It was after midnight when the gaggle of actors, crew and dancers made their way down to the King’s Head on Union Street. Nora walked quietly at the back, listening to the salacious gossip of the girls ahead of her. Their behaviour no longer shocked her but the casual way they described loudly their exploits with the various gentlemen who frequented the stage door would have made most women blush.
The tavern was packed full of people, many of whom had been at the Olympia that evening if the awestruck looks of several of the punters was anything to go by. Ned Bennett was acting as the cock of the walk that evening following his successful debut as leading man. Nora pushed her way through the crowd of hot sticky punters, following Kitty, one of the dancers with a little more care for her reputation and a little more respectful towards Nora than her colleagues who treated the seamstress as little more than a highly skilled charwoman.
‘I’ll get these,’ Kitty told her, holding two fingers aloft to the landlord’s wife who was scurrying about behind the tiny bar. Beer for the men, gin for the women. In winter, if you were lucky, they might offer negus or at least warm some cheap wine to take the chill off, but this was August and so you got what you were given.
The glass that she received was rimmed with soap scum, but at least an attempt at cleanliness had been attempted, and Nora sipped he perfumed liquid. It had been months since she had drunk, not since Peter’s funeral when she had raised a solitary glass to her late husband before packing up her belongings. Peter had liked a drink. He’d liked it too much, along with the gambling that had eaten up all of their savings, Nora’s small inheritance from her mother, and taken her comfortable life away, stranding her in a ladies’ lodging house near the Elephant and Castle for the past four years.
‘Here he is – the man of the hour!’ Ned shouted to be heard above the din. Nora did not turn to look but felt the skin on the back of her neck burn. Sean had arrived. ‘Happy birthday old friend.’
It was his outstretched arm that she saw first as it came past her to shake Ned’s. ‘Good to see you, my old friend.’
‘Ha! Less of the old, if you please,’ Ned laughed. ‘Sean, you know Nora don’t you? And Kitty?’
‘Hello, Nora, it’s been a while.’ Nora managed to unfreeze her facial expression enough to accept his greeting with a small smile, a poor exchange for his broad grin, exposing a chipped front tooth that added to his appearance rather than detracting.
‘Cheers!’ Ned handed Sean a pot of beer and clinked glasses with him. ‘Although I do have a bone to pick with you, missing my great debut on stage.’
‘Ah, well, as I did say to you, Ned, I had me own job this evening,’ Sean apologised, taking a draught of beer before explaining himself to Nora and Kitty. ‘My brother was supposed to take the coffee-stall tonight only he’s been struck down by the influenza and I couldn’t risk losing my prime spot.’
‘Oh, I do hope he makes a swift recovery,’ Nora commiserated.
‘He’ll be fine,’ Sean brushed off her concern. ‘What he calls influenza I would say is more of a mild cold. He’s not long over from Dublin and he’s still adjustin’ to the London air that we are all used to now.’
‘True enough,’ Ned agreed. ‘There’s nothing like the London smog to make a man of you. Or a woman, of course.’
Someone had discovered the old pianoforte on the far side of the tavern and had struck up a tune, one that everyone knew the words to, or at least thought they did.
‘You’ve a fine voice on you,’ Sean complimented Nora as she joined in, smiling as she blushed a deep red.
‘Nora, can you dance as well as you sing?’ Ned did not wait for an answer but grabbed her hands, whirling her around so that she bumped into Kitty.
‘I’m so..’ She started to apologise but her words were stopped by Ned’s mouth as he pressed upon her, his hands tightly around her waist. He was stronger than her and it took her a good minute to fight him off once she’d recovered from the shock of it. Once free, she made sure that he knew her opinion by slapping him as hard as she could across the face.
Ned barely noticed the assault. He was watching the door, through which a red-haired woman was exiting. No only, thought Nora, had he insulted her by his mauling but it was not even for her own benefit. She looked around and saw Sean and Kitty. They had found a table to sit at, occupying the only two chairs and talking so closely that their heads touched. That opportunity had vanished then, along with her dignity.
Nobody looked up as Nora left alone.