LAUREL DID WONDER afterwards how it was possible she’d come this far without thinking to Google her mother’s name. Then again, nothing she knew about Dorothy Nicolson led her to suspect for a second that she might have an online presence.
She didn’t wait to get home to Greenacres. She sat in the parked car outside the hospital, took out her phone and typed ‘Dorothy Smitham’ into the search window. She went too quickly, of course, spelled it incorrectly and had to do it all over again. She steeled herself against whatever the results might show, and then pressed the search button. There were 127 hits. Laurel exhaled. A genealogy site in America, a Thelma Dorothy Smitham looking for friends on Facebook, a white pages listing in Australia, and then, halfway down the page, an entry on the BBC People’s War archive, subtitled ‘A London telephonist remembers World War Two’. Laurel’s finger was shaking as she selected that option.
The page contained the wartime remembrances of a woman called Katherine Frances Barker who’d worked as a telephonist for the War Office in Westminster during the Blitz. It had been submitted, said the note at the top, by Susanna Barker on be-half of her mother. There was a photograph at the top of a spritely old woman, posing somewhat coquettishly against a raspberry velour sofa with crocheted headrests. The annotation read:
Katherine ‘Kitty’ Barker relaxing at home. When WW2 broke out, Kitty moved to London, where she worked as a telephonist for the duration. Kitty would have liked to join the WRNS but communications was considered an essential service and she wasn’t able to leave.
The article itself was rather long and Laurel skimmed it, waiting for her mother’s name to jump out from the text. A few paragraphs down she found it:
I had grown up in the Midlands and had no family in London, but during the war there were services set up to find accommodation for war workers. I was fortunate compared to some, being sent to board in the home of a rather grand woman. The house was at number 7 Campden Grove, Kensington, and although you might not think so, my time spent there during the war was very happy. There were three other office girls staying, too, and a couple of Lady Gwendolyn Cal- dicott’s staff members who had remained when war broke out, a cook and a girl called Dorothy Smitham who was a companion of sorts to the mistress of the house. We became friendly, Dorothy and I, but lost touch when I married my husband, Tom, in 1941. Friendships were forged very quickly during the war—I suppose that should come as no surprise—and I have often wondered what became of my friends from that time. I hope they survived.
Laurel was buzzing. It was incredible, the effect of seeing her mother’s name, her name from before, in print. Especially in a document like this one, recounting the very time and place that Laurel was curious about.
She read the paragraph again and her excitement didn’t wane. Dorothy Smitham had been real. She’d worked for a woman named Lady Gwendolyn Caldicott and lived at number 7 Campden Grove (the same street as Vivien and Henry Jenkins, Laurel noted with a thrill) and she’d had a friend called Kitty. Laurel searched the date of the entry’s submission, 25 October 2008—a friend, who was quite possibly still alive and willing to talk to Laurel. Each discovery was another shining star in the great black sky, forming the picture that would lead Laurel home.
Susanna Barker invited Laurel to call for tea that afternoon. Finding her had proved so simple that Laurel, who’d never believed in an easy ride, had felt a surge of constitutional suspicion. She’d done no more than punch the names Katherine Barker and Susanna Barker into the Numberway online directory page, and then set about dialling each of the resulting numbers. She struck pay dirt on the third. ‘Mother plays golf on Thursdays and talks to students at the local grammar on Fridays,’ Susanna said. ‘There’s a space in her diary today at four, though?’ Laurel had taken the slot gladly, and was now following Susanna’s careful directions along a meandering lane through drenched green fields on the outskirts of Cam-bridge.
A plump jolly sort of woman with a fuzz of coppery rain-frizzed hair was waiting for her by the front gate. She was wearing a cheery sun-yellow cardigan over a brown dress, and clutching an umbrella with both hands in an attitude of polite anxiety. Sometimes, thought the actress inside Laurel (‘ears, eyes and heart, all at once’), you could tell everything there was to know about a person by a single gesture. The woman with the umbrella was nervous, dependable and grateful.
‘Why, hello there,’ she trilled as Laurel crossed the street to-wards her. Her smile exposed a magnificent amount of glossy gum. ‘I’m Susanna Barker and it’s just such an enormous pleasure to meet you.’
‘Laurel. Laurel Nicolson.’
‘But of course I know who you are! Come in, come in, please. Terrible weather, isn’t it? Mother says it’s because I killed a spider inside. Silly me, I ought to know better by now. It always brings the rain, though, doesn’t it?’
Kitty Barker was bright as a button and sharp as a pirate’s sword. ‘Dolly Smitham’s daughter,’ she said, bringing her tiny fist down on the table with a thump. ‘What a bloody marvellous surprise.’ When Laurel attempted to introduce herself and ex-plain how she’d found Kitty’s name on the Internet, the frail hand waved impatiently and its mistress barked; ‘Yes, yes, my daughter told me already—you said so on the phone.’
Laurel, who’d been accused of brusqueness more than once herself, decided to find the woman’s efficiency refreshing—for now. Presumably at the age of ninety-two, one neither minced a word nor wasted a moment. She smiled and said, ‘Mrs Barker, my mother never spoke much about the war when I was growing up—I gather she wanted to put it all behind her—but she’s unwell now and it’s become important to me to know everything I can about her past. I thought perhaps you might tell me a bit about wartime London, in particular about my mother’s life back then.’
Kitty Barker was only too happy to comply. That is, she leapt with alacrity to fulfill the first part of Laurel’s request, launching a lecture on Blitz-time London while her daughter brought the tea and scones.
Laurel paid full attention for a time, but her concentration began to waver when it became clear that Dorothy Smitham was only going to be a bit player in this story. She studied the war-time memorabilia on the sitting-room wall, posters entreating people not to take the squander bug with them when they went shopping, rather to remember their vegetables.
Kitty was still describing the ways in which a person might come to accidental harm in the blackout, and as Laurel watched the clock tick past the half hour her focus drifted to Susanna Barker, gazing at her mother with rapt attention and mouthing along to each and every line. Kitty’s daughter had heard these anecdotes many times before, Laurel realised, and suddenly she understood the dynamic per- fectly—Susanna’s nerviness, her willingness to please, the reverence with which she spoke of her mother—Kitty was Ma’s opposite; she’d created of her war years a mythology from which her own daughter could never escape.
Perhaps all children were held captive, in some part, by their parents’ pasts. What, after all, could poor Susanna ever hope to achieve compared to her mother’s tales of heroism and sacrifice? For the first time, Laurel felt some small gratitude to her parents for having spared their children such a heavy burden. (On the contrary, it was her mother’s lack of history that kept Laurel imprisoned. One couldn’t help but appreciate the irony.)
A glad thing happened then: just as Laurel was losing hope of learning anything of importance, Kitty paused midway through her account to scold Susanna for having taken too long pouring the tea. Laurel seized her chance, wresting the conversation back to Dorothy Smitham. ‘What a tremendous story, Mrs Barker,’ she said, using her most Dame-ish, actressy tone, ‘Fascinating—tremendous bravery all round. But what of my mother? Can you tell me a little bit about her?’ Interruption was clearly not customary, and a stunned silence befell proceedings. Kitty canted her head as if trying to divine an explanation for such effrontery, while Susanna took assiduous care to avoid Laurel’s eyes as she made a wobbly job pouring the tea.
Laurel refused to be abashed. A small childish part of her enjoyed having shut down Kitty’s monologue. She’d taken a liking to Susanna, and the woman’s mother was a bully; Laurel had been taught to stand up to those. She continued cheerfully: ‘Did Ma help out with the efforts at home?’
‘Dolly did her bit,’ said Kitty grudgingly. ‘All of us at the house were part of a roster, taking it in turns to sit on the roof with a bucket of sand and a stirrup pump.’
‘And what about socially?’
‘She enjoyed a good time, as did we all. There was a war on. One had to take pleasure where one found it.’
Susanna offered the milk and sugar tray but Laurel waved it away. ‘I expect a pair of pretty young girls like you must have had a lot of boyfriends, too.’
‘Was there anyone special for my mother, do you know?’
‘There was a fellow,’ said Kitty, taking a sip of black tea. ‘Only I can’t for the life of me think what his name was now.’
But Laurel had an idea—it had come to her suddenly. Last Thursday at the birthday party, the nurse had said Ma was asking after someone, wondering why he hadn’t been to visit. At the time, Laurel had presumed she’d misheard, that it was Gerry she was asking after; now, though, having seen the way her mother’s thoughts were drifting between the present and the past, Laurel knew that she’d been wrong. ‘Jimmy,’ she said. ‘Was the man’s name Jimmy?’
‘Yes!’ said Kitty. ‘Yes, that’s it. I remember now, I used to tease her and say he was her very own Jimmy Stewart. Not that I ever met him, mind, I was only guessing at his looks from what she’d told me.’
‘You never met him?’ That was odd, Ma and Kitty had been friends, they’d lived together, they were young—meeting one another’s boyfriends would have been de rigueur, surely.
‘Not even once. She was very particular about that. He was RAF and far too busy to pay visits.’ Kitty’s mouth pursed in a rather sly manner. ‘So she said, anyway.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Only that my Tom was RAF and he was most certainly not too busy to come calling, if you know what I mean.’ She grinned fiendishly, and Laurel smiled to show that yes, she understood perfectly well.
‘You think my mother might have lied?’ she pressed.
‘Not lied, exactly, so much as embroidered the truth. It was always hard to tell with Dolly. She had quite an imagination.’
Laurel knew that well enough. All the same it seemed strange that she’d have kept the man she loved a secret from her friends. People in love usually wanted to trumpet it from the rooftops and Ma had never been one to keep her emotions concealed.
unless there’d been something about Jimmy that meant his identity needed to be kept secret. There was a war on—perhaps he’d really been a spy. That would certainly explain Dorothy’s secrecy, her inability to marry the man she loved, her own need to escape. Tying Henry and Vivien Jenkins to the scenario was going to be a little more problematic, unless Henry had somehow found out about Jimmy and it posed a threat to national security—
‘Dolly never brought Jimmy home because the old woman whose house it was didn’t approve of male visitors,’ Kitty said, casually poking a needle into the balloon of Laurel’s grand theory. ‘Old Lady Gwendolyn had a sister once—thick as thieves they were when they were young; lived together in the house at Campden Grove, and never one went that the other didn’t follow. It all broke apart, though, when the younger one fell in love and got married. She moved away with her husband, and her sister never forgave her. Locked herself in her bedroom for decades and refused to see anyone. Hated people, she did, though evidently not your mother. Close, they were; Dolly was loyal to the old woman and a stickler for that rule. She had no difficulty breaking just about any other, mind you—no one like her for getting nylons and lipsticks on the black market—but she stuck to that one like her life depended on it.’
Something in the way Kitty put that last comment gave Laurel pause. ‘You know, looking back, I think that was the beginning.’ Kitty frowned with the effort of staring down the tunnel of old memories.
‘The beginning of what?’ Laurel said, presentiment tingling in her fingertips.
‘Your mother changed. Dolly had been such a lot of fun when the rest of us first arrived at Campden Grove, but then she got all funny about keeping the old lady happy.’
‘Well, Lady Gwendolyn was her employer. I expect she—’
‘There was more to it than that. She started on and on about the old lady looking upon her as family. She began acting more posh, too, treating us as if we weren’t good enough for her any more—she made new friends instead.’
‘Vivien,’ said Laurel, suddenly. ‘You mean Vivien Jenkins.’
‘I see your mother told you about her,’ said Kitty, with a caustic twist to her lips. ‘Forgot about the rest of us, sure enough, but not Vivien Jenkins. No surprise in that, of course, no surprise at all. An author’s wife, she was, lived across the street. Terribly snooty—beautiful, of course, you couldn’t deny that, but cold with it. She wouldn’t lower herself to stop and talk to you in the street. Terrible influence on Dolly—she thought Vivien was the bee’s knees.’
‘They saw a lot of one another?’
Kitty took up a scone and spooned a glob of glistening jam on top. ‘I’m sure I wouldn’t know the details,’ she said tartly, spreading the red preserve flat. ‘I was never invited to join them and Dolly had stopped telling me her secrets by then. I expect that’s why I didn’t know anything was wrong until it was too late.’
‘Too late for what? What was wrong?’
Kitty landed a dollop of cream on her scone and eyed Laurel over the top. ‘Something happened between them, your mother and Vivien, something nasty. Early 1941; I remember because I’d just met my Tom—that’s probably why it didn’t bother me as much as it might’ve otherwise. Dolly got herself into a terrible dark mood afterwards, snapping all the time, refusing to come out with us, avoiding Jimmy. Like a different person, she was—wouldn’t even go to the canteen.’
‘The WVS canteen?’
Kitty nodded as she took a delicate mouthful of scone. ‘She loved working there, was always skipping out on the old lady, ducking down to fill a shift—very brave, your mother, never frightened of the bombs—but all of a sudden she stopped. Wouldn’t go back for all the tea in China.’
‘She didn’t say, but I know it was something to do with her, the other one across the street. I saw them together the day they fought, you know; I was on my way back from work, a little earlier than usual due to an unexploded bomb that had turned up near my office, and I saw your mother coming out of the Jenkins’s house. Well!—The look on her face—’ Kitty was shaking her head—‘forget about the bombs—the way Dolly looked I thought she might’ve been about to explode.’ Laurel took a sip of tea. She could think of one scenario that might stop a woman from seeing both her friend and her boy-friend at the same time. Had Jimmy and Vivien become involved in an affair? Was that why her mother had broken off her engagement and run away to start a new life? Certainly it would explain Henry Jenkins being an- gry—though not with Dorothy, surely; neither did it account for Ma’s recent expressions of regret about the past. There was nothing regrettable about picking oneself up and starting again: it was a brave thing to do. ‘What do you think happened?’ she probed gently, setting down her cup.
Kitty lifted her bony shoulders, but there was something devious about the gesture. ‘Dolly really never told you anything about it, did she?’ Her expression was one of surprise disguising deeper pleasure. She sighed theatrically. ‘Well, I suppose she always was a one for keeping secrets. Some mothers and daughters just aren’t as close as others, are they?’
Susanna beamed; her mother took another bite of scone.
Laurel had a strong feeling Kitty was holding something back. Being one of four sisters she also had a pretty good idea how to winkle it out. There weren’t many confidences that indifference couldn’t shake lose. ‘I’ve taken up enough of your time, Mrs Barker,’ she said, folding her napkin and realigning her teaspoon. ‘Thank you for talking to me. It’s been most helpful. Let me know, won’t you, if you think of anything else that might explain what happened between Vivien and my mother.’ Laurel stood up and pushed in her chair. Started towards the door.
‘You know,’ said Kitty, who’d been shadowing Laurel’s every step, ‘there is something else, now I think of it.’
It wasn’t easy, but Laurel managed not to smile. ‘Oh?’ she said. ‘What’s that?’
Kitty sucked in her lips as if she were about to speak against her will and she wasn’t quite sure how it had come to this. She barked at Susanna to top up the pot and when her daughter was gone, ushered Laurel back to the table. ‘I told you about Dolly’s foul mood,’ she began; ‘awful, it was. Terribly dark. And it lasted all the rest of our time together at Campden Grove. Then one night, a few weeks after my wedding, my husband had gone back on duty and I arranged to go out dancing with a few of the girls from work. I almost didn’t ask Doll—she’d been such a bore of late—but I did, and quite unexpectedly she agreed to come.
‘She arrived at the dance club, dressed to the nines and laughing like she’d given herself a head start with the whisky. Brought a friend with her, too, a girl she’d grown up with in Coventry—Caitlin something- or-other, very hoity-toity at first but she soon warmed up—no choice with Doll around. She was one of those people—spirited—made you want to have a good time just because she was.’
Laurel smiled faintly, recognising her mother in the description.
‘She was certainly having a good time that night, let me tell you. She had a wild look in her eyes, laughing and dancing and saying the oddest things. When it was time to go, she grabbed me by the arms and told me she had a plan.’
‘A plan?’ Laurel felt each hair on the back of her neck stand up straight.
‘She said Vivien Jenkins had done something terrible to her, but she had a plan that was going to set everything to rights. She and Jimmy were going to live happily ever after; everyone was going to get what they deserved.’
It was just as her mother had told Laurel in the hospital. But things hadn’t gone to plan, and she hadn’t married Jimmy. In-stead, Henry Jenkins had been made angry. Laurel’s heart was racing but she did her best to seem unmoved. ‘Did she tell you what her plan was?’
‘She didn’t and, to be honest, I didn’t put much stock on it at the time. Things were different in the war. People were always saying and doing things they wouldn’t have otherwise. You never knew what the next day might bring, whether you’d even wake up to see it—that sort of uncertainty has a way of loosening a person’s scruples. And your mother always did have an eye for the dramatic. I figured all her talk of revenge was just that—talk. It wasn’t until afterwards that I wondered if she’d not been more serious than I realised.’
Laurel edged a little closer. ‘Afterwards?’
‘She disappeared into thin air. That night in the dance club was the last I saw of her. Never heard from her again, not so much as a word, and she didn’t return any of my letters. I thought she might’ve been got by a bomb, until I had a visit from an older woman, just after the war ended. Very secretive it was—she was asking after Doll, wanting to know if there was anything “unmentionable” she might have done in her past.’
Laurel had a flashback to the dark cool of Grandma Nicolson’s spare bedroom. ‘A tall woman with a handsome face and an expression like she’d been sucking lemons?’
Kitty cocked a single brow. ‘Friend of yours?’
‘My grandmother. Paternal.’
‘Ah,’ Kitty smiled toothily, ‘the mother-in-law. She didn’t mention that, only told me she was your mother’s employer and was performing a little background check. They still got married though, your mum and dad—he must’ve been terribly keen on her.’
‘Why? What did you tell my grandmother?’
Kitty blinked, all innocence. ‘I was hurt. I’d worried about her when I didn’t hear, and then to learn she’d just up and left and never bothered to say a word.’ She waved her hand vaguely. ‘I might’ve embellished just a little, given Dolly a few more boy-friends than she’d really had, a taste for liquor … nothing too serious.’
But quite sufficient to explain Grandma Nicolson’s sour grapes: boyfriends were bad enough, but a taste for liquor? That was akin to sacrilege.
Laurel was anxious suddenly to be outside the cluttered cottage, alone with her thoughts. She thanked Kitty Barker and started to gather her things.
‘Remember me to your mother, won’t you?’ Kitty said, ac-company- ing Laurel to the door.
Laurel assured her that she would and pulled on her coat.
‘I never did get to say a proper goodbye. I thought about her, over the years, especially when I knew she’d survived the war. There wasn’t much I could’ve done though—Dolly was very determined—one of those girls who always got exactly what she wanted. If she wanted to disappear, there’s no one who’d have been able to stop or find her.’
Except Henry Jenkins, thought Laurel, as Kitty Barker’s door closed behind her. He’d been able to find her, and Dorothy had made sure that whatever reason he had for seeking her out, had died with him that day at Greenacres.
Laurel sat in the green Mini at the front of Kitty Barker’s cottage, engine running. The air vents were on full and she willed the heating to hurry up and make things warm. It was almost five and darkness had begun to hover outside the window. The spires of Cambridge University were visible glints against the dusky sky, but Laurel didn’t see them. She was far too busy imagining her mother—the young woman in that photograph she’d found—standing in a dance club, grabbing Kitty Barker by the wrists and telling her in a wild voice that she had a plan, that she was going to set things right. ‘What was it, Dorothy?’ Laurel mumbled to herself, reaching now for her cigarettes, ‘What on earth did you do?’
Her mobile phone rang while she was still digging in her handbag and she fished it out, hope crystallising in an instant that it would be Gerry, returning her calls at last.
‘Laurel? It’s Rose. Phil has his toastmasters meeting tonight, and I was thinking you might like some company. I could bring over dinner, perhaps a DVD?’
Laurel exhaled, stalling while she tried to invent an excuse. She felt disloyal about lying, especially to Rose, but this quest of hers wasn’t something she was able yet to share, not with her sisters anyway; to sit through a rom-com making light chit-chat while her mind raced ahead trying to unknot her mother’s past would have been agony. A pity—there was a part of her that would have loved to hand the whole tangled mess over to someone else and say, ‘See what you can make of this’; but the burden was hers, and although she had every intention of telling her sisters eventually, she refused to do so—indeed she couldn’t do so—until she damn well knew the whole of what there was to tell.
She tousled her hair, still racking her brain for a reason to turn down dinner (Lord but she was hungry now she thought about it) and as she did, she noticed the proud towers of the university, majestic in the gloomy distance.
‘Lol? Are you there?’
‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘The line’s not very good. I said would you like me to make you dinner?’
‘No,’ Laurel said quickly, glimpsing suddenly the hazy outline of a rather good idea. ‘Thanks, Rosie, but no. How about I give you a call tomorrow.’
‘Everything all right? Where are you?’
The line was becoming cracklier and Laurel had to shout. ‘Every thing’s fine. It’s just—’. She grinned as her plan became clear and sharp. ‘I’m not going to be home tonight, not until rather late.’
‘Afraid not. I’ve just remembered, Rose, there’s someone else I’ve got to go and see.’