Linda says ‘I thought you’d like to see the Book.’
‘The Book of Condolences. From Irene’s funeral’
Jenny looks at her suspiciously. Linda is painfully aware that she hasn’t been round in years. Hasn’t said Hello when they’ve crossed paths in the hallway.
She’d like to say ‘Forget it.’ But she can’t. She needs the key. The key to Irene’s flat. It’s embarrassing not having one. Now that she’s decided that the flat is hers to keep.
Jenny says ‘I’ll have a look when the shop’s closed. Just leave it on the side.’
Linda hasn’t thought this through. She’s planned the culmination of this conversation. The point where she says ‘While I’m here, I may as well check up on Irene’s flat.’ But it seems a bit too soon to drop it into casual conversation.
She says ‘I thought maybe we could look at it together. Just to see who came.’
Jenny looks uneasy.
Linda says ‘It’s just that Irene talked so much about you.’
Jenny says ‘Irene?’ As though she’s trying to place her.
‘What did she say?’ She says more sharply. ‘That we’ll never make any money out of ribbons and buttons and thread? That I should have married a man with money if I wanted lots of kids?’
‘Irene adored your children. We were so touched to see them at the funeral.’
‘Lena couldn’t make it. She’s in Australia on a Gap Year. The fares are so expensive. You can get a good deal if you’re flexible. But it was all so last minute.’
Linda is bored. A bit bemused. Why does Jenny think she needs to make excuses? Why would anybody cross the world to pay respects to an acquaintance? To the woman from the flat above her mother’s sewing shop? It occurs to her that Jenny is defensive, maybe nervous. Talking for the sake of it.
Linda’s had enough.
‘While I’m here,’ she says, ‘I may as well check up on Irene’s flat.’
She makes a show of searching through her pockets, rummaging through her bag.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve got a key?’
Jenny says ‘We haven’t looked at the Book.’
Linda looks at the Book as though it’s the first time she’s seen it. As though it’s materialised from thin air.
Jenny runs her finger down the list of names.
‘This is my lot. Broadly speaking. I’m not sure John exactly counts as family. She’s only been with him a year. She calls her his fiancé but they’ve never mentioned marriage. This one’s her ex-husband. Well, that’s how she refers to him. I’m not sure that they’re actually divorced. She’s never been one for tying up loose ends.’
Jesus, will she ever stop talking.
‘This one, Sean, he’s my oldest daughter’s boyfriend. I don’t know why she bothered bringing him. This time next year she’ll have forgotten all about him. You know what they’re like at this age. She’s convinced that he’s The One.’
Linda laughs conspiratorially. The folly of young love.
‘Arthur and Barbara from the St Anselm’s Players. They took Irene to the Carvers’ Arms on Sundays. For the Meal Deal. There’s Lauren, who’s Lena’s friend from way back. They took Jammy Dodgers up to Irene every Thursday after school.’
‘Why?’ says Linda suddenly. ‘Why were you all so nice to her?’
Jenny is caught off guard.
‘We didn’t have any choice. We were afraid she’d kick us out.’
Linda takes this in.
‘Did Irene own this building?’
Jenny looks surprised.
She says ‘Irene owned half the street.’
Back in Irene’s boudoir. Linda sits on Irene’s chair. The walnut frame. The velvet seat. Uncomfortable but gracious. Small-boned, like Irene. Irene Violet Grover. Landlady and Queen.
She inhales Irene’s air. Lavender and mothballs; mahogany and musk. Surveys the make-up laid out lovingly in front of her. Potions, lotions, pots and tubs. She rifles through the lipstick. Tries out the Nantern Red. Peers at her reflection. She can’t see. Not properly. The lights are far too dim. Starlet lighting. Bulbs around the mirror. Designed for flattery and glamour more than practical effect.
She tries the light switch by the door. She’s surprised to find it works. Overhead lighting is one of Irene’s many bugbears. So prosaic. So unflattering. She’s never seen the room like this. In all its ordinariness. Without the smoke and mirrors. She’s used to snatched impressions, hurried glimpses. A hazy shroud of atmospheric lighting; clouds of powder; wafts of perfume. Irene in soft focus, reflected in the mirror. The embodiment of feminine mystique.
Linda remembers Irene’s boudoir as unknowable, amorphous. A pool of light around the mirror and an endless sea of darkness. Yet here it is. A box room. A modest one at that. A couple of rails of clothes. Some open shelves. Framed posters on the wall. Wrens and Land Girls. Lipstick adverts. Big hair, big lips, big statements. She laughs at the audacity of Tangee’s slogan.
‘No lipstick – ours or anyone else’s – will win the war.
But it symbolises one of the reasons we are fighting’
Really? Thinks Linda. Really? Fighting for the right to paint our faces. Not for territory or democracy. Not to quash the Nazi menace. Not elementary self-defence. Linda scoffs. The whole room is a shrine to vanity and self-improvement. A narcissistic Neverland. A playground for a girl who treated wartime as a fashion show and never quite grew up.
She laughs. And then she pauses. And then she looks again. At the ordinary room. With its clothes rails and its posters and its unflattering white light. There’s something nagging at her consciousness. Something out of kilter. Something’s not quite right. She tries to listen to her subconscious, but she doesn’t quite know how. She shakes her head impatiently. Shakes off any thoughts of superstition, intuition. It’s really not her style.
She tries to focus. She must be rational. She carries out a silent audit of Irene’s prize possessions. The case, the mirror, the powder puff. Powders, potions, pots and tubs. A metal tube shaped like a bullet. Tangee’s Lips in Uniform. The lipstick has long since congealed. Irene must have kept it as a lucky charm, a keepsake, a memento of the war.
It said so in the advert. Just a symbol, not the reason. The symbol of the reason. You shouldn’t take it at face value. You need to look behind it. You need to look at what it hides. Linda walks across the room as though she’s in a trance. Takes the framed poster from its hook and turns it over. Just a simple clip frame. Four satisfying clicks as she disconnects the hardboard from the frame.
There it is. The Last Will and Testament of Irene Violet Grover. In scratchy purple hand-writing with vivid purple ink. Please God don’t let it be a riddle or a ditty or another sodding clue.
It takes a couple of minutes to register the contents. She needs to think through the implications. She needs a good stiff drink. Linda heads towards the cabinet in the corner. Between the salon and the kitchenette. A Special Occasion cabinet. With Special Occasion drinks. She’s never opened it before. She wouldn’t dare. Odd how such a tiny flat can have forbidden corners. She pours herself some brandy. She lets the words sink in.
‘I, Irene Violet Grover, leave my estate in its entirety to my great-grandson Billy in the hope that it will free him from the undignified pursuit of elementary comforts and afford him sufficient security to do something heroic with his life.’
‘To my granddaughter Linda Kirkby, I leave the contents of my boudoir – make-up, clothes and perfume – in the hope that it will give her the confidence and encouragement to ready herself for the next phase of her life with the panache and determination it deserves.’
‘Jesus Christ.’ Thinks Linda. ‘Patronising Cow.’
Jenny is waiting for Linda as she tries to tiptoe past the door. To make a break for it. To get a copy of the key before she brings it back.
She gets straight to the point.
‘We’re all wondering what will happen? Who’s going to own the shop?’
Linda doesn’t miss a beat.
She says ‘It all belongs to me.’
Jenny looks at Linda nervously.
‘We won’t be able to survive if we have to pay more rent.’
Linda doesn’t answer for a moment. She is lost in her own thoughts. Contemplating her position; her unexpected power.
She’s not sure how to play it. Philanthropic landlady. Benign dictator. Ruthless property tycoon.
She says ‘I’m not going to rush in to any rash decisions.’
She likes the way it sounds.
Enigmatic. Non-committal. Mildly menacing. Cool.