In a city of strangers, who can you trust?
London, 1952. Dina Demetriou has travelled from Cyprus for a better life. She’s certain that excitement, adventure and opportunity are out there, waiting – if only she knew where to look.
Her passion for clothes and flair for sewing land her a job repairing the glittering costumes at the notorious Pelican Revue. It’s here that she befriends the mysterious and beautiful Bebba.
With her bleached-blonde hair and an appetite for mischief, Bebba is like no Greek Dina has ever met before. She guides Dina around the fashionable shops, bars and clubs of Soho, and Dina finally feels life has begun.
But Bebba has a secret. And as thick smog brings the city to a standstill, the truth emerges with devastating results. Dina’s new life now hangs by a thread. What will be left when the fog finally clears? And will Dina be willing to risk everything to protect her future?
It’s the biting cold she notices first. She’s been chilly through-out the journey but now that the train is pulling into Victoria station, she leans out of the window and a gust of wind smacks her face and messes up her hair. She’s spent ten minutes trying to get it just so and now it’s dishevelled again.
As the wheels screech to a halt she feels the bodies of strangers push up behind her, eager to descend. Outside, the world is wrapped in a milky grey shroud that constantly shifts. She’s heard about the fog here but imagined something light and playful, not this thick swirling stew. For a moment she pictures the sunshine and fields she’s left behind and doesn’t feel sorry at all. What is there back home anyway, except faithless men and recriminations?
Despite the cold her hands are clammy as she tugs the carriage handle from the outside, the way she’s seen others do at previous stations, and the door swings open. She steps onto the platform and stares up at the vaulted ceiling. Passengers rush past, some knocking into her, all certain of their destinations. She shivers in her red dress and thin buttoned-up jacket and realises she must buy a coat if she’s to survive the English winter. In her hand is a small case and inside that everything she owns. She swaps it from one side to the other and flexes her aching fingers; she’s been clutching the handle in her fist for the entire journey.
So, this is London? Everyone starts again here, so why not her? She pulls the lapels of her jacket together, so they kiss at the edges, and steps forwards. She considers herself a rational person, so she puts the sudden dread that floods her body down to the strangeness of it all and her utter exhaustion. And she ignores the thought that scratches at the edges of her mind, the voice that whispers that this place will be her undoing.
Soho, London, 1952
Madame Sylvie stood, arms folded. An oval yellow pendant nestled like a bad egg between her breasts, and with each breath it rose and fell. A slick of sweat adorned her upper lip and if she was French, I was Marlene Dietrich. She was small but stocky and looked like she’d win any fight. She sized up the line of girls and stopped at the end, where I stood.
‘Mademoiselle – please! Remove that beastly thing. You are dripping all over my floor.’
Had I annoyed her without uttering a word? Oh, don’t let me ruin it. I was desperate to get this job. How else would we escape the damp and the rats and cramped bedsit?
I slipped out of my rain-soaked mac but there was nowhere to put it. As she turned and walked towards the bank of sewing machines, I rolled it into a damp, brown ball and let it drop to the floor. A cuff brushed the shoe of the girl next to me and she gave it a sharp kick, clearing a space around her dainty doll-feet.
‘Now!’ Madame S’s voice rose above the metal clatter. ‘I don’t have time to waste so I’ll go down the line and whoever proves herself first will get the job, oui?’
She had a well-to-do accent but peppered her sentences with French. With a clash of bangles she made a sweeping gesture towards a vacant chair in front of a dusty Singer machine.
‘First girl, please.’
The scene around her was captivating. A dozen seamstresses fed tiny pieces of jewel-coloured cloth through their machines as their legs worked the treadles. Olive-skinned brunettes – maybe Maltese or Cypriot – two West Indian ladies who looked like mother and daughter, and a few women with ruddy complexions. Irish perhaps? Sitting in the corner was one woman who stood out. The back of her bottle-blonde hair looked severe, so close was it cut to the nape of her neck. But as she turned, the contrast was startling; a few soft waves had been carefully teased at her temples and across her forehead, framing her heart-shaped face perfectly. With a cherry-red beaded cardigan draped over her shoulders, she resembled a starlet straight out of Picture Post. Every now and again she looked up and around, an exotic bird searching the horizon.
‘Go on!’ hissed the girl next to me, shoving me with her elbow.
‘Yes, you,’ said Madame S. ‘Vite, vite, I have three fittings this afternoon.’
I straightened up and walked towards her, keeping my weight on the balls of my feet, on account of the blisters. Bloody shoes. Standing in front of her, I wiped my damp hand down my skirt, held it out and smiled.
‘How do you do?’ I’d seen films. The English loved a touch of formality.
A bubble of laughter burst behind me. Madame S ignored my hand. She peered at the puckered embroidery on my white blouse and my tatty black skirt and pulled a face.
‘So you have a job already?’ she asked.
‘Yes, Madame.’ I moved both hands behind my back and glanced down at the insignia on my blouse pocket. ‘At the Coffee Corner.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘It’s a café, on Wardour Street. Quite small.’ And a dump. ‘I’m head waitress.’ And a liar. I smiled. ‘But I can leave at any time. Sewing’s what I love, you see. Back home—’
She put her hand out, like a policeman stopping traffic. ‘It’s an evening job, piece work, five nights a week.’
‘Oh – but I thought—’
She shook her head. ‘Alterations, repairs – whatever’s needed for that night’s show. That’s all there is now – though, if you’re very good, who knows? N’est-ce pas, Billy?’
I turned to see a scrawny, rat-faced man leaning in the corner.
‘That’s right.’ He slunk over, all hips and shoulders, like a cowboy who’d just climbed off a horse. God he was ugly. ‘There’s always room for talent. But look at you, that hair, those curves . . .’
My earlobes fizzed with heat.
‘. . . we could put you upstairs, behind the bar. Remind the punters what girls looked like before the war. What’s that accent? Italian?’
Did we really all sound the same?
‘Greek Cypriot,’ I said.
He pursed his mouth, then nodded in approval, as though somehow I’d had a say in it and had made a wise choice.
‘I’ve been here for eight months,’ I continued. ‘I’ve got my papers.’
‘Why the Pelican?’ Madame S asked. Ratface kept his eyes on me.
‘People say it’s the best – nightclub, that is. In Soho.’
She raised an eyebrow.
‘Perhaps all of London,’ I added. ‘And the costumes are beautiful. I was looking at the photographs outside. It’s so – what’s the word? – sophisticated.’
Someone behind me gave a loud yawn. Ignore them, gori. You can do this, girl. Madame S nodded for me to go on.
I didn’t mention the fact Colleen had heard it paid four pounds a week. It was much more than I earned at the café; even a few hours would make a difference.
‘Of course,’ I continued, ‘I’ve never been inside, but it looks so glamorous.’
Not that the room we stood in now was exactly elegant. We hadn’t been allowed through the main entrance; instead we’d been shunted along an alley to a back door and down some sticky stairs. My eyes flitted to the tiny window near the ceil- ing. The fog had seeped through the rotten wooden frame from the street above and left rusted tracks down the walls. You could almost smell the desperation, but everyone had to start somewhere, right?
‘Well, the glamour doesn’t just happen,’ she said. ‘We create it in this room.’
She plucked a sunset-pink leotard from a pile. It was sprinkled with tear-shaped gold beads and, as she turned it over, they captured the light from the bare bulb above and threw it back onto her hands.
‘Let’s see if you meet the Pelican’s high standard. Shorten the straps by an inch, then repair this beadwork.’ She laid it across her palm to show me how some of it hung loose from the fabric. ‘Fast but accurate.’ She looked at her watch. ‘Come along.’
I sat and quickly rummaged in the box of cotton reels until I found a perfect match.Winding the thread around the empty bobbin, I filled it, slotted it in place, then started the familiar, comforting routine of threading and hooking the cotton through the machine.
As I set to work, Ratface started talking as if I wasn’t there.
‘Sylvie, her English is good. Don’t you think we should put her where the punters can see her? Have her working the bar?’
‘Stop it, Billy,’ she said, ‘the girl’s here to sew.’
I measured and remeasured the straps and shortened them, making sure the extra fabric was neatly sewn down. Pulling the costume off the machine, I snipped at the loose cottons, then threaded a needle and started to hand-sew the beads. I thought of the simple work clothes I’d sewn for friends and neighbours back home, when the sun had been too high to work in the fields. I’d never made much money, but I would have done it for free. After a few minutes I gave the leotard a final check, running my hand over the winking beads that now lay firmly in place. It was the loveliest thing I’d ever held.
‘Finished,’ I said.
She looked at her watch again.
‘Well, you’re fast.’
Ratface gave a filthy laugh and I felt my cheeks scald.
She ignored him. ‘Now, let’s see if you’re good.’
Madame S laid the costume on the table gently, as if it were liquid gold and might spill onto the floor. Pulling a pair of tortoiseshell cat-eye spectacles from her pocket, she leaned over to examine it.
Please. Say yes.
Peter had lined up the café job for me when I arrived, but just last week he’d suggested I leave and work with him at Mackenzie’s. After all, he reasoned, I’d be paid more and that could help towards a bigger flat. And with my love of sewing, what could be better than a job in a garment factory? I loved him, but days on end with my brother breathing down my neck? Frowning if I spoke to a man he didn’t know? My chest constricted at the thought. No, I had to find another way.
She turned over the costume in her hands once more and took off her glasses. Her steady gaze glinted brown and hard like broken glass, but then a smile flickered across her lips.
‘Well . . . you’re . . . very good.’
There was an exasperated sigh from the other side of the room.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘And how old are you, Tina?’
‘Every evening, as soon as you can after six o’clock – that’s when we open. Two shillings for five pieces. Handwork is double. Does that suit?’
I could see the heaps of shiny shillings, turning into pink ten-bob notes, then green pounds. Money that Peter would know nothing about till the time was right.Till it was too late for him to spend it.
‘Yes, thank you, Madame,’ I said. ‘I won’t let you down. And by the way, it’s Dina – with a D.’
‘Très bien, Dina.’
And this time she held out her hand, as if bestowing a precious gift.
Colleen was waiting by the Pelican back door. She took one look at my face and screeched.
‘I knew you’d get it! Oh, Dee!’
She snatched me into a tight hug, and we did a little jumping dance, not realising we were blocking the exit.
‘Move it,’ hissed the coat-kicker, as she elbowed past.
‘Moody cow,’ muttered Colleen.
I held onto her arm and regained my balance. ‘Thank you for making me come,’ I said, ‘I would never— Oh Lord! That was quick.’
All around us, Soho had been smothered in a suffocating blanket of fog. Settling deep and thick, it snaked around our waists, climbing higher by the second.
‘I know,’ she said, linking arms. ‘Another bloody pea-souper, and only September. Come on, Harry’ll kill us if we’re late.’
She pulled her neckerchief up over her nose like a bandit, while I tugged a scarf from my pocket and covered my mouth. When I breathed, the acrid taste still coated my tongue.
‘Not too fast, Coll, these shoes are killing me.’
She adjusted her pace to match my hobble and, as we made our slow trek back to the café, I told her everything.
‘So you’ll stay at the café? Until it’s permanent?’ she asked.
‘Yes, I’ll have to. I need all the money I can get.’ Then something occurred to me and my stomach fell. ‘But how will I get out of lates?’
‘Easy,’ she said. ‘Get Audrey to cover. Remember that girl last year – the one in the family way? She paid Audrey a shilling a day to swap all her shifts.’
There was a low creak of brakes and I could just make out the red of a bus bleeding through the mist. A handful of people pushed forwards to board.
‘Do you really think Audrey would do it?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely. There ain’t much that girl won’t do for a shilling.’
So, five shillings a week? Well, it would be worth it. I’d still be left with plenty. A stinging pain shot through my heel.
‘Ow, these blasted shoes.’
‘Come on. Soon you’ll be able to buy all the shoes you want.’
The fog had now risen higher and was playing hide-and- seek with the street names and landmarks. For several minutes, I ran my gloved hand along the wall to make sure we didn’t get lost. Just days after arriving in London I’d lost my way for hours and even now I felt anxious when I couldn’t see far ahead. Finally, after much shuffling, we turned into Wardour Street and stopped just before the steamed-up windows of the Coffee Corner. Colleen pulled down her neckerchief.
‘Let’s get in,’ she said as she stamped her feet. ‘I’m freezing.’ Her dark curls trembled around her face.
‘For asking, but . . . would you mind not mentioning the job? To Peter.’
‘Horses, dogs, poker – all of it. I want to save up and tell him later . . . once I’ve found a place and paid the deposit. Otherwise . . .’
‘He’ll spend it.’
‘Him and money – it runs through his fingers like sand. I know you don’t see him often, but . . .’
She looked down.
‘Won’t breathe a word. Anyway, me and Peter? It was over before it started.’
I wanted to say I was sorry, but I wasn’t.
‘It went nowhere,’ she said. ‘Story of my life.’
‘You’re too good for him, you know. And the others.’
She lifted her head and gave a tight grin.
‘So half of London tells me. Now let’s get in, before Harry blows a gasket.’
Out now in Hardback, Ebook and Audiobook. Paperback releasing February 2021.