Nora woke at dawn the next day, bright sunshine through the curtain-less windows prodding her eyes open as the lamplighters did their rounds, undoing their work of the night before. She tossed and turned for a little while before giving in to the day and rising from the narrow bed that she had slept alone in for almost a year, ever since arriving at Mrs Gorton’s lodging house with one small bag of possessions and a smile of desperation.
She washed quickly and dressed. She was lucky to have her own room, but unlucky in that it only had room for the bed, a washstand and not much else. She thought of it as a cell, the place where she had come to do her penance for not preventing her husband from slowly destroying himself.
It was far too early to gain admittance to the theatre but the alternative was to sit in the shared living room with Mrs Gorton who could carry a one-sided conversation for hours. She bought a muffin on the street and ate it as she walked, enjoying the warmth of the summer day. Her pace slowed as she drew closer to the Olympia, spotting Sean’s coffee-stall ahead of her.
‘Nora!’ He called out as soon as he saw her. ‘Are you well? I missed saying good night, I’m sorry. Would you accept a free mug of coffee as an apology?’
‘Good morning.’ She took the proffered mug, noting that he’d already added the right amount of sugar as she sipped it. ‘Thank you Sean, but I should pay you for this. I’m afraid I rather stole away last night. It was a little rowdy for me.’
‘Understandable,’ Sean agreed. ‘You didn’t miss much. Ned was in a foul state when he got home not so long ago. I hope he’ll be right for this evening.’
‘He came home drunk?’ Nora felt a twinge of guilt.
‘Yes, well,’ Sean lowered his voice and Nora leaned forward to hear him, ‘I probably shouldn’t be sayin’ this, only p’raps it’s for the best that someone at the theatre knows.’
‘Old Ned does have a tendency to overindulge on the ol’ alcohol from time to time. Especially when he spies a certain red-head.’
Nora leaned back. ‘I think I saw her last night. Who is she?’
‘Maggie Lenahan. She is an actress of sorts. She managed to get herself a starring role at one of the big theatres, but only by giving away certain favours to certain men, if you get my meaning.’
‘Yes,’ Nora confirmed quickly in case Sean felt the need to explain further. ‘So how does Ned know her?’
‘He declared his love and she made a fool of him. Everyone else has forgotten about it by now but he is set on making her regret it. I saw her a few days ago and invited her to come along last night. I thought that if they talked they could sort their differences. Bad idea really, it only got Ned all fired up again.’ He took Nora’s empty mug, dropping it into his bucket of soapy water. ‘She turned up then? I didn’t see her but it looked to me that perhaps Ned had moved on to better things.’ He winked and Nora’s face fired red. He thought that she liked Ned.
It all made sense now, Nora thought later on as she sat in her room, unable to concentrate on the simplest running stitch. She’d only been invited along as bait, used to rile this Maggie girl. How dare he assault her like that! How dare he do it in front of Sean! She set down her work, too furious to continue. She should have it out with him, she decided.
The green room was empty apart from Kitty who was sitting on a sunken armchair, poring over the reviews in the papers that were delivered each day.
‘Kitty, you’ve not seen Ned have you?’ she asked.
The younger woman looked up and smirked. ‘No. Lost ‘im have you?’
‘No! Whatever you saw last night was all him, not me. I never wanted him to touch me. I’m actually on my way now to give him a piece of my mind.’ Nora stopped as she realised she was shouting.
Kitty hadn’t taken offence. ‘Fair enough. I thought it a little strange. It looked to me like you were keen on his friend rather than him.’ She cocked her head to one side, still smiling.
‘Oh God, was it that obvious?’ Nora sank on to the wooden chair next to Kitty. ‘I am mortified. Do you think Sean noticed? And what must he think of me now that he saw me with Ned. I saw him this morning and he thinks that I wanted that to happen.’
‘Nora, don’t you worry. I’ve a feelin’ he might know exactly what Ned was up to.’ Kitty patted Nora’s hand. ‘And if you hadn’t legged it you might have found out that he likes you too.’
‘Really?’ Hope was dangerous, Nora knew that well. ‘No, I’m too old for all of that, and barely out of mourning.’
‘How old are you, Nora? ‘Cause you don’t look ancient enough to just give up.’
‘Five and twenty last February,’ Nora admitted and Kitty choked back a cackle.
‘Lordy, Nora, you’re no age at all. Leave it to me.’ Another pat on the hand and Kitty vanished, leaving Nora to wonder what had just been set into motion.