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Authors: Annie Groves

Tags: #Sagas, #War & Military, #Historical, #Fiction

London Belles

BOOK: London Belles
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London Belles


I’d like to dedicate this book to all those who throughout WW2 made do,
mended and somehow kept together the fabric of everyday life.


‘So what are you going to do now that old Bert has finally gone, Olive? I mean, you won’t have his pension any more, will you? Your Tilly might be working up at the hospital as an assistant to the Lady Almoner, but I dare say she isn’t bringing in very much,’ Nancy Black sniffed.

As Olive knew, Nancy had a keen interest in the business of her neighbours and an even keener nose for ‘problems’ of any kind. She was the kind of person who liked spreading doom and gloom; the kind of person who would complain about the noise children made playing innocently together in the street and then go on to extol the virtues of her own daughter and only child. Some people were inclined to call her a bit of a troublemaker but Olive always tried to give her the benefit of the doubt.

The afternoon sunshine sparkled on the immaculately clean windows of Article Row, the narrow byway that wound between the close interweaving of London streets, within the boundaries of Chancery Lane to the west, Farringdon Road to the east, Fleet Street to the south and from High Holborn to Holborn Viaduct to the north.

Nancy stood, leaning on the broom with which she had been sweeping the short path to her front door whilst she waited for Olive’s answer to her original question about the loss of her father-inlaw’s pension.

The row of fifty narrow three-storey houses, with the addition of their attics and cellars, clinging together as though for mutual protection, had been built, so it was said, by a wealthy East India merchant in the seventeen hundreds, whose fortune had been saved for him by the keen eye of a poor articled clerk working for a pittance for his lawyer. In recognition of his good fortune the East India merchant had had Article Row built, with the houses in it to be rented out for peppercorn rents to help the struggling. After he had lost his money in the South Sea Bubble débâcle, his estate, including the Article Row houses, had been sold, as a result of which Article Row was one of the few places in Holborn where an ordinary working-class family man bringing in a steady wage might buy his own home. Separated by class and stature from the inhabitants of the Inns of Court, and artistic, some said slightly louche Bloomsbury beyond, and by respectability from their poorer neighbours towards the East End and the river, Article Row was a world almost unto itself, its inhabitants living by their own set of rules and observances, one of which was that a front path must always be spotless.

Across the road from the front of the houses were the blank windowless high walls of a succession of buildings that housed various small businesses, some of which employed inhabitants of the Row. These ivy-covered brick walls gave the Row a vague semirural aspect, much cherished by some of the long-standing residents, who felt that Article Row being one single row of houses gave it a special air of gentility.

‘Well, I’ve been thinking about that, and what I’ve a mind to do is take in lodgers.’ Olive looked her neighbour firmly in the eye as she delivered this information. Married at eighteen, widowed a year later when her husband, weakened by the dreadful rigours of the First World War had died from TB, Olive had learned as a young wife how to deal tactfully but firmly with bossy members of her own sex.

Olive had spent all her adult life living under the roof of her husband’s parents, who had taken them in when Jim, their only child, had been poorly, and Olive and Jim’s daughter, Tilly, only a baby. Although Olive would never have said so to anyone, especially a gossipy and sometimes forthright neighbour like Nancy, it hadn’t been easy for her, left motherless at sixteen, and an only child herself, to deal with a strong-willed mother-in-law who adored her only son. Olive’s mother-in-law had not been above hinting that Olive had seized her chance to improve her lot in life by marrying her son, and that that marriage had drained him of what strength he had left, thus hastening his death.

Jim, though – dear kind, gentle person that he had been – had always sworn that their love for one another had given him strength and the desire to hold on to life, especially once he knew that there was to be a baby. How he had loved Tilly. And his mother had softened towards Olive once she had become a grandmother.

Olive had repaid her in-laws’ kindness by nursing first her mother-in-law through ill health to her death, and then more recently her father-in-law, Bert.

A better daughter-in-law than Olive it would be impossible to find, her late mother-in-law had been given to saying in her later years.

‘Lodgers?’ Nancy queried sharply now, breaking into Olive’s thoughts, her narrow face beneath her greying hair taking on an expression of pursed-lipped disapproval. ‘Well, I don’t know about that. That’s not the kind of thing we do round here. I don’t want to disappoint you, Olive, especially with you needing to replace Bert’s pension – after all, no one can live on fresh air – but I’d think twice if I were you. After all, you don’t want people thinking you’re lowering the tone. Of course, if you was to think of selling the house, then I reckon that my daughter and her husband might be willing to take it off your hands.’

Aware that Nancy was trying to manipulate her, Olive smiled pleasantly and pointed out, ‘There’s plenty of houses in the Row already owned by a landlord and rented out.’

‘Yes, but they’re respectable types. After all, most of them work in the civil service for the Government, and they’re decent families who rent the whole house, not just a room. You get all sorts when you just let out a room: young men – and young women – behaving like they shouldn’t. There could be all sorts of goings-on going on.’ Nancy sniffed again, her pursed mouth becoming even more prune-like with disapproval. ‘Anyway, I don’t know how you could take in lodgers, seeing as you’ve only got two bedrooms, same as the rest of us, and there’s you and Tilly living there already.’

‘There’s the attics: that makes two more,’ Olive pointed out calmly. ‘I’ve made up my mind to give it a try, Nancy. Like you said, our Tilly doesn’t bring in that much.’

‘You could go back cleaning, like you did before Bert got took bad. There’s still plenty staying on in the Inns of Court, despite all this talk of war.’

‘Well, that’s another thing, Nancy,’ Olive responded, playing her trump card. ‘Tilly’s been telling me that the Lady Almoner, up the hospital, has been saying that if there is a war then anyone with spare rooms is going to have to take in other folk on the Government’s orders, and to my way of thinking it’s better that I let my rooms now whilst I’ve still got a chance to choose who I have living in them.’

For a few seconds Nancy was silent. But never one to give up on an argument she wanted to win, she announced triumphantly, ‘Well, I’m not saying that I don’t admire you for thinking of it, but you’ll have to be careful, you not having a man around. You don’t want the wrong sort. Like I said before, this is a respectable street and you’ll have some saying they don’t want anyone lowering the tone.’

Yes, and you’d be one of the first to complain, Olive thought wryly.

Nancy shook her head. ‘And as for there being a war, well, I’m telling you now there won’t be one. It’s all just talk, you mark my words.’

‘I hope you’re right, Nancy,’ Olive answered quietly.

Olive knew perfectly well that her plans to let out her spare bedrooms to bring in the money they would need to live on now that her father-in-law had died, and his pension with him, would be all over the street within a couple of hours. It was all right for Nancy, Olive thought wryly. She had a husband who brought in a good wage from his work at a factory where they made artificial limbs, close to Barts Hospital, a business that had boomed, thanks to the Great War. Of course, Nancy would have been delighted if she could have persuaded her to sell her house to Nancy’s daughter, who was married with a child of her own, Olive knew. But Olive loved the neat little house in Article Row she had inherited from her father-inlaw, and had no intention of selling it.

‘So how are you going to get these lodgers then?’ Nancy wanted to know, obviously still eager to disapprove of Olive’s plan.

‘I’ve thought of putting a notice in the papers, and probably in the bakery, if Mrs Macharios will let me.’

‘The bakery? But that’s run by them Greek foreigners. We don’t want any of them coming living here in Article Row, thank you very much.’

Olive suppressed a small sigh. She liked the Greek family – members of Holborn’s Greek Cypriot community – who owned and ran the small bakery two streets away.

‘The Macharioses aren’t just foreigners, Nancy, they are refugees. And very nice and pleasant they are too. Besides, you won’t get any of their girls wanting lodgings, because they are very strict with them and keep them at home until they get married, you know that.’

Nancy gave another sniff. ‘Refugees, is it? We’ve got a sight too many of them already without getting involved in a war with Hitler that will bring in some more.’

Olive kept her peace. She suspected that in the eyes of most of the other inhabitants of Article Row, she herself was something of a ‘refugee and a foreigner’ since she had not been born and brought up in the area. She personally liked the mix of people living in the small houses that filled the narrow backstreets of the area: Greeks, Italians, Jewish people, flood tides of the lost and desperate, washed up by the Thames and left to make lives for themselves as best they could, clustered together in their small communities, clinging to the ways of the countries and homes they had left.

Nancy’s sharp tongue, though, was a small price to pay for the pleasure of living in Article Row, Olive admitted half an hour later as she poured boiling water onto the tea leaves she had spooned into her warmed teapot. Olive’s kitchen was her pride and joy. The upstairs of the house was filled with the heavy late-Victorian furniture that her in-laws had inherited from their parents, but after her mother-in-law’s death, Bert had allowed Olive to modernise the kitchen and the front room, even paying for the new gas oven, and the coal-fuelled stove, which not only heated the kitchen but provided hot water as well.

In addition to her gas oven, Olive had a whole wall filled with cupboards just like some she’d seen in the newspaper that had seen on display at the Modern Homes Show. Bert had always had an eye for a bargain and a clever tongue for getting himself a good deal, and he had bartered with a friend of a friend who worked at a wood yard, and who knew someone who could knock up the cupboards for them at a quarter of the price of some fancy factory.

Olive had painted them herself, a really pretty duck-egg blue, which went with the kitchen’s cream walls, and the curtains of pale blue, apple green and white gingham. Ever so proud of her kitchen, she was. Her heart swelled with pride every time she walked into it. From the stone sink under the window she could look out into the garden – a long narrow strip, at the bottom of which was the blank brick wall that separated her garden from that of the house beyond. The floor of Olive’s kitchen was covered in a good practical mosaic-patterned linoleum that didn’t show the dirt. Not that there was any dirt on Olive’s kitchen floor – certainly not. She swept and washed it every single day. Very house proud, Olive was, putting her back into whatever task she took on. That was something that, like her domestic skills, she had learned from the grandmother, who had taken her in after her mother had died and her father had then disappeared from her life. Not been very lucky in their dads she and her Tilly hadn’t. But she’d been determined right from the start to make sure that her daughter had the very best mum she could possibly have and that she would grow up knowing how loved she was.

That was why, over the years, Olive had gently but determinedly turned down several men who had tried to court her, some perhaps for her own sake, but some, she suspected, because of what they had hoped she would bring them, be it a good housewife and a stepmother for their children or, in one or two cases, the hope of the inheritance she might one day get from her in-laws. Well, that day had now come and if there was one thing that Olive was determined on it was that she wasn’t going to have any man coming along and disrupting her routine or her life.

It was ten to five. Tilly would be home soon. Tonight, after they’d had their tea and listened to the news, they could sit down together and talk about her plan to let their spare bedrooms.

‘Come on, Tilly, it’s finishing time. Thank heavens. I’ve never known the Lady Almoner be as sharp as she was today. We’ve got more than enough work on our hands here without her giving us even more,’ Clara Smith grumbled as both girls pulled the covers onto their typewriters, the office clock having reached five o’clock.

Clara and Tilly were the most junior members of the Lady Almoner’s office staff, Clara being the previous ‘dog’s body’, as she referred to Tilly’s role, before Tilly herself had been taken on. Clara was just coming up for nineteen, whilst Tilly was just a few weeks short of her seventeenth birthday.

‘We can’t blame her for us having to type up all these new lists,’ Tilly pointed out patiently. ‘The Hospital will need them if there’s a war and patients have to be moved.’

‘A war. I’m sick and tired of all this talk about a war,’ Clara complained, ‘and all these things the Government keep making us do, like buying blackout material, having to have gas masks, putting up Anderson shelters, and the like. My dad’s only gone and joined the local ARP, and with all the drills we’re having to do here anyone would think we were at war already.’

‘I know,’ Tilly agreed, ‘but the Hospital hasn’t stopped making plans in case there is a war, no one has, and the Government has said that if Hitler invades Poland, they won’t stand for it.’

The girls looked at each other in bleak and sober silence, their shared apprehension showing in their tense expressions.

‘They’re still calling up the lads for that six months’ National Service training,’ Clara admitted reluctantly. ‘My Harry’s had his notification.’

In April the Government had passed a law to make it obligatory for all young men of twenty and twenty-one to undergo six months’ military training.

BOOK: London Belles
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