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Authors: Anna Jacobs

Elm tree road

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Elm Tree Road



Title PageChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter EighteenBy Anna JacobsCopyright

Elm Tree RoadChapter One

Swindon, Wiltshire; March 1910

The night before, Nell slept only fitfully. She kept waking with a start, terrified her father had found out what she was going to do and was coming to drag her back and beat her. In the end, the sounds from other houses in the terrace told her it was time to get up. She lay for a moment or two longer, feeling desperately sad, then got out of bed and lit a candle.

That woke her sister Mattie, who didn’t say anything, just lay staring at her from the far side of the bed, looking as miserable as Nell felt. At twenty-nine, Mattie knew how serious this was and that only desperation would have driven them to it.

It was strange. Mattie was running away to avoid marrying the man Nell’s father had chosen for her, and Nell was running away so that she could get married.

They had to shake their youngest sister awake, as usual, and Renie was excited rather than sad. To a sixteen-year-old, this seemed like an adventure.

Today all three of them were running away from theirbully of a father. Nell was leaving with Cliff, and they were going to get married as soon as they could. Now she was twenty-one, she didn’t need her father’s permission. He wouldn’t have given it, she knew, even though she was expecting Cliff’s child. Her father said it was his daughters’ duty to support him in his old age.

Renie was going to live with them but Mattie had to make her own way in the world. Nell didn’t know where her sister was going – anywhere away fromhim– and was upset that Cliff wouldn’t let both her sisters come and live with them. But he could get stubborn sometimes and he’d put his foot down about this. Mattie was too old to get married now, he said, and she’d be on his hands for ever. What’s more, she’d want to rule the roost and he wasn’t having that.

Any other morning she and her sisters would have chatted quietly as they got dressed, but today they were too sad to talk. Nell managed to squeeze into four pairs of drawers, three shifts, three petticoats and two blouses, then rolled up stockings and other bits and pieces and crammed them into a shopping bag. She had to take as much with her as possible withouthimrealising.

Renie and Mattie’s clothing was similarly bulky, and Renie also had a shopping bag full of bits and pieces. They thought they could get away with taking that to work without anyone realising what they were doing.

Even if they’d been able to leave openly, there were no suitcases in the house because their father didn’t approve of going away on holiday. He’d only once gone on the annual trip put on by the Railway Works for its employees and their families, and after that had refused point-blank towaste his time or let his family go on it. Nell had cried about that several times as a child, seeing all her friends looking forward to Trip Day.

Any other father might have noticed their sudden plumpness today, but not Bart Fuller. He shovelled down the breakfast Mattie put in front of him, then left for work without so much as a thank you.

Only then were the three of them free to hug one another and whisper final hopes and wishes. After that Mattie stepped back and said harshly, ‘Go on with you. No use drawing it out. And make sure you get your wages today. You’ll need every penny.’

Nell couldn’t hold back a sob and a final reminder. ‘Remember, Mattie, wherever you are, be sure to get in touch with Cliff’s family in two years’ time. We’ll do the same, Cliff’s agreed about that. We’ll let them know where we are, too.’

Renie said nothing, just looked at Mattie, her eyes brimming with tears, then gave her eldest sister another crushing hug and rushed out of the house.

Nell followed more slowly, catching up with Renie and telling her sharply to stop crying. She automatically greeted other women they met as they walked to the laundry where they both worked. It was a cold morning with rain threatening, and she got teased about wearing extra clothing to keep warm. They noticed.Hehadn’t.

After they’d clocked in and were heading towards their workstations, Renie whispered, ‘I’m frightened. He’ll find out, I know he will.’

‘No, he won’t. It’ll be all right, I promise you. We’ve planned it very carefully. I like your new idea of pretendingto be sick. It’ll be more convincing.Hewon’t catch us.’

But Nell was afraid too. She knew their father had no idea what they were planning to do, but still, fear of him churned inside her.

At quarter past eight, Renie put their plan into operation, doubling up as if in pain, then rushing to the outhouse. She didn’t come back and the chargehand sent Nell to see what she was doing. When she got back, she reported that her sister had a bad stomach upset.

When the chargehand went to check up, there was no trouble persuading her to let Nell off for an hour to take her home, Renie looked so white and sickly.

‘Your sister shouldn’t have come in today. I could tell the minute I saw her that she was sickening for something. And you hurry back, Nell Fuller. I’ll have to dock your pay for every hour you’re away, you know.’

But when the chargehand had gone back to work, Nell slipped along to the office and begged for their pay up until yesterday. ‘If I have to get something for Renie from the chemist, I’ll have no money at all. You know what my dad’s like.’

‘Why do you both need your wages?’

‘In case I can’t get back here. Dad’ll kill us if we’ve no money for him this week.’

And because everyone knew what a bully Bart Fuller was, they let her have the wages owing up to the previous day. She sighed in relief as she put the money in her purse.

Not much to run away on, less than two pounds, but better than nothing.

They got to the station with several minutes to spare before the nine o’clock train, finding a place to wait behinda pile of luggage, hoping no one they knew would notice them.

‘What if your Cliff doesn’t come?’ Renie asked, shaking the raindrops off her scarf and settling it more comfortably round her neck.

It was Nell’s greatest fear too, but she wasn’t going to admit that. ‘He will come,’ she insisted.

But at five to nine Cliff still hadn’t arrived.

‘He’s not coming.’ Renie clutched her arm. ‘Dad’ll kill us for coming home from work.’

‘Of course Cliff will be here.’ Surely he wouldn’t let them down?

At three minutes to nine, he rushed into the station, carrying a suitcase and a canvas sack with a drawstring containing his toolbox, as they’d planned. Without his tools, how would he earn a living for them?

He gestured to them to go to the platform where the train was already waiting, and went to buy the tickets. He came running to join them, only just in time. After he’d put his suitcase in the overhead net, he sat down, still clutching his toolbox.

He didn’t say a word, just stared at her, then looked out of the window. Nell had expected him to comfort her, put his arm round her. He was supposed to love her, but he hadn’t acted lovingly ever since she told him she was expecting. And that wasn’t fair.

As the train whistled and began to puff slowly out of the station, Nell saw a shawled figure standing watching near the entrance. In spite of the shawl being pulled down over the woman’s head, she recognised her sister Mattie instantly. That was the final straw. She began to sob.

‘Be quiet!’ Cliff snapped. ‘I don’t know what you’ve got to cry about.’

Nell tried to control herself but the odd tear was still escaping when the train pulled into Wootton Bassett, where they were to get off.

‘Hide in the waiting room till the other passengers have left the station,’ he ordered.

He kept watch near the door, then beckoned them. ‘Right. It’s clear.’ He hurried them across to a low wall at one side, boosting Nell and Renie over it, then passing them the bags. Finally, he scrambled over himself.

Nell hoped he would give her a hug now that the first part of their escape was over, but all he said was, ‘Hurry up.’

He set off walking away from the centre of the little town. ‘I told my cousin we’d wait by the side of the road.’

Renie shivered. ‘I hope he comes quickly. It’s going to rain again soon.’

Nell nudged her. Cliff seemed on edge, so it was best not to chat and disturb him.

Only a few minutes later one of the new motor lorries that were starting to replace horses and carts came into view, moving far more quickly than a horse ever could. Nell had never ridden in a motor vehicle before and felt a bit nervous about this part of the journey. She didn’t like the smell it made but the faster they got away the happier she’d be.

‘Here’s my cousin,’ Cliff said unnecessarily as the lorry drew up next to them.

The driver got down from his high seat at the front, grunted something that could have been a greeting, and came round to lift the back edge of the tarpaulin coveringthe goods. ‘They can shelter from the rain under it,’ he said to Cliff. ‘You come in the front with me.’

‘We should have gone on by train,’ Renie said, scowling at the dirty floor of the truck.

‘How many times do I have to tell you? My cousin’s giving us a lift so that your damned father won’t be able to trace where we’ve gone from Swindon. He’s taking this load to Gloucester and from there we’ll go by train to Manchester.’

‘Are we still going to Rochdale?’ Nell asked. Cliff hadn’t wanted to talk about details.

His voice was sharp. ‘Why do you keep asking that? You know I’ve got relatives in Rochdale who’ll help us get started. That’s better than going among strangers. My mother’s written to them. In between crying her eyes out because I have to leave.’ He looked at her as if that was her fault.

Nell shut her mouth with a snap. They’d never agree about his mother, who had spoilt him rotten and would never consider anyone good enough for him. The few times they’d met, Mrs Greenhill had looked down her nose at Nell. She hadn’t liked visiting them. It was a dark, mean little house and his mother set a poor table, even when guests were invited.

Cliff helped her up into the back of the lorry, where she and her sister had to squeeze in uncomfortably between two crates.

As he got Renie settled, Nell couldn’t stop another tear tracking its way down her cheek and didn’t bother to wipe it away.

‘Damned well stop crying!’ he yelled suddenly. ‘Whathaveyougot to cry about? I’ve given up my job and family for you. You’re getting a wage earner to look after you and the baby, aren’t you? That’s what you women want, isn’t it? All I can say is, it’d better be bloody worth it. Make sure you give me a son.’

She stared at him in shock, never having seen him like this. As if it wasn’t his baby too. As if she could do anything about whether it was a son or a daughter.

Scowling, he yanked the edges of the tarpaulin round them and went to sit in the front next to his cousin.

She exchanged quick glances with Renie, but didn’t make any comment. What could you say? Done was done.

Nell felt lost today, not her usual self at all, and to top it all, she was worried sick about Mattie, who still hadn’t recovered from a bad cold and shouldn’t be out in such weather. To her surprise, she was also more than a bit nervous of this new Cliff, who’d just spoken to her harshly and looked at her as if he hated her. When they started courting, he’d been so nice, so loving, but he’d changed.

She got annoyed with herself for being so timid. He might have had to give up his job, but that was more his fault than hers. He was the one who’d forced himself on her, so why was he blaming her for the baby? And once he’d done it, he’d expected her to let him use her body every time they could steal an hour together.

She couldn’t understand what he saw in it. She found it an uncomfortable business and it must look so silly. No wonder people did it in secret. But it was what men and women did together when they got married, and it seemedto please him, so she’d just have to put up with it as other wives did.

Renie reached out to take her hand, and as rain began to fall more heavily, the two sisters pulled the tarpaulin right over themselves and huddled close to one another for warmth.

‘We’ll be all right now we’ve got away,’ Renie whispered.

A little later she said, ‘Your Cliff’s grumpy today, isn’t he? Is he often like that?’

‘No, he isn’t. He’s worried about getting away from Dad, that’s why he’s so bad-tempered. He’s not a big man, like Dad, would never hold his own in a fight.’

But Nell wasn’t nearly as sure as she pretended that they’d be all right. She wasn’t sure of anything today, not even the man she was going to marry.


The industrial parts of Lancashire came as a shock to the two girls, so smoky was the air and so grimy were the buildings. It was far worse than the centre of Swindon and the railway works. Whole towns seemed to be wreathed in black smoke as you passed through them by train.

The station in Manchester was crowded, but they were lucky and found a train to Rochdale ready to set out.

The railway station there wasn’t even in the town centre, so they had a long walk to get to Cliff’s relatives. The man they were going to was some sort of second cousin and had sent a letter telling them how to get there. Cliff had never met him before, but family helped one another in times of trouble.

By now, Nell felt so weary she could hardly put one foot in front of the other. Even Renie, usually full of energy,was quiet and pale. And it was raining again. Would it ever stop?

Cliff’s cousin George and his wife Pauline looked at Nell disapprovingly and hardly said a word to her. She wanted to yell out that it wasn’t her fault she was expecting a baby, but was afraid of being shown the door if she upset them, so kept quiet.

Lodgings had been found for the two sisters a few doors away, and Cliff was to sleep on the sofa at his cousins’. Before they knew it, Nell and Renie had been taken along the street and left for the night, even though it was only half past eight.

‘I’m not doing food at this hour,’ the landlady said as the front door closed behind Cliff. ‘I don’t serve meals after half past six.’

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