The Last Days Of Leda Grey By Essie Fox: Book Review

Leda Grey is a glamorous silent movie actress with the power to make people fall under her spell.

Journalist Ed Barnes is no exception.

Happening across an old photo of her in a junk shop and captivated by her beguiling looks and haunting presence, Ed sets off to meet her and finds himself drawn into a mystical, hedonistic world full of dark secrets.

All is not what it seems and the ending makes you stop, think, then read the last chapter again. That, in my view, is surely the sign of a good book.

The Last Days Of Leda Grey By Essie Fox: Book Extract



Press Cutting ~ The Brightland Argos ~ Tuesday, August 17th, 1976


Unidentified human remains have been found at a house near Cuckham Sands. Formerly used in Edwardian times as a base for creating silent films, a purpose-built studio in the grounds was completely destroyed when a fire broke out on the night of the discovery.

Initial pathology reports suggest that the body parts are male, most probably in middle age. However, officials are yet to establish why and when the death occurred.

A second body found that night has been named as Leda Grey, an elderly woman who is said to have lived at the house for sixty years.

The police are still waiting to interview a man in his late twenties who was also present at the scene. He is currently recovering from fire-related injuries at the Brightland General hospital.



The slightest thing can take me back to that early August afternoon. It’s almost like running a film in reverse, until the frame is frozen and ready to set in play again. And it would have been in colour, but I always remember in monochrome. The scorched white glare of skies above. Black shadows in the cobbled Lanes. How I bought a postcard from a rack that showed the pier lit up at night in faded loops of silver. How I stared at bleached geraniums that drooped in baskets either side of the open doors to the Bath Arms bar – and something yet more mournful in the silhouettes that I could see through the gloomy dinge inside that pub. Two lovers rocking back and forth, locked in a sort of languid dance while a tinny radio blared out the hypnotic chords of skank guitars. The Eagles. ‘Hotel California’.

At least I could have sworn it was. Time and memory confused. thee warm air. e sweet smell of colitas . . .

I had no weed, but reached instead for the pack of Woodbines always kept in the back pocket of my jeans. The brand my mother always smoked, and I liked the rough cheap taste of them. I liked the smell of sulphur in the moments when I lit one up, when a match was scraped across the strip of sandpaper that edged the box.

Sucking deep on the acrid nicotine I felt it prickle through my scalp, through the fug of last night’s hangover, as I wandered further on into the warren of the Brightland Lanes where the radio’s fading melody was replaced by the sudden high-pitched bark of a small black terrier running past.

Turning to watch it disappear into the shimmering of haze where the passage opened up again onto the wider promenade, I must have spun around too fast, feeling dizzy and dropping my cigarette as I stumbled against a window front.

Beneath a lowered awning, the glass was darkly shadowed, almost obsidian opaque. But my vision soon acclimatised to see the items on display. All the watered-down dregs of the hippy age, and the staples of Brightland’s tourist trade in a faded pack of tarot cards, a crystal ball, some small brass bells, and the crackle-glazed porcelain head of a man, adorned with spidery black scrawls of Caution. Despair. Ambition. Love. Hope. Destruction. Misery.

The warnings were all there to see.

Less ubiquitous were the postcards of Hollywood legends from the past. Charlie Chaplin. Greta Garbo. Douglas Fairbanks in one of his swashbuckling roles. Valentino, holding a cigarette, with much of his face seductively obscured by trailing wisps of smoke. And then there was Bette Davis, always a favourite with my mum who’d sit for hours and hours on end before our television set, with the front room curtains closed to keep the light and outside world away while she lost herself in old film noirs like Dangerous, or A Stolen Life.

On a whim, I decided to go inside and buy that photograph of Bette – though I almost stopped when my palm was pressed on the mullioned panes of the shop’s front door. Five fingers reaching out for mine. A lean brown arm extending from the white of a cotton T-shirt. The golden glint of stubble below two sharply angled cheeks. A pair of staring anxious eyes beneath fair curls turned dark with sweat.

I hardly recognised myself. So much gaunter than the glam-rock boy whose photograph and byline were displayed on the ‘Hip and Happening’ page of London’s City magazine. My mornings spent in Fleet Street with the clatter and bash of typewriters, writing reviews on rising stars promoted on the London scene. Longer lazy afternoons with all the other boozed-up hacks who lushed in antiquated bars, until the evenings spent at gigs, or films, or parties after shows – before it all began again, when I dragged myself from the crumpled beds of faceless, nameless strangers. Fucked into oblivion.

Oblivion. The perfect word. When had it all stopped being fun, leaving me lonely, restless, bored? And the odd electric charge I’d felt all through that summer’s endless heat. Like insects buzzing through my veins.

It was with me then, a thrumming itch, vibrating to the jangling of the bell that rang above my head when I made my way into the shop – and seemingly stepped back in time, to see an imposing mahogany counter, and on top of that an old brass till, its gleaming sides embossed with shapes of flowers, leaves and curling scrolls. Next to the till, a small black dog was sitting on a wooden plinth, and if not for the grey around its snout it struck me as identical to the one that I’d just seen outside. Except that this was motionless. A silver crown upon its head.

I’ve never liked stuffed animals. Averting my gaze I looked instead at racks crammed full of vintage clothes, all giving off a musty smell. Something like roses, but dank as well, like washing that hadn’t quite been dried and had then gone mildewed with the damp. My nose began to tickle. I couldn’t stop a violent sneeze, which must have alerted the shopkeeper. I heard some creaks from overhead. The slow but steady beat of feet descending on some nearby stairs, and then a beaded curtain’s hush...

He looked like an ancient game show host. A pinstriped suit with wide lapels that in another day and age could well have been considered sharp. Something Cagney might have worn in 1930s gangster films, when he’d pull a gun, or flick a knife. But this suit was too baggy. The cuffs were frayed. There were greasy stains across the front. And its owner fared no better. Whatever his hair had been before, all that now remained of it were a few white strands grown long on top in a Bobby Charlton combover, although this bobby-dazzler failed to hide the sores that marred his scalp. Slack jowls drooped round a pair of lips, so red I couldn’t help but think he must be wearing lipstick. Above, two pale and rheumy eyes were large and almost childlike, magnified behind the rims of a pair of black-framed spectacles – though the old man’s gaze grew keener as his steepled fingers lifted, the tips of them then burrowed in the flesh that sagged beneath his chin.

His voice was surprisingly youthful, being mellifluous and deep, just the slightest cracking quality when he asked, ‘Can I be of assistance? Is there anything particular...’

‘There’s a picture, in the window front. I wondered if...’

Every thought of Bette was swept aside when I saw some other photographs hung on the wall behind his head. Turn of the century perhaps, all with a slightly faded charm.

A fierce-looking woman with both arms raised as if to show the draping sleeves of a medieval-looking gown; the fabric lustrous, shimmering in peacock shades of blues and greens. But the other prints were monochrome. A smiling woman, head inclined, her eyes and nose quite hidden by the roses stuck around the brim of the hat that she was wearing. At her side there was a little girl who couldn’t be much more than six. Eyes glittering like jewels of jet as they filled a narrow elfin face. Coiling black ringlets that fell to her shoulders, on top of which she wore what might have been the very same garland of flowers now hooked on a corner of the frame, where the once fresh blooms had dried to brown, like scraps of creased-up tissue paper.

There was the girl in another frame, alone, and some years older, and something different on her head. Something more elaborate in those twists of metal leaves – and snakes? The skin around her eyes was smudged. Was she tired, or was that make-up? When sunlight dazzled on the glass it gave her the look of a living skull. It was such an odd illusion, and it lasted no more than a moment or so but I felt a prickling jolt of fear; a sense that if I stepped too close that girl might reach out through the frame and try to drag me into it.

I shook my head and closed my eyes, and when I looked back up again the natural features were restored, so perfect and alluring that before I knew it I’d enquired, ‘How much do you want for that . . . that girl, with the snakes around her head? Who is she? Do you know her name?’

‘Ah...’ The old man gave a sigh. A reek of sour beery breath, and a smile that quite unnerved me. The way the scarlet of his lips bled into wrinkled fissures, and the deeper grooves that etched two lines from his nose down to the chin below. Like the hinges on mouths of ventriloquist’s dummies.

Once, when I was very young, my mum – what was she thinking of? – had let me stay up late to watch a horror film called Dead of Night. A collection of different ghost stories, with the last about a ventriloquist who believed his dummy was possessed by the spirit of a murderer, with all the other characters convinced the man had gone insane. Until the end, and the horrible twist, when—

Recalling the dummy’s wide round eyes and the awful malevolence of its smile brought every childhood terror back, starting with genuine alarm when I heard the banshee wails of gulls that gathered in the Lane outside, and through that din the old man’s voice:

‘Well, I don’t often have the pleasure of a handsome young man inside my shop . . . and I hope you won’t mind me saying this, but you have quite a shine about you. Such a lovely golden light it is! I’ve only seen it once before. A coincidence for those of us who might be prone to, well . . . what shall we call it? To superstitious tendencies?’

He paused. When he started up again it was almost like a riddle. ‘The light of attraction between lost souls. Do you also see between the veils? I sense a shared affinity.’

I was wondering if I should leave, presuming the man was drunk, or mad. Or worse, about to make a pass, like the mincing queens in West End bars, who always seemed to think that if they smiled and winked and bought me drinks then I might well be up for it.

Was it me? Misleading signals?

A relief to see his trembling hand had not been raised to touch my arm, but to point on past and indicate a painted sign propped on a shelf, where a large black eye had been designed in a mystical Egyptian style, and arched above were words that read:

Ask and you shall receive advice

His voice was remorseful, reedier, when explaining, ‘Mysterio was me. A trade I used to ply before the medicines I have to take blocked off those natural instincts. I’m an epileptic, you see, and the doctors say another fit would finish me entirely. So they dose me up with all these drugs to suppress “excitement” in the brain.’

My answer may have been too curt. ‘I don’t believe that psychic stuff.’

‘Ah yes.’ His gaze was doleful. ‘You may well have a point. Most any fraud can read the “signs”. The movements and the random words that hint at our most inner thoughts. Those things we never dare to tell. But perhaps it’s only fair to say ...’ the coarse white hair above one eye had skewed to twist his furrowed brow, ‘I think I still see more than most, even if my mind is slowing up ... whether that’s due to the medicines or this cursed blight of aging. The cruellest thief of all is Time.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and really was, though I found it hard to understand why the sadness in the old man’s voice should affect me quite so deeply.

‘Oh, the years have been kind in many ways. Too generous, you might well say. I’m one of the last Victorians. Born in the 1880s! And I know you young folk think we’re prudes, all frills around piano legs . . . what was it that John Lennon said? I heard him just the other day when he was on the radio. About getting old and missing it?’

He gave a sudden snorting laugh, after which he cleared his throat of phlegm and carried on more breathlessly. ‘Well, we didn’t miss so very much. The good old days are aptly named! What wonders we achieved back then. I’m crippled with arthritis now, but once I had a gift for art, creating all the backdrops for my father’s photography studio. And later, sets for moving films.’

His eyes grew brighter, dreamier. ‘If you could see the magic that we captured on those silent screens.’ His head was shaking sadly. ‘All gone, all gone. And now . . .’

Was she gone as well? I found my eyes drawn back to the girl with intense black eyes, who might be dead and in her grave. But her picture was vibrantly alive. Such a sexy, vampish air she had. Why, add a safety pin or two and that face could pass as easily for a singer I’d met the other night at a gig in a shabby East End pub.

The place had been packed to the ceilings, with the sweat from hot bodies condensing there and dripping on our heads like rain, dribbling through the purple spikes she’d fashioned from her short black hair. Her cat-like eyes blinked back the sting while jet-black lips had mouthed some words I didn’t have a hope to hear. But I’d followed the liquorice sway of hips beneath her leather bondage gear to find her alone on a fire escape where she’d snatched the fag out of my mouth, taking a long slow draw on that before telling me about her band, and how Malcolm McLaren had fixed a gig at the 100 Club on Oxford Street. I’d said I’d like to be there, hoping to impress her more by offering to write it up in the pages of the magazine. But she’d only looked contemptuous. ‘You work for City magazine? That pile of capitalist crap! If it’s hip, then it’s not happening.’

I hadn’t tried to disagree. Why would I? Every word was true.

The femme fatale in sepia had eyes far less accusing, and a chance to look more closely came when the old man turned his back on me, shuffling towards her and grunting with the the effort as he raised his arms to clutch the frame. Setting it down on the countertop, he used the cloth of his jacket sleeve to lovingly dust across the glass. When that was done his eyes met mine.

He smiled and said, ‘Now, first things first. I think we should be introduced.’ Next chapter


‘I’m Ed . . . Ed Peters,’ I answered while offering to shake his hand, though that formal gesture was ignored as he turned his head away again, looking back at the beaded curtain through which he had at first emerged, the strands of which were rattling and parting slightly in a breeze.

A long dark passageway behind. A narrow run of wooden stairs. Beyond, another spacious room where a dome of glass in the ceiling space was covered with moss and sea gull shit. Any sun that could still penetrate created the eeriest atmosphere, like a bubble underneath the sea. And in that murky shimmering I saw a dark-red velvet chaise. Some painted backdrops on the walls. A stylised Brightland Pavilion. A jungle scene with ancient ruins – and then the curtain fell again, and my gaze returned to the black-eyed girl, asking more urgently than I’d intended, ‘Won’t you tell me about her ... who she was?’

‘Not who she was, Mr Peters.’ The answer was slow and serious. ‘It’s more a case of who she is ... still very much alive today.’ He stopped, as if to let that news sink in before continuing. ‘That is, if you call it living. The way she hides herself away like a doomed princess in a fairy tale. I used to visit, every month, as regular as clockwork. But my health, and these drugs I have to take, they mean I can no longer drive. Even if I could, the cliffside road has grown too perilous. They’ve closed it off. The path’s still there, but I’d never manage such a trek.’ He was breathing very heavily, as if simply the thought of the exercise had been enough to wind him. ‘I should write, but I doubt the post gets through. I wish she had a telephone. There’s no such thing at White Cliff House. No electricity. No water mains. Not that it seems to bother her. She is a fly in amber. In stasis. In inertia.’

‘Has she always lived that way?’ I asked, still staring at the photograph.

‘Oh no. She once lived here with me, when we managed our father’s photography shop . . . before we met with Charles Beauvois and became involved with all his films.’

I felt excitement stirring. I asked, ‘Was she an actress, then? I see she has that glamour.’

Seeming in better spirits now, the old man nodded earnestly while reaching beneath the countertop and pulling out a large square book that made a very solid thump when he dropped it down between the dog and the frame that held his sister’s face.

‘I saved this book of cuttings from a skip only the other week!’ He made the proud announcement while he drew the marbled cover back. Inside, his swollen fingers fumbled, lifting flimsy tissue sheets, revealing prints that he then claimed to be a record of some films made in the Brightland area. All stills from work created there in the years before the First World War.

Listening with interest, I leaned a little closer, seeing men with elaborate facial hair, wearing bowler hats or at tweed caps as they stood in roads, or fields, or woods with cameras perched on tripod stands. Cameras very much like those displayed on the shelves around us. Big wooden boxes with long metal lenses, like toilet rolls stuck on the front of them.

In one of the pictures – a close-up shot – a kitten was cradled in a lap, being fed some milk from a metal spoon. In another, a buxom woman wore nothing but a corset, giving the viewer a saucy smile while standing in front of an old tin bath. Was this some historical striptease? A quaintly pornographic film?

As each new page was turned my curiosity grew deeper, and I asked with some passion, ‘These are genuine stills from early films . . . all made right here in Brightland?’

‘Here, or the near vicinity, and most some years before our own involvement in the industry. There was Friese-Greene, and Darling. Esmé Collings, and James Williamson. Each one of them a pioneer. Why, one of my earliest memories is of my parents taking me to St Ann’s Well Gardens up in Hove, where G. A. Smith once showed his films . . . with a fortune teller in the grounds. Even a hermit in a cave. I’m sure there are some photographs of that somewhere inside this book.’

‘Why don’t we know of this today? I’d always assumed the silent films first started in America.’

‘America, and Europe too. But, it’s safe enough to say that those who worked right here in Brightland were involved at the very dawn of things ... although it’s almost more than I can bear to think of, all the treasures lost. The celluloid is fragile, you see. Not so unlike our mortal flesh . . . melting, crumbling to dust.’

Questions tumbled through my mind. How many of these people might still be alive in the present day? How many films had been preserved? I asked, ‘Do you think there’s any chance that I could meet your sister too? I’m a journalist, and I really think there might be quite a story here.’

Again, the old man raised a brow. ‘A story more intriguing than you’d ever dare imagine. My sister keeps many secrets. Many skeletons in her closets, and . . .’ A frown of confusion filled his face as if not knowing whether he should stop or carry on with this – until his eyes fixed hard on mine. ‘Those ghosts may rise to harm us all.’

Us all? Did he mean himself and his sister, or was he including me as well? I pushed such nonsense from my mind, asking as my fingers stroked around the picture’s chipped gilt frame, ‘How old was she, in this photograph?’

‘Our father took this picture. Quite the David Bailey of his time. She was always his favourite subject . . . at least, after our mother died. And I know she might look older here, but I think she would have been fourteen. About the time when Charles Beauvois first showed his face here in the town. His first appearance. Not his last.’

He paused. His body stiffened. All at once he looked exhausted, as if his whole physique had shrunk within the creases of his suit. ‘Ah well, what’s done is done. Too late for us to change things now. And Charles Beauvois is surely dead. He was older than us by quite some years when he disappeared from White Cliff House . . . leaving misery behind.’

That stare. So terribly intense as he struggled to keep his dignity, to control the emotions clearly felt when beneath the weight of crepey lids his eyes grew blurred and watery. When he blinked a single drop splashed down across a photo in the book. The photo with the kitten. The spoon which now appeared to spill the milk contained within its bowl.

A magical illusion, and hard to drag my gaze away, while the old man carried on to say, ‘If you have a genuine interest – and yes, I do believe you do – then I’ll sell you my sister’s photograph, and I’ll let you have this book as well. Shall we say the sum of twenty pounds? Would that be agreeable?’

It was an extortionate price to pay, but before I’d even answered he was wrapping the frame in newspaper, and muttering beneath his breath, ‘This may well be a can of worms you’ll wish you never opened up. Are you sure you want to take these things?’

What a strange exchange of goods it was. What could he be afraid of ? For myself, I would have paid much more, such a rush of excitement in my blood as I reached for the wallet in my jeans from which I pulled two ten-pound notes.

While placing them down on the countertop my fingers brushed against his hand, and I felt the heat of swollen joints, and the oddest sense of pity when, in any other circumstance, I’d probably have been repulsed. Not to mention losing patience during the small eternity before the cash was in the till, after which he picked a biro up to scrawl some details underneath the words emblazoned at the top of a flimsy sheet of paper:


Barely giving that a second glance I stuffed it in my wallet. With the package held beneath one arm I made my way towards the door, where my eyes were almost dazzled by the shock of light on the other side, while behind I heard the old man call:

‘Oh, Mr Peters, before you go . . . I don’t think you asked my sister’s name. Her name is Leda. Leda Grey. You’ll see it, on the sales receipt. And if you do decide to go and find her up at White Cliff House, will you tell her Theo sent you?

‘Will you tell her Theo thinks it’s time to tell the truth ... to show her light?’



Leda. Leda. Leda Grey. Chanting the name inside my head I walked back through the bustling Lanes, and then along the seafront road until I found the small hotel I’d booked into the night before.

Converted from a private home in the grandest of Regency crescents, it had wide stone steps and a pillared porch; though best not look too carefully at the crusting rust on ironwork or the paint that peeled from rotting wood when, back inside my room again, I forced the creaking window frames that opened to a balcony.

I was hoping to draw a breeze inside to cool the stifling atmosphere. The room was as hot as an oven. My head throbbed. I felt too shaky as I stripped off all my sweat-damp clothes and headed to the bathroom.

No shower. Just a chipped white bath in a room with little natural light, where a stark fluorescent strip light hummed and flickered wildly overhead as I turned the big brass tap marked cold, then lowered myself into the tub and closed my eyes against a sign fixed on the wall above it.


I didn’t linger. Did that count? After hauling myself back out again, I stood on the cracked and clammy tiles where puddles formed around my feet. I pressed a flannel to my chin, where I’d nicked myself with a razor blade. I watched the water drain away, gurgling in the plughole as it swirled with trails of ribboned red – when I slumped down to my knees and heaved.

A vivid flashback to a day when I’d still been a boy at school. The middle of my O levels. I’d written an essay on Macbeth, quoting lines I’d learned by heart; those words repeating in my mind when I came back home that afternoon to find my mother in the bath.

The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red.

She’d slashed her wrists with a kitchen knife. On the floor, an upturned bottle of whisky had spilled across her dressing gown. A pale blue quilted thing it was, that used to give off sparking shocks whenever Mum brushed past me. The lapels had little orange spots. Stains from dribbled cups of tea, though the cups I made most mornings to leave by her bed when I went to school would still be there when I returned. Stone cold, with a skim of grey on top.

Next to the cups, a photograph. A place and a date inked on the back. About nine months before my birth. She never said who’d taken it, but they must have made her happy. Eyes laughing underneath a hat with Kiss me Quick across the front. Standing on a pebbled beach, her skirts hitched high above her thighs, waves washing round her feet like lace.

I’d taken her back to that beach last night, carrying a plastic bag with the urn I’d lugged around for years, wherever I’d happened to make my home. Ten years had passed, but finally I’d found my way to Brightland, where I’d flung her ashes in the sea, and then collapsed beneath the pier. With my legs splayed wide across the sand I’d been pouring whisky in my mouth until I’d thrown the bottle down, hearing the smash and then the hush of waves that claimed the broken glass. And over that I’d screamed the words my mother sometimes used to sing, when she played her old scratched records on the gramophone in our front room, closing her eyes and dancing while Frank Sinatra softly crooned: Can’t you see I’m no good without you? . . . How can I go on, dear, without you?

In the bathroom, on my feet again, I wrapped a towel around my waist and told myself to get a grip.

Christ, did I need a cigarette. Heading back to the bedroom to find one, I lit it up while staring out across the open balcony, where a swarm of scarlet ladybirds were crawling on the parapet. Beyond, the Crescent’s scorched brown lawns sloped down towards the promenade, where the glisten of a dying sun shone red on all the towers and domes that loomed above the Brightland Pier.

Squinting my eyes against that glare, I turned to face the room again, seeing through the curling haze of smoke blown through my parting lips the sort of shabby dark antiques that no one wanted any more. But I liked their faded glory. And I liked the cracks in the plasterwork that lapped around the ceiling, and the way the geometric design of the vinyl paper on the walls had peeled away above the bed to reveal what had been there before. A faded green background with riots of roses. Roundels formed from stems and leaves.

Those patterns made me think about the crown on the head of Leda Grey. The package with her photograph was where I’d left it, on the bed. Soon I’d torn the wrappings off, drawing out the picture frame to prop against the bedside lamp, from where the dark-eyed girl could watch as I stubbed out the fag in an ashtray, then lifted up the scrapbook.

Opening its covers, I felt excitement rise again. is was really happening. I saw features in the broadsheets. Perhaps a documentary. And at the very heart of it was the lure the old man had hooked me with. The mystery about a girl who’d acted in some silent films before becoming a recluse for more than half a century.

I’d booked the hotel for a week. Time to visit the Brightland library. The museum. The local newspaper. Even without a telephone for listings in directories, there couldn’t be that many White Cliff Houses in the area. Tomorrow was a Sunday, but I’d still make a start of sorts. Drive around the coastline. Get to know the area.

For then I was content to spend the evening with the scrapbook, sitting with my back against the greasy satin headboard as I turned the pages randomly – until pausing at a yellowed ad with illustrations of some films enthusiastically described as productions with magical trick effects to astound and confound the audience, with moving images surpassing pre-existing stage events. The grandest of illusions will become as nothing when compared.

Every still did look ‘miraculous’, more so as the light inside the room was dusted in a veil of grey, through which a stuttering white glow leached through the open bathroom door. It flickered on the images of men who’d had their heads cut off, those heads then juggled round like balls. It added yet more atmosphere to the sequence of eerie photographs where the portrait of a woman seemed to come alive within her frame, climbing out from that to creep across a darkened room towards the chair in which a man was sleeping, seemingly quite unaware of . . .

The images blurred, refocused, blurred. My eyes grew heavier and closed, though I was vaguely still aware of the sound of footsteps in the room, like someone pacing round the bed, and now and then between those thuds the squeaking of a loosened board. Some scratching sounds. Some whimpering. Was that the growling of a dog? And then the dream – of Leda Grey. A lucid vision of her face as it hovered above me on the bed. Her lips so close that I could swear I felt her breath upon my own. But, rather than seeing two dark eyes, in my dream her lids were firmly closed, and due to the thick black greasepaint that had been smudged around them, it seemed once more as if she stared through the mask of a cadaver; that illusion more dramatic still when I lifted a hand to stroke her cheek and then lurched back in horror when my fingertips touched cold hard bone, when I heard a sudden hissing noise and saw a snake come slithering through the empty socket of her skull.

I woke with a shout, lashing out, knocking Leda’s photograph from the table to the floor below, where the crashing tinkle of the glass brought me fully back to life – lurching up then falling back against the pillows with a groan, pressing a hand against the heart that was beating too fast, too erratically, where the hair that grew across my chest was running wet with sweat again. is time it was the sweat of fear.

Had I really been scared of a photograph? As the nightmare faded from my eyes I knew that was ridiculous. Even so, I felt much happier after switching on the bedside lamp which threw a far more even glow than the bathroom’s jerky shimmering as I swung my legs down from the bed and set about the task of picking up those shards of broken glass.

When they were in the litter bin I held the fractured picture frame and saw the photograph inside was scratched, one of the corners torn – which was why I decided to keep it safe inside the pages of the book.

Call it fate. Call it serendipity, or had Theo Williams always known what I would find inside it? Because, right there, at the very back, and glued against the cover page, there was a sort of envelope, in the pocket of which someone had placed a selection of directors’ cards. One of those cards was printed with the black-inked etching of a man. He wore a top hat, a flowing cape. He had both arms raised in the air, and bursting from his fingertips, along with a shower of tiny stars, were the letters embossed to form the words:

Charles Beauvois ~ Cinematographer White Cliff House Cuckham Sands ~ Sussex ~ England Next chapter



Cuckham Sands was five miles from Brightland, but I found it easily enough with a map from the hotel’s receptionist. Parking on the roadside verge just opposite a village pub, I listened to the tick-tick-tick of the engine’s cooling metal, and over that the weary tones of a radio station’s weatherman. Today, more soaring temperatures. One hundred degrees at least.

I groaned, turned o the radio, and wound the Mini’s windows up, getting out while dragging on the straps of a battered rucksack. All the tools of my trade were stored inside. Reporters’ notebooks. Pencils. Pens. A camera, and microcassette machine. But, before I could think to use them for interviewing Leda Grey, I needed more directions, thinking to find them in the pub – only to discover that the old oak door beneath a rustic overhang of yellow thatch was locked, and not a sign of life behind its latticed windows.

Through steam that rose above the melting tarmac further down the road I saw some more thatched dwellings, and further on, towards the beach, a woman walked a large black dog. But long before I’d gone so far I found a leaning wooden post which showed the name of White Cliff House. It was next to one of those kissing gates. The turnstiles of another age. No option but to walk through that, with the wider access for a car having been blocked off by metal bars, and a local authority poster that warned of Danger. Do Not Drive. Cliff Erosion. Falling Rocks.

The steeply rising gravel path was hedged by clumps of brambles, eventually opening to show the sea spread wide below, glittering a jewel-like green within a cove of white cliff walls – though the beauty of that tranquil scene was tempered by the blasts of wind that whipped my hair into my eyes, and soon became so forceful that I had to keep my distance from the precipice and rocks below. The exertion made me breathless, unused to that much exercise. But unlike Theo Williams I was still young and fit enough, and in less than half an hour or so the track had levelled out again to lead me to a second gate.

Pushing against its unlocked catch I wandered down another track, heading away from the coastal path and through a dappled avenue where the branches of trees on either side had gradually become entwined. Beneath that shade, with cooler air, I soon picked up my stride again, avoiding any potholes by walking on the sloping banks, where my feet and spirits all but bounced on mats of mossy undergrowth – until the lane turned one last time, and White Cliff House came into view.

Surrounded by more conifers, all that remained of garden lawns were now a yellowed wilderness bisected by a weedy path that led towards what I assumed to be a Georgian dwelling. Built of mellowed rusty brick, the frontage had a large stone porch, but drawing nearer I could see that much of the back was older. A timbered construction that must date from several centuries before. A distinctive lack of symmetry, both in the walls and sagging slopes of many sharply gabled roofs, punctuated here and there by tall and twisting chimney stacks. Almost every visible surface had been swathed to some extent in green, though the closer I got to the house itself the less romantic that appeared. More the strangling parasite that such an ivy really was, with any windows not obscured revealing broken panes of glass, or barricaded from within by closed-up wooden shutters.

Already starting to suspect that the house had been abandoned, I stood beneath the shadowed porch and tugged a hanging metal chain. No sound of any bell inside, only the knocking of my hand as I pressed one ear against the splintered green where paint was flaking; so rough it might have grazed my skin without new stubble growing there.

‘Damn!’ I swore, stroking my chin. The place I’d cut myself last night. It would be a shame if Leda Grey opened the door, then slammed it shut when she saw a shabby sweating tramp. But nothing to do to change that now, so I knocked again, then crouched to lift the flap of a large brass letter box, to see a dimly lit square hall in which I could make out a chair, a table on some lion legs, an enormous mirror on one wall; and then some darker rectangles where inner doors were leading off.

Which door might lead to Leda Grey? Holding my mouth against the gap I called her name, then listened, but not a murmur could be heard in the secret depths of that old house. Only a stillness at its heart. A sweetly sour odour.

Standing again, the flap dropped back, and inching at the metal’s clang I knew that no one living there could possibly have failed to hear, unless they happened to be deaf; as older people sometimes were.

It might be best to leave a note. I wondered about a business card, but decided to keep things personal, taking a pen from the rucksack and scribbling on the postcard still in the pocket of my jeans. The one I’d bought the day before. The one that showed the Brightland Pier.

My name is Ed Peters. I came to White Cliff House today in the hope of meeting Leda Grey, after hearing of her work in film from her brother in his Brightland shop. I will try again this afternoon.

I pushed that through the letter box, then left the shelter of the porch, thinking I’d head back down the cliff to find the village pub again. But first, I’d try and take a glance around the house’s gardens.

Striding off through stems of grass that grew so long they brushed my thighs, I passed the bleached and brittle struts of a long-discarded deckchair. The fraying strings of a hammock still hung between two conifers. Higher, in the branches, were the shreds of a tattered large white sheet, perhaps blown from a washing line and now forever uttering, like ghosts among the evergreens.

Nearer to the house’s walls, despite the summer’s lack of rain some creamy roses clung to life, stems curled through all the ivy leaves and drooping with the weight of blooms. But most had shrivelled when in bud, turned brown and tightly mummified.

More roses tangled round a broken length of iron guttering that hung beneath a leaded bay and must have leaked for many years, rotting the wood of a window frame. Where bricks and mortar had collapsed they’d left a gaping hole behind, its edges furred with fungus. When I touched them with a fingertip some spores rose up and made me sneeze – that sound then echoed by the cries of gulls that wheeled in the skies that, in the last few hours, had turned from blue to a blinding white.

Those cries were other-worldly and I know it sounds ridiculous but I felt the gulls were warning me. A warning that I then ignored, grabbing at some woody stems to hoist myself onto the window’s ledge, where I prayed the stone would hold my weight as I peered in through the broken wall.

The room I saw was very large, and most of it obscured in gloom due to the shutters being closed. But if I tipped my head one way a shaft of sunshine shone there. Filled with dancing motes of dust, it might have been a beam of light projected through a cinema, though no moving pictures on that screen. Everything that I could see was heavy, solid, stationary. A sewing machine on an iron stand. A piano placed against one wall with fancy brackets on the front for holding candles while you played. Books draped in nets of spiders’ webs. Books everywhere I chanced to look, arranged on shelves around the walls, or piled in stacks upon the floor. More of them arranged between two vases on a mantelpiece where a carriage clock stood centre stage.

The hands were set at ten to twelve. Had it stopped, or was that the actual time? I didn’t wear a wristwatch. For some reason they’d never worked on me, either running too fast, or slowing down until, eventually, they froze. But time was the very last thing on my mind when I saw something else in that shadowed room. Something that made me gasp out loud when the spotlight fell across the face of a woman sleeping in a chair.

Was she asleep? Or was she dead? Her eyes were closed. One flaccid cheek was pressed against a cushion. But there – yes, there – the slightest rise and falling of the woollen rug that had been laid across her breast to show that she was breathing, and seemingly quite unaware of anyone observing her; or the fact that I then did something without a shred of decency.

Using one hand to reach behind and burrow in my rucksack, I grabbed for the camera kept there, looping the strap around my neck, then holding the lens to the damaged wall. There was always a film loaded up inside. It only needed a flick of a flnger to set the flash, to light the shot, and click, I had my picture. But when trying to wind the camera on, to take a second photograph, a breeze got up around the house. The conifers were rustling. The broken gutter gave a creak. Long strands of trailing green blew out and lashed around my head and neck. More clouds of dust rose from the wall, and squinting past that reddish scrim I noticed that the light that shone so clearly through the hole before was now a fractured flickering. Black. White. Black. White. Such a mesmerising odd effect, till something else distracted me.

Surely the sleeping woman heard? And yet she didn’t give the slightest twitch to show that she had been disturbed by those staccato beats that filled the shadows of the room. Rationally, I knew that noise was nothing but the ivy’s tap-tap-tapping on the window panes. But how did that explain the shifting patterns on the mantelpiece, where the clock appeared to come to life, hands jerking, edging round the face, though instead of moving forwards, this time was running backwards. Slowly, steadily at first, then gradually speeding up into a whirling blur of black, while the vision seemed to suck me in towards its spinning gravity until, as quickly as it came, the breeze died down, the tapping stopped, and the clock hands juddered to a halt, exactly where they’d been before. At precisely ten minutes to twelve.

That also marked the moment when I lost my balance on the ledge, falling backwards through the air to hit the solid ground below. God knows how the camera wasn’t smashed, and, for myself, perhaps a bruise. But not much more; not with the rucksack cushioning the impact. Only some criss-cross lines of red where thorns had scratched my hands and arms, though I hardly even noticed them – only how odd it seemed to be that the air was suddenly so still. No movement in the trees or leaves that draped about the house’s walls. Only the dancing of a bee as it buzzed around one perfect rose.


With a pounding head and sore, parched throat I reached the Cuckham pub again. This time the door was open, leading me into the murk of timbered walls and ceilings built so low that I could barely stand without my head brushing against the hops hung up to dry there. The air smelled pungently of malt, as did the pint of beer I drank, its coolness like a balm to soothe my thirst – and also fraying nerves.

I didn’t mind my thorn-scratched arms. The streaks of blood would soon wash off. Already they were healing. But the backwards clock, that rattled me, picking at the scabs of what I thought I’d seen inside the house. I knew that I’d imagined it. The tapping of stems against brick walls. The way the movement of the leaves created odd illusions in a room so densely shadowed. The fact that I’d had too much sun, was probably delirious.

Hungry too. I needed food, far more than I did alcohol. God knows what I’d be seeing if I wasn’t even sober. But when some sandwiches arrived I really didn’t fancy them. The crusts were dry and curling, slimed with greasy yellow trails where butter oozed across the plate.

The barmaid looked embarrassed. She was offering apologies. ‘I’m sorry. I can take them back. The kitchen fridge is on the blink. This heat . . . affecting everything.’

I glanced her way, eyes dazzled by the silver hoops hung in her ears. The gleaming blueness of her eyes. The white-blonde hair cut in a bob, a bit like Debbie Harry’s style. On any other day, I might have flirted, tried to ask her out. The way she grinned, so naturally, relaxed and easy in her skin. The skin that swelled quite unconstrained beneath her flimsy cotton vest.

I couldn’t help but smile back, thinking of Hammer Horror films, when the buxom Transylvanian wench is pouring frothing yards of ale in the courtyard of a country inn, with the unsuspecting Englishman about to head towards his fate in the castle of Count Dracula.

In the more prosaic everyday this girl’s attention soon moved on to several other customers, though in between their raucous laughs and calls for glasses to be filled, I bought two cans of lemonade. Reserves to keep inside my bag for the journey up the cliff again.

Meanwhile, I wandered off into an empty snug to drink in peace. In there, the ceiling’s low black beams and narrow latticed windows obscured more of the day outside to give a quiet solitude through which my mind returned again to what I’d seen at White Cliff House. Not the illusion of the clock – no, I wouldn’t think of that – but the woman sleeping in the chair, her face more vivid in my mind than any in that village pub.

The glowing whiteness of her skin, like finely crumpled paper. The tangles of the long grey hair that fell across her shoulders. I hadn’t seen her eyes, and yet much like her brother in the shop she’d exuded something ancient, but also such a childlike air. And it wasn’t just the way the sunlight glinted on her passive face – that radiance of her repose – that made me wonder how she must have shone when she had still been young; when the aged and faded Leda Grey had once possessed the dark allure of the girl in the sepia photograph. Next chapter



Leda Grey was calling out to me from the shadows of the house’s porch. ‘Oh, there you are, Mr Peters! You did come back, just as you said . . . although when I first saw you, walking out of the garden lane like that, I thought you were my brother. It must have been your long fair curls. I often forget how old he is . . . and very almost bald these days. Not the beautiful boy I used to know. But now that you are closer, I see the eyes . . . quite different! Theo’s are blue, whereas yours are brown.’ She paused. Hands uttered to her mouth. ‘Oh dear, what must you think of me? I should calm myself, speak sensibly when a visitor is at my door. It’s so rare, you see. So very ...’

The breathless welcome ended with a sagging of her features, brow knitted into lines of doubt when she took a few steps back and asked, ‘You’re not a bailiff playing tricks? It’s a waste of time. You’ve had it all. There’s nothing of any value left to stuff inside that bag of yours.’

‘No! I don’t want anything. Only to come and talk to you.’ I spoke while walking forward, soon standing just outside the porch from where I saw that Leda Grey bore very little likeness to the man in the Brightland Lanes before. His sister was more finely made. Despite great age she had a grace. Head high, and standing quite erect, whereas he’d been stooped and shuffling, altogether more shambolic.

‘I’m a journalist,’ I carried on. ‘I met your brother in his shop and heard about your work in films. He sold me an old photograph. You, in a crown of leaves and snakes. Won’t you tell me more about it? Why you wore that costume? I’ll pay you for an interview. More if it gets published. Your brother ... he suggested I should come and hear your story. He said’ – I hoped I had it right – ‘He said he thought that it was time for you to show the world your light.’

Her features widened in distress. She raised a hand to touch her brow. ‘He gave you that old photograph? My brother spoke about my light? He must have had a reason . . . so perhaps the time has come then. Theo would never say such things unless he’d placed his trust in you. And if he has . . . then so must I.’

The warmth returned. It seemed that we were back to where we’d started off. ‘Have you travelled very far, young man?’

I told her I’d driven from Brightland, and then walked up the cliffside track. I mentioned the name of my hotel, to which she said, ‘How curious. My brother and I were born and raised in that very part of town. I’m sure Theo once mentioned that our house was now a small hotel. I wonder if . . .’ She shook her head. ‘Oh well, we had to let it go. The debts we had. The cost of staff. But we kept those rooms above the shop, where Theo still lives to this very day. The name and the trade may have changed with the years, but there he is, still in the Lanes. And . . .’ she gave the saddest smile, ‘here I am in White Cliff House.’

She turned, glanced back towards the door, before her eyes met mine again. ‘Would you like to come inside? I’m afraid a draught got up before. The door slammed shut behind me. But it isn’t locked, just slightly stiff. If you could help to push, and then...’

She moved aside, allowing me into the porch while going on, ‘My very own Ali Babi, come to Open Sesame . . . for which I must give some reward. You do look rather hot. Perhaps you’d like a drink of water? I only have what’s in the well and it can be rather cloudy, especially in summer months. But it’s never done me any harm.’

‘Thanks, but I’m OK, Miss Grey. Or, is it Mrs?’ I enquired, looking into two dark eyes that really hadn’t changed so much from those in the photographs I’d seen. The lids were slack and hooded now, with the bruising blue of bags below and fanning lines spread out each side, but the brown of her irises were filled with such a glinting clarity through which her bell-like voice rang out, ‘Oh please, just call me Leda. I suppose if you wanted to be correct then my name would be Miss Williams. But there really isn’t any need.’

‘Then, I’ll stick with Leda. But why Grey, when your brother is Williams? Was Grey a stage name that you used?’

‘That’s something rather personal. Perhaps I’ll tell you later.’

And that was where we left it, when the solid weight of the big front door gave way without the slightest creak and opened to the entrance hall – where the very first thing I noticed was my card, still lying on the floor.

Stooping down to pick it up and place it on the table top, I wondered if she’d seen it, if she’d read the message after all. But she must have done. She knew my name. She’d been outside, expecting me.

Almost as if she’d sensed my doubt, while following behind she said, ‘When you posted the card through the letter box the bang of the metal woke me. I’d been in the very deepest sleep. Such a struggle to open up my eyes. And the dreams I had, calling me back. But, enough of my imaginings . . . I do so like this picture. To see the Brightland pier again. It makes me think about the time when Theo and I made postcards too . . . when I’d pose for all the photographs he took and then had printed up to sell to the ragtag and bobtails in Brightland on their holidays.’

She seemed to be in another world, lost in her own reflection in the mirror on the hallway wall, which allowed me time to take another good long look at Leda Grey. The shape of her slightly curving spine. How slender her frame appeared to be beneath the loose black dress she wore. A style that was almost fashionable, for those who liked the boho look, with sleeves concealing arms and wrists, though the hands below were swollen, wrinkled, roped with purple veins. Not as gnarled with arthritis as those of her brother, but still there was no hiding the fact that these were an old woman’s hands. The same with what was visible above the neckline of her gown where, rising from her small slack breasts, white flesh was creased like muslin. But such a beauty still remained in the handsome bones of Leda’s face – even though she seemed to disagree when looking back at me to say, ‘What an ugly old woman I have become, and yet to sense you watching me, it comforts me in the strangest way. It makes me feel I’m still alive. Not quite yet numbering the dead.

‘Will you tell me ... tell me honestly.’ She was staring at the glass again. ‘What do you see in that mirror? It’s just that when I look for you, standing there behind me, you are quite clear. Quite solid. Whereas I . . . I seem too shadowy. Oddly insubstantial.’

Stepping a little nearer I guessed what the problem was at once, blinking against a daze of light and saying, ‘Well, from this angle, I also look a little blurred ... with the dust that’s covering the glass. The way the sun is slanting in.’

‘Oh, yes!’ Her lips twitched nervously before she gave another smile, revealing what were stained with brown but otherwise quite perfect teeth. I sensed she was embarrassed, when she turned to look my way, and said, ‘I hardly ever see the dust. I really need some spectacles. Theo brought me some of his. The sort that help to magnify. I used them for my reading, but I can’t think where I’ve put them now. This house is such a muddle.’

Her eyes looked clear and keen enough when darting round the hall just then, out through the door, beyond the porch where the sun was such a scorching blaze that my arms had burned a lobster red while walking up the cliff again; the fine fair hairs bleached almost white. But not the scratches on my hands. I hoped she wouldn’t see those marks. I didn’t want to tell her I’d been spying through the broken wall. Had seen her sleeping in the dark.

‘Do you ever go out ... in the sun?’ I asked. And yes, I was trying to flatter her, when I said,‘Your skin… it’s clichéd, but it really is like porcelain.’ In fact, it looked translucent, so fine that at her temples I could see the veins, a throbbing mauve.

She laughed. ‘I’m that not vain, young man, and this mirror is not that blurry! But it’s true, I rarely go outside. Sometimes, at night, I like to walk. Along the cliff, or—’

‘But,’ I interrupted, ‘how do you manage to exist? What do you do about buying food?’

‘My brother brings me what I need . . . whenever he can . . . when visiting. I’ve been growing vegetables for years in a kitchen garden at the back. And the family, at the farm nearby . . . we have an understanding. A grace and favour arrangement. They put wood in the outhouse for the stove, and to burn for fires in the winter months. Sometimes they leave me food as well. Butter. Cheese. Fresh milk, and eggs. Not so much of it these days. Not since the ownership has changed. But the pantry shelves are filled with tins. Enough of them to last for years.’

‘So you live entirely alone?’

Leda didn’t answer, only glanced back through the door again and asked, ‘Do you hear that rumbling? Is it thunder . . . or an engine? Do you think it’s Theo’s motorbike?’

Theo? On a motorbike? That was something I would like to see! But all I heard was screeching gulls; a breeze that swayed the trees again; perhaps the rush of distant waves – through which I hoped that Leda Grey hadn’t grown too old and senile for a rational conversation. Meanwhile, I started to explain how her brother had said he couldn’t drive because of his new medicines. How he simply wasn’t fit enough for walking up the cliff-side track. Not now that it had been closed off.

‘Ah! I might have guessed as much.’ She gasped. A hand clutched to her breast. The sort of gesture you’d expect from a diva on an opera stage. ‘Did my brother send you here today to say he won’t be coming back? Is this to be the end of it?’

The end of what?

I tried to reassure her. ‘I don’t think he’s quite as bad as that. He was still working in the shop.’

She didn’t seem to hear at first, then laughed, ‘Oh, Theo and that shop! It used to drive me mad, you know, the way he rummaged round this house. Like a magpie he was, always searching for things to take away and sell there. Not that the bailiffs left that much. But, poor Theo . . . always worrying about taxes and bills and expenses . . . always saying that I sit up here and have no idea how hard it can be to exist in the outside world today. I suppose it’s true.’ She frowned. ‘I try my best to understand. And now, I’d gladly pay the tax of all my brother’s pilfering . . . if only he’d come back again.’

She stopped to take a trembling breath. ‘I suppose, it did seem strange to me . . . how different he was, last time he came. He barely spoke a word to me, and when he did his voice was slurred. Did you notice that, when you met him?’ Alert, enquiring eyes met mine. ‘Was Theo still dragging that leg of his? I’m not stupid. I told him, I know the signs. I saw it in our father’s stroke. But he simply shrugged it off and blamed his poor arthritic bones again. Dear Theo. Always the fragile one.’

‘His voice seemed clear enough to me. He may have limped a little bit, but . . .’ I wasn’t sure what else to say, suddenly suggesting, ‘You know, if you’d like to visit him, then maybe I could help you. There must be a way to drive to town, to get a car up here, and . . .’

‘No!’ She rose to her full height, eyes on a level with my own, and filled with such a blazing zeal. ‘There’s only the path that runs on past the fields behind Winstanley’s farm. And Theo always comes to me. I have to stay. I have to guard.’

Guard what? I felt confused, hearing the anguish in her voice, wondering why she’d want to stay in this wreck of a collapsing house. All that I could think to say was, ‘I’ve upset you. I should go away. Maybe come back another time, when—’

‘No! Don’t go! At least, not yet.’ She paused, another breath, and then, ‘Mr Peters, please forgive me. I’m a lonely old woman with no idea of how to behave in company. But, I’d like you stay, and if you do I’ll do my best to tell you all you wish to know about my life . . . the one I lived as Leda Grey.’ Next chapter


‘Did you have a life as someone else?’ I hadn’t meant to tease her. I didn’t expect her stark reply.

‘I did. I’m sure you’ve done the same. I’m sure the man you are today must be entirely different to the boy you were at, say, sixteen?’

‘I was sixteen when my mother died.’

I surprised myself with that blunt response, never having mentioned it to anyone I’d met before.

‘I’m sorry.’ Leda’s hands were clasped, her fingers twisting nervously. ‘And now I have upset you. But your father. Is he still alive?’

Just who was interviewing who? Again, I answered honestly. ‘I never knew my father. My mother and I, we lived alone. It was hard. She always felt ashamed. Not being married . . . having me. I don’t think she had a happy life.’

‘But I’m sure you made her happy.’

I thought of when I’d been a child – those nights when I would sometimes wake to see the street light shining through my flimsy bedroom curtains, and then across my mother’s face as she knelt on the rug beside my bed. Her breath would be rank with wine and fags. I’d try to turn my head away while she stroked her fingers through my hair, and cooed, ‘Did I ever tell you, Ed, how I came to meet your father . . . that holiday in Brightland? How we slept under the pier that night and—’

Mum! I’d push her hand away, growing hot with the embarrassment at this talk of a father I’d never met, knowing that tomorrow night I’d hear about another man. Perhaps the handsome gypsy who’d worked the rides on Brightland pier...

One year, when I was five or six, I’d thrown up all my candy floss while spinning on the waltzers when the fair was on in Hammersmith, desperately searching for myself in the features of the swarthy men collecting all the sixpences.

I’d had less hope of finding the American GI she said she’d danced with in Trafalgar Square, one night at the end of World War II, before he’d sailed back home again to another wife and family. But then, when I was old enough to do the maths on that affair, working forward nine months from a night in May in the year of 1945, it was clear she’d made the whole thing up. No normal human pregnancy could last the three years that she’d claimed.

How stupid did she think I was? My mother lived in a fantasy world. The only certainty in life was that she didn’t have a clue as to who her child’s father was. And that was how I’d liked it. Just her. Just me. All on our own ...

I heard the laboured breathing of the living woman at my side, her eyes expressing sympathy, and the slightest catching in her voice when she raised one hand as if about to touch her fingers to my cheek. ‘These old skins all slough off in time. Eventually we start anew, even when we think our hearts might break . . . abandoned by the ones we’ve loved.’

I had no thoughts of leaving then, only followed when she beckoned me, walking past the staircase where a newel post had split in two, protruding with sharp spikes of wood – as if someone had taken an axe to it.

That was somewhat unnerving, as was the musty smell of rot that mingled through the oral scent that drifted up in Leda’s wake. Was it rose? I think it must have been, though looking at her trailing hems was somewhat less alluring, with the cloth collecting dust and crumbs as she led the way through double doors, into the room I’d seen before when spying through the broken wall.

The sun had moved on round the house. Now the light that trickled in was a great deal fainter than before. But enough to see when Leda Grey motioned to the mantelpiece where, beside the silent static clock, I saw the tall brass candlestick she must have been alluding to when she asked, ‘Could you light that candle, please? I’m afraid that here in White Cliff House we have no electricity . . . and no more oil for any lamps.’


After lighting the wick of the candle with a match from my own pocket, the room around was gleaming gold, illuminating zigzag cracks that riddled through the ceiling, all the corners where long spiders’ webs were dangling down to reach the floor, all the juddering flowers, leaves and birds on a William Morris wallpaper. The very same design I’d seen at a Chelsea party recently. But there the paper had been new. A modern reproduction. Here, the walls were stained with years of mould and penetrating damp. The paper fell away in folds.

I noticed the basket in the hearth, overflowing with ash and half-charred wood. It could have been like that for months, or had a fire burned recently? Leda Grey appeared to be immune to the oppressive summer heat. When I’d seen her before, when she’d been asleep, she’d been covered in the blanket now heaped on the floor beside her chair – the chair which, on closer inspection, was covered in a green brocade, the very same fabric being used on a sofa standing opposite. In between them both a Turkish rug, and through its weave a worn white stripe that led my eye towards the doors. How many times over how many years had this woman walked to make that groove?

All at once I was aware again of a stale and fetid atmosphere, so bad I felt impelled to ask, ‘Would you mind if I drew some shutters back?’

‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible. They’ve all been nailed to the window frames . . . ever since that time the coastguard came and said that I should leave the house. It was after the Germans dropped the bomb, when it took half the cliff away with it. He insisted on sealing the lower floors in case the enemy got in. He told me that I had to leave. But I refused. I didn’t care. I liked to see the bombs go off. I’d walk along the cliff and watch the ares go up like reworks. Some near, and some as far as France . . .’

She paused, appeared to be confused. ‘There were two wars.’ She stopped again, and then began to wring her hands. ‘Do you think we’ll have a third one? Will the Germans try to come again?’

‘More likely the Russians. They’ll drop the bomb, and that will be the end of us.’

‘The Russians? I did hear of the Bolsheviks. The fate of the Tsar and his family. Is it anything to do with that?’

‘God, no! That’s ancient history.’ Didn’t she watch the TV news? No. No electricity. What about a radio? Something using batteries? Surely her brother told her things? How could she live in the world today and not be aware of the Cold War?

‘Don’t you miss the sun?’ I asked. ‘I could try to force those nails out . . . to get the shutters working.’

‘I only need to close my eyes and remember this house as it used to be.’ As if to demonstrate her point, she squeezed them shut and carried on. ‘Imagine the windows opened up. The room all sparkling with light . . . which was the very reason why Beauvois first came to work here . . . when he built the studio for his films.’

She smiled, eyes opened wide again. ‘I first saw it one Sunday afternoon, in the spring of 1913.’

‘That’s ...’ I made a swift calculation, ‘sixty-three years ago.’

‘Sixty-three years? Can it be that long?’ While Leda’s voice echoed my own, I shrugged o the straps of my rucksack, setting the bag down on the rug before rummaging about inside to find the cassette recorder, enquiring while I dragged that out, ‘Would you tell me more about that time? Would you mind if I tape the things you say?’

‘Tape?’ She gave a puzzled look.

‘With this.’ I placed the machine on the sofa, tearing away the cellophane wrapped around a new cassette. With the reel inserted on the spools, my fingers poised to press ‘record’, the barest click before she asked, ‘But what is it? What does it do?’

‘It picks up anything we say. It saves the sounds on plastic tape.’

‘Like songs recorded on the wax?’

‘Like this…’

I pressed ‘rewind’, then ‘play’, and watched as Leda’s face lit up when she heard her words repeated back. Such a mellow, musical voice she had. A mesmerising quality. To hear it you’d never guess her age. To see her then, her sheer delight, when she cried, ‘Ah, this is wonderful! So clear. No crackling at all.’

She clapped her hands, and laughed out loud. ‘But where on earth should I begin? Such a tumble of memories in my mind, like the tinkling beads of coloured glass that you find in a child’s kaleidoscope. Which patterns are the prettiest? How to know which random arrangement of shapes might be the best with which to start?’

I thought of the business card I’d found. The magician whose hands had scattered stars. I said, ‘Why don’t you tell me how you came to meet Charles Beauvois?’

‘Beauvois.’ She sighed his name, her eyes then flicking to the left and right, stopping when they rested on an ornamental cabinet. ‘My cabinet of curiosities. I think that is the place to start. A sort of game. A box of tricks. Why don’t you open up the doors and see what you can find there?’

I went to stand before it and traced my fingers over all the painted scenes, still bright to see, where nymphs and satyrs danced in woods, with cupids in the clouds above, and at the corner of each door the figure of a snow-white swan. A shame about the mirrors, the glass of which was badly cracked and where my image – hers as well – was horribly distorted, those fractures making it appear as if a hundred Leda Greys were sitting in the room behind.

She said, ‘I broke the mirrors, when I dragged the cupboard all the way down here from where I used to sleep.’

‘You carried this downstairs, alone?’ The cupboard surely weighed a ton.

‘I had to. There was such a storm. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we don’t get another soon. This awful, humid weather. The heat of a hundred summers! But, that night, it was winter. Very cold. I woke up drenched and shivering to find the ceiling had collapsed . . . rain dripping down across the bed. Since then I’ve often climbed the steps that lead me to the attic rooms, looking for gaps where the light comes in, patching them up with plastic bags. Theo brings them from the shops. They really are so useful. I stuff them in, then seal around the edges with some candle wax. It is surprising what will do, if only for a little while.’

She raised one brow and gave a shrug, a gesture that reminded me of Theo in his shop before. ‘I saved all sorts of things that night. My clothes. Some paintings on the walls. More trips than I could think to count... and the cabinet put up quite a fight. All those hours of pushing and dragging, until I had the notion of setting a blanket under it, skating it down the run of stairs and cheering as I watched it go. But it crashed into the newel post, and most of the back was sheared away . . . though you’d never know when the doors are closed. Just a few small cracks and splinters. No harm to all my treasures.’

‘Your treasures?’

‘Props from Beauvois’s films. The ones that meant the most to me.’ How mournful Leda sounded then, before her features hardened. ‘But why should I let you see them? What possible interest can you have in a dried-out husk of flesh like me?’

‘I’m interested in knowing more, about your life, about your films.’ Again I found myself confessing things I’d never voiced before. ‘My mother . . . she was mad for films.’

Why was my mother haunting me, so clear to see inside my mind? A tall thin woman. Bleached blonde hair with an inch of black grown at the roots. Her varnished fingernails chipped red. Her face plastered in make-up on those days when she managed to leave the house for our trips to the Hammersmith Gaumont.

God, I felt nostalgic, recalling Sunday matinees, sitting in the balcony and chewing our way through whole boxes of toffees while laughing at the Carry Ons – until she’d give my arm a nudge, pointing out the actors who she’d met at parties in her youth, when she’d had a job in the typing pool at the nearby Ealing Studios. Oh, look . . . there’s Sid . . . and Jimmy. Jimmy always said that they should get me acting in the films as well. He always said I had the looks.

On the bus rides home again, she’d sometimes look at me and cry. I remember the way her powder cracked, as if the real skin beneath was breaking up before my eyes. And I’d desperately wanted to hold her together, but didn’t know what to do or say when she’d grab my hand in hers and ask, ‘Do I look old, Ed? Do I look tired? Can you see these wrinkles when I smile?’

Returning to the present day I realised that Leda Grey was watching me intently, her head tipped slightly to one side when she smiled and wrinkles deepened, though her eyes still shone with such a light when she said, ‘I was mad for the films as well. All of those dramatic worlds . . . so thrilling and exciting. Much more vivid than my real life. Or did I simply hide away from truths I couldn’t bear to see?

‘I wonder . . .’ Eyes were narrowed. ‘Can you bear to open up those doors and look inside my cabinet . . . to see what truths they might expose?’

I sensed some threat in Leda’s words. I thought of her brother’s warnings. About skeletons in her closets. About opening a can of worms.

I couldn’t wait to look inside.