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Authors: Ruth Rendell

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BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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It was only the second fire Stanley had ever seen. During the war when he was a child, Loughton had been a surprisingly quiet place, though only about twelve miles outside central London. The East End had taken it badly, but the East End was nearer than that. He had seen pictures of the Blitz and films, though there was of course no available television. Children, such as Stanley and his brothers and sister, collected the chunks of twisted metal that were shrapnel
from antiaircraft shells, they heard distant bombs falling and heard the big guns boom, enough to drive them all crowding into the air-raid shelter, but there was no fire as there appeared to be no incendiary bombs nearby. The fire he saw, the first fire as against this chip-pan one, was big; a conflagration, his father called it when they told him about it.

It was December and it must have been 1944, for Stanley remembered it was the day after his birthday. He and George were walking home from Roding Road School, the secondary modern, where George had been a year and he had just started. Usually, they’d have walked home up Tycehurst Hill, but this time they took the Hill because George said, let’s see what’s happened to the qanats. It was after Mr. Winwood had turned them all out but not long after—weeks or months, he couldn’t remember. They saw the smoke rising up into the air behind the house called Anderby, the Winwoods’ house. It was coming from the back garden and they stood there staring.

“Michael’s not there,” Stanley remembered George saying. “Mr. Winwood sent him away to his auntie,” and Stanley had said, “He’s always sending people away.”

The fire took a sudden violent turn and flames came, roaring through the gap between Anderby and the Joneses’ fence. It had caught the shed that adjoined the fence and the summerhouse beyond, when the fire engines charged up the Hill, bawling with a far more strident howl than these two had made so many years later for the little frying-pan fire. As the men got out with their hoses and ran up the path, Mr. Winwood had come out and led them round the side of the house, no doubt the quickest way. But he came back, waving his arms about and shouting to Stanley and George.

“Get off home, the pair of you. What the hell d’you think you’re doing gawping there?”

People didn’t swear at children then, and
hell
was swearing. They had gone, not lingering long enough to see what had become of
the tunnels, not knowing till years later when George acquired the land. Stanley had never discovered how the Anderby fire started, and he had never asked George about it when George might have known the answer. Where had everyone else been? Daphne and her mother and her brother? Perhaps Daphne still remembered.

Stanley apologised for being late home. It was all Spot’s fault, refusing to pass a house in Farm Mead where there had been a fire.

“I called the fire brigade.”

“My hero,” said Helen. “And it’s fire
service
. Your dinner’s all ready.”

He sometimes thought he would have married her even if she hadn’t been able to cook, but the cooking helped. This evening it was grilled calamari, coq au vin,
and Eton mess or fresh fruit salad if he chose. He chose the Eton mess, pulling in his once-flat belly.

“What do they call fire engines these days, sweetheart?”

“Fire engines,” said Helen.

7

D
APHNE DID REMEMBER
the fire at Anderby. She remembered the smell before the fire started. The smell is familiar to everyone now, in the world they live in, but not then. Who possessed cars? Even her father, who was (as he put it himself) “quite well-off,” had no car until several years later. Petrol was quite hard to get. She had smelt it when her uncle came by car, carried a tank of the stuff, and poured it into the tank. Now she smelt it again. She opened the kitchen window. Outside, the smell was much stronger.

It was twenty-five to four. She had just got home from school, a quick walk up the Hill from Loughton High School for Girls, which was at the bottom of Alderton Hill. On the way up she said hallo to Mrs. Moss, who was Mr. Winwood’s char. Everyone called her Clara, but Daphne’s mother had told her that at her age it would be polite to call her Mrs. and refer to her as the cleaning lady. In the kitchen a note had been left for Daphne to say her mother had gone to see Granny in Brooklyn Avenue and she’d be back before four. Egg sandwiches were in the fridge. Fridges were quite rare, Daphne knew. Most people didn’t have them. As for egg sandwiches, whatever else was hard to come by in those war years, chickens were always clucking about up here, and eggs, though supposed to be rationed, were plentiful. She took a sandwich outside and saw the
flames. Standing on the stone-built terrace, she could see over the fence and the hedge and see the Winwoods’ garden a mass of glowing red, crimson where the fire was, and flames shooting up everywhere, now licking the shed on the other side of their fence, threatening the Anderby summerhouse.

She was a bit near the fence for comfort. She ought to phone someone—but whom? Would they expect her to do it, and how would she do it? Just as she thought that she must try and had gone back to the phone, she heard the fire engines arrive. Running into the living-room, throwing open the front window, she saw the fire engines and George and Stanley Batchelor outside. Then Mr. Winwood came out of his house, gesticulating and shouting. For once he didn’t see her and wave. Daphne retreated into the back garden. She could feel the heat coming from the glowing fire; it was like being right in front of a powerful electric heater. She found a wheelbarrow on the opposite side of the lawn that their gardener had left on the path, stood on it, and gazed into the glare. The firemen were training their hoses on it now, trying to save the summerhouse; it was too late for the shed and for the ash tree. Its branches had caught and what autumn leaves remained, incandescent and glittering. The flames had crept up its trunk, then burst into a rush of fire, scattering sparks and weaving among the branches of the poor ash tree.

Daphne was just saying aloud, “Oh, the poor tree,” when her mother arrived, running across the lawn.

“My darling, are you all right? What on earth happened?”

“I don’t know.” She wasn’t going to mention the petrol. It was just one of the many things she didn’t mention to her parents. She didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. It was safer for everyone to keep silent on so many things. “It started just after I got back from school. I thought I ought to call the firemen but someone else did.”

She had never been frightened or even alarmed. At least, not once the fire engines arrived. What became of Mr. Winwood for the rest of the day she didn’t know and didn’t ask. Her parents
didn’t like him, so why speak of him to them? She never mentioned him, knowing of their dislike. Best to be silent on all sorts of awkward subjects. She stood on the wheelbarrow again at dusk just before it got too dark to see. The shed had gone, the summerhouse was charred black on its garden side, the fire was dead, just cinders and ashes. She seemed to remember from earlier short and long whitish sticks and thinner white sticks and something like a long, curved rod with ridges all along its length. By the evening all this had gone, coated with ash. In the morning Mr. Winwood was out there with a torch and a rake—she saw him from her bedroom window—levelling everything and leaving just a round, pale gray patch on the lawn. By the time he had finished it had begun to rain and soon it was pouring.

It was so long ago, she thought as she waited for Alan, and no doubt some of it she had imagined and some of it she had forgotten. Perhaps she would tell him what she remembered and perhaps not. Maybe tell him the whole story when the time was right. Come in the afternoon, she had said to him, and that could be anytime between two and five. It gave him an awful lot of leeway. There was a bit of Browning she remembered, the only bit of Browning she knew except that stuff about
O, to be in England
that everyone knew.
I shall see him in three days, and just one night
, but nights are short, then two long hours, and that is morn.

W
HATEVER BECOMES OF US
, Alan thought, walking along the familiar roads to Loughton station, whatever becomes of Daphne and me, let us never be the elderly couple sitting in our wheelchairs, hand in hand, in front of the telly. Anything but that. The last thing Rosemary had said as he was leaving was to bid him tell Robert Flynn that he and Isabel must come to them for lunch and to give Alan some possible dates. He could forget that, she wouldn’t be surprised if he did. She had lately taken to quoting the Tammy Wynette song
and saying he was just a man. The sewing machine had its cover on today, and Rosemary, awaiting the arrival of Freya and Freya’s mother, their daughter Judith, was doing the hand-stitching, tacking up a hem she had already pinned in place. Alan had looked up Hamilton Terrace on the London map for the third or fourth time. By now he knew exactly where it was, could have found Daphne’s house blindfolded, after dark, and in a power cut.

Like a teenage boy, he didn’t know what he would say to her when she opened the door to him. Yet he had thought he could say anything to her. Now as he got out of the train and made his way along the canal to the bridge and Maida Vale, he felt himself struck dumb, like poor Papageno with a padlock on his mouth. Now he was only a couple of hundred yards away, he wanted the distance to be longer, and crossing the street, he sat down on a seat to use up five minutes, breathing deeply before he approached her front door.


W
HERE’S
G
RANDDAD
?”

Rosemary said he had “gone up to town” to see a friend, a Mr. Flynn. “Oh, Ma,” said Judith, “not ‘up to town.’ You sound like Jane Austen. You’ll be saying ‘five-and-twenty past’ next.”

“I do say five-and-twenty past. It’s five-and-twenty past three now. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, Gran,” said Freya. “You say what you want. Why not?” They were drinking tea and eating the carrot cake Rosemary had made that morning. “You’ll have to tell Granddad my news. We’ve found a flat and got a mortgage on it, and we hope to move in before the wedding.”

Rosemary, who had lifted a forkful of cake halfway to her mouth, set it down again. She was the only one of them to use the fork provided. “Can’t you wait until
after
the wedding?”

“We’ve been living together now for years, Gran, so what’s the difference?”

“It seems such a pity. It used to be called living in sin and still is as far as I’m concerned.”

This blighted the conversation. After a few seconds of silence, Rosemary made a small effort to put things right, but her wording was unfortunate. “So where is this flat of yours?”

“I wonder,” said Judith, “why ‘of yours’ gives that question such a pejorative sense?”

“All right, Mum. Leave it. It’s in St. John’s Wood, Gran. More or less opposite Lord’s.”

“Oh, yes, cricket,” said Rosemary. “I’m sure it’s very nice.”

I
T WAS SEVERAL
hours before he even noticed what the house was like. He walked through the glass-covered way and pressed the bell. It rang like a bell and not like chimes or a couple of bars of music. When the door came open, he might have regained his voice, he didn’t know. He stepped inside, and without those elusive, unnecessary words he took her in his arms, kissed her lips, and held her there as close to him as they could be.

“We have a lot of talking to do,” he said when he let her go, “a lot of remembering and reminding each other.”

“So that we know about the other one’s life, so there aren’t any gaps.”

“I want to get used to you, I want the details.”

“I love you already,” she said, and his heart leapt. “I think I’ve loved you since the car on Baldwin’s Hill and the forest. Do you remember?”

“Oh, yes, I remember.”

“Let’s go and sit down. Come in here. See the big sofa? We’ll sit there and we should have some drink. Red wine. I’ve got a very nice delicious burgundy. Would you like that?”

He nodded.

They sat and talked, each with a glass of wine. They talked about their lives, what they had done, where they had been, Alan saying his had been dull, the same place, the same job, Daphne’s anything but. He didn’t mention Rosemary, not even as “my wife”; she only spoke of “my first husband,” “my second husband.” He had always thought of time as being constant, proceeding at the same pace, and wouldn’t have believed it could pass so quickly.

“Oh, Alan,” she said, breaking into his account of a phase of his life, “never call me darling or dear, will you? Call me by my name.”

“Daphne.”

“Yes, always Daphne.”

He kissed her again then, the two of them slipping back to lie in each other’s arms along the length of the deep, soft sofa. He was young again. It wasn’t even necessary to close his eyes. He laid his hand on her left breast, but she gently lifted it away. “Not this time, Alan. Next time. Soon.”

The latest time he could leave for home was nine thirty. “There’s a Persian restaurant round the corner,” she said. “We can walk there.”

“Why Persian? Why not Iranian?”

“I don’t know. But it’s always Persian when it’s a restaurant. They’re the latest thing. We’ve got a Korean one too, presumably
South
Korean. When you’re here all the time, we’ll try them all.”

Could it ever be? Was it possible? At Warwick Avenue station, just before the train came in, they kissed again, and Alan, looking over her shoulder just before they moved apart, saw that no one was staring at them. They were no more the cynosure of all eyes than if they had been eighteen.

U
NLIKE THE
B
ATCHELOR
brothers, old Mr. Newman had been a hands-on builder in his youth. While George and Stanley had dabbled with this and that, a bit of bricklaying, a smidgen of touching
up the paintwork, enjoying being foremen and bossing others about, Harry Newman had been a general builder. He told his grandson Lewis that he would have liked to have built his own house, a house for himself, but he had never had the time, he was too busy earning his living, supporting a wife and children. When he retired, he had nothing to do, a common complaint among men of his age.

“If you can’t build yourself a house, Granddad,” said Lewis, “you could build us an air-raid shelter.”

Available to the British householder were two kinds of bomb shelter, the Anderson and the Morrison, both named after the politicians who had thought them up. Lewis found a piece in the newspaper about them, the former buried underground and composed of wooden struts, corrugated iron, and sandbags, and the latter like an iron table and kept inside but strong enough to support a collapsed house on its roof. He showed them to his grandfather, not knowing—not believing such a thing possible—that Harry Newman, with the exception of a few large-print words in the
Daily Mirror
, was unable to read. Not that Harry would say so. What he said was that he wasn’t going to have any truck with rubbish like that, he’d build his own. And he did. But for his son and his family, in the Newmans’ back garden in Brook Road, his own home being a council house in Roding Road.

It was a good air-raid shelter, and when it began to look as if Loughton would be bombed and the sirens went off every night, sometimes several times, the Newmans, all five of them, descended into its depths with flasks of tea, hot-water bottles, blankets, and eiderdowns and sometimes egg sandwiches. But the work had been too much for Harry. He had some sort of illness, only a small “episode.” Lewis the doctor now supposed it had been a transient ischaemic attack, or ITA, treatable today but unrecognised in those days and usually leading to a stroke. It had led to one. Lewis remembered seeing his grandfather’s useless arm, his twisted face, and then being told of his death. He had been staying in Brook Road for his last months
and had now freed up a room for Uncle James to come and stay when he liked.

Lewis could never understand why Uncle James wanted to stay, and at first he didn’t seem to very much. Loughton was boring, there was nothing to do. The East End of London where he went to college and had a room was perfectly safe, there had been no air raids for months. There was no point in him living out here and having to take the tube every day. Lewis liked James and was glad when he “changed his tune” as Lewis’s mother put it and decided to stay on. He said that Lewis’s father would soon be called up but
he
wouldn’t,
he
was in a reserved occupation and could stay here to look after his sister. Most of this, Lewis found out later, wasn’t true; there was no reserved occupation and no call-up. Charlie Newman, approaching forty, was too old.

Soon afterwards James started going out in the evenings, sometimes staying out till midnight. No one said anything of this to Lewis, but he sensed that his parents didn’t like it. Then came the request to see the qanats. Lewis could no longer remember exactly when James came to know about the tunnels; Lewis must have told him, but if he had, he certainly regretted it. James had said the tunnels “wouldn’t do,” but still he wondered if James had really liked them, had ever gone up there without him, in the evenings perhaps, in the dark, and stayed out till midnight. But why? If the others, the Batchelors and Daphne Jones and Richard Parr and Alan Norris and Rosemary Wharton and Michael Winwood and Bill Johnson, if they ever found James went there, they would take it out on Lewis, they would punish him. No one was supposed to tell
anyone
about the qanats, let alone show them.

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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