The Erasure Text: From Cottonopolis by Rachel Lebowitz


The air's a lot clearer now there's the war in America. Now the mills are closed and the men work in quarries, breaking rock. Robert's one of them. His feet are cut up. And it's soggy out there on the moors. The ground's so damp, the wet climbs up his shins and he comes home, his pants soaked and that cough still there from all the dust in the mills. His body's not ready for such work, it's half killing him, but what can you do? You have to break rock or pick oakum before the Guardians'll grant relief.

It took a long time before we even asked. We waited till we sold most everything we had. Our books, the clock, our Sunday clothes, my bonnet, the children's shoes, the chairs, the bedstead, even my ring. We got used to sleeping on a bag of shavings on the floor. Thing is, you can get used to almost anything. Not that everybody just waits for things to change. Though there are lots like that, and mostly when you line up, it's quiet, people are just tired and quiet. And you get your soup and your Indian meal and maybe a pair of new clogs or a blanket, and you go back home. Or you go – the women I mean – to the sewing classes, and sit there with hundreds of others, darning and knitting on those benches, to get your eight pence. Or you just up and leave, to America or Australia, or to Yorkshire, there's lots now that've gone to Yorkshire. But in Stalybridge and Ashton, they got mad, they rioted. And here it's like that too, you can feel it in the air, that something could go off, any minute. Sometimes you just see it in the eyes.

The shop round the corner's got nothing in it but a couple of empty jars in the window and a mug of buttermilk on the shelf. Mary went there with me and wrote her name out in the dust.

I don't mean to say people don't help. Some do. People from London help, send blankets and penny stamps. And America, the North, I mean, helps some. They sent us boxes and bags of bacon, bread, rice, corn. Thousands of barrels of flour. That was three months ago, in February, and it was bitter cold, most who met the ship had nothing but holey shawls to wrap round themselves, but still they say four thousand stood out there, and cheered so loud, it most shook the grey from the sky. Though others said the money would have been better spent sending us to America. And not everyone's on the Union side. Some got together and wrote to Lincoln and said we still support you and the fight to end slavery. But others say different and there are arguments out on the streets sometimes. I don't much care, to tell truth. I just want it to end.

Today it was sunny at last. After such rain! On Tuesday it just pelted down and the clouds yesterday were black, whipping across the city. And then today, sun. The singers came out. And the family with their instruments – they've got a fiddle and a pennywhistle. These ones were from Blackburn, they had one of their caps out on the ground, and they played some psalms right near the 'Change. Who will rise up for me against the evildoers? Who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity?

There was still the wind and the cold sun was shining. The breeze mussed the hair on top of the old man's head. His daughter was singing, her voice kind of thin, but pretty. It got too brisk, so I nodded goodbye and made my way to see my aunt. You know, she doesn't have much left, just her table, but on it, someone, I think maybe her son, Joshua, he's twelve, he'd gone up to the moors, to Kersal Moor. And he'd brought back a hawthorn branch in full bloom. There it was on her table. The white blossoms like cotton fluff. All delicate and resting there, in a pint jar full of water.


Excerpt from "Exhibit 37: Hawthorn Branch," pages 91-93 of Cottonopolis published by Pedlar Press, 2013.

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