She was invisible.
For a long time Charlotte did not realise what had happened, for the onset was gradual. Approaching pedestrians headed straight towards her when she walked along the street, not deflecting from her path, so that she was forced to step aside, even sometimes apologising, though no one answered. She must also be inaudible, she reflected.
There were moments, such as at the check-out in the supermarket, or against the grille in the post office, when she was perceived, but usually the cashier or the clerk made no eye contact with her. After all, it wasn’t necessary for the transaction; why should they bother? And it wasn’t as if the post office staff in Granbury had known her before her transformation, for she had moved there only after Rupert’s death and, small and dumpy, unremarkable in every way, she was patently a person of no consequence.
Until Jerry called.
He came one evening after dark, ringing the doorbell hard. Charlotte had been listening to the radio and she thought it was the milkman, wanting to be paid. Even he never looked at her, merely taking the money, and asking if she required the usual at the weekend. But instead of him, a young man stood on the doorstep. He looked straight at her out of large eyes whose colour, though the porch light shone down upon him, Charlotte could not see. A new helper for the roundsman, she supposed.
‘Are you from the milkman?’ she said, and smiled.
‘No,’ said the caller. ‘I’m a young offender. Thank you for smiling,’ and he held out a plastic identity card of what she later thought might be dubious authenticity.
‘Oh,’ said Charlotte, unaware that she had done so, and only briefly startled. ‘I never buy anything at the door,’ she told him firmly. Such youths had rung her bell in the past, but never one with such a pleasant, open countenance. ‘I hope you’ll mend your ways,’ she said, and added, ‘You shouldn’t be calling on people after dark. You could alarm someone.’ Of a nervous disposition, she nearly added.
‘I suppose that’s true,’ said Jerry. ‘Well, thanks,’ and, hefting his shabby satchel stuffed with unattractive merchandise on to his shoulder, he turned away and walked down the short path to the gate.
Charlotte was still smiling as she closed the door. What was his crime, she wondered: simple theft, shoplifting, perhaps? Rupert would have given him short shrift, probably even reporting his visit to the police, declaring that such pedlars might be testing to see if houses were unoccupied so that they, or accomplices, could break in. Surely that nice young man wasn’t on such a mission?
The thought worried her as she returned to her radio programme and her tapestry. Rupert had died six months ago, suddenly, of a heart attack, and after only two years of marriage, she had become a widow for the second time.
That old bat – well, she wasn’t so old – was on the ball about the darkness, Jerry thought, walking down the road, for that was when, unnoticed, you could sometimes find a door or window unlocked and slip inside to help yourself to anything available; there was always something lying around even if you found no cash – a radio or an easily detached video recorder. Jerry enjoyed the excitement of such raids; he wasn’t into drugs or nicking cars. He’d done several opportunist operations like this with Pete. It was Pete’s scam; Jerry did the sweet-talking at the door while Pete went round the back and sneaked inside to take whatever he could find. The woman had seemed all right; a bit more talk and he’d have got her to buy a few things from him. Still, he’d soon find someone else to dazzle with his sales pitch; Jerry’s artless expression and steadfast gaze had got him out of many a past scrape.
While Jerry was knocking on doors and doing his best to sell dusters to whoever answered, Pete was testing for easy entry. Pete was small, slim and agile, and he nipped quickly round the rear of houses while Jerry was busy switching on the charm. They’d mocked up a licence and bought a few dusters and dishcloths at a warehouse sale. As a decoy, Jerry was a useful partner.
Pete, sticking close to the wall of the house, then sliding past the garage, was round at the back before the door was opened. There was no way of knowing, in advance, how many people were at home, so he was alert for movement indoors. Watching the houses was not part of his and Jerry’s routine, for that could attract attention; you had to take your chance, nip in fast while the householder was at the door, kept busy by Jerry and his patter.
These recently built houses were less easy to approach unseen than the older, individual ones with well-planted gardens offering cover to prowlers, and unless Jerry, at the front, had a sale, any snitch had to be swift. A security light came on as he tried the back door; it was unlocked, and he stepped inside; the exterior light illuminated the kitchen as Pete glanced quickly round. Two pans were draining by the sink but there was no purse or handbag visible, nothing to be quickly taken, and then he heard footsteps. Jerry had failed to detain whoever had opened the front door. Pete did not wait; he fled as swiftly and silently as he had come, but he’d remember this house, maybe visit it again. A good few folk locked their back doors at dusk, but not, it seemed, whoever lived here.
He was luckier further down the road, collecting a watch and a transistor radio left ready for the taking. Neither was missed until the following day.
The railway station at Becktham had recently been modernised, its ironwork painted vivid red and blue, even a coffee bar established on the up-line to London. Trains carried commuters back and forth, running frequently at peak times and maintaining a good service throughout the day; a number of Granbury’s regular travellers found it worth driving the extra miles to use this route rather than the nearer station at Nettington, where the car park was filled to capacity soon after nine o’clock when the first cheap fares operated. Charlotte Frost had forgotten about the young offender when, one morning some weeks later, she inserted her Fiat between a Discovery Range Rover and a blue Honda; she had planned to catch the 9.05, but thought she might not manage it when she arrived at the booking-office, for a large man in a dark suit who was making a complicated booking with his credit card seemed impervious to the fact that there were other passengers queuing up behind him. Buying his season ticket, Charlotte deduced, mildly irritated by the delay but content to catch the train due fifteen minutes later, for she had no morning appointment and was planning to visit an art exhibition before meeting Lorna. She decided that the man was insensitive, pompous and boring; he was entitled to receive whatever attention he required, but his was an intricate transaction; couldn’t he have arrived earlier? Standing behind him, her exact fare ready, she wondered about his life. Was his wife bullied into meekness or was he a lamb at home? He was clearly prosperous; was he a city magnate or a lawyer? While she pondered, rapid footsteps pounded up behind her and a breathless woman, streaked blonde hair in some disorder, saw the hold-up ahead, came to an enforced halt behind Charlotte, and stood shifting from foot to foot. She was not merely impatient; she was frantic. The man still stood there, slowly conducting his negotiations while the new arrival chafed.
‘The train will be coming. I’ve got to get to work,’ she told the air, or Charlotte.
‘Go ahead of me. It doesn’t matter if I miss this one,’ said Charlotte, standing back.
‘Oh, thank you,’ gasped the woman, barely looking at Charlotte as she took her place.
At this point the man’s business was concluded and he moved ponderously on. The distressed blonde bought her ticket in seconds, speeding off as the train’s arrival was announced, and Charlotte’s good deed was rewarded, for the clerk produced hers promptly and she, too, was in time to board it. Taking her seat – there was still space, though the train would fill up at the next stop – she wondered briefly about the distraught woman who, like the man, had not allowed enough time to catch her train. Perhaps she had had to take children to school, or the washing-machine had flooded, or some other domestic disaster had delayed her. Charlotte would never know.
She travelled up to London in a different carriage, but, glancing out of the window when the train stopped at Denfield, twenty minutes into the journey, she saw the woman hurry along the platform, still in a rush.
Charlotte enjoyed the exhibition and afterwards took the Underground to South Kensington, where she was to meet Lorna, her stepdaughter, who was a partner in a residential letting agency based nearby. In the cloakroom at the restaurant where they were to meet, Charlotte, who had arrived first, added cautious dabs of blusher to her pale face; she was determined that Lorna should deliver a good report to her brother: they, after all, had lost their father, while she was an interloper, marrying him after the death of their mother, whom Charlotte had never met.
Charlotte had known Rupert slightly for several years; she had worked for a charity which the company he ran had sponsored, not only financially, but also by providing training and work experience. Meeting at a fund-raising function, each had felt the other to be an old friend, when they were really little more than acquaintances, but Rupert, now widowed, had walked her to her car after the event, and somehow or other they had arranged to meet for dinner the following week. He had collected her from the house where she had lived since soon after her husband’s death. One thing had led to another, and because he was now the chairman of his company, Rupert had insisted that they marry. To be openly lovers, he had said, would provoke gossip, and living together without marrying would be even worse. Also, he wanted to give her the security marriage to him would offer. In fact, he loved her, and it had been easy for her, after her first astonishment, to love him in return. Their two years together had been happy, though for Charlotte they were demanding for her new role involved many duties. Rupert’s house was large; its grounds were occasionally used for village events; and there were the visits of his children and grandchildren. In addition, there was the garden, which delighted Charlotte, but it took up time and energy. She adapted as rapidly as possible, doing all she could to make friends with his family; then, abruptly, one fine summer’s day, everything changed when Rupert collapsed and died at a meeting in London.
Lorna had suggested that they meet today. After their father’s death, his children had rearranged Charlotte’s life. By the terms of his will, apart from the pension she inherited, she was to continue living at White Lodge, which was left to his children, for as long as she wished, but if she were to move she was to be re-housed, rent-free, in a style befitting her status as his widow. Felix, Rupert’s son, soon told her that White Lodge must be sold as it was much too big for her on her own, which was true, and, bustled briskly along by him, she was speedily installed in a three-bedroomed modern house in Vicarage Fields, a small development in the grounds of the former vicarage in Granbury.
Charlotte could not object; it was appropriate and comfortable, but it was not hers: after her death it would revert to Rupert’s family.
Granbury’s vicar, whose territory now included three other churches, lived in a modern house in one of the other parishes.
Charlotte’s son Tim, who was in the navy and serving overseas when Rupert died, thought she should have asked for a cash settlement and bought somewhere of her own. She still had money left after paying off the mortgage from the sale of her house when she remarried, but she had gone along with her stepchildren’s arrangements because events had been too rapid for her to think things through calmly. In any case, her capital, in a building society account, had not appreciated as much as house prices. White Lodge was soon sold; probate was not long delayed and it had all happened very quickly.
Number Five, Vicarage Fields, was comfortable, warm and freshly decorated. It was furnished with pieces Charlotte had kept from her former home, and a few new things swiftly bought from John Lewis. Though Lorna urged her to take anything she wanted from White Lodge, Charlotte asked for nothing; she did not want bad blood between herself and Rupert’s children lest in future they disputed her right to any items.
Now, buffeted by the speed of her metamorphosis, she felt herself to be in limbo, invisible, without status, and without even her own identity, for she had a new name, one which had been hers for only two years.
What did Lorna want, she wondered, entering the restaurant, following the waiter to the table which the younger woman had booked. It was an Italian trattoria, and she did not seem to be invisible to the waiter who showed her to her seat; Italians, she reflected, were fond of their families and respected their grandparents.
Lorna, arriving at the restaurant in a rush, gave her a fleeting kiss, summoned the waiter to order a bottle of the house white wine, and dutifully asked about Charlotte’s family. Tim was still aboard his ship somewhere in the Mediterranean while Victoria, his wife, and their children were carrying on their lives ashore in Dorset. Jane was working for a publisher in New York.
Jane hadn’t liked Rupert’s son, Felix. Charlotte had been aware of that, early on, but the two had rarely met and she could see no reason for the hostility. Felix, dark and saturnine, not much resembling his father, had an arrogant manner which Charlotte did not care for, but she attributed it to a sense of insecurity, for though he seemed successful in his career, it did not match his father’s. In New York, Jane was living with a man she had met through her work, a writer, Ben, a lot older than she was, separated from his wife but not divorced. Charlotte had never met him; photographs showed a thin, pleasant face, and Jane expressed herself as very happy.
Lorna was relieved to learn that all was well with Charlotte’s family; if any one of them were having a crisis, either domestically or to do with their work, she would have felt inhibited about asking for Charlotte’s help, the reason for today’s invitation.
Over fruit salad for Lorna, and zabaglione for Charlotte – she was touched that Lorna remembered how much she liked it and insisted that she have it – this was revealed.
‘Felix and Zoe have broken up,’ Lorna said abruptly. ‘Zoe’s gone off with some photographer she met through work.’ Zoe, Felix’s wife, was a journalist working for a women’s magazine. ‘The kids are in a mess,’ she added. ‘Imogen’s pregnant and has run away from school. She was missing for a while, but she turned up at Zoe’s mother’s, and Nicholas can’t be found.’
‘Oh dear,’ Charlotte said, inadequately. Imogen and Nicholas were twins, aged just eighteen. She’d sent them fifty pounds each on their birthday several weeks ago. Imogen had sent a card, thanking her, but she had yet to hear from Nicholas.
‘The thing is,’ said Lorna, plunging on, ‘with Zoe having bunked off – she’s in Los Angeles with her photographer who’s on an assignment there – I wondered if you’d have Imogen to stay for a while, till she sorts herself out a bit.’
‘Oh,’ repeated Charlotte, now thoroughly dismayed.
‘She’s always liked you,’ Lorna tried, as a lure.
Charlotte and Imogen had seldom met, but Charlotte knew that Rupert had thought the plain, plump girl was overshadowed by her elegant, hyperactive mother and her handsome twin.
‘I suppose this pregnancy is a desperate gesture,’ she said.
Lorna was aware, not for the first time, of Charlotte’s sharp perception.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think so. But Zoe hasn’t come back. Says Imogen must decide for herself what to do, and she’s got to fulfil her contract.’
‘So she has been told?’
‘What does Felix have to say about it?’