Beth Underdown

Love makes as many

Love makes as many

For all the staff and volunteers at NT Quarry Bank, with my heartfelt thanks
-Beth Underdown


The looms are quiet, this week. Government orders. There’s not enough cotton, not enough boats getting through; so, for once, the looms are still.
        ‘Some folk get on better,’ Martha says, ‘if they close one eye.’
        Martha herself, in fact, could shut both eyes, let the looms run – then open them, and point straight to the one that’s at fault. She’s been an hour with the new girl, now, but as she tells her what to do with broken ends the girl doesn’t look like she’s listening: she just stands there, wall-eyed, picking her hands, which are a state to begin with. She’s been taken out of the munitions place, and brought back here. Finally, it really will soon be over.
        ‘You’ll want an old pair of shoes to change into,’ Martha says.
        The girl nods, her face all pinched up to convey, no doubt, that she wouldn’t mind being elsewhere; any of her own daughters would have got a smack round the mouth, but Martha turns back to the loom. She’s put up the nearest pair of blackout blinds, and the rest of the mill floor is in shadow, a muted blue. Shafts of light strike the loom from either side. Fine dust lifts and moves in the late afternoon sun.
        She takes a deep breath in. These girls, these girls now, they seem like they’re made of something else. First they want this and then they want that, if it isn’t stuff to paint their faces it’s wage hikes, and if it isn’t more money it’s votes. The boys that will be coming back, they can vote now if they’re nineteen, and that seems right, they fought for it, they should get their say. For women it’s thirty.
        Last week, she’d heard one of the fellows from the warehouse, leant against the wall in the mill yard. He’d drawn up his phlegm and spat, once; turned to his mate, and said, my satisfaction is, the ones that has it in’t the ones that wanted it. Loud.
        Well, let him. She’ll vote the same way William used to – which was it, now? – those ones, anyway. He was a thinker, William, always read the newspaper, tracing downwards with one careful finger. What this country needs is stability. That was it.
        She’s been talking, all this while. How to slip the belt over to the idle wheel. How to release the weights on the beam. But now she stops. What else? Used to be more to it, that’s the truth, filling a shuttle and such, but now –
        She asks the girl if she’s got it, and the girl frowns. ‘How d’you keep the dust out of your hair?’
        You don’t, she says.
        She shouldn’t have brought her in today. Should have waited while Monday, when it’s all running again, shown her as she herself was once shown – silently, with gestures, over the deafening noise of the machines. She should have let her be a bit afraid of it. Let her respect it.
        You’ve got to earn it from them, that’s what these girls don’t seem to – she, for instance, has six looms, the most you can. Could have been a piecer, good as anyone. Like Nancy Johnson, say, who started the Co-op up – think of her. An aunt of her William’s, or great-aunt, something like that. Anyway, she’d had a husband, but nobody remembers him, do they? No, it’s Nancy that did something for this place, but not by pouting and stamping her feet. Nancy Johnson was a worker, and now you can feed your little ones without having to walk ten miles over it. The way her chin tilted up. I can do everything a man can do, and twice as quick, with half the whinging. That was it.
        William said once, quite serious, that he always left a space for Nance Johnson in the polling queue. Said she’d made him promise, when he was a little lad. Honestly, his face. She said she’d haunt me otherwise.
        ‘Right then,’ she says, now, to the girl, pulling down the blinds. ‘Hang on, while I change my shoes.’ Haunt him. Oh, that had given her a good laugh. She slips her trashers off, puts them back in the rack beside the others, and takes her time lacing her good boots. The truth is, these days, she can feel her back.
        She takes the girl out down the other stairs. The girl is asking about breaks, and she’s telling her, when suddenly the girl stops: where the stair turns, just outside the broad shop.
        ‘It’s only the narrow shop and the blowing room just now,’ she tells her. ‘But I reckon, when they start coming back –’
        She sees, too late, what the matter is: the rack of trashers, waiting outside the broad shop door.
        ‘Alright, love?’ she says, more gently.
        The girl doesn’t answer, only carries on down, taking care over the pitted steps.
        She could bite her tongue. Trouble is, she sees them every day, and so she doesn’t see them, any more: the shoes taken off four years since, and left in their rows, each pair coated now in its own thick layer of dust.

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