We two kept house, the Past and I,
The Past and I;
I tended while it hovered nigh,
Leaving me never alone.
It was a spectral housekeeping
Where fell no jarring tone,
As strange, as still a housekeeping
As ever has been known.

Thomas Hardy, Ghost of the Past


The Kingsport Consulate is a solid, stone affair with forests of scrollwork along the interior walls. They bridge the gap between ceiling and wall, and continue downwards, tracing their way around sturdy stone columns. The columns are flush with a parquet floor of mirror-bright polish that makes the consul's shoes squeak and even Una's sensible shoes clatter gently to themselves.

Outside it's a fine, blue-breezy day, and it's more than a little daunting to push past the grandiose exterior of the consulate for its overwrought interior. Una's shoes patter Li, Carl, Iris, Emily's family, Iris, Li Carl, Emily's family…so she pushes the panelled door inward. Robin's family needs investigation too, but for now Una is content to leave them in the capable hands of Joan and Cressida. At least until she has the measure of the consul's competence. So Una walks on, down one hallway and through another, following imperfect signage well above eye level, armed with a sheaf of photographs and the ghost of a bedevilled monkey. Una could do with Puck now, she thinks, standing in front of the Consulate. She feels naked without him.

Finally, Una finds what she wants and parquet floor gives way to solid oak doors which open onto black and white tiles of dazzling check and slipperiness. There are sconces along the walls that remind Una of Raffles, with their bright, brassy gleam.

Briefly, Una stands in the doorway stunned. There is a blue and white Wedgwood clock on a marble counter. Una wasn't aware Wedgwood did clocks. It ticks relentlessly onwards, tick-tick, tick-tick, tick-tick. For a terrible moment, Una is alone in Trinity House, the shadows gathering and Puck screaming overhead. In that moment awareness blooms in her chest silk-slippery in its unease that Carl may not come home. An old Iago whispers, treacherous, Carl may be dead. A disembodied voice snaps Una back into the moment.

'Can I help you?' says the voice.

You tell me, Una wants to say, but checks the impulse. The consulate does not seem like the place for one of Cressida's scenes or Bernice's glowers. Not when the knife-edge of anticipation is slick against Una's too-prominent ribs. Her fingers fret reflexive reassurance and Yeats from the silver fish at her throat. Though I am old with wandering/ through hollow lands and hilly lands…

Una makes her way towards the desk. It gleams, a massive polished green marble in the light of the brass sconces. She feels a girl of ten again, approaching Miss Cornelia's Four Winds home to save Mary Vance. The Wedgwood clock gleams too. Nice to know the consulate is so well-funded. Perhaps they will out-perform Singapore after all. Una reaches into her pocket and gingerly extracts her treasures.

'I'm looking for family,' she says. 'We were separated in Singapore in 1942.'

She lets the pictures spill across the green marble of the counter, some, like the image of Li and Iris on that picnic excursion from '37, coloured to show the turquoise of Iris's tunic, the sunset-orange of Li's blouse, the lush, tropical green of the countryside. Or like the wedding photo, Carl wearing Harry the Lizard in his emerald green finery like a blazon, the lavish red and gold of Li's gown, the deep, subtle blue of Una's, Nenni sleek and orange at their feet, brown spots brilliant as ever. Others are less conspicuous. A sepia rendering of Carl sprawled under a Pomelo tree while Puck hangs upside-down from a branch and grins at him. Carl again, swinging a young Iris in his arms. Li and Una, with their scarves pulled hastily overhead, still damp and dripping in the front hallway at the height of a Sumatra Squall, imperfectly snapped by Carl. There are big, grinning flowers on Li's outfit that were they coloured would be alternately rich purple and ghostly yellow. It looked stunning on her. Another of Li, pregnant with Iris, recumbent on the robin's egg blue sofa. Not that the man at the consulate can tell the colour. Una watches as he paws through them. Sees confusion flicker across his face.

'You're looking for…' a flick of his eyes to Una's still-ringed finger, Li's blue stone winking in the light. 'A husband, madam?'

It's not his fault. It's a well-worn lie, and Una can't swear to it, but she thinks it kept her safer than the truth would have.

'No,' says Una. She doesn't correct him. Robin, Una is acutely aware, will need family, as and when she starts school, and it would be easier on everyone if Robin's mother was not an unwed woman returned from abroad.

'No, I'm looking for my brother and his family. Thomas Carlyle Meredith,' says Una, tapping the photo of Carl with one finger. Don't, she thinks, lose your temper. You are like a cat, Li says so. Right until the moment something gets under your nose and you swat…But the man at the consulate is getting well under Una's nose.

He says, 'I see. Yes, of course. He should be traceable. You won't be looking for the Japanese – '

'Chinese,' says Una. 'Completely different thing. I'm looking for all three of them.' A spark flickers dangerously in her soul and she tries to stamp it out before it can come to icy splendour. With difficulty her fingers whiten tight around the spiked tails of the silver fish Carl gave her once and prays, I went into a hazel wood, because a fire was in my head

'That,' Una says, tapping Li's photo, 'is my sister. My brother's wife. Li Meredith, Li Ka Wai as was. She may have reverted to her maiden name if it was safer. The young girl is my niece. Their daughter.'

Reverently, Una sorts through the photos for the most recent photograph of Iris she has. It's of Iris on the eve of Occupation, resplendent in green taffeta Christmas finery, clutching Edward the bear in her arms.

'She was almost nine, here,' Una says, turning the photo so the man can see. 'She'd be 13 now. Iris Una Cecilia Meredith.'

'Right,' says the consul, sounding unconvinced. Una has the awful feeling that, like Ernest Henderson of the pianist's fingers before him, this man has not grasped the extreme urgency of the situation.

'They were heading for Mainland China,' says Una. 'My sister and her daughter, the last time I saw them. Li and Iris. So, they might not be Meredith. Carl…'

Una's throat tightens here. How to tell this impersonal man that for all she knows Carl is dead or worse? Shot maybe, or perhaps he made it to Changi and was felled by malaria. Una knows what that looks like: She watched little Elise English die of it by inches. Or Beriberi. Perhaps there was no one like Nellie, with the inspired idea to eat crickets. Even if there was, Carl would never…Una cannot think these things. Not here, with this stranger opposite her. The clock chatters to itself. The man at the desk hums evasively.

The consul says, 'I'll do what I can about your brother.'

'All of them,' says Una. 'You will do what you can to find all of them.'

He says, 'I understand your concern. But you must understand these Chinese people are probably better off on the Mainland, if they got there.'

Better off in…Has he not looked at a paper since the war ended? Does he assume that because the war is ended the world is as it should be?

'No,' says Una. 'You don't understand.'

What the consul doesn't realize is that while temper comes immediately and fire-scorching to Faith, it blossoms cooler, cat-lugubrious and ice-dense in Una. The consul seizes what he perceives as a conversational lacuna and begins prevaricating magnificently. A cat with a mouse couldn't be half this coy and indecisive. Una cuts him off while he's ahead.

'What you must understand,' says Una, 'is the unmitigated horror we survived. At first the planes came, and they bombed Singapore. That was all right, because the British were going to save us. Then the causeway exploded – in fact, the British exploded it for us – but that was fine, too, because the British were still going to save us. Then the Australians came. On horseback. Like something out of Chaucer. God help them, they didn't know one end of the jungle from the other. It was a disaster. The city fell – but not like anything Chaucer imagined, not that time – and I watched that little girl –' Una taps, less reverently this time at the photo of Iris with her Edward, 'starve. Do you understand? I watched her tongue fur and her ribs show through her skin, and I slaughtered her pet buffalo so she wouldn't die. It was brutal, and bloody and I don't know which of us it more nearly killed to do it, her or me.'

'Then the Japanese ordered the Chinese out of the city. As you see, my family were Chinese. Since by then we were two women and a child alone, and since neither her mother nor I wanted to see that little girl dead, I sent them away. I sent them under the blistering heat of the sun and a bus that ran to the whims of an enemy army. I sent them to China because the only paper we had was full of Japanese propaganda and for all we knew, which wasn't a lot, it was safer than Occupied Singapore. Frankly, we thought anywhere was safer. I watched them go in cattle carts on the strength of a promise that I would find them. After.'

'But the Japanese took exception to me being over there, too. So, it was years of a camp at the end of the world. I don't think you quite grasp that. Certainly I can't explain it. I survived it on the strength of that promise of Afterwards. Regrettably for both of us, I can't seem to keep that promise without you. So, you are going to do your best and a bit extra to find them for me.'

There is a pause in which the young man opposite Una fidgets. She watches him eyeing her, weighing up whether she has quite finished. Whether she means all of this considerable volley.

'All right,' he says, at last. 'I'll look into it. Can I…' a hesitation. 'Can I keep the photos? To help find them?'

Una's heart seizes. But, to give the young man behind this green-marbled counter his due, he needs something to work with. Una can be generous. 'Look after them,' she says. 'And get them back to me when you can.'

'Of course,' he says.


Larkrise, 1946,

Bernice,

Arrived safe. Might as well be in another world, but expected that. All the fuss you predicted and a bit more. Gave family shock of their lives as Henderson never sent the promised telegram or else it never arrived. Personally, I blame Henderson. Realize that is dangerous strategy as it may yet lead to the murder of one Ernest Henderson by Bernice Allerstone, widow of the Rev Robert Allerstone, late of this parish. Possibly by means of cast-iron skillet or piano string. This would be unfortunate for Henderson, but, it must be said, cathartic for everyone else. Please don't murder Henderson. I would miss you. Also, we may need the impossibly inept man.

I spoke with the consulate, but we'll see how that goes. He may yet make Henderson look clever. Faith as much as a mustard seed and all that.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.*


Worthwhile Folly, S. England, 1946
Una,

Cressida's house completely absurd. Knew – because Raffles couldn't stop reminding me – she came from Old Money but hadn't realized how much. The house is labyrinthine.

Assuming I can ever find the exit, will start investigating Robin's family immediately. Do you remember what Elise said about them? I know she said the father was an unknown quantity. Cressida thinks there was something about a great-aunt, but forgets if she was in Ireland or England.

In other news, I may have to take up that other doctor's offer of a reference. Did you ever meet her? Strange woman. Her sight was going and she reminded me of Bernice. I kept wondering what would happen if they met – I thought it would probably be like universes colliding, so never dared introduce them.

Kiss Robin for me. Love always,

Dr. Joan M.


Trinity House, 1946

Cressida and Joan arrived safely but expect you know that. Wrote and reminded them, as am now reminding you, that we are due to reconvene for Christmas at the first opportunity. Ideally here, because I don't dare leave your home empty again. We finally got the graffiti off the walls, if you were wondering. Took Emily and I hours scrubbing, even with your nephew helping. Whoever put it on did a bloody good job. Several of your kitchen rags will never be the same again. Doubt you'll miss them. Awful things with poinsettias. Somehow didn't seem to your taste. Plan to use them strangling bloody useless Henderson.

Speaking of. Was up at Raffles the other day to see last of our departing friends and took the opportunity to harangue him for you. You were right about those hands, definitely a pianist's. Not a good one – I had the misfortune of hearing him torture the one in the salon. Somewhere Handel is revolving in his grave. More pertinently, he had no new information on your brother or his family. Put Handel out of his misery to ask specially. Thought about chasing up Miss RAPWI but decided that would end in bloodshed. Settled for chaperoning Emily, instead. Query: How seriously does that nephew of yours take things?

B

P.S. Emily here, enclosing lizard for Robin. Saw it at a market stall and couldn't resist. Didn't you say your brother had a lizard named Harry? Kiss our bird for me.


Larkrise, 1946

Bernice,

You forget I'd never met Iain outside of a photograph before he turned up in the Raffles dining room. But I shouldn't worry about Emily. She held her own against our Commandant for years. For what it's worth, Iain's father never did a thing by halves in his life. He still doesn't, so far as I can tell. He runs the local veterinary practice for Kingsport and surrounding catchment, and judging by appearances, this entails keeping worse hours than a rural clergyman with nineteen parishes. Didn't know that was possible, but it is. Insofar as I can judge, Iain gets that from him.

Please don't be too hard on Miss RAPWI, I start to think she's the best bet we have. She, at least, seemed halfway competent and older than tomorrow. If you decided to like her, you could probably be a terrifying unit of efficiency. Whereas the consul asked if the uncle of Emily's I was looking for was any relation to Li. God forbid there should be multiple Chinese people of unrelated origins running around Singapore! Didn't get into that. Did ask how my photos were faring and if he had learned anything, which he hasn't. Wouldn't be at all surprised if Henderson of the lamentable musical ability was one of his contacts.

Tell Emily Harry is green not bright purple with yellow spines, but Robin loves the lizard anyway.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch


* Eagle-eyed and elephant-memory readers may remember this was Jo Blake's sign-off in Everyday Courage. I nicked it from radio show The Writers' Almanac. Una seemed the obvious inheritor of it.