Across the dimly lit, maple-wood dance floor of the sumptuous London Palais de Danse, Audrey’s eyes lingered on the lean man with a clever cinnamon-brown face and inky-black hair. Smartly dressed in a dark suit, crisp white shirt and polished black shoes, he’d been there several Saturdays in a row and she’d spotted him each time, swaying with a shapely brunette, beneath a star-spangled ceiling. ‘Green Door’ throbbed from the five-piece band.
…What’s that secret you’re keeping…?
The brunette waggled a cerise-manicured finger in his face as the music ended on a clash of cymbals.
‘Hello! May I have the pleasure?’ He’d caught Audrey’s eye and smiled as he shouldered his way to her. He gave a little bow, and something in her shifted pleasingly at the elegiac formality. ‘I’ve seen you several times but somehow flunked it….’ His deep, quiet voice, tinctured with an accent she couldn’t place, was hesitant.
‘What changed your mind?’ Audrey’s heart gave a lurch and she beamed, allowing herself to be spun away to ‘That’s Amore’ as a babel of languages surged round. Depending on the dance, different tinted lights were lowered and, for a waltz, it was Danube blue.
‘I told myself that if I saw you again tonight it was a lucky omen and I’d send up a prayer and hope for the best.’
She flicked back a strand of her long, silky blonde hair and swept her gaze in the direction of the brunette. ‘And what would your special someone think?’ His soft, freshly shaven cheek nudged hers and her pulse quickened.
‘Oh, there’s nothing to tell. She’s the Welsh fiancée of a Ceylonese friend and they’re sailing to Colombo next week.’ He waved to the woman and her sturdy sweetheart who, cheek to cheek on a balcony, were whispering sweet nothings. ‘He never learned to dance so I’m his proxy. And she’s the one who spurred me on to take the plunge.’
‘Ah, Ceylon. The Pearl of the Eastern Seas.’ It conjured up cinnamon gardens and tea plantations. ‘Is that where you’re from?’ He was a nimble dancer and she yielded to his body, relaxed yet persuading.
‘Bombay’s home. But,’ he was cryptic, ‘that’s not where the heart is.’ He didn’t elaborate and continued with a rush. ‘By the way, I’m Nathaniel Zachariah — everyone calls me Nat — and the girl from the Valleys tells me that the powder room tittle-tattle says you’re Audrey Cuthbertson.'
Her eyes widened. He knows my name. What else does he know about me? ‘Guilty as charged. My home couldn’t be farther from your palm-strewn shores. It’s Jedburgh, a market town on the Borders, known for its dewy days, rolling hills, castles, ancient battles and Viking conquests.’
‘That’s a long way from the Smoke. What brought you down south?’
He was probing but she liked that. She liked unbridled interest.
Before she could answer, the band was belting out ‘Jealousy’.
‘Shall we?’ Under crimson lighting he steered her to the strong beat of the trumpet, enveloping her in sensuousness with all the rhythm and mastery of a Buenos Aires tango virtuoso.
Then in another swift change of tempo, ‘Rock Around The Clock’ had everyone on their feet, stomping and gyrating. The band mopped their brows and stopped for a breather. Nat took her elbow and leading her from the floor bagged a table and pulled out a chair for her.
‘Well earned. Now, you were telling me about your jailbreak…’
Her eyes shone as she thought of her future. ‘The piano. By happy accident, I’m in my final year at music college training to become a professional musician. Who knows, I could be the next Moura Lympany. And, let me guess, you’re a doctor?’
He shuddered. ‘Good lord no, I pass out at the sight of blood. I’m a barrister and a junior in chambers.’ He straightened his blue, white-striped Inner Temple tie.
‘Goodness, that’s impressive.’ She’d heard that only the outstanding were offered a tenancy. ‘So, you’re following in the footsteps of Mr Gandhi?’
Nat rolled his eyes. ‘Hardly. He was a manipulative politician.’ He lowered his voice and shifted his chair nearer to her. ‘It’s said that it cost his inner circle a fortune to keep him in poverty.’
She burst out laughing. Across the room the friend with whom Audrey had come signalled she was leaving with chums, and Audrey blew her a kiss, mouthing that she was fine.
‘Could I buy you a drink? Blue Curaçao, crème de ciel, perhaps, to match the colour of your eyes?’
‘A gimlet would be nicer.’
‘Coming up.’ He zigzagged his way to the noisy bar, muttering make way, make way, and returned with a G&T and a pint of draught beer for himself.
They sat for a few minutes in companionable silence then he leaned forward. ‘Forgive me for asking, but is there a Mr Right laying siege to you? His sloe-black eyes were searching.
Although startled, Audrey was oddly gratified. ‘You’re —very —direct. That’s what I call cross-examination. And yes,’ she added airily, ‘I’ve slain countless suitors.’
He laughed and she grinned back then blurted out, ‘I went the traditional route. Read history at St Andrew’s University, and courted by Fergus Lamont, a decent chap most girls would give their eye-teeth for.’ This sandy-haired, kilted Highlander had proposed to her more than once and she had let him down as gently as she could. He wasn’t The One and she wasn’t prepared to settle for a sensible match. ‘I knew he’d make a good husband and father, but… Mother and Father thought I was insane but I was a rebel and stuck to my guns. That’s another reason why, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I fled the nest. The other is that after I graduated I was awarded a music scholarship when I did rather well in the LTCL.’
‘Rather well? You’re too modest. And that Fergus sounds a bulldog. I can’t imagine he’s easily deterred. Do you know where he is now?’
‘Grindlay’s Bank, Salisbury.
‘Oh.’ He looked crestfallen. ‘That’s not exactly far.’
There was a short but intense silence.
‘It is when it’s Southern Rhodesia.’
His face crinkled into a smile.
‘My turn now.’ Audrey tilted her head, trying to sound light. ‘Are you promised to anyone?’ She was aware that most marriages in India were arranged.
‘Absolutely not. Do I seem the kind of person who can’t choose for himself?’
‘Traditions die hard.’
He leaned into her and quoted airily, ‘don’t cross the bridge till you come to it, is a proverb old and of excellent wit.’
Audrey wasn’t to be outdone. ‘Longfellow wrote that. ‘The Golden Legend.’ 1851,’ she added for accuracy. ‘Is he your favourite poet?’
Nat shook his head. ‘He wrote a lot of derivative stuff and was overrated during his lifetime. Wordsworth is my landscape.’
‘He sings to me, too.’ She hitched up her blouse that had fallen over her shoulder, and checked the watch on her slim wrist. ‘Oh hell, but at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…’
‘And yonder all before us lie, Deserts of vast eternity.’ Nat finished the verse.
‘I must get going otherwise I’ll miss the last bus back to my Brondesbury digs.’ Audrey felt a sinking sensation that the evening that had stared so promisingly was coming to an end.
‘Hang on.’ Nat rose to his feet and streaking like an Ascot racehorse to the cloakroom retrieved her jacket. ‘I’ll see you back. You’re on my way as I lodge with a Polish couple in Golders Green.’
Holding her hand proprietorially, they cut through couples revving to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ into the damp night, Nat drawing her closer as they walked to a bus stop.
An hour later they’d reached the doorstep of a crumbling Victorian house, and under a full moon, said their goodbyes.
‘I wonder…’ Uncertainty lurked in his gaze. ‘Um… er shall I be seeing you again soon?’
Their eyes met and she felt warm with anticipation. ‘I’d like that very much.’
His face lit up, hinting at things to come, as he turned her key in the lock and pushed open the peeling front door. Then he brushed her milky-white cheek with his fingers and, bowing slightly, sprinted away in the darkness to board an oncoming bus.
The weeks passed, spent in heady discovery. Nat was from a land that beckoned with vibrant bazaars, snake charmers and Tantric sex far removed from the bleakness of post war fifties Britain and Audrey’s conventional Presbyterian upbringing.
She was attracted by his courteousness, his love of the Romantics and T S Eliot, his respect for the rule of law. Without it, he said, there’d be chaos and anarchy. He could read Virgil and Horace in Latin, crediting his Jesuit schoolmasters for that. And was nothing like any of her former boyfriends who’d nursed archaic ideas that a woman’s place was to cook and rear the children.
Yet what surprised her most was his enthusiasm for the daisy. ‘What’s special about that ordinary little thing?’
He erupted into verse. ‘The daisy is a happy flower, and comes at early spring, and brings with it the sunny hour, when bees are on the wing.’
‘Reciting John Clare isn’t a botanical explanation.’
‘Its complexity,’ he paused, ‘like mine, renders it interesting.’
She laughed. ‘Now, there’s quite a story there.’
‘To be specific, do you know, it consists of two sorts of florets. White and yellow.’
They were picnicking on a tartan rug, munching scotch eggs and cucumber sandwiches, a bottle of wine between them. The grassy riverbank of the Thames was warmed by sunshine and he reached behind him, not exactly surprising her with a big bunch of daisies.
‘And they symbolise a new beginning.’ He suddenly looked very serious.
She wanted to ask what he meant by that but didn’t. She was afraid, refused to contemplate the future. About what she would do when he was gone and lost to her.
There was nothing in London that they didn’t visit together. They heckled soapbox orators in Hyde Park. They climbed the steep hill at Greenwich to the Observatory to watch the crimson Time Ball drop at one pm. They canoodled in the back row of Hampstead’s Everyman cinema, all nicely rounded off by a smooth descent to the Strand and a deep bowl of spicy mutton curry served with a steaming stack of chapattis at a Formica-topped table in the India Club.
Audrey had never felt happier. Fate had stepped out of the wings onto the stage. Nat was the best thing that had happened to her.
And he was smitten. In Audrey’s company, he felt nothing but soaring joy and when, as they curled up together on the small, sagging sofa in his lodgings he kissed her and said, ‘this has become a habit,’ and asked her to marry him she accepted, without a beat. She’d run her own life for a long time now and was much less inclined to consult her parents over her decisions.
‘”Lost in the floating ocean of thee,’” she murmured.
Nat gave a good humoured groan. ‘Hell no. That’s Whitman on death.’
Audrey stroked his nose. ‘Just testing.’
‘Tomorrow we’ve lots ahead of us.’ There was a smile in his voice as he walked her home that night. Oh, her lovely round bottom and shapely breasts.
The next morning Audrey woke early, in a mood of anticipation, and humming to herself did her hair and face carefully. At exactly 10 a.m. Nat arrived at Audrey’s digs much to the disapproval of her landlady who, from the constant twitching of net curtains, had observed the burgeoning friendship. I know you young foreign men. Love them and leave them, she muttered crossly to herself.
He waved to her set face, rubbed his cheek against Audrey’s as she emerged and put his arm round her slim waist. ‘I’m persona non grata.’
‘All chaps are.’ Nat smelled pleasingly of a warm, cedar-wood aftershave. ‘I heard her confide to the elderly teacher who rents the room next to mine that her husband led her a fine dance. He was a ladies’ man, a wastrel and a drunk who met a sticky end when he staggered into the road and was struck by a car. I don't think she exactly mourned.’
In drenching rain that played havoc with her hair despite Nat’s huge, black umbrella, he whisked her off to Hatton Garden. Dazzled by the array of glittering gems, Audrey got goose pimples lingering and dithering over a variety of trays in one jeweller’s shop after another.
‘Choose whatever you fancy.’ He squeezed her hand, adding loftily, ‘money’s no object.’
A Burmese sapphire ring of the deepest, velvety blue surrounded by diamonds and set in gold beckoned to her. She slipped it on and caught her breath. Then holding her hand at a distance said, ‘this is it.’ She gave a face-splitting grin.
‘Dead certain? Look, here’s a knockout ruby.’
Audrey shook her head. ‘Blue’s my favourite colour and it fits perfectly.’
‘Quite sure?” It was as if he was about to utter some strong objection and then rejected it.
‘Right you are.’ He glanced at the price tag and his mouth went dry. Christ, what price love. He fumbled for his chequebook and his hand shook a little as he wrote a cheque. Audrey was his. He thought back to the moment she’d crossed his path in the Palais de Danse and knew they were meant to be together.
‘Congratulations,’ beamed the salesman, mentally calculating his fat commission. With a flourish, he turned the empty jewellery box into a beribboned extravaganza before unctuously showing them out. Thunder still rumbled but the sky had cleared into watery sunshine.
‘This calls for a celebration at the Spaniards Inn, doesn’t it, darling?’ Audrey loved the ancient, cosy pub on the edge of Hampstead Heath named after the Spanish Ambassador to the court of King James I, where the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin had quenched his thirst.
Nat hesitated. They’d spent happy times in its nostalgic surroundings immortalised by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers and where Keats composed Ode to a Nightingale. And it served delicious food and drink. Even thinking about fortification made him feel ravenous.
‘Sounds brilliant, but first, there’s something else; something very special I want to show you, that has huge importance… to us. Let’s go. It’s not far,’ he urged. There was an excited note in his voice.
Overwhelmed by the amazing ring and not quite believing Nat loved her and she was engaged, Audrey nodded, lacing her fingers in his as they voyaged down Greville Street and along Holborn Viaduct into Cheapside and the heart of the Square Mile.
He stopped and took a deep breath. ‘This is it. Bevis Marks Synagogue that dates from the eighteenth century. Let’s go inside.’
She cast him a wondering look. Why are we here?
Within the tranquil interior, a grizzled caretaker wearing a kippah wielded a duster. He tilted his head and eyed them sharply as though they’d introduced an infectious disease, eventually nodding and confirming they could look round provided they were respectful.
Audrey’s eyes were drawn to the glowing oak roof timbers. ‘They’re beautiful. Just look at the grain and colour.’ She searched Nat’s face, her nerves tingling. Come on, tell me what this is all about.
‘They were gifted by the gout-ridden Queen Anne from one of her fleet’s vessels,’ Nat said.
‘They’ve aged perfectly and made history. And do those have any significance?’ Audrey craned her neck at twelve handsome pillars, unscarred through both World Wars, supporting the Ladies Gallery.
‘Well spotted, darling. ‘Nat squeezed her hand. ‘They symbolise the twelve tribes of Israel.’ He paused.
What are you trying to say? Audrey stared at her fiancé, sensing his nervousness.
‘And my community’s one of the lost tribes.’
‘What?’ She jumped as though stung and found herself whispering. ‘I assumed you were Christian, like me, given you know so much about Christianity …’ and before she could add, ‘and Islam’, he cut in, a broad grin sweeping across his face.
‘Blame the Jesuit influence. Papa’s passionate about our unique Indian Jewish heritage. Seven men and seven women were all that was left of a party of boat-people who, according to tradition, were shipwrecked off our white sand Konkan coast fleeing Galilee as refugees two thousand years ago.’
Her eyes widened. ‘Why did they take such drastic measures?’
‘To escape the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Ephiphanes, the virgin slaughterer.’
‘So many Robinson Crusoes. I want to hear more,’ Audrey urged softly.
‘Pots and pans, religious scrolls and Hebrew prayer books — everything was lost when the creaking vessel went down.’
‘That’s awful.’ It almost brought her to tears and her voice wobbled.
‘But the Shema—the essential tenet of our faith— Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one, stayed alive, through centuries of isolation.’
‘Let’s go outside.’ He broke into her thoughts and took her hand. Sunlight slanted down in the secluded courtyard and they cut through a stone archway with wrought iron gates that expelled them into bustling thoroughfares.
‘And then…?’ A breeze blew a strand of her wavy hair across her face.
‘Well, they put down roots in the area, called themselves Bene Israel (B1) — children of Israel — farmed and took up oil-pressing. They became known as Shanwar Tellies — Saturday Oilmen — because, observing the Sabbath, they didn’t work on the day of rest.’
‘So,’ Audrey supplied helpfully, ‘India became home?’
‘Exactly. And Marathi our mother tongue. The community’s about twenty-five thousand strong now, never been persecuted and outwardly we’re indistinguishable from our Hindu, Muslim and Christian neighbours. And not an oil presser amongst us.’ He ruffled his hair and hunching his shoulders added a little anxiously, ‘does this change anything?’ He watched her through a fog of cigarette smoke.
Audrey rubbed his cheek with a finger, loving the contours of his face. ‘Of course not.’
His expression relaxed and they were silent for a while then Nat linked his arms round her waist. ‘That’s another reason why I adore you, my darling queen, my blue-eyed rani.’
‘That’s romantic but,’ she paused. ‘Can I ask you something?’ She took a deep breath to hide her misgivings. ‘Would you expect me to become BI, to observe your religion and practices?’ Don’t let him say it.
He shook his head. ‘Of course not, although if you join in a few ceremonies a year, that would be appreciated.’ He ruffled her hair.
As the days shortened and summer slid into autumn, they exchanged wedding vows at a London Register Office and, with a few friends, celebrated with a traditional Indian meal at Veeraswamy’s, an iconic restaurant since the 1920s in Swallow Street.
Their honeymoon was spent in Paris and they did all the things that the City of Light commands lovers to do. They rose late, recited poetry to each other and breakfasted on freshly baked croissants and delectable Brazilian coffee on a balcony warmed by autumn sunlight. Hand in hand, under a clear sky, they caught a bateau mouche that danced along the Seine and under its legendary bridges much celebrated in song. Marvelling at the beauty of Notre Dame and the art in the Louvre, they browsed in antique shops and through colourful street markets and spent a day in Versailles hearing stories of betrayal and revolution. And after Audrey had had her hair styled at an obscene price, they explored every Parisian neighbourhood, each one resonating with its own architectural character and atmosphere, quaffing wine as they watched the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower.
'Can you believe it, so many prominent people agitated against its construction' Audrey gazed at Nat, her head tilted and declaimed solemnly. 'We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of the slighted French taste, against the erection of the this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower. To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe. All of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for years to come, we shall see stretching, like an odious blot of ink, the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.'
'That powerful petition still deter gutsy Gustave.' Nat squeezed her hand.
One thought slightly clouded her happiness. What will Mother and Father say when I tell them Nat and I are married? She acknowledged to herself that she’d acted impetuously in marrying him without first alerting them. I’ll have to go home when we return and explain why I did that.
‘We’ll celebrate our silver wedding anniversary here,’ he whispered to her in bed on their last night, as she drifted into sleep in his arms.
It would be, Audrey decided, too huge a shock for her parents if she were to take Nat with her. He was a stranger whom they’d had no inkling she’d been seeing let alone married. Nat didn’t exactly demur. So, leaving him behind in London with the secret of her marriage churning in her stomach, she sped by train to the family home. In the taxi from the station, she slipped off her wedding ring along with the sapphire ring and stowed them safely in her handbag. They would remain there, she decided, until after her disclosure.
Home was a place where she’d long since realised that she couldn’t settle down with her conservative minded, well-to-do parents, Robert and Margaret Cuthbertson, owners of a thriving agricultural machinery business. Pillars of the local Presbyterian Church, the amateur operatic society and the tennis club, they’d brought up their two daughters, Audrey and Louise, in an atmosphere of self-reliance, gentility, and unswerving rectitude.
Louise, flighty, unscholarly and prettier than her older sister Audrey had been made pregnant by a dashing vet, one of a series of flirtations. Robert and Margaret had hustled her down the aisle, the reluctant bridegroom enticed by their undertaking to bankroll his own practice. With a mounting sense of alienation, Audrey had found there was less and less to tether her to home.
The flurry of her arrival died down, the maid having cleared away the tea and homemade scones and shortbread served on the best china as though Audrey was a guest to be impressed and not someone used to eating off workaday crockery.
Audrey stole a glance at her parents, the atmosphere in the sitting room having reached the right cool, disengaged temperature that she judged to deliver the news of her wedding.
There was a pause then Margaret sent her a bleak look. ‘You didn’t tell us you were courting. And now you say you're married? To an Indian? To a Jew?’ She shook her head. 'It's unthinkable. After all we've done for you. How could you?' She stared at Audrey as though she’d confessed to being an axe murderer, her gaze registering Audrey’s hitherto concealed Welsh gold wedding ring.
Audrey had rehearsed her revelation to perfection, but found herself ambushed by the look of pain in her mother’s eyes, her father's face stiff with shock.
'Why all this cloak and dagger stuff, lass?' demanded Robert, an angular man who made sure his family wanted for nothing. He held up his hand. 'Say no more. You're expecting.' He passed his handkerchief to his wife and patted her hand. 'I’ll take care of this, Margaret.'
'Wrong,' Audrey retorted with a certain satisfaction, rallying slightly.
‘Are you quite sure?’ Margaret said doubtfully, her head making a pecking movement.
Audrey sighed and nodded then held out a clutch of slightly out-of-focus photos of Nat and his family.
‘Here are Nat’s parents and grandmother and that’s his sister Pearl, younger brother Benjy standing beside his cousin Tiger and behind them is step-brother Vidor.’ She peered. ‘And that, I think, is Leah, Vidor’s wife.’
Her mother flinched and looked up, biting her lip. ‘Oh dear…Robbie, look. Our grandchildren will be… coloured.’ She pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose.
'Do you know what you're letting yourself in for — a hot, far-off heathen land with unspeakable customs, quite unfit for someone of our standards.’ Robert made a disgusted click of his tongue and his tone quickened. ‘Why, for Pete’s sake?’ A steely man, Robert’s knowledge of India was limited to half-naked fakirs and the rope trick.
The ticking of the grandfather clock seemed inordinately loud. 'Could it be that we love each other?' Audrey said quietly.
'If it’s love you’re wanting,’ Robert growled, 'Fergus Lamont is your man. He’s more than ready, willing and able with a promising future linked to a first class pension, mind you, ahead of him. He'd have seen you all right, if you'd been canny enough to take him on.'
'Well, listening to you it’s not surprising I kept it under wraps.’ She hated hurting them but couldn't they accept her decision? ‘Anyway, Nat was called to the bar of Inner Temple and offered a permanent tenancy in chambers, something not every pupil barrister goes on to attain. He’s only been given minor briefs so far, but I know he’ll be very successful.’ She forbore to say that she really had no idea of his work prospects and that he still depended on a generous allowance from his father.
‘Why didn’t this husband of yours come and set our minds at rest himself? What’s he got to hide, eh?’
Feeling a familiar sinking sensation, Audrey told herself that Robert might justifiably pick up on this. She realised she’d made the wrong decision to leave Nat in London but then he hadn’t exactly insisted on accompanying her.
'You’ve always been headstrong, my girl. I hope you won't live to regret it. Haven’t you learned,’ Robert swept on,’ that it’s so easy to lose everything yet so hard to get it back?’ He implied an element of gold digging on Nat’s part. ‘Don't say I didn't warn you and remember, you've made your bed, you lie in it.'
‘Is it too much to hope you could just be happy for me?’ Her tone seemed even enough, even though she was cut to the quick by their reaction to the news. Not that she’d expected anything different.
Dusk had fallen. Her father lifted his shoulders in a tired shrug, muttered something to his wife as he crossed the room and, with a hand, trembling from shock, poured out double measures of whisky into two glasses. Audrey wasn’t offered one.
The atmosphere in the house seethed for the rest of her visit. Robert stumped about with a shut-off look. Margaret retreated to the kitchen, grimly baking, as their housekeeper tiptoed round.
‘Don’t let us keep you,’ Robert had said pointedly, and mired in gloom Audrey returned to London after three days, feeling very much the prodigal daughter; her last glimpse of her mother was of her standing tensely with red-rimmed eyes and a grey look of worry on her face.
Overnight bag in hand, Audrey trudged up the road from the underground station to Nat’s lodgings in the ramshackle house in Golders Green from which, after the wedding, he had steadfastly refused to move. He’d rented a room from the Slonimskis, a Polish family, who fleeing their comfortable Krakow villa in 1936, eked out a living stuffing it to gills with a medley of foreign boarders.
‘No point in upping sticks,’ Nat had said to his new wife, kissing her neck, ‘when we’ll be out of here to our own place before too long.’
Audrey hadn’t phoned Nat from her parents’ house suspecting Robert would eavesdrop, although she’d telephoned him when she changed trains to give him the arrival time at King’s Cross, half hoping he’d meet her there.
‘Went the visit well?’ Nat greeted her at his lodgings with a bunch of red roses and a recklessly expensive bottle of champagne.
She wished she could say that they had something to celebrate but her parents’ reaction hardly rated it. Maybe things would have gone differently if Nat had come and supported me. She dismissed the thought that felt disloyal to him.
‘It was all right.’ She cleared her throat. ‘No, it was pretty messy — crosscurrents, recriminations, panic — but I’m relieved that’s that.’ He raised an eyebrow and she elaborated.
‘And when I managed to get Mother on her own and asked her to reason with Father and back me, she just turned her head away and muttered, you know I can’t do that.’
‘Ever loyal to hubby. Hmm, they’ll come round. Give them time, darling, you dropped a bombshell.’ He held a rose to her cheek, and pulled her towards him, easing the cork out of the bottle.
‘Big spender,’ Audrey chided. They clinked glasses. ‘TO US.’
Three months later — England, winter 1956
Feeling desolate, Audrey drained her coffee cup and crossed the room to the mantelpiece where she picked up the silver-framed wedding photograph. There she was, on her twenty-fifth birthday, luminous in a cloud of Arpège, wearing a stylish cream Marshall & Snelgrove suit, her large sequin-dotted hat ruffled by a light autumn breeze and sporting the double strand of milky pearls Nat had fastened round her throat in the taxi to the Register Office.
He’d nudged her and whispered, ‘darling, we’ll be together always.’ Then holding hands they smiled broadly as the photographer bellowed, “say cheese.”
The photograph showed her with one hand locked in his, while the other clutched a posy of flowers that she’d parked in a glass vase. It’s wilting, just as I am here, she thought bleakly as her eyes roved round the attic room with its claustrophobic sloping ceiling. It was crammed with mismatching furniture that once she told herself she’d found Bohemian. Now the shabby place depressed her — the smell of boiled red cabbage wafting up from the kitchen, the dingy oil painting of toiling peasants in some foreign field, the creaking, lumpy bed where she and Nat were able to forget their bleak surroundings whenever they made love. It felt very different when he was no longer there to share it with her or to listen together to Beethoven piano sonatas aired on the radio. Oh God, I’m so, so lonely, she thought.
And then he’d dropped a bombshell. That he couldn’t resist the tug to play his part in building a strong, independent, democratic nation.
‘But, darling, you were so thrilled to gain a tenancy in an eminent set. And wasn’t an immediate move to India something you should have told me about before asking me to marry you? Not that I’d have refused to accompany you.’
‘Well,’ he’d said, ‘that isn’t on the cards, not straight away. I need to establish myself properly there, find somewhere for us to live. And then there’s my family…’
Audrey felt rattled. She supposed he’d already shared with his parents the news of their marriage but, to her dismay, it seemed he had not. She’d opened her mouth to say something then subsided. Maybe it wasn’t the moment to be a drama queen.
And then shortly after their honeymoon she’d waved a tearful goodbye at Tilbury as the P&O liner bound for Bombay sucked him away from her.
The deluge of sixteen-page letters, full of passion and commitment, posted from ports en route, were of some comfort to her. He thought of her constantly. He missed her so badly. Oh, how he missed her. Every night he yearned for her, wanted her, to hear her voice, to hold her tight, to feel her body beside his. But in the last few scary weeks, was it just her imagination or was Nat more measured in tone? He needed time to tell his family, though they were bound to adore her, and to settle himself in a job. It’s complicated, the last letter ended.
Oh darling, I can’t live without you. I hate waiting. Audrey felt as though something was changing, that Nat was slipping from her.
And that, Audrey realised, feeling sick with anger and worry was exactly three months ago. I built my life round you. It occurred to her that she ought to have negotiated joining him in India rather more strenuously.
‘So, you’re still here?’ Robert said wearily in a telephone call. ‘That husband of yours won’t send for you, mark my words. He’s duped you, had his way with you and you won’t see hide or hair of him again. Your mother and I advise you to cut your losses and come home. Besides, despite your folly, Fergus still carries a torch for you.’
After a tearful, sleepless night working on a survival plan to take charge of her life, Audrey determined to tackle Nat as to how things stood between them. She forced herself to join the noisy brigade of fellow-lodgers at breakfast. While she drank watery tea and forced down some charred toast the telephone rang in the hall.
‘It is person-to-person from India and is wanting to speak to you, Audrey.’ Mr Slonimski shuffled across frayed brown carpet to summon her to the pay phone.
This guillotined the cheerful breakfast-time chatter. Every eye in the room was suddenly on her. Audrey, dry-mouthed and self-conscious, hurriedly pushed back her chair. She realised how the others must have been discussing and pitying her, and found this realisation unbearable.