The shoes were pinching. And when Daphne looked up, so were her mother’s lips.
“Really sweetheart. Sometimes I wonder how I could’ve produced you. You’re so… so…”
Fourteen and fragile, Daphne’s cheeks started to redden as she waited to hear what her mother thought she was, dreading an adjective that would be, as it routinely was, dreadful. But at that moment she was spared from knowing exactly which.
“Perhaps in the blue, madam?”
Shop assistants always fawned over her mother, Julia. Even in Harrods. Especially in Harrods. Perhaps it was the aura of wealth around her; perhaps it was her effortless elegance, or perhaps it was her palpable snobbery. Julia wrinkled her nose.
“No I don’t think so. We don’t want to overdo the blue. Maybe the gold pair.”
Daphne’s cousin’s wedding, her mother relentlessly reminded her, was only a month away. Julia had picked out the royal blue affair into which Daphne was now crammed so as to find the best possible pair of shoes to match.
“Now walk up and down Daphne. And, for God’s sake, stop drooping your shoulders.”
Beside the guilt mirror-lined wall, the girl placed one sparkling foot in front of the other. These shoes pinched even more than the last pair.
“Oh much better. How do they feel, dear?”
Back at their house in Kensington, Daphne perched on the plush white carpet of the grand staircase. It was eleven o’clock at night and her father had just returned from work. Magda was sneaking back in downstairs. Daphne could see the basement through the gap in the stairs. The live-in maid passed under her line of vision, glanced up and winked. Magda was her only friend in the house.
The tinkle of her mother’s laugh peeled through from the kitchen and rippled up the stairs to where Daphne’s feet were tucked beneath her. A familiar pang of dislike tasted bitter in her mouth. Daphne slid down one step, then another. Inching closer to her mother's clipped, high-pitched voice.
“… really, Gerald. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with that girl.”
“I wouldn’t worry, darling. She’s fourteen. They’re always difficult at this age.”
“But that’s just it. She isn’t difficult. At her age I was sneaking out every night to scurry off with some chap or other.”
“Well, surely that’s a good thing that she isn’t doing that, isn't it?”
“I suppose. But she has no friends. Of course no boys chase after her. What if she’s….?”
“Julia, she’s fourteen. Lots of fourteen-year-olds aren’t attracted to men, yet. It doesn’t make them-”
“It’s not as if she’s bad- looking, either. She’s just so…. so… awkward.”
There it was: the word her mother was casting about for earlier. A tear dropped onto the cream carpet. It was black because the salty water was mingled with the mascara her mother made her wear. A black droplet on a carpet so white that her mother insisted on all visitors removing their shoes. The small, inadvertent act of defiance felt good.
“Whenever I envisioned having a child. This wasn’t what I imagined.”
“But is anything ever like one imagines?”
There followed the familiar sound of one of the kitchen bar stools scraping back. Daphne sprung up and silently scaled back upstairs. If her mother had seen, perhaps she would’ve recognised her own elegance, if only for a few moments. Daphne wasn’t always awkward. Only when she was with other people. Face-down on the soft down bed, the teenager made no attempt to stifle the tears. The size of the house muffled the noise: her sobs dispersed and dissipated through the empty designer rooms about her.
How she missed her grandfather. At that time, for her young mind, a month seemed the most significant quantity when it came to measuring time. A month ago her grandfather passed. And in a month’s time her cousin would marry. The first family gathering from which he would be absent. Of everyone, that absence would weigh heaviest on her. Out of the ten grandchildren, she’d been Grandpa’s favourite.
When she was eight, she had tripped; and bled; and cried. Grandpa sat her on his lap and kissed her better.
“Don’t cry, my daft little Daph. That’s it, be a brave girl.” The two of them looked up, the old man with his grandchild on his knee. A rainbow spread out before them. Spectacular, its resplendent secondary semi-circle framing its primary.
“Tell me the colours.”
“Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. Red orange yellow green blue indigo violet.”
“You know what’s at the end of the rainbow, Daphne? Not a pot of a gold. At the end of the rainbow there’s
sunshine or rain. Whether it’s sunshine or rain, that’s up to you.”
Six years later, Daphne still didn’t know what he meant. Perhaps it was just the sort of nonsense adults
speak to children. What she now liked to think he meant was that life is what you make of it. Ever since, whenever Daphne was sad, she’d think of him and decide if she wanted sunshine or rain. Now, lying on the downy king-size bed, with embroidered Egyptian cotton sheets, she thought of her Grandpa. She thought of rainbows. She thought of rain.
The Scottish sky drizzled on. It was Daphne’s cousin’s wedding. Her uncle (mother’s brother) inherited the castle in Scotland, which was where her cousin Marigold was now getting married. Marigold’s fiancé’s family were American – and made Daphne’s family look poor by comparison. The wedding so far had displayed a level of decadence surpassing anything Daphne had ever seen. A firework display; a circus; a personalised gift box worth at least a few hundred pounds for each of the three hundred guests.
The gold shoes pinched. A ceilidh was commencing. Daphne was escaping. The cheerful jumble of fiddles, violins and flutes receded as she treaded away from the bedazzling sea of marquees. The misty flecks descending sabotaged the perfectly straightened hair and her frizzy main was restored. She kicked off her golden shoes and tiptoed through the damp grass.
On the edge of the forest, she perched on an upended tree. The music and laughter was reduced to faint white noise in the background. And Daphne thought of rainbows.
A twig snapped. She jumped.
“Busted,” came a female voice that was soft in tone but strong in accent. Scottish, of course. From the shadows a girl, maybe a couple of years older than Daphne, emerged. She was wearing the neat, twee waitresses’ uniform – all of which had, also, been personalised for the wedding, with the initials of M&H darned into the top right pockets.
“Don’t tell anyone, will you?” The girl threw down the cigarette on which she’d been puffing away. Its spark was extinguished on the wet grass with a hiss. Daphne said nothing. She was at a loss for words - her perpetual state. At least, at the moment it seemed.
“You’re a quiet one, aren’t you?”
The girl stepped closer. She had raven hair, pale skin and a playful face. She was quite beautiful.
“You don’t seem to be like those rich assholes in there. My name’s Isla. What’s yours?”
“Eek. Poor you. What are doing out here, Daphne?”
“What’re you thinking about?”
“Rainbows…. Colours of the rainbow.”
“Richard of York gave battle in vain?”
Before Daphne knew it, lips were on hers. Like her voice, Isla’s lips were soft and insistent. Momentarily, rainbows were eclipsed. It was Daphne’s very first kiss.
A car honked outside. Four years after the wedding at which Daphne had had her epiphany. The eighteen-year-old now glared at the window and raised her eyes as the usual screaming match ensued outside. She lived on a south-west London street too narrow for two cars to fit side-by-side but lacking a one-way system to instil any order.
“Move back you #%*$*!!! You’ve got loads of space!” Followed by a dribble of expletives.
The pounding music of the pimped-out car reverberated through the beams of the cramped and rickety flat. Meanwhile, Daphne’s phone also started reverberating.
“Evil Witch is calling,” came Sandra’s bored drawl.
“You have to talk to her eventually, you know.”
“I never have to talk to Julia ever again. How do I look?”
“You should spike your hair.” Daphne’s former frizzy main of ruddy curls was now cropped short. “Love it when you do that.”
Hair spiked, they double locked the door behind them.
Friday night in Soho. This – here; now – was where Daphne belonged. In the nit and grit of capital nightlife amongst a fellow assortment of misfits. They slipped the queue. They were besties with the bouncer. The thud of bass greeted them. This thud, unlike the obnoxious pump of the pimped-out car, was welcome, and all-consuming. Weaving through the musty club air of a hundred sweating bodies, Daphne fell under the hypnotic power of the stroboscopic lights. At the bar, bartender was signalled to; two tequilas downed; and more shots ordered.
Someone slipped something into Daphne’s hand which was unquestioningly swallowed. And then more shots. Everyone was beautiful and life was great. But fresh air was needed.
Outside, Daphne’s gleeful smile died as she pulled out her phone. Four missed calls from Evil Witch. One voicemail. Should she listen to it? Better now than sober. She could hear her mother Julia’s clipped voice. Beneath the heightened roar of drunken chatter in the smoking area, she could only hear snippets.
“Daphne [crackle] Still your mother [crackle crackle] Should never leave things like that [crackle crackle] Despite what you may think, your father and I still love you.”
Daphne deleted it. She knew it was a mistake to listen. Now all she wanted was to get out. So she slipped away.
Did she really fit in here? She wondered. Would she ever feel that she fit in anywhere?
Rapidly sobering, she wandered along the Thames embankment below The Savoy. And then lost track and found herself meandering through emptying and darkening streets - feeling lost, in many more ways than one. She found herself in Bloomsbury.
What happened next might have been, depending on one's beliefs, a fortuitous moment of chance, or a
predestined moment of fate. An arbitrary twist of circumstance- but it was just what Daphne needed. When she looked up, she saw the Duke of York pub. It was closed now. But there was a black cabby outside of it - and on the side of the cabby was a rainbow.
Richard of York gave battle in vain.
Red orange yellow green blue indigo violet.
For the first time she felt a swell of pride.