Pat and Declan nodded in agreement.
Will stole a sideways glance at Siobhan. She was sitting looking into her drink, saying nothing, but there was a mutinous set to her full lips.
‘You let her sing this evening,’ he pointed out.
‘That was different. That was hardly more than doing a turn at a ceilidh. You must see the difference, lad. You wouldn’t be wanting your sister or your wife going on the stage in a music hall, now would you?’
Will most certainly would not. But Siobhan was waiting for him to speak on her behalf.
‘They ain’t got the talent. Siobhan has. Anyone could see that. Those people in the Harp this evening, they’d have done anything for her. They’d have done murder for her if she’d asked.’
He would do murder for her himself right now if she asked.
‘She’s not going on the stage, and that’s that,’ Brian said.
‘Well, I think it’s a shameful waste,’ Will told him.
He did not know how he got through the rest of the evening. He tried to act normally, to talk to Pat and Declan and Brian as if nothing had happened, and all the while he was aching to get Siobhan to himself. The pale skin of her forearm with its down of silky hairs, the soft curve of her body beneath her green cotton dress nearly choked him with desire. He had to get to talk to her. Not that he knew what he could say.
His chance came on the way home. Declan had run into a friend and gone off to another pub. Pat and Brian were walking ahead, talking over some family matter. Will fell in beside Siobhan.
‘I meant what I said earlier – about you going on the halls,’ he said. ‘You’d be grand.’
‘So they all say.’ She took the compliment as nothing more than the truth. ‘But you heard them, they won’t be letting me anywhere near a theatre.’
‘Do you have to have their say-so?’
‘They’re my family.’
Will understood that. Family was what protected you from the world. Family was strength. Without it you were nothing, no one.
‘Maybe they’ll come round. Give them time.’
‘Sure, and maybe they’ll not.’ She sounded bitter.
‘Do you ever get away from them?’ Will was visited by inspiration. He looked ahead. Pat and Brian were laughing over something. They couldn’t hear him. ‘I could take you to the Empire, to see what you’re aiming for.’
For fully five seconds she was silent. Their feet clattered on the paving stones, hers a quick tap-tap, his a steady clump. He did not know how he kept walking. He did not dare look at her. His heart seemed to stop. He could not breathe.
‘Sure,’ she said at last, as if he’d merely offered her a drink, ‘I’d like that.’
They reached the swing bridge over the entrance to the West India dock. Siobhan stopped in the middle and looked out over the Thames. It was dark and the night still and sultry. A stink of waste, natural and man-made, rose off the brown waters. The tide was low and moonlight gleamed on the grey flanks of mud. Out on the river, rows of small ships were moored; lamps, red and green and yellow, glowed where lighters were still plying down on the falling tide. Someone was sculling a skiff out to a waiting barge, the oars creaking as he moved.
Siobhan gripped the rail. Will could feel the heat and the tension of her.
‘Dirty,’ she said. ‘Dirty river, filthy city. But exciting.’
His arms ached to hold her, his hands to touch.
‘You’re exciting,’ he told her. ‘You’re the most exciting girl I’ve ever met. I’ve never known anyone like you.’
‘I know.’ She was half-turned towards him now, but he could not see her face, only the gleam of her teeth as she smiled. He caught the animal force in her, knew she was tempted, that she wanted him too. He reached out to brush the soft bare skin of her arm, but she whisked away, laughing – a low laugh that set him alight.
‘I’m Siobhan O’Donaghue and I’m one on my own. There’s no one else like me,’ she said, and ran to