His mind went back to Rookwood, as it often did these days. The old quadrangle on a summer's day, masters in gowns and mortarboards walking under the great elms, boys strolling by in dark blue blazers or cricket whites. It was an escape to the other side of the looking glass, away from the madness. But sooner or later the heavy painful thought would always intrude: how the hell had it all changed from that to this?
St Ermin' s hotel had once been grand but the elegance was faded now; the chandelier in the entrance hall was dusty and there was a smell of cabbage and polish. Watercolours of stags and Highland lochs covered the oak-panelled walls. Somewhere a grandfather clock ticked somnolently.
There was nobody at the reception desk. Harry rang the bell and a bald, heavily built man in a commissionaire's uniform appeared.
'Good morning, sir,' he said in the relaxed, unctuous voice of a lifetime in service. 'I hope I haven't kept you waiting.'
'I've an appointment at two thirty with a Miss Maxse. Lieutenant Brett.' Harry pronounced the woman's name 'Macksie' as the caller from the Foreign Office had instructed.
The man nodded. 'If you would follow me, sir.' His footsteps soundless on the thick dusty carpet, he led Harry to a lounge full of easy chairs and coffee tables. It was empty apart from a man and woman sitting in a bay window.
'Lieutenant Brett, madam.' The receptionist bowed and left.
The two rose to their feet. The woman extended a hand. She was in her fifties, small and fine-boned, smartly dressed in a blue twopiece suit. She had tightly curled grey hair and a sharp, intelligent face. Keen grey eyes met Harry's.
'How do you do, so nice to meet you.' Her confident contralto made Harry think of a girls' school headmistress. 'Marjorie Maxse. I've been hearing all about you.'
'Nothing too bad, I hope.'
'Oh, quite the contrary. Let me introduce Roger Jebb.' The man took Harry's hand in a hard grip. He was about Miss Maxse's age, with a long tanned face and thinning black hair.
'What about some tea?' Miss Maxse asked.
A silver teapot and china cups had been laid out on a table. There was a plate of scones too, pots of jam and what looked like real cream. Miss Maxse began pouring tea. 'Any trouble getting here? I gather one or two came down round here last night.'
'Victoria Street's closed off.'
'It is a nuisance. And it's going to go on for some time.' She spoke as though it were a spell of rain. She smiled. 'We prefer to meet new people here, for the first interview. The manager's an old friend of ours, so we won't be disturbed. Sugar?' she continued in the same conversational tone. 'Do have a scone, they're awfully good.'
'Thanks.' Harry scooped up jam and cream. He looked up to see Miss Maxse studying him closely; she gave him a sympathetic smile, unembarrassed.
'How are you getting on now? You were invalided out, weren't you? After Dunkirk?'
'Yes. A bomb landed twenty feet away. Threw up a lot of sand. I was lucky; it shielded me from the worst of the blast.' He saw Jebb studying him too, from flinty grey eyes.
'You had a bit of shell shock, I believe,' he said abruptly.
'It was very minor,' Harry said. 'I'm all right now.'
'Your face went blank there, just for a second,' Jebb said.
'It used to be a lot more than a second,' he replied quietly. 'And both hands used to tremble all the time. You might as well know.'
'And your hearing suffered, too, I believe?' Miss Maxse asked the question very quietly, but Harry caught it.
'That's almost back to normal as well. Just a little deafness in the left one.'
'Lucky, that,' Jebb observed. 'Hearing loss from blast, that's often permanent.' He produced a paperclip from his pocket and began absent-mindedly bending it open as he continued looking at Harry.
From Winter in Madrid. Copyright C.J. Sansom. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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