PROLOGUE: A Flock of Seagulls
Skegness, England, 1960
The guesthouse was grim, run-down, located in an unfashionable part of town just off Harecroft Esplanade. Her room was dingy, drab, faintly odoriferous - but the moment Kirsten had set eyes on the barre, she knew this was where she was going to live.
It wasn’t really a barre, of course - just a sort of dido rail, running along one side of the little room; a rather ostentatious mirror set above it, almost perfect. Kirsten stood before it now, dressed only in bra and panties, bathed in the light of an early summer’s morning, her heart pounding: it was an ordinary, momentous seaside day.
First exercise: plie. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, bent her knees. As her body sank she held position a few beats, feeling the pull in her buttocks, the back of her thighs. The sunlight through the window was already quite strong: faint perspiration sheened her brow, her shoulders, the hollow of her throat. As she straightened she exhaled, and opened her eyes.
There in the mirror she saw Kirsten Wilding, a nineteen-year-old girl with a broad, somewhat angular face, a tad heavy at the chin and jaw; great brown eyes, a dainty little nose and a tiny, slender mouth. Her pale sandy hair -pulled up into an appropriately severe, temporary bun -exaggerated the overall effect: cute, certainly; striking, maybe; but not exactly beautiful.
Second exercise: eleve. She pushed herself up onto the balls of her feet, emitting a soft, unconscious grunt. One, two, three beats, then up onto tiptoes - the sudden flare of strain in her calves and ankles, leg muscles taut and trembling. There in the mirror, Kirsten Wilding, dancer. She liked to imagine herself born dancing; poised upon tiptoe before she could even walk - it was all she had ever wanted to do. And as a child, it seemed anything might be possible - she had the grace, the delicacy,
the quiet power to be something special. Puberty was her undoing: while her body remained lithe as it lengthened, certain encumbrances made themselves manifest; to the fore, quite literally, a bust that budded then bloomed and kept on blooming. Most girls would envy such a gift, but to Kirsten it was a disaster: by fourteen, she was already too curvaceous for any hope of being a prima ballerina.
Third exercise: battement tendu. She turned parallel to the barre, set her feet at right angles. She stretched one leg, keeping it taut, fighting the tremble, feeling sweat trickle tickling down her pale back. In the mirror a silhouette of Kirsten Wilding, wannabe. Endless hours scouring ads in The Stage, travelling by train, by bus, by cab to audition after audition; nervous waiting with a hundred other equally talented, equally desperate girls; throwing herself into unfamiliar routines, only to be dismissed, sometimes at the first cut, sometime at the last; never sure which hurt the more.
Final exercise: rond de jambe. She swung her leg, flexed her toes, moving now with the smooth, controlled precision of a piston, her body finally easing itself into what it had always been meant to do. Beside her, in the mirror, Kirsten Wilding: star? For all the effort and tears and yearning had at last paid off - she had a break. Not a big break, to be sure, but at last her passion threatened to earn its keep. Weeks of rehearsals were over and done - today, she would perform in front of a real, live audience. Her heart began to pound again with the realisation.
From elsewhere in the house there came a scent of bacon frying. Kirsten wasn’t sure if she could face one of Mrs Grimes’ greasy fried breakfasts in her nervous state, but reasoned that if she didn’t eat something, the butterflies flocking in her stomach would never settle down. As she picked up her clothes she took one last glance in the mirror, smiling slightly - she was ready.
Rena Lewis snapped awake, aware abruptly of it still being early, and of a change in her immediate circumstances. Beside her the bed was empty - she sensed the portly figure of Jonno Grande moving
purposefully about the room. With an effort, she raised her head and looked at him through gritty, sticky-lashed eyes. He was fully dressed, half-packed.
“What’re you doing?”
He started slightly, like a boy caught in mischief, but quickly recovered his composure.
“Ah, you’re awake, Precious. Good, good. Look. I’m really sorry about this, but I’ve got to get back down to The Smoke. Duty calls, and all that.”
She sat bolt upright.“You mean, you’re going today? The day we open?”
Jonno averted his eyes.“Well, yes. I’m sorry, Precious, but you’re not the only client on my books, even if you are no.1 - I’ve got to see to some of my other charges.”
“But do you have to go right now?” Rena’s tone was almost distraught.
“Well, I’ll need to be in the office by this afternoon, and I rather thought I’d get in a round before I set off.”
Right on cue, there came the metallic whip of a six-iron from outside. Bloody golf, thought Rena - what could be more tedious than a hotel in the middle of a golf course? She threw herself dramatically back down amidst the covers.
“You’re not going to see her, are you?”
Jonno hesitated, just a fraction. He came over to the bed, looked down at her.
“No, I’m not going to see her,” he lied, with perfect sincerity. She gazed dolefully up at him.
“If you stay, I’ll suck your cock.”
He chuckled, bent to kiss the top of her head.
“Best save your throat, Precious - you’ll need it later. Look, I’ll be back for the evening show, and we can celebrate here after the party. Don’t worry about a thing - you’re a star, yesterday, today and tomorrow - it’ll be fine.”
He flung his golfing bag over his shoulder, picked up his case and exited the room with a jaunty whistle. Rena drilled herself deep into the covers. So this is stardom, she thought.
The day was a tease, like so many in an English summer - what had started bright and promisingly warm had, by midday, turned overcast and cooling. Kirsten studied the sky as she neared the imposing, Romanesque bulk of the Ambassador Theatre, wondering if the change would draw in a bigger crowd, and if that was what she really wanted. It was to be a tough start to her showbiz career: two shows in one day, afternoon matinee and evening performance. She lingered by the stage door, trying to steel herself, but it was no good - the butterflies were up and active. She took a deep breath and went in.
Inside, the almost soothing hubbub of a company in preparation: stage hands, some frenetically active, others just standing around; costumiers and makeup artists in full camp flow; cast members, some already in full regalia, smoking, chatting with exaggerated bonhomie, or simply staring ahead, iconoclastic. As she passed through the vaguely industrial processes of costume and makeup, Kirsten caught brief sight of the star herself, Rena Lewis, in conversation with a rat-faced little man whose
outsize notepad and dodgy hat screamed‘local press’.
“Dickie Diver, from the Standard,” he was saying. “I’d just like a few words about the show, Miss Lewis - Jonno said it’d be fine…”
Kirsten didn’t catch Rena’s reply, but to her the star seemed a little bored and distracted. Despite what the rest of the chorus thought, Kirsten couldn’t help liking Rena Lewis. Alright, it was common knowledge that she was having an affair with Jonno Grande, her manager and the impresario behind Skegness Spectacular 60, but then again, wasn’t that the sort of thing famous people did? They said she’d slept her way to stardom, but Kirsten didn’t believe it - Rena’s voice was a wonder, full of power and sweetness; and of course, she was quite extraordinarily beautiful. A statuesque gilded blonde, standing six feet without heels, she had what Kirsten regarded as a “Hollywood” look: an angelically tapering face, with soft high cheekbones; an assertively concave nose; lusciously full lips; exotic, penetrating blue-grey eyes, beneath soft dark brows epically sweeping as North Sea waves. With those looks and that talent, she was obviously destined for greater things - Kirsten felt they were lucky to have her.
The matinee was a disaster. Not for Kirsten herself - apart from a couple of missteps, she had performed better than she expected - but overall the show was disjointed, shambolic: it was as if, as a cast, they had collectively regressed since the dress rehearsal. And, shockingly, Rena Lewis had been the weakest link. During the one number where Kirsten shared the stage with her (albeit part of a twenty-strong dancing troupe), she had been staggered at Rena’s desultory, reticent delivery. Backstage, recriminations and sniping gossip were already being freely dispensed - any more performances like that, it was agreed, the whole show could be doomed in a matter of days. Now they had just a few hours to pull themselves together, and get it right for the evening stint. Kirsten found the atmosphere at the Ambassador poisonous - partly to avoid it, and partly to distract herself from
thoughts of the next looming challenge, she decided to talk a walk along the sea front.
The dulling of the day had driven the crowds from the prom, though as usual there were plenty of seemingly rather desperate bathers dotting the edges of the grey water. Gulls wheeled raucously above her head as Kirsten walked on aimlessly, mulling over what had just occurred; trying not to worry about it all, and failing. When her ankles began to ache slightly she was shocked to realise she had walked as far as Harecroft Esplanade, almost back to Mrs Grimes’ guesthouse. Down here, at the unfashionable end of the Front, there were only a few hardy, slightly lost souls to be seen. Bizarrely, Kirsten recognised one of them.
It seemed utterly incongruous, but walking towards her was none other than Rena Lewis. Though she affected sunglasses, and had tied a headscarf about her blonde curls, there could be no mistaking that tallness, that haughty walk. Quite forgetting herself, Kirsten stuck up a hand and waved gaily.
Rena stopped dead, peered momentarily over the rim of her sunglasses, then sighed theatrically. Her hand shot into an expensive-looking handbag.
“Yes, yes, it’s me,“ she muttered, bringing out a silver fountain pen. “What is it you want me to sign?”
Kirsten was nonplussed: the penny rolled around several times before it dropped.
“Oh no, no,” she spluttered, “I don’t want… I mean, I’m not… I’m in the show.”
“Show?” Rena repeated stupidly.
“Yes, your show, Spectacular 60: I’m in the cast.”
Kirsten’s face fell. “I - I’m one of the dancers. I come on when you’re singing Streetlight Shine.”
It was an incredibly awkward moment, begging for an interruption, and fortunately one came. Along the Front came a shiver of commotion, passing like a spark among the little groups gathered there: people were calling out, pointing towards the sea. The pair of them turned, looked, saw.
In the middle distance, something moved upon the water. A long, slinking, curving black line, quite distinct, flexing like an earthworm as it streaked over the waves at a ferocious rate. Along with the others they watched open-mouthed as the thing flashed past them, disappearing finally to the south. In the immediate aftermath, everybody seemed a little stunned.
“What on earth was that?” Rena finally asked.
“I have no idea,” Kirsten replied.
They lingered for a few moments, as did the others, awaiting some sort of further development. When none came, everybody simply began moving again, resuming whatever activities had been stilled by this curious interruption.
“What’s your name?” Rena asked suddenly.
“Kirsten - Kirsten Wilding.”
“Well, Kirsten,” Rena smiled, “I don’t know about you, but I could use a spot of lunch.”
It was a beach-front café that somehow succeeded in being simultaneously dour and cheerful - lots of yellow Formica and green plastic seats. The declining weather had brought plenty of impromptu diners, their collective exhalations causing the windows to steam unseasonably. Even so, the pair of them kept flicking glances out to sea, just in case.
“I really fucked it up this afternoon, didn’t I?” announced Rena, matter-of-factly.
“Well,” Kirsten stammered, blushing, “I don’t think any of us were at our best…”
“Bollocks. I know what they were saying - that’s why I came all the way out here. And it’s true, I was shit. I always go to pieces when Jonno isn’t there.”
A harried looking waitress deposited their order: tea for two, fish n’ chips for Rena, toasted cheese sandwich for Kirsten (the butterflies still lingered, threatening). Soon as she had gone, Rena resumed speaking.
“I suppose you know I’m fucking him?”
Kirsten almost choked on her first sip of tea. She couldn’t help glancing around, to see if anyone was eavesdropping.
“Oh, of course you know,” Rena continued. “It’s been common knowledge for ages. He keeps saying he’s going to leave his wife, make us official, like - but he never does. The bastard’s with her right now, I’ll bet - ‘in the office’ my arse.”
She began cramming chips into that beautiful mouth, like she hadn’t eaten for days. Kirsten kept her head down, studying her tea, trying to think of something to say.
“It’ll be alright,” she finally mumbled. “Perhaps Mr Grande will be there tonight, and everything will click. You’ve too much talent, Rena, to have two bad shows in a row…”
She trailed off, embarrassed by what she’d said. But when she dared look up, Rena was looking directly at her for what seemed the very first time. She was smiling.
“D’you want a chip, Kirsten?”
She gave her several, feeding them directly into Kirsten’s mouth, as though she were a child. Kirsten found herself savouring the tang of salt and vinegar as she licked them from the tips of Rena’s perfectly-manicured fingers.
The evening show was a dream, as perfect as the matinee had been flawed. A sellout audience, eager for distraction after an afternoon cooped up in pubs and chalets, determined to enjoy themselves. The cast responded, giving it their all. Kirsten pushed herself to the limit: feeding, like the others, from the crowd’s enthusiasm. Her only misstep - or near misstep - came during an intricate number when only the dancers were on stage: Kirsten happened to glance into the wings and caught sight of Rena stood there, watching intently. She could not shake the conviction that Rena was watching her. That, more than anything, spurred her beyond her limit, her body twisting and flying with furious grace.
And Rena herself was perfect, almost literally angelic, glowing on stage as she drew energy from the audience’s adoration. She hypnotised them with her beauty; left them spellbound with the silky power of her voice. Streetlight Shine could not be performed better: onstage, Kirsten was moved close to
tears, and she was convinced she heard muffled sobbing from the auditorium. In the thunderous applause that followed the number, Kirsten imagined Rena glanced at her, grinning, as she bounded offstage.
The curtain calls went on and on, but eventually the lights came up and the public began to move off into the night. There was a mad rush to the dressing rooms, in anticipation of the party. Kirsten, still giddy from the performance, found herself likewise hurrying, though in truth the party held little appeal for her, as she had no real friends among cast or chorus. No: what she wanted - and it was a stupid, girlish, yet irresistible notion - was to be the first to congratulate Rena. But though she tore off her costume and flung on her civvies with near superhuman speed, she failed.
Jonno was back. Kirsten hadn’t noticed him, but he must have been somewhere in the auditorium. As she came flying out of the dressing area she saw him with Rena, affecting the rather overdone formality they always adopted in public. Kirsten felt suddenly, utterly deflated: Rena’s apotheosis had nothing to do with her, after all - it was all for Jonno. Kirsten had allowed herself to become stage-struck, like a child, an idiot. She lowered her head, taking care not to eavesdrop as she walked stiffly past them, towards the stage door. She was now determined, for no rational reason, to forego the party.
She had got a good two-thirds of the way back to her digs when the percussive clatter of running heels and a breathless voice calling her name made her pull up. As she turned, Rena Lewis all but collided with her.
“Bloody hell, Lass, you’ve got a stride on,” she panted. “Thought I was never going to catch up with you.”
“Why aren’t you at the party?” was all Kirsten could think to say.
“Oh, bugger the party - I don’t want to hang around with people who hate my guts. Besides,
“But don’t you want to be with him?”
“Fuck, no - bastard’s still in the doghouse, as far as I’m concerned. I saw you sneaking out, so once we’d got the autograph hunters and schmoozing out the way, I told him I had things to take care of, and wouldn’t be home ‘til late. I didn’t realise you’d get so far ahead.”
Kirsten stared.“I… don’t understand.”
Rena threw her arms wide in exasperation.
“For fuck’s sake, it’s quite simple: I don’t want to spend the evening with him; I want to spend it with you.”
Rena shrugged emptily.“Honestly, I don’t know. I just do. So… how about it?”
“Where could we go?”
“Well, there’s plenty of pubs around - or the cinema, maybe.”
“I’m not really one for cinema, and you’d get recognised in the pubs…”
“Yeah, that’s true - I’ve signed enough autographs for one day. Well, there’s no bloody way I’m going back to the hotel, so I suppose it’d better be your place.”
Kirsten considered.“I dunno if Mrs Grimes would approve - she’s got strict rules about bringing men back to the guesthouse.”
“Yeah, well,” smiled Rena, “Last time I checked, I wasn’t a man…”
Kirsten snickered at that; and so it was agreed.
“By the way, you were great tonight,” gushed Rena, as they walked along. “I was watching you from the wings - really, you were the best dancer on the stage.”
Kirsten shied away from the compliment, blushing with shame that she had doubted Rena’s attention, even though it was a perfectly logical assumption.
“I wasn’t that great,” she mumbled. “But you - you were fantastic: the audience loved you; you had them in the palm of your hand.”
“Well, thank you,” Rena replied, actually seeming a little humbled. “But, honestly, you were great.”
“No, you were great.”
“So,” said Rena, after a pause, “The consensus is, we were both great?”
They laughed then, and they were still laughing when they reached the guesthouse. Giddy as schoolgirls they crept through the brightly-lit hall, trying not to giggle uncontrollably as they climbed the stairs two-at-a-time, trying to sound like one person.
In Kirsten’s room, Rena took in the narrow, unmade bed; the tiny wardrobe; the absurd little kitchen
range; the dido rail and incongruously large mirror: it reminded her of a doll’s house, all scaled-down and unreal. Truth be told, it was scarcely bigger than her own dressing-room.
Kirsten rather self-consciously brewed some tea, bidding Rena to sit on the only chair in the place. The silence between them abruptly became very awkward: they were still strangers after all, with only one clear thing in common.
“What d’you suppose it was?” asked Rena suddenly.
“What?” Kirsten was momentarily blank.
“You know - what we saw this afternoon, what everybody saw. Some sort of animal, do you think?”
“I don’t know. It seemed to me it was on top of the water, moving over it. I mean, there’s things that swim in the water, but I don’t know of anything that can swim above it.”
“So then, what was it? I was thinking, perhaps a trick of the waves; but the waves were coming in to shore, and this thing was going along, almost at right angles.”
Kirsten shrugged, nestling onto her dishevelled bed. Truth was, neither of them had a clue, so it was going to be a fruitless discussion. Silence again descended as they sipped their tea. Rena cast about, taking in the already over-familiar confines of the room.
“You know, if you moved your bed over to that wall, you could get another chair in here,” she offered. Kirsten shook her head vigorously, shimmering her brown locks.
“Oh, no - I have to be able to use the barre.”
“That,” Kirsten gestured towards the dido rail. “I pretend it’s a ballet barre, do my warm-up exercises every day.”
Rena raised one perfect eyebrow.“I’d like to see that, sometime.”
Kirsten made a face, getting up off the bed and taking Rena’s empty cup. Rena’s eyes were limpid green, looking up at her.
“No, really,” she said, “I’d love to watch you practice.”
“No you wouldn’t,” Kirsten snapped, putting the cups in the sink. “Besides, I don’t have a proper tutu anymore - I have to do it in my underwear.”
“So,” Kirsten looked at her, “I’d be embarrassed.”
Rena rolled her eyes.“Let me get this straight: you have no problem prancing about in front of 500 people in fishnets and a skin-tight leotard with feathers coming out of the arse, but you’d be embarrassed to dance in front of me in your undies?”
Kirsten looked away, blushing beetroot. After a long moment’s thought she sighed resignedly, reaching down to unfasten her sandals. As she slowly unbuttoned her pinafore dress she was acutely ware of green eyes upon her. She felt humiliated, intimidated; bullied, almost.
Crossing to the barre in her bra and panties she saw Rena materialise in the mirror, her eyes blazing
verdigris, her full lips slightly open. Kirsten closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
“First exercise,” she blurted, “Plie…”
Down she went, acutely aware of the thudding of her heart. As she drove herself back up she opened in her eyes: in the mirror, Rena had left her seat and now stood immediately behind her, looming. Her gaze seemed to be studying Kirsten’s back, all the way down her buttocks. Kirsten could not meet it, even in reflection.
“I think,” said Rena softly, “You shouldn’t do this in your underwear. I think you might chafe.”
And her hands moved, with speed and precision, unhooking Kirsten’s bra. The straps slithered from Kirsten’s shoulders, too fast to save. In the mirror she saw her full, pale breasts exposed, the ochre nipples protruding, engorged; aching upon contact with air. Trembling, she closed her eyes, turned, put her hands once more upon the barre.
“Second exercise,” she breathed, “Eleve…”
She pushed up onto her toes, and as she did so Rena’s strong hands were at her waist, hauling down her panties with a sharp crackle of nylon, fingertips trailing slightly, caressing her taut thighs. With a dainty, truly ballerina step Kirsten freed herself of the garment, then raised herself again. Rena briskly slipped off her heels, lifted her skirt a fraction and knelt, almost reverently, before her. With brushing movements from the back of her hands Rena gently parted Kirsten’s legs, put her face into the pungent thicket of Kirsten’s pudenda, slid out her tongue, and began to lick. Kirsten braced herself, her hands gripping tight to the barre, the back of her head pressed against the cold hardness of the mirror; she moaned as inner magma erupted in her vagina, hot and flowing. She became acutely aware of sweat pooling on her brow, her underarms, her legs. Her thighs trembled, soft flames spreading along
their length; flickering up into the pit of her stomach.
With spread fingers Rena gently but implacably pushed Kirsten’s thighs further apart, driving her tongue up into the sticky, heady sweetness of her vulva, supping and pressing until her neck ached and it seemed she might smother herself, her breathing muffled and ragged. Above, Kirsten moaned and gasped in counterpoint, wanting to scream against the unbearably building pressure, but still dimly aware of Mrs Grimes’ unwanted wrath. She felt the trembling in her legs, her arms, her belly - the sweet, intolerable tension of impending release: her whole being seemed to clench, forcing guttural, animalistic sounds from her throat: for an instant, she was utterly convinced that the barre was about to give way. Rena sensed a critical moment, letting her tongue slither wildly over labia and clitoris, lashing the moist flesh until her mouth throbbed and all sense of taste was gone.
Kirsten clenched, released, clenched again: it was like being pummelled, mercilessly but adorably, by some invisible assailant. The pulses rolled together into one almighty spasm, and at last her legs gave way: her fingers slipped from the barre and she slithered inelegantly down to the floor. Her head and body rang; her pulse and heart rate were beyond measure; her breathing was so deep and bottomless it was as if her lungs had achieved infinite capacity. She opened her eyes, blinked at Rena’s unutterably beautiful, concerned face before her.
“Did I make you come?” she whispered.
Still collecting herself, Kirsten could only nod. Rena smiled, just a little, putting her hands on Kirsten’s shoulders, pressing her glistening lips to Kirsten’s own, slipping her tongue easily into Kirsten’s mouth. As their tongues slickly tangled, Kirsten tasted the rich caramel of her own passion, knew the awful, absolute reality of what had just occurred. What she had allowed to occur.
“Why did you do that?” she breathed, when at last her voice returned.
“I dunno,” answered Rena blankly. “It - it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Kirsten put out a hand, sliding it up under Rena’s skirt, along her stockinged thigh, tremblingly probing. She could not help a little gasp at what she found: the gusset of Rena’s knickers soaked; warm, sticky wetness everywhere. Rena sighed, quivering with need, and Kirsten responded, pulling urgently at the knickers, now with both hands. Rena lifted herself slightly, allowing the sodden garment to be pried down to her ankles. The scent of her desire was tangy upon the room’s still air.
“What do you want me to do?” was Kirsten’s urgent whisper.
“I don’t care,” came the panted reply. “Do anything you please: I want you, Kirsten; I want you so badly…”
Somehow they were kissing again, a voluptuous smear of lipstick. Kirsten probed again with her fingers: the naked wet, hot and raw, was thrilling, frightening. Fingertips traced the outline of dilated labia, the enraged bud of the clitoris. Rena moaned softly, her eyes closed, her whole body trembling.
“Fuck me,” she whispered,. “Please, oh please, fuck me…”
Suddenly lustful, emboldened, Kirsten yoked her middle and index fingers, driving them slowly but intently between the labia, deep into the pliant, moist flesh. Rena stifled a cry, and her body gave a little kick, a sudden spasm of tension that dissipated in a low, throaty moan. Kirsten thrust again, this time deeper, faster, harder; challenging Rena’s inner elasticity. If a fuck was what she wanted, a fuck was what she would get.
It seemed to Kirsten that what she was doing was not exactly the act of a lover; there seemed something almost cruel in the way her fingers relentlessly impaled, over and over until her wrist ached with the effort. Yet Rena was uncaring, clinging hard to Kirsten’s shoulders, driving her body against
each percussive stab, her breath coming in staccato, shortened gasps.
“I’m coming,” she panted in Kirsten’s ear. “Oh God, I’m going to come…”
She smothered her orgasm in Kirsten’s hair, her body wracked with soft tremors that came and receded like an unpredictable tide. In the immediate aftermath she planted sloppy, careless kisses on Kirsten’s neck, shoulder, the upper part of her breast. Delicately, Kirsten withdrew her fingers, which had cramped into a slight upward curve. She regarded them, slick and dripping with feminine effluvium, unsure whether she was thrilled or slightly nauseated. She caught sight of Rena looking at her, the green eyes a challenge. She remembered the kiss. She put her fingers in her mouth, tasted Rena’s essence, her come.
“Well?” A half-smile on Rena’s voluptuous mouth; the raised eyebrow a seductive caterpillar.
“Better than vinegar,” Kirsten replied, archly. And then they giggled, sat on the floor in an afterglow of perfumed sweat and abandoned underwear.