Read Elm tree road Online

Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 6)

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‘Then I’ll take it from her.’ He made as if to go into the scullery.

She rushed across to bar the door. ‘You said you’d not thump me, but you’ll have to do that to get past me.’ She waited, feeling sick with fear, but she wasnotgoing to back down about this.

He moved from one foot to the other, as if uncertain what to do.

‘Are you going to manhandle me, in my condition?’ She jutted her stomach out as much as possible and he looked down at it in distaste, something he’d done a few times now. It had upset her greatly.

‘I’m not starting another savings account!’ he yelled and flung out of the house, banging the door behind him.

More good money wasted on beer, she thought angrily. She had to skimp and scrape to make her money last and she resented every glass of beer he bought.

The week was filled with rows and accusations from him of her being unnatural and unwomanly, wanting to boss him around. She ignored them.

On Wednesday afternoon she had no tea waiting for him.

‘Where’s my food?’

‘You didn’t give me any housekeeping money. I’ve run out.’

‘I’ll get myself some fish and chips, then.’

‘Are you going to get some for me and Renie as well, or do we have to go hungry and watch you eat?’

He hesitated, then slapped some money on the table. ‘Shecan go for the fish and chips.’

When Renie had left, Nell said quietly, ‘I’ll need money for food for tomorrow, Cliff, if you want your tea waiting for you after work and sandwiches packing to take to work.’

He closed his eyes. ‘Heaven help a man with a wife who wants to wear the trousers!’

But in the end he gave in and they went and opened a savings account together, with both of them able to put money in or take it out.

‘I’ll want to see that bank book every week,’ he said as they walked home. ‘And if you take money out without my saying so—’

‘I’ll have to when I buy the baby things – or are you coming shopping for those with me?’ Nell knew he’d never do that, because his so-called friends from the pub would mock him.

‘You always have to have the last word,’ he yelled. ‘No wonder your father kept a firm hand on things. I’m too soft with you, I am.’

He stormed off, going to the pub no doubt, and she took the bank book home. She put it on the mantelpiece.

She didn’t show him the other bank book, which had a pitifully small amount in it, but which only she could access. She made a special pouch for it and stitched it to the bottom of the canvas bag she carried her purse and bits of shopping in. He never even noticed it, because, of course, he never went near the shopping bag.

As time went on, she added the odd shilling from the family housekeeping pot to her own money, telling him she couldn’t quite save all Renie’s money that week. But as the amounts she took away from it were small and thejoint savings kept mounting up, he didn’t quibble.

She resented it bitterly that he continued to go out drinking three or four nights a week. But there was nothing she could do about that. She knew she’d pushed him as far as he would go. He sat at home reading a library book the other nights. They both used the library a lot. This wasn’t what she’d expected from marriage! She’d thought they’d do things together, make plans for the future, talk about their baby. He hardly ever spoke to her these days except to order her to get him something like a cup of tea. And he certainly didn’t suggest they go for walks at weekends any longer, however fine the weather.

Renie had made friends and went round to their houses sometimes. As a married woman, Nell couldn’t go out in the evenings on her own. If she hadn’t been able to get books from the library too, she’d have gone mad.

It’d be better when the baby arrived. She’d have someone of her own then.

Chapter Four

Like her sister, Renie had become very careful with money, but with the help of her friend Carol, who had a sewing machine, she’d worked hard to improve her dressmaking skills, so still managed to dress decently.

One night, a lass she worked with said, ‘Why don’t you come out with us to the variety show in Rochdale tomorrow night? We go up in the gods and it’s only threepence midweek.’

Renie had a quick think. She worked hard on Saturday nights and hated it when she had to stay home other nights, waiting for Cliff to come back from the pub or sitting opposite him on a hard stool, watching him read in comfort in the armchair. He still expected to be waited on hand and foot, tossing orders at Nell, who was growing bigger and more awkward now.

You’d think there was something wrong with having a baby, to hear him taunt her sister with how ugly she’d become. Renie didn’t think she was ugly. Renie thought she had a lovely soft glow in her eyes – when he was out,at least – especially when Nell cradled the jutting stomach with one hand and got that dreamy look.

Him calling her ugly didn’t stop him pestering her after they’d gone to bed, though, did it, because Renie could hear them through the thin wall between the two bedrooms.

One day she asked Nell what it was like in bed, but her sister only grimaced, so she knew it wasn’t as good as some people said it was. Was that because of Cliff, or was it always like that? Why did no one ever tell you these things?

When she told Nell she was going to a variety show, her sister encouraged her to go out.

Cliff immediately said she was to be back by ten sharp.

‘I’m not leaving before the show ends,’ Renie said. ‘That’d be a waste of money.’

‘I’m not having another sister on my hands with a big belly,’ he threw back at her.

‘You won’t have. I’ll take care not to go out with the sort of man who’d force a girl.’ She was sorry for that the minute the words left her mouth, because the look he threw at Nell said he was furious.

‘Oh, Renie, when will you learn to think before you speak?’ Nell said after he’d gone out.

‘I’m sorry. Will he … hit you?’

‘He’d better not.’

But he was still angry when he came home, pot-valiant after his night’s drinking, and Nell had to pick up the rolling pin and threaten to hit him with it if he so much as laid a finger on her. It was a close thing for a minute or two. He seemed to have fallen in with a rough crowd,who encouraged him to treat his wife like a slave.

Well, he could push her only so far, as he’d found out once or twice. And if he dared to hit her, she’d wait till he was asleep then hithimwith something. Hard. Even if he hit her again, he’d soon learn that she’d bide her time and get back at him.

 

Nell went into labour at the end of September. She prepared for the birth calmly, looking forward to having her body to herself again afterwards. She’d been so dreadfully tired lately.

She arranged for Mrs Totting, the local midwife, to come and deliver the baby. She knew they’d passed an act making it illegal for women not certified as midwives to attend mothers in childbirth as a way of earning a living, and counted herself lucky that they had a certified midwife in the district. She’d not have liked a male doctor attending the birth.

She had a chat to the pleasant older woman about what to expect and what to have ready, and also how to prevent other children when your husband wouldn’t take the necessary care.

‘I’ve helped a few women that way,’ Mrs Totting said. ‘Too many babies would wear anyone down. I had three and that was enough for me.’

‘Thank you. Cliff says he’s going to use one of those rubber things, though.’

‘Don’t rely on that. When they get randy, they forget to take precautions. You take care of yourself as well, like I’ve told you.’

‘I will.’

‘I reckon you’ll go all right with the birth,’ the midwife said. ‘You’re small but you’re healthy.’

‘How can you tell that?’

The midwife shrugged. ‘You’ve a good colour, your hair’s shiny not dull, there are all sorts of little signs. Who’ll be helping you afterwards?’

‘I don’t know anyone, really. We’ve not been here for long.’ And the other women in Willow Court weren’t really her sort. They spoke to her pleasantly, but they were a bit rough.

‘Can you afford to pay for help? I know a couple of women who’d welcome a day or two’s work.’

‘If you tell my husband it’s needed, he may agree. He’d not do it just to spare me, though. It’d be a waste of beer money, wouldn’t it?’ She couldn’t help feeling bitter about that.

The midwife grinned, suddenly looking much younger, in spite of her grey hair. ‘I’ll warn him to let you recover properly if he wants other children, not to mention a wife who can keep up with the housework for years afterwards.’

Cliff grumbled, of course, but he agreed to have someone in for a few days.

‘My mother never needed pampering like that,’ he complained after the midwife had left. ‘She didn’t have relatives nearby to look after her, either.’

‘And she never looks well, does she? Sometimes your father has to pay one of the neighbours to do the rough work.’

He looked at her and frowned, but didn’t complain about the coming expenses again.

She’d feel happier if he’d occasionally say thank you for what she did. She was a good wife to him, she knew. The house was as neat and clean as hard work could make it and they’d settled into a way of life that ensured that Cliff, as breadwinner, was well looked after.

But he took that as his right.

The pains started on Sunday morning and Cliff went for Mrs Totting, who came to check and said the baby wouldn’t be born for some hours. ‘First babies usually take their time,’ she said cheerfully as she prepared to leave. ‘I’ll check you tonight, but I reckon it’ll not arrive till tomorrow.’

Nell looked at her in horror.

‘You’ll be all right, love.’

The pains went on right through the night and Nell began to get worried. Cliff left her to it and went to sleep downstairs in the armchair. She sent Renie to bed, because her sister had to go to work the next day.

Cliff came up for clean clothes in the morning and she looked at him in dumb misery.

‘I dare say you’ll have had it by the time I come home,’ was all he said. ‘I’ll be glad to get this fuss over with.’

She heard him downstairs, ordering Renie to get his breakfast, then he went off to work as usual, without even calling a goodbye.

Renie came upstairs with a cup of tea and some toast. ‘Are you going to be all right?’

‘Yes. You eat the toast, though. I’m not at all hungry.’

‘Do you want me to stay home from work?’

‘No. I’ll manage.’ She felt embarrassed at the thought of her seventeen-year-old sister seeing her give birth. Whatif she screamed? What if the neighbours heard? The walls were very thin in these houses.

Mrs Totting came back just after breakfast, still as cheerful as ever. ‘It’s moving along now. It’ll be born early this afternoon, I should think. Get up and walk around.’

‘Is it all right to do that?’

The midwife looked at her sympathetically. ‘Haven’t you had anyone to talk to about it at all?’

‘No.’

‘Eh, you poor thing. Well, you’re not sick and it helps the baby if you move about. I know what I’m doing. You’ll be all right. I can’t stay, though. I have other women to check on. I’ll come back in a couple of hours.’

Nell listened to the door shut behind her and got up, walking round the house, feeling terrified, for all the midwife’s assurances. What if something happened before Mrs Totting came back? What if she had a fall on those narrow stairs? Who would hear her cries for help?

About eleven o’clock there was a knock on the front door and she found her neighbour Peg standing there.

‘It’s not arrived yet, then?’

‘Mrs Totting says this afternoon.’

‘She’s usually right. I wondered if you wanted anything from the shops.’

‘Thanks. A loaf would be a help, and some scones. I’ll get you the money.’

‘I’ll make you a cup of tea when I get back.’

But she must have lingered at the shops because Mrs Totting turned up and in the nick of time too, because the pains had suddenly got much sharper.

Pride alone kept Nell from screaming, but she couldn’thold back the groans. It hurt. Dear heaven, it hurt so much.

‘Soon be over,’ said that calm voice which had guided her through it. ‘Push hard now.’

Suddenly the pain eased and Mrs Totting chuckled. ‘Eh, it’s a little lass. She’s got red hair. Anyone in your family got red hair?’

‘My sister Mattie’s hair is reddish – not as red as this, though.’

‘Here, put her beside you while I finish up down below.’

As Mrs Totting cut and tied the birth cord, then started pressing on her stomach to encourage the afterbirth, Nell looked in wonderment at the tiny baby, who was waving her arms around and giving a few mewling cries, as if in protest about the world she found herself in.

And just like that, love twined around Nell’s heart. ‘She’s beautiful!’

‘They all say that. But yoursisbeautiful. Not big, but got all her fingers and toes. She’ll be like you, not a big woman. What are you going to call her?’

‘Sarah.’

‘Nice name. I’ve always liked it. There. That’s done. Now, let’s get you and the bed cleaned up. Have you got someone to cook your husband’s tea tonight?’

‘My sister will do it.’ What aboutmytea? Nell wondered. Why do people think only of the men?

There was a knock on the front door and someone yelled, ‘Mrs Totting? Can you come. Mrs Bray’s started.’

‘Two babbies in one day! And Jenny Bray always delivers quickly. Will you be all right? Put her to the breast if she seems hungry.’

Nell was left alone with her daughter. She picked the baby up and watched as the infant slumbered, then moved restlessly, as if nervous of the new world, then slumbered again, with such soft little breaths.

She didn’t want anyone there, just herself and little Sarah.

All too soon Peg from next door got back with the loaf and offered to bring her up a cup of tea. Suddenly Nell realised she was both thirsty and famished, and asked for some bread and cheese to go with it. Why should she keep that for her husband? She needed decent nourishment too.

 

By the time Cliff got home from work, she’d fed Sarah for the first time, with Peg’s help, and was sitting up in bed, feeling proud of herself. She’d done it, had a baby, and managed just fine.

He came upstairs. ‘What is it?’

‘A girl.’ She beamed at him, waiting for him to praise her for producing such a lovely little baby.

‘Trust you. A man wants a son. What shall we call her? You choose.’

‘Sarah.’

Contrary as ever, he scowled and said, ‘I told you I wanted to call her after my mother.’

‘Sarah Margaret, then.’

‘We’ll call her Margaret.’

‘We’ll call her Sarah.’

He glared at her. ‘You’re doing it again. You always have to go against me, don’t you?’

‘I’m the one who bore this baby and I’m the one who’llbe looking after her, so I’m the one who chooses what to call her every day.’

He walked round the bed to stand looking down into the drawer they were using as a cradle, letting out a grunt of disappointment. ‘Red-haired too. They’ll call her “Carrots”, whatever name you choose.’ He turned round. ‘What’ve you done about my tea?’

‘I’ve not done anything. I’ve been busy birthing your daughter. Renie will get it, if you ask her nicely.’

‘She’s late and I’m hungry. I’ll go and get some bread and jam to put me on.’

Nell didn’t cry when he’d gone. She was beyond tears now, as far as he was concerned. Everything she did seemed to upset him and it had, she thought sadly, totally killed any love she’d once felt for him. Had it ever been love? Or had she just been pleased to have a fellow courting her, like the other girls, even if she did have to see him in secret.

All Cliff was to her now was the breadwinner, the man who would ensure that her daughter didn’t go hungry.

She was going to buy one of those little sponges from Mrs Totting. Although she loved her daughter, she didn’t want any more of Cliff’s children, because she didn’t think he was going to make a good father. His parents had spoilt him rotten and he was more like a child himself most of the time.

Renie came rushing in, running up the stairs to look at her niece. ‘Aw, she’s like Mattie as well as you.’ She lowered her voice. ‘She’s not much likehim, is she?’

‘I don’t know. And keep your voice down.’

‘Can I cuddle her?’

‘Get Cliff’s tea first. He’s hungry and in a bad mood.There should be some ham left. Fry it up with an egg.’

Renie rolled her eyes but didn’t complain. Later she brought Nell a fried egg and some bread, and stayed upstairs all evening chatting.

Cliff went out ‘to wet the baby’s head’.

‘As if he’s done something clever,’ Renie whispered scornfully. She waited until his footsteps had stopped echoing round the little yard, then began to draw patterns on the sheets with one fingertip. She opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again.

‘What’s the matter?’ Nell asked.

‘I’ve had an offer of a better job.’

‘Oh? What as?’

‘A waitress. They’re going to train me properly, and if I do all right, I can work at it full-time and leave the canteen. Mr Jackson says I’ve got a nice manner with people. I’ve helped out in the restaurant a couple of times now when they were short-handed.’

‘That’s good news, then, isn’t it? Will you be earning more money?’

‘Not at first. They’ve got to train me, so I won’t be earning as much. I’ll still pay you the same, though, so dear Cliff won’t have any excuse to throw a fit.’

‘Shh,’ she said automatically, even though she knew he’d gone out. But the window was open and she didn’t want anyone overhearing and reporting back to him. The men round here certainly stuck together. ‘Well, how much you save is your own business.’

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