12 January 1920
Florence Shore arrived at Victoria station at 2.45 p.m. in a cab. It was an extravagance, all the way from Hammersmith, but one she felt she deserved. The style of arrival befitted her new fur coat, a birthday present to herself that she had worn for the first time only the day before to impress her aunt, Baroness Farina, over China tea and ginger thins, her aunt apologising for the lack of cake.
Florence had been at this station only twenty hours earlier, when she returned from the day trip to her relation in Tonbridge, and now she was heading back in almost the same direction, to St Leonards-on-Sea, where her good friend Rosa Peal lived above a teashop. Besides the birthday and the fur coat – reason enough for anyone to take a cab rather than the two buses it would take to cross the city – Florence was excused her choice of transport thanks to her substantial luggage: a dispatch box, a large suitcase, her vanity case, an umbrella and a handbag. Furthermore, on the question of reckless spending, it was only two months since she had been demobilised so she had spent few of the extravagances she might have allowed herself since inheriting money from her sister five years before. Not to mention she had her savings. That decided it, then – Florence hailed a porter. She would tip him handsomely, if he bore her cases without complaint.
‘To platform nine, please,’ she told him, ‘by the third-class carriages.’ Her self-indulgence had a limit.
Free from her loads, Florence adjusted her neat fur hat and shook out her long skirt. The pre-war fashions suited her figure better; she wished occasionally she could stand to lose the corset but she couldn’t get used to it. The one time she had walked out without her stays she had felt as if she were parading down the street naked. According to ritual, she patted her handbag, held on to her umbrella for walking support and marched with purpose to the ticket office. She did not have time to waste.
There was a post office in the station, and she wondered if she should send a note to the porter at her lodgings to let her know she had gone away, but decided against it. She could write from St Leonards, after all. She carried on towards the ticket office, relieved to see that there were no long queues, and stood behind an agreeable-looking young woman at stand number six. Florence admired the slim figure before her, glossy hair swept up and tucked into a large hat, trimmed with navy satin. The fashion for bobbed hair had not yet quite swept the capital in the way she had seen in Paris, though she suspected it wouldn’t be long. Speedily, the woman bought her ticket and, on completing her transaction, gave Florence a fleeting smile before going on her way.
Florence faced the ticket officer, a bearded man in a cap behind glass. She briefly wondered how the railway authorities permitted beards, then reminded herself that he could have facial disfigurements from the war that he wished to disguise. It was common enough, as she knew all too well.
‘Yes, ma’am?’ he prompted. ‘Where to?’
‘Third class to Warrior Square, St Leonards, please. Returning a week today.’
Florence saw him glance at her war medal and he gave her a look as if to say: You’re one of us. What he actually said was: ‘Platform nine. You’re in time for the three-twenty. It’s a fast train to Lewes, where it separates – front carriages to Brighton, rear carriages to Hastings. You want to sit in the back.’
‘Yes, I know,’ said Florence. ‘But thank you.’
‘Six shillings, then.’
She already had her bag on the ledge before her; the correct change was swiftly fetched from her purse. Deft, even in gloved fingers, Florence handed the money over and received in turn the small, stiff rectangles. Carefully, the return portion was secreted in the bag, the outward-bound ticket she kept in her hand, the clasp snapped shut.
Back out on the concourse, Florence looked up at the station clock – it was not yet on the hour but she knew the porter would be shivering on the platform with her bags, so she decided against a quick dash to the station’s cosy tea room for a cup of tea. The way before her felt vast and empty, more like an aeroplane hangar than a train station. The bleak chill of January had long killed the jollity of Christmas, let alone the novelty of a new decade. They’d looked forward to a post-war life for so long, only to find that nothing could be returned to the way it was before. Too much had changed; too much grieving had been done.
At least the journey ahead was not a long one and Rosa would be ready with a hearty supper when she arrived – generous slabs of bread and thickly spread butter, carved slices of honey-sweetened ham and a glass of ale, probably followed by a wedge of unsold cake from the teashop, warmed with a dollop of homemade custard. After a week or two at Rosa’s, Florence’s corset always had to be loosened by an inch. Strangely, recalling this feast – a memory that could be trusted after many visits to her friend – did not stir Florence’s appetite. Hot, sweet tea was all that she wanted right now, but no matter. She had had worse deprivations.
She continued her walk towards the train. Number nine was a sort of half-platform, running along the far right side of the station so that one had to walk through platform eight to get to it. As she moved along, stately but sure, like the Lusitania departing from Liverpool, she thought she recognised a figure out of the corner of her eye. It gave Florence a start. Did he know she would be at Victoria? The man was slight, angular and frayed at the edges – a wooden life raft to her ocean liner. His back was half-turned away and his hat was pulled down low so that she couldn’t be sure if he had seen her. Florence picked up the pace, her heart quickening. She spotted her porter up ahead, waiting patiently by her bags, and she calmed herself. She had only to get on the train; in less than twenty minutes she’d be on her way.
Florence caught the porter’s eye and held it as she approached him, unnerving him rather. It made her feel safer to look at him, even though he was nothing but a stripling. He scratched at his chin and nervously pulled at his cap. Something tugged in Florence’s mind at seeing his edginess. She was about to dismiss it when someone came into view, on the porter’s right: Mabel.
The boy made guttural noises. ‘Ma’am, sorry, ma’am, this lady wanted to take your luggage but I wasn’t sure . . . ’ He trailed off.
Mabel moved forwards. ‘Florence, dear. He wouldn’t take my tip.’
Florence did not reply but spoke directly to the porter. ‘That’s quite all right. You can go now. Thank you.’ She gave him a shilling with finality and he walked off, relief on his face. She turned to Mabel. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘That’s no way to greet your old friend, is it?’ said Mabel, smiling. ‘I just thought I’d help you. I know how particular you are about where to sit. And you have so much luggage, you couldn’t manage alone.’
‘I had a porter, as you can see. I can manage perfectly well.’
‘I know. But there’s no harm in accepting my help. Now, stay there, I’ll check the compartments.’
As they had been standing there the train had pulled in. With the porter dismissed, Florence stayed by her bags while Mabel opened the first of the third-class carriage doors and then the other. She soon returned.
‘You’ll have to go in here. There’s no one else, so you can sit where you like. There’s a lady in the other one and she’s sitting facing the engine. She won’t move.’
Florence was silent, her features smoothed over, as hard to read as an ancient tombstone, the etchings barely visible after centuries of rain and wind. Mabel picked up the large suitcase and the dispatch box, dark red leather with faded, pale corners, battered after years of accompanying its owner around France. Florence had already picked up her vanity bag, small and navy blue, its key in her purse. It had been a present from her aunt, bought from Asprey in Bond Street when Queen Victoria was still on the throne.
The compartment Mabel had chosen was indeed empty of another soul, and had already been swept clean of the usual passenger detritus since its last journey. Two padded benches faced each other and there was only one other door, on the opposite side. Once the train was moving, nobody else would be able to get in. Mabel put the case under the first seat on the right-hand side, facing the engine. The dispatch box she put next to the space where Florence was to sit. Florence took off her hat and put it on the box beside her.
‘Have you got anything to read?’ Mabel asked, reaching forwards to look in Florence’s handbag but was warded off with a sharp movement. ‘You’d better sit down. You haven’t got long now.’
Florence still said nothing but sat down in the seat that Mabel had appointed for her. It was in the far corner; from the platform she couldn’t be seen easily by anyone looking in. It wasn’t yet dusk but the light was dull, the sky the same dirty marble as the concourse floor. Thankfully the steam pipes would warm her up before too long. There were gas lamps in the compartments but they wouldn’t be lit until Lewes. Reading in this light was not impossible but not particularly comfortable for a woman her age – fifty-five years old as of the day before. She had decided to retire when the war ended and now, she thought, she had only her old age to look forward to.
Mabel straightened up, looking as if she was about to say something, when there was a stirring behind her, causing her to jump. The door opened and a young man, of twenty-eight or perhaps thirty years old, stepped inside. He wore a light brown suit of tweed and a hat. Florence couldn’t see an overcoat, which one might have expected on someone travelling to the coast in January, but perhaps there was one slung over his arm and she just didn’t notice it. He had no luggage, no walking stick nor even an umbrella. He sat down on the left, by the window, diagonally across from Florence, his back to the engine.
They heard the station guard’s whistle blow – the five-minute warning.
Mabel moved towards the door and the man stood up. ‘Let me,’ he said.
‘No, thank you,’ replied Mabel. ‘I can do it myself.’
She pulled the window down with the leather strap, leaned outside to turn the handle and pushed the door open. Florence remained seated and did not acknowledge her travelling companion; a newspaper lay on her lap, her reading glasses perched on her nose. Mabel stepped outside, pushed the door shut and stood on the platform looking in. It was not long before the guard blew his final whistle. The train moved off, slowly at first, then gathered momentum steadily until by the time it reached the first tunnel it was rolling down the line at full speed. That was the last time anyone saw Florence Nightingale Shore alive again.
Christmas Eve 1919
Weaving in and out of the throng along the King’s Road, her thin coat pulled tight around her neck against the sharp wind, Louisa Cannon walked with her head down, her feet light on the pavement. The outlines of the street may have faded to the encroaching darkness but the crowds were no sparser. Pairs of shoppers dawdled in front of the pretty windows, decorated with electric lights and enticing Christmas treats: coloured cardboard boxes filled with Turkish Delight, their vivid pink and green jellied cubes almost glowing through the heavy dusting of icing sugar; the pale, glazed faces of brand new porcelain dolls, legs and arms stiff in starched cotton dresses, paper-thin petticoat lace peeping out from the hems in extravagant layers.
Just behind her, the grand department store Peter Jones had put a tree in every window that faced out on to the street, red and green ribbons carefully tied on to the branches and wooden decorations hanging down from the dark green firs: miniature painted rocking-horses, spinning silver stars, golden eggs, striped candy canes. Each item a perfect facsimile of a child’s fantasy brought to luscious life now that war and rationing was over.
A man stood before the shop, his hands clasped behind his back, his face bathed in the soft light of the windows, and Louisa wondered if he was distracted enough not to notice a hand slip into his pocket and feel for a wallet. Her uncle’s parting words had gone around her mind in a loop since the morning: ‘Don’t come back without a decent lot. It’s Christmas, there’s plenty about.’ He must have been leaned on by someone else because he had been particularly bad-tempered and demanding lately.
As she got near, the man turned abruptly and stuffed his hands in his pockets. She should have minded but what she really felt was relief.
Louisa tucked her chin in further, dodging around the laced boots and patent leather shoes on the pavement. Besides her uncle, she was on her way back home to her mother, who was lying in bed, not quite ill but not quite well either – grief, hard work and hunger contrived against her lean frame. Lost in thought, Louisa felt the heat before she saw it coming from the chestnut stand, the bitter smoke hitting her empty stomach.
A few minutes later, she peeled off the hard, baking hot skin a tiny strip at a time, using her front teeth to nibble at the sweet nut beneath. Just two for herself, she promised, and she’d take the rest to Ma and hope they wouldn’t have cooled too much by the time she got back home. She leaned against the wall behind the stand, enjoying the warmth of its fire. The chestnut seller was jolly and there was a happy, festive atmosphere. Louisa felt her shoulders relax and realised she had had them hunched over for so long, she’d stopped noticing. Then she looked up and saw someone she recognised walking along the street towards her: Jennie.
Louisa shrank back and tried to hide in the shadows. She stuffed the bag of chestnuts into her pocket and pulled her collar up higher. Jennie came closer and Louisa knew she was trapped – she couldn’t walk off without revealing herself. Her breath quickened and, in a panic, she bent down and pretended to fiddle with her bootlaces.
‘Louisa?’ A hand, gloved against the winter, touched her gently at her elbow. The slim figure wore a fashionable velvet coat, loosely cut and embroidered with peacock feathers. If Louisa’s green felt coat had had the merit of flattering her narrow frame before, it merely sank into drabness now. But the voice was friendly and full of warmth. ‘Is it you?’
There was no escape. Louisa stood and tried to look surprised. ‘Oh, Jennie!’ she said. The closeness of a crime nearly committed and the arrival of her old friend made her cheeks burn with shame. ‘Hello. I didn’t realise it was you.’
‘It’s so lovely to see you,’ said the young woman. Her beauty, which had been burgeoning when Louisa last saw her, had now blossomed into something both magnificent and delicate, like a cut-glass chandelier. ‘My goodness, it must be – what? Four years? Five?’
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ said Louisa. She put her hand around the chestnuts in her pocket, absorbing their heat.
Another figure suddenly came into view, a girl two or so years younger than Louisa, with dark hair hanging down in loose curls past her shoulders, green eyes peering out beneath the brim of her hat. She was smiling, apparently enjoying this reunion between friends.
Jennie put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. ‘This is Nancy Mitford. Nancy, this is my oldest and dearest friend, Louisa Cannon.’
Nancy stuck out a gloved hand. ‘How do you do?’ she said.
Louisa shook it and had to steel herself against curtseying. She may have had a warm smile on her face but she had the posture of a young queen.
‘Nancy’s the daughter of good friends of my parents-in-law,’ Jennie explained. ‘Their nursery maid has run off and the nanny is worn out, so I thought I’d lend a hand.’
‘She ran off with the butcher’s son,’ Nancy interrupted. ‘The whole village is in uproar. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard and Farve has been spitting reworks since it happened.’ She burst into giggles and Louisa found them quite infectious.
Jennie gave Nancy a mock-stern look and continued what she was saying. ‘Yes, anyway, so we’ve been out to tea. Nancy’s never had a mince pie at Fortnum’s before – can you imagine?’
Louisa couldn’t think what to say to this, never having had one either. ‘I hope you enjoyed it,’ she said at last.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Nancy, ‘it was delicious. I’m not often allowed to eat a piece of Catholic idolatry.’ She twirled a little on her feet, whether in parody of girlish excitement or sincerely, Louisa wasn’t sure.
‘How are you? How are your parents? You look . . . ’ Jennie faltered, only slightly but just enough. ‘You look very well. Oh dear, it is cold, isn’t it? And so much to do – Christmas tomorrow!’ She gave a little nervous laugh.
‘We’re fine,’ said Louisa, shifting on her feet. ‘The usual, you know. Marching on.’
Jennie took her arm. ‘Darling, I’m running a bit late. I said I’d get Nancy back. Can you walk with us so we can talk some more? Just for a minute?’
‘Yes,’ said Louisa, giving in. ‘Of course. Would you like a chestnut? I bought them for Ma but couldn’t resist having one or two myself.’
‘You mean they’re not yours?’ said Jennie and gave her friend an exaggerated wink and a nudge in the ribs. She forced a smile out of Louisa at last, revealing her neat row of teeth and brightening her tawny eyes.
She peeled them a nut each, Jennie holding hers with the tips of her fingers before popping it into her mouth, Nancy copying her. Louisa took the moment to appraise her friend.
‘You look well. Are you?’
Jennie did not laugh again but she smiled. ‘I was married last summer to Richard Roper. He’s an architect. We’re off to New York soon because he wants to get away from Europe. Too broken by the war, he says. There’s more opportunity there. Let’s hope so, at any rate. What about you?’
‘Well, I’m not married,’ said Louisa. ‘Couldn’t do it in time to catch the vote, so I decided against it altogether.’ To her pleasure, Nancy giggled at this.
‘You tease,’ said Jennie. ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’
Louisa shrugged. The comment stung, though she knew Jennie meant nothing mean by it. ‘No, nothing much has changed: I’m still at home, Ma and me scratching about for work as ever.’
‘I’m so sorry. That is hard on you. Can I help you out a bit? Please.’ Jennie started to fish about in her bag, a delicate square hanging on a silver chain.
‘No. I mean, no thank you. We’re fine. We’re not completely alone.’
A cloud passed over Louisa’s face but she shook it off and smiled at Jennie. ‘Yes. So we’ll be fine. We are fine. Come on, let’s walk along together. Where were you going to?’
‘I’m dropping Nancy off, then meeting Richard. We’re dancing with friends at the 100 Club – have you been there? You must go. It’s all so different now and Richard is the most daring sort of man. I suppose that’s why he married me.’ She lowered her voice, deliberately conspiratorial. ‘I’m not quite like all the other wives . . . ’
‘No, it doesn’t sound as if anyone else from around our way would be in that crowd. But you always were so much more of a lady than anyone else. I remember how you insisted on a starched nightdress. Didn’t you pinch some starch from my ma’s cupboard once?’
Jennie clapped a hand over her mouth. ‘Yes! I’d forgotten all about that! I told your mother I’d work as her assistant and she laughed me right out of the room.’
‘I don’t think washerwomen have assistants,’ said Louisa, ‘though I help out often enough. Believe it or not, I’m quite good at darning these days.’
All the while, Louisa was conscious of Nancy’s green eyes watching them both, taking it all in. She wondered if she ought to be alluding to Jennie’s less-than-aristocratic background in front of her but decided that Jennie was so incapable of any form of fib that Nancy probably knew about it anyway. At any rate, Jennie didn’t seem to be showing any embarrassment.
‘Your ma’s still working, then?’ said Jennie, sympathy in her eyes. ‘What about your dad? Not still up and down those chimneys, is he?’
Louisa gave a tiny nod. She didn’t want to explain to Jennie now that he had died only a few months ago.
‘Mr Black and Mrs White we used to call them, didn’t we?’
The two young women giggled and leaned their shoulders and heads against each other for a second, back to being the schoolgirls they’d been together in pigtails and pinafores.
Overhead the stars started to pop out in the clear black sky, though they lost the competition to the street lamps. Motorcars drove noisily down the street; frequent toots on the horn could not be translated easily, sounding alike whether impatient at a slow car or a friendly beep of recognition at a pal on the pavement. Passing shoppers were bumping into them with their laden bags, irritated at the young women interrupting the steady stream of the crowd with their slow-moving island of three.
Jennie looked at her wristwatch and then sadly back at her friend. ‘I’ve got to go. But please, can we meet again? I don’t see enough of my old friends . . . ’ She trailed off. It didn’t need to be spelled out.
‘Yes,’ said Louisa, ‘I’d like that. You know where I am – the same old place. Have fun tonight. And merry Christmas! I’m happy for you. I really am.’
Jennie nodded. ‘I know you are. Thank you. Merry Christmas to you, too.’
‘Merry Christmas,’ said Nancy, with a small wave, and Louisa waved back.
With Nancy beside her, Jennie turned and started to walk along the King’s Road, men stepping out of their way as they parted the waves like Moses.
Christmas had always been a cheery pause in the winter months for Louisa, but this year, without her father there, neither she nor her mother had had the heart to carry out their own small traditions. There had been no decorations hung in the flat, no tree fetched from the market. ‘It’s only one day,’ Ma had muttered.
It was just as well, thought Louisa, that they had more or less gone on as if it were an ordinary Thursday. Her uncle, Stephen Cannon, had slept until midday and barely muttered tidings of festive cheer to his niece and her mother as they sat close to the fire – Louisa reading Jane Eyre, her mother knitting a dark green jersey – before heaving himself into the kitchen in search of beer. Stephen’s dog, Socks – a long-legged black-and-white mongrel with silky ears – lazed at Louisa’s feet, having the best time of all.
When Stephen sank into the armchair, Winnie picked up a dropped stitch and edged a little closer to the fire. ‘We’ve got a joint of pork for dinner,’ she said, her head only slightly turned towards her brother-in-law. ‘And I was given a small Christmas pudding by Mrs Shovelton.’
‘What she give you that for?’ said Stephen. ‘Bloody snobs. They’d never give you half a crown extra, would they? Be more use than a pudding.’
‘Mrs Shovelton’s been good to me. You know I had to take two weeks off when your brother . . . when Arthur . . . ’ Winnie gave a hiccup and looked down, breathing deeply, keeping panic at bay. The worry had got worse lately and not all of her mistresses were so understanding when their washing came back a day later than promised.
‘Sshh, Ma,’ said Louisa. ‘It was very nice of Mrs Shovelton to give it to us. I think I’ve got a few coins to put in it, too.’ She glared at her uncle, who shrugged back at her and took a swig of his drink.
Thankfully, after the pork and potatoes, Stephen had announced he was going for a kip in the chair. Louisa and her mother had wrung out all their Christmas spirit in one concentrated joint effort over the pudding. Louisa had put three halfpennies in and a sprig of holly on top. There was no brandy to light and they briefly wondered if a splash of beer would have the same effect but decided against.
‘Merry Christmas,’ Louisa had said over the first spoonful, held triumphantly in the air. ‘Here’s to Dad, eh?’
Winnie’s eyes had filled up but she smiled at her daughter. ‘Yes, love. Here’s to Dad.’
They’d finished off the pud, not bothering to leave any for Stephen, and cleared up together, their almost identical figures moving against each other in a well-worn pattern as Louisa washed and Winnie dried in the cramped kitchen. Stephen woke up only to grab his coat and say that he was going to the pub, slamming the door behind him and Socks, who trotted after him. Mother and daughter resumed their quiet activities and went to bed as early as they felt they could decently get away with – nine o’clock at night. Through the walls they could hear the next-door neighbours begin a rousing chorus of Good King Wenceslas and knew it would be the first of many.
Some hours later, Louisa felt Stephen shaking her shoulder as he woke her from a shallow sleep.
‘What is it?’ she whispered, not wanting to wake her ma beside her. She ran through in her mind all the people she might need to receive news about in the middle of the night but she was hard pressed to think of any. Mrs Fitch next door on the other side, who had minded their old cat when they’d gone to Weston-super-Mare for five days a few years ago? Mrs Shovelton? But if something had happened to her, couldn’t it wait till morning? All the grandparents were long dead – Louisa had been ‘a lovely surprise’ to her parents, forty and forty-six years old when she was born. But Stephen put his fingers to his lips, slightly off-centre, and gripped her shoulder firmly, pulling her out of bed.
‘All right! All right, I’m coming,’ she said in a loud whisper, rubbing her face to wake herself up. Ma turned on her side, a rasping sigh as she breathed out. ‘Keep your hair on.’ She walked into the kitchen, where Stephen was waiting for her. ‘What?’
‘There’s a man in the front room,’ said Stephen. ‘He wants to see you. He’s letting me off a small debt for the pleasure. So make sure you give it to him.’ His blank face gave way to a smirk at his own joke.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You will when you get in the next room. Get.’ He shooed at her like a stray dog that was bothering him for scraps.
‘No,’ said Louisa. She’d grasped his meaning. ‘No. I’ll tell Ma.’
In a single, violent movement his large, at hand smacked her straight across the cheek and Louisa almost slipped to the floor in her bare feet. Her dressing gown was not quite tied around her cotton nightdress as she tried to straighten up, her hand out, groping for the kitchen table, when she was hit by a second slap, the back of his hand this time, on the same cheek. She felt it burn; an ache in her jaw started to throb. There were no tears, her eyes were dry, her throat drier.
‘Your mother doesn’t need to know. She’s got enough to worry about, ain’t she? Now, for the last time – get in there.’
Louisa looked at her uncle for a long, cold moment. He stared back and thrust his chin at the door. This ... she thought. It’s come to this.
Stephen had been the only one to notice her change from being a child. Once or twice he’d told her she ‘wasn’t just a pretty face’ and she’d accepted the faint praise with pleasure. Now she understood.
She pulled her hand away from her cheek and wrapped her dressing gown tighter around her, retying the knot firmly. Then she turned around and walked into the next room, closing the door behind her softly, so as not to wake her mother.
Standing by the replace, the embers long gone out, was a man she recognised from the pub down the street when she’d gone to fetch Stephen home for dinner: Liam Mahoney. Her throat closed.
His eyes were narrowed slits, his mouth set in determination. She stayed by the door, her hand on the knob. She thought: So long as I’m holding on to this, I’ll be all right.
In the near-blackness it seemed as if every other sense was heightened. She could smell the ale on his breath, the sweat that seeped out of every pore; it even seemed as if she could smell the very dirt beneath his fingernails. There was a shuffling sound behind the door: Stephen, bending his ear down to listen.
‘Come over here, girl,’ said Liam, and his hand moved to his belt buckle, the brass gleaming in the half-light.
Louisa didn’t move.
‘Not a very well brought-up young lady, are you?’ he said.
Louisa’s knuckles turned white.
His tone softened. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of. I just want to take a look. Your face could be your fortune, you know that?’ He chuckled as he came towards her and reached out a hand. Louisa flinched and crossed her arms.
‘You’re not looking at anything,’ she said. ‘Whatever it is you want, I’m not giving it to you. Touch me and I’ll scream.’
The man barked a laugh. ‘Shush. There’s no need for all that. Look, the thing is . . . ’ He lowered his voice and bent his head to talk directly into her ear. She smelled the alcohol and the sweat again, and closed her eyes. ‘The thing is, your uncle owes me money. All you have to do is one small job and I’ll forget it. You come down to Hastings with me and I’ll have you back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Nobody around here need know.’
Louisa was still standing close to the door. She thought she heard Stephen – a stifled noise. She pictured his fist in his mouth.
With one hand Liam pushed her back against the wall. Fear set in then. Her hands flew up and she tried to pull him off but he was stronger, catching them in one hand, then sliding his other hand down her side, feeling her curve at the waist, her hip bone. Louisa went still. She looked past his head at the window opposite, where the curtains were drawn but no longer met in the middle, shrunken by the years. Through the gap, a lamp glowed yellow, flickering gently. The road was empty. She stared at the pavement, the tufts of grass that grew between the cracks. She tried to go inside the cracks, to crouch in the darkness there. She’d been there before, where she was safest.
Then there was a sound from the stairs – Ma calling.
Abruptly, Liam pulled away and she slumped, taking deep breaths. Stepping back, he did up his jacket buttons and pulled up his collar. ‘Just a night in Hastings,’ he said. ‘It isn’t a lot to ask.’
She wasn’t aware of much after that, just him in the hallway and murmuring voices. Then Stephen’s footsteps, heavy and erratic up the short staircase. At last, silence.
Mechanically, she put herself in motion, going to the kitchen, boiling water in the kettle and carefully making tea. She warmed the pot, poured milk into a jug and took out a porcelain cup and saucer from the back of the cupboard. Her father had bought the blue-and-white china set for her mother just before she was born. That made the cup and saucer older than she was – nineteen years old at least, and they looked less chipped and cracked than she felt.
It was only as she sat at the table, the cup of tea poured out before her, that she allowed herself to cry, but not for long. She wiped her face with the flat of her hands and shook her head. The time had come to do something. With a start, she remembered Nancy Mitford saying that the nursery maid had run away. There was a chance they could still be looking for someone. Jennie would know. From a drawer in the kitchen Louisa found some paper and a pencil, and then began to write the letter she hoped would change everything.
12 January 1920
When Louisa and her mother emerged from the back door of Mrs Shovelton’s white painted house in Drayton Gardens, their concentration was on their heavy loads. Louisa, wanting to spare her mother any more burden than she absolutely had to bear, had squashed in almost half as much again in her own basket.
Jennie had replied to Louisa’s letter and told her to write to the Mitfords’ housekeeper, Mrs Windsor. And darling, she had added, I think you’d better mention any work you’ve done with children, if you have it. There are six in their nursery. That had been almost two weeks ago. With no word from Mrs Windsor and no nearer to another solution to getting rid of her uncle, there was more weighing on her mind than a laundry basket. The biting wind made them dip their heads and the glare of the metallic winter sunshine, still low in the sky, burned their necks as they walked steadily to get the day’s work back home.
Over the road, Louisa spotted her uncle Stephen in his pork pie hat, leaning against a lamppost and smoking a cigarette. He threw it down when he realised they were about to walk past him. Socks was there, too, obediently sitting on his haunches by Stephen’s feet. He moved to go to Louisa but was stilled by a short whistle from his master. Stephen gave him a titbit from his pocket and patted his silky head. Then he fixed a smile on to his face that radiated absolutely nothing at all. Louisa saw all this but kept close to her mother, looking fixedly ahead to where the main road lay, with its people and cars. Witnesses.
‘Oi, oi,’ he shouted after them. ‘Aren’t you going to say hello, then?’
Louisa’s mother turned around to look at him. She squinted at him in puzzlement. ‘Stephen? It’s not payday, today,’ she said.
‘So why are you here, then?’
‘Can’t a man come and say hello to his dear old sister-in-law and lovely niece?’ said Stephen. He moved towards them, his face empty, Socks padding behind him. Louisa felt something pass through her and wondered, briefly, if she might faint.
‘I thought I’d come and give you a helping hand,’ he said as he took Louisa’s basket. She resisted for just the smallest moment but he tugged it easily out of her hands. He turned back to Winnie, his mouth turned up at the corners, no teeth showing this time. ‘Help you get back to the at nice and quick.’
Winnie looked at him blankly, said nothing and continued to walk in the direction she was going in, towards her home and against the easterly wind. Stephen stood back on the pavement, as if to let her pass like Sir Walter Raleigh throwing his cloak down for Elizabeth I. Louisa watched her mother’s weak back and rounded shoulders hunch her basket up an inch and started to go after her. She didn’t see her uncle put the basket down on the pavement behind her before his hand shot out and grabbed her at the elbow.
In a low voice he said, ‘I don’t think so, do you?’
In that moment, Winnie turned the corner and lost them both to the noise of the traffic and loud clip-clop of a carthorse. Louisa knew her mother wouldn’t look back.
Stephen said, ‘I know what you’ve been up to.’
‘I haven’t been up to anything. Let me go.’ Louisa pulled her arm but Stephen’s grip got tighter. He started to walk them both away from the main road.
‘You can’t leave the washing there!’ said Louisa. ‘They’ll charge Ma for it and we’ll get no pay. If you must take me with you, at least let me take it back to them first.’
Stephen considered this for a moment then shook his head. ‘They’ll nd it. We’re barely ten yards from the front door,’ he said. But, in looking at the basket sitting in the middle of the pavement, he had loosened his grip.
Louisa slipped her arm out and started to run, back towards the house. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was going to do when she got there – she didn’t think she’d have the nerve to knock on the front door. Mrs Shovelton’s butler probably wouldn’t even recognise her as the washerwoman’s daughter, even though she’d been collecting the linens with her mother for six years. Even if he did recognise her, he would be so outraged at her appearance and at her standing on the front steps – so clearly a servant and not a visitor of the family – he was likely to slam the door in her face.
Dismissing the idea as fast as it had come, Louisa ran past, moving ever further away from her mother, towards a cobbled mews street where she might lose her uncle to the shadows, if not to a lack of sure footing on the slippery round stones.
But her hesitation at the house’s steps was fatal and this time Stephen caught both her wrists and held them behind her back. Her face twisted in pain, and she buckled her elbows and knees, trying to pull herself away. Stephen gripped her small wrists together, both easily held in just one of his large hands, the other grabbing a handful of her hair and the back of her neck. She caught a glimpse of the dark yellow nicotine stains on his fingernails and her stomach turned.
‘I wouldn’t try that, if I was you,’ he sneered. ‘You’re coming with me.’
Louisa gave up trying to fight him. He was bigger and nastier than she was; she wasn’t going to win. He felt her submit beneath his grip and relaxed his hold on her neck, though he kept her arms behind her back. A woman walking smartly on the other side of the street, heels clipping like a dressage pony, gave them a quick glance but carried on.
‘Good girl,’ said Stephen, soothingly. ‘If only you listened to me more, we wouldn’t have to have all this trouble.’
As if he were a policeman and she a criminal, he marched Louisa down to the end of the mews and out on to the Fulham Road, where he hailed a taxi. If the driver was at all concerned to see a man in workman’s boots and a patched-up woollen coat forcing a young woman in a plain outfit and cheap hat into his cab, together with a dog, he didn’t show it.
‘Victoria station,’ said Stephen to the driver. ‘And look sharp about it.’
12 January 1920
Guy Sullivan’s long frame was bent nearly double with laughter, his hat was threatening to fall off and he could feel the seam of his jacket stretched to bursting point. ‘Harry, stop! I can’t take any more.’
Harry Conlon looked as if he was considering whether to stop or continue this delicious torment of his friend. They had stolen a quick tea break in the stationmaster’s office at Lewes, where they had been sent down to investigate a missing pocket watch. The stationmaster, Mr Marchant, was well known for summoning the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Police for non-existent crimes on an almost weekly basis.
‘Nonetheless, lads,’ Superintendent Jarvis had solemnly reminded them, ‘that doesn’t mean that this time he’s not in the right. Never assume – not if you want to make decent policemen. Remember the turkey who believes the sight of the farmer’s wife each morning means he’s going to get his feed, only to find he was wrong—’
‘On Christmas Eve. Yes, sir,’ Harry had interrupted.
‘Er, yes. Quite right. On Christmas Eve. Well done, Conlon,’ Jarvis had grumbled, clearing his throat. ‘What are you standing around for, then?’
Harry and Guy had speedily exited the Super’s office, a narrow room that barely contained its occupant’s leather-topped desk and wooden chair but nevertheless had the atmosphere of Court One at the Old Bailey to anyone summoned within its smoke-stained walls. The office led directly on to platform twelve at Victoria station.
‘What did you do to put the boss in such a good mood with us, Harry?’ asked Guy.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he replied, smirking.
‘Yes, you do. Bob and Lance usually get this one. It’s not an investigation so much as a nice day out. I was all ready for another morning resetting the signal box.’
‘Don’t get too excited. It’s a bloody freezing day in January, not exactly an outing by the sea in June,’ laughed Harry. ‘But I may have made sure the Super had a nice box of his favourite cigars at Christmas . . . ’
As new recruits, Harry and Guy had been paired together when in training for the railway police force four years before. They were not an obvious choice for a partnership at first sight: Harry had apparently stopped growing when he was twelve years old yet had the kind of blond good looks that might have passed for a matinée idol in a dim nightclub. Indeed, he had tried that trick quite a few times, with occasional success. Guy was tall – ‘Lanky,’ said his mother – with high cheekbones, a flop of pale brown hair and a gap between his teeth. Thick, round specs were always slipping down the bridge of his nose. Yet they had each responded to the other’s easy humour and forged their friendship as two men who had been excluded from the war – Harry because of his asthma, Guy because of his extreme shortsightedness.
The morning he had returned home without his orders but a letter of exemption instead flashed into Guy’s mind with disarming regularity. In 1916, one brother was already dead, killed at the start of the war in the Battle of Mons. Two more brothers were in France, deep in the trenches, their stoic letters home betrayed by shaky handwriting. His father worked long shifts at the factory and his mother had turned into a colourless wisp of a woman, slipping into the shadows of her own home, hardly making a sound, let alone talking. Guy had stuttered at the eye test; desperate not to fail, he guessed at the answers but the letters had jumped and blurred before him, and he had known it was hopeless. Walking back to number eight Tooley Street where his mother waited for him, the rain had poured, water trickling down the back of his shirt, soaking him to the skin. It wasn’t enough when he wanted physical pain, something – anything – to let him stand alongside his brothers and their courage. Standing before the front door and trying to find strength to push it open, he was cloaked in humiliation. Even the tears of his mother, sobbing with relief into his chest, were not enough to stop him wishing he could pack up and go to war.
Signing up to the LB&SCR Police had given him purpose, a spring in his step, even if it hadn’t done away with the smirks altogether. When Mrs Curtis from number ten had congratulated him on passing his policeman’s training, she had not been able to stop herself from remarking, ‘The railway police – not proper police, is it?’ Last year, his three brothers had returned home – Bertie, the youngest, having joined up six months before the end – and all had taken up work as bricklayers and hod-carriers. Guy had been happy to see them all safely back and thought his smart uniform and policeman’s helmet would earn him a smidgen of respect from his siblings, but when he had been forced to admit that some of his duties included watering the hanging baskets at the station and resetting the signals, the ridicule had started again and never stopped.
When Guy and Harry walked into Mr Marchant’s office that morning, they found the stationmaster pacing around with a pocket watch in his hand. ‘Ah, there you are!’ he said, his squirrel face twisted with concern. ‘You’re just too late again. I opened my desk drawer five minutes ago to find the pocket watch inside.’
Harry threatened to burst out laughing and Guy gave him as stern a look as he could manage through his thick lenses.
‘I see, sir,’ said Guy. ‘Do you think it was replaced when the thief heard you had reported it stolen?’
Mr Marchant stopped pacing and stood absolutely stock-still, looking at Guy as if he had told him the meaning of life. ‘Do you know, I do! I think that’s exactly what happened.’
Harry had to pretend to busy himself with finding his notebook, hiding his face and doing his best to muffle snorts that were threatening to escape. Guy managed to carry on as he took notes from Mr Marchant and nodded as seriously as he could, but when the telephone rang he finally allowed himself to catch Harry’s eye and smile.
‘Sorry, lads,’ said Mr Marchant, ‘there’s a delay on the train from Bexhill. I’ve got to go and deal with it. Help yourselves to a cup of tea.’
No sooner was the door shut behind him than Guy and Harry exploded. ‘Is he completely off his rocker?’ said Harry. ‘A war medal, a five-pound note, a fountain pen and now a pocket watch all mysteriously found in his desk drawer hours after he’s reported them stolen?’
‘Please, don’t,’ said Guy, doubled over, eyes squeezed shut. ‘My stomach hurts.’
Harry drew himself up and started to contort his face like the stationmaster’s. ‘Is that the police?’ he began, as if booming down a telephone, ‘I’ve got a very, very serious crime to report . . . ’
Which is how it happened that neither of them heard the door of the office fly open.
12 January 1920
In the taxi, Stephen held Louisa by her wrist, her arm twisted behind her back, though not as firmly as before. When the motorcar slowed down at a crossroads, she thought about trying to leap out but was intimidated by the general cacophony of the streets. Trams shuttled up and down their metal rails, sparks flying from the wires overhead; buses leaned slightly as they rounded corners, the Pears Soap poster beneath two or three cold passengers on the open-top upper deck. Boys, who should be at school, marched up and down the pavements with sandwich boards proclaiming the news: LLOYD GEORGE RAISES TAXES AGAIN and BABY LEFT ON CHURCH STEP. A pre-war relic – the horse and cart – stood like a statue at the side of the road, a fresh heap of manure the only testament to the animal’s life force. Young men and middle-aged spinsters wobbling on bicycles would suddenly appear at the side of the cab, occasionally glancing in through the window to see a grim-faced man, his face set straight ahead, hat pulled low over his forehead, an unsmiling woman beside him.
Louisa’s heart was hammering fast in her chest. Socks lay on the floor of the cab looking relaxed but his ears were pulled back.
Her uncle was a man she knew too well not to worry about where he was taking her. Louisa’s father had been the youngest of six children and Stephen had been the black sheep, leaving home as soon as he could, resurfacing only when there was a funeral. ‘And not because he’s paying no respects, neither,’ her father had said. ‘Only because he thinks there might be a payout from the will, or at least the chance of palming an aunt out of a few coins.’
During the years of her childhood, Stephen had come several times, always outstaying his welcome, both her parents too weak and unwilling to ask him to leave. Besides, they were working all the hours they could and when Stephen offered to walk Louisa to school in the morning, they took it as a favour earned. They never found out that he took her to railway stations instead, teaching her ‘from the school of life’, as he put it, picking pockets from the rich – or at least anyone with a decent-looking coat. She certainly learned lessons but none that she told Ma about. Stephen kept her quiet with a supply of barley sugars and the oily sensation of guilt. Her parents had enough to worry about, didn’t they? Bitterly, she remembered that often she had been pleased with his attention when she’d got so little at home. She didn’t like doing what it took to make him smile at her but she’d do it anyway. Sometimes he’d give her a shilling – ‘A share of the profits,’ he’d say with a smirk – and she started to save the coins in a jar hidden beneath her bed. One day she’d have enough to leave home, she’d thought.
So it hadn’t been entirely surprising when Stephen had shown up at her father’s funeral and come to the small wake afterwards at the Cross Keys pub. Socks was with him this time, a young but already well-trained dog, and Stephen had won Louisa’s sympathy when he told her he was just like the dog he’d had when he was a boy. She knew the story, having been told it often, usually after Stephen had had a few too many and was feeling morose. As a child, he’d found a stray on the streets and taken it home, and though the whole family had taken to the dog, it was only Stephen that it followed around, sleeping by his side every night, keeping him warm as he lay on the floor of the bedroom that was shared by all six children. When his father kicked it out of the house for stealing the precious leftovers of a stew, Stephen’s heart had broken. Socks was just like that dog, Stephen said, and they would both smile at the mutt, tail thumping on the pub floor.
Winnie had been distraught after the funeral, and when Stephen offered to help take her back to the flat, Louisa had forgotten to be on her guard and was grateful for the extra pair of arms. It had been late and ale had been drunk, so it would have been churlish not to give him her bed for the night – she could easily share with her mother, she’d said.
As usual, over the next few days, the right moment or the right words couldn’t be found to ask Stephen to leave. Winnie and Louisa avoided talking about it to each other, as if to discuss it out loud would make his presence in their at too much of an uncomfortable reality. Stephen never gave them any money, but sometimes he would bring back to the flat something he’d bought, or possibly won, off someone at the pub – a cut of beef or some mutton – so they couldn’t complain that he hadn’t contributed anything to the meagre suppers Winnie cooked. He always cut a chunk off for Socks before he ate any himself. Stephen never made any mention of where he had come from the day of the funeral or what he had been doing before he’d turned up – it had been two or three years since he’d last been around – and they knew better than to ask.
Over the weeks, they’d learned to tolerate his presence and adjusted to it in the way one adjusts to a pain in the knee: at first it niggles every time you move, and then you start to forget it’s even there. Apart from the fact that he had taken over Louisa’s room and came home drunk most nights, the sum contribution of his personality to their domestic life was largely made up of surly grunts and a deeper imprint in the armchair where Arthur used to sit and Stephen now slept off the worst of his hangovers after lunch, Socks at his feet.
In the cab, Louisa thought about her mother – she’d be wondering what had happened. At the same time, she knew Winnie wouldn’t be doing much about it. She had the laundry to get done and she’d be more worried about the missing basket. Perhaps she would return to Mrs Shovelton’s to see if it was there. More likely she’d return the washing she did have and meekly accept the loss of the job, apologising for their carelessness as she backed out the door, despite the many years of laundry where not so much as a single handkerchief had ever gone astray. Louisa loved her mother but sometimes she resembled nothing more than one of the pillowcases she so faithfully washed and pressed: clean, white, smelling of Lux flakes and existing only to provide comfort for others.
As the facts stood, nobody knew that Louisa was in a taxi heading for Victoria station with her uncle. The trains from Victoria went south, she knew that much. Her stomach lurched, empty as it was. She looked sideways at Stephen but his face remained stony.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked, in a voice firmer than she felt.
‘Never you mind,’ said Stephen. ‘You’ll find out soon enough.’
‘At least let go of my arm – it hurts.’
‘And let you jump out?’ As if to make the point, he jerked on her wrist again, sending a shot of pain up to her shoulder.
‘We’re here now, anyway,’ he said as the taxi juddered to a stop at the station’s entrance, opening the door with one hand and still holding on to Louisa with the other. She was dragged out and stood beside him as he dug in his pockets for change to pay the taxi. He leaned in through the window, handed the money over and pulled Louisa away as the car drove off.
‘That’s three and six you owe me now,’ he said to his niece. It was almost a skill how someone like him could persuade himself that nothing he spent was for him but was always owed back – as if he was a saint who did only favours for others. Once, she’d been shown a negative for a photograph and marvelled at the perfect inversion of light and shadow in the image beneath the glass; Stephen was exactly like that.
This reminder of her uncle’s absurdity took her fear away. There was no reasoning with an unreasonable man. She wasn’t going to be able to talk her way out of this and she hadn’t the physical strength to cut free of his grasp. She had better go along with it for now and keep alert to the first chance she spotted to outwit him. He wasn’t very clever so it surely wouldn’t take long.
‘Uncle,’ she said, and he turned to look at her without breaking their pace. ‘At least could you hold on to my other arm? This one is starting to hurt.’
Stephen paused, trying to work out if this was one of her tricks. He grunted assent and swapped his hands around, holding her other arm and moving to her right side without ever letting go of her completely. Louisa shook her left arm out, feeling sensation return to her fingers as the blood owed freely again. As he moved to her other side, she noticed a piece of paper sticking out of his coat pocket. She couldn’t see much, just a corner, but it was the creamy colour and thick texture that she noticed. An envelope. Stephen wasn’t a man to receive letters; certainly not ones of quality. She moved her head back up before he could realise that she’d seen it. She knew, she absolutely knew what it was, and she had to get hold of it.
All around them were the usual busy travellers of a main thoroughfare station. First-class and third-class passengers alike moved in and out of the grand entrance, like bees around a hive: country naïfs arriving to seek work in the city where the streets were paved with gold – or so they hoped; top-hatted men off to inspect factories in the north, and bowler-hatted men following in their wake, leather briefcases swinging against their matchstick legs.
At any other time, she would have enjoyed the scene: the flower stalls, the newspaper stands, the porters wheeling stacks of luggage. How much had she longed to be one of those people? Buying a ticket and confidently boarding a train that would take her across the country, speeding through fields and valleys to arrive somewhere no one knew her and anything was possible.
Instead, she was jerked roughly by her uncle as he bought two tickets – ‘One-way, third-class’ – to Hastings. She vaguely heard the ticket officer go on to say that there was a short platform at Lewes, the first stop, where the train divided.
‘Hastings?’ said Louisa as they walked away. Liam Mahoney rang in her head.
‘I’ve got friends we’ll be staying with for a while. Now shut up.’
Louisa went quiet, she needed to focus on the letter that she had to get from Stephen’s pocket. If that letter was offering her an interview for the nursery maid’s job, that was her lifeline. She had to grab it.
She kept silent while he manoeuvred her to platform nine, where there was a train already waiting. Stephen chose a rear compartment, with just one other passenger – an old woman who quietly wept into her handkerchief and barely seemed to notice them. With a whistle, a hiss and a jolt, the train set off and only then did Stephen relax his hold on his niece. They sat beside each other, Louisa bolt upright and stiff, telling herself not to glance at Stephen’s pocket. Her uncle pulled his hat down lower, folded his arms and stared out of the window.
As the train steamed along, Louisa looked out at the disappearing London skyline, the grey net curtains in the windows and the blackened bricks of the houses south of the river. It wasn’t long before they gave way to Sussex’s flat fields of stubbly brown earth, neatly divided from the pale sky by even lines of hedges. Farmhouses were dotted both near and far from the train line, sometimes allowing passengers a close up of milk churns by a barn door waiting to be loaded on a cart, at others revealing only a smudge of chimney smoke. Emerging from the first tunnel, Louisa couldn’t help but admire the sight of a group of brown and white cows lying together in the corner of a field with a single bull standing before them, like a lazy parliament and its prime minister. There were two more tunnels, each pitching the train into near darkness, making the sound of the train wheels oppressively loud in Louisa’s ears.
Now, thought Louisa. Take the letter now.
Her left hand lifted slowly and with her fingertips she faintly felt the thick wool of Stephen’s coat. She traced upwards to the edge of his pocket, her elbow pressed against her waist, her heart beating so hard she felt sick. But just as her forefinger and thumb came together to pinch the corner, the compartment was thrown into light again and she jerked her hand down.
Stephen felt the movement and looked at her sharply, but she settled her face in repose, staring ahead. Patting his pockets as if looking for something, she saw him stealthily check the letter was there before he pulled out his tobacco pouch and started to roll a cigarette. Soon grey clouds of smoke filled the compartment. The old lady gave a small cough but did not interrupt the rhythm of her weeping. When Stephen was almost down to the stub, the red glow threatening to burn the tip of his thumbnail, Louisa became aware that the train had started to decelerate. As the wheels turned more slowly, her heart drove a faster beat, reverberating in her chest until she could feel it pulsing in her throat. The train stopped and Louisa stood up suddenly.
‘Really, Uncle,’ she said, all sunshine and smiles, ‘you’re being very rude. This poor lady can hardly breathe.’
The old lady looked at Louisa. Stephen reached up an arm but Louisa pretended not to notice and opened the window, smiling at her fellow female passenger as if in mutual sympathy. She could feel the bangs of doors opening and closing further down the train as various passengers got off and on, then the platform guard called out the name of the station – Lewes. Louisa pushed the window as far down as it would go and, turning sideways, slipped her right arm outside to grab the handle.
‘Siddown!’ said Stephen, standing, as she knew he would, and stepping towards her as he flung his cigarette to the floor. Socks leapt up. Louisa heard the guard’s whistle blow, long and loud. The train gave a whistle in reply and she felt the bump as the wheels started slowly up again.
There was no time to think. Louisa took the letter from her uncle’s pocket as he came near, just as he’d taught her, then pushed open the door and jumped down on to the tracks, rolling away as the train built up speed, the train door flapping and her uncle standing at the gaping doorway, his face crumpled with fury, his mouth opening and closing meaninglessly as the hiss of steam drowned him out.