Okay, so this is the opening chapter to a Three Belles Story, as yet untitled. Hope you like it!
1. The Cloche Hat
The slim young woman moved through the swirling night fog with increasing apprehension. It’s like walking through a cloud, she thought as billows of opaque air curled around her. The woman, whose name was Anneka, suddenly felt very alone in the streets of the island city of Portsmouth.
It’s got to be here somewhere! she continued – the grey air seeming to make even her thoughts difficult to focus. Can I really be lost?
Little patches of orange light faded in a few yards to tracing paper faintness in the darkness – tiny planets atop disembodied iron poles like unnatural constellations. This is eerie. She took a breath and listened to the click of her shoes on the pavement. The fog pushed in, its cold fingers on her neck.
Instinctively, she pulled up the collar of her elegant knee-length camel coat, tightening the broad belt around her waist with its chunky bakelite buckle. A foghorn groaned with a long, low echo across the city – one of the blind giants on the Solent – and she felt a sense of helplessness inside. Where was she? Goodness, she was due to sing in just a few minutes and had only stepped out to save a call from being drowned by the noise of the pub. One quick step into the fog, then another…
That call. The man’s voice had faded in and out as she’d plugged her other ear with her finger – the signal pulsing and fading and difficult to hear over the mournful foghorns.
“…The shop…” the voice said, over and again. “Don’t… the shop…”
He had a strange, clipped accent which made him difficult to understand, and before she could hear more, the call had cut off.
She shivered, stopping for a moment to gather her wits and her bearings. Not a soul around. Where the hell am I?
She selected the GPS app on her smartphone. Yet, even as she did so, the fog bunched around her like a living thing – and if she hadn’t been more level-headed, she would have sworn it drained the life from the handset. The icon of an empty battery briefly appeared red before the screen flickered palely and then gave up the ghost.
She directed a fiery gaze into the night, defiantly ignoring the chill in her body.
But despite making a show of it, she was uncomfortable. After her last adventure in this very city only the year before, in which she and the two other members of the singing trio called The Three Belles had been the subject of a haunting, she couldn’t help wondering whether something ghostly was about to reappear. But no, Freddie Budden, the ghost who had mistakenly haunted The Three Belles had long been laid to rest. Besides, she said to herself decisively, lightning never strikes twice, as the saying goes.
As if reading her thoughts, light flared ahead of her. Golden in the fog, a pool of brightness, rushing from a shop window and spreading the illusion of sunshine in the misty night. She stepped briskly toward the yellow rectangle in the grey swirl where it hovered like a vision of a summer day and found herself before a shop window.
Oh. And what a shop! She goggled at the display of vintage clothing before her; the beautiful long lines of a woman’s suit – a Coco Chanel day ensemble, no less! The white wool coat with red floral silk lining that also dramatically covered the lapels looked to be just her size. With it came a matching floral silk blouse and skirt. What style! But the thing that did it for her most of all was the cloche hat. Neat, simple, exquisitely cut from white felt, with a little red rose stitched on the side, and a playful line of diagonal white felt angled above the eyes. Perfect!
What is this place? she thought, forgetting the 15 minutes to the gig and the other Belles waiting for her in the pub. She was transfixed by that suit, and especially that hat.
Taking in the vintage shop’s dark wooden shelving through the window, the little display compartments at the back like something from a hundred years before, she marvelled with wide eyes: Not seen this before – must be new. My, they’ve done it so well, too!
Seeing the OPEN sign in the door, she decided it might make sense to just – well – just pop in and get some directions, and maybe take a quick look around, too, while she was there. Without a second’s thought, she stepped inside, out of the eerie fog, into the nostalgic smell and comfortable warmth of a vintage fashion boutique exclusively set up to sell clothing from the Roaring Twenties.
She eyed the room in a kind of ecstasy of appreciation. The immaculate flapper’s dresses, the T-bar shoes with sparkles and spangles, the long elegant lines of exquisitely cut coats, the strings of pearls on the mannequins and – oh – yes – those delicate little white cotton button-up gloves on the counter. She picked them up and felt their lightness under her hand and their softness, running them through her fingers as she looked around her. She admired the little touches in the shop. Squatting in the corner of the room, in full mahogany splendour, a wind-up HMV gramophone player, its horn spreading over it like the bell of a lily. Nice! And even the till on the counter, she thought, even that is in pounds, shillings and pence. My goodness!
“Hello?” she said to the room, and thought she heard a rustle somewhere. “Hello? Anyone home?”
On the counter sat a circular brass service bell with a striker button on the top, which she tapped with confidence. A loud, high-pitched chime lifted up like a frightened bird and echoed around the room. Then, as the sound died, she saw, standing in the shadow of a coat rack not far from her, a short man with a red silk waistcoat, little round glasses – and all topped by a fez, of all things! – looking at her expressionlessly, seeming to drink her in.
Realising he had been spotted, he stepped toward a little Chinese incense burner that stood on the counter. A squat green jade bowl standing on four lion’s claws made of brass, with the brass face of a lion on one side, all surmounted by an ornamental top piece. He lifted the lid and dropped a pinch of pungent incense into the bowl. A flame flared up with a blue light for a second, rolling a curl of smoke into the room, strangely reminiscent of the fog outside.
“Welcome, lady, welcome,” he said. “Welcome to my shop, yes?”
Anneka took him in for a moment longer. A funny little fellow, perhaps four feet tall, a sparkle in his eye now, no longer with that enigmatic look, but a broad smile on his face. He almost skipped towards her with pleasure.
“How can I help you this fine day?” He raised a hand before she could answer. “Don’t tell me. You like the Chanel in the window? A special piece, yes indeed, let me, yes, let me show you! It is very much your size. Tall, elegant. Yes? Something to bring out your shape… look!”
Before she could answer he was in at the window and had disrobed the dummy with such speed that she wondered if there was some trick to it.
“No, listen, I came in here to ask the way – ” she began, a vision of the gig rising in her mind. What would the other two Belles be thinking? She could see Sally’s worried face, hear her talking with Izzie – and Chloe the sound woman looking stressed out. But he somehow dismissed her concerns with a flourish of his hand as he stepped towards her again. Wearing a commanding expression he dandled the suit before her eyes, the suit’s silk shimmering in the shop’s soft light – the room’s golden glow like magic, the scent in the air, powerfully sweet and delightfully relaxing adding to the effect.
“Here,” he said. “Feel it. The quality. It is wonderful? Yes?”
She did as she was bid, feeling the freshness of the cloth, her eyes starting as she caressed it.
“New? Yes, like it is brand new, just out of the seamstress’s shop in Paris, aha? Try it,” he said, suddenly. “Yes, go on. Try it.”
His eyes drilled into hers, and she felt as if suddenly this was exactly the right thing to do. Thoughts of the gig receded to a little corner of her mind, and when he handed her the cloche hat to go with the suit her worries disappeared completely. “The changing room is there – yes – at the back,” he said, pointing with a strangely eager movement.
As she headed to the back of the shop, the sound of classical music, distant, warm and somehow magical, crackled through the room. The shopkeeper was playing an old disc on that gramophone player, she realised. Well, this is super!
The changing room was behind a gold and black lacquered Chinese screen with a rearing dragon painted on it, beneath a golden clockwork bird in a cage – a little comfortable room with more Chinoiserie – a phoenix taking flight above a mirror. With a sense of anticipation she discarded the vintage 1940s clothing she was wearing for the gig. First the camel coat, then the flowerprint dress, the seamed stockings and the neat flat-heeled shoes of Austerity Britain, before putting on something from a wealthier, happier more decadent age.
The silk blouse felt fantastic against her skin, and the soft knee-length summer skirt had a refreshing coolness about it. Then came the white coat with its flash of floral silk on the lapels, and the white summer shoes with a Harrods label inside. Finally, above it all, that white felt cloche hat, with the red rose and diagonal band, also in white, sweeping at a bold angle above the line of her eyes.
She couldn’t believe the fit. An absolute gem of haute couture – a perfect ’20s look!
She stepped from behind the screen to a room much brighter than she remembered. The shopkeeper was pulling blinds over the shop window. There was something strange about the light, she realised – as if daylight were trying to flood in.
He turned to look at her, clapping his hands excitedly.
“Very good, now! Very good!” he said, with a kind of breathlessness in his voice. “Now these!”
He eagerly offered her a pair of pearl earrings, and once they were in place, a string of white pearls around her neck. Finally, he handed her the white cotton gloves, which she put on and buttoned up. A perfect fit. Everything, just perfect. All the while he spoke with her, in a steady rhythmic voice as he pulled a mirror from the shadows and gestured her with a wide sweep of the arm and a half-bow to look at herself in it.
“You look good. Very-very good. Yes? Now you listen to something I say. In a while, you will want to come home. But you will not be able to come home until you do something for me. It is an errand. A tiny little errand. A delivery, no more no less, for a friend. I can’t see him myself, but you will see him, over on the island. Mr Mitchell, that is his name. And you will give him this…”
He showed her a small parcel, about the size of a double CD case, wrapped in brown paper.
“And you must bring something back from him. Anything. When it is done and you have something from him, then you will bring yourself back here, and you will come home. Do you understand me?”
Anneka’s eyes were a little glazed. The strange scent rising from the Chinese burner, the glamour of it all and his funny, rhythmic voice had all combined to give her the strangest sensation that this was all a dream.
Now the shopkeeper handed her a small white handbag.
“There is money in there. A steamer is leaving from Clarence Pier at 12 o’clock. There is a ticket, too. Be on it.” He said this last with a kind of military precision. “Now you must know this. Speak to no-one if you can help it. No idle chit-chat. No questions. Just here is my ticket, or the little things of life. You are a stranger there, and if you are noticed bad things may happen to you. Keep to yourself. For your safety. And remember, your parcel is for Mr Mitchell. No one else. Only Mr Mitchell, the aeroplane designer. He will be at Ryde. With the aeroplanes.”
With this final instruction given to her with an intense look in his eye and a cutting urgency in his voice, the man in the Fez opened the door and showed Anneka out…
…Out into the dazzling sunlight of a late summer’s morning.