In her dreams, the children are always there. She is playing with them, they are laughing; she is cooking for them; they are dancing together. They are at home, they are together in the swimming pool, they are on holiday, they are on the beach, they are in bed and she’s reading them a bedtime story. Multi coloured dreams, confetti and music, rainbows and starry moonlight. No one ever gets older, forever frozen in time. In her dreams, she is happy.
The alarm rings, shattering the escape she loves so well. She hates waking up to the reality of her life. The quiet is deafening, the little flat tidy and spartan, bereft of any clutter. She longs for the mess of blocks on the floor, crayons on the dining table, and childish scribbles on papers stuck with magnets on the fridge. She sighs and pushes the duvet aside, and springs out of bed, impatient to see what sort of an afternoon it is. Today it is a bright, sunny day. She looks at the sky and wonders how the sky is where they are. Do they smile? Are they warm enough? Have they forgotten her? Or do they also dream her dreams? And that is the last thought she allows herself of her children. For today. Until she dreams again.
She savours the first bittersweet coffee of the day as she checks her phone for emails and messages. She’s on track for her evening slot. There is a message from her mother asking her to call her back, some dinner on the weekend. She smiles wryly. Dinner plans are made, meals are cooked and eaten, the garbage is taken out, the sun shines, the birds sing, and life, a greedy, demanding bitch, goes on… Never stopping for anyone.
She stands under the tepid water in her excuse for a bathroom. Pistachio green tiles and a style which went out half a century ago, but this is all she can afford for now. She breathes in the freshness of the green apple shampoo and focuses on the simple things. Water on her skin, running in rivers down her body, gurgling as it goes down the drain. She scrubs and washes, humming an old melody as the water washes away the last remnants of her dreams.
The Number 38 bus from Dalston to Piccadilly Circus is her daily commute. She looks wistfully at the young mother who gets on at Ockendon Road with a baby in her pram. The mother is wearing a leopard print halter top with white denim shorts, knee high black socks and sequined trainers. She has a piercing on her right eyebrow. Strangely, it all works, as fashion statements go. The baby is adorable, with smooth, cocoa skin and at least eight pigtails fastened with pink and white rubber bands. Quiet, with dark eyes like deep pools in a cool forest, she is looking around, content and solemn. The mother’s long fingers drum an impatient beat on the seat. The woman traveling to Piccadilly Circus wants to kidnap the baby. She longs to have a baby again. She wants to inhale the sweet smell of baby again. She imagines reaching for the pram and running off with it while the mother checks something silly on her phone, she imagines raising the baby as her own, the baby’s podgy fingers grasping hers as they walk in a park, the baby splashing in the bathtub, she imagines having someone to love again… but then she thinks of the young mother, dreaming the dreams she dreams every night, and smiles with regret and a touch of sorrow. She distracts herself and looks out the bus window at the trees and the people, the old women pushing their shopping trolleys in front of them, like walkers, and the young boys jumping and running, high fiving and whooping with the energy of teenage hormones.
Piccadilly Circus arrives and after stealing one last glance at the baby in the pram, the woman jumps off gracefully, her black sweatshirt, jeans and trainers making her blend seamlessly with the sea of people. Grateful for the tourists and hence her job and the tips, she walks towards Glasshouse Street. The bright summer sun feels gorgeous on her neck and arms and as she takes a moment to look up at the bluer than blue sky and the white fluffy clouds, her thoughts return to her children, to days of picnics and fighting over board games in the park, she takes a moment to remember, to reminisce, why did it have to end like this? She thinks of her ex husband, how he just took the children on just another camping trip, but never returned, where are they all now? Which country do they live in now, under which identity? It has been four years and the police and the lawyers have given up. All the money gone, her youth gone, her babies gone… She shakes her head and breathes determinedly, looking at the ground again, not today, not now, and she continues walking.
Diamonds Piccadilly is a nightclub and she greets the doorman as she walks to the side, to enter through the Staff Entrance.
“All right, Eddie?” she greets.
“Wonderful day, isn’t it?” he answers with a cocky smile.
She likes Eddie, the aging but still dashing doorman. She does not like Larry, the potbellied manager, who keeps trying to make a pass at her, leery and boorish. She hates the fact that being single invites people to try and proposition her, despite the work she does. She tries to avoid him at every chance, but he always corners her and makes her skin crawl with his innuendoes and bad jokes, which she is obliged to respond to, else he will not get her these shifts with the better tips. She shakes off thoughts of Larry and goes into the Staff Bathroom to change for the evening.
The slinky silver lurex dress is very retro and clings to her curves. Taking a last look at herself, she slathers on some more red lipstick. Walking tall in high heels, she shimmies over to the microphone and starts the evening. Her voice is low, husky and seductive.
“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope you’re having a fabulous evening! Please welcome Ross Taylor on the piano, Tim Stevens on bass, and Duke Elliott on saxophone. I am Denise Williams and we are The Fallen Angels! We’re starting today with an old classic, Moon River, but we’re taking requests all evening. Drink up, smile, and make merry, it’s summertime in the most beautiful city in the world!”
There’s mild applause as the band and she slide into Moon River with practiced ease. When she sings, she forgets. When she sings, she is transported to a time of innocence, a time before the violence and the rage, a time before the emptiness. The club is half full, she catches the wink of diamonds on a slim wrist in the blue black light, the cigarette smoke that wafts around the tables on the patio, the aging woman who tries to dress young, her companion with the bad hair transplant. She watches as the waiters smile and serve though she knows their backs ache and she responds to the energy of the crowd as it starts to engage with the music. As requests start trickling in, she gets sent the occasional glass of champagne with someone’s card, maybe a tip. She raises her glass in a toast and smiles with confidence. No longer the single woman living in a small, dingy flat in Dalston, this is the West End and she feels young, sexy and desirable.
“And this is the last song for tonight, Diamonds and Rust. You’ve been a fabulous audience! Come back soon!”
The night has sped away. It is three a.m. and she is still buzzed, from the adrenalin of the music, performing to an audience that responds, the magic of singing. As the last strains of the song die out, and the lights get dim, she sashays off the small stage, wanting nothing than to get out of the high heels and to wash the lipstick and the mascara off. But not before she encounters Larry.
“Hey, sugar,” He has been waiting.
“Oh hi, Larry, I didn’t see you earlier,” she lies.
“Your lips are like sugar, and your voice like honey,” Larry is trying to embrace her, his fat hands going right for her butt. His touch makes her cringe and she pulls away. At another time, she would have given him a slap, but that was when the armour of wealth and belonging to a certain strata of society automatically kept scum like Larry away. But she knows her situation now and this comes with the territory.
“Larry, I am so tired, it’s been a long evening.”
“I’m just trying to relax you, babe,” he says, with a leer.
One of the regular customers to the nightclub comes by on his way to the bar.
“Denise, stellar performance, like always! May I interest you in a drink at my table?” he says.
“Sure, Mr. Jefferson, just a quick one. A girl needs her beauty sleep, you know!”
She heaves a sigh of relief, and avoids the lecherous Larry and walks back into the club to where she had seen Mr. Jefferson sitting earlier. She waits for him to return, taking in the details of his table. The single carnation in a slim vase, the little glass votive with a candle, his glass of whisky to the side and a used napkin, rumpled and discarded. He is an elderly gentleman who had lost his wife to cancer a few years ago. He likes to come to this nightclub and Denise and he would occasionally chat. He has old world charm and reminds Denise of her Uncle Winston. The brandy takes the edge off the evening, and she starts to relax as she listens to the old man tell her stories wrapped in humour about his latest visit to the doctor and about his neighbours who are all going senile.
The drinks are done. The makeup and the high heels are off. The jeans and trainers are back on, the hair is pulled back severely. The tips have been collected and the day is done. The minicab driver is waiting to take her home. This is the one luxury she accepts gratefully from the club, they insist on making sure she is dropped safely home. Her mind is blank and she is pleasantly tired. Dawn has just started to break and the early birds twitter and chirp. She looks at the now familiar roads and landmarks as they drive by, Sadlers Wells Theatre, Islington, Angel… Another road comes to her mind, just as familiar, the leafy, tree lined wide roads of St. Johns Wood, where she had lived for many years. Before her life turned upside down. The pain has eased but she can still remember. She smiles wistfully as they get closer to her flat, the driver negotiating narrow roads lined by overflowing rubbish bags, graffiti on the walls, a far cry from the gentrified and safe St Johns Wood.
She walks up the steps to her flat. An overpoweringly loud silence greets her as she steps in. She hears the hum of the air filter, and smells the sickly sweet fragrance of the flowers on the dining table. She throws her bag aside, and hurriedly changes and washes, preparing for bed as though she is going to meet a lover. She turns off her phone, and makes sure the alarm is set. And then she closes her eyes, and waits for the sweet release of the dreams to take her home.