Oxford Street, Central London, 1960
Lifting the hem of her elegant black dress, Jane steps down from the stage.
The crowd cheer, clap, and beg for more sultry tunes.
Wow. I need a break, she muses to herself. My voice won’t last the week at this rate.
She just gave them all she had, singing a heartfelt version of Smokey Robinson’s Who’s Loving You?
Moving confidently through the crowd, heads turn in her direction, and smiles come her way. Through the smoke-filled room she heads to the bar, then takes a seat.
“You did great up there, Jane.” Jenelle pats the seat next to her. “You sounded amazin’.”
“Thanks, that means so much coming from you.”
Jenelle playfully laughs, then places an arm around Jane’s shoulders. “I mean it, don’t sell ya self short. You should seriously think ‘bout comin’ back with us to New Orleans. We could do with a blued, soulful sister on board.”
A bartender slides a dry martini between Jane and Jenelle.
Wow, this treatment, she chuckles to herself. I could get used to it.
Jane takes a sip from the glass. Pondering Jenelle’s proposal, she extracts a thin smoke, then places it in the holder.
Jenelle fires a match. “Need a light?”
“Thanks.” Drawing the smoke deep into her lungs, Jane leans back, then looks around.
The jazz room is dimly lit with soft lighting. Dark oak tables, with red fabric-lined chairs and sofas face the stage, and a combination of chairs, stools, and benches line the walls around the room.
Whisky and cigars fill the air.
The bar Jane is sitting at, has a high, glossy polish, thanks to Jenelle’s watchful eye. She wipes every drip of liquor and flick of ash customers drop.
On the stage, a black piano, a microphone stand, and a set of drums rest, ready for each act.
Maurice’s Place feels like home now, after seven years.
At sixteen, she had left school with good qualifications, then bummed around for four years between Dublin, Ireland, and London deciding what to do with her life.
At twenty, she scored her first on-stage role at Maurice’s Place, working behind the bar three nights a week and singing the other two. Now twenty-seven years old, the atmosphere of Maurice’s Place, and the variety of customers have kept her here. The chilled out, low-key bar attracts the clientele she enjoys performing for.
Jane inhales her smoke, then glances around. The jazz scene in London is picking up, but New Orleans would be like a dream come true.
The lights in the room lower, and the spotlight moves to the stage, hushing the crowd. Men and women relax in the comfy sofas and chairs around the tables. All eyes move to the centre of the room.
Three men set themselves on the stage: a lead singer, a saxophone player, and a piano player. The smooth vocals of the male lead, floats through the air.
Wow. Who is that?
She studies the saxophone player. His skilful fingers move over his instrument.
“So, what do-ya say Jane?”
The corner of Jenelle’s lips turn up slowly at Jane, who remains under the spell of the musicians on stage.
Jane’s eyes stay trained on the saxophone player. Her smoke has long reached the end, yet it is posed between her fingers.
Laughing to herself, Jenelle waves a hand in front of Jane, as if to snap her out of a daze.
“Earth to Jane. Earth to Jane. Anyone home?”
“Gosh, I’m sorry. I didn’t catch what you said?”
“Look at you. All caught up in the music, or is it Mr. Sax player?”
Jane moves her gaze away from the stage and joins in the girly laughter with her friend.
Dropping her burned out smoke in the ashtray, she reaches for another one, then turns to Jenelle “Wow, he is handsome, don’t you think?”
“More than handsome. He sure can play, too.”
“Hmm, I’ve never seen this band before, have you?”
“Not here, no. But they’ve played over at Ronnie’s a few times. I was over there just last week. They brought the house down.”
Jane meets Jenelle’s eye and raises a thin-pencilled eyebrow in her direction. “Really, you were there? And you never told me? I imagine they sounded great, though.”
“You never answered my question, what about New Orleans? I’m serious, Jane.”
“Yeah, of course?”
“You think I could make it over there? Would I be welcome in your community?”
Throwing both her hands up, Jenelle shakes her head. “Don’t worry ‘bout skin colour, it’s not ‘bout that, it’s ‘bout the music, the voice, the stage presence. All of which ya have honey. Don’t let the racial segregation shit get to ya.”
Jane frowns, and Jenelle’s delicate features mould into frustration.
Biting her lip, she admires her girlfriend’s milk chocolate skin. The woman’s jet-black hair, tied up in a red scarf with matching lipstick and red nails, accents her knockout looks.
“Hmm. I guess so. You’re right, Jenelle.”
“I am. Plus, Dr. Martin Luther King, he’s doing all he can to help everyone move forward.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Okay, let me give it some thought.” Jane smiles, and her friend returns the gesture.
“You do that.” Jenelle raises her martini. “I’d love ya to come over.” She clings her glass against Jane’s as if to affirm a secret pact and vow of friendship.
Jane’s attention drifts to the three men on stage, then lingers on the saxophonist playing an impromptu solo.
An hour later at the bar, alone and reflecting on her and Jenelle’s plans to take over New Orleans together, Jane sips her drink slowly. She reminisces over the vivid dream of how the two of them would make a legacy together, as jazz and soul singers. In theory, every record label in the United States would offer sweet recording deals.
On a high over all the excitement, Jenelle took off with her date to Soho for a movie and a slice of pizza.
Staring into her martini glass, absent-minded, Jane detaches from the smokey atmosphere of Maurice’s Place.
I can sing, that’s about it, she muses, that’s all I know. Secretary, factory worker, seamstress . . . arrgh. These jobs are not for me.
The lights dim slightly, ready for the next act to take the stage.
Looking across the room, Jane locks eyes with the handsome stranger playing the saxophone.
He smiles, and with the nod of his head, he tips his hat in her direction.
She shyly returns the gesture. A slight blush moves through her. Lowering her lashes, she empties the glass.
Oh, wow. That man.
The room stands still. It’s as if everything flows in slow motion. Even long after the song ends, the melody, burned to memory, continues to sweep her way.
Raising her gaze in the band’s direction, her eyes widen.
Where is he? She scans the room and finds who she’s looking for.
Confidently, he strolls over to her with a smooth, easy glide to his gait.
She drinks him all in. He’s easy on the eyes.
His pristine white shirt, black slim tie, milk chocolate skin, and beard, highlight his groomed-to-perfection look. He gives her another warm smile, then leans on the bar by her side.
“Evenin’ Miss.” Looking down at her sitting on a bar stool, he fixes Jane with a seductive gaze.
“Good evening. You were great up there.”
“Thank ya, ma’am. Can I get ya another drink?”
“Sure, I’ll take a martini, thanks. I never got your name?”
Holding out a hand to Jane, she puts her small palm in his.
“Louis.” He places a kiss on the back of her knuckles. “Louis Simpson.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Jane O’Sullivan.”
“You weren’t too bad up there on stage ya’self. Ya really put a lot of heart into that last song.”
“Thanks, I feel so at home on stage.”
“Yeah, it shows.”
“So, where are ya from? Not that I know a lot-a places in London. I just arrived a week ago.”
“I’m from Shoreditch.”
“Oh, yeah, the ‘East-end’, right? That’s what you guys call it?”
“I’ve not been over that way yet. I’m stayin’ aroun’ here just off Tottenham Court Road.”
“Oh, nice, not a bad part of London at all, right in the centre.”
“I heard a lot about the East-end though, some characters over there.”
Jane pulls out another slim smoke and slides it into her long black holder.
“Allow me.” Louis offers her a light, then takes out a smoke for himself from his pocket.
“Oh, you mean the Kray twins. They’re crazy, all right. Just stay out of their way, that’s all.”
She laughs, fully aware of the reputation Ronnie and Reggie Kray have around London.
Two of the most formidable men in the East-end. The twins, loved by few but feared by many, create their fair share of trouble.
The bartender slides a martini glass, with a tumbler of whisky in front of her and Louis.
He pulls out a note from his wallet to pay, and Jane scrutinises him. His style, accent, smoothness, and confident body language speak to her in a way other men fail to achieve.
“So, where are you from Louis? I know you’re American, but what state?”
“Wow, a true southerner.”
“That’s right, ma’am.”
“So, how long have you been in the band?”
Louis glances over at his mates, Clive and Ray, at the other end of the bar where he left them, smoking and playing dominos.
“Ah, the boys, we’ve been together a lil’ while now. ‘Bout five years or so. We go way back. Grew up in Jackson, they’re my buddies.”
“Well, you guys are great together.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am. So, this place is your gig? Ya sing here every week?”
“Sure do, two nights on stage and three serving cocktails.”
Louis nods his head. “Nice place, welcoming. Over here, me an’ the boys ain’t outsiders so much, if ya know what I mean?”
“Back in Jackson, ya don’t see so much people mixin’ together. The segregation is still there an’ strong.”
“Gosh, it’s terrible. London’s not perfect, but slowly things are changing with all the new people arriving from all over. Personally, I think it’s wonderful.”
“Let’s toast to that, Miss.”
Jane smiles warmly, then raises her glass to Louis.
“Talkin’ ‘bout mixing, do ya wanna dance?”
Jane beams back at Louis. “Yeah, I’d love to.”
He guides her from the bar, over to the dance floor.
The sensation of eyes crawling over her—some in shock, some in admiration—makes a warmth spread across her cheeks and neck.
With his hand on the small of Jane’s back, he glides her around the open space.
“Thank you, Louis.”
“What for? I’ve not done anythin’ to thank me for, yet.”
Jane looks into Louis’ handsome face. A wide grin stretches across his face from ear to ear.
His gentleman-like manners, southern accent, and handsome face force the corners of her lips to curl.
“You have. Dancing is just what I needed to have a little fun and relax a bit. I love singing on stage, but it can overwhelm a person.”
“Yeah, I understand that, ma’am. I know the feelin’. You go on an’ relax now, don’t worry ‘bout the stage, you’re with me.”
He pulls Jane in closer and sways to the music.
All these people, all the stares. Mmm, I just met him, she thinks to herself. Maybe this is wrong but . . .
Something shifts internally for Jane, dousing the negative words floating in her head.
Why shouldn’t I be happy? The thought makes her smile. And why should I care what others think?
Right now, his company equates to happiness. And she has every intention of getting to know this handsome southerner better.