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The Muse By Jessie Burton


When your debut novel was "one of those books" – a blockbusting global bestseller that readers took to their hearts – the pressure to deliver with the next book must be a little... intimidating. Enter Jessie Burton, author of the million-selling The Miniaturist and, now, The Muse. Set in pre-civil war Spain in 1936 and 1960s London, The Muse is the story of two women – secret painter Olive Schloss, and Odelle Bastien, a Caribbean immigrant working in Dolcis and nurturing a dream of being a writer – and the mysterious painting that links them. Add to that spiky, enigmatic Marjorie Quick and Olive's confidante, Teresa Rubles, and you have a fascinating story of love, friendship and four phenomenal women. This is not The Miniaturist – it's not trying to be – and it's all the better for it. SB

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THE MUSE

Jessie Burton

£12.99, Picador

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When your debut novel was "one of those books" – a blockbusting global bestseller that readers took to their hearts – the pressure to deliver with the next book must be a little... intimidating. Enter Jessie Burton, author of the million-selling The Miniaturist and, now, The Muse. Set in pre-civil war Spain in 1936 and 1960s London, The Muse is the story of two women – secret painter Olive Schloss, and Odelle Bastien, a Caribbean immigrant working in Dolcis and nurturing a dream of being a writer – and the mysterious painting that links them. Add to that spiky, enigmatic Marjorie Quick and Olive's confidante, Teresa Rubles, and you have a fascinating story of love, friendship and four phenomenal women. This is not The Miniaturist – it's not trying to be – and it's all the better for it. SB

Chapter:

One

Cabbages and Kings

June 1967 

Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve. Many moments that change a life’s course – a conversation with a stranger on a ship, for example – are pure luck. And yet no one writes you a letter, or chooses you as their confessor, without good reason. This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play. 

When my day came, it was so hot that my armpits had made moons on the blouse the shoe shop supplied to every employee. ‘It don’t matter what size,’ the woman said, dabbing herself with a handkerchief. My shoulders were aching, my fingertips chafing. I stared; sweat had turned the pale hair at her brow the colour of a wet mouse. London heat; it never has anywhere to go. I didn’t know it, but this woman was the last customer I would ever have to serve. 

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Just said,’ the woman sighed. ‘Any size’ll do.’

It was nearing closing time, which meant all the crumbs of dry skin – toe jam, as we called it – would have to be hoovered out of the carpet. Cynth always said we could have moulded a whole foot out of those scrapings, a monster to dance a jig of its own. She liked her job at Dolcis Shoes, and she’d got me mine – but within an hour of our shift, I craved the cool of my room, my cheap notebooks, my pencil waiting by the narrow bed. ‘Girl, you got to pick your face up,’ Cynth would whisper. ‘Or you working in the funeral parlour next door?’ 

I backed away to the stock cupboard, a place where I would often escape, immune as I was by now to its noxious smell of rubbered soles. I thought I might go in and scream silently at the wall of boxes. 

‘Wait! Oi, wait,’ the woman called after me. When she was sure she had my attention, she bent low and slipped off her scuffed pump, revealing a foot that had no toes. Not one. A smooth stump, a block of flesh resting innocently on the faded carpet. 

‘See,’ she said, her voice defeated as she kicked off the second shoe to reveal an identical state of affairs. ‘I just . . . stuff the ends with paper, so it don’t matter what size you bring.’ 

It was a sight, and I have not forgotten it; the Englishwoman who showed me her toeless feet. At the time, perhaps I was repulsed. We always say the young have little truck with ugliness, have not learned to mask shock. I wasn’t that young, really; twenty-six. I don’t know what I did in the moment, but I do recall telling Cynth, on the way home to the flat we shared off Clapham Common, and her whooping with delighted horror at the thought of those toeless feet. ‘Stumpy McGee!’ she shouted. ‘She comin’ to get yuh, Delly!’ And then, with an optimistic pragmatism; ‘At least she wear any shoe she want.’ 

Perhaps that woman was a witch coming to herald the change in my path. I don’t believe so; a different woman did that. But her presence does seem a macabre end to that chapter of my life. Did she see in me a kindred vulnerability? Did she and I occupy a space where our only option was to fill the gap with paper? I don’t know. There does remain the very slim possibility that all she wanted was a new pair of shoes. And yet I always think of her as something from a fairy tale, because that was the day that everything changed. 

***

Over the last five years since sailing to England from Port of Spain, I’d applied for many other jobs, and heard nothing. As the train from Southampton chugged into Waterloo, Cynth had mistaken house chimneys for factories, the promise of plenty of work. It was a promise that turned out to be harder to fulfil. I often fantasized about leaving Dolcis, once applying to a national newspaper to work as a tea-girl. Back home, with my degree and self-regard, I would never have dreamed of serving any soul tea, but Cynth had said, ‘A one-eye stone-deaf limping frog could do that job, and they still won’t give it to you, Odelle.’ 

Cynth, with whom I had gone to school, and with whom I had travelled to England, had become besotted with two things: shoes, and her fiancé, Samuel, whom she had met at our local church off Clapham High Street. (Sam turned out to be a great bonus, given the place was normally full of old tanties telling us about the good old days.) Because of finding him, Cynth did not strain at the bit as I did, and it could be a source of tension between us. I would often declare that I couldn’t take it any more, that I wasn’t like her, and Cynth would say, ‘Oh, because I some sheep and you so clever?’ 

I had telephoned so many advertisements which stated experience was not essential, and people sounded so nice – and then I’d turn up and miracle, miracle! every single job had been taken. And yet, call it folly, call it my pursuit of a just inheritance, but I kept on applying. The latest – and the best I’d ever seen – was a typist post at the Skelton Institute of Art, a place of pillars and porticoes. I’d even visited it once, on my monthly Saturday off. I’d spent the day wandering the rooms, moving from Gainsborough to Chagall, via aquatints by William Blake. On the train home to Clapham, a little girl gazed at me as if I was a painting. Her small fingers reached out and rubbed my earlobe, and she asked her mother, ‘Does it come off?’ Her mother didn’t chide: she looked like she damn well wanted the earlobe to give its answer. 

I hadn’t scrapped with the boys to gain a first-class English Literature degree from the University of the West Indies for nothing. I hadn’t endured a child’s pinch in a train carriage, for nothing. Back home, the British Consulate itself had awarded me the Commonwealth Students’ first prize for my poem, ‘Caribbean Spider-Lily’. I’m sorry, Cynth, but I was not going to put shoes on sweaty Cinderellas for the rest of my life. There were tears, of course, mainly sobbed into my sagging pillow. The pressure of desire curdled inside me. I was ashamed of it, and yet it defined me. I had bigger things I wanted to do, and I’d done five years of waiting. In the meantime, I wrote revenge poems about the English weather, and lied to my mother that London was heaven.

*** 

The letter was on the mat when Cynth and I got home. I kicked off my shoes and stood stock-still in the hallway. The postmark was London W.1, the centre of the world. The Victorian tiles under my bare feet were cold; my toes flexed upon the brown and blue. I slid one finger under the flap of the envelope, lifting it like a broken leaf. It was the Skelton Institute letterhead. 

‘Well?’ Cynth said. 

I didn’t reply, one fingernail pressed into the oral Braille of our landlord’s Anaglypta wallpaper, as I read to the end in shock. 

The Skelton Institute
Skelton Square
London, W.1 

16th June, 1967 

Dear Miss Bastien,

Thank you for sending your application letter and curriculum vitae.

To thrive, under whatever circumstances life presents us, is all anyone can hope for. You are clearly a young woman of great ability, amply armoured. To that degree, I am delighted to invite you to a week’s trial role in the typist position. 

There is much to learn, and most of it must be learned alone. If this arrangement suits you, please advise me by return of post whether the offer is to be accepted, and we will proceed from there. The starting salary is £10 p/w. 

With warm wishes,
Marjorie Quick 

£10 a week. At Dolcis, I only got six. Four pounds would make the difference of a world, but it wasn’t even the money. It was that I was a step closer to what I’d been taught were Important Things – culture, history, art. The signature was in thick black ink, the ‘M’ and ‘Q’ extravagant, almost Italianate in grandeur. The letter smelled faintly of a peculiar perfume. It was a bit dog-eared, as if this Marjorie Quick had left it in her handbag for some days before finally deciding to take it to the post. 

Goodbye shoe shop, goodbye drudgery. ‘I got it,’ I whispered to my friend. ‘They want me. I blimmin’ got it.’ 

Cynth screamed and took me in her arms. ‘Yes!’ 

I let out a sob. ‘You did it. You did it,’ she went on, and I breathed her neck, like air after thunder in Port of Spain. She took the letter and said, ‘What kind of a name is Marjorie Quick?’ 

I was too happy to answer. Dig your nail in that wall, Odelle Bastien; break apart that paper flower. But I wonder, given what happened, the trouble it led you to, would you do it again? Would you turn up at eight twenty-five on the morning of Monday 3 July 1967, adjusting that new hat of yours, feet wiggling in your Dolcis shoes, to work in the Skelton for £10 a week and a woman called Marjorie Quick? 

Yes, I would. Because I was Odelle and Quick was Quick. And to think you have a second path is to be a fool. 

Two

I envisaged I would be working in a whole atrium of clattering typists, but I was alone. Many of the staff were away, I supposed, taking annual holidays in exotic places like France. Every day, I would walk up the stone steps towards the Skelton’s large doors, upon whose panes was blazoned in gold lettering ARS VINCIT OMNIA. Hands on the vincit and the omnia, I pushed inside to a place that smelled of old leather and polished wood, where to my immediate right was a long reception desk and a wall of pigeonholes looming behind it, already filled with the morning’s post. 

The view in the room I’d been assigned was terrible – a brick wall smeared black with soot, and a long drop when you looked down. I could see an alleyway, where porters and secretaries from the neighbouring building would line up and smoke. I could never hear their conversations, only watch their body language, the ritual of a patted pocket, heads together like a kiss as the cigarette was flourished and the lighter caught, a leg bent coquettishly backwards against a wall. It was such a hidden place. 

Skelton Square was tucked behind Piccadilly, on the river side. Standing there since George III was king, it had been lucky in the Blitz. Beyond the rooftops the sounds of the Circus could be heard; bus engines and honking motor cars, the keening calls of milk boys. There was a false sense of security in a place like this, in the heart of London’s West End. 

***

For nearly the whole of the first week the only person I spoke to was a girl called Pamela Rudge. Pamela was the receptionist, and she would always be there, reading the Express at her counter, elbows on the wood, gum popping in her mouth before the big fellers showed and she threw it in the bin. With a hint of suffering, as if she’d been interrupted in a difficult activity, she would fold the newspaper like a piece of delicate lace and look up at me. ‘Good morning, Adele,’ she’d say. Twenty-one years old, Pam Rudge was the latest in a long line of East Enders, an immobile beehive lacquered to her head and enough black eyeliner to feed five pharaohs. 

Rudge was fashionable, overtly sexual. I wanted her mint-green minidress, her pussy-bow blouses in shades of burnt orange, but I didn’t have the confidence to show my body like that. All my air was locked inside my head. I wanted her lipstick shades, her blusher, but English powders transported me into strange, grey zones where I looked like a ghost. In the make-up department in Arding & Hobbs at the Junction, I’d only find things called ‘Buttermilk Nude’, ‘Blonde Corn’, ‘Apricot Bloom’, ‘Willow Lily’ and other such bad face poetry. 

I decided that Pamela was the kind of person whose idea of a good night out was to gorge her face on a saveloy in Leicester Square. She probably spent her salary on hair spray and bad novels, but was too stupid to even read them. Perhaps I communicated some of these thoughts – because Pamela, in turn, would either maintain wide-eyed surprise at seeing me every day, as if astonished by my audacity to keep coming back, or express comatose boredom at the appearance of my face. Sometimes she would not even look up as I lifted the flap of the reception desk and let it drop with the lightest bang just at the level of her right ear. 

Cynth once told me that I looked better in profile, and I said that made me sound like I was a coin. But now it makes me wonder about my two sides, the arch impression I probably gave Pamela, the spare change of myself that no one yet had pocketed. The truth was, I felt so prim before a girl like Rudge. 

She knew no other blacks, she told me on the Thursday of that first week. When I replied that I hadn’t known any either by that name till I came here, she looked completely blank. 

***

But despite the clunky dance with Pamela, I was ecstatic to be there. The Skelton was Eden, it was Mecca and Pemberley; the best of my dreams come to life. A room, a desk, a typewriter, Pall Mall in the morning as I walked from Charing Cross, a boulevard of golden light. 

One of my jobs was to transcribe research notes for academic men I never saw, except for their nearly indecipherable handwriting, scribbling about bronze sculptures or sets of linocuts. I enjoyed this, but my principal duty revolved around a tray on my desk that would be filled with letters I was to type up and leave with Pamela downstairs. Most of the time they were fairly mundane, but every now and then I’d pick up a gem, a begging letter to some old millionaire or decrepit Lady Whatnot on their last legs. ‘My dear Sir Peter, it was such a pleasure to identify the Rembrandt you had in your attic back in ’57. Would you consider using the Skelton to help catalogue the rest of your wonderful collection?’ and so on. Letters to financiers and lm moguls, informing them that a Matisse was floating around, or would they fancy a new room of the Skelton being named after them, as long as we could fill it with their artworks? 

They were mainly written by the director of the Skelton, a man called Edmund Reede. Pamela told me Reede was in his sixties and had a short fuse. In the war, he had something to do with recovering art confiscated by the Nazis, but she didn’t know any more. The name ‘Edmund Reede’ for me conjured up a quintessential, intimidating Englishness, Savile Rowers in Whitehall clubs; eat the steak, hunt the fox. Three-piece suit, pomaded hair, great-uncle Henry’s golden watch. I would see him round the corridors, and he would look surprised every time. It was as if I had walked in naked off the street. We studied men like him at school – protected gentlemen, rich gentlemen, white gentlemen, who picked up pens and wrote the world for the rest of us to read. 

The Skelton was a bit like that world, the world I’d been taught that I wanted to be in – and just by typing the letters, I felt closer to it all, as if my help in the matter was invaluable, as if I’d been picked for a reason. And the best thing was; I was fast. So once I had finished their letters, I used a spare hour here or there to type my own work – starting over and over again, scrunching up pieces of paper and making sure to put them in my handbag rather than leaving them like evidence in the waste-paper bin. Sometimes, I’d go home with my handbag brimming with balls of paper. 

I told Cynth how I’d forgotten the smell of the Dolcis stock cupboard. ‘It’s as if one week can kill five years,’ I said, determined and rhapsodic about my transformation. I told her about Pamela, and joked about the rigidity of her beehive. Cynth paused, frowning, for she was frying me an egg in our tiny flat, and the hob was unreliable. ‘I pleased for yuh, Delly,’ she said. ‘I pleased it going so well.’ 

On the Friday of the first week, Reede’s letters completed, I was struggling with a poem in a quiet half-hour. Cynth had told me that the only thing she wanted as a wedding gift was ‘something written – seeing as you’re the only one who ever could.’ Touched but agonized, I stared at the Skelton’s typewriter, thinking how happy Sam and Cynth clearly made each other. It made me think about my own lack; the foot, but no glass slipper. It also made me realize how I had been struggling with my writing for months. I hated every word that came from me, couldn’t let any of it breathe. 

A woman walked in just as I lit upon a possible phrase. ‘Hallo, Miss Bastien,’ she said, and the idea melted away. ‘Getting on? Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Marjorie Quick.’ 

I stood, knocking the typewriter in my haste, and she laughed. ‘This isn’t the army, you know. Take a seat.’ My eye darted to the poem on the reel, and I felt sick to my stomach that she might walk round and see it. 

Marjorie Quick came towards me, hand outstretched, her gaze flicking to the typewriter. I took her hand, willing her to stay on the other side of the desk. She did, and I noticed the cigarette scent that clung to her, mingled with a musky, masculine perfume that I recognized from the letter she’d posted, and I would later learn was called Eau Sauvage. 

Marjorie Quick was petite, upright, dressed in a way that eclipsed Pamela’s efforts. Wide black slacks that billowed like a sailor’s as she walked. A pale-pink silk blouse with a grey satin necktie loosely slung inside it. She looked like something out of Hollywood, with her short, silvering curls, her cheeks seeming carved from a fine honeyed wood. She could have been in her early fifties, I supposed, but looked unlike any fifty-year-old I’d ever met. Her jawline was sharp and her glamour hovered. 

‘Hello,’ I said. I couldn’t stop staring at her. 

‘Any bother?’ Quick seemed to feel the same, fixing her dark liquid irises on me, waiting for my answer. I noticed she looked rather flushed, a bead of perspiration on her forehead. 

‘Bother?’ I repeated. 

‘Good. What time is it?’ The clock was behind her, but she didn’t turn. 

‘Nearly twelve-thirty.’ 

‘So let us lunch.’ 

Three

She had her name engraved on a brass plate upon her door. I wondered how many women in London, in this year of our Lord 1967, had their own office. Working-class women had menial jobs, or nursed in the NHS, or were factory or shop girls or typists like me, and it had been like that for decades. But there was a world of difference, an almost unnavigable journey, between that and having your name engraved on the door. Perhaps Marjorie Quick was a scion of the Skelton family, here in some honorary position. 

She opened the door, the nameplate glinting in the rays of sun through the window beyond, and ushered me inside. Her room was white and airy, with huge windows looking onto the square. The walls were bare of paintings, which I thought odd, being where we were. Three were covered in bookshelves and I spied mainly nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels, the surprise combination of Hopkins perching next to Pound, and a smattering of Roman history. They were all hardbacks, so I couldn’t see if the spines were bent. 

From her large desk, Quick grabbed a packet of cigarettes. I watched as she extracted one, hesitated, and then placed it delicately on her lips. I would become accustomed to her habit of speeding up her actions, only to slow them again, as if checking herself. Her name lived up to her, but whether it was her languorous or hasty side that was more natural was always hard to tell. 

‘Would you like one?’ she asked.

‘No, thank you.’

‘Then I’ll go on alone.’

Her lighter was one of those heavy, refillable silver varieties, to be left on a table rather than slipped in a pocket. It was the kind of thing you might see in a country house, a cross between a hand grenade and something up for auction at Christie’s. The Skelton had a lot of money, I reckoned, and Quick reflected it. Unspoken, but present, it was in the cut of her pink silk blouse, her brave trousers, her smoking paraphernalia. In her. I wondered again what exactly her role here was. 

‘Gin?’ she said. 

I hesitated. I never drank much, and I certainly did not like the taste of spirits. The smell reminded me too much of the men in the Port of Spain clubhouses – the bubble of rum through the blood, working to a roar of squalid pain or euphoria heard upon the dust roads into town. But Quick unscrewed the cap of the gin from a table in the corner and poured some into two tumblers. She delved in an icebox with a pair of tongs and dropped two cubes in my glass, splashed it with tonic to the top, added a slice of lemon, and handed it to me. 

Sinking down into her chair as if she’d been standing for twenty days, Quick slugged back her own gin, picked up the telephone receiver and dialled a number. She sparked the lighter and a fat orange flame appeared. The end of her cigarette sizzled, tobacco leaf crisping into tendrils of blue smoke. 

‘Hello, Harris? Yes, whatever it is today. But twice over. And a bottle of the Sancerre. Two glasses. How long? Fine.’ I listened to the cadences of her voice; clipped and husky, it didn’t sound entirely English, even though it had hints enough inside it of a draughty boarding school. 

She placed the receiver back down, and flicked her cigarette into a giant marble ashtray. ‘The restaurant next door,’ she said. ‘I find it impossible to sit inside it.’ 

I sat down opposite her, cradling my glass, thinking of the sandwich Cynth had made for me, its edges curling in the heat of my desk drawer. 

‘So,’ she said. ‘A new job.’

‘Yes, madam.’

Quick placed her glass on the desk. ‘First things, Miss Bastien. Never call me “madam”. Nor am I “miss”. I like to be known as Quick.’ She smiled, looking rueful. ‘Your name is French?’ 

‘Yes, I believe so.’

‘You speak French?’

‘No.’

‘To have and to be confuse me greatly. I thought people spoke French in Trinidad?’

I hesitated. ‘Only a few of our forebears were indoors, speaking with the French,’ I said.

Her eyes widened – with amusement, offence? It was impossible to tell. I dreaded that my history lesson was too much, too arch, and I was going to fail my trial period. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘How interesting.’ She took another slug of gin. ‘There’s not much to do here at the moment,’ she went on, ‘but I expect Mr Reede is keeping you busy with his endless flow of correspondence. I’m worried you’ll be bored.’ 

‘Oh, I’m sure I won’t be.’ I thought of Dolcis, of how they overworked Cynth and me; the way the husbands watched our buttocks whilst their wives slipped on their heels. ‘I’m just so pleased to be here.’ 

‘There’s probably more life to be seen in one day at Dolcis Shoes than a week at the Skelton. Did you enjoy it?’ she asked. ‘Touching all those women’s feet?’ 

The question was vaguely shocking, rimed with a sexual sharpness that stung me, virginal as I was. But I would not be cowed. ‘In all honesty,’ I replied, ‘with thirty pairs a day, it was appalling.’ 

She threw back her head and laughed. ‘All the cheeses of France!’ 

Her laughter was infectious and I giggled too. It was a ludicrous thing to say, but it melted the tension inside me. ‘Some people don’t mind it,’ I said, thinking of Cynth, how I was abasing her for this exchange, this strange game whose rules I didn’t know. ‘It takes a skill.’ 

‘I dare say. But so many anonymous toes.’ She shuddered. ‘We have all these beautiful portraits at the Skelton, but we’re really just gangling arms, gurgling intestines. The heat inside the liver.’ She looked at me hard, and took another drag. ‘I’ve had a lot longer than you to come to that conclusion, Miss Bastien. Toes, the crooks of elbows. Enjoy dignity in them while you can.’ 

‘I’ll try,’ I said, unsettled once again. There was a restlessness to her; it felt as if she was putting on a performance for me, and I didn’t know why. 

There was a knock on the door. Quick told them to enter and our lunch arrived on a trolley, pushed by a very small, elderly porter who only had one arm. A basket of rolls, two flat fishes, a buoyant-looking salad, a bottle of wine in a cooler, and something else hidden under a steel dome. The porter glanced at me, startled like a rabbit. His rheumy eyes slid back to Quick. 

‘That’ll be all, Harris. Thank you,’ Quick said. 

‘We haven’t seen you all week, miss,’ he replied. 

‘Ah – annual leave.’

‘Somewhere nice?’ 

‘No.’ Quick looked momentarily disconcerted. ‘Just a home stay.’ 

The porter changed his attention to me. ‘Bit different to the last one,’ he said, cocking his head. ‘Does Mr Reede know you’ve got a wog in?’ 

‘That will be everything, Harris,’ said Quick, in a tight voice. He cast her a disgruntled look and left the trolley, staring at me as he backed out of the door. 

‘Harris,’ Quick said when he’d gone, as if to say his name was explanation enough. ‘The arm got lost in Passchendaele. He refuses to retire and no one has the heart to do it.’ The porter’s word clung to the air. Quick stood up and handed me a plate off the trolley. 

‘Just use the desk to rest it, if you don’t mind.’ She carried her own plate round to her side of the desk. She had a slim little back, her shoulder blades slightly poking through the blouse like a pair of fins. The wine had been uncorked and she poured us both a glass. 

‘It’s very good. Not like the stuff we use for the public.’ The glug of it was loud and lush and transgressive, like she was pouring me elixir in full daylight. ‘Cheers,’ Quick said briskly, raising her glass. ‘I hope you like lemon sole.’ 

‘Yes,’ I replied. I’d never eaten it before. 

‘So. What did your parents say when you told them you were working here?’ 

‘My parents?’

‘Were they proud?’

I wiggled my toes in the confines of their shoes. ‘My father’s dead.’ 

‘Oh.’ 

‘My mother is still in Port of Spain. I’m an only child. She might not even have got my letter yet.’ 

‘Ah. That must be hard for you both.’ 

I thought of my mother – her belief in England, a place she would never see; and I thought of my father, recruited into the RAF, gone down over Germany in a ball of flame. When I was fifteen, the Prime Minister of Tobago had declared that the future of the islands’ children lay in their schoolbags. My mother, desperate for me not to live a life like hers and Dad’s, pushed me to better myself – but for what, when all the land post-independence was being sold to foreign companies who invested the profits back into their own countries? What were we youngsters supposed to do, when we reached the bottom of those schoolbags and found nothing there – just a seam, split from the weight of our books? We had to leave. 

‘Are you all right, Miss Bastien?’ said Quick. 

‘I came here with my friend, Cynth,’ I said, not wishing to dwell on Port of Spain, the death board with Dad’s name on it, his empty plot in Lapeyrouse Cemetery that Mama still kept vacant, the Catholic nuns who’d taught me as I grew up in my grief. ‘Cynthia’s engaged,’ I said. ‘She’s getting married.’ 

‘Ah.’ Quick picked up her knife and began to lift a small segment of the sole, and I had the strange feeling of saying too much without having said anything at all. ‘When?’ 

‘In two weeks. I’m maid of honour.’

‘And then what?’

‘Then what?’

‘Well, you’ll be alone, won’t you? She’ll be living with her husband.’

Quick always insisted on skirting her own truths whilst getting to the core of yours. She told me nothing about the Skelton, focusing only on finding out about me, and had soon skewered my darkest fear. The fact was, Cynth’s imminent departure from our little flat had hung between me and my oldest friend like a silent question, heavy with foreboding. We both knew she would leave to live with Samuel, but I couldn’t imagine rooming with anybody else, so I didn’t talk about it, and neither did she. I boasted about my new job and she fretted over wedding invitations and made me sandwiches I overlooked. The salary from the Skelton would cover the second room she was going to vacate, and this was my only comfort. 

‘I enjoy my own company,’ I said, swallowing hard. ‘It’ll be nice to have some space.’ 

Quick reached for another cigarette, but then seemed to change her mind. If you were alone, I thought, you’d have already smoked three more. Her eyes rested briefly on my face as she lifted the steel dome to reveal a lemon meringue. ‘Do eat something, Miss Bastien,’ she said. ‘All this food.’ 

Whilst I ate my slice of meringue, Quick didn’t touch a crumb. She seemed born to all this, to the smoking and the telephone orders, the tangential observations. I imagined her in her twenties, raffing round London with a glamorous set, a cat amongst the Blitz. I was piecing her together from Mitford and Waugh, dousing her with a coat of my newly discovered Muriel Spark. It was perhaps a vanity, instilled in me from the education I’d received, which was little different from the model used in English public schools, with its Latin and Greek and boys playing cricket – but I had yearned for eccentric, confident people to enhance my life; I thought I deserved them, the sort of people you found only in novels. Quick hardly had to do anything, I was so sprung for it, so willing. Starved of my past life, I began to concoct a present fantasy. 

‘Your application interested me greatly,’ she said. ‘You write very well. Very well. At your university, you seem to have been one of the brightest students. I take it you think you’re too good to be a secretary.’ 

Fear ran through me. Did this mean she was letting me go, that I hadn’t passed the trial? ‘I’m very grateful to be here,’ I said. ‘It’s a wonderful place to work.’ 

She made a face at these blandishments and I wondered what it was she wanted. I reached for a bread roll and rested it in my palm. It was the weight and size of a small marsupial and I had an instinct to stroke it. Feeling her eyes upon me, I plunged my thumb into the crust instead. 

‘And what sort of things do you like to write?’ 

I thought of the piece of paper on the typewriter in the other room. ‘Poems, mainly. I’d like to write a novel one day. I’m still waiting for a good story.’ 

She smiled. ‘Don’t wait too long.’ I was quite relieved she gave me this instruction, because usually whenever I told people I wanted to write, they would tell me how their own lives would make the perfect subject. ‘I mean it,’ said Quick. ‘You mustn’t hang around. You never know what’s going to pounce on you.’ 

‘I won’t,’ I said, gratified by her insistence. 

She sat back in her chair. ‘You do remind me of someone I used to know.’ 

‘I do?’ I found this immensely flattering and waited for Quick to go on, but her face clouded, and she broke the spine of the cigarette she’d left on the side of the ashtray. 

‘What do you make of London?’ she asked. ‘You came in ’62. Do you like living here?’ 

I felt paralysed. She leaned forward. ‘Miss Bastien. This isn’t a test. I’m genuinely interested. Whatever you say, I won’t tell a soul. Cross my heart, I promise.’ 

I’d never told anybody this out loud. It may have been the gin, it may have been her open face, and the fact she didn’t laugh at my dream of writing. It may have been the confidence of youth, or that porter Harris, but it all came tumbling out. ‘I’ve never seen so much soot,’ I said. 

She laughed. ‘The place is filthy.’ 

‘In Trinidad, we were brought up being told that London was a magic land.’ 

‘So was I.’

‘You’re not from here?’

She shrugged. ‘I’ve been here so long I can hardly remember anything else.’

‘They make you think London is full of order, and plenty, and honesty and green fields. The distance shrinks.’ 

‘What distance do you mean, Miss Bastien?’

‘Well, the Queen rules London and she rules your island, so London is part of you.’ 

‘I see.’ 

I didn’t think Quick did see, really, so I carried on. ‘You think they’ll know you here, because they also read Dickens and Brontë and Shakespeare. But I haven’t met anyone who can name three of his plays. At school, they showed us films of English life – bowler hats and buses flickering on the whitewash – while outside all we could hear were tree frogs. Why did anyone show us such things?’ My voice was rising. ‘I thought everyone was an Honourable—’ I stopped, fearing I’d said too much. 

‘Go on,’ she said. 

‘I thought London would mean prosperity and welcome. A Renaissance place. Glory and success. I thought leaving for England was the same as stepping out of my house and onto the street, just a slightly colder street where a beti with a brain could live next door to Elizabeth the Queen.’ 

Quick smiled. ‘You’ve been thinking about this.’ 

‘Sometimes you can’t think about anything else. There’s the cold, the wet, the rent, the lack. But – I do try to live.’ 

I felt I shouldn’t say any more; I couldn’t believe I’d said so much. The bread roll was in shreds upon my lap. Quick, in contrast, appeared totally relaxed. She sat back in her chair, her eyes alight. ‘Odelle,’ she said. ‘Don’t panic. It’s likely you’ll be fine.’

Four

Cynthia married Samuel at Wandsworth Register Office, in a small room that smelled of bureaucracy and cheap perfume, with dark-green walls and steel chairs. Shirley and Helen, two girls from the shoe shop, came along in their finery. Sam’s friend from the buses, Patrick Minamore, was best man, and he brought with him his girlfriend Barbara, a fledgling actress and a talkative presence. 

The registrar eyed us. The men were in suits, Patrick’s tie particularly loud – and everyone looked smart compared to the drab surround. Cynth was beautiful – I mean, she was beautiful anyway, even without love beaming through every inch of her, but in her white minidress, a simple white pill-box hat, and a pair of white shoes, given her by the manager, Connie, as a wedding present, she was radiant. She had a necklace of blue flowers made from ceramic, and two small pearls in her ears, so perfect and round, as if the oysters had made them especially for her. 

Patrick, an aspiring photographer, was in charge of capturing us all. I still have some of those snaps. A fountain of rice caught mid-air, white rain upon Sam and Cynth’s laughing faces as they stand on the registry steps, their two hands lifted together as the grains cascade. 

In marriage, at least, Cynth had triumphed. It was never going to be simple for us to find our way, and Cynth should have had a shoe empire by then, she was that good. It was not easy to sell shoes in Clapham High Street in 1967 as a Trinidadian girl. It was probably easier to write a poem about Trinidad’s flowers, send it to the British Consul and be rewarded with a prize. But at least she had Sam, and they had rubbed off well on each other – he serious and shy, she resourceful and determined – how her presence illuminated him as he signed his name in the register! 

We went back to Sam and Patrick’s flat in black cabs, and told the taxi men that our friends had just got married. The drivers rolled down their windows and played the blues on the same radio station in concert, so loud we were terrified we’d get arrested for breaking the peace. Back in the flat, we lifted tea towels euphorically from sandwiches, found bottle openers, corkscrews, put a record on, and watched as they cut the white domed cake that Cynth had laced with rum. 

After a couple of hours, other people turned up – friends of friends. Barbara had summoned up a gaggle of hip-looking folk, girls with long hair and short dresses, fellers in open-necked shirts, who looked like they needed a shave. I only glanced at them; I had long told myself those people were not for me and neither me for them. My back was damp with sweat and the ceiling seemed lower than it had been an hour ago. A couple of Barbara’s gang fell into a table, and a little red lamp with tassels tumbled to the floor. Though I’d never smoked it myself, I could smell the marijuana. 

When the room was full, the mood was high and Cynth had drunk three Dubonnets and lemonade too many, she lifted the needle off the record player and announced, ‘My friend Delly is a poet and she wrote a poem about love.’ There was a cheer. ‘And she goin’ to read it now.’ 

‘Cynthia Morley, no,’ I hissed. ‘Just ’cos you now a married woman, you can’t boss me around.’ 

‘Wha’ happen now, Delly?’ called Sam. ‘Why yuh keeping yuhself so secret?’ 

‘Come on, Delly. For me,’ said Cynth, to my horror drawing out the poem from her handbag as another, yet more unstable cheer rippled around the fuggy room. When I had finally showed it to her a week ago, like a schoolgirl walking the long route to the teacher’s desk, she had read it in silence and then put her arms around me tight, whispering, Good Lord, Delly, you truly blessed. 

‘Is a very good poem, Delly,’ she said now, as she thrust it in my hands. ‘Come on, show these people what you have.’ 

So I did it. A little wobbly from my own Dubonnet, I glanced up only once at all the faces, small moons stopped for nothing else but me. I read my poem about love from the paper, although I knew it off by heart. My words made the room fall silent. And when I finished, there was more silence, and I waited for Cynth, but even she didn’t seem able to speak. 

***

I did not see his face in the crowd when I read that poem. I did not feel his eyes on me, although he told me later he couldn’t drag them off mine. I felt nothing change in the room, except the shock of my voice alone and the peculiar euphoria one feels in the wake of applause, feeling at once cheapened and triumphant. 

He came up to me about half an hour later, where I was in the minuscule and cluttered kitchen, stacking the empty foil plates in neat towers, trying to make some order out of Sam and Patrick’s bachelor chaos. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘So you’re the poet. I’m Lawrie Scott.’ 

My first thought was to check whether there were bits of egg sandwich on my fingers. ‘I’m not a poet, I just write poems,’ I said, looking at my hands. 

‘There’s a difference?’

‘I think there is.’

He leant against the counter, his long legs straight, crossing his arms like a detective. ‘Is your real name Delly, then?’ he said. 

‘It’s Odelle.’ I was grateful for the bottle of Fairy Liquid and the scrubbing pad I began to put to good use. 

‘Odelle.’ He stared back through the doorless arch to where the party had turned without a rudder, sinking into a sea of cigarette butts and shrieks, ring-pulls, discarded hair accessories, and someone’s suit jacket crumpled on the floor. Sam and Cynth would be leaving soon – for nowhere but our flat, which I’d promised to vacate for the evening. Tonight, I was to be staying in this pit. This Lawrie seemed lost in thought, perhaps a little stoned, and I noticed small purple smudges of tiredness under his eyes. 

‘How do you know the happy couple?’ I asked. 

‘I don’t. I’m friends with Barbara and she said there was a party. I didn’t know it was a wedding. I feel rather rude, but you know how it goes.’ I didn’t, so I said nothing. ‘You?’ he persisted. 

‘I went to school with Cynthia. She is – was – my flatmate.’ 

‘Long time, then?’

‘Long time.’

‘Your poem was really good,’ he said. 

‘Thank you.’

‘I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be married.’

‘I don’t suppose it’s much different,’ I replied, putting on a pair of yellow rubber gloves.

He turned to me. ‘Do you really think that? Is that why the poem was about love, not marriage?’

The mound of bubbles was rising in the sink because I hadn’t turned off the tap. He seemed genuinely interested, and this pleased me. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But don’t tell Cynth.’ 

He laughed, and I liked the sound. ‘My mother used to say that marriage got better with practice,’ he said. ‘But she was already on her second try.’ 

‘Goodness me,’ I said, laughing. I probably sounded so disapproving. Divorce, in those days, still contained the suggestion of debauch. 

‘She died two weeks ago,’ he said. 

I paused, scrubbing pad hovering over the sink, and looked at him to check I’d heard him right. ‘My stepfather told me I should come out,’ Lawrie went on, staring at the floor. ‘That I was getting under his feet. And of all places I end up at a wedding.’ 

He laughed again, but then was quiet, hugging himself in his fashionable leather jacket. I had not had such a personal conversation with a stranger before in England. I could not counsel him, and he did not seem to wish for it. He didn’t look like he was going to cry. I thought he might be hot in that coat, but he didn’t seem disposed to take it off. Perhaps he wasn’t planning to hang around. I registered my regret that this might be the case. 

‘I haven’t seen my mother for five years,’ I said, plunging a tray sticky with cake smears into the hot water. 

‘But she’s not dead, though.’

‘No. No, she’s not dead.’

‘I keep thinking I’m going to see her again. That she’ll be there when I go home. But the only person there is bloody Gerry.’ 

‘Gerry being your stepfather?’ 

His face darkened. ‘Yes, sorry. And my mother left everything to him.’ 

I tried to gauge Lawrie’s age. He could be thirty, I supposed, but the rapidity with which he was spilling himself open suggested someone younger. ‘That’s hard,’ I said. ‘Why would she do that?’ 

‘Long story. She did leave me one thing, actually. Gerry always hated it, which goes to show what a moron he is.’ 

‘That’s good you got something. What is it?’ 

Lawrie sighed again and uncrossed his arms, letting them hang by his side. ‘A painting. All it does is remind me of her.’ He gave me a rueful smile; his mouth crooked up one cheek. ‘Love is blind, love’s a bind. I could be a poet too.’ He cocked his head at the refrigerator. ‘Any milk?’ 

‘There should be. You know, I think it’s best you remember your mother rather than try and forget. My father died. And I don’t have anything of his at all. Just my name.’ 

Lawrie stopped, his hand on the refrigerator door. ‘Whoa. I’m sorry. Here am I, going on—’ 

‘It’s all right. No, really.’ I felt self-conscious now, and wished he’d just get the milk out and busy himself. I never usually talked about my parents, and yet I felt compelled to carry on. ‘He died in the war. He got shot down.’ 

Lawrie looked agog. ‘Mine died in the war too. But not in a plane.’ He paused and I got the sense he was going to say something, then thought better of it. ‘I never knew him,’ he added. 

I felt awkward with this synchronicity of our circumstances, as if I’d deliberately sought it out. ‘I was two,’ I hurried on. ‘I don’t really remember him. He was called Odell, but without the “e”. When he died, my mother changed my name.’ 

‘She what? What were you known as before that?’

‘I don’t even know.’

This fact about myself sounded absurd and funny – at least, in that moment it did – maybe it was the clouds of pot billowing around – and we both started laughing. In fact, we laughed straight for about a minute, that pain in your stomach when you laugh and laugh – how one mother can rename you, how mad it is another’s suddenly dead, and you in a kitchen round the corner from the British Museum wearing yellow rubber gloves. 

Lawrie turned fully towards me, the milk bottle lolling in his hand. Sobering up, I eyed it, worried that the liquid would start dripping through the lid at such a terrible angle. 

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘Delly.’ 

‘Odelle.’

‘Do you want to get out?’ 

‘From where?’ 

‘From here, you crazy girl.’

‘Who’s crazy?’

‘We could go to Soho. I’ve got a friend who can get us in to the Flamingo. But you’ll have to take off those rubber gloves. It’s not that sort of club.’ 

I didn’t know what to make of Lawrie at this point. I could describe him as grief-stricken, but arguably the grief hadn’t truly set in. Perhaps he was in shock – it had only been a fortnight. That he was angry with someone, and a bit lost, both certain of himself and yet avoiding himself – these things could be said about Lawrie. He spoke well, and he talked of Gerry and the house and his divorced, dead mother with a practised world-weariness that I wasn’t sure he was trying to escape or keep alive. 

‘I – I’m tired,’ I said. ‘I can’t leave the party.’ I pulled the plug from the sink. As the water drained noisily, I wondered how his mother had died. 

‘The Flamingo, Odelle.’ 

I’d never heard of it, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. ‘I can’t leave Cynth.’ 

He raised an eyebrow. ‘I don’t think she needs you tonight.’ I blushed, looking into the disappearing bubbles. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘my car’s outside. How about we drop the painting off at my friend’s at and then let’s go dancing. It doesn’t have to be the Flamingo. Do you like to dance?’ 

‘You have the painting with you?’ I said. 

‘I see.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘More of an art girl than a nightclub girl?’ 

‘I don’t think I’m either of those girls. But I do work at an art gallery,’ I added. I wanted him to be impressed, to show him I wasn’t just some innocent prig who chose to wash up crockery rather than fall around on the carpet. 

A light came into Lawrie’s eyes. ‘Do you want to see it?’ he said. ‘It’s in the boot of my car.’ 

Lawrie didn’t try and touch me in that kitchen. He didn’t let his hand drift anywhere near. The relief that he didn’t, and the desire that he might – I think they are the reasons I agreed to see his painting. I followed him, leaving the dishes stranded in the sink. 

Five

I think he wanted me to be impressed by the fact he was driving an MG, but that meant nothing to me, once I’d laid eyes on the painting in the boot. It was not large, and it had no frame. As an image, it was simple and at the same time not easily decipherable – a girl, holding another girl’s severed head in her hands on one side of the painting, and on the other, a lion, sitting on his haunches, not yet springing for the kill. It had the air of a fable. 

Despite the slight distortion from the orange street lamp above us, the colours of the lower background reminded me of a Renaissance court portrait – that piled-up patchwork of fields all kinds of yellow and green, and what looked like a small white castle. The sky above was darker and less decorous; there was something nightmarish about its bruised indigoes. The painting gave me an immediate feeling of opposites – the girls against the lion, together in the face of its adversity. But there was a rewarding delicacy beyond its beautiful palette of colours – an elusive element that made it so alluring. 

‘What do you think?’ asked Lawrie. His face seemed softer out of the glare of the kitchen light. 

‘Me? I’m just the typist,’ I said.

‘Oh, come on. I heard that poem. Make a poem of this.’ 

‘It doesn’t work like that—’ I began, before I realized he was teasing me. I felt embarrassed, so I turned back to the painting. ‘It’s very unusual, I suppose. The colours, the subject matter. I wonder when it was painted? Could be last week, or last century.’ 

‘Or even earlier,’ he said eagerly. 

I looked again at the old-fashioned fields in the background and then at the figures. ‘I don’t think so. The girl’s dress and cardigan – it’s more recent.’ 

‘Do you think that’s gold leaf?’ Lawrie bent down and pointed to the lion’s mane, the owing strands which seemed to glint. His head was very close to mine and I could smell his skin, a trace of aftershave that gave me goosebumps. 

‘Odelle?’ he said. 

‘It’s not your usual painting,’ I replied hastily, as if I knew what a usual painting was. I straightened up. ‘Mr Scott, what are you going to do with it?’ 

He turned to me and smiled. The orange light caught the planes of his face and covered him in ghoulish shadow. ‘I like it when you call me Mr Scott.’ 

‘In that case, I’m going to call you Lawrie.’ 

He laughed, and my jaw tingled, threatening a smile. ‘I don’t think this was done by an amateur,’ I said. ‘What did your mother know about it?’ 

‘No idea. And all I know is, she took it with her wherever she went. At home, it was always in her bedroom. She didn’t like it in the public rooms.’ 

I pointed to the initials on the bottom right of the painting. ‘Who’s I.R.?’ 

Lawrie shrugged. ‘Not my forte.’ 

I wondered what Lawrie’s forte was, and whether I would ever find out, and why did I want to – and was that the reason I was feeling so odd? 

In case he could read my thoughts, I bent my head down again towards the girl in the painting. She was wearing a light-blue dress with a dark woollen cardigan – you could even see the cable knit. The head she was carrying had a long dark plait, which snaked unsettlingly out of her cradled arms, towards the red earth floor. The strange thing was, even though she had no body, the floating girl didn’t seem dead at all. She was inviting me in, but there was a note of caution in her eyes. Neither figure was exactly beaming in welcome. They both seemed oblivious to the lion, which may or may not have been waiting for the kill. 

‘I have to go,’ I said, pushing the painting away into his surprised hands. Lawrie, the party, the poem, the Dubonnet, Cynth’s marriage, the painting; suddenly I wanted to be alone. 

Lawrie took the painting from me and closed the boot. He looked down at me, his head cocked to one side again. ‘Are you all right? Do you want me to walk you back in?’ 

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I mean, no. I’m fine. Thank you. Sorry. It was a pleasure to meet you. Good luck.’ I turned away and made it to the entrance of the block of flats, before he called out to me. 

‘Hey, Odelle.’ I looked back to see him jam his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, hunching his shoulders again. ‘I – you know – that really was a good poem.’ 

‘It always takes longer than you think, Mr Scott,’ I said. He laughed, and I smiled properly then, nevertheless relieved to be out of the street lamp’s glow. 

***

When I was growing up, my mother and I would always eat lunch with Cynth’s family on Sundays. Four in the afternoon, a big pot on the hob, everyone coming in and out and dipping for themselves – and once the meal was done, we’d draw our chairs up to the radio at seven thirty and listen to the BBC’s Caribbean Voices, the only broadcast that mattered if you dreamed of being a writer. 

Here’s the mad thing: poets from Barbados, Trini, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua – any part of the British Caribbean – would send their stories all the way to Bush House on London’s Aldwych, in order to hear them read back again in their homes, thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean. There seemed no local facility to enable these stories to be processed, a fact which impressed upon me at a very young age that in order to be a writer, I would require the motherland’s seal of approval, the imperial sanction that my words were broadcastable. 

The majority of the work was by men, but I would listen enraptured by the words and voices of Una Marson, Gladys Lindo, Constance Hollar – and Cynth would pipe up, ‘One day you be read out, Delly’ – and her little shining face, her bunches, she always made me feel like it was true. Seven years old, and she was the only one who ever told me to keep going. By 1960 that programme had stopped, and I came to England two years later with no idea what to do with my stories. Life at the shoe shop took over, so I only wrote in private, and Cynth, who must have seen the piles of notebooks which never left my bedroom, simply stopped her pestering. 

She and Sam had found a flat to rent in Queen’s Park, and she’d transferred to a north London branch of Dolcis. Up to that point, I’d never really known loneliness. I’d always had my books, and Cynth had always been there. Suddenly, my thoughts were enormous in that tiny flat, because there was nobody to hear them and make them manageable, nobody cajoling or supporting me, or holding out their arms for a hug. Cynth’s absence became physical to me. Do you have a body if no one is there to touch it? I suppose you do, but sometimes it felt like I didn’t. I was just a mind, floating around the rooms. How badly prepared I’d been for the echo and clunk of my key in the lock, the lack of her sizzling frying pan, my solitary toothbrush, the silence where once she hummed her favourite songs. 

When you saw a person every day – a person you liked, a person who lifted you up – you thought you were your best self, without trying very hard. Now, I saw myself as barely interesting, not so clever. No one wanted to hear my poems except Cynth, no one cared or understood where I was from like she did. I didn’t know how to be Odelle without Cynth to make me so. Cynth had done so much for me, but because she was gone, I still managed to resent her. 

Her work commitments and mine meant we were only meeting once a fortnight, in the Lyon’s on Craven Street round the corner from the Skelton. I barely credited Cynth for the fact it was she who always arranged it. 

***

At the counter, the waitress had slopped our cups so the liquid had spilled onto the saucer, and the bun I’d asked for was the most squashed. When I asked for a replacement saucer, the waitress ignored me, and when I paid for it, she wouldn’t put the change in my hand. She placed the money on the counter and pushed it over, not looking at my face. I turned to Cynth, and saw a familiar expression. We walked to find a spare table, as far away from the counter as we could. 

‘How is it at the work?’ she asked. ‘You still trailin’ after that Marjorie Quick? 

‘She meh boss, Cynthia.’

‘So you say.’

I hadn’t realized how obvious it was, the impression that Quick had made on me over the recent weeks. I had tried to find out more about Quick from Pamela, who could only tell me that Quick had once mentioned the county of Kent as her childhood home. What she did between being a girl and a woman in her fifties was a grey sketch. Perhaps she had been destined for a genteel, Kentish life, a magistrate’s wife or some such, but she chose instead to find a different kind of fortune in the rubble of post-war London. Her name was not in Debrett’s: she was not a Skelton descendant, one of my initial lines of thought. Her impeccable sartorial choices exuded power, a care of herself that was for nobody’s benefit but her own. Each perfect blouse, each pristine pair of trousers, was a pre-emptive self-narration. Quick’s clothes were an armour made of silk. 

I knew she was unmarried and lived in Wimbledon, just off the common. She smoked constantly, and appeared close to Reede in the sort of way that water is close to a stone that it has worn down over decades. Pamela said that Quick had been here as long as Reede had, when he’d taken the directorship of the Skelton in 1947, twenty years ago. How she had come to meet Reede, or why she decided to take employment, remained a mystery. I wondered what sort of battle it had been to get to where she was now, and whether she’d read those Roman histories to give her some lessons in war. 

‘She not like anyone I ever meet,’ I said to Cynth. ‘Friendly one minute, a sunlight beam. Then she like a hog-brush woman – she bristle so, it pain yuh to be near.’ 

Cynth sighed. ‘We bought G Plan for the flat.’ 

‘G-what?’

‘Oh, Delly. Sam work hard hard, so Ah say, leh we buy we a nice G Plan sofa so he can put up he foot at the end of the day.’ 

‘Hmm. And how your feet doin’?’ 

She sighed, stirring her lukewarm tea with a spoon. ‘Oh, let me tell you a thing. So our new postman get the letters mix up, and our neighbour knock with them.’ Cynth cleared her throat and put on a posh English voice. ‘“Oh, hell-air. Yes, this must be yours. We saw it had a black stamp.” Is a letter from Lagos, Delly. Meh name not on it, and Eh know nobody from Nigeria. “Black stamp”, I ask yuh.’ 

Her laugh died. Normally we would have discussed something like this in order to remove its barb, but after the waitress neither of us had the energy. 

‘Tell me about the feller you was talking to at the wedding,’ she said, looking sly. 

‘What feller?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Lawrie Scott. The white one; handsome, skinny. He friend to Patrick’s Barbara. Ah didn’t drink that many Dubonnets – I saw you in the kitchen.’ 

‘Oh him. He real dotish.’ 

Hmm,’ she said, her eyes taking on a secret glow, and I knew I’d given myself away. ‘That strange.’ 

‘Why?’ 

‘Patrick told Sam he been asking about you.’ I shut my mouth tighter than a clam and Cynth grinned. ‘You writin’?’ she asked. 

‘You only start asking me that, now you leave.’ 

‘I not gone. I on the other end of the Tube map, that is all.’ 

‘Like you worried I got nothing to do these days. Don’t worry, I writin’,’ I said, but this was a lie. I had stopped entirely at this point, believing that the idea of myself as a good writer was laughable. 

‘Good. I glad you writin’,’ said Cynth rmly. ‘You know, there a poetry night going at the ICA,’ she went on. ‘Sam’s friend readin’, and he’s a real dotish boy compared to you. His poem does send me to sleep—’ 

‘Ah not readin’ at some meet-up, Cynthia,’ I said, wrinkling my nose. ‘Make no mistake.’ 

She sighed. ‘I not. Is just that you better, Odelle. You better and you know it, and you doing nothin’.’ 

‘Eh heh,’ I said. ‘I busy. I work. You go with your G Plan and stop all this foolishness. What, because I got no husban’ foot to worry me, I better go speakin’ my poetry an’ ting?’ 

Cynthia looked distraught. ‘Delly! Why you so vex? I only trying to help.’ 

‘Ah not vex.’ I drained my cup of tea. ‘Is all right for you,’ I said. ‘Don’t tell me how to live.’ 

Cynth was quiet after that. I should have said sorry then and there, but I didn’t. She left soon after, pinch-faced with tears, and I felt like a monster come out of the sea to grab her legs. 

We didn’t meet up the next week, or the one after that, and she didn’t ring. Neither did I, and I felt so embarrassed, such a fool – a real dotish gyal, as Cynth no doubt described me that night to Sam. The longer she was silent, the more impossible it seemed to pick up the telephone. 

All I really wanted to say was that I missed us living together. And I was someone who was supposed to be good with words. 

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Jessie Burton
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