Read Elm tree road Online

Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 7)

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‘I’ll be making more money later, if I do it well. Posh folk sometimes give you tips and you can keep them for yourself.’

She sounded so excited. Nell was pleased for her. ‘You seem really happy about the job.’

‘Yes, I am. I’m fed up of cleaning that canteen. I’ll make sure I give satisfaction at the restaurant.’ She giggled. ‘I’ll have to learn to talk more posh. They don’t like my Wiltshire accent.This way, sir, madam. I hope you’re happy with your meal.’

Nell laughed, surprised at how well her sister could speak when she made the effort. But Renie had always been a good mimic.

‘I have to buy myself a black dress and some aprons, but they’ll launder the aprons for me, so that won’t give you any extra work. When I go full-time, I’ll need two black dresses in case of accidents and spills, but I can buy those out of my savings.’ She sighed happily. ‘It’s a good job, Nell. It’s got prospects. The owners are from a family who have hotels in other places, London and Bath. I might get to work there one day.’

‘Women don’t need prospects. They get married.’

‘Not all of them. Not me.’

‘Then you’d better be very careful. You’re pretty enough to turn men’s heads. You don’t want to end up like me.’

Renie reached out to hold her hand. ‘I will be careful, I promise you. Maybe I’ll get rich, then you can leavehimand come to live with me.’

‘And pigs might fly. People like us don’t get rich.’ And they didn’t leave their husbands either, not only because they couldn’t afford to, but because if they did they’d lose their precious respectability – and might even lose their children. The law sounded to be on the men’s side, from what she’d read.

She felt sad as she lay in bed, waiting for Cliff to getback. Renie had so much to look forward to and what did she have?

A small snuffling sound from across the room seemed to answer her question. She had Sarah, that’s what. And whatever Cliff said or did, her child was going to have a happy life and all the chances Nell hadn’t had. She’d make sure of that.

 

Sarah was a model baby, not crying much, gurgling with laughter as she grew older and looking round alertly. Nell loved being a mother, loved her little daughter.

She missed her sister’s company in the evenings, though, and had to make do with her library books instead. She found herself reading about her own country. She’d seen so little of England and wished she could travel and explore other parts.

The librarian told her there were books about travel, so she took some of them out, reading them voraciously, dreaming she’d gone to the Cotswolds and seen the pretty villages in the photos for herself, or visited Cheshire with its black and white houses.

She read everything she could find about Wiltshire, wanting to know about her own part of the country. All she knew was Swindon with its huge railway works. Maybe one day she’d manage to visit the nearby countryside. It looked so beautiful in the photos.

She was counting the days off till two years had passed, at which time Mattie had agreed to contact them via Cliff’s parents.

To her surprise, Cliff didn’t want to contact his family yet. He looked at her in disgust when she suggested it again.‘I’ve told you before, I’m not going to get in touch with them till I’ve something to be proud of here. I’ve not got a decent job yet and we’re living in a hovel.’

‘I’d have thought you’d have told them about your daughter, at least. Isn’t she something to be proud of?’

‘They’ll not be able to see her, so it won’t matter. And don’t you go talking to people about my parents. As far as folk round here are concerned, I’ve not got any close family left. I doubt I’ll see them again, unless I get lucky suddenly.’

She stared at him aghast. ‘But if you don’t get in touch, how will I find out about my sister Mattie? You know we said—’

‘You’ll just have to manage without her. And she’s no loss, I can tell you. She was a right old bossy breeches, that one was.’

‘I’ll write to them myself, then.’

He came to loom over her, where she was cuddling a sleepy Sarah. ‘If you do, I’ll walk away and leave you, then who’ll bring home the money to feed your brat?’

His face was red and he had that ugly expression on his face. She couldn’t think what to say to him, was afraid for her little daughter.

‘I mean it,’ he said more quietly, stepping away from her again. He looked at the clock. ‘Time to go out. I’m thirsty tonight.’

Her heart sank. That meant he’d come home and start pawing her. He always did after a drinking night. She’d better put the little sponge in. So far she’d managed to stop herself getting pregnant again, even though he’d caught her without the sponge a couple of times and refused to wait.

Chapter Five

The old King died on the sixth of May and his son, George V, come to the throne. It caused a lot of talk that Halley’s Comet blazed across the skies on the eve of King Edward’s funeral. The passing of an era, some said. Bad times were coming.

At the time, Nell had been too busy settling into her new home to worry about what the new King was doing. What did she care about who was on the throne? And as far as she was concerned, the bad times had already arrived in her life.

As the first year of Sarah’s life passed, news came that King George’s coronation would take place on the 22ndJune 1911. That was to happen in Westminster Abbey, of course, with only the nobility and important people attending. But all over the land there were celebrations and street parties with bunting strung between the houses and tables brought out for a special meal.

This time Nell took an interest, and when the people in the court arranged a small tea party, she joined in, providinga cake, causing a row with Cliff who hated to see her spend money on others.

He didn’t attend the party, preferring to drink his loyal toasts in the pub with his mates. It was better without him, and for once Nell really enjoyed herself.

There had been some warm days in the spring, but the summer was far hotter than usual. Nell escaped from the stuffy little house as often as she could, taking Sarah for walks in the pram she’d bought second hand, walking on the shady side of the street.

It took her some time to gather her courage together to broach the subject closest to her heart to Cliff. She made sure she’d prepared his favourite meal and as he pushed away the plate after a second helping, she said quietly, ‘Isn’t it about time we looked for somewhere better to live?’

His hand stopped dead in the air and he looked at her sourly. ‘No, it bloody well isn’t! This place suits me just fine. It’s close to work and close to my friends.’

Which meant close to his pub, she knew. He seemed content to continue working for Mr Rayner, which puzzled her, and though his wages had been raised to thirty-five shillings a week, he hadn’t given his wife any of the extra money.

She tried to speak reasonably. ‘But it’s not good for Sarah here and I find it very stuffy and hot. And you know how bad the lavatory smells.’

‘There’s strikes going on and all sorts of trouble. Just be glad my job’s safe and we have a roof over our heads.’

‘But it needn’t cost much more. I’ve asked around and—’

‘Look, Mrs Finicky, we’ll find a new house whenyoufindthe extra money to pay for a higher rent. Isn’t it enough that the damned government makes me pay National Health Insurance? As if I can’t manage my own money.’

‘But, Cliff—’

He gave a sneering laugh. ‘I’ll just thank you to remember that I’m the wage earner here and you should do what I want and be grateful for the money I give you.’

She blinked to drive away the tears but he noticed.

‘Selfish bitch! You only think of what you want. You’re a rotten wife, you are.’

She didn’t bother to argue, could only hope that the heat and smells in the small square courtyard the houses were built round would make him change his mind.

But one hot day followed another and they didn’t seem to have any effect on him. They drained her of energy, though.

She missed Renie’s company desperately during the long, quiet evenings, and often wished her sister didn’t work at night. Was this going to be the pattern of her life? An increasingly grumpy husband and an aching loneliness.

For the first time she began to think seriously of escape for herself and her daughter. If she could earn enough money to support the two of them, she’d leave him without the slightest hesitation. Was there any way of doing that? She puzzled over it for hours, but couldn’t see how she could support them on a woman’s wages. And who would look after Sarah while she worked?

No use discussing it with Renie, because her sister might be seventeen, but she was still prone to blurt things out like a thoughtless child. Anyway, her sister had her own dreams and Nell would make very sure Cliff didn’t spoil them.

* * *

One day Renie came home from work looking flushed and happy.

Nell had waited up for her, because her sister had been working extra hours and they’d hardly caught up with one another for days. Sarah had been restless, so in the end she’d brought the baby down so as not to wake Cliff. ‘I’ll get you some cocoa. Just hold Sarah for a minute.’

When they were seated on either side of the fire, Renie said abruptly, ‘It’s happened.’

‘What has?’

‘What I hoped for. They’ve asked me to go and work in their London hotel. It’s called The Rathleigh.’

It was hard not to beg her to stay, but Nell had already prepared herself mentally for this. ‘That must mean they’re happy with your work.’

‘Yes. I’m a good waitress. I’m quick and I don’t forget orders, and I get really good tips. Of course, I’ll have to live in if I go there. Most of their London girls do.’

She hesitated, then added softly, ‘I’m sorry you’ll be left on your own, but in a few months it’ll be two years. We agreed to write to the Greenhills about Mattie and then—’

‘Cliff won’t do it. He’s not contacted his parents because he’s ashamed of where he’s working, and he’s not going to. He says if I write to them, he’ll walk out and leave me.’ She took comfort from her little daughter’s warm body curled up on her lap.

‘Oh, Nell, no! It was the one thing that consoled me about leaving you, that you could find out about Mattie.’

‘I daren’t go against Cliff.’

Renie sat quietly for a few moments, then said, ‘I’ll tellthem I can’t go to London yet. You can’t live like this, with him stopping you doing things and leaving you on your own more and more. And if he had any decency at all, he’d get you and Sarah out of this hovel.’

How she found the strength to say it, Nell would never know. ‘Don’t refuse. This is your big chance for a better life. One day things will be better for me, I’m sure. Go to London, make a better life for yourself, only … don’t lose touch. Write to me as often as you can.’ She lifted her mug of cocoa and swallowed the tears with the warm comforting liquid.

‘I will. I promise. Every single week. And you’ll write back?’

‘Of course I will. When do you go?’

‘They want me to leave next Monday.’

‘So soon?’

‘I’m sorry, Nell, but they need the extra staff for Christmas. I’ll have to learn new ways before then, because it’s a much fancier hotel, with really rich customers. Lords and ladies, even.’

As her sister still looked doubtful, Nell said firmly, ‘Don’t lose this chance to better yourself. You won’t get many opportunities like this. Only … don’t let any man talk you into … you know, doing it. Even if he says he loves you.’

Renie reached out to squeeze her hand. ‘I won’t. And if I ever get rich, I’ll come back and take you away from all this.’ It wasn’t the shabby little room she was thinking of as she raised her eyes to the ceiling, where Cliff was sleeping.

* * *

Nell told Cliff the following evening, after Renie had gone to work. Naturally he created a fuss. ‘I’m not letting her go. It’s not safe in London.’

‘She’s nearly eighteen now, old enough to decide for herself. And anyway, the Carlings will look after her. They gave her a piece of paper with all the information, and it shows how caring and careful they are of their staff.’

‘Butweneed her money.’

‘We’ll manage perfectly well without it.’

‘Why should we? No, she can’t go. And this time, you’ll do as you’re told, my Lady Muck. I’m her guardian and she’s under twenty-one.’

‘This is her big chance and I’m not letting anything stand in her way, Cliff. Anyway, you’re not her guardian. Mattie is. So you don’t have the right to stop her.’

He flung his book across the room at her, just missing the baby and hitting her on the shoulder.

She stared at him in shock, then said in a voice so harsh it didn’t even sound like hers, ‘If you ever hurt this child, I’ll make you sorry you were born.’

He had the grace to look a little ashamed. ‘It was an accident. I never touched her and I never will. But I don’t know how I keep my hands off you, you disobedient bitch. You’re all alike, you women. No gratitude. And don’t think I’m giving up my spending money when you’re struggling without her money.’

‘I just said we’d manage. We’ve got money saved, after all.’

But he wasn’t listening to her. He continued to grumble and threaten, gradually running out of steam and scowling at her for a few moments. After that, he picked up hislibrary book and settled down to read. She put Sarah to bed and got her own library book out.

That night, the words she read might as well have been gibberish, for all she took in of the story, but she took care to turn the page every now and then because she sensed him looking across at her occasionally.

She didn’t know what she’d do without Renie to cheer her up. She’d be totally on her own then. Alone with him. And he was right about one thing: it would be hard to manage without her sister’s money. But she’d do it somehow.

After all, she still had Sarah, the best little love in the whole world.

But after this incident she was definitely going to find a way to leave him one day. There had to be a way. You were supposed to be married till death parted you, but she didn’t want Sarah growing up in this uncomfortable atmosphere; didn’t want to waste her own life putting up with it, either.

 

A letter arrived from Renie within two days of her departure, giving the address to write to. She was bubbling over with enthusiasm about her new job and the excitement of being in London. She was going to spend her first day off walking round the nearest sights with one of the girls who slept in her dormitory.

Nell left the letter on the mantelpiece and mentioned it casually when Cliff came home from work. She wished she didn’t have to show it to him, but it’d only cause trouble if she tried to keep her sister’s letters secret.

‘There’s a letter from Renie. I put it on the mantelpiece, if you want to read it.’

‘Where’s my tea? I’ve been working all day and I’m hungry.’

If she’d been Renie, she’d have asked him what he thought she’d been doing all day, but Nell had learnt life was easier if she held her tongue and just thought a sharp answer to him.

Cliff waited till after tea to pick the letter up and read it. ‘Hah! After all we’ve done for her. Out of sight, out of mind. Ungrateful bitch.’ He threw it into the fire.

Nell rushed across the room, but it was too late. He’d thrown the letter on to the hottest part of the fire and it caught light immediately. He smiled and that was the final straw. She turned on him, seizing the nearest object and hurling it at him. The ugly ornament someone had given them caught him squarely on the forehead, then fell into the hearth and smashed on the tiles.

She followed it with a big piece of coal and snatched up the poker as he clenched his fist.

‘You stupid bitch!’ he yelled, rubbing his forehead and taking a step towards her. But when he saw the poker he stopped dead.

‘You burnt that to hurt me,’ she said. ‘You actually wanted to hurt me.’

‘I treated it like the rubbish it was.’ He winced as his fingers encountered the bruise she’d caused. ‘You’ll pay for that.’

Up came his fist again, so she brandished the poker. ‘If you lay one finger on me, ever, I’ll wait till you’re asleep and hit you with this or anything else that comes to hand. And if youeverburn or damage one of my sister’s letters again, I’ll cut up all your clothes. See if I don’t.’

He gaped at her. ‘All this for a stupid letter?’

‘No. All this because of your cruelty. That letter was the only contact I have with my family now, the only contact with someone who loves me. Becauseyoudon’t care about me, that’s obvious.’

His face went very still. ‘I’ll let it pass this time because you were upset, but if you ever throw anything at me again, I’ll chastise you good and proper. Even the law says I have the right to do that, as your husband.’

‘I’ll fight back. I won’t put up with being knocked about. And I meant what I said: you’ll get thumped once you’re asleep any time you touch me.’ She slapped her free hand down on the tattered Bible that sat on the mantelpiece. ‘I swear that.’

She heard him suck in his breath and wondered if she’d have to prove she meant it. Their eyes met, but she was so furious she wouldn’t have been surprised if sparks were flying from hers, literally. She’d never been able to stand people who were needlessly cruel to others.

He was the first to look away, then he walked across to the mantelpiece, and as she tensed, expecting him to hit her, he took a shilling out of the housekeeping pot and walked out of the house.

He’d be going to the pub. Any excuse these days. But he’d never touched the food money before. He liked his food too much.

She went across to the pot and took the remaining coins out, putting back two pennies and a halfpenny. She’d make sure he was the one to go short of food this week, and she’d keep most of the housekeeping money on her person from now on. She’d make a pocket and tie it round her waistunder her skirt. Her child wasn’t going to go hungry to buy him booze and nor was she.

Sarah began to whimper as if she’d felt the anger beating through the house. Nell went across to pick her up and comfort her.

It’d have been hard to say which one was comforting the other most. Nell rocked and wept, then rocked some more. Sarah whimpered and nestled against her, then fell asleep.

She didn’t put the baby to bed for a long time, she needed her too much.

 

When Sarah was just over a year old, she contracted diarrhoea and nearly died. Nell, who had been nearly frantic while her daughter was so ill, swallowed her pride and begged Cliff to consider moving to a more salubrious area.

‘The baby’s all right, isn’t she? It toughens them up, being ill does, them that recover anyway, and she wouldn’t dare die, the way you dote on her.’