Wednesday 2 January 2019

A Promise Kept

by David Deanshaw  

           a glass of milk                  

Albert Parkes was breathing his last.

He lay propped up on pillows to assist his breathing. The emphysema was now taking its toll.

He and Emily had spent close on fifty years together as man and wife. They had been born in adjacent streets in a place called Clayton in the old part of east Manchester. Clayton had only two claims to fame - it had two roads which led to the more fashionable part of east Lancashire – Ashton under Lyne and the Chemical Company – Clayton Aniline. 

They had gone to school together and later when time came to leave school and go to work they joined the same company – the Aniline

Not surprisingly the two roads from Manchester to Ashton were called the Old Road and the New Road. They were largely parallel and reflected the changes time had wrought in that part of industrial east Manchester. The air around the factory was acrid with the smell of spent chemical activity and processes. “It smells like sour milk tastes” is what visitors to the area would say. Still it’s fifty acres provided jobs for a thousand people from miles around.

Albert had been a supervisor until recently. His breathing affliction could not be blamed on the company, it was the collateral damage caused by forty full strength cigarettes each day for forty five years.

Emily had worked in the factory handling the drums of chemical raw materials, mostly imported from West Africa.

The hours had been long and arduous. They both worked so late every day that they never seemed to have time to do anything but work and sleep. Except Sunday of course which was a day for church.

In fact, so long did they work, that they seemed to spend so much time together that they never had time to meet anyone else. Getting married was just a natural way of their lives moving on, getting away from their respective homes and spending congenial time together.

Clayton was made up of streets of back-to-back houses, two up, two down, with a scullery at the back of the house. The lavatory was at the end of the yard. Houses were plentiful and the newly-wed couple found such a house two streets away from their parents in Kabul Street. Many of the local streets had been named after battles or skirmishes during the Second Afghan War. They had been built in the 1880s and 1890s to house the workers at the chemical factory which had been founded in 1876.

They had been married just three years when Phoebe was born. She was christened at the old Victorian church of St. Cross Clayton which they all attended. It was a difficult and painful birth. So much so that Emily was advised to avoid the prospect of more children. Consequently Phoebe was much loved, but never spoilt. She was a tall, slender girl with flowing locks of golden hair, which looked slightly at odds with her rosy cheeks.

Reports from school suggested that she was a bright child and her teachers suggested that she could take a secretarial course. With this diploma she also got a job at the chemical factory – but in the office – a step up in status from both of her parents.

This gave her the opportunity to meet the managers of the different departments. This in turn led to her meeting and marrying Harry Dene who had a degree in dye stuffs. He would prove to be an ideal candidate for a senior position in the company in due course.

Seeing dad at work seemed to be a strange situation for Phoebe at the start. However as time passed it became clear that her father’s skills were not really being fully utilised. He had unique experience with the corrosive components of chemicals which he had learned in the trenches of the Somme during the First World War. Phoebe passed this information on to her manager who in turn arranged for Albert to be considered for a new position which would use his skills.

The work had the usual dangers inherent in any chemical experiment, but Albert had learned caution the hard way. He never smoked at work of course, which probably explained his constant use of tobacco when he was not at work. Both his wife and his daughter pleaded with him to cut down.

“Dad, I really do want you to be able to see my children grow up and when they are older you can tell them all about the chemicals you came across during the last war.” Phoebe was convinced that stooping to emotional blackmail would work. It didn’t. The irony was that the new responsibility increased the stress he was under and his smoking increased.

Emily also tried it and would say:-“I don’t want to live without you. I have known nothing else but love for you.”

“Look, love, I promise that if I go first, I will come and collect you when your time comes.”
It was no consolation, but Albert obviously believed it, so the girls had to put up with it.

When the end came, Albert smiled and uttered words which his wife would remember all her life, “When your time comes, Emily, I will come for you.” With that his breathing stopped.

Phoebe and her mother shed tears of course. But they knew that they would make the best of it by ensuring that the children, when they came, would be told stories about the granddad they never knew. They even told them about granddad’s promise to come and collect their grandma when the time came. Deep down of course none of them believed it.

It was some years before Emily, who was not a smoker or a drinker, began to feel the strain of old age. Still she spent time with her daughter and the grandchildren Albert had never seen. But time was taking its toll on her life
Whilst not wealthy in a 20th century sense, by the time she was ailing, she made sure that there would be no nasty surprises when her will was read. Emily knew that her mother’s life was ebbing away slowly.

“Oh mum, please don’t go yet” begged her daughter Phoebe, as she puffed up her mother’s pillows so she was more comfortable. 

“Your dad promised he would come for me when my time came.”

Phoebe’s husband Harry was reading his wife carefully. He placed his arm around her shoulder tenderly, gave her a gentle squeeze and suggested that mum might like some tea when she awoke.

Emily closed her eyes and lapsed into a deep sleep.

Phoebe went downstairs to make some tea; perhaps mum would like a small slice of cake with her cup when she woke.

Within a few minutes she returned with the tray and placed it on her mother’s dressing table. Then she turned round to see her mother’s eyes wide open.

Suddenly, Emily raised her arms, heaved herself to sit bolt upright, smiled and called aloud “Albert”. With that she slumped back onto her bed dead.

Albert had kept his promise.

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