“There is one condition. I cannot tell you my name.”
He inhaled the aroma of spent tobacco. “That may make things rather difficult for me.” He wrote 27th September 1956, 10.10 a.m. at the top right-hand side of the blank page of foolscap paper.
“If it were easy, I wouldn’t need your help.”
His nib was poised over the faintly lined sheet. “If I am to open a file, I must know the name of my client.”
“Put whatever name you wish to call me.”
He glanced at her hands. The left ring finger was banded. He wrote Mrs A. “I will need an address.”
She opened the clutch bag on her knee and handed him a business card. Post Office Box 21, Tower Road, Twickenham, London.
“You live in London?”
“I have done.”
He looked to his right and her left and through the arched window behind her. His top floor office was level with the Town Hall clock face. It indicated thirteen minutes past ten. “Why did you specify ten past ten?”
“He told me to.”
“The person I want you to find.”
“And what is his name?”
“I have no idea.”
Mr Coward wrote Mr B on the paper. “He specified ten minutes past?”
“This day. This time. This place. You.”
The sleeve of Mr Coward’s suit collected specs of cigar ash from the desk as he shuffled to suppress his irritation. “You know this man?”
Mr Coward raised his bushy white eyebrows. “But you don’t know his name?”
“I don’t know his name.”
“And you want me to find him.”
“I suspect that you may be able to help.”
“I’m a stockbroker.”
“And a very good one. I have no doubt.”
She had blue-green eyes with just a hint of hazel sparkling through, though everything inside the confines of the offices of C.E. Coward took on a brown or beige hue. Even the diminutive Mr French, who rustled the tanned pink pages of the Financial Times over in the far corner had a cigarillo shade to his skin. “That’s speculation,” he said.
“Well if anyone should spot speculation, it’s a successful stockbroker.”
“Or a foolhardy one.”
“This is not speculation, Mr Coward. This is desperation.”
He wrote 30? on his sheet. “Do you have a family?”
“If you mean, do I have children?”
“That is what I mean.”
There was an almost imperceptible hesitation. “No.”
He imposed a deliberate delay. “Husband?”
He let her see him focus on her ring finger.
“I am engaged. To the man I want you to find.”
He inhaled audibly. “You are engaged to man whose name you do not know?”
“He asked me to marry him and I agreed.”
“When’s the big day?”
“A decade ago.”
She straightened her coat. “We agreed to marry when the war was over. I believe the war is over.”
“You haven’t seen him in ten years?”
Coward crossed out Mrs A and wrote Miss A in its place. “Would you like a cigarette?”
The maple cigarette case was adjacent to the mahogany cigar box. Coward stood to allow her to select one of the contents. He lit it with his silver petrol lighter. He realigned the boxes on his desk as she inhaled. “Did your fiancé fight in the war?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You are not sure.”
“He was a pacifist. But I think he was in the armed services.”
“We didn’t talk about it.”
“You must have seen his uniform?”
She drank smoke and exhaled it like a screen star. “I saw a uniform, but I don’t know that it was his.”
“Was he wearing it?”
“It was in a suitcase.”
Coward focussed on the Town Hall clock again. Twenty-three minutes past ten. She could see that he struggled to decide what to do. He was finding her to be fascinating and perturbing in equal measures. Was this a compelling puzzle or puerile waste of time? He had stocks to sell and shares to buy. The telephone line to London could be so unreliable, she imagined. She pondered on how much time he would give her.
“When was it that your fiancé told you to come and see me?”
“Two days ago.”
She opened her bag again. “This postcard arrived.”
He took the card. On the front was a sepia picture of Alsace on the French border with Germany. On the reverse was the address Post Office Box 21, Tower Road, Twickenham, London, Angleterre, and the message C.E Coward, Stockbroker, 27 September 10.10 am.
“How did you know where to find me?”
“That is your telephone number.
“Written very small along the vertical edge. You may need a spyglass.”
Coward peered closely. He opened the drawer of his desk and without looking, located a magnifying glass. “Well, the town is correct but the number is not.”
“It is reversed. That’s how I know this came from him. It was one of our codes.”
“One of them?”
“One of them.”
He looked at her face, her hands, her ring finger, thought, then said, “Miss . . . Miss A, I have no idea where your fiancé might be.”
“I believe you can locate him. What would be your fee?”
“I’m afraid I cannot enter a business transaction with you.”
“There are insufficient formalities in place.”
Her voice elevated by half an octave and accelerated in its rate of delivery. “Mr Coward, my privacy and my anonymity in this matter is everything. I can tell you nothing about certain aspects of myself and my past, but I can pay you, and I am prepared to leave a substantial deposit.” She extracted a buff envelope from her bag.
He held up the palm of his writing hand, the pen pointing skywards. “If you cannot provide me with information, how can I help you?”
“I did not say I would not provide information. I simply said I would not tell you anything about some aspects of myself. I cannot. I will tell you about us. About my fiancé and I. Everything. Everything that I can.”
He slightly adjusted the alignment of his cigar box. “Then do that. Write it all down, and send it to me. If, when I have read it, I feel I may be of service, then I would accept your initial deposit, and begin proceedings to attempt to locate your . . . lover. If that is not too strong a word for him.”
“It is too weak a word, Mr Coward. Far too weak.”
Three days later, on the last day of September 1956, she posted an envelope to be delivered by registered mail. It contained two fifty-pound bank notes and a manuscript.
. . . and a few subsequent words. . . but not necessarily in the right order . . .
She did catch the midnight train. It was rash, impulsive, and foolish to the point of verging on the self-destructive. Or it might have been the making of her. Time would tell.
This time the lights were red. He had to stop. If he didn’t turn at this junction, they were leaving London. He met her eyes, then diverted his towards her tummy. “I thought you might have worked it out by now.”
She took the elevator. The cage it made overwhelmed her with warm safety.
A bag crushed over her head. She heard a muffled scream and drew breath to do the same, but by the time she’d found the volume to power it, all sensation had slipped away.
It was the ultimate test of her disguise and she knew it would fail, but that was the point.
As she set off southwards, a figure in the corner of her eye, stepped out of an apartment doorway across the road, and strode in her direction. She knew better than to look back and knew also that his movement was almost certainly coincidental to her own. Nevertheless, she increased her pace.
She had no idea how long she stood looking through a window at the painting of herself looking through a window, but there came a moment when she was aware that her own reflection was superimposed on the reflection in the painting and that behind her, across the street, were half a hundred windows, any one of which might hide a person spying on her.
She imagined his fist tightening against the trigger of his weapon, and felt hers doing the same.
Original oil painting by Emma Ritson.
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