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Starlight on the Palace Pier by Tracy Corbett (1)

Thursday 7th September

Becca Roberts got off the bus outside the grand Queens Hotel and made her way along the promenade towards Ruby’s Guest House, the place she called home. The sea breeze increased as the English Channel came into view, choppy and grey, chucking waves of foam over the harbour wall. Wispy clouds obscured the sun, but that didn’t detract from the spectacular view. No matter where she’d lived, or travelled to since moving away to attend dance college, Brighton always appealed, whatever the weather.

She stopped to rub her knee. Waking up with a raging hangover had killed any desire to do her strengthening exercises today. Her physio wouldn’t be happy. He also wouldn’t approve of her hobbling down the road weighed down by a lumpy rucksack and dragging a heavy suitcase, but needs must.

And anyway, she was used to pain. Injury was an occupational hazard for a dancer. At some point, everything in your body would hurt. But this latest injury wasn’t a niggle that could be cured by massage, painkillers and ice. And that was something she was still struggling to get her head around.

The sight of her mum’s bright yellow front door cheered her a little. Ruby’s Guest House was a three-storey Georgian townhouse situated in the Artists’ Quarter, bang smack between the old burnt-out West Pier and the replacement Palace Pier. The ‘Vacancies’ sign creaked in the breeze as she approached. God, she’d missed this place.

Despite ringing the bell twice and knocking, no one answered. She tried the door, unsurprised to find it open. Her mum had been known to leave a key in it overnight.

‘Anyone home?’ she called out, carrying her suitcase over the threshold. ‘Mum?’

Still no answer. She spotted a Post-it Note stuck to the mirror hanging in the hallway.

In the kitchen prepping lunch. You’re in the Seventies Suite! Come and find me when you’re settled. Mum. x

Becca smiled. The Seventies Suite was her favourite. She dragged her suitcase upstairs and down the landing. As she opened the bedroom door, she was hit by bright swirls of orange patterning on the wall and a lime-green duvet cover with a multitude of cushions strewn about the bed. A lava lamp sat on top of a chunky bedside cabinet, next to a yellow plastic clock. The room glowed, helped by the orange curtains and huge sash window.

She couldn’t help laughing as she kicked off her shoes and jumped onto the queen-sized divan. She’d spent many a night lying on this bed during her teenage years, gossiping with her cousin about boys… Well, one boy.

Themed rooms had been her dad’s idea. He’d spent six years designing and constructing the different spaces, researching and sourcing suitable décor and putting his carpentry skills to use before dropping dead of a heart attack aged forty-six. It had seemed so cruel that after all his hard work, he hadn’t lived long enough to complete the project and enjoy it.

Shaking away the sadness, she rolled off the bed and headed for the bathroom, enjoying the feel of the deep-pile rug beneath her feet. Like the bedroom, the en suite was styled to reflect the Seventies, including a pampas bath suite and psychedelic tiling. She noticed a large crack in the shower screen and made a mental note to tell her mum. Ruby’s Guest House was normally in tip-top condition, something her dad had always insisted on.

After a quick shower, in the hope it might ease her hangover, she slung on a pair of jeans and a loose-fitting crop top and headed for the stairs.

All the bedroom doors were closed, except for the one leading to the sewing room. She stuck her head around the door, eager to admire her mum’s latest work-in-progress. But instead of the usual collection of haberdashery neatly displayed on the shelving, she was greeted with mayhem and clutter. Rolls of material lay on the floor, two partially dressed mannequins were shoved against the wall and various boxes of ribbons and accessories obscured the floor. The place was a mess.

Strange. Her mum was usually such a stickler for a tidy workspace.

Her pondering was cut short by a sharp pain shooting up the back of her leg. She spun around, knowing full well what…or rather whom…she was about to encounter. True enough, Mad Maude was on the attack. The devil incarnate. Satan with fur.

She swiped at the cat, but her reflexes were too slow to outwit her nemesis. Maude’s orange fur expanded as she clawed at her enemy’s leg. Why her mum put up with such a psychotic animal, she didn’t know. Surely it couldn’t be good for business? But then, Maude didn’t pick on anyone else. It was only Becca she had a vendetta against.

Grabbing Maude by the collar, she prised the cat away, knowing she only had seconds to make her escape. Chucking Maude onto the beanbag, she hobbled for the door, slamming it behind her and holding on to the handle. For all she knew, the damn cat could open doors.

Various screeching noises could be heard from the other side. Becca waited until it had gone quiet before she let go and limped downstairs. Bloody cat.

She was so distracted, she nearly knocked into an elderly woman heading into the dining room. ‘Goodness, where’s the fire?’ the old woman said, looking alarmed.

‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you,’ which was hardly surprising; the woman was barely four feet tall. Okay, bit of an exaggeration. But she was tiny. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Of course I am.’ The woman sounded indignant. ‘How frail do you think I am?’

Becca figured this was a trick question, so refrained from answering. ‘It was my fault entirely. I was escaping Mad Maude. I’m not a fan of cats,’ she added, feeling an explanation was required. ‘Particularly not ones with a personality disorder.’

The woman laughed. ‘In that case, you’re forgiven. I’m familiar with Maude’s antics. You must be Ruby’s daughter? She mentioned you were arriving. Delighted to meet you.’

The woman’s eyes travelled the length of Becca’s body, taking in her ripped jeans, leopard-print nails, big hoop earrings and blue-tipped peroxide hair. Her expression indicated disapproval.

Becca fought back a smile. As outfits went, this was conservative. She held out her hand. ‘Lovely to meet you. I’m Becca.’

‘Mrs Busby.’ The woman tutted at the sight of Becca’s black bra visible beneath her white top. Her mum had often mentioned the old woman during their phone calls. She sounded like quite a character.

The woman held out her arm and nodded towards the dining room. ‘Shall we?’

Becca had never escorted anyone into lunch before.

Oh, well. Always a first time for everything.

She led the old woman through the doorway, expecting to find the room bustling with guests and chatter, but instead found the sparse conservatory empty apart from one elderly gentleman seated at a table. He was wearing a smart blazer.

When they entered, he rose from his chair and pretended to tip his non-existent hat. ‘Good afternoon, Milady. And how are we this fine lunchtime?’

Mrs Busby responded with a dainty curtsey. ‘I’m very well, thank you, Dr Mortimer.’

He held out a chair for her. ‘Allow me.’

Becca felt like she’d been transported to a bygone era.

‘And who do we have here?’ The elderly gentleman subjected Becca to the same once-over Mrs Busby had given her. His reaction seemed far more approving.

‘Ruby’s daughter,’ Mrs Busby answered. ‘She’s moved into the guest house and doesn’t like cats.’ Her voice lowered to a whisper as though Becca wasn’t standing there. ‘I think she might be one of those hipster types, but she has nice manners, so I think we can overlook her other foibles.’ The woman pointed to Becca’s bellybutton ring, poking out from beneath her top.

Foibles? Becca was too amused to be offended. She’d never been called a ‘hipster’ before.

Before she could respond, the double doors leading to the kitchen opened and her mum appeared looking hot and flustered, carrying a tray of freshly baked rolls. Her dark hair had streaks of grey in it and she’d lost weight over the summer, but her face brightened on seeing her daughter. ‘Becca, love. You’re here.’ She looked around for somewhere to dump the tray, balancing it on one of the empty tables. ‘Good journey?’

‘Not bad, thanks.’

Becca was enveloped in a big hug. Ruby Roberts smelt of warm yeast mixed in with fabric conditioner.

God, she’d missed her mum. ‘Where’s Jodi? Is she home?’

‘She’s gone for an interview. She’ll be back soon.’

‘An interview? God, I hope she gets it.’ Part of the appeal of moving back home was the chance to reconnect with her cousin, who also lived at the guest house.

Her mum tugged on Becca’s hand when it became clear Mrs Busby was eavesdropping. ‘Come through to the kitchen,’ she said, ignoring her guest’s disgruntled expression. ‘Be with you in a moment, Mrs Busby. Coffee coming up, Dr M.’

The doctor saluted. ‘Excellent. Got quite a thirst on me today.’

Her mum mumbled, ‘Nothing new there then,’ and led Becca away from prying eyes.

The kitchen at Ruby’s Guest House was an impressive open-plan room styled with large pieces of vintage French furniture. The ceiling was high and beamed, with fitted skylights to let in light, even on a dreary day. So it was something of a shock to discover pots and pans piled in the sink and baking produce strewn across the table.

Becca assessed the marked paintwork and grease-stained oven. ‘Is everything okay, Mum?’ The place was a far cry from its usual immaculate state. But then, she hadn’t been home for three years. Her mum had always insisted on visiting her in London, claiming she didn’t want her daughter incurring any unnecessary expenditure. But now she wondered if there’d been an ulterior motive.

Her mum turned and smiled. ‘Absolutely peachy.’ There was something a little forced about her jovial tone. ‘Lunchtime is always a tad crazy.’ Which was odd, as there only appeared to be two guests. ‘But enough about me. How did it go with the consultant? What did he say?’

Becca sighed. She’d been dreading this conversation. ‘He said the surgery was successful. The patellar tendon has been reattached and he’s pleased with the mobility I’ve been able to regain through physio.’

‘Well, that’s great…isn’t it?’ Her mum was astute enough to sense a but coming.

‘On top of an already weakened Achilles, I won’t be able to dance again…not professionally, anyway.’ Somehow saying the words aloud made them feel more real and she was hit by a wave of grief.

Even before Becca had visited the consultant, she’d known this would be the likely outcome. There was no way her body could endure the daily slog of classes and performances required to continue dancing, but despite this reasoning, her reaction to hearing the verdict had reduced her to a blubbering wreck.

Her mum pulled her into a hug. ‘Oh, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.’

Becca savoured the moment. It’d been a long time since anyone had held her. She hadn’t realised how much she’d needed it. ‘It’s not like he didn’t warn me. I guess I was hoping for a miracle. Stupid, huh?’

‘Not stupid at all.’ Her mum rubbed her back. ‘Dancing is your life, your dream – of course you don’t want it to end.’

‘Let’s face it, it’s not like I had much of a career to lose. Working in clubs and on cruise ships is hardly performing at the Folies-Bergère.’ Tears threatened again, so she stepped away from her mum’s embrace and perched on a kitchen stool.

Maybe that’s why it hurt so much – it was the end of what might have been. All those years of auditions, rejections and doing her utmost to make it as a dancer had counted for nothing. She’d never got to experience the thrill of performing to sell-out arenas like her flatmates had done, touring with Take That or Kylie. Her one highlight had been starring in a pop video for a rap artist she couldn’t remember the name of.

She didn’t have the right body shape for ballet and her singing voice wasn’t good enough for musical theatre, so regular work was hard to come by. But she’d never given up, and despite being told ‘no’ ninety per cent of the time, she’d developed a thick skin and given it her all while hoping for that big break.

Her mum’s frown didn’t let up. ‘You’re a beautiful dancer and don’t ever think otherwise. It’s a tough business, but you did your best and that’s all that matters.’

She loved her mum’s positivity, but she felt too raw to be rational. ‘Doesn’t matter now. It’s over.’

Her mum looked pained. ‘So what are you going to do?’

That was the million-dollar question. What the hell was she going to do? ‘I have no idea.’

Life after dance was always going to be hard, but in hindsight, she should have come up with a contingency plan. Both her flatmates had combined dancing with studying for degrees, but Becca had barely scraped through GCSEs. Maybe she would have done better at school if her life hadn’t been turned upside down so cruelly. But the combination of her dad dying and getting her heart broken at sixteen had made focusing on school impossible.

Her mum rubbed her forehead, leaving a smudge of flour. ‘What about pursuing a career away from dance? You’ve tried a few things over the years.’

‘I’m not sure cleaning up after goats at London Zoo, or selling newspapers at Waterloo station count as viable career options.’

Most dancers took other jobs at some point during their careers, but she’d had more than her fair share of ‘filler jobs’, reluctant to commit to anything long-term in case her big break was just around the corner.

Her mum smiled. ‘Whatever you decide, you have my support – you know that. Take your time, lick your wounds and when you’re ready, get back out there. You’ve got a lot to offer; you just need to find a new dream.’

A new dream? Her mum made it sound so simple. What could possibly replace the buzz of performing? Dancing was a drug. It was all she’d ever been good at.

They were interrupted by Dr Mortimer yelling from the dining room. ‘I’m ready for my coffee, Mrs Roberts!’

‘Be with you in a tick!’ Her mum rolled her eyes. ‘Bloody man.’

Becca hopped off the stool. ‘Talking of dreams, what’s with the sewing room? I thought you had plans to open it up for guests?’

Her mum filled the cafetière. ‘I did, but there’s not much point when I only have two people staying. And besides, I enjoy sewing. I decided it was better to keep the space for myself.’

Becca loaded up the tea tray. ‘Fair enough, but there’s still quite a lot of refurb to be done on the guest house and you’re not—’

‘If you dare say “getting any younger” I’ll throttle you.’ Her mum’s gaze narrowed.

Becca held up her hands in mock surrender. ‘I was going to say…you won’t be able to finish the other rooms if you don’t bring in enough income.’

Her mum went over to the hob, rubbing the small of her back. ‘Yes, well, my plans have been put on hold for a while. Like I said, with only two guests it seems pointless to furnish extra rooms when there’s no demand.’

Becca wondered what was going on. The guest house boasted nine rooms, all with en suite facilities and separate living areas. It was situated in a prime location on the seafront. And although there were still two rooms unfurnished, the place was normally full, even during the winter months. ‘But without extra rooms, you won’t be able to expand if demand picks up.’

‘The Carpenter’s Room and the Floral Suite are available.’

‘Which are both single rooms. You need at least another double.’ Becca filled the kettle, trying to be useful. ‘What’s going on? Is there something wrong?’

‘There’s nothing wrong.’ Her mum was a terrible liar.

She tried again. ‘Are you having money problems? Is that it?’

Her mum turned to face her. ‘I’m fine, sweetheart. Really. There’s nothing for you to worry about.’

Becca recognised the expression on her mum’s face; it was the one she wore herself when trying to convince the world she was okay about her dance career being over. A brave façade concealing the pain lying beneath. Well, she wasn’t fine. And neither, it seemed, was her mother.

But further delving would have to wait, as her cousin appeared in the kitchen. Becca rushed over and threw her arms around her. ‘It’s so good to see you!’

Jodi hugged her back, and then pulled away. ‘What the boggin’ hell have you done to your hair?’

Becca grinned. ‘Like it?’

Her cousin studied Becca’s blue-tipped hair tied into high bunches. ‘On anyone else it would look bonkers. On you it looks ridiculously cool…even if you do resemble a Smurf.’

Becca laughed. ‘Talking of hair.’ She fluffed up Jodi’s mass of black curls. ‘What happened to the cornrows?’

‘Too high-maintenance. I decided it was time to embrace the ’fro.’

‘I like it. It’s bang on trend.’

Jodi laughed. ‘Listen to you, Gok Wan.’

‘When you’re stuck working in a newsagent’s booth at Waterloo station all day there’s not much else to do other than flick through magazines. The natural look is in, you’ll be pleased to know.’

Jodi laughed. ‘Yippee, fashionable, at last.’

Becca slipped her arm through Jodi’s. ‘I hope you don’t have plans tonight, because we have some serious catching up to do. You up for a night on the town?’

Jodi raised an eyebrow. ‘Does the Pope wear a silly hat?’

Becca laughed. ‘Excellent. I was thinking the Gin Tub. They have a tasting event.’

‘Sounds suitably inebriating. I could do with getting obliterated.’

Becca gave her a questioning look. ‘Didn’t the interview go well?’ She knew her cousin’s efforts to find a job were proving hard work.

‘Actually, it went okay. But it’s only a temporary position. I should hear tomorrow.’

They were interrupted by a screech. Maude had appeared and leapt into the air when the steam from the oven startled her.

Jodi intercepted and grabbed the cat, dangling her in front of Becca. ‘Fancy a cuddle?’ she said, enjoying an opportunity to tease her cousin.

Becca backed away. ‘No, thanks.’

‘She’s just being friendly.’ Jodi stroked the cat’s orange fur.

‘I’m serious, Jodi. Don’t you dare let her go. She’s out to get me.’

Jodi looked down at Maude. ‘Is Becca being a tinsy-winsy bit paranoid?’

When Jodi pretended to throw the cat, Becca ran over and hid behind her mum. ‘Mum, tell her!’

‘I’m not getting involved,’ her mum said, laughing. ‘Honestly, it’s like having a pair of teenagers in the house again. Give Maude to me,’ she said, taking the cat. ‘Now, will you troublemakers be wanting dinner later?’

‘No thanks. We’ll grab something when we’re out.’ And then Becca had a thought. ‘You’re welcome to join us, if you want?’

Her cousin did a double-take.

‘That’s sweet of you, but Maude and I are happy staying in and watching Corrie. Aren’t we, Maude?’ The cat hissed. ‘Manners, young lady. Come on, let’s put you outside so I can finish lunch… And don’t forget your key,’ her mum called back from the doorway. ‘I won’t be happy if I have to get up in the early hours to let you girls in like last time… And don’t drink too much.’

Becca winked at Jodi. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be good.’

‘Well, that’ll be a first,’ her mum shouted from outside.

Jodi raised an eyebrow and followed Becca upstairs. ‘What was that all about?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Inviting your mum to join us? You’ve never done that before.’

Becca shrugged. ‘I thought maybe she needed cheering up.’

Jodi stopped walking. ‘Why? Has something happened?’

‘I was hoping you’d tell me. She seems a little…off. You know, sad. She looks tired and she’s lost weight. She says she’s fine, but I think she’s hiding something.’

‘I hadn’t noticed.’ Jodi looked stricken. ‘I’m a terrible niece.’

‘No, you’re not. And it’s always easier to spot something when you’re not around all the time.’ Becca followed her cousin into The Beach Room. The turquoise room was huge and sea-facing, with white shutters and a large ceiling fan to keep it cool during the height of summer.

Becca kicked off her boots and opened the double-slated doors leading to the built-in wardrobe. ‘What do you fancy for tonight, bohemian chic, or racy reggae?’

Jodi sat on the bed and unlaced her Converse trainers. ‘Don’t care. Nothing too revealing. Last time I spent half the night with my boob hanging out and not realising until the barman handed me a bulldog clip.’

Becca laughed. ‘I’d forgotten about that.’ She flicked through Jodi’s meagre collection of clothes. Mostly jeans, a few summer dresses, some nice items from the local boutiques in Brighton that her mum had bought her for various Christmases and birthdays. And then something caught her attention. She pulled out an orange tunic emblazoned with the words Pho-King Good on the front and laughed. ‘Why on earth have you still got this?’

Jodi didn’t reply, but her cheeks flushed.

Becca immediately stopped laughing. ‘Oh, God, you’re still working there, aren’t you? I’m sorry, I didn’t realise. Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘Because it’s embarrassing?’ Her cousin looked mortified. ‘It’s not great as jobs go, but Mr Pho trusts me and I’m earning money, even if it’s minimum wage. It’s better than being unemployed.’

Becca went over and squeezed her hand. ‘It’s so unfair that no one will give you a job. You have so much to offer.’

Jodi shrugged. ‘That’s the way it is. You know the worst part?’

Becca shook her head.

‘When the judge sentenced me to six weeks in prison, I didn’t think it was such a big deal. I’ll do my time and make amends, I thought.’ Tears appeared in her eyes. ‘When I was released, my probation officer told me I’d been given a second chance. I’d paid my debt to society and it was up to me whether I continued with a life of crime, or resisted reoffending and turned things around.’

‘And you have, Jodi.’

‘As far as everyone else is concerned, I can’t be trusted. I’m a risk that isn’t worth taking.’

Becca slid her arm around her cousin. ‘I wish there was something I could do.’

Jodi rested her head on Becca’s shoulder. ‘There is. Take me out and get me drunk.’

Becca hugged her. ‘That, I can do.’

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