London, February 1941
JIMMY HURRIED across London, an unfamiliar spring in his step. It had been weeks since he’d had any contact with Dolly—she’d refused to see him when he tried to visit her at Campden Grove, and she hadn’t answered any of his letters—but now, finally, this. He could feel her letter in his pocket, the same spot he’d carried the ring that awful night—God, he hoped it wasn’t an ill omen. The letter had arrived at the newspaper office earlier in the week, a simple note imploring him to meet her at the park bench in Kensington Gardens, the one nearest the Peter Pan sculpture. There was something she needed to talk to him about, something she hoped might please him.
She’d changed her mind and wanted to marry him. That had to be it. Jimmy was trying to be wary, he hated to jump to conclusions, not when he’d suffered so hard after she turned him down, but he couldn’t stop his thoughts—admit it, his hopes—from going there. What else could it be? Something that would please him—there was only one thing he could think of that would do that. God knew, Jimmy could do with some good news.
They’d been bombed out ten days before. The whole thing had come out of nowhere. There’d been a lull lately, more eerie in its way than the worst of the Blitz—all that quietude and peace had a way of getting people on edge—but on January 18th a stray bomb had fallen right on top of Jimmy’s flat. He’d come home from a night out working and seen the telltale may-hem as he turned the corner. God, but he’d held his breath as he ran towards the fire and ruins. He’d stopped hearing any-thing but his own voice and his own body working, breathing and pumping blood, as he combed through the wreckage, shouting his father’s name, cursing himself for not having found a safer place, for not having been there when the old man needed him most. When Jimmy turned up Finchie’s crushed cage, he’d let out a startling animal noise of pain and grief, the sort he hadn’t known himself capable of making. And he’d had the God-awful experience of suddenly inhabiting a scene from one of his photographs, except the ruined house was his house, the discarded possessions his possessions, the lost loved one his dad, and he’d known then that no matter how much praise his editors heaped upon him he’d failed gravely in his attempts to capture the truth inherent in that moment; the fear and panic and startling realness of having suddenly lost everything.
He’d turned away and dropped, bone-heavy, to his knees and that’s when he’d seen Mrs Hamblin from the flat next door, waving dazedly at him from across the street. He’d gone to her, taken her in his arms and let her sob against his shoulder, and he’d wept too, hot tears of helplessness and anger and sorrow. And then she’d lifted her head and said, ‘Have you seen your dad, yet?’ and Jimmy had answered, ‘I couldn’t find him,’ and she’d pointed down the street. ‘He went with the Red Cross, I think. A lovely young medic offered him a cup of tea, and you know what he’s like for tea, he’d—’
Jimmy hadn’t stuck around to hear more. He’d started running towards the church hall where he knew the Red Cross would be. He’d burst through the front doors and seen his father almost right away, the old boy sitting at a table with a cup of tea in front of him and Finchie on his forearm. Mrs Hamblin had got him to the shelter in time, and Jimmy didn’t think he’d ever been so grateful to a person in his life. He’d have given her the world if he could, so it was a great pity he owned nothing fit for giving. He’d lost all his savings in the blast, along with everything else. He’d been left with the clothes on his back, and the camera he’d been carrying. And thank God for that—what would he have done otherwise?
Jimmy flicked his hair out of his eyes as he walked. He had to put his father out of his mind, their cramped temporary digs. The old man made him vulnerable and he didn’t want to be weak today. He couldn’t afford to be. Today was about being in control, dignified, maybe even a little standoffish. It was hatefully proud of him perhaps, but he wanted Dolly to see him and know she’d made a mistake. He hadn’t dressed up like a monkey in his father’s suit this time—he couldn’t—but he’d made an effort.
He turned off the street and into the park, making his way past the lawn that had been turned over to Victory vegetable gardens, along the paths that seemed naked without their iron railings, and he prepared himself to see her again. She’d al-ways had a power over him, a way, just by looking, of bending him to her will. Those eyes, bright with laughter, that had watched him over the top of her cup of tea in a Coventry cafe; the curl of her lips when she smiled, a little bit teasing at times, but, God, so exciting, so full of life. He was warming now just at the thought of her, and he took himself in hand, concentrated on remembering exactly how much she’d hurt him, embarrassed him, too—the look on the waiters’ faces when they saw Jimmy alone in the restaurant, still holding the ring—he’d never forget they way they’d looked at him, the way they must have laughed when he left. Jimmy stumbled on the edge of the path. Christ. He had to take control, quell his optimism and longing, safeguard himself against the possibility of further disappointment.
He did his best, he really did, but he’d loved her too long he supposed (later when he was back at home, when he thought back over the day’s events); and love made fools of men, everyone knew that. Case in point: entirely without meaning to and against his better judgement, when Jimmy Metcalfe got near the meeting place he began to jog.
Dolly was sitting on the bench, exactly where she’d said she’d be. Jimmy saw her first and stopped where he was, catching his breath and straightening his hair, his cuffs, his posture, while he watched her. His initial excitement turned quickly, though, to wonder. It had only been three weeks (though the circumstances of their separation made it feel more like three years) but she’d changed. She was Dolly, she was beautiful, but there was something wrong with her, he knew it even from a distance. Jimmy felt suddenly dislocated; he’d been ready to be tough, petulant if pushed, but to see her sitting there, arms wrapped around her body, eyes downcast, smaller somehow than he remembered—it was the last thing he’d expected and it caught him off guard.
She saw him then and a hand leapt to wave but she captured it in time and smiled instead, a tentative brightening of her face. Jimmy returned it and started towards her, wondering what on earth could possibly have happened; whether someone had hurt her, done something to knock the spirit clean out of her, knowing at once that he’d kill them if they had.
She stood as he drew near and they embraced, her bones fi-ne and birdlike beneath his hands. She wasn’t wearing enough clothing; it had been snowing on and off, and her tatty old coat wasn’t warm enough. She held on to him for a long time and Jimmy—who’d been so hurt by her, so furious at the way she’d treated him, her refusal to explain herself; he, who’d promised himself to keep the bitterness uppermost in his mind when he saw her today—found that he was stroking her hair the way he would a lost and vulnerable child.
‘Jimmy,’ she said finally, her face still pressed against his shirt, ‘Oh, Jimmy—
‘Shh,’ he said, ‘There now, don’t cry.’
She did though, light soft tears that didn’t seem to end, and she gripped the sides of his chest with her hands, making him feel concerned and oddly excited too. God, what the hell was the matter with him?
‘Oh Jimmy,’ she said again. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so ashamed.’
‘What are you talking about, Doll?’ He took her shoulders and reluctantly she met his eyes.
‘I made a mistake, Jimmy,’ she said, ‘I’ve made so many. I should never have treated you that way. That night in the restaurant, what I did—leaving like that, walking away I’m so, so sorry.’
He didn’t have a handkerchief but he had a lens cloth and he used it to wipe her cheeks gently dry.
‘I don’t expect you to forgive me,’ she said. ‘And I know we can’t go back in time, I do know that, but I had to tell you. I’ve felt so guilty and I needed to apologise in person so you could see that I meant it.’ She blinked through her tears and said, ‘I do mean it, Jimmy. I’m so very sorry.’
He nodded then. He ought to have said something, but he was too surprised and touched to find the right words. It seemed to be enough because she smiled, more broadly now, in reply Jimmy saw a flash of her old vibrancy in the smile and it made him want to freeze her in that moment so it couldn’t dis-appear again. She was the sort of person who needed to be kept happy, he realised. Not as a matter of selfish expectation, but as a simple fact of design, like a piano, or a harp, she’d been made to function best at a certain tuning.
‘There—’ she let out a relieved sigh—‘I did it.’
‘You did it,’ he said, his voice catching, and he couldn’t help himself, he traced the shape of her top lip with his finger.
She pressed her lips to kiss it lightly and then closed her eyes. Her lashes were dark and wet against her cheeks.
She stayed like that for a time, as if she, too, wanted some-how to stop the world from spinning onwards. When she finally pulled away she glanced up at him, shyly. ‘So,’ she said.
‘So.’ He took out his cigarettes and offered her one.
She took it gladly. ‘You read my mind. I’m all out.’
‘That’s not like you.’
‘No? Well, I’ve changed I suppose.’
She said it lightly but it tallied so completely with what he’d seen when he first arrived, that Jimmy frowned. He lit both cigarettes and then gestured with his in the direction from which he’d come. ‘We should go,’ he said, ‘we’ll be up on spying charges if we stand here whispering any longer.’
They walked back to where the gates used to stand, talking like polite strangers about nothing important. When they reached the road they stopped, each waiting for the other to decide what came next. Dolly took the initiative, turning towards him to say, ‘I’m glad you came, Jimmy. I didn’t deserve it, but thank you.’ There was a note of finality in her voice that at first he didn’t understand, but when she smiled bravely and held out a hand, he realised she was leaving. That she’d made her apology, done what she’d thought would please him, and now she was going to walk away.
And in that second, Jimmy saw the truth like a shining light. The only thing that would ever please him was to marry her, to take her with him and look after her and make things right again. ‘Doll, wait—’ She’d hooked her handbag over her arm and started to turn away, but she looked back when he said it.
‘Come with me,’ he continued, ‘I’m not working until later. Let’s get something to eat.’
Once upon a time Jimmy would’ve gone about things differently, planned it all out and tried to make things perfect, but not now. Pride, perfection be damned, he was in too much of a rush; he’d seen firsthand that moments in life didn’t last, one stray bomb and it was all over. He waited only as long as it took for them to put in an order with the waitress and then he steeled himself and said, ‘My offer, Doll, it still stands. I love you, I’ve always loved you. I want nothing more than to marry you.’
She stared at him, wide-eyed with surprise. And who could blame her; she’d only just finished contemplating the merits of eggs over rabbit, and now this. ‘You do? Even after—?’
‘Even after.’ He reached across the table and she placed her fine hands in his. Without her white fur coat, he could see scratches on her pale thin arms. He looked back to her face, more determined than ever to take care of her. ‘I can’t offer you a ring, Doll,’ he said, interlacing his fingers with hers. ‘My flat was bombed and I lost everything, I thought I’d lost Dad for a while.’ Dolly nodded slightly, apparently still stunned, and Jimmy continued. He had the vague sense he was veering off course, saying too much, not saying the right things, but he couldn’t seem to stop. ‘I didn’t, thank God. He’s a survivor, my dad, he’d found his way to the Red Cross by the time I got to him. He was making himself comfy with a hot cup of tea.’ Jimmy smiled briefly at the memory and then shook his head. ‘Anyway—my point is that the ring was lost. I’ll buy you a new one as soon as I can, though.’
Dolly swallowed, and her voice when she spoke was soft, sad, ‘Oh, Jimmy,’ she said, ‘how little you must think of me, to consider that I’d care about a thing like that.’
It was Jimmy’s turn for surprise. ‘You don’t?’
‘Of course not. I don’t need a ring to bind me to you.’ She squeezed his hands and her eyes glazed with tears. ‘I love you too, Jimmy I always have. What can I ever do to convince you of that?’
They ate quietly, taking turns to look up from their meal and smile at the other. When they had finished, Jimmy lit a cigarette and said, ‘I suppose your old lady will want you to marry out of Campden Grove?’ Her face fell when he said it.
‘Doll? What is it?’
She told him everything then, that Lady Gwendolyn had died, and that she, Dolly, was no longer at Campden Grove but living again in the tiny room on Rillington Place. That she’d been left with nothing and was working long shifts in a munitions factory to pay for her board.
‘But I thought Lady Gwendolyn had undertaken to leave you something in her will,’ said Jimmy. ‘Isn’t that what you told me, Doll?’
She glanced towards the window, a bitter expression washing away the happiness of moments ago. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She promised me, but that was before. Before things changed.’
From the drawn look on her face, Jimmy knew that whatever it was that had happened between Dolly and her employer was responsible for the dispiritedness he’d sensed in her earlier. ‘What things, Doll? What changed?’
She didn’t want to recount the story, he could tell that much from the way she refused to look at him, but Jimmy needed to know. It was selfish but he loved her, he was going to marry her and he refused to let her off the hook. He sat silently, making it clear he’d wait as long as it took, and she must’ve realised he wouldn’t take no for an answer because finally she sighed. ‘A woman interfered, Jimmy, a powerful woman. She took against me and made it her business to make my life a misery.’ She glanced back from the window towards him. ‘I was all alone. I didn’t stand a chance against Vivien.’
‘Vivien? From the canteen? But I thought you were friends?’
‘So did I,’ Dolly said, and she smiled sadly. ‘We were, I think, at first.’ ‘What happened?’
Dolly shivered in her thin white blouse and glanced at the table; there was something measured in her countenance, and Jimmy wondered whether she was embarrassed by what she was about to tell him. ‘I was returning something to her, a neck-lace she’d lost, but when I knocked on her door she wasn’t home. Her husband let me in—I told you about him, Jimmy, the author—he asked me to come inside and wait, and I accepted.’ She bent her head and her curls shook gently. ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t have, I don’t know, because when Vivien arrived home and saw me, she was furious. I could see it in her face, she suspected us of … well … you can imagine. I tried to explain, I was sure I’d be able to make her see sense, but then …’ She turned her attention back to the window and a strain of weak sunlight caught her high cheekbone. ‘Well—let’s just say I was wrong.’
Jimmy’s heart had started to pound, indignation but also dread. ‘What did she do, Doll?’
Her throat moved, a quick up-and-down motion as she swallowed, and Jimmy thought she might be going to cry. She didn’t, though, she turned to face him, and her expression—so sad, so hurt—made something inside him break. Her voice was barely a whisper. ‘She invented terrible lies about me, Jimmy. She painted me as false in front of her husband, but then, far worse, she told Lady Gwendolyn I was a thief and couldn’t be trusted.’
‘But that’s, that’s—’. He was dumbfounded, outraged on her behalf. ‘That’s contemptible.’
‘The worst of it, Jimmy, is she’s a liar herself. She’s been having an affair for months now. Remember at the canteen when she told you about that doctor friend of hers?’
‘The fellow who runs the children’s hospital?’
‘It’s all a front—I mean, the hospital’s real enough, the doc-tor, too, but he’s her lover. She uses it as a cover so no one thinks twice when she goes to visit.’
She was shaking, he noticed, and who could blame her? Who wouldn’t be upset to discover that their friend had betrayed them in such a cruel way? ‘Doll, I’m sorry.’
‘There’s no need to pity me,’ she said, trying so hard to be brave it made him ache inside. ‘It hit pretty hard, but I promised myself I wouldn’t let her beat me.’
‘That’s my girl.’
The waitress arrived to clear their plates, glancing between them as she fumbled with Jimmy’s knife. She thought they were fighting, Jimmy realised; the way they’d fallen silent when she came near, the way Doll had quickly turned her back while Jimmy struggled to respond to the waitress’s practised chit-chat—‘Big Ben’s not skipped a beat, you know,’ ‘As long as St Paul’s is still standing.’ She was stealing glances now at Dolly, who was doing her best to hide her face. Jimmy could see her profile though and her bottom lip had begun to tremble. ‘That’s all,’ he said, trying to hurry the waitress along. ‘That’s all, thank you.’ ‘No pudding? I could tell you the—’
‘No, no, that’s all.’
She sniffed, ‘As you like—’ and turned on her rubber heel.
‘Doll?’ said Jimmy, when they were alone again. ‘You were saying something?’
Her fingers were pressed lightly against her mouth to stop from crying. ‘It’s just I loved Lady Gwendolyn, Jimmy, I loved her like a mother. And to think she went to her grave believing me a liar and a thief—’. She broke off and tears began to slip down her cheeks.
‘Shhh. There now, please don’t cry.’ He moved to sit beside her, kissing away each new tear as it fell. ‘Lady Gwendolyn knew how you felt about her. You showed her every day for years. And you know what?’ ‘What?’
‘You were right. You’re not going to let Vivien beat you. I’m going to make sure of it.’
‘Oh, Jimmy.’ She played with the loose button on his shirt, twisting it on its thread. ‘It’s so kind of you, but how? How will I ever win against someone like her?’
‘By leading a long and happy life.’
Dolly blinked at him.
‘With me.’ He smiled, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. ‘We’re going to beat her together by getting married, and saving our pennies, and then moving away to the seaside or the country, whichever you prefer, just like we always dreamed of; we’re going to beat her by living happily ever after.’ He kissed the tip of her nose. ‘Right?’
A moment passed and then she nodded slowly, a little doubtfully it seemed to Jimmy.
This time she smiled. It was slight though and slipped as quickly as it had come. She sighed, resting her cheek in her hand. ‘I don’t mean to be ungrateful, Jimmy, I just wish we could do it sooner, go away right now and make a fresh start. I sometimes think it’s the only way I’ll get better.’
‘It won’t be long, Doll. I’m working all the time, taking photo-graphs every day, and my editor’s positive about my future. I reckon if I—’ Dolly gasped and gripped his wrist. Jimmy stopped midway. ‘Photographs,’ she said, her breath catching. ‘Oh, Jimmy, you’ve just given me an idea, a way we can have everything, right now—the seaside and all the rest you were talking about—and we can teach Vivien a lesson at the same time. Oh, Jimmy.’ Her eyes were shining. ‘That’s what you want, isn’t it? To go away together, to start a new life?’
‘You know it is, but the money, Doll, I don’t have—’
‘You’re not listening to me. Don’t you see, that’s exactly what I’m saying, I know a way for us to get the money.’
Her eyes were fixed on his, bright now, almost wild, and although she hadn’t told him the rest of her idea, something inside him began to sink. Jimmy refused to let it. He wouldn’t let anything ruin this happy day.
‘Do you remember,’ she said, taking one of his cigarettes from the packet on the table. ‘You once said you’d do anything for me?’
Jimmy watched her strike the match. He remembered saying it, he’d meant it too. But something in the way her eyes were gleaming, her fingers fumbling with the matchbox, filled him with foreboding. He didn’t know what she was going to say next, only that he had the strongest sense he didn’t want to hear it.
Dolly drew hard on the cigarette, breathing out a rich stream of smoke. ‘Vivien Jenkins is a very wealthy woman, Jimmy. She’s also a liar and a cheat who went out of her way to hurt me, to turn my loved ones against me and steal the inheritance Lady Gwendolyn promised. But I know her, and I know she has a weakness.’
‘A suspicious husband who’d be devastated to learn she was being unfaithful.’
Jimmy nodded like some sort of machine, programmed to respond. Dolly continued. ‘I know it sounds funny, Jimmy, but hear me out. What if someone were to acquire an incriminating photograph, something showing Vivien and another man together?’
‘What about it?’ His voice sounded flat, not at all like his own.
She glanced at him, a nervous smile starting on her lips. ‘I have a feeling she’d pay rather a lot of money to have that photo for herself. Just enough that two young lovers who de-serve a break could run away together.’
It occurred to Jimmy then, as he struggled to wrap his head around what she was saying, that this was all part of one of Dolly’s games. That she was going to break character any minute and dissolve into laughter and say, ‘Jimmy—I’m joking, of course! What do you take me for?’
But she didn’t. Instead she reached across the leather bench seat, took his hand and kissed it gently. ‘Money, Jimmy,’ she whispered, pressing his hand to her warm cheek. ‘Just like you used to talk about. Enough money for us to get married and start again and live happily ever after—isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?’
It was, of course, she knew it was.
‘She deserves it, Jimmy. You said it yourself—she deserves to pay after everything she’s done.’ Dolly drew on her cigarette, speaking quickly through the smoke. ‘She was the one who convinced me to break it off with you, you know. She poisoned me against you, Jimmy. Made me think we shouldn’t be together. Can’t you see, she’s caused us both so much pain?’
Jimmy didn’t know how to feel. He hated what she was suggesting. He hated himself even more for not telling her so. He heard himself say, ‘I suppose you want me to take this photo-graph, is that it?’
Dolly smiled at him. ‘Oh no, Jimmy, that’s not it at all. There’s too much chance involved, far too much risk in waiting to catch them in the act. My idea’s much simpler than that, child’s play by comparison.’ ‘Well then,’ he said, staring at the metal strip around the tabletop. ‘What is it, Doll? Tell me.’
‘I’m going to take the photograph.’ She gave his button a playful tweak and it fell off in her fingers. ‘And you’re going to be in it.’