Read Elm tree road Online

Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 5)

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Mrs Garrett fiddled with her camera.

Another four minutes ticked slowly past.

 

In the corner of Mr Rayner’s back room, Cliff washed his hands carefully and knotted his tie more neatly, leaning both hands on the sandy-coloured slopstone as he stared into the fly-specked mirror on the wall.

He shook his head and closed his eyes in anguish. He didn’t want to get married. Not this way and not yet. He felt too young for all that responsibility.

A wild desire to run away seized him, not for the firsttime. Hadn’t he proved that he could find a job easily? He could still get away if he really wanted. He’d only to collect his tools and put them in the box, then pick up his case which he’d brought over today from his cousins’ house. He could take a train to Manchester and it didn’t matter where he went after that. No one need ever find him.

But if he did run away, he’d never dare see his parents in Swindon again. They might not approve of this marriage, but they’d be shocked if he didn’t give his child a name by marrying the mother. And Nell … Nell would be on her own, bearing a child in shame. And itwashis fault. She’d been right about that. Only she was so pretty andfresh-looking, how could a man resist her?

He left the house reluctantly, then passed a public house. On a sudden impulse he went inside and ordered half a pint of bitter. He stood at the bar sipping it. Not many people were here now, because most of the lunchtime drinkers had left.

He stared down at the glass in surprise. It was empty.

The barman came up to him. ‘Want another?’

Why not? ‘Yes, please.’

He paid over the money and stared down into the thin layer of foam on top of the beer. Could he do it? Did he dare sayto hell with everyoneand run away?

 

Nell felt panic begin to rise as the clock hands ticked slowly on.

Five minutes.

Ten.

No sign of Cliff.

She stared down at her clenched hands. She wouldn’t look at the clock again for a while.

What would she do if he didn’t come? She knew only too well that he wasn’t happy with the thought of getting married, but she refused to take the blame for that.

Fourteen minutes late now. Drat! She’d looked up again.

Seventeen minutes … and twenty seconds.

The street door opened and Cliff came in, looking stiff and angry. ‘Sorry I’m late. We had a rush job on.’

But when he came to stand beside her, Nell could smell the beer on his breath. She shot him an angry look.

He stared back at her, his expression hard and unfriendly.

He didn’t seem like the man she’d fallen in love with. If she wasn’t carrying his child, she’d have left the chapel that minute and found somewhere else to live and work. But a baby changed all that, took away your freedom. You had to give it the best start in life that you could, and that included a father – even if that father didn’t want to be married. You couldn’t allow your child to be born a bastard.

Mr Garrett’s deep voice interrupted them. ‘Shall we begin? My wife has offered to act as a witness because you need two of them, you know.’

‘Thank you so much,’ Nell said automatically. Cliff, she noticed, didn’t say anything. Lately, he seemed to have forgotten how to thank people for kindnesses.

‘If you’ll come and stand here, Nell, and you here, Cliff. Renie, to this side and Dora to that. There, that’s fine. If you’re ready?Dearly beloved…’

Automatically Nell made her responses and so did Cliff, in a dull monotone.

‘…I now pronounce you man and wife.’

The minister waited, and when Cliff didn’t move, said to him gently, ‘You may now kiss the bride.’

Cliff gave Nell a peck on the cheek but there was no warmth in his eyes, and he was still staring at her as if she were a stranger.

‘We’ll go outside for the photograph,’ Mrs Garrett said.

‘We can’t afford photos,’ Cliff said at once.

The minister’s wife looked at him in shock. ‘I don’t charge for them.’

‘Mrs Garrett has offered to do it for nothing.’ Nell could hear how sharp her own voice was. Two could play at that game. If he wanted to speak curtly, so would she.

‘Oh,’ was all Cliff said.

They stood just outside the double doors while Mrs Garrett lifted up her box camera and took two pictures of them. ‘A second one, just to be sure. And now, a photo of the two sisters. I’m sure your older sister will want to see that.’

When she’d finished, she looked at her husband.

He took over again. ‘Do you have somewhere to go?’

‘Yes. Back to work,’ Cliff said. ‘Mr Rayner’s letting me have an hour off, but he might dock my pay if I stay away for longer and we can’t afford that.’ He turned to Nell. ‘I’ll see you back at the house, later.’

She nodded, but he wasn’t looking at her. She could see the minister and his wife glancing at her with pity, so squared her shoulders and said, ‘Renie and I will get on with the whitewashing. We’ve got some old clothes there.’She’d bought them from the second-hand shop. ‘Thank you so much for marrying us, Mr Garrett. Oh, just a minute. Has Cliff paid you?’

The minister looked embarrassed.

‘How much is it? I don’t have the money, but I’ll make sure he pays you on Sunday.’ She knew the minister wasn’t a rich man.

When they’d walked back into the chapel, Renie looked at her as if uncertain what to say.

She had to tell someone. ‘Cliff had been drinking. I could smell it on his breath.’

‘No! How awful.’

‘It’s upset him to leave his job in Swindon.’

‘Ha! Doesn’t he think it’s upset us too, having to leave Mattie and everything we knew? But you and I didn’t go shouting at people and boozing before the wedding, let alone arriving late, did we?’

Nell sucked in a deep breath, suddenly feeling older. ‘I suppose men are different. Come on. Let’s get on with distempering the downstairs again. I’m glad we’ve finished the bedrooms and don’t have to go back to his cousins’ house tonight.’

‘Me too. That Pauline is a spiteful cat. She didn’t even wish you well this morning.’

‘I didn’t want her good wishes. She’s less than nothing to me. I’ll never willingly go near her again.’

Nell was glad they still had work to do on the house because it took her mind off her worries. She was married, but she didn’t feel married. She had a husband who could hardly bear to look at her and who boozed on the way to his wedding.

But at least she had some purpose in life now, to make a home for her coming child.

She linked her arm in Renie’s and laid the other hand on her belly. She had her sister and child, at least. She’d love them and they’d love her, she knew.

And perhaps, once he was settled, Cliff would be more like he used to be.

Chapter Three

Nell looked round the little house as she and Renie carried the last of the things back inside. The whole place was clean now, at least, and freshly distempered. All white, she’d decided. It made it look much brighter.

She could do nothing about the occasional stink from the WC at the entrance to the little courtyard, but she’d see the other tenants and work out a roster to keep it clean. Thank goodness it wasn’t a privy, which had to be emptied weekly. You couldn’t do anything about the way they smelt in between visits by the night soil men, however much ash you sprinkled down them.

There was a knock on the door, and when she opened it, Mr Rayner’s lad stood there, holding Cliff’s suitcase and some packages.

‘Bring them inside,’ she said, and he mumbled something and did as she asked.

‘Take the suitcase upstairs. Careful! Don’t touch the wall there, the distemper is still wet.’

When they came down, she sent him back to work.Normally she’d have had biscuits to offer or a scone, but the pantry only contained the raw ingredients and they’d had to make do with shop-bought stuff today.

‘I’ll unpack Cliff’s things later,’ she said. ‘I’m tired now. Let’s have a cup of tea.’

‘He ought to have helped with the painting,’ Renie commented sarcastically. ‘Do you think he’ll even lift a finger in the house?’

Nell sighed. ‘I doubt it. Most men don’t, so why should he be any different? Why do you say things like that? It doesn’t change anything and you never know who’ll overhear. I keep telling you to speak more quietly. You have a very carrying voice.’

Renie came to put an arm round her. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘You seem to forget that I had to get married, and at least my baby will be legitimate now, whatever happens.’ She didn’t let herself think about what the ‘whatever’ might mean. Strangely, she couldn’t seem to think of the baby as Cliff’s, because he’d never shown the slightest interest in it.

‘Did he really force you the first time?’

‘I don’t want to talk about that.’

‘But did he?’

Nell nodded.

‘I’m never getting married,’ Renie said. ‘Cliff might not be as bad as Dad, but he still expects to rule the roost. I don’t want some man ordering me around and forcing me to do things I don’t want to.’

‘You’ll change your mind. Women can’t seem to help falling in love, and anyway, women don’t earn enoughto live on their own. You have to live with us to manage now,’ Nell said tiredly. She finished her cup of tea then went upstairs to the bedroom to unpack. At least Cliff had mended the webbing on the bed base and bought a new mattress, though he’d grumbled at the cost of that.

Was he short of money? She didn’t have the faintest idea how much he had in his savings account, though he’d once boasted to her that he had quite a bit behind him. He locked his bank book in a tin box. She’d seen him take it out when they needed to buy furniture and other items, so that he could take money out of his bank account. Afterwards he locked it away immediately.

She didn’t know what else he had in there, but he guarded the box just as jealously as he’d guarded his toolkit on the way here. She’d seen inside his toolkit, which was immaculate, with everything well cared for, but whenever he opened it, he made sure she couldn’t see inside the box.

The bedding she’d bought at Rochdale market lay folded on the mattress. She still had to finish hemming the sheets, because there hadn’t been enough light at Cliff’s cousins’ house.

How wonderful it’d be not to have to sit and look at Pauline’s sour face in the evenings, or listen to the crying of one or other of the children, who seemed an unhappy bunch. She would join the library and get books to read, or just sit and chat to her sister or husband. And later, there would be the baby to cuddle.

In the meantime, she was putting together a home, however humble. The chest of drawers was still balanced on two bricks where the feet had come off at the left side, and one of the drawers was missing its handle, so had twobig screws poking out to open it with. The wooden chest which she’d found in a junk shop for a few shillings was a godsend. It had been filthy inside and out, the wood scratched and scarred, with one hinge wonky, but she’d scrubbed it out and it would hold all their household linen quite easily. Even Cliff had agreed it was a good buy when she’d taken him to see it.

There was a small old-fashioned gas stove in the scullery kitchen at the rear. She’d cleaned it, poking out all the jets with one of her two hatpins, but still didn’t trust the stove, because sometimes the back burner just went out, for no reason that she could tell.

Cliff said if it was easy enough to relight and if it was working well enough to cook their meals, there was no need to waste money on getting the gas repairman to check things out. She didn’t dare go against him on that, because there were so many more important things to sort out.

When he came home that night, he smelt of beer again.

‘You’ve been drinking!’ she said.

‘Mr Rayner bought me a pint after work, to celebrate the wedding.’

‘How am I supposed to celebrate it?’

His voice took on an edge. ‘You’re married. You’ve got what you wanted. Be content with that and leave men’s things to me. I’ll make sure you don’t wear the trousers in this house, by hell I will, and if I want a drink I’ll have one.’

She stifled a protest at this and hoped he hadn’t seen the tears in her eyes. She dished up the stew that had been waiting for him. There was a nice crusty loaf to go with it, followed by sponge and custard with jam. She didn’ttell him these were stale sponges that she’d bought cheaply, and he didn’t seem to notice. He ate everything she put before him, but didn’t thank or compliment her. For such a small thin man he had a huge appetite.

Afterwards he sat down to read a newspaper a customer had left in the shop, leaving her and Renie to clear up.

‘Don’t forget, I’m going to work for Mrs Garrett tomorrow,’ she reminded him later as she gave him his nightly cup of cocoa. ‘I’ll pick up a pie or something on the way home.’

‘I don’t like spending money on baker’s foods. My mother says it’s wasteful.’

His mother didn’t have to go out to work. ‘I can’t be in two places at once, Cliff. Renie’s going out looking for a job tomorrow, so she won’t be here. I won’t have time to cook anything when I get back, and anyway, I’ll be exhausted. Would you rather have bread and ham? Only I thought you liked pies. Washing is hard work, you know. Mrs Garrett says it’ll be easier when they move to Milnrow, because they’ll have a bigger house there with a garden and proper laundry equipment in the scullery.’

He muttered something but let the matter drop.

When she went up to bed, he was waiting for her, his eyes gleaming. She knew what he wanted and tried to resign herself, but he hurt her again and she couldn’t help crying out.

‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’ he growled when he’d finished.

‘You hurt me. It’s always uncomfortable. Isn’t there … a better way of doing it?’

‘What do you know about other ways?’

‘Nothing. You know I don’t. That’s why I’m asking you.’

‘Well, I don’t know any other way, and this one suits me well enough, so you’ll just have to do your duty as a wife, won’t you? A man’s at least entitled to some bed play.’

She heard him turn over and soon he was asleep, making that little whiffling noise, as usual. It was beginning to irritate her, that silly little noise was.

She let the tears escape then. If this was marriage, she didn’t like it. He’d been kind to her and been fun to be with when they were walking out together, but since the baby had been made and they’d come to the North, he’d become grumpy and selfish.

Did all men change once they got what they wanted?

Did women always have to take second place?

 

With Mrs Rayner’s help, Renie found a job working in the canteen of a local mill, doing any kitchen job required, helping to cook and serve the lunches, then cleaning the tables and mopping the floor in the big room, where workers could either bring their own dinners or buy food cheaply. It had to be made ready for the night shift, and then mopped again in the morning, after the men who worked at night had trampled dirt in. But at least this job ensured she ate well and didn’t have to provide her own lunches, because they could eat the leftovers.

‘Renie should hand over her wages to me, now she’s living in my house,’ Cliff said at the end of the first week.

‘She’ll pay us enough for her keep, and what she does with the rest is up to her,’ Nell said at once.

He glared at his wife. ‘Do you always have to contradict me?’

‘When you’re not being fair, yes.’

As he turned to her sister and opened his mouth to continue the argument, Renie said sharply, ‘If I have to give you all my money, I’m moving out into lodgings. Some of the girls at work share rooms in a good place. I’m not working for nothing. I want to have my own money saved for when I marry.’

As her eyes challenged his, he half-opened his mouth, made an angry little noise in his throat, then said to Nell, ‘Well, see she pays her way, and a bit more for the trouble. And as far as I’m concerned, the sooner she marries, the better.’

Afterwards he went out for a drink with a fellow he sometimes met at the pub. He didn’t come home drunk, so he couldn’t be spending all that much money – well, she guessed he wasn’t – but he went out regularly.

Renie glanced at her sister, as if uncertain whether to speak.

‘Give me half your wages. That’d be fair.’

‘All right. And Nell, one of the women I work with thinks I can get a job washing glasses and helping in the kitchen of the King’s Head hotel on Saturday nights. Do you mind if I do that?’

‘Is it a respectable place?’

‘Oh, yes. Very. Go and look at it. Rich people eat meals there, or stay the night. Working men don’t go in there at all. It’s lovely inside, all shining brass and velvet curtains and dark polished furniture.’

‘Have you been there already?’

‘Mary took me. I had to go and meet the housekeeper to see if I was suitable, and she wants me to start tonight because they’ve just lost a kitchen worker. I can walk home with Mary afterwards. She lives just round the corner from here. They’ll pay me three shillings a night, so that’s more money for my savings.’

‘What are you really saving for? You told me you didn’t want to get married.’

Renie hesitated, then said with a toss of her head. ‘After Dad, and seeing how Cliff is to you, I want to make sure I’m never dependent on a man.’

There was a pregnant pause, then Nell said, ‘Very sensible. You should put the money in a savings bank account, though, so that no one can pinch it.’

Renie came to put an arm round her. ‘I’ll do that. We’ve both learnt the hard way to be careful and sensible about money, haven’t we?’

Nell nodded, her throat clogged with unshed tears. She didn’t say how much she envied her sister that freedom.

‘I keep wondering how Mattie’s going on and hoping she’s landed on her feet.’

‘She’ll be all right, Renie. There’s no one as capable as our Mattie.’

‘You’re very capable too, these days.’

Nell looked at her in surprise. ‘Do you really think so?’

‘Yes. And you stand up to Cliff, which you never used to do. I’m glad of that. One day, when I’m older and know more about the world, I’m going to make a life of my own, so I’ll be glad to know you won’t let him bully you after I’ve gone.’

‘I was hoping you’d marry and settle down near here, so we’d still be together.’

‘I’m sorry, love, but I meant what I said: I’m never going to marry. Never, ever. I want to see a bit of the world, London for a start. All I know is Swindon and this part of Lancashire.’

‘You’ll change your mind about marriage once you meet a fellow, and London sounds to be a dangerous place to me. I don’t want you going there on your own.’

She could see Renie’s chin tilt upwards in that stubborn way she had, and sighed. Her little sister could be very headstrong at times. It’d got her into trouble with their father, and it’d get her into trouble again before she was through, Nell was quite sure.

She just hoped life didn’t give Renie the sharp lessons she’d had to face herself.

 

When Renie brought home her first pay, Nell took half and put it in the kitchen drawer. ‘I want to talk to Cliff about this money.’

Cliff came in and ate his tea, saying nothing about giving her the housekeeping money. When he’d finished, he stood up.

‘Just a minute,’ Nell said. ‘I need my housekeeping money if you want to eat next week.’

‘I’ve decided that you can pay for the food from Renie’s money, and you should join a clothing club too. I’ll pay for the rent and gas from mine, plus any big household items.’

She didn’t hesitate. ‘No.’

He stared at her in shock. ‘What did you say?’

‘I said no. You need to give me a pound a week and I’ll make that stretch to cover food and rent for all three of us, together with my money from Mrs Garrett. You’re a heartyeater, Cliff, and that takes far more money than Renie gives me. What I want to do with this extra money is open a savings account and put Renie’s money in that, saving for a rainy day.’

‘Very sensible. I have a savings account already. We can put it in there.’

‘We need an account for both of us.’

‘It’s for the man to manage the money.’

Suddenly she’d had enough of trying to be tactful. ‘All right, then. If you don’t want to give me the money, you can manage everything, the housekeepingandthe shopping. I’ll wait for you to bring the groceries and the market stuff home to me, then I’ll cook them for you.’

After a nervous glance from one to the other, Renie slipped out into the back scullery, something she’d done last time they argued.

Cliff thumped the table. ‘I’m the man here and I’m not putting up with that.’

‘And I won’t put up with being treated as a stupid nothing who doesn’t know how to handle money.’ Nell folded her arms, which she hoped hid the way she was shaking. ‘We’re married, so we should be workingtogether. I want a savings bank account with money that both of us can withdraw from, just in case. What if you had an accident? I’d have nothing to tide me over because it’d all be in your bank account. It won’t be easy to manage without Renie’s money, even so, but I’m prepared to try so that we can save, and one day,’ she cast a scornful look round, ‘get a better place to live than this. Maybe some weeks I’ll need a shilling or two of her money, but I promise you I’ll put most of her money away every singleweek. But I’m not blindly handing it over to you.’

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