The Workwoman

A Short Story

by Alexander Rose

Bethany sits alone in her room. The children refer to it as ‘her’ room, though of course it isn’t, in most of the ways that matter. Nor is it the room she sleeps in, which is up another flight of stairs hidden away in the attic. The tall narrow townhouse has many of these small dim spaces, and within Bethany’s room there is just enough space for an armchair and a little fireplace. Outside of the window a grey winter evening is just fading to darkness, kept at bay by a single precious candle. Bethany stokes up the fire against the chill and hangs an old tea kettle above it to warm.

She goes through these actions by rote, the day has been too long, the children too excitable, for her thoughts to trouble her much by this point. Resting her aching feet is her one wish now. If she was more given to introspection, and could afford to think such things, she might believe that she was getting too old for this work. Being a children’s nanny at forty-eight was becoming progressively more tiring. Though in some ways she remained unchanged, having been a matronly girl at eighteen and remaining so, there was no denying that on evenings like this, once the children were settled and asleep, she felt a wearing on herself, in her bones, like a piece of rubber pulled too tight once too often. As it was she simply moved her hands closer to the fire, taking pleasure in the simple comfort.

Having settled herself against the cold and her own fatigue, Bethany poured herself a cup of tea from the kettle. After taking the first sip, she reached over for her handbag and removed a carefully folded sheet of news. With a deep sense of ritual she carefully looked over the contents, her eyes lingering over illustrations, that to her eye were as beautiful as could be. She found the place where she had left off the night before, her discipline in such matters was severe, only allowing herself a single story per evening, rationing them out like plump slices of cake. Satisfied that she’d found the correct place, the final story in the issue, Bethany began to read.

Bethany had a clear idea of what sort of story she liked to read, ones where rosy cheeked young children were rewarded for their good behaviour and sound morals were the best, closely followed by ones in which young girls behaved with proper decorum and eventually found true love as a result. She was less fond of the factual articles, especially those which pointed out something unsightly in the society of the day. In her opinion such matters weren’t of her own little life which she had made here. While she followed the stories that ran across multiple issues with a voracious attention, these were rarely her favourites. These were reserved for the short self-contained stories that could be consumed in a single sitting. If a story especially moved her then she would slowly and carefully write down the issue and page number in the small notebook which she kept in her handbag. Such accolades were few and far between however, and anyway it was difficult to justify keeping the new sheets around.

Today’s story doesn’t immediately mark itself as a favourite. A young girl has promised to wait for her sweetheart as he leaves to find his fortune in Australia. She remains constant in her faith, even while her beau’s letters become less and less frequent. Eventually the girl receives word that he has found a wife and married, and she is left an old maid. The girl’s heart is broken as the story requires. Many years on she meets the sailor, returned from his travels to see his family. He makes his apologies for how he treated her, the girl accepts his apology and forgives him as is right and Christian. The story ends with them going their separate ways, secure in their faith.

To Bethany there is something she cannot quite bring herself to like about the story. It brings about memories of a situation of her own, though she never had a sweetheart, but close enough to feel that pang again. What sort of future will the girl in the story have now? Bethany wonders. She may have her faith and her work to guide her, to keep her going, but how far will that take her? Maybe she will find herself, in another twenty years time, sitting alone in a small room, thinking about how different her life might have been. How she might have married her sweetheart and gone off to Australia and raised any number of children of her own. Or how she might have given up her hopes for him and gone off to London to seek her fortune, and in the process have caught the eye of a handsome young gentleman. Or even how she might have taken this heartbreak deep within her and decided to devote herself fully to God, joining a nunnery and finding meaning in each of her days.

All of these possibilities played through Bethany’s mind. All of them were true, and none of them were. In the time she had been thinking the fire had died back and her tea had grown cold. Downstairs she heard the clock strike ten and she knew she should sleep soon, ready for the children’s early rise. After thinking carefully to herself she reached for her handbag and took out her small treasured notebook. In a slow and methodical hand she wrote out the name of the story, wavering slightly as she reached the end. She got up to leave the room and make her way to bed, making sure the smouldering fire was safely behind the grate. She looked again at the newssheet, pausing at the illustration of the girl and her sad, resigned face. With a quick movement Bethany dropped the newssheet onto the embers of the fire, it smoked for a moment and then burst into a bright flame, consuming itself as quickly as it had started. Bethany watched it turn to ash, and then briskly and practically gathered her things and left the room.

Cover image for British Workwoman no 252

The material archived in the BLT19 project is an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration. In writing this piece I wanted to echo the style of the short stories that appeared in The British Workwoman while updating some of the sensibilities to be more modern. I also wanted to envisage the sort of woman who would be reading these periodicals herself. The story that Bethany reads is based upon “Unrest” by Maude St John in The British Workwoman No. 252.