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Open Features: John Copestake's Bad Leg

Derek McQueen's sombre tale makes you glad to be living in the 21st Century.

He had not been to his work now for eighteen days and Mary was at her wits end. With seven mouths to feed, the whole family was slowly starving. John's wages were meagre enough and there seemed little chance of a return to work for some time. Seven enormous boils on the top of his right leg were blackened and swollen with pus but they refused to discharge. When Mary applied pressure with a pad of heated cloths, John screamed for her to stop.

Sending for a physician or surgeon was out of the question with the typical fee of a ten shillings, gold coin. Neither of them had ever seen a gold coin let alone owned one.

The family, including an elderly Aunt, just had the one room to live in and despite Mary's best efforts it smelled dreadfully of damp, urine and cooking smells. After a while no one noticed it except the rats and fleas. They came crawling in most nights from the open sewer in the street outside. There was no running water in the room and either Mary or Auntie Nellie had to carry it in pails from the nearby pump in Peppermint Lane.

"I'm going to fetch Lily, John," Mary said. "I think you've gone down a bit since yesterday. You're a bit jaundiced looking."

Lily was the local 'Wise Woman'. Wise women were right at the very bottom of the medicine chain. They had some knowledge of plants and herbs and would usually be able to suggest a basic treatment of some kind. Next up was the Apothecary who dispensed drugs as well as selling perfumes, sweets and cosmetics.

"I've put some cabbage water over the fire John. I'll make some soup with it when I get back. Don't try to get up off that bed. I'll just be about ten minutes. And don't worry about the smoke; it'll keep the fleas away. Oh, and if the kids come in send them packing outside 'til I get back."

John turned on his straw mattress to try and ease the pains shooting down his leg. The beds were on the earth floor and blankets were very small and almost in rags.

The fire was in the centre of the room, surrounded by stones. And the precious cabbage water was simmering away in readiness for the next meal.

John could hear the heavy rain splashing on the cobbled road outside. Gusts of wind blew spray through the hole in the wall, their one window and only source of daylight.

He started to shiver and looked anxiously towards the doorway for Mary and Nellie. Truth to tell John was terrified that he might have the Plague. He had several times woken in the night with fleas and sometimes rats crawling down his sparse blanket. The pain from the boils was becoming unbearable.

There was a commotion outside and Mary was back. But she was without Auntie Nellie. It was still raining and she was wet through. She could see at once that John was distressed.

"Not to worry John," Mary said. "Nellie is coming in half an hour and bringing figs and cooked onions mixed with yeast and butter to spread on your leg. She's preparing the mixture now and she knows we can't pay for it. She's persuaded the church to give the ingredients.

Nellie says that when the poultice has done its work, she will have to burn the boils open with a red-hot iron. So, you'd better prepare yourself with a few prayers John. Matthew 25 would be good.

I'll just stoke up the fire. The soup will have to wait."

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