Welcome to the blog tour for the marvellous The Beauty Chorus by Kate Lord Brown. I’m excited to share an extract from the book, but first a little about the novel.
New Year’s Eve 1940: Evie Chase, the beautiful debutante daughter of an RAF commander, listens wistfully to the swing music drifting out from the ballroom. With bombs falling nightly in London, she is determined to make a difference to the war effort. Evie joins the ATA – the civilian pilots who ferry fighter planes to bases across war-torn Britain. Two other women wait nervously to join up with her – Stella Grainger, a forlorn young mother from Singapore, and Megan Jones, an idealistic teenager who has never left her Welsh village before. Billeted together in a tiny cottage, Stella, Megan and Evie learn to live and work together as they find romance, confront loss and forge friendships that last a lifetime.
Kate Lord Brown grew up in a wild and beautiful part of Devon. She read Philosophy at Durham and Art History at the Courtauld Institute and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, curating collections for palaces and embassies in Europe and the Middle East. Kate has travelled and lived around the world with her airline pilot husband and gained a MA in creative writing from the Manchester Writing School MMU. She was a finalist in the ITV People’s Author contest 2009, and her international bestseller The Perfume Garden was shortlisted for the UK Romantic Novel of the Year 2014. Kate currently lives in the Middle East with her family, and she was a regional winner in this year’s BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition.
and now here’s the extract…
Squires Gate, 11.39 a.m., Sunday 5th January, 1941
I have four and a half hours to live. I am leaning against the wing of the yellow-bellied Airspeed Oxford, smoking contentedly while the ground crew chaps run their final checks. The freezing rain hisses as it hits the glowing coal of my cigarette, drums softly on the tin roof of the hangar. Call me Johnnie, by the way. Everyone does.
There is no changing fate, but when I look back at my last moments on earth I want to rush through the molecules of my body and shake off my reverie: I want to yell ‘Wake up, you silly bugger, make the most of this! This is the last time you will feel the rain on your face, the ground beneath your feet.’ But I didn’t believe in premonitions and guardian angels so I doubt I would sense anything. Now I know better.
The flight to the RAF base at Kidlington in Oxfordshire should have been simple enough – ninety minutes at most. What I did with my last hours is a mystery. The journey is a government secret still. Maybe I’ll tell you why I died 100 miles off course, maybe I won’t. Why don’t you make up your own mind?
Ten, nine, eight …’ Swing music and laughter from the party drifted out through the open door to Evie. As she walked down the long moonlit driveway to her father’s house, snowflakes caught on her eyelashes. Her footsteps on the frozen gravel fell into time with the big-band tune bubbling into the chill midnight air and she sang under her breath: ‘How High the Moon …’ The Bentleys and Rolls Royces parked along the drive had a light coating of snow on them already, and in spite of her white fur coat she shivered with cold, her feet frozen in her silver eveningshoes.
‘Miss Evelyn!’ The butler stepped forward to catch her mink coat as it slipped from her shoulders. As the staff door swung closed, Evie caught sight of the grey-uniformed chauffeurs smoking and chatting, one with the pink-cheeked housemaid on his knee sipping Guinness. ‘Your father has been asking for you,’ the butler said as she shook the snow from her glossy dark hair.
‘Has he, Ross?’ She smoothed her pale silver satin Schiaparelli gown, and raised her chin defiantly as a cheer went up.
‘1941!’ Leo ‘Lucky’ Chase cried out, one arm raising a glass of champagne, the other clutching Virginia, his latest wife.
‘I’m amazed he even noticed I’d gone.’ Evie nodded her thanks to Ross. She touched up her red lipstick in the hall mirror then twisted her shoulder to adjust the long rope of diamonds that fell from her throat to the deep curved back of the dress. She glanced down at the hem of her gown and noticed for the first time how wet it was from trudging through the snow. ‘In for a penny …’ she murmured.
Instead of going in to the party, Evie walked on across the marble hall. Heads turned as she passed, the silver dress rippling over her curves like mercury. She flung open the terrace windows and slipped off her shoes, swinging them nonchalantly in one hand. She dropped them at the edge of the steaming, heated pool. Leo liked it to be warm all year. A crowd gathered on the terrace as Evie executed a perfect dive, her body streaking underwater like a silver fish before surfacing at the other end. A cheer greeted her as she stepped elegantly up from the pool, squeezing the water from her hair.
‘Evie! You’re bonkers!’ A young officer in uniform planted a kiss on her cheek and draped a blanket around her shoulders. ‘Happy New Year!’
‘Hello, Peter.’ She slipped her arm through his.
‘Come on, let’s get you inside before you catch your death.’
He led her around the packed dance floor to the bar. People smiled indulgently as she passed – you could always count on Evie to make an entrance.
‘Where have you been all night?’
A drunken girl in a pale blue bias-cut gown giggled as Peter handed Evie a brandy.
‘I went to see Mary, Charles’s mother.’
Evie put the glass on the mantelpiece and warmed her toes by the fire. Somehow she managed to make even a blanket look like an elegant wrap.
‘How is she?’ The smile fell from Peter’s face as Evie pursed her lips and shrugged. ‘Jolly decent of you to go out tonight.’
‘I didn’t like to think of her alone. She looked so awfully sad on Boxing Day.’
‘Of all of us, I thought Charlie would make it through,’ Peter said quietly. ‘He was so full of life. I’ll never forget the two of you bombing down that black run in Chamonix. You were determined to beat him.’
Evie shook her head. ‘He was like a brother to me. You never can tell which one of us is going to get bumped off next.’
‘Evie!’ Leo cut through the crowd towards her. He barely cleared five feet, but he was a dynamo of a man and whenever he bore down on her Evie pictured a missile skimming through water. Without her heels their gazes locked, eye to eye. He eyed her wet, clinging dress with exasperation.
She held up a hand. ‘Before you start, I went to see Mary.’
Nonplussed, he thought quickly.‘She’s only in the next village. What took so long?’
‘I ran out of petrol.’
‘Not again! How many times have I told you?’
‘Daddy, I can’t get used to this rationing … I thought I had enough left.’
‘You can’t drive on fumes! Especially not at the speed you drive. Where’s the Aston?’
‘On the verge between here and White Waltham.’ He frowned. ‘I’ll send Cullen in the morning.’ ‘Sorry, Daddy.’ Evie bit her lip.
‘What am I going to do with you?’ As Leo embraced her, Evie saw the scowl on Virginia’s face and raised a triumphant eyebrow. ‘Happy New Year.’ She planted a quick kiss on his cheek before he bustled back into the party. Her father’s cocksure, springing step reminded her of a Jack Russell out on the razzle, up to no good.
‘I don’t know how you do it.’ Peter shook his head.
Evie watched her father in his element, surrounded by friends
and hangers-on, and that old familiar loneliness crept in. ‘Years of practice. So,’ she said briskly, ‘what have I missed?’
‘It’s been marvellous!’ the drunken girl trilled. ‘Lucky always throws the most wonderful parties. Tonight you’d never know there was a war on!’ A young soldier grabbed her hand and pulled her onto the dance floor as the big band struck up ‘In the Mood’.
Evie shook her head. ‘Silly girl.’
‘Come on old thing!’ Peter laughed. ‘You’re only twenty yourself! Have some fun.’
She shook her head. ‘No. I’m tired of …’ She waved her hand. ‘All this. Talking to Mary tonight, I felt I must do something. Even the Countess of Wharncliffe is running a bomb factory, and I heard the Duchess of Norfolk is breeding rabbits.’
‘What do you know about bombs and rabbits?’
‘Nothing, but I could learn.’ Evie frowned.
Peter tilted his head, gently took her in his arms. ‘Don’t be blue. Charlie …’ He sighed. ‘It’s just awful bad luck, but if we let every death get to us, we’ll never win this bloody war. We’ve got to be strong.’ His voice shook slightly. ‘Besides which, this is my last night of freedom, and I at least deserve to have some fun.’
‘I’m sorry, Peter.’ Evie shivered as she pulled the blanket around her. ‘I’d forgotten. When are you leaving?’
‘I have to be at Debden first thing.’
‘When I see all you chaps going off to fly, I wish—’
‘You’re a more natural pilot than I’ll ever be!’ Peter cut in. His gaze settled on a table of men in uniform on the other side of the dance floor. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Doing something useful.’
‘Come on then.’ He took her arm and steered her through the crowd, stopping at the table. ‘Excuse me, sir.’ He leant down to talk to the distinguished-looking grey-haired officer smoking a pipe. ‘Squadron Leader Peter Taylor.’
The officer stood and shook his hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’ He turned to Evie. ‘And this lovely young lady is Miss Chase, if I am not mistaken?’ He kissed her hand.
‘Evie, this is Captain Eric Bailey.’
‘But you can call me Badger, everyone does.’ He smiled as he smoothed the white streak in his hair. ‘At least behind my back.’
‘Miss Chase is a pilot, sir,’ Peter said.
Bailey eyed her wet dress. ‘Really? I’d have had you down as a sailor.’
‘Most amusing, sir.’
‘How many hours have you got?’ Bailey sucked at his pipe. ‘Oh, not—’ Evie’s eyes opened wide.
‘She’s a very good pilot,’ Peter interrupted. Turning to Evie he said pointedly,
‘Captain Bailey helps run the Air Transport Auxiliary at White Waltham.’ ‘The ferry pilots?’ She held Peter’s gaze. He nodded. ‘What have you flown?’ Bailey folded his arms.
‘Tiger Moths mainly.’ She tried to sound confident. Tiger Moths only, she thought, and a couple of hundred hours at that. ‘Well, Miss Chase, we need good pilots. Why don’t you come over to White Waltham one morning and see what you think?’ ‘Really?’
‘It’s not what you’re used to. But we need all the chaps …’ he corrected himself, ‘and gals we can get our hands on. In fact, we have some new recruits arriving tomorrow. Why don’t you join them, come along for a test flight and see what you think? Ask for Commander Pauline Gower.’ He shook their hands and rejoined his table.
‘Why didn’t Daddy tell me he was going to be here?’ she said to Peter as they
stepped onto the dance floor. Peter laughed as he swung her around to the music. ‘Probably because he knew you’d jump at the chance of signing up.