Berlin wasn’t Chatham.
Nora’s parents stated this twice a day. Remarkably, Nora agreed with them.
The bank that employed Nora’s bowler-hatted, umbrella-carrying, Times-perusing father had sent him to Berlin to oversee a merger between two financial institutions. A less cosmopolitan couple would be difficult to conjure. Father spoke nothing but the King’s English, a strange source of pride with him. (It lengthened their stay abroad by three months.) Nora’s mother arranged flowers, tinkled on the piano, presided over the teapot with a smile. Respectability saturated them like wine would an alcoholic. They went to Berlin only because it was their clear duty.
Father made the high-handed decision that Nora was to accompany them to Berlin, because heavens knew what shenanigans she’d get up to in their absence. Atypically, Nora didn’t argue.
Berlin was bustling, chaotic. Half-naked women flaunted themselves on ad hoardings. Couples danced cheek-to-cheek in the pleasure gardens. Electric lighting made a mockery of midnight. Trams and motorcars thronged the streets, forcing pedestrians to play demented games of tag.
Nora felt as if she were delirious, raving. Nothing in Chatham or even London had prepared her for Berlin. In Chatham, people moved slowly, dressed with rigid correctness, clung to convention as if it would resurrect the nineteenth century so many of them remembered so fondly.
Nora was a modern woman, as she reminded her mother on a thrice-weekly basis. Nora had bobbed her hair. Nora had won a place at the University of London to study history (she’d taken it up in the face of her parents’ disapproval, thanks to her eccentric Aunt Mildred who had once been a suffragette and who provided her with room and board.) And Nora, now twenty-four and unmarried, was a confirmed spinster. Too old for the ghost of a hope for a plain ring and a marriage certificate.
Nora, unlike her tear-smeared mother, had no regrets about this.
In Berlin, Nora felt her foot was on its native heath. She sashayed along the bustling streets, drank biting coffee in the cafes, practised her German on the clusters of twenty-somethings who gathered by the river Spree in the evenings, while her parents huddled in their flat and complained about the quality of the tea.
And Nora exchanged certain curious glances with other young women. Wondering glances. Wondering if their skin was as soft as it appeared, if they were as merry as their smiles suggested. Wondering if they preferred the kiss of a mouth reddened with lipstick to one made rough by moustache and whiskers.
One afternoon, Nora paused at a newspaper kiosk. German newspapers, French, English, fashion magazines, something called Die Freundin.
Some strange secret knowing made her reach for it, flick through it.
Heat flooded her face as she perused the content. She flung a few coins at the indifferent vendor, and stuffed the magazine into her coat, ready to be smuggled past her parents.
The witching hour had come and gone before Nora slid the magazine out from beneath her mattress for closer examination. Short stories, classifieds, advertisements for events… all aimed at women of a Sapphic persuasion. It was a revelation. Nora’s eyes felt as huge as a frog’s as she studied the magazine by gaslight.
Nora stayed up the remainder of the night, reading and re-reading. Dawn was creeping pinkly across the sky when she read the advert for the eighth time.
Chez Ma Belle Soeur, Marburger Strasse.
She told her parents she was attending a lecture on home economics. She hid her make-up in her bag, concealed her flapper dress under a sensible coat. She made her way to Marburger Strasse by tram, excited terror raging within.
The club was smudged by whisps of cigarette smoke. Ruddy lamps emitted a bordello glow. Greek frescoes adorned the walls. Curtained recesses held lustful promise. Women with short hair and slinky frocks and cool painted smiles. Women dancing with women. Kissing women.
Nora shuffled her way to the bar, ordered a drink in faltering German. She sipped it, feeling as green as the most cloistered Chatham girl. She was a dancer on the rim of a volcano. One misstep, one moment’s distraction and…
Nora was startled from her dreaming by a tap on the shoulder. A woman – short dark hair, kohl rimmed eyes, a sardonic smile – was standing next to her. She extended a hand.
“Willst du tanzen?” she enquired, her inflections shaping it into a question.
Nora stared dumbly.
The woman’s smile widened.
“Bist du neu hier? Keine Angst.”
Nora’s German was still rudimentary, but she recognized the last two words. They meant don’t be afraid.
Nora teetered. Jumped.
“I’m not afraid,” she lied to the woman, forgetting to speak in German. It didn’t matter. The woman nodded approvingly, understanding her perfectly.
Nora took the woman’s hand and led her to the dance floor, flushing as if the heat of the volcano were swirling around her.
The woman smiled, and twirled Nora round to stand alongside her as the band launched into a ragtime jazz tune. Together they began to dance the Charleston, feet flickering, hips swaying, and eyes glowing with the promise of what was to come when the night finally ended and they emerged, like American cicadas, into the cool night air.