Having spent the last seven months immersed in 19th century England and the loves and trials of my forebears, I emerged from the first edit to discover the kitchen is spattered in grease, everywhere needs vacuuming, the dog needs grooming, and the garden needs weeding. Now, I’m not saying I haven’t done anything but write over the winter, but standards have definitely slipped.
Hopefully, my baby is going out to beta readers this week while I tackle that most dreaded of tasks – no, no, not cleaning the oven – the blurb. How do you summarise 98,000 words into about 200 that are informative, intriguing, and yet don’t give away too much of the story? Here goes.
So what is the story? It opens in 1873 during a typhoid epidemic in the village of Maidford, Northamptonshire. Mary Ellen and Annie Underwood, daughters of the village schoolmistress, have grown up apart, each jealous of the other’s ‘better deal’ in life. There’s a deep antipathy between them which the epidemic, and their mother’s frantic efforts to ‘do the right thing’, does nothing to lessen.
Age sixteen, Annie falls in love with eighteen-year-old Edwin but their families follow different faiths, and their fathers’ religious prejudices forbid them to marry. Heartbroken, they part rather than be disowned, and Edwin falls for Mary Ellen, not realising she’s Annie’s estranged sister.
You can see this isn’t going to end well for at least one of them.
I’ve never read any of Catherine Cookson’s novels, but I watched The Cinder Path a few weeks ago and I felt a connection with it. I could see that Kindred and Affinity is a similar kind of story. Down to earth, ordinary people who fall in love only to be caught up in religious bigotry, and family feuds and grudges held onto through the generations. The sacrifices and tragedies, the illicit meetings, the joys and deceptions all play out. I could see Mary Ellen, Annie, and Edwin’s story alive on a screen in front of me. Who knows? Maybe, one day.
I never knew Mary Ellen and Edwin, my great grandparents, but as a small child, I did briefly know Annie Underwood, and I discovered the lengths she was prepared to go to for the man she loved. Not everyone would have had the courage to defy the laws of Kindred and Affinity as set out in the Book of Common Prayer when their family members were staunch in their faith.
Kindred and Affinity is a tale of a love lost, and a second chance of happiness that it was illegal to pursue in 1891. I hope to publish it late in April 2019 when it’s been polished until it shines. Remember the title. Kindred and Affinity – remember the cover. If you like a love story with twists and teeth, if you enjoy Catherine Cookson, you might enjoy Annie’s tale. I’m off to read some of Catherine’s stories; I might pick up valuable tips for the second edit. Oh, and I have the blurb to write while you read the sneak peek below…
Maidford, Northamptonshire 1873.
Elizabeth Underwood lifted her skirts clear of the puddle and stepped across the open drain that ran along the street. She squinted into the early morning sun that peeped over the row of ironstone cottages hunched beneath their thatch; their tiny windows, black and impenetrable, peered back repelling her curious and anxious eye. Clutching her pail in her hand, she hurried down the hill to fetch milk from Tom Fletcher, the dairyman at the bottom end of the village. At just over nine months, baby Samuel was hungrier than she could satisfy and had cried most of the night.
At least he was hungry and the sniffle probably only a cold or teething, but having ten surviving children over the last twenty-three years hadn’t erased the pain of loss of her first and second-born babies. She pushed the hurt away with an expert hand, but the guilt and worry lingered. There’d been deaths from smallpox, scarlet fever, and whooping cough in the surrounding villages, and the graveyard of Saints Peter and Paul attested to the frail mortality of Maidford children.
Pigs rooted outside their sties on the rectangle enclosed by the four lanes that made up the village centre. The smell of them mingled with that of manure heaps and the cesspits at the back of the cottages, and effluent from these and the butcher’s slaughterhouse found its way across the street and swelled the rainwater flowing in the drainage channel. She wrinkled her nose, eager to collect her milk and return home to the schoolhouse opposite the church at the more sanitary top end of the village.
Tom was milking the last of his Norfolk and Suffolk Red Polled cows. He was immensely proud of his herd and always gave them their full title though most folk called them Red Polled to differentiate them from the Dairy Shorthorns that had replaced the more dangerous Longhorns after Old Harry Linnell was killed by a rogue horn to his ample belly.
The smell of warm cows was comforting. She leant against the door post of the milking parlour to breathe it in. ‘Morning, Tom.’
‘Mornin’, missus. What can I be doing for you?’
She held out her bucket. ‘Half a pail of your finest, please Tom, for our Samuel.’
‘Give her here.’ Tom took the pail and placed it under his cow. ‘Come on, Rosie. The missus here could do with a bit o’ milk for her little’un.’ He stroked the cow’s teats rhythmically and squirts of blue-white liquid rang against the cream enamel. ‘I ain’t seen your Mary Ellen for a while. She’s not ailing, I hope?’
A tabby cat rubbed around her legs, and she bent to stroke it. ‘She’s living with my brother, Henry, and his wife, Harriet, in Adstone.’
‘Henry Bull, the carpenter as keeps The Wheatsheaf?’
‘The very same, Tom.’
The cat moved closer to the pail and licked its lips hopefully.
‘How old is young Mary, now?’
‘Twelve last April.’
‘Such a frail mite, I always thought. I swear I could blow her away like chaff from wheat.’
She smiled. ‘She’s tougher than she looks, Tom. And Harriet will look after her. And her brother William will watch over her, too.’
‘He still apprenticed to Henry?’
‘Yes, and he’s loving it. I hope to walk to Adstone at the weekend to visit with them.’
‘Remember me to them. I may go over myself one evening for a pint or two of ale.’ The cat put its paws on the edge of the pail, and Tom aimed one of Rosie’s teats towards it and squeezed. A squirt of milk sprayed across its face; it shook and licked its nose and dripping chin.
The rhythm of Tom’s gnarled fingers hypnotised her as the bucket filled, and her mind wandered to Mary Ellen, her second eldest daughter. She hadn’t been expected to see her first birthday, but God had answered her prayers for her daughter’s life despite her not having confessed her greatest sin.
Tom’s voice startled her from her sleep-deprived reverie. ‘Here you go, missus.’
‘Thank you, Tom. Thank you, Rosie.’ Her purchase made, she hurried up the lane, across Longwell into Church Lane, past the newly built redbrick school, and into the schoolhouse.
The kitchen was empty, her husband, Will’s, lunchbox gone. He’d be halfway to the ironstone quarry by now. During twenty-four years of fatherhood, he’d acquired the necessary habit of sleeping through crying babies she’d never managed as a mother, but she didn’t resent him that ability. He laboured hard to provide a decent living and was proud of their growing family and the fact she was educating them and the village children. They counted themselves fortunate to have a newly built home that was dry, light, and airy. Edward and George were old enough to get themselves to work. The girls, however, still needed herding to school, which fortunately, was only next door. She stood at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Annie? You up?’
Floorboards creaked above her head. ‘Yes, Ma.’
‘You got your sisters up?’
More creaks and an ominous crash. ‘Yes, Ma.’
‘Shush, you’ll wake Samuel – he is still asleep?’
A wail answered her question. She sighed and put a pan on the stove to warm milk. At almost nine, Annie was a capable child, but Sarah and Edith, her younger sisters, were wayward and trying especially on school days.
How she missed Mary Ellen’s help around the house, but the girl was old enough to be earning. Harriet, who was childless but loved a houseful of youngsters, had offered her neice a job as a maidservant and looked after her like her own. Harriet had landed on her feet when she’d met Henry Bull, landlord of The Wheatsheaf and master carpenter.
Shod feet clattered on the stairs. A tiny fist clenched a tangled lock of Annie’s long blonde hair, and Annie screwed up her face in pain. ‘Sammy was crying, Ma.’
‘Here, give him to me.’ She unclenched Samuel’s fist, took the baby from Annie, and balanced him on her hip. ‘See Sarah and Edith get washed while I get breakfast and feed Samuel, there’s a good girl. If you’re late, it sets a bad example to the others.’
She smoothed the wayward lock of gold from her daughter’s face with a pang of guilt. The child was only a year older than Sarah and less than two years older than Edith, and she heaped a lot on her young shoulders. ‘Bless you, Annie. What would I do without you?’
‘I ain’t going nowhere, Ma.’
‘I’m not going anywhere – not ‘ain’t going nowhere’, Annie.’
‘Sorry, Ma.’ Annie’s lip turned up at one corner. ‘But I ain’t.’
She shook her head in mock despair and removed the pan from the heat. Annie would go away too, one day soon, into service like Mary Ellen, most likely. And with strangers, no doubt. The thought made her uneasy, but she couldn’t keep her chicks at home forever. Young Henry, her second son, was apprenticed in Towcester, and Fanny, her eldest, married a twelvemonth, was expecting her own first chick – a first grandchild for her and Will. How the years had flown since those heartbreaking days farming in Adstone with Will and his father when Fanny was a baby. Samuel sneezed and her heart lurched. His forehead was hot, but he was red from crying. That’s all it was, just a cold and teething, nothing more.
Samuel safely with her cousin, Kate, for the school day, Elizabeth stood at the schoolroom door and rang the bell for the class to begin. She counted heads as they filed through the door. Forty-one. Who was missing? ‘Sit down, children, and silence, please, while I call the register.’
Forty-one heads turned to face her. Forty-one open minds to teach and souls to mould. The responsibility weighed heavy as the only schoolmistress the children had. She called the register and marked the names of the missing pupils with a cross. She’d visit the homes later to see all was well. Infection ran through a school and a village like – plague sprang uneasily to mind.
‘Please, Miss.’ A five-year-old with dark curly hair and a pained expression squirmed on his chair his arm and hand stretched as if to reach the rafters.
‘Please. Miss, I need the toilet bad.’
‘You should have gone before you came to school, John.’
‘I did, Miss. I went, honest, but…’ John got to his feet and dashed from the room holding his stomach.
‘Anyone else need the toilet before we begin?’ Two more hands shot up. ‘Be quick then.’
The white chalk screeched on the slate blackboard, making her wince as she wrote out the morning’s sums. John returned with his shirt hanging out. ‘Come here.’ She unbuttoned his trousers and lifted his shirt ready to tuck it in. Raised pink spots decorated his small round stomach and spread up across his chest. She rearranged his clothing and sent him to sit at a spare desk away from the other children. It could just be flea bites, but it might equally be chicken pox or measles.
‘Annie, come here a minute.’
‘Yes, Ma… Miss.’
She bent close and kept her voice low. ‘Run to Mrs Goode’s house in Longwell, and ask her if she’ll pop up and see me straight away, will you?’
‘Yes, Miss.’ Eager to avoid doing her sums, no doubt, Annie disappeared at a run.
‘Now, class. If we’re quite ready. Edith, Sarah, pay attention. You older children can copy these sums onto your slates and write the answers. The younger ones will collect blocks from the cupboard and we’ll do some counting.’
Her mind strayed to her second eldest daughter as she went from desk to desk helping where needed. At least, her ‘chaff from wheat’ Mary Ellen was away from any contagion John might have brought to school.
The door opened and Annie arrived with Catherine Goode in tow. The lady was rather out of breath. ‘What is it, Elizabeth? Is my John?’
She motioned to Mrs Goode to step outside the schoolroom. ‘John has a rash on his stomach and chest. Spots…’
‘Oh Lordy. He said he had a headache and stomach ache this morning, and he seemed tired, but he was keen to come to school. He didn’t complain of no spots.’
‘Stomach ache? He had to rush to the toilet earlier.’
‘And last week he was constipated. Spots and the runs. Our Josephine had that with the chickenpox.’
‘You’d better take him home and get Doctor Hill to look at him, just to be on the safe side. I’ve five children away today, so it might be there’s something going around. Let me know what the doctor says, Catherine, in case I have to close the school.’
‘I shall. You can’t be too careful.’
‘Indeed, you can’t.’ She fetched John from his lonely desk and watched as he and his mother walked hand in hand across the schoolyard. Chickenpox wasn’t the only disease with those symptoms, and if it was what she most feared, she, Annie, Edith, and Sarah – and most of the children in the village – had already been exposed to it.
The five children off sick lived in the row of ironstone cottages at the lower end of the village. The ground was high at the back which made the tiny cottages damp. Small windows fronting the lane let in sparse light and afforded little air, but the front door of the first stood open throwing September sunshine onto a stick chair and a table spread with pieces of lace.
Rose Jenkins, bent over her lacework, looked up when a shadow fell across her. She shielded her eyes against the sun. ‘Mrs Underwood?’
‘Bobby and Isobel weren’t at school today. Are they ill?’
‘They ain’t neither of them been right for a few days. Both off their food. And they were on the chamber pot most of last night. Isobel was complaining of a bad head this morning. I sent them back to bed.’
‘Something they ate?’
‘They’ve had the same as the rest of us. Belly pork, taters, greens, and a bread pudding. No-one else is ill.’
‘Do they have a rash? Spots?’
‘I don’t think so. No, I’m sure they don’t.’
‘It’s probably just an upset stomach or a chill to the stomach. Let me know if they won’t be in school tomorrow.’
‘Yes, of course. Thank you for calling.’
She smiled. ‘I’ve three more absentees to check on and all in this row. I was afraid there was something going around.’
Mrs Jenkins produced a less than white handkerchief and blew her nose. ‘It’ll be summat a nothing, I dare say. They play together and sleep three to a bed. One or another of them always has the runs or a sniffle.’
‘I’m sure you’re right.’
She hoped she was. Two women were chatting at one of the village pumps, one of several wells that served the villagers. She smiled and hurried on. In the cottage next door, the two errant children seemed listless but otherwise healthy, so she expected them back at school next day, but in the cottage at the end of the row, six-year-old Freddy had spots and was running a temperature. He lay on a couch in the one room in which the family played out its daily life. Not for the first time, she was thankful for the spacious quarters of the modern schoolhouse with its own well outside the scullery, so different from the farm cottage in Adstone in which she’d raised her older children.
Freddy’s brow was sticky with sweat. ‘How long’s he been like this, Elsie?’
‘He had a slight temperature yesterday, but it seems worse today.’
‘Has the doctor been?’
‘It might only be the chicken pox.’ Elsie looked up at her, worry etched in her brow. ‘You think it’s something worse?’
‘I don’t know. There’s six children ill. Does Freddy have diarrhoea?’
‘It started this morning.’
Six children didn’t make an epidemic, but… ‘I think you should have the doctor to see him. I can send someone with a message if you want? I need to have a chat with him, there being so many ill.’
‘You do think it’s something worse – oh dear Lord, not small pox.’
‘We mustn’t jump to conclusions, Elsie. There are several things could account for it.’
‘Yes, you’re right. Yes, ask the doctor if he’ll call. Thank you, Elizabeth.’
A burly figure carrying a Gladstone bag crossed the lane in front of her. ‘Doctor Hill! Wait.’
He turned to face her and removed his hat. ‘If it isn’t our lovely schoolmistress. I was just on the way to see one of your pupils.’
He shook his head. ‘No, Zack Medlar.’
Zack was eleven and an ex-pupil now. He lived with his widowed mother and seven siblings in a two-room cottage lower down the hill. ‘Zack is ill too?’
‘John Goode, the two youngest Jenkins’, the Mortimer twins, Freddie.’ She waved an all-encompassing arm at the cottages behind her.
‘Not all the same but constipation, diarrhoea, headache, fever, loss of appetite – a rash, spots. I told Elsie I’d ask you to call on Freddie.’
‘Um. I think I’d better call on them all.’
‘They may not be able to afford your services.’
‘The health of children is above price, my dear. Don’t worry your head about that.’
‘If…’ She couldn’t put her fear into words. ‘Should I close the school?’
‘Not yet. Let me see my young patients, first. It may be nothing.’
‘You’ll let me know, if…’
‘Yes, of course. Don’t fret, my dear lady. I’ll acquaint you with my findings.’
She hurried home, eager to check her chicks. Small pox could be fatal, and there were other worse horrors that might rear their ugly heads without warning. It was nine o’clock when a knock on her door roused her from a guilty ‘forty winks’.
‘I’ll get it.’ Will got to his feet. Weary footsteps clattered along the tiled hall. ‘Come in, Doctor, what can we do for you?’
‘I came to see Elizabeth. She expressed concern about some of her pupils.’
‘Yes, she told me. She’s in the living room. Go through, please.’
She was on her feet before the doctor came through the doorway. ‘What is it? Is it serious?’
‘My good lady, please sit down. Don’t distress yourself.’
‘But the children…’
‘I fear it may be the beginning of an epidemic.’
Her heart faltered. ‘Is it…?’
‘I can’t be certain yet, but I fear it may be typhoid fever.’
Kindred and Affinity – Coming soon.