Death. I can smell when he’s coming.
Wherever I go, I’m bound to catch a whiff of the odour most foul. I used to wonder if I was insane. Or if, perhaps, the tentacles of a deadly tumour were crawling through my brain. But it is Death and his sinister stench of decay that roams the pathways of my life.
1920s London was not as roaring for the middle-class as it was for the upper crust and gentry. Even though it was a time of increased prosperity, my family still lived a frugal life. We were educated and went to our warm beds with full bellies each night, but there were no flapper parties or jazzy swing evenings for us.
I always knew that my two older sisters would inevitably follow in my mother’s steps and marry dependable family men who would greet them with tired smiles after a long day in the local textile factory. They would take on darning work for the privileged and pass their days idly gossiping with their dowdy neighbours, becoming stouter with each passing year.
But that was not my plan.
I was going to use my gift to transcend the dreariness of the East End and become one of those high-society ladies handing my satins and silks in for mending. After all – knowledge is power, and I had the knowledge.
But how did I become aware of the power behind this ominous odour, you may wonder? Coincidence, though an untrustworthy passenger at first, eventually becomes a reliable one.
After years of confusion and misguided notions, the penny finally dropped the day I passed a group of girls in the school passage. Girls with no potential future of significance; or any future at all. There it was - stronger than ever. That putrid stench clogged my throat and triggered tears of revulsion to seep from my eyes. With the news of their tragic deaths in a freak accident the following day, the knowledge finally dawned that these were no coincidences at all.
I can smell when Death is coming.
I have, since then, accepted this Grim Passenger as my constant companion. Sometimes merely a passing whiff, and other times whipping my breath away in a retch-inducing wave of putrefaction. I now, however, recognise him as a powerful gift.
Focusing on my plan through the early 1930s, I modelled myself on Greta Garbo. Naturally tall and slender, my broader shoulders don’t even need extra padding to replicate her style. I also perfected her slightly sad and serious expression and trained myself to demurely observe the world from under my lowered lashes. Men love her, and they would love me too!
I also strategically chose to attend posh Bedford College and Father agreed to take on extra shifts to pay for my continued education. He agreed that being a teacher was a fitting choice for a young lady in 1930’s London who wanted a little taste of the working world before settling down. I, however, was only interested in the advertisements for Companions pinned in our Library!
Meeting the criteria for suitably educated and refined young ladies, I met with several elderly gentlemen with eyes darkened by the despair of losing their beloved wives. None of them, however, met my number one criterion - my Grim Passenger did not raise his head at any of those meetings.
Each time one of my potential suitors entered the parlour where I was demurely sitting with my gaze strategically held by the inevitable portrait of their lost beloved, I would eagerly turn my eyes, and my nose, in his direction. Hoping to catch the tell-tale whiff as I proffered my hand in greeting, I was disappointed every time. My Grim Passenger remained stubbornly silent - and the air sweet. These gentlemen may have been heartbroken, but they were all healthy.
Until one day, about a year ago, my Grim Passenger raised his head and smiled at me.
Mr Sloane entered his parlour, and as I turned to greet him, with my carefully concocted expression of kind empathy, there it was. The unmistakable reek of the dark graveyards of my childhood nightmares; freshly turned earth steaming with the putridly sweet stench of rotting peaches and overripe meat. Only nightmarish before I realised that this knowledge was indeed the power to take me where I deserved to be.
As I approached him and held out my hand, I closed my eyes and sighed with satisfaction. I was home.
When I first moved into my own wing in Mr Sloane’s Knightsbridge mansion, his family was not yet aware of his terminal condition, and I was able to start subtly beguiling him. But as the months passed, and his condition started to noticeably deteriorate, I was forced to work more swiftly to ensure that he saw me as more than only his paid companion. Happily, his family was so grateful for my assistance and doting care that they never noticed his lingering looks in my direction, the small smile reserved only for me, and the way his previously sad eyes are now warm and lively with affection.
James, as he now insists I call him, is smitten. I have become the light in his dark, the melody in his song, and the rhyme in his poem of life. No longer can he live without me, and I know he will be proposing soon, just as I have planned.
Only one thing could have stood in my way – my affinity for true romance!
My heart sang with joy when King Edward VIII chose Wallis over the crown last year. On my birthday, the 11th of December, when his voice rang the bells of true love clearly and proudly in that romantic radio broadcast, I knew this was a sign. If Wallis Simpson, a married American divorcee could win the man of her dreams, then I could surely win the old man of mine. I had already succeeded in entrancing Mr Sloane with my golden blonde Garbo-like beauty, and I was going to claim my prize, just as Mrs Simpson did!
I have followed their fairy-tale romance religiously since those first scandalous photos of them in the Adriatic. Devouring newspaper reports and servants’ gossip, I am one of very few that applauded their wedding six months later. But even though their happiness and devotion should have inspired me to follow my own heart, my head has always been stronger, and I remained devoted to my plan. There was no place for a “David” in my world six months ago, even if he did make a shadowy appearance in my dreams each night.
King Edward’s words about how he could not continue his duties without the help and support of the woman he loves and his choice of love over duty did, however, begin the battle between my heart and head. Although James is the answer to my lifelong quest, my soul started yearning for true love.
And then, quite unexpectedly, my own David crashed into my life.
David is James’ younger, and gentler, son. He is married to Phyllis Jones - the spoilt and ghastly daughter of a rich and prominent London businessman. Their marriage was the final handshake in concluding a lucrative business deal between James and her father. The David of my story chose duty over love, and the first thing that struck me about him was his lonely eyes, which, just like his father’s, became warmer with happiness each time he saw me.
David derailed my plan completely. I tried so hard to focus all my attention on James, and my lavish future, but slowly I fell in love - real love - with David. Avidly following the fairy-tale story of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson has not helped my quest for eternal riches, as my heart has now finally triumphed over my head, and I am about to move forward in life with my David.
If only, I could have love, and be the lady of the Manor as I have longed for all my middle-class life! But I cannot have both. James will disown David if he leaves his wife, as that will break the contract between him and her father. David will sully their business relationship forever and bring disrepute onto his family. James will also never forgive David for taking me away from him as he is now fully dependent on me, just as I had planned. He is in love with the Mary that I have presented to him all these months, and he will never forgive me either.
I became aware that David mirrored my feelings the first time he joined me in the library with his sherry after a family supper. It was the day after the big wedding and Mrs Simpson (now the Duchess of Windsor!) was again all over the papers. David and I began discussing their love story and it quickly became apparent we shared the same sentiment. We were both enamoured with the romance and impressed with the courage from both sides.
Phyllis does not share David’s sentiment, of course, expressing her mounting horror at each new development in their story and turning up her well-bred nose at the mere thought of anything romantic. She prefers gossiping with her equally conceited and vapid friends.
After that first evening, it became customary for David to join me after every family occasion in the library, where we would discuss the great love stories of our time - and our growing feelings.
The following months became our unofficial and clandestine courtship, and we are now ready to start our future together. Our secret plans have been finalised, and David has drafted letters for Phyllis and his father. Earlier this evening I said my final goodnight to James. I have chosen to give up everything I have worked so hard for to be with the man that I love. I will not be the Lady of the Manor after all. But I will be the lady of David’s heart.
I know that we will have a happy life together and, just like Edward VIII, I will never regret choosing love. I am leaving my extravagant future behind and following my heart.
Already there is no turning back, as Phyllis will have read her letter by now and be making a furious call to her father. James will read our letters in the morning, and there will be no escaping their wrath at Mr Jones’ beloved and only daughter’s anguish, and their mutual humiliation.
I look around my familiar room one last time and clutching my suitcase, I quietly move down the grand staircase. With a final backward glance, I step out into the sweet night air and see David standing under the gas streetlamp. The dim lighting creates a halo effect around his head – and he looks like an angel. Shaking the eerie image off with a laugh; I skip down the stairs, falling into the embrace of the love of my life.
As I raise my face to him, celebrating our freedom with a kiss, my Grim Passenger steps out of the shadows and smiles slyly at me.
I close my eyes as the familiar and foreboding hint of freshly turned earth and rotting peaches washes over me and quickly becomes unbearable as David pulls me closer. Panicked, I shake my head and open my eyes slowly, but my Grim Passenger is still there.
He is always there. Lurking in the shadows and hiding around corners. The only constant in my life.
He is going nowhere, but David is. And I will not be joining him after all.