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Charlotte Gray / Sebastian Faulks.

By: Faulks, Sebastian [author.].
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: London : Vintage, 1999Description: 497 pages ; 20 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 0099394316 (pbk.); 9780099394310 (pbk.).Subject(s): World War, 1939-1945 -- Underground movements -- France -- Fiction | World War, 1939-1945 -- England -- London -- Fiction | Scots -- Travel -- France -- Fiction | France -- History -- German occupation, 1940-1945 -- FictionGenre/Form: Romance fiction.
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A remarkable story of a Scottish woman in Occupied France pursuing a perilous mission of her own FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER BIRDSONG In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman, heads for Occupied France on a dual mission - officially, to run an apparently simple errand for a British special operations group and unofficially, to search for her lover, an English airman missing in action. She travels to the village of Lavaurette, dyeing her hair and changing her name to conceal her identity. As the people in the small town prepare to meet their terrible destiny, Charlotte must come face-to-face with the harrowing truth of what took place in Europe's darkest years, and confront a terrifying secret that threatens to cast its shadow over the remainder of her days. 'There is no shortage of dramatic tension, excitement or persuasive detail... Faulks is a prodigiously talented writer' New York Times ---- Also available by Sebastian Faulks as part of the French trilogy series- Girl at The Lion d'Or Birdsong

Originally published: London : Hutchinson, 1998.

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Excerpt provided by Syndetics

Part One Early 1942 Peter Gregory kicked the door of the dispersal hut closed behind him with the heel of his boot. He sensed the iciness of the air outside but was too well wrapped to feel it on his skin. He looked up and saw a big moon hanging still, while ragged clouds flew past and broke up like smoke in the darkness. He began to waddle across the grass, each step won from the limits of movement permitted by the parachute that hung down behind as he bucked and tossed his way forward. He heard the clank of the corporal fitter's bicycle where it juddered over the ground to his right. The chain needed oiling, he noted; the man was in the wrong gear and a metal mudguard was catching on the tyre with a rhythmic slur as the wheel turned. He could see the bulk of his plane ahead, large in the night, with the three-bladed propeller stopped at a poised diagonal, the convex sweep of the upper fuselage looking sleeker in the darkness than by day. The fitter dropped his bicycle to the ground. He made his way over in the light of a feeble torch which he gripped between his teeth as he helped, with both hands braced against his parachute, to push Gregory up on to the wing. Then he clambered up himself as Gregory hoisted a leg over the side of the cockpit and slithered down inside. 'God, it's cold,' said the fitter. 'My hands can't feel a thing. This north wind.' Gregory switched on the instrument lighting and settled on to the sculpted metal seat, trying to make himself comfortable on his parachute. The fitter was talking as Gregory's eyes went over the lit dials. 'My boy's got this cough. I don't know what I can do about it, stuck down here. Oxygen?' The engine was started and the man was off the wing. He bobbed about underneath, then stood clear as Gregory ran up the engine before signalling him to pull out the chocks that held the plane against the wind. Gregory saw him hold up the torch when at last he straightened and picked up his fallen bicycle; he gave him a minute to pedal his way back to the fug of the blacked-out mess, to sweet tea and cigarettes. Then he opened the throttle and let the little plane creep forward across the grass, bouncing on plump wheels. When he had taxied to the end of the strip, he turned the plane into the wind and waited. He shivered. With his bare fingers he was able to check the fixture of the oxygen and radio-transmitter leads in his headset. He inhaled the intoxicating smell of rotting rubber from his mask, then pulled the glove back on to his hand and grasped the stick between his knees. The R/T barked in his ear--someone impatient to get to the barrel of beer he had seen being wheeled in that afternoon. The wind veered a little, due north, between the lines of hooded lamps on either side of the strip; it was making the plane toss like a small boat at anchor. Gregory checked the propeller was in fine pitch and opened the throttle. He moved forward. Almost at once the tail lifted and he felt the controls firm up in his hand. The engine moaned, and the plane bumped its way down the strip, where the forces of wind and speed first lifted it, then dropped it back to earth. He sensed the wheels come clear, then felt the ground once more banging through his spine as a down-draught forced him back. He began to mutter through clenched jaws, cursing; then with a small inward movement of his fingers eased the stick and felt the earth gone as the plane rose up greedily on the air. Two red lights showed that the wheels were up and locked away. Watching the compass with one eye, he set the plane in a gentle climbing turn to the left. At about ten thousand feet he ran into moist and choppy cloud, thicker and more turbulent than he had seen about the moon. He feared the plane's jolting movement as he nosed it upward: there was the sense of something else up there with them, another element bearing down on the clean lines of his flight. His eyes ran along the rows of instruments. Flying by night was a violation of instinct; there were no steeples or bridges from which to take a bearing, no flash of wingtip or underbelly to show the vital presence of other aircraft. The Spitfire pilots' speed and daytime coordination were of no use: there were needles in glass jars and you had to trust them. Even when you swore you could feel the brush of treetops on the undercarriage, you must believe the altimeter's finger pointing at 10,000 feet. As the thudding airscrew churned up the night, Gregory stretched inside his clothes. His feet were cold, despite the flying boots and two pairs of thick socks; he lifted them momentarily off the rudder bars and stamped them on the floor of the plane. Kilpatrick and Simmons had laughed when they came to fetch him to the mess after a flight one day and found him with his feet in a basin of hot water. He was crossing the coast of England: chalk cliffs, sailing dinghies moored for better days, seaside towns with their whitewashed houses along the narrow streets that trickled down to wind-whipped fronts. When as a boy from India he had been sent to school by the English coast he had hated that wind and the blank sea with its baggy grey horizon. This was the third time he undertaken a similar flight, but it had taken him months to persuade his superiors that it was worth the risk. First there was the squadron commander, Landon, to convince; then there was Group HQ to be won over. The Senior Air Staff Officer told Landon he could not possibly risk losing a plane, let alone an experienced pilot, in such circumstances. Gregory was never quite sure what Landon had finally said to convince him. He shook his head and rubbed his thighs with his hands. Beneath the fur-lined flying suit he wore a serge battledress, roll-necked sweater, pyjamas and a thick wool and silk aircrew vest. If at least his feet had been warm, that might have stopped his body heat from leaking out on to the frozen rudder bars. As the little plane ploughed onwards, the instruments telling their unexcited story, Gregory felt a frisson of unearned responsibility: alone, entrusted, above the world. Then he moved the stick forwards to begin his descent. He had been to the town before the Germans came. A French pilot took him to a bar called the Guillaume Tell, where they drank champagne, then to another where they ordered beer. The evening ended at La Lune, which was a brothel, but the French pilot didn't seem to care about the girls. From Le Havre the squadron moved up the coast to Deauville and played golf. When he dropped into the cloud, Gregory began to feel the familiar, unwanted sensation of such moments: someone would soon try to kill him. In Le Havre an anti-aircraft gunner, though he didn't yet know it himself, would concentrate only on this murder. When Gregory had experienced ground-fire from British and French batteries, who had wrongly identified his aircraft as German, it had made him aware that the plane was nothing more than a few pieces of airborne metal and wood. Anti-aircraft fire was different from fighter fire, though one thing was the same: a few inches from his eyes was a fuel tank waiting to explode. Now he could make out the shape of docks, so far, the terrestrial world, beneath his boots; there were minimal lights, evidence of some defensive caution, but he could remember from his study of photographs where the oil tanks were. He put the plane into a leftward banking turn, wanting to gain height and gather himself for the dive. He reached the top of his shallow climb and checked his position, hanging in the icy air. He was laughing, though he heard nothing above the engine; for one more moment he held the plane level, then opened the throttle and pushed the stick forward. He watched the airspeed indicator moving up: 340, 360. He was coming in too steep: he was nose-heavy, he felt he would go over. Then, when he could see the ground--industrial shadows, bulky darkness--he could gauge where his horizon was. He held the stick steady. Gravity was starting to push his eyes back into their sockets and he began to swear. He could see what he took to be the oil depot and twitched the rudder to align himself. At last there was some response from the ground: he saw red balls of tracer curving through the air like boiling fruit, lazy until they reached him, then whipping past at the speed of light. Nothing was coming close to him. His thumb stroked the gun button, and when the ground was so near he could almost sense it through his seat, he let the cannon go. He heard their sound, like ripping cloth, as he pulled the stick back violently to climb. He craned his neck, but could see no gratifying holocaust beneath him, not even isolated fires. When he thought he was out of range of ground defences, he slowed the rate of climb, and felt the pressure slip from his neck and shoulders. He throttled back a little as he headed out northwest towards the sea; there was sweat running down his spine. He breathed in and dropped the speed again, safe above the Channel waters. He let the plane drift in a circle while he gathered himself and listened, but there was only the chugging engine and the slight whistle of wind through the airframe. His Hurricane carried four 20 mm Hispano cannons, known to their admirers as 'tank-busters', and four 250 lb bombs in place of its regular machine guns. He calculated that he had about half his ammunition left; he could not return to base with it and he could not fire it into the empty sky as he flew back. He went round once more, making certain of his position, then began to lose height slowly. He pushed through the light cloud and picked up the outlines of the port below: he would flatten out along the harbour wall and fire as he turned to climb. This time, the tracer started coming up at once, along the path of a weak searchlight. Gregory opened the throttle wider and closed his ears to the engine's screaming. The plane was juddering as he straightened out. He was so low that he could see the ground, and there were no oil tanks in view. He switched the button to fire and emptied the cannon at random in the direction of some parked lorries. Then he pulled back the stick and climbed as fast as he could. He saw the tracer again on his port wing; then the rudder kicked his feet and he knew he had been shot in the tail. The tracer stopped coming for him. He looked down and saw a foaming black sea of welcome cloud. He started to level out, then breathed in deeply and blew the air towards the windscreen. He tested the rudder, one way, then the other; it seemed to react quite normally--the blow to the tail had apparently done no damage. The southern shore of England was ahead. At the airfield, there would be someone waiting for him at dispersal, with whisky if he wanted it. Nothing could hurt him. The others were dead, but he was untouchable. It had become suddenly brighter. A mixture of elation and indifference to his own safety made him want to roll the plane upward, and he opened the throttle again: 320, 350, the needle said. He adjusted the tail trim: it responded. He pulled the stick back, gently, then harder till he felt the plane was vertical, hanging on the propeller. He pushed the stick over to the right and felt the aircraft go round. He stopped and pushed the stick back. The horizon was upside down in the night. He could see nothing, but he knew how the plane was flying. He pushed the stick forward, then over to the left, and rolled out. He felt sick. Then he felt worse than sick: he felt disorientated. He did not know which way up he was; sudden clouds were covering up the light of the moon. He pulled the stick back to climb, but felt he was spinning; he was aware of the vastness of space around him and the little box in which he was plummeting. Bloody Isaac, he was saying into his mouthpiece. Unless he could get a fix by a light or by some static point he did not know which way to push the stick. The tail must be more damaged than he had thought. The plane bumped as it went into the cloud, and through the floor, though it must have been the canopy, Gregory briefly saw the moon. Craning his neck to keep the light in view, he brought the plane up and round on its axis. His back was aching with the pull and from the effort of keeping the moon in sight as he hauled the invisible horizon to where it should have been, the moon above, the ground below. He dropped the speed and reset the altitude instruments, whose gyroscopes had been toppled by his roll. Something was wrong; although the rudder seemed to work, the weight did not feel right. He set his course for the airfield and hoped the wind would let him land. Eventually he picked out the flarepath and brought his speed down to 150, then lowered the wheels. He slowed again for the flaps, turned in steeply and felt the crosswind hammering the plane as he reached up to open the hood. The rudder bars were shivering as the wind ran through the damaged tail; below him, Gregory could see the pale runway lamps as they lurched from side to side. He sank the plane down gently, but it kicked and rose on the wind, out towards the edge of the field. He pushed open the throttle and began to climb again. This time he came in from a different angle and hit the ground hard. He held it down and braked. He taxied to dispersal, ran the petrol out of the carburettor and switched off. He unstrapped himself and climbed out of the cockpit. As he stood on the wing he felt his legs tremble. He walked over to the hut, pulling off his headset, running a hand back through his hair. There was the smell of a coke brazier; there was an anxious red face in the light. 'How was it, Greg?' 'It was cold.' It was six o'clock at Waverley Station. The mist that had stolen down off Princes Street was hanging beneath the iron vaults of the ceiling, where it mingled with the exhaled steam of the London train. The lights on the platform, dimmed for the blackout, were blue and unhealthy. In addition to the usual passengers there was a squadron of airmen moving south from one of the Scottish airfields: not just pilots, but ground staff as well--fitters, riggers, modest men who called themselves 'erks' and carried kit-bags over their shoulders. Up on Princes Street, a young woman was kissing her mother goodbye and handing her two suitcases to a porter. 'Have to run, lassie. It leaves in two minutes.' The porter moved down the broad ramp, weighed and balanced by the cases. The young woman hurried after him, the tightness of her skirt about the knee preventing her from running properly. She turned and waved to her mother, who held a handkerchief to her eyes; then she glanced up, panting, at the platform clock, whose black Roman numerals were still just visible in the vaporous light. The train was five minutes out of Waverley Station and the blinds were down by the time she saw a spare seat through the glass door of a compartment. Inside there were only two people: a pair of young Englishmen with golf clubs. As he saw the woman tugging fruitlessly at the door, her two suitcases wedged in the corridor, one of them lifted an eyebrow to his friend as though to register his irritation, but smiled politely when he hauled back the door and offered to help with the suitcases. 'I hope I'm not intruding. The train's very full. I . . .' 'Not at all, not at all. Do come and sit down.' The other man rose unsteadily from his seat and helped to hoist the cases on to the luggage rack, where their brass-bound corners bulged through the string reticule. The young woman thanked them for their help, then withdrew into herself by folding her hands on the lap of her grey suit and looking through the glass door into the corridor. The suit was well tailored, with a short jacket of military cut beneath which she wore a cream blouse and a pearl necklace. There was a small spot of black beneath her right eye where her mascara had run; her fair hair was pinned up beneath a small hat. I do hope they're not going to talk to me, she thought. Everything about her attitude discouraged conversation. She opened a book and began to read with obvious concentration. There was a slight flush on her cheek, though it was not at once possible to say if this was her usual colour or whether exertion or embarrassment had raised this mild pink beneath the pale skin. There was a scattering of freckles beneath her eyes, and her eyebrows were the colour of the darkest of the different shades in her hair. They were almost at Berwick when the man who had first opened the door suddenly began to talk. He began by introducing himself. 'Richard Cannerley. But my friends, like Morris here, all call me Dick.' 'Charlotte Gray,' she conceded, briefly shaking his proffered hand. 'What takes you south?' said Cannerley. 'I'm going to work in London.' She had a slight Scottish accent. 'I wanted to do something to help.' 'The good old war effort.' Cannerley laughed, and a lock of fair hair fell down over his forehead. Charlotte crossed her legs and turned a little into the compartment. It was a long journey and her book was not that interesting. 'And are you from Edinburgh?' said Cannerley. 'Not originally.' 'I thought not. Your voice is not as . . . precise.' 'No. Not an Edinburgh Mary.' Charlotte smiled. 'I was brought up in the Highlands. My parents moved to Edinburgh about ten years ago when my father took up a position in a hospital there.' 'I see. Morris and I have been playing golf. Do you play?' She shook her head. 'I expect we'll go along for dinner in a bit. Would you like to join us?' 'No, thank you. I had some high tea with my mother before I left.' 'Well, just come and have a glass of wine with us. They have an awfully good list. I know from previous journeys. My treat.' Charlotte looked at Cannerley with rapidly appraising eyes. 'All right,' she said. 'Thank you. Excuse me for a minute.' She stood up and reached to the luggage rack for her handbag. The button on the cuff of her jacket became entangled in the string mesh and it was difficult for her to stretch up with the other hand to free it. The jacket rose up to reveal the creases of her blouse tucked into the waistband of her skirt. The skirt had also ridden up a little, showing the fine little bones of her knee. For a moment she was trapped and unwilling to stretch up further in case of some immodesty. Just as Cannerley rose to help, she managed to free her wrist and take down the bag. She disappeared through the sliding doors and down the corridor. 'What's an Edinburgh Mary?' said Morris. 'I'm not entirely sure. I presume it's someone from Morningside with that prim accent.' 'You're a fast worker.' 'It's the war, Robin. Autres temps, autres moeurs. She understands.' 'What about Celia?' 'Celia?' Cannerley looked vague as he pulled out a cigarette. 'Now what do you think for a cold evening on the train? I remember last time they had a rather good Crozes Hermitage. Perhaps she's more of a Burgundy girl. Something full but not too heavy . . .' Cannerley settled back in his seat and rubbed his hand over the scarlet plush. Above him was a small rectangular mirror with bevelled edges in which Morris could see the top of his own head, where the dark, almost black hair was receding either side of a tongue-shaped peninsula. Morris had a dark, close-shaven face, small hands and a cautious, candid manner intensified by the way he so seldom blinked. 'Will you be at the departmental meeting tomorrow?' Morris nodded. 'I wish I didn't have to go, but Sir Oliver insists.' 'I suppose it's the French question.' Cannerley brushed some cigarette ash from his knee. 'It's always the French question.' 'I've almost completed my paper. I imagine you'll get a copy in due course. It's B-listed.' 'I hope so. I'd like to know how you pass your time. Do you think you'll be able to get down to Woking at the week-end?' 'It's hard to see what further national emergency could arise.' Cannerley's voice took on a signalled languor. Morris did not blink. 'I haven't played there since the spring. The wind was terrible. On one of the par threes I had to take a wood.' The spoken assumption was that their games were as important as their work. Each thought he held some part of Britain in his hands. They lunched in clubs that flanked St James's Street; they talked to politicians, serving officers and newspapermen--not reporters, but editors or proprietors. Cannerley had been put up for membership of two clubs by his father when he was still at Cambridge and had moved over their dim parquet and threadbare rugs with ease since he came down; he was bilingual at his father's insistence, having studied with a French tutor in the holidays from school and spent a year at university in Poitiers. At some stage in his education he had grasped, without exactly being taught it, the knowledge of what was right for his country. In the meetings of his department and in its dealings with other departments there was never any need to spell things out. Cannerley knew. Morris knew. Sir Oliver Cresswell, the head of the service, certainly knew. Morris had had to work harder than Cannerley to acquire this understanding. In his last year at Oxford he was surprised at his books by the Chaplain of the college, a gaunt man with grizzled silver hair. Despite his ascetic manner, the Chaplain was reputed to know 'people' in London; he had a collection of avant-garde French paintings and a bronze by Archipenko. In a college where publication by the fellows was viewed as vulgar, he had been in print three times: on Saint Augustine, on Jacob Epstein and on Greek ceramics. He had held the position of Chaplain at the British Embassy in Athens and had been briefly in Teheran. Morris at first believed the Chaplain was trying to recruit him to a homosexual prayer camp, but the Chaplain's meaning gradually became clear, by way of digressions into European political history and the integrity of British institutions. He talked about a time of coming national emergency and left Morris with a telephone number in Whitehall. This was fourteen years ago. 'By the way,' said Cannerley. 'We've finally got a man into G Section.' 'That's marvellous. Who is it?' 'It's some little Midlands crook called Fowler. He's not one of ours, he's one of theirs. He's already been in France twice, blundering about, blowing up trains, recruiting a lot of reluctant villains to the noble cause of Resistance.' '"Setting Europe ablaze", as the PM would have it.' The drawling manner was not quite as natural to Morris as to Cannerley. 'Exactly so. And completely buggering up our operations. Anyway, a little research by our chaps has shown that several of his Brummie businesses have serious Revenue failings. He was called in for a chat last week. We pointed out that the tax man might be very interested in a closer inspection of his books.' 'I see.' 'At this point he became most anxious to co-operate.' 'What's he going to do for us?' 'Sir Oliver hasn't decided yet. Something simple but destructive. In France.' 'Destructive of what?' 'I don't know yet.' Cannerley looked suddenly worried. His manner became urgent. 'Listen, Robin, I entered this business to do some good. That may sound awfully quaint to you. I don't want . . . complications. Compromises. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes I think Sir Oliver -' But there was a noise as the door was slid back and Charlotte Gray reappeared. They went down the corridor--Cannerley in front, Morris behind, like her bodyguards. The other compartments were all full: overhead lamps in their glass shades illuminated the laps on which books were held, many face-down as their owners' heads began to loll and jerk against the antimacassars. They had crossed the unseen Tyne and were in the frozen fields of the North Riding; there was a flash of Yorkshire ground beneath their feet as they stepped over the coupling. 'Have you found a job in London?' Morris asked Charlotte at the table. 'Yes. I'm working for a doctor's practice, as a receptionist and general helper.' 'What sort of practice?' asked Cannerley, looking up from the wine list. 'He's a plastic surgeon. He treats amputees and people whose limbs don't work. He helps restore movement.' 'I see. And these are war-wounded, are they?' 'Yes, they're sent on to him from various hospitals.' The spot of mascara had vanished from Charlotte's cheek. While she was tidying herself, she had also changed her mind about dinner. She sipped at the cream of asparagus soup, which tasted like most of the soup they had all eaten in the last year or so, of clammy green flour. Charlotte smiled with sudden candour. 'It's what my mother calls billsticker's paste.' There was no fish course and no choice of meat. It was advertised as steak and kidney pie and had derived from an animal rich in kidneys. Cannerley had chosen a Chambertin and started to pour. Charlotte held up her hand when her glass was half full, saying she was not used to wine, but Cannerley poured on. 'You could have joined the waaf, if you wanted to do something for the war. Or the fanys.' 'Maybe.' Charlotte felt vulnerable on this point. It was one of the reasons why she was travelling south. She drank some wine. 'But what about you? Why are you not in the services? Or are you on leave?' 'They also serve,' said Cannerley, 'who only stand and wait.' 'What do you mean?' 'Reserved occupation,' said Morris. 'Strategy has to be coherent. I can assure you that what we do is no less exacting and no less patriotic than any pilot, any midshipman in the Atlantic, any poor old pongo plodding through-' 'I didn't mean to doubt it.' Cannerley looked amused. 'And you're patriotic, too?' 'Of course.' Charlotte was surprised. 'Isn't everyone? Particularly at the moment.' 'But what does it mean?' Cannerley laid down his knife and fork, apparently defeated by the pie. 'What exactly do you love?' 'I know what we're fighting. The Nazis. I hate them with a sort of personal bitterness.' 'That's not what I asked. What are we protecting? What is it that's so valuable? A tradition of tolerance? Great achievements? Science, exploration?' The pink patch beneath Charlotte's pale skin grew a little more intense. 'I don't know. It's not something you can easily put into words.' 'Do you think if you'd been born in another country you would feel the same way? Or is it just something about British tolerance, British science, British exploration?' 'I think so, yes. It's the countryside where you grow up, the towns and villages, the people. The people more than anything. The buildings that make up your home.' 'You must be very fond of stone or brick to think them worth dying for.' 'I am. I worked for a picture gallery in Edinburgh. If you don't protect buildings and paintings and so on then you have nothing left to honour the lives of previous generations.' 'So we go to war, kill more people, to honour those already dead?' 'I don't think that's what I meant. But what about you? You told me you were patriotic. What are you defending?' 'Oh, the same as you, I'm sure.' Cannerley's offhand tone signalled an end to the discussion. The waiter was standing by the table, braced like a bosun in a gale, as he gathered their plates. Irritated by Cannerley's dismissive manner, Charlotte opened her mouth to continue, then thought better of it. The waiter brought a brown mousse made with powdered eggs and Cannerley poured the remains of the wine to take the taste away. Charlotte insisted on paying her part of the bill, and on the back of the receipt Cannerley wrote a telephone number before handing her the piece of paper. 'This is the number of my flat in Ormonde Gate. I thought you might like to have it in case you ever got bored with your doctor's waiting room. I'm sure I could find you something a little more . . . stimulating. We're always very much on the lookout for bright girls. Do you speak any languages?' Charlotte stared incredulously at the telephone number in her hand, then rallied. 'Yes. I speak French.' 'Fluently?' 'God, you sound like an interview, Dick!' Charlotte looked steadily at Cannerley. 'Yes. My father fought in France in the last war. He used to take us back to where he had been. To visit the graves. He was . . . obsessed by it, you might say.' 'And is that how you learned?' 'I also went on exchanges to a French family during the summer holidays. Then I read French and Italian at university.' Cannerley pushed back his chair. 'It sounds perfect. Do bear it in mind, won't you?' They went back down the swaying corridors. There was nothing to see through the blinds; even the stations were only grudgingly illuminated, and passengers stumbled as they alighted. For some reason they talked in lowered voices, as though the German bomber crews might hear them. England was blacked out and afraid. Charlotte had been to London only twice before in her life and had recollections of nothing much more than the moving staircases in the Underground. She had been frightened as a girl that she would not get off in time and had made a little hop as the stairs collapsed and slithered back beneath the floor. Her mother had taken her to a department store where she had bought fabric for curtains and some school shoes for Charlotte. Then they had been to an Edwardian hotel somewhere near Piccadilly Circus where a waiter with shiny hair wheeled a great chariot of hors d'oeuvre to the side of the table. On a second visit there had been a theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue whose rococo decorations interested Charlotte more than the winsome drama. When the famous actress sauntered on to the stage with an expectant modesty the whole audience applauded, which Charlotte thought was silly. That was almost all she remembered, apart from the names--Cambridge Circus, Oxford Circus, Bakerloo. She spent the night of her arrival from Edinburgh in the station hotel, and the next day through her taxi window she saw the undamaged mansions of Harley Street as they sped west along the Euston Road. Caught by a blockage in Sussex Gardens, the driver diverted through the burrows of Paddington, and Charlotte looked up to see what at first she thought was slum clearance. Two of the little terrace houses had been excised from the row; while the bricks and structural supports had been blown out by the blast, tenacious bits of stucco made a tidy proscenium arch. A fireplace and a sofa were suspended intact on the first floor like cut-out scenery in a children's theatre. The driver told her that parts of London were obliterated and parts of it untouched; there seemed to be no reason why the German bombers should have been so vengeful towards Battersea and Chelsea and so lenient on neighbouring Victoria. The taxi pulled up in a small street behind Old Brompton Road; it was an area that was neither safe nor specially targeted, but in any event the bombing of London had, for the time being, come to an end. The driver helped Charlotte out with her suitcases and left her looking up the steps to the front door. She felt anxious to get inside. Any misgivings or unassimilated fears she might have felt were buried and sealed with the efficiency of long habit. There were four bells by the front door and she could see a white two-core flex run up from the one named forester over the ledge below the first floor and in through a hole drilled in the front windowsill. The window was pushed up in answer to her ring and a young woman's head poked out. 'Charlotte? I'm on the telephone. Let yourself in and come up to the first floor. Catch!' A single key on a piece of pink ribbon came spinning down and landed on the step. Charlotte let herself into a dark hallway. There were two bicycles and a pram on the lino floor as well as an old walnut dresser. When she had heaved her suitcases past the obstacles she paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked up: a narrow strip of worn orange carpet wound up past a windowed half-landing; she breathed in, expecting the boarding-house smells of cooking, cats and gas geysers, but found it smelled only of hyacinths. Excerpted from Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.