Mr. Gladstone's Floorboard
by Judith Cutler
Art by Allen Davis
Farmer Speen banged the front door fit to raise the dead, or at least rouse her mother. Bea had just that minute settled her, so she shuffled downstairs as quickly as she dared, dodging the holes in the drugget lest she trip yet again. She opened the door with her finger to her lips. Farmer Speen, head and shoulders covered with sacking criss-crossed by fierce little rivulets, filled the frame, blocking what little light the day offered but not shutting out the driving rain.
“I put these logs in that old shed, they’ll be soaked through and not ready to burn this side Christmas,” he boomed, not noticing the warning finger. But it didn’t matter anyway—there was no sound from upstairs. “Keeping your range going all day in May.”He turned his head to spit. “But I suppose with your mother the way she is—got to keep her warm.”
Not to keep her warm so much as to dry the bedclothes she’d had to wash every day, weather or no weather. But, saying nothing, she stepped aside, gesturing. He swung first one sack then another, like the pictures of Santa Claus’s sack, all knobs and bulges. His face was like Santa’s too, puffed red cheeks half hiding his eyes.
“Still nice and dry, see. Put them here?” He gestured to the corner of the room, next to the armchair. Mother’s really, until she was taken bad. “Never use it, do you, not these days. We only ever sees the light in the scullery. All hours. Never time to sit down, eh?” He laughed as if it was a joke, swinging the sacking off his shoulders and shaking it.
Muddy drops flew. Only onto the floor, though.
“Want to make sure no spark gets at them, though.” He stared at the drying rack and the clothes horse, every inch draped with still-wet sheets. The wringer had got the worst of the water out, but it needed new rollers, and where would the money come from for those? “Good fire screen, Bea, eh?” Another laugh.
He turned to write in her rent book, kept on a corner of the table she still scrubbed every day. The Owing column got longer and longer: Bea knew he was only waiting for her mother to die to turn her out. But this time he was writing in the back, under a heading marked Sundries. He did this each time he brought logs. At such a price, too. But where else could she get them? Who else would have delivered them, here in the back of beyond? And after all this rain, the roads were so bad that they said it was only people with cart horses as strong and surefooted as his who could get around. Not that she’d been out since she’d had to go down to the village last week.
Dr. Methwold might manage, on that new horse of his, but his bill was getting longer too. She had an idea he’d forgotten some of his visits when he presented the last account. She’d kept him sweet with a few eggs, but now the hens had stopped laying. Maybe they didn’t like their wet straw.
In the past—only last summer—she’d have wiped a wooden chair clean with her pinny and told Speen to sit while she brought tea, even a drop of home-brewed. But she’d had no money to buy one and no time to make the other. She stood, mouth half-cock, and stared. Was her mother crying out? Or was she just groaning in her sleep?
“And the old lady?” Farmer Speen stared under his brows at her. “Pretty middling, I make no doubt?”
“Pretty middling. Going the same way as your mother.”
“Ah. Very slow and not very sure.” Lips thinning, he looked at the mildew on the few remaining pictures hanging opposite the window.
They wouldn’t fetch anything now, though her mother had always said they’d cost a pretty penny—must have done, since Squire had given them to her as a wedding present. But Speen’d take them anyway, to help pay off what she owed. Them, her few bits of furniture, and the big family Bible with her grandparents’ and their grandparents’ names clearly written on the flyleaf. She’d hidden her gran’s Staffordshire figure of Gladstone, though. Speen wasn’t getting his huge red hands on that.
“Middle Drain’s like to overflow,” he said. “But you should be all right here, on this bit of a rise.” If he’d looked down, he’d have seen damp seeping up between the flagstones. What he wouldn’t know was that the cardboard lining her boots was already soaked through. “Best be off, then, before the flood comes. They say all the roads round here will be under three or four feet,” he added.
How would the vicar get through? And the carpenter, who always made the coffins? For he would surely be the next visitor. There was money for him under the same floorboard as Gladstone—she’d promised her mother to use it for nothing else, not no how. Not even if there was nothing in the house except the clothes they stood up in.
And it was pretty much that way now.
She’d survived, of course. She’d snared a rabbit or two, coming through the ragged hedge to raid the kitchen garden she sometimes had to till by moonlight. And a pheasant, as foolish as it was flash. But no one must know about that, of course, even though it had been digging up her young peas. The flour crock was almost empty, and the side of bacon she’d preserved last year was whittled down to a few meagre rashers she saved just in case her mother could ever fancy food again.
“Aye, and there’ll be those taken by surprise by it. Try to drive through fords, risk a bridge.” He did not mention the one on his land he should have repaired a year ago. He picked up the sacking and draped it over his shoulders again. “Seen that new vicar yet? Tell him to drop by, shall I? When the rain stops?”
She nodded. The last vicar’s wife had seen to it that she got clothes and bed linen—she’d even produced a rubber sheet, which helped a bit, though it chafed her mother something shocking, and a bedpan, but her mother was beyond that now. And the vicar had slipped her packets of tea once or twice.
“Will this new one know our ways?”
“Have to teach him, won’t we?” He opened the front door, but turned, looking at the fire and the sheets again. “Mind that lot don’t catch, mind, or the whole place will go up, rain or no rain.”
There was no point in telling him he was letting out what little warmth the range produced. She waited in silence. At last he left.
At least now maybe she could manage to dry the washing. Her mother always used to warn her not to catch her death with damp sheets. But these were Mother’s, and maybe she wouldn’t notice. Maybe death would just come a bit earlier. Quickly she put away the thought.
There was a heel of last week’s loaf she could toast if she pulled out the damper and let the fire draw a bit. And then she must light the fire under the boiler in the scullery. She still had the latest lot of sheets to wash. She managed a grim smile. When she’d been in service, before the Great War, there’d been a big wash every fortnight. What would Mrs. Binns, that martinet of a housekeeper, think now, to see her at the washboard every day—and sometimes twice?
She had to turn her mother every few hours—the doctor insisted on that. And she’d have done it, even without the text on the sampler which she’d embroidered when she was a girl and which her father had roughly but respectfully framed: Lord, Thou Seest Me.
When Mother’d been a heavy woman, it had been hard to lift her, but now she was so light—no more than skin and bone, really—Bea found it a bit easier. The only problem was the smell. That never got better.
But she managed everything, stepping back at last on the floorboard covering Gladstone, and making it creak as usual. That creak marked the end of the job for another hour—she was almost getting fond of it. But was that another creak, downstairs? She wouldn’t have expected anyone to knock—no one locked their doors round here. But they should have called out—that was the neighbourly thing to do.
“Hallo? Vicar, is that you?”
Despite the warmth crawling up the stairs, she shivered. A bit of friendliness was all she asked. And here she was, scared enough to wish she had something heavy to grasp. Her mother’s walking stick—that might do.
Brandishing it, she tiptoed down the stairs.
Someone seized it, tore it from her grasp, and clamped a hand smelling of earth over her mouth. She felt the blade of a knife against her throat. . . .
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"Mr. Gladstone's Floorboard" by Judith Cutler, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
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