The Pier Theatre, Hastings, Sussex – August 1953
Joycie usually loves it when Dad takes her to work with him. But not today. She wants to stay at their lodgings in case Mum comes back. She keeps telling Dad she’s eleven now and old enough to be left on her own, but he won’t listen.
Sid Sergeant is already in the dressing room, a fag in the corner of his mouth, squinting at himself in the mirror through the swirls of smoke. Old Harry, a conjuror they call The Great Zarbo, stands facing the sink in the corner. Joycie can hear a splashing sound and, along with the usual smells of tobacco, make-up, and beer, there’s a pong of wee that makes her nose twitch.
Sid twists to look at them. ‘Cover up, Harry, will you,’ he says.
Harry turns on the tap and fiddles with his trousers, talking to Dad over his shoulder. ‘Sorry, Charlie. Didn’t know you were bringing the nipper. Someone’s been in the lav for ages.’ He waddles to the dressing table. ‘You gonna sit with me while your dad’s onstage, eh darling?’
Her dad raises his dark brows at Sid. ‘That’s OK, Harry; I’m going to ask Irene to mind her.’
As the star of the show, Irene Slade has her own tiny room. She’s doing her hair at the cluttered dressing table. ‘Hello sweetie pie.’ Irene pats the chair next to her and, looking at Charlie in the mirror, she points at a packet of chocolate cakes sitting on top of the mess of jewellery and sticks of make-up. ‘I must have known you’d bring her in tonight. Got her favourites.’
When Dad has gone Joycie eats her cake and watches as Irene gets dressed, trying not to think about Mum. Irene is lumpy and middle-aged in her street clothes, but crammed into shining satin and sparkling with sequins and fake diamonds she looks as glamorous as Rita Hayworth. People say that, once upon a time, Irene performed in front of the old king, George VI.
She catches Joycie looking, fluffs out her hair and kisses the air with glossy lips. ‘Not bad for an old girl, eh, lovey? Now be a darling and go ask your dad to get Sid off that stage on time tonight. I don’t want to be hanging about in the wings for half an hour again.’
Joycie stops between the two dressing rooms when she hears Sid’s voice: ‘So what’s wrong with Mary this time? You had another row?’
‘No.’ Her dad’s voice is so low she has to strain to hear him. ‘She saw Joycie off to bed, but she wasn’t there when I got back after the show last night. I looked in the wardrobe and all her best clothes are gone.’
But that’s not right because Joycie checked when Dad went out and Mum’s favourite blouse was still there and her new black shoes in their box under the bed. She would never have left without them.
And now Joycie’s thinking about what else she saw under the bed, but she doesn’t want to. Don’t think about that, don’t think.
Harry the conjuror is too far away for her to hear more than a mumble. Sid is loud enough, though: ‘You’re better off without her, Charlie. You know what she’s like. Found herself another fancy man I shouldn’t wonder.’
A rustle and a waft of scent as Irene touches Joycie’s shoulder. ‘Never mind them, darling. They’re talking rubbish. You come back in with me.’
There’s a funny lump in Joycie’s throat, but she bites her lip and sits at the dressing table again. Dad has come into the corridor and she can see him in the mirror, tall and handsome in his dinner jacket and bow tie. He peers in at her as he and Sid head for the stage, but she looks down and picks at the cake crumbs that have fallen into a little tray full of jewellery.
Irene sits beside her. ‘Don’t you worry, darling. I know Mary and she’ll be back soon. Couldn’t manage without you, could she?’
She pulls Joycie into her arms. Her bosom is soft and scented with powder that gets up Joycie’s nose, and her hard corset digs in lower down. Joycie wishes she could cry, but there’s just that awful, hurting lump she can’t swallow away.
Irene is top of the bill and on straight after Dad and Sid. When she heads for the wings Joycie creeps out to watch from the other side. It’s a full house with lots of laughter, but a few heckles too. Sid loves hecklers. Dressed in his trademark tweed suit and yellow tie he’s fat and red-faced, his shiny bald head fringed by greasy strands of bottle-brown hair.
Sid is the star, the comic, and her dad is just the stooge, but it’s her dad the girls crowd round for at the stage door. Everyone says he looks like Cary Grant. His real name is Charlie Todd, but he’s called Lord Toddy in the act.
‘I’m sorry, Lord Toddy, I didn’t catch that,’ Sid says as her dad mutters some nonsense no one can understand. At home he’s cockney, but onstage Sid tells stories about Lord Toddy’s family, who, he says, are filthy rich but brainless. When Sid asks a question Charlie’s answer comes out as a splutter of posh noises, which Sid pretends to understand and pass on to the audience.
As they come off stage and Irene’s music strikes up, Joycie steps further back into the whispering darkness.
‘Shouldn’t worry, Charlie boy,’ Sid is saying. ‘She’ll be back with her tail between her legs before long. And while she’s gone you might as well enjoy yourself. So what about getting Irene to take the kid tonight?’
Dad rubs his face and pulls off his bow tie. ‘I don’t know, Sid.’
‘Go on.’ He pats her dad’s shoulder. ‘A few drinks to cheer you up and you can come back to ours afterwards. I got a nice bottle of Scotch needs opening.’
Joycie waits until they’re gone. She hopes Dad does let her stay with Irene tonight. Irene will tell her stories and make her laugh. So she won’t have to think.
And she doesn’t want to think. About the noises she heard in the night. Or the box with Mum’s best shoes still there under the bed. Or what she found rolled up next to the box: the mat from the living room blotched all over with dark red stains that look like blood.
Chelsea, London – March 1965
Joycie kept telling herself it was all in the past, but the memories wouldn’t stop flooding in. Things she thought she had forgotten; things she had tried to blank out. It was Irene Slade’s death that had brought it all back, of course. Well the funeral was today so that would put an end to it.
Her face in the mirror was grey as the morning outside and the black dress didn’t help. She rubbed a touch of rouge onto her cheekbones.
As she ran downstairs she could hear the wireless burbling away in the kitchen. Marcus had switched to the Home Service and on the Today programme, Jack de Manio’s posh growl was saying something about snow showers forecast this morning. There was a smell of boiling milk and she stood in the kitchen doorway as Marcus made coffee. It was a squeeze to get in, even though they were both skinny, and dangerous to try when he was pouring scalding liquid.
He turned, holding the cups. ‘All right? You look a bit pale.’
She sat on one of the spindly metal chairs that had to go sideways so you didn’t bang your legs on the drop-down leaves of the Formica table. The latest Vogue was in front of her and the face that was and wasn’t hers smiled from the cover through a cloud of black hair. She tapped the magazine. ‘I’m not, top model Orchid today, just common old Joycie Todd. Don’t need the false eyelashes or lipstick.’
He kissed the top of her head. ‘You’re still beautiful.’
For some reason that made her want to cry, but she forced a laugh. ‘Shut up, you. It’s your camera that makes me look good, we both know that. Anyway I need to be ordinary at the funeral. Don’t want anyone to notice me.’
Marcus held out a plate of toast, but she shook her head. For once she wasn’t hungry. ‘Let’s get going,’ she said.
His old Morgan was parked outside, but a bitter wind whipped past them as they went down the stone steps of the house and, even with her coat clutched tight, Joycie was cold. Marcus drove along by the river, one hand on the wheel the other over her shoulder, rubbing her arm. She leaned into him, gritting her teeth, clamping her mind shut. Don’t think about it. It’s all in the past.
It had started to snow and she stared out of the misted window, watching a small boat chug through the filmy veil. Don’t think. On the towpath a herring gull dragged at a slice of bread that jerked about as if it was alive. That’s it, concentrate on something else.
But it was no good, her stomach churned and she realized it was a mistake to think she could cope with the funeral. Much better to visit the grave another day. She gripped Marcus’s arm. ‘I can’t do this. Will you take me back?’
He stopped the car and turned to look at her. ‘Come on, I’ll be there and you’ll never forgive yourself if you chicken out now.’
She climbed out and walked over to look into the river. The water was grey, rippling with glints of steel and chrome as it slid by on its way to the sea.
When she heard the familiar clicking of his camera she turned to face Marcus. ‘For God’s sake, not now.’
He came close, kissing her cheek, his lips very warm. ‘Sorry, couldn’t stop myself. You look so wonderful all in black with the snow falling round you. Like Anna Karenina.’ His head was to one side, a lock of blond hair falling across his eye, and he was wearing the naughty little boy expression that always made her laugh. She blew him a raspberry and climbed back in the car.
‘OK let’s get it over with.’
The stop had made them late to the church. Joycie had forgotten that Irene was Catholic and she hoped the service wouldn’t be too long because her legs felt weak and her stomach was still churning. By now the snow flurries had died away, and the sun was trying to come out, but a stiff breeze bothered the daffodils growing in a couple of stone pots beside the gate.
As the heavy door closed behind them Marcus took her arm and they stood for a moment, eyes adjusting to the dim glitter inside. Joycie could feel rather than see that the church was crowded, but one short pew, tucked in beside a pillar, was empty and they slid in to sit there.
Candles flickered everywhere. Tall white ones near the altar and dozens of tiny flames on black metal stands to each side. There were plaster statues of saints beside some of the columns, their red lips smirking, painted eyes cast heavenward. As Joycie’s eyes adjusted, she saw the priest in purple at the altar and a little boy in a white robe swinging an incense burner on a long chain. It sent a trail of blue vapour into the air. The sickly scent of it caught in her throat and as she watched the chain swinging to and fro, to and fro, she found herself swaying with it, until Marcus put his warm hand over hers and whispered, ‘OK?’
The flower-covered coffin looked too small to carry buxom Irene, but maybe she’d lost weight before she died; the short obituary in The Times had mentioned something about a long illness. Joycie hadn’t seen her for more than a year. A pang of guilt turned the queasy feeling into something sharper.
Latin chanting – Pater noster, qui es in caeilis – and tiny bells ringing. Joycie pulled her silk scarf tighter round her head, the collar of her coat close to her face, hoping no one would recognize her; wishing she’d stayed away. Libera nos a malo.
It seemed to go on forever with kneelings, standings, and sittings. The wafting incense made the air shimmer, the candlelight waver. Joycie gripped the pew, breathing hard.
More tinkling bells and two lines of people moving up the aisle to kneel at the altar rails. Maybe they could get out now without being noticed. She could come back to visit the grave later on – Irene would have understood. She whispered, ‘Let’s go.’
But it was too late. Deirdre, Irene’s dresser and companion, was scuttling down the aisle towards them. She shuffled in to sit next to Joycie, her perfume clashing with the incense.
‘Oh, darling, I’m so glad you came. I wasn’t sure if you got my letter. Found your address in Irene’s handbag. I wish she’d told me she had it and I could have asked you to visit before she went. She’d have loved to see you.’
‘Don’t you worry. She knew it was difficult for you. You will come back to the flat afterwards though, won’t you?’
‘Sorry, Deirdre, I can’t.’ She should have thought of an excuse.
But Deirdre gave her hand a clammy squeeze. ‘That’s all right, lovey, I understand.’ She rummaged in her bag. ‘I thought you might say that, so I brought this for you.’ She handed Joycie a padded envelope. ‘Just some things she wanted you to have.’ She kissed Joycie’s cheek.
The last people were walking back from the altar, hands clasped, eyes lowered.
Joycie stood. She had to get out. ‘I’m sorry, Deirdre, I promise I’ll be in touch, but I need some air now.’
Deirdre was such a sparrow of a woman it was easy to get past her and, thank God, the doors were already open. Outside Joycie took in a cool breath. Marcus was beside her and she leaned into him. He pulled down her scarf to kiss her ear, then patted the scarf into place again.
As they walked through the church gate a black Bentley was parking in front of the Morgan. Joycie stepped back, feeling the sharp ends of the freshly cut privet hedge pressing against her. Marcus was already unlocking the Morgan. So close it should have been easy to get in and speed away.
But she couldn’t move. Had to stand there as Sid Sergeant, bigger and redder-faced than ever, jumped out and crushed her to him. Irene’s envelope crackled between them. She smelled wool, tobacco, and booze and seemed to hear her dad’s voice singing that old song, ‘You been smokin’ and drinkin’ with mad, bad women’, the way he used to when Sid rolled in late and hung-over before a show.
She stayed still, not breathing, her face pressed into his tweedy bulk, until Sid pulled away, holding her at arm’s length.
‘Oh, Joycie, I was hoping you’d be here. How are you, my lovely?’
She wanted to look at Marcus, to make him rescue her, but she couldn’t. ‘All right, thanks.’ Her voice was a little girl’s again.
A movement, not Marcus but Cora, Sid’s manager and wife – in that order as she always said – getting out of the Bentley. ‘Hello, Joyce, or should we call you Orchid now?’ She looked older too, but good. Hair, still almost passing for platinum, black stilettos, black gloves, charm bracelet jangling at her wrist. There was a smudge of red lipstick on her teeth.
Marcus’s arm came round Joycie’s waist and made it possible to move back and talk like a grown-up. ‘Call me Joyce, Cora. Orchid’s just my modelling name.’
Sid grabbed her hand in both of his before she could think to put it in her pocket, moving it up and down in time with his words. ‘You’re a very naughty girl to lose touch like that. I know you’ve been busy, but old friends do matter, you know.’
She stepped back so he had to let go and he turned to Marcus. ‘And new friends too, of course. How do, Marcus. Don’t mind if I call you that, do you? We feel like we know you already. Been following our kid’s career. You’ve done well by her.’
Marcus squeezed her waist. ‘Good to meet you, sir.’
Cora gave a nicotine-coated chuckle. ‘Ooer, Joyce, he is posh, isn’t he? And handsome with it.’ She flapped the back of her hand against Marcus’s chest. ‘Don’t mind me, dear, I’m common as muck, but harmless.’
Marcus took the hand and brought it to his lips – ‘Charmed I’m sure’ – as Cora gave a scream of laughter.
‘Ooh, I say. You should hold on to this one, Joyce.’
Sid handed Marcus a card. ‘I’ll give this to you, son, because she’ll only throw it away. Try to persuade her to keep in touch. We miss her, don’t we, Cora?’
‘You can say that again. Like our own daughter she was for a while.’ Cora hadn’t looked at Joycie since Marcus had spoken.
Joycie made herself move. ‘We’d better be off.’
‘Not going to the grave? I don’t blame you.’ Sid gestured towards the church. ‘Can’t stand all that mumbo jumbo either, but I thought we should see old Irene into the ground, at least.’
As Joycie climbed into the Morgan Sid stepped in front of her door, keeping it open.
‘Don’t be a stranger, eh, darling.’ His hand was on her shoulder, squeezing hard, leaning close, smoky tweed filling her nostrils. ‘Your dad would have been so proud of you,’ he said, his voice a husky whisper. ‘What happened to him, what they did to him, was terrible, but that’s all in the past.’
She closed the door, and Marcus waved through the open window as he pulled the Morgan away. Cora returned the wave while Sid, hands in pockets, his paunch sticking out in front, watched them go.
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