Authors: Roberta Grieve
He dumped his kitbag in the passage and leapt the stairs two at a time before he could change his mind.
Ellie was sitting at the kitchen table flicking through a magazine, her back to him. She didn’t look up when he came into the room and he noticed that her shoulders were tense, her knuckles tight on the glossy paper. He’d expected to see her in her school uniform doing her homework.
She turned her head and he caught his breath. The shorter hairstyle suited her heart-shaped face and she was even lovelier than he remembered. His stomach lurched as the spontaneous welcoming grin faded, to be replaced by a cool smile.
‘Harry, you should have told us you were coming.’
Once she would have leapt up and thrown herself into his arms. Had he been mistaken then, in thinking she shared his feelings? So what if she did – he’d told her he was getting married, that his girl friend was expecting. Maybe he shouldn’t have come.
His hands dropped to his sides and he grinned. ‘I didn’t know meself – got a few days’ leave before me new posting.’
Ellie looked over his shoulder. ‘Isn’t your wife with you?’
He shuffled his feet and looked embarrassed. ‘Gerda’s stayed behind in Germany. We had a few problems,’ he said.
‘I expect you’ll sort it out,’ Ellie said, going over to the range and pushing the kettle over the coals.
There was an awkward silence, but while she pottered around the kitchen he had time to collect his thoughts. He’d thought she’d be pleased he wasn’t getting married after all but perhaps he’d misread the situation. He didn’t want to believe that the feelings he’d had on his last leave weren’t reciprocated despite the amount of time he’d spent trying to convince himself of it.
He sat down at the table and took a deep breath. He’d give her time to absorb his news. He coughed. ‘How’s Mary?’
Ellie sat down opposite him. ‘She’s tired all the time. I think she’s ill but she won’t admit it.’
‘Don’t suppose your dad’s much help?’
Ellie shrugged but didn’t answer. He could see now that she was unhappy although she covered it up well, telling him about her new job and almost convincing him that she was looking forward to it.
Her composure slipped when he asked her if she minded not going to college.
‘I didn’t have any choice did I? Besides, it was just a dream really.’ There was a bitter note in her voice as she continued; ‘That’s what growing up means, doesn’t it – realizing that real life is nothing like your dreams?’
He looked down at the table, unable to meet her eyes. In the old days he’d have coaxed a smile out of her, reassured her that everything would turn out right. But he couldn’t find the right words. He finished his tea in one gulp and stood up abruptly.
‘I can’t stay – got a train to catch.’ He didn’t have to report for duty till the end of the week but he had to get away.
‘Aren’t you going to stay and say hello to Mum? She’ll be home soon,’ Ellie said.
‘I’m sorry, Ellie. I only popped in for a quick hello. You know what the army’s like.’
She followed him downstairs and held the door open while he put on his cap and picked up the bag. He looked down at her and smiled. ‘Remember what I said last time, Ellie – you’re special and you can do anything you want to. It doesn’t matter about school or college. You’ll make something of your life, I know you will.’
A tear glistened on her eyelash and he reached out to wipe it away. ‘God, Ellie, don’t cry – please.’ His voice choked on the words.
Then she was in his arms and he was stroking her hair. She lifted her face to his and he tasted the salt of her tears mingled with the sweetness of her lips. ‘Oh, Ellie, Ellie,’ he murmured.
They stood together in the dark passage for what seemed like hours. But it could only have been a minute before Ellie pulled away. She dashed her hand across her eyes and smiled up at him. ‘I love you, Harry. I always have. But it’s too late for us, isn’t it?’
‘I’ve been such a fool.’ He touched her hair. ‘Can you forgive me?’
She gave a strangled cry and rushed back upstairs. He heard the door slam. She hadn’t given him a chance to explain that getting involved with Gerda had been a mistake, that it was Ellie he loved and always would. Should he go after her?
He shrugged. She was so young and at that age everything seemed black and white. She would never understand that homesickness and loneliness could drive a man to act foolishly. He’d just have to give her time.
He picked up his kitbag and walked out of the door.
Ellie fastened the glittering rhinestone necklace and clipped on the matching earrings. A final flick of the hairbrush through her thick chestnut waves and she was ready. She bit her lip as she stared at the reflection in the long mirror in her parents’ room. Was that really little Ellen Tyler, the tomboy of the bombsites, the earnest grammar-school student? No – this was a different creature altogether and Ellie wasn’t sure whether she liked what she saw. Was she just being silly? Most of the girls she’d grown up with would give anything to be able to dress up like this and spend an evening mingling with the rich and famous in the West End of London.
Despite her father’s and Mr Green’s assurances that the Paradise Club was a very high-class establishment, Ellie still had her doubts. How could someone like Tommy Green, who was well-known as a spiv and wide boy in his native East End, hope to move into respectable business? Did he really want to go ‘legit’ as he’d told Bert – or was this new venture just a cover for yet more shady deals?
Apart from the apprehension natural to anyone starting a new job, Ellie also had a dread of what she was getting mixed up in. But she was only sixteen, too young to take control of her own life. How would she get through the next few years, she wondered as she smoothed down the long satin evening gown and went to show her mother the new Ellen Tyler.
Mary looked up from her sewing with a gasp as Ellie came into the room.
‘You look – taller,’ she said.
It wasn’t the reaction Ellie was expecting but she smiled as her mother stood up and gave a little laugh. ‘No, love, you look gorgeous – but so different.’
‘It’s the high heels,’ Ellie said, as she twirled round, giggling. But the laugh died in her throat as she saw her father in the doorway, staring at her.
‘Who’s this then? I thought it was Princess Margaret come to visit,’ he said with a sneer. ‘Well, well – our little Ellie’s all grown up.’
Ellie held her breath and managed not to flinch as he stepped close to her, his face thrust forward. Was he going to spoil things as usual? But he smiled and looked her up and down. ‘Better not keep Tommy waiting – the car’s downstairs.’
The car was a sleek black Wolseley, a bit like the ones the Metropolitan police used, Ellie thought, smiling at the irony, as Tommy’s driver, Sammy Groves, opened the door for her. She knew Sammy from his market days when he’d run a jewellery and bric-a-brac stall – until he’d been caught selling stolen goods. When he came out of prison, Tommy had given him a job and the little man had been his unwilling slave ever since. Ellie wondered if Tommy had a similar hold over her father as she remembered the unexplained boxes of electrical goods that had been stored in Solly’s yard.
‘Cor, I ’ardly recognized yer, young Ellie,’ he said, sweeping his hand back across his greased black hair.
Bert came up behind them and interrupted. ‘Come on, get a move on. We don’t wanna keep the boss waitin’.’ He got into the back seat beside Ellie and took her hand.
When she tried to pull away, he squeezed her fingers. ‘No need to be nervous, love. Tommy’ll see you all right.’
It was a relief when the car pulled up outside the club, jostling for a parking space in the busy street.
Ellie had only been to the club once since her interview with Tommy Green. Then the place had been noisy with carpenters and decorators, the air sharp with the smell of new paint. Tommy had shown her round, waving his cigar expansively, proud that he was going up in the world.
He had shown her the little office behind the reception desk where she would answer the phone and keep the records of bookings. But during the club’s opening hours she would be in the foyer, her job to smile and look immaculate as she greeted the guests, signed them in and directed them to the various bars, the restaurant or the legal gaming-tables upstairs.
She followed Bert up the wide steps and through the heavy double doors into the foyer, where Tommy was waiting, surrounded by his minions, some of whom looked distinctly uncomfortable in their smart evening wear. Like fish out of water, just like me, she thought, smiling sympathetically at Sammy, who was running his finger under his collar.
Tommy greeted her expansively, introducing her to some of the guests as his future sister-in-law. She smiled nervously and took her place behind the reception counter, until Tommy called her away. ‘This isn’t a normal working night,’ he told her. ‘Everyone’s here by invitation only, so there’s no signing in or anything. I just want you to enjoy yourself, love.’
He grabbed a glass from a passing waiter and handed it to her. ‘Champagne,’ he said with a grin. ‘Don’t go thinking it’s lemonade.’
Ellie glanced across at her father, who was talking to a group of his cronies. She knew Mum wouldn’t approve of her drinking but Bert probably didn’t care one way or the other. Besides, she couldn’t say no to Tommy – he was her boss. She decided to sip it slowly and make it last.
The bubbles tickled her nose and she screwed her face up at the unfamiliar taste. But after a couple of sips she decided she liked it. She left the foyer and wandered into the next room. A bar with tall stools placed along its length took up most of one wall. The room was carpeted in thick dark-red plush with matching curtains at the long narrow windows. Small gilt tables were dotted about with comfortable chairs upholstered in gold brocade. Ellie thought it was a bit too lavish but Tommy evidently liked it. He had chosen the décor himself.
As she looked around, taking small sips of the champagne and trying to appear at ease, a voice at her ear startled her.
‘Are you sure you’re old enough to be drinking that stuff?’
She turned, a slow flush stealing up her neck to her cheeks, stuttering as she recognized the man looking down at her with a sardonic smile. At first she couldn’t recall his name although his face was familiar from visits to the cinema with her mother – Philip Devereux, that was it. In his heyday, he’d been one of her mother’s favourite actors, although he was seldom seen nowadays.
Ellie took a deep breath and another sip of champagne. Tommy had told her that the rich and famous, even a few of the nobs, were among his clients. She would have to get used to talking to them.
He was waiting for her reply. She smiled up at him. ‘I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t old enough.’
He smiled and took her empty glass, placing it on a small table nearby. As he turned away to take a fresh glass from the waiter she thought she heard him mutter, ‘Pity.’ He handed the champagne to her with a small bow, then excused himself and moved away.
Ellie watched him go, thinking how excited Mum would be when she told her she’d actually spoken to Philip Devereux. Close up, he wasn’t as handsome as he was on the films, and of course, he was a lot older. And there was something in the way he’d looked at her, something that made her feel uncomfortable. Maybe she wouldn’t tell Mum after all.
She’d only drunk half her second glass but already her head was feeling a bit swimmy. Trouble was, the room was so hot and it was becoming noisy and crowded as more and more guests arrived. What Ellie really wanted was a drink of cold water.
As she pushed her way through the crowd towards the door, little Sammy Groves stopped her. ‘Do you know who that was you were talking to?’ he asked.
‘Yes, it was Philip Devereux, the film star. My mum thinks he’s gorgeous.’ Ellie giggled and put her hand over her mouth. She shouldn’t have had that second glass of champagne.
‘Well, that’s what most people think – people who’ve only seen ’im on the films,’ Sammy said. ‘If your mum knew what ’e was really like, she wouldn’t want you talkin’ to ’im.’
‘Why ever not? He seemed quite nice. I was just thinking how jealous Mum will be when I tell her,’ Ellie said.
Sammy looked round furtively and took hold of her arm, drawing her into the foyer where it was less crowded. ‘Tommy’ll kill me if he finds out I’ve said anything.’ He shook his head and looked down at his feet. ‘You could’ve knocked me down with a feather when I picked you up at your place. I thought I was giving Bert a lift. What’s he doing, letting you work in a place like this?’
‘Mr Green told Dad he was going straight, otherwise Mum wouldn’t have let me come,’ Ellie said.
Sammy gave a little snort. ‘So he convinced her, did he? Well, I bet your ’Arry’s not so easily fooled. He’d ’ave something to say if he knew.’
The mention of Harry made Ellie’s stomach lurch. She’d been trying so hard to get him out of her head. She hadn’t even told her mother about his flying visit. Trying to keep her voice level she said, ‘But it’s a respectable club, isn’t it? All the gambling’s above board – Mr Green’s got his licence and everything,’
Sammy looked worried and lowered his voice. It wasn’t hard to believe him when he confided that the club was a front for other things – things he obviously felt uncomfortable discussing with the
daughter of his old mate Bert. She’d known Sammy since she was a little girl, had gone to school with his children and run errands for him, as she had for the other market traders. But for that one lapse which had cost him a few years in jail, Sammy would still be running his stall alongside Sid and Maisie and all her other childhood friends. So Ellie was prepared to listen when he told her about the private theatre in the basement – a place she hadn’t even known existed.
Philip Devereux – one-time matinée idol – had gone into the film business on his own – as a director. And the films he made would not be showing in any High Street cinema.
‘That’s why I was so worried when I saw you talking to him,’ Sammy said. ‘I thought you might fall for that old line about getting you into the movies. He’s always on the lookout for new talent – and he likes ’em young, very young. That’s why he’s not in films any more. The studios were always havin’ to hush up the scandal – and he did it once too often. Now no one will employ him.’
‘I’m glad you told me – I’ll be on my guard if he talks to me again,’ Ellie said. Now she understood the meaning of Devereux’s muttered remark. She was obviously too old for his perverted tastes. She suppressed a little shudder, glancing round at the laughing throng, wondering how many were here for the normal pleasures of an evening out – and how many knew of the hidden basement room. The effect of the champagne had worn off and, stone-cold sober, she knew she couldn’t spend another moment in this place.
She retrieved her coat from the ladies’ cloakroom and went back to the foyer, wondering how she would manage to get away without Tommy or her father noticing. But now the rooms were crowded, the air full of blue smoke and loud champagne-fuelled voices. No one saw her go, except the doorman, a burly ex-boxer, whose crumpled face creased in a lopsided grin when he recognized Ellie.
When he offered to call her a taxi, she declined. ‘I need some fresh air,’ she said. ‘If Dad asks where I am, can you tell him I didn’t feel well and I’ve gone home?’
As she hurried away from the Paradise Club towards the main road, she breathed a sigh of relief Even this late at night the Soho streets were crowded and noisy, the air filled with the mingled smells of food and alcohol. But the air seemed clean and fresh after the atmosphere she’d left behind.
Stumbling in the unfamiliar high heels, Ellie had covered several streets before the shoes began to rub a blister on her heel. She’d have to get a taxi home.
As she sank back in the seat, she began to shake. When Dad got home, he’d be furious that she’d run away. But what distressed her most was the thought of her sister marrying a man like Tommy Green who would connive at the corruption of young girls. Did Sheila know what he did for a living? Or was she deceived by his protests that he wanted to put his past behind him and become respectable? Of course, Tommy had always been a crook. But black-market dealing, illegal gambling and fixing fights were almost acceptable to many of the people Ellie had grown up with. This was something else and she only hoped that her sister would never find out what sort of a man she had taken up with.
She bit back a sob as it dawned on her that her father must be mixed up in it too. He was close to Tommy – he must know. And yet he’d forced her to work at the club. Why should she be surprised, she thought bitterly? Hadn’t he already corrupted first his stepdaughter, then his own child?
As she stepped out of the taxi on the corner of Kendall Street, Ellie took a hankie out of her bag and tried to wipe away all traces of the tears she’d been unable to hold back. She didn’t want her mother to see how upset – and angry – she was. As it was, she’d have a job explaining why she’d come home early instead of waiting for her father.
The flat was in darkness. Ellie took off her shoes and crept quietly upstairs to the kitchen, anxious not to disturb her mother. She wanted to bathe her sore feet in salt water before going to bed. But as she reached to pull the kettle over the banked-up coals of the range, she saw the note propped up in front of the clock. When she read it, her tears started again. Gran had been taken ill and rushed to hospital.
‘It’s no good you going over there as they won’t let you in. So try to get some sleep and I’ll wake you when I get back with any news. Mum.’
Ellie had thought things couldn’t get any worse but this was the last straw. Her sore feet forgotten, she went up to her attic room and savagely tore off the beautiful gown and jewellery. She would never wear them again, she vowed, as she threw the dress in the corner.
She rummaged in the drawer and retrieved Harry’s crumpled photograph. If only he were here, he’d know what to do about Tommy Green. But he was settling down in Sheerness and no doubt Gerda would soon be joining him when things were sorted out. She knew she was being unfair. How could Harry know what she and her mother had to put up with? She’d always tried to make her letters chatty and cheerful and since his brief visit she hadn’t written to him at all.
She ought to write and tell him about Gran. Maybe he’d be able to get some leave to visit the old lady. Ellie didn’t dare to think that he might be too late. Gran wasn’t going to die, she told herself. And when she got better, Ellie would go and live with her and look after her. On her long walk through the streets of Soho that evening she’d already made up her mind there was no way she’d stay under the same roof as Bert Tyler.