Книга: The Secret Keeper
Назад: Twenty-six
Дальше: Twenty-eight


London, May 1941

JIMMY HAD BEEN embarrassed the first time he brought Vivien home to visit his dad. Their small room looked bad enough through his eyes, but seeing it through hers made the half-measures he’d taken to make it homely seem truly desperate. Had he really thought draping an old tea towel across the wooden chest made it a dining table? Apparently, he had. Vivien, for her part, did a marvellous job of acting like there was nothing remotely odd in drinking black tea out of mismatched cups while perched beside a bird on the end of an old man’s bed, and it had gone off rather well, all things considered.

One of those things was his father’s insistence on calling Vivien ‘your young lady’ the whole time, and then asking Jim-my—in the pipingly clearest of voices—when the pair of them planned on getting married. Jimmy had corrected the old man at least three times before shrugging his shoulders apologetically at Vivien and giving the whole thing up for a joke. What else could he have done? It was just an old man’s mistake—he’d only met Doll once before, back in Coventry before the war—and there was no harm in it. For her part, Vivien didn’t seem to mind and Jimmy’s dad was made happy. Exceedingly happy. He got on a treat with Vivien. In her, it seemed, he’d found the audience he’d been waiting for all his life.

There were times when Jimmy watched the pair of them, laughing together at some remembrance of his dad’s, trying to teach Finchie a new trick, arguing cheerfully over the best way to bait a fish hook, and he thought his heart might burst with gratitude. It had been a long while, he realised—years—since he’d seen his father without the worry line that pulled between his brows when he was trying to remember who and where he was.

Occasionally, Jimmy caught himself attempting to picture Doll in Vivien’s place, imagining it was her fetching a fresh cup of tea for his dad, stirring in the condensed milk just the way he liked, telling stories that made the old man shake his head with surprise and pleasure … but he couldn’t envisage it somehow. He chided himself even for trying. Comparisons were irrelevant, he knew, and unfair to both women. Doll would have come to visit if she could. Her hours at the munitions factory were long and she was always so tired afterwards—she wasn’t a lady of leisure—it was only natural she’d choose to fill her rare free evenings catching up with friends.

Vivien, on the other hand, seemed genuinely to relish the time she spent in their small room. Jimmy had made the mistake of thanking her once, as if she did him a great personal favour, but she’d only looked at him like he’d lost his mind and said, ‘For what?’ He’d felt foolish in the face of her perplexity and changed the subject by making a joke, but he found himself considering later that perhaps he’d got it all turn about and it was only for the old man’s company that Vivien kept up his acquaintance. It seemed as likely an explanation as any. What other reason could there be for her to change her tune so remarkably?

He still reflected on it sometimes, wondering why she’d said yes that day at the hospital when he’d asked her to walk with him. He didn’t need to wonder why he’d asked her: it was having her back after she was ill, the brightening of everything when he’d opened the attic door and seen her there unexpectedly. He’d hurried to catch up with her when she left, opening the front door so quickly she’d still been standing on the step, straightening her scarf. He hadn’t expected her to say yes, he knew only that he’d been thinking about it all through the rehearsal; he wanted to spend time with her, not because Dolly had told him to, but because he liked her; he liked being with her.

‘Do you have children, Jimmy?’ she’d asked him as they walked together. She was moving more slowly than usual, still delicate after the illness that had kept her at home. He’d noticed a certain reticence all day—she’d laughed with the kids as usual, but there’d been a look in her eyes, a caution or reservation that he wasn’t used to. Jimmy had felt sad for her, though he didn’t know why exactly.

He’d shaken his head, ‘No.’ And he’d felt his face colour, remembering how he’d upset her when he’d asked the same question. This time, though, she was steering the conversation and she pressed on.

‘But you want them one day.’


‘Just one or two?’

‘For starters. Then the other six.’

She’d smiled at that.

‘I was an only child,’ he said by way of explanation. ‘It was lonely.’

‘I was one of four. It was noisy.’

Jimmy had laughed then, and he was still smiling when he realised what he hadn’t before. ‘The stories you tell at the hospital,’ he said, as they turned the corner, thinking of the photograph he’d taken for her, ‘the ones about the wooden house on stilts, the enchanted forest, the family through the veil—that’s your family, isn’t it?’

Vivien nodded.

Jimmy wasn’t sure what had made him tell her about his dad that day—something in the way she’d looked when she spoke about her own family, the stories he’d heard her tell that crack-led with magic and longing and made time disappear, the need he suddenly felt to let somebody in. Whatever the case, he had told her, and Vivien had asked questions and Jimmy was re-minded of the day he’d first seen her with the children, that quality he’d noticed in the way she listened to them. When she said she’d like to meet the old man, Jimmy thought it was just one of those things that people say when they’re thinking about the train they’ve got to catch and wondering if they’ll get to the station in time. But at the next rehearsal she said it again. ‘I’ve brought something for him,’ she added, ‘something I think he might like.’

She had too. And the following week, when Jimmy finally agreed to take her to meet his dad, she’d presented the old man with a fine piece of cuttlefish, ‘For Finchie’. She’d found it on the beach, she said, when she and Henry were visiting his publisher’s family.

‘She’s a lovely one, Jim-boy,’ Jimmy’s dad had said loudly. ‘Very pretty—like something out of a painting. Kind, too. Will you wait and have your wedding when we get to the seaside, do you think?’

‘I don’t know, Dad,’ Jimmy said, glancing at Vivien who was pretending great interest in some of his photographs pinned to the wall. ‘Let’s just wait and see, eh?’

‘Don’t wait too long, Jimmy. Your mum and me, we’re not getting any younger.’

‘Right-o, Dad. You’ll be first to know—promise.’

Later, when he was walking Vivien back to the underground station, he explained about his dad’s confusion, hoping she hadn’t been too embarrassed.

She seemed surprised. ‘You mustn’t apologise for your father, Jimmy.’

‘No, I know. I just—I didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable.’

‘On the contrary. I haven’t felt so comfortable in a long time.’

They walked a bit further without conversation, and then Vivien said, ‘Are you really going to live at the seaside?’

‘That’s the plan.’ Jimmy flinched. Plan. He’d said the word without thinking and he cursed himself. There was something enormously uncomfortable in outlining for Vivien the selfsame future scenario that had become bound up in his mind with Dolly’s scheme.

‘And you’re going to be married.’

He nodded.

‘That’s wonderful, Jimmy, I’m pleased for you. Is she a nice girl?— No, of course she is. Silly question.’

Jimmy smiled faintly, hoping that was an end to the subject, but then Vivien said,



She laughed. ‘Tell me about her.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘I’m not sure, the usual sorts of things, I suppose—how did you two meet?’

Jimmy’s mind went back to the cafe in Coventry. ‘I was carrying a sack of flour.’

‘And she was powerless to resist.’ Vivien teased him gently. ‘So evidently she’s partial to flour. What else does she like? What’s she like?’ ‘Playful,’ Jimmy said, his throat tight, ‘full of life, full of dreams.’ He wasn’t enjoying the conversation one bit, but he found his mind drawn to thoughts of Doll; the girl she’d been, the woman she was now. ‘She lost her family in the Blitz.’

‘Oh, Jimmy.’ Vivien’s face fell. ‘The poor girl. She must’ve been devastated.’

Her sympathy was deep and sincere, and Jimmy couldn’t bear it. His shame at the deceit; the part he’d already played; his heart-sickness at the duplicity—all drove him now to honesty. Perhaps, in the back of his mind, he even hoped the truth might sabotage Doll’s plan in some way. ‘I think you might know her actually.’

‘What?’ She shot him a glance, seemingly alarmed by the idea. ‘How?’

‘Her name’s Dolly.’ He held his breath, remembering how badly things had gone between the two of them; ‘Dolly Smitham.’

‘No.’ Vivien was visibly relieved. ‘No, I don’t think I know anybody by that name.’

Now Jimmy was confused. He knew they were friends, that is they had been once, Dolly had told him all about it. ‘You worked at the WVS together. She used to live across the road from you in Campden Grove. Lady Gwendolyn’s companion.’

‘Oh!’ Realisation dawned on Vivien’s face and, ‘Oh, Jimmy,’ she said, stopping to grip his arm, her dark eyes wide with panic. ‘Does she know we’ve been working together at the hospital?’

‘No,’ Jimmy lied, hating himself.

Her relief was palpable, a smile tried to form only to be dimmed quickly by renewed concern. She sighed with regret, pressing her fingers lightly to her lips. ‘God, Jimmy, she must hate me.’ Her eyes scanned his. ‘It was the most awful thing—I don’t know if she mentioned it to you—she did me a great favour once, returning my locket when I’d lost it, but I—I’m afraid I was rather rude to her. I’d had a bad day, something unexpected had happened; I wasn’t feeling well and I was unkind. I went to see her, to apologise and explain; I knocked on the door of number 7, but nobody answered. Then the old woman died and everyone moved away; it all happened very quickly.’ Vivien’s fingers had fallen to her locket as she spoke; she was twisting it, turning it over in the hollow of her throat. ‘Will you tell her, Jimmy? Will you tell her I didn’t mean to treat her so un-kindly?’

Jimmy said that he would. Hearing Vivien’s explanation had made him unaccountably pleased. It confirmed Dolly’s account; but it also proved that the whole thing, Vivien’s seeming coldness, had been a huge misunderstanding.

They walked a little further in silence, each of them away with their thoughts, until Vivien said, ‘Why are you waiting to get married, Jimmy? You’re in love, aren’t you? You and Dolly?’

His gladness fell away. He wished to God she’d drop the subject. ‘Yes.’

‘Then why not do it now?’

The words he found to mask the lie were trite. ‘We want it to be perfect.’

She nodded, considering, and then she said, ‘What could be more perfect than marrying the person you love?’

Perhaps it was the unpleasant haze of shame he was feeling that made him leap to justify himself; perhaps it was the latent memories of his dad waiting in vain for his mother to return, but Jimmy echoed her question—‘What could be more perfect than love?’—and then he laughed bitterly. ‘Knowing you can provide enough to keep your loved one happy, for starters. That you can put food on the table, pay to keep the rooms warm, keep a roof over your heads. For those of us with nothing to spare that’s no small matter. Not as romantic as your idea, I admit, but that’s life, isn’t it?’

Vivien’s face had paled; he’d hurt her, he could tell, with his acerbity, but Jimmy’s own temper was flashing red hot by then, and although he was upset with himself and not with her at all, he didn’t apologise. ‘You’re right,’ she said finally. ‘I’m sorry, Jimmy. I spoke out of turn; it was insensitive of me. It’s none of my business anyway. You just paint such a vivid picture—the farmhouse, the seaside—it’s all so wonderful. I was caught up vicariously in your plans.’

Jimmy didn’t answer; he’d been looking at her as she said it but now he turned away. Something about her face as he watched her had inspired a clear and focused image in his mind of the two of them, him and her, running off to the seaside together, that made him want to stop her, right now in the street, cup her face in his hands and kiss her long and hard. Christ. What was the matter with him?

Jimmy lit a cigarette and smoked as he walked. ‘What about you?’ he muttered, ashamed, and trying to make amends. ‘What’s in your future? What do you dream of?’

‘Oh—’. She waved a hand. ‘I don’t spend too much time thinking about the future.’


They reached the underground station and enacted an awkward goodbye. Jimmy felt uncomfortable, not to mention guilty, especially because he was going to have to hurry to meet Dolly at Lyons as they’d planned. All the same—

‘Let me go with you to Kensington,’ he called after Vivien. ‘Make sure you get home safely.’

She glanced back at him. ‘You’re going to catch the bomb with my number on it?’

‘I’ll give it a good try.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘No, thanks. I prefer to go alone.’ And with that a flash of the old Vivien was back, the one who’d walked ahead of him in the street and refused even to smile.


Dolly sat smoking as she watched for Jimmy from the window of the restaurant. Every so often she turned away from the glass, brushing at the white fur of her coat sleeve. It was too warm, really, to be wearing fur, but Dolly didn’t like to take it off. It made her feel important—powerful even—and she needed that now more than ever. Lately she’d had the terrible feeling that the strings were slipping through her fingers and she was beginning to lose control. The fear made her sick to the stomach—worst of all was the creeping uncertainty that came upon her in the night.

The plan, when she’d conceived it, had seemed perfect—a simple way of teaching Vivien Jenkins a lesson, while making things right for Jimmy and herself—but as time went on and Jimmy got no closer to setting up a meeting to take the photo-graph, as Dolly noticed the distance growing between them, the trouble he had meeting her eyes, she was beginning to realise she’d made a huge mistake; that she should never have asked Jimmy to do it. At her lowest moments, Dolly had even started to wonder that he might not love her in quite the same way, that he might not think she was exceptional any more. And that thought made her truly frightened.

They’d quarrelled terribly the other night. It had started over nothing, some comment she’d made about Caitlin Rufus, the way she’d behaved when they went out dancing together recently with Kitty and the others. It was the sort of thing she’d said a hundred times before, but somehow this time it turned into a full-blown argument. She’d been shocked at the sharp way he’d spoken to her, the things he’d said; he’d told her she ought to choose better friends if her old ones were such a dis-appointment; that she might even think about coming to visit him and his father next time instead of going out with people she clearly didn’t like; and it had seemed so uncalled for, so unkind, she’d started crying in the street. Usually when Dolly cried, Jimmy realised how hurt she was and moved to make things better, but not this time. He’d only shouted, ‘Christ!’, and walked away, fists balled by his side.

Dolly had swallowed her sobs then, listening and waiting in the dark, and for a minute she’d heard nothing. She’d thought she was truly alone, that somehow she’d pushed him too far and he really had left her this time.

He hadn’t, he’d come back, but instead of saying sorry as she expected, he’d said in a voice she almost didn’t recognise, ‘You should have married me, Doll. You should have bloody well married me when I asked.’

Dolly had felt a whimper rise painfully in her throat when he said it, and she’d heard herself cry, ‘No, Jimmy—you should have asked me sooner!’

They’d made up afterwards on the steps of Mrs White’s boarding house. They’d kissed each other goodnight, carefully, politely, and agreed that emotion had got the better of them; that was all. But Dolly knew it was more than that. She’d stayed awake for hours afterwards, thinking back over the past weeks, remembering each time she’d seen him, the things he’d said, the way he’d behaved, and as she did, as it all played out across her mind, she’d known. It was the plan, the thing she’d asked him to do. Rather than fixing matters between them as she’d hoped, her clever plan ran the risk of spoiling everything …

Now, in the cafe, Dolly extinguished her cigarette and took the letter from her bag. She shucked it from its envelope and read it again. A job offer from a boarding house called Sea Blue. It was Jimmy who’d found the advert in the newspaper and clipped it for her. ‘It sounds great, Doll,’ he’d said. ‘Glorious spot on the coast—seagulls, salt on the air, ice cream … And I can get work doing … well, I’ll find something.’ Dolly hadn’t really been able to picture herself sweeping up after pale, sandy holiday-makers, but Jimmy had stood over her until she wrote the letter and there’d been a part of her that quite liked seeing him all forceful like that. In the end she’d decided, why not? It would keep Jimmy sweet, and if she got the job she could always write back quietly and turn it down. At the time, Dolly had reasoned that she wouldn’t need a position like that one, not when Jimmy finally arranged the photograph with Vivien—

The door to the cafe opened and Jimmy came through. He’d been running, she could tell—eager to see her, she hoped. Dolly waved and watched him as he crossed to the table; his dark hair had fallen over his face, making him seem handsome and dishevelled in a dangerous sort of way. ‘Hey, Doll,’ he said, kissing her on the cheek. ‘Bit too warm for fur, isn’t it?’

Dolly smiled and shook her head. ‘I’m all right.’

She moved across on the booth seat, but he sat down opposite, lifting his hand to call the waitress.

Dolly waited until they’d ordered tea and then she could stand it no longer. She took a deep breath and said, ‘I’ve had an idea.’ His face tensed and she felt a stab of self-reproach, realising how wary he’d become. She reached gently to stroke his hand. ‘Oh, Jimmy, it’s nothing like that—’. She broke off, chewing the inside of her cheek. ‘In fact—’ she lowered her voice—‘I’ve been thinking about the other thing, the plan.’

He lifted his chin defensively and she continued in a hurry, ‘Only, I thought maybe you ought to forget about it—setting up the meeting, the photograph.’


She nodded, and by the look on Jimmy’s face Dolly knew she’d made the right decision. ‘I should never have asked you—’ her words were tumbling together now—‘I wasn’t thinking straight. The whole thing with Lady Gwendolyn, my family … it made me a bit crazy, I think, Jimmy.’

He came to sit beside her and took her face in his hands. His dark eyes searched hers. ‘Of course it did, my poor girl.’

‘I should never have asked you,’ she said again as he kissed her. ‘It wasn’t fair. I’m sor—’

‘Shh,’ he said, relief warming his voice. ‘Never mind about that. It’s in the past. You and I need to put all that behind us and look forward.’ ‘I’d like that.’

He pulled back to consider her; he shook his head and then laughed with a mixture of surprise and pleasure. It was a lovely sound that sent tingles down Dolly’s spine. ‘I’d like that too,’ he said. ‘Let’s start with your idea. You were going to tell me some-thing when I first arrived?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ said Dolly excitedly. ‘The show you’re putting on—I’m supposed to work, but I thought I’d play hookey and come with you to the performance instead.’


‘Of course. I’d love to meet Nella and the others, and when else am I going to get the chance to see my boy play Tinker-bell?’


The first and final performance of Peter Pan by the young thespians of Dr Tomalin’s Hospital for War Orphans was an unmitigated success. The children flew and fought and made magic out of the dusty attic and a few old sheets; those too ill to take part shouted and swooned and cheered from where they’d been carried up to form the audience; and Tinkerbell, under Jimmy’s steady hands, acquitted herself admirably. The kids surprised Jimmy, afterwards, by taking down the painted ‘Jolly Roger’ sign, replacing it with a ‘Nightingale Star’, and then performing a version of the story he’d told them, an act they’d been practising for weeks in secret. Dr Tomalin gave a speech after the cast had made (yet another) final curtain call, and gestured for Vivien and Jimmy to take a bow, too. Jimmy eyed Doll in the audience, waving at him; he smiled back and gave her a wink.

He’d been worried about bringing her today; though now he wasn’t sure why. He supposed when she suggested it, he’d felt a surge of guilt over his closeness to Vivien, an anxiety that things might turn out badly between them. The second it be-came clear he wasn’t going to be able to talk her out of coming, Jimmy had gone into damage-control mode; he hadn’t con-fessed his friendship with Vivien, instead, he’d concentrated on explaining the way he’d taken her to task for treating Dolly so unkindly when she returned the locket.

‘You told her about me?’

‘Of course,’ Jimmy said, reaching to hold Doll’s hand as they left the cafe and headed out into the blackout. ‘You’re my girl. How could I not talk about you?’

‘What did she say—did she admit it? Did she tell you how ghastly she was?’

‘She did.’ Jimmy stopped walking while Doll lit a cigarette. ‘She felt horrible about it. She said she’d suffered some sort of shock that day, but that it didn’t excuse her behaviour.’

In the moonlight, he saw Dolly’s bottom lip trembling with emotion. ‘It was awful, Jimmy,’ she said in a whisper. ‘The things she said. The way they made me feel.’

He threaded her hair behind her ear. ‘She wanted to apologise to you, she tried to, apparently, but when she went to Lady Gwendolyn’s house, no one was there.’

‘She came to see me?’

Jimmy nodded, and he noticed her face soften. Just like that, all the bitterness was gone. The transition was breathtaking, and yet he shouldn’t have been surprised. Doll’s emotions were kites with long strings, no sooner did one dip than another brilliant colour caught the breeze.

They’d gone dancing afterwards and for the first time in weeks, without that bloody plan hanging over their heads, Jim-my and Dolly had had a good time together, just like they used to. They’d laughed, and joked with one another, and by the time he kissed her goodnight and sneaked back out of Mrs White’s lower window, Jimmy had started to think it wasn’t such a bad idea after all, to bring Doll with him to the play.

And he’d been right. After a shaky start the day had gone off better than he could have dreamed. Vivien had been fixing the sail to the ship when they first arrived. He’d seen the surprise on her face when she turned and saw him with Doll, the way her smile had started to slide before she caught it, and he’d felt an initial stab of misgiving. She’d climbed down carefully as Jimmy was hanging up Doll’s white coat, and when the two of them said ‘hello’ Jimmy had held his breath. But the greeting had gone smoothly. He’d been pleased and proud at the way Dolly handled herself. She’d gone out of her way to put the past behind her and be friendly towards Vivien; he could see that Vivien was relieved, too, though quieter than usual, and perhaps less warm. When he asked whether Henry was coming to watch the performance, she’d looked at him as if he’d just insulted her before reminding him that her husband had a very important job with the Ministry.

Thank God for Dolly, who’d always had the gift of being able to lighten a mood. ‘Come on Jimmy,’ she’d said, linking her arm through Vivien’s as the children started to arrive. ‘Take a photo-graph, why don’t you? Your two favourite girls.’

Vivien had started to demur, saying she didn’t enjoy having her picture taken, but Doll was trying so hard and Jimmy didn’t want to throw her efforts back in her face. ‘Promise it won’t hurt,’ he’d said with a smile, and eventually Vivien had nodded faint agreement …

The applause finally died down, and Dr Tomalin told the children that Jimmy had something for all of them and the announcement was met with another round of cheering. Jimmy waved at them and started handing out copies of the photograph. He’d taken it a fortnight ago, when Vivien was still away sick, the whole cast in costume, standing together on the ship set.

Jimmy had printed one for Vivien, too; he spied her over in the far corner of the attic, gathering discarded costumes into a woven basket. Dr Tomalin and Myra were talking to Dolly so he took it over to her.

‘So,’ he said, arriving at her side.


‘Rave reviews in tomorrow’s newspaper, I should think.’

She laughed. ‘Without doubt.’

He handed her a print. ‘This is for you.’

She took it, smiling at the children’s faces. She leaned to put down the basket and when she did her blouse gaped slightly and Jimmy glimpsed a bruise stretching from her shoulder to her chest bone.

‘It’s nothing,’ she said, noticing the direction of his glance, fingers moving quickly to straighten the fabric. ‘I fell in the blackout, on my way to the shelter. A postbox—so much for paint that shows up in the dark.’

‘Are you sure? It looks bad.’

‘I bruise easily.’ Her eyes met his, and for a fraction of a second Jimmy thought he saw something there, but then she smiled. ‘Not to mention I go too fast. I’m always bumping into things—people too, sometimes.’

Jimmy smiled back, remembering the day they’d met; but, as one of the children took Vivien’s hand and pulled her away, his thoughts shifted to her recurring illness and her inability to have children and what he knew of people who bruised easily, and Jimmy felt a knot of worry tighten in his stomach.

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