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Authors: Jo Walton

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BOOK: Ha'penny
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I shuddered. Mollie was the only person I’d ever told about that. “Whether she unsettles me or not, I think I have to go,” I said.

“If you’re sure,” Mollie said. “There’s no obligation. You’re grown up now. You could stay at home. I’m going to make some cocoa.”

It wasn’t “ginns” in itself that made me drag myself away from cocoa and Mollie and our cozy flat and take myself down to the tube. It was the tone I now thought I’d heard in Siddy’s voice all through the conversation, the tone that in itself meant ginns. She wasn’t getting in touch with me idly, she really needed me. What I should have worked out from that was that the best thing to do would be to disappear, to take the tube the other way, to King’s Cross, where I could get a night train to Scotland and never be seen again. Not being gifted with foresight, I went dutifully down to Leicester Square Underground station, and then walked up out into the square itself, towards the huge cinema there that they called the Empire.

The thing everyone knows about the Empire, Leicester Square, was that when the old king was dying, his last words were to ask what was showing there. The people whose duty it is to write down last words of kings then claimed that he’d said, “What about the Empire?”, a much more appropriate thought for a king in his dying moments, and I expect it warmed the hearts of people from Calcutta to Calgary, until they heard what he’d really said, which was soon leaked. “What’s on at the Empire?” Silly old fool.

I never go to the cinema. Partly this is because I was either working and didn’t have time or wasn’t working and didn’t want to waste the money. But there was also an element of being a stage actor and not wanting to support the thing that was killing theater. I’d often seen the Empire, as I crossed Leicester Square, and marveled at how hugely vulgar it was, but I’d never been inside. Banks of lights on the front proclaimed that they were now showing Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in
Travels in Tartary
. It was half-past nine, and a kind of dusky dark; the sun hadn’t long set, as it was June, but of course the rain made it darker.

Siddy was standing under the shelter of the awning, lighting a cigarette, her hands cupped around the match and lighting her face from below with odd flickering shadows. She dragged at it impatiently as I walked towards her. She looked up, scanning the crowds, but didn’t see me. I thought she looked tired and anxious, and terribly like Mamma.

“Fats,” she said in acknowledgment, when I came up close. “Not that you are the slightest bit fat, I don’t know why we call you that.”

“I had puppy fat for about two weeks when I was fourteen,” I said. “It was when Tess was coming out, and we all had dresses made for it.”

“White frilly ones with horrid puffed sleeves that made you look a fright,” Siddy said, smiling. “I remember.”

“I always hated being called Fatso,” I said.

“I can’t remember, what did we call you before?” she asked.

“Vile, which I suppose is only natural,” I said.

“Like me being called Mustard, I suppose,” she said, dropping the butt of her cigarette and grinding it out under her heel. “I always hated that, too. Awful the things we did to each other. What do your friends call you now?”

“Viola,” I said, dryly. “It doesn’t seem too strange to theater people. Or Vi, sometimes.”

“You’d think with Ma being nuts about Shakespeare she’d have liked you going on stage, not acted as if it was a den of vice,” Siddy said. “Want a fag?” She offered the packet. They were long and tipped, du Mauriers.

I took one, and she lit them both. “Shall we go somewhere and have a coffee?” I asked.

“Yes, let’s,” she said, but didn’t move. “Did you take a cab?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I came on the Underground.”

“Did you? How frightfully clever of you. I don’t think anyone was following me.” Siddy started to walk, and I followed.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“Let’s sit down somewhere first. Where?”

“There’s a nice little place called Mimi’s in Covent Garden,” I suggested.

“Not somewhere they know you, silly!” Siddy looked at me sideways, moving only her eyes, not her head, something she’d always done. It made her look rather like a Siamese cat.

“There’s a Joe Lyons Automat on the corner of Charing Cross Road,” I said.

“That would be good.” We walked in silence through the rain towards the Lyons. It was packed, as usual, but I didn’t see anyone I knew. Siddy seemed charmed with the automatic nature of the hatches. “You can get a cold chicken leg for two shillings! Or chocolate cake for ninepence!”

“Yes, it’s simply lovely for the DW, now can you get what you want and let us sit down?”

She slid money in and released an anemic slice of apple tart. I settled for coffee. We took our trays over to an empty table Siddy had spotted on the second level. “This has a good view of the door,” she said, as she sat down.

The place was overlit, as such places always are, and it made the gloom outside seem like black night and the interior almost as bright as a stage. Siddy stubbed out her cigarette in the cherry-red ashtray.

“You’re looking good, Vi,” she said.

“You too,” I said, but it wasn’t the truth. The bright light showed lines in her face, and her ash-blonde hair was a little shaggy and needed cutting. “Sid—” I was going to ask her why she’d called me, but she held up a hand.

“The trouble is,” she said, pulling out another cigarette, “that we hardly know each other. I didn’t realize until I saw you. I thought, well, I suppose I thought, ‘She’s my sister, who is closer than your sister,’ but the truth is that almost anyone is closer when there’s been such a gap. I should have thought. You haven’t really known me since I’ve grown up. I’ve seen you act, but I don’t really know who you are, now. The last time we really talked I was in my nonsensical ‘in love with Comrade Stalin, what can we do to help the Dear Workers’ phase. How can you even take me seriously?”

“Are you in trouble?” I asked.

“I’m in trouble, you’re in trouble, the whole country is in trouble or haven’t you noticed?” Her match flared briefly, then she shook it out and dropped it into the ashtray.

“You’re right that we don’t really know each other beyond a shared past that seems a long time ago to me, but if you’re in trouble I’ll try to help,” I said.

She drew deeply on the cigarette, and put her head back, exhaling, showing her long throat like a sacrificial animal. Then she leaned forward and put her hand on mine. “Promise you won’t tell anyone what I asked, whether you agree to help or not?”

I nodded. “Nope to die,” I said, in our childhood formula.

Siddy smiled. “Good old Fatso, Viola I mean.” She looked at me for a moment. “Where do you stand politically?”

“Oh come on, Siddy!” I said, drawing back.

“By which you mean you’re an actress, politics is boring, let the Bolshies and the Nazis bash the hell out of each other, it’s what they both deserve, thank God for the Farthing Peace?”

I tried my coffee. It was dishwater, which was what I’d expected. “Something not very different from that,” I said, noncomittally.

“And this latest nasty business, with that bloody worm Mark Normanby rewriting the unwritten constitution and sliding us close to outright fascism here, that doesn’t alarm you at all?” She tapped ash off her cigarette impatiently and drew on it again at once.

“Actually I think it’s a lot of silly hysteria, but if there are Jewish and communist terrorists going around blowing people up, then I suppose the innocent Jews and communists must expect a certain amount of trouble. Is that what this is? Are they after you for being a communist? Don’t they know who Pappa is?”

“Don’t you see how terrible it is that it makes a difference who Pappa is?” she asked, passionately. “Everyone should be equal before the law.”

“Well if you want to be equally going off to some camp,” I said. “But surely they can’t imagine you’d blow people up?”

She leaned forward to me across the table. “Oh yes I would. I’ve visited Pip in Prague. I know what really goes on in those camps. They aren’t prisons. They work people to death, on starvation rations. They are slaves, and when they get too weak to work they kill them with poison gas. They keep records, endless efficient relentless Germanic records.”

“You can’t really believe all that guff,” I said. “Isn’t it all like the stories about the Germans spitting Belgian babies on their bayonets in Pappa’s war? Just propaganda? They make them work in the camps, yes, but all those stories about the showers with stone soap and poison gas are just to make you shudder.”

“They’re not.” Siddy drew hard on her cigarette, and her face was set. “I don’t suppose there’s any way of making you believe, but I’ve seen them filing through the streets from the camp to the factory, like walking skeletons, and the guards . . .” She trailed off. “I’m a communist, but that doesn’t matter anything like as much as being opposed to all of that. The worst of it is that the Left don’t understand people like Pa any more than Pa understands what it’s like to be a miner. I don’t care about the economic side of things, except that it obviously isn’t fair that Rosie should spend on one dress what would keep a family of eight in Bolton for a year.”

“It wouldn’t matter if they all had enough,” I said. “If the family in Bolton had enough to keep them as well as Rosie having the dress.”

“Maybe in theory, but it never works out that way,” Siddy said. “In reality there are always more needy people than spare money for Dior dresses.”

“Why did you call me?” I asked.

She blew out smoke. “I saw you on stage,” she said.

“What was it?” I asked.

“I think it was called
Creatures of the Summer Heat.

“Oh, that silly thing.” I was embarrassed. “I don’t know why you hit on that one. It hardly ran.”

“I thought you were jolly good.” She stubbed out her cigarette and reached for the packet.

“No, have one of mine,” I said, and offered my case.

She took one and turned it in her fingers a moment. “Players. I have the theater cigarettes and you have the workers.”

“Siddy, will you for God’s sake tell me what this is about, or I swear I’ll walk out of here and never see you again.”

She looked at me a moment. “I can’t. I can’t trust you that much, and I can’t trust myself to explain it to you so it makes sense. I thought I’d be able to talk to you but I can’t. It ought to be Uncle Phil.”

“Uncle Phil?” I echoed, idiotically. Uncle Phil, better known to the wider world as crazy old Scotty, was my godfather. He’d been in Parliament, in Government even, in the Churchill period, and now he sat sulking in the House of Lords, or at home in Coltham Court, pontificating loudly about how terribly the current generation were messing things up. “What does this have to do with him?”

Siddy shrugged, and lit the cigarette. “Everything. Nothing. Look, I don’t think I can possibly explain. Come down to Coltham for lunch tomorrow.”

“I have to learn a part,” I said, automatically. “I have to know it by Monday.” Then it hit me. “You have inviting privileges at Coltham?”

“Not usually.” Siddy smiled. “But just at the moment I do.”

“You’re seeing Boo?” It was the only explanation. Siddy had been married twice, to Tommy Bailey and then to Geoff Russell, and was presently divorced. It was no secret that Uncle Phil’s son Benjamin had once been in love with our oldest sister, Olivia, and devastated when she’d married James Thirkie. He had cried at her wedding. Mamma had thought it terribly bad form. Siddy looked quite a bit like Olivia, though without her poise. Olivia always had poise, whereas Siddy replaced it with intensity. I wasn’t sure where Boo was in the marriage stakes at the moment, and while he was quite a lot older than Siddy it would actually have been a better match than most of her romances.

Siddy shook her head, laid down her cigarette, and took a forkful of her pie. “Horrid,” she said, setting the fork down again. “Will you come to Coltham for lunch?”

“I can’t possibly, not tomorrow. In any case, how would I get there? I don’t have a car.” I don’t know why I relented even that much.

“There’s a good train, from Charing Cross. Someone could meet you at the station. There are
frequent
trains. You could be back in London for dinner. Uncle Phil will explain everything, or if he can’t, I promise I will.”

“Then why not explain now?”

“I can’t here,” she said, gesturing around the restaurant. “I don’t know how to start. Take the eleven-eighteen train, and someone will meet you at the station.” She stood up, leaving her pie almost untouched. “Please, Fats, Viola I mean.”

She had never been my favorite sister. It wasn’t because I liked her. I didn’t like her or even trust her. It was true what she said, I hardly knew her. But she looked desperate and weary and she was my sister and I believed she was in trouble. Or maybe she just infuriated me so much that she drove me crazy with curiosity. Anyway, I must have been absolutely mad to agree.

6

 

O
n Sunday morning, Hampstead looked asleep in the sun at nine o’clock. Curtains were drawn and milk bottles stood neglected on doorsteps. The policeman at the gate of 35 Bedford Drive seemed by contrast almost unnaturally alert.

“Even the press are still in bed,” Carmichael said, as he shut the door of the Bentley and surveyed the street, empty but for a scattering of parked cars.

“Not their work, though,” Royston said, indicating the papers sticking from the letterboxes of many of the doors around them. “They keep late hours. I expect we’ll have them shouting round again later.”

“No doubt,” Carmichael said, then turned to the bobby at the gate. “Good morning. Has the house been secured?”

“May I see your identification, sir?” the bobby asked.

Carmichael and Royston both fished out their papers and handed them over. The bobby scrutinized them carefully and handed them back. “Well?” Carmichael asked impatiently.

“Only following orders, sir,” the bobby said. “And yes, the house is secured, least, that’s what the man I was replacing told me.”

BOOK: Ha'penny
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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