Hide and Seek, Excerpt One: Princes Street Station
The young woman paid the taxi driver and put her leather suitcase down on the busy pavement beside the station cab road. She returned her purse to the handbag slung diagonally across her body but then had to pick the suitcase up again to get out of the way of an elderly man who was trying to get a large bag into the taxi she'd just vacated.
'I'm sorry,' she said, smiling.
The man merely grunted, barely looking at her as he pushed past.
Princes Street Station was busy. The steam and the smoke from the engines produced an atmosphere that was compounded by the more personal smells of people smoking cigarettes and pipes and, in some cases, those who had been too long without a bath.
People were either on the move or just milling around. Most seemed intent on catching trains or were heading in the other direction, towards the station exit and Edinburgh beyond it. Many of the younger men, and some women, wore uniforms of different services and nations. Some people seemed to be waiting, perhaps for friends and relatives or for their trains to be announced.
Add in the noises of the trains, of whistles, of porters' carts, of people talking, of the news vendor shouting out his incomprehensible headlines and this really was a scene of chaos.
Helen Erickson was wearing a beige raincoat and black beret. Her wavy blonde hair fell to below her shoulders and, as so often when she turned her head, she had to push it back from the right-hand side of her face.
She was worried, though she tried not to show it. Her mother had taken her to the Ritz Hotel in London for a light dinner the previous evening. During the meal, she'd seen a woman at a table a little distance away glance at them several times. The woman was sitting across the table from a man whose back was turned towards them.
Helen was used to attracting attention, but this was different. The woman's glances, despite being veiled, sent unpleasant shivers down her spine. Usually, it was men who looked at her and usually she found it amusing.
She'd been told often enough that she looked very like the young American film star Veronica Lake. When she found out that Veronica Lake was born on the 14th of November 1922, exactly a week before Helen's date of birth, she began to cultivate the likeness. She was off to a good start with her blue eyes and blonde hair and the shape of her face. Helen had also grown her hair so it quite closely replicated Veronica Lake's 'peek-a-boo' style, though without recourse to the expensive hairdressers she suspected were used by Veronica. Where Helen differed most was in her height, which was a good six inches more than Veronica Lake's 4 ft 11in. But height apart, the likeness was now remarkable.
The younger sister of an old school friend had asked why she wanted to copy someone else's appearance when she was beautiful in her own right. Helen replied that she found it fun. She did, but the truth went further. She often found that aspects of her everyday life made her anxious or, on a bad day, unable to cope. Having Veronica to help and, at times, to hide behind, allowed her to assume a confidence that too often deserted her as Helen.
When her mother was seeing her onto the Night Scotsman at King's Cross Station the previous night, Helen saw the woman from the Ritz on the platform, a couple of carriages along, with a man she thought was the one who'd been with her earlier. She saw them both look at her briefly before the man got onto the train.
She'd said nothing to her mother, who'd seemed distracted throughout their time together. Anyway, her mother would probably just have given her a complicated lecture about the chances of bumping into random strangers, probably backed up by an equation written on a napkin or a cigarette packet.
Her mother had paid for a single berth first class compartment for her and, on the journey north, she'd locked herself in and tried to sleep. The compartment had cost 24/6, on top of the train fare, but she'd never been so grateful. She was woken at one point in the middle of the night by someone rattling the door as if they were trying to get in. Then she heard a guard out in the corridor telling them they weren't meant to be in that part of the train. She didn't get much sleep after that as she was worried that whoever it was would come back.
Then she thought she saw the man and the woman together again at Waverley Station after the train arrived earlier that morning. She found a back way out of the station and climbed up some steep steps that seemed to go on forever. At the top, she hailed a taxi, which brought her around the back of the castle to Princes Street Station.
Helen already had her onward ticket, so walked round the end of a pair of railway lines to a deep doorway marked 'private' in the run of buildings along that side of the station. This seemed a good place to watch from without being too obvious.
She'd seen on an information board that the train she wanted was due to leave from platform 3 at 9.25 a.m. Platform 3 was only a short distance away. It seemed her train was on one of the tracks she'd walked round the end of.
Helen was taking a last careful look at the people in the main body of the station before making for platform 3 when her breath caught in her throat. The woman she'd seen at the Ritz and at King's Cross and Waverley stations was standing at the near end of the island ticket office. The man was with her. Both had light-coloured overcoats and the man had a dark hat. The woman had blonde hair. They appeared deep in conversation but then Helen saw the man look up and catch her eye.
There was an indistinct announcement over the station's loudspeakers. Helen thought it was about the impending departure of her train. She felt a rising panic. A policeman was standing nearby and she thought of asking for help. But getting involved with the police, even hundreds of miles away from London, was the very last thing she wanted to do just now. She caught the eye of a young naval officer as he walked past. He smiled and for a moment Helen thought he was about to come over and talk to her but, instead, he walked on.
There was another announcement over the speakers, this time clearer.
Helen could see that platform 4 was on the opposite side of the same platform to the train she wanted. She picked up her suitcase, took a deep breath, and marched off towards the trains. Platform 3 was on her right, occupied by the Perth train, the one she needed to catch. To her left was platform 4. According to the second announcement, the train on that platform was due to leave three minutes before the Perth train and was going to a place called Carstairs to connect with a train from Glasgow to London Euston.
The carriages of the train were formed from a series of individual compartments, each with an outside door on either side. She looked behind her and could see the couple who'd been following were hurrying after her.
She picked a compartment that looked full and had a door with its hinges towards the front of the train. On opening the door, she had the impression of people looking back at her. There was probably a seat available if the people on her left shuffled together a little, though they showed no immediate signs of wanting to. That wasn't what Helen had in mind, anyway. She pulled the door closed behind her using the half-open window as a grip and stood with her shoulder against it, so she could watch for the couple passing. If they got into the same compartment she'd be completely stuck, but she hoped that standing by the door added to the impression of how crowded it was.
She saw the woman and man walk past and then heard the slam of the door of the next compartment towards the front of the train.
Whistles started to be blown on the platform almost immediately and Helen heard the engine at the front of the train toot its whistle in response. She still had her suitcase in her left hand and turned towards the door.
She knew she had to time it just right. As the train began to move, she released the shielded latch on the inside of the door and pushed the door open. She saw a young man sitting on the compartment's rear-facing bench reach for her left arm but shook him off, while a woman behind her gasped. Then Helen stepped down onto the platform, having to run a couple of steps to slow down while swinging the compartment door closed with a louder slam than she'd hoped for.
Almost immediately, she saw the man who'd been following her, now without his dark hat, lean through the window in the door of his compartment and look back at her. She got the impression he was about to try to get off the now more quickly moving train until second thoughts or the woman intervened. The odd smile that crossed his face was one she knew she'd remember.
Helen crossed the platform towards the Perth train, just as whistles started to blow again. A porter who'd been standing nearby tried to say something to her.
Helen smiled at him. 'I'm sorry, I got on the wrong train. Please don't stop me from catching the right one this time.' The porter stepped back, looking bemused. She opened the nearest door and boarded.
The carriages of the Perth train each had a corridor that ran along one side, connecting the compartments, and appeared to be far from busy. She found an empty third class compartment and after placing her suitcase in the overhead luggage netting, sat down. Then she lit a cigarette with badly shaking hands.
Outside, she heard the station announcer say that the first stop for this train would be Falkirk Grahamston. She hadn't listened carefully to the intermediate stations for the Carstairs train but was sure that wasn't one of them. Whoever those people were, she didn't think they were going to be able to follow her any further.
Helen's mother had planned the journey and provided the tickets. She had also given her daughter a copy of the current edition of Bradshaw's Guide while they were at the Ritz. This was, she had said, so that Helen could keep track of what was going to be a complicated journey and so she'd be able to cope with any unforeseen problems that might arise. Helen had laughed. Railway timetables were the sort of thing that appealed to her mother's mind, and it was typical of her not to consider whether Helen might have any interest in what, by any standards, was a thick and impenetrable tome.
After she'd been awakened on the sleeper train during the night, Helen had tried to distract herself by tracing the route that her mother had planned for her across several different tables in the guide. One thing that puzzled her was why her mother had decided Helen should change stations in Edinburgh and catch a train via Stirling to Perth. She'd hoped that her journey north might involve a crossing of the Forth Bridge.
Thanks to her Bradshaw's Guide she found there was a train that left Waverley Station and went over the bridge and via Dunfermline to Perth in plenty of time to catch the Aberdeen train from there. Taking that train would have saved her having to get to Princes Street Station from Waverley. On the other hand, it was shown as a local service on the timetable, and it gave less of a margin than the one her mother had chosen if the sleeper from Kings Cross had been delayed. But it gave Helen pause for thought to realise that her mother, genius that she was, might simply have overlooked the existence of the alternative train. That wasn't like her at all.