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Tillie climbed the stairs from the Bond Street Station out to Davies Street, blinking in the afternoon light. She had directions, but the directions were from Oxford Street, and she didn’t know whether that was to the right or left. She felt like the overwhelmed child that she had been the first and last time she had come to Mayfair, when her dad took her on a special shopping expedition after a rare successful day at the track. She dragged him into shop after shop, looking at all of the clothes, the toys, the sweets, her voice a non-stop series of squeaks and squeals while her dad beamed at the happiness he had produced all because the favourite in the fifth race at Kempton Park had snapped a foreleg and the long shot managed to skirt the subsequent pileup of horses and jockeys and push its nose past the other survivors. Two horses were put down after that race, and three jockeys went to hospital, but Dad came out of it forty quid ahead, so tragedy be damned.
She wasn’t even certain what he had bought her that day. Some pretty printed dress, she thought. Probably from Dickins and Jones. One that she outgrew within months, because Dad would never think of buying a size or two up, but that day was still the best of her life. So far.
Dickins and Jones was bombed during the Blitz. She read about it the morning after it happened, thinking about being there with Dad back in—’28? ’29? She cried when she read about it, cried like she was a little girl again, she who had never shed a tear when friends and family were lost. It was as if the Germans had attacked her best memory.
There it was, on the left. Oxford Street! She reached into her handbag and pulled out the scrap of paper with her directions.
It was June, 1946. The war was over, and Tillie La Salle had come back to Mayfair to shop.
Only this time, she was shopping for a husband.
A right, two blocks, and another right brought her to her destination. She gawked when she saw it. It wasn’t the appearance of the building itself that caused her astonishment. It was very much an ordinary, turn-of-the-century structure with bricks of a dull, almost muddy red, four storeys with not much in the way of falderal in the edging of the windows or the parapets. But it was the only building still standing on this particular block. On both sides, piles of rubble and a few ruined walls lay where similar buildings once stood, bracing their surviving neighbour. To the right, a solitary bulldozer was scooping up shattered pieces of brick, concrete, and wood and unceremoniously depositing them into a waiting lorry.
She walked past, wondering which phase of the German air assault had devastated this particular block, and what quirk of Fate had missed leveling the very building containing the goal of her journey.
The driver of the lorry was leaning against the cab. He caught sight of her, then took off his twill cap and waved.
“’Allo, gorgeous!” he shouted. “Give a working man a smile!”
“You don’t look like you’re working at the moment,” she replied.
“They also serve who stand and wait,” he said. “Fancy a cuppa?”
“Some other time,” she said.
“Name’s Frank,” he said, giving an exaggerated bow. “I’m here all week.”
“Save some love for the wife,” she advised him.
He laughed and replaced his cap, his wedding ring prominent.
She sighed and continued to the building. On the front by the entry was a small collection of signs advertising the occupants. Amidst a few drab placards for accounting and typing services was a cheerful light green one with large hand-painted yellow letters reading, THE RIGHT SORT MARRIAGE BUREAU. MISS IRIS SPARKS AND MRS. GWENDOLYN BAINBRIDGE, PROPRIETORS.
Tillie hesitated, then thought how easily she had just been accosted in the street by a married man.
“No faint heart, Tillie,” she admonished herself. “This is why you came.”
She took a deep breath, then walked through the door.
There was no reception, merely a cramped hallway with a daunting set of stairs to the right and a narrow passageway directly ahead that vanished into darkness with alarming rapidity. An elderly, unshaven man in dingy overalls was mopping the floor. She ignored him and turned her attention to the building directory.
“If you’re looking for a husband, they’re on the top,” called the custodian, his sporadic yellow teeth flashing in what she assumed he meant to be a friendly smile.
“I see that,” replied Tillie, spotting a smaller version of the green placard. “Thanks. Don’t you think there ought to be more light down here?”
“No point,” said the custodian. “It’s all vacant, innit?”
She took the stairs, initially at a nervous trot to get away from the gloom of the ground floor and the vaguely menacing demeanour of the custodian. By the time she reached the top, her pace had slowed considerably.
This hallway was brightly lit, however, and in the middle of it, she saw yet another green sign proclaiming her journey’s end. She paused to catch her breath, then walked up and rapped on the door.
The woman who opened it was her height, a brunette maybe six or seven years past Tillie’s twenty-two. She gave her a quick, inquisitive look, then smiled.
“Miss La Salle, is it? Come in, come in.”
Tillie found herself ushered in and plopped onto a wooden chair that creaked ominously. There were two desks in front of her on either side of a single window. They looked like they themselves had served during the war, perhaps seeing combat in some skirmish against German furniture, and now sat battered but unbowed, the one on the left jammed against the wall for partial support, a book stuffed under one leg which was noticeably shorter than the others.
The room itself was painted the same soothing light green as the placards. On the wall to the right hung photographs of happy couples at their weddings, with announcements from the Guardian and the Evening Standard taped to their frames. There was an ancient filing cabinet in the corner that could have told tales from previous wars to the two desks.
“How do you do, how do you do?” rattled off the woman. “I’m Iris Sparks; call me Sparks, everyone does. So nice to meet you, and you’re perfectly on time. You made it up the steps, hurrah! The first hurdle on the path towards happiness is those steps. They’ve been wonderfully firming for my legs, I must say. I’ve lost eight pounds since we started up. This is Mrs. Bainbridge, my partner.”
From behind the desk on the left, a very tall woman rose gracefully and came over to shake her hand.
“How do you do, Miss La Salle?” she said.
Tillie tried not to gape. Mrs. Bainbridge was elegant, blond, and wearing an impeccably tailored silk suit that must have been sealed in a cedarwood closet for the duration of the war to have been resurrected so perfectly. The woman had a patrician air that was completely out of place in this small, solitary office, yet seemed wholly at ease in spite of it. She could have stepped from the pages of the Tatler, or been the slumming aristocratic sidekick in a Jessie Matthews musical, lacking only the art deco sets for the appropriate backdrop.
Sparks noticed the young woman’s attempts not to stare and grinned.
“Impressive, isn’t she?” she commented. “Don’t worry, she’s one of us.”
“I’m sorry,” stammered Tillie. “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Copyright © 2019 by Allison Montclair