Roy set the last section of the book in London, in 1926.
‘At last,’ Sylvie said, ‘we’re in the here and the now.’
The now was August, the last month of the season. It wasn’t like any summer Roy had ever known, but Sylvie assured him the sunlessness was entirely normal.
‘How else would I stay a statue of ivory?’ she said, extending her pearly white arms.
Roy kept quiet and tried not to look, turning his rebellious thoughts back to the book, back to the saintly Lily Brandon and her son, Dave, the latest and last victim of the silver mirror. Dave’s father, a petty criminal, had turned up like a bad penny, threatening blackmail, and Dave himself had fallen in with Mavis, a street-wise minx. The boy’s soul – his salvation – was at stake.
‘This is more like it,’ Sylvie said. ‘I almost know these places, these people. They talk with words not pictures. Listen to this bit. “‘What’s your name?’ she asked. ‘Dave!’ ‘Dave what?’ ‘It doesn’t matter.’ ‘Oh, all right!’ she said cheerfully. ‘That’s good enough for me. Mine’s Mavis – that good enough for you?’ ‘Quite!’ ‘Do you like it?’ ‘Not much,’ he admitted, grinning. ‘Well, that’s all right. Because it isn’t my real name. It’s Milly – but I don’t like that myself. Not so much as Mavis. I can call myself what I like, can’t I?’”’
Sylvie looked up. ‘Do you like it?’
‘Not much,’ Roy admitted, grinning.
‘Trust me,’ she said, ‘it’s the bee’s knees.’
‘But I don’t remember –’
London was starting to get on Roy’s nerves. The walk between his lodgings and the club was becoming unbearable; the roar of the buses and cars made his skin prickle with perspiration, the clamour and chaos setting his mind on edge.
One morning, though, an eerie silence fell over the streets, as traffic was cleared from Piccadilly Circus. Roy watched as a swarm of men put up posts and lights. He lingered so long that he was late for his session with Sylvie, who was sitting on the stairs when he arrived.
‘Thank goodness,’ she said. ‘I thought you were you-know-who. One never knows when Art is going to lose its appeal.’
Inside, Roy fell into his armchair, puffing and describing the scene.
‘History, that’s what you’ve seen,’ Sylvie told him. ‘Those traffic lights are the first electric ones in England. Believe it or not, even the old country is starting to make it modern.’
Roy thought back to Hobart in the 1890s, to the horses and carts, the bicycles and baskets, and said nothing. Instead, he went to work, that day and those that followed, trying to simplify – if not ‘modernise’, whatever that meant – his prose, garnering qualified praise from his preceptor in the process. And yet the more he tried to connect with contemporary world, the more out of touch with it he felt. As the month went on and the words added up, his thoughts grew more and more feverish, waking him at night and making it hard for him to concentrate on anything but – well, Sylvie. To relax, he began to drink more heavily, which, he assumed, made his writing more ragged. He didn’t care, though, as long as he had her. And yet for how much longer?
As the climax came closer, he no longer knew how the novel should end, for he had lost confidence in his creative instincts. Should Dave defy his mother by giving into his ‘bad blood’ and taking up with Mavis, or should he stay saintly and chaste? Should the mirror triumph, or should its spell be broken? Did sons always suffer for the sins of their fathers? Roy no longer knew what he believed.
But he knew what he wanted.
One morning late in August, on a dry day filled with scudding clouds and a wind that rattled the windows, Roy stayed in. Fortifying himself with brandy, he scribbled down the last scene of the book, trying to make it more to Sylvie’s liking, more unmelodramatic and modern. The job was almost done when he got caught on the crucial passage. Crossing out his first attempt, he began again.
‘Mavis pushed him away,’ he wrote. ‘“Stop,” she said, straightening her skirt. “You know you shouldn’t be here. Think of your job, Dave, and your mother.”
‘He went to the mirror and stood before it, fists clenched by his sides.
‘“Think of her? When all I can think about is you?”
‘“Come away with me then,’ she said. “Let’s escape from this place.”
‘Reaching out, Dave took the mirror from the wall.
‘“Cover your face,” he said, and sent it crashing to the floor.
‘Mavis stared at him, wide-eyed. He bent and kissed her open mouth.
‘“Where are you going?” she cried, as he strode to the door.
‘“Home, to my mother.”
‘Mavis bowed her head. “Oh, Dave.”
‘“To get my things. Wait for me, Mavis, I won’t be long.”
‘He wasn’t. While she waited, Mavis gathered her belongings, the shards of the silver mirror splintering under her shoes.’
Shoving the pad to one side, Roy shuddered and sucked his glass dry.
The ending said so little and yet so much – about him, he feared.
Sick to his stomach, Roy stumbled to the armchair. He would put a match to the pad, he told himself, as soon as he felt better.
Sylvie arrived in an exultant mood, waking him with a hurried knock.
‘Have you heard?’ she said, depositing the typewriter on the table beside the unburned pad. ‘A woman – an American woman – has made the crossing.’
The newspapers, she explained, were filled with reports of Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking swim across the Channel.
Roy said, weakly, that he didn’t think the woman’s nationality made a difference.
‘Oh, but it does,’ Sylvie said, her eyes shining. ‘It shows anything is possible when you’re free. And brave.’
Roy stayed silent, admiring her idealism. He tried not to think about the two books of his that had sunk without trace in the United States.
Sylvie had only one reservation.
‘Gertrude went the wrong way,’ she said, from the window. ‘The way your book is going too. Backwards to London instead of forwards to Paris.’
Roy looked blearily at the table, at the inch-high pile of paper topped by his ashtray – the leaves of the trees they’d felled together – at the pad he’d meant to torch, at the typewriter poised like a fat frog, ready to leap on him and tear out his throat with its alphabetical fangs, at Sylvia, the girl of his dreams. In his dreams. In his nightmares. In a book he’d read long ago. Oh, how he would like to . . . .
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, blinking.
Sylvie stood, hands on hips.
‘This is your chance, Roy Bridges. Your chance to make the crossing. This ending could be – should be – your new beginning. And yet Dave is going to run from the girl – you’ll make him do it, I bet – because she’s too much of a challenge, too much of a threat to his mother and her archaic ideas.’
Roy stumbled to his feet. Should he tell her about the new ending? Point out the pad? Hands shaking, he filled a glass with brandy.
‘I’ll join you this time,’ Sylvie said. ‘I don’t want you thinking I’m an angel.’
He pictured her stitching the two halves of him back together with needle and thread.
‘Yes, Mr Bridges, join you. Me, Sylvie, your amanuensis. Your womanuensis. The heroine history won’t register, let alone remember. I, Sylvie, would like a drink. To celebrate my rebirth, if not yours.’
Roy stared at her, doubtfully.
‘I’m nineteen, Mr Bridges. I’m old enough. Old enough to do anything I want, even if my elders aren’t wise enough to let me.’
She swept across the room.
‘See,’ she said, taking the bottle from his hand. ‘See how easily I make the crossing.’
Brandy splashed over her hand and she sucked hungrily at the drops, at the contents of her glass. She waved an arm.
‘A room. Oh, for a room, raddled or not. What a woman could do with one of her own. And some money. Your money. Why, she wouldn’t have to hide behind a man, or even to pose as one. She’d enter the far-off world of cities and governments, the magic land where secrets are kept and desires are fulfilled.’
Roy took a step backwards. ‘Sylvia,’ he said.
‘I know, you’re a coward. But it takes bravery to be a coward. You can cross the lines, I know it. I can see it now. Roy bridges the gap and escapes from his island, a captive to the past no more. You just need a push, to set you in motion.’
She looked at him over her glass, eyes wide and alive, he fancied, with other eyes. In them he saw his sister and his mother, a whole line of women, one inside the other, mirrors within a mirror. He tried to steady himself, one hand on the window sill. Glancing out, he saw men crossing the road, and he remembered that the strike was over, that miners were going back to work. There was coal in his stomach now, a whole cake of it; he was clammy, his heart raced.
When he turned, Sylvie was standing with her back to the door, her arms outstretched, clad only in a snow-white slip. A groan escaped from him. The red of her lips; the red tips of her breasts staining the silvery stuff of her slip. The roseate veil. Christ’s wounds. Red nails driven into his heart.
‘One kiss,’ she said. ‘One kiss and you’re free.’