Fog shrouded the city, dense and smothering, insinuating itself into every secret place as effectively as the old peasoupers from the days way back when coal was still freely burned. It swirled round the tops of buildings, muffling all traffic sounds and adding to the general depression which ambushes spirits on the slow, familiar creep-up to Christmas.
On one main high street, the fashionable centre of quality in the sprawling metropolis, a mammoth redbrick citadel stood impervious, spanning one whole block, preserving the privacy and protecting the lives of its occupants, barricading their privileged existence from the intrusion of strangers or prying eyes. A vast Victorian mansion block, amongst the first of its kind, erected at the turn of the century as the latest, the most avant-garde creation of a celebrated architect, still going strong after nine decades and the privations and bombardments of two world wars.
On this inhospitable night no light was showing from any window in all its five storeys. It stood as solid and unbreachable as any great monument, guardian of secrets, as old as time, seemingly deserted, as silent as the grave.
Only at one rear window, which looked out across the inner courtyard, a single lamp burned, deep within an uncurtained room. And a lone figure stood at the window, watching . . .
Silver dawn filtered palely through a fine autumn mist which cloaked the streets of the Royal Borough and muffled the shadowy silhouettes of a battalion of the Queen’s Household Cavalry, clattering over Campden Hill on their way back home to barracks after early-morning manoeuvres in the park.
‘“Watch the wall, my darling, as the Gentlemen go by,”’ chanted Beatrice reflexively from somewhere deep in her dreams, then, hearing the sonorous chiming of St Mary Abbots followed, seconds later, by the more tinny echo of the Kensington Palace clock, recalled she had an early meeting with the Minister so threw back the duvet and prepared for flight. Lily, her flatmate, was already up and about, sipping jasmine tea in the kitchen as she listened to Radio 4.
‘Golly,’ she breathed in her soft, melodic voice, ‘Guy Bartlett’s dead. Killed, they say, in Cairo.’
Across the High Street, on the corner by the chemist, Rosie, the flower lady, stamped the circulation back into her feet and waved a cheery mittened hand at the austere figure of the porter going about his early-morning chore of polishing the brass on the imposing doorway of Kensington Court. It was a ritual he rarely neglected, and now he took a few steps back to admire his gleaming handiwork, then withdrew once more inside the building to warm his fingers round a mug of steaming tea. Rosie laughed as the great door closed and she watched the neighbourhood tramp shuffle from his stakeout in the doorway of the bank to perform his own peculiar ritual of shaving his face and head in the reflection from the immaculate nameplate. She knew it drove the porter wild to see his masterpiece defiled in such a way but the tramp was wilier than he was, and nimbler on his feet, so the charade continued, morning after morning.
Inside the hallway of the vast mansion block, Bonita, the cleaner, small, pert and pretty in her jeans and neat dark sweater, stood chatting by the entrance to the porter’s lodge, Hoover in hand, all set to tackle the stairs. By now the building was audibly coming awake. The postman left his trolley in the hall and took the lift to the fifth floor to begin his leisurely descent on foot, delivering mail to each individual door, while a steady stream of tenants started to emerge: fathers to work, children to school, a rare enthusiastic shopper off early to the stores in an attempt to miss the crowds.
‘Good God!’ said Ronnie Barclay-Davenport, spreading the Daily Telegraph wide and spilling his coffee in astonishment. ‘Says here Guy Bartlett’s been killed. Out in Egypt, poor chap. Fell from a fifth floor window, which seems unlikely. Bit of monkey business going on there, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Whatever next!’
His wife, Rowena, standing at the stove behind him, thoughtfully frying bacon and eggs and not yet quite awake, shuffled across to read over his shoulder.
‘Oh, the poor darling! What a dreadful catastrophe! I always told him to watch out, that it was a dangerous job. We must warn poor Gregory to take extra care. These foreign correspondents are braver than soldiers.’
‘Gregory is a travel writer, dear heart. Not a lot of danger there, y’know. And come to that, I wasn’t aware that Guy was exactly in the firing line. Stringer for the Observer. Nice work if you can get it, if you ask me.’
‘Well, you never can be sure, and now you know. Rioting natives, palace revolutions, sudden bloody coups arising out of nowhere. Can’t be too careful. Poor man, I always liked him a lot.’
Miles and Claudia Burdett, driving together to the office in Canary Wharf, heard the news over the car radio.
‘Lord!’ said Claudia, clutching her husband’s arm. ‘Listen to that. Can it be our Guy Bartlett, do you suppose? Surely not. I saw him only last week. Was chatting to him in the lift, in fact, just as normal as can be. Tuesday it was, unless I am very much mistaken.’
Miles was reflective as he manoeuvred his expensive car through the backed-up traffic on the Embankment. Curse this rush-hour scramble. No matter how early they left, they still managed to get snarled up.
‘What, I wonder, will happen to his flat?’ he pondered. ‘I’ve always rather fancied that location. Top floor, glass roof in the hall, different layout to the rest of us. Might make a good investment. I’ll have to investigate.’
‘It’s a sublet, surely?’ said Claudia idly, not really listening, still shocked by the news.
‘Yes,’ said Miles with one of his roguish grins. ‘But it’s given me an idea.’
Beatrice Hunt, on her way towards Whitehall, mind now fully alert, was listening too as she sat in the rear of the car surrounded by government papers. Poor old Guy, and how jolly inconvenient. She took out her thin gold pen and scribbled herself a note. There was something here that might need investigation. Healthy, on-the-ball journalists, even ones who drank as heavily as her neighbour, did not just fall to their deaths, not without a little help. It needed looking into, and Beatrice would make sure that something was done. As soon as she’d got this dratted meeting out of the way.
The Fentons agreed that some sort of recognition was due so invited a few of the neighbours in for a quiet drink in memory of Guy. As chairman of the Tenants’ Association, Digby was strongly aware of his responsibilities, and, so far as he was aware, the poor man had had no immediate relatives, or not ones he’d ever mentioned.
‘He was between marriages,’ said Olive. ‘I rather think he had already clocked up four. Or so Gregory once told me. Not bad going for a man still in his forties.’
‘It’s the life that does it,’ said Digby. ‘I wonder if Gregory knows. I believe he’s off on one of his own trips at present. Hope the poor fellow doesn’t get to hear by accident. It will be a bit of a shock under any circumstances. They were always such great chums.’
The Black Widows, of course, were agog and absolutely in their element. Nothing this exciting had occurred in Kensington Court for years, and they couldn’t wrap their tongues around it fast enough. They sat in a huddle in the Fentons’ grand drawing room, with its panoramic view of the High Street, twittering together like predatory starlings, spilling sherry on the Persian rug in their unseemly enthusiasm. Olive, serving canapés, watched with disapproval. They were, to her mind, an evil bunch, spreading malice and doom while doing nothing for the community, this gaggle of sheltered and overprivileged old ladies. Here by grace of their dead husbands’ earnings and not much else.
‘I never really liked that man,’ Mrs Adelaide Potter was pronouncing through pursed lips. ‘Eyes too narrow, no better than he should be. Never really trusted him. Not quite a gentleman.’
‘He was always very civil to me,’ piped up Amelia Rowntree bravely. Though these days sagging in body, she still retained the heart of a much younger woman, and those cynical, half-closed eyes - a lot like Alec McCowen’s, she’d always fancied - had made her pulses run a little faster each time she had encountered them. For the spirit of romance roamed freely within her ample chest and she still had her hopes. After all, if he’d done it four times already . . . and he’d always been so very accommodating.
Lady Wentworth was on Amelia’s side. ‘Definitely a gentleman,’ she said with approval, pausing to hover over one of Olive’s fancy pastries. ‘Winchester, I believe, and Trinity. He and Gregory were two of a kind, modern-day adventurers, I suppose you might say.’
‘Gregory! I wonder if he’s heard!’ said Netta Silcock, bright-eyed, wriggling her rump in delicious anticipation like a fat and excited spaniel, keen to be in at the kill.
‘You can ask him yourself,’ said Amelia in a lowered voice, and they all turned to stare at the arrival of their hero, standing outlined in the doorway, dressed as carelessly as ever, smiling his sleepy, catlike smile. She sensed a familiar slow flush rising to her cheeks: Guy might be dead but here was Gregory, dreamy and delectable as always. But the handsome Dane’s eyes had already locked with Eleni’s and the older woman watched, defeated, the Greek girl’s sinuous advance, generous bosom undulating as she walked towards him, glossy lips invitingly apart over dazzlingly perfect teeth.
No, Gregory confided later to the Barclay-Davenports, he hadn’t known a thing until this morning, when he arrived back early from a flying visit to Beirut and saw the newspapers.
‘Poor old Guy,’ he said bemusedly, taking a swallow of the triple Scotch Ronnie had thoughtfully handed him. ‘I can’t imagine what happened. He just wasn’t an aggressive fellow.’ He shook his head sadly and took another gulp. There was a sister somewhere, living in East Anglia. He’d be driving up there later, once he’d located her address, in order to give his condolences and do the right thing.
‘Give her our best too, won’t you, old boy,’ said Ronnie, laying a supportive hand on Gregory’s shoulder.
‘Tell her we’re thinking of her,’ added his wife. ‘You were always such good friends.’
‘Yes,’ said Gregory thoughtfully, staring into space. He’d tried to make light of it but it was a severe blow, nonetheless. Alone in this building, his fellow journalist was probably the person who knew him best. ‘You never really know what’s going to hit you – or when.’
‘I wonder what will happen to his flat,’ said Netta but Miles Burdett wasn’t saying a word about his plans.
‘Quite terrible,’ repeated Ronnie Barclay-Davenport as he escorted his wife into the lift and upstairs to the fifth floor. ‘Sign, I’m afraid, my dearest, of a world gone mad and growing more dangerous by the minute.’
‘Quite so,’ said Rowena, clutching his hand and momentarily looking her age. ‘Makes you realise you never really know what’s just around the corner.’
© Carol Smith 2003