Part Two: London 1923 – 1930
Eunice Carmichael was sixty-seven years old, a wealthy widow and had the worst dress-sense of any of the elite clientele at the fashionable store in the heart of London. She also had the most vile attitude towards the young girls and women who flitted around her, butterfly-like, pandering to her every whim in the slim hope that she might pass on a compliment to the store manager, Claude Deschamps.
A scratchy old-lady voice issued from her whip-thin frame, a sound akin to fingernails scraping down a school blackboard Tisha, the rather plain-looking fifteen years old school-leaver who had just joined the team, had described it. Louisa Tavistock could not disagree. In the eight months since she had taken up employment with Deschamps du Paris Eunice Carmichael had singled-out the beautiful young woman with the troubled eyes for particularly unpleasant verbal abuse. Only her genuine enjoyment of her work stayed the equally acerbic retorts that sat on Louisa’s tongue.
Mrs. Carmichael was trying-on a salmon-pink arrangement of skirt and jacket that neither suited her body shape of her washed-out faded colouring. Madge, the Senior Sales Manager - and a natural-born schmoozer – was cooing and clucking around the vile old cow like a mother hen round her chicks.
“Oh, yes, that is definitely you!” she gushed enthusiastically at the reflection of the skinny old woman who looked like she had dressed up as a prawn prior to attending a fancy dress party.
“Humph!” she snorted. “You would say that wouldn’t you?” she sneered dismissively at the fawning middle-aged woman.
“Indeed not, Mrs Carmichael!” Madge exclaimed, as though the very though was poison to her. Tisha suppressed giggles behind her hand at Madge’s evident discomfort.
“You, girl!” Mrs Carmichael commanded, pointing a blood-red tipped finger in Louisa’s direction, “what do you think?” she asked.
Louisa wanted to reply ‘I think you’re a hideous old hag with more money than dress sense’ but chose to toe the company line instead.
“You look wonderful, Mrs Carmichael. That style could have been designed to flatter you, really.” Louisa enthused. Tisha had to turn her face away from the scene of utter sycophancy that was reducing her to hysterics.
“Well, alright then. I’ll take it,” the wealthy widow announced grandly, as though she was bestowing a great favour upon the assembled company. Leaving the battle-axe to Madge Louisa, Tisha and the other staff wandered off and tried to make themselves appear both busy and pretty.
It had been a long journey to arrive where she had.
After fleeing her aunt’s home, aghast at what she had done, Louisa ran as hard and as quickly as her legs would carry her. She found herself in a park, breathless and panting heavily. Her eyes sought out a place to rest where she would be unobserved in case her uncle or George Parsons came looking for her. She espied a small copse of densely-packed trees about fifty yards away. The panicked teenager tried to control her breathing as she walked briskly towards what she hoped would be a temporary sanctuary. The temptation to keep looking over her shoulder was hard to resist, but she made herself look straight ahead so as to not draw undue attention to herself. As soon as the shadow of the copse fell over her, Louisa ducked in amongst the dense foliage and allowed the muted light to swallow her presence.
The adrenaline rush and abject fear that had prompted and powered her flight from Parsons ebbed as soon as she felt safe. Overwhelmed by sudden exhaustion Louisa slumped to the leaf-strewn ground and buried her head in her hands. Only now, alone and out of imminent danger, did the shock and full horror of what had almost befallen her come to the fore. She began to cry, silently sobbing into her hands, her tears wetting the skirt of her dress. Only when she could cry no more did the still-frightened teenager draw several deep breaths and compose herself.
“Louisa Tavistock, what are you going to do now?” she asked herself aloud, her voice timid and sounding very small in the closeness of the trees around her. “You have made it impossible to go back to Aunt Sylvie’s, that for sure.”
Louisa was surprised that she was not as concerned about her situation as she thought she ought to be. As a teenage girl who had lived in virtual servitude for almost five years and who had very little experience of the world, she thought that she ought to be terrified. That she was more testament to the brutality of her aunt and uncle’s treatment of her than any inbuilt fortitude on her part.
It was only when she was considering what she was going to do next and how she was going to do it that she remembered the wallet she had stolen. A blush of shame suffused her tear-stained face. She had never stolen a single thing in her young life. A wave of sick guilt washed through her and new tears pricked at her eyes. She had picked it up instinctively, without consciously thinking about it. She ascribed the action to a sixth sense telling her that she would need money to survive. It did not mollify the worried young woman.
Even telling herself that Parsons was more than likely going to commit unspeakable acts with her was not enough to assuage her shame and guilt. She hated the way she was feeling and had to convince herself that to simply throw the wallet away - - her preferred course of action to rid herself of the offending item - - would be even more foolhardy than stealing it felt to her conscience.
“You need money to get anywhere.” she told herself, speaking aloud to the trees. “Nobody can do anything without money.”
Reluctantly, Louisa retrieved the thick wallet from the folds of her dress where she had hurriedly concealed it during her flight from her aunt’s house.
With no means of assessing the quality of the craftsmanship due to her inexperience with such items Louisa could not say with any degree of certainty whether the wallet she held in her hands was as good quality as it appeared to her amateur eyes. Made of a tan-coloured soft brown leather the wallet just felt expensive. Dismissing her fanciful notions she flipped the object open and let out a loud gasp.
It was more money than Louisa Tavistock had ever seen in her life. George Parsons, she reasoned, must be a very rich man to be able to carry around so much money at one time.
Her fingers shook violently as she pulled out a wad of paper currency of different denominations. Barely able to believe what she was doing Louisa counted out forty-six pounds-worth of ten, five and one pound notes, a fortune for sure.
Shocked and frightened beyond belief the teenager backed away from the piles of paper that she had carefully arranged on the ground. She looked around herself, fully expecting George Parsons or her uncle or, even worse, the police, to come bursting through the undergrowth and cart her off to prison right away. She found it hard to draw proper breaths as panic and fear overwhelmed her for a second time with a few hours.
“Oh, my!” she gasped, “What have I done?”
So convinced was she that a hue and cry would go up that she could barely stand to look at the money she had stolen. Turning her back on the accusatory piles of cash and closing her eyes tightly did little to alleviate her anxiety. Barely breathing Louisa waited for the discovery of her crime to be shouted aloud at any second.
A length of time passed, maybe a few minutes maybe several hours, Louisa could not be sure. At some point she had fallen to the ground and had fallen into a troubled slumber. She was surprised to find that she was not awakening in shackles in a filthy prison cell, as she had dreamt. Instead she awoke to find that the sun had risen fully and was directing brilliant beams of warmth through the foliage of the trees. Several of them lit upon the piles of money Louisa had counted out, which lay undisturbed as she had left them.
Offering a silent apology to her God Louisa Tavistock collected together the various denominations of notes and secreted them about her person. She had read in a book once that only a fool kept all of his money in one place when out and about. Although the book was written in Victorian times and told of how things were in those times, Louisa thought that it was sound advice for a young girl out in the world alone.
She used a stick to dig a hole big enough to bury the now-empty wallet and covered the evidence of the disturbed earth with loose fallen leaves, another tip gleaned from her reading. She brushed herself down, straightened her clothing and made her way out of the copse. She had no plan in mind other than to make her way to the local railway station and to take any train out of the town that had been her prison for the past two years.
To be continued...