As the Americans enter the War, there is renewed energy in the war effort.
With husbands and sons fighting for freedom, the women of Harpers are left to tackle the day-to-day affairs at home and work.
With Ben Harper away, Sally fears she is being followed by a mysterious woman. Who is she and what does she want?
Maggie Gibbs collapses seriously ill in the frontline hospitals and is brought back to England close to death. Can she be saved and what does the future hold for her and her broken heart?
Marion Jackson’s father is on the run from the Police already wanted for murder. She fears he will return to threaten his family once more.
And Beth Burrows is pregnant with her second child, worried and anxious for her husband Jack, who has been many months at sea.
As Christmas 1917 approaches what will the future hold for Harpers, its girls and their men at War?
Extract from Wartime Blues for the Harper Girls – Rosie Clarke
London, April 1917
Sally Harper turned to speak to her husband Ben and saw that he’d fallen asleep again in his chair. His newspaper lay beside him – the headlines declaring that America had entered the war – and the cup of tea she’d poured for him ten minutes earlier, untouched by his side. Despite several warnings to Germany from the USA, its submarines had carried on attacking neutral ships carrying cargo bound for Britain. The American President had therefore signed the declaration of war. The news had delighted Ben, who considered that his country ought to have joined long before this so that they could throw the weight of the United States behind her allies in a common desire to bring peace and stability. He considered himself British these days and thought the way an Englishman would that the Americans had dragged their feet.
Sally had no idea where her husband had been for the past couple of weeks but had immediately seen how tired he was on his return home late the previous evening. He was sleeping soundly and though she ought to be leaving for work soon, there was no reason why Ben shouldn’t snooze in his chair if he wished. He worked long hours in his job for the British War Office. She had hoped to have time to talk about what they needed to do for the best at Harpers, the prestigious store he and his sister Jenni owned in Oxford Street. Jenni had her own ideas, but Sally was their chief buyer and for once she wasn’t in agreement with her sister-in-law. Normally, they got on really well and were the best of friends, but just lately Sally had found that she didn’t agree with some of the things Jenni wanted to do in the store.
Her unease was partly due to the fact that Jenni seemed grumpy and distracted, which was probably down to problems in her own life rather than disagreements between them. Jenni now lived in her own apartment and had an entirely independent life after work. She was trying to negotiate a divorce from her husband, who was a General in the American Army, and Sally believed that it was proving difficult for her, though Jenni didn’t speak of it much. The problem at the store was simply that Jenni believed they should just fill the shelves of Harpers’ departments with whatever they could get, regardless of quality, including substandard goods, but Sally was wary of lowering standards too much. Yes, Jenni was right to say it was expected when there was a war on. People had to accept less than they’d been able to insist on in normal times and would be grateful for whatever they could get. While Sally agreed to a certain extent, she still felt they had to be careful. However, she was just the buyer and she needed Ben’s backup if she wanted to fight her corner. Jenni was part owner so therefore her opinion carried a lot of weight and if she insisted, Sally must, of course, give way. It would help if she knew what Ben felt about it.
He’d carried on with his war work throughout these past months, leaving Sally to run the store with the help of the manager, Mr Stockbridge, and various supervisors, though Jenni was a big help now she was living in London. It was her stubborn refusal to return to America that had widened the rift between her and her husband, and her feelings for Mr Andrew Alexander, a brilliant surgeon, that had made her ask for a divorce. Something her husband seemed reluctant to grant.
Jenni’s problem with her husband was perhaps the underlying cause of her recent moods, but the problem with Harpers was ongoing. As the war bit ever deeper, and Britain was more and more reliant on home-produced goods, it was becoming harder to find enough decent stock to fill their departments. Of late, one or two of their regular suppliers had let them down, supplying either poor-quality materials that Sally had had to return or sending only partial orders. Sally wasn’t sure which annoyed her the most. Jenni said she was too fussy and that they needed to keep their shelves stocked even if some goods were not as good as they were accustomed to selling.
‘We’re in the middle of a war,’ Jenni was fond of reminding her. ‘If a customer complains, remind them of that fact, Sally. It’s not your fault the Government has ordered manufacturers to cut down on production of certain goods – or that we can’t get enough imported goods these days.’
‘No, it’s the Kaiser’s and our Government,’ Sally had replied the last time Jenni had brought it up. ‘Why they had to start fighting and ruin everything, I do not know…’
Jenni had simply laughed at her frustration. ‘That’s men all over! It’s centuries since your last civil war, not so very long since ours back home in America – and that’s even worse, when you fight your own people. Shortages are annoying, Sally but it isn’t like you to let it get you down?’
‘I know—’ Sally had sighed deeply. ‘I think it is just Ben being away so much of the time – and Jenny has been a bit fractious recently. It must be because she misses Ben. She is far more aware of the fact that he isn’t home now than when she was just a baby.’
Their lovely little daughter was now a lively toddler of three years and into all sorts of mischief. Named after her aunt, she was everyone’s little darling. Sally was no longer able to take her to work and settle her in a cot in her office, because she wanted to be into everything. Pearl, her nurse, still came in a few days a week, but also worked three days at the hospital, where the wards were overflowing with injured men sent home from the war. Mrs Hills, Sally’s housekeeper, was very good with little Jenny, but whenever she could, Sally tried to work from home. However, that was not always feasible and sometimes she did take the little girl into the office. Jenny loved it because all the staff fussed over and she was thoroughly spoiled, not least by her adoring aunt and namesake.
‘She’s an absolute imp but adorable,’ Jenni had replied, because she loved her niece and was always indulging her with little gifts and treats of all kinds. ‘If Ben being away is getting you down, you should tell him, Sally. I’m sure if he knew, he could cut down on these trips. I mean, have you any idea what he does when he is away?’
‘None at all…’ Sally had frowned. ‘He says the official title for his job is logistics controller – whatever that is.’
‘It means he’s buying and moving stuff on behalf of the Armed Forces, as you well know,’ Jenni had replied with a frown. ‘But why can’t he do that from an office in London?’
‘He says that he needs to prod officious store managers into sending what is needed for the troops,’ Sally had said and made a wry face. ‘Ben says that if he simply puts a chit in for them to send ammunition to a certain location, it might take weeks for it to be actually sent. By going himself and overseeing the packing and transportation, choosing the men escorting it himself, he gets results in a tenth of the time…’
Jenni had nodded her agreement. ‘Yes, I can see how that would work. We like to get on with things back home, Sally. You English tend to take your time – and the amount of red tape is maddening.’
‘Yes, Ben is forever complaining about that…’ Sally had laughed. ‘You two are so alike in so many ways. Did you know that?’
‘We’re both Americans,’ Jenni had shrugged and then smiled. ‘And we did have the same father. I suppose we may think alike in many ways…’
Jenni had just laughed, clearly pleased to be compared to her brother.
Now, on this sunny morning, Sally’s thoughts were interrupted as Ben opened his eyes and smiled at her. ‘You look pensive,’ he said and yawned. ‘Something wrong, sweetheart?’
‘In a way… but it needn’t concern you, Ben…’
He held out his hands to her, indicating she should sit on his lap. ‘Come and tell me what is wrong, Sally.’
‘Oh, just a little niggle concerning Harpers. It’s the quality of some of the stock these days… it isn’t what we’re used to, Ben.’
‘Ah…’ He nodded but looked resigned. ‘I know just what you mean. I made a stink about some boots that were delivered to an Army depot while I was there. The leather was not up to standard and they will probably fall to pieces after a couple of weeks of marching. I sent them back, but the quartermaster was furious. He said he’d been on to the suppliers every day for months to get them and what was he going to do now…’
‘What did you say?’ Sally was interested.
‘I went to see the factory myself and inspected what they were doing. We sorted out the problem between us and we’ve been promised replacements for next month.’
‘How did you manage that?’
‘Part bribery, part threats,’ Ben said. ‘It is a game we play all the time, Sally. They will pass off faulty goods if they can, but if you put your foot down hard, they normally come through. I threatened to take the contract away from them unless they pulled their socks up sharpish.’
‘Could you do that?’
‘Yes.’ Ben’s mouth set hard. ‘I’ve done it before now. Men need decent boots to march in, Sally – just as they need to get their ammunition when they require it and to be sure that the rations they receive are enough to keep them fighting fit.’
Sally nodded and smiled at him. She supposed she’d always known that what he was doing was important work, but she’d never seen it in terms of men’s lives before, but now she understood more of what he had to do. ‘No wonder you look worn out when you get home sometimes.’
‘It isn’t always easy,’ Ben said with a smile. ‘It involves a lot of driving from one end of the country to the other and hundreds of forms to fill in – and that’s when everything goes to plan. When it doesn’t, I have to spend ages trying to find the right person and that is sometimes more difficult than it sounds.’
‘And then I worry you with my trivial complaints…’
Ben pulled her on to his lap and kissed her. ‘Nothing you do or say is trivial to me, my love. Is anything else worrying you?’
‘What happens if I can’t find enough of the right stock to fill our shelves? Harpers is a big store, Ben, and our stockroom is getting emptier by the week – soon we shan’t have any reserves.’
‘Remember what you did to raise money for the wounded?’ Ben asked. ‘You bought seconds cheaply and sold them for very little, giving a contribution to the fund for wounded men. Do something similar again… take the poor-quality goods but at a lower price and make a thing of civilians sacrificing for the sake of our men over there…’
Sally nodded, looking at him with respect. It was more or less what Jenni was saying. ‘Yes, that could work. Those boots you rejected for the Army for instance—’
‘Would probably last civilians for a few months – bought cheaply enough they would be fine.’ He grinned at her. ‘I think a certain factory manager would be delighted to sell them to you very cheaply, Sally…’
‘Good. I’ll get on to it in the morning,’ she said, smiling and feeling much better than she had in a while. ‘Yes, I can just see the signs we’ll put up – and for each pair of substandard boots we sell, we’ll give something to the wounded fund again…’
Rosie Clarke is a #1 bestselling saga writer whose most recent books include The Mulberry Lane series. She has written over 100 novels under different pseudonyms and is a RNA Award winner. She lives in Cambridgeshire. Rosie’s brand new saga series, Welcome to Harpers Emporium began in December 2019.