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The Strange Journey of Alice Pendelbury
Author:Marc Levy

The Strange Journey of Alice Pendelbury

Marc Levy

“Predictions are difficult to make, particularly when they concern the future.”

—Pierre Dac


“I never believed that I had a particular destiny, or that signs in my life were guiding me toward a path I ought to take. I didn’t believe in fortune-tellers or tarot cards. I just believed in simple coincidence and in the significance of chance happenings.”

“Why did you come on such a long journey if you didn’t believe in those things?”

“Because of a piano.”

“A piano?”

“It was out of tune, like the old dance hall pianos that used to end up in army barracks, but there was something about it—or at least, something about the person playing it.”

“Who was it?”

“My neighbor across the corridor. At least I think it was. I’m not entirely certain.”

“You’re here tonight because your neighbor was playing the piano?”

“You could put it that way. When I heard the music echoing up the staircase, I felt as though my solitude had been set to music. I wanted to escape it so badly that I agreed to go to Brighton.”

“You will have to start again and tell me the story from the beginning. I think I’ll understand better if you go in order.”

“It’s a long story.”

“There’s no hurry. The wind is blowing in from the sea. It’s raining. I won’t set sail for another two or three days. Let me make us some tea, and you can tell me everything. But you have to promise not to leave anything out. If what you say is true, if we’re really going to be tied to each other for the rest of our lives, I need to know why.”

He knelt before the cast-iron stove, opened the door in its belly, and blew on the coals.

The house was as modest as the rest of his life. Four walls, a single room, a simple roof. Worn plank floors, a bed, and a basin beneath an old spigot where the water ran icy cold in the winter and warm in the summer. There was only one window, but it had a majestic view of the Bosporus. From the table where Alice was sitting, she could see ships sailing through the strait, and beyond them, the European shore.

She took a sip of the tea he had served her and began telling her story.


Friday, December 22, 1950

A heavy winter rain drummed on the skylight above the bed. The war had ended only five years ago, and most of London’s neighborhoods were still scarred from the Blitz. Fewer products were rationed now. Although it had been a few years since the war ended, it was recent enough to serve as a reminder of the days when almost everything was rationed.

Alice was spending the evening at home with her motley group of friends. Carol had been an army nurse and now worked at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The three men were aspiring jazz musicians. Sam was an excellent bassist and sold books at Harrington & Sons; Anton played the trumpet like nobody else could but worked as a carpenter; Eddy scraped by singing for coins at Victoria station and in pubs (when they would let him, that is).

It was Eddy who suggested that they should celebrate the coming of Christmas by taking a trip to Brighton the following day. The amusement park on the pier was open again, and the carnival would be at its best on the Saturday before the holiday.

They each counted up what little they had. Eddy had earned some money in a bar in Notting Hill. Anton had received a modest year-end bonus from his boss. Carol didn’t have a penny, but then she never did, and her friends were used to paying for her. Sam had just sold an American woman a first edition of The Voyage Out and a second edition of Mrs Dalloway, which had been enough to make a week’s wages in a single day. Alice had worked hard the entire year. She had some savings and felt she deserved to spend them. Besides, she could rationalize the expense to spend time with her friends and escape the solitude of her flat.

The wine Anton had brought was corked and tasted like vinegar, but they had all drunk enough of it to start singing. They got louder with each song, until Mr. Daldry, Alice’s grouchy neighbor across the landing, came and knocked on the door. Sam was the only one brave enough to answer. He promised the noise would stop immediately, as it was time for everyone to go home anyway. Mr. Daldry accepted their apology, but not before haughtily insisting that he was trying to get some sleep. The Victorian house they lived in had no business turning into an amateur jazz club. It was already unpleasant enough to have to overhear every word of their conversations through the paper-thin walls.

Alice’s friends packed up to go. They promised to meet up at Victoria station for the ten o’clock train to Brighton the next morning. Once they had left, Alice tidied up the room that, depending on the time of day, served as her workplace, dining room, and bedroom. She was just turning down the bedspread when she stood and looked indignantly toward Mr. Daldry’s flat. Where did he get the nerve to break up such a lovely evening? What right did he have to interfere? She put on a shawl, and then took it off, deciding it made her look too motherly. She went and knocked on Mr. Daldry’s door and waited, hands on her hips.

“Please tell me the house is on fire and you’ve come to save me from the flames,” he said sarcastically when he finally came to the door.

“First of all, eleven is not that late on a Friday night, and second of all, I put up with your blasted scales often enough for you to tolerate a little noise on the rare occasions I have some friends over.”

“Your noisy friends are here every week, and they have a regrettable habit of mixing song and drink. It affects my sleep.” He raised an eyebrow to underline this last point before continuing. “And I’m not the one with the piano. Maybe it’s the woman downstairs. I’m a painter, not a musician. If you only knew how quiet this house was before you arrived.”

“What exactly do you paint, Mr. Daldry?”

“Urban landscapes.”

“I never had you down as a painter. I imagined . . .”

“What did you imagine, Miss Pendelbury?”

“Oh, call me Alice. You ought to know my name if you really hear all my conversations.”

“Now that we’ve been officially introduced, would you mind terribly if I went back to bed?”

Alice glared.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Why do you insist on being so distant and hostile? We’re neighbors. We could try to get on, or at least pretend.”

“My life here used to be peaceful, Miss Pendelbury, but ever since you moved into that flat, which I myself had hoped to rent, I haven’t had a moment’s rest. Need I remind you how often you’ve come knocking on my door asking for some salt, or some flour, or a bit of margarine when you’re cooking for your charming friends, or a candle when there’s a blackout? Have you considered that your intrusions might bother me?”

“You wanted my flat?”

“I wanted to turn it into a studio. You’re the only one in the building with a skylight, but alas, you won over the landlord with your feminine wiles. I have to make do with what little light comes through my tiny windows.”

“I never met the landlord. I rented through an agent.”

“Can we just leave it at that?”

“Is that why you’ve always been so cold? Because I took the studio you wanted?”

“Miss Pendelbury, the only coldness I feel right now is in my poor feet. If you don’t mind, I’m going to go to bed before I catch something. I hope you have a good night’s sleep.”

Mr. Daldry shut the door in Alice’s face.

“What an unpleasant man,” she muttered under her breath.