Hard Luck Stories
And now for something completely different! After working on 'By a Simple Twist of Fate' for over three years in some form or another, I decided to try something else for my next project. For one, I'm not going with Rilla as a protagonist this time. For another, this is actually a short story (by my standards, anyway). I know I said that when I started writing Twist as well (and look how that turned out!), but this time, I can say it with a lot of confidence, because this story is already completely written. Look at it as a bite-sized interlude before I will tackle my next big project – which I'm already working on behind the scenes as well. I'm afraid you won't get rid of me and my stories anytime soon ;).
As for this particular story, it's very nearly canon-compliant, except that Jem never escaped from Germany to Holland in 1918. Based on that, let us fast forward to 1927 and examine the effect this particular change in proceedings has on the other characters – and, of course, on one character in particular.
I hope you enjoy my idea about how it could have played out and am, as always, looking forward to your comments =).
I'll arrive late tonight
Faith Meredith is scared.
That, in itself, is an unusual occurrence, because it's not often that Faith Meredith is afraid of anything. 'Fearless', they used to call her as a girl and while life has since taught her that no-one is ever completely free of fear, she still isn't one to give in to it easily.
It would be wrong to say she's never afraid of anything, but it's always been the abstract that's scared her, more so than the concrete. If she can charge at something, she doesn't give herself time to fear it. The dragon in front of her, she can slay. It's the dragon hiding in the shadows, whispering on the wind, that makes her uneasy.
Right now, alas, she is not only afraid, she's afraid of something very tangible, standing right in front of her.
That's the first unusual aspect about this entire situation. The second unusual aspect is what has her afraid – or rather, who. The object of her fear is about six years old, no more than four feet tall and wears her dark hair in two pigtails.
The girl looks, objectively speaking, not scary in the least and at first, Faith can't place why the sight of this little girl causes such dread to rise within her. Everything about her screams innocence, from the yellow ribbons tied around her pigtails to the pretty flowered dress and the well-loved stuffed camel she's clutching to herself. There's nothing to fear about this little girl, except –
Except for her eyes.
Oh so familiar hazel eyes.
Instinctively, Faith takes a step back. Her heart suddenly beats twice as fast and her entire body signals for her to run.
Instead, she stands frozen on the spot.
The little girl cocks her head to the side. She doesn't look afraid or even cowed in any way, just mildly curious at this grown-up woman staring at her like she suddenly grew a second head. There's a certain irony to it, Faith thinks, that she's terrified of the little girl who doesn't seem even the slightest bit shy in return.
Out of the corner of her eye, Faith sees a movement and when she turns her head, she spots a boy ambling closer. He's older than the girl and the way he places a hand on her shoulder makes it clear they belong together.
Her brother, Faith assumes.
(Who is she really kidding though? She knows who the girl is and thus, she also recognised the boy, despite not having seen him since he was a babe-in-arms. The little girl, she's never seen at all and yet, one look at the eyes and she knew.)
"Um, good day, Mrs… uh, Mrs lady doctor," the boy greets Faith, peering up at her.
Faith opens her mouth to answer – and finds that she can't. It doesn't come as a surprise though. She seldomly feels fear, but when she does, it paralyses her. It always does. That's yet one more thing setting her apart from Una. If fear made Una brave, it has always made Faith useless.
"Mrs lady doctor, Ma'am?" the boys tries once more. The little girl inclines her head to the other side and clutches her stuffed camel closer with one arm.
Taking a deep breath, Faith tries to find her voice – and is saved by one of the nurses bustling towards them.
"My dears!" she exclaims, brushing past Faith and addressing the children. "Is one of you sick? Where are your parents?"
"I hurt my arm," pipes up the girl and holds out her left arm at a somewhat awkward angle.
"Our father is over there," adds the boy, pointing toward the reception area right outside the waiting room.
Faith looks, not without apprehension, and sees a tall man who has his back to them. She knows who he is, though she couldn't hope to recognise him from behind, not after all these years. But she knows who the little girl and the boy are and the identity of the father follows from that logically.
It's also how she knows that there's no mother.
"And where's your mummy?" asks Nurse Fletcher who doesn't know that this is exactly the wrong question to ask.
The boy tenses up. The girl juts out her chin. "Mummy is an angel."
It's not the term Faith would have used to describe their mother, but she knows better than to say that. (Age, in addition to introducing her to the feeling of fear, also taught her some manners. Compassionate, she's always been.)
Nurse Fletcher's face falls. "I'm so very sorry, sweetheart. I'm sure your mummy is watching over you all of the time."
The little girls nods, quite as if that was a given. The boy looks quietly doubtful.
"Shall Dr Meredith and I have a look at your arm?" Nurse Fletcher asks the girl, reaching out to stroke her head.
The girl, clearly disgruntled, pats her hair back down immediately. The boy looks over to their father at the reception desk. "We have to wait for our Dad."
"But of course!" agrees Nurse Fletcher, laughing. "And when he's here, Dr Meredith and I will have your arm patched up in no time!"
"Actually," interjects Faith, glad to find she can speak again. "Actually, I forgot I have an appointment in five minutes. Could you get Dr Everly to look at her?"
Dr Everly is another doctor at the South London Hospital for Women and Children, which as the name suggest, treats only children and women, while also having an all-female staff. Its approach to hire only women gives opportunities to female doctors they wouldn't get at other hospitals, because, obviously, to have a female doctor treat a grown man would be quite unthinkable!
(Briefly, Faith reflects on the war and how many men she treated then, when she was just a nursing assistant with a heart full of passion and a head full of tenacity. But everything was different during the war.)
Nurse Fletcher looks confused, but nods. "Naturally. I'll go and get Dr Everly."
Faith doesn't wait for her to do so. She turns on her heels, manners be damned, and flees towards the office shared by the doctors. It should be easier to breathe in here, with a closed door between her and the past standing right outside in the waiting room, but it isn't, not really.
She continues to hide inside the office for another ten minutes and is disgusted with herself for it. Disgusted because of how cowardly she's being and disgusted at her refusal to treat a patient because of her own petty fears. She once swore never to let fear come between her and someone who needs her help and… well, look at her now!
But disgust isn't enough to overcome fear and when, upon venturing out of the office and finding the waiting room bereft of little girls with pigtails and hazel eyes (and their fathers!), she feels relief wash over her. Quickly, she calls upon another patient, a boy with a tell tale rash that immediately points to scarlet fever, and hopes that, by the time she's done treating him, the little girl will be gone from the hospital.
She is, or rather, Faith doesn't encounter her anymore. Still, she feels off for the rest of the day and, perhaps for the very first time, is glad to leave the hospital behind in the evening.
The day isn't done with her though, or maybe fate isn't, because when she arrives at the omnibus stop, she just sees the red bus drawing away and therefore, has to wait in the rain for the next one to come along. It's mostly full already and she only finds a spot for herself on the upper deck, before settling in for a bumpy ride. She's distracted throughout, however, and almost misses her stop, resulting in a mad dash down the circular staircase that sees her take a wrong step and painfully twist her ankle.
Limping home in the rain, Faith reflects angrily that if Una's God is really up there, he apparently has it in for her today.
To add insult to injury, she finds the flat cool and damp, reflecting both the weather outside and the mood within. She unconsciously rubs her arms and wraps her coat tighter around herself.
"We ran out of coal," Esther informs her apologetically, nodding at the cold stove in the corner.
"But in happier news, the delivery lorry will come by tomorrow," adds Pearl, ever the optimist.
"Which still doesn't explain how we ran out of coal a day early," points out Mabel drily from where she's sitting on the kitchen bench darning her uniform.
Pearl just shrugs and wraps a somewhat moth-eaten fur stole around her neck. As usual, she's ready to go out just as Faith comes home, dressed in slightly scuffed shoes and a dress designed after the newest patterns, meaning that it almost manages to look not home-made if you squint. Not that anyone will care though, because Pearl earns her wages as a taxi dancer over at Hammersmith Palais and it's not like the men hiring her for Sixpence a dance can tell the difference.
"We just need to budget more carefully from now on, especially if the weather is as unseasonly cool as it's right now," Esther suggest peacefully, bringing the subject of coals to a close. Her gaze comes to rest on Faith and she knots her brows into a frown. "Are you feeling well?"
That draws the attention of the other two as well. Mabel looks up from her needlework and Pearl stops buttoning her too long, slightly threadbare coat. Both peer at Faith closely.
"I'm fine," Faith claims quickly. Too quickly, perhaps.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Mabel informs her bluntly.
"Maybe the Ghost of Christmas Past?" jokes Pearl.
Grimacing, Faith drops down on the bench next to Mabel. "No, just a ghost from my past," she clarifies.
Pearl's eyes light up and her painted lips widen into a smile. "A former flame?"
Faith wants to say no, she really does, but she also doesn't want to lie – for all her vices, she's always stuck by the truth if she could – so she just growls instead and drops her head into her hands. Mabel reaches out and pats her back comfortingly.
"You don't have to talk about it," Esther assures her. "Instead, I'd suggest a strong cup of tea to make you feel better, but…" She trails off and looks pointedly at the cold stove, raising her eyebrows comically.
For a moment, they all stare silently at the stove.
Pearl is the first to start giggling and, moments later, the others join in, overcome by a kind of humour born of shared experiences and shared hardships overcome.
"Oh God," groans Mabel. "I can never admit this to Great-Aunt Florentine. Among the many scenarios she painted for me in vivid detail when I moved out of her club, more than one involved us running out of coal."
Mabel's Great-Aunt Florentine – fully Florentine Filomena Finebulla Franklin and nicknamed Quadruple F by her great-nice during a less than charitable moment – runs a home for young working women living away from their families. Respectable young women, as Great-Aunt Florentine never fails to emphasis. It's where they all met, Aunt Florentine's home for working women, when fate or life or coincidence brought them to London.
For Faith, it was when she decided to take up medical studies at the London School of Medicine for Women instead of returning to Canada after the armistice. With Esther, a fellow VAD from the war years, also being London-bound, they found themselves sharing a room at Aunt Florentine's. Mabel was sent there a few years later by her family and Pearl was the last to join them. When she, eventually, was asked to leave due to her respectability being called into question, Mabel took the opportunity to escape her great-aunt's control and left with her. Being unable to afford the Wandsworth flat on their own, they convinced Esther and Faith to join them.
Strictly speaking, Faith doesn't need roommates, not anymore. Not even her women-run hospital pays her what a male doctor earns, but she could afford her own place on her own income if she so wished. It wouldn't be respectable, a woman living on her own, but Faith has long stopped caring about labels like that – if she ever cared in the first place, that is. Still, the thought of living along – of living in silence – didn't appeal to her, to put it mildly. Thus, after finishing her medical studies and starting work at the hospital, she simply stayed put at the flat and no-one ever questioned her decision.
In all the time of living here, they had never run out of coal either. Alas…
"There's a first time for everything," Esther remarks with a fine smile.
Pearl leans down and drops a kiss on Mabel's cheek. "Don't worry. We won't tell Quadruple F."
"I should hope so!" grumbles Mabel.
Laughing brightly, Pearl gives her friend's shoulder another squeeze. "We won't. And now, dearies, I need to be off," she announces. "Someone has to earn the money we need for tomorrow's coal delivery, after all."
With a whirl and a twirl, she's out of the door, leaving behind the lingering smell of her perfume.
"We have enough money to pay for the coal," states Esther, to no-one in particular. Being the most patient in the group and, as a secretary at the Ypres League in fancy Belgravia, also the one most used to desk work, she long ago took it upon herself to keep their accounts in check.
"We know that," replies Faith, "and so does Pearl."
"She just likes being dramatic," adds Mabel, half-distractedly, as she rubs away the lipstick marks Pearl's lips left on her cheek.
"As usual." Esther pushes away from the wall she's been leaning against and sticks her head inside one of the kitchen cupboards. "Who wants supper?"
Mabel's expression visibly lights up. "I do."
"Not for me." Faith shakes her head. "I'm not hungry. I might just make it an early night."
Esther turns away from the bread and hard cheese she just produced from the cupboard. Mabel's expression turns questioning and she pushes the needlework she just took up again back to the side.
"Are you sure you're well?" she wants to know.
Faith smiles vaguely. "Let's just say I haven't had the best day."
"Because of that fellow who surprised you at the hospital?" Mabel guesses.
"He didn't surprise me," Faith corrects. "I don't think he even knew I was there. I was just… I didn't expect to see him. Him, or anyone else from back home."
Esther, who knows a little more about what Faith terms 'back home' than the other two, inclines her head slightly. "That man… was it – ?"
She interrupts herself when Faith turns her head sharply. Mabel looks from one to the other, clearly confused. For a moment, no-one says a word, before Faith abruptly stands up.
"I'm probably just being silly. I was surprised to see someone from my past, but that's it. It really wasn't anything of importance and I don't want to turn it into something it's not. I'm just tired and that makes it look bigger than it was." There's a finality to her voice that warns anyone to ask more questions.
Mabel opens her mouth to do so anyway, but a discreet shake of Esther's head makes her change track. "Alright then. Good night."
"Sleep well," adds Esther quietly. "I hope you feel better tomorrow, but if there's anything you do want to talk about, at any time, you know you can always come to us."
Faith takes a deep breath and tries to calm herself. "Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow," she offers, even raising a smile for her friends who are, after all, nothing but supportive.
Still, she's glad when the door of her little room is firmly closed between them.
Contributing most to their rent, Faith is the only one with a room for herself. It's small, but it's private, for which she's grateful today. Esther and Pearl share the larger bedroom, while Mabel, whose job packaging biscuits at Imperial Biscuit Works in Fulham doesn't pay as much money, sleeps in a cot off the kitchen.
The kitchen is also where they normally gather, only retiring to their rooms when it's truly time to sleep. Faith especially doesn't usually like being alone – never did, really – but this day raised up all kinds of confusing feelings within her and she can't speak about them as long as she doesn't even have words to explain them to herself.
Sighing, she sits down on her bed, idly wondering when she became a person who sighs and growls and snarls at her friends. She didn't use to be like that, but then, she also didn't use to get scared. Maybe the sighing came when the fear did and maybe it both came when –
Abruptly, Faith shakes her head.
No! She might sigh and growl and snarl, but she doesn't mope. Life might not have turned out as she thought it would, but despite everything that happened, she's never let it drag her down and she won't start now. So, her past decided to pay her an unwelcome visit today, but she won't allow that to turn herself into a person who broods and sulks over something that can't be changed anyway. What's more, she won't allow herself to start brooding and sulking over something that's not within her power to change.
The past might be unchangeable, but she's always, always taken charge of her own future and that's something no-one can take away from her. The life she's built for herself might have come unexpectedly, but it's not a bad life. It's meaningful, which is why she will continue to build it and the first step to do that is to go to bed and get some rest to tackle the coming day.
Thus, Faith gets up to change into her nightdress, her resolve making her feel calmer and more in control and more like herself than she did during the past two hours. She will get some sleep now and when she wakes up, things will look brighter, because tomorrow is always another day and the worries of today never look quite as scary in the light of a new morning.
That night, alas, she dreams of hazel eyes.
The title of this story and all chapter titles are taken from the song 'Bye Bye Blackbird' from 1926 (lyrics by Mort Dixon, music by Ray Henderson).