Short story from The End of Childhood
The train was late, and she shifted uneasily from foot to foot as she stood, the coat clinging and dragging like the water-logged clothes on a drowning man. For the weather had done one of its perverse changes, the November morning broken sunny and mild. Just her luck: yesterday she could have worn the wretched thing in comfort. Now, the mere thought of what lay before her – the traipsing to and fro, the crowded buses, the overheated shops – exhausted her.
But there, thank goodness, came the train, slithering round the bend like a sly brown serpent. And before it fairly stopped the windows were black with heads, carriage-doors flew open, porters shouted and were shouted for, bags and cases tumbled out. She had posted herself much too far down; had to trudge almost the length of the platform before she found Margaret, standing stolid and composed amid the racket. Just the same old sober-sides. The same old face, too: nature unadorned, not a touch of make-up: country from hat to shoes. One felt very chic and towny by comparison; and as the two of them moved to join the tail of the crowd at the gates, she saw to it that the skirts of the coat swayed becomingly.
More than once she thought she felt Margaret eyeing her, but: "So good of you, Katherine, to undertake to pilot me round," was all that was said. Or (ridiculously): "Even to crunch the London soot underfoot is a treat." And when they were out of the station, through the arch and on their way to the bus, there was nothing for it but herself to focus the other's wandering attention.
"What do you think of my coat?"
"Oh, er . . . very nice, very nice indeed. But isn't it rather heavy for such a warm day?"
"Oh dear, no. Fur of THIS quality is never heavy." And as Margaret's sole response was an agreeable smile: "It was a present from Harry, you see. On my last birthday. He paid a ruinous price for it – he's a regular spendthrift where I'm concerned.
"Really? And so it has been a great success – your marriage?"
This time she, too, contented herself with smiling.
"I hope I'm to be allowed to meet him?"
"Yes, he has promised to join us for lunch."
Glibly she brought out the falsehood. But, a strenuous morning's shopping over – the sums she had to sit by and see spent! For the plainer and dowdier the clothes, the more it seemed they cost. And only the best of everything was good enough. The "ruinous price" attributed to Harry began to give her qualms. And in the shoe-shop she took care to keep her own feet out of sight – no Harry met them.
At midday, then, they sat alone at their table in the restaurant of a great store.
"It looks as if he hadn't been able to get off. He's quite an important person in the office nowadays you know."
"Splendid. Perhaps he'll rise to the head of it before he's done. There's nothing like a steady climb, is there? So much the most satisfactory way."
Oh, this harping on Harry. And even here, where the air was thick with heat and food, she dared do no more than loosen a button at her throat, while she sat and listened to Margaret poke and pry. An inquisitive old maid, that was what the past three years had turned HER into.
What next! "Good Lord, no! Harry's much too considerate. You've no IDEA what an old silly he is about me. When I scolded him for buying such a coat, all he said was:'It ought to have been mink'." And with a forced smile over the choke of the collar: "Next year I'm to have a car. One of the best on the road."
Was she laying it on too thick? (COULD her shoes have been spotted?) Or did she only imagine the dryness, the lack of acceptance, in Margaret's steady gaze? Anyhow, real or not, the suspicion was enough to give her pause. In a flurry she snatched up bag and gloves.
"I think . . . if you've quite finished? For it looks to me as if it's going to turn foggy. That's the danger of such fine mornings at this time of year." (The danger, too, that trains might not run, and she be forced to take Margaret home with her. Oh, ANYTHING but that! The "charming bungalow", the "spacious garden".)
Outside, they had to cross the road; and at once there was a muddle. Still rattled, she stepped off the pavement just as the lights changed; and Margaret wasn't sharp enough. (You had to be a Londoner to take chances.) To see what the fool was doing she turned her head, and a bus chose just that moment to swing round the corner and come charging down on her. Anything more appalling than the nearness of this scarlet monster . . . like a house got loose, a moving mountain . . . She had to jump for her life, blindly, desperately: but jump she did, with a nimbleness that amazed her, clogged as she was: and the next instant found herself safe on the opposite pavement. But someone hadn't been so lucky: there was a hideous shriek, a chorus of grinding brakes, shouts, cries, wildest confusion. God! where was Margaret? That hat, she would have known it anywhere. But not a trace, not a speck of its ludicrous cock's-plume, in the crowd that ran together like fowls after food. She tried to call out; but no voice came. And even if it WAS Margaret, she couldn't go back. Accidents terrified her; the sight of blood turned her sick. And so, palsied with fear, her heart pounding fit to split her chest, she stood and watched the traffic pile up, policemen spring from the earth, the crush thicken, everyone pushing and shoving to catch a glimpse of what lay in the road. Then, the bell of an ambulance, which, still walled in by people, loaded its fearful burden and drove off. Whereupon the crowd thinned and melted. But still no Margaret beckoned to her or came over to join her. Finding her voice, she turned to a man who stood by and asked if he could tell her who had been hurt. But he didn't seem to hear her. A kind-faced woman, however, gave her an odd look and a smile in passing, and, without being asked, said gently: "It's all over. Don't be frightened."
Frightened? Fright was the least of it. For what now? – now that, thanks to another's imbecility, she had been landed in this hole. (oh, that she had never set eyes on Margaret!) Now, she would need to go to a policeman, allege faintness, say she missed her friend; hear to which hospital the ambulance had driven, make her way there, listen to gruesome details, perhaps even see and identify the body. Horrible indeed: but it wasn't this that made her shiver and quake. And, while she put a hand to her jaw, to stop its chattering, her brain fumbled with thoughts of escape. Nobody here had known she was to meet Margaret; at this end she was safe. But down in the country, at Margaret's home, a letter might be found bearing her name. If she did not come forward she would probably be broadcast or advertised for . . . oh God, oh God!
Insensibly, however, she had begun to walk away: to follow, as if drawn, in the direction of the ambulance. And here she was in Portland Place. Or so she supposed. For sure enough fog had come down, filling the eyes, throwing a haze over streets and people, muffling the tall buildings till you couldn't tell one from another. Still, she plodded on, in growing bewilderment: the coat alone remaining true to itself and making a labour of each step.
A seat! . . . a seat. She hailed it with a relief that went up like a prayer of thanks. Never had anything come so opportunely. Alone, too, and fog-screened, she could at last unbutton the coat. And this she did, throwing it wide from neck to hem, drinking in deep, luscious breaths of air; if air it could be called.
But not for long was she alone. A figure took shape in the murk, and turned to a man, who sat down beside her. She edged away; for he didn't look much, and she had her fur to think of.
. . . the story continues . . .
About the Author
See our page on Henry Handel Richardson.