"I only meant, are you English, then?"
"Yes." He nods, releases her. Is it disappointment she can see on his face?
"Excuse me . . ." She ducks away, escaping him, threading through the crowd, which is even denser now, looking for the lavatories, finding them through an archway, small and damp- smelling, a dark spray of mold clinging to the walls.
She examines herself in the mirror, breathing hard. There is nothing particularly terrible to see, other than a red blotch of embarrassment on her neck and that two of her bobby pins have come loose and her hair is threatening to unravel. She pushes the offending pins back into the bristling porcupine it takes to hold it up. Her long, stupid hair that her mother won't let her cut.
If you come home looking like that friend of yours, you'll catch it. Filthy little flapper.
Her mother doesn't know a thing. Di has the best haircut of any of the girls at the Palais. They are always trying to get her to let on where she has it done.
Hettie steadies herself against the cold rim of the sink. It's late. She's been on her feet for hours. The night, which had been filled with promise, is curdling somehow, and the same old doubts are rushing in. She is from Hammersmith. She is too tall. Her dress is old and she cannot afford another since she gives half her wages to her mother and her useless brother every week. She's scrubbed cleaning petrol and scent on the armpits more times than she can count, but it still stinks and she'll probably never have a dress like Di's as long as she lives. She's got to be nice to Gus. And to top it all off, her breasts stick out, no matter how much she tries to strap them down.
It is that man's fault, she thinks, finding her eyes in the mirror. The way he looked at her, and his questions. Where are you from? As though he could tell she didn't belong, here in this club with these people who act so freely in their drunkenness and dancing, as if whatever they do, their life will hold them up.
She splashes water on her cheeks, checks that her petticoat isn't slipping, and stabs a last stubborn pin in her hair. The red blotches on her neck have calmed a little now.
Back out in the fray, she scans the crowd, relieved to see that the tall man has disappeared. There is no sign of Gus either, and when she finally spots him, his shiny bald head is still bobbing in the queue at the bar. Over at the table, Di and Humphrey haven't moved. Except, perhaps, a little closer together. Hettie can see Di laughing at something Humphrey has said. They don't look as though they'd welcome an interruption. For a moment, as she stands there alone, her fragile resolve threatens to falter. But something is happening over on the dance floor. People have stopped moving, and the band is slowing, the instruments dropping out one by one, until only the drummer remains, keeping the beat with a lone, shivering snare. Then he, too, comes to a stop, and a hush descends on the club. Over at the table, Di and Humphrey look up. Hettie, breath caught, steps away from the wall.
For an electric moment it feels as though anything may happen, until the trumpeter moves forward and lifts his instrument to play. It flashes in the low light. A flare of purest sound fills the room. Hettie closes her eyes, letting it in, letting it hollow her out, and then, when the man begins to play in earnest, the notes drip molten gold into the space he has made. And standing here, full of this music, it hits her with the force of revelation that it doesn't matter none of it, not really: She is young, she can dance, and it was worth her ten shillings just to see this place, to hear these musicians, to tell the girls at the Palais on Monday that it's true that there is a club in the West End, buried underground, with the best jazz band since the Dixies left for New York.
Excerpted from Wake by Anna Hope. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Hope. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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