She thinks about this. Nothing, she answers, and laughs. Because its true. Nothing stands in her way. She nods towards the house.
They dont know yet. And theyll be set against it. But they cant stop me.
Thats the spirit, he says, smoke curling from his mouth. So, youre running away to the capital?
Running, Alexandra replies, drawing herself up to her full height, but not away. You cant run away from home if youve already left. Ive been away at university. She takes a draw on her cigarette, glances towards the house, then back at the man. Actually, I was sent down and
From university? the man cuts in, cigarette halfway to his mouth.
How very dramatic. For what crime?
For no crime at all, she returns, rather more heatedly than necessary because the injustice of it still stings. I was walking out of an exam and I came out of a door reserved for men. Im not allowed to graduate unless I apologise. They, she nods again at the house, didnt even want me to go to university in the first place but now theyre not speaking to me until I go back and apologise.
The man is looking at her as if committing her to memory. The stitching on his shirt is in blue cotton, she notices, the cuffs and the collar. And are you going to apologise?
She flicks ash from her cigarette and shakes her head. I dont see why I should. I didnt even know it was only for men. There was no sign. And I said to them, Well, wheres the door for women? and they said there wasnt one. So why should I say sorry?
Quite. Never say sorry unless you are sorry. They smoke for a moment, not looking at each other. So, the man says, eventually, what are you going to do in London?
Im going to work of course. Though I might not get a job, she says, suddenly despondent. Someone told me that for secretarial work you need a typing speed of sixty words per minute and Im currently up to about three.
He smiles. And where will you be living?
You ask a lot of questions.
Force of habit. He shrugs unapologetically. Im a journalist, among other things. So. Your digs. Where will they be?
I dont know if I want to tell you.
Why ever not? I shant tell a soul. Im very good about secrets.
She throws her cigarette butt into the green, unfurling leaves of the hedge. Well, a friend gave me the address of a house for single women in Kentish Town. She said
His face betrays only the slightest twitch of amusement. A house for single women?
Yes. Whats funny about that?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It sounds . . . he gestures . . . marvellous. Kentish Town. Well be practically neighbours. Im in Haverstock Hill. You should come and visit, if they allow you out.
Alexandra arches her brows, as if pretending to think about it. Part of her doesnt want to give in to this man. There is something about him that suggests he is used to getting his way. For some reason she thinks thwarting him would do him good. That might be possible, I really dont know. Perhaps
Unfortunately for everyone, Dorothy chooses that moment to make her entrance. Some signal on her maternal radar has informed her of a male predator in the vicinity of her eldest daughter. May I help you? she calls, in a tone that contradicts the sentence.
Excerpted from Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell. Copyright © 2010 by Maggie O'Farrell. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing 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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