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Authors: F. G. Cottam

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BOOK: The House of Lost Souls
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‘It’s pretty worthless.’

‘On the contrary, it’s quite valuable. It was printed by some Bloomsbury offshoot on a press set up by Lytton Strachey.’

‘I meant it’s worthless as a source.’

Lucinda nodded. They both sipped tea. It was strong and malty. Like her vowels, her tea had a northern character. ‘Most of her best work is in the British Museum.’

‘So she did do good work?’

‘Oh, yes. She did great work. For a period.’

‘What were you hoping to find?’ He was aware that in saying this he was putting Lucinda’s efforts into the past tense. And she must have noticed because, for a moment, she didn’t reply.

‘More than exists in the public domain. Pandora painstakingly learned photography, the craft and science of it, to meet some artistic need or yearning in her that wasn’t being satisfied. She certainly didn’t need whatever income or profit her work could provide. And women photographers were regarded as dilettantes, so she wasn’t after status. She was an artist. And then she stopped.’

‘And you were seeking to explain why she stopped? To solve the mystery? That was the thrust of your dissertation?’

‘No, Paul. I think there’s a cache of work, somewhere. I think there’s important work of hers still to be discovered. And, stupidly, I was hoping to be the one to find it.’

Seaton put Poole’s book on the floor and held out his free hand and took hers and was gratified to feel his grip returned. ‘Does this conversation mean you’re going to let me help you?’

‘Help me cheat, you mean?’

‘If you like.’

‘Yes,’ Lucinda said. ‘I suppose it does.’

Later, Seaton walked to the newsagent’s shop on Lambeth Walk and rented
An American Werewolf In London
. And they wound back the tape and watched the scene when the two hapless Americans seek refuge in the Slaughtered Lamb three times, laughing more with every viewing.

‘I’ll bet you had a crush on Jenny Agutter,’ Lucinda said.

‘Ah, come on,’ Seaton said. ‘There’s barely a man alive didn’t have a crush on Jenny Agutter.’

Later, they walked into Kennington and met Stuart Lockyear and Patrick at the Black Prince pub where a singalong was staged on weekend nights. And Patrick sang ‘Blueberry Hill’, improvising the words because he didn’t know them, scat-singing in the end, Seaton watching his brother perform, weeping tears of laughter, with a Guinness in one hand and the other over his eyes, only daring to look through the gaps between his fingers. And Patrick finished to a standing ovation and, at closing time, Seaton and Lucinda walked home under a high moon, the pavements still warm from the heat of the day, the sky paler over where they knew the river reflected the moon, the two of them happy, he thought, to have survived their first row without really having had to row at all.

Eleven

On the Sunday, he asked Lucinda to give him all her notes, the whole file, everything she had on Gibson-Hoare. It was a scant archive. There was a photocopy of a
Times
obituary and Xeroxes of some of the fashion plates kept at the British Museum. There was an ancient copy of
Vogue
containing a spread of fashion pictures she had taken on what appeared to be a touring-car and picnic theme. Brogued shoes and flat caps accessorized tweed and gabardine in pictures that cried out to be in colour. But colour in those days would have meant hand-tinting. Another feature, this one in
Harper’s Bazaar
, was a swimsuit story shot on what looked, from the intensity of light, like the Riviera. Beautiful people lounged on chairs and a diving board against the bleached cement of a deco pool. You could see her skill in this shoot, in the tactile way she handled skin and light, like a sculptress with her camera.

Finally there was a photograph of Gibson-Hoare herself. She wore her dark hair woven in plaits around her head, under a glistening tiara. There were pearls around her neck in a thick rope. And her shoulderless dress, sewn with beads, winked and glistened in the light from a chandelier. The picture was a group shot and had been taken at a table at the Café Royal. Café Royal insignia embroidered a curtain behind the smiling group. All the figures in the shot with her were male. There were five of them, they were in evening wear, and Seaton recognised two. One of the two was Crowley again, smiling again, his deep eyes holding an expression entirely at odds with the bland ordinariness of his other facial features. Also recognisable was Oswald Mosley, younger and thinner in the face than he became when he was notorious, but still unmistakable.

Seaton turned the photograph over. The names of the individuals in the group were pencilled on to the back of the print. Lucinda was leaning over her sewing machine, biting through a length of cotton thread. She tilted her head in a way he found funny when she did it, like a cat, worrying at something.

‘Who is Wheatley?’

‘A thriller writer. His books are all out of print.’

He nodded.

‘Fischer?’

‘Some sort of industrialist. An arms dealer, I think. Made a fortune in the aftermath of the Great War out of weapons patents. I’ve no idea about the fifth guy. But she ran with a pretty louche crowd, did Pandora.’

Seaton nodded. He had shifted from the sofa to a chair under the window to see the picture in better light. The eyes of the men in it all seemed to share the same lazy malevolence the eyes of big cats have when they doze, half-awake, between kills. It was a look that gave the lie to ever relaxing in the truest sense. There was a lethal indolence there, a sort of predatory alertness only lightly disguised. Except for Crowley. To Seaton, Crowley in the Café Royal picture simply looked deranged.

There was no sincerity in any of the smiles. Pandora Gibson-Hoare had that in common, at least, with the people with whom she shared her table. But when Seaton looked closely, he didn’t think she looked truly one of them, not really. Under the jewellery and elaboration, he thought she manifested two characteristics unique to her in the group. She looked very beautiful. And she looked afraid.

He started first thing on Monday morning, just as soon as he had opened what post he had at his desk and phoned the press bureau at Scotland Yard to learn of any crimes committed over the weekend on Hackney’s ground. There were several, of course, but none that merited following up. They got an edition out twice-weekly and Monday was a press day. But the paper was pretty full, looking only for a front-page lead. There was a gruesome court report about a revenge killing already on the stocks, and one of the boys was working on a human interest based around a toddler rescue from a canal. At ten thirty, the owner of a pet shop at Hackney Downs called in with a story about how a monkey had escaped its cage and run amok, trashing the pet-shop interior and liberating most of the stock, the previous day.

‘We’ll lead on the furry felon,’ the editor said at ten forty-five, putting his head around the newsroom door in one of his whimsical moods. He wouldn’t have done it for the Friday edition. But he must have thought he could get away with it midweek. It certainly made a change from blues-party stabbings and arson attacks and tower-block suicides. And Seaton wasn’t on it, so he climbed the stairs to photographic to pick brains on how he might discover more about Pandora Gibson-Hoare.

There were two staffers up there on the fourth floor. Mike Whitehall was the junior of the two and had been dispatched to record the furry felon’s carnage in glorious black and white. It had occurred to Seaton that monkeys were actually covered in hair, but their readers were unlikely to argue the distinction and their editor was notoriously partial to alliteration in headlines. Anyway, he was glad Mike had gone. Mike possessed a born reporter’s curiosity and would want chapter and verse about why he was asking his questions. Eddie Harrington, an indifferent veteran close to retirement, would not. And he was the more likely of the two to know the answers.

The darkroom light was off when Seaton got to the open door of their set of offices at the top of the stairs. That was good. It meant Eddie wasn’t developing. He walked along a narrow corridor and found their chief photographer polishing lenses on a stool in a walk-in cupboard full of camera equipment and stoppered glass bottles of chemicals. Eddie nodded at him over his spectacles but didn’t stop polishing. Dust rose in tiny particles and danced around the yellow dusting cloth in his fingers in what light crept there from the corridor.

Seaton knew Eddie liked him. He wore a suit for work. He was polite, respectful still to his elders, because it was how he had been brought up to be. There was still a punk hangover among the young reporters in the newsroom that manifested itself in mohair jumpers and a sort of sneering generic insolence. They thought of themselves as pioneers of new-wave journalism as they tapped out wedding and funeral captions on the newsroom’s ancient typewriters. And they kept threatening lightning strikes, mumbling darkly about pay parity and demarcation. None of them was well-paid. Not compared to the printers in the building’s basement, anyway. But that wasn’t the fault of old staffers like Eddie. So Seaton made sure he was smart and respectful. And he knew that Eddie liked him for it.

‘You say she died in obscurity?’

‘In poverty. Which, I suppose, pretty much amounts to the same thing. It was odd, because she had plenty of wealthy relatives who would have helped her. But she was penniless when she took her life. And she didn’t do that wherever she was living. So I don’t have an address.’

Eddie pondered this. ‘Why is that address so important?’

‘It’s a long shot, to be honest with you. I need to find any papers she might have left. Her final address might give me a clue as to their location, if they still exist.’

The expression on Eddie’s face suggested he thought this shot particularly long. It occurred to Seaton that Eddie was probably by now fondling the best-polished lens in the history of his department.

‘I’ll give you a list,’ Eddie said. ‘Professional guilds, associations, organisations to which photographers generally belong.’ He finally put down his polishing cloth and began to pat his waistcoat pockets for a pen.

‘Did she use a printer?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Portrait photographers often do. Printing is an art in itself, beyond a particular point in the photographic craft. And printers mean invoices and invoices mean addresses. She very likely would have had an account with a printer. If she did, that printer would have to have had her address.’

‘I’ll phone my girlfriend and ask if she knows.’

Eddie nodded. ‘I’ll have your contacts list by the time you get back.’

Lucinda was at home, sewing frantically for her degree show. Outside their flat, the relentless sun of that relentless summer had turned the grass a brittle yellow. But she was inside, toiling over her patterns, her fabrics, her little electric machine. He pictured her in the light through the muslin drapes she had run up for their windows. And Seaton felt a surge of love for her as she answered the phone with her slight, northern formality. She was living for this bloody show of hers. He loved her. He did. And he would help her all he could. He spoke in a hushed voice in the presence of the other newsroom reporters as they clattered fingers on their typewriter keys and smoked and pretended not to listen to anything worth listening to.

‘No printer,’ Lucinda said.

‘Fuck.’

‘She printed all her pictures herself. Many of them were private commissions and the fact that she printed them, that they were never in the hands of a third party, was apparently a prerequisite of the commission itself.’

‘How do you know that, Lucinda?’

In Lambeth, there was a silence. In Hackney, the newsroom clattered and scraped with busy chairs.

‘What?’

‘How do you know that?’

‘It’s anecdotal. Some of her work was very risqué by the standards of the time, apparently. And some of the subjects rather well-known. Why?’

‘How can you know so much about this woman? And so little?’ Lambeth was silent again. So was the newsroom. ‘I’m sorry,’ Seaton said. He replaced the receiver on its cradle and looked at the pinboard on the wall next to his desk for inspiration. It was covered in clippings and flyers. There was a signed print of Henry Cooper pushing over a pile of pennies on behalf of some charity next to a grinning pearly queen in a Shoreditch pub. There was a leaflet for the Save Wapping campaign. There was Princess Di in puffball sleeves at a bedside in Homerton Hospital. Children face-painting; fund-raising fire fighters, a headline claiming pharaoh ants were terrorising a Clapton estate. No inspiration there.

He went and got Eddie’s completed list and did a ring around. And he discovered that Pandora Gibson-Hoare had been a member of several photographic bodies and associations. But all of them, when the people he spoke to obligingly went to look, had her last address as the house in Cheyne Walk where she had lived in the period when the Café Royal picture had been taken. Seaton located and rang the number for the Chelsea Arts Club.

‘Oh dear,’ said the elderly female voice on the end of the line. ‘We don’t keep records that far back. But I do remember her, vaguely. And I remember that she lived in Chelsea. She had a rather grand address, in Cheyne Walk.’

He looked at his watch. It was twelve o’clock. He’d been on this only two hours, which was no time at all. But he had a bad feeling about it, a feeling of discouragement. When her body had been found, according to the one obituary, she had been officially described as being of no fixed abode. It meant she had been destitute. London in the 1930s was a grim place to be homeless, a cruel place to try to find refuge in without the money to pay a regular rent. So many of the population were poor. Not genteel poverty but the relentless, widespread, worsening desperation of the Great Depression. Compassion was scarce and charity almost totally arbitrary. It had required the welfare state to provide a proper safety net. But, more importantly, it had required the welfare state to provide individuals with a paper trail it was possible to access and research and follow. And that had not been established until 1948, eleven years after the death of the woman whose trail was looking colder to Seaton by the minute.

He got up and offered to make a round of teas. He ran into Mike from photography in the staff kitchen.

‘How was the furry felon?’

‘Hirsute. Felonious.’

Seaton nodded, washing cups. Mike had a superior vocabulary to anyone on the writing side of the staff. But tabloid writing was all about the words you rejected. And he was a snapper, so the talent was doubly redundant.

‘Arthur’s café for lunch in an hour?’

‘Why not?’ Seaton said. Arthur’s was just before the pie-and-mash shop on Kingsland Road as you headed towards Dalston Junction. After the Favourite, next to Camden Town Underground station, Seaton thought it the best café outside of Dublin. One of Arthur’s mixed grills might just provide the necessary inspiration.

She was found in the river, low tide leaving her corpse stranded on the pebbles near Shadwell Stair, not far from the Prospect of Whitby pub. And that was probably as close to a common public house as someone from her background had ever come. How could she have descended so far as to die destitute? Did none of her eminent friends try to help her? Had she gone mad? The stigma of insanity was the only explanation Seaton could think of for the blanket neglect of her former circle. He looked at the obituary again, which stated with genteel disdain that she had died from a self-inflicted wound. That was an odd way even for the
Times
in 1937 to describe a drowning.

He called Bob Halliwell, the desk sergeant at Bethnal Green nick and one of his better-cultivated contacts. Though cultivated was not a word you would associate with Halliwell generally. Halliwell had told him once he spent his spare time fly-fishing. Seaton thought Halliwell probably the sort of angler who dynamited for trout.

Bob Halliwell listened patiently. Then he said, ‘Forty-six years. Mick, even by your standards, this is a pretty stale lead.’

Halliwell called him Mick because he came from Dublin. Worse, the policeman thought this was genuinely funny. ‘It would have been Whitechapel’s ground back then, that stretch of the river.’

‘But you’d have the paperwork since the consolidation. And the file would have been transferred and archived and put on to your computer records.’

Halliwell sniffed. ‘In theory,’ he said.

‘Go on, Bob,’ Seaton said. ‘It’s worth a drink.’

‘It’s worth more than one,’ Halliwell said. And then, reluctantly, ‘Give me the name again. I’ll call you back if I can find anything.’

He was looking out of the window, to where Mike Whitehall waited for him for the walk down to Arthur’s when Bob Halliwell returned his call fifty minutes later.

‘She didn’t drown, Mick. She cut her throat before jumping and bled to death in the water.’

BOOK: The House of Lost Souls
10.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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