Novel extract

Girl reading: a portrait of Ellis Denham

This is an extract from my second novel, which is a work in progress.

After flunking her A-levels, Edie moves to London in 1984 to look for work. Through her friend Nick, she has found a job in a West End theatre.

Most of the characters in this scene are introduced to the reader for the first time. Sarah, however, the reader knows already. She is an old family friend of Edie’s. Nick is Sarah’s boyfriend. And Ken, the theatre manager, also appears in an earlier chapter.

“Was that your young man you was saying goodbye to outside?” asked Norma, flipping the lids off a row of small bottles. “Bugger! Number seven wanted slimline.” She picked up one of the bottles and held it above her head like an auctioneer. “Anyone want a tonic?”

Zelda – who was helping Edie arrange the pre-ordered interval drinks on the narrow gilt and onyx tables that lined the foyer – leaned against the bar and smiled sweetly at Norma. “Could I get some vodka in that?” she asked. Then, turning to Edie, “Who’s this man? You found a boyfriend, Ede? Or was it Nick?”

With her luminous skin, long, wavy hair and blue eyes made-up with soft, shimmery greens, greys and heathers, Zelda looked like an angel. This was perhaps why she managed to get away with things that other people wouldn’t – although not usually where Norma was concerned.

“Of course it weren’t Nick,” said Norma. “I’d recognise Nick. Wait a sec, Edie! There’s an orange juice to go with those Cinzanos.”

Everyone at the theatre liked Nick. Norma and Fred, the doorman, treated him like a favourite nephew. Ken sometimes invited him to share a Canadian Club upstairs in his office. And Zelda flirted with him with a determination that sometimes made Edie uncomfortable. She didn’t think Sarah would be happy about it. Nick, though, said it meant nothing; it was just Zelda being Australian. Edie wasn’t so sure.

“There you go, duck.” Norma shoved a can of Britvic orange juice in a tumbler across the scuffed marble bar top.

Edie took her time setting out the drinks, hoping to evade her workmates’ questions. But there was no chance of that, even if Zelda and Norma were briefly diverted by an argument over the vodka.

“I’ll pay,” Zelda was saying.

“It’s not that, Zel. You know Ken don’t allow drinking during the show.”

Zelda tossed her hair and snorted like a pony. “Yeah. Ken who knocks back half a bottle of whisky most evenings. He won’t even know.”

Norma shook her head. “He may drink in his office but you don’t see him drinking in the foyer. And – when I last looked – you don’t have an office, so you ain’t getting no vodka.”

“And who, may I ask, is the unhappy, officeless inebriate?”

Zelda collapsed in silent giggles. Ken somehow always managed to appear out of nowhere at just the wrong moment. It hadn’t taken Edie long to learn not to talk about him while she was at work. But Zelda didn’t care what Ken thought about her. She’d come to London after studying interior design in Melbourne. After six months of waitressing and working at the theatre, she’d now got a proper job in an architect’s studio. She probably wouldn’t stay at the Macklin much longer.

Edie didn’t want Zelda to leave. Apart from Lin – who rarely left the mysterious world of the stalls bar ­– Zel was the only other girl working at the theatre. She was funny and direct and made Edie laugh with her stories. (“And the old chook was walking around for two hours with that false nail sticking out of her nostril!”)

“There’s no-one inebriated round here, Ken,” said Norma. “Freddie’s just making the tea, if you’d like a cup.”

“No-one inebriated!” mouthed Zelda at Edie, jabbing her forefinger at Ken’s back.

“Tea!” said Ken, as though it were an impossible dream. He looked unusually pale beneath his rouge. Or perhaps he was wearing a new, less flattering shade. “No, I must return to my lonely eyrie and dusty ledgers. Some ice, please, Norma.”

She shovelled some melting cubes into a tall glass and handed it to Ken, silently shaking her head.

Glass in hand, Ken turned and looked at Zelda. “Is that a new creation, Miss Lane?”

Zelda smiled. “Sure is.” She raised her arms and spun like a flamenco dancer. “BodyMap attends a funeral. Do you like it?”

“Most original,” said Ken, “don’t you agree, Miss Denham?”

“Yes!” said Edie, who had never seen a dress like it in real life, although she was familiar with BodyMap’s work from fashion magazines. Zelda’s sculptural jersey dress imitated their eccentric, body-conscious silhouettes, although for the theatre, of course, she’d had to stick to plain black.

“He’s a lovely boy, that David Holah,” said Norma, who seemed to know – or know somebody who knew – almost everyone who was anyone in London.

Zelda rolled her eyes.

Ken ignored them both, as he usually did when following an idea of his own. “Although not as elegant as your own ensemble,” he said to Edie.

She felt herself blushing as everyone turned to look at her. She shrugged and said nothing, although she knew Ken was right. Her sleeveless black poplin dress was elegant. With its full skirt, fitted bodice and asymmetric slashed neckline, it was a modern take on a classic 1950s’ frock. Cathy – who was a skilled dressmaker – had originally made it for Sarah, who had altered it for Edie to wear at the theatre. Sarah had taken in the bodice and – although Edie was taller – had taken up the skirt so that it sat several inches above her knees. It looked great with her Doc Martens and fishnets, although Ken probably didn’t think they were elegant.

Zel came and put an arm around her, adopting an exuberant BodyMapish pose. “You implying I’m not elegant, Ken?” she said with a pout.

Edie giggled, stood up a little straighter and tried to adopt the haughty, glacial expression of a 50s’ model.

Ken shook his head. “I imply nothing, Miss Lane. Ladies’ modes are not my forte.”

“Well, don’t comment on them, then,” Zel muttered as Ken turned and sashayed away.

As he opened the door to the staircase, he turned to face them again. “You’ll miss me when we’re taken over by Allinson Cobb,” he said before disappearing to his office.

Norma sighed. “Poor sod!” she said. “He’s right. They won’t keep him on, these new people, if we’re sold. And they won’t be as easy to work for – that’s if they keep any of us.”

“Aw, cheer up!” said Zelda. “You Poms just don’t like change!”

“When you’re as old as me and Norma,” said Fred, handing her a cup with two slightly chipped custard creams nestling in the saucer, “you won’t like change neither.”

Zelda gave him a cheeky grin. “That’s decades away, Fred. Right now I’m embracing everything life offers. Especially the men. Maybe Allinson Cobb will send us a hunky new manager, eh Ede? One who likes women.”

Edie nodded non-commitally.

“Oh, I forgot. You have a boyfriend now.”

“He’s just a friend,” said Edie.

“Could have fooled me,” said Norma, patting her tight yellow curls with fingers that looked 20 years older than her face. She wore as many rings as David, although hers were gold. “Do you kiss all your friends like that?”