Authors: Andrew Taylor
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Historical, #General
plays Philippa Penhow like a fish. He knows just what to say, and how, and when. But the fish makes it easy for him. The fish wants to be caught.
Wednesday, 29 January 1930
Major Serridge called again this morning--he wanted my advice about the choice of wallpaper for his room. "It needs a lady's eye," he told me. He added that of course it had to be an artistic lady! I offered to pay for it, but he was quite obstinate--he didn't want to put me out, it was for his benefit, etc., and he insists on bearing the whole cost himself.
He wasn't able to stay long. When I went with him to the door, there was a beggar outside with a poor, half-starved mongrel, and the Major said he would go after the man and make sure he gave the dog something to eat. How typical of his warm heart! I told him about Aunt's dog Susie, and he told me about a dog he had when he was a little lad.
Then he said, "Long before you were born, I'll be bound!"
That afternoon there were Fascists on the streets. In twos and threes, they patrolled Holborn and Clerkenwell, handing out leaflets and selling copies of the
. They were very smart, like athletic chauffeurs, and attracted a good deal of interest from young women and even from St. Tumwulf's schoolgirls. Some were young, little more than boys, but others looked as if they might have fought in the war. All of them were very polite. Lydia found it hard to distinguish one from the other. One noticed the uniforms, not the faces, just as one did with members of the Salvation Army.
Marcus had been interested in the movement since Mosley had founded the New Party, the predecessor of the British Union of Fascists, in 1931. It wouldn't have been difficult for Sir Rex Fisher to recruit him. Fisher wasn't just a party member--he was said to be one of the Leader's closest advisers, and a personal friend. He was also a war hero, with a Military Cross or something, which must give him additional glamour in Marcus's eyes. Marcus was almost grovellingly keen to impress people who had had a good war because he himself had done nothing much except step into the shoes of his dead brother.
A hint of fog hung in the air and it caught the back of the throat, the promise of worse to come. But even the weather failed to dent the enthusiasm of the Blackshirts, though some of them were pink-nosed and peaky in the cold. On her way back to the flat, Lydia accepted a pamphlet advertising a meeting to discuss "Fascism and Empire" to stop them pestering her.
She loitered outside the window of a Lyon's Corner House. Two shopgirls came out, and with them came a waft of warm, sweet and smoky air. A cup of tea would be a penny. Two buns would cost another penny. She could afford it easily at present, but she forced herself to turn away and walk back to the flat. A cup of tea and a slice of toast at the flat would cost even less. She must learn to be economical. She no longer had money for luxuries. She had nothing more than she had received from Mr. Goldman that morning, together with two more pieces of jewelry and a Post Office savings book containing seventeen pounds and a few odd pence.
In Bleeding Heart Square, Lydia found her father in front of the sitting-room gas fire with an unlit pipe clenched between his teeth. "That husband of yours. I happened to be in the Crozier at lunchtime, and he looked in to have a word."
Lydia felt weary, cold and footsore. She sat down opposite her father.
"He says there was a misunderstanding and you rushed off. Bit impulsive, wasn't it? Throw away a whole marriage for that?"
"Marcus had just knocked me over, which may have had something to do with it."
Ingleby-Lewis looked away from her. "He didn't mention that. I--ah--I'm sure he regrets it."
"So do I."
Her father peered into the bowl of his pipe as though hoping against hope to find a marriage counselor inside. "Ah. Still. Hmm. All the same, you must keep it in proportion, my dear. We men are rough brutes occasionally, you know, and we can lose our tempers. Regrettable, of course, but there it is."
"Is that what you did to Mother?" Lydia said, finding comfort in a vicarious anger against the only male available. "Hit her? Is that why you had to leave her?"
Ingleby-Lewis turned the pipe round and round in his hands. "No. I'm not proud of my record in that department but not that. No, the long and the short of it was, we weren't getting along very well. But that's nothing to do with this. Point is, you've got a perfectly decent husband and a very comfortable home of your own. I'm sorry about the--ah--unpleasantness, but these things do happen, you know."
Only if you let them, Lydia thought.
"You take my advice: go back to Marcus, and the next thing you know you'll have a baby on the way."
"But I'm not sure I want a baby. And certainly not with him."
Lydia picked up her hat, turned and left the room. She went into her bedroom. She removed her shoes and climbed into bed fully clothed. She lay there, staring at the ceiling. She shivered.
Somebody came into the house. There were footsteps on the stairs. Her father had a visitor. She heard men's voices, rising and falling, one of them much deeper than her father's.
She couldn't stay in bed all day. It was a coward's way out. In a moment, she would get up and go back to the sitting room.
Her fingers played with the hem of the sheet, feeling its chilly roughness on her skin. It was made of old linen, she thought at the same time in a remote part of her mind, quite good quality, though much worn. She registered the fact that there were unexpected ridges of stitching underneath her fingertips and automatically glanced down to see what they were.
Exactly what one would expect: a laundry mark. Crazy capitals in faded red thread. Suddenly the letters assembled themselves into a name.
Mr. Serridge was a big, broad man with sloping shoulders, a tangled beard and a deep voice that was almost a growl. He looked ten years younger than Captain Ingleby-Lewis and was probably about the same age. He was also three inches taller. His hand enveloped Lydia's.
"Hello, Mrs. Langstone." He stared down at her. "Pleased to meet you. You don't look much like your dad, do you?" He smiled. "Take after your mother, I suppose. Ha! I bet you're glad about that."
"My daughter's staying here for a few days," Ingleby-Lewis said warily. "In the little room next to mine. That's all right, isn't it?"
Serridge was still staring at her, making no effort to disguise his curiosity. His manners were offensive, Lydia thought, but it was clearly pointless to take offense. Serridge seemed not to care what anyone thought of him. He was carelessly dressed and his dark hair, streaked with gray, needed cutting. He must have been handsome once, but time and hard living had taken their toll.
"Your father tells me you've left your husband, Mrs. Langstone."
She nodded, knowing her color was rising.
"None of my business, but you've never been to see the Captain before, have you?"
Lydia raised her face. "You are perfectly right on both counts, Mr. Serridge. He ran away from his family responsibilities when I was two years old."
He grinned at her, and sucked his teeth. For the first time she felt the man's charm sweeping out from him, an invisible fog to cloud the emotions. Beneath the charm was an unsettling hint of calculation.
"I'm sure she'll only be here for a day or two," Ingleby-Lewis said. "Not a problem, is it?"
Serridge frowned and glanced at Lydia. "As far as I'm concerned, she can stay for as long as she likes."
"What?" Ingleby-Lewis said. "Eh?"
"You heard, William." He grinned at Lydia again. "The place could do with a woman's touch. Do you think you could make me a cup of tea, Mrs. Langstone?"
Lydia said warily that she would see what she could do. As she was crossing the landing, she heard the doorbell. In the kitchen, she filled the kettle and put it on the gas ring. Mrs. Renton was talking below, and a man was replying. Lydia recognized Mr. Wentwood's voice. Through the open door of the kitchen she glimpsed his tall, bony figure coming up the stairs. He gave her a smile and a wave.
Mr. Serridge came out onto the landing. He had a small, pink bald patch on the back of his head, and he was so large that he blocked her view of Mr. Wentwood entirely.
. How odd to think that a man who could live anywhere in the world would want to live in Bleeding Heart Square.
The attic flat cost twenty-five shillings a week, unfurnished, and for an extra five shillings Mr. Serridge agreed to bring up some furniture from the cellar. All the necessities would be there, he assured Mr. Wentwood. Shared kitchen, shared bathroom on the floor below, both with water heater. The electricity had recently been installed, at considerable expense. That was metered, naturally, as was the gas supply.
"I was rather hoping I could move in within a day or two," Mr. Wentwood said as they came down the stairs to the first floor and paused on the landing. "I'm out in Kentish Town and it's not very convenient."
"Convenient for what?" Mr. Serridge said.
"Looking for jobs."
"Oh--so you're out of work, are you?"
"I'm just back from India," Mr. Wentwood said. "I've a number of irons in the fire."
"But no regular income, eh?"
"Not at present. But I do have savings. There won't be a problem."
"There'd better not be, Mr. Wentwood. I tell you what. You pay me a month's rent in advance as a returnable deposit, and you can move in on Monday. I'll need references, naturally. All right?"
"Absolutely, Mr. Serridge."
"Rent day is Saturday."
"I'll write you a check now, shall I?"
"I'd prefer cash, if you have it. You know where you are with cash, I always say."
Mr. Wentwood looked embarrassed. "Of course." He took out his wallet.
"Four weeks at twenty-five bob a week," Serridge said cheerfully. "A five-pound note will do nicely." He turned to Lydia, who was assembling cups and saucers in the kitchen. "And now, Mrs. Langstone. All the talking's made me parched. What about that tea?"
The speaker addressed his audience as comrades. His name was Julian Dawlish, and he wore very wide flannel bags, a gray pullover and muddy brown shoes. Horn-rimmed glasses gave the only touch of stern angularity to a round, smooth-skinned face.
The international situation was very bad indeed, he told them in a high-pitched, well-bred voice, because of Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini, who were now revealing themselves in their true colors. Even in England's green and pleasant land, Fascism was on the march, grinding the poor and the vulnerable beneath its jackboots. But all was not lost. There were gleams of hope in Spain and a positive beacon of light in Russia. If the workers of the world united, there was nothing they could not achieve.
Mr. Dawlish's talk was followed by questions from the floor which had a habit of turning into lengthy statements. The meeting trailed away a little after nine o'clock. Afterward, tea, orange squash and stale biscuits were served. The audience stood about smoking, chatting and relishing the fact that they were no longer sitting on chairs designed for children.
"Shall we go?" Rory said. "I'm dead beat."
"All right." Fenella glanced toward the knot of people around the speaker. "I was going to ask the time of the next meeting, but they'll put up a notice."
They joined the trickle of comrades slipping out of the church hall. In Albion Lane, the pavements shone with rain.
She took his arm. "It was interesting, wasn't it?"
"It was a lot of hot air. I don't believe that chap's done a day's work in his life. Silly ass."
"I think what Mr. Dawlish says makes a lot of sense. He can't help his background. In a way that makes what he does for the cause all the better."
"You know him, do you?"
"I've met him once or twice."
"How old is he?"
"I don't know. Early thirties? Why?"
He grunted. "Old enough to know better."
They walked in silence.
"You're angry with me, aren't you?" she said after a moment. "About not being engaged."
"Of course I'm not angry."
"Of course you are. But it's better this way, truly."
"Better for who?"
"For both of us. We've talked about this."
Rory let the silence lengthen. Then he said, "I've found a flat."
"That's wonderful. Where?"
"In Bleeding Heart Square."
Fenella snatched her arm away. "In Aunt Philippa's house?"
"I thought we agreed to leave all that."
"We agreed nothing. Listen, it's a perfectly good flat in exactly the right place for me. I can walk into the City, I can walk into the West End. They know nothing about us, nothing about my connection with your aunt. There's no harm in it. Besides, I'm fed up with Mrs. Rutter's."
All this was perfectly true. There was also a small malicious pleasure in going against Fenella's wishes, something Rory did not choose to examine too closely. If she had given him any encouragement, he might also have told her about Sergeant Narton. But she didn't. They turned into Cornwallis Grove.
"Did you hear anything about Aunt Philippa while you were there?" Fenella asked.
"Who did you meet?"
"Some of the lodgers. There's a dressmaker, and an old chap and his daughter. Perhaps other people. And the landlord keeps a room on, but I gather he's not always in residence."
"So you saw him too? Mr. Serridge?"
"Yes. How often did you meet him?"
"Once or twice. Mother didn't take to him, and Father was awfully rude. Aunt Philippa was furious. She wanted us to like him." Fenella walked on in silence for a moment. Staring straight ahead, she said, "What did you think of him?"
They paused at the gate of number fifty-one. He sensed that she didn't intend to ask him in.
"Bit of a brute, probably, but quite straightforward in his way," Rory said. "I shouldn't have thought he'd have much in common with your aunt, or she with him."
Fenella lifted the latch. "Aunt thought he was wonderful." She pushed open the gate with such violence that it clattered against the retaining wall of the lawn. "Aunt thought he was God."
There was a time very early in their acquaintance when Lydia had considered Marcus to be a god. Not God himself, whom they visited every Sunday in church, and who was supposed to be uncomfortably omnipresent, seeing everything one did or failed to do; Marcus's divinity was of a different kind.
When Lydia was nine, she had had a governess who told her stories from Greek and Roman mythology. Marcus was the sort of god who appeared in classical legends. There was something anarchic and capricious about him. Though enormously powerful in some areas, he was weak, even powerless, in others. He could be cruel and he could be kind, switching from one to the other with bewildering rapidity. But he was always impersonal, for gods are like that. It was she who interpreted his actions as cruel or kind, whereas for him such labels were meaningless.
His standing as a god was further supported by the fact that he was six years older than she, and by the brief and unpredictable incursions he made into her life. Also, she later came to realize, if she came to see him as a god it was partly because she wanted a god and he was the only realistic candidate available.
Even at the time, she bore him no malice for the episode of the child-eating slugs at Monkshill Park. Later, she looked back on what had happened in the shed at the end of the kitchen garden almost with pleasure. After all, it had been the first time she had met Marcus. Moreover, she had never been in any real danger, either from the allegedly man-eating slugs or from the less obvious but more serious risk of falling off the shelf from sheer terror. Nor had he actually put the slugs on her legs. And there had been, at least in retrospect, something almost pleasurable in being so utterly powerless and so utterly terrified.
It was true that Marcus had examined what Nanny used to call her "front bottom." Lydia had known for as long as she had known anything that this part of her anatomy was something to be ashamed of, which it was best to cover up and pretend did not exist. But Marcus clearly thought it was not something to be ashamed of: on the contrary, it was something he found profoundly fascinating. That was rather flattering, if anything. He examined it for what seemed like hours and probably was at least a couple of minutes, moving her legs this way and that, so he could get a better view. Finally he touched her, very gently, at the point where the crack was, the very epicenter of all that shame.
When he had finished his inspection, he had lifted her down and they had walked on, hand in hand, as far as the lake. He said in a casual voice on the way back that what she had shown him in the shed was of course a secret. She had to promise that she would tell no one. Otherwise he would not be able to stop the slugs tracking her down and eating her. She had sucked the first two fingers of her right hand and nodded vigorously.
During the war, Lydia had had a recurring nightmare that Marcus had become a soldier and been killed. She never told anybody about this, even Marcus when the war was over, but she prayed every night that the fighting would end before he was old enough to join up. Her prayers were answered but, as is so often the case, there was a catch. Marcus lied about his age and tried to join up in 1916 but he was rejected as unfit because of flat feet. Marcus's elder brother was not so lucky.
The Cassingtons were staying in Upper Mount Street when they heard the news. Her stepfather saw it in
, in the list of fallen officers near the Court Circular.
"Poor Wilfred Langstone," he said heavily, setting down his coffee cup.
"Oh dear," Lady Cassington said.
Lydia's stepsister Pamela, who was spoiled by everyone including Lydia and allowed to get away with murder, continued banging the top of her boiled egg with a spoon.
"Died of wounds, poor chap. I didn't know he'd transferred to the Royal Flying Corps."
"I must write to his mother. Poor Maud."
Lydia stared at her plate. Pamela continued to hit her egg. The saucer around her egg cup was now a mass of shell fragments.
"This frightful slaughter." Lord Cassington put his elbows on the table, leaned forward and turned down the corners of his mouth; he looked like a gnome with indigestion. "We can't carry on like this. There will be a revolution. You mark my words."
Lady Cassington was pursuing a different line of thought. "At least she has another son. That must be some consolation. Thank heavens they wouldn't take him."
Pamela dug the tip of the spoon violently into the top of her egg. Yolk spurted out and a few drops fell on the tablecloth.
"Marcus?" Lord Cassington said. "Yes. What's he doing now?"
"According to Maud, he's running errands for Charlie Verschoyle at the War Office. Pammy darling, don't do that. Either eat it or leave it. Fin, could you cut off Pammy's crusts?"
Lord Cassington obeyed. He was called Fin within the family because of a long-standing joke so old that its origins were lost in the mists of time: it was believed to have had something to do with the shape of his hands. He removed the crusts from his daughter's toast and cut what was left into soldiers.
But his mind was still running on the Langstones. "It's a shame Jack died in the spring," he said, wiping his fingers on his napkin.
"Isn't it better for them? It must be awful if your son dies before you."
"The point is, it means two lots of death duties within a year. One has to be practical."
"Perhaps we should ask Marcus to dinner. Or even down to Monkshill for a weekend. It might help him take his mind off things."
"If you like."
Lord Cassington's eyes returned to the casualties. The egg cup toppled over and fragments of ruined egg sprayed across the tablecloth.
Lady Cassington smiled. "He's much better-looking than Wilfred," she said. "And really quite grown-up."
On Friday evening, Captain Ingleby-Lewis returned from the Crozier humming the opening bars of Offenbach's Barcarolle over and over again. He let himself into the house and, still humming, zigzagged from side to side of the hall in the general direction of the stairs. At this moment, Mrs. Renton came out of her room carrying a pair of sheets. He collided with her, and the sheets fell to the floor.
"Madam," said Captain Ingleby-Lewis, wrapping an affectionate arm around the newel post. "I can only apologize. The fault is entirely mine."
Alerted by the noise, Lydia appeared at the head of the stairs. "Is everything all right?"
Mrs. Renton stared up at her, and said nothing. The Captain began to hum again and hauled himself steadily up the stairs. Mrs. Renton picked up the sheets.
Lydia came down to help her fold them. "Mr. Fimberry's?"
"Yes," Mrs. Renton said shortly. "No, no, Mrs. Langstone--you take the corners, all right, and then bring them toward my corners."
Above their heads, the Captain and his Barcarolle moved across the landing and finally came to harbor in the sitting room.
Lydia said, "Does the name Penhow mean anything to you?"
"The sheets reminded me. I found a laundry mark on my sheet that said Penhow."
The folding of the sheet had brought the faces of Mrs. Renton and Lydia only a few inches apart. The dark little eyes examined her.
"Now we fold it this way," Mrs. Renton said. "This house used to belong to Miss Penhow."
"What happened to her?"
"She went away." Mrs. Renton stepped back and put the folded sheet outside Mr. Fimberry's door. "Shall we do the other one?"