Read Elm tree road Online

Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road (page 9)

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‘I want fresh tea, not stewed.’

She knew then what it would be like this week, with him emphasising that he was the master of the house and making their evenings miserable. She could feel herself flushing with embarrassment again. To her relief, Renie said nothing, just gazed at Cliff, as if he was an exhibit in a travelling circus.

Nell had made an extra effort with the tea, making a cake, but she wished she hadn’t when he commented on that as if they never had cakes at other times.

When he’d gone out to the pub, she looked at Renie. ‘If you can ignore him, he’ll grumble less. It’s how I find it best to deal with him. Luckily he goes out to the pub most evenings.’

‘He was never comfortable to live with, but he’s downright spiteful now.’ Renie reached for her handbag and pulled out a Fry’s Chocolate Cream bar, waving it triumphantly. ‘We’ll not share this with him. We’ll eat it all ourselves.’

Nell’s mouth watered at the sight of the bar. She hadn’t tasted chocolate since before she left home. ‘You shouldn’t have,’ she protested half-heartedly.

‘Yes, I should. And while we’re at it, I’ll give you some money for my food. Don’t tell me you don’t need it.’

‘It’d be safest to give it me daily.’

By the time Cliff staggered home, more unsteady on his feet than usual, Nell had heard all about the hotel, the staff and Renie’s friends. Such an interesting life her sister led – hard work, but then whose life wasn’t hard work?

When Renie left the following Friday, Nell sat and wept in despair.

Cliff came home from work, looked at her red eyes and sighed. But for once he didn’t make a spiteful comment. ‘She paid her way?’

‘Yes. Every day she gave me what I spent on her.’

‘She should have given you extra, for the trouble.’

‘I’d not have taken it. It’s no trouble to me to look after my sister. It was as good as having a holiday myself. And Sarah loved her aunt. Renie bought her a lovely little dress.’

‘Hmm. That’s good, anyway – saves us money.’

She couldn’t wait for him to go out. As soon as he had done, she took out her shorthand book and began to practise. She was going to learn accounts next. One day …

 

Renie couldn’t get time off at Christmas, one of the busiest times of year for The Rathleigh. She sent presents for Nell and little Sarah, clothes which she said she’d picked up cheaply at the second-hand shop. They didn’t look cheap to Nell, and she took the tailored suit meant for her out of the parcel, holding it up in delight.

Cliff looked on sourly. ‘She didn’t think to send anything for me.’

‘The way you spoke to her when she was here, why should she?’

‘Well, it’ll save me buying you new clothes, I suppose.’

‘It will if you want me to wear this suit to scrub the floor. It’d make more sense to save it for going to chapel. My other clothes are worn out, though, and I do need some new clothes.’

After another of those heavy silences, throbbing with unspoken anger, he slapped a pound down on the table. ‘You might as well have this now as at Christmas. You can use it to buy some clothes for yourself.’

She put it away quickly, before he changed his mind. With so little money, it’d have to be second-hand clothes again, things she altered to fit herself. She could sew, but she didn’t have a gift for making clothes look smart. ‘What about Sarah? She’s growing out of her things.’

‘Do you think I’m made of money?’

‘You’re not short of a penny or two. But if you want your daughter to go out wrapped in layers of rags to keep warm, while everyone sees you going out drinking most nights, that’s what she’ll have to wear.’

‘You always have a sharp answer, don’t you?’

‘You always make a nasty remark.’

Another pound note was slapped on the table. ‘I want to know how you spend this. Every single penny to be accounted for.’

She gave him a scornful look and didn’t answer. If he asked, she’d tell him she wasn’t making him a list of what she spent.

Oh, the frustration of being tied to a man you didn’t even like!

Chapter Six

Spring seemed very late that year, after the warm weather of the previous year. One cold rainy day followed another. But eventually the days grew a little warmer, and as April replaced March and summer beckoned, people began to shed their extra scarves and shawls.

Nell loved to take Sarah for walks in the shabby pram and teach her daughter new words. Such a clever pretty child! She only wished she could provide her with a better life than this.

One Saturday afternoon the gas cooker refused to light, something that had happened a couple of times recently.

Nell turned to Cliff, who had just come home from work. ‘We need to get this gas cooker repaired. It’s not working again.’

He gave an exaggerated sigh. ‘There’s always something to take my money, isn’t there?’

‘We have to eat and you’ve always got an excellent appetite. I can’t make a stew for your tea if the cookerwon’t light. Maybe the meat will go bad if I can’t cook it, then it’ll be wasted.’

That thought made him come across to look at the cooker, but he had no more success than she’d had in lighting the burner. He scowled, jingling a few coins in his pocket, then said, ‘Last time it happened, we left it for a few hours, then it started working again of its own accord. I expect some damp’s got in.’

‘I’m sure I can smell gas.’

He sniffed loudly and shrugged. ‘There’s always a bit of a smell with these things.’

‘What if the cooker doesn’t work tomorrow?’

‘It will.’ He saw her open her mouth to disagree and held up one hand, scowling at her. ‘All right! If it doesn’t, I’ll find someone to repair it on Monday.’

‘I’ll need more money to go and buy something different for tea today, then. Some ham, maybe, and a jar of relish. We’ll just have to hope the stewing meat I bought will keep till Monday.’

He hesitated, then fumbled through the coins in his pocket, handing over a shilling with obvious reluctance.

She set her hands on her hips. ‘I can’t get much food with that, Cliff Greenhill! We need to buy enough for tomorrow as well.’

‘The cooker will be working tomorrow.’

‘And if it isn’t?’

‘We’ll make do with bread and jam.’

‘Then I’ll need the money for an extra loaf. There’s not a farthing to spare in the housekeeping money you give me. I can barely manage now Sarah’s getting bigger and eating more. It’d be cheaper in the long run to get the cooker repaired.’

He got that stubborn look on his face. ‘We’ll see.’

Once he’d handed over another sixpenny piece, she turned to tell Sarah they were going to the shop.

But when she saw their little daughter curled up fast asleep on the rug, she didn’t like to disturb her. ‘Cliff, will you keep an eye on Sarah while I nip along to the shop? I don’t suppose she’ll stir and I’ll be much quicker on my own.’

‘All right.’ He sat down with a newspaper he’d brought home. ‘I’ll try the cooker again in a few minutes.’

There was always enough money for his newspapers, Nell thought as she whisked a shawl round her shoulders and hurried to the corner shop on the next street. Unfortunately, there was a queue and she had to wait ten minutes. She kept checking the wall clock and hoping Sarah wouldn’t stir. Cliff wasn’t used to looking after their daughter, but even he wouldn’t let her go near the fire, which was the main worry, and there was a fireguard in place. It’d be silly to go home now that she was near the head of the—

There was a loud booming noise outside and the ground shook. Everyone in the shop exclaimed in shock and stopped speaking to listen.

‘What was that?’ one woman asked.

Before anyone could answer, there was another loud noise, the ground shook again. Then there was a rumbling sound.

‘Them noises both sounded like explosions to me!’ an older man said.

People all tried to talk at once.

‘It can’t be.’

‘What’s there to explode round here?’

‘How do you know it’s an explosion?’

‘I fought in the Boer War, didn’t I? I’ve heard enough explosions to recognise one.’ He was moving towards the door as he spoke. ‘I’m going to have a look.’

They all pushed out into the street after him. There was a terrible smell and the air was full of dust and floating bits. Smoke could be seen above the rooftops.

‘It was in the next street,’ a woman yelled, her voice shrill.

‘Don’t go down that way!’ a man shouted. ‘There might be more to come.’

‘It’s them filthy anarchists,’ the grocer said. ‘I’ve been reading about them in the newspapers.’

Nell suddenly realised that the smoke was coming from the end of the street near Willow Court. Fearing for her daughter’s safety, she pushed through the group of women, ignoring their cries of annoyance, and began running towards her home. She heard footsteps behind her, saw people running ahead of her, but all she could think of was Sarah.

When she turned the corner into Cassia Street, she stopped dead in shock, looking down the row of thirty houses. The smoke and debris were coming from the entry to Willow Court. There was so much black smoke there that terror filled her and she couldn’t move.

It took her a while to work out why the street looked wrong, then she saw that the windows of houses near Willow Court were broken and … after creeping forward a few steps and staring at the dark, smoky part of the street, she realised that the entrance to the court looked wrong … different … more open. Then she saw that thebuildings on either side of it in Cassia Street had also been partly demolished.

Another few creeping steps brought a view of her house, or what had been her house. Her daughter! She had to get to Sarah.

She set off again, pushing through the crowd, evading a man who tried to stop her. But as she got close, other men grabbed her and held her back.

‘You can’t go in there, love. It’s not safe,’ said an old man who was leaning against the wall of a nearby house. He kept dabbing at some cuts on his face with a dirty handkerchief. ‘Look at it! That blast broke all the windows nearby, and it blew me right through the air. I flew, I did. Lost my shoe too. Lucky to be alive.’

‘There’s gas escaping still,’ another man chimed in. ‘Can’t you smell it, missus? It’s ruptured the mains.’ He raised his voice. ‘Don’t anyone light a cigarette. We don’t want another explosion.’

Shock held Nell paralysed for a few moments and the men keeping her back relaxed their hold. She was close enough now to see that the front of her house no longer existed. Only the back wall and parts of the side walls were still standing. Where the front room had been was filled with knee-high debris, and the kitchen was filled to shoulder height with rubble and the occasional jagged bit of wood.

Not only were the houses on either side of the entrance to the court badly damaged, but so were others inside it. They all looked as if they were leaning against one another.

As fear for her daughter overcame the shock, Nell tried again to push her way through.

‘That’s Mrs Greenhill! She lives at number one,’ a woman yelled. ‘Don’t let her go near it!’

As everyone turned to stare at her, two fellows in blue’s overalls stepped forward to bar her way.

‘You mustn’t go in there yet, love. It’s not safe.’

She flailed her hands, trying to get past them, yelling, ‘I have to get through! My child’s in there!’

There was a murmur from the crowd.

The man’s voice grew gentler. ‘You’ll have to wait, love. There’s no sign of anyone, but we’re going to dig it all out and see if we can find them, see if they’re … all right.’

She shuddered, feeling sick with terror at what this might mean.

The other man added, ‘We have to go slowly, you see. We don’t want to make sparks and cause another explosion. So no one can go in yet.’

‘They’ve sent to the gasworks,’ another voice called. ‘Someone’s coming to turn off the gas where the pipe from this street meets the next one.’

‘But my husband and my little daughter were in the kitchen …’ Her voice trailed away before the look of intense pity on the face of the nearest man.

‘We can only wait, love,’ he said gently.

‘You come into my house and have a cup of tea,’ a woman offered. ‘I can boil the kettle on the fire.’

Nell shook her head. ‘I’m not stirring till we … find out …’ She didn’t dare say it, didn’t even dare think it, pushed to the back of her mind the unthinkable horror of what might have happened. All she could do was wait.

Other people waited with her – in silence, mainly, though there were occasional whispers. Every now andthen someone sneaked a glance at her and caught her eye. She didn’t want their pity, so looked away. All she wanted was her daughter. In her arms. Even if Sarah was… badly hurt.

When two men wearing the gasworks uniform pushed through the crowd, there was the sound of feet shuffling backwards, but no one said anything.

One of the gasmen stared at the houses, shaking his head. ‘Never seen one as bad as that.’

His companion let out a low whistle. ‘What the hell happened? We’ll have to turn off the gas to the whole of Cassia Street before we dare let anyone go inside there.’

They moved back through the crowd, taking their handcart of tools with them, and went to the far end of the street. Pulling off their coats, they began to dig.

Like everyone else, Nell had turned to watch them. It seemed to take ages for them to dig down far enough to reveal the gas pipes. She didn’t know how much time passed, but when they came back down the street and said the gas was turned off, she again tried to push through towards her house.

‘Let me through! They’ll need every hand to clear the rubble,’ she called.

But the two men standing next to her grabbed her arms again and hauled her back.

‘Leave it to others, love. The men will be stronger than a little ’un like you.’

She looked at them in mute appeal and again the woman offered her a cup of tea.

‘I don’t want any tea. I want them to get my daughterout. I left her in the kitchen with my husband while I nipped to the shop.’

The woman exchanged quick glances with the men and whispered, ‘Keep her here. Don’t let her through till it’s… safe. Till we know … what it’s like.’

They nodded.

Men formed a chain and began passing the bigger pieces of rubble out, piling them in Cassia Street. Some of the men were in overalls, one was in a suit.

Nell could only stand there, icy with fear, hugging her arms across her breast, watching.

As the heap of rubble grew smaller, the men began to move more slowly, taking care how they lifted the bigger pieces.

‘I can see a leg!’ one called. ‘It’s a man. He’s not moving. There’s blood.’

Nell tried to press forward but her two guardians prevented that.

‘Let them do their work, love.’

One man suddenly stumbled away from the rubble and bent over to vomit. The others worked on in grim silence. Whatever they were uncovering was hidden from the street by debris, but their faces said it was bad.

The people watching became very still and no one said anything as another of the rescuers stood up and closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing hard. ‘Anyone got a sheet or blanket?’ he called when he opened his eyes.

That caused a buzz of talk and one woman went into her house, coming out with a ragged sheet, which was passed to the men.

They worked on and then stopped again, holding abrief conversation in whispers. Then a man with a flat cap left his companions and came slithering down the rubble. ‘Where’s the wife?’

‘Here!’ People pointed.

‘Don’t let her through!’ He came up to her.

Nell was beside herself with fear and anguish. ‘What’s happened?’

He hesitated.

‘Tell me!’

‘It’s bad news, love.’

‘I have to go to my child. If she’s hurt, she’ll want me to cuddle her.’

‘You can’t do any good, love.’

‘What … do you mean?’ She couldn’t, wouldn’t accept what his eyes were telling her.

‘I’m sorry but they’re both beyond help now.’

It took a while for the meaning of these gently spoken words to sink in, for her mind to accept it, then she screamed and sank to her knees, sobbing, as the words echoed in her mind.

‘No! No!Nooooo!’

‘Let me through,’ a voice called.

The crowd parted to let someone through, but Nell didn’t care who it was. The gently spoken words kept echoing through her mind.Beyond help. No, it couldn’t be true. It just … couldn’t. They’d made a mistake.

Someone knelt beside her and it took her a minute or two to realise it was Mr Garrett.

She couldn’t find any words, could only look at him pleadingly.

He put his arms round her, holding her close to his chest.‘I’m sorry, my dear. You must be brave. They were both killed. It’s a dreadful tragedy. I’m so very sorry.’

‘No!’ But her denial was weaker now. Her throat was full of tears and the words were choked off.

‘If it’s any consolation, they must both have died instantly. They’d have felt no pain.’

‘Sarah,’ she stammered. ‘My little Sarah. She can’t be dead. Shecan’t.’

Mrs Garrett joined them, puffing, as if she’d been hurrying. Another person with that pitying look on her face. She said something but Nell couldn’t make sense of the words until they were repeated.

‘Bring her to our house, Septimus.’

They helped her to her feet and she let them move her as they wished, because she couldn’t seem to control her own body. What did it matter anyway where she went? She stopped to stare one last time at the gaping hole where her house had been. She could see her wooden chest, standing at a drunken angle on the remains of the floor at the back of the bedroom. In the kitchen was what was left of her solid-oak dresser. Nearby someone had thrown the sheet across the ground near the mangled remains of the gas cooker.

At least they’d covered the bodies up. You had to do that.

‘How can a whole house fall down?’ she asked, her voice a scrape of sound only.

‘It was a gas explosion,’ a man said. ‘Must have been a leak. Strike a match and it’d be like a bomb going off.’

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