I have been meaning to have a go at Willow's wonderful Magpie Tales for weeks and weeks. But something has always got in the way and prevented me. This, of course, is a lie : it is just that I have never been able to work up the necessary courage. Looks like I've finally run out of excuses.
Alice Baines walked down Watton Street towards the factory, the clatter of her wooden-soled shoes cutting through the morning stillness with granite-like severity. She was vaguely aware of other figures making their way to Minton’s , but these early morning trips to work tended to be solitary excursions with none of the convivial fellowship of homecoming. At the end of the day the pot girls would walk together , laugh together, shout and occasionally scream together as they climbed the stone sets up Hanley Bank and headed towards the smoke-stained terraces that spread like the folds of a concertina along the Burslam Ridge. But at this early hour Alice and the dozens of other factory-bound girls tried to cling to the memory of their recently vacated beds as if the memory itself could provide comfort and protection from the biting wind that gusted down from the far off mountains.
But it wasn’t just the breeze that sent a chill down Alice’s spine that Monday morning. That Welsh-whipped wind was aided by sadness and abetted by an unwelcome familiarity with mortality. There probably comes a time in everyone’s life when the realisation that life is a finite affair dawns on them with gut-wrenching certainty. For 24 year old Alice Baines, that moment had been yesterday, Sunday 19th January 1854. The day Aunt Ruth had died. For as long as she could remember, Aunt Ruth had been a part of Alice’s life - cooking oat cakes for her Cousin Tommy and herself, sharing a glass of stout with her mother, rubbing the pain of bumps away, smoothing out the emotional care lines of life. And now Ruth was no more, snatched from life by some unspoken disease that had been cleaving its way through the narrow streets of the Potteries for much of the winter.
Alice’s sense of loss was accompanied by an even more powerful sense of shock : shock that the world could continue on as though nothing had happened. The Pot Banks could still send out their clouds of acrid smoke, the steam whistles could still split the morning mist, the carters’ horse could still spark the stone cobbles : all without the person who had been a central part of life itself. And with the shock came the realisation that at some point in the future – maybe in forty years, maybe in forty days – the same would be true of Alice herself. The world would go on without her and the evidence of her very existence would quickly vanish like condensing steam. No religious education had prepared her for this rendezvous with mortality. No Sunday School teacher, no circuit preacher, no travelling evangelist had offered an explanation. Alice wanted to know what would live on when she, like Aunt Ruth, had gone. Nobody could tell her.
Such thoughts accompanied Alice through the brick arch entrance to Mintons’ Factory. They walked with her down the stone floored corridor that led to the Transfer Room. They occupied her senses as she took her place amongst the long row of girls who attached the printed transfers to the white china plates and with practiced skill brushed on the dark blue paint to form the highlights of the traditional willow pattern.
“Alice Baines, look what tha doing lass!” The harsh voice of Josh Thurlston, the Transfer Room Overlooker broke through Alice’s morose mood. “Tha’s smudged that ‘un”, he said, picking the plate up and roughly stacking it next to the pile of seconds and rejects in the corner. “Start thinking of thy job lass, ‘stead of daydreaming, else tha’ll have no job to think of”. Alice tried her best to forget about mortality, about death and about what would live on, to cast such thoughts aside like the willow pattern plate with the smudged transfer.
* * * *
Ben headed for the exit of the Antiques Fare, satisfied with the haul he had managed to gather together. The small hall table was well made and had a pleasing patina that suggested real age rather than something sprayed from a bottle. The print might be run of the mill, but it was Victorian run of the mill, well framed and in good condition. The only thing that fell short of his usual standards was that odd little willow pattern plate, the one with the smudged transfer print. He had no idea why he had bought it. It was nothing special. It probably started life as a reject and had gone downhill ever since. But there was something about it, some life-force which had protected it down the years, saved it from the rubbish dumps and the municipal garbage piles. Something which lived on.