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A Shout From The Attic: The Mill Dam

"Sometimes, a few words can send a shiver up your spine and chill your blood. As I read the line, “My mother never smiled again,” I knew that a life had changed beyond the ability of any human being to measure unless they have stood in that mother’s place and felt her pain,'' writes Ronnie Bray.

I found the notebook, remarkably well preserved, considering its age, in a second hand shop in Hebden Bridge, a tiny Pennine village that crammed itself along the valley floor before pushing its old stone cottages high on the hills overlooking the river and the narrow canal. The shop would not have been out of place in a Dickens novel, for its antiquity was matched only by the age of its contents.

My only interest was in the few books stuck into an old bookcase that stood outside on the narrow pavement, whose spines betrayed their antiquity. One slim volume stood taller than its fellows and bore no title. Kneeling down to pull it out from the bottom shelf, I found it was a notebook in which one Edward Hawkyard had begun to write his life story. He had written only the first chapter, which was a recollection of his childhood. From other non-journal material in the book, I ascertained that he was an old man when he commenced the work.

He recorded with positive fluidity and recalled a world that I knew only through reading antique books of a world that had passed before I was born, and which was habitually written about with a simple innocence that hid the struggles of ordinary people and their efforts to earn an austere living. But, there were struggles that are hidden from those of us whose only understanding of the past is in the stories of kings, princes, and other notables whose biographies show a world filled with good things, plenty, and to spare.

Edward’s beginning of his autobiography showed that although he carefully painted the carefree world of his early, fatherless childhood, dark figures stood in the shadows behind the walls of the cottage where he lived with his mother and younger sisters: dark figures that lurked less noticeably in favourable days, but who were never too far off to slide from the gloom and toll the bell of mortality.

Holding the page, one can smell the butterfly-full birdsong sunshine of his after-school hours as he wandered down narrow lanes picking flowers and herbs, which he identified with skilful eye before running home to his smiling mother with his prizes, laying them before her on the kitchen table, where she sorted them, then hung them to dry on the creel high hoist by ropes almost to the ceiling over the fire basket in the black-leaded Yorkshire Range.

When dried, she pounded the aromatic plants into pastes from which she moulded slim cylinders, cutting them at intervals to form herbal pills that she stored in countless cork-stoppered glass bottles in cool wall recesses, and along the shelves and window sills of her kitchen cum living room. These she dispensed from the half-door of her house according to her scholarship in folkway medicine, matching the preparations to the complaints and conditions of her neighbour-patients. Her herbal remedies ministered to the wants of bodies attacked by the universal diseases of working folks in those days: bronchitis and the feared killer, consumption. Both conditions for which there was then no cure, and little treatment.

Her potions were all the hope there was in a world where life expectancy for a factory labourer was a wretched nineteen years, and few were surprised when another mill worker succumbed to one of these devastating conditions. It was an unavoidable and unpleasant fact that the poor had to make the best of their lot, because they could neither change nor ameliorate it. However, there were other disasters waiting in the wings, sudden, and bewildering, that visited with crushing strength and awful swiftness.

And so it was that Edward recalled one particular day in his memoirs over which disaster spread its chilling mantle, turning off the sunshine and shattering the elation that attended the bright moments of his young days, and brought him face to face with inexpressible agony.

Close by the Hawkyard’s cottage in the fields stood a rustic, sprawling, textile mill that gave employment to many of the villagers. The mill was powered by a giant steam engine that drew its water from the mill dam, a body of water fed by a trickling stream. The millpond seemed idyllic on winter days, but in the full bloom of summer, it seemed the picture perfect place for children to play their pretty games.

Some older children had constructed a crude raft on which they sported when school was done, and the demands of home had been met. This lay to one side, within easy reach of the rush-strewn bank that lay close to the path on the side of the pool away from the mill wall.

On this day, Edward’s younger sisters, Kate, six, and Mary, five, trotted on ahead of him, their cotton lace pinafores over their light summer dresses blowing behind them. Even as he called them to wait, they jumped onto the raft and pushed off from shore using the raft’s push-stick. Edward, sensing the danger, ran to reach them.

About the time he reached the bank nearest them, the raft overturned, plunging the miniature lasses into the murky jade waters. His voice choking in his throat, he ran to the mill. Men dropped their tools and hurried to the frightful scene. The little sisters were pulled out. Their lifeless bodies seemed smaller than ever as they were gently laid glistening wet on the grassy bank with all unassuming tenderness that rough working men exhibit in these moments.

Mrs Hawkyard stood transfixed in her stone-floored kitchen with the sun streaming through the window of that summer day. “What has my neighbour just said?” In spite of the daylong heat of a heaven-blest summer, she was bitter cold to the core of her being. The neighbour’s mouth moved but she heard nothing. When her ears started to function again and the message was repeated, this time to her understanding, she found her legs and ran to the pondside, her long skirts hoisted in both hands screaming, “My Babies! My Babies!”

She knelt distraught and held their lifeless forms before she collapsed, still clasping them to her breast, at the edge of the dam that had stolen their lives’ breath.

After the infant coffins had been covered with native earth, she never spoke except when necessary, and she never smiled again. As surely as the river took their breath, the passing of her lambs robbed her of cheer, as something essential within her died.

Edward’s grief was twofold. Not only did he lose his laughing little playmate sisters, he also lost the mother who once held him, cradled him, played with him, and made him laugh. As death snatched his sisters into its cold embrace, it stole his darling mother just as surely as if she had drowned with her little ones. And the chill of death came upon him, and his spirit grew cold within him, as he looked upon a humourless stranger who used to be his mother. The millpond took its fourth victim into its slimy maw.

Even in his old age, as Edward Hawkyard sat and remembered the visit of the awful brute, Death, the memory of how his world changed in a few careless moments was more than he could bear.

His shoulders trembled. He closed his book, letting it fall to the floor with a mournful sigh that rose from the very depths of his suffering soul. Placing his spectacles on the table, he mopped his streaming eyes with his pocket handkerchief. The pencil fell from his shaking fingers and he never took it up again.


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