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Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 42 - A Nasty Cough

Mary is shocked by what she sees when she goes to visit her sister Helen.

John Waddington-Feather continues his finely woven tale of the fortunes and misfortunes of a Yorkshire mill-owning dynasty. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

Once in Helen's room, the two women gave vent to their feelings, holding each other close till they had wept their fill. Then, Mary looked round the room and was shocked. It was a rat-trap of a place and was used as a store-room when it lacked a paying guest. It was damp and dingy and hadn't been decorated for years.

Although it was high summer, the room was chill and there was an overwhelming smell of dampness everywhere, flavoured by the smell of gas, which came from the light and a tiny gas-fire slotted into an open range fireplace. In winter it barely warmed anyone sitting in front of it, let alone the room.

The roof sloped steeply, so only a single bed, a tiny dressing table and a wooden chair could be fitted into the room. The mirror in the dressing table was cracked and hadn't been dusted for some time so that the crack highlighted the grease which had accumulated on it. There was no wardrobe and all Helen's clothing was hung behind a green curtain in a recess behind the bed, which reeked of damp. Black mould crept along the skirting board and up the lintels of the door.

One small dormer window supplied all the light during the day, and by night the room was lit by a solitary, spluttering gas-mantle, leaving most of the room in shadow. The garret overlooked a neglected garden, for Mrs Simpson was no gardener, and beyond, were more high-shouldered houses, where, in the past, sad kitchen maids had gazed back from similar prisons. Damp rot ran riot, and, as Mary surveyed the miserable den, her heart sank.

"Helen, tha can't go on living 'ere. Tha just can't!" she whispered, her voice breaking. "Tha must come home." Helen remained stubbornly silent, so she added in an even lower voice, "Joe says he's sorry."

But Helen remained defiant. She couldn't go back to Prospect Street now. She was happy enough where she was for the time being, for above all she wanted her independence. She knew that if she went back she couldn't see John, but at the Simpsons' she went out with him regularly, if discreetly and he never went back with her to her lodgings and wasn't aware of the conditions she was living in till it was too late. She told her sister she'd been given a rise at work and would be looking for new lodgings in time, when she had sorted herself out. Meanwhile, she would remain there.

She had developed a nasty cough, which didn't escape Mary's notice, and she said Helen ought to see a doctor. Helen said it would soon go. It was the left-over from a cold. The conversation became stilted. Since Helen had left Keighworth they had little in common to talk about and their chit-chat soon dried up.

But she did tell her sister that she had visited Illingworth House again to see John's father and that pleased Mary. It would go some way to placating Joe too. Mary wanted to know how his father had reacted. What did he feel about Helen? What had he said?

"Not much," Helen replied. "To tell you the truth, sis, he seemed embarrassed. He wasn't there two minutes and he avoids me at work." Then she added, "But John loves me and that's all that matters."

Mary was glad about that and didn't question her more, for she had to go. Joe would want his tea when he got in, she said, but Helen insisted she had a bite and a cuppa before she went and took her to the kitchen. Although there was no one there, Mary had the uncomfortable feeling they were being listened to and sure enough, when she got up to go, Mrs Simpson bobbed from behind the door asking if everything was all right.

She spoke briefly to Helen, but flashed her smile at Mary before she left, and as soon as she had gone, she remarked to her daughter how common she was. After that visit, Mary never saw her again, for it was always Helen who answered the door.

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