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An Afternoon Out

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It was mid-morning on a lovely Saturday in early June, and the Melendy household was in an uproar. Cuffy was going out, into town! Never mind that this was a monthly occurrence—it still upset the usual routine of everyone at the Four-Story Mistake.

“Might I go with you?” asked Mona, in her best grown-up voice. “I need—”

But the household never found out what Mona needed, because Cuffy shook her head firmly.

“No. This is my afternoon. If you want to go shopping, you can take Randy and the two of you can go together.” Not at all to Cuffy’s surprise, Mona and Randy looked equally appalled at that idea. But Cuffy had no intention of relenting. She remembered the pleasant times she’d had the last two months, and hoped that this month would show that they had been no fluke. And she truly needed a respite from being a caretaker to the children, much as she loved them.

Rush had to have his say, of course. “Why would you want to go into town, anyway? Shopping is so boring. Mark and I are going to go out exploring. That’s the way to spend an afternoon. Adventure, ho!”

Cuffy felt a little wistful. That wasn’t the kind of adventure she was interested in, of course. But another kind of adventure, perhaps... She smiled to herself, remembering when she was Mona’s age, and just going into town to do shopping could be an adventure. And she had had her own sort of small adventure the past two months. Would this month be another one, or was it all in her imagination?

“You two have your adventures and exploring, but be careful! Don’t go anywhere you can’t find your way back from, and mind you’re back well before dark. And remember that adventures are generally uncomfortable, and took a lot of cleaning up from afterward. As for me, I’m going to have a nice lunch, and do some shopping. I need a new bag, and I don’t know what else.”

Mona still looked stubborn, so she continued, “Oh, and all of you need new underthings. How you do what you do to them, I just can’t imagine.”

That quieted Mona, and there was a general shrugging all around. Oliver managed to look particularly angelic. Rush and Randy looked slightly guilty. Cuffy knew children were always hard on all their clothes, outer and under. But what with spending their days mostly outside, and getting into and out of places, it was inevitable. At least such things were readily available, at least for now. With the war on, Mr. Melendy told everyone stories about England and rationing and how people couldn’t get any new clothes, but thankfully there weren’t any such difficulties—yet, at least—where they were.

“Now, be off with you! You know what to do for lunch, and I’ll be back in time to get up dinner. And behave yourselves!”

Cuffy gathered up her bag, made sure she had her wallet, and headed out the door. The bag was an enormous flowered one, looking sadly worn. It was many years old, and had done good service, but it was reaching the end of its lifetime. The straps had been repaired too many times for her to remember, and the material was wearing through. The bag usually held everything she might need for a family of five children—she smiled as she thought about Mark, the newest and best-behaved child—but this time it held only the bare minimum, since there were no children to look after. She briefly thought about taking her black “dress” bag instead, but there was no time to make the switch. Then she told herself firmly that she’d had her old bag with her the previous two months, and there was no reason to show that kind of vanity today.

As she waited for the bus, she remembered her first meeting with Mrs. Oliphant. Of course she knew her as the children’s friend, and Mr. Melendy’s friend from even further back. It was Randy’s adventure that had turned her from “The Elephant” to “Mrs. Oliphant.”

Two months ago, on her shopping afternoon, they’d seen each other on the street, and Mrs. Oliphant had called out to her. She’d expected to go on her own way after they’d exchanged greetings, but Gabrielle had invited her to lunch. And what a lunch it had been! They became Vangie and Gabrielle to each other. No one had called her that since she was in school, and it was pleasant to have a friend who was the only one who used that name. They spent the entire afternoon talking and laughing. Though they came from very different backgrounds, somehow they never ran out of things to talk about. The children, of course, but also life in the city versus life in the country, and magazines (it turned out they liked many of the same sorts of stories), and of course the war. Always the war, far away though it seemed. When they finally left the restaurant, after lunch, and innumerable cups of coffee (for Cuffy) and tea (for Gabrielle), and then some petit fours—Gabrielle’s favorite—the sky was starting to turn dark, and Cuffy had to hurry to get her shopping done.

Cuffy’s musings halted as the bus arrived—on time, she noticed. It was a pleasant ride into town. As usual, she strolled down the rows of storefronts, doing some window shopping. As she stood at an intersection, debating whether to cross to the next street or turn right and go around the block, she heard her name being called—her real name, not the nickname the children had been using for so long. “Vangie!” She turned around, and smiled at Mrs. Oliphant. She felt a surge of relief, then scolded herself for being silly. They hadn’t exactly made firm plans, but she had thought Gabrielle had expected to see her, and she was right.

“Gabrielle, how lovely to see you! What are you doing out today?”

“Oh, a little of this, a little of that. Lunch first, then shopping. How are the children?”

“All healthy, though it’s a mercy they don’t kill themselves, the way they tear around everywhere. Poor Mr. Melendy is traveling for work again, as always. And you?”

“I’m fine. Since I’m out on my own today, would you care to join me for lunch?” She gave Cuffy what she was beginning to think of as her own private smile.

Ashe they walked toward the restaurant together, Cuffy remembered last month She made sure to be in the same area at the same time as the previous month, and was surprised but pleased to see that Mrs. Oliphant had obviously had much the same thought.

Again, they had a lovely lunch—though not as long a one, since she really did have errands to do, even if it was her afternoon off. Gabrielle had had an interesting life. Even the childhood she described as restrained and stifling seemed utterly exotic to her. And then there was the story of the gypsies! Cuffy could scarcely countenance it when Randy related it to them, but Gabrielle assured her it was true in essence if not in all the details. Since then, Gabrielle had traveled the world with her husband and either alone or with a companion after her husband died (too soon, sadly).

This month, despite a little flutter of worry that Gabrielle wouldn’t show up, their meeting was almost routine. They went to a restaurant where—given the way Gabrielle was greeted at the door—she was well known at, and they were seated in a nice booth ahead of several other couples waiting for tables. Cuffy wasn’t sure whether to feel smug or guilty, but she picked up her menu and studied it. Or started to, but looking at the exotic-to-her choices made her think of all that Gabrielle had done and she hadn’t.

She dragged her thoughts back to the present and lunch and Gabrielle. Gabrielle was looking at her fondly. “Penny for your thoughts? That look seemed to be more than about pondering whether to have today’s special or something else off the menu.”

She hesitated a moment, then sighed. “I was thinking about the children’s talk of adventure. If I had one, I’d probably worry about how it would make me late for dinner. But sometimes—“

“—you wish something more exciting them cooking and housekeeping would be part of your life?” Gabrielle finished.

“Something of that sort,” she agreed.

Gabrielle smiled—another of those sorts of smiles, that made Cuffy feel quite special in a way she hadn’t since her husband died. “It could be arranged, you know.”

Cuffy dropped her menu and stared at her. “I couldn’t. The time, the Melendys,” she managed to say.

Gabrielle picked up the menu and handed it back to her. “The waiter is hovering dear. You should order.” Cuffy picked something at random and the two of them placed their orders, and she tried to get her breathing under control.

Gabrielle looked benevolently at her. “I know. And in any case, travel is difficult while the war is on. But it will end, and the children will grow up. And sometimes you have to make time for excitement, just to make sure life doesn’t pass you by. And,” she said with a wink, “travel is easier when one has someone to travel with. More respectable.” Her sideways glance convinced Cuffy that “respectable” was the last thing Gabrielle was worrying about.

After that, their food arrived, and the conversation turned to other things. Cuffy noticed a young boy—older than Oliver, younger than Rush—enter the restaurant, and wondered what he was doing there. He was too young to be a customer, unless he was meeting family there. She looked around, but didn’t see anyone it seemed likely he belonged to. Maybe he worked in the kitchen, and was coming in through the front instead of the back? If so, he was going to be receiving a scolding from his boss as soon as he got to where he belonged.

And while she was wondering about it, he darted forward, grabbed her bag, and ran off. Oh, she thought. A thief. That’s what he’s doing here.

He didn’t get very far, though. Gabrielle, who had been following her gaze at the boy, stuck a long (and manicured) hand out as he passed her, and nabbed him neatly. Cuffy snatched her bag back, then used her body (her too, too solid body, she considered) to push the boy into the booth, then sat down on the other side of him, pinning him in place.

The boy glared at her, then slumped, his lower lip quivering. “Are you gonna call the cops?”

Cuffy looked at Gabrielle, then back at the boy. “Are you going to run away?”

He shrugged. “Nah. You got me.”

“What’s your name?” she asked. He shrunk down a bit and didn’t say anything. “Come on. I’m not going to get you in trouble. I just want something to call you other than ‘hey you.’”

“Lanny,” he mumbled.

Cuffy and Gabrielle exchanged glances. That was an unusual enough name that, even though it had to be a nickname, they could probably hunt down his family if necessary by asking around. He was a bit scruffy looking, but his clothes were in good repair and he didn’t look too skinny, so someone had been taking care of him.

“Are you hungry, Lanny?” He shrugged. “I live with five children, and it seems like they’re always starving. If I order something for you, would you eat it?” He nodded.

She caught the eye of the waiter—who had probably been watching the whole thing—and ordered asked him to bring a chicken sandwich, the vegetable of the day (he grimaced), and some French fries (and he brightened again).

Gabrielle, who had been watching Cuffy deal with Lanny, finally spoke up. “I was wondering, Lanny. Why did you grab my friend’s bag?” His mouth opened, but she continued. “I mean, why hers and not mine?” She gestured at her smaller, but clearly more expensive purse which, Cuffy realized, had also been sitting on the edge of the seat, temptingly available for anyone to grab. Stupid of both of us, she realized.

“You’re not actually very good at this, are you?” Gabrielle went on. “Lack of experience?”

Lanny nodded ruefully. “I never done anything like this before. But I was so worried about Ma,” he said, as if that explained everything. Cuffy refrained from correcting his grammar.

“And what does your mother have to do with your larcenous predilections?” asked Gabrielle.

Lanny looked open-mouthed at her. “She means, what’s the connection between your mother and stealing my purse,” clarified Cuffy.

“Well, Da is in the army—he enlisted after Pearl Harbor—and Ma is taking care of the twins, and the checks aren’t coming in, and, and—I didn’t know what to do!” he finished in a rush. “I tried to get work, but everyone told me to go back to school or I was too young, or they didn’t have anything for me. And the landlord keeps coming around and saying he needs his money. We only just moved here, and we can’t end up out on the street, we just can’t!”

“Oh, my!” said Cuffy. “That is a pile of troubles and no mistake.” The waiter arrived with Lanny’s lunch, and set it down. “But there are few troubles that a bit of food won’t help. Eat up—not too fast, mind.”

Lanny set to with a will, and Cuffy and Gabrielle looked at each other. The “checks” Lanny mentioned were probably the real problem. If they’d just moved to the new apartment, the support checks that should have taken care of the family in their father’s absence may not have followed them.

So much for the rest of their leisurely lunch—or Cuffy’s shopping, for that matter.

“I know someone at the War Office,” Gabrielle said. “If I follow up on that, can you take care of the immediate problems of food and rent?” Cuffy nodded. Gabrielle passed over a few bills. Cuffy wished she didn’t have to take them, but even if she carried that kind of money—which she didn’t—it would be a hardship for her. Gabrielle had money to spare, and enjoyed spending it.

Lanny’s plate was almost empty—even the vegetables. “Lanny, can you give me your parents’ names and address? I’m going to see what I can do to fix things,” said Gabrielle. She took out a little notebook, and wrote down the particulars. Then she caught the waiter’s eye—rather to Cuffy’s admiration, since she never had such an easy time with such things—and paid the bill for their lunches, along with (she noticed) a generous tip.

“And now,” Cuffy said, “we are going to buy some groceries and take them to your mother.” And probably cook some of it, if things are as much at sixes and sevens as it sounds, she thought. “And I’ll have a word with your landlord.”

Lanny looked too awed to have much to say.

Cuffy exchanged one last look with Gabrielle, then took the leap. No more pretending coincidences. “Next month?”

Gabrielle smiled at her. “Next month. And maybe we can talk some more about adventures.”

Cuffy colored a bit, and hoped Lanny didn’t notice—though she didn’t care if Gabrielle did. “Today was my usual kind of adventure, but we can talk more about your kind next time.”

And off they went in their own directions, with plans for today and thoughts for the future.