After a year away from Paris, Kiki Button is delighted to be back in City of Lights. But danger threatens her return as she is pulled into another spy mission—one that brings her ever closer to the rising fascist threat in Europe. October 1922. Kiki Button has had a rough year at home in Australia after her mother’s sudden death. As the leaves turn gold on the Parisian boulevards, Kiki returns to Europe, more desperately in need of Paris and all its liveliness than ever. As soon as she arrives back in Montparnasse, Kiki takes up her life again, drinking with artists at the Café Rotonde, gossiping with her friends, and finding lovers among the enormous expatriate community. Even her summertime lover from the year before, handsome Russian exile Prince Theo Romanov, is waiting for her. But it’s not all champagne and moonlit trysts. Theo is worried that his brother-in-law is being led astray by political fanatics. Kiki’s boy from home, Tom, is still hiding under a false name. Her friends are in trouble—Maisie has been blackmailed and looks for revenge, Bertie is still lovesick and lonely, and Harry has important information about her mother. And to top it off, she is found by Dr. Fox, her former spymaster, who insists that she work for him once more. Amidst the gaiety of 1920s Paris, Kiki stalks the haunted, the hunted, and people still heartsore from the war. She parties with princes and Communist comrades, she wears ballgowns with Chanel and the Marchesa Casati, she talks politics with Hemingway and poetry with Sylvia Beach, and sips tea with Gertrude Stein. She confronts the men who would bring Europe into another war. And as she uses her gossip columnist connections for her mission, she also meets people who knew her mother, and can help to answer her burning question: why did her mother leave England all those years ago?
Release date: August 3, 2021
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Print pages: 352
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Autumn Leaves, 1922
I leaned into the fog that surrounded the ferry. The sky was gray and close to dawn, which meant close to docking in Calais and close to the Blue Train to Paris. My knuckles were white from gripping the railing. The air was freezing but my cheeks were burning. I felt fuzzy, high from lack of sleep, lack of food, from too much sex and fear and not enough love.
The still, damp air ran its fingers over my face. My head filled with the growl of the engine, the slap of the English Channel against the hull, with the long, low call of gulls. Their caws echoed through the fog so that each bird seemed a multitude, each call seemed to come from another world. I imagined these gulls were my mother wailing from the underworld, that she was trapped and needed me to release her. If I could find her final diary, if I could find the reason she left for Australia, then perhaps I could finally understand her and release her memory.
I was still dressed in the thin clothing of an Australian spring, but here I shivered constantly and almost uncontrollably. It wasn’t just that the wool of my red coat failed to do its job, or that my scarf invited in every whisper of wind, or that my red gloves should have been leather lined in cashmere; it wasn’t just that I had recently returned from a year away in Sydney and I was no longer used to Europe’s many-mannered chills.
I shivered because I was finally free of my old life. With every minute on the water, more terribly and irrevocably free.
The ferry’s horn sounded, long and low, scattering all my morbid visions. The horn meant France was imminent, yes, the shore was in sight, the sailors had started their fast work of unwinding ropes and aligning gangplanks. I had only the smallest bag with me and I clung to the handle of my slender suitcase. I was first onto the jetty, a jaunty red parrot among the sleepy pigeons. I was first on the Blue Train to Paris, first in the dining car, and certainly the only person to order champagne in the trembling morning.
The fields rolled by, weeds sprouting and children clambering over the abandoned war machinery as if it were ancient ruins. I couldn’t stand to see my reflection in the debris of the recent past; I couldn’t look away from the craters and unnatural hills of burial mounds and collapsed trenches. I smoked the last of my cigarettes and drank more than was sensible on an empty stomach.
But I wasn’t here to be sensible or any of those other words that imprison a woman—respectable, obedient, compliant, normal, good. I was here to smear blood-red lipstick on glasses and collars and skin. I was here to slip off my shoes and my hat and let my neck be caressed by the morning air. I was here to dance wildly, eat ravenously, and laugh at the dark.
I was here to live.
1“when the leaves come tumbling down”
I could only get to Paris via Calais, via Dover, via London, and I was in London this October with a mixture of relief and dread—relief that I was finally in Europe, dread that I would be discovered by my relatives and forced to stay in London. I was so intent on leaving as soon as possible that I hadn’t even bothered to book a hotel. But as soon as possible could not be immediately. I had to see my patron saints before I could embark on my pilgrimage, patron saints in the form of young veterans and my best friends, Saint Tom of My Heart and Saint Bertie of the Bedroom.
London was charcoal and electric. I always had this feeling when I arrived in the Empire’s epicenter. The air crackled and possibility hid in every tiny lane, and I never knew, when I entered a room, whether glory or ignominy awaited me. The dull exteriors of the buildings, in sooty stone and pale brick, the drab clothes of the Londoners, all gray and brown and black, were a ruse. With so many people coming and going, living and dying, in this city, I was always guaranteed to find exactly what, or who, I needed.
I couldn’t help but think of who I needed as I rode the Underground to Blackfriars. The crush of bodies made the air stink of warm human trapped in damp wool, a smell so peculiar to London that I almost liked it. It had been like this during the war when I had traveled here on leave, supposedly to visit my aunt Petunia and my English mother’s other relatives, but in reality, I had slept through most of the days to creep out each night, with the help of her indulgent butler, to carouse with friends. Then the stink of wool had been from wet uniforms, combined with Woodbine smoke and mud and the odd whiff of cordite. I couldn’t help but remember what I had needed then—a warm embrace, so unexpectedly yet expertly supplied by Bertie—and how that mirrored what I needed now.
I wriggled out of the carriage, my coat almost catching in the doors, and feelings from 1917 caught up with me. Then, my edges had been ragged, my emotions overused and oppressed, I needed release yet feared that release would overwhelm and overpower me and I’d never be able to climb back into my uniform. I breathed in deeply, to remind myself that it was 1922, not 1917, and I no longer had a uniform or needed permission to travel. I looked around. The stairs up to the river were full of clerks, not soldiers. My black nursing boots had been replaced by high-heeled brogues in the same scarlet red as my coat. Like me, London had donned a fancy tie and put a sweet flower in its buttonhole, it drank cocktails and it played croquet… but it couldn’t forget. Memories of the war lurked in every look, in every wracking cough and quick purchase of the newspaper. I was far from immune.
The only cure for these memories was a hug from a patron saint. I had to stop myself from running all the way to Tom’s office and in doing so breaking a heel, or my ankle, on the cobblestones. I could hear pigeons trill over the honk and bray of the traffic, I could feel the city tremble through the footpath. The sky was a slate roof too close to the double-decker buses. But Tom, my Tom-Tom, my boy from home, was hopefully just around the corner, just up the stairs, just behind the front desk—
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but Mr. Arthur isn’t in London at present. He’s on assignment in…”
“Turkey!” boomed an Australian voice from inside the office, “Or Greece—it depends who you ask, ha! Anyway, he’s filing copy from Smyrna.” The booming voice came out to reception in the form of a pre-war three-piece suit, gray hair, gray moustache, round red face and round eyes; all he was missing was the top hat and the can-can dancer on his knee. This must be Tom’s boss, the man he only ever called Old Buffer.
“Button.” I put out my hand to shake his, to his surprise. “Kiki Button. I grew up with Tom in Australia. When is he due back in London?”
“How long is a war?” His grin was more of a leer. “When the fires have gone out, Miss Kiki Button. His copy is too good to pull him out of danger yet. Not that I expect you to know what’s happening there—”
“From what I read, it has been happening, with equal ferocity from both the Greeks and Turks, since the end of the war. ‘It’ being, of course, the siege of Smyrna.”
“You’re well-informed, for a woman.”
“No, I’m just well-informed.” I ignored his snort of laughter. “Where’s he staying?”
“If he sleeps at all it’ll be a miracle,” said Old Buffer. “But Shereen here knows where to contact him. Say, you’re not one of the girls who keeps him in Paris, are you?”
“Girls? Not in the plural.”
I was saved from further leers by Shereen, letting me know that Tom had a bed at the Empire Hotel in the port of Smyrna and could be contacted there. Old Buffer just looked me up and down before heading back into the office with its endlessly ringing telephone and drone of the wireless.
I should have known that Tom wouldn’t be in London. Hadn’t I been reading the papers all the way from Sydney about the endless fighting on Europe’s fringes? Hadn’t I read our hometown paper, the one he worked for, every day since I had arrived in Sydney last December? His byline was everywhere, reporting on a skirmish here and mob violence there, as he traveled through the vanquished and victorious nations from Aachen to Archangel to Odessa to Constantinople. Reading that newspaper and following his frenetic journey was, for months, the only link I had to a world outside my grief.
I clipped down the worn marble stairs and inhaled my cigarette with too much ferocity. It was absurd for me to be so disappointed. Yet who else would I want first, after a year away, but my darling Tombola? London traffic whizzed by, always changing and always the same: rushed, crushed, and vibrant. I would have to settle for sending Tom an invitation to Paris via telegram.
I had already sent a telegram to Bertie. If I had tried to surprise him, I could have ended up in a boys-only cabaret in Soho, or drinking gin with lush luvvies in a back alley in Covent Garden, or simply sitting for hours in the reception of the Star waiting for Bertie to return from one of his famously long lunches. I needed my job back as the Star’s Paris correspondent, I needed to know that the editor had forgiven my long absence and would let me be a gossip columnist once again. I needed to see Bertie, quickly and completely, before I left London. Once I got to Paris, I doubted I would leave.
I walked down Fleet Street to where it met the Strand and Soho. I was now regretting being too impatient to leave my suitcase at Victoria Station, as my right arm had started to ache and I leaned to the left with the heft of it. I would arrive at the Star sweaty and puffed with dark circles at my armpits—hardly the best look to convince the editor that I could party with haute Paris with aplomb, pizzazz, insouciance. I removed my scarf, gloves, and coat and relished the sharp breeze that teased my scarlet silk dress, its fluttery fluted skirt and huge sleeves moving in conversation with the traffic sounds and air that threatened rain. I took the wooden stairs to the office, the walls covered with playbills, and announced myself to Mavis at reception.
“Kiki?” Bertie called over the office noise, with its clatter of typewriters, telephones, and high heels on a parquet floor. I was about to call back but the call stuck in my throat; I had the sensation of my chest tightening, a lump in my throat that I wanted to cough out, my mouth open but nothing on my tongue but stale smoke. Bertie poked his head around the door and for a moment all I could see was his smile and all I could feel were his long limbs as he wrapped his arms around me.
“Caramel check,” I said as I stroked his lapel.
“Caramel cashmere with a chocolate check, actually.”
“And your lozenges?”
“Caramels, of course.”
He always had a packet of lollies in his pocket, bought new each day to match his outfit. I was so glad that habit hadn’t changed; I was so glad he understood what I was saying when I spoke about his clothes. I stroked back the stray strand of sandy hair that had escaped his pomade. He had a couple more wrinkles than last year and the shadows beneath his eyes were darker, he no longer smelled of Woodbines, but some strong tobacco that I didn’t recognise, he had a few gray hairs at his temples; subtle changes that told me that age was coming as quickly to him as it was to all of us war veterans.
“Have one.” He shook the packet of caramels at me. “You need one.”
“I need a cigarette.”
“Like you need a bullet in the brain. You do know that, despite the fact you put them in your mouth, cigarettes are not actually food?”
“Are you here to lecture me or to buy me a drink?”
“Mavis,” he called over his shoulder as he took my suitcase and my arm, “I’m off to lunch.”
“Again, Mr. Browne?”
Bertie only raised his eyebrow in reply.
2“down in midnight town”
“So, Kiki, the Ritz or the river?” Bertie flipped up the collar of his caramel overcoat and raised his voice over the traffic.
“Perfect answer.” He waved away the cab that had pulled up beside us and took my hand as we scurried across the road.
“What’s on the river?”
“My boat. Well, barge, to be precise. My landlady was beyond the pale, always asking me why young men came over and didn’t leave until dawn, why I didn’t come home each night, reading me Bible passages—”
“Acting like Nanny?”
“Nanny introduced me to her dishy godson last Christmas, all pillowy lips and creamy skin, so no, nothing like Nanny.”
He tucked my hand into his arm as he led me down little lanes, cobbled and dark, with shops touting second-hand books, maps, shoe repairs, and pawned watches.
“So anyway, thoroughly sick of my surroundings—Chelsea is full of posers, Fitzrovia full of socialists, Belgravia full of snobs—I used to walk down to the river and sit in the freezing wind, watching the boats bob up and down. One day an old waterman, like someone out of Dickens, tipped his cap and offered me his ‘nevvy’s vessel,’ as his ‘nevvy’ wasn’t in a fit state to use it anymore. It was red with black roses, equipped with a bed and sink and table, and I forgot to go back to the office.”
“Office? What office?”
“Exactly. All summer I pootled up to Oxford and beyond, to picnic on the riverbank, to let the sun set over my bobbing body.”
The Thames rippled gray-blue at the bottom of the lane.
“Only sometimes.” He smiled. “A jug of Pimm’s can be shared just as easily with a good book as a handsome lad. I devoured both over the summer, trying desperately not to miss you.”
“I think you succeeded.”
“No,” he kissed my hand, “I only distracted myself, as always. Too many boys…”
“And too many ghosts.”
His heavy exhale seemed to say everything: the pain that still lingered from the war in the form of stray aches; memories that ambushed ordinary moments; the preciousness of friends, and their absence filled with wine, sex, and cigarettes; life held too lightly, like one of the brittle red leaves that fluttered to the footpath along the riverbank.
“Bertie, it’s perfect.” I sat on the roof of his barge, a large whisky beside me, my red scarf wrapped tightly against the weather, watching the trucks and buses rumble over the bridges. “What luck the waterman found you.”
“It’s the only time I’ll let myself believe in fate.” He gave me a look that was easy to interpret: As opposed to the war when, if you believed in fate, you’d go mad with the injustice of it. You could only believe in luck. Seeing Bertie with the wind in his hair, pushing our floating party to a more secluded spot where we could kiss and gossip, I felt very lucky indeed.
We had to keep close to the bank in order for him to use his punt. We could see all the urchins and amputees as they combed the shore. The smells of London were different here too—river mud, salt, rotting vegetation, diesel, and old fish. Here was a London that my mother could never have known, that I only encountered when I nursed East End privates for the first time in 1915.
“Bertie, you can’t expect me to believe that you have spent months punting all the way to Oxford and back.”
“Of course not, Kiki. I hired a tug to drag me out of London and punted from there. I don’t mind a sailor…”
“But I don’t want to be one. As it is, I’ve had to let out quite a few jackets to accommodate the increased muscle in my shoulders.”
“Any more and I’d have to get a whole new wardrobe.”
“Would that be so bad?” It was too windy for a hat and my hair kept flicking in my face.
“Not if you were here to help me choose it.”
“Here I am.”
“Paris tomorrow and then forever.”
“Sydney was that awful, was it?”
I raised my whisky glass to him and took a big gulp. I couldn’t say more in a shout across the London afternoon. Talk of my extended absence would have to wait for the privacy provided by the moon, stars, and liquid night.
We let the tide carry us along for a while, Bertie using the punt to guide the barge. We were headed to Raven’s Ait, a river island that held only a rowing club, various blue wooden buildings, and some bedraggled gardens. Bertie docked quietly at a jetty that hid beneath some overgrown trees. Dead leaves spilled on the river’s surface. The city was just on the bank but it seemed barely there, the traffic noise hushed by the swish of water against wood. Dusk appeared over the river, the slate sky darkening, and a chill rose from the water. I pulled my coat closer and tucked my feet beneath me. Bertie handed me more whisky from a box on deck.
“My brother sent me a whole crate from Scotland, it’s his new business venture.” He settled in beside me. “I don’t have any food.”
“Do you usually eat?”
“No, not usually. But you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?” He picked up my hand and ran his thumb over the too-prominent wrist bone.
“I thought I might try it again in Paris. Eclairs, you know… and cheese…”
“There wasn’t any cheese in Australia?”
He kept hold of my hand, a lifeline to the world, an anchor in joy so that I couldn’t float away into sorrow. I lit a cigarette with my other hand and added my smoke to the hazy sky.
“The funeral was the easy part. They’d waited so long, my ancient aunt had insisted on waiting for my return, that my mother was already boxed up and ready to go. I got off the boat in the morning, threw dirt in her grave at lunchtime, and was on the train to my father’s property that afternoon. I was back on the train to Sydney a fortnight after that. It was the long goodbye in the form of packing up her life that was…”
“Awful? Dreadful? Woeful?”
“Sorting out her clothes was fine, they all went to local charities. Her books were sold, her furniture went under the hammer…”
“Is that what took you so long?”
“A year to sell some books? That took a few weeks at most. No, it was…” The crickets chirruped their encouragement. I took a slug of whisky. “I read her diaries.”
“Were there many?”
“She wrote almost every day since she left England more than twenty-seven years ago.”
“That’s what kept you in Sydney.”
“I sat in her terrace by the harbor, the lorikeets screeching during the day and the bats squeaking in the fruit trees at night. I read every page, I couldn’t stop myself. They were boring and repetitive in the way all diaries are, even her constant trips to Europe, and yet… I sat in her house with no furniture but a bed and an armchair, building a picture of a woman it was too late to know.”
The terrace had been cool through the summer, shaded and sandstone, while the rest of the city had boiled. The harbor had glittered and shimmied, dotted with yachts that bobbed through the endless syrupy sunshine.
“My aunt came over one day and almost had a fit. I hadn’t been out in weeks except to the corner shop for biscuits and sherry and tea that I drank black so I didn’t have to bother with milk. I was in my grimy slip, with stains on the embroidered peonies of my mother’s favorite dressing gown, using her extensive teacup collection as ashtrays, sherry goblets, tea cups, soap dishes… I think my aunt actually screeched, galah that she is.”
“What’s a galah?”
“An Australian parrot. It’s also a nickname for an idiot. She shoved me into my coat and took me to her house to be cleaned, washed, dried, aired, fed, and watered. I had to stay until my hair was brushed shiny, my laundry dried and pressed, and I’d eaten three solid meals—although she scaled down ‘eaten’ to ‘attempted’ when I threw up mashed potato and chicken pie all over her carpet.”
“What a galah.”
“Precisely. The maids looked askance at the ragged adult niece. All except Martha, who just brushed my hair over my morning coffee, and said, ‘You’ve always been a scamp, Katherine. I don’t know why the Mistress thinks you’ll change.’ ”
“My mother’s maid is also an ally from childhood.”
“She used to darn the holes in my stockings I got from climbing trees. She would smile then too. Anyway, after two days of my aunt’s shrill harangue I was dragged into recovery. I threw out the black mourning clothes I’d been wearing and bought this red ensemble. I cut my hair short, I ordered a meal I could actually eat…”
“Raspberry tart and cream.” I shrugged. “I didn’t have the heart for hearty. I sold the house and the teacups—do you know, the teacups fetched almost as much as the house? Apparently, they were rare antiques! Of course, the one I’ve kept for myself is chipped and cheap, patterned with nasturtiums and as big as a soup bowl. It was always my favorite. I packed up the few things I could take with me and booked my ticket for London.”
“And your father?”
“I haven’t seen him since the funeral.”
“Kiki!” Bertie sounded shocked.
“After the diaries… I just couldn’t.”
“He was a brute to her?”
“Worse. He adored her.” A slight breeze stirred the leaves on the water’s surface, flashing golden in the streaks of light from the shore. “I couldn’t face my father once I knew why he couldn’t face me.”
“You look like your mother? Mrs. Button never had bobbed hair.”
“She kept her long luscious locks to the end. But there was a studio photograph in one of the diaries, from the year before she married. We don’t look obviously alike, but there is an expression on her face, her expectant look into the camera… I’ve caught myself looking like that in the mirror more than once.” Her hair in a pompadour, shawl slipping off one shoulder to reveal flawless skin, her face full of hope, she seemed to lean forward into the camera with desire.
“But I never knew her to look anything other than disappointed.”
“Will he be disappointed that you left without a wave?”
“He will always be disappointed with me, for not… well, for not being a ‘nice girl,’ as he likes to say. But I would’ve leapt into the waves, shoes and coat and all, if I’d stayed any longer.”
In the enveloping dark, the river lapped at the barge, the cricket calls buzzed in the blood.
“… so, Kiki?”
“So, who was your mother, then? How did she move from hope to disappointment?” He stroked back my hair. “That’s what kept you mired in misery, isn’t it? Reading the slow disintegration of a woman?”
I couldn’t speak. How did he know, this darling friend? His face was all shadows in the almost-night.
“I felt the same way about Teddy… you know.”
His true love, KIA in 1916; in this moment I doubted Bertie would ever recover from Edward Greene’s death.
“His mother let me read his letters when I visited her. She was relieved that there was someone to cry with, someone who also wanted to go over and over all of her beloved boy’s quirks. I think she chose to ignore the true nature of our love. She just needed someone who adored him like she did.” I heard Bertie exhale too loudly in the darkness.
“Teddy’s letters… over the year and a half he was in the trenches he became more and more disillusioned, until he was in despair. He used the worst kind of black humor—you know, the gory jokes of dismemberment that are so funny when you have your foot in a corpse, but truly horrifying when back on solid ground. He wrote these things to his mother. I never noticed.”
“How could you have noticed?”
“How could any of us have noticed until it was all over? But Teddy’s trench was a grave that he garlanded with flowers. If it hadn’t been that mortar, it would have been a bullet or gas or shellshock. He would never have survived the war.”
It was too dark to see Bertie now, but I could clearly hear his gulps as he swallowed his sobs. I felt for his hand and he clutched it.
“That knowledge, Kiki… it makes the sadness indelible.”
“The absence larger but easier to carry. It’s wrapped around every limb.”
I tipped the final drop of whisky onto my tongue as he pulled me closer to him. Bertie lit a cigarette with trembling fingers and much swearing. The night wrapped around us, now warm and now chill as gusts blew over the water. The banks glinted and fizzed but their light barely reached us under the sheltering branches. Bertie smelled of printer ink and pomade, the air smelt of tobacco, river mud, coal smoke. I needed human warmth, I needed a breathing body with all its sweet and sour smells. Without even really thinking, I started undoing Bertie’s waistcoat buttons with one hand, my stockinged leg slipping over his suit pants.
“Do you need some comfort, Kiki?”
And he kissed me.
The cold air pricked my skin as we lay naked in the darkness, the only light from our cigarettes and the flickering moon. Bertie absentmindedly ran his hand up and down the length of my torso, stopping occasionally to run his thumb over my nipples, a trick he had played only a little while before, but now I was too spent to do anything more than move my cigarette to my mouth to inhale. We lay there for a long time, wrapped in each other but isolated in our separate loss. Bertie kept turning to me to stroke my hair and look into my face, as though by staring he could drag himself into the present and its hope of happiness. I gazed back in the intermittent moonlight—his messy hair, his big brown eyes, the stains on his fingers from ink and tobacco and lack of care—I let myself be his anchor, as he was mine.
“You know it wasn’t just your mother you were grieving, don’t you, Kiki?”
A flash of moon showed just how sharp his cheekbones had become.
“I do, sweet Bertie. Though I didn’t at the time.”
“Never at the time.”
“I was just floating in the underworld—”
“All the ghosts caressing and claiming you in half-waking dreams—”
“When I resurfaced and I realized whole days had disappeared—”
“It was suddenly late autumn and my hair had grown past my shoulders—”
“You’d missed a birthday and were a whole year older—”
“Then I realized, Bertie.”
He leant over and kissed my shoulder.
“It felt pagan, Bertie, almost elemental. All the ghosts wore khaki uniform, they had the King’s shilling in their mouth to cross the Channel instead of the Styx. Mother’s grave was a door and the war marched back through it.”
“As it will, every time.” He lit us each another cigarette. The flare from the lighter scratched shadows into his stubble. “So, who was your mother? Did you find out?”
I could feel his breath, the smoke he exhaled over my body.
“I’ve only just returned from my year in death, Bertie. Ask me in a few months’ time. Right now, I’m here for life.”
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