From a bestselling Australian author comes a tale of double-dealing, adventure and the dark underbelly of 1920s Sydney…
In the aftermath of World War I, Sydney is no place for the fainthearted. Sly grog shops thrive, the cocaine trade flourishes and brothels abound. Into this big dark city comes fresh-faced country girl, Dolly Bowman, ready to risk everything in pursuit of her dreams. After all it’s the 1920s – time to turn her back on her terrible childhood and search for her future.
Cynthia Burton’s life changes irrevocably the day she steps over the threshold of the house on Boundary Street. Determined to survive the only way she can, she breaks into the world of money and matinee idols in order to fulfil a promise she made and now there’s no going back.
As Dolly and Cynthia lives entangle they find themselves drawn into a far-reaching web of lies, intrigue and double dealing. Could it be that the house on Boundary Street, once their safe haven, offers nothing more than a dangerous facade?
The House on Boundary Street is a revised and expanded edition of the novel originally published as Jazz Baby.
Dolly Bowman stared in awe at the terrace houses and the strangest shiver tiptoed down her spine.
Not one, but three doors stood between curtained windows, their blood-red paintwork menacing in the fading light. No matter how far back she craned her head, the ominous shadow covered her face. Even the delicate iron lacework failed to lift the brooding presence of the building.
She inched closer to the gate, a mixture of elation and awe blurring her eyes. There’d be no interview, no employment if she couldn’t make it up the steps. A job in the city cleaning Mrs Mack’s boarding house was a big step up from the rundown watering hole in Wollombi where she’d flogged her guts out since Pa’d gone.
Throwing open the gate she scuttled up the steps. Before she could knock the door flew open and two girls tumbled out, their shrieks of laughter and high spirits making her knees tremble. They bolted past and barrelled down the street.
She peered through the wide-open door into a long hallway, the walls hung with gold-framed pictures, and the playful sound of chitchat and toe-tapping music wafted towards her. ‘Hello!’ Her pathetic squeak didn’t rise above the noise. She tried again. ‘Hello. Is there anyone home?’
Two choices—walk in or walk away. Despite an overwhelming desire to pick up her borrowed suitcase and run, she stepped over the threshold, raised her hand to the knocker and brought it down hard, three times. ‘Hello!’
The music rose to a crescendo then ground to a halt on a discordant note. A door down the hallway opened. She tottered back and plastered a tight smile on her face.
Heeled shoes tip-tapped on the black and white tiles.
And Dolly’s mouth dropped open.
A woman wearing a shiny-black beaded frock, all fringed and tasselled, gave a little shimmy.
Smoothing her hands down her threadbare coat, Dolly blinked at the vision framed by the narrow hallway. Her long slim legs, encased in the sheerest silk stockings, led to the most elegant ankle-strapped shoes, and her bobbed hair was clamped to her head with a black ribbon.
The woman took two steps closer. ‘Well, hello. What have we here?’
‘I’m here to see Mrs Mack, about the job.’ Dolly wrinkled her nose, cringing at the squeaky sound of her voice.
‘A new girl. How exciting.’ Lifting her hand to her mouth the woman dragged on a cigarette in an ivory holder, then exhaled a cloud of perfect smoke rings. ‘Darling,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Come and meet the new girl.’
‘Bring her in. Bring her in.’ A deep baritone reverberated down the hallway.
‘Jolly good idea. Leave your suitcase here, poppet.’ The woman waved her cigarette at some place inside the door.
Dolly hefted her case and propped it against the wall next to a mirrored hat stand. ‘Close the door and come with me.’
Taking great care, Dolly closed the front door and followed the intermingled cloud of perfume and cigarette smoke, trying not to gawp at the outrageous pictures in the gold frames: women in all manner of undress, lying across every kind of overstuffed furniture, even a piano!
‘Come along. Don’t dawdle.’
Hot on the woman’s clattering heels, Dolly entered the room.
A snug fire burnt in the grate and deep red velvet curtains blocked the view of the street. A large dimpled leather sofa sat in front of the window, festooned with a series of cushions of varying sizes. Everything had tassels.
‘This is the new girl,’ the woman purred and stepped aside.
A man, dressed in an immaculate evening shirt and black trousers, lounged on the sofa, his loosened bowtie hung casually around his neck and his long legs sprawled out over the carpet.
‘Come and say hello, poppet.’
Dolly blinked at the nonchalant body reclining in front of her, and failed to shake away the apparition. ‘Jack!’
‘Dolly!’ He leapt to his feet, a look of horror etched across his familiar face. ‘What in God’s name do you think you’re doing here?’
‘Well! This is cosy. You two already know each other.’ The woman’s purr changed into something more menacing. ‘I am at a disadvantage, I’m afraid. I’m Cynthia.’
Dolly dragged her eyes away from Jack and stammered, ‘Nice to meet—’
‘Oh for God’s sake, don’t be ridiculous. Sit down, Cynthia.’ Jack’s words bounced off the striped wallpaper.
With an exaggerated sigh, Cynthia perched on the arm of a chair and disentangled her burnt-out cigarette from the holder, her catlike eyes raking Dolly’s body.
‘What are you doing here?’ Jack’s voice held a hint of the warmth Dolly remembered from their childhood but his dark, brooding gaze made her insides squirm, sending her mind into a stupor.
‘Darling, I told you,’ Cynthia interrupted from her perch on the armchair. ‘She’s the new girl.’
‘No, she bloody well isn’t. Not if I have anything to do with it.’ The warmth in his voice vanished and the first prickle of tears scuffed behind her eyes. ‘What are you doing in Sydney, Dolly? Why aren’t you at home?’
‘I’m here for an interview with Mrs Mack, about a job. I wrote to her from Wollombi and she invited me to come and meet her.’
‘And what does your father think about it?’
Dolly hiccupped back a noise, something between a growl and a sob. ‘Pa died, six months ago.’
‘Oh God.’ In an instant Jack’s big, warm hand clasped her shoulder and he eased her down onto the sofa. ‘I had no idea. I’m sorry.’ He settled her amongst the voluptuous cushions then stood staring down at her with a perplexed frown on his face.
Foraging in her pocket for a handkerchief, Dolly kept her eyes in her lap, not daring to look into Jack’s face. The last time she’d clapped eyes on him he and Ted had been marching down the street with huge grins on their faces. Off to fight for King and Country and show the world no one messed with Australians or their mates.
‘Here, have mine.’
A pristine white handkerchief waved in front of her face. She blotted the tears trailing down her cheeks.
The sofa sagged as he settled next to her and tilted her chin. ‘Let me look at you.’
She gazed up, grinning through her tears, nearly dizzy from surprise and his comforting closeness. ‘It’s great to see you, Jack.’
He held out his arms. ‘Come on, give me one of those bear hugs. You remember?’ ‘Very touching, Jack.’ Cynthia’s voice dripped with scorn.
Dolly stumbled to her feet. How could she have forgotten the woman? Not a good recommendation for a job interview. ‘I beg your pardon, Miss. Seeing Jack surprised me. He’s an old friend of my brother’s and I haven’t seen him since … ’ How could she explain she hadn’t seen her childhood hero since the day she’d stood in the street waving a battered Union Jack? She still had it, tucked with the other reminders of home, in the corner of her suitcase; she had no intention of telling either of them.
‘Why don’t you go and get us all a drink, Cyn, while Dolly and I catch up.’
Cynthia uncurled her sinuous body from the arm of the chair and sauntered to the door. ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, Jack darling. You might know where she’s come from but don’t know where she’s been.’ She tossed the peculiar comment over her bare shoulder and left.
‘How are you, Dolly-girl?’
‘I’m all right.’ The old term of endearment reminded her of a simpler time. ‘It’s good to know you are home … and safe.’ Try as she might she couldn’t resist sneaking a look at his leg. She hadn’t noticed a limp when he stood; she’d been too surprised at the sight of him to think about much else.
‘Ted?’ They spoke the word in unison and shook their heads.
A bit of the pleasure in the room dissipated; no matter what happened the shadow of her brother would always sit between them.
Jack leant forwards and rubbed his thigh, reminding Dolly of the stories bandied around Wollombi about the heroic way he’d struggled back across the English Channel, his leg and his plane shot to pieces.
‘We got a telegram telling us Ted was missing in action. Pa took it hard. I think he just ran out of hope in the end.’ She shrugged her shoulders, not caring how dispassionate she sounded. The memories still lurked too close to the surface to risk setting them free.
Jack’s smile vanished and the delight she’d seen on his face melted into discomfort, filling the room like thick smog. A tic flickered at the corner of his eye. ‘So, explain to me exactly what you’re doing here. You’re the last person I would have expected to turn up on Mrs Mack’s doorstep.’
‘I’m here for an interview. With Pa gone and Ted—well, you know. I couldn’t earn enough money to keep the house. Father George found someone else to rent it and Alf, down at the hotel, arranged this for me.’
Jack let out a loud puff, an irritated sound that reminded her of her childhood. ‘And what exactly do you imagine you’ll be doing here?’
‘Cleaning, changing the linen, that kind of thing. I wrote to Mrs Mack. She knows I’m coming. I get food and lodging thrown in. It’ll give me time to get on my feet. Get to know Sydney and earn some money before I find a real job.’
‘Dolly.’ Jack pushed to his feet and stared down at her, shaking his head. ‘How old are you now? Fifteen, sixteen?’
‘Eighteen.’ Dolly raised her chin and glared at him. He must have forgotten how long ago he and Ted had left.
‘Yes, well I suppose you must be.’ Jack frowned and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
‘That’s not the point. Doesn’t matter how old you are. This isn’t the place for a girl like you.’
‘Woman.’ She needed to make it clear to Jack she wasn’t a child, the little sister he threw up onto his shoulders and tickled until she screamed.
His eyes narrowed, the planes of his face standing out in the shadows thrown by the lamp. ‘Not here. No, Dolly. Not here.’
‘Yes, Jack. This is the job I’m applying for. It’s my business. I’m not a child anymore.’ She sucked in a deep breath then let it whistle out between her lips.
His eyes narrowed. ‘Look Dolly, there are a hundred other places you could work. Let me help you find something else. Lend you some money for the time being. We can sort it out.’
She didn’t want Jack to make decisions for her or solve her problems. She wanted to stand on her own two feet. She’d waited four years, watched Pa drown in his misery. Now was her chance.
‘What would Ted say if he found out you were working in Sydney and I’d sanctioned it?’
Typical. Trust Jack to play the Ted card. There was nothing he or anyone else could do about it. Ted lay somewhere in France, God only knew where, and as much as she wished otherwise nothing could change the fact. ‘Ted’s not here and I can look after myself. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t work here. It’s no different to Alf’s in Wollombi. Just a step up.’ Besides, it was time she reached out and made her own way in the world. Do what she wanted to do. She wanted to go places she’d never been before, experience every sensation and Sydney was just the beginning.
Jack stared down at her, shaking his head from side to side. ‘Dolly—’
‘No.’ She wanted this job and she was going to do her level best to make sure she got it.
Forcing a smile to her face, Cynthia sashayed over to the sofa and handed Jack a glass.
‘Drinkies, darling.’ She added ice to the crystal tumbler and splashed the amber liquid to the brim. Anything to reclaim Jack’s attention. ‘Chin-chin.’ She winked and made to clink her glass against his but she was too slow.
Jack knocked the whisky back as though he’d spent a week without rations. His mind wasn’t on her any more. ‘Oh, how silly of me. Dolly, help yourself. I’m not sure how Mrs Mack feels about her girls drinking but since you’re not technically one yet, I’d make the most of it.’
‘No, thank you.’ The girl shook her head and gazed demurely down at her interlaced fingers.
‘Oh, come along, a sip or two won’t do you any harm. Dutch courage before your interview.’
‘I don’t drink alcohol.’
Once upon a time Cynthia didn’t drink either, but things had changed, changed a lot since she started working at Number Fifty-Four.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed six. Any minute Mrs Mack would walk through the door, ready for her evening chat with the girls to make sure nothing slipped past her beady eye, and in a matter of moments Dolly would have her job. Mrs Mack wouldn’t turn her away. All that virginal peaches and cream and the little-girl-lost pout. Men liked that. Liked it a lot, although hopefully Jack preferred something more sophisticated.
With her feet clamped close together Dolly presented the perfect picture of
modesty. She’d need a complete makeover and someone would have to spend a fortune on some decent clothes for her before Mrs Mack would let her onto the floor. But then Jack had a fortune, hadn’t he? Jack’s generous tips made all the difference. She had no intention of letting him slip through her fingers. Too much depended on it.
Dolly fumbled at the buttons of her dreadful brown worsted coat and revealed a faded cotton frock with a heart-shaped neckline. It belonged in the dark ages, something Ma would have worn, and her knees were pressed so tightly together it’d take a battalion to get them apart. Not a lone airman.
Almost as though Dolly could read her mind a blush rose to her cheeks. Jack couldn’t take his bloody eyes off her. The front door opened and he took a deep slug of whisky. He was as nervous as Dolly.
‘Time for your interview, chick-a-dee. Here’s Mrs Mack.’ Cynthia glided to the door and threw it open. ‘The dining room’s first on the right, down the hallway. Mrs Mack will be in there.’
Dolly rose, smoothed her frock; obviously she was scared witless. Her skin had turned the colour of sour milk and her hands kept clutching at the skirt of her frock, screwing it up, creasing it, making it look even worse than it already did. She’d got guts though. Had to give her that.
Jack, the hero, leapt to his feet. ‘I’ll come with you.’
‘No, I’m fine.’ Dolly launched across the room, her sky-blue eyes wide open. ‘I’ll do this on my own.’ She left without even a backwards glance.
‘Plucky little thing, isn’t she?’ Cynthia closed the door.
‘No doubt about that. Has been from the word go. Determined. Determined to do what she wanted to do and determined not to be left behind. She had to be to survive.’ A mixture of pride and despair laced his voice as he fidgeted with his empty glass. Anyone could tell he wanted to follow her down the hallway and stand guard.
He’d be wasting his time. Mrs Mack didn’t offer a charity service. She’d see beyond the worn frock and run-down shoes and before anyone could whistle Dixie, Dolly wouldn’t be changing the sheets she’d be between them, earning a fistful of money and giving more than half of it back to Mrs Mack for the privilege, just like the rest of them.
Jack slapped the glass down on the small table, and slumped, as though he’d run a marathon. He raised an eyebrow. ‘What?’
‘A side of you I hadn’t seen, Jack.’ She toyed with her glass. ‘I somehow didn’t imagine you had a past. I only see you as the dashing aviator. All leather jacket, goggles and derring-do.’
‘Shows how little you know about me, Cynthia.’
Rising from the chair she put her glass on the table at his elbow. ‘I’d like to know more.’ She slid to her knees and ran her hands up and down his thighs, firm and deliberate, just the way he liked it, then leant forwards making the neckline of her frock swing loose to give him a decent glimpse of her breasts and slippery satin camisole.
His sucked-in breath betrayed the effect her touch had on him. All was not lost. ‘Let’s go upstairs.’ She pushed to her feet and held out her hand, then lowered her voice to a husky drawl. ‘You’re tense, you need to relax.’
He didn’t take a blind bit of notice. Stood and pulled down the pristine white cuffs of his dress shirt, picked up his jacket, showed her the back of his broad shoulders. ‘I have an appointment.’
He had an appointment? Since when? Damn him. ‘In that case I better go and earn myself some money.’ Throwing him a half-hearted smile she swivelled on her heels and stormed out. Why lie? He’d already told her he’d be spending the evening with her and she’d counted on it. Now she’d have to go and find some other way to pay the bills.