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The Coffin Maker's Daughters A Matter of Time

The Coffin Maker's Daughters A Matter of Time

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The Coffin Maker's Daughters A Matter of Time

329 pagine
5 ore
Apr 18, 2017


The Coffin Maker's daughters were all named after flowers; Lily, Violet, May, Daisy, Rose and Marigold. This is Violet's story.
When her father dies, Violet has the opportunity to fulfil her dream of travelling but it doesn't work out as she had imagined.
In London, she gets involved with the Women's Social and Political Union, is arrested and serves time in Holloway prison where she is forcibly fed.
This is the story of one woman's fight for equality, of how she overcame adversity and of an enduring friendship.

Apr 18, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Bunny Mitchell was a dancer before becoming a mother and later had a career as a cook. She made her home in Spain and America for several years before returning to England in 1998. She now lives in Sussex where she has grown to love the South Downs and the history of its people. Her novels encompass the folklores of the region and the colourful Sussex sayings that are in danger of dying out. She has three published novels (The Farthing Mark and A Magpie Mourning and Blind Bargain)and her fourth,Sweet Thunder, is soon to be released For many years Bunny Mitchell has encouraged and helped many to write their autobiographies. She founded the Bexhill Writers’ Forum in 2002 which she still runs.

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The Coffin Maker's Daughters A Matter of Time - Bunny Mitchell



Albert Spencer was laid to rest in two coffins. It was not something that he would have wanted.

All his life it had been his trade; making coffins. Everything from the plain and simple for a pauper's grave to beautiful polished caskets with ornate brass furnishings and padded silk linings. All alike had been crafted with love and care.

The best coffin he had ever made was for his wife, Carrie, who was thirty-six when she died giving birth to their thirteenth child. It had been made in anguish but with supreme love.

And shame.

It was Lily, his eldest daughter, who had given voice to the thoughts that were torturing him. She had come down from London for the funeral.

'It's a fine coffin. You did a good job there,' she had said.

'Nothing but the best,' he had replied. 'The least I could do for her. She was a good woman.'

'The least you could have done for her was leave her alone. Knocking her up every year like that. A few less children and she wouldn't have needed a coffin, fancy or otherwise.'

Lily had been instantly sorry for her outburst, and probably, for her, no sooner had it been said than forgotten, but her accusation had stayed with Albert and coloured his life until his dying day. Guilt, like some feral creature had torn at his guts, eaten the heart of him and left him hollow. Any joy of life had disappeared and he became morose and withdrawn.

The making of his own coffin had been an act of contrition. He wanted to be buried alongside her but he didn't deserve to be buried in style. It was the poorest thing he had ever produced. Unsanded and made of uneven planks, it lay in a corner of his workshop, a receptacle for tins of varnish and old rags. It was only when he was close to dying that he told his daughter of its purpose.

'Tell Josh I've made me coffin in readiness. It's out the back with some bits in it.' His voice was so weak that Violet had to lean over the bed and put her face close to his in order to hear. 'Just tell him the box. He'll know what I mean. It may not be what you'll expect but it's what I want.'

'Yes, Pa.' said Violet. 'Yes, I'll tell him.'


Violet waited until they had finished their dinner before she told Josh. Neither had had much appetite and much of the meal, a mutton stew, remained on their plates.

She got up from the table, bent down to scrape the leftovers into the dog's bowl and as she straightened up, said, 'Pa told me he was to be buried in the box.'

Josh looked up sharply. He leant forward, his forearms on the table and his mouth agape. 'You must be joking!'

'Would I joke at a time like this? Those were his words and he was quite definite about it. He said you'd be surprised.'

She started clearing the table, putting the salt pot onto the dresser shelf and taking the dirty plates into the scullery while Josh sat rubbing his face, deep in thought.

'If he was talking about the box we keep the varnish cans in, I won't have it. What will folk say if he's buried in that ramshackle thing?'

'It doesn't matter what people say. If—'

'Course it matters. It'll ruin the business.'

'But if that's what he wanted, you can't do much else. You can't go against a dying wish, can you?'

Josh scraped his chair back and stood up. He shook his head as if he didn't believe what he had heard. 'When Pa made that box, he said it was for when it was his turn, but Freddy and me, well we didn't believe him. We just laughed. Thought he was joking, didn't we? Thought he'd just cobbled summat together to keep the bits in and Freddy said he'd made it like that cos after making so many coffins he'd forgotten how to make any other shape. He ribbed Pa for days about it. Well, you know what Freddy was like….'

At the thought of their brother they lapsed into silence. It was what usually happened at the mention of his name; the hole left in their lives too new, too raw to be touched by words.

Violet gazed out of the window, absently stroking the ears of the cat that sprawled like a fat cushion on the wide window sill. She was seeing, but not seeing, the yard crowded with stacks of newly cut wood left to season in the sunshine and the apple trees beyond that stood in pools of their own petals and were just beginning to show signs of fruiting.

She was thinking about the life that had been extinguished that morning and realising that she had never really known her father. Yes she had known all the things that made up the outer husk of him – what he liked to eat, how he walked with a limp even though he wore a built-up shoe, the way he shook out his newspaper every time he turned a page and his unpredictable temper – but she had never really known him. No more than she had known her mother.

They had brought her into the world, fed and clothed her, rubbed the bruised knees and taught her right from wrong. But all her life they had simply been her ma and pa. It was as if their roles had set them a race apart. She had been too involved with her own life, she supposed, to think of them as individuals who once had been children and young people themselves. People who had loved and laughed, struggled to make ends meet, had dreams, had health worries and responsibilities. To her they were just Ma and Pa.

And now it was too late. If she had understood how her pa's mind worked, she may have been able to figure out the thinking behind his desire to be buried in the box. The box of all things! He had made better ones destined for a pauper's grave and she dreaded to think what the village folk would make of it.

The clock on the mantelshelf struck the hour just as she saw Josh crossing the yard on his way back to the workshop. He had grown stout over the years. It had crept up on him from the moment he'd got married. She was not surprised, knowing how Betty liked to cook. It struck her that he was beginning to look like their pa. She was very fond of Josh and was going to miss him.

He had told her some weeks ago, when Pa had first taken to his bed, that in his spare time he had been building his own workshop at the bottom of his garden. He lived on the other side of the village and it would mean that he would be spared the long walk to and from each day.

She knew it made sense but it saddened her that she was not going to see much of him. She had relied on his company ever since the last of the family had left home. Everything was changing and in spite of knowing for weeks that her pa was dying, now that it had happened she couldn't quite take it in. Nothing would be the same again.

Pull yourself together, she had to tell herself. Maggie will be here any minute. Do you want her to find you with the pots still unwashed?

She finished her chores but Maggie had still to arrive so Violet wandered over to the workshop with a mug of tea for Josh. She found him with his hands in his pockets staring morosely at the box.

He had emptied the contents – the tins of varnish, old rags, off-cuts of wood and bent nails – and pulled it out to the middle of the floor. Pa had made it with odd knotted planks and there it sat, amongst the butter-coloured wood shavings, looking a sorry sight. It was unfinished and had been stained in places from a leaked tin, dirt and oil.

'I'm damned if I know what he was thinking. Do you?'

She didn't know what to say.

'I'm not doing it, Vi. I don't care if it was his dying wish. I can't do it. I'd never be able to hold my head high again.'

'Well, it will have to do for the time being. Maggie will be here any moment to lay him out. When she's gone, you can bring him down to the parlour. I'll call into Mary's and ask young Ned to give you a hand.'

'What did you go asking Maggie for? Betty would have come over and given you a hand. You only had to ask.'

Violet felt a spark of irritation. 'Josh Spencer!' she exclaimed. 'If you think I'm going to lay out my own father, you've got another think coming. It wouldn't be decent and nor so for your Betty. She's part of the family too. No, it's more fitting that Maggie does it. She's been doing it for years. And apart from that, I've got the vicar to see. Arrangements have to be made and—'

'Alright, alright. Don't get in a huff with me. I'm sorry. I didn't think. I've been too busy puzzling how I'm going to get round this,' he said, giving the box an angry slap.

Violet still had the mug of tea in her hand. 'Here. Drink this while it's still hot.'

Josh thanked her and took the mug. 'Have you got any ideas?'

They were silent for a while, both gazing at the box; Josh drinking the tea and Violet sucking on the corner of her mouth as she considered.

'How about…. No,' she said, dismissing the idea even before she had given voice to it.

'Go on,' he prompted.

'Well, I was thinking….' Still she hesitated. 'Just that Pa wanted to be buried in the box and you want to make him the best coffin you can. I understand that. After all, you are taking over the business and your reputation is at stake.'


'So how about if you make what you want for him and make it big enough to hold the box. You'll be doing what Pa wanted. He'll be buried in the box but no one will know because it'll be inside another.'

A slow smile spread across his plump face. 'Violet Spencer, you're not so green as cabbage looking, are you? That's a very a good idea!'


While Maggie Ticehurst laid out the body, Violet went to ask for Ned's help and then on to the vicarage to make arrangements for the funeral. By the time she returned home Albert had been laid in a coffin which rested on the arms of the sofa in the parlour. It was not the box but a standard coffin, one of many that were kept in stock in the workshop.

'I know, I know,' Josh said when she queried it. 'I've only put him in that till I can get a decent one finished. Meantime I'm using the box as a template so that it will fit snug. And besides, there's bound to be folk who'll want to pay their respects and I'm not having them viewing him in that there box. I'll swap them over when I'm finished.'

Violet couldn't help thinking that their pa was going to be moved around like a sack of potatoes but forbore to comment. She wondered how Josh and Ned had got him down the narrow stairs; whether they had been able to take the coffin up to the bedroom and put him in it there or if they'd had to carry him downstairs first. She didn't really want to know.

Josh finished working for the day and went home. Violet, alone in the house, wandered from room to room, touching things, straightening a cushion, smoothing the patchwork quilt that covered her bed. There were no sounds to break the silence save for the chickens settling down to roost and somewhere in the distance snatches of laughter from children playing.

She went into her father's room and stripped the bed, piling the sheets in the corner of the room. It was Thursday and washing day not until Monday so there had been no need for her to do it now. She should be sitting in the parlour with her pa. There was nobody else to do it but she didn't relish the thought.

Wasn't it enough that she had stopped the clocks, draped a cloth over the mirror and set candles in dishes of salt even though she thought it was pure superstition? No, someone had to sit with the deceased until time for burial. It was expected of her. The story of my life, she thought, doing what was expected. Hopefully Josh would take a turn tomorrow for he wouldn't be working out of respect. Perhaps Mary would come over and do a turn too.

Reluctantly she pushed open the door and stepped inside. This was the best room that was hardly ever used, not even in the years when the whole family had been here and they had been pressed together like bees in a hive. Ma had been proud of this room. She had kept the furniture polished and the makings of a fire laid in the grate, although it was seldom lit, for the room was only used for visitors and special occasions.

Violet had drawn the curtains so that the room was dim apart from a few mellow rays of late afternoon sunlight that had found its way through the gap where the curtains didn't quite meet. It formed a straight line across the wooden floor, the rug, and over the chenille cloth on the table before touching the broad leaves of the aspidistra that rested there.

The quiet emptiness of the house settled around her as she sat, in the armchair in the far corner, with her elbow on its arm and her chin resting in her hand. From here she could see her pa's face. It had looked awful at the moment of death; his cheeks sunken, eyes deep hollows and mouth gaping wide. It hadn't looked like her pa at all and she'd been shocked. But Maggie Ticehurst had done a good job, whatever that was, and he looked peaceful as if he was merely sleeping. The waxen face seemed to have already lost almost all its wrinkles.

It was said that you had to touch a corpse if you didn't want nightmares but that was probably another superstition, like the saucers of salt were meant to ward off evil spirits. She didn't believe it for one moment and had no intention of touching him. She hadn't wanted to when he was alive so why would she want to now that he was dead?

Perhaps she was just being fanciful but it occurred to her that the beam of light resting between her and the coffin was a line separating the old from the new, the past from the future. On the one side was her pa, who had set the pattern of her life. If she had dreamed of having a life of her own, such thoughts had been dashed long ago. If he hadn't called her home from service she may have been married with children now. But instead, she had been saddled with being his housekeeper. She had cooked and cared for him and all her brothers and sisters since she was fourteen and it had felt as if she was dying a little each day. She remembered his black moods and unforgiving nature and how she had carried her resentment for years. But that life was over now and she realised with a start that she was neither happy nor sorry that he had died.

And here, on this side of the sun's beam, was the future. Here she sat, free at last. She could do what she wanted, go where she wanted, say and think what she wanted. She was quite free. But the knowledge brought her no comfort for it was a future that hovered like a black vulture waiting to pick her bones dry. She was thirty-three years old and feeling as frightened of what lay ahead as the twelve year old girl who had gone into service all those years ago.

No doubt Pa will have left the house to Josh, she thought, being the eldest son. But would he want it? After all, he had his own house, had extended it over the years as his family had grown and was settled there. Perhaps he would sell it and then what would she do? Move to Little House?

Her grandfather had built Big House and lived there until her father had got married when he had built Little House for him and his bride. But Violet's mother had borne more children than had been anticipated and by the time Grandfather Spencer had retired the family had outgrown Little House.

It was then that it was decided to swap houses. Little House was just the right size for Granny and Granddad to manage in their later years and Granny continued to live there after Granddad died. But when she showed signs of dementia, and couldn't manage on her own, it was decided to bring her up to Big House.

Since Granny had died, Little House had lain empty but she didn't relish living there. The future yawned before her, frightening in its uncertainty.


Lily and Jack came down from London for the funeral. Josh met them at the station with the cart. When they arrived, Violet thought Lily looked pale and drawn but she made no comment.

Perhaps it was grief for the death of their father. But there had been no love lost between them so it could have been something else. No doubt she would hear in due course. Lily was going to stay for a few days.

Jack, however would be returning that evening. 'Business commitments' he said. She was disappointed because she was fond of him and had rarely got to see him in recent years. Jack, with a soft brown beard, still peered myopically through thick-lensed glasses and said little. He had always been the quietest of the three brothers and never changed.

Daisy, pregnant yet again, came with her husband, Tom. He looked as handsome as she remembered him. She had only met him once and that had been some years ago at May's wedding. Tom had been quite a surprise to the family because he was an Anglo-Indian but with his black hair and liquorice eyes Violet could well understand how Daisy had fallen in love with him.

They arrived in a two wheeled dogcart pulled by a pretty chestnut mare and said that they, too, would be returning as soon as possible. Tom had a farm some distance from the other side of Walmsley, didn't like to leave it for too long and Daisy wanted to get back for the children.

It was a pity she wasn't able to get in touch with May because Violet was sure May would have wanted to be here. But nobody had heard from her for years, not since her husband had died. She had gone to live in Brighton and had been very good at writing letters but then they had suddenly stopped. It was a mystery and Violet often thought of her; May the clever one who had been a teacher and then married a man with little education.

Rose and Marigold were both in service but were refused time off, their employers saying that it didn't do for females to attend funerals, so, it would be a few months, when they had their summer holidays, before she would see them again.

Josh had cleaned up the cart to take the coffin to the church. It seemed as if the whole village had turned out to watch them go by. Albert Spencer had been well respected and known for his generous nature to those whose pockets were light. There were more than a few who had not been charged for a simple coffin in which to bury a mother, a husband, a child. They stood along the greensward, the men removing their hats, the women nursing babies or clutching the hands of their unusually silent children as the cart rumbled round three sides of the churchyard before stopping at the lych gate.

It was a fine oak coffin with gleaming brass fittings that Josh had made to house Pa's box. He and Jack together with Josh's two eldest boys and two of Albert's old friends carried the coffin. They heaved it off the cart and if any of them thought it to be heavier than expected they made no comment.

'In the midst of life we are in death…' intoned the minister.

Violet gazed at her ma's headstone. Thirty-six years old. Only three years older than her. And the poor woman had had thirteen children, although three were under cemetery stones before they'd hardly drawn breath. And now Pa was with her as he'd wanted to be.

'Of whom may we seek succour, but of thee, O Lord….'

So many headstones. So many angels and cherubs with stone faces set in eternal contemplation.

'We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth….'

The sunlight caught the rich satiny wood of the coffin and the polished handles as it was lowered into the grave.


With everyone wanting to get away, Josh had arranged for the will to be read immediately after the funeral. No sooner had Violet served refreshments – egg and cress sandwiches as well as some of ham and a few cakes – than the solicitor, Mr Cruickshank, arrived. To seat everybody, Violet had removed the aspidistra, pushed the table to one side and squashed the kitchen chairs among the furniture in the parlour. Josh had said there was no reason why they couldn't have all sat round the kitchen table but Violet wouldn't have it. Mr Cruickshank couldn't be expected to sit in the kitchen. Whatever next? No, it would be more fitting to use the parlour.

Mr Cruickshank took the proffered seat at the parlour table and looked about him at the expectant faces. He took out a handsome gold watch from his waistcoat pocket and consulted it, snapped it closed and replaced it before addressing Josh. 'Are we all here now, Mr Spencer?'

'More or less. There's only Violet.'

Violet had been washing up and Mary helping her. 'I can do these,' Mary had said. 'I won't be needed in there.' But Violet had snatched up a cloth and insisted on drying. She was reluctant to squeeze into the parlour and would know soon enough what the will contained. It would hold no surprises 'cos Pa would have left it all to Josh.

Josh put his head round the door. 'Violet, come on. We're waiting for you.'

'Alright, alright, I'm coming.'

Violet sidled into the parlour, pulling her apron off. She perched on a chair by the door with it clutched in her lap.

Mr Cruickshank took off his spectacles and polished them with his handkerchief. After he had replaced them on his bony nose, he peered over the top of them at the assembled family and in a suitably sombre voice declared, 'We are gathered here to read the last will and testament of Albert Edward Spencer. I, Albert Edward Spencer, being of sound mind….'


Violet and Lily sat at the kitchen table finishing off the leftover sandwiches. Everyone had left; Daisy and Tom to their farm and Josh and Mary had given Jack a lift to the station on their way home.

Neither of them spoke and Violet wondered what Lily was thinking. Not a word had been uttered as the will was read. Everyone had been so accepting of its contents. They expressed neither surprise nor disappointment and Violet had been too stunned to speak. She had simply sat there, her apron still bunched up in her hand, while Josh showed Mr Cruickshank out and everybody, apart from Lily prepared to leave too.

Pa had left the business to Josh. That was expected, of course, and it wasn't much of a bequest. All that Josh was inheriting was a small stock of coffins and a set of tools.

Jack had been left Little House with the stipulation that if he didn't want to live in it, it mustn't be sold. It was to be kept in case any of the family needed a home. How Pa could have imagined Jack would want to live there was beyond her. He had his work and home in London and was happy there. Little House would be of no use to him. No use at all.

Lily, Daisy and May had received nothing. It seemed unfair to Violet and she wondered what Pa could have been thinking. Both Lily and Daisy had shamed him. Lily, by getting pregnant before she was married and Daisy by going on the stage. She had supposed May had been a disappointment too. He had had such high hopes for May, the clever one, but she had lost her job as a teacher and that had caused a scandal too.

Or perhaps it was that, in spite of everything, Lily and Daisy had married well and had no need of anything. Lily especially. She was married to Charles, a successful architect, and doing well for herself as an artist. And May? He seemed to have washed his hands of May. No one could know. No one could possibly know what he had in mind.

But it was the fact that he had left Big House to her instead of Josh that had not only stunned but embarrassed her. She was convinced that it should have been left to Josh because, after all, he was the eldest son, but the wording had made it quite clear. "To my daughter, Violet Spencer, I leave number fourteen Bramble Lane in recognition of the care she has

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