Alan Hunter: Gently through the Mill

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Alan Hunter Gently through the Mill
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    Gently through the Mill
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Alan Hunter

Gently through the Mill


Why was the baker in a temper that morning, shouting so loudly that one might hear him across the mill yard? It wasn’t the way with Blythely, that quiet, chapel-going fisherman; nobody could remember the last time he had been in a temper.

‘Didn’t I tell you not to make a seed-cake mixture!’

It was Ted Jimpson, his young, fair-haired assistant, who was coming in for the full blast of it.

‘We can’t sell seed-cakes at Easter. How many more times have I got to tell you that?’

Sitting in his dusty little office by the mill gate, Fuller, the miller, could imagine the scene in the gloomy, sweating bakehouse. Poor, crestfallen Ted, his limp hair draped over his brow, was mumbling an excuse about the huge bowl of yellow mixture. Blythely would be standing by him, perspiration gleaming on his pale face.

‘I said to make it up-!’

A pause while Ted offered his hesitant explanation.

‘That’s what you tell me. I don’t remember it!’

So Blythely was being forgetful as well as in a temper.

Finally: ‘All right — all right. We’ll call it my mistake and put it in! But another time, young man-!’

Another time!

It was Blythely who had been wrong all along, and now he was too upset to admit it and apologize.

Across the yard the naphtha engine was thumping away in its pit, three small boys hanging round the open doors to watch the huge, half-buried fly-wheel. A big attraction to small boys was the rambling mill. They would love to have explored the many-floored mystery behind the dusty windows, the bridge which joined it to the bakehouse, the inexplicable hoists…

Fuller noticed Sam Blacker come out of the sack-store and make a threatening gesture towards the small boys.

‘Clear out of it, you! Don’t you know it’s dangerous round here?’

The boys took to their heels, but stopped to jeer from a safe distance. Blacker waved his fist at them. Fuller, his lips compressed, turned to pick a letter from the pile his clerk had laid on the desk for him.

In the shop facing the street Blythely’s wife was rushed off her feet by an impatient queue of customers. It was the only bakers in Lynton to open on Good Friday for the sale of hot cross buns, and what was more, they were the best buns in Lynton.

But Mrs Blythely didn’t mind being rushed off her feet. She was a good-natured woman and she smiled at her customers as she handed over the white paper bags redolent of cinnamon.

‘A dozen, Mrs Simmons? Your Ernie come home?’

She was popular with the customers. She was eight years younger than her reserved, straight-faced husband.

The town was awake and busy with people, though most of the shops were closed. Good Friday was an odd sort of day. You never knew who was working and who was not. The builders, for instance, and here at the mill… but other folk were dressed in their Sunday clothes, and some of them planning to attend the local league cup-final in the afternoon.

At seven in the evening there was to be a Procession of Witness led by the Vicar of St Margaret’s. Heading the laity would be the mayor and mayoress, with such Lynton notables as the superintendent of police and Geoffrey Pershore, the affluent owner of the mill property.

The weather was going to be fine for it; Easter was late this year, and the pink blossoms of the ornamental cherries in the Abbey Gardens were already fluffing out.

‘Hullo… is that Mr Brooks?’

Fuller was on the telephone to the grain warehouse by the docks.

‘Look, Mr Brooks, I want that consignment of Canadian… yes, I know, but it’s past ten and I haven’t got a damned thing here to go on with!’

From the corner of his eye he could see the three small boys creeping back to the door of the engine-room.

‘But don’t your men work on Good Friday now?’

Each one was daring the other, their exaggerated stealth had something laughable about it.

‘Well, I must have it this afternoon… two, at the very latest.’

Blacker flew out like an enraged ogre, scattering the three boys as a hawk scatters sparrows. They all dashed back down the narrow passage between the mill and the bakehouse. There, behind the mill, an old drying-ground formed a popular playground… why did the thought of it cause Harry Fuller to compress his lips again?

He hung up and swivelled round in his chair.

‘Mary… get out a letter to Marshall’s to say we’ll be a day late delivering that consignment.’

‘Shall I tell them why, Mr Fuller?’

‘Naturally. Why should we take the blame?’

He got up and went out across the yard. Blythely was shouting again — how that man had lost his temper! In the sack-store Blacker was smoking a cigarette, and he didn’t pretend to be doing anything else.

‘Right — that Canadian stuff won’t be here till this afternoon.’

Blacker shrugged. He was a tall, bony fellow with a humourless face and a weak mouth.

‘We might as well pack up… have a holiday like other people.’

‘I’ll tell you when to pack up!’

Neither of them was looking at the other.

‘That hopper of spoiled flour — now’s the time to clear it out. Leave Tom and Sid to put the last of the oats through, and get the others on the hopper.’

He stalked out, not deigning to watch his order obeyed. Blacker was his new foreman, very new indeed was Blacker. Behind his back, Fuller knew, his employees were criticizing him for promoting such a fellow.

He stood by the mill gate and stared moodily across at the cafe opposite. To his left the shop bell tinkled prosperously as the customers pushed past each other.

‘You got home all right last night?’

It was Bradshaw, secretary of the golf club, with whom he had been to a stag party which had lasted into the small hours.

‘You must have been the only one who wasn’t blotto… what did the little woman say, eh?’

Fuller managed to grin at him. His wife… as a matter of fact, she had never criticized him because of his annual binge. She was a very sensible woman. Though perhaps there was a limit to that.

He went back into the office and sat idle, listening to the thump of the naphtha engine. Behind him Mary was banging away at her typewriter, glancing at him now and then, no doubt, surprised at his inactivity. At thirty she was not unattractive. He was aware that she had no boyfriend and would probably accept a gesture from him.

‘Are you doing anything for Easter, Mary?’

He half-turned, though without really facing her.

‘Nothing much, Mr Fuller… I’m going on one of those coach trips to Blenheim Palace on the Monday.’

‘Going with someone, are you?’

‘Oh no, Mr Fuller. Just a little outing on my own.’

‘Let me pay for the ticket. It’ll be an Easter egg from the firm.’

Through her pleased expressions of gratitude he was thinking: ‘Now if I’d been sensible, perhaps…’

There was a tap on the door and Fred Salmon, one of his hands, took a hesitating step into the office.


He was looking pale, even under the dusting of flour on his greyish features.

‘What is it, Fred?’

‘Guv’nor, you’d better come and see…’

Fuller stared at him a moment and then got quickly to his feet. It was plain from the man’s appearance that something serious had occurred.

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