HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Mill

The Mill Chimney


There were few people in attendance, far fewer than anticipated, for it didn’t warrant three orange-coated officials to keep a dozen pensioners behind the line. But even I had to admit it was no less dramatic for all that: crackling radio static, intermittent responses, a finally-raised orange arm a precursor to a fulmination that rumbled like a fast approaching storm. The mill chimney seemed to stagger, lose balance, before steadying itself momentarily against the hard November sky. Then it sank, stately, into a white pillow of dust. The sound, following on, consumed everything in its path.
I was born into the village - the mill always there, built in 1850 in the boom years of Victorian cotton. I left, of course, then came back to find it still moored alongside the fast-moving beck that gurgled through the village, fed from the distant hills. Long derelict, its black-brick buildings were now little more than a rag-tag collection of workshops and garages, its spaces fenced-off breakers’ yards, but the chimney still towered. And it still had its name, the Crowfield chimney, the family name of the 19th century mill owners. I’ve forgotten how high it was, I used to know, but it was so high and so visible to outsiders that we hardly saw it at all.
‘Dr Daly.’ At my side my neighbour, Elisabeth Rosen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, her slight frame wrapped in a thick black woollen coat, her throat muffled revolutionary red. The use of titles usually preceded a joust. I comply: ‘Professor Rosen.’ Then, indicating the still indefinite horizon and knowing full well her response, I ask:
‘So, what did you think?’
‘I think,’ she says firmly, ‘I think it was time.’
She too knows how I will react. She knows my thirst for history, she knows I led meetings in the draughty village hall, tried to cohere a largely disinterested community around its history and heritage.
‘Oh, it loomed over us,’ she continues, her composed face at odds with her unruly grey hair. ‘It was an enduring symbol of exploitation and inequality, social injustices that we still accept as inevitable outcomes of the way we work and live. There’s too much thinking about heritage, not enough about now.’
She says all this to draw me out, of course, but as we walk back and before I can formulate a reply, she stumbles on the uneven cobbled path. Pain flashes across her face and dulls her eyes. I catch her arm. Her hand slides on my sleeve as she tries to grip. She steadies herself momentarily to keep her balance. ‘Thank you,’ she says quietly as she straightens, though she slips her arm through mine as we continue on our way.
And we’re still linked as we reach the Lane, the remaining row of cottages looking out on the low-walled gardens, cut back for winter, the crows jostling in the tops of the tall spare trees and squabbling noisily in the vast, empty sky.

Peter lives in Yorkshire. Prior to this he lived in Germany and recently completed a book-length collection of essays based on experiences there, which he hopes to publish.
He has an academic background in sociology and social anthropology, with a post-grad interest in the sociology of health. Peter has had some pieces published in academic journals but flash fiction, indeed fiction of any kind, is a completely new venture, but obviously one he is rather good at!