The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush;
’Ere we go raound the mulberry bush,
On a cold and frosty mornin’.'
The little, living circle — eight boys and girls with joined hands — moved slowly around on the cobbles of Number 2 Court, off Duke Street. But Nell Boyd was out of it. Everyone knew she had gone, but no one said anything. Only Sally Duckworth glanced over her shoulder a minute or two later, and saw Nell looking through the kitchen window from between the curtains.
When Nell was very small, the other girls used to tell her that one day the fingers would appear on her left hand. As it was, the hand ended in a rounded stump, with five little holes, as though the fingers had forgotten to come out.
It was all right when they played rallyo in Number 2 Court, or skipped rope. Nell could play jacks, too, with her good right hand, the stump hidden beneath her little pinafore. But when it came to games with hand-holding, she dropped out. The girls did not mind. They were not so sensitive. But the boys would not touch that stump. And rather than sacrifice the boys, the girls sacrificed Nell.
Nell understood. She quietly withdrew when they started to play mulberry bush or London Bridge. She went in her house, and always peered out through the kitchen window to watch.
Ann Boyd, Nell’s mother, saw it every time it happened. But she never knew what Nell thought as the girl stared out at the others playing in the long English twilight. Nell had sad gray eyes that only added to her blonde beauty. She was a keen, quickwitted child, and very early she learned the reason for her mother’s sorrowful face.
Nell Boyd, daughter of a West Lancashire miner, was just one more slap of the fates at Ann Boyd!
Twelve years ago, Duke Street had heard the cart coming from the mine. It rumbled over the cobbles, a springless wagon, and every jolt of its heavy body found answer in the thud of the hearts of women.
When they heard it, they rushed to their front windows and drew the shades. Then they waited, hands at their throats, trembling, dry-mouthed, but ready.
Where would it stop with its dreadful load?
‘It’s Ann Boyd’s.’
‘God ’elp ’er!’
Then the doors flew open and the women rushed out. Two of them clattered on their clogs down the entry to Number 2 Court. They would hold Ann Boyd in the back kitchen. Almost before the cart stopped at the front door on Duke Street, another woman had a big pot of water on the fire. Everyone moved as though part of a well-trained platoon.
‘Is ’e bad, mester?’
Jody Duckworth, coatless, but with sweat streaking his coal-blackened face, climbed out of the wagon.
‘Aye, missis, pretty bad. It’s ’is show’der. ’E’s ad ’is teeth clinched i’ my coat sleeve all t’ way up. Them bloody wagons is enow to kill a mon when t’ pit doesna do it. Easy, naow, easy does it! ’Es tha geet a good grip, missis? A’ reight, naow, easy does it!’
Boyd was back in the mine in a month, and within the year it happened again. This time he was taken to the Cottage Hospital, where the bones of his foot were sorted out. For years the Lancashire mines had been taking their toll, but even Boyd’s mates at Deep Pit thought it was a bit thick on Jem. ‘Two nasty uns reight close together,’ Jody Duckworth said. '’E’d better watch hissel’ in t’ future. Third time pays for all, tha knows.’
Then Nell was born. Even as a little child, she was a clear-eyed, beautiful girl. There was not a child in the court with more flushed cheek or brighter glance at play, but the others, with the unthinking cruelty of children, named her ‘Stump.’
Jem Boyd earned good pay in Deep Pit. Many times there was as much as sixteen pounds or more to share out among seven mates working in the one stall. But the taproom of the Britannia Vaults got its share of Jem’s money. ‘A mon corn’t peil away daown theer a’ day ’baout wettin’ ’is w’istle w’en ’e comes up,’ Jem used to say. ‘It’s on’y them as niver’s bin daown an’ gettin’ their throats clogged up like a sink pipe full o’ grease as talks abaout stoppin’ a workin’man’s bit o’ beer.’
Not that Jem drank his pay. Far from it. Religiously he put Ann’s housekeeping money on the kitchen table after the mates had shared up — twenty-five shillings before Nell came, and thirty shillings after, except when it was a bad week with plenty of stoppages and hard digging. ‘But tha corn’t get blood fra’ a stone,’ said Jem, at such times, ‘an’ a mon must ha’e ’is bit o’ spend.’
Nell was growing up fast when Jem took his last ride in the cart. They brought him home for dead, but he was n’t. A half ton of slag had caught him just inside the stall. They heard him groan, grabbed their lamps, and ran. Frantically they tore at the loose rock that held him down by the hips.
Jem gasped and rolled his eyes.
‘Ah’m reight ’ere, Jem. W’at is it?’
Jem breathed heavily.
‘Tha’d better get a move on thee and be tellin’ ’or, Jody. Ah’m finished this time. Easy does it, Jody. Don’t scare t’ bloody wits aout on ’er.’
And so Jem came home on the layer of straw, two coats doubled under his head for a pillow. Jody Duckworth was nearly out of his mind.
‘W’at ’ave Ah done to desarve a’ this?’ he asked, over a pint at the Britannia Vaults. ‘Twice Ah fetched ’im whoam i’ that bloody cart, a-joltin’ araound, an’ me ’eart playin’ like joy bells o’ Scotland inside o’ me. An’ then Ah ’ave t’ job o’ tellin’ ’is missis when ’e’s crocked up for good.’
Jem could not die. His barrel chest and stout heart kept him alive, but his loins were almost useless. With the help of two sticks, he dragged around the house like a dog with a broken spine. He brooded upon his fate. Deprived of his work, shut off from the life of his butties, he grew heavy in mind and body. His eyes were perpetually clouded and his brow was corrugated in an eternal frown.
Ann got a job. The union helped, appealing to the old parish church to take her on as cleaner.
Ann had to go and see the vestrymen, and they talked about her to the union official as though she were not there.
‘Is it a deserving case?’ they asked. ‘Is the woman honest?’
‘Nay, mon,’ said the union man when he reported to the miners, ‘tha’d a thowt Ah wuz axin’ ’um to gi’e t’ woman job o’ passin’ money plate o’ a Sunday mornin’. Is she honest! W’at bloody chance ’as she to be owt else, sweepin’ an’ dustin’ theer.?'
Jem Boyd rarely stirred from his doorstep in good weather. He sat like some immobile Gibraltar, stony, gaunt, brooding. His eyes were always half closed, as though he saw too much daylight now. Through most of the year miners went down to their work before dawn and came up after dark. They lived through a night longer than the winter night of the Arctic.
He had been robbed, this man with the strong body and willing hands; robbed of his right to take his place among his kind of men; robbed of the right to work in the deep, dark recesses of a coal mine, grubbing with a pick and spade for a living. It was the only thing he had asked of life. When he had it, he was happy.
Nell would sit with him when her work in the house was done. She tried to teach him to read and write, but he could see no use for such things. Vainly she tried to tell him in her almost inarticulate way that reading would lighten his days, would take him away from Number 2 Court. He did not understand. He wanted to work, and his helpless loins would not let him. As for writing, it was easier to make a cross than to write ‘James Boyd.’
‘Aay, Fayther,’ said Nell, ‘tha art ’opeless. Si’ thee, naow, it’s as easy as pie.’
She steadied the slate with her stump, and then carefully designed the simple words of the first standard in a large, round hand.
But Jem was n’t looking at the slate. His eyes were fixed on the deformed hand. She saw that, too, and bent lower.
‘Lass,’ he said, ‘tha’s geet a thankless task o’ thy ’ands. Tha’s better gi’e it up.’
Then he covered her fingerless hand with his thick, splayed fingers.
‘Haow did it come abaout, Fayther,’ she asked, ‘that Ah was born wi’ a ’and ’baout fingers?’
Jem’s grip closed, as though he held a pick handle. Nell winced, but did not move.
‘Wench,’ he said, ‘it’s one o’ them things as corn’t be explained. Thy mother is made reight enow, an’ there’s none so much wrong wi’ me. Before tha was born, Ah mean. There’s enow wrong wi’ me naow.’
Nell smiled up at him.
‘Naow, Fayther,’ she said, ‘niver mind talkin’ abaout it, or thysel’ either. Tha art a’ reight. Are ye not ’appy, bein’ able to sit ’ere? We ’re fixed reight, wi’ t’ job as Mother’s geet.’
‘Ay,’ said Jem, bitterly, ‘an’ Ah’ve geet to sit ’ere an’ let a woman work for me.’
When Ann came, dusty and tired, to stand before them in the doorway, he resented it because she came home as the wage earner. His resentment was a form of shame, and it made him irritable and cross with the woman who toiled.
‘Tha art late, eh!’ he said, looking at her hands.
The expression in her eyes did not change.
‘Ay,’ she said, ‘a weet wick makes a lot o’ work, tha knows. A’ them people i’ t’ church of a Sunday wi’ damp clo’es. What con tha expect? Let me in w’ile Ah get thee summat to eat.’
He followed her in. He would never stay out when she came home.
‘Th’ ’taters are peeled, Mother,’ said Nell, following behind the slowmoving figure of her father.
‘A’ reight, lass.’
Jem knew what he owed her. He sat in the kitchen and watched her swift efficiency. It was the same each night when he sat down to eat. He looked at the pair of them, and thought that he was responsible. Ann must toil as a church cleaner, and the little un must go through life with one hand. It would never have been so but for him. One he had married and brought to this. The other he had fathered.
As Nell grew older, she watched the pairing off of the girls and boys of the Duke Street neighborhood. From her front doorstep, she saw them start off for long walks around Sandy Lane and Moss Bank, and in the years that followed it seemed to her as though those walks were symbolical of the unions that developed. People started out and walked together, just walking and talking — and not much talking, at that, because Lancashire folk of the Duke Street type were almost inarticulate. But the walks in the long twilight bred something that brought these people together, and they just walked off and kept going, most of them never separating until they reached the grave.
It was not long before Nell began walking, too. At first it seemed to her, as she sat with her father on the doorstep, that the unfinished left hand must ever be a bar to that sort of thing. Sally Duckworth told her that the first time ever she and John Willie Pease went around Sandy Lane, he held her hand before they got to the swing gate at the foot of Hard Lane that led past the cemetery. Something like that always made Nell slide her left hand beneath her apron.
Be that as it may, the older girls soon were whispering that a strange, dark man was walking Nell Boyd out, and they told their mothers about it.
‘Aay, lass, tha doesna say! W’at does ’e look lahke?’
‘Well, ’e works in t’ pit, a’ reight, but ’e doesna live araound ’ere.’
And then the women talked in the court.
‘Tha can say w’at tha’s a mind, but it ent fair to that young feller. Ah’ll bet ’e doesna know abaout ’er ’and, an’ it’s a shame to let ’im come araound ’ere withaout tellin’ ’im.’
‘Aay, missis, wharrat talkin’ abaout? All t’ taown knows abaout Stump.’
And Jack Saunders knew, too. He knew before he came to Boyd’s house, sent there by the miners’ union to call on the helpless Jem. Young Jack worked in Deep Pit, and he came to tell Jem how things went there, because Jem still felt he was part of that black gang.
Once Jack caught a glimpse of the wide-eyed, fair Nell, he came back often. He knew about Stump, but he never expected to see anything like this. He spent evenings with Jem, hoping all the time that Nell would be called in to get things for the man who could move but very slowly.
One night Jack found her on the doorstep when he called. It was past eight o’clock. She sat staring down toward the corner.
‘There’s a bit o’ damp i’ th’ air,’ he said, as he came up and hesitated. ‘Tha’d do weel to go insahde — Nell.’
He was glad it was almost dark.
But it was not too dark to see the wide gray eyes she turned up to him.
‘Ah’m waitin’ for my mother,’ she said. ‘’Oo’s late to-neet.’
Cautiously he sat down at her side.
‘Ay,’ he said, ‘it’s none such a job for a woman as keeps ’er aout as late as this of a neet.’
‘It’s a’ we can do,’ she said. ‘Ah’d do t’ job mysel’, but she wouldna ’ear of it. She sez Ah mun stay ’ere and keep ’aouse an’ look after Fayther.’
‘An’ reight enow, too,’ said young Jack quickly. ‘Ah wouldna want to think o’ thee daown there i’ yon church. . . .’ And then he stopped in embarrassment.
Nell looked at him, then turned away. Her heart beat fast. There had been something in his tone.
Two nights later they went walking after her mother came home. And a week after that, just as they were passing the railroad crossing at Moss Bank, and the lights of City Gardens were a glow on the road before them, he took her hand — her left hand. They were walking close together when the uneven sandy ridges of the road threw him closer. Their swinging hands touched, and his caught hers.
She would have sworn afterward that for several steps her heart stopped beating, and that there was a great void in her breast. She saw herself again dropping out of mulberry bush in the court, hiding herself behind the curtains of the kitchen window.
But there was no need of that now. Young Jack’s hand, worn to the haft of a pick, gripped the stump and held fast.
Five months later the court talked about Stump and Young Jack who were going to be married.
’An’ it’s th’ ’and w’eer t’ weddin’ ring should be,’ one woman said. ‘Th’ parson’ll get a shock w’en ’e sees that.’
That stump of a hand was all they could see of Nell. It meant all of her to them. They could not see what Jack saw, nor what she saw, either.
On the doorstep, he took that hand when he asked her to marry him. There were children playing in the court behind, and the trams rattled on North Road a few blocks away. But they had eyes and ears only for each other.
‘Say ay, Nell,’ he pleaded, ‘an’ Ah’ll ’ave summat to work for!’
‘A’ reight,’ she said, after a pause, ‘but Ah ’ope, Jack, tha’ll ne’er be sorry. Accordin’ to some folk araound ’ere, tha will.’
He gripped her hand hard.
‘Nay,’ he said, passionately, ‘Ah niver shall. Tha’s somethin’ Ah’ve bin lookin’ for to make lahfe wo’th livin’.’
They were married one cold Saturday morning. It was spring, but not springtime. The wind blew flurries of snow down Nell’s neck. But it did not matter. She was radiant.
Nell said they would walk to church, although Jack wanted to spend ‘ ’aif a craown ’ for a hansom cab.
‘Nay, Jackie boy,’ she said. ‘It’s nowt but a ’op, skip, an’ a jump.’
There were just Nell’s cousin, who was coming to keep house for the Boyds when she left, and two of Jack’s sisters, and the man one of them was going to marry. Nell wore a pale green dress, and she looked like a cornflower with her blonde head and her stem-like body. ‘Nowt but a bit o’ froth, t’ lass is n’t,’ the court said that day.
Jack’s sister and her intended stood for them, and if the parson got a shock it was only a mild one when Nell offered her right hand to Jack for the ring. Nell peeped out from under her Easter-looking bonnet when the man in black solemnly intoned: ‘Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’ Jack was staring straight ahead, stiff in his best Sunday clothes, picturing to himself the boxes he would fill in the mine so that this fragile girl standing near him would never want.
‘They say it’s unlucky to wed i’ green,’ Nell said to him as they went out, but he whispered to her something that made her laugh and forget.
All the way back to the court, the gray streets rang with her laughter. They were breathless when they arrived, and he swore she would run him off his feet before they were married six months.
Nell left his side at the door to rush madly to her mother. Jack saw the two heads close together, one that had been fair and now was gray, and the other as fresh as an unplucked flower. Over his wife’s shoulder, tired gray eyes looked at him, and he made them an unspoken promise.
They all sat down to the wedding breakfast—bacon and eggs. ‘Let’s ha’e summat solid, missis,’ Jack had said. ‘Ah’ll need it, tha knows, w’en Ah geet back.’ The fire in the small kitchen was banked high. Helpless Jem looked at the girl who had grown up to leave him. Jack fed his eyes on his fair bride.
That night, Jack and Nell went to the theatre, and later to the house they had taken a little way from Number 2 Court.
Before the first year was ended, Ann Boyd’s hurrying clogs clattering over the cobbles of the court brought out the heads of neighbors from back doors and kitchen windows.
‘Naow, w’at’s up, missis?’
‘Aay, it’s aour Nell. She’s in t’ straw.'
‘Dost need any ’elp?’
‘ Weel tha might coom o’er in abaout ’aif an hour. Ah s’ll lahkely need a ’and then.’
‘A’ reight. We’ll say abaout ’leven o’clock.’
‘Ay, if tha doesna mahnd.’
Nell, ‘ in t’ straw,’ looked as though a puff of wind would blow her away. Women shook their heads and were glad it was n’t their daughter. There was nothing to the lass.
To Jack, she was his handful of sweetness and devotion. Never had he dreamed that a man could have such love lavished on him as he had known in that year. He was fearful now — fearful that she would be taken away. He refused to go to the mine that day. He was unlike most of his fellows, who were awkward, almost ashamed, at such times, and generally awaited the event in the bar parlor of the Black Horse.
When the baby was born and they let him come in, he had eyes only for her. It stabbed him to see her drawn, pale face, and he dropped to his knees at the bedside.
‘Naow, lass,’ he said, in agony, ‘tell me tha art a’ reight!'
She ran her hand through his thick, strong hair, the fingers of her right hand. He was clutching the left.
‘Why, Jackie boy, of course Ah’m a’ reight. Doesna want to see t’ little un?’
He looked at the red-faced bundle under her arm.
‘W’ich is it,’ he asked, ’lad or wench?’
‘W’ich does tha want?’ she teased.
‘Nowt but thee,’ he said.
And she laughed and was happy.
All that day and for several days he lolled at the foot of her bed while the neighbors came in to see the child and the little mother. And in the days that followed he could scarcely tear himself away to go down the mine. When the shift was over and he came up each day, he rushed straight to the little house. The bar parlor never had held any attractions for Jack. Nell, his home, the kitchen fire, and now the baby she gave him to hold while she washed the dishes, they were his all. He was like a pilgrim each night going his way to his shrine, there to sink down in contentment and eternal adoration of his little goddess from Number 2 Court.
On money that might have been spent over the bar at the Black Horse, had Jack followed the way of his mates, he and Nell managed a week-end at Southport or New Brighton once a year. But it was not until nearly two years after the third baby was born that they went to Blackpool for five days. The rush and scurry of it delighted Nell; getting them ready — little Jack who was nearly five, and Ann who was going on three, and baby James.
‘Naow, my little beauty,’ said Jack, tying the baby’s bonnet strings, ‘we s’ll be off in a minute. Art tha done i’ theer, Nell, owd girl?’
‘’Owd thy ’urry, Jackie boy,’ she said. ‘Tha’s done nowt a’ mornin’ but run araound lahke a ’en on ’ot bricks, axin me if Ah’m ready yet. We’ve geet an hour to train tahme.’
They got off at last, with a carriage all to themselves, for it was not yet the height of the holidaying season. Young Jack and Ann pressed their noses to the windowpanes and watched the flying telegraph poles and the signboards that flashed past, turning away from the miracle before them only to reach into the hamper basket for lemon cheese tarts.
Jack had written ahead for rooms. No one going to Blackpool — at least, no one who went from Duke Street and the courts — ever stayed at a hotel. There were scores of boarding houses where the meals were like those served at home, and there was a landlady with her inevitable daughters who looked after the children at night if the grown-ups went to dance in the pavilion on the pier.
No matter where in the years that lay ahead young Jack and Ann were to go, whether to the resorts of France, which was unlikely to the point of impossibility, or to the far-off shores of alluring America, which was more likely, they would never forget Blackpool — playground of the workers of Lancashire, who saved shilling by shilling for the fund that would take them to that magic spot on the shore of the Irish Sea. The sands of Blackpool! There was joy in the very phrase. The pier! The great tower, with its circus and its disappearing floor that let in tons of water for the polo match! The racing donkeys that fled across the ridges of the beach to spill screaming girls into the arms of their sweethearts! In the years to come, Jack and Ann would sigh for the lost glory of that first visit, and if they ever became wise they would know qualms of soft regret because they had had to exchange the inexpressible wonder of childhood for the doubtful advantages of adult years.
On that holiday, Jack courted his wife over again. With the children abed and under the care of the common mother of the boarding house, he took her to see the Pierrots far up on the North Shore. They walked back slowly together along the Promenade, with its rows of lamps that seemed to be there just to light the path for them.
Nell felt that never a woman in all the world had been as happy as she, with a man who loved her, who wanted nothing more than to be at her side, always with the glance of his eyes to tell her she was his life.
It was a big stone and it gave no warning. It fell from the roof of a high stall, and Jack was underneath. The man who reached him first and threw the light of his Davy lamp upon the prostrate figure told Ann Boyd days later that he heard Jack say in a hissing whisper, ‘Aay, Nell, darlin’ wench, w’at ’ave Ah done to thee naow?’
‘Con tha imagine that?’ asked the miner of Ann, with wonder in his eyes. ‘An’ ’im wi’ that great mess o’ stone lyin’ across t’ small o’ ’is back!’
Jody Duckworth was sent on ahead again.
‘But, mon,’ he protested to the checkweighman when he reached the top of the pit shaft, ‘Ah done this bloody job years agone w’en ’er fayther geet ’urt!’
‘All t’ more reason w’y tha should do it this tahme. Get a move on thee, or else t’ cart’ll be theer as soon as thee!’
Jody got a move on, with his black face streaked with sweat and his bow legs sending his clogs rattling over the flags down Duke Street.
They heard him coming at Number 2 Court, heard him rush past the alleylike entrance. Jem Boyd dragged himself on his sticks toward the front door, trying to count Jody’s steps down the street.
‘Not to aour Nell’s, surely to God!’ he said aloud, and the veins on his strong neck seemed ready to burst.
Nell was standing just behind her front door, pale, trembling, her heart filling her throat. Jody lifted the knocker. The door swung open.
‘Missis,’ began Jody, gasping. He was not as young as when he had done that job before.
‘Is it my Jack?’
Her good hand gripped the door knob hard. He saw the fingerless stump go to her throat.
‘Very bad, Mister Duckworth?’ Jody was an old man to her; a contemporary of her father’s.
‘Naow, lass,’ Jody said, ‘tha munna tek it so ’ard. ’E’s not dead. They’re bringin’ ’im whoam in t’ cart.’ He stopped. ‘Ah ’car it naow. All’ll gi’e thee a ’and to get th’ bed ready.’
She rushed about for sheets and blankets to put on the sofa.
‘In t’ cart,’ she moaned. ‘In t’ cart.’
They brought Jack home with his crushed spine and his splendid vitality. Like Jem Boyd, he could not die then, but he never would walk again, not even on sticks. The doctor told Nell he might live a year with care.
When she went back to him that day, he lay and looked at her with tragic eyes.
‘Ah’ve let thee in for somethin’, Nell,’ he said, and she stopped his mouth with her hand.
‘Tha’s looked after me these years we’ve bin wed,’ she said. ‘Naow it’s my turn.’
She dropped down beside the bed and wound her arms about his neck.
‘Jackie boy,’ she moaned, her lips on his hair.
Jack clenched his hands in folds of the blanket, and wept at his own helplessness.
The miners’ union gave them a wheel chair, and only rain kept them indoors. In sunshine and under gray skies, she wheeled him out, sometimes as far as the foot of Hard Lane.
‘It’s better for both o’ us,’ she said. ‘We mun get aout together. Jackie’s a big lad, naow. ’E con watch th’ ’aouse.’
No hands but hers touched him. Many offered, but she would not allow it. He was hers and he would be to the end.
There was a fourth baby, now, and sometimes he would ask her to put the little one at his feet when they went out, forgetful of the added weight for Nell. And then he would say as they trundled slowly down Duke Street: —
‘Tha knows, Nell, th’ only thing Ah don’t lahke abaout this carriage, Ah corn’t see thy face. Tha art be’ind me all t’ tahme.’
She was glad he could not see her face. People looked at her in pity.
She did not want him to see how she resented that. She wanted none of their pity. He was her man, crippled while he worked for her. Now, she was standing by him. He was hers, whether he walked or not, and she would not have exchanged him for the soundest man alive.
Winter came around and drove them indoors, and spring was on its way when Jack showed signs of weakening.
They both knew, but they would not speak of it. Fiercely she fought back the tears, the sob in her voice, and she talked to him of the summer days that were coming. One Sunday morning when the sun shone she took him to the end of the street, and they watched the fine folk go by on the way to church.
He left her on a blustering April day when the wind whistled down the street and rain slatted against the windowpanes. She watched him go, heard him whisper her name, and saw him sink away into the slough of death.
Her mother came with two neighbors who would wash and lay him out.
‘Mother,’ she moaned, ‘Ah corn’t live ’baout ’im.’
‘But tha will, lass.’
‘Ah corn’t, Mother. Th’ childer’ll niver take ’is place.’
‘Ay they will, wench, an’ tha’ll be glad tha ’as ’um.’
‘Oh, Mother, w’y was Ah iver born?’
‘An’ w’y was Ah, for that matter, lass?’
Gray head and blonde close together, while the neighbors worked in the next room.
‘We mun mak’ a good job o’ it, Sal. Tha knows ’e was all t’ world to ’er.’
Ann Boyd died. She had worked on through the long years until Jem, finding he had no more use for them, dropped his sticks and closed his brooding eyes forever. Ann gave up then. Her work was done. She had been born for a purpose: to love and care for a man after the mine had crushed him.
Compensation from the owners for Nell had stopped when Jack died. There was only a little coming in from the union, so she was bequeathed the job at the old parish church.
And there she found Jack.
One day on the middle aisle — she always saved that for the last and started from the front on scrubbing days — she worked back from the minister’s pulpit, dragging her bit of sacking that eased her knees and pushing the bucket behind her as she scrubbed off each square. Nell always did two pew-widths at a time.
It was late afternoon. There had been no one at the church all day. It was dim and silent. The gray light of the dying day feebly spilled through the stained-glass windows.
Suddenly the organ began to play. Nell started, and straightened her aching back. She had not seen the organist come in by the side door and quietly ascend to the loft for his practice. He was concealed now, high up above the pulpit.
Nell’s gray eyes were wide. She settled back on her heels, and with the back of her unfinished hand she brushed from her face a wisp of gray hair that once had been yellow as a cornflower.
Away up, she saw him, just as clearly as when he used to come in at the door and stand a moment on the threshold.
She did not cry out. She only looked. He was looking down at her, and he was as straight and strong as he was before the stone crushed him.
Forever after, until her children grew up and she died, she would not have given up that job at the old parish church to become first lady in waiting to the Queen.