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Mabel Part 2

We two boys were now so exhausted by events of that terrible day we both went to bed without any protest, although I certainly hadn’t had any food since dinner time. our Ted led us upstairs, the only illumination given by the flickering candle Ted held.

Mabel, we knew, still lay in the room at the top of the stairs, its door tightly closed, for in those days it was unheard of for the dead to be taken away immediately. Past that door we went, knowing that in there Mabel would be laid out and bathed, ready to be brought down in the morning for Mr Stanion to measure, probably being piggy backed as the stairs were too steep for a coffin.

My overactive imagination was already working overtime, and I grasped Ronnie’s hand tightly as I tried to block out, without success, what lay in there. Our Mais and her ghost stories again! My state of blind terror lay just below the surface and at just eight years of age I could not reason that Mabel, who would never ever hurt me in life, most certainly would not hurt me in death. Death was the bury hole, and ghosts and haunted houses; death was now Mabel and so all of those things.
I was in an impossible irrational situation that my disturbed childhood had put me into; a situation no child could be expected to cope with. I was without, and had been without for as long as I could remember, the one prop that every child needed and had a right to; a father. This was a fight I couldn’t win.

Ted stopped with us as we threw our clothes off and scrambled into bed. He said no words of comfort, in fact he said nothing at all. As far as we could see he hadn’t shed any tears either. As he went to blow out the candle we both screamed,
  ‘No Ted, please don’t blow it out – we’re frightened!’

  ‘Mabel is dead’ he said, ‘she can’t hurt you!’

Why did he say that? Why didn’t he say ‘she won’t hurt you.’ A small point but we marked it. He left the candle alight.

Ronnie was in bed closest to the wall, I was next. Normally with Ted next in bed, I would have been in the middle, but he wasn’t in bed so I was closest to the door! If our Mabel came back to life and came into the room it would be me who would see her first!! Every creak in that old house had us both bolt upright; any whisper of a draught and we both stopped breathing……listening, and ready to dive under the bedclothes which was a sacred spot for me when frightened! But nothing could shut out the drum beat of my heart from deafening me, and so we lay huddled together, clutching each other for comfort. Two terrified little boys, visualising that closed door next to our bedroom door at the stair head, waiting to hear that terrible wracking cough, the clank of her sputum mug lid and smell the thick disinfectant as the lid was lifted and then closed. Or, to hear the sound of her trying to clear the thick phlegm from her chest and the final little sigh of resignation she always gave before sinking back onto her pillow.

‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die our Mam; it’s just that I don’t want to leave you!’

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that silence is golden or restful; NO WAY! Silence is ominous, frightening, waiting to pounce; silence is sheer terror, whispers in the dark. Silence is what drives a child’s mind over the edge until……A demon from hell is in our house! Its terrible sobbing cries echo and re-echo up the stairs. Ron screams; I scream, but my screams are muffled by the bed clothes over my head. It was the most terrible unearthly cry I have ever heard, then or since. Pray God I never hear another like it. Now Ronnie was sat up in bed screaming and shouting, and my cries, more muted, joined his. Terror! Sheer abject bloody terror,

 ‘It’s Mabel, she’s come back to life’ I’m screaming!

 Now footsteps pounded up the stairs and into the bedroom rushed Ted,

 ‘It’s alright, it’s alright!’………

 But no, it wasn’t bloody alright; Ronnie was still screaming and I was like a piece of jelly shaking so hard!

Ted explained that terrible sound. It seemed when it was clear Mabel would not survive the night, Uncle Wal was sent into town to the old Man’s favourite pubs, leaving messages for him to get round to 1 Morton Road asap. Eventually getting the message he’d come post haste only to arrive when it was all over. In his own twisted way I think he loved Mabel, after all, she was his first born. Those awful sounds that had driven Ronnie and me to the brink of insanity were the terrible sobs of a man just told his child was dead. I also think, and will to my dying day, that in his secret heart he always wanted reconciliation with Mam, but on his own terms. Now he realised there was no chance. He was a soul in torment for the rest of his life. It was just as well he didn’t know then, nor was he ever to know, (I hope) that just before the last haemorrhage, Mabel had said that he (the old Man) was responsible for her being like this, and if she died, she’d come back and haunt him!

With all my heart I hope…… no, I know, that she forgave him, and they now share peace along with all those other members of my family who went before.

Until we finally drifted back to sleep, an adult sat with us but it was obvious our nerves were shot and we couldn’t stay at home whilst Mabel lay in the house unburied.

In those days the dead were kept at home in the front room. All the curtains were drawn and kept tightly drawn day & night. Caring neighbours would have their front room curtains downstairs drawn too so passers-by knew which house had death in it. A six inch board painted black or covered in black felt was screwed down vertically in the middle of the front room window. Passers-by, seeing that board, would often, if men, doff their hats. Better off families would pay for straw to be spread on the road so as to muffle the sound of the horse’s hooves, for there were still more horses than cars on the street. The open coffin then lay in the front room on a trestle supplied by the undertaker, and so in the shaded quiet, family and friends could come and view the deceased. No fire, even in the coldest weather, was the order of the day, and they lay in the bosom of the family until the grave received them.

Mrs Hollies, a pal of our Mam from way back, after hearing how badly Ronnie and I had taken that first day, volunteered to sleep us both on her kitchen floor until it was all over even though she had four children of her own. She received no objections from us two. For myself, I never wanted to see the house again! What a relief to be out of our house of death, although I soon found out a hard brick floor was not the most comfortable place to sleep! Sometime during the first day away I bit my lip. During the night I had the feeling my lip was still bleeding and that in the morning I would have bled to death. The imagination of a child can be advantage; in my case it was a curse!

Thus we came to Mabel’s funeral. Since she had died neither Ronnie or I had been home. Now it was a Saturday and the last grim ritual had to be gone through. Our kind hostess, Mrs Hollies, told us on that dreadful morning we were to go home to ‘see your Mabel’ for the last time in her coffin. We were scrubbed and polished, all clean & tidy, and sent off. The last words to us from that lovely lady were,


‘Now don’t be frightened boys, for there’s nothing to be frightened of!’

The day was lovely; the sun was shining and a cool breeze caressed our cheeks as we tip toed up the entry. Mam met us at the back door, looking bright and cheerful. God alone knows what it cost her to put on such a brave face for remember, it was only three months before, that her beloved youngest brother had died, and the grave so recently closed up was now to be reopened to receive another treasure.

‘I wanted you to see Mabel for the last time in her coffin’ said Mam, ‘then you’ll feel better knowing she’s at rest and not suffering anymore!’

Even I could see the effort this cost her to say that. I can clearly remember how the closed living room curtains were gently moving in the breeze and as we went into the darkened front room I saw for the first time the glint of the brass handles and brass name plate on the coffin. The coffin of highly polished light pine was standing on black trestles. THE COFFIN LID WAS CLOSED!

As if in answer to my thoughts Mam said,

‘We had to send for Mr Stanion the undertaker to come and screw the lid down because with this stormy weather and the heat Mabel was beginning to smell.’

We stood in silence looking at the coffin which seemed to be more for a child than a 21year old woman. For our visit, Mam must have worked hard to ensure the room and its contents did not frighten us. The curtains were drawn of course but the shaded room seemed so right, as the venetian blinds that had come with the house were pulled right up and, so that possibly we might not smell any lingering odours from the time up to the coffin being closed, a slight pine disinfectant was evident. Again, as the window was slightly ajar, the curtains were gently moving & fluttering. It was as though the gentle spirit that had once resided in the now empty shell, which was all that was left of my dear sister’s earthly body, was hesitatingly reluctant to make that last farewell before slipping away to her maker.

We returned to our hostess after an hour for a meal and then, being too young to follow the coffin with the mourning party, were escorted by Mrs Hollies to St Barnabas Church, each step (or so it seemed) accompanied by the tolling of the funeral bell which gave the age (and so I am told) the sex of the deceased.

The curate was Mr Strudwick, he who was not above borrowing an invalid carriage to push Mabel to church when she was up to it, so she could draw closer to that God she loved and trusted without questioning her unhappy lot.

The old Man was not to be seen but we saw Mam, heavily veiled and in deep mourning black, being supported on Ted’s arm, and other relatives following close behind the coffin.

I seem to remember the words in the service including ‘never more shall sun shine upon her’ and was very indignant inside! ‘That must be wrong’, I thought, ‘what about heaven! The sun always shines up there, doesn’t it!?’

The service ended and the small sad procession again passed us to leave the church. On emerging we saw the coffin being put into the hearse. Out in the brilliant sunshine of the early afternoon the first person I saw, after momentarily being dazzled, was Wag’s sister, Kath. Kath, like all the Bishops, was a Catholic, and I have the idea that Catholics were not supposed to go to any but a Catholic Church, (I may be wrong) but that lovely girl had come into the Church and prayed with us for Mabel’s soul. Kath looked down at me and smiled so sweetly, so sympathetically, that my heart broke and I sobbed so hard that concerned friends came and held me, telling me to be brave. How could I be brave though? I wanted my sister back!

I was told years later how, even in her death agony, that brave, stout hearted sister of mine refused to give up the fight willingly, and it was our family doctor who had looked after us for several years, that had turned to our Mam and said,

‘I think Mabel has had enough Mrs Hastings, don’t you?’ 

Mam could only nod her head in agreement.

The doctor told Mam to go and kiss Mabel goodbye; he would then give Mabel an injection. In a few moments it would all be over.

The doctor had filled a syringe and placed it into position. To Mam’s nod he then injected. Mabel went slowly and peacefully into her deep and final sleep; free from pain and the cares of the world. Thank you Doctor Mac.

What was in that needle? You may form your own conclusions.

The funeral had to be paid for of course. In those days there was no one, Government or otherwise, to pick up the bill unless the nearest and dearest were willing for the departed to be buried ‘on the Parish’ in a Pauper’s grave. So, like our Mam, those who could possibly manage, paid out a little each week into insurance to offset in whole or in part, the funeral costs. The elderly dreaded the thought of being ‘put under’ by the Parish and said so; Internment in an orange box type coffin in an unmarked grave with strangers! Horrendous tales were told of these ‘on the cheap’ coffins falling apart as the bearers tried to lift them. Some tales had more than a hint of humour to them. I remember being told how one of these pauper graves was so deep so as to cram as many as possible into it, that when it filled up with water in a sudden rain storm, the coffin had to be weighed down with stones, otherwise it kept bobbing to the surface like a submarine!


The old Man had to stick his nose in of course, just to try and cause trouble. First he went to Mr Stanion the undertaker.

‘You won’t get paid for that funeral you know’ he said, ‘my old woman hasn’t got any money!’

To his credit, Mr Stanion showed him to the door, telling him as he went, ‘your wife has shown me up to date insurance papers and they are as good as money in the bank, and furthermore, you should be bloody well ashamed of yourself for trying to cause trouble and embarrassment to your wife whilst she’s trying to get through these terrible days!’

The very next day the insurance man, who’d been calling round weekly to collect the insurance payments on Mabel’s life, came to see our Mam. What he had to say was almost unbelievable, but true. Whilst in the insurance office the previous day he’d heard our family name mentioned, causing him to listen intently. What he heard was the old Man trying to claim the insurance money on his daughter, Mabel, to be paid there and then, as she’d died the week before and he needed the money to bury her! To his credit the insurance man intervened, for he knew the old Man could be violent

You have no right to that money, Sir. I’ve been collecting weekly payments, always from your wife, and I intend to see that she gets the money to pay for that young girl’s funeral.’

Foiled again, the old Man slunk off!

Why did he do such rotten things? To this day I maintain, and to my dying day I will think, that he wanted his family back. In desperation he was going to use that money as a lever. With that money in his hands and the funeral debt unable to be cleared, our Mam would’ve had to take him back or face the debtor’s label, possibly prison. But, he was foiled again. As he had sowed, so he reaped; now his harvest was coming home!

And now that final part of the ritual to do with death by reason of an infectious disease, had to be gone through, and be in no doubt, those final few hours were when the most contagion abounded; it was rampant. The local Health (Sanitary) came in. Mabel’s bed, blankets, pillows, sheets and even curtains, were taken away to be ‘stoved.’ (Fumigated or burnt) Mam had already put the cotton marked eating utensils in the dustbin. The men who came in wore masks. Everything in the death room had to be declared and taken although Mam had hidden Mabel’s little prayer book. (I have it now)

The next stage in the cleansing was that the windows in the bedroom were tightly locked or screwed shut and then sealed against any air coming in or going out, with brown sticky paper. The man in charge, before leaving the room, released something into the air and then quickly coming out, he sealed all around the door with great wide strips of the same sticky paper, making it airtight. We were told the room would remain sealed for several days whilst the deadly fumes killed off any germs or spores still in there. We kids were warned to keep right away and not try to go into that room or we’d be dead!

A few nights later, although I must confess I did not hear it, in the middle of the night a most terrific din came from that room. Afterwards, Mam put it down to the paper seals breaking loose as the temperature began to increase. If I had heard it I would’ve been under the bedclothes in a flash!

When the room was finally declared to be safe, and after the Sanitary man had gone, we went in. It was so empty without Mabel’s great big grey eyes smiling at us. We never used that room again whilst we lived at 1 Morton Road. Even our Ted, who was by now 20years and still moaning that in the night ‘that bugger’s playing football with my legs again in his sleep’ and had always wanted a room of his own, would not go in there.

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Mabel Lillian Hastings, born 1914; died 1935 (21 years) R.I.P.

(Norman: Through My Eyes. A social and personal history of Leicester – Amazon)

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