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Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 2)

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‘But we haven’t had any tea!’ Renie protested.

‘Nothing to do with me. You should have come earlier if you wanted tea. Won’t hurt you to go without food for one night. I went to bed hungry many a time when I were a little ’un.’

Nell shook her head at her sister, who looked at her incredulously then snapped her mouth shut. After the landlady had left them, she said, ‘I’m sorry to have brought you to this.’

‘It’s not your fault.’ Renie came to sit beside her on the bed. ‘Shall we nip out and buy something from the corner shop?’

‘No. We’ll manage tonight and she’ll feed us in the morning. We need to save every single penny of our money.’ She hadn’t given any of their wages to Renie, who always spent any coins she got straight away, buying sweets, magazines or other rubbish. Not that any of them had hadmuch chance to treat themselves because their father took nearly all of their wages. ‘We might as well go to bed. It’s cold and damp in this room.’

‘But I’m thirsty.’

‘There’s water in the bathroom tap.’

In spite of her complaints, Renie was soon asleep but Nell lay awake worrying. If this was an example of how Cliff kept his promise to look after her, what was the rest of her life going to be like? He hadn’t even asked the landlady about their evening meal, and had gone quickly back to his cousins’ for his own tea.

Only, what could she do but marry him with a baby on the way?

She didn’t cry, was beyond tears now. She’d expected to feel happy at escaping from her father, but instead she felt apprehensive about the future.

Before she went to sleep, she murmured a prayer for her eldest sister, hoping Mattie had found somewhere better than this for her first night.

She was woken next morning by a nearby mill hooter, which was nearly as loud as the one at Swindon’s railway works. It was soon followed by others, then the clatter of clogs on pavements. She was so tired, she dozed off again, and of course Renie never stirred till someone shook her awake.

There was a knock on the door and the landlady yelled, ‘Get up, you two! Everyone else has gone to work and I want you out of the house.’

‘What about breakfast?’ Renie asked when they went down.

‘What about it? You’ve missed it. I cleared the tablehalf an hour ago. It’s up to the Greenhills to feed you now. Don’t take long. I want to clean the house. And remember, no lodgers are allowed inside during the day, so don’t come back till teatime.’

‘But we need something to eat,’ Nell protested. ‘We didn’t have tea last night, either.’

‘Well, you’re not getting anything from me now. I don’t usually have your sort staying here. I only took you in for the sake of poor Pauline Greenhill.’ She looked at Nell’s stomach suggestively.

Nell could feel herself blushing, and as soon as the door had closed behind the landlady, she said, ‘Hurry up. We’ll have to buy something to eat.’

She staggered as they went out into the street and Renie caught hold of her. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Just a bit dizzy. I don’t feel well in the mornings at the moment.’

They went along the street and knocked on the door to find Cliff waiting impatiently for them. ‘You’re late. I have to go and see about a job. It’s not looking like rain, so you might as well walk into town with me and start getting to know your way round.’

‘What time will we meet you?’ Nell asked, feeling as if she was talking to a stranger.

‘Come back here at twelve.’

‘What about food?’ Renie asked. ‘We haven’t had anything to eat since you bought us those sandwiches yesterday. That landlady didn’t give us anything last night and not this morning, either. She said we’d missed the time for breakfast. But no one called us down, did they? She’s just trying to cheat us.’

He looked at them in surprise. ‘I thought tea and breakfast were included in the board. She’s certainly charging enough.’

‘She told us to clear out and said the Greenhills would have to feed us.’

‘Just a minute.’ He went along the street and knocked on the door of their lodgings.

They could hear the sounds of an argument but couldn’t make out the words.

Nell was still feeling faint, so leant against the wall.

Suddenly their bulging shopping bags were hurled out on to the pavement, spilling clothes all over the place. Renie ran along the street to help Cliff pick them up, but not before some of them got wet and dirty. Nell was feeling so queasy she didn’t dare move for a minute or two.

Cliff came back with her bag, still looking angry. ‘She should have given you meals. I’ll ask my cousin for something. You can’t go without food.’

He left them standing outside, and when he came back, said, ‘There’s some bread you can have. Don’t use too much marge on it. They’ve not got a lot of money, not with five children. We’ll buy them another loaf while we’re out. You can leave your bags here in the front room.’

Five children, Nell thought with a shudder. She didn’t want that many. Just this one was causing so much trouble. She felt more tired than normal and sick every morning.

When they left his cousins’ house after being given one thin piece of bread and scrape each, he said, ‘You’d better come with me and wait outside the upholstery place while I go and see about the job. We’ll get something else to eat after that, then go and look for some other lodgings foryou. If I get this job, you can start looking for work as well. It’d make a big difference to have us all bringing something in.’

After they’d waited a few minutes outside the upholstery factory, Cliff came outside again. He looked so downhearted, Nell could tell at once that he hadn’t got the job. She didn’t like to remind him they were still hungry. Renie had wanted to buy a loaf, but she’d told her to wait. They weren’t spending a penny unless they had to, because who knew what they’d need their own money for? Cliff had far more than them. He’d been saving for years. She’d heard his workmates tease him about being tight-fisted.

He looked at her. ‘I didn’t get it.’

She went to pat his arm. ‘I’m sorry, Cliff. What shall we do now?’

‘The foreman said there might be a job in somewhere called Milnrow. I have to go there by train, but I think you’d better stay here in Rochdale. I don’t want to pay three lots of fares for nothing. I’ll see you later at my cousins’. Don’t go back there till teatime, though.’

He was gone before they could do anything. He seemed quite desperate to get a job, and she could understand that, but it was only their first full day here, so if it took him a few days to find one, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It clearly meant a lot to him, though. When she thought about it, he’d had a job right from school, working for Great Western, first as a lad who did anything asked of him, then as an apprentice, then as an upholsterer, one of the better jobs in the railway works.

This must be the first time in his life he’d not had a wagecoming in and he was panicking. That would explain why he was so … tense.

But he could still have given some thought to them, and he hadn’t. Not even one minute’s consideration.

She linked her arm in her sister’s and they started walking along by the river in the centre of town, which was crossed by several bridges. One of them was quite new, and when they stopped to look over the edge at the muddy shallow river, an old woman passing by stopped to chat and told them the Esplanade Bridge had only been finished the previous year.

‘Why is the water red?’ Renie asked.

‘From the dyeworks, love. It often changes colour, depending on what they’re using there.’

Renie wrinkled her nose. ‘It doesn’t smell very nice.’

The woman laughed. ‘Where there’s muck there’s money!’ She moved on, and as it started raining again, they followed her to the more sheltered Yorkshire Street, with its rows of shops.

It was a long cold day and they didn’t always find shelter from the showers, so got wetter and wetter. At noon, Nell bought a stale lardy cake, cheap because it’d been baked yesterday. It gave you quite a lot for your money, and they shared that, finding a drinking fountain to wash it down.

The next time it began to rain hard they went into the library for a while. Nell read the newspapers while Renie found a book about a maid who fell in love with her mistress’s son.

They kept quiet, trying not to be noticed, but after a while a man came over to them. ‘Are you members of the library?’

‘Er … no. We’ve just come to live in Rochdale and we’re waiting to see if my … husband gets a job. I thought I’d see if I could find a job too.’ She indicated the newspaper.

‘Well, you can stay another hour till you’ve checked out the jobs, but we can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry using the library as a shelter when it rains.’

Nell remembered to keep her hand hidden inside her skirt so that he didn’t see her lack of a wedding ring. When he looked at her as if expecting a reply, she nodded and said, ‘Thank you.’ What a mean fellow! She went back to looking down the columns of jobs. Many of the job names meant nothing to her, because they were in the mills, and what did she know about mill work?

Anyway, once she and Cliff were married, she’d have a house and husband to look after and wouldn’t be able to work full-time. That left jobs like cleaning or doing people’s washing privately, which didn’t pay much. She sighed. Cliff wasn’t the only one who’d come down in the world. The supervisor at the laundry in Swindon had said she was a good worker and might be put in charge of two other girls soon. She’d lost her chance at that now, as well as everything else she’d dreamt about. And it was all his fault.

After an hour, the man who’d spoken to them before came to stand nearby, so they left the library, to find it still raining steadily outside.

‘We can’t just walk the streets,’ Renie said. ‘I’m soaked already. Surely Cliff’s cousin will let us wait in the house?’

They went back, but when Pauline opened the door, she didn’t invite them in, just kept them standing on the doorstep.

‘I wonder if we could shelter in your house?’ Nell asked. ‘Cliff’s gone to somewhere called Milnrow and we’ve nowhere else to go.’

‘You should have been more polite to your landlady.’

‘Polite? She refused to give us any tea or breakfast. And it was Cliff who quarrelled with her because of that, not us.’

‘She told me you’d turned up your nose at bread and marg.’

Nell drew herself up and said quietly, ‘Not one crumb was offered, and she didn’t give us a cup of tea, either. But if you’d prefer to believe her, I can’t stop you. Don’t let us prevent you from getting on with your housework.’ She turned away and put her arm round Renie, who was shivering. ‘Come on, love.’

‘I suppose you’d better come in.’

‘Not if we’re unwelcome.’ Nell began walking away, calling over her shoulder, ‘We’ll be back at six. Cliff should be home by then.’

‘You should have gone in, even if she was unfriendly,’ Renie said. ‘I’m so c-cold.’

‘Not when she thinks we’re immoral and liars. And she hasn’t called us back again, has she? She’s just let us walk away.’

‘What are we going to do for the rest of the afternoon?’ Renie asked.

‘Find shelter, if it’s only at a bus stop. Cheer up. Things will get better once Cliff finds a job.’

‘He looks at us as if he hates us.’

‘He’s worried about money, isn’t himself at the moment.’

‘We’ve lost our jobs too.’

‘It’s different for a man.’

‘I don’t see why,’ Renie muttered.

‘Because he’s the breadwinner.’

‘We all have to buy food. And I’m starving hungry again.’

‘Don’t let’s argue, love. Now, keep your eyes open. There must be somewhere we can shelter.’

Chapter Two

Cliff found the upholsterer’s shop he’d been told about and stopped in dismay. It was an upholsterer’s all right, but it was small and looked run-down. There was a roughly written sign saying, ‘Man wanted, must know the trade’, so he went inside.

An older man shuffled out from a door at the back. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve come about the job.’

‘Know anything about upholstery?’

‘Yes. I’ve served my apprenticeship.’ He pulled his papers out of his inside pocket.

The man barely glanced at them before handing them back and saying, ‘Got your own tools?’

‘Of course.’

‘Come through, then.’ He led the way into a much larger workshop at the back, which was in chaos. ‘Sorry about the mess. I’ve been without help for weeks, except for my grandson here, and he’s not up to much, poor soul.’ He tapped his head and indicated a spotty youth with a dopey

expression, who was sweeping up half-heartedly. ‘I’m Don Rayner.’ He offered his hand.

‘Clifford Greenhill.’

‘Where have you been working?’

‘On railway upholstery for Great Western in Swindon.’

‘Good job, that. Why did you leave?’

Cliff hesitated, then decided on the truth. ‘I got a girl in trouble and her father’s a brute. I had to leave town quickly.’

Rayner frowned at him. ‘Nay, I don’t want someone working here who’d leave a lass in trouble.’

‘I didn’t leave her. She came with me. Her father would have beaten her senseless if he’d found out she was expecting. Me too. He crippled a fellow who was courting her older sister. We’re going to get wed as soon as we find somewhere to settle.’

‘Oh. Well, I suppose I could give you a try.’

Cliff looked round. ‘It’s mostly domestic work, I suppose?’

‘It’s all domestic, but I don’t expect it’s much different from what you did.’

‘How much are you paying?’

‘Thirty shillin’ a week.’

‘I was earning two pound five shillings a week in Swindon.’

‘Well, thirty’s all I can afford. Take it or leave it.’

Cliff hesitated, then said, ‘I’ll take it.’

‘You can start this afternoon, then. I’ve got a rush job on.’

‘All right. But I’ll have to leave at five o’clock. I’m meeting Nell at six in Rochdale.’

Later, as they were working together on abutton-backedsofa, Cliff had a sudden thought. ‘Know any houses to let near here?’ That’d mean he’d not have to waste money, time and shoe leather on travelling.

‘There’s one close by in Willow Court. It’s not much but it’ll give you a start. I’ll send the lad to ask for the key and you can nip round and have a look at it when we’ve finished this.’

A couple of hours later Cliff nipped along the back alley and found his way to Willow Court, stopping at the entrance to look round in dismay. No wonder the house was cheap. It was a very low form of housing, though at least it wasn’t the worst of its type.

Five narrow dwellings clustered round a tiny oblong courtyard with an old-fashioned water closet near the entrance. Inside the empty house, he found one room and a scullery on the ground floor, two small bedrooms upstairs. ‘Cheap’ was the only good thing you could say about the place, and the fact that it was close to his work.

His mother would go mad to think of him living here. Still, it was only four shillings a week rent and they’d need furniture and everything, so Nell would just have to put up with it for the time being. They could move somewhere better later. And her cheeky sister should be grateful for anything.

Late that afternoon Cliff got off the train in Rochdale, feeling miserable in spite of having found a job and having earned three shillings that day. It was raining again and he shivered as he tramped across town to his cousins’. He’d come down in the world and no mistake. Women! Theyweren’t worth it. And now he’d be saddled with a childanda sister-in-law.

He’d heard there were ways to stop more children coming, and by hell, he’d make sure he found out about them. If he and Nell had more than one or two children, they’d be poor for the rest of their lives.

Why did he have to fall for a girl with a father like that? He’d been set for life at the railway works, might even have managed to buy his own house one day, and now look at him.

 

Renie and Nell walked on in the rain, sheltering in an occasional shop doorway for a few minutes. But each time they lingered, someone from the shop came to ask them to ‘Move on, please’.

There were two main streets leading upwards from the town centre and there were plenty of shops along them. They even went into one or two of the bigger places to look at the goods, pretty dress materials that Nell could have made up easily. She was starting to like sewing, or rather, to like the clothes that came from it.

After someone had asked yet again, ‘Can I help you, miss?’ Nell had had enough. ‘Let’s find somewhere else to shelter, Renie. The rain’s eased off a bit.’ She turned off along a narrow side street and followed it aimlessly.

The wind suddenly started blowing hard and yet another squall sent rain driving in their faces. They were passing a small chapel, the door of which was open. ‘Let’s try inside there,’ Nell said. ‘Surelytheywon’t turn us away.’

They ran for the porch and she nearly bumped into athin, slightly balding man standing under it near the door. ‘Oh, sorry.’

‘Do come in. You look soaked through.’

She stared down at herself. She hadn’t realised quite how wet she was, but her skirt was actually dripping on the floor. ‘Can we … shelter here for a bit?’

‘Of course you can. The Lord’s house is open to everyone. Have you no home to go to?’ His voice was gentle, his accent posh, but his eyes were kind.

‘Not at the moment, no. We’ve just arrived in Rochdale and my young man’s looking for work.’

‘Then you’re very welcome to stay here out of the rain. I could make you a cup of tea. I have a small spirit stove. Your poor friend’s shivering.’

‘That’s very kind of you. If it’s not too much trouble.’

He smiled at them. ‘I’m Septimus Garrett, by the way. I’m the minister here.’

‘Nell Fuller.’ She realised she should have said Greenhill, but it was too late now. ‘And this is my sister, Renie.’

They sat on hard wooden chairs in his private room, their outer clothes draped over other chair backs, even their indoor clothes steaming from the heat of the fire. He asked a few questions and was so sympathetic about their plight that the whole story came tumbling out.

When she’d finished, Nell looked at him apprehensively, cradling her second cup of tea in her hands, enjoying its warmth as much as its taste. ‘I know I’ve done wrong,’ she faltered.

‘Let he who is without fault cast the first stone,’ he said quietly. ‘And if you’re still homeless at the end of theday, you can sleep in here tonight, as long as you don’t mind sharing a rug on the floor and using another rug as a blanket. My home is just across the street, the house with the blue door. Just knock if you need help. This is quite a poor area and we haven’t any proper beds to offer you, I’m afraid, but others have sheltered here.’

Tears came into her eyes. ‘Thank you. You’re very kind.’

‘It’s my calling to help others.’ His smile was warm and made him look much younger. ‘Now, what time do you have to meet your young man?’

‘About six.’

‘Then I suggest you stay here until then. I can even lend you a newspaper to read. I have to go and visit a woman from our congregation who’s sick, but I’ll be back before you leave.’

When he’d gone, Renie sighed. ‘It’s horrible being homeless, isn’t it? I never thought it’d be as bad as this, though.’ She gulped and scrubbed at her eyes with one hand.

Nell didn’t have the energy to comfort her. ‘It’s no use crying. It won’t do any good. Things will get better once Cliff finds a job, and in the meantime, we’ll just have to put up with things.’

She hugged her knees and sat soaking up the warmth, too weary to read or chat. What was there to say that hadn’t been said a dozen times already?

 

When Cliff got back to his cousins’ house, he expected Nell and Renie to be waiting for him there and was surprised not to see them.

‘They wouldn’t stay,’ Cousin Pauline said.

Something about the way she avoided his eyes as she said that made him feel suspicious. ‘On a rainy day like this? Where else would they go?’

She glanced at the children and gestured to him to follow her, leading him into the chilly front room where he’d slept the night before.

‘Have you seen them? Do you know where they’ve gone?’ he pressed when she stood twisting her apron hem, still seeming reluctant to speak.

‘How would I know where they’ve gone? Women like that usually find somewhere, I’m sure.’

He looked at her in shock. ‘What do you mean, “women like that”?’

‘Well, your mother wrote that your … young lady is expecting. Your parents are very upset about you marrying this Nell Fuller, you know. You weren’t even engaged to her, apparently, till this happened. I suppose that’s why you’re in such trouble with her father. And her sister’s a bold piece, if you ask me. Cheek the King, that one would.’

He held back his indignation only because he had nowhere else to turn for help. ‘My Nell’s not like that. She’s never been with anyone but me.’

Pauline sniffed as if she didn’t believe him.

‘I know she hasn’t,’ he repeated.

His cousin George came home just then, slamming the door and stopping in the doorway of the front room. ‘What are you doing in here? Is my tea ready? I’m starving.’

‘It’s nearly ready, love. We were just talking and I didn’t want the kids overhearing.’

She tried to move past Cliff but he barred her way. ‘You do believe me about Nell, don’t you?’

She shrugged. ‘If you say so. We won’t wait for them two, though. My George needs his food after a hard day’s work.’

George rubbed his hands together briskly to warm them. ‘That smells good, love.’ He turned to Cliff. ‘Why aren’t them two back yet? What can they be doing out on a rainy day like this? I warn you, I’m not having any immoral behaviour from anyone who comes into my house.’ He turned to go through to the back.

‘Just a minute, George!’ Cliff looked from one to the other. ‘It seems my mother’s given you the wrong impression about Nell. She’s a good girl.’ He could see that they didn’t believe him and added, ‘I forced her, if you must know, and that’s why she’s expecting.’

‘Oh.’ Pauline went bright red.

‘I’m not proud of what I did. And … I’ve not treated her well since we left Swindon, either, because I was upset at having to give up my job. Her father’s a brute. He nearly killed a man who came courting her older sister.’

George clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Right, lad. I’m glad she’s not that sort. Pale little thing, isn’t she?’

‘She isn’t usually pale. She’s usually very pretty. I’m worried about what Nell and Renie will do tonight, now they’ve been thrown out of those lodgings down the street. That woman’s a right old cheat. She didn’t feed them so much as a crumb, and they only had a piece of bread and scrape here this morning, so they must be starving hungry as well as wet and cold. I’m not paying that landlady the full amount, whatever she says.’

They stared at him open-mouthed.

‘She told me they turned up their noses at what she offered this morning,’ Pauline said.

‘No, they didn’t. Would you, if you hadn’t eaten since the day before?’ He wasn’t finished because a man had his pride, even when it was going to cost him money. ‘If we’re not welcome here, just say, and we’ll find lodgings somewhere else.’

George shrugged. ‘I’m glad we’ve got that sorted out. We’ll let ’em sleep in the front room tonight if they’ve nowhere to go, eh, Pauline, but we’ve no blankets to spare.’

His wife nodded. ‘They can cover themselves with the rag rug from the back room. It’s the best we can do.’

‘Thanks.’ Cliff let her pass, watched them both walk towards the warmth of the kitchen and went to look out of the front door, feeling guilty about Nell being out in the cold and rain all day. He stayed on the doorstep with the door nearly closed behind him, stubbornly watching for them, suddenly desperate to be sure they were all right.

When the two of them came into view, there was a man with them and Nell was smiling up at him, which annoyed Cliff after the conversation he’d just had.

Her smile faded when she saw him scowling at her and she looked at him uncertainly. He was reminded yet again how tiny she was, how fragile she felt in his arms.

‘Where the hell have you been?’ he demanded. ‘I’ve been worried sick to think of you out in the rain all day.’

‘Mr Garrett kindly let us shelter in the new chapel. Mr Garrett, this is my betrothed, Cliff Greenhill.’

The stranger held out his hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

Cliff could do nothing but take his hand, but he was suspicious about why a man that age would fuss over two bedraggled young women.

‘He’s the minister there,’ Nell said.

‘Ah. I see.’

‘Actually, I’m the minister thereandat a new chapel we’ve just opened in Milnrow. My wife and I will be moving there soon because we want a garden.’

‘Milnrow, eh? We’re going to be living there too.’ Cliff felt himself relaxing a little. ‘I’ve just got a job at Rayner’s.’

‘Don and his wife are members of our congregation, though he hasn’t been to chapel as often lately because he’s been snowed under with work, though I can’t approve of toiling on the Sabbath. Iris will be glad he’s found someone to help him.’

‘Good. Then my job should be safe for a while.’ Cliff could hear how bitter he sounded, but couldn’t help it. He saw Nell wince and felt guilty all over again. He’d been feeling guilty ever since she told him, but angry too. He didn’twantto get married yet, not even to her. ‘I’m pleased to have met you, Mr Garrett. Come inside out of the rain, you two.’ But the man didn’t take the hint and still lingered.

‘I hope we’ll meet again, Mr Greenhill. Are youchapel-goers, by any chance?’

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