“Why, look at you! I could just eat you up!”
The young boy beamed, revealing a set of crooked teeth.
“What’s your name, cutie?”
“Hello, Timmy. I’m Carol.”
She sighed. Timmy was the cute, little boy she’d always dreamed of mothering. She’d offer to take him home right now, but there was no way Malcolm would stand for it. She couldn’t even talk him into coming to the orphanage tonight. Adoption? He’d kicked up a fuss at the cat shelter. Malcolm was happy with his columns of numbers and didn’t want anything messing them up.
What was she doing here? All these poor children… it had felt like the Right Thing To Do, a chance for her to Make A Difference. All the wealthy people were helping the poor these days, and if she wanted to move up the social ladder she needed to show her charitable side. Not that Carol had much charity to offer. Malcolm’s salary wasn’t in the same league as these wealthy benefactors, and her efforts to dress the part had left quite a dent in their credit cards. She was still hiding the monthly statements from him.
“Why, hello darling!”
Carol turned to find an old woman heading her way. Despite her small frame, now somewhat withered and bent, she powered through the other guests with the unstoppable force of a juggernaut. Younger, more beautiful ladies gave way before her. Tall, powerful men moved aside to avoid crossing her path.
“I heard you talking to that young boy.”
Carol’s eyes swept over the woman’s dress, a sleek affair that somehow accentuated curves where the curves themselves had long ago disappeared, and which Carol suspected cost more than her own house. She’d spent what she’d considered a small fortune on her own dress, but she was dressed in rags in comparison. And there was something familiar about the old woman, something that Carol couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“I… I was only…”
“It’s all right, dear. I know what you were doing. And I feel the same way, believe me. Did you say your name was Carol?”
The woman put a kindly arm around Carol’s waist – she couldn’t quite reach her shoulder – and led her through the orphanage.
“Y-Yes,” she stammered.
“A lovely name.” The old woman smiled, a faraway look in her eyes. “One of the little girls I raised a few years back was a Carol. She was so sweet… I’m Felicity, dear.”
Felicity? Carol thought back and remembered a magazine article from a couple of months ago. Of course! Felicity Cardwell! One of the wealthiest women in the country… and famous for her charity work. And something else, something that she couldn’t quite recall…
Oh well. There were always rumours about the fabulously wealthy. People could be so jealous.
“It’s such a shame,” Felicity said, as they walked through the crowds. “All these poor, unwanted children. All going to be shipped out of here, moved to other institutions, just because no-one has any use for them. Such a waste.”
“Surely all these people… this is a charity fundraiser, isn’t it…?”
Felicity smiled sadly. “It won’t work, I’m afraid, my dear. The orphanage is closing its doors for the last time, and the local government has already decided to demolish it. I believe Mr Tesco is hoping to build one of his ghastly supermarkets here.”
Carol paused, calculating just how much sympathy to put into her voice. She wanted to sound caring, but retain that aloofness that rich people were supposed to have. “Oh, those poor children…”
Felicity didn’t seem to notice. “Well, my friends and I have plans. Would you care to join us, Carol my dear? I’m sure we’ll get on famously.”
“O-Of course!” Carol could barely speak with excitement. Join Felicity Cardwell! Even dour-faced Malcolm couldn’t moan about that. Thirty years of working at the bank had done nothing for his social mobility, and now here she was, hobnobbing with the nobs!
A hush fell over the crowd as the host of tonight’s event spoke up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. I am delighted to present tonight’s special guest… Lady Felicity Cardwell.”
Carol dumbly joined in the applause as her new friend made her slow but stately walk to the speaker’s podium. Despite her small size, she seemed to fill the room.
“My dear friends,” she began, “thank you all for coming. As you all know, tonight the local council has rejected the final proposals for the continuation of the Green Hill Orphanage. Already they are making plans to parcel off the children to nearby institutions – mere livestock to balance against their books.”
Carol wanted to let a single tear fall down one cheek at this point, but the best she could manage was to make her eyes water a bit. She wished she’d had more time to practice.
“Since they won’t let us save the orphanage, I have another proposal – we fund our own home for these children, and save them instead. I have the perfect place for them, and all I need is your support. With our combined influence, we can ensure these children all have the opportunity to remain healthy and well fed.”
There was a round of applause, and Felicity stepped down.
“Felicity,” Carol said. “I loved what you said, and I really want to be a part of this… it’s just, Malcolm and I don’t really have the money to…”
“Hush, dear. It’s quite all right. I’m just glad you came along tonight.” Felicity winked. “After all, I think we have a lot in common. Let all these good people worry about the money. Your company is all I need.”
“Th-thank you, Felicity…”
“Not at all, Carol my dear! Listen, would you be available next month, say, the twelfth? I have no doubt that our little event tonight will be a rousing success, and I’d like you and your husband to join me at our celebration dinner.”
“Well, I don’t know… Malcolm isn’t keen on these social events…”
“Just you, then. I quite understand if you can’t make it.”
“No, I’ll be there.” Carol smiled. There was no way in Hell she was going to miss an opportunity like this. Dining with the rich and powerful!
When the twelfth came around, Malcolm declared he was unavailable – he had to stay late at the bank, etc. etc. Carol knew it was all an excuse. Well, to Hell with him. She was secretly glad to go alone – the new dress she’d bought was twice the price of the last one and had maxed out two credit cards in one go. Malcolm would be frothing at the mouth when he found out. But it didn’t matter right now.
News of the orphanage sale had filled the press. Felicity was praised to the heavens for her efforts with the children, while the local council’s only comment was something bland and official about funding reductions. She was the darling of the press (and not for the first time). And yet Carol still had a vague recollection of some scandal, years ago. Something to do with her husband’s death?
The taxi dropped her off outside the address Felicity had given her. A large house, hidden behind heavy, steel gates, looked imposing against the setting sun. But she pressed a button, announced herself over the intercom, and the gates rolled aside to let her in.
Once she arrived at the house itself, she was surprised to find it filled with children as well as the guests. She recognised many of the faces from the orphanage event amongst both the children and the adults.
“Darling! You made it!”
Carol turned to see Felicity sailing her stately way across the room, the crowds parting at her bows as she approached.
“There are so many children here,” Carol remarked.
“Yes! All orphans,” Felicity replied. “Some of them you might remember from our last event. They closed that orphanage down, I’m afraid, but we pulled some strings and arranged for them all to come here. Isn’t it marvellous?”
Just then, Carol spotted a familiar crooked-toothed smile amongst the children.
“Timmy!” she cried.
Timmy looked up at her, still beaming.
“I think you’re my favourite,” she added.
Timmy laughed and ran off.
“Yes, I see what you mean,” smiled Felicity. “I might have chosen him myself, except I prefer girls. Shall we go and mingle? Dinner won’t be for a few hours yet, I’m afraid. Do go on ahead, my dear. I just need to have a word with the chef.”
Carol wandered through the crowd, a little in awe of the company. Amongst them she recognised more than a few celebrities, a few Hollywood actors, a couple of high-profile businessmen, even a few politicians. Most of them ignored her; some regarded her coolly, but didn’t deign to talk to her. For all her efforts to be a social climber, Carol had never felt so out of her depth. She sipped at a cocktail, even the waiters slow to serve her, and wondered what she was doing here. Even the playful children seemed to have abandoned her.
Perhaps Malcolm had been right all along. They should just be content with their lot rather than dreaming of better things. He was just a branch manager, after all, not the chairman of Lloyds. And she was just a housewife.
“My dear, are you all right?”
Carol looked up from her melancholy to find Felicity at her arm.
“Come along, dear. It’s nearly time for dinner. Shall we sit down?”
The smell of fine dining soon had Carol feeling much better. Two enormous dining tables stretched along the enormous room and she took a seat at the first of these beside Felicity. An array of cutlery gave her a brief moment of panic, but she’d studied several books on etiquette and she knew the rules. Start from the outside, that was the way.
The first course was a rich, dark soup. It was quite unlike anything Carol had ever tasted, yet somehow familiar, and she considered asking Felicity what it was – but no. There was no sense in showing off her lack of culture. Instead, she picked up what she hoped was the right spoon and began to eat, blowing on each spoonful just as the man opposite her was doing.
But it was hard to focus on the soup. That half-remembered scandal Felicity was supposed to be involved in still nagged at her memory. Something about Sir Cardwell, and the mystery surrounding his death all those years ago…
Red wine was served, and plenty of it. Carol drank a glass down in one, if only to steady her nerves, but resolved to take it easy after that. There was no sense in getting drunk and making an even bigger fool of herself.
“Ah, the main course!” Felicity beamed. The waiters began bringing out plates – each one giving pride of place to an enormous, rare steak, garnished with a small quantity of artfully placed vegetables.
“Eat up, my dear!” grinned Felicity. “This is what we’re all here for, after all!”
The guests around the table rapidly stopped their conversation, eagerly digging into the meat and gulping it down, their faces a mix of carnal desire and exquisite, rapturous pleasure. Carol cut a small piece from the end of her steak, gently chewing and savouring the flavour. It was quite unlike any steak she’d eaten before, yet tender and cooked to perfection.
As the empty plates were taken away and the desserts prepared, she turned to Felicity. “That was a wonderful meal,” she said. “Where are all the children? Do they eat this well, too?”
Felicity eyed her strangely. “The children are well fed, if that’s what you mean,” she replied. “We don’t give them any of that processed rubbish they got in the orphanage.”
Carol sensed she’d committed a faux pas, and changed the subject. “I think it’s wonderful that you provide a home to all those children,” she said. “There are so many unwanted children out there.”
“Indeed,” mused Felicity. “We do all we can to bring them in. I’m amazed that more of high society doesn’t do what we do. Such a shame to let them all go to waste.”
“Listen, my dear. We’re heading for another orphanage next month in Yorkshire – they have so many children there, and we always have room for more. Would you care to join us?”
“I’d love to,” Carol replied.
“If only my late husband had been as keen as you are, my dear. The tough old goat never did agree with me, even after he was dead. Ha!”
Of course, some of the more sensationalist rumours about Sir Cardwell’s death had been a little… macabre. But those were just silly rumours! No-one actually believed it could be true!
Carol looked around. Where were all the children? A horrible thought occurred to her.
“Where’s Timmy?” she asked.
Felicity smiled but said nothing.
Carol’s eyes widened, and she fell back against the wall. No! It couldn’t be true!
She slid down the wall and began to sob.
Felicity looked down at her. “My dear,” the old woman smiled, “I can’t let you go home like that. Let’s get you cleaned up – I think you should stay for supper…”