“Come on Mary, times passing”. His words echoed up the painted plaster of the stairwell, prompting Mary to pull her shawl around her hastily and follow him. With hands stretched out to either wall she supported her weight, placing each foot with laboured precision on the bare wooden steps. As her bare foot settled finally on the stone floor separating the kitchen from the parlour she paused to catch her breath. Charlie was leaning against the mantle, prodding at the few embers remaining in the grate, muttering irritably.
“Tha didn’t put enough slag on the coals”. He passed her an accusing glance from under his outstretched arm, his words bitter and unforgiving. “How in God’s name does tha expect these few miserable ashes to catch”.
With one arm in the small of her back and the other pressed against the doorframe, Mary closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Charlie prodded the failing embers again with short, sharp thrusts of the poker, bent and thinning from years of use.
Opening her eyes, Mary spoke with equal bitterness, lifting her bowed head her brown eyes flashed angrily. “If tha was here where tha belongs instead of out till all hours the fire wouldn’t be dead. The buckets too heavy to lift”.
The poker rattled angrily against the hearth as it was flung down. Pushing himself suddenly upright Charlie turned on the pale, bent figure of his wife. “If tha was a true wife, not some ailing excuse for a woman I wouldn’t have to look elsewhere for what’s mine by rights”.
Mary moved her hand from the door frame and eased herself up so that her eyes were level with the twisted expression staring malevolently at her. Moving the flat of her hand over the swelling her misted eyes widened appealingly.
“A snatched crumb doesn’t make for a feast when tha bellies empty”. Charlie growled, his words punching the air.
Turning on his heel he strode angrily across the stone floor to the aging wooden dresser that stood in the corner by the range. Mary stepped forward to follow him as he reached up and ran his hand across the top of the dresser until it the old tea tin was knocked from its hiding place. The tin fell to the floor, the lid rolling across the tiled floor and vanishing under the table. Charlie bent down and scooped up the few coins kept for a rainy day as Mary looked on in dismay. Opening her mouth to speak her protests were dismissed by an enraged glance as Charlie grabbed his jacket from the chair back and turned the key in the lock. Swinging the door open he stormed out into the yard, not turning to see the tear roll slowly down his wife’s cheek. Mary staggered back to bury her head in her hands on the kitchen table.
“Ma”. A juvenile voice broke the silence from behind her.
Mary turned to smile through reddened eyes. Clutching at his nightshirt William gazed uneasily back at her. His eyes darting round the kitchen, falling first on the upturned tin and then on the poker. With arms clutched round his waist he tiptoed, shivering to the hearth and picked up the poker. The embers flickered as he pushed it amongst them, pulling together those still offering hope of life.
“It’s almost out”. His mother whispered, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Don’t worry yer sen. I’ll soon get it going”. William said lifting himself up and smiling reassuringly at his mother. “Go and get dressed…it’s freezing. Tha’s doing no good sitting shivering”.
Mary walked wearily from the kitchen and once again mounted the stairs. After dressing she roused Emma and helped her to dress as she yawned sleepily. As her mother sat on the edge of the bed, smoothing down her brown cotton school dress, Emma gazed solemnly at the tear-stained face that smiled gently back at her. Pulling the fraying hem straight her mother tutted and shook her head, her eyes filling with tears. “Don’t cry Ma”, Emma said softly. “‘It’s only a dress”, she added smiling.
By the time she re-emerged with Emma at her heels, William was crouching in front of the range, carefully placing coals on the fire as the flames roared invisibly under the adjoining oven.
“Tha’d better get dressed. It’ll be time for school soon enough and we’ve not breakfasted yet”. Mary said firmly, nodding first to William then Emma. “Emma go to scullery and fetch the bread and marg… and bring a pot of jam up”.