by Alex Allen
The first chapter - redone - for my novel If you have time please read and give feedback!
|Below is the first draft of the novel I am penning. Currently it is very early stage but I really need opinions on how it's running so far. Please feel free to comment as much as possible here as any advice is appreciated. I feel this chapter is the most important to get right.
If you could take the time to read and review this, then, I will be so grateful.
The Upper Crust
Objectively, the story starts with the grand piano. Many great names had tickled the ivories on this particular one but when placed into the care of those with more money than sense, the piano was bound to meet a grim, if not interesting, death. Up until now it had been meticulously taken care of by the staff of one of the most elite apartment and hotel buildings in the city, The Promenade House.
Cornelia Kernel was the first to raise the alarm, as she attempted to leave the foyer through the grand double doors. When they wouldn't open, the junior manager at the front desk had quickly stepped in to help. It still wouldn't move. Two porters were called to solve the problem but it soon became clear the doors had chosen to remain where they were.
`Daddy's expecting me!' Cornelia said anxiously, `I'll miss the overture.'
`I'm sorry,' the junior manager said. `The doors wont open; they've never been stuck like this.'
`Get me out!'
The junior manager mopped his agitated brow with a silk handkerchief while subtly signaling one of the porters to fetch someone more senior. `This is highly unusual mademoiselle and we take full responsibility for the inconvenience. Should my associate escort you to a side door located in the kitchen?'
`The Kitchen!' Cornelia clutched a large feather boa to her mouth. `Peelings, entrails and the humiliation of leaving through the side door?' Colour was rapidly draining from her horsey face as she began to pace.
The girl was at least right about her father. Colonel Kernel and his wife were missing the opera. The agreement had been to meet their daughter at half past six in the theatre. That was the battle plan, which would ultimately lead to marriage with the major's lad. The Colonel was mortified when the girl never arrived, after all, he had made such an effort to sum up his daughter in a positive light and punctuality had to feature heavily in \textit argument. The chance was almost nonexistent that a maid had left a staircase wet, causing the girl to break her leg in several places but the Colonel emphatically hoped this was the reason that she never made it.
Her shrill wails were the reason that, within half an hour, the foyer was full of loud gentlepeople demanding to be freed. The insistence that the side door was still functional seemed to fall on deaf ears and any staff attempting to calm the scene quickly realised that it was a fruitless goal. Adding to the mayhem was the problem that the doors were actually made of a toughened glass and this meant that the entire foyer was on view to the outside world. Very quickly a crowd was gathering on The Promenade, the cobbled road from which the apartment got it name.
Being brought up to speed on the situation, Berty Joyce walked toward The Promenade House. Only days prior, during a fit of unrestrained passion with a painter named Cherry, he had a sudden epiphany. A quick emigration left everything but a leather bound notebook behind him and a new chapter in front. He was one of those Bohemian sorts.
He was currently deep in conversation with a squat journalist, walking the same way. It was an unusual looking pair as Berty was a head taller than most men and had to stoop slightly to hear. He had shaggy dark hair and his black jacket was slung over his shoulder showing a white shirt and black braces. They rounded the corner, passing the birch trees and oil lamps that lined the street and, as they neared the growing crowd, a bottle of gin was launched from a balcony above and smashed in the waters of a large fountain that marked the front of The Promenade House.
`Oh marvellous!' Berty said, `Ah you should be glad you're here, sir! This just got interesting.'
The journalist slowly mounted a camera on a tripod. `Some upper class git throwing bottles?'
`No no, my man, not just any upper class git. Frank Chester!' he leaned against a tree and lit a cigarette in anticipation. ` '.
`Just here to report on the disturbance Mr. Joyce. Look at 'em through those doors.' he gestured at Cornelia Kernel, who they could just about see trying to break through the door with her left shoe. `Folks want any excuse to bring this place down a peg or two.'
`Yes.' Berty paused. `You're right of course. Perfection's no good; better to have something to rip apart.'
`The paper's been waiting for the standard to fall for years.'
Those just outside the doors could barely make out a voice trying to command some respect followed by a silence. Berty took a long drag from a cigarette, waiting patiently. What happened next was almost instantaneous. The crowd parted, those closest to the door scattered and a hand could be seen dragging Cornelia Kernel out of the way as the famed grand piano descended the foyer staircase and smashed through the doors in a glorious swan song.
For a moment, wood and glass rained onto the cobbles. Those who study the social sciences would have remarked on a sudden equalisation in the social pressure of the situation; in short, dignity flooded into the building. The crowd from the foyer daintily left over the shards of broken glass to meet their appointments as though nothing had happened. Everyone but the staff of the building ignored the wreck of the piano. From among the emergents came a tall woman with brunette hair, dark glasses and a stunning figure. She even donned a hat that seemed to suit the occasion of following a piano through a glass door. This was a woman who took utmost care of how she looked, from her neat red lipstick to the threads on her perfectly fitted, white linen summer suit. She spotted the bohemian almost immediately.
`Berty, darling!' Her resonant alto cut through the crowd as she moved with almost impossible grace in high heeled shoes across the cobbles. `You never told me you were back!'
Berty was ecstatic at the appearance of the lady, Bobbi Mesillade. `Just arrived for an extended visit.'
`Fantastic,' she said, `well care to help a lady with an errand?'
`Don't mind, do you chap?' He said to the journalist.
The squat man hadn't quite recovered from the piano. `Don't mind,' was all he could manage.
`Wonderful! With me, darling' she said, beaming.
`Told you, my man,' Berty called back as they walked away, `Frank Chester's doing.'
They distanced themselves from the crowd.
`Why the piano?' Berty said after a while, already sure that Frank had been behind its sudden exit.
`Well it turns out that precious little in the building is heavy and on wheels; it was either the piano or the drinks cabinet and I suspect he wants a cognac this evening.'
`Fantastic exit, though was it worth seven octaves of urgency?'
`Oh absolutely! Honestly darling, couldn't you smell foul play?'
`Scandal, is it?'
`Perhaps. Frank's having to do some fairly major damage control.'
`Nothing beyond his talents, I'm sure.'
`I don't know, darling. It might defeat even him this time.'
Berty stopped and turned Bobbi to look at him. `Obviously Frank Chester can handle a crisis, he spends all of his time planning for and worrying about them, so what's got you so anxious?'
Bobbi shook her head. `I don't quite know the details, he can tell you himself but so far as I can understand it involves the winery. Some buyer refuses to continue their contract with him unless that insufferable nephew of his can be found. The catch is, there's a ghastly chap prepared to jump in and buy out the business unless we're timely enough.'
`So what is this errand? I assume it's not unrelated.'
`We have to stall the buyer, darling!'
In the city, the blue bloods and socialites had a habit of running into the right people at the right time. This was largely down to the efforts of ever vigilant valets and butlers, always making subtle suggestions to provoke chance meetings. Equally, a good gentleman's gentleman could ensure his employer would avoid the wrong people and so the fun would start when two assistants were not of like mind. In fact, the city's chance meetings were entirely governed by the multi-way chess game of valet against valet.
Berty mused at the situation. He hadn't been exposed to quite the same social protocols since leaving the city behind him five years previously. This was when he had decided, out of nowhere, that writing poetry was his calling in life. He gathered dozens of unsent love letters to the mysterious ``lady in the white hat'' and published the mostly forgotten Anthology of Poetry. This was followed by several other small publications and, three years later, the aforementioned travels of Northern Europe, designed to recapture the muse that he once had.
Bobbi jerked the bohemian back to sense as she grasped his arm tightly and firmly steered him back along the cobbled road. They headed for the Dacquoise Lounge, a well known social club located in a large basement beneath a solicitors' office. The walls of the Lounge were covered in dark wood paneling and the air thick with smoke. In the middle of the room was a column supporting the floors above. The entrance was simply a stone staircase placed in a far corner and directly opposite was a small wooden bar. Around the edges of the room were many low-set, black leather sofas arranged to form booths around small tables. In the middle of the room were a set of tall tables and a smattering of flimsy wooden chairs. Increasingly the place was a gathering for the idle rich and those reforming from such a life. One gentleman was the buyer in question, this was Bourbon Bates, Eton alumnus and sporter of the black bow-tie. It was becoming more well known that his decisions could make or break the smaller wine producers and, at the moment that Bobbi and Berty descended into the shroud of cigar smoke, he was pouring scotch into a Chardonnay that was at least twenty years too young.
`One for the road, what,' The young man grasped at the glass roughly as he turned to a dark haired lad with a light brown jacket and overbite that stood next to him. `Got suppliers practically leapfrogging to meet me. Can't afford to spend all evening hidden from the world.' Bourbon himself was recognisable by his smaller than average round head, slight frame and overly large eyes.
`Rather, B.' the second man toasted the mid distance for little to no reason.
Bobbi quietly ushered Berty to a sofa where his legs wouldn't quite fit comfortably before pocketing her dark glasses and approaching the two barflies who were still deep in conversation.
`You needn't sway like that you know otherwise I shall be persuaded to have another just to make sure you're ok.' Bates said earnestly.
`Oh, well shan't stop you.' the other man managed.
`Yes indeed,' Bobbi cut into the conversation with a bright smile, `Bourbon Bates isn't it? Simply had to say hello.'
`Hello?' the two large eyes tried their best to focus `frightfully sorry, can't place you but you seem familiar.'
`Oh we haven't met per se; I'm a friend of friend if you know what I mean, that is to say Bentley Chester-Mann.'
`Old Benny! Well this is a turn up for the books, I say. The chap was supposed to be joining me here for one with his uncle; met him earlier along with some woman. You're sure we haven't crossed paths before?'
`I'm sure I'd remember.' Bobbi widened her smile, `Well we must wait a little longer then, after all it could prove to be quite the little reunion.'
The buyer stepped unsteadily away from the bar and looked up into Bobbi's eyes, he seemed to weigh her up for a second and finally smiled on one side of his face.
`I say, got a client to meet soon but you do seem rather well put together and I daresay if old Benny approves then I'd be glad to have a crack at you.'
Berty stood up quickly and was half way across the room when Bobbi stared him down, doing so without breaking her smile.
`Clients are overrated. Perhaps you should attempt to buy a lady a drink first?'
`Well well, I've really to leave now but if you're keen, what, I've lodgings near here,' he pulled her close by the waist, `we could see to our business before I see to mine.'
Her face was fixed in what seemed to be a smile but behind the eyes it was clear that she was furiously considering what action she'd have to take next.
`Shan't be necessary Bates.' Two men descended the staircase, the first dragging the second by the collar, `you've never aspired quite so high in your life.' The first man jettisoned the second against the bar and immediately set about replacing the hands on Bobbi's waist with his own, pulling her away. `Three yards of ale,' he then demanded of the barman, `for these fine gentlemen.' The man with the overbite had fallen asleep on the bar.
The new arrival who had been dragged in by the collar began to collect himself. He was slightly plump with a mop of sandy hair and a green velvet blazer. He seemed to come to his senses and suddenly grinned manically at the buyer.
`Bates, old boy!' his voice was slightly higher than average and had the sticky quality of two boiled sweets being separated.
`Benny Chester-Mann!' Bates replied before realising he had lost control of the situation. He quickly turned to the first man, Frank Chester, who was now staring him down. Frank was much rounder than his nephew, wearing a tweed blazer and a light pink shirt. His head was completely bald and he wore a monocle on his right eye.
`Hang on, the lady and I were getting acquainted!'
`With Lady Mesillade?' the nephew said with a slurred brightness, `No Bates, she's committed elsewhere.'
Bourbon Bates looked distressed. `Shall have to meet my new supplier then,' he said, trying to regain his stride.
`Oh no!' Frank said, his round form approaching a perfect sphere, `No no no, you promised me if I got you a yard of ale with this nephew of mine you would continue supplying wines from my estate.' Benny grinned innocently in the knowledge he was being a little helpful.
`I've agreed to meet the new chap now, Chester.'
`And you agreed with me that this whole thing would be settled if I found this urchin that you studied with.'
`Well I wasn't to know he was in the city!'
`Your ignorance of your situation, Master Bates, is no excuse.'
`Ah and you think that talking down to me represents the obvious method of securing this contract, do you?'
Benny turned Bourbon Bates. `Come on Bates, I did help you out of that scrap with the night porter all those years ago.'
`Now hang on, this is beginning to sound like blackmail. It's a bit close to the knuckle, Benny.'
`Bentley enjoys close to the knuckle, Master Bates.'
Bates thought and finally spoke, `Alright fine Chester, what. I don't like it but giving you the small contract'll hardly break me. You can consider yourself lucky that you're related to Benny, who might have to enter a function sans garments at some point though!'
The thought of his nephew showing his full form socially was enough to tell Frank the meeting was over. Frank shot a look of disgust at Bates before wrapping his arm around Bobbi's and pulling her away to Berty, currently craning his neck to see the situation unfold. Berty quickly pulled Frank into a hug.
`How have you been old man,' he said, `saw your handiwork earlier with the piano; struck a chord with me.'
`Berty, I've no idea why you're back rather than bounding over fjords but we're going to open a bottle of red before I dare so much as broach the subject.' the older man gestured that the others should sit in a secluded corner as he approached the bar, avoiding eye contact with the young men now feverishly throwing back long glasses of dark ale. He returned with a heavy bottle and filled three glasses.
`Come on, old man, you first. What's this all been about?'
`Oh it's absurdly simple. When my father managed our estate he had a long standing agreement with Bates' family that they would sell our wines. It was a nice little arrangement until the new manager, our esteemed friend over there, decided that it was no longer in place and with no time to find another buyer and considerable debts owed, we couldn't lose the contract.' Frank paused and with great effort managed to continue. `Thankfully, my nephew and he were old chums and on cornering him earlier, he agreed that he would by if I could arrange for Bentley and he to share in a yard of ale before he met another prospective supplier. He didn't know that Bentley was in town, it seems. I, however found him wallowing in some kitchen trying to muster up some support for a pair of wheeled shoes.'
`Makes sense, old boy,' the bohemian relaxed back on the sofa, `so why the piano?'
`Oh come now. You really think that Bourbon Bates would make such a business decision as canceling a contract that had been in place for two generations? He'd been talked into it by another supplier, likely someone who wants to see us go under.'
`So this rival found out about your solution to getting your contract back and jammed the doors of The Promenade House? Good scandal!'
`More or less. I had to get us out or else we'd miss the boat.'
`Isn't there a side door?'
Frank paused to consider this before soberly responding, `I like to think I have a certain flare and no one else would leave that way!'
`Well you made a show for the crowd at least.'
The older man certainly disapproved of the crowd on The Promenade; to him the idea of so many socialites gathered in one place meant that someone had missed the point. The location was a prime spot for folk to run into each other and, upon doing this, hold a loud conversation leading to the spreading of gossip. . He considered the drink in front of him as he always did when trying to relax.
`The '84 Longue never ceases to miss the mark,' he critiqued.
`I see you've wined to unwind.' Berty chuckled.
Frank narrowed his eyes. `Alright Berty, explain why you're back finally.'
`Nothing to tell. Decided to leave, as you know, when the anthology got published. Went to Scandinavia and, oh, it was fantastic; no money, no abode. It was just me and my old notes, writing to my hearts content.'
`Yes! Three girls, two years and one book.'
`Why are you back, darling?' Bobbi said after a generous sip of wine.
`Thought I'd got fixed down. Missed the old crowd. Flipped a coin and here we are.'
`You must tell us everything!'
Berty began to enthuse, which caused Frank's mind to wander. Berty's stories had a tendency to end with strolls along the frozen ground with a young woman and they would always end up in some situation that sounded uncomfortable. Maybe it was his age, not that Berty was more than a couple of decades younger than Frank. Bobbi seemed rapt with interest, at least. He turned to watch his nephew consuming something that likely meant he was in double figures.
When the bottle was empty the three rose to leave. Frank turned pulling on a pair of leather gloves as his nephew stopped him.
`Uncle!' The boy hurried over and seemed quite intent on hitting every chair on the way. `Awfully good of you to set up this little reunion uncle, think you'll find I've organised a little surprise for you back at the estate.'
Frank looked bored, `I'm sure it'll be a nice thought.'
`Yes yes, got your car repainted.'
Frank stiffened on the step.
`Repainted my car?'
`Yes yes, the classic one. Dirty old green, thought it needed to be something far more elegant to reflect it's marvelous owner.'
`You had the jag repainted?'
`Oh yes yes, Chartreuse!'
`Yes, elegant blue or red affair.'
`You painted my car chartreuse?' Frank eyed Bourbon Bates on the far side of the room and decided this was not a battle he wanted to be part of, at least not in front of the buyer. Bentley had just assumed chartreuse was some elegant foreign thing and this was not the time to correct this. `You know as always, lad, I'm sure you meant well but I must be going. There's a something large and stiff I'd like to sup.'
`You can do that here, uncle!'
Frank frostily waved the comment away. `Clientéle aren't quite my thing; see you another time.'
Benny seemed to pick up that the air had thickened. `Something wrong uncle?'
The older man's eye twitched but he merely looked down on his nephew. `Nothing at all.' With that he turned and left with the lady and the bohemian hurrying to follow him.
The sun was setting over the cobbles bathing The Promenade in a yellow gold. Sunsets over the river had inspired countless numbers of poems and sonnets. Frank emerged from the Dacquoise Lounge in a cloud of stale smoke and regarded the yellow sky with a begrudging acceptance. In his opinion, the colour was more along the lines of the knitted jumper that one's grandmother might gift after her cataracts took hold.
The return to the apartment was left with many faces glumly cleaning up the foyer. Now it was empty, even in its current state, it could easily impress. The floors were a coloured mosaic of tiles depicting a large crest. Directly in front of the entrance was the grand marble staircase that led to a large oak door and the function hall that once housed the piano. On both the left and right of the oak doors were more marble staircases that joined with each other to reach the upper rooms. On the ground level, to the right was a set of lifts to the upper floors and to the left of the grand staircase was a smaller wooden door that led to the service rooms, including the kitchens, all of which networked to the rest of the building through a maze o corridors. Most of the glass had been cleared and new plants had been brought in to try and brighten the lobby. Frank approached the most senior of the staff, who seemed to supervise.
`So sorry about the mess. I can, of course, pay.'
`At least you dissipated the crowd, sir, though I fear the need to ignore the side door means we have to revisit our fire regulations.'
He nodded and turned to climb the staircase with his companions.
`Oh Mr. Chester, you have received a message in your absence.' The manager pulled a small yellow card from his pocket and held it in a white gloved hand.
Frank took the card and pocketed it inside his jacket before turning back up the stairs. The manager looked uncomfortable.
`Mr. Chester, I suggest you read the telegram now, sir. I must insist on it.'
With a look of confusion, Frank pulled the card from his pocket and read it slowly.
`Ah, I see,' he said through gritted teeth. `Never mind, my dears, I've lost my apartment.'