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Authors: Barbara Erskine

The Darkest Hour (9 page)

BOOK: The Darkest Hour
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‘Christopher took them.’ Dolly grimaced.


‘Christopher Marston. Her other grandson. Mr Michael’s cousin.’

Lucy gave a secret smile. Christopher obviously did not merit that honorarium of Mr.

‘He took the paintings,’ Dolly went on. ‘Mr Michael got the cottage. That was the arrangement.’ She pursed her lips.

Lucy digested that piece of news with disappointment. So, that explained the lack of paintings and sketches in the house.

‘He took her diaries too. Everything he could lay his hands on that wasn’t screwed down,’ Dolly went on. ‘I told Mr Mike but he wasn’t interested. He said Christopher was welcome to them. He said it was what Evie wanted. He said it was the cottage itself that mattered to him because that was where she had been happy. Christopher would have sold it.’

Lucy was studying her face, noting the anger and frustration there.

‘Did Christopher sell the paintings, then?’ she asked quietly.

Dolly shook her head doubtfully. ‘I suppose so. I don’t know. They were never mentioned again. But I’ll bet madam there,’ she gestured over her shoulder towards the cottage, ‘will want to know where they are once she realises how valuable they were.’

By ‘madam’ Lucy assumed she meant Charlotte Thingy. She hid a smile.

When Dolly had removed the tray she worked on for several hours, sorting through the different boxes. The suitcases poignantly contained a selection of clothes, underwear, nightgowns. Lucy could understand Charlotte’s indignation if these were still in place in what must have been the main bedroom in the cottage. She hadn’t been upstairs but it looked as if there wouldn’t be more than two rooms up there. She pushed the cases against the wall. Somehow touching Evie’s clothes was unbearably sad, but it brought her closer. She reached for another box. This seemed to contain the contents of a desk, perhaps the desk she had seen in the sitting room of the cottage. Stationery: unused notepaper and envelopes, cards, ancient fountain pens, old keys, stamps, a clip containing bills and receipts, all dating – Lucy turned them over carefully – from the summer before Evie died. And there was a tin box. She opened it and found it full of black-and-white photos of a young man. The top two snaps were of him in RAF uniform. In one he was leaning against a small three-wheeler car, in the other standing beside a single-seater aircraft, painted in the familiar brown and green camouflage with the RAF roundel and a large number painted on the side. A Spitfire. She stared at him for a long time, gently running her finger over his face, then with shaking hands she turned the pictures over and looked at the back. Only one was labelled.
, it said and
Summer 1940

When she looked up her eyes were full of tears. She had recognised him at once. ‘Ralph?’ she whispered.

There was no reply.

She had been right in her guess. The shadowy figure she had seen in her bedroom was Evie’s brother.

She looked at the pictures again and picked up the others with unsteady fingers. There he was as a baby, a child, and as a boy in school uniform. Always the same wistful smile, the hair flopping in his eyes, the affectionate gaze directed at whoever was taking the picture.

She hadn’t realised that Dolly had come back in until the woman approached the table.

‘Sorry.’ Lucy brushed the tears away.

Dolly looked down at the photos. ‘Are those of Mr Ralph?’

Lucy nodded.

‘He was killed in the war,’ Dolly shook her head again. ‘Evie never talked about him, you know.’ She gave Lucy another curious glance.

Lucy gave an apologetic smile, aware suddenly of the tears on her cheeks and how odd they must look. ‘It seemed so sad. This picture must have been taken just before he died. He looks so happy.’ Or did he? Was that wistfulness there because he had a premonition of the future? She bit her lip.

‘Where did you find them?’ Dolly was frowning.

Lucy pointed at a cardboard box.

‘So, she’s been through the desk as well.’ Dolly glared at the box.

‘I’m sorry. Was it private?’

‘Not from you.’

They looked at each other in silence for a moment and Lucy realised that her tears had unlocked something in Dolly’s reserved manner. They were allies now, against Charlotte Thingy.

As though sensing she had unbent too far Dolly straightened her back. ‘I’m afraid you are going to have to leave,’ she said. ‘I’m going home now and I need to lock up.’

Lucy’s heart sank. ‘Of course.’ She glanced round the studio. ‘I haven’t really started,’ she said helplessly.

‘I usually come in on Tuesdays and Fridays,’ Dolly stated firmly. ‘You’re welcome while I’m here. I arrive at nine and leave at four thirty.’

Friday. The day of the auction.

With Robin’s co-operation, she had planned to set blocks of time aside, a week or two at a time, to go through the archive. If she could only come once or twice a week it would take forever.

‘I’ll do my best to be here,’ Lucy said. ‘If I can’t make Friday I’m afraid it will have to be next week.’

August 24th 1940

Eddie counted out four crisp white fivers and folded them into her hand. ‘More where that came from, Evie. Keep up the good work, sweetheart.’ He drew her into his arms again and pulled her against him. ‘They’ll take as many of those small paintings as you can produce.’

Evie pulled away. He smelled of cigarettes and there was a taint of stale alcohol on his breath even though it wasn’t yet five o’clock.

‘That’s great Eddie, thanks.’ She tucked the notes into the pocket of her dungarees. ‘Are you staying for supper?’ She had just finished milking when he had arrived.

He shook his head. ‘Best get home.’ He paused for a fraction of a second. ‘You haven’t been down to the airfield for a couple of days.’ He glanced down at her shrewdly. ‘Is there a problem?’

She shook her head. ‘There is so much to do here. There are only so many hours in the day, Eddie.’

‘Yes, well, there is a lot to do there as well. Don’t forget, I’m going to need a portfolio to put in front of Sir Kenneth Clark at the WAAC.’

‘Don’t worry. I’m working on it.’ She gave him a playful push. ‘Go on. Go home. I’ll do some more work once I’ve scrubbed the dairy.’

Did he not realise, she wondered as she waved him away just how hard she worked on this bloody farm, doing the work of at least two land girls, and how hard it was to build up a portfolio if he kept selling her paintings as fast as she produced them?

It was nearly dark when at last she wandered, exhausted, back towards the farmhouse and pushed open the door.

Tony Anderson was sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea with her mother. She stopped dead, staring at him. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I came to have my portrait painted.’

‘You can’t just turn up!’

He looked at Rachel. ‘Tell her. What else can I do? We’re on call nearly all the time. I’ve done five sorties today. We’ve only been stood down tonight because the battle was so fierce this afternoon the Hun have gone home to lick their wounds. But if you’re not willing –’ He stood up.

‘Evie,’ Rachel cried. ‘Tell him you’ll do it. The poor boy has been waiting hours. You can draw him down here in the kitchen while I heat up some soup for you both. I know you can sketch while you eat, I’ve seen you do it before.’

‘You haven’t been over to the airfield,’ Tony interrupted accusingly before Evie could reply. He held her gaze steadily. ‘I thought under the circumstances you might come to me.’

‘What circumstances?’ Rachel put in sharply. She had stepped into the larder and reappeared with a large earthenware pot of soup covered with a muslin cloth.

‘I promised him I would draw him,’ Evie snapped at her mother. She turned to Tony. ‘I couldn’t leave the farm. I’ve been so busy.’ She was feeling unaccountably under siege, embarrassed and angry at his attentions and feeling worse because of her mother’s amused gaze. She gave an exaggerated sigh. ‘All right, I’ll sketch you now, late as it is.’ She heaved another sigh, this one even louder.

‘Thanks.’ He was trying to look humble now, a smile trembling behind his eyes.

There was a sketchbook on the dresser. She grabbed it and opened it at a clean page. ‘Sit down. Here, under the lamp.’

He sat down obediently, an elbow on the table, chin on hand, profile raised to the lamplight. ‘Will I do?’

‘You’ll do.’ Now suddenly she was trying not to laugh, her irritation evaporating. She couldn’t work out how she felt about this man. She had never met anyone like him before. His merry blue eyes, his sense of fun, his soft Scots accent, his stunning good looks and his cheeriness in the face of threat all intrigued her. Was he so stupid that he didn’t understand the danger all round him? Wasn’t he afraid? She knew Ralph was afraid. That was why he was so brave.

Then she realised what it was that was different about Tony. Eddie and Ralph were men. Tony was still a boy.

‘Go to bed, Mummy!’ It was midnight. They had finished their soup ages ago and Rachel was still sitting over her book in the corner. For the hundredth time her eyes had closed and she was nodding closer and closer to the volume in her lap. She hadn’t turned a page in half an hour.

Tony glanced over his shoulder quickly then resumed his pose. ‘I don’t need a chaperone, Mrs Lucas, honestly. I’m sure I could fight her off.’

‘Tony!’ Evie was squinting down at the page. ‘Stop wriggling.’

He gave her a broad smile. ‘Can I look yet?’

‘Yes.’ She sighed and dropped the pencil. ‘Yes, you can look.’

He stood up and walked round the table as with a groan Rachel closed her book and levered herself out of her chair. They both stood staring down at the sketch.

‘That’s brilliant!’ Tony exclaimed. ‘Almost as handsome as the real me. Not quite, that’s not possible, but it will do. When will you paint it?’

Evie was staring up at him, blinking. ‘When will I paint it?’

‘Aye. Fill in the colours.’

Just in time she saw the twinkle, the twitch of his mouth. Reaching over she slapped his hand. ‘I’ll paint you when I think you deserve it. Until then you have a finished pencil sketch by the soon to be famous Evelyn Lucas, which will one day probably be worth hundreds of pounds. Here. Take it with you and get back to the base. I’m sure you should have been in hours ago.’

‘Just like in school. You’re right.’ He nodded vigorously. ‘But I’ll show matron the picture then she’ll promise not to beat me with her slipper.’ He took the sheet of paper from her. ‘I’m sorry to have kept you up so late, Mrs Lucas, I really am.’ He grinned mischievously. ‘But it was worth it. I’ll send this to my parents and they will treasure it.’ For a second he was serious. ‘If anything happens to me –’ He paused and left the rest of the sentence unfinished.

Evie walked with him to the door. The two dogs appeared from one of the sheds and she sent them back with a click of the fingers. By the light of the faint moonlight in the yard she could see a small open-topped car parked near the barn. He followed her gaze.

‘I borrowed it. Brilliant little runabout. 1927 Morris Cowley. Chap at the base wants six quid for her. If I buy her I’ll take you for a ride. If you’re good.’ He sighed. ‘So, I’d best be going. The last couple of mornings they’ve been calling us at four a.m. Thanks, Evie.’ He put his hands on her shoulders. Before she could turn away he had bent to kiss her lightly on the lips, then he was sprinting towards the car. She saw him pack the drawing away carefully then he made his way to the front and bent to the starting handle. The engine caught almost at once and he vaulted into the driving seat.

The blacked out headlights barely gave him any light to see by at all as he reversed and turned before heading down the lane.

She put her fingers to her mouth, staring after him. The touch of his lips had sent a shockwave through her system which had for a moment left her incapable of coherent thought.

Friday 12th July

‘I thought you weren’t coming down this weekend.’ Dolly had opened the door to Mike with a duster still in her hand. It was four o’clock on Friday afternoon.

‘Charlotte had to cancel our trip abroad. She was summoned to some sort of conference she couldn’t get out of. It’s a shame but we’re rescheduling our break.’ Mike dropped his briefcase and holdall and looked round. ‘Is Lucy Standish here? I didn’t see her car in the lane. I thought this would be a good chance to talk to her and see how she is getting on.’

Dolly frowned. ‘She couldn’t come today. There was some auction she had to go to, apparently.’

‘Ah.’ Mike couldn’t hide his disappointment. ‘So, what do you think of her so far?’

‘She seemed nice enough.’ Dolly was guarded. ‘All she did was rearrange the boxes and poke around in some of them.’

‘I don’t suppose she had time to do much.’

Dolly sucked her teeth. ‘Maybe she saw enough to realise there is not much of value here.’

Mike looked at her sharply. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Just that you mustn’t forget that she is a dealer.’

‘You don’t believe she is writing a book? You think she had an ulterior motive?’

‘I don’t know.’ Dolly gave an expressive sigh. ‘She didn’t bring anything to write on, as far as I could see.’

BOOK: The Darkest Hour
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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