The Big Meeting – a short story

Wendy sat in the hotel room nursing a cup of tea. The tea was warm and sweet. Its warmth was expected and comforting; its sweetness almost too much. Even Wendy, who was always watching her weight, didn’t know why she had stirred in three lumps.  Perhaps she did  it in an expression of hope, her secret hope that today she might see him. Now, as she drank, she regretted that inexcusable act of carefree whimsy. The tea gave her infinitely more pleasure than her view of her husband, Carl. He stood by the window and held the sheer curtain back with his right hand allowing a shaft of light to illuminate his profile of balding head and middle-aged paunch.  He turned and gazed at Wendy and gave a small cough, one of his habits which she disliked. She knew it to be an affectation, some form of implied humility; ironic when he entertained no such sentiment toward her.

“Ahem…. Hey, Wendy, the Sacriston Colliery[1] group just came into view; soon they’ll be crossing Elvet bridge. Isn’t that the mining village which interests you?”

His voice generally carried well; today over the ambient outside noise outside, she could detect his scorn, even though she could hardly make out his words.  She smiled at him interpreting his stare and look of derision; yes, he was admiring her trim figure, her glossy well-kept red hair and her elegant black pant suit, but the look was also ingrained with hatred. She shuddered as she deduced that had someone else been in the room he would have said,

“Look at Wendy! She’s so petty! She would have made someone a real good wife; if only she weren’t sterile.”

What made her smile was, not the predictability of the statement but the irony that it was a false accusation. She knew that Carl was the one who was sterile but couldn’t tell him. It had happened when she was eighteen, long before Carl’s time. A beautiful baby girl conceived in love. At the time, she believed herself to be abandoned by the baby’s father, and so was persuaded by her mother to give up her child for adoption. How she regretted that action, how she longed for just one meeting with the baby’s father, a time when she could punish him for his action in forsaking her and could tell him that she had stolen his child from them both as a form of revenge. Carl had got one thing right she was interested in the Sacriston Colliery for that was his colliery. She secretly hoped to be able to see him among that group of revelers.

She took one last gulp of tea and placed her cup and saucer on a side table and went to the second window in the room. She glanced out. She saw the crowds of happy people, the uniformed bands which were responsible for the noise and the colliery banners colorfully fluttering, held high on their frames. She sighed and put her hand up to shield her eyes hoping for a better view of the Sacriston banner. It was July 1971. They were in a hotel room overlooking Old Elvet in Durham City. The commotion outside was the annual celebration of “Durham Miner’s Gala[2]” referred to by some as “The Big Day” or “Big Meeting”. Carl had selected their room to place them in the epicenter of the festivities for each colliery stopped in the street before the hotel and played a salute to a selection of dignitaries assembled on a second-floor balcony overlooking the street. Carl aspired to be one of the celebrities on the balcony, but his role was more mundane. His contribution was to have assisted in writing the Labor inspired speech that his boss was to deliver to the crowds when they assembled on the Durham Racecourse on the flat grassy banks of the River Wear.

While Carl stood watching the procession, Wendy thought about the start of the parade which now attracted 300,000 people, seven times the normal population of Durham City. In the old days, this gala was the highlight of the miner’s lives. Their special day began before dawn with a march though their Colliery villages; starting at the pit head under the looming shaft lift wheel, through the streets lined with their small red-brick two-up, two-down row houses, the air, laden with the pungent smell of coal dust, stirred by their excitement.

Each parade was led by a uniformed band playing marching tunes on brass instruments and drums. Following the band came the colliery banner made of brightly-colored silk and hoisted high by two men holding either side of a wooden frame. Each was steadied by four guy ropes, two on either side. Behind the banner came the rest of the colliery; men, women and children.

After their local parade, the groups made their way to Durham to gather on the north end of Millburngate. From thence they progressed up The North Road to turn onto Framwellgate bridge with its magnificent view over the green shrouded  River Wear flowing gently around the promontory on which stood the ancient Norman castle and cathedral. Then they funneled up narrow cobbled Silver Street the buildings echoing their music and casting it upward to the sky. At the top of Silver Street, they opened up into the Market Place from whence they turned on to narrower  streets leading down to cross the river again on Elvet Bridge and thence with a slight jog to turn onto to Old Elvet to pause in front of the hotel before continuing on their way to the Racecourse.

Wendy glanced at Carl. Her mouth was still frozen in her false smile. She walked to the door and put her hand on its knob. She had planned her get-away carefully and spoke meekly,

“Would you like to go down and join the crowd?”

He scoffed and shook his head as she knew that he would.

“Then, I think that I’ll go alone; just to get some air.” She said and slipped out.

She hadn’t expected the crowds to be so thick and found it hard to make her way against the general drift of people. She took off her suit jacket to expose her light green shirt thinking that this made her blend in better. The parade was temporarily stalled while a Scottish group, led by bag pipes, performed an Eightsome Reel in front of Carl’s hotel. Several of the bands, including the Sacriston Colliery played “The Bladen Races.’ Wendy knew the chorus and hummed the words to herself.

Ah me lads, ye shud only seen us gannin’,
We pass’d the foaks upon the road just as they wor stannin’;
Thor wes lots o’ lads an’ lasses there, all wi’ smiling faces,
Gawn alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.

“We are indeed gannin” she thought, “not the Scotswood Road to be sure, but the Racecourse Road. It’s a different kind of race that today’s lads and lasses will see.”

Wendy walked behind  the Sacriston Colliery as they wove their way to the Racecourse. When they paused in front of the hotel, she looked up at the Carl’s window, the curtain hung across it, and he was not there. At the Racecourse, she sat upon the grass among the Sacriston followers. All the time she studied people’s faces looking for that one face that she longed to see. She watched one of the bandsmen drop off his instrument and thought that she recognized him. She watched him shed his uniform and don street clothing. He cut a good figure, strong and muscular; it made her heart palpitate, and she began to perspire. Just as she felt sufficiently in control of herself to approach him, she saw a young girl, with red hair, like her own, run to him and give him a hug. She turned away engulfed by jealousy. When she looked again they were gone. She turned to an old lady with wrinkled skin and bad teeth who sat next to her.

“Was that band’s man with the saxophone Peter?” she asked.

“Sure,” responded the old lady.

‘Do you know him?”

“Sure, know ’em all, that would that be our Peter “

“And the young woman with him, perhaps his wife?”

“Nah, no wife. You can’t be from around here, if you were, you’d know his story. ’Tis a sad one.”

Wendy hesitated before she answered, did she really wish to unearth a sad past? “I’m sort of local I grew up in Shincliffe; I might have even met Peter, oh so long ago at the Durham Ice Rink, but I don’t know his story. Could you tell me?”

The old woman turned and looked at Wendy but her eyes were dim, so she didn’t see Wendy’s tear-laden eyes, or how much she resembled the young woman with Peter.

“It’s like this; you see, years ago before the young ‘un was born Peter fell in love. He was totally consumed by his lassie and told all his buddies about it. He could think of nothing else except his love.” Th old woman paused as she twisted her wedding ring on her finger.

“After several months of blissful courtship, our Peter began to realize that his girlfriend’s mother disliked him intensely. He knew that her aversion was based on class snobbery, and that she felt that her well-educated daughter, whose father taught at the University, was far too good for a poor coal miner like himself. Too bad that wasn’t it?”

“I agree, so what happened?”

“He proposed, and when she accepted they agreed that the best thing that they could do was to elope to Gretna Green. Peter was to borrow a car so that they could drive north through Newcastle and then West through Hexham to Carlisle, and from thence to the Scottish border and Gretna Green. You see that was all they could do.”

“Yes, I see, so what went wrong?”

“Well, they planned to meet, packed and ready to go, one Friday night in the Durham marketplace. Peter arrived early and waited, and waited. She never came. The next day he attempted to contact her but his letters were unanswered, and he couldn’t get past her mother on the telephone. Then she disappeared.”

Wendy shook her head; this was impossible. She remembered. Hadn’t he called and left a message with her mother that he couldn’t make it? Hadn’t he said that he would be in touch, and then never did? What could’ve happened?

“But his daughter?  Where does she fit in?”

The old woman turned again to face her audience. It was seldom that anyone was so attentive to her stories. She was accustomed to people drifting away, but this woman clung to every word.

“The daughter, yes, the daughter is another strange story. She’s adopted you know. Originally, she was adopted by one of Peter’s friends and his wife. But then, as often happens, the young couple conceived. They had twins. They loved their adopted daughter but worried that with their limited miner’s salary, they would have a hard time bringing up three children so close in age. By now little Wendy was a canny wee thing with that marvelous head of red hair. Peter stepped in, said that Wendy reminded him of his one and only true love, and that he would love to become her parent and raise her.”

“And that’s what he did?”

“Yes, and I’ve never seen a man give a child so much love. He didn’t marry, though there’s many a girl ‘as would have had him. He says that he has been blessed by two loves in his life: and that’s the way he intends to keep it.”

[1] Colliery, a coal mine, it’s buildings etc. The Sacriston Colliery refers to the men and their families who work at, and live adjacent to, the coal mine or “pit” at Sacriston.

[2] Gala is pronounced “gerla” in County Durham.

8 thoughts on “The Big Meeting – a short story

  1. I agree with Cynthia – your stories are usually set in places unfamiliar to me and adds to my appreciation of another’s norms.
    On a couple of occasions I’ve returned to my past and, some times, found it to be a pale shadow of what I recall – whether this be a place or a person. I don’t do it anymore. Don’t want my lovely memories muddied – not even by time.
    Peace,
    Eric

    • Good to hear from you dear friend blogger. I am amazed at your energy and the multitude of your undertakings. I know what you mean about memory deceiving and time taking its toll on people and places, Sometimes I find that places remembered and revisited have improved or perhaps my appreciation has improved and I find new aspects to admire. With people it is harder because one remembers a younger version and age doesn’t improve the outer shell although the inner person may have done so it takes time to uncover this perspective.

  2. Well done! Great narrative dialogue and a mammoth enterprise, given the intricacies of Durham geography and the general chaos that surrounds the ‘Big Meeting’! There’s another story, though, in ‘what happened next?’. Sadly, the Gala is not quite the carnival it was, now the pits are closed and the mining population is gradually being whittled away. But it’s still a sight. Incidentally, in the tinkling waters of memory, it is Appleby Horse Fair this weekend. Gypsy caravans in convoy on the A66. Joy!

  3. Loved the story. Obviously I’d love to have seen them get together but you left us to complete the story in our own mind. I would also love to have seen a photo of the area.

    • I agree about the photograph of a Miner’s Gala in progress and was tempted. There are lots on the web but I thought it best not to borrow one because that might have triggered copyright issues all I could do was to use my mind’s eye! I wonder about Wendy, perhaps she did reconnect with Peter but ultimately she might not be happy living in Sacriston with a coal miner

  4. I enjoy your stories set in places unfamiliar to me, because you do such a fine job of making the scene “come alive” as they say, and appeal to all of the senses. You’ve also quite poignantly suggested the great sadness of a loveless marriage, and that terrible longing to go back and touch the past again, as if that could somehow change things. Wendy is so unfortunate to have been caught up in youthful decisions which have now delivered her out of the hands of a stupid, snobbish mother into the hands of a stupid shallow husband; and all she wishes now is a glimpse of her true heart’s desire….which, as she learns by chance, has moved on without her….or has it? What will she do next? Another good one, Jane.

    • How I enjoy your comments and the wonderful way that you summarize the plot. Thank you. The backdrop of the Durham Miner’s Gala (which I witnessed annually when I was growing up) is what first inspired this story. As I mention to Ian I also wonder about Wendy’s next move for I’m not sure that there is a happy path stretched before her.

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