Posted on 2012-10-31
Picture a city street at night. Picture fire, all over the place. Picture me, in the middle of mayhem, trying to organise a bucket chain because, guess what, the main water conduit got a direct hit and if we want to put the fire out - we do want to put the fire out - we need to get our water from three blocks away. And then there's someone shouting.
"Somebody still in there!" And no one has the guts to go into the burning building and find out who it is and what can be done for them, if anything can be done for them, and fool that I am, I do go in because - just because. I guess I'm an idiot. And then, imagine a deafening crash, and picture everything going black.
"No longer a colonel," I murmured. "Mister Brandon will do. What do you want?" Money, probably, was my guess. Everyone seemed to want money from me these days.
"But you used to be a colonel in the army. My friend Thompson says he knew you." Whoever this bloke was, he didn't know when to leave things well enough alone.
"Lucky me," I said. "Who's Thompson when he's at home?"
"Major Thompson. He served in the same regiment as you did. El Alamein?"
"That was ages ago. So what?"
"He thought you might be just the man I need for a job."
"Kind of him, isn't it? So the two of you can gloat over my sorry existence later on while drinking a glass of whisky by the fireside?"
"Do you want the job or shall I go elsewhere?" the bloke said, rather sharply this time. That gave me pause. I did need a job, desperately, and the bloke looked like someone who was willing to pay through his nose for whatever it was that he wanted me to do. I was not in the position to let an opportunity slip. I hadn't paid any rent for the past two months; there were grocer's bills to think of and, worst of all, there was Eliza. Poor, foolish Eliza.
"Let's have it then," I said, leaning back in my chair and looking him in the face for the first time. Quite a good-looking fellow, I thought.
"My name's John Willoughby," he said, and gave me his address. Mayfair, I noted - so there was plenty of money. All the better for me, I thought. "This is about my wife, Jane."
"Cheating on you, is she?" I asked. I hoped that was it - if there was any justice in the world, Cary-Grant-lookalikes ought to be cheated on just like the rest of us.
He laughed. "If only that was it; I'd kick her out and get over it. No," he became serious again, "it's much worse than that. She's a bit...." He paused, obviously making an effort to find the right word. "Round the bend."
"You mean she's insane? You've got the wrong man here I'm afraid. I'm not a doctor."
"She's perfectly sane most of the time," Willoughby said. "There's just one thing - she thinks she's being haunted by her great-grandmother's ghost."
"Oh?" That was round the bend alright.
"Her great-grandmother- " here he gave the name of a famous Victorian society belle " - died at the age of twenty-nine. She committed suicide, in fact. Threw herself in front of a train and BANG! My wife is twenty-nine, now, too."
"That's all quite interesting, I suppose, but what has it to do with me? Your wife needs a shrink, not a private eye."
"She is getting treatment, but I don't want her confined," Willoughby said. "She's no danger to anyone but herself. And that's where you come in. I want you to follow her around and make sure she doesn't do anything foolish."
"Like throwing herself in front of a train?"
"Exactly. She has this urge to do away with herself, she says. She believes it's her great-grandmother egging her on. Now the doctors say there is nothing that can be done to stop her short of locking her up but as I said I don't want to do that. Can you imagine what she'd suffer in a lunatic asylum? A fragile, intelligent woman like her? I can't do that to her, I just can't." He sighed. "And I don't want to lose her either. So I need someone to be there and keep her safe until the doctors have done their job and she's better. I wish I could be there for her but you know how it is. I've got a job to do, I can't be around all the time."
"The doctors got that one right," I pointed out. "If someone really, really wants to do away with themselves there's nothing you can do to stop them. At one point or another they will succeed. A brilliant woman like your wife will always be able to come up with a way."
"So you don't want to tackle that job?"
"It's not that I don't want to, it's simply that I'm afraid it can't be done. There are some places where I can't follow your wife - what if she goes into the ladies' room to powder her nose and quickly swallow two bottles of sleeping pills? And then there's this … little problem of mine. Did your friend Thompson tell you about that?"
"It's not so much claustrophobia really," I said. "Not any more. Still, having been buried alive does have its … its repercussions. I can manage up to a certain point. But I draw the line at dark tunnels. Large, well-lit ones - I am fine with those, sort of, which means I can go there without panicking these days."
"I'm sure you'll do a good job," Willoughby said. "My wife's not likely to disappear in a dark tunnel."
"She doesn't use the Tube?"
"We've got a chauffeur, and anyway those Tube stations are well-lit. So are the trains."
"Why can't your chauffeur follow her around?"
"Because he, like everyone else, needs a day off occasionally. Besides I don't think Jane would want him to follow her around. Too obvious. Whereas you can mingle and disappear in the crowd. I take it you're willing to take on the job?"
I nodded. As I've said before, I desperately needed cash.
"Fine, that only leaves us with the question of payment then."
A thousand quid plus expenses and no questions asked. You didn't argue with that kind of money. For that sum, I'd hold Mrs Willoughby's hand and sing her to sleep at night if her husband wanted me to. I decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery, where according to Willoughby I would find his wife most of the time these days.
"They have a portrait of her great-grandmother on display," he explained. "She spends hours sitting there quietly and staring at it. Uncanny, I call it. One might almost think there's something to that story she keeps telling me."
She was there. Willoughby had given me a photograph and I recognised her at once - a stunning blonde in her twenties, well-dressed and immaculately made-up. Sitting quietly on a bench and ignoring everything around her, she was staring at a painting; the painting of another stunning blonde dressed in the style of a much earlier age. The likeness was striking - although that may have been because Mrs Willoughby was wearing clothes in the same colour as the lady in the picture, and seemed to have made an effort to achieve a similar effect with her hair. There was even an exact copy of the bouquet in the picture lying next to Mrs Willoughby on the bench.
She didn't notice me, even though I walked into the room and had a look round to discover where the exits were and where I could stay for a while without drawing her attention to my presence. There was one more room, but she would have to leave the gallery by going back. This made my job easier, for she wouldn't be able to slip away unnoticed. So after giving the other paintings in the room a quick look-over, I went back to the previous room, always keeping an eye on Mrs Willoughby to make sure she didn't try to throw herself out of a window or something of the kind. I wanted my thousand pounds. Needed them, actually.
A museum attendant came up to me and I asked him who was in the portrait "that lady" was looking at. It was the same name Willoughby had given me - Charlotte Grey, Mrs Willoughby's great-grandmother. I nodded, accepted a catalogue dealing with everything there was to know about the paintings in this exhibition and settled down to read it, which was as good an excuse as any to hang around. Finally, about half an hour later, Mrs Willoughby walked past me and left the gallery. I gave her about fifteen seconds and then followed her.
Her chauffeur was not on duty that day, or maybe she'd got rid of him using some pretext or other. After stepping into the church of St Martin in the Fields - to say a prayer, I guessed - she was walking down the Strand and for a moment I was afraid I might lose her in the crowd. But I was lucky. There weren't that many people about, it being a cold and rainy afternoon. She never looked behind her, and even if she had she wouldn't have noticed me. The fog was getting worse by the minute. It enabled me to stay close behind her without her becoming aware of being followed. She turned the corner and headed for Waterloo Bridge, where she stopped, leant against the railing and stared down at the water. Then she began to pull the flowers out of her bouquet, one by one, and threw them into the river. It wasn't until she started to climb the railing that I realised what she was up to, and by the time I reached her it was too late - she'd already jumped. I leapt over the railing - my military training had been to some purpose after all, I thought - and dived in after her.
Somehow I got hold of her, and managed to pull her to the surface. She was unconscious, and did not put up any resistance as I dragged her towards the Embankment, where a bargeman who'd witnessed the scene was getting ready to assist me.
"Good job, guv," he said as he pulled me out. "Who'd have thought it, eh? Could have knocked me down with a feather you could. Lovely lady like that! Makes one wonder why she did it."
I thanked him even as I checked her pulse, handed him a fiver and asked him to go and get a taxi for us. She was still breathing, thank God or whoever was in charge these days.
"Shouldn't I better get the police and an ambulance?" the bargeman asked. Damn those model citizens, I thought. They always complicate things.
"Not necessary - she isn't hurt and she'll be taken good care of at home."
"You know that there lady then?"
"I know her husband," I snapped. "And I know where she lives. I'll take her home. Go get a taxi for us, will you? I don't want to catch my death of cold here."
Grumbling, the man disappeared. "Jane?" I whispered, pulling her up into a sitting position and leaning her against my shoulder. "Jane, wake up! Don't do this to me - wake up!"
She opened her eyes and looked at me for a couple of seconds before she turned away from me and closed her eyes again.
"Who are you?" she asked. "How come you know my name?"
"Think of me as your guardian angel," I said wryly. "The name doesn't matter for the moment."
"Taxi's here!" The bargeman came back, handed us two blankets to wrap ourselves up, and helped Jane into the waiting car. I thanked him, and got into the taxi as well. Only when I gave the cabby Jane's address she seemed to revive.
"No, not home!" she cried. "I don't want to go home! Not like that! The servants will talk, and there'll be questions and … I just cannot face anyone at the moment!"
"We'll just say you fell into the fountain in Trafalgar Square then," I said lightly.
"I don't want to go home!" she said, stubbornly. "What does it matter to you where I go?"
I gave in. Give the customers what they want is my motto, and besides by that time I was already putty in her hands. I'd fallen hard for her, and I'd have done anything just to please her. Not a good thing, given the circumstances, but I couldn't help myself.
"Where do you want to go then?" I asked.
"I don't know." She sounded insecure, like a little girl. "A hotel, maybe."
"And your husband won't ask any awkward questions when he has to pay the hotel bill I guess."
"He needn't know; I have money - no, wait, I don't. My handbag's still on Waterloo Bridge," she said. "Can you lend me some? Since you seem to know me so well?"
That would go on my expenses bill, so I was fine with that - though to say the truth it didn't matter at that moment. I just hoped Willoughby had been serious with his no questions asked policy.
"It won't run to the kind of hotel you're used to," I warned her, and gave the cabby the address of a place I knew in Shoreditch. I'd been there once working on a divorce case but chances were they didn't remember me there, and it was more than unlikely that they knew Jane.
No one did remember me, and this was the kind of place where no one asked any questions as long as someone put enough cash on the table to make them keep their mouths shut. I did the old Mr and Mrs Smith routine, and the landlady showed us to a room on the second floor without batting an eyelid. Jane was wearing a wedding ring after all, which was all the landlady needed as proof of our being a married couple. She didn't even wonder how we'd got to be drenched through and through.
All she said was that she'd take care of our clothes, and showed me a clothes shop on the other side of the street where I could get some dry clothing for the two of us to wear until she'd finished the job. She showed Jane the bathroom and took her wet clothes with her, which made me suppose it was safe for me to leave the place for five minutes to get some new clothes. She wouldn't be able to leave while she had nothing to wear, and I'd checked the bathroom before she'd gone in - there was nothing there she could use to put an end to her existence. Except the bathtub, maybe, but one needs some strength of mind to drown oneself in a bathtub. It's not as easily accomplished as drowning oneself in the Thames.
I remembered the gas heating just as I paid for those new clothes of ours, and I got back to our room in record time. Luckily, she hadn't thought of that possibility - she came out of the bathroom in what I guessed was the landlady's dressing gown just as I was running up the stairs, taking three steps at a time. Unable to talk, I just handed her the parcel that contained her clothes, then made my way to the bathroom to dry myself off and put on some new clothes myself. I didn't take the time for a quick shower even - I was supposed to make sure she didn't come to any harm, and I was going to do my job no matter what.
When I got back to our room, she was dressed and sitting by the gas-fire warming her hands.
"Well, Guardian Angel," she said, giving me a brittle smile. "Have you got a name or shall I just call you Clarence?"
"It's Christopher. Christopher Brandon," I said.
"Christopher. Patron saint of travellers and protector against sudden death. How apt."
"Is that so? How do you know?"
"It's what I learned at university way back when," she said. "Art history, specialising in Greek and Russian icons. The name Christopher means bearer of Christ. According to legend, he carried Christ across a river. You pulled me out of one. As I said - the perfect name."
"Not just beautiful but bright too. I'm impressed. What makes a classy woman like yourself want to jump off Waterloo Bridge?"
The smile vanished. I thoroughly cursed myself for the unfeeling oaf that I was even while I waited for her reply.
"I get that fixed idea sometimes," she said quietly. "It's not that I want to die - God knows I don't! - and then I find myself doing stupid things like that. My great-grandmother killed herself. I guess it's running in the family."
"You think she had those ideas too?"
"I think she's causing them."
"How? She's dead and gone!"
"You think so? That people are gone when they die?"
"Obviously I don't. I dream of her every night, and I can hear her talk to me during the day. Come on, do it. Do it. No one will miss you. What's keeping you? Come and join me! You'll be happy here! That kind of thing. I hear her all the time. And I get so tired of it that I fear I'll do what she wants just so she'll leave me alone. I don't want to die, but I keep trying to kill myself. You can't say that's normal."
"What's normal these days? Look at me!"
"What's wrong with you then? You look perfectly normal to me."
"I'm alright most of the time. But get me into a dark, narrow space and watch what I do."
"What do you do?"
"I pass out from sheer terror, usually. You see, I was trapped under a collapsed building once - during the Blitz. Ever since then I can't even think of going into tunnels, or dark closets, or … anything of that kind. The thought alone makes me break out in cold sweat. So I'm probably not the kind of person to tell anyone what's normal and what isn't. - What does your husband think of all that?"
"He's worried, naturally. Doesn't want to leave me on my own but he has to, of course. Someone's got to earn a living." She paused, then looked directly at me. "You're in his pay, aren't you? That's how you know who I am and where I live. John has paid you to keep an eye on me when he can't."
In some cases, lies won't take you anywhere. She was bright, and would resent any attempt of mine to fool her, which wouldn't make my job any easier. So I told her the truth.
"He did. Do you mind?"
She shrugged. "Not really," she said. "It's better than being locked up in a psychiatric ward somewhere. I'm not mental."
"No one said you were."
"Not even John? You surprise me. I know he thinks I'm a lunatic."
"He didn't say so to me," I said. She laughed.
"Always speak well of the man who pays your bills, eh? - Anyway, he could have done worse. I don't mind your being around. You seem to be good at what you're doing - you've already saved my life once, and you're not trying to hit on me like some other man in your position might have done."
I laughed. "That gives me an odd opinion of the kind of men you usually meet." I might have tried my luck if I'd been less of a professional, but I kept that bit of information to myself.
"John should be at home by now," she said, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece. "Maybe you should take me home. I don't want him to get worried."
"Will you be alright?"
"With all those servants in the house, and John too, I'll be fine," she said. "But you may pick me up tomorrow and take me around town. No need for you to wait outside my house until I come out, or to follow me around on the sly. Let's go exploring together - it'll take my mind of things too."
Nothing could have pleased me more than the prospect of spending a day in her company, and so I agreed to taking her home and meeting up with her the next morning.
That was how the best four weeks in my life started - or, on hindsight, the worst. We behaved like a pair of tourists and went to see places I'd never even thought of going to on my own. There were quite a few art galleries on Jane's list, and we made the most of seeing those. I was happy to note that she didn't show any inclination to visit the National Portrait Gallery and her great-grandmother's portrait, though she told me that she still dreamt of the woman every night. At least she seemed to be quite happy during the days she spent with me.
We went to the British museum, where she showed me some Byzantine art and told me all about it. She wanted to see the Tower, but we had to give that a miss - there were too many narrow and gloomy passageways I didn't feel too comfortable about. That gave her the idea of helping me get rid of my problem.
"I've read a book about it," she announced one morning. "How to treat phobias. It sounds easy enough."
"Does it?" I asked. "How come no one has cured me then?"
"They probably didn't think of it. What we need to do is put you in the situation you fear - but only for a short time, and in a way you can handle. If you were suffering from vertigo, for example, I'd make you stand on a chair, and you'd discover there's no danger in that. Once you feel comfortable on a chair, I'd make you stand on a stepladder, then the balcony on the first floor, and so on, until you can look down from the top of the Empire State Building without having a problem."
"That makes sense," I had to admit. "But how would you go about it in my case? I'm fine with heights. It's depths I'm worried about."
"The same thing, basically," she said. "We'll start with a large underground station, I guess, and make our way to the cupboard under the stairs."
"I'm fine with underground stations, too," I pointed out. "As long as they're well lit."
"Not all of them are," she said. "But we'll start with Oxford Circus or King's Cross, to be on the safe side."
It happened at Queensway Tube Station. It's one of the smaller underground stations, and there are only two ways of getting to the platforms - there's a lift or you have to walk down a long set of stairs. Narrow, dark stairs. For someone like me, it's rather like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
We'd been walking in Kensington Gardens and were on our way home from there. Jane's feet were aching, she said, but she wouldn't hear of hailing a taxi.
"We can give Queensway station a try," she said. "You were fine yesterday."
"But not with Queensway," I protested. "Honestly, have you ever been in there? Do you know what it's like?"
"It's not that bad if there aren't too many people," she said. "And the lift is not dark."
I was so besotted with her that I let her talk me into taking the Tube from Queensway. It was only two stations to Bond Street after all. Surely I could manage two stations?
I had to close my eyes and nearly passed out in the lift down to the eastbound platform. Once we'd got there, I had to sit down while we were waiting for the next train to come in. My heart was racing, and I was feeling physically sick. Still, I had to go through with it. There was no question of me taking the lift back up - or the stairs, for that matter. Fighting another attack of nausea, I noticed that something was wrong with Jane as well. She was staring fixedly at the dark tunnel from which the train would shortly arrive.
"Jane?" I asked. "Are you alright?"
She didn't react. Instead, she suddenly started to run towards that tunnel, with me going after her but, due to my weakened state, too slowly to catch her in time. She jumped down onto the rails and disappeared in the tunnel, with me standing by helplessly, unable to stop her or get her out of there. The inevitable happened - I heard the shriek of the brakes as the engine driver tried to avoid the collision, and the sickening crash of the train hitting her. She'd done it. She must have planned it all along. That was my last coherent thought as I fainted on the spot.
"How are you today, Uncle?"
I didn't bother to answer. How was I? I hardly knew, and didn't care.
"Are you feeling better at all?"
Maybe if I said nothing, Eliza'd go away. It's not as if I wanted to see her. Or anyone else, for that matter.
"Dr Chilcott says you can leave the hospital next week, Uncle. Won't that be nice?"
Won't that be nice? Nice? Doing what? Sitting around in my flat like the great, useless lump of flesh I'd become, barely a human being at all? Maybe I should follow Jane's example. It had been a quick death, surely she couldn't have suffered long. Whereas I'd been suffering ever since. Why wasn't I man enough to do what she'd done?
"I've got a room ready for you," Eliza said. "You can stay with us for a while, it'll do you good to have people around. It'll keep your mind off things."
It was probably the last thing I wanted to do - move in with my adopted niece and her baby. Their flat was barely the size of a shoe box, and in the sorry state I was in I'd only be in their way.
"I won't," I said.
She smiled. "At least you're talking to me now," she said. "That's progress."
One had to be fair. She'd been the only visitor I'd had these past six months, and she'd come to see me every single day. In a way she must care for me, though I couldn't think of any reason why she should. No one else did. Not even I. And she'd tried to draw me out. She really had. So why wasn't I grateful? Why didn't I care? I would have been better off dead.
My memory of the days following Jane's suicide was somewhat hazy. Somehow I'd been able to give evidence at the inquest, me and one or two other people who'd seen her run into that tunnel. But I was the only one who'd known her name, and who could identify her. Me, and her husband who'd recognised the jewellery she'd worn - her engagement and wedding rings, and a locket. They hadn't let him see the body - it wouldn't have been much use anyway I guess.
Willoughby hadn't blamed me. He'd even paid my fee, saying that I'd told him about my problem beforehand and he'd hired me in spite of that, so if anybody was to blame for what had happened it was him. Quite decent of him, really, I thought at the time. He then packed up his stuff, sold his house and moved to Paris, stating that after his wife's untimely death he couldn't bear to remain in London. So the only one that was left here was me. And Jane, somewhere in Highgate Cemetery. Maybe I should move in with Eliza for a while, I thought. Her home was closer to Highgate than mine.
It turned out that I had to stay with Eliza if I wanted to get out of that hospital - the doctors would not let me go back to my place to live there all alone. Mr Brandon needed someone around at all times, they said, and would not accept the responsibility for letting me stay on my own. If I did not accept my niece in the role of wardress I'd stay where I was safe. So, since I was quite fed up with the hospital and the doctors, none of whom was really sympathetic, I agreed to moving to Eliza's flat for a month. I'd have an easy life there I knew - Eliza was not the type to order anyone around, least of all me. Strangely enough, the quiet life in Eliza's Finchley home suited me. While I wasn't able to get back to my work yet, I did make myself useful, looking after the baby when Eliza had to work, keeping the flat tidy and doing little jobs around the house. Gradually, I was beginning to feel better. Sometimes a whole day passed without an attack of acute guilt and self-loathing. As the weather became warmer, I sometimes ventured out and took walks. I'd invariably end up on Highgate Cemetery, putting flowers on Jane's grave, but at least I did get out into the open. As spring turned into summer, I went back to my own place and started work again, though I only took on easy, non-demanding jobs, such as finding out who was pinching the petty cash in an insurance office. All in all, everything was almost back to normal, until, one day, I saw her.
It was one evening as I was on my way home from work when I got caught in a thunderstorm. I'd forgotten my umbrella at the office - of course I would, idiot that I was - and since it didn't look as if it was going to rain long I just walked into a bookshop.
"Can I help you, sir?"
I turned to the shop assistant, meaning to tell her that I was just having a look round, but the words died on my lips. It was Jane. That was, not quite Jane, surely there was a striking resemblance but her hair was auburn, she was younger than Jane and she was wearing the kind of clothes one would expect a shop girl to wear. No jewellery, either. Still, seeing her had given me quite a turn.
"Are you alright, sir? You're looking quite pale! Would you like me to get you a glass of water?"
"I... I'm fine," I managed. "It's just … you … you've reminded me of a lady I used to know. You're the spitting image of her."
"Absolutely. I was a bit startled at first, that's all."
"You didn't expect to meet your lady friend here, I suppose."
"No. She died last year."
"Oh! I'm sorry to hear that!"
There was an uncomfortable pause. "Right, Miss … what's your name?"
"Marianne. Marianne Dashwood."
"Miss Dashwood, since I'm here I might as well look for a birthday present for my niece."
"Certainly, sir. What kind of books does she usually read?"
After my initial shock at having met a woman who looked almost exactly like Jane, I was intrigued. Who was Marianne Dashwood? Was she a relation of Jane's? If so, why was she working as an assistant in a small, stuffy bookshop? The Greys were well off - or maybe they weren't. For all I knew, Willoughby might have been the rich one in that marriage. Whatever the reason for that striking resemblance was, I wanted to find out all about it. And so I found myself in that bookshop again two days later. She remembered me. She greeted me with an engaging smile and asked me how my niece had liked her present.
"I haven't given it to her yet," I said. "Her birthday is next week."
"Oh! So you haven't come to change it, or buy something else for her?"
"Not at all. I've come with quite another purpose in mind. I wanted to ask you to have tea with me later."
She blushed, and stammered, "I'm sorry, sir, but Mrs Ferrars doesn't hold with that kind of thing. We're not supposed to have tea with the customers."
"I see. Well, in that case I'm sorry to have troubled you," I said, and turned to go. Marianne Dashwood interested me enough to make me actually feel disappointed.
"Wait, sir. We got a new consignment this morning - a very nice edition of Dickens' novels. Would you care to have a look at them?"
"Why not," I said and ended up buying A Tale of Two Cities. I'd never been overly fond of Dickens, but the money I'd paid for the book had been worth it nevertheless - Marianne had managed to write her telephone number on the receipt and had put it into the book while that dragon of a boss of hers hadn't been looking.
We met for tea the next day. Marianne told me about her family background - there was no connection to Jane, unfortunately. She'd never heard of a Grey family, or of anyone named Willoughby. She'd come to town to find a job and shared a flat with a girl called Lucy Steele; her widowed mother and two sisters were still living in Devon. She also had a half-brother, who was pretty well off but, apparently, unwilling to contribute to his sisters' support.
"I thought I might get work as an actress, but that didn't work out," she said. "So that's why I took that job in Mrs Ferrars' bookshop. It pays the bills."
She was young and almost like a puppy, quite pathetic in her attempts to please me I thought. Someone else might have fallen for her on the spot; she was an engaging kid it was true, but she wasn't Jane. She looked like Jane, but she was nowhere as sophisticated or intelligent as her. I'd weighed her and found her lacking.
However … she was young. And as I was sitting in that tearoom with her, I thought of turning her into another version of Jane. A good hairdresser and some hair dye would make much of a difference, as would new clothes in the style that Jane had worn. Marianne hadn't had the same education, obviously, but surely there was something that could be done about it, provided she wanted to learn. But how was I to get her to do all that? For me?
This new project was what kept me alive, I guess. Here was a young woman who looked almost exactly like the love I'd lost, and whom I could model into anything I wanted her to be if I went about it in the right way. I started taking her out to dinner or to the movies regularly, and did what I could to make myself agreeable to her. That seemed to work well enough; she appeared to be quite happy in my company, and when I kissed her for the first time she didn't act as if I repulsed her. That was good.
After that kiss, I began to buy her stuff - clothes in the style that Jane had worn, a hat or gloves or, finally, a dress. She didn't want to take any expensive presents from me at first. She said she was not that kind of girl, whatever she meant by that. I told her I was happy to give her anything she wanted, and that she shouldn't worry about it, that I wasn't going to ask her to do anything that was wrong. Technically, that was the truth. It's not wrong to dye one's hair, or to learn everything there is to know about art. But naturally once I'd given her things I could remark on her not wearing them when we met, and so out of common courtesy she did put them on, even though she wasn't all that happy with the idea.
Marianne wasn't interested in art but went to art galleries with me because I wanted her to. I did notice that it wasn't her favourite way of spending her time, but she'd get over that sooner or later I thought. Naturally one didn't have fun with things one knew nothing about. I took her to concerts, which she seemed to like better though she didn't take all that much interest in them either. I even contemplated asking her to marry me, for that way I'd find it easier to influence her. But why saddle myself with a wife who wasn't quite right yet?
I broached the matter of her hair colour after dinner one evening, and as I'd foreseen she didn't want to change it. She liked her hair exactly as it was, she said. She didn't have the right complexion for blonde hair; it would look dreadful on her. I insisted, and she refused point-blank. I was not given to pleading; I'd never done that with any woman and I wasn't going to start with Marianne. I let the matter drop, took her home and then stopped seeing her for two weeks. Neither did I phone her, and whenever she rang me I was too busy to deal with her. After two weeks I had her where I wanted her. If it meant so much to me, she said, and if that would make me love her at last - really love her - she'd see her hairdresser and have her hair bleached. I'd won. Or so I thought.
I was in a fever of anticipation all day as I went about my business. I'd get my Jane back at last - not that she'd ever been mine, but that didn't matter. She'd be mine now. As I left my office, I walked past a jeweller's shop and decided that Marianne had deserved a reward for having gone along with my wishes. So I went in, and found a locket like the one Jane had always worn. Seeing it and buying it was the work of a moment.
I picked Ja... Marianne up in her flat after work. She was wearing a headscarf, and when I asked her why she told me that she was still feeling awkward with her new hair colour.
"It's as if everyone's staring at me," she said.
"If they do I'm sure it's because you're so pretty," I told her. She smiled, but she seemed nervous.
"Let me have a look," I said impatiently.
"Later. At the restaurant."
When she took off her headscarf at the restaurant I was disappointed. Her hair was blonde, but she was wearing it in the wrong way. She'd had it curled, not pinned up the way Jane had always worn it.
"So how do you like it?" she asked me.
"The colour is fine," I said. "But you've got it wrong. You should pin your hair up, not wear it all wavy like that."
"I just think it would suit you better that way, that's all."
"I'll try it out later, at home," she promised, and I could hardly wait until we were back in her flat. There, she went into the bathroom to do her hair while I waited in the small parlour for her to come out. Then Marianne came into the parlour, with her platinum-blonde hair pinned up, wearing the black dress I'd given her and looking almost exactly like Jane. The only thing that was still missing was the make-up, but if I played my cards right she might start painting her face soon.
"What do you think?" she asked, looking nervous. "Is this better?"
"Much better," I said and took her into my arms. And then, as I took the locket and put it round Marianne's neck, I realised that she didn't just look like Jane. She was Jane!
I didn't know how she'd done it or how she'd managed to fool me for so long, but that girl wasn't Marianne Dashwood. This was Jane Willoughby! Or she was Marianne Dashwood who had pretended to be Jane Willoughby.
For a moment, I saw red, but luckily that went past quickly. I wasn't going to confront her about it yet; I needed to prove it first. But if Jane was alive, who was the dead woman? What kind of plot had they hatched between them, Willoughby and Marianne - or Jane, or whatever her name was?
I spent the night thinking. Why would Marianne pose as someone's wife in order to fool a private eye? What could she gain by doing so? Had she done it for love or money or both? She'd mentioned once she was an out-of-work actress. Had Willoughby hired her, as he had hired me? For what purpose? How much had she known?
The next morning I went to the British Library. I wanted to know more about Jane Willoughby, and looking her up in the newspaper archives might give me some answers. I did find plenty of answers. Jane Willoughby hadn't looked in the least like Marianne - I'd never even met her.
So this was what must have happened: Willoughby had hired Marianne to impersonate his wife, and then he'd hired me to shadow her. He told me all that rot about his wife having lost her marbles and wanting to kill herself, and then he'd got Marianne to take me to some tube station where he'd throw Jane's body in front of the train while she got away. Even if anyone had wanted to identify the body, it wouldn't have been possible. Besides, her next-of-kin - the husband who'd murdered her - had identified Jane Willoughby. And I, idiot that I was, turned up at the inquest, a reliable witness swearing to having been hired to protect Mrs Willoughby and having been unable to stop her running into the tunnel and killing herself. How Willoughby and Marianne must have laughed!
As I picked her up at her flat that night she noticed at once that something was wrong, and asked me what it was.
"Later," I said, as she'd done the night before.
"Where are we going?" she wanted to know.
"Oh, you'll like it there," I said lightly. "Do you mind taking the tube? My car's broken down and I'm a little short of cash at the moment."
"I don't mind at all, but I thought..."
"I'll be fine," I said. "The stations are well lit."
"As you wish."
We got out of the train at Queensway Station, and I had the satisfaction of seeing her grow pale as we stepped onto the platform.
"I thought we'd drop in here," I said, turning to her. "For old times' sake - Jane."
She began to cry then. "I should have told you right away," she sobbed.
"It would have been better, of course," I agreed. "Did it feel good to drive me to the brink of insanity? Was the joke worth the price?"
"I didn't want to do it," she cried. "You must believe me, I loved you! Even then I loved you!"
"Come on now, you don't expect me to believe that, do you? If you'd loved me you wouldn't have gone along with that dirty little game the two of you were playing. What was in it for you? Money? Jewellery? Did he promise you marriage? Why did you do it? Why did you help that swine get rid of his wife?"
"I thought I loved him!"
"You do a lot of things for love, don't you?" I sneered.
"And then I was afraid of him," she added. "You don't know what he's like - you don't know what he can do!"
"I know he's perfectly capable of murdering his wife," I said. "And he needed us to get rid of the body, didn't he? How did you do it, the two of you?"
"The service tunnel," she said. "There's a service tunnel alongside the railway tunnel, and there's a door connecting the tunnels not far from here. All I had to do was run to that door, and he'd pull me into the service tunnel and then throw Jane onto the rails. The train did the rest."
"Show me," I said.
"But it's dangerous to go in there, and besides - the tunnel, I mean -"
"Never mind the tunnel," I said, and realised that it was so - I was no longer afraid of the tunnel. I looked at the timetable. "There won't be a train for the next five minutes; we'll be back on the platform by the time it arrives."
"Listen, if you want me to talk to the police I'll do it," she said, desperately. "But let's go and talk to them now; they can stop the trains and have a look at the service tunnel, can't they?"
"Why waste time?" I asked. "Let's go in while we're here. We can go and talk to the police later."
She realised that I wasn't going to back down, and so she headed towards the tunnel and showed me the entrance to the service tunnel some fifty yards from the station. There was a recess in one of the tunnel walls with a door in it - enough room for two people to stand while a train went past, I thought. Enough room to hide and then disappear through the door when no one was looking. It was perfect - the perfect crime. And I'd been a part of it. The feeling of guilt and self-loathing was back. I almost welcomed it.
"Can you forgive me?" Marianne asked. "Please, Christopher, I never meant to harm you!"
"I'm glad to hear it," I said. "Right now I can't even think straight. I think it will be better if you just go and leave me alone - I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive anyone, least of all myself."
"I said leave me alone."
I gave her a push, and she fell out of the recess - right in front of the incoming train. Who knows - one day I may meet her again, back in Hades.The End