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The Girl from Poor House Lane

Extract - Chapter One


‘Make no mistake Kate O’Connor, this is the best chance you’re going to get so don’t mess it up. There’s many a lass who’d give their eye-teeth to work for Mr Tyson, hard taskmaster though he might be, and who can blame him when you see some of the ne’er-do-wells he has to rely on for labour? Just watch that lip of yours and you’ll happen be all right. And think on, Kirkland Poor House is closing before the week is out, so you’ll have to cope on yer own from now on.’

With red hair which loudly proclaimed her Irish background, and apple cheeks made rosy by the sweet country air of the Westmorland fells, eighteen year old Kate O’Connor could easily have been taken for any simple, fresh young country girl. But looking closer, an interested stranger might note a bone-thin body, one that had not seen a good solid meal in a long while; a pair of scrawny ankles in too large boots jutting out from beneath the loose-fitting gown made for some other, more voluptuous and better class of woman altogether. They might note that what little was visible of her skin was encrusted with ingrained dirt, the hair which fell about her slender shoulders matted and uncombed for all a portion of it was carefully knotted on top of her neatly shaped head.

‘Oh, I can cope all right,’ Kate tartly responded. ‘I’m not afraid of hard work. Don’t you fret none about that. Ye wouldn’t find me accepting any of yer po-faced charity, not if I didn’t have me babby to think of.’

Though she had only visited her homeland a couple of times as a child, there was a lilt to her voice, a musical intonation of sound that she’d perhaps inherited from her father, or had been born in her. And if she appeared alarmingly fragile, the fire within gave off a radiance to warm the soul. The grey eyes were alive with pride and passion and an anger as fierce, and as stormy as the Lakeland skies. And something else: a softer inner core she was doing her utmost to hide, a sadness which still held the bleakness of grief. Whoever had made her hate the world with such a vehemence, would not be let off lightly. That much was all too plain in the obstinate set of the small square chin, the way the eyebrows winged defiantly upwards and the nostrils flared with courage, revealing a rare beauty made all the more poignant by the outward image of a wayward young girl.

That steady gaze, the proud, proprietorial manner with which she held her child, the very truculence of her stance proved that however low she had fallen, however downtrodden, the fight had only just begun.

The woman wagged an admonishing finger then jabbed it against Kate’s thin shoulder, nearly knocking her over. ‘Mark my words, girl, pride comes before a fall. You were glad enough of our so-called charity once over, not least when your poor husband was called to his maker. Think yerself lucky you were fed and sheltered here, in Poor House Lane. Next time it’ll be the Union Workhouse on Kendal Green, then you’ll be sorry. They’ll not treat you so kindly, and you’ll have to work even harder making Harden cloth from flax and hemp, laundrywork happen, or emptying chamber pots. See if you like that any better.’ And with this parting threat, the woman nodded her head with gleeful satisfaction and slammed shut the door.

Kate stood for a second in silent contemplation of that battered, filthy door she knew so well, scratched and pounded upon by a million hungry hands over the years, all of them paupers, like herself, who had come pleading to be let in, to be fed and watered by the unfeeling guardians within. They would queue for hours in the soft Westmorland rain for a bowl of watery soup or luke-warm porridge, then hurry back to the hovel they’d been assigned in Poor House Lane to feed their children, while others would stand where they were in the rotting filth of a stinking yard, eating it quickly before anyone stole it from them. They might be given free coal in severe weather, a warm shawl, or a pair of boots that some poor soul no longer needed since scarlet fever or ‘the visitation of God’ had perhaps carried them off. And they were daily encouraged by the overseer to adopt the habits of ‘prudence and virtue’, no doubt on the grounds that it was their own fault that they were starving.

Perhaps, if Kate had been more fortunate in her family, she might not have needed to come knocking on that door at all. Things could have been so different. Her father had first come to Westmorland as a young man in 1870 as one of the navvies working on the new sewerage system, installing it over a period of five years so that for a time he’d enjoyed relative stability and prosperity, sufficient to take a wife and start a family, producing a son first who they named Dermot, after his own father. But Kate’s mother died giving birth to her just a few years later and the two youngsters had to be cared for by various well meaning neighbours while her father moved on to other building work: the new Market Hall, Sandes Avenue and Victoria Bridge. He’d passed quietly away in the flu’ epidemic back in ’92 when Kate had been barely five or six and Dermot had just started an apprenticeship with a shoe maker.

Losing her beloved father had been terrible, all such a blur she couldn’t quite remember the details but while Dermot managed to board with his master, for Kate it was one short step to Poor House Lane and the Guardians.

The only bright spot in a grim youth was when she’d met and fallen in love with Callum, married at just sixteen and gone to live with him behind his tiny cobbler’s shop. Then the River Kent had flooded, as it frequently did, not quite so bad as when at age eleven, in 1898, the worst floods in living memory nearly washed away the new bridge Daddy had helped build. But bad enough to deprive her of a beloved husband, just as if the gods resented this little bit of happiness she’d found.

In Kate’s eyes he’d died a hero’s death trying to save her from the floods which had swamped their humble dwelling. Having got her safely clinging to a tree, her lovely Callum had lost his hold and been swept away by the swirling waters.

But what was the use in complaining? This was where she lived now, in one room of a cottage right opposite where the pigs were kept.

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