Reading makes immigrants of us all.
And so the day dawned at last when 'Temptation' was finished and it came time for Mrs Harris to take possession of her treasure swathed in reams of tissue paper and packed, in a glamorous. cardboard box with the name 'DIOR' printed on it in golden letters as large as life.
There was quite a little gathering for her in the Salon of Dior's in the late morning – she was leaving on an after-noon plane – and from somewhere a bottle of champagne had appeared. Mme Colbert was there, Natasha and M. Fauvel, and all of the fitters, cutters, and seamstresses who had worked so hard and faithfully to finish her dress in record time.
They drank her health and safe journey, and there were gifts for her, a genuine crocodile leather handbag from a grateful Mme Colbert, a wrist watch from an equally grateful M. Fauvel, and gloves and perfume from the more than grateful Natasha.
The manageress took Mrs Harris in her arms, held her closely for a moment, kissed her, and whispered in her ear: 'You have been very very lucky for me, my dear. Soon perhaps I shall be able to write to you of a big announcement concerning my husband.'
Natasha hugged her too and said: 'l shall never forget you, or that I shall owe all my happiness to you. Andre and I will marry in the autumn. I shall make you godmother to our first child.'
M. Andre Fauvel kissed her on the cheek and fussed over her, advising her to take good care of herself on the return trip, and then with the true concern of a man whose business is with cash asked: 'You are sure now that you have your money to pay the duty in a safe place? You , have it weIl hidden away, no? It is better you have it not in the purse where it might be snatched.'
Mrs Harris grinned her wonderfully jagged and impish grin. Well fed for the first time in her life, rested, and t happy, she looked younger by decades. She opened her new crocodile bag to show the air-ticket and passport , therein, with one single green pound note, a five hundred franc note, and a few left-over French coins to see her to , the airport. 'That's the lot,' she said. 'But it's plenty to get me back to me duties. There's nuffink for no one to snatch.' 'Oh la la! But no!' cried M. Fauvel, his voice shaken by sudden anguish while a fearful silence fell upon the group in the salon as the shadow of impending disaster made itself felt. 'I mean the customs duty at the British douane. Mon Dieu! Have you not provided? At six shillings in the pound' – he made a swift calculation – 'that would be one hundred and fifty pounds. Did you not know you must pay this?'
Mrs Harris looked at him stunned - and aged twenty years. 'Gor,' she croaked, 'hundred and fifty quid. I couldn't raise a bob to me nyme! – 'Ow, why didn't somebody tell me? 'Ow was I to know?'
Mme Colbert reacted fiercely. 'La, what nonsense are you talking, Andre? Who pays duty any more to customs? You think those titled ladies and rich Americans do? All, all is smuggle, and you too, my little Ada, shall smuggle yours – ‘
The little blue eyes of Mrs Harris became filled with fear, alarm, suspicion. 'That would be telling a lie, wouldn't it?' she said, looking helplessly from one to the other - 'I don't mind telling a fib or two, but I don't tell lies. That would be bryking the law. I could go to jail for that.' Then as the true and ghastly import of what M. Fauvel said dawned upon her she quite suddenly sank down into the pile of the grey carpet, covered her face with her workworn hands and sent up a wail of despair that penetrated through the establishment so that the Great Patron himself came running in. 'I can't 'ave it. It ain't for such as me. I should 'ave known me place. Tyke it away - give it away, do anything. I’ll go 'ome and forget about it.'
The story of the dilemma ran like wildfire through the building. Experts appeared from all sides to give advice, including that there be a petition directed to the British Ambassador, until it was pointed out that so stern was the British regard for the law that not even the Ambassador or the Queen herself could intervene to have them set aside, even in so worthy a cause –
It was the Patron himself, familiar with Mrs Harris's story who solved the dilemma, severing the Gordian knot with one swift, generous stroke - or thought he had. 'Reduce the price of the dress to this good woman,' he ordered accountant Fauvel, 'and give her the balance in cash to pay the duty.'
'But sir,' protested the horrified Fauvel, who now for the first time himself saw the trap into which his benefactress had,fallen, 'it is impossible!'
They all stared at him as though he were a poisonous reptile. 'Do you not see? Madame had already unwittingly broken British law by exporting the one thousand four hundred dollars, illegally exchanged by her American friend in the United Kingdom. If now she, poor wornan, appears at the British customs at the airport declaring a dress worth five hundred pounds and offered a further hundred and fifty pounds in cash to pay the duty, there would be inquiries how she, a British subject, had come by these monies: there would be a scandal – '
They continued to look at the unfortunate accountant as though he were a king cobra, but they also knew that he was right. 'Let me go 'ome and die,' wailed Mrs Harris. Natasha was at her side, her arms about her. Voices rose in a babel of sympathy. Mme Colbert had an inspiration. 'Wait,' she cried, 'I have it.' She, too, dropped to her knees at Mrs Harris's side - 'My dear, will you listen to me? I can help you. I shall be lucky for you, as you have been for me –'
Mrs Harris removed her hands to reveal the face of an old and frightened Capucin monkey. 'l won't do nuffink dishonest – or tell no lies.'
'No, no. Trust me. You shall say nothing but the absolute truth. But you must do exactly how and what I say for, my dear, we ALL wish you to have your beautiful dress to take home. Now listen.' And Mme Colbert, placing her lips close to Mrs Harris's monkey ear so that no one else might hear, whispered her instructions.
As she stood in the customs hall of London Airport, Mrs Harris felt sure that her thumping heart must be audible to all, yet by the time the pleasant-looking young customs officer reached her, her native-born courage and cheerfulness buoyed her up, and her naughty eyes were even twinkling with an odd kind of anticipatory pleasure.
On the counter before her rested, not the glamorous Dior box, but a large and well-worn plastic suitcase of the cheapest kind. The officer handed her a card on which was printed the list of dutiable articles purchased abroad.
'You read it to me, duckie,' Mrs Harris grinned impudently, 'l left me specs at 'ome.'
The inspector glanced at her sharply once to see whether he was being had; the pink rose on the green hat bobbed at him; he recognized the breed at once. 'Hullo,' he smiled. 'What have you been doing over in Paris?
'’Aving a bit of a 'oliday on me own.'
The customs man grinned. This was a new one on him. The British char abroad. The mop and broom business must be good, he reflected, then inquired routinely: 'Bring anything back with you?'
Mrs Harris grinned at him. ' ‘Aven't I just? A genuine Dior dress called "Temptytion" in me bag 'ere. Five 'undred quid it cost. 'Ow's that?'
The inspector laughed. It was not the first time he had encountered the London char's sense of humour. 'You'll be the beIle of the ball with it, I'll wager,'he said, and made a mark with a piece of chalk on the side of the case. Then he sauntered off and presented his card to the next passenger whose luggage was ready.
Mrs Harris picked up her bag and walked - not ran, though it was a great effort not to bolt - to the exit and down the escalator to freedom. She was filled not only with a sense of relief, but righteousness as weIl, She had told the truth. If, as Mme Colbert had said, the customs officer chose not to believe her, that was not her fault.
From Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico.