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[Short story] 'Kissing the Shuttle' by E.S. Thomson

For 200 years, Stanley Mills used the power of the River Tay. Its workers, many of them women, endured long hours and dangerous conditions. And it wasn’t only the machinery that they had to fear.
When I was six years old my father showed me the tunnel cut through the rock. ‘Your great grandfather built this,’ he said. ‘He spoke only the language of the islands, but he knew what was being asked of him when they put a shovel in his hand and sent him down into the earth.’ I watched the water racing out of the dark hole. It was black – not clear, like water should be – black and cold as the ground it had surged through. ‘Black with the souls of the men who died digging it,’ my father used to say, ‘and as cold as Mackenzie’s heart. There’s never been a foreman at Stanley as cold and hard as John Mackenzie.’ By the time I was 17 my father’s hatred had solidified into something as unyielding as the stones on the hillside, and as capricious as the river.

From the foot of the brae, at the gate to the mills, we could watch the Tay rushing past. Unstoppable, slate grey, tumbling around the peninsula as the land fell away, swollen with the rain that poured from the skies and the water that drained off the land. By the time it reached us at Stanley, it had coursed all the way from the southern Highlands, through the lochs and glens some of us had once called home, and it raced and boiled as though filled with all the rage and sorrow of those lands. A narrow curving weir, built out into the flood, scooped up an armful of the Tay and hurled it into the tunnel my great grandfather and his fellow workers had sliced through the rock.

As my father and I walked across the yard from the workshops, we heard Mr Mackenzie telling the factory inspector about it as they stood outside the Mid Mill. My father made me stop, and pretended to adjust the burden I carried so that he might listen.

‘Yes,’ said Mr Mackenzie, ‘the Duke of Atholl dug the tunnel right through from the falls up at Campsie Linn – brick-lined all the way. The Tay drops 21 feet as it passes around the headland. The waters are harnessed to power the wheels that drive the mills here at Stanley.’

‘The Duke of Atholl didn’t dig anything,’ said my father.

Fortunately Mr Mackenzie didn’t hear. The inspector looked uninterested. It was the buildings that concerned him, the buildings and the machines inside, not the mill lades and the river – though we would not have one without the other. He blew a breath into the wintry air and watched it bloom before him.

‘Does it freeze?’ he said. ‘The mill lade? What happens then?’

‘Sometimes it does,’ said Mr Mackenzie. He shrugged.

‘Then we go curling on it.’

The water in the lades was as smooth as a mourning band by the time it reached the mills, a shining ribbon of silk tamed by the flat bottom of its brick-lined bed as it curved behind the low buildings of the North Range. Giant black cogs and studded wooden gates drew it to a halt before the wheel pits. Sometimes, in the summer, we saw the silver flash of a trapped trout glistening in the dark pool at the sluice gates. My father caught one once. He killed it with a stone. It was a pale and fleshy thing in his hands, a reminder of what happened up at the top of the Mid Mill. I had to look away. The lades passed under the road and into the wheel pits – two beside the Bell Mill and two beside the East Mill. A boy died down in the water, right beneath the windows where I worked, crushed and drowned while helping to fix a broken bucket on the East Mill’s wheel.

‘Should’ve been Mackenzie,’ my father had said. ‘It was him who sent the lad down there. For two pins I’d hold him under the water.’

‘Jenny McRae said John Mackenzie was in Glasgow all week,’ I’d said. ‘He didn’t send Tom Rennie into the wheel pit, it was Tom Rennie’s da’ –.’

‘Should’ve been Mackenzie. He’s the foreman. He’s responsible. Should be him drowned down there.’ He’d not looked at me. ‘Jenny McRae said so, did she? Well, well.’
I’d thought of Mr Mackenzie drowned and floating face down as the wheels turned above him, his head pulped by the blows of the metal-edged buckets. Perhaps things would be better if he was dead – my father seemed to think so. I’d peeped into the wheel pits. It was hard to imagine that they had not always been there, those great curving slopes of wet stone, slime-green and slippery, dripping and dark as the giant wooden blades that swept over them. They drove the gears that worked the machines crammed into the hulking buildings – including those that my father tended, for he was over-looker to Nearly 100 looms on the top floor of the Mid Mill. Two of those looms were mine, and I worked them every day from half past five in the morning until seven at night. Five floors beneath our feet the water ran and ran. I could feel its power and fury in the thrum of the belts that drove the shuttles on our looms back and forth with a vicious clack and rattle. After that, it escaped beneath the mill and back into the Tay. But I could never escape. Not from him. None of us could.

The Mid Mill was only recently re-opened. Destroyed by fire – as is often the case with mills, so my father said – it had taken two years to put it right again, though Mr Buchanan, the owner, said it would take more than a few flames to put him out of business. Mr Mackenzie insisted that a water tank be fitted on the roof of the Bell Mill, the building that ran adjacent to ours, so that fires could be attended to quickly and efficiently with the necessary resources to hand. I heard him laughing with the inspector about it.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘despite the greatest river in the kingdom flowing right around our ankles, it seems that a good part of the Mid Mill still managed to burn down.’ My father heard him too. ‘I doubt whether Isobel Douglas and Jean Reid are laughing, for they both lost sons to the blaze,’ and he scowled at Mr Mackenzie, who didn’t notice as he was pointing to the new brickbuilt water tank. The factory inspector shaded his eyes as he peered up, and then dropped his gaze to watch the wheels turning. I could tell at a glance that they were running sluggish. It had been raining for days and there was every likelihood that the river would back right up into the wheel pits and prevent the wheels from turning altogether. The inspector, who had no doubt seen hundreds of water wheels, seemed to be thinking the same. ‘How many days’ production do you lose a year?’ he asked. ‘It varies,’ said Mr Mackenzie. ‘Sometimes 30, sometimes 50.’

‘Unfortunate,’ said the inspector.

‘For who?’ muttered my father. ‘It makes a change to get a day off.’

‘But we get don’t paid when the water stops the mills,’ I said.

‘Hm,’ said my father. ‘No doubt we have Mackenzie to thank for that state of affairs too.’

In fact, I’d heard that Mr Mackenzie had told Mr Buchanan that we should be paid when the wheels wouldn’t turn, as it was hardly our fault if the rain came down and the Tay rose up, and it was no less than Mr Dale or Mr Owen would have done when they’d run the place, no matter how long ago that was. I opened my mouth to say as much – but Mr Mackenzie caught my eye, and I closed it again.

‘Well, well, Tam McGregor,’ he addressed my father. ‘Don’t you have work to do? Take that stuff inside.’ He never said much – not to my father, at least. My father said it was because John Mackenzie didn’t have the courage for a fight. It seemed to me that it was probably because my father only sneered at Mr Mackenzie when he was out of earshot. I’m twice the man he is, he used to say to anyone who would listen – apart from Mr Mackenzie himself. If I’d had his opportunities, his luck, I’d be something better than a miserable foreman like him. Now, he tugged his cap, his face stony at so public a rebuke, and stalked into our building. Resentment seemed to boil inside him like hot treacle whether Mr Mackenzie spoke to him or not. The McGregors had always been weavers, he had often told me, though not in big places like Stanley. He said weavers were once respectable people, skilled people with money and status, not children and barely competent young women like me. But that was before the mills came. Before men like Mackenzie, whose only talent, he said, was ordering people about.

Mr Mackenzie took the factory inspector by the elbow and led him away, his head bent towards the other man’s ear, his hand over his mouth. Even though we were outside, the noise of the place filled the air with a constant clatter. They were now too far away to overhear, but I saw him glance at my father. Perhaps he was saying that he had not been the same since my mother had left. That had been years ago now.

‘Come along then, Annie!’ my father cried. ‘Don’t stand there gawkin’!’

I followed him inside.

Our building – the Mid Mill – was built along the riverbank, and was as tall and wide as a barracks. Our closeness to the water kept everything damp, which was good for the cotton, though in summer the sun blasted its southern face, so that the rooms with the carding engines and the spinning machines were raging hot, and we had to open the windows wide to catch any breeze. The north side lay in perpetual shadow. At the base of the mill, the wheels turned in their dark and shaded pits. Above them row upon row of windows stared in blank indifference. No one looked out. The windows were there to let the light in or the heat out, not to allow our gazes to stray from our work. In the roof, the line of north lights that ran from east to west told where we toiled over our looms, beneath bright but sunless skies so that we might easily see any imperfections in the cloth. My father fixed the looms and kept them running smoothly. There were others housed in low sheds behind the East Mill, but I was not lucky enough to work there.

Within, the noise of the place was like a blow to the head. When I had first started work as a weaver, when I was 10 years old, I thought it might be possible to touch the sound with my fingers, for it had felt like a physical, tangible presence. But I had got used to it quickly enough, and now I hardly noticed the air trembling and the walls ringing with the din of wheels and gears turning belts and shafts, and machines rumbling and rattling. Once, years ago, Elspeth McInnes got her hair caught in the shuttle. A great bloody hank of her scalp and hair was torn out, though we didn’t hear her screams because of the noise. At Stanley Mills, on the weaving floor, no one’s screams could be heard.

We were allowed home for lunch – we could not take our piece and jam at our machines – and then streamed back to work, down the brae from the village and into the mills. I ran up the stairs with the other girls. My father would already be at the door, where he stationed himself every morning and every afternoon, watching the women file in after breakfast or lunch, noting which of them was the last to arrive. He treated me no differently, and he took me away from my machines the same as he took anyone else. When the others realised this, they had looked at me pityingly, though they said nothing. Now, we hung up our bonnets and stood before our looms. I saw that Jeanie Gilchrist was late again. He’d make her pay for it – but only when Mr Mackenzie wasn’t looking. And yet perhaps she would not suffer today, for had I not been with him when Mr Mackenzie had told him to get back to work? I had heard the reproach and I had seen my father’s face as it was uttered – though it was no less than he deserved. I knew him better than anyone, and I knew how he would slake his sense of inferiority, and his anger, and I felt my stomach knot inside me at the thought.

Later, on the way back from the privy, I met Mr Mackenzie on the stairs. This time he was alone.

‘How are you keeping, Annie McGregor?’ he said. His voice was mild and soft. Even though there was no one around to listen to us he brought his face as close as a lover’s to my ear so that I might hear him above the noise. And yet he had no need to do so, for I could read his lips well enough. We all could read lips, there was no conversation to be had otherwise.

‘I’m very well, sir,’ I said.

‘Are you crying, child?’

I said I was not, that it was just the air full of cotton dust that made my eyes water. He nodded. ‘I think you have just come from your father,’ he said.

‘No,’ I replied, perhaps a little too quickly, for he smiled grimly and said ‘No?’ in a questioning way, as if he didn’t believe me. He offered me his handkerchief.

‘It was made a long way from here,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid we produce nothing so fine at Stanley.’

But we were paid by the piece and I had already been away from my looms for too long.

‘Mr Mackenzie,’ I said, using the backs of my hands rather than his handkerchief to wipe my eyes, ‘please let me get back.’

‘You tell that father of yours I’m watching him,’ he said, suddenly stern.

‘Yes, Mr Mackenzie,’ I said. But I knew I would say no such thing, for no one could be watched all the time.

The Mills were constantly changing. My father said that when he was a boy there had been only one water wheel. Now there were four. Some years earlier, when he had taken over the place, Mr Buchanan had ordered a North Mill to be built, enclosing the wheel pits and the gas works in a dark cramped square bounded on all sides by the tall mill buildings. Not 10 years later he had torn the North Mill down, so that only stumps of stone jutting from the East Mill told where it had once stood. The lades were always needing repairs, for the winter weather caused cracks to appear and the stonework to rupture. The flues that heated the buildings, drawing hot air upwards from fireplaces in the lowest levels of the mills, had to be maintained too; and the bearings in the wheel pits replaced whenever they became worn and caused the wheels to shift. That winter, the stonework in the pit beside the Bell Mill had shattered due to the force of the water and the constant turning motion, and it had thrown the wheel off-kilter. The grinding of it against the masonry was terrible to hear, and the broken stones were to be replaced with wood. I heard Mr Mackenzie complain about the size of the task and the difficulty of working in the slippery wheel pits in the cold weather, but it could not be helped. Other jobs were to be tackled at the same time – one of the flues in the north wall of the Mid Mill needed work. It had been blocked off years ago at the top, and the fireplace at the bottom bricked up. But the old flue had become prone to damp, and a great dark patch had appeared on the plasterwork near the looms. Now, workmen had torn a hole in the wall revealing part of the flue behind the brickwork. Its blackened lining was exposed against the whitewash on the weaving floor like a dark and angry sore. My father complained that it wouldn’t do to have a great sooty hole like that beside a working loom, even though Mr Mackenzie said he would cover the hole with canvas sheeting, and promised to seal it up as soon as the work was done. ‘It won’t take longer than a day, two at the most,’ he said.

‘Smoke smuts won’t come out at the bleach works,’ said my father.

‘Then stop the looms,’ replied Mr Mackenzie. ‘Stop these ones close by and cover them up.’

‘But the women are paid by the piece,’ said my father. ‘They will have nothing for two days.’

‘That cannot be helped,’ said Mr Mackenzie, in front of all the women. ‘They can thank you for the stoppage. And I’ll thank you to remember who’s the foreman, Tam McGregor, for it isn’t you.’

My father halted the looms, as he had been instructed, and went about his business with a furious face. Those girls whose machines were silent found other work about the mill that day, and they smiled as they left for the weaving sheds beyond the East Mill. My father’s knuckles turned white as he gripped his hammer. The stoppage of half a dozen looms near to the open flue made no difference at all to the din of the room, and the roar and clatter of the place seemed to burl and buffet us, as if we were surrounded by the whirling fury of his rage and resentment. There was plenty for my father to do. Two of the looms kept sticking, and a third needed its reeds replaced. The leather straps on some of the older machines were in a poor state of repair, worn and soft-looking as they thwacked the shuttle back and forth, and he had promised to replace them weeks ago. One of the stopped looms had been troublesome for a while, and he might just as well have opened it up while he had the chance and fixed that too – but he didn’t. Instead, he watched the men working on the flue, shaking his head as they made the hole even bigger to allow them to re-block the chimney, and in no time at all it was as wide as a fireplace and as tall as a man. When they disappeared down to the workshops to get some new bricks to block up the hole, he went over and jabbed at their work, loosening what they had done so that some of it fell out and spilled all over the floor. He took to pacing amongst us, then, criticising our work and stopping machines here and there on the most flimsy of pretexts, making us wait while he pretended to fix something, before starting our machines up again. And all the while I saw his lips muttering and cursing. We kept our eyes on our work as he stalked up and down, for we knew what was coming.

He chose Mary Golspie that day – the youngest at only 15 years old – and he took her, as he always did, into the store room that overlooked the wheel pits in the shadowy corner of the East and Mid Mills. Not two months ago they had found a body down there, floating in the water, for the river was so high in December that the corpse had not drifted out beneath the building into the Tay. It was Mary Golspie’s older sister. Mr Mackenzie had told the Fiscal and her family that she must have slipped, and banged her head as she fell, making it impossible for her to cry out, for she was no doubt dead before she even hit the water. He said she had surely died quickly, and without pain. He said this so that she might be buried properly, and with dignity, but all of us in the weaving room knew what had really happened. We all knew that Jane had worked alongside Mary, that she had been a pretty girl, that both her parents were dead, and that she had been one of my father’s favourites. We also knew that she had killed herself in fear and desperation at my father’s tyranny. John Mackenzie knew it too, I was sure, though he said nothing.

At first my father used to make excuses – some fault or other in the mechanism of the loom that needed it to be stopped, and then he would take the girl into the store room to find ‘a spare part’. If a girl objected, then he took her anyway, but he would let her machine run and run until the thread broke and the weave was spoiled, and so she took twice as long to catch up once she came back. Flora Campbell had resisted him forcefully at first, and had almost lost her job because of it. But every one of us needed to work, and there seemed nothing we could do to stop him. Latterly, he had given up stopping our looms, finding us more compliant if we were threatened with the destruction of our work and the fouling of the loom – a situation that we alone would be blamed for. We lived and worked in fear of him, and he knew it.

And so he took us away; whoever he wanted, whenever he wished. No one could hear what happened in the store room, half-hidden amongst bales of cotton. The roar of the machines blotted out all cries, and we were deaf to anything but the crack of a hundred shuttles being smacked through the warp, the turning of the drive belts and the quick, rhythmic lift-and-drop-and-lift-and-drop-and-lift-and-drop of the loom reeds. But we knew what he did. All of us knew. We knew that he would stuff the girl’s mouth with a piece of fabric woven on one of our own looms; that he would bind her hands with a strip of cotton. And if we complained? No one would listen – we were women, after all, and of little value to anyone if we did not keep up our work. Besides, none of us ever got pregnant, that was not his way, he was far too clever – and far too brutal – for that.

The others looked down at their work, their faces impassive, as Mary was led away. The girls nearest to me looked over to catch my eye – but I was no different to them, I knew what happened in there as much as they, and I had no words to say in his defence. How could I? My father had done the same to me. They hated him, of course they did, but not as much as I.

Mary Golspie wept as she walked back to her loom. I saw two droplets of blood on the floor where she had passed by, scarlet and thick and as big as pennies, smeared by the hem of her trailing skirts. My father stood and looked out at us with his hands on his hips, and he smiled. And then all at once he was no longer standing there at all. I heard nothing because of the noise, but I saw him jerk suddenly, half spin around and then fall sideways, collapsing onto the floor with his arms and legs awry. Three of us, who had seen him drop, stopped our machines and rushed over to where he lay – and then we stood still. I held out my hands to keep the others near me, taking their fingers in my own as we looked down so that they would not touch him, would not show him any compassion. We did not stoop, or kneel at his side, but just stood there, staring down. None of us spoke. None of us could have been heard if we had, for the belts and the drive shafts kept turning overhead, the floor kept trembling beneath our bare feet, the echo from the walls hard and flinty with the clatter of the pickers striking against the metal-tipped shuttles over and over again. Beside him, on the wooden floor polished smooth by machine oil and the passing back and forth of so many feet, lay one such shuttle, six inches in length and bloody at the end. The side of his face – the cheek below his right eye socket – was bleeding; the skin sliced open to expose the bone beneath in a gash of white and crimson. The lips of the wound seemed to have drawn back, pulling it open like an obscene second mouth.

It was uncommon, if the machines were well-cared for, for such an accident to happen, but a sloppy overseer deserved what he got. It was not the first time the shuttle had flown out of the loom when the leather strap that bound the picker had snapped, though it was the first time that it had found its mark. We watched as the blood leaked from his face into the floor. Was he dead? Perhaps the white stuff I could see was brain as well as bone. And yet, would the blood flow so profusely if he was dead? I was sure it would not. And then I noticed a pulse throbbing in his neck and I knew he was no more dead than I, and I felt a terrible sense of injustice welling up inside me – how close we had come to being liberated! Were we meant to call Mr Mackenzie and have our persecutor taken up to the infirmary? He would be back amongst us in little more than a week and what, if anything, would have changed for the better? Had the shuttle been but two inches higher, I thought, it would have plunged into his eye, perhaps into his brain, killing him instantly. Beside me, I saw my father’s blood mixing with a splash of little Mary Golspie’s. Some of the others noticed it too, and I saw their faces darken.

It was not long before the men returned from the workshop. They brought with them a truckle of wet cement and some new bricks, and they laboured as fast as they could so that they might get out of the place and away from the dementing racket of the looms. They asked where my father was, mouthing the words as if I were deaf. I shrugged that I did not know.

When I walked home that night, back up the brae to the village, I was wearing my father’s boots under my skirt. No one noticed. Later, I went out and I threw them into the Tay.

The next day, the men came back to plaster the wall. By the following morning when the plaster had dried, and been whitewashed, there was no evidence that there had ever been a hole there. Mr Mackenzie came up to look at the job. He ran his hand over the plasterwork and inspected his fingers, and seemed satisfied enough. He looked out of the window at the wheel pits, and at the men swarming about down below, at the lifting gear that had been brought in and the carts and horses standing around. The inspector was waiting over by the gate house, scribbling in his notebook. There were plenty of things for a foreman to fret about, trying to keep the mills as productive as possible while one of the wheels was not working, and I saw his shoulders lift and fall as he sighed. He turned to me.

‘Where’s your father?’ he mouthed.
‘I don’t know, Mr Mackenzie,’ I replied.
‘Perhaps someone’s bricked him up inside this wall.’
He grinned. ‘I’d be tempted, if I were you.’

I smiled, as I was supposed to, and watched him walk away. How simple he made it sound! And yet it had taken six of us to do it, six of us working in silence as the looms roared and rattled around us: six of us to bind his hands and feet and stuff his mouth with rags, to clean up his blood and force him into the derelict flue. Our fingers were quick with his bindings – had we not spent our lives knotting and tying? We could truss him as fast as we could thread any shuttle. But then we had struggled, for his shoulders would hardly fit and his knees bent and wedged tightly against the bricks, his boots catching on the stonework so that eventually I had torn them off and tossed them aside. We had stuffed bricks and rags in after him, filling the hole as the workmen had done, mopping the blood from the floor with old sacks and pushing them up there, before stepping away to admire our handiwork. We were afraid of being caught, very afraid, for what would become of us if we were found out, even those who had helped only with their silence? But what was done was done.

And so we waited: would he move his knees and ankles and slip back down? Would the workmen look up and see the soles of his feet protruding from the stuff we had rammed in after him? We had no sleep until the hole was bricked up and its scar painted over. I wondered, sometimes, what he had thought when he awoke in that dark confined space, tightly bound and gagged, with the stink of blood and whale grease in his nostrils from the shuttle, and the pain of where we had pushed it. Did he die screaming? No one heard him if he had.

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