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Authors: Freda Lightfoot

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BOOK: Angels at War
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Mercy gave a cocky little laugh, loving the fact that she’d managed to inflict some hurt by
her efforts. ‘If you can’t keep your own husband happy, that’s your problem, not mine. All I did was smile at him.’

‘Well, make sure you don’t do any more than that.’

‘Or what?’

‘Or you’ll find yourself out of work and on your way back to Kendal, half-sister or no.’

‘Maybe Amos wouldn’t let me go. He does at least seem to appreciate having me around, which is more than can be said for you.’

‘That’s because you never do a hand’s turn. This burning resentment you seem to feel against me, this peevish determination to make my life a complete misery, is testing my patience to the limits. I know you’ve had problems, Mercy, but you aren’t the only one.’

‘Ooer, don’t try playing the sympathy card with me, it won’t wash. Anyroad, mebbe I’m tired of doing other folk’s bidding.’

‘Oh, grow up! It’s time you stopped moaning and started doing something useful with your life, instead of feeling sorry for yourself all the time. You have a good job and a lovely husband, so keep your greedy little mitts off mine.’

Mercy was incensed by this attack, even if there was some truth in it. Ella was supposed to be quiet and uncomplaining, not stand up for herself like some fishwife. ‘Isn’t this a case of the
pot calling the kettle black? I’ve seen you sucking up to my George, flirting with him and fluttering your eyelashes whenever he starts flattering you or performing his silly tricks. Well, don’t think he fancies you, ’cos it’s all a farce just to butter you up.’

Ella could feel herself going scarlet with embarrassment. It was true there had been a time when she’d been flattered by George’s attention, but not now, not since she fell in love with her own husband. But her sense of guilt perhaps caused her to react somewhat recklessly, fired by her anger. ‘I’m not interested in
your
George. The man is a nut case. He’s as stupid and out of control as you. I wouldn’t have him if you paid me. You’re welcome to him.’

‘You lying tart!’ Mercy suddenly launched herself at Ella, taking her completely by surprise, and, grabbing fistfuls of her hair, started shaking her as a terrier might a rat. ‘What gives you the right to criticise my George?’

The force of the attack knocked Ella to the ground, and soon the two girls were screaming and shrieking as they rolled over and over in the mud. Legs and arms were flailing, fingers clawing at each other.

‘Don’t treat me like a bleeding fool, ’cos I’m not,’ Mercy yelled. ‘You keep yer flamin’ hands off him, right?’

She was utterly demented, almost with a blood lust upon her. Clumps of Ella’s hair were coming out in her hands, her nails digging in to Ella’s scalp as she did her utmost to beat her brains to a pulp on the hard ground.

‘This is just a taste of what’s coming to you if you step on my toes. Leave my George alone or you’ll regret it,’ and grabbing hold of Ella’s hand, she bit it – hard – making the other girl scream out in agony.

George must have heard the rumpus for he came running out of the barn and managed to drag Mercy off, although not without some difficulty.

‘What the bleeding ’ell do you think you’re doing?’ he shouted at her.

‘Ask her.
She
knows,’ Mercy shouted, kicking out at Ella and fighting off George all at the same time. Then she put her chin in the air and marched off. She struck such a comic figure in her skimpy, mud-splattered frock that Ella might have laughed out loud, had it not all been so terribly tragic.

Losing her temper had done no good at all. Livia knew she hadn’t achieved half what she’d intended. Why hadn’t she talked to him rationally about what might be done for Angel’s? Why hadn’t she told him her own ideas? Because she’d been so determined that far from allowing him to tear a strip off her, she’d go in first, all guns blazing. But oh dear, was that the right thing to do?

She slept badly and still felt low the next morning, really quite bleary-eyed as she took up her station on the lingerie counter.

Each day the emporium was invaded by an army of overdressed, overfed ladies, the veritable cream of the county, who sailed majestically forth, ordering the floorwalkers and assistants about with an imperious flick of their gloved
hand. On no account was anyone permitted to hurry these paragons, for all they stretched patience to breaking point while they dithered over Antwerp lace or silk braid, cream or white kid gloves.

‘I think today you are ready to serve your first customer,’ Mrs Dee informed her.

Livia paled. ‘Are you quite sure I’m up to it?’

Her mentor laughed. ‘Perfectly certain. You will do fine.’

Livia’s first customer caused no problems, requiring as she did only two yards of navy blue ribbon. Not wanting to make a mistake with Mrs Dee watching, Livia directed the customer to the chair provided while she measured out the required length and cut it with the silver scissors that hung from a tape on the edge of the counter.

Her fingers shook as she carefully wrote out the bill, placed it in the cash container that hung from the Lamson’s overhead railway and pulled the cord. These marvellous feats of engineering carried a customer’s money and change to and from the shop cash desk, which was situated in a box-like office high in the far corner of the store. Both Livia and the customer watched in awe as it whizzed across the ceiling on the miniature cable, where unseen hands withdrew the bill and sent the correct change swishing back to her.

Mrs Dee handed Livia a paper of pins as she
nodded her approval. But as she moved away to serve another lady, Livia leant towards the customer and said, ‘You may have the farthing change, if you prefer.’

‘I really don’t mind.’

Glancing over her shoulder to check she wasn’t overheard, Livia said, ‘Ah, but the farthing would in fact be better value.’

‘In that case I’ll take it,’ and exchanging a conspiratorial smile, she pocketed the farthing and her parcel, bid Livia good-day and left.

‘And what was that little trick all about?’

Livia almost jumped out of her skin. Turning slowly, she faced the supervisor. Caught in the act, her face the colour of beetroot, there seemed little point in denying the crime. ‘I … I merely offered her a choice.’

Miss Caraway drew herself up to her not inconsiderable height and glowered at Livia. ‘It is not your task in life to offer choice to a customer, certainly not where change is concerned. A paper of pins in lieu of a farthing is the department’s policy and you will abide by that rule.’

‘I hardly think it a fair one, and feel it should be changed.’

Now it was Miss Caraway who turned puce, with fury. ‘How dare you criticise the policy made by your betters? And yes, I do choose my words with care. Your father most certainly
knew how to run a business, and turn a profit.’

‘My father went bankrupt.’ The changing shades of purple to crimson and then to ash white in the woman’s long angular face were fascinating to behold, so much so that Livia felt almost sorry for her, and rushed on, ‘True, the reason for that was more to do with his weakness for gambling and women, rather than his business faculties.’

Miss Caraway pursed her lips. ‘Since you yourself accept that the firm cannot afford such losses, you will be charged a sixpenny fine for insubordination.’

‘Sixpence? But I haven’t received any wages yet,’ Livia protested.

‘Nor will you at this rate, gel,’ came the unforgiving reply.

Watching as the ramrod back stalked away, Livia thought how easily the hard-earned wages, low as they were, could swiftly disappear. If she and Jack were ever to get out of Fellside, they badly needed every penny, and she’d have to behave in future if she was to steer clear of this iniquitous fine system.

Soon it would be her first day off and she couldn’t wait to see Jack again. She’d missed him terribly and longed to see him. Livia looked forward to relating all that had happened to her and how she hoped to improve things in future
not only for the two of them, but for the shop girls too. He’d surely be pleased about that. He would also be so delighted to see her that all their differences would be forgotten. At least, she hoped so.

Then why did she feel this sense of gloom and despondency? What on earth was wrong with her?

 

Thursday came at last, and Livia wheeled her bicycle out onto Highgate, excited at the prospect of a day off. She intended to buy a nice bit of ham for their tea and spoil Jack with some home cooking. They deserved a little celebration, if only because she’d got herself this good job at the store. Livia was tying up her hair and pinning on her sensible felt hat when she heard footsteps behind her. Turning, she was surprised to see that it wasn’t one of the young shop assistants, but Matthew Grayson himself.

‘Miss Angel, I’m so glad I caught you. Could I just have a moment of your time, perhaps over a cup of coffee?’

Caught off-guard, Livia wasn’t certain how to answer. ‘I’m not in the habit of taking refreshment with men other than my fiancé,’ she told him rather stuffily.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. Quite right.’ He sounded oddly uncertain as he blundered on. ‘Look, I believe we
got off to rather a bad start the other day and wondered if we could try again. I had no wish to cause offence, and of course you are perfectly free to attend whatever meeting you wish.’

‘How kind of you to say so,’ Livia tartly remarked, and then felt a rush of shame as colour rose in his throat. He still wasn’t wearing a jacket, and again the collar of his shirt was open, giving him an air almost of vulnerability. The man was apologising to her and she had rebuffed him yet again. ‘I dare say both our tempers did get a bit heated,’ she conceded more kindly, keeping her gaze fixed upon his waistcoat. It was of silk in a grey-green check that matched his eyes, carelessly unbuttoned.

He pushed long fingers through the dark brown curls, tousling them still further. ‘I agree there is much that could be achieved here, but sometimes I feel as if I’m ploughing through a quagmire.’

Unable to help herself, Livia dragged her gaze from the waistcoat and raised her eyes to meet his. She was startled by the bleakness she saw there, as if she was staring into a chasm filled with despair and loneliness. The sight of so much pain shocked her and her heart melted with concern.

Perhaps he sensed some empathy in her gaze for he took a step closer. ‘The harder I push, the less progress I make. People keep telling me this,
that or the other isn’t the way things are done at Angel’s.’

‘Yes,’ she said, gazing entranced into his eyes, her mind still worrying over what could be wrong with him. ‘They say that to me, too.’

‘Do they?’

‘It is most frustrating, I agree.’

‘It certainly is.’ He came closer still, till they were but inches apart, and for one wild,
heart-stopping
moment she thought he might be about to kiss her. In a breathless panic she stepped back, caught her foot in the stirrup of her bicycle pedal and fell flat on her bottom. ‘Oh, goodness!’

‘Miss Angel, are you all right, allow me to help you.’

‘I can manage perfectly well, thank you.’ She was all in a fluster, taking his outstretched hand and then dropping it as if it scalded her. ‘Like all men you expect to have things all your own way,’ she tartly informed him, dusting down her skirt.

‘Do I?’ he mildly enquired, starting to help with the dusting and then stopping as she cast him a quelling glance.

‘If no one is listening to you, then perhaps you’re talking to the wrong people. Speak to the women who actually deal with the customers.’

He gave a brittle little laugh. ‘I suppose that’s the kind of remark one would expect from a committed suffragette.’

The spell was broken, and with mingled relief and regret Livia got to her feet and began to strap her flapping skirt hem out of the way of the pedals. She did so hate to lose her dignity. ‘Did it never occur to you that, given the chance, I too could contribute a great deal to the smooth running of this store?’

This time when she turned to him, there was a new resolve in her gaze, and a determination to have her say. ‘For a start, I would abolish the shopping-through system. Customers should be allowed the freedom to browse and look about the store in peace without being accosted the moment they enter, handed from counter to counter and not allowed any will of their own.’

‘Do you not think customers like to be treated with proper deference?’

‘They would continue to be so treated, but with the added opportunity to browse at will.’

He looked doubtful. ‘Miss Caraway would never approve. She would say, “That is not the way things are done at Angel’s.”’

‘Miss Caraway will have to be dragged into the twentieth century, kicking and screaming if necessary. It is long past time such Victorian niceties were abandoned,’ returned Livia with equal firmness. ‘If we wish this shop to survive, and to appeal to a wider range of people in future, then we should drop these outmoded methods.
Many customers find the constant calling of a floorwalker to attend them intimidating. We must move with the times. We should also provide ladies with a powder room, and a small tea shop where they can meet with their friends. Oh, and I really must talk to you about the state of the shop windows.’

‘I agree,’ he said, interrupting and quite taking her breath away as he began to laugh. ‘You’re absolutely right, Livia. May I call you Livia? Angel’s should indeed transform itself into one of the new class of department stores which offer customers the freedom to explore its delights to the full. Some of the London stores are even putting in moving staircases. Wonderful to behold. Why, people could spend all day here. Shop, take lunch, meet friends, write letters. Why not?’

Livia found herself smiling at this burst of enthusiasm, a stir of excitement lighting within herself, and she couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Why not indeed? It could become the place for gossip as well as the latest fashions. Oh, and there’s another thing. We could hold a fashion show. I believe they are all the rage in Paris.’

Matthew thought how very pretty she was, how much more charming now that she was relaxed and not verbally beating him over the head. Her ideas were not only imaginative but
represented the needs of the people who would use the store, an astuteness which he could only admire. He’d always enjoyed the cut and thrust of business but had never expected to find a woman to match him in that enthusiasm. Even Catriona had shown no interest in family business matters. He shut his mind to that thought, but just as Livia prepared to cycle away to enjoy her day off, he added one last suggestion.

‘I wonder if we could continue this discussion more fully at a later date. I would take it as a great service if you would agree to come to dinner one evening, your fiancé too, of course.’

‘Oh!’ Livia was dumbstruck, knowing Jack would resist the idea.

‘I live in Windermere, close by the lake.’

‘How lovely for you.’ Livia felt her heart sink. Jack would absolutely refuse to visit what was bound to be a rather grand establishment. ‘I’m not sure that business should be discussed in a social setting.’

‘I can think of no better way to discuss such important issues than when everyone is relaxed and has the time to talk things through properly. I really do want to hear all your ideas. Shall we say Sunday at one o’clock for lunch? I’ll send the car for you.’

Now she was the one blushing. The very idea of a car drawing up to collect them from the
stews of Fellside was too dreadful to contemplate. Jack would have a fit. ‘No, no, that won’t be necessary. We can make our own arrangements, thank you.’

‘As you wish. Till Sunday then. I shall look forward to it.’

Livia cycled away, wobbling slightly as she was acutely aware of his gaze still upon her.

 

Livia heard the rumpus halfway up Fountain Brow, and by the time she reached the Hyena Inn she knew, even before she was close enough to see the identity of the two men sprawling in the filthy gutter, that one of them was Jack. A crowd had gathered to enjoy the fun, and as she hurried over to help him up, a small child squatted happily beside them, revealing a bare backside red raw with sores as she lifted her smock to pee. A common enough occurrence on Fellside, but somehow more shocking by the child’s oblivion to the fighting men close by.

Fountain Brow was the main thoroughfare through the maze of cottages that leant at all angles, as drunken as many of the occupants within. And the Hyena wasn’t the only inn to offer blissful oblivion from the misery of their surroundings. There was the Black Cock, the Rule and Square and The Rock, to name but three that Jack frequented on a regular basis.
There were plenty more. When had he started drinking like this? When the weaving and knitting industry had died? When he lost his job at the stocking factory, worsening when Jessie took the children off to Staveley? Or when she’d refused to marry him?

Livia tried to grab his arm. ‘Stop fighting, Jack. Stop it. Please come home!’

‘Lay off him, lady. Come away or he’ll clock you one too.’ An old man tried to protect her, but he was too late. A stray fist flew out and made contact with her chin. The next instant Livia was the one sprawled on her back in the litter and filth and fag ends. Very slowly, she focused on Jack’s anxious face hovering over her.

‘Are you all right, love? That were Harry’s fault, not mine. He never did have a good aim.’

She said nothing as he helped her to her feet and half carried her home, then fetched a cloth and iodine to bathe her bruises. But the anger was bubbling inside and finally burst forth.

BOOK: Angels at War
6.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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