Read Elm tree road Online

Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 3)

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Cliff hesitated, but he knew employers usually preferred their men to go to the same church as they did, so nodded. He’d never cared much about going to church, let alone which one he went to, though his parents attended the parish church in Swindon every Sunday and had done all their lives.

He didn’t like Christ Church, though, so he’d stayed away when he could. The gentry sat at the front still, like in the bad old days. They acted as if they were better than anyone else, expecting you to wait for them to lead the way out. He wasn’t even sure he believed in God anymore. Why would a loving God do this to him?

It was Mr Garrett’s turn to hesitate. ‘From what your young lady has told me, you’ll be setting up house from scratch. I’m sure our congregations, small as they are, will help you find some bits and pieces of furniture. They can be very generous to those in need, true Christians. And if the things they find for you need mending, well, I’m sure a man with your skills will be able to do that.’

Cliff hated to need charity, but he’d been dreading having to spend his savings on buying a whole houseful of furniture. All they had at the moment were his toolkit, the clothes they stood up in and the few things in their bags. ‘Thank you. That’d be very … kind. We’re going to be living in Willow Court.’

‘You’ve found us a house already!’ Nell exclaimed.

‘It’s not very big, but it’s cheap and close to where I work. It’ll do to get us started.’

She flung her arms round his neck and stood on tiptoe to plonk a quick kiss on his cheek. ‘You’ve done so well, Cliff. All this on your first full day here.’

When she looked at him like that, so trusting and admiring, he felt a bit better. ‘I said I’d look after you, didn’t I?’

Mr Garrett smiled at him from behind Nell. ‘If you come to the morning service at the Rochdale chapel tomorrow, I’ll introduce you and ask the congregation for help. Now,I’ll let you get these young ladies into the warmth again, and I’ll go home to my wife.’ He tipped his hat and strolled away.


Pauline was still a bit stiff with Nell and her sister that evening, but she wasn’t quite as sharp and scornful as she had been, especially when Nell made Cliff give her the money to nip out to the corner shop and buy a few bits and pieces of food.

The following day, since it was a Sunday, she even suggested they come to church with her and her family.

‘Thanks, but I think we’d better go to Mr Garrett’s chapel,’ Cliff said. ‘My new employer goes there and the minister’s promised to ask his congregation for help with finding furniture. I’ve paid this week’s rent, so we can move into Willow Court as soon as we have beds and a few other bits and pieces.’

The scornful look returned to Pauline’s face. ‘We don’t have anything to do with that lot. We go to St Chad’s and always have done. And our family’s never had to acceptcharity.’

Cliff’s expression became thunderous but it was Renie who answered them.

‘Neither had we until one ofyourfamily got my sister in trouble.’

Pauline’s sharp intake of breath echoed round the room.

‘Let’s go and get ready,’ Nell said hurriedly into the frosty silence that followed. In the front room, where they’d passed an uncomfortable night, she turned on her sister. ‘Don’t youever againsay anything cheeky like that to people who’re helping us!’

‘I never heard of such grudging help.’

‘That doesn’t matter. At least we had somewhere to sleep last night. Just keep your mouth shut, for once. You’re too quick to say things, you are.’

Renie burst into tears. ‘I wish I’d gone with Mattie. She’d have found us somewhere better than this.’

Cliff came into the front room just then, glaring at them.

‘I’ve told her to mind her manners while we’re guests here,’ Nell said quickly.

‘Good. See that you listen to your sister, who has more sense than you, Renie. Now, are you two ready for chapel?’

‘Nearly.’ Nell went to look into the mirror that hung over the mantelpiece, shivering in the chill damp room. She looked terrible, exhausted and pale, and she was feeling nauseous again. No wonder he wasn’t acting fondly towards her.

All she had to put on her head was the scarf she wore to go to work. She couldn’t afford to give in to her sickness, though, so she took a deep breath and went across to Cliff. ‘It’ll get better than this,’ she whispered.

He clasped her hand and for a moment she saw the old Cliff looking at her lovingly. Then he shook his head and turned back into the sharp new Cliff, with the tight expression on his face. ‘At least it isn’t raining at the moment.’

The small chapel had a few chairs at the front, not matching, and behind them rows of benches. It was nearly full, and people smiled a welcome as the three of them sat down on an empty bench at the rear.

The service was more vigorous than the one in the parish church in Swindon, with people singing hymns as if they meant something, not just droning them out tonelessly. There wasn’t a choir in such a small chapel, but two women in one corner sang a descant to the hymns, and they had lovely voices.

Then Mr Garrett went to stand by the lectern to deliver his sermon. It was short and to the point. ‘I take as my theme today loving your neighbours in deed and truth, from John chapter one, verse three, line eighteen.’ He paused, then went on quietly, ‘Yesterday I met a young couple who’d been driven away from their home by a violent man. They’re here today, new to our congregation, and I’m sure we all welcome them.’

There were mutters of agreement and more people turned to smile and nod at them.

‘These young folk are about to get married and set up a home, without any friends or family to help them. They’re in desperate need of furniture and everything else, and I’m sure you’ll help them if you can. They’re going to live in Milnrow and attend our new sister chapel.’

He left it at that and gave out the number of the final hymn.

Nell blushed to think they’d been singled out as needing charity. She could see that Cliff’s knuckles were white on the edge of his hymn book, so didn’t try to catch his attention. Still, it would be worth the embarrassment. The sooner they could find furniture, the sooner she could leave Cliff’s cousins’ grudging shelter and then surely he’d be his old self again?

And if people helped them now, well, they could helpothers in return once they were on their feet again, couldn’t they? That way they’d regain their self-respect.

After the service, Mr Garrett came across to speak to them. ‘I’m so glad you came today.’

Cliff nodded, hesitated, then said, ‘We’d like you to marry us as soon as possible, if that’s all right. I’ll get a special licence. I think it’ll be money well spent, because we want to start off as we mean to go on here.’

‘I shall be very happy to marry you.’ He turned. ‘Ah, Mrs Lambden. May I introduce you to Mr Greenhill and Miss Fuller, who are soon to marry and are just setting up home? And this is Miss Fuller’s sister, Renie, who is to live with them.’

An older woman stopped beside him, studying them, then smiling as if she approved of what she saw. ‘Welcome to our congregation. I’ve got an old bedstead that I’ve no use for. You’ll have to mend the webbing, but it’s got years of use in it yet.’

‘Thank you,’ Nell said. ‘We’d be very grateful for it.’

Others came across and she kept a count in her head of the bigger items they’d been offered. Cliff’s face was grim and he clearly was hating this, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to get into her own home.

Mr Garrett whispered to them not to leave yet and went to speak to others. Once the last people had left, he came back. ‘I’ll mention you in my next service today in Milnrow. Oh, and I’m sure I can organise the loan of a horse and cart to take the things to your new home.’

‘We’re very grateful for your help,’ Nell said. She’d repeated those words several times but Cliff seemed not to find them easy to say, so she was doing it for them both.

As they walked back to his cousins’ house, they smelt bread baking and went round to the back of a bakery to find the man selling loaves, even on a Sunday. They bought two loaves and some scones and took them back to Cliff’s cousins’, which brought a near-smile to Pauline’s narrow face.

‘I’ll buy some more margarine tomorrow,’ Cliff told her.

But the night again seemed long and uncomfortable to Nell, cuddled up to her sister on the thin rag rug, which hardly softened the hard floor.

She’d never slept so badly in her whole life, never felt so miserable. She was getting married soon, ought to be happy, but how could you be when life was so uncomfortable and the man you were marrying looked at you sometimes as if he hated you?


On Monday Nell gave Cliff her birth certificate in case he had time to get a special licence, then she waved him off to work. She looked down at the money he’d given her to buy some margarine and another loaf. Two shillings. Not exactly generous, but even so, she’d spend as little of it as she could. She and her sisters had had a lot of experience in being careful, with a father as stingy as theirs.

She glanced up at the sky and was relieved to see that though there were patchy clouds, it didn’t look like being a day of constant rain, at least. They’d be able to stay away from Pauline and her sour face. There were three small children at home in the house, and two had gone off to school. The two toddlers were sent into the corner of the kitchen to ‘play quietly’, and were smacked if they made anoise. The baby was laid in a shabby high pram, not even sat up so that it could look round, poor thing.

Five children! thought Nell. And so close in age. No wonder Pauline’s grumpy. Nell intended to persuade Cliff not to give her too many children. There were ways of preventing them, she’d heard. She did want two or three children, of course she did, but not a whole gaggle of them, and not close together, either.

As she and Renie were getting ready to go out, there was a knock on the front door.

Pauline went to answer it and came to the door of the front room. ‘It’s for you.’ She went back to the kitchen without a word of explanation.

Nell hurried to the front door to find Mr Garrett standing there. ‘Do come in!’ Thank goodness she’d cleared away their makeshift bedding from the front room!

He stood there beaming at them. ‘We had a lot of offers of help from the Milnrow congregation as well as the Rochdale one, and my wife has found you a few bits and pieces too. The thing is, I have the chance to borrow a horse and cart today, so we could take the things out to Milnrow without you incurring any expense.’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful! Thank you so much.’

‘I know where Mr Greenhill works and I know where Willow Court is, but perhaps it’d be best if you and your sister came with me, because I doubt his employer will want him to take time off work to help me take the things into the house.’

He gave one of his jolly laughs. ‘I’m a good driver, I promise you. I grew up on a farm with horses.’

Once again, being with him lifted her spirits. ‘That’d bewonderful! I can’t believe you’ve got things organised so quickly.’

‘We try to help one another in the chapels, and I regard it as part of my job to organise that, when people are in need. One day, perhaps you’ll be the one to offer help to another soul in trouble.’

‘Oh, I will. I’d already decided that.’ She smiled at Renie, who had been listening to them. ‘Won’t it be wonderful to have a home of our own?’

‘I can’t get away from here soon enough.’

Her voice was loud and no doubt carried into the kitchen through the half-open door. ‘Shh!’ Nell whispered.

Renie tossed her head, scowling.

‘If you can come with me straight away, we’ll start collecting the things,’ Mr Garrett said.

It took most of the morning to collect the donations, and, as he’d said, many items needed repair. But there were household utensils too, bowls and dishes, an old knife, worn thin with sharpening, all sorts of small useful items.

When they got to the upholstery workshop, Mr Garrett led the way in to ask Mr Rayner about giving Cliff just a little time off.

‘He’s not here,’ Mr Rayner said.

Nell’s heart sank. Had something gone wrong already with the new job? If so, this would all be in vain.

‘He’s gone into Rochdale to get a special licence to marry his sweetheart,’ Mr Rayner added. ‘He couldn’t settle to work, so I told him to get it sorted out.’

She had to lean against the wall because she felt wobbly with relief.

Mr Rayner looked across to where the two young women were standing. ‘Which one of you is Nell?’

She moved forward. ‘I am.’

‘I wish you well with your wedding, lass.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Can we get into the house?’ Mr Garrett asked. ‘We’ve got some pieces of furniture that people from the two chapels have donated and I’ve brought them across.’

‘I heard you’d been asking for stuff on Sunday. I’ve a piece or two I can let you have as well, but your man will have to fix them. The chair frames have nothing for you to sit on at the moment.’ He laughed. ‘Hard work, that’s what I’m giving him.’

‘We’re very grateful and we don’t mind hard work,’ Nell said quickly.

‘I know where the house key is. Willow Court is only just round the corner.’ He nodded to her again. ‘The lad can give you a hand with carrying things in, Mr Garrett. He’s strong in the body, even if he is weak in the head.’

As Nell walked out of the untidy little shop, she felt a tiny thread of happiness start to unfurl inside her. But it withered the minute she saw the house they were to live in, smelt the stinking water closet near the entrance to the little court and saw the filthy walls inside the house. She wanted to turn tail and run then.

Only she couldn’t run, could she? Not from the baby growing in her belly and not from her new life, either. The child would probably be with her for the next twenty years, till it got wed and left home, and probably there would be other children to look after too. Onlyshe intended to love her children, not drive them away. She was determined this one should have a happier life than she’d had, however much trouble its creation had caused.

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