Secrets, Shame, and a Shoebox by LB Griffin

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London 1950s and everyone has a secret

When Harriet Laws loses her grandmother and her job, her happy life in London seems over. Alone, grief-stricken and penniless, she thinks wildly of ending it all. Fate steps in as Tom Fletcher saves her, gives her hope, and guides her to new employment. He takes her to dinner, and she finds him attractive. He’s older, but she doesn’t mind. Does he?
Tom, a quiet, hardworking man, is unsure of Harriet’s feelings, but he’s also very busy building his business interests. So it’s no wonder a suave, sophisticated fellow walks off with Harriet right under Tom’s nose.
What follows, no one could have predicted, as Harriet not only loses contact with all her friends but must again fight for her very life…will she ever see Tom again?

Chapter 16

Mrs. Smith was the first to arrive at Mrs. Gaffney’s. With baby Elizabeth fast asleep in her pram, the landlady suggested she come in the back way so as not to wake the sleeping child.

“As it’s such a lovely day, we’re having tea in the garden. I’ll walk with you and open the gate,” offered Harriet.

“Don’t be long, Harriet,” said Mrs. Gaffney, looking pensive.

“We won’t, Mrs. G.”

“I’m so glad you could make it, Mrs. Smith.” They were making their way along the back lane with its mishmash of wobbling back walls and weeds nudging between mortar.

“It was such a kind invitation I could hardly refuse.” Mrs. Smith expertly traversed the pram past nettles and under an overhanging purple laburnum. They arrived at the back gate just in time to hear the doorbell.

“Mrs. Smith, please make yourself comfortable.” And Mrs. Smith thanked Harriet, parked the pram in a shaded spot, and found a seat. Harriet found Mrs. Gaffney talking to a woman on the doorstep.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Harris.”

“Call me Dotty, luv.” She smiled, exposing two crossed front teeth. “Don’t suppose you want us to stand on ceremony. Especially if we are gonna be friends.” Dotty glanced through to the hallway and adjusted the apron covering her robust figure.

“I’m glad you could make it, Dotty,” said Mrs. Gaffney affably. “Harriet will show you through. Mrs. Smith is already here.”

“Nice gaff, Mrs. Gaffney,” Dotty called back the moment she reached the kitchen, having opened every door on the way, including the under-stair cupboard. “Now, you behave yourself, Charlie. No pickin’ your nose or touching things. I can’t afford no breakages!” Harriet caught Mrs. Gaffney’s wry smile. Charlie, at three years old, was certainly growing to be like his mother, eyes, and hands everywhere. If Dotty didn’t keep a close watch, something would surely be broken, and it just might put the kibosh on the whole thing. As Dotty disappeared into the garden with Charlie, a heavily pregnant Mrs. O’Connell arrived carrying her youngest, Mikey, angled carefully on her hip. Her other three children stood obediently by her side, all very well turned out, the boy with his hair slicked down, and the girls’ bunches tied in pink ribbons. “Welcome! Shall I take the weight off?” Mrs. Gaffney offered to carry Mikey, her eyes innocently traveling to Mrs. O’Connell’s underdeveloped legs supported by callipers.

“Thank you,” said Mrs. O’Connell, surprised at the offer. Polio, thought Harriet. She had seen so much of it in children as she grew up but puzzled why the woman would wear a roll-neck jumper on such a hot day. “Such pretty girls, Mrs. O’Connell, and your boy, so handsome,” said Mrs. Gaffney. Declan looked quite embarrassed, but the girls wriggled in pleasure at the compliment. “As it’s sunny, we are having tea in the garden. Children, go with Harriet. There are crayons and paper. I expect you like to draw.” Mrs. Gaffney seemed to have lost her concerned edge, and in its place softness crept in.

“Hello, Florrie, ’ow’s business?” Dotty Harris wandered out from the kitchen. “Lovely tea set, Mrs. Gaffney.” She turned to Florrie. “You want to see this place. Done up real good, and the garden’s a treat.” She held out a strong hand. “Come on, girls, my Charlie’s out the back, and you’ll never believe who else is!” A light sigh escaped Mrs. O’Connell as Dotty herded the children along. Harriet smiled and quickly introduced Mrs. Smith as they entered the warmth of the garden, but Mrs. O’Connell instantly pinked. “It won’t come off, you know,” said Dotty. “I thought it would come off. Look!” She showed the palm of her hand to the women. Harriet and Mrs. Gaffney’s eyes flashed in dismay. Harriet was about to interject, but Dotty was on a roll. “Sorry, luv, but we all thinks it, don’t we?” She continued full pelt. “Your skin, Mrs. Smith, it’s just like chocolate. I always thought it would come off.” She shrugged. “’eard that from ignorant folks ’round ’ere. Not you haven’t got great skin, by the way. All smooth and seam-free. What do you use on it? Some super new cold cream or what? Whatever it is, I need some! My face and legs have gone just like a crusty old loaf.” Mrs. Smith began laughing, rich and warm as the summer breeze. “What?”

“My, my, and here I was thinking your skin so pasty white must be like icing sugar and sprinkling dust everywhere,” said Mrs. Smith wryly, “but I guess your skin won’t taste any more like icing than mine does chocolate.” The rest of the women’s eyes were wide, waiting for Dotty to fly off the handle, but all she did was laugh her head off.

“You’re a funny one, Mrs. Smith. Never thought me skin to be like icing sugar. But thinkin’ about it, you got a point. That makes us both kinda sweet, don’t it?” She grinned. “I think we’re gonna get on like a house on fire, Mrs. Smith.”

“I do hope so. Why don’t you call me Patience?”

“Right-e-oh, Patience.” Dotty smiled back. Harriet saw the relief in Mrs. Gaffney’s face.

“My name’s Florrie.” Mrs. O’Connell’s callipers clicked as she sat down, drawing a breath and looking more flushed in the heat. “I reckon we could all become good friends, don’t you?”

“That would be lovely,” said Patience as Dotty smiled a crossed-tooth grin. “She’s all right, ain’t she, girls?” And the women allowed themselves a nod and a smile, and with it the awkward moment passed.

“Dotty’s right, though,” said Florrie, looking closely at Patience. “Your skin is beautiful. What is it you use, exactly?” Mrs. Gaffney was just bringing a tray of tea and buns cut into quarters when Dotty yelled. “Charlie, you little bugger! What did I tell you?” Charlie, holding a china ash tray in his pudgy fingers, immediately dropped it. The ashtray smashed on the ground and into a thousand tiny pieces. Dotty flicked him around the head with the back of her hand. “What did I say?” Mrs. Gaffney stood stock still, holding the tea tray, gazing at Charlie’s face puckering into a cry, and then calmly took control.

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“Tea is served, ladies.” Casting an eye over the area dotted with broken china, she added, “A gift from my mother-in-law. I didn’t care for her, and I hated that. Now, children, who would like a piece of sticky bun?”