The book (with its gorgeous cover!) is now available. Read on for an extract of Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams, and to find out where Mary will be heading next on the tour.
‘Matty, go now!’ a woman’s voice whispered urgently in her ear. It was Maria, Frank Rossi’s sister, signalling that the first part of their plan was under way and that the New York police were at that very moment raiding Frank’s club for illegal booze. Frank would be occupied for the rest of the evening, handing out bribes or answering questions, depending on which sergeant was on duty that night.
She hung up and hurried to her bedroom. Too scared to keep a packed bag in the apartment in case Frank discovered it, now she stuffed into a suitcase whatever clothes and belongings came to hand.
She’d had so little time to plan. After his trip to Los Angeles spent trying to drum up backing for her next talkie Frank had returned to New York an unhappy man. So, very soon, Matty Gilbie had become an unhappy woman. There was no reason he should blame her for the studio’s cold feet, but he did. In the new film Matty was to play an Amy Johnson type heroine, a singing aviatrix who flies half way round the world to find love: Frank had pitched it to the studio bosses with the byline The Cockney Canary Flies!
She would be flying all right, but not in a film. Her flight was as real as her terror of Frank and if she didn’t go tonight, she knew she would never escape him. She quickly checked the cash in her purse, it would have to do. She’d squirrelled away as much of her money as she could, but Frank was as intimate with her bank account as he was with her, and he had been emptying it at an alarming rate trying to get the new film made.
Maria was a good woman; she’d come up with the plan and booked Matty’s passage. After a lifetime with Frank, Maria understood just how necessary it was for Matty to get as far away from him as possible. Matty only wished she’d taken notice of Maria’s veiled warnings about her brother earlier. At first she had thought him as loving as the rest of his warm-hearted, Italian clan – they’d reminded her of a Bermondsey family and it made her feel at home. But she’d discovered Frank’s love flowed only as long as his every whim was pandered to. He expected to get his way and when he didn’t there were always consequences.
She shoved the suitcase lid shut and winced as pain shot through her – just one of the ‘consequences’ of Frank’s displeasure. She put a hand to her side, probing the sore places around her ribs and stomach. She bit her lip and, fumbling with the suitcase catch, she forced herself to breathe deeply in spite of the discomfort. In and out, each breath like the slice of a knife, once, twice… Her singing training had taught her the importance of the breath. For her voice it had always produced strength, power, grace – but now she would use it to steady her nerves and gain her freedom. She breathed deeply a third time, and felt the pain ease a little. She took one last look round the bedroom, grabbed her passport, tickets, money, and flew.
The apartment was in a canyon of buildings she’d always hated. Now, in the darkness, they were like towering fortress walls, hemming her in. Rain sheeted down as she scanned the canyon for a yellow cab, traffic swished along, sending up sprays of rainwater, soaking her feet. She looked desperately from right to left, willing a cab to appear. Her heart hammered out the seconds as car after car passed; in desperation she hoisted up the heavy suitcase and began walking. A man turned the corner and came towards her, a black fedora pulled low over his face, rainwater dripping from the brim. She froze, sure it was Frank’s bodyguard, and almost turned to run. But she forced herself to think. Why would he be here? Frank would need him at the club tonight. The man lifted his head and gave her a cursory look as he passed, then hurried on. Just then a cab came into view and she waved frantically at it. The gutters were streaming and she slid on the slick, inky sidewalk as the cab drew up. Stumbling forward, she reached out to the cab roof to steady herself.
‘Careful, lady! Where to?’ the cab driver asked.
‘Harbour, quick as you can.’
‘Sure, hop in.’
She fell gratefully into the dry interior, ignoring the pain stabbing her ribs, she heaved her case inside, slammed the door and the cab moved off. She stared out of melting windows and with the windscreen wipers racing she saw her old life being washed away. Leaning her head against the dark streaming glass, she was shocked at her own reflection – it was the face of a stranger, rigid with fear. In the deluge it felt she might already be on board ship, sailing on a torrential stream down towards the harbour, across the Atlantic Ocean and home. She gripped her suitcase, ready to leap from the cab as soon as it stopped, and prayed silently for a way to open up whenever cars or traffic lights halted their progress. She willed herself not to look back. If he was following, then it was better she didn’t know.
Matty woke to an unsettling watery world. The rocking waves had not lulled her to sleep during her first night at sea; instead they had intensified the nausea she’d been suffering during the past few weeks in New York. Her cabin was cramped and deep in the bowels of the ship, but at least she had it to herself. She’d tossed and turned for what remained of the night, imagining Frank’s reaction to her desertion. She only hoped poor Maria could remain strong enough to play the innocent, for if Frank ever suspected she’d helped, he’d soon beat the truth out of her. Frank was not a man you walked out on, but if he simply assumed
she was fleeing another beating, perhaps there was the slim hope he might write her off as a failed business venture, lose interest and let her go. Maybe she was fooling herself, but she had to believe Maria hadn’t put herself in danger for no good reason.
As the ship came to life around her next morning, she stretched out her long limbs in the narrow bunk and allowed herself the stirrings of relief that she’d never have to see Frank again. She heard laughter coming from the corridor and recognized the voice of a cockney steward who’d directed her to the cabin in the early hours. He’d recognized her and asked for an autograph. Cabin doors banged and she heard passengers on their way to the dining room in search of breakfast. There would be no more sleep this morning. She propped herself up and let out a groan as her stomach heaved once more. Flinging aside the blanket, she was about to swing her legs out of the bunk when her attention was caught by two bright red spots on the sheet. Her heart paused between beats as she registered what they might mean. Pulling the blanket off the bed, she began frantically searching for other telltale stains. There were none and the cold fear which gripped her receded a little. Should she go to the ship’s doctor? But she wasn’t ready to face the inevitable frosty disapproval when he failed to see a wedding ring on her finger. Perhaps bleeding was normal at this stage. She wasn’t sure.
But when she stood up and felt a gush of warm water flood her thighs, she knew this was anything but normal. At only just over four months into her pregnancy, it was far too early for her waters to break. She stared at the pool of water at her feet and lowered herself slowly on to the bed. Bending forward, she cradled her stomach in a bid to keep her baby safe, just where it was. But as she felt the first sinister pull at her womb, hope drained from her and she let out a whimper. ‘No, no, no! Stay there, don’t come yet! It’s too soon,’ she pleaded with her unborn child.
The pains came on quickly, like waves of menstrual cramps, but deeper, stronger and more vicious. One after another they came, till she thought her body was being torn apart from the inside. Pain forced her to cry out, but she bit down hard on her own knuckles. She didn’t want to attract the attention of any passing steward or passenger. Matty gripped the bedsheet and yanked it taut, twisting it with every tearing spasm of her body, till it formed a rope she could stuff in her mouth to stifle her screams as the pain ripped through her again and again. There was no mistaking what was happening to her, and it filled her with a sickening dread. The contractions were crippling and close together. Another long scream escaped her gag, ending in a deep sob, for she knew that the baby, if it came now, could not possibly survive.
The sheet became sticky with her blood as she fought her own treacherous body’s instinct to push. She screamed against it and tore the bloody sheet, as life and death had their relentless way, finally forcing Matty to thrust the tiny baby from her body. She fell back on the bed in exhaustion, letting tears wash her cheeks. Instinctively she reached down and drew the baby up between her legs, to lie on her chest, wiping its fragile body with the sheet. Feeling its warmth against her, a surge of irrational hope forced Matty to sit up and look at her child. It was a girl.
She was flooded with love and grief. The tiny baby lay enfolded in the palm of her hand. She was a person, however small. The legs were drawn up and minute feet crossed each other at Matty’s wrist. Perfectly formed, the miniature hand rested on Matty’s fingernail. Five diminutive fingers, with delicate nails of their own, barely spanned the width of Matty’s finger and she felt them curl around it in a feather’s grip. She watched the little heart beating, caught in a miniscule ribcage, like a struggling bird. Translucent skin, un-resistant as air, gleamed as Matty traced the red filigree of veins, still pumping life into the small being. She cupped the tiny child with two hands now and raised her up, so that she could examine eyes, fast shut, and a mouth set in a serene smile. Caressing the smooth head and cheek with her thumb, Matty watched as the heart slowed and finally ceased to beat.
A wave of sadness overwhelmed her. Her daughter’s eyes had never looked upon the world, nor on her mother’s face. She held the baby close to her breast, and whispered into the barely formed ear. ‘Goodnight, my angel. I love you.’ And as kind darkness closed over Matty, she clung to the hope that somehow her daughter had known how deeply she was loved.
The cockney steward had discovered her swaddled with her dead child in the bloody sheet. She didn’t remember how she’d got to the sick bay, but when she woke her baby had gone. The ship’s doctor came to attend to her physical healing, but there were no ministrations to her grief. She asked for her baby over and over again, and the doctor had to repeat several times that ‘the remains of her pregnancy’ had been removed. At first her griefnumbed mind would not allow her to understand that he was referring to her baby, but when she did, she wished she could scour the phrase from her memory. After he left she lay on the bed, burning with anger that her baby’s life seemed to have been so coldly dismissed simply because it had been so short. All she knew was that those few precious minutes with her tiny daughter had awoken a love stronger than she’d ever felt, and she was filled with gratitude for that brief life.
Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams by Mary Gibson
Handsome Frank Rossi took Matty Gilbie away from her working class roots in Bermondsey, East London and promised her fame and fortune. In America, the Cockney Canary would become a movie star. As his wife, she would be half of a power couple, fêted and adored by all. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 puts paid to all that, and as Frank becomes more violent and unstable, Matty flees in the dead of night.
Once home in Bermondsey, she goes into hiding and starts desperately looking for work. But only Peak Freans, the hated biscuit factory, is hiring staff. Then, as a secret from her past comes back to haunt her, Matty learns that Frank is on the move, determined to find her and get her back.