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Excerpt from The Ballroom by Anna Hope, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ballroom by Anna Hope

The Ballroom

A Novel

by Anna Hope
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  • Sep 6, 2016
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Print Excerpt

1911



Winter–Spring



Ella

"Are you going to behave?" The man's voice echoed. "Are you going to behave?"

She made a noise. Could have been yes. Could have been no, but the blanket was pulled off her head and she gasped for air.

An arched hall stretched before her, lit with lamps. The thin hiss of gas. Plants everywhere, and the smell of carbolic soap. On the floor were tiles, reaching out in all directions, polished till they shone, some in the shapes of flowers, but the flowers were black. She knew then that this was no police station, and started shouting in fear, until a young woman in uniform appeared from the darkness and slapped her on the cheek. "There'll be none of that in here."

Irish. Ella whipped her head back, tears in her eyes though she wasn't crying. She knew those Irish girls. There were plenty at the mill. They were mean as hell.

Another woman came, and they put their hands beneath her armpits and began pulling her toward two doors. Ella dragged her feet, but they slapped her till she walked for herself. Both of them had sets of keys at the waist. There must have been twenty, thirty keys there, clanging away. They pushed her through the doors, locked them behind her, and then they were standing at the top of a corridor so long the end was impossible to see.

"Where am I?"

No reply. Only the wheeze of the gas and the corridor, stretching. They turned to the left with her, through another set of doors, marching her between them, uniforms crackling as they walked. Everywhere the same hard smell of soap, and something else, something wrong underneath.

Then a last door, and a large room, with a stink like a pigpen, where they dragged her to a narrow, metal--framed bed and shoved her down. "We'll deal with you later."

Other beds showed themselves in the grayish light, hundreds of them lying end to end. On each a person, but man or woman she couldn't tell. Heavy furniture lined the walls, which were painted dark. She could see the large double doors she had come in from. Locked.

Was this prison, then? Already?

She crouched at the top of the bed, breathing hard. Her cheek was throbbing. She lifted her fingers to it; it had split where the men had punched her earlier, and was pulpy and thick. She pulled the rough blanket up over her knees. Someone nearby was singing, the sort of song you'd sing to hush a baby to sleep. Someone else crying. Someone muttering to himself.

A humming started up. It seemed to be coming from the next bed, but all Ella could see of the woman in there was her feet, soles like peeling yellow paper, until she sat up straight like a jack--in--the--box. She was old, but wore her hair in bunches like a little girl. Thin, tallacky flesh hung slack on her arms.

"Will you come with me?" the woman said.

Ella inched a little toward her. Perhaps she knew a way out. "Where to?"

"Germany." The woman's eyes were wet and gleaming. "We'll dance there, we'll sing." And she started up a wordless tune in a cracked childhood voice. Then, "At night," the woman said, in a loud whisper, "when I'm sleeping, me soul comes out—-creep creep creep like a little white creature." She pointed at Ella and smiled. "But you must let it be. It comes back in the morning, right enough."

Ella brought her fists over her eyes, curling away from the woman into a small, tight ball. Someone was banging on the walls:

"Homehomehomeiwantogohomehomehomeiwantogohome."

She would have joined in. Except she didn't know where that was.

She stayed awake through the night, but couldn't have slept if she'd wanted to. Her cheek flamed, and as soon as one of the women stopped bleating another one started up, bawling, singing, chelping to themselves:

Excerpted from The Ballroom by Anna Hope. Copyright © 2016 by Anne Hope. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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