Tales of our Forebears – Prunes and Prisms

Prunes and Prisms
Gloucester 1898.

“Prunes and prisms.”
“Twenty-eight.”
Clara yawned.
“Prunes and prisms.”
“Twenty-nine.”
“Prunes and prisms.”
“One hundred and forty-six.”
“Clara! You’re supposed to be counting.”
“Nine hundred and thirty-two.”
“Now I’ve completely lost count. I promised Edith, fifty times morning and evening.”
“If you wanted to be a lady…like her.”
Kate shot her sister a sharp look but Clara just stared back, wide-eyed, humming.
“Don’t you want to be a lady?” Kate probed.
“Not if it means stroking your nose a hundred times, chanting daft things, and ending up with someone like Wyndham Day Goatman.”
They spluttered with laughter.
“‘Wyndham Day Goatman, pleased to make your acquaintance’,” mocked Clara. “Aren’t you pleased he’s gone, Katie?”
“I miss Edith. And I heard Mother and Pa talking about getting another lodger. Who might be worse than Wyndham.”
“Then you’ll have to marry him because I shan’t,” said Clara. “It’ll be your duty.”
“It certainly will not. I’ll not marry a railwayman.”
“I wonder if that’s what Edith used to say,” said Clara. She picked up the shirt of her father’s which she had been working on and left the room.
At twelve, Kate believed she understood far more of the world than her younger sister It was Kate who could be relied upon to be commended for passing the annual examination in the Holy Scriptures, set by the Widden Street Board School they both attended. Last year’s prize had been Lady Sybil’s Choice by Emily Sarah Holt which she had devoured in three days, completely immersed in the mediaeval romance. Clara had never won a prize for anything other than satisfactory attendance. But, sometimes, Clara said something that made you think she was sharper than you thought she was. She had no business being sharp, especially about marriage.
When Edith Chamberlain had moved in with her elder brother’s family nearly two and a half years before, Kate had expected an older sister rather than an aunt. After all, there was only twelve years difference in their ages. It soon became clear, however, that Edith had only one ambition: to marry.
“I’m already twenty-three, Katie,” she said one night when it was clear from her adenoidal snufflings that Clara was already asleep. “If I don’t get married soon, I never shall. I’ll be like Bessie, on the shelf at thirty-five and never a hope of finding a husband.”
“Aunt Bessie’s got a husband. We went to her wedding.”
“Your aunt Bessie was very, very lucky. She had John Gillett prepared to wait over ten years for her to be free. I’ve no one waiting for me.”
“But you’re not thirty-five. Nowhere near.”
“Not yet,” said Edith gloomily, as if it were an event just around the corner.
“Anyway, free from what? What did Auntie Bessie have to escape from?”
Edith didn’t answer, but buried her head under her pillow.
Kate thought it must be to do with Grandpa Chamberlain. Edith only got upset when there was talk of her father. It had been his death which had sent his two unmarried daughters off in two different directions. Bessie had married her loyal John Gillett and moved to Longhope and Edith, the youngest of the family, had been offered a home by her brother Henry.
Clara had asked their mother why Edith kept crying when she was a grown-up.
“You have to remember, Clara, that Grandpa Chamberlain was mother and father to your aunt Edith. Her own mam dying when she was but a little thing. And now she’s lost her da and her home and it’s all very, very sad. You must be a good girl and work very hard to cheer her up.”
Now, Kate wondered whether it was with the intention of cheering his sister up that prompted her parents to take in a lodger. She had thought at the time that it was an odd thing to do, given the disruption it caused to the household. All the clutter had to be moved out of the box room and stored on top of the wardrobes. Clara was moved into a truckle bed that was kept by day under the double which Kate now shared with Edith. And their mother was full of warnings about the extra laundry, and bath-nights, and a run on the privy in the mornings. However, it seemed to work. When Wyndham Day Goatman arrived at 6 Magdala Road, Edith had soon brightened.
He was a shunter, working for the Great Western Railway, and had seen the advertisement Henry Chamberlain had put up in the yard.
“He’s a clean lad,” Henry had said to his wife. “New to the railway at much the same age I was. He’s from north of Hereford but you’d not know it. Very nicely spoken. Quite the gentleman.”
“Gentlemen can be as wayward as any Irish navvy,” replied Mary Ann Chamberlain. “It’s the rules of a Christian home that I’ll be watching he obeys. There’ll be no ‘gentlemanly’ goings-on under this roof, Henry Chamberlain and I shall look to you to see to that. It was your idea to bring a strange man into your home, I’ll not have you forget it. I’d have preferred a plain little shop-assistant.”
Kate admired the way her mother insisted on being addressed as Mrs Chamberlain just as she never called Wyndham anything other than Mr Goatman until the day he led Edith down the aisle of All Saints’ on 3rd January. It was ‘Wyndham’ and ‘Henry’ between the two men and, before long, the girls and Edith were on first-name terms with the new lodger too. She might launder his linen and cook his meals and boil the copper before he took his weekly bath behind the draped sheets in the back-room but Mary Ann Chamberlain never gave an inch of intimacy.
It was, no doubt, her vigilance that had the courtship between Edith and the lodger stretch to over two years before there was an understanding.
“Will you not give the young people a bit of lee-way, Mary Ann?” Henry said one morning when she had forbade them even to loiter after church together. “You can see they’re that fond of one another.”
“They can be as fond as they like. I’m fond of next-door’s Jack Russell. He’s twenty-two and, for all that moustache he keeps on stroking, hardly a man. It won’t hurt him to learn a bit of patience. Jacob laboured for fourteen years for his Rachael. I’ll not say Edith’s flighty but she’s that set on a place of her own she needs a close eye. And how would I face Bessie if it was under my roof Edith lost her good name? If he’s worth his salt, he’ll behave respectable. For all her whining, if they wait a year, Edith’ll only be twenty-five. I was twenty-six, remember, when I married you and not, I hope, a shrivelled prune.
“An apricot,” said Henry.
His wife was right. It would do Wyndham no harm to be held back. On the railway, the talk amongst the young fellows was all speed and efficiency, engines and rive. And, he chuckled, moving the stock about the railyard ought to give the young shunter enough coupling and de-coupling for a while yet. And it fell to him, Edith’s brother, to make sure the young people were sure of themselves and not thinking of getting hitched for the convenience and ease of opportunity. He’d wait for a nod from Mary Ann. The points would switch and he’d give the signal.
He wondered how his father, Amos, would have taken to Wyndham Goatman. Most probably, he’d have sucked on his pipe and spat.
“Another railway-man.”
It was the railway, Amos claimed, that had led to the abolition of tolls on the roads around Ross. He and his wife had run the turnpike at Hownhall and worked a pretty income until the Board decided to take the maintenance of the roads away from the keepers. It was not as though he didn’t know the work; the Gate at Crowborough had been held by his parents for more than twenty years. Country traffic was in his blood. But the times were changing. The rail companies were cutting branch-lines through the Marchs so even folk on market-days could spurn the roads. He marked his change of fortune from when he lost the turnpike. It was not long after he lost his Martha, she never having rallied after the birth of little Edith. There’d been nothing for him but labouring on the farms, not an easy shift for a man past his prime. If he rose to be a Foreman for the road-gangs, that was hardly compensation for having lost your own stretch of thoroughfare to metal. He’d have liked to have ended his days, sitting under the honeysuckle, taking a pipe, with Bessie singing one of her ballads while she plucked a fowl and Edith would keep the Gate, bobbing a pretty curtsey for the gentlemen in their carriages to have them come that way again and pay the toll to see the turnpike keeper’s daughter dimple.
Now, with Amos Chamberlain buried, his two unmarried daughters could choose their own paths. Bessie married her faithful waggoner, still plying a plodding trade across the country lanes that spanned Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. Edith had chosen a railway man, young and ambitious, who would soon, Henry imagined, progress to faster locomotives, escaping the yard to find himself whistling along the tracks that spread to every point of the compass. What of his own situation? A railwayman rather than a roadman, he worked the signal box, moderating, slowing and regulating. And, when the signal was up at the level crossings, the roads still had the right of way.
Coming home that evening, he paused on the threshold. He took in the sounds and smells of the terraced house. There was the scent of a mutton stew on the hob but also the steamy feel to the house after a wash-day. He could hear Clara rattling the cutlery as she laid the table with crotchety bad grace. The domestic chores always fell to her when Kate was on the piano.
She was playing her way through the Sunday School hymn. He did not care for these tunes and their trite, sentimental verses (this one, he recalled, claimed Jesus as a friend for little children above the bright, blue sky) but he knew that there’d be no sogginess to the singing on Sunday with Kate accompanying. The chords came down strong, pushing the verse forward. She was not yet thirteen but there was no doubting her talent. Miss Clutterbuck at the Board School and Mrs Foster, the vicar’s wife, had both remarked upon it.
Kate, he thought, might choose any route and go far.

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