Charity, Hope and Patience Godwin were three spinster sisters from out Chelmorton way.
They lived at Dolly Farm with their mother, known to all – with a wink and a nod – as Nana Godwin. The name was ironical as no woman – from the black belching chimneys of Sheffield to Manchester’s rattling looms, across the hunched and heathered hills of the Peaks – was less prone to being motherly, or to human warmth and kindness than Nana Godwin. And it was judged from when her daughters were pinched and slender figures huddled in the school playground, that she would never be a ‘Nana’.
The townsfolk would chuckle and tut at the four of them as they clogged up the hill to the market just as the stalls were leaving their pitches, canopies folding with a slap and rumble. The Godwins haggled for stale loaves, scavenged muddied turnips from the gutters, beat down the stallholders with eight tight, shrewd eyes. After their purchases they would trudge home, Nana’s laced poke bonnet bobbing beneath Hope and Charity’s flattened busts and flatter smiles. Patience always strode ahead, skirts flapping silky black.
‘Crows’, the townsfolk whispered as they passed,’Rooks’, ‘Starlings’. Though the wittier minds would call ‘Magpies’, due to the stories.
There were rumours, you see, as there will be of women without men, living alone on a scoured hill, buried in the shadow of gnarled yew trees. Gold, they said, wrapped in sacking and wedged up the chimney, hidden under the lifting floorboards, even in the sisters’ own cotton drawers. Enough to buy a horse. Enough to by a stable.
The years went by. Nana curved in on herself, until her poke bonnet reached no higher than her daughters’ waistbands. The sisters grew tighter, faces lined and crumpled as old grey satin.
One Monday the doctor was sent for. On Tuesday the priest. On Wednesday the undertaker, a measuring tape tucked in his breast pocket, a glitter tucked behind a sympathetic smile.
Nana Godwin was buried with all haste and little love, in a cheap coffin in a damp corner of the churchyard, stacked on top of another casket to save unnecessary expense. The three sisters stood together, skirts and bodices, capes and shoulders packed so tightly, they resembled one large woman with three, pale faces.
The grave was a shallow one then – a fact the gravedigger was glad for, as a week after the sombre internment, Nana Godwin was up and out of the ground again, the tiny box and its shrivelled contents loaded onto a dray and drawn up the hill to the police station where a coroner waited, impatiently tapping the toe of his polished black shoes.
For the doctor had smelt bitter almonds on the puckered old lips and a travelling tinker passing Dolly Farm, his load chinking with the force of the rain, glimpsed three figures in sodden black, lugging floorboards and hefting mattresses, night stands and a blanket box out onto the cobbled yard, as if searching for something lost.
The townsfolk, it seems, weren’t alone in believing in the whispered gold.
Once the trial was over and three black crows had flown from the earth, Dolly Farm was emptied, the furniture auctioned, even the stone walls dismantled, the blocks sold off to build other, warmer homes.
There never was any gold found at Dolly Farm. And precious little patience, hope nor charity neither.