Still thinking about the elusive Mrs Blackpool from Dickens’s Hard Times, and as I had such fun thinking about what had happened to her to make her the woman so despised in the novel, I have continued on. No doubt it needs some work, but in the meantime, here is Chapter 2 of Mrs Blackpool…
Right from the off I was born into hardship and sorrow, my Ma taking her last breath as I took my first. I like to think that knowing she’d had a girl at last, after birthing seven boys, her last moments were happy ones. But then, life is never that kind, is it? And given that only two of her sons were still living with the rest falling prey to death’s hunger, I would hazard a guess that the only thing my Ma was thinking was thank God she wouldn’t have to squeeze out any more babies from her broken and worn out body.
My Pa was left with two lads and a mewling baby on his hands, and it was then that the women of the town took it upon themselves to make sure that we were fed and watered. Maybe they look back and regret that now, seeing what I have become. But they were bound and determined to stick their noses in and so we must all live with the consequences of their good intentions. The women of Coketown always were interfering busybodies, even back then, but I suppose I should be thankful that they took it upon themselves to watch over the motherless children my Ma had left behind. Just as well they did too, because my Pa wasn’t up to much. My Ma’s death seems to have floored him like a punch in the guts. It took all the stuffing out of him, fair to say. He didn’t live much longer than five or six years after my Ma died and when I think back on him now, I can’t see much more in my mind than a shadow of a man with no real substance left inside him. All of what had made him a man had been sucked out of him, leaving behind a cavity filled only with soot, dust and sodden flecks of cotton.
I don’t remember much of them putting my Pa in the ground. The only thing I remember is being right frightened that when they opened up the earth to place my Pa in on top of my Ma, I would see what was left of her coffin, or the worms making merry with her corpse. Or worse, that I would see her picked-bare bones, or those of the brothers I never knew in life. I had a right horror of that, I did. But even though I was right afeard of what I would see in their open grave I couldn’t help but peek in anyways. Never could stop myself from doing what I shouldn’t, even then. When I opened my eyes and peered into the dark pit they had dug up it wasn’t as bad as what I had imagined. All I could see was the dirt when I looked into that gaping hole that they were going to bury my Pa in. Looking back, when I think on it now, I remember the cold dread that shivered right through me as my brothers, the ones still living that is, starting raining clods of earth down on top of Pa’s coffin, the echo of the mud hitting the wood, and the feeling that I was sinking in with him, trapped. Would I end up in there too someday, squashed in on top of my Pa, burying the rest of my family even deeper into that black pit? I started screaming something fierce, and someone led me away. Never liked being trapped anywhere dark after that. Still can’t bear to be closed in anywhere, which is not much use when you live in a place like Coketown, which always seems to be cloaked in a black veil of venomous smoke and smog.
After my Pa’s death, I was given over to the care of my oldest brother, Jackie. Jackie was the first one my Ma had birthed and was old enough to have a say in what was to become of me. I had already become a problem for the good folk of Coketown, you see, having no parents, and someone had to take me in or they would have to put the care of me to the parish, which they were loath to do when I had kin still living. Some of the families offered to have me, not so much out of any compassion for a poor orphan, mind, but for the promise of a bit of coin from my brothers of course. But Jackie was having none of that. He wasn’t handing off his responsibility, by which of course he meant me, to just anyone, even if he paid to do it. So, he telt them all that I was to go with him ‘til I was old enough to go out to work as a hand to the mule-spinners like our other brother, our Billy did. He was kind enough, our Jackie. Always made sure we had enough to eat, and that we were kept warm. But it was fair to say that money was tight, and our Jackie liked a bit of the drink himself. Can’t blame the man for that, especially given what I am now, can I?
By the time I was ten I was crouched by the mule-spinners, piecing together broken bits of thread, like a lonely spider in a dusty corner. I had nimble fingers right enough, but it was hard work for a child not yet made a woman. Especially when that child was right afraid of being closed in like I was. Who decided it was right for a child to sit inside a factory, day after day, putting profit in some man’s pocket? Men like that Bounderby, who think nothing of leeching everything he can from the hands of his workers so that he can prance about like some cockamamie gentleman, thinking he is better than the rest of us. But I know that Bounderby too. I know him well. And he is no gentleman.
Those days as a lackey to the mule-spinners I can never recall without some feeling of horror slivering into me, leaving me cold. I had a right dread of the darkness of the factory, of being shut in. Oh, it was lit well enough. Some said that when all the lights were on the place was so bright it looked like a fairy palace. But when all the lights were off… well, that was a thought that sent me into a right state.
The weaving shed I laboured in was narrow, the walls too close to each other for my liking. It sometimes felt as if the walls were closing in on me, like they wanted to squash me between them, my blood soaking into the red brick walls. And while there was window after window to let the light in, each one same as the last, spaced out evenly like soldiers, what light was there to let in in Coketown? Sometimes when you looked out of the window all you could see was your own face staring back at you, as though you were looking at your own soul fallen into the black darkness of a pit. It was sometimes so dark outside you never knew if it was night or day, but for the bells that they would ring to let us know when our shifts were up. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was the hellish noise of the steam engine that powered the loom pounding in my ears, hurting my head so that I just wanted to curl up and hide. Sometimes I just wanted to scream to cover over the noise of the engine. That noise never seemed to go away, as though I carried the demon rhythm of it away in my head every day after my shift was done and I was on my way home. The racket, the feeling that I was suffocating, and the constant fear of being landed with a clout on my ear if I fell to daydreaming made my days there a misery. And it was right hard to fill your lungs in there, what with the heat, and the steam, and the tiny fragments of cotton filling the air, so that it was like breathing through a veil, my chest feeling right heavy like I was carrying the stuffing of a china doll inside of me. Not that I ever had a china doll, mind.
I remember longing to be outside, rather than sitting with my legs cramping up, squinting into the cracks on the floor to see where the threads had fallen. How my head ached, my eyes softening with the strain of searching for those elusive wisps of nothingness. It was like looking for cobwebs in the dust. And while our Jackie was kind, most of the mule-spinners weren’t shy of showing you the back of their hand if you weren’t working quick enough for them. Still, I was lucky, I guess. My brothers looked out for me. No one was too willing to give me too hard a time knowing that our Jackie and our Billy might have words about that. And then of course, there was Rachael.
Rachael. Dear, sweet, Rachael. I’d been working in the mills a year or two before she was given to me to train up as a new hand to the mule-spinners. My own hands were getting bigger, you see, and I was getting ready to move up to something more befitting a girl pressing on closer to womanhood. I quite fancied being a weaver, I did. But first I had to train up the girl who would slip into my place when I moved on. Funny that, isn’t it? Even back then Rachael was behind me, ready to take my place. Always hiding in my shadows, she was, ready to step out and shine like the damned angel everyone thinks she is.
Even back then, she was a right pretty little thing, with shining black hair and brown eyes, gentle they were, like a doe’s. Seemed a shame, really, that she had to come into the mills like the rest of us. Because that was the thing with Rachael. Everyone who looked at her saw something in her. Something good. Something special. Me, though? When I looked at her, I saw a friend. Maybe even more than that. She was like the little sister my Ma never got a chance to give me.
But she wasn’t made for the factories, Rachael. I remember one of the first things I had to tell her was to make sure she kept her hair well back and under her cap. Her hair was lovely, mind. Her Ma must have spent an age brushing her hair to make it shine like that. When I looked at her hair, something twisted inside me, like I hated her for having what I could not. My hair never shone like hers did, but then, she still had her Ma and mine was long turned to dust in the ground. Still, the thought of her hair getting caught in the machinery of the power looms was not to be borne, so I telt her to keep it right back. It wasn’t no idle warning, neither. I’d seen it happen once, to some poor girl, half-asleep in the heat of the mill, her cap falling off her head, her hair getting tangled up. Ripped the hair right off her head. She screamed something fierce, and the blood…. Well, it’s not something you forget in a hurry. I still see that poor girl in my nightmares sometimes. She died not long after. I always remember her, though I can’t for the life of me remember her name now. But what does her name matter now? She is just another forgotten factory hand, like the rest of us will be one day.
The lesson of that girl stayed with me, though, how could it not? That’s why I had to tell Rachael to be mindful of that hair of hers. Now though, when I look back, I wish that I had kept my fool mouth shut. Maybe if I had let her figure it out for herself, I could have saved myself a whole lot of bother. I mean, knowing what I know now, I should have just left her to get on with it, let fate take a chance on Rachael and her damned hair. Because looking back with my eyes full of everything that has happened since, I think I could have borne to see the loom grab hold of Rachael and spit her out the other side, stripped of everything that made her beautiful, everything that made men desire her. Because Lord how the men seemed to want her. Men like my brother. And men like my husband.