Chapter One - Temptation
Gladys was sitting on a low wall with her date, Lieutenant Michael Walker, taking a few minutes out from the exertions of the jitterbug she’d recently danced with him.
She tried to concentrate on her partner’s whispered conversation. He was nuzzling her ear, whispering his intentions of making her the happiest girl alive, and he was beginning to annoy her. She breathed a sigh of relief when she caught sight of Evelyn coming toward them. Her friend’s face wore a serious frown and Gladys’s heart sank. She knew that look. Saint Evelyn was obviously going to lecture her on her unbecoming behaviour on the dance floor.
Evelyn approached slowly and coughed to interrupt the airman’s attempts at seduction. “Mind if I have a quiet word with Gladys?” she asked the lieutenant.
Lieutenant Walker stood, fidgeted for a few seconds and said, “I’ll get us some cordial. Would you like one, Miss, err?”
“It’s Mrs Harper, and no, thank you.” Evelyn watched him enter the church hall and turned to Gladys with a frown. “You’re doing it again, Gladys.”
“Doing what?” Gladys asked to make Evelyn clarify what she was accusing her of.
“I can see the signs, love.” Evelyn’s softer tone let Gladys know her friend meant well. “You’re fooling around again, aren’t you?”
“I’m doing nothing of the sort.” Gladys scowled petulantly and shook her head. “I’ve told you, Evie. I won’t go down that road again. I’m only having a bit of fun. Where’s the harm?” She lifted her chin and grinned mischievously. “I’ll maybe give him a kiss or two when no one is watching, but that’s all. You’ve nothing to fear on my account. I haven’t strayed properly since, well…” She stared at her feet. “Since, you know when.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Evelyn sat next to her on the low wall. “I worry about you,” she said. “I know how lonely it can get for you.”
“I am lonely, Evie,” Gladys admitted. “But not in the way you think.” She thought about what she’d given up and felt a sharp pain through her heart. She sniffed and swallowed back her heartache. She knew her friend was fully aware of how deeply she felt the loss of her son, but Gladys couldn’t speak about that without getting upset. Instead, she spoke what she thought Evelyn would expect to hear. “John is no more than a happy memory for me, after all this time. You know we’ve been apart much longer than we were together. I’m trying to do right by him, Evie, but he’s not here, is he?”
Evelyn put a hand on Gladys’s shoulder. “I do understand, love. You know I do.”
“Trouble is, Evie,” Gladys went on, “I don’t know how I feel about my husband, now. “It’s been four long years since I saw him. I know I was lucky that he wanted me at all. I remember feeling so special when he asked me out. He was the first man that ever asked me, did you know?”
Evelyn nodded. “You did tell me.” She smiled. “Though, I can’t understand why none of the other lads asked when it was clear they all wanted to.”
“Hah!” Gladys huffed. “I know I’m not love’s young dream. My chest is too big, and my bum’s too fat. The lads laugh at me behind my back.”
“They do not!” Evelyn snapped. “Why do you always put yourself down, Gladys? You have a lovely figure.”
“Well, John seemed to think so.” Gladys agreed, remembering how much her husband loved to touch her rounded body. She sighed, remembering the way he made her feel. “I miss him sometimes, but I don’t know whether I can love him again when I can’t even remember what he looks like.”
“Oh, Gladys.” Evelyn sympathised. “But you still write to him, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do, but I never know what to say to him. I prattle on about the weather and my job and try to steer clear of writing about what I’m feeling inside. I don’t want him to know what I did, so it’s easier to stay quiet about it. I don’t want to hurt him.”
“He must write to you.” Then Evelyn asked, “What does he write about?”
“Oh, he writes to me, all right.” Gladys sighed. “But John’s letters are filled with mushy nonsense. I know he still loves me, or at least he thinks he does. I’ve no doubt about that.”
“Well then, you have something to look forward to after the war,” Evelyn tried to encourage her. “When he comes home you can start again and make a good life together.” She went on in a whisper, “That’s if you take care to hold on to your reputation and keep your knickers on!”
“Oh, Evie!” Gladys felt the heat of a blush in her cheeks. “I’m not like that any longer. I told you!”
“Well, I can only speak as I find, love. I’m not sure John or his mother would like to see what I just saw. That American has more than a kiss or two in mind if I’m not mistaken.”
“Well, he’s a flesh-and-blood male, Evie. What’s a girl to do?” Gladys quipped impatiently. “John isn’t here, and if he came back tomorrow, I’m not sure he’ll be enough for me.” She stared at the darkening sky.
“Are you saying you prefer a few fumbles in the dark with a passing acquaintance, to a long term loving relationship with your husband?” Evelyn seemed shocked.
“I didn’t mean it that way, silly!” Gladys chuckled softly and looked again at the first twinkling stars. “How can I concentrate on building a marriage with my husband when my heart is full of Earnest? You, of all people, know how much I miss my little boy. If John ever found out about him, I don’t know whether I’d have any future with him, anyway.”
“Then you’ll have to be strong and keep silent. You know your secret is safe with me.”
“You’re a good friend, Evie.”
Evelyn toyed with the handles of her small bag before speaking again. “Perhaps you could consider telling John. You never know, he might forgive you if he loves you so much.”
“I’ve thought about it, but he’d be so angry. He’d never forgive me, and I couldn’t risk losing him. Not after everything I’ve been through and all I’ve given up for his sake.”
“Then you may have to give up even more if you want to keep your secret safe.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your visits to little Earnest.” Evelyn’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “John is bound to ask why you want to trip off to the coast every few months without him.”
“I can tell him I’m visiting my aunty, you know she helped me when I had to go away to hide the pregnancy.”
“But John might ask to go with you. What would you say? Anyway, isn’t she an old lady? She won’t be around forever, love. Where will you say you’re going after she’s gone?”
“I’ll think of something. I’ll say I’m going to visit her grave to pay my respects. I can’t give up my little boy, Evie. I just can’t!”
“You’re lucky his new parents let you see him. When did you last visit Earnest?”
“Easter. That was five months ago. I really need to see him again. He’s growing so fast. Well, you’ll know because he’s the same age as your twins.”
“The time between two and three years is a lovely age, don’t you think? My twins are adorable but so full of mischief.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Gladys felt the sadness wash over her. “I don’t get to see Earnest half as much as I want to. It’s difficult to get close to him when I only see him for a couple of hours every few months.”
“Does he know who you are?” Evelyn asked.
“He calls me Aunty Gladys.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Is he happy? Are his adoptive parents caring for him as you’d want them to?”
“I can’t complain. Mr and Mrs Gordon are perfect parents. He’s a healthy, happy little boy and he wants for nothing.”
“But you miss him.” Evelyn squeezed her shoulder gently.
“With all my heart and soul.” Gladys had tears glimmering in her eyes. “Oh, now look what you made me do.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Go back to your date, Evie. I’m fine. You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be a good girl.”
“If you say so, Gladys.” Evelyn got up to leave but turned back. “I know I’m the only one who knows about your little Earnest, so if ever you need to talk about him, I’m here for you.”
“Thanks, Evie. That means a lot.”
“And when John comes home, you can have more children. They won’t replace Earnest, but they might make the pain of missing him easier to bear.”
“Thanks, Evie. I know you mean well, and you’re probably right, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
“Don’t forget what I said. I’m your friend. I’ll always be here for you.”
“I know.” Gladys inclined her head to the door of the church hall where Jack Foster had emerged. “He’s come looking for you.”
Evelyn turned to see the tall figure of her date strolling toward them, lighting a cigarette. The match flared brightly in the twilight.
“Sorry, Jack,” Evelyn called to him. “Was I taking too long?” She bent to hug Gladys, and then skipped to join her date.
Gladys watched her friend with her new partner and felt an uneasy flash of envy cramp in her tummy. She smiled knowingly as Jack Foster placed an arm around Evelyn’s waist and guided her around the side of the building, away from sight.
She sighed and tried to feel happy for her friend. Evelyn had been through a lot in the last few years. She deserved some happiness. Her husband had been badly injured within months of being shipped out to war. He came back a changed man, abused his wife, disowned his youngest two children and ran off with a nurse. Evelyn was better off without him, but had spent the last three years alone and sad.
At least her friend had managed to divorce Dennis. With her husband out of her life, Evelyn was free to love again. Gladys didn’t have that luxury. John was still her husband, and was obviously expecting everything to continue as normal when he eventually came home.
She had thought she’d been in love with him. They had experienced an all-consuming passion for each other. She had firmly believed that John would be the only love of her life. Being in his arms was intoxicating for them both. He wanted her so badly. She’d thought it a miracle that anyone would want her and she couldn’t refuse him. They hadn’t waited for the wedding ceremony to consummate their feelings, but had made love whenever they got the chance. John couldn’t get enough of her, and he made her feel special.
She’d been devastated when he was called up, and the separation had been difficult to bear while he was away doing the initial army training. When he finally came home for embarkation leave, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. His mother caught them in a state of undress in her parlour and immediately insisted they get married.
John agreed quite happily, and Gladys went along with the plans willingly. She was in love. At least, she’d thought so at the time.
John’s mother arranged a special licence to enable the wedding to take place before he was shipped out. Gladys’s mother had voiced her opinion that it was all happening too quickly. She warned Gladys she’d be better off waiting until the war was over, but after Mrs Wilson informed Meg of the young couple’s antics in her parlour, she quickly withdrew her objections.
After a brief honeymoon period, spent at John’s mother’s house, he boarded a train in Wakefield and left her. He’d been gone almost five years. She hadn’t seen him since.
“Why the long face, sweetheart?” Lieutenant Walker came back carrying two glasses of rich, blackberry cordial. “Did your friend bring you some bad news?”
Gladys shook off her dark mood and forced a smile to her lips. “No, honey.” She shrugged and widened her smile suggestively. She’d spent too many lonely nights in the last three years.
She would have preferred to spend the night with another American airman, but Sadie Wood had stolen him from under her nose. She thought she knew what Second Lieutenant Polanski saw in the widowed woman. Sadie might be older than Gladys, and she had four children in tow, but she was still prettier and slimmer. Gladys could understand what it was about the older woman that appealed to the handsome American. Sadie was attractive. She still had a good figure despite her four children, where Gladys was big and ungainly. Sadie was in her thirties, and children should have been a disadvantage, but compared with Gladys, Sadie was obviously the better option.
Gladys sighed heavily. It still hurt that Sadie had snatched the handsome American away so easily. She tried to concentrate on her date, but he was leering down her cleavage.
“What’s wrong, honey? You look too serious. I thought we came out here to have some fun.”
A flush of guilt filled her chest as she remembered what she’d said to her friend, but she pushed the feeling aside. This man wanted her. He’d made it clear enough. What would be the harm? Who would know?
“Sorry, love. My friend, Evie, tries to steer me in the right direction from time to time. She’s a bit of a do-gooder, you know? She was warning me to be a good girl.” She winked and cocked her head. “She likes to keep an eye on my reputation. You know what I mean?”
“Well, that’s a real shame.” He perched beside her on the wall and carefully placed the drinks near his feet. “I hope you’re not going to listen to her.”
“Why not, sweetheart?” Gladys dimpled coquettishly.
“After that steamy display on the dance floor, I was hoping for something hotter than a goodnight kiss from my girl.” He moved closer and dipped his head to kiss her throat. “Your reputation is safe with me. I won’t tell a soul.”
Gladys stayed completely still and tried not to flinch from his caress. She was torn. She craved a man’s touch, but she wasn’t even attracted to this one. She played the game he expected of her, but her heart wasn’t in it. She knew she should tell him to stop, but she was so tired of being alone. She yearned for a pair of loving arms to hold her close. Lieutenant Michael Walker might not be her first choice of a bed partner, but he was better than none at all. She imagined the fervent kisses were being given by the handsome Lieutenant Polanski and gave a sigh of pleasure.
Lieutenant Walker took her sigh as a sign of encouragement and worked his hand inside her blouse.
Gladys froze. Part of her wanted to push the American away, but a small part of her longed for him to continue. Evelyn’s words rung in her head. She’d promised her she would be a good girl. She also knew the lieutenant would be very disappointed if she changed her mind at this stage.
When his hand reached under her skirt, she acted instinctively. She jumped up and backed away.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart? Am I going to fast for you?”
She shook her head. She was still undecided. “I’m not sure this is the right place for what you have in mind, Lieutenant.” She tried a flirtatious smile, but her lips felt stiff and awkward. “We don’t want to put on a show for the gossips and wreck my reputation, now, do we?”
“What do you suggest, honey?”
Gladys gazed down into the American’s face. He looked like a puppy dog expecting a treat. She knew he didn’t love her. She wasn’t even sure he liked her. What was she thinking? If she took him back to her lodgings, she could enjoy a few hours in his company but he would probably leave her before dawn. He was only interested in what he could get from her, and she’d made it obvious that she would give him what he wanted. He couldn’t give her what she truly wanted, though.
“What’s wrong?” His expectant smile faltered. “You’re not changing your mind on me, are you?”
She backed away from him slowly. She had longed for love for such a long time that she’d almost forgotten what real love felt like. The feelings she had for her son reminded her, what it was to love someone. She loved Earnest with every ounce of her being. That’s what she was looking for. She wanted someone to love her the same way she loved her little boy. She knew she wouldn’t find love like that in a stranger’s arms. Experience told her she would only find a fleeting comfort with the American, and the guilt that was sure to come after would leave her feeling worse than lonely. She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“What?” Lieutenant Walker scowled angrily.
“I can’t do this.”
“Now just hold on a minute, girl.” He jumped to his feet. “What are you saying?”
“I’m sorry. Really, I am.” She turned to walk back to the church hall but his hand grasped her arm, and he spun her around to face him.
“You can’t do this to me!” He pulled her into the shadow of the wall. “You got me all fired up for you, and now you tell me you won’t put out?”
“Please let me go.” Gladys began to feel afraid. His fingers gripped her arm tightly, and he was pressing his body against her. “I’m sorry. What more can I say? I don’t want to let you down but I can’t…”
He roughly thrust her away from him, and she staggered a few paces before regaining her balance. He spat on the ground and sneered. “We have words for girls like you back home, but I won’t sour my mouth by saying them out loud.”
Gladys watched him spin on his heel and march into the darkness. She stifled a sob with the back of her trembling hand. When would she ever learn? He didn’t care a jot about her, and she had been ready to sleep with him to stave off a little loneliness. All she wanted was to be loved.
Evelyn seemed to have found love again, and even her neighbour, Sadie, looked close to finding that elusive emotion once more. Why was it so difficult for her? Was it because she was so big? Most men didn’t take her seriously. She knew people thought of her as a flirt. She couldn’t blame folks. She’d worked on the act for years. Everyone thought she was full of fun and out for a good time, but inside she wasn’t that girl. Her laughs and giggles hid her heartbreak well and made her the centre of attention, but until John, no man had wanted to get closer. After he’d left, she’d been so lonely. He’d shown her so much attention, and she missed his touches.
She shuddered, remembering where her cravings had taken her. Gladys had discovered that it didn’t take much to lure a man into giving her what she wanted. John had taught her well. He’d shown her that her large figure was no detriment to the kind of affection he could give her, but the knowledge had brought her no end of trouble.
She took a deep breath and stepped out from the darker shadow of the wall. The street wasn’t much lighter with the blackout, but she could see well enough to find her way home. Her heels made a lonely sound as they tap-tapped on the cobbled streets. Loneliness was a way of life for her now. She couldn’t afford to make the same mistakes again. Sleeping with a man and dreaming that he loved her would never be enough to fill the aching void inside her. She’d done that too many times in the past, and it had led her to more heartache than she could have imagined. Her life had been thrown upside down when she became pregnant, and she feared she wouldn’t know a moment of peace again.
She’d come close to going back to her old ways tonight, but fortunately, had realised in time that it wouldn’t be right. She had Evelyn to thank for reminding her. She smiled wryly, as she walked. Saint Evelyn comes to the rescue again. What would she do without her friend?