The Jewel of Gresham Green
- Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Don't give up! said a little voice inside. "Sir," she said, "have you a daughter?"
The constable's weary gray eyes studied her.
Jewel held her breath, cautiously hopeful.
He sighed. "What's the name of the gent who owns your building?"
The hope wavered. "I-I don't know. We have dealings only with Mr. Dunstan."
"Well, I'll look him up in the town records, pay him an unofficial call. May be that other tenants have complained."
He held up his hands. "Now, don't go thanking me. I can't guarantee he'll give a hedgehog's fleas about your problem. Some are like that ... don't want to be troubled by the folk who put bread on their tables."
But at least it was some action. Despite his protest, she thanked him again.
* * *
"Will you tell me a story, Mother?" Becky asked in bed that evening, after a supper of potatoes and cabbage, followed by baths in the kitchen using flannels.
Jewel smiled in the darkness. Times like this, with her daughter curled beside her, she could almost forget Mr. Dunstan even existed. Almost.
"Which story?" she asked.
"Um ... 'Silverhair and the Bears'?"
"Very well." Another gleaning from the educated household was the wealth of stories stored in Jewel's brain, for both the headmaster and his wife had read to their children.
"Once upon a time, a wee girl named Silverhair was told to stay indoors while her mother worked at the corset factory...."
Not the headmaster's version, but Jewel had to seize any teaching moment available. When her daughter drifted off to sleep, Jewel prayed, God help us. Ofttimes that was all she could manage before succumbing to fatigue, but this night she added, Please make the owner listen to the police.
She could hear Becky's soft snoring and the scurrying of rodent feet in the attic. An infant wailed from the flat below. Somewhere down the corridor, a man began shouting. His words were muffled; the anger behind them was not.
And please ... She swallowed saltiness as her eyes brimmed. Help us have better lives one day.
* * *
The following morning, she tucked her handkerchiefwrapped jam sandwich into an apron pocket and delivered a still-sleepy Becky to Mrs. Platt with a reminder to both that she was to stay indoors. And again, for ten hours she had to struggle to concentrate on the needle, so deep were her misgivings.
What if Mr. Dunstan is the owner's brother or some other relation? What if we're forced to leave?
Her fears were justified that evening, unhappily so, when she spotted Mr. Dunstan outside the factory.
"Oh dear," she said to Mrs. Fenton.
"I forgot my handkerchief," Mrs. Fenton said, turning back for the door.
Jewel attempted to hurry past him, lose him in the press of workers, but he fell in step beside her.
"There's been a misunderstanding, Mrs. Libby," he said. "I didn't mean to frighten you over your little girl."
Walking faster did no good. His legs were longer, and he was not even breathing heavily. "I'm truly sorry ..."
Jewel swallowed a sob.
"... so I need you to speak with Mr. Brown."
She did not ask who this Mr. Brown was, for she had no word to spare for Mr. Dunstan. Besides, who could he be but the owner of the blocks of flats?
"He stays late in his office. I need you to come with me ... say you've made a mistake."
"No," she said tightly.
"Please," he cajoled with voice breaking. "I need my job."
She continued on, teeth clenched.
"I'll ... cut your next month's rent by half, and cover the rest myself."
Jewel halted in her tracks, almost did not recognize her own voice for all the rage it held. "My daughter is not for sale!"
"Do you need help, Mrs. Libby?" came a voice from behind.
Jewel turned a burning face to Mr. Fowler and his assistant, Mr. Evans. "This man—"
But when she looked over her shoulder, Mr. Dunstan was making tracks.
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