- Publication Date:
- Penguin Australia Pty Ltd
- 1st Edition
- Dimensions (mm):
Her tears had subsided but left their telltale traces of swollen eyes and numb cheeks that she couldn't blame a frosty winter morning for. Stella hoped the act of burial might give her some respite from the grim tension of the previous fortnight that had conquered her ability to think clearly; a sense of weightlessness, perhaps, as the burden of finally being allowed to bury her parents lifted.
Instead, as the mourners drifted away she felt the loss more keenly, standing at the lip of the grave clutching the shoulders of her brother and sister. She swallowed, reached to dip into the jar they'd brought and tossed her handful of sand over the coffins. Rory and Carys followed suit and they listened in frigid silence as it landed with a light percussion against the side-by-side caskets to scatter eagerly across the shiny varnish like a million miniature marbles.
She had found the jar of sand in Rory's room. It seemed to have trapped the spirit of their happy family weekend beneath its lid; held it captive for this moment of release. Perhaps the ancient shore had known the Myles children would need the reminder of Brighton beach to embrace them, vivid with its sensory memory of laughter and sunshine, picnic sandwiches and ice-cream. Stella closed her eyes and could still conjure the crunch of the pebbles sliding against each other beneath their bare feet. From a distance the beach was a neutral colour, but up close its shingle was a palette of greys and charcoals, fawns and creamy whites – almost all of them worn smooth by the roiling of waves to the foaming water that delivered them ashore. She wasn't ready to let it go yet, so reached further, and could smell the cloying peppermint sweetness of the baton of seaside rock her father had handed her brother and sister. She recalled the sticky, neon-pink residue that clung to their grins like clown's lipstick. That holiday was only last year. Now two of their 'wolfpack' as her father called his family were dead: the two elders, the leaders, the wise ones. How much wisdom had they shown in taking their lives so suddenly?
'Stella?' It was Carys, lisping on her big sister's name in that charming, infantile way. 'What do we do now?'
What do we do now? she repeated silently as her grip on the two youngsters intensified to pull them even closer. She was now the eldest, the one required to lead, the person who must make all the decisions that had previously been the realm of her father.
'Go with Aunty Dil,' she said, catching the tentative wave from where her relatives' car awaited.
'I'm coming. Go on, Rory, take your sister,' she urged.
Reluctantly he moved, taking Carys's hand and guiding her to where they were met with an affectionate hug from their remaining kin. Stella blinked her gaze back to the frozen earth that was now eager to accept the people she loved. Its sinister depth mocked her; asking if she'd like to join them. She took a deep breath and thought she tasted leaf litter at the back of her throat. She didn't want to contemplate that this may be an old grave and that she was tasting the decomposition of someone else's parent.
Rallying, she tilted her head to the sky that was presently a vast smudge of dull grey. Its bleakness felt appropriate.
While she understood her father's pain, his sense of guilt so crushing, Stella's grief was hardening to anger for her mother.
'How could you?' she'd wept repeatedly to her mother's corpse at the funeral parlour. 'You'd leave us for the love of a man?' It was a harsh view to take but when she boiled it down, this was precisely what her mother had done, so unable was she to consider life without the man she adored. And so she had preferred to die with him than find the strength to stay alongside her children.
Stella could not wrap her thoughts around such blind passion. She had never known a connection of that purity; couldn't imagine losing herself so completely in the life of another. She saw it as a weakness rather than the power it represented in her mother's life.
'I'll never allow myself to belong so wholly to anyone or need anyone as you two,' she whispered to them.
'Love like yours can only end in heartbreak.' She put gloved hands to lips that were moist again from fresh tears before turning those kissed fingers to face the coffins in a final farewell. 'I want to say I hate you but I can't, and I already miss you so much I feel like part of me is being buried alive alongside you. For all that love, though, I won't forgive you for leaving us.' She hated herself for sounding so wretched when the moment demanded the compassion of forgiveness. Maybe, despite her words, it would come in time.
A sob escaped and Stella forced herself to turn and walk towards the living, to find a way to create a new life for them all.
Stella smoothed her palms down the sides of the soft wool crepe of her dress and was reminded that the last time she had worn it was to the funeral. The burial was fourteen weeks ago but it felt like a fresh wound that reminded her of its aching presence in the oddest of ways, from recalling her last conversation with her mother to looking at a pair of old shoes standing forlornly at the back door awaiting her father who was never going to step into them again. Even the smell of the bathroom or the coalscuttle drew buried memories that hurt like separate bruises.
The 'life goes on' comment was muttered to her in so many variations that she'd become immune to it. But, damn it, her life wasn't going on; her life had been halted as though an invisible policeman had just blown his whistle, held up his hand and forbidden her to move on. Instead, he'd pointed her in a new direction and no matter how much she protested, he insisted she take the diversion.
She glanced down at her outfit. The simplicity of her only fully formal garment made it adaptable, fortunately, and so tonight she had disguised the funereal palate with a cream handbag and gloves, before adding a touch of whimsy with her silk voile scarf. Outwardly, she knew she looked the part for a night of dance but inside she felt anything but jolly. Her life's trajectory had swerved with a bottle of pills and a bottle of whisky, neither of them hers, and yet all of the aftershock of the bombshell of her parents' suicide was hers to bear and continued reverberating through her world.
The initial numbing disbelief of sudden death had altered and over the last few weeks it had distorted to a simmering rage that she sensed would also pass and likely end in despair as she returned to the same unanswerable questions. How could they be so selfish? No, cruel. Why leave her to face the tearful, enquiring expressions of her two young siblings? How were the little ones to face growing up without parents, without a family and its love to nurture them?
She felt her friend Madge's elbow connect with her rib and return her consciousness to the glittering ballroom of the Berkeley hotel. The warmth from people dancing, smoking and laughing had chased away the chill of it still being wintry and there was no denying the music from the thirty-strong orchestra was hot enough to make everyone but her want to hit the floor.
'If you tell me he's looking this way again, I'm going to deliberately step on your toes,' she replied, throwing a soft scowl that was ignored.
'No, he's not looking,' Madge confirmed. 'He's staring. Even tipsy, that stare makes me feel weak.'
'Well, I hope he asks you to dance, then. You can swoon for him and really make his evening.'
'He's not interested in me.' Madge gave her a look of dry amusement.
'I'm not in the mood.'
'Well, get in the mood,' she replied in a tart tone. 'You have responsibilities. We're doing this for you.' Madge dug her again. 'Uh-oh, he's making his move. Here he comes with his friend. Looks like you'll earn double.'
It was Madge's inspiration to come to one of the hottest dance spots in the city. She'd heard about the secret that girls were charging to dance and had been persuasive about the opportunity to earn potentially a few shillings and have fun as well.
'Madge, are you sure about this? What if we get —'
'We're not the first. I've told you, plenty of girls are topping up their wages with this. The organisers turn a blind eye so long as we don't make it obvious or too regular.'
'My mother would be so ashamed of me.'
'You're doing this to put food on the table.'
'And yet I feel like a pros—'
'Don't say it. We're dancing, nothing more.' Madge's lips pursed as she tried to speak without moving them.
'Now, be quiet, and smile!'
They watched as the pair of well-tailored gents breezed around the fringe of the dance floor, dodging the swish of silk from women's dresses or the flick of men's heels. She said no more, not wishing to make Madge cross as it was true that her friend was only trying to help ease what could become a dire situation. She knew the very least she could do was be grateful and go along with the plan. Those shillings could make a significant difference to her grocery bill this week.
With the image in mind of her brother and sister licking their lips at the smell of roast chicken scenting the kitchen, she noticed that the gentleman whom Madge had referred to was hanging back slightly. he was the taller of the two, the untidier as well with one of the buttons on his white dress waistcoat undone and his bow tie crooked with a smile to match, but even at this distance she could tell he reeked as much of money as he likely did gin.
'Hello, girls.' His friend beamed from a round face, flushed from alcohol. He lost control of the monocle balanced at the top of his podgy cheek. 'Fancy shaking a leg?'
Madge giggled. 'Sixpence a dance,' she whispered. 'But not here.'
'Oh yes, yes, of course.' he tapped his red nose. 'Mum's the word, what?' he chortled, patting his waistcoat's change pocket. 'I'm Basil, by the way, and this is my friend, Montgomery.' he wasn't slurring yet but he was just on the edge. 'Monty here has had eyes only for you,' he said, looking blurrily past Madge to where Stella stood, who suddenly wanted to be anywhere else but here. Basil grinned lopsidedly again. 'How about a couple of bob for a twirl around the floor with the loveliest pair of girls in the Berkeley tonight?'
She noted that Madge didn't show any embarrassment. 'I'm Margaret,' she said, and took Basil's arm. 'If I decide I like you, I'll let you call me Madge as my friends do,' she added and they drifted away, chuckling.
'And you are?' he asked, his tone polite, expression open.
'Bored,' she cut back. The word was out before she could halt it.
He didn't look offended. If anything she sensed it amused him, for his crooked grin made a return. 'That makes both of us. Shall we?' he opened his hand in invitation.
'You've paid too much for it already,' she said, shrugging, and immediately regretted how hostile she sounded.
'Basil paid. You can refuse me and dance with him if you prefer.'
She gave a small shake of her head in apology and stepped for- ward when he gestured for her to go first. As they reached the dance floor, the bandmaster gave a flick of his baton and the music calmed from a foxtrot to a slow waltz. They stepped onto the boards and she felt the grit of the chalk beneath her soles and the warmth of his hand that he placed with only the softest pressure in the curve of her back. She was obliged to look up and wished she'd worn higher heels now to feel more equal.
'Can I know who I'm dancing with?'
She wasn't expecting the tender note in his voice.
'Stella.' no surnames were necessary and he gave a wink before their bodies moved as one as the band played a song about the girl of someone's dreams. It was a favourite of her father's – he used to hum it frequently as he shaved or waited for his tea to brew or stirred the morning pot of porridge for the family.
She pushed that image away by opening a conversation.
'You're a good dancer.' She hoped it didn't sound condescending.
'I suppose I do have to be light on my feet.'
'In your work, you mean?'
She presumed he probably hadn't heard her over the music because he didn't answer. 'Tell me about you, Stella,' he said instead. 'Why don't you want to be here?'
She lifted one shoulder slightly as a way of avoiding anything churlish being said again.
'Are you unhappy because you're taxi dancing or taxi dancing because you're unhappy?'
'It's an American expression. They have regular taxi dances in the States.' he gave a shrug. 'Men will always gladly buy tickets to dance with a pretty woman.'
She wasn't sure whether to feel complimented or offended and realised too late that her face had become blank as she stared back at him.
He politely filled the awkward silence. 'What could possibly make someone so young and possessing of an unfair slice of the world's beauty so melancholy as music plays and people dance?'
Stella's nanny Popkin, dead for a decade now, had taught her granddaughter that false modesty was more conceited than none at all. People had been mentioning Stella's fine looks for a decade since the plump of childhood fell away and her face had hollowed from roundish to a high-cheeked elfin structure. Plaits had disappeared and the darkest of hair that glinted warmly when the sun fell on it contrasted strongly with her now lightly blushed complexion that was traditionally pale. But it was Stella's eyes that were apparently what caught people's attention first with their glacier-blue bright- ness. 'Accept their compliments with grace, for it is true,' nanny had said. 'No need to be coy.' So Stella had learned to be gracious, but in this instance she wasn't ready for what sounded like an accusation accompanying the compliment.
Once again her response was out before she could censor herself. 'Are you hinting that I have no right to feel sorrows?' She didn't let him answer and the real pain rushed out. 'My parents took their own lives and delivered up their suicide as a new year present, leaving me with a ten-and eight-year-old to care for, and lots of debt.'
Amusement drained from his expression and his gaze narrowed as her mouth formed a circle of surprise.
'My outburst is unforgivable,' she admitted, instantly distraught at how raw she sounded. Yes, just over a month is too soon to be publicly socialising. 'I didn't mean . . . I'm sorry. I should leave.' She dropped her hand from his but he reclaimed it immediately.
He looked confounded but his voice was gentle. 'Don't go. I was being patronising. Of course you have a right to feel forlorn.' She liked the way he seemed to choose his words with the same care she might use to select a single chocolate from a box having been told she could only have one. 'Now I'm miserable for you, Stella. I won't ask about your parents, I sense you'd rather not discuss it.'
'It only earns pity and that's the last sentiment I want to receive from others.'
'Nevertheless, it's a burden of monstrous proportion for shoulders even as gorgeously wide and angular as yours.'
Those shoulders relaxed slightly and she let out a breath. 'The dancing is a distraction, I'll admit, but I'm angry with my parents that these extra pennies make such a difference now and I'm obliged to dance for that shilling or two. It was Madge's idea.'
'Basil tells me quite a few girls are supplementing their income in this way. I rather admire the industry of it.'
'Most wouldn't view it as much above selling myself.'
'We're all selling something, Stella. At least you're earning an honest, harmless shilling that I for one would be happy to exchange for a dance with a beautiful woman.'
There was no denying his charm. Madge had impressed that the key to more dances from the same fellow – especially if he was a good dancer and not 'handsy' as Madge described it – was to make pleasant conversation. 'Um, Madge and I work together at Bourne & Hollingsworth, a department store. Do you know it?'
'Who doesn't, sprawling across an entire block of oxford Street as it does? The architects did a fine job with the redesign; it's a most handsome building and must be a pleasure to work in.'
'I've been there since I left school. Nearly a decade.' Her expression must have told him she had not recently counted the years and their sum was a surprise to her. 'Anyway, Madge works in ladies' millinery and perfume but I'm in the offices now. I've been working in various areas on the floor but now I'm training as a buyer. It's not my dream, though.'
She found a small smile for him and shook her head. He regarded her intently. 'Is it a secret?'
'Are you good at keeping them?'
'More than you can possibly imagine,' he answered and his smile felt like a private one, just for her – as though two hundred others were not in this ballroom. 'To the grave, I promise.' His hand briefly left hers to cover his heart in an odd gesture of sincerity.
Stella laughed, taken aback that she could be amused and felt a trill of pleasure when his large hand cupped hers again. 'All right, you're a stranger, so it can't hurt. My dream is to have my own tearooms.'
'Truly?' he looked disconcerted. 'I'd never have thought it.'
'You're so . . . well, I'd have thought girls dream of different, more glamorous things to do with themselves.'
She nodded, smiling. 'Ah, but my teashop would be glamorous. I'd serve dainty cakes on exquisite china and the range of tea would be remarkable. Black, green, white, scented, herbal, floral, spicy . . . I would teach people about tea in all of its incarnations and they would sip from porcelain so translucent they could see daylight through their cups.'
His eyes glimmered with a misty pleasure as though he was becoming happily entangled in the images she described.
'Ladies especially would come from far and wide to meet and gossip in my tearooms,' she continued.
'Waitresses would be impeccably attired in neat black outfits.'
'Where would you open these tearooms?'
'Oh, in a spa town, it has to be. People visiting for therapeutic reasons and complete relaxation. Stella's Tea emporium would be the most popular place to be seen by day.'
'Somewhere terribly fashionable for the wealthy, then,' he said, joining in the dream. 'Kent?'
'I was thinking north. Buxton; perhaps Harrogate, or even Bath.' They both grinned at the vision. 'It shall have to remain a dream. Right now I have a sister and brother to raise, educate, provide for.' She deliberately stopped herself sighing and packed away the dream. 'How about you? What do you do?'
'Oh, I work in the city like most of the men here,' he said briefly but while the practised smile smoothed the slightly offhand tone she heard him deftly avoid her question. Years in a vast, busy store in the liveliest shopping precinct of London and being part of a big team had exposed Stella to all sorts of people, backgrounds and attitudes. She'd developed a keen perception for traits. Instinctively Stella knew her companion was being evasive. If he had been important to her, she might have pursued his line of work, or the fact that while he had acted tipsy earlier she was now convinced that the smell of liquor was coming off his black dinner jacket, not his breath . . . but he was simply a paying dance partner and they were leagues apart in a social sense. Stella couldn't imagine they'd see one another again even in passing.
The music stopped and the restless twirl of dancers sighed to a halt. People clapped, some began drifting to the sides of the ball- room to cool off, to light up, others back to the glow of lamplit tables, or to find friends, and order more champagne that seemed to be flowing with frenzy this evening. Wasn't the world supposed to be in economic crisis? Hadn't her father taken his life and her mother's with him over the financial crash? Apparently no one in this ballroom cared too much about the state of the world's economy. All that mattered was that the Great War was behind them and even the sinister, invisible Spanish flu that had killed more than the war could, had also burned itself out.
Around her women slanted conspicuous gazes at other women's outfits but Stella suspected no one would use hers as a benchmark. Nor did she care – she was happy to move through them like a blackbird in the shadows of peacocks. Black was her shade still. Black was her mood despite the twinkling of fairy lights and the dazzle of chandeliers reflecting sparkles of colour.
'Well, thank you,' she murmured, immediately parting and pretending to look for Madge, but knowing something gracious needed to be exchanged. 'It's a treat to dance with someone who doesn't tread on my toes.'
He straightened his white bow tie. 'Speaking of tea, do you fancy a pot?'
She had to meet his gaze square on now – no more dodging it. In the lower light of the dance hall his eyes looked black and shone like the patent leather of his formal wingtip shoes. A whisper of the scent of coconut oil ghosted past her as he leaned forward to impress that there was no guile to his invitation. He waited for her answer as she searched her memory and recognised the smell of Murray's hair-Glo, a pomade from America that wealthy men preferred for its sleek effect. She had watched the paperwork for countless tins of the hair cream pass through the office. Englishmen of less extravagance – like her father – used the locally made Brylcreem.
'Why?' she finally said.
'Why not? You obviously enjoy tea?' he challenged with a soft shrug. He guided her away from the floor.
'Mr . . . ?'
'Monty,' he assured.
She frowned. Why did she not trust that name? 'Well . . . Monty, it's kind of you but I'm not that sort —'
'Nor I that sort of man,' he finished. 'I'm thirsty, Stella, and you've just told me you don't wish to be here and that you rather like tea. So,' he said, straightening with an airy sigh, 'share a pot of it with me in the hotel's salon and I will put you in a taxi to your home – alone or with Madge, which I shall pay for. If you'd prefer not, that's fine but you look like you need to talk, not dance.'
His grin widened. 'Which bit?'
'Why do you want to share my sorrows?'
'Because I'm tired of examining my own; I'm a good listener and something about you intrigues me and I too am bored of all this,' he said, giving a small sweep of a slightly bronzed hand as though he'd been out in the sun longer than most. 'Now, I'm guessing you have your siblings to get home to.' He reached for the gold fob watch, whose chain glinted as he lifted the dial towards him. 'It's not even nine yet and it gives you a perfect excuse to flee the dance floor early.'
She smiled sadly. 'I must admit I'm thirsty too.'
'Let's go,' he said, and offered an elbow.
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