The Faerie Child – The Beginning
"What are you doing, Abbie?” Her mistress’s voice came from the front room.
“Just putting out some of the stale bread and some water for the urchins, ma’am.” She unlatched the back door and made her way through the gently falling light snow to the shed, where she would place the honey-spread bread and milk – she’d lied to Mrs Jowett about the contents of the dish as well as about the hedgehogs – carefully by the door.
Would he ever come back? she asked herself for the fifth night in succession. With long hair of a gloriously shining lustrous black, eyes that seemed to burn straight through her, and a voice that turned her insides to a liquid like the silver pools from a broken thermometer that she had once seen at Doctor Simmons’, his memory refused to fade.
“You could be mine, little Abbie. You should be mine,” he had said to her six nights earlier as he stepped out of the shed, before wordlessly taking the urchins’ dish of bread and milk from her unprotesting hands and starting to eat. Had he really been in the shed? She wasn’t sure. The door hadn’t opened, she would swear to that. Had he simply stepped through the wall as if it were no more than the early morning mist on the meadow? Impossible. But there was no other explanation.
Still painfully aware of her emotional turmoil that night, she bent to place the dish on the ground, and felt her wrist gripped by a cold pale hand from behind. Another hand, with long slender fingers, gently took the dish from her, and carried it out of her range of vision as the grip on her wrist was released.
Startled, but unafraid, she turned to see her… Assailant? Captor? Lover? All these seemed to be pitifully inadequate and inaccurate, and yet all of these perfectly described him. He was smiling as he took the bread from the dish and put it in his mouth, licking the beads of honey from his fingers with a long dark tongue that seemed to be forked like a serpent’s, while watching her
“Who… are… you..?” she asked, but not expecting a reply.
“Come, Abbie,” he said, taking her wrist once more. How did he know her name? He turned so that they both faced the wall of the shed and took two steps forward, through the wall, bringing Abbie with him. She had no choice in the matter.
The feeling of walking through the wall was like nothing she had ever experienced before. When she came to describe it later to herself (for the only person she ever told about the whole business was her daughter Jane, a few years later, but Jane was too young to understand her words), she could only describe it as “walking through a wall of icy flaming swords”, words that made no sense when she repeated them to herself, but were the only way that she could even vaguely describe her sensations at that time.
It should have been pitch-black inside the windowless shed, but her companion’s head and body seemed to glow with an unearthly, eerie, blue-green light. She could hardly see his face on account of the glow that surrounded it. Even so, she was almost painfully conscious of his eyes looking her up and down.
“Yes, you are the one. You will be mine,” he said. Once again, the sound of his words had an almost physical effect on her, and she staggered slightly.
“Me? Why me?” She was half-flattered by his attentions, but at the same time deathly scared of where all this might be leading.
“You are one of us,” he said. “There are not many of us now living in the land on the other side of the sky. We are an old race, much older than mankind. So old that we are dying. There are no young women, and there will be no children.”
“I am one of you?” she asked incredulously. “How can that be?”
“Your mother’s father was one of us. Your grandmother never knew, and she died believing that the man you knew as your grandfather was your mother’s father, so you would never have known. Surely you must know that even as a child you were different to others?”
Abbie thought back to the occasions when she had refused to join in her friends’ play – play which had somehow resulted in an accident causing injury, or even death in two instances, to those taking part. Her insistence that there was something “horrid” in the corner of the room where she slept, until they prised up the floorboards and discovered a human skull, which Parson said showed clear evidence of its owner having been foully done to death. Her knowledge of things that happened on the other side of the village, almost as soon as they had happened. Yes, she was different.
“If you had not been your grandmother’s granddaughter, you could never have walked through that wall with me.”
She was forced, against all reason, to acknowledge that she had walked through the solid wall of the shed, and nodded in agreement.
“Now, will you help me?”
Dumbly, she nodded once more. Having grown up on a farm, she knew how bulls and cows, rams and ewes, cocks and hens, behaved, and she had heard enough sniggered innuendo from her friends to know that men and women did much the same. Was this what was going to happen to her? She felt inside her an unholy mix of terror and excited anticipation. Was this what growing up was all about?
“No,” he said, and she knew – how? – that he had read her thoughts. “That is not the way that these things work.” He held out the dish that had held the bread and milk. In place of the food there was a small dark sphere. “Take it.”
She took the dish from his hand, and instantly felt the weight of the ball as it rolled around the dish.
“You will marry,” he told her. It was not a prediction, but a command. “It does not matter whom you marry, but you will marry, and that right soon. When you do, and when you do what husbands and wives do to make a child, you must do it holding this,” pointing to the ball, “in your mouth.”
Abbie, despite herself, blushed.
“If it is still in your mouth when your husband is finished with you, you must take it out and keep it ready for the next time. But if it is gone from your mouth as he draws himself away from your body, then prepare yourself to bear my child in nine months’ time. Do not fear. Although it will outwardly resemble your husband so that he never suspects anything, it will be my child, not his. Guard my gift to you well, and on no account lose it. There will be consequences if you do not do as I say. Do you understand all that I am telling you?”
There was nothing she could do except nod once more. Even though she appeared to be in an outlandish dream, all made sense to her.
“Good. Now I must take you back.” Once more she traversed the wall of icy flaming swords, and found herself outside the shed – and instantly realised that she was alone. She removed the ball from the dish and placed it carefully in the placket of her skirt before laying the dish on the ground.
Now she could hear Mrs Jowett’s voice. “Abbie! Abbie! Where are you, girl?” There was no anger in the voice, though, only what sounded like concern. The back door of the farmhouse opened, spilling golden light onto the gloom. “There you are! What have you been up to?”
“Sorry, ma’am, I was looking at the stars,” she pointed vaguely upward to where Orion hung in the sky, “and I must have forgotten the time.”
“You daft ’ap’orth, Abbie.” Despite the words, Mrs Jowett’s voice was kindly. “The sooner you find a good man to look after you, the better it will be for you.”
Abbie sighed. She hadn’t seriously considered marriage before that night, other than as a remote event that might or might not happen in the future, and now two people were pushing her, admittedly not entirely against her will, into finding a husband.
It was Harry Machin, some five years older than her, on whom her eye finally settled. If truth be told, she had had her eye on him for some months, even if she hadn’t fully realised it at the time. Harry was not the wealthiest, or the best-looking boy in the village. Nor did he appear at first sight to be the cleverest, though this was more due to his disguising his intelligence to avoid envious comments, than it was to a lack of ability. He had also about him an air of dependability which ensured that the farmers trusted him with those tasks usually given to older men with considerably more experience. Abbie had noticed his quiet competence, and the way in which he was often able to find a solution to a problem that defeated those around him, as well as his kind and friendly manner, and despite the censoriousness that the young often display towards their elders, she found herself approving of him.
If she was to marry, and more and more she felt herself drawn to the idea, almost despite herself, Harry Machin was the one she would choose.
He quite often found work on the Jowetts’ farm, giving Abbie a chance to talk to him as she took his midday snap to him from the farmhouse (for the Jowetts treated their workers well, almost as members of the family).
Harry had never been anything but polite and kind to Abbie, but without her encouragement, it is unlikely that he would ever have made any move towards her. As bold and confident as he was when facing an angry bull, or the problem of a field of hay to be gathered in with black storm clouds rapidly approaching, he was almost painfully shy when it came to dealings with the opposite sex.
But as Abbie let her fingers dawdle touching his for ever longer periods as she handed him the basket of bread and cheese, to which she sometimes added a scrape of honey or even a prized strawberry filched from the Jowetts’ garden, and smiled up at him, he began to give more than red-faced monosyllabic replies when she asked him how he did. For her part, these questions regarding his health and well-being, which she had originally seen as being routine politenesses, became enquiries to which she genuinely wished to know the answer.
Soon Harry also found himself actively anticipating the hour when he could spy her form, silhouetted against the dark oaks at the edge of the field, making her way towards him. Eventually he found himself asking, albeit haltingly and stammering, “Abbie, is there ever a time when you are not working for the Jowetts?”
“Oh yes,” she said, smiling. “Every Sunday afternoon is a holiday, and on two Tuesday afternoons each month when the market is held in the town, although I must buy things for them in the market, Mrs Jowett has no objection to me taking my own time to do it.”
“Then would you…” He flushed red. “Would you consider walking out with me next Sunday afternoon?”
Her smile would have disarmed a much more confident man than Harry. “With the greatest of pleasure, sir,” she replied, sweeping a low curtsey to him.
“You are mocking me?” he enquired, taken aback.
“By no means, I assure you, Harry. I will be waiting for you to call for me on Sunday afternoon.”
This put poor Harry in something of a quandary. He had envisaged that Abbie and he would meet quietly, hopefully unobserved by anyone else. By calling on her, he would be proclaiming his interest in Abbie, if not to all and sundry, at least to the Jowetts, who were the largest farmers in the area. But if that was the price to pay for an afternoon’s pleasant companionship, then so be it.
“I look forward to it.”
“Ta ra a bit.”
It is a matter of record that Harry and Abbie were married in the parish church of Saint Chad some six months after this conversation. The Jowetts, sorry was they were to lose such a maid as Abbie had been, and whom they had treated almost as a daughter, were delighted that she had awakened the interest of Harry Machin.
A few weeks before the wedding, old man Jowett spoke to Harry.
“Can I have a word with you, lad?”
“Of course,” Harry said, nervously.
“No, it’s nowt you’ve done wrong.” He went on to explain that he had been impressed by Harry’s skill at repairing and maintaining some of the newfangled farm machinery that was then coming into use. “You’ve got brains, Harry, as well as a strong back, and don’t let anyone tell you different. You can read and write with the best of them, as well. And I’ve seen you do reckoning up in your head that most men couldn’t do with a pen and paper. Now,” he went on, warming to his theme, “there’s a man down in Birmingham called Matthew Boulton. One of those toy makers – buttons and bits and pieces for swords, and ladies’ bits and bobs, that sort of thing. But he needs people like you, Harry, to work in his manufactory. He’s got plans, I heard. Plans that need you if they’re going to come to something,”
“In Birmingham? I’d have to move away from here? We’d have to move away,” he corrected himself, remembering that he was to be married.
“Aye. But you’d be close enough to come back and see your folks from time to time.”
“Do you know this Matthew Boulton?”
“I know of him, and I’ve met him once or twice. He’s a bit full of his own importance, but he means well, and by all accounts, he takes care of his people. If you felt you wanted to do better for yourself and Abbie, I dare say I could put in a word or two for you with him.”
“I’d have to talk to Abbie about it.”
“Of course you must do that. It would be a great thing for you, lad, and we’d all like to see you get on, though we’d miss you.”
When Harry talked to Abbie, she appeared to be thrilled by the idea of moving to Birmingham.
“It’s not going to be like here,” he warned her. “They talk strange down there.”
“You get yourself down there and talk to this Matthew Boulton,” she told him firmly. Harry had no choice but to obey, and he made his way to Birmingham a week before the wedding, a letter from old Mr Jowett in his pocket.
He came back exultant. “It’s something you wouldn’t believe,” he told Abbie. “It’s a new manufactory, with all the trades under one roof, hundreds and hundreds of people. Soho, near Handsworth, just a bit north of Birmingham, so we’ll still be in Staffordshire. And I met Mr Boulton. He’s offered me a job working on a new kind of steam pump which he and Mr Watt, who’s a Scotchman, are making. I told him I’d start in two weeks, when we’re married and all.”
“And where will we live?”
“There’s hundreds and hundreds of little cottages, just for them that works for Mr Boulton. It’s like a new world, Abbie. You’ll love it there, you see.”