Like an ancient dowager The Peoples Palace had marked the passing of time; its walls were cracked and bitten by a thousand winter gales. Now the evening was an earthy brown that hid its open shabbiness and rickety gas lamps clung tightly to their own familiar street corners. Heavy faces loomed from open doorways and men of use stood on cobbled roads; idle and without direction. There was company in one another; there was only accusation, discontentment and lawlessness at home. The ale bar offered up its saintly dreams…if one had a silver shilling.
‘Now there’s a woman ‘wiv furs on ‘er back and a fancy ‘at from ‘arrods.’ There were mutterings of agreement. ‘I bet ‘er belly’s goanna be full of dinner tonight! Our’s can ache and rumble till the cows come ‘ome.’ The voice died away, lost to the small group of men that had gathered close to the entrance. Men had their way. They ruled the polity of a woman. In defiance of ‘who rules the coup?’ Least wise they were not men and their woman were not women.
‘Go on you lot! Away from the door. If you ‘ain’t got the price of a ticket clear ‘orf!’ The voice of Herbert Marks boomed authority over the group with an exacting finished enjoyment. ‘Clear ‘orf…and let the ladies through!’
They sidled and murmured, and mumbled, and moved their declarations further beyond his reach; to the eclipse of the gaslight shadows.
‘Herbert Marks, ladies. I’m the manager here. Ready and willing to offer you every consideration.’ The small man bowed slightly from a grim easing face and tubby circular waist, and waved away the cabby with a raised black bowler hat. He was one of those confidential easing sort that might enjoy the patronage of the wealthy…if ever given the chance. He looked back to the gaslight shadows. ‘There ‘ain’t any need to worry ladies. Them sort don’t know no different.’ He led Esme and Constance with some pride up the four short steps to the grand hall of crystal light and the pillared marble floor. Here; pretty young girls clung attentively to good-looking young men and sugary old dapper’s. When the poised and feathery, with glittering champagne filled glasses, began to move like a ghosting mass toward the door at the far end carefully labeled ‘Auditorium’. Herbert said thoughtfully; ‘No reason to rush ladies…won’t start for at least an hour!
Herbert’s eyes twinkled with a little wickedness and his thumbs pressed down firmly into two small pockets of a worn and greasy black waistcoat. In fact, he was clothed entirely in the colour black. Black boots, black tie, and thick black hair. He said later that God had blessed him with the only colour he could; for a man of such deep thinking.
‘Plenty of time to get ready’, he added, with an obvious nod to Esme. It was clear he was taken by her beauty and wished her escort had gone to the bar.
As for Esme; she thought him unusual in his role and clearly from a reduced background. But he was likeable, uncomplicated; a man to take life in helpful gulps.
‘I’ll show you the dressing room’ he announced with pride. ‘Built this place about the turn of the century, they did.’ But he did not say which century. He wiped a sweaty eyebrow with a short stubby finger and peered a blinkered look at Esme. ‘There’s about a dozen of you all told. Just walk up on the stage one at a time like, like you was mannequins, in a lively manner and answer me questions. Easy as falling of a log.’ He assured her.
Esme smiled at him and Constance winced, and fidgeted with her brown sable. ‘I take it my daughter is dressed well enough Mr. Marks?’ She looked at him quite unimpressed.
‘Yes,’ he replied quickly. ‘Very pleasant…Very pretty. No swimsuits here! he added rather sheepishly. He looked once more at Esme in her blue chiffon dress that matched her blue flower raked eyes; a dress that folded like gossamer over her young pink breasts and his mouth watered a little with middle age.
‘She’s a credit to you.’ he said, and nodded his head in the direction of Constance.
The pastel glow of ebony light flickered to a blackness over crouching, creeping, huddled roofs. Below images moved with a colouring that came only with its blessing. Cabbies coughed and blew into cupped hands and rubbed their willing heads. From a wet dark; a deep conceiving echo rose up in rhythmic glory: ‘…who convinceth me of sin…he who lives by the sword shall yield by the sword…’ It sound cried away down waiting empty alleys and soul-less cobbled paths. Money is about peace of mind; of going to bed with optimism for a new day. Most wallow in thick fog and wake to an uncertain future. Esme’s mind climbed steeply among darkening hills of reassuring thoughts as she waited silently beside the high green-gold tasseled drape curtain. She held tightly to the large white card that proclaimed she was number eleven, with a cold sweatiness searching up from her palm. She listened with a forcing instability to Herbert Marks staging voice and the never ending hubbub from an intoxicated audience. Constance postured herself at the side of the stage, close to her daughter. Her watchful, involving, and disapproving eye wished the matter to end; that her moon-raked offspring should be discounted with some unwragling and puny technicality; that she would be forced with self-effacing effrontery to have the urgent realization of a modest credibility in her studies and her home.
Herbert Marks joshed lightly with his drunken onlookers and waited the benevolence of their favors. He introduced each young woman in a predetermined way and begged for a swirl to show off every evening gown. He asked their name, age and where they were from. He would then nod, wink unknowingly to his audience, and smile barefaced towards his three seated judges. Often he would add: ‘Your points out of ten please, gentlemen.’
There were wolf whistles and encouraging shouts from a small group of young men that had been let in for a shilling. Those with an extra thrup’ny bit in their pocket were allowed half a light ale at the bar and pushed into seats at the back. But they did not have the approval of the well-bred seats further down, and there was positive distaste from the balcony. Murmurs of repulsion and loathing, and calls to ‘Kick them out! rose up from all quarters like the break-up of a dissatisfied shareholders meeting. Herbert Marks raised his hands; addressing the men at the back: ‘Now gentlemen please! …remember where you are.’ He would be polite for the respect of his pedigree guests.
Then came Esme’s turn. She trampled forward at first; tottering on her transparent insolence. One leg crushingly pushed in step to the other; out into the golden flickering light. The thin strip of youths in the back seats suddenly erupted again with alcoholic approval. They stood, cheered, and whistled more loudly than before, stamped their feet, and threw caps in the air; mostly from unsuspecting bald-headed men that happened to be close at hand. They took no heed of Herbert’ and his waving hands!
‘Blimey, she’s as pretty as a picture in the Tate!’
‘You look just like a film star…wanna swap with my missus?’
‘Go on Luvs; tell us who yer are?’
The darkness beyond the lights became quiet. Its near-blackness seemed vast and unyielding. Incomprehensible shapes stared out to Esme from its edges and an unexpected fear stock-rooted her to the bare wooden floor of the stage. Their voices died in thick silence with her hesitation. They gazed inquiringly with absorbing eyes and leaning oleaginous ears. Well-bred seats puffed expectantly, and coughed on wet-ended cigars, and tiara-ed women reassured themselves in their ample bosoms. She was diminished. Stood in cold shut embarrassment. Scarlet patches rose from Esme’s cheeks, spreading an awkwardness over her face.
‘Go on, don’t be scared!’ The sudden voice was calm and just a few feet away from her. In that frozen second it had caused her to turn. Her animated eyes soaked evenly over the young man standing close to her. He grinned from a dark Saville suit and a round reddish face. His hair was rosy chestnut brown and in his hands he clutched a large folding camera.
‘I’m Charles’ he whispered. ‘Go on; you can do it. They won’t bite. It’s only a bit of fun.’
‘Come along my lovely. Don’t be nervous now! Lets all have a proper look at yer?’ Herbert Marks baritoned himself over the assembly like a well-versed ringmaster. Suddenly, she was quite magnificent. In a moment of kindness her flattened mind gave her the possessed peace of one who could afford indifference. Charles stood watching her with a growing, dancing delight in his eyes.
At first her legs would not behave. Then on her third, then forth step she strode with confidence, regal and upright, with the air of trailing footmen behind her. Her eyes were abruptly fired with deep red passion and her head jerked girlishly as she stood beside Herbert in an impressive lovely stubbornness. Her feet firmly planted in defined conservative soil. There was further hush when he asked her name. ‘Esme Stamp’ she replied. Her voice was even and clear, and swept almost instinctively across the warm smoky-blue darkness. Herbert looked for more.
‘…I live with my mother, near Primrose Hill,’ she added. There was a gentle, almost kind ‘oow’ from the back seats. Esme blushed decantile and fragile for a moment.
‘…And she’s a real primrose ladies and gentlemen! Pretty as a summer breeze. Herbert’s stiff potato-starch shirt collar crackled for a second under an engaging artfulness that had returned to his eyes and then was lost in the ensuing long drawn-out wolf-whistles and addition stomping of booted feet from the very back rows. Groups of red-faced young men leaned and swayed in a tide, and the well-bred seats nodded politely, clapped demurely, and agreed with Herbert! Her swirl’ of body brought satisfied ‘Ah’s from ageing homespun men and uneasy feline peeps’ from doubtful spouses, and she was soon prized and called an outright winner!
At the organ keys a boosting figure thumped and raised himself in time with the vector and flow of the enthused escorted gathering.
Charles took Esme’s picture, placed between two dimly-happy runners up. Herbert begged his kiss with a wink and a nod and handed her a huge bunch of ‘picked that day’ shiny pink flowers.
It was the pleasing face of Charles that quelled the hubbub of the auditorium for her. She poised nicely with demeanor conveyed of regal ball gowns and considered jewellery, and somehow…he was sweeping across her soul like the gracious wings of some golden handsome bird.
The hollers and banging of feet continued well into a number of seconds’ of thin dockside ale and champagne persons besieged the busy bar in the foyer overwhelming the tired staff there and demanding a final cap’ before bedtime. Women in the well-bred seats spilt drinks down warm bosoms and shawled rub-a-dubs drank away that week’s house-keeping money. Everyone was happier than a grasshopper in spring!
‘A well-deserved winner, I think! Another drink my dear?’
‘Cor, blimey; A real corker!’
‘She reminds me of Georgina. You remember…at Roedean? Very pretty girl.’
Esme plunged her pretty toes to the placidly flowing waters that gently raced the plateau of everyday mortality. That night she was started beyond the mere seedling of common place behaviour and a discipline that censored an emotion, a desire, which would only become partly successful. She took satisfaction in knowing the rebelliousness in her would feed an independent spirit.