Bringing it to a halt alongside the side wall, she pulled on the handbrake and switched off the engine. Jutting out her lower lip, she blew upwards to dislodge a brunette curl resting over her left eyebrow but the lock refused to budge. She wasn’t surprised.
It was the 6th , the first Friday in September and with the hot early-autumn sun blasting fully through the van’s windows, the inside of the vehicle was like an oven and Jo was perspiring accordingly.
It might not have been so bad if she’d been able to deliver the shop’s weekend orders in the sleeveless frock and cotton underslip she’d put on that morning, but no. Mrs Garfield was having none of it. Despite the BBC forecasting that the afternoon temperatures would nudge at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the shopkeeper had insisted that Jo wear her regular dull green rayon overall so she looked ‘tidy’, which was a cheek as the blooming thing fitted her like a sack and had to be turned at the cuff so the sleeves didn’t cover her hands.
Jo got out of the green van and swinging the keys back and forth around her fingers she walked between the stacked crates into the storeroom that was connected to the side of the shop.
Mrs Garfield, who was flitting a duster over a card of girls’ pastel-coloured hairslides hung up on the wall behind the counter, looked around from her task as Jo walked in.
The owner of Melton Winchet’s general store was a woman on the wrong side of forty, with hips so extensive she had difficulty turning around in the space behind the counter. She stood a little over five foot and had frizzy grey hair and an expression that would lead you to believe she sucked lemons as a hobby. As her deep-set eyes alighted on Jo, her lips pulled into a tight bud.
‘Where have you been?’ she asked, scrutinising Jo through the lenses of her spectacles.
‘I was held up at Rider’s Bridge,’ Jo replied, strolling behind the counter to hook the keys on the nail in the wall. ‘And Mrs Veres asked me to tell you she’s got some cooking apples from her orchard; they’re two shillings a crate, if you’re interested.’
‘Two shilling!’ snapped the shopkeeper. ‘They were half that last season.’
Jo smiled sweetly. ‘Well, there is a war on, you know.’
Mrs Garfield gave her a sour look. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen that brother of yours on your travels, have you?’
‘Can’t say I have,’ Jo replied.
The shopkeeper tutted. ‘Probably in detention again.’
‘Or playing football in the meadow with the other lads,’ Jo countered.
‘Well, I’ve got a shop to run so if he’s not here soon he’ll have to go without lunch,’ said the shopkeeper. ‘And he’d better not come home with mud all over his trousers either, like he did last week. I wouldn’t have volunteered to take in evacuees if I’d realised I’d have to skivvy for them. And tidy your hair,’ she continued, waving a couple of fat bluebottles away from the loaves on the counter. ‘I know you’re not used to such things in East London but out here we’re very particular about cleanliness.’
The shopkeeper’s gaze flickered disapprovingly over Jo again and then she disappeared through the door behind her into the small parlour.
Although it wasn’t the sort of thing a seventeen-year-old young woman who’d just gained a merit on her matriculation should do, Jo stuck out her tongue at the closed door.
Tucking the offending curl back behind her ear, she stepped behind the counter to mind the shop until Mrs Garfield reappeared.
Garfield & General Store store was a double-fronted affair with two large windows and a central door. It sat like a well-worn and overloaded portmanteau halfway up Melton Winchet’s High Street and supplied the inhabitants of the small village ten miles east of Colchester with most of their day-to-day household needs. On the left as you entered the store was a serving counter, scrubbed smooth by Mrs Garfield and her mother before her, on which the baker deposited what remained of his morning stock when he closed at midday. On the shelves behind the counter were packets of tea, tins of custard, Ovaltine and tins of National Milk, hermetically sealed to preserve it against gas attack. In a small section tucked in the corner were tins of condensed milk for babies, nappy pins and, in discrete grey striped packets, Dr White’s sanitary pads.
The household items such as carbolic soap, washing soda, candles and horse embrocation, metal polish, starch and blacking for the fire grates were stacked on the other side of the shop along with brooms, shovels and zinc buckets.
The bell above the door tinkled as Mrs Toffs, wife of the village doctor, strode in. She was a well-groomed woman with a massive bosom and an opinion of herself to match. While most women wore a frock and modest headgear to run their daily errands, Mrs Toffs had decided a navy suit with a red velvet collar and cuffs plus a wide-brimmed feather-laden hat would be more appropriate attire for a visit to the village shop.
‘Can I help you?’ asked Jo.
‘I hardly think so,’ Mrs Toffs replied, running her critical gaze over her. ‘Is Mrs Garfield in?’
Before Jo could reply, the door behind the counter opened again and Mrs Garfield bustled out.
‘Mrs Toffs, what a pleasure,’ said Mrs Garfield, her sharp features lifting into an ingratiating smile. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘We’re having a few friends over next Saturday,’ Mrs Toffs replied. ‘Nothing grand, you understand, and Footman’s delicatessen department has sent most of what’s needed but’ – slipping her hand into her pocket she withdrew a sheet of paper – ‘there are a few things Cook still requires, so if you would be so kind.’
Mrs Garfield pushed her spectacles back up her nose and looked at the proffered list.
‘A dozen eggs!’ A worried expression pulled the shopkeeper’s heavy eyebrows together.
‘I hope I can rely on you, Mrs Garfield,’ Mrs Toffs cut in. ‘After all, my husband does buy all the surgery’s surgical and methylated spirits through you rather than the wholesalers in Colchester.’
Mrs Garfield paused for a second then folded the list and shoved it in her overall pocket. Her beady eyes shifted to Jo. ‘Don’t stand there eavesdropping. Get on with the rest of the deliveries.’
Biting back a retort, Jo went back into the storeroom and took the list pinned to the corkboard. She collected together the half a dozen bulging brown-paper bags, placed them in one of the spare fruit boxes stacked on the floor and carried it out to the van.
Balancing the load on one arm, she opened one of the van’s back doors and slid the box onto the floor of the van. Holding the list in her right hand, she walked the fingers of her left over the twisted-topped brown-paper bags as she checked off Mrs Benboe in High Meadow Lane, Mrs Pedder, The Green, and Mrs Adams at Pucks Farm. Reaching the last name, Jo realised she’d left the Tillet sisters’ order in the storeroom.
Shoving the scrap of paper in her overall pocket, Jo retraced her steps and re-entered the storeroom.
Spotting the overlooked brown-paper bag containing the spinster sisters’ provisions still on the order shelf, Jo walked between the stacks of boxes and jars to get it. She’d just grasped the order when Mrs Garfield’s voice drifted in from the shop.
‘I tell you, Mrs Toffs,’ said the shopkeeper, ‘I don’t care if Rev Farrow preaches on about giving succour to orphans and widows from now to doomsday, if I’d know the trouble they’d both be, I wouldn’t have said yes to the placement officer.’
‘My husband says it’s a disgrace,’ said the doctor’s wife. ‘All the evacuees he’s had the misfortune to have in his surgery are running alive with nits.’
‘Their mothers ought to be ashamed of themselves for sending their offspring in such a condition and raising children with such terrible manners,’ the shopkeeper went on.
‘No manners, don’t you mean,’ said Mrs Toffs.
‘As you say,’ agreed Mrs Garfield. ‘You give them a roof over their heads and are they grateful?’
‘Grateful!’ echoed the doctor’s wife. ‘They don’t know the meaning of the word. The scruffy lad Mrs Yates at Three Trees Farm got saddled with complained that he has to get up at five to help with the animals and does nothing but moan about being hungry.’
‘She’s fortunate she’s only lumbered with one,’ said Mrs Garfield. ‘I’ve got that troublemaker Billy and his mouthy sister. And they’re Catholics.’
‘Still, at least the girl can earn her keep in the shop,’ said Mrs Toffs.
‘When she puts her mind to it,’ said Mrs Garfield. ‘But that’s not the worst of it.’
‘I suppose you have to keep an eye on the till,’ said Mrs Toffs in a meaningful tone.
‘And on my Noman,’ said Mrs Garfield.
‘Not that my son’s done anything wrong,’ added the shopkeeper. ‘But you know how impressionably young men can be around ... around ...’
‘Exactly,’ said Mrs Garfield. ‘No young lad is safe with girls like that around. You want to keep an eye on her in case she takes a fancy to your Eric.’
‘I will,’ said Mrs Toffs. ‘So what happened?’
There was a pause before Mrs Garfield answered in a hushed voice. ‘Well, the other day I—’
Jo strode into the shop.
‘Only me, Mrs Garfield,’ she said, smiling pleasantly at the shopkeeper. ‘I can’t seem to find the Tillet sisters’ order.’
‘It’s on the order shelf,’ the shopkeeper replied as a mauve blush spread over her multiple chins.
Turning back into the cupboard, Jo picked up the bag she’d just put down and went back into the shop.
‘Found it,’ she said in a sing-song tone and giving both women a dazzling smile. ‘Sorry.
Did I interrupt something?’
‘No at all,’ said Mrs Garfield.
‘We were just chatting,’ added the doctor’s wife, struggling to hold Jo’s gaze.
Jo savoured their discomfort for a few seconds longer then smiled again.
‘I’ll be on my way then, Mrs Garfield. Nice to see you, Mrs Toffs, and tell your Eric I’ll see him at the harvest dance.’
Turning away from the two women, Jo’s mouth pulled into a hard line as, clutching the missing order, she marched back through the house to the back yard.
Yanking open the back of the van, Jo threw the bag of mixed vegetable into the box with the others then slammed the door.
Leaping into the driver’s seat, Jo jammed the key in the ignition and turned the engine on. With a face like thunder she slammed the gearstick into reverse and backed out of the yard. Swinging the wheel, Jo forced the car into first and roared out of the yard.