"Mind them steps!"
That was the call of a grand old lady, one of Newcastle's unsung heroines. For all that the four words look so ordinary, they spoke an epic of courage, of thought for others from the midst of trouble enough to drown most people, of a soaring spirit rising magnificently above a poor, ailing old body.
She was propped up in her chair in a tenement house not five minutes' walk from the Central Station in Newcastle. The Cathedral Nursing Society nurse had been dressing her "bad leg,". Oh, those dreadful, raw, running ulcers! But she had no pity for herself on account of them; only, when she caught the distressed glance of the visitor accompanying the nurse, her kind heart moved her to offer comfort ( disguised in humour ( there.
"Wouldn't you like to swop wi' me for ma leg?"
"Rubbish!" interposed the nurse, "you wouldn't part with it. It's too old a friend."
She chuckled at that. "You're right. The doctor said to me the other day `I think we'll chop it off.' `No', I told him, `we won't. It came in wi' me and it'll go out wi me'."
"Well, I've nothing to complain about," she added, although at the moment her old hands were clenched against the hurt of the dressing process.
"Who does your housework?" I asked her. It was only half past nine in the morning, and there the old granny was sitting, as neat and as clean as a new pin, not a speck of dust anywhere, the black-leaded fireplace shining like a mirror, and the bed against the opposite wall as smart as a model in a domestic science demonstration. All this at the top of a tenement stair in a dingy Newcastle back-street.
"Me son," she answered.
"He's gone to look for work," she added. "He's heard they're taking on men at the steelworks."
If he got a job, he would be getting married. Those chrysanthemums were a gift from his young lady. That would be better than the 14s a week he was getting down at Pilgrim Street. To be sure, she would have nothing then but her old age pension, since she'd buried all her others. But he would be better married, and she'd had a fair share of him.
"He'll just be doing what I did," she laughed after us as we went out of her door.
Then called, "Now mind them stairs!"
Never one little thought had turned to herself all the time we were there. No thought of her physical suffering, or of her poverty, or of her helplessness; or her loneliness if her son did marry. She didn't worry because she was unable to hobble to the top of the stairs herself.
But she remembered to call a warning to the two active young people who might in the dark tenement fall down them.
Was she not one of the city's great ones?
The Cathedral Nurses know a lot of heroines. Indeed, from the glimpse I had into their life yesterday, I imagine they move exclusively in a circle of heroes! People who carry unbelievable loads, yet straighten their shoulders and laugh. People who have dwelt for years with misery and pain, yet keep their passion for life clear as a flame. People in slums who prove the grandeur of human courage with every breath they continue to draw.
If they weren't suffering and in desperate need, the Cathedral Nursing Society would not be looking after them. We didn't see anybody who didn't have cause to be utterly despairing. But the only one who let out a cry was a little girl having stitches taken out of an appendicitis wound.
And even she was living where her young soul could feed on visions of courage wherever it looked. Her mother was a widow with 12 children, who had just also taken in a two-year-old from down the street because his mother had been carried away to hospital.
Hero after hero, 'til I wondered if sorrow had any power, or repining any place in the world!
Every sufferer had a smile, and everyone said "Thank you" with emphasis for the washing or the dressing, the binding up or the bed-changing. No wonder the Cathedral Nurses say they wouldn't care to change their work.