He opened the back door, took off his boots, walked through to the kitchen and there she was, hiding behind her mother who was cradling the baby, Dolly.
He’d only stopped for a couple of jars at the Miners Arms in Billy Row. That wasn’t much of a delay, but Vera had got home, walking the six mile journey from Crook, before him. His instinct was to put the fourteen year old over his knee and give her a good thrashing. Before he could make his move to pull her from behind Emma’s chair, his wife said, “Slow thisen down a bit, Tom. We’ve got it sorted. She’s going back.”
“That’s if Mrs Milburn will take her. Stupid girl might have lost me one of my gardening jobs as well by running away. If tha’s not packed thi bags our Vera, Thou’d best do it now. We’re walking back there today. D’you hear me?”
Vera cowered as she pushed past her father then ran upstairs to the room she shared with four of her sisters.
“Div’n that girl know how hard it is to find work around here. The pits laying miners off. No factory work for girls and there’s fewer families can afford to employ servants. Not that I believe in that, but now she’s out of school our Vera needs to work, even if all that’s available is slaving away for some rich lady.” Tom Oliphant ranted at his wife as she nursed the youngest and, she hoped, their last. Doreen was their tenth.
Emma knew that Vera might have ruined the opportunity to work for Mrs Milburn, one of the colliery owners wives. She feared what her volatile husband might do to Vera if the situation could not be fixed
“Sit down Tom!’ she urged. “I know you want to walk her back there today. There’s still enough daylight. Can I tell you what happened?”
Tom interrupted. “She were fine when I left, and so was Mrs Milburn. Our Vera spoke up well for hersen. Told Mrs Milburn all the things she does around here to help you cook, clean and care for the bairns. She wanted her to start work right way and I was going back with Vera’s belongings tomorrow. What did that gormless daughter of ours do to mess things up after I’d left? Has she cost me one of my gardening jobs with her feckless behaviour? How could she do a thing like that?
“Vera’s nervous face edged round the door from the hallway. ‘I am sorry, father. But as soon as you left that Mrs Milburn was horrible. Gave me a long list of things that needed doing, and then the cook wanted me to help her. And when Mrs Milburn caught me peeling potatoes instead of doing the work she’d set for me, she hit me with a broom and chased me out of the kitchen. She was screaming at me. I were crying as I were cleaning out the fireplaces in t’ bedrooms. I wanted to come home.When she checked up on me again, she said she expected me to work faster than this. When she went away, so did I. I ran back here.”
Her father cut off her elaborate explanation. “We’re working class, Vera. As long as there’s upper class controlling the money we have to do as they tell us. That’s life in the nineteen twenties. There’s talk of protest marches and hunger strikes to bring about change. But it won’t happen today, lass. Time for you to go say you’re sorry and hope she takes you back. And say it as if you mean it, just like I have to lie to those thieving sods all the time.
“I am sorry, father. If she’ll give me another chance I’ll do whatever she tells me.” said the contrite daughter.
“Trouble is, our kid, you have to do it even though you hate doing it. P’raps she’ll be a good mistress. And I know the cook, Mrs Charlton is a good sort.” Now go say your goodbyes again. I’ll carry your bag the six mile walk over the top to Crook.” complained Tom.
“And six back!” his wife chipped in. “But I bet you’ll find a pub or three to visit on the return trip. And send our Elsie in. She’s my big help now our Vera’s a working lass! I’ve made you a sandwich cos you won’t be here for tea. Now ger on, the pair of you before it’s dark.
Father and daughter set off from Tow Law over the fields and moors by Castle Bank, picking up the road, as daylight failed, through Sunniside, Billy Row and Rodimoor to the Milburn’s house.
Mrs Milburn greeted father and daughter with an icy aloofness which was melted by Vera’s tears and sobbed apology. She pleaded to be given another chance at the maid’s position her father had begged for his oldest. The lady relented and offered one final chance.
Vera Oliphant took the offer but hated her job and all the others for the ten years she was in service between leaving school in 1926 and marrying ten years later.
Nobody is quite sure what hour Tom Robson staggered home that night, but it was long after 10:30pm, “last orders” at the final pub he refreshed himself at on the twenty four miles he walked that day.
And Vera found it strange having a bed, and bedroom all to herself, after her first day at work.