FEATURE: Julia Bell

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I live in West Yorkshire, although I’ve also lived in various parts of England. I have two children and five grandchildren. My various jobs have included working as a qualified nurse and I have also worked as a civil servant in the Prison Service. When my children were young I successfully completed an Open University B.A. degree studying psychology and sociology. I was a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association for four years and I’m now a member of ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors). As well as writing I love country walks and travelling abroad (I adore bus stations, railway stations, airports and ferry ports – any place where people are on the move).

Excerpt from Songbird (The Songbird Story, Book 1)

I wandered slowly round the paintings and portraits, studying each one.  And then I came to a huge canvas and my heart nearly leapt out of my chest.  It depicted the scene at a pit-head after a disaster, when a rescue was in progress.  I glanced round the gallery and saw that two rows of chairs had been placed back-to-back in the middle of the room and I made myself comfortable.  I scrutinised the painting.  It was a bleak portrayal but so accurate.  I could see the grime of the area, the large wheel, the wheelhouse and the buildings associated with a mine.  A large group of figures surrounded the pit-head, the faces of the women pensive and strained, one girl clinging onto another, her hand over her mouth in horror.  The men looked determined as they stood outside the lift, waiting to enter and be taken down to see what they could do.  Their Davy lamps seemed to be the only bright part of the painting, small pinpoints of light in an otherwise dark and gloomy canvas.

“Which painting do you prefer, then?”  His voice from behind me made me start.

I turned my head and gasped with surprise.  “What are you doing here?”

He shrugged.  “It’s a public building.”

“Have you been following me?”

“I saw you running into the gallery and decided I would like to get out of the rain too.”

“I don’t think we should be talking.  Aren’t you worried about your reputation.”

I knew he was smiling.  “I’ve met a lovely young lady in the art gallery and I’m discussing the merits of the paintings on display.  Now what’s the problem with that?”

“I think you’re breaking the rules.”

“Rules are meant to be broken.”  To my utter amazement he stood and walked round to sit next to me.  He was dressed in a warm coat and carried his hat and gloves in his hand.  And then I remembered my wedding ring.  I quickly glanced down and realised I still had my gloves on.  I breathed a sigh of relief and my gaze swept round the gallery.  We were quite alone.  “What have you got there?” he asked, indicating the brown parcel on my lap.

“Just a birthday gift.”

“For whom?”

I smiled mischievously.  “Can’t say.”

“Well, it can’t be for me.  My birthday’s not until…So, what are you looking at?”

“This one,” I said, gesturing to the large canvas in front of us.

I noticed his business-like clothes, of such good quality and obviously expensive.  It came into my mind that he might be a Member of Parliament.  He said he knew the prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury.  Goodness me, I thought, what a scandal it would cause if anyone found out what we were doing.  It would not only ruin his reputation but also destroy his career.  He was taking an awful risk for the love of his wife.  I had to admire him for it.

I looked back at the painting and decided to test him.  “If you were a Member of Parliament, you could visit the mining areas and perhaps help them.  Propose better working conditions and housing and the like.”

He gave me a quizzical look.  “That would be an excellent thing to do.  Perhaps you ought to write to your Member of Parliament and suggest it.”

“I haven’t got the vote.”

“Not yet.  But it will come in time.”

“Do you think so.”

“I’m sure so.”  His attention turned back to the painting.  “Does that depict an actual disaster?”

I had already read the inscription.  “Yes, the mining disaster of 1860 in Waunfawr near Risca.  The Blackvein Colliery when a hundred and forty-six men and boys were killed.”

We sat in silence.  He seemed to be absorbing this information.  “It must have been like this when your father was killed,” he said softly.

I didn’t know if he was asking a question or just saying his thoughts out loud.

“Yes, It was just like this.  Exactly the same scene.  I know what those women are going through.”

“You waited at the pit-head?”

“I helped prepare the bandages while the other women made hot drinks and food.”

“You all worked together?”

“That’s the way it is.  We find strength in sharing our sorrows.”  My mind drifted with my memories.  “I started singing a carol,” I said quietly.  “Can’t remember which one now, but everyone joined in.  Even the rescuers who had come up for a rest.  I thought that singing a Christmas song would make everything all right.”

He reached across to me and I knew he was going to take my hand.  But then a couple strolled into the gallery and he pulled away.

“My poor, brave girl.  What a dreadful thing to go through,” he whispered.

“It was the worst day of my life.”

“And then you lost your father,” he murmured.

I nodded.  “Nine men were trapped and they pulled seven out.”

He shook his head.  “Two men lost,” he said sadly and frowned.  “The other man.  Was it the mineralogist that worked for your father?”  I remained silent.  “Was he married?”

“Yes,” I said in a voice that sounded gritty.

“Did he have children?”

“His wife was expecting their first child.”

He passed his hand over his face.  “How dreadful for her.  She must have…”

I couldn’t bear any more.  “I must go.  I don’t want to be late for my next lesson.”

I jumped to my feet and he stood also.  He took my hand and kissed it.  “It’s been very pleasant talking with you,” he said.  I turned my head away, but only because I didn’t want him to see the tears that glistened in my eyes.  “I shall see you on Wednesday.”

“Yes, until Wednesday,” I mumbled.

I ran all the way to the omnibus.

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