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Authors: Sara Sheridan

Brighton Belle

BOOK: Brighton Belle
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The author

Sara Sheridan is fascinated by history – particularly the period from 1820 to the 1950s. She enjoys working in different media and genres and writes for both adults and
children. Educated at Trinity College, Dublin, she lives in Edinburgh. Sara’s first novel
Truth or Dare
was nominated for a Saltire Prize and was voted in the Top 100 Books in the
Scottish Libraries Award: her other novels are
Ma Polinski’s Pockets
,
The Pleasure Express
,
The Blessed and the Damned
,
The Secret Mandarin
and
Secret of the
Sands.
Sara sits on the Scottish committee of the Society of Authors and on the board of the writers’ collective, 26. She guest blogs regularly (recently for both the
Guardian
and
the
London Review of Books
), tweets about her writing life as @sarasheridan and about
Brighton Belle
and the 1950s as @mirabellebevan and has a Facebook page at
sarasheridanwriter.

This ebook edition published in 2012 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road
Edinburgh
EH9 1QS

www.polygonbooks.co.uk

Copyright © Sara Sheridan 2012

The moral right of Sara Sheridan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-186-6
Print ISBN: 978-1-84697-228-7

Version 2.0

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Contents

Acknowledgements

Prologue

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

Author’s note

Questions for readers’ groups

Acknowledgements

It may take a village to raise a baby, but hell! it takes an army to produce a book. Happily
Brighton Belle
has had strategists, generals, collaborators and even the odd
foot soldier.

First of all, I have to thank my parents, Kate and Ron Goodwin, without whose boozy lunches I’d never have had the idea at all. Dad’s fabulous reminiscences of Brighton and London in
the 1950s were inspirational so a big thanks to him and also thanks for being patient with the late night phonecalls about how to give change in old money. Next up is my agent, Jenny Brown, who
takes ideas and runs with them. I couldn’t do without Jenny’s upbeat attitude no matter what – she’s a have-a-go heroine (my favourite sort) and I’m very grateful to
her for all she’s done. A huge thank-you (and a bottle of bubbly at least) is due to crime writer Lin Anderson who gave me abundant expert advice about how to write in a new genre. Such
generosity, Lin, thank you. Then there is the team at Polygon who know a lot about publishing
and
know what they like. These two wonderful attributes do not always go together but when they
do it’s impressive. Thanks for taking on the book and running with it – I hope both Mirabelle Bevan and I do you proud. And last of all a big thanks to everyone who took an interest
– my friends online and off, my daughter, who patiently helped me research the ins and outs of 1950s fashion, and my husband, Alan, who though not a Secret Service agent, as far as any of us
are aware, shares many qualities with the love of Mirabelle’s life, Jack Duggan – a girl has to find inspiration where she can.

Sara Sheridan

Edinburgh

‘I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand
thing.’

AGATHA CHRISTIE

Prologue

10 April 1951

L
ondon was glossy – the pavements shone with a slick of rain now the sun had broken through the clouds. It felt like spring at last. At
the gates of Victoria Station newsboys scurried with bundles of papers – the early evening editions were hitting the stands. An old man carefully pasted the headline to a thin strip of wood.
NAZI WAR CRIMINALS TO HANG AT LAST
. Romana Laszlo turned towards the platform. Inside, the station seemed gloomy compared to the blaze of spring sunshine on the street. She
stared down the murky platform, her first-class ticket clasped firmly between kid-gloved fingers. She wished they’d stop going on about the Germans. The war had been over for years and
Romana, on principle, never took sides about anything. The smell of frying bacon wafted from the direction of the station café as she smoothed her sea-green taffeta coat, checked in case she
was being followed, and then, satisfied that she was safe, set off for the Brighton train. In her wake a porter wheeled a large leather suitcase on a trolley. Her stilettos clicked delicately on
the concrete.

A small huddle had formed beside the open door of the carriage. The passengers had all arrived at once and there was a flurry of porters handing up luggage and people trying to board the
train.

‘Do you want me to put this into the luggage compartment?’ the porter asked Romana hopefully. It would be easier.

Romana shook her head. ‘No, here. I prefer to keep it close to hand,’ she said coldly, with only a hint of an accent.

The porter nodded and resigned himself to waiting.

The little group of passengers hovered on the platform. A man with thick spectacles and a briefcase, a tweed-suited lawyer with a bristling moustache and a grey-haired woman who might be his
wife. Romana found her interest held by a tiny corner of cardboard protruding from the older woman’s pocket. It was a ration book. She honed in immediately and contrived to stumble against
the woman, then, like lightning, skilfully removed the book, straight into her own pocket.

‘Oh, my dear, you poor thing,’ the old woman said, helping Romana to steady herself

‘So sorry,’ Romana smiled.

‘Not at all, quite understandable.’

The jam at the carriage door had dissipated and the old woman gestured. ‘Please, you first.’

‘You need a hand there, young lady?’ the porter offered when Romana hesitated, looking both wide-eyed and vague, as if she didn’t understand. Then, collecting herself, she
gracefully proffered her hand. It was best to be careful while boarding. The porter loaded the leather case and hovered as she searched her handbag for a coin. It was a gold one. He smiled broadly.
‘Home soon, eh?’ he said cheerily.

Brighton was not her home, but that was none of the fellow’s business. Romana handed over the tip and gave an elegant shrug that made her sleek dark bob catch what little light there was.
Then she turned her back and stalked into a compartment. As she sat down she slipped the ration book into her handbag. Nestling inside, had anyone bothered to look, there were three more ration
books and four passports (none in Mrs Laszlo’s name). It was good to keep her hand in. Stations were excellent for that, Romana thought as she drew an enamel cigarette case from the inside
pocket. At once a dark-suited man offered her a light. She stared steadily as she popped the cigarette into an amber holder and leaned into the flame. It seemed her entire concentration was focused
on lighting that cigarette, although she was scanning him, of course, for any opportunity or, indeed, danger. Satisfied, she took a deep draw. ‘Thank you,’ she breathed.

Normally she would have fluttered her eyelashes to great effect and the nameless man would offer her a drink, but she couldn’t expect that now. Romana Laszlo was accustomed to being
troubled by men. No longer. Her hand came to rest on her swollen stomach. She was looking forward to Brighton. London had been damp and cold for months. All winter the fog had strangled the city
like a filthy shroud. Everything smelled of vinegar – cafés, restaurants and even the flat where she had been staying. Romana had heard good things about the attractions of the Sussex
coast and the fresh air at the seaside would surely do her good.

As the train moved off she glanced back, just to be sure no one had followed her. The receding platform was completely clear and she settled back again, noticing the man staring at her stomach
as he shifted in his seat.

‘Not long now,’ he said. ‘Your baby will be born in Brighton, won’t it?’

‘It will be like a little holiday,’ she replied turning towards the window to make it clear she did not want to chat.

Romana Laszlo had never been on a holiday in her life.

1

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.

M
irabelle Bevan surveyed Brighton’s beachfront from her deckchair. The weather had been so fine the last few days she was picking up a
golden tan. Well put-together and in her prime, Mirabelle always ate her lunch on Brighton beach if the weather was in any way passable, but out of sheer principle she never paid tuppence for a
chair. We did not win the war to have to pay to sit down, she frequently found herself thinking. Mirabelle’s stance against the deckchair charges was one of the few things that kept her going
these days. In an act of personal defiance, she carefully timed the coming and goings of Ron, the deckchair attendant, and concluded that it was perfectly possible to sneak enough time to enjoy her
sandwich while he tended the other end of his pitch. By selecting the right chair she could have an average of twenty-five undisturbed minutes, which was perfect. Mirabelle’s life these days
revolved around small victories, little markers in her day that got her through until it was time for bed.

She loved the beach. There was something soothing about the expanse of grey and cream pebbles, the changing colour of the sea and the movement of the clouds. Mirabelle didn’t mind if it
was cold or if there was a spot of rain and it was only during a full-blown downpour or a gale-force wind that she retreated to the steamy interior of the Pier Café. Now she ate her fish
paste sandwich with her large hazel eyes on the ocean and her sixth sense switched on in case Ron returned early.

While the nation complained about rationing, Mirabelle found the limited range of foods available comforting. These days she never had much of an appetite and her favourite whisky was in easy
supply as long as she swapped her meat coupons on a regular basis and paid slightly over the odds. A nice bottle of Islay malt was all Mirabelle Bevan really wanted – though Glenlivet was
fine at a push. When she had finished her sandwich she brushed the crumbs from her tweed skirt, checked right and left, and slipped a small leather-bound flask from her crocodile-skin handbag to
wash down the sandwich with a tiny swig. Back at the office she always made herself a strong cup of tea and sipped it with a cracker so that if her boss came in he would be none the wiser. The
whisky was the only outward sign that Mirabelle Bevan was in mourning. It reminded her of Jack.

As she negotiated the steps in her vertiginous heels and glided back onto the Promenade, Ron came into view, his hands deep in his apron pockets, chatting to two girls. It was always easier to
avoid paying the tuppence when the sun was out and a stream of pretty girls occupied the deckchairs on the pebbles. Mirabelle smiled as she cut away from the front and made her way back to the
office, in a grubby white stone building on the corner of East Street and Brill Lane. She climbed the dark stairway to the second floor, passed the sign that said
MCGUIGAN &
MCGUIGAN DEBT RECOVERY
and opened the frosted-glass door with every intention of putting on the kettle to boil, but the sight that greeted her stopped Mirabelle in her tracks. Big Ben
McGuigan was sitting at his desk. That, in itself, was unusual. Big Ben was what one might call a man of action and, much to Mirabelle’s relief, was rarely in his office. But it wasn’t
only his presence that lent a perturbing air to the office that spring afternoon. Mirabelle’s boss was sitting under a grimy blue towel with a cloud of menthol steam emanating from above his
head. The place smelled like a hammam.

‘Mr McGuigan.’ Mirabelle coughed.

Big Ben emerged with his chubby face flushed. He had been out all morning collecting money from what he referred to as ‘his friends in the slums’. He had seemed in perfectly good
health when he left.

‘Mirabelle, Mirabelle, not so great,’ he said and disappeared back under the towel from where he mumbled, ‘Put on the kettle. I need a hot drink.’

Mirabelle complied. She made two cups of strong milky tea and laid one on Big Ben’s desk. It was most unlike him to ask for anything. In the eighteen months since Mirabelle had taken the
job she hadn’t had a single request. Unbidden she opened the mail, dealt with the ledger, the files, the banking and the invoices. She answered the telephone, leaving accurate and detailed
messages that required no further explanation on Big Ben’s tidy desk. Occasionally a client might come to the office in pursuit of their money. Most days there was a visit from at least one
debtor, either ready to pay or to give their excuses, which they seemed to clutch to their chests and then let out, too quickly, like machine-gunfire. Mirabelle Bevan dealt with everything briskly.
Big Ben appreciated her efficiency and she appreciated his absence or, on his fleeting visits to the office, his silence. After everything she had been through, it was the perfect job.

BOOK: Brighton Belle
5.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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