The letter appeared on her homework desk, under her second-hand typewriter.
"Nanna! You said you changed things, and I told you to do something about it, and go read the papers from 1940 onwards. And you'll need 10 pounds to buy that chest in the Junk shop."
"But! But I'm 14 and still in school!" -Inspired by Casandre Jones. -- Knitnan
The letter was printed, and not by any means that she recognised. It certainly hadn't come from her typewriter. Her letter T was slightly off kilter and the commas always had an extra blob from the key strike. These letters were far too regular, and the paper... Something about it was subtly frightening. Something... more.
It was too white. Too smooth. Too thick. It was almost not of this world. It wasn't addressed to Polly-Anne or her preferred short form of Pol. It was addressed to Nanna. Which really was odd because... well... she was fourteen. Then there was the matter of ten pounds and the chest in the junk shop. Pol had neither ten pounds nor any idea about the chest in the junk shop. Then there was the overall scolding tone of the note. As if whoever wrote it - made it? - was disappointed that Pol was late in accomplishing some secret mission.
Pol thought about the whole thing on her walk to school. She didn't have a bicycle because Papa thought that proper girls had no business using them. Bicycles and the riding thereof, he said, caused proper girls to begin improper habits, though he never said exactly how. In fact, Pol had begun to wonder if she should try riding a bicycle to see what improper habits they might engender. Then there was the matter of ten pounds and the junk shop. What junk shop?
The answer came as she passed the vacant lot where the greasers hung out to menace proper girls. A building had sprung up over the holidays and was now promising a thrift shop in the next few days. A delivery van had stopped at the back and two men were struggling with... what looked like a pirate chest. Pol thought, Holy shit... and immediately chastised herself into outright mortification because she'd thought a rude word. Papa would take his belt off for her if he ever knew...
The same traitorous part of her thought, How could he know? and Pol tried to silence it, jogging a little faster towards school. Trying to focus on the matters of the day. Trying to be a proper young lady. She failed. Every spare moment, she had to wonder about the note she'd tucked into her underpants to keep it from prying eyes. Every time she visited the bathroom, she took it out to look at it. Letters too sharp. Paper too pale. It didn't seem like a real thing, yet there it was... persistently existing in her hands and as an uncomfortable crinkle hear her navel.
Her cafeteria lunch was minimal, that day, and hurriedly eaten in a mostly-unladylike manner. Nineteen-forty. What was so important about nineteen-forty? She'd turned four years old, but there was something... else. Something important had happened in the ten intervening years and her mysterious note-writer had wanted her to catch up. Therefore, Pol took herself to the library with a fresh notebook and a pencil to go through all the periodicals. Well. The newspapers.
Papa insisted that proper ladies didn't need to bother with the newspapers, but some of the stuff in these yellowing pages was stuff she was studying in class. She took notes. Not just of that, but also of anything she thought she might be able to influence: local news, personals, births (though it made her blush), and advertising in the for sale section. Pol found herself reading quickly to get the bones of the issue. Writing quickly to get those bones into her journal.
She put the mystery note in there, too. Used it as a bookmark.
Pol realised, late into her lunch break, that there were patterns of events in the back pages. Little articles buried in the dull pages without even illustrated advertising or fancy letters. The dull stuff like interesting mineral deposits connecting to a sudden 'new money' socialite and then to nuclear testing in the remote areas of South Australia. Other patterns emerged in the personals. Secret messages that were largely ignored because they were in fine print and buried in the areas where nobody would look.
She was late to Home Economics, that day, but Mrs Penderghast didn't mind it. All Pol had to say was that she got caught up in Periodicals and no more needed to be mentioned. That afternoon, after all the classes were done, she borrowed a book on secret messages from the library and hid it amongst her textbooks with her journal. The chest was not in the window of the thrift shop, but rather an interesting display of china tchotchkes and the promise that the place was 'opening soon'.
As she passed it, someone added a card in the window. Help Wanted.
Pol would never know what inspired her to turn and knock on the door, Papa would yell for sure... but she did, and kept her books as a shield between her chest and the kindly-looking older man who answered. She stumbled her way through, "I saw your sign and I was hoping to earn some... pin money? After School? I could sweep the floors and order the shelves and I can type..."
"Know how to run a till?"
"Not yet," she said. "Is it harder than a typewriter?"
"Don't reckon so, 's got less keys to press and no little flippy things to catch. Could teach you, pretty easy."
"When do I start?"
"Teach you t'morry afternoon," he said. "Start workin' next mundy. Long as you come with a note from y'r mother sayin' it's okay."
Now that was a tremendous relief. Papa always said a lady had no business working. All she needed was a man to care for her. Mama, on the other hand... she was getting ideas from the wrong kinds of magazines. She didn't mind a girl earning pin money, so long as she also maintained a good schooling and never went into the back room.
Rebelling was starting to feel a lot easier than she'd thought. Besides, she was fourteen. Being a rebellious teenager was almost expected. Besides, getting a job to supply herself with proper ladylike things (allegedly) would show good moral character and allow her to be pickier with choosing the right kind of man to look after her.
That's what she'd argue if Papa ever found out.
What was happening to her? One little bit of strange paper with funny typesetting and she was plotting revolution against the man who had paid for her entire upbringing. And whipped her with his belt when she set a foot wrong. And yelled at her if she had a different viewpoint, and threatened her with being abandoned on a lonely highway for the greasers to eat alive if she had one single accident...
Having a little extra pin money sounded like a sound investment if she was going to be left for the greasers, anyway.
Mr Anders, who ran the thrift shop, had started it because he purchased an old house where the former owner had never thrown a thing away. In the process, he had unearthed a lot of things with incidental value. He didn't mind Pol studying between customers and the customers didn't seem to mind, either.
Pol had to wear an apron for work and generally set her hankie on the stool behind the counter so she could avoid embarrassing dust prints on her skirt. The chest, lurking in a dingy corner of the shop, was available for ten pounds and solidly locked. She'd asked about it three days in and Mr Anders was good enough to let her have it on lay-away against her wages. At two shillings, eight and a half pence per hour, and two hours worked per diem...
She could have the chest in five weeks with a shilling and five pence left over. Though the Lord alone knew how she planned to get the thing home and out of Papa's notice after that. Perhaps enlisting Mama's assistance and getting Mr Anders to deliver it before Papa came home. He never went into the basement, but... Pol had the feeling that once it got into the basement, it would never come out again.
In the meantime, Pol was learning a lot about cyphers and decoding the secret messages in the personals. Some were so alarming that she mailed anonymous warnings to the relevant police and hoped for the best. Since she was a fan of the Hardy Boys and the Amazing Mr Malone, she signed them as Hardy Malone and sent them off without a return address. Whether or not anything came of it, she wouldn't know. Not for months.
The important part, for her, was the chest.
Five weeks' worth of pay later, and one heart-stopping near-adventure where Mr Anders' truck drove off mere minutes before Papa came home... Pol was next faced with the problem of how to open a lock without a key. Fortunately, nobody enquired very much about a young lady purchasing a set of files on her way to school because her afternoon job kept her out of the shops in the evenings. They just assumed the tools were for her father.
It was ludicrously easy to let people assume things. Not telling the entire truth was easier than lying, that was for certain. And what she was up to was certainly a patch healthier than -say- taking up smoking. So what if Papa assumed she was designing fashions and sewing down in the basement? She was certainly doing that... too.
The rest of it involved fishing the newspaper out of the rubbish bin in the evenings and dutifully copying every suspect message in there into her journal before putting it back out.
The lock finally broke as April heralded the winter. It did not contain pirate treasure. It contained... ninety percent of a bicycle, some very interesting tools, some even more interesting books, and a pattern for some knickerbocker pants that she could easily conceal under her skirt and petticoats. There were also some spats that could keep her bobby socks free of incriminating grease marks.
In one of the books was another slip of paper. A familiar type of paper with the familiar too-straight typesetting and awkward turns of phrase.
You took your time, Nanna. That can't be helped. Beware of Officer Janstone, he is not as friendly as he seems. Talk to Sgt Lister when he turns up. Mr Anders will help you with the rest of the bicycle, and Danny next door won't mind minding it for you in his shed.
Danny next door. Interesting. The last time she'd spoken to Danny next door, she'd been told off for helping him catch pollywogs in the local pond - decidedly unladylike behaviour. Danny was working for a mechanic closer to town, and therefore grudgingly awarded status as a young man with promise. Papa wouldn't much mind her talking to him now and again, so long as they stood two feet apart and kept their hands behind their backs.
The first thing she did was get a new lock for the chest. It seemed like the best place to keep her secrets, since Papa went through her diary once a month.
The next morning, she passed by an interesting poster on the community notice board. A reward of one hundred pounds for anyone with information leading to the identity of one Hardy Malone. Closer examination revealed that enquiries had to go through Officer Janstone. Huh. Not likely. She'd bide her time and keep her work to herself until Sergeant Lister showed up.
This afternoon, she had to talk to a man about a bicycle. With that, she could have greater range, and with her wages, she could purchase newspapers or anything else she needed without having to fret about Papa finding out through idle gossip. And anyway, with the knickerbockers on and the skirt and petticoats in a satchel, with her hair up in a cap, people were wont to mistake her for a boy.
Papa hadn't noticed anything amiss at all. With luck, he wouldn't do so for quite a long time. With help from her mysterious benefactor, he certainly wouldn't.
By the time the Hardy Malone Detective Agency went public... the entire world would have changed. All because Pol was changing it. First by finding spies and saboteurs, then by finding criminals, and reporting them anonymously to the police.
 Horrible History moment - Men frowned on women riding bicycles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of the aforementioned 'improper habits'. In this case, it was wearing knickerbockers, going wherever they pleased, and reading things that men hadn't previewed. They also held that riding bicycles may -possibly through sympathetic magic- cause lesbianism or otherwise supplant a woman's "need for a man". You may now roll your eyes and sigh at their folly. Variants of this belief existed right up until the 1970's but usually manifested as the meme, "Bicycles are for boys."
[Image (c) Can Stock Photo / welcomia]
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