The Empty Chair Makes The Widow Cry
by P. W. Bridgman
“The empty chair makes the widow cry, etc.
To the auctioneer it’s just a cheap chair.”1
Sarah had skirted ’round the newly empty chair every day
for weeks, yet nothing seemed to get any better
(despite what others had to say).
She couldn’t manage to get her-
self out of her bed till half-ten
most mornings. Came the first letter
from the bank. It went unanswered. Then
the second, its threats more pointed. Unanswered too.
Sarah also declined to open her door to men
who knocked roughly. If it was true
that the bank had now engaged Hooke the bailiff,
so be it, she’d just out-wait him. “Do
yer worst. Carrys me off to gaol if
youse must,” she complained under her breath,
looking aghast at the newest, spotty trail of
piss that gave away her hiding place beneath the stair. With
all that fearsome bashing and shouting,
it was little wonder. Dunning men frightened her to death,
this one’s loud knocks relentless, well after midnight. No doubting
he’d be back. It must be Hooke. Sarah couldn’t any longer take the risk
of being seen, so there’d be no more work, not one more outing
to the market or to Bodgers for toast and tea. “Whisk
me away in a coppers’ waggon, they would, given the chance.
I’d be manhandled and frisked
like a criminal,” she muttered to no one. Allowing herself a rare glance
at the empty chair, she remarked again his imprint,
still visible in the cushion; him gone forever by sorry happenchance.
No brass coming in now from the house cleaning. Desperate. Dead skint.
Sarah landlocked in a tiny flat in Dunsany Street
without a crust, paralysed by grief and beset by a bank that didn’t
have a dram, a single dram, of human decency. Ends couldn’t meet
before. Her Sam, and now her Neddy, gone from her, from all of us.
Sarah misses Neddy’s brave “Hulloo!” ringing through Dunsany Street,
his face blackened, his pay packet held high. She misses her little nautilus,
scrubbed pink and curled in his dead father’s chair, asleep after his bath.
She yearns to wash again the soot from his feet, his hair. “God love us!”
But, truly, does He? Neddy’s footfalls now vanished from the towpath,
from Dunsany Street, from this room. From the confessional every week.
One paltry year as a sweep’s apprentice. And now this, the aftermath.
Trapped and suffocated by debris falling down a flue. Doublespeak
and prevarication from Mr. Kidney, the master sweep. Where to turn?
“Lodged in a chimney’s breast, for God’s sake? Get him out!” she shrieked.
Ash to ash to ash it goes, as Sarah knows. So that fires may burn
brightly and warm the tired, stocking’d feet of bankers at day’s end,
“others must plays their parts and takes their turns.”
When Hooke arrived, writ of fieri facias in hand, he found Sarah
under the stair.
After bashing in the door at dawn, he saw a telltale sign
that led him there.
He even considered having his way with her, did Hooke,
on the banker’s dare,
He thought again when his boiled eyes met Sarah’s wary and
Hooke led her out, alright. And to the workhouse at Wapping to fend
as she might. Hard cheese, too, for the bank. The auctioneer frowned:
Not enough of worth, he said, to cover the balance owing. In the end
just some clothing, a few sticks of furniture, her ring. Fetched £9
and sixpence (net of the auctioneer’s fee) on an £11 debt.
The banker and the auctioneer agreed it was a sorry showing all round.
i.m. Edmund Livesay Scullion, born 25.xii.1840, died 17.viii.1851
Sam Scullion, born 14.ii.1799, died 5.vii.1850 (his father)
Sarah Livesay, born 30.vi.1807, died 25.xi.1851 (his mother)
Requiescant in pace.
1 from part 11 of Elizabeth Smart’s The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals (London: Jonathan Cape/Polytantric Press, 1978).
The image is The Little Chimney Sweep by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1883.