Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Mersey Girls’ by Sheila Riley.
The Mersey Girls
New Year’s Eve: 1949
‘Ten… Nine… Eight…’
Twenty-five-year-old Grace Harris lifted her finely sculptured chin, allowing her dark curls to caress her sun-kissed shoulders as her outstretched arm took in the audience of first-class passengers, before striding with ultimate confidence across the spot lit stage prominently situated in the chandelier-lit state ballroom of the Marine Spirit. The D’Angelo line’s newest cruise ship was embarking on a cruise that left Grace’s hometown of Liverpool on the first day of December, heading to tropical waters and visiting islands off the Caribbean before docking in New York on Valentine’s Day.
A far cry from her hometown – the dockside streets of her beloved Liverpool, where the legacy of the Second World War was still visible in the vacant bombsites, broken houses, temporary prefabs and gardens turned into allotments for those lucky enough to have a garden, Although back in Reckoner’s Row there were no such things as gardens.
‘Three… Two… One…! Happy New Decade!’
The elite passengers on board were either famous, royal, or incredibly wealthy. Celebrity guests such as Queen Elizabeth and Walt Disney cruised among many of Hollywood’s top stars.
From her lofty perch on stage, Grace watched the party people rise as one and join hands to make a huge circle, merging together for a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to welcome the new decade of 1950, and a sea of emotional faces sang out a decade of war, destruction, austerity and want, which she had been lucky enough to avoid, since joining the ship two years ago and mixing with the richest of the rich.
Grace knew her singing afforded her a luxurious lifestyle that others envied, especially now she had reached the coveted position of headlining act. But her smile froze when she caught sight of something that made her heart skip a beat and caused the stirring words of the old song to stick in her throat. Clifford, the entertainment director, was bringing in his New Year locked in a passionate clinch with one of the dancing girls. And Grace realised the onboard gossip could be true after all.
She had reached the dizzy height of headline performer through hard work, determination and talent and had not slept her way to the top like some. So when Clifford had said he loved her at the start of the trip, and proved it by asking her to marry him on Christmas Eve, she felt like the luckiest woman in the world.
However, aware of scurrilous rumours regarding Clifford from some on-board staff, she put their gossip down to jealousy. A handsome man, he schmoozed the rich and famous clientele as part of his job, so speculation, like meat and drink to some crew members, had been rife.
Although Grace tried to ignore it, letting nobody see the hearsay hurt her, reassuring herself that his dashing good looks and devastating charm was bound to feed the gossip. Part of England’s social elite, Clifford had served with distinction in the Royal Air Force during the war and blended perfectly with the high society passenger list.
She was thrilled even though he swore her to secrecy regarding their engagement. Apart from the ruling that fraternising between the staff was not allowed, Clifford told her that being engaged to marry may harm his standing with the well-to-do big tippers, and they needed all the money they could get to save for a place of their own. Grace believed him, knowing every female on board had their eye on Clifford.
From this height, she could clearly see Clifford and the girl moving to the area behind ‘the staff bar’. Hidden away from the passengers, the small room had walls of optics containing every alcohol, where the waiters fulfilled the table orders without having to queue with passengers. Making sure the coast was clear, Clifford locked the door behind them.
Every muscle in her body was taut and Grace wanted to storm off the stage and interrupt their fun. But to make a scene would be tantamount to career suicide for both of them.
When Clifford had asked her to marry him on Christmas Eve, slipping a pink diamond ring onto her finger, she marvelled at the perfect fit, thrilled. And he told her she must only wear the ring when she was performing, that way there would be no embarrassing questions to answer.
Her throat tightened and Grace felt crushed. The betrayal was as sharp as a slap in the face, making her realise she could be replaced by any of the on-board hopefuls hungry for the limelight, or any of the frustrated women with rich husbands who were willing to give more than she had been prepared to part with.
Her brain scrambled to find a logical solution. A brand-new decade dawned. The horrors of war were behind them. The whole world looked with renewed hope to a better future. But none of those things excused Clifford’s scandalous behaviour.
As the singing ebbed, Grace caught the dazzle of her engagement ring in the spotlight and when she left the stage with applause still ringing in her ears, she eased the ring from her finger and vowed never to wear it again.
The glittering diamond had been a symbol of their love for each other. But like the sparkling stone, she knew her relationship with Clifford was phony. It looked fabulous, but as far as she was concerned, neither had any worth whatsoever.
Grace Harris believed she was going to be a star without Clifford Brack’s help. His promise to marry her a month ago was meaningless when she discovered he had been cheating on her with a host of women. The betrayal steeling her determination to succeed without him.
Thank God only her family knew she and Clifford had been engaged. She would never have been able to hold her head up again if the crew had got wind of it.
Her soulful voice had taken on a gutsy edge after a week in sickbay, feigning laryngitis. Her stunning smile dazzled the elite audience on her first show of the New Year, and hid her inner humiliation of Clifford’s sleazy assignations with any woman to whom he snapped his fingers.
The truth came out after a blazing row, when the New Year show ended, and was the real reason for her sore throat on New Year’s Day. Fortunately for her, the on-board doctor said she must rest her voice; the ensuing days in sickbay gave her plenty of time to contemplate.
When Grace tried to give Clifford back his engagement ring, he said with a sneer, ‘Keep the damn thing. After all, it’s only sparkle and has no worth. I can always get another if I want one.’ Grace believed he wasn’t just talking about the ring.
Her climb from the chorus line had been a long one; she had learned her craft from the bottom rung before Clifford noticed her, unlike chorus girls who hung on to every flattering lie he uttered, and offered themselves up to him so readily. Although, she too had been ensnared by his fine words and empty promises when he told her he had contacts who would put her name in lights. But he never introduced her to any of them.
‘You’re going to be a star. You are not just a girl from the backstreets of Liverpool! Everybody is going to love you.’ Eager for the limelight, she believed every flattering word he uttered, which was a far cry from the stinging putdown that brought their fleeting engagement to a sudden halt. ‘You came from the gutter and I can put you back there,’ he sneered. ‘Don’t ever forget that.’ His throwaway remark was branded on her heart and grew over the sickbay days into an invisible shell of armour that made her determined to be the woman she wanted to be. Not the tramp he expected her to be.
Onstage, she felt naked, imagining everybody could see her self-loathing, but night after night she forced herself to go and sing her heart out, and become someone she no longer recognised. Clifford’s charm and sophistication had blinded her and she had been in awe of his joie de vivre. But not any more. When she realised how naïve she had been, she wanted to run and hide. But soon realised she couldn’t run far on a ship.
Now, the girl in the spotlight was confident, fun-loving and had the audience eating out of her hand. But her inner demons were never far away, especially when, at the back of the stage, Clifford Brack was watching her. His face showing no expression whatsoever.
He was wrong about one thing, though. She was not just a girl from the backstreets of Liverpool. There was no such person. Liverpool girls were wired in a different way. Not just in their own family, but in the whole city. She was remarkable. She would go far. She was going to be someone.
* * *
Another performance ended with a standing ovation and the thunderous applause rang in her ears as, straightening her spine, Grace stood taller, flicked back her abundance of chestnut curls, and dipped a curtsey before leaving the stage. She would take a walk round the deck before turning in for an early night, but first she must feel the balmy breeze waft through her hair, let her thoughts wander…
Grace gave a small gasp of surprise. She hadn’t seen the figure sitting alone at a nearby table. She felt her heart flip when she recognised Bruce D’Angelo, the son and heir of the man who owned the shipping line, was speaking to her.
‘It’s such a wonderful night I thought I’d take in the sights.’ Grace smiled, professionally friendly, like an air hostess, or an assistant in a high-class store.
‘Such a wonderful night for a beautiful lady,’ he said, rising from the chair.
‘I bet you say that to all the girls, you smooth talker,’ she replied, noticing he stood with the aid of a barley-twist walking stick in one hand, and held out his other hand towards her.
‘Bruce D’Angelo,’ he said, as if needing to introduce himself, and Grace realised she was staring when he explained, ‘war wound, shrapnel hit my leg and broke my thigh bone in three places, the doc said I was lucky to walk again.’
‘So, you’re quite determined, then?’ The words slipped effortlessly from her lips and his smile was somewhat apologetic. ‘Why are you sitting here, alone, with just a book for company? Everyone else is having a good time.’
‘I might ask you the same thing,’ Bruce said, as the smile in his voice matched the twinkle in his chocolate-brown eyes. ‘I’m just a guy who likes reading more than partying. What’s your excuse?’
‘I’m just a girl who likes her own company sometimes.’ Realising she may have overstepped the mark, she said, ‘Sorry, my mouth opens without engaging my brain. Sometimes, even I don’t know what’s going to come out of it.’
His laugh was an easy-going rumble that made her glad he hadn’t taken offence.
‘You were terrific tonight, as always.’ His accent was Ivy League with a touch of Southern charm and Grace began to relax. ‘I was here, listening.’ His friendliness gave Grace the confidence to jest.
‘Don’t tell me you’re stuck out here ’cause you’ve got no mates?’ she said in the broad Liverpool dialect that she had trained herself to lose over the years and was amused when his brow furrowed.
‘I have not got the faintest idea what you just said.’ Bruce laughed, and Grace laughed too. ‘Champagne?’ he asked, nodding to summon a waiter, and pulled out a chair for her to join him. The crew would be eager to know what it was like drinking the finest, most expensive champagne with Bruce D’Angelo.
‘That would be lovely,’ Grace said, sitting opposite him and wondering why such a powerful, important man chose to sit alone reading The Great Gatsby.
Dressed in a Saville Row suit, his black tie hung loose round his neck. ‘It’s lovely to finally meet you,’ he said, and Grace wondered if he was being facetious. ‘Are you comfortable?’ Bruce seemed genuinely concerned as a warm breeze ran through her hair.
‘Yes, thank you, Mr D’Angelo,’ Grace said, and for some unfathomable reason, she felt sorry for him sitting here, all alone.
‘Please, call me Bruce,’ he replied, handing her a long-stemmed wide-rimmed glass. ‘I don’t stand on ceremony.’ She imagined he was not a man who had heard the word ‘no’ very often either. Although it was the other passengers that made her feel overawed. ‘Don’t mind them,’ Bruce gave a reassuring smile, noticing her restraint, ‘they don’t bite.’ Neighbouring tables were peopled with famous faces she recognised from going to the pictures. All personal friends of the D’Angelo family, yet Bruce had been alone until she came along.
They chatted easily over a few glasses of champagne and she enjoyed his company more than she would have expected. Bruce was not a bit snooty, as she thought, in fact he seemed a bit shy, unlike most men she had met.
‘Are you cold?’ Bruce asked. ‘Shall I get you a rug?’ He was eager for her to feel comfortable, but Grace shook her head, reassuring him she was fine. He stood head and shoulders above Clifford, and his impeccable manners, a world away from the off-hand way Clifford had behaved, very quickly made her feel like she was worth something after all. Secretly, Grace hoped Clifford was watching every move from a few tables behind them.
As she had performed the early show, the evening was her own. And a beautiful evening it was turning out to be too, she thought, luxuriating in the tropical breeze wafting across the deck. They had been at sea for two months and in the heat of the Southern Caribbean, Grace felt more calm than she had done for a long time.
‘We are crossing the line tomorrow,’ she said, referring to the ceremony of crossing the equator, which was performed by members of the crew. A rite of passage for some who were crossing for the first time and something the passengers looked forward to with much delight.
‘I know,’ said Bruce with a smile. ‘I’m King Neptune,’ he lowered his voice as if taking her into his confidence, nodding to somebody behind her, ‘and I have it on good authority that Clifford Brack has never involved himself in the ceremony.’
‘Really?’ Grace was surprised and turned to see Clifford sitting with a group of people, knowing all sailors, male and female, went through the ancient initiation rite. Her suspicions that he still bore her ill will for breaking off their engagement was assured when the grim expression on Clifford’s face caused a cold shiver down her spine.
Grace was glad he could see she wasn’t heartbroken, and hoped he understood that their relationship was not the be-all and end-all for her. ‘Do you think he should be initiated on this trip?’
‘Most definitely,’ Bruce said with a smile that made the corner of his dark eyes crinkle and made Grace feel they were somehow partners in crime. She giggled, feeling she had unexpectedly met someone out of the ordinary – but in a good way.
The more she thought about how quickly Clifford had wanted to seal their relationship with an engagement ring, the more she realised he was as phony as the pink so-called diamond. But why was Clifford so eager to give her a ring? And why had he forbidden her to tell anybody about their engagement? And why, when she tried to give him back the ring, had he told her to keep it? The whole thing was a bit of a mystery.
‘Would you like to cut a rug?’ Bruce asked in that gentle drawl that sounded almost apologetic, like a boy at his first dance, yet she was flattered that a man of his stature was paying her so much attention when he had a whole ship full of people to choose from.
‘That would be lovely,’ Grace said politely, feeling a little giddy when he held out his hand and led her into the ballroom. Grace wasn’t the kind of girl who jumped out of one relationship and straight into another, but there was no harm in a dance.
Bruce was an excellent dancer and deftly moved her round the floor to the mellow sound of the orchestra, and Grace was floating on air. But instinct warned her nothing good lasted forever.
Bruce whispered something she couldn’t quite hear as she inhaled the fragrance of his expensive cologne. Where she came from, men smelled of toil and carbolic soap and she was fully aware that all eyes were on both of them.
Pulling away slightly, she saw Bruce looking mildly surprised, until she gave him a dazzling smile and pointed to her ear, shaking her head. He nodded, realising she had not heard him, and leaned closer.
Turning her head to listen, Grace caught sight of Clifford stroking the face of another young dancer whose hungry expression proved to Grace he went for easy targets. Under normal circumstances, she would warn the dancer what Clifford was really like, although she doubted the young starlet would listen, knowing she would not have listened either.
Watching how smoothly he ingratiated himself was like seeing her past playing out before her eyes. The showgirl, so naïve, so gullible, was the kind of girl she had once been. She looked away, silently thanking her lucky stars she found out what a deceitful, two-timing fake Clifford Brack truly was, before she married him.
The wedding! A thought suddenly struck her as Bruce guided Grace round the dance floor. She would have to write to her mother and tell her she didn’t need to buy that new hat after all.
‘You look fabulous,’ Bruce D’Angelo, totally charming, crooned into her hair, interrupting her thoughts as he moved with the ease of a professional dancer.
‘Thank you.’ She felt as if she had known him for much longer than the hour they had spent together, and when the upbeat samba rhythm struck up, Grace felt her hips snake into a life of their own.
‘You can certainly move, Grace,’ Bruce whispered as they danced so naturally together. She did not give a second thought to the fact that she was dancing in the arms of the most important man on board. Nor that this, the heady stuff of her dreams, was the lifestyle she had once strived for. ‘I want to kiss you, right here on the dance floor.’ Bruce said when the music stopped.
Grace gave him a look of mock surprise and said in the voice of a southern belle, ‘Why, sir, we have only just met!’
They were still laughing when he steered her past Clifford and his cohorts, off the dance floor to a table on deck, where it was a little cooler.
Grace didn’t have a care in the world, smitten by the magnetic pull of Bruce D’Angelo, whose dark Mediterranean looks would always be a draw, even if he weren’t heir to one of the world’s finest shipping lines. A purser brought more champagne in a silver ice bucket to refill their glasses.
‘So, tell me everything about you,’ Bruce said as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
‘You first,’ Grace replied, knowing she could not possibly tell him about the muddle of characters that made up her family. Although, when he told her that he lost his mother in a car accident when he was seven years old and was sent to boarding school, she wondered what it must be like not to have a loving family to call on when the need arose.
‘Dad and I don’t see eye to eye on much,’ Bruce explained. ‘He loves the cut and thrust of the business world, whereas I prefer to be quiet and read a book.’ He gave an endearing half-laugh, ‘You’re never lonely with a book to read.’
‘Tell me about your mother,’ Grace said and immediately his dark eyes softened.
‘She was the most beautiful woman in the world.’ He gently touched her hand and Grace, feeling moved by the simple gesture, gave him a reassuring smile. ‘My world is a poorer place without her in it.’
Grace spotted the deep sadness in his eyes and wondered what it must be like for such a young boy to lose his most precious treasure. The woman who had given him life and nurtured him for his first seven years.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said brightening, ‘you must think me a bore…’
‘Not at all!’ Grace insisted, she loved listening to him talk.
‘That’s the first time I’ve ever spoken about Mom,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to share my precious memories of her with anybody, in case talking would somehow dilute my remembrance of her, but since talking to you, Grace, I feel… stronger.’
‘I’m glad it helped,’ Grace said.
When he urged her to tell him about her home life, she gave him the well-rehearsed tale of a middle-class girl from one of the better-off districts of Liverpool and she was thrilled when he wanted to hear more about her family.
‘Well, our Danny was a sergeant in the army before he went to work for our uncle, who has his own haulage business.’ Grace had no intentions of telling Bruce that Uncle Henry was a carter, who plied his trade along the dock road of Liverpool. ‘Then there’s our Bobby, who is still in education.’ Nor was she going to tell him the little bugger spent as many days sagging school as he did in it. Bobby tried every trick in the book to get a day off school. ‘Da… My father was severely injured when smugglers broke into his warehouse.’ Not the truth her father was a night-watchman on the docks.
‘How severely injured?’ Bruce gripped her hand across the table.
‘Very,’ she said, keeping the news that her dad had lost his toes in the Somme to herself. ‘He has not been able to work since, and is barely able to walk far, needing someone to help him.’ Especially when he’s kale-eyed coming out of the Tram Tavern. She hoped her downcast eyes hid her daughterly disparagement. The old bugger had never done a proper day’s work in his life, and if it hadn’t been for her sainted mother, they would have starved many a day.
‘And your mom?’ Bruce asked, urging her to continue.
What could she say about Mam?
‘She does a lot of work for the church.’ Washing the alter cloths and vestments. ‘And she is involved in many local charities.’ Feeding the pockets of local spivs, or donating to Da’s daily contribution to bookies runners were as close to charity as her ma was ever going to get.
‘Your family sound delightful,’ Bruce said, and Grace lowered her head. She had embellished her clan’s credentials to the point of sainthood, embroidering a family who were too perfect to be true, instead of the bewildering muddle who got by as best they could.
‘I’m just a girl from Liverpool who happens to be able to sing.’ She had never told anybody where she truly came from, not even Clifford. He found out for himself from the ship’s records.
‘You are not just anything,’ Bruce said, ‘you are talented, unique and absolutely gorgeous.’
‘Stop it,’ Grace laughed, and said, ‘I’ll never get my head through the door with all these compliments.’ She was thrilled, especially when he roared with laughter so loud it cut off the conversation of people nearby.
‘You are a breath of fresh air,’ he said. ‘Everybody is so careful what they say around me, they forget to be themselves.’
‘I only know how to be me,’ she replied. She hadn’t told lies; she had embroidered the truth. There was a difference. A Mersey girl, she knew how to look after herself from an early age, had learned how to answer a question with a question so as not to give away useful information.
Something Clifford Brack hadn’t reckoned on when she reminded him that fraternising between staff was robustly discouraged and threatened to let it be known he flouted company rules for his own benefit. Seeing her in close conversation with Bruce, she suspected Clifford got the message loud and clear. They were over. Done with.
‘What a charming necklace,’ Bruce said, looking at the rope of pink diamonds that matched the engagement ring she didn’t wear any more but kept locked away in her jewellery box in her cabin.
‘Paste, I’m afraid.’ Her words carried to Clifford, who was coming on deck from the ballroom and fixed her with a piercing glare. ‘Cheap costume jewellery.’
‘Oh, honey, I do adore your candour.’ Bruce reached for her hand, wiping Clifford from her thoughts. He lowered his voice, so only she could hear. ‘I can see we are going to have a wonderful time.’
However, their intimate moment was interrupted when Clifford approached the table, his assured demeanour in complete contrast to his glowering expression only moments before. His male ego obviously dented. His masculinity challenged by a man who outranked him in stature, respect and was an absolute gentleman.
‘I came over to say goodnight. Mr D’Angelo, I trust you have had a wonderful evening?’
‘The entertainment was a resounding success, Clifford. Congratulations.’
Clifford shook his boss’s hand, ignoring Grace. It was as if she wasn’t even there. Invisible. Of no consequence whatsoever. And that was just the way she liked it.
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