‘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.’