March 1942, Hollywood, United States
Dark eyes fluttered open, scrunching up against the early morning light, they closed again. Serena took stock of her body. She felt lighter, the persistent ache that had taken up residence in her chest for the past two years had vanished. A smile tugged at her lips, she felt weightless, a floating feeling as her dark eyes finally cracked open. Through the open balcony doors the sun had started to rise in the sky in all its morning glory. Serena blinked against the light and pushed herself up on her elbows. She could make out her trousers tossed over one of the chairs in the large master bedroom in the early dawn. The Hollywood Hills were losing their silhouette and beginning to be drenched in warm sunlight.
It was a sight for wearisome eyes, how she had missed this view. She fought the urge to get up and pad naked to the balcony. The bed felt luxurious, the sheets soft against her naked skin, the cool breeze kissing her skin and the woman next to her was enough to keep her where she was. She felt her heart clench at the thought of the person next to her, her mind flashed back to last night. The wine, the laughing, the passion, and the desperation. The pain of loss and the elation of reunion still rushing through her mind. She closed her eyes against the sting of tears. She was finally home. Her eyes left the stunning view out of the window, her window, their window. Turning instead to the sleep tousled blonde next to her. She noticed a bruise forming on her collarbone, another slightly lower on the swell of a breast that the sheet was slipping just low enough to reveal. Settling back down in the bed she turned to her wife, her eyes flickering down looking at the ring on her hand. Closing her eyes she let herself remember.
It had all started six months ago back in Blighty.
October 1941, Chatto, Roxburghshire, Scottish Borders
“No, no, Roger, no!” Court shoes clicked as she paced in front of her mahogany desk, as far as the phone cord would let her.
“Rena… Come on, this is big! It’s bigger than big! It’s huge!”
Serena rolled her eyes, “Spoken like a true snake oil salesman! Roger, I said no! You know I’d never go back to America, especially to Hollywood.”
“Rena, I know, I know what happened I understand, but this...”
“Like hell you understand!” Sarcasm dripped off every syllable, her voice like steel. No one knew exactly what had happened, no one except her. Except them. Roger was fishing, hurt and upset as he was kept out of the loop, but she had signed a nondisclosure contract, they both had. Serena’s mysterious disappearance from Hollywood had been grist for the rumour mill for many months until the next bombshell had rocked tinseltown. Thankfully the scandal had died down as of late, but this was bound to bring things back.
The voice on the other line softened, “Listen, it’s been two years, I just… Well, I think you should read the script, think of the money…”
She let out a humourless bark, “Oh please! Roger, I have more than enough money.” She looked around her richly decorated study of her country home. She had moved out of her London home once the Blitz started, her father deciding to stay in London to be close to the hospital. Now she rattled around the manse alone, wishing she wasn’t, wishing she was with her. She loved the Manse, but it was so isolated from the rest of the world. She looked at the picture hanging over the fireplace; a beautiful watercolour of a sunset of a moment in time so long ago. There was a time when she craved this isolation, but now it just made her feel lonely, the creak of the old mansion magnified the emptiness. Her hand went to the pendant around her neck, a small heart held just above her breasts, no matter the pain she refused to remove it.
“Okay, then think of the work, the art of it all. You miss it! You know you do, the challenge of it, bringing a character to life under those hot lights. The twisting and molding the words until that person becomes your own.”
Serena groaned and rubbed her face, crossing over to the large floor to ceiling windows, she looked out across the expanse of a February lawn, dulled with snow and windblown leaves that only a Scottish winter could do, trees skeletal in the distance.
The base of the phone skittered as it was pulled across the desk. Oh, how she missed the heat of the California, the air, the beach, the touch of skin… “You said yourself the role isn’t that big. A piano player in Morocco. Of all the god forsaken places to pick to set a story.” She muttered.
He knew he had her then, “It’s not a big role no, but it’s a good role, a good way to ease back in.”
“Roger, I’m retired. I have no attention of easing back in anywhere. After everything that happened I don’t understand how the studio suddenly wants me back.”
“I got a call from Jack Warner himself. The guy that they had scheduled to play the piano man got drafted and he mentioned you. Something about making amends, re-bottling that million dollar magic.”
Serena’s heart stopped.
“I’ll send the script, read it over and let me know.” The line went dead.
“Arse.” She muttered slamming the horn down on the cradle just a bit too hard. Blinking back tears she reached for a silver cigarette case and her lighter. With shaking hands she lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. She didn’t come into this room often. It held too many memories, too many reminders of a life she had walked away from, was forced to walk away from, not a day went by where her heart did not ache. She inhaled deeply, something was up, to be summoned back after all this time. Perhaps the studio was in trouble? Perhaps it was a trap, meant to lure her back only to blow up in her face.
She moved from the desk to a smaller upright piano in the corner, her fingers ran over the dust covered varnish. It paled in comparison to the baby grand that took up residence in the drawing room but this one held more memories. Her fingers playing over the dust. Call it instinct, call it happier times, call it sadness as she silently played Clair de Lune.
An accomplished classical pianist, Serena found herself thrust into the talkies completely by accident. She had a solid career in England, she loved what she did and she was very good at it. Playing major halls around the country as a young woman, she had gained notoriety for accompanying opera singers in recitals. A woman in a tuxedo playing the piano better than most men had caused an uproar, but also a curiosity. People flocked to her concerts.
On a whim she had accepted an invitation to America in early 1933 to help out a friend on the fading Vaudeville circuit. They had both gone to a conservatoire together before their paths had diverged. She and Raf had kept in contact ever since he left for the States and he found himself in desperate need of a pianist. She had always wanted to see America, it seemed a simple decision to make at the time.
Although not passionate about the burlesque shows, it had been nice to let her hair down as she toured American concert halls and gin joints (even though gin was no longer legally served). She was almost unheard of and the anonymity was a welcome change. Soon her style and looks gained her attention, her short cropped hair and affinity for wearing trousers made her memorable as did her voice. “Chocolate Dipped Sex” the Chicago Tribune had called it, the headline had made waves. She stayed on the circuit for another 18 months, six months longer than she had initially planned. Then she had received a phone call.
Hollywood was bustling in the early thirties, prohibition had made her beloved wine hard to get in the middle of the country but she found no such issue in California. Once the ban was lifted in late 1933, the wine flowed freely, even though it was weak. To a dry tongue it tasted like heaven.
She was fortunate, a lucky break in Hollywood, everyone told her, but she was never after fame. She came from an upper middle class family, her father was a doctor at a hospital in London, her mother a talented seamstress and dressmaker making vestments for the Church of England back in Lambeth. For Serena, money was never an issue, living off her wages from home and an inheritance from her grandparents she went where she pleased. When she was signed by RKO she was gobsmacked at the pay, $200 a week, unheard of money for anyone even of her standing. Her first purchase was a small bungalow in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the valley, she never tired of the stunning views.
For her first picture the studio wanted her to grow her hair and trade her trousers in for a skirt. She flatly refused, clearly stating that her looks were the very reason they wanted her in the first place. Her first picture was a flop, but her second, which featured her opposite Ric Griffin, Hollywood’s hottest leading man was a smash hit. She played a con woman who disguised herself as a man to evade police. Only to meet Ric’s character and fall in love with him, spending the entire time dressed as a boy. The film was wildly successful and led to her signing a full contract.
Hollywood glittered; everything was gold, from the sunshine to the ocean. She was pleased with her first Academy Award nomination for her work and suddenly she was a household name. She let her hair grow a little after the movie, just brushing below her chin but kept her trousers. Over the next year she made half a dozen pictures. She was happy, single, in demand, and financially comfortable, living in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Then she happened, of all the studios in all of Hollywood, she got signed to hers.
The Stage was an intricate film about four women trying to make it in Hollywood and living in the same boarding house. Her co-star was to be the up and coming Berenice Wolfe. Five years her junior, Serena was curious about girl. This was the first time in a year Serena didn’t have single billing, she would share a double bill with the other woman, Serena felt her hackles rise. By appearance she was a mousy thing, quiet and awkward, stumbling over her words. Long arms, long legs, rail thin, and hair that looked like a bird had made a home out of it, she made an odd, yet intriguing picture.
On the first day of the read through Serena made herself at home, she was the life of the party at the table reads. Her voluptuous personality, quick wit, and cheeky sense of humour made people flock to her. She had the room eating out of her hand from first look. All except for the illusive Miss Wolfe. In the two times Serena had met her the blonde she had said four faltering words to her. Instead preferring to quietly sit with the script in a corner until it was her scene.
“George, I don’t know how to work with her when she won’t talk!”
A pipe dangled out of the director’s mouth as he went over the storyboard in his office. The sun streamed in the large windows behind him looking out over the sprawling lot, “Now, now Rena, just wait until you actually work with her, we haven’t had a full read through yet. You’ll click I promise.” He pushed his glasses up his nose, “Why don’t you invite her out for drinks one of these nights, hmm? You know the spots to go get to know each other.”
“Look Rena.” He finally glanced up from the papers prone across his messy desk, “She’s good, I went with Louis to London and watched her on stage. She is an excellent actress,
just a bit quiet. Get to know her, you might see why, one of those reserved British types.” Serena raised her eyebrow. “Ask her for a drink, talk to her about home.”
“Just because we are both from the same bloody country, does not mean…”
“Rena, I don’t care what you have to do but you two need to get on, we have a lot riding on this picture. Your contract renewal is riding on it.”
Serena pursed her lips, aware she made the studio a lot of money in the past few years but they both knew she was thirty four, and well past her prime in the pictures. She was
grateful for the fact that no matriarch roles had yet to be offered.
“Now go on, we read through the entire script in twenty!”
Sighing, a frustrated Serena stomped off down the stairs and pushed the door open out into the studio lot. It was bustling and busy, too much noise to turn her brain off. She headed towards the back of the lot and pushed open an old rusty gate that connected with the cemetery. She lit a cigarette and made her way over to Valentino’s mausoleum. She liked leaning against the cool marble and watching the swans swim around the reflecting pool. It was a slice of peace in the middle of the bustling city. As she rounded the corner she was surprised to see her co-star already in her place.
The blonde jumped and the script in her hand fell to the ground and she looked up with startled eyes scrambling to get up.
“You don’t have to leave.” Serena flopped down next to her pulling her case out of her pocket she offered a cigarette. She watched as slightly shaky hands reached up dabbing at her face. Dark eyes looked at her co-star watching as she wiped away tears. “Okay?”
“Yes-yes sorry.” She sniffed eyes blinking rapidly. “No thank you.” She waved off the case.
They sat in silence, the sun warming them on the cool grass watching the ducks and swans swim in the warm sunlight. “Do you come here often?”
Serena turned in surprise at the voice. She shrugged, “Sometimes, it’s nice to get away.”
Berenice nodded, “It reminds me of home in a way. Other than the warmth, blue sky, and palm trees.”
Serena let out a laugh only to quell it when she saw the redness flush over her costars face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” She trailed off, “Missing home?” She saw the almost invisible nod, “Where are you from?”
“Oh, um Bath, well near Bath.” She let the words hang between them, the sound of the wind in the trees the only sound. “You?”
Serena smiled, “Me, oh London, my father was a doctor there, well still is. My Mother was from the Scottish Borders, similar to Bath in some respects”
She nodded, “I liked London, hated the fog though. It seemed thicker there than other parts of England.”
Serena hummed her response low in her throat. They continued to watch the ducks till as Serena’s cigarette burnt out. “We should head back, George wants to do a full read through this afternoon.” She stood easily before reaching down to help Berenice up, her skirt catching on her heels and Serena held on tighter to steady her.
“Thank you.” Their hands held for a bit longer, Serena felt the warmth of her palm against her own her gaze found herself staring into dark brown eyes a few inches above her own.
She smiled. “You’re very welcome. I don’t think we have ever officially been introduced. Serena McKinnie, well Serena Campbell in Hollywood.”
The blonde blushed and looked down, “Berenice Wolfe, Bernie. I know who you are, I’ve seen all your pictures. I actually saw your recital at the Royal Opera House years back, standing room only. You were phenomenal. When you played Clair de Lune, it was a vision! I had never heard anything like it before… I…” Her mouth snapped shut her cheeks turning even redder.
Serena felt her own cheeks warm, surprised at the sudden chatter box of a woman she chuckled, “Ah, a fan, huh? I'm honoured.” She bowed slightly at the waist before holding out her elbow. “May I accompany you back to the lot?”
Her heart quickened at the shy smile that pulled at Bernie’s lips as her slender hand slipped into the crook, “Lead the way.”
Halfway across the park Bernie slowed, “Serena?”
“Hmm?” She turned and looked up at her, watching her worry her lip.
“I um… I don’t know anyone here and well…tonight, would you like to go to dinner? I hear Musso and Franck’s is good.”
Serena smirked, “George tell you to get out a bit?” She watched as she blushed again.
“Umm, perhaps, but I hear they have imported Shiraz if you know who to ask.”
Serena’s face lit up as they walked through the gate, her fingers patted the blonde’s in the crook of her elbow, “Bernie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”