The end of the line, May 1941
VIVIEN WALKED the last part of the journey. The train had been crammed with soldiers and tired-looking Londoners—standing room only, but she’d been offered a seat. There were ad-vantages, she realised, to looking as if one had just been plucked from a bomb-blast site. There’d been a young boy sit-ting on the seat opposite, a suitcase on his lap and a jar clutched tightly in his hand. It had contained, of all things, a small red goldfish, and every time the train slowed or sped up or lurched into the sidings to wait out an alert, the water sloshed against the glass and he held it up to check his fish wasn’t panicked. Did fish panic? Vivien was sure they didn’t, though the idea of being trapped inside a glass jar made something inside her contract so tightly it was hard to breathe.
When he wasn’t peering at his fish, the boy watched Vivien, large sombre blue eyes taking in her injuries, her thick white coat at the end of spring. She smiled slightly when their eyes met, about an hour into the journey, and he did the same, but only briefly. She wondered, among the other thoughts that flooded her mind and fought for attention, who the boy was and why he was travelling all by himself in the midst of a war, but she didn’t ask—she was far too nervous to speak to anyone for fear of giving herself away.
There was a bus that ran into the town every half hour—she’d heard a couple of elderly women discussing its surprising reliability when they drew near the station, but Vivien decided to walk. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that only by keeping on moving could she stay safe.
A motorcar slowed behind her and every nerve in Vivien’s body tensed. She wondered if she’d ever stop being frightened. Not until Henry was dead, she knew, for only then would she truly be free. The driver of the car was a man with a uniform she didn’t recognise. She imagined how she must look through his eyes—a woman in a winter coat, with a bruised and sorry face, and a small suitcase, walking into town alone. ‘Good afternoon,’ he said.
Without turning her head, she nodded a reply. It had been over twenty-four hours, she realised, since she’d spoken aloud. It was superstitious nonsense, but she couldn’t shake the sense that once she opened her mouth the ruse would be up, that Henry would hear somehow, or one of his cronies would, and then he’d come to find her.
‘Heading into town?’ said the man in the car.
She nodded again, but she knew she was going to have to answer at some point, if only to satisfy him she wasn’t a German spy. The last thing she needed was to be hauled into the local police station by some jumped-up Civil Defence Warden keen to uncover the invasion.
‘I can give you a lift, if you like,’ he said. ‘The name’s Robert Hardg- reaves.’
‘No.’ Her voice was husky from lack of use. ‘Thank you, but I enjoy the walk.’
It was his turn to nod. He glanced through the windscreen in the direction he was heading, before turning back to Vivien. ‘Are you visiting someone in town?’
‘I’m starting a new job,’ she said. ‘At Sea Blue boarding house.’
‘Ah! Mrs Nicolson’s place. Well then, I’ll see you around town, I’m sure, Miss—?’
‘Smitham,’ she said, ‘Dorothy Smitham.’
‘Miss Smitham,’ he repeated with a smile, ‘lovely.’ And then he gave her a small wave of his hand and continued on his way.
Dorothy watched until his car disappeared over the crest of the grassy hill, and then she cried tears of relief. She’d said it and nothing terrible had happened. A whole conversation with a stranger, the giving of a new name, and the sky hadn’t come falling in; the earth hadn’t opened and swallowed her. Taking a deep cautious breath to calm herself, she let herself entertain the smallest sliver of hope that perhaps it really was going to be all right. That she was to be allowed this second chance. The air smelled of salt and the sea and a group of gulls circled in the distant sky. Dorothy Smitham picked up her suitcase and kept on moving forward.
In the end, it was the poor-sighted old woman at Rillington Place who’d given her the idea. When Vivien opened her eyes in the middle of the dust-filled bombsite and realised she was still, unfathomably, alive, she’d started to weep. There were sirens, and the voices of brave kind men and women arriving at the site to put out fires, and patch up wounds, and take away the dead. Why, she wondered, couldn’t she be one of them—why couldn’t life just have let her go?
She wasn’t even badly injured—Vivien was practised at assessing the severity of her wounds. Something had fallen across her, a door she suspected, but there was a gap and she was able to work herself free. She sat, dizzy in the dark. It was cold, freezing cold now, and she was shivering. She didn’t know the room well, but she felt something furry beneath her hand—a coat!—and pulled it free from where it had been pinned by the door. She found a torch in the coat pocket, and when she pointed its fine beam she saw that Dolly was dead. More than dead, she’d been crushed by bricks and ceiling plaster and a large metal chest that had fallen from the attic above.
Vivien was sick, with shock and pain and the churning disappointment of having failed at her task; she clambered to her feet. The ceiling had gone and she could see stars in the sky; she was gazing at them, swaying unsteadily, wondering how long it would take Henry to find her, when she heard the old woman call, ‘Miss Smitham, Miss Smitham is alive!’
Vivien turned towards the voice, dazed because she knew Dolly was most certainly not alive. She was about to say so, pointing her arm aimlessly in Dolly’s direction, but she couldn’t find any words inside her throat, just a hoarse, airy sound, and the old woman was still shouting that Miss Smitham was alive, and pointing at Vivien, and that was when she realised the landlady’s mistake.
It was an opportunity. Vivien’s head throbbed and her thoughts were clouded, but she saw at once she’d been given an opportunity. In fact, within the startling aftermath of a direct bomb strike, the whole thing seemed remarkably simple. The new identity, the new life, was as easily acquired as the coat she’d slipped on in the dark. No one would be harmed, there was no one left to be harmed—Jimmy was gone, she’d done what she could for Mr Metcalfe, Dolly Smitham had no family, and there was no one to mourn Vivien; and so she took the chance. She pulled off her wedding rings and crouched in the dark, pushing them on to Dolly’s fingers with surprisingly steady hands; there was noise everywhere, people shouting, ambulances coming and going; rubble still heaving and settling in the smoking dark; but Vivien heard only her own heart pounding—not with fear, but with determination. The offer of employment was still clenched in Dolly’s fingers, and Vivien had to peel them back, taking Mrs Nicolson’s letter for herself and slipping it inside the pocket of the white coat. There were other things in there already, a small hard object, and a book, she could tell, when her fingers brushed against it, but she didn’t look to see which one.
‘Miss Smitham?’ A man wearing a helmet had leaned his ladder against the edge of the broken floor, and climbed so his face was level with where she was standing. ‘Don’t worry, Miss; we’re going to get you down from here. Everything’s going to be all right.’
Vivien looked at him, and for once she wondered if it might be true. ‘My friend,’ she said in a hoarse voice, using her torch to indicate the body on the floor. ‘Is she …?’
The man glanced at Dolly, her head crushed beneath the metal chest, her limbs splayed in directions that made no sense. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said, ‘I should say she is. Can you tell me her name? Is there anyone we ought to call?’
Vivien nodded. ‘Her name is Vivien. Vivien Jenkins, and she has a husband who ought to know she won’t be coming home.’
Dorothy Smitham spent the rest of the war years making beds and cleaning up after Mrs Nicolson’s boarding-house guests. She kept her head down; she tried not to do anything that might bring undue attention; she never accepted invitations to dances. She polished and laundered and swept, and at night, when she closed her eyes to go to sleep, she tried not to see Henry’s eyes, staring at her in the dark.
By day, she kept her own eyes peeled. At first she saw him everywhere: the familiar strutting walk of a man coming down the jetty, a set of ripe, brutish features on a passing stranger, a raised voice in the crowd that made her skin creep. Over time she saw him less, and she was glad, but she never stopped watching, because Dorothy knew that some day he would find her—it was only a matter of when and where—and she intended to be ready for him.
She sent only one postcard. When she’d been at Sea Blue boarding house six months or so, she picked the prettiest picture she could find—a great big passenger ship, the sort people boarded to travel from one side of the world to the other—and she wrote on the back: The weather’s glorious here. Everybody well. Please destroy upon receipt, and addressed it to her dear friend—her only friend—Miss Katy Ellis of Yorkshire.
Life gained a rhythm. Mrs Nicolson ran a tight ship, which suited Dorothy fine—there was something deeply therapeutic in being held to military standards of housekeeping excellence and she was freed from her dark memories by the pressing need to buff as much oil as possible (‘without wasting it, Dorothy—there’s a war on, didn’t you know?’) into the stair rails. And then one July day in 1944, a month or so after the D-Day landings, she came home from the grocery store to find a man in uniform sitting at the kitchen table. He was older, of course, and a little the worse for wear, but she recognised him instantly from the eager boyish photograph his mother kept enshrined on her mantelpiece in the dining room. Dorothy had polished the glass many times before, and knew his earnest eyes, the angles of his cheekbones, the dimple in his chin, so well, she blushed when she saw him sitting there, just as surely as if she’d been peeking through his keyhole all these years.
‘You’re Stephen,’ she said.
‘I am.’ He leapt up to help her with the paper bag of groceries.
‘I’m Dorothy Smitham. I work for your mother. Does she know you’re here?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘The side door was open so I let myself in.’
‘She’s upstairs; I’ll just go—’
‘No—’. He’d spoken quickly, and his face crinkled into an embarrassed smile. ‘That is, it’s kind of you, Miss Smitham, and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. I love my mother—she gave me life—but if it’s all right by you I’m just going to sit a few moments and enjoy the peace and quiet, before my real military service begins.’
Dorothy laughed then and the sensation took her by surprise. She realised it was the first time she’d laughed since she arrived from London. Many years later, when their children asked for the story (again!) of how they fell in love, Stephen and Dorothy Nicolson would tell them about the night they stole along the broken pier to dance at its very end—Stephen had brought his old gramophone and they’d put it on, dodging holes in the boards to the strains of ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’. Later, Dorothy had slipped and fallen when she was trying to balance her way along the railing (pause for parental instruction: ‘You must never try to balance on high railings, darlings’), and Stephen hadn’t even taken off his shoes, he’d dived straight over the edge and fished her right back out—‘And that’s how I caught your mother,’ Stephen would say, which always made the children laugh with the image it conjured of Mummy at the end of a fishing line—and the pair had sat on the sand afterwards, because it was summer and the night was warm, and they’d eaten cockles out of a paper cup and talked for hours until the sun broke pink across the horizon and they strolled back to Sea Blue and knew, without either saying another word, they were in love. It was one of the children’s favourite stories, the picture it painted of their parents walking along the pier in saturated clothing, their mother as a free spirit, their father as a hero—but in her own heart, Dorothy knew it was, in part, a fiction. She’d loved her husband long before that. She fell for him that first day in the kitchen when he made her laugh.
The list of Stephen’s attributes, had she ever been called upon to write it, would have been long. He was brave and protective, he was funny; he was patient with his mother, even though she was the sort of woman whose most amiable chatter contained acid enough to strip paint from the walls. He had strong hands and he did clever things with them; he could fix just about anything, and he could draw (though not as well as he’d have liked). He was handsome, and had a way of looking at her that made Dorothy’s skin heat with desire; he was a dreamer, but not so that he lost himself inside his fancies. He loved music and played the clarinet, jazz songs that Dorothy adored, but which drove his mother wild. Sometimes, while Dorothy sat cross-legged in the window seat in his room watching him play, Mrs Nicolson would take up her broom downstairs and hammer the end of it against the floor, which made Stephen play louder and jazzier, and made Dorothy laugh so hard she had to clap both hands across her mouth. He made her feel safe.
At the top of her list though, the thing she valued high above the rest, was his strength of character. Stephen Nicolson had the courage of his convictions; he would never let his lover bend his will and Dorothy liked that; there was a danger, she thought, in the sort of loving that made people act against type.
He also had a great respect for secrets. ‘You don’t talk much about your past,’ he’d said to her one night as they sat together on the sand.
A silence stretched between them in the shape of a question mark, but she didn’t say more.
She sighed but it caught the night sea breeze and drifted away silently. She knew his mother had been whispering in his ear; terrible lies about her past, aimed to convince him that he ought to wait a while, see other women, think about settling down with a nice local girl instead, who didn’t have ‘London ways’ about her. She knew, too, that Stephen had told his mother that he liked mysteries; that life was rather dull if you knew all there was to know about a person before you’d crossed the street to say hello. Dorothy said, ‘For the same reason, I suspect, that you don’t talk much about the war.’
He took her hand and kissed it. ‘Makes sense to me.’
She knew she’d tell him all about it one day, but she had to be careful. Stephen was the sort of man who’d want to march right up to London and take care of Henry himself. And Dorothy wasn’t about to lose anyone else she loved to Henry Jenkins. ‘You’re a good man, Stephen Nicolson.’
He was shaking his head; she could feel his forehead shifting against hers. ‘No,’ he insisted. ‘Just a man.’
Dorothy didn’t argue, but she took his hand in hers and she leaned her cheek gently on his shoulder in the dark. She’d known men before, good men and bad, and Stephen Nicolson was a good man. The best of men. He reminded her of some-one else she used to know.
Dorothy thought about Jimmy, of course, in the same way she continued to think of her brothers and sister, her mother and father. He’d taken up residence with them in that weatherboard house in the subtropics, welcomed by the Longmeyers of her mind. It wasn’t difficult to imagine him there, beyond the veil, he’d always reminded her of the men in her family; his friend-ship had been a light in the dark, it had given her hope, and maybe if they’d had the chance to know one another longer and better, it would have deepened into the sort of love that was written about in books, the sort of love she’d found with Stephen. But Jimmy belonged to Vivien and Vivien was dead.
Just once she thought she saw him. It was a few days after her wedding and she and Stephen were walking hand in hand along the water’s edge when he leaned to kiss her neck. She laughed and wriggled free, skipping ahead before glancing over her shoulder to call something teasing back to him. And that’s when she noticed a figure on the strand, way in the distance, watching them. Her breath caught in recognition as Stephen reached her and swept her off her feet. But it was just her mind playing tricks on her, for when she turned around to look again he was gone.