What the hell does she think she’s playing at? Seventeen, alone in a strange city and accepting an invitation from a man she’s only just met. Finbar Weir. Well-dressed and judging by the size of the order he placed at the bar, with cash to burn. Right now, that’s what Caroline’s looking for. The term Sugar Daddy suggests something sickly sweet, an expectation. She prefers Ration Book. Stamps not just for meat and cooking oil, but for introductions. A means to earn enough to put a roof over her head and have money left over to send home. Take a good look at this place. That’s what you’re here for. A flat is too fancy a description for the living room, kitchenette and bedroom she can sense behind the door to her right. It’s all so shabby, a clutter of things that make no attempt to match each other. You’ll need to tone down your expectations, girl. Unlike at home (home in Suffolk, that is), there’s a tower of shillings to feed the gas meter, teetering, as if someone’s just brushed past. There’s a gramophone player with a stack of 78s. A decanter on a tray, held aloft by a statue of a young Negro. Did it come with the rooms, or is it the kind of thing a man like Finbar Weir finds amusing?
Caught frowning at his Negro, Caroline colours from the neck upwards. Quick, say something. “It’s ten to nine. Can you warm up the wireless?”
“Warm up the wireless? Will you listen to yourself?” All the same, he goes to switch on the radio set.
“It’s something my da used to say.” Though she’s betrayed her age, something liberating strikes Caroline. Here, it’s possible to mention her father. In her new London life she can parrot his favourite expressions without worrying that one of the younger ones will demand, ‘When’s Da coming home?’ Without fear that her ma’s eyes will glaze over. She forces a tense smile, says, “At ’ome, everything always stopped at ten to nine.”
His mockery ramps up her nerves. This must be what it feels like to be a boy whose voice is breaking; one moment BBC news reporter, the next lapsing into the language of childhood. Determined not to let on, Caroline raises a baton-like finger. “Haym. At ire hice,” she enunciates in the King’s English.
“That’s more like it. We’ll make a Londoner of you yet.”
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