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Read a free extract from A Valley Wedding by Anna Jacobs

 

 

Read the opening of A Valley Wedding by Anna Jacobs

 

A Valley Wedding is coming 26th May 2022

 

Lancashire, 1936

As Gwynneth Harte was getting her basket and purse ready to go shopping in town, the post arrived. She picked up

the letter that had dropped through her door. It was addressed to her youngest son. Well, letters usually were. She turned it over and let out a muffled groan at the sight of the sender’s name stamped on the back.

Lucas had already been to a week-long course at this workers’ college and had come home thrilled to pieces. Apparently he’d done so well they’d found a private benefactor who would pay for him to go to Manchester University and become a doctor. It was something he’d wanted since he was a small child, caring for an old teddy bear and ‘mending’ its broken limbs.

She wished he was at home to open the letter and put her out of her misery about when he’d be leaving. She shouldn’t begrudge him this chance and she didn’t, but these people would take him away from her, she knew they would, and things would never be the same.

Three sons she had, all of them over thirty, and none of them had produced grandchildren for her to love. Well, during the past ten years when times were at their worst and little steady work available, how could they have married? As a widow, she’d often depended on their support.

Then, as life improved slightly and they were getting on their feet again, she’d fallen ill and nearly died, costing them a lot of money for an operation. Now, however, her two eldest sons were in employment and married, so surely there was hope that they’d start families?

She’d tried to introduce Lucas to suitable young women, but he’d told her bluntly that he didn’t intend to get trapped in marriage because he was determined to become a doctor. That would take him years, so he wasn’t likely to marry till he was at least forty, if then.

She’d known her youngest lad was clever, but no one she knew had ever had a son go to a university.What would happen to him there? Would it change him, make him look down on the rest of the family? She paused, head on one side. No, not their Lucas.

She was working as a part-time housekeeper and lived in the flat at the rear of her employers’ house, but she hated the thought of living there on her own.

She mopped her eyes and blew her nose, telling herself to pluck up. She caught sight of the clock, snatched up the basket and hurried off to take the bus down the valley into Rivenshaw. What couldn’t be cured must be endured, and best do that with   a smile or you’d drive folk away.

 

Biff Higgins walked into the seedy pub in the poorer part of Rivenshaw, keeping a careful eye on the men sitting there, some of whom looked ready to cut your throat for twopence. He doubted anyone drinking in the middle of the day had any sort of job.

He walked up to the bar and asked the chap behind it for a half pint because in his experience as a private investigator, people who worked in pubs were usually more willing to talk to you if you bought something. He’d decided to lose the slight Irish accent he’d pretended to have last time he visited this town. He paid for the drink and put a further shilling down on the counter, keeping his forefinger on it. ‘I’m looking for Arthur Chapman. I was told he comes in here regularly.’

‘What do you want him for?’

‘I have some good news for him.’

After a searching gaze, the man said, ‘The poor sod definitely needs some good news, for a change. He’s the one in the corner by the fire.’

Biff turned to stare in that direction and saw a scrawny, sad-looking man of about the right age, who looked chilled through and was holding his hands out  to  the  fire.  Nod- ding thanks to the barman, he pushed the shilling across the counter, not surprised at how swiftly it vanished.

As a private detective, he’d  found the heirs to the other  two properties left by Miss Jane Chapman and her nephew, and now, hopefully, he was about to find the heir to the final house.

He sat down in a chair across the tiny table from the man, who seemed to be drinking lemonade, or was it water? If so, the barman must have taken pity on him and given him a drink so that he would have an excuse to stay and warm himself.

‘Are you Arthur Chapman?’ he asked quietly.

He got a suspicious glance in response. ‘Who wants to know?’

‘Biff Higgins.’ He extended a business card.

After a slight hesitation the man took it, read it and dropped it on the table. ‘Has she set a detective on me now?’

‘She?’

‘Don’t pretend.That Mrs Hicks will do anything to keep me from my granddaughter.’

‘I’ve never met or communicated with anyone of that name. I’ve been sent by Mr Albert Neven, a London lawyer, to find Arthur Chapman who has been left a bequest by a distant relative.’

That was greeted by a frown. ‘That’s my name, but who’d leave me anything? I’ve got no close relatives left.’

‘It was a Miss Sarah Jane Chapman.’

After a moment’s thought, he snapped his fingers. ‘Ah. Dad’s second cousin on his father’s side. He allus spoke well of her. I didn’t think she knew I existed, though.’

‘She must have done, because she’s definitely left you something.’

Arthur shook his head, clearly baffled.

Biff realised that the men sitting nearby had fallen silent and were trying to listen to their conversation. ‘How about we go somewhere more private to discuss it, Mr Chapman? I could buy you a meal at the Star hotel. They’re open for luncheon and I’m hungry, even if you aren’t.’

‘Well, I could certainly do with a good meal, so I’ll thank you kindly for that offer.’ He stood up, leaving the rest of his drink, so Biff left his beer. It had served its purpose and he didn’t enjoy drinking in the daytime anyway.

 

At the hotel, the waiter glanced at Arthur and showed them to a table in the corner, away from the better-dressed folk.

Biff’s companion seemed to relax a little once they were seated. ‘Eh, it’s a long time since I’ve been in a posh place like this.’

‘They do excellent food. Let’s order, then we can talk.’

When he nodded across the room, a waitress came to their table, smiling at him. ‘Nice to see you here again, Mr Higgins.’

After she’d taken their order, Arthur asked abruptly, ‘What has the old lady left me, then?’

‘A house and its contents.’

Arthur gasped, then spoke in a shocked, croaky whisper, ‘A house?’ Then he scowled. ‘You’re mocking me.’

‘I’m not. It’s the simple truth. She left houses to three of her distant relatives who’d fallen on hard times, people she thought deserved a helping hand.’

Tears came into Arthur’s  eyes  and  he  blinked  furiously. ‘I don’t deserve anything. I’ve made a mess of my life in the past two years.Yes, a right old mess, and all my own fault.’

‘Well, now you’ve got a chance to sort things out.’ ‘As long as it’s not too late.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘My wife died two years ago, an’ I started drinking. I let myself get cheated out of what savings I didn’t spend on beer. I’d talk to anyone, buy them a drink rather than go home to  an empty house. I missed my Susan that badly I could hardly think straight for the first few months.We’d been wed since we were eighteen, you see, courting since we were fourteen.’

‘Grief can do strange things to people.’

‘Aye. I turned into such a drunken sot my son wouldn’t speak to me an’ I don’t blame him.’

He was speaking in such a bleak monotone, Biff’s heart went out to him.

‘Then my daughter and her husband were killed in that big railway accident down south a few months ago. Her husband’s widowed mother, who is a mean old devil, took my grand- daughter in and got the minister of her church to speak for her as being a proper guardian. As if he knows her, he’s a new man to this town, that one is!’

He stared into space for a few seconds, then said in a husky voice, ‘She’s not let me speak to my little Beatie since, not once, and has threatened to bring down the law on me if I go near them, even though I’ve give up the booze.’

‘Could you not have hired a lawyer to help you?’

‘I might have if I’d any money left. Or a job. Only I haven’t got either.’

‘Ah. I see.’

‘What upsets me most is that my granddaughter looks unhappy since she’s gone to live with Ruby Hicks. Beatie may be warmly dressed and live in a comfortable house, but she’s downright miserable there if you ask me. It fair breaks my heart to see her in the street. She used to be such a happy little lass, skipping along an’ chattering away.’

‘How old is she?’ ‘Just turned nine.’

Their meal was served and Arthur proved how hungry he’d been by clearing his plate rapidly. He looked across the table apologetically as he laid down his knife and fork, because Biff’s plate was still half full. ‘Sorry for my poor table manners. I were famished.’

‘Have a piece of apple pie for afters, then. They do a good one here.’

His companion gave him another of those wry, twisted smiles. ‘I’ve not been eating well for a while, so I couldn’t fit anything else in. Thank you for the offer, though. That were extra kind of you.’

Biff finished his own meal then pushed away his plate. ‘Can you prove who you are?’

‘Aye, easy. I’ve lived in the valley all my life. There’s a dozen folk in Rivenshaw who’ve known me since we were childer together.’

‘We’ll go and see Henry Lloyd straight away then. Do you know him?’

‘I’d recognise him by sight. Folk speak well of him.’ Arthur closed his eyes, murmuring, ‘I hope I don’t wake up and find this is all a dream.’

 

Henry Lloyd studied the man Biff Higgins had brought to see him. ‘You  don’t need to prove who you are, Mr Chapman. I used to see you around town when you worked for Sam Redfern. After you lost your wife, you seemed to vanish, and when I wanted to find you, I couldn’t.’

‘Well, it’s good that you can identify him yourself,’ Biff said. ‘That’ll save me one job. What do we need to do next, Mr Lloyd?’

‘I’ll contact Mr Neven and we’ll get him to send us the key to the third house.’ Henry turned back to Arthur, and added,

‘Miss Chapman said those houses weren’t to be opened up again until the heirs had been found, just kept weatherproof. So I’m no wiser about the contents than you are.’

‘It’s a strange business altogether,’ Biff said.

‘But kindly meant. Both Miss Chapman and her nephew were very pleasant people to deal with. Now, where can I con- tact you, Mr Chapman?’

Arthur flushed, looking embarrassed. ‘I don’t have proper lodgings. You could leave a message for me at the church hostel in East Rivenshaw. I earn my night’s shelter there by doing some cleaning, and they let me leave my spare clothes in the cellar, but no one can stay there during the day so I never know where I’ll be then.’

Biff had seen unemployed men both here and in London walking the streets in the daytime come rain or shine, some carrying bundles, some without any possessions.

Mr Lloyd nodded. ‘I’ll do that.’ He glanced at the clock. ‘Now, if you two will wait in reception, I’ll telephone Mr Neven and see if we’re in time for him to send the house key here by the overnight express service.’

He came out to join them again a few minutes later. ‘They’ve just got time to catch today’s post, so the key will arrive in Rivenshaw late tomorrow morning. Perhaps you’d like to check tomorrow that it’s arrived, then bring Mr Chapman to meet me at the house at one o’clock in the afternoon, Mr Higgins, then we can hand everything over?’

Both men nodded, then Biff turned to Arthur. ‘There’s something else I need to tell you, Mr Chapman. Because of the difficulties the heirs had last time, with Higgerson trying to bully them to sell him the properties at a knock-down price, Mr Neven has hired me to keep an eye on you for a week or two and help you settle in. Will that be all right with you?’

Arthur looked from one to the other in puzzlement. ‘Higgerson wants my house?’

Mr Lloyd nodded. ‘Yes, and you know what he’s like. You’ll definitely need to be on your guard, Mr Chapman.’

Biff knew what he still had to tell the heir would give him further difficulties, so he tried to think how to cheer the poor fellow up. As they left the lawyer’s rooms, he asked, ‘Would you like to see your house from the outside today?’

‘I’d like to, of course I would, but it depends where it is. I can’t afford bus fares, and my shoes have holes in the soles, so I can’t walk very far. I put fresh cardboard in them every morning, but it soon wears through, especially on rainy days.’

He saw Biff’s pitying expression at this admission and added, ‘I made a vow after I stopped boozing to tell the truth

– when it doesn’t hurt anyone but me, that is – so I’m not pre- tending about how broke I am.’

‘Well, I have my car and was expecting to drive you there and back. I’ll need to give you some more information after you’ve seen the house. You’ll understand better then why I’m here.’

He shrugged. ‘I’ll do whatever you and the lawyers think best. Where is this house exactly?’

‘Backshaw Moss.’

Arthur looked disappointed. ‘If it’s in that slum, it can’t be up to much – though anything’s welcome, of course.’

‘It’s quite a nice house, actually, the end one on Daisy Street, so not in the bad part of Backshaw Moss. What’s more, the council knocked down the row of slum dwellings that was on the other side of the street at that end, and they’ve built a row of new houses in their place. They’ve worked quickly, and the new places are almost finished. So where your house is situated is being transformed into a respectable area.’

‘Eh, that’s a relief. I’ve had enough of living in slums this past year, I can tell you. Thank you for that offer to drive me there, Mr Higgins. Once again I’m grateful to you, an’ I won’t forget your kindness. I can’t wait to see the house. Maybe even that Hicks woman will let me see my granddaughter now.’

And maybe, Biff thought, he could help him with that as well. He could try, anyway. Not being from the valley, he didn’t know who this Ruby Hicks was, but he’d make it his business to find out and get a look at her and the child, who clearly meant so much to her grandfather.