- Published: 2 March 2021
- ISBN: 9781405944595
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $19.99
The Sunday Times Top 5 Bestseller
Shepherd’s Bush, 1970
The stink from the bags of rubbish piled against a wall in Scotts Road made Amelia involuntarily gag and cover her nose. The local dustbin men had gone on strike, and the council appeared disinclined to make any alternative arrangement. People had resorted to piling their refuse on side roads like this one – anywhere just as long as it wasn’t outside their own home.
Amelia lived just around the corner in Godolphin Road. It was a street of Victorian three-storey houses with basements. They had been built as family homes with rooms for servants, but now practically all were in multiple occupation. The luckier tenants had a self-contained flat, but mostly the houses were divided up into bedsitters, with as many as ten rooms sharing one bathroom.
Amelia thought herself lucky. Her room on the first floor of number twenty-two was large and light, and there were two bathrooms in the house, along with a separate lavatory. But, then, her landlord was a decent sort – he lived in the basement flat and kept an eye on his tenants and his property.
Pleasant he might be, yet his house was still shabby. Cracked lino in the hall, a threadbare stair carpet and, despite all the tenants getting on quite well, no one was in favour of a cleaning rota. Mostly it was Amelia who cleaned the common parts. She daydreamed of having a real flat, with a proper kitchen instead of a cupboard, and her own bathroom, where she could arrange fluffy towels and pretty bottles of bubble bath. But on twelve pounds a week from her job at the West London Weekly, she couldn’t afford anything better.
‘In The Summertime’ by Mungo Jerry had been in the top twenty for most of the summer. It wafted out of shops, houses, and from car radios all the time. But while that song created a lovely image of sunshine and flowers, stinking piles of rubbish were growing all over London. Now in late August, this one in Scotts Road had become a small mountain. Mike, who lived in the bedsit next to Amelia’s, claimed he’d seen rats running around on it the previous night. He thought the army should be called in to take it away.
Amelia usually averted her eyes from it and hurried past as fast as she could, but she saw something white out of the corner of her eye and turned her head to look.
There on the rubbish was a pair of the gorgeous white boots she’d been aching to own. She’d seen an advertisement on the tube for them, a black girl with an Afro hairstyle sitting naked on a rock wearing only the boots. A girl in the office called them Durex boots because the legs were tight, stretchy and quite difficult to get on.
Amelia couldn’t believe that anyone had just dumped them there – the soles looked hardly worn. Glancing around first to check no one was watching, she went closer, braving the smell. She couldn’t see a size, but they looked like a five, her size. Checking around her once more, she climbed over a couple of bags and grabbed one of the boots.
It didn’t move, so she pulled it sharply. The rubbish bags shifted and, to her horror, she saw the boot was attached to a human leg.
She screamed and almost toppled over backwards as she let go of it. On reaching the pavement she saw the pile had collapsed further with her weight and now a tanned thigh was exposed.
Seeing a man who lived two doors away from her house coming towards her, Amelia ran to him, stammering out what she’d seen and pointing back to it. He caught hold of her shoulders to calm her. ‘Okay, love, horrible, but you’ll be all right,’ he said soothingly, glancing at the exposed leg. ‘I’ll go to the phone box and ring the police. You’d better stay here. They’ll need to speak to you.’
Within a minute he was back, and put his arm round her as she was shaking from the shock. ‘They’re coming. Now, let’s cross over so the smell isn’t so bad. I’m Max, by the way. You aren’t going to pass out on me, are you?’
‘I don’t think so,’ she said, and gratefully let him lead her away.
She’d seen Max dozens of times, but mostly only from her window. He was perhaps thirty, slim and tall with dark hair, always smartly dressed in a navy blue suit with well-polished shoes. Close up, he was much nicer-looking than she’d expected, green eyes, a tanned face and even white teeth.
‘Do you think she’s been murdered?’
‘I can’t think of any other reason for her being on a pile of rubbish,’ he said. ‘Let’s hope the whole girl is there, not just a body part.’
Amelia shuddered. ‘I saw the boots and thought someone had dumped them,’ she admitted. ‘I never expected they’d be attached to legs.’
They stood together in silence. Amelia was normally something of a chatterbox, but shock had made her mute.
The police arrived soon after. They cordoned off the area, preventing anyone coming into the street, and removed some of the rubbish from around the body to take photographs.
A policeman came across to speak to them. He looked close to retirement age and his face was deeply lined. ‘You’ll be the young lady who found the body,’ he said. ‘And is this the gentleman who telephoned us?’
Amelia nodded. ‘I’m Amelia White, and I live at twenty-two Godolphin Road. I just saw a leg and I ran to Max here as he came around the corner.’ She couldn’t bring herself to admit she’d wanted the boots. In the light of the girl being dead it sounded so ghoulish.
‘Would you both come inside the cordon to see if you recognize her?’ the policeman asked.
They nodded agreement and followed him, ducking under the rope of the cordon.
They were now close enough to see she was a young, very pretty girl, with long blonde hair. She was wearing red hot-pants, the kind with straps and a bib, and a blood-stained white T-shirt or blouse beneath the straps. Somehow the outfit made it even more distressing as it was the kind Amelia yearned to wear, but she felt she was too plump. ‘I’ve never seen her before,’ she said, biting back tears. ‘I don’t think she lives around here.’
Max said the same and the police officer thanked them, took down their names and addresses, then said they would be called on for a written statement.
‘How was she killed?’ Max asked.
‘The pathologist is examining her now. We’ll establish her identity and contact her next of kin. But you can both go now.’
‘Well, that’s it, dismissed,’ Max said, in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood as he led her away. ‘You’re as white as a sheet, Amelia. Shall I come in with you and get you tea or something? I don’t want to leave you alone after such a shock.’
‘That would be so kind,’ she agreed, glad he’d offered because she felt she’d fall apart if she was left on her own. ‘But only if you’ve got nothing more pressing to do.’
‘Even if I had, I’d postpone it,’ he said, with a weak smile. ‘Besides, I’m as shaken as you and I need a cup of tea too.’
As he followed her up the stairs to her room, Max spoke up. ‘How funny is this? I’ve been seeing you most days for ages, but we’ve never spoken before. Well, it’s not funny – in fact it’s sad that something bad had to happen to make us speak.’
Amelia had spotted him moving in about two years ago. She thought he was too straight for her taste, with his neatly cut hair and smart suit. Even when he wore jeans and a T-shirt he still managed to look as if he’d stepped out of Burton’s window. ‘That’s London for you,’ she said, as she unlocked her door, glad that she’d tidied up before going to work. ‘It takes an accident or a drama of some sort to make people speak to one another. The hippie scene made it more friendly for a while, but that’s drifting away now.’
‘You were a flower child when I first saw you,’ he said. His smile was an engagingly wide one that made his eyes crinkle. ‘You were wearing one of those loose cheesecloth dresses and a beaded band round your forehead. I think you had bare feet too.’
‘Did I really?’ She giggled. ‘The thought of bare feet among the rubbish and dogs’ doings turns my stomach now.’
Max stood for a moment, looking around her room. Amelia had painted it all white, including the table, chairs and an old wartime sideboard. She had a big jug of red gladioli on the table, a patchwork quilt covering an old armchair, and dozens of brightly coloured paintings on the walls. Even her bed in the corner was covered with a red blanket and cushions in primary colours. With the late-afternoon sun coming through the large sash windows, it looked beautiful.
‘Are the pictures by you?’ Max asked. ‘It’s obvious you’re extremely artistic.’
Amelia smiled. ‘Extremely nothing! I couldn’t draw to save my life, but I appreciate art. I picked up most of these from the artists who hang their work on the railings outside Kensington Gardens. I do sew, though – the patchwork quilt is my work – and I paint furniture.’
‘It’s a lovely room,’ he said. ‘Mine’s pretty squalid.’
‘Do sit down.’ Amelia waved her hand to a small sofa covered with a vivid turquoise Moroccan mirrored throw, then pulled back a curtain in an alcove that held a sink and a tiny Baby Belling cooker atop a fridge. She filled and switched on an electric kettle, then took two mugs down from a shelf. ‘This place was hideous when I moved in, but it was cheap and it had potential. I’ve grown quite fond of it now.’
‘So what happened to the hippie chick?’ he asked.
Amelia glanced at herself in her long mirror. She liked to think of her present style as Girl About Town: a black and white mini dress, her brown hair cut in a sleek bob. Back when Max had first seen her in 1968, she had modelled herself on the Pre-Raphaelites with a curly perm, and used henna to dye it a deep red. She’d worn flowing dresses, jingling bracelets and no bra.
‘She grew up.’ Amelia sighed. ‘It was a fun time, but not, as it turned out, the Nirvana we’d imagined. Brian Jones dying, then Jim Morrison, not to mention the Vietnam War still going on and so many American soldiers being killed – all good reasons to take life a bit more seriously. Then the Conservatives got in early this year, and that just put the lid on it. But what about you? Did the sixties change you?’
‘It did internally,’ he said, taking the tea she offered him. ‘I liked the way it opened people up, me included! The music, the freedom to express yourself . . . But I’m an accountant and for that you have to look quite straight. Maybe I just reverted to type.’
Amelia sat down opposite him. She thought Max was rather scrumptious, and he was articulate. He wasn’t the type she normally went for, but she’d had her fill of weak men who relied on a spliff to face the day and wanted a woman to keep them. While it was true some of the hippie men she’d known were great in bed, they’d perfected their technique by staying there all day and taking mind-altering drugs.
‘So, what do you do, Amelia?’ he asked, breaking her reverie.
‘I work for the local paper,’ she said. ‘I say I’m a junior reporter, but the truth of the matter is I sell advertising space, make the tea and act as the office gofer.’
‘So do you write? I mean for yourself.’
No one had ever asked her that before. Maybe people thought her too shallow, too much of a party girl to do so.
‘Yes,’ she admitted sheepishly. ‘I’m writing a book, but I’ve never told anyone that until now.’ She hoped he wouldn’t ask what it was about because a book about a girl growing up in the sixties sounded so trite. Free love, drugs, and the inducements to abandon all morality changed her heroine and, doubtless, readers would think it was autobiography. In fact, it was based on observations she’d made about people she’d been close to. She hadn’t lost her own moral compass and she didn’t need drugs, but she certainly understood those it had happened to.
‘I’m not going to ask what it’s about,’ he said, surprising her. ‘My grandmother wrote short stories and she hated us asking about them. She’d say, “Wait until it’s in a magazine. You spoil it for me by asking. It makes me question too hard what I’m writing about.” ’
‘Gosh, that’s so true,’ Amelia said. ‘When I try to write a synopsis it sounds pathetic.’
‘So have you got secret aspirations to write a killer column in one of the broadsheets?’
Amelia spluttered with laughter, almost spilling her tea. ‘No! I’m learning the craft of writing with a view to getting my book published, not to be a real journalist – they’re all so cynical and jaundiced. I bet when I go in tomorrow and tell them about the girl in the rubbish, they’ll all want to be my best friend for the day.’
‘Speaking of which, wouldn’t you like to know who the girl is, who killed her, why he dumped her there? Her background and everything else about her? I know I would.’
Amelia liked that he had that kind of curiosity. She found men generally didn’t care about people’s back story the way she did. ‘Yes, I would. Ideally I’d like to be asked to write a feature on her as a person. What she did, her place in her family. But I think my paper will only be interested in sensationalizing her death, the lurid stuff. We might be a local paper but even they take their lead from the News of the World.’
Max smiled. ‘Maybe this is serendipity. If you were to find out about her, get the real lowdown, you could use that to make your book really great.’
They had more tea, then Amelia made them cheese on toast and they talked as if they’d always been friends. She learned that until six months ago Max had had a steady girlfriend called Gloria. ‘I was fond of her, but not in love, whatever that is,’ he said. ‘She kept hinting we should get married but I thought if I’m going to marry someone it’s got to be because I can’t bear to be without her. I suppose I think that’s what real love is all about.
‘I felt bad that I backed out. Gloria was very hurt,’ he went on. ‘She actually said she hoped I’d be miserable without her. Well, that didn’t happen, but I think she jinxed me. Some of the girls I’ve seen since seemed promising at the beginning, but they soon wore thin. I guess that makes me very shallow,’ he said.
Amelia liked him even more for saying that. ‘Not shallow, just honest. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced real love either,’ she admitted. ‘I’ve found the bullies, the vain ones, the pathetic ones, the mean ones. Not to mention the ones not too keen on personal hygiene. Once or twice I’ve felt hurt when I was dumped, but in a day or two I felt relieved I’d escaped. So now I can’t really be bothered to date anyone. I’d rather sit here at night and write.’
Max smiled. ‘Last winter I often saw your light on late at night. I got the idea you had a wild romance going on. I never imagined you writing a book.’
‘All my wild romances are fictional ones,’ she admitted, and laughed. ‘I’m so glad you came along when you did today. You’ve managed to cheer me up.’
At midnight, Amelia was still awake. Max had finally left at about ten o’clock. She was quite staggered by how much she liked him. He wasn’t what she called a Normal Norman at all, and she felt a bit ashamed that until today that was how she’d seen him, without knowing a thing about him.
He was so easy to be with. He didn’t talk about his work, or the people he worked with: he said that was deadly dull. Instead she’d found out that he played cricket and belonged to an amateur dramatic society, so far playing small parts. He also liked singing and rock-climbing.
‘I like the idea of a singing rock-climber. Are the hills alive with the sound of music?’ She giggled.
He had laughed at that but, then, he laughed readily. He said being the youngest of four boys he’d had to learn to laugh at their cruel jokes or be labelled a cry-baby. He had grown up on a moorland farm in Devon, but his parents had sold it the previous year to retire to Sidmouth. They had hoped one of their sons would want to take it on, but two of his brothers had joined the RAF, while the third had just finished his training as a vet and moved to Edinburgh. Max had never wanted to be a farmer, even though he said his childhood spent on the farm had been idyllic. He had started rock-climbing at seven on wild patches of Dartmoor. Now he liked to go to Scotland or North Wales to climb.
They kept coming back to the murdered girl, though – he was as interested as Amelia in who she was and why she’d been killed. He pointed out that narrow Scotts Road, which ran from Goldhawk Road to Uxbridge Road, existed to give access to all the wider roads it crossed and had been chosen to dump her body as garden walls on either side obscured any view. The upper storeys of the houses offered little more because of the tall plane trees that grew along the road.
‘Still, a strange place to dump a body,’ Max remarked. ‘She wasn’t there this morning – I would’ve seen those boots – so she must have been put there during the day. Possibly not long before you passed by. The killer must’ve driven her there, so why didn’t he go further out of London? Unless the rubbish was the attraction. Maybe he saw her as rubbish.’
Now as Amelia lay in bed, turning things round and round in her head, she realized not only was she burning to know about the dead girl, but she also wanted to see Max again.
The wind and heavy rain coming right off the sea rattled the cottage windows and pounded on the glass.
At the bang of a car door out in the street, Katy glanced out of the bedroom window.
Maisy was woken by a piercing scream. Startled, she sat up in bed, assuming the sound was coming from the street.
I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day’s walk from the source.
Carl said I was absolutely the right person for this job. I think he meant it. He didn’t actually say it was a job for a woman, but I could tell that’s what he thought.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.