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Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 56 - An Evil Encounter

Helen hears bad news - then meets an evil woman in a cafe.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddington-Feather's gripping novel which is set in a Yorkshire mill town please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

It was bad enough knowing she was pregnant, but more was to come. Her cough became much worse and she began bringing up blood. Shortly after her first visit, she paid another visit to the doctor, who told her that she had advanced tuberculosis and ought to stop working at once and enter a sanatorium. He handed her a form to fill in to go to the sanatorium at Ilkesworth, but she was too shocked and depressed to act rationally. She just had to get out of his surgery and think things out.

It was a wild March night with a raw wind roaring straight off the Pennines into the heart of the city. The pavements and roads gleamed black in the gaslight, and the buildings looked sodden as she blundered through the streets back to her lodgings.

She hardly knew where she was going and drifted into a squalid part of the city taking what she thought was a short cut. When she found herself lost, she began to feel scared. She was off the beaten track and the wind funnelled through the mean streets almost cutting her in two. She was tired and looked for somewhere to shelter a while and recover, so she turned in at the first cafe she came across.
She was hit by the stench of stale food and staler bodies as she crossed the threshold. The walls swam with slimy condensation and the tables with grease. The air was thick with cheap tobacco smoke, which had discoloured the wallpaper. But it was warm and there were plenty of seats.

The cafe was almost empty for it was getting late. In one corner a drunk lay snoring, his head on his arms sprawled across a table. Two other characters smoked evil-smelling pipes and eyed her as she entered. At the far end of the room, a half-crazy tramp sat talking to himself when he wasn't slurping tea.

The only other woman sat near the door by herself with a huge raffia bag at her side which seemed to hold all her worldly possessions. She wore an ancient black hat decorated with artificial cherries. From under it poked wisps of unwashed grey hair. Her over-large overcoat was pinned at the neck with an outsized safety pin and sorely needed cleaning. She had no teeth and Helen could barely make out what she said when she went to sit by her with her cup of tea.

From the start, the old woman was familiar, as if she had been expecting her, for she beckoned her to sit by her. "'Ello, luv," she croaked. "It's a lousy night, in't it? Has tha come far?" Helen smiled wanly and said she hadn't come far. "Tha looks done in, luv, but then it's understandable in thy condition," the woman continued looking at Helen closely and winking.

Helen's heart missed a beat. How on earth did this old harridan know she was pregnant? The old woman began talking to herself a while then asked Helen for a cup of tea. To humour her, she bought one, for at least with the old woman there she wouldn't be hassled. She said just dropped in for a warm up, which seemed to amuse her companion. She laughed loudly, opening her mouth wide to reveal a disgusting set of gums and unleashing a splurge of bad breath in Helen's direction. When she edged closer it became clear she badly needed a bath.

The woman asked where Helen had been, and when she said she'd just come from her doctor, it seemed to clinch something for the old biddy next to her. She grinned her gummy smile and winked, gibbering something about how they always came straight from the doctor's.

She slid even closer and whispered she was Mrs Brown's go-between. Helen was nonplussed, the more so when she said everyone had to go through her to Mrs Brown's. They couldn't take any chances, and they were checked out by her at the cafe before she gave them Mrs Brown's address. "T' police are allus on the look-out," she said, lowering her voice. "We can't be to careful. Mrs Brown has already been fined. Next time she's in the nick."

Helen thought she was drunk for when she'd first come in, she'd noticed a gin bottle poking out of her bag. She began to suspect that she was living rough, till she introduced herself as Maggie and said she lived with Mrs Brown. They had worked together in the hospital in the old days till they'd both got the push.

Helen felt uneasy. She sensed something was not quite right. She'd blundered into something she couldn't fathom, something very wrong. Maggie noticed her ring and asked after her fiance. Helen blushed and said he was working abroad, which sparked off another coarse laugh. "They all do that," she said. "They allus bugger off when they've put t' bun in t'oven. But don't worry, luv, we'll get shut of it an' then thall be as right as rain. Mrs Brown'll see to that an' nobody'll be the wiser when it's gone."

Helen went white as it clicked what the old hag was on about. She was part of a back-street abortion set operating in that part of Bradford and, by chance, Helen had stumbled into the cafe which was their front. She got up at once and rushed out, almost colliding with another young woman whom she'd been mistaken for.

She ran most of the way back and didn't stop till she reached her digs, wet through and exhausted. Mrs Simpson was in the kitchen waiting up and bid her a frosty goodnight as she passed the open door, telling her she was late. Helen mumbled her apologies and hurried up to her garret, leaving Mrs Simpson watching at the bottom of the steps.

When she got to her room it was bitter and she began coughing. She rubbed herself down with a towel trying to get some warmth into her body and, still coughing, crawled into bed. She lay there coughing violently for some minutes, then sobbed herself into a fractured sleep, calling John's name over and over and begging him to write.

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