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A Death in the Family

A hot summer sun is beating down fiercely on the cobblestones of Barratt Street in Shipley, and bouncing off the windows of the terraced houses to form dazzling reflections. Even the few children playing listlessly in the road are subdued by the unexpected intensity of the heat, and keep to quiet pastimes, sharing the pages of a comic or rolling marbles along the gutter.

At number 72, the faint whimpering cries of a new baby drift through the open front door into the still air, as a stout woman standing on the step dries her hands on her apron and hopes to catch a breath of fresh air. This is Fanny, and the cries are coming from her newest grand-daughter Annie Lavinia, not yet 3 weeks old, who lies in a makeshift cot fashioned from a dresser drawer lined with blankets, fractious in the heat. Fanny is here to hold the fort until such time as her daughter Lavinia is back on her feet after a difficult labour and delivery, and able to resume looking after not only the new baby but also her other child, John Jackson aged 6, and her husband Lambert, who is out on his feet for long hours and in all weathers, working as a postman.

They had waited a long time for this latest addition to the family, and her arrival had been a real cause for celebration; friends, family and neighbours had all been round not too long ago to congratulate the proud parents, wet the baby’s head, and remind John Jackson that he was a big boy now, and will need to look out for his new sister when she is big enough to play outside, and keep her away from the open coal fire in the living room.

It wasn’t so long after the little gifts of hand-knitted baby clothes and occasional bottles of stout to keep Lavinia’s strength up (as it was popularly believed) had ceased to arrive quite so frequently that she began to feel vaguely unwell. She put it down to being over-tired, and not yet fully recovered from the after-effects of what had been a long and exhausting labour, with no relief from the waves of pain and attended only by her mother and the local midwife. On that night, Lambert had endured the noise and disturbance stoically for as long as he could manage, before decamping eventually to the local pub, where he sat alone and distracted, staring into his glass of beer. Childbirth was most definitely women’s business, unless the doctor needed to be called in, and it was best that he was out of the way, for Lavinia’s cries upset him in a way he would have been loathe to reveal to anyone else, least of all the other patrons of the pub.

Earlier that evening, Fanny had slipped a teaspoon of whiskey into John Jackson’s suppertime cocoa, hoping that its soporific effects would allow him to sleep through the  inevitable commotion of the coming night. The secret spoonful worked its magic, and next morning he woke to hear loud female voices in the next room, and over them all the cries of a new baby. He now had a new sister, but was unimpressed by the red crumpled and noisy creature lying in his mother’s arms, wondering how on earth it had got there. There had been no soft beating of stork’s wings above the rooftops, or rustling among the leaves of the gooseberry bush in the yard… perhaps the midwife had brought it in her capacious Gladstone bag. Less than impressed and just a little jealous of all the attention being showered on the new arrival, he went downstairs to see if he could find something to eat on his way to school.

Lavinia sat up in bed, proudly holding the baby closely in a white knitted shawl. She was pale and tired, yet buoyed up by the sense of relief that the ordeal was over and the baby well and safely delivered. One or two neighbours had knocked tentatively on the door, hoping to see the child and offer both congratulations and unsolicited advice on her upbringing, but they had been given only a few minutes at the bedside before being firmly shown out by Fanny, anxious not to overtax her daughter’s strength. Before leaving, one of them gently uncurled the baby’s tiny fist and pressed a silver shilling into her palm, closing the fragile fingers carefully over the coin.

“There you are my love. You will never want for money, the silver is a blessing”

Even Fanny’s authoritarian demeanour softened a little at this spontaneous display of kindness, and she smiled at the neighbour, who she knew had precious little herself.

“And this is for you, Mrs. Boddy. It will help protect the little one against pains and fevers when her teeth begin to come through.”

From the folds of a clean but well-worn handkerchief, she tipped out onto the bed a necklace of coral beads, which Lavinia picked up to examine, the bright red colour standing out on the white counterpane.

“Thank you so much” she said “I’m sure it will be a great help”

Fanny averted her eyes so as not to give away her private thoughts on this unwelcome bit of superstitious nonsense. A pair of bootees, or an offer of help with the washing would have been far more useful, but she forced a polite smile at the offered gift, the smile not reaching her eyes.

“Lavinia really does need to rest now, thank you for your kindness” she said, in a voice brooking no opposition, and the neighbours made their farewells and departed.

As was the accepted practice of the day, new mothers were expected to stay in bed for a fortnight after childbirth – to get up before this time had elapsed was to invite certain trouble, although in reality the enforced bedrest could increase the risk of blood clots and other dangerous conditions.

Lavinia was no exception to the rule, and she meekly accepted the indignities of bed baths and chamberpots without complaint. The bedroom was stuffy and airless, the bedclothes felt oppressively heavy, and however careful she was, the sheets became embarrassingly stained with blood, sweat and leaking milk. Curtains had been drawn across the window in an attempt to keep out the glare of the sunshine and the noise of the street, and a trapped bluebottle buzzed angrily as it beat against the glass. The half-light in the room was pierced by bright sun creeping along the curtains’ edge, sending a luminous beam across the dressing table and scattering elongated prisms from the rim of a cut glass bowl. Lavinia closed her eyes and tried, as best she could, to fall asleep.

Noises from downstairs drifted up the stairwell; she could hear her mother rattling the coals in the grate, keeping the fire as low as was practicable, for even though the sun was blazing in the sky, the fire beneath the range needed to be kept going, or there would be no hot food and no hot water.

Lambert would need a good hot meal after a long day of tramping the streets with a heavy sack of letters, and John Jackson would be home from school soon after mid-day expecting to be fed too. It was not the done thing to expect them to put up with anything less than a decent dinner on the table, so however hot and sunny the weather, it was imperative that the kitchen range be lit and tended.

One of the neighbour’s children had fetched her a parcel of bacon ribs from the butchers’ before school, for which help Fanny had been very grateful, giving the girl a ha’penny reward, and watching as she ran down the street, her clogs ringing out on the cobblestones. The meat could be safely left to simmer all day at the back of the fire, and it would be the work of a minute to throw in a few potatoes later.

Beneath the window, the new baby, who is named Annie Lavinia, and will be christened at nearby St. Paul’s church when her mother is feeling better, is crying weakly in her temporary cot. Burdened as much as everyone else by the heat, Annie Lavinia is dressed in several layers of clothes in spite of the weather. Adding to her discomfort is the tight binder pinned around her stomach to help her umbilicus heal, yet no-one would think to remove any of her long petticoats, or the tiny frilled cap she wears; even the slightest chill was thought to be dangerous for young babies.

Fanny doesn’t hold with picking up babies every time they cry, so she shushes her ineffectually before leaving her to cry it out, and turns her attention to the pile of dirty washing behind the scullery door.

As the days pass, although the baby is thriving, Lavinia doesn’t seem to be making as fast a recovery as might be wished for. Still confined to bed, she is still very pale and has complained of feeling unwell, with a slight temperature, although it’s been hard to tell exactly, given the weather. She thinks perhaps she might be coming down with a summer cold, and everyone agreed with her, friends and neighbours who occasionally called in, even Fanny and Lambert. ‘Just a cold’, they said, ‘you need to rest and get your strength back, and get well again. After all, you had a fierce time of it, what with the pains and the blood and everything, but there’s no good you fretting about it.’

‘Try not to think about it, and look at your lovely little girl ... wasn’t she worth all the anguish? Isn’t she beautiful?’ When she has a spare few moments, or when all is quiet, Fanny has already started making a new christening gown for the baby, of white muslin with layers of frills and embroidery, and is looking forward to the occasion when she can parade in church with a new hat and her best dress.

But things really aren’t getting better for Lavinia, in spite of the proffered gifts of nauseating calf’s foot jelly or beef tea, both of which make her retch as she tries to force them down, and she begins to feel worse instead of better. She becomes feverish, and starts to suffer distressing attacks of vomiting, which leave her utterly exhausted. Fanny plies her with sips of brandy in sugared hot water, to no avail, yet no-one thinks to bring in the doctor as yet. It’s another expense that the family could ill afford, considering all the other bills that have to be met from just one wage packet, and perhaps it’s possible that by calling in medical help, credence will be given to the dark fears that one or two people are thinking, much as they don’t want to admit to it, namely that they have seen this kind of situation before and that it will not end well.

Everyone does their misguided best to soothe Lavinia with endless platitudes and untruths, that it’s just a passing phase and she’ll soon feel better if only she could drink this broth or this camomile tea or any other bit of homespun wisdom.

She complains one day of pains “below”, embarrassed to reveal such intimate details to her mother, and leaving John Jackson in charge of his sister, Fanny hurries into town, to the chemist’s shop. It is a faintly intimidating place, with its glittering rows of druggists jars labelled in gold in incomprehensible Latin ranged along gleaming wooden shelves. Huge bottles of coloured liquids stand in the window, surrounded by an eye catching array of patent medicines and advertisements for soap and perfumes, tempting passers-by. Disturbingly, the back of the shop houses a dental surgeon who offers cheap extractions for the impecunious, and Fanny very much hopes that he is not in attendance that day.

Under the chemist’s disapproving glare, Fanny lays down a handful of coins on the counter and quickly pockets the small bottle of Syrup of Poppies she has purchased. He has hardly had time to commence his usual well-meant homily on taking great care with the medicine than she is out of the door. Sighing wearily, he shakes his head and returns to his dispensing duties. As he makes up pills and tablets and bottles of linctus, he reflects on the many hundreds, maybe thousands of bottles of this popular painkiller he has sold over the years … If he had just an extra farthing for each sold bottle, he would be a rich man by now, with a luxuriously appointed premises to oversee and willing apprentices to do the tedious day to day work.

Despite its pretty label and attractive name, Syrup of Poppies is heavily laced with opium, making it dangerously easy –or occasionally convenient – to administer a lethal dose, especially to babies and young children. Its soothing narcotic qualities and ready availability have made it a popular choice to combat pain and restlessness, and Fanny hopes that this will be of help at home.

As she opens the front door, she is relieved to see John Jackson sitting by the side of the baby’s cot, trying to read sections of yesterday’s newspaper he has found discarded in the street.

“She has been asleep all this time. Can I go out now?”

“Of course, you are a good boy. Keep away from the canal, and if I hear you’ve been seen by the railway lines again, I will be sure to tell your father. And you know the consequences”

The small boy picks up his cap and runs out of the door, glad to be free of onerous baby-sitting duties.

Treading as slightly as she can manage, Fanny goes upstairs to see Lavinia, who has been alternating between distressed restlessness and apparently deep sleep. She seems to lapse in and out of consciousness, and sometimes talks as if she were intoxicated, rambling on in a way which makes no sense to anyone, slurring her words and becoming agitated, but right now she seems quiet enough, half awake and half asleep.

Fanny measures by eye a small dose of the syrup into a glass, diluting it with a splash of tepid water, and holds it up to Lavinia’s cracked lips, imploring her to try and take just a little if she can. Obediently the liquid slips down her throat, and Fanny breathes a sigh of relief and hopes for the best. There have been so many worrying signs these past few days; if this medicine does not help, then Lambert will have to be told to call for the doctor. She will stand firm over this, even though she knows that, as Lavinia’s husband, he has the final say on what will or will not happen.

Still, she has done all that is within her power to do, and making sure Lavinia is reasonably settled, she goes downstairs to make a start on the pile of washing which has started to smell very unpleasant in the heat. All is quiet; the baby is asleep and unbeknown to all, John Jackson is happily throwing stones in the forbidden canal with his friends. Lambert has gone to work on his allotment, feeling more at home among the straggly lines of vegetables in need of a thorough watering. Truth be told, although he feels slightly resentful of the continued presence of his mother in law, he is very grateful for her help at this frightening and unsettling time, where the outcome seems to be less hopeful with each passing day. He can sit at the bedside and hold his wife’s hand, but often he can hardly recognise her as she rambles on uncomprehendingly, and thank goodness, he thinks, that Fanny is here to deal with the unpalatable realities of illness, the washing, the emptying of chamberpots and other “women’s things”.

With grim determination, Fanny begins to sort through the dirty laundry, wrinkling her nose in distaste as she does so. Besides the stained bedding, there are nappies to be boiled and bleached. The blood soaked cloths that Lavinia has been using as sanitary pads must be quickly washed and discreetly put away before Lambert comes back.

It is evening before there is some semblance of order in the scullery, and Fanny goes upstairs to check on Lavinia’s condition. In the dim evening light, she is lying perfectly still, her face waxen, and a shining film of perspiration on her forehead, amongst a crumpled nest of kicked off sheets and blankets. This is really as much as she could have hoped for, and she offers up a silent prayer that her daughter has turned a corner and will soon be on the road to a full recovery.

The following day brings new and unwelcome developments, when Lavinia’s temperature rises dramatically, giving rise to a series of seizures terrifying to behold. She still rambles incomprehensibly, as if she were in some other separate world, and shows no sign of recognising any of the anxious faces at the bedside. On more than one occasion both Lambert and Fanny think she has died, so shallow and imperceptible is her breathing.

At last, Lambert sends for the doctor, hoping for a miracle, which he knows deep down is unlikely to happen. There is no drug or treatment the doctor can prescribe that will halt, even in the smallest way, the progress of the infection that has brought Lavinia to this state. It is, in truth, only a matter of time before she will give way to the inevitable.

John Jackson has been sent to a schoolfriend’s house for the night. He only knows that his mother is unwell, and he has little idea of the seriousness of the situation, being only secretly pleased that no-one found out about his illicit trip to the canal.

The doctor arrives soon enough, and after examining Lavinia as gently as possible, listening to her diminishing heartbeat and feeling for an almost non existent pulse, he turns to Lambert, who is sitting rigidly upright.

“I am sorry, Mr. Boddy, but your wife is dying. There is little I can do for her. It is only a matter of hours.”

Fanny weeps silently into her apron; although she is a widow and lost her only son to diphtheria before he even started school, this new pain is no less hard to bear this time round.

The ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece sounds uncannily loud in the room, as the sad vigil of waiting begins, and the minute hand counts through the hours from Tuesday night to Wednesday morning and the dawn of a hopeless day.

No-one knows if Lavinia is aware of their presence, let alone comforted by it, but at least she seems peaceful now. There is a moment where her shallow breathing seems to change, one last breath, and she slips away. Everyone is aware of it, but the doctor applies his stethoscope one last time to confirm what they already know.

“She is at peace now. I am so sorry.”

“There was nothing that could have saved her.”

Fanny leans over to plant a last loving kiss on Lavinia’s forehead, and with a deft action closes her eyes, smoothing the damp hair back from her forehead and straightening the collar of her nightgown so that she has at least the semblance of sleep.

Lambert has not moved, still stunned by shock.

The doctor offers his condolences once more, and leaves the house, promising to return in the morning with the death certificate (and the bill, although he does not mention this, of course.)

It is Wednesday, August the 18th, 1897. Two days later, on the Friday, Lavinia will be laid to rest not in Shipley, where she lived, or Bradford, where she was born, but in Baildon, in the small churchyard of St John the Evangelist’s church.

The whereabouts of her grave are not known. If there ever was a gravestone, it was removed in a 20th century “landscaping” of the churchyard, and a fire in 1933 destroyed the burial plan.

The baby Annie Lavinia thrived and lived until 1976.

Lambert remarried and had a new family. He died in 1942.

John Jackson lived until 1971

Fanny was still alive in 1901, but I can find no trace of her since.

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