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Authors: Barbara Perkins

Fortune's Lead


Barbara Perkins


A gypsy had told Charlotte a number of curious things concerning her future—and certainly they all
to fit the situation in which she found herself at Thurlanger House.



I must have been out of my mind, I suppose, but it was a very good place to be out of at that moment. It was only afterwards that sanity began to creep in, when I stopped and looked at myself and wondered what on earth I was doing. By that time I’d done it. I had a brand new and expensive suitcase, certainly some highly frivolous underwear, two very fashionable cocktail dresses, the sort of negligee people wear on honeymoon in films, fluffy bedroom slippers to match, and an exotic bottle of perfume. My hair was loose and swinging and rinsed to a peculiar orange shade which the hairdresser called ‘bringing out the golden lights in it, madam’, and I’d had my face done, my fingernails done, and even my toenails done. From the ground up, I was wearing new shoes, new stockings, a bright pink suit and a soft white travelling coat (which matched my suitcase). In fact, if anyone had come up to me and said, ‘Hallo, Charlotte,’ I’d have known they were mad, because I didn’t look at all like me. Not even if you removed the dark glasses, which I’d bought either because a streak of caution made me afraid to see this new self of mine at all clearly, or because expensive-looking people seemed to wear them. I wasn’t sure quite which.

The only trouble was, having done all this—having spent all this money I’d been thriftily saving for years, and all in one beautiful, wasteful morning—I ought by rights to have been going off on some mad whirl of gaiety. What I actually
going to do was to catch a train and go home. The thought of doing anything so tame was infuriating—and almost as dreary as Robert. There was a certain amount of comfort in thinking about Robert. I was so definitely not heartbroken. Instead of being miserable, or humiliated, or wanting to burst into tears all over the place which is probably what any rational person would have felt like, I’d just been furiously angry. Not angry because he’d upped and married someone else, either: it was more the thought of the waste. I’d spent five years, ever since I was twenty, modelling myself on Robert’s way of looking at things—and becoming, I could see now, primmer, quieter, thriftier and ever more dull in the process. At the end of all that he’d abruptly married a bohemian-looking girl who painted bad abstract pictures and went around in jeans and bare feet. He’d known her for all of three weeks, and when I’d got over the shock, I couldn’t help laughing at the thought of the precise Robert locking himself up for life with someone like that. (Marriage, he had been apt to say sententiously when he had been telling me how sure we must be of each other before we Took Steps, should be a Long and Enriching Life Partnership.) In my more charitable moments, I hoped that she’d enrich him by making him a little more human, or at least that he’d be happy thinking he was saving her from herself, but the rest of the time I just wanted to laugh. I was grinning now as I edged my way through a sudden conglomeration of prams and mothers outside a new supermarket which seemed (from the look of things) to cram a week’s worth of business into Friday mornings. A passing errand boy looked me over, and let out a loud wolf-whistle. That was nice, too. He certainly wouldn’t have whistled at the other me.

Extravagance was the keynote of everything this morning, I told myself, and since I had to catch my train, I hailed a passing taxi and sank back into it with as wealthy an air as I could manage—ignoring the inner voice which told me I was really taking a taxi because my new shoes were beginning to hurt. No, I was not going to feel guilty. After all, I had escaped—hadn’t I?—not only from Robert, but also from the depressing northern town I had frequently regretted choosing to spend the past year working in. Some people might love Grimsbridge, I supposed, if they had been born there—and certainly great numbers of people
born there—but it had never raised stirrings of devotion in me. It sprawled in a dirty industrial mass without a sense of identity, tacked on to the next town by a trickle of houses and a factory whose postal address might have been one town or the other, and had the air of a place which actually belonged somewhere else but had landed where it was and would have to make do with it. Its entertainments were two cinemas, two dozen pubs, and an ice-rink which seemed to be the main meeting place for the roughest gangs in the district. For anything else one had to go into the city of Bradfield (where I now was) on a very slow train, and the railway company seemed to resent having to put even that on, since the last train back at night ran at seven-twenty. It was the total lack of connecting trains which had landed me with a long—and extravagant—morning to get through in Bradfield on my journey home...

Anyway, I was free of Grimsbridge, from the moment I finished working out my notice. That was one good result out of being free of Robert.

Aching feet—even one aching foot—act annoyingly like an aching conscience. My old self started jabbing at me. Surely I really ought to have cared? My parents, both my sisters and several friends had written to me in tones so carefully not too sympathetic as to show how sorry for me the news of Robert’s defection had made them. It was partly my father’s kind comment that one day I would find someone really worthy of me which finally made me blow up inside and go on my shopping spree. Worthy—that was just what I was. Horribly worthy. Ugh! My old self gave another jab: to lose the man you loved after five years ought not to provoke that kind of response. My new self retorted that it was perfectly plain I hadn’t loved him at all, so why be hypocritical about it: we’d jogged along together in a land of middle-aged habit. Furthermore, if Robert liked being middle-aged at thirty, I had no intention of being middle-aged at twenty-five, and if that meant I had a frivolous soul I could only cheer. I’d far rather be a butterfly than the drabber sort of moth, and with that comforting thought I leaned back in the taxi and revelled in the fact that I wasn’t on a bus. I felt new all over—and the sight of my suitcase made me glad I had recklessly thrown away the battered old fibre suitcase which was my usual travelling companion. It would have spoiled the way I wanted to feel to have been carrying such an ancient object, clearly labelled ‘Staff Nurse C. Armitage, Grimsbridge Hospital, Grimsbridge.’ Old Charlotte told New Charlotte, reprovingly, that it was an honour to be labelled by my profession. New Charlotte retorted surprisingly that today I was in favour of looking decorative, entirely unuseful, and somewhere as far from the tenets of Miss Florence Nightingale as possible. I was still wondering what had come over me when the taxi drew up and deposited me at the station.

The station was crowded, and the London train was in and waiting. I threaded my way through and round groups of people, not seeing very well but still unwilling to take off my dark glasses, and once through the ticket barrier I got into the train to walk along the corridor and look for a seat. Every compartment had at least two or three people in it already. I moved on up the train, edging round people getting in and almost bumping into several: it was hotter on the train than off it, so when I reached a quiet piece of corridor I took off my coat and put it over my arm. Perhaps I was carrying it badly, slung round my suitcase as it was, or perhaps it was the gloom of peering through darkened lenses which made me careless; but I hadn’t gone more than a few steps further before I tripped over something at shin level, saved myself from falling with a quickly outflung hand—and felt my new coat catch, and rip, with a horrid rending sound, on whatever piece of luggage it was which had catapulted me forwards.

‘My dear child!’

Abruptly, I wasn’t alone. A tweedy figure appeared beside me with the suddenness of a leprechaun. He caught hold of my arm as if afraid I still might not be quite steady, and dusted me down a little, quite unnecessarily, as he went on talking. ‘Good gracious, are you hurt? What a wretched thing to happen! Entirely my fault—are you sure you’re not hurt?’

‘Not at all, thank you,’ I said breathlessly. He was half a head shorter than I was, which must be what made me think of a leprechaun, and of course he hadn’t actually appeared out of nowhere but merely out of the nearby compartment. ‘No, really, I’m perfectly all right,’ I said again in answer to another solicitous enquiry, but with a sinking feeling of misery as I tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to disentangle the bottom of my coat from the piece of luggage which had been my downfall. If its owner hadn’t been clucking sympathetic noises at me I might have felt resentful towards him for having such odd-shaped luggage: as it was I just felt miserable. If vengeful furies had been pursuing me for being extravagant, they couldn’t have planned it better: it was so disproportionately depressing to have torn my new coat that I wanted to cry.

‘Oh, good heavens, your coat! Let me.’ He’d noticed, which made things worse. I was opening my mouth to tell him that it was absolutely nothing when a third voice joined in, making me jump.

‘Excuse me.’

It was said in a deep voice, and brusquely enough to make me murmur an apology and try to get out of the way. Not so my companion: he glanced round, and said with a decided air of impatience,

‘Ah, there you are, Kevin. I knew we shouldn’t have put these rods in the corridor—one really can’t go around tripping people up, and to make matters worse we’ve torn Miss—’

‘Armitage,’ I supplied automatically into the enquiring pause.

‘—Miss Armitage’s coat. My dear, I really am sorry. Let me see just how much damage I’ve done. Kevin—’

‘Yes, I saw what happened.’

It was said sardonically enough to bring my head up with a jerk. While I was still trying to frame a suitably scathing retort, pointing out that if
had been careless,
had been criminally negligent in littering the corridor with booby-traps. ‘Kevin’ came past me and into the compartment to hoist another suitcase on to the rack. He was tall—very, and broad-shouldered to match, and I might have called him handsome if he hadn’t just brushed me out of the way as if I were an insect. Before I could say anything to prove that this insect had a sting, the tweedy man claimed my attention again: he was examining the damage to my coat, and apologizing for it.

‘There’s a nasty tear in the lining. I really
sorry!’ He ran his hand up the edge of the material, and I felt rather than saw his fractional examination of the coat’s expensive label. ‘You really must let me do something about this, Miss Armitage,’ he went on earnestly. ‘Such a very careless thing to have done. My carelessness, not yours.’

He sounded positively courtly, and quite determined that I shouldn’t feel the accident was my fault: looking at him with more attention I discovered that in spite of his soft voice and his light, quick movements he was really quite old. Some strictures of my father’s on the difference in manners between the younger and older generation flashed into my mind and I glanced at the much younger ‘Kevin’ out of the corner of my eye—to see that he was standing still with his arm leaning against the luggage rack, watching me with a kind of sardonic resignation. I could see him much more clearly than his companion, because he was looking out of the corner of my eye instead of through the dark lenses, and it annoyed me to know that he had seen me glance at him. I switched my attention quickly to my rescuer, and gave him my best smile.

‘Please don’t bother about it. It’s really nothing. Besides,’ I added, letting my voice drawl a little for the benefit of the unbearable Kevin, ‘what’s a coat lining? It’s really not worth worrying about.’ Said that way, it sounded satisfactorily as if I had racks of coats at home, from minks downwards. I bestowed another smile, a dazzling one I hoped, on the tweedy man, as doors began to bang along the train with the finality of departure. ‘Thank you for being so concerned about it, but—’

‘But my dear, I insist—if you won’t let me replace the coat, then at least you must let me—’

‘If you’ll excuse my breaking in, I’d really better get off this train before it leaves.’ The words were polite enough, but the tone held a faint edge of mockery which was unpleasant, and as Kevin came out into the corridor, moving lightly for a man of his size, he looked down at me for a second and I could almost have sworn his lip curled scornfully. He said, ‘By the way, you’ve dropped your ticket—did you know?’ and pointed downwards at my feet: then he lifted my coat out of the hands of the older man, handed it to me, and added, ‘Don’t forget this.’ With which obvious dismissal he turned his back on me, his broad shoulders shutting me off from the older man, and said, ‘Uncle, give my love to Aunt Catherine, won’t you? I’m sorry I shan’t see her.’

I was gasping at his rudeness: he obviously thought I was too negligible to be worth even common courtesy. Certainly I wasn’t going to remain where I wasn’t wanted—what did he think, that I was about to demand damages, or something?—and I scrabbled rapidly for my ticket on the floor, and moved away along the corridor as fast as I could. Here was an empty compartment—no, it was first class, bother. I moved quickly into the next carriage, as the whistle started blowing, and passed a full compartment, and then another, and then another. If the delay meant I wasn’t going to find a seat it would be maddening, and I was furious enough already. The train was already beginning to move before I found somewhere to sit, and then it was an uncomfortable position between two people who had moved a minimum, with reluctance, to make room for me.

I put my suitcase on top of someone else’s on the rack, and sat down with my coat on my knee, fuming. I spent several moments thinking of things I might have said, and several more composing an angry letter to the newspaper on the subject of manners, and then my temper began to go down and my misery to rise. A quick check over my coat brought a small comfort—it
only the lining that was torn, and I could mend that and nothing would show. But that didn’t touch the real, depressing blanket of prospects which began to crowd in on me. I had had my fling—a small one at that, buying clothes which I would probably hardly wear. I had lost Robert, to whom in five years I hadn’t even got as far as getting engaged, and there were no regrets about that. But I was still an honest, worthy, hard-working staff nurse who had just thrown in her job as a result of being jilted by the man she had originally travelled northwards to be near. (Robert’s firm, which seemed to be as slow as he was, would undoubtedly go on building the new Northern Reservoir at Netherwick for the next six months.) Undeniably I could take my honest etc. talents elsewhere, but in my present mood, anywhere would be just the same. Hospitals were hospitals anywhere, and it would be an idiotic waste of seven years of training to try to do something different. And probably fail. Remembering that it had been Robert who advocated my going to Grimsbridge (because he said it would be valuable experience for me to work in an industrial town) made me feel slightly sick—at my own lack of character. I seemed to have been following other people’s advice for years, and now I had to make up my mind for myself, I couldn’t even begin to think what I wanted to do.

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