Washington: Fact, Fiction and Folklore 

  • Around and Around We Go by Bethany Watson-Wilkes

    When I was a little girl, around two feet and two inches shorter than I am now, I lived in a small village that matched my small frame. The 1113 houses all sat neatly joined to one another to make the streets, and the streets all wove perfectly together to make the place. We only ever used one entrance and one exit to the village, so it felt as though everything, and therefore everyone, ran round in a perfect ring. If you were to visit a neighbour at No.65 Writhing Way, you were to pass numbers 1 to 84 of Forked-Tongue Terrace, the corner shop, post office, and well over half of the population of the circular community.

    Everyone said good morning, even sometimes accidentally in the early afternoon, in that endearing way people do when life is so delightfully cohesive there’s no need to check your watch. There was a summer and a harvest fayre every year, where 1113 houses worth of villagers would spill onto the rounded road with traybakes of jam-roly-poly, gorgeously lumpy custard, and that working-class advantage of having nothing to prove. Not a single person made any profit at all year after year, as everyone was so busy hoping to line the pockets of their neighbours that things just always evened out. The summers felt long and the winters felt warm, glowing with grazed knees and frost-bitten fingertips and I thought I’d never forget and now can’t quite remember. It was never perfect, whatever that means. The roads had unfilled troughs, the shifty ones among us tried the odd unlocked midnight door handle once or thrice, and handful of parents told their children to take their mix ups off the shop counter while they placed a bottle of the cheapest vodka in their place. But much like the unfilled potholes, these were simply the lumps and bumps of life as it expanded and contracted, a much more preferable narrative than life standing still all together. The identical bricks that built every identical house were past terracotta, a scorched yet humbling shade of orange and clay. It was as if the entire place had been dipped into the sun, rotated and manoeuvred to make sure there were no un-golden places left where God’s fingertips had been.

    Everything was so…so, that I was sure back then, had a tsunami made its way from the Northeastern coast towards Lambton, those perfectly ordinary houses would’ve stayed perfectly linked through it all, simply by brick and blitheness.

    The village has been around since long before lumpy custard and bottom-shelf spirits, but I only got to see it from 1996. Although I can’t imagine much changed in that time, less a handful of replanted hollyhocks, and labour jobs passed from grandfather to grandson and back again in the continuous fashion that life is.

    There was one thing, one part of the village that stuck with me as I grew those two feet and two inches. As I moved to the city, guessed my way around a utility bill, and started drinking gin instead of dilute juice. A tale told to glassy-eyed children with duvets pulled up to their chins. A whisper amongst raised, ale-fuelled voices in the pub, heard as clearly as an announcement on a busy platform and brushed off like a dandelion seed.

    The story of an earl, a well, and a worm.

    As the anecdote went, John Lambton, the first and apparently rebellious earl of County Durham, chose to go fishing instead of attending church one simple Sunday morning. Depending on who you ask and how drunk the storyteller is, it’s said an old man, or a witch, warned Lambton of the dangers of such a decision. Then on that day, as the church service ended, he pulled something from the water, snake-like and nameless. Whenever my Mam got to describing the “beast” she would prolong her s’s and let them dance on her tongue like warm tea. She’d look directly into my glassy eyes and press her forefinger down the side of her face and she described the 9 holes on each side of its ssssssalamander-like head. Some versions say the worm was no bigger than an average thumb if there is such a thing, and others that it was just over 3 feet, the size of three Dandelion and Burdock bottles stacked one on top of the other, or thereabouts. It’s said John Lambton exclaimed he had “catched the devil” before throwing it down into the pits of a lightless, nearby well. Growing up and fighting in many a war, as adulthood can commonly be, the earl easily forgot about the worm in the well, distracted instead by bloodshed, political leanings and perhaps the odd ale. But as all forgotten things do, the worm grew in the absence of observation, as a negative thought does in the back of the mind – writhing and persistent. The worm, now the size of a dragon, broke free of the well and terrorised the local village, eating sheep, draining cows of their milk, and swallowing small children like bonbons, eventually coiling itself around Penshaw Hill ten times as though a crown on the head of a king. The story continued like this: coiling, chaos, cows milk.

    After a while, news of the happenings reached Lambton, and he returned to find his father’s land destitute and demolished. It’s said he sought the advice of a witch, who informed him the worm could be killed, but so to must the first living thing Lambton saw after the slaying, otherwise 9 generations of his family will be cursed, and not die in their beds. Lambton fought the beast, wearing armour of spikes and sanguine, leaving the slain pieces of the once-worm to float away down the River Wear to a place less Lambton than there. In his flurry of pride and excitement, Lambton’s father ran toward his son instead of realising the hound they intended to kill, and so the curse took Lambtons for many years to follow; some by drowning, some by defenselessness, but none in their beds. I remember, much less tired than before the bedtime story started, being glad the worm had gotten so big. Too big to slither through the gap beneath my bedroom door then around my credulous neck, and constrict until I slipped into a lightless well of my own.

    But that’s why I’m here, writing about this small girl in a small village filled with seemingly tall tales. Because the dandelion seed didn’t catch the wind and move onto another shoulder far from mine. That story stayed with me. At the very back corner of the wardrobe’s top shelf, underneath the pile of miscellaneous “I’ll-get-round-to-them-soon” papers and letters. Not under the bed and baby pink duvet, but right at the bottom, so my toes didn’t touch it, but it could lick them one by one if it wanted. Years passed, I got a writing degree, and I fell in and out of love, but it felt as though I could be the only grown-up in the entire world who thought there was truth to fairy tales… and monsters.

    Writing about this tale back home in that village would be cosy, as the walls of that small, happiness-bleached house were forever close, touching distance, in case I needed to lean on them physically and otherwise. Putting pencil to paper back there felt like more of a drawing you do at five years old – you know no matter the uncomplimentary colours or indecipherable objects, your Mam will have it blu-tacked to the fridge before you can take off your shoes. Writing in a small place makes your words seem bigger. Heavier. Like it’s solely their job to puncture the invisible dome of obscure seclusion covering that small place to let the rest of the world know “we’re here”. As much as my mind galloped and spilled across everything in that small bedroom, I always knew I was never too far from a nettle, to prick my lofty intentions and let me float back down to earth. But reliving the story of the earl, the well, and the worm since growing those 2 feet and 2 inches, since moving away and moving back, since having loved and lost, makes me wonder if the beast was ever truly slain at all.

    I hear it in politicians’ promises as they make their speeches, looking out of their tall, seemingly limitless windows down at us on the ground. I’ve always said people in higher positions needed more windows around them so they could see more of what they had power over, so I know the worm sits up their now, in an office made entirely of glass, somewhere so tall you lose count of the steps to climb it.

    I’ve tasted its hisssssing from the sausage sandwiches my parents make me and my boyfriend on sssssslow Sunday mornings, the kind where we popped over for one thing on Saturday afternoon but had too much of the world to put to rights not to stay the night. The kind where lightly-salted butter runs down your fingers like blood or honey, or like pieces of a slain beast floating innocently away down the River Wear. The kind that makes you forget to only real reason you popped over in the first place is because you can’t afford the hot water in your own new home.

    I’ve smelled it so strongly in Mam’s stories of my biological Dad. How he would come home reeking of perfume she would only keep for best, a perfume that filled up the entirety of their small bathroom as the heat from his frantic shower danced with the oils in a marriage more perfect than their own. How after the fifth insincerity-scented bathroom, four blazing arguments, three “you’re crazy”s, two slammed doors and one pile of cooling shin beef lasagna on the cream living room carpet, he finally hit her for the first time. I say finally as if it was something she was waiting for, but there’s a difference between something you want and something you anticipate.

    I’ve felt it tugging at my trouser legs and crawling across my neck in job interviews, daring me never to be better and trying to convince me I shouldn’t. It’s lived inside my mouth when reading aloud to an audience, forcing me to trip over my words and then my own two feet. It’s sssssniggered over my shoulder as I re-read my throbbing inbox of job rejections. Its hot breath fuelled my car engine as I took hours instead of minutes to break up with boyfriends I knew were bad for me in aleatory car parks, whispering from the exhaust it was worth one more try.

    Even far, far away from Lambton, when I lived in New York City for the best part of four months, it followed me. I watched it swirl around in the bottle of the cheapest whiskey that the homeless man on 43rd Street could acquire; watched him drink more and notice less as the worm got closer and closer to his lips, begging to be swallowed. I thought getting older and travelling farther would leave the fable tucked tightly under that baby pink duvet. But that’s what I’ve learned over these enchanting and ensnaring years. That bedtime story, that quivering child, that, thing. I know now that I have never forgotten the tale because that beast sleeps beside me every night. The snake-like monster said to be forgotten and unseen has uncoiled itself from Penshaw Hill, and lives on in everyone, every day. Every anxious moment, every infidelity, every rejection, loss, second of doubt and moment of madness, it’s there, happily hissing into your hopelessness.

    Monsters don’t live under the bed, in the retelling of tales from beaten-up bar stools, or between the pleasing rhymes and watercolours of a children’s storybook. They live inside your jumper sleeves, at the end of the aisle, under your skin and at the tip of your tongue. We are told when we are small that monsters aren’t real, just the stuff of nightmares and make-believe. If nightmares and reality truly are two separate entities, I’m afraid I’m still yet to learn which is which.

  • The Ivory Bangle Lady by Neddra Antoinette Freeman-Danby

    Welcome to all.
    But especially those tuning in to my channel for the first time.
    Hope you newbies have come with an open mind and are prepared to hear lesser known, maybe even previously unknown, historical incidents that just might be of particular interest to people who want to believe in all manner of things.
    Believe in what, I hear you ask.
    Have a listen and you’ll see what I mean.
    My regular listeners will know what that means.

    Today I am exploring two separate, but definitely linked, events.

    You know the town of Washington, where Washington Old Hall is situated. Where, in case you didn’t know, the ancestors of the USA’s first president George Washington did indeed reside.

    First, let me introduce Robert, a real local history buff.

    Robert ‘s not his real name of course but that seemed an appropriate alias since it’s Robert Washington (from de Wessynton) then lord of the manor house that we’re talking about.

    It’s 1304 when King Edward and his ‘Travelling Kingdom’ paid a visit to the Hall in September of that year.

    Robert and his wife Joan – de Strickland of Sizergh Castle, Cumbria – were over the moon at having the King honour them with a visit.

    Sidebar folks: Edward was returning from Scotland, since things seemed to have calmed down a bit up there, to his base in York. After a rest there, he planned on continuing south, spending Christmas in Lincoln then returning to London in the new year.


    Yes, Robert and Joan were honoured but they also breathed a sigh of relief that only a third of his royal court were having ‘prandium’…for those not fluent in Middle English that’s lunch…with them.
    It wasn’t just the expense, which would have been astronomical, but their manor house, albeit one of the grandest in the region, would not have been able to accommodate the entire court.

    You see, the cost to feed the entire court would have been out of this world.
    What with all the courses featuring swan, peacock, wild boar, copious veg, sweet tarts and expensive stuff like cheese, butter
    Oh and all washed down with mead and beer, of course.

    Yes, one third continued on to York while the other third accompanied Edward’s second wife Margaret to the coast for their prandium .
    Apparently Margaret preferred Tynemouth.

    Again…anyway. Back to our modern day Robert.

    There are several pubs, tea rooms not far from the entrance to The Old Hall, now a ruin by the way, where our Robert, retired, liked to while away the hours, talking local history with other, mainly retired, buffs of all genders.

    One day, a new face asked permission to share his table (he was outside on one of those picnic type tables, enjoying a solitary, mid-afternoon pint) and it didn’t take long for them to delve into The Old Hall’s history.

    The visit of King Edward in 1304 came up and the stranger asked our Robert if he knew the story of the Ivory Bangle Lady.
    He said he did not, so the stranger proceeded to fill him in.

    At first, Robert (the lord) was concerned about language as a barrier: no one in his immediate surroundings spoke French, the language of royalty.
    Bit of Latin might have come in handy but issues with the Bishop of Durham made inviting Anthony Bek out of the question.

    His concerns, though, were put at ease when the courier of the King visited the day before Edward’s arrival.  A necessary visit of course to ensure all necessary preparations for the king’s visit were made.

    The courier informed Robert that the King always travelled with an advisor who spoke many languages. French, Latin as well as the English dialect of those residing ‘North of the River Humber’.
    Yeah, nobody said ‘North East’ back then.

    This particular advisor was called The Ivory Bangle Lady because her earrings, bangles and pendants were all made of ivory.
    And, the courier warned, she was not to be made fun of or treated differently once seen that the colour of her skin was dark and her mannerisms foreign.

    No one even knew where she was from originally and if King Edward himself knew he did not share that information.
    One day she just seemed to appear, out of the blue, at Edward’s side.

    Back to the lunch time feast.
    There she was, our Ivory Bangle Lady, not sitting, not eating, just wandering around.
    Suddenly she takes a keen interest in the hosts, Robert and Joan, sitting alongside King Edward at the top table.

    She studies them for a moment then in heavily accented Middle English (think Chaucer) tells them the following:
    “You must change your coat of arms. The one now is your past. The new one of white and red, with bars and mullets is your future . A future you will not see but know it will contain a link with greatness.”

    Our Robert was intrigued by the stranger’s tale and shortly after dug a little deeper.
    He was aware that that shortly after Edward’s visit, the Washington’s had changed their coat of arms. The bars and mullets were seen as a link to the stars and stripes of the American flag.
    (Yes, the white and red fitted but what about the blue?)

    Anyway, as for The Ivory Bangle Lady, his searches could only find a reference to the skeletal remains….on display in York Museum, I might add…. of a 4th century lady thought to be of North African descent but born in Roman Britain.

    That is when Robert contacted yours truly.
    Sidebar….he wasn’t a listener at that time but did know someone who was.

    Now it’s time to bring in event number two.
    And I won’t have to spell out the link for you, dear listeners.

    Okay. I too was intrigued.

    Last sidebar, for the newbies.
    My regular listeners know that I am black American foreign exchange student studying at a Uni here in the North East.

    Yes. I had been to The Old Hall before and knew a bit of it’s history. As an American I was also aware of DAR’s (that’s Daughters of the American Revolution) support of The Old Hall.

    Okay. Now the last sidebar…I promise.
    Update on DAR:
    “For decades, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution has worked to identify African Americans, Native Americans and individuals of mixed heritage who supported the struggle for independence during the American Revolution. We welcome the descendants of these men and women into our membership within our National Society. “

    Quite a refreshing change from the bad old days when, in my grandmother’s time, only white women were allowed to join.

    I just had to go back to The Old Hall after hearing Robert’s story.
    Don’t ask me why but for reasons I couldn’t explain a fire was lit.

    Although the bangle lady’s bones were in York, something was waiting for me in The Old Hall.
    Someone was waiting for me.

    So….I became quite the visitor.
    Even met our Robert a couple of times, sharing a drink (I was coffee) at his favourite spot across from the entrance.

    He even understood my quest.

    And one day just before the gardens were to close, I saw her.
    I was sitting alone on a semi-secluded bench, parked neatly between shrubs and The Ivory Bangle Lady seemed to appear out of nowhere.

    She sat down next to me and began to speak very quickly in heavily accented, modern English.

    “Welcome daughter of The Muurs. I am one of many reincarnations of the First People. We are their Children who navigate the world bringing Light to all who listen.”
    She smiled, then continued.
    “George Washington did not have children but his second wife Martha did by her first husband. Her great-grand daughter, Maria Carter Syphax, was born enslaved, 1803. Look at the descendants from that line and learn what part you may play.”

    And, poof….she was gone.

    I still feel I dreamt it all…BUT….I’m doing the research any way.
    And, of course, will keep you, my loyal followers, updated.

    I’ll leave you hanging there.
    More next time.

  • Wyrm by Aaron Wright

    “I am wrath
    I am vengeance
    I am the ire in fire
    I am John Lambton’s ruin!
    and he isss a liar!”

    The Lambton Wyrm

    Not far from the meandering River Wear there is a huge mound of earth blanketed in green. Here is Wyrm Hill in Fatfield, an old village in Washington new town. If you look carefully there are furrows spiralling their way round to the summit. These marks were carved into the earth by the Legendary Lambton Worm when it made its home on the hill. It was so monstrous it wrapped itself seven times around the slopes and terrorised nearby villages; eating sheep, poisoning the land and snatching small children.

    This tale has been told many times in story and song. They tell of how it appeared and plagued the land and was then eventually defeated by a knight, John Lambton. That of course, is the official story but I am here to tell you the truth gleaned from an ancient journal I found buried at the foot of the hill.

    Bound in dragonhide, it is festooned with feathered scorch-marks, the tell-tale sign of dragonfire. Its toothy clasp is half-melted and can be very tricky to open without slicing open your fingers. If you persist you are rewarded with a medieval manuscript written in the glittering gold of dragon blood. The pages are illustrated with intricate drawings that flow in and out of the words as if they were alive. Here is the lost art of the serpentine scribe, the literate monster who tells his side of the story. This is the true telling of the tale by the Wyrm.

    I iss Wyrm
    There I am, minding my own biznesss, flipping and flopping around in the river when He catches me, my lifelong Nemesisss.
    Excuses the essess, ‘tis a cross I have to bear (if I woss a Christ Man that iss) but it isss part of my natural hisss. For I am part ssserpent, part eel, part dragon and I am all proud! Some say I am a monssster, but one mussst define monsster. Perhapss it isss a need you humansss have to demonisse my kind when the real monssster is you.
    Crussadess my asssp! One must remember human beings,  that you write hissstory from a biasssed point of view ssso you can paint yourssselves in a good light. After all, necesssity iss the mother of invention and as a race you have invented many liesss throughout your monsstrouss history.
    Well this is not your history, thiss iss my hisstory.

    Ssso there I am frolicking in the water, barely the length of one of your little fingerss when John Lambton (boo hiss!) traps me unawares.
    He isss all the ssscaress.
    He’sss no sssaint himsself you know, he’ss misssed church to go on a little fisshing trip.
    At first he doesn’t get a bite but soon after the sservice endss (or sso they sssay) he hookss me and ssayss “I have catched the devil”.
    The downright cheek of it, mistaking my eellike body and serpentine head for the devil, I’m much too handsome to be mistaken for Sssatan!
    To add inssult to injury he throwsss me down a well. I am livid! I am fuming!
    What he doesn’t realisse is that I tend to hold a grudge, I will not let it lie. You shall feel my wrath John Lambton! You will sssee the thunder in my fury!

    Ssso what I haven’t mentioned yet was that Johnny boy wass warned about thiss. Ssome owd fella told him that no good will come from misssing church for such frivolitiess asss fisshing. There alwayss hasss to be some party pooper to rain on people’ss parade doessn’t there?

    This owd fella turns up again to repeat his warning after he’d hoyed me down the well. It wass mosst undignified, did I tell you that I sought vengeance for this humiliation? Would you not do the same if you were in my position?

    To be thrown away like a piece of rubbissh wass demeaning and degrading, it was time for vengeance.

    I hauled mysself up out of that odious prisson, bit by bit, inch by inch. It took me forty dayss and nightss to reach the ssurface but I got there through true grit and determination and a burning dessire for revenge.

    Ssso when I got out I wass a bit hungry, well a bit iss an understatement, I wass ssstarved! It jussst so happened that a tassty morsssel came a wandering by. Who am I to question asss I snaffled the little lamb with a tear in my eye. Sssorry not sssorry.

    Sso time passsed and I grew in ssize and sstature. From a worm to a ssnake to an eeley anaconda. The locals began to fear me asss I sslid over yonder.

    I wrapped myssself seven times around a mound in old Fatfield town and I ate handsome mealsss with local ssheep wasshed down with a few gallonss of cow’ss milk.

    Now before you judge me, remember thiss. Are you not human? Have you not ever eaten a lamb sshank or a chicken ssarnie. If you are vegetarian I would understand but mosst of you eat at Maccydeess and Nandoss so any comments about my food preferencess would be underhand.

    Now theresss alsso a ssscurrilouss rumour that I sssnatched away sssmall children. That’sss jussst fake newsss and anti-ssserpent propaganda! I will not be persssecuted by othersss becaussse of my appearance and lack of limbsss!

    During thessse timesss of plenty that rapssscalion John Lambton gallivanted off to fight the Crusssadesss. Persssonally I never agreed to ssspreading of the word of the lord through war but who am I to judge, I’m jussst a sssnake. He returned after ssseven yearsss and that’sss when my troublesss began.

    Of courssse he’d got wind of my sssheep sssnackage and the fact that I’d popped over to hisss dad’sss houssse at Lambton Cassstle and asssked very nicely if I could have a treat of a filled trough of cowsss milk. The old man obliged and it was a nice life making sure that I drank a trough of milk a day.

    The villagersss weren’t happy with thisss and they tried to kill me, how rude!

    I had to defend mysself didn’t I? It was a bit sssad that sssome of them perissshed but that’sss life isssn’t it?

    Then they sssent a bunch of knightsss to hurt me which persssonally I think is disgusssting. I can’t abide men wrapped in tin cannnsss trying to ssstab and ssslasssh me ssso they got their jussst dessserts of courssse.

    Whenever I get mad, which isss often when you humansss are hasssling me, I will uproot the treesss by coiling my big tail around them and using them to sssweep away the pesssky knights. They call it devassstation, I call it being asssertive.

    Ssso that John Lambton comesss back from his ssself-righteousss Crusssade to persssecute me, another innocent! I heard through the grapevine that he’d had some advice from that owd fella before he came to fight me.

    He was told to cover hisss armour in sssharp ssspearheads, ouch, that’s gonna sssmart! He was also advisssed to fight me in the River Wear ssso that when he cut me the piecesss of my body would wasssh away down the river. I mean that’sss nasssty, and they call me the villain of thisss story!

    Lassst of all they told him that once he’d killed me his family would be cursssed for nine generationssss and would not die in their beddds.

    The only way to lift that curssse would be to kill the firssst living thing that he ssseeesss to avoid the blight on his family. Ssso he sssaysss to hisss father that he will ssssound hisss hunting horn three timesss. On thissss signal his old man was told to releassse his favourite hound so that it would run to him. He would kill the dog and avoid the curssse. How cruel is that? Honestsssly what a palava!

    Well itsss a good job I heard about thisss becaussse I decided to ignore sssuch nonsense.  Oh how wrong I wasss to do ssso.  You may have heard that he killed me with his ssstupid plan but let me tell you what really happened.

    So there I wasss once again wrapped around a big rock in the river, enjoying a nap after my daily trough of milk, courtesy of John Lambton’s old father. A couple of foolisssh knightsss had tried to prove their bravery the day before and I walloped them with a couple of treesss, remember it wasn’t my bad, I was just sssurviving!

    So along comes Johnny boy in hissss high fallutin’ ssspear-ssstudded armour and he attacks me, a defencelessss creature! In truth, when I wrapped myssself around him it was like getting a few paper cutsss. It was harsssh yes but not life-threatening. They sssay he cut me into piecesss and they were ssswept down the river but I call that bull! The truth isss I defeated him and he was too assshamed to admit it! The ssscoundrel slicesss off the tip of my tail and holdsss it up to prove I was dead. Meanwhile I managed to ssswim away to the sssafety of my sssecret hideaway. John sssounded the horn with three blasssts and the owd fella was ssso excited to hear of my untimely demise that he forgot to releassse the hound and ran forward to greet his ssson.

    Now Johnny boy could not bear to kill hisss own father ssso they ssslaughtered the poor dog inssstead. Well, I wasssnt very happy about thisss so I decided that they did not dessserve to dodge the curssse!

    I made sure that Robert Lambton, Johnny-boy’ssss progeny, had a boating accident at Newrig. It was I who killed hisss dessscendent, Sir William Lambton, at Marston Moor, and yesss it was me who ensssured that William Lambton, his great grandssson, died in battle at Wakefield.

    Ssso that nine generationsss curssse, thing, I’m afraid I took my eye off the ball for a bit but…I reminded them when it rumbled through the ages and they thought they were sssafe. I ensssured that Sssir Henry Lambton, he of the ninth generation, died in hisss carriage crossssing Lambton Bridge on Tuesssday the 26th of June 1761. You’ve got to keep them on their toesss haven’t you?

    Yesss, the rumoursss of my death were greatly exaggerated. I am a sssurvivor.

    I am Wyrm and I live! They even wrote a sssong about me!

    “Whissst! ladsss, haad yor gobsss an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story, a’ll tel ye ‘boot the worm”

    The cheeky buggersss, if only they knew I wasss ssstill around, hiding and biding my time. Ah well, I’ll have a little ssslither up the hill to eat the sssheep and wasssh them down with the milk of a dozen cowsss. I’ll be back to finisssh the ssstory. I’ve heard tell that sssomebody sssomewhere is poking around in my businesss back at Wyrm Hill in Lambton. I ssshall have to keep a keen eye out for thisss interloper.

    The story ended there. The final words glittered in the moonlight, brighter than the rest of the writing. They looked like they had been freshly written. Surely not! I looked around nervously, here I was at the bottom of Wyrm Hill and the final words echoed in my head “sssomebody sssomewhere is poking around in my businesss…”

    I turned as I heard a whisper in the wind in the dark of the night. A strange hissing noise could be heard approaching from beneath me. The ground began to tremble, to rumble and my mind became riddled with regret as I dug at the soil in a futile attempt to put the book back. But it was too late, as realisation dawned the legendary Wyrm was still alive and out for blood.

    The ground erupted in a shower of scales and soil and darkness descended.

  • Searching For The Real Gertrude Bell by Andrea Lynn Henderson

    “So what’s your chances of shedding a new light on Gertrude Bell then?” my friend Nina is saying over the phone.

    “I’m not sure. I need to know more about her. Not just the historical facts, but as a real person.”

    “A tad difficult don’t you think? She’s been dead since 1926!”

    “I know it’s not going to be easy. There are books written about her life, and Newcastle University’s ‘Gertrude Bell Archive’ is right on my doorstep. They’ve got her letters and photographs stored in the Robinson Library which provide detailed accounts of her experiences.”

    “Would the 2015 film ‘Queen of the Desert’ help? Werner Herzog wrote and directed that movie. Nicole Kidman played Gertrude. Mind you, it flopped at the box office.”

    “Actually, I was thinking about taking a look at the ‘Letters From Baghdad’ documentary that Tilda Swinton produced in 2016. I’ve heard she portrayed Gertrude really well.”

    “Well, there’s a good variety of documented evidence out there. I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for. How long have you got?”

    “Two weeks.”

    “That’s not very long.”

    “Hopefully it’ll be all I need. It’s all about authenticity, so I know the character I’m playing.”

    “That’s why you’re good at acting,” Nina says fondly, “your talents are too good to be tucked away in local theatre. It’s good you’re living in Washington where Gertrude was born, though I think it’s funny that she was President George Washington’s neighbour.”

    “Ancestral neighbour.” I laugh.

    “You’ve got a similar connection. You’re practically a neighbour too.”

    “Thanks Nina,” I feel myself welling up, “I’ll catch you later then.”

    “Sure, anytime. Enjoy your search.”

    “Thanks, bye.”

    Nina’s right. It’s my dream to be a professional actress. As an ex-professional dancer, at thirty-eight, I feel acting is the way forward and I’m honing my craft. So when the local amateur theatre committee said they wanted to include one-man shows in their new programme, I jumped at the chance. I pitched my idea to run the life and loves of Gertrude Bell, and they’ve agreed. Now I want to know why and how Gertrude came to love and embrace the Middle East, a culture so far removed from her birth in Washington New Hall, County Durham, England, 14 July 1868.

    Driving back to my flat from my weekly food shop, I’m wondering how Gertrude coped with travel. I’ve read somewhere on google that she used to have an entourage that would carry her essentials, including a bed, and a bath! Across the deserts and archaeological sites of the Middle East? Really?

    I’ve also learned that Gertrude had travelled extensively, including two world trips between 1899 to 1904, before she found her true passion for archaeological digs. Her first ‘dig’ being in Greece with her family back in 1899.

    I can’t help comparing Gertrude’s life and times with mine. Here I am, Rachel Harvey, in 2023, retrieving the groceries from my car. How can she live without the home comforts of a car, mobile phone, online banking, fridge and a TV? And in foreign countries so far removed from her charmed and privileged upbringing?

    I’ve discovered Gertrude’s mother died when she was two years old after giving birth to her brother, not long after they moved to Redcar. Fortunately, her new step-mother and Gertrude became very close. It was Florence who encouraged Gertrude to read ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Ali Ba Ba’. Did Gertrude daydream about the magic and allure of Persia way back then? One of her letters from Persia, stored in the Newcastle University Archive quotes, “Isn’t it charmingly like the Arabian Nights! But that is the charm of it all and it had none of it changed.”

    Myself, I’ve always read fiction, though I’m currently reading a lot on psychology, ever since I started researching the characters I play onstage. I’m drawn to the psychological aspects of each character, and I’m discovering Gertrude Bell is one amazing woman.

    “So how’s the research going?” Nina’s being her usual bubbly self. We keep in touch via weekly phone calls and WhatsApp. She lives in Penrith, Cumbria, where we met. We visit each other as often as we can.

    “Well she was only born into one of the richest families in England in her time!”


    “She was privileged and put it to good use. She was the first woman to gain a First Class Honours in Modern History at Oxford University; she was a mountaineer and explorer, one of the mountains in the Swizz Alps is named after her; she travelled solo in unchartered Arabian desert; and was the only female employed in the Middle East by British Intelligence during the First World War.”

    “Omg! Really?”

    “Yes. She was instrumental in creating the borders of the new Iraq and helped King Faisal I become king of the new Iraq.”

    How come she got involved in the Middle East?”

    “Visiting her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles. He was British Ambassador in Tehran, now part of Iran, in 1892. She fell in love with the Middle East, learned to speak Persian and Arabic, and the rest, as they say, is history. What I want to know is why we’ve heard of Lawrence of Arabia and not Gertrude Bell? There’s photographs to prove she was there with Lawrence and Winston Churchill in 1921.”

    “I don’t know,” Nina ponders, “because she was a woman?”

    “She wasn’t very popular with women. She co-founded the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Based on the mindset of her peers when she studied at Oxford, I reckon she didn’t think women had the skill and intelligence to run a business or a country. She much preferred the company of men.”

    “Well I’m glad we’ve proven her wrong today. The suffragette movement was a watershed for women. They secured our vote.”

    “I agree. But she did know about power and politics. Do you know her father was Hartlepool’s Liberal Member of Parliament? Gertrude grew up headstrong. She didn’t give a jot what others thought.”

    “Obviously! She wasn’t exactly the typical British woman of her day. What else have you found out about her?”

    She never took ‘no’ for an answer. She was determined to live her life to the full, seized every opportunity and thrived in the challenges that came her way.”

    “Is that how she became a pioneer?”

    “Must be. Gertrude never appeared to be deterred by anything. I’ve got to go, someone’s ringing the doorbell. I think my book’s arrived from Amazon.”

    “Okay, speak later, bye.”

    My psychology book has arrived. I’m hoping to glean more understanding about what makes Gertrude tick so I can unravel her story as befits a pioneer of her magnitude.

    I’ve learned more about Gertrude’s life and loves. Her first love was Henry Cadogan, a member of the foreign service she met while visiting Iran in 1892 when she was twenty-four. Her father had insisted Henry didn’t have the means nor business acumen to continue the legacy of the family’s business empire. Though devastated, Gertrude ended their relationship.

    I’m wondering if her thirst for adventure was to forget about Henry. She discovered her love for mountain climbing in 1897 while on holiday with the family in France and had scaled mountains from 1899 to 1904. Thankfully there’s a photograph taken in 1899 of her wearing breeches and not skirts for her mountaineering jaunts!

    Since 1899, Gertrude had returned to the Middle East many times for well over a decade, focusing her energy into what she loved the most, archaeology. She preferred Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Byzantine art, architecture, thus forging her desire for antiquities.

    Her fascination for archaeology grew from her travels from Jerusalem, through the Syrian desert to Asia Minor where she explored the Binbirkilise region. From there, Gertrude continued alone with her guides to explore ruins in Mesopotamia on her way to the castle of Ukhaidir near Baghdad. In March 1909, she documented and sketched the huge structure in detail, forever immortalising it.

    Travelling to various archaeological sites helped Gertrude navigate the Middle East where she learned the culture and politics of Mesopotamia. Once there, she spent most of her time painfully recording the excavations, documenting photographs, drawings, plans and descriptions.

    Sharing her passion of the Arab world and it’s people she’d grown to love, she published her writings in several books, travelogues, archaeological journals, periodicals and academic papers detailing her findings and experiences, which helped secure her reputation as a writer and scholar.

    “Did you get anything out of the book you received from Amazon?” Nina’s asking on the phone.

    “Yes I did. It’s about understanding perception. I get the feeling Gertrude wanted to be taken seriously in her work and as a woman. I believe she felt the need to satisfy her sense of self, passions and vision, in both the British and the Arab worlds.”

    “That’s a tough act. Are you saying she was misunderstood?” I could hug Nina.

    “Possibly. But the way she used her skill and acumen to rally the Arabs to fight against the Turks during the First World War was incredible. Lawrence devised the new strategy and Gertrude implemented it. Knowing business and politics, she created her contacts and relations with the tribes by only speaking to those in charge, she really knew her stuff. I think she believed in whatever she put her mind to and never looked back.”

    “Why do you think she never looked back?”

    “Stepping on new terrain is definitely not for the faint-hearted!”

    “That’s for sure.”

    “I also think, in her own way, she did something for women’s rights.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “She was a pioneer,” I pause, “she must have broken the mold of what society perceived women could accomplish.”

    “Equal rights for women are still an issue in certain areas you know.”

    “I know, but Gertrude knew the Middle East inside out. That’s why British Intelligence called her into service in 1915, after her stint improving administration for missing and wounded soldiers in Britain and France on behalf of the Red Cross. She was assigned to Basra to work alongside Lawrence to improve communications between departments; interpret reports from Central Arabia; and gather detailed information documenting Arab tribes in parts of the Middle East. She received her CBE for her efforts in Baghdad in 1917.”

    “That’s impressive.”

    “She loved Britain and the Ottoman Empire but was torn between the two. They were enemies. Gertrude wanted to make sure that the best was done for the new Iraq and its people by creating an independent Arab Government. That’s why she got involved. The people of Iraq called her ‘khatun’ you know. That means ‘queen’ in Persian and ‘respected lady’ in Arabic.”

    “Nice. So what happened after the war? Did she stay or return to England?”

    “She stayed. She established the National Museum of Iraq and created a new law to preserve their artefacts in 1922. It opened in June 1926 then she died a month later from an overdose of sleeping pills on 12 July 1926, two days before her 58th birthday. I think she died from disillusionment, despair, depression, and a broken heart.”

    “O-kay. What makes you say that?”

    “She was never the same after the second love of her life, Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, died in Gallipoli in April 1915. She was still sending Dick letters after he’d died; by snail mail. She didn’t know until she’d returned to England for a family visit. She became really depressed.”

    “Oh. Were they married?”

    “No, He was already married.”


    “She must’ve really loved him,” we both say in unison.

    “So have you finished your research now?”

    “Yes. Posthumously Gertrude was recognised amongst her peers as an English writer, traveller and government official who played an important role in establishing the country of Iraq. Now I’ve looked into her life and loves I can see she did make a difference. And with far-reaching perspectives, she could see what others couldn’t see. I believe Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell CBE was a woman ahead of her time.”

  • Trip by Rob Walton

    It’s difficult to say how excited I was when I was told we were going on a trip to Washington Old Hall.  Difficult because my tears and anguish meant I was largely unable to express anything coherent for a long time.  Did the teachers know how short the journey was to Flamingoland or Lighwater Valley?  I’d even go to Forbidden Corner at a push.  Might even make my own packed lunch.

    Then they told us we were stopping at Hylton Castle on the way to the Old Hall.  To look at something in the stonework that we probably wouldn’t be able to see clearly.  Did I tell you this was a dream come true?  Well if I did I was definitely lying.

    Sometimes you just have to suck it up, as old people think young people say.

    I’d caught my breath and dried my tears by the time the day arrived, and adjusted to the fact that my life was now destined to be a bit more cobwebby.  There were clear blue skies and bright sunshine – in other parts of the country.  Here it was really cold and pouring down.

    There seemed to be loads of adult helpers, almost as many as us.  This thought went through my brain as I turned to Andi and we both said almost the same thing.  Well, at least we had similar thoughts.

    “We’ve all got one!”



    We were clearly going to be paired up or buddied up (pass me the old tin pail pretending to be a sick bucket).  Lots of these people I’d never seen before, but I’d heard rumours about Reading Partners and Business in the Community and (Nooooo!) parent helpers.  I felt faint.

    Mine came and sat next to me, then smiled, but said nothing.  There was something slightly odd about him that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Maybe it was his clothes.  I couldn’t tell if they were really trendy or really old-fashioned, but things are a bit like that these days, with all this retro stuff being a bit of a minefield.

    I had the window seat.  The rain seat.  The Can’t actually see anything out there, but I’m sure it’s absolutely fascinating seat.  I still looked outwards though, because I was a little bit freaked out by the man next to me.

    Then he tapped me on the shoulder, which made me jump much more than I should have done, and there probably wasn’t really much call for me to do that high-pitched squeal, but there you go.

    I slowly turned round and looked at him and he was pointing to a screen at the front of the coach.  This was pretty high-tech compared to the last coach we used for a school trip.  Andi said she still had a bad back from trying to give that one a push-start from the Wetland Centre.  Mind you, she also claimed she’d been pecked by something called a greenshank.  She always took things too far, so I took her story with a pinch of salt crystals from the bottom of a large iron pan in a salt house.  (See, I do sometimes listen in some of my history lessons.  Once in a while, I even tune in on a school trip.)

    The screen was showing a little video of Hylton Castle and the camera was zooming in one some sort of shield in the stonework.  The subtitles said it was the Washington Family coat of arms, although it was incomplete, with a couple of stars missing.  The man next to me was nodding in a strange knowing sort of way, then shaking his head and sighing.  I had absolutely zero idea what he was thinking.

    A couple of minutes later we pulled up at the castle, and were given a very quick guided tour by one of the volunteers.  Our teachers said we could only stay for a short time, and the volunteer looked a bit crestfallen, but Mr Biddick told them we’d probably come back for longer another time.  Mr Biddick was famous for being economical with the truth if it made his life easier.  Last year he told the Year 10 football team they’d probably have a five-a-side match against the staff on the pitch before a big match at the Stadium of Light.  Some of them are still complaining about it, and asking when it’s going to happen.

    We got back on the coach before Miroslav had even got off.  It’s fair to say he was the most laid-back pupil in the whole school, yet somehow also the one who made most profit from break-time sales.  I expected him to be selling pieces of Hylton Castle tomorrow, even though he’d stayed on the coach the whole time.  Big business or politics awaited him.  Truly Gifted and Talented.

    My ‘helper’ was a bit more talkative on the short drive to the Old Hall.  He said it was a pleasure to come on such a trip and see a new generation investing in our collective heritage.  I wondered if I could program him into using some smaller words, maybe something like ‘old stuff’.

    The chat went up a notch as soon as we got to the main destination.  He seemed to become more alive.  It was difficult to say how old he was, but if enthusiasm were youth, he’d be a big baby.  That’s not quite right, but I’m hoping you know what I mean.  He was up for this.

    Straight away he started talking about George Washington’s family and King Edward 1 and someone known as William Tempest which, to be fair, I thought was a pretty cool name.  I surprised him by telling him something about the old milk house and buttery.  I was going to say something about veganism, but I thought it might go over his head.

    When we went outside, on our way to have a look round the gardens, he turned, pointed to the wall, and asked,

    “Does this stone look any different to the others?”

    “I suppose it’s a bit more worn, and it’s got some of those chisel marks.  And, I don’t know if this is daft, but it seems smaller than the others.  It’s kind of set back a bit.”

    “Spot on, young George.  Now for a long time, people thought they were mason’s marks, but they were made by me.  The Washington coat of arms you didn’t quite manage to see earlier, was on this stone as clear as day.  Until I removed it.  I didn’t want people just concentrating on the American connection.  I wanted them to think more about local people, about the people who worked here, not the ones who ruled over them.  This family crest was much better than the one at Hylton Castle.  And that’s not all.  There was another one on the other side of the dining hall.  I took it out and kept it in storage for a few hundred years until I heard they were renovating the Arts Centre.  I put it in there.”

    This had all very suddenly taken a very strange turn.  Who was this helper?  What sort of local business would have volunteered his services to our school?  Were they trying to farm him out so he didn’t do too much damage to their customer base?  This was seriously weird.  I thought my best bet was to humour him.

    “So I could go and see it?  The one at the Arts Centre?”

    “Well, yes and no.  You see, I put it in backwards.  I can tell you where it is and you can find the stone – it’s obviously slightly different to the surrounding ones, but you’ll have to believe me that the coat of arms is on the other side of it.  You’ll have to trust me.  Can you do that?”

    “Yes, I suppose so.”

    For the rest of the visit he told me a load of amazing facts, with sentences which sounded as though they’d been lifted straight from the guide book.  He knew a lot.  He helped me fill in a booklet they’d forced on us.  I copied word for word what he was telling me.  On question seven, just as I’d finished writing, he said,

    “What’s that rubbish you’ve written there? It was closed in 1933, not 1833.  Don’t believe everything you hear.  Maybe you should have done a bit more research before you came, instead of treating me as some sort of glamorous super-brainy AI assistant.”

    I actually laughed at that, and considered punching him on the arm, but decided against it.  I had a strange feeling my fist wouldn’t actually engage with his body.

    When it was time to get back on the coach, I turned to him and asked him to wait while I went to fetch Andi.  When I returned, gabbling about the Washington family coat of arms and the three stars, he was gone.

    “But, Andi, I’m telling you, he was – he knew all this stuff – it was as though –“

    This time she punched me on the arm, and pretended to be a greenshank pecking me as we walked down the aisle.

    I spent the journey back to school feeling very confused, but also quite happy and very enthusiastic about the weekend’s history homework.  I felt I’d be able to write loads for a change, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

    As we got off the coach, Ms Jopling pulled a dirty old sack off the luggage rack.  The bus driver rolled her eyes and tutted, then smiled when she saw what it was.  Ms Jopling waited outside the bus and as each of us got off she gave us something.  She said we had history in our hands.

    “What’s this, Miss?”

    “It’s a lump of coal, George.”

    “Yeah, I, er, knew that, like.  I just meant – well, er, thanks, Miss.  And Miss – “

    “Yes, George?”

    “The trip.  It was all right.”

  • The D Villages by Sharon Milley

    The D villages.
    Deemed despicable, dreadful.
    Doomed for destruction.

  • Villages of the Damned by Sharon Milley

    Long before climate change,
    the world relied on black diamonds.
    Diamonds that changed everything;
    bringing immense wealth for a few,
    relative wealth for many:

    Men who worked long hours,
    risking life and limb
    to make the rich richer,
    whilst their wives toiled at home –
    struggling to make ends meet.

    Yet despite their struggles
    the community was strong.
    And when the black diamonds became scarce
    decisions were made to close pits
    and demolish homes.

    The ‘Great Powers’ graded villages –
    A – B – C and D
    D for doomed,
    no longer able to be fleeced
    to make them rich.

    Devastation and destruction
    for communities they described as dire.
    Dastardly saying it was to prevent deprivation,
    and folk should be delighted
    to be moved to new homes, away from family and friends.

    No money spent on the damned villages,
    conditions became dreadful, dangerous;
    the people sat in despicable, dilapidated homes.
    Yet they were not daunted
    and began to fight back.

    They wanted to show that authorities
    had been delinquent in their duties;
    making placards with daring statements,
    showing they were devoted and dependable,
    that their villages should not disappear.

  • Lamby Worm by Sharon Milley

    Lamby Worm
    They said he was the villain,
    that he’d terrorised their lands;
    feasting on sheep and cattle,
    dragging them to Penshaw Whelk Sands.

    They said he found the meat too tough,
    so turned to lamb and bairns;
    eating them up whole.
    Mams weeping when they didn’t return.

    Rumour said he was so big,
    he’d wrapped  himself around the hill.
    That the paths he made by doing this,
    everyone can see them still.

    But the truth of it is,
    that Lamby was quite small
    and when thrown down the well,
    out of it he could not crawl.

    They said young Lambton had gone to war
    but he’d ran off to live in trees.
    At first he’d lived off plants and fish,
    would steal the occasional cheese.

    Yet John, he was so hungry,
    he began to look for meat;
    he stole some of the livestock,
    but the sheep would loudly bleat.

    So he’d wait until night fell
    and don a great disguise.
    He stole the children as they slept
    and made them into pies.

    Then one day he felt so bad
    for all that he had done,
    he came out of his hiding place
    saying he’d returned from war as the battle was won.

    To explain away the missing bairns
    he told the story of Lamby worm:
    that grew so big ate everything,
    it made the people squirm.

    John dressed as if for battle,
    took his sword into the Wear.
    Insisted he had to be alone,
    told people to steer clear.

    After several hours of walking round
    he returned back to his home.
    Saying that his family was cursed
    and that he should go to live alone.

  • The Little Girl I Used To Know by Owen Saunders

    When I was very young, my grandparents took me along the Wearside path from Fatfield to Cox Green, a lovely woodland walk passing Mount Pleasant Park, where ducks, geese and kittiwakes still huddle by the water’s edge, and under the towering sandstone arch of the Victoria Viaduct. I don’t have a real memory of this outing, but only know it from Grandma Jean’s recollections.

    ‘We stood on the riverbank when the tide was out,’ she tells me between sips of a Cup-a-Soup. ‘You were on your granddad’s shoulders, watching the horses in the river.’

    This path, and the adjoining Beatrice Terrace by the park, is the site of many memories for my family. Though the street today branches off into small, bourgeois clusters of detached houses, all trimmed hedges and Teslas, it was once one of many streets occupied by pitmen and their families in the middle of the twentieth century. It was also the street Grandma Jean was born on, and where her mother, eighty-three years ago, took a walk that would change the course of both their lives.

    My grandma was raised in Harraton Colliery by the smart, forward-thinking Cilla and kind but ‘pitmatic’ Scottie Thompson, who, like most of the men in the area, worked as a
    miner in ’Cotia Pit — so named because of the street it was on, Nova Scotia.

    ‘Living in a pit village meant you got the pit bus whenever you could,’ Jean explains. ‘It went all around the area, and we always used it to visit the Lophouse in Fatfield. That was
    what we called the Gem picturehouse, ’cause it was falling to bits, you see. Course that’s not there anymore.’

    This is a recurring theme in Grandma’s stories: buildings, meeting places, whole streets demolished to make way for new urban developments. Before she turned sixteen, the street she’d grown up on was condemned and swiftly bulldozed, spelling the end of their Harraton residency — but Jean’s roots snaked far more complexly through that earth than she ever realised as a child.

    ‘There was a pitman on the bus who was always very friendly towards me,’ she says. ‘He’d always smile and say, “Hello, bonny lass”, and would often give me half a crown, which
    of course was a lot of money back in them days. He always got off on Beatrice Terrace.’

    She never thought much of these interactions until later, after she’d laid a sheet of paper down in front of her mother and demanded to know the truth of her identity.

    ‘I was a very nervous child, partly due to the frequent air raids, of course, but also because of what children at school used to say to me: “Well that’s not your real mammy. One
    day your real mammy will come and take you away.”’

    By the time she was eleven, these years of taunts from other children, who seemed to know more about her than she knew about herself, finally brought her to a point of burning curiosity. She scoured through every cupboard and drawer in the house in search of something, anything, to explain the truth of it. She found it in the form of an adoption certificate.

    ‘Cilla was a storyteller,’ Jean says. ‘She was always an open book, and loved passing on family histories. The adoption had never come up before, of course, but once I confronted
    her about it she told the whole story from start to finish.’

    Eleven years prior, Cilla was on one of her regular walks from Harraton to visit her relations in Cox Green. That day, however, she took a detour. She walked up Beatrice Terrace, past the rows of pitmen’s houses, and stopped at a garden where a young woman lived with her father and brother — and her little baby. Cilla’s husband Scottie worked with Benny Bradley, a cantankerous man with old-fashioned values, whose unmarried daughter Jemima, or Mim, had just given birth. The father was nowhere to be seen. With Mim unable to work and an extra mouth to feed, Benny mentioned to his friends their need for someone to take the baby in.

    ‘My parents already had Arthur at home, but he was from Cilla’s previous marriage, you see, and he was already a man by then, serving in the war. They had no children together. So my dad came and told me mother what Benny had said.’ Jean says. ‘Cilla thought they were too old to be raising another bairn, but said she’d have a look anyhow.’

    When Cilla arrived at the house on Beatrice Terrace, she was greeted by Mim in the garden. By all accounts, she took one look at the baby girl nestled there in the pram and
    said, ‘“Wrap her up, I’ll take her.” She was always a joker, me mother, but she really meant it that time. They took me in almost straight away.’

    There are moments in all our lives where we meet a fork in the road, where the future hinges on which path we choose to take. For the Thompsons, this came four years later,
    when a newly-married Mim visited them in Harraton. With the newfound stability of married life, she and her husband Jonathan decided it was time to take Jean back, and, since the Thompsons hadn’t legally adopted Jean, their guardianship was as unofficial as it had been at the start. But four years is a long time in raising a child, and Cilla was torn. Mim and Jonathan were still so young, she argued, and had plenty of years to build a family of their own. In those four years, Jean had become their daughter; Cilla implored Mim not to take her back.

    I can only imagine the pain of that conversation for both women. The Thompsons’ care of Jean was never intended to be permanent and Mim had held onto the hope that she would take her baby back one day. Meanwhile, Cilla had spent every day of the last four years raising Jean. There is a world where Mim took my grandma back, where she grew up as the older sister to Mim and Jonathan’s three boys, where Cilla and Scottie were relegated to the roles of godparents, perhaps a world where a sixteen-year-old Jean, by virtue of where she lived, never met my Granddad John at a Chester-le-Street dancehall.

    This is, of course, not the road we find ourselves on. ‘In the end,’ my grandma says, ‘Mim decided to break her own heart to avoid breaking Cilla and Scottie’s.’ The couple had scarcely left when the Thompsons filed to adopt Jean. But roads that diverge can sometimes meet again down the line. For my grandma, this wouldn’t happen until she was twenty-five and living with my granddad and their two children in Birtley — the day the kindly man from the bus came knocking.

    As it turned out, this mystery man who had been so friendly to Jean when she was a child was Mim’s little brother, Jim. His involvement in the story of Jean’s parentage went beyond his knowing smiles and half-crowns on the bus, though; as a teenager, he had delivered letters from Mim to Ireland, part of her desperate attempts to make contact with her baby’s father — and this wasn’t the last time he acted as a go-between for his sister.

    ‘He often called in when he was passing through,’ Jean tells me. ‘Me mother had explained who he was to me years before, and he’d stayed friendly with us ever since.’

    That day, though, he turned up with an offer. ‘He asked me, “Would you like to meet your real mam?” Of course I said, “Yes.”’

    We can never truly know why Jim chose that day to organise this reunion, but the timing for Jean would have been particularly meaningful. Only two years prior, while pregnant with my mam, she had lost her adoptive mother to a short illness. Perhaps Jim was conscious of this loss, and saw a reconciliation with her birth mother as a way of mitigating
    Jean’s grief. So, after twenty-five years, Mim and her daughter were reunited.

    When she laid eyes on her adult daughter, Mim was overcome with emotion.

    ‘I’d turned up to her house that day with a bit of a chip on me shoulder,’ Jean says. ‘But when I saw how humbled and upset she was by what had happened, that sharp disappeared. I understood her reasons. Another great relief, too, was that her story was identical to Cilla’s.’ Despite all the heartbreak, neither woman had embellished the story to paint themselves in a more flattering light. What had happened had happened, the roads had parted, and now they were intersecting again.

    Even after this reunion, Mim was never really Jean’s mother, and there was never a question about her replacing Cilla. Instead, the two women became firm friends, and Mim became ‘Aunty Mim’ to my mother and her brothers. Through her, Jean acquired brothers of a similar age to herself — Robert, John and Raymond — who would become close family members. Uncle Robert once told her that Mim often used to stare wistfully at a photo of a baby girl when they were children. They would ask who she was and Mim would only smile sadly and say, ‘Just a little girl I used to know.’ They never knew who this girl was until they met Jean in 1965.

    My Uncle Robert sadly passed away when I was still fairly young, but I remember him as one of many close members of Grandma’s sprawling family, whose branches extend in
    various directions. Yet, there is one piece of the puzzle that has yet to be solved: the identity of my great-grandfather.

    ‘One of the first things Mim asked me was, “Do you like dancing?” I said, “Why, yes, I love it. I would go dancing every day if I could.”’ Grandma chuckles to herself. ‘Mim said, “Well, you don’t get that from me — I’ve got two left feet. But your father was a professional, a dancer from County Kerry in Ireland.”’

    Mim had met this mystery Irishman while working down South. After a two-year courtship they were engaged, but their romance ended abruptly when the Second World War broke out and he disappeared. Mim never knew whether he joined up, moved cities or returned to Ireland, where he may have already had a family. Her letters to his mother in
    Kerry received only one response: that she had no idea where he was. In the years after their reunion, Jean never thought to ask more about him, proceeding under the assumption, as she puts it, ‘that I had plenty of time with her.’ Then, in 1977, Mim died suddenly of a heart attack. To this day, Jean can’t recall her father’s name.

    My grandmother’s story has always struck me as extraordinary — the mystery of it certainly remains compelling. Even so, it isn’t the only one of its kind from that period, a time when working-class folk looked after each other almost instinctively, a time that has now faded into memory.

    ‘Mim paid for having me all her life,’ my grandma says matter-of-factly. ‘She worried for years about the pain she might have caused by giving me away’. There was, perhaps, a lasting ache from this decision. Even now, my grandma claims she never felt wholly connected to another member of her family until she had her firstborn. In the end, though, she enjoyed the comforts of two distinct families — on one side, the loving, capable parents that raised her and, on the other, the brothers that she acquired through Mim, not to mention the beautiful, if brief, friendship she shared with Mim herself. And though the mystery of Jean’s father remains unsolved, it strikes me just how irrelevant he really is to this family story. After all, it seems a far greater blessing that Mim, after all those years, was finally able to reunite with that little girl she used to know.

  • 19th August 1851, 11.30pm by Lisa Burns

    Tuesdays are the worst. The summer Tuesdays when the heat sits like a cloud above your head, oppressive and holding onto the smells of sweat and last night’s cooking.

    When the day feels the same as that one, hot and humid and hazy, I hear the noise too. So loud that I cover my ears and grit my teeth against it until it passes. Until it passes right through every bone and every fibre of my being. I count to thirty-four, one moment for each of them.

    Those days are the ones that I can’t get out of bed. The days when I know that I can’t go on.

    I was born into a mining family so I knew I would marry a miner. It’s just what happens. I wasn’t that keen on my life being mapped out for me but when I met my Joseph I soon changed my mind.

    He caught my eye as soon as I entered the dance hall. Both of us in our best clothes, his shoes shined and my hair curled by my best friend, Mary. It was love at first sight.

    Mary couldn’t believe I’d never seen Joe before. Apparently, he was the star of the colliery football team. Not something I was particularly interested in, unlike her.

    Since that night, we were inseparable.

    I tried hard to make our little miners’ cottage a home but money was tight so there were very few luxuries. Once our Thomas then Michael came along I had to stretch those pennies even further.

    It never was easy. Joe worked such long hours and when he did come home all he’d be fit for was his bed. He’d stopped playing his football by this point, it was like the tiredness was in his bones. He had a weariness about him.

    He never talked to me about what the mines were really like. He always said I was better off not knowing so I didn’t worry.

    But of course, I worried. All us wives knew the dangers that lived down there, always one wrong move or one stroke of bad luck away from death. Not that we spoke about them much either. There was this attitude of stoicism from the men that rubbed off on us. That and the desperation we had to protect our children from it all.

    The money got tighter as Thomas and Michael grew older. Joseph and I went without but I couldn’t stand to see my boys walking around in shoes with holes in the soles. There weren’t any more hours that Joe could work and he was too proud to let me take a job at the surface. Besides, Michael was sickly when he was young and I spent a lot of time caring for him.

    It broke my heart that first day I waved Thomas off to go to work with his father. He was twelve years old. Still a child. I fought Joe harder when it came to Michael but it was no use.  Especially when the daft boy said he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. I always thought he wasn’t strong enough for any of it. The dust, the heat, the back breaking physical labour, but he proved me wrong and held his own. Even seemed to like it. More than his father did by this point anyway. The circle of mining life continued.

    Joe was a shell of the man that I married; weak, exhausted, disillusioned with it all. He talked often of leaving and finding an easier job to do but I knew he wouldn’t. His friends were all the same. They’d all had enough but had nowhere else to go.

    It wasn’t all bad. Our home was always full of so much love. Joe never stopped putting me first or doing everything he could to make me happy and now there was a bit more money with all three of them working, we could afford a few things that we couldn’t afford before. I tried to put a little away every time I could, saving for a trip to the seaside. That would have been perfect.

    About a week before it happened, Joe was even quieter than usual. He wasn’t joining in with the chatter and teasing of Thomas and Michael as they told stories of the latest scrape John Todd had got himself into or the new girl that William Whittle was stringing along.

    He wouldn’t tell me what was wrong but I told him if there was something dangerous, he should speak up, that he had to report it.

    I guess no one ever spoke up. Or they were ignored. Either way, it doesn’t matter now. It doesn’t change the outcome.

    I was angry. Angry at them for not reporting it, angry at whoever lit that candle, angry at the inspector who denied all responsibility despite there being concerns about the ventilation and angry at the findings of the inquiry who told us all that they should have been using safety lamps instead of candles anyway. The anger didn’t change anything. It didn’t bring my husband or my sons back. It didn’t make me feel any less alone.

    We all heard it. Like I still hear it now. We ran out into the street and then we could see it too. Mothers and wives clustered together in the street, heads in hands or hands over mouths. Some started running towards the colliery but I couldn’t move. The chill in my bones that took up residence from that moment told me everything I needed to know.

    It was Tuesday 19th August 1851, 11.30pm. They were all on the same shift. All down that same narrow shaft. The one that had just exploded. All gone.

    Thirty-four of them died that night. The youngest was just twelve years old. It felt like half the village had just disappeared overnight, replaced by a sadness that has never left.

    Tuesdays are the worst. The summer Tuesdays when the heat sits like a cloud above your head, oppressive and holding onto the smells of sweat and last night’s cooking.

    Those days are the ones that I can’t get out of bed. The days when I know that I can’t go on.

  • Romano’s Café by Nicola Spain

    We pushed our faces up against the huge plate glass window of Romano’s shop and stared at the gigantic model of an ice cream cornet taking centre stage in the display.  Then together, the four of us pushed open the heavy front door to the shop, laughing with anticipation at the fuss that would be made of us.

    We burst into the shop, our feet clattering over the red and white tiled floor in our eagerness to surprise them. And there was Auntie Maria, already hurrying out from behind the counter calling out to her sister, “Rosa come and see who’s here!” I began jiggling in time to the music pouring from the juke box in the corner of the coffee bar, where teenagers sat on red leatherette benches drinking milky coffee out of glass cups at red formica tables.  The height of sophistication in the swinging sixties.

    Auntie Maria herded us all behind the counter and pulled aside a full-length brown velvet curtain, separating the shop from the house.  I dawdled behind, unable to tear my eyes away from row upon row of glass jars filled with black bullets, liquorice torpedos and aniseed balls.

    As we stepped into the passageway, we passed the tall wooden coat-stand, proudly displaying Mr Romano’s (God rest his soul) bowler hat which stayed there, keeping Mrs Romano’s straw-hat company.  We were spirited into the living room and pushed towards old Mrs Romano, well Auntie Louisa to give her full title.  She was as ancient as the Italian mountains she had descended from.  She sat in a huge armchair in the corner of the room, her long grey hair fastened in two plaits which poked out of her blue cotton headscarf, the size of a large hanky.

    She was thrilled to bits to see us, and to prove it, she gripped both of our cheeks in turn between her fingers and thumbs and pinched hard. An Italian tradition which was repeated whenever a child appeared.  We bravely put up with this manhandling, but moaned about it when we got home.

    Auntie Louisa was astonishing; she could produce sweets and toys from the folds of her skirt. We’d seen nothing like it, and it more than made up for the nipping business. Again and again she would let us pull the cord on the music box, hanging from the cupboard door handle, which played music from Dr Zivago.

    We were seated on an odd assortment of chairs and stools around a big square table, covered in a green and red heavy chenille cloth and Auntie Rosa, the cook of the family, brought from the kitchen a plate piled high with freshly made crispelles.  The smell of the hot fried dough filled the room and we had a competition to see which one of us could eat the most.  Michael was the winner with four.

    Then Auntie Maria appeared from the shop carrying four ice cream cones filled with home-made ice cream, smothered in monkey’s blood. You’re probably not allowed to say that now because of food hygiene regulations.  Then together we chanted “North, South, East, West, Romano’s ice cream is the best!” and were rewarded with our cornets. The combination of the silky-smooth texture and cold, creamy, sweet ice was just the best.

    And then to top it all, little boxes of torrone were handed out. The boxes were covered in writing we couldn’t read, except for the word “Italia”.  How we loved those gooey, chewy bars wrapped in a paper covering you could eat.

    After wiping our hands clean, Auntie Maria took us up the large staircase to the posh sitting room which looked out over the bus station. Kneeling up on the settee, under the window, we craned our necks to see our own shop up the street.  We took turns playing the piano and were encouraged to make as much noise as we liked.

    At the end of the afternoon, worn out with excitement, we were taken downstairs, buttoned into our coats, and with pockets bulging with sweets, were taken back through the curtain into the shop, having managed to avoid another face-squeeze as Auntie Louisa was now dozing in the corner, worn out by all the excitement.

    Then Auntie Maria opened another door and let us peep into the billiard hall. A mysterious place, full of men with billiard cues, leaning over the green felted tables. I loved the clack clack sound of the balls.

    And then off we went, through the shop door and back into Victoria Road, having experienced our very own version of Narnia.

  • The Show People by Nicola Spain

    We call them the Show People – everyone does. I don’t know how many live there, but now and again, I glimpse whole families I haven’t seen before. It’s odd to think they live just a few hundred yards away, but it’s like a different world.

    We live in Front Street and my parents run the sweet shop. We sell all kinds of sweets from glass jars in the front-shop and have a coffee bar in the back-shop.

    The Show People live on a patch of scrubby wasteland behind The Speculation Inn, which is the pub across the road from our shop. Dad’s garage is beside the wasteland, so when he uses the car, I go with him, through the gate and past the caravans. The children run barefoot, through tatty clothes on lines strung between the caravans. Men sit on the caravan steps, their fingers rolling cigarettes. Women carry bundled-up babies. I feel scared looking at them.

    I always take my Lourdes medal when we get the car. Nana brought it for me and said it would keep me safe. She told me that Lourdes is a special place in France, where thousands of people go to pray, especially sick people. Sometimes miracles happen and the sick people are cured. My medal’s made from silver metal and has a picture of Mary. It’s the most special thing I have. It’s usually in my pocket, but I put it on top of my bedside cabinet when I go to bed.

    I’ve no idea what the Show People do, but I think it might be something exciting because of the way customers in the shop talk about them and say ‘The Show People are back.’ Back from where?

    They don’t often come into Front Street, but occasionally one of the raggedy children runs into the shop, drops some ha’pennies on the counter and looks hopefully at Dad. He passes over more sweets than the money can buy. I once asked him why, and he just said they deserve a treat.


    Today’s Dad’s day off, so we’re going to visit Nana. We’re nearly at the garage when suddenly Dad stops beside a man who’s mending the wheel of his caravan.  Dad’s asking what he’s doing. My heart’s beating fast. Doesn’t Dad know that’s not the sort of thing you should do?  I’m frightened, standing beside this big, rough-looking man and I grip Dad’s hand tighter. He’s got long dark hair and is wearing a filthy vest. A thick gold chain snakes around his neck. His huge hands hammer away at the wheel rim all the time he’s talking. On the hand holding the wheel, I make out the inky letters J  E  N  N  Y on his fingers and thumb.

    I feel in my pocket for my Lourdes medal and rub my thumb over the smooth surface. The chatter and the hammering go on, and I begin to relax. The caravan door opens and a woman cradling a baby comes out. I sneak a look, and among all this mess, the baby’s wrapped in a snow-white blanket.

    Climbing into the front seat I ask Dad, ‘Why did you talk to that man?’

    He throws the question straight back, ‘Well why not?’

    ‘Cos he’s not like us.’

    ‘What’s wrong with that Josie? Wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same?’

    I think about this on the way to Nana’s. Dad might just be right.


    I know I shouldn’t be reading so late, but it’s the summer holidays. Suddenly there’s loud hammering on the shop door. It’s locked. Then it’s rattled back and forth.

    Is it burglars? My hand flies to the bedside table for my medal. Grabbing it, I slide out of bed, and creep to the window. Lifting the curtain a tiny bit, I see one of the Show People – the one Dad talked to – hammering like a wild thing.

    I hear the bolts being pulled back on the door. Sneaking to the top of the stairs I peep over the bannister and listen hard.

    ‘Baby’s ill’ ‘hospital.’

    Dad calls out – ‘Mary I’m off to get the car to take the Showman and his baby to hospital.’

    Mum’s feet on the stairs sends me scooting back under the covers. Rubbing my thumb over the medal, I say a prayer that the baby will get better.

    Next morning Mum tells me that Dad took one of the Showmen and his poorly baby to hospital during the night. I don’t let on that I know.

    ‘How’s the baby now?’ I ask.

    ‘She’s improving, but she’ll have to stay in until she’s better. They think Dad’s a hero.’

    Later, when the shop goes quiet, Dad says he’s going to see the Showman, who’s called Billy, to ask how the baby is. Mum’s made them a pan of stew and Dad’s fixed up a big bag of sweets for the kids. What can I do to help the Show People?

    ‘Dad, will you take my Lourdes medal to the Showman so he can touch the baby with it?’

    ‘Are you sure? I know how much it means to you.’

    I’ve never given it to anyone before, but I’m desperate for the baby to be better.

    Dad comes back smiling and says the baby’s much better. I’m so pleased.


    Me and my brother Tommy are staying at Nana and Auntie Ann’s house for a week, like we do every summer. Nana’s just told us that for a special treat, she and Auntie Ann are taking us to the fair. She’s explained about the rides and the stalls and the candy floss. It sounds wonderful. After lunch we get the bus to South Shields.  As soon as we get off, we see the rides towering in the sky, and hear the music. I don’t know where to look first. There’s hundreds of stalls with games and prizes, a red and yellow helter-skelter and dodgems. They’ve all got different sounds; hooters, bells, music, and coloured flashing lights.

    I catch sight of the merry-go-round twirling. Beautiful wooden horses, in every colour, are fixed to gold poles. Nana pays the man a shilling, and the four of us pick our horses and cling onto their manes as we go round and up and down. When it finally stops, I climb off and my legs go all wobbly as if the ground’s moving.

    Tommy tugs at my arm and points to a ride with tiny police cars, buses and fire engines.  They’re miniature versions of the real thing. He picks a red fire engine with a ladder and a brass bell. I choose a police car and press the siren which screeches and flashes blue. The man with the collecting bag comes along. There’s something familiar about him, but I can’t have seen him before because this is the first time we’ve been to the fair.

    ‘Hello’ he grins. ‘Don’t you recognise me? I bring my caravan to Washington in the winter.’

    Now I recognise him.  He’s one of the Showmen. At home he just sits on the caravan steps. But here he’s in charge of the ride.

    Next we head over to the Hook a Duck. The stall has a ring of water flowing all round it, filled with different sized plastic ducks that bob up and down.  The man hands us our poles saying,

    ‘You’re the kids from the sweet shop, aren’t you?’

    I nod, feeling proud to be recognised again. On our very last try Tommy wins a toy gun and I get a teddy.

    Nana then lets us choose what we want to eat. I choose candy floss. I’ve never had it before. It’s pink cotton-wool! The man gets a long wooden stick, puts it into a big metal pan. Then right before my eyes it whips up into this huge fluffy cloud on a stick, just like magic! It melts all over my lips before it even reaches my mouth, and then just disappears into a sweet nothingness. Tommy gets an ice cream, Auntie Ann has chips, and Nana a cup of tea – hardly exciting.

    Our very last go is on the dodgems. Nana says this is the best ride of all. Me and Tommy race across the grass and that’s when I see him – it’s Billy! He gives us a huge grin. Nana catches up with us and pulls out her purse.

    ‘No money Missus – on you get kids. Their dad’s a pal of mine.’ He pushes the tokens into the slots. Billy jumps from the back of one car to another, never losing his footing. We squeal and shout every time we’re jolted and bashed. Nana’s right, the dodgems are the best ride.

    Now it’s time for the bus. We’ve had such a brilliant day.  What’s made it doubly enjoyable is the thrill of knowing the people who run this incredible fair. I now know what the Show People do and it’s something magical.


    The winter’s lasted ages and the backyard’s covered in snow.  The drainpipes have frozen, so there’s no water. Dad’s put a ladder up against the coalhouse. His idea is to get a bucket of hot water from the fish shop next door, and pour it over the pipes to thaw them out.

    I’m watching through the window. One minute, Dad’s up the ladder, and the next, the ladder’s falling backwards and bricks from the coalhouse wall are raining down on top of him. Please don’t die Dad!

    I run into the shop shouting –

    ‘Mum, the coalhouse wall’s collapsed on Dad.’

    She flies through the house, into the yard. I don’t know what to do. I then remember my Lourdes medal and pull it out of my pocket. Crouching, I put it in dad’s hand. I now know exactly what to do. I’m running through the shop, across the road, onto the wasteland, straight to Billy’s caravan and burst in. Billy’s reading the paper.

    ‘It’s Dad. The wall’s collapsed on top of him. He’s buried.’

    Billy rockets out of his seat and down the steps with me following. He bangs on some caravans as he runs past, and six or seven big, men run behind us, across the road, through the shop and into the yard. Mum’s only managed to lift a few of the bricks. These big fellas, with arms of steel, get to work, their bare hands quickly clearing the rubble.

    Poor Dad’s bleeding, and really bashed up – but he’s alive. They carry him through to the sitting room. My sister’s brought Dr Briggs with his black bag. He checks Dad over and says he’s lucky not to be seriously injured, but needs to be properly examined at the hospital. He calls an ambulance. The Showmen leave, and Billy says he’ll send his wife, Jenny, across to look after us kids while Mum and Dad are at the hospital. She tells us such exciting stories about the fair. You’ll never believe it, once a dog ran up the stairs of the helter-skelter and half slid, half ran down the slide!

    Much later, Dad and Mum get back. Dad’s arm’s in a sling, but not broken just twisted. He’s covered in cuts and grazes. I hug him. He opens his hand and holds out my Lourdes medal.

    ‘Thank you pet, it certainly saved me.’

    Next morning, Billy pops in to see how Dad’s doing. Mum and Dad can’t stop thanking him, but all Billy says is ‘Nee bother, it’s nowt.’ But to us it isn’t nowt, it’s everything. Billy and the Show People saved Dad and that’s something we’ll never forget. I think Billy must feel exactly the same about Dad helping save his baby.

    When I think about it, if dad hadn’t stopped to talk to Billy that day, we would never have got to know the Show People, and getting to know them is the best thing that’s ever happened to us.

  • An Awful Story by Kate Garlick

    “I saw him that day you know,” Mary said, her chin jutting out, defying her younger sisters to contradict her, “I saw him pull that thing out of the river”.

    Joan kicked a stone down the road. She’d heard this story before. She didn’t know if she believed it. It didn’t matter. The night was drawing in, and the terror it brought was very real.

    “What was it like, Mary?” asked Sarah, her eyes wide with fascination. Her childish eagerness sickened Joan, but of course, Sarah was too young to remember what happened to little Tommy. And how was she to know? No-one talked about him. The memory of him lived only in exchanged glances, in words unsaid as conversations came to an abrupt halt or changed direction. If everyone agreed not to talk about it, people seemed to reason, then maybe it hadn’t happened. But it had happened. Joan had seen it.

    “The thing,” Mary declared, dramatically, “looked like it had come straight from the fires of hell. Some people say it was the devil himself!”

    “I thought you said it was a little worm.”

    “Not a little worm, Joan!” Mary snapped irritably, “a big one. With, you know, horrible little holes and weird markings and… teeth… and what-have-you!” she glared at her sister, and Joan felt a cruel sense of satisfaction in having robbed some of the fire and passion from her story. Mary in full dramatic monologue could be insufferable.

    “Sir John must have been so brave to carry it as far as the well,” Sarah piped up eagerly, oblivious to the psychological warfare taking place between her older siblings, “it could have had his hand off!”

    “Yes, yes, very brave”. Joan sighed. The well part of the story had always baffled her. You catch an evil fish… worm… thing, and instead of killing it or throwing it back, you carry it about for a bit then use it to poison a perfectly good source of drinking water. Sir John sounded more lazy than brave to her. If he’d smashed it with a rock instead they might be allowed to stay out past sunset.

    “Come on,” she said to Sarah, who was dancing about excitedly with what appeared to be an imaginary fishing rod, “it’ll be getting dark soon.”

    Sarah ignored this and turned to her oldest sister, “Oh, I can’t believe you saw it Mary, you’re so lucky! I wish I could see it, just once!”

    “You do not – wish – that!” Joan snapped, louder and sharper than she’d intended, in a voice that sounded very much like her mother’s. She softened when she saw tears welling in Sarah’s eyes, but it was a stupid, dangerous thing to wish. You shouldn’t tempt fate at the best of times, and Lord knows fate didn’t need much persuasion in times like these.

    The three girls continued down the lane in silence. Dusk was drawing in, and the only sounds were the crunching of feet on gravel, and the distant bleating of sheep being herded indoors for the night. There were certainly fewer sheep around these days – another thing that no-one wanted to talk about.

    Reaching their home, the girls headed inside, deftly barring and bolting the back door behind them.

    “Are you in?” their mother shouted from an upstairs room.

    “We’re in!” Joan yelled back, “door’s bolted!”

    “Did you get the cheese?” their mother asked anxiously, as she descended the stairs, balancing baby George on her hip.

    “Yes, and the bread,” Joan said, unpacking the basket on to the kitchen table, “but they could only give us four ounces. Something about the milk shortage.”

    Joan looked at her mother’s face, lined with worry and exhaustion, and felt bad that they’d not tried to negotiate for more cheese. “It’s ok, mother, we’ll manage,” she said, kindly, “we always do.”

    “Jojo! Jojo!” George reached out two pudgy arms to his sister and Joan took him and transferred him to her own hip. There was something immensely satisfying about being the baby’s favourite person. It confirmed what she’d suspected for some time: that she was vastly superior to both of her siblings.

    She’d been little Tommy’s favourite as well. Tommy, with his squidgy knees and chubby red cheeks. She could make him laugh like a drain just by pulling a face – not even his own mother could get a giggle out of him the way Joan could. It was all in the eyebrows; he found a raised eyebrow to be the height of comical entertainment. Tommy had been about the same age as George when…. well, it didn’t bear thinking about.

    “I hear that Sir John’s coming home soon, girls, we might not have too much more of… this,” the girls’ father gestured expansively with his pipe to encompass their predicament in its entirety, “they say he’s quite the fighter, and he’ll have picked up a few tricks with those knights, I bet!” He smiled kindly, but it was obvious he didn’t believe his own words. Only Sarah had any real faith in Sir John’s legendary bravery. Mary thought he’d need an army to help him. Mother doubted he’d ever come home at all. Joan secretly harboured an unforgivable hope that he’d be killed by the thing, which she thought would teach him a ruddy good lesson, although admittedly he wouldn’t be alive enough to learn what it was.

    It would be bedtime soon. Some folks in the village had taken to sleeping all in one room, together, but the girls’ father was confident that their bedroom shutters, with their sturdy metal bracing bars, would keep them safe.

    Their house was the largest in the village, with four bedrooms. Their parents slept in a room at the front of the house, with a smaller room next door for George. The two older girls shared the largest back bedroom, and Sarah had her own smaller room bedside it. Mary wanted that room for herself, arguing that, as the eldest, it should rightfully be hers, but Sarah’s sleep talking made her a terrible roommate. One New Year’s Eve she had woken up the entire house shouting incomprehensibly about a mouse wearing sandals, and had to be guided back to bed by both sisters. Sarah never had any memory of these nocturnal outbursts and was convinced the rest of the family were making them up. Sometimes the girls did, because it was funny, but mostly they really did happen, and it was decreed that to preserve everyone else’s sanity that she should sleep alone.

    After a meagre super of bread and cheese, the family retired for the night.

    “Make sure those shutters are barred, girls!”

    “Yes, father!”

    As if they’d ever forget.

    It must have been around midnight when Joan woke up. She’d been dreaming about a lost lamb who’d gotten caught in a fence. The shepherd was shouting from across the field, but his words were carried away in the wind. The sheepdog was running up and down, up and down, barking at the frightened thing, but it couldn’t move. She wanted to help it, but she couldn’t reach, she was stuck too, somehow. And the sky was darkening.

    She woke up, heart pounding, and it took her a few moments to realise she was in her bedroom and not out in the field. But something wasn’t right. She could still hear the banging and rattling of the fence from her dream, and there was a cold draught coming from the corridor.


    She staggered out of bed, pulled on a dressing gown and half ran, half fell towards little George’s room, her heart pounding as she imagined what she might find when she flung open the door.

    But George was sleeping soundly, and his shutters were closed tight.

    “George, you’re ok, Joan whispered, more to herself than to the sleeping baby, “I thought — I’m so glad you’re ok.”

    Now that Joan had woken up properly and her brain had had a chance to catch up with her body, she started to feel a little silly. Of course George was safe. She’d just gotten confused, thinking the sounds from her dream were coming from inside the house and not inside her head. Fear had taken over and propelled her down the corridor before her brain had any sort of say in the matter. She brushed the sleeping George’s cheek and padded out into the hallway to return to her bed.

    Then she heard it again. A banging. A rattling. It was coming from Sarah’s room.

    “Sarah, are you sleepwalking again?”

    There was no answer.


    Joan pulled her dressing gown tightly around her and forced herself to inch towards Sarah’s room. Each step was a triumph of will, as her primal instincts screamed at her to turn back.

    She reached the door. The banging continued inside, irregular and jarring. Steeling her nerves, she gripped the handle and pushed it open.

    To her horror, she saw the sash had been thrown up and both shutters were standing open, a stiff night breeze battering them against the walls.

    “Sarah!” she screeched, “Why in God’s name have you opened–”

    But Sarah’s bed was empty.

    The sickening realisation hit Joan like iced water down the back. Sarah had opened that window, and those shutters, in a stupid, childish attempt to catch a glimpse of it. She’d wanted to see it, hadn’t she? Just once.

    Turning back to the window, Joan saw exactly what she’d seen the night Tommy was taken.

    A cloudless sky.

    Moonlit fields.

    And the worm, slithering away into the night.

  • Galleries of Memories by Gillian Harrison

    A decade old,
    The new town became part of
    The Borough of Sunderland
    In that same year
    A retail palace
    Was opened by a princess
    I join the story
    Before I can remember,
    It being a place I have known all my life
    The familiar journey down
    The Washington Highway,
    Batman on the skyline
    And when I passed my test
    It was one of the routes
    That I knew best
    Apart from that one winter we walked in the snow
    The car parks, hardly changed
    While the cars get bigger
    And more in number
    The environmental consequence
    Of progress and thoughtless
    Urban planning
    Past the baths (now gone)
    Where I learned to swim
    On Saturday mornings
    And the bowling alley
    I went with Guides
    And we first beat me Dad
    Going into the mall
    For eye tests and hair cuts
    Or other random bits
    Staring at the magical
    Creation in the square,
    Hanging from the ceiling

    Half memories of
    That fearsome worm
    Leering back at you every hour,
    Then slain
    Sometimes going to Woolco,
    The Red Balloon at Gateway or Asda
    For breakfast
    Five items for 99p
    Before putting the trays
    On a conveyor belt
    This one time in Mothercare
    I wandered from me Mam
    And into the suddenly strange mall
    Having to be announced then recovered in lost and found
    Every Friday after school
    We made the pilgrimage to
    The blue and orange mecca
    Vague memories of just
    Squeezing into the seat
    Of the trolley
    Then toddling behind with
    Me plastic bag
    Looking for treasure
    Treasure being, to a three-year-old, rubbish from the floor
    A particular joy from
    The little plastic sizes
    Off of clothes hangers
    A trait of collecting
    Random items of interest
    That still exists today
    Bread tags,
    Used price gun stickers
    And any form of plastic wrapper
    The staff might like the hand with the cleaning

    Following me Mam with her rigid list
    While Dad dipped in and out,
    Sometimes returning with appropriate loot
    Not always what we want
    But what we might need
    And didn’t realise yet
    The joint for Sunday dinner
    Or random reduced items
    Like exotic fruit
    At least to a kid in the 80s in Washington
    Slightly older, tasked meself
    With forgotten items
    Or Granda’s list
    Always a box of mansize Klennex and a Maderia cake
    Wandering the aisles to reunite
    But knowing me Mam would always be found
    At the wine section, f all else failed.
    I remember,
    Marvelling at the vacuum message
    System at the tills
    That complex arrangement
    Of pipes and tubes
    Whooshing up to the roof
    The first computerised store in Europe, I read at Beamish
    And then there was
    The Christmas shop,
    The trolley brimming with food
    Exciting treats
    You’re only allowed
    One time each year
    Sugared almonds,
    The big box of Quality Street
    And a bill of over a hundred quid

    Sadly less than the weekly norm these days
    Me parents still do their
    Weekly homage, retired,
    On a Wednesday afternoon
    Meeting me sister for a muffin
    Who has kept the locals in sight
    For over twenty years
    I moved away,
    But return sometimes
    For random bits
    I see the folk of Washington pass by and I feel at home.

  • The Promise by Christophe Hodgson











  • Them by Tom Davie

    He slowly emerges from his faded brown chair and moves past the mustard -canopied table with its two lonely chairs. He is heavy, and burdened with a fleshy neck and buttoned chin that percolate over the base of a frayed stiff collar emerging under a grim morbid suit. He is a man of modest but acceptable means and His costume reflects this situation. His eyes are narrow, as if requesting protection from an illusory sun. He peeps through Them, at His appearance, in a coarse mirror and with head bowed low as if meeting a woman beyond his abilities to charm, He leaves His meek home closing a clean but flaked door behind Him.

    He proceeds down a charmless cobbled lane ignoring the squalid calls and the grinning tardiness of the women of the night who hide in forgettable shadows, murky like their own existence. He nods an unexceptional greeting at a passer by, an acquaintance but not a friend; He has few connections and this is His meagre sign of salutation – the man repeats this gesture as if a reflection of Him. In an unremitting dusk He crosses a wide street dodging laden cabs and traps that clatter relentlessly on the poisoned terrain, stepping in puddles of horse defecation blighting His clean but indifferent self-grooming. He recognises but ignores the splashes on His brogues and dark dingy overcoat that stretches down to His calves, but no further, like some immodest Victorian piano.

    He shuffles with an unexceptional but business like speed through an echoing railway tunnel with draining polluted water dripping unhurriedly onto his conspiring black hat, funnelling the solution onto his curled shoulders. Arriving at the end of this warren, He negotiates a cramped stoned path which dissects a superficial worn garden of etiolated, sagging weeds and obeisant headed dandelions, before knocking firmly but without confidence at a gaunt door directly opposite. His charred artisan knuckles chaff on the splintered entrance which is grimy, rotten, unwelcoming.

    She answers the door and a polite silent kiss is exchanged on insipid cheeks. She is small, very small and appears young. Her youthfulness belies her true age and experience. There is a narrowness to Her face and it is pale. Her neck is long and rutted as if wax from a candle has poured down and coagulated. It ends at the hem of the hewn bones that meet Her emaciated green dress.

    He knows His way through the stiff hallway not wide enough for a coffin to pass and proceeds into a dark room of claustrophobic red decoration. A solitary gas filament is burning; making a mirage of His shape in the gloom. A plain clock strikes and imitates an early November 6pm, but it feels even later. On the mantelpiece are two stern studio photographs incarcerating three rigid faces. Their bodies are shrouded in burdensome clothes all of which are subdued even for the period. Two chipped dogs sit on a mantle spread with weeping tassels, that drape but do not reach near enough to the damp hearth of smouldering discarded coal.

    She does not enter but proceeds through an anti chamber into a bare kitchen with a stone floor that chimes Her deteriorating heeled shoes. There is a fire blazing, a substitute for the lukewarm room where He sits striking a match onto powerless tobacco, pleading for some greater sense of taste as He despairingly sucks in its modest essence. A kettle discharges steaming water, fumigating the air. There is some old crusted bread waiting alongside pallid butter on an otherwise naked table. She weeps in fits, her breast siphoning short gasps of air and Her cold hands in tandem congeal the insipid warmth of Her tears. He does not hear, as the clock with its tepid tic tock veils Her sound in the cocooned room.

    She eventually enters the dispirited chamber with a wooden tray pall bearing butter scaled onto the dead bread served on fading floral porcelain; enough for Her and Him. There is thin tea in the two cups, pallid with milk that feels withdrawn from its host. He emanates a precise obligation of thanks for Her servile offertory. He pursues His mattered chewing and sipping while She stares as if in some hopeless fasting night watch, starved of a need to eat or drink Her own. The clock continues to tap the seconds of life that breathe slowly but without purpose throughout the shallow room.

    Nothing is said; They are like former lovers meeting again as strangers, uncomfortable but sheltered in their own occupied thoughts. An hour passes by in morbid silence, maybe more, since His arrival but it is like a day. He bends forward as if to rise but She halters His sloped elevation with a shielded hand. He stares with soured eyes at Her repression and sinks again into the folds of the bare lined seat. There is a faint glimmer of fondness on Her face, a gesture of thanks for His subjugation. The silence proceeds.

    Outside a train scuttles by, its cloudy breath haloing like some sacred incense at a Catholic Benediction around the house, aa others stand aside as sentries but with no purpose to guard or bow. A dog whines in the distance, a muffled cry that is deafening. The two noises merge into a frustrated deathly overture. There are occasional cracks of shoes on damp surfaces and whispers, the words rising and fading in the dreariness, but unintelligible to other infrequent passers by.

    He stays perhaps until 10pm; although the clock sends out its facts in the exhausted light, there is a confusion of what is chronological and what becomes a purgatory of time. They finally share hushed farewells and hands are held weakly. Gaunt fingers are released reluctantly, not knowing how and when they should depart. He shrinks away and She hears Him disappear into the anonymous street. She locks out the night and returns to Her chair where She sleeps erratically; there is fear of climbing oblivious stairs to a lonely bed. She recollects in the momentum between consciousness and unconsciousness Their first meeting; as a tearful son was tendered into Her care for the first time by Her then unpronounced Lover. Their eyes had touched the fear and excitement of the child’s transition from parent to teacher. Later as trust grew her Lover had shared His paternal solitude with Her; His responsibilities; His concerns and then His own life. Her house became a refuge when His child at weekends had been dispensed into the protection of a sympathetic, unquestioning nanny. There was light in Her dwelling a metaphor for a Friendship that was to become a mere conduit for the turmoil and conflict that was to brand Them after Their passion had been extinguished.

    He retraces His steps to the lane, where a solitary alehouse is still seeping out its joy. Inside there are the pronouncements of men and women disguising their thirst with a lust for song at a tuneless piano which accompanies laughter and indecipherable conversation. He passes by like a ghost to His friendless bed embraced in His contemplations and dim reminiscences. He lies awake teasing out desperate memories of a love extinguished. After They met He had spent infrequent warm sunny weekdays on white windy beaches with His Lover. It was hardly a year ago, but it now seemed a lifetime since They had shared discreet, undisclosed embraces. Now these were ended. Such short lived joy, such prolonged sorrow.

    Morning arrives too soon for Both. In parallel They dress reluctantly and proceed into Their cold, damp, misty and lifeless day. They assemble almost as an accident, but it is deliberate, at the dreadful hung gates of a graveyard with its defeated surrounding wall and buttress of corroded wrought iron piles that climb and then disappear into the murkiness of the day. They continue inside and meet almost by chance a tall long hearse with two plumbed black horses at its ghastly head. The animals stutter their hooves on a roughly hewn track of cinders. Their motions are ponderous; they are chained to a dull thing that has no purpose but to convey an inanimate enclosed body to its eventual place of resurrection. Their power and will are suppressed but they accept the slavery with little more than instinctive movements.

    In the concealed corner of the un-consecrated field They see Their destination. They follow a moist trail of trampled grass to within sight of a congregation of people hunched around an acrid grave. The womens suppurate eyes are bloodshot but the faces are appeased by signs of affluence; rounded countenances all of them, with jet weaved onto silver chains strangling their corpulent necks. The men display no scars of emotion; they are composed and merely wedded to the death that lies below them. All stand in a haven of decaying bones and rigid putrefying skin. Beyond the gathering are an assembly of gravestones; one, an angel with proclaiming wings appears to be sounding out the last judgement. Another is flat and has obscured words chipped irregularly on its fascia; as if Moses has hastily noted God’s words without absolute conviction before presenting them to the multitude. Elsewhere a fat crow thrusts its sooty beak into the air from a conniving mausoleum; the bird flies and They sneak from behind a leafless tree to take refuge beside the furrowed pillars.

    An unimaginative looking Minister consents to send out a stream of abandoned words, ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ amid the damp muffled noise of mourning. Meaningless disappearing words to those present. ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto you oh Lord’ are their unconscious reply. They reverberate without thought in the dull sad day, a mantra of exhumed disingenuous communication. Then a crackle of soil is heard loudly shackling the wood and brass below, filling the surrounding valley on whose summit they all rest. The last echo on the brown tomb that will soon be obscured from all signs of future sun and icy star-studded nights.

    As sudden as the ceremony began it ends and exiled heads turn away from the wet clay lined hole. They stoop into an increasing deluge of wind and permeating drizzle and claw through the spongy turf to forlorn carriages destined to commute them to vacuous mansions of trailing corridors. They will rejoin the living and the half living, comforted and protected in their swaddled lives, served refreshments by anonymous servants who like them will disappear in time and memory. They will soon forget the Man who They now mourn who They had sat cosily with at musical evenings, who They had drank claret with and who smoked rich cigars. He was one of Them but now He is the face of their own mortality which They desire to obscure, to shun.

    He and She in contrast linger and stare at each other in a desperate petition of hope before retreating from Their hiding place unhurriedly and backwards continuing to glimpse at the still unfilled grave. They are reluctant to leave but They are also fearful of being identified as collaborators in His death; in His suicide. They are scared by the imagery of His painful slow expiry that had He not shared with Them; of the torture of his decision to end his contradictory existence. They are petrified by Their own revelatory reminiscences and sharing of His glorious life.

    They promise to return daily to this sombre place to relive Their memories as They alone can share Their fate, Their loss. Harmony in death but not life. Their emaciated pain is one that no one else but Them can be permitted to enter.

    Their Lover was a tall man, proud and military. Their Lover was respected and marked only by past battles won; but now finally and permanently lost.

    Their lives have become a dismembered Trinity. They part from Him in withered remembrance.

  • Ukraine and the Eagles by Meryl Mathieson

    Guarding Washington Old Hall.

    We proudly stand.

    Two mighty warriors in these peaceful grounds.

    Rage slowly engulfs us.
    United in our cause our
    stone garments crumble
    as we morph into fearsome corvids,
    ready to fly.

    We leave this tranquil garden
    and join the fight for freedom
    from oppression and to end this futile war.

  • The Trial of Jane Atkinson by Kevin Robson

    In sixteen hundred and ninety six,
    Cattle withered and shivered
    On legs as thin as hazel sticks,
    No longer meat or milk delivered
    From these forlorn boulders of blood,
    No longer lowing or chewing the cud,
    And one by one, they sank to the ground,
    No trace of ill, or remedy could be found.

    Anger festered from hopeless desperation
    No help from above to justify their faith,
    Their eyes fell on the old lady Jane Atkinson,
    Versed in ways of old, likened to a wraith
    They said she gathered bark, herbs and seeds
    For lotions and potions that served her needs
    Alone in her isolated ramshackle hovel,
    They said she was the mischief of a devil.

    But no-one asked her about the bovine malady,
    She didn’t offer any help, so it was plain to see
    That this tragedy and cruel distress,
    Was the work of Satan’s Sorceress.
    She had no devils mark, or cloven hoof,
    But there were others ways of finding truth,
    Trial by superstition, then trussed in a sack,
    For poor old Jane, there was no way back.

    Cast on the water, if she sank she should be set free,
    Cast on the water, if she floated, she is surely guilty.
    She went down the first time, and did not re-appear,
    Pulled out alive, then cast in again, to quell their fear,
    She survived again once more, but it was obvious,
    This harridan was a breathing living dead Mörbius.
    Cries unheeded, she was cast out for a third time,
    As she sank to the depths for her alleged Crime.

    The pond surface stayed calm and very still
    As poor Jane, in the depths would remain,
    The mob were quiet, surely it was God’s will,
    Their new livestock would be safe once again.
    And as to Jane, her body was re-taken,
    Blessed, then interred, a soul forsaken,
    Many say to drink from that dark pond requires courage,
    Slake your thirst elsewhere, when in Washington Village

  • The Boy in the Chimney By David Farn

    ISAAC LOWTHIAN BELL appears. The year is 1885 and Lowthian, as he is known, is 69 years old. Even at this age he is a vigorous, active man, with a quick mind. In his younger days he had a reputation for being cold and abrasive. Now he has softened a little.

    LOWTHIAN seems preoccupied, and is listening for something. He is – notionally – standing outside Dame Margaret Hall, formerly Washington New Hall.

    LOWTHIAN      Do you hear that? (pause) No? (pause) Sorry, I should introduce myself. Isaac Lowthian Bell. They’ve just made me a baronet, you know? Services to Industry and the Arts. They call me the Ironmaster, but that’s only part of the picture. Iron – chemicals – railways – the Forth Bridge, that was one of my projects. Aluminium. Yes.

    I set up the Washington Chemical Works. It was the first time anyone had made that metal on an industrial scale. To mark the moment, I had an aluminium hat made – at that time it was more expensive than gold itself – and wore it as I paraded through Newcastle in a coach, saluting the huge crowds (doing so) who had turned out to cheer me on.

    So what am I doing here, outside this derelict old hall? To be honest, I’m not really sure. (pause) It used to be the new hall, Washington New Hall. I had it built in 1854 as the family home. I was very much on the up, in those days, and commissioned Philip Webb himself to design an architectural showpiece: a bold statement in bright red brick of new money and industrial success. A nineteenth-century retort to the seventeenth-century, stone-built, old money of Washington Old Hall.

    I don’t live here now. I live at Rounton Grange, down Northallerton way. Yet this place still draws me back.

    It was a September day in 1872. I was at the Works, as usual, so I wasn’t here to witness the arrival of Thomas Clark, a Gateshead chimney-sweep that my housekeeper had engaged. He had a boy with him. Christopher Drummond, aged seven. Clark had, no doubt, ‘saved’ the child from the poverty and degradation of the workhouse. Goodness knows what the boy made of this splendid edifice.

    It was against the law to employ children in this trade. In fact, the Chimney Sweeps Regulations Act of 1864 forbade the use of anyone under the age of twenty-one to enter a chimney. But most people ignored the rule, and young boys – and sometimes girls – continued to be exploited.

    Christopher’s task that day was to clean out the chimney that served the fire in the glasshouse where my gardener cultivated grapes and apricots and such like. I doubt Christopher had ever seen an apricot. Not that he had much leisure to gawp at the fruit, for his master soon urged him up the flue and into an unimaginably dark, sooty, choking world.

    The boy was up there for some fifteen minutes before his master thought to check on his progress. Getting no answer, he poked the boy with a long stick. And then, suspecting Christopher of taking a nap on the job, sent another boy up – a local lad named Winter – and, using a rope tied to Christopher’s feet, they dragged him out. But he was already dead. Suffocated in that black womb.

    There was an inquest, of course, and Thomas Clark was referred to Durham Assizes, where he denied any wrongdoing. But the jury thought differently, and Clark got six months hard labour. Breaking rocks or picking oakum, probably. But I wonder, is there any labour harder or more dangerous than crawling in those tarry, black tunnels?

    Poor little Christopher was one of the last boys to die in such circumstances. Lord Shaftesbury himself intervened, there were letters in The Times, and a public outcry. Eventually, three years later, they got around to actually enforcing the Act.

    For myself, no blame was attached, though, as you can imagine – ‘Child Dies in Rich Industrialist’s Glasshouse’ – it left a certain taint.

    We left the New Hall not long afterwards. It has stood empty now for years. I can’t sell it. No one wants to buy a house with that history.

    I shall have to gift it to someone. Barnardos, perhaps. I hear they do good work with – with poor boys.

    Do you hear that now? (pause) Listen! You must do! A voice! A child.

    Sobbing. Choking. Dying.

    Good day to you all.

    LOWTHIAN exits.


  • Log Boat By Pauline May

    Recovered From the River Wear in 1888.

    Log boat.
    That’s what the Sunderland Museum sign says.

    Log boat.
    River cranked, silt tide scuffled.
    Long flat-bottomed medieval canoe,
    hatchet-hollowed from one huge trunk of oak.
    Now twisted, curled and bowed.
    All wood grain and knots now,
    hard and haggard as jet-black elephant skin.
    River-marinaded. River-overdosed.

    Log boat.
    Pulling out now on the water
    because the merchants wouldn’t listen.
    The merchants couldn’t wait.
    The fair begins tomorrow on which
    their fortune’s staked. Their primal itch to
    cross the river. Travel pushed. Travel doped.

    Log boat.
    Loaded up with pelts, cloths, chisels
    and deer horn, five men, a boy and two large dogs.
    And twenty minutes ago, the packhorse
    had already swum over, with the other boy
    clinging like a limpet to his neck.

    Log boat.
    Moving away now from the pressed marsh shallows
    with their tender orchids, heading for the far bank
    where nettles scold.

    Log boat.
    Brusque, tough ferryman;
    merchants’ knife held to his throat.
    His river salt bristles and river hard biceps
    read his river rides when the time is right.
    Now he feels its tidal swells scream in his chest
    and hears his ferry’s creaking notes.

    Log boat.
    Laden low, as the boy jumps about,
    fooling and taunting. ‘Sit down’
    growls the ferryman, as panic takes hold,
    as the river’s tidal spite and spirit
    comes up to take them down.

    The ferryman can swim.
    All else drowns.

    Log boat sinks.

  • A Royal Dinner By Angela Richardson

    Joan was in the garden, on her knees, pulling out carrots. She smiled as her husband, Robert De Washington, scrolled down the path towards her.

    “That’s no work for a lady.” He joked. “Especially one carrying an heir to Washington Hall in her belly.”

    He held out his hand and pulled his pregnant wife to her feet, kissing her on the cheek.

    “I thought you said you liked a dirty woman.” She whispered.

    “I do.” He replied tapping her tummy. “But not in front of baby Robert.”

    They linked arms and strolled towards the back entrance of their home, Washington Hall.

    The sound of horse’s hooves clattering across the courtyard interrupted the young couples walk.

    “Wonder who that can be?” Said Joan, as they went to greet the unexpected visitor.

    A King’s guard dismounted from his horse, he nodded to the couple and asked.

    “Robert De Washington?”

    Robert smiled, “That’s me.”

    “I bring a message from the King. His Majesty King Edward and Queen Margaret are travelling from Scotland next week. They are planning on staying here overnight before the royal party continue their travels to Newcastle.”

    The guard handed Robert a document secured with red wax, embossed with the royal seal.

    He opened this and together they read the proclamation.

    The Guard spoke. “Are you able to accommodate his Majesty’s requirements?”

    Robert shuffled nervously before smiling and stating, “Of course we are, it would be a honour to have the King and Queen grace us with their presence.”

    The Guard nodded and handed over a second sealed document. “Here are some instructions around the Royal parties’ requirements. Adhere to these and things should go smoothly.” He grinned and rolled his eyes upwards, as if trying to communicate a secret to them, without speaking it out loud.

    He climbed back onto his horse and headed off.

    They waited until he was out of ear shot then looked at each other.

    Joan squealed with excitement. “The King and Queen visiting us. That’ll put the Lambton’s noses right out of joint.”

    “I could do without this, have you seen the list of requirements! This will cost us a fortune.”

    “There’s some things money can’t buy.” She replied, “Like a new coat of arms granted by the King himself, come on Husband, it’ll be great.”

    “I don’t know, he’s supposed to have a wicked temper, apparently, he pulled handfuls of hair out of his son’s head ‘cos he upset him.”

    “What young Prince Edmund’s head! He’s only 2! The monster.”

    “No. His eldest son, to his first wife, Prince Edward. He’s been overindulging by all accounts. The King doesn’t hold back if he’s upset.”

    “Well, we’ll just have to make sure everything’s perfect.” Said Joan, taking her husband’s arm and leading him inside.

    September 1304. Washington Hall had been scrubbed from top to bottom in preparation for the Royal visit. The servants were ordered to change into their clean clothes and the cook enlisted extra help from the villagers to prepare the feast.

    “Joan, I don’t know why you insisted on cleaning out every cupboard. They’re never going to look under the stairs or in the pantry.”

    “It needed doing, they’ll be here soon,” she snapped before raising her arm and pulling his nose into her armpit. “Do I smell alright?”

    “Lovely,” he teased “Warm and sweet like the back of the stables.”

    “Give over,” she said, bringing her arm down sharply and slapping his back.

    They laughed but this suddenly stopped, as they heard the clip-clop of hooves.

    “They’re here.” Whispered Joan wide eyed with excitement.

    “They’re here!” Shouted Robert “Places everyone”

    The servants moved quickly and formed two lines leading to the doorway.

    A tray of drinks was poured and presented to Robert’s manservant and Joan’s ladies maid held a bunch of flowers for the Queen. The Washington’s made their way to the front of the line and waited anxiously for the royal carriage to arrive.

    Within minutes two horse men appeared, flanked by the Royal carriage. Behind the carriage a further group of guards’ rode.

    The procession stopped and the footmen travelling on the back of the carriage alighted and while one opened the door, the other carefully placed a small set of steps.

    The King emerged from the carriage, crouched so as not to bump his head. He straightened up and as he uncurled, some servants gasped at the height of this man. He towered above his hosts.

    “He’s a giant.” Muttered Joan’s maid. “Look at those legs, I see why they call him Longshanks, hope he fits into the bed.”

    Joan Shushed her impatiently.

    For a man of over 60 years old he still had a powerful stance. He acknowledged the crowd with a brief bow and turned to extend a hand to assist his wife down the steps.

    The Queen was much younger than her husband, petite and beautiful. She stretched her arms and legs to ease the cramps from the journey. Together they approach Robert and Joan who simultaneously bowed and curtsied.

    The King spoke “Thank you both for your hospitality. We are looking forward to resting here. It’s been a long travel. Shall we get inside and take some refreshments?”

    “This way” Robert responded, and the party of four walked through the line of servants bobbing as they passed. At the door the King took a drink of mead offered from the tray, The Queen accepted the flowers from the lady’s maid, then passed them onto Joan, who did not expect this and hurriedly passed them back to the maid.

    Their Majesties sat down by the fire. Their servant stepped forward and started to remove the Kings footwear, he addressed the Washingtons.

    “Their Highnesses would like some meat and bread and look forward to seeing you at dinner.”

    “Of course.” Replied Robert and started to walk towards his head of household.

    As he did so a royal maid approached Joan, she bowed and enquired where the King and Queen were to sleep so that she could personally prepare the room.

    Joan beckoned her maid, “This is Jenny, she will help you.”

    The King’s man closed the large doors to the hall leaving the King and Queen alone with their entourage.

    “Well! That’s that. “Said Joan, exhaling with exasperation. “I guess, we’ll see then at Dinner.”

    The couple retired to their private bedroom and let the hustle and bustle that ensued wash over them.


    As the evening drew in Robert escorted his wife to the dining hall. The room had been transformed. Candles twinkled from the table and other surfaces around the room. Green foliage peppered with bursts of flowers adorned chairs and the drinking goblets and cutlery were set down with precision around four dining places.

    Robert was not really sure what to do, but the King’s man approached.

    “First time hosting Royalty?” He enquired kindly. “May I give you some advice? Remain standing until their Majesties enter, bow and show them to their seats. Do not sit until the King and Queen have sat down. Do not start a conversation and address The King as Your Highness first then Sir. As for the Queen, your Highness First, then Ma’am. If they stand you stand, do not leave the table until they have left. Avoid talk around Scotland, he’s in a hell of a humour about the Scots.

    “Thank you” replied Robert gratefully.

    The King suddenly burst into the room, striding towards the table, he looked annoyed. Behind him came his wife hurrying to keep up.

    “Margaret, you look ridiculous! Take that thing off” He scolded.

    The Queen was defiant. “I will not!” She retorted touching a tartan sash she’d draped over her dress. “I like it.”

    The couple walked straight past their hosts and sat down oblivious to their presence. The older royal servant nudged the couple to take their seats.

    The King stared at his wife. “I’m sick of Scotland and I don’t want to be reminded of it at dinner.”

    “Well Edward,” mocked the Queen in a Scottish accent “Why do you want to be King of the Scots and make me their Queen, I’d leave then to get on with it, if it was up to me.”

    “If I left them to get on with it, they’d tear the country apart. Cousins fighting for the throne. Its unstable. All I need is one of them with a claim to the throne to form an alliance with France and England becomes a French principality.

    “Most of my families French” goaded the Queen.

    “And that’s why I married you. To keep the peace. But there’s precious little peace here tonight.”

    The Queen turned away from her husband and addressed the hosts.

    “He’s sick of them fighting for the Scottish throne.” She giggled a little. “Last time we were up he took their coronation stone, The Stone of Scone, to stop them crowning new Kings. He dragged it all the way back to London and put it under his Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.”

    She continued smiling to her husband, soothing his temper. “They still keep fighting for independence. But my love, you’ve captured William Wallace, so things should settle down.”

    The King sighed. “If Robert the Bruce can be trusted, Scotland might be more stable, but he’s a tricky character. I loathe the sound of his name, He infuriates me. Unfortunate choice of name for you De Washington, it turns me sick.”

    “ I need to show then all that I’ll not tolerate rebellion, So Wallace is being brought to London for a fair trial before I hang him”

    The King paused. “Hangings too good for him, you know what I’m going to do?”

    “What my love?” Asked the Queen

    “I’m going to hang him, pull him down, rip his bowel open, then quarter him. That’ll show them” He smiled visualizing the seen.

    “Yes, then burn him and feed his ashes to the dogs.” The Queen added enthusiastically.

    “Margaret, I’m not a savage, don’t be so ridiculous!”

    The Queen turned to Joan.

    “Princesses have little control over who they marry, its practically decided in the womb. When Edwards first wife died and father said I was to come to England I cried for a week, but despite his grumpiness tonight and the age difference, he’s a good husband and we’ve grown fond of each other.”

    The King reached out and affectionately squeezed Margaret’s hand.

    The Queen smiled and said “Edward you’ve done well in Scotland, and with your 15 children and counting, she rubbed her belly, England has an abundance of heirs.

    She gazed at Joans swollen tummy, “Any names chosen yet?”

    Robert’s eyes widened. Joan replied confidently “George! Like our patron Saint of England”

    The King laughed. “Great name.” And drunk his wine.

    The King stood. The Queen Stood. The Washingtons stood.

    The King spoke. “Goodnight.”

    The servant mouthed to Robert that they were excused.

    The Washingtons exited the dining hall.

    Robert raised a brow. “George, where did that name come from?”

    “I didn’t dare say Robert, too Scottish.” Laughed Joan as they climbed the stairs to go to bed.

    The couple were woken at dawn to the sound of the carriage leaving the courtyard. The Royal party were on their way.

    On the table was a note from the King. Robert read it out loud.

    “We appreciate your kindness and bestow upon you and your kin, a new coat of arms.”

    Beneath the writing was a sketch of three bars and mullets.

    “It’s very plain.” Mused Joan turning it onto its side, scrutinizing the drawing.

    “I like the family coats with unicorns or lions on. Poor baby George.” She lamented, patting her tummy. “Been stuck with an old-fashioned name and coat of arms like this. What a legacy.”

    Robert nodded looking over her shoulders. “It’s not the best, looks a little like stars and stripes. Maybe if we add a little colour, it’ll have more show and baby George and his descendants will grow to love it.”

Stay connected with Arts Centre Washington Instagram Twitter Facebook