Isobel – 1938
‘Let’s go and have our fortunes read tonight.’ My sister Nan, brimming with excitement, was clearly going to brook no refusal. ‘I’ve heard this woman is really good. She lives only five minutes away. I’ve already set up an appointment, but we need four girls to go. You will come, won’t you?’
It was the last thing I wanted to do. I was on my feet all day at the hair salon and when I got home I liked to put my feet up and have a cup of tea. I didn’t believe in fortune tellers anyway. I thought it was all a load of old rubbish, a way of cheating young women like my sister out of their hard-earned cash with stupid notions of meeting tall, dark and handsome heroes who’d sweep them off their feet, just like they saw in the cinema or read in True Romances or True Story.
‘Say you will. It’ll be fun. Jeannie’s coming and you could ask Eileen, couldn’t you?’
I sighed. I knew I was going to have no peace until I agreed to go along with this. My best friend, Eileen, would agree. She was always up for anything.
‘Okay. I’ll telephone her,’ I said reluctantly. Our telephone was relatively new and we were still thrilled with the novelty of being able to contact our friends from the privacy of our own home, even though Father cautioned us from using it too frequently.
The four of us were giggling and pushing each other with a combination of nerves and excitement as Nan rang the bell. It was a dank November night and the rain was belting down. We were anxious to get out of the weather while being unsure what we were letting ourselves in for. Eileen was just asking, ‘Do you think this is the right place?’ when the door opened and we were shown into a small lounge room.
After waiting impatiently, sitting on an overstuffed sofa which had seen better days, we took turns to go into an adjoining room while those of us left behind chatted nervously and drank cups of tea.
When my turn came, I picked up my empty teacup as I’d been instructed, and entered warily. The room looked as if it had once been a bedroom. The floral curtains were drawn across the solitary window, and the woman we had come to see was sitting in front of a low table opposite an empty chair. I perched on the edge of a low chair and handed over my cup, wondering what on earth I was doing here.
The woman bent her head over my tea cup pretending to see goodness knows what in the collection of soggy tealeaves stuck to the edge of the cup.
Okay, I thought, bring on the dark handsome stranger and let’s get this over.
‘…Who’s Bob Smith?’
I stared at her without speaking. I’d been letting the woman’s voice flow over me, when the name grabbed my attention. Okay, it was a very common name, but I didn’t expect to be given an actual name. It would be all too easy to disprove.
I shook my head. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She was supposed to talk in generalities; the tall dark man from across the sea, weddings and babies. That’s what I’d expected when I stood at the dark green door with my three friends just an hour earlier.
Her voice reverberated around my head as I gazed down at my hands. I tried to ignore the ringing in my ears and looked up at the face opposite me. She was a small woman whose faded blonde hair lay in wisps around a prematurely wrinkled face, the brightly coloured earrings and the red lipstick making an incongruous statement. Her eyes, behind gold-rimmed spectacles, seemed puzzled and the red mouth opened and repeated the words, ‘Who’s Bob Smith?’
She peered at me, clearly taking in my shocked expression. ‘You haven’t met him yet, then? You will, and you’ll think you’re set for life.’ She stared into the teacup again. ‘He’ll leave you. It won’t last.’ She put the cup down. Short and sweet, I thought, shaken despite my cynicism.
I didn’t wait to hear any more. ‘Thanks,’ I muttered and left. Back in the lounge room, I prepared to fend off questions and thought of what I’d been told. There couldn’t possibly be anything in it, could there? I put it out of my mind. The woman had said it wouldn’t last anyway.
‘What did she tell you?’ It was Eileen, always the loudest. Sometimes I wondered why she was my best friend; we had so little in common. My mother always said it was because she dared to do the things I’d like to do, but I knew that there was more to our friendship than that.
We’d met on our first day at primary school. I’d been hiding nervously among the coats in the cloakroom when she’d caught sight of me and pulled me out to join in the class line. It seemed she’d been doing that ever since – pulling me out of hiding, that is.
‘Well?’ Eileen’s voice had become impatient. I shook myself and tried to think of what to reply. I certainly wasn’t going to repeat the name I’d been given. That would just be asking for trouble. I knew I’d never hear the end of it.
‘Just the usual,’ I replied, shaking back my hair. I’d been trying a new style, at Eileen’s urging, and it wasn’t working for me. My naturally straight black hair defied every attempt to fashion it into anything stylish.
‘There is no usual. Don’t be so coy.’ Eileen’s eyes flashed, and I knew I’d have to come up with something fast or she’d never give up.
‘She said I’d meet someone, a man, tall, dark hair and that it wouldn’t last,’ I improvised.
‘Mine’s going to be blonde,’ Nan interjected, ‘and older.’ I turned around. I’d missed hearing about my sister’s fortune while I was listening to my own.
‘Maybe that one with the blond curls in the choir,’ I joked, only to see Nan blush. It was true that there was a tall blond fellow in the church choir who’d been giving her the eye, but I hadn’t thought she was interested. Well, well!
At that point Maisie, the spey-wife, emerged from the bedroom. ‘Is that all of you now?’ she asked. She looked different in the brightly-lit living room, surrounded by the shabby three-piece lounge and side tables filled with family photographs; less fey somehow and more ordinary. It was odd to think she’d spent the last few hours pretending to foretell our futures.
We bundled ourselves up in the hats, scarves and gloves we’d taken off only a few hours earlier and went out again into the dreary night. The rain had stopped, but the remaining clouds hid the moon and stars leaving us to find our way home by street-light.
‘It’s going to freeze tonight,’ predicted Jeannie. She’d been quiet all evening, but chose now to become chatty. ‘I think she was good, don’t you?’ She turned to Nan, her best friend. ‘I’m glad you let me come along,’ she added to me, as if I’d had anything to do with it.
‘You were very quiet on the way home. Did she say something you didn’t tell us?’ Nan wanted to know. We were back in the living room drinking cocoa by the fire. Mother and Father were in bed, so we were whispering. The room was still warm, though the fire was dying down and the embers cast long shadows around the room. They flickered across the solid furniture which had been in the family for generations.
We huddled close to the fireplace, like we had as small children when we imagined shapes in the flames and the thought of being tall enough to reach the top of the mantelpiece was unimaginable. The difference was that now we huddled there so that the smoke from our cigarettes went straight up the chimney. Mother and Father would kill us if they caught us smoking.
‘Just thinking,’ I replied, hoping that would satisfy her. I had no intention of giving away any more details. Bob Smith! She might as well have said John Brown or some such. ‘Well I’m for bed. I have an early start tomorrow.’
I lay very still in bed pretending to be asleep. I shared a room with Nan and our other sister Kate. We were all old enough to have our own rooms, and the house was certainly big enough, but we liked being together and often used the darkness to share confidences. The barnlike dimensions of the upper level of the old house echoed in the night. When we were younger, Kate had scared us with stories of ghosts, though none of us had ever seen or heard one.
Kate hadn’t gone with us to the spey-wife. She had more sense, I thought. She was determined to make something of herself as our mother put it. What she meant was that Kate was the clever one. She was the oldest and had always been given more responsibility. Afternoons spent playing in the garden were not for her; she had work to do. She was actually only four years older than me in age, but light-years older in her attitude. She worked at the local cooperative like Nan, but had almost completed a business course. Then, as Mother said, the world would be her oyster, and she wouldn’t have to put up with these stuck-up customers anymore.
I could hear the gentle snores of my two sisters, but was too excited to fall asleep immediately myself. The name Bob Smith kept going around and around in my head. It was all very well to rubbish fortune tellers and tell my sister that it was all a lot of codswallop but what if…?
I lay there imagining meeting this Bob Smith. What would he be like? Tall, dark and handsome, of course. And where would I meet him? It would have to be some romantic setting, like the couples in True Romance magazine. Maybe he’d save me from drowning, or from a runaway horse, or … It didn’t occur to me that there was little chance of drowning or meeting a runaway horse in our part of Glasgow.
I closed my eyes tight and hugged myself.
I was twenty and had never had a real boyfriend. I’d kissed a few boys in kissing games at church socials, but had always wiped my lips afterwards and pretended it hadn’t happened. They hadn’t meant anything to me.
Nan was the pretty one with her blonde curls, blue eyes and pointed chin. I was… I thought about that. I suppose I wasn’t exactly plain but there wasn’t much you could do with a long face and straight black hair. Now that I was grown up I tended to wear my hair in a roll behind my ears, not very glamorous, but it was too long to leave down in the salon and the clients expected us to look neat, soignée Lillian called it, but then it was her salon.
It was a few months later and I’d completely forgotten about the evening and the spey-wife’s prediction. I’d attended a couple of church dances and had been walked home by boys I hoped never to see again. Eileen telephoned me at the salon, her voice shrill with excitement.
‘I’ve just met this gorgeous guy, and he’s got a friend.’
‘Not again.’ I’d been down this route before and discovered that gorgeous guys usually had friends who were not so gorgeous. Eileen’s idea of gorgeous wasn’t mine anyway. ‘I told you I wouldn’t be in it again.’
‘You’ve got to come. You’ll like him. He’s a teacher.’ A teacher. Was that supposed to be an incentive? Sounded staid and boring to me.
‘Well, what do you say? Saturday night? We’re going to the cinema.’ Eileen clearly couldn’t understand my silence.
‘Okay,’ I replied slowly, trying to work out if this was a good idea or not, but unable to come up with any excuses. Eileen knew I had nothing else planned because we usually spent our Saturday nights together.
Although I wasn’t expecting to like this blind date, sure he’d be like all the others Eileen had produced, I took more care than usual with my appearance. I borrowed a skirt and bolero top of Kate’s and managed to coil my hair into some resemblance of the latest fashion. Father had refused to allow us girls to bob our hair, so I was stuck with these long locks. I donned my hat and gloves, checked myself in the mirror and rubbed a touch more rouge into my lips before slipping out the door.
Eileen was waiting for me at the corner and we walked quickly to catch the tram that would take us into Sauchiehall Street.
‘We’re meeting them outside the Odeon,’ she said, beaming. ‘Oh, I know you’ll like him.’
‘Have you met your fellow’s pal?’
‘No, but Alan says he’s quite a catch. You’re too fussy by half,’ she added, referring to my rejection of the “good sorts” her own short-lived romances had produced in the past. ‘And they’re showing the latest Clark Gable. You said you wanted to see it.’
I sighed. It was true. Clark Gable was my pin-up, and I’d been dying to see his new film.
When we reached the cinema, there was a long queue stretching along the side of the building and no sign of the two men. ‘Do you think…?’ I began, wondering if we should take our place in the line, when Eileen grabbed my arm and pointed to two figures crossing the road.
‘Here they are,’ she said, her voice rising with excitement.
As the men came closer. I gasped. One of them could have been Clark Gable himself with his dark hair brushed back from a wide forehead and a neat dark moustache. He had to be Eileen’s date. As they approached, I turned my gaze to the other. He appeared pleasant enough, a pretty ordinary sort of guy with sandy-coloured hair, freckles and a wide grin. He looked as if he might be good company for an evening at least.
But when they joined us, it was the sandy-haired fellow whose arm Eileen took. ‘This is Alan,’ she said with a grin, ‘and this is…’
‘Bob,’ the Clark Gable lookalike said, taking my outstretched hand. ‘Bob Smith.’
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