“Ah, but he will. You know what his lot are like. I’m surprised he found time to come out of the pub to see you.”
He raised the gun, and prepared to take aim. Alf had decided discretion was surely the better part of valour tonight, and didn’t care to argue with a shotgun. Out of the barn and across the yard, out through the gate and on to the track.
James heard his footsteps crunching along the track, and in the darkness he fired a shot in the air.
“Get out of here. And don’t you dare come back. I’ll pepper your skinny backside for you, you young devil. Get on with you, go and sell your fish and chips.”
Sarah ran after her father, pulling at his arm. “Stop it. You don’t even know him.”
“Mebbe not,” replied James, shaking her off, “but I know where he comes from. You’ll not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, lass. You can do better for yourself.”
And he fired another shot in Alf’s direction. “Get back down the pit where you belong. And while you’re at it, tell that money-grabbing aunt of yours she deserves to roast in hell!”
He turned to his daughter. “And you, get back in the house, and don’t let me see you out here again tonight – or any other night.”
“I’d like to see you try to stop me,” she said, under her breath. But she did as she was told.
She went upstairs, taking her candle to her room, and listened to the voices downstairs in the kitchen.
“Look, Em, I didn’t work down the pit for ten years, to get some money so that our two would marry miners. I don’t want our Sarah throwing herself away on one of that crew of good-for-nothings. I did think the vicar was interested.”
“Well, Jim, she seems quite struck on this Alf, and she’s not a daft flibbertigibbet. Do you want her to end up an old maid?”
“You know what his family are like. There’s his uncle George’s lot, we used to live next-door to, they don’t have two ha’pennies to rub together, he spends every penny they earn down the Miners’ Arms. And that Liza Lakin doesn’t have friends, just debtors. And she’s no better than she ought to be, I’ve heard.”
“Come on, Jim, she’s not done a bad job raising the lad. No-one forced her to adopt him when his dad died, you know. She’s got a good heart.”
“She hides it well. And I dare say she had reasons of her own. I do know she always makes damn sure she gets her money back when she’s lent it out.”
“I can’t say as I blame her for that. ‘appen the lad’ll have some sense an’ all.”
“Go on, mother,” thought Sarah, “he’ll take more notice of you than me.”
She heard her father go outside again, having a last look across the fields, shutting the hens in the big shed. He whistled the two house dogs, and gave the guard dog a pat on the head, before making sure he was on the long chain in his kennel. She knew Alf wouldn’t risk coming back tonight – the dogs would be sure to bark and rouse her parents. She thought about creeping out after they’d gone to bed, but it was a good two miles down the lane to Alf’s house. It might not be that easy to find him if she did go – he could be at any of half a dozen of his relatives or friends. She had no desire to make an exhibition of herself. Any road, she knew she’d see him tomorrow.
James was up before six as usual, and let the hens out and milked the house cow. When he came in for his breakfast, Sarah was up, and ready to go out to work at the local infants’ school. Dressed for work, in clothes as fashionable as you could get in Mansfield, her slim upright figure (she was so proud of her eighteen-inch waist) looked out of place in the farm kitchen. She passed her dad a cup of tea, and set off on foot to cover the two miles down the lane.
One of the inspectors was in that day, and testing the six-year-olds on their knowledge of scripture. “Now,” he said, “when one of his fifty sheep was lost the good shepherd spent all day looking for it. He let all the other forty-nine run around, and spent all his time searching for just that lost one. Does any one know why?”
One hand shot up, a scruffy boy, who lived on a farm. “’Appen it were ‘tup,” he said. Sarah smiled. “Good for you, Billy,” she thought. “You know more about it than he does.”
Four o’clock came, and Sarah sat in the schoolroom, tidying up, and writing notes.
At half past, she picked up her bag, and went out, “Goodbye, Mrs Pountney, “she called, “see you tomorrow!”
As she walked along the High Street, a familiar figure caught her up. “Your old man was in a state last night, wasn’t he? I thought I’d have my hindquarters full of buck shot. I’d have stayed, but I couldn’t afford a new pair of trousers.”
“Oh, never mind him! He likes to show us all who’s boss. He thinks he is. My mam can twist him round her little finger, though. Best keep out of his way for a couple of weeks until he’s calmed down.”
“I dunno. I think I should buy you that ring, and then I’ll go and see him. Tell him straight, I want you to marry me.”
“No, Alf, you leave it for a couple of weeks. I can dig my heels in as well as him, and I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Come on in, let’s get a cup of tea. Aunt Eliza’s gone to ‘t shops, so she won’t be there to moan if we walk on her clean floor. And Uncle Charlie’s not back from ‘t pit yet. He’s on back shift today.”
“All right, but I won’t stay more than half an hour.”
They walked past the house where Sarah’s family used to live before they’d moved out to Penniment Lane. Sarah still felt this was her home. She was sixteen before her dad had rented the farm, and she missed the mining village. Oh, she liked telling people where she lived, it sounded a cut above the rest, and she liked the countryside for days out, but it was a bit too quiet living there, and a bit mucky for her tastes.
A couple of weeks later, some of the people from the church were going on a Saturday walk in the country, ending up with lunch in Pleasley. Alf said to Sarah, “Hey, Nan, let’s borrow my cousins’ bicycles and meet up with the crowd at the tea-shop.”
They tried the machines out earlier on the week, and after a few tries Sarah could keep upright. They arranged to call round to pick them up on the Saturday morning.
Sarah’s parents were too busy with the farm to go on the walk, and her younger sister was on her honour to keep quiet about it.
Saturday morning was fine and clear. Sarah wore her smart clothes and her new hat, green felt, with purple flowers. They put some sandwiches and a bottle of lemonade in the bike baskets. No-one could ride a heavy bicycle fast in the clothes most women wore before the First World War. They followed a roundabout route, proceeding in a stately manner, walking up the hills, hand in hand with the bicycles on the outside. They stopped often for a breather. Sarah was finding it hard going. “Wheer yo cum frum?” Alf said, putting on a Black Country accent he’d copied from one the miners. “Caw yo roid oop the ’ills? Ain’t they got no’ills in Beerminham? Oi’ll efter tek yo ter Dudley Zoo.”
Going downhill was fun, but Sarah had to tuck her flying skirt in round the saddle to make sure it didn’t catch in the wheel. When they reached the tea-shop, the group of walkers had just arrived. Pots of tea appeared, and plates with sandwiches, scones, teacakes, fruit cakes, sponge cakes, good-sized helpings fit to feed someone who had walked all morning.
On the way back the sky clouded over. It darkened and suddenly Alf could feel the cold drops of rain wetting his face. They sat down to shelter under a tree, but it was less use than the umbrella they had not brought. It took less than five minutes to soak them through. Sarah started to shiver, and then she noticed Alf was laughing. “I really don’t see what’s so funny,” she said. “We’ll catch our deaths of cold.”
Alf still laughed. “Just look at you! And your hat!”
“This hat cost me 10 shillings! It’ll be ruined.”
“But look at your face! What a lovely colour.”
Sarah had a mirror in the handbag she had been carrying in the bike basket all day. She took one look, and suddenly the cost of the hat didn’t matter. The monstrous green and purple face looking back at her made her catch her breath. When she breathed out, she was hooting with laughter too.
Alf put his arms round her. “Never mind, me duck, I love you even more with a green face.” They decided they were going to tell her parents that evening that they were going to get married. “He can like it or lump it,” said Sarah, “I’m over twenty-one, and I’ll marry you, no matter what.”
(When Sarah did marry Alf, in July 1914, her Uncle Joseph gave her away. Her parents were there, they gave the “happy couple” a cheque, and they had the reception at the farm. From a newspaper cutting about the wedding.)