28th April 1923
‘You’re the new fellow, aren’t you? Parfitt is it? Thanks for offering to help us out, sergeant.’
The young plain-clothes police officer nodded. ‘Always happy to give you a hand, sir. Shall I stand at the end?’
‘Wherever you like, son.’ Inspector Harry Evans surveyed the group. He nodded to a uniformed constable stationed by the door. ‘Bring in our guest.’
Two more uniformed men brought in the suspect, one Algy Walters, and placed him in position two of the line-up. They nodded to the Inspector and left. The young sergeant didn’t make eye contact with the suspect, but was happy that things were going according to plan. He quickly got into position at the end of the short line of men.
The Inspector said, ‘Right constable, if you would.’
For the second time the man opened the door. He nodded to someone across the hall, and an elderly woman was brought forward and into the room.
Evans smiled at the woman, and with a hand on her arm, steered her in the direction of the identity parade. Gently he said, ‘Now then dear, nothing to worry about. It’ll be just as I told you upstairs. You just walk along the line, take a good look at each man, then if you see the man we talked about earlier, just step forward, touch him on the shoulder, and that’s it. All over. Nothing to it, is there?’
‘Oh my goodness,’ said the old woman.
The young sergeant at the end thought she sounded rather worried. She might be over seventy but old Katie Cutler was still a good actress, and worth every penny she made from him. He put his shoulders back, and looked straight ahead, practically standing to attention.
The Inspector hastened to soothe her fears. ‘It’ll be all right, dear, don’t you worry about anything. Now you understand what you’ve got to do?’
She nodded, but still looked daunted by the enormity of the task. He watched her go along the line, keeping well back from the row of men she believed to be criminals. She pulled the collar of her overcoat closely round her neck, as if to ward off the violence she believed them capable of. She barely looked at the first four men, though as she went towards the end of the line she seemed to grow in confidence. As soon as she reached the end, she stood on tiptoes to touch the last man on the shoulder then jumped back hurriedly, relief clearly written on her features.
Inspector Evans said, with an edge to his voice, ‘No need to rush. Are you sure you don’t want to have another look at them, just to be sure?’
‘No.’ This time her voice was loud and clear. ‘As soon as I came in the room, I saw him and I recognised him immediately. There’s not a doubt in my mind. It’s him.’
The Inspector repressed a sigh. ‘Thank you dear. Thanks for your help. That will be all. I’ll make a record that you identified the man on the end as the one you saw leaving the Midland Magnificent Hotel on the night of Friday last. If you follow me, you can sign the paper then we’ll let you get off home.’
As he left he glanced back at the posh young police officer who’d come downstairs to help out. They exchanged a grin and an eye-roll. Another case that would be thrown out of court due to the only eyewitness identifying the wrong man. It was the kind of occupational hazard that made Algy Walters and his kind so successful at breaking and entering, robbery with violence and the like. Oh well, thought Evans, that’s the way it goes sometimes. You had to work with the general public, and everyone knew they were idiots.
Returning ten minutes later, Evans found the young fellow from upstairs was still hanging about.
‘Did you want to speak to me?’ he asked the sergeant.
‘Only if you have time, sir. I know you’re very busy.’
‘Well what is it, sergeant? Spit it out, man.’
‘I just wanted to say, I hope you didn’t mind me butting in like that. It’s just that they said upstairs you were a man short, and I’d never seen an actual identity parade before. I hoped to learn something. You’ve got quite the reputation here, sir, if you don’t mind me saying so.’
Evans was flattered by the fellow’s earnest look. Clearly the lad wanted to make himself useful and was keen to learn. ‘Any time you need to gain a bit more experience, sergeant, just you let me know. I appreciate a youngster who really wants to get on.’
‘Oh I do, sir,’ said Sergeant Parfitt. ‘I want to get on as well as I can.’
‘In that case, get down to the cells and supervise the release of that low-life Walters. Our sweet little old lady just got him off the hook.’
‘Of course, sir. Most annoying for you.’ As Parfitt walked away he grinned to himself. He thought it had worked perfectly. Another five hundred quid for doing almost nothing.
Tuesday 29th January 1935.
‘I can’t help it, Gervase. My father won’t have you in the house. In any case, I don’t want to see you… After the disgraceful way you acted? No I don’t agree it was… Of course I care about your… No, of course I don’t expect you to wreck your career by… Yes, I know your reputation is very… There’s really no need to use that kind of language, Gervase! Really I… No, I…’
Dottie stared at the telephone receiver. Even holding the instrument three feet from her ear she could still hear every furious word he uttered. Suddenly, she thought, why bother? She replaced the receiver and went to join her parents in the drawing room.
‘Gervase again?’ her father asked, a rare crease of displeasure between his eyebrows.
She nodded. ‘I hung up on him.’
‘I hope he remained civil,’ her mother said without looking up from her embroidery.
‘No, Mother. He was not in the least civil.’
Her mother frowned as she stabbed the needle into a patch of pale blue. ‘Horrid man. I can’t think what I ever saw in him.’
Dottie was torn between a desire to laugh and cry. ‘Me either. I must have been blind. Or deaf. Or both. In any case, it’s all right because I’m never going to see him again. What a good thing we didn’t announce our engagement.’
There was a short silence. Dottie knew her parents were desperate to know if she’d seen anything more of Detective Inspector William Hardy since she’d returned to London a little over two weeks earlier. He had helped them so wonderfully in Sussex recently, when she had been in serious difficulties through no fault of her own. He had been… Well, wonderful was the only word she could think of to describe what he’d done. Dottie had hoped he might contact her but he hadn’t.
A possible reason for that was indelibly seared onto her brain: as she and her mother had said goodbye to him and thanked him for his help, he had been collected by someone in a car. That someone had been a woman. A blonde. And she had kissed him in such a way that it was perfectly clear the relationship was neither platonic nor new. Dottie had tortured herself with the memory of it, longing—yet dreading—to know more.
The phone began to ring again. Dottie tensed. If it was Gervase ringing back…
Presently the door opened and Sally, the new maid came in. But instead of coming to Dottie with a message, she spoke to Mrs Manderson.
‘Excuse me, ma’am. It’s Miss Flora on the telephone for you. She told me to say it’s important.’
Mrs Manderson lay aside her embroidery hoop and hurried out. Dottie sat on the edge of her seat. What could it be? What could be an important reason for her sister to telephone?
After a few minutes, Mrs Manderson returned. She looked grave, Dottie thought. And hard on that, with a sudden sense of fear she thought, surely the babies are all right?
She said, ‘Mother, what is it?’
‘Dorothy dear, Herbert. Flora was telephoning to let us know that George’s mother died this afternoon.’
Dottie felt guilty at the sense of relief that washed over her. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘Poor George. I know it was half-expected but even so. I hope he’s all right?’
‘Flora said he’s upset, understandably, but yes, I think he’s just glad she didn’t suffer for a long time. He would have found that harder to bear. And Piers of course. Flora will let us know about funeral arrangements.’ She sat down and took up her embroidery. ‘Poor Cynthia. Losing Diana undermined her health terribly, I’m quite certain. One wouldn’t recover from losing one’s daughter like that.’
It was a week later. A maid relieved Dottie of her coat and veiled black hat and carried it away to the cloakroom. Everyone was gathering in the vast chilly space of the entrance hall. Another maid was doing the rounds of the mourners with a tray of sandwiches, and behind her, a young footman was offering the mourners sherry. Even in these circumstances Dottie spared a thought to wonder if so many staff were strictly necessary. It was a huge house, to be sure, but now that there was only one occupant…
Women’s heels clipped on the tiled floor. The solemn murmur of voices began to grow in volume, and the temperature in the hall rose as the number of bodies increased. Soon it began to feel more like a party than a short respite from the cold weather that attended the funeral. Only the family still seemed to be grieving.
‘George, I’m so sorry about your mother,’ Dottie said gently. ‘I think the funeral went off as well as anyone could have hoped.’ She swept her much-loved brother-in-law into a tight, fierce hug.
The funeral had exhausted him, she could tell. His wife, Dottie’s sister Flora, hovered protectively, anxious to ensure that no one upset him or taxed the last of his reserves of composure. Relieved to see it was Dottie who was talking to him, Flora turned away to attend to the infant twins in the care of their nanny. Diana was, as always, quiet and cherubic, but Freddie was squalling again, his cheeks crimson and shiny. Certainly he was teething, Dottie thought as she glanced that way.
She led George a little further apart as a gaggle of ladies armed with advice surrounded Flora, the nanny and the two babies.
‘Thanks,’ George said. ‘I’m just glad it’s over. Father will be relieved too.’ He half-turned to look across the room to where his father was standing, ostensibly part of a group deep in sombre conversation, but in fact Piers Gascoigne was staring at the floor, lost in thought. The hand which held the glass of sherry had tilted and the sherry was in danger of spilling. Dottie noted that he was excessively pale, his lack of colour exaggerated by the severity of his black suit. He looked easily twenty years older than his actual age of fifty-nine.
She shook her head sadly, and turning back to George, asked, ‘Is anyone staying with him tonight?’
‘Yes, my mother’s younger sister, my Aunt Sarah has come to stay for a few days. Frankly I’m worried about how he will cope on his own once she leaves.’ He gave a deep sigh. ‘We shall see, I suppose. I know I ought to have arranged to stay myself, but I just couldn’t face it. Things have been rather strained between us.’
‘Another sherry?’ Dottie asked, aware of the strained relations between father and son, and the cause of them.
He shook his head, wrinkling his nose. ‘Not really my drink.’
‘How about a whisky? I’m sure Overton could rustle you one up.’
He brightened. ‘Good idea.’
Dottie went in search of Overton and explained that Mr George needed picking up a bit. Overton, like all butlers good at their job, immediately procured what was required and Dottie rejoined George a minute later, handing him the glass. He disposed of its contents in one gulp.
‘That’s better.’ He set the glass aside. ‘Dottie, I’ve got something to give you. It’s from my mother. She asked me to give it to you. When she knew she wasn’t, you know…’
Dottie nodded. But she was puzzled. She and her parents had always got on all right with George’s parents, but they had only seen them once or twice a year. Certainly they had never been on gift-giving terms, except for a traditional bottle of wine at Christmas.
George dug in his pocket and drew out a small envelope, slightly bulging. He gave it to her. ‘I’ve put a little note inside, it explains things a bit better. At least, I hope it does.’
Dottie took it from him. She was about to open it, but he put his hand over hers. ‘Not here, Dottie. Can you wait until you get home?’
She nodded, definitely intrigued now. She put the envelope in her little black clutch bag. Her mind was still busy on what it might contain as George said, softly, ‘Heard from Gervase Parfitt?’
She shook her head. ‘No. That’s over. I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of his lack of support when I was in Sussex. I told him I never want to see him again. He rang me last week, but he got quite heated, and… well I’m afraid I hung up on him.’
‘Quite right too, the idiot deserves it.’
‘He was already furious, so I’m not surprised he hasn’t been in touch since. I’m rather glad, actually.’ She shrugged, replaying the horrid conversation in her head. ‘But finally, it’s finished. I wouldn’t mind if he’d apologised, or even if he’d just lied to me and simply pretended to believe I was innocent, but that he couldn’t help me because of his professional position. If just once he’d said that he’d been desperate to support me as my… well, I suppose we weren’t engaged anyway, so he never was my fiancé as such. For some reason he managed to make me feel as though I was the one in the wrong. Again.’ She gave George a crooked little smile. ‘Now I’m beginning to think I never even loved him in the first place. Perhaps this is all for the best. I can’t spend my life with someone like that. I need someone I can trust, someone who will support me and believe in me. I know that sounds silly, but…’
‘Not at all. I think that’s the least one can ask of the person one plans to spend one’s life with.’ George looked across at the group centred about his wife and baby.
Babies, Dottie corrected her thoughts. As far as the world was concerned, the two babies were twins, both of them the children of Flora and George, although the close family knew the truth: that baby Diana was in fact the illegitimate daughter of George’s sister Diana who had died upon giving birth to her child just eight months earlier. George and Flora had adopted baby Diana as their own, and their own child, Freddie, had been born a little more than three weeks later.
The loss of their daughter had driven a wedge between George Gascoigne and his father Piers, and between Piers and his wife, Cynthia who had passed away a week ago leaving a devastated Piers with more guilt than he knew how to handle. Dottie glanced across the room at the man. He looked completely stunned by his bereavement. If anyone ever doubted a heart could break, they had only to look at Piers Gascoigne de la Gascoigne: a wealthy landowner from a very old family, and yet all alone now in this great barrack of a place except for his staff.
George, still gazing at his little family, smiled, the careworn creases between his brows and around his mouth smoothing away. ‘I’d be lost without Flora.’
Dottie kissed his cheek and went to join her parents. If only I can find a man who inspires the kind of love that George and Flora share, she thought, not for the first time.
Back in London, on the following evening Dottie knocked on the front door of a large townhouse. If she’d let herself think about what she was doing, she would have turned and hurried away again, nervous of facing the man she’d come to see.
As she waited for the door to open, her thoughts conjured anxious alternatives. What if he was out? Or just didn’t want to see her? The lights were on, so he was likely to be at home. Or was he?
Added to those thoughts was the desire to run. It wasn’t yet too late, she told herself, still not too late to quickly run back down the steps, along the street and around the corner. He need never know she had been there… She hopped from one foot to the other.
Then suddenly it was too late to run: the door opened, light spilling out onto the damp stone steps. William Hardy stood there.
He was wearing old boots, old paint-smudged trousers. His shirtsleeves were rolled back, the old shirt open-necked with no singlet underneath. Her eyes took in the smooth skin of his neck and the little patch of light-coloured hair on his chest. She forced herself to keep her eyes on his face. His eyes were very blue, his fair hair rumpled, white paint streaked his chin. His eyebrows, the cheekbones… The breath in her throat choked her. Such a beautiful man.
Clearly, he was taken aback to see her there. She dithered in the doorway, he stepped back—wordless—to let her in. For several seconds she stood there before reminding her feet to move and go inside.
He shut the door, taking a long time to do so. He was composing himself, she knew. She stared at the breadth of his shoulders, his slim waist, his lean hips, and wondered yet again how she had ever thought Gervase anything like him.
William turned in the narrow hallway and said, with a half-smile, ‘So, you’ve obviously heard about your friend Mrs Carmichael leaving me this place in her will last year.’
‘Yes,’ she said, and ran out of words. He was staring at her still. Should she simply state her business then leave? Perhaps he really wanted her to go. Perhaps…
‘Come through to the kitchen. The sitting room’s a mess at the moment.’
‘Decorating?’ It was a safe, normal thing to ask.
‘Yes, I’ve almost finished downstairs. I’ve been here eight months already.’
‘The hall is much nicer now that horrid brown paper has gone. It looks bigger and brighter.’
‘And the draughts have gone too. I repointed the brickwork and replaced the glass in the door.’ There was a gentle ring of pride in his voice: the man from a wealthy family who had come down in the world only to discover he could learn new skills. ‘Now then…’
He pushed open the door at the end of the hall, then stepped back to allow her to go first. He bumped into her. She had expected to follow him through the doorway and was too close, already taking a step forward. The physical contact was a jolt in the limited space and caused them both to take a rather theatrically large step apart, with stammered apologies on both sides. Dottie was certain she’d seen exactly that in a farce on in a West End theatre recently.
The kitchen was bright and warm, and very fresh-looking with the new paint, new lino, and the new stove. Everything was so neat and clean. A table with four chairs had been set in the centre of the room. It was perfect, thought Dottie, and said so.
He set the kettle on the stove to boil. Dottie pulled off her coat and scarf, draping them over the back of the nearest chair, then she pulled off her gloves, one finger at a time, added them to the coat and scarf, and put her bright red hat on top of the heap like a cherry on a cake. She took a seat and waited.
He was fussing with the crockery, cutlery, tea, milk. He’s trying to decide what to say, what to do, she thought. In the end, he just ran out of things to do and stood with his hands resting on the edge of the sink, staring out into the darkness that hid the little back garden.
‘William,’ she said. His head went up but he didn’t turn.
This time he had to respond. He turned, leaned back against the sink, arms folded across his chest. He looked on the defensive, like a man backed into a corner. While she was still planning what to say, he spoke:
‘Why are you here, Dottie? I mean, I’m very glad to see you, but…why? Does Parfitt know? Would he approve of you calling on a single man in his home?’
His mention of Gervase induced her to snap at him, ‘You can leave Gervase out of it. As far as anyone else is concerned, you are a trusted family friend.’ Irritation made her add, heedlessly, ‘Goodness knows why.’
There was a prolonged, somewhat frosty silence. William didn’t move from the sink, and eventually it was left to Dottie to rescue the boiling kettle, pouring a little hot water into the teapot and leaving it to warm, and placing the kettle back on the stove. She felt exasperated by the situation, by herself, and him too, of course. Clearly the recent renewal of their friendliness in Sussex had died an immediate death. She didn’t know whether to slap him, scream at him, kiss him, storm out, or what to do… Her mind played through various scenarios, none of which ended happily.
She opted for calmly coming to the point. ‘I’m here because I have something to give you.’
She bent to open her bag and took out the tiny package from George’s mother. She held it out to him, not wanting to cross the room to him. He didn’t move. She shook her head. If possible, she felt still more exasperated. They were behaving like schoolchildren. Especially him. She put the package on the table, and only when she turned to see to the teapot did he come away from the sink and pick it up. She emptied the water out of the teapot, spooned in tealeaves then poured in the fresh boiling water and replaced the lid.
She watched him, part policeman, part angry ex-lover, as he first looked then finally began to unwrap the parcel. His fingers trembled a little. That hurt her. That they had done this to one another. That she—that she had done this to them, to him. After all the help he had given her in Sussex a mere two or so weeks ago. And where had Gervase been then, just when she had needed him most? Sitting safely behind his desk polishing his reputation, that’s where, she reminded herself furiously.
As the paper opened in his hands, she said softly, ‘George’s mother died last week. He gave this to me after the funeral yesterday. Just before she died, she had told him she wanted me to have it. She wanted it to be reunited with the rest of the mantle. I—I thought you might be able to see to that.’
Finally the thing, soft, faded and warm, fell out of its trappings and into William’s palm. He stared. As realisation hit, he looked up at Dottie, but dipped his head again almost immediately.
‘The final piece…’ His voice was barely above a whisper.
‘The Gascoignes had it all this time?’
‘Yes,’ she said again.
He drew a long, shaky breath. ‘They are an old Norman family, so I suppose it’s not much of a surprise.’ He looked down at the tiny piece of ancient fabric. ‘Even on its own, it’s still…’
‘I was about to say, sacred. I know that sounds rather melodramatic, but…’ He turned it over in his hands, his touch gentle. ‘Impossible to realise that this tiny thing is, what? Six hundred years old? More?’
Dottie came closer to get a better look.
‘Easily seven hundred years old. Possibly as much as eight hundred. And yet the colour is still so rich here and here.’ She pointed with a neatly manicured fingernail, taking care not to touch the ancient emerald-coloured fabric. ‘There’s even a tiny hole there, look, where someone put in a stitch. Perhaps in the wrong place, and it had to be removed? Perhaps an apprentice, still learning the broderer’s craft? We’ll never know for sure.’
He turned the fabric to catch the light, saw the tiny hole and nodded. He fixed his eyes on her, intense yet veiled. She felt as though he saw all her thoughts but kept his own well-hidden. Softly he said, ‘I know it’s not for me, but all the same, thank you.’
She bit her lip. She could not cry. How her emotions dipped and soared these days, untrustworthy, flighty. She couldn’t seem to keep them in check. If he touched her now, if he spoke even one syllable of kindness…
He stepped back, turning to grab the paper from the table, and placed the fabric in it once more, then having wrapped it and slipped it back inside the envelope, he put it in a drawer in the dresser.
‘I’ll make sure it’s delivered to the museum. The rest of the mantle is still with the restorer, but they expect to have it finished by Easter.’
‘Wonderful.’ She took a breath and on it, she took a step towards him. This could not go on. She had to fix this. It was now or never.
There was a sound behind her in the hall. The front door had just banged shut. Dottie sent him a questioning look.
William looked towards the door, clearly knowing who had just arrived. His expression was impossible to read. Dottie felt troubled. She heard a clattering of a woman’s heels. His sister? But surely Eleanor was still in Matlock? A woman’s voice, coming nearer, called, ‘Bill, Darling, it’s only me!’
It was the woman from the car two weeks earlier. Dottie and her mother had seen him get into the car with her, had seen her lean over and really kiss him. The woman halted in the doorway. A blonde. Big blue eyes, lots of glittery eyeshadow and deep red lipstick. Petite but curvy. Very curvy. She glanced from William to Dottie and back again, her perfect eyebrows raised in dainty enquiry.
William crossed the room to her side and kissed her full on the lips before helping her out of her fur coat. ‘I’ve just made a pot of tea,’ he said.
His look was guarded, secret, as he looked back at Dottie and said, ‘May I present Miss Moira Hansom, my f-fiancée.’
William leaned against the wall by the front door for a moment before returning to the kitchen. He knew Moira would not be fooled for a second. She was an astute woman at least, regardless of her other failings.
‘So that’s her,’ she said as soon as he came back.
‘What do you mean?’ As far as he was aware, he’d been careful to never mention Dottie. But Moira would just know, of course.
‘Well when I came back in August, I could tell you were stewing over someone. And the fact that you never said anything, well, that just made me more suspicious.’
‘Ridiculous.’ He turned to the sink, tipped away Dottie’s untouched tea, then began to wash the two cups. He was angry with himself. He’d given himself away, and it was too late to change that.
‘If you say so,’ she said in that arch, teasing tone with the hint of a giggle that he found so annoying. ‘Though I think that just proves how serious you were about her. You were serious, weren’t you?
He said nothing, but scrubbed furiously at a teaspoon. She came up behind him, but he was so busy with his thoughts, he didn’t know she was there until her hand was on his shoulder, making him jolt in surprise.
‘Is it still serious?’ she asked softly.
He still said nothing. He felt her move away from him, and she began drifting about the room, picking up this and that, and sending him little laughing looks as she allowed her voice—a constant babble like a stream over stones—to ripple on and on. She had learned the trick of it from close observance of some of the women she’d met at functions; it wasn’t really the kind of thing they taught girls at finishing school. It was yet another thing he detested about her, how false she was, keeping her voice high and light and girlish even though she was thirty, and her smile never fading whilst her words were laced with the pure malice that burned inside her.
‘I suppose her figure’s not too bad, though that thin boyish look is so very twenties. Men like something to hold on to, don’t they? Well you certainly do, at any rate. And that hair! But then again, with a new style and a proper cut from a decent salon, it mightn’t be too bad. A bit more make-up too, to hide how pale she looks. She probably doesn’t understand how to use it properly, she struck me as being a bit gauche. Yet she surely can’t be as young as all that? Still, perhaps it works for her, that fragile, helpless, wide-eyed fawn look. What was her name again?’
‘Dottie Manderson.’ He said it through gritted teeth. The few dishes were done. He was just standing there with his hands in the empty bowl. He fixed his eyes on the darkness beyond the window, beyond his own reflection, looking back a year to the time he thought everything would be wonderful.
‘Dottie? What’s that short for? Dorothy? How terribly old-fashioned! And why was she here, exactly, this Dottie girl?’
This last bit was said with an underlying edge. Now we’ve come to the crux, he thought. This is what she really wants to know. He was tempted to yell at her, ‘None of your damned business!’ but in the end he controlled his temper and said calmly, ‘Something to do with a case of mine last year.’
Whatever she had been expecting, it wasn’t that. A long half-minute ticked by before she said, in a more normal voice, ‘Well, I think it’s a bit forward of her to come to your home like that. She probably thought she could throw herself at you. It’s a good thing I came in when I did. The little idiot didn’t realise the position she could be putting you in, the trouble that could make for you. Perhaps I should phone her and tell her not to do it again.’
Not trusting himself to reply to that, he said simply, ‘I’m going up for a bath.’
He was in the hall when she quickly put on her seductive voice, and called, ‘If you like, I could come up and scrub your back for you.’
He’d have laughed if he hadn’t been so angry. He ignored her, and when he reached the bathroom, he locked the door.
Moira Hansom frowned when she heard the bolt go across. So that was how it was, was it?