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FREE EXTRACT – A Valley Secret by Anna Jacobs

A Valley Secret by Anna Jacobs




Lancashire 1928–1936


One evening when her mother had had more to drink than usual at the pub where she worked, Maisie Bassett tried yet again to find out about her father. ‘All I know is his name. I’m nearly eighteen now. Surely you can tell me more?’
After a pause Ida said softly, as if talking to herself, ‘He weren’t called Bassett, so you don’t know anything. I just picked that name off a label on a box of liquorice allsorts when I found I was expecting. I bought a wedding ring and came to have my baby in Rochdale.’ She gave a wry smile.
‘Oh, I made such a sad, grieving young widow!’
She dashed away a quick tear at that memory.
‘What was my father really called, then?’
‘Mmm? Oh, Lawson. Simeon Lawson.’
‘What happened to him?’
But her mother had fallen asleep. In the morning, when Maisie brought this up with her, Ida gaped at her daughter.
‘I never said he was called that. ’Cos he wasn’t.’
Her daughter could usually tell when she was lying, so was fairly sure that had been her real father’s name.
She tried several times over the following years to get more information about this Simeon Lawson, but Ida always
denied everything and never spoke of Maisie’s father again.

‘It’s in the past an’ that’s where it should be left. Never let a bad patch pull you down. Get on with living, I allus say. I’ve had to, haven’t I, or I’d have gone mad?’
Her mother had indeed got on with living, the girl thought enviously. Ida enjoyed her job and lived comfortably on her wages because customers gave her generous tips. What’s more, the landlady at the pub knew a good worker when she found one, so passed on leftover food as a bonus. It was a good thing she did, because Ida hated cooking and meals were mostly bread and jam or dripping, and sometimes fish and chips from the shop round the corner.


Then, four years later, Maisie lost all chance of finding out more about her father because her mother died suddenly at the age of forty-seven, coming down with a heavy cold which rapidly turned into pneumonia. Even though a neighbour drove her and Maisie to hospital, she continued to struggle for breath and the doctors couldn’t save her.

Ida begged her daughter to give her a decent funeral and a marked grave, gasping it out a couple of words at a time, but died before she could explain how to pay for it.

Maisie had stood staring down at her mother’s body, feeling upset. How could she afford even the cheapest funeral when there was hardly anything left in the housekeeping jar on the mantelpiece? Her mother had never saved a penny that she knew of, had not only spent the money she earned but had even taken most of her daughter’s wages from the shop at first, till Maisie protested.
Hearing about the lack of money for Ida Potter’s funeral, the customers at the pub had a whip round and the landlady topped it up to provide enough for the cheapest funeral and a grave in the poorer part of the cemetery.


The day after the funeral Maisie began clearing out their small flat ready to move into lodgings, which would be cheaper.
She picked up her mother’s sewing box and studied it, wondering whether it was worth keeping.
Ida had always referred to it as ‘my grannie’s box’. It was scuffed and scratched and had hardly ever been used for its original purpose because her mother had loathed sewing and hadn’t mended clothes unless she was desperate. Yet for some reason, that box had gone with them on every one of the many house moves they’d made.
Maisie had been forbidden even to touch it as a child, on pain of a good smacking, and once she’d learned to sew properly at school, her mother had bought her a sewing box of her own. From then on, she’d had to do her own mending and alterations. Since she liked to look nice, she’d persevered and even asked her needlework teacher’s help a couple of times after school.
She easily came top of most classes, but her mother only shrugged and never offered a word of praise. ‘What good does all that reading and writing do anyone?’
Ah, what did that old pain matter now? Maisie picked up the box which was her only family inheritance. She’d hardly ever touched it before. It was bigger than hers and wouldn’t look bad if she polished it up. Yes, she’d tidy out the mess inside and use this one from now on.

She sold her mother’s clothes to the second-hand dealer at the market because she was taller than Ida and built more sturdily. Every penny would help. She also sold most of the furniture because she’d be living in one cheaper room from
now on.
After emptying the box, she began gently sponging the faded red brocade lining in an attempt to freshen it up.
Something rustled underneath it so she tried to find out what was causing it, surprised to discover an opening hidden under a fold of material at one corner. She poked her fingers inside and felt some papers pushed right up under the decorative trim at the top.
What had her mother been hiding? She wriggled the bundle out bit by bit and squeaked in shock as she found herself holding some neatly folded banknotes. Ida must have been saving for years on the sly.
Maisie marvelled as she counted the notes slowly and carefully. There were fifty-six pound notes hidden in the lining.
It seemed a fortune to her.
And she’d nearly thrown the box away! Oh, Mum! How could you be such a fool? Anyone could have stolen this. She felt around in the box again to make sure she hadn’t missed anything and as she did, something else rustled further along. She had to wriggle it about to get it out without tearing it. It was her birth certificate and it said ‘father unknown’, showing anyone who cared to study it that she was illegitimate.
She was tempted to burn it, but didn’t. For good or ill, it was all she had to show about where she came from, and it did have the names of her mother’s parents: Frank and Primrose Fletcher.
Was that all? She felt around behind the lining and found one more thing. A letter from Simeon Lawson. It said he was going to London where he’d been promised a job. He would come back for Ida once he had enough money saved.
The letter had little smudges on it, as if her mother had cried over it. Maisie sat staring at it in shock. It was the first time she’d had proof of what her mother had told her once, and once only: her father really was this Simeon Lawson. But he’d never come back, had he? What had happened to him in London?
She had a little weep for her mother, left on her own with a baby to bring up. Like Ida had done, she too had to move
on now. She slipped the two papers and the money back inside the lining and dried her eyes.
You could weep as much as you wanted, but it didn’t bring back a loved one who’d died.


The next day, terrified of someone stealing it, she took the money to the bank and asked to open a savings account. To her dismay the teller counted the notes, then looked her up and down scornfully. ‘Where did someone like you get such a large amount of money? I think we’d better ask the manager about this. And don’t try to run away.’ He signalled to the doorman and sent the office lad running to fetch the manager.
Mr Stavener also looked at her suspiciously and demanded to know how she’d got that much money, so Maisie asked if she could speak to him privately.
After a moment’s hesitation he took her into his office. ‘Well, Miss Bassett?’
‘My mother died a few days ago. She’d hidden this in her sewing box, under the lining. Fifty-six pounds. Just imagine, all that money left lying around. She must have been saving for years.’
Her companion shuddered visibly.
She put on a scared voice. ‘I don’t like to keep so much money in the house, Mr Stavener, so I thought I’d put it in the bank. It’ll be safe here, won’t it?’
He nodded, looking at her differently now, then answered in an almost fatherly tone. ‘This is the safest place of all, young lady, and the money will earn you interest as well, which means just over a pound will be added every year you keep that much money with us.’

She knew perfectly well what interest meant, but tried to look amazed.

‘I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, Miss Bassett, but you seem to have more sense than your mother, a lot more.’
She let out a sigh, relieved that he’d believed her tale. ‘I’ve been saving some of my wages in the Post Office Savings Bank for a while now, but perhaps I should add that money to this in my new account? What do you think? I have nearly twelve pounds saved. Look.’

She took the bank book out of her shopping bag and showed him. As she’d expected that made him look at her with even more respect. She went back to work the next day and drew most of her money out of the post office account during her lunch break. When she took that into the bank, Mr Stavener noticed her through the glass panel in his office and came out to fuss over her and say once more how wise she was to be so careful. Once again she lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘I’m ever
so grateful for your advice, sir. You, um, won’t tell anyone else about this money, will you? I don’t want men pestering me to marry them because they want to get their hands on my savings.’
‘You can always rely on the bank’s discretion about customers’ accounts. I think you’re very wise to keep your savings secret. Don’t hesitate to ask my advice about money. It’s my job to help our customers and you seem to have no one else to turn to.’

From then on she continued to add to her savings, and got tears in her eyes the first time she was paid interest on her account. How wonderful to see her money increase. She began to feel a real hope of one day being able to buy a small cottage, something which had been her dream for years. She and her mother had never even rented a whole house, just rooms. From what she’d read in the newspapers, no bank would allow a single woman, even an older one, to take out a mortgage, so she’d have to save the whole amount.

Was that possible? It had to be. When she grew too old to work she’d need somewhere to live where she didn’t pay rent. She sometimes marvelled at how different she was from her flighty mother, who’d craved fun and the attention of men. All Maisie longed for was security and a quiet life. Once her daughter had turned twenty, Ida had spoken more frankly about how she spent her spare time. She said she enjoyed being bedded by a fine, strong fellow, and Maisie should try it. There was no feeling as good as doing it. As long as you were careful – and she’d even explained how to be careful, to her daughter’s huge embarrassment. Her mother’s suggestion had horrified her, still did. The love of bed play had clearly been Ida’s weakness and explained how she’d fallen pregnant without being married.
Maisie wasn’t going down that path. She didn’t trust men at all, especially not the younger ones.


The trouble was, after Ida’s death, some men seemed to be expecting Maisie to be as immoral as her mother. This showed no signs of stopping, in spite of her leading a blameless life and attending church regularly, so in the end she decided to move away from Rochdale and hopefully leave the taint of her mother’s reputation behind.
Perhaps she should change her name while she was at it so that no one would be able to connect her to Ida. Could you do this by some legal method or did you just change it? She’d have to find out. She decided to look around for jobs elsewhere, but first told the manager of the shop where she worked why she needed to move. Mr Vaughan went to the same church and was a kind man.

He listened carefully and nodded, ‘You’re right to protect yourself. I too have heard rumours, which I knew to be false. I’ll keep my ears open for jobs.’

A few weeks later he told her about a job in a town called Rivenshaw in a valley on the edge of the Pennines, and both he and Mr Stavener gave her glowing references when she applied for the position.

Maisie didn’t care where she went, she just wanted to start a new life and save her money. The job was in a big grocery store, which was the sort of work she’d been doing already. There would be no chance of promotion wherever she worked because only men got promoted to manager.

She knew some of her mother’s family still lived in Rivenshaw, but she didn’t intend to contact any of them. From what her mother had said, they sounded to be a feckless lot, which was another reason for changing her name.

With Mr Stavener’s help, she arranged to transfer all her money from the local bank to a branch in Rivenshaw, and when she explained to him that she wanted to change her name because of her mother’s reputation and asked him how to do it legally, he helped her with that as well.

She chose the name Lawson this time. Why not? Her mother had been telling the truth about who her father was, so she was entitled to it. Well, sort of entitled, given that the two of them hadn’t actually been married. She didn’t let anyone she worked with know where she was going, and hired a man with a van to take her and her possessions there, giving him only her new surname. Her new manager in Rivenshaw recommended seeking lodgings with a Mrs Tucker, so Maisie wrote and arrangedthat, again needing to give references.

It was a good choice. There were other women there, the place was immaculately clean, and the food was good. It was cheaper than trying to get a room of her own, and there was company in the evenings when she wanted it.

That was as good a life as she could expect.


Maisie settled in easily, attending her new church regularly, even though this minister’s sermons were rather boring. But for a young woman on her own, church was the best place to meet people and make friends, as well as establishing that you were respectable.

She enjoyed living in Rivenshaw, which was a small town, at the lower end of a Pennine valley, so she could go for walks on fine weekends with some of the other lodgers, or catch the midday bus to the tiny village of Ellindale and buy a glass of ginger beer at the small shop there, then walk the few miles down the hill back to Rivenshaw.

The trouble was, for all her precautions, men still wouldn’t leave her alone. At least this time they kept trying to court her honourably, telling her she was beautiful and looking at her in a stupid, soppy way.

She was at her wits’ end how to stop this, dressed as plainly as she could, scraping her hair back into an old-fashioned low bun. But however hard she tried not to draw attention to herself in any way, men still pestered her.

She became almost a hermit, not going out much apart from work, church or outings with the other lodgers. For entertainment she borrowed books from the library. That was free, and anyway, she loved reading, not just stories but books which told you about the wider world.

Perhaps if she saved hard, one day her dream really would come true: a cottage with a small garden where she could grow flowers and vegetables, feed the birds, and sit peacefully in the garden on fine days.