WRITTEN BY LYDIA JONES
She was there to learn how to become a sophisticated young lady, but instead learned something much more important
Maud’s new boots slithered on the frozen pathway.
A well brought-up young lady never runs. She could hear Aunt Emma’s voice in her head, but surely even Aunt Emma would understand Maud was running for her life this afternoon.
Or running to it. If she wasn’t too late.
The over-large hat box banged against her thigh. Her new fashionable clothes were not suitable for this panicked flight through the park. She thought longingly of the riding jodhpurs and boots that had been her constant attire at home. How much faster she would have run wearing those.
She doubted the grooms from her father’s stables would have recognised this elegant young woman rushing headlong through Hyde Park – though only two months ago they had been her daily companions.
It was hard to believe so much had happened in that time. She was barely recognisable as the naïve young tomboy packed off on the London train by her family to acquire city sophistication.
On the journey she’d been terrified; each thud of the steam engine’s pistons pushing her nearer to the unknown.
Don’t worry, darling, I’ll introduce you to everyone
“It will be such a hoot, having you here,” her cousin, June, had said. “There are so many socials: theatre trips, tea dances at the Hilton. Don’t worry, darling, I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
Perhaps she would get to meet proper men in London – not like the earnest apprentices at her father’s engineering factory, or the local landowners’ sons who looked down on Maud because her family were trade, yet admired her horsemanship.
Real men – men like darling Rudolph Valentino. Maud had been only sixteen when he had died and, like many girls of her age, she had wept for a week.
Of course with her ridiculous red hair she’d never be as glamorous as her movie idol, Clara Bow, but Maud lived in hope that, with Aunt Emma’s help, she might scrub up well.
Maud’s first sight of the elegant house overlooking Hyde Park had been daunting, but then out had spilled Cousin June.
“This is my fiancé, Charles,” she’d said, sounding very sophisticated. “And this is his friend Reggie. He’s a famous architect, and he’s going to rebuild London so people like us won’t be allowed to live in it.”
“June – what nonsense you talk.”
Reggie had blushed and taken Maud’s gloved hand.
“Delighted to meet you, Miss Rotherwell. I hope your journey was pleasant. Come inside out of the cold before you freeze to death.”
Once inside, there had been afternoon tea with finger sandwiches in front of a roaring fire.
“So what are you hoping to gain from your stay in London, Miss Rotherwell?”
Reggie passed a plate of sandwiches. Maud took two, and from the corner of her eye she spotted Aunt Emma’s disapproving scowl.
I think my family are hoping I might learn London manners
“Please call me Maud… and I think my family are hoping I might learn London manners. They can’t afford to finish me in Switzerland so they’ve sent me here to Aunt Emma.”
Reggie roared with laughter but Maud noticed June and Aunt Emma exchange dismayed looks.
“I’m hoping to visit the galleries,” she gushed in an attempt to recover. “And the museums, of course.”
“Of course.” Reggie’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “If you would allow me, I would be honoured to accompany you – and just for the record, I think your manners are fine.”
He had smiled in a way that had made her feel warm and accepted. Of course he wasn’t romantic material but she thought that maybe she’d made a friend – and in a strange city, that was a good feeling.
Reggie had been true to his word and the following weekend he’d escorted her to the Natural History Museum.
“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t come along, darling,” June had said. “Museums really aren’t me.”
By that time, endless shopping trips had transformed Maud’s wardrobe.
Quite the London sophisticate
“Look at you – quite the London sophisticate.” Reggie had whistled admiringly when he called for her.
“You like it?”
He’d flashed her the warm smile again and she’d thought perhaps he did look a little like her new favourite actor, Charles Farrell. Just a sort of blond, brotherly version.
The museum’s dinosaur skeleton had left Maud quite speechless.
“What would you like to do now?” Reggie asked as they re-emerged onto the street.
“Oh, let’s just walk, shall we? Aunt Emma has us go everywhere by car, and I miss the fresh air and walking.”
“To the park, then?”
Reggie put out his arm. Maud felt very grown-up taking it.
“That’s where I live,” he said as they passed an apartment block where window boxes and fashionable balconies shrieked gracious living.
“What a wonderful building – it looks so modern!”
“Thank you.” Reggie went a bit pink. “You certainly know how to flatter a chap, don’t you?”
“You do know it’s my design?”
You designed that?
Maud felt her jaw drop.
Reggie chuckled. “What did you imagine architects designed?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I suppose I thought architects were a bit like Daddy’s boring engineers: all bridges and road building.”
“From flattered to flat down, in the space of a few seconds.”
“No – you should say what you think, old girl. I like it. Please don’t ever change, will you? Besides, we do need bridges and roads, you know.”
“I suppose.” She thought about all her father’s “suitable” young men.
“Buildings like that are just to earn money. It’s not what I really want to do.”
“What do you want to do then?”
Promise you won’t think it boring?
Maud couldn’t imagine anything cleverer than creating such a sophisticated apartment house.
“Promise you won’t think it boring?” Reggie teased.
They were crossing to the park and a wind whipped up a flurry of light, grainy snow. Maud extracted a muff-protected hand to place on her hat.
“I want to create new and healthier housing for London’s ordinary people. After the war, Lloyd George promised a land fit for heroes. We’re twelve years on now but there’s been precious little evidence of that – not even under the new Labour government.”
“But Reggie, if they can’t afford to buy new property it can’t be helped.”
“Yes, but it can.” He twisted her gently round to face him. “Can you keep a secret?”
Maud nodded, wondering what could possibly be coming.
“I’m trying to interest a group of investors in financing new social housing to be rented out in some of London’s poorer areas. Houses with proper sanitation, heat and light, and a patch of garden to grow food. We could be a garden city. Just think what that would do for public health!”
As he spoke he waved his arms with enthusiasm until Maud thought he was really quite mesmerising when he wanted to be.
I get a bit carried away, I know
“Sorry… sorry.” The bashful Reggie was back in an instant. “I get a bit carried away, I know. It’s something I feel passionately about and – I don’t know – I just felt I could tell you and you wouldn’t think it silly.”
Maud took his arm again.
“I don’t think it’s silly at all. You must try if it’s important to you.”
“You see.” He smiled. “I knew you’d understand. And now, Miss Rotherwell, since I have bored you with idealistic rhetoric, I think you deserve tea in the park. Allow me to introduce you to the Serpentine Lake.”
“You have lakes in London?”
“Certainly we do. People even swim in the Serpentine. Mr George Lansbury is busy creating a Lido right here in the city’s centre.”
“I should like to see that. I miss the lakes of home.”
“You have lakes in Shropshire?”
“Oh, yes. Everyone thinks it’s all ironworks and factories and –” She caught the sparkle in his pale blue eyes. “Oh – you’re teasing. Heavens, Reggie, how shall I ever be sophisticated and flirt with every fellow like June does if I can’t even spot when I’m being teased?”
“Who says you have to be like June? She’s a nice enough girl but you’re much more natural – and much more fun.”
“I am?” She wasn’t entirely sure that fun and natural were quite what she should be aiming for.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll race you.”
She was shrieking in a way of which she knew Aunt Emma would disapprove as her boots scuffed through piles of damp leaves.
As she reached the Serpentine Lake, Reggie caught her and lifted her up until she felt she was whirling around in the treetops; her head dizzy, her heart soaring with a freedom she hadn’t felt since she had first come to London.
There at the edge of this strange metropolitan lake, just her and Reggie with the swans and geese, she realised for the first time that she could relax her city face.
Outings with Reggie became a regular occurrence after that day. There were art galleries and tea dances and once he took her to watch one of the new “talkies”.
Best of all were their long and peaceful walks in the park. For Maud it felt like being able to remove a mask so that she could breathe.
“I’ve done it!” Reggie said as they fed swans at the edge of their favourite Serpentine. “I’ve arranged a gathering, a sort of launch – here at the Café – to try and interest investors. It’s at four on the last Friday of the month.”
“Reggie, that’s wonderful!”
Maud flicked bread out at waterfowl as she told Reggie, “I met a woman at a soirée last week who worked for the manager of the new Coty factory – and a missionary, too. I should so like to do something.”
“Be a missionary?”
“No, silly, but I’d like to do something worthwhile instead of simply drifting from one party to another waiting for… I don’t know what I’m waiting for.”
“The man of your dreams?”
Maud laughed. “I’m afraid he hasn’t appeared yet.”
You could always marry me, old girl
“Well, if he doesn’t you could always marry me, old girl.”
For a flicker of a second Maud thought Reggie’s pale blue eyes flared with hope, but then he laughed and threw more bread out onto the lake.
Unnerved, Maud joined in.
“Yes. I’d buy a big hat and you could introduce me to your investors as your fiancée. I’d be utterly charming and get them to part with all their money.”
Their laughter sent little clouds of breath out onto the frozen edged lake.
It had been their last visit, because the next day Maud met Algernon.
Like a scene from her beloved movies their gazes locked across a crowded room. Algernon was dark, a cross between Valentino and her new darling Charles Farrell.
“May I have the pleasure?” he said in the manner of every romantic hero.
From that moment Maud was lost.
Aunt Emma said he was a Viscount and should be encouraged. Maud didn’t need any prompting.
Algernon besieged her with invitations, sent bouquets and filled her head so completely that June began to call her “Maud-out-of-mind”.
Whenever Reggie called, she was too busy to see him.
Life became a constant challenge to practise all of her recently acquired London polish to ensure that Algernon remained enraptured.
Then one day, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Maud was distraught.
You absolutely have to get out
“Come along, darling,” June said after Maud had spent a week refusing to leave the house. “There’s a tea dance at Palm Court and you’re coming. You absolutely have to get out.”
Maud couldn’t believe it when Algernon was at the tea dance.
“Algie!” Sophistication abandoned, she waved across.
A look like a snared rabbit flashed across his face, quickly replaced with his habitual charming smile.
“Algie – it’s been an age since I saw you. Where have you been?”
“Just busy – you know how it is.”
He tugged at a cufflink, seeming unable to meet her gaze.
“But Algie, darling. Have I done something wrong? I’m sorry.”
“No, not at all.” His look was one of pity. “Nothing wrong. Look – must dash – friend of the old man’s over there. I’ll catch you later.”
“Alright then,” she whispered, feeling sick with sudden realisation. With tears welling she raced for the powder room.
Locked in a cubicle she patted her cheeks, attempted to compose herself, but her fingers froze as idle chatter outside formed into a conversation.
Did you see that little ‘Shropshire Lass’ throwing herself at Algie?
“It was just too funny, darling. Did you see that little ‘Shropshire Lass’ throwing herself at Algie?”
“It’s his own silly fault,” another woman laughed. “He should check he’s got the right heiress before he starts trying to sweep someone off her feet.”
“One little gauche factory owner’s daughter is much like another, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but poor Algie’s broke and the redhead isn’t worth anywhere near as much as the other one.”
The two women giggled as Maud wondered how on earth she would be brave enough to go outside and ask June to take her home.
For ten more freezing February days Maud moped. The city that had once been so full of promise now seemed a shallow stage where people acted parts for fun, status or sinister personal gain.
“You’re so lucky, June.” Maud watched her cousin pulling on gloves to go out. “To have found Charles in the midst of all this.” She flicked fingers at the world beyond the window.
“Oh, Charlie and me fit together like two old gloves. I know he’s not clever or fabulously rich but he loves me. I can be myself with him and that’s more important than anything, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is…” Maud was flooded with a sudden and overwhelming sense of loss. “What day is it?”
“Friday, darling. Why?”
“No, I mean the date.”
“It’s the twenty-eighth. I can’t believe it’s nearly March, can you?”
There’s somewhere I have to be
“Please excuse me, June.” Maud leapt up, her once listless limbs all suddenly pulsing with urgency. “There’s somewhere I have to be.”
She had taken a taxi to Liberty’s and bought the biggest hat she could find there, but on the way back the traffic had come to a halt.
“Reckon there’s been an accident on the ice ahead, Miss,” the driver said.
“But I’ll be late.”
“No telling how long we might be here, I’m afraid. They say snow’s coming too. Just have to sit tight.”
Maud shifted in her seat, every inch of skin prickling in panic. She could see the lace skyline of Hyde Park’s trees ahead. She was so close…
“Here.” She thrust a note at the driver. “I’ll walk.”
Her heart was banging so hard she thought it might burst; icy breath burned in her lungs and her fashionably clad feet shrieked in protest.
As she reached the Serpentine, the predicted snow began to fall and with it came Maud’s tears.
How childish she had been, expecting life to be like a romantic movie when all the time she had found the best, most important thing of all – and let it go.
If only it weren’t too late.
Panting, motionless, Maud stared forlornly at the door of the café.
Then it opened and there, silhouetted against light inside, stood Reggie.
At the sound of his voice something snapped open inside Maud.
I have been such a fool!
“Darling Reggie – I have been such a fool! We were so special and I… can you ever forgive me? I’m so very sorry.”
“Steady on, old girl. Come inside out of the cold before you freeze to death.”
He smiled. “You’re here now, and that’s all that matters.”
As he took her in his arms, Maud thought how it was just like the final snowy scene of her favourite movie Lucky Star.
“I bought a big hat,” she said, shyly.
“So I see.”
Reggie stroked snowflakes gently from her face with his thumb.
“You’d better put it on, then, so that I can introduce you as my fiancée.”