Garrison Fields

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Chapter 19 - The Church Board meets

She arrived at Albert’s parents’ house, a small cosy terraced cottage with a two up, two down layout. It was a small working-man’s cottage which they had gradually managed to save up enough to buy it. It afforded them few luxuries and indeed the second bedroom in which Jane and Ted, for the moment being too young to object, could only accommodate a small single bed. This had been Albert’s room as a child and the iron bedstead and horsehair Mattress had sagged with overuse over the years, until all who slept in it surrendered eventually and rolled into the middle of it.

Matt and Luke would for the time being have to sleep on the floor in the parlour downstairs. This was the only arrangement that could be had in the short term. They were glad to see them all and did not dwell to long on the subject of the eviction. The reprieve though would be short lived Albert’s sister would be returning to the house in a few weeks with her two daughters. There had been an estrangement between her and her parents several years previously when she had hurriedly married a bad-tempered idle man, she had worked to support them and left the town to find work in the south.

They had not talked until a mutual acquaintance had come across her quite by chance. She had relayed to him her bad circumstance, in so much as her feckless husband had found a younger woman with brighter prospects and a small inheritance at his usual drinking establishment. Both parties had now disappeared. Her father, Luke on hearing the tale spent a week searching for her until eventually they were reconciled. The condition he had left her in was not good, she was expecting his third child. Luke was appalled and wished to take her home immediately, but she had assured him that she would return when her affairs were straight, and they had set a date which was drawing all too close.

What was Jane to do, both her and her sister-in-law were in a precarious situation, her sister in laws made even more precarious by her condition. She therefore decided that whatever the outcome her and the boys would have to leave as soon as possible.

The following morning the boys went to school as normal. Her mother-in-law was more than happy to spend the day with Ted and Ted was more than happy to be spoilt. He was always a happy child with a big smile which always emerged as soon as he saw anyone he knew, or as soon as someone looked at him. His blue eyes and blonde hair always made him look angelic, although if truth was known he could sometimes be the exact opposite.

The next few days were always spent the same, Jane would rise and lay the fires and make breakfast for all. She would get the boys off to school and then walk into the town looking for work and lodgings. It appeared that both were in scarce supply, each morning she went to the reading rooms at the main town library at the end of Fawcett Street.

It was a large room with a high ceiling to the left as you went in, its beautiful half glass doors with the words Reading Rooms and Quiet underneath acid etched into them, the elegant dark oak stained and varnished doors with their highly polished furniture enticing you into this inner sanctum. Which on first appearance resembled some great drawing offices, with rows of draughtsman’s desks.

These high legged desks, with the top of each desk being set at an angle to afford the user a convenient way to read a broadsheet. Each had an accompanying high legged stool not affording the user a cushion, so as not to detain the user to long due to their discomfort. The whole room was resplendent in its wood and brass finishing’s which matched the door and the last detail, the racks of periodicals and daily tabloids and broadsheets.

Morning, evening, weekly and monthly publications which were resting on racks having been fastened to what looked like giant brass stair rods with beautifully turned acorn ends, awaiting readers to carry them to a desk and splay them across it. The final touches were its use of that most practical form of electric lighting and its reliance on coal fired radiator heating, which made this room the choice of many citizens with limited budgets, during the winter months.

There was always a queue on a morning, most had similar ideas, either to spend their day avoiding the worst of the winter or scouring the papers for accommodation or work. There was always a rush for the all but too few copies of the previous evenings Daily Echo, a paper with its local merit, but it appeal was that it had the largest set of local advertisements for both employment and accommodation.

The earlier you arrived the more chance you would have of obtaining a mint copy of one of these prized newspapers and also more chance of having one that was not defaced. Such was the competition for both work and housing, many would, when they presumed no one was observing tear as quietly as they could or by means of other subterfuge remove the required article so that they might reduce the competition enhancing their own odds of success.

After Jane had taken the required copy from the rack and laid it on the reading desk, she would take out her pencil and some small pieces of paper, hurriedly scan the newspaper of choice. If papers were not immediately available, she would keep an eagle eye for one to be returned and race for it. When all was collated, the race would be on, jobs first, housing next, she would normally just carry with her a couple of barley sugar sweets which there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of at the grandparents and maybe a bread and lard sandwich wrapped in a piece of greaseproof paper in her pocket. If she needed a drink, there were several municipal drinking fountains around the town, usually bearing the inscription of one of the local aldermen; whose inscription would urge those drinking to better things.

As the days multiplied and days turned to weeks, she became more frantic. Work was scarce, even for menial jobs, a day or two of work here or there, there were always several candidates who had beaten her to the door. Whenever she looked for rooms, her personal circumstance with no breadwinner and three children in tow always put the landlord off. It was now the final week; she knew that her sister-in-law would arrive on the following Monday.

She had only managed to find one accommodation, one room and use of all the facilities. There were conditions such as, she might take Ted, but if he was too noisy then they would have to go. There was no place for Matt and Joe, no Matter how hard she tried she could not find a landlord who would accommodate them all. She had talked to both hers and Albert’s parents, there was no room even within the family for the two boys.

Her father-in-law now suggested that if she wished he could go down to the seaman’s mission as Albert had been at sea all his adult life, they would take the boys in. It would only be for a short period of time, until everyone was back on their feet and when Albert got better, they most certainly would be all be reunited. They all agreed that it was not only the best option, but it was the only option available to them.

The boys returned as usual from school and the plan was announced. Jane and the grandparents sat down and told the boys the heartache that they had been through. How they could only find a room for Jane and Ted and for just a short period of time the boys would be admitted to the Seaman’s Mission Orphanage. The Matt and Joe smiled and stated that they had no wish to be separated and it would be more fun to go together. That they would look after each other, until the point came when they could be a family once more.

The most important thing to them was that Ted could stay with his mother. Matt and Joe smiled and joked they would have a fine time, no one was to worry, they would look after each other. It was as if they had rehearsed their parts. The following morning Jane her father-in-law and the two boys in their best Sunday attire went to the Seaman’s Mission there they were to be interviewed by the great and the good of the parish as to why they could not manage the welfare of their own children.

They waited outside to be called in by the Church Board, this consisted of five members of the local parish, two women and three men two of the men were local businessmen and aldermen in the town, the third was a clergy man involved in the spiritual wellbeing of those being received. The two women could be considered to have no formal occupation, other than have married men of rank in the town. Their occupation, more of a calling for them, was of being superior to others who presented themselves for assistance.

All were middle aged and dressed according to their rank. The ladies finery seeming especially ostentatious. If one did not know better, you would have believed they paid particular attention to their appearance, on those days when they gave their most valuable time for service to the community. From their high-necked white blouses with beautiful cameo broaches, underlined by at least three strings of beautiful opalescent pearls down to the silver buckles on those elegant hand-crafted patent leather shoes.

The large mahogany clock above the classical doorway ticked round and went past the appointment time one minute turned into five and ten turned into twenty. Jane, Luke and the two boys sat patiently on the hard wooden bench facing the door. Occasionally they whispered to each other, for the most part though they stared at that door. If the intensity of gaze had been enough to admit them, they would have entered that room. The door eventually opened to admit them to the inner sanctum, the clerk who would take the minutes stood and called for them by name, they rose and entered the room.

The room itself was laid out as if a board meeting might suddenly take place, with a row of table at the far end of the room which was occupied by the members of the Church Board. Carafes of water and refreshments such as tea and biscuits were present at the side of the room. It was noticeable that the Church Board had already partaken of these. On the walls were several paintings of current and past members of the Church Board, all looking down ominously at anyone who dared enter that room and ask for assistance.

The clerk ushered Jane and her family to a row of seats placed at a suitable distance from the Church Board, they stood in front of the seats, the clerk seeing they were uncomfortable in this situation gestured towards the seats.

‘You may be seated.’

They sat down, Mr Burns with his fine hat in his hand and gloves had no idea what to do with them. It was the same hat that he had worn for special occasions for the last twenty plus years, it may have been the hat he had specifically bought for his wedding. The kid leather gloves which he had bought with it had long since perished and been replaced by these cheaper versions. The style of the hat had long since been superseded by the more rounded bowler hat, but his hat was still very elegant and, after several seconds he became aware that their were several faces now observing him. He now acted rapidly clamping all together in a very uncomfortable and somewhat prim position with his knees and legs locked together and with his hat and gloves resting on top of his knees, his hands holding the rim on each side of his hat keeping everything from toppling to the floor.

Now that all was in order and all fidgeting had stopped, the clerk, who was sat at a table at a right angle to all of the others and in a position to observe and hear all commenced the meeting. Introducing the parties to each other after which he read out what in any other circumstances would have been presumed to have been a charge sheet, such was its formality. It was then that the suitably flabby faced chairman looked to his left and right to receive the supporting nods from the rest of the Church Board and commenced.

The purpose as he stated was to establish the facts, and not apportion any blame for the current position that Mrs Burns had found herself in. Their purpose was to establish that the criteria for accepting her two sons was satisfied. It was indeed a relief to know that the purpose was not to apportion blame as the nature of the questioning was so condescending as to attribute negligence at each step on the part of Jane and Albert. The inferences they made were plain and clear, and not even her father-in-law was immune.

It appeared that his raising of Albert and his other children might have been negligent and therefore the whole case was endemic, indeed from the mutual assurances of the Church Board to each other at these points one might consider that all those associated with Luke would require assistance as quickly as possible.

The Burns family sat and listened; they understood all that was said. Both Jane and Luke did not look at each other, answering each question raised to them as succinctly as possible, each barbed insinuation which was thrust into them they answered. In any other circumstance both Jane and Luke would have to coin a phrase “wiped the floor” with these pompous oafs, who were deciding hers and Albert’s children’s future.

They had no choice, but to listen and to some extent fawn to these egos, which now faced them. The vitriol which seemed to pour from the noble ladies of the Church Board especially cut her to the quick, but she bore it for the sake of her boys and at length the proceedings finished. They were asked to wait outside until the board had reached its conclusion.

They sat on the same bench they had previously occupied. The Clerk remarked to them after he had ensured that the door was closed and he was out of earshot. That the Church Board would now retire to an adjoining room where they would have luncheon and debate the Matter. This would take at least one hour, so if they wished they could go outside into the street for a while. They might enjoy some air, or there was a small café nearby which offered some reasonably priced refreshments. They thanked him and said they would be grateful to take some air. The hour passed slowly for the Burns and they returned in good time. The clerk on hearing them return came out to meet them.

‘They’ll be coming back in a few minutes; it’s all sorted out.’ He gave a small smile which they took as a positive sign and, thanked him. Indeed, the acceptance of the boys was even more stage managed than the first and if comment cards had been presented as in the silent movies currently in vogue, one would have presumed that some corny melodrama was in play. But this was actually happening!

On their return, the room the chairs that they had previously been invited to sit on had been moved to the side to enable the proceedings to move more swiftly. There would be no second round of worrying about how to best position his hat for Luke, they stood in the position where the chairs had been previously like the condemned in the dock.

The chairman following his usual posturing, glanced at those assembled paying particular attention to the approving nods of the others in the Church Board to proceed. Picking up his reading glasses and using them as the equivalent of a magnifying glass, he viewed the papers in from of him and began.

‘The decision of the Church Board...,’ he read it as if pronouncing the penalty for a capital offence. The details of which they were informed the clerk would give them once the Church Board had retired. He now looked at the boys directly, the first time in the whole proceedings that anyone had acknowledged their presence in the room. Addressing them in no uncertain terms, as to the position they were in. That they would be taken as wards of the Board until such a time they might rejoin society and repay the benevolence of others. The clerk had briefed them, that at this point they should not appear ungrateful.

‘Thank you Sir.’ They both said in a very subdued tone.

‘Good, now Mr Burns, Mrs Burns, please pay attention to Mr Hartingdon.’ He gestured towards the clerk.

‘This emergency session of the Church Board is now concluded.’ At which point he stood up and without a further word to the Burns family left through the door to the annex behind their chairs, presumably where more refreshment would be waiting for this illustrious group. As the members rose and left, they commented to each other on the case as if the Burns family were not present.

‘Yes, a very unfortunate case.’ Declared the vicar to one of the ladies who remarked.

‘Just so, but I find many of these cases very avoidable, do you?’ This leading question called for an answer which was readily given.

‘My work does call me to all too many cases similar to this. Yes, my dear lady I cannot disagree with your comment.’

After the door closed, they were given instructions by the kindly Mr Hartingdon. If it had not been for his kindness and assurance, Luke doubted if Jane would have been able to carry on, but there was nothing else to do.
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