Halfway Down The Stairs


"Go to bed Mary!"
"But uncle Edwin, can't I stay up a little longer? I don't feel like going to sleep just yet."
Edwin Midgley sighed. There was no easy way of handling his brother's wayward daughter.
"Look ... go to bed and read if you like. There's a good book about Grace Darling in the tall bookcase. The wind and rain's lashing the windows outside - you can imagine you're the lighthousekeepers daughter. Just think of having to go out in all that foul weather in your nightdress when you could be snug in bed asleep."
"But uncle Edwin.... I don't want to ...."
"To bed young lady! And that's your last warning! Your father will be blaming us for letting you stay up. Now run along at once!"

With her characteristic sulky scowl Mary Midgley turned on her heel and padded angrily down the landing to her room. But when she got there she smiled to herself. She knew a ploy when she saw one. Her father was away in Sheffield and her two uncles wanted her out of the way so they could pursue their own purposes. Crafty Uncle Edwin and sneaky Uncle Wilf. She knew they were planning something, and she itched to find out what. All day long they had held their heads together, laughing and joking, murmuring conspiratorially in low voices. What on earth were they up to? Dropping of broad hints and indirect questions had not had the desired effect. Whatever it was that was on their minds they were certainly not going to tell her.

But Mary Midgley was not a girl who submitted meekly to authority. Hot tempered, wilful, a disgustingly bad loser, now at eleven years old, the onset of adolescence had added moodiness and arrogance to her existing qualities. Hopelessly spoilt by a doting father who worshipped his only child, Mary was a young madam more than used to getting her own way. She lay on the bed and thumbed despondently through the leather-bound book. Boring! Anyway, she knew all about Grace Darling - and General Gordon and Dr. Livingstone! It was required reading at school. On the wall above her head the gaslight fluttered, highlighting the black ring of soot it had deposited on the high plaster ceiling. The roomed seemed stuffy - airless, entombed in heavy velvet drapes and dusty carpeting. In the fireplace the embers were low, and there was no coal left with which to stoke it up. Outside a fierce wind was rattling the shutters. Mary sighed, after the cottage at Sutton, Parkfield seemed such a cheerless place. They had moved there in the early autumn, just after her father's convalescence. All through the summer she had roamed the woods, moors and footpaths around her Aunt Harriet's ivy clad cottage in the dales, befriended by the housekeeper's daughter. She had enjoyed herself immensely, a welcome freedom from the four years of misery she had endured at Amcott's Girl's Academy where she had been sent after the death of her mother. Everything had been wonderful at Sutton. Then her uncle Wilf had appeared and informed her that she would have to move to Leeds, to live near her fathers' wireworks. A governess would be provided to help Mary continue with her education.

Parkfield was sited high up on the slopes of the Aire Valley, its south eastern prospect facing out towards the grimy mills and smoke belching chimneys of industrial Leeds. The house was actually situated at the edge of open country, but the damp climate, combined with the smog wafting up from the millscape below ensured that Parkfield enjoyed the dubious pleasure of being almost permanently swathed in damp murk and foggy gloom. To Mary, who had known sunny days and country air, it was like living on the edge of Hades.

On that September day when she had first arrived in the pony and trap, her prospects had seemed happier. Indeed they had even laughed at the confusion she had felt when her father had asked her to guess which house was Parkfield. The reason was that there were two identical houses standing side by side. By all accounts Parkfield, and Millfield next door, had been built by twin brothers, who, being identical in most other ways, had decided that their homes should be identical also!

This had intrigued Mary. She had greatly admired the two residences, with their fine ashlar masonry, dressed in the pseudo classical style of georgian days. She had marvelled too at the iron railings, the fine brass knocker and the ornate fanlight above the elegantly panelled front door. On settling in she had explored the house from top to bottom, but once the novelty had subsided the melancholia had set in. Beyond the paved rear yard and the high wall was a millpond and the raucous clatter of machinery emanating from the adjacent Park Mill Wireworks. How she had come to detest that high wall that marked the boundary of her world. Miss Stewart, her governess, had seen to that."Now Mary, you're not to wander off down the street. You're not in the country now you know!" It rankled. How she longed for the wind in the trees and the open air!

Beyond the two houses and the mill a stand of trees stood dark and bare on the grey horizon. It was, her father had informed her, known locally as Rawley Billing. All through the autumn she had begged her father to take her there, but always he had been too busy, and now, with the onset of short dismal days and windswept nights it seemed as if she must be imprisoned in this dismal house forever. A sudden flurry of hail lashed at the lattice, jerking Mary to attention. She slammed the book shut, threw it vengefully over the far end of the brass bed, and, kneeling on her pillows reached up to turn off the light. Now, save for the faint shimmer of the cooling gas mantle and the glowing embers in the black leaded fireplace, the room was plunged into a silky darkness. Beneath the door Mary could make out a chink of fluttering gaslight, beyond which she could perceive the murmer of distant voices. It was her two uncles, arguing as usual.

It was no good! She would have to try and find out what they were up to. Braving the hidden dangers of the mousetrap and the chamber pot, Mary crept from the bed and tiptoed to the door. She slowly turned the brass doorknob, the sudden click making her start, but no-one had noticed, and now, with the door just slightly ajar she was able to peek out onto the darkened landing and distinguish something of what was going on.

Her two uncles were standing halfway down the stairs. The staircase at Parkfield, with its fine mahogany bannister rail actually consisted of two flights of wide stone stairs with an intermediate landing halfway up, and it was on this landing that the two men were esconced. Uncle Edwin was holding steady a spindle backed oak chair while his elder brother was standing upon it, attempting look out of the top of the great staircase window which stood almost to the full height of the house. This latticed window, like its twin at neighbouring Millfield had originally been lighted with clear glass panes, but some occupant of the house, no doubt wishing to appear rather more ostentatious than his neighbour, had filled it with stained glass, leaving only the central circular pane near the arched top of the window with a clear view into the backyard beyond; and it was through this pane that Mary's uncle Wilfred was now vainly trying to peer!

"It's no good Edwin! It's too damned high! We're going to have to try summat bigger!"
The elder brother frowned. "Well what about the table in the drawing room, maybe we could use that perhaps?"
"You must be joking! If we scratched the polish Mrs. Lumb would have our guts for garters! What about that old butcher block table in the basement, although its a bit unsightly to bring upstairs?"
Edwin grinned. "George won't mind. He thinks we're ruddy daft anyway!"
"Alreet. We'll do that then."

A few minutes later the two men returned, gasping and panting as they lugged the heavy old table up the wide staircase, setting it in place against the tall window on the halfway landing.

"Reet Wilf. Now put the chair on top of that."
Edwin gazed hopefully as his younger brother clambered up onto the chair, and stood on it, gazing out through the high clear pane.
"Can you see anything Wilf?"
"No problem. If we could raise the chair a few more feet I could actually sit here and look out."
Edwin smiled. "Good! We'll do that. We'll get the chest from your room and put that on the table. Should provide a cozy vantage point."

The grandfather clock at the bottom of the stairs began to chime. Edwin pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time.
"Goodness! Its one am. I think we'd better retire and sort the rest out tomorrow. I dont know about you but I'm tired."
The younger brother smiled. "I was wondering when you were going to say that."

Edwin lit a candle and turned off the wall light as Mary hurriedly closed her door and leaned behind it with bated breath as the two brothers ascended to the top landing and passed her by. Soon all was still. After a short interval Mary re-opened the door and proceeded on tiptoe down the stairs. Halfway down, she clambered up onto the chair and attempted to peer out of the window. It was no good, she just wasn't tall enough. She would have to wait until they raised the height. Yawning, Mary regained her room and made her way through the darkness to bed, stifling a yelp of pain as she stubbed her toe on the leg of the wash hand stand. Then she lay in bed, her toe still throbbing as sleep gently lapped over her and dulled her fading fancies. What were they up to??

copyright © Jim Jarratt 2007