Roy Bridges, writer, woke with a start. Lifting his head, he looked around the shadowy room, realising, after a surge of hope and confusion, that it was in Shepherd’s Bush, an inner suburb of London, and not in Melbourne, an outer one; that he was in England and not in Australia.
Rain spattered against the window. Through the glass Roy saw clouds, heavy and grey, like those that had hung above the docks in his dream. His ship had been drawing away, straining at the paper streamers connecting the well-wishers on the waterfront with the passengers arrayed along the railing, straining at the streamer connecting him and Hilda. One by one the streamers had snapped until theirs alone had dragged the ship down.
Roy loosened his collar and dabbed at his face with his sleeve. The room was cold – there was no coal for a fire – but he was damp with perspiration. Reaching for a cigarette, he looked down at the letter he had been writing. ‘Dear Hilda,’ it began. ‘I am’ – and there it ended. At the top of the page a date: May 1, 1926. May Day, he thought, bitterly. The symbolic start of the northern summer. And yet here he was, huddled in an icy room, half-frozen inside and out, having crossed the equator to find – to find what, exactly? The warmth that had waned in Melbourne? The light that had left his life? The great novel he had never written?
A knock at the door made him jump, and he fumbled the unlit cigarette to the floor.
Two women stood in the hallway. One was his landlady, Mrs Raddle.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Bridges,’ she said, sourly. ‘This young woman insisted on seeing you. Very insistent she was, even though I told her.’
‘That you were an orther, of course. From Orstralia.’
Roy’s lips twitched and he glanced at the young woman. Lips, red lips, and bare white arms. A canary-yellow dress, short and straight, blazing like a beacon in a coal mine. One hand clutching a purse, the other a cardboard case. Eyes blue and unblinking.
His landlady spoke again, her lips thin and grey. ‘I told her, Mr Bridges, there were no girls allowed in these rooms, this being a respeckable house an’ all. But she was very –’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said.
He looked at the young woman, quailing a little before her steady gaze.
‘What, can I ask, do you, er, want?’
Unperturbed, she said: ‘To help.’
Roy thought of his heart, his head. ‘You’re a nurse?’
‘Don’t be silly, Mr Bridges,’ Mrs Raddle said. ‘Even my ’usband can tell she’s not medical, an’ he’s been dead twenty years.’
Roy studied the cardboard case.
‘It’s a typewriter,’ the young woman said.
Mrs Raddle snorted. ‘A likely story.’
Roy thought of the unfinished letter on the table, the stack of blank pads, the frostiness of his flat.
‘I’m the writer, Mrs Raddle,’ he said, at last. ‘I’ll be the judge of that.’
‘This is a respeckable house, Mr Bridges.’
Roy looked at the young woman. ‘You’re a typist?’
A pause, and then: ‘I type.’
Something in Roy’s heart gave a flutter – a canary in a coal mine – and he nodded.
‘You were right to be cautious, Mrs Raddle,’ he said. ‘But this young woman is here on business not on, er, pleasure.’
‘Very well,’ his landlady said, stiffly. ‘I’m no filler-steen, Mr Bridges. I’ll make an allowance for Art, this time. Mr Raddle, bless ’is soul, was always very partial to Lit’rature. Devoted to Shakespeare he was. What, he used to say, would Great Britain be without the Immaterial Bard.’
She paused, expectantly.
‘I don’t know,’ Roy blurted. ‘What?’
‘Britain. That’s all, Mr Bridges. Just Britain.’
And, with a last disapproving look at the young woman, Mrs Raddle clomped away down the stairs.
‘You’d better come in,’ Roy said. ‘Quickly. Before Art loses its appeal. Before your arm drops off.’
He stood to one side.
Inside, she put the case on the floor. Roy watched as she took in the cramped room, the bric-a-brac on the dresser (half-buried by books), the table strewn with papers and pads (mostly unmarked), the chairs hung with trousers and shirts, the curtains partially drawn, revealing wet windows and a cloud-clogged sky. The stale smell of cigarette smoke and damp socks. The inevitable empty grate.
He felt a twinge of embarrassment and then, unexpectedly, a warm hum. He wasn’t accustomed to receiving visitors, and yet he liked having this young woman in his room; her presence made it – and him – seem less barren.
‘Dark in here,’ she said. ‘Like a coal mine. You like living without light?’
‘Er, not particularly.’
‘A shame. The country could do with another coal miner.’
‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘The strike. Dashed inconvenient.’
‘And cold, I suppose, for an Orstralian.’
Roy studied her dress, which was shorter than anything Hilda had ever worn, and more yellow. The canary fluttered again.
‘You don’t seem to feel it,’ he said. ‘The cold, I mean.’
She shrugged. ‘I’m a local. A Londoner. A not-so-great Briton.’
Roy laughed, uncertainly. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘what’s this about. Really?’
‘Your publisher, Mr Bridges, is my dear old dad.’
‘Mr Hutchinson? Your father?’
‘So they say.’
‘Mr Hutchinson sent you? Is he worried about the book?’
‘Slow down, Mr Bridges. Hutchie doesn’t know I’m here.’
‘Then why are you here?’
‘I told you. To help.’
Roy went to the window, where he stood, his heart racing, half-seeing his ghostly reflection in the glass, half-seeing, through the haze and the runnels of rain, his little allotment of London: a row of brick houses, upright and alike, hemmed in by a long iron fence; a lewd public house and the church tower looming above it; umbrellas bobbing down the road like lumps of coal down a canal. Dear Hilda, he thought, I am – But the words wouldn’t come. Just as they hadn’t come since his arrival on this fatal shore, two months ago.
He turned to the young woman. ‘What makes you think I need, er, help?’
‘A hunch, Mr Bridges. A hunch based on history – your history. We’re admirers of yours, you see, the Hutchinson clan. One might even say that we’re fond of you.’
Roy felt his face go red. ‘Fond of me?’
‘Yes, you. Don’t look at me like that. Father has always brought your books home – brought you home – and told us stories about his Antipodean prodigy, as he calls you. So I know you don’t live or work alone; I know you have a helper, Hilda.’
‘My sister,’ Roy said, stiffly, ‘is a very good typist.’
‘And writer, I hear.’
And secretary, he thought. And cook and housekeeper.
‘You type, you say?’ he said, clearing his throat.
‘Hutchie bought me a typewriter and some instructions. It looks a lot like playing the piano, only easier because there aren’t any pedals. Here, let me show you.’
‘That’s not necessary,’ he said, before realising it probably was. He watched in silence as she fished the flashy machine out of its case and set it on the table. Seating herself, she began pecking at the keys.
‘“It . . . was . . .” Oh, dear.’ She pointed to a page on the table. ‘May I?’
He nodded and she screwed the sheet into the machine.
‘“It . . . was . . . a . . . dark . . . and . . . stormy . . . night.”’ She looked sideways at the page. ‘All letters present and accounted for. All the important ones.’
‘You’re no Mozart,’ he observed.
‘I blame the miners. It’s cold in here, Mr Bridges.’
‘And empty.’ Roy gestured towards the table. ‘Look at those pads,’ he said. ‘Unmarked, every one. There’s nothing to type and there might never be. Anyway, a book takes months to write. Surely you’re not proposing to help me out of the goodness of your heart; out of, er, fondness for me.’
‘You’re right,’ the young woman said, sheepishly. ‘I’m fond of Sylvie too.’
Roy looked mystified. ‘Sylvie?’
‘Me, Mr Bridges. My parents call me Sylvia, but I prefer Sylvie. It’s more moi.’
Roy stared into the space above her head. ‘Sylvia,’ he said, softly.
Now he knew where he’d met the girl before. In a book from his boyhood. A book he’d read and reread in his room in the cottage on his grandparents’ farm, a million miles away, on another island. Sylvia Vickers was the closest he’d come to having a childhood sweetheart. She’d died – or so he’d thought – on the prison island, along with his grandparents. Along with the boy.
He turned back to the window.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, thickly. ‘You reminded me of someone I’d lost.’
His mother, too, was gone.
‘No,’ Sylvie said, in a small voice. ‘I’m sorry.’
She sighed and typed two words.
‘“The . . . End.”’
Roy rested his forehead on the cold glass, his eyes closed.
Hilda – she was alive. Probably more alive than ever now she was free of him, her brilliant baby brother. Her brilliant brother baby. Roy beat his head softly on the glass. Boom boom boom. The sound took him back to the house in Melbourne, to the school up the street and its miserable marching band, with its blasted bass drum. Boom boom, boom boom.
He turned back to the room, his eyes full of apparitions, to see Sylvie, the canary in the coal mine, standing beside the table, her case in one hand, his future in the other.
‘Eh?’ he said, blinking.
‘I said good luck with the book, Mr Bridges. I look forward to reading it.’
‘Wait,’ he cried, as she reached for the doorknob. ‘You’ll read it?’
‘Of course. I’m no filler-steen. I still remember your other books, especially the one about following in your family’s footsteps. Whenever I see a butterfly I think of those shoes, and the way they didn’t fit the girl at the end. It gives me hope.’
‘That I’ll escape. That one day I’ll pay my way off this narrow little island.’
Roy stood in silence.
‘Actually,’ he said, suddenly, ‘I’d like you to stay, to help write my book – type it, I mean. That’s my only – that’s, er, what I hope.’
Sylvie’s face brightened. ‘You’ll let me be Hilda?’
‘I’ll let you help, if that’s what you mean. But I’m – it’s not easy. It’s hard going, you know. I’m hard going.’
‘I’m hard going, too,’ she said. ‘Which is why I’ll be here every afternoon at two for as long as it takes, although never on Sunday. Hutchie wouldn’t like it. Together we’ll make your book, Mr Bridges.’
She paused. ‘Do we have a deal?’
‘Yes,’ Roy said, wonderingly. ‘I think we do.’
‘My purse,’ Sylvie said. ‘It’s the empty one on the dresser.’
Roy looked at her and she stared innocently back. Taking a pound note from his pocket, he gave it to her, along with the purse.
‘One week in advance.’
‘Perfect,’ she said, opening the door. ‘Some women, Mr Bridges, can’t afford to wait.’