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Waiting for Willa
By Dorothy Eden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Dorothy Eden
All rights reserved.
The somber Swedish countryside tipped beneath the wings of the plane, endless spruce forests lighted at intervals by autumn-tinted birches, outcrops of rocks like bare bones, small dark-red houses that looked as if they had been dropped haphazardly into the forest.
It was too late to read Willa's letter again. In any case Grace almost knew it by heart. The first page was Willa's account of life in Stockholm written in her usual compulsive way. The people she had met, the parties she had been to, the kind of food the Swedes ate, even the weather—it was all treated with drama.
Willa, with her skinny body and sharp eager face, had always wanted to be larger than life, so she made all the events with which she was associated subjects of exaggerated importance.
She was very different from herself, Grace thought, with her sober ways. Though only Grace knew the tension that lay beneath Willa's gaiety and her uniform of eccentric hair styles and daring clothes.
That was why, after reading her apparently happy letter, Grace had felt the shock of the last brief paragraph;
All the same. I must tell you that a situation has developed. Don't say, doesn't it always, because this one is different. I've made a decision, but I'm not sure if it's the right one. Yet there is simply no other way ...
And there was the crux of the matter. When they were in their teens and had been sent to different boarding schools, Grace and Willa had made a pact that if Willa were in trouble (it was never suggested that Grace might be in trouble), she would sign her full name, the old-fashioned Wilhelmina which she hated, to a letter. Wilhelmina. Thus, a secret cry for help could be made.
It was a fanciful schoolgirl arrangement that they hadn't used for years. Grace had almost forgotten about it until the letter from Stockholm had arrived. The unfamiliar "Wilhelmina" scrawled across the page had made her heart give a sharp jump of apprehension. What was this mysterious situation that had developed, and why couldn't Willa, with her usual engaging deviousness, get out of it?
Grace kept the letter for a week, uncertain what to do, hoping that another would quickly follow, explaining that cry for help. She would like to have asked advice of somebody. There were, after all, several people only too anxious to give her advice about anything that troubled her. Her publishers, who were personal as well as business friends, her father, a few other friends of hers and Willa's, would all have been delighted to interpret this enigmatic letter.
Grace's mother and Willa's, who had been identical twins and closer to each other than they had ever been to their respective husbands or their daughters, had died within months of each other, their mysterious alliance drawing them together even in their graves.
It had always been acknowledged between them, however, that if the code was used, it was intended as a secret. Otherwise, why bother to use it? So it was obvious that whatever trouble Willa might be in, she intended it to be known by no one but Grace.
One might ask oneself: Why didn't Willa write, "Can you come?" She knew that Grace was in the unsettled between-books stage. She had frequently written during the summer that Grace must come stay with her as soon as she had finished her current book. She had a nice flat on Strandvägen, the street that overlooked the harbor and that had a wonderful view of the palace and the buildings in the old town. One thing about embassy work, a girl got enough money to live decently. If she had remained in London, it would have been a one-room apartment in the Fulham Road, which would have been galling, considering that Grace was now beginning to make a respectable income from her books. For all their devotion to each other, the cousins were highly competitive. Grace had wondered lately whether her own modest fame was making Willa exaggerate the dramas in her life, even whether she was deliberately creating dramas.
Whatever the reason for the letter, something had to be done about it. Grace sent off a telegram—DON'T UNDERSTAND YOUR LETTER TELL ME MORE—and when, after a week, no answer had come, she was in a state of sufficient anxiety to buy an air ticket to Stockholm. She telegraphed again, the date and time of her arrival, and now she was here.
She was a quietly intense, anxious kind of person who did not do things on the spur of the moment. All the same, it was rather fun to be embarked on a wild-goose chase. If that was what this was. For she was sure Willa would be waiting on the other side of the barrier, screaming, "Grace! How perfectly marvelous!"
The air was unexpectedly cold and frosty. A sharp wind was blowing across the landing field. Grace wrapped her coat about her, thinking how quickly the warm muggy air of England had turned into this northern wintriness. The sky was pale and clear, with a pink tinge on the horizon. One began to think of Finland and Lapland and ice floes and the North Star, and it was suddenly exciting. She was glad she had come. She had no doubt at all about Willa's welcome.
Except that Willa was not at the airport to greet her.
A row of stolid Swedes, wrapped in heavy coats and mufflers, hats pulled down over pale indoor faces, stood beyond the barrier. There was no one there even faintly resembling Willa, taking into account that one didn't know the hair color she currently favored or whether she had dressed herself in unfamiliar tweeds.
Grace listened to the immigration officer's impeccable English.
"You are on holiday, Miss Asherton?"
The rubber stamp came down on her passport.
"Tack. Have a good time."
No one to meet her. The airport bus filled with strangers. The long drive through the bleak countryside to the city. The traffic thickening, little speeding Volvos and Mercedes and Saabs. A long narrow cemetery filled with tall dark pine trees that dwarfed the gray tombstones, painted, gilded, graceful gates leading to a palace, modest skyscrapers in the distance. Then the air terminal, and a gloomy-faced taxi driver to take one to Willa's flat on Strandvägen.
The door of the slim dark-red house facing the harbor was opened by a stout woman whose pale-blue eyes had faded to colorlessness. They were round and protruding like cabochon-cut agates. They gave their owner a look of overwhelming coldness, although her voice was polite and even reasonably friendly.
"Do you speak English?" Grace asked, and when the woman answered yes, a little, she said, "Does Miss Willa Bedford live here?"
"She does, but she is absent at present. Was she expecting you?"
"I'm not sure. Do you know where she is?"
"Nej. She did not tell me where she was going. Come in. The wind is cold."
Grace stepped into the narrow stone-floored hall. There was a steep flight of stairs (a walk-up, Willa had called her flat), a board on the dark-brown wall with a list of names, presumably of tenants, and a table with some unclaimed mail.
"I am Fru Lindstrom," the woman said. "You are a friend of Fröken Bedford's?"
"Yes, her cousin. Grace Asherton. I sent her a telegram a few days ago, but she didn't answer it."
The woman pounced, extracting an envelope from the unclaimed mail.
"This? It is here still. Undelivered because Fröken Bedford has not returned."
"Did she tell you how long she would be away?"
"Not a word. She took a small bag and departed."
"Let me think—perhaps ten days since."
About the time she had written that letter to Grace. "A situation has developed...."
"But she is coming back, of course."
"I should expect so. She still has her apartment. I understand the rent is paid until the end of the year. I think she would hardly give all that up so carelessly."
"No, I'm sure she wouldn't. Do you have a key to the flat, Mrs. Lindstrom? Could I go up?"
"Certainly. You are welcome. I am glad you have come. I was a little—"
"Worried?" Grace said instinctively.
The woman shook her head. "Puzzled, perhaps. There is such silence, you see. Fröken Bedford was not a silent young woman before."
"She used to tell you things?"
"That's what I mean. First, she was always chattering. Then lately she was silent. Then she came downstairs with her bag and said she would be away for a short time, and what a lucky thing she hadn't got a bird."
Fru Lindstrom gave a surprisingly jolly smile.
"She was going to get a canary to sing. Her room was too quiet, she said. She liked noise. I expect you know."
Grace nodded, agreeing. Willa liked neither silence nor the dark. She had been sixteen before she could be persuaded to sleep without a night-light.
"A canary to whistle. It was a nice idea. Maybe she has gone to find it. Who knows? Come this way, Fröken Asherton. The stairs are steep, but it is only two flights."
Willa had never lived anywhere without imprinting her unmistakable mark on a place. It was here, triumphing over the modern utility furniture, the austere polished floors, the severe light fittings. A table lamp with a frilled yellow shade, a dark painting in an enormous gilded antique frame that took up half of one wall, an amusing potbellied china stove painted with a floral design, Persian rugs in front of the deep couch, a mass of brilliantly colored cushions, curtains tied back with velvet bows, pot plants—Willa had always been clever with pot plants—along the windowsill. And the empty birdcage made in the shape of a Chinese pagoda.
Willa used to say that she had all the instincts of an itinerant junk collector. After only six months in Stockholm she had collected quite an amount of expensive junk. That dark picture looked like an original. The Persian rugs had an authentic rich faded look. How could Willa have bought them on her salary as a secretary at the British Embassy? Had a friend lent them to her or given them to her?
"It's nice," Grace said, since Fru Lindstrom, standing in the doorway, obviously expected some comment.
"Yes. She has made it very pretty. Always she was finding something new. You must see her bedroom and her bed."
The bedroom was small, but charming, with the pale-gray bed with curved ends, like a baby's cradle, and the pale-gray dressing table and wardrobe to match. If the bed were a genuine antique, it must have cost a great deal. It was probably a copy, but even then not cheap.
"It is Gustav the Third," Fru Lindstrom explained, knowledgeably, touching the curved ends.
"Nej. But even so quite old. It was in a bad state when she brought it here, but Herr Polsen helped her to paint it."
"He is the gentleman above. He has the attics and bumps his head." Fru Lindstrom went into her unexpected chuckles. "He is too high in the head."
"Half Swedish, half Danish. He teaches at the university."
"Perhaps my cousin told him where she was going," Grace said hopefully.
"Perhaps. It was not my business to inquire." The woman rattled the keys in her hand. "Then what plans have you since your cousin is not here to welcome you?"
"I don't know." Grace glanced out of the windows at the already darkening sky. The melancholy that had touched her at the airport when Willa was not there to meet her touched her again. The perplexity, too. Where on earth had Willa gone? "Could I spend the night here?" she asked.
Fru Lindstrom considered.
"I think that could be permitted. I am only the caretaker, but the apartment is your cousin's, the rent is paid. Why not? Who can object? Hotels in this town are very expensive."
"Willa might be back by tomorrow."
"That is so."
"You're quite sure she didn't say how long she would be away?"
"'A short time,' she said. What is a short time? One week, two weeks?"
"How did she seem? Happy? Excited? I mean, as if she were going on a holiday?"
"Just in a great hurry, as if she had a train to catch. I regret I cannot tell you more, Fröken Asherton."
"You've been very kind. I will stay here. And I'll telephone the embassy. They must know where my cousin is. She wouldn't just walk out of her job. She must have had some leave she wanted to take before the winter.
"That is true. The winter is long enough when it begins. The English don't like our winter." Fru Lindstrom gave her sudden smile, her plump face creasing in a dozen jolly creases, but her pale eyes remaining untouched by any expression. "Then I will leave you. If you wish anything, knock on my door; I am always there."
When she was alone in the pretty room, the unease swept over Grace too strongly. The expensive rugs, the dark picture, the bed not a genuine antique, but old, nevertheless ... What sort of life was Willa leading? Was someone keeping her? Even if this were so, it was nothing to feel too distressed about. Nothing to make a mystery out of.
Yet there was undeniably something melancholy in the too-quiet apartment. The windows looked over the lake, steely gray in the twilight, the bobbing boats tied up, the copper green of the palace roof and church spires on the opposite bank turning black as the light faded. It was a wonderful view. It must be full of color and sparkle in the summer. But now it was muted, chilly, desolate. Grace drew the curtains to shut it out and switched on the lamp under the frilly yellow shade.
She tried to think constructively. There would be nothing to eat in the flat. She must go out and shop before the shops closed. But first she must telephone the embassy and ask to speak to Willa's boss. A man called Sinclair. He was one of the junior diplomats. That much she knew. Willa had written, "My boss, Peter Sinclair, is a very decent chap, he doesn't work me too hard."
"I don't get you. Who did you say you are?"
"Grace Asherton, Willa Bedford's cousin. Isn't Willa your secretary?"
The voice was laconic, uncaring. Was!
"Isn't she now? I mean, I know she's away at present because I've just arrived to visit her and found an empty flat. But she'll be back, surely. All her things are here."
"Hold it. One thing at a time. I guess she'll be back for her possessions, but not to her job here. She gave it up, didn't you know?"
Grace's fingers tightened around the telephone. Fru Lindstrom must have switched off the heat in here. It was distinctly chilly.
"No, I didn't know."
"She didn't tell you she was getting married?"
The voice in the telephone became a little drier. "Obviously she didn't. Well, she gave us a surprise, too."
"But who did she marry? Do you know that?"
"No. Afraid I don't. Some character called Gustav. Look, we can't very well discuss this on the telephone. Come see me if you're worried, and I'll tell you all I can."
"Are you worried, Mr. Sinclair?"
Did the short, dry laugh come too quickly?
"Not in the least. Willa was a fantastic girl, but between you and me, not the most reliable of secretaries."
Was, again. Surely a slip of the tongue.
"I would like to come see you, Mr. Sinclair."
"Yes, do that. Not here. Come to my flat. My wife would like to meet you. This evening?"
"Could it be? I confess I am worried."
"Sure. Six o'clock? Take a cab. We're in an apartment block just off the Valhallavägen. It's called Vasahuset. Number nine, second floor. Got it?"
"Right. See you then."
And the room was silent again, more silent than ever as Grace looked at the empty birdcage, the drooping pot plants, the narrow gray bed through the open door of the bedroom. A single bed. That didn't mean anything, particularly, except that Willa had probably not had a lover living with her. Anyway, Fru Lindstrom would have been bound to drop an interesting piece of information like that.
Grace went to the kitchen and ran some water into a jug to water the plants. It would be a pity if they were dead when Willa returned, although she should have thought of that.
But what were pot plants compared to a brand-new husband?
Was this the situation she hadn't known how to get out of? Was she pregnant? Grace knew that she had already had one abortion, two years ago. She had had it done secretly and not told Grace about it until it was three weeks past. But then, white and unhappy, she had confessed that she hated herself for it; she had felt the most enormous guilt. She kept having a dream about a dead baby in her arms.
Excerpted from Waiting for Willa by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1970 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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