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The Humpty Dumpty Girl


Photo: Lewis Hine, Public Domain



I know it is only three weeks since I was left here, because my brother Sammy showed me how to mark time. We were in the alleyway down the side of our cottage, the mothers of the street gathering, gossiping, waiting to see me gone.

'Here,' said Sammy, scratching the wall with a piece of coal. 'Do this each day. Six lines down, one across makes a week. Like a gate.'

I said the words over and over as Da dragged me away, as the women looked on, shawls pulled tight, arms folded under smug smiles.

I have three gates scratched on the floorboards under my bed now.

‘They'll beat you with a cane till you're black,' Nell said when she caught me finishing the second gate.

Now she's lying in a bed in the infirmary, her head wrapped round in bandages – the Humpty Dumpty girl who fell off the wall. The mill overseer asked me how it happened – I made myself look sad, shook my head and returned to my spindles.

Tonight, I'll make another mark with my pocketknife and perhaps tomorrow is the day Sammy will come to take me home.

If it is, I shall take the box of Lucifers hidden under my mattress and set a fire in the fluff and dropped threads, watch the overseer and Nell and the clack-clack looms flame until there's nothing left but ash and the stench of burnt cotton and me and my pocket knife.


(A version of this story first appeared on my blog, Word Shamble)

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