LOVE AND LONGING IN THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF LONDON
When iconic ballerina Beatrice Duvall died, a nation mourned – and a legacy was born. Sixteen years later, her daughter Ava comes to London to take part in a high-profile tribute to Beatrice, and to learn about the mother she never knew.
There’s just one snag: the tribute is a ballet, Swan Lake. Which is infinitely painful for Ava, because she can’t dance. Won’t dance. Not since she quit the Royal Ballet School last year and walked away from everything that defined her.
But this is London, colourful and crazy, and with actor Seb at her side, there’s so much to discover. Like Theatreland razzmatazz and rooftop picnics and flamingo parties. And a whole load of truths Ava never knew about her mother – and herself.
When the time comes to take the stage, will Ava step out of the shadow cast by her mother’s pedestal? And who will be waiting for her there, in the bright lights?
A coming-of-age novel about family and first love, in the city of hopes and dreams.
The Tube from Turnham Green is quiet, until we reach Earl’s Court, where it starts filling up. By the time we get to Victoria I’m in a scrum spilling out onto the platform. I find the Victoria Line platform and shoe-horn myself into a carriage; Seb would be proud of my elbow action.
At Oxford Circus I’m carried by a sea of shoppers up the escalators, across the foyer and up some steps to the street level. I’ve managed to come out the right exit, opposite the flagship Topshop. The massive store calls to me. Now that’s where to buy a dress for the tribute. Simple and trendy. I dread to think what Thisbe’s wardrobe department contact is going to make me. Something showbiz, I guess: long and loud and sparkly. Ugh.
But I don’t want to offend Thisbe, who’s called in a favour, apparently, to get me a dress sewn so quickly. So, with a sigh, I turn my back on Topshop and trudge down Argyll Street. When I see the Palladium, like a classical temple with massive columns, my mood lifts. At least I’m getting to visit one of London’s most historic theatres, where anyone who’s anyone has performed over the years, from Elvis Presley to Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, Elton to Adele – even The Muppets have taken to this stage. I wonder: will I get to stand on the stage?
Nope, is the answer. I don’t even see the auditorium. A security guard shows me from the foyer down into the underbelly of the theatre, to a small, windowless room made even smaller by its many contents: two dressmaker’s dummies, a hanging rail of costumes, shelves of fabric and haberdashery, and a desk for the sewing machine. I barely have time to make a mental comparison of this room and the wardrobe department at the Royal Opera House – in a big room overlooking the Piazza and flooded with light – before a girl springs out from behind one of the dummies and hugs me.
Thankfully, it’s brief. She steps back and beams. I smile back automatically, and in a second I take her in: round, rosy face, electric-blue eyes, dark wavy hair. She’s a little older than me, maybe twenty, and wearing stylish jeans and a really unusual shirt covered with little embroidered seahorses.
“You’re Cara Cavendish?” I say, daring to hope that maybe my dress won’t end up being horrendously glitzy after all.
“The one and only,” she says cheerfully. “And you’re Ava-who-needs-a-dress. Thisbe explained. Sit, sit…” She pulls out a little stool from under the desk and I perch on it.
Cara walks around me in a circle, eying me up and down. “Easy-peasy,” she declares. “Dancers’ forms are so simple to dress.”
“Oh,” I say. “I’m not a dancer.”
She completes her circuit and leans on the desk, looking curiously at me. “But you’re Beatrice Duvall’s daughter,” she says.
The name gives me a jolt, but I manage to reply evenly: “That doesn’t make me a dancer.”
“’Course not,” says Cara. “I mean, my mum was an architect, and look at me! But I heard you were training to be a dancer like your mother. With the Royal Ballet.”
“I was. I… stopped.”
“Oh. Why was that then?”
I frown at Cara. She smiles back at me.
“Did Thisbe put you up to this?” I ask.
“Up to what?”
“All the questions.”
“Oh, no. That’s just me. My brother’s always telling me I’m blunt, because I don’t go in for all that evasive British crap – ignoring the elephant in the room. Better to lay it all out there and say, ‘My mum’s dead, and it sucks.’ You know?”
“Not really,” I reply honestly. I’ve never said those words in my life.
Cara nods like I’ve said something profound. Then, to my relief, she claps her hands and says, “Let’s talk dresses.”
After a quick-fire round of questions designed to establish my style, Cara hands me a scrapbook in which she’s pasted cuttings, photos and drawings of formal dresses, and she talks me through cuts, lengths, necks, sleeves and fabrics. Somewhere around the midi dress page I begin to come undone.
“What is it?” she says.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Something,” she says. “You look like you’re about to have a panic attack. Is it claustrophobia? This room is a little dinky.”
“It’s not that. It’s…”
She waits expectantly. I gesture to the scrapbook.
“It’s just all a bit real, suddenly, looking at these dresses. I mean, I’ve got to wear one and stand on a stage at the Royal Opera House in front of people. Lots of people.”
“Ah,” she says. “Yeah, I’d be a wreck doing that. But you’ve performed on stage before, right?”
“Sure. Plenty of times. But this isn’t a performance. I have to be myself. I mean…”
“You mean you have to be your mother’s daughter. And your mother was the legendary Beatrice Duvall.”
Startled, I nod. She gets it. I don’t even know this girl, but she gets it.
“So,” Cara says, plucking the scrapbook off my lap and leafing through the pages, “what you need, besides the strength to get on that stage, is a really kick-ass dress. A dress that makes you feel tall and powerful and goddam beautiful, like nothing can touch you while you’re wearing it. Ah-ha. Here. This one. What do you think?”
The dress illustration jumps right off the page. It’s bold, it’s simple, it’s glamorous, it shouts “designer”: a strapless bodice with criss-crossing satin ribbons and a flowing skirt with chiffon overskirt ending just on the knee.
“Wow,” I say. “You can make that? In time?”
She grins. “Hell yeah.”
“And you think I can pull that off?”
Her grin widens. “Hell yeah.”
What is the inspiration for the story?
A kaleidoscope of ideas… Memories of performing on stage. The years I lived in Kensington, London. The many shows I’ve seen in the West End. A backstage tour of the Royal Opera House. The public reaction to Princess Diana’s death. My own experience of losing my mother.
What draws you to this genre?
Young adult: the time of life that most signifies discovery and sensation and freedom. Dreaming big; confronting reality. Being trendy; being quirky and out of step. Messing up gloriously; succeeding epically. First crush, first kiss, first love. Making memories that will last a lifetime.
Why do you write?
Because writing makes the blood sing in my veins; it makes me feel alive; it defines me. Because I’m a bibliophile, and the only thing better than having a book in my hand is having my own book in my hand. Because I want to entertain, inspire – and leave a legacy for my children.
Once upon a time a little girl told her grandmother that when she grew up she wanted to be a writer. Or a lollipop lady. Or a fairy princess. ‘Write, Charlotte,’ her grandmother advised. So that’s what she did.
Thirty-odd years later, Charlotte writes the kind of books she loves to read: romances. She lives in a village of Greater Manchester with her husband and two children, and when she’s not reading or writing, you’ll find her walking someplace green, baking up a storm or embarking on a DIY project. She recently achieved a lifetime ambition of creating a home library for her ever-increasing collection of books. She pretends not to notice that the shelves are rather wonky.