The heartbreaking new novel from Elizabeth Gill, author of The Miller's Daughter and The Lost Child
Release date: November 10, 2022
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Wolsingham, Weardale, County Durham
The point of Christmas, Flo Butler had always thought, was to lighten the darkness with festivities, that was what was taught in the churches and chapels in Weardale. You spent all the rest of the year toiling and working but Christmas would light up that special day just after what some folk called the Winter Solstice. So on December 21st that year she was ready to bring in holly and sing carols in her head. She had been baking and cooking, her Christmas puddings and her Christmas cake had long since been made and one of the local farmers would bring their chicken for Christmas dinner all dressed and ready for the table. She was determined it would be good that year. They had had so many bad times.
In older days she had done such things herself but the little shop and keeping the house going took up all of her time and she therefore didn’t choose to wring a chicken’s neck, cut off its head and feet and go through all the palaver of putting it into boiling water, plucking it, taking out its insides and so on. What with the shop and the big garden behind it – even though Joshua had not worked at the quarry for a long time now and she was glad of it – there was enough to do. Neither of us is getting any younger, she told herself but with some satisfaction.
Sometimes in the streets of the little town she would look longingly at the big families, people who had children and grandchildren. She and Joshua were not as lucky as that. They had had but one son and he had disgraced himself, running off to strange lands with a lass who was already fat with her first. She had pulled the wool over their Michael’s eyes and they had run off together.
That was almost twenty years ago. After he went Flo and Joshua had to live out the shame. The one thing they had to do was choose where they worshipped. Their families had been good chapel-goers but after Michael left they went to the parish church. Neither of them could bear the sympathy nor the looks that their fellow chapel-goers bestowed on them and Flo needed her prayers and the strength that God could give her. She found peace by being in a church. She thought at the time that if one more friend sympathized and asked where she thought they had gone wrong she would scream.
It always had to be somebody’s fault and since they were his parents something they had done had turned him into this person they didn’t recognize. She tried telling herself that this was not true, that people were born in a certain way and their upbringing did not determine everything about them.
Even after all this time she could not think any better of him. It had been on this day when he had left. There had been letters in the early days but Joshua threw them on the fire and much as she wanted to protest because she was desperate to find out how Michael did he ignored her. Since she knew he was just as hurt as she was but showed it in anger, she had learned to say nothing, what else could she have done? However could they have borne it? If he was having a bad time they would worry, if he was having a good time they would resent that he had left.
After a long while the letters stopped and they did not talk about him, just went on with their day-to-day lives as best they could. Flo staggered about, heartbroken day in and day out, and Joshua dug in the garden and they ate and slept, at least sometimes. It was strange how good weather made it worse. You would think that bad weather, cold nights and staying indoors would make your grief more real but it was the summer days when the children played outside long into the evenings and she could hear their mothers and grandmothers calling their names that hurt most of all.
The summer made her restless and she felt as though she should be joyful because everything was at its brightest and best but somehow the flowers looked too gaudy, the leaves on the trees were so green that they scorched her eyes and she spent many a long afternoon wishing she could have the relief of rain. She slept better to the sound of it. The sun was somehow harsh and relentless, it showed up the dusty corners of her memories, cobwebs of the time she had lost without her son over the years. Each day, each hour, each minute, every single second.
Strange then that that very morning she received a letter. Letters were usually something to be read, reread and cherished but this one she could tell, right from the beginning, was trouble, with what Joshua called a capital T.
She almost dropped it as though it had burned her but she knew it was something unusual. It was written in an educated hand on expensive thick cream paper with fine sloping handwriting, the characters almost curled around they were so distinct. She and Joshua never got letters like that and she did not want this one now, did not want to know what terrible news it must contain.
She thought she might put it on the kitchen fire before Joshua had time to see it and complain and get rid of it but she couldn’t do that. She just pretended it hadn’t got there, she tucked it into her pinny pocket but she was so aware of it like a hot coal that she took it back out again. She put it in the dresser drawer and then removed it, thinking Joshua might find it when he was looking at the bills for the shop and such, and so she ran upstairs and placed it in her dressing table drawer under her knickers. He would not go looking in there. She then went downstairs and pretended that nothing had happened.
Joshua came in for his dinner and she had thought it was going well when he suddenly looked at her over his mince, carrots and taties and said,
‘All right then, Flo, what is it?’
She tried to look innocent and failed. They had been married for forty years, she could hide nothing from him but still she made the attempt. She looked down at the dinner she couldn’t eat, and usually she loved mince and dumplings, and then she said in a wobbly voice,
‘There was a letter this morning.’
‘What sort of letter?’
‘An important one, I think.’
He sat there, knife and fork down on his plate, and she did the same thing, while their dinners got cold and the day seemed to turn darker. The shortest day of the year, the longest night and now this. She could tell that it had been as big a shock for him as it was for her and half wished she had burned it without saying anything, yet how could she when it might be very important?
Joshua scraped back his chair and went outside into the garden even though at this hour it was only in his mind that he could see much beyond the walls. What little light there was had disappeared into evening already. Their house was on the edge of the village where the road wound away towards Crook and Bishop Auckland, up on to the hills where the little pit towns lay, but here at the dale’s beginning it was a landscape quite different.
The farms here were a thousand years old and most of them had been fortified in the days of the twelfth century when the border reivers stole land, cattle and any valuable goods they could lay their hands and weapons on.
Now it was a poor place, the lead mines were played out, what prosperity, little as it was, had gone and the old squires did their best with their land but it was mostly hill country as you went up through the dale towards Cumbria and Northumberland. It became a bare and almost arid landscape, fit for nothing but the hardy sheep that lived there and constituted most of the money the farmers could make and many of them had nothing much more than a smallholding.
This place where the Butler family had lived, for how many generations back they did not know, was falling to pieces. Joshua had always been proud to live there but he was proud no more. It had been in a bad way when his father died and there was no money to do anything to make the house more than barely habitable. When he had an accident at the quarry and could work no more, he and Flo had turned their only decent room into a shop. A fall had crushed his foot so he now walked with a limp and dragging that leg around tired him so much he could not go back.
It must have been a fine house once, now it was just a ruin within a few minutes’ walk for the villagers who came to Flo’s shop to buy the things she made and the foodstuffs she sold.
They had nothing outside other than chickens, it was eggs and goods made with eggs, the few things she could not make herself and ordered from Hexham, and then she turned her attention to garments she could knit, or sew. Joshua did the outside work and grew as many vegetables as he could. It was their main source of income. He looked out across the fields, it was the view he had seen all his life, his mind gave him the light the day did not at that hour, early afternoon, and he thought now for perhaps the thousandth time that it had not been surprising Michael had longed to get away. There was nothing left here beyond the acres behind the building.
He wished now that he had been able to get away but they had been too poor to go anywhere. Joshua had been proud that he could provide but he rued the day that Michael had ever spoken of his ambition to leave this country and go off to convert people in that far-off eastern land to Christianity. If Michael had stayed Joshua did not know what would have happened. In his dreams Michael had remained and had his own parish. He’d married a lovely girl who gave them lots of grandchildren and gave his parents time and love. Sometimes when he awoke in the early morning he thought that he had dreamed this so hard that he would find the house repaired and warm, Michael would have employed the best workmen and, most importantly of all, there would have been grandsons to carry on the house where the family had lived for so long.
They had nothing but four rooms altogether, two bedrooms and a back kitchen where they spent their lives. The rest of the buildings had fallen down, there was nothing but rubble outside and a garden shed until you reached the river where his land ended.
It was a cold wet day and although it had started out bright when the sunrise finally made its appearance at nearly nine o’clock the light was gone and the rain suddenly began to bucket down. He stood there with the door open until wind blew the rain all the way down the street from the marketplace, around the end building and into the pantry. Flo came downstairs and gave the letter into his hands.
He tried to take it, she knew he did, but his fingers shook. They always shook these days whenever anything went wrong and things always did, no matter how hard you tried to deflect them. So it ended up on the tablecloth and they sat there looking at it like it was a rat their Nell had found in the henhouse and brought in by the back door.
Nell had been Michael’s sheepdog. After he left Nell didn’t know what was going on and wouldn’t be comforted. In the end they did what they had said they would never do and took the dog to bed with them. It brought all three of them comfort when she lay between them like a warm bolster, snoring softly in the only peace that she had found, the release of sleep.
Flo listened to the rain on her windows and thought about the vegetables. Much more of this and the Brussels sprouts would rot and the last few red roses would lie like blood in the wet soil, irretrievable as their petals turned brown. Nell had lived for ten years after Michael went and then she died by the fire one Sunday morning while they were at church. She had been the only thing they had after Michael had gone off and left them.
Joshua bravely picked up the letter, looked at it, turned it over, stared at the handwriting – he wouldn’t wear his glasses – and then he turned it over a couple more times, got up, went to the mantelshelf and got down the knife which cut open any letter they did get and then he unfurled it.
Flo couldn’t move. She didn’t think she would ever move again. He went on reading until she wanted to cry out, or grab it from him or both, and then he lowered the letter and his face was so pale it was like snow. Just yesterday they had talked to one another about the possibility of snow. Joshua said he could smell it like the sheep who huddled together by the stone walls, taking what shelter they could from the relentless wind which sent the big square flakes blowing horizontally across the whitening fells.
Flo liked snow at Christmas though it didn’t often actually happen until the festive season was over. It was even more welcome by January because the days were dark and at least it made a change, it lightened her mood and the hills and the village roofs and even the roads and pavements. After that she began to feel better because they were heading into spring and although it came late in the north the seasons were a fixed thing and she took comfort from that.
Finally she saw the look on his face. It was disbelief. Neither of them spoke for a long time and then she could wait no longer. She got up and threw coal onto the back of the fire and began to pull some of it forward into the blaze and then she went and sat down again. She wanted to clear the table, she usually did that straight away, but somehow it would have made too much noise, too much movement, like when people coughed and sneezed and blew their noses at funerals it would change and cheapen the mood.
He pushed the letter over to her but didn’t give her time to read it.
‘Our Michael’s dead,’ he said.
Dear Mr and Mrs Butler,
I have taken some time to find you and only through vigorous efforts have I managed. I understand from various contacts in Japan that your son Michael Butler, whom I understand you have not heard of for some time, has died of typhoid fever while undertaking a perilous journey into unknown places. You may not be surprised to know that this was some time ago and we have been trying to contact you ever since.
His wife Rosa died just three weeks later. The circumstances are uncertain. There are children. The authorities decided that they should be sent back to England as two of them are quite young and there has been no provision made for them here nor anyone to take care of them.
The two elder children are seventeen-year-old twins but although Dominic helped his father in most of his work this time he was thankfully as it happens left at home. Constance was her mother’s helper and joy. They had no place here, they are foreign both to the local people and to anyone of our church, or indeed to any Christians as their father and mother were, I hate to add, bereft of God and therefore but for the work he did in various villages, and that was only to offer medical aid, the family they have left has no place here. Nobody wants them.
They seem to have no family but you. Although Michael did not belong to our church we have raised the money to get them home to you. We hope that you as their closest relatives will be able to pay back what it has cost us as it is a great deal of money. We would have liked to ask you for the money before the children set sail but they had nowhere to go and we had no option but to put them onto a ship and we did the best that we could in extremely difficult circumstances.
Therefore they left here some weeks since and will dock in Liverpool any day now from what I understand. I will write to you again and let you know exactly when this will be so that you can go and assist them as they come here to nobody but you and have nothing and no place to go. Although we are aware that Michael did not succeed in his vain attempt to become a missionary we understand that he managed to do some good and therefore it seems only fair to let you know that his children are in need of support and a home with their family.
You have of course my heartfelt sympathy and best wishes,
Dr Hartley Davies
Methodist Overseas Department
Westminster Methodist Hall
115 Westminster Avenue
As Joshua flung down the letter upon the kitchen table Flo eyed it. They had not spoken Michael’s name in twenty years but he had been their only child and she had adored him. Everybody in the dale knew he had broken his parents’ hearts by running after a traveller’s daughter and then she was expecting a child and the scandal had been enormous. He had come back from London after three years training to be a Methodist minister and was planning to work overseas. They had been hoping to talk him out of it since ministers went there alone for the first three years and they wanted him close since he had been studying for so long, and then everything had gone wrong.
He had been such a good son and they had been proud of him and then he had gone to a fair in Hexham and it was the darkest day of all. For there he met a merry black-haired girl who sang bawdy songs in the marketplace and she had enticed him with her laughter and her charms. He fell in love with her and after that his parents had no more influence with him.
Flo had gone over this in her mind thousands of times. His father had told him he could not marry such a woman even when he said that she was expecting his child, so the couple had run off and that was the last anybody had seen of them.
He would have been unable to take up the post he was meant to in Japan. He had in effect lost everything for the sake of a loose woman with no background or family. Flo had let herself be ruled by Joshua on this matter for all these years though often she longed to know what had happened but his grief was too much. Michael was dead to the dale and to his parents. He had ruined the future and now – what on earth was to be done?
She read the letter and then she read it again while Joshua stood in front of the kitchen fire, which he did when cold or upset or both, and after a long time he broke the silence.
‘They cannot come here.’
Flo still hadn’t taken in the idea that she had grandchildren. Her first instinct had been joy even though Michael was dead. He had left somebody to come after him. She said nothing. Perhaps when Joshua grew used to the idea he would soften. It was just that he was hurting once again and he could not stomach it or the idea that their lives would change yet again. They had had enough of that. It was all they could do to take day by day the time which was still allotted to them and be grateful for each other.
‘Four children,’ Flo said. She thought of it, Michael’s twins and two later. It would be a joy if they came back here, it would be real family and a way forward other than a dire old age, at last.
‘We must write and tell him that we cannot have them here,’ Joshua said.
‘But where are they to go?’
‘Who cares?’ he threw back at her and he went out into the sodden garden in the by now thick darkness and slammed the back door.
Flo was angry with him now and yet she knew him and understood him so well. He had been her only love and she was aware how he longed to have her agree with him because of the respect that she owed to her husband but she was frustrated.
After Michael had gone she had never forgotten what the weather was like. That Christmas had done itself out for beauty. The sunrises were pink and grey and the light came twinkling across the fields while the grass was diamonded with heavy dew and later white frost. It had snowed on Christmas Day such as Michael had always wanted it to as a little boy. When he was seven his father had gone outside into the back garden and helped him to build a snowman and she had provided coal for his eyes and buttons and a carrot for his nose, a twig for his mouth and an old scarf for his neck.
Since he had left they had been alone, just the two of them on Christmas Day. The local Methodist minister had gone to see them that first Christmas but Joshua would not allow him inside and since that day few people had been into the house unless they were buying something at the shop.
Michael had gone to the seminary in Richmond near London to train before he and Rosa ran away. Joshua was still working hard to help put Michael through. His parents had toiled so that he would be successful and have enough money to help him win an overseas post such as he had wished for more than anything.
Michael and Rosa had gone. Then there had been Joshua’s accident and they opened the shop to make ends meet. Flo blamed her son, it seemed fitting that Michael had caused it and what a good bitterness to feel when the supposed culprit was absent and could not state his case.
Flo still made cakes and puddings but she never uttered the word ‘Christmas’. They ate them like they ate any winter stodge because the weather was so bad that you had to fill up your stomach against weeks of snow, sleet, icy rain and wind which screamed down from the hilltops and froze the streets in silver. They had only the one fire and it was in the kitchen so had they not gone to bed on full stomachs they would not have slept but he had to tend the garden and she had to tend the shop and yet even when they had eaten their fill they always lost weight over the winter so that they dreaded the long cold season.
Flo loved the few snowdrops that grew in the back garden. They were the first signs that things would get better and that spring would finally arrive, though often it was late up here in the dale and on a bad year even April and May could be bitterly cold. They had once had snow in July.
After Christmas that first year everything had frozen hard for weeks. Joshua had been ill, begun to cough and then developed bronchitis, so the doctor said. It was not bronchitis, she thought, it was heartbreak
They didn’t need the money to help Michael any more. They had saved so that he could go to Japan as a missionary. He would go alone, that was the way of these things, for the first three years and only when he had proved to his betters that he could manage such a difficult life he might send for the woman of his dreams. Instead of that Michael took with him the traveller’s daughter, there was no wedding as far as they were aware, only that he took every penny they had.
After that they made do with what the shop profited them but there was nothing left over for luxuries and the house was theirs so they could apply to no landlord to fill in the walls or mend the roof and howling draughts blew cold breaths through the cracked windows. Joshua had taken to stuffing the holes with old clothes until old clothes were all they had on their backs and Flo sold everything she could think of in the shop. Sometimes they had not enough food for themselves, they had to live so cheaply.
The next day Flo set about her household tasks and she opened up the shop. Several people came in quite early, they were stocking up for Christmas. One of her best sellers was lucky bags. She didn’t call them Christmas lucky bags but slyly, she thought, wrapped them in special paper. She was proud that she bought cheap paper and then drew pictures on it, snowflakes and holly with red berries and mistletoe, green and white. She and Joshua did not discuss any of this, they regarded it as sale items. Also she made fudge and tied ribbons around it. The sweets she bought in big jars from Hexham and was sent refills. It was quite a lucrative sale because children loved such things, spending a farthing or two that their parents gave them.
She sold cabbages, carrots, leeks, parsnips, potatoes and Brussels sprouts, anything which would keep upstairs in the room that had been Michael’s. Sometimes she would go in there just to take in the smell, which was predominantly of apples – they had three apple trees in their back garden and she had become grateful for the huge bounty these trees gave them. And strings of onions were held from the ceiling when Joshua had dug them free of the earth.
Joshua’s father had farmed the land behind the house and like Joshua he had worked in the lead mines. Joshua had inherited his father’s ability to make the best of what land he owned.
Flo had made a big pan of broth two days ago because she knew she would have little time to cook in these few last days before Christmas. There would be pease pudding and ham sandwiches which they would have for tea.
That day, however, and the following day, one or both of them struggled to eat or think of anything to say and she was only glad to have to serve on in the shop and show a cheerful face. Joshua began to cough and sat over the fire so long that she wanted to object but she knew there was no point. He could not help his feelings and neither could she.
They would be closed on Christmas Day. It was the tradition but always a bad day for them. This Christmas morning she went downstairs and usually the first thing she had seen of late was the letter standing on the mantelpiece propped up against the clock. It had gone.
Nobody spoke. She raked and rekindled the fire and then she put on the kettle for water to boil and she set about the breakfast porridge as she always did. When it was ready she put it aside to keep warm and then she went out and fed the hens.
It was a frosty morning and usually that made her feel better. Today it didn’t. The hens had virtually given over laying. It was far too cold for such activity. She fed them every scrap of food she could spare since they were vital to her existence. She liked the henhut. Michael had made it when he had been half grown and would boast that it was the Hen Hotel. It was large and wooden and ornate. He had been such a clever child and they had been so proud of him. It still held together well and she liked how the hens went up and down their little ramp to get in or out.
She always locked them up at night and they were good about coming back from the part of the garden where they were allowed. It was set aside from the rest as hens could make a mess of anything. In the summer they loved having dust baths in the flower beds so Joshua kept them strictly to where there were no flowers and no vegetables.
Both of them were fond of the hens, they were in a daft way all that was left. The early days when they had kept a few sheep, a pig and several cows, and further down where the pond had housed ducks, were long since gone. Sometimes Flo talked to the hens. She called herself stupid but she had to tell her woes to somebody.
At one time they had kept bees and she remembered how you had to tell the bees when somebody died. Bees knew a lot about death. There were certain drones who could find a dead fellow within a few minutes and dispose of him. Flo had told them so much and now the hens put up with her secrets.
She loved how fluffy they were in spring and now in winter she made sure they were well fed and that if they did not want to come outside, if it was too dark and cold and wet, at least they were safe in the house that Michael had made carefully for them so very long ago.
It was big and square and held the warmth so that on a bad day she would go in there for the very comfort of the straw which to her held summer in its odour, and somehow in that there was hope. The land at the back of the house was theirs. Joshua made hay every year and there were fields of wheat and the straw was taken for the henhouse. Nothing was wasted.
They ate their porridge and it was only then that she could not stop herself from saying,
‘Where did the letter go?’
‘I put it on the fire last night. It was the best thing to do. It will be as if it never was. We won’t talk about it again.’ Nor did they.
Amos Adams, the local Methodist minister in Wolsingham, had been born there but had left at an early age. He well remembered the Butlers, Flo and Joshua, indeed his father had been Joshua’s brother. Apparently they had quarrelled and he and his wife Lena had left, taking their son with them and never gone back.
Amos could not accept that he and his father had been turned off from the place he regarded not just as his home but as the most important place on earth. He did not remember his father and his uncle quarrelling, he remembered such happy times when his mother and father and himself had a place there. The family had pulled together in those days and it seemed to him that they would always be like that.
He had no idea what prosperity or poverty was, just that he was cared for and loved, that he had enough food to eat, the riverside and the fields to play in and that he had loved his aunt Flo and his uncle Joshua. So it was a shock when his father woke him in the night when he was seven and took him away.
Perhaps there had been some quarrel between the brothers, he didn’t know just that he had been flung from his paradise and nothing had ever been the same.
His father took his family to Newcastle and then walked out on them so Amos was known by his mother’s name and that was all. They were poor an. . .
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