The wait is nearly over: just one week until my new lesbian romance hits the shelves! July 28th is the date when the ebook and paperback will be on sale, so mark your calendar! If you can’t wait that long for the story of Eunice and Joan in late 1950s London, here are the first two chapters to get you in the mood. When you’ve read them, why not pre-order straight away to ensure you can read on come July 28th….
Big London Dreams: Chapter One
The door to the hotel conference room opened and India Contelli walked in.
Joan glanced up, then frowned. India seemed spooked. Joan had no idea what had happened to her since they’d last seen each other a couple of hours earlier, but whatever it was, it didn’t suit her. Joan stood up, her attention for the first time since she’d arrived not wholly focused on Eunice.
“Are you okay?”
India looked startled by the question. She put down her bag, her knuckles white around its handle. Her nod was far too vigorous for it to be genuine. “Absolutely. Just ran into an old flame and it’s thrown me somewhat.” India blinked, then exhaled, trying to shake off whatever it was bothering her. “Although, who I am to talk? You two haven’t seen each other for 60 years.” She walked around the oval-shaped table and sat down opposite Joan and Eunice.
“Are you sure? Because you look like you could do with a black coffee. Or perhaps something stronger?”
India’s eyes were puffy, her makeup freshly reapplied. Her frame was tall, but her spirit sagged. She shook her head. “That’s kind of you, but I’ll be fine. Today is all about you and your story. Then we’ll let you go and it’ll be just the two of you, I promise.” She checked her watch. “Give me, say, an hour of your time and then we’ll see how we’re all feeling?”
Joan glanced at Eunice, and they both nodded.
India clasped her hands in her lap and beamed. Her professional face slipped back on. The one Joan knew from the TV. India took a deep breath before she spoke again.
“So, tell me ladies. You haven’t seen each other since 1959. You met and fell in love in 1958. We’re now well into the 21st century, 60 years on. We have the internet. We have imminent space travel. We have smartphones. But what intrigued me was when you saw each other for the first time a few hours ago, you recognised each other right away.” She turned to Joan. “Tell me, have the years not changed Eunice at all?”
Joan glanced at her first love. How to adequately explain it? “They have, of course. Neither one of us is Peter Pan.” Her mind flew to the statue of JM Barrie’s fictional boy, nestled by the Long Water in London’s Kensington Gardens. She and Eunice used to meet there in the summer months, and plan their future on the lush green grass.
“I was worried we might have nothing to say to each other, that I might not recognise her. That our politics would be at odds. That I would feel nothing.” Her face creased into a smile. “But the opposite was true. When I walked into the foyer of The Savoy and saw the back of her, I recognised her shape immediately. The very essence of her. It was instinct. When she turned, I wanted to embrace her. I wanted everything to be okay. I’ve no idea if it will be, but that was my thought.”
Eunice nodded as she spoke. “I was about to go and hide in my room when Joan walked in. I’ve lain awake at night dreaming of this moment, but also dreading it.” She paused. “But then, when it happened, it was perfect. Almost scripted. Just like one of the shows we used to love to watch, that Joan’s brother Jimmy used to get us into for free.” Eunice paused, her eyes flickering over Joan’s face. “I don’t suppose Jimmy’s still here?”
Joan shook her head. “He’s not, but his son is. What’s more, Vincent is gay and still lives at our Southwark flat.”
Eunice’s jaw dropped. “How wonderful! I’d love to go back there.”
Joan’s grin spread right across her face. “It can be arranged for you, my love.” At her own words, Joan jolted. She put a hand over her mouth, sat upright and drew in a breath.
“Are you okay?” India asked.
Eventually, Joan nodded. “I am, but this is just strange.” Her heart pounded in her chest. Sweat broke out on her top lip. “I just called Eunice ‘my love’. It’s how I always thought about her. She was always ‘my love’. That’s never changed. And now, here she is.”
“You’re going to make me cry,” India told Joan.
“You’re not the only one,” Eunice added. She picked up Joan’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Glitter lit up Joan’s veins. She’d thought this sort of feeling was long gone. That it had left first with Eunice, and then when Sandra, her wife, had died.
But now, here it was again. Eunice had flicked a switch.
India’s voice brought her back to the moment.
“But before we talk about how you’re feeling now, which I promise we’ll come back to, I’d love to know a little bit of history,” India said. “I’ve read your heartbreaking letters, Eunice, of course. But I’d love to know how you met, how you came to fall in love, and what happened that drove you apart. We can take our time because I know this will be emotional.” She reached across the table and pulled over a box of tissues to within reach of the couple. “Just know, we can stop whenever you want, take a break or get a drink. If you could cast your mind back to 1958 and tell us about the young lovers, that would be brilliant. We just need some meat on the bones of your story.”
Eunice cleared her throat. “We already had this conversation upstairs. We might cry, because although it’s a love story, it’s also sad. But ultimately, we both had good lives, and we’re both happy to be here. So we’re going to tell our story, because it needs to be heard.”
Joan took a deep breath before she spoke. “We’re going to tell it as a thank you for bringing us back together again.”
India dabbed her eye with a tissue. “Look at me, I’ve already gone.” She turned to Heidi, working the camera and lights. “Are you good to go?”
“I’m rolling, so whenever you’re ready.”
Joan nodded. “Okay, then. Julie Andrews once sang that the beginning was a very good place to start. Shall we try that?”
“That sounds perfect,” India replied. “Who wants to go first?”
Eunice sat up straight, holding on to her chunky beads. She pushed her royal-blue glasses up her nose, looked into the camera, and then at Joan.
“I’ll start,” she said.
Eunice hurried down the cracked pavements of the White City Estate, a maze of concrete flat blocks shivering in the March gloom. Naked trees rocked in the late-afternoon breeze, and a group of younger boys played football in the internal grassed courtyard, their jumpers laid down as goalposts. One of the boys, Colin, took a shot that sailed just wide. The ball slammed into the orange front door of a ground-floor flat, and the door rattled in its frame. A barrage of expletives filled the air.
“Don’t let your mother hear you talk like that, Colin. She’ll come and wash your mouth out with soap!” Eunice told him as she walked past.
In reply, Colin stuck out his tongue.
Eunice laughed, shifted her faux-leather brown bag up her arm, then turned right onto the external concrete stairs. She climbed the three floors to her family’s flat, before deciding she couldn’t quite face her mum after yet another failed date. She carried on up to the fourth and final floor.
David was already there, leaning on the concrete wall that came up to his hip, staring at the boys playing below. David was her neighbour and the only boy she’d ever really got on with. They’d known each other since they were babies, born a month apart. Eunice slotted her body against the wall next to him.
David turned his head, then smiled. He took the Woodbine from his lips. “From the look on your face, I’m guessing the date did not go well.” They’d discussed it the night before in this exact spot. It had been a set-up with one of her mum’s friend’s sons.
Eunice snorted, then rolled her eyes. “How did you know?”
“The deep sigh, the look I know well.” David paused, pushing his already slicked-back hair to one side. He wore turned-up jeans and a chequered shirt, but didn’t seem cold.
Unlike Eunice, who still wore her thick winter coat. She hoped there was enough water for a hot bath when she got in.
“What was wrong with this one?”
Eunice frowned, trying to conjure the words without being too harsh. “He had bad hair.”
David laughed, his grey eyes dancing as he did. “Bad hair is new. The last one you told me had breath like a horse. The one before that was too short.” He took a drag on his cigarette before he continued. “You know you can change physical attributes. He could get a new hairstyle or grow it. You could buy the other one some mouthwash.”
“Next you’ll be telling me I could put the other one on a stretching rack.”
“Nah, Mr Shorty is a no-go.” David’s cockney accent made her smile. Somehow, Eunice had an accent her family thought of as ‘posh’. They had no idea where she came from. Often, Eunice wondered how she wound up here, too.
David straightened and walked behind her. He put his hands on her shoulders, then began to knead them. “Tense,” he said. “I’m guessing this fella today didn’t make you relaxed, so I’ll have a go.” David dug his fingers into Eunice’s tight muscles.
Eunice leaned into his touch. If David ever tired of being a plumber, he could certainly work as a masseur.
“What was his name?”
“You could never go out with a Reggie. You’d always be thinking of our Reggie.” David’s older brother, Reggie, worked for the same plumbing firm he did. “Did this Reggie always have food in his teeth, too?” David let go of Eunice and leaned his bum on the balcony wall, his back to the open air.
Eunice glanced up at him. “I don’t know, we only met for coffee. That was enough. The coffee and cake were good, at least.” She paused. “And free.”
“You women. Leading us on, making us pay in more ways than one.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t want to lead him on. I wanted to like him. I wanted him to sweep me off my feet. But Reggie wouldn’t know how to do that. He’s a trainee electrician, but there was no spark.”
“Fatal,” David smirked.
Eunice stood upright. She stretched her neck, then put her bag on the ground.
David stuck his hands in his jean pockets. The turn-ups were new, although David swore he wasn’t a Teddy Boy. His gaze dropped to the floor before bouncing back up to Eunice. “For what it’s worth, he’s an idiot. You look lovely.”
Eunice gulped. David had started to say this sort of thing more and more of late. She was never sure what to do with his compliments, so she ignored them. Still, they hung around afterwards, like a persistent stone in her shoe. She leaned back over on the balcony, as much as to escape the heat of David’s gaze as anything else. “Do you think we’ll meet someone eventually and get married?” They were both 17 now, both had been in full-time jobs for two years.
David drew in a long breath. “Isn’t that the law? It’s either that or become like my Uncle Billy. I don’t fancy that. He just drinks cider all day. My mum says he may as well be dead.”
Eunice squeezed her toes in her shoes. The looming deadline had begun to make her feel uneasy. “But don’t you ever think you might want to do something different? Be somewhere different?”
“Not really. I love London.”
That was the problem. Eunice wasn’t happy with her lot. Whereas David had been born content.
“But there are different places to live. If you moved out of London, you might be able to afford a house.” A light bulb flicked on in her head. “Imagine not living in a flat. Having your own garden. Not having to share a bedroom with your two sisters.”
David didn’t take his eyes off her. “So long as I have somewhere to live and someone to live with, that’ll do me.” He paused. “Did you see those houses they’re building by the river? They’re massive. I bet they have more than one bathroom. Maybe even heating in every room.”
Eunice glanced down the concrete-sided corridor balcony that ran the length of the block of flats. David’s dad had described them as ocean-liner style. He’d seen an ocean liner in real life, so he knew.
However, Eunice was sure there was something more to life than concrete. That beyond this block of flats, even beyond White City and West London, something bigger and better was waiting for her. She wanted to see an ocean liner, even sail on one. She wanted to do something creative. She longed for a world of glamour. She wasn’t going to get it living here.
She turned back to David. “I wake up at night burning with something. I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it in my feet. They’re itchy. They want to travel.” She stroked an arm through the cool spring air. “I want to see the world. I want to go to Europe, to America. I want film stars to be dressed in my clothes, my designs. My new job tomorrow is the start of my journey.”
David blinked. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard this. “And you’ll do it all.” He gave her an adoring smile. “How’s your dress coming along?”
Eunice had been working on a new design for the past few weeks. “It’s nearly ready. Now I just need a suitable date and dance to wear it to.”
“The start of your journey. The world’s not going to know what hit it.” He tilted his head to the evening sky. “Whereas I’ll be a plumber with Reggie, and with any luck, some girl might have me.”
Eunice pressed herself next to him and threaded her arm through his. “Any girl would be lucky to have you. If I come back from my travels single and you’re still available, I’ll pick you, David.”
He perked up at that, turning his face to her. “I’ll hold you to that, Eunice Humphries.” He paused. “Or as you might be, Eunice Cranks.”
“I’m not changing my name for you.”
“A feminist, too?” David raised an eyebrow.
Eunice smiled as she stared across the courtyard. The six boys were collecting up their jumpers and heading home for dinner. “Mum says I have to marry rich, otherwise my life will be like hers.” She spread her arms wide. “But why does life have to be about who you marry? Can’t it be about my career? The people I meet? The places I go?”
“You’ve always been too good for the White City.”
Eunice caught his gaze. “So have you. You’re going to make someone a fabulous plumber. They’re going to be in high demand with so many extra bathrooms everywhere.”
He smiled, showing off the gap in his front teeth. “Maybe I’ll make my fortune by staying here.”
“Maybe you will.” She put a thumb to her chest. “But me? I’m getting out. I’m going to travel the world and make sure everyone knows my name. Whoever I marry will have to be okay with that.”
David gazed at her. “Here’s to a world beyond the White City. If anyone can conquer it, you can.”
“Have you got everything ready? All set for tomorrow? Lay out your clothes, because otherwise you’ll be fretting and your sisters will get narky with you for waking them up.”
Eunice’s mum, Valerie, cracked another egg into the frying pan as she spoke. It was for her dad, who’d just got in from the pub. He’d missed dinner, which was standard practice. Grease coated the kitchen air. It grated on Eunice that her dad couldn’t eat with everyone else, meaning only one clear-up. Her mum, though, never moaned. She had endless patience. She told Eunice it came with having six children.
“It’s all done.” Eunice leaned against the chrome sink and draining board. The handle of the mint-green kitchen drawer below dug into her bum, but she ignored it. “My clothes are hung on the door. Now I just hope Rose doesn’t keep me awake all night with her snoring.” Eunice shared a room with her younger sisters, Mabel and Rose. She at least had her own bed; the other two slept in bunks.
Her mum twisted the thick knob on the cream cooker and lifted the frying pan. She slipped the fried eggs onto a plate that already had two slices of thickly buttered Mother’s Pride, some chips and a slice of black pudding. The latter turned Eunice’s stomach. She’d liked it until she was told what it actually was.
Her ten-year-old brother, Graeme, ran in, shooting imaginary bullets from his fingertips. Their dad was hot on his heels, chasing him with bullets of his own. His dark stubble contrasted with his flushed skin, and his braces sagged on top of his white shirt. The pair ran out of the kitchen, Graeme squealing. Dad winked as he ran past. The smell of stale beer followed him out.
“Your dinner’s ready, Eddie!” Mum shouted.
Dad reappeared at the door, out of breath. He licked his lips, then grabbed cutlery from the drawer, along with his plate. “I’ll take it through to the other room. Leave you girls to chat.”
Eunice and her mum sat at their small, white Formica table. It sat four comfortably, six at a push. Family dinners for eight always involved a couple of kids on stools balancing plates on their knees.
“Do you want a cup of tea? I was going to put the kettle on.”
Eunice nodded, and her mum filled the shiny blue kettle, twisted a cooker knob, lit a match and set it to heat. In a few minutes, the kettle would whistle, and her mum would marvel. Her dad had brought it home two weeks earlier, and the speed and noise were still a novelty. Up above, the suspended wooden drying rack held an assortment of the family’s smalls. Mum dried bigger clothes in the designated drying room, but never underwear. Hence Eunice’s bras and pants always smelled of fried eggs.
“Has Mrs Higgins been again?” The telltale cake tin sat temptingly on the side, so Eunice already knew the answer. Beryl Higgins lived three doors along in their block of flats, and seemed to spend her whole life baking. She was widowed, and her son had moved to America in search of a new, better life, so Mrs Higgins’ baking often ended up in their kitchen. She also had a sewing machine and space, so Eunice was often there using both. Her designs would be nowhere without Mrs Higgins’ help. She’d never create anything in their overcrowded flat.
“This morning,” her mum replied. She still wore her pink apron, and her tights had a snag on her right shin. “Brought over a sponge cake, a batch of ginger snaps and some shortbread. I don’t know how she coped in the war when there was rationing. She’d barely have been able to bake a cake a week.”
“I suspect she blocks it out. A distant memory.”
Her mum reached over. “Are you excited about tomorrow?”
Eunice nodded. “I am.” It might not be Paris, but it was a job as a machinist in a respected garment factory in the West End. It meant she was going to be in the heart of London’s rag trade. Far better than the small-fry factory she’d been at for the past two years in Hammersmith.
“Then I’m excited for you.” Her mum patted her arm. “I know you want to do it your way. You wouldn’t take my advice and get a nice office job, so it’s good you took a step up to a bigger factory with better wages. You’ve worked hard, and who knows where this might lead? You’ll meet new friends, and you might even meet the man you’re going to marry.”
Eunice rolled her eyes. Her mum thought an office job and snagging a good husband was the be-all-and-end-all. Eunice found the thought terrifying. “I’m not there to meet a husband. I’m there to learn new skills. Besides, I haven’t met many men who can sew lately.”
Her mum leaned forward. “They might be the supervisors. Maybe even the boss’s son. What have I always said? Meet a man who can provide. It makes all the difference in life.” She scanned the chipped kitchen cabinets, the grease-stained walls. “Tomorrow might be the day you meet someone who really matters. So keep a smile on your face and keep your hair nice. Just in case. You never know who might be round the corner.”
Big London Dreams is out on July 28th in ebook and paperback. Pre-order your copy now!