The young policewoman stood in the corner of the room. Plain whitewashed walls, a heavy door, a wooden table with two chairs, and one small window with frosted glass rendered the room soulless. It was a cold afternoon and she’d been in the corner since coming on duty two hours ago, her only company the rumpled and bent girl sitting in the chair that faced the wall. Others had come into the room to sit in the second chair: first, Detective Inspector Richard Stratton, with Detective Sergeant Caldwell standing behind him; then Stratton standing while a doctor from the Maudsley Hospital sat before the girl, trying to get her to speak. The girl—no one knew her age or where she had come from because she hadn’t spoken a word since she was brought in this morning, her bloodstained dress, hands and face showing a month’s worth of dirt—was now waiting for another person who had been summoned to question her: a Miss Maisie Dobbs. The policewoman had heard of Maisie Dobbs, but with what she had seen today, she wasn’t sure that anyone could get this young scrubber to talk.
The policewoman heard voices outside the door: Stratton and Caldwell and then another voice. A smooth voice. A voice that was neither loud nor soft, that did not need to be raised to be heard or, thought the policewoman, to get someone to listen.
The door opened and Stratton came in, followed by a woman she presumed to be Maisie Dobbs. The policewoman was surprised, for the woman was nothing like she had expected, but then she realized that the voice had revealed little about the owner, except that it had depth without being deep.
Wearing a plain burgundy suit with black shoes and carrying a worn black leather document case, the visitor smiled at both the policewoman and Stratton in a way that almost startled the uniformed woman, as her eyes met the midnight-blue eyes of Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Chalmers,” said Maisie, though they had not been introduced. The warm familiarity of the greeting took Chalmers aback. “Brrr. It’s cold in here,” added the investigator, turning to Stratton. “Inspector, can we bring in an oil stove? Just to take the edge off?”
Stratton raised an eyebrow and inclined his head at the unusual nature of the request. Amused at seeing her superior caught off guard, Chalmers tried to hide a grin, and the seated girl looked up, just for a second, because the woman’s voice compelled her to do so.
“Good. Thank you, Inspector. Oh—and perhaps a chair for Miss Chalmers.” Maisie Dobbs removed her gloves, placing them on top of the black bag, which she set on the floor, before pulling a chair around so that she was seated not opposite the girl, on the other side of the table, but close to her.
Strange, thought Chalmers, as the door opened and a constable brought in another chair, left the room, and returned with a small paraffin stove, which he placed by the wall. They exchanged quick glances and shrugged shoulders.
“Thank you,” said Maisie, smiling.
And they knew she had seen their furtive communication.
Now, sitting alongside the girl, Maisie said nothing. She said nothing for some time, so that after a while Chalmers wondered what in heaven’s name she was there for. Then she realized that the Dobbs woman had closed her eyes and had changed her position slowly, and though she couldn’t put her finger on it, it was as if she were talking to the girl without opening her mouth, so that the girl—as if she couldn’t help herself—leaned toward Maisie Dobbs. Blimey, she’s going to talk.
“I’m getting warmer now.” It was a rounded voice, a west-country voice. The girl spoke deliberately, with rolled r’s and a nod when her sentence was finished. A farm girl. Yes, Chalmers would have pegged her for a farm girl.
But Maisie Dobbs said nothing, just opened her eyes and smiled, but not with her mouth. No, it was her eyes that smiled. Then she touched the girl’s hand, taking it in her own. The girl began to cry and, very strange again, thought Chalmers, the Dobbs woman didn’t reach out to put an arm around her shoulder, or try to stop her or use the moment as Stratton and Caldwell might have. No, she just sat and nodded, as if she had all the time in the world. Then she surprised the policewoman again.
“Miss Chalmers. Would you be so kind as to poke your head around the door and ask for a bowl of hot water, some soap, two flannels, and a towel, please.”
Chalmers gave a single nod and moved toward the door. Oh, this would surely give the girls something to chew over later. They’d all have a giggle about this little pantomime.
A bowl of hot water was brought to the room by the police constable, along with the flannels, soap, and towel. Maisie removed her jacket, placed it over the back of the chair, and rolled up the sleeves of her cream silk blouse. Reaching into the bowl, she rubbed some soap on a wet flannel and squeezed out the excess water. Then she lifted the girl’s chin, smiled into her reddened and bloodshot eyes, and began to wash her face, rinsing the flannel and going back again, dabbing the hot cloth on the girl’s temples and across her forehead. She washed her arms, holding first her left hand in the hot flannel and working the cloth up to her elbow, then reaching for the girl’s right hand. The girl flinched, but Maisie showed no sign of noticing the movement, instead massaging her right hand with the cloth, gently working it along her arm to the elbow, and then rinsing again.
It was as she knelt on the floor, taking one filthy bare foot after the other and washing the dirt and grime away with the second flannel, that the policewoman realized she had become mesmerized by the scene unfolding before her. It’s like being in church.
The girl spoke again. “You’ve got right soft ’ands, miss.”
Maisie Dobbs smiled. “Thank you. I used to be a nurse, years ago, in the war. That’s what the soldiers used to say: that my hands were soft.”
The girl nodded.
“What’s your name?”
Chalmers stared as the girl—who had been sitting in that room without so much as a cup of tea since she was brought in twelve hours ago—replied immediately.
“Avril Jarvis, miss.”
“Where are you from?”
“Taunton, miss.” She began to sob.
Maisie Dobbs reached into the black bag and brought out a clean linen handkerchief, which she placed on the table in front of the girl. Chalmers waited for Maisie to take out a sheet of paper to write notes, but she didn’t; instead she simply continued with her questions as she finished drying the girl’s feet.
“How old are you, Avril?”
“Fourteen next April, I reckon.”
Maisie smiled. “Tell me, why are you in London and not Taunton?”
Avril Jarvis sobbed continuously as Maisie folded the towel and sat next to her again. But she did answer the question, along with every other question put to her over the next hour, at which point Maisie said that was enough for now; she would be taken care of and they would speak again tomorrow—only Detective Inspector Stratton would have to hear her story too. Then, adding fuel to the tale that Chalmers would tell the other policewomen lodging in rooms upstairs at Vine Street, the Jarvis girl nodded and said, “All right, then. Just so long as you’ll be with me, miss.”
“Yes. I’ll be here. Don’t worry. You can rest now, Avril.”
Copyright © 2005 by Jacqueline Winspear. All rights reserved.