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The Reckoning

February 24, 2019

'Due to me this day £4. 7s and...'
     Ink falls from the nib onto the page. It runs, like a tiny black stream, across the words. I return the pen to the inkwell and blot the mess. The kitchen door opens.

Water drips across the tiles. A bucket scrapes the floor. Jane is humming as she places it by the fire. She always hums when she works; a busy tune - a rhythm to pace herself. She removes her coat and puts on a clean pinny, tying it at the front. I watch her press a loaf tight against her chest, butter it and cut a wafer thin slice. My mother used to slice bread the same way. Plum jam is in the china bowl she fetches from the cupboard. I close my diary.
     It's been a long year. Last winter was so cold the river turned to ice. So cold our sow froze in her pen. I found her stiff and lifeless. Snow blocked the lane until March.
Jane places a cup and saucer on the table. Both are chipped and cracked. Her best cups, for admiring, are on the dresser. She lifts a pot from the hearth and pours. I tip the steaming tea into my saucer and blow to cool the scalding brew. I sip from the saucer, still too hot. I blow again.
     The breakfast things are cleared away. Jane takes the bucket and fills the kettle hanging in the chimney. She adds twigs to the red embers. They burst into life, spitting and crackling. Flames dance across the grate. I watch her carve a wedge from the flitch of bacon curing above the hearth. She dices the meat and adds it to the stew-pot warming beside the oven. By tonight the meat will be tender.
     Spring came late and I was greatly relieved by its arrival. The snow gone, the roads passable and, at last, I had a chance to work, to earn some money. Mr. Davis' barn needed a new roof. He offered me three pounds to do the work. I borrowed his cart and old nag to fetch timber from the railway station. Driving down into the valley I stopped in the river to let the horse drink, to soak the wheels and tighten the rims. The station master, in his crisp uniform, stood and watched me with suspicion as I loaded the stout oak planks. The rough sawn timber was heavy, like iron. We left the station at a slow walk. Climbing from the valley the horse strained in its traces then stumbled, regained its footing and stopped. I used the whip but the animal was finished and refused to go a step further. Three days it took me to haul the timber to the farm.     

Mr. Davis is a careful man, some say mean.
     'You abused my horse.' He spat on the ground. 'And damaged my cart.'
     Two weeks of sweat and all he would pay was one pound eight shillings; scant reward for my labour. But, it was money and I was sore in need of it.
     The day he paid me I bought Jane a fine red shawl for two shillings and four pence. She was pleased with her present but refused to wear it. Instead, she carefully folded it in brown paper. 'It's too new for every day,' she said and packed it in the drawer where she kept her special things. 
     My diary is open again. I flick back to July, a sad time for us all. We buried our dear boy Jacob that month. Scarlet fever took him from us three days before his fourth birthday. I shudder to remember his screams as the doctor shaved his head and scraped pustules from his scalp. Poor Jacob struggled, as I held him tight, writhing to escape the leeches clinging to his temple.
     'They will remove the poison from his blood,' explained the doctor, but the leeches didn't remove the poison. He was a brave little boy til the end. I used some of Mr. Davis' oak, off cuts I'd taken, to make his tiny coffin. Jane lined it with a grey blanket to keep his little body warm in the ground.
     The snow has started again. Wind is blowing flakes through a crack in the kitchen door. Jane points to the fire. I take my coat from behind the door and fetch wood from the shed. The yard is covered in brown slush.

      'Will next year be the same?' I wonder as I stack logs by the fire.
A whimper from the crib. Alice cries. Jane picks her up and holds her to her breast. Alice sucks greedily.
     We christened Alice last August one week after we laid Jacob to rest. It was a hot day. Villagers filled the church that Sunday and welcomed Alice into the world but I cried as we passed the little pile of earth covering where Jacob lay.
     Jane has changed the baby and she sleeps. There's a knock at the door, loud and insistent. I know who it is; the rent collector, Mr. Williams. The door opens. Uninvited, Mr. Williams steps into the kitchen chilling the room with cold air. Dirty snow falls from his boots.
     'Do you have it?' he demands.
     I take the money tin from the dresser, count out one pound ten shillings and hand it to him.
     'It's not enough. You're six weeks behind. I require another thirty shillings or the bailiffs will be calling,' he growls.
     'Sit down Mr. Williams,' says Jane. 'The kettle is boiling. I'll make some tea.'
     Mr. Williams removes his hat and sits awkwardly at the table. I shut the diary and move it away from him. Williams is a brute of a man, a bully, but Jane has his measure. She smiles at him as she pours the tea then busies herself around the kitchen. Has he noticed her face is turned away? 
     He drinks, tells us he's a reasonable man, that he'll give us an extra week to find the money we owe. He smiles at Jane, lecherous swine, and goes on his way, to the next cottage where the scene will likely be repeated. Jane isn't smiling, now he's gone. I make a note of how much we've paid Mr. Williams in my diary.
     Frost and foggy mornings warned the year was turning. It was September. The days grew shorter, the nights colder. I worked until dusk each day to lay Mr. Hughes' hedges. He owed me £2. 4shillings and promised to pay before Michelmas but the 29th September passed and he didn't honour the debt. I killed our weaner on the 30th. Jane helped gut the pig and salt the meat. We would not starve this winter. Mrs Jones traded us a sack of flour for a bowl of brawn Jane made from the pig's head. Jane interrupts my thoughts. 'You must find the money for the rent man.'
     I promise I'll see farmer Hughes and get what he owes me. It's a faint hope but I can't tell Jane that he has no money for fear of worrying her. The mixing bowl comes out. She removes the cloth covering the risen dough, kneads it once more and sets it on a baking tray to rise again. Satisfied it's ready, she pushes it into the hot oven. The door shuts and latches with a metallic click. As I write my journal, the kitchen fills with the smell of baking bread; warm, comforting, safe. How lucky we are, how lucky I am. God has blessed us this last year but he has also tested us. Did he take little Jacob because I doubted him? I shudder at the idea, the cruelty of such a God.
     'You missed two Sundays,' said the vicar after Jacob's funeral. 'God is watching us all. He knows everything.' The vicar is a pompous, pious man. I've never liked him.
October brought great excitement to the village. The Queen was coming. Our Queen, Empress of three quarters of the world would soon be here. We dressed in our Sunday clothes and walked three miles, through the mud, to the railway station. A hawker was selling paper flags for two pence each. We stood on the platform and waited. Jane looked grand in her fine new shawl, her face as rosy as the red wool. She wrapped the shawl around Alice to keep out the cold.

     Someone started to sing, 'Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the...' Others joined in. 'Britains never, never, never will be slaves...' We were excited and proud. Victoria, our Queen was coming.
     A steam whistle echoed along the valley; shrill, discordant.

      'The Queen. A train. The Queen's coming,' yelled a youth.
     'God save the Queen,' chorused the crowd as the train approached.
     The engine passed with a roar, hissing steam, belching soot and black smoke. We strained to glimpse the royal passenger in the carriages as they rattled past. The windows were misted, blinds drawn.
     Jane screamed and clutched at her face.
     'It's burning,' she shrieked. Something was in her eye, a hot cinder blown from the engine. And then, the train was gone. Her right eye was red and weeping. Walking home, we stopped at the stream and bathed it.
     'Did you see her, the Queen?' asked Jane.
     That terrible October day when Jane lost her eye is seared in my memory.
     I open the diary at today's date, 31st December 1866, dip my pen in the inkwell and complete my annual reckoning.
'Due to me this day           £4.  7s  6d.
I owe                               £2. 18s 11d.
Balance in my favour         £1.  8s  7d.
     May God watch over us and grant us a good life in the coming year.'

The ink dries slowly on the page. Another year is done.
 

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