I Dream of Rubies
He was sitting very neatly, as if he had folded himself up on the seat, wanting to cause the least disturbance he could to his surroundings. His worn, brown satchel was resting on his knees and he had one arm around it in an absently possessive sort of way: not guarded, but aware. The leather was worn in a way that suggested that this satchel had been used, and repaired, and cared for, for many years – not like the disposable rubbish you might find in the high street today: flashy and only good for one season before it inevitably falls apart.
He had on a faded fedora and the kind of suit one might associate with the earlier part of the century – of the jacket, shirt and waistcoat variety. His one concession to the warm spring weather was the tie he had removed before he left the small house he kept on the edge of town, unbuttoning his shirt to let in a little of the breeze. This day, like the three days preceding it, was balmy and still – the kind of weather you get before a protracted spring storm. The newspapers had been complaining about the 'unseasonably warm weather' for the past week.
Frank ignored them: he had lived through a great many springs, and at least half of them – or so it seemed to him – had either been unseasonably warm or unseasonably cold. He expected the next spring to be cooler, whether he saw it or not, and that the media would be complaining about it with just the same fervour. Good news didn't sell, after all.
Frank had rather been enjoying the sunshine, using the opportunity to work in his tiny garden. He could still feel the slight sting of the sunburn he had got for his pains, and the aches in his leg and back where they'd taken shrapnel out of him nearly sixty years previously, in an Egyptian hospital.
In another world.
It had taken him nearly a full week to get it ready for the summer; he remembered a time when he could have done the same task in a day.
Everything seemed to take longer these days.
He made a face at the baby girl in the pink pram, wedged in between her mother's shopping, just across from him. The child giggled shyly and stared at him with her curiously penetrating infant gaze.
He wondered what she thought of him, an ancient, wrinkled creature in a wool suit.
He smiled at her mother as she backed out of the bus, but the woman glared at him, wary and sneering. Frank shook his head.
It never failed to astonish him how suspicious people were these days.
He sighed, settling back into his seat.
It hadn't always been that way. He remembered a time when kindness had been accepted without question, even on the darkest of days.
Society had learned to be cautious – there were some who suggested that this was due to the breakdown of community and the family, creating 'everyday monsters'. He couldn't help but wonder whether it was the prevalence of journalism: there had always been monsters and there always would be, but these days you could find out all about them with a few clicks of a mouse.
He stared out of the window, waiting for the appearance of the public house that heralded his stop. No one would have been suspicious of her...
She had that way about her – people trusted her. They opened up to her, perhaps because they sensed that she would understand.
He'd opened up to her, too, though it had been years before he grasped just how well she had understood him. She had grinned at him in that utterly disarming fashion and in that instant, stolen his heart.
He'd fed on that grin – like sunshine in a cold room. Even today it lived in the back of his mind, keeping him company.
"Morning Frank! Chilly out!"
He smiled even before he saw her, sticking her head around his office door, cheeks flushed from the cold.
"It's not all that warm, no," he said, by way of greeting.
Ruby shook her head at him, as she did every morning, and disappeared back into the corridor, heading for the little cubby-hole underneath the stairs that served as her office. It wasn't much of a space, almost an afterthought, as though having a woman in the building was somehow an affront to the Institute, but Ruby seemed to like it.
They were living now in more enlightened times, she had told him, over breakfast one morning. After the war things had begun to change: they'd had to. Women had had a taste of the freedoms and struggles of the working world and they had been reluctant to give them up. They had more than proved their worth, too. Even the Director tipped his hat to her these days, though Frank suspected that this had more to do with Ruby's own, personal effervescence than anything else.
He turned his attention back to his files, annoyed, as always, at his inability to stop the tips of his ears turning pink in her presence.
She had spent the war, she said, in an office in Buckinghamshire, but it was all very hush-hush.
Many times, he had watched the younger fellows try to draw her on it, and many times she had drawn them off the subject. The thing about Ruby was, while she may look dreamy and come off a bit ditzy, she was far from stupid. She had a way of leading a conversation away from herself.
The younger fellows always swarmed around her in the staff room and the canteen. It irked him, though he knew it shouldn’t really. Why shouldn’t they try for her? She was everything a young man might want: bright, cheery, intelligent, beautiful, brave…
She’d had to be brave. They all had. It was what war did to a person.
He’d watched her face down an armed burglar once, on one of the Institute’s darker days – marvelling at how she’d broken down, wanting to put an arm around her before realising it had been a magnificent feint.
It had brought the miscreant close enough for her to swing the chair she had been pretending to collapse into at him, knocking the gun to the floor and the intruder out.
It had all happened so quickly that by the time that Frank, Alfred and Monty had recovered, Ruby had secured and emptied the gun and was kneeling over their assailant, making sure he could breathe. He hadn’t forgotten the expression she’d had on her face when the local police sergeant had given her a dressing-down for taking ‘undue risks’. He was surprised the man had made it out of the room.
It had, if anything, made her more attractive to the young men in the canteen. For several weeks afterwards she had retreated to his office to eat her lunch with the other three officers on their floor. After all, she’d known them for years. She’d been at the Institute for five years already – though Frank had no idea how that much time could have passed without his noticing – and she and Alfred were firm friends. She’d known Monty for nearly a decade, having served with his wife, Katherine – and of course, she was friends with Frank. He had let his guard down more around her than with any of the others, and he suspected that she knew it.
She’d told them, when Alfred had teased her about the young men’s attentions, that they gave her a headache. She was much happier, she had declared, joining in with the crossword solution and talking shop up here than being pursued around the ground floor by a ‘gaggle of hooting geese’. She had made a wager with Monty that when the new secretary started on the floor above in a month’s time, she would be forgotten.
Monty lost the bet.
Somehow, though, Ruby had never returned to the canteen at lunchtimes.
She had become an enduring member of the group – a permanent fixture, brightening up the room and making them all laugh. On days when she had to step out for some errand or another, the room seemed smaller, as though her very presence had expanded it. He would spend those lunchtimes glancing at the door, waiting for her cheery ‘Hello’, hoping that she’d step in before their hour was up.
He was relatively certain that Alfred and Monty had noticed, but neither of them ever said anything. He was grateful.
After all, what could he offer someone like Ruby? She was young and bright, while Frank felt anything but. The war had left him weary and a little jaded. He would never be anything other than ‘steady’, he knew, and young women like Ruby seemed to prefer young men with ‘flash’. That was something he would never have.
And as for the rest… His wounds seldom troubled him now, except on the coldest days or just before it rained, but the spider-web of unsightly scars would be with him until the day he died.
She had asked him about them once, when Alf and Monty had been at a meeting in London. The question had surprised him so much that he was half-way through telling her about the way he still woke up sometimes with the feel of the hot metal in his back before he realised what he was doing. He’d stopped, stammering about having an appointment. He’d expected her to be repulsed, but Ruby had smiled a little cryptically, as though she knew exactly what he was feeling and apologised. She’d patted his good shoulder as she left for her cubby-hole and told him that ‘everyone had scars these days.’
It had struck him as an odd thing for a healthy, happy young secretary to say. It left him wondering what scars she might be hiding.
Ruby had always had secrets.
Frank settled onto the red metal bench on the edge of the platform, marvelling – as he always did – that the thing could still feel cold on a day as warm as this. The board that was supposed to tell you when the next train would arrive was, as usual, broken. Today, it was displaying a series of apparently random characters, as if somebody had fallen asleep on their typewriter.
He wondered how anyone who wasn’t local ever managed to board the right train.
The station was busy this morning, full of the usual Saturday shopping crowd who were heading into the city. There were young families, chattering and laughing together; a whole swarm of teenagers who were listening to something loud on their phone; older teenagers, canoodling together in the lee of the wall; women with sharp heels and bright handbags, all talking over one another; middle-aged men with maps and rumpled backpacks; the obligatory student-returning-to-university-after-a-weekend-at-home, the contents of their life in one enormous rucksack; older couples with raincoats and hats; and always, always, the children who thought nothing of racing up and down the platform, oblivious to the danger they were putting themselves in.
They were caught up in that perfect childhood world where the worst thing that could happen was forgetting homework or missing the football. His heart gave a funny little jump when one of them got too near the edge. He turned his attention away, faintly disapproving. They would learn, one way or another.
Everyone learned. The world wasn’t perfect, even when it seemed like it might be.
Contrary to his colleagues’ opinions, Frank quite liked parties.
Not the wild kind, where people danced and drank until the small hours. He would tell people that he’d outgrown them and they would assume it was something to do with his injury, but in all honesty he had never really liked that sort of thing. He’d not been much of a dancer, even before the war, and had spent most of his time sitting at the tables along the edge of any given dance-hall, chatting with anyone that joined him.
These days, he wasn’t much of a talker, either.
Smaller affairs, however, he really rather enjoyed.
He liked to sing along if someone started to play the piano. He liked the food, particularly now that rationing was coming to an end – there had even been oranges in the summer, and ice-cream. He liked to talk to his friends and play with their children. Monty’s son Geoff was nearly eight now, and was learning to ride a bicycle – Frank had helped him fix the ancient thing (which had belonged to Monty’s father) up. His friend had watched with an air of amused bafflement. Monty had never been a particularly practical person, which made it even more amazing, really, that he had married Katherine.
Like Ruby, Katherine was a very capable woman. She was often to be found, when Frank wandered around on his days off, up a ladder, fixing one of any number of things that Monty had forgotten about half-way through. Frank suspected that she enjoyed it, for all her complaining, and she had admitted to him once that Monty was a much better cook than she was anyway. Their relationship was made up of elegant compromises, and Frank loved them all the more for it.
Katherine was one of those remarkable women who could worry and care about a person without ever commenting on or meddling with their affairs.
He was fairly certain that she had an idea of how he felt for Ruby – probably a better idea than he had – but she never said anything, never forced them together.
He watched the two of them through the back window: Katherine and Ruby, those regular co-conspirators, were chasing several children around Monty’s lawn. Frank didn’t recognise all of them – only Monty’s kids and Alfred’s daughter – but he supposed they must all belong to the throng. Ruby stumbled, tumbling to the ground, roaring with laughter: the children immediately piled on top of her, recognising a victory when they saw one.
Katherine was leaning against a tree, breathless with laughter.
“That Ruby,” Alfred chuckled, from right behind him. “She’s never still.”
Frank jumped – he’d been so intent on the game that he hadn’t noticed his friend approach. The other man was grinning.
“She puts the rest of us to shame,” he said fondly, watching as their secretary picked herself up and tried, ineffectually, to rub the grass stains off her dress.
“That she does,” said Frank, with a smile. He must have been unable to keep what he was feeling out of his voice, because Alf gave him a sideways look.
“I’m not one to speak out of turn, you know me,” he began.
Frank, curious as to what his advice might be, since the man had been widowed for seven years and showed no evidence of wanting to remarry, indicated that yes, he did know Alf.
“But, she’s a gem,” he said, awkwardly. “And we ain’t the only ones who can see that.”
Both men looked speculatively out of the window, where Ruby and Katherine had retreated to the shade of the old apple tree by the back gate, letting the children frolic. They waved at the men, and Frank felt his ears go pink.
“Sooner or later, she’ll find someone she fancies – who’ll actually ask her out – and then she’ll be gone, you’ll have lost your chance.” Alfred rubbed the back of his neck, clearly uncomfortable. “Look,” he said, unusually candid, “I reckon you only get the one chance – you know, for love. Real love. I had it with Mary – I don’t know what I’d be if I’d never met her, and I wish to God I could have her back, even just for Lucy’s sake, but the days that we had – they were the very best days.” He paused and looked at his friend. Frank found that he couldn’t hold the other man’s gaze; he looked back out across the lawn, to where Ruby was climbing the apple tree.
“I just don’t want to see you spendin’ the rest of your life regrettin’, that’s all,” he finished, lamely.
“Nor do I,” said Frank, softly. He was aware that Alfred was still watching him, so he added, more loudly. “Message received, Lieutenant.”
“I should bloody well hope so,” said Alf, clapping him on his good shoulder.
He moved away, possibly to discourage his daughter from following Ruby into the apple tree.
Frank wandered out into the tiny front garden.
The party had spilled out onto the road a little way and the garden was full of people that he recognised but didn’t know the names of. He relaxed slightly. He’d had enough heart-to-hearts for one day.
He settled on the low brick wall at the end of the path, stretching out his legs. You could see all the way down the road from here, and down the hill, into the woods. There was a rookery in the fields in front of it and for some minutes he lost himself in watching the wheeling, spiralling birds.
He hadn’t lied to Alfred.
He had heard him, he’d understood and accepted every word.
It didn’t mean he had to do anything about it.
The rooks rose and fell, throwing themselves at the open air, feral and confident, justly proud of their position as the mischievous spirits of the air. He wondered what it would be like to feel what they felt as they soared: not to be in the aeroplane – he’d been in a couple, during the war – but to be the aeroplane.
He supposed that it would feel like coming alive.
He didn’t notice her approaching, so engrossed was he with the birds, but when she tapped him on the arm he managed not to jump.
She was settled on the wall beside him, very warm and very real, and smelling of grass. She held out an apple.
“Thought you might want one,” she said, with a mischievous grin. “I scrumped a couple while Monty’s back was turned. Promise not to tell?”
“I promise,” he laughed, taking the apple from her delicate grasp.
It struck him, as it always did, how dainty her hands looked, even when they were – as now – stained a little from the grass and soil.
They weren’t perfectly manicured, or even the soft, underused hands of a secretary, but hands that had worked. Hands that still did work.
Again, he wondered just what it was that Ruby did in her spare time.
“Jackdaws?” she asked, nodding at the birds.
“Rooks,” he said, pointing at the treetop nests in the trees at the end of the cornfield. “You get them on the edge of villages.”
“My Dad used to try to teach me the names of the birds,” she said, speculatively. “I hate to admit it, but I never paid the slightest attention.”
“Too busy climbing trees and getting grass on your dress?” he teased, and she laughed.
“Gosh, yes – my Mother would have a fit if she could see me now. Slim chance of that, though, I suppose…”
She fell silent, and Frank averted his gaze. Ruby seldom spoke of her parents, and the staff of the Institute had assumed, as one, that they’d died in the war. From what she had said about them, Frank wasn’t sure that they’d ever seen eye to eye.
He bit into the apple for something to do: it was sweet and warm. The perfect apple, on the perfect afternoon.
“What were you and Alf talking about?” Ruby asked, after a while. “You two looked thick as thieves in the parlour. He hasn’t gone and broken some of Katherine’s crockery, has he?”
“No,” Frank laughed, wondering again at her ability to draw the laughter out of him.
“Well, that’s good,” she grinned, polishing her apple with the hem of her skirt. “Or we’d still be trying to put him back together on Monday morning.”
“We were talking about Mary,” he said, and wished he hadn’t.
Ruby nodded soberly.
“That was a sad business,” she remarked. “And so soon after he came home, too. It just didn’t seem fair.”
“Few things did, then, as I recall.” He paused before adding, “He was talking about lost chances, living without regrets, that sort of thing.”
He glanced at Ruby, wondering if she knew they had been talking about her.
“No such thing,” she said, matter-of-factly, “a life without regrets.”
“Do you think so?” he asked. “There are a few regrets that I thought I could avoid.”
“Not possible,” she shook her head. “You’re always going to have regrets, so you might as well make them good ones. Life’s too short not to take chances,” she continued, waving her apple around as if indicating the scope of a life well lived. “You’re always going to make a mess of something, so it might as well be with the exciting bits that you think you probably shouldn’t do.”
The corner of his mouth twitched upwards.
“That’s your philosophy, is it?” he asked.
“Why yes, Mr Bennett, I do believe it is.”
She beamed at him and he very nearly did it – just opened his mouth and asked her to dinner, for a drink, for a walk, anything. Something stopped him.
“Hmph,” Ruby chuckled. “Listen to us, we’ve no call to be so philosophical on a perfectly carefree, sunny afternoon!” she declared, kicking her legs against the wall.
Frank laughed and agreed that she may have a point. They sat and munched their apples, comparing grass stains and discussing the aerial show above the field.
He’d ask her on Monday, he decided. Take her to see a flick perhaps, or for a walk along the river. He would ask her.
For now, though, it was enough to be sharing apples in the sunshine, watching the wheeling birds.
Alf and Ruby had been right.
You couldn’t live life without regretting a few things.
In many ways, knowing Ruby had been something of an education.
He watched the fields flashing by, rendered almost mysterious by the anonymity afforded them by their proximity to the train. He would probably never walk in these fields – very few people on the train would – but for a few minutes they could all shared the same, fleeting tableaux: a scarecrow here, a flash of red sorrel there – a rookery in the trees.
He turned as they passed the rookery. He always did. He watched the birds soaring above their precipitous homes fondly, glad that some things would always remain the same.
He’d rehearsed it in his head all through Sunday.
As he’d suspected it might, it all went straight out his head when she stuck her head around his door that morning, her smile fresh and bright, and utterly distracting.
He hadn’t even managed to respond to her friendly greeting and she’d left him to his own company, mildly confused.
It took him a while to collect himself and – after checking that the coast was clear – he made his way to her cubby-hole.
“Morning,” he said, when she looked up at the irregular beat of his shoes on the polished floor.
“Morning – though you didn’t seem too sure earlier.” She gave him a lop-sided smile.
“Sorry about that,” he apologised. “I had things on my mind.”
“Must have been weighty,” she teased him, winking. “You looked right through me.”
“You – sort of came in, in the middle of a thought,” he explained. He paused, looking at her.
His heart was jumping around in his chest like a wren: small and fluttering, and insistent. What if, after this, she never wanted to speak to him again? What if she was repulsed? She was watching him curiously, her head slightly to one side, patiently waiting for him to speak even though she was clearly bursting to ask him what was wrong.
He took a breath.
No such thing as a life without regrets.
“I was thinking, ‘I ought to ask Ruby out for a picnic this weekend before someone else does’,” he said, swallowing his pride.
He watched her expression change to surprise, steeling himself for her inevitable rejection.
“You want to have a picnic?” she asked.
“Or a walk – I don’t mind, really.”
She nodded, frowning, and then paused.
“With me?” she asked, as if double-checking.
“Yes,” said Frank, unable to stop himself smiling slightly. This wasn’t going quite the way he’d expected it to.
“Oh,” she said, and looked away for a moment.
“It’s fine,” he said, managing a small, awkward laugh, “if you have plans already, I mean –”
“I have traini- a thing in the morning,” she said, catching herself. “But I finish at eleven. Shall I meet you at twelve?”
It took a moment for Frank to rearrange his mind – God only knew what his expression looked like.
“Twelve?” he started to smile, properly, for the first time in what felt like an awfully long time. “By the clock in the square?”
“It’s a date,” she smiled, almost shyly. She laughed for a moment. “Do you know, I thought you’d never ask me?”
“Neither did I,” he admitted, grinning broadly.
“What changed your mind?” she asked, impishly.
“Let’s call it inspiration garnered on a perfectly carefree, sunny afternoon.”
Ruby laughed again and smiled sweetly up at him from her nook.
“Well, I’m rather glad you did, I have to say,” she said. “But I have to get this typing done by noon, or I’ll be for the high-jump.”
“Oh, of course,” he said, feeling intrusive, excited, awkward and ecstatic all at once. “I’ll leave you to it. Will I see you at lunch?”
“Actually, not today,” she said, with a small wince. “I’m meeting some friends for lunch, as it happens.”
“No matter,” he said. “There’s always tomorrow.”
He’d walked back to his office feeling that his heart was soaring higher than the rooks in the field below Monty’s house.
He made sure that the door was firmly shut behind him before punching the air in sheer delight. After a moment of pure joy he straightened his tie, pushed his hair back and settled down at his desk.
After all, he wasn’t a man generally given to outbursts of emotion.
He was filing – one of his least favourite occupations, but necessary if he ever wanted to find anything – when he saw her out of the window, walking slowly across the grass that was marked ‘Keep Off’. He waved, but she didn’t see him.
His hand dropped slowly to his side.
Something was wrong: her head was bowed, the hat balanced precariously on her auburn curls was at an odd angle, as though she hadn’t been paying a great deal of attention when she’d put it back on.
She was walking very slowly, now he came to think of it.
He knew the signs, as well as anyone else who had lived through the highly-charged reality that had been the war: bad news.
He watched her until she vanished into the front doors of the building, wondering what had happened. She was meeting old friends, she had said…
He was still looking out of the window when he heard the knock at his office door. It was a soft sound, almost apologetic – not a sound he had hitherto associated with his bright young friend.
He was astonished to see, when he opened the door, that she had been crying. Her bright, hazel eyes were red-rimmed and her make up had smudged.
She offered him a brittle smile as he moved aside to let her in.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she said, quietly.
He assured her that she wasn’t – at least, he thought, in the way that she imagined.
“Ruby, what’s wrong?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, wringing her gloves between her fingers distractedly. “Everything’s tickety-boo…”
He felt dizzy, like he was losing her before they had even begun.
She straightened her hat and tapped her foot once on the floor, the way she did when she made up her mind.
“You really are a peach, Frank,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
He barely had time to register her going – he barely had time to breathe – before the door clicked shut behind her.
He smiled slightly as the ancient, square tower of the Norman church emerged above the trees, satisfied by the timing of the rumbles in his stomach; it signified the halfway point in the journey, and, therefore, lunch. He resolved – as he always did – to visit it one day, though he suspected that he never would, and pulled out his sandwiches.
He turned his satchel over to use as a table, enjoying the crackle of the brown paper he had neatly wrapped around his lunch.
There was just something about brown paper, he reflected, as he unwrapped the sandwiches. Perhaps it was because it reminded him of his youth, but he was sure that food emerging from brown paper tasted much better than any modern analogue. It even had a particular smell.
Out of habit, he deconstructed the sandwich, mostly to move the mustard back to its proper place, but partly to check for weevils. It was a habit he had picked up on the troop ship that had transported his regiment to Egypt. Overall, he had fond memories of the other members of his regiment, and any time that they weren't being shot at was 'good' time, but the passage on the Rangitata was an experience he would rather forget.
The higher ranks had had daily banquets of several courses while he and the rest of the troops made do with mouldy biscuits and bully beef that they had suspected had never seen a cow.
This sandwich, however, was mercifully maggot-free, and he savoured the taste of the ham, reflecting on the life of the pig and the many steps the meat must have taken before reaching his kitchen.
He picked the last few crumbs out of the greased paper. That was another thing he'd picked up during the war: every morsel must be accounted for and saved, if not used.
Carefully, he folded the grease-proof paper up and slipped it back into the pocket of his satchel. Though he drew the line at re-using his sandwich wrappings, the war had taught him the value of everything, and most things could be recycled these days.
He settled back in his seat, sleepy in the April heat, content to nap for the rest of his journey.
He had done it so many times now that he would wake up, without fail, five minutes before they reached the city.
He had been unable to settle all day.
Every three minutes, or so it seemed to him, he had sprung to his feet and wrenched open the door to his office, staring out into the corridor.
He jumped at every small noise.
Once or twice he had gone and stood beside her desk, barely resisting the urge to turn out all the drawers in her desk. He'd abandoned the idea, partly because it felt like a huge intrusion. He'd returned to his office with the suspicion that if Ruby really was gone, she wouldn't have left anything behind.
Lunchtime had been particularly trying. He hadn’t told Monty and Alf about her unusual behaviour, but somehow they seemed to know. Perhaps there had been a rumour about her missing work; Frank hadn’t been paying much attention to conversation that morning.
They ate their sandwiches in silence, each man glancing at the chair Ruby usually occupied, horribly conscious of her absence.
The afternoon went by in a blur of inactivity.
Time appeared to behaving oddly on that day – large chunks of it seemed to be moving at the speed of a glacier, while other parts of it appeared to vanish without his noticing it. He stared at the clock, willing it to be the end of the day.
She’d be fine, he told himself. She was just sick, that was all.
He and Monty would go over to her rooms after work and there she’d be, wrapped up in a blanket, annoyed at them for disturbing her…
He glanced at the clock again, unable to shake the awful feeling that they wouldn’t find Ruby at home at all.
Surely the Director wouldn’t mind if he bunked off early – it was urgent, after all.
He dozed, only half aware of the rain pounding against the windows of the train, his satchel clutched on his lap. It was curious how well one could sleep when everything that could go wrong was beyond one’s control.
Frank slept, and dreamt of rubies.
He and Alf were out of Monty’s car before it even stopped moving, all of them caught up in that same unspoken fear. Ruby had never missed a day of work before.
She had never even been late.
They ran into the grocery shop that she roomed above and rather breathlessly explained what they were about, painfully aware of the state they must look. The grocer gave them a long, hard look, before saying that he hadn’t seen Ruby since the previous evening. He took them up the narrow staircase to her door, explaining that Ruby had the only key.
They waited on the stairs while he knocked at her door. Frank held himself steady against the wall as they waited, and waited.
The grocer scratched his head when the third attempt got no response.
“She’s usually pretty prompt,” he said, and Frank could hear the tremor of worry in the older man’s voice now. “And you lads said she wasn’t at work?”
“It’s not like her, Mr Brown,” said Monty. “My wife and I have known her for years – she’s always where she’s supposed to be.”
Frank went back a step as the men at the top of the stairs shared a silent conversation.
She’s always where she’s supposed to be…
He frowned, sadly. Monty was right. That was Ruby all over.
So, if she wasn’t at work, and no one had heard a thing from her at home –
The sound of splintering wood interrupted his thoughts: he looked up to see Mr Brown break through the old attic door.
He followed his friends through it as the four of them spilled into Ruby’s rooms.
He looked around him, his heart sinking.
The bright airy room was clean and neat, and utterly empty. The air smelled faintly of lemons, as though someone had taken the time to scrub the floor and tiny kitchen. The neat little bed had been stripped back, the mattress on one side to air it; the furniture that belonged to the grocer had been left neatly in place; every shelf and surface was empty.
There was an envelope on the kitchen table, along with an old, iron key. The envelope was addressed to Katherine.
Frank swallowed hard and went to the tiny window above the sink.
He could hear them talking behind him, but he wasn’t really listening.
The view from up here was amazing; he could see why Ruby had taken the flat. He could see across the whole town, past the Institute and into the fields beyond. The corn was yellow and ripe now; in the next few days people would be gathering to harvest it.
Frank stared out at the view his friend had left behind, hoping that wherever she was, she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
He ducked under an awning and paused to shake the rain out
of his hat. He glared out at the downpour, annoyed at himself for once again forgetting
He scowled at himself, pulled up his collar and rushed out into the deluge. He couldn’t spend too long dallying here, or in the bookshop, or he would be late.
Frank pushed open the door to the bookshop, dripping wet and quite out of breath. The bell jangled cheerily above him and the young assistant – the one with the hair that stuck up at improbable angles – stuck his head out of the back room.
“Good grief, you’re soaking!” he exclaimed, and emerged from behind one of the tottering piles of books he had balanced everywhere.
Frank stared at him for a moment and then remembered where he was. The man probably didn’t want him dripping all over the books, after all.
“Here,” he said, hurrying over. “Give me your jacket – and your hat, that’s it.”
He took them out of Frank’s uncomplaining grasp.
“I’ll see if I can’t get them dry for you – there’s a radiator on upstairs…”
“In this heat?” Frank asked, as he struggled out of his coat.
“It’s broken,” the assistant laughed. “Stuck on all year – might as well make the most of it.”
“Are you sure?” Frank asked; the assistant shrugged. “Well, thank you,” he said. “That’s really very kind of you.”
“Not at all,” said the young man, over his shoulder. “We’ve got to take care of our regulars!”
Frank chuckled to himself, watching the assistant navigate the physics-defying towers of second-hand books. ‘Looking after the regulars’ was an art that had fallen out of fashion of late, along with a great many things he had once taken for granted. It was good to see that it hadn’t been completely forgotten.
He picked up his satchel and took it to the desk, mostly to keep it from making anything else damp. He was pleased to find that his shirt and knitted tank were almost completely dry and he had been about to turn his attention to the books when the assistant came back and offered him a cup of tea.
“It’ll warm you up,” he suggested, pleasantly.
“Er – that’s very kind of you,” said Frank. “But I think I’ll leave it all the same.”
“Going out for lunch?”
“An afternoon snack,” Frank told him. “I always treat myself to one of those enormous hot chocolates when I’m in town – and a cake. I don’t bother the rest of the time.”
The assistant laughed.
“That’s a good idea,” he said. “Makes a trip to the city special, I suppose.”
“Once a fortnight, that’s enough for me,” he said and the assistant laughed again.
Two weeks was just enough time to forget the bustle of the city – and just enough time to miss it.
It had been a long time since he had last seen Monty, and today his old friend looked pale and drawn. He knew what was coming – they’d all known for a while.
“She wants to speak to you,” he said, his voice grey with age and unspoken sadness.
He ushered him into the room that had once been their parlour, but served now as their bedroom.
Katherine had been struggling to get up the stairs for the past few years, and eventually Monty had suggested that they move downstairs. Frank had helped him paint it.
He tried to keep his expression blank as he walked into the bright, sunlit room. Katherine looked so small in the bed the hospital had sent them, hooked up to the drip that her respite nurse was tending to. She was dozing now, and he looked at his old friend, saddened that the ravages of time and biology had forced her to retreat to her bed.
She wouldn’t be bed-ridden for much longer.
“Frank,” she said, warmly, as he came in. “Come, sit with me.”
Her voice – unlike her body – was just as strong as ever, and he was glad. She reached out a thin hand and he took it, feeling the papery skin of her fingers close around his.
“How are you?” she asked him, when he’d settled down.
He glanced at the nurse, who was unobtrusively getting on with her work. It seemed wrong to say that he was okay – to speak of health in a room where there didn’t seem to be much of it to spare.
“I’m alright,” he shrugged. “Can’t complain.”
Katherine smiled, and suddenly she was the woman he had always known.
“How’s your garden?”
“Blooming,” he said. “But it’s getting harder to manage, these days.”
“Most things do,” she agreed. “Tell me about your garden.”
So he did. He talked about his roses and his sweet peas, and the honeysuckle he’d trained up the kitchen wall; he told her about his vegetable patch, with the peas that didn’t seem to want to stop fruiting and finding the biggest carrot he’d ever seen; he told her about the herbs, the way the slightest disturbance made the scent of the thyme waft up and surround you like an old friend.
Katherine listened with her eyes half-closed and a smile on her face, as if she could somehow see it all in her mind.
She patted his hand when he had finished.
“Thank you, Frank, that’s done me the world of good,” she said, and he thought she really meant it.
The nurse, who had been counting out medicine on the top of the chest of drawers, gave him a warm smile.
“It sounds like a piece of heaven,” she said.
“It almost could be,” he admitted.
“Helen,” said Katherine, looking up at her nurse. “Could you give us a minute, please?”
“Of course,” the woman nodded, making her way to the door. “I’ll see if Mr Foster wants a cup of tea.”
“That would be lovely, thank you,” said Katherine. She waited until the door was closed and Helen’s footsteps had receded before telling Frank that she was a lovely woman. “I’d be lost without her,” she admitted. “I’m so glad Monty has someone around he can talk to, too. It’s not easy for him…”
Frank smiled at the unasked question.
“You know I’ll look in on him, Katherine.”
“Good,” she said, satisfied. “Someone needs to keep an eye on him, and I know Geoff wants him to move in with him, but –”
“I’m glad you came today, Frank, I have something for you.” She reached a thin, bony arm into the cabinet beside her bed and pulled out a faded envelope.
“I want you to have this,” she said, feeling the edges of the paper as if it gave her comfort. “Did Monty ever tell you what it said?”
Frank shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.
“Well, it’s about time you read it, I think.”
She pressed the envelope into his hands.
“Look after yourself, won’t you Frank?” she asked him, looking at him in such a piercing way that it took a moment for him to clear his throat enough to agree.
“Good,” she said, leaning back into her pillows. “Someone ought to be keeping an eye on you, too.”
“Monty can,” he said, and somehow they both managed to laugh.
It seemed an odd sound in the little front room.
Katherine squeezed his hand.
“It’ll be alright, Frank,” she said, gently. “I’ve had a pretty good innings.”
It was still raining when he left the bookshop, though it had eased off a little.
Frank stepped into an outdoor shop and bought a new umbrella. The one at home was getting a little elderly now anyway, like him.
He checked his watch, hurrying down the street. He didn’t want to be late, or he would have to wait another two weeks.
He crossed the road, buffeted by his fellow pedestrians, and turned into the little courtyard where the coffee shop was, tucked away from the high traffic of the street. He ordered his usual drink from the spotty, irreverent barista, choosing a large slice of lemon cake to go with it, and carried his tray to an empty seat.
He was by the clock today, right at the back of the room. The seat was a little awkward to get into, but he didn’t mind. It afforded him a good view of the room, and that was what he wanted.
He took out his book and picked one of the illogically large marshmallows off the top of his hot chocolate, settling back into his seat.
Frank dropped his keys onto his kitchen table and sank gratefully into the chair.
The afternoon had been sunny and cool, and Geoff had remarked, as he had delivered his mother’s eulogy, that it was probably her way of telling them all to ‘buck up’.
Frank hadn’t felt much like bucking anything when they’d lowered her coffin into the cold, damp earth.
He hadn’t stayed long at the wake, just long enough to let Monty know that he’d be around again in a few days, and to shake hands with Alfred’s daughter. He was surprised that she remembered him. It seemed like such a long time since he had left them, caught off guard by a drunk driver one cold, January evening.
It didn’t do to dwell on such things, he supposed.
He made himself a cup of tea and let himself into his sitting room. The last rays of autumn sunlight were filtering through the window, giving the room a golden glow. Another parting gift from Katherine, he supposed.
The letter was where he had left it: propped up beside the clock on the mantelpiece. He lit the fire, carefully building up the wood in the grate.
There would be a frost in the morning; he was glad he had had time to cover up the last of his summer crop before heading down to the church earlier in the day. He paused, meeting his own eyes in the mirror above the mantelpiece, and took down the letter. The paper of the envelope was softened with age, as though Katherine and Monty had pored over its contents a hundred times.
It surprised him how light it was, given that its contents were so weighty.
He was glad that Katherine had kept it.
He put it down on the little table beside his chair and sat down, regarding it.
It had felt wrong to read it before Katherine had passed. An imposition; an intrusion into the secrets kept between friends. He gazed at the paper now, knowing that once he read it, there would be no going back. There was something in those pages that had given Katherine hope, all those years ago. Something that Katherine had wanted him to know.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“No regrets,” he muttered to himself. “Isn’t that what she said?”
Thinking of scrumped apples on sunny afternoons, he reached for the envelope.
She was sitting at her usual table in the window.
She liked to sit there, he supposed, because she could see across the whole courtyard. She had always liked to be able to see where she was going.
Her hair had been loose about her shoulders when she’d walked in, sopping wet and plastered to her face. She had forgotten her umbrella, too. She’d tied it up as soon as she’d sat down, bundling it up on her head the way the young girls did today. It was escaping from captivity now, spiralling out in a haphazard sort of way, like wilful, chestnut coloured spaghetti. Unruly capelli d’angelo.
He could see her nails when she pushed a strand of it behind her ear. They were blood red today, like her blouse. She tapped them on the table-top as she worked, taking the occasional sip of coffee.
Sometimes she had earphones in, nodding her head in time to the music, other times she simply sat back and read a novel. She was here every other Saturday, like clockwork, between the hours of three and five.
It had taken him months to track down the coffee shop, and a painful few weeks before he had guessed her routine. Every other weekend since, he had treated himself to an afternoon snack, happy to be in her presence once more.
Today she was leaning on a stack of files, carefully annotating their contents. Occasionally she would sit back and gaze along the alley leading to the street. She was waiting for a friend today, or a colleague.
Frank sighed, wishing with all his heart that he could walk over and interrupt her, join her table and tease her about working on a Saturday afternoon. He often thought about it – thought about speaking to her, renewing their friendship after all this time, but something always stopped him.
How long had it been for her? A matter of weeks? Months?
Her hair was longer than he remembered, her smile no less impish.
Alf had been right: you only got one chance. One happily ever after. One true love. And there she was, across the café, impossibly young, as he was impossibly old, looking as if she had simply stepped out of a photograph from the past…
Frank sighed and put his new book back into his satchel.
He doubted whether she would recognise him now. Although he still had his health, the years had not been kind to his changing face.
“Age before beauty,” he would joke with Monty, when they fished on Wednesdays, and both of them would laugh and try to claim either title for themselves.
He chuckled at himself and stood, carefully navigating the maze of tables the coffee shop felt was necessary.
He passed by her table – closer than he usually dared – and deftly propped the umbrella against the back of her chair. He forced himself not to look back as he went out onto the street; he wasn’t sure he could bear it – looking into his past and her present.
It had stopped raining now, and he paused for a moment to savour the air. It would be a fine spring evening, and his walk to the station would be a pleasant one.
He straightened his hat, tapped his foot on the floor and set off, leaving an old man’s fantasy behind him.
I have tried to write this so many times, to somehow tell you what I had to do. It sounds so melodramatic – so fantastical. It is difficult to pour out your soul to a piece of paper – the words get mixed up and misbehave. This time, I shall try to set things out as simply as I can, and perhaps you will understand.
These past few years I have not just been an administrator – though I admit it may occasionally seem like a job I was born to do. I was never what I appeared to be. I changed. I had to – we all did.
I wanted to tell you so many times, but I couldn’t. I know you’ll understand that much, our time at Bletchley taught us all the importance of secrecy. You would never have believed me, anyway.
How can I put this? It all sounds so damned dramatic.
Right at this moment I am sitting in a café, watching the occupants of a small, inner-city courtyard going about their business. I am sitting in my usual spot, drinking coffee hot enough to burn my mouth. I have the notes of an active investigation open in front of me, but I can’t concentrate without saying goodbye. I am waiting for my friend to arrive.
We work together, and technically this is our day off, but this case is a tricky one and we wanted to work through some details before the briefing on Monday. You should see this time, Kate, you would love it – the things that women are allowed to do. No one even blinks to see a female police officer these days, let alone a Detective Inspector. There are so many opportunities.
My friend is late and the barista is flirting with me. He’s about seventeen, and I’m trying really hard not to laugh. My friend and I have worked together for years – he’s more like an older brother now. Sometimes, when he is away, I look after his daughter, Marie. She looks up to me – she’s part of the reason why. So is he…
Michael, another friend, unexpected, is staring at me from across the café. He came in with his parents a few minutes ago. They don’t me, so I only nod at him while their attention is elsewhere. He winks at me. Far from subtle that one, but he’ll learn.
Subtlety is something you come to value when you step in and out of time.
I am getting ahead of myself.
I was born in Shropshire in 1918, as I told you, but I didn’t stay there. I think I told you once that my relationship with my parents was a difficult one. They didn’t think much of me, I’m afraid, and I didn’t think much of them. I ran away from home when I was fifteen and got myself into a right pickle. Marie’s father rescued me. He called me a ‘waif’, gave me a cup of tea and took me home to meet his friends. ‘Home’ turned out to be 1999.
I won’t explain the mechanics – partly because I don’t understand them very well myself, and partly because I would have to write you a book – but suffice it to say that these friends taught me how to step in and out of time. It’s easier than falling asleep, but it doesn’t make life easier. We have often found ourselves up against it – that was one of the reasons I stayed put when the war started. You have to live when you are. I got posted to Bletchley, where I met you, and the rest you know.
I said we are often up against it… we have made some powerful enemies over the years, enemies that would prefer if we didn’t come back. There was a battle. We saw it coming – just long enough for me to make arrangements, but nowhere near enough time to say goodbye.
It came down to the choice between watching my family here die and staying with you, or fighting beside them and never going home.
I chose to stay in the future – and I would choose it again. I think it’s the choice you would make, if you had to, and Monty, or Alfred, or Frank.
It seems a long time since I was last in London, but in reality it’s only been a couple of weeks. Too many memories. The scenery has certainly changed. Everything moves so fast now! It’s hard to believe that we could live so near to this city and yet not know it at all.
Do you remember that shop, the one where you bought your wedding dress? I walked past it this morning. It’s still there, like a window into time… sixty years, Kate. My God.
Louisa is still in charge – she was occupying a large armchair in the corner of the shop and was merrily ordering her staff about when I looked in. She watched me through the window. I wonder if she recognised my face. She has changed: still beautiful, but a glassier beauty, as if she has crystallised. Her hair is silver now. Seeing her was such a shock.
I always look for you, when I’m here. I always wonder if you would know me, or if I would know you. I think I would. Your hair will be grey now. Mine is still auburn.
I haven’t looked to see what became of you – of any of you. I don’t think I could bear it. I worry.
I worry most about Frank.
I wouldn’t know what to do if he were to come up to me – me still young and spry, him having lived a full score of years. I don’t think it would be fair on him. I’d hate him to think I was gloating, somehow, that I had the secret of eternal youth and I wouldn’t share. It is an awful thing to stay the same and know that everyone you love is different.
I miss him, Kate. I miss his smile. I miss the way he could be quiet even in the loudest rooms. I miss the way he looked at the world. He had a way of making the people around him peaceful. Happy. Take care of him for me, would you? I’d hate to think of him being alone.
I do love you all, dearly – still and always. My choice came not out of freedom, but necessity. If I could have stayed with you and fought beside them at the same time I would have. I would have come to Geoff’s birthday party; I would have gone for that picnic. You must believe me, I had to leave. I had to make sure that Marie still had a father in the morning. I had to teach Wesley to smile again.
Please forgive a poor old sinner, my dearest Kate.
All my love,
Ruby looked up from her letter as the old man passed her table, and watched him step out into the street – bright and sunny again, now the rain had stopped. He had leaned something against the back of her chair as he went. She reached behind it and pulled out a damp umbrella. It still had the tag on.
She put her hand to her mouth involuntarily.
That was just like Frank, noticing that she’d forgotten her umbrella… she glanced at the tag and wondered whether he had forgotten his, too.
He’d been watching her for a while, she knew, sitting at the back of the coffee shop every other Saturday. It helped, somehow, to know that he was still alright, still in the world somewhere. She didn’t know when their Saturday afternoon vigil had become routine, but she wouldn’t give it up now for anything in the world. It wasn’t quite the picnic they’d had planned, but she’d take what she could get.
It had taken some persuading, but Wesley had eventually worked out how to send something back. Something small and inanimate. She was grateful. God only knew how hard it was for him to get out of bed these days.
She hoped the work might help him, a little.
She watched Frank breathing in the fresh spring air and wondered whether she would ever work up the courage to speak to him.
She had nothing but regrets, these days.
He straightened his hat, tapped his foot once on the pavement and set off, limping slightly, as he always had.
Her eyes followed him as he walked away along the edge of the quiet courtyard, until he turned the corner, out of sight.
She closed her eyes, wishing that she could go back – even just for a moment.
The door opened again, and she heard the sound of the chair opposite her scraping back. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Are you alright?” a voice asked – young, female: Marie. She opened her eyes. The girl was giving her a curious look. “The car broke down,” she said, when she was sure that Ruby wasn’t going mad. “I left Dad at the garage – he said he wouldn’t be long.”
“Then we’ll be waiting a while,” she said, and felt in her pocket for a tenner. “Better get us a couple of drinks.”
“And a cake?” Marie asked, hopefully.
“And a cake,” Ruby agreed. She glanced at the umbrella. “Lemon cake.”
Marie nodded and extricated herself from her coat. Throwing it over the back of the chair she went to peer at the contents of the cake stand, all worries forgotten.
Ruby leaned the umbrella carefully against the underside of the table, fighting the lump in her throat.
She would take what she could get.