Jessie's Promise – Sneak Preview

Hearing the wind howling outside and the patter of rain against the small windowpanes Jessie shivered, trying not to think about what was coming. She’d been warned and now she was just going to have to take what was coming to her. She lifted her head proudly, looking straight at the woman sitting behind the imposing desk, determined to give no sign of the distress she was feeling.
‘I’m extremely sorry, Nurse Hale,’ Matron said, peering over the small gold rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. She was a small woman, thin and wiry, but carried all the weight of her authority. ‘However, I have been instructed to tell you that your services are no longer required by the board of St Joseph’s. You will be given a month’s severance pay and leave immediately.’
‘But that’s so unfair,’ Jessie said, a hint of anger in her normally soft brown eyes. The large, unflattering cap she wore over her reddish-brown hair made her features less attractive than they truly were, especially when her mouth was set in a stubborn line as now. ‘If anyone has to leave it ought to be him. I’ve done nothing wrong, Matron.’
‘I quite agree with you,’ Matron replied and made a steeple of her hands as she considered her reply. It was unfair that Jessie should be asked to leave, she thought, but Doctor Acrington had refused to continue working at St Joseph’s if the nurse was not dismissed. If it came to a choice between a senior doctor and an impertinent young woman, who had dared to complain of what the doctor had insisted was merely a silly misunderstanding, then the board was on the side of the man they both needed and admired.
Matron paused before speaking again. This dismissal of one of her best nurses was against her own instincts but she must obey her instructions from the board. She did not look at Jessie as she continued: ‘Had you agreed to apologise to Doctor Acrington I might have been able to simply move you to another part of the hospital and let the whole thing blow over, but since you refused…’
‘Why should I apologise?’ Jessie demanded, indignant now. ‘I saw him with his hand on Nurse Rose’s breast and I heard her ask him to let her pass, to stop bothering her. I heard his reply, and it was disgusting language. Besides, it isn’t the first time this has happened. All the young nurses hate it when he’s on night duty. They know he can’t be trusted to keep his hands to himself.’
Matron was unable to meet Jessie’s clear gaze because she knew that every word the girl had said was true. Acrington was a pest, but he had good family connections and donations had come the charity’s way because of his association with the hospital. Besides, Acrington was a respectable man and had been decorated for bravery on the Somme – so it was unlikely the board would take the word of a girl from London’s East End against his. ‘
‘Unfortunately Nurse Rose has refused to corroborate your story,’ Matron said. ‘She says that it was just an accident; the doctor bumped against her and she was just surprised, not upset.’
‘That’s because she’s frightened of losing her job.’
Matron drew a sharp breath. The girl’s defiance was beginning to annoy her. It was time to make an end of this nonsense. 
‘You came to us from the VADs after the end of the war and I know you have been at the front. You are a good nurse, but mistaken in your attitude towards this silly affair. As I said previously I regret this incident but I can do nothing more for you here. However, I have written an excellent reference for you. I believe you should be able to find another post quite easily.’
The angry protest died unspoken on Jessie’s lips and she turned to leave. So that was that then, she thought, leaving Matron’s office with the reference in her pocket and Matron’s good wishes echoing hollowly in her ears. She had always known this could happen when she made her complaint. It was the way of things, as her aunt had warned her.
‘You can’t win against them,’ Aunt Elizabeth had told Jessie over their supper of cocoa and home-made seed cake only a few days earlier. ‘Believe me, the establishment have it all sewn up between them. Keep your mouth shut and make sure you’re not the one he catches off guard, that’s my advice to you.’
Jessie had laughed. ‘Oh, he doesn’t bother with me. He likes them young. Besides, I’m too plain for Doctor Acrington – thank goodness!’
‘I’ve never thought you plain,’ her aunt had said considering her seriously. ‘You used to look attractive when you bothered, Jess. You’ve lovely hair if you didn’t scrape it back like that.’
‘I’m twenty-six, plain, and any interest I had in looking nice ended a long time ago,’ Jessie had replied. ‘I’m a good nurse and as long as I look clean and tidy that’s all that matters.’
‘I know you loved Robert,’ her aunt had said and there had been sadness in her eyes as she’d looked across the scrubbed pine table at Jessie. She had witnessed her niece’s grief, listened to her sobbing in the night long after it was over. ‘But a lot of girls lost the men they loved out there, Jess. It doesn’t mean you have to stop living too, love. Robbie wouldn’t have wanted that for you, you know he wouldn’t.’
Jessie had known her aunt meant well but she didn’t understand the way it had been between her and Robert Greening. It wasn’t just a case of her fancying the good-looking young soldier; it had been the real thing. Aunt Elizabeth wouldn’t know about that kind of love. She’d married to escape the slums she’d been born in, settling for an older man with a nice little business. Harold Pottersby had died after six years of marriage, which for him had been happy enough – his wife was a good cook and a kind woman – leaving Elizabeth with a worthwhile sum in the bank as well as the house and bakery.
‘Don’t you ever miss Harold?’ Jessie had asked suddenly as she’d sipped her hot drink. ‘You’ve never thought of marrying again, have you, Auntie?’
‘One man was good enough for me,’ Elizabeth had replied and then she’d laughed, realising she’d fallen into the trap. ‘But you’re still young, Jessie love. I was much older than you are when I married. You shouldn’t shut out the world. You could marry Archie Thistle tomorrow if you wanted – and then you wouldn’t have to work at all.’
‘Oh, Auntie!’ Jessie cried and pulled a face. ‘Archie is a dear but fifty if he is a day. You know I would never think of marrying him. Besides, I don’t want to marry anyone. I’m quite happy being a nurse.’
‘That bookshop of his must be worth a tidy sum,’ her aunt had speculated shrewdly, unwilling to leave the subject of a man she considered highly suitable to be her niece’s husband. ‘It’s a prime site on that corner and if they ever develop this area he could sell that property for a fortune.’
Now, collecting her possessions from her locker in the nurses’ rest area, Jessie recalled her thoughts to the present and frowned as she wondered what she was going to do next. Nursing had seemed the obvious thing after Robert was killed in Belgium. It was only her dedication to the patients that had kept her going after she’d received the telegram telling her that her darling Robbie was dead. He’d been just one of thousands killed out there, falling into the mud of the trenches but brought back to a field hospital, just like the one where Jessie had been nursing that day. He had probably been crying for her as the soldiers she’d helped to tend every day cried for their loved ones when the pain and fear became too much for them to bear.
It was the fact that she hadn’t been with him when he’d needed her that hurt so much. She hadn’t been able to comfort him or kiss him, or tell him that she loved him. Because of a mix up she hadn’t even known he was wounded until it was too late. And it was that knowledge that still woke her with tears on her cheeks night after night even though he’d been dead for three years and the war over two. She wasn’t sure that the hurting would ever stop. If only she could have been there, just to hold his hand, to tell him she loved him.
‘Jessie – could I talk to you for a moment, please? I wanted to apologise.’
A girl’s hesitant voice broke into Jessie’s thoughts. She frowned as she saw Mary Rose, the girl she had saved from an unpleasant mauling by the arrogant Doctor Acrington.
‘What for?’ Jessie asked, her tone harsher than she’d intended because her thoughts were elsewhere, too painful to be shared. ‘If you’d spoken out they would have given you the push too.’
‘Yes, I know.’ Nurse Rose bit her pretty bottom lip to stop it from trembling. She was fragile in appearance but tougher underneath than she looked, Jessie suspected. ‘I shall have to leave anyway as soon as I can find something, because Acrington will make me pay for this if I stop here. He won’t like what happened, even though they took his side and not yours.’
‘No, he won’t,’ Jessie agreed. ‘I thought that with St Joseph’s being a charity hospital and run by the church they would listen to my story and support me, but I couldn’t win against someone like him; he has too much influence. My aunt told me what would happen and she was right. Sorry I’ve made it awkward for you, Mary. I should have kept my mouth shut.’
‘You did the right thing, but I was too scared to support you. I was told I would never work again as a nurse if I did – and nursing means a lot to me.’
‘It meant a lot to me too.’ Though she tried Jessie couldn’t quite keep the resentment out of her voice.
‘I know. I really am sorry.’ Nurse Rose took a scrap of paper from her uniform pocket and offered it to Jessie. ‘I’m not sure if this is of any use to you. I was told about this job and I went to see her – Mrs Kendle – but it’s not here in London; it’s in Devon. I had an interview and she seems nice enough but I couldn’t go all that way. Ma’s an invalid. She can’t get about much, and depends on me to shop and clean for her when I can manage it.’
Jessie glanced at the scrap of paper. It was an advertisement from the Lady’s monthly magazine and was offering a post to a young woman with some nursing training to look after an invalid woman and help care for two children.
‘But this isn’t proper nursing,’ she said puzzled. ‘You wouldn’t think of taking a job like this?’
‘I might. At least I might if it had been in London,’ Nurse Rose said. ‘I’ve had enough of being told off by Sister and fumbled by bleedin’ doctors that ought to know better. Excuse my language!’ Her cheeks were flushed and defiant. ‘What I really want to do is nurse sick children. I’m hoping to find a job with one of the big hospitals where I can specialise – and I shan’t do that if I get thrown out of here.’
‘No…’ Jessie wondered uneasily if she might find it difficult to get the sort of job she wanted after being sacked from St Joseph’s. ‘Well, thanks for this. I have to get home. Good luck for the future.’
‘Good luck, Jessie – and I’m sorry I got you the push.’
‘Not your fault. I dare say I shall get by.’
Emerging into the cool night air, Jessie pulled her short nursing cape up around her throat. Autumn had started early this year and the nip in the air warned of winter just around the corner. She shivered and it wasn’t just the chill wind that was making her feel cold. She hadn’t thought that being asked to leave St Joseph’s would seriously affect her chances of finding another job. After all, she had done nothing wrong, merely reported a doctor for making sexual advances towards a young nurse who hadn’t welcomed them. Everyone, including Matron, was aware that she had been telling the truth, but somehow it was Jessie who was out of a job. Yet she had a good reference from Matron in her pocket. Surely that should count for something.
Jessie noticed the match seller as she approached the queue for the tram that would take her most of the way to her aunt’s home. He was an old soldier, she was sure, and pity stirred deep inside her. He had given everything for king and country, including his health if that dreadful cough was anything to go by, but what had his country given him in return? Nothing; not even a decent job, or he wouldn’t be standing here on a cold evening. So why should she have expected any better?
Jessie approached him, dropping half a crown into his tray and taking one tiny matchbox in return.
‘Gawd bless you, luv,’ he said and grinned at her. ‘Not sure I’ve got enough change fer yer. Trade ain’t that brisk ternight.’
‘I don’t want any change,’ Jessie said. ‘I reckon we owe you that, Tommy, and a lot more.’
‘Pity there ain’t a few more like you, luv,’ he called after her as she walked away. ‘Bleedin’ government’s forgot we’re alive.’
Jessie had to run to catch her tram. She shoved the matches deep into her skirt pocket as she took out the money for her fare. She wouldn’t be able to do things like that very often if she couldn’t find herself a job pretty sharpish.
At least she wasn’t desperate for the moment. Aunt Elizabeth had taken her in after her much-loved mother had died of diphtheria. There had been a lot of that kind of infectious disease about in the dirty little back streets around Bermondsey where Jessie had grown up, and that year it had been particularly bad. Jessie’s neighbour had taken it first and Ma had nursed her. Then it had been her turn to go down with the dreaded infection and the doctor said it was hopeless from the start. Ma had taken it bad and she wasn’t strong, too much work and worry after being left a widow with a small child to rear.
‘Your mother was always the soft one,’ her aunt said when she’d fetched the twelve-year-old Jessie to the house off Kensington High Street. It was a good address to have, Jessie had found when she’d applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment –   even if it was in one of the less posh areas of the borough. The VADs, as she’d come to call it, had come into being with the aid of the Red Cross and the Order of St John, and was set up to ease the situation of over-worked military hospitals ‘If Nell had looked after herself instead of others you wouldn’t be here with me. Not that I mind, Jessie. I’ve no children of my own and I can do with a bit of company now my Harold has gone.’
Aunt Elizabeth wasn’t one to fuss over things and she didn’t tell jokes or sing the way Ma had done when she was happy, but her house was clean, comfortable and warm, and there was always enough to eat. They hadn’t gone short during the war because Elizabeth Pottersby had her head screwed on the right way and had managed to scrounge extra food on the black market. Jessie had known she was lucky to be given a good home, because she might have gone to the orphanage if her aunt hadn’t been so quick to claim her. She missed Ma; she would have given anything to be back in the slum house with damp coming through the walls and often only an empty, aching belly to take to bed, if only her lovely, gentle Ma had been there to laugh and kiss her goodnight. Yet she had accepted that her aunt was right: life had to move on, tears got you nothing.
Gazing out of the tram window, Jessie looked at the lights in the expensive shops they passed. At least things were beginning to get back to normal now that the war was over. There were more goods to buy for those who had the money and not so many queues for everything, but remembering the match seller she felt sad. How many more were there like him, and how long would it be before the government got round to solving the problem? Unions were making ominous grumbling noises these days, but it was going to take more than that to make the kind of changes that were needed in the poorest parts of the city.
What must it be like to live like the other half did? Jessie wondered as she saw people arriving at a theatre dressed in smart clothes and looking as if they’d never known what it was like to go without their supper. But maybe she was just feeling this way because she hadn’t liked being given the push over that rotten business with Doctor Acrington. She was feeling sorry for herself and there was no sense in that!
‘You pick yourself up and start over when you’ve had a knock,’ Aunt Elizabeth had always maintained, and that was what Jessie intended to do now. She’d lost her job because she’d spoken out honestly but she was a trained nurse and it ought to be easy enough to get another job. At least she had a home to go to and a few pounds in her pocket. She was better off than a good many.

*

Jessie took the pins from her hair, letting it tumble onto her shoulders with a sigh of relief that the day was finally over. She looked at herself in the mirror on the dressing table; the glass was a bit dull and the frame ugly dark mahogany, but she could see that her hair shone with health.
Robbie had told her she had beautiful hair, but then he’d thought she was lovely altogether.
‘I loved you from the first moment I saw you waiting for the tram,’ he had told her when they’d started courting. ‘I wanted to speak to you then but I thought you would give me a look for having the cheek!’
Jessie had laughed. She’d noticed the good-looking young man at her stop all right, and more than once, but it wasn’t until the war started and he’d been wearing uniform that they’d had the courage to speak to each other.
‘It might have been the uniform,’ Jessie had told him afterwards. ‘You looked proud and handsome but a bit scared too, and I smiled because I wanted you to say something.’
Robbie had been working as a clerk at an insurance office before signing up and Jessie had a little job at a teashop just round the corner from his office. Once they started to talk they couldn’t stop and Robbie had asked her to go to a show at the music hall with him that night.
‘I’d love to,’ she told him. ‘But how much longer are you going to be in London?’
‘I’m stationed not far away. I’ll be able to visit most weekends – until they send me over there.’
They’d had six months, six wonderful, glorious months of happiness, before Robbie went on his first period of active duty and then ten days when he’d been given home leave. He’d seemed quieter and more reserved on his leave that time, but just as loving and then that last night she had sensed how much he wanted her.
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she’d whispered shyly, burying her face in his shoulder. ‘If we did it – you know, went all the way. I love you and I know you love me.’
‘It’s best we don’t,’ he’d said and smiled at her so that her heart turned over. ‘But when I come home next time we’ll get a licence and get married – if you want to?’
‘Of course I want to!’ Jessie had hugged him.
‘That’s what we’ll do then.’ He’d grinned at her. ‘I would’ve asked this time but I thought I might be rushing you.’
‘Daft 'aporth!’ Jessie had teased. ‘I would have married you two days after we first went out if you’d asked.’
Oh, what a lovely time they’d had that last night of his leave, whispering in the dark at the music hall, holding hands and making plans as they’d walked home. It was all going to be wonderful on his next leave, but before that happened Jessie had joined the VADs and been transferred to a field hospital in Belgium and Robbie was dead.
Tears stung Jessie’s eyes as she laid her hairbrush down. She blinked them away, refusing to weep. She wasn’t the only woman to have lost her man. Some women had been left with illegitimate children to bring up alone. At least it hadn’t happened to her, and that was only because Robbie had been strong enough to resist for her sake.
Jessie summoned a smile. There was no point in letting things get you down, you couldn’t change them so you just had to make the most of what you had. She had known real love once, and that was why she didn’t intend to settle for second best. She would rather stay as she was than marry someone she didn’t love, even if there were times when she felt desperately lonely, as if she’d missed out on something special. But she had managed to cope with her grief and disappointment, putting all her effort into making life better for her patients. She hadn’t let Robbie’s death destroy her.  And she wouldn’t let the board of St Joseph’s put her down either. She would find a job somehow no matter how long it took!

*

‘I’m sorry to inform you that the post you applied for has already been filled,’ Jessie read aloud over the breakfast table that morning. Three weeks had passed since her dismissal from the hospital and so far there was no sign of her getting another job. ‘They haven’t even asked for my references or given me the chance of an interview. That’s four nursing jobs I’ve applied for and they’ve all said the same. What’s wrong with me? Surely there can’t be so many trained nurses looking for jobs?’
‘Work is short all round,’ her aunt said and frowned. She knew how frustrated Jessie was at just sitting around. ‘But if you want my opinion, girl, they’ve got your card marked – you’re down as a troublemaker.’
‘But that’s not fair. I’m not a troublemaker.’
‘You reported a superior for misbehaviour,’ her aunt said. ‘I warned you how it would be, Jessie. He was one of them and they stick together. Always have, always will.’
Jessie felt a sinking sensation inside. Despite her denials she knew her aunt was right. She could hardly believe this was happening to her. It seemed so unfair. Surely it wasn’t just because she’d reported a superior member of staff that she was finding it so difficult to get a new job? No, she wouldn’t believe that or she really would be ready to jump off Tower Bridge!
‘As you said, the situation is difficult all round. A lot of men and women are out of work. I’ll find something if I keep looking.’
‘You could always work for Archie. He was asking after you yesterday. I told him you couldn’t find a job and he said to tell you he could give you a few hours helping out in the shop.’
‘I might have to take him up on it yet,’ Jessie said and looked rueful, ‘but it’s a last resort, Auntie. I’m a nurse. I want to use my training if I can.’
‘You might have more luck out of London,’ her aunt said looking thoughtful as she remembered something. ‘I saw it in a magazine yesterday and meant to show you but I forgot.’ She went over to the small oak sideboard and opened the bottom cupboard door, searching amongst the clutter of magazines, balls of knitting wool and other odds and ends that were stored on the shelves inside. ‘Ah, here it is. I saved it because there’s a knitting pattern I like – but the advertisements are all in the back. Have a look for yourself.’
Jessie took the magazine and sat in one of the deep, slightly shabby armchairs by the fireplace. Her aunt’s kitchen was the biggest room in the house, kept warm by the fire that was never allowed to go out and used for cooking as well as heating water and the room itself. They used this room all the time, keeping the tiny parlour neat and shiny for visitors, but it was usually cold in there and nowhere near as welcoming. 
She flicked through the magazine, lingering over the picture of a stately house for a moment – what a lovely, lovely house! It must be wonderful to live in a place like that, she thought. She found the list of advertisements right at the back of the magazine and ran her finger down the column. There were several for parlourmaids – servants weren’t as easy to come by since the war – two for companions for elderly ladies, and right at the bottom something about a nursery nurse with a few hours devoted to an invalid lady each day. A bell rang in Jessie’s memory and she recalled the scrap of paper given her by Nurse Rose, which she had left in her uniform pocket and never looked at since. It hadn’t been worded quite the same but the telephone number was a London one, though she remembered Mary Rose saying that the job was out of town.
She wouldn’t have considered a job like this at the beginning, but now it seemed more interesting, at least as a temporary thing. It might even be a good idea to leave London and get away for a while, give herself time to think and recover from her upset over this whole business.
‘Is this a new magazine?’ she asked and glanced at the date on the front cover.
‘It came the day before yesterday. I have them once a month. I like them because they are so pleasant, the way life ought to be, no rude or nasty articles. Did you see that lovely house? It’s just been opened to the public. I suppose the owners are hard up because of the war or something. I thought I might visit one day; it’s only a short journey on the train and I like nice houses. Is the advert of any use?’
‘It might be,’ Jessie said. ‘I could telephone and see. I’ll pop down to the Post Office later.’
‘Use the phone in the Bakery office. I may not run the place now but it still belongs to me. Tell Eddie I said it was all right.’
‘Are you sure? I don’t like to take advantage.’ She didn’t like the man her aunt employed to run the bakery either, but she didn’t say anything.
‘Don’t talk daft, girl. Go and do it now. There’s bound to be several after those jobs with all the unemployment about.’
‘I might have to leave London.’
‘What harm can there be in that? There isn’t much here for you, Jess. It would be a new beginning. Besides, your home is here. You can come back whenever you like. I’m not throwing you out.’
‘I know.’ Jessie laughed and jumped to her feet. ‘It wasn’t what I was looking for but it might be nice to have a change.’
‘Go on then.’ Elizabeth smiled as the girl went out. She glanced at the magazine and then frowned. Jessie hadn’t turned the page. What kind of a job was she looking for? The advert for a hospital wanting two nurses and several doctors in Manchester was at the top of the next page. Elizabeth went to the kitchen door to call her niece back, but she had already crossed the yard and was disappearing inside the bakery at the far end. Oh, well, she thought, what did one phone call matter? She would show Jessie the right advert when she came back.
*
Jessie gave the number to the operator and waited as it rang several times before being answered by a man who spoke as though he had a toffee in his mouth.
‘The Kendle residence,’ he said. ‘Whom did you wish to speak to please?’
‘Mrs Mary Kendle,’ she answered. ‘It’s about the advertisement in the magazine.’
‘I see…’ The faceless one with the odd sounding voice seemed to hesitate, then said, ‘I will see if Madam is available to speak to you. Please wait.’
‘As long as it doesn’t take too…’ Jessie held the receiver away from her ear as she realised she was talking to air, feeling put out. The voice had sounded disapproving and she wondered if that was why the post hadn’t been filled before this. His manner would discourage most people for a start! ‘Hello…are you there?’
She was on the verge of hanging up when she heard a little clicking sound and then a rather breathless voice asked if she was still there.
‘Yes. I wanted to speak to Mrs Mary Kendle please.’
‘Is it about the position looking after Lady Kendle and the children?’
‘If that’s the one in the ladies’ magazine, yes.’
‘Mrs Kendle isn’t here. She lives in Devon and only comes up to London every few weeks – but she asked me to interview anyone who rang if she wasn’t here. I’m Mrs Carmichael, the housekeeper here at Sir Joshua’s town house. Would it be convenient for you to call this afternoon, miss? I’m sorry, Carmichael didn’t give me your name.’
‘It’s Jessie Hale. I’m a trained nurse but I’ve just lost my job and I’m looking for something different.’
‘Oh…’ The housekeeper sounded hesitant. ‘Why did you lose your job, miss – if you don’t mind my asking?’
Jessie thought it would be all the same if she did; they all asked and she thought it was best to get it out at the start, then she needn’t waste time going round for an interview if they thought she wasn’t suitable.
‘I reported a doctor for fumbling a young nurse in the linen cupboard and he made out it was just a mistake; they took his side instead of mine.’
‘Yes, they would,’ Mrs Carmichael said and chuckled. ‘Sorry, Miss Hale – but I know how that feels, you see. It happened to me once when I was a young parlourmaid and the master caught me in a similar way. I went to the mistress. She didn’t believe me but gave me a reference when I left – so perhaps she did believe me, though she wouldn’t admit it.’
‘I should’ve kept my mouth shut, but it’s done now,’ Jessie said. ‘Do you still want me to come round for that interview this afternoon?’
‘You sound like an honest girl to me,’ the woman replied. ‘Come at three please. I’ll have time to sit and talk to you then. To tell you the truth we’re having a bit of a problem filling this place. It’s in Devon, see – does that put you off?’
‘No, it doesn’t,’ Jessie replied. ‘I knew that before I rang. Another girl told me about it some weeks ago, but I’d forgotten until I saw it advertised again.’
‘Mrs Kendle thought she had the post filled, but she was let down at the last minute – the girl lied about her references. She’d lost her place for stealing, you see. You’ve got a reference, I hope?’
‘Yes, one from Matron. She said it was a good one, but I haven’t looked; no one has asked for it yet. I promise you I’ve never stolen anything in my life – but I think I’ve been marked as a troublemaker.’
‘Shouldn’t wonder at it,’ Mrs Carmichael said and laughed again. Jessie thought she sounded rather nice. ‘Well, come and see me this afternoon. You might be the answer to a prayer, Miss Hale.’
Jessie replaced the earpiece and turned to discover that she was being watched interestedly by Eddie Robinson, the man who now ran the bakery for her aunt. He was a big man, florid-faced, slightly balding, and usually smelled of sweat. He couldn’t help it, of course – the work was hard and often in overpoweringly hot conditions – but she didn’t like him and she didn’t like the way he looked at her. She wished now that she’d gone to the post office as she’d wanted, or used Archie’s phone. He wouldn’t have minded and he wouldn’t have made her feel uncomfortable.
‘Still not found a job then, Jessie?’
She hated it that he called her Jessie, but she couldn’t say anything. Aunt Elizabeth relied on him to run this place, and he was hard-working and honest, which wasn’t always the case. She knew her aunt had sacked the two previous bakers she’d employed for cheating her. She couldn’t make trouble for her aunt; it was best just to keep out of Eddie’s way.
‘It looks as if my luck is about to change,’ she said. ‘Excuse me, Eddie. I have to get back.’
He didn’t move out of her way, which meant she had to squeeze past him to get through the office door. From the leer on his face, Jessie knew he enjoyed baiting her but short of asking her aunt to sack him there was nothing she could do but put up with his behaviour. Perhaps it was Eddie’s treatment of her that had made her blow the whistle on Doctor Acrington. It seemed that most men thought they had the right to do whatever they liked with women who crossed their paths, whether they were high or low born; there wasn’t much to choose between them.
Except that Robbie hadn’t been like that, Jessie remembered as she went out into the cold of the yard. He hadn’t taken advantage of her that last night, though sometimes now she wished he had. At least she would have known what it was like to be loved by him in that way, and she might have had his baby. She would have had something to love then, even if she’d been seen as a fallen woman because of it.
She shivered as she ran across the cobbles that led to the kitchen door. It always seemed colder when you came out of the bakery, because of the extreme heat in there. If she worked there perhaps she would become warped like Eddie in time, she thought, and then changed her mind. No, he was just made that way!
Her aunt was baking when she went into the kitchen. She made all her own cakes, even though she could have had them delivered from the bakery piping hot from the ovens; but they weren’t like home-made, were they? Elizabeth Pottersby had a light hand with all kinds of pastries. Besides, she wouldn’t have known what to do with herself if she didn’t keep busy in the kitchen three quarters of the day.
‘How did you get on?’ she asked. ‘Get through all right?’
‘I’m going for an interview this afternoon.’
‘To Manchester?’ Aunt Elizabeth pointed to the advertisement she had ringed in pencil. ‘That’s what I was talking about, Jess.’
‘I didn’t turn the page,’ Jessie said and frowned. ‘I’ve rung somewhere else now. I can’t let them down. I’ll have to go.’
‘Well, I suppose you ought,’ her aunt said. ‘But you can always say no. You’ve got to write a letter to this address, not phone – but you could post it when you go out this afternoon. Might as well have two irons in the fire.’
‘No, I shan’t do that,’ Jessie said. ‘If I don’t think this will suit I’ll tell them, then I’ll write to Manchester – but I won’t string these people along. Mrs Carmichael said her employer had been let down once. I shall be honest with them and say if I don’t like the sound of it.’
‘Too honest for your own good, that’s you, Jess,’ her aunt said but she said it with a smile of approval. ‘Well, you please yourself. Nothing is forever, girl. If you remember that, you won’t go far wrong in life, believe me.’
‘I shall,’ Jess replied and smiled at her. ‘Are you making apple pie for dinner this evening?’
‘It’s your favourite,’ her aunt said. ‘I always make it at least once a week, and if you’re going away…’ She left the sentence unfinished. She would miss Jessie terribly but she wasn’t going to say. Let the girl decide for herself. Life went on, and she would come home when it suited her. ‘There’s a pot of thick cream in the pantry on the cold shelf. I think we’ll make a treat of it, Jess. Why not?’

 

JESSIE"S PROMISE is publishing on 1st February 2017. Pre-order now: 

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