Authors: Julia Gregson
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Julia Gregson
Originally published in Great Britain in 2008 by Orion Books
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London, September 1928
esponsible young woman, twenty-eight years old, fond of children, with knowledge of India, will act as chaperone on Tilbury-to-Bombay run in return for half fare.
It seemed like a form of magic to Viva Holloway when, having paid three and six for her advertisement to appear in the latest issue of
she found herself five days later in the restaurant at Derry & Toms in London, waiting for her first client, a Mrs. Jonti Sowerby from Middle Wallop in Hampshire.
For the purposes of this interview, Viva wore not her usual mix of borrowed silks and jumble sale finds, but the gray tweed suit she loathed but had worn for temporary work as a typist. Her hair, thick and dark and inclined toward wildness, had been dampened and clenched back in a small bun.
She stepped into the genteel murmurings of the tearoom, where a pianist was playing a desultory tune. A small, bird-thin woman wearing an extraordinary blue hat (a kind of caged thing with a blue feather poking out of the back) stood up to greet her. By her side was a plump and silent girl who, to
Viva’s considerable amazement, Mrs. Sowerby introduced as her daughter Victoria.
Both of them were surrounded by a sea of packages. A cup of coffee was suggested but, disappointingly, no cake. Viva hadn’t eaten since breakfast and there was a delicious-looking walnut cake, along with some scones, under the glass dome on the counter.
“She looks awfully young,” Mrs. Sowerby immediately complained to her daughter, as if Viva wasn’t there.
“Mummy,” protested Victoria in a strangled voice and, when the girl turned to look at her, Viva noticed she had wonderful eyes: huge and an unusual dark blue color almost like cornflowers.
I’m sorry, I can’t help this,
they were signaling.
“Well, I’m sorry, darling, but she does.” Mrs. Sowerby had pursed her lips under her startling hat. “Oh dear, this is such a muddle.”
In a tight voice she, at last, addressed Viva, explaining that Victoria was shortly to go to India to be a bridesmaid for her best friend Rose, who was, and here a certain show-off drawl entered Mrs. Sowerby’s voice, “about to be married to a Captain Jack Chandler of the Third Cavalry at St. Thomas’s Cathedral in Bombay.”
The chaperone they had engaged, a Mrs. Moylett, had done a last-minute bunk—something about a sudden engagement to an older man.
Viva had set down her cup and composed her features in what she felt to be a responsible look; she’d sensed a certain desperation in the woman’s eyes, a desire to have the matter speedily resolved.
“I know Bombay quite well,” she’d said, which was true up to a point: she’d passed through that city in her mother’s arms at the age of eighteen months, and then again aged five where she’d eaten an ice cream on the beach, and for the last time at the age of ten, never to return again. “Victoria will be in good hands.”
The girl turned to Viva with a hopeful look. “You can call me Tor if you like,” she said. “All my friends do.”
When the waiter appeared again, Mrs. Sowerby began to make a fuss about having a tisane rather than a “normal English tea.”
“I’m half French, you see,” she explained to Viva in a pouty way as if this excused everything.
While she was looking for something in her little crocodile bag, the daughter turned to Viva and rolled her eyes. This time she mouthed “Sorry,” then she smiled and crossed her fingers.
“Do you know anything about cabin trunks?” Mrs. Sowerby bared her teeth into a small compact. “That was something else Mrs. Moylett promised to help us with.”
And by a miracle Viva did: the week before she’d been scouring the front pages of the
for possible jobs, and one Tailor Ram had placed a huge advertisement for them.
She looked steadily at Mrs. Sowerby. “The Viceroy is excellent,” she said. “It has a steel underpinning under its canvas drawers. You can get them at the Army and Navy Store. I can’t remember the exact price but I think it’s around twenty-five shillings.”
There was a small commotion in the restaurant, the clink of cutlery momentarily suspended. An attractive older woman wearing faded tweeds and a serviceable hat had arrived; she was smiling as she walked toward them.
“It’s Mrs. Wetherby.” Tor stood up, beaming, and hugged the older woman.
“Do sit down.” She patted the chair beside her. “Mummy and I are having thrilling talks about jods and pith helmets.”
“That’s right, Victoria,” Mrs. Sowerby said, “make quite sure the whole restaurant hears our business.” She turned to Viva. “Mrs. Wetherby is the mother of Rose. The one who is going to be married in India to Captain Chandler. She’s a quite exceptionally beautiful girl.”
“I can’t wait for you to meet her.” Tor was suddenly radiant with happiness. “She is so much fun, and so perfect, everybody falls in love with her—I’ve known her since she was a baby, we went to school together, we rode ponies…”
Viva felt a familiar pang—what a wonderful thing to have a friend who’d known you since you were a baby.
“Victoria,” her mother reproved. The blue feather poised above her eyebrow made her look like a slightly miffed bird. “I’m not sure we need to tell Miss Holloway all this yet. We haven’t quite decided. Where is darling Rose by the way?”
“At the doctor’s.” Mrs. Wetherby looked embarrassed. “You know…” She sipped her coffee and gave Mrs. Sowerby a significant look. “But we had the most exciting morning before I dropped her off,” Mrs. Wetherby continued smoothly. “We bought dresses and tennis rackets, and I’m meeting Rose again in an hour at Beauchamp Place—she’s being fitted for her trousseau. The poor girl will be absolutely dead tonight; I don’t think I’ve ever bought so many clothes in one day. Now, who is this charming young person?”
Viva was introduced to Mrs. Wetherby as “a professional chaperone.” Mrs. Wetherby, who had a sweet smile, put her hand in Viva’s and said it was lovely to meet her.
“I’ve done the interview,” Mrs. Sowerby said to Mrs. Wetherby. “She knows India like the back of her hand, and she’s cleared up the trunk business—she says the Viceroy is the only one.”
“The girls are very sensible,” said Mrs. Wetherby anxiously. “It’s just quite comforting to have someone to keep an eye on things.”
“But I’m afraid we can only offer you fifty pounds for both girls,” said Mrs. Sowerby, “and not a penny more.”
Viva literally heard Tor stop breathing; she saw her mouth twist in childish apprehension, big eyes trained on her while she waited.
She did some quick sums in her head. The single fare from London to Bombay was around eighty pounds. She had one hundred and twenty pounds saved and would need some spending money when she arrived.
“That sounds very reasonable,” she said smoothly, as if this was something she did every day.
Tor exhaled noisily. “Thank God!” she said. “Oh, what bliss!”
Viva shook hands all round and left the restaurant with a new spring in her step; this was going to be a piece of cake: the gawky one with the blue eyes and the mad-looking mother was so clearly desperate to go; her friend, Rose, was about to be married and had no choice.
Her next stop was the Army and Navy Hotel to talk to a woman named Mrs. Bannister about another prospective client: a schoolboy whose parents lived in Assam. She scrabbled in her handbag to check the piece of paper. The boy’s name was Guy Glover.
And now she was sitting with Mrs. Bannister, who turned out to be an irritable, nervy-looking person with buck teeth. Around forty, Viva estimated, although she wasn’t good at guessing the age of old people. Mrs. Bannister ordered them both a lukewarm cup of tea with no biscuits or cake.
Mrs. Bannister said she would come to the point quickly because she had a three-thirty train to catch back to Shrewsbury. Her brother, a tea planter in Assam, and his wife, Gwen, were “slightly on the horns of a dilemma.” Their son, Guy, an only child, had been asked to leave his school rather suddenly. He was sixteen years old.
“He’s been quite a difficult boy, but I’m told he’s very, very kind underneath it all,” his aunt assured Viva. “He’s been at St. Christopher’s for ten years now without going back to
India. For various reasons I don’t have time to explain to you we haven’t been able to see him as much as we’d like to, but his parents feel he’ll thrive better in India after all. If you can take him, they’re quite prepared to pay your full fare.”
Viva felt her face flush with jubilation. If her whole fare was paid, and she had the fifty pounds coming from Mrs. Sowerby, she could buy herself a little breathing space in India, thank God for that. It didn’t even cross her mind at that moment to inquire why a boy of that age couldn’t travel by himself, or indeed, why his parents, the Glovers, didn’t come home to collect him themselves.
“Is there anything else you’d like to know about me, references and so forth?” she asked instead.
“No,” said Mrs. Bannister. “Oh well, maybe yes, you should give us a reference, I suppose. Do you have people in London?”
“My present employer is a writer, a Mrs. Driver.” Viva scribbled down the address quickly for Mrs. Bannister, who, fiddling with her handbag and trying to catch the waitress’s eye, seemed half in flight. “She lives opposite the Natural History Museum.”
“I’ll also send you a map of Guy’s school and your first payment,” said Mrs. Bannister. “And thank you so much for doing this.” She produced all her rather overwhelming teeth at once.
But what had most struck Viva, watching the back of Mrs. Bannister’s raincoat flapping in her haste to enter her taxi, was how shockingly easy it was to tell people lies, particularly when it was what they wanted to hear. For she was not twenty-eight, she was only twenty-five, and as for knowing India, she’d only played there innocently as a child, before what had happened. She knew it about as well as she knew the far side of the moon.