London, June 1939 – The Past Gives No Peace
As Edith followed the dour-faced sergeant, a chill caused her to shiver. Even though it was summertime, a bitter cold permeated the draughty corridor of Bow Street Police Station. The peeling paint of the exposed-brick walls gave an appearance of dilapidation and added to the feeling of dread that assailed her every time she walked through the huge double doors of the station.
Although she worked part-time as a surgeon at Charing Cross Hospital, Edith also provided a free surgery for the poor of the East End of London. It was in this capacity that she was often called upon by the police, to medically assess someone who was being kept in custody.
‘She’s in cell number one. We can’t make head nor tail of what she’s saying – and nor will you, if you don’t speak French.’
Edith’s stomach turned a somersault, at the mention of speaking French. Her legs wobbled beneath her. Swallowing hard, she quashed the emotions that had knocked her off-balance for a moment and made herself concentrate on the task ahead.
‘We managed to get her name, and that’s all. She’s called Leah Bachelet. Otherwise she just keeps saying, “Français, Français.” I’d say she was trying to pull one over on us. Probably thinks she can get away with whatever she’s been up to, if she pretends not to understand.’
‘And what has she been up to?’
‘By the way she’s dressed, she’s a prostitute, if ever I saw one. One of my bobbies found her scrounging in the waste-food container behind a cafe.’
Edith couldn’t detect any compassion in his voice, but she thought the poor girl must have been starving even to consider delving into a rubbish bin for something to eat.
When they reached the cell, the clinking of the sergeant’s keys dismayed her. ‘You locked her in! Was that really necessary? She must be scared out of her wits.’ He didn’t answer her.
As the heavy door swung open, the stuffy atmosphere of the windowless cell and the stench of stale body odour and urine assaulted Edith. These smells always aroused pity in her for the inmate, no matter what he or she was accused of doing, but as she saw the tiny, almost childlike figure of Leah, she was overwhelmed with a feeling of compassion.
Leah stared back at Edith from huge, terror-filled brown eyes that were sunk into darkened sockets. Edith was reminded of a frightened deer standing, unable to move, as the hunters on her family estate in Leicestershire levelled their guns at it.
The girl didn’t move. She lay in a hunched-up position on a thin mattress that barely covered the brick-built bed. Edith had seen so many girls like her over the years, and all of them had affected her, but there was something heart-rending about this girl.
The sergeant spoke roughly to her, gesturing as he did so. ‘Get up.’ Leah obeyed, cowering away from him. Edith felt an anger rise in her as she saw how the girl’s long, thick black hair clung to her head in a damp mass. Water still dripped from the ends of its matted strands. Her ample bosom was streaked with dirt, and was fighting against a wet, too-tight blouse.
As Edith was about to protest to the sergeant, she noticed the girl’s rounded tummy stretching her straight black skirt to its limits and realized that it was possible the girl could be pregnant. Incensed, Edith could hold back her rage no longer. ‘This is barbaric. How could you leave her like this? She could go down with pneumonia.’
The sergeant snapped out his defence: ‘She’s only been in here for half an hour.’
Not sure if fear or cold was causing Leah’s whole body to tremble, Edith ordered the sergeant to bring towels and blankets at once. As he scurried away, she had to concede that she could see how he had reached his conclusion: Leah was dressed the way a prostitute would dress, even down to a slit in the right-hand side of her skirt, which reached her knee, giving a peek of a shapely leg. But, to Edith, that was no excuse not to meet a person’s basic needs. What if something had delayed her from getting here so quickly? It wasn’t always the case that she could immediately answer a call from the many police stations in the area, to give a medical assessment of someone who had been detained in a cell.
Taking a deep breath, Edith put these concerns to the back of her mind as she tried to face what she knew was going to be an ordeal. French wasn’t a language that posed any difficulty to her – at least not in her ability to communicate – but emotionally the cost of doing so was high, because painful memories would be evoked.
Somehow she kept this inner turmoil from her voice and spoke gently to the girl. ‘Please sit down, Leah. I’m a doctor. I’m here to help you – you don’t need to be afraid.’ With a whispered ‘Merci’, the girl sat down.
‘When they bring a towel, we will get you dry and out of those wet things, and then I will examine you. Is that all right by you?’ Leah nodded her head. ‘Do you think you might be pregnant?’ Again Leah nodded.
Before Edith could say any more, a female police officer entered the cell. Edith knew her from previous visits; her attitude was one of disdain and left no room for sympathy. ‘So, you speak her language then? The officer’s tone was scathing. ‘That’ll be useful. Perhaps now we can get to the bottom of things. Not that we can’t guess what her game is. You only have to look at her.’
Throwing a blanket onto the bed, she shoved a towel at Edith. Her action revealed her repulsion at showing any compassion towards Leah. Leah’s fear was palpable as she cowered once more on the far corner of the bed. Edith offered her the towel and tried to soothe her. ‘Take your wet clothes off, Leah, and dry yourself. Everything is all right, I promise you. Wrap yourself in this blanket to keep yourself warm.’ Turning back to the policewoman, Edith asked, ‘Has she had a drink or anything to eat?’
‘You’re the charity worker, not me.’
‘That may be so, but you have human feelings, don’t you?’
‘I’m not called upon to do anything other than my duty.’
‘Neither am I. So I will give you an order, as the doctor in attendance. This young lady is now my patient, and I am in charge of her until I hand her back to you. I am ordering that she is given a drink of hot milk with sugar in it – and a biscuit, if you have one.’
The woman huffed as she made her exit, making a play of getting her keys from her belt and pulling the door shut behind her. Panic gripped Edith, for the action threatened to remind her of the past, which she’d managed to repress a few minutes earlier. She ran to look through the grille in the door. ‘Please don’t lock the door. It isn’t necessary, and you have no right to lock me in a cell.’
The officer’s cruel eyes stared back at her. Edith almost started to beg, but kept her dignity, even though the feeling of being unable to escape, if the door was locked, was unbearable.
This type of situation had long been in her nightmares. The officer backed down and walked away. The fixed smile Edith forced on to her face as she turned to Leah, helped her to regain control of her emotions. She’d had many years’ practice at doing this.
Somehow she managed to function normally and keep herself sane, but the smallest thing could prompt renewed agonizing over her long-lost illegitimate twin daughters. It might be tending to a young woman such as Leah, who she guessed was about the same age as Elka and Ania. Or speaking in French. Or a key turning in a lock. All these things had the power to send Edith reeling.
Elka and Ania would be twenty-two now. How she wished she could visualize them, but all she saw when she tried were the sleeping faces of two one-month-old babies – the age they were when she last saw them. But even that image was hazy, merging into a thousand other memories of babies for whom she’d cared, over the years at Jimmy’s Hope House.
Wherever she went, and whatever she was doing, she asked herself the same questions: What were they doing? What did they look like? What – if anything – did they know about her? Was the sun shining on them, or the rain raining on them? Over and over again, her thoughts and her heartache were ceaseless, and had been since that day she’d returned to Petra and Aleksi’s farm in France, to pick up her children twenty-two years ago, and had found them gone.
The only thing she didn’t question was whether they were loved. She knew Petra had loved them. But why? Why did Petra take them, when she knew that I would return for them?
Shaking these thoughts from her head, Edith returned her attention to Leah, who now sat looking lost in the huge blanket that swathed her. ‘Leah, I have to go and telephone a friend of mine. She will send some clothes for you. I won’t be long. If they bring you some milk while I’ve gone, sip it very slowly. And if there is a biscuit, dip it into the milk to soften it, then suck it before you swallow it. Your stomach can’t take a lot all at once.’
At a nod from Leah, Edith left her. To the right of the cell, and past the other two cells adjacent to Leah’s, stood a desk manned by the female police officer. She must be acting as custody officer today – a job she obviously relished, by the look of importance that emanated from her as Edith approached and asked for permission to use the telephone.
‘She’s not one of your fallen women. She’ll be given a prisoner’s garb soon enough. Your job is to get her well enough for questioning.’
‘You don’t yet know that she has done anything criminal. And even if she has, she deserves to be treated humanely. I will check her over, and I may need to take her to hospital or to Jimmy’s Hope House, but first we need to give her some dignity. Once all that is done, I will help you to question her.’
The woman nodded towards the telephone on the wall. Taking the receiver off its cradle, Edith had to smile as she cranked the handle. The police station was a little behind the times with its telephone system.
While she waited for Ada to answer, a picture of her came to mind. Despite her fifty-four years, Ada’s freckled skin looked almost as fresh as it had done when Edith first met her. Her figure had rounded, but was just as shapely as ever. She saw Ada as a bundle of love – lovely to look at, and with a generosity of spirit. A woman who took life’s knocks in her stride.
Unlike me. Edith sighed. Her hand went to smooth down the occasional unruly grey hair that seemed to dance away from the rest of her dark mop and refused to stay in her bun. Although, she had to admit, she had kept her figure, too. She patted her flat stomach. Not bad for a girl who has had her fiftieth birthday! But it was in the way she coped with the past that she differed from Ada. She tended to dwell on things too much.
At last she heard Ada’s voice answer the operator. ‘Yes, put her through . . . Edith, is that you, love?
‘It is, Ada. We have a sad case on our hands.’ She told Ada how she’d found Leah in such a poor state, and listed the clothing the girl would need. ‘And on top of everything else, she is French and cannot speak much English.’
‘Poor mite. I’ll get onto it right away.’ ‘Thanks, Ada. Is Joe there?’
‘Aye. I’m on the verge of divorcing him. He’s as grumpy as owt. He’d planned on getting on with sommat he wanted to do in the grounds today, but the weather’s beaten him. He’s reet under me feet. I’ll send him in the van with this lot. He’ll be with you within the hour.’
‘Thank you, Ada.’ Trying not to laugh, Edith wanted to ask her to prepare a bed for Leah in the room with the other young unmarried pregnant women they housed in their maternity wing, but was afraid of further annoying the eavesdropping policewoman. As it was, she was embarrassed to have to answer Ada’s next question. ‘Are you alreet, lass? You don’t sound yourself.’
‘I’m fine, Ada. It’s just – well, you know.’
‘Aye, I knaw. It’s understandable. Didn’t you say this one was French? Well, that’ll have done it. Eeh, lass, I pray every day as sommat like a miracle will happen for you, and you will be reunited with your twins. But I know you’ll get on with things as usual, just like you always do. By, it sounds as though this lass needs you to, an’ all.’
‘What would I do without you, Ada? We’ll have a chat when I come back.’ As she replaced the receiver, Edith’s smile widened. She thanked God for the friendship and comfort that Ada had brought into her life. It didn’t matter how down she felt – Ada could always lift her spirits. Even if she didn’t say anything funny, her northern tone and matter-of-fact way made Edith feel everything was all right in the world. Needing a moment to herself, she peeped through the barred window of the cell that held Leah. Someone must have brought the hot milk she’d ordered, because a cup stood on the floor and Leah lay with her eyes closed.
Leaning against the wall outside the cell and out of sight of the female officer, Edith composed herself. Ada had been right. Speaking French – something she hadn’t done often, since her world had been rocked all those years ago – had plunged her back into the painful past.
Flashes of that past assailed her now. She made them go away by concentrating on the positive outcomes. Meeting her husband, Laurent, for one. Laurent had been an officer with the French Army. They had met during what Edith termed her ‘wilderness period’, the time when Albert – a cockney corporal with the British Army, to whom she’d felt a deep attraction – had gone off the rails and kidnapped her.
No, I won’t think of that time, or of the ultimate outcome. I can’t cope with it. Not now. Instead, she thought of how she had come back from the war determined to find Ada.
Devastated when a young boy called Jimmy had been shot at dawn for cowardice, Edith had wanted to find his mother. Jimmy had told her about his mam whilst she tended his injury before the awful verdict was passed, and begged her to find her and tell her that he was innocent.
He’d told her his mother’s name was Ada O’Flynn. Edith had heard how Jimmy’s brothers had been killed at the beginning of the war, and she’d felt a sense of duty to carry out Jimmy’s last wish. Coincidence then brought Ada into her life. It turned out that Ada was one of the young women being helped by Edith’s cousin, Lady Eloise, who ran a charity that assisted all those stricken by the events of war.
Edith and Ada had bonded immediately and had become unlikely friends. Even though they came from different classes, and different parts of the country, their friendship had grown as they helped each other come to terms with the horrors of war.
They became custodians of each other’s secrets, and took comfort in sharing their heartache. Eventually they set up Jimmy’s Hope House, to help women wronged as they themselves had been wronged, and later added the facility of Edith’s free surgery. Funded by donations from Edith’s friends who had been born rich, and from self-made businessmen who were her acquaintances, as well as from her own fortune and that of her family, the charity honoured Jimmy’s bravery.
But Edith knew that none of it could have been done – nor could she have got this far – without Ada by her side. Every day for the last twenty-odd years Edith had thanked God for Ada.
On examining Leah, Edith found that she was approximately five months pregnant, besides being malnourished and badly bruised. Once Leah was comfortable, Edith told her about the suspicions the police had about her. Leah shook her head. ‘Non, non. It is not the truth.’
‘Leah, you will have to talk to the police. I will help you. As soon as we have the clothes my friend is sending for you, we will tell the police that you will talk to them through me. Is that all right with you?’ Looking afraid once again, Leah agreed, but begged Edith not to leave her, in pitying tones that wrenched Edith’s heart.
They now sat in another soulless room: Leah and Edith on one side of a huge wooden table, and the sergeant and female police officer on the other side. Leah’s voice shook as she related her story. It appeared that she had graduated from university in Paris, where she had studied maths and history with the intention of becoming a teacher. But before she could start her teacher training, she and her parents and her younger brother, who was at home on holiday from his first year at university, had left France in the family’s motor boat. Leah was very vague about the passing of time and couldn’t remember exactly when this was. She only knew that it had happened not long after Christmas.
They were fleeing from northern France. Leah’s father, a scientist with the French Navy, wanted to move his family to England. He had feared for a long time that Hitler would turn his attention to invading France, and the family lived on the border with Belgium, a most likely point of German entry into their country. Her father’s eventual destination for the family was America, but he hadn’t been able to secure his release from his job and, therefore, the necessary papers to travel. He’d planned to sail to Britain overnight and use his wealth to pay their way, in whatever manner he could, including using false papers.
The boat had capsized and Leah believed that her family had perished. She had been picked up by another boat and brought to shore somewhere near the cliffs of Dover, where her rescuer had alerted the coastguard and then taken Leah to stay in his home. His wife had taken care of her while he brought their doctor to examine her. The doctor had left medication to help Leah sleep, but she hadn’t taken it.
When her rescuers thought she was asleep, she’d heard the man who had saved her speaking on the telephone. From the little English she knew, she deduced that he was calling the police. When the call ended, Leah was able to understand that the police would come to the house the next day.
Logic told Leah that this was bound to happen. She was a foreign national who had been involved in an accident that must be investigated. The police would want to know who she was, and why she and her family had been in British waters. Suspicion would be aroused as to whether they were trying to sneak into England and, if so, why. They would question whether she could legally remain. And if her family were found, they would need to know where they could contact her.
Panic had set in when Leah realized the police would probably send her back to France. The only relative she had there was her spinster aunt, who hadn’t spoken to the family in years. Confused and choked by a painful grief, she’d waited until the couple were asleep. Then she’d stolen some money from the wife’s handbag, which was hanging in the kitchen, leaving a note saying that she was sorry and would one day pay them back.
She’d made her way to London, where she thought she would get a job – any menial job where the language wasn’t a barrier; perhaps as a live-in chambermaid at one of the hotels. Leah didn’t go into details about her journey, but Edith suspected she must have slept out in the open, as it would have taken her several days. She marvelled that the girl had survived at all.
‘I eventually got a train, but I had nothing left when I arrived in London. No money, no food. I was unwashed and I looked bedraggled. I sat on the steps of the station, trying to decide what to do. A man approached me. I couldn’t understand him, but he made gestures as if he would feed me. I went with him. He took me to a house where I found myself to be one of many girls. There was another French girl there, and she could speak English. All the others were from foreign countries and had come to London by various means – some by arrangement with their families; or German girls whose families thought they were being taken to Ireland, to keep them safe. One girl told me that we had to let men do things to us or we would be beaten.’
Leah’s large, dark eyes filled with tears, which spilled over and made silvery lines down her cheeks.
‘Oh, my dear. How long have you been in that place?’ Edith knew she shouldn’t have interrupted and was meant to leave the questioning to the police officers, but she hadn’t been able to help herself.
‘I don’t know – months. I have been beaten many times. All of the women in there know about Jimmy’s Hope House, where you say you are from. Some have been to you for medical help, and said that you and another lady who assists you were kind. The girls have a way of helping each other to get out; they told me to go to you, but said I shouldn’t tell you anything, and that I should go back to them as soon as I can. If the man who runs the brothel finds that I am missing, he will take reprisals on one of them – maybe even kill one of them – and then he will find me. But I got lost . . . I’ve been gone for days. Those girls need help. Please help them.’
Edith was appalled. ‘You are safe now. You are a very brave girl. I will speak to the police sergeant. Hopefully he will let you come with me to Jimmy’s Hope House, where we will take care of you.’ Leah nodded. Another tear plopped onto her cheek. Edith wanted to take the girl in her arms and hold her tight. But she knew that was dangerous territory for her, and would result in undoing her resolve not to allow her past to weave its way into the present.
Her priority now was Leah’s welfare, and to get the police to take action to save the other poor girls, and bring to justice the evil man that she talked about.
Waiting for a decision from the sergeant, Edith willed herself to take Leah away from this wretched place. ‘I will take on the responsibility for her, and make sure she is available to you whenever you need to question her, Sergeant. Can’t you please release her into my care? I will sign anything you want me to.’
‘Well, as I haven’t any evidence of any crime to charge her with, I think that is the best option. But I’ll pass on to CID the information she has given me, and they will want to speak to her – and with some urgency, if what she is saying is true. They’ll contact the couple who rescued her, through the local police, who should have a record of the girl being found. If the couple want to press charges concerning the theft from them, we’ll have to deal with that and she will have to go to court. In the meantime we need her to sign her statement. Then you can take her.’
Edith smiled as she released a deep sigh. The sergeant was human, after all. She felt proud of the way she had held herself together and suppressed her own anguish. But then hadn’t she been doing so for the last twenty-two years? Well, she would carry on doing so. Continuing to help young women like Leah would sustain her, as it always had done. As did having her beloved Laurent, and dear Ada, by her side. She was blessed in many ways. But despite these positive thoughts, the desolate feeling deep within her wouldn’t go away, and she knew she would never feel truly fulfilled until she was reunited with her children. Would that ever happen?