Daisy's Long Road Home
Daisy's Long Road Home
MERRYN ALLINGHAM was born into an army family and spent her childhood on the move. Unsurprisingly, it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world. The arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England, where she’s lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually teach at university.
Merryn has always loved books that bring the past to life, so when she began writing herself the novels had to be historical. Writing as Isabelle Goddard, she published six Regency romances. Since then, Merryn has set her books in the early twentieth century, a fascinating era that she loves researching. Daisy’s War takes place in India and wartime London during the 1930s and 1940s, and is a trilogy full of intrigue and romance.
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To my father, who spent the happiest years of his life in India, but who never went back
After a while, whoever you are, you just have to let go,
and the river brings you home
—Joanne Harris, Five Quarters of the Orange
Table of Contents
Sussex, March 1948
Daisy ignored the doorbell when it rang. It had been a bad day and she’d no wish to entertain her prying neighbour. Half her nurses were down with influenza, but the ward was so crowded she’d had to order the few still on their feet to make up beds in the corridor. The row with Matron had been the last straw.
The bell rang again and she shut her ears to it. Until the third chime. Then she marched to the front door and flung it wide in exasperation. A man leant nonchalantly against the doorpost and she stared in amazement at him.
‘It’s nice to see you recognise me.’ She didn’t think he meant it as a jest. And why would he? It was months since they’d seen each other.
She tried to pull her thoughts together. ‘But why are you here?’
‘I needed to see you. Can I come in?’
‘Yes, of course.’ There had been a momentary hesitation and he was quick to notice it. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not staying. I have a train to catch back to London.’
But why had he needed to visit, and without warning? There had been no letter, no telegram. That was worrying and she wondered what was coming. She hadn’t been wrong about the edge to his voice though. He was the man she’d loved, perhaps still loved, yet after so long apart, neither had made any attempt even to touch hands. He followed her into the small kitchen that gave straight on to the road and looked around him. She’d been here for nine months and this was the first time he’d walked through her door.
‘It’s cosy,’ he decided.
‘Is Brighton so very expensive?’
He settled himself at the shabby wooden table. As always, he was completely relaxed. Only the slightly deeper creases around his mouth and the few grey hairs at his temple spoke the passing of years.
‘Not by London standards, no, but salaries here are low.’
‘And how is the job?’
She didn’t answer immediately but put the kettle on to boil. She knew the job was a source of irritation to him, and she couldn’t even boast that it was going well. Today had been the worst by far, culminating in a vitriolic exchange with her superior. For the first time, she’d answered the woman back and known immediately she’d done the wrong thing.
‘Beecham’s is a small hospital,’ she said, arranging cups and saucers on a tray. She was prevaricating, but if she showed her true feelings, she’d have to acknowledge the mistake she had made in coming to Brighton.
‘It can be a little insular, that’s all. Trifles can become too important. And the work itself is hardly challenging.’ She was willing to confess that much, but she wished she didn’t sound quite so weary or quite so frustrated.
‘I imagine the lack of challenge is inevitable. After the war, most nursing will seem humdrum.’
She poured the tea, trying to lose herself in the routine action, conscious she should fight a desire to confide in him. They were almost strangers now. Since she’d made the move to Brighton, they’d met only once. She’d gone up to London to spend the day with him just before Christmas. It had been a forlorn attempt to rekindle a love that had once burnt brightly. In determined fashion, they’d made their way around old haunts, exchanged opinions on the city’s new landmarks, chattered a little too much, told a few too many silly jokes, but there had been a hollowness to the day that neither could ignore. They hadn’t repeated the experiment. And now he was here, and she didn’t know how she should feel.
‘You could be right about the war,’ she said, carrying the tray to the table, her finger jabbing at a small spill of tea on the plastic tablecloth. ‘It was an extraordinary experience.’
She sat down opposite him and felt his eyes fixed on her. His gaze made her shift uneasily in her seat. He knew she wasn’t happy, she thought. As always, he knew, and she could feel herself getting ready to confess the truth.
‘Brighton might have been a mistake,’ she blurted out.
There, she’d said it, but his eyebrows barely rose at the admission. ‘I got the promotion I wanted, but the nursing is fairly basic, and though the patients are wonderful and most of my staff are well enough …’ The words were tumbling forth now. ‘It’s the pettiness that gets me down. It’s a small town and the hospital is a very small community.’
‘And who is being particularly petty?’ He was as perceptive as ever.
She allowed herself a small sigh. ‘Miss Thornberry—the matron.’
She read his exclamation rightly. A hospital’s matron was always key. They could be fiercesome women, but most were dedicated to their work and fair in their dealings. This one, though, had beaten her. The woman was constantly niggling; sly remarks that suggested that Daisy, as a newly promoted sister, wasn’t quite up to the job. For months she’d taken the criticisms in silence but today she’d had enough and let fly.
‘I expect the latest trouble will blow over.’ Her voice had a false brightness to it.
Grayson stirred his tea and waited for her to go on. He knew there was more to say and so did she. The job had certainly proved a disappointment, but the real heaviness in her heart came from elsewhere. For years, she’d lived a solitary life and felt proud of her independence. But a moment had come, and quite recently, when she’d had to accept the truth. She wasn’t just alone, she was lonely. A thirty-year-old woman who still hadn’t got life right. She missed the camaraderie of wartime, though it had taken her a while to realise it. And she missed the comfort of a good friend. If Connie were here, she could have confessed her loneliness. But Connie was now Mrs Lawson and living a new life in Canada with her doctor husband. Together they’d decided the old Empire offered better prospects than a ravaged and debt-ridden England. And then there was Grayson. How long had that taken before she recognised how large a void he’d left in her life? But that was something else she wouldn’t admit.
He’d been silent all this time and she felt impelled to speak, to fill the empty air with words, any words. ‘I’m sorry. None of this is important and you haven’t travelled miles to hear me moan. It’s only that today has been particularly difficult.’
‘Don’t give it a thought.’ His gaze finally relaxed. ‘Why have friends if you can’t complain to them?’ There was a studied emphasis on the word ‘friends’, and she was trying to think how best to respond, when a loud burst of music clattered through the adjoining wall.
‘She has a gramophone and she likes to play it.’
‘Noisy as well as nosy then. She watched me as I walked along the road — every step of the way.
Next door, Peggy Lee was delivering her final flourish, making it impossible for them to speak. But when the last strains of ‘Mañana’ had died away, Grayson nodded his head towards the drab cream wall that separated the two cottages. ‘I take it you’ve tried to negotiate?’
‘I have, but it made little difference and unless I’m to have a stand-up row with her—look, Grayson, forget my neighbour, instead tell me why you’re here. You said nothing about coming.’
He rocked back on the hard chair, his hands in his pockets. ‘If I’d given you advance warning, you might have made an excuse for not seeing me.’
‘I wouldn’t have done that.’
He looked fixedly at her once more, and she found herself lowering her eyes. ‘Things haven’t been good between us, you must admit,’ he said. ‘And I wasn’t sure I’d see you. It was important that I did.’
‘You’re seeing me now.’
She knew she sounded impatient. She hadn’t liked the reminder of how bad things had become. And now she was over the first shock of his appearance, the first rush of pleasure at seeing again the face she’d loved so well, annoyance was uppermost. She was tired and hungry and, she thought confusedly, a little scared. Something bad was about to happen, else Grayson would never have made this trip.
He stood up and stretched his long frame. ‘Can we talk somewhere more comfortable?’
She thought it unlikely. The cottage was rented and the landlord a skinflint. What furniture he’d provided had almost certainly been bought at auction at rock-bottom prices.
‘Will this do?’ She gestured towards the narrow sofa crouching beneath the windowsill, its red moquette worn so thin as to be almost colourless. Grayson followed and perched precariously on the seat’s hard edge. He half turned so he was looking directly at her. ‘I’m going back to India. Not permanently, but I’ve no idea how long I’ll be. I thought it only courteous to a lover, or should I say a former lover, to bid her farewell.’
Daisy’s mouth dropped open. She was stunned, too surprised to speak, too surprised to dwell on being demoted to a former lover. In any case, he spoke truly. Their love seemed to have gone missing somewhere along the way, and right now she hadn’t the energy or the will to try to recapture it.
‘But why?’ she stumbled. ‘Why go back? Why go now?’
She felt stupidly upset. Twice this week India had swum into her world, seemingly out of nowhere, and left her bewildered. Ever since the package from Jocelyn had dropped through her letter box, she’d felt it burdening her mind. And now Grayson had arrived with India on his lips and the burden had just grown heavier.
He leaned back against the unyielding sofa cushion and took his time to answer. ‘Why now? Because there’s trouble. And I’m needed.’
That did nothing to calm her nerves. ‘Trouble? What trouble?’
‘You must have read about the situation—what’s been happening in India since Independence.’
‘You mean the killings? Yes, I’ve read about them. It’s been awful. But what have they to do with you?’ An unspecified fear tightened her face, until she felt her skin drawn hard against her cheekbones. Her voice must have sounded panicked because he tried to soothe her.
‘Most of them have nothing to do with me and, at the moment, the country is generally peaceful. It was the speed of Partition that caused so many problems—huge swathes of the population suddenly on the move, Hindus and Sikhs going east, Moslems west. But people are more or less settled now. Most of them have got to where they want to be, and there are only a few areas where all the old horrors—murder, arson, rape—are still going on. But they’re going on in one spot that interests me in particular.’
If he was trying to soothe her, he wasn’t succeeding. ‘And where’s that?’ Somehow she knew without asking.
‘Yes, you’ve got it.’ He’d read her mind, as he so often did. ‘Jasirapur. At least not the town itself but an area of Rajputana some distance away—sorry, I should say Rajasthan now.’
‘I still don’t see what it has to do with you,’ she argued stubbornly. ‘The Indian authorities must be in charge.’
‘Javinder has to do with me. Do you remember him?’ Grayson smiled as he put the question to her. She knew he was recalling the time they’d spent together at the cantonment hospital.
‘Of course, I remember.’ Javinder Joshi had been Grayson’s assistant in Jasirapur. She had helped nurse him back to health after he’d been badly hurt in one of the riots that had been frequent before the war.
‘He’s gone missing and, since he’s one of our intelligence officers, London is interested in finding him. Which is where I come in. I was the SIS man in Jasirapur before Independence and a close colleague of Javinder’s. They reckon I have the best chance of discovering what’s happened to him.’
‘I don’t see that at all.’
Why was she so anxious to stop Grayson going, she wondered, when she’d allowed herself to drift from him with hardly a backward glance? And what could he do if he went to India? The country was vast, Rajasthan was vast. If the people on the ground hadn’t been able to find Javinder, why should Grayson be successful?
‘Surely, someone in the local office must have searched for him?’
‘In a desultory kind of way, I imagine. But they don’t have the manpower and the situation is confused. Thanks to Partition, we’ve had the greatest migration in human history and that includes the civil administration. Add in the fact that the Europeans have all but disappeared, and India has been left running the show on a skeleton staff.’
‘It still doesn’t make sense. Why send you? It’s years since you’ve been there. There must be someone else they could send, someone who’s worked in India more recently.’
‘Apparently not. The security service only ever had a small presence in Jasirapur and nearly all the ICS officers who worked alongside me have either retired or returned to England.’
‘Javinder can’t just disappear. He’s probably taken leave of absence. Maybe someone in his family is ill and he’s had to take off quickly, without notifying anyone.’ She sounded desperate, she knew. And there was a part of her that was.
‘Unfortunately, he has just disappeared. Javinder is responsibility itself. He would never simply take off. I’ve spoken to the current admin team and they’re pretty sure he was investigating an unusual spate of violence that broke out a few months back. They think he had a lead as to who was behind it, but naturally as his work is secret, he told them virtually nothing. They were guessing, though they can’t be sure, that he was travelling north.’
Daisy was silent for several minutes and, when she spoke, her voice was devoid of emotion. ‘It’s going to be dangerous, isn’t it?’
‘It could be. Javinder may have been a little too successful in discovering the culprits. That’s why I wanted to say a proper goodbye.’
The threat hung in the air and her stomach cramped with tension. He had been in danger before and she knew how that felt. She didn’t want to feel that way again but here she was, before he’d even left the country, feeling sick at the thought that he might once more be walking towards serious trouble. She swallowed hard.
‘And you’re going alone?’
‘No.’ His face had grown sombre but now it broke into a warm smile. ‘That’s the good thing. I’m taking Mike.’
‘The very same.’
‘But surely he’s never had anything to do with India? I remember you telling me that he’d always worked in Eastern Europe.’
‘True enough, but wherever he’s worked, he’s a good operative and a good friend. And the trip will be a kind of swan song for him.’
She tried mentally to calculate Corrigan’s age. ‘He’s retiring? I wouldn’t have thought him old enough.’
‘Not retiring. He’s being moved. New brooms are sweeping through the security service and his injury has made it difficult for him to work in the field. He’s been seconded to another part of the organisation. To a section that’s strictly admin—so no more adventures.’
‘I know his leg was bad, but he seemed to manage.’ Mike’s limp hadn’t appeared to impede him when Daisy and he had met during the Sweetman crisis. But that might no longer be the case. Sweetman had forced him into crashing his car and Mike had ended up with broken bones and a split head.
‘He’s managed okay, more or less,’ Grayson agreed. ‘But by the time you met him, he hadn’t worked abroad for some years. And since the incident with that fanatic, his health has become more of a problem. His leg has always given him stick but now he’s experiencing giddiness, fearsome headaches, that kind of thing. Smashing into a lamp post head on isn’t to be recommended.’
‘So why are you taking him? I know he’s been a very good colleague, but if it’s going to be dangerous, surely you need someone who’s completely fit?’
‘Mike will stay in Jasirapur. He’ll be my man in the office while I travel further afield. I need someone back at base that I can trust absolutely. And it will be easier to hunt for Javinder on my own. That way, with luck, I won’t draw too much attention to what I’m doing.’
It seemed a little too pat. It was unlikely Grayson would take a man who had no experience of India whatsoever, on a journey that could be extremely dangerous.
‘Is that the real reason he’s going with you, or is there something else?’ She knew how close the two friends were.
His blue eyes lit with amusement. ‘You’ve got me well and truly taped, haven’t you? I suppose I want to do Mike some kind of favour. He’s been dealt a rotten hand and I feel sad for him. He makes the best of it, but there’s no disguising that being forced out of ops and into pen-pushing has come as a real blow. He jumped at the chance of a last grab at the old life.’
‘I imagine that having a close friend with you might be helpful.’ She couldn’t quite keep the doubt from her voice.
‘Enormously helpful. With Mike in charge, I won’t have to worry what’s happening in Jasirapur while I’m up country. And he’ll make sure I get everything I need, when I need it.’
He’d already planned his strategy. He was determined to go and nothing would dissuade him. But why that was making her so dejected, she couldn’t understand. It was natural to worry for a friend about to embark on a perilous journey, but in her heart she knew there was more to it than that.
She stood up and began mechanically to clear the teacups. She’d been too shocked before to think clearly, but now her mind brooded over the way in which India had once again assumed centre stage in her life. After months of silence, Grayson had appeared out of the blue and with startling news. And this just days after the package from Jocelyn had arrived, stirring recollections she would rather be without. It all seemed too coincidental and she didn’t believe in coincidence. Was fate dealing her another of its ugly hands?
She felt him watching her closely again. ‘Is there something else? Something bothering you?’
She tried to formulate the words that would make sense to him, but found it impossible. Instead, she swooshed the cups beneath the tap with unnecessary vigour. He came to stand behind her and she felt his warmth immediately. She wished she wasn’t so susceptible. This was the time, if any, to have a hard head and a hard heart. He was launching himself into some insane exploit and there was at least a likelihood that she would never see him again.
‘What’s bothering you?’ he repeated.
‘Apart from your intention to go adventuring in a country swirling in blood?’
‘A wild exaggeration. It’s been bad, very bad, but these last few months, things have been relatively quiet. Gandhi’s death seems finally to have brought Hindus and Moslems together. A paradox if ever there was one. A man who used prayers rather than guns to stir the masses, but then meets a violent death himself. Still, his murder seems to have clinched the peace, though it’s the last thing his assassin would have wanted.’
‘Gandhi’s peace doesn’t seem to be operating where you’re going,’ she said tersely, concentrating hard on hanging the tea towel square on the roller.
He linked his arms loosely around her waist. His breath was on her cheek and his voice in her ear. ‘It’s not just my journey that’s worrying you, is it? So what is it? Be brave and tell me.’
She eased herself from his hold and began to stack the china into a cupboard. She was oppressed by a sense of impending trouble and the stirring of emotions she thought she’d lost, the memories she couldn’t lose. But he deserved some kind of explanation, and she must find one.
‘A few days ago a package arrived. It came from India and was completely unexpected. For some reason I found it upsetting and I haven’t been able to forget about it. And now you’ve arrived and I wasn’t expecting that either. Then, without warning, you tell me you’re going back there …’ She shook her head, the tears pricking dangerously. She was glad she had her back to him.
He took her by the shoulders and swivelled her around. ‘Who sent this package?’
‘It was from Jocelyn, Jocelyn Forester. Though that’s not her name now, of course.’
‘She’s living in Assam, isn’t she? I think you told me she married a tea planter.’
Daisy’s eyes were stinging with unshed tears but she took a deep breath and said levelly, ‘She did and Assam is miles away from Jasirapur. But she went back there recently. Her parents are leaving after twenty years—imagine—and they’re returning to England. She travelled down to help her mother pack up the bungalow and clear all the unwanted stuff they’ve accumulated. It’s amazing what you hoard over twenty years.’ She felt on firmer ground now.
Grayson frowned. ‘Is Colonel Forester leaving the army then?’
‘Yes. Leaving or maybe retiring early. The Indian Army has been disbanded, I believe.’
‘Well, there’s a new Indian army. But you’re right, the old regiments have been divided up.’
‘Jocelyn said in her letter that as the 7th Cavalry was a mixed regiment, the Hindu soldiers had to join the new Indian army and—’
‘—and their Moslem brothers-in-arms had to leave for Pakistan,’ he finished for her.
‘She said her father was very cut up about it and it made him decide to leave the military altogether.’
‘I heard it was the same for most of the British officers and you can’t blame them. Showing a preference for one faith or the other goes against the IA’s founding principles. It’s a miserable business though. You can divide equipment easily enough, but not people.’
He drifted away towards the window and seemed to be watching the small boy on the pavement opposite trying to launch his new kite on a near windless day. But she knew he wasn’t seeing the child; in thought he was back in India and very soon he would be there in body too.
‘Sorry, daydreaming,’ he said apologetically. ‘You still haven’t told me what was in this mysterious package.’
She joined him by the window and, side by side, they stood looking out on the now empty street. She was back in control of her feelings and able to tell him calmly what she knew.
‘When Jocelyn finished working on the bungalow, the colonel asked her to sort out the regimental stuff. Not the obvious things that were to be shared between the two countries—equipment, furniture, pictures, the mess china—those kinds of things. But the odds and ends that no one knew what to do with. It’s not only bungalows that collect unwanted stuff.’
At the thought of those odds and ends, that unwanted stuff, the tight control she’d forced on herself began to waver and it was a little while before she could go on. ‘Anish’s belongings were there.’ Even now it hurt to mention him.
She knew that he did. More than anyone, Grayson was aware of how Anish’s death had haunted her over the years.
She struggled to find a lighter note. ‘The adjutant was tired of trying to find someone who would take them, so he was delighted when Jocelyn put in an appearance. Apparently he’d spent a lot of time attempting to trace relatives, only to discover when he found them—I believe the mother’s family live not too distant from Jasirapur—that they wanted nothing to do with it. Anish may have been a hero to his regiment, but he was someone his family wished to forget.’
‘That’s hardly surprising, is it? You told me yourself there was a deep rift between Rana and his uncle.’
‘There was, but it’s still painful to think of.’ The silence stretched between them before she began again. ‘After that, the adjutant looked for someone in the father’s family. But that failed too. The Ranas are somewhere in Rajasthan, but he couldn’t locate them. Captain Laughton sent several messengers around the region, but no one came forward. I don’t believe Anish had any contact with his family, not after his father died.’
‘So Jocelyn sent you his things?’
‘Not things in the plural. Just one thing. The rest were auctioned for regimental funds. She sent me something she thought I might like. She said she knew how close I was to him.’
Her voice had dropped to little more than a whisper. ‘It was a purse, a small pink purse made from the softest leather and fastened with a crimson drawstring. When I unpacked it, it smelt of India. The purse was very pretty,’ she went on quickly, ‘though not terribly practical. But I don’t believe it was ever supposed to be. It must have belonged to Anish’s mother, perhaps the only thing of hers that he kept.’
Grayson looked at her for a moment and then said gently, ‘I can see that Jocelyn’s letter has dredged up bad memories for you.’
She was grateful for his understanding. ‘I’ve pushed them away, you know. The memories. All these years since I left India. Tried not to think what happened there, tried to keep those months separate from the rest of my life. But opening that package brought it rushing back.’
‘It is just a purse,’ he reminded her.
She shook her head. ‘It’s more than a purse, more than a keepsake. It’s a jab in the ribs, a reminder that I always intended to go back. To exorcise the ghosts, wasn’t that what you said?’
They fell silent, remembering the pledge they’d made to each other when their love had been new and intoxicating. ‘But you chose Brighton instead,’ he joked, trying to dispel the tension.
She turned away from the window and switched on the battered standard lamp that hunched in one corner. The small windowpanes let in little light and the day was already waning. Then she looked across at Grayson and spoke the thought that had been gathering in her for weeks. His arrival had only sharpened its edge. She knew she had to get out of this poky cottage, away from her noisy, nosy neighbour, away from Miss Thornberry and her constant carping.
‘I’m thinking of going back to London.’
‘Back to London?’ He sounded bemused but angry too. ‘You’re going back to town the very moment I’m leaving?’
The light was dim but it didn’t stop her seeing the bitterness in to his face.
‘But how convenient for you. I won’t be in London, so you won’t need to find an excuse for not meeting me. Did you plan this stroke of genius while we’ve been talking? I’ve got to hand it to you, Daisy, you can be utterly ruthless when you need to be.’
The injustice stung her. She stood back from him, her small figure stiff with outrage. ‘That’s unfair, dreadfully unfair. If you must know, the idea has been in my mind for weeks. I wasn’t sure whether I should cut my losses and leave, but when I saw you today, I knew I had to.’
‘Why?’ His tone was pugnacious.
‘I don’t know. I came to Brighton for the wrong reasons, I guess. I knew my mother had nursed here and I had some stupid idea that if I followed in her footsteps, worked in a local hospital, lived close to where she’d lived, I would feel her presence. That somehow I’d discover more about her. More about me. But it was a crazy idea and it’s been a wretched failure. I haven’t felt her near me for one minute and I’ve found nothing to remind me of her, nothing to say she was ever even in the town. Except the entry we saw years ago in the Pavilion archives.’
He looked at her measuringly. ‘So Brighton wasn’t about promotion after all?’
‘Only very slightly,’ she confessed. ‘And that hasn’t worked either.’
The bitterness had vanished from his face and, in its place, there was the beginning of warmth. He reached out and took her hand and she felt it lying cold in his palm. ‘You won’t want to hear this, but it seems to me that your drive to uncover a past you can’t know has brought you nothing but upset. I wish you’d get this identity thing out of your hair. It’s messing up your life.’
‘Not any longer. When I go back to London, that will be the end of the story.’ But, even as she spoke, she knew herself unconvinced. The identity thing, as Grayson called it, was just too important. That was something he couldn’t understand, would never understand, but it didn’t make her need to discover the past any less compelling.
‘You won’t give up, whatever you say.’ His contradiction was point blank and his blue eyes held a bleak expression. ‘I can’t see an end to it. It comes between us all the time, and it will go on doing so.’
‘I don’t see how.’
‘Neither do I—at least not clearly. I just know that it will. In your mind, it seems mixed up with India. The fact that an Indian purse can send you into a spin is proof of that. You talk about bad memories, but I think you’ve forgotten most of them. You’ve coped with being kidnapped, you’ve coped with Gerald dying—twice. You may even have coped with knowing that he betrayed you. But Anish Rana is a different matter and it’s evident his death still troubles you. I’ve no idea how it’s connected in your mind with parents you never knew, except for the fact of loss. But I do know it’s a barrier between us and has been ever since Jasirapur.’
He let go of her hand and stood looking at her, his expression marked by disappointment. ‘You shake your head, but I’m right. You were plotted against and you were frightened. Gerald died and you were angry. But this is different. This is something we can’t seem to get over. I thought we had. I really thought we’d made a breakthrough. Right here in Brighton.’
‘We had.’ But she knew she sounded insufficiently certain.
‘It didn’t turn out that way though, did it? I accept the war made things difficult, but since then? Month by month, you’ve slipped away. Maybe not deliberately, but that’s what’s happened. Moving to Brighton might have been an attempt at reconnecting with your mother, as you say, but it was also a way of escaping.’
‘It wasn’t an escape,’ she protested. ‘It was a new start or that’s what I thought.’
‘Without the pressure.’
‘And what pressure would that be?’
‘You wanted something I didn’t.’
‘I asked you to marry me. After years of separation, was that so unreasonable? I wanted you with me—for always. But before you answered me with a word, I had only to look at your face to know that a wedding was the last thing you desired. You made me feel as though I’d suggested something shocking. Yet marriage between two people who have loved each other as long as we have—surely that’s the most natural thing in the world?’
She lowered her head, studying the worn carpet intensely. ‘You have every right to be angry, but I was happy as we were. And you wouldn’t let things be.’
‘So you escaped down here—yes, it was an escape, whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not. And it hasn’t worked out.’
‘No.’ She subsided onto the sofa, her complexion ghostly in the evening light.
He came to sit beside her and she smelt the sharp tang of his cologne. It was a smell she’d always loved and the urge to nestle into him was strong. But that was one stupidity she wouldn’t commit. As he’d pointed out, she had made an escape of sorts and she should keep to it.
‘So come back to London,’ he was saying. ‘Find a different job—something that challenges you in the way Beecham’s doesn’t. But don’t cut me out of your life. If I promise no more persuasion, no more pressure, will that help? We could try it when I get back from Jasirapur.’
When she didn’t respond, he got up from the sofa and pulled her to her feet. ‘I’ve missed you—enormously. And you’re probably right about marriage. I don’t really know why I was so keen. No doubt a reaction to having survived some very dangerous years.’
He kissed her gently on the cheek and picked up his coat to go. ‘Until we met, I never thought I’d want to marry and I know very well that you’ve had your fill of weddings. So probably not my brightest idea. But if you come back into my life, I’m willing to sue for terms - whatever you decide.’
The offer was attractive. To be back in the hum and thrum of London again, the city of her birth. To be working in a busy teaching hospital, learning something new every day, growing in confidence again. And, once he was back from India, and he would come back she promised herself, Grayson would be there, close by. Nothing too heavy. Nothing too committed. Just there.
She thought about it and was still thinking when he reached the front door. He turned on the threshold, a wry smile on his face. ‘If you do make the move back to town, leave your address at Baker Street. But be prepared to see me on your doorstep as soon as I get back.’
‘There’s no “if”,’ she said firmly. ‘I’m handing in my resignation. Tomorrow.’ She’d known for weeks it was the right thing to do but Grayson’s visit had proved the spur.
‘What good news to take away with me.’
She wondered if he’d think so when he knew what she intended. Her plans had just been radically revised and weren’t quite as he imagined. A new job in London was certainly tempting, but something else was more tempting still. Something that could lay to rest her fears, her doubts. Her obsession, as he called it. Finally.
He was half in and half out of the door, when she said, ‘I’ll be giving in my notice, but I’m not going to London.’
He stopped in surprise. ‘Why ever not? Surely, the pick of nursing jobs are there. Or have you decided to give work a miss altogether? I know what it is—the purse Jocelyn sent was a magic one and you have all the money you’ll ever need.’
‘It was magic,’ she said slowly. ‘But not in the way you mean. Magic because it’s helped me discover what I really want to do.’
A deep crease cut across his brow. ‘I thought we had a decision on what you wanted to do.’
‘You had a decision,’ she pointed out. ‘I was still deciding. And now I have. Mine is to go back to India. I’m coming with you and Mike.’
Bombay and Jasirapur, early April 1948
It was hot, scorchingly hot. After ten years, Daisy had forgotten the intensity of an Indian summer. She walked along the quayside to the waiting car, feeling herself wilt beneath the sun’s glare and her limbs drain of energy. But it wasn’t the heat that was bothering her most. It was memory. Again. Memory that was sharp and painful and minted afresh. She’d guessed this moment would be difficult but she hadn’t foreseen just how difficult. It was as though she were once more living through that long ago April day. She felt it all: bewilderment as she’d waited in the noisy reception, the one she could see now, just over her shoulder; her nervous smoothing of the silk dress for which she’d saved so hard but which the heat had crumpled to a rag; the sick uncertainty when the man she was to marry was nowhere to be seen. And then out into the crowd. The sheer overpowering energy of India, its people, its colours, its smells, met for the first time. Above all, the memory of Anish Rana. He had been the one who’d accompanied her to church, delivered her to a drunken bridegroom. This morning there was to be no church and no wedding. Instead a slow carriage drive, sandwiched between Mike and Grayson, through Bombay’s congested streets to the Victoria railway station.
The journey to Jasirapur took as long as before and was almost as tiresome, the train bumping its way across a sprawling landscape on rails laid down when Victoria was Empress of India. But bump though the train might, travelling was not as uncomfortable as ten years earlier. This time first class meant a little more luxury. There were sleeping bunks and a courteous attendant who brought them food and drink, and bowls of water to wash with. It was badly needed, for heat was still the enemy. The sun hung huge and golden in the sky, burning through the dusty haze to broil the plain beneath, and, despite thick linen blinds, it permeated every crevice of the compartment. Handles on doors soon grew too hot to touch and the studded leather benches turned slimy beneath damp limbs.
Once again, the train stopped at every small station to allow the waiting crowds to clamber aboard, a noisy hustle accompanying every halt they made. Despite the clamour, and despite the heat and the dust, she felt sufficiently relaxed to fall asleep on her narrow bunk during the night’s darkest hours. She was grateful to have the compartment to herself. It was impossible to keep from remembering but there was a solace in travelling alone for much of the journey. Occasionally, her companions would put their heads around the door, once or twice they drank tea with her, but otherwise she was left in peace.
And it was a kind of peace, she realised. The future might still be uncertain, but it was an uncertainty she could accept, a lifetime away from the wrenching hesitancy of her last journey to Jasirapur. This time there was no need to watch covertly a new husband’s expression or examine every word she said before she spoke it. No need, in fact, to placate the man she had married but hardly recognised from their courtship in London. How callous Gerald had been. It was only now that she saw the depth of his unkindness. She’d been so desperate to fit in, desperate to please him and not do or say the wrong thing. Of course, she’d failed on every count. It was never going to be any other way. The odds were stacked against her from the very beginning.
But this time, when an hour after dawn Grayson helped her down from the train at Marwar Junction—the station’s sign was still crooked, she saw—she found she could walk to the waiting jeep with an untroubled heart. There was no man to tangle with her thoughts. Gerald was long dead and Grayson had kept the promise he’d made on that fleeting visit to Brighton. Not a word of marriage had come from him, not even a suggestion that he’d ever been her lover. The journey had brought them closer but closer as friends—three friends, in fact—bound together by their Indian adventure.
Though it was barely six o’clock in the morning, the sun was already burning a path through the platform’s paving, its heat piercing the thin soles of her shoes. Creased and weary from the journey, she climbed gratefully into the stuffy jeep. In a few minutes, luggage had been loaded and directions given.
‘Let’s hope the house isn’t too far. This heat is appalling.’ Mike mopped a dripping forehead. ‘I’m in desperate need of a shower.’
‘Amen to that, but we shouldn’t be long getting there,’ Grayson replied. ‘I asked them to put us within easy reach of the town.’
He had spoken truly. Within a blink, or so it seemed to a still half-asleep Daisy, they were coming to a halt outside a large, whitewashed bungalow, its trim garden stretching into the distance on either side of a long, winding drive.
‘Our home for the duration,’ Grayson announced. ‘Number six Tamarind Drive.’
Her eyes were at last properly open. ‘However did you manage to bag this?’ She was used to living in cramped spaces and the house seemed extravagant.
He gave a shrug. ‘It’s government owned and currently empty, so why wouldn’t they want to house us in style?’
A man, dressed in a long white kurta, came hurrying down the veranda steps to greet them. It was all so reminiscent, she thought. Except that this servant’s smile appeared genuine. He tucked her bags under his arm and straightaway escorted her to the room that would be hers. It was refreshingly cool. Well kept, too, she noticed, with furniture that looked almost new. At first she’d thought the scene a replay of that earlier one ten long years ago, but she had only to remark the smile on the young Indian’s face, the pleasant interior, the manicured garden, to know that it was not at all the same.
She plumped down on the bed and eased her feet from shoes that had tightened their grip. The house was as large as it had seemed from the road and there was plenty of space in which to lose themselves. Until now, she hadn’t thought how necessary that might be. On-board ship, they had led carefully demarcated lives and seen little of each other. A few drinks, the evening meal, an occasional gathering in the bar of all three of them. But now they were under the same roof and would be thrown together far more often and far more closely. How awkward would that prove to be? So far Grayson had shown no inclination to resurrect their old relationship and that was a comfort. From tomorrow, too, his work would take him into town for most of each day and then no doubt he’d be on the road, scouring the countryside for Javinder.
‘Ahmed will cook for us,’ Grayson said, when they re-emerged from their rooms a short time later to a tray of cold drinks. ‘Here, have some lemonade, Daisy. I’d forgotten how invasive this red dust is. I’ve a throat that feels like sandpaper.’
‘Let’s hope Ahmed proves a better cook than Mrs Hoskins,’ Mike said dryly. Mrs Hoskins was Mike’s turbulent landlady. He’d amused them from time to time on-board ship with anecdotes of Mrs H., as he called her, and her many tribulations.
‘I’m sure he’ll be excellent,’ Grayson said easily. ‘I think we’ve been given a cleaner as well and a man for the garden. So not too much for us to do.’
‘Except concentrate on the search for Javinder Joshi.’ Mike’s tone was not hopeful.
Daisy felt Grayson looking directly at her. She knew he was wondering what she would be doing while he and Mike were involved in the search. She’d had trouble convincing him that it was a good idea she travel with them. There had been several angry spats before he’d accepted he wasn’t going to dissuade her. He’d argued vehemently that it was unsafe for her to visit India at this time, to which she’d retorted that it must then be unsafe for him, doubly so since he was there to investigate a likely crime. He’d argued that it was the wrong time of the year, but she’d pointed out that it had been April when she’d landed in Bombay to marry Gerald. He’d argued that she would be bored, but she’d told him to leave that to her. She would find ways of filling her time. At that he’d looked suspicious. Then she’d had to play her ace, the wartime promise they’d made each other during that one wonderful weekend in Brighton, the promise to return to India together.
‘I was wrong. I shouldn’t have promised,’ he’d said. ‘I shouldn’t have encouraged you to go back. You’re going on an insane whim. Your mother had only the slightest of links with India and yet you’re preparing to travel thousands of miles in the mad hope of discovering a few fragments of family history. The only thing you’ll find in India is disappointment. And what then? You’ll be launching yourself into the next search and the next one, and so it will go on. You’ll never be at peace.’
‘Even if I find nothing,’ she’d reasoned, ‘I need to go back. I need to lay the ghosts from my past. You said so yourself. And once I’ve done that, I’ll be content. I promise. I’ll have to accept that I’ll never know who I truly am.’
‘You’re Daisy and that’s all I need to know. It matters not a jot to me who your mother and father were.’
‘But it matters to me.’
And so they’d argued, back and forth, until eventually she’d worn him down and he’d agreed to take her, as long as Mike had no objections. Mike hadn’t. On the contrary, his friend appeared delighted to have her alongside. She would have to pay her own passage, Grayson had warned. She suspected that he hoped the proviso would put a stop to her dream. But she’d managed to pay for her ticket, though it had taken every penny of her savings. And she was glad she had.
She’d known for months that her life was going nowhere and Jocelyn’s letter, Grayson’s visit, had stirred her to action. She was ready to leave an unsatisfying job in an unsatisfying town, ready to throw her world to the winds. The practical choice was a return to London. Instead, a sixth sense had taken over and brought her this far from home. She’d found herself propelled like a compass point searching out its magnetic home, to where she knew she had to be. The strength of that compulsion was extraordinary. For years, she’d tried to stifle it, but finally it had broken free. It had been the moment that Grayson had picked up his coat ready to leave her small, drab cottage, that she’d been certain. Certain that how she lived the rest of her life depended on her returning to India, depended on her scrubbing her memory clean of the past and finding a future that was waiting to be found. And so she’d retraced the miles she’d believed she would never travel again, and now she was back, here in India, here in Jasirapur.
She glanced across at Grayson and noticed that the cool room and a glass of lemonade had given him a new energy. She wished she could say the same but her eyes were heavy with tiredness, and within minutes she had slipped away, back to her own room.
She lay down on the cool white counterpane and breathed in the newly familiar smells, tasted the warm, thick air and felt the heat suffusing her bones. With delight, she listened to the calls of the birds beyond the shutters. Later, she would go on to the veranda and see how many of the birds she’d grown to love inhabited this new garden: cheerful little bulbuls with red and yellow rumps she hoped, hoopoe birds with their art deco plumage, and perhaps even paradise flycatchers with tails like long, white streamers, nesting in the trees that she’d noticed marked the boundaries of the property. After the monsoon, she knew, the garden would truly live again. There would be butterflies almost as big as the birds, dressed in their peppermint green and primrose yellow. Meantime there were months of the most incredible heat to live through. She would doze a while until the heat of the day had faded and then go on an inspection tour. Instead, she slept for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon.
When finally she ventured into the sitting room, it was to find Ahmed setting the table for dinner.
‘Gentlemen will be back very soon, memsahib.’ He smiled at her. ‘They begin work already.’
She felt a fraud. Grayson and Mike must have gone into Jasirapur to organise their office while she had done nothing but sleep. And, sure enough, minutes later, she heard the sound of the jeep’s wheels crunching along the gravelled drive. She went out to meet them.
‘Sleeping Beauty, I presume,’ Grayson mocked. ‘I looked in to say goodbye but you were well away.’
Mike followed several paces behind his friend and she noticed he smiled no greeting. Instead, he looked tired, defeated almost. She guessed the journey was beginning to take its toll.
‘How were things at ICS?’ she asked, as Ahmed finished serving the inescapable curried chicken.
‘Everyone was very helpful,’ Grayson replied, ‘without actually being very helpful.’
She looked enquiringly at him. ‘They’re a nice bunch, the new officers,’ he said, ‘but they’ve no idea about Javinder’s whereabouts and only the haziest notion of his work. So staying in the office is not going to get us too far.’
‘I’m the one who’ll be staying,’ Mike said heavily.
Grayson looked across the table at his colleague. Mike’s tone had evidently surprised him. ‘Mike will be staying in the office,’ he echoed, ‘as logistical backup. And I’m certainly going to need some. They’ve given us Javinder’s old room and we’ve made a start getting the place set up. Mike has three filing cabinets and a ton of files to sort through. Hopefully our man might have left some indication of where he was going. The first job, though, is to get the telephone company to install an extra line. One that doesn’t go through the main switchboard. We need to be able to talk privately, once I’m on the road.’
Daisy felt a small sinking in her heart. ‘When will that be?’
‘In a day or so, I imagine. Tomorrow I’ll begin making enquiries—someone may know something.’
‘But where will you start?’ It seemed to her that a search for a lone man somewhere in the huge expanse of Rajasthan would be more difficult than for the proverbial needle.
Grayson was undaunted. ‘Where I always start. The town. The bazaar.’
She brightened. At least he should be safe for a few days. And the idea of a visit to the bazaar and its delights was an attractive one.
‘Can I drive in with you?’ It would give her the chance to ask questions of her own under the guise of some innocent shopping.
‘You can, but I have to warn you, I’ll be leaving very early. You’ll have to forgo the Sleeping Beauty routine.’
She smiled at his teasing. ‘And what if my prince hasn’t hacked his way through the forest by then?’
‘I’m afraid you’ll have no choice but to abandon him and make do with me,’ he retorted.
She saw Mike frown and realised with a shock that they had come close to flirting. It would be too easy, she knew, to fall back in love with Grayson and she must guard against it. There was no such thing as a perfect man, any more than a perfect woman, but he came close. Nearly perfect men, though, had their own plan for life and she had hers, and the two were never going to fit. She must be careful. She had no wish to complicate this trip and neither did she want to upset Mike. This evening he seemed to be in a strange mood, his expression morose, his liveliness depressed. Not too many quips about Mrs H., she thought. It might be the effect of the country on him. She had loved India from the start, but she understood that it was not the same for everyone. And she knew, too, that Mike had worries back home. She would need to be extra vigilant in her dealings with Grayson. If Mike were forced to play an awkward third in their relationship, it was unlikely to make him any happier.
Grayson, too, had been surprised to find himself falling back into the easy relationship he’d once enjoyed with Daisy. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, though he had no illusions. The long months of absence had taken their toll on both of them. Once upon a time, she had given him her heart and given it completely, but that moment hadn’t lasted. When he remembered those heady few months after the Sweetman debacle, months when they’d lived only for each other, he felt a pain that stung. And it was still there. He should have realised the truth then, of course. Daisy had saved his life and, in doing so, come close to death herself. Because of the Sweetman affair, they’d been living in an oddly heightened state and that very fact had encouraged them to step into a whirl of emotion they couldn’t control. They had thought they couldn’t live without one another. Except that the war had dragged on for another three years and they’d been forced to. Between Daisy’s nursing shifts and his punishing hours at SIS, they’d met infrequently and, when they did, they were both exhausted from the pressure of work. He’d hoped that when peace came, things would be different. They would pick up the pieces and finally make a home together. He’d told his mother he intended to marry and she’d been content. She had met Daisy on several occasions and liked her. The girl’s background hadn’t been the stumbling block he’d feared, for his mother had proved far more open-minded than he’d expected. And she’d admired Daisy for the way she had made something of her life out of so very little. But even if that had not been the case, his mother would never have rejected the girl who had saved her son from certain death.
Mrs Harte had not been the problem. Mrs Harte’s friends, clustered in their small, genteel enclave of Pimlico, had not been the problem. It had been Daisy herself. His proposal had stunned her. It was as though a stranger had asked to be her husband. After the first shock of rejection, he’d felt angry. Gerald Mortimer had died in dreadful circumstances but that had been seven years ago and, long before then, Daisy had come to know him for what he was—an adventurer, a liar, a betrayer. Memories of her dead husband could not be preventing her from saying yes, so what was? It was hard to swallow but he was forced to the simple conclusion that Daisy had no desire to marry. She was determined to stay a single, independent woman. She had no wish to share her life in any meaningful way. It was sufficient for her to see him from time to time, but she wanted no greater commitment. He’d told her plainly what he thought of that arrangement and the next thing he’d known, she’d taken a job fifty miles away and moved there without telling him. He’d lost heart then; it was better to let her slip away. His mother had been consolatory. She had begun to think that Daisy saying no was a good thing. The girl had been harmed by her harsh upbringing and would never settle to married life. After all, she had never known a family had she, so how could she create a successful one of her own?
Grayson hadn’t accepted his mother’s logic, but a part of him acknowledged there was some small truth in what Mrs Harte had said. He’d seen for himself that Daisy had not escaped her life unharmed. She’d fought the fight well and to all intents and purposes, she’d come through, but there remained a large void in her which she’d been unable to fill. And he’d been unable to help her. This was why she was here. This was what she was chasing by coming to India, a chase that, in his view, was doomed to failure and could mean only more heartache. He understood how the gaps in her story tormented her, but he couldn’t for the life of him see how coming here could help fill them. His best hope was what he’d always believed—that coming back to India would help her deal with the very bad memories she still carried.
The next morning she was already eating her chota hazri when Grayson made an appearance. He looked at her and she saw him smile.
‘Lovely dress, Daisy. But much too good for the bazaar. ‘
‘On the contrary. I have to compete with some very beautiful women and some very beautiful saris.’ Her polka dot sundress was young and fresh but against the richness of Indian materials, she knew it would go unnoticed.
‘No competition. You’ll win hands down.’ She felt herself flush beneath his gaze. She would have to be careful. She buried herself in the plate of small, sweet cakes that Ahmed had left to tempt her.
Grayson said no more and made no effort to join her at the table, ignoring the customary small breakfast and downing two cups of coffee while he stood by the window.
‘It’s going to be hotter today, if that’s possible,’ he opined. He was looking out at the garden, which was already shimmering in the heat. ‘We’d better get going unless we want to fry in the jeep.’
There were few other vehicles on the road. Several bullock carts passed them, heading out of town, and for a while they were caught behind a small boy who was driving his flock of goats to the fields. Eventually, he peeled away from the main thoroughfare and, with loud yells and brutal whackings of his stick, herded the beasts down the narrow lane leading to their barren grazing.
Grayson picked up speed again and they were halfway to the centre of town when he said suddenly, ‘Would you like to take a look at the old place?’
He meant the old bungalow, she knew, the one she’d shared with Gerald and his malevolent servant, the one that had stored stolen guns for a group of outlawed fighters and nearly cost her her life. She felt beads of perspiration on her forehead.
‘You don’t have to put yourself through it,’ he said quietly. ‘But I thought it might help.’
Would it help? She didn’t think so, yet she knew she had to see the house again. For years, she’d hoped she could break free of its frightening shadow. Grayson seemed certain that she had, that she’d coped with the past far better than she realised. But she knew differently. She hadn’t coped with it. Not really. Not deep down. She’d muffled it in bandages, layer upon layer of them. And though she’d wanted to come back to India, secretly she’d been sceptical that a return could act as any kind of purification. But here she was, and she owed it to herself to take whatever chance offered to lose the millstone she carried.
‘Yes, let’s take a look,’ she said, as casually as she could.
It was a shock when she saw the place. The garden had always been unkempt, Gerald having little interest and even less money to keep it under control. But now the alfalfa grass had grown almost to the roof line and a weed she couldn’t put a name to had started its inexorable colonisation, gripping the whitewashed walls in iron tentacles. Rajiv’s quarters to the right were almost submerged beneath the wilderness. As she looked across at the rooms he’d inhabited, she could conjure no clear picture, no clear vision of him emerging from his door, sullen-faced, suspicious, hostile. That was good. That particular image was rubbed clean.
‘It looks pretty dilapidated,’ Grayson said.
‘It never looked anything else.’
‘Not quite as bad as this though. In the ten years since you left, I don’t think it’s had a lick of paint. And see, several of the shutters are off their hinges. They won’t afford the house any kind of protection—and there’s a hole appearing in the thatch. Come the monsoon, the rain will pour through that roof and drown the interior. I imagine rot has already set in. A few more years and the house will crumble inwards.’
‘A waste of a bungalow,’ she remarked, though privately thinking that crumbling was exactly what was needed. If the house lay in ruins, she would be happy. It had only ever been the garden that she’d loved and that was beyond saving.
‘It is a waste. It would have made someone a good home. I made a few enquiries.’ That was news to her. So this unscripted visit wasn’t quite so unscripted. ‘The army tried to sell it as soon as they knew the regiment was to disband—they must have acquired the property years ago—and they were willing to sell at a knockdown price. But there were no takers. No one would even move in for free. The locals won’t come near the place.’
‘Because of what happened here?’
‘That hasn’t helped, certainly. The gang has become notorious in the district.’
Anish, too, she imagined. He would be just as notorious. ‘But they’re all in prison.’
‘That makes no difference. India is a land of superstition and superstition ensures that the gang will return to haunt the place. It doesn’t help either that the house was built on an ancestral burial ground. That in itself would be reason enough for the locals to avoid it. Far too many ghosts.’
Ghosts, she thought ironically. The ghosts she was supposed foolishly to have seen when she tried to talk to Gerald of her fears. Those particular spirits had turned out to be entirely flesh and blood, and criminal flesh and blood at that. But she’d had other phantoms to face and they were still with her. She turned away and walked back to the jeep. If she’d hoped the visit might prove an exorcism, it had been unsuccessful.
Grayson dropped her at the edge of the bazaar and then disappeared in a swirl of dust, intent on a mission that would take him deep into the network of narrow alleys and hidden courtyards. For most of that morning, he would be only a few hundred yards from her but she was sure she would see nothing more of him. He would keep a low profile and so must she. She’d had second thoughts about asking questions today. It might be better to postpone them until a second visit and in the meantime, learn or relearn her way around the sprawl of shops and traders.
She spent several delightful hours wandering between brilliantly coloured stalls and, despite her best intentions not to buy until she left for home, she came away with a bolt of the most beautiful emerald silk and a stock of coloured glass bangles. They would be small presents for any patients she had in the future, when or if she found another post. Miss Thornberry’s reaction to her resignation had been typically ill natured and she wasn’t expecting a glowing reference.
In the last few minutes, her skin had begun to burn, even as she stood in deep shade. It was time to turn for home and she headed for where she remembered the tonga drivers used to gather. Weaving a complicated path through the jumble of stalls, she edged her way through one narrow space after another, skirting the sweep of craft workers who plied their trade at ground level. Very soon she spied the tall plumes of a horse’s bridle and saw them move with the shake of the animal’s head. She felt pleased with herself that she’d managed to find the place unaided.
The sun was now directly overhead, its rays arrowing through the thick air and hitting the ground with such force that they bounced upwards and slapped her in the face. She felt sandwiched between two opposing armies, both brandishing fire, and it was a relief to climb into the first carriage she came to. She lay back in the shade of the faded cloth canopy and watched its decorative bobbles jump to the rhythm of the wheels, as the tonga swerved out into the traffic and made for Tamarind Drive. She was looking forward to home, to a cold shower and an even colder drink. And then a long rest on the cool counterpane. It was a guilty pleasure, a sheer indulgence, when at this very moment she should by rights be directing the activities of a busy ward.
But when she walked up the veranda steps, her plans received a setback. Mike was sitting at the dining table surrounded by paper, and she felt disconcerted. She had expected him to be at the office. He looked up when she walked in and she thought he seemed irritated. That was probably her imagination, for his face relaxed quickly into a smile and he folded the map he’d been studying and asked her how her first day’s return to Jasirapur had gone.
‘Don’t clear the table for me.’ She gestured to the stack of papers he’d begun to load into his ancient briefcase. ‘I’m ashamed to say the bazaar has tired me out and I think I may take a sneaky nap.’
‘I don’t blame you. This heat is a killer. But I have to go back to the office in any case. I just needed a few hours’ peace and quiet to go through some difficult correspondence.’
She went to the table and poured herself a glass of water and drank it down thirstily. Mike’s words surprised her. She remembered Grayson saying that the administration team was short staffed, and it seemed odd that his friend had been unable to find a quiet haven in which to work, but perhaps the offices were in more of a mess than Grayson realised. His passion lay in fieldwork, she knew, and he was more than happy to leave the paperwork to someone else. But Mike must feel just the same and she felt sorry he had the unenviable task of trawling an endless succession of files in the meagre hope that he might uncover a clue to Javinder’s whereabouts.
He tucked his briefcase beneath one arm and walked to the door. ‘You look a trifle hot still,’ he said. ‘Ahmed is ordering me a tonga. Shall I ask him to bring you some tea?’
‘You’re right. I am hot, and tired too. I’d forgotten how tired you get—I’ve no energy left. But I’ll settle for water, thanks. I don’t want to delay you. I may be utterly lazy but I know the wheels of industry must keep turning.’
‘Not much industry going on, I’m afraid. We’re on a bit of a wild goose chase.’
‘Grayson doesn’t appear to think so,’ she said carefully. ‘He’s expecting to leave in a few days. This morning, when we drove into town, he was talking about the equipment he needs to order.’ It had been news to her that he needed to prepare so extensively for his travels. ‘I wasn’t sure what exactly he had in mind.’
‘I imagine he’ll be camping, so a tent, cooking utensils, that kind of thing.’
‘Then he must be anticipating a long journey.’
‘Who knows?’ Mike shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s a crazy idea, a crazy trip and fraught with danger, but you know Grayson.’ His smile was a little off centre. ‘He’s no idea where Joshi could be, except a vague notion that the man travelled north, but he’s setting off come what may. He’s too stubborn for his own good. For all he knows, the chap could be dead by now.’
‘So there’s been no more news?’
‘Nothing. We haven’t a clue, but I sure as hell wouldn’t start traipsing through Rajasthan in this excruciating heat. Not to mention the restive natives. And all on the off chance that I might come across a missing man. He’s probably gone walkabout to see his family. I’ve been told they come from an adjoining state, so it’s more than likely.’
‘I suggested that to Grayson, but he said Javinder was far too conscientious to do such a thing.’
‘He would, wouldn’t he? He trained him. But whatever the truth of the matter, I haven’t been able to persuade him out of this fool’s errand.’
She took another long drink of water, then looked up to find that Mike had left his case by the door and walked back into the room. He was standing very near, his face serious, and when he spoke he leaned towards her to emphasise his words. ‘I haven’t persuaded him, Daisy, but you could. And I hope you’ll try.’
She felt herself grow hot with embarrassment. ‘I doubt I’d be any more successful. I don’t have that much influence.’ Maybe once, she thought, but not any more.
‘You underestimate yourself. You mean a lot to him and he’ll listen to you. There’s still time to get him to think again.’
She felt trapped. She didn’t want Grayson to walk into unknown dangers, any more than Mike did, but neither did she want to do or say anything that might unsettle their new relationship. At the moment, it seemed to be working. It was affectionate but mercifully uncommitted. If she pleaded with Grayson too hard, she might raise expectations she couldn’t fulfil.
Mike walked back to the door and picked up his briefcase. ‘Talk to him tonight,’ he urged. ‘He can still be made to abandon this wild project.’
‘Tonga here, Mister Corrigan.’ Ahmed had come quietly into the room and she was spared from answering. Mike gave her a brief nod and strode towards the veranda.
‘See you at supper,’ he said over his shoulder.
The sound of hooves on the gravel signalled that Mike was on his way to town. The house was within easy reach of Jasirapur, just a short tonga ride away. Unlike the lonely bungalow she’d visited this morning. That had been a thieves’ den, but had also been her prison, and she could never think of the place or what happened there without her heart beginning to trip and her stomach to knot. So she wouldn’t think of it.
Ahmed had returned, this time bearing another large jug. ‘For you, memsahib. Water is very cold. I think you are still feeling bad.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
She smiled her thanks and allowed another glass of the liquid to slide icily down her throat, then sat for some while simply enjoying the feeling. It was strange how uncomfortable she’d felt when Mike was in the room and it made her pause. He’d seemed so insistent that she intervene with Grayson. Perhaps that was it. But when she thought more, she realised she hadn’t felt entirely easy with him during the whole journey. Even on the ship, his heartiness had seemed a little forced. She hardly knew him, of course, whereas Grayson and he had been colleagues, good friends too, for many years. But in the short time she’d spent with him during the war, he’d seemed almost a different man.
He’d driven her to the safe house in Highgate, except that it had turned out to be anything but safe. At least not for her. He’d been easy-going, she recalled, pleasant, chatty. He was still friendly enough but she had the sense of it being purely a surface emotion. He’d lost the genuine warmth she remembered, that was it. She wondered if he resented her being here. Grayson might have voiced his doubts but Mike had seemed happy to include her in the trip. He’d welcomed her effusively, perhaps too effusively. After all, she’d invited herself, imposed herself on what had been an all-male adventure. He’d probably been looking forward to working closely with his friend—a last grab at the old life, Grayson had called it. In London, he might have been easy with her decision to join them but now her presence in India had begun to feel intrusive. Even worse, he might have started to suspect that Grayson and she were trying to rekindle their romance and he’d be dragged unwillingly into the situation. He really needn’t worry on that score; it was the last thing she intended.
What she did intend was very different and, when the sun began its slow fade to the horizon, she roused herself to wash her face, brush her hair and don a fresh dress. Her wardrobe was severely limited, as much by money as by space, but a plain linen button-through seemed ideal for the lady she was about to visit. If Edith Forester still espoused the exotic flowing robes she used to love, it would be the perfect foil. The Foresters would be starting on their journey back to England any day now, but she had discovered from Ahmed, who seemed to know the ins and outs of every military deployment, that at the moment at least, they were still at the civil station.
The cantonment was subtly changed from the first time she’d seen it. Most of the army had moved out only months before but already she could see the signs of neglect. The clipped lawns were no longer quite so neat, the whitewashed walls of the bungalows not quite so white, and the road which ran a straight course through the spread of houses arranged in military precision had fractured into potholes every few yards.
The tonga had barely pulled to a halt outside the Foresters’ official bungalow, when Edith came running out onto the veranda. As soon as she realised who her visitor was, she ran down the wooden steps and greeted Daisy ecstatically. As though she were a long lost sheep, Daisy thought. A black sheep, perhaps.
‘It’s so lovely to see you, my dear. After all this time, too. Of course, Jocelyn has kept us up to date with all your doings but it’s not the same, is it? To actually meet again, face to face, is quite wonderful.’
Over the intervening years both she and Jocelyn had proved poor correspondents and Daisy thought it unlikely that Edith knew much about her life, but she smiled sweetly and returned the compliment. ‘Thank you, Mrs Forester. It’s very good to see you too.’
‘Edith, my dear. Surely we know each other well enough not to stand on ceremony. And you’re back in Jasirapur?’ It was a question that answered itself. Daisy could see the older woman was agog with interest. And why wouldn’t she be? After what had happened here, Jasirapur would be the last place anyone would expect her to return to.
‘A friend of mine, Grayson Harte—you’ll remember him, I’m sure—kept in touch when we got back to England. He mentioned he had to make a short trip here. Something to do with his work, I’m not sure what.’ She had better give nothing away, she thought, though Edith was unlikely to pose a danger to the security service. ‘At the time I’d just resigned from my job and thought that for old times’ sake I’d like to come back. Just once more.’
The ‘old times’ stuck in her throat but she tried to sound indifferent. Mrs Forester was unlikely to believe such a feeble explanation, but she had no intention of disclosing why she was really here.
‘The Colonel will be so sorry to have missed you. He’s just this minute gone back to barracks. Goodness knows what the problem is now. There’s always something. But come in, my dear, and Salim will fix you a drink.’
She led the way into a large but bare sitting room, her dress streaming behind her. It was the same floating, exotic garment that Daisy remembered, but this time a little faded, a little limp.
‘You see what a state we’re in. Most of the house has been packed up, but there’s still so much unfinished business left for the regiment that I’m beginning to doubt the Colonel will ever be through. The boat will most likely go without us.’
She smiled as she made the little jest but Daisy could see the sadness behind the smile. India had been Edith Forester’s world and her husband’s. Daisy had never herself known a settled life, but she was sensitive enough to imagine how frightening this new experience must be for them.
‘He’ll be sorry to have missed you,’ Edith repeated, ‘but we must have that drink. We must drink to your return.’ She clapped her hands and a white-coated servant obediently appeared at her elbow. ‘A gin and lime, my dear?’
She remembered Edith’s fondness for gimlets. She had never grown to like the drink, but at least she’d learned to swallow it without grimacing, and she accepted the glass that Salim held out to her. She’d made this call for a very particular reason and she would need to be patient and allow Edith time to tell her sorrowful tale. And she did, at length. Of how dreadful it had been seeing the Indian Army divided in such a cavalier fashion, how bitterly sad its dismemberment was after two hundred proud years of service.
‘Two hundred years to build, my dear Daisy, and three months to destroy. And these are men who fought side by side in two world wars.’ The older woman’s voice shook very slightly. ‘Every caste, every creed and colour—all united in a common cause. Countless numbers of them have died for Britain, yet with just one stroke of a pen, they’ve been divided forever.’
‘I heard,’ was all Daisy could say.
‘Everyone’s heard,’ Edith said a trifle scornfully, ‘but they don’t know how it’s been. Soldiers, tough men—Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs—wept on each other’s shoulders when it happened. Can you imagine? And look how it has left us.’ Edith waved her hand at the nearly bare room. Daisy saw the marks on the walls where their treasured pictures had hung.
‘Jocelyn came home to help you pack, I believe.’ She needed to interrupt this flow of gentle complaint and get to what she wanted to know.
‘Yes, she’s a wonderful daughter. She travelled across, all the way from Assam. It’s not an easy journey, but she was such a help. So quick, too. I’ve become a little slow these days.’
For the first time Daisy looked at her hostess closely. Edith was showing signs of age that she hadn’t noticed before. Her skin had always appeared toughened from years in the sun, but it was more papery now, and the luxuriant hair she’d always worn in a disorderly bun was sparser and showed more grey than brown.
‘Jocelyn sent me a keepsake from among the things she sorted,’ Daisy began.
‘Did she? She was always a kind, thoughtful girl. It was something nice, I hope.’
‘A purse, a very pretty little purse. It was among Anish Rana’s possessions, I think she said. It must have belonged to his mother.’
‘Ah.’ There was a pause while Edith decided how best to approach the difficult subject. Daisy helped her out. ‘The regiment was still holding Lieutentant Rana’s belongings?’
‘Yes, indeed. Dreadful business. The Colonel didn’t know what to do with the stuff after the poor man died. There wasn’t a great deal of it, of course. He was a single officer living in barracks. But it was still right to return his personal possessions to his family.’
‘It doesn’t seem the regiment was able to.’
‘The adjutant tried. He tried very hard. He managed to trace the family, I believe, well, part of the family. I think it was the relatives on the mother’s side. But the man he spoke to simply didn’t want to know. He was quite rude, Dennis said.’
‘So the family was local?’ Daisy asked carefully, holding her breath a fraction.
‘I imagine so. Dennis did tell me where he found the man—I think he was Lieutenant Rana’s uncle—but I can’t remember the name of the place. I doubt you’d know it anyway.’
‘But quite near Jasirapur?’ Daisy persisted.
Her hostess was looking at her oddly. She supposed her questions had become a little too particular. ‘Yes. It wasn’t far. In fact, the adjutant even thought of driving there and pushing the stuff through the gate. But, in the end, he decided it wouldn’t look very dignified.’
Her companion said nothing for several minutes and seemed lost in thought. Daisy felt disappointment seeping through her. The Foresters had been her most certain hope, but it appeared she would discover little here. She felt flustered and unsure of what to do next and the heat of the room began to overpower her. A small electric fan was churning in one corner but it succeeded only in stirring the heavy air anew. She glanced up at the ceiling. The punkah was still there, she saw, but now there was no man to work it. She hoped that Independence had given the punkah wallah a less wearisome job.
‘Amrita—that was the name of the house,’ Edith announced out of the blue. ‘I remember thinking what a pretty name it was, far too pretty for the rude man who lived there.’
‘Amrita,’ Daisy repeated. ‘You’re right—it is pretty.’ But would she ever be able to trace the house? There were bound to be a hundred Amritas in the district.
‘Something’s coming back to me. Let me see. Yes, the Colonel had once to visit nearby—I can’t recall why. My memory worsens every year, but I do remember going with him. The village was quite attractive, as Indian villages go. Yes, that’s right. It was a place called … Megaur … or perhaps it was a village near Megaur. I know you turned left at the station, Marwar Junction that is, and not straight ahead as though you were going to Jasirapur. Then you simply followed the road. It can’t be more than twenty miles from here. Less, probably, if we drove there quite easily.’
Amrita, Megaur. It was enough. Daisy wriggled in her chair, barely able to contain her excitement. ‘It’s good to know where my purse might have come from,’ she murmured. The remark was inane, she knew, but she had to say something. Hopefully, it might distract Edith’s attention from the strange behaviour of her guest.
‘I suppose it is good to know,’ the lady said vaguely. ‘But do have another gimlet.’
‘I won’t, thank you … Edith. I should be getting back, or I’ll hold up dinner. And the tonga driver has been waiting for me all this time.’
‘That’s his job, my dear,’ Mrs Forester said dismissively.
She wondered anew how the Foresters would cope in the very different world of post-war England. Edith and her husband had devoted their lives to the Raj and no doubt loved India passionately. But, whatever their benevolence, they were blind to the truth that Britain had no lasting place here. She was remembering the words of a patient she’d had at Bart’s, a retired colonial officer. He’d taken a keen interest in her travels and he’d talked a good deal about India. At one point he’d said rather wearily that no foreign power would ever succeed in mastering the country. You can order them about a little, he’d said, introduce new ideas, even dragoon them into accepting the unfamiliar, but then you must go away and die in Cheltenham.
She wasn’t sure where in England the Foresters were bound, but the old man’s words had an unsettling truth to them.
‘Thank you again,’ she said, and rose to leave. ‘Please give my best wishes to the Colonel and to Jocelyn.’
Her hostess rose with her and escorted her to the front door. She stood watching as Daisy walked down the veranda steps to the waiting tonga, her face gaunt and slightly bewildered. ‘Do come back when you can,’ she called out. ‘I’m sorry you have to go so soon.’
Daisy looked back and saw the older woman desolate against the naked interior of the house. Her parting words seemed a fitting elegy.
That evening, she made a decision. She was going to Megaur, she was going to find Amrita. But she knew she would face stiff opposition from both Mike and Grayson. She must keep her plans to herself and, if possible, keep silent too, on her visit to Mrs Forester. She was lucky. Both men assumed that after she’d returned from the bazaar, she’d spent the rest of the day at Tamarind Drive. The talk over dinner turned instead to the papers Mike had unearthed that day, with Daisy a silent listener. She was surprised to hear for the first time an edge creeping into their conversation.
‘I can’t for the life of me see why Mountbatten had to be in such a hurry,’ Mike grumbled. ‘He pushed Partition forwards ten whole months and completely destroyed the government’s own schedule. Why rush such a delicate operation? The more I read, the more I realise how close India came to annihilation. His decision was totally reckless. But then what do you expect from an aristocrat who fought a bit in Burma but knows nothing else of the world.’
‘He won a grand victory in Burma and I don’t think you can blame all the violence on Mountbatten’s decision,’ Grayson said mildly.
‘Don’t you? Well, try reading some of the reports filed by the civil admin teams from around the country.’ He saw Grayson looking quizzical. ‘Copies of their records were sent to every regional administration. And yes, I know, it’s unlikely to lead to any useful information on Javinder, but I have to go through everything.’
‘I’m glad you’re being so thorough,’ Grayson said, but Daisy thought that he didn’t look that glad.
‘Well, I am, and it’s often frightening stuff. Endless disputes over the anomalies caused by carving up the country. If people were lucky, disagreements were settled peacefully but if not …’ He wagged his head dismissively.
‘There were bound to be anomalies, Mike, whenever Partition was done and however long it took.’
Grayson was trying for calm, but his friend hardly heard him. ‘Ludicrous situations, too, which make the so-called Raj a laughing stock. Canal works on one side of the border while the embankments protecting it are on the other. Loads of instances like that. The border even runs down the middle of some villages, would you believe, with a dozen huts left in India and a dozen more in Pakistan. One poor devil had his house bisected—his front door opened to India but his rear window looked into Pakistan. It’s laughable but it’s also terrifying. No wonder there’s been such trouble.’
‘I know. I’ve read some of the accounts. But you could argue that rushing through independence was the best way to prevent even more violence.’
‘There surely couldn’t have been more. And what about the huge refugee problem it’s created. That has to be down to Mountbatten.’
‘Like I said, whenever it was done, Partition was always going to mean chaos.’ There was a forced patience to Grayson’s voice now. ‘India has known centuries of integration. It’s a mass of different cultures and traditions and beliefs. The entire country is a cultural compromise. However you divide it, there will always be people who don’t fit a particular “box”.’
‘Let’s hope they like the boxes they’ve ended up in then.’ Mike laid down his knife and fork and pushed away his half-eaten meal. ‘The only positive I can see is that no matter how bad the current situation, it’s got to be better than the Raj.’
Daisy was surprised to hear Grayson sound uncertain. He had always been a firm believer in Indian independence. Perhaps the dreadful violence had made him reconsider, or perhaps he was simply antagonised by Mike’s truculence.
‘No maybe, my friend. The Raj made Britain wealthy and self-confident but at the expense of millions of Indians.’
‘I’d agree that some people made a lot of money out of the country,’ Grayson conceded, ‘but not the vast majority of those who worked here. The ordinary little people who actually ran India.’
‘That was their job.’
‘True, but they also did it because they loved the country and its people. They built roads, hospitals, looked after forests, joined the Indian Army. People like Colonel Forester and his wife.’
He looked towards Daisy as he said this, but thankfully Mike had the bit between his teeth and she was spared having to respond. She would surely have given herself away.
‘You’re talking like an imperialist, Gray.’ Mike’s lips thinned. ‘I’m surprised and, as an Irishman, I have to say it grates.’
‘I’m just trying to give the other side of the picture.’ Grayson stretched his long legs beneath the table. ‘You could argue that it was Britain who first introduced the idea of liberty, albeit indirectly.’
Mike threw back his head and laughed, but it was a peculiarly joyless laugh. ‘You’re saying that Britain encouraged independence? Someone should have told the poor devils banged up for years for being nationalists. And perhaps I hadn’t heard but did Britain maybe help to set up Congress?’
‘Of course not. But sometimes ideas percolate without there appearing to be any definite agency. The need for progress, for instance. And, in a sense, being against Britain united India. It created the concept of patriotism, of a nation. Indians started to talk of Mother India. That was new, and look where it’s led.’
Mike shook his head. ‘I never thought I’d hear you justify a colonial regime.’
‘I’m not justifying it. Merely playing devil’s advocate.’
‘Be careful you don’t turn into the devil while you’re doing it,’ Mike said sourly.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care.’ Grayson got up from the table and pulled back Daisy’s chair for her. ‘You’re very quiet this evening, Miss Driscoll. Have we overwhelmed you by the brilliance of our arguments?’
‘I really don’t know enough to say anything sensible,’ she excused herself. ‘Overall, though, I think I’d be with Mike on this.’
Mike smiled at her with genuine warmth and she realised how much that had been missing during their trip.
‘I’ve clearly lost out,’ Grayson said, ‘and before you two gang up on me any more, I’m off to bed. There’s a lot to do tomorrow and I can’t imagine it will be any cooler to do it in.’
It was the signal for a general breaking up of the party and Daisy was able to slip away to her room with a murmured goodnight. The slightly bad-tempered conversation had ensured that she’d escaped interrogation, not just about how she’d spent today, but how she intended to spend tomorrow. There had been a price to pay for it though. An unaccustomed divide had opened up between the two friends and she hadn’t enjoyed seeing them disagree so starkly.
Once Mike and Grayson had left the house the following morning—together, she noted, and that felt a good deal better—she set off for Megaur. It took an hour’s driving along a road which wound northwards and across a landscape crackling with heat. In this first searing blast of India’s hot season, there was no sign that when the rains came, bushes and trees, fields and ditches would burst into new, green life. For now she looked out on a land shrivelled into crisp parchment. Beneath the sun’s white glare, the bright trees on either side sent sparks flying heavenwards. Clouds of dust mushroomed over the tonga as they drove, covering horse and driver and passenger with a fine red sheen. Yesterday she’d been foolish enough to venture out bareheaded and Grayson had taken her to task. Today she’d been careful to unhook the last remaining topi from the corner stand, but it proved only a flimsy defence. Even beneath the tonga’s fringed canopy, she had continually to adjust the helmet to cover as much of her neck as possible, and it wasn’t long before she was feeling hot and gritty.
In just under the hour, they were driving through Megaur. It was a sizeable village, with several narrow streets of whitewashed houses, a variety of shops and stalls and a large and ornate temple set back from the road. It was cleaner and tidier than most of the smaller villages they’d passed through and she wondered if Anish’s uncle was the main landlord of the district. If so, Megaur did him proud. Mrs Forester had called him a rude man, but Daisy hoped she’d been mistaken. Edith’s relationship with Indians was mediated through long experience of living under the Raj and she was likely to interpret any show of pride as discourtesy.
The tonga drew to a halt outside a pair of elaborately decorated iron gates and the driver said something to her in Hindi. This must be Amrita. She went to alight and then realised with a sinking feeling that the colonel’s wife had not mentioned the name of the man who lived here, and she had no idea how to address him. Not that it mattered, it seemed. She had barely rung the bell, when a white-coated servant emerged from the house and waved at her. It took her a while before she realised that he was waving her away.
She peered through the gate and tried to explain her arrival. But the man wasn’t interested in listening. Either he spoke no English or he’d been sent to frighten her away. The latter it appeared, for he picked up a large wooden stave from the side of the drive and walked purposefully towards her. At the sign of this aggression, the tonga driver took fright and began to back his horse up the lane they had just travelled.
Daisy didn’t blame him but neither did she intend to be intimidated. ‘Tell your master that my name is Driscoll and I have travelled some miles to see him. Be sure to say that I won’t intrude for long but I would be grateful to speak with him for a short while.’
A loudspeaker attached to one of the gateposts crackled into life. She hadn’t noticed it before but evidently it relayed speech back into the house. The voice that emerged from its depths was smooth and urbane.
‘Good morning, Miss Driscoll. Please, do come in.’
And the gates swung open.
Grayson had spent another frustrating morning. For nearly two days he’d questioned members of the administration team, telephoned old contacts and walked the town’s streets, but only the haziest of whispers had been of any interest. It was a most unusual situation and it took him some time to realise that it was a reluctance to speak, rather than ignorance, that was keeping people silent. When yesterday he’d made an abortive visit to the bazaar, he’d thought the stallholders in those narrow, ancient streets might be holding out for more money than he’d so far offered. He knew them to be a canny bunch. But when today he’d cast his net wider, visiting every business, every professional office in the town, and received the same response, he became certain his potential informants were scared. Everywhere he met with the same reception—a warm greeting, a chair pulled out, chai brought, but when the conversation turned to the troubles in the north of Rajasthan, there was a deafening silence followed by an apologetic smile and more chai. It must be precisely what Javinder had faced, and yet the young man had discovered enough to send him hotfoot to—to where? The region was huge and Grayson could be travelling for days and still find himself nowhere near his young colleague. He needed to have some sense of where he should be heading, particularly as it seemed his journey was likely to be every bit as dangerous as he’d feared.
After hours of useless talking, he walked into the office he shared with Mike to find his companion looking equally disheartened. The room was sticky with heat, a ceiling fan stirring the sluggish air to little effect. Mike looked up as he came through the door, a slow trickle of perspiration running down the centre of his forehead and stopping short at the bridge of his nose.
‘Did you have any luck?’ he asked.
Their last evening’s clash seemed to have been forgotten and Grayson could see his colleague was trying hard to look cheerful. That made him feel a little better. He hadn’t enjoyed being at odds with Mike, who was a good friend, an old friend. And he needed the man’s help if his quest was to have any chance of success.
‘Not a scrap. How about you?’
‘Much the same. I’ve been trying since early this morning to get these files into some kind of order.’ He waved a damp hand towards the tottering piles of paper which all but covered the surface of both desks. ‘I’m sure Javinder Joshi was an excellent worker. I can see he kept his paperwork more or less up to date, but he’s been gone several months, and since then the filing has turned into a paper Everest. I reckon every person in the building has slung something in here over that time. Probably anything they didn’t know what to do with.’
Grayson slumped down in his chair, putting his feet up on the desk and dislodging several files. He surveyed the mass of paper glumly. ‘It certainly looks that way. But you shouldn’t have the bother of going through every document in detail. For now, just stack the stuff as tidily as you can and someone else can decide later where it all belongs.’
Mike shook his head, then fished around on the floor for an errant pair of reading glasses that had somehow jumped from the desk. ‘I’ve been reading everything closely in the hope that amid this mound of frustration, I might come across something that would help you. But I haven’t.’
He straightened up and looked across at Grayson. ‘You won’t want to hear this, but I’ve got to say it.’ His voice was cautious but determined. ‘My advice is seriously to consider calling off the search. I know I’ve urged it before and you decided not to listen. But the problem is pressing now. We’ve found nothing and you haven’t a clue where Javinder’s gone or where you’d be going.’
‘You’re right, I haven’t.’ Grayson yawned, dazed by the soporific atmosphere. ‘Not an actual clue, at least. But I’ve been thinking about the conversations I’ve had these last few days. Nothing very specific, but I’m getting a feel for where I might start.’
His colleague looked decidedly sceptical. ‘A feel? You mean you’ll point your compass and feel where the needle leads you?’
‘Not quite so haphazard. It’s just that certain comments, certain ideas have stuck in my mind. Almost as though they’ve been blown towards me in the breeze and then lodged deep in my consciousness.’
‘Very poetic, but pure fantasy, Gray, and hardly likely to get you very far. What comments by the way?’
‘I can’t be certain and I shouldn’t say too much for the moment. But the idea of a princely state is beginning to ring bells.’
‘But surely they don’t exist any longer? I thought they’d been incorporated into India.’
‘Most of them. Mountbatten managed to persuade nearly all of them to sign the Act of Accession but some held out. Some are still holding out—the larger states particularly.’
‘But not Rajasthan?’
‘Rajasthan has always been a collection of princely states. Some large, some very small. Most have signed up, but a few haven’t, and they’re the ones I should be looking at, I think. It’s the smaller ones to the north where there’s trouble. And one or two of the ICS officers are convinced that Javinder travelled northwards.’
Mike’s expression made it clear that he wasn’t equally convinced. ‘Have you thought that the problems you’re talking about might have nothing to do with Javinder’s journey? They might be nothing more than the usual disputes.’
‘How is that?’
‘From what I gather, tension between the different communities is long standing. If there is aggression, it could be the same old trouble rearing its head. Why should it be anything new?’
‘Because disaffected people cause trouble. And that’s what we’ve got. There are rulers who refuse to accept the new dispensation. For them the fifteenth of August last year was a day of mourning. That was when they lost their privileges, lost the world of pomp and splendour they’d expected to inhabit for the rest of their lives.’
‘You’re saying these chaps might be responsible for the violence? That they’re deliberately organising it? That seems pretty far-fetched to me. What on earth would they gain? In any case, there must still be pockets of unrest around the country. The odd disturbance is still happening elsewhere in India, isn’t it, so why not in the north of Rajasthan?’
‘It is happening,’ Grayson conceded wearily. ‘And you could well be right. I don’t honestly know what to make of the reports. At the moment I’m just going on a hunch.’ He swung his legs off the desk and got to his feet. ‘I think I’ll miss the tea break. I’ve had enough chai today to float me to the Indian Ocean. I’d feel better if I went back to the bungalow and stood under a shower.’
Mike walked with him to the door. He laid his hands on either side of Grayson’s shoulders and shook him gently. ‘You can’t plunge through Rajasthan on a hunch. You have to have more to go on than that. The country isn’t properly stabilised yet and God knows what kind of mishap you could meet with. That’s if you’re lucky and it’s not outright danger that you face.’
‘I appreciate your concern, Mike, but I’ve been asking questions for two whole days and I’m still none the wiser. A hunch, I fear, is all I’m going to get.’
‘So the answer is don’t go.’
Grayson’s expression was mulish. It said quite plainly that Mike was making needless difficulties and he wished that he wouldn’t.
‘Your place is in the town,’ his companion ploughed on, undeterred. ‘Send scouts to wherever you think best, but stay in Jasirapur and manage the search from here. Think man, you’ve brought Daisy with us. I’m not saying she’s a problem, at least not at the moment. And I like her well enough. But she’s here against my advice, I’d remind you. And you need to keep a closer watch on her.’
Grayson’s eyes opened wide in astonishment. ‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘Let me ask you this. Do you know what she’s doing right now?’
He felt mystified. Of course, he didn’t know exactly. And did it matter that he didn’t?
Mike looked satisfied at having startled him. ‘I thought not. You have no idea what she’s up to and neither have I. But I’d bet a pound to a penny, it’s something you wouldn’t approve of.’
Grayson wouldn’t have approved, Daisy was sure. She was following a uniformed retainer down a long hall of polished marble and feeling very slightly intimidated. She wondered whether after all she should have mentioned her plans to him, or at least left word with Ahmed. It was too late for that now. The hall which had seemed unending finally came to a halt, and she was ushered into what she supposed was a drawing room. She had a brief glimpse of sumptuous walls lined with red and gold silk before a man glided towards her. He offered her his hand in greeting.
‘Miss Driscoll? I am Ramesh Suri.’
Her host wasn’t a large man, no more than average height and of slender build, but Daisy still felt a qualm when she looked at him. She wasn’t sure why. He gestured her towards one of the several thickly brocaded sofas and sat down opposite. The servant who’d escorted her toured the room, pulling the satin blinds fully down at every window and plunging the space into near darkness. For a short moment, she was blinded but then her eyes regained focus and she was able to take in her surroundings. There was richness everywhere, from the wall coverings to the embossed ceiling to the Indian silk rugs on the floor. What she took to be antiques were scattered at random throughout the room. Ramesh Suri was evidently a very wealthy man, but one who chose to live isolated. She wondered where his money came from and had a premonition that it might not be too sensible to enquire.
‘You have come far, Miss Driscoll?’ he asked in a soft voice.
‘That is far enough on a hot day. And in an open tonga.’
Her skin was doing an unpleasant thing, sending short, sharp prickles around her body. There was nothing in his speech to make her wary, so why did she feel this disquiet? She sensed his gaze on her, hard and impervious. Yes, it was his gaze, she decided, or rather his eyes that were so disturbing. They were coal black and, at a certain angle, they appeared opaque, as though a screen had descended. As though their owner could look out but no one could look in.
‘Have you happened at my gate by accident?’ he asked.
He must know that she hadn’t. He had clearly heard her tell his aggressive servant that she had come to speak to the master of the house. But she answered him tranquilly enough, ignoring his pretence. ‘Not by accident, Mr Suri. I came to see you.’
She heard a slight shuffling behind her and saw Suri beckon to whoever had come into the room. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of two young men, one not much more than a boy. They hovered discreetly to one side until their father beckoned to them again.
‘You must meet my sons, Miss Driscoll. This is Dalip.’ The older of the two came forward and bowed. He didn’t offer his hand, she noticed. He was dressed less ostentatiously than his father but there was the same opaqueness to the eyes. ‘And this is Daya.’ The boy moved awkwardly forward. He was barely out of his teens and had not yet lost the innocence of boyhood. His face was open, friendly. Quite unlike his brother or his father.
A second servant, dressed in the same red embroidered livery, brought small bowls of sweetmeats and a tray of clinking glasses. Gratefully, Daisy sipped the iced lemonade. Ramesh Suri had been right in saying it was hardly a sensible day to come travelling in an open tonga. Another misdeed for which Grayson could scold her. Right now, though, she must banish him from her mind. He had his own business to attend to and she had hers. And hers was here, in the home of Anish’s uncle.
‘So how do you find Jasirapur?’
‘It’s an interesting town,’ she said neutrally, and then with more enthusiasm, ‘and India is fascinating.’
‘But this is not your first trip to India, I believe?’
How did he know that? If she were a stray traveller who’d stopped at his house—to ask for directions, to seek refreshment—he would surely know nothing of her. But she wasn’t a stray traveller, was she? He knew her, he knew who she was. She had a frightening feeling that he’d known even before she’d said her name at the gate. The prickling increased.
‘And are you here for long? This is not the best time of the year to visit our country.’
‘I’m not sure when we’re to return to England. We may stay for the cooler weather.’
‘You mention “we”. So you are here with companions?’
She was sure that he knew that too. And just as sure he was aware of who her companions were. Suddenly, the thought that Grayson and Mike belonged to the Intelligence Service carried meaning. It had always seemed a strange way of life, Grayson’s career, nothing to do with the real world as she knew it. But, in that instant, she realised it had everything to do with it. And this man with the opaque eyes knew that better than she. ‘I’m here with a friend and his colleague,’ she said, continuing the bluff. ‘They have business in Jasirapur.’
‘And have left you to your own devices today, I see. You have come adventuring alone.’
She didn’t like the way that sounded. ‘I left a message to say where I was going. They won’t be worried.’
‘How very sensible of you. But to come all this way—Megaur must be more famous than I realised.’ He lounged backwards in the heavily embossed chair, his head resting on cushions weaved in golden thread. The slightest smirk touched his mouth. He was playing with her, she decided.
‘It’s not Megaur I came to see, Mr Suri, but you.’ She was fed up with this cat and mouse game. She would state what she wanted and he could make what he would of it.
‘Dear me. Now why would you wish to see me?’ He swatted lazily at a passing fly.
‘I knew your nephew.’ She was bold now, refusing to look at the black eyes.
‘You must be mistaken. I do not have a nephew.’
‘No longer, it’s true,’ she said even more boldly, ‘but you used to. His name was Anish, Anish Rana. I’m sure you cannot have forgotten him. He died only ten years ago. His mother, Parvati, was your very own sister.’
‘I know none of these people, if they ever existed.’
She felt the elder son begin to move towards her, but his father’s glare flashed at him to stay where he was. Suri’s eyes were as hard as agate and he sat poker straight in the imposing armchair. His mouth was a thin, tight line, his expression no longer lazy. If she were to find out what she wanted, she would need to be more conciliatory.
In a gentler voice she said, ‘I understand this subject may be painful for you but—’
‘You understand nothing,’ he interrupted, and there was no doubting his hostility.
‘Forgive me if I’ve angered you. I’ve come only to ask one question and I hope you will answer it for me. I think you can. It’s something that is entirely personal but very important to me. I believe Anish’s father may have been a patient in the hospital where my mother was a nurse. If your sister left papers belonging to her husband and you still have them, it’s possible that my mother is mentioned in them.’
He said nothing but his face was chipped from stone.
‘I know it sounds most unlikely,’ she went on, ‘but it’s the only lead I have. I’m sure Anish’s father must have written to his wife while he was recovering in England from the wounds he’d received, and it’s just possible that your sister kept his letters. I hoped you might still have them.’
‘I know not one person you speak of.’ The voice brooked no argument.
It didn’t stop Daisy though. ‘Karan Rana was your brother-in-law and you don’t know him?’
Ramesh half rose from his chair, his body taut and his stare dagger sharp. ‘I know nothing of this man.’
‘And nothing of your sister, Parvati?’
‘I have no sister. Can you not understand that? I have never before found the English to be quite as stupid as you appear to be.’
‘Is it stupid to ask for information?’
‘There is none to have.’ He clapped his hands as if to underscore the finality of his words. ‘Now I think it is time for you to leave.’
He pointed to the door. ‘Leave, Miss Driscoll, unless you wish to be helped on your way.’
She became conscious that the retainer who had served them drinks had returned and brought with him several companions. Together they flanked the doorway.
The glowering elder son walked forward, his steps marked and deliberate. He took up a position at his father’s shoulder. He was a clone of the older Suri, she thought. It was Daya who was different. He remained standing at a distance, half in shadow, but she could see the smooth skin of his face creased with worry lines.
Unhurriedly, she stood up. She was determined not to betray alarm and fought to keep her voice level. ‘Thank you for your hospitality.’ She hoped the irony would not go unnoticed.
Her legs felt flimsy but, without a backward glance, she strode to the door. It swung open before she reached it, and she realised that yet another servant had been lingering on the other side. Suri appeared to need a battalion of retainers to protect him, any one of them eager to eject her if she’d shown a reluctance to leave. His voice followed her as she began to walk back along the long ribbon of marble.
‘You would do well to forget your questions, Miss Driscoll. For your own well-being. Enjoy India but forget the questions.’
She stopped in her tracks and retraced her steps to the door, facing her host across the flurry of silken rugs. His threat was too important to ignore.
‘I will enjoy my stay in your country, Mr Suri, but it won’t stop me asking questions.’ And, with that, she turned and marched proudly back along the hall, through the huge carved wooden door, which stood ajar, and out into the hot midday sun.
‘You won’t get any answers, you know.’ It was Dalip who had followed her out to the iron gates. ‘That woman brought humiliation on our family. A woman from a princely house who should have brought only pride. Her belongings were burnt. Every item. There is nothing left. Whatever you hoped to find no longer exists.’
Daisy climbed into the tonga without replying.
Her pride was bruised. The visit had been a disaster. She’d been all but thrown out of the house and had learned nothing for her pains. As the tonga bounced its way back to Jasirapur, Dalip Suri’s parting shot echoed in the rhythm of the wheels. His words had hit home. Everything his aunt had owned had been burnt, he’d said, and she believed him. His father wasn’t just angry, he was malevolent. Ramesh’s insistence that he’d never had a sister, never had a nephew, disclosed the cold fact that he’d wiped these two close relatives from out of his life. The burning of Parvati’s small stock of possessions was consistent with her brother’s frightening pretence that she had never existed. And consistent with his refusal to accept any of Anish’s belongings when his nephew died. The adjutant had described Ramesh as rude. Daisy would have said vindictive. But there was little point in name calling. If Parvati had ever possessed papers that in anyway referred to her husband’s time as a patient in England, they were long gone. And, after all, it had been the most tenuous of clues.
The more she thought of it, the more she realised that today’s visit had been foolish. Karan Rana had been wounded in France and sent to England to recuperate. She knew that to be the truth, since she’d had it from Anish’s own lips. But where in England, she didn’t know. It was her own wild hope that he’d been sent to Brighton where her mother had nursed Indian soldiers back to life. A wild hope that Karan had known her mother and, even wilder, that he had known her mother’s lover and therefore her own father. Grayson had warned her it was an impossible quest and she must learn to accept that he was right. She had discovered nothing; more than that she had received a warning not even to try. Suri had been a little too knowledgeable about her and the thought made her deeply uneasy.
His warning was still reverberating in her head when she walked up the veranda steps of number six Tamarind Drive and bent her mind to the next problem: how to explain her long absence this morning to Grayson and Mike. The expedition had taken much longer than she’d expected and they would have returned for lunch an hour ago and be worried to find her gone without a word of explanation.
As she came through the door, Grayson’s face lit with relief.
‘Thank God, Daisy. We were just about to send out a search party. Ahmed had no idea where you’d gone.’
‘I thought I’d take a drive in the country.’ Her tone was airy, as though this was the most natural thing to do in the middle of the day in the middle of an Indian summer. If she’d hoped to deflect disapproval, she’d hoped wrongly. But it was Mike, rather than Grayson, who appeared the most annoyed.
‘A drive in the country? In this weather? If that’s so, you need your head examined. Grayson wasn’t joking when he said we were about to launch a search. We could have had the entire Jasirapur police force looking for you. And why exactly?’
She was taken aback by his vehemence, but put it down to genuine concern. ‘I’m sorry, Mike. Truly, I never meant to worry either of you. I hadn’t realised I’d gone so far or that it would be quite so hot. I had to take shelter for a while, that’s why I’m so late.’
Grayson looked at her steadily. ‘You know Rajasthan better than that, Daisy. It’s April. It’s hot. What could be so important that you’d risk driving under a burning sun for so long?’
‘It wasn’t important,’ she said quietly. ‘I was mistaken.’
She was relieved when he walked to the table and rang the small brass bell to tell Ahmed they were ready to eat at last. He wasn’t going to pursue the matter, not in front of Mike she thought, but she was sure that once they were alone he’d want to know just where she had been.
They ate the entire meal without speaking a word. It was clear that Mike was still furious with her, while Grayson seemed lost in his own thoughts. But when Ahmed had cleared the plates and set out three individual dishes of crème caramel, he broke his silence.
‘This may be the time to tell you both that I’ve decided to leave tomorrow.’
She saw that Mike looked shocked, as shocked as she felt.
‘I think I’ve worked out the general direction Javinder took,’ Grayson said coolly, ‘and I don’t want to waste more time hanging around Jasirapur.’
‘But all you know is that he took off travelling north, and you’re not even sure of that.’ She was amazed that he would try to follow the young man on such meagre information.
‘I think I can probably narrow it down a little more now.’
Grayson spread his hands wide and gave a rueful smile. ‘It’s taken a while but, over the last few days, odds and ends have come my way. You know how it is.’ That was the problem; she didn’t know.
‘More instinct, Gray?’ Mike put in, a grim look on his face. ‘What you’re proposing is madness.’
‘You’d be surprised at how helpful instinct can be. It’s often more reliable than paid sources.’
‘You can’t really be serious.’ Mike’s face had turned blood red.
But, when Grayson didn’t reply, he appeared to make an attempt at swallowing the anger he evidently felt and, when he spoke, it was in a coaxing tone. ‘Look, the paperwork can go hang for a few days. In any case, I’m not finding anything in the office that’s remotely useful. Let me come out and about with you—we’ll dig around locally together. With both of us on the job, we’re more likely to uncover something.’
‘I appreciate the offer, but I’ve waited long enough. At this very moment Javinder may be hurt, ill even. And definitely in trouble or he’d have found a way of contacting us. So speed is important. I’m pretty sure I’ll pick up other intelligence as I go.’
When his friend gave another impatient shake of the head, Grayson held up his hand as if to stem the flow of condemnation coming his way. ‘I know you’re worried, but you shouldn’t be. I’m going to be fine and don’t forget, I’ll have you here, back at the sharp end. That gives me confidence.’
She could see that Mike wasn’t convinced, and neither was she. The thought that Grayson would be leaving the next day filled her with mild panic. She didn’t want to be left behind in Jasirapur with only an irate Mike for company. She got up and began clearing the bowls onto the tray that Ahmed had left. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mike’s hand reach out and seize one of the spoons from the table. As she looked up, he rapped it loudly against the wooden surface to gain their attention.
‘Aren’t you going to make any attempt to stop him going on this mad journey, Daisy?’ The angry red flush had died but Mike’s lips were compressed into a thin line. ‘It’s the least you could do. After all, you must be here for some reason.’
She was astonished. The attack had come from out of nowhere and it was a struggle to defend herself. ‘I’m here for my own reasons,’ was all she managed.
‘That’s clear enough,’ he said bitingly.
‘I don’t understand. Just what are you accusing me of?’
‘There’s no accusation, though if you choose to interpret it that way, you can. Put simply, I’m unsure just why you thought it a good idea to gatecrash this trip. It certainly wasn’t to help. In fact, judging by the scare you gave us today, just the opposite.’
‘Mike, please …’ Grayson began, but his colleague had pushed his chair roughly back from the table and picked up the battered briefcase he never seemed without. ‘I’m going back to the office. I’ve work to do.’ And he banged out of the door.
Grayson stood for a minute, watching after him, then turned to face her, his dark blue eyes troubled. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what that was about. He’s not himself, it’s clear enough.’
She cut his apology short. ‘It’s fine. It really doesn’t matter.’
And it didn’t. She’d wondered before if Mike resented her coming on this journey and it seemed that she’d been right. He resented her badly. She was sorry for it but there was little she could do. In time, his antagonism might soften. She certainly hoped so. Living with that degree of animosity would be far from easy. But other than being open and friendly in her dealings with him, she could do nothing to improve matters. What she must do, though, was to make this trip to India count. Over their silent lunch, she had begun to toy with a new idea, and when Grayson followed in his colleague’s footsteps and she was left alone in the house, she set to thinking it through.
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