|Last Taxi to Kensington, by Helena O'Rall
This short novel, purportedly written by Ellen Hall, one of the last family residents of Stoney Grove is presented here in 14 parts.
The bleak days of winter passed slowly, each dark morning dissolving into dusk without relief or comfort. Loretta's pain was not eased by the discovery that she was the sole heir to her aunt's estate. She felt unworthy, empty, a frivolous young woman whose story to date was a meaningless whirl of parties, pretense, vanity, and self-deception.
At first she half-expected, half-hoped that Arthur would continue his visits to the estate, and that she might see him again. But as each day passed and he didn’t come, she resigned herself to her solitude. They had been friends long ago. That was all.
More and more she found herself thinking of him. She remembered his face at the pub on that spring morning; his self-deprecating smile as he’d settled awkwardly into the chintz-covered chair when invited to tea, his kindness in the hospital on the day that Beatrice had died. But always her thoughts returned to their last meeting. He had looked at her with such disgust as Reginald had claimed her. And why shouldn’t he? She deserved no better.
Her own failings were overshadowed by news of the War. The darkness of her personal winter was writ large upon the world. Europe had fallen, England was under siege. Each day the world balanced between hope and despair. London, Southampton, Portsmouth all fell victim to Axis bombers. Thousands were dead and wounded, still more had lost their homes, their livelihoods. The need to do something, to be of use, grew within Loretta. She must move outside of her narrow world. What did her hurt pride, her humiliation, matter in a world where evil had gained hold?
Gradually, her mood of self-pity gave way to a need to make amends, to find some greater good. Surely something of her old self, her pre-Reginald freshness and honesty, could be regained. As the days lengthened and warmth returned again to the Downs, Loretta began to make preparations of her own for the future.
Out of loyalty to Beatrice and a desire to be worthy of the trust she had been given, Loretta engaged her time in planning for the future of the estate. In Arthur’s absence, the grounds were sadly in need of attention. On the recommendation of her butler, word was sent to a distant and ancient cousin who agreed to sign on as gardener. Slowly, he began to ready Aunt Beatrice’s vegetable garden for the coming spring. This year, there would be no room for flower gardens.
The winter passed, and spring arrived. Loretta’s next step must be to return to Kensington. After a long absence, there was business to attend to, contacts to be made. While the bombing of London continued, it had abated since the nightly madness of the autumn. Though she was loathe to return to the city, she needed to settle her affairs there. A quick telephone call to Sylvia arranged the matter. She would leave in the morning, spend a week or two in the city, and then return to Wilverdean Hall to await the outcome of her plans.
Saturday dawned brighter and warmer than most days in the middle of May. By mid-morning, she found herself seated beside old Grampton in her aunt’s Bentley, heading for Puckering and the station.
The countryside had cast off its winter gloom. Blue bells carpeted the woodlands like brilliant sapphires, then gave way to fields of brilliant green. The Puck glistened as it raced beneath the old stone bridge near the Golden Crown. Buds swelled on the limbs of the craggy willow trees wading at the water’s edge. Nature brought renewal to the world, undeterred by the war than men were waging.
Arriving at the station, Loretta learned that the train to London was delayed by more than an hour. She settled down with a newspaper to await its arrival, but could not concentrate, torn between fear and a curious sense of excitement to be returning to Kensington after so many months. What would she find there? Sylvia had assured her that their neighbourhood was undamaged, but had shared accounts of the devastation that she daily encountered as she moved throughout the city.
To her relief, Reginald had honoured her wishes and had not contacted her since the grim days following the funeral. Sylvia reported that he had left town recently to stay with his wife’s family at their estate in Hampshire. Though she need not fear a chance meeting, she dreaded the memories that a visit to her—their—old haunts would release. When could she be free of him? Their love was dead, but the memory of his voice, his touch, tormented her.
Impatiently, she rose from the bench. She must defeat these feelings. Abandoning her bags, she stepped out into the bright spring day. A brisk walk through the village would clear her head.
Leaving the station, she turned right down Newsam Lane, heading for the Little Puck. Rows of tidy brick houses lined the road, their solid facades and pots of bright spring blooms belying the uncertainty and darkness of the world just beyond the village bounds. The road bent around to follow the course of the stream, and through the trees she could see a group of boys in their cricket whites playing upon the pitch. She paused to watch them for a moment, and then walked on, drawn by the spire of the Upper Puckering Parish Church at the top of the High Street.
She should stop and pay her respects to Aunt Beatrice; it had been weeks since she had last entered the quiet, mossy grounds of the church. But she could not bring herself to go there, not today when her past was closing in around her. "When I come back," she promised her aunt silently, "I will visit you. Rest peacefully until then."
A few women trudged along the High Street, clutching meagre bags of groceries or the hands of small children. With rationing enforced, and housewives encouraged to grow their own vegetables, Saturday shopping had lost its magic. Passing Swinton’s Tea Shop, Loretta decided she had time for a quick cup before returning to the station.
As she sat waiting for the waitress to bring her pot and some toast, the door opened and the proprietress called out a greeting. Loretta turned to see Arthur Kingsley striding into the shop.