With hesitant, uncertain steps Mary crossed the kitchen to the range and bent forward to lift the kettle from the hearth.
“Sit yer self down, I’ll do that”, the boy said, walking with purposeful steps to meet her. Mary smiled and brushed her hand through his tousled hair. William twisted his features and pulled away in mock affrontery. Still kneeling on the floor, Emma shuffled to one side and patted the polished wooden seat of the chair as her mother put her hands to her back and stretched painfully.
William sat the kettle on the hob above the glowing embers. “What’s for supper?”
“There’s a pie in the oven…and rice pudding”, Mary said pushing air through her lips and prodding the air with her finger as she settled awkwardly back into the chair.
William picked up a cloth and swung the iron door of the range open, waving away the sudden rush of heat. “Tha shouldn’t be baking. Not in that condition”, he said, turning his head to glance accusingly at his mother. “We could just as well have bread an’ jam. We’ll not starve”.
Mary pursed her lips and leaning her elbow on the kitchen table, rubbed her brow wearily. “Enough William! We’re not so poor that we can’t afford a Sunday joint and I’ll not see it wasted. Besides, tha father’ll not stand for bread an’ jam after a day in the foundry”.
William hung the cloth on the oven door deliberately firmly. “He’s not here to stand for anything. It’s already gone six”..
Mary lifted her eyes sharply and brought her palm down on the table top. “Watch tha tongue lad. Tha’s not too old to feel the back of my hand”.
The two children glanced at each other.
With supper over Mary ushered Emma up to bed. The little girl paused at the bottom of the stairs, reluctantly. Pushing her hands over her white pinafore she lifted her grey eyes appealingly to her mother’s face. “Please, can’t I wait to see Pa”.
Mary shook her head and cupping the small, fragile face in her hand kissed Emma on the forehead. “Go to bed…It’s late”.
“Please Ma”, Emma appealed again. “Just a little longer”.
Mary shook her head again. Placing her hands on the girls’ shoulders, she turned her round and gently patted her on the rear. With heavy, unwilling steps Emma made her way up the narrow stairs by the flickering light of a carefully held candle.
Sighing, Mary turned back to the kitchen and eased herself back into the chair, spreading her hands out on the table.“Tha’d better be going up too Willaim”.
William sat hunched over, his hands wrapped round the cup of tea he was drinking, peering through the gloom of the kitchen to where his mother sat. In the pale, dancing light of the fire, she seemed old. Her cheeks were sunken and her once bright, warm brown eyes had paled and gazed mournfully at her outspread fingers. He lifted the cup to his mouth and threw his head back to drain it. As he passed his mother on the way to the stairs, she took hold of his sleeve.
“And don’t forget to blow the candles out”.
In the silent warmth of the kitchen Mary sat and waited, listening for the familiar sound of heavy boots outside the window. As the glowing embers fell, the edges turning to grey ash, all that could be heard was the steady tick of the wooden cased clock on the mantle. The mesmeric pendulum swinging back and forth sending her thoughts back to happier times. Times when she didn’t sit alone bitter and resentful. Times when hardship was outweighed by happiness and hope had come from nowhere only to be cast back by a selfish act. The hollow chimes striking the hour echoed softly reminding her of her aching body that longed for the comfort of her bed. She winced as the infant shuffled irritably within her sending a driving pain up her spine. Lifting her head she swallowed back a tear and rubbed the thin gold ring on her finger with her thumb and waited.
As the clock chimed 10 o’clock she pushed herself up from her chair to dampen down the fire with slag. The half empty metal bucket was heavy and pulled mercilessly on tired muscles. Leaning it against the iron fender she clung to the mantlepiece for support. The fine coals slid reluctantly, only a few making slow progress onto the remnants of the fire. Cursing she moved her hand in short vigorous movements to shake the bucket with little effect. With the last of the embers finsally buried beneath a thin layer of black slag, she dropped the bucket clumsily back on the hearth. Then, as a thin whisp of grey, blue smoke curled up the chimney she turned to make her way up to the bed she still shared with Charlie. He would be back, she knew he would, but the pounding in her head and the chill that had fallen suddenly told her she had waited long enough. Pushing the door to the children’s bedroom open she peered through the gloom by the flickering light of a candle and smiled at the shapes curled up beneath the patchwork quilt. Listened for a while until she was satisfied that they were sleeping, she pulled the door closed.