We were happy once

Judge’s Comments – Runner-up

This was a very sad story, and the author did a great job of conveying that emotion to the reader. I liked the idea that the narrator, Sarah, has no emotions left after being traumatised by the first few days in the workhouse. I think this story also rather importantly points out that though they were very poor, prior to Sarah’s father’s death they were happy – it wasn’t their impoverished state that made them unhappy, but their treatment and the conditions at the workhouse.

We were happy once

By Tallulah Birchall

From the moment I set foot in that place, I knew I was lost forever. I knew I would most certainly die, or worse – I would be the only one left. This was a game of survival and one I was unsure if I wanted to win.

I had a life before the workhouse – I think. I had a name too. You lose all of that when you go to the hell house. My name was Sarah, and I had a mother, father and a brother but we were all forced apart when we arrived. I was 10; my brother was only 7. I promised mother I would look after him however that promise was quickly broken. He is probably dead now. I should be sad; except I lost all capability of emotion in those first few horrifying days.

We were happy once. All we had was a tiny shack, even so it was perfect. Every day, father would come home and collapse into his special chair; jokingly-complain about what he did for the day. I would always reply “I wouldn’t enjoy working”. Soon his complaining wasn’t in jest, and my reply was becoming truer. One day he came home, sat down and cried. All he did was cry until his face turned red and blotchy. Then one day, he stopped. That was the day we went to the workhouse.

Silently sobbing, we trudged towards the colossal, looming workhouse. We clung to the few belongings we had and some scraps of fo od. I brought the doll I was given for my eighth birthday. As I squeezed the doll for reassurance, my tears cascaded down my cheek and landed on the doll. As soon as we entered the building, we were instantly separated. My brother’s deafening cry made me squirm as I fought to get to him. Still struggling, I was dragged away by an emotionless shadow of a man.

They took everything: my clothes, spare pennies, even my precious doll. I already felt imprisoned and ready to escape. I was scrubbed, shoved into some potato sack clothes and put in a dorm. In our dorm we weren’t allowed to talk; I realized that when it was too late. The master caught me and another girl laughing, and we were lashed in the courtyard in front of everyone. Through the agony, I heard an ear-piercing scream. It was my mother. I saw the tears in her eyes, and she was feeling my pain. That memory has forever been scratched into my brain and the scars are carved in my skin.

Every night, I wonder if I will escape. But I know I never will.

Return to Workhouse Voices Creative Writing