Four Pennies and a Journey
When her mother dies, Rosie Webster, a Vulnerable, destitute, homeless thirteen-year-old, goes on the run with nothing in her pocket but a ring, four pennies and a letter.
Hoping against hope the letter will lead to her salvation, she makes her way to the address on the envelope, Moorstone Manor, Richmond Yorkshire. But what awaits her when she arrives is totally unexpected, and for the next five years she has to live with a secret, shared by herself and one other.
The outcome of this impossible situation is unexpected, explosive and unpredictable.
Rosie lengthened her stride in a race against time. Just in front of her little Arthur Scrimshaw, head down, breathlessly panted his way towards the school gates. Rosie encouraged him along as she shot past.
“Come on, Arthur, you’ll make it in time,” she shouted.
The school gates were now no more than a stride away. Rosie could see the straight corseted figure of her form mistress, Ethel Falconbridge, stood bell in hand, arm raised, in the playground. Before that arm gave the final downward swing, she would be standing in line. As if reading her mind, Miss Falconbridge, raised her free hand and placed it over the clapper inside the bell, silencing it on the downward swing.
Through steel rimmed glasses, she glowered down her razor-sharp nose at Rosie.
“Late again. Webster,” she declared.
Little Arthur Scrimshaw scurried past and joined the end of his class line. For the amount of notice Miss Falconbridge took of him, he could have been invisible.
“Sorry, Miss, I had to help my mum,” Rosie whispered apologetically.
“Excuses, excuses, I don’t accept excuses. You should know that by now Rosie Webster. You can stay behind after school tonight.”
“I can’t, Miss Falconbridge,” cried Rosie. “My mum is ill, I can’t stay in after school.
A gasp of astonishment rippled through the lines at her daring to answer back.
“Can’t! Can’t! There’s-no-such-word-as-can’t.” Every word delivered was punctuated with a prod to Rosie’s shoulder. “I’ll see you inside, my girl.”
Rosie bit her bottom lip and stared down at her shoes. It didn’t matter how much trouble she got into, she couldn’t be late home tonight. For a long time now her mother’d had a persistent cough. It was something she had got used to hearing around the house, something she had readily accepted as smoke from the fire causing the irritation. But this time it was different, there were no reassuring words of comfort from her mother that it was time they called in the chimney sweep, or it was only another one of her troublesome coughs.
That very morning before Rosie left for school, her mother had made her sit down and listen to what she had to do if ever she was left on her own. Never before had her mother spoken so seriously to her, and for the first time in her thirteen years she felt scared.
Silently the lines of children shuffled into school. Rosie joined the end of the last line and shuffled along with them.
It was the beginning of October; the classroom was cold and uninviting. Along with the others, Rosie dropped her packed lunch in the basket by the door as she passed.
Today she had two slices of bread and lard. Although it was the only food in the house, she had been pressed into taking it by her mother.
You’re a growing girl Rosie, you need it more than I do, she had insisted.
Taking her place behind her desk, she waited patiently for Miss Falconbridge to call the register.
One by one as their names were called the children answered “Here, Miss,” and sat down until the only one left standing was Rosie.
The minutes ticked by until her name was finally called and the register slammed to.
The act had been deliberate and had left Rosie smarting at the unfairness of it.
Everything Miss Falconbridge did was deliberate, calculated. Her aim in life was to catch someone doing something they should not be doing. She was a strict disciplinarian and prided herself that one glance from her pale blue eyes could quell even the faintest hint of rebellion.
Slowly she turned her back to the class and faced the blackboard. New stick of chalk in hand, arm poised ready to begin writing, she asked. “Can anyone tell me today’s date?”
“October the twelfth, nineteen hundred,” chorused the class.
The chalk screeched across the blackboard, snapped under the pressure. Alice Turnbull, a girl sitting directly behind Rosie, started tittering.
Without bothering to turn around, Miss Falconbridge laid the blame. “Get out of my class, Webster,” she shouted.
“But it wasn’t me!” Rosie protested angrily.
“How dare you answer me back.” Snatching the ever-ready cane from the top of her desk, Ethel Falconbridge spun round and cracked it down on every desk as she strode towards Rosie. The boy sitting next to her dived for cover.
The cane circled in the air and swished down across the back of Rosie’s knuckles.
Rosie clenched her teeth—not giving Miss Falconbridge the satisfaction of seeing how much pain she had inflicted.
Again, the cane rose in the air, but this time Rosie raised her head and stared defiantly straight into the eyes of her form mistress and waited for it to fall. For a few minutes, they stood, eyes locked, not speaking. The arm holding the cane menacingly in the air slowly sank. For the first time in living memory, Ethel Falconbridge had been stared out. For the rest of the morning Rosie was left in peace.
Dinner time, as much as Rosie wanted to run home to see if her mother was all right, she didn’t, knowing she could never make it there and back again before the bell went.
The afternoon dragged agonizingly slowly along. Personal hygiene followed history and maths. For this final lesson of the day, the girls were separated from the boys. Miss Lambert, taking the girls; Mr. Spence, the only male teacher in the school, the boys.
Personal hygiene was Miss Lambert’s specialist subject, one she revelled in, having worked for a short time as a midwife’s assistant. She told the girls what to expect now they were reaching maturity and how to deal with it.
Mr. Spence dispensed fatherly advice to the boys.
Eventually, the bell rang indicating another school day was over and they could all go home—that was, everybody but Rosie Webster.
“Fifty times on the blackboard you will write I must not answer back, and sign it. I want everybody to see it when they come in tomorrow morning.” Miss Falconbridge emptied a tin of chalk stubs onto the desk for her to use. Eyes averted, the rest of the class filed out, leaving Rosie on her own.
Most of the chalk stubs were too small for Rosie to get a good grip, and it wasn’t long before the front of her pinafore was covered in chalk dust.
Seconds before she finished, Miss Falconbridge poked her head round the classroom door and told her she could go.
Rosie mumbled, “Thank you,” signed her name on the board with a flourish and, head held high, walked sedately past her and out of the school. Once outside the gates, her feet took wing and she ran as if all the demons in hell were after her.
She paused at the corner of the street where she lived to pull up her black woollen stockings and catch her breath.
The street was unusually quiet, net curtains twitched as she walked by. A small number of neighbours were congregated outside the house where she lived, not talking, just staring at her. She knew instinctively something was wrong.
Pushing her way past, she burst into the house and yelled, “Mum, mum, where are you?” There was no reply.
On the table was a bundle of freshly laundered washing, ready for her to take round to Mrs. Turnbull. After promising Rosie to leave the ironing until she got home after school, her mother, ill as she was, had struggled to finish it.
Mrs. Turnbull lived just a couple of doors away. She had a husband and two sons who worked at the pit, and boasted that with the sort of brass her men folk brought in, there was no need for her to do her own laundry.
After the hair net factory had laid off all its outside workers, her mother had started taking in washing to help supplement the little she earned from lace work.
Rosie had been sorry when the man had stopped calling at the house with the boxes of hair nets.
She had enjoyed helping her mother to card them in the evenings.
One gross of hair nets to a card. One hundred and forty-four nets stretched over a card the shape of a head, for a few pennies. The pay had been poor, but had been something she could help her mother with after school.
There was a knock on the door, and Mrs. Scrimshaw, Arthur’s mother and their next door neighbour, waddled in.
Mrs. Scrimshaw, fat and motherly, always had a small child tugging at her skirt, or a baby in her arms. Rosie had lost count of how many children she had.
“Are you all right, love?” She asked. “I’m sorry about your Mum. Nobody realised she was as ill as that.” She stressed the word that, tutted and wiped a tear from her eye. She was such a nice little woman. Again, she tutted. “There’s not much you can do sat here all on your own, love. Haven’t you got an auntie or gran you could go and stay with?”
Rosie shook her head; there had only ever been her mother, her father and herself. Now there was only her.
“I expect they’ll be sending somebody round from the authorities to take care of you, love.”
Rosie listen in stunned silence, she wanted to tell Mrs. Scrimshaw to go away, stop talking, stop calling her love. Instead, head held high, she said, “Thank you, Mrs. Scrimshaw. I will be all right, there are one or two things I have to see to before
. . .”
The rest of the sentence she left hanging in the air.“Just as you please, love, but you know where I live if you want me.” She shook her head, wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and walked out.
Rosie sank down on a chair by the table. That was it then, her mother was dead and they had taken her away. Her eyes filled with tears and a lump in her throat threatened to choke her.
First her father, and now her mother. Her father had left home when she was just a little girl. Her mother had told her they were all going to emigrate to Australia, her father had just gone ahead to make a go of it before sending for them. It was over six years since he had left, but she could still remember what he looked like: tall, slim, black wavy hair and laughing grey eyes. Her mother had called him a dreamer, told her she took after him, although Rosie couldn’t see it. She loved to read poetry out loud like he used to, but she would not have called herself a dreamer. Her hair was mousy, not a wave in sight, and she wasn’t very tall for her years.
Her mother had stopped talking about Australia and her father a long, long time ago, and one day when she came home from school, his pipe had been taken from the rack and his muffler and cap had vanished from the hook on the back of the door.
As she recalled the happier times when all three of them had been together, the tears, fat and unchecked, tumbled down her cheeks and plopped onto her clasped hands.
Much later when they had finally run their course, she pulled a handkerchief out of her pinafore pocket and blew her nose.