To Die but Once, p.1Jacqueline Winspear
Again, for my dad
A city boy who loved the land.
His story inspired this novel.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2
About the Author
Also by Jacqueline Winspear
About the Publisher
Hampshire, England, May 1940
The boy had not had a day without a headache in weeks. How many weeks was it now? And how many aspirin powders had he taken, every night when he arrived back at his digs—a shared room in another lodging house in another town? Another town with airfields close by, and buildings to be painted with that viscous gray emulsion. He wondered about the aspirin and the emulsion as he walked home from the pub, and deep down inside himself, he knew that one had something to do with the other, though his mates on the job hadn’t complained. Not that he’d dare say anything—no, he had to keep his mouth shut, because he was lucky to have a job at all, so there was nothing to whine about. And if truth be told, he should not have been at the pub drinking—but the landlord didn’t mind, probably didn’t even know. After all, the boy had come in with the older lads, and it’s not as if he looked like an apprentice.
He missed his mum. He’d never have mentioned it, not to any of the lads—they teased him enough about being the boy—though he might have said to Freddie Mayes, “Freddie, you would love my mum’s spotted dick pudding.” And he’d describe the way she kneaded the suet dough, how she added handfuls of sultanas, currants and raisins. Then she’d take a large square of clean white cloth, place the round ball of dough in the middle and tie the ends nice and tight. Then it would go into the saucepan of boiling water to steam for hours. Hours, it would be, and the sweet smell would envelop the kitchen. And if the pudding had been put on the heat later in the day, it would be long after supper time that she’d take it out of the saucepan, unknotting the hot wet cloth with her fingertips, then she’d spoon the pudding into bowls and pour a big dollop of Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup onto every helping. If it was a Sunday, she’d make custard. She’d said in a letter that they were having to cut back on sugar, what with the war. But he couldn’t complain, not really—after all, this job was on account of the war, though for the life of him he’d never come across paint like it. He sighed. At first he’d had trouble getting used to the silence in the country. In London, back in the Smoke, you never heard a footstep behind you, because there were footsteps everywhere. There were always people out on the street, and there was more life. Human life, that is. Mind you, if there was a smog, that made the footsteps sound different, as if someone was messing about with the echo, twisting it, like a plumber shaping a length of pipe to get it around a bend in the house. But now he loved being close to the land, and all that green. It was quiet. Peaceful. Well, it was peaceful once he’d done his work for the day, and when he could get over to the farm.
Not long now. Not far to his tiny room in that strange house with the loopy woman, and all them WAAFs on the floor below.
According to Freddie, they were moving on to the next job in a couple of days, though this stop had been a good one—lot of work to do, so the crew had stayed longer, had a chance to settle in a bit, get to know a few locals. And there was the overtime. More money to send home. He stopped. Blimey my noddle hurts. He pressed his fingers to his temples, massaging the bluish thin flesh. It wasn’t only the emulsion that was giving him the pain, though he was sure it was doing a fair job of killing off a few brain cells. There had been nothing but trouble since he’d come here. Not being in the country trouble, and not work trouble—no, it was people trouble. He wanted to stay, but because of the other business, he wanted to get going. If he had to stick with this job, like his dad said he should, then he wanted to get on with it. He wanted to move on soon, and soon couldn’t come fast enough, because his heart would break anyway, leaving the old boy. If only he hadn’t . . . but what was it his dad always said? “You can’t look back, son, not in this life. No, you can only look forward and step out in its direction.” And when he’d said, “What direction?” his dad had said, “The future, son. The future—always look to your future.” Well, the future wasn’t turning out to be the one he wanted. Instead the future was the next place, another airfield and this painting job. The past was two days ago and two blokes he would rather not see again, though he knew he would, but for now he wanted to forget it. Forget them. Christ, this head!
The boy walked on along the path by the stream, then across the rickety wooden bridge, down an alley, a shortcut to his landlady’s house. Freddie would wake him later when he came staggering back, in his cups, making more noise because he was trying to be quiet. But the boy knew he’d at least get a bit of shut-eye before he had to pretend to be interested in Freddie bragging about a girl he’d been eyeing up, how they didn’t all go for a man in uniform, so he was in with a chance. Which was just as well, because Freddie wasn’t giving up this job in a hurry—reserved occupations, it was, and he’d said he had no blimmin’ intention of joining the army and going the way of his father, and look what happened to him the last time the country went to war.
What was that? The boy turned and looked back, stood for a second, perhaps two. Nothing. Just country sounds. Probably someone’s cat on the prowl. And then the pain again. But this time it was different, this time it was sudden, a deep terrible searing crack across his skull. Nighttime turned to light, turned to lots of light, and he could hear his father telling him to look to the future, but the shock felled him, brought him to his knees, and then another wave of pain across his head again, taking him down, grinding his cheek into the path’s loose gravel. He reached up with his fingers—shaking fingers, fingers he could not seem to steer—and he touched his head and brought back his hand wet. Wet with his own blood. He felt tears begin to stream from his eyes. Oh he missed his mum. He missed his dad and in that moment he even missed London. Then there was nothing more to think, no other thoughts crossed the boy’s mind and time felt so slow, so very slow, though he could hear voices. Long, drawn-out voices. One seemed familiar and he struggled to find the word, the right word to call out to that person, but the word that was the person’s name just would not come and he did not know if it was a man or a woman. And as he felt his body being lifted, the streetlight ahead grew faint, and at once he knew his breath was shallow, and then more shallow, and his heartbeat was slowing down, as if an engine inside him had been deprived of fuel.
It was as if someone had reached out and snuffed out a candle. Just like that, finger and thumb around the flame as he made one last attempt to form the words that would not co
London, May 20th, 1940
Maisie Dobbs pulled off Tottenham Court Road, maneuvering her Alvis drophead coupe motor car into Warren Street. She waved to Jack Barker, who she knew should have retired by now—he had been selling newspapers on his patch outside the Tube station for years, and in that time she had seen him become more and more stooped, taking precious seconds to fold the newspapers ready to hand to busy office workers and shop assistants as they rushed to and from work. There was a time when his grandson had helped out before and after school, but now young Peter was not so young anymore, and was in the army.
Maisie wound down the window and slowed the motor car. She held out a coin for the man to take. “No need for change, Mr. Barker,” said Maisie as she placed the newspaper on the passenger seat. “I bet you miss your helper.”
“I do at that, Miss Dobbs. I had another one of ’em lined up to give me a hand, only he was evacuated to Wales. But I reckon he’ll be home soon. His mum keeps saying that what with this Bore War, there’s nothing happening. But I’ve told her—there’s war happening all right—it’s just not reached us. I reckon your Mr. Beale must be worried sick—knowing what he went through in the last war, and now his eldest is over there with the expeditionary force. He must be losing sleep over it. According to the Express, the Germans have marched right across the Ardennes, through Holland and now they’re into France—too blimmin’ close to us, for my liking.”
Maisie nodded. Her assistant, Billy Beale, was indeed losing sleep worrying about his son, who was serving with the army in France, but he was also concerned for his wife, Doreen. Years before they had already lost a little girl, Lizzie, who had died after contracting diphtheria—Doreen had suffered a breakdown following the tragedy. Billy had therefore decided it was best for her to take their youngest child, Margaret Rose, to stay with an aunt in Hampshire, leaving him at home with his second son, Bobby, an apprentice mechanic.
“Did you see they’ve put more sandbags around the station?” said Barker. “Before long there won’t be room for me out here on the pavement.”
“Oh, they’ll make room for you, Mr. Barker—what would we all do without you!” replied Maisie, turning her head to check for traffic as she moved away from the curb.
Barker laughed and waved, but Maisie’s smile faded as she rolled up the window. While the newspapers kept up a stream of positive rhetoric, she had heard from Douglas Partridge, who now worked for the wartime Ministry of Information, that the expeditionary force in France was considered to be in a precarious position.
She drove along the street, passing the Prince of Wales pub, where the landlord, Phil Coombes, had just emerged and was ambling along to a caff just a short way down Tottenham Court Road. Maisie thought she could set a clock by Phil Coombes, for he left the premises at the same time each morning to walk to a nearby caff, where he would order a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. It was his one break in the day, otherwise he never left the pub because he was either behind the bar or, when the doors were locked for the night, in the flat above. Coombes and his wife had raised two sons and a daughter in the flat, but now only Vivian, the middle child, remained at home.
Even before Maisie raised her hand to wave, and to receive from the landlord a desultory lifting of the hand in response, Maisie knew that all was not well. The way Coombes carried himself—with shoulders drooping and his head forward, as if trying to set a pace for his lagging feet—indicated a troubled man. As she turned left onto Fitzroy Street to park the Alvis, Maisie wondered if she should approach Coombes, ask him what was wrong and perhaps offer help of some sort. But had she not learned her lesson time and again, that not everyone in straitened circumstances wants to be helped? Yet when she looked back at Phil Coombes, she felt an ache of concern in her chest, as if the man’s emotions had traced a direct line to her heart.
She was just about to set off in the direction of the caff on Tottenham Court Road, hoping to catch up with Coombes, when Billy Beale walked around the corner, his gas mask in its box hanging over one shoulder by the strap, and bouncing up and down on his hip.
“Mornin’, miss.” With a deft pinch to the lighted end, he extinguished the cigarette he was smoking, and put the stub in his pocket.
“Did you come up from Hampshire this morning?” asked Maisie.
Billy nodded. “Makes all the difference, not having to come into work until late on a Monday, or even a Tuesday morning. I miss my girls, so it’s been handy, you giving me the extra time so I can get down there once a week. And you should see little Margaret Rose—all apple cheeks and growing like ivy. She’ll be almost as tall as the boys, make no mistake.”
“I thought as much when she was a toddler—she was like a mannequin even then.” They fell into step toward the office on Fitzroy Square. “Have you heard from young Billy?”
Billy shook his head. “Boys of his age are not exactly known for writing, are they? Doreen sends a letter or card once a week—keeping it short because she knows he won’t read anything too long—but even when he was over here in barracks, it was as much as he could do to pick up a pencil and write a quick note home. I know—I was like it myself at that age. It was only when I came back from over there that it occurred to me that it wouldn’t have hurt to write a bit more—but then there’s the censor peering at everything, so half the letter would have been blacked out anyway.”
They reached the front door of the gray, smoke-stained mansion that housed the first-floor offices of Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator.
“I don’t like him being in France though,” Billy continued. “And I reckon it was a shock to him. He only joined up because he wanted to drive a tank. Well, he’s driving something, but I don’t know how far they’ll get with it—I heard talk in the Prince that they could be in the thick of it, if Hitler’s boys get any farther into France.” He shook his head. “My worst fear since the day he was born—and his brother—was that they would be in uniform. By the way, miss, where’s your gas mask?”
“As usual I’ve either left it at home or it’s still hanging on the hook behind the office door—I keep forgetting it, which means I’m in good company with almost half the people in London,” said Maisie.
As they made their way up the stairs, and Maisie unlocked the door to the two-room office, Billy went on talking about his sons—not only Billy, who was named for his father, but sixteen-year-old Bobby, now an apprentice mechanic who was proving to be very good at his job. And it seemed Billy always had a story to tell about his role with the local Air Raid Precautions station—as an ARP man, he patrolled his neighborhood after dark to ensure that people had blackout curtains closed, and that everything was as it should be in case of an attack by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.
“Talking about the Prince—Billy, have you spoken to Phil Coombes lately?” said Maisie. “I saw him this morning, and he seemed troubled. I—I’ve been thinking about him all the time you’ve been talking about Billy and Bobby. Do you know anything about his sons? Perhaps he’s worried about them.”
“Don’t know what he has to worry about. The youngest is an apprentice painter and decorator who managed to cop himself some jammy job where he won’t have to enlist when his time comes, and the older boy is in some other reserved occupation, so he can sit out the war too, for as long as it lasts. I’d feel a lot better if my Billy were home on British soil.”
“I know you would,” said Maisie as she pulled a sheaf of papers from her bag and placed them on the desk used by her part-time secretary, Sandra. “But I can’t get Mr. Coombes out of my mind. I might . . . well, we’ll see.”
Billy looked up from leafing through the post he had picked up on the hall table at the foot of the stairs. “Don’t mind me saying so, miss, but when you have one of your thoughts like that, there’s usually something to it.
Maisie nodded. “Would you? That’s a good idea. Just to put my mind at rest, and—”
She was interrupted by the bell above the office door—a short blast, then a second’s silence before two longer blasts, as if the caller had at first been reticent, but had then drawn upon a strength of resolve.
“Bit early for a visitor. Were we expecting anyone?” asked Billy.
Maisie shook her head. “Go and let him in, Billy.”
“Yes. I’m sure it’s Phil Coombes.”
Billy reached for the door handle. “I won’t bet against it.”
Maisie shrugged and bit the inside of her lip. “It’s one of those serendipitous things, isn’t it? You talk about someone or they enter your thoughts, and then there they are. And he seemed so troubled. He knows what we do here—to a point—so let’s hope we can help him.”
Billy returned with the caller, who was indeed Phil Coombes. Maisie held out her hand to a chair pulled up by the gas fire. “It might be spring, Mr. Coombes, but I find mornings are still a bit chilly, especially in this old building.”
Coombes nodded, and looked around at Billy.
“Cup of tea for you, mate?”
Coombes shook his head. “Nah, thanks all the same, Bill—just had a cup around the corner.”
“With your usual?” asked Billy.
“I didn’t have the stomach for it, and I look forward to that bacon sandwich, as a rule. I just had a bit of toast and didn’t really fancy that.” He looked at Maisie, who tapped the back of the chair, though she realized Coombes was waiting for her to be seated first.
“Come and sit down, Mr. Coombes. You too, Billy—we can have a cuppa later.” She nodded in the direction of Billy’s desk, reminding him to pick up his notebook and a pencil. Bringing her attention back to Coombes, she leaned forward. “You’re troubled about something, Mr. Coombes—you’re not your usual cheery self, and you haven’t been for a while. How can we help you?”
To Die but Once by Jacqueline Winspear / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes