The author playing guitar over the pirated, isolated track of MJ’s “Beat It.” 6/25/16, Industry Labs
We start at the boarding house in London, now that Millicent will not be tried; Ramona meets her old doorman Cleavus who tells a story about a monkey and later she and Mrs. Cleavus ponder the inadvertent ruthlessness of a certain type of sentimentality; charity is offered and accepted; Ramona revels in a posh hotel, has an unexpected encounter on the streets, leaves London and quite possibly her old self behind.
The next afternoon I took a deep bracing breath and ducked into the Markum St. phone nook under the stair. Mr. Siegel took my call immediately we went over the previous days events.
I sighed. “I must thank you again, Mr. Siegel. For all you did—and were willing to do for Lady Von Favre.”
“Well, I think you are the one to be credited for that.”
“But you spoke to the coroner.”
“Yes, I did.” He coughed deprecatingly. “I’m afraid he thought I was quite mad for a moment.”
“Millicent said she had gotten an apology from the Police Inspector,” I said.
“Yes, she did. And rightly so, rightly so.”
“I quite agree,” I said.
This was merely a continuation of the same pro-forma politeness that had taken hold between us, based in the idea it had been some sort of outrage that Millicent had been involved in this situation at Helvstead. Why shouldn’t the police want to question Millicent when a dead body had appeared in her home? But of course neither of us gave voice to these thoughts.
“Are the police going to keep looking for Mr. Depilliar?” I asked.
“Of course. It’s an open case. But the superintendent was most downright: they’ve very few leads and they haven’t much hope. But they may find him. Or he may simply walk in the door someday. You never do know. After thirty year of law it I’ve seen other such things happen. Then again he could have met with an accident and will never be found. Happens more often than you might imagine.”
“I’m only glad they shan’t—well, it would be very unlikely they shall bother Millicent again.”
“Very unlikely,” he said, in such a understated, droll manner, it assured me as nothing else had.
“The I.O.U …what’s to happen, I wonder?”
“An interesting question, but one I don’t have an answer to. But…I imagine, Mrs. Depilliar may let it lie after the fuss.”
“Yes, I can’t imagine she really wants to pursue the point, especially as the press has their teeth in the whole ‘misidentification question.’ Did you see the headlines? It was like she went from well, St. Pippa Depilliar to a grand conspirator.”
“Indeed, indeed. It may switch back again ten times before they’re through.”
I took a breath and tried to keep my voice casual. “Anyone—anyone ever find out who the postcard was from?”
“No. I doubt they ever will, either.”
“Beastly to think about.”
“Very. But you can you put it out of your mind, Miss Bright. The police really do receive the most amazing nonsense.” He covered the phone with his hand and I heard him ask for a file. His voice became brisk. “Now, you’re off? Is that right?”
“Well, in the next few weeks, anyway. Not quite sure where yet, but somewhere quiet, I imagine.”
“Mmm, capital.” I heard the sounds of papers shuffling and whispered word to Miss Harchester. “And you will give us your forwarding information?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. Be assured everything is in order, of course, in the account Lady Von Favre has set up for you. I saw to that personally, in fact.”
“Oh! Well. Thank you. That’s very kind.”
“And you mustn’t hesitate to call if you need anything. If we can’t help, I’d be most happy to direct you to someone who can.”
“All right,” I said, aware his mind was already on other things.
“Good, good. Just say the word. Well then, Miss Bright….”
“Thank you again, Mr. Siegel.”
He wouldn’t think of me again, I thought, ringing off, already pulled a the tide of cases and clients. Millicent and I had been an interlude, and now it had passed. I walked into the parlor to drink a small glass of the uncommonly good sherry Mrs. Tibble put out in the afternoons. Then I returned to the phone. I had one more thing to do before leaving London.
“Miss Bright!” Cleavus’ voice boomed ecstatically across the half-empty tea room.
I waved, and my eyes fell to Mrs. Cleavus in her wheelchair. I gave an involuntary start. Her face had, quite literally, sunken since I’d seen her last. The smear of pink rouge on her lips only emphasized the ghastly ashiness of her skin. The lace cap tacked on top of her head like froth on a wave, was cruelly if unintentionally absurd; Cleavus’ work, I suspected. The animated hands I remembered lay in a withered pile on her lap.
We greeted each other, Cleavus making enough noise and fuss for the whole of us. His thick silver hair had begun to turn white around the temples, and as he knelt down to arrange his wife’s feet on the wheelchair’s rest, I could see the suit shone with wear, and there was a large hole and a wedge of cardboard behind it in his shoe. Still, he looked as magnificent and enormous and ugly as ever.
“Why, isn’t it lovely to see Miss Bright!” exclaimed Cleavus to his wife as he sat himself down next to me with a great whoosh of air, exhaling heavily.
I’d come early to get a table by the windows. The river idled along, draped on either side by newly green willow trees; the sun dappled banks of the freshest grass, a faint breeze roaming through the beds of daffodils blooming in generous profusion, and shuffling them slightly, alighting the occasional ornamental bee or butterfly. It was quite the most astonishingly lovely day.
I turned back from the view out the window to find Cleavus beaming at me.
“How do we find you?” Then he seemed to remember that all was not good news from my end. Quickly he repeated in even heartier tones. “It is good to see you!”
“Everything’s fine,” I said. My voice took on a firmness: “There was the sticky business for my cousin—” what glorious fodder this would have been for the ‘O’—“but fortunately it’s all been dispatched of, I’m happy to say. All clear.”
“I didn’t imagine,” Cleavus spoke in a quiet censorious voice. “That she had a thing to do with that nonsense, not for a second.” He huffed and tucked his napkin under his chin, adding: “Papers are filled with many godless things.”
Relieved to have dispatched with the topic, Cleavus and I chatted about the vagaries of the weather. Mrs. Cleavus’ claw-like hands dipped into her handbag and stole two blue pills into her mouth. I don’t think Cleavus noticed, intent on describing the difficulties of getting the O’s elderly occupants about that winter.
“I’ve been going on, haven’t I?” said Cleavus with a laugh, not forced, but not entirely natural, looking round for a waitress. “My darling girl shouldn’t wait another moment for her tea,” his hand anxiously patted his wife’s.
“Oh, I’ve already ordered.” I said quickly. “The largest they have, including cream cakes, which I believe are your favorite. And it’s to be my treat.”
“Why, cream cakes! It’s been ever so long. But as for your treat—” He made a trumpeting noise. “No, no, young lady, none of that. Won’t hear of it.”
“Cleavus, I’m treating and I won’t hear any different.”
Cleavus opened his mouth but Mrs. Cleavus chuckled, a dry, papery sound.
“Good for you,” she said. “He’s become a bossy old thing.”
Cleavus said nothing but his lips remained pursed in disapproval. I saw him glance at my pocketbook; he was fully capable of wedging several pound notes in it when I looked away. I asked him about his Bible studies and moved it on the other side of my chair.
“Can’t make it to the group anymore, I fear,” he said. “But I read my Bible one hour every morning and evening, don’t I, love?” Mrs. Cleavus didn’t respond, nor even look up.
He continued. “I can only hope and pray, that He in His infinite wisdom knows that this poor sinner is trying to live by His Word.”
I nodded indicating, I hoped, I believed his God would understand this perfectly. “And how is the ‘O’?” I asked.
“Well, without you and some of the other ladies that moved out,” he sighed. “It isn’t quite as—cozy. There’s been a few hullabaloo’s I don’t mind telling you.”
Cleavus grew expansive on the grievances and intrigues simmering away and the ‘O’ struck me as like some small nation in constant political ferment, Cleavus working as a sort of emissary between warring parties. I was startled from these reflections as Cleavus said off-handedly:
“And then Mrs. Frebrile-Keats got herself a monkey. Oh, everyone was most upset.”
“What? A monkey? Not really?” I said feeling a start of real interest.
“Plain as day. Little chattery thing. A Capuchin they’re called.”
“But remember the fuss over Mrs. Carvenaugh’s canary?”
“With what Mrs. Frebrile-Keats pays for that flat, they’d let her have a Shetland pony if it were her fancy,” he said, with a confidential lean. “If you’ll excuse my frankness.”
He told us a story of the monkey getting loose in the building. He hadn’t always been so garrulous, I thought; perhaps, unused to his wife’s silence, he felt obliged to fill it. Unexpectedly, it suited him; he had a blunt way with a story that was quite amusing.
“Gave Mrs. Barrister quite a turn, it did,” he finished. “Landing in her porridge like that, and hurling the stuff everywhere. Ah, well, she recovered soon enough. Isn’t that right, Carrie?”
Mrs. Cleavus smiled with an abstract fondness, like a mother admiring someone else’s child on the playground. Surreptitiously, she flexed her hands; I wondered if the tablets were taking effect.
Tea arrived, the cakes looking blousy in their layers of whipped cream and candied cherries. Mrs. Cleavus and I exchanged a curious, flat glance as we watched him heap her plate high. As we ate, I told them about my trip to France. I’d seen a few celebrities from music hall days, but even my sighting of the infamous Viola Marble with an old-fashioned ear trumpet failed to whet Mrs. Cleavus gossipy appetite. This pained Cleavus, I could see. I described Monte Carlo, the innumerable flavors of ices, the scenery, the paella, the inhabitants of Hotel St. Juste and our flat, but only Cleavus, who thought France a den of inequity, and the mention of it something near to an impropriety when ladies were present, expressed any interest, with the unmistakable ring of simulated enthusiasm.
An awkward pause fell, which Cleavus filled with a tale from his Army days, and somehow the subject returned to monkeys, of which I thought he was strangely well-informed for a London doorman. Cleavus rattled on about a dastardly Egyptian and his baboon, a tale I wondered if he might have read rather than experienced. He stopped abruptly, his mouth and eyes wide with surprise as a elderly man appeared at our side.
“Cleavus!” The man gave Cleavus a thump on the back. “Please, pardon me, ladies,” he said, beaming. “But it is old Cuthbert Cleavus isn’t it? Has to be! Good Lord you look the same as ever, you big ugly brute!” He turned and bowed to us. “This fella saved my brother’s life. Stuck for nearly a week in the mud with some dead Krauts, if I remember rightly.”
“Nogginsy?” Cleavus said, still holding his fork frozen in surprise.
“Yes, you old fool, it’s Noggins! And—can you believe it—Bensford is over there too.”
Bensford came over and introductions were made round.
“If the ladies would be so kind, come join us for a moment, Cuthbert,” said Noggins with a courtly supplication towards Mrs. Cleavus.
Mrs. Cleavus nodded, but Cleavus hesitated, tempted. “My wife—”
“Go visit with your chums, you old fool,” said Mrs. Cleavus.
He gave her an unhappy glance and I tried to hide my dismay at the prospect of being left with Mrs. Cleavus.
She softened her tone. “Go on. Miss Bright and I will have a real chat. Just the ladies.”
The idea of us having a girlish gossip seemed to please him and he headed to the other table. We watched him shaking hands, the gusts of good cheer rising from the group. Cleavus stole a look back at us but was sat firmly down.
We watched them for a time.
“You’ve made him happy, your calling,” she said.
“Have I? I’m glad.” I found my eyes following hers which had turned to the Arcadian scene out the window. “Mrs. Cleavus, I’d like to help.”
“Is it that obvious?” She gave a dry laugh. “I suppose it is. That old suit is in a right awful state. But he’d rather drown than take your money. See, he’s already motioning to the waitress for the check.”
“It’s not him I’m asking,” I said as gently as I could. “He looks…tired.”
“Like death warmed over, you mean. It’s just work, work, work—standing on his poor old legs all day, having to take care of me at night. Stomach gives him fits sometimes. And his rheumatism.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. The ‘O’ shouldn’t work him so hard.”
“It’s his fault as much as theirs..”
“He always was like that,” I said. “Conscientious.”
“Like a mother hen, you mean, fussing and brooding over his old ladies or worrying the younger lot is getting into trouble. And now they know how good he is with figures, that manager is always bleating for help. Adds up to a few extra pennies, but not so much you’d notice. Do you know the old fool sent near half his pay to Christian Solider Allegiance last week? I could have brained him if I’d had the strength.”
My eyes stole a glance at her desiccated hands.
“He thinks he’s been hiding things from me,” she said. “I may not be a wizard with the numbers like him, but I can put two and two together and know they don’t add up to six.”
“I could send you a little something, Mrs. Cleavus. Once a month, perhaps.”
“Could you?” she said, bemused. Under the papery skin, the vein at her temple lay flattened, a dark vivid purple, surrounded by fainter ones, as if marbled.
“I’d not have mentioned it otherwise,” I said.
Her voice became low, conversational, almost indifferent. “I never took a shilling from anyone—even when Cleavus and my ice-dancing days passed and we lived in a freezing flat in Bournemouth. Poor Bettie had the croup and we were about to be tossed in the street. But no, we didn’t ask anyone for anything, wouldn’t have dreamed of it.” A wisp of a smile crossed her lips. “But what do I care for pride anymore. All right, Miss Bright. Although I can’t say I know why you’re offering.” She pointed a finger to her plate. “Take one of my sandwiches, will you? Now—he’s not looking. It’ll make him happy to think I’ve got something down.”
I took several cucumber that crowded the edge, but couldn’t bring myself to eat.
“Do you see any of your friends from worship, Mrs. Cleavus?” I asked.
“They were always more his friends. But none of them left now, really. Moved or died and the rest won’t have nothing to do with him. Told my Cleavus he was godless to work on Sundays. Don’t matter if a man’s got a sick wife. Oh, he thinks I don’t know, but I do.”
“He pretends he doesn’t mind, but he does, something fierce.”
“It must be—difficult for you,” I said. “Being alone all day.”
“I’m glad of it. Gives me a bit of peace.”
She looked at me, as if amused at this bit of tactful unprobing discretion.
“How I used to love the little things,” she said. “Fripperies and fancies. Gossip and tea cakes and hats and frocks, all sorts of the folderol. My father once said to me: ‘Carrie, I believe you are the most frivoling girl in all of England’ and I don’t know if it wasn’t the truth. A year ago, I’d be ravening to know what happened with that cousin of yours and the fuss in the papers, and hope to heaven I could get you to tell me. Now, I don’t give a fig.” She sighed. “Cleavus brings me home a pretty brooch—second hand and cracked besides—but still something he’s spent far too much money on—and I have to waste what little energy I have pretending it pleases.”
I nodded, aware that my social smile had faded. I thought longingly of the quiet of the powder room I visited before their arrival. Yet, if I excused myself I should be obliged to offer to take her with me.
“He acts like I’m going to get well, Miss Bright. Can you imagine? And gets so angry if I won’t pretend with him. That’s what it’s come down to: pretend, pretend, pretend and all I want is to be free of this wretched body. I won’t last too much longer, which is a mercy, but it’s him I’m afraid for.”
Squashing some inner voice that protested the words even as I spoke them, I said, “I know it’s difficult, but one must try to rally as best one can…”
“I’ve hung on too long as it is,” she said. “Look at me. I should have gone long ago.”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out.
“I wish we’d made more friends these last years,” she said. “Never liked his church people, that’s the truth. Stuck-up lot. They didn’t like that I used ribbons to mark Bible passages! Can you imagine! Still, there might a wife for him there. But he won’t have any of it. Won’t even let me get the words out. It’s me or nobody, he says.” A dismissive noise emitted from her throat. “Such a fool I married. He’s not meant to be alone.” Her eyes met mine. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I don’t know half of what I’ve been saying to you and that’s the truth. Pain—it’s worse than gin for making you gab.”
“Yes,” I said.
She smiled, eyes flickering over my face. “He says you look like her.”
“Our Betty. Our daughter.”
I could feel a dull colour rise in my cheeks. If only Millicent were here, if not to extricate me, then at least witness this ghastly conversation, make it tolerable.
“But he thinks that of any woman under the age of fifty. Princess Margaret, the laundress, probably the queen of Siam, if he met her, too. Now our Betty, she was a big strong girl—not birdlike like yourself, although I’ll give you’ve filled out some. And she had red hair. Prettiest hair, in curls all round her face, like a cloud. Thank heavens she took after me, not Cleavus, except for being built on bigger lines. And such a smile she had! A beaming sort of girl, the boys always liked her. But a good girl. People always thought she’d be thick, a big beaming girl with a figure like that, but she was clever as my Cleavus.”
Her eyes rested on me and I felt conscious of puzzlement emanating from her, as if she wondered why I was there and Betty was not. I forced myself to take a breath and leaned over to my pocketbook.
“I’m not sure where I’ll be in the next months,” I said. “But in any case I’d like to send a little…assistance…in the future.”
“You are serious.” Her voice was surprised but not particularly interested. “Why, I wonder. You’ve got your reasons, I suppose. You’re not the same girl I met last year, are you. But I didn’t really know you then and I don’t know you now, except to know you’re willing to do us a kindness; the why doesn’t really matter.”
“Perhaps I don’t entirely know why either.” I toyed with my spoon. “An old habit,” I said, speaking to keep any more admissions at bay, but as soon as I did I knew it was the truth.
She raised her brows. “Habit? Sending money to people you don’t know?”
“Giving money away. It’s been peculiar not to anymore. Well, this way, I send a little to you, at least I know there is a chance it is doing a bit of good.”
“Doesn’t make a whit of sense to me. But your money wouldn’t go to waste, that at least you can be sure of. But I do have one more thing to ask. If you never send two pence I won’t care, if you’ll do this.”
I nodded. “All right, I’m listening.”
“Don’t keep sending postcards or letters if you’re not going to live nearby or visit regular. It just gets his hopes up.” She gave an impatient twitch of the head. “He just hasn’t been the same after Betty went. He can’t let people go easy-like. He’s lost the knack. He gets so attached, can’t help himself. Why, just the other week they got rid of the delivery boy—a real devil, too, always off smoking a fag, never quite getting the right change back to the ladies. Cleavus, he never even liked the fellow, that’s the truth, but there I find him, in the w.c., weeping something pitiful, because this worthless fellow’s finally gotten the sack. He’s got no more sense than a child anymore. And he likes you, always has, said what a nice girl you were, quiet and modest and decent.”
“Yes,” I said. “I see. All right.”
“I know you’re thinking me cruel when he’s lonely and soon to be much lonelier. But I know my Cleavus and—”
“My two girlies having a nice hen session?” boomed Cleavus. He gently spun Mrs. Cleavus in a half turn. “I can just see you from over there chit-chatting away aren’t ya? Ah, the ladies, they do love their gossip. All right, my angel,” he murmured closer to her ear. “You had enough tea? It’s done you a world of good to come out hasn’t it now, love?”
He fussed, his giant hands, liver-spotted, and beginning to knot with arthritis, tucking the blanket in round her, each a tiny, infinitely tender caress and I was glad for the waitress’ arrival. I asked for the bill, avoiding Mrs. Cleavus’ eyes.
“Heavens!” I said, with I thought fairly convincing surprise after she indicated it had been paid. “You have to wake up pretty early in the morning to get a leg up on you, Cleavus.”
“No young lady is going to pay for my portion while I got breath in my lungs, that’s for certain,” he said. “Time for us to be getting home. I’ll get us a taxi.”
I repressed a shudder.
“Actually, Cleavus, it’s such a lovely day, I think I shall stay a bit longer.” I glanced away, so as not to see his disappointment. “But let me walk you out.”
I ignored Cleavus’ palatable dismay as we wound through the lobby, Cleavus stooping through an entryway, negotiating the wheelchair over the carpet. A taxi waited outside.
“I’ll be moving soon,” I said. “Not sure where, isn’t that a lark? But in any case, I probably won’t see you for a time, Cleavus. But perhaps I’ll come down next year, and I shall look you up if I do.”
He halted, his dismay both comic and terrible in its lack of disguise.
“Moving! What’s this?!” he said. “Now, you mustn’t go far away, all by yourself, Miss Bright, a nice young lady oughtn’t—“”
Mrs. Cleavus coughed. “Cleavus. I’m cold.”
Cleavus instantly attended to bundling her inside the taxi, emerging a little out of breath. I had a feeling she’d had a word at him not to fuss, for while his expression was pained, he’d pressed his lips together firmly as if to stifle any further admonitions.
“Well, now,” he said, voice strangled with the attempt at good cheer. He took my hand in his great one. “We must be on our way. You be very careful with yourself.” He looked at me intently. “Don’t let any of the young gents take advantage of your good nature, you hear?”
I nearly took back my hand in alarm, but thought of Betty. “You needn’t worry, Cleavus, on my account.”
I gave him a kiss on the cheek and after a moment I leaned in and pretended to do the same for Mrs. Cleavus, sliding ten pounds into her hand, which she secreted into a pocket.
He ducked in and sat, head craned back at a miserable angle, his gaze seeking mine, blind, unhappy, puzzled. I gave a final wave, feeling his eyes on my back as the taxi retreated.
Inside, the room had emptied, only the waitresses left, busy with wiping tables or cleaning ashtrays. I motioned for another pot of tea. It arrived and I poured, watching its steam and the smoke from my cigarette mingle, a coin of exhaustion throbbing in the center of my forehead. I was fond of Cleavus, and wished him well and gladly send them an extra few dollars, but I hoped I wouldn’t have to see either of them again.
I drank the last of my tea and gathered my things. Perhaps I should have paid for that final pot. But I’d have felt like I’d cheated Cleavus if I did.
I returned to Markum St. with only one thought: the Wilkinson hotel in London. I had ducked into a call box on my way back, and discovered a room was available for the next several days.
“Mrs. Tibble,” I called down the stairs. “Would you be so kind as to call me a taxi to the train station. Bit of an emergency, I’m afraid. I’ll be leaving immediately.”
I heard the tread of her step to the foot of the stairs. “You’ve paid through the week,” she cautioned.
“No matter,” I said. “I’m sure I’ve inconvenienced you by leaving so hastily.”
I heard her start a question, but hurried back to my room. I felt a strong if slightly hysterical desire not to see her cropped hands again. I’d drawn a mental curtain over how it might have happened, but it was one that seemed in danger of being pulled back and at that moment, struck me as intolerable. I finished tossing things into my suitcases, pulled on my hat, coat and gloves, and sat on the bed, pocketbook on my lap. Finally, a horn bleated and I hastened out, my suitcases knocking about my legs, heart pounding as if I was being pursued.
The Wilkinson may have been less famous than the Grovesnor and other London hotels, but I’d overheard Millicent and Commander Charles agree if one hadn’t a flat in town, the Wilkinson was the place to stay. I emerged from the lift, a bellboy trailing with my bags, studiously refraining from looking at my worn frock and hat. I tipped him a pound simply to see him struggle to retain that blank look.
The next day and a half passed in an blur of small and large luxuries: breakfast in bed; a protracted visit to the beauty parlor, including an assault on my eyebrows, the results of which, once I got over the shock, I would be quite pleased with; a luncheon of oysters; a bottle of scent; scraps of gossip dropped from behind the Wilkinson’s tea room’s high-backed chairs; a shopping spree at Harrods’s, where a long-dormant desire for flowered scarves broke free; coconut cakes at tea, even more exquisite than the ones I had with Commander Charles. I even went so far as to get my first massage, which, to my surprise, I didn’t find incapacitatingly embarrassing, so long as I pretended to myself I was a different person. Millicent, I suppose.
My third evening, still too full from tea for dinner, I taxied to the cinema and watched an American movie about a moderately scandalous village romance and marveled how it managed to be lurid, willfully naïve and extremely tidy at once. At the café next door I had coffee and cake, and stared out into the darkened streets and through the opened door could hear the tinny ring of a wireless, the boisterous sound of skiffle, unless I was mistaken. Clusters of young men stood, smoking fags, laughing, shoving each other genially after a pretty girl walked by and they had quieted to watch her pass. London was changing, I thought. The deprivations of the war were beginning to recede, if ever so slowly. The young people looked smarter, flashier, adverts bubbled.
I felt the weight of a gaze and turned to see a man several tables away. Rather handsome, actually, although a bit seedy, with a stain on his worn coat and in need of a shave. I think he might have been just to sidle over when I gathered my things and gave him a regretful smile.
I found a taxi and with a sigh watched London pass by street after street, street lamp by street lamp: it was time to leave.
I angled left and right in front of the mirror, admiring the linen driving suit with matching hat. In the last few days I’d had the trunk of clothes I’d bought in Nice, washed, pressed, and transferred to a set of suitcases, a task expertly executed by a maid who didn’t look old enough to be out of schools. I’d given the bellboy a guinea to drop off several paper sacks full of old clothes for jumble at a nearby church. Nothing quite gives one who has known poverty the feeling of largesse as giving donations. I applied lipstick, and took a step back to regard myself. I might never pass for one of Millicent’s set, but I had banished the wan, harried, dowdy Ramona forever. I took a solemn oath that morning that I have, in fact, kept: as long as I lived, whenever possible, I would have my clothes made in France.
“Your car is out front, Mrs. Bertram,” said the concierge, after I’d finished settling my bill. “We welcome you at the Wilkinson whenever you are in London.”
The valet and the bellboy busied themselves with my cases, arguing in sotto voice about how my things should be packed in the boot. Amused and a little impatient, I lit a cigarette.
“I am in something of a hurry,” I said.
“Sorry, miss,” they replied in unison, but exchanging a dark glance. A taxi pulled up beside the kerb. I heard the low murmur of important men’s conversation and felt a jostle.
“Do forgive me,” a familiar voice said. “Are you quite all right?”
I turned to meet the bright eyes of Mr. Siegel.
“Good morning, Mr. Siegel,” I said.
He regarded me blankly.
“Why…it’s…Miss—Bri—Bertram,” he said, only just able to keep the surprise out of his voice. “How are you?”
“I’m well,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. His assessing eyes took me in, lingering for a fraction of a second on my lips. “Yes,” he said. “You do look well. Quite well.”
I met his bland gaze with one of my own. “Thank you, Mr. Siegel.”
“Are you staying here, at the Wilkinson?”
He looked over at the car. “You’re leaving then?”
“Yes, I am,” I said. “I’m off.”
“Siegel,” said the other man, sounding impatient. “The meeting’s in five minutes.”
“Sorry, Mr. Cavendish.” He turned back to me. “How nice to have seen you.”
“Yes,” I said. “And you.”
There was a pause.
“Let the office know of your next address?”
“Of course, Mr. Siegel.”
“Good day, then,” I said.
He hesitated, giving me another flicker of with his eyes, then bowed and walked away. But I saw he looked back with dispassionate speculation as they opened the door and went inside.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here.