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Cause for Alarmby Eric Ambler
One thing is certain. I would not even have considered the job if I had not been desperate.
Early in January, the Barnton Heath Engineering Company decided to close down the greater part of its works.
It was the day after I had asked Claire to marry me that the first blow fell. I had walked into my office that morning feeling very pleased with life. Not that, strictly speaking, I had any cause to feel pleased. She had promised to "think about it carefully" and let me know. Still, I felt pleased. A girl like Claire would, I assured myself, have made up her mind immediately if she were going to refuse. She was probably terrified that, if she didn't strengthen her position by reducing me to a state of jittering suspense, I might be tempted to play the dominant male and expect her to give up being a very promising surgeon in order to become a second-rate housekeeper. She has a dangerous theory that, when two persons get married, a court of inquiry ought to sit in order to determine from the available evidence which of the two is better fitted to assume responsibility for the housework--the husband or the wife. I had, however, not the slightest intention of asking her to give up her work. Quite apart from the fact that I did not wish her to do so, I knew perfectly well that, if it came to a trial of wills, she would win. She is very beautiful and very intelligent.
Towards lunch-time I was going over a batch of costs with my assistant when I received a message from the head office in London saying that Herrington, the General Manager, would like to see me that afternoon. Summonses from Herrington were rare. Wondering what it was all about and irritated at having to interrupt my work, I caught the two-forty-five at Barnton Station. At half-past three I saw Herrington. At four o'clock I was walking slowly down Queen Victoria Street with a letter in my pocket informing me that "owing to circumstances beyond the control of the Board," my services had to be dispensed with.
Herrington's carefully chosen words of regret still lingered in my ears.
"Damned unfortunate, Marlow, but there it is. The Barnton Heath works just aren't paying. Nothing to do with you, of course. Labour's too expensive so near London. Felstead has warned us that he can't renew his contract at our price, and things are too shaky at the moment for us to risk keeping your show going. Question of cutting our losses. Hardlines on you, of course. And hard-lines on us, too. Good production engineers don't grow on trees. You won't have any difficulty in getting fixed up. If there's anything I can do, let me know."
So that was that. I had a month in which to find another job. And "things were shaky at the moment." Production engineers might not grow on trees; but then nor did jobs. "Trade recession" they called it in the newspapers. As far as I could see there wasn't a great deal of difference between a trade recession and a good old-fashioned slump. "If there's anything I can do, let me know." Well, yes, there was something he could do. He could find me another job. But probably he hadn't meant quite that. Nice chap, Herrington, but a little too charming. Dammit no! That was humbug. He wasn't a nice chap. I'd always loathed him like poison and he'd detested me. He'd probably been quite pleased to get rid of me. He'd never quite forgiven me for making him look a fool over the original Felstead estimates. Still, there it was. No use getting sorry for myself. I knew plenty of peopIe who might put me on to something good. I might even get something better. No need to panic, anyway. Plenty of time. I'd telephone Dowsett in the morning and see if he knew of anything going. There were the men to be thought of, too. They were Hallett's responsibility, of course, and he would do his best for them; but it would be devilish for some of them, all the same. The girls would quickly be absorbed by neighbouring factories. Girl labour was at a premium in the Barnton district. The skilled men would not have much trouble either: those munition people two miles away would jump at them. It was the rest, the unskilled, the clerks and storekeepers with wives and families, who would suffer. I ought to be thanking my stars.
When I got back to the works I went straight to Hallett.
"You've heard the news, of course," I said.
He sniffed. "Yes. Herrington wanted me to break it to you, but I told him to do his own dirty work. He actually had the nerve to suggest to me, too, that we keep quiet about it so far as the works were concerned until three days before we shut down. There's the tail end of the Felstead contract to complete, and I suppose he's afraid of the production figures falling off over the month. I told him to go and boil himself. Quite apart from the fact that a good many of them ought to do some quick saving if they can, the girls in the turret shop are organising a social club. Their foreman tells me they're going to ask me to be President. I shouldn't be able to look myself in a glass if, knowing what I do, I let them go on with it."
I nodded. "You're right. I was thinking of that side of it while I was coming down. You and I are about the only people sitting pretty over this business."
He looked at me curiously. "You think so? I hope you're right, Marlow. Personally, I've got a wife, three kids and a house on mortgage to think about. My idea is that the only people who are sitting pretty, as you put it, are Herrington, his plump-backed Board and the dear shareholders. Did you see the last balance-sheet?"
"It was a sight for sore eyes. The Forces of Fat, Marlow, move in strange and mysterious ways. Who are we, the mugs who do the job, to question their wisdom? All the same, I do question it. But, then, I'm only a blank-dash Socialist."
I left him composing a round-robin to the foreman. Not till then did I remember that I was meeting Claire at seven o'clock.
I broke the news over the soup.
She was wearing a new hat--a fact upon which I had been careful to comment--but it was not the sort of hat behind which she could hide while she thought of something to say. She looked as though she wished it had been.
"That's bad, Nicky," she said. Her voice was quite steady. She paused and then added: "I hope that you're not going to let it interfere with the wedding."
We were eating in a Chinese place, and I have heard that the Chinese are a very difficult race to astonish; but I seem to remember seeing the cook, a Cantonese with a figure like a water butt, goggling incredulously at us through the service door. By the time I had returned to my side of the table, the entire restaurant was buzzing with comment. There was some giggling. Blushing, we got on with our food.
"And now," said Claire some minutes later, "that that is settled, what are you going to do about keeping me in the style to which I have been unaccustomed?"
A wave of remorse swept over me. "Look here," I urged weakly. "This is all wrong. We shouldn't be talking about marriage at this time. Things are pretty bad at the moment. It may be months before I can get the job I want. That's all right as far as it goes. The bank will stay friendly for a bit. But I wouldn't like to make any statement about my prospects. Not for publication, that is. What would your father say?"
"He'll say exactly what I tell him to say."
"But . . ."
"Listen, Nicky." She wagged her chopsticks at me. "You're thirty-five, five foot ten in your socks and handsome to boot. More important, you're a very clever engineer. Hallett told me so that night we had dinner with him and his wife. Why shouldn't you get a good job? Things may be slow just now, but not for first-rate men. Don't be so silly. Besides, I'm twenty-nine; and a female in my position who isn't married by that time ought to be forced to eat her own scalpel."
She succeeded, almost, in convincing me. At all events, for the rest of that evening we forgot about such things as money. To be more precise, we went to a cinema, sat in the back row and held hands. The film, I remember, was very bad. We enjoyed it enormously and took a taxi to her home. Her father gave me a whisky and soda and asked me what I thought of the foreign situation in general with particular reference to the prospects of the Rome-Berlin axis breaking over the Czech question. I forget what I replied. After a bit he looked at us over his glasses, smirked and trotted off to bed. I went home finally by an all-night tram. I was in excellent spirits. I hummed a tune to myself. She was right, bless her heart. I knew my job. I should be all right. It was the man without qualifications who suffered when trade "receded."
But I was wrong.
It took me about two and a half months to find out just how wrong: two and a half months of raised hopes and disappointments, of fruitless interviews and abortive correspondence. Towards the end of my last week at Barnton, I was offered a job at two-thirds the salary I had been getting and turned it down. Six weeks later I would have given my left arm for the chance; but it was too late. I knew that Hallett had thought me a fool and, when he carefully refrained from saying "I told you so," it didn't improve matters. He himself had accepted an offer at fifty per cent. less than Barnton had paid and seemed relieved. I began to get worried and, I am afraid, irritable.
Claire was amazingly good about it all; but I was in a mood to imagine things, and began to suspect that she was losing confidence in me. Foolish of me, no doubt. She, too, was worried; but not as much by my difficulties as by the effect they were having on me. The plain truth is that I was rapidly losing confidence in myself. Then we had a slight quarrel. In itself it was trivial, but other circumstances were to render it important.
We were sitting, rather gloomily, over tea. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and she had left the hospital for an hour to hear the result of an interview with a Birmingham man who was in London for the day. The result was negative. The man from Birmingham had been very pleasant and had given me introductions to two firms from both of which I had already drawn blanks. She heard the news in silence.
"Well," I added bitterly and very childishly, "when do we get married? Or would you prefer to call it off?"
"Don't be a fool, Nicky." She paused. "Anyway, I don't see why all this should interfere with our plans. Just because things are a bit tiresome at the moment, there's no reason why we shouldn't go ahead." She paused again. "After all," she went on lightly, "I've got a perfectly good job and they talk about giving me more money soon."
"That's very nice, darling," I snapped. "And what am I supposed to do? Sit in the furnished bed-sitting-room and darn your stockings?"
It was rude and unpleasant enough, but it was only the beginning. I said a lot of things I didn't mean; pompous things about a man having a certain substratum of "self-respect" to consider and the ignominy of living on a wife's earnings, none of which bore the slightest relation to what she had meant.
She sat tight-lipped and silent until I had finished. Then she said: "I didn't think you could be such an ass." With that she got up and walked out of the shop.
Of course, we made it up that evening. But there was a reservation about the reconciliation of which we were both conscious. When I left that night, she put on her coat and walked with me a little way.
"You know, Nicky," she said after a while, "you've done a terrible lot of apologising to-night. I feel rather bad about it. I know very well it's all my fault really. If I'd had a grain of imagination I'd have known that you'd got enough to worry about without having a confounded nitwit of a girl talking marriage at you to make it worse."
I stopped dead in my tracks. "What on earth are you getting at, Claire?"
"Go on walking, darling, and I'll tell you." We went on. "You remember that engineering paper you left in the hall the other night?"
"Yes, what about it?"
"I had a look through it, Nicky. You'd marked an advertisement in the Appointments Vacant Section. Do you remember it?"
"Well . . . ?"
I spluttered. "Good heavens, Claire, you're not suggesting . . . ?"
"'Why not? It fits your qualifications exactly. It might have been designed specially for you." And then, as I began to expostulate once more: "No, listen, Nicky. It would do you good."
I halted again. "Now you listen to me, sweet. There are some things which are fantastic and absurd, and this is one of them."
She laughed. "All right, but here"--she produced a piece of paper from her bag and thrust it into a pocket of my overcoat--"I tore it out in case you might want to change your mind. Good night, darling."
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