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Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 14 - Acid Dripping on Metal

Mary Calow’s new job at Illingworths is not met by universal approval.

John Waddington-Feather continues his tale of a Yorkshire mill-owning dynasty.

To read earlier chapters of this story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

Joe mooched down the path at the end of the street leading to his hen-pen near the river, brooding on what Helen had just said. There was a gaggle of ramshackle hen-pens and allotments at the end of the river path, a collection of tumble down huts made from packing cases and odd bits of wood where Joe and his pals went to escape from work or nagging wives. Joe's hen pen had a decrepit railway carriage any railway museum would have been proud of, and inside Joe had rigged up a stove.

In bad weather, his pals from the adjoining hen-pens, Fred Varley and Mat Walker, met there to yarn. Their own huts leaked, and on bad days they would hug the pot-bellied stove and get a good old fug going from their pipes till they could barely see across the coach. In winter, at dusk, Joe lit a storm lamp, and they would stay there till bedtime some nights. The carriage had been painted and patched again and again and was home to colonies of mice, which scuttered constantly under the floorboards as Joe and his pals chatted.

When he reached his pen, Joe busied himself feeding his bantams and talking to them. He bred Old English Gamecock bantams, which he exhibited at local shows, and he had acquired something of a reputation locally with them. His hut was decorated with rosettes and certificates and at home he had a variety of silver cups on display.

He cast an expert eye over them as they came running round him when he scattered their grain, and as he fed them, he forgot all about Helen's new job. When dusk began to fall, he was joined by his cronies for a final pipe before they made their ways home.

Outside the hut the hens and cock wallowed in the dust, clucking luxuriously in the last of the sun. Inside, the three men lounged on an old settee, smoking away as Joe unburdened himself about Helen. "It's fair knocked t'wind aht of me sails," said Joe despondently. "Taking a bloody job at Illingworths. Ah never thowt she'd get it. Not for a minute, but she has an' she's right taken wi' his lad from all accounts."

His pals were philosophical, gently trying to tell him Helen was a grown woman and could look after herself. Girls were more independent these days, especially when they worked in offices. That was something which hadn't occurred to Joe. Helen had always been dependent on him and Mary. She was still just a girl to them.

"Ah'd rather she'd ha' taken a job anywhere but there," he grumbled, spitting out a stream of saliva from his pipe through the open door. "After what happened in the past wi' that bugger Illingworth."

His pals told him to forget the past. You couldn't undo it and a deal of water had flowed under the bridge since then. Times had changed and they were all older, including Illingworth himself. It wasn't worth the toss of worrying - or being bitter about.

"Tha'll only make thisen worse. Like acid drippin' on metal. Forget about it, Joe," said Mat Walker.

Joe brightened up and an hour later, when they had talked down the sun, he returned home more at peace with himself.

In the weeks and months that followed he said nothing when Helen told her sister about her job at Illingworths, the tittle-tattle going on, the people she met. She spoke often about Mary Calow, whom she began to admire. She settled in well and Miss Calow was more than satisfied with her and gave her more and more responsibility.

It didn't go down well with the other clerks, who came to see Helen as Miss Calow's favourite. As a result she came into contact with Sir Abe sooner than she expected.

One day in Mary Calow's absence he wanted to dictate an urgent letter. Helen was sent up to his office by Brooksbank, the senior clerk. Abe Illingworth was surprised when she walked in and announced herself.

She was nervous and his steady stare didn't help. She could see why the other girls found him daunting. When she entered, he was standing in front of the window against the light, so she didn't see him clearly at first, but she felt the full force of his stare. He remained silent for some moments looking at her, not in an unpleasant way, but curious, yet it was enough to make her colour.

He suddenly realised he was embarrassing her and motioned to the chair in front of his desk, telling her to sit there. He remained standing with one thumb in his waistcoat pocket, deep in thought. He dictated quickly, but paused from time to time, checking her notes. He was impressed and said so, adding, "So you're the new girl. You settling in all right?"

She stammered yes. "What's your name?"

"Helen...Helen Greenwood, sir." Her accent sounded rough compared with his, and she was conscious of the difference.

"I like my staff to be happy here. If they work well, they'll always be happy. Don't you agree, Miss Greenwood?"

She stammered a yes again, then he went on to ask the question she had been dreading: where did she live? He supposed she came from Bradford like the rest of the clerks, and he was surprised to learn she travelled in daily from Keighworth.

His next question she had dreaded even more. "Where about in Keighworth?"

"Prospect Street. Down Garlic Lane, sir," she almost whispered, blushing deeper than ever.

He raised his bushy eyebrows but said nothing. He didn't put her down like Grimstone - he was too courteous to do that - but she read his thoughts. Then he asked who her parents were. She said they'd died in the flu epidemic.

"I'm sorry," he said gently. He didn't tell her the same epidemic had made him a widower. "So, who do you live with now?"

"My sister and her husband, Joe Gibson, sir," she replied, gaining more confidence from his interest. "You may have heard of my brother-in-law. He's well known in Keighworth as a rugby player."

At the mention of Joe's name Illingworth bit his lip. It was his turn to colour. "Yes, I've heard of him," he said brusquely, and dismissed her, telling her to get the letter typed as quickly as possible. She was puzzled by his sudden change of attitude.

His attitude changed even more not long afterwards, when his son took her home unexpectedly.


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