Chelmsford, Essex 1766
There were two kinds of pox. One that snuck up and took you quick and one that let you linger on the brink as if Death was unable to make up its mind. I was unlucky enough to catch the latter.
I never considered myself a great beauty before the pox but I now know that I was. Oh, not because any of my features were remarkable, not that my nose was considered slim and elegant, my chin dainty, my cheek softly curving. No, there were plenty of other girls in the town to claim those titles. My beauty, what I had of it, lay in clear, unblemished skin.
The elders had said we were overdue for the pox that spring but no one took much notice of them. The last severe outbreak had been over ten years ago, but the memory of those emotionally shattering days were still fresh in older minds. Now, as the days started growing longer and the air turned cool and dry, their talk turned fearful again.
Even I had overheard two men talking in Creeksea Pub when I went to give the landlady, Mary Lukely, fresh eggs from our best layer. They didn't see me, tucked away in the corner as they were, talking in hushed whispers. But when Mary failed to make an appearance straight away, my curiosity got the best of me and I sidled round the corner of the darkened bar to get closer.
At first I wasn't sure what they were talking about, then I knew. It was the way they said 'it', as if the very mention of the word would bring 'its' terrible presence.
“It took my youngest daughter”, said the younger, stroking his beard thoughtfully, “Such a wee bub she were, still in her cradle. One day she were there and the next she was in the ground. Only four days unwell.” The elder murmured words of consolation.
"I rem'ber it were dry days like this when 'it' came”. He shuddered, took a suck of beer as if to erase the memory, and leaned in towards the other. “They buried them at night, so Old Charlie said, no one would go near 'em. Said he had to get himself well primed”.
The other chuckled and their mood grew lighter thinking of Old Charlie. Old Charlie was the local gravedigger, and I should imagine he'd consider a midnight burial the perfect excuse to chug down a few beers.
“Of course t’was difficult enough just to get 'em in the ground, them still infected an' all,” the elder continued darkly. “Old Charlie said one night they had to pay a couple of passing Salvationists just to get t'coffins in the hole. Two young‘uns in there and the parents stayed at home, too afraid to even say a last prayer to the mites”.
The younger man shook his head sadly. “If you ask me we're in for it,” he said. “I heard that Maldon has already buried its first and it won't be the last”.
The floorboard I happened to be standing on then gave an almighty creak and they both looked up at me. At the same time Mary Lukely came in from the back door wiping her large red hands on her apron.
“Mercy Graham! Have you got some nice eggs for me today?”, she called brightly.
I liked Mary, she was about mother's age and round-faced. Her large smile seemed to dissipate any glum mood. She glanced at the two men who had returned to their beers and were now drinking studiously, and then at my face, which must have looked concerned.
I handed over the eggs from my basket and waited while she went behind the bar to get the money. As she dropped the coins into my palm she grasped my hand.
“I can guess what that was about,” she said, “Scaremongers, nothing else to talk about. It hasn't been back like that for years and I'm the first to know in this place. Now run along home and put 'it' from your mind”.
Which I did with pleasure. There was such relief to step into sunshine after the gloom of the pub and that conversation. Of course I had grown up with knowledge of 'it' and 'it' was always on the fringes of our lives when we heard news of people succumbing in other villages. In my 15 years, I had never known true fear. All that was about to change.