BY THE TIME SHE reached home Allegra Singleton was soaked through from top to toe. Her golden hair was dripping curling rivulets of rain down her collar, and her kitten heeled shoes, new the previous week, would never be the same again. At least the driving winds were southerly and she wasn't quite freezing cold. She pushed the front door shut and climbed the coarse carpeted stairs to the second floor. Her flatmate, her cousin Christie, well, rather distant cousin Christie, was already back. Allegra could hear cupboard doors being opened and drawers being pulled out.
She dropped her portfolio inside her own room and shouted hello. Christie was probably packing a suitcase and would undoubtedly welcome a cup of coffee, but first she, Allegra, would have to change. She found underwear, jeans and a tee shirt and everything she'd been wearing went into her clothes basket; she'd washed her hair, stuffed her soaked shoes with newspaper and was in the kitchen watching as the kettle began singing when Christie swept in, her arms full.
"Want any of these? And there are more on the bed." Christie's turnover of dresses, sweaters and downright finery was careless, prodigal, and her gifts to Oxfam more than generous. She was a photographic model who specialised more or less in arms and shoulders and she had made a great deal of money from a strange and controversial scent advertisement. Her face wasn't widely known but professionally she was well thought of and much used.
Allegra assumed she was off to a shoot. "I'll take a look through them," she said, smiling. Her own clothes were carefully chosen for practicality and long life but she had a good eye for both colour and line, and loved fashion. "Where are you going?" She and Christie didn't often cross paths, to tell the truth. Allegra was a graphic artist and they had different patterns of work and leisure, and sharing an address didn't mean that they were exactly friends. Connected through their great grandparents, they had met very occasionally at family events and by chance discovered that they were both looking for somewhere to live in London. Their address, not too far from Kensington High Street, was mutually convenient and they didn't pry into each other's lives.
"Is it work or play?" Allegra expected only a conventional answer to her question.
"Play. I'm flying to the Caribbean tonight. Well, Paris first. With Bob." She looked at Allegra searchingly, then picked up the jar of instant coffee and began to read the label. "Actually, I'd rather you didn't say where I was. I was supposed to be," and she paused, rolled her eyes, "to be meeting Lennox, and he won't think it's funny when he finds out I'm not arriving."
Bob was a photographer whose book jackets had bought him a nice stretch of beach and whose interest in Christie began and ended with work. Lennox was the man Christie intended to marry.
"Is he coming here?" To Allegra something didn't quite add up. She took the jar of coffee and set about making two cups, which she put on saucers before placing the lot on a tray. It wouldn't do to spill anything on Christie's clothes.
"Lennox? He's in New York. He sent a message that I'm to drop everything and be in Venice when he gets there. Some family problem. I had to write down their number but I'm not getting involved. I'm not going." She picked both cups up from the tray and carried them through to her room, where every surface seemed covered, in fact heaped, with clothes.
Allegra, who'd followed, took the cups from her cousin and set them down on the only section of the deep window sill that was free.
"Don't worry," Christie said, "I'll tidy up." She stared about her, frowning, her large innocent eyes concentrating on what to choose next for folding into the travel bags open at the end of the bed. When she married Lennox she intended having a maid. He was by all accounts rich and reputedly generous and Christie intended going her own way at his expense.
Allegra hadn't met him. He'd been married before and was in the process of being caught hook, line and sinker by this lovely, childlike creature who didn't intend letting go. Or being a doormat. Despite his having an apartment near Maida Vale, Christie and he had something of an arm's length relationship which was being carefully managed by her cousin. Christie's intention was to give nothing of her true nature away, her stated destination the altar steps. And so far her plan was working.
"So," Allegra asked, "what are you doing?"
"What does it look like? I'm packing. This time tomorrow, I'll be in Barbados or near enough."
"But what about--"
"The Venetian family? I told you. I'm not going. After all, they're nothing to me. Never can be. I'll pretend I didn't get the message. Don't worry, I'll be polite, and sorry, and all the rest, but Lennox will simply have to learn that I'm not here to be a nursemaid to his first wife's father or for that matter, a substitute mother to his mewling infant of a stepson. Or nephew. Or whoever." She threw three packets of tights across the bedspread. "Especially on what sounds suspiciously like a desert island even if it is near Venice. Perhaps I might go at Christmas or Thanksgiving ….." Christie spent a good proportion of her working life in the United States. "But otherwise? Then again perhaps not even Christmas. No thank you."