A prosaic and dependable woman in her early forties, Kathleen Drover returns to her home in the Kensington area of London one afternoon to retrieve articles for herself and her family, who have taken refuge in the country from the blitz. As she enters the deserted street, a feeling of familiarity and strangeness overwhelms her. The German rockets have taken their toll on the street, on the square in which it is situated, on the house, and, the reader soon learns, on Kathleen herself.
She opens the door of the closed house and is immediately aware of the dead air that greets her. As she makes her way to her bedroom to retrieve the things she has come to fetch, the furniture and the marks on the floors and on the wall remind her of her life between two wars. She soon notices that the humid air outside has given way to rain.
Seeing a letter on the hall table, she is annoyed that it has not been forwarded to her by either the postal service or the caretaker. She notes that the letter has no stamps on it and wonders how it could have made its way there because the caretaker has, ostensibly, been away for several weeks. She goes up the stairs, enters her former bedroom, and reads the letter, which bears that day’s date. The brief message, signed K., reminds her of a promise that she made twenty-five years ago when she was engaged to a soldier who later died in World War I. The sender states that he is sure that, even though Kathleen has left London, she will keep the rendezvous. She is frightened not only by the message but also by the mysterious means by which it has found its way to her, by the fact that her every action may have been observed by an unknown person.
As she goes about gathering the items she has come to collect, she is haunted by her memories of the mysterious soldier whom she promised to marry twenty-five years before. She remembers the “unnatural promise” that he exacted from her. Her most vivid remembrance of him, however, is tactile—the feel of the brass button of his uniform against her hand—and she looks to see if the imprint of it is still on her palm. The twenty-five years that have passed since their last meeting dissolve like smoke in her moment of present awareness. She thinks that she cannot remember what her lover did to make her plight so sinister a troth, but as she recovers the emotion that occasioned the promise, she remembers. What she cannot remember is her lover’s face.
She recalls that his death caused in her a “dislocation.” She remembers that in the last week of his leave, she was not herself. She also remembers her parents’ relief that their daughter would not marry the mysterious young man to whom she had engaged herself, and their belief that, after a suitable period of mourning, she would return to normal activity. However, for years no suitors had presented themselves. Much later, when she was in her early thirties, to her parents’ and her own surprise, she married William Drover and later bore him two children, the second being a difficult birth.
While making her preparations to leave the house, Kathleen examines and then dismisses the notion of supernatural intervention in her present life. She thinks, however, that she must concern herself with the appointed hour to which the note refers. Having heard the clock strike six, she assumes that she has sufficient time to complete her chores, walk to the taxi ramp at the bottom of the square, find a cab, return to the house for her parcels, and catch her train to the country. As she listens at the top of the staircase, she is disturbed by a draft of dead air that suggests to her that someone is leaving the basement by a door or window. She leaves the house, walks quickly to the cab rank, enters the taxi, and realizes that it has turned back toward the house without her having given directions. She scratches at the glass panel, looks into the driver’s eyes for what seems an eternity, and screams as the car speeds into the deserted streets of the city.