মুখ্য Before I Met You: A Novel

Before I Met You: A Novel

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After her grandmother Arlette’s death, Betty is finally ready to begin
her life. She had forfeited university, parties, boyfriends, summer
jobs—all the usual preoccupations of a woman her age—in order to care
for Arlette in their dilapidated, albeit charming home on the English
island of Guernsey. Her will included a beneficiary unknown to Betty and
her family, a woman named Clara Pickle who presumably could be found at
a London address. Now, having landed on a rather shabby street corner
in ’90s Soho, Betty is determined to find the mysterious Clara. She’s
ready for whatever life has to throw her way. Or so she thinks . . .
Atria Books
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1 comment
I just completed "The Island of Worthy Boys"
excellent book and easy to read on my kindle from z-library
29 May 2020 (16:17) 

আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.

Before I Met You

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About the Book

About the Author

Title Page


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60


Notes on the Text


About the Book

Having grown up on the quiet island of Guernsey, Betty Dean can’t wait to start her new life in London. On a mission to find Clara Pickle – the mysterious beneficiary in her grandmother’s will – she arrives in grungy, 1990s Soho, ready for whatever life has to throw at her. Or so she thinks...

In 1920s bohemian London, Arlette – Betty’s grandmother – is starting her new life in a time of post-war change. Beautiful and charismatic, Arlette is soon drawn into the hedonistic world of the Bright Young People. But less than two years later, tragedy strikes and she flees back to Guernsey for the rest of her life.

As Betty searches for Clara, she is taken on a journey through Arlette’s extraordinary time in London, uncovering a tale of love, loss and heartbreak. Will the secrets of Arlette’s past help Betty on her path to happiness?

About the Author

Lisa Jewell was born and raised in north London, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She is the bestselling author of Ralph’s Party, Thirtynothing, One-Hit Wonder, Vince & Joy, A Friend of the Family, 31 Dream Street, The Truth About Melody Browne, After the Party and The Making of Us, all of which have been;  Sunday Times bestsellers. To find out more more about Lisa, please visit her website at www.lisa-jewell.co.uk or follow her on twitter @lisajewelluk.

This book is dedicated to Amelie, Evie, Mia and Joy, four of the prettiest girls I know.



THE DAY, AND, in fact the rest of Elizabeth Dean’s life, had started at Weymouth at an ungodly hour, continued on to a damp, windswept ferry across the Channel and culminated in a silent drive across Guernsey and a walk up a long gravelled hill to a large house with grey walls and black windows. The house stood tall and wide, atop a hill of dense woodland. In front of the house was the sea. Behind the house was nothing.

Elizabeth thought, but did not say, that the house was clearly haunted and that she would not countenance spending as long as one night in it.

‘Elizabeth, this is my mother, Arlette. And, Mummy, this is Elizabeth – or Lizzy, as we usually call her.’

‘When she’s being good!’ Alison, Elizabeth’s mother, interjected.

‘Yes,’ rejoined her mother’s boyfriend. ‘When she’s being good. When she’s not being good she’s plain old Elizabeth.’

Her mother’s boyfriend ruffled Elizabeth’s hair and squeezed her shoulder, and Elizabeth grimaced. She stared at the ground, at the brown and red tessellated tiles beneath her feet, cut and formed into the shapes of stars. She’d known this moment was coming for two weeks now, since Christmas Eve, when they’d got the call that had spoiled their Christmas Day. Two weeks ago Elizabeth’s mother and her boyfriend had sat her down and explained that his mother, a woman called Arlette Lafolley, a person of whose existence Elizabeth had been blissfully unaware before that moment, had fallen in her house on an island called Guernsey and broken something, and had been advised by her GP that she should have someone living with her.

And so it had been decided, somehow, somewhere, behind some closed door or other, that the solution to this problem was for Elizabeth and her mother to leave the only home that Elizabeth had ever known, a neat, red-brick bungalow on the outskirts of Farnham in Surrey, and go to this island to live with this woman, for at least, her mother had told her, three months, and to do so within two weeks.

‘Elizabeth,’ said her mother’s boyfriend, ‘are you going to say hello?’

Elizabeth tried not to squirm, but it was very hard not to squirm when you were in a haunted house with your mother’s boyfriend’s hand on your shoulder, being introduced to a terrible old woman whose frail bones had conspired to crumble and break and destroy your life. Elizabeth lifted her gaze to the woman in front of her, but not before noticing, with some surprise, that the woman was wearing red silk shoes adorned with matching rosettes. Elizabeth’s gaze also took in black lacy tights over shapely calves, and then a coat of full, luxuriant mink that hung from throat to mid-shin, and a face, round and elfin, like the face of a child, pink lips, pearly blue eyelids and a matching mink hat. On each earlobe a small chunk of diamond shone dully in the muted candlelight.

Elizabeth gulped. ‘Hello,’ she said.

The lady in the fur coat paused for a beat and then bowed down so that her head was level with hers and said, ‘Hello, Elizabeth. I’ve heard a lot about you.’

It was impossible from her expression to gauge whether these things she had heard had been bad or good, but then her face softened and she smiled, and Elizabeth smiled back and said, ‘I like your shoes.’

Arlette smiled too and said, ‘Then you have very good taste. Now come in and get warm, I’ve lit the fire.’

Elizabeth and her mother exchanged looks. Elizabeth’s mother had met this woman before, about two years ago when she and her boyfriend had only just started dating. She had described her then as ‘colourful’ but ‘mean’. And someone ‘not to be crossed’. She had probably not thought, as she’d passed these judgements upon her boyfriend’s mother to her daughter, that one day she and her daughter would have cause to come and live with her. And she’d probably forgotten ever saying them. But Elizabeth hadn’t forgotten. And she had come to this place with a full armoury of attitude and verve, ready to take whatever this lady had to dish up. And then been momentarily thrown by a pair of scarlet silk shoes.

But still, red silk shoes. Even on an old lady, that was rather spectacular. Elizabeth had had to endure all sorts of nonsensical after-school dance classes in order to get her mother to buy her interesting shoes. Slivers of flesh-coloured leather with silky ribbons for ballet, and chunky-heeled shoes with buttoning straps for flamenco and jazz. But never anything in red silk. Surely, she thought to herself, surely anyone capable of owning a pair of shoes that magnificent must be halfway decent.

She followed the old lady down the hall and into a room on the left. It was entered by a tall door with an ornately stained window in the fanlight.

‘You’ll have to excuse the damp,’ said Arlette. ‘I haven’t opened this room up for quite a while. And it’s too cold to have a window open.’

Elizabeth brought her arms around herself and shuddered. The room was tall and bare, with wood-panelled walls and pointy furniture, and everything was brown apart from a roaring fire in the hearth around which they all huddled on a tapestry-covered ottoman.

The adults were all having a conversation about the journey and about the delivery van and about the weather and about Arlette’s hip (she had walked with a stick and a fairly pronounced limp down the hallway). Elizabeth got to her feet and went to the window. It was leaded and a touch baggy, and framed by dismal grey nets. Through it Elizabeth could see, in all directions, a vast expanse of blankness. She sighed and returned to the fire, the cold of the room seeping into the very marrow of her, the smell of damp firewood and unloved furnishings and cold, cold coldness leaching into everything.

‘We’ve got blow heaters coming in the van,’ said Jolyon, rubbing his hands together briskly. ‘We’ll plug them in when they arrive.’ He said this to Elizabeth and to Elizabeth’s mother in a perky, reassuring manner, but it was clear to Elizabeth and to her mother that it would take more than two cheap blow heaters to take the chill off this sad old house. ‘And then,’ he continued, somewhat desperately, ‘I’ll take a look at the heating.’

His mother threw him a disparaging look. ‘Not necessary,’ she said. ‘The air will warm up pretty quickly over the next few weeks. Remember, we’ve the Gulf Stream here. By the time you’ve worked out how to fix the heating and found someone willing to come and sort it for a sum of money that will not make your eyeballs bleed, it will be summer again. Every room has a fireplace. And it’s all a matter of wearing the right clothes. And keeping to just a couple of rooms. And, of course, lots and lots of hot drinks. Warming ourselves up from the inside out.’

Elizabeth stared at Arlette’s furry coat and hat, and thought, well, yes, that is easy for you to say, you are practically wearing a bear.

Elizabeth was put in a room on the first floor that was papered with a green and blue vertical stripe that looked like old men’s pyjamas. There were three small leaded windows overlooking the sea. It was even colder up here, and when she breathed out hard, her breath appeared around her like a wraith.

Her bed sat on the opposite side of the room to the windows. It was built from some kind of very heavy, darkly veneered wood and covered over with a cheap-looking duvet with a blue case. Atop the two biscuit-thin pillows sat a threadbare blue knitted rabbit that looked like he’d been left there to die.

Elizabeth thought of her bed at home. It was queen-sized, with a white powder-sprayed metal frame with curly bits in it and knobs made out of clear Perspex. Her mother had bought it for her for her tenth birthday; ‘a double bed for double figures’. She also had a queen-sized duvet, clothed in a white cover embroidered all over with rose sprigs, and a pillowcase trimmed with lace upon which Elizabeth arranged all her teddy bears every morning before she left for school. She’d asked her mum if they could bring the bed, if they could squeeze it into the big van with all their other things, but her mum had smiled apologetically and said, ‘Sorry, sweetheart, no beds. It’ll still be there when we get back.’

And that had been that.

Elizabeth rested her rucksack on the floor and unzipped it with icy fingers. Inside she felt around for the soothing plush of Katerina’s ears. She tugged at the fabric and pulled her free of the piles of books and games and notepads she’d packed this morning to relieve the boredom of an eight-hour journey. Elizabeth pulled the bear close to her face and breathed in the smell of her, and she felt her heart ache as the heady, honeyed scent of home filled her senses. With her nose still to the bear, she looked around the cold, Spartan room, she gazed at the endless concrete grey of the sea through the mean little windows, and then she stalked across the room, picked up the ugly knitted rabbit, opened a window and hurled the thing as far as she could into the cold grey yonder.


IT WASN’T UNTIL the second week of February, five weeks after her family’s arrival at her house, and ten days after the resurrection of the central heating, that Arlette and Elizabeth had any kind of meaningful conversation. They came upon each other in the hallway, as Elizabeth waved goodbye to her new best friend, Bella, and her mother, who had dropped her home after tea at Bella’s house.

Elizabeth was still smiling when she turned to see Arlette standing on the bottom step, clutching her stick and wearing, not her fur, but a stiff black dress with a knife-pleat skirt, a white voile collar and three-quarter-length sleeves. With her tiny waist and shapely calves, she looked to Elizabeth like a fashion illustration from 1954 come to life. She descended the last step with the assistance of the stick she now used all the time and looked at Elizabeth.

‘Who was that?’ she asked.

Elizabeth paused for a moment, giving herself time to ensure that the question was not a trick or a trap. ‘That was Bella,’ she replied.

‘Bella?’ repeated Arlette, arching a pencilled in eyebrow. ‘Who’s Bella?’

‘She’s my best friend.’

‘Ah!’ Arlette’s face brightened. ‘You have a best friend? Already?’

Elizabeth nodded proudly.

‘Well,’ said Arlette, ‘in that case, I can stop worrying about you. Come,’ she said, turning back towards the staircase. ‘I’ve just made a pot of cocoa. Come and drink it with me.’

‘OK,’ Elizabeth said brightly, and joined Arlette as she walked slowly back up the stairs.

‘You know,’ said Arlette, pausing for breath at the top of the first flight, ‘I went to your school. What’s it called, these days?’

‘Our Lady of Lourdes.’

‘Yes, that’s right. Not sure what Lourdes has to do with anything. It was called St Anne’s when I was there. And it was all in one room. All of us, from four to eleven.’ She smiled a soft smile and then continued up the stairs. ‘Do you know how old I am?’ she asked suddenly, stopping again, halfway up.

Elizabeth nodded. ‘You’re eighty-four.’

Arlette scowled at her. ‘Who told you that?’ she asked.

‘Jolyon?’ she replied breathlessly, lest it was somehow the wrong answer.

‘Hmm.’ Arlette twitched her nose and then carried on up the stairs.

‘Are you?’ asked Elizabeth, following her down the corridor. ‘Are you eighty-four?’

‘Yes,’ said Arlette, stopping, but not turning to address her. ‘Yes, I am. I was hoping I might be able to fool you into thinking I was somewhat younger than that, but never mind.’

Arlette pushed open the door to her room and held it for Elizabeth. ‘Come in, dear,’ she said, with a hint of impatience.

Elizabeth stepped forward with a shiver of anticipation. She had assumed that she would never set foot in this room, or that if she did it would be at some point in the future when Arlette was actually dead. But here she was, suddenly and thrillingly, on the threshold of a mysterious new world.

And it did not disappoint.

Arlette’s room was the loveliest place Elizabeth had ever been in her life.

A fire glowed and crackled in an ornate brass fire basket. Around the Gothically carved fireplace were red velvet club fenders. On a mantelpiece lined with creamy lace, which fell from the shelf in a tasselled, scalloped fringe, were silver-framed photographs of young men and women, of soldiers and babies and elderly people with severe haircuts. The floor was carpeted with something springy and bouncy underfoot, the windows were hung with pink silk curtains with shiny sateen fringed swags and billowy pelmets, and the walls were papered with fat, sugary roses growing amidst a pale green trellis. A standard lamp in the corner bore a lampshade that looked like a gold crinoline, wrapped in silk ribbon and dripping with black bugle beads. There were occasional tables in every corner, lit by glass-shaded lamps in shades of plum and peach. The room was full of things described by words that Elizabeth did not yet know: Chantilly, chenille, chinoiserie, chintz, chandelier.

‘Sit.’ Arlette gestured at a small blue velvet chair fringed with golden tendrils. Elizabeth lowered herself delicately onto the chair and tucked her hands beneath her bottom. Arlette poured cocoa from an ornate silver pot into a small rose-painted cup. She had a kitchenette – a small gas hob, a small fridge, a hotplate, a cupboard and some shelving stacked with antique china and dainty glasses. By Elizabeth’s chair was a green leather globe, split in half horizontally and housing half a dozen decanters, a constellation of cut-crystal glasses and a small leather tub on top of which rested a tiny pair of silver tongs.

To the side of Arlette’s four-poster bed was an oversized armchair with a matching footstool, both of which faced towards a small TV set with an aerial on top.

Arlette had everything she could possibly need in here: warmth, nourishment, entertainment, sleep and gin. No wonder nobody ever saw her. No wonder she cared so little about the conditions in the rest of her home. Here she existed in perfect comfort, a deluxe studio flat, with a view.

‘You know,’ said Arlette, passing the rose-painted cup to Elizabeth, ‘you’re the very first person to join me in here for about ten years.’

Elizabeth looked up at Arlette but didn’t say anything.

‘Yes, I have lived in this house alone since Jolyon’s father passed away. Just me. On my own.’

Elizabeth felt she should say something sympathetic but as she searched for words she saw Arlette’s face twitch and then break into a smile. ‘It’s been bloody marvellous.’ She stopped abruptly and the smile folded itself away. ‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘it’s nice to have you about the place. Though I could do without the other two.’ She shrugged her shoulders in the direction of her bedroom door and then shuddered delicately. ‘No offence.’

Elizabeth smiled, feeling sure that none had been taken.

‘I never wanted any children, you know,’ Arlette continued.

Elizabeth glanced at her with surprise.

‘It was a mistake really. They didn’t have contraception in my day. But I wasn’t stupid. I knew all the other ways in which one could prevent these things from happening. I took my temperature, kept charts ...’

Elizabeth pursed her lips and wondered what she meant by charts, but said nothing, concentrating instead on keeping the delicate wide-mouthed cup balanced on the thin sliver of a saucer.

‘We all did,’ Arlette continued. ‘Back in those days. Because we were all having so much fun and none of us was ready for babies. I managed to keep the babies at bay for eight years. Quite some feat, I can tell you. And then there it was, two days shy of my thirty-fourth birthday. A blasted baby. And once it was there, you know, bedded inside, well, all I could hope was that it would be a girl.’ She sighed, her fingertips held to the small of her throat. ‘Ah ...’ she exhaled. ‘Well, anyway, it most certainly was not a girl. It was him.’ She shuddered lightly. ‘My late husband was delighted. A son. To carry on the family name. All I could think about was having to handle his, well, his organs. I had a nursemaid. But she worked only days. So come seven o’clock it was all down to me. Ouf.’ She sneered and brought her teacup slowly to her lips. Her hands did not shake. She seemed to Elizabeth not like an eighty-four-year-old at all, but more like a slightly etiolated fifty-year-old.

‘So, I have to admit to being very curious about you, when I heard that Jolyon had taken up with a young widow. A little girl! I could not imagine my son having to play the father figure to a little girl. Or to anyone, for that matter. Selfish life he’s lived. Takes after me,’ she laughed drily. ‘But he has become very fond of you. And now here you are. In my home. And I have to say, from the first time I saw you, I liked you very much.’ Arlette smiled then and appraised Elizabeth with twinkling eyes. ‘I’d like to call you Betty, if I may?’


‘Yes. In my day if you were Elizabeth, you were Betty. Or Bet. But Betty was more popular. And I don’t know, you just look like a Betty to me.’


Elizabeth rolled the name around her head.

She liked it. It was more fun than Elizabeth and less little-girly than Lizzy.

‘Here,’ Arlette got to her feet and crossed the room, ‘do you like old photographs?’

Elizabeth nodded. She did like old photographs, very much.

‘I thought you might.’ Arlette walked to the other side of the room and brought down a few leather-bound books from a shelf. ‘Here, my albums. Have a look.’

Elizabeth dutifully followed Arlette’s instructions, while Arlette put a large black disc onto a gramophone player and slowly lowered a needle onto it. And there, in that moment, as the needle hit the vinyl and a crackle of static hit the air, followed by a flourish of piano, a log popping in the grate, the dusty aroma of old paper from the album on her lap, the smell of waxy candles and rich perfume, and the glimmer of a large paste brooch on Arlette’s collar in the shape of a butterfly, Elizabeth felt herself open up and pull something into herself, something she’d never before encountered in her ten short years, something heady and fragrant and electrifying. And that thing was glamour.

Her home in Surrey had been modern and clean. Her mother spent a lot of time in jeans and polo-necks. Even when she went out to smart restaurants with Jolyon she would simply replace the jeans with trousers and sling a gold chain around her polo-neck. Elizabeth’s mother wore no make-up. She listened to Radio One. She had a perm. She liked football. Elizabeth’s mother was beautiful, but she was not glamorous. And before this moment, Elizabeth herself had had no real concept of the notion of glamour. She had swooned over Audrey Hepburn’s dresses in My Fair Lady, and loved going into the jewellery section of the department store in Guildford and pretending she was going to buy herself diamonds. But this was different. In this room, with the inky light of a faded afternoon in the sky and the melancholy strains of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D in the air, Elizabeth turned the pages of an old lady’s history and lost herself in nostalgia for a world she’d never known.

In this room, Elizabeth became Betty.



AT THE FERRY port, Betty’s breath encircled her head and then floated out towards the sea, almost as though it were trying to find its way back like a cat abandoned far from home. She was not wearing enough for the weather. At fifteen, she was more concerned with her image than with her physical comfort, and knowing that they would soon be sitting on a train heading towards London, and that there might be real actual Londoners on the train, she did not want to look like someone who lived in a weird old house with a weird old woman on the edge of a cliff on a tiny island that was so small that it didn’t even have a motorway. So she was wearing thick black tights, a very short denim skirt, blue suede moccasins and an elderly and very misshapen navy lambswool V-neck with a lace-trim vest underneath. Her hair was short and dyed black and her lips were painted a reddish black and lined with a slightly darker shade of old blood. She did not, she felt fairly certain, look like the type of girl who came from Guernsey.

Sometimes Betty forgot that she was a big, pretty fish in a small, not so pretty pond. She and Bella were the reigning queens of their small corner of the world. They were the prettiest, the coolest, the most popular. Everything, in the realm of fifteen-year-old life on the island, revolved around the pair of them. And sometimes Betty believed that she really was, well, that she was famous. Because, on Guernsey, with her smoky-brown eyes, her fashion-drawing legs and her wardrobe of cool and slightly quirky clothes collected from dark corners of charity shops and pilfered from Arlette’s many wardrobes, she may as well have been famous.

But here, just a few miles from shore, all that fell away from her like discarded tissue paper. Here she was just a girl. A pretty girl, but no prettier than most.

It was the first time they’d been back to England since they’d left on that foggy January morning almost five years ago. Three months had turned into six months, six months into a year, and by then her mother had found the island quite to her liking. Betty had settled so well into her new school and someone had made a ‘silly offer’ for the house in Farnham, and they’d decided, as a family, to stay. Betty was delighted. From the minute she’d first set foot in Arlette’s boudoir, she’d known that this was where she wanted to be now. The white powder-sprayed bed had been shipped across from England and Betty had settled down.

But they were back for Christmas, just Betty and her mother, two nights at Betty’s grandmother’s in Farnham, and time first for a bit of Christmas shopping in town. As she entered her teenage years, clothes shopping had become pretty much the only area of common interest between Betty and her mother, and they linked their arms together companionably as they made their way up Oxford Street.

It was nearly five o’clock; the December afternoon looked like deepest, darkest night and the whole road was bathed in the soft rainbow glow of the Christmas lights strung overhead. They had another hour before they needed to get a train back to Betty’s grandmother’s in Surrey. Betty could feel something deep inside her tugging her from the thoroughfare of Oxford Street, away from the homogeny and the brand names. She pulled her mother past the fairy-tale edifice of Liberty and on to Carnaby Street. Her mother kept pausing to admire a window, to exclaim about a musical showing in a theatre, to remember something she’d forgotten to buy. But Betty kept moving.

‘Come on,’ she implored, her hands on her hips. ‘Come on!’

‘What’s the panic?’ asked her mother. ‘Where are we going?’

‘I don’t know,’ snapped Betty, casting about anxiously, as she felt the day falling away from her. ‘Just ... this way.’

She didn’t know what this way was. All she knew was that the day was dying and the night was giving birth to itself, and there was something electric, something magnetic pulling her down Carnaby Street, past self-consciously crazy boutiques, past grimy pubs, through the throngs of tourists and teenage girls just like her, girls from somewhere else with overblown ideas about themselves, girls having a special treat with dowdy mothers and bored fathers, a day in town with an early lunch at Garfunkel’s, overfilled bowls from the salad bar, tickets for a West End show tucked away safely in Mum’s bum-bag. It wasn’t real. Even to Betty’s immature, small-town eyes she could see through the fakery and the stage setting. There was something both murky and beguiling beyond this plastic street of Union Jacks and Beatles posters, something grimy and glittering. She wanted to find it and taste it right now before their time here in the West End was up and Christmas in a small cottage in Surrey swallowed her up for two whole days.

She walked urgently away from Carnaby Street and up side roads until the only lights were neon and the shops were small and anonymous.

‘Oh God, where are you taking us?’ said her mother, looking aghast at a middle-aged woman sitting on a bar stool in the entrance to a bar advertising a Live Girls Show, and dramatically underdressed for the weather in a gold boob tube and red leather shorts.

‘I think it’s Soho,’ said Betty, her voice tremulous with excitement. Soho. That’s what had been pulling her down these backstreets, of course it was. Soho. The centre of the universe. The Hundred Club. The Mud Club. The Blitz Club. Sex. Drugs. Rock and roll. Betty’s favourite film of all time was Desperately Seeking Susan. She loved it for the setting, for the neon lights glistening on oily puddles, the alleyways and mysterious doorways, subterranean dives and shabby-looking people with secrets.

She turned to her mother and smiled. And then she looked upwards into the dark windows of a thin, grimy town house. ‘Imagine living here,’ she said breathily.

‘No thank you,’ said her mother, shivering in a blast of cold air.

Betty continued to stare upwards. ‘I wonder who lives up there,’ she said.

‘French Model,’ her mother read off the doorbell.

‘Wow,’ breathed Betty, picturing a woman who looked like Beatrice Dalle floating around a cool flat, talking loudly and crossly to her French boyfriend on the phone with a strong cigarette in her other hand.

‘You know what that means, don’t you?’

Betty shrugged uncomfortably, aware that her mother was about to flag up a shortcoming in her knowledge of the big wide world.

‘It’s a euphemism,’ she said, ‘for a prostitute. There’s some poor girl up there having sex with an old ugly man. For money.’

Betty shrugged again, as if, really, what was so bad about that, whilst silently, invisibly, cringing at the very thought. But she still couldn’t help but see a certain glamour in it. A dark, ugly glamour. If you were going to sleep with an old ugly man for money, then this, mused Betty, was the place to do it.

‘Come on,’ said her mother. ‘It’s nearly six. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go back to Grandma’s.’

Betty let her gaze fall from the black eyes of the old town house, tore herself from her dreams of moody French models and Soho nights, and headed back to Surrey with her mother.



‘WHAT DID YOU do?’ Betty asked Arlette, as Arlette searched her jewellery boxes for a particular paste brooch she knew would look just perfect with Betty’s party dress. Betty did not want to wear a paste brooch, but she also knew that Arlette was rarely wrong about these things and that if she thought the brooch would go with the black taffeta off-the-shoulder dress she’d bought last week from Miss Selfridge, then she should at least try it on.

‘What did I do when?’

‘For your sixteenth birthday party.’

‘Nothing,’ said Arlette, ‘absolutely nothing. We’d just gone to war. Nobody had any parties.’

‘What was the war like?’

‘It was bleak. It was terrifying. It was horrible.’

‘And you lost your dad?’

‘I did. I lost my father.’ Arlette paused for a moment and sniffed. ‘My lovely father.’

‘And what did you do after?’ Betty asked. ‘After the war?’

Arlette sniffed again. ‘Nothing at all,’ she said. ‘I stayed here and cared for my mother. I worked in a dress shop for a little while, in St Peter Port. And then I met Mr Lafolley.’

Betty sighed. It seemed such a waste. ‘But didn’t you ever want to go somewhere else? Didn’t you ever want to have an adventure, go to London, travel?’

Arlette shook her head. Her demeanour changed for a moment. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Bloody awful place, London. No thank you. No. Guernsey girl through and through. There was never anywhere else for me.’

She found the brooch and passed it to Betty. It was made of stones in graduated shades of cranberry and pink, in the shape of a butterfly.

‘Yes!’ said Betty. ‘Yes. It is. It’s perfect. Thank you.’

‘You are very welcome, Betty, so very welcome.’ Arlette squeezed Betty’s hands inside hers and then carefully pinned it onto her dress. ‘Awful cheap fabric,’ she muttered, ‘just awful, but there.’ She stepped back to admire her. ‘There you are, looking perfectly, perfectly beautiful. Only a beautiful girl of sixteen could make fabric that cheap look so good. Now go,’ she said, ‘go to your party. Go and be sixteen.’

Sixteen, Betty felt, should sparkle. Sixteen should glimmer and twinkle and gleam. It should involve taking off your shoes at the Yacht Club and cavorting, dancing, laughing, sitting on your best friend’s lap and throwing knowing looks across the room to a tall, blond man with broad shoulders and a St Lucian tan, called Dylan Wood, who you’ve been in love with for, like, a whole year, before getting to your feet and dancing again with a sweet, spotty boy called Adam, who’s been in love with you for, like, a whole year. It should involve sneaking outside to smoke cigarettes with a girl in your class who you’ve never really spoken to before, but who suddenly feels like your best friend, and watching two other boys in your class moon through the plate-glass windows at the assembled grown-ups before being hustled back indoors by an appalled manager. It should involve disco lights and glitter balls, and it should, at around two minutes to midnight, involve being given the bumps by thirty sixteen-year-olds and blowing out sixteen candles on a huge chocolate cake whilst Sixteen Candles played in the background. And then, at five minutes past midnight, the DJ must be instructed to put on ‘Dancing Queen’ and you must untie your raven hair and twirl round and round beneath the glitter ball while your friends all stand around and clap and sing ‘only si-ix-teen’ at the top of their voices every time Abba sing ‘only seventeen’.

But sixteen could not be considered complete without a moment, somewhere between midnight and one, when the man called Dylan Wood, who you’ve been in love with for, like, a whole year, pulls you away from your party and onto a terrace overlooking the sea, and for a few minutes you both stare out together in silence at a view that could have been plucked directly from a pine-scented corner of the Mediterranean, with its yachts and its palm trees and the sound of music wafting across on a warm balmy breeze. This moment should involve some conversation and the exchange of observations such as, ‘I’ve been watching you all night.’ And, ‘You’ve always been pretty, but tonight – I don’t know – it’s like you became beautiful.’ And possibly even, ‘Is it still all right to kiss you?’

Ideally the world should recede away from you at this point, the background noises become nothing more than distant buzz, and then Dylan Wood would cup your face with his hand, tip back your head and let his lips just brush yours, soft and gentle as butterfly wings so you’re not quite sure if it really just happened or not, and then again, a little firmer, this time leaving no doubt whatsoever that he has just kissed you, that Dylan Wood has just kissed you, under the light of a pearly half-moon, with his hand in your hair and his thigh in your groin, and you should think then that you are sixteen and already your life is complete.

Sixteen shattered the following day into a thousand tiny, irretrievable little pieces. Betty knew sixteen was broken the moment her eyes opened at eight o’clock, as she felt the prickle of discomfort across her skin, the soreness of the skin around her mouth, the raw heat of devastation as she remembered Dylan smiling at her after their first shockingly passionate kiss and saying, ‘Fuck, how the hell am I supposed to go back to London after that?’

‘What?’ Her voice had sounded flat and dull.

‘I can’t believe it,’ he’d continued, his eyes on hers, his hands still clasped together behind her back. ‘I’ve been stuck on this stupid rock for six years and just when I finally find something good about it, we’re going.’

‘You’re going to London?’ she whispered.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘didn’t you know? I thought you knew. I thought –’

‘No. I didn’t know. When are you going?’

‘Friday,’ he said. ‘We’re going on Friday.’

‘Oh. No,’ she whispered. ‘Why?’

He’d laughed then, as if there was something funny about the situation, the fact of their aborted union, his imminent emigration. But there was nothing funny about it, nothing whatsoever.

Betty pulled herself from her bed and opened the curtains. The sky was dense and grey. It didn’t look like summer. It didn’t feel like summer. Sixteen was dead and so was summer. Her black dress hung haphazardly from a wire hanger on her wardrobe handle, in stark contrast to the way it had been stored in the days running up to the party, in sheets of tissue paper and a plastic zip-up carrier, like a chrysalis. Now it was just a dress, deserving of no special treatment.

Betty sighed and let the curtain fall. She flopped backwards onto her bed and considered the ceiling while she pondered her feelings. The walls of her room seemed to close in towards her as she lay there she could feel the shores of the island tightening around her like a corset, stifling her breath. She thought of Dylan, sitting on a double-decker bus, riding down Shaftesbury Avenue, on his way to some amazing new nightclub that everyone was talking about. Then she thought of herself, a tiny pinprick of a human being with no plans beyond sixth form and an interview next week for a Saturday job at Boots.

She hated being sixteen. She hated her life. She wanted to be nineteen. She wanted to get away from this stupid, pathetic island and get on with her life.

She let a few self-indulgent tears roll down her cheeks and onto her duvet cover.

And then she lifted her head abruptly at the sound of shouting coming from downstairs.

‘Alison! Alison! Quick!’

It was Jolyon.

She heard her mother’s voice in reply.


‘Call an ambulance! Quick! It’s Mummy. She’s collapsed!’

‘What! Oh God!’

Betty raced to the top of the stairs and shouted down, ‘What’s happening!’

‘I don’t know!’ her mother shouted back. ‘It’s Arlette!’

Betty fell down upon the top step and sat for a moment, listening to the sounds of chaos below, her mother’s call to the emergency services, Jolyon panicking, doors opening and closing. She sat there for around thirty seconds before she could find it within her to get to her feet, because even as she sat there, her head full of fug, her cheeks still damp with just-spilled tears, she knew that whatever it was that was happening downstairs was going to impact her life in some terrible, weighty way. She knew that the future was being chipped and chiselled into some ugly new shape.

She breathed in deeply and slowly walked downstairs.



YOU COULD HEAR it echoing down corridors and ricocheting off walls. It careered round corners and broke through the deep heavy silence of the night. Betty leaped out of bed, peroxide hair misshapen and on end, dressed in one of Arlette’s vintage négligées under a big grey jumper, her feet in chunky oatmeal socks. She tried to fight her way out of the cloud of dreams that had swallowed her up.

‘Coming,’ she croaked. Then: ‘Coming!’ louder, as her voice returned.

She stopped for just long enough to become aware that the sky was not pitch-black, that the time was 4.30 a.m. and that she had smoked way too many cigarettes the night before. And then she pushed her hair behind her ears and shuffled down the corridor, to Arlette’s room. The noise was louder now, like a widow at a soldier’s funeral, keening, wailing, scratching at the silence.

‘Coming, coming, coming.’ Betty pushed down on the handle and opened the door to Arlette’s room.

‘What’s the matter?’ She tried to keep the impatience from her voice, searched her sleep-addled soul for softness and compassion. ‘What?’ she said more gently, switching on the bedside lamp and sitting down on the edge of the bed.

‘I can’t see!’ said Arlette, pulling her sheets up around her neck, her eyes darting around the room. ‘I can’t see where I’m going!’

Betty took her hand in hers, felt the skin shift and slither around against the bone and gristle. ‘Where are you going?’ she asked.

‘I’m going to church. And I can’t see! Help me. I’ll be in so much trouble!’

‘Who will you be in trouble with, Arlette?’

‘With Papa, of course. He trusted me. He trusted me to go on my own. For the very first time. He gave me tuppence for the collection. And now I’ve lost it. Will you help me? Will you help me to find it? I dropped it here, in the dark.’

Arlette patted the top of her counterpane with both hands. Betty joined in, tap-tapping the counterpane, stifling a yawn. ‘I’ll get you another coin,’ she said. ‘Wait here.’

She went to the other end of Arlette’s room and picked a twopence coin out of a jar on her dressing table. ‘Here,’ she said, placing it in Arlette’s hand, ‘here, tuppence.’

Arlette’s face softened and she smiled. ‘I can see now,’ she said. ‘It must have been an eclipse or something, because first it was bright and then it was dark and now it’s bright again. An eclipse. When the moon covers the sun.’ She brought the coin closer to her face and examined it. ‘I’ll pay you back,’ she said, ‘next time I see you. Where do you live?’

‘Next door,’ said Betty. ‘I live next door.’

Arlette squinted at her. ‘And are you a boy. Or a girl?’

‘I’m a girl,’ she smiled. ‘My name’s Betty. I’m your granddaughter.’

Arlette let out a whoop of laughter. ‘My granddaughter!’ she said. ‘Well, that’s nice. I always wanted a little girl. Never wanted a boy. Never wanted any children. But particularly not a little boy.’ She shuddered. ‘All their little bits. Used to change his nappy with my eyes shut, y’know?’ She chuckled and glanced at Betty. ‘Do you have a little boy?’ she asked.

Betty shook her head and stifled another yawn.

Betty could hear the chickens stirring and clucking in the back garden of the new-agers up the road. The sun was warming up the leaden darkness of the room. Last night’s vodka and limes were still sloshing about in the pit of her stomach. She felt a wave of nausea and winced at a sugary repeat at the base of her throat.

‘No,’ she said huskily, ‘no. I don’t have any children. I’m only twenty-one.’

‘Quite so,’ said Arlette, her eyes growing heavy again. ‘Quite so. Too young for all that; should be out having fun. What did you say your name was again?’

‘Elizabeth,’ she replied patiently.

‘Like our queen. She is still the Queen, isn’t she?’

Betty nodded.

‘Well, I shall call you Betty. You look like a Betty. Betty Gable. Or was it Grable? Bette Davis. Elizabeths were always called Betty in my day. Where did you say you lived again?’

‘Next door,’ said Betty, ‘I live right next door.’

Arlette’s breathing slowed then and Betty watched her crêpey eyelids flicker and shut. She waited a moment to be sure she was asleep and then she left the room.

The house was waking up. It was almost five. Betty was dehydrated and too awake now to sleep. She headed downstairs, through the empty corridors and towards the kitchen. The debris of the previous night was still there on the kitchen table. Beer cans rammed with cigarette butts, congealing bowls of vegetable curry and rice, ashtrays brimming with fag ends and ring pulls and glitzy crumpled Quality Street wrappers. Someone’s baseball cap sat amidst the carnage and someone else had left a full packet of Marlboro Lights in the middle of the table. Betty groaned and poured herself a glass of water.

Bella had stayed and was sleeping upstairs, in the spare bed in Betty’s room, but everyone else had piled into Mitch’s camper van at some time around one, and disappeared in a puff of Nirvana and raucous laughter.

Arlette was oblivious to the parties that happened almost nightly in her house. She was bedbound now, after her stroke five years earlier, the one that had stricken her the morning after Betty’s sixteenth birthday.

Betty sometimes wheeled her to the terrace at the end of their corridor to feel the sun, but Arlette asked to be taken less and less these days, lived more and more inside her own head and in the endless corridors of her remembered history.

She had a carer now, a woman called Sandra, who turned her and cleaned her and medicated her. There had been talk, of course, of moving Arlette to a home. Jolyon and Alison had moved away last year, at Alison’s insistence, after the heating had packed up for the fifth winter in a row. They lived in a small two-bedroom apartment overlooking the harbour at St Peter Port, clean, new and fitted out with all mod cons. They begged Betty to come and live with them, but Betty just could not find it within herself to leave Arlette in the care of strangers every night. Alison and Jolyon visited most days but Arlette had little idea who they were any more.

Betty had chosen to do an Art diploma here in Guernsey rather than a degree in London. And she had chosen to stay on in this big cold unwelcoming house with a ninety-four-year-old woman rather than find herself a room in a shared house with her friends. She had made these choices willingly and freely, in spite of the seventy-odd years that divided them, in spite of Arlette’s irascibility and her misanthropy and her unshakeably grey-tinted view of the world, because she loved her.

Arlette had lived in this house for seventy years, had given birth in this house, grown old in this house, and Betty was determined that she would die in this house, surrounded by all her lovely things. The Alzheimer’s had arrived shortly after the stroke, but Betty didn’t mind the Alzheimer’s. In a strange way it had softened Arlette and made her more palatable.

Betty heaped two teaspoons of instant coffee into a mug and watched the kettle on the Aga slowly bringing itself to a wild and rolling boil.

‘Morning,’ someone croaked behind her. It was Bella. Her long brown hair was two curtains, half drawn across her elfin face. She was fully dressed in last night’s clothes: baggy jeans that sat on her pointy hipbones, cropped marled T-shirt, red hoodie and socks. Her stomach was a slice of toned white flesh between her clothes. Her mascara was smudged around her eyes and she had a scab on her lip where a cold sore was healing. But she was still about the prettiest girl that Betty had ever seen.

‘Nightmares?’ she asked in a husky morning tone, balling her hands up inside the sleeves of her hoodie.

Betty nodded and yawned. ‘Do you want one?’ she asked, gesturing at her freshly poured coffee.

‘Yes. Please.’

They took their coffees out onto the back step and rested the mugs upon their knees, staring out into the new day opening up across the distant gardens.

‘I’m really going to miss this place, you know,’ said Bella.

Betty sighed. ‘Not as much as I’m going to miss you.’ She breathed in deeply against encroaching tears. Everyone was going. Everyone had left, three years ago, gone to get their degrees in more inspiring places and then some of them had come back; back to save a bit of money, help out in family businesses, gird their loins, recharge their batteries, consider their positions. But now the returners were leaving again, peeling off one by one. Including Bella. Off to Bristol for a job as a trainee zookeeper at the zoo. She was to be paid five thousand pounds a year plus free accommodation and subsidised meals. She was leaving next month. If it wasn’t for Arlette, Betty would probably be going with her. As it was, she was going nowhere. She wasn’t even in a position to spend a night away from the house, let alone leave the island. Betty felt like the last plum left on the tree, overripe and splitting at the seams.

‘I’ll be back, you know?’ Bella reassured. ‘Any time off I get. And then, you know ...’ She trailed off. They both knew what that ‘you know’ meant. It meant: When she’s dead.

The longest living resident of Guernsey was currently one hundred and five. The longest living in the island’s history had made it to one hundred and eleven. These statistics filled Betty with cold dread. She was giving away her youth to a woman who often mistook her for a boy.

‘How is she? Generally?’ Bella asked delicately.

‘Yeah,’ Betty smiled stoically. ‘Healthy. Relatively.’ Her smile faltered. ‘It’s fine. It’s good. I’m fine. It’s the only way.’

‘Your time will come,’ said Bella, squeezing Betty’s thigh. ‘You’ll be away from this place without a backward glance and the world won’t know what’s hit it. Seriously.’

The sun was on the horizon now and the sky was blood red. Already the night chill was fading into the warmth of a hot July morning.

‘You know,’ said Bella, ‘nobody would hate you. If you left now. Nobody would blame you.’

Betty shook her head. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said, ‘and I know nobody really understands. But I have to stay until the end. Leaving her here is not an option.’

It was hard sometimes for Betty not to feel secretly disappointed by Arlette’s continuing state of aliveness. It was hard for her to understand why Arlette was still alive when Freddie Mercury, for example, was dead. There was, as far as she could tell, no real advantage to Arlette’s continued existence. If anything, it brought with it numerous disadvantages, not the least of which was the fact that in order to pay for Arlette’s carer and the upkeep of the house, her personal effects and savings were being depleted at an alarmingly fast rate. All her good jewellery had gone. The few pieces of quality furniture, her car and a Wedgwood tea set dating from 1825 were gone. Consequently, Betty had absolutely no financial motivation for caring for Arlette the way she did. She knew the house would go to Jolyon, Arlette had told her that. ‘I suppose there has to be some concession to him being my son,’ she’d sighed sadly. There would be trinkets and baubles, she was sure of that, but no, she was not here for the money, she was here because she couldn’t leave until she knew that Arlette no longer needed her, and she knew that Arlette would need her here until she drew her last breath.

Bella squeezed her thigh again. ‘Saint Betty,’ she said. She yawned widely and then blew air through her lips. ‘I’m going back to bed. Wake me up if I’m still there at eleven. Off to Auntie Jill’s for lunch today; promised Mum I wouldn’t be late.’

Betty watched her pale, skinny friend head back into the house, heard her deposit her empty mug back on the kitchen table. And then she sat and watched the sun in the sky floating higher and higher like a big orange helium balloon. When it was high enough to turn the sky blue, she too headed back to bed.

She checked briefly on Arlette before turning in. She lay exactly as she’d left her an hour earlier, neatly upon her back, arms at her sides, face slack in repose, her heavy breathing the only real evidence that she was, in fact, alive and not newly expired and laid out as for a wake.

She was about to turn and leave when she heard Arlette’s sheets rustling. Arlette was awake and she was smiling. ‘Is that you, Betty?’ she asked quietly.

‘Yes, Arlette, it’s me.’

She closed her eyes, still smiling, and just before she drifted back to sleep, murmured the words: ‘I love you, very much.’

‘Oh,’ said Betty, her stomach lurching pleasantly at her words, her hand at her heart. ‘I love you too.’






(1) My home, Lauriers House, and all its furniture, to my son JOLYON ADAM LAFOLLEY.

(2) My MG Midget to my son JOLYON ADAM LAFOLLEY.

(3) All clothes – including in particular my mink coat which, at the time of writing, is on the top shelf of my middle wardrobe – all jewellery, personal effects, ornaments, photographs, books and ornamental furnishings to my son’s stepdaughter, ELIZABETH JANE DEAN OF LAURIERS HOUSE, LAURIERS MOUNT, ST PETER PORT, GUERNSEY, BRITISH ISLES, GY1 3DG. I also give Elizabeth Jane Dean the sum of ONE THOUSAND POUNDS, to be paid to her in CASH and thereafter the sum of ONE HUNDRED POUNDS to be paid to her every year on her birthday, to be spent on champagne, designer dresses and parties.

(4) The rest of my estate, including all accounts held in my name, savings accounts, pensions and bonds, to CLARA TATIANA PICKLE a.k.a. CLARA TATIANA JONES of (last known address) 12 ST ANNE’S COURT, SOHO, LONDON, W1A 2DF. If Ms Pickle/Jones is deceased these monies will revert to her children. If her children are deceased these monies will revert to her grandchildren. If she is deceased and found to have no immediate family these monies will revert to ELIZABETH JANE DEAN. If the executors have been unable to trace Ms Pickle/Jones within a one-year period of my demise, monies will revert to ELIZABETH JANE DEAN.

I WISH my body to be BURIED in the plot reserved for me at St Agnes’ Church, beside my late husband. My son, JOLYON ADAM LAFOLLEY, has already been made aware of my requirements for the style and tone of my internment and subsequent celebration. I have given him written instructions and a sum of money to cover expenses. What I would now like to add to these requirements is that I should very much like there to be jazz and dancing.


Arlette Lafolley

THE LAWYER LOOKED from Jolyon to Alison and then to Betty.

‘Clara Pickle?’ said Jolyon, his large neck wobbling back and forth as he shook his head blankly. ‘Who the hell is Clara Pickle?’ He looked at Alison. Alison shrugged. He looked at Betty. Betty shrugged. He looked at the lawyer. The lawyer said; ‘So you don’t know who this woman is?’

‘Do I look like I know who this woman is? Here ...’ He put out his hand and the lawyer passed his mother’s last will and testament to him. Jolyon read the document, once, twice, three times.

‘St Anne’s Court ...?’ he muttered.

‘That’s in Soho,’ said Betty.

‘Soho? What the ...?’

He ran a hand through what remained of his hair and looked perplexed. ‘This is crazy,’ he said.

‘How much money are we talking about?’ Alison asked.

He shrugged. ‘Not much, not any more. Ten thousand, fifteen, tops. Nothing life changing, but – you know – a nice amount. It’s not the money, it’s just, who the hell is this woman? And why am I only just hearing about her? You were with her when she set out this will,’ he said to the lawyer. ‘Did she say anything about this woman?’

The lawyer lowered his gaze to the table and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, ‘she just spelled out the names for me. She made no mention of her identity and I didn’t ask.’

‘I mean, Mummy never even went to London. How could she know someone there?’

Alison and Betty just shook their heads.

‘Are we legally obliged to find this person?’ Jolyon asked. ‘Or can we just wait for the year to elapse and let Betty take the money?’

‘Yes,’ the solicitor said. ‘There is a legal obligation on behalf of the executor to trace this person. She would be able to sue you if it was ever discovered that no effort had been made to trace her.’

‘Yes, but who the hell is she? And how are we supposed to find her?’

‘Well,’ said Betty, ‘we could start by writing to that address.’

The lawyer shook his head. ‘Mrs Lafolley did mention that she had written to that address and been told that the address is no longer residential. It’s now an office for a marketing agency, or something like that. If I recall, she said that it had not been in residential use since the nineteen thirties. So that is rather a dead-end road, if you’ll excuse the pun.’

‘Well, it’s a starting point,’ said Betty. ‘There must be records, somewhere, of who lived there and when.’ She had come to this lawyer’s office with a heavy heart and now that same heart was fluttering with excitement. First a thousand pounds. Now mysterious legatees in Soho. Her imagination crackled with potential scenarios. She saw herself pacing sleuth-like through the streets of London in Arlette’s Givenchy mackintosh and a pair of patent court shoes. She envisaged herself peering at sheets of microfiche in a high-ceilinged library, making phone calls to strangers. She knew Arlette and she knew what her intent was. She wanted Betty to find her heir. It was obvious.

‘I don’t mind doing it,’ she said breathlessly.

Everyone turned to look at her.

‘I’ll be happy to go,’ she said.

‘Go where?’ said her mother.

‘To London,’ Betty said. ‘I’ll go to London. I’ll find Clara.’

‘You don’t need to go to London,’ her mother replied hastily. ‘We just have to put an ad in a paper, surely?’

‘Well, yes,’ replied the lawyer, ‘an advert in the appropriate publication would cover your legal obligations.’

‘Well, then,’ said Alison, ‘there you go. No need to go anywhere.’

Betty blinked at her, shocked that she could have missed the point so dramatically. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but I want to.’

‘But, why? Why would you want to find her? If you find her, you won’t get the money.’

‘I don’t want the money.’ The words flew out of Betty’s mouth before she had even thought about it. Everyone looked at her in amazement. ‘I don’t want the money,’ she said again. ‘Really.’

‘But ten thousand pounds, Lizzy,’ said her mother. ‘Think what you could do with that. That could be a deposit on a flat. A trip around the world. A wedding.’

‘A wedding?’ Betty sneered.

‘Well,’ her mother shrugged, ‘maybe not a wedding. But something. Something worth having.’

‘Arlette already gave me everything worth having,’ she said piously. ‘She gave me self-esteem, self-belief. I don’t need her money.’ Betty exhaled, conscious of the totally ridiculous melodrama of her preceding statement. It was only half true. The money would be nice. But not as nice as the notion of leaving Guernsey with a thousand pounds in her pocket and a burning mission to find a mysterious stranger. She was twenty-two years old and any ambition she may have had (and she wasn’t sure there’d ever been one) had curled up and died in the wake of her responsibilities to Arlette over the past few years.

The last year, in particular, had been the toughest. Arlette had been nothing more than a terrified bag of bones, there had been no more ‘I love yous’, no unintentionally funny outbursts, Bella was gone, the carer left, the summer was a washout and for a while Betty had lost herself in a fug of night-time waking, wet afternoons and loneliness. She had really felt at times that Arlette might never, never die, that she might, in fact, be trapped in the house with her breathing corpse for another ten years. And then, one morning, twelve days ago, Betty had woken with a start, eyed her alarm clock and seen with a shock the improbably late hour of 09.12 blinking at her. Then she’d known immediately, without even a moment’s doubt, that Arlette was dead.

She had cried, quite unexpectedly, when she touched the cold papery skin of Arlette’s bunched-together hands a moment later. She did not know whether they were tears of sadness or tears of relief. Either way, they were heartfelt. She had sat with Arlette for a full thirty minutes before she called anyone, sat and made her look the best she could. She’d combed her sparse hair, tidied her nightdress, removed her unsoiled incontinence pants and pulled her nightdress down over her legs as long as it would go. She’d wiped a tidemark of dried spittle from the corners of her mouth, dabbed some pink lipstick on with her fingertips and coloured her cheeks with a coral-tinted powder. Then she’d sat, her legs crossed together, her arms wrapped round her knees and just stared at Arlette, feeling the essence of her; the glamour, the attitude, the sharpness of her mind and her thwarted attempt at living an unconventional life, feeling it all fill the room and fill her soul, reminding her why she had loved this woman and emphasising everything that she had given to her, rather than what the final years of her life had taken away.

But suddenly it was as though it barely mattered. Suddenly Betty could look back on these last few years and smile, knowing that she had done the right thing for the right reasons and that now, exactly now, was absolutely the perfect moment for these binds to be severed and for her adult life finally to begin.

She would not have been ready for it before, she would not have been equipped, and now she was. And here it was, not an ambition, as such, but a mission, a goal, a raison d’être. Ten thousand pounds would be nice, she mused, but having a reason to get up every morning now that Arlette was gone was even nicer.


Betty pulled the coat free of its tissue fillings and let it fall to its full length. It was a generous coat, constructed from more animals than it rightly needed. It fell in folds and drapes, and cascaded to just above the mid-calf. Betty pulled it on and turned to her reflection in Arlette’s full-length mirror. She laughed. She looked crazy. A small child with white-blond hair, wrapped deep inside a tent of fur. She found shoes in the bottom of Arlette’s wardrobe, kicked off her canvas pumps and squeezed her feet into a pair of patent courts with small gold buckles. There. Now she stood three inches taller, inhabiting the coat slightly more convincingly. From Arlette’s dressing table she took a pair of ornate paste earrings and clipped them beside her silver hoops. She ruffled her white-blond hair with her fingertips and then tried to settle it back down again into something sleeker. Still, though, she could not take herself seriously inside this thing. Still the political incorrectness of it made her half want to rip it off with enraged disgust, half want to cry with laughter. But it was hers. It belonged to her, by law. Arlette’s mink was now Betty’s mink.

The mink wasn’t the only thing that Arlette had left for Betty on the top shelf of her middle wardrobe. There was also a book. It was Pollyanna, a vintage copy with an illustrated cover of a small blonde girl in a bonnet and a yellow plaid dress clutching a flower basket full of white peonies. Betty opened it to the title page and found an inscription:

To Little Miss Pickle

I do hope that you will be a glad girl

Yours eternally,

Arlette Lafolley

Betty blinked at the words. Pickle?

Clara Pickle.

The woman in the will.

Her breath caught.

Here was a clue. The first evidence that the woman in the will existed in a moment separate from the moment at which Arlette had placed her there. She stared at the inscription for a while, trying to read something more into it, some extra dimension, some brighter light, but failed to find any.

She put the book down and pulled the collars of the fur coat together, bringing them to her nose. The coat smelled of her room, Arlette’s room. It smelled of old face powder and faded perfume. It smelled of Elizabeth’s childhood, long afternoons sitting at Arlette’s dressing table, trying on her paste necklaces, dabbing droplets of her heady scent onto her tiny wrists and wrapping herself up in shawls and gowns and rabbit-fur stoles. It smelled of a life that Elizabeth had both adored and detested, a life of duty and of crushed dreams.

Then she appraised herself once more in Arlette’s mirror and spoke out loud. ‘Don’t you worry, Arlette,’ she said, ‘I’ll find her for you. Whoever on earth she is, I’ll find Clara Pickle and I’ll give her her book for you. I promise.’


BETTY CHECKED THE address on the letter again, and then the number on the door. Behind her, fixed to the exterior wall of a pub was a sign saying ‘Berwick Street’. On the buzzer was a sticker with ‘Flat D’ written on it in black marker. She was definitely in the right place. She pressed the button again and waited. Still no response. Betty glanced around her. The market was packing up. The pavement was littered with old wrappers, cabbage leaves and rotten fruit. Men were shouting very loudly about fifty pee for a pound and everything must go, the sky was Quink blue and the air smelled of stale beer and old fruit.

She had been standing here now for nearly fifteen minutes. Her rucksack sat against the wall, looking as tired and wilted as Betty felt. It had been a long, long day. But more than the tiredness of travelling, Betty was feeling the sheer, wrung-out exhaustion of the years it had taken her finally to get to this place.

But for some reason, a girl called Marni Ali, with whom Betty had had a very animated and slightly confusing phone conversation just the night before, and who had promised to meet her here at exactly six o’clock with a key to let her in, was nowhere to be seen.

Gorgeous studio flat

Central Soho location

Adjacent to famous Berwick Street Market

£400 a month + bills

There’d been no picture. ‘Adjacent’ had suggested ‘alongside’, ‘close to’, ‘a few metres from’. Not ‘right in the screaming, squirming middle of’. Betty pulled her fur coat tighter around her body and shivered.

She’d taken the first flat she’d been offered by an agency she’d phoned the day after Arlette’s funeral. They’d faxed across the details to her mum’s office.

‘Four hundred pounds a month!’ her mother had exclaimed. ‘That sounds an awful lot. Just for a studio.’

‘Yes,’ she’d countered huffily, ‘but it’s in Soho.’

‘Well, yes, I can see that. But surely there must be something cheaper?’

‘No,’ Betty had said, snatching the fax from her mother’s hand. ‘This is fine. This is perfect. It’s just been redecorated and it’s available from next Wednesday. I don’t want to wait another minute. I’ve waited enough minutes. I want this flat.’

‘Well,’ her mother had sighed, ‘you’re a grown woman. You can make your own decisions. But Arlette’s money isn’t going to last very long if you’re spending that much on rent. When I lived in London I had a tiny room in a house out on the end of the Piccadilly line. And I could be in Soho in twenty-two minutes flat.’

‘But you don’t understand. When you’re on a tube, you’re leaving Soho. I don’t want to leave Soho. I want to live there.’

Her mother had sighed again. ‘So. You’ve got enough rent money for ten weeks. Then what happens?’

‘It’s fine,’ Betty had assured her. ‘I’ll get a job. I won’t need Arlette’s money for long.’

‘A job? In London? With a B.Tech in General Art and Design? And no work experience? Oh my God.’ Her mother had clasped her ears as though trying to keep Betty’s ill-thought-out plans from torturing them.

‘It will be fine.’ Betty folded her arms across her chest.

‘There’ll be thirty people lined up behind you for every job you apply for. All of them with more experience than you!’

‘Yes!’ she’d snapped. ‘I know! But they won’t be me, will they?’

She’d paused then, and stared at her mother for a second or two. She had shocked herself. She had always been a self-confident girl. Especially since moving to Guernsey and being picked out for special favour, first by Bella and then by Arlette. In all her years on that little speck of rock and soil in the middle of the English Channel, Betty had always floated somewhere above everything, in her big house, high above the sea, with her beautiful face, her quirky style, and latterly, of course, her saint-like commitment to the care of an age-ravaged lady right up until her final, unheard exhalation. Everyone knew who Betty Dean was. Everyone knew where she lived.

So it stood to reason, in Betty’s opinion, that she and Soho were made for each other, that they were soul mates, a perfect fit. She had no concerns about being accepted and about fitting in. She was, she believed, entirely to the manner born.

Except that this girl called Marni didn’t seem to have noticed. This girl called Marni was not here to greet her, to welcome Betty warmly and effusively to her new life. Instead, Betty was standing alone in the dark, invisible and slightly terrified. She breathed in deeply to stop herself crying and then scanned the street up and down for a payphone. She spied one to her left but it was at a critical distance from the flat. If this Marni girl arrived while she was on the phone, she would not know she was there and might just flit away again. She cast around helplessly, hoping for inspiration, and then she saw a man, late twenties, early thirties, hauling old LPs into boxes on the stall closest to where she stood.

‘Excuse me?’

‘Yes,’ he replied, slightly impatiently.

‘I need to make a phone call, but I’m supposed to be meeting someone here.’ She pointed at the front door. ‘Will you be here for the next few minutes?’

He looked at her uncertainly as though she had just spoken to him in Mandarin.

‘What?’ he said.

Betty sighed. She had had a very long day and she could see that charm and articulacy would be wasted on this man. ‘I’m going to make a phone call,’ she said abruptly. ‘If a woman turns up here, can you tell her I’m over there? Please?’

She didn’t wait for him to reply, just hitched her rucksack over her shoulder and stomped off to the phone booth.

The interior of the booth was rank, urine-sodden, damp and covered in graffiti. As Betty tapped in Marni’s phone number, she looked at the patchwork of calling cards attached to the walls with blobs of Blu-Tack. Asian babes. Earth mothers. African queens. Busty beauties. Naughty schoolgirls. Basques, whips, boots, lips, stockings, nails, heels. A dazzling collage of commercial sexual opportunities.

‘Oh, hello,’ she began as the phone was answered by a man with an Asian accent. ‘Is Marni there, please?’

‘No, she’s not, I’m afraid. Who is this calling, please?’

‘My name is Betty Dean, I’m ...’ But she tailed off as a face appeared at the window of the booth and beamed at her. The face was dark and large-featured, kohled eyes, full lips, black hair hanging straight and glossy from underneath a cream pull-on hat, studded nostril and hoop earrings. She was clutching a folder under her arm and mouthing the word ‘sorry’.

‘Actually,’ said Betty to the man on the phone, ‘don’t worry, it’s fine.’ She hung up.

‘Oh God,’ said the girl, ‘I am so sorry. I got called away to an emergency. Another tenant. A rat,’ she hissed conspiratorially. ‘But, oh God, I probably shouldn’t have told you that. Seriously. You do not need to worry about rats. You’re on the second floor. This one was in a basement. In Paddington. I hate basement flats. Never, ever live in a basement flat. Especially not in London. No light at all.’

‘And rats,’ said Betty, drolly.

‘Well, yes, and rats. Anyway,’ Marni beamed, ‘I’m here now.’

‘Did that guy up there tell you where I was?’

‘Yes,’ she smiled. ‘He did. Told me there was a moody girl in a fur coat waiting for me up here.’ She laughed.

‘Oh,’ said Betty, picking up her rucksack and letting the door of the phone booth close behind her. ‘I think he’ll find that he was the grumpy one, actually.’

She followed Marni back towards the flat, deliberately averting her gaze from the trader.

‘She found you then?’ he asked brusquely.

She looked at him and nodded, feeling a warm flush rising up her neck. ‘Yes,’ she said, matching him in tone. ‘Thank you.’

‘Come on,’ said Marni, holding the door ajar for her, ‘let’s get you settled.’

Betty nodded and followed her into the downstairs hall, past a payphone on the wall with all its wires hanging out like entrails, and up a tight staircase painted buttermilk and streaked with mildew.

‘Da-dah!’ announced Marni on the top landing. ‘This is it.’

She unlocked the door and pushed it open.


Neither did her fantasies about FLAT IN SOHO really sufficiently prepare her for a living room that was, fundamentally, a low-ceilinged box with a kitchen counter glued to one wall and a small window on the other, with barely enough room to stretch out on the sofa without scuffing your toes against the skirting board on the other side of the room. This, she quickly concluded, was not a flat. This was a corridor with a piece of furniture in it.

Yet still the effusive Marni smiled at her with sheer delight, as though she had just shown her the presidential suite at the Savoy.

‘Here’s your kitchenette,’ she said gleefully, pointing to the three cheap units screwed to the wall, an elderly brown microwave and a two-ring Baby Belling.

‘Fridge here,’ she announced, pulling open the rust-speckled door of a miniature fridge, just large enough to house two pints of milk and a box of eggs. ‘And there’s plenty of storage space.’ She opened and closed a couple of flimsy doors, one of which almost fell off completely as she did so. ‘Having said that, we do find that our tenants in this area tend not to have much need for kitchen space. Why cook, when you can eat out every night at a different restaurant?’

It seemed to Betty that this girl, Marni, had looked neither at her nor in any detail at this flat. If she had, Betty pondered, it would be immediately obvious that she had just stepped off a ferry, that she had all her worldly possessions in a tatty rucksack and was clearly going to be paying so much rent for this tiny unprepossessing toilet cubicle of an apartment that dining out every night was not going to be an option.

‘Where do you live?’ asked Betty.

‘In Pinner,’ Marni replied brightly, in a tone that suggested this ‘Pinner’ to be a most desirable locale. ‘It’s in Middlesex,’ she continued, ‘commuter belt. Metropolitan line. I live with my mum and dad.’

Betty nodded knowingly. This girl knew as much about glamorous Soho lifestyles as she did.

She showed Betty the sleeping area, a mezzanine in the living area, accessed via a wooden stepladder, with a curtained area underneath housing a free-standing clothes rail and cheap chest of drawers.

The bathroom was, in fact, the nicest room in the flat, apparently the recipient of the majority of the redecorating budget, nicely tiled and very modern.

‘Well,’ said Marni, half an hour later, after some form-filling and tea-drinking and the handing over of a cheque for two months’ rent, ‘I’ll leave you to settle in. And remember, anything you need, just shout. My boss has a mobile phone so you should be able to get hold of him twenty-four/seven. Here’s his number, and, well, enjoy!’

Betty watched her leave a moment later, her dark head disappearing into the crowds below. She had a bounce in her step, the bounce of a carefree person, of a girl who had not yet asked herself any meaningful questions about her existence.

Betty watched her from the window until she’d disappeared from view and then her gaze fell upon the market trader, still packing up his stall, hefting the last of the boxes into a small white van. He was chatting to another man. She could hear him laughing, see him smiling. She examined him more closely now that he was at a distance: mid-brown hair, cut shaggy around in his face in that style beloved of modern pop stars. He wore combats, an oversized sweatshirt, a leather jacket. He looked about twenty-eight, she reckoned, with an athletic physique and a strong profile.

Suddenly he looked up at the window and his gaze met hers, and Betty gasped and fell to her knees.

‘Oh shit,’ she whispered angrily to herself, ‘shit.’

She let herself slide slowly to the floor, her back against the wall, shame and embarrassment coursing through her veins. She sighed loudly.

And then, for the first time since she’d rung the doorbell downstairs and realised that there was no one there to let her in, she felt a small wave of excitement building within her. This place was not what she’d imagined it would be, it was not the shadowy high-ceilinged flat in which she would pace around smoking Gauloises and being moody and interesting. But it was clean and it was warm and, more than that, it was in Soho. Right in the middle of Soho. She got to her feet and turned once more to the window. She gazed out at the now-black sky, not a star to be seen in it, and she felt reality hit her, head-on.

She was here.

She was here.

Her real life had finally begun.



ARLETTE DE LA Mare adjusted her hat, a grey tweed cloche, ordered in from Paris, especially for her trip, worn at a jaunty angle and down low upon her forehead. She pressed the porcelain doorbell and cleared her throat. A moment later the large red door was opened by a nervous-looking housemaid in a frilled white cap.

‘Good evening, miss, can I help you?’

‘Yes, I am Miss De La Mare. I’m here to visit Mrs Miller.’

‘Oh, yes, of course. They’re expecting you. Do come in.’

She pulled open the door and led Arlette into a large hallway from which arose two ornately carved mahogany staircases and in the centre of which stood a vast marble jardinière holding a vase of oversized Stargazer lilies and red-hot pokers. She followed the housemaid into a small room at the back of the house, which was furnished with two bergère armchairs upholstered in sage velvet, and a large japanned standard lamp. The room looked out onto a long lawned garden, which ended in a small wooded area and a tall wall, curtained in rusty-red Virginia creeper. The housemaid offered Arlette tea and cordial, and left the room.

Arlette’s toes were sore, squeezed for too long inside velvet T-bar slippers, with a small heel. She should not have travelled in heels – her mother had said as much when she saw her off at the port that morning – but the suit she was wearing, a grey linen affair with a lean, almost angular silhouette, had demanded something feminine to soften it. She had not, after all, wanted to appear butch for her first visit to London, especially not to the home of her mother’s best friend, Mrs Leticia Miller.

After a moment she heard a small burst of laughter in the hallway and there was Leticia, all daffodil-coloured curls and ostentatiously blue eyes.

‘Lovely, lovely Arlette, in London at last. First, the blasted war then the blasted ’flu, keeping you from us for so long. So nice to finally have everything back to normal and to finally get you here.’

She clasped Arlette’s hands in hers and stared fondly into her eyes for long enough to make her feel self-conscious. ‘Last time I saw you, you were just a child. What were you, twelve, thirteen years old? Goodness, and now look at you. A woman, a lovely, remarkable woman. Now, tell me, did you have a good trip? How was the crossing? Have you asked for some tea? You must be quite worn out.’

Arlette placed her hands upon her lap and smiled politely. ‘I am, rather, yes. I was awake at four a.m. to make the ferry.’

‘Well, you have made it to your destination, still looking so pretty, and now all you have to do is make yourself at home and do as you wish until you get your energy back. Can I get you something to lift your spirits? A little Americano?’

Arlette smiled. She did not know what an Americano was but assumed it was a cocktail of some description. ‘Why not?’ she said. ‘Yes, please.’

Leticia got to her feet and opened a cabinet behind her. Arlette admired her silhouette, the way her exquisite clothes fell from her slender, boyish body, not the body of a forty-year-old woman, not the body of her own rather solid and round-shouldered mother; not, in fact, the body of most women Arlette had yet encountered. Her yellow hair fell from a loose bun at the nape of her neck in soft baby-hair curls and her feet were bare. Arlette had never before seen a person in their own home standing without their shoes. She stared at the narrow ridge of bone that ran from Leticia’s slender foot to the back of her ankle. It sent a shiver of pleasure through her, that hint of something new and brave.

She listened to the clinking of bottles, the fizz of bubbles, the chink of ice and Leticia’s plummy chatter, all talk of people she’d never heard of, and plays she really must go and see, and swanky restaurants she’d love to take her to. Arlette nodded and hmmed and mmmed, and tried her hardest to be the sophisticated young lady that Leticia had already decided she must be.

Leticia passed her the Americano and, through sheer thirst – the inside of her mouth was as dry as a desert – she drank it rather too fast and found herself drunk almost immediately. As the tight corners of her mind slackened and billowed, she felt herself strangely cocooned. It was as though this was a place where nothing bad had ever happened, and Leticia was a woman to whom nothing bad had ever happened, and while she was here, in this room, with this woman, all would be well for evermore. She heard footsteps against the tiles in the hallway and more laughter.

‘Lilian!’ Leticia called around the half-open door. ‘Is that you?’

‘Yes, Mother, what is it?’ The voice sounded sulky but affectionate.

‘Come into the snug. I want you to meet someone.’

Arlette heard a small sigh, and then more footsteps.

‘Lilian, darling, this is Arlette De La Mare. Dolly’s girl.’

A tiny slip of a thing sidled through the door, big blue eyes like her mother, soft blond hair hanging long down her back in a plait. She was unthinkably pretty and wearing a dress that immediately made Arlette feel like a large ungainly man: lace and chiffon, in a shade of faded rose, low-waisted and demure with little pearls and rosettes of lace stitched all across it.

‘Good evening,’ she said, smiling and striding confidently across the room to shake Arlette by the hand, although she was, according to Arlette’s mother, only seventeen years old. ‘How lovely to meet you. Mother has told me all about your mother and her, and their strange childhood in the middle of the English Channel. I believe you are staying with us for a while?’

‘Yes,’ said Arlette, cursing herself for the almost perceptible slur of her words and for allowing herself to feel intimidated by a seventeen-year-old girl. ‘I’m here until I can find appropriate lodgings. I’m hoping to get a job of some description.’

‘Well, don’t feel you need to get a job and lodgings on my account. I’m delighted to have another girl in the house; too many boys as it is.’

Leticia had three boys, apparently. They were aged between sixteen and five. Two of them were at boarding school. The smallest one, Arlette assumed, was in bed.

‘I do hope you’ll be coming to my birthday party. It’s on Saturday night. It’s to be a masked ball.’

‘Oh,’ said Arlette. ‘When is your birthday?’

‘It’s tomorrow, in fact. I shall be eighteen.’

‘Well, what a coincidence. It’s my birthday on Saturday. And I shall be twenty-one.’

‘Oh, well, then, you have completely stolen my thunder.’ She held a delicate hand to her face, dramatically, in a gesture that Arlette could see had been entirely stolen from her mother’s repertoire. ‘Twenty-one,’ she sighed, ‘a grown-up. How utterly glorious. We shall have to make it a joint celebration.’

‘Oh, no need,’ said Arlette. ‘My mother has already thrown me a party. Last weekend.’

‘Well, we shall raise a glass in your direction then, at least. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have somebody else’s birthday party to rush off to. Mother, can I take the paste drop earrings from your stand, the new ones? Please ...?’

Leticia wrinkled her pretty nose at her pretty daughter and then smiled. ‘You may,’ she said, ‘but do not under any circumstances lose them. Your father will be very cross.’

Lilian smiled and winked at Arlette. ‘I have my mother wrapped round my little finger,’ she said in a faux whisper. And then she exited.

‘She’s right,’ sighed Leticia. ‘Seventeen going on twenty-seven. She’s almost out of control. When I was her age it would have been unthinkable – a party, unescorted. But that’s the way things are these days. Apparently, as a parent I’m to take a step back and let her go.’ She sighed again. ‘Ah well, I suppose I must trust that I’ve raised her well and that she won’t do anything to shame me and her father. Now,’ she clapped her hands together, ‘some supper. You must be ravenous. I think Susan has made her famous lamb and mint cutlets. I’ll show you to your room, and then when you’ve had a chance to freshen up, I’ll meet you in the dining hall. Say, in half an hour?’

Arlette’s room was small but very pretty, overlooking the garden square and the street. She rested her bag at her feet and stared for a while through the heavy curtains. She was in Kensington. Near Holland Park. The house was a stucco villa and Leticia was Arlette’s mother’s best friend from home, who’d married an incomer and left the island tout de suite when her husband’s firm had offered him a promotion to their London office. ‘She’s a true one-off,’ her mother had said, with a light in her eye that Arlette only ever saw when her mother talked about people whom she perceived to be somehow ‘better’ than herself. ‘She will show you the world through beautiful eyes.’

Arlette had never been away from home before. But life was different on the island now. The war had ripped the heart out of the place. A thousand men, dead and gone. Including her own father. Before the war the island had been prosperous and growing more prosperous. Now it was a place of tragedy and open wounds. Arlette had felt restless and out of place for months. Then, one afternoon, watching her daughter staring restlessly out to sea, her mother had taken her hands in hers and said, ‘Now. Go now. I don’t need you any more.’

And so she had. On a soft September day, with no idea what on earth she was going to do once she got here. So, she would take it one step at a time. First a wash. Then some lamb and mint. And then, she supposed, somehow or other, the rest of her life would begin to unfurl, as mysterious and unknown as a well-kept secret.



‘IT’S BEAUTIFUL,’ BETTY told her mother in a voice full of forced enthusiasm. ‘Really gorgeous. Lovely modern bathroom.’

Her mother sounded unconvinced. ‘I should hope so,’ she said, ‘for that money. And what’s the security like.’

‘The ...?’

‘You know. Locks on the doors? That kind of thing?’

‘It’s fine. Locks and chains and everything.’ She had no idea if there were locks and chains and everything, she hadn’t really been paying any attention.

‘And what are the neighbours like?’

Neighbours? ‘You don’t have neighbours in Soho, Mum.’

‘Well, the area, then, what’s it like? Is it safe?’

She thought of the group of leering long-haired men outside the pub opposite, who’d just shouted, ‘Hello, blondie,’ to her as she left her flat, and the thumping bass of heavy metal emanating from its open door, and she smiled and said, ‘It feels safe, yes. Safe enough.’

Her mother emitted a long, meaningful sigh.

‘Mum!’ snapped Betty.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘it’s just, Soho. Of all the places. You could at least have eased yourself in with a few weeks at Grandma’s. Got a feel for the place.’

‘I’ve just spent the past twelve years of my life living with an old woman. I love my grandma but I do not want to live with her. Not even for a day.’

Her mother sighed again. ‘Fair enough,’ she said. ‘But I can’t help worrying.’

‘Mum, I’m twenty-two years old! All my friends have been living away from home since they were teenagers!’

‘Exactly!’ said her mother. ‘Exactly. They’ve had time to find their feet. Student life is not the same as real life.’

‘I actually think I’m safer here than at Arlette’s house. Out there, on that cliff, all alone. Anything could have happened. At least here I’m insulated.’

‘Yes, but you’re also anonymous. Everyone knew you here. Everyone had an eye open for you. There’s no one there to keep an eye on you.’

‘Well, that’s not true actually ...’ She paused to drop another twenty-pence piece into the coin slot. ‘That’s not true. I’ve already made friends with the man who runs the market stall outside my flat. He’ll keep an eye on me. And the girl from the agency, she knows I’m here. That’s two people, and I’ve only been here a couple of hours.’

‘Hmm, well ...’ Her mother sounded tired. ‘Just be careful, that’s all. Just be careful. You’re my special girl. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you. I love you so much ...’

‘I know, I know.’ Betty swallowed down her distaste for the words. She didn’t want to be loved by her mother, not right now. ‘Look, I’ve run out of coins. I’ve got to go. I’ll call you tomorrow,’ she said, ‘or maybe the day after.’

‘Tomorrow,’ said her mother. ‘Call me tomorrow.’

‘I’ll try,’ she said. ‘Love to Jolyon. Love to everyone. Bye.’

She hung up as the pips signalled the end of her money.

She exhaled and let herself lean heavily against the wall of the booth. The phone call had been an ordeal. She was not in the mood for having a mother. She wanted to spend a few days, maybe even longer, pretending she didn’t have one, pretending to be rootless and unconnected. She had just left an island and now she wanted to be one.

She pushed her way out of the booth and put her hands into the pockets of the lightweight coat she’d packed into her rucksack in the early hours of that morning. She had ten pounds in her purse and was on a mission for basic provisions: milk, a microwave meal, some cereal and some tea.

The world came towards her like a computer game as she attempted to stroll nonchalantly through the streets. She had not taken a map with her. A map would have marked her out as a day-tripper. She would learn the streets of Soho using her instincts and her internal compass. Yes, she would.

She pushed her chest out and she put her hand into her handbag, feeling for the softness of her tobacco pouch, cursing internally when she realised she had left it in the flat. She needed a cigarette now, she needed a prop, she was walking funny, she could feel it, too much to the left, her right foot was dragging a bit. She cursed as she came off the edge of a kerb, her ankle twisting awkwardly. She had to break her fall with a hand on the pavement and she felt the skin come away from the heel of her hand as she did so. ‘Fuck,’ she muttered under her breath. ‘Bollocks.’ She pulled herself upright and rubbed away at the scuffed skin, not daring to look around her to see who might have seen her inelegant tumble. She carried on her way, turning left, turning right, wishing for a cigarette, wishing for a friend, wishing for ... a bowl of Chinese noodles in a tiny scruffy café with scuffed Formica table tops and a dreamy-looking waiter standing with arms crossed, staring through the window into the middle distance.

She hurled herself through the door of the café. It was called, somewhat unimaginatively, Noodle Bar.

Here, she thought, I’ll start here.


The skies opened above her as she felt her way cautiously homewards an hour later, using her as yet untested internal compass. The rain fell hard as knitting needles, bouncing off the pavements and all over her cherry-red shoes. She had no umbrella. She had not even packed an umbrella. She would have to buy an umbrella. She could not begin to imagine where in Soho she might be able to buy herself an umbrella. Arlette’s house had had an elephant’s foot in the hallway, trimmed with brass and filled with umbrellas of various sizes. Betty had very much taken umbrellas for granted for the whole of her life until this exact moment.

Her internal compass took her to most of the streets of Soho over the course of the next hour. The rain obfuscated the world, turned it into one indistinguishable mass of tarmac, brick and glass, and when finally she found herself standing opposite what she now thought of as ‘her’ phone booth, she almost laughed out loud with joyful relief. She’d made it. Against all the odds and without asking anyone for directions, she had found her way back.

The flat felt unexpectedly welcoming as she turned the key in the lock and let herself in.

Home, she thought, I’m home.

She ran herself a deep bath and lay in it for an hour, feeling the water warming her bones. The bathwater sent rippling shadows across the ceiling, and the steam ran down the windows in rivers, and there it was: peace, solitude, Betty Dean, having a bath, in Soho, as though it was the most normal thing in the world.

Afterwards she poured herself a glass of cider and took three roll-ups and a box of matches onto the fire escape that led off the landing outside her front door. By now the sky was inky dark, but the rain had stopped. The fire escape looked out over the scruffy backs of other buildings. Below her she saw two restaurant workers sitting with their backs to the wall, smoking cigarettes and talking to each other in a language she could not name. She could hear the clank of pots and pans through another open window and smell curry spices toasting. The men below laughed out loud and then made their way back inside. And there, in the diagonal corner, Betty noticed what looked like a proper house: clean brickwork, three storeys, six windows, including one full-length window in the middle, which gave her a view of a funky chandelier and a piece of anarchic art. It warmed her, strangely, to think that among all these pubs and market stalls, restaurants and fabric shops, there lived a human being with nice taste in interiors.

That night Betty slept fitfully and uncomfortably. The street below was loud and unsleeping. When she woke the following morning she felt haggard and ill. But as she pulled open the curtains she smiled.

She had not, after all, come to Soho to sleep.

That morning she decided to find a library. There was no telephone directory in her flat and she wanted to look up Clara Pickle. It was a slim chance, and she was sure that Arlette must have tried directory enquiries over the years, but still, it was worth a bash. As she walked out onto the street she saw the record-seller was putting out his pitch opposite her front door. He was wearing a hat today, a kind of fisherman’s affair, black felt with a small metal badge on the front. Two curls of hair flicked out from either side like dancers’ legs. The silly bits of hair softened his appearance, put Betty at her ease. That and the fact that she suspected that with her hair up, and without Arlette’s incongruous fur, he probably wouldn’t notice her anyway. So she picked up her pace, kept her eyes to the pavement and marched determinedly onwards although she had not a clue where she was supposed to be heading.

‘Morning,’ he said.

She stopped mid-step. Then she turned. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘hello.’

‘How are you settling in?’

Betty couldn’t speak for a moment, so taken aback was she by his friendly interaction.

‘Fine,’ she said, after a moment. ‘Just, er, popping out.’

He nodded at her and looked as though he were about to end the conversation, but then: ‘I know someone you could sell the fur to,’ he said almost nervously, ‘if you’re interested?’

‘Sell it?’

‘Yeah. The fur coat. I assume you want to sell it. It being a bit of an obsolescence and all.’

‘Oh,’ Betty said. ‘Yes. I hadn’t really thought. But, yes. Maybe I should.’

‘It’s my sister. She runs a clothing agency. For TV and film and stuff. She’s always looking for furs. Hard to find these days, apparently.’

‘Wow,’ she said, ‘what a brilliant job to have.’

‘Well, yeah, our dad’s an antiques dealer, our mum’s an auctioneer – old stuff kind of runs in our blood.’ He smiled and Betty noticed that when he smiled his crow’s-feet fanned out like peacocks’ tails and the groove between his eyebrows completely disappeared. ‘Anyway,’ he continued, his smile straightening out, the crow’s-feet regrouping, the groove resetting, ‘think about it. She’s only up the road. Let me know.’

‘I will, thank you. Yes.’ She turned away first, slightly flushed by the encounter. She was about to head on her way when it occurred to her that this man might be a good source of local knowledge. ‘I’m looking for a library,’ she said. ‘Do you know if there’s one round here?’

He raised a curious eyebrow. ‘No idea,’ he said. ‘Not much of a reader. Toff,’ he called to the man on the next stall, ‘is there a library round here?’

‘Yeah,’ Toff said, ‘of course there is.’ And he gave Betty directions.

The route to the library took her past the front of the house she’d seen from behind the night before, facing out onto Peter Street. She stopped for a moment and appraised it. Its windows were taped over with opaque film and the front door was painted shocking pink, with the number 9 nailed to it. Betty extinguished a roll-up beneath the heel of her trainer and put her hands into her pockets. She studied the building for a moment or two, trying to gauge its significance. It meant something to her, in some odd way, either from her past – had she seen it when she was in Soho with her mother all those years ago? – or in her future. She was sure she’d seen that door before, seen that oversized ‘9’, those obscured windows.

She shook her head slightly and carried on her way. In the library she thumbed her way through twelve London telephone directories. In a small notepad she wrote down the numbers of seventeen people called C Pickle. She didn’t even bother with the C Joneses. Then she bought chocolate bars, tobacco and chewing gum in three separate shops, paid for with notes, breaking them up for change.

When she got home, she came upon a man in logoed polo shirt and a matching fleece doing something to the telephone in the hallway.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘hello.’

The man did not return her greeting, just looked up at her and then back again to the wires trailing from the innards of the phone unit.

‘Are you fixing it?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he said dully, ‘I’m vandalising it.’

She peered at him through squinted eyes for a second, silently measuring his tone.

‘Ha ha,’ she said, ‘but seriously? Are you?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am attempting to fix your telephone. In fact,’ he plucked a red wire and then plucked a yellow wire and then leaned back and appraised the situation, ‘I’m pretty sure I have just fixed your telephone.’ He pulled a mobile phone from his bag and pressed in a number. The phone in the hallway rang. He smiled. Then he pulled a twenty-pence piece from his pocket, punched a number into the payphone and the phone in his other hand rang.

‘Sorted,’ he said. ‘All yours.’

Betty stared at the phone in some surprise for a moment or two after the engineer had left. She had a phone. And seventeen phone calls to make. What a piece of luck.

Betty dialled all seventeen numbers for C Pickle that morning. Of the thirteen people who answered not one had ever heard of Clara. The other four numbers were either disconnected or had not replied. But Betty had suspected as much. There was no way it could have been that easy. If it had been that easy, she mused, then Arlette would have tracked Clara Pickle down years ago. Betty appraised the five twenty-pence pieces left in her hand and called Bella.

‘Guess who’s calling you, live, from their Soho penthouse?’


‘Berwick Street. Top floor. Just around the corner from the Raymond Revuebar.’


‘Yes! I just moved in! Yesterday!’

‘Wow! I don’t believe it. Finally!’

‘I know, at the ripe old age of twenty-two.’

‘So, how is it?’

‘It’s ... fine, it’s ...’ Betty was about to say, ‘it’s amazing’ but as she started to form the words in her mouth she felt tears suddenly overwhelm her.

‘Oh, Betty, sweetheart, are you OK?’

‘Yes!’ said Betty, trying to pull the tears back down inside. ‘Yes! I’m fine. It’s just all a bit, you know ... Arlette dying, the funeral, coming here, everything’s changed so quickly, after being the same for so long.’

‘Oh, Bets, of course you’re feeling weird. Are you alone?’

‘Yes, just little old me.’

‘No flatmate?’

‘No,’ she sighed, ‘no. It’s a studio.’

‘Wow,’ said Bella, ‘that must be costing you a fortune.’

‘Kind of,’ said Betty. ‘I guess. Arlette left me a thousand pounds. This place is four hundred a month. I’ve paid for two months up front ...’

‘So you’ll have blown the lot on rent by the summer? And then what?’

‘Oh God, I don’t know. I’m going to get a job. And ...’ she paused. She’d been about to say, if I can’t find the woman in Arlette’s will I’ll be getting ten thousand pounds, so I don’t need to worry too much about money, but kept the thought to herself. She would find the woman in the will. She was determined to. ‘I’ll get a job,’ she said.

‘No! Betty Dean, getting a job. No way!’

‘Well, it’s about time.’

‘Good grief, what sort of job?’

‘No idea. Maybe an art gallery? A boutique? An auction house? Somewhere I can start at the bottom and work my way up.’

‘Excellent,’ Bella said. ‘Have you even got a CV?’

‘Ha,’ Betty laughed, ‘and what would it say if I did? “1990–1995: Squeezed an unexceptional B.Tech Diploma in General Art and Design in around caring for crazed old lady. The End.”.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t think I’m really a CV type of a person. I think people will just have to take me as they find me.’


Betty groaned. She hated it when people said ‘hmm’. ‘Hmm, what?’

‘Nothing. Just, you’re in London now. As amazing as you are, I’m not sure just being “you” is going to be enough to get you the job of your dreams.’

‘Urgh, God,’ Betty groaned. ‘You sound just like my mother.’

‘I am just like your mother. That’s why you love me so much. And she’s right.’ Bella paused. ‘Well, maybe we’re both wrong and you’re right. But either way I agree with her. It wouldn’t hurt to put something in writing. Talk yourself up a bit. Maybe you could say you were, God, I don’t know, Arlette’s personal assistant?’

Betty laughed. ‘Not too far from the truth, I suppose.’


‘I know what you’re saying. But I think I’ll try it my way first.’ Betty smiled.

‘Yes,’ said Bella, ‘of course you will. You always, always do.’ They fell quiet for a moment. ‘So,’ said Bella. ‘When are you coming to visit?’

‘Was just about to ask you the same thing. Have you got any holiday coming up?’

‘Not until next month. Why don’t you come down here?’

Betty paused and pondered the suggestion. She envisaged Bella’s bleak lodgings in a tumbledown cottage in a remote village just outside the zoo. She thought of cold fingers wrapped around chipped mugs of tea and condensation-covered windows looking out over tangled gardens and cool, flagstoned kitchens and early morning birdsong. She shuddered. She’d only just arrived in the kingdom of sirens and neon and filth and chaos, and double yellow lines as far as the eye could see. She could not yet countenance the prospect of a return to the countryside, even if it was to see her oldest, most-loved friend.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘maybe.’


THE STALLHOLDER WAS outside when Betty left the house the next morning.

She glanced at him awkwardly, and was taken aback when he smiled at her. ‘Morning, neighbour,’ he said.

‘Oh. Hi.’

‘Any more thoughts about the coat?’

‘Oh. Yes, definitely. Yes. I want to sell it.’

‘I mentioned it to my sister. She said to take it round to her studio. Any time.’

‘Any time, now?’

He shrugged. ‘Yeah, now would be OK.’

Betty hurtled back upstairs to retrieve the coat.

‘Here ...’ He was feeling his pockets rather randomly. She watched him as he did so, noticing that his fingers were long and slender, that he had a tattoo on the inside of his wrist and that his eyes were so brow