LAUREL HAD COME to Campden Grove first thing; she wasn’t sure why exactly, only she’d had a conviction it was what she must do. In her heart of hearts, she supposed she’d hoped to knock on the door and find the person who’d sent Ma the thank you card still living inside. It had seemed logical at the time; now, though, standing in the foyer of number 7—an apartment block of short-term holiday lets these days— breathing in the scent of lemon deodoriser and weary travellers, she felt rather foolish. The woman working in the small cluttered reception area looked up from behind her telephone again to ask if she was still all right, and Laurel assured her that she was. She went back to eyeing the dirty carpet and tying her thoughts in knots.
Laurel wasn’t remotely all right; in fact, she was exceedingly dismayed. She’d felt so exhilarated the night before when Ma told her about Henry Jenkins, about the kind of man he’d been. Everything had made sense and she’d felt sure they’d reached the end; that finally she understood what had happened that day. Then she’d noticed the cancellation mark on the stamp and her heart had turned a cartwheel; she’d been sure it was important—more than that, the discovery had felt personal, as if she, Laurel, was the only person who could unravel this final knot. But now, here she was, standing in the middle of three- star accommodation, at the end of a wild goose chase, with no-where to look, nothing to look for, and no one to speak to who’d lived there during the war. What did the card mean? Who’d sent it? Did any of it really matter? Laurel was beginning to think it did not.
She waved at the receptionist, who mouthed, ‘Bye-bye,’ over the phone receiver, and then Laurel went outside. She lit a cigarette and smoked it tetchily. She was fetching Daphne from Heathrow later; at least the journey wouldn’t be a complete loss. She glanced at her watch. Still a couple of hours to kill. It was lovely and warm, the sky was blue and clear, scarred only by the perfect jet streams of people going places—Laurel sup-posed she ought just to pick up a sandwich and walk in the park by the Serpentine. She drew on her cigarette and as she did, remembered the last time she’d come. The day she’d stood outside number 25 and seen the little boy.
Laurel eyed the house now. Vivien and Henry’s house: the site of his secret abuse; the place in which Vivien had endured. In a funny way, with all she’d read in Katy Ellis’s journals, Laurel knew more of life in that house than she did of the one behind her. She finished her cigarette, considering, and dropped the butt into the ashtray by the apartment entrance. By the time she’d straightened, Laurel was decided.
She knocked on the door to 25 Campden Grove and waited. The Halloween decorations were gone from the window and there were painted cutouts of children’s hands—at least four different sizes—hanging in their place. That was nice. It was nice that a family lived here now. That ugly memories from the past were being written over by new ones. She could hear noises inside, someone was definitely home, but no one had come to the door so she knocked again. She turned around on the tiled landing and looked across the street to number 7, trying to picture her mother as a young woman, climbing those stairs, a lady’s maid.
The door opened and the pretty woman Laurel had seen the last time she came was standing there, a baby slung over one shoulder. ‘Oh my God,’ she said, blinking her wide blue eyes. ‘It’s—you.’
Laurel was used to being recognised but there was some-thing different in the way this woman said it. She smiled and the woman blushed, wiping her hand on her blue jeans and then holding it out to Laurel. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘Where are my manners? I’m Karen, and this is Humphrey—’ she patted the child’s padded bottom and a mop of blond curls shifted slightly on her shoulder, one sky-blue eye regarding Laurel shyly—‘and of course I know who you are. It’s such a huge honour to meet you, Ms Nicolson.’
‘Laurel.’ Karen bit down gently on her bottom lip, a nervous pleased gesture, and then she shook her head in a disbelieving way. ‘Julian mentioned seeing you, but I thought … sometimes he …’ She smiled. ‘Never mind—you’re here. My husband is going to be beside himself when he meets you.’
You’re Daddy’s lady. Laurel had an unshakeable sense that there was more going on than she knew.
‘You know, he didn’t even tell me you were coming.’
Laurel didn’t mention that she hadn’t called ahead; she still didn’t know how she’d explain why she’d come; she smiled in-stead.
‘Come in, please. I’ll just call Marty down from the attic.’
Laurel followed Karen into the cluttered entrance hall, around the lunar-module pram, through a sea of balls and kites and mismatched tiny shoes, and into a warm bright sitting room. There were white bookcases from floor to ceiling, books lying every which way, children’s paintings on the wall beside family photographs of happy smiling people. Laurel almost tripped over a small body on the floor; it was the boy she’d seen last time, lying on his back with his knees bent. He had one arm in the air above him animating a Lego plane, and was making low engine noises, lost completely in the reality of his plane’s flight. ‘Julian,’ his mother said, ‘Ju-ju—run upstairs, little love, and tell Daddy we have a visitor.’
The boy looked up then, blinking back to reality; he saw Laurel and the light of recognition appeared in his eyes. Without a word, without so much as a faltering pause in the engine noise he was making, he set his plane on a new course, scrambled to his knees, and followed it up the carpeted stairs.
Karen insisted on putting the kettle on to boil, and so Laurel sat on a comfortable sofa with felt pen marks on its red and white gingham cover and smiled at the baby, who was sitting now on a floor rug, kicking a rattle with his fat little foot. A hurried creaking came from the stairs and a tall man, hand-some in a dishevelled sort of way with his long- ish brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, appeared in the sitting-room door-way. His pilot son followed him into the room. The man held out a large hand and grinned when he saw Laurel, shaking his head in a wondrous sort of way, as if she might just be an apparition materialised in his home. ‘My goodness,’ he said, as their palms touched and she proved herself to be flesh and blood. ‘I thought Julian might have been pulling my leg, but here you are.’
‘Here I am.’
‘I’m Martin,’ he said, ‘Call me Marty. And you’ll have to for-give my incredulity, only—I teach theatre studies at Queen Mary College, you see, and I wrote my doctoral thesis on you.’
‘You did?’ You’re Daddy’s lady. Well, that explained it. ‘Contemporary Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Tragedies. It was a lot less dry than it sounds.’
‘I imagine it was.’
‘And now—here you are.’ He smiled and then frowned slightly and then smiled again. He laughed, a lovely sound. ‘Sorry. This is just such an extraordinary coincidence.’
‘Did you tell Ms Nicolson—Laurel—’ Karen flushed, as she re-entered the room, ‘about Gramps?’ She slid a tray of tea things onto the coffee table, cutting a swathe through a forest of children’s craft materials and sat beside her husband on the sofa. Without so much as a sideways glance, she handed a biscuit to a little girl with brown ringlets who’d sensed the arrival of sweets and appeared from nowhere.
‘My grandfather,’ Marty explained. ‘He’s the one who got me hooked on your work. I’m a fan, but he was religious. He never missed a single one of your plays.’
Laurel smiled, pleased and trying not to seem it; she was charmed by this family and their delightful scruffy home. ‘Surely he must have missed one.’
‘Tell Laurel about his foot,’ said Karen, rubbing gently at her husband’s arm.
Marty laughed. ‘He broke his foot one year and made them release him from hospital early so he could see you in As You Like It.’ He used to take me with him when I was still small enough to need three cushions just to see over the seat in front of me.’
‘He sounds like a man of splendid taste.’ Laurel was flirting, not just with Marty, but with all of them; she felt rather appreciated. It was a good thing Iris wasn’t there to witness it.
‘He was,’ Marty said with a smile. ‘I loved him dearly. We lost him ten years ago, but not a day goes by that I don’t miss him.’ He pushed his black frames higher on his nose and said, ‘But enough about us. Forgive me—I blame the surprise of seeing you—we haven’t even asked yet why you’ve come to see us. Presumably it wasn’t to hear about Gramps.’
‘It’s a rather long story, actually,’ Laurel said, taking the cup of tea she was offered, stirring in some milk. ‘I’ve been re-searching my family history, in particular my mother’s side, and it turns out she was once -’ Laurel hesitated before saying—‘friendly, with the people who lived in this house.’
‘When would that have been, do you know?’
‘The late 1930s and the early years of the war.’
A nerve pulled at Martin’s eyebrow. ‘How extraordinary.’
‘What was your mother’s friend’s name?’ Karen said.
‘Vivien,’ said Laurel. ‘Vivien Jenkins.’
Marty and Karen exchanged a glance and Laurel looked be-tween them. She said, ‘Did I say something odd?’
‘No, not odd, only—’ Marty smiled at his hands as he collected his thoughts—‘we know that name rather well here.’
‘You do?’ Laurel’s heart had begun to thump rather loudly. They were Vivien’s descendants, of course they were. A child Laurel hadn’t learned about, a nephew—
‘It’s rather a peculiar story, actually, one of those that’s entered family legend.’
Laurel nodded eagerly, willing him to continue as she took a sip of tea.
‘My great-grandfather Bertie inherited this house, you see, during the Second World War. He was unwell, the story goes, and very poor: he’d worked all his life but times were tough—there was a war on, after all—and he was living in a tiny flat near Stepney, being looked after by an old neighbour, when one day out of the blue, he received a visit from a fancy lawyer who told him he’d been left this place.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Laurel said.
‘Neither did he,’ said Martin. ‘But the lawyer was quite clear on the matter. A woman named Vivien Jenkins, whom my great-grandfather had never heard of, had made him the sole beneficiary of her will.’
‘He didn’t know her?’
‘Never heard of her.’
‘But that’s so peculiar.’
‘I agree. And he didn’t want to come here at first. He suffered with dementia; he didn’t like change; you can imagine how much of a shock it was—so he stayed where he was and the house sat empty, until his son, my grandfather, came back from the war and was able to convince the old man that it wasn’t a trick.’
‘Your grandfather had known Vivien then?’
‘He had, but he never talked about her. He was pretty open, my gramps, but there were a few subjects on which he’d never be drawn. She was one of them; the other was the war.’
‘I believe that’s not uncommon,’ Laurel said. ‘All the horrors those poor men saw.’
‘Yes.’ His face fell into a sad frown. ‘But it was more than that for Gramps.’
‘He was drafted into service from prison.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘He was rather spare with the details, but I did some checking.’ Marty looked a little sheepish and lowered his voice as he continued, ‘I found the police records and learned that one night in 1941 Gramps was fished out of the Thames, badly beaten.’
‘I’m not sure, but it was while he was in hospital that the police came round. They had it in their heads he’d been involved in some sort of blackmail attempt and took him in for questioning. A misunderstanding, he always swore, and if you knew my Gramps you’d know he didn’t lie, but the coppers didn’t believe him. According to the records he was carrying a large cheque made out to cash when they found him, but he wouldn’t say how he came by it. He was thrown into prison; he couldn’t afford a lawyer, of course, and in the end the police didn’t have enough evidence so they joined him up. It’s funny, but he used to say they saved his life.’
‘Saved his life? How?’
‘I don’t know, I could never work that out. Maybe it was a joke, he joked around a lot, my Gramps. They sent him to France in 1942.’
‘He hadn’t been in the army before that?’
‘No, but he saw action—he was at Dunkirk, in fact—only he didn’t carry a gun. He took a camera. He was a war photographer. Come and see some of his photographs.’
‘My God,’ Laurel said, realising, as she studied the black and white photographs that filled the wall, ‘Your grandfather was James Metcalfe.’ Martin smiled proudly. ‘None other.’ He straightened the photo frame.
‘I recognise these. I saw an exhibition at the V&A about a decade ago’
‘That was just after he died.’
‘His work is incredible. You know, my mother had one of his prints on the wall when I was a girl, just a small one—she still does for that matter. She used to say it helped her to remember her family; what happened to them. They were killed in the Coventry Blitz.’
‘I’m sorry about that,’ Marty said. ‘Terrible. Impossible to imagine.’ ‘Your grandfather’s photographs go some of the way to helping with that.’ Laurel looked at each photograph in turn. They really were exceptional; people who’d been bombed out of their houses, soldiers on the battlefield. There was one of a little girl in a strange outfit, tap shoes and oversized bloomers. ‘I like this one,’ she said.
‘That’s my Aunt Nella,’ Marty said, smiling. ‘Well, we called her that, though she wasn’t really a relation. She was a war orphan. That photo was taken on the night her family was killed. Gramps stayed in touch with her, and when he got back from the war he tracked her down with her foster family. They remained friends for the rest of his life.’
‘He was like that, very loyal. You know, before he married my grandmother, he went to look up an old flame just to make sure she was doing all right. Nothing would’ve stopped him marrying my gran, of course—they were very much in love—but he said it was something he had to do. They were separated during the war and he’d only seen her once since he got back, and then from a distance. She’d been on the beach with her new husband and he hadn’t wanted to interrupt them.’
Laurel was listening and nodding, when suddenly the pieces kalei- doscoped into order: Vivien Jenkins had left the house to the family of James Metcalfe. James Metcalfe, with his old and unwell father—why, it was Jimmy, wasn’t it? It had to be. Ma’s Jimmy, and the man Vivien had fallen in love with, against whom Katy had warned her, fearful of what Henry might do if he found out. Which meant Ma was the woman Jimmy had tracked down before he got married. Laurel felt faint, and not just because it was her mother Marty was talking about; there was something tugging at her very own memories.
‘What is it?’ said Karen, concerned, ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘I just—Laurel stammered, ‘I just—I have an idea what might have happened to your grandfather, Marty. I think I know why he was beaten; who it was that left him for dead.’
She nodded, wondering where to start. There was so much to tell.
‘Come back to the sitting room,’ Karen said. ‘I’ll put the kettle on again.’ She shivered, excited. ‘Oh, it’s silly of me, I know, but doesn’t it feel wonderful to solve a mystery?’
They were turning to leave the room when Laurel saw a final photograph that made her gasp.
‘She’s beautiful, isn’t she?’ Martin said, smiling as he noticed the direction of her gaze.
Laurel nodded, and it was on the tip of her tongue to say, ‘That’s my mother,’ when Martin said instead, ‘That’s her, that’s Vivien Jenkins. The woman who left Bertie this house.’