The girl from the savoy, p.1
The Girl from the Savoy, p.1Hazel Gaynor
For my sister, Helen.
With love, and a large G&T.
. . . men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Act I: Hope 1: Dolly
Act II: Love 21: Loretta
Act III: Adventure 39: Dolly
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In my heart, I always knew he would go; that they would all go, in the end. Now the dreaded day has arrived. Teddy is going to war and there is nothing I can do to prevent it.
Everything is a blur. I don’t remember eating breakfast. I don’t remember laying the fires or doing any of my usual chores. I don’t remember hanging up my apron or putting on my coat and hat. I’m not even sure I closed the door behind me as I set off for the station, but I must have done all these things because somehow I am here, standing on the platform, and he is pressing a bunch of daffodils into my hands. Somehow, he is really leaving.
“I’ll be back before you know it,” he says, brushing a tear from my cheek. “They won’t know what’s hit them when we arrive. Look at us. Tough as old boots!” I glance along the platform. The assembled conscripts look like frightened young boys. Not soldiers. Not tough at all. “I’ll be back for your birthday and I’ll take you to the village dance, just like last year. You’ll hardly notice I’m gone before I’m back.”
I want to believe him, but we all know the truth. Nobody comes back. The thought breaks my heart and I gasp to catch my breath through my tears.
Mam had warned me not to be getting all maudlin and sobbing on his shoulder. “You’re to be strong, Dorothy. Tell him how brave he is and how proud you are. No sniveling and wailing.” And here I am, doing everything she told me not to. I can’t help it. I don’t want to be proud. I don’t want to tell him how brave he is. I want to sink to my knees and wrap my arms around his ankles so that he can’t go anywhere. Not without me.
“We’ll be married in the summer and we’ll have little ’uns running around our feet and everything will be back to normal, Dolly. Just you and me and a quiet simple life. Just like we’ve always wanted.”
I nod and press my cheek to the thick fabric of his coat. A quiet simple life. Just like we’ve always wanted. I try to ignore the voice in my head that whispers to me of more than a quiet simple life, the voice that speaks of rowdy adventures waiting far away from here. “Head full of nonsense.” That’s what our Sarah says. She’s probably right. She usually is.
A loud hiss of steam pierces the subdued quiet of the platform, drowning out the muffled sobs. Doors start to slam as the men step into the carriages. Embraces end. Hands are prized agonizingly apart. It is time to let go.
I reach up onto my tiptoes and our lips meet in a last kiss. It isn’t lingering and passionate as I’ve imagined, but rushed and interrupted by my wretched sobs and the urgency of others telling Teddy to hurry along now. We part too soon and he is walking away from me. I can hardly see his face through the blur of my tears.
The shrill blast of the stationmaster’s whistle makes me jump. Mothers and daughters cling to each other. Wives clutch their children to their chests as they bravely wave their daddy good-bye. Great clouds of smoke billow around us and I cover my mouth with my handkerchief as the pistons yawn into life and begin turning on their cranks. The carriages jolt to attention, and he is going.
I start to move, my feet falling in time with the motion of the train, slow at first, and then a brisk walk. All along the platform, women and children reach out, clinging for all they are worth to prolong the very last touch of a coat sleeve, a fingertip, the last flutter of a white handkerchief. And I am jogging and then running, faster and faster, until I can’t keep up and he is gone.
He is gone.
He is gone.
I slow to a walk and stand among the suffocating smoke as my heart cracks into a thousand shards of helpless despair. Everything has changed. Everything will be different now.
I put my hands in my coat pockets, my fingers finding the piece of folded paper in each. I glance at the hastily scribbled note from Teddy in my right hand: Darling Little Thing, Don’t be sad. When the war is over, I’ll come back to you, back to Mawdesley. With you beside me, this is all the world I will ever need. I glance at the page in my left hand, ripped from the morning paper as I lay the fire in Madam’s bedroom. SOCIETY DARLING AND BRAVE NURSE VIRGINIA CLEMENTS REVEALED AS WEST END STAR LORETTA MAY! I look at her beautiful face and elegant clothes, the perfect image to accompany the glowing report of Cochran’s latest dazzling production and the enchanting new star of his chorus. I stare at the two pieces of paper. The life I know in one hand. The life I dream of in the other.
The church bells chime the hour. Time to go back to the Monday wash and the predictable routines that carve out the hours of a maid-of-all-work like me. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I fold the pages and return them to my pockets. I turn my back on the distant puffs of smoke from Teddy’s train and walk along the platform. The surface is icy and I go cautiously, my footing unsure. I slip a little, steady myself, and keep going. Crossing the tracks, I step onto the frosted grass verge that crunches satisfyingly beneath my boots. On firmer ground, my strides lengthen and I walk faster, and all the while the question nags and nags in my mind: Am I walking away from my future, or walking toward it?
I don’t have an answer. It is not mine to give.
War holds all the answers now.
To the question, “Are stars worthwhile?”
I must give the elusive reply, “There are stars and stars.”
—C. B. Cochran, the Weekly Dispatch, 1924
“That’s the fascinating thing about life, Miss Lane.
All its wonderful unpredictability.”
It is as simple as this: a person can be unpunctual or untidy, but if they intend to get on in life they certainly cannot be both.” I’ll never
I was in my first position in service at the time. Maid-of-all-work. “Maid-of-all-fingers-and-thumbs, more like,” the housekeeper groused. Peggy Griffin was her name—“Piggy” as I called her in private, on account of her stubby nose and hands like trotters. Piggy didn’t take to me, and I didn’t take to her. I didn’t take to domestic work either for that matter. I suppose it didn’t help that my thoughts were usually anywhere else other than the task in hand.
“Dolly Daydream” was the nickname I earned from the maids at Mawdesley Hall. Open windows and doors left ajar are a gift to a girl with keen ears and a head full of dreams. Music from the gramophone player set my feet itching to dance as I mangled the Monday wash. Snatched fragments of conversations drifted along the corridors as I swept and polished, filling my head with thoughts of the stars of the West End stage, the Ziegfeld Follies, Broadway—all of it a distraction from the dreary routine of work, from war, from my fears of Teddy being called up. I may have lost many things in the years since I first felt those naïve desires, but I held on to my dreams with a stubborn determination worthy of a Lancashire lass. The longing for something more has never left me. I feel it like a fluttering of wings in my heart.
I feel it now, as I shelter from the rain, huddled in the doorway of a watchmaker’s shop on the Strand. My attention is drawn to the posters on the passing omnibuses: Tallulah Bankhead, Gertrude Lawrence, Loretta May. The stars whose photographs and first-night notices I cut from newspapers and stick into my scrapbooks; the women I admire from high up in the theater gallery, stamping my feet and shouting my appreciation and wishing I was on the stage with them, dressed in silver chiffon. They call us gallery girls: domestics and shopgirls who buy the cheap tickets and faithfully follow our favorite stars with something like a hysteria. We long for the glamorous life of the chorus girls and principal actresses; for a life that offers more than petticoats to mend and bootlaces to iron and steps to scrub. But I don’t just want to escape a life of drudgery. I want to soar. So I care for this restless fluttering in my heart as if it were a bird with a broken wing, in the hope that it will one day heal and fly.
I jump at the sound of a sharp rap on the window beside me. I turn around to see a hard-featured gentleman scowling at me from inside the shop, mean-looking eyes glowering behind black-rimmed spectacles. He says something I can’t hear and flaps his hands, shooing me away as if I were a dog salivating outside the butcher’s shop. I stick my tongue out at him and leave the doorway, hurrying along, hopping over puddles, my toes drowning like unwanted kittens inside my sodden stockings.
I pass bicycle shops and tobacconists, wine merchants, drapers and milliners, the rain falling in great curtains around me as I catch my reflection in the shop windows. Straggly curls hang limply beneath my cloche, all my efforts with curling irons and spirit lamps ruined by the rain. My new cotton stockings are splashed with dirt and sag at my ankles like folds of pastry, the rubber bands I’ve used as makeshift garter rolls clearly not up to the job. My borrowed coat is two sizes too big. My thirdhand shoes squeak an apology for their shabby existence with every step. Piggy Griffin was right. I am an unpunctual untidy girl. A girl who will never get on in life.
I dodge newspaper vendors and sidestep a huddle of gentlemen in bowler hats as tramcars and motorcars rattle along the road beside me, clanging their bells and tooting their horns. Cries of the street sellers and the pounding hooves of a dray horse add to the jumble of noise. My stomach tumbles like a butter churn, excited and terrified by the prospect of my new position as a maid at The Savoy hotel.
The Savoy. I like the sound of it.
With my head bent down against the slanting rain, I take the final turn down Carting Lane, where I collide spectacularly with a gentleman hurrying in the opposite direction. I stagger backward, dropping my travel bag as he takes a dramatic tumble to the ground. It reminds me of a scene from a Buster Keaton picture. I clap my hand over my mouth to stop myself laughing.
“I’m so sorry! Are you all right?” I raise my voice above the noise of the rain and the hiss of motorcar tires through puddles. “My fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
Dozens of sheets of paper are scattered around him, plastered to the sodden street like a child’s hopscotch markings. He attempts to stand up, slipping and sliding on the wet paving stones. I offer my hand and an arm for him to balance on. He grasps hold of both and I pull him upright. He is surprisingly tall when he’s vertical. And handsome. Rusted stubble peppers his chin. His lips are crowned with a slim sandy mustache, a shade lighter than his russet hair; the color of fox fur. I really want to touch it, and clench my fists to make sure I don’t.
“Are you hurt?” I ask, bending down to pick up his pages.
“I don’t think so.” He shakes water from his coat like a dog just out of the sea and stoops to join me, scrabbling at the edges of the papers stuck to the pavement. “Feel like a damned fool, though. Are you hurt? That was quite a collision!” He speaks like the man from the Pathé newsreels at the picture palace, all lah-de-dah and lovely.
I check myself over. “I’ve a ladder in my stocking, but nothing that a needle and thread won’t fix. At least I managed to stay on my feet. Should’ve been looking where I was going.”
“Me too. It was completely unavoidable.” He looks at me, the hint of a smile dancing at the edge of his lips, his eyes deep puddles of gray that match the weather perfectly. “Or perhaps it was necessary.”
We grin at each other like the greatest fools, as if we are stuck and neither of us is capable of pulling away, or doesn’t want to. London fades into the background as the rain becomes a gentle hush and the cries of the street vendors blend into a waltz in three-four time. For a perfect rain-soaked moment there is nothing to do, nowhere to be, nobody to worry about. Just the melody of a rainy London afternoon, and this stranger. I catch my reflection in his eyes. It is like looking into my future.
A ribbon of rainwater slips off the edge of the peppermint-striped awning of the florist’s shop beside us, pooling in the crown of his hat. Grabbing the last of the papers, he ducks beneath the awning and the moment drifts away from us like a child’s lost balloon and all I can do is watch it disappear over the rooftops. I join him beneath the awning as he pats at his elbows with a white handkerchief and inspects a small tear in the knee of his trousers.
“Damned new shoes,” he mutters. “Treacherous in weather like this.”
His shoes are smart two-tone navy-and-tan wingtips. I glance at my black lace-ups, hand-me-downs from Clover, as battered and worn as old Mrs. Spencer at the fish shop. I place one foot over the other, self-consciously. “That’s why I don’t bother with them,” I say. “Old shoes are more reliable. Same with men.”
My Lancashire accent sounds common beside him and I regret giving up the elocution lessons I’d started last year. Couldn’t stand the stuck-up woman who taught me. In the end I told her to get knotted with her how-nows and brown cows. Now I can’t help feeling I might have been a bit hasty.
I watch as he fusses and fidgets to set himself right, adjusting his coat and replacing his trilby: nut-brown felt with a chocolate-ribbon trim. Ever so smart. Dark shadows beneath his eyes suggest a late night. He smells of whiskey and cigarettes, brilliantine and rain. I can’t take my eyes off him.
“If you don’t mind me saying, you look knackered.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Are you always this complimentary to strangers?” That smile again, tugging at the edge of his mouth as if pulled by an invisible string. “It was a late night, if you must know.”
He laughs. “Well, aren’t you the little comedienne! I needed some amusement today. Thank you.”
As I hand him the sodden pages that I’ve rescued from the pavement, I notice the lines of musical notes. “Do you play?”
“Yes.” He takes a page from me. “I write it actually.”
“A composer? Blimey! Blues or jazz?”
“You sound disappointed.”
I hand him another page. “Is it any good then, your music?”
He looks a little embarrassed. “I’m afraid not. Not at the moment, anyway.”
“That’s a shame. I love music. The good type, that is. Especially jazz.”
He smiles again. “Then perhaps I should write some.”
“Perhaps you should.”
And here we are again, grinning at each other. There is something about this fox-haired stranger that makes me smile all the way from my sodden toes to the top of my cloche. Nobody has made me feel like this since I was eight years old and first met Teddy Cooper. I didn’t think anybody would ever make me feel that way again. Part of me has always hoped nobody ever would.
“And what is it you do?” he asks. “Other than knock unsuspecting gentlemen down in the street?”
I hate telling people my job. My best friend, Clover, pretends she’s a shopgirl or a clerk if anybody asks. “Nobody wants to marry a domestic,” she says. “Best to tell a white lie if you’re ever going to find a husband.” I want to tell him I’m a chorus girl, or an actress in revue at the Pavilion. I want to tell him I’m somebody, but those gray eyes demand the truth.
“I’m just a maid,” I say, as Big Ben strikes the hour.
“Just a maid?”
“Yes. For now. I start a new position today. At The Savoy.” The chimes are a reminder. “Now, actually.”
The Girl from the Savoy by Hazel Gaynor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes