be more assertive and disposed to give a bold and sometimes defiant look from her light-grey eyes to those she thought warranted such. She had straight, raven-black hair; yet almost the same clear, fair skin as Nancy. However, the lack of sunlight in their perpetually smoke-hazed district imposed upon them a tendency towards paleness. Nevertheless, this enhanced the flush seen on the cheeks of active children and – in Nancy’s case – the slight dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
The two girls got on well together, their friendship bonded by the fact that they both liked a giggle and enjoyed sharing each other’s butties during the mid-day break. Additionally, they would defend and comfort each other if either or both got into trouble.
“Let’s say our tables ont’ way,” Nancy suggested.
“One times ten is ten,” they chanted with their voices blending in unison. “Two times ten is twenty. Three times ten is thirty. Four times ten is forty…” both delighting in the rhythm of their chant as they jogged hand in hand along Cheetham Hill Road.
They then lapsed into silence as they approached the gates of Saint Chad’s, where the tall Mrs Strickland with her neatly styled grey hair stood at the school entrance; holding the hand-bell ready to ring and thereby warn stragglers to hurry their pace.
“Come on! Come on, you two. Hurry yourselves!” she said, glancing at them sternly and holding back the loud ringing she intended to make.
essed a giggle as they entered the door of the schoolroom, then to make their way across its bare, worn, wooden floor and between its rows of desks to reach the one they shared. A few more stragglers followed, also hurrying to their seats; but most of the children had arrived and were sitting quietly, expecting Mrs Strickland’s immediate appearance.
The blackboard, standing on the dais at the far end of the room, to the left of Mrs Strickland’s desk on the same dais, looked freshly cleaned and ready for the day’s lessons. Behind the desk, and just below the clock on the wall, with the motto Our Times Are In His Hands etched on its face, a picture of Jesus holding a lantern and standing at the door of a cottage looked down upon the class. At the time when the children first came to Mrs Strickland for lessons, she allowed them on the dais to have a closer look. She said the picture was called The Light of the World, and was painted by an artist named Holman Hunt.
To the right of this portrayal, a large picture of the King and Queen also looked down upon the class – King Edward on the left and Queen Alexandra on the right – both wearing royal robes. Mrs Strickland said they came to the throne during the year when most children in the class happened to be born.
Nancy liked both pictures, especially the one about the light of the world. She also liked the position where she and Liz shared one of the twin desks with its bench-seat and backrest (all made of oak – the same as the sailing ships of old, Mrs Strickland told them). The desk, seat and backrest were supported and held together by a cast-iron frame fitted at each end, on which you could catch your knee if carelessly getting in and out – as she once discovered, and had been careful ever since.
Its lift-up top had a space beneath for keeping exercise books, pencils and pens. Also, the desk contained two ceramic inkwells – each
recessed at the front corner of the desk. Mrs Strickland filled these with ink if the lesson involved writing.
Nancy also liked her desk being positioned along the left-hand wall and being the third desk of the six in that row. This she liked because her desk occupied the space beneath the centre one of the three high-arched windows the wall contained. Mrs Strickland told them these faced the southern light – which was the brightest.
Because she sat in the part of the bench away from the wall, she could look up to the window and sometimes see a patch of blue sky. One time, a pigeon sat on the outside ledge and looked down at her through the window, inclining its head from side to side as if trying to make out who she was. She giggled and all the children turned to see why, but Mrs Strickland was cross and said: “Stop that nonsense! You’ve all seen a pigeon before. Now get on with your work!”
During their last holiday-week, the walls were repainted to make the room look brighter – green below the windowsills and then cream up to the white-painted ceiling. Also, the old gaslights had been removed from the walls and replaced by three electric lights suspended from a metal tube containing the wiring – this arrangement being fixed to the ceiling along the length of the room, making it much easier to read, especially on gloomy afternoons.
When lessons ended on the first day after the holiday, all the children ran home – eager to tell their mothers about the electric lights. Nancy smiled to herself as she remembered that day. She was about to make a whispered comment to Liz, but Mrs Strickland interrupted. “Now, children,” she called out as she made her way to the dais. “Sit quietly. We are going to do our tables. I hope you have all learned the one I gave to you yesterday?”
“Yes, Mrs Strickland,” the children called in unison – some with voices not so sur
“Well! We shall soon find out,” she replied. “However, and before that, pay attention while I mark the register.”
She began calling out each name in alphabetical order, to the replies: “Present, Mrs Strickland!”
Nancy glanced at her friend and gave a quick smile; confident they could both recite the multiplication table right up to the last ten times ten.
“Now!” Mrs Strickland announced as she...