East of the Sun - By Julia Gregson
London, September 1928
Responsible young woman, twenty-eight years old, fond of children, with knowledge of India, will act as chaperone on Tilbury-to-Bombay run in return for half fare.
It seemed like a form of magic to Viva Holloway when, having paid three and six for her advertisement to appear in the latest issue of The Lady, she found herself five days later in the restaurant at Derry & Toms in London, waiting for her first client, a Mrs. Jonti Sowerby from Middle Wallop in Hampshire.
For the purposes of this interview, Viva wore not her usual mix of borrowed silks and jumble sale finds, but the gray tweed suit she loathed but had worn for temporary work as a typist. Her hair, thick and dark and inclined toward wildness, had been dampened and clenched back in a small bun.
She stepped into the genteel murmurings of the tearoom, where a pianist was playing a desultory tune. A small, bird-thin woman wearing an extraordinary blue hat (a kind of caged thing with a blue feather poking out of the back) stood up to greet her. By her side was a plump and silent girl who, to Viva’s considerable amazement, Mrs. Sowerby introduced as her daughter Victoria.
Both of them were surrounded by a sea of packages. A cup of coffee was suggested but, disappointingly, no cake. Viva hadn’t eaten since breakfast and there was a delicious-looking walnut cake, along with some scones, under the glass dome on the counter.
“She looks awfully young,” Mrs. Sowerby immediately complained to her daughter, as if Viva wasn’t there.
“Mummy,” protested Victoria in a strangled voice and, when the girl turned to look at her, Viva noticed she had wonderful eyes: huge and an unusual dark blue color almost like cornflowers. I’m sorry, I can’t help this, they were signaling.
“Well, I’m sorry, darling, but she does.” Mrs. Sowerby had pursed her lips under her startling hat. “Oh dear, this is such a muddle.”
In a tight voice she, at last, addressed Viva, explaining that Victoria was shortly to go to India to be a bridesmaid for her best friend Rose, who was, and here a certain show-off drawl entered Mrs. Sowerby’s voice, “about to be married to a Captain Jack Chandler of the Third Cavalry at St. Thomas’s Cathedral in Bombay.”
The chaperone they had engaged, a Mrs. Moylett, had done a last-minute bunk—something about a sudden engagement to an older man.
Viva had set down her cup and composed her features in what she felt to be a responsible look; she’d sensed a certain desperation in the woman’s eyes, a desire to have the matter speedily resolved.
“I know Bombay quite well,” she’d said, which was true up to a point: she’d passed through that city in her mother’s arms at the age of eighteen months, and then again aged five where she’d eaten an ice cream on the beach, and for the last time at the age of ten, never to return again. “Victoria will be in good hands.”
The girl turned to Viva with a hopeful look. “You can call me Tor if you like,” she said. “All my friends do.”
When the waiter appeared again, Mrs. Sowerby began to make a fuss about having a tisane rather than a “normal English tea.”
“I’m half French, you see,” she explained to Viva in a pouty way as if this excused everything.
While she was looking for something in her little crocodile bag, the daughter turned to Viva and rolled her eyes. This time she mouthed “Sorry,” then she smiled and crossed her fingers.
“Do you know anything about cabin trunks?” Mrs. Sowerby bared her teeth into a small compact. “That was something else Mrs. Moylett promised to help us with.”
And by a miracle Viva did: the week before she’d been scouring the front pages of the Pioneer for possible jobs, and one Tailor Ram had placed a huge advertisement for them.
She looked steadily at Mrs. Sowerby. “The Viceroy is excellent,” she said. “It has a steel underpinning under its canvas drawers. You can get them at the Army and Navy Store. I can’t remember the exact price but I think it’s around twenty-five shillings.”
There was a small commotion in the restaurant, the clink of cutlery momentarily suspended. An attractive older woman wearing faded tweeds and a serviceable hat had arrived; she was smiling as she walked toward them.
“It’s Mrs. Wetherby.” Tor stood up, beaming, and hugged the older woman.
“Do sit down.” She patted the chair beside her. “Mummy and I are having thrilling talks about jods and pith