Monday, February 9, 2015

Novel Profile-Raising: A Weaver’s Web by Chris Pearce


Chris Pearce was born in Surrey, UK in 1952, and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He has qualifications in economics, management/marketing and writing/editing. He worked as a public servant (federal and state) for 25 years and in the commercial world for 12.5 years. His inspiration for writing A Weaver’s Web was a postgraduate creative writing course he topped from 30 students in the mid 1990s. After unsuccessfully targeting many literary agents, including one who compared his manuscript to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he decided to publish it as an ebook.

He also has a non-fiction book (print only), Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway, which he plans to publish as an ebook later in 2014. He is writing a book on the history of daylight saving time around the world and has some notes towards a novel set 80 years into the future. His other hobbies include family history and tenpin bowling. Chris and his wife live in Brisbane, Australia.

Book Brief Reviews


“It is a heartbreaking story of love, loss, acceptance and growth.”
“It is beautifully written and crafted into an immediate classic.”
“… This book is pure delight from start to finish.”
“A mesmerizing novel of the struggle between the individual and the Industrial Revolution”
 “… This will be my favorite (best) read of the year!”
“His writing style is of very high quality, not unlike a modern day Charles Dickens…”
“… it was almost like a Mancunian Grapes of Wrath, but with the poor family finding its wealth.” (UK literary agent)
“– … watching the drama of this fascinating family unfold could be likened to the writing of Fitzgerald or John Dos Passos, compelling and brutally sincere.”

INTERVIEW SPOT


D.O: Hi Daddy Chris, welcome to Novel Profile-Raising on Authors’ Curtilage with Darmie Orem.

C.P: Thank you for having me beautiful lady.
D.O: Aren’t you going to ask why I called daddy Chris.
C.P: I wondered why, but I didn’t want to be forward by asking you quickly.
D.O: Anyway, you’re my sweet Papa’s age mate, that’s why [SMILES]
C.P: Oh, I’m honored Darmie. Thank you.
D.O: You are welcome. All right then. Tell us when did you know you wanted to become a writer?
C.P: It was from a fairly young age. In grade 1, I would sit at my desk writing words and numbers when the other kids sat on the floor listening to the teacher telling a story. In grade 2, I would write a few pages on the holidays or whatever when we were only supposed to write a few sentences. I started but didn’t finish about four novels between the ages of about 11 and 14. I said to Mum I wanted to be an author. She said I needed to get a proper job. I ended up in accountancy, same as Dad, and lasted four years. I’ve been lucky though. Most of my jobs and university studies involved a lot of research and writing.

D.O: Mmm. That’s quite early. Anyway, for most creative persons they start early with different types of conventional characters. Tell us Chris, what are the various crafts you've studied before you came into the entertainment industry or do you just possess some natural tendencies to write stories?
 C.P: I started off studying accountancy part-time but later went to university and studied economics. Later still, I studied management and marketing, and later again, writing. I came top in a postgraduate creative writing class of about 30 students. By then, I had researched and written a non-fiction book on an early nineteenth century Australian convict, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway. I then wrote a historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, set in early industrial Manchester, UK, which is where Pamphlett grew up. I felt I had a suitable background in history, economics, and researching and writing in general to write the novel and have been very pleased to get a number of five-star reviews. One reviewer gave it their read of the year.

D.O: Mmm. It’s helpful when a writer have some knowledge in creative writing before dabbling into writing of any kind. In your case you have handful of knowledge. You’ve done very well for yourself.
C.P: Thank you Darmie.
D.O: What are the steps you took to develop your book from a rough draft into a published novel?
 C.P: A Weaver’s Web evolved out of a lot of research into what life was like in early nineteenth century Manchester. What is now chapter six was initially chapter 1. Getting to a first draft involved going back and forth a number of times before I had a story that more or less held together. I then went through the novel about ten times. Some chapters and parts of other chapters were almost rewritten. With each pass, the novel evolved into a better story with the various parts hanging together more convincingly. By the seventh and eighth passes, the editing was getting lighter. The last couple of passes were mainly proofreading. Also, I sent a fairly advanced draft to a professional appraiser and got some useful feedback which I incorporated into the novel.

D.O: What did you do differently in your book to make readers feel fear, concern, sadness, love and laughter?
C.P: My aim was always to write a novel that was as close as possible to how life really was in the early industrial revolution period in northern England. I wanted to make the book as realistic as possible. The upheaval, poverty and misery caused by the revolution meant that an array of emotions in the book came out quite naturally. There are evictions, escapes, rescues, bribery, trickery, society parties, a fire, moving house, flooding, runaways, a road accident, floggings, torture, daring thefts and robberies, kidnapping, births, a court case, a wedding, rowdy labour meetings, asylum and jail life, a near-death experience, missing children, a cricket match, and plenty of tension between the various characters. There are light-hearted moments too.
 D.O: That’s enough weavers to make a book intriguing. Quickly tell us the subject matter of your book.
 C.P: A Weaver’s Web is about a handloom weaver, Henry Wakefield, and his family who live in abject poverty in the village of Middleton just to the north of Manchester. The new factories are taking work away from the weavers and other workers at home. Henry hates the factories and argues with a factory agent, a priest, reformers and his wife. The family has to move and, through the efforts of Henry, becomes quite rich. But this results in even worse problems for the family. The book explores family life, living and working conditions, poverty and wealth, social change and upheaval, the challenge to the Establishment, the early labour movement, the factory system, opportunities, illness including mental illness, physical disability, child birth, death, romance, orphans, religion, crime, punishment, gambling, prostitution, transport and more.
D.O: Mmm. What town or city does your book story portray and what is the feeling we have in this dwelling place?
 C.P: The book portrays Middleton and Manchester in the 1810s and 1820s. The slow, peaceful and relatively happy life in both village and city is being challenged by the new factory system that sprang up due to a series of inventions that meant manufacture of cotton goods could be done more efficiently in large mills than in homes. People everywhere were being forced to move from the countryside and villages to towns and cities. Manchester was a shocking place to live at that time, full of poverty and disease. Mill owners did what they liked, paying people a pittance and polluting the air and waterways. Poorly built terrace housing was built wherever developers chose to build it. Education was put on hold as children worked long hours for low pay in factories and workshops.

D.O: Mmm. That’s touching. Amongst other intriguing elements this book carry, there is also deep greed in it. What does the lead character of your book want most in the world?
 C.P: Henry Wakefield wants the best for his family. In his view, this means keeping them out of factories. But this is where the work is and they live in abject poverty. Henry was always interested in money and we saw this in the first chapter where he accepted a shilling from a factory agent so that the man could shelter from the rain in Henry’s house. Later, when the family is well-off, making more and more money seems to become an obsession with Henry and he convinces himself and tries to convince his family that this is what is best for the family, even though it has devastating effects on several family members.

D.O: Mmm. Henry has quite an obsession. How do you think your book will influence readers’ growth positively?
C.P: I think my book will help put into perspective the choices people might have if they become financially or otherwise well off. The story shows clearly that becoming wealthy doesn’t in itself mean happiness. Pursue betterment by all means but don’t become obsessed to the extent that you do the wrong thing, consciously or not, to those nearest to you. Sometimes, it might be better to try and achieve slightly less and maintain a healthy, happy life.

D.O: Mmm. That’s a healthy influence Chris. Good job
C.P: Thank you Darmie.
D.O: Any hint about your next book?
 C.P: I have some notes and thoughts towards a novel set about eighty years into the future. I am currently researching and writing a non-fiction book on the history of daylight saving time around the world. I am finding some amazing stories about this most controversial of topics. I have recently released an ebook version of my book on Australian convict Thomas Pamphlett, which had only been available in print. I might write a sequel to A Weaver’s Web sometime.

D.O: Okay. Whatever, you do Chris, may you have overflowing creativity, fame and success.
C.P: Thank you so much Darmie.
D.O: What better effort do you suggest writers input into their writing to have great sales in the ever-changing economics of the entertainment industry?
 C.P: I think it’s important to go for quality. There is an enormous number of ebooks being published these days and if you don’t have a really good book with great characters and a decent storyline, and if you don’t edit and proofread until you are satisfied you have done your very best, your sales are likely to be virtually nil. This might be the case anyway. It’s a tough market. I probably spent as much time editing and proofreading as I did researching and writing. I think it’s better to produce one really good book in a year or two rather than half a dozen quickly written efforts with little depth or evidence of editing and proofreading. I don’t think there are any magic answers to get good sales with ebooks. It’s probably more a case of getting you and your work well known through social media, taking advantage of any promotional opportunities, and seeking reviews. Initially, I would still try maybe twenty or so literary agents. You never know just what they are going to be passionate about and take on.
D.O: That’s a great advice from Chris Peace to all fresh writers out there. Thanks for by my blog. I wish you all the best.
C.P: Thank you too Darmie. May you have success in all your endeavors.
D.O: Happy reading readers. Enjoy!!
A Weaver's Web
by
Chris Peace
CHAPTER ONE

A weaver sat in his workshop weaving yarn into cloth on a handloom when he heard hoofs clip-clopping in the distance. He looked up and saw a buggy approaching from Manchester way. At first he took little notice, hunching his shoulders against the cold and moving his fingers back and forth hurriedly across the loom to stop them going numb. Attached to the breast beam was a book he struggled to read in the poor light, the window behind him being small and dirty and facing north. Sometimes he had a candle to work by, but this week he couldn’t afford one.
Every so often he rested his eyes and refocused them by looking out the doorway. He watched the autumn leaves fall on the lush green grass, still wet from dew and now shimmering under a weak sun. Through mist and between low trees and bushes across the laneway, he could see the dim outlines of scores of drab cottages dotted over the valley, most of them home to other weavers and their families. Smoke poured from chimneys and hung in the air, above the mist. He listened to the birds and the cows and pigs. And he heard the faint clanking of metal from workshops in nearby Middleton.
As the buggy got closer, the sound of the hoofs overpowered other noises. The weaver strained his eyes but didn’t recognise the driver, a large man in a top hat, or the passenger, a young boy.
They pulled up right outside his cottage. He stopped weaving and watched, wondering who they were and what they wanted. He had paid his taxes and was almost up to date with his rent. If it was one of those vendors of newfangled medicines, he had no money anyway. Was it a merchant, wanting to sell him yarn or buy his cloth? Or perhaps they were travelers in need of directions. Whoever they were, they were strangers, not to be trusted. He knew that much.
He got off his stool, stretched his limbs after hours of sitting and went to the doorway for a better look. The weaver stared at the man, in a smart suit, as he rummaged through a bag and took out some papers and perused them before putting them back. He nodded to his offsider, a slip of a lad, who leapt from the buggy and tied the horse to a tree. The man got out and straightened his clothing and brushed himself down as if preparing for an important appointment. Leaving the boy to tend the horse, he took his bag and headed towards the weaver’s cottage and workshop, picking his way along a rough path through the grass. Children playing on the banks of a nearby stream stopped and gazed at him.
The weaver emerged from his workshop and stood in front of it. Thin and of average height, he held his mouth firm. His hazel eyes darkened. A deep furrow extending from the top of his nose to midway up his forehead belied his thirty-seven years. His thick crop of brown wavy hair stuck out at the sides, and fell down over the back of the upturned collar of his jacket. He hitched up his threadbare trousers to reveal well-worn boots. He dug his heels into the ground and put hands on hips, not taking his eyes off the man for a moment. As a child, he would go a week or more without seeing anyone he didn’t know. Lately though, many strangers were infiltrating the area. He didn’t think much of the new arrivals with their funny accents who came from all over the country, and from Ireland, seeking work in the cotton factories.
‘Hey, just a minute,’ the weaver called out when the man was some twenty paces away. ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Each word rode on a cloud of carbon dioxide.
‘Hello, my good man. No need to be afraid,’ the stranger said, puffing from his walk up the hill. ‘The name’s Crowther, Daniel Crowther.’
‘Never heard of you. What’s in your bag? Pills and powders?’
‘No, nothing like that.’
‘Are you a merchant? Have you got work for me?’
‘I have, in a sense. But no, I’m not a merchant.’
‘Then why are you here?’
‘To make you an offer,’ the man said with a sly smile. He edged closer.
‘An offer? Of stolen goods, I suppose.’
‘Not at all. I’m an agent for Frederick Manning’s cotton mill in Manchester. Business is booming and I’m recruiting suitable families to start work there. I believe ...’
‘I’m a handloom weaver.’ He stood with legs apart, arms folded, as if defending his workshop, his calling, his lifestyle.
The agent persisted. ‘You won’t have to work in a factory yourself. We can set you up in an apartment as a weaver ...’
‘In a cellar, you mean. I’ve seen them.’
‘... and you’d be guaranteed a good supply of work. The mill would employ your wife and older children.’ He kept coming forward.
The weaver’s eyes widened. ‘How do you know my family?’
‘Don’t get upset, Mr ... er, Mr Wake ...’
‘Henry Wakefield, weaver,’ he said, emphasising the last word. ‘And how on earth do you know me?’
‘Let me explain, Mr Wakefield. I recently took over from Mr Tibbet, the previous agent. He kept records of the families he called on, and passed them on to me. He visited you, I understand, a few months ago.’
The weaver scratched his chin. ‘He did. And the answer’s the same now as it was then.’
‘But how much longer do you think you can survive like this? This is 1816. Times have changed.’ The agent crept ever closer.
‘We’ll get through. My father was a weaver, and so was his father, and his father before that. Things will improve.’
‘Don’t be so sure, Mr Wakefield. Your father would’ve earnt up to sixty shillings a week in 1790. Nowadays, I bet you struggle to make more than six.’
‘I do better than that, sometimes.’
The agent now stood just a few feet from Henry, in front of his workshop. A low wooden structure, its crooked walls patched here and there, it looked as if it had fought many battles against the elements and somehow kept narrowly winning, but not without the support of the weaver’s cottage to which it was attached. Towards the back of his acre and a half, a privy clung to the hillside. Trees were few, mainly near the perimeter. A vegetable patch, well away from the privy, produced potatoes and the odd carrot. In better times he had kept pigs and a cow.
The light got worse and thunder rumbled in the distance. Henry glared at the man. His breathing quickened. ‘The confounded factory system, it’ll ruin us all if it’s not stopped.’
‘It’s led to prosperity for those of us who have chosen to take advantage of it, Mr Wakefield.’
Henry trembled, the veins in his neck sticking out. ‘Young children taken from their mothers to work all day in a factory. No education. Starving families living in filthy dungeons. Sickness and crime. You call that prosperity?’
‘Many of the children go to Sunday school and some attend school at night too.’
‘And fall asleep at their desks, and at work too.’
‘So I take it you’re not interested in my offer, Mr Wakefield?’
He curled his nose up at the stranger. ‘I hope your factory and all others burn to the ground and the machines destroyed. Then everyone can work from home again, as it should be.’
‘The mills won’t go away. They’re far superior. Tell me, did your wife once spin from home?
‘A long time ago.’
‘That’s because factories now do it quicker, better and cheaper with their big machines.’
‘It won’t happen to weaving.’ Henry looked across the valley, beyond all the little cottages, to the horizon. ‘There are thousands of us.’
‘It surely will. A man on a power loom in a mill can churn out far more cloth than you can, for the same price,’ the agent said loudly and confidently, like an orator. ‘Why do you think your earnings have fallen so much?’
‘Weavers get plenty of work and we’ll keep going. I’m teaching my sons to weave. Look, they use this second loom in here.’ He beckoned the agent into his workshop.
Inside was now quite dark. After his eyes adjusted, the agent saw Henry’s loom opposite the doorway and a second, smaller loom squashed in the corner. The agent noticed the book pinned to the breast beam of Henry’s loom. He unclipped it and held it up close, squinting as he read the title. ‘On The Working And Social Conditions Of The Poor Handloom Weavers Of Manchester And Surrounding Areas. Sounds rather negative.’
‘It’s not mine. I borrowed it from a friend.’
‘A Luddite friend? I knew of two men hanged for burning down a factory with power looms.’
Henry felt a lump in his throat, swallowed, and looked hard at the agent. ‘I’m not a Luddite, I’ll have you know.’
‘Perhaps it’s from a friend at your local Hampden Club.’
‘It’s mainly the spinners who go to the Hampden meetings. They’re fighting for better conditions.’
‘They’ve never had it so good. You should read a book I borrowed from the Manchester circulating library last month, The Contribution Of The Factory System To The Wealth Of England.’
‘Wealth of the cotton barons, you mean. What a load of ...’
They were interrupted by footsteps rustling through the leaves outside the workshop. A woman’s voice called out: ‘Henry, dinner.’
‘If you’ll excuse me,’ Henry said bluntly.
The agent smiled. ‘Mr Wakefield, I won’t keep you. Think about my offer. Talk to your family. I’m sure they’ll be keen. I’ll drop by next week.’
‘We’re not moving. I’ve lived in Middleton all my life. And my friends and relatives live close by.’
The same voice called again. ‘Henry, your potatoes are ready.’
They looked up to see the voice’s owner standing in the doorway.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t realise.’
‘Quite all right, Ma’am.’ The agent nodded. ‘Crowther, Daniel Crowther, agent for Mr Manning’s mill in Manchester.’
‘Sarah Wakefield,’ she said with a shy smile. ‘Henry’s wife.’ She curtsied apologetically. A short, slightly built woman in her mid thirties, Sarah wore a tatty brown apron over a long, crumpled cream-coloured dress. Her fair hair was pulled back off her face and ears, and pinned at the back of her head. Pale skin and grey-blue eyes gave her a drawn appearance. She held her hands at her front and stood there, waiting for one of the men to speak to her before she said or did anything else.
The breeze freshened as light rain fell.
The agent smiled at her. ‘Just potatoes, eh, Mrs Wakefield? In Manchester, you’d have them with bacon or mutton, and bread and treacle too.’
‘Mmm, that’d be nice,’ she said.
‘Be quiet, Sarah. He’s trying to deceive us into going to Manchester and working in a factory,’ Henry said.
Sarah peered at the sky and put her hands and arms over her head and face to protect them from the rain, now getting heavier. She wished Henry would excuse her so she could go back inside.
‘Blast. This rain’s a nuisance,’ the agent said. ‘I’ll be soaked through.’
‘You can’t stay here,’ Henry said. ‘We’ve hardly enough food for ourselves.’
Sarah inched her way into the workshop, without invitation. ‘I always make extra in case someone calls.’ She hadn’t really. But she never wanted anyone to go without, even if it meant less for the family.
‘Sarah, if there’s any over, we should save it for supper,’ Henry said, scowling at her. He wanted to be rid of this slick salesman, not encourage him to stay.
‘Please, I can’t very well go off in this weather. Here, I’ll give you a shilling, Mr Wakefield, if you’ll allow me a small portion, and some shelter till the rain passes.’
Henry took the shilling and examined it, turning it over to study the other side. It was real money, equal to what he earnt in a day, working from dawn to dusk. ‘A shilling? For a ha’penny’s worth of potato? You’re trying to trick me. I bet you give a shilling to every weaver you call on.’
‘No trick,’ the agent said, looking out at the rain. ‘Here, I’ll give you sixpence instead, or threepence.’ He put his hand in his trouser pocket and jingled several coins.
‘Er ... a shilling’s fine, Mr Crowther,’ Henry said before the agent had time to find a smaller coin. He closed his fist around it.
‘I thought you’d say that.’
‘Follow me.’
Henry led them to the cottage that had been his home since the day he and Sarah married, its gabled timber and plaster walls having withstood countless downpours and gales over a much longer period. They did their best to avoid the rainwater now trickling and bouncing off the roof onto the ground. Two little windows on either side of the front door had lost several panes of glass, the cavities boarded up with wood. The door hung precariously on rusted hinges. Cloth was stuffed in the hole where a doorknob had once been. The latch too had gone.
‘Mr Crowther, what about your assistant?’ Sarah said, seeing the young boy sitting in the buggy, doing his best to cover himself with a small tarpaulin normally used for his master’s bag.
‘He’s only an orphan, Mrs Wakefield,’ the agent said.
‘Would he like some potato though?’
‘He doesn’t eat in the middle of the day.’
With his foot, Henry pushed aside a large stone used to hold the door shut. He opened it, outwards, and moved away another stone, on the inside. ‘After you.’ He waved the agent in. ‘Take care. The floor can be slippery in this weather.’
‘Thank you,’ the agent said, taking off his hat and stooping to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe. He lifted his foot, anticipating a step, but there was none. His foot came down awkwardly and he nearly fell. He saw the floor and the ground were at the same level.
When the agent had recovered his balance and all three were inside, Sarah put both stones back in position so the door wouldn’t blow in and out with the wind.
In a sparsely furnished room, five children sat on benches at a rough table. Unaware their parents were accompanied, they didn’t look up but kept talking. A bowl and spoon had been put in front of each child. Other crockery and a handful of treasured oddments adorned an open cupboard and some shelving and a mantelpiece. Next to the window was a rickety armchair, the only sign of comfort or luxury. At the back of the room were a fire for cooking and warmth, a coal box, several pots and a kettle, and a workbench for preparing food. In the corner was a large portable basin for washing. Frayed matting covered most of the earthen floor. The room was dark, but at least the low ceiling kept it warm in winter. Along the left wall was a doorway to the bedroom.
‘Quiet, children,’ Henry said. ‘We have a guest for dinner. This is Mr Crowther, from Manchester.’
They stopped talking, and stared at the stranger, not moving any part of their bodies, like statues. Henry had taught them to be wary of people they didn’t know.
‘Hello, children.’ The agent beamed at the wide-eyed young faces looking at him.
Sarah put the pot of potatoes back on the hearth.
Still clutching his shilling like a prized possession, Henry was keen to show the agent a family of well-mannered children who benefited from kind but firm parental guidance rather than harsh factory discipline. ‘This is Albert, my eldest.’
‘I’m eleven and a half,’ Albert boasted, straightening his back and lifting his shoulders to try and appear bigger and stronger than he actually was. This caused his jacket and shirt Sarah made him last winter to nearly burst at the seams.
‘This is Benjamin,’ Henry continued.
‘Good day, Sir,’ Benjamin said, looking down, slumped on his bench. His ragged garments were hand-me-downs from his older brother.
‘He’s the naughty one,’ Albert said, making the younger children laugh.
‘That’s enough, Albert,’ Henry said.
‘Children, where are your manners?’ Sarah called out, giving the potato one last stir.
‘And how old are you, Benjamin?’ the agent asked.
‘Nine, Sir.’
The agent grinned.
‘I know what you’re thinking, Crowther,’ Henry said. ‘Two children old enough to work in your rotten factory.’
‘What factory?’ Albert said. He had been keen to work at one of the local Middleton mills. Several of his friends worked in these places and often had money to spend on market days, not declaring their full wage to their fathers, but keeping a few pennies for themselves. ‘Dad, what factory?’
‘No factory. Be quiet.’ Henry resumed his introductions. ‘This is Emily.’
‘She’s naughty too,’ said Emily’s younger brother, Thomas, copying Albert. This brought laughter from all the children, except Emily.
‘I am not,’ Emily said. ‘And this is Thomas, the cheeky one,’ she added as Henry was about to announce the name of his third son.
Thomas grinned. His hand-me-downs were in a worse state than Benjamin’s, worn previously by both his older brothers. ‘I’m six,’ he said proudly.
‘That will do, Emily, Thomas,’ Henry said. ‘And this is Catherine ...’
Again Henry was cut off, this time by Benjamin, overcoming his shyness. ‘The dumb one.’ That produced more laughter, including from Catherine who at three was too young to always understand what was said and tended to laugh when the others laughed, even when the joke was about her.
‘Children, no more noise. Just show Mr Crowther how good you can be,’ Henry said, at last putting his shilling in his jacket pocket.
‘Yes, please don’t listen to them, Mr Crowther,’ Sarah said, bringing the pot of potato to the table. ‘They’ve been rather naughty of late. Emily and Thomas, move up and let our guest sit down.’
Henry frowned at Sarah, but didn’t defend the children. They had been difficult for some time, much to Henry’s annoyance and despair. He sat down on his bench. Sarah ladled a watery helping of mashed potato into his bowl, then into the agent’s bowl and each child’s bowl. She served herself last. She had only partly filled her own bowl when the pot was empty, but she didn’t say anything, taking her seat next to Benjamin.
‘I have the very solution if children are bad, Mrs Wakefield.’
‘What’s that?’
‘Children misbehave because they’re bored. What they need is something to occupy them.’
‘They are occupied,’ Henry said. ‘They do jobs around the house and they help the neighbours. The older boys weave. They all play games, go for walks with Mrs Wakefield and pick wildflowers, and plants for our medicine, and they go to school, when I can afford the twopence a week for each child. Lately I’ve been teaching them to read and write myself.’
‘That’s right. Mr Wakefield went to school for several years, back in better times of course,’ Sarah said.
‘They might need something to keep them out of mischief all day every day,’ the agent said.
‘Yeah, send them to work in factories,’ Henry said. ‘Exhaust them. Make them ill. Cane them.’ He waved his arms about.
‘Not if they’re obedient,’ the agent said. ‘And it pays well.’
‘Yes, and if I did factory work too, we’d have lots of money,’ Sarah said.
‘Mrs Wakefield, you’d be paid eight shillings a week as a spinner.’
Henry didn’t respond but fiddled with his silver shilling. In his head, he added his own income to what Sarah would get in a factory. They could afford mutton, bacon, cheese. And he could go to an inn and have a few beers and play cards, like the old days.
‘Henry, aren’t you going to finish your potato?’ Sarah said.
There was no reaction.
‘Henry!’ she said louder.
‘What?’
‘Potato!’
He took another mouthful.
She turned to the children, who weren’t making much progress either. ‘Come on all of you, finish up.’
But like his father, Albert was thinking money, not potato. ‘What would I earn, Sir?’ he asked the agent.
‘A sturdy boy of eleven would get four shillings.’
  ‘What about me?’ Benjamin said.
‘You’d get three shillings.’
Henry sat quietly, doing mental arithmetic with the help of his fingers. As each amount was called out, he added it to his running total of what the family could earn.
‘What would I get?’ Emily said. She too knew the value of money, and thought she might be worth a couple of shillings.
‘How old are you, Emily?’
‘Eight.’
‘I’m afraid you’re a bit young. We don’t employ anyone under nine these days.’
‘That’s a lie,’ Henry said. ‘They employ them as young as five or six. I’ve seen them, right here in Middleton.’
‘It still happens, but not as much as in days gone by,’ the agent said, ‘and certainly not at Mr Manning’s mill.’
‘Of course not,’ Henry sneered.
Emily was undaunted by talk of children her age and younger working in factories. ‘I’m nine next birthday.’
‘A lot of girls your age stay home and look after their younger brothers and sisters,’ the agent said.
‘At eight?’ Henry said, eyebrows up. Emily had minded Thomas and Catherine but not for a whole day.
‘From eight or nine. It allows the mother to go to work,’ the agent explained.
‘Dad, if we had more money,’ Benjamin said, ‘we could eat more than just potatoes.’
‘That’s all we ever have,’ Thomas said.
 ‘That’s not true,’ Sarah said. ‘I bake a loaf on Sundays. And the carrots will be ready soon.’
 ‘How about bread every day, and bacon and cheese? And what about dumplings and treacle, little ones?’ Crowther said, trying to tempt them. If he couldn’t persuade Henry to accept his offer, he would surely convince the children. And they could sway their father later.
  Emily’s face lit up. ‘Dumplings and treacle.’ They were her favourite. ‘Yum. When can we go?’
‘That will do, Emily,’ Henry said. ‘No one’s going anywhere.’
‘Dad, there’s nothing to do here anymore,’ Albert said. ‘There’ll be plenty of things in Manchester.’
‘Albert, enough.’
‘Other families from here have gone to the city,’ Albert persisted.
‘The work, and the money, is in Manchester and the larger towns these days,’ the agent said. ‘And the food.’
‘Shut up ... all of you,’ Henry yelled.
Crowther and Sarah and the children glanced at each other. Henry looked at his empty bowl. Nobody spoke.
The rain got heavier, making a din on the slate roof. Water began seeping through the ceiling. Albert was supposed to fix the leak months ago, but hadn’t, so Benjamin got up and put the basin under it. Another leak started and Sarah fetched the bucket. Spray bounced out of both containers and onto the matting as the room got darker. Henry jumped up and paced around, then opened the front door and peered out at the weather. He hoped for an improvement so he could send this smooth-talking toff on his way. The shilling in his pocket was the only reason he hadn’t already thrown the man out in the rain.
With Emily’s help, Sarah cleared the table and wiped the bowls and spoons with a cloth. The other children, except Albert, sat on the floor and played with some wooden blocks Henry had made them, one of their few toys. On each block, he had carved a number, or a letter of the alphabet. Albert stayed at the table, head propped up by a fist on his cheek. The agent put his bag on his lap and opened it. Albert watched him as he sifted through his papers. He found the one he wanted and laid it out on the table. He took a pen and a pot of ink from his bag and wrote some words on it.
‘What’s that?’ Albert said.
‘It’s an agreement from Mr Manning to say your family can start work at his mill next month,’ the agent whispered to him. ‘I’m just filling in names and ages of everyone so I have the details before I forget them. I’ll leave it with you. All your father has to do is sign it.’
Albert’s eyes widened. ‘Then we can go to Manchester, can we? And go to the big market and the exhibitions, and watch the fights and the pigeon races, and ...’
‘You can indeed.’
‘Dad, Dad!’ Albert called. He leapt off his bench and headed for the front door where Henry stood looking out at the sky.
‘No, don’t ...’ the agent began. But it was too late.
‘What’s the matter?’ Henry spun around and grasped Albert by the upper arms as they almost collided.
‘All we have to do to go to Manchester is sign an agreement. It’s that easy. Mr Crowther’s got it all worked out.’
‘Has he now?’ Henry saw the piece of paper in front of the agent. ‘We’ll see about that.’ He marched across the room as the agent fumbled trying to get the document back in his bag and under other papers. ‘What’s the idea of trying to fool my son?’ he said, standing over the agent, hands on hips.
‘Mr Wakefield, please calm down. I ... All I was doing was ...’
‘Show it to me,’ Henry said, snatching at it.
‘What? They’re private notes that ...’
‘Show me!’ Henry shouted. He jostled with the agent, determined to take the document from him.
Sarah, still cleaning up in the kitchen, cupped the lower part of her face in her hands. She hoped Henry wasn’t going to be violent, the agent being younger and taller than him. ‘Be careful, Henry.’
But Henry was standing up and had the advantage. He pushed the agent hard. Sarah rushed over and got the children out the way. Hanging onto his open bag with both hands, the agent offered little resistance and fell backwards on the floor, knocking over his ink pot and Sarah’s bucket. Water, ink and papers went everywhere. Henry grabbed the one the agent had tried to hide.
‘What’s this?’ Henry said, running his eyes over it.
The agent sat dazed on the wet matting, surrounded by his records.
‘Why, you sneaky, rotten fraud,’ Henry said reading it. He turned to Sarah. ‘It’s a contract, already drawn up, committing us to work at this factory of Manning’s. Our names and children’s ages are here, just waiting for me to sign it. How nice.’ He held it up to Sarah who had herded her brood to the back of the room.
‘But Mr Wakefield, that’s the way we do it,’ the agent said, crawling about on hands and knees, gathering his papers and shaking water and ink off them. ‘It’s much easier. You’d be surprised how many men are happy to sign.’
Henry stood over him. ‘What commission do you get?’
‘That’s private.’
‘And how many shillings does it take to bribe these men?’
‘That’s also pri ... I-I mean no shillings. The only reason you got a shilling was so I could shelter from the rain.’ The agent got up and smoothed his clothes. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and patted his wet trousers and coat.
Rain or no rain, you’re going,’ Henry said. He tore the contract into small pieces and threw them into Crowther’s bag. The rain had eased but more thunder could be heard.
‘How about another shilling for you and your family, to put up with me until the rain stops?’ the agent pleaded. ‘My buggy offers no protection from the weather – the hood’s broken.’
Henry frowned, stroked his chin and put his hand to his mouth. He sighed as he looked at Sarah. He could hardly accept a second shilling after shoving the agent off the bench and tearing up his document. Besides, he would never be free of this sorcerer casting spells over his family. ‘Please leave,’ he said.
‘But I ...’
‘Now.’
‘Could I just ...’
‘This instant. And don’t come back.’
‘Please, Mr Wakefield. Be reasonable.’
‘Get out!’
‘Talk it over with Mrs Wakefield and your children.’
‘Out!’ Henry’s eyes bulged.
‘Very well, I’m going. You’ll change your mind though.’
‘Not on your life.’
‘What if I call back in a few weeks?’
‘I’ll set the traps, that’s what. Out! Now!’
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