Today I welcome Alice Burnett onto the blog as part of her tour with her new novel, Ideal Love.
I have an extract from the book for you, so read and enjoy! Then buy the book here.
‘Cheek To Cheek’ by Irving Berlin
It was 25 September 1997, I was twenty-six and I had no idea the evening ahead of me would change my life.
‘Gilles – ’ Tim Woodward was whispering at my office door.
‘Ah thank God, let’s go.’
We exchanged nods with my principal and I steered Wood out of the building.
He was slightly less miserable than when I’d first suggested tonight’s party. We had a laugh about a keen fellow trainee on our way to the tube and I got a glimpse of the Wood of old. But whatever else happened that night, one mission had been accomplished – Wood was neither at his desk nor at home listening to Mozart’s Requiem.
He’d been single for a year, I’d only had six days of it, but I was the one who couldn’t sit still.
We went down the escalators and squeezed on to a carriage. He’d gone too far into the darkness.
I hadn’t expected my girlfriend to call it off either, I’d been upset. But the two of us were like travellers who’d teamed up only to realise we’d arrived, nothing was keeping us together. She’d just bothered to understand that and take action. And with enough notice for me to hear about this party, get Tim invited and coax him into showing up.
We stepped out of Covent Garden tube and I told him to prepare himself. It was going to be a beautiful night.
‘So it’s all over with Anna then?’ he asked bleakly.
‘Yup,’ I said, walking on.
‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘No, she did us both a favour.’
‘She seemed genuine to me.’
‘Yeh, she was, the spark just went out.’
Tim sighed. ‘Gilles, I hate to break this to you, but at some point you’ve got to stop thinking with your dick and grow up.’
A group of girls paraded past, like an erotic pat on the back. I could sense them with my eyes closed.
‘Tim,’ I said as they walked away, ‘twenty quid says I leave with a woman and you don’t.’
Tim raised his eyes and went quiet. I didn’t speak.
‘All right, all right,’ he said as if I hadn’t stopped talking. ‘Done.’
We walked into the club entrance and down the stairs, pulled under by the waves of sound and body heat, until we reached a kind of massive volcanic cave which my friend’s sister’s twenty-first had filled beyond imagining. The DJ was charging it up with seventies funk – there must have been over a hundred women on the dance floor alone – not only that, the men were all at the bar, dutifully perpetuating that great English ritual of refusing to dance with the women. What was this if not the promised land?
It didn’t take long before I was mesmerised. I pointed out the blond woman with the incredible figure to Tim. Tim said she looked aloof, but that on the plus side, this would help her shake off lust-crazed French bastards like me. I brought his attention to a sweet-looking, dark-haired girl I thought he might like, but he wasn’t convinced. I finally got Tim to concede that the blond one was ‘superficially attractive yes, but nice, no’, and went over and bought her a drink.
Her face wasn’t quite so pretty close up, but then again I clearly hadn’t made her day. She wasn’t interested in conversation and when I asked her to dance she looked at me like I’d told her a bad joke.
Did I still smell of rejection? Surely not, it had been nearly a week.
Then I got lucky. She liked lawyers, especially city lawyers. She made a remark about my hair, and I said it was straight before I saw her. She laughed, and looked at me and carried on laughing, beyond the time allotted.
I went from trainee solicitor to cash-laden hotshot in five minutes. She became a stream of gazes, a sweetshop of breasts, waist and thighs, drinking with me, dancing with me, not objecting to the feel of my hands.
At least an hour must have gone by. One of her friends interrupted to complain about a girl they both knew. I went to get drinks and came back into focus.
I couldn’t see Tim anywhere and wondered if he’d left. He didn’t get it. You just had to throw yourself and see where you landed.
But waiting in the crush at the bar, I glanced over at the one I’d been with as she dished it out, her expression as cold and dismissive as when I’d first asked her to dance.
Nice no, I thought.
Back together, we found a quiet spot on the other side of the dance floor, and she was all hospitality, the sweetshop door open, the jars within reach.
We left the club. Cooling off on the pavement, I found myself asking her to dinner the following Thursday. Did people do that? But within a minute, she’d accepted, I’d hailed her a cab, kissed her goodnight and lost myself twenty quid.
I went back in to look for Tim. He couldn’t have needed
me less. He was deep in conversation with a girl. Not the dark-haired one, another.
A guy I knew from law school blared into my ear like a trumpet. ‘Gilles you old tosser! I knew you’d be here!’
We had a drink and discussed rugby for ten minutes, which was educational but not what I’d come for.
I scanned the dance floor one last time. It had gone down a gear, mainly smooching couples and people too out of it to know what else to do.
I thanked my friend’s sister – I was going to Paris the next day – and went to the cloakroom to get my jacket. It was soundproofed and organised. I put my jacket back on, not half as pleased with myself as when I’d taken it off.
‘Hi Gilles.’ Tim was following me up the stairs, arm in arm with the girl he’d been talking to. She was pretty and sensitive-looking and I could see the pride in his face.
We chatted on the street. Her name was Elaine.
‘He’s a great guy,’ I said to Elaine, ‘I’ve known him for years, you couldn’t meet a nicer person, really fantastic guy – ’
‘Thanks Gilles.’ He was smiling like a light. ‘Elaine and I were actually at university together.’
‘Right,’ I realised I was slightly drunk and neither of them were at all. ‘Well then you already know,’ I smiled back.
Self-consciously, they wished me goodnight.
Wood had turned it around.
Give it a year or two, I thought, and me and the Trumpet would be handing out the orders of service at their wedding.
I started walking towards Soho Square. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I wanted it, whatever it was. Police sirens came and went, beer cans and cocaine packets flowered in the bushes – the place was like a dark mouth, salivating over every human urge. I thought about another me being reincarnated as a prostitute. She’d be good at it. And then I-me could meet this charming woman-me who’d know exactly what I wanted.
It was eleven thirty. The plane left at nine the next morning. Get up when, six?
I had to accept that I hadn’t got into the cab with the blond woman, and that this was for the best given I was going away the next day. I headed to Leicester Square tube.
Women weren’t ice cream, I told myself, they could wait and melt later. Sometimes it was better to get some distance and re-evaluate.
I strolled down the escalator and caught up with a couple standing side by side. They stayed put until the last moment, let themselves be delivered by the bottom stair and walked off giggling.
I followed signs to the Piccadilly Line, passing an angled mirror in a blind corner of the passageway – a relic, surely, from the days when Victorian lawyers roller-skated through the station. God was I slick. Billowing cape for attracting attention, untouched Victorian women gasping, sweating at my exceptional roller-skating skill. Careful, shy eyes. Beating breasts. And though my feet are strangely shod, my mode of expression oddly modern, they can see that I am strong and tall, passionate yet practical, wild yet sensitive –
A train rattled off into the dark.
In its wake I heard someone singing. Someone who knew what they were doing. A woman, mellow-voiced, light.
It went away.
I needed a cab for 6.30. I had to take a second shirt for the evening. Two ties. Business cards. Pick up some cash at the airport.
I heard the voice again. Faint but not weak.
… I could take the red tie. Or no… dark red, less showy.
You didn’t often hear a voice like that on the tube. Or a woman on her own, which took courage. I locked my ears onto it as it faded.
I walked along the passageway, listening out for the voice, wondering if I was getting warmer or colder, until it stopped being a game and listening was all I was doing. Had I heard it? I thought I had, I was almost certain of it – I was taking off, separating from myself, listening with every cell. And although I realised I hadn’t, I felt that time had slowed down, that it was only me listening that made the link from one moment to the next.
Then the voice came in from nowhere and I was set back on the ground, the music so tender with sadness that at first I could hardly bear to listen. I hadn’t known how much I’d needed to hear it. I’d had no idea.
As I stood there, the sense grew in me that I’d been an invalid, on the way out – for months, years – that I’d been given the right medicine in the nick of time, a shot of emotion calibrated precisely for the way I was feeling, combining inside me, making me cry in my head, making the night fall away like nothing.
The song was an aria, I wasn’t sure which, and normally I couldn’t stand opera, but there was nothing operatic in it, her feelings were real. A voice as light as sun on the water, barely caught in the physical, and yet this close, this full of love.
It was ending, but there was another.
I laughed in delight. ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’. Oh perfect choice. I had its pattern in my head, I couldn’t have heard it better.
I felt my ears drink in the sound. How wonderful that I was here, that I hadn’t got into the taxi, for one moment of this – a woman’s voice, simple, smooth, entirely on the note, no tricks, no catches, relaxed, effortless, but with the greatest depth of emotion.
And while I listened, I let something happen to me without me realising it. Something I couldn’t explain and for a long time kept to myself, because this feeling didn’t usually happen to me, I made it happen. The person singing was you, the passion, the honesty in your voice were yours, and I was falling for you, distantly as if I’d separated from myself again, and the me that was there listening was too ecstatic to know it.
‘Heaven,’ you sang, ‘I’m in heaven.’
I rounded the bend and caught sight of you, standing where the passageway met the stairs. The beauty of your face, the ease of your expression, the grace in your bearing – I took it all in, but it made sense and didn’t surprise me. It was dream-like. I could feel and see and hear, but not act. And you were still singing, and I was still listening.
I noticed I wasn’t the only one. Other people, women and men, young and old, they stopped. Like me, they walked on eventually, shy of how they felt. Perhaps like me they listened for a while on the platform. ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ – Piccadilly to Uxbridge. ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ – Heathrow Airport. ‘Sophisticated Lady’ – Rayners Lane. Then, like me, their feet took them on to a train.
Sitting in the carriage, it occurred to me that I could have spoken to you. I could get out at the next stop, go back, find you. Of course, I thought, I must, why not?
But I told myself it would be awkward, an interruption to you, an embarrassment to me. Later that night, alone in my room, having gone over my failure to act as if I could have worn it away, I swore I’d never litter my life with excuses like that again. I’d make up for it.
I’d search everywhere, somehow find you. And once I’d found you, I thought as I lay awake, anything was possible. We’d fall in love. For myself, I knew it. For you, I’d do all I could to convince you.
It wasn’t that I was totally deluded. I knew I wasn’t much. But time seemed suddenly shortened, with an end as well as a beginning, and highs and lows that might never come again. That night in the tube station, I’d been to heaven. I wanted to go back. And if nothing short of insane optimism would get me there, what was the point in being realistic? This was love. And love was all there was, I knew it for sure. And pity the old me – pity anyone who didn’t.