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Authors: Maureen Lee

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Dancing in the Dark

BOOK: Dancing in the Dark
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DANCING IN THE DARK

MAUREEN LEE

When Millie Cameron is asked to sort through the belongings of her Aunt Flo, who recently died, she is not at all happy. She hardly knew her aunt, and besides, Millie has a busy life and her own career to think of. She certainly wants nothing to do with the seemingly dull, spinster aunt the family refuse to talk about.

However, Millie seems to have little choice but to go to Flo’s basement flat and begin the tedious task. But as dusk falls and Millie sorts through her aunt’s collection of photographs, letters and newspaper cuttings, her interest is surprisingly awakened. Millie finds herself embarking on a journey—a journey to a past which includes a lost lover and a secret child. And, picking through the tangled web of Flo’s life, Millie makes the startling discovery that all the threads lead to a shocking conclusion.

DANCING IN THE DARK

MAUREEN LEE

Maureen Lee was born in Bootle and now lives in Colchester, Essex. She has had numerous short stories published and a play staged. Stepping Stones, Liverpool Annie, Dancing in the Dark, The Girl from Barefoot House, Laceys of Liverpool and The House by Princes Park, and the three novels in the Pearl Street series, Lights Out Liverpool, Put Out the Fires and Through the Storm are all available in Orion paperback. Dancing in the Dark won the Parker Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Her latest novel in Orion paperback is Lime Street Blues. Her latest novel in hardback, Queen of the Mersey, is also available from Orion. Visit her website at www.maureenlee.co.uk.

For Yvette Goulden I am grateful to the authors of the following books which were of great assistance when writing Dancing in the Dark. The Admiralty Regrets by C. E. T. Warren and James Benson, published by White Lion Publishers, provided a thorough and detailed description of the Thetis tragedy. David M. Whale’s fascinating series, Lost Villages of Liverpool, published by T. Stephenson & Sons, told me all I needed to know about old Toxteth.

Prologue

It always began with the sound of the footsteps, the soft, slithering footsteps on the stairs, the unshod feet in their well-darned socks lifting steadily from one step to the next. He wasn’t the sort of man to wear slippers. Listening, I would picture him in my mind’s eye, just his feet, coming up the narrow beige carpet with the red border, the cheapest you could buy, worn away to threads in the middle and secured to the stairs with triangular-shaped varnished rods that slid into bronze brackets at the side. I saw everything very, very clearly, in precise detail.

Even on the nights when there were no footsteps, I never went asleep before Mam came home from work at ten o’clock. Then I would feel relatively safe, but not completely. Mam had never been able to offer much protection. But even he must have realised that a child’s screams at dead of night might have alerted someone; a neighbour, a passerby.

I still dream about it frequently, always the footsteps, never the violence, the terror that was to come. Because in my dreams I am not there when he enters the room.

My bed is empty. Yet I can see him, as though an invisible me is present, the tall figure of my father, an expression on his dark, handsome face and in his dark eyes that I could never quite fathom. Was it excitement?

Anticipation? Behind the glitter of the main emotion, whatever it might have been, I sensed something else, mysterious, sad, as if deep within him he regretted what he was about to do. But he couldn’t help it. The excitement, the anticipation, gripped him like a drug, stifling any other, kinder, feelings he might have had.

In my dream I would watch him slowly undo his belt buckle, hear its tiny click, the feathery smooth sound the leather made as he pulled it through the loops of his trousers until it dangled from his hand like a snake.

Then he would reach down to drag me out of bed, but this was a dream and I wasn’t there!

Oh, the look on his face then! I savoured it. I felt triumphant.

At this point, I usually woke up bathed in perspiration, my heart beating fiercely, still triumphant, but at the same time slightly sick.

I’d escaped!

Sometimes, though, the dream continued, just as life had continued in the days when the dream wasn’t a dream but real.

I knew that when he came back from the pub, always drunk, he would scratch around downstairs, poking here and there, in the dirty washing, through the toys, searching for something that would give him an excuse to let rip with a thrashing. He liked to have an excuse. He’d find the mark of a felt-tipped pen on a tablecloth that Mam hadn’t had time to wash, paint dropped on a frock at school, the arm off a doll, or toys not put away properly. Anything could trigger the sound of those slithering footsteps on the stairs.

There were other nights, the best ones, when he would fall asleep in the chair—according to Mam, he worked hard—or he might watch television. Looking back, my memory softened slightly by time, this probably happened more often than I used to think.

In the extended dream I still wasn’t there, but now my little sister was in the other bed, and it was she who bore the brunt of our father’s anger, or frustration, or excitement, or self-loathing, or whatever it was that made him want to beat the lite out of his wife and children, so that his dark shadow lay heavily over our house, even when he wasn’t there.

There would be no feeling of triumph when I woke up, just desolation and despair. Would the dreams never end? Would I ever forget? For the rest of my life, would I, Millie Cameron, never stop wishing that I was invisible?

Millie

The sun spilled under the curtains, seeping on to the polished window-sill like thick cream. The wine bottle that Trudy had painted and given me for Christmas dazzled, a brilliant flame of light.

Sunday!

I sat up and stretched my arms. I was free to do whatsoever I pleased. In the bed beside me, James grunted and turned over. I slid carefully from under the bedclothes so as not to disturb him, put on a towelling robe and went into the living room, closing the door quietly behind me.

With a sigh of satisfaction at the thought that it was all mine and mine alone, I surveyed the room, its dark pink walls and off-white upholstered sofa, old pine furniture and glass-shaded lamps. Then, I switched on the computer and the television and reversed the answering-machine.

In the kitchen, I paused momentarily to admire the effect of the sun on the Aztec-patterned tiles before filling the kettle. Back in the living room, I opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside.

What a glorious day, unseasonably hot for late September.

The roses bordering the communal garden were overblown red and yellow cabbages, the dew-drenched grass glistened like wet silk. In the furthest corner, the biggest tree had already begun to shed its tiny, almost white leaves, which scattered the lawn like snow.

I loved my flat, but the thing I loved most was the balcony. It was tiny, just big enough for two black wrought-iron chairs and a large plant-pot in between. I knew nothing about gardening and had been thrilled when the squiggly green things I’d been given last spring had turned out to be geraniums. I enjoyed sitting outside early in the morning with a cup of tea, savouring the salty Liverpool air; the river Mersey was less than a mile away.

Occasionally, just before bed on warm evenings, I would sit with the light from the living room falling on to the darkness of the garden, reliving the day.

Most of the curtains in the three-storey block of flats that ran at right angles to my own were still drawn. I glanced at my watch—just gone seven. From the corner of my eye, I became aware of activity in a kitchen on the ground floor. The old lady who lived there was opening a window. I kept my head turned away. If she saw me looking she would wave, I would feel obliged to wave back, and one day I might find myself invited in for coffee, which I would hate. I was glad I’d managed to get a top-floor corner flat. It meant I was cut off from the other residents.

The kettle clicked and I went to make the tea. There was a political programme on television, so I switched it off and turned up the sound on the answering-machine. I nearly turned it down again when I heard my mother’s voice. A shadow fell over the day when I remembered it was the last Sunday of the month; my family would be expecting me for lunch.

“ . . . this is the third time I’ve called, Millicent,” my mother was saying shrilly. “Don’t you ever listen to that machine of yours? Ring back straight away, there’s bad news. And I don’t see why I should always have to remind you about dinner . . . ”

I groaned. I could tell from the tone of my mother’s voice that the news wasn’t seriously bad. Possibly Scotty had been on one of his regular sexual rampages and other dog owners had complained, or Declan, my brother, had lost his twentieth job.

Just as I was about to take my tea on to the balcony, the bedroom door opened and James came out. He wore a pair of dark blue boxer shorts and his straw blond hair was tousled. He grinned. “Hi!”

“Hi, yourself.” I eyed his tanned body enviously and wished I could turn such a lovely golden brown in the sun.

“Been up long?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes. It’s a lovely day.”

“The best.” He enveloped me in his muscular arms and nuzzled my neck. “Know what today is?”

“Sunday?”

“True, but it’s also our anniversary. It’s a year today since we met.” He kissed me softly on the lips. “I went into a wine bar in Castle Street and there was this gorgeous leggy ash-blonde with the most amazing green eyes—who was that guy you were with? I knew him slightly—that’s how I managed to get introduced.”

“I forget.” I felt uneasy. Remembering anniversaries seemed a sign of . . . well, that the relationship meant something, when we had always maintained stoutly that it didn’t.

“Rodney!” he said triumphantly. “Rod. I met him at a Young Conservatives’ do.”

I moved out of his arms and went to the computer. “I didn’t think you were interested in politics.”

“I’m not, but Pa maintains it’s good for business. He makes lots of useful contacts in the Party. Is there more tea?”

“The pot’s full. Don’t forget to put the cosy back on.”

He saluted. “No, ma’am.”

When he came back, I was seated at my desk. He stood behind me, his arm resting lightly on my shoulder. “This your report?”

“Uh-huh.” I pressed the mouse and the words rolled down the screen. I read them quickly. Despite night school and the subsequent A level in English, I worried that my terrible education might be obvious when I wrote at length. I hoped I hadn’t split any infinitives or put an apostrophe in the wrong place.

“You’ve spelt ‘feasible’ wrong,” James said. “It’s ‘-ible’ not ‘able’.”

“I did that bit when I was tired. I probably wasn’t thinking straight.” He’d gone to one of the best public schools in the country, followed by a good university.

“Shall we go somewhere special for lunch to celebrate?

How about that new place in Formby?”

“Sorry, duty calls. Today I’m lunching with my parents.”

I wished I had a more pleasant excuse.

“Of course, the last Sunday . . . ” To my irritation, he knelt down and twisted the chair round until we were facing each other. “When am I going to meet your folks?”

“What point is there in you meeting them?” I said coldly.

“You’ve met mine.”

“You invited me, I didn’t ask.” I disliked going to see his family in the converted, centuries-old farmhouse in its own grounds three miles from Southport. I felt out of place, uncomfortably aware of the stark contrast between it and my own family’s home on a council estate in Kirkby. His mother, with her expensive clothes and beautifully coiffured hair, was always patronising. His father was polite, but in the main ignored me. A businessman to the core, he spent most of the time on the phone or ensconced in his study plying fellow businessmen with drink. Phillip Atherton owned three garages on Merseyside, “which sold high-class sports cars to ‘fools who’ve got more money than sense’, according to my own father. Atherton’s rarely dealt in cars worth less than twenty thousand pounds. James was nominally in charge of the Southport garage, but his father kept a close eye on all three.

The phone went. James was still kneeling, his arms around my waist. After three rings, the answering-machine came on, with the sound still turned up. My mother again. “Millicent. You’ve not been out all night, surely. Why don’t you call back?”

James’s eyes sparkled. “Millicent! I thought it was Mildred.”

“I would have hated being Mildred even more.” I got up quickly to pick up the receiver. I didn’t want him hearing any more of the whining voice with its strong, adenoidal Liverpool accent, one of the reasons I’d told my mother never to call me at the office. “Hello, Mum.”

“There you are!” She sounded relieved. “Can we expect to see you today?”

“Of course.”

“Sometimes I worry you’ll forget.”

I rolled my eyes. “As if!”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Millicent. After all, it’s only once a month you visit. You’d never think you only lived a few miles away in Blundellsands. Mrs Mole’s Sybil comes every week from Manchester to see her mam.”

BOOK: Dancing in the Dark
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