The coaxing calls in a rather pleasant light baritone were accompanied by the bang of a tin. It jarred in George’s ears as he stood under a street lamp, shivering a little in the chill December air, and checked the address he’d jotted down on a little scrap of newspaper. Yes, this was it: Allen Street. And number 21 must be… right where a broad-shouldered young man was standing silhouetted in the doorway, banging a tin dish against the brickwork.
George stared for a moment. “Excuse me, is this number 21?”
“Yes! Are you here about the room? Come in, come in, it’s perishing out here.” It was quite disconcerting to hear such a friendly voice coming out of the shadows that veiled the young man’s face. “I say,” he added, “you haven’t seen a black cat around here on your travels, have you?”
George raised an eyebrow, then recalled that his own expression was most likely equally invisible to the other man. He mutely indicated the dimly lit street with a wave of one hand.
“Ah. No, I suppose not. Beastly nuisance, these dark afternoons. Still, come on in, I’ll take you to Mrs. MacDonald. I’m Matthew Connaught, by the way.”
He extended his left hand for a handshake, and George realized with a jolt that Connaught’s right arm was missing below the elbow, his shirt sleeve pinned up neatly to cover it. “George Johnson,” he said hurriedly, giving Connaught’s hand an awkward shake.
Any hopes that his momentary pause might have gone unnoticed were swiftly dashed. “I’m afraid I lost the other hand in Passchendaele,” Connaught said with an easy smile, his face now revealed by the soft glow emanating from the doorway to be as personable as his voice. “They fitted me up with a tin one after I came home, but the wretched thing was more bother than it was worth. Still, awfully good of Jerry to realize I was left-handed and aim for the right, that’s what I always say. Here, let me take your hat and coat.”
“Thank you.” George shrugged off his coat and handed it to Connaught to hang on the stand, feeling somewhat awkward—after all, the man had only one arm. But Connaught seemed to manage perfectly well, holding the coat draped over his truncated arm while reaching for George’s hat.
The outer vestments now disposed of, Connaught led George down a narrow, tiled hallway, thankfully without the usual question of “And where did you serve, in the War?” The kitchen at the end was small and cozy-looking, spotlessly clean except for a pile of potato peelings on a folded sheet of newspaper, no doubt part of the preparations for the evening meal. The room was inhabited by a still-handsome lady of middle age with a comfortable figure, her glossy chestnut hair pulled back into a simple bun. She raised her eyebrows on catching sight of George but favored Connaught with a small smile.
“No luck finding Marmaduke, I’m afraid,” Connaught said cheerfully, “but I’d wager you’ll be better pleased with who did turn up, in any case. This is George Johnson. He’s come about the room.”
Recognizing his cue, George stepped forward and offered the lady his hand. “I saw the notice in the Post Office—‘Room to let in respectable house, suit single gentleman.’ I hope the room is still available?”
Mrs. MacDonald nodded. “It is. You’ve a problem with your present lodgings?” she asked cautiously.
By which she presumably meant, had they chucked him out? “Oh, I’ve been staying at the Railway Hotel.” George shrugged. “I’ve only lately arrived in town.”
Mrs. MacDonald folded her arms. His recent arrival in London seemed from her expression to be a black mark against him. “So you’d be looking for employment, would you?”
“No, no—I’ve got a position,” George hastened to reassure her. “I’m an articled clerk with Meyer & Little—the solicitors, you know. I started there a couple of weeks ago.”
The arms unfolded themselves. “Well! Would you like to see the room, then?”
She made as if to untie her apron, but Connaught forestalled her with a grin. “I’ll take him, Mrs. Mac—wouldn’t want to interrupt your wonderful cooking! I dare say I can answer any questions he may have.”
In the brightly lit kitchen, Connaught had revealed himself to be an astonishingly charming young man, with soft, somewhat curly brown hair and what seemed to be a permanently sunny expression. He and George were much of a height, but George fancied he had the advantage by perhaps half an inch. He found himself thinking he was more than willing to follow Connaught wherever he might lead and tried to tamp down his instinctive liking for the man. It wouldn’t do to start daydreaming of impossible things.
They went up the rather creaky wooden stairs to a small but pleasant-looking room that overlooked the street at the front. It held a bed, a wardrobe, a washstand, and, George was pleased to see, a writing desk and chair.
“Well? What do you think? Does it meet your requirements?” Matthew asked with an air of impatience. He rather reminded George of himself as a child, anxiously awaiting his father’s approval of his latest model ship or school report.
Thoughts of his father bringing with them all-too-familiar emotions of shame and loss, George turned away and pretended to examine the room more closely, as though he were short-sighted and had omitted to bring his spectacles. “It seems very suitable,” he said, turning around slowly.
There were a couple of cloyingly sentimental paintings of large-eyed children on the walls, but George supposed he could learn to live with them. Connaught intercepted his gaze. “Ghastly things, those, aren’t they? I have to confess, when I moved in they were in my room, but as this room was empty at the time I transplanted them here. So in all fairness, if you really can’t stand them, I’ll take them back.”
George had to smile. “I was just thinking I could probably get used to them, but I’d honestly rather not have to. Tell you what, if I take the place, why don’t we split them between us, so we’ll each have only one wall we’ll have to avoid looking at?”
“Excellent plan—and far better than I deserve!” Connaught said cheerfully. “My room’s right next door, by the way, so if I snore too loudly just bang on the wall. Now, you must have some questions—and quite possibly ones you’d sooner ask me than Mrs. Mac—so fire away.”
George was sure there were all sorts of things he should be asking about, but looking into Connaught’s merry blue eyes, he couldn’t for the life of him think of what they might be. “Er, are there any house rules I should know about?”
“Oh, only the usual. Clean up after yourself, no hanky-panky with the maid—not that you’re likely to be tempted; she’s older than Mrs. Mac—and no overnight guests. Unless they’re feline, of course. Marmaduke gets special dispensation, on account of being rather a good mouser. Although I do have to remind Mrs. Mac of that on frequent occasions, such as when she finds cat hair all over her best white shawl.”
“Well, I suppose one can understand that! Er, is there a Mr. MacDonald?”
“Sadly, no longer with us. Although in fact he never was—with us, I mean. He was a red-headed, full-bearded, kilt-wearing Highlander, by all accounts, and Mrs. Mac lived with him in wedded bliss in some frightful place up in the wilds of Scotland, but when he died just before the war she upped sticks and moved back down here. She’s got a sister who lives three streets away—you’ll want to avoid the kitchen when Mrs. Evans comes ’round for a cuppa. The gossip would make your hair curl, believe me!”
George found himself wondering whimsically if Connaught’s hair had been straight when he came to live here and gave an inward smile at the thought. The fellow’s good mood was infectious. “Have you lived here long?”
“Me? Oh, Lord, let me see… nearly six months, now. I came to town for work, of course. I write advertising copy—all those newspaper advertisements for ladies’ corsetry and Scientific Reducing Belts for men, that sort of thing.”
“Do you only deal with underpinnings?” George asked, this time allowing his smile to reach his lips.
“Well, this is what I keep asking my lord and master, but every time something comes in for unmentionables old Carpenter says, ‘Give it to Matthew, it’ll be right up his alley!’ You must call me Matthew, by the way, if we’re going to be living together, no need to be all formal.”
“Matthew. Thank you—and I’m George, of course.” George found his thoughts even more scrambled as he looked into Matthew’s open, cheerful face and struggled to think of another sensible question. “Are there any other members of the household?”
“Mrs. Mac has a daughter who lives here—she’s Miss Lewis, not Miss MacDonald, by the way, to save confusion later. The Highlander was Mrs. Mac’s second husband. Between you and me,” Matthew said, leaning disconcertingly close with a conspiratorial grin, “I think she’s on the lookout for number three. That’s why she advertised for a single gentleman. But don’t worry. She’s not the predatory sort. At least, I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable.”
“If she’s left you alone, I very much doubt I’ll be in danger,” George said wryly.
Matthew gave him an odd sort of look but didn’t say anything. “So, will you take it?” he asked after a moment’s silence.
George nodded. The rate was reasonable, the place was clean—and if the view out of the window was hardly inspiring, the view of his fellow lodger certainly was. Although George would have to be rather more circumspect about his enjoyment of Matthew’s visible charms, of course. “Yes, I rather think I will.”
“Excellent! Let’s go and tell Mrs. Mac the good news.” Clapping him familiarly on the shoulder, Matthew led the way back down to the kitchen. “He’s going to take it, Mrs. Mac!” he called from the doorway.
She nodded as if she’d expected no less. “Will you be paying monthly or weekly?”
George suspected that was a veiled enquiry as to how long he might be planning to stay. “Oh, monthly, I think,” he said, anxious to get off on the best possible footing.
And indeed, he was certain he could detect a definite softening in her demeanor. “I’ll require a deposit of one week’s rent—I hope that won’t be a problem?”
Had the rent been much higher, it might have been, but since evening meals were included, George thought he could just about manage it. “No, no problem. I’ll go to the bank on Monday.”
She nodded, turning away to check on a pot that bubbled noisily on the range—then turned back, as if a thought had just struck her. “Oh, and one more thing—are you a musical man, Mr. Johnson?”
George frowned in confusion. “Ah—I don’t play anything, if that’s what you mean. Is that a problem?”
“Oh, quite the contrary!” Matthew said with a merry smile. “The previous tenant was a trombonist with the Salvation Army. He had an unfortunate tendency to practice hymns early in the morning. Very early in the morning.”
Mrs. MacDonald nodded. “I’m all for doing one’s Christian duty to help those less fortunate, but when it comes to depriving folk of a decent night’s sleep, that’s where I have to put my foot down, Mr. Johnson. Now, will you be staying for supper with us tonight? Don’t you worry, Mr. Connaught,” she added fondly to Matthew, “there’ll be plenty to spare.”
George was relieved to hear he wouldn’t have to pay for any more overpriced, overcooked hotel food. “Oh, that’d be awfully decent of you, Mrs. MacDonald. And will it be all right if I move my gear over tomorrow?”
She gave him a look. “After church, I presume you mean.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” George lied hastily.
“Well, then, perhaps you two gentlemen would like to have a read of the paper while I get on with cooking?” she suggested.
“That’s Mrs. Mac’s polite way of telling us to sling our hooks,” Matthew hissed amiably to George in a very audible whisper. “Come on, I’ll show you the sitting room.”
As they turned to leave, the landlady opened the back door to take out the potato peelings, and a large black shape darted past her skirts to throw itself at Matthew. “Marmaduke!” he cried in delight. “What have you been up to all this time, you old scallywag?” He gathered up an unlikely amount of cat in his one good arm and, sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, deposited his furry burden upon his lap, where it sat purring and kneading at his legs with its paws. “I hope you haven’t been fighting again, you naughty boy.”
His landlady harrumphed. “You ought to take him to Mr. Nelson at the chemist’s and get him seen to. That’d stop him wandering the neighborhood and getting into fights.”
“Mrs. Mac! How can you even suggest such a thing? Cover your ears, Marmaduke. We won’t let the nasty lady cut you off in your prime, no, we won’t. Now, what did I do with your dish?”
“I rather think you left it by the front door when you took my things,” George said, jumping up hastily to fetch it. As he’d thought, it was perched on the hall windowsill. On his return, the cat immediately sprang from Matthew’s lap and started winding itself around George’s legs, apparently doing its level best to knock him over.
Matthew sighed heavily. “Cupboard love—that’s the only sort he knows, I’m afraid. Mrs. Mac, would you mind?” He smiled winningly at the landlady, who tutted but obligingly took the dish from George’s hand and filled it with a generous helping of scraps before setting it on the floor. “Come along, George—he’ll have no more use for us for a bit!”
Matthew led the way into the sitting room—then turned suddenly with a grin. “You know, I’ve just worked out who you remind me of. It’s been niggling at me since I first saw you.”
George’s heart seemed to pause mid-beat. “Oh?” he said as casually as he could.
“Isn’t it obvious? Dark hair, green eyes, svelte figure—you’re the image of Marmaduke!”
George’s laughter was probably a shade too loud, but relief tended to have that effect on him.
The rest of the evening had passed most agreeably. Miss Lewis, a nurse, had returned from her shift at the hospital and had revealed herself to be a sensible, pleasant young lady whose affections, it transpired, were already engaged by a young postman, so George felt himself in no danger of unwanted attentions from that quarter. Mrs. Mac’s cooking had proved to be as tasty as her portions were generous, and when George at last took his leave to return to his hotel for the final night, it was with a warm, pleasant feeling in his belly.
By midnight, however, the warmth had largely seeped away, replaced by an ice-cold sensation in the pit of his stomach that was no more welcome for being familiar. As he lay in the lumpy hotel bed listening to the gurgling of the pipes, George wondered what on earth he’d been thinking of.
It was small comfort that he was able to answer that question immediately. He’d been thinking of Matthew’s merry smile and welcoming manner. And he was an idiot. A man that friendly wouldn’t long be put off with George’s noncommittal answers and evasions when asked about his past. He should have stuck to impersonal boarding houses, where nobody cared who he was and what he’d done. How long would he be able to keep his shameful secret in the face of such good-natured curiosity?
Well, he was committed to staying now. He couldn’t in good conscience turn ’round and tell Mrs. Mac he’d changed his mind—and he certainly couldn’t afford to give up his position at the solicitor’s. Jobs were not so easy to come by, for his sort.
With that thought bringing him predictably little comfort, George pulled a pillow over his head and tried to sleep.