The Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge

David Morse
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The Iron Bridge
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The Severn Gorge
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Joan Joffe Hall
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Maggie Foster: June 1773

During her first couple of weeks with the Crumps, Maggie found herself asking as many questions as little Helen. But she learned how to help with household chores - skills she would need to land a job as a housemaid in the Darby household.

Polly taught her to spin. Maggie was clumsy at first, but gradually picked up speed. A weaver left bags of flax, and paid them by the pound for their finished skeins. Maggie turned over her coins to Polly, who gave a few back. Maggie's fingers were sore; she dreamed of spinning, dreamed the movement of flax through fingers and thumbs.

Sometimes other women brought their spinning wheels and gathered next door in Mrs. Merryweather's cottage to spin and talk. Mrs. Merryweather, a thick-set woman in her fifties, rosily freckled and triple-chinned, wore a mob cap with short durable ruffles. Her travels as a midwife took her all around Madeley parish and beyond, so she was a font of gossip and folk remedies. The talk was filled with superstition: peas coming up white signifying death; Polly's birthmark caused by her mother's unsatisfied craving for port wine; and Maggie's clumsiness at spinning owing to her mother's having squashed too many spiders.

Maggie's thirtieth birthday went by without her noticing until two days after. The calendar here revolved around Fridays, when the weaver made his rounds; Saturday baths, and holidays. The three older children worked ten hours a day, with Sunday their only day off. Maggie was appalled at Jeremy's description of his work in the coal-pit, where he crawled along the seams, dragging great lumps of coal with a girdle-and-chain.

Maggie's own day revolved around weaving and household tasks and the circadian rhythms of the ironworks: the incessant pounding of the bellows-cams, punctuated by the morning pour and the afternoon pour spreading hot dry heat through the Crump cottage. Every few seconds, the heavy oak walking-beam on the Newcomen pumping-engine tipped like a seesaw. There was something majestic about those slow silent strokes - in contrast to the chaos of wagon-traffic and wheelbarrows criss-crossing each other's paths along the various ramps and terraces crowded into the sloping site. Animals were part of the traffic: not only draft-horses and mules pulling burdens, but geese dodging carts, cats hunting mice; even occasional rust-colored flocks of sheep. Officially the name of the works was the Madeley Wood Furnace, but everyone called it Bedlam.

The cottage consisted of two small rooms below, and a loft above where the boys slept on corn-husks. At one end of the narrow back porch was the privy, and at the other end, dug into the hillside, was the little brew-house where they made beer and kept dairy products, and the root-cellar. Maggie shared a feather mattress with Polly and Kate and Helen - which took some getting used to. No privacy. Maggie flossed her teeth nightly using a piece of linen thread, which greatly entertained the Crumps. For the Saturday baths, water was carried to a wooden tub behind a blanket rigged as a curtain; the women bathed themselves, then Helen and Timothy; by the time the older boys had finished, the water was black. The cottage reeked variously of tallow and coaldust and cabbage and unwashed bodies, to say nothing of the offal and sewage outside; and when it rained, the slag-heaps and ash-heaps leaked a sour bitter smell. Everything around the furnaces, including the Crumps' cottage, was coated brown from iron oxide and soot.

"Black by day, red by night," Polly said.

An acrid brown haze filled the gorge when the air remained stagnant for a day or two. Maggie's eyes smarted. When she breathed deeply, she felt a needlelike pain in her chest. Often the visibility was so poor that she could not see cross the river, only hear the shouts of the bow haulers on the Broseley towpath or glimpse sails sliding through the pea-soup smog. On the rare clear nights she could look across the river and distinguish the glow of the Calcutts furnace from that of the Jackfield tileworks and make out a few faint stars in the east. But most nights, everything swirled together in a lurid glow that resembled nothing so much as a giant bed of coals.

Whenever she had some time to herself, Maggie jotted down notes from the information she had memorized. She used a pencil-stub that Jeremy had found outside The Bird in Hand, the public house just up the road. It was too short to use comfortably, so she bound it to a stick with thread. The Crumps were entranced with her writing. The children brought scraps of paper. Helen interrupted often. "What do't say, Maggie?"

Despite the lack of time to herself, and a general feeling of confinement, Maggie was pleased with her temporary living arrangements. Polly extended an old linen skirt for her with a sort of false petticoat, and adapted a top from an old shirt of her husband's, dying the whole thing blue, so it made a presentable dress, and loaned her an apron and stockings and a kerchief to tie back her hair. A pair of wooden clogs that had belonged to Polly's husband completed the ensemble. The clogs were too wide, but Maggie padded them with rags, and Jeremy whittled a place smooth where her heel rubbed. "Tha be comely," said Polly, with an appraising nod. "With that curly hair and them bewitching green eyes."

Maggie was cold most of the time, being accustomed to Ecosophia's humid warmth, and to wearing something soft next to her skin. Here, in this damp cold climate, her underwear consisted of a linen under-vest and under-skirt. No panties; the reason was obvious the first time they were walking together and Polly squatted by the roadside. But for Maggie, the bareness combined with the full skirts took some getting used to. In the cottage it offered some privacy for sponge-bathing; but whenever she went outside, the whole getup felt restrictive and a little silly, as if she were concealing something - which she was, of course. The whole lower half of her body. She felt like a puff pastry.

She liked watching Jeremy paddle his coracle - a small boat constructed like a canoe, but round; made from a single cow-hide stretched across a circular wooden skeleton, sealed with tar, and propelled by means of a single paddle held vertically and moved in a figure-eight. Being round, the little boat could be made to rotate on its axis. These long summer evenings, when Jeremy got home from the coal-pit, he scampered down the embankment with the coracle on his back like a turtle and plopped it in the water - skimmed through the willow-shoots and twirled in circles as gracefully as a waterbug. She wanted to ask for a ride, but realized there was no room.

Some of the tasks were particularly repellent: rendering lard, skinning rabbits, wringing the necks of chickens - which recalled the punishment-veeries back in CALYPOOL. The first time Polly showed her how to clean a goose, Maggie gagged. And when Polly showed her how to singe the pinfeathers, she recoiled from the smell. Maggie chided her. "Where wast tha mother's knee?" she demanded.

"I beg your pardon?"

Polly gave Maggie's kerchief a sharp tug. "Tha shoulda learnt these things as a child!"

"I - " But Maggie stopped herself. It was easier, she had discovered, not to make excuses. Just concentrate on learning.

Once she was working at Sunniside, she would be in a position to observe Abraham Darby III and devise a strategy for influencing the design of the bridge. But first she had to get hired.

She missed Ecosophia. The people. The great fig tree sprawling from the atrium, its boughs following the steel catwalks. She missed the Beethoven string quartets and access to data-bases. She felt a kind of numbness in her heart, knowing all those things were lost to her forever.

Yet she sensed a vitality here that was missing back home - most obvious in the children. She had never had the opportunity to watch children play. She watched those who were too young to sort ore and coal - the four and five-year-olds who were still engrossed in play. It called up a dim memory of making dolls with scraps of red-and-white checked cloth, investing them with pretend life - a life somehow more vivid than the life around her. It must have been after her parents got unzipped, when they lived in the metal hut - but what she remembered was the feel of that red-and-white checked cloth, and how absolutely real those dolls had seemed.

One day a woman whose baby Mrs. Merryweather had helped deliver brought the infant for them to see. She let Maggie hold it - a girl, three weeks old. The tiny perfect features, the miniature pink fingers grasping her own finger, the fragrant downy hair, all sent a thrill through Maggie's body.

"Aw, Maggie wants one," the woman teased.

Maggie caught her breath. She handed the baby back, out of some fear - not that she would drop it, but somehow from the intensity of her response; that was what frightened her. It came from too deep a place.

The old people had that same vitality. It showed in their hard edges, their mobile faces, warped postures; their tenacity bargaining at the Madeley market. Certain workers at Bedlam stood out sharply: the Clerk with his clean white stockings and curled wig; the one-armed man who operated the Newcomen engine; the big woman with the raucous voice and rust-streaked face who worked with the men breaking ore. There was a heartiness in all that idiosyncrasy, even among the wounded and the exploited. Maybe because they had a future.

One evening, taking a moment to stand outside at the porch-rail looking out into the pink mist, Maggie heard a birdsong from nearby, probably from the crab-apple tree - a liquid trill so unexpected, so miraculously clear over the thump of the furnaces, that it caused her heart to soar. It was a nightingale. She recognized it from an old disc of birdsongs they used to play in the atrium at Ecosophia. Hearing the living bird filled her with joy. She wished Trevor could hear it.

From inside the cottage, she heard Helen's soprano piping "Where is Maggie?" - a question she dreaded. And yet at that moment it was part of the same melody. The sound of a world still intact. Simply to stand outside in the mist like this - even smelling as it did of rotten eggs - and to breathe without fear of radiation or virus, was painfully exhilarating.

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© copyright David Morse, 2003-2011