If This Is Love, page 1
IF THIS IS LOVE
Jane Baron could hardly believe it when the famous photographer David Ransome “discovered” her working in her uncle’s seaside hotel and whisked her away from a dull, quiet provincial life and set about training her as a fashion model.
Within a few months Jane found herself photographed, feted, and famous. She had risen to the top of the fashion world—Paris one day, Rome the next. The glamorous international playboy, Yves St. Cyr, was at her feet.
But there was something hollow about Jane’s new life—for the one man she really cared for saw her only through the lens of his camera...
IN January, the sea front at Starmouth was scarcely recognizable as the busy, gaudy, noisy “Golden Mile” where thousands of Midland holiday-makers with ‘Kiss-me-quick’ paper hats and sticks of pink and yellow candy floss crowded the garish amusement arcades during the summer season.
Now, the hotels and boarding-houses, the Bingo and whelk stalls, the Kiddies’ Fun Fayre and the palmist’s hut were closed and shuttered for the winter. The whole long straight length of the famous promenade had the desolate air of a ghost town. Buses still ran to the Pleasure Beach, but with very few passengers on them, and at the other end of the sea front a cinema was open. But the only people who frequented the front out of season were the stooped vague-eyed old sailors from the Naval Pensioner’s Asylum, a few men exercising their dogs—and Jane Baron.
Jane liked the front in the winter months. She spent most of her free time wandering along the deserted sands, or leaning over the rails on the empty pier to watch the freighters steam past on the horizon. She loved the wild windy days when the breakers lashed against the groynes and the gulls screamed hungrily overhead.
On such a day, early in the New Year, she was sitting in one of the shelters at the end of the pier—dreaming her usual impossible, wonderful daydream—when she was startled by a man coming into her shelter.
The sea was making so much noise as it surged among the pier-headings that Jane had not heard his footsteps coming towards her. The man looked equally surprised to find a thin, tangle-haired, rather shabby young girl sitting by herself on the wooden bench. One of his eyebrows shot up into a peak, and his mouth, too, quirked in a puzzled smile.
“Hello,” he said, after a moment. “I’m sorry if I made you jump. Do you mind if I sit here for a moment?”
Jane did not answer, but eyed him cautiously, wondering if she would be well advised to walk quickly back to the pier turnstiles. Once, last year, she had had a rather alarming encounter with a man who had followed her from the town centre. Fortunately there had been someone at hand to deal with him. Today, there might not be anyone else about.
However, as this man sat down at the other end of the shelter and lit a cigarette without offering one to her, her wariness lessened. He was not at all like that other horrible character. He looked rather nice ... very nice.
He was tall and powerfully built, his thick dark hair ruffled by the gusty north-east wind, his lean face surprisingly tanned for the time of year. He must have been abroad recently, she thought.
Like Jane, he had on an ancient ill-used raincoat, but the suit underneath it looked expensive, and his collar and shirt cuffs were immaculate. As he drew on his cigarette, she noticed that his hands were as clean as a doctor’s. Jane loathed smoke-stained fingers and grubby nails.
She had been studying him out of the corner of her eye for several minutes when he turned his head and said easily, “I like a day like this, don’t you? I used to come here as a kid and imagine that this shelter was the bridge of a storm-battered tramp steamer and I was her skipper.”
“You live here?” Jane asked curiously. She had taken him for a stranger to the town. He did not look like a Starmouth person.
“I did ... a long time ago. I haven’t been back for years. Then yesterday I had a sudden fit of nostalgia for the place, and decided to drive down and see if I recognized it now. It doesn’t seem to have changed much, except for one or two new shops and some fringe development.”
“No, Starmouth doesn’t change much,” Jane agreed flatly.
He looked at her more intently. “Don’t you like it here?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I like it in winter. I hate the summer when the streets are littered with chip papers and it’s so noisy and crowded everywhere. I hate to think of spending the rest of my life here.”
“So you sit on the pier and watch the ships and wish you were going wherever they are going,” he said quietly. “That’s what you were doing just now when I came and disturbed you.”
“How did you know?” she asked, surprised.
It was his turn to shrug. “I used to do the same thing myself at your age. I was bored and restless. I wanted to see the world.”
She wondered how old he thought she was. He looked in his early thirties.
“And have you ... seen the world?” she asked.
“A good deal of it.”
“It must be wonderful to travel,” she said enviously. “There are so many places I want to see—but I don’t suppose I ever shall.”
“Why not?” the man asked. “They say if you want something badly enough, you can nearly always achieve it sooner or later.”
“They may say it, but I don’t think it’s true,” Jane said gloomily. “It would be different if I were a boy. I could go off alone and work my passage. The only way a girl can see the world is by becoming an air stewardess or a ship’s nurse or something.”
“Well, what is to stop you becoming an air stewardess when you leave school?” he asked. “If you work hard for your ‘O’ levels or ‘A’ levels, or whatever the things are called now, there’s no reason—” He stopped short as Jane laughed suddenly.
“I left school three years ago,” she told him dryly. “And you have to speak at least one foreign language to work for an airline. My French was always hopeless.”
“Oh lord, I have dropped a brick,” he said, pulling a wry face. “But it was chiefly because of that mac you’re wearing. It looks rather like a uniform one, you know. Are you mortally insulted?” His tone was contrite, but his grey eyes glinted teasingly.
Jane shook her head. Without make-up and with her brown hair tousled by the wind, she knew that she did look younger than her nineteen years. It did not bother her particularly.
“This is my old school mac,” she admitted. "It’s nearly falling to pieces, I’m afraid. But I’m saving up to have a holiday in Holland next year. Have you been there?”
“Yes, several times. It’s a delightful country. You’ll enjoy yourself—and nearly all the Dutch people speak some English, so you won’t have any difficulty getting around.”
He told her about the beautifully step-gabled houses in Amsterdam, and about the delicious rijstaffel in the city’s many Indonesian restaurants. He spoke of New York and Singapore and Rio de Janeiro. He seemed to have been everywhere. Jane listened, fascinated.
Indeed it was not until the light began to fade that she realized it was almost four o’clock and they had been sitting in the shelter for nearly two hours.
“Oh dear, I must go,” she exclaimed hastily. They walked back to the turnstiles together.
“Let me give you a lift into town,” the man offered. A glossy black two-seater sports salon was parked at the edge of the pavement.
Jane shook her head. “Thanks, but the bus is just coming, and it goes right to my door. Goodbye—and thank you for all you’ve told me.”
She held out her hand and smiled at him. His fingers felt warm and his grip hurt her slightly.
“Goodbye.” She darted across the road and was just in time to jump on the empty bus going back to Market Street.
Jane’s father had been in the Merchant Navy, so no doubt it was from him that she inherited her love of the sea, and her wanderlust. The faded snapshots of her parents which she kept on her bedside table showed Michael Baron as a good-looking frank-faced young man in his early twenties. His ship had been lost in the Atlantic before Jane was born. Her mother had been killed in an air raid when she was six months old.
Michael Baron had been a Barnardo boy, so Jane had been brought up by her beloved Granny Brewster. They had lived in a cosy thatched cottage in a remote village among the Norfolk Broads, and Jane had been happy and carefree.
Then, when she was twelve, Granny Brewster had died, and she had been offered a home by her mother’s younger sister and brother-in-law. They ran a commercial hotel in the centre of Starmouth, and they had a daughter, Sylvia, who was two years younger than Jane, and as dissimilar from her cousin as Snow White from Rose Red.
It was early closing day, and when Jane returned to the Crown after her afternoon on the pier, she found Sylvia painting her nails in their shared bedroom.
“How you can go about in that tatty old school raincoat beats me. I wouldn’t be seen dead in such a rag,” said Sylvia, giving Jane a critical glance.
Her cousin took off the offending mackintosh to reveal a plain black jersey and skirt which, now that the wind-whipped color had faded from her cheeks, made her pale face look sallow and peaky. She forbore to point out that, while Sylvia worked in a dress shop and spent all her money on clothes, she received a very small wage for her services in the hotel and could rarely afford anything new.
“I say, you’ll never guess who booked in after you’d gone out,” Sylvia exclaimed, her blue eyes brightening with excitement.
Jane raised her eyebrows enquiringly. Unlike the holiday hotels along the sea front, the Crown remained open all year and catered mainly for sales representatives. Occasionally, a well-known classical musician or lieder singer would come to Starmouth to perform at one of the Music Society’s winter concerts and spend the night at the Crown. But Sylvia only liked pop music, and it seemed improbable that Adam Faith or Helen Shapiro would arrive unheralded.
“Well, who?” Jane asked, picking up her hair brush.
Sylvia checked that her nails were dry, bounced off her bed and stepped into high-heeled patent shoes. She was wearing a new pale blue frock which matched her eyes, and a broad black patent belt clinched her twenty-one-inch waist. Above and below it, the dress was moulded to every provocative curve of her lissom figure.
“David Ransome!” she announced.
The name meant nothing to Jane, and she said so.
“Oh, honestly, Jane, don’t you ever read anything but those stodgy old travel books?” Sylvia said impatiently. “David Ransome is famous. You must have heard of him.”
“I don’t think so. What does he do?”
Sylvia gave an exasperated sigh, then searched through the untidy pile of fashion magazines on her bedside locker and selected one of them.
“I’ll show you,” she said, flipping the pages over. “There, that’s what he does. See? ‘Photographs by Ransome’.” Her brightly lacquered forefinger indicated the credit line at the foot of a striking color spread.
The pictures were of haute couture ball gowns, modelled by a swan-necked haughty-looking mannequin in the gilded rocaille drawing-room of a famous Stately Home.
“What a heavenly dress,” Jane said wistfully, looking at a dress of flowing white chiffon with a shimmering crystal-beaded bodice.
“It wouldn’t suit you. You’re too sallow,” Sylvia said crushingly.
Jane turned away to put on some lipstick. “I still can’t see why you’re in such a tizzy about this Ransome man coming here,” she said mildly. “Are you sure it’s the same one? What on earth would a fashion photographer be doing in Starmouth in January?”
Her cousin shrugged. “I haven’t a clue. But he’s definitely the David Ransome, because I saw him on a TV programme once. What I do know is that this is my big chance.”
“I’m not with you,” Jane said perplexedly.
“Oh, heavens, how dim can you be! Look, David Ransome is absolutely the best of our fashion photographers—like Richard Avedon in America, but I suppose you haven’t heard of him either. And if Ransome likes a model, she’s made—she goes straight to the top. He discovered Margot Chase and Poly Lake, and look what happened to them. Margot married a millionaire, and Polly is in films now.”
Jane was pinning her hair into a neat but rather unbecoming top-knot. “You mean you hope he’s going to discover you,” she said.
“Exactly—and why not?” Sylvia said confidently. “I’ve got all the right vital statistics and my face is very photogenic. If Dad wasn’t so old-fashioned about not letting me go to London before I’m eighteen, I would be modelling now. But if I can make a hit with Ransome, he’ll soon persuade Dad to let me go,” Sylvia fluffed out her butter-yellow curls and moistened her full, rather petulant lower lip. “I think I made quite an impression when I passed him in the hall this afternoon,” she said, looking smug.
Jane watched her for a moment. She had never been jealous of her cousin’s pretty face and spectacular figure, but she could not help feeling that Sylvia had become awfully vain since—in an eye-stopping white bikini—she had walked away with the £100 ‘Miss Starmouth’ beauty-contest the summer before.
“I must go,” she said briefly.
And, leaving the younger girl to admire her own reflection in the looking glass, she went down to her uncle’s office behind the reception desk.
She found her aunt filling in P.A.Y.E. forms. Twenty years ago, Connie Brewster had probably been as pretty as Sylvia was today. But now she was a plump, faded matron, too heavily made up and fussily dressed.
“You’re five minutes late,” she said sharply. “I suppose you’ve been mooning on the pier all afternoon. I could have done with you here. Elsie hag gone home with a bilious attack, so we’re short-handed.” She put away the big wages ledger and went off to the kitchens.
The switchboard buzzed and a voice from No. 16 asked for a trunk number. Jane put the call through, rang him back and made a note on his bill. Then a boy delivered the local evening papers, and she took two into the lounge, two into the closed Oak Bar, and one up to the Brewsters’ private sitting-room. When she came back, she glanced at the hotel register. The bold, clear signature “David Ransome” stood out among the rest of the day’s entries. She wondered what he was like, and visualized a suave, rather conceited man about town.
Sylvia appeared. “I’ll take over now. Mum wants you to make up Twenty-Four for a rep who won’t get in till late tonight. Elsie should have done the room out this morning, but she went home before she got around to it. Anyway, Mr. Ransome may be in soon, and I want to be on the desk when he comes back.”
Sylvia perched herself on the stool behind the counter. She was extravagantly scented, and looked as pink-and-white and luscious as a marshmallow fondant.
Jane was kept busy upstairs until dinner time. Then, as one of the waitresses was away with influenza, she tied an organdie apron over her skirt and went down to help serve the evening meal. Officially, she was the hotel receptionist and secretary, but general dogsbody would have been a more accurate definition of her job.
Sylvia came into the kitchen and grabbed her arm. “I’ve been talking to Mr. Ransome,” she said triumphantly. "He stayed chatting for ages, but he’s gone into the dining-room now. I don’t know which table—but you can’t mistake him.” She rolled her eyes. “Quel dreamboat!”
The dining-room was divided into two stations,” but none of the men at the other waitress’s tables looked dreamboats by Sylvia’s standards. All Jane’s tables were vacant—except for the one by the window where a man was screened by a copy of a Lond
“Would you like the table d’hote dinner, sir?” she asked politely.
The man lowered his newspaper. He was the stranger she had talked to on the pier. She gave a gasp of astonishment, and her heart did an odd little double-beat.
“Well, hello again,” he said, smilingly. “This is a very pleasant surprise. I was hoping we might run into each other again, but we forgot to introduce ourselves. My name is Ransome, David Ransome.”
“Mine’s Jane Baron,” she said shyly.
He pushed back his chair and stood up. “How do you do, Miss Baron,” he said formally, but with a twinkle in his shrewd slate-grey eyes. Once again, his hand closed strongly over hers.
Suddenly conscious that the other diners might be watching them, and remembering how freely she had talked to him earlier on, Jane flushed with embarrassment.
“May I take your order, Mr. Ransome?” she said stiffly.
The Crown had an excellent chef and cellar. The Saturday night dinner-dances at the hotel were always fully booked and drew people from all over the country.
From the d la carte menu, David Ransome ordered the fish paté, a grilled sirloin steak with frozen petits pois and roast potatoes, and a half bottle of 1947 Clos de Vougeot burgundy.
Jane’s other tables soon filled up, and Ransome did not try to talk to her when she brought him his entrecote and, later, the cheese board. But once or twice, as she whisked in and out of the service door, she saw him watching her from his corner and, conscious of his scrutiny, she was slower and less deft than usual.
He had said he would have coffee in the lounge, and she did not see him leave the dining-room. But when she cleared his table she was oddly pleased that he had not left a tip for her.
As the Brewsters had had their dinner upstairs by the time the dining-room was clear, Jane had supper in the kitchen with the other staff. Then she returned to the office until the hotel closed at midnight.
Sylvia hung about downstairs, hoping to encounter David Ransome. But to her disappointment and Jane’s relief, they did not see him again. He must have gone to his room soon after he had had his coffee.
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