Authors: Maggie Joel
Tags: #FIC000000, #book
Maggie Joel is a British-born writer currently living in Sydney. She has been writing fiction and non-fiction for more than ten years and has had many short stories published including in
Canberra Arts Review
. She is the author of
The Past and Other Lies.
First published in 2010 by Pier 9, an imprint of Murdoch Books Pty Limited
Murdoch Books Australia
Pier 8/9, 23 Hickson Road
Millers Point NSW 2000
Phone: +61 (0) 2 8220 2000
Fax: +61 (0) 2 8220 2558
Murdoch Books UK Limited
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Phone: +44 (0) 20 8785 5995
Fax: +44 (0) 20 8785 5985
Publisher: Colette Vella
Editor: Tricia Dearborn
Designer: Katy Wall
Cover photo: Getty Images
Text copyright © 2010 Maggie Joel
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Design copyright © 2010 Murdoch Books
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the publisher.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication Data:
Author: Joel, Maggie.
Title: The second-last woman in England / Maggie Joel.
ISBN: 9781741964820 (pbk.)
eISBN: 9781742661759 (e-book)
Dewey Number: A823.4
For my mother, Sheila
Thanks to Colette Vella, Kay Scarlett, Ali Lavau, Rhiannon Kellie, Tricia Dearborn, Louise Godley, Sheila Joel, Anne Benson, Liz Brigden, Sharon Mathews and all the wonderful people at Murdoch Books for your continued assistance, support, expertise and encouragement during the writing and publication of this book.
Towards the end of May 1953, Mr Cecil Condor Wallis made the decision to watch the Coronation on a newly purchased television set rather than give in to his children’s wishes to join the hundreds of thousands lining the streets less than a mile from his South Kensington home. It was an odd decision for a man who had, on a number of occasions, expressed his loathing for the new medium—and one that probably cost him his life.
There were, of course, other factors, aside from the decision to purchase the television set, that contributed to Mr Wallis’s death.
On the day in question—that disappointingly wet Tuesday on the second day of June—the Wallises, their two young children and a number of close family and friends gathered in the Wallises’ home at number 83 Athelstan Gardens to watch the broadcast. A party had been organised. Not just tea and lemonade, but champagne! Ordered from Harrods and delivered the day before by a liveried man in a large green and gold van. The silver had been polished. A Scottish smoked salmon, plump Spanish olives and tiny wafers of French toast had been laid out on silver trays in the kitchen downstairs. A pale-pink crab soufflé steamed gently in the oven. (How all this had been achieved on the extra ration of one pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine provided by the Government over the Coronation month remained a mystery.) And a television set had been purchased for the occasion from Peter Jones of Sloane Square and set up in the upstairs drawing room.
On that day Mr Wallis wore a navy blazer, beige flannel trousers, a white linen shirt, a cricket club tie, navy socks (wool) and black loafers (leather, Italian). He had eaten two kippers and some buttered toast for his breakfast and at some point during the morning he drank one cup of tea and one of coffee, both with milk but not sugar—so noted the coroner’s report the following week.
How long Mr Wallis took to consider his wardrobe that morning (should he wear the cricket club tie rather than the rowing club?) or his breakfast half an hour later (ought he to risk that second kipper? Should he butter his toast but perhaps not spread marmalade on it?) was undoubtedly less time than the coroner took to record all these facts and to present them, first at the inquest and later at the trial. And it was certainly less time than the prosecuting counsel and the jury took to mull, at length, over each and every item.
On the morning of her Coronation, Queen Elizabeth, travelling in her Gold State Coach drawn by eight handsome Windsor Greys and surrounded by sundry gloriously liveried and uniformed escorts, left Westminster Abbey after her crowning and returned along Whitehall and The Mall, arriving in triumph at Buckingham Palace at a little before one o’clock in the afternoon. At a few minutes past one, according to those present, Mr Wallis left his drawing room to ask the housekeeper, Mrs Thompson, to bring another bottle of champagne up from the kitchen. He re-entered the room at 1.20 pm, having not (according to Mrs Thompson) spoken to her. He returned to his seat and picked up a glass of champagne at the exact moment that his wife, Mrs Harriet Wallis, entered the room and shot her husband six times in the chest, abdomen and left leg with a double action Webley Mk VI revolver. Two bullets, the second and third, entered his heart and he died instantly.
All of the witnesses later recalled that at the precise moment Mrs Wallis had entered the room, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth had stepped out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her family. The thousands waiting outside the Palace, their faces pressed against the railings, had burst into a spontaneous rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’. It represented not simply the culmination of a magnificent day, but the beginning of a glorious new era.
And perhaps it was the breathtakingly unpatriotic timing of Mrs Wallis’s crime that caused the jury to take a mere 45 minutes to find her guilty of murder.
By the time the new Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had departed on their tour of the Commonwealth in November, Harriet Wallis had been tried, convicted and hanged and lay in an unmarked grave in West London.
Which was a pity, for had Mrs Wallis waited just twelve years to murder her husband—capital punishment by then having been abolished—she would merely have received a life sentence; might, indeed, still be alive today, paroled and living quietly under an assumed name in a provincial town. But it was 1953 and on that grey November morning Harriet Wallis became the second-last woman in England to be hanged.
The settee was lop-sided—high at one end and low at the other and with an arm only at the high end so that you felt as though you were going to slide off it. It was made of a dark, highly polished wood that gleamed importantly and was upholstered in a rich crimson velvet that resisted any attempt to render it simply a piece of furniture on which to place your bottom.
Jean Corbett attempted, unsuccessfully, to hover about an inch above the rich crimson velvet. She knew that if she so much as came into contact with it she would mark it—indelibly, and for all time.
And worse, that she wouldn’t get the job. She swallowed and hoped her thigh muscles were up to it.
‘You don’t appear to have any qualifications, Miss Corbett.’
Jean’s heart sank and the settee sighed contemptuously beneath her.
Opposite her in a chair of such slender proportions, with such spindly legs and narrow back it hardly seemed designed to hold an actual person, sat her prospective employer. It was a modern chair—a chair that thumbed its nose at wartime utility furniture. A chair whose sole purpose it was to hold someone like Mrs Harriet Wallis.
For Mrs Wallis, too, seemed bizarrely out of proportion. She sat, one leg crossed over the other, the sheen of her nylons giving her shins a metallic quality, the toe of her black court shoe pointing directly at Jean. Her legs, from knee to foot, seemed impossibly long but instead of appearing deformed, Mrs Wallis appeared to be some higher being, some superior species of female that instantly rendered the remainder of her sex stunted and obscene. Once Jean had accepted the distressing reality of such legs, she took in the suit—smart, elegant, cream-coloured and probably Dior (Jean had no idea if it was Dior; this was the only designer whose name she knew)—she noticed the hands (slender, manicured), the lips (brightly lipsticked) and the hair (fair without being blonde and if it came from a bottle you would never have spotted it) piled high on her head. As for Mrs Wallis’s eyes, they appeared to look straight through her and yet not see her at all.
Jean clutched her handbag and then released her grip lest Mrs Wallis see how tightly she was holding it. Her palms were damp.
She needed this job.
They were seated in a sort of upstairs living room. Around her, Jean had an impression of gaily coloured wallpaper. Of paintings on the wall showing randomly daubed paint. Of hectic patterns on the carpet—narrow, curved lines on a background of burnt orange. It was all Very Modern. Only the lop-sided settee seemed strangely out of place. The settee—and herself. The room was situated on the first floor of a four-storey town house. Jean had never been to a house where the living room was on the first floor before. What was the ground floor for, she wondered? Was there another family that lived downstairs? She knew there wasn’t, of course, but her head swam with the thought of so much space for just four people.
Mrs Wallis’s eyes rested a moment on Jean’s face, flickered for less than a second the length of her body then returned to her face. Jean felt herself being appraised and one part of her flinched and another part hardened. She sat silent, and very still. It seemed important not to draw attention to herself. Difficult when she was being interviewed for a job.
Some moments passed. She had not yet answered Mrs Wallis’s question. Perhaps it did not require an answer, for Mrs Wallis had abruptly returned to her silent contemplation of Jean’s credentials.
Jean pulled her grey knitted jacket more firmly across her chest and tucked her feet further out of sight beneath the settee. (No matter how much you polished an old pair of shoes it was still an old pair of shoes: heavy, ugly, functional—the kind of shoes, in fact, that a nanny might wear.) No doubt she ought to have worn gloves but she had no gloves—or not the sort you wore in a house like this, in a street like this one. She slid her hands beneath her handbag and waited. Besides, for all she knew nannies didn’t wear gloves. She didn’t really know what nannies wore—or, in truth, what they did. It made applying for this position something of a challenge.