They said nothing on the drive to the hotel. He sat in the back seat, staring out of the window, and she sat beside me. As she’d sat in the car, her skirt had ridden up a little to reveal the crook of her knee and, as I changed gear, I could see a patch of soft, pale skin made iridescent by the coloured lights of the bay. It was comforting to know she was just a girl, like any other.
Inside the hotel lobby, King looked at his watch and said, “It’s later than I thought. Helen, darling, if you’ll excuse me, I have some telephone calls to make. Nowlan will have my balls for breakfast if I don’t tell him about the change of plan. You know how he is. I’m sorry I can’t eat with you.”
I wasn’t sorry.
“Would you mind briefing the genealogist alone?”
He hadn’t remembered my name. It wasn’t important enough.
“Of course not. I’ll see you tomorrow, Tony.”
King kissed his star on both cheeks.
“In the lobby at nine?”
She nodded and watched him walk to the reception desk. Turning, she said politely, “Shall we see what the bar serves or would you prefer the restaurant?”
The bar was badly lit and empty. The restaurant was bright and was serving a long table of salesmen or rugby players (they were all the same to me) who were there for the night.
The bar was piping Dizzy Gillespie’s “Tin Tin Deo” at a low level over its sound system. It was too cool for the bland corporate decor, but it said something for the barman. With an effort, he pushed himself upright and took a step nearer. He thought he’d been rushed off his feet since he came on. Anyone looking at his invisible clientele knew otherwise. She ordered.
“Gin and tonic.”
A serious drink; it suited her perfectly: stylish, never out of fashion, unlike a cocktail, with a big slug of one of the unadulterated spirits.
“What will you have?” she asked.
I steered away from ales and matched her with: “Rye and dry.”
I let her charge it to her room.
The barman gave us his best sales patter: “If you want food, the menu is on the table. We stop serving at nine-thirty.”
His pitch was hard to resist.
I could have eaten my own fist so I ordered something standard with chips. She toyed with the menu then tossed it onto the table. She wasn’t hungry.
She took a little of her drink then looked at me over the top of the ice.
“So, Arty Shaw. Was your father into jazz?”
She smiled briefly.
“Forgive me. You must get sick of being asked where your clarinet is.”
“It gets funnier every time.”
She laughed; a throaty laugh with the rhythm of a machine gun.
“I like the challenge.”
My answer was brief enough to be rude so I continued, “Dead men can’t talk. The only evidence you have is what they leave behind.”
“You prefer the dead to the living?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“The certainty of the evidence must be attractive? Dead men don’t lie either.”
“You’d be surprised.”
She was probing, finding out what made me tick. I wasn’t comfortable with her assumption that, because you work with the past, you are running from the present. It was a common enough cliché, but I reckoned she knew better than that.
“Why are you doing Roots?”
She took a sip of her drink and laughed; a short sarcastic laugh this time.
“You want to know what a serious actress like me is doing on celebrity T.V.?”
I did, but I wasn’t about to feed her ego.
“What are you hoping to find out?”
“Nothing too scandalous, I hope.”
There it was again. It was disingenuous. She’d like nothing better than a scandalous ancestor.
“What would you consider a scandal, Miss Valentine?”
She was on the back foot. Her eyes flicked around the bar looking for inspiration. Then, she fixed me with those glaucous peepers of hers.
“That my grandmother had a passionate fling with Vita Sackville-West.”
It was about the best response she could have given. I retreated into history.
“Your grandmother would have been about thirty years her junior.”
She smiled; the kind of smile that plays before you declare a winning poker hand.
“Interesting. A lesbian affair is okay, but a thirty-year age gap is not.”
I opened my mouth to make a poor retort, but was saved by the barman hovering at my elbow with a plate of food.
Instead, I said, “Does the star of the show usually tag along with the research team? Aren’t you people too expensive?”
“They’re not paying me. I had some time out and I thought it would be a good excuse to see where my mother grew up.”
I tossed back the remains of my whisky and considered how best to tackle the overfull platter in front of me without creating an uncouth spectacle in front of her.
“Tell me about your grandmother.”
She picked up her glass and studied the bubbles in it. Resting it on the arm of the chair, she said, “I never knew her.”
I took a mouthful of something that might have once walked round a farmyard. It was the consistency of carpet and had about as much flavour. As I gave the Axminster a workout in my mouth, I watched her, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“My mother barely knew her. They’re both dead now.”
I cut off another piece of Axminster. I couldn’t say I was sorry. I didn’t know them or how long ago it was that they choked.
“What’s the connection with the Island?”
“My mother was born here – Irene, “Reeny”, Le Sueur.”
She said “Le Swer” like an Islander, not “Le Sewer” like the narrator of Roots was bound to do. Stupidly, I was impressed.
“And, her parents were both born here. My grandfather was Clarence Le Sueur. He was a civil aviation engineer. He was called up pretty swiftly after the war started. My mother always joked that she must have been the product of his last night at home before joining his squadron.”
She said it flatly without any hint of humour. I didn’t laugh. I had a feeling that her story wasn’t going to end happily.
“He was killed during the Battle of Britain. He wasn’t a pilot. He was on the ground and caught some crossfire from one of ours, or theirs, over the field.”
That was just plain bad luck.
“My grandmother was Katherine, “Kay”, Marett. She was born in 1919, she married my grandfather in 1939 and that’s almost all I know. She didn’t survive the war either. Everyone said she was very good looking.”
Everyone always does. There’s no such thing as an ugly corpse.
She produced a photograph with frayed edges and a bad crease across one corner and held it towards me. It was a beige headshot; all soft focus and hard spotlights. The kind they used to take in Hollywood in the Thirties and that neighbourhood studios copied to give their clients’ Depression-filled lives a little glamour.
Surprisingly, everyone was right. Kay Marett was good looking. Not pretty, but with the kind of strong definition and classical proportions that would have grown old gracefully. She was slightly in profile, her chin up, starring candidly at something to her right in the middle distance. I handed the picture back to its owner. There was no denying that the woman in the photograph was Helen’s grandmother.
“We know she gave birth to my mother on 27 June 1940 and she was still in the hospital when the Germans marched in.”
“Not an easy day to forget.”
I nearly said, “The Germans wore grey, your grandmother wore blue.” I settled for a forkful of warm coleslaw instead.
“In 1942, my grandmother disappeared. In the middle of the night, she left her two year old daughter and just disappeared. Can you imagine that?”
I couldn’t imagine leaving a child. Not because it was unthinkable, but because I couldn’t imagine having a child to leave.
“Perhaps, she was out after curfew and was bumped off? Or, she was caught painting V-signs by the Germans? Who knows? Maybe, it was a delayed reaction to my grandfather’s death and she walked into the sea? Whatever happened that night, the television company want to know. That’s where you come in.”
I noted that it was the television company who wanted to know, not her. Like hell, she didn’t. I didn’t feel like letting her down gently. Her grandmother’s story wasn’t as exciting as she imagined. I put down my fork.
“You want to know what happened? She was deported, along with a thousand others whose faces the Germans didn’t like.”
It was nothing to get excited about. On this Island, if you didn’t know someone who knew someone whose relatives were deported, it was extraordinary.
“Hitler was sore about something around that time and he decided to take it out on the Islands so, if you weren’t born here, you were rounded up and shipped off to Biberach or Laufen. Once the deportation trail had been established, the German authorities used it whenever they needed it. That should give the production company enough material.”
She seemed pleased at that. Her grandmother’s story was the sort of thing that was made for family viewing; lots of anecdotes about the indomitable British spirit behind barbed wire, with none of the horrors of the concentration camp.
“What about your father’s side?”
“He’s still alive and living in Yorkshire. They’re Yorkshire cobblers all the way back. It doesn’t make for interesting television. He met my mother in the late Fifties when he came here on holiday.”
“A lot of people did.”
“His name’s Walter Clack.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it. No wonder she had changed her name to Helen Valentine. She got the joke and smiled too. I liked that about her.
Copyright © 2012 Liberation Publishing (www.liberationpublishing.co.uk)