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Authors: Annie Murray

Tags: #Birmingham Saga, #book 2

Water Gypsies

BOOK: Water Gypsies



Water Gypsies
Annie Murray
Pan Macmillan (2010)
Birmingham Saga, Book 2


Book 2

It is 1942, and after a childhood of suffering in Birmingham, Maryann Bartholomew has built a life of happiness and safety with her husband Joel and their children, working the canals on his narrowboat, the Esther Jane. But the back-breaking work and constant childbearing take their toll on Maryann, and the tragic loss of her old friend Nancy, followed by a further pregnancy lead her to a desperate act which nearly costs her her life.

The walls of her security are broken down when Joel suffers an accident, and to keep the boats working, Maryann is forced to allow Sylvia and Dot, two wartime volunteers, into the privacy of their life. And when she discovers that someone keeps calling for her at Birmingham's Tyseley Wharf, the dark memories of her past begin to overwhelm her life. For that someone, who seems to be watching her every move, is becoming more dangerous that even she could imagine...

Annie Murray

Water Gypsies




August 1942

‘There we are, my dear.’ The midwife leaned over to receive the baby from the doctor after the cord was cut. ‘And it’s another little lady!’

In a moment the screams of the second twin joined those of her sister, who was already lying, wrapped in a scrap of sheet, in an apple box on the side bed of the cabin.

The young mother’s groans of pain had ceased and she lay back, drained of strength, without even the energy to raise her head and look at her babies. Her eyes were glazed with exhaustion, the dark hair slicked to her head. She seemed barely conscious as the doctor stitched her up. The second babe had been awkwardly positioned and he had resorted to forceps.

Miss Lyons, the midwife, stepped outside onto the counter at the back of the boat while he finished off, pleased to be out of the blasted man’s way. She was running with sweat, her hair damp round her temples and the nape of her neck, but it was blazing hot outside, the breeze so sluggish that it was barely more than a ripple against her clammy skin. She perched on the gunwale, wiped her face with her hanky and let out a long sigh. Thank heavens that was over! She could scarcely remember a labour that she had so dearly wanted finished, such was the distress and fragility of the mother. And birthing women in these cabins was a challenge all of its own, with it being dark and no more room than a shoebox, and the stove lit – in this weather! – to boil water. It was like a furnace in there. Even so, the doctor had done more than his fair share of complaining, she thought.

When she’d realized it was twins and sent to him for assistance, only one of them could attend to Mrs Bartholomew at a time and neither could stand up fully without hitting their head on the ceiling. The doctor, who was new to delivering boaters’ babies, had cursed disbelievingly at the lack of space.

At last he emerged from the cabin with his bag, clothes crumpled and puce in the face.

‘All yours,’ he said curtly. ‘Everything’s as it should be.’

The air in the cabin smelt rank with sweat and blood.

‘Let’s get you all cleaned up now, shall we?’ Miss Lyons said kindly, pouring water from the kettle. Poor lamb, she thought, watching the silent figure lying limply on the stained bedding. Many of the boatwomen she saw were hardened and robust, born to the life, but this one was finding it all a struggle, though she certainly tried hard. She occasionally saw Mrs Bartholomew standing at the helm of the
in her long, dark skirts with a colourful scarf round her hair, a slim, wiry figure, chin jutting out at a determined angle. There were usually one or two of the kiddies up on the cabin roof. Course, she’d had a bad time losing that last little one, and now she looked so beaten down. The cabin floor was covered in filth and the crochet work along the shelves, which the most houseproud boatwomen kept scrubbed white, had turned a jaundiced grey. As she washed the young woman’s body, talking soothingly to her, she couldn’t help but see the bug-bites on her skin. The bed was obviously alive: she’d have a little word once things were sorted out.

Maryann could barely even manage to open her eyes, even though the babies were crying for attention. Miss Lyons gave each of them a quick dunking, which made them roar even more, then wrapped them securely in the old bits of sheet and blanket Maryann had put ready.

‘Come on now, lovey – these little ones need you,’ she said gently. ‘Let’s get you sat up a bit. We’ll get a nice cup of tea down you and I’ll show you how to feed them both at once, shall I?’

She helped Maryann position the infants to suckle, and the cabin suddenly went quiet, except for one of the babies making tiny squeaks as she fed. Miss Lyons perched beside her as the tea brewed.

‘Well, you’ve done it. And these two look fit as fiddles. How d’you feel?’

Maryann looked up at her, lank hair falling down each side of her thin cheeks. She tried to smile.

‘As if I’ve been under a tram!’ But her eyes filled and her mouth wobbled. ‘Oh, Lord above – twins! Whatever’m I going to do?’ Tears rolled down her face. ‘I can hardly manage the other three as it is – what with everything else.’

‘It’s a shock, I know.’ The midwife touched her hand comfortingly. She was about thirty, not much older than Maryann herself, though she seemed far more mature, a motherly person, with a round, pink face and blonde hair. She had delivered Maryann’s last son, Harry, and had wept with her when eleven months later Harry, sick with pneumonia, gasped out his last breath on a November day as grey and hard as the steel billets they were carrying in the boats. When she came this time to attend to Maryann in early labour, she put her instrument to Maryann’s ripe belly and kept moving it about, frowning.

Eventually she said, ‘I’m sure I can hear two heartbeats.’ She looked into Maryann’s eyes. ‘Did you know you were carrying twins?’

Maryann stared down at them now, each suckling a breast. She was very sore underneath from the stitches, and the babies’ feeding made her belly contract so that she winced with pain. The midwife had shown her how to hold them facing her and latch them on with their legs back under her arms, supported by a pillow just behind her on each side. The girls sucked greedily. The larger of the two was dark haired, but the other had ginger colouring like their father. The combination of the pain and her confused emotions of wonder at her new babies and dread of what their arrival would mean made her cry all the more.

‘Here –’ Miss Lyons helped her sip the sweet tea – ‘let’s get some energy into you. Husband off with a load today, is he?’

Maryann nodded, managing to free a hand to wipe her eyes. ‘Only to the Light. He’ll be back soon.’

‘They’re a good size, anyway, the two of them,’ the midwife comforted her. ‘Both over five pounds – that makes things easier. You’ve done ever so well. There’s just one thing – you know you’ve got a little problem with vermin in the bed, don’t you?’

‘I know.’ Maryann blushed miserably. ‘Only we’ve been so pushed on this last trip and I was so heavy and tired and there was all that rain on the way up… ’

‘Of course, of course – I just thought I’d mention it. You can stove the place as soon as you’re on your feet again. And you
cope, dear, I’m quite sure. I know you boatwomen – you’re marvellous.’

With further words of comfort and advice she left, saying she’d come back later and urging Maryann to ‘have a nap while you can, lovey’.

Stepping out onto the path in the sultry afternoon, she looked back at the tiny cabin and shook her head.
Good luck to her,
she thought,
because, my goodness, she’s going to need it.

Though she was exhausted, Maryann found it impossible to sleep. Childbirth sent her into a high, jangled state from which it took time to come down, and she was conscious of the two snuffling bundles on the bed beside her. Carefully, wincing at the pain from her stitches, she leaned up on her elbow and looked into their tiny, squashed faces. So sweet, they were, so beautiful! And healthy by the look of them, thank heavens.

‘Hello, our girls,’ she whispered tenderly. Tears filled her eyes again. ‘I just hope you’re not going to be the death of me.’ She felt so worn down, so alone. She’d had no idea how hard this life would be, and harder all the time as they had more children. Other boatwomen –
boatwomen – always seemed so tough and capable. Some boats were more rough and ready than others, of course, but they had grown up seeing their mothers cope with all their offspring in these cramped cabins, which were only nine feet long by seven wide. They’d grown up used to the life, whereas Maryann was increasingly coming to feel she couldn’t cope any more. Joel, bless him, was such a loving husband, but he often seemed to forget than she was not a narrowboatwoman born and bred. Even after eight years on the cut, she still felt she was having to prove herself, and lately all she had felt was that she was making a miserable job of it.

She lay back, feeling as weak as a baby herself and about to give in to a good weep, when she heard distant voices on the path, and a moment later someone leapt onto the counter of the butty and knocked on the open hatch.

‘Coo-ee! Anyone home?’

Maryann’s heart beat faster with pleasure. ‘Nance?’ She pulled aside the red gingham curtains which screened the bed. ‘Oh, Nance, am I glad to see you! Get yourself in here, quick!’

A pair of worn, brown boots appeared on the coalbox, and then a long black skirt fastened at the waist by a belt with a brass buckle and a dark blouse scattered with huge, scarlet flowers. A second later, Nance’s face followed on, weatherbeaten and brown as a berry, topped by her unruly black curls. In her ears were large, gold hoops. Following her was her daughter Rose, a two-year-old, robust, curly-haired copy of her mother.

‘We’ve only just got in. They said you was here. You’ve had it then?’ Her brown eyes were full of delight and anticipation. ‘Thought I’d come along and find you screaming blue murder!’

Maryann pulled back the shawl covering the two infants and Nance’s mouth gaped open.

‘Two? Oh my word – twins? Look, our Rose, two babbies! Oh, Maryann!’ She sat down on the edge of the bed, staring at them in astonishment, then leaned back and let out her loud, deep laugh. ‘Oh my God! Ooh, they’re beautiful, Maryann, that they are –’ She wiped her eyes. ‘But you’re going to have your work cut out for you, aren’t you? – No, don’t poke them Rose, gentle now! – What are they? Wenches?’

Maryann nodded. Seeing Nance had made her feel better already. They’d been friends since childhood in Birmingham; their men, Joel and Darius, were brothers from the Bartholomew family, from generations of boaters. The two women knew each other back to front and they were both from ‘off the bank’, not born on the cut. In Nance’s company, Maryann was completely at home. With the life on the cut of long journeys and chance meetings, they sometimes didn’t see each other for weeks on end and she was always overjoyed to see Nance, and never more so than now.

‘Twins – fancy. And you never knew?’

‘Not till the midwife said. Got a hell of a shock – I still can’t take it in. Though, thinking back, carrying them was like having a flaming great octopus squirming about inside, so I should’ve guessed.’

‘What you going to call them?’

‘I’ve hardly thought yet.’ Maryann eased herself up, grimacing.

‘Bit sore are we?’ Nance said sympathetically, but then pulled a mocking face.

‘Stop making me laugh!’ Maryann groaned, laughing anyway and trying to find a way of sitting comfortably.

‘So where’s your old man – he taken a load up?’

‘Mr Veater’s sent him to the ‘Lectric Light.’

Maryann was lying in her usual sleeping quarters on the butty boat,
one of a pair which she and Joel worked for the carrier S. E. Barlow. They were moored up at Sutton Stop, the boaters’ name for Hawkesbury Junction at the meeting of the Oxford and Coventry Canals, where they usually received their carrying orders from Mr Veater, the traffic control officer. Many a child came into the world at the ‘back of Mr Veater’s shed’, and Samuel Barlow and Mr Veater would kindly send the expectant father on short-haul trips while his wife and ‘mate’ was indisposed. Joel and Bobby, the lad who worked with them, had taken the motor boat, the
Esther Jane,
on a local trip to Baddesly colliery to bring coal back for the Coventry’s Light – the voracious power station at Longford. With them they’d taken Maryann’s other three children – Joley, who was seven, Sally, five, and Ezra, three.

‘We’ve just come up from the jam hole,’ Nance said, referring to the jam factory at Southall, which was always hungry for coal. ‘And we brought a load of cement up for some airstrip they’re putting in, worse luck – filthy lot that was. I’ll have to get back and clean up. Here – let’s have another cuppa first, though.’ She reached up to the cabin roof for the painted water carrier – to the annoyment of Spots, one of the family’s two cats, who had been snoozing in its small patch of shade – filled the kettle and set it to boil again on the tiny range just inside the door. ‘I’ll go and fill your cans for you and get your groceries in – and I’ll bring a bite to eat round later for you and Joel. The kids can come and eat with us tonight. Save you moving.’

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