He was out. There was no doubt about it, he was free.
After months of darkness, where he could not see a hand in front of his face whenever it was there, and a silence that was interrupted only by muffled sounds from outside, all of which were unintelligible to him, he was free.
And yet, the darkness and the silence were somehow comforting. He could sleep when he wanted, without interruption and for as long as he needed, food and drink were given to him on demand. But he knew that his time had come and he had to embrace his freedom.
He screwed his eyes tightly when he emerged, being almost blinded by the light. When he could open them momentarily he seemed to be surrounded by shapes the like of which he had never seen before or had imagined in his solitary world. Then suddenly, without any thought from him, his chest moved in and out and the surprise of this made him scream at the top of his voice, as if it was a cry for help. But this was merely greeted by laughter from the shapes and there was even small applause in the background.
After all of his time hidden away, his legs could not support him and his arms were equally of little use and he felt himself lifted into the arms of one of the shapes, who held him gently and then to another who somehow made him feel happy. He realised then with great relief and comfort that, yes, he had been born.
William and Sarah were happy. Sarah was exhausted, but holding her new baby in her arms sent her tiredness away and her maternal emotions took hold. William smiled to himself; at last a boy, a son to carry on the business, his father’s business and beyond, not the sort of work for the two girls.
“We haven’t decided on a name yet?” Sarah said.
“I know” said William, “but let’s not have another William in the family. A line of four William’s is enough for anyone. I had been thinking of Oliver.”
“You kept that to yourself. I like it, but no calling him Ollie.”
“Course not” smiled William.
It was 6.20am. Oliver knew it was that time because his body clock told him so, as it had been doing for the last year. He didn’t need to be out of bed until 6.30am, when his father would be coming in to wake him, but that extra ten minutes which he had trained himself for gave him a little time to himself and to prepare for the day ahead.
The bedroom was shared between him and his two younger brothers, Alfred and George. His father’s business as a butcher had been doing well over the last few years and his mother had insisted that Oliver had a bed of his own so that the three boys didn’t need to share, as Oliver was older by a few years now. For her it meant that there would be more laundry to cope with but she was willing to do that for her sons. The older girls, Ethel and Alice, shared a bedroom on the next floor up.
The ten minutes ticked by and he could hear the soft tread of his father along the landing and then the door opened and three steps later a firm but gentle nudge stirred Oliver.
“Time, Ollie”, his Dad whispered.
“OK Dad, I’m awake now. I’m coming”. Oliver climbed out of the covers and felt the January cold hit him, so he rushed to the chair in the corner and dressed as quickly as he could.
And it was a cold January morning, 22nd January 1901.
Oliver was now fourteen years old. School had not been kind to him and he struggled in many areas but he had managed the basics that he would need if he was to follow his father and join him in the butchery trade. At least he had finished with school and he could make his way, not to the delight of his mother it had to be said. Still, he could read, he could write, and had some level of numeracy which would see him through, he just needed to get the opportunities to use these skills before he forgot them altogether.
His pals from school and around the street were mainly following their own fathers into the iron works, or moving out of the town to the ironstone mines nearby. Whatever path they went along, their working days would be hard and not necessarily secure in that harsh environment. They could probably count on being paid better than Oliver, but again following in their fathers’ footsteps, most of that would end up in the tills of one or all of the many pubs that could be found on almost every street corner.
The house was next door to the shop. William had been able to secure the shop at an affordable rent, and then the house next door for the growing family. The rooms above the shop he was able to rent out to the many lodgers looking for digs.
Over the last few weeks, Sarah had been concerned for the Queen who wasn’t well, and Sarah said so every few minutes, much to everyone’s annoyance, especially William. He had a much broader view of the situation. He was a businessman after all, he told himself, and any change in the country’s fortunes either at home or abroad, would have an effect on his trade. He had become interested in the growing Labour movement and although he felt he was not a trades unionist or activist, he knew that any unrest would inevitably have an impact on his daily takings and possibly more long term.
The Queen had been ill for some time, and over the last few days her health had deteriorated rapidly, and as such the mood in the town was sombre. This news had come on top of the daily reports of the fighting in South Africa, in which Oliver was more interested.
Oliver put on his thick coat against the cold and cut a slice of bread. The maid, Annie, had got the fire going so the kitchen wasn’t too cold and there was tea in the pot to warm him up. His Dad had finished his breakfast (‘for what it was worth’) and was putting his coat on, and with the shop keys in his hand, made for the door.
“Ollie, come on lad” he said, firmly, as he left the room.
Oliver could really have done with another slice today but he knew the consequences of not following his Dad, so he gulped down his tea, wondering in the back of his mind when he would eat again today. Dinnertime seemed a long way off at the moment.
Outside of the front door, it was wet and windy and there was a hint of cold in the air, possibly snow on the way. William had opened up the shop and Oliver followed him in. He had only left school a few months ago but he was already he was into a routine. Sweep and mop the floor, even though he had done this the night before; give the block a scrub and a scrape, again as he had done the night before. His Dad was obsessive about keeping his workspace clean, which Oliver didn’t understand yet and groaned to himself each day about having to do these chores. Next wash down the display shelves in the shop window, again, ready for today’s cuts to be put out. Sprinkle sawdust on the drying floor around the block. All was ready, as his Dad started his work after selecting from the cold room the carcasses that were ready for today.
All of these chores that were now Oliver’s, had previously been done by his mother, who had been longing for the day when someone would take over from her. She wanted Oliver to have more education but she was a realist and life didn’t have the luxury of that so she let William have his way. The two older girls were now earning money as seamstresses and generally, things weren’t looking that gloomy, despite the troubles out there.
The day passed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Oliver was still not allowed to handle money yet, much to his annoyance as he wanted practice at least, and because of that his dad had to stop his work to attend to customers. Because of the Queen’s situation there was a lot of chat and gossip, with the war in South Africa thrown in for good measure. So there was plenty to listen to and to take in, even though there was a lot of repetition, though not enough about the fighting for Oliver’s taste.
William closed the shop at 4pm. It was getting dark and he had sold just about all the meat he had cut for the day. Years of experience had given him the skill to know how much to cut, how much he would sell on each weekday, an how much he needed to sell to make a profit. So the evening chores began, for Oliver at least, scrubbing the block, sweeping the floor, wiping down the counters, while his Dad put away the remaining meat, and cleaned the bacon slicer which he still felt was a dangerous piece of equipment.
They locked up the shop and Oliver ran off to get an evening paper for his Dad to read, and to read out to everyone after dinner, which was going to be cottage pie as it was a Wednesday, his favourite. William had made some cuts of meat for Annie to mince through the grinder ready for Sarah to do the cooking with.
Oliver dawdled back to the house with the paper, the main news covering the Queen’s state of health and how she had deteriorated. He knew that the news he was really looking for, the South African war, would be inside but he knew better than to open it up before his Dad.
The household settled down after dinner, everyone full of cottage pie, Ethel and Alice sat in the corner comparing stitches, Alfie and George were upstairs fighting, probably, Annie had cleared up the pots and left, while Sarah took the chance to just sit back in front of the fire. Oliver had his Boys Own Paper to read through again until the end of the week when the new issue came out, and all seemed comfortable in the house.
“Things aren’t looking too good for the Queen” said William looking up from his paper.
“Oh no, please, no.” Sarah responded, her eyes welling up, Oliver noticed.
“Well, to be fair” carried on William, “she’s had a good run, and I have to say over the last twenty or so years she has led the country and things have changed for the better while she has been around. I think she will be always remembered for good things. Not sure about her relatives mind”.
“I know but it’s so sad, so very sad, how will we cope when she’s gone.”
“Mmm, well it comes to us all, and her time has come”. William appeared to draw a line under that part of the conversation.
Oliver waited a while as
his Dad read on, to himself, which was unusual as he had a habit of reading out loud great columns of news, not all exciting, and usually business related.
“Dad, is there any news from South Africa today?”
“If I can get past all these tributes and dedications to a dying woman, I’ll read it” he said, not really gruffly but Oliver got the message.
Ten minutes later he turned the page to which Oliver knew would be the war news.
“Those Boers are buggers. We need to sort ourselves out and find a new way of fighting these blokes, they are giving us the run around. Gorilla warfare they call it, whatever that means, maybe they’ve got some of them helping out. We are sending more and more men out there”
“I wish I could go” Oliver let it slip, knowing immediately that he should have held his tongue.
“You are way too young Oliver, and you know it”. His mother had suddenly leapt out of her slumber. “Don’t even think about it.”
“But Freddie Morgan has joined up, and he’s only sixteen”. Oliver again knew he should have kept quiet.
“Yes, well those recruitment men are willing to turn a blind eye when it suits them, and not only that, Freddie’s family aren’t exactly ones to object, they were probably glad to get rid of him”. Sarah knew she was going to have to keep her cool.
“Your mother’s right Ollie, I know you are a strapping lad now, and could fool them from looking at you. But just listen to her, you wont be going, now, and most likely not when you are eighteen either if I have anything to do with it.”
“It’s Oliver”, Sarah remind him.
“So you had better get the idea out of your head right now. Anyway I need you here and you have a secure future in the family business. If you behave!”.
Oliver was suitably chastised, and a little red faced about his father’s reaction. They generally had a good relationship, mainly because Oliver knew how to stay in his good books most of the time, and he was always careful to do that.
So, with his tail between his legs a little, Oliver went back to his Boys Own Paper and read stories of daring and adventure, mainly on the African continent.
After a while, William got up and put his coat on.
“RIght, I’m off to the pub for a few pints and to see what the gossip is today”, and at that he left his family, all pondering the day’s news, the Queen mainly.
And so, the evening passed, Oliver engrossed in his Boys Own, the girls sewing, the boys fighting, and Sarah sat close to the fire, gazing at the flames and wondering about the Queen and the future.
Eight o’clock came along, the girls had got tired and went up to their room, the boys were quiet, presumably asleep, and Oliver was ready to go up too. Then the door opened and his Dad strode in, about an hour earlier than usual.
“The gossip is that the Queen is dead”, he announced, gruffly.
Sarah froze and tears rolled down her cheeks. Oliver didn’t know what to think.
“Go and bring the girls down, and the boys too, I suppose” he said to Oliver, who as usual did as he was told.
When everyone was back in the room, William took a deep breath.
“It seems the Queen has died this evening. I am thinking that it is the truth as it’s not the sort of rumour that anyone would want to spread, I heard that the Gazette have heard and once they have this sort of news, it’s going to spread like wild wildfire, which it has”.
The family became very solemn, and Sarah and the girls hugged each other. Even Alfie and George were quiet, sensing that something serious was going on and that silence was the best option. Oliver did the same, sat in the corner.
William carried on. “Now I can’t see that this will affect us directly, but we must show our respect to all of our customers, both in the shop and in the streets. No doubt it will all be in the paper tomorrow and everything will slow down for a few days.”
“What will happen about the war” Oliver chipped in, bravely.
William glared at him, not responding.
As William predicted, the town was full of gloom for the next few days, with the papers giving all the details of the Queen’s death, pronouncements from all the important people in the country and the town, and eventually details of the funeral arrangements and how the town itself would pay its own tributes and respects.
Oliver carried on as usual with his chores, waiting for Sunday and his day off when he would be seeing his pals and going to watch and play some football. He also knew that an army recruitment office was coming to the town this Sunday and he had it in his mind to call in and see what happened in there.
The unformed soldier at the door eyed Oliver warily, then smiled at him.
“Alright lad ?” he said.
“Yes, ta” Oliver replied, trying to avoid the man’s gaze.
“Strapping young man you look to me, looking for some adventure ? Go on in and have a look, there’s stuff in there that will interest you.”
Oliver hesitated, suddenly afraid that if he went in he would never come out, other than in a uniform and on his way to South Africa. He thought about going home to ask his Dad if it was alright just to go in and have look but he knew what the reaction would be, and his mother would certainly have a go at him too.
“Go on in”, the soldier said, in a gentle but firm way. ‘We need young men like you out there to show ‘em what’s what, and with the passing of Her Majesty, God rest her soul, you’ll be there for King and country. Go on, no ‘arm in having a look is there, settle your curiosity if nowt else.”
One thought flashed through Oliver’s mind, “He thinks I’m eighteen!”.
Emboldened by this a little, Oliver stuck his chest out and went in. The hall was busy, full of soldiers and would be soldiers milling round photographs of victorious men, always winning and smiling, and samples of uniform, kit, and guns and rifles. Oliver wandered round, fascinated by everything he saw, relating it all to the stories he had read in his Boys Own and what the newspapers had been reporting.
He was engrossed in some photographs when he felt an arm around his shoulder. He jumped slightly and turned to see that it was the soldier who had spoken to him at the door.
“Look at those brave young men” he whispered into Oliver’s ear. “Fighting for Queen, sorry, King and country, against those who would try to the away our rightful lands.”
Oliver smiled, and wasn’t quite sure about what the soldier had been saying, but he did agree, to himself, that they did look brave, and were obviously great pals with each other. He picked up some of the pamphlets that were lying on the table next to the photographs.
“‘Ave a good read of them and see what you think” that voice said in his ear.
“What would I have to do next” asked Oliver, wishing he hadn’t.
“I’ve got some forms for you to fill in, you can write can’t you ?” The soldier suddenly became formal.
“Of course” Oliver responded briskly.
“After that you’ll need a medical which I can arrange for you in a few days, you look a fine specimen to me so I don’t think that will be a problem”. The soldier became friendly once more. “We only need you for a year, two if you want to, and you’ll be back home before you know it, and a wiser young man than before you left. And you’ll be with all your pals, we keep all the local lads together.”
Oliver felt a little nervous now, and thought he was being cornered.
“I’ll go and read this stuff and see you later then”
The soldier became stern again, perhaps getting suspicious about Oliver’s age. “We’re open here till nine o’clock tonight” he blurted and, much to Oliver’s relief, turned his attention to another hopeful.
Sunday roast dinner was always at the same time and Oliver knew he couldn’t be late so he ran back through the streets from the hall where the recruitment office was held, and got back home with a few minutes to spare. The smell of roast beef filled the house and everyone was gathering round the table, full of anticipation.
Sarah had been preparing the dinner for most of the morning, supervising Annie who did the peas, cabbage and potatoes while Sarah attended to the meat. Everything had to be ready at the same time, but Sarah had done this so many times now that she didn’t have to think about it too much, just keeping an eye on Annie.
The pamphlets and leaflets that Oliver had got were inside his jacket pocket but sticking out a little, and were noticed immediately by William, who said nothing.
The dinner carried on as usual with a mixture of street and neighbourly gossip, the death of the Queen, the cold weather, but nothing at all about South Africa. Oliver was getting nervous, waiting for the subject to come up and wondering if his Dad was aware of his visit to the recruitment office. But how could he know, thought Oliver. He hadn’t realised that the pamphlet was still sticking out of his inside pocket.
The meal was finished and Sarah called to Annie, who had been eating her dinner in the back of the kitchen as usual, to start clearing up the plates. Sarah and the girls helped out with this, but it was poor Annie who would be doing all the washing.
“So, why have you been up to today, young man” William suddenly blurted out. Oliver froze.
“Oh nothing different than other Sundays, went down to the field, played some football, but it’s really cold out there today so I was glad to get back home”.
“I heard that there was an army recruitment office in the town today”. Oliver froze even more, if that was possible. He knew what was coming.
“Yes so I heard too, some of the older boys in our gang said they were going to go and have a look, and a couple of them even said that they were going to try and join up and they are only seventeen”. He hoped that would put his Dad off the scent.
“They are too keen to take young lads for my liking” William said. “The way the war is going out there it will get very unpleasant. No young lads should even think of joining up especially the underage ones.”
To Oliver’s surprise and relief, that seemed to be the end of the conversation. William had sat down in front of the fire and was reading his paper.
“Is it alright if I go upstairs to read now” asked Oliver. He was being as polite as he could be, but had his fingers crossed.
“Course it is lad, but don’t get too cold up there”.
Oliver closed the parlour door behind him and glanced at himself in the hallway mirror. He saw the pamphlet edging its way out of his jacket. Maybe he did love his Dad.
Monday was a busy day. As Sunday was a day off, there was always some catch up in preparing the cuts and William was working at a fast pace, although his mind seemed to be elsewhere, in Oliver’s view at least.
“Everything alright Dad ?” Oliver asked eventually and nervously.
“I’m fine Ollie. I just keep thinking about those lads being serious about joining up. It’s not right that the army gets away with it. I know you are a couple of years too young, but just know that I would do everything to stop you if you tried to follow your pals. And just think how that would affect your mother too.”
“They are not really my pals Dad, just some boys who hang around when we are playing football, they are a bit rough to be honest.”
Oliver had conflicting thoughts and emotions. He so wanted to be a man, and joining up seemed to him at this time of his life was an opportunity to demonstrate his manliness. He sometimes got ribbed for ‘working in a shop’ and he needed to prove that he could do more. But on the other hand, things weren’t that bad really; he had a comfortable home life, better than most and a mother and father who looked after him and his siblings above everything else.
Suddenly, there was a scream. It was so loud Oliver jumped up, startled from what he was doing. He turned round to see his father grimacing in pain. There was blood on the block but he couldn’t decide whether this was from the meat his Dad had been cutting or from his Dad’s left hand which now seemed to be without two fingers. Oliver felt sick.
“Quick, get some cloth and get my hand covered up. Get your mother” William shouted, trying not to scream although the pain was increasing. Fortunately there were no customers in the shop.
Oliver did what he could to strap his Dad’s hand, not brilliantly but adequately, and then ran to get his mother, who nearly passed out with the news.
“Right, right, Oliver” she said, when they got back to the shop. William could hardly stand and was feeling faint, overcome with shock. “Help me get your Dad into the house, shut the shop door and put a sign up saying closed for half an hour.”
That seemed very optimistic to Oliver.
They helped William stagger back to the house and sat him down in front of the fire. Oliver wrote out the notice and ran back to shut the shop and hang up the sign, and came back in to the house. Annie was washing William’s hand and arm to clean up the blood mess and Sarah was pacing up and down trying to work out what to do.
“Right Oliver, we need to get him to the infirmary as quick as we can. Annie go and see if you can get one or both of the girls back from the dress shop, we’ll need help here today”
Fortunately the Infirmary wasn’t too far away, within walking distance under normal circumstances. Sarah was torn about what to do, she needed to be with William but at the same time the shop needed attending to, there was meat to be sold, the place cleaned and cuts needed for tomorrow. William had a brother who was also a butcher just a few streets away. They didn’t always get on as brothers, but surely he would help out today, so she sent Oliver off to give him the news and ask if he could give some assistance.
They got William to the infirmary with the help of a neighbour and Sarah stayed while Oliver ran off to see William’s brother, who was sympathetic in a grumpy sort of way, no doubt sensing an opportunity.
“Alright, get back to the shop and I’ll come round later to see what’s what, there’s going to be work for you now young ’un”.
And come round he did, telling Oliver to do this, do that, clean this, make sure you do that, don’t do that whatever you do, whilst his older sister Ethel served the customers and handled the money, much to Oliver’s annoyance. He still felt that he would always be the butchers boy.
William and Sarah came back from the infirmary several hours later, William wearing the biggest bandage that Oliver had ever seen.
“Right, Oliver” William said eventually, “I think now is the time for you to learn your trade, I am going to be out of action for some time and I can’t depend on my brother every day so it’s down to you now.”
Oliver was in a quandary with all these events. His future suddenly now seemed on a set course and his fantasies of adventure and an army life were at an end. He couldn’t decide whether he was happy or sad at his situation now, all choices were not his anymore and his immediate destiny was that of a butcher’s apprentice.
He still loved his Dad, though.