by Morgan Cheshire
It’s 1909, and on leaving the workhouse young lovers Ben and Matthew must find their places in the world. Luck brings jobs and somewhere to live, but their security is short-lived when England begins to prepare for war. Ben can’t wait to go to France and fight for his country, and it isn’t long before Matthew receives the news he’s dreaded. Ineligible for military service Matthew must stay at home, his life disintegrating – until, years later, the arrival of a stranger helps him learn to live for the future again.
70000 words/ 280 pages
Publication 1 August 2017
It wasn’t too much further to the farm, where the yard gate opened onto the lane. A path ran through a tidy garden to the front door of the farmhouse.
“Ready?” asked Ben.
Matthew nodded and unlatched the wide gate to the yard. A dog began to bark, but he was tied up beside a kennel and no threat to them.
“Quiet!” Ben and Matthew turned to face the man, who must have come out of the barn. “What do you want? We don’t give to beggars!”
Ben straightened up. “Are you Mr Spencer? We’re looking for work. Mrs Reynolds sent us.”
The man looked them up and down. “I’ll tell the boss,” he said, and went back into the barn.
A minute or so later an older man came out. He was tall and stern-looking, with grey hair and faded blue eyes. “What’s all this?”
“We’re looking for work, sir,” said Ben. “Mrs Reynolds said you might have a place.”
“Oh yes? And how do you know Edie Reynolds?”
“We only met her today,” was the reply. “She needed help tying up some flowers and we were passing the house.”
“Not much of an explanation.” Spencer took a breath. “Come over by the house out of the way.” They walked a few paces together, and then he stopped and looked at them speculatively. “So, what can you do?”
“We’re strong,” said Ben, “and we learn quick. We know about growing vegetables.”
It didn’t sound like much, even to Matthew.
“It’s a general labourer I need. You’d fit the bill, but I only need one.”
“We’d like to stay together if we can.”
Spencer shook his head. “Can’t afford to hire two,” he said regretfully. “I can give you twelve shillings a week to start with.”
“Take it,” urged Matthew. “It’s twelve shillings we don’t have now.”
“No, not without you.” He turned back to the farmer. “Sir?”
Spencer shook his head again. “Sorry.”
“Thank you for the offer,” said Ben. “But I think we’ll be on our way.”
“Arthur?” called a woman from within the house.
“Aye, what is it?”
“Ask them to wait, will you, I’m just making up some bread and cheese.”
Spencer looked at the two lads and sighed. “She’ll have me in the workhouse, she will. Get your food, then, and take it with you.”
Spencer went back to the barn, and a few minutes later his wife came out with a parcel tied up with string.
“There you are. I hope you find something soon.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
They closed the yard gate behind them and began walking away from Spencer’s Farm.
“There’s other places,” said Ben. “There’ll be other jobs. And at least we can eat today.”
A short time after that they came to a bridge over a canal and went down onto the towpath. Beyond the bridge to the south they could see a pair of lock gates and two cottages.
“Here.” Ben scrambled into the undergrowth bordering the path and began taking fruit from a bramble bush, testing its ripeness by eating the first handful. “Give me your hat to put them in.”
“Can’t you use your own?” Matthew grumbled, but handed it over anyway.
Leaving Ben to pick blackberries he found a clear spot on a grassy slope that led up to a field and sat down, glad of a chance to rest. He loosened his boots, pushed his hair back out of his eyes and rummaged in his bag for the packet of sandwiches Mrs Spencer had given them at the farm. They could have one each now and save the rest for later.
Ben was still fighting the bramble, but Matthew was more interested in eating. “Come and sit down, we might as well have a sandwich now that we’ve stopped.”
Disentangling himself from the briar, Ben was careful not to lose any of the fruit. “Not a bad haul,” he said as he sat down beside Matthew, who had divided up the sandwiches and handed one to Ben before re-wrapping the remainder and returning them to the bag. “We’ll be glad of these later.”
“I suppose you’re right, you usually are; good job I found us something for pudding.” Ben bit into his sandwich appreciatively.
The autumn sun was warm enough to make resting on the bank a pleasure. Listening to the birds squabbling in the hedgerow above them and the sound of children’s voices from around the bend in the canal, Matthew lay back and closed his eyes.
Ben, restless as always, stood up. “I’ll go and check in the field,” he announced. “There could be mushrooms. We could have them for our tea.”
Matthew opened his eyes. “Be careful.”
“I’m only looking for mushrooms,” said Ben. He scrambled up the bank to find a way into the field.
Matthew wriggled into a more comfortable position, relaxed, and settled down to doze.
“Lizzie!” The shriek of alarm startled Matthew fully awake. “Lizzie!“
He got to his feet awkwardly and stumbled towards the voice.