Before she left to catch the 7:42 into the city, Emily Miller removed a small, flat parcel wrapped in ancient tissue paper from a locked drawer in her desk. She carried it into the dining room and placed it, with infinite care, on the table. Then she turned and walked out the door.
Ten minutes later, standing in her usual place on the early-morning railway platform she contemplated the day ahead; she had a lot to do in her losing struggle with the forces of anarchy among the junior staff of Messrs Grymley and Wearse, Solicitors. Anarchy, she thought, was not too strong a word.
She allowed her eyes to travel the length of the platform, seeing familiar faces among her fellow travellers. There was the young couple with the pinched, drawn faces and the nervous movements. Among the usual clutter of students going up to college, she recognised the young woman with the ludicrous blue hair, too much make-up, and too few clothes as Mrs Hoddle’s granddaughter, Veronica, who worked on Saturdays in the post office. Barely able to keep her eyes from falling shut, she leaned untidily against the wall of the stationmaster’s office. Emily didn’t recognise the straggling group of young women, some with small children, who chattered noisily by the washrooms, but she guessed they were shoppers going up for the sales, getting an early start on the only celebration Christmas warranted any more.
She arrived at the offices of Grymley and Wearse, Solicitors, promptly at eight forty-five, fifteen minutes before the official start of business. She removed her coat and hung it in the small closet that was hers alone by virtue of many years’ seniority. She sat straight-backed at her desk, and surveyed her territory, made up of a long line of filing cabinets and four other workstations in a cluster slightly apart from her own. None yet occupied. Turning to face the table on her left, she switched on her computer and waited for it to come to life.
At 9:06, Helen burst through the door, talking fast. ‘Morning, Emily. The traffic’s a nightmare this morning—the bus never managed more than a crawl the whole way in.’ Emily looked pointedly at her watch. Helen saw this and chose to continue as if she hadn’t. ‘One person in every car; exhaust fumes choking everybody; the whole city’s a parking lot. Nobody wants to use public transport anymore, so we all end up gridlocked and get nowhere. The longest sustained economic boom in history and nobody’s getting anywhere.’ It was a subject close to Emily’s heart, but she was not to be drawn. Having hung her coat on the rack behind the door, Helen headed for the lavatory. Emily Miller never used the word ‘toilet’.
‘May I remind you, Helen,’ said the familiar I-shouldn’t-have-to-but-I-will voice, ‘that your terms of employment state quite clearly’—Emily had personally drafted the form letter setting out terms of employment for junior staff—‘that your working day commences at nine a.m. Your working day, Helen, not your ablutions.’ Helen looked pointedly at the other unoccupied desks, peeved that she’d got the bollocking because she’d been first in—well, second to old bloody misery guts who had never been seen to arrive or leave. Rumour had it that she slept curled up under the old man’s desk. Every year there was speculation that she’d retire, but she just went on and on, though she had to be well into her sixties. ‘Having said that, I hardly think it in the best interests of all concerned that you should spend the morning with your hair uncombed. I merely point out that it should have been combed before now.’
As Helen barged out through the door towards the lavatory, Mr Grymley came slowly into the room. He was the senior, senior partner and the only other person in the firm to be found at his desk this early. ‘Good morning, Mr Grymley,’ Emily said, smiling.
‘Good morning,’ he said, placing a fat file in Emily’s ‘In’ tray. ‘A small codicil to be added to Mason, senior. Mason Third’s politics are causing some worries.’ Mr Grymley’s seniority had earned him Emily’s undying loyalty and a caseload consisting almost entirely of wills. He paused. ‘I’ll have a letter for you later this morning concerning a Mason cousin. Died abroad without settling his affairs.’ Mr Grymley had the look of a man who did not condone unsettled affairs. ‘I’d be pleased if you would deal with that yourself,’ he said. Turning, he walked slowly back to his office, his steps heavy with the weight of having to sort out other people’s confused lives and deaths.
It was 9:22 before Emily had a full complement of four working juniors. For four years now they had been officially known as Associate Coordinators, but to Emily they would always be juniors. Helen had spread the word, and an air of heavy diligence hung over the room, each one knowing that attracting undue attention this morning would be worth a week of typing old Grymley’s wills.
Emily herself was slightly ruffled, having already had to deal with Ms Fitzpatrick, the other senior partner. Emily had no intrinsic objection to a female partner, but not ten years out of law school and this one already spoke as if Mr Grymley—the ‘old man’ as she called him—were incapable of dealing with the complexities of a modern legal practice. And worse, she acted as if this were implicitly understood in her dealings with Emily. As usual, she was in a hurry
‘Be a love, would you, and see that this gets out—it means mega bucks for all of us.’ Emily hated the degraded language everyone spoke nowadays. ‘See if you can handle it yourself, OK?’ She smiled an unnecessarily toothy smile. Emily thought it unseemly that a senior partner should chatter and giggle, as she invariably did, with the junior staff, and offensive that she would believe that Emily was to be swayed by the same condescension.
‘We do our best, Miss Fitzpatrick.’ The emphasis on the title was very slight. The younger woman nevertheless hovered uneasily at Emily’s desk. She was about to say something but was, for her, strangely reticent.
‘I hope you don’t mind the intrusion—’ she started, then hesitated, then stumbled on, ‘but Caroline was transferring employee records—not the confidential elements, of course, just names, addresses, that sort of thing—to the database and she noticed that today is your birthday.’ Emily Miller’s back stiffened almost imperceptibly.
‘On behalf of us all, I’d like to wish you a happy birthday.’
Emily returned her look with eyes the colour of November windowpanes. ‘Thank you. But it hardly seems relevant to the issue at hand.’
As soon as Anne Fitzpatrick had gone, Emily attached a yellow note to her file and placed it in Caroline’s tray. She then returned to her computer and, unsmiling, continued with the letter in the matter of Mason, deceased.
The 6:14 Harlowe local took Emily home each evening to her squat, two-storey, redbrick house set slightly apart from the huddle of cottages made of local stone that made up the heart of the village of Covington. On the green, unsupervised children were piling assorted rubbish onto the already dangerously unbalanced bonfire that would be lit, she believed, at seven o’clock to ‘celebrate’ the failure of Guy Fawkes’ sedition.
Covington was one of a cluster of villages and small towns that, since the second war, had crawled surreptitiously outward to meet each other, eating away, as they advanced, at what Emily remembered as green and gently rolling countryside with the dull, uniform face of post-war development. A number of years ago, Emily had been sent a series of postcards informing her that the area would henceforth be known as Harlowe New Town, that names of individual towns and villages would no longer be necessary, and that her address was now a row of letters and numbers known as a postal code. Emily had burned the postcards and ordered a reprint of her stationery, which had remained unchanged since her coming of age.
Emily’s coming of age had taken place in the office of James Sanford, executor of her father’s will and his one-time best friend.
‘Well, Emily,’ he’d said with an awkward attempt at warmth, ‘and how have you been?’
‘Very well, thank you,’ she had replied, not sure how to deal with this man who reminded her even now of Sunday afternoon picnics and car drives to the seafront.
Emily’s father had liked the sea. He would stride along the shore while Emily and her mother had followed behind at their slower pace. Sometimes, Emily would ride on her father’s shoulders, her small chin cutting through the sea spray. They were the best times.
‘I hardly seem to see you at all lately,’ Mr Sanford had continued. ‘Time flies by so quickly. You’ve . . .’ He paused. ‘You’ve grown up,’ he finished inadequately.
There had been a time when they had seen a lot of Mr Sanford and his wife. On Sundays they all went to Camberwell to watch a cricket match. Emily had enjoyed sitting in the sunshine, having tea on the grass. She would cuddle-up close to Daddy, his arm around her as he explained the game; she hadn’t understood, but she liked the sound of his voice. He had become excited at times, calling out with the rest of the adults what seemed to Jane to be nonsense words. He would be quite disappointed if one of ‘his’ players got caught out. Jane never worked out quite what they were caught out at, but they would have to leave the field.
‘As you say, Mr Sanford. Time passes.’
‘Er, well now,’ he said. ‘Let’s see.’ He opened the file in front of him, taking out some papers and straightening their corners. ‘As you know, your father established a trust fund at your birth to mature on your twenty-first birthday—oh, did I congratulate you?’
‘Thank you,’ said Emily.
‘Yes . . . well, the fund. Though it’s not large, it should provide an income which, together with your own earnings, will be sufficient for your needs—and those of your mother.’ He’d carefully replaced the papers in the file without reading them. ‘How is your mother?’
Her mother was not the same person who had shared those Sunday afternoons. That woman, with her high-strung enthusiasm for life, expansive gestures, and graceful body had sparkled in company.
‘She’s much improved, thank you.’
When her father had ‘answered the call’ after the horror of Dunkirk, her mother had wept. Emily had been nearly six and hadn’t understood why Mommy had cried. Daddy had had to go away before on business, sometimes for days and, once, for a whole week. Daddy had taken her on his knee and explained that she was to take care of Mommy while he was away.
‘You’re Daddy’s big girl now, and you’re to be Mommy’s helper while I’m away. And Mr Sanford’s going to be right here to make sure that my two girls are all right.’
Emily had heard the grown-ups say that Mr Sanford couldn’t go because of his heart. She had thought that unfair because Daddy had more heart than he did. But Daddy had gone and had stayed away a very long time. Emily had learned that he was in the war and fighting bravely. Mommy and she followed events closely in the newspapers and on the new wireless Daddy had bought for them before he had gone—just for this purpose, Mommy had said. They had made a game of rationing coupons and Mommy had let Emily check the blackout curtains every night. That was her job. She was helping Mommy.
At first, they had continued to go to Camberwell with Mr and Mrs Sanford and to drive down to the sea, but it hadn’t been the same without Daddy. And after a while, they had gone less and less. Mr Sanford had continued to call to the house though, and he would talk to her mother late into the night, after Emily was in bed. And once Mrs Sanford came and shouted at Mommy and Mommy had said Mrs Sanford must have been mad. After that, Mr and Mrs Sanford didn’t come at all any more. Sometimes late at night, Emily thought she heard Mr Sanford’s voice coming from Mommy’s room, but her mother had said she must have been dreaming.
Emily was nine when the telegram arrived. She had read the words over her mother’s shoulder: ‘Missing in action. Presumed dead.’ She didn’t know what presumed meant; was it like drowned? Her mother had sat for a long time without moving, and then said she would presume no such thing. They had continued to follow the war news, and her mother had read of the prisoner-of-war camps and said that Daddy wouldn’t be in one of those places. She said that he was most likely with the resistance somewhere, still fighting.
When the war ended and the ‘boys’ had come home to their parades, Emily had known that Daddy would not be among them. Her mother, though, still waited. She never stopped waiting for Daddy to come home but, as time passed, she talked about it less.
Emily stopped dreaming that she heard Mr Sanford’s voice after Daddy died. The neighbours, who had at first been full of sympathy and offers of help, became awkward in Mother’s presence, and one by one began avoiding the house. Mrs Hoddle in the post office had once suggested that she knew a doctor who could perhaps help Mother. Emily had said thank you, they could manage. She would help her mother. Nobody offered any help after that.
‘I hope she doesn’t think I’ve been neglecting her,’ Mr Sanford had said that day in his office.
‘I assure you, Mr Sanford, she thinks no such thing.’
Mother’s thoughts these days were entirely in the past. When she spoke to Emily, which was rare, it was as if the war had not yet happened. She waited now for Daddy to come home from a business trip and spoke of her little girl, whom she was sure Emily knew.
Emily had left Mr Sanford’s office and gone straight to the bank to open an account in her own name. From there, she went to the printer with whom her father had done business and ordered stationery with ‘Emily Miller’ printed in the corner, over the address. There would be no more of those distressing scenes at the end of each quarter when Emily, having hunted out Mother’s chequebook from wherever she had hidden it, would sometimes spend several hours persuading Mother to sign cheques paying the rates bill, and the gas bill, and the electricity bill. Everything else she paid in cash.
Now she brought home her new chequebook and the papers Mr Sanford had given her in relation to her financial position and took them to Father’s desk in the big front room. She had emptied out the drawers the night before, stashing all of Father’s things that wouldn’t be needed by Mr Sanford or the bank into a cardboard box and had put the box carefully in the attic. Now, she put her own papers into her own desk and closed the drawer. Emily was her own woman.
Over the years she had come to realise that the village people regarded her as eccentric. She had learned not to rely on the opinion of others. She created an orderly life for herself and her increasingly disordered mother. She watched as the world she knew decayed all around her, all form lost in a headlong rush into the modern. Grass gave way to cement boxes with inside lavatories; the cricket pitch at Camberwell was now a shopping centre. She continued to shop at the now sparsely-stocked village grocery, declining to do business with a way of life she didn’t recognise. She believed in standards and mourned their loss—the brushing aside of courtesy in favour of a quick and easy familiarity, the decline in moral values, the deferred payment mentality in a world gone mad with easy affluence.
Her mother had failed to waken one morning twelve years ago. Though she had waited, Daddy had never come home. And Mr Sanford’s big heart had finally given out a year later, at the age of eighty-two.
The 5:44 sped out of the city. Emily sat in the last coach, window seat. The young woman with the blue hair sat by the opposite window. The late winter sun glinting through the glass hurt Emily’s eyes, causing her to squint; in annoyance, she moved to the aisle seat. Her movement roused the young woman, who seemed to think for a second or two before wishing Emily ‘Good evening’. Emily nodded stiffly. The young woman had almost missed the train this evening, running into the station, arms flailing, scarf trailing, just as it pulled in; now, as the city gave way to suburbs, she sat and dozed at her window. Emily couldn’t help thinking that she would have far fewer difficulties if she got a full night’s sleep, which she obviously didn’t.
The house was cold when she got home. She closed the door and drew the curtains to shut out the sight and sound of fireworks and switched on the electric heater as she prepared her meal. As soon as she was seated, and not a moment before, she unwrapped the parcel she had laid out that morning. Taking out a card, she placed it on the table, near to her plate. ‘Now you are five,’ it said. And, on the inside, ‘To my best girl. All my love, Daddy.’ Emily sat very straight on her chair while she ate. Occasionally, she allowed herself to glance over at the card with her November-coloured eyes. It never changed.