Ruminations of Reality
What on the BLT19.co.uk website inspired you?
When I was looking on the BLT19 website, I found a series of articles about the work that children did in the Victorian era. Although I already knew some of this information, the harsh reality for copious children-many of them younger than me-really stuck with me, especially about the workhouses. I decided to write the story as I did because, while I was not exactly shocked that children were almost completely separated from their families, I felt that anyone who had not experienced it for themselves would be able to understand how conflicted the inmates of the workhouses must have felt. They were treated appallingly, and yet these places, which they might never leave-had given them sustenance, and security, however small. I wanted to capture the anxiety of not knowing if your family was still alive, as well as the numerous restrictions that were placed upon all the inhabitants of the workhouses. I wanted to show that, although their intentions were to help people survive, mistreatment and disease experienced in the workhouse could do the opposite.
The atmosphere was hollow and bare; the looming workhouse walls welcomed desolation.
From the moment I set foot in that place, I knew that I was lost forever. I knew I would most certainly die, or worse – I would be the only one left. This was a game of survival and one I was uncertain if I wanted to win…
I remember that day like I remember the name I was granted; I recoiled at it every night spent in that musty dormitory – shrouded in a tattered rag, with the other girls pressed against me for warmth as though we were flowers being crushed – in the fear that I might forget what was beyond those walls.
Marching into the workhouse felt like being condemned to a misery worse than the devil’s abode. With the desperate possibility that we might one day walk back the way we came, into the light of the sun and the warmth of its embrace, we had hope – the only thing we could have had. The thing keeping us breathing was the same thing making us crave for its finish. We were not naïve, though we indulged ourselves with such fantasies. We knew that most who were hurled into the jaws of the workhouse did not come back; they grew old imprisoned or were unlucky enough to be born there.
They took everything from me, that day: my name, my clothes, my grandmother’s beloved doll, who had been my sole confidant for as long as I could remember; my mother’s agonies far surpassed my own, and it was my duty to conceal those unnecessary issues which she would never need to know. That day was the last time I would ever lay eyes on the remnants of my family in this life…
One morning, I awoke before the sun, and, carefully, so as not to rouse the countless inmates from their slumbers, I stumbled to the gaping window to observe the distant world outside. The moon leapt onto the wispy clouds – a single, silver eye that peered down at the model world so far beneath it. A chilling blanket of soft snow had been tucked around the sleeping landscape; as I coughed, clearing my lungs, I heard the first robin performing the opening notes of the sole orchestra I could ever afford to hear.
The day before, they beat a boy out in the courtyard. He could not have been older than seven – about the same age as Billy had been the last time I saw him. Perhaps they knew one another. Anyway, I had been carding wool, as I was instructed to do, when a man’s harsh voice, like a cup brimming with loathing, cried out furiously from below. Glancing outside, we perceived the poor boy’s face, contorted with pain as the belt buckle dug into his flesh with every stroke. Tears ran like rivers of agony down his grimy cheeks, and I felt the meagre meal of gruel churning in my stomach. Twelve… seventeen… twenty blows struck him hard, and the wretched child slumped to the ground, exhausted by his plight. What if Billy – my only brother – had been sentenced to the same treacherous fate? My eyes flickered shut. Suddenly, I started in alarm as one of the girls – Bessie, I think – moaned and turned in her sleep, and I beheld them, wrapped up together like those satin sashes I would observe on the wealthy girls’ frocks as they trudged to church every Sunday morning. If only God had heard our feeble pleas, maybe our situations would have turned out better, but then it seemed that even He has a heart only for those fortunate enough to be presented with money.
Intently, I watched their peaceful forms, huddled up like tiny chicks in a nest; their faces were as pale as the dust on the windowsill beneath my knees; wan and waxen, they were like shadows of the children they should have been. Resting by the window, I felt the frigid air creeping like a mist through the chink in its pane; I shivered as it curled around my bare feet, and my lungs wheezed as the icy air found an entrance. As the sun began to spill an exiguous golden light into the desolate town, I saw, – or, rather, I believe I saw – my mother… Alive, walking and well. Holding her arms outstretched in welcome, charging like a soldier in battle towards me, just like she would when we are reunited. That is, if I ever see her again. I longed to dive into the depths of her loving arms, and I wished that I could have stayed in that cottage with her and Billy in the first place. I hoped that none of this had ever happened.
Although I would still be colder, hungrier and unhealthier than I currently was, I would have been treasured like the largest, most beautiful pearl that was ever discovered in the vast expanse of ocean that covers our planet.
I saw her, just as I last saw her, weary, yet smiling through her troubles. The terrors of the workhouse seemed not to have taken a toll on her; most other women I had seen living here had aged well beyond their years, the overwhelming anguish of their lives had dragged their gentle faces down, forcing wrinkles that disfigured their once youthful faces beyond recognition. However, my own mother had not been altered in any way at all.
Battling for air, I frantically endeavoured to breathe, but my lungs were like a road obscured by the debris from a landslide; there was no more room for air. I coughed, and blood stained my scanty nightdress. Exhausted, I leaned against the freezing windowpane; I yearned to drink in the fresh air from outside. My bones ached, my entire body burned as though alight and the fight drained from me, like water through my fingers. My breathing stopped… and I saw my mother gliding up towards me; the interminable pain had ceased at last, and, finally united, I flung myself into her arms and we fled that cruel world to a kingdom of joy. I can only hope that Billy meets us here soon.