Chapter 4 - Calling on Mrs Mills
The daffodils and April had both arrived in unison that year. But, the joy of spring was to be short lived in the Burns household. The damp and wet had hung longer than usual, leeching itself into every brick in the house. No coal fire was sufficient to keep it out. The ceilings in all but the richest houses dripped with the wet condensation, the only way to stop it, was to light the bedroom fire in each room. Well, there were not many that could afford that. So, the older boys had been put in one room: Albert, Jane, Alice and Ted in another room.
Each evening, Jane would place hot coals in the copper bed pan, moving it from bed to bed, warming each to take the damp out of it. She paid particular attention to the cot, which Alice and Ted had been sharing. She had moved Alice into their room as the child’s small room, always felt damp and cold. Ted had thought it all great fun and it was indeed hard to get him to sleep for the first few days. Latterly she had noticed that Alice had been coughing, as a precaution she moved Ted in with the boys, just in case.
Her suspicions had proved well founded, as a couple of days later, she seemed to have a very bad cold. It was at this point that Jane had lit the fire in Alice’s room and airing it out moved her back in. She moved a high-backed chair to the side of the fireplace, so she could be close to the child. It was important that she keep her in isolation, to have one sick child was bad enough, but she had another three to consider and Albert just being back at work after his sickness; she couldn’t take the chance. She would just have to burn more coal and worry about paying later, cheaper a bag of coal than a doctor for them all. She knew of a local woman that might be able to help, she had nursing experience and people said she was as good as any doctor!
“Any malady might be best treated with a poultice applied, to the affected area.” That was Mrs Mills advice, for all ailments. It was the phrase that all who encountered her would say religiously like a catechism. As she prepared her poultices of linseed, tar, indeed whichever mixture she deemed to serve the occasion. Sometimes the mixture smelled more palatable than the recipient’s last meal, but more often than not the smell indicated that it must possess some curative power, as edible it most certainly was not.
The lady in question lived several streets away from Jane, on the road leading to the docks, a modest two up, two down mid terrace. For those unable to afford the fees of the local doctor, it was known that she might assist. Her reputation had been built on years of experience of her own family and neighbours; indeed, she had only had two of her children die during childhood and her with fourteen at the last count, a good success rate by any standard.
A formidable looking woman well into her fifties with a round and ruddy face used to hard work, her black hair pulled tightly back, an apt description would be to refer to her as big boned; she always stood very upright, in a high blouse, dark long skirt, and small heeled boots. Her apron was crisp and white and ran nearly the full length of her skirt. Her habit when opening her front door was to stand on the doorstep, quite erect with her arms crossed and to ask in a stern tone the nature of the interloper’s business. She invariably knew the nature of the call and so wished Matters to be conducted on a business-like footing from the start.
That morning it was Jane’s turn to knock and as was customary Mrs Mills answered the door, they knew each other by face, if not by name and it was Jane who started the conversation.
‘Mrs Mills, I’m Mrs Burns... Jane Burns, I live up Kimberley Street... I think my youngest might have the flu and I’ve heard it said that you’ve been able to help some folk.’ A moment passed before Mrs Mills responded.
‘Yes dear, I used to be a nurse and people say that a few of my medications have helped them.’ she stated in a non-committal way.
Clutching her purse, she spoke, a sign not totally unobserved by our nurse. Indeed, this was the trigger that Mrs Mills had been waiting for.
‘I would make it worth your while, we could come to an arrangement’.
‘Don’t worry about all that at the moment my dear. You just go home now and look after your young’un. I’ll be round in the hour, I’ll need to prepare some of my remedies. You’re at number sixteen, aren’t you?’ The question was responded to in the affirmative.
‘I can’t thank you enough Mrs Mills...’
‘Now, don’t worry dear, you just get yourself off back home.’ With that Jane turned away, she half shrank away, it was as if, all the air had been taken from her lungs, this was a result of the anxiety that she felt and the knowledge that she had shed some of the burden for the moment. A sudden feeling of fatigue overtook her, her last reserves of energy dissipated she left.
‘Who were that lass... weren’t after money were they.’ Enquired Mr Mills as she went back into the kitchen. Plonking herself down opposite to him in one of the two comfortable chairs that were positioned on each side of the kitchen-range she relayed the story to him. At times like this she was quite inflated with her own self-importance.
‘Kimberley Street, y’ say, well thar’ should be a couple o’ bob init at least’. Such was his concern.
‘when y’ gannin’ round love?′
‘I said within the hour. I’ll be making your dinner first though.’
‘Ay, that’s a bonny lass.’ She left him to his calculations, of how best to spend his new income and prepared a cold dinner of leftovers. It was a curious matter that any major meal would be called dinner. Although - for most - the time of day would have dictated that this meal was lunch. On some occasions only one meal a day might be forthcoming; therefore, best call it dinner, then you’d not felt as if you’d missed anything.
Dinner being quickly prepared and finished she cleared the table. Mr Mills resumed his customary position in the armchair by the fireside, while she went to the cold larder and took a few jars with foul smelling concoctions out and from her dresser, a few clean linen rags. Reviewing all on the kitchen table, she tapped the lid of each jar with her index finger, a mental note of each being made. She pondered on one, no more than the next.
Satisfied all was present, her old battered brown leather shopping bag was pressed into service. She removed some old newspaper from the bottom of it, the last occupants of the bag had been potatoes, carrots and a cabbage, from the Greengrocer. The newspaper served to catch any loose soil from the vegetables, her hand swiftly moved around the inside of the bag, she retracted it and checked her palm.
‘That’ll do, clean enough.’ Taking care not to soil her white pinny, she rubbed her hand underneath it, thus removing the traces of soil. Each item was now placed in the shopping bag. Lifting it off the table - the jars clattered together - as she made her way to the back door where her only coat was hanging from a nail bent to make it more amiable as a clothes hook. Placing the shopping bag down for a second, she donned her outdoor wear and slammed the door behind her.