Chapter 25 - Bleak prospect
The Dunbar’s were an elderly couple who owned several public houses, including the largest one in the town, the General Wolf. They prided themselves on being good honest employers, who took a person at face value and could judge a character accordingly. When they needed someone, it was usually on recommendation. Jobs were scarce and they could have their pick. That morning the woman who usually turned up to clean the General had not turned up, she had been unreliable in the past and it had been apparent that her tardiness was often caused by her liking of the liquors under the General’s roof; Mrs Dunbar had given her several warnings, the last being.
‘If you see the card in the window, don’t bother knocking, there’ll be nothing for you here.’
It was that at five o’clock that morning, Mrs Dunbar who usually laid in was roused by Mr Dunbar, he needed to serve the men at the off-door (a door at the side of the pub which was opened to fill their flasks), Mr Dunbar stated.
‘She’s not turned in again, you’re going to have to get up lass and I’ll give you a hand as soon as I get finished at the off door.’
Mrs Dunbar rose swiftly paying scant attention to her dress, she would have time to see to that later after the cleaning was done. She slept lightly and hardly a hair was out of place, a couple of hair grips were all that was required to move her hair to its usual position. While Mrs Dunbar started clearing away the previous evenings revelry and laying the new fires ready, she thought to herself, first things first, my girl. From the pocket in the front of her apron, she took out the card she had prepared some time ago “DOMESTIC WANTED – 7 DAY A WEEK – APPLY WITHIN”. She Knew it would not be long before the position was filled.
The morning had not yet risen, though Jane had, she didn’t sleep well; what with worry and hunger. She had been at Mrs Gerard’s several weeks now and her initial optimism that she would find a job was now becoming a desperate race against time. There was no breakfast, she had enough for one meal a day for herself. Her eyes were sunken and blackened through worry and her complexion displayed her meagre diet. She dressed Ted as warmly as possible, wrapping her thick blanket shawl around her and the child. Her coat had long since gone, a pledge at Blacklocks the pawn broker, another pledge never redeemed. It had served to pay a bill or had bought a few groceries to keep body and soul together, or some sweets to take to Matt and Joe in the orphanage. Who could tell, so many of her possessions now resided there. You could hear Mr Blacklock sigh as she walked in.
She knew that things couldn’t go on this way, she knew by his look, that he had seen her or her ilk before, many times before, over many years. She could see from his face, that he knew what awaited her, they both did, but alas, there was nothing that she could do to stop it. So it was that at 5am that morning she set off from her rooms, through those wet, damp and cold streets.
She would try for casual work, each morning she set off at the same time standing three to four hours at the bottom of Percy Street, with the other men and woman looking for a few hours work. You would see queues of men standing at different points, miners congregating at one end of the street, dock yard workers further up, farm hands, decorators, char women. You name it, you could find it on that street. The agents and foremen would come at their appointed hours and select the best, or sometimes the most desperate. The wages on offer would sometimes only serve those where desperation or starvation was the choice and woe betide any woman with a child or man with an infirmity. These agents were not in the business of bestowing philanthropic gestures on any, they expected the parish relief to look after foundlings.
So it was that shortly after setting off Jane crossed Garrison Fields on the way to her mother’s to leave the child. She held it close to her, wrapped as tightly as possible in her shawl as the bitter wind swept into her face. That northerly wind which steals your breath as you try to breath with its intensity and the strength pushes you backward as you try to walk. The rain lashed against her, as if all the elements were scorning her, you will not succeed.
At the end of Garrison fields those familiar terraces which run like the web of a spider from places of industrial employment begin and so sheltered from the wind, for a moment she caught her breath and headed towards her mother’s house. Joining those who were already on their way to work or just looking for it. She passed unnoticed in the crowd and neared the General Wolf, it was a warm and inviting sight, neither her nor Albert had drunk, not being temperance but being of that nature. However, Derek had often regaled them with stories made taller by the telling of things he had heard while in those walls.
As she got closer, she could see the queue of men waiting at the off-door to have a little warmer or top up added to their flask, to improve the working day. As she passed a hand clamped itself on her shoulder, she instinctively clutched her child deep into her and half spun round still protecting him from the attacker. Her eyes were wide open with fear, thank God it was Derek. She was so bewildered and mentally worn out, she opened her mouth and no words came forth. Wrapped up in her quest at that moment, she had no response, it was Derek who spoke.
‘Lass I thought it was thee, I know where you’re off. I’ve seen y’ several mornings go by, it’s just that thar’s a card that old Mrs Dunbar has put in pub window. She needs a char to help her out, and we best be quick.′
There was nothing to say, before Jane had regained the use of her voice, she had followed Derek and he was knocking at the door, the same door which housed that card. The door was duly opened by Mrs Dunbar, a woman be her presence could not be mistaken as anything but the name over the door. She looked shocked to see Derek but smiled.
‘Good Morning Derek, what can I do for you?’ She knew that his knocking on this door had a purpose and as a regular and let us say a heavy share holder in the hostelry, she was not going to be discourteous to him unless provoked.
‘It’s your card in the window Mrs Dunbar, Albert’s wife Jane here,’ gesturing towards Jane ‘I thought she’s just the sort of hard worker you need.’ She noticed that unusually for Derek he had his cap in his hand, his usual swagger which accompanied him like a twin was not present.
‘Come in Mrs Burns, It’s a bit cold to be on the doorstep. We’ll have a little chat and as for you Derek! My husband is round the side - so you best be on your way.’ She held the door open and the bedraggled women entered, clutching her child, the bolt slammed shut behind her.
There was not a lot to be said. The house rules were spelled out in no uncertain terms. Any deviation from this and there would be another to take her place. Indeed, Jane had personal experience of Percy Street, she knew this to be true and so they entered into an arrangement that was to last for several years. She would clean four pubs owned by the Dunbar’s, walking between them twice a day.
Mrs Dunbar was a fair taskmaster and would not expect her to perform any tasks such as working in the pubs when they were open which would damage her reputation. Finally, the child could when required accompany here, when no one could be found to look after it. She could leave it under the bar while she cleaned - it could sleep on the towels - a very comfortable arrangement.
Truth be known Mrs Dunbar, having no children was of an age where she hoped that Jane, would not always be able to find people to look after the child. So that she might occasionally spoil it and so the contract was entered into. She started immediately, this was not only required, but a necessity as it would mean the sooner, she would have money to eat.