London, October 1923
The telephone rang at two in the morning. Constable Durning was as apologetic as ever. He probably thought he was getting me out of my bed, but it was one of those nights when I knew better than to try to sleep. Three times in a fortnight. The man was certainly earning his retainer. But even though it took me less than half an hour to get to the police station, by the time I arrived, Grace had left.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Harrington, but there was nothing we could do to hold her. Miss Harrington wasn’t actually arrested this time,’ Constable Durning told me, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
‘Then why did you call me?’ I hadn’t been sleeping, I hadn’t even been trying to work, but that didn’t mean I was happy to be dragged out on one of those dank foggy London nights on a fool’s errand.
‘Miss Harrington insisted,’ Durning said.
He looked absurdly young tonight, far too young for his uniform. He reminded me of Jeremy, except that Jeremy would have been nearer thirty than twenty by now, and the constable, with his baby-smooth face would have been far too young to go to war and get himself killed. Born too late, some of the post-war generation said about themselves, as if it was a bad thing. As if they had missed out on something. They had no idea.
The constable selected a key from the board, beckoning me to follow him. ‘I thought my sister had left?’ I said, my feet automatically taking the familiar route to the cells regardless.
He unlocked the door. ‘She did, Sir, but she said that you would take care of this.’
‘This’ was a woman. Lying on the wooden-slatted bed, her cheek resting on her folded hands, her long, slim legs curled up, she was out cold. ‘What the hell did Grace expect me to…’
But the constable was already heading back to the desk, and it was obvious what Grace expected me to do, though why my dear little sister decided not to hang around to tell me…
I sighed, because the answer to that was obvious too. Grace knew better than to give me options. The woman on the bare bed sighed deeply. She was dressed in something gold that shimmered in the dingy light, clinging to her form, more like molten metal than fabric. She was slim, they all see to be slim these days, but there was nothing in the least boyish about her shape. I noticed that, and I surprised myself by noticing. Breasts. Hips. An enticing dip at her waist. There was a sleek curve to her calves that made me want to run my hands over them. Silk stockings. Gold shoes. Her clothes screamed haute couture. And money.
On closer inspection she was older than Grace and the wild group of Bright Young Things my sister tore around London with. Her lips were painted scarlet. A bright slash of colour in her perfectly pale face, there was something lush about those lips, almost succulent. Long, sooty dark eyelashes. A smooth cap of hair that looked shiny blue-black. She was like a very beautiful effigy, save that no statue had ever had the effect she was having on me. No woman either, not for a long time. Before…
But I made a point of not thinking about before, now I was living the after. For so long, I’d been so sure there never would be an after. It was what I’d wanted more than anything, back then. Now that I had it – be careful what you wish for, my mother used to say. One of the few things she ever said that was right. She’d be appalled if she knew how her daughter was behaving. Not that Grace would give a damn. Not that Grace seemed to give a damn about anything. One of the things we have in common.
The woman on the bench began to stir. She sat up. She moved like water. Her eyes were huge. They looked black, though they couldn’t be. She was what they call a stunner. And she was what I’d call stunned. Pupils dilated and totally vacant, eyes unblinking. ‘I don’t suppose you have any idea where you are?’ I asked.
‘Or what your name is?’
‘I need to go home,’ she said.
Her voice was husky, but her pronunciation was quite clear.
‘If you’ll tell me where that is, I’ll take you.’
A vacant look. I could have left her. She was nothing to me, but Grace wasn’t. Honestly though, it wasn’t for Grace that I put my arm around her. There was something – broken, fragile, lost? – something in the woman’s face that I recognised. She staggered against me as I helped her along the corridor that smelt – mostly – of bleach, while she smelt of something much more exotic and infinitely feminine, which my contrary body decided it liked a lot.
‘Do you have her bag, her effects?’ I asked Constable Durning. But he shook his head. No hat, no coat, and there were obviously no pockets in that slinky dress she wore. She began to slither down to the floor. ‘I don’t even know her name,’ I said, fumbling for a doceur.
The policeman pocketed my note expertly. ‘Very funny,’ he said.
Her legs gave way, and I caught her, hefting her over my shoulder. I must have looked confused, because the constable stopped smirking. ‘You really don’t recognise her?’ he said, looking quite incredulous. ‘She’s only one of the most famous women in London. On of those actress sisters, Daisy Edwards.’
I thought at first I was dreaming, only my dreams usually brought me out in a cold sweat, had me falling and falling, or running, or landing with a crash, and this one – I lay there, eyes tight shut, trying to find the right word, but not trying too hard, because I didn’t want to wake up.
This one made me feel safe.
As soon as the word popped into my head, I realised that if I was thinking about it I couldn’t be asleep, and I stopped feeling safe, if that’s really what I had been feeling, and my heart took up its usual just-awake hammering and my eyes flew open, and then my heart just about stopped because safe was the last thing I was.
No matter how many martinis I had, I had never before failed to get myself home. This definitely wasn’t home, and I’d had – I counted – two, three martinis at most, which, to someone who had grown as accustomed to them as I had in the last few years, was practically nothing.
I tried not to move, though all my instincts were to run, but he seemed to be asleep, the man I was in bed with and I really, really didn’t want to wake him up. He was lying on his back, his face turned away from me, towards the wall. He had on a shirt and trousers. And I…
The jet beads that looked so fantastic on the black lace insets of my gold Lanvin dress were digging into my back, but I was still wearing the thing. And everything else. I wiggled my toes. Save for my shoes.
So he hadn’t even tried. I felt curiously insulted, which was strange, because that was the last thing I wanted. Though as I leaned over just the tiniest fraction to take a look at him, I was taken aback to discover my body and my mind didn’t quite agree.
He wasn’t handsome, not in that classic, smooth way of Douglas Fairbanks or Rudolph Valentino. It was difficult to tell his age, but I reckoned he must be somewhere between thirty and thirty-five. Dark-brown hair that looked as if it might wave if it weren’t so short. A swarthy complexion, and even in his sleep there were lines furrowing between those thick brows. A strong nose. A strong face. He looked like a hard man, or he would, were it not for that mouth with its full bottom lip and its intriguing little curl at the corners.
I eased back, the better to take a measure of his body, without really allowing myself to register that’s what I was doing. A sprinkling of hair at his throat, where his shirt was open. A strong body to match his face. Muscled. He was just the kind of man you’d see in one of those films of Poppy’s striding across the screen to scoop the heroine up in his arms. You’d be safe there, with your head on one of those broad shoulders.
Back to The Undoing of Daisy Edwards