London, May 23rd, 1941
VIVIEN GLANCED at her wristwatch, the cafe door, and finally the street outside. Jimmy had said two, but it was almost half past and there was still no sign of him. He might have run into trouble at work, or maybe with his dad, but Vivien didn’t think so. His message had been urgent—he needed to see her—and he’d delivered it by such cryptic methods; Vivien couldn’t believe he’d have let himself get caught up. She bit her bottom lip and checked her watch again. Her gaze shifted to the full cup of tea she’d poured half an hour ago, the chip on the saucer’s rim, the dried tea in the dip of the spoon. She glimpsed outside the window again, saw no one she knew, and then tilted her hat to hide her face.
His message had been a surprise, a wonderful, terrible heart- pounding surprise. Vivien had truly believed when she gave Jimmy the cheque that she wouldn’t see him again. It hadn’t been a trick, a way to bluff him into making fevered contact; Vivien valued his life, if not her own, too much for that. Her intention had been the opposite. After hearing Dr Rufus’s story, after realising the repercussions—for all of them—should Henry learn of the friendship she’d formed with Jimmy, the work she’d been doing at Dr Tomalin’s hospital, it had seemed the only way. The perfect way, in fact. It delivered money to Dolly, and the sort of insult to Jimmy that would most offend a man like him, an honourable man, a kind one, and that way be sufficient to keep him away—to keep him safe—forever. She’d been reckless in letting him get so close; she ought to have known better; Vivien had brought this whole situation on herself.
In some way, giving the cheque to Jimmy had also delivered to Vivien what she most wanted in the world. She smiled now, just a little, thinking of it. Her love for Jimmy was selfless: not because she was a good person but because it had to be. Henry would never ever allow them to be anything to one another, and so she let her love take the form of wanting for Jimmy the best life he could have, even if she couldn’t be a part of it. Jim-my and Dolly were free now to do everything he’d always dreamed of: to leave London, to be married, to live happily ever after. And by giving away money Henry guarded so jealously, Vivien was striking at him, too, in the only way she could. He would find out, of course. The strict rules of her inheritance weren’t easily circumvented, but Vivien had no great interest in money and what it could buy—she signed over whatever amount Henry demanded and needed very little for herself. Nonetheless, he made it his business to know precisely what was spent and where; she would pay a hefty price, just as she had over the donation to Dr Tomalin’s hospital, but it would be worth it. Oh, yes, it pleased her greatly to know the money he craved so dearly, would go elsewhere.
Which wasn’t to say telling Jimmy goodbye hadn’t been one of the most agonising things Vivien had ever done, because it had been. Faced with seeing him now, the joy that pulsed beneath her skin when she pictured him arriving through that door, the fall of dark hair over his eyes, the smile that suggested secret things, that made her feel under- stood—recognised, before he said a single word—she couldn’t believe she’d found the strength to go through with it.
Now, in the cafe, she looked up as one of the waitresses arrived at the edge of her table and asked if she’d like to order food; Vivien told her no, that she was fine with tea at the moment. It occurred to her that Jimmy might’ve come and gone al-ready, that perhaps she’d just missed him—Henry had been unusually tense over the past few days, it hadn’t been easy getting away—but when she asked the waitress, the girl shook her head. ‘I know the fellow you’re talking about,’ she said. ‘Handsome man with the camera.’ Vivien nodded. ‘Haven’t seen him in a couple of days—sorry.’
The waitress left and Vivien watched out the window again, checking up and down the street for Jimmy, and for anybody else who might be watching too. She’d been shocked initially by what Dr Rufus told her on the telephone, but as she’d made her way to Jimmy’s place, Vivien had thought she understood: Dolly’s hurt when she imagined herself rejected, her impulse for revenge, her burning desire to reinvent herself and start again. There were people, Vivien was sure, who’d find such a scheme inconceivable, but she wasn’t one of them: she found nothing particularly difficult in believing that a person might go to such lengths if they thought the ends made possible an escape; especially someone like Dolly, who’d been cut adrift by the loss of her family.
The only aspect of Dr Rufus’s story that cut like a knife was Jimmy’s part in it. Vivien refused to believe that everything they’d shared had been pretend. She knew it hadn’t. No matter what had brought Jimmy to her on the street that day, the feelings between them were real. She knew it in her heart, and Vivien’s heart was never wrong. She’d known it that very first night in the canteen, when she’d seen the photograph of Nella, and exclaimed, and Jimmy had looked up and their eyes had met. She knew it, too, because he hadn’t stayed away. She’d given him the cheque—everything Dolly wanted and more—but he hadn’t walked away. He’d refused to let her go.
Jimmy had sent word with a woman Vivien didn’t know, a funny little thing who’d knocked on the front door at 25 Camp-den Grove with a tin in her hand for donations to the Soldiers’ Hospital Fund. Vivien had been about to collect her purse, when the woman shook her head and whispered that Jimmy needed to see her, that he’d meet her here in this railway cafe at two o’clock on Friday. And then the woman had gone and Vivien had felt hope flare inside her before she knew how to stop it—
But—Vivien checked her watch—it was almost three thirty now; he wasn’t coming. She knew it. She’d known it for the past thirty minutes.
Henry would be home in an hour and there were things she had to take care of before he arrived, things that he expected. Vivien stood and tucked the chair beneath the table. Disappointment now was a hundred times worse than it had been the last time she’d left him. But she couldn’t wait longer; she’d already stayed beyond what was safe. Vivien paid for her cup of tea, and with a last glance around the cafe at the other patrons, she pushed her hat down low and hurried back towards Campden Grove.
‘Been out for a walk, have you?’
Vivien stiffened in the entrance hall; she glanced over her shoulder, through the open door to the sitting room. Henry was in the armchair, legs crossed, black shoes gleaming, as he watched her over the top of a thick Ministry report.
‘I …’ Her thoughts swam; he was early. She was sup-posed to greet him at the door when he arrived home, hand him his whisky and ask about his day. ‘It’s such lovely weather. I couldn’t resist.’
‘Go through the park?’
‘Yes.’ She smiled, trying to still the rabbit in her chest. ‘The tulips are in bloom.’
He lifted his report again, covering his face, and Vivien let herself exhale. She remained where she was but only for a second, only to be sure. Careful not to move too quickly, she set her hat down on the stand, removed her scarf, and walked as smoothly as she could, away.
‘See any friends while you were out?’ Henry’s voice stopped her as she reached the bottom step.
Vivien turned slowly; he was leaning, casually, against the sitting- room doorjamb, smoothing his moustache. He’d been drinking; there was something in his manner, a looseness that she recognised, that made her stomach swoop with dread. Other women, she knew, found Henry attractive, that dark, almost sneering expression, the way his eyes refused to let theirs go; but Vivien didn’t. She never had. Ever since the night they met, when she’d thought herself alone by the lake at Nordstrom and looked up to find him leaned against the pool house, staring at her while he smoked. There’d been something in his eyes as he watched her, lust, of course, but something besides. It had made her skin crawl. She saw it in them now. ‘Why, Henry, no,’ she said, as lightly as she could; ‘Of course not. You know I haven’t time for friends, not with my canteen work.’
The house was still and silent, no cook downstairs rolling out pastry for the dinner pie, no maid wrestling with the vacuum cord. Vivien missed Sarah; the poor girl had cried, embarrassed and ashamed, when Vivien came across the two of them together that afternoon; Henry had been livid, his pleasure spoiled and his dignity wrinkled. He’d punished Sarah’s compliance by letting her go; he’d punished Vivien’s timing by making her stay.
And so here they were, just the two of them. Henry and Vivien Jenkins, a man and his wife. Henry was one of my brightest students, her uncle had said when he told her what the two men had discussed in his smoke-filled study He’s a distinguished gentleman. You’re very lucky that he’s interested in you. ‘I think I’ll go upstairs and lie down,’ she said, after a time that seemed interminable.
‘Yes.’ Vivien tried to smile. ‘The raids. The whole of London’s tired, I suppose.’
‘Yes.’ He came towards her with lips that smiled and eyes that didn’t. ‘I suppose they probably are.’
Henry’s fist hit her left ear first and the ringing was deafening. The force sent her face into the entrance-hall wall and she fell to the floor. He was on top of her then, grabbing at her dress, shaking her, his handsome face twisting with anger as he hit her. He was shouting too, spittle coming from his mouth, landing on her face, her neck, his eyes glinting as he told her over and over that she belonged to him and she always would, she was his prize, that he’d never let another man touch her, he’d sooner see her dead than let her go.
Vivien closed her eyes; she knew it drove him wild with rage when she refused to look at him. Sure enough he shook her harder, gripped her by the throat, shouted closer to her ear.
In the black of her mind, Vivien looked for the creek, the shining lights …
She never fought back, even when her fists clenched hard at her sides, and that balled-up part of her, the essence of Vivien Longmeyer that she’d tucked away so long ago, wrestled for release. Her uncle might have struck the deal in his smoky study, but Vivien had had her own reasons for being so compliant. Katy had tried her best to change her mind, but Vivien had always been stubborn. This was her penance, she knew, it was what she deserved. Her fists were the reason she’d been punished in the first place; the reason she’d been left at home; the reason her family had hurried back from the picnic and been lost.
Her mind was liquid now; she was in the tunnel, swimming down and down, her arms and legs strong as they pulled her through the water towards home …
Vivien didn’t mind being punished; she just wondered when it would end. When he would put an end to her. Because he would one day, of that she was certain. Vivien held her breath, waiting, hoping, this might be it. For each time she woke and found herself still here in the house on Campden Grove, the well of despair inside her deepened.
The water was warmer now; she was getting closer. In the distance, the first twinkling lights. Vivien swam towards them …
What would happen, she wondered, when he did kill her? Knowing Henry he’d have the wherewithal to make sure some-one else took the blame. Or else he’d have it seem she’d died by accident—an unfortunate fall, bad luck in the air raids. Wrong place, wrong time, people would say, shaking their heads, and Henry would be cast evermore as the devoted grieving husband. He’d probably write a book about it, about her, a fantasy version of Vivien, just like the other one, The Reluctant Muse, about that horrid pliable girl she didn’t recognise, who worshipped her author husband and dreamed of dresses and parties.
The lights were bright now, nearer, and Vivien could make out shimmering patterns. She looked beyond them though, it was what lay beyond that she had come to find …
The room tilted. Henry was finished. He picked her up and she felt her body slump like a rag doll, limp in his arms. She ought to do it herself. Take rocks, or bricks—something heavy—and put them in her pockets; walk into the Serpentine, one step at a time, until she saw the lights. He was kissing her face, smothering it with wet kisses. His ragged breaths, his smell of hair grease and alcohol turned to sweat: ‘There now,’ he was saying. ‘I love you, you know I do, but you make me so angry—you shouldn’t get me angry like that.’
Tiny lights, so many lights, and on the other side, Pippin. He turned towards her, and for the first time it seemed he could see her …
Henry carried her up the stairs, a ghastly groom with his bride, and then he laid her gently on the bed. She could do it herself. It was so clear to her now. She, Vivien, was the final thing she could take from him. He peeled off her shoes and fixed her hair so it fell evenly over each shoulder. ‘Your face,’ he said sadly; ‘your beautiful face.’ He kissed the back of her hand and set it down beside her. ‘Have a rest now,’ he said, ‘You’ll feel better when you wake up.’ He leaned close, his lips against her ear. ‘And don’t you worry about Jimmy Metcalfe. I’ve had him taken care of; he’s dead now, rotting at the bottom of the Thames. He won’t come between us any more.’
Heavy footsteps; the door closing; the key being turned in the lock. Pippin lifted his hand, half a wave, half a beckoning motion, and Vivien went towards him …
She woke an hour later, in her bedroom at 25 Campden Grove, with afternoon sunlight streaming through the window onto her face. Immediately Vivien closed her eyes again. She had a throbbing headache behind her temples, in the back of her eye sockets, at the base of her neck. Her whole head felt like a ripe plum that had fallen onto tiles from somewhere high. She lay as still as a plank, trying to remember what had happened and why she ached so terribly.
It came back to her in waves, the whole episode, mixed, as always, with impressions from the watery salvation of her mind. Those were the hardest memories to bear—the shadowy sensations of supreme well-being, of eternal longing, more febrile than real memories, and yet so much more potent.
Vivien winced as slowly she shifted each part of her body, trying to ascertain the damage. It was part of the process; Henry would expect her to be ‘neatened up’ by the time he got home; he didn’t like it when she took too long to heal. Her legs seemed unharmed, that was good— limping prompted awkward questions; her arms were bruised but not broken; it was her jaw that throbbed, her ear was still ringing and the side of her face burned. That was unusual. Henry didn’t usually touch her face; he was careful, keeping the blows always below the neckline. She was his prize, nothing should mark her but him, and he didn’t like to be confronted by the evidence; it reminded him of how angry she’d made him, how disappointing she could be. He liked her injuries to remain safely beneath her clothing, there for only her to see, to remind her how much he loved her—he would never hit a woman if he didn’t care so damned much.
Vivien cleared her mind of Henry. Something else had been trying to get to the surface, something important; she could hear it like a lone mosquito in the dead of night, buzzing close before skirting away, but she couldn’t catch it. She waited very still as the hum came near, and then—Vivien gasped for air; she remembered, and she reeled. Her own suffering paled. Don’t you worry about Jimmy Metcalfe. I’ve had him taken care of; he’s dead now, rotting at the bottom of the Thames. He won’t come between us any more.
She couldn’t breathe. Jimmy—he hadn’t come to meet her today. She’d waited but he hadn’t come. Jimmy wouldn’t have left her there; he’d have come if he could.
Henry knew his name; he’d found out somehow, he’d had Jimmy ‘taken care of’. There’d been others before; people who’d dared get between Henry and the things he wanted. He never did it himself, it wouldn’t have been seemly—Vivien was the only one who knew the cruelty of Henry’s fists. But Henry had his men, and Jimmy hadn’t come.
A keening noise, the terrible sound of an animal in pain, and Vivien realised it was her. She curled onto her side and pressed her hands against her skull to ease the ache, and she didn’t think she’d ever move again.
Next time she woke the sun had lost its bite and the room had taken on the blue of early evening. Vivien’s eyes stung. She’d been crying in her sleep, but she didn’t cry now. She was empty inside, desolate. All that was good in the world had gone; Henry had seen to that.
How had he known? He had his spies, she knew, but Vivien had been careful. She’d gone to Dr Tomalin’s hospital for five months without incident; she’d broken contact with Jimmy so this exact thing wouldn’t happen; as soon as Dr Rufus told her about Dolly’s intentions, she’d known—
Of course, it was Dolly. Vivien forced her mind back to the details of her conversation with Dr Rufus, straining to remember; he’d told her Dolly planned to send a photograph of Vivien and Jimmy with a letter saying she’d tell Vivien’s husband all about the ‘affair’ unless Vivien paid for her silence.
Vivien had thought the cheque would be enough, but no, Dolly must have sent the letter after all, and in it, along with the photograph, she’d named Jimmy. The foolish headstrong girl. She’d imagined herself the inventor of a clever scheme; Dr Rufus said she’d thought it was harmless, she’d been convinced that no one would get hurt; but she hadn’t known with whom she was dealing. Henry, who got jealous if Vivien stopped to say good morning to the old man who sold newspapers on the street corner; Henry, who wouldn’t allow her to make friends or have children, for fear they’d take her time away from him; Henry, who had contacts in the Ministry and could find out anything about anybody; who’d used her money to have others ‘taken care’ of in the past.
Vivien sat up carefully—shooting stars of pain behind her eyeballs, inside her ear, in the crown of her head. She took a breath and pushed herself to standing, relieved to find she could still walk. She caught her face in the mirror and stared: there was blood dried down one side and her eye had started to swell. She turned her head gently to the other side, everything hurting as she did so. The tender spots were not yet purple; she would look worse tomorrow.
The longer she spent on her feet, the better she was able to stand the pain. The bedroom door was locked, but Vivien had a secret key. She went slowly to the hidey-hole behind her grandmother’s portrait, struggled a moment to remember the combination, and then turned the dial. A hazy memory came of the day some weeks before her wedding when Vivien’s uncle had brought her to London to visit the family lawyers and, after-wards, the house. The caretaker had pulled her aside when they were alone in the second bedroom and pointed out the portrait, the safe behind. ‘A lady needs a place for her secrets’, she’d whispered, and although Vivien hadn’t liked the sly look on the old woman’s face, she’d always craved a place of her own and had remembered the advice.
The safe door sprung open and she retrieved the key she’d had cut last time—she took the picture Jimmy had given her, too; it was inexplicable, but she felt better for having it near her. As carefully as she could, Vivien closed the door and hung the painting straight.
She found the envelope on Henry’s desk. He hadn’t even bothered to hide it. It was addressed to Vivien, postmarked two days before, and had been sliced open. Henry always opened her post—and therein lay the terrible flaw in Dolly’s great scheme.
Vivien knew what the letter would say, but her heart still pounded as she skimmed its contents. All was as she’d expected; the letter written almost in a kindly tone; Vivien just thanked God the silly girl hadn’t signed her name, that she’d written only, ‘A Friend’, at the bottom.
Tears threatened when Vivien looked at the photograph but she forced them back. And when her memory tossed up tantalizing echoes of precious moments in Dr Tomalin’s attic, of Jimmy, of the way he’d made her feel almost as if she might have a future to look forward to, she quashed them. She knew better than anyone that there was no going back.
Vivien turned the envelope over and she could have wept tears of despair. For there, Dolly had written: A Friend, 24 Rillington Place, Notting Hill.
Vivien tried to run, but her head thumped and her thoughts swam and she had to stop at each looming lamp post, steadying herself as she made her way through the navy-dark streets towards Notting Hill. She’d stayed in Campden Grove long enough only to rinse her face, hide the photograph, and scratch out a hurried letter. She dropped it in the first postbox she passed and continued on her way. There was a single thing left she had to do, her final penance before everything was set right.
Once she’d realised that fact, everything else had come into glorious focus. Vivien shed desolation like an unwanted coat, and stepped towards the shining lights. It was all so simple really. She had brought about her family’s death; she had brought about Jimmy’s death; but now she was going to make sure Dolly Smitham was saved. Then, and only then, she would go to the Serpentine and make her pockets heavy with stones. Vivien could see the end and it was beautiful.
Speed of light and limb, her father used to say, and although her head throbbed, although she had to clutch the railings sometimes to stop from falling, Vivien was a good runner, and she refused to stop. She imagined herself a wallaby, scooting through the bush; a dingo, slinking in the shadows; a lizard, sneaking in the dark …
There were planes in the distance and Vivien glanced at the black sky every so often, stumbling when she did. A part of her willed them to fly overhead, to drop their load if they dared; but not yet, not yet, she still had work to do.
Night had fallen when she reached Rillington Place, and Vivien hadn’t brought a torch. She was struggling to find the right number when a door slammed shut behind her; she glimpsed a figure coming down the steps of the nearby house.
Vivien called, ‘Excuse me?’
‘Yes?’ A woman’s voice.
‘Please—can you help me? I’m looking for number 24.’
‘You’re in luck. It’s right here. No rooms free at the moment, I’m afraid, but there will be soon.’ The woman struck a match then and brought it to her cigarette so that Vivien saw her face.
She couldn’t believe her luck, and thought at first she must be seeing things. ‘Dolly?’ she said, rushing closer to the pretty woman in the white coat. ‘It is you, thank God. It’s me, Dolly. It’s—’
‘Vivien?’ Dolly’s voice was filled with surprise.
‘I thought I might’ve missed you, that I was too late.’
Dolly was immediately suspicious. ‘Too late for what? What is it?’ ‘Nothing—’. Vivien laughed suddenly. Her head was spinning and she faltered. ‘That is, everything.’
Dolly drew on her cigarette. ‘Have you been drinking?’
Something moved in the dark beyond; there were footsteps. Vivien whispered, ‘We have to talk—quickly.’
‘I can’t, I was just—’
‘Dolly, please—’ Vivien glanced over her shoulder, terrified she’d see one of Henry’s men coming towards her—‘it’s important.’
The other woman didn’t answer at once, wary of this unexpected visit. Finally, grudgingly, she took Vivien’s arm and said, ‘Come on, let’s go back inside.’
Vivien breathed a tentative sigh of relief as the door shut be-hind them; she ignored the curious glance of an elderly woman in glasses, and followed Dolly up the stairs, along a corridor that smelled of old food. The room at its end was small, dark and stuffy.
When they were inside, Dolly flicked the light switch and a bare bulb fired above them. ‘Sorry it’s so hot in here,’ she said, taking off the heavy white fur she’d been wearing. She hung it on a hook on the back of the door. ‘No windows, more’s the pity—makes the blackout easier but it’s not so handy for ventilation. No chair, either, I’m afraid.’ She turned and saw Vivien’s face in the light: ‘My God. What happened to you?’
‘Nothing.’ Vivien had forgotten how ghastly she must look. ‘An accident on the way. I ran into a lamp post. Stupid of me, rushing as usual.’
Dolly looked unconvinced, but she didn’t press the subject, indicating instead that Vivien should sit on the bed. It was narrow and low, and the bedspread was marked with the general creeping stains of age and over-use. Vivien wasn’t fussy though; to sit was a huge relief. She collapsed onto the thin mattress, just as the air-raid siren began to wail.
‘Ignore it,’ she said quickly, when Dolly moved to go. ‘Stay. This is more important.’
Dolly dragged nervously on her cigarette, and then folded her arms defensively across her front. Her voice tightened: ‘Is it the money? Do you need it back?’
‘No, no, forget about the money.’ Vivien’s thoughts had scattered and she fought to gather them back; to find the clarity she needed; everything had seemed so straightforward before, but now her head was heavy, her temples an agony, and the siren kept on with its caterwauling—
Dolly said, ‘Jimmy and I—’
‘Yes,’ Vivien said quickly, and her mind suddenly cleared. ‘Yes, Jimmy.’ She stopped then, struggling to find the words she needed to say the terrible fact out loud. Dolly, watching her closely, began to shake her head, almost as if she’d guessed somehow what Vivien had come to tell her. The gesture gave Vivien courage and she said, ‘Jimmy, Dolly—’ just as the siren stopped its cry—‘he’s gone.’ The word echoed in the room’s new quiet.
A hasty knock on the door, and a shout of, ‘Doll—are you in there? We’re going down to the Andy’ Dolly didn’t answer; her eyes searched Vivien’s; she brought her cigarette to her mouth, smoking feverishly, fingers shaking. The person knocked again, but when there was still no response, ran along the corridor and down the stairs.
A smile flared, hopefully, uncertainly, on Dolly’s face as she sank down next to Vivien. ‘You’ve got it mixed up. I saw him yesterday, and I’m seeing him again tonight. We’re going together, he wouldn’t have gone without me …’
She hadn’t understood and Vivien said nothing further for a moment, held captive by the well of deep sympathy that had opened up inside her. Of course Dolly didn’t understand; the words would be like chips of ice, melting in the face of her hot disbelief. Vivien knew only too well what it was to receive such awful news, to learn from nowhere that one’s most treasured loves were dead.
But then a plane chugged overhead, a bomber, and Vivien knew there was no time to waste in pity, that she had to keep explaining, to make Dolly see she was telling the truth, to understand that she had to leave now if she wanted to save herself. ‘Henry,’ Vivien began, ‘my husband—I know he might not seem it, but he’s a jealous man, a violent man. That’s why I had to get you out of there that day, Dolly, when you brought back my locket; he doesn’t let me have friends—’ There was a tremendous explosion somewhere, not so far away, and a swishing sound went through the air above them. Vivien paused a second, every muscle in her body tensed and aching, and then she continued, faster now, more purposefully, sticking to the bare essentials. ‘He received the letter and photograph and they humiliated him—you made him seem a cuckold, Dolly, so he sent his men to put things right—that’s how he sees it; he sent his men to punish you and Jimmy both.’
Dolly’s face had turned as white as chalk. She was in shock, that was clear, but Vivien knew she was listening because tears had begun to stream down her cheeks. Vivien continued, ‘I was supposed to meet Jimmy in a cafe today but he didn’t come. You know Jimmy, Dolly—he never would have stayed away, not when he said he’d be there—so I went home and Henry was there, and he was angry, Dolly, so angry’ Her hand went absently to her throbbing jaw. ‘He told me what had happened, that his men had killed Jimmy for getting close to me. I wasn’t sure how he knew at first, but then I found the photograph. He opened it—he always opens my letters—and he saw us together in the photograph. It all went wrong, do you see—the plan all went terribly wrong.’
When Vivien mentioned the plan, Dolly clutched her arm; her eyes were wild and her voice a whisper: ‘But I don’t know how—the pho- tograph—we agreed not to, that there wasn’t any need, not any more.’ She met Vivien’s eyes and shook her head frantically. ‘None of this was meant to happen, and now Jimmy—’
Vivien waved further explanation aside. Whether or not Dolly meant to send the photograph was neither here nor there as far as she was concerned; she hadn’t come here to rub Dolly’s nose in her own mistake; there was no time now for guilt. God willing, Dolly would have plenty of time to reproach herself later. ‘Listen to me,’ she said. ‘It’s very important that you listen. They know where you live and they will come after you.’
Tears slipped hot down Dolly’s face. ‘It’s my fault,’ she was saying. ‘It’s all my fault.’
Vivien seized the other woman’s thin hands. Dolly’s grief was natural, it was raw, but it wasn’t helpful. ‘Dolly, please. It’s as much my fault as yours.’ She raised her voice to be heard over a new group of bombers. ‘None of that matters now anyway They’re coming. They’re probably on their way already. That’s why I’m here.’
‘You need to leave London, you need to do it now, and you mustn’t come back. They won’t stop looking for you. Not ever—’ There came a blast and the whole building shuddered; it was closer than the one before, and despite the room’s lack of windows an uncanny light flooded through every tiny pore in the building’s skin. Dolly’s eyes were wide with fear. The noise was relentless; the whistling as bombs fell, the blast when they landed, the anti-aircraft guns firing back; Vivien had to shout to be heard as she asked about Dolly’s family, her friends, whether there was anywhere at all that she could safely go. But Dolly didn’t answer. She shook her head and continued to cry helplessly, her palms pressed now to her face. Vivien remembered then what Jimmy had told her about Dolly’s family; it had warmed her to the other woman at the time, knowing that she, too, had suffered such a crippling loss.
The house rattled and shook; the plug just about leapt out of the horrid little sink, and Vivien felt her panic rise. ‘Think, Dolly,’ she implored, at the same time as a deafening explosion, ‘You have to think.’ There were more planes now, fighters as well as bombers, and the guns were chattering fiercely. Vivien’s head throbbed with the noise, and she imagined the bodies of the aircraft passing over the roof of the house; even with the ceiling and the attic above, she could all but see their whale-like bellies. ‘Dolly?’ she shouted.
Dolly’s eyes were closed and despite the clamour of bombs and guns, the roar of the planes, for a moment her face brightened, seeming almost peaceful, and then she lifted her head with a start and said, ‘I applied for a job a few weeks ago. It was Jimmy who found it …’ She took a sheet of paper from the small table beside her bed and handed it to Vivien.
Vivien scanned the letter, a job offer for Miss Dorothy Smitham at a boarding house called Sea Blue. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘perfect. That’s where you must go.’
‘I don’t want to go by myself. We—’
‘We were supposed to go together. It wasn’t meant to be like this, he was going to wait for me—’
And then she was crying again. For a split second, Vivien allowed herself to sink inside the other woman’s pain; it was so tempting just to let herself collapse, to give up and let go, to be submerged … but it didn’t do any good, she knew she had to be brave; Jimmy was already dead and Dolly would be too if she didn’t start listening. Henry would not waste too much time. His thugs would be on their way already. Gripped by urgency, she slapped the other woman’s cheek, not hard, but sharply. It worked, for Dolly swallowed her next sob, clutching her face and hiccuping. ‘Dolly Smitham,’ said Vivien sternly. ‘You need to leave London and you need to go quickly.’
Dolly was shaking her head. ‘I don’t think I can.’
‘I know you can. You’re a survivor.’
‘That’s enough.’ She took Dolly by the chin and forced her gaze. ‘You loved Jimmy, I know that—’ I loved him too—‘and he loved you—my God, I know that. But you have to listen to me.’
Dolly gulped and nodded tearfully.
‘Go to the railway station tonight and buy yourself a ticket. You’re to—’. The light bulb flickered as another bomb landed close with a thundering crump; Dolly’s eyes widened, but Vivien stayed calm, refusing to let her go. ‘Get on that train and ride it all the way to the very end of the line. Don’t look back. Take the job, move again, live a good life.’
Dolly’s eyes as Vivien was speaking had changed; they’d focused, and Vivien could tell she was listening now; that she was hearing each and every word, and more than that, she was starting to understand.
‘You have to go. Seize the second chance, Dolly: think of it as an opportunity. After everything you’ve been through, after everything you’ve lost.’
‘I will,’ Dolly said quickly. ‘I’ll do it.’ She got up and pulled a small suitcase from beneath her bed; began filling it with clothing.
Vivien was so tired now; her own eyes had begun to water with utter exhaustion. She was ready for it all to end. She’d been ready for a long, long time. Outside, planes were every-where; the ack-acks were firing and spotlights sliced through the night sky. Bombs fell and the earth trembled so they could feel it through the foundations under their feet.
‘What about you?’ said Dolly, sealing her case and standing up. She held out her hand to take back the boarding house let-ter.
Vivien smiled; her face ached and she was bone tired; she felt herself sinking under the water, towards the lights. ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m going to be fine. I’m going home.’
As she said it, an enormous explosion sounded and light was everywhere. Everything seemed to slow down. Dolly’s face lit up, her features froze in shock; Vivien glanced upwards. As the bomb fell through the roof of 24 Rillington Place, and the roof fell through the ceiling, and the bulb in Dolly’s room shattered into a million tiny shards, Vivien closed her eyes and rejoiced. Her prayers had been answered at last. There would be no need for the Serpentine tonight. She saw the twinkling lights in the darkness, the bottom of the creek, the tunnel to the middle of the world. And she was in and swimming, deeper and deeper, and the veil was right before her, and Pippin was there, waving, and she could see them all—they could see her, too, and Vivien Longmeyer smiled. After such a long, long time, she’d reached the end. She’d done what she had to do. Finally, she was going home.