Edwina Duncan Howard
Thursday, January 1, 1953
A gale from the east had swept across the city late the evening before, scouring away the worst of the smog, and the rare sight of London’s night sky had inspired Edie to open her curtains and raise the fraying blackout blind. She’d tucked herself into bed, her spectacles still on, because what was the point of looking at the stars if she couldn’t make them out?
But she’d been tired, so awfully tired, and she’d fallen asleep straightaway. And now it was a quarter to seven in the morning, the stars had faded from the still-dark sky, and before she was even fully awake she remembered it all. Nothing tragic or calamitous; nothing she would dreamof sharing with any of the people who worked for her. Just worries, an impatient and none too polite queue of them, each demanding her attention, her time, and every last penny of the Blue Lion’s ever-diminishing supply of capital.
She threw back the covers, sat up straight, and set her feet on the cold floor. Time to be up, past time to stop fretting and fussing, for it was a new day—a new year, the year of the queen’s coronation, and in six months the world would be coming to London, and by the greatest stroke of good fortune she and her guests at the Blue Lion would have front-row seats for at least part of the festivities.
Even now, months after learning the coronation procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey would pass by her front door, Edie still marveled that some bureaucrat in Whitehall had made the fateful decision to send the procession along Northumberland Avenue, never for a moment considering the effect it would have on the historic, if often overlooked, hotel that Edie’s ancestor had founded in 1560.
A knock at the door put an end to her musings. “Miss Howard?”
“I won’t be a moment.” She fumbled for her spectacles, which she fortunately hadn’t crushed in her sleep, pulled on her robe, stepped into her slippers, and glanced at the overmantel mirror to ensure her hair was tidy. Only then did she unlock and open her door to the hotel’s night manager.
“Good morning, Mr. Swan, and Happy New Year.”
“The same to you, Miss Howard. May I bring in your breakfast?”
“Yes, thank you. How were things overnight?”
“Nicely quiet. Not a peep from the rooms.”
Well. There wouldn’t be, given that only seven guests were in residence, among them their three long-term boarders, and none were the sort to stay up late. By midnight they had likely been abed for hours.
“Any trouble with the Queen Bess?” The public house down the street made for good neighbours most of the time, but bank holidays occasionally meant messes to clear up and, intermittently, broken windows when its patrons turned into amateur pugilists.
He set her breakfast tray on the desk by the window, straightened it with care, and turned to face her. “Not as bad as Boxing Day. Quieted down long before last orders.”
“Good, good. I always sleep well when I know you’re at the front desk.”
“Thank you, miss,” Arthur said, his ears reddening at the compliment. “I’ll see you this evening, then.”
The particulars varied, but the essentials remained the same. In the fourteen years Arthur had been night manager, neither he nor Edie had deviated from the established formula for their morning conversation. She knew he was married and that his wife’s name was Florence but he called her Flossie. She knew he had two children, Arthur Junior and Gawain, the latter name a startlingly poetic choice for such a placid and practical man, and she knew his address and of course exactly how much he made, since she was the one who paid his wages. But she’d gleaned nearly every scrap of information from overheard conversations and secondhand exchanges with other hotel employees. Not once had she and Arthur spoken of his life beyond the hotel, and if she were ever to unbend herself and ask after Flossie and the children, she was almost certain he would faint on the spot.
She never called him Arthur to his face, though she thought of him that way. She thought of all her employees as family, though she could never allow herself the luxury of friendship with them. Be friendly, her father had liked to remind her, but remember that you’re not their friend. You’re not meant to be friends.
Edie had remembered that advice, together with everything else Pa had told her, when she’d been left with the hotel. A few months shy of twenty-one, still in shock after the death of her parents, suddenly responsible for the livelihood and well-being of eighteen full-time employees, she’d clung to her memories of Pa and Mum and the generations of Howards before them. Her family had kept the Blue Lion open and modestly profitable for almost four hundred years. She had only to follow in their footsteps.