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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 fireworks 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, flat 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 fireplace, 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.
Copyright © 2017 by Little, Brown Book Group Ltd.
Bright Young Dead copyright © 2018 by Little, Brown Book Group