As a result of starting this blog I felt compelled to go back and look at some of my earlier work. One piece which holds fond memories is Him.... There are a number of reason's for this. Firstly it's based on a true story my grandmother used to tell about an incident which took place in one of the Hotels she worked in during the 1930's. Alas I can't remember the name of which hotel this was, but I know she worked in the Dorchester (where she allegedly met my grandfather, but that's another story) so I decided to set it there. Not only that the Dorchester had an interesting web site which detailed some of it's History where I came across Alberta Hunter. Alberta was an American blues singer who had a regular slot at the Dorchester during this time. To cut a long story short I wrote Him... listening to her music which was quite atmospheric. A link to one of her songs, Down Hearted Blues which features in the story is as follows:-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUMHNHMLm8k
As the taxi turned into Park Lane an overwhelming feeling of nausea rose from the pit of Nona’s stomach and it was all she could do not to be sick over the little Austin’s back seat. The taxi driver must have been watching her in his mirror, as he half turned to face her with an anxious look on his face.
“You alright miss, you look a bit peaky,” he asked with genuine concern.
“I’m alright thank you, I get travel sick that’s all, “Nona replied bringing her right hand away from her mouth and smiling weakly.
“Just as long as it’s not my driving,” the cabbie joked. “Anyway, here we are; journeys end”.
Nona peered through the taxi’s condensation-streaked window up at the eight story Dorchester Hotel which towered above them. She wanted to tell the taxi driver she had changed her mind, get him to take her away, to take her somewhere else, anywhere else, just not here. How she wished her sister May could have been with her, just her calm unflappable presence would have been enough to steady her resolve. Nona knew however, in life there came along situations she would have to face on her own, and today, like it or not, she was in one such situation.
“That’ll be two and six, Miss,” the cabbie said, bringing her back to the here and now. She took her purse from her bag and paid him along with a generous tip, which made her smile. It wasn’t long ago she couldn’t have afforded the price of a taxi ride, let alone the frivolous luxury of tipping the driver. How times have changed, she thought as she made her way toward the Dorchester’s foyer. Five years ago, she and May were sharing a flea-ridden bedsit in Wood Green, and here she was now, rubbing shoulders with society’s elite.
“Good evening, Miss Taylor,” the doorman said cheerily as he raised his hat to her.
“Good evening, Hugh,” she replied, looking straight ahead and averting eye contact. In any other circumstances she would have made some flippant comment about the weather or some contemporary news item, but not today. She felt a pang of regret; she didn’t mean to rebuff the man in any way; but for the time being her life and all those who played their parts in it; no matter how great or small; would have to stand still until she’d done what she had to do.
As she entered the lobby, she was reminded of the first occasion when she visited the Hotel. It had been a spur of the moment decision to take afternoon tea at what was one of London’s most prestigious venues. Of course, it had been May’s idea and she had used the success of their latest clothing collection as an excuse for a celebration. Nona remembered how overawed they were at the sheer decadence of the place and the people within. To think that the daughters of a simple draper could aspire to such surroundings.
They’d found themselves seated at a table next to none other than flamboyant playwright Noel Coward, who was holding court with several distinguished friends and colleagues. Nona recognized one as actress Lynn Fontaine and guessed the smart, quiet gentleman seated beside her must have been her husband Arthur Lunt. Coward was in fine form it would seem, and when he spoke it was as if he were speaking to the whole room. The Taylor sisters were captivated and sat in a revered silence hanging on to every word. Nona remembered a particularly poignant part of Cowards rhetoric when he had stated rather theatrically.
“My dear boy, you can do anything you want in this world, anything at all. Just as long as you are prepared to be accountable for whatever consequences your actions bring about.”
Those words had stuck with Nona and now, some eighteen months later, they bore so much more gravitas than when she’d first heard them.
She had visited the Dorchester many times since that first heady occasion and she no longer felt like an interloper. There was even a certain sense of belonging which would have seemed preposterous not that long ago.
As with previous occasions the hotel staff seamlessly parted her from her fur coat and directed her with a dreamlike consummate ease to her regular table. Or to be more precise, their regular table. He would no doubt be late, he always was and always would be. He knew all he had to do was flash that smile and all his sins would be forgiven. It was how he’d made his way through life and it was what had put him where he was today. The papers and magazines used phrases such as “charismatic charm” or “handsome and enigmatic” but to him it was a God given gift. A gift he’d used to such good effect, he now knew of no other way.
He’d been sat there that day with Mr. Coward and his friends. She remembered it well. The moment she first saw him and felt the spark ignite within her. It had been in more than just her heart, it was in her soul, in her very being and in that moment she had known. She’d seen it in him too. The way he watched her with an overpowering intensity and the way he smiled at her when he momentarily caught her eye. Nona was no stranger to the attentions of men; it was something the Taylor sisters had grown up with from an early age. Not that she’d ever truly given herself to anyone… not before him.
“Would you like to order, madam?” a waiter asked quietly interrupting her thoughts
“Tea would be lovely please, until my friend arrives” Nona answered, glad of the distraction.
Nona thought she caught the slightest semblances of a smile twitching at the corner of the waiter’s mouth. She watched him as he weaved his way across the room and wondered what he and his colleagues really must think of her. They obviously knew why she came to the Dorchester every Thursday; why she met him there; why they spent the night there, always in room 210. Their room. She wondered if behind that anonymous veneer of polite, professional courtesy that they cultivated so well if they saw her as she truly was.
She scoffed out loud, she had no doubt they saw her as little more than some sort of star struck sycophantic whore. She couldn’t blame them. She’d questioned her infatuation more than once, and never more so when those articles had appeared in the papers with their thinly veiled innuendos.
She’d confronted him of course, but he had vehemently denied any involvement with any other women and blamed the sensation seeking gutter press. He’d said it “came with the territory”. She had of course forgiven him; it was inevitable really. She knew it and he knew it and no matter how hard she tried it would only be a matter of time before she succumbed to his charm. Even so the articles and innuendo had continued to stalk them from the shadows, and she seemed to find herself questioning their relationship with an ever-increasing frequency.
“Why good evening, Miss Nona.”
The voice so rich, so velvety smooth in a dark and inexplicably sweet sort of way, much like its owner the American Blues singer Alberta Hunter. Nona stood up and the two embraced. Behind Alberta, Nona saw her good friend Lottie who smiled and winked at her mischievously.
“I take it that man’s got you waiting around again.”
“Yes, it would seem so,” Nona replied with a sigh.
“Well, I guess Lottie and I will just have to keep you company till he shows,” Alberta said sliding into a chair opposite her.
Of course, it was he who had first introduced Nona to Alberta, who else, but from that first meeting a firm friendship had been forged. Nona did wonder whether this was due in part to their shared common bond of both being risen from disadvantaged upbringings.
“Is it true you started singing in a brothel?” Nona had once asked in all innocence. She remembered the stifled gasps and horrified looks from those around them, but Alberta had just laughed.
“Dago Franks in Chicago, there and other hellholes too worse to imagine. I never thought I would have graduated to anything as grand as this. I guess God must have taken a shine to me because here I am.”
Nona realized her mind was wandering and Alberta was looking at her with a concerned expression on her face.
“You don’t look well, child,” she said putting her hand to Nona’s temple.
“Oh, it’s nothing; I think I must have caught a bit of a chill.”
“Hmm, I hope that’s all it is. I hope it’s nothing to do with him. I’ve told you before; nothing good can come of being in his company, you mark my words.”
“Please Alberta, leave the girl alone; she’s old enough to know her own mind,” Lottie said, attempting to come to Nona’s rescue.
Nona was glad for the intervention. Alberta was a formidable woman and could be quite outspoken when she had the mind, and when it came to him, she often had the mind.
“Thanks Lottie. It’s just a cold, honestly.”
Suddenly a commotion erupted at the far end of the lounge. It seemed to be coming from the foyer beyond and Nona saw some of the hotel staff heading with some urgency toward the door.
“Looks like Prince Charming has arrived,” Alberta said as she stood up, pausing to squeeze Nona’s shoulder and bending down to kiss her lightly on the forehead.
“Just be careful, girl; I’ve known men like him all my life. All they bring is heartache and pain.”
It’s too late for that, thought Nona as she watched her two friends make their way arm in arm to an alcove on the far side of the room. The hubbub from the foyer increased in volume accompanied by the staccato bursts of intense white light from a multitude of camera flashes. He had, without doubt, arrived.
Nona took a deep breath as she felt another wave of nausea coursing through her body. She gripped the top of the table tightly trying to steady herself mentally as much as physically. She had born this empty sick feeling for too long now and she had to put an end to it. That and the all-consuming doubts which had tortured her very soul both by day and night. It all had to end, and it had to end today.
She closed her eyes taking another breath and holding it for a moment, mercifully the nausea seemed to subside a little. She exhaled slowly and opened her eyes, and there he was, smiling down at her with that boyish grin which had made him into the box office star he was. In that moment all the conversations she had mentally prepared in her head, the ones where she was a far stronger and more articulate version of herself, evaporated into thin air.
“Good evening, my dear,” he said, bending down to kiss her hand. “The Tour of J Arthur's new studios dragged on a bit I’m afraid”
Nona had of course forgiven him, just as she knew she would. It had always been a foregone conclusion.
The couple had enjoyed a pleasant evening, first dinner, and then cocktails before taking in Alberta’s show. He had been even more charming than usual, if that were possible. So charming, Nona had for a time forgotten all of her worries. It wasn’t until much later in the evening when during Alberta’s set Nona was brought back to the harsh reality of her situation.
Alberta had been introducing her next song when quite unexpectedly she’d made a deliberate show of turning toward them.
“This next song I wrote back in 23; it’s called Down Hearted Blues,” she paused as the audience clapped in appreciation. “And tonight, I am singing it for a good friend of mine, Miss Nona Taylor.”
Nona had felt herself blushing when she noticed some of those seated at neighboring tables glancing in her direction. He took it all in of course, smiling and raising his glass to Alberta. He wasn’t smiling two or three minutes later, when Alberta came to one particular verse and made a point of looking straight at him as she sang.
“Say I ain't never loved but three men in my life, Lord I ain't loved but three men in my life. Twas my father and my brother and a man who wrecked my life.”
The words of the song were not lost on Nona, they seemed to galvanize her resolve. She picked up her handbag, taking some comfort from its weighty feel and vowed to do what she had to do the moment they were alone.
The following morning the wintry sunlight was filtering through the low-lying fog which had shrouded the city for days. He was standing at the window, no doubt looking for the photographers he knew would be lurking in the street below. Nona sat at the dresser brushing her long blonde hair; she sighed heavily more out of frustration than anything else for needless to say when she’d finally found herself alone with him the night before, all of her resolve had evaporated the moment he’d swept her up in his arms.
“What’s the matter, my dear, you seem to have something on your mind,” he asked as he deftly retrieved a cigarette from its silver case.
Nona realized it was now or never. She stood up and went to him. He was still by the window looking down into the street. She slid her arms around him, clasping her hands tightly together around his waist. She had rehearsed this moment so many times in her head. What she would say, how she would say it, but when the moment came all those carefully constructed speeches deserted her and she just blurted…
“Darling, I’m pregnant.”
She felt his body go rigid in her arms and she knew there and then she’d made a terrible mistake. He took hold of her hands and prized them apart before turning to face her. If Nona had hoped to see nothing but love in those perfect blue eyes, she was bitterly disappointed for all that she saw was a stone-cold aloofness.
“I’m sorry to hear that, I really am,” he said quietly before letting go of her hands and walking across the room, leaving her standing by the window like a lost child. He retrieved his jacket from a wardrobe and took hold of the room door handle without so much as a backward glance. As he opened the door, he seemed to change his mind and turned to face her.
“We could have done so much together,” he said making no attempt to hide his disdain. Then he was gone, out of the room and out of her life.
Nona sat staring in stunned silence at that door which had not only closed on him but on life as she had come to know it. Inside she felt an insidious numbness and desolation paralyzing her whole body as she realized, she’d been discarded, tossed away like a piece of old rubbish. It was in that moment of heartbroken clarity she finally saw him for what he was; a philanderer who cared for no-one but himself.
She remembered the newspaper articles, the ones he had so dismissively denied and wondered if she was about to become the subject of his latest scandal. She shook her head as she imagined the unbearable shame. Shame she had not only brought on herself but by association onto her beloved sister May, and the business they’d worked so hard for.
She knew once the inevitable gossip started, their business would be finished, they would be shunned by the fashionable elite whose patronage they had so fervently sort. That same elite he was so much a part of, which made the overwhelming feeling of betrayal even harder to bear.
How could she have been so foolish, she thought despairingly, it wasn’t as if people hadn’t tried to warn her. Alberta and her song the night before couldn’t have been anymore to the point. He truly had wrecked her life.
Pieces of a conversation she once heard began to replay in her head, a conversation about consequences and actions or was it actions and consequences and then with sickening realization it dawned on her who Noel Coward had been talking to that day – it was him.
“My dear boy, you can do anything you want in this world, anything at all just as long as you are prepared to be accountable for whatever consequences your actions bring about.”
Obviously, he had had no intention of being accountable for the consequences of any of his actions.
She looked out of the window at the street below, at the people going about their everyday lives. How could she have been such a fool? She took hold of the brass handle and eased the window to one side, beyond it was a narrow balcony with an ornate cast iron railing. She stepped out taking slow deliberate breaths and stood for a few minutes watching the people below. It was strange how calm she felt when she took hold of the top of the railing and levered her weight forward.
“No Miss Taylor don’t!” a voice she thought was the doorman’s shouted in alarm from way below. But it was too late, the pavement was already rushing up to meet her…