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Authors: Beryl Matthews

Diamonds in the Dust

BOOK: Diamonds in the Dust
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Diamonds in the Dust

B
ERYL
M
ATTHEWS

Chapter One

Kilburn, London, May 1920

‘Where’s Mum?’

‘I expect she’s had to stay late at the factory.’ Dora resisted the temptation to glance at the clock on the shelf. The last thing she must do is show she was worried; Lily was only six and very sensitive. She smiled at her little sister. ‘Eat your bread and jam.’

Lily’s green eyes fixed on Dora anxiously. ‘Mum’s always home for breakfast and to take me to school.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll take you today.’

‘What about after?’ Lily nibbled on a piece of bread.

‘Mum’ll be home by then, but if she’s too tired and can’t come for you, I’ll get off work early and collect you.’

‘You’d better let me do that.’ Tom didn’t look worried – he was very annoyed. ‘You’ll lose your job if
you’re not careful. Mum knows she’s got to be back by breakfast to take care of Lily!’

Dora gave her brother a grateful look. At twelve years old he was turning into a strapping lad, and a sensible one. She disliked her job as a daily housemaid, but she didn’t want to get the sack. Jobs weren’t easy to come by. ‘Thanks Tom. I’ll go to the factory first and see what’s keeping Mum.’

‘It isn’t like her. She’s never missed breakfast with us before.’ Tom groaned when he saw Lily. She’d finished the bread and now had jam all over her face and hands. He got a damp cloth and began cleaning her up, making her laugh as he teased. ‘You’re supposed to spread the jam on the bread, not all over yourself.’

Dora watched her brother and sister fooling around. They all had fair hair like their mother, and green eyes like their father. But there the similarity ended. Tom was a strong character and so was she, but Lily was delicate, very sensitive, and they all felt protective towards her. Their mum would sometimes be a few minutes late, but she never missed being home in time to have breakfast with them. Although they didn’t see much of her because she worked all night and slept most of the day, she loved them and was working the night shift because the pay was better. Their dad had been killed in the war and things had been tough for a while. Mum had been determined that her children would have a decent life, and things had improved since she’d got this night job two years ago. They’d moved out of the slums and now rented a nice house, and they never went short of food. They were
much better off than a lot of people, and that was all because their mum worked so hard for them. But where was she this morning? She had
never
been late before. Joining them for breakfast was one thing she had always said was important.

‘That’s better.’ Tom studied Lily carefully. ‘You’ll have to be careful the flies don’t stick to you.’

Lily giggled and grabbed her brother’s hand. ‘I might stick to you.’

He made a pretence of trying to free himself from her hand, making her dance around in delight. ‘It’s no good, Dora, I’m stuck to her. I’ll have to take her to school now.’

‘I guess you will, but you’ll have to get free by the time you get there, because you’ll look out of place in the little class.’ She joined in the teasing. Tom had successfully taken Lily’s mind off her worry about her mum, but she wasn’t fooled. Tom wouldn’t hesitate to tell their mother what he thought about her not being here this morning. It was the only time they saw her really. By six o’clock every evening she was gone again. Since their father had been killed, he considered himself to be the man of the house, and was not afraid to speak out if he thought something wasn’t right.

Still holding his sister’s hand, he leant towards Dora. ‘I’ll be outside the Barringtons’ at lunchtime to see what you’ve found out. This isn’t right. She must have been taken bad, or something.’

‘If that’s the case then someone should have let us know, not left us to worry like this. I’ll go to Grant’s factory now.’

Tom nodded, then turned his attention to Lily. ‘Come on you sticky thing, or we’ll be late.’

Lily turned and waved to Dora, showing no sign of her earlier distress as she gazed up at her adored big brother. As they saw very little of their mother it was left to Dora and Tom to look after Lily. Not that they minded – they both loved the little girl.

As soon as they’d left the house, Dora checked that she had enough in her purse for the bus ride, and ran up the road. She caught a bus straight away, and in fifteen minutes was standing outside the gates of Grant’s. Dora had never been inside the clothes factory, but knew it had a reputation for being a sweatshop. Whenever she’d mentioned to her mum that she ought to try and find a better job, she had just laughed and said it wasn’t too bad.

‘We ain’t got no jobs going,’ a man on the gate told her briskly.

‘I’m not after work. I’ve come about my mum. She works here on the night shift and hasn’t come home this morning.’

He narrowed his eyes. ‘We ain’t got no night shift.’

‘Of course you have.’ If Dora hadn’t been so worried she would have laughed. Was the man daft? ‘She’s worked here for two years. Her name’s Harriet Bentley. Go and ask someone for me … please,’ she added.

He shrugged and ambled off, muttering, ‘Waste of time. We ain’t got no night shift.’

It seemed an age before he returned, and Dora was relieved to see another man with him – a man in a proper suit. Perhaps she’d get some sense out of him?

‘Now then, what’s this all about?’ he asked when he reached her.

‘I’m looking for my mum, Harriet Bentley. She works here on the night shift and hasn’t come home this morning.’

‘I told her we ain’t got no night shift, Mr Rogers, but she don’t believe me.’ The gatekeeper cast Dora an aggrieved glance.

Mr Rogers opened the large book he was carrying, scanning down the list of names. Then he closed it and shook his head. ‘No one by the name of Bentley works here, and Dave’s right, we don’t have a night shift.’

Dora was stunned, unable to take in what she was hearing. ‘But … but … Mum said she works here. I’m not simple, I know what I was told. She leaves home at six every evening and comes home in time for breakfast, except Sunday when she has the day off.’

‘I’m sorry, but she doesn’t work here, and never has done, according to our books.’

It felt as if the ground had been pulled out from under her. What was going on? Dora was confused – and she never got confused. Her mum always said she had a good clear head on her. She curled her fingers around the wrought iron gate to steady herself. There had been a mistake, that was all. Taking a deep breath, she asked, ‘Is there another factory near here that does have a night shift?’

‘Not that I know of.’ Mr Rogers tucked the book securely under his arm and said kindly, ‘Why don’t you go home? I expect your mum’s there by now.’

Bewildered as she was, Dora didn’t forget her manners. ‘Thank you for seeing me, sir.’

‘Sorry I couldn’t help.’

Dora stood there for a moment as he walked away, questions racing through her head. Why had her mum told her she worked here when she didn’t? And she was positive she had the right place. What should she do now? Go home like the man said? No, there was no point. Tom and Lily were at school. If Mum came home she would send word to the Barrington house, knowing Dora would be worried.

That thought galvanised her into motion, making her spin round and run for the bus stop, forcing her legs to move. She was late! Whatever was going on today, she mustn’t lose her job.

 

Dora burst into the kitchen and nearly sent the housekeeper flying. ‘I’m so … sorry …’ she gasped, bending over in an effort to draw air into her lungs.

‘You’re twenty minutes late.’ Mrs Marsden studied the clock for a moment and then glared sternly at Dora. ‘I hope you have a good reason for this tardiness?’

‘The bus didn’t come.’ It was the only excuse she could think of. Whatever had happened to their mum was their business, and no one else’s. She made a great show of still gasping for air. ‘I ran all the way.’

The housekeeper’s expression relaxed a little. ‘I can see you’ve made a great effort to be here on time, and you’re usually reliable, so I’ll overlook it this time. But make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

‘I will, Mrs Marsden. And thank you, Mrs Marsden.’

Dora was handed a list of her duties for the day and,
breathing a quiet sigh of relief that she’d got away with being late, she wasted no time in getting down to her allotted tasks. It was a relief to be busy because she still couldn’t believe what the man at the factory had told her. Now she’d had time to think she was quite frightened. Their mum would never abandon them – she cared about them. But where was she?

Dora scrubbed and dusted with total concentration in an effort to push away the worry – but it was impossible. All the time she silently prayed that there was a simple explanation for all of this, and they would be laughing about it tonight. Yes, that was right, she assured herself, they would be finding it all a great joke tonight.

When it was time for her lunch break, she slipped out the back and found her brother waiting for her. He was pacing, a deep frown on his face.

‘I nipped home first, Dora, but she still isn’t there. What did you find out?’

She explained and watched her brother’s mouth drop open in disbelief.

‘You mean she’s been telling us lies all this time? Bloody hell, Dora, what’s going on? And where is she?’

‘Watch your language, Tom,’ Dora reprimanded sharply. ‘Swearing won’t help to solve this mystery.’

By way of an apology he grimaced and held up his hands. ‘You’re right. But what are we going to do? I thought it would be simple. All you had to do was go to the factory and they’d tell you where she was. We’ve got to find her. But where do we start?’

‘We’ll have to decide that tonight, and Lily will have to be told.’

Tom nodded agreement. ‘This is going to upset her, but she’s a bright kid, and it’ll be better if she knows what’s going on. I’ll collect her from school.’ Tom ran a hand through his hair. ‘Er … I’d better get something for our supper. You got any money, Dora?’

Keeping enough for her bus fare, Dora gave him the two shillings she had left in her purse. ‘I’ve got to get back to work now, Tom. I’ll see you tonight, and if Mum still isn’t home, we’ll decide what we’re going to do.’

He pocketed the coins. ‘I hope she’s all right.’

‘Me too.’ Dora lifted her head, a determined look in her eyes. ‘We’ll find her, Tom.’

‘Course we will. It’s all some daft mistake, I expect.’

 

The afternoon seemed never-ending, but eventually the day was over and Dora could head for home. She felt sick with worry. Every time a visitor came to the house she waited anxiously, hoping it was word from her mum. But it never was, and as the day dragged on, the knot in her stomach got tighter and tighter.

As she stepped through the door she was greeted with a scene so normal that it stopped her in her tracks. Tom was busy cooking the supper, and Lily was reading a book, following every word with her finger. She loved books, and Dora was sure she hadn’t been able to read as well when she’d been Lily’s age. She showed all the signs of being very bright.

Lily glanced up. ‘Mum hasn’t come home. Has she left us? Doesn’t she love us any more?’

When her sister’s bottom lip trembled, Dora was immediately by her side. ‘Of course she still loves us, sweetie.’

‘Then where is she?’

‘We don’t know, but we’ll find out, and we’ll need your help as well.’

Tom put the plates of sausages and mash on the table. ‘Eat up before it gets cold, then we’ll put our heads together and decide what we’re going to do.’ He smiled at Lily. ‘Don’t you worry. People don’t just disappear. We’ll soon have her back with us.’

Dora knew her brother was only saying this to comfort the little girl. They knew all too well that people did disappear for no apparent reason. And they’d already run up against a dead end with the discovery that their mum had never worked at Grant’s.

Lily stopped with a forkful of sausage halfway to her mouth, fear in her eyes. ‘You won’t leave me, will you?’

‘Not a chance!’ Tom pinched the piece of sausage off her fork and popped it into his mouth. ‘The three of us are in this together, and we’re going to look after each other.’

Happy with this reply, Lily cut another piece of sausage and ate it quickly before her brother could take it again. Then she smiled at both of them and began to eat with obvious enjoyment. She trusted her brother and sister, and if they said it was going to be all right, then it was going to be.

As soon as the meal was finished, Dora washed, Tom
dried and Lily put the crocks away. Then they settled around the table again. There was silence as each one tried to come up with a way to find their mum.

After a while Dora shook her head. ‘I don’t know what to do. I was sure it would just be a case of checking with the factory, but they say she’s never worked there. Where on earth do we start looking?’

‘We could try the hospitals,’ Tom suggested.

Dora nodded. ‘Tomorrow’s my half day off so I’ll visit the local ones.’

Lily was kneeling on the chair and leaning across the table, her little face serious. ‘We ought to tell the police. They’re good at finding people.’

‘Not yet.’ Tom shook his head. ‘Suppose Mum turns up soon and finds out we’ve made a fuss. She’ll be furious. You know how strict she is about people knowing our business, Lily, so we’d better keep this to ourselves for the time being. We don’t know what’s happened, but she might turn up at any minute.’

The little girl looked worried.

‘Tom’s right, sweetie, and someone might try to split us up if they know we’re on our own. I’m eighteen in a couple of weeks, and the local authorities will probably consider I’m old enough to take care of you and Tom. I don’t know much about it, of course, but let’s not risk it just yet.’

‘But you take care of us now.’ Lily was puzzled. ‘Mum isn’t here very much.’

‘I know, but the authorities might not like the idea of us living on our own.’

Lily huffed. ‘You take good care of us, and I’ll tell them.’

‘I’m sure that will help.’ Dora reached across and patted her sister’s hand. ‘But I think we’ll keep it quiet for the moment. There’s something very strange about Mum’s disappearance, and I’d like to find out for myself why she lied to us.’

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