At ten o'clock of a rainswept morning in London's West End, a young woman in a baggy anorak, a woollen scarf pulled up around her head, strode resolutely into the storm that was roaring down South Audley Street. Her name was Lily and she was in a state of emotional anxiety which at moments turned to outrage. With one mittened hand she shielded her eyes from the rain while she glowered at door numbers, and with the other steered a plastic-covered pushchair that contained Sam, her two-year-old son. Some houses were so grand they had no numbers at all. Others had numbers but belonged to the wrong street.
Arriving at a pretentious doorway with its number painted with unusual clarity on one pillar, she climbed the steps backwards, hauling the pushchair after her, scowled at a list of names beside the owners' bell buttons, and jabbed the lowest.
'Just give the door a push, dear,' a kindly woman's voice advised her over the speaker.
'I need Proctor. She said Proctor or no one,' Lily said, straight back.
'Stewart's on his way now, dear,' the same soothing voice announced, and seconds later the front door opened to reveal a stalky, bespectacled man in his mid-fifties, with a leftward lean to his body, and a long beakish head tilted in semi-humorous enquiry. A matronly woman with white hair and a cardigan stood at his shoulder.
'I'm Proctor. D'you want a hand with that?' he asked, peering into the pushchair.
'How do I know it's you?' Lily demanded in reply.
'Because your revered mother phoned me last night on my private number and urged me to be here.'
'She said alone,' Lily objected, scowling at the matronly woman.
'Marie looks after the house. She's also happy to lend any kind of spare hand if needed,' said Proctor.
The matronly woman stepped forward but Lily shrugged her away, and Proctor closed the door after her. In the quiet of the entrance hall she rolled back the plastic cover until the top of the sleeping boy's head was revealed. His hair was black and curly, his expression enviably content.
'He was awake all night,' Lily said, laying a hand on the child's brow.
'Beautiful,' the woman Marie said.
Steering the pushchair under the staircase where it was darkest, Lily delved in its underside and extracted a large unmarked white envelope and stood herself before Proctor. His half-smile reminded her of an elderly priest she'd been supposed to confess her sins to at boarding school. She hadn't liked the school and she hadn't like the priest and she didn't intend to like Proctor now.
'I'm supposed to sit here and wait while you read it,' she informed him.
'Of course you are,' Proctor agreed pleasantly, peering crookedly down at her through his spectacles. 'And can I also say, I'm very, very sorry?'
'If you've got a message back, I'm to give it to her by mouth,' she said. 'She doesn't want phone calls, texts or emails. Not from the Service or anyone. Including you.'
'That's all very sad too,' Proctor commented after a moment of sombre reflection, and, as if only now waking to the envelope he was holding in his hand, he poked at it speculatively with his bony fingers: 'Quite an opus, I must say. How many pages, would you think?'
'I don't know.'
'Home stationery?' - still poking - 'Can't be. Nobody has home stationery this size. Just normal typing paper, I suppose.'
'I haven't seen inside. I told you.'
'Of course you did. Well' - with a comic little smile that momentarily disarmed her - 'to work, then. Looks as if I'm in for a long read. Will you excuse me if I withdraw?'
In a barren sitting room on the other side of the entrance hall Lily and Marie sat facing each other in lumpy tartan chairs with wooden arms. On a scratched glass table between them lay a tin tray with a Thermos of coffee and chocolate digestive biscuits. Lily had rejected both.
'So how is she?' Marie asked.
'As well as can be expected, thanks. When you're dying.'
'Yes, it's all awful, of course. It always is. But in her spirit, how is she?'
'She's got her marbles, if that's what you mean. Doesn't do morphine, doesn't hold with it. Comes down for supper when she can manage.'
'And still enjoys her food, I hope?'
Unable to take more of this, Lily marched to the hall and busied herself with Sam until Proctor appeared. His room was smaller than the first and darker, with grubby net curtains, very thick. Concerned to preserve a respectful distance between them, Proctor positioned himself next to a radiator on the far wall. Lily didn't like the set of his face. You're the oncologist at Ipswich Hospital, and what you're about to say is for close family only. You're going to tell me she's dying, but I know that, so what's left?
'I'm taking it for granted that you know what your mother's letter says,' Proctor began flatly, no longer sounding like the priest she wouldn't confess to, but somebody a lot more real. And seeing her brace herself for denial: 'Its general thrust anyway, if not its actual contents.'
'I told you already,' Lily retorted roughly. 'Not its general thrust or anything else. Mum didn't tell me and I didn't ask.'
It's the game we used to play in the dormitory: how long can you stare out the other girl without blinking or smiling?
'All right, Lily, let's look at it another way,' Proctor suggested with infuriating forbearance. 'You don't know what's in the letter. You don't know what it's about. But you've told this or that friend that you were popping up to London to deliver it. So who've you told? Because we really need to know.'
'I have not told one single fucking word to anybody,' Lily said, straight into the expressionless face across the room. 'Mum said don't, so I didn't.'
'I know very little of your personal circumstances. But the little I do know tells me you must have a partner of some sort. What did you say to him? Or if it's a her, to her? You can't simply vanish from your stricken household for a day without offering an excuse of some kind. What more human than to say, quite by the way, to a boyfriend, girlfriend, pal - even to some casual acquaintance - "Guess what? I'm popping up to London to hand-deliver a super-secret letter for my mother"?'
'You're telling me that's human? For us? To talk like that to each other? To a casual acquaintance? What's human is, Mum said she didn't want me to tell a living soul, so I didn't. Plus I'm indoctrinated. By your lot. I'm signed up. Three years ago they held a pistol to my head and told me I was grown up enough to keep a secret. Plus I haven't got a partner, and I haven't got a bunch of girlie friends I bubble to.'
The staring game again.
'And I didn't tell my father either, if that's what you're asking,' she added, in a tone that sounded more like a confession.
'Did your mother stipulate that you shouldn't tell him?' Proctor enquired, rather more sharply.
'She didn't say I should, so I didn't. That's us. That's our household. We tiptoe round each other. Maybe your household does the same.'
'So tell me, then, if you will,' Proctor went on, leaving aside what his family did or didn't do. 'Just for interest. What ostensible reason did you give for popping up to London today?'
'You mean what's my cover story?'
The gaunt face across the room brightened.
'Yes, I suppose I do,' Proctor conceded, as if cover story were a new concept to him, and a rather jolly one at that.
'We're looking at a nursery school in our area. Near my pad in Bloomsbury. To get Sam on the list for when he's three.'
'Admirable. And will you actually be doing that? Looking at a real school? You and Sam? Meet the staff and so on? Get his name down?' - Proctor the concerned uncle now, and a pretty convincing one.
'Depends how Sam is when I can get him out of here.'
'Do please manage it if you can,' Proctor urged. 'It makes it so much easier when you get back.'
'Easier? What's easier?' - bridling again - 'You mean easier to lie?'
'I mean easier not to lie,' Proctor corrected her earnestly. 'If you say you and Sam are going to visit a school and you visit it, and you then go home and say you've visited it, where's the lie? You're under quite enough strain as it is. I can barely imagine how you put up with it all.'
For a discomfiting moment, she knew he meant it.
'So the question remains,' Proctor continued, returning to business, 'what reply should I ask you to take back to your extremely brave mama? Because she's owed one. And must have it.'
He paused as if hoping for a little help from her. Receiving none, he went on.
'And, as you said, it can only be by mouth. And you will have to administer it alone. Lily, I'm really sorry. May I begin?' He began anyway. 'Our answer is an immediate yes to everything. So three yesses in all. Her message has been taken to heart. Her concerns will be acted upon. All her conditions will be met in full. Can you remember all that?'
'I can do the little words.'
'And, of course, a very big thank you to her for her courage and loyalty. And for yours too, Lily. Again. I'm so sorry.'
'And my dad? What am I supposed to tell him?' Lily demanded, unappeased.
That comic smile, yet again, like a warning light.
'Yes, hm. You can tell him all about the nursery school you're going to visit, can't you? After all, it's why you came up to London today.'
With raindrops spitting up at her from the pavement, Lily kept going as far as Mount Street, where she hailed a cab and ordered the driver to take her to Liverpool Street Station. Maybe sheÕd really meant to visit the school. She no longer knew. Maybe sheÕd announced as much last night, although she doubted it, because by then sheÕd decided she was never again going to explain herself to anyone. Or maybe the idea hadnÕt come to her till Proctor squeezed it out of her. The only thing she knew was: she wasnÕt going to visit any bloody school for ProctorÕs sake. To hell with that, and dying mothers and their secrets, and all of it.