The extravagance of a first-class ticket on a cross-country train to Edinburgh, Daisy Barker reflected, was worth it: few other passengers, four seats and a table to herself. Still faithful to her fountain pen, she took out her notebook, intending to write a list of things to be done. But her eyes travelled the speeding landscape and she felt the happiness of knowing that, for a few hours, no one could get hold of her.

While settling into her own seat, Daisy had noticed no more of the man behind her than a grey tousle of hair, and a hand holding a mobile phone. She knew that soon she would hear the familiar words, explaining his whereabouts, common to most mobile phone owners. It did not bother her.

‘Kitty? William here, I’m on the train,’ he said, somewhere north of Birmingham. Daisy felt herself smiling. So often, from overheard scraps of conversations, she had learnt extraordinary facts about unknown lives. ‘You doing all right? – Yes, I did. Met the famous Roger. Seemed nice enough. You’d think he was rather dashing.’ – That was a word Daisy had not heard for a long time. There was a pause. ‘Anyhow, I told him you’d call,’ the man went on. His voice reminded Daisy of a William she had once been out with – a cellist. She left him when he gave her an impeccable explanation as to why he loved his cello more than her. ‘I gave a starry picture of you, as you can imagine.’ The unknown William laughed. ‘Got a pencil? Here’s his…’ He gave a long number, then repeated it more slowly. Daisy found herself writing it down. Presumably the unknown Kitty was doing the same, but with an anticipation Daisy had no reason to feel: she was merely doodling on a clean page. ‘Yes, yes. I said you’d love to meet him,’ the voice went on, ‘and he’d be bloody lucky to meet you. 49 Temple Street, SW19. So don’t let me down. Anything could happen. – Ok, ok. But you can’t say I don’t try for you. Bye.’

Later, looking at the address below the telephone number, Daisy wondered why it was there, why it looked faintly familiar. The idea occurred to her
that she should ring the number herself – see what happened. After a devastating event in your life, she thought, it was not unreasonable to do something out of character, to take a risk. ‘Anything could happen,’ as the voice behind had said.

Back in London three days later Daisy, who had decided not to ring the number, drove to Temple Street. Its identical Victorian houses strove for individual character by way of their front gardens. Some were severely gravelled over. Several had box hedges trained into fashionable globes in pots by the front door. Number 49 had a small but bright lawn divided from the path by a lavender hedge – the lavender cut back, now, for it was autumn. What am I doing? Daisy asked herself.

Walking up the path, she tried to see through the front window. No sign of anyone. Probably a stupid time to come – whoever Roger was would not be back from work. She rang the bell. She rang several times. Then the door opened fast. The man kept his hand on the inside handle but he did not appear to be irritated by an unknown caller.

‘Come in, come in,’ he said. ‘Sorry. I was in the attic. Often don’t hear the bell.’

He opened the door wider. Daisy followed him into a narrow hall whose walls were crowded with mounted deer heads. From their antlers random reminders were hung like scant leaves: a dry cleaning receipt, a final demand from the water board, and other scraps of paper she could not decipher.

‘Kitchen, all right? Tea? A drink? What can I get you?’

The kitchen was a dark and un-loved room. The floor was cluttered with stalagmites of piled-up magazines and newspapers. Calendars from years past drooped from the walls. The half-drawn curtains were of an ugly pattern which had faded as indistinctly as changes in a dull sea. Roger picked up the kettle, perhaps forgetting his alternative offer of a drink, and turned to her.

‘By the way,’ he asked, ‘who are you? Do I know you? Am I confused? Am I missing something here?’

To Daisy’s relief, he laughed. In return, heart beating wildly, she smiled.

She had not worked out in advance how to behave if he asked difficult questions.

‘William,’ she said. ‘I think he…’

‘Oh Lord, yes. How right you are. Will Rosen. He rang me a few days ago, suggested I might like to meet a certain Kitty. That’s you, is it?’ Daisy nodded. ‘Have you seen Will lately?’

‘Not for a while, no.’ The warmth of truth flared through Daisy. If she could carry it off, she thought, she might enjoy this weird encounter.

‘He dodges about so. I can’t keep up with his sort of life. Anyhow, take a seat. Tea’s coming up in a jiffy. If you look in that tin could be you’ll find a biscuit.’

Roger pushed aside a stack of unopened letters and moved an old Quality Street tin to Daisy, who had taken a chair at the small table. While he dealt with filling the teapot, she struggled to open the tin. Her fingers shook.

‘None left,’ she said lightly. ‘What a relief. It’s always difficult refusing a biscuit. People think you must be some kind of neurotic, not able to manage a single biscuit…’ She trailed off.

‘Really?’ Roger did not seem to be paying much attention to this view. He sat down, poured tea. No question about whether she would like milk. Perhaps he had run out and could not be bothered to apologise. Daisy found such casualness endearing. ‘This match-making business,’ he said. ‘Pretty dodgy on the whole. Rarely works out. Still, I go along with it from time to time, just for a laugh. Will’s always making suggestions… Did he tell you much about me?’

‘No.’ Again, able to cling to a small truth, Daisy felt her enjoyment rising. ‘What did he say about me?’

‘Oh, terrific stuff. Beautiful, sexy, clever.’ Daisy blushed. This was harder. ‘Not really interested in any form of permanency, after a few disastrous experiences, but wouldn’t mind a friend, a walker. Is that right?’ Daisy nodded. Strangely, the description almost fitted. ‘That’s quite a good start, I’d say, because I’m not after the happy-ever-after stuff, either – can’t quite believe in it; not after Anne – she was my wife – buggered off with a man she’d only known for a day. Odd thing is, they’re still together, still happy. But I’m used to being on my own, now – genuinely enjoy it, never lonely. Anne came back once to fetch things and was appalled by the state of the house…’ He glanced at the general mess of the kitchen. ‘But I don’t notice. So long as my desk’s in order, I’m happy.’

‘As William didn’t tell each of us about the other, should we…?’ Daisy was keen to know more about her untidy host, but did not want to appear to be prying.

‘Why not? Nothing very exciting, for my part; I used to work for the Forestry Commission. Now I just write about trees, and fight hard against the terrible desecration of British villages – a great concern of mine. Sorry to sound pompous. And you?’

Daisy shrugged.

‘I did a bit of acting. Now I work in a small picture gallery.’ She decided, at this early point in their acquaintance, to leave unsaid that she was recently sacked for being late too often – late because of the terrible nightly rows with George which left her exhausted. Mornings, bags under the eyes had to be disguised; clothes that he had thrown out of the window had to be gathered. Such things had made her constantly late. Of all her mistakes, George was the worst. But this was no time to go into all that. It would probably be of no interest to this mild-looking man whose life, Daisy guessed, was reasonably untroubled.

They drank several cups of strong and bitter tea and exchanged what Daisy knew were edited stories. Both seemed fearful of asking pertinent questions: they offered only small, harmless clues about their lives of the kind that are common to strangers on first meeting.

Daisy studied Roger, now, with all the force of one who knows it might be the only time she would ever see him. She liked the darkness of his eyes (more black than brown), the way one corner of his mouth turned down when he smiled, the wings of grey hair above his ears. The man behind had been right about his friend’s looks: Roger had the kind of face it would be good to wake up to in the morning. She liked his frayed shirt collar, the green of his old jersey, his quizzical look. Would that look turn to fury and disappointment, she wondered, were he to know he was entertaining an imposter?

It grew dark. Lights from opposite houses were small explosions in the blackness of the windows. The kitchen wrapped more tightly round them.

‘I’ll ring Will,’ Roger was saying, ‘thank him for sending you.’

Daisy started

‘Will’s off abroad for a while,’ she said quickly. She did not want her plan to be blasted by the two men communicating before she had had time to apologise and disappear.

‘Oh well. I’ll wait till he gets back.’ Roger stood up, took the tea things to the sink. Time to go, Daisy realised with unexpected regret. ‘Afraid I haven’t a thing in the fridge – shopping is my constant dread – but we could… I mean, would you like to have a bite somewhere? The least I can do for Will’s friend. Dinner?’

Daisy smiled at the invitation, so un-cool in its hesitant charm. Somehow, the charade had worked for three hours and there was a whole evening ahead. Could she carry on the deceit? Could she trust herself to continue to be cautious?

They dined at a small Italian restaurant a few minutes walk from the house. Roger described his efforts to re-establish the elm tree in Britain. His passion was so intriguing Daisy wondered why she had never thought about the death of elms before. When he apologised for ‘banging on’, she assured him she could have listened far longer.

Roger insisted on paying the bill. When Daisy saw the plumpness of his note-stuffed wallet, she did not demur. After all, it was just the once. Back at her car, he opened the driver’s door, ran both hands through his hair and asked if he could ring her. Daisy said that would be fine, and gave him the number of her landline.

In the following three weeks they met a dozen times. Sometimes they ate in the Italian restaurant, sometimes in the chaotic kitchen which Daisy liked better at night. Once, Roger came to her flat – nervously swept of all clues – for lasagne. They scarcely ever discussed Will. If Roger happened to mention him Daisy simply agreed with every comment and swiftly changed the subject. There was no further talk of match-making: they made no declarations, no suggestions of any future plans. Roger liked hearing Daisy talk about painting – she seemed to have a canny eye – and she could listen for ever to his plans to re-instate villages, along with the elms. Often they laughed. Their hands never touched. Theirs was a slow, old-fashioned courtship. Daisy began to feel uncommonly safe.

But on their thirteenth meeting, a stormy night of bitter rain, Roger suggested she stay the night with him rather than battle through the weather to her part of London. She agreed.

Downstairs, next morning, she found the kitchen to be unrecognisable. Her own kind of magic was to find that places can be changed by unexpected happenings. This morning, in Roger’s dressing gown, the mugs had a new lustre, the boiled eggs were brighter. She had begun to get used to the kitchen: now, familiarity was swept away because she had spent the night with Roger. Nothing looked the same. Alarmed by a sense of control beginning to elude her, Daisy realised she could go no further in the deceit. She would confess her wickedness that evening. But Roger’s plan was to spend the weekend in his ‘shack’ on a Welsh hillside. He wanted to show her the place he had loved since childhood. It would have been cruel to have confessed, and declared they could not continue, in such a place. Daisy decided she would postpone the difficult moment till they were back in London.

On Sunday afternoon they climbed the hill behind the cottage, where mists cringed beneath hedges and there was persistent rain. Sheep crowded about them. Daisy, looking at their camel-like faces and indignant yellow eyes, felt a moment’s hesitation. One of them lunged at her, friendly rather than aggressive. But trying to avoid it, she slipped over. In a trice Roger had her arm and heaved her up. The animal lumbered away. Roger laughed. ‘Time to go back to the fire,’ he said. They held cold, wet hands.

It was then, Daisy reflected later, that faint anticipation had crystallised into firm realisation: as Roger had pulled her to her feet she had fallen in love with him. She had let this happen, she supposed, because after a few weeks of his company she felt strangely confident of his goodness. He was quaint, but definitely good – to be relied upon. A notoriously bad judge of character herself – a state enflamed by unflagging optimism – she was positive that this time she had found a man not bent on destruction and meanness. Roger, she knew, would not be added to her list of mistakes. Daisy gave no hint of her feelings but fancied she saw a responding warmth – not quite hidden – a reaching out of the man she now loved.

The violent rain on Monday morning in London was the excuse for staying in Temple Street all day. While Roger worked upstairs, Daisy made some attempt – with his permission – to sort out the kitchen. It would be a kind of legacy, she thought. The hours flew towards evening, when she was going to make her confession.

At five o’clock the doorbell rang. Roger happened to be downstairs, and answered it. Daisy could hear his puzzled but polite voice, and his suggestion that the caller should come in out of the rain.

A woman much younger than Daisy, hair the colour of conkers, followed him into the kitchen. She had freckles and an upturned nose, features that so often go together. Her black mackintosh blazed with rain. When she closed her umbrella raindrops scattered into a perfect arc on the newly swept floor. She apologised. She was enchanting. Daisy waited for the replay.

‘So who are you?’ Roger asked. ‘Do I know you? You’re the second unknown young lady to turn up recently…’

‘You don’t know me, no. I’m Will’s friend. He’s wanted to get me together with someone for ages. I’ve had your address for some time, but I was trying to pluck up courage…’ She giggled.

Roger looked at Daisy.

‘Very confusing,’ he frowned. ‘Will seems to know a lot of Kittys.’

‘I’m terribly sorry,’ said the real one. ‘There’s plainly some confusion. Some muddle. I’ll go.’ She pulled up the collar of her raincoat.

‘No!’ Roger shouted in a surprisingly fierce voice, ‘don’t go. We’ll sort things out, won’t we?’ He glanced at Daisy – annoyed, puzzled? She could not be sure what he felt. Then his eyes returned to the stranger in her
glamorous, glittering mackintosh.

In that moment Daisy saw that he looked at the authentic Kitty in a way he had never looked at her. She knew he sensed that this new candidate for his affections radiated something that did not exist in her own being. She knew she could not compete. Well, at least leaving now would mean she would not have to explain. She moved to the door, face ablaze and with frenzied heart.

‘You don’t have to go,’ Roger said, following her into the hall. He put a hand on her arm, but there was no pressure to detain her. ‘I don’t know what…’

Daisy attempted a laugh.

‘I was going to explain,’ she said, ‘but now I don’t have to.’ She kissed him on the cheek: already his head was turning back to the kitchen. This was the difference, she recognised, between his kindly self and the part of him that was instantly captivated. He opened the door. Rain gusted in.

‘Wait till I find out what the hell Will was playing at,’ he was saying, dully. ‘I’ll be in touch … let you know.’

At the front gate Daisy paused and looked back through the kitchen window. She saw that Roger was dithering about, just as he had when she arrived, but smiling more happily than she had ever seen. He picked up the kettle, put it down. She realised that very quickly he had taken the real Kitty to be the kind of girl who needed a drink rather than a hot drink. The beginning of their affair looked as if it had begun in the way that affairs do when there is instant mutual rapport, rather than kindness on one side and deception on the other. With only herself to blame for yet another mistake, Daisy hurried against the rain to her car. Daring to deceive, she reflected, had caused a short frisson in her life and for that there were no regrets. As for the real Kitty, she did not look like the kind of girl who would be entertained by stories of elm trees. So what was worth trying, Daisy thought, was to do a little research into Roger’s favourite subject, find some arcane piece of information which he would find intriguing, send him a postcard….

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.