The next day Roy marked time until two o’clock, smoking and pacing the floor. He had slept poorly; women were bickering outside his door – or so he’d fancied. At dawn he had dragged himself up to investigate, feeling like a fool. The landing was empty, of course, except for the echoes of yesterday’s exchange. Returning to bed, he had slept a little longer, waking at nine to the ringing of church bells. He’d lain and read – an old copy of The Children of the New Forest – before rising for a cigarette, which he’d smoked at the window in his dressing gown, watching the dismal scene grow lighter and yet somehow more dismal. People – real people, he’d reminded himself – had been going about their business on the street below: a bobby on a bicycle, a man in a bowler hat, a pale girl pushing a pram. Later, a young woman clutching a cardboard case would appear, on her way to his room. Roy had found it hard to believe.
His excitement grew as the time approached two. It was replaced by a sense of desolation when the bells rang out again. It was Sunday, of course. Roy cursed himself. Remember the Sabbath, the Bible said, to keep it holy. In it you shall not do any work – well, he was safe on that score – you, or your son, or your daughter, or your maidservant. His maidservant, he thought, pouring himself a brandy. What on earth was she going to type? So far he had written nothing, for he had no idea what to write. He stared into his glass. He’d hoped to publish something serious this time, something that would stand the test of time. He grimaced. Who did he think he was – the Immaterial Bard?
A vision of a woman’s half-bared breast, poised to receive her lover’s fatal plunge, rose before him. He’d seen Othello during his first few weeks in London, and a lovelier Desdemona he could hardly image. Yes, he thought, that might be a beginning. A beautiful woman; an affair with a king; the husband’s revenge. A torrid tale with tragic consequences. Sipping brandy, he felt the familiar warmth filter through him. What was he worrying about? This was the way he always worked, writing first, thinking later – if at all.
He lit himself a Capstan. Sylvie didn’t seem very religious, although her father, Mr Hutchinson, was clearly devout. ‘Never on a Sunday,’ she had said. ‘Hutchie wouldn’t like it.’ Hutchie. Fancy calling him that. His publisher had always seemed such a straight-laced man – in his letters, at least. A man a lot like himself. Imagine him having a daughter. It had never occurred to Roy that his publisher might produce anything other than books.
He toasted wily old Hutchie with another brandy or two. Skipping supper, he went to bed.
‘I was beginning to think you’d gone on strike,’ Roy said, when he greeted Sylvie at the door the next day.
There had been no newspapers that morning when he’d ventured out, and the shops had been closed.
‘It’s the gen’ral strike, mate,’ a soldier in Hyde Park had told him. ‘They’ve stopped the presses but the gov’ment’s not standin’ idly by.’
Standing idly by, Roy had watched a swarm of men erect makeshift structures on the green. For a food dump, he was told.
‘Welcome to London, Mr Bridges,’ Sylvie said, breathlessly, stepping in. ‘You’ve caught us napping. The city that never stops has ground to a halt.’
She hoisted the case on to the table and peeled off her hat and coat. ‘I had to walk all the way.’
An awkward silence fell as she took out the typewriter. Roy marshalled his pens, pads, blotting paper. Sylvie sat and looked at him over the top of her machine.
‘Ready, Mr Bridges. Where do we start?’
‘With an apology,’ he said, looking sheepish. ‘About my handwriting.’
‘Yes, yes, I know: it’s not quite copperplate. But that’s fine. Did I tell you I’m a whizz at Blottentots?’
‘Blottentots. It’s a game. You make ink marks on paper and write rhymes about what you see in them. The best rhyme wins. Mine’s always the booby.’
‘The booby, Mr Bridges. The best.’
Roy looked at her, doubtfully.
‘Try me,’ she said.
Roy sat at the table. Reaching for a pad, he uncapped a fountain pen. Putting the pen down, he lit a Capstan, on which he drew deeply. Balancing the cigarette on the ashtray, he took up the pen again – and hesitated. Something serious, he reminded himself. A beautiful woman; an affair with a king; the husband’s revenge. He bent over the page. For a time the only sound in the room was his stertorous breathing and the scratching of the steel nib.
‘There,’ he said, finally, blotting the page and tossing the pad to her. ‘See if you can make sense of that.’
He relit his cigarette as she studied his writing.
‘Goodness. Hutchie wasn’t exaggerating. Well, I’ll either win the booby prize or end up looking like a prize booby.’
After typing for an eternity – long enough, at least, for Roy to finish his cigarette and make two cups of coffee – she dragged the page from the machine and held it out.
‘No,’ Roy said, recoiling. ‘Read it aloud, like Hil – like, er, others do.’
‘“The rose, the ivory and the gold of Barbara Irskine’s beauty blossomed forth: the gold of her hair, curled closely to her face and brought forward from the nape of her neck to hang upon her shoulder – gold massed on ivory white; the faint rose of her cheeks; the red rose of her mouse.” Mouth, I mean.’
She looked up. ‘Is it the start of your book?’
‘Yes,’ he said, thoughtfully. ‘I think it is.’
‘And Barbara’s the heroine?’
‘Yes, I think she is. Of this part.’
‘There’s more here I couldn’t make out. It’s hard to believe, but you got messier near the end.’
‘Ha,’ said Roy. ‘But you must. You must make it out.’
‘Pooh,’ she said, and squinted at the page. ‘“The red rose of her mouth; opulence of her, um, body; the, the violet shade – no, hue – of silken bodice cut low at, um, bosom; the violet hue of skirt close-pleated about the waist – no, about the hips – and opening, yes, opening over the yellow, canary-yellow petticoat –’
‘Jonquil-yellow,’ Roy said, hoarsely. ‘Make that jonquil-yellow, please.’
Sylvie made a note on the page with a pencil.
‘Done,’ she said. ‘It’s all very over-blown in that quaint old way.’
‘I’ll take that as a compliment. Although I don’t remember writing down the bits about,
‘Yes, those bits.’
‘It’s clearly what you wanted to say,’ Sylvie said, with a shrug. She waved the pad at him. ‘Look, it’s all here in black and white.’
‘You know I can’t read it,’ he said. ‘You perverse young woman.’ He held out a cup. ‘Here, wet your whistle. Only two hundred pages to go.’
So it began, Roy scribbling down the words on the pink pads he bought for a sixpence at the stationery stall in Pembridge Place, Sylvie typing them out. They sat at opposite ends of the worn wooden table, flanked by the window on one side, and a sprawling cot bed on the other. The room was book-ended by the kitchenette with its empty grate and the single hob on which Roy boiled eggs and brewed coffee, and by the red velvet armchair that dozed between dresser and door.
Roy wrote quickly, rarely looking back at the words on the page, knowing that if he did he might not recognise them.
‘This is not the time to be a reporter,’ he explained. ‘Writing an article is like drawing blood from a stone. It’s more rewriting than writing. Story-writing, however, is a kind of bloodletting; I open an artery and the words pour out.’
‘Sounds very medical, to misquote your landlady.’
Roy gazed out the window. ‘My grandfather had his heart set on me being a doctor, but I wanted to write. The thought of – of, well, arteries and veins and bodies and brains makes my blood run cold. There I go again. Maybe I missed my calling, after all.’
The general strike went on, its impact blunted, to a degree, by the efforts of volunteers. One morning Roy got caught up in a rally and lost his hat; on another he was almost run down by a tram piloted by a ham-fisted do-gooder. Still there were no newspapers, just pamphlets put out by the opposing parties.
Late one afternoon, Sylvie tore another page from the typewriter and added it to the small pile on the table, leaning back in her chair. Roy was smoking, peering pensively through the clouds of smoke in the room at the clouds outside.
‘You colonials and your obsession with royalty,’ Sylvie said.
Roy gave a start. ‘Eh?’
‘The book. Barbara and her bits. Sleeping with the monarch. We got over kings and queens centuries ago, when we chopped off the first Charles’ head. You colonials seem to be more English than the English.’
‘We can’t help ourselves,’ Roy said. ‘I was born in little Britain, otherwise known as Tasmania, and when I was sixteen the Duke and Duchess of York paid us a visit. They decided to go sailing on the Derwent. Half of Hobart – me included – trailed after them in ferries, cheering our heads off one minute, shaking them in disbelief the next.’
‘You have a Derwent, too?’
‘Of course. There’s one in every outpost. The same thing happened a few years ago, when the Prince of Wales came over on the royal yacht – a battleship, if you don’t mind – to thank us for saving the Mother Country’s bacon in the war. There was no apology, of course, for getting us into the mess. We almost killed him when the royal train came off the rails. He took it in his stride, of course, winning us over with a little joke. “At larst,” he said, “we have done something that is not in the programme.” We dubbed him the Digger Prince, a man who has never set foot in a trench let alone dug one.’
‘And yet he still finds himself in a hole,’ Sylvie said, with a laugh. ‘He’s too much of a rake to ever really be king. Actually, he’s one of the few crown jewels I like. He’s his own man, at least.’
The first section – the prologue, as it had become – was taking shape. Soon they had all but sketched out the scene: Barbara Irskine’s fears and yearnings as she waited in her bedroom for the king, the second Charles, to arrive; the unexpected appearance instead of her puritanical husband; the ensuing altercation and murderous act. The style was a little more lurid than Roy had expected, but then, as he told himself, he was writing a tragedy and it didn’t hurt to over-egg that sort of pudding.
And yet it was missing something, he knew. Sylvie sensed it, too.
‘It’s horrifying,’ she observed, one afternoon, ‘and I don’t know whether to pity Barbara or despise her. But I’m dying to know where it’s going.’
‘Down through the ages,’ Roy said, thoughtfully. ‘The woman’s infidelity curses her descendants. The sins of the mother, as it were. That’s the idea. I just need to find a device, a way of conveying the curse.’
As usual, it found him.
‘It’s the mirror,’ Sylvie said, breathlessly, the next day. ‘That’s your device. It’s grotesque – and brilliant. Listen to this.’ She slipped the page from the machine. ‘“She had a thought piercing through mists of dreaming, that stirring within the mirror, could she but read them, were no dream-fashioned phantoms, but that she looked with eyes of the living on Irskines yet to be – when she was dust; her white wraith dominant over them; her hate pursuing down the highway of the year . . .”’
Roy grimaced. ‘I haven’t overdone it, have I?’
‘To perfection. Apart from Alice, the only literary looking glass I can think of is Oscar Wilde’s, and it only acts like a mirror.’ She gazed at Roy with open admiration. ‘How did you hit upon the idea?’
‘It’s your doing, actually,’ Roy said, sitting back. ‘I stopped at a stationer’s shop this morning to buy you a ribbon. For your machine,’ he added. ‘There was a map of the world in the window, and Tasmania was up at eye level. It was tiny, of course, but as I stood there I saw myself in it, my face reflected in the glass, in the island.’
‘Magic mirror in my hand,’ Sylvie murmured, ‘Who’s the fairest in the land?’
‘The fairest land, you mean. Or not, as the case may be.’
She looked at him, quizzically.
‘People have always seen things in Tasmania,’ he said, warming to his subject. ‘Reflections of themselves and their ideas – perhaps because of its size and shape, its place in time and space. It’s haunted by faces and fancies.’
‘Just as Barbara’s folk will be haunted by visions in the silver mirror?’
‘I suppose so, yes.’
Sylvia nodded, and petted her hair, her racy black bob.
‘What about my ribbon?’ she asked, coyly.
Roy grinned. ‘The shop was closed. There’s a general strike on, you know.’
It was over by the end of the week, to their surprise, although most of the miners were still refusing to go back to work. To Roy’s great and somewhat guilty relief – the democrat in him supported the miners’ cause – life in London returned to normal. The makeshift structures in Hyde Park disappeared, as did the volunteers, making it safe for people – even Orstralians – to take to the streets. Roy returned to the Arts Club on Old Church Street, where he spent the mornings perusing the papers in front of an open fire. There he would have an early luncheon, returning to his lodgings to read and doze and dream in the armchair, ashtray at one elbow, glass of brandy at the other. Sylvie’s arrival would rouse him at two. He’d make coffee as she got herself settled. Then work would resume.
‘You know,’ he said, one afternoon, as Sylvie peered at a page. ‘Noise drives me batty, and yet I’ve always found the clamour of keys quite comforting. At the newspaper and at home, with Hilda. And now here, with you.’
‘It’s morse code,’ Sylvie said. ‘Sending out word that work is being done. That your book is being hammered into shape. The opposite of S.O.S.’
They were nearing the end of the prologue.
‘I’m getting faster, don’t you think?’ Sylvie said, winding a page out of the typewriter.
Roy smiled. ‘You’re still no Mozart.’
‘It’s my nails,’ Sylvie said, with a pout. ‘They get in the way.’
Nails? Hilda had never talked of such things.
Sylvie held up her hands, twinkling her fingers.
‘It’s our little secret, Mummy and me. Hutchie disapproves. He thinks it louche for a woman of my age to do herself up. Not that he uses that word. Louche. Disapproves of the French, too, which is very pas sage of him. I don’t know about you, Mr Bridges, but I adore the French. Coco Chanel is a goddess; she’s divine. Madame Bovary is a good egg, too. Give me a French Emma any day.’
Before Roy could comment she was off again.
‘The irony of it all, Bridgey old boy, is that Mummy paints my nails. It’s one of the few things we have in common. Funny, don’t you think? My mother giving me blood-red claws, arming me for life.’
Roy rubbed his forehead.
‘I know, I know,’ she said, ‘I talk too much. Hutchie says that writers are usually strong silent types; they let their pens do the talking. In that case, I’ll never be a novelist.’
‘Probably a good thing,’ Roy said, drily.
‘No, no, no, c’est faux,’ Sylvie cried. ‘I want to rewrite the world.’
She lapsed into silence, staring at her hands.
‘A few years ago, when I was in school, people went dotty over pharaohs and pyramids. Egyptomania. Did that craze make it to your country?’
‘Lucky you. Here people wondered why they were called mummies. Not me. I’ve lived with one all my life, you see.’
‘A mummy, you idiot. Self-preservation, that’s my mother’s sole occupation. When she’s not covered in ointment she’s sitting up straight, silent and still, bound up in a bodice, surrounded by her adoring retinue, as if the slightest exertion will crack her facade. It’s a kind of living death.’
‘The poor woman,’ Roy murmured.
‘Oh, she’s not poor, Bridgey old boy. That’s why she’s a mummy and not a mother. Fear of losing her looks and her lifestyle.’
‘You don’t seem to, er, like her very much.’
‘Oh, if only you knew,’ the girl said, attacking the keys of the typewriter as tears welled in her eyes.