“Quiet at the Constellation Club,” a story by Grace Howarth, was a finalist in our recently concluded 52nd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
Quiet at the Constellation Club
…..The stars would burn out before the Constellation Club would fall silent.
…..No matter the hour, no matter the day, a constant hum of life echoed through the walls. Whether it was the rich sultry sounds of piano mingling with a host of brass instruments and smoky voices, accompanied by chatter and glasses clinking, or the early morning scrape of brush bristles and sleepy exchanges over coffee, it seemed like since the moment the first brick of the Constellation Club had been laid, it had never heard a second of silence. That was the way Verity liked it.
…..She arrived early – so early, that most days the folks who had attended the previous night’s show were still hanging around, draped over plush chairs, leeching the last drops from their cocktail glasses. So glamorous in their pearls and velvet, that Verity barely dared to meet their eyes as she mopped the floor.
…..“You go to the show last night, kid?” came a voice.
…..Verity peered up from the stubborn stain melded into the floor scratched from a multitude of dancing feet. “Me?”
…..“Yeah, you.” The woman who had spoken was perhaps the most elegant lady Verity had laid eyes on. Her lips were painted the same shade of red as her satin dress, and plumes of white smoke drifted in hoops away from the curve of her mouth. “It was a blast, wasn’t it darling?”
…..“A blast,” echoed her friend, stirring her drink and gazing upwards with starry eyes.
…..“I couldn’t make it,” Verity replied.
…..“That’s too bad,” the woman pouted. “I’m sure you have the most marvelous time working here. Hearing them play night after night. Probably isn’t so dazzling to you, anymore.”
…..Verity closed her eyes. She had never spent an evening in the club – she had only ever caught the tail-ends of the parties, heard a mournful humming of the melodies she longed to hear, imagined the grand outfits and the whirlwind rush of dancing. “I don’t think I ever wouldn’t be dazzled by the music.” She looked back to her broom. “I’m just the sweeper, I don’t get chance to see the shows.”
…..“Oh darling,” the woman laughed like velvet, “Well you simply must be my guest tonight.”
…..“Your guest?” Verity blinked, the words all-encompassing. They would slice deep if they were a cruel joke. “But why?”
…..“Why not?” The lady gave a wink, her eyes gleaming onyx-black in the low-lights. “We’d better crash for a few hours,” she said, nudging her friend, linking arms. “What’s your name, kid?”
…..“Verity,” Verity said, her heart dancing in rapid-fire snare drum, 7/8 time. “Verity Scott.”
…..“Consider it done, Verity Scott. Wear your Sunday Best.”
…..The pair swayed away, plush laughter and silken voices weaving around them. Verity watched them go, like the remnants of a dream, distant and then nowhere to be seen.
…..She returned to sweeping the floor, the brush strokes creating percussion lines that her soul soared to fill in.
…..Every day she polished the stage, the soles of her shoes tapping an echo deep into the room, her duster a wondrous dance partner. That day was no different, and Verity spun and swooped to make the club glimmer like a diamond.
…..Each crystal glass stood to attention, each gemstone bottle gleamed in the lowlights, the mahogany tables looked as new and fresh as a spring morning. Despite it all, Verity would arrive the next day to her hard work strewn and ruined in fragments of broken glass and spilled drinks – but if it meant she could spend another day in the Constellation Club, she wished a tornado of destructive dancing and debauchery to racket through the place every night.
…..By the time evening rolled around, the club shone like a fresh copper penny. Verity’s shoulders, hunched with pain, slumped at one of the tables.
…..“Can I get you anything, little lady?” came the voice of the bartender, Henry. He had only just arrived, not yet donned in his pristine cotton shirt or bow tie. His eyes darted up and down the room, checking for managers. They settled on Verity with a sparkle. “Here, looks like you need it.”
…..He passed her a lemonade. “Really, Henry?” she gaped, watching as pearls of condensation slid hypnotizing down the glass. At his nod, she drank, the sweet nectar more electrifying than her imagination of champagne.
…..“You done for the night?”
…..“Yessir,” she said wiping the edges of her mouth with the back of her hand. “Hey, Henry… you know who’s performing tonight?”
…..He gave a shrug. “No one I know. Duke Ellington’s due here at the end of the month, though… That’s not one to miss…”
…..“You’re so lucky to work here every night,” she sighed, pushing the empty glass towards him.
…..“And you’re lucky to be here every morning. Most folk never get the chance to visit. No matter how small we are, we’re part of something big. Remember that, little lady.” He gave her a kind wink and hid her cup out of sight. “Have a swell evening, Verity.”
…..“You too,” she said, an avalanche of anticipation crumbling down her windpipe.
…..Her arrival home was met without ceremony, as usual. Her Mama and Papa were out working, and as the youngest of five, Verity’s brothers were all married off, living on their own. The house was quiet and dark, a shiver of coolness rippling across her spine.
…..She shucked off her apron and cap, longing for music to fill the air. Her boxy closet held nothing but work dresses, slips and a couple of hand-me-downs from her mother. She gave a sigh of despair. It didn’t matter how much she closed her eyes and wished, the dull, threadbare clothes remained the same. The dusky rose dress she wore to church would have to do. It was the wrong length, the wrong colour, too high at the neck, and nowhere near as eye-catching as the vibrant reds and gemstone blue pongee silks that swanned through the Constellation Club, but it was all she had. She slid in, palming the steam-pressed pleats, hoping not to stand out too awfully. She pinched a little colour into the apples of her cheeks and the curve of her lips.
…..She laid supper out for her parents, leaving a handwritten note on the table.
…..The road back to the club felt so shiny-new, it was as though she had never walked the path before.
…..By the time she arrived, the night was settling in. Usually at this time of evening, she would be eating quietly, perhaps reading her Papa’s newspaper, or one of the few, dog-eared books that she had read too many times, preparing herself to sleep. The Constellation Club – something she had never experienced at night – was not preparing to sleep in the slightest. From across the street, Verity could hear the swung, heavy melodies plucked on double bass, accompanied by loud laughter and talk.
…..She stepped up, her polished black Mary Jane’s tentative to cross the boundary from regular life, to an evening in the Constellation Club.
…..“Name?” the doorman said, not looking up.
…..Verity fizzled like ice-cold lemonade. “Verity Scott,” she said, eyes wide on his expression. He scanned his list. The longer he looked, the further her heart sunk. She readied herself to walk all the miles back home, change into her nightgown and sob herself to sleep.
…..“Verity Scott,” he looked up and nodded, “In you go.”
…..“Really?” she gasped, crushing her hands to her chest, “Oh, thank you so much, sir!” He gave her an odd look, sobering her excitement. She put on the most refined expression she could muster, lowering her voice, and batting her eyelids. “I mean, thank you, kind sir. Have a lovely evening.”
…..She glided through the front door, marveling at how it felt to stand under the chandelier as she entered, and not the mop buckets and cleaning supplies that lined the walls of the back door. Light refracted around her, stealing the breath from her chest, supplying an extra sparkle to her eyes. The few bodies that stood in the entrance hall, lounging and drinking from champagne flutes, barely spared a look to her as she passed through. They laughed like birds of paradise, their brightly coloured hats and plumes awfully reminiscent of exotic animals, as well.
…..Verity pushed open the double mahogany doors to the main floor. A blare of music swarmed around her as soon as the door cracked – a smile dawned on her face like a brisk autumn morning. She scanned the room to search for the woman who had put her name on the list, but she was nowhere to be seen.
…..“Do my eyes deceive me?”
…..Verity spun to meet the voice. Henry polished a glass and raised a brow. “Henry!”
…..“It is you. What are you doing here, little lady?”
…..“I’m an invited guest,” she said with a giggle.
…..“Well you look mighty smart,” he scanned the bar and snuck a glass of lemonade into her hands. “Who’s the lucky guy?”
…..“It’s not a guy,” she eyed the cluster of folks by the bar. “Maybe you’ve seen her. She’s tall, she has short, curly hair, her skin is almost the same shade as mine, and she’s one of the most elegant, most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.”
…..“Her?” Henry raised his head and pointed at the stage.
…..Verity turned, the stage lights blaring against her eyes. In the middle of it all, the woman stood, swaying her hips to the tune, her eyes shut like she was dreaming the song into reality. She babbled her thanks to Henry and wormed her way to the front of the crowd, the woman a magnet. The people around her squinted at her – likely because of the state of her out-of-fashion dress – but Verity was too bewitched to pay them any attention.
…..Piano notes tumbled over themselves, pouring from the fingers of the pianist, hunched over like the piano was his life-support. Double bass accompaniment plunked through the room, slow and steadily entrancing. The drummer passed his brush over the cymbals, nonchalant and sleepy. The lady opened her lips, and the sound of summer filled the space – dreamy, warm and rich.
…..Verity couldn’t believe she had spoken to a singer!
…..Around her, couples spun from hand to hand, switching partners and twirling like spinning tops. Verity lingered on the side, and though every girl got her hand plucked, rose-like, by stranger after stranger, Verity’s hand remained unchosen, limp at her side.
…..She danced by herself, trying to copy the moves that everyone seemed to know. A few sharpened giggles were pointed her way, but she brushed them aside, allowing the music to warm her head to toe like a thick, fur coat.
…..After what felt like a lifetime of dancing, the lady gripped the microphone, dark eyes blazing. “This is for us,” she said, her voice ragged and cold, worlds apart from her singing. “This is so you can see people like us.” Verity caught her eyes, a jolt of electricity coursing through her veins. When she started to sing again, it was angry, ferocious and wounded – the rhythm was too fast to dance to, the words too scalding to ignore.
…..From painted lip, to ear, whispers snaked through the room, once again leaving Verity on the sidelines. The grumbles crescendo-ed, running raw against the music. A young lady with scarlet nails and nettle-green eyes glared at Verity, muttering something that made the gaggle around her witter with sharp laughter.
…..“We can see you,” snorted a boy, lounging with a cocktail in hand.
…..“I wish we couldn’t,” came another cold tone. Verity flinched, but the woman either did not hear, or did not care, she continued to sing in that raw, vicious way. As Verity listened, she felt the same anger well in her chest, plunging deep down inside her, to a place she rarely uncovered. She glared back to the pale faces that were eyeing her, furious at the biting words and glances.
…..It did not take long for the first glass to be thrown.
…..It missed, the slosh of champagne falling short of the singer by a few feet, the glass tinkling around her feet – she continued to sing.
…..A high voice from within the crowd screeched, “Edward! You’re awful!” But instead of outrage lying in the tone, it was amusement and blurred respect.
…..The next projectile hit its mark, a purple stain bleeding over the singer’s abdomen. Her voice faltered when the glass impacted, but soared back again, like a bird shot at. Like hunters, the crowd were not discouraged. Glass after glass began to rain down on the stage. The girl with green eyes who had scowled at Verity raised her lily-white arm, champagne flute balanced delicately between her fingers.
…..Verity did not know what overcame her, but she grabbed the girl’s arm, watching her flinch. Verity plucked the stem of the glass and dropped it at their feet, crushing the glass beneath her sensible shoes. The girl backtracked, but Verity’s action had made no difference. The stage was beginning to look more like a back alleyway splintered with silvery, deadly shards, than a stage. Helpless, she looked back to the woman, amazed at how she was still singing. The band had fallen away, shading their instruments from the oncoming onslaught of liquids – but she would not fall silent.
…..Verity began to cheer as loud as she could. Clapping and jumping, attempting to overpower the slithering sneers and crash of glass. The lady looked to her, a smile gracing her lips, stars burning in her eyes.
…..And then it was silent.
…..Verity clapped her hands to her mouth, utter horror seeping from her lips like treacle.
…..The microphone had tumbled to the floor, the high squeal of feedback, cut short. The lady staggered. Her bright red lips and dress also matched her temple – a patch of blood sticky against her forehead.
…..The Constellation Club was silent.
…..The stars in the singer’s eyes had burned out.
…..It was all silent.
…..The singer was hurried from the stage, a group of cleaners sweeping the glass from the floor. The band turned to themselves, a heavy intensity reflecting in their glances. They started to play again – swung rhythms, easy to dance to, and easy to ignore.
…..The crowd turned back to their partners, their easy laughter and bright conversations rippling over the room like moonlit water. Verity felt a hand on her arm and jumped, but when she looked up, it was Henry’s kind eyes that looked back.
…..He led her back to the storerooms. A few of the cleaners were still tipping shards into the bins, bar staff were unpacking new wine glasses to restock the bar with. Verity didn’t realise how hard she was shaking until Henry stilled her hand with his own.
…..“It can be a cruel world at night, Verity,” he said, “Go home and come back in the morning.”
…..Numbly, she took the back door. No chandelier was there to welcome her.
…..Perched on a garbage can, the singer sat, one hand on a handkerchief at her forehead, the other holding a smoking cigarette. Verity hovered at the door, her bravery faltering on her lips.
…..The singer turned her weighty eyes to her, a slight nod adorning her head.
…..“Hey kid,” she stretched out. “Enjoy the show?”
…..Verity could see the blood seeping through the white cotton. “You were incredible,” she found the words, but they did not seem to be enough.
…..The lady laughed, poisonous irony streaking her throat. “Thanks, kid.” She tutted over the scarlet on her fingers. “Not as glamorous as it appears, is it?”
…..“You are mighty glamorous,” Verity said, “And I think you’re mighty brave.”
…..“Is it brave to not be silent?” she asked, smoke pouring from her lips.
…..“Sometimes,” Verity answered, “The folk in there have never been silent, and they aren’t brave. But you are.” She closed her eyes, remembering the rawness that had spiraled in her core. “You made me feel things I’ve never felt before.”
…..“Well keep feeling those things, Verity Scott,” the lady said, and Verity was agog that her name had been remembered. They connected hands – two stars joined by a constellation. “The world will try to take your voice, but don’t let them. Never be silent.”
…..Never be silent.
…..Verity gave a watery sort of smile. She plucked a sliver of glass from the woman’s hair, leaving it to shatter between them. “I won’t,” she promised, knowing that a promise was never as simple to break as glass.
…..Although the Constellation Club had fallen silent, Verity Scott swore from that moment, she never would.
Grace Howarth is a. 21-year-old Songwriting. graduate from London. “Quiet at the Constellation Club” is her fourth published short story. She has. finished writing. a musical, a novel, a play, and has several other creative projects in motion. Her play “She is Taken Lightly” has had many short performances around the UK. Grace aims to write stories that give unheard, feminist narratives a voice.