Read Elm tree road Online

Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 8)

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She ignored that gibe, one often repeated. ‘Please, Cliff, let me look for a better house. It needn’t cost much more.’

‘This place suits me. It’s as close as you could get to where I work, and where I meet the lads for a drink. Besides, I haven’t the money to waste on paying extra rent.’

‘I thought you might look for another job, a better paid one. We could move to Rochdale, even.’

‘Are you deaf, woman?’ He raised his voice. ‘I don’t…want…tomove. I’m suited where I am, and I get on well with Don. He lets me practically run the place now.’

‘Well, he should pay you more, then.’

He tried not to smile but didn’t succeed.

‘He’s raised your wages again, hasn’t he?’

Cliff shrugged. ‘What a man earns is his own business.’

‘You didn’t think to give me a bit more money? You know it’s a struggle to manage on so little housekeeping.’

‘Shouldn’t have let your sister go to London, should you, then we’d all be comfortable. Well, we would be all right if you’d give me the son I want.’

She could have wept at the selfishness of him. Oh, yes,hewas comfortable enough, doing what he wanted, going out drinking. Though why he kept harping on about having a son when he hardly seemed to notice his daughter, she couldn’t understand. But so far, thank goodness, the little sponge had worked and she hadn’t fallen for another baby.

When he’d gone out, she allowed herself a treat and pulled Renie’s letters out of their hiding place to read about her sister’s wonderful new life. He’d never once asked about Renie since their big argument after he’d burnt the first letter, and she’d never mentioned the letters, though she knew he hunted around every now and then, trying to make sure he knew what she was up to.

So far he hadn’t looked in the coal cellar, where she kept the letters in a tin under a pile of coal. It seemed the safest place, becausehenever offered to fill the coal scuttle or carry it up for her.

This wouldn’t go on for ever, she vowed yet again. She and Sarah would escape from him somehow. She’d scrimped to save money in her own bank account, though it wasn’t much to build a new life on. She’d also started learning Pitman shorthand, using a book from the library.She practised it regularly, using bits of scrap paper from her shopping.

Women typists were working in offices everywhere these days. According to the newspaper articles she’d read in the library, the machines were much easier for female fingers to deal with, and although the wages were higher than other working women’s wages, at about a pound a week, they were too low for men to seek that sort of employment if they could find something that paid better.

She had no way of learning to type at proper classes, but Mrs Garrett was letting her use the heavy old machine in her husband’s study.

She’d started helping with the washing again, earning a little extra money. She hadn’t told Cliff, would just say she was helping to type notes for Mr Garrett if he asked why she went round to the minister’s house so often. But so far, he hadn’t, didn’t seem to care what she did with herself during the day as long as his meal was ready each evening and his clothes were washed and ironed.

The minister’s wife had looked at her very solemnly when she’d first asked her help, then had shaken her head sadly and said nothing more aboutwhyNell wanted to learn to type. But she worried sometimes that Mrs Garrett might let something slip to Cliff.

She did a lot of worrying these days.

 

Nell was glad when the weather was cooler for her daughter’s first birthday. She baked a special cake and bought a little candle to put on it, and made some fancy little meat pies with buttery mashed potatoes for tea.

Cliff stared at the festive table when he came home from work. ‘What’s this in aid of?’

‘Sarah’s birthday.’

He sniggered. ‘What a waste! She’s too little to understand. But I’ll enjoy the cake.’

She watched as he ignored the child, gobbling his food down as if he hadn’t eaten for days. She wouldn’t let him cut the cake until she’d lit the candle and sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to Sarah, who loved it when anyone sang to her.

Cliff didn’t join in. He ate a full half of the cake, then slouched across the room to read his library book, ignoring them both.

Her feelings for him were turning into hatred, not indifference. She was glad when he went out to the pub.

 

That same month, Renie wrote to ask if she could come to stay with Nell for her week’s holiday the next month. Clutching the letter, Nell felt a rare surge of happiness. Oh, how wonderful it’d be to see her sister!

She broached the possibility with Cliff and he looked at her with a sneer on his face.

‘Oh, she’s bothered to write, has she? We’re suddenly good enough for madam, are we? Well, I’m not having her here.’

She stared at him in silence, then went and got his plate of food and dumped it on the fire.

He bounced to his feet then. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing!’

‘Going on strike. If men can do it, so can I. You can cook your own food from now on and wash your own clothes and—’

His fist took her by surprise, knocking her flying so that her head hit the ground hard.

When she came to, she was lying on the rug and he was fanning her face with his newspaper.

‘You fell and hit your head,’ he muttered.

‘You thumped me and knocked me over.’

‘Let me help you up.’

She shoved his hand aside. ‘Don’t touch me. Don’t ever touch me again.’ She became aware that Sarah was crying, sitting wailing in a corner, looking terrified. ‘Are you going to hit the baby next? You could really do some damage to someone so small.’

She pulled herself to her feet and looked into the mirror. ‘I’ll have a black eye tomorrow. Everyone will know you’re a wife beater.’

He stared at her in shock. Clearly this aspect hadn’t occurred to him.

‘And if they ask me how I hurt myself, I’ll tell them. I’ll say you hit me because I wanted to have my sister to stay.’

‘All right, damn you, you can have her to stay – as long as she pays her way and you don’t say anything about that bruise.’

She shrugged. ‘I won’t say anything. And I’ll have to ask Renie to help out, because there’s nothing spare in what you give me each week.’

But she took secret satisfaction in the thought that everyone would know he’d hit her, whether she admitted it or not. Their neighbours knew everything in the court, yes, and so did the members of the chapel congregation.

No one said anything next time she went out, but theylooked at her. Oh, yes, they looked. She tilted her chin and stared back defiantly at the world.

Only Mrs Garrett dared to say anything. ‘Did he hit you?’

‘I promised him I’d not talk about it.’

‘He did hit you.’

She shrugged.

 

Mrs Rayner surprised her by stopping her in the street the next day. Nell knew her husband’s employer’s wife by sight from chapel, but had never had much to do with her.

‘I’ve told my Don to have a word with your Cliff about hitting you,’ the older woman said bluntly.

Nell looked at her in dismay. ‘Oh, no! He’ll think I told you and he’ll be even angrier.’

‘You need to fight back, lass.’

‘I am doing. I’d already told him if he hit me I’d hit him back when he’s asleep. But this time,’ tears came into her eyes, ‘I got him to let me have my sister to stay with me. So it was worth it. If your husband speaks to him, he’ll change his mind again and say she can’t come.’

Mrs Rayner looked at her sympathetically. ‘Your Cliff’s good at his job, earns a decent living, but I hear he drinks.’

Nell sighed. ‘All the men who live near us drink. He doesn’t come home drunk, though, so he can’t be drinking that much.’

‘I’ll make sure your sister still comes to stay.’ Mrs Rayner turned and walked briskly away.

How could she make sure of that? Nell wondered as she walked slowly home, pushing Sarah and wishing the littlepram worked better. It always tried to pull to the right.

She waited anxiously for Cliff to finish work and come back, sure he’d be in a bad mood. She had the rolling pin nearby to defend herself with.

Sure enough, he burst into the house and greeted her with, ‘You broke your promise. You told people.’

‘I didn’t say a word.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘They guessed. You can’t hide a bruise like this.’ She slammed her hand down on the Bible. He knew she wouldn’t tell lies when she did that. ‘I swear I didn’t say anything.’

He was staring at her as if she was a total stranger and suddenly she couldn’t bear it. ‘Cliff, can’t we start again, try to get on better? We used to talk, be friends.’

‘A man doesn’t talk to his wife. He talks to his mates at the pub.’ He sighed and sat down at the table, surprising her by saying, ‘I’m sorry I hit you, though. I am … really.’

She sat down opposite him, not knowing what to say.

He looked across the table at her. ‘It’s all gone wrong since we came here. I miss Swindon. I miss the railway works. I miss my family. We’d be going on the annual works trip if we’d stayed there. I always used to enjoy the employees’ outing.’

‘We could go on our own trip here. It’s not expensive to go on an excursion to Blackpool.’

‘It’s not the same. Nothing’s the same.’ He looked across at the stove. ‘Is that pan burning?’

‘Oh, no!’ She jumped to her feet and ran across to save her stew. When she turned round, Cliff was sitting reading the newspaper and he hardly said a word to her all evening.

She didn’t know what to make of their conversation.Did it mean he was willing to try a bit harder to get on? She’d guessed he was unhappy deep down, of course she had, but this was the first time he’d admitted it.

He was quieter for the next week or two, and didn’t threaten any violence. He even said the stew was good one night. And he gave her back a shilling. He didn’t say it was for the one he’d taken from the housekeeping, but why else would he have done that?

It wasn’t enough to mend the distance between them, though. They were like two strangers living together, more polite maybe, but he still mostly ignored his daughter. That upset Nell a lot.

 

Just before Renie was due to arrive, Cliff asked, ‘How long is she staying?’

‘A week.’

‘You’ll enjoy that, at least.’

‘Won’t you enjoy hearing about London?’

‘No. It’s Swindon I want to hear about.’ He looked sad when he said that.

‘Then write to your family,’ she urged.

‘Not until I’ve something I can be proud of to tell them.’

‘But—’

‘My family are my business, just as your sister’s yours.’

When he got that tight look on his face she gave up trying to talk to him because it was as if he’d closed his mind to the world.

 

Since the matron at the hotel understood the difficulties of Sunday travel, the staff’s holiday weeks always beganon a Saturday. Renie was to arrive in the afternoon.

Nell would have gone to meet her at the station in Rochdale, but she was ashamed of the shabby pram one of the ladies at church had lent her, on condition it was given back when no longer needed. Besides, it’d have cost money to take the train into Rochdale, money she didn’t dare spend.

Still, she consoled herself with the thought that her sister knew her way here.

When she heard footsteps coming into the court, she rushed to the door and burst into tears, hugging Renie and holding her at arm’s length, then hugging her again, till her sister laughed and tugged her inside.

‘Look at us,’ Renie said. ‘Crying as if something bad has happened when we should be happy.’

Nell stared at her sister, envying the matchingankle-lengthskirt and longish tailor-made jacket over a pretty blouse. ‘How smart you look! Is that the latest fashion in London?’

Renie looked down at herself and smiled. ‘Yes. I bought this suit second hand, but it fits me well, doesn’t it? Might have been made for me.’ In turn, she studied her older sister and pulled a face. ‘I remember that skirt. Doesn’t he buy you any new clothes at all?’

Nell flushed in shame.

‘There I go again!’ Renie gave her another big hug. ‘I’m never going to be famous for being tactful, am I?’

‘How do you manage with the customers?’

She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. They’re different, somehow. They seem to like me waiting on them, give me good tips.’ She knelt down beside her niece, who was sitting on the ragrug playing with some wooden blocks. ‘Isn’t she bonny? I do wish you lived nearer so that I could watch her growing up.’

For a moment or two, Sarah studied her solemnly, then held her arms out to her young aunt to be picked up.

‘She doesn’t usually go to anyone else,’ Nell said in surprise.

‘Just you and Cliff.’

‘Just me. He’s not … um … interested in babies.’

Renie looked at her across the top of her niece’s head. ‘Things still not going well? You never talk about him in your letters.’

Nell shook her head, not trusting her voice. She listened to Renie talking to Sarah, then, when she was in control of her emotions, said as brightly as she could, ‘How about a cup of tea?’

‘I’m dying of thirst. Make us a big pot and I’ll drink it dry.’

Cliff came home from work soon afterwards. Saturday was usually a short day but he sometimes worked overtime. Nell didn’t know what he did with the extra money.

He, too, studied his sister-in-law’s appearance. ‘Fine clothes! You must have been spending all your wages on them.’

Renie blinked in shock at this ungracious greeting. ‘A lot finer than the rags my sister is wearing, yes. Everyone will think you’re short of money, sending your wife out dressed like that. But in case you’re worried that I can’t look after my money, I got these second hand.’

He breathed deeply, ignoring what she’d said and turning to his wife. ‘Don’t I get a cup of tea when I come home?’

‘I never know whether you’ll be going straight out to the pub or not. There’s some in the pot.’

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