It was nearly midnight when the train pulled into Kings Cross. Ellen checked her hair in the window’s reflection. She was sure the length and colour was exactly right, but only time would tell.
Outside the terminal the pavement was wet although the rain had stopped. However, the seven minute walk to Oli’s bar was enough time for her plan to fail if moisture got to her hair. She retrieved her brolly and protected the hard-earned effect as if her life depended on it. Her life did depend on it. She was nobody without Oli’s attention, and ultimately his love was what she so desperately desired.
Ellen spun round, ready to tell whoever was poking their nose into her evening where to get off. The old woman held up both her hands, ‘I’m not interfering dear, just I don’t like to see young’uns in tears.’
Her resolve flittered away as if it had never been in place. The sigh was so loud, the old woman grinned and beckoned Ellen to follow.
Sitting on a bench by the taxi rank, they shared a cigarette and Ellen her woes. For a full half hour, Ellen found she could talk to a stranger – a homeless one at that – more easily than anyone.
‘Sending him letters worked for a while; he even replied to the first two.’ Ellen pulled hard before handing what was left of their second cigarette back to Mo. ‘He’s a busy man, of course, what with managing a chain of nightclubs. But I was sure he’d want to catch up soon and tonight I’d wanted to make sure he’d be unable to resist the opportunity which was coming his way.’
‘What’s stoppin’ ya still tryin’?’
‘Well, then.’ Mo stood up and reached for her carrier bags. ‘You’ll soon know.’
Ellen stood up too, ‘Know what?’
‘When you get there. Whether it’s right to fight for him or not. You’ll know!’
Ellen stepped back into a shop doorway as a black cab swooshed water from the gutter over the curb. Her boots remained unharmed. They were identical to those worn by her so were sure to turn his head. Ellen had been secretly thrilled to notice Josy’s absence in recent months and so the plan to mend Oli’s broken heart had formed. Yet, Ellen had not rushed things. She didn’t want to be labelled a rebound, so had held back for a few weeks.
The neon sign for Oli’s Late Night Cocktails swung in the breeze. Ellen breathed in the aroma of wet tarmac mixed with spilt diesel. The pavement glistened with bright colours and she cleared her throat in readiness to take the first step towards what would become an equally colourful relationship now laying within her grasp.
“Alright, El? Like the hair!”
Head doorman, Mike, held the twisted red rope to one side so she could enter at the head of the queue. Ellen made her way across the packed dancefloor and up the curved staircase towards the VIP booths on the first floor. The smell of too much perfume and aftershave hung in the atmosphere made opaque with dry ice.
At the backlit bar, Ellen asked for her usual and positioned herself on a stool, her bare legs crossed and the heel of her boot hooked over the supporting bar. She checked her watch, a gift from Oli four years ago. Apparently he gave all his dancers a watch, but Ellen had convinced herself that hers represented something deeper an she’d treasured it and always wore it to work.
On the ground floor, on a raised circular platform, the DJ was mixing, one hand holding earphones tight against his ear while he choreographed the next track.
The vodka Martini slid down Ellen’s throat, clinging in firey undertones all the way to her stomach. She wanted another cigarette, but Oli hated smoking. She chewed the olive on the cocktail stick and imagined poking the end into Josy’s perfect. Oli had always been Ellen’s. She just needed a chance to remind him.
The music changed tempo and more dry ice hissed against the dancers below who squealed in delight. They raised their arms giving the impression of a large mammal with bristles writhing in the depths.
She nearly didn’t feel the tap on her shoulder, so hard was she squeezing the tiny wooden javelin. It snapped as she turned to see Oli standing behind her. He leaned forward so she could hear him above the noise, and nodded in agreement when he invited her into his office. She took her glass with her.
This was it.
Behind the closed sound-proof door, the noise was dimmed to a regular thumping. Ellen stayed near the door, knowing her full attire would be more visible than if she sat in the leather chair in front of his desk. Oli sat down and looked up at her, “Come, sit.”
Reluctantly, Ellen moved into the middle of the dimly-lit room. Oli didn’t look particularly happy to see her. He hadn’t even mentioned her hair.
“I’ve been doing some serious thinking.”
Ellen had no idea what was on his mind, but gently pulled down her top knowing more of her cleavage would show, “Okay…”
Oli leant back in his chair.
Ellen stared, fiddled with her watch.
“I’m not sure how to say this.”
“Okay…” Ellen repeated, feeling suddenly nervous.
“I’m having to let some staff go.”
Ellen’s stomach fell away. She felt powerless to reply with anything sensible. For six years, Oli’s clubs, and specifically this one, had been her life. “Not me, surely?”
“I’m really sorry, Ellen. With recent difficult years and all the closures, I’ve got no choice. It’s not just you. I’m losing four or five from each club. It’s the only way I can stay afloat.”
“But, I thought things were improving, with the DJs you’ve got booked, people will flock back all summer long.” She knew she sounded like a petulant child.
He shook his head, “Like I said, I’m very sorry. You’ll get a payment; in your case a couple of grand.”
Ellen fought the urge to hurl the rest of her drink at him before the truth of the matter dawned on her. He must be so heart-broken at being left by Josy, he can’t see the wood for the trees. What he needed was empathy and understanding. This is what the old woman had meant. She felt sure she knew what he really wanted.
‘It’s okay.” She stood and walked around the desk, leaning against the edge close to where he was seated. “You have to do what’s right for you, I totally get that and respect you for it. You’re not a brilliant businessman for nothing, are you?”
He laughed at her attempt to lighten the mood. She saw his whitened teeth and the crinkles near his thirty-four year old eyes. Beautiful eyes which would soon be seeking her out, naked and in his bed.
Oli wheeled his chair backwards and got up. He moved to a small drinks cabinet and poured himself a shot. Ellen waited for the invite to join him and when it didn’t come, she moved closer and laid a hand on the linen covering his shoulder, “I’m sorry you’re going through such a tough time.”
He gulped down the shot, poured another and downed that.
“I hope you know I’ll always be here for you, whatever troubles you’re struggling with.”
“Of course I do,” Oli smiled and closed the cabinet door. “You should get back out there. Thanks for being so understanding.”
“You’re welcome. You know me, Oli. Your bestie.”
The slightly strained look on his face confirmed what she thought, that he was indeed struggling with the loss of Josy, of having to cut down on staff to save his business. She moved to the door and paused. “Let’s talk about it some more later.”
Later never came. Her dances were appreciated by those below her podium, her moves captured on screen. But when she was helped down at the end of her shift, and walked upstairs to knock on Oli’s office door, she found it locked.
“He’s gone, love.” Another doorman whose name she could never recall was splitting his time between manning the office door and perusing activity on the first floor.
“Oh,” she said simply and turned.
Outside, she made her way around the building to check whether his navy Porsche was in the space for one he’d purchased for the same price as her parents had paid for their three bed semi, twenty years ago. Through the metal fencing, she could see the space was empty. He really had gone. Ellen’s blood began to bubble and she ground her teeth, trying and failing to stop resentment surfacing.
Couples spilled from the front door of the club. It was two-thirty and police vans were performing slow drive-bys in the hope their presence might deter any alcohol-fuelled fighting.
She walked away from the club and passed a shop window displaying a spiders web of cracks where someone had hurled something heavy. She knew where Oli lived and while it was a twenty minute tube journey, the walk would calm her anger. He needed to apologise for leaving without finishing their conversation and Ellen needed to tell him things. Needed him to understand that she would be there to help him, in any way she could. That she would be more loyal than Josy who’d been around not even a year before vanishing into thin air, it had seemed.
Perhaps he’d not even read her last few letters. Perhaps the stupid Post Office had failed to deliver them. Yes, that would be it. What with staff shortages due to lockdowns, her letters would have fallen between the cracks and Oli was simply ignorant of what lay ahead for them.
She walked faster, desperate now to tell him how she felt. How she saw their future. Rain drops landed on her bare arms. Instinctively, Ellen felt in the her bag for her brolly but it wasn’t there. What the hell? Ahead, she spotted a bus stop and rushed over to check the Night Bus timetable. Sure enough there was one due shortly which would take her across the Thames.
She leant back against the glass panel, covering an advert for Specsavers and took a deep breath. At least this way, she could arrive with decorum, knock at his door, probably find him in tears with regret that he’d walked away without speaking to her. She would take him in her arms and stroke his hair and whisper how she could save him and nothing would ever need to worry him again.
The bus pulled up next to the path and the doors opened. She slapped the reader with her credit card and walked to the back seat. The rain lashed against the side of the bus. Drips found their way through an open window. She felt them land on her forehead and swore when the window was too stiff for her to close. Instead she moved along the backseat of the bus and immediately felt something wet where she had placed her fingers.
Horrified, she realised someone had been sick on the seat and not cleared it up. She sat up and flicked the gross bits from her hand, wiping it against the next seat along. In her bag were no wipes, just an old serviette from a visit to a coffee shop.
Her nostrils were now full of some stranger’s over-indulgence and she made her way to the door and pinged to let the driver know she wanted to get off.
Walking the final mile, her feet ached and she paused to unzip the boots with the heels which had cost her a fortune and which Oli hadn’t even spotted. She’d never known him so unlike himself.
Finally, she reached the road he’d moved to a while back once he’d earned enough to leave the east end. Buddleja shrubs tickled the neat painted walls of Victorian houses with wooden shutters rather than the dated curtains Ellen’s flat wore. She sniffed hard, defiance against the world which might tell her she was in the wrong place. She knew he lived at number 82. Knew because she’d followed him home from the club once, paying the black cab driver handsomely to follow the navy Porsche, then hiding in the shadows until all the lights went off in his house and she returned home.
Her feet were dirty, wet and almost numb from walking across uneven concrete for half an hour. Her hair lay lank against her shoulders. Her thighs were mottled with cold. 78. 80. Then there it was.
Pretty and plump pink hydrangeas grew beneath the bay window. Warm light flickered behind the slats of yet more shutters, painted in chalky grey. The street lamp illuminated her way along the terracotta tiles laid in a diamond pattern up to the doorstep. In the porch, Ellen took a sudden breath in and held it. A folded buggie was leaning against the wall. Oli must have a friend visiting, or maybe his sister. She’d had a baby, hadn’t she? She checked her watch but saw a naked wrist. Had she taken it off when she’d been for a wee after dancing? She leaned back against the brickwork of the porch.
A baby’s cry was lulled by a man’s voice. Oli. He was soothing a baby. She heard his voice resonate through the stained glass of the front door and strained to hear what words he might be using. Then a woman’s voice. Laughing. She came down the stairs and went into the front room to join him.
Ellen gripped her top to prevent her heart jumping from her chest. She held her breath but the three people inside the house were making small noises and the front door, or what might be outside it, couldn’t have been further from their thoughts.
Ellen let silent tears stream down her cheeks. She made no noise as she turned to step back on the tiled pathway and her bare feet left no footprints on the rain-soaked ground. As she reached the open gate, she saw what she’d missed a few minutes earlier. The For Sale sign, swinging gently in the breeze, the agents’ lettering shining where the light bounced from the street lamp.
The old lady was right after all. Ellen knew now that she’d be wasting her energies chasing a man whose heart had been captured. She walked back up to the main road, and stopped briefly at a black wheelie bin. She dropped the boots into it without a second glance.