Read Elm tree road Online

Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 4)

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She felt as if she’d grown years older in the past few weeks, but there was no use moaning. Taking a deep breath, she turned to the minister. ‘Let’s start carrying the things in, then, shall we?’

He gave her a gentle smile, as if he understood what she’d been thinking. ‘You won’t be on your own here, my dear. You’ll make friends and you’ll be able to turn to people at chapel if you need help. We pride ourselves on being practical Christians.’

That kindness nearly made her weep, but she forced back the tears and nodded. ‘I know. It’s all been … a bit rushed.’

She tried to move and couldn’t. Things blurred round her and she knew nothing more until she came to, lying on the ground, with Mr Garrett’s coat under her head and Renie kneeling beside her.

‘What happened?’

Renie took hold of her hand and gave it a squeeze. ‘You fainted. Mr Garrett caught you or you’d have bumped your head. How do you feel?’

‘A bit dizzy.’ She sat up and waited a moment or two until she was sure her head wasn’t spinning, then she let Renie help her to stand up.

Footsteps heralded the return of Mr Garrett with a cup of tea and a scone provided by Mr Rayner. ‘Here. Drink this. Did you eat any breakfast?’

‘No. I feel a bit sick in the mornings and dizzy sometimes.’

‘My wife’s the same. It usually passes after the first three or four months.’

‘I hope so. I need to get a job and earn some money.’

He looked at her consideringly. ‘Doing what?’

‘Anything that pays. I worked in a laundry before.’

‘I could give you a day’s work each week helping my wife with the washing. It’s a bit much for her, and our previous washing woman just left town. My wife’s also expecting, as you must have noticed. She’s further along than you and is quite big now. We hadn’t expected to be blessed again, but the Lord has decided to give us another child.’

‘I’d be happy to work for you.’

‘Good. Now, drink the tea and eat the scone. We need to get this furniture in place, so that the lad and I can go and collect the things offered by the congregation here in Milnrow.’

‘There are more things?’

‘Oh, yes, quite a lot more.’

‘I can’t thank you enough.’

After he’d gone, she and Renie walked round the house. They had been given two bed frames, both needing rewebbing. Three threadbare blankets. Some ragged old towels, which would only be usable for cleaning, so full of holes were they. Still, you needed rags. There were odd spoons and knives, but no forks. Two plain white cups in perfect condition, another without a handle. The teapot had a chunk missing from the end of the spout, but it was all right otherwise. There were two drinking glasses, one badly chipped.

She studied a sagging armchair and two stools, the latterrough pieces clearly made by an inexpert hand. She tried one stool and sat there for a moment, gathering herself to continue.

Renie giggled suddenly and sat on the other stool, which wobbled to and fro on uneven legs. ‘Which one do you think is the master’s seat?’

‘The armchair, of course.’ She smiled back. ‘I wonder if there’s a corner shop nearby? We could buy some tea and maybe a loaf and some margarine, and leave them here. We’ve got a bread bin, so even if there are rats, they’ll not be able to get at it. I’m quite hungry now.’

‘Jam too?’ begged Renie.

‘Yes, why not? But we’ll use it sparingly.’

She stared round, assessing it all, feeling determination rise within her. ‘I want to move in here as soon as possible, even if I have to sleep on the floor. But before we do, it’ll need scrubbing from top to bottom and the walls distempering. You and I can do that, but you’ll have to climb the ladder – if we can borrow a ladder, that is. I don’t want to risk it, not with me getting so dizzy.’

By the time Mr Garrett came back, they had a cup of tea to offer him – Nell was using the cup without a handle – and had met a neighbour, who had come in to see who was moving in. Peg wasn’t the sort of person Nell usually associated with, but she was good-hearted and had offered to lend them a scrubbing brush and bucket.

It was greatly needed. She looked round, hands on hips. Before she’d finished this place was going to be sparkling clean. She might be poor, but she could afford a bar ofsoap, and water and elbow power were free. And for all her flightiness, Renie was a good worker.

They would manage.


Cliff turned up just as the minister was bringing the second load of donations back. He looked round and grew very tight-lipped at the sight of the battered furniture they’d been given. ‘This is rubbish! My mother wouldn’t have it in the house.’

Nell went to thread her arm in his. ‘It’ll do to give us a start. And if you could let me have some money, I’ll get us the bits and pieces we’re lacking, then Renie and I will scrub the whole place down.’

He looked down at her in a more kindly way than recently. ‘I’m sorry I can’t give you better than this, Nell.’

‘We don’t need to stay here for ever and it’s a start.’ She hated to see the shame on his face and tried to distract him. ‘I’ve met Peg next door and she says there’s a big market in Rochdale where you can buy blankets, sheeting and towels really cheap if you get the seconds. That’ll save us a lot of money. She’s offered to take me there on Friday, but I’m going to need money to buy the things.’

‘I’ll give you some. By then you’ll be Mrs Greenhill.’ He patted his pocket. ‘I’ve got the special licence here. If Mr Garrett will oblige, that is.’

The minister and the lad came in just then, carrying a rickety table with a scarred top. ‘If I’ll oblige with what?’

‘Marrying us.’

‘You’ve got a special licence already?’

Cliff nodded. ‘Better not to wait, I thought. Could you marry us tomorrow, do you think? We could come to thechapel here in Milnrow during my midday break.’

‘Of course I can. It’ll be my pleasure. Um … you don’t want to invite any of your family to attend?’

‘I have no real family now, except for Nell, of course. My cousin won’t want to give up a day’s work and his wife is … busy with her children.’

Nell kept a smile on her face somehow. It seemed a shameful way to get married and she didn’t even have anything pretty to wear, but she wasn’t going to say that. Cliff was upset enough about the whole situation.

Once they were in their own home, things would surely improve.


When she thought about it, Nell decided that she might have to get married in this shabby way, but she wasn’t wearing a headscarf to her wedding, not for anything. She found a second-hand clothes shop on the way home and bought a hat for her wedding, a plain little straw one with a stained ribbon round it, for a shilling. She bought a yard of navy-blue ribbon to match her dress and coat, then realised she’d need needles, thread and scissors, so bought them too. She trimmed the hat up quickly after she got back.

‘What will Cliff say about you spending money on the hat?’ Renie asked.

‘I don’t suppose he’ll even notice.’

But Pauline had noticed and pretended to tease her that evening about vanity and spending.

Cliff looked at her very sharply.

When Nell and Renie went to get ready for bed, she thrust her own money at Renie. ‘Look after this for me,will you? And don’t spend a penny! I’ll just keep a few shillings in my purse. He might ask for my money, but I don’t want to be totally without some of my own, not ever again.’

Renie nodded and gave her a quick hug before wrapping the coins in her handkerchief so that they wouldn’t clink.

When Cliff tapped on the door and asked if they were decent, Nell told him to come in. He closed the door and stood staring at her.

‘Did you really spend money on a hat when we have nothing but rags and broken furniture to our name?’ he demanded, keeping his voice down, but still sounding furious.

‘I bought it second hand. It only cost a shilling.’

‘You shouldn’t buy anything you don’t need.’

‘I did need it! I only had a headscarf. I’m not getting married in a headscarf.’

‘What does that matter? Anyway,I’lldecide what we need in future. Give me the rest of your money.’

And though she’d expected him to want that, planned to give him a few shillings just to keep the peace, something in her rebelled.


He gaped at her in shock.

‘If you don’t trust me with money, you shouldn’t be marrying me at all. I’m not having you treat me like Dad did, taking everything I earned and doling out money a penny at a time. I’ll work hard. I’ll find a job and I’ll keep your house clean, but I won’t ask you for every penny I spend!’

He took a jerky step forward, one hand twitching as if he itched to slap her.

‘If you ever lay one hand on me, Cliff Greenhill, I’ll leave you, married or not,’ she said loudly. ‘I won’t put up with beating, not now, not ever.’

He looked down at his hand, and even in the dim light, she could see a flush stain his cheeks. But it seemed a long time before he apologised.

‘I’m sorry, Nell. Of course I won’t hit you. I’m just … worried sick about money.’

She moved across to him. ‘I know. But I’m not a waster or a fool and you shouldn’t … treat me like one.’ Her voice wobbled and she clapped one hand to her mouth, wanting to cry.

He repeated what she’d been saying to Renie. ‘It won’t always be like this. I promise you it’ll get better, Nell.’

That comforted her as little as her own assurances had comforted Renie, but at least he’d spoken to her more gently. She glanced across the room to see her sister already lying on their makeshift bed on the rug, with the three thin blankets they’d been given piled on top and her back turned to them.

Cliff smiled at her briefly, then moved to extinguish the lamp and go to his temporary bed which was now in the kitchen, because Pauline wasn’t having him sleep with the girls.

He didn’t try to kiss Nell, didn’t even give her a quick hug. She wished they could be alone. They’d not had a real chance to talk since they’d left Swindon. You needed privacy to make up your quarrels, she thought as she got into bed with her sister. Only then did she let the tears fall.She made no sound, but Renie must have known, because she reached out to brush away the tears with her fingertips, then hugged Nell close.

But that only made it worse. It should have been Cliff hugging her.

Her last thought before she fell asleep was that it was her wedding day tomorrow and her oldest sister wouldn’t be there. Mattie had been so much a part of her life, a second mother to her and Renie.

It had all gone so wrong.

And why had Cliff told the minister he had no family? She’d wanted to ask that, but he’d looked so unhappy, she’d not spoken out.

Tomorrow might be her wedding day, but she’d never been so unhappy in her life.


As Nell and her sister got ready for the wedding, which was to take place in the afternoon, she had to concentrate hard on self-control or she’d have wept. Her wedding outfit consisted of a navy serge skirt and a rather crumpled white blouse, with her everyday navy coat over them. It was three-quarters length and showed off the mended tear in her skirt, which had been good enough for work, but oh, she wished she had something better to wear today.

The chapel in Milnrow was just off Dale Street, and was even smaller than the one in Rochdale. In fact, it looked more like a small warehouse than a chapel, and perhaps that’s what it had been originally.

They were the first to arrive, a bit early, but she’d been too nervous to wait any longer. They found the door open, so went inside, standing just inside thedouble doors. The place was so empty that when Nell moved forward, her footsteps echoed. She walked slowly to the front, past the six rows of benches, to stand by the plain table which served as an altar. Turning, she laid one hand on the roughly made lectern and looked back at her sister.

‘This chapel’s only five minutes’ walk from our house,’ she said, trying to be cheerful. ‘It’ll be very easy to come here on Sundays.’

Renie was still staring round. ‘It’s very plain and shabby, isn’t it?’

‘So am I.’ Nell cast an anguished look down at herself, then put one hand up to check her hat. ‘Is it straight?’

‘Yes. And you look nice. That hat really suits you.’

Nell sighed and looked at the shabby leather-bound bible on the lectern. ‘The chapel’s just starting up, like me and Cliff. But oh, I wish we’d been able to afford a photograph!’

There was a sound to one side, a door opened and Mr Garrett came out. ‘Hello! Nice to see a bride arrive early.’

A woman followed him out. She was heavily pregnant and looked tired, but had a very sweet smile.

‘This is my wife, Dora.’

Mrs Garrett came over to shake their hands, then looked from one to the other. ‘It’s very obvious you’re sisters.’ She focused on Nell. ‘I wish you happy, my dear.’

‘Thank you.’

She produced a box camera. ‘I wondered if you’d like me to take a photograph of the wedding? It won’t be very big, but my dear Brownie takes excellent photos.’

Nell burst into tears.

Renie put an arm round her sister and smiled reassuringly at Mrs Garrett. ‘Nell was just saying she wished she could have a photo to remember the day by.’

‘I often take them at our weddings. It’s my hobby, photography. I take photos of babies and children too. You’ll have to wait till I’ve finished this roll of film, though, to see how the photo turns out.’

Nell pulled herself together. ‘Sorry. I’m a bit … weepy lately. And thank you. Thank you so much.’

‘It’s the baby,’ Mrs Garrett said confidently. ‘I was just the same with my first.’

Mr Garrett glanced up at the clock on the wall, a plain affair with a scratch across the glass covering its face.

The second hand was broken off, but Nell was close enough to see its stump moving jerkily round the centre of the dial as the seconds ticked past. She kept glancing towards the door and then up at the clock.

‘He’s just been held up,’ Mr Garrett said soothingly. ‘I’m sure he’ll be here in a minute or two.’

Renie said nothing, but she was scowling.