‘I don’t need to be spied on, Mother.’
‘It’s not spying. It’s a sensible young man looking out for my daughter. And that’s the end of the conversation. Is anything coming?’
Eleanor turned her head to the left and cast a glance down the road. ‘No.’
She let her chin fall into her hand and closed her eyes as the wind from the open window pushed back her hair. She was excited to be leaving, excited to be finally heading for London, but the thought of a sensible man informing on her to her mother was rather putting the brakes on.
‘What’s he expected to do? File reports or something?’ she said, with a scowl.
‘Don’t be impertinent,’ said her mother, waving on a pedestrian at a pelican crossing. ‘If you don’t do anything stupid I suspect your paths will never have to cross.’ She shot her daughter a sharp look. ‘Marjory says he’s very nice. It’s very kind of her to be looking out for you.’
‘Looking out for me or looking out for you?’
‘All right, that’ll do, Eleanor,’ snapped her mother. ‘You’ll understand when you have children of your own. You will thank Marjory and you will be polite to whatever his name is. And that is that.’
Eleanor sat in silence. There was no point fighting. She’d be free of all this soon enough and as for the Steady Eddie, well, she’d be giving him the slip sharpish.
‘Goodness,’ said Eleanor’s mother, as they ran on to the platform. ‘A minute to spare! Don’t mind me, get on! Guard! Hold that door!’
Eleanor leaped up into the open doorway just as the guard went to close it behind her. He stood back and blew his whistle and Eleanor came forward and leaned from the window.
‘Don’t forget to write,’ her mother said, walking along as the train started to move. ‘And don’t forget the flowers for Marjory. And don’t forget to eat. If you need anything or get into a fix, then call. And soon as you arrive, get milk. You always need milk.’
‘Don’t fuss. I’ll be fine,’ said Eleanor, itching to be gone. ‘Did I give you that five-pound note from your father?’ ‘Yes.’
‘Well, don’t lose it . . .’ Eleanor’s mother was now moving at a brisk trot but the train was picking up speed. As it quickened, she realised she was beaten and came to a stop. She raised her arm to wave. ‘Well, goodbye, my darling! Goodbye! And please, Eleanor, be careful!’
‘I will. Goodbye!’ Eleanor waved. ‘Goodbye!’
Eleanor stared back towards her mother until the platform disappeared. She took a deep breath. This was it. She’d done it. Breaking into a broad smile, she turned from the door into the carriage and found a rack for her suitcase.
‘Is that seat taken?’ she asked, pointing to an empty seat next to a matronly woman with a bag of knitting.
‘No, go ahead.’
Eleanor squeezed past. ‘Thank you,’ she said, with a smile. As she sat, she stared out at the Buckinghamshire countryside, impatient for the oaks and beech trees and gorse bushes to be replaced by rooftops and the cramped squeeze of the city. She thought about her mother and felt a pang of guilt that she found her so irritating. Why was it so impossible to tolerate her kindness? ‘Hang on,’ she mumbled to herself, had she remembered the address? She reached into her pocket and pulled out the piece of folded paper. There, she thought, triumphant, the address of the flat in Belsize Park. Of course she’d remembered it. All the same, she found herself fingering the envelope with the five-pound note in her other pocket.
Marjory was thrilled with the flowers. ‘Oh! You shouldn’t have!’ she said, hand clutching at her chest in mock protes- tation. ‘Really. I should give them back to you. Brighten the place up. Put on a welcome and all that. No, no. You keep them.’
‘But they’re for you,’ said Eleanor, with a frown. ‘Besides, I can’t imagine what my mother would say if she found out I’d bought you flowers and kept them.’
‘Honestly,’ said Marjory, handing them back to her, ‘I have a wretched lunch at twelve. As lovely as they are, they won’t thank me after being stuck in a cloakroom for three hours. We can put them in a vase when we get upstairs. And I won’t tell your mother a thing.’ She winked.
Eleanor smiled. ‘Well, all right. You’ve twisted my arm.
I do love lupins. They’re so . . . noble.’
‘This has worked out rather well, hasn’t it?’ Marjory beamed. She was attractive, the same age as her mother, early forties, but with an edge of glamour her mother lacked. They’d been to school together, hence the connection, but Marjory was a lady of leisure, a tennis-on-Wednesdays, hairdresser-every-Friday type. She was immaculate, trim, poised, a poster girl for sophistication. ‘You know, you’re doing me a huge favour,’ she said. ‘We’re off to New York for a year – did your mother tell you? Dickie’s been posted
– and it’s all terribly exciting but I would have sat worrying about the flat, you know how things niggle, but here you are to save the day!’
‘It’s you saving the day, Marjory,’ said Eleanor, trying to be charming. ‘I’m very grateful.’ She flashed her best smile.
Marjory squeezed Eleanor’s upper arm. ‘Don’t mention it. We’re helping each other. Let’s leave it at that. So, shall
we? Let’s get down to business.’ She opened the small black handbag hanging from her wrist. ‘This key’s the one that gets you into the building,’ she said, pulling it out and holding it up. ‘Would you like to try?’ She held it out and beamed.
‘Thank you,’ said Eleanor, taking it.
‘That’s the keyhole,’ said Marjory, pointing towards it.
‘Yes . . .’ Suitcase and flowers in one hand, key in the other, Eleanor slid the key in. ‘That’s it. In she goes. And turn it to the right . . . in the direction of the Underground, that’s how I always remember!’ She gave a tinkling laugh.
Eleanor felt the door yield and pushed it open with her shoulder.
‘Well done!’ Marjory was brisk and efficient. ‘And in we go. So here’s the hall,’ she added, ushering Eleanor inside. ‘As you can see – post cubbies all there . . .’ She wafted her hand to her left. ‘Lift or stairs? Let’s do lift.’
She trotted towards the 1930s cage lift at the back of the hall and pulled the grille door open. ‘Have you used one of these before?’ she asked, walking into the walnut-lined compartment.
‘Actually, no,’ said Eleanor. ‘Never like this—’
‘Fine,’ said Marjory, interrupting her. ‘So you come in and you have to shut the door before you hit the button. Slide it across until it’s locked into place. And then . . . floor 3 . . .’ She paused as she pushed an old ceramic button. ‘And hey presto. We’re off.’
The lift clunked into action and Eleanor, conscious of the confined space, shoved herself into a corner and lifted her suitcase into her arms, holding the flowers rather awkwardly in front of it.
‘That looks heavy,’ said Marjory, nodding towards the suitcase. ‘I imagine you’ll be delighted to put it down.’
‘I’m rather regretting packing the books.’
‘Oh, you can’t be without books,’ said Marjory, resting her fingers on the top of her handbag and staring at the lift door as it rattled upwards. ‘Not far now.’
There was a small tinny ping. As the lift shuddered to a stop, Marjory leaned forward.
‘So wait for the click . . .’ She tilted her head and held a finger in the air. ‘There it is, and slide the door open.’ She heaved the door sideways, stepped out into the hallway and turned, waiting for Eleanor to join her. ‘Now you must make sure you shut this door again. If you don’t, nobody will be able to use the lift. You’ll be frightfully unpopular.’
Eleanor nodded, then looked down the corridor: the cream walls looked rather tired and a purple carpet, trodden down at every doorway, gave off the whiff of an institution, the smell of boiled mince and cabbage. ‘This is all getting a lick of paint in the summer,’ said Marjory as she slammed the lift door shut. ‘You go first. That way. Number 12.’ She gestured off down the corridor.
Eleanor walked, suitcase still held to her chest, checking off the doors. She’d felt so excited, leaving Brill, but now, walking softly ahead of Marjory, a feeling of anxiety hit her. It was her first time away from her family and the home that had been theirs for generations. She knew where she was in Brill. She knew what was expected. In London, there was a danger of getting lost.
‘And here we are,’ said Marjory, trotting behind her. ‘You’ve still got those keys, yes?’
‘Umm, yes,’ said Eleanor, uncertainly. She put down her suitcase, laid the flowers on top and reached into her pocket. She gave an awkward smile. ‘Found them. Phew.’
Marjory shot her an indulgent smile. ‘Wouldn’t do to lose them on day one, would it?’ She gave another insubstantial laugh. ‘Now, the second key on the fob – that’s the one you need for this door. Let me warn you – it can be a bit sticky – so when you turn it, give it a little shove.’
Eleanor did as she was told. ‘That’s it,’ said Marjory, with a cursory glance at her watch. ‘Give it a shove.’
Eleanor opened the door and Marjory, picking up the flow- ers, handed them to Eleanor. ‘You take those. I’ll take your suitcase. Goodness,’ she added, as she grasped the handle. ‘That is heavy. Bedroom’s off to the left. I’ll pop it in here. Sit- ting room’s to the right.’
Eleanor stepped inside and made her way towards the sitting room, flowers in hand. It was light and spacious, tastefully decorated. As she stood there, wondering where she might find a vase, Marjory appeared behind her.
‘And here we are! All in. Pretty straightforward. I won’t give you the grand tour. If you have any problems, just ring for the caretaker. His number’s by the telephone. Super.’ She looked again at her watch. ‘Such a shame I’ve got this damn lunch. I’m going to have to dash.’ She pulled an expression of exaggerated regret. ‘Oh, and I’m not sure if your mother mentioned it, but I’ve asked a thoroughly nice chap to look out for you. He lives downstairs. You’ll like him. Very up-and-coming. His name’s Charlie.’
‘Yes, she did say—’
‘Super. Well. That’s me. You’ll find a vase in the top cup- board in the kitchen,’ she said, pointing towards the flowers. ‘Lupins are so wonderful. Goodness. I really am going to have to fly.’ She leaned forward to give Eleanor a kiss on the cheek. ‘Where is it you’re going again?’ she said, trying to remember.
‘Chelsea Art School.’
‘Chelsea! That’s it! Very prestigious. Well done you.’ She walked back towards the front door.
‘I feel very lucky to have got in. My father rather thought I wouldn’t. Actually, neither of my parents thought I would get in. My mother kept telling me to go to secretarial college.’
‘I suspect luck had nothing to do with it.’ Marjory opened the door and looked back. ‘And don’t be too hard on your parents. It’s our job to manage expectations. Well, goodbye, Eleanor. I’ll tell your mother you’re in. Good luck, and make the most of it. Goodbye!’ Marjory shot her one last encouraging look and then disappeared, closing the door behind her.
Eleanor stood, listening to the soft thump of Marjory’s shoes marching away on the corridor carpet. She let out a sigh and felt her shoulders lower and her cheeks relax. She looked around. ‘Goodness,’ she said out loud, taking in her new home.
The apartment faced north, towards Hampstead, but from the window she could see into other apartments. Opposite, there was a woman kneading some dough; to her left, an elderly man reading a book; and then down to her right, she saw a young man, sensible haircut, round spectacles, knitted tank top, cigarette in mouth, sitting at a typewriter. ‘I wonder if that’s my spy,’ she mumbled to her- self, staring down at him. ‘He looks sufficiently square.’ He glanced up, catching her eye.
‘Oh no!’ She pulled back from the window, feeling a sharp flush of embarrassment, and busied herself with the vase she’d found. Filling it from the tap, she dropped the lupins into the water, carried the vase back to the sitting room and placed it in the centre of the small round table.
She stood there, hands on hips, and then, curiosity get- ting the better of her, she went back to the window and peered out. He was still staring up.
‘Oh!’ she squealed, leaping back again. ‘Don’t do that again. You’re not in Brill any more, Eleanor.’
And with that, she grabbed her beret and her purse and headed out to find milk.