Roy was fumbling for his key when Mrs Raddle appeared in the hallway clutching a water syphon and a feather duster.
‘You’ve returned, Mr Bridges, I see.’
‘Only briefly, Mrs Raddle.’
‘Oh, dear. Has something happened?’
‘Family emergency, I’m afraid.’
‘Yes, it’s, er, my sister.’
Mrs Raddle nodded sagely, transferring the syphon to her left hand and the duster to her right.
‘Relations. Mr Raddle, bless ’im, used to fret about his dear old mum. There wasn’t a day he didn’t check on her ’ealth. Still alive? he’d ask me, all worried-like. When he was still alive, of course.’
‘Of course. I’ll get my things from the room and be down to settle the bill.’
‘That’s good of you, Mr Bridges. Are you leaving so soon?’
‘Today, I’m afraid. I was lucky enough to get a cabin on a ship that sails tonight.’
‘Your sister will be relieved.’
She shuffled past him, before turning at the top of the stairs.
‘Your young woman friend was here yesterday,’ she said, a gleam in her eye. ‘The flapper girl. Said you’d asked her to leave something in your room, so against my better judgement, Mr Bridges, I let her in. Watched her like a hawk, I did, you being an orther an’ all.’
‘Sylvie was here?’
‘You missed her, Mr Bridges. But she left you something on the table. A pile of papers. I expect you’ll be taking them with you.’
‘It’s my book.’
‘The way she was fussing over it you’d have thought it was hers. Left you a letter too.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Raddle.’ He bowed his head. ‘For everything.’
She put one hand on the banister, having reshuffled the contents of her arms. ‘I’m not in it, am I, Mr Bridges?’
‘No, no,’ Roy said. ‘Of course not.’
‘Well, that’s gratitude for you,’ she snapped, banging away down the stairs.
. . . . .
Roy sat in his cabin, his trunk beside the bed, the manuscript across his knees. Laughter pealed in the passageway, as late-comers sought their rooms. Hands shaking, he unfolded Sylvie’s letter.
‘Surprise!’ he read. ‘The secret is out, Bridgey old boy – my handwriting is as bad as yours! This is to say goodbye. We were friends during troubled times and together we wrote a book. Magnifique! I regret nothing. You regret everything – you’re Roy Bridges, after all. If so, I’m sorry. But not very. You taught me things about history and about being an author; I tried to teach you about the world outside your window. Tomorrow I make the crossing to Paris, thanks to the pound notes you paid me. Some women can’t afford to wait. Good luck with the book and its surprise ending. I really am a terrible typist, aren’t I!’
Roy stared into space for an age, before holding the letter up to his nose. It smelled only of paper and ink – his pitiful lot in life. Taking out his pocket book, he put the letter away. Hilda must never find it.
Beneath his feet the floor began to throb as the ship’s engines awoke. The vessel began to rock, and he caught the manuscript as it slipped from his knees. The story was an embarrassment to him now, especially its ending. Tucking the sheaf of papers under his coat, Roy went wearily up on deck, where he stood at the railing and watched London slip away. In a few weeks he would be halfway home, and still neither here nor there.
The wind whipped at his coat as he took out the manuscript. In his dream – the one he’d had on the day Sylvie first appeared – a long strip of paper had held him to Hilda, the streamer that had stretched but not broken. Now he imagined another paper chain: a line of pages streaming back from the deck as he threw the book overboard. He raised his arm, but something – self-preservation? – held it back.
Sheltering behind a lifeboat, Roy rifled through the pages until he found the final scene – the novel’s surprise ending, Sylvie had called it.
‘He told his story, then,’ Roy read, ‘sparing himself in no way. He told of his first meeting with Mavis, his association and attempt to break with her; his weakness and the visit to her room that evening. All the while his mother, sitting by him, held her arm about his shoulders.’
As he read on he found himself nodding. This was the conclusion the book had needed all along, the kind of ending he had failed to write. Sylvia had done the job for him, overdoing Roy Bridges to perfection.
Standing on his deserted stretch of deck, lifeboat creaking on its chains, Roy was almost overcome with relief and dismay.
Dave had gone home, after all. The girl, Mavis, had been slain by an old flame, her room emptied of everything but the mirror of silver, whose hold on the Irskines – on humankind? – was apparently at an end.
The deck swayed as the ship made for the open sea. Steadying himself, Roy looked back through the last few pages, until he found the passage he wanted. Hands trembling, he read it again.
‘“Dave,” his mother said, “You’re going straight!”
‘He whispered, “I hope so, mother! I’m going to try . . . . I’ll never care for anyone in the world but you . . . I’ll never dare to care for . . . any girl, again . . . . As I did care, mother, I did care!”’
The horn sounded, long and low, above him. Lurching to the ship’s side, Roy took one last look at London. Dear Hilda, he thought, I am – coming home.