Isabel watched in horror as the bundle of clothes came flying through the door of the small stone house she called home and fluttered like leaves to rest in the cold muddy snow at her feet. Her walk home from the nearest shop was a long one, each step crunching in the thick snow, and this was the last thing she’d expected.
She’d just been to fetch some tea leaves to boil up and drink with lunch. The way money had been lately they’d been limited to buying things only as they needed them, and so while her mother had set the water boiling over the fire she’d been sent to buy the ingredients.
Her spirits had been high, but when she’d seen the tall horse that stood snorting in the snow outside her house like a large black shadow, its muscles powerful beneath the velvet shine, she knew something was wrong. She recognised the horse immediately and knew it belonged to Mr Campbell the bailiff who worked for their landlord and employer Mr Bradshaw. Isabel’s father and brothers worked on his farm when there was work to be done, though there hadn’t been too much lately.
The family always dreaded Campbell’s visits for it usually meant he was coming to collect their rent, and they didn’t always have it readily available. Thankfully Mr Bradshaw had always been an understanding landlord, and had often let them fall behind on their payments, but Isabel knew it was likely that was all about to change.
Isabel hurried to pick up the clothes from the floor where the dirty slush was making them damp and quickly pulled down a blanket from the line where it had been airing out and wrapped them up. As she did so cries of anger drifted from inside. Clutching the bundle of clothes close to her chest Isabel stepped out of the light of day and into the darkness of the house.
The thick smell of smoky charcoal filled her nostrils and though some natural light seeped into the room through the doorway and the window, the warm orange glow of the fire still danced around the walls. She’d always found these dancing lights comforting and had enjoyed playing games with the shadows since she was a small child. Now as the flames flickered over the hard set features of the large bailiff with his small eyes and strong jaw. He was making himself busy inspecting the small room and all its contents, and the dancing fire suddenly seemed a lot more threatening than it ever had before.
‘You have no right,’ Grany Ada was crying, the rage in her voice seeming to lift her small bird-like frame to twice its usual size. ‘This is our home.’
‘Not any more it’s not,’ said Mr Campbell the bailiff, his deep Scottish accent so thick Isabel always had a hard time understanding him.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Isabel, and all faces turned towards her.
Her Ma stood before the fire, her arms wrapped protectively around the shoulders of Isabel’s youngest brother Billy. Even in the light of the fire Isabel could see his grubby little cheeks were stained with tears. As always Ma was the picture of neatness. Her smooth hair, the colour of a cornfield just before harvest, was pulled back in a neat bun underneath her cap and her head was held high. Nevertheless, Isabel caught the look of fear in her eyes. She looked strangely fragile beside the overpowering bailiff, and it made Isabel uneasy.
‘It’s Mrs Bradshaw,’ she said and Isabel understood. She’d been there three nights before when the usual pounding on the door had woken them in the darkest hours.
‘Please, Mrs Webb, you must come quickly,’ the young man standing on their doorstep in the darkest hour of the night had panted in hurried desperation. ‘Mrs Bradshaw’s having the baby and Dr Simmons can’t get to her on account of the snow.’
‘We’ll be right with you,’ Ma had said pulling her warmest shawl around her shoulders and taking up the bag she always kept prepared and ready waiting for any emergency. Isabel had peered over the edge of the platform overlooking the rest of the house where she slept on a straw mattress. She shared the space with her three younger brothers, nothing but an old sheet hanging from the beams above their heads to separate them. ‘Isabel are you coming?’ Ma had called up to her.
‘I’m coming’ she’d cried wriggling into her clothes and pulling her own shawl tightly around her shoulders before clambering down the wooden ladder. Her heart had been racing that night as they’d stepped out into the snow, the stars bright and beautiful in the clear sky above. She’d attended births like this with Ma since she was small, but the excitement of bringing a new life into the world never ceased to sweep her away, and she’d thought it was a wonderful night to be born.
It all seemed like a blur to her now though, the terrified screams, the awful silence when the air should have been filled with the cries of new life, and the deathly pale slump the poor girl had slipped into when all was done. There’d been nothing magical about that night. Only blood spilt on the crisp white sheets in the beautiful rooms, and traipsed out into the snow when nothing more could be done.
‘They’re blaming me,’ said Ma now, raising her eyebrows. ‘We’re being evicted.’ Isabel’s heart sank at the news for a moment before quickly hardening in anger. Ma was being blamed for something beyond her control.
‘You can’t do this,’ she said unable to stand by and watch without putting up a fight. ‘It’s not our fault. There’s some things that are just in the hands of the Lord, and there’s nothin’ we can do to stop them.’
Campbell nodded. ‘Aye, well that may be true hen, but it’s not how Mr Bradshaw sees it.’
‘I did everything I could’ said Ma, staring into the fire rather than at Campbell as she spoke. Isabel placed the bundle of clothes she still clutched on the sturdy wooden bench beside the fire and stood defiant beside Grany Ada. The old woman reached over to take her hand in hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
‘You can’t evict me Mr Campbell, I’m not going anywhere,’ Grany Ada insisted. ‘This has been my home for more years that you’ve seen the sun shinning young man, and I’ve always been a good tenant. I’ve raised my children here, and my grandchildren. I remember when all a person needed was a little patch of land and they could take care of themselves. But now you people come with your laws and your hedges and take it all away. What’s left for the honest hard working people, that’s what I want to know?’
The bailiff paused in his work for a moment. ‘Look,’ he said, towering over the old woman, ‘This has nothing to do with land, and it has nothing to do with being hard working. If you have a problem, I suggest you look to your daughter,’ he jabbed his thick finger at Ma, who though she winced, lifted her chin a little as she tightened her hold on Billy once more.
Grany Ada shrank back, the violence that emanated from the bailiffs person finally beginning to get to her. She sank down onto the wooden bench where Pa often liked to rest in the evening after a hard days work, with the glint of defiance still strong in her eyes.
‘I came here prepared to be reasonable,’ said Campbell as he resumed storming through their home, grasping hold of the few meagre possessions they had. ‘But if you’re going to fight me, then you don’t leave me much choice.’ He tossed more of their possessions out into the snow. First blankets went hurtling through the door, then a small three-legged wooden chair, and the few blackened pans that they owned. It was just as well they didn’t have many possessions. The best had been sold over the years to keep food on the table in hard times.
Taking in the scene before her, Isabel couldn’t blame Billy for his tears. ‘The larger items of furniture remain,’ said Campbell. ‘To pay off the debts you already owe since you’ve been behind on your payments these last six months. No more favours, that’s what Mr Bradshaw said. Not after what’s happened.’
Isabel glanced through the window and saw there were three figures heading down the lane towards their house. It was her Pa Frank and her two brothers Danny and John. They’d spent the morning labouring on a neighbouring farm. Work had been scarce and hard to find lately and they always took what work they could get. It’d been several years since the end of the wars in France and it seemed as though things had just gone from bad to worse. Wages had dropped and rents had risen, and with each passing day they’d found themselves just scrapping to get buy.
As they neared the house they must have seen the horse outside and the growing pile in the garden for their pace stepped up. As they reached the gate and walked through it Campbell, who was by this time enraged by Ada’s continued resistance, hurled a small clay pot through the door and Isabel watched through the window as Pa just narrowly dodged the flying object. It landed in the snow with enough force to crack into three pieces.
‘What’s going on here?’ said Frank Webb as he stepped inside with his two sons. Next to the bailiff Isabel thought Pa looked very small. He had a lot of strength in his muscles, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. His dark brown hair, the same colour as Isabel’s, had new slithers of grey running through it recently, and the tiredness around his eyes only added to the helplessness when he looked up into the broad young frame of Campbell. ‘I don’t expect to come home and have to dodge flying objects coming through my front door!’ said Pa.
‘She died Frank,’ said Ma.
Pa raised his head and squinted up at Campbell. ‘I see,’ he said lifting a dirty hand to scratch the back of his head. ‘Well I’m very sorry to hear it,’ he continued looking out the door at all their belongings that lay in a heap in the ditch outside. ‘But throwing us out of our home won’t bring her back.’
‘No it won’t,’ said Campbell stepping outside with a bowl for some snow to put out the fire. The flames stopped dancing with a damp hiss, and it was as though the life of the house itself had been extinguished. With swift movements that belied his great size Campbell pulled the shutters closed, and plunged them all into darkness. ‘Mistakes were made,’ he continued, ‘and the doctor who came to see Mrs Bradshaw is pointing the finger at your wife Mr Webb, and Mr Bradshaw is very happy in his grief to have a person to blame.’
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness Isabel waited for Pa to put things right. She waited for him to defend them all, and their right to keep their home, but Frank Webb had never been the fighting type.
She could see fifteen year old Danny clench his fist through the shadows. He was a tall boy who worked hard and ate little, and though his frame was small Isabel knew he wouldn’t think twice about taking his chances standing up to the tall bailiff. Ma also saw he was about to snap and quietly slipped away from Billy to gently lay her hand on Danny’s shoulder and pull him back.
‘Don’t Danny, please, just let it go,’ she said.
Campbell smirked. ‘Listen to your Ma lad. She’s knows. Now come on, everybody out.’ Isabel just managed to scoop up the bundle of damp clothes as he herded the family like cattle towards the door and back out into the light. He was built like a wall, and there was little they could do. They all knew that. Campbell turned and slammed the large solid door behind him, shutting them out of their home for good. ‘There’s no stopping this now. You’re energies would be best spent working out what you’re going to do next.’ His large boots sloshed through the dirty snow where he left them standing.
‘Oh Lord,’ Isabel heard the moan escape from Pa’s lips as they watched the large frame of the Bailiff mount his powerful horse with the grace of a dancer, and disappear down the lane.
Without a word they all began the sorry task of reclaiming what they had left in the world from the cold ground and loading up the old cart that lay abandoned in the front garden. Once they had used it for weekly visits to the market when they’d had access to land they could farm themselves, but it hadn’t been used in a long time. Isabel wondered, without a home or any work, what were they going to do next?
She knew the only family they had to go to for help was Pa’s sister Betty and her husband Howard, but they didn’t live here in their beautiful little village of Wotton-Under-Edge in Gloucestershire. They lived far away past the Welsh boarder where Howard worked for the ironworks and all their neighbours spoke a strange language Isabel couldn’t understand. She’d only been there once when she was a child, but she remembered it was a land where the sky was always on fire, and large furnaces that never ceased to burn had appeared to her child’s mind like the very gates to hell. She prayed her Pa would have a better solution to their problems than to call on family help, and take them there.