The opening chapter from Bridget Walsh’s novel, The Stanhope Venus, winner of the UEA Little, Brown Award for Crime Fiction
Minnie Ward wrapped the towel more securely round her hand and took a firm hold of the knife. With one deft movement, she inserted the blade into the hinge of the oyster, twisted it and, with a satisfying pop, prised open the shell. Oysters and beer. Perfect.
A tall young woman in a gentleman’s evening suit, complete with bow tie and top hat, leaned over Minnie’s shoulder, scrutinizing her face in the dressing-room mirror. ‘Do you have to do that in here, Min?’ she asked, tucking a few strands of dark hair under her hat. ‘When I’m getting ready, and all? The smell don’t half hang around.’
‘Last one, Cora, I promise,’ Minnie said, sliding the blade around the edge of the oyster to disconnect the muscle. Then she tipped the meat and liquor into her mouth and drained her beer glass, before smiling broadly at Cora. ‘It’s like picking a lock, ain’t it? That lovely little jiggle and you know you’ve got it.’
‘How do you know about picking locks? Or shouldn’t I ask?’ Cora said.
‘Three months as a magician’s assistant,’ Minnie said. ‘Long time ago. I weren’t bad, neither. But me and the doves didn’t exactly get on. It got messy.’
Further down the corridor of the Variety Palace Music Hall, bursts of laughter and conversation flared out as other dressing-room doors opened and then slammed shut. An operatic soprano struggled her way up and down a scale, occasionally finding one of the notes.
‘Pick a key, Selina,’ she murmured, ‘any key.’
‘Wouldn’t make no difference,’ Cora said. ‘She’d still sound like a cat pissing in a tin.’
Pushing the door closed with her foot, she nudged Minnie onto another seat and positioned herself in front of the mirrors. She finished applying her make-up, her tongue peeping between her lips with concentration. When she was done, she pushed a copy of The Illustrated London News over to Minnie, past the pots of greasepaint, other stage make-up and dirty rags littering the table.
‘Here,’ Cora said, ‘what d’you reckon?’
Minnie glanced at the newspaper headline speculating on the identity of the Hairpin Killer, a murderer who had been plucking victims from the streets around Covent Garden and Soho for the past ten years.
‘No, not that,’ Cora said impatiently, tapping her finger at an article further down the page. ‘This fella. Wouldn’t mind him investigating me.’
Minnie glanced at the pencil sketch. A man of about thirty, she reckoned, wearing an evening suit and monocle. The headline blazoned “Albert Easterbrook: Champion of the Labouring Classes”. She scanned the article. A gentleman detective whose mission was to “help those who cannot help themselves” had tracked down a pickpocket targeting the elderly and infirm in Bermondsey. The pickpocket was also sketched for the reader, a grisly-looking individual closer to a bear than a man.
Minnie snorted. In her experience, the “labouring classes” were well able to take care of themselves without the help of any toff.
‘Not your type?’ Cora asked, wincing at herself in the mirrors and adding a touch more rouge to her cheeks. ‘They never are, are they, Min? Pickiness won’t win any prizes, my girl.’
‘I ain’t after any prizes, thank you very much. Although I do wonder what he does with the monocle when – you know,’ Minnie said.
Cora lifted one quizzical eyebrow. ‘You, Miss Ward, are a very saucy girl, and not the kind of young lady a Champion of the Working Classes would want to be courting. Me, on the other hand –.’
Minnie pushed the paper to one side and eyed the ha’penny bun on the table in front of her. Cora followed her gaze and smiled. Every Saturday Minnie bought herself a cake, a treat for when she got home. Most Saturdays the cake had been demolished long before she left the Palace.
‘Here, Miss Monroe,’ Minnie said, adopting an aristocratic tone and mournfully handing over the cake, ‘remove this delicious confection from my sight.’
Cora placed the cake in a drawer and locked it, throwing the key in amongst the pots and bottles littering the table in front of her.
‘Hardly seems worth it, Min,’ she said. ‘You’ll be out of here in a few minutes, won’t you?’
Then, as if her anticipation of leaving the music hall had put the kibosh on the whole idea, she heard her name being called. The voice drew closer, loud enough now that it set the jars on the table rattling. Without even the briefest of knocks, the dressing-room door burst open. A diminutive man – no-one dared call him short – sporting a brown velvet suit and an elaborate set of whiskers stood in the doorway. Mr Edward Tansford, owner of the Variety Palace. Known as Tansie by everyone, although only a select few could call him that to his face. Minnie was one of the few.
‘Where is she?’ Tansie bellowed. ‘I’m running a music hall not a bloody free and easy. She’s late and I’ve got no-one to fill her slot.’
‘If you’re looking for a mind reader you’ve come to the wrong door,’ Minnie said. ‘Who are we talking about?’
‘Rose. She’s on the missing list.’ Tansie turned to Cora and shouted, ‘You seen her?’
Cora shook her head and made a show of completing her already finished make-up.
Minnie frowned. ‘That’s not like Rose.’
Rose Watkins was a regular performer at the Variety Palace. A tightrope walker and acrobat, billed as The Angel of the Air.
‘Well, it’s like her tonight,’ Tansie said.
‘Have you asked Billy?’
‘Can’t find him neither. He’s meant to be on the doors in thirty minutes, and he’s nowhere.’
‘Checked the bar?’ Minnie asked.
‘No, I haven’t checked the bar. I’m the bleedin’ proprietor of this establishment, Minnie, not some backstage runner.’
‘I could have a look?’ Minnie offered.
‘Yes, you could, couldn’t you? Quick smart.’
Minnie bridled. ‘I think the phrase you’re looking for is, “Thank you so much for offering to help me, Minnie, when I know you were due out of here ten minutes ago”.’
‘Just find her, Min,’ Tansie growled.
Minnie left the dressing room, navigating her way through the poky backstage corridors. Cigar smoke caught in her throat, its dusty odour always reminding her of burnt coffee. Mingled with the smell of greasepaint and cheap perfume, it felt familiar and safe.
Passing one of the dressing rooms she heard breaking crockery, followed by quiet sobbing. She glanced at the cards pinned on the door, one of which said Betty Gilbert, Plate Spinner. Minnie didn’t know her. Must be her first night and, clearly, rehearsals weren’t going to plan. Minnie made a mental note to check on her after she’d spoken to Billy and wondered if she’d ever get home in time for supper.
She came out onto the stage. A tall plantstand, topped with a large aspidistra desperately in need of a drink, was positioned to one side. It was Tansie’s idea of a sophisticated accompaniment to Madame Selina, the unfortunate soprano. Facing the row of unlit footlights Minnie was reminded for a moment of her days as a performer, the hungry eyes trained on her, eager to be entertained. Her stomach turned, and she dashed off the stage.
The lamplighters were at work. Hundreds of gas burners around the auditorium were being coaxed into life. The candles in the chandeliers were already lit and offered enough light for Minnie to see her way. She weaved through the groups of tables towards the promenade at the front of the auditorium. There were four doors tucked behind the mahogany bar that stretched along the front wall. Minnie tried the first two with no luck, before opening the third to find Billy Walker lolling on a gilt-wood couch upholstered in a vivid shade of pink.
Billy leapt up as the door opened, almost dropping his pipe. Seeing Minnie, he relaxed back onto the sofa. He was tall, well-built, as a chucker-out needed to be. Tansie made a lot of noise about keeping a respectable house, and men like Billy dealt with the more unsavoury characters. Leaning back, pipe in hand, he made an impressive sight, with his dark hooded eyes and biceps the size of a man’s thigh. But Minnie knew Billy Walker’s type all too well, and was unimpressed by his charms. She had tried warning Rose when he’d first started sniffing around.
‘But he’s so lovely to look at, Min,’ Rose had said. ‘Those eyes! And his arms!’
Yes, and those fists, Minnie had thought.
‘Well ain’t you quite the don,’ Minnie said, pushing Billy’s feet off and perching on the end of the couch. ‘Wait until Tansie catches you in here, Billy. Then you’ll be for it.’
Billy shrugged, tamped down the tobacco and carried on smoking.
‘I mean it, Bill. Tansie spent a small fortune doing up these snuggeries.’
‘Yeah, and for what?’ Billy asked. ‘For gentlemen to entertain their lady friends? Toffs and their dollymops, more like. Having a quiet smoke in here’s nothing compared to what’ll go on later tonight.’
‘Look, I ain’t here to have a go. Rose is on the missing list. You seen her?’
Billy shook his head. ‘Not since this morning. I went round her house just before midday, but she was on her way out. Wouldn’t say where.’
Minnie thought for a moment. ‘What was she wearing?’
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘Might give us a clue where she was going.’
‘I dunno,’ Billy shrugged. ‘Clothes. She was wearing them shoes.’
‘The new ones?’
‘Yeah, the new ones. She must think me a proper muff. She got a right collar on, telling me it was none of my business what she did with her time. Let’s just say we had an exchange of language, and I ain’t seen her since.’
Rose and Billy had been courting for six months, and arguing for half a year. Everyone at the Palace had grown used to hearing them row, but their most recent one had been the worst. Billy had found an expensive pair of cream silk shoes, embroidered with tiny red roses, in the dressing room Rose shared with two other girls. They would have cost several weeks’ wages, and Rose wouldn’t reveal how she’d come by the money. Billy had jumped to the obvious conclusion, and Minnie couldn’t say she blamed him.
‘And you’ve got no idea where she might be?’ Minnie asked. ‘Don’t sell me a dog, Billy. If you know where she is, you’d best say now.’
‘Don’t know. Don’t care. She can sling her hook as far as I’m bothered.’ He stood and stretched lazily. The room suddenly seemed a lot smaller. ‘If you see her before me, tell her to stay out of my way. I’ve got a liking to make it a little warm for Miss Rose Watkins.’ He clenched his fists reflexively. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, Min, I’ve got punters to let in, and troublemakers to keep out. This is a respectable establishment, remember?’
He knocked out his pipe on the snuggery floor and strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Minnie retrieved the remains of the tobacco from the floor. She had no great fondness for Billy but, if he lost his job, Rose might be the one to suffer. Before she left the room, she took a moment to glance up at the poster of Edie Bennett, The Richmond Rocket, adorning one wall of the snuggery. The most famous music-hall performer of her age, Edie was the reason Minnie had first gone on the stage. She raised her hand, saluted the image and left the snuggery.
As she made her way back to the dressing rooms, the auditorium was slowly coming to life. The gilt-framed mirrors lining the walls reflected back the dozen waiters in dark suits and clean white aprons, who were checking the tables were clean and the tablecloths all hanging at the same length. Tansie was a stickler for detail. The walls were adorned with paintings of exotic landscapes and what Tansie assured her were European cities – Paris, Rome, Geneva. Minnie had her doubts. The paintings were supposed to give an illusion of sophistication, but Tansie’s fondness for pink and gold undermined the effect. He had heard somewhere that pink made people drink more and had applied the colour with a liberal hand throughout the Palace.
She followed the sound of his hollering until she found him backstage.
‘Well?’ he said. ‘Did you find her?’
Minnie shook her head. ‘Billy ain’t seen her since this morning.’
Tansie swore. ‘Are you on the square?’ If you’re lying –’
‘– I ain’t. I could nip round to her house?’ Minnie offered. ‘She only lives on Wych Street. There and back in twenty minutes.’
‘No. I need you here. You’re my right hand, Min. I’m gonna have to change the running order, and that’ll set them all off.’
‘I’m a writer, Tanse, remember?’ Minnie said. ‘Songs and sketches, that’s me. If you want me here every night to keep things calm you’re gonna have to pay me for my time. I was due out of here twenty minutes ago.’
Tansie and Minnie had this discussion at least once a week. Invariably, it ended with Minnie agreeing to stay, although vowing it would be the last time.
‘I’m in trouble here, Min,’ Tansie said. ‘The girls don’t listen to me the way they do you.’
‘Well at least send a lad round to her house. It’s Rose, Tansie. She’s worked here for years, and she’s never once been late. Send a lad.’
Tansie frowned, then nodded. He fished in his pockets and extracted a ha’penny. ‘Give him a flatch,’ he said, handing Minnie the single coin, ‘but only once he’s back, mind.’
Minnie walked to the stage door, where a group of young lads were loitering as they did every night, hoping for some scrap of work. She picked Bobby, the smallest of the boys who looked no more than five or six, but was probably twice that age.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘14 Wych Street. Ask for Ida Watkins and find out when she last saw Rose. Come straight back with the answer, you hear me? There’s something in it for you, mind. But only if you’re quick.’
At the suggestion of reward, Bobby sped off. Minnie turned back into the music hall and was accosted almost immediately by Tansie. He eyed her speculatively.
‘What?’ Minnie asked. ‘You’re looking at me like I’m the canary and you’re the cat that ain’t been fed for a week.’
‘I couldn’t persuade you, I suppose?’ he asked her. ‘Your old act? The punters loved you, remember?’
Minnie felt the old panic flood her body as memories resurfaced. The paralysis of waiting in the wings, knowing all her words had failed her. She took a deep breath. ‘We’ve had this conversation many times, Tanse. Nothing will make me get up in front of those lights again.’
‘But you were a natural, Min. A face made for comedy, that’s what I always said.’
‘Thanks, Tanse. Just what a girl wants to hear.’
‘You know what I mean. Your face moves around a lot.’
‘Seriously, Tanse. This much sweet talk could kill me.’
‘Oh,’ he growled, ‘what’s the word I’m searching for? Come on, Min, you’re the one with the words – Expressive!’ he shouted triumphantly. ‘You have an expressive face. You were a natural mimic, Minnie. You could have wrung laughter out of a stone. It broke my heart when you decided to jack it all in.’
‘Enough of the codding, Tanse. I had my reasons. I ain’t talking about them. I’m done with all that and much happier for it.’
‘Well, I’m delighted for your happiness, but it still leaves me with a twenty-minute turn to fill.’
‘Can’t you ask anyone to stretch it out a bit?’
‘Already tried. If the dog and monkey act are on stage any longer than twenty minutes Kippy says the dog’ll eat the monkey. Or is it the monkey who’ll eat the dog? Either way, bloodshed. The Mexican boneless wonder is already as drunk as a boiled owl, and it’ll be a miracle if he makes it to the stage, let alone the end of his act. And the one-legged dancer muttered something unmentionable when I asked her.’
Minnie arched an eyebrow. ‘Selina’s always keen.’
Tansie gave Minnie what her mother used to call an old-fashioned look.
‘I must have been off me chump the day I hired her,’ he said, a look of genuine sadness on his face. ‘Just hearing her practice gives me the morbs. But if there’s no-one else we’ll have to make the best of a bad deal.’
‘Problems, dear boy?’
The voice was rich and syrupy, every vowel stretched to its limits. Bernard Reynolds, a veteran of the theatre, had once specialised in recitations of Shakespeare, but the public had grown tired of his extravagant delivery. Now he termed himself a “utility gentleman”, able to turn his hand to anything required, but in truth he was only ever given what were euphemistically termed “thinking parts”. Bernard’s most distinctive feature was the few strands of hair he combed over his bald head and fixed with a pomade of his own making, made primarily from goose grease. On a warm evening, you could smell Bernard before you saw him.
‘A tiny bird tells me you’re short of an act, dear boy,’ Bernard continued. ‘I humbly offer my services. A little Lear, perhaps? A morsel of Macbeth? Or would you favour comedy? In the words of the Bard, “I am fresh of spirit and resolved to meet all perils very constantly”.’
‘I appreciate the offer,’ Tansie said. ‘I’m just not sure the Palace punters are quite ready for such sophistication.’
‘One is always ready for Shakespeare,’ Bernard said, affronted. ‘But if you feel otherwise, “I will go lose myself”.’
Faced with a blank look from Minnie, Bernard offered helpfully, ‘The Comedy of Errors, dearest one. Antipholus of Syracuse. A minor part, but one I played with remarkable poignancy according to –’
‘– I’ve thought of something,’ Minnie interrupted, before Bernard started reciting his reviews, every one of which had been painstakingly committed to memory. ‘Leave it with me.’
She ducked down the corridor to the furthest dressing room. Five minutes later she was back.
‘Sorted,’ she told Tansie. ‘Betty Gilbert. You hired her as a plate spinner, but the dog and monkey act would make a better fist of it. She only took the job ’cos she’s desperate, and she won’t last two minutes before the punters shout her off, but she can do a full turn as a tumbler. That’s her trade. She’s watched Rose’s act more times than she can think of and knows it back to front. You might need to change the running order, give her time to run through it backstage, but she’s game.’
Tansie reached up, grabbed Minnie on both sides of her face, and pulled down her head, planting a smacker on her forehead. ‘You, my girl, are a bloody lifesaver,’ he said, a rare smile illuminating his face and revealing the glint of a gold tooth. He turned swiftly and headed towards the stage, shouting random instructions at anyone he passed.
Minnie made her way back to Cora’s dressing room. Just as she turned the door handle, Bobby appeared, panting hard. Minnie glanced at her pocket watch. Impressive.
‘She ain’t there,’ Bobby said, catching his breath. ‘Her ma ain’t seen her since early today.’
‘And she’s no idea where Rose might have gone?’
He shook his head.
‘Is it bad news, miss?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing,’ Minnie said. But it didn’t feel like nothing. A memory flashed through her mind of the very first time she had met Rose, the other girl about nine and Minnie herself only a few years older. Minnie, broken by grief at the loss of her mother. Rose, a little slip of a thing, but smart enough to figure out that cake was the way to Minnie’s heart, stealing penny buns and getting a slap from Ida, her mother, for her troubles.
Minnie turned her attention back to Bobby. He deserved more than the measly ha’penny Tansie had offered. She felt in her pocket and gave him a penny.
‘That money is from Mr Tansford,’ she said. ‘Know who he is?’
‘Little fella. Big voice. Fancy suit.’
Minnie smiled. ‘Exactly. And next time you see him, remember to say thank you. He likes to feel appreciated, and there might be more work he can send your way.’
‘Thanks, miss,’ the boy said, turning to leave.
‘Here,’ she said, moving towards the table and finding the key amongst Cora’s make-up. She unlocked the drawer and gave the cake a last mournful pat before handing it to Bobby. ‘Take this as well. You look like you need it.’
The boy’s eyes widened, and he snatched the cake from her hand. As he turned away he was already cramming it into his mouth with hungry bites. Minnie knew if the other lads saw him with the cake it would be out of his hands in no time, but still she called out after him, ‘Not all at once. You’ll be sick.’
He muffled his thanks through a mouth full of cake and was gone. Minnie turned back to the mirrors and tried not to think about Rose.