Elizabeth Maine 1950s starlet, 70s sex symbol and 80s US soap queen has been lured out of retirement to star in Eastwood Avenue, a British soap opera. What her fans don’t know is that Elizabeth’s upper class image is a lie; she is really Lizzie Gallagher from Liverpool; a single mother at 15, she was forced to have her baby adopted and was disowned by her family. When her son Christopher, cheats on his fiance, she asks her journalist mother, Elaine, to write an expose on Lizzie. When the two women meet they reach an understanding, but Lizzie feels the time has come for her to confess all. She asks Elaine to write her biography and this means revisiting a painful past littered with addictions, infidelities and mental illness. Lizzie isn’t afraid to tell all about her many lovers, battles with alcoholism and the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. What frightens her most is telling Christopher the truth about the baby girl she gave away fifty years ago and the lasting impact she has had on both their lives.
It was six o’clock in the morning by the time they reached Notting Hill. Thanks to Lizzie’s new found wealth, they’d taken a taxi from Euston Station and as the cab pulled up outside number fourteen Empire Road, it looked odd amongst the run-down houses and cobbled streets. Lizzie couldn’t help but feel disappointed. She’d hoped London would be glamorous and exciting, but this road hardly differed from Dingle Street; the houses tiny and terraced, discarded carts used by children as toys and when Kit revealed that just around the corner there had been a man who’d murdered several women and hidden their bodies around the house, she almost wanted to run back to Liverpool! But her woes were quickly forgotten when a big, red bus thundered along the top of the road, reminding her exactly where she was. Lizzie bet herself that if she got on that bus it would take her into town and that would be where she’d find the glamour.
Kit’s Uncle Pete and Aunt Grace had lived in London for many years. They’d met during the Great War and had settled with her family in Lancaster Gate until they’d found their own place in Notting Hill. Kit told her that Pete worked for London Underground as a stationmaster, and Grace was a school dinner lady. Lizzie felt a little apprehensive about going to live with people she hardly knew, but after the horrors of Our Lady’s, she knew she could cope with anything.
The street door was opened by a woman whom she presumed to be Grace – a stout, stern faced woman already dressed in her apron, her hair done up in tight curlers.
‘Hello,’ she barked at Kit in that abrasive cockney accent Lizzie knew would take some time to get used to.
‘Hello Aunt Grace,’ Kit smiled politely. ‘This is Lizzie, me mate. She’s come down here looking for work. I wondered if you could put her up for a night or two.’
‘She’ll have to pay,’ the woman snapped. ‘Come in.’
After living in a house filled with people, this place, inhabited only by a middle-aged couple, seemed deathly silent to Lizzie. Grace was obviously house-proud, every surface spotless and all furniture covered in lace doilies and the like. She explained that Pete was in bed and they weren’t to disturb him. Kit was given the back bedroom, a big room with two wardrobes and a double bed; while Lizzie was taken up to the attic room - a dingy hole with a single iron bed, no wardrobe, just a rail and a washstand. There was also no window, just a skylight in the ceiling and for a moment she felt so depressed she could cry. She had just moved from one slum to another. Then she thought of Mary Ann and found a steely determination she hadn’t possessed prior to becoming a mother. Whatever she was doing, she was doing it for her daughter and she could cope.
‘I want ten shillings a week,’ Grace demanded. ‘And you pay your share of the bills.’
‘Ta very much Mrs..’
‘Nicholls. Mrs Nicholls.’
‘Ta very much Mrs Nicholls. As soon as I’ve landed on me feet I promise I’ll be out of here.’
She was introduced to Uncle Pete over breakfast. She and Kit were tucking into a plate of bacon and eggs when the door flew open and he shuffled into the room. Fat and repulsive in a dirty white vest and stained trousers, he coughed and spluttered, not even acknowledging his nephew and new lodger until Grace made him notice.
‘Pete will you stop coughing like that, Kit’s starting hew new job soon, he don’t want your germs.’
‘Sorry Kit,’ the man wheezed, his accent more London than Scouse. He then suddenly noticed the pretty girl sitting opposite him and fixed her with cold, opaque eyes.
‘And who’s this?’ he asked.
‘Lizzie Gallagher,’ Kit replied. ‘She’s a mate from home. She’s come to London looking for work.’
‘Keep away from the nig-nogs,’ was all Pete could offer. ‘They’re everywhere round here. You’d be rich pickings for ‘em.’
Lizzie said nothing, but thought of the black people back home in Liverpool. They never caused her any bother. She wondered if the ones living in London were different, or if it was just a reflection of Pete’s ignorance.
‘I thought I might get Lizzie some work in the hotel,’ Kit said. ‘They must want chambermaids or something.’
Lizzie liked neither Pete nor Grace but knew that living with them was the safer option at the moment. London was a big, scary place for a young girl on her own, and it was better to have Kit with her. The money Uncle George had given her was burning a hole in her pocket and she wanted to go into town and spend some of it on new clothes. Kit however insisted they visit the hotel where he was going to work, and find her a job. They took a Routemaster bus to Marble Arch and Lizzie spent the whole journey gazing out of the window, gasping at Hyde Park and the posh houses and ladies walking around in their finery. It looked so much fun being rich, she wished it would happen to her.
The Carlton stood on the corner opposite Marble Arch. Lizzie thought the monument was lovely until Kit informed her it used to be called Tyburn Gallows and people had hung there for all sorts of crimes, not just murder. This made Lizzie think of her brother Stanley, currently languishing in Walton Jail for the manslaughter of a boy from a rival gang. Had he been found guilty of murder, he would have faced the gallows. If he had, maybe mam would have been less ashamed of her.
A concierge in fancy red livery stood by the entrance of the huge, Art Deco building and gave the two scruffy youngsters puzzled looks as they walked past him into the lobby. Lizzie had never seen anything like it; chequered floors, chandeliers and the sound of a piano tinkling away somewhere in the distance. Behind the reception sat an awfully glamorous girl, with blonde curled hair and red lipstick that matched the jacket she wore. Lizzie hoped Kit would do the talking - she was far too nervous and tongue-tied.
‘Is Mr Hope around?’ he asked.
‘One minute,’ the receptionist replied, her voice clipped and posh. Lizzie couldn’t imagine working with someone like this. Would she laugh at her accent or her lack of manners?
The Receptionist called someone on the telephone and then asked Lizzie and Kit if they could wait. Lizzie had never felt more conscious of the way she looked or spoke, and knew she could never fit in somewhere like this. She’d rather go and work in a factory, somewhere she wasn’t on show to such important people.
Suddenly Kit looked up, an expression of recognition on his face. Lizzie followed his gaze and noticed a man walking towards them; he was tall and slim with dark matinee idol looks and an immaculate suit.
‘Hello,’ he said on joining them. ‘It’s Christopher isn’t it?’
‘Yes, thank you Mr Hope,’ Kit replied politely. ‘This is Lizzie my cousin. She’s come down looking for work. I was wondering if you had anything.’
Mr Hope turned his attentions to Lizzie, not saying anything, just examining her, furrowing his brow and gripping his chin.
‘How old are you Lizzie?’ he asked.
‘Nearly sixteen,’ she replied.
‘Have you worked before?’
‘No, I’ve just left school sir.’
‘You don’t have to call me sir, Mr Hope will do. I’ve a couple of senior chambermaid posts going but it would be a shame to hide such a pretty girl away. I’ve also got a post going behind the bar during the day, how does that sound to you?’
‘In the bar?’ she uttered. ‘Serving people?’
‘Yes. Unless you’d prefer to make scruffy beds all day. You’d start work at eleven and finish at three, two pounds per week.’
‘Sounds great Mr Hope, ta.’
‘Ah hah, thank you young Lizzie. We’re going to have to do something about that diction if you’re going to be serving the public. And I have just the person to help.’
Like a whirlwind, Lizzie was rushed off in the direction of the tinkling piano and found it was indeed coming from the bar. Her experience of bars had been the pubs back home in Liverpool when she’d be asked to go and fetch one of her errant brothers home from some spit and sawdust dive filled with Dockers and scallies. This place was like nothing she had ever seen before, the first thing hitting her wondrous eyes being the collection of exotic looking plants – palms and ferns just like the ones in the big, glasshouse in Sefton Park. A counter ran along the other end of the room, and the seating area consisted of leather chairs and oak tables. The pianist sat in the corner behind a white baby grand. The lid obscured him, but Lizzie could make out a flurry of fingers and the stripes of his blazer.
‘Bertie!’ Mr Hope called. ‘Bertie stop. Stop!’
The music ceased and ‘Bertie’ stood up. He was a young man in his twenties, with short, dark blonde hair and a face with odd shaped features – a broad nose and generous mouth with mischievous, twinkling eyes. Somehow it all went together and made him very attractive but not in a film star way.
‘What have we here?’ he asked, his voice awfully posh.
‘This is Miss Gallagher, she’ll be coming to work in the bar during the day. Miss Gallagher this is Johnny Duvall, our resident pianist. Miss Gallagher is from Liverpool Bertie, I thought you could help her with her diction.’
‘Fantastic!’ the young man exclaimed, clasping his hands together and leaving his piano. He walked over to where they stood and took Lizzie by the shoulders, easing her away from Kit and Mr Hope to study her in the light. ‘Quite a beauty,’ he observed in his theatrical voice. ‘Such wide-eyed innocence, but what a wanton mouth?’
Lizzie stood silent, completely confused, not understanding what they were talking about. She was only here to learn how to talk properly so she could earn some money. Bertie looked at Mr Hope.
‘Leave her with me. I will be the complete Professor Higgins.’
‘Come along Christopher,’ Mr Hope ordered and he walked off. Kit looked at Lizzie, shrugged his shoulders and followed his future boss. Lizzie looked at her new mentor, a little perturbed by his big, beaming grin.
‘What’s yer name?’ she asked. ‘Bertie or Johnny?’
‘No dear. What. Is. Your. Name. Your, like it’s spelt Y-A-W. Your. Say it.’
‘Y-Your. What is your name?’
‘That’s better, my stage name is Johnny Duvall but I was born Albert Preston, so everyone who knows me calls me Bertie. And you shall too. I like you.’
Like a giggling schoolgirl, he took her by the arm and led her to one of the tables, sitting her down on a leather chair and squatting beside her.
‘How old are you Miss Gallagher?’ he asked.
‘I’ll be sixteen on the first of July. And it’s Lizzie.’
‘Lizzie,’ he sighed. ‘Like our dear Queen.’
This sounded awfully cheeky and it made Lizzie laugh. Bertie was probably the most interesting person she had ever met. She’d never spoken to someone so posh and cultured.
‘So what brings you to London?’ he asked. ‘No, don’t tell me. You’re looking for fame and fortune? And if not, why, when you’re such a stunner?’
‘I had a bit of trouble back home. I had to leave.’
He tilted his head to one side and smiled sweetly, those aquamarine eyes twinkling.
‘You know it’s a shame you’ve got to lose that accent, it’s so charming. I bet you’ve got big, burly brothers who talk like that. Like Dockers.’
‘Yeah, well we all talk the same.’
‘No, no, listen to me. My brothers and I talk in a similar fashion.’
‘My brothers and I talk in a similar fashion.’
‘Wonderful darling. By the end of the week you’ll sound just like Princess Margaret.’