Authors: Merryn Allingham
was born into an army family and spent her childhood on the move. Unsurprisingly, it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world. The arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England, where she’s lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually teach at university.
Merryn has always loved books that bring the past to life, so when she began writing herself the novels had to be historical. Merryn’s books are set in the early twentieth century, a fascinating era that she loves researching and writing about. History still holds sway for her, mixed in with a helping of intrigue and a sprinkling of romance.
To my mother and father, who married in April 1937 at St John’s Afghan Church, Colaba, Bombay
Table of Contents
he ceiling fan pushed against torpid air, the low growl of its rusty blades a counterpoint to the shrilling telephones and excited Hindi emerging in bursts from beyond the glass screen at the end of the room. From the quayside below, a rhythmic crunch of boots on stone sounded faintly through the open door, a steady train of soldiers chugging its way ashore.
Daisy Driscoll sat in a bubble of silence, a large cardboard suitcase at her side. Her skin gleamed with sweat and her hair hung limp, the carefully pressed finger waves in a state of dissolution. Her make-up had slipped and the crimson lipstick was now an uneven gash. Nervously she fiddled with the ring, fourth finger, right hand, looking constantly from open door to glass partition, shifting from side to side in the shabby Windsor chair.
A shadow darkened the room. A military figure had appeared in the doorway and was walking towards her. She started to her feet, her smile feigning brightness, but a glance at the newcomer’s face and she crumpled back onto the chair.
The young Indian’s voice was soft and cultured, and his expression a mixture of dismay and compassion. She wasn’t surprised. She hadn’t dared to go in search of a mirror for fear of missing Gerald when he came. She’d donned her very best dress for the occasion but that was hours ago on board
The Viceroy of India
, and the heat and dust had already taken its toll on the silk print for which she had saved so hard.
‘Yes,’ she answered uncertainly, ‘but Gerald …’
‘He will be waiting at the church. My name is Anish. Anish Rana. I am a friend of Gerald’s and I’m to take you to him.’
Her face fell at the news but he affected not to notice and continued in a smooth voice, ‘He apologises for not coming himself but he had several important matters to attend to before the ceremony.’
She found herself wondering what could be more important than meeting the woman you were to marry after she had been three long weeks at sea, but she said nothing, grateful at least to have an escort. Getting to her feet once again, she bent down to retrieve the bulging suitcase but Anish was quicker and scooped it up with ease, the knife-edged pleats of his uniform hardly wavering. Everything about him spoke ease, the kind of ease that came with authority.
‘Please, follow me.’ His tall figure strode towards the open door. ‘The port is very busy today and we must find our way through the crowds to the main road. I have a conveyance waiting.’
Dispirited by the unexpected turn of events, Daisy followed him obediently. At the door, he paused. ‘Do you have some kind of head covering, Miss Driscoll? The April sun is very hot.’
‘Only this,’ and she took from her bag the fragile confection of feathers and net she had chosen for her wedding. His raised eyebrows made her horribly aware of how ill equipped she was for this strange country.
‘Then we must make all haste,’ he said, and flashed her an encouraging smile.
Together they walked from the waiting room and down a flight of steep stone steps onto the crowded quayside. The air was stifling and the sunlight so blinding that it hit her like a physical blow. For a moment she was overpowered by the heat, the noise, the smells. Spices and dust, she thought, jasmine and drains. People swirled, pushing, begging, shouting in a hundred languages and dialects. There were men in white uniforms and women in saris almost as brilliant as the sun itself. Small children, their naked bodies bristling with flies, eyed the pair speculatively. Sellers of ‘jolly decent fruit’, of sticky sweets, of flower garlands, announced their wares at the top of their voices. Undeterred, Anish Rana strode ahead, scattering to one side vendors and children, and weaving his way expertly through family groups.
Ahead of her, Daisy saw the quay narrow and guessed they were nearing the road. She touched Anish lightly on the arm. ‘Before we leave, Mr Rana, I’d like to visit a washroom. I think we may have just passed one.’
‘You must be quick then. We should be at the church in a quarter of an hour.’
A few minutes before the cracked mirror and she had blotted the shine from flushed skin and corrected her lipstick, but a brush pulled through the drooping waves left them still sadly limp. Then out into the savage heat once more and into the seething city. She had thought the port crowded but here on the street, the smell and movement of a mass of humanity stopped her in her tracks. Everywhere, buses, horses, rickshaws jostled for space. To Daisy’s eyes, there hardly seemed an inch of road unoccupied. Trucks with signs painted on their sides requesting everyone to ‘Please Blow Horn’ swerved between overloaded donkeys, stray dogs, and the occasional camel or bullock-drawn cart. Even the traffic island in the middle of the road was occupied, several cows lazily flicking long ears as they chewed on invisible grass.
Anish’s voice broke her trance. ‘We should go. See here, I have managed to acquire a
She reached out her hand for the khaki helmet. ‘Where did you find it?’
‘Better not to ask!’
He grinned and she thought how attractive he was with his white teeth and smooth brown skin. For the first time, her eyes smiled back. He hurried her forward to a four-wheeled carriage waiting by the kerbside. The horse between the shafts looked half-starved, and she felt guilty that the poor creature must carry her in this temperature. But Anish was bundling her into the Victoria and she could do nothing but settle herself as comfortably as she could within its musty leather.
As they swung out into the road, a man waved to her from the other side of the street. Grayson Harte. When he’d first introduced himself, she had thought it such an elegant name, the kind of name that would have invited instant punishment at Eden House. She had always been glad that hers was so down to earth. Not that she could be sure it was hers.
‘Who is that?’ Anish was looking surprised.
‘His name is Grayson Harte. He was travelling on my ship and has a job with the Indian Civil Service. I believe that’s what he called it.’
‘One of the “heaven born” then.’
Grayson would be on his way to report for his new post and she wished him well. He had been kind to her, very kind, picking her up from that catastrophic fall and trying to persuade her to see a doctor. She’d accepted a cup of sweet tea and told him all was well. But it hadn’t been. A stab of anger surprised her by its ferocity, though it was pointless to feel rage. The men who had sent her sprawling on deck in their bid to escape, could not know what they’d done.
‘Will Gerald be wearing a very smart uniform?’ she asked after a while. ‘I’m afraid I might let him down.’
‘Gerald will be in plain service dress. Anything else would be far too hot at this time of the year. And you must not worry, you look splendid.’
She was grateful for the lie. Since she’d left the ship early that morning, her nerves had steadily grown more frayed, whispering loudly that she was travelling under false pretences and had no right to be in India. Should she even, at this late stage, ask Anish to stop the carriage and take her back to the port where she might beg a passage on the first liner leaving for Southampton? But that was a fantasy. She had no money for a ticket and if, by some miracle, she could raise the funds to return, what would she be returning to? There was no home and her precious job was lost to her. It would be all right, she made herself believe, it must be all right. Gerald would understand. He would be at the church and she would confide everything to him before the ceremony. How much easier it would have been, though, if he had come to meet her.
‘I’d hoped Gerald would be here,’ she said. ‘To help me, you know. Everything is so strange.’
‘You will be with him very soon,’ her escort said soothingly.
He talked on, pointing out places of interest, feeding her small glimpses of military life, slowly putting her at ease. He was a comfortable companion, interesting and amusing, and gradually she lost the tension that had been building. They were passing through a quieter neighbourhood now, one of wide, tree-lined roads, and in a short while drew up outside a large building of honeyed stone. Daisy craned her head upwards to follow the slender spire which emerged from the surrounding trees, so tall it almost touched the sky. A golden cross sat at its summit.
‘This is the church we are to be married in?’
‘It is. St John’s Afghan Church. Built to commemorate the officers and soldiers who died in the Afghan campaigns. It has special memories for the military.’