Friday 21st May 1897
The sky was cloudless again the following day. In some parts of the world a cloudless sky is blue, but not in Brightside. There was always a haziness in the air, something up there bleaching the blue out of the sky, blocking out the sun’s full strength. The girls were given as big a breakfast as they could eat to keep them going and were sent off to school in their good-as-new dresses with their medals proudly displayed and their hats with the new ribbons. Such levels of excitement as this, being shown by all of Brightside’s children, were more than the walls of the terraces could contain; and best of luck to their teachers in marshalling their bodies and their spirits. Charlie went off with his mates. The others left towards midday and went round to Charlton Street where Selina’s brother Henry lived with Agnes. Agnes, nursing baby Agnes, was the depository for all the family’s – and several neighbours’ – unwanted children for the day; here Little Rabbi was to spend the day competing with cousins.
As Rab and Selina wandered into town, children, packed into trams at double the normal capacity, streamed past them like some great, tiny army being mobilised in a hurry – all waving and shouting, especially if they passed someone they knew, which was often, as there was a steady stream of grown-ups and older children all heading the same way.
Rab was pleased at how the day had turned out. He was happy – it was hard not to be, it was warm, and everyone was smiling and comparing plans for the day: each having their own ideas for getting a good vantage point. Selina was being nice to him; he was secure at home and yet had other opportunities for happiness: like he stood on top of a hill with the valley opening up before him and several paths to choose from. Ada was clearly capable of adding something to his life and making him feel whole – filling in the gaps left by Selina. And before long the new season would start and he was in the best shape ever – he felt he knew exactly what he had to do for success and if they added a decent centre-forward they could beat the Villans to the top spot, or win the English cup.
They approached the park from Norfolk Road where they were passed by all manner of vehicles conveying babbling children to the park. It seemed like every brewery in the city had donated its drays for the cause of shipping not barrels but young citizens, and, thanks to its furnaces and dust, Sheffield was a perpetually thirsty place and had more breweries than anywhere in the land. Other merchants and factory owners had also lent use of their wagonettes and carts. Some children even travelled in unaccustomed style in spare carriages of local worthies. Reaching the grand entrance to the Duke’s park and entering its cool avenue of trees was wonderful after their hot and dusty walk. Many people had been complaining along the route that there had been no sign of the water carts to dampen the streets, and how they would be filthy before they got there. Rab and Selina didn’t know which way to go in the park but followed the stream of people. The Boys’ Brigade were out in force and the Empire’s uniformed little soldiers were relishing their important job of keeping routes clear and directing people.
They emerged beyond the trees onto the slope overlooking the valley. A man in a straw boater pointed out to them the platform down below where the conductor would stand and the barrier-lined route of the newly built Queen’s Drive. They settled on a spot on the slope under some trees and there Rab unfolded the cloth bundle he had been carrying on his shoulder. He set two bottles of herb beer on the flattest piece of grass and they had some snap of bread and a polony, followed by a penny cake each.
Down below, last minute preparations were still being made and a man with a ladder could be seen climbing part way up a flagpole attaching the Royal Standard. There was plenty to watch despite their being early.
‘Look at these elegant ladies Rab,’ Selina said pointing out two women floating along in large feather-trimmed hats with dresses in flouncy layers of white and coloured silk, and carrying parasols, as if the costumes were wearing the women rather than the other way round.
‘And those’ll be the ones what’s paid for that pretty get-up,’ Rab said, indicating two puffed up men in tailcoats and chimney pot hats, parading their silver topped canes a short distance behind the women. ‘Sheffield’s finest are out today.’
Rab removed his jacket, folded it, placed it on the ground and lay back against it for a pillow, positioning his cap over his face to keep out the sun.
‘Rab! Your best jacket!’
‘I know. Wake us up if owt happens.’
Selina kept a watch over the shifting scene, the comings and goings, keen to spot the first children arriving. Soon they did, first a little rivulet of white frocks coming up from the town; then joined by ranks of boys in uniform, marching solemnly, a little ripple of applause going up for their efforts. Then the rivulets turned to streams and they kept coming and coming. Selina poked Rab in the ribs with the toe of her boot and he sat up with a grumble.
‘Can you see them anywhere?’ she said.
‘We’ll never spot ’em!’ he scoffed.
‘We might, you just keep a look out; your eyes are better than mine.’
After a while children began pouring into the park from different directions. Some were just little mites, waving their union jacks, being herded along by their teachers to take up their positions at the lowest parts of the slopes; others strapping lads and lasses of twelve or thirteen, who would soon be put to work for the Empire, in melting shops or buffing rooms or in the earth, fetching or carrying until they were allowed a go themselves. Others, well drilled, formed patches of uniform colour on the slope wearing the same blouses with matching hats, or boys in blazers and caps: the ones who would not face work for some time yet, if ever, who would live off the work of the others, run the Empire or make its laws. The upper slopes around Rab and Selina were also filling up with red-faced men mopping their brows, women with baskets containing oven-bottom cakes, pies, spice cake and bottled drinks, and big brothers and sisters, proud yet jealous, in charge of picking out the best spots to sit.
‘Ey up! Here comes us elders and betters!’ said Rab, as the dignitaries started to move into the enclosure to take up their seats.
‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a chair to sit on!’ sighed Selina.
‘When they make us Lord Mayor tha’ll have one love,’ Rab replied.
A military band settled into place and started playing, and Rab whistled along to the tunes he recognised and sang the opening lines of one: “Way down upon the Swanee ribber” as did one or two other wags adopting the accent.
At one point a burst of applause started and spread as a man in full regalia drove up.
‘It’s the Duke!’ someone said.
‘So that’s what he looks like!’ said Selina.
‘Well I don’t s’pose he sits down to his breakfast boiled egg looking like that though,’ said Rab.
Seeing the Duke got the children excited and afterwards they cheered and waved their little banners and flags every time someone went past on horseback, no matter who they were.
In the distance they heard a cannon boom. An excited murmur went up through the crowd, the collective wisdom being that it signalled the Queen’s arrival. ‘That’s the railway station.’ ‘She’s here.’ ‘She’s arrived.’
The chattering died down as buglers sounded out to get everyone’s attention and the conductor started the bands going: interspersed around the valley were eight brass bands and they all joined together somehow keeping in time. Then the children sang “Auld Lang Syne” and the effect on the crowd was palpable. Many of them had experienced Whit sings in the city’s parks, but this was beyond anything they could have imagined.
Afterwards the children cheered and the upper slopes applauded madly.
Selina took hold of Rab’s hand and held it in both of hers and shuffled towards him on the grass.
‘How many children do you reckon there are here Rab?’ she whispered.
‘A lot,’ I’d say.
She slapped the back of his hand, ‘I know that, but how many.’
‘Well they say there were thirty thousand there when we played the Wednesday, Boxing Day last, and I reckon there’s nigh on twice that. Who knows?’
The children were waving their songsheets in the air. Rab counted seven different colours of songsheet, each colour occupying a distinct patch of ground, so the effect was like different coloured flower beds or fields, but in movement. England’s future. Sheffield’s future.
‘Rab?’ she said quietly.
‘For three lovely kids, and for looking after us.’
He didn’t know what to say, so just smiled at her and squeezed her hand. The bands picked up again while the children took a rest.
He looked at her again, and she leaned towards him and whispered in his ear.
‘There’s another child on the way.’
She looked towards him trying to read his face. He thought she looked tired and drawn, ‘Are you sure?’
‘That’s good,’ he said and put his arm around her, and looked back towards the valley.
The children sang “Home Sweet Home.” Rab felt his cheeks ache, and his nose smart as sensations pulsed up from his chest. His eyes moistened. Damn. He looked away at the trees behind and tried to shift his concentration onto something other. He brushed away a tear with his free hand, as if he were just scratching his nose. He noticed he wasn’t the only one doing so. A woman in front had produced a lace handkerchief and someone else was sniffing. He wasn’t sure what he felt. Sentimentality? Happiness? That Selina had planted her flag-pole on his chest? He would have to abandon ideas of seeing Ada again now.
Another military band arrived in splendid red uniforms with spikes on their black helmets. ‘That’s the Queen’s guards, I shouldn’t reckon,’ said a raised voice. ‘Nay lad, it’s the Connaughts,’ said a tweed-suited man behind, ‘Irishmen.’ Rab again thought of Ada, and he felt a shiver. Selina looked at him. ‘Sun’s lost its heat,’ he said pulling on his jacket.
A short burst of “Rule Britannia” followed, and everyone looked to see if she was coming but it was evidently just a test, because the conductor stepped off his rostrum. Chattering started up on the slopes again as they waited once more.
Eventually cheering could be heard in the distance, coming from over St Mary’s way. Rab had calmed his emotions again.
‘She must be coming,’ he said.
The cheering and applause got less distant until it reached the fringes of the park and then glittering steel and polished metal could be seen flashing through the branches. Everyone got to their feet. Rab was quite pleased to be standing and rubbed his slightly damp behind. Then soldiers on horseback, resplendent in white, blue and gold, appeared, and a huge cheer went up from all the children as they waved their flags. Next came some carriages and cavalrymen in red uniforms with plumes in their silver helmets. There was a deafening cry as a dark chocolaty brown carriage with red and gold on it arrived at the Royal Standard and stopped. Inside on blue seats sat a small figure all in black. They could see the Duke of Norfolk standing next to the carriage and then the National Anthem was sung by the children, with most of the grown-ups joining in. Then there was another song that Rab didn’t recognise, followed by Rule Britannia. Then it was all over in what had seemed like a few seconds – there was another huge cheer and the carriages and trample of horses started up. Rab and Selina looked down as the tiny black figure rolled quickly away out of the top end of the park; the coloured papers and union jacks waving and little voices straining to make themselves heard above all the others.
‘That’s that then!’ Rab said.
‘She must’ve been impressed, don’t you think?’
‘Aye that she must. I bet she’s never heard owt like it. This is what her country’s really about.’
They stood looking over the valley, as did everyone else, feeling suddenly deflated.
‘Now what?’ Rab said. As if in reply groups of children started trooping off in various directions.
‘They’re off to the tents for their buns and lemonade,’ said Selina. ‘Then we’ll have to try and find ’em somehow and take ’em home.”
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