Manchester 1819: Prices are high and wages are low, but as
the poor become poorer, the rich are alarmed by their calls
Mill-worker Nancy Kay struggles to support her ailing
mother and sensitive son. Desperate to provide for them,
she is inspired to join the growing agitation. But, as she risks
everything to attend a great assembly on St Peter’s Field,
Nancy is unaware the day will go down in history, not as a
triumph but as tragedy; the Peterloo massacre.
This is one woman’s story of belief in change, pieced together
by her family and friends and the two men who share her
momentous summer. A story of hope, and sacrifice, and
above all, courage.
Emotive historical fiction
Published to concide with the 200 year
anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre,
which occured on 16th August 1819.
A lot of folk are talking about it again, though talking’s never really been for me. Mary says this new Act’s roused memories but mine need no stirring. I’m not sure a body can even call it memory when, after all these years, it’s still so present. For just the thought of it can take so fierce a grip on me, like a bridle to a frightened horse, that to shake it off, I’m forced to make myself think on something else. To picture a time before it all began. But even then, it’s always the one same night my thoughts steer towards, as though my mind were somehow fixed, as the North Star, burning bright, in the midsummer of 1819.
It was stifling, the yard like a furnace, with all the day’s heat trapped between the blackened walls of the houses, and the sinking sun lost behind low, gathering clouds. Me, short for my age, still no more than waist-high to the older boys wrestling in the centre, I didn’t venture further than a small patch beyond the open door. I could never tolerate the sound of boots on cobbles; I always felt it as a scratch to my skin. Then there were the hollers and hooting I couldn’t understand. Often, I’d break off my solitary play to listen for comforting noises within, my grandmother sweeping the hearth or laying a late supper for Mam.
I always played alone. That day, I remember, I’d fashioned myself a stick. There weren’t many trees down our way, but I’d picked up this one in the graveyard that afternoon. I’d gone over there especially, and I wasn’t disappointed. Under the shadow of the yews, the winding path was strewn with twigs and branches still aleaf, brought down in one of those thunderstorms that kept blowing up late in the sultry nights.
I’d found myself a shady spot to sit, leaning against one of those grand, stone coffins that lie aside of the church. Resting my head on the cool moss, I happily set about stripping my branch of its shoots with a sharp piece of slate I’d found, as good as any knife-blade. By the time I got up and scattered the shavings from my legs, I’d smoothed it to its simple, naked line. It was so white and clean and beautiful, I daresay a passer-by might think I’d plucked one of the bones from the grave beneath.
Later, as I paced my small section of yard, drawing the stick up above my head and bringing it down to slice the air, over and over, one of our neighbours, Mrs Wilson, a sturdy housewife who lived above us, stepped into the yard with an empty basket to collect her washing. She stopped and watched me for a moment with that air of amusement most people reserve for me and observed, not unkindly, “My my, if it’s not the Iron Duke himself!”
No doubt some other boy thrashing about in this fashion would indeed fancy himself charging into battle, but her words were lost on me. I was too immersed in the feel of the stick in my hand and my satisfaction in its strange music as it traced an arc through the air. I didn’t reply, which won’t have surprised her, and she moved over to the washing line and set her basket on the ground.
It must have been getting late as Grandma shuffled from the door. She was slowing down by then, and her face, red and wet from the heat of the day and all her exertion, was screwed in a grimace of pain. She and Mrs Wilson nodded to one another.
“Come on now, lad, come on inside.”
But I didn’t want to go. I raised the stick high above my head and swung it down in a temper this time.
“It’s no use waiting on her,” she said to me roughly. “Shift finished half-hour ago.”
I leant on the stick then and looked up. The sun had sunk completely, and the sky’s colours were draining into a dreary yellow-grey, the same colour as the bruises Mam got from working the mule.
“She’s wi’ him again.” This, spoken under her breath, was not meant for me, but I knew who she was talking about. Mam had told me about him; a bricklayer, she’d said, a steeplejack no less, and “right clever”. She’d met him at Knott Mill, and afterwards he’d turned up one day at the factory gates with a whole group of them, men who were working on the new mill next door, all of them young and strong and eager and alive with talk of change.
I drew a figure in the dry dirt with my stick: a line down and from the bottom of the first line, another across like a horizon. I couldn’t read much then, we were only just learning, but I knew this shape began the word they were all talking about.
Grandma was going back in and looked round at me, more sad than stern this time. “Come on now. They won’t be done ’til gone ten.”
Inside, the room was already dark enough for a candle which flickered on the mantel. I eyed the plate Grandma had laid and, with a single finger, tentatively lifted the cloth to reveal the last of the bread and a slice of sweating cheese. The smell of it prodded my hunger, and I thought about twisting a morsel from the crust.
Grandma must’ve noticed. “She’ll be famished when she gets in.”
I sat back.
“Pour tha’sel a drop of water, lad. Not too much, mind. And then away to bed.”
Watching her, huddled in the chair, guarding the single candle, I must’ve drifted off, because the next thing I recall was Mam’s breath warm upon me. I opened my eyes sleepily enough, but then sat up with a start. In the moonlight from the window, her smile had exposed a row of bloodied teeth. But when she saw my stare, she only laughed and opened her mouth the wider to show off her blackened tongue. Confused, I drew forward as she bent to the floor and, with both hands, lifted up a bowl, proffering it to me with a flourish.
“Raspberries!” I exclaimed.
“By, Nancy, tha’s never giving him them now!” scolded Grandma’s voice from behind.
“Away, Mam, tha couldn’t stop me!”
In the half-light, the plump fruits’ soft fur seemed to glow from within, and the empty ache in my belly awoke with a pang that was painful.
“Go on!” Mam said, grinning, though when she saw I was too astonished to move, she picked one herself and leant forward to drop it in my mouth with a light laugh. I’d been salivating so much by then that on my first bite, the crushed juice dribbled down my chin and we both laughed again. But then the fruit’s sweetness washed down my throat, like a taste from another life, feeding and stoking my hunger all at once, so that before I knew it, my bony fingers were scrambling for another and then another, as, all the while, my mother kept the bowl aloft.
“There now, aren’t they grand? Even better than when I were a lass.”
We both heard Grandma sniff at this and Mam winked.
When they were all gone, she placed the bowl back on the floor and, with a cool waft, raised the single sheet to climb in and join me. Even now I can still recall the scent of her as we curled together: a long day’s sweat, freshened by the open air of the grassy banks where she’d spent the evening. It wasn’t long though before we were overcome by the heat and drew apart again, settling on our sides instead, to face one another. She talked then of the reformers on the moor, good men and women, she said, who’d spoken of the future she wanted for me. Her words, whispered low and quick so as not to agitate Grandma, nonetheless tumbled and coursed, fresh and clear, and I think I must have mirrored some of her excitement because the last thing I remember, she cried, “Ah, Walter! My bonny babe!” and drew me to her again, nestling me against her body, bestowing tiny kisses across my damp head with a gentle popping sound.
Yes, that night’s what my thoughts fix on, when the other memory threatens to take hold. On those wild raspberries, brought to my bed as though in a dream. A dream so perfect you’re afeared to wake from it. And I begin to wonder, if there’d not been that night, if we’d not eaten those fruits, would all that happened afterwards never have been, like a dream itself? So that even these things from the time before, the raspberries like jewels, her breath sweet with them, even her love for me, all these things are still always about what happened next.
Thank you, Carolyn O’Brien and Legend Press.
About the author
Carolyn O’Brien was born in South Manchester, and lives in the nearby market
town of Altrincham with her husband and two children.
Carolyn works part-time as a consultant lawyer, as well as writing.
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