My latest historical novel, Albert & Marie, is launched on Sunday. It is based on the true story of my Great Uncle Albert and his wives. Please enjoy this copy of the first chapter.
Chapter One – The Methodist Family
Albert stared up at the plain brown cross and he imagined the white figure of Jesus, nailed to the cross, attached to the wall. To one side, a wooden board displayed five sets of two or three-figure numbers sitting above each other in order from top to bottom.
‘Four down, one to go,’ Albert thought to himself.
He grabbed The Methodist Hymn Book from the narrow wooden ledge on the back of the pew in front and flipped through to hymn 784. It was the last number displayed on the wooden board, Abide With Me. At least it was a hymn he liked and had already learned to play on the cornet. Once they had finished the song, he could go to Boys Brigade and practise with the band.
While his mother chatted to her friends from the Mothers’ Bible Class and his younger brothers and sisters went to Sunday school, Albert would attend the St Andrews Lads Brigade where he was already a lance corporal and could practise the cornet.
“Can’t I have a cornet to practise at home?” he used to plead with his mother.
“We can’t afford one of those, they cost over a pound,” she would dismiss him. “There’s enough racket in our house without you playing a bugle at all hours.”
He glanced along the pew to his right. Next to him sat his sister, Elizabeth, only a year older than him. Next to her was his older brother, Thomas, already 18 and taller than Albert’s mother who sat in a sandwich between her eldest son and Albert’s father who was clutching his King James bible and hanging on every word the minister spoke, probably wishing he stood up there in his place, like he often did.
To Albert’s left, and much less interested in the proceedings, sat Florence, two years younger than Albert, Bert, four years younger, Bill, still only eight, and Elsie, a mere five. Albert knew it would be his duty to take his younger sisters and brothers to Sunday school, and then he would be free to practise.
The organist struck up the opening chords of Abide With Me, and Albert imagined he was playing it himself.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!
when other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Albert sang along with his family and the rest of the congregation but, in his mind he was playing the cornet.
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!
The minister and choir processed down the aisle and out the back of the church. When the hymn ended, the congregation filed out.
“Come on, let’s go,” Albert said to Florence, Bert, Bill and Elsie, wondering why his older sister wasn’t moving.
“Stop pushing,” she complained.
“Stop it, you two,” Albert’s mum chastised them both.
Albert bit his lip and waited for the slow-moving congregation to make their way out of the church so he could drag Bert, Bill and Elsie to St Andrew’s church hall and leave them there while he practised with the band.
Although it was on the way home, it was over a mile from the Methodist church to the Church of England hall where the Boys Brigade and Sunday School met. When they arrived, the Anglican service had just finished and Albert could see his friends already congregating as he handed his siblings over to the Superintendent.
Half of his friends in the boys brigade had already left school and had jobs as apprentice joiners, cabinetmakers, clerks or fitters with local companies, at the colliery or with the coke works on the site of the old ironworks which still dominated the town, Albert could see the blast furnace chimney from where he stood in the grounds of St Andrew’s church.
Now that Albert had left school he too would have to get a job, and he was not looking forward to dinner because he was sure his father would want to talk about it.
He put that out of his mind and went to see his friends who were receiving their instruments from the bandleader, Mr Smith. Albert donned his pillbox hat, checked his belt, dusted down his uniform and straightened his bag so that Mr Smith would hand him the cornet without reprimand.
Albert enjoyed practising with the Boys Brigade but he never liked the marches which other boys in the town would accompany with ribald cheers, derisive songs and occasional stone throwing. He enjoyed when the group played football or went swimming, but it was the cornet he liked the most.
“Underneath the Banner,” Mr Smith announced, once the band had assembled and ready.
Albert knew he had to practise the music they played on the marches, but during breaks, when Mr Smith wasn’t paying attention, he would practise popular tunes like Hurrah, Hurrah for England, or Work Hard, Help Yourselves, but he preferred tunes like North Country Lass, Oak and the Ash and Wine and Love Songs.
Despite his dedication to the cornet, Albert could not seem to help but get in trouble with Mr Smith. However much he tried not to, Albert always got himself in trouble. If he was paying attention, then it was a slovenly posture. At the end of the practice, Albert handed back the cornet and, once Mr Smith had dismissed the brigade, he collected Bert, Bill and Elsie from the church hall and took them home via muddy St Andrew’s lane which ran behind the old iron works site and the colliery where his dad worked.
When they got home, their mother was preparing dinner.
“Take your shoes off, I don’t want you traipsing that mud through here. Go upstairs, get changed out of those clothes before you ruin them,” their mother greeted them. “Then come here and help me with the vegetables.”
They did as they were told and, once out of their Sunday best, they went back to the kitchen to help with the vegetables. She put Elsie and Bill to work shelling peas, allowed Bert to top and tail gooseberries and blueberries and Florence to chop the mint and green vegetables while Albert and Elizabeth had to peel the potatoes.
When they had finished their chores, Bill wanted to go into the street to play football but Bert wanted to paint so Albert agreed to play with Bill.
Their street was wide and muddy and it was also on a slope, so Albert made sure Bill stood uphill from him. He had made the mistake before of letting Bill stand downhill, but sometimes Bill could not kick the ball hard enough and it would roll back towards him. On other occasions, Bill would miss the ball and it would start rolling downhill, so Albert would have to charge after it.
With Bill placed decidedly uphill, they kicked the ball backwards and forwards. Albert liked his brother but there was a six-year difference so it wasn’t the same as playing with his own friends and he felt like a babysitter. He was a bit relieved when their mother called them in to wash their hands for dinner.
“Shoes!” their mum shouted before they could step over the threshold.
As soon as Albert entered the house, in his stocking feet, he could smell the roast beef and his mouth started salivating. His mum always did the family proud, with her Sunday roast, and it looked like she would do again. He hurried to wash himself and sat at the table, set by Elizabeth and Florence.
Albert and the others sat in silence while their mum brought plates loaded with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes, peas, greens and gravy. Their dad said grace, and then they ate in silence. They knew better than to speak at the dinner table.
When they had finished the main course, their mother brought out the gooseberry and blueberry pie. They ate this too, in silence.
At the end of the meal, Albert’s father excused everyone, but he asked Albert to stay. It was the conversation he had been dreading.
“Let’s go for a walk,” his father said.
“Where are we going?” asked Albert.
Albert’s father led him through the town and out the other side to a small lane which ended at a field in which a small brook began its journey to the River Wear.
“That lovely dinner your mum made for us, Albert. It costs money to put food on the table. Your generation is lucky, there are plenty of jobs for school leavers like you. I know you didn’t like school, Albert, but now you are going out into the big wide world…”
Albert’s dad stopped to look at the river.
“Your reputation precedes you, Albert. I spoke to Mr Brown at the pawnbrokers on the high street. Your mum has sorted out some of Thomas’s hand-me-downs you can use as work clothes. He’s expecting you there at 8 am tomorrow morning.”
Albert didn’t argue, he knew there was no point.
You can get a free sample of Albert & Marie here.