An Essex Childhood
Belchamp St Pauls 1806
‘Scaredy-cat, scaredy-cat. James is a scaredy-cat,’ the three of them chanted as they splashed about in the pond behind the church. James stood on the bank ignoring their taunts.
‘Come on in,’ shouted Tom, his older brother. ‘It’s not deep.’
Despite the sweltering heat tempting him, James knew he shouldn’t. Mama had told them it was dangerous, that they could drown.
‘No, we’re not allowed,’ he replied, before wandering off to find some shade.
Nearby was a vast, dilapidated wooden barn. What remained of the large doors lay on the ground, overgrown with cow parsley and ragged Robin. Sitting inside, on an old beam, he watched swallows and pigeons fly in and out. Occasionally, a butterfly mistakenly flew in, from feeding on the briar roses around the entrance. Through the holes in the roof, beams of sunlight shone down. They were just like the ones in the pictures he’d seen at Sunday school, that God sent down from heaven. He wondered if these came from heaven.
He picked up a stick and scratched his name in the dry earth floor. Papa had told him how, if he learnt his letters, he’d be able to read tales about kings and queens, knights and dragons, and adventures in faraway lands. He couldn’t understand why other children weren’t interested in reading. Even Tom would rather play outside, climbing trees and building dens.
Mama had said, ‘If you can read, there’s all sorts of things you’ll be able to do when you’re older,’ but he wasn’t sure what those things were.
At the sound of his brother calling, he jumped up and scrubbed his writing out with his foot before Tom appeared.
‘Thought I’d find you here. Time to go.’
On their way back to the village green, they passed Reverend Staveley, heading up the hill to the church to prepare for evensong.
‘Hello boys, been up to no good I expect,’ he called out.
He was always so cheerful. Other men just ignored them or were grumpy and told them to clear off. When they reached the village green, James was glad that Tom’s friends left. James liked it best when it was just the two of them. When other boys were around, Tom paid him less attention.
At home, his mother was sitting in the sunshine, sewing. She was so different from Papa. Round and cuddly. When he was smaller, James had loved sitting on her lap but since his sister arrived two years ago, he rarely got the chance.
‘There you are,’ said Mama, looking up from under the wide brim of her bonnet. Her smile soon turned to a look of concern. ‘Tom, what’ve you been up to? You been in the pond again? What have I told you?’
Tom muttered something and disappeared indoors.
‘James, go and wash your hands. I want you to go and get a loaf.’ She fumbled in the pocket of her smock and handed him a coin.
As he sauntered back across the green, clutching the warm loaf, he saw his father coming down the road, back from work. He didn’t understand what Papa did but knew he had to go to other villages and a town called Clare. He was something called an Excise Officer and he’d had to pass special tests to get the job. That was why he wore a special coat and a peaked hat with a gold badge. Papa said it was to show he was working for the King and that people had to do what he said.
The cool of the house was a welcome relief. At dinner, they sat in their usual places, Papa at the head of the table and Harriet in a high-chair beside Mama. As ever, his father sat erect, never leaning on the table. James had heard other boys say they were scared of his father because he had dark hair, wore black clothes and always looked cross. What they didn’t know was how kind he was. Papa bowed his head and said grace.
There was rabbit pie, cheese, pickles and the bread James had collected. As a treat, there were strawberries which Mama had grown in their garden. His parents had once told him how they’d both grown up on farms but Papa had to leave his home because it was his older brother who’d inherit it. That’s why he’d had to find something else to do.
‘Where have you been today, love?’ Mama asked, as she did every day. James loved hearing about the places Papa went, picturing them.
‘Over at Ridgewell. Something at the dairy didn’t seem right. Turned out that they’ve been making cheese and selling it locally. Dairyman thought, as it was just for villagers, it didn’t have to be taxed.’
‘Was he angry?’
‘Not too pleased. They’ve got a new baby and he’s struggling to pay the rent. I said I’d overlook the past as long as he started collecting it.’
‘That was good of you.’
‘Hmm. Trouble is, he says if he charges more, no one will buy them.’
As Mama gave everyone some more pie, James could see his father was gazing across the room at nothing in particular. He did that when he was thinking.
‘So many people are struggling,’ said Papa. ‘We’ve got that scoundrel Napoleon to thank. Sooner this war is over the better.’
James knew that Napoleon was a bad man and he was French and that last year someone called Nelson, who was on our side, had beaten him in a big battle at sea.
As Mama stood up she suddenly stopped.
‘Oh, I nearly forgot. Got a letter from brother William. He and Sarah have had another baby. A girl. Emma.’
She turned to Tom and James. ‘That’s another cousin for you.’
James wasn’t sure what a cousin was. Some children at Sunday school were cousins. It seemed to be like a brother or sister who didn’t live with you.
‘Right, I’m putting Harriet to bed. You boys clear away the dishes so your father can read his paper.’
Every Wednesday, one of James’s jobs was to go to the village shop and collect the Bury & Norwich Post, which arrived on the mail coach from Sudbury. Papa settled down in his usual chair, lit his pipe, and opened the paper. After a while James heard him tutting.
‘Another horse been stolen over at Belchamp Water.’
‘Oh dear,’ said Mama, who’d settled herself down in the other armchair. ‘You must be so desperate to do such a thing.’
Papa put down the paper. ‘Still not an excuse to break the law. If they need help, there’s the Overseers. That’s what we pay our rates for.’
‘I suppose so,’ said Mama. She turned to Tom and James. ‘Right, you two. Time for bed.’
‘But it’s still light,’ complained Tom. ‘Can’t I go out for a bit?’
‘Do as your mother says,’ said Papa. ‘Plenty of time to be outside tomorrow.’
James was already on his way up. On summer evenings, with the window open, he loved lying in bed listening to the world outside. The blackbirds in the garden, men outside the Half Moon breaking into song, and the rumbling of wagons returning from the fields laden with corn. The last thing he heard before falling asleep was the church bell, drifting over the fields in the warm evening air.
James was always up early so as to spend time alone with his father. He’d run alongside him to the stable behind the house where he’d watch his father saddle his horse.
‘Where are you going?’ James asked.
‘Foxearth. Got to check on the miller.’
Papa stopped for a moment and looked down at James. ‘If he isn’t paying his taxes, the King and the government won’t get their money.’
James thought for a while. ‘Why doesn’t the government do that?’
His father smiled at him. ‘Well, I work for the government. It’s my job to get the money for them.’
He ruffled James’s hair before mounting his horse. ‘Come on Scrump. Busy day for us.’
James watched him until he turned at the end of the lane and passed out of sight, still trying to understand what Papa did and why.
It was another hot, sultry day. James spent the morning looking after Harriet while Mama was busy washing sheets. He liked playing with her, trying to make her laugh and teaching her words. After lunch, as he and Tom were taking some freshly baked cakes to Mrs Talbot and Miss Walford, who lived in the alms-houses across the green, Tom’s friends appeared, heading up to the ponds.
‘Tom. You coming?’
‘All right,’ he hollered.
‘You go,’ James said, ’I don’t want to.’
He liked being by himself. He wanted to visit the wood behind their house. A couple of days earlier he’d seen an ants’ nest he wanted to investigate. He sat on a patch of grass and watched the long lines of ants coming and going. He wondered how they knew what to do. Did they talk to each other? He laid sticks and stones across their path to see if they went over or round, or turned back. He shaded them from the sun to see if that changed what they did. Then, when he dug a trench across their route, he was amazed to see them build a bridge across it. How did they do that? Was one giving orders? He was mystified.
When he got home, and Mama asked him what he’d been up to, he thought it best to say nothing about the ants. She might think it odd and not let him go there again.
‘Just playing down by the wood,’ he said.
Every evening, when Papa got home, James fed Scrump. He liked the feel of her warm, wet mouth on his hand when he gave her a carrot. It was almost as good as when Mrs Chamberlain, who lived next door, let him collect eggs from her hens. He loved crawling into the hen coop and finding the newly laid eggs in the warm straw.
One evening, as they sat having dinner, James noticed that Mama and Papa weren’t saying much. At one point, he saw his mother looking at him before quickly switching her gaze to his father. When they’d finished eating, Papa carefully folded his napkin and put his hands on the table.
‘Boys, Mama and I have some news.’ He looked from one to the other but lingered on James. ‘I’ve got a new job which means we’ll be moving to live somewhere else.’
‘Papa has been so good,’ added Mama, smiling, ‘they’re giving him a more important job.’
‘But we live here,’ said James.
‘We do but we’re going to a new place, a town called Harwich,’ said Papa.
James stared at his father for a while. ‘What about Scrump? Will she come with us?’
‘No, this is her home,’ said Mama. ‘Someone will look after her.’
‘Is it far away?’ asked Tom.
‘Yes. It’s by the sea. There’s a harbour and lots of ships.’
James sat silently, staring at the table. He didn’t want anything to change. He liked everything just as it was.
‘When can we go home?’ he asked his mother, as she was putting him to bed.
‘What do you mean? This is our home.’
‘I don’t like it here. I liked it in the country.’
Here, in the town, he rarely ventured out, unlike Tom who, three years ago, had immediately made friends and spent most days messing around by the harbour.
Also, Papa was much busier, usually going off before daybreak. When James asked him why, he’d explained how the chandler couldn’t start work until he’d unlocked the man’s tools. ‘Then I’ve got to open up the malt-house,’ he’d added.
Unlike in Belchamp, James could see his father often worried about his work. One morning, James couldn’t understand why his father seemed reluctant to set out on his visirs. He hardly ate any breakfast and was pacing around, endlessly checking his bags to make sure he had all his equipment.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Mama. ‘Shouldn’t you be on your way?’
‘Aye, just going,’ he replied.
James could see how concerned his mother was. ‘Where you off to?’
‘Tannery over in Dover Court. I reckon they’ve been selling unstamped leather.’ He paused and looked at her. ‘Trouble is, I can’t prove it.’
‘Well, what will you do?’
‘Keep visiting and note the hides they’re handling. Least I can make life difficult for them.’
‘Do be careful, love,’ said Mama.
‘I will. They’re not dangerous. Bit of abuse, name-calling. That’s all.’
‘It’s not right. You’re just doing your job.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he sighed. ‘Being unpopular is just part of the job,’
James watched his father pull on his special coat. He was glad it was so bulky, disguising how thin he was, making him look stronger.
‘James. How about a walk by the sea this morning?’
‘What?’ asked James. ‘All of us?’
‘No. Just you and me.’ She turned to Tom. ‘You’ll look after Harriet, won’t you?’
In the past, Tom would have moaned about having to stay home but not anymore. Recently, he’d stopped going out, even when his friends came to get him. James was puzzled but hadn’t asked him why.
Still wondering why they were going, the two of them set off, hand-in-hand. They headed through town, towards the high lighthouse. From first seeing it, James had marvelled at how it didn’t fall over during winter storms. They carried on towards the smaller, low lighthouse on the shore. The sea both excited and scared James. He’d heard Papa talking about a boat called the Bugg which had capsized and a hundred people had drowned. Some nights he lay in bed imagining what it would be like to drown.
To their left, waves crashed on the shingle, whilst from inland, he could hear the sound of stonemasons working on the new fort. They were gradually leaving the shore behind as the land rose towards a promontory. At the top, they looked out over the sea. Where the sun shone through gaps in the clouds, patches of sea sparkled. Ships were dotted across the ocean, small fishing boats near the shore, large steamers with plumes of black smoke further out. Above them, gulls were circling, bothered that people were near their nests. Mama knelt down and put her arm round his shoulders, sheltering him from the breeze.
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ said Mama. ‘We didn’t have a view like this in the country, did we?’
James looked at her and nodded. He so wanted to make her happy.
‘Come on now,’ she said, standing up and taking his hand. ‘Best we were getting back to the others.’
When they got home, Harriet was playing by herself in front of the stove.
‘Where’s Tom?’ asked Mama.
Harriet pointed upstairs. His mother hurried up, soon reappearing and making a hot drink.
‘Is Tom all right?’ asked James.
‘Yes, he just felt cold and shivery so went to bed. Here, take him this and make sure he drinks it.’
James climbed the stairs slowly, taking care not to spill it. Tom was in bed, looking pale and sad. James crouched down beside him.
‘Mama said you must drink it. Are you all right?’
Tom propped himself up but said little. He took the mug and drank. James had never seen his brother like this before. He coughed a bit before dropping back and pulling the blanket up to his neck.
Back in the kitchen, it took James some time to pluck up the courage to ask, ‘Is Tom going to be all right?’
‘Yes, love,’ she said wiping her floury hands on her apron and coming over to cuddle him. ‘It’s just a bit of a fever. He needs to rest.’
That evening Tom didn’t come down for dinner. Papa took him up some food but when he brought the tray down later, James could see his brother hadn’t eaten much. Over the next few days, Tom stayed upstairs. Although his fever had gone, James could see his brother wasn’t well. He spent much of the time dozing. When he was awake, James sat with him looking out of their bedroom window, watching the fishing boats in the harbour and listened to the women on the quay, chatting as they filleted fish.
It was a couple of weeks before Tom came downstairs. Mama made him sit in the yard in the sun. James so wanted to believe he’d soon be well but he looked so thin and wan, and was coughing a lot.
James tried to distract him by talking about Belchamp, reminding him of the people they’d known and the things they’d got up to. They joked about Reverend Staveley and his boring sermons, the funny voice Mrs Pannel had when she sang hymns, and the Morris dancers who covered their faces with soot and had bells on their clothes.
It was several weeks before Tom was more like his old self, though James could see he still wasn’t eating much. At least, the gloom that had descended on the house started to lift. Then, at dinner one evening, Mama told them she had some good news.
‘You’re going to have a new brother or sister,’ she announced.
James didn’t understand where babies came from. He remembered when Harriet was born, he and Tom had been sent to neighbours for the day and when they came home, Mama showed them their new sister. He’d never asked how it had happened. But now he was eight he wanted to understand.
James still worried about Tom. At night, he lay listening to him struggling to breath. It frightened him. At Sunday school, they’d been told you had to pray for people who weren’t well. So secretly, at night, he prayed to Jesus to make Tom better, even though he couldn’t see how it could work.
The four of them were sitting at dinner one evening, Tom having gone to bed early.
‘James, you’re always asking me about what I do,’ said his father. ‘Would you like to come and see for yourself?’
‘What about Tom?’ asked James.
‘Oh, he’ll be all right,’ said Mama. ‘We’ll keep him company, won’t we Harriet?’
James hardly slept that night, excited about the day ahead. In the morning, he was downstairs and ready before it was even light.
‘We’re going to the Customs House first,’ said Papa, as they set off. ‘That’s where they check all the cargo coming in on the boats to stop smuggling. There’s an Excise Officer wants to see me.’
Stone steps led up to the front door. Inside, the hallway was packed with men, all talking loudly. The air was smoky and, despite his father protecting him, he kept getting jostled. They all seemed pleased to see his father, greeting him and shaking his hand. After a few minutes his father found the person he was looking for and the three of them withdrew to an adjoining room.
‘You heard about John Walford, over at Colchester?’ the man asked.
‘No. What happened?’
‘Beaten up by some tea traders.’
‘Discovered a hidden consignment. They threatened him that if he didn’t overlook it, he’d regret it. Offered him five pounds to forget he’d seen it. He refused, said he’d confiscate the lot. Well, that evening he was set upon on his way home. The surgeon said he was lucky to be alive.’
James could see that his father had gone quite pale. ‘What’s happened to the men who did it?’
‘They haven’t found who it was. The traders hired some thugs.’
‘It’s happening more and more,’ said his father, shaking is head. ‘We need more protection.’
‘Ha! It’ll never happen. We’re on our own. Makes me think maybe best to take the pay off. We could be rich men!’
‘Never. I’d rather resign. If we do that, there’d be no law and order.’
‘Well, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. My wife worries herself into a state.’ The man took out a large white hanky and mopped his brow.
‘I must be getting along,’ Papa said. ‘Got things to show this one,’ looking down at James. ‘I think he’s heard quite enough of our problems for one day.’
Outside on the quay, nets were being laid out in preparation for that night’s fishing. The previous night’s catch had all been boxed and was being loaded onto the smacks, bound for London. James had learnt the names from the women who sorted them – cod, haddock, whiting, coalfish. The ones he always hoped to see were halibut and skate, like birds of the sea with their huge wings.
As they stood watching the boxes being winched aboard, James looked up at his father. ‘What’s London like?’
His father looked into the distance as he spoke. ‘It’s hard to imagine until you’ve been. It’s very large, just seems to go on forever. The streets are dirty and noisy and full of people. Lots of horses and coaches and carts.’ He looked down at James. ‘I didn’t like it much. I prefer it here.’
James thought for a while. ‘I’d like to go to London one day.’
His father smiled. ‘Well, you may.’
They spent the day visiting workshops around the town. Making their way home along King’s Quay Street, Papa stopped and pointed out a building with an ornate inscription above the door.
‘That’s the grammar school.’
‘Who goes to it?’ asked James.
‘Boys, once they’re eight.’ After a pause Papa asked, ‘Would you like to?’
‘I don’t know. What happens there?’
‘It’s a bit like Sunday school but you go every day and they teach you things like writing, sums and,’ he said pointing at the Latin inscription, ‘how to read that.’
James didn’t know what to say.
‘We can talk about it later,’ said his father.
When they got back, James could see his mother had been crying. Harriet, who was sitting on the floor playing, looked up at James.
‘What’s happened?’ Papa asked.
‘Tom’s taken a turn for the worse. I can barely rouse him and he won’t drink.’
‘I’ll go and see him,’ said Papa. James went to go upstairs with him but his father took him gently by the shoulders. ‘Stay here with Mama.’
When Papa returned he could see the same look of concern as his mother had.
‘He’s burning hot so I opened the window. I’ll go and get the apothecary.’
The apothecary’s shop was nearby so it wasn’t long before his father arrived back accompanied by Doctor Amos. They went upstairs for what seemed, to James, like ages. He so wanted to go and see Tom. Eventually they reappeared.
‘Mrs Lambert, I was just saying to your husband, I could bleed Thomas but best we wait till his fever has dropped. It needs to come out. This should help.’
He handed her a small package. ‘A spoonful in a cup of boiling water. He should have it every two hours.’
‘Will he be all right, Doctor?’ asked Mama.
‘When the fever settles, come and get me and I’ll bleed him.’
James froze. Why hadn’t the doctor said Tom was going to be all right? Why hadn’t Mama insisted on an answer?
‘Can I go and see him?’ James asked.
He climbed the stairs not sure what he would find. Tom lay sleeping, his head propped up on pillows. He looked so thin. The cool air blowing in through the open window, smelt of fish. Maybe that caused tom’s fever, thought James. He knelt down.
Tom opened his eyes slowly and tried to smile.
‘Hello James,’ he whispered.
‘The doctor’s given Mama some medicine to make you better.’
Tom just smiled but said nothing.
‘It’ll probably taste horrible like that magic drink we made with pond water and flowers,’ said James.
Trying to laugh brought on a bout of coughing which exhausted him. James waited until his breathing was calm again before creeping away.
That night, Mama put James in with Harriet. He lay awake thinking of Tom. At times, try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself crying. He could hear the rain on the shutters and, before dawn, the sound of the Darby Bell, calling men to their work at the navy yard. It was still dark when he got up and went downstairs. He found his father sitting at the table, unshaven and looking pale and tired.
‘Hello son. Up early…like me.’
‘How’s Tom?’ asked James.
‘Still got a fever but he’s taking his medicine. He’s very weak.’
The two of them sat in silence. Outside, James could hear fisherman returning from their night’s toil, tying up at the quayside. The sound of rain water dripping from the gutter onto the metal bath in the yard marked out time. James sat fiddling with a toy of Harriet’s he’d found on the floor. He looked over at his father, who was staring into space.
‘Papa,’ he gulped, walking over to him, ‘I don’t want him to die.’
He leant against his father, who put his arm round him. ‘None of us do, James.’
James looked up into his father’s face. ‘He’s my only friend.’
He could see tears running down Papa’s cheeks. He’d never seen his father cry before. Papa was so strong and sensible, always knowing what to do. As James looked at him, he knew there was no hope.
When his mother appeared, his father just gazed at her, unable to speak.
‘Come on now you two,’ she said, putting some plates and spoons on the table. ‘How about some breakfast?’
How could she bustle around preparing breakfast as if nothing was happening upstairs? He dried his eyes and got up to help her. The three of them sat at the table in silence, drinking tea. Eventually, Mama spoke.
‘At eight, I’m getting the doctor.’ She looked at his father. ‘Love, you should be on your rounds.’
While his mother was out, fetching the doctor, James crept back upstairs to see Tom. He tried rousing him, but couldn’t wake him, so he just stroked his brow. He’d never touched his brother before, apart from when they’d once rolled around pretending to wrestle. He couldn’t stop himself bursting into tears. That was how Mama and Doctor Amos found him a few minutes later.
‘Come on now,’ said his mother, helping him up off the floor. He threw his arms around her, buried his face in her skirt and howled. His mother knelt down and took him in her arms.
James hadn’t been to a funeral before. He sat holding his mother’s hand, unable to join in the hymns. When he looked up he could see his father was crying, which made him even sadder. Since Tom died, his father had said little, shuffling out to work each day and returning just before dinner. Papa no longer polished his shoes every night, something he’d always insisted was vital if he was to earn respect. It was Mama who kept them all going.
As he stood by the grave watching Tom’s coffin being lowered into the ground, he remembered the day he and Tom had secretly peered into the coffin workshop at Belchamp, wondering if they’d see any ghosts.
Later, sitting round the dinner table, James kept looking at the empty place where Tom had always sat. Lying in bed that night, he turned to the wall, unable to look at the empty bed on the other side of the room. When Mama came and put her arm round him, he wanted to disappear into the warmth and comfort of her body.
‘James, it’s dreadful now but I promise, it’ll get better in time. We’ve all got to be strong and help each other. Tom will always be with us, even if he isn’t here.’
She stroked his hair and kissed him goodnight.
Over the next few days, James couldn’t understand how his mother was able to carry on doing normal things. She took him and Harriet with her to the market, where people told her how sorry they were. They also wanted to know when she was due. James wasn’t sure what that meant. It seemed to be something to do with the new baby because they looked at her tummy as they asked.
It was a few weeks later that Mama told James and Harriet that the new baby would be coming soon. Three days later, Mama didn’t appear at breakfast and Mrs Donald, who lived nearby, arrived with a large bag. She went upstairs and Papa told James to look after Harriet in the backyard. They spent the day trying to ignore the cries coming from the room above. Papa tried to reassure him that Mama was fine but it didn’t sound like it. It was late afternoon when Mrs Donald emerged, bustling about in the kitchen. As she headed out the door she turned to James.
‘Well, you’ve got a lovely new brother to look after.’
That evening Papa came downstairs cradling their new brother in his arms. ‘James, come and say hello to Billy.’ Papa put the baby in his arms. ‘He’s so lucky to have a brother like you.’
Never a day went by that James didn’t think of Tom. Sometimes, when he was in the street he was sure he’d spotted Tom and would be about to call out, before realising his mistake. It made it seem as though Tom was still around and it was only a matter of time until they met up.
One evening, shortly before Christmas, Papa reminded him of the grammar school they’d seen.
‘Mr Chapman at the town hall told me a place is coming up in January. The Mayor and Aldermen are asking if you’d like it.’
‘You’d meet lots of other boy’s your age,’ added Mama, ‘and you’d learn all sorts of things. Its very kind of the Mayor to offer you a place. They only take one or two boys each year.’
James wasn’t sure he wanted to be with other boys. He liked being by himself. But he could tell that his parents wanted him to go.
He nodded. ‘When would I start?’
With the bell in St Nicholas Chapel already chiming nine, James ran, determined not to be late for school. He got there just in time for the roll call.
His initial worries about going to school had vanished within days. Over the past two years, he’d learnt so much from Reverend Price, the school-master. He felt so lucky to have a place. Other boys longed for the end of lessons so they could dash off to play, but not him.
He couldn’t wait to get home and tell his mother what he’d learnt. Although she always showed an interest, he could see she wasn’t really listening, distracted by cooking and nursing his new brother, Henry.
Although he loved going to school, part of him longed for the carefree days he’d enjoyed in Belchamp when there seemed to be nothing to worry about. He could see that it wasn’t just the loss of Tom that was upsetting his parents. His father was always troubled by his work. One evening, with the little ones upstairs asleep, James was hunched under a candle making notes from a book when he overheard his parents talking in the kitchen.
‘I’m so worried, love,’ Mama was saying. ‘You’re not getting enough sleep. Up and out before first light and out again late at night.’
‘I’ve no choice.’ His father sounded so weary. ‘The chandler insists on starting early and finishing late. If I don’t go and check and lock up his tools, he could be defrauding the government.’
‘He never used to work that late.’
‘It’s his way of getting back at me. Ever since I warned him I’d close him down, he’s claimed he works till eleven. Course he doesn’t. From the smell of him, more likely he’s at The Three Cups.’
‘Dear, dear,’ said Mama. ‘He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it,’
‘I know but I can’t stop him. It’s part of the job.’
It upset James that his father was being treated like that when he should be respected. After all, he thought, he’s an officer of the King and the government.
Despite his long working days, his father always found time to read the weekly newspaper. He wondered why, given what he read upset him so much, he persisted. One evening he was particularly incensed, flinging down the paper in a way James had never seen him do before.
‘It’s unacceptable. Government’s got to put a stop to it.’
His mother, startled, looked up from her knitting. ‘Goodness. What’s the matter?’
‘More trouble in the countryside. Can you believe it? Farm labourers been rioting.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘If they’ve got a grievance, they should make their demands peacefully. Rioting won’t help bring down the price of bread.’
‘Can’t imagine those we knew in Belchamp rioting,’ said Mama.
‘Don’t be too sure. There are dangerous people about spreading dissent. Heard about some new paper produced by someone called Cobbett. Very popular I’m told. Wants more people to have the vote.’ He shook his head. ‘Next thing, what happened in France will happen here.’
‘Don’t look so worried James,’ said his mother. ‘We’re not like the French. That’s why we’re fighting them.’
Spring and summer were the coldest anyone could remember. People only ventured out if they had to. That didn’t bother James who had become absorbed in a book he’d borrowed from Reverend Price, about fossils and stones. His interest increased when he learnt that lots of fossils had been found nearby, at Beacon Cliff.
As soon as they had all sat down for dinner one evening, James asked his father if they could visit Beacon Cliff on Sunday, after church.
‘Why on earth do you want to do that?’
‘That’s where you find fossils. Some are thousands of years old.’
Sunday couldn’t come fast enough. He and his father walked along the shingle beach to the base of the cliff where, his father sat on a boulder, while James searched. He wasn’t too sure what he was looking for. He didn’t find any fossils but he collected three pieces of black rock and one bit that was quite bright and shone when he washed it in seawater.
‘Come on,’ called Papa. ‘Time we were going. Let’s go back via Dover Court beach.’
As they rounded the headland James saw there were wooden buildings, right by the shingle. Lots of people were gathered there, some of them in the sea.
‘What are they doing? Why are there carts in the sea?’
‘Bathing. The carts take people out so they can step down into the sea.’
James frowned. ‘Are you serious? Why would they do that?’
‘Doctors think that it makes people better.’
James was intrigued. He was wondering if it might have saved Tom. ‘Does it?’
His father smiled. ‘Who knows? Those people must believe it does, seeing as how they’re paying for it. Some even come up from London.’
‘But how can the sea make people better?’
‘No idea. Don’t suppose it does them any harm, though you’d think they might catch cold.’ He pointed at the buildings. ‘There’s heated seawater in there and, I’m told, a machine that throws seawater on people.’
James stared at his father. ‘You’re making that up.’
‘It’s true. Come on, best we were getting back.’
For the rest of the summer, whenever the rain stopped and the wind dropped, James went to the cliff after school. It was better than waiting for his present on Christmas Day, not knowing what, if anything he might find. The shore was always deserted, apart from the gulls circling overhead. It took several visits before he started spotting fossils. His first was a Cochlea terrestris. That evening, at dinner, he couldn’t stop talking about his find.
His collection of stones and fossils grew so large Reverend Price encouraged him to bring them in to show the other boys. On the day before his presentation, James laid them out on a table, labelled them, and covered them with some cloth. He was so excited about revealing his finds to the other boys.
The following morning, with all his class gathered round, his joy turned to horror when, on removing the cloth he saw the labels had been moved around. Holding back tears and determined not to show his disappointment, he said nothing but just started collecting up everything, putting them in his bag. Some of the boys were laughing.
‘Quiet now,’ said Reverend Price. ‘All go back to your desks. Who did this?’
There was silence. ‘Come on. Who messed up Lambert’s display?’
He turned to James. ‘I’m sorry that someone thought it funny to do this. Would you lay them out again later, so we can see them?’
James was seething. ‘I don’t want to, sir.’
At the end of classes, Reverend Price asked him to stay.
‘Lambert. Whoever did that was stupid and unkind. But sometimes things like this happen. We have to learn how to deal with it.’
‘But it’s not fair, sir,’ said James.
‘You’re right. But you mustn’t let people who behave badly upset you. We can’t let them succeed, can we?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘You must stand up to them. Now, off you go home, and I want you to bring your collection back next week. I’m sure they’ll be no trouble.’
The following week James presented his fossils and pieces of jet, amber, pyrites. He kept for last a geode. As he broke it open, with a hammer, revealing shining crystals inside, there were cries of astonishment and wonder. His audience couldn’t believe he’d found it just lying on the beach. As he walked home he could see how you had to persevere and not be cowed by people.
James couldn’t believe it. A whole book about the Beacon Cliff fossils.
‘Stumbled upon it clearing out a cupboard,’ said Reverend Price. ‘Looks like a schoolmaster must have shared your interest, Lambert.’
James spent hours studying it, learning how people had been hunting at the cliff for two hundred years. He learnt of the giant turtles that had been discovered and, even more extraordinary, an early ancestor of the horse which they’d named Hydracotherium.
What intrigued him most was how, in the past, people had used rocks for treating diseases – something called Osteocolla, for mending broken bones, and ludus paracelsi, for bladder stones. He couldn’t understand how rocks could do that.
‘Papa, do you think rocks really make people better?’
His father smiled. ‘I don’t know. I don’t suppose it would say so if it wasn’t true.’
James was turning over a stone in his hands. ‘Is everything in books true?’
‘Ha! Depends on the writer, I suppose. Can’t believe everything written.’
‘So how do you know if it’s true?’
‘That’s the tricky bit. I suppose you want to know if there’s any evidence.’ His father sat back and thought for a while. ‘It’s bit like my work. I can’t just decide someone is breaking the law. I have to measure things, record facts and dates. That way I can prove it.’
That summer, all James could think about was fossil hunting. Now he knew what to look for, he found more and more. Whenever he did, his first thought was to show it to Tom. He’d immediately tell himself off for being so stupid.
One morning his little brother, Billy, was unwell. His father was about to go to the apothecary when he asked James if he’d like to go with him.
The streets were already busy with ship-builders heading to the navy yard and fisherman making their way home after a night at sea. James had passed the apothecary shop many times, sometimes stopping to peer in through the window. Some of the boys at school said the apothecary was a magician and could put spells on you.
It was dark inside and the air was heavy with the smell of spices. He looked around at the shelves, on which stood dozens of white jars, each one with a Latin name. James started reading: extractum stramonium, folia sennae, carum carvi. He understood some of them from his Latin lessons.
Doctor Amos appeared from the back of the shop. He nodded slowly as James’s father answered his questions about Billy. Returning to the room at the back, James could hear him giving instructions. James crept over to the doorway and peered in, trying not to be seen. Suddenly, the spices made him sneeze.
The doctor looked up from his bench. ‘Want to come and watch?’
James edged forward. The benches were covered in large stone bowls, each one with what looked like a wooden cudgel. There was a boy, a few years older than him, climbing up to the higher shelves to get down various jars. Doctor Amos carefully measured out the contents into one of the bowls. Then the boy started mixing and crushing the material.
‘Come closer if you want,’ said the apothecary.
Once he’d finished, the boy tipped the mixture into a funnel of paper.
‘There now,’ said the apothecary, handing it to James. ‘You get your mama to give Billy a pinch of that with hot water every couple of hours.’
James didn’t want to leave. He was entranced by the jars and pots, each containing exotic plants and minerals and goodness knows what else. He wanted to discover more, to understand the mysteries that lay in the shop. And he wanted to ask him if he used rocks.
He struggled all day at school to concentrate as he kept thinking about what he’d seen that morning. When he got home, Mama was sitting with Billy on her lap.
‘How is he?’ James asked.
‘Much better. The medicine’s done the trick.’
‘Mama, the apothecary’s shop was wonderful. It’s full of extraordinary things. Herbs and chemicals and plants from all over the world.’
‘Oh yes, I’ve been in there,’ laughed his mother. ‘So you enjoyed your visit?’
‘There’s so much to see. The apothecary must be very clever. It all looks so complicated.’
His mother put Billy in one of the armchairs and busied herself with baby Henry for a while. James went on standing, lost in his thoughts. After a while, his mother stopped and, still bending over Henry, looked over at him.
‘Your uncle William’s an apothecary. Would you like to be an apothecary when you’re older?’
‘What?’ said James, ‘I’m not clever enough. I could never do that.’
His mother stopped what she was doing and straightened up. ‘James, you most certainly could.’