Present of the Past
“Maggie, what does it feel like to be fourteen?”
Addy perched on the edge of my sofa, her crystalline eyes earnestly wide as she waited for my response.
“It feels... Well, it feels...” I glanced around as though the lace curtains, the paper wrappings strewn about, the grandfather clock ticking urgently could give me an answer. “It’s quite like thirteen at present, Addy. Or perhaps I haven’t felt it yet.”
“Oh.” She looked somewhat disappointed as she fiddled with the frills of her hem. “Is it like nine? Nine isn’t so interesting.”
“Addison, off the arm of the chair, young lady,” Mother chided as she burst in. Standing in the centre of the room and facing the decorative mirror on the wall, she adjusted her flouncy red skirts and tight bun before looking about the sitting room.
“Clean this mess up, will you, girls, your Uncle Alexander will be over any minute,” she said with a slight glance skywards.
We got to work, pressing the wrappings out neatly on the ottoman and piling a magnitude of sundry presents on the table. If Mother hadn’t entered when she had, I knew what I might have said to Addy. I might have replied that fourteen was not like nine at all. Nine was exciting, on the brink of double digits; fourteen felt strangely empty by comparison, despite the porcelain dolls, fancy combs and freshly printed books I had received. It wasn’t because Father was on a surgical errand on the far side of Manchester, or because my friend Lottie hadn’t come over. Something indescribable was simply missing.
I was broken from my reflections by the usual exclamations and exchanging of niceties that erupted from the door. Within two moments Mother was standing, flustered, in the doorway with Uncle Alexander.
“Margaret, Addison!” he cried, stepping forward and catching us both in an affectionate hug. The pocket watch dangling from his waistcoat would have permanently imprinted its shape into my cheek if he hadn’t stood back and stared.
“Addison, a fine young lady,” he said, tugging playfully at a honey-coloured curl. “And Margaret, the birthday girl.” He winked at me secretively.
“Sit down, won’t you, Alexander?” Mother urged somewhat impatiently, leading him to a chair. “I’ll go and get Edith to make some tea.” She hustled out in her voluminous dress.
Uncle Alexander sat back, crossed his legs and ran his hands through his thick, dark hair.
“Fourteen, Margaret, hmm?” he commented casually.
“1835... Golly, that makes me feel old.”
Neither of us spoke. Surely he wasn’t all that old, being among the youngest of Mother’s siblings.
“Did you receive anything of intrigue for your birthday?”
“Yes, Uncle Alexander,” I said eagerly. “A new dress.” I smoothed the soft green fabric of the dress I wore, and then reached towards the laden table. “And this.” I held out the silver bracelet I’d been given. The metal twisted in and out ornately, with small flecks of silver spattered everywhere like thorns on a vine. On one side was a glimmering ruby the size of my thumbnail.
“I remember that very well,” he said fondly. “A family heirloom. Your mother always loved it. It’s been passed down to the eldest daughter on her fourteenth birthday for... for nearly a century now.”
“Why the fourteenth birthday?”
He shrugged. “Second grand climacteric? Just over the threshold of being teen-aged? Double seven, half of twenty-eight, could have been anything.”
Mother and Edith came back at that moment, the latter bearing a tray of tea and cups. Edith was our oldest servant, who had been part of our household since before I was born. She now poured four cups of tea with experienced care, wisps of pallid hair escaping her white cap.
“Thankyou, Edith,” said Mother, and Edith promptly left with a curtsy. Mother took her seat opposite the hearth, which continued its job of crackling in protest against the cold outside. “You’re here early, Alexander. What time did your carriage depart?” She passed him a steaming cup and saucer.
“Thankyou.” He blew at his mug and gingerly took a sip before he answered, “I didn’t come by carriage, Penny, I took the train.”
Mother frowned as she tasted her tea. Her starched dress, dark brows and tight greying bun constituted an austere appearance. “Alexander, you know how I feel about trains,” she said disapprovingly.
Uncle Alexander laughed. “Penny, the Liverpool to Manchester line has been open for years now.”
“Penelope to you. Its age is irrelevant. They’re filthy, dangerous things, trains. Just look at what happened to poor William Huskisson upon the line’s opening! How many more people will we have killed before we all go back to a good horse and carriage?”
He tutted. “Progress, Penny, you can’t fight that.”
“Penelope, thankyou.”
He turned to us conspiratorially and half-whispered, “Pen’s never liked times changing. It took her years to start wearing knickers instead of drawers when they first came out.”
We snickered despite our best efforts to keep them in.
“Alexander, what a thing to mention!” Mother scolded. “Let’s have a change of subject, if you don’t mind.”
“Do let’s,” he agreed. “I haven’t told Margaret about her present yet.”
“Told her about it?” Addy queried.
“Yes,” he confirmed, inclining his head slightly with a furtive grin. “I can’t give you anything, because this is your present.” Uncle Alexander pulled a folded piece of paper from his coat and handed it to me with his signature smile - mischievously knowing.
I opened it out to find that it was an advertisement. “An enactment of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I read aloud, “at the Walnerson Theatre in Liverpool - tonight is closing night. Are you taking us? Oh, thankyou, Uncle Alexander!” I grinned widely, and would have likely jumped up and flung my arms around him if there hadn’t been a table in my way. I’d never been to a play before, though I’d been longing for ages.
“It’s at seven this evening,” he told Mother. “I thought I’d take the girls.”
Mother looked at the clock and frowned. “How will you get there in time? Surely your carriage wouldn’t make it by seven o’clock?”
“We’ll take the train, Penny.”
“The train? Alexander, you know how I -“
“We can’t get there any other way, not in time.”
“No, but -“
“We’ll be home by ten.”
“Ten! But -“
“It’s her birthday, Pen, surely just this once.”
“Hmm, but -“
“That’s settled. Go get your shoes on, girls.”
We began hurrying up the stairs before Mother could argue, giggling excitedly as we went.
“Don’t wear your new frock,” was all she called after us.
Soon enough, the three of us were on the train, chugging off to Liverpool.
“Uncle Alexander, you’re awfully good at negotiating.”
“It’s been said,” he smirked, looking out of the open window at the passing fields. “I’ve always had a way of getting around Pen.”
I smiled and looked down, fingering my bracelet. I decided I would wear it every day, and show it off to all my friends. The ruby cast flecks of light about the carriage in the waning sunlight, making the dull wooden seats and rickety floor seem magical. I could see why Mother was wary of trains. The ground passed us so closely and quickly, it was like we were inside a determinedly rushing beast, the rumbling being its roar and the flying smoke being its breath.
“We’re nearly there, girls,” Uncle Alexander informed us from the opposite seat. Almost instantly, the train’s huffing began to slow and the station pulled in alongside us. With a cloud of smoke, Crown Street Station, the line’s terminus, came into view. I could see many people waiting on the platform outside a friendly-looking, cream-coloured building with long, elegant windows.
Uncle Alexander rose from his seat and led us out of the low-roofed carriage. We stepped out on to the platform and strode through the bustling station to the street, passing business-like handshaking, family reunions and polite small talk on our way. I noticed how gentlemanly Uncle Alexander appeared as he strode purposefully along, top hat on firmly and coat buttoned up. I felt proud and protected to have him as my uncle.
“This is Liverpool, girls,” he announced as we stepped on to the street.
Liverpool. This was certainly it, if Liverpool meant melancholy rushing, cold, grimy streets and forbidding grey buildings. Much like Manchester, really, or any other town, for that matter - but somehow exciting too.
Our uncle consulted his pocket watch, informing us that it was not long until seven. We began hurrying along the chilly streets, through neglected alleys and down pompous lanes, up rows of factories and between marketplaces, until we found the Walnerson Theatre.
It was a grand building of sandstone with creamy marble pillars standing proudly at the top of the stairs. Lavishly dressed ladies and gentlemen were flooding up and down - Addy and I gasped at the detail and finery of the gowns, bonnets and parasols. To me it appeared like the stairway to heaven in Jacob’s dream.
“Here we are,” said Uncle Alexander, glancing at his watch again. “Come, we’re just in time.”
Grinning zestfully, we held our skirts and raced after him up the stairs, barely considering for a moment what Mother would say if she saw us. Uncle Alexander handed three coins to the grim usher at the door, who directed us in unresponsively.
I gasped as we walked into the foyer, with its deep blue carpet and ornate ceiling paintings of clouds and cherubs. My celestial imaginings at the foot of the stairs were not, it seemed, entirely inaccurate.
On we walked, through the vast double doors with floods of other guests, into the main theatre. It was in some ways what I had pictured - rows of chairs on the floor and up on balconies - but I hadn’t prepared myself for the atmosphere of aristocratic chatter, curtains closed with suspense and mellow candles lining the walls.
Addy clutched my arm as we took our seats near the back of the auditorium. “Can you believe it?” she whispered in awe. “This is what real ladies do. They go out to the theatre in fancy gowns and wave their fans... Oh, Maggie, it’s magical!”
“It is, Addy,” I breathed. Indeed, there was such an enchanting atmosphere that I felt even speaking would snap it. A beauty as delicately unearthly as a dew-laden strand of spider’s mesh hung in the hall.
“Welcome,” a rich, projected voice said from the stage, not breaking but enforcing the moodier growing anticipation. A small man in a suit stood up the front, beginning the show as the doors began closing. “Thankyou for attending our performance tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, we now commence our play. I present the Walnerson Theatre Group with Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.” With a flourish he stepped off stage, and the curtains began to part with a wonderful sense of excitement. I was truly in a theatre, seeing a play, at last!
When the curtains opened, I beheld a kind of beautiful palace lit by dozens of candles, with a nobly dressed man in the centre. From Theseus’s first line, I was elevated into this fantastical world of mischievous elves, wild elopements and merry carpenters. The actors had such a way of teasing out my emotions, putting out the bait of their words and actions, drawing me in like a very compliant fish. I probably looked like a fish, too, gaping in horror and awe at the trials, victories and sorrows of those on stage. It barely mattered that phrases flew by sometimes without making sense to me - I still laughed along with Quince and his men, pined with Helena and danced with the fairies on the outskirts of Athens. Nothing but the bright stage existed now, that was the only important thing in the world, I was off in the plots of Shakespeare...
Until I felt someone shaking my arm, pulling me abruptly back into reality. I looked down at Addy, whose eyes were urgently wide.
“Maggie,” she whispered, “I need to, um... Visit the latrine.”
I frowned. “Where’s Uncle Alexander?” Looking past her, I saw nothing but an empty seat.
“He went to the toilet himself not long ago,” she explained. “Please, will you come with me?”
“Yes, Addy,” I whispered, though rather reluctant to leave this magical place.
We stood quietly and tiptoed out of the auditorium, hastily explaining our departure to the usher. Back through the exquisite foyer and down the front steps we went, out into the crisp night. I was glad of the shawl around my shoulders, and tugged it further over my arms.
“Addy, let’s try this way,” I said, pointing around one side of the theatre. “Toilets would surely be somewhere there.”
We trudged down the alley between the grand theatre and the watchful building beside it. Far along the narrow path we found two dilapidated shacks against a high brick wall. Addy stepped towards one and tentatively pulled the caving door out, revealing an overgrown hole inside a small, elevated prism of wood on the floor. She emitted a short, disgusted groan, but stepped inside and closed the door.
“It could be worse,” I assured her from outside. “My friend Lottie goes to public events all the time, and she says it’s sometimes not even in a shack like this. We’re lucky to have indoor toilets at home, I think.”
Addy mumbled an agreeing but still uncertain hum.
After a moment I said, “I wonder where Uncle Alexander is. He’d surely be going back inside by now.”
“Maybe he went back in, but we didn’t see him,” came the muffled voice of Addy. “We’ll go look when I’m done.”
“I’ll wait.”
The alleyway was gloomy and still, almost eerily so. I was glad of Addy’s nearness - there was an indescribable presence about the buildings, like they were judging me, sizing me up.
And suddenly something moved. A cat, I thought at first, scavenging under old rags. But the rags themselves moved and sat up to reveal a disheveled girl on the concrete. I gasped and impulsively but tentatively stepped nearer. She was certainly younger than I was, staring warily up at me with eyes like the emeralds on Mother’s best brooch. Her hair was tousled and, like her apron, cap and face, as ashen as the wall behind her. Surely she hadn’t been sitting here for too long - Uncle Alexander would have noticed her on his way in, otherwise.
“I - I’m Maggie,” I began hesitantly. “What’s your name?” I smiled in a way that I hope seemed friendly.
The girl just stared, wide-eyed, for a second and then whispered in a dry, voice, “I’m Louise.”
I crouched beside her, not quite sure what to say or do. My mind had frozen over like a lake in winter upon seeing her, for I had never seen a face so weary, so innocent, so alone.
“Nice to meet you,” I stammered brightly. I paused, groping for the right words. “Are you - are you well, Louise?”
Her brow creased slightly as if she had to consider the question. Then she looked down and shook her head dolefully. “I’m lost,” she rasped. “Today was my second day at the textiles factory, and I can’t r’member the way home.”
It was my turn to frown. “Why should a girl your age be working in a factory?”
She looked at me like it was a trick question. “Don’t we all? I’ve been working for a few years. We need the money, so we have to pretend we’re older than we are.”
“And how old are you?”
“I’m nine.”
I stared at the barren concrete, unable to believe that someone Addy’s age - or younger - would have to work in a factory. Factories, I had heard, were dark, cruel places of ruthless machines and no freedom.
Louise went on, “We ‘specially need the extra shillings, ‘cause Pa can’t work for his poorly leg.”
“Poorly leg?” I repeated concernedly.
“F- Factory accident,” she whispered, as though even mentioning the incident would do some unimaginable harm. She paused and then, face distorted as she held back tears, said, “So I really want to get home.” A shaky breath came from her cold, blue lips, and a tear slid down her grimy cheek.
“Here, take my shawl.” I pulled it off and put it around her shoulders, though it was mighty cold without it. “Why are you here so late, Louise? Surely work finished hours ago?”
“We’re not ‘sposed to work at night, but they only just follow that rule.”
At this moment I heard a muted gasp behind me, and turned to find Addy staring at Louise with one hand over her mouth.
“This is Louise,” I said. “Louise, this is my sister, Addy.” I paused and then explained, “Addy, Louise needs our help - she’s lost.”
She nodded slightly fearfully, but didn’t ask any questions.
“Can you help me get home?” Louise whispered pleadingly.
I nodded without hesitation. “We’ll find our uncle first. He should be able to help.”
Taking Louise gently by the hand, the three of us stood and began walking to the front of the theatre. We found Uncle Alexander at the top of the front steps, chatting amicably to an usher. He looked up and gestured a greeting with an expression that surely held relief and surprise, but seemed as casual as ever. Then he shook the usher’s hand, bade him farewell and bounded airily down to meet us.
“You weren’t worried, were you, Uncle Alexander? We didn’t mean to be out long.”
“I saw your empty seats and guessed where you were,” he said, “so I thought I’d wait out here.” Then he turned and smiled at Louise. “And who’s this, girls?”
“This is Louise,” I said again. “She got lost on her way home from the factory, so we thought we could help her.”
Uncle Alexander looked from us to Louise and back again, the poor girl shrinking slightly as though waiting before a judge to be sentenced. Then he grinned. “Come,” he said, “we’ll help you get home. Whereabouts do you live? Do you know your address?”
“I live on P- Pedalson Lane.”
“Luckily, I know Liverpool very well. I’m fairly sure your street is over this way, past a few rows of factories. You can point your house out when we get there.”
So off we went, through the dark roads of Liverpool, and though the cold nudged and poked all my limbs I didn’t really mind. There was a happiness, a fulfilment that settled in me. It was quite unlike my joy in the theatre. After a moment I realised why - we were helping Louise, rather than just sitting in the theatre and enjoying ourselves, and I felt proud to realise it. The fourteen-year-old emptiness I had felt earlier was no longer as pressing.
As we walked down Pedalson Lane at last, Louise watched carefully for her house and pointed to it with a cheerful cry when we reached it.
“This is it!” she said, grinning. “Thankyou for everything - I’d still be lost if you hadn’t come along. Come inside for a second, meet my family.”
We followed her, despite Uncle Alexander’s quick frown at his watch, not quite knowing what to expect. Inside the stoic building, I didn’t know whether to shriek or gasp or sob, for it was a dwelling so poor and miserable that it tore at my heart.
Ragged old clothes hung on a rope above the entrance into the front room, which appeared to double as a kitchen and living space. The plaster floor and walls were mouldy and leaking in some places, devoid of any ornaments or furniture apart from makeshift cupboards and a chair in one corner where a bulky man sat. I assumed this was her father, partly because I could clearly see the ‘poorly leg’ she had mentioned. Part of his right leg was missing, halfway up his calf, and what was left was wrapped in bandages, seemingly constructed of torn clothing, below his dusty trousers. I shivered at the horror of it.
On the ground beside him was a woman with pale hair, presumably Louise’s mother, who was washing clothes in a wooden tub. Her face was taut with the strain of rubbing the clothes against the board, worn sleeves drawn back to her wet elbows.
“Mama, I’m home,” Louise called, and the weary lady immediately rose and embraced her.
“Im so glad you’re safe! We were worried about you, my dear.”
“Louise!” her father called cheerfully from his chair. “Where were you?”
“I’m sorry. I lost my way,” she explained, “but I met some people who helped me.”
She stepped aside and gestured to us, and her mother looked up to where we stood at the door. In that first flickering glance, I saw so many emotions - confusion, gratitude, envy and almost fear at our wealthy appearance by comparison.
“Thankyou,” she managed breathlessly, with the accompaniment of a nod. Then she seemed to compose herself, and continued, “Very nice to meet you. I’m Becky, this is my husband Al.”
Uncle Alexander in turn introduced us, and while he did so I kept taking in the poverty of their home. Apart from the dreary front room, there were two other rooms - one in pitch darkness, the other partly visible from moonlight streaming through the window. In this room I saw two mangy mattresses pushed up beside one another on the floor, one unoccupied and one with four little pairs of feet in a row - the feet, I assumed, of her siblings. The thin sheet on top of them barely seemed to cover them properly. I could hardly imagine how cold and uncomfortable it would be, sharing a bed on the floor with four people, having nothing but a slight blanket to protect me from the cold.
The thing that struck me the most, I think, was that I had seen terrible things in the theatre, but they were nothing compared to this. This was poverty. These were real people, living without basic necessities, struggling every day. They weren’t actors. It was real.
A baby began to howl from the bedroom, and Louise’s mother excused herself hastily, rushing off to calm the child.
Seeing that they were in no position to have visitors, Uncle Alexander said, “Well, yes, nice to make your acquaintance, but we won’t keep you from your evening. Goodnight.” He nodded and led us out, closing the door as we stepped into the night.
I shivered as we began to walk away. I felt glad to have helped Louise, but there was still something pestering me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the draughty, dirty room and her mother’s drained, battered appearance...
And suddenly I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I ran without warning, back down Pedalson Lane to Louise’s house, and knocked firmly on her front door. Her mother opened it tentatively.
“Yes?” she queried tiredly. Seeing who I was, she stepped aside and I walked in a few steps.
Louise was sitting on the ground before her father. They looked mid-discussion, but I didn’t hesitate to continue.
“I... couldn’t bear to leave you like this,” I began, “knowing of your daily hardships. I want to help.” They were all staring, confused but not ready to interrupt. “I have very little with me to give you... Except the only thing of value.” I reached down and unhinged my bracelet’s clasp, fully prepared to give it to them, but paused for a moment. It really was beautiful. The faces of the ruby shone mysteriously in the candlelight, and I felt all over again the pride of owning it. I hadn’t even shown it off to Lottie yet. And after all, it was an heirloom...
A beautiful, priceless heirloom, the only thing I had in my power to help this needy family.
So I took it off and placed it firmly in Louise’s hand where she sat on the grubby floor.
“It’s not much,” I said, “but I hope it brings you happiness of some kind. Goodnight.”
I whisked out of the door and closed it before any questions, thanks or pleadings to reconsider could be uttered.
Uncle Alexander was waiting on the roadside with Addy.
“What happened, Maggie?” my sister asked as I came to join them.
“I gave them my bracelet.”
“Margaret! Whatever for?” cried Uncle Alexander.
“To help them.”
“Mother won’t be pleased.”
“I know.”
“It was an heirloom!”
“Yes, an heirloom valuable enough to do good in their world.”
They seemed to realise that the decision had been made, that I wasn’t turning back, and said no more.
I wasn’t sore to lose my birthday present. I’d given it to them out of kindness, and received the best gift in return: the warmth that comes of giving.

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