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Cover image: The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

Vincent was waiting inside the greasy spoon on the corner. Evelyn spotted him through the front window as she crossed the quiet street. He hadn’t changed: still tall and stooped, still dapper in his Oxford shoes and Italian coat, still pale and dark, though with some steel-wool grey in his hair. There was something comforting about the familiarity of him, even after all these years. Evelyn swallowed at the painful lump in her throat, a bit of weak sun finally re-emerging as she pulled open the cafe door.

Presided over by an elderly Cypriot, Zafer’s was a clean, unassuming establishment with formica tables spaced evenly around the narrow interior. A few down-and-out-looking men sat hunched over their plates of eggs and beans, half-drunk mugs of tea beside their trays. The air was humid with the pong of old socks and unwashed bodies. It was not somewhere she imagined Vincent spent much of his spare time, but there was also no chance of running into anyone either of them knew, which was probably why he had suggested it.

Now, sitting across the sticky table from one another, Evelyn finally got a better look at him under the fluorescent lights and saw that the years had not been kind to him. His skin was not so much pale as jaundiced, and his forehead, which he dabbed at now and then with a silk handkerchief, had a damp sheen to it. After adding a few sugars he drank his tea with elbows planted on the table, a gesture not of nonchalance, Evelyn realised, but in an effort to keep himself upright.

‘How have you been keeping yourself, Evelyn?’ he asked after coughing into the handkerchief. ‘Still at the bookshop?’

She had a sip of tea. Of course he knew. They had probably sorted it for her, the job, like a belated going-away present.

‘I’m glad Mrs Foy kept you on. She’s a good old stick.’

‘And you?’ Evelyn set down the tin mug. ‘Still with Section 5?’

‘Good grief, no. I moved over to Special Branch years ago.’

‘No more decryption?’

‘I still dabble. But I hunt reds now—or haven’t you heard?’

She had heard—it was hardly a secret. It didn’t matter to people like Vincent who the enemy was, as long as there was one.

‘And do you still see much of Bennett?’ she asked lightly.

Vincent shook his head.

‘He’s no longer in the Service?’

‘No. At the BBC, actually. Does some program on the wireless all about birds.’ He peered at her with his red-threaded eyes. ‘He’s rather good, I’m afraid. Just recherché enough to be charming.’

‘And did you two ever . . .’

No.’ Vincent pressed his lips together. ‘No, that finished some time ago. Never really started, in fact—so not all that much to end.’ He spread his hands across the chequered tablecloth; they were even thinner and bonier than she remembered, a blue vein pulsing at his knuckle. ‘So, you had a little run-in. Who was it?’

‘Julia Wharton-Wells.’

Vincent raised an eyebrow. ‘I see. Did she recognise you?’

Evelyn nodded. ‘We spoke for a few minutes. About nothing of consequence.’ She picked up her mug then set it down again, suddenly incredulous. ‘She has a daughter.’

‘Yes.’ His mouth twitched. ‘You sound surprised.’

Evelyn stared at the oily surface of her tea. ‘I suppose I always thought her life would have stopped.’ She didn’t add, like mine did.

‘Do you think she’s still in play?’ Vincent asked. ‘Only we haven’t heard any chatter.’

Evelyn thought of Margaret and the way Julia had looked at her, like her own heart was beating inside the little girl’s chest.

‘I doubt it.’

‘And did she threaten you?’

‘Not directly. But she gave me this.’ From her handbag, Evelyn drew out the postcard of Judith in the Tent with Holofernes and handed it across the table. Vincent scowled, giving it an impartial shake.

‘It was . . . it was in the Onslow Square house when I visited Randall. The original . . .’ Evelyn paused. ‘It’s Judith betraying Holofernes—don’t you know it? It’s an allegory, for goodness sake.’ She was growing agitated, exasperated even, as she sensed Vincent’s interest waning. ‘Julia knows it means something to me.’

‘All right, all right. I’ll file a report, though I’m not sure Section 5 will do much for you, all things considered. I could be in strife just for meeting you. Too many cobwebs . . .’ Running a hand through his hair, he tried to smile. ‘Meanwhile, I’d lie low for a while if I were you, maybe take a trip somewhere. Have you friends who could put you up outside London?’

Friends?’ She laughed, and Vincent had the good grace to look embarrassed.

They finished their toast and ordered another mug of tea. As Vincent dabbed at the crumbs on his empty plate, Evelyn thought about when she’d last seen him, at Chemley Court. How long ago that seemed—and she was glad for that distance, although there had been a period in her life when she would have given anything to fold the passage of time into minute portable squares. Vincent knew all this, of course, had made this calculation when he offered to meet her, and she could feel his familiar appraisal of her dry lips, her brown coat. It was a curious bond they’d once had, that flimsy intimacy, like old lovers knowing each other’s deepest secrets and their silent vow to always keep them.

‘Did anyone else see you with her?’ he asked.

Evelyn nodded. ‘Stephen Glover.’

‘Who is that?’

‘A friend.’ Evelyn hesitated. ‘A close friend.’

‘Does he know—’

She shook her head.

Vincent frowned. ‘Does he know you’re here now?’

‘No. I haven’t heard from him since last night.’ Evelyn fidgeted with the canister of sugar. ‘I was . . . scared.’

There, she had said it, though she felt no better for it.

Vincent casually brought out the orange tin where he kept his cigars.

‘What were you scared of, darling?’

‘I thought Julia might say something . . .’

‘Would that be so terrible?’

Evelyn stared back at him. So this was how Vincent approached the past: incisive, diagnostic. He was lucky enough to be in the position where he could view it with such detachment, but it made her want to shriek.

‘Terrible? After what happened? It would be ghastly.’

They sat watching one another, the air between them unmoving, until Vincent sat back, smiling faintly. ‘I’ve often wondered what became of you, Evelyn. What it all did to you. It was all so very unfair . . . I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch.’ He puffed away on the cigar, thoughtful. ‘Do you care for this chap, Stephen?’


‘You love him?’

Beneath her coat, Evelyn could feel the exact pressure of Stephen’s arms around her when they went dancing, the certainty of him but also the bulk of him as they glided around the hall, as if he were bracing for impact. Perhaps that was what he’d been doing: waiting for the blow that would tear them apart.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what that feels like.’

‘Rot. We all know what it feels like.’ Vincent let this hang, perhaps considering what it had meant for him in the intervening years. ‘And now he thinks you’re keeping something from him? Some part of yourself?’

Evelyn nodded.

‘Well then, it’s simple. You need to tell him. Everything. Start at the beginning. How can anyone really love you if they don’t know you?’

‘But it’s not that simple.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, I’m not supposed to talk about—’

Vincent leant forwards, snatching up Evelyn’s hands, his own blue and hard like they had just come out of Zafer’s chiller. But his eyes were the same colour as the Thames, and Evelyn’s mind wandered back to the river and all the silt that lay beneath it.

‘You don’t have to be loyal to them anymore, Evelyn, for Christ’s sake! Not them, not anyone! Do you understand?’ His bottom lip trembled as he slumped back, rubbing at the faint map of broken capillaries across his cheeks. ‘What’s the use of scurrying around in the shadows like you’re still a damned spook? Some things you have to bring up from the ground or they will kill you. You of all people should know this.’

And it was absurd, after all this time, to still be afraid of the war and its long shadow hanging over her—Evelyn knew that. But it wasn’t fear like the men would have felt in the boats or on the beaches. Not the same fear as when the German bombs rained down across London, picking out targets like indiscriminate skittles—she could remember that particular visceral terror, with its airlessness and the static whistle at the back of her head. This fear was made of quicker, steelier matter; it was sleek and icy, working its way inside Evelyn’s blood. It was the same fear she felt when she first met Nina: of being seen.


This is an edited extract from The Imitator by Rebecca Starford (Allen & Unwin), available now. The Imitator is available now at your local independent bookseller. Listen to Rebecca discuss the novel on the KYD podcast, or read about her writing routine here