Read Chapter One of Only You

November 2, 2010

I’m proud to present the first chapter of my new book Only You (out December 2010), there are probably a few typos, but be patient, there’s still some editing to do!  Karen x

 

Prologue

 

April 2009

          It was Violet Spencer’s seventy seventh birthday and as normal, on her special day, her loyal staff had presented her with flowers, chocolates and a little trinket to go on Ella, her beloved Cairn terrier’s collar. Normally Violet loved all the fuss and attention, especially in 2002, when in honour of her seventieth birthday they had produced ‘Violet’ a special lipstick that was on sale only for a week. But today, even though she plastered on a smile and thanked everyone for their kindness, a black cloud hung over her. House of Valentine’s sales were suffering. The recession had little to do with it. Violet had weathered many financial storms in the past and come out smiling. Her loyal, rich customers never deserted her, but she had read several articles lately where the brand had been called ‘old fashioned’. Just the other day when visiting her grand-daughter Kiki’s new flat, she had flicked through Cosmopolitan and read an interview with some teenage popstrel who was giving her beauty tips. She claimed her grandmother had always used House of Valentine but they were a little too old fashioned for her. Even Vogue had pushed the HoV adverts to the back of the magazine where once they took pride of place at the front.

          Violet couldn’t help but wonder if she was the reason her brand was failing. Maybe she was getting too old for it all. She was now pushing eighty and for fifty years had been in total control of all the products made. But the world was a different place to how it had been in 1959. Back then House of Valentine had given less well off women the chance to wear good quality cosmetics, but somehow over the years the prices had risen and suddenly they’d been catapulted into the stratosphere and HoV was now a high class brand. Perhaps they’d have to have a rethink, and launch a lower priced range. Take House of Valentine back to its roots.

          Ella jumped down from Violet’s lap and started dancing round the desk, indicating that she wanted to go out. Violet thought about ringing through to Louise, her PA and asking if she could pop the dog round Green Park for half an hour. It wasn’t a particularly warm day and Violet’s old bones were aching. She then looked at Ella’s pensive little face and felt bad about considering palming her off.

          Easing herself out of the chair, she stretched her back and walked over to the window, looking out at The Edwardian Theatre where her brother Charlie was appearing in a play called New York Here I Come. How ironic he was acting in the theatre opposite her office in Shaftesbury Avenue; serving to remind her how far they had both come.

          There was a knock on the door and Ella started to yap, Violet told her to shush and asked the person to come in. The door opened and Peter Callan, her right hand man came in. He’d started off as her business partner, and even though he’d sold shares years ago, he remained in an advisory role at HoV, and he was the one person Violet knew she could always trust.

          ‘Hello Peter,’ she said, walking round to greet him.

          ‘Happy Birthday darling,’ he replied, grasping her hands and kissing her upon both cheeks. ‘How are things?’

          ‘Ghastly. I feel old and past it.’

          ‘Nonsense, you don’t look a day over sixty.’

          ‘You never were good at bullshitting! I hope you haven’t come to take me to lunch, Charlie has promised to whisk me off somewhere glamorous.’

          ‘No no,’ he frowned. ‘I’m afraid it isn’t anything as nice as that. I’ve some rather bad news.’

          He eased Violet down into one of the chairs in front of her desk and he took the other. He leant forward to look her directly in the eye, how an adult would try and gain the attention of a petulant child.

          ‘I’ve had it on very good authority that Balzac Cosmetics are planning on making an aggressive takeover bid.’

          ‘What?’

          ‘They’re one of the only cosmetic companies not affected by the recession. It seems the women of France refuse to skimp on their make up. They already bought out Lana Lloyd last year. Now they’ve got their eye on you.’

          ‘But House of Valentine isn’t for sale.’

          ‘They’ve already been buying up thousands of shares and it seems Pierre Rambauld is planning on making you an offer you can’t refuse.’

          ‘Well I will refuse. This company is going to my children when I die and their children from there on. House of Valentine is a family company and it always will be.’

          ‘It’s not as simple as that Violet. Balzac have been looking for ages to launch a high class brand and they see HoV as their way in. You’re losing money left right and centre and if things carry on going on the way they are, there will be no company for you to leave the kids.’

          ‘Well we must re-brand then. We’ve got to fight fire with fire. I built House of Valentine up from scratch and I’m not having some poxy French company taking away my children’s inheritance.’

          Fired up, Violet leaned back and picked up her phone, dialling through to Louise’s office. As ever, her PA answered within one ring.

          ‘Yes Violet?’       

          ‘Louise can you take Ella round the park for me? I’ve a meeting to organise.’

          ‘I can do that Vi….’

          ‘No, just take Ella out. She likes it when you walk her, you’re quicker than me.’

          She put down the phone and looked at Peter.

          ‘Thanks for the warning Peter. I’m going to arrange a meeting with Blake Thomas to see how quickly we can launch a low price brand.’

          ‘And you think that’ll stop Balzac?’

          ‘Yes. We’re going back to basics Peter. When I launched House of Valentine it was so poor girls like me could wear good quality cosmetics. Somewhere along the line I sold my soul to the devil and started catering for posh women with more money than sense. Well the time has come to go back to where I started.’

1

June 1953

 

          Charlie Spencer stood by the street door like a proud mother. He clasped his hands and rocked back on the balls of his feet, delighted at the sight of his usually frumpy sister in her smart navy uniform; her very messy red hair pulled into a neat pony tail.

          ‘Look at you,’ Charlie gushed. ‘The proper Boothby Girl.’

          ‘Do I look okay?’ Violet fretted, looking down at herself, convinced her nylons were twisted or her shoes were too scruffy.

          ‘You’ll knock ‘em dead kid,’ he winked. ‘Come here.’

          Violet stepped up to her baby brother, although at six foot one he was five inches taller than her, and he had to bend down to kiss her upon the cheek.

          ‘Have fun,’ he said. ‘Hopefully some rich bloke’ll come in and sweep you off your feet.’

          ‘Have you seen the girls in Boothby’s?’ Violet scoffed. ‘Most of them look like fashion models. This imaginary rich bloke ain’t gonna be interested in some dowdy redhead.’

          ‘Oh shut up you tart,’ Charlie chuckled. ‘Go on, skiddadle. You’ll miss your bus otherwise.’

          Kissing her brother once more, Violet picked up her handbag and left the house. Stepping out onto Stanmer Street, she suddenly felt like a bright light that had been placed in a dark house. The street was still suffering the after effects of the war, and amongst the dust and bomb-wrecked houses, she looked so colourful in her fancy uniform, bright red lipstick and perfect hair. As she passed people she didn’t even know, she noticed them clocking her clothes, realising where she was heading to, and giving her appreciating smiles. 

          Clapham Junction had two department stores. Arding and Hobbs on the corner of St John’s Road, that catered for the ordinary residents of Battersea; and Boothby’s, which stood opposite the train station and was frequented by the rich ladies who lived in places like Kingston and Richmond who didn’t have time to go into Knightsbridge. They would take the train into Clapham Junction and do their shopping in the grand store. Most local people couldn’t afford to shop at Boothby’s and it was called the Harrods of South London, for a good reason.

          Violet had wanted to work in Boothby’s since leaving school six years ago, but her applications had always been turned down without explanation. She’d ended up taking a job at Garlands’ Haberdashery in Battersea High Street and had remained there, happy just to be bringing in a wage to support her and Charlie and Katie. But when Mr Garland decided he wanted to retire to Hastings to live with his sister, he felt rotten about leaving Violet in the lurch and had a word with Mr Paige, the manager of Boothby’s. They were old friends, and within a week Violet had an interview arranged. She sailed through and today was her first day.

          Getting on the 19 bus to take her to Clapham Junction, Violet groaned when she saw the only available seat was next to Mrs Walker. They used to be neighbours until Mrs Walker’s house at number twenty three was bombed and they re-housed her in a new development near to Queenstown Road. She’d known every sordid detail of Violet’s past and would remind her of it whenever they had a conversation. At least Violet could take comfort in the fact she was wearing her Boothby’s uniform – some proof she’d done well for herself.

          ‘Hello Violet love,’ the elderly woman said, barely disguising the delight in her voice at the prospect of gossiping. ‘How are you?’

          ‘Fine thank you Mrs Walker,’ Violet replied politely. ‘Just going to work.’

          The woman’s eyes scanned her, and her mouth opened slightly in shock.

          ‘You got a job in Boothby’s?’ she gasped.

          ‘I have. It’s my first day.’

          ‘Blimey. My Susan’s been trying to get a job there for the past five years. What did you do to get that?’

‘Nothing,’ Violet replied, offended at the accusation. ‘Mr Garner retired and was closing up, so I applied for the job and got it.’

‘That’ll be better money for you and the other two. How’s your Katie?

Is she okay?’

          ‘She’s fine thank you,’ Violet replied in a clipped tone, knowing what was coming next. ‘She’s happy at Larner’s.’

          ‘Poor little thing,’ Mrs Walker tutted, shaking her head. ‘Imagine coming home to find your father with his head in the gas oven.’

          Burning red with shame, Violet glanced over her shoulder, hoping the people behind her had not heard any of this. It wasn’t exactly something she was proud of.

          ‘And Charlie? I heard he’s gone to the BBC, is that right?’

          ‘It is,’ Violet smiled proudly. ‘He’s a studio hand. He got to do sound affects on The Arthur Askey Show the other day.’

          ‘Well fancy that. It’s nice to see the three of you doing so well. Such a terrible start in life.’

          Violet didn’t know what to say and was so thankful when Mrs Walker looked out of the window and clocked Brenda Cole walking along – proudly displaying a huge, pregnant tummy.

          ‘Did you see that?’ Mrs Walker gasped. ‘Did you see Brenda Cole?’

          ‘Yes.’

          ‘The nerve of her. Parading herself in public like that. If she were my daughter I’d put her away in a home for bringing shame on the family.’’

          Violet switched off and let Mrs Walker prattle on about the moral decline of society; where unmarried mothers were suddenly letting the world see their predicament. Violet wasn’t really interested, she was too nervous, especially when she looked out the window and realised she was only one stop away from Clapham Junction, and Boothby’s, and the first day of the rest of her life.

***

          The last time Violet had felt so embarrassed and out of place had been when her father had killed himself and she’d had to face the neighbours and their pitying smiles and disapproving tuts. Today she felt just as uncomfortable. At her interview, Mr Paige had said he would put her in the haberdashery department on the fourth floor – after all, it was her area of expertise. But a rare bout of Spring flu had stricken the ground floor staff, and seeing as Mademoiselle Cosmetics were launching a new range, it was all hands to the pump. Without warning Violet suddenly found herself thrust into a world of lipsticks and eyeshadows, and perfumes with funny French names and more to the point, the other perfumery girls. A couple of them – Veronica and Angela, were part time models and were so immaculate Violet felt scared to even go near them for fear of knocking them and dishevelling them in some way. The other girls, Ethel, Winnie and Pat weren’t quite as perfect, but Violet still considered them far prettier than her and her reverence just caused them to pick on her all the more. Every time a customer approached, they would push their way in front, making sure they served them and picked up the commission. By the middle of the morning Violet felt like crying and giving up – wondering if she should find a job in a shop closer to home, maybe Mr Larner would take her on to work with Katie.

          After polishing the counter for the fiftieth time, she looked up to find Miss Gimmel, the department manager, walking towards her. The stern looking woman was accompanied by a short girl with long dark hair, her uniform slightly ill fitting, the sleeves too long and the jacket barely fastening across her ample bust.

          ‘How are you getting on Violet?’ Miss Gimmel asked.

          ‘Alright,’ she replied quietly. ‘Thank you Miss Gimmel.’

          ‘Have you sold anything?’

          ‘No not yet.’

          Miss Gimmel glanced round at Veronica and Ethel who were currently pushing lipstick onto a pair of wealthy looking teenage girls. The look on her face told Violet that she realised what was going on.

          ‘Okay, well I want you and Jane to offer customers samples of l’amour. When a lady walks past, ask her if she would like to try the perfume. If she does, spray it lightly upon her wrist and let her know that we are selling it at the special price of ten shillings and sixpence. And don’t allow anyone else to do this okay?’

          ‘Yes Miss Gimmel,’ both girls said.

          The older woman thrust a bottle of the perfume into each girl’s hand and gave them a gentle nudge forward.

          Violet looked at the bottle and blushed on seeing it was shaped like a naked woman, with a long, gold cord attached with the little pump at the end for the spray.

          ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Jane snapped, her harsh London accent belying her exotic, dark looks.

          ‘This bottle’s obscene,’ Violet replied. ‘Look at it.’

          ‘Oh don’t be such an old woman. It ain’t nothing you ain’t got under that uniform.’

          Veronica turned around, and on spotting they had been joined by the scruffy Jane, her perfectly arched eyebrows raised in horror.

          ‘What’s she doing here?’ she asked. ‘It’s bad enough we’ve got the little haberdashery girl with us, let alone that creature from the food hall.’

          ‘Shut your fucking mouth,’ Jane snarled. ‘Miss Gimmel put me ‘ere because it’s busy.’

          Violet blushed, embarrassed to be caught up in this foul mouthed exchange. Jane was quite beautiful, with long, glossy dark brown hair, ebony eyes and a perfect, olive complexion. But she sounded as though she should have been working on a barrow in the High Street market, rather than in South London’s top department store.

          Suddenly noticing a young woman draped in a mink coat walking towards them, Violet knew it was now or never. She stepped forward slightly, holding the bottle out but making sure her finger obscured the breasts.

          ‘Can I interest you in a sample of l’amour madam?’ she asked quietly.

          ‘What?’ the woman snapped. ‘What did you say?’

          ‘Would you like me to spray this onto your wrist?’

          ‘If you must.’

          The woman held her wrist out, pushing her glove down slightly. With shaking hands, Violet squirted the perfume onto her skin. The woman then held it to her nose, sniffing deeply.

          ‘Umm,’ she pondered. ‘It’s not as nice as Shalimar, that’s what I usually wear.’

          ‘Yes, but did you know that Princess Elizabeth was wearing l’amour at the Coronation last week?’ Jane suddenly said, ignoring Violet when she threw her a look.

          ‘Really?’ the woman asked. ‘Is that so?’

          ‘Oh yes. It’s her favourite perfume. That’s why we’re promoting it. All the top stores are. If you went to Harrods you’d find they’d be doing the same thing.’

          ‘I see.’

          Bolstered by Jane’s bravado, Violet joined in.

          ‘It’s only ten shillings and sixpence,’ she said. ‘A very reasonable price for a royal perfume don’t you think?’

          ‘Yes you’re quite right. I’ll take a bottle.’

          Both girls stifled their giggles until the woman walked off, putting the complimentary red velvet bag into her handbag. Their laughter was greeted by more looks of disapproval from Veronica and Ethel and this just prompted them to show off even more. By lunchtime they had sold six bottles of l’amour and were buzzing on their success. They went up to the canteen on the fifth floor for lunch, and took a table close to the window. Violet looked out over Clapham Junction while Jane fetched some cheese sandwiches and cups of tea from the counter. The glamour of Boothby’s seemed so detached from its dull surroundings that it stood like a beacon amongst the rows and rows of dingy houses and train lines snaking in between them. Occasionally the symmetry would be broken by the crater of a bombsite in the middle of the road, but largely it was just house after house, occupied by people like her who dreamed of a better life, but knew they would never leave the poverty of Battersea.

          She was joined by Jane, who put the tray of food upon the table.  

          ‘How you finding your first day?’ she asked Violet.

          ‘It’s been a laugh, but I don’t think I could have coped without you.’

          ‘Well I weren’t letting the chance pass me by. I’ve been working in that food hall for two years now, and I’ve dreamt of the day I got the chance to work in the perfumery and I weren’t going to blow it.’

          ‘Why though? It’s an honour in itself to work for Boothby’s, whatever department you’re in.’

          ‘Yeah, but ain’t you heard about Joan Rutherford?’

          ‘Who?’

          ‘She was a Boothby’s girl and worked on the perfumery. One day this girl comes in, whose job it is to buy make up for this Princess Sofia of Sweden or somewhere like that. Anyway, she invites Joan to the Princess’s posh Chelsea house to show the Princess how to do her make up. She goes there, who’s there? Only the Princess’s brother, Prince Phillipe. He falls head over heels in love with Joan and now they’re married. Just think Vi, that could happen to you or me.’

          ‘You maybe,’ Violet scoffed, pouring two cups of tea. ‘No prince is gonna want a skinny red head like me.’

          ‘You don’t know what princes look for. ‘ave yer ever met one?’

          ‘No, but..’

          ‘But nothing. Boothby’s is a ticket out the gutter.’

          ‘I don’t live in the gutter and I’m sure you don’t either.’

          ‘As good as. Half the houses down Pitter Lane have been condemned.’

          Violet tried not to show her distaste. Pitter Lane was a particularly notorious street off Queenstown Road. In an area littered with criminal families, Pitter Lane had a higher concentration than most streets. She wondered how Jane had got a job in Boothby’s, coming from such a horrible area.

          ‘Have you worked anywhere else?’ she asked politely.

          ‘No, this was my first job. My older brother Tommy is mates with the owner’s son, he wangled it for me.’

          ‘I see,’ Violet replied, unconvinced the owner’s millionaire son would want to fraternise with someone from Pitter Lane. ‘But is it okay here? Over all?’

          ‘Bit snotty, but I expected that. Where do you live Violet?’

          ‘Stanmer Street. I live there with my younger brother and sister.’

          ‘Where’s your mum and dad?’

          ‘Dead. Mum died of cancer in 1947 and dad died a few months afterwards. It was left to me to bring Charlie and Katie up. They’re off my hands now so I thought I’d do something for myself and come and work here.’

          ‘Do they work?’

          ‘Yeah, Charlie works for the BBC and Katie works in a jewellers. What about your brothers, what do they do?’

          ‘This and that. Do you go out much Vi?’

          ‘Not really. Charlie’s out a lot of the time, he’s the sociable one. I prefer a nice night in.’

          ‘You don’t go dancing or anything?’

          ‘Oh no,’ she laughed. ‘I can’t dance.’

          ‘That don’t matter. You go dancing to pick up boys. You got a boyfriend?’

          ‘No.’

          ‘Right, we’re going dancing on Saturday night, down The Grand.’

          ‘Don’t be silly….’

          ‘I ain’t being silly. We’re gonna get a good commission at the end of the week for selling that perfume and we’re gonna spend it on Saturday night. Don’t argue with your Auntie Jane, I won’t take no for an answer!’

***

          By the time she got in that evening, Violet was still smarting from agreeing to go dancing with Jane. She’d only said yes to shut the girl up, and now she had to think of a way to get out of it. She and Jane were like chalk and cheese – Violet was quiet and shy and liked to keep herself to herself, and Jane was a loud mouth who came from a rough part of the borough. Violet found her new friend great fun to work with, but at the end of the day they had nothing in common and a night out together was bound to end in disaster.

          She found Katie seated at the kitchen table, polishing her glasses. Violet wasn’t even sure why her sister still wore the thick rimmed spectacles. It wasn’t as though she needed them anymore. She was only supposed to wear them for a couple of years, after the optician diagnosed a squint, when she was eight. But by the time she was ten, and supposed to stop wearing them, she’d found their father dead, and Violet was convinced they had become like a safety blanket. Something for Katie to hide behind. And she was such a pretty little thing, just five foot tall with natural blonde hair and big blue eyes. Most sixteen year old girls liked to show themselves off but Katie preferred to have her head stuck in a book reading about people far grander than her. She’d even enrolled in dialect classes with a woman on Lavender Hill who’d taught her how to speak properly. Violet didn’t know why. No one around here expected her to talk like a lady. 

          ‘I thought I’d reheat last night’s rabbit stew,’ Violet said, taking off her jacket. ‘Is that alright with you?’

          ‘Yeah,’ Katie replied quietly, putting her glasses back on. ‘I’m not hungry anyway.’

          ‘Why not? You ill?’

          ‘Something strange happened today Vi. Something I didn’t understand.’

          Violet ignored her rumbling stomach and sat opposite her sister, noticing a slight blush to her cheeks. 

          ‘What’s the matter?’

          ‘Someone came into the shop. A man. A young man. An American.’

          ‘An American? You don’t get many of them round here.’

          ‘I know. He came in and said he needed his watch mended. He said he was staying in Chelsea but he’d heard Mr Larner was the best repairer in the area and he wanted it fixed there.’

          ‘Makes sense I suppose.’

          ‘But we got chatting and he asked me out on a date.’

          Violet’s head shot up. Katie was blushing deeply and her hands were shaking. Violet had never been asked on a date, but she imagined if she had done, she’d be a lot happier than this.

          ‘Did you say yes?’

          ‘I didn’t know how to say no. He was so handsome Vi – tall, dark, and he had the most beautiful brown eyes. He’s called Mike Corone.’

          ‘How old is he?’

          ‘I don’t know. About twenty-five I suppose. He’s picking me up from work on Friday and we’re going to dinner.’

          ‘Dinner?’ Violet frowned. ‘Is he rich?’

          ‘I don’t think so, he’s only a salesman for DeLacey Wines. I don’t s’pose he’ll take me anywhere fancy, but it will be nice to be treated like a grown up for once. You’re not angry are you?’

          ‘Don’t be silly,’ Violet scoffed. ‘You’re sixteen now, it’s time you started going out with boys. I’m going out myself on Saturday.’

          ‘With a boy?’

          ‘No, a girl I work with, Jane Christos.’

          ‘Christos? Is she foreign?’

          ‘Her grand-dad was from Greece but her family have been in Battersea for donkey’s years. We sold a lot of perfume today and Jane thinks we should spend our commission down The Grand.’

          ‘Sounds good.’ Katie gave a rare smile. ‘It’s not just Charlie having all the fun for a change.’

          As if she had summoned him up by saying his name, the front door crashed open and Charlie came bounding in. He threw his bag down onto a chair, and bent over to kiss Katie, then Violet.

          ‘How are you both?’ he asked, flopping down at the end of the table.

          ‘Alright,’ Violet replied, noting how fixed his dark eyes looked and how his cheeks were flushed. ‘You’ve been drinking haven’t you?’

          ‘I may have had one or two in the pub. I was celebrating. I’m going to be working on a new show, The Josh Valentine Show.’  

          ‘Who?’ Violet asked.

          ‘He’s a singer. Been doing the club and theatre circuit for a few years, but now he’s been given his own Wednesday night show. In fact…’ He reached out and took both his sisters’ hands. ‘I want both of you to come and watch it being recorded.’

          ‘Whatever for?’ Violet snapped. ‘You’re being silly.’

          ‘I’m not. Mr Perkins, the producer wants the show to have the feel of a nightclub, with a proper audience, so we need people to come in and clap and stuff. Come on girls, it’ll be a free night out.’

          Violet never could refuse Charlie, he could get her to do anything by flashing those big, brown eyes. It had been the same since he was a little boy.

          ‘Alright,’ she said. ‘Lord knows what I’m letting myself in for, but I’ll do it. What about you Katie?’

          ‘S’pose so,’ she said quietly. ‘It’ll be funny hearing myself clap on the radio.’

Copyright Karen Mason 2010

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