The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom: A Novel

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9781101904510: The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom: A Novel
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The first meeting between Antonio and Olivia at the Paradise Ballroom is brief, but electric.

Years later, on the dawn of World War II, when struggling Italian singer Antonio meets the wife of his wealthy new patron, he recognizes her instantly: it is Olivia, the captivating dance hostess he once encountered in the seedy Paradise Ballroom. Olivia fears Antonio will betray the secrets of her past, but little by little they are drawn together, outsiders in a glittering world to which they do not belong. At last, with conflict looming across Europe, the attraction between them becomes impossible to resist--but when Italy declares war on England, the impact threatens to separate them forever.

The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is a story of forbidden love and family loyalties amid the most devastating war in human history.

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About the Author:

ALISON LOVE's short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and in 2013 her story Sophie Stops the Clock was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize. Alison has worked in the theater, television, and public relations. The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is her American fiction debut.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

JUNE 11, 1940
They came for him at first light, as he had known they would. There were two of them. They walked briskly but not hurriedly along the pavement, glancing up from time to time to check the house numbers.

Antonio stood at the bedroom window. The June morning was mild, almost milky. It seemed to him that if he stayed perfectly silent, perfectly still, they would pass the house and leave him be. And yet he knew that they would not. At any moment—in thirty seconds, in twenty, in ten—they would knock at the door. The knock would be loud and hollow: a drumbeat, a summons. There would be no anger in it, no private hatred. The men were doing their job, that’s all.

In the street below, an errand boy was on his way to work, late and scowling. He kicked a fallen bottle from last night’s riots. Someone in the crowd had tried to throw a bicycle through the window of Fortuna’s, the Italian pharmacy, but it had bounced off the wall, the mudguard twisted.

I am calm, thought Antonio, I am prepared. I will not weep or tremble when they come for me. Even as he thought it, though, he watched the errand boy hurrying toward the lime trees of Soho Square, free to begin his ordinary day, and despair seized his throat. My life, he thought, my sweet promising life. What will become of it? The memories hurtled in a landslide through his mind, unstoppable: the dazzle of spotlights, the sway of the tango, a woman’s soft fingers upon his neck, his own voice soaring, soaring.

And then the policemen knocked at the door.
 
AUTUMN 1937

Chapter 1 
They were lowering the glitter ball in the paradise Ballroom when he arrived. The hall smelled of cigarettes and stale spilled beer. Below the dais the dance hostesses were killing time, tugging at their dress straps, poking at their hair. Their faces had the strained pallid look of nocturnal creatures who never see broad daylight.

“You’re the stand-in for Victor, are you?” A man in a checked cap stepped from the stage, where he had been adjusting a gilt music stand.

Antonio bowed. “Yes, I am Antonio Trombetta.”

“Eyetie, are you? Well, the girls will like that,” said the man, without enthusiasm. “At least you’re on time. Maurice hates it when his singers are late. You can leave your things backstage. Jeanie will show you the cloakroom, won’t you?”

“Not half,” said Jeanie, a bold-eyed girl with a crimped permanent wave. The other dance hostesses snickered amiably. Jeanie led Antonio through the baize door into a whitewashed corridor. He could hear the warble and squawk of a saxophone player, warming up.

“Well, you’re a nice surprise, I must say.” Jeanie pushed her way into a windowless room littered with coats and hats and furled umbrellas. “Usually when Victor’s ill we get an oily little man from Orpington with wandering hands.”

Antonio smiled. “Tell me, Jeanie, is Victor often sick?” he asked as he took off his overcoat. Underneath he was wearing an old dress suit, sponged and pressed to hide the shiny patches.

“Don’t get your hopes up. He and Maurice are like that.” Jeanie held out her index fingers side by side, then hooked them together with a suggestive wiggle. “Besides, Maurice is past it. Too much of what the Yanks call happy dust. The Paradise is the only place that’ll have him now.”

Turning to the mirror—a grubby mirror, smeared with pinkish powder—Antonio straightened his collar. His black hair was glossy with brilliantine. He touched it with his fingertips, gingerly, as if it belonged to someone else.

“Come and find me later,” said Jeanie, as she turned to leave. “I’ll give you a dance on the house. You’ll love the way I foxtrot.”
 
Maurice Goodyear was in his forties, with a jaded, handsome face. From time to time he sniffed, raising his knuckles to his nose. “Any of the songs you don’t know?” He was not unfriendly, but he had seen a dozen singers come and go, and he no longer had the will to learn their names.
“Well, I’ll cue you in and after that you’re on your own.”

Antonio nodded. He knew his place: in bands like this it was the leader, not the vocalist, who was the star. The dancers were gathering around the stage now, the male hosts as well as the girls, eyeing him with curiosity. The lights dimmed. Antonio felt a flicker of stage fright as he stepped toward the microphone. It vanished, though, the moment he began to sing.

“You and the night and the music . . .”


The dancers’ faces changed, a raised eyebrow here, a half- reluctant smile there. Jeanie, at the front of the hall, was grinning. Opening his throat, Antonio let his voice flood out. This is what I am for, he thought, this is what I was born to do.

Maurice Goodyear brought the band to a halt. “That will do, gentlemen. Now, once through ‘These Foolish Things,’ and they can let in the great unwashed.”

The hall began to fill the moment the doors were thrown open. Soon the air was shrouded in smoke. There was a hum of voices, the constant shuffling of feet. Antonio watched the professionals weave their way among the other dancers, their faces spattered with light from the glitter ball. Jeanie’s partner was a gangling young man whose neck sloped like a giraffe’s. Beside her a tall girl in silver lamé was dancing the tango, eyes fixed, one bare arm outstretched. There was something extraordinary about her face, though what it was Antonio couldn’t tell.

The moon got in my eyes . . . ” He exaggerated his accent to make himself sound exotic: a cheap trick, but it meant that his listeners remembered him.

“You’re doing well, my friend,” murmured Maurice Goodyear, giving another sniff. “Go and wet your whistle. Back in ten minutes.”

There was a crate of beer at the side of the stage. Antonio wanted fresh air after the fug of the dance hall, and passing through the baize door he made his way to the back entrance. It gave onto a small yard, lit by a single lamp. The night smelled of rain on dusty pavements.

Antonio raised the beer bottle to his mouth. He was about to drink when he heard a whimper. A girl was stooping beside the brick wall, one hand pressed against her stomach, the other to her lips. It was the tango dancer in the silver dress.

“What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

The tango dancer did not answer, still holding her fingers to her mouth. Antonio touched her shoulder. Her skin felt clammy beneath the coarse metallic fabric of her dress. Crouching beside her, he handed her the bottle of beer. She lifted it and swallowed. Her face was very pale.

“Thank you,” she said, and she passed the bottle back to him with a lopsided smile. Antonio drank. The beer was tepid and gassy against his dry throat.

“Olivia?” It was Jeanie, peering into the yard. “The manager’s asking for you. They’re playing another tango, he wants to know why you’re not on the floor.”

The girl in silver straightened up. As she did so her body was gripped by a spasm of pain, and she gasped. Antonio took her hand, which was cold as a mermaid’s. From the dance hall there came the sway of a tango: “Dark Eyes,” the old Russian song of love and ruin.

“She shouldn’t be working,” said Antonio, “she’s not well.” Jeanie squinted as she made him out in the darkness. “Oh, she’ll be all right. It’s her own fault, after all. Oldest mistake in the book.”
She gave a shrug. “At least in a place like this the girls always know someone who can get you out of trouble.”

It took Antonio an instant to realize what she meant. He dropped Olivia’s hand as if it had scalded him.

“Dear God,” he said, before he could stop himself. Olivia’s chin reared fiercely upward in the lamplight. He could see her high cheekbones, her wide scarlet mouth.

“Yes, it’s true. I’ve had an abortion. What are you going to do? Call the police?”

Antonio stared. “Of course not—”

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Olivia. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Her eyes flashed, daring him to pity her. Once again Antonio thought how extraordinary her face was. It’s because she’s so plain, he thought; and then, No, she’s not plain, she’s beautiful. The knowledge catapulted through his body, a revelation.

Olivia whisked at her silver skirt, and without looking at Antonio, she swept away toward the dance hall.

“Good riddance,” said Jeanie cheerfully. “They’ll be playing a foxtrot next, I’ll give you that dance I promised.” She inched closer, tilting her face invitingly upward. He could smell her violet perfume. “I suppose I’ve missed my chance, though. I suppose you’ve already got a sweetheart?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Antonio, “I’m married. And my wife is expecting our first baby.”

“Oh, lord,” said Jeanie, “I’ve dropped a brick there, haven’t I?” Antonio did not stay to answer. He strode back inside, returning to his place on the stage. There was no sign of Olivia. For the rest of the night he looked for her in the crowd, trying to glimpse the pale line of her face, but it seemed that she had vanished.

It was drizzling when the Paradise Ballroom closed, the pavements greasy with rain. Antonio pulled his trilby over his fore- head and set off toward Soho. He liked to walk home, even when the weather was bad. It gave him a breathing space between the two worlds he inhabited, the shabby glamour of the dance halls and the noisy, familiar, claustrophobic atmosphere of Frith Street, where the Trombettas lived. Antonio’s father, Enrico, ran a kiosk in Leicester Square that sold sweets and cigarettes. During the day Antonio helped out there, and his other life as a singer seemed as improbable as a mirage.

In Soho one of the cafés, Ricci’s, was open still. Antonio could hear the rise and fall of voices, punctuated by the twang of a mandolin. He thought of Maurice Goodyear’s parchment face, of Jeanie’s violet scent, of the way he had fluffed a high note in “Night and Day.” He tried not to think about the tango dancer, and the terrible thing she had done to her own body.

When he reached the house he turned his key carefully in the lock. His wife, Danila, was a light sleeper. Slipping off his shoes, he went toward the kitchen for a glass of water, and saw to his surprise that the light was on. Filomena, his sister, was sitting at the table, wrapped in a dressing gown of fawn checked wool, her hair in a thick plait. She was frowning at a piece of paper in her hand. The moment she saw Antonio she swept the paper into her pocket.

“I thought you would be asleep,” said Antonio.

Filomena did not answer. “Let me make you some warm milk, Antonio,” she said, and crossing to the stove poked vigorously at the damped-down fire.

Antonio sank into a chair. He was fond of his sister, who was a kind, stolid girl. She worked as a laundress in Goodge Street, and there was always a pleasing aura of soap and starch about her.

“Was that a letter from Bruno?” Bruno was Filomena’s fidanzato, her fiancé; he was also Danila’s cousin. Like Antonio’s, the marriage had been fixed by their families when they were young, thirteen or fourteen. Bruno had been working in one of the grand Mayfair hotels, but when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia he had joined the army in a surge of patriotism. Now, two years later, he was still in Africa with the occupying forces and nobody knew when he would return.

Filomena touched the pocket where she had put the piece of paper. “Yes. It was a letter from Bruno.”

She took the enamel saucepan from the stove and poured the milk into a cup. Filomena was twenty, a year older than Danila. Bruno’s departure had left her in limbo, an unmarried daughter when she should have been a wife.

“He will be home soon, Filomena.” Antonio disagreed with Bruno’s politics, but there was no doubt he would make a good husband: he was devoted to Filomena. “Do not fret.”

Filomena put the cup of milk on the table, pushing aside a news- paper to make room. It was L’Italia Nostra, Antonio noticed, the weekly fascist paper. His younger brother, Valentino, must have brought it home. Valentino was a barman at the fascio, the Italian club where the Fascist Party had its headquarters; like Bruno, he was an ardent supporter of Mussolini. He had been desperate to go and fight in Abyssinia too, but his father had forbidden it. You’re only seventeen, it’s too young, Enrico had said, although the rest of the family knew that it was because Valentino was his favorite, and he did not want to lose him.

“Half of it’s been torn out,” said Antonio, turning over the paper. “There’s only the advertisements left.”

“I used it to light the stove. Why? Did you want to read it?” Filomena widened her eyes ironically at her brother, who smiled.

“Valentino will be furious.”

Filomena flicked her plait over her shoulder. “I will go back to bed now,” she said, stepping down into the scullery, where her mattress was laid out on the tiled floor. “Sleep well, Antonino.”
 
The Trombettas rented the lower floors of the house in Frith Street, four rooms with a lavatory in the backyard. Above them lived a countryman from Lazio, Mauro Bonetti, with his niece Renata. The Trombettas felt sorry for the Bonettis, especially Mauro. He was lame from childhood polio, and the only job he could man- age was washing dishes in the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel. He earns next to nothing, Enrico would say, stretching out his hands with an air of superiority. How can he ever make his way in the world?

The bedroom where Antonio slept overlooked Frith Street. Before the death of his mother, Mariana, it had belonged to his parents, and it was full of the huge elaborate Victorian furniture Mariana had insisted on buying from secondhand shops. As he stepped into the room Antonio barked his shins on the mahogany sideboard.

“Antonino? Is that you?”

“Of course it’s me.” He sat on the bed, sliding out of his braces. The light from the street lamp filtered hazily through the rose- patterned curtains. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Danila sat up, one arm cradling the bulge of her stomach. She was seven months pregnant. When they were first married she had been tiny and slender, her wrist bones as delicate as filigree. Now it was as if someone had gently smudged her beauty with a thumb, broadening not only her body but her face, turning her from a flower into a fruit.

“I wasn’t asleep. I was waiting for you.” There was a note of reproach in Danila’s voice. “Were you talking to Filomena?”

Antonio hesitated. His wife and his sister did not see eye to eye. Danila was a sweet-tempered girl, but she liked to have her status as a married woman acknowledged, and it irked Filomena, who had been running the household since her mother’s death.

“Yes. She made me some hot milk.”

“Why was she awake? She has to go to work in the morning.” “She was reading a letter from your cousin Bruno.” Antonio loosened the studs in his collar and slid them onto the bedside table.

“But there haven’t been any letters from Bruno. Or if there have, she hasn’t told me.”

“Maybe she was re-reading an old one. She misses him, Danila, out in Africa.”

Danila pulled a rueful face, and she put her ar...

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