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Authors: Lizzie Lane

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‘Everything seems in order,’ said Crombie, handing him back the passport plus a brown envelope containing a bundle of crisp five-pound notes. ‘As I told you, there is only a small amount of cash.’

‘Fifty pounds.’

The solicitor nodded. ‘Times have changed. There’s a lot of competition in the pawnbroking business nowadays. I’ve heard of people doing business from their front parlours.’

‘Not proper shops?’ Michael sounded surprised.

‘No. Not really legal either.’

‘I will make the shop better profitable.’


More
profitable,’ Crombie corrected.

Michael flushed at his slip in grammar. ‘That is right.’

‘I have the keys here.’ He reached into a desk drawer and brought out a bundle of keys. ‘Thomas Routledge, the caretaker I placed in your uncle’s shop following his demise, is still in situ. Morose would be the best word to describe him. Would you like me to come with you in case he takes to being surly?’

‘I can manage,’ said Michael, rising to his feet at the same time as taking the bunch of keys from Mr Crombie’s hand.

The two men shook hands. ‘It won’t be easy for you especially seeing as you’ve never ran a business before.’

‘I will learn.’

‘I’m reminded of an old saying that there’s no sentiment in business. I’m afraid your uncle did not adhere to those words. He had a soft heart.’

Michael blinked but said no more. He didn’t want to say that his heart was dead or that ruthlessness could easily override sentiment if survival was involved. He didn’t want to
mention anything about his flight from Germany – nothing, nothing at all. At least, not yet: the memories were too painful.

The solicitor stayed behind his desk watching as Michael ducked beneath an overhead beam before gaining the door. It occurred to him that Michael had not smiled even once: a grim man for one so young.

Three brass balls hung above the shop door. Wooden shutters hid the windows and the door was firmly shut, the paintwork faded and peeling like burned skin.

Shielding his eyes from the bright September sunlight, Michael took a step back into the road and regarded his inheritance: at least one room on the ground floor, plus the shop, perhaps two above that and perhaps one or two attic rooms at the very top.

There was no sign of the caretaker, so he took it upon himself to enter. The key grated in the lock. An overhead bell jangled as he pushed the door open into a small porch enclosed by wire screens. Another bell hung beside a hatch arrangement. The notice above the hatch said that in the interests of privacy, only two people at any one time would be dealt with. The rest must wait outside.

He wasn’t sure whether this was more to do with security than privacy.

No one came in answer to the bell. He looked around for a door into the rest of the premises but could see nothing. The wire screens finished about two feet from the ceiling, blocking his view. Taking hold as far up the screen as he could, he laced his fingers into the holes, placed one foot on the polished counter, and heaved himself up and over.

He found himself surrounded by glass-fronted cupboards filled with all manner of china, cameras, scientific and navigation instruments, musical instruments and, in barred and locked cupboards, an assortment of guns, sabres and assegais. Labels sprouted from brown paper parcels heaped along the shelving at the back. There were also drawers marked ‘gold’, ‘silver’, ‘wedding’ and ‘engagement’. A pile of ledgers sat in a corner on the counter.

He’d expected to see the caretaker, but no one appeared.

The living room at the back of the shop was exactly how he’d imagined it would be. Sepia photographs of family ancestors in stiff poses hung from the walls. The paintwork was dark, the wallpaper from the previous century unbearably ornate and furry beneath his fingertips. A chenille pelmet hung from the high mantelpiece and a tea caddy made to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria sat next to a black onyx clock.

There was a kitchen beyond the living room where a teapot and two cups and saucers sat on the table. He reached out and touched the teapot. It was still warm and there were dregs
of tea at the bottoms of the cups, a trace of lipstick around the rim of one. Someone was in the house. He listened intently, heard a small noise and looked up at the ceiling.

If Thomas Routledge was up there, why hadn’t he heard him? What was he doing that distracted his attention?

The stairs were so narrow that his shoulders grazed the walls. The landing at the top was surprisingly wide and there was an arched window at one end. He paused as the heavy lace curtain billowed inwards in the breeze. The window, attractive as it was, looked out on a backyard and a tree vivid with red leaves.

A floorboard squeaked beneath his foot and brought an exclamation from behind a bedroom door following by frenzied muttering.

Without preamble, Michael opened the door. The room smelled of sweaty bodies and recent sex. The man was naked. The girl was young, possibly no more than fourteen, though she had a worldly face.

The man pulled the bedclothes over his lean shanks. ‘We’re closed!’ he barked, but looked nervous.

The girl giggled, her small breasts jiggling in sympathy.

‘No. It is open,’ said Michael. ‘You were supposed to be running the business not lying in bed.’

Realising who he was talking to, the man adopted a nervous grin. ‘I can explain—’

Michael stayed his tongue but made his feelings very obvious. The curtains tore as he pulled them back, the window jamming then squealing as he pushed it open. Fresh air funnelled in.

‘Ere, just a minute …’

Michael pointed at him. ‘Get out of my shop, and take the girl with you.’

The girl opened and closed her legs, giving him an unobstructed view of what was on offer. ‘I only charge ten shillings, mister,’ she said, her rouged lips smiling invitingly as though she were the most glamorous woman he’d ever set eyes on.

She aroused no desire, but only memories of beds once slept in and events he’d prefer to forget.

‘Out,’ he said; his words as controlled as in the solicitor’s office. ‘Out,’ he said again, his fingers tightly gripping the door handle.

Routledge shuffled his trousers before putting one hairy leg inside the brown, cheap material, closely followed by the other. ‘I’m still owed five pounds,’ he grumbled.

Michael regarded Routledge with contempt. He’d met plenty of his sort; the coarse exterior hiding a matching though cowardly inner soul. His inclination was to take hold of the man by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and throw him out through the window, glass, shutters and all, but he couldn’t. He mustn’t. He had to tread carefully in a country where foreigners were viewed with more suspicion than they’d ever been.

Although it grieved him, he peeled off a fiver from the pile in the envelope.

‘And then there’s expenses …’

Michael hardened his look.

Routledge was wily enough to know when he was pushing his luck. He rubbed at the three-day growth of stubble sprouting from his cheeks and chin. ‘I can see you think I’ve had more than a fair share.’ He glanced at the girl. ‘Maybe you’re right, sir, maybe you’re right.’

The girl squealed as he took her elbow and pushed her out of the door in front of him, even though she was only half dressed.

‘You owes me,’ she whined.

‘Let’s go down the pub. I’ll pay you there.’

Michael followed them out to the door, where he wrenched the spare set of keys from Routledge’s hand, then locked and bolted the door behind them.

Once it was closed, he sighed with relief, glad to be inside the shuttered building even though the smell of neglect was strong and the sound of water dripping from a faulty tap echoed like halting footsteps.

Out in the meagre kitchen, he found a larder containing tins of food, some cheese, ham and bread. He also found a bottle of Camp Coffee, made himself a thick, black cupful, and winced as the bite of chicory crawled along his tongue.

The living room was comfortable though dark. After eating and half finishing the coffee, he settled down to doze, the tiring journey, the fear of what the future held finally catching up with him – except he didn’t sleep. Something caught his eye.

In the corner of the room, he saw – wooden, old-fashioned, but compelling – a gramophone. Next to it was a pile of records. Like a man starved, he slid one after another off the pile, his eyes widening and his heart lifting. Jazz, popular songs of the day and classical; the latter were in the majority.

Lovingly, he caressed the works of Hoagy Carmichael, Ella Fitzgerald and Caruso. Amongst them all he found a performance of
Cavalleria Rusticana
.

The music wafted over him, salve to a tormented soul. The memories returned. Fearing to face them and blaming the music for their resurgence, he went to bed, but even there he could not escape. The past was too recent, too raw.

Behind his closed eyelids he was back there, in 1929, pledging allegiance to the Nazi Party. To do otherwise would have isolated him completely from his friends, the young men he’d known for most of his life.

The dream was pleasant enough, but unfortunately led into the later nightmares. He wasn’t ready to face them, and wasn’t sure he ever would be.

In the morning, Michael checked his inheritance. The pledges – so he had found them named in his uncle’s ledger – were stacked on shelves, in cupboards and drawers, each labelled as to their content: watches; gold, watches; silver, bracelets, necklaces, rings; miscellaneous silver; miscellaneous gold – the latter, he discovered, included a number of gold teeth. He wondered what misfortune had occurred to necessitate the obvious discomfort of having a filling ripped from one’s mouth.

Furniture was stacked and labelled in a back room, clothes parcelled and placed on myriad shelves.

Some of the items pledged saddened him; a child’s clothes – pledged to pay for a funeral, it said in scrawled writing. So Crombie was right. His uncle had been too sentimental for his own good. The clothes were shabby, never likely to be sold on or reclaimed. He threw them into the pile he was making of items to be disposed of. It was growing swiftly.

Other items almost made him laugh out loud or certainly raise his spirits.

Combinations. New

A glass eye?

A pair of black lace garters. Never worn.

He didn’t hazard a guess as to the reasons why any of them had been pledged. After checking the dates – years ago – he threw the items onto the pile, had second thoughts about the black lace garters and retrieved them.

The next thing he did was to destroy the family photographs. He didn’t want them staring down at him. He didn’t want to remember who and what they were because in doing so he would be reminded of what he had done.

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First published in 2014 by Ebury Press, an imprint of Ebury Publishing
A Random House Group Company

Copyright © 2014 Lizzie Lane
Excerpt from
A Wartime Wife
© 2006 Lizzie Lane

Lizzie Lane has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner

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BOOK: Soldier's Valentine
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