Here's a clue...
The air still fresh, the two girls pulled their crocheted shawls more tightly around their shoulders as they hurried along the dried-mud track that led across the fields to the small town of Bacup, carefully avoiding the deep ruts made by cows’ hooves. High above them, the early morning songs of the larks vied with the cackling of hens that rose from the distant outhouses.
‘We’re nearly there,’ Ethel said as they reached a terrace of small grey stone cottages.
Margaret frowned anxiously at the road ahead. ‘That’s just as well. William will be wonderin’ where we are. Aren’t you worried he might’ve given up and gone? ’Tis chill, and he’ll have long been standin’ at the crossroads.’
‘As sure as it’s the Bacup Fair today, he’ll be there,’ Ethel said firmly. ‘He knows we had ter light the fires, shake out the carpet, polish the dining-room furniture, and clean the boots and front steps before we could leave the big house. He’ll wait. And anyway, the sun’s now warmin’ up the air.’
Margaret glanced quickly at her friend. ‘Yer sound very sure of him. I’m wonderin’ if yer’ve got an understandin’ with him yer haven’t told me about.’
Ethel giggled. ‘Not yet, I haven’t. I’ve only seen him a few Sunday afternoons, haven’t I? But I’m sure he’s goin’ ter ask me.’
‘You are lucky. He’s a quiet, sober man, and a skilled weaver. He’ll not be wastin’ money on drink, not like me dad, and yer’ll always have food on yer plate.’
‘And a roof over my head as he’s got a cottage of his own! It was passed down ter him by his father. He was a God-fearin’ man, William said. Apparently, the downstairs parlour’s neatly furnished, with stairs leading up from it to a large room set in the roof. There’s a window at each end and that’s where his hand-looms are. And there are two small bedrooms up there, each with whitewashed walls and a grate for a fire.’ She beamed at Margaret. ‘All I’d ever dreamed of was somewhere of my own, and now, I’ve got a sweetheart with a whole cottage. It makes me very content ter walk out with William.’
Smiling happily, she smoothed down the skirt of her green calico dress.
‘So yer’ll not be going into the woods ter see the old woman after the Fair, then? Yer’ve no need ter know the name of your future husband.’
Ethel glanced at Margaret in surprise. ‘Of course, I am,’ she said. ‘Not ter ask who I’ll marry, of course, but ter know my fortune. You should do the same, and you should buy a sprig of her heather for luck so that you, too, marry a good, hard-working man, and not a lazy ne’er-do-well. Oh, look, ’tis William!’ She pointed to a figure ahead. ‘I said he’d wait.’
With their eyes on the man who stood at the crossroads staring towards them, a cloth flat cap on his head and a knee-length brown-wool coat over a grey buttoned waistcoat and dark-blue trousers, they speeded up.
‘You are lucky,’ Margaret repeated, as they approached William.
Nearing the edge of the town, they saw that the narrow streets were already crowded with hawkers, pedlars and people heading for the market place. All around them, laughter rose up in the air and was lost in the swell of people shouting, horses whinnying and dogs barking.
Ethel felt her excitement grow.
‘One moment,’ Margaret said, and she bent down to tie the lace on her boot.
‘May I say, the green of your dress becomes you, Ethel?’ William said solemnly as they waited for Margaret. ‘And the way you’ve done your hair.’
‘Thank you, William,’ Ethel said, a blush rising to her cheeks. Looking quickly down, she smoothed the bodice of her green dress and patted the hair she’d parted in the centre, with her chestnut ringlets bunched on either side.
Margaret straightened up and they continued walking.
‘I’ve been looking forward to today for a very long time,’ Ethel said, her eyes shining. She gave a little skip. ‘I want ter go on everything.’
William cleared his throat. ‘’Tis regrettable, Ethel, but I’m unable to stay for long. I’ve cloth that must be finished this very day.’
‘Oh, William!’ She stopped walking and stared at him in dismay.
‘I take it I’ll be goin’ ter the old woman alone, then,’ Margaret said, throwing a sly glance at Ethel. ‘Yer won’t want ter stay on after William’s gone, will yer? But it doesn’t matter—yer’ve no need ter be told yer fortune.’
Blood rushed to Ethel’s cheeks.
‘There’re other reasons for being at the Fair, like meetin’ your friends, which yer can’t do when yer stuck in someone else’s home from mornin’ till night,’ she said sharply. Hearing a trace of defiance in her voice, she gave a slight cough. ‘But spending time with you, William, is more ter my likin’,’ she added, softening her tone, ‘and I’ll be leavin’ the Fair when you do.’
‘If you wish to stay longer, you must,’ William said ponderously. ‘I’ve no wish to deny you the company of friends you’re seldom able to see.’
‘’Tis generous of you ter be so understanding, but of course I’ll leave with you,’ Ethel said with as much grace as she could muster. She glared at Margaret, and they started to walk again.
When they got to the market place, they paused a moment, the noise and hubbub of the Fair confronting them as hawkers and vendors tried to attract customers, iron-rimmed cart-wheels clattered over the stones, clogs pounded the hard ground, horses’ hooves clip-clopped on the cobblestones, and loud above it all, discordant music from the brass band and the several carousels melded with the shrill laughter of people enjoying themselves.
Their backs to iron-framed windows displaying haberdashery, china and toys, they stared towards the array of brightly coloured canvas-topped stalls that were interspersed with coconut shies, swingboats, and garishly painted roundabouts upon which wooden horses endlessly circled. Above the narrow lanes, streamers of colourful bunting added to the vibrancy of the scene.
‘Come on, William!’ Ethel exclaimed as the aromatic scent of cooking drifted towards them. ‘Don’t let’s waste a minute of the short amount of time we’re here.’
Grabbing his hand, she plunged them into the crowd, heading in the direction of the booths that offered food, home-brewed beer, ale and cider. With Margaret trailing after them, they made straight for the stall where stew was simmering in a metal cauldron hung over a charcoal fire. Each had a ha’pennyworth of stew, and stood beside the stall, eating it.
Their meal finished, they strolled down side streets paved with cobblestones, lingering every so often to watch the strolling players, performing jugglers and puppet shows that they passed.
At the first theatrical booth they came to, Ethel laughingly urged William to go inside it with her. He refused. He didn’t favour such forms of entertainment, he told her, his expression grave. She hesitated a moment, but decided it would appear somewhat contrary to have said that she was going to do something, and then not done it, so she’d gone in, but emerged soon after.
Margaret remained outside with William.
When they reached the big wooden wheel, which was being turned by the hand of the man from a neighbouring village who’d made it, Ethel refused to heed the reluctance on William part, but insisted he join her on it. So all three had a pennyworth turn of the wheel.
‘I regret I must go now, Ethel,’ William said when he’d stepped off the wheel and was brushing himself down. ‘But you may stay longer, if you wish. Though perhaps it would be timely for you, too, to leave. We’ve passed a goodly number of booths selling alcohol, and there may soon be many a toper on the streets.’
Ethel’s spirits plummeted.
‘Of course I’ll come with you, William,’ she said, trying to quash her disappointment. ‘There’re friends I would’ve wished ter meet today, but I can see them next year.’
‘Next year’s Fair will be a long time coming. You must stay and meet your friends,’ William said. ‘I’ll not mind walking home alone.’
‘Are yer sure?’ Ethel tried to keep her enthusiasm from her voice.
He smiled at her. ‘Don’t give it head-room, Ethel. I shall see you next Sunday afternoon. But for now, I bid you both good-day.’ He doffed his cap to them, and made to move away.
‘William!’ Margaret called suddenly. She put her hand to her forehead. ‘I have a headache and it would suit me well ter leave at this time, too. Will yer walk some of the way with me?’
‘Indeed I will, Margaret,’ he said. Again touching his cap to Ethel, he turned away, and with Margaret at his side, started walking down the hill.
Frowning, Ethel stared at their retreating backs, and wondered for a moment if she’d be wise to run after them and walk with William, too.
‘Ethel!’ she heard a voice yell.
Turning, she saw that her friend Gladys was frantically waving as she pushed her way through the crowd towards her.
Ethel’s face broke out into a wide smile. ‘Gladys!’ she shrieked in delight.
Her sudden formless apprehension forgotten, she ran to join her friend. Tucking her arm into Gladys’s, they chatted excitedly as they made their way towards the carousel.
As the afternoon drew to a close, they saw with pleasure that there were a number of lads, each standing next to his wagon, wanting to drive them the short distance to the woods. Only as far as the entrance to the woods, the lads said firmly—they’d wait on the road while the girls followed the path that led to the old woman’s cottage.
Finding herself close to a blue wagon, Ethel started to walk towards it. Then she stopped sharply. A lad in breeches, a waistcoat over his white shirt, a scrap of bright red cotton around his neck, was leaning against the side of the blue wagon, his arms folded, his face tilted to the sun. She hadn’t seen him before, and she wondered whether she should wait for Gladys to join her.
But the lad had seen her. He’d straightened up and was smiling in welcome, so she went forward and allowed him to help her into the wagon. As he did so, she inhaled his scent of musky spice, leather and woodsmoke.
He was a strong, handsome man, who looked as if he spent most of his time out of doors, she thought. And when he indicated that she should stand next to the place where he’d be standing, he felt herself colour slightly.
When all the wagons were full, they set off in the late afternoon sun. As he drove, the waggoner told her that his name was Frank. She asked him how he came to be a waggoner.
At the age of six, he started scaring crows for a farmer, he said, but it was a long, lonely day, and he didn’t have any shelter, not even a small hut made of straw hurdles, so he was often drenched when he got home at night. But things got better when he was twelve and was taken on as a waggoner’s mate. He boarded with the waggoner and his wife, and learned to turn his hand to anything on a farm.
‘I’ve never shirked hard work,’ he said. ‘One day, I’m goin’ ter be a quarryman and I’ll have a place of me own.’
‘My friend William’s got a cottage,’ Ethel told him proudly. ‘He’s a weaver. I expect ter be promised to him soon.’
‘I’d go mad bein’ inside all day,’ Frank said, urging the two horses forward along the winding path that sloped up the hill. The axles groaned and the wagon swayed, and Ethel hung on tightly. ‘As fer weaving,’ he added, and he made a face of dislike. ‘That clickety-clacking of machines from morning ter night would drive me crazy. I’ll take a quarry and bein’ in the open air any time.’
‘Maybe so, but a weaver will always have work because people must wear clothes,’ Ethel retorted.
Frank shrugged. ‘Quarry stones are needed for houses and for loads of other things, too,’ he said. ‘So I’ll always have work, won’t I?’
He turned and smiled at Ethel, and she felt a strange sensation run down the length of her body.
Moments later, the wagons were as close to the path into the woods as they could go, and the girls climbed down. Leaving the men on the road, they headed for the old woman’s cottage, walking one behind the other as they cautiously made their way along the narrow path, the trees on either side blocking out the light.
‘It’s really eerie here,’ Gladys whispered to no one in particular, her voice trembling. ‘And I keep thinking someone’s running alongside us, hidden behind the trees.’
Twigs snapped to their left, and she and Ethel jumped.
‘Of course there isn’t,’ Ethel said. ‘And we’re here now, anyway,’ she added as the path opened out into a little clearing, on the opposite side of which stood a small stone cottage. The old woman was just emerging from the trees behind the cottage, tucking something into her apron pocket, her arms full of heather. She disappeared swiftly into the cottage, leaving the front door wide open.
The first girl went forward to learn her fortune, and to be told the name of the man she would marry.
Giggling nervously, the girls waited their turn, standing far enough back so as not to hear what each girl was told.
When it was Ethel’s turn, she went hesitantly into the cottage and asked to be told her fortune. The old woman held out her hand, palm upwards. Ethel swiftly dug in her pocket for the coins she’d saved for the occasion, and handed them over. Then she sat down.
Taking Ethel’s hand, the old woman studied her palm. Ethel’s life would be full of great happiness, she told her.
A rosy glow swept over Ethel, and she made a move as if to get up. But to her great surprise, the woman gripped her hand more tightly and bent lower over her palm. ‘And the name of the person you’ll marry—’ the woman began.
Ethel laughed. ‘I already know his name,’ she said, cutting through the woman’s words.
‘The name of the person you’ll marry,’ the woman repeated. Ethel relaxed, and waited to hear William’s name. ‘Is Frank.’
Ethel sat up sharply.
The old woman had said Frank!
She stared at the woman in surprise. How could that be? She was going to be a weaver’s wife, and they were going to live in the weaver’s cottage that his father had had before him. She must have misheard. She leaned forward and said very politely that she didn’t think she’d heard a-right, and would the woman please tell her again.
And she did.
And again she said Frank. Then she handed Ethel a sprig of parsley and indicated that she should leave.
In a daze, Ethel made her way back to the blue wagon, without even waiting for Gladys. When she reached the wagon, she couldn’t look Frank in the eye as he helped her up. Instead, she stood as far from him as she could, and she made sure that as the other girls arrived, they stood between the two of them.
When they reached the town, Frank helped each of the girls get down from the wagon. She was the last to get down as she’d been at the back. Having helped her to the ground, he stayed her, and stared down at her, his expression concerned. He said that he feared the old woman might have upset her as the smile had gone from her face and she looked worried.
She swiftly assured him that she was fine.
‘Just to make sure,’ he said. ‘Will yer let me drive you home now, and would yer agree to walk out with me on Sunday afternoon? Something is troubling yer, and I feel responsible as I drove yer there. I’d like ter help, if yer’d let me.’
She opened her mouth to say she’d rather go home by herself, and that she’d be walking with William on Sunday.
But then she looked down at the heather she held in her hand, and remembered what the old woman had said. Would the woman know if she’d dismissed her words without a moment’s thought? Suddenly anxious, she found herself agreeing to be driven home and to walking out with Frank on the Sunday.
The amber flame from the tallow-candle in Ethel’s hand flickered, lifting the dusky gloom from above the narrow bed and throwing restless shadows into the corners of the small bedroom.
Moving closer to the bed, she gazed down at the small child lying beneath a loosely woven wool blanket, her sleeping face sheened with gold in the candle light.
There was a sound from the bedroom on the opposite side of the landing, and the door opened. Ethel glanced at her husband of almost three years and smiled.
‘What did she want ter hear this evening?’ he asked, coming into the room.
‘About Bacup Fair.’
‘Again?’ he exclaimed in mock horror.
‘Yes, again,’ she said, laughing as she looked up at him.
‘Doesn’t she ever tire of that story?’
‘No, never. And I never tire of telling it. Every time I talk about that day, I go back there in my head. The old woman didn’t lie when she promised me happiness, and said I’d find it with you, Frank. I’ll ever be glad I listened to her. And with Margaret content with William, though weavers have hit hard times and he may have to go into a mill, I expect ’tis a story she likes to tell, too.’
Leaning over the bed, she kissed her daughter, and then went out of the room and closed the door.
A broad smile on his face, Frank followed his wife down the narrow stairs, his hands in his trouser pockets.
With the fingers on one of his hands, he clutched the sprig of dried heather he always kept at his side—the sprig the old woman had given him for luck when, having sped behind the trees to reach her cottage ahead of the girls, he’d called her forth and paid her to give his name to the girl in the green calico dress.
story inspired by
'Wouldn't It Be Luverly' from My Fair Lady
Born in London, Liz Harris graduated from university with a Law degree, and then moved to California, where she led a varied life, from waitressing on Sunset Strip to working as secretary to the CEO of a large Japanese trading company. A few years later, she returned to London and completed a degree in English, after which she taught secondary school pupils, first in Berkshire, and then in Cheshire.
In addition to the eight novels she’s had published, she’s had several short stories in anthologies and magazines. Her latest novel, The Flame Within, is the second in The Linford Series, a sweeping saga set between the wars. Each of the Linford novels is a standalone, and is complete in itself.
Liz now lives in Oxfordshire. An active member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Historical Novel Society, her interests are travel, theatre, reading and cryptic crosswords.
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/lizharrisauthor/
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