The Three Jays jazz club was in a basement below a coffee bar in Dean Street. As the girls descended the narrow staircase, they could hear the notes of a saxophone tuning up, then the sudden riff of a snare drum. The club was smoky and cramped, and full of the noise of talk and the clink of glasses. Pamela caught sight of her sister Alice sitting with her friends at a corner table, and the three girls joined them and ordered beers. Alice was an art student, and Pamela always spoke of her with some reverence, so Laura was expecting to meet someone poised and sophisticated, but Alice was unremarkable, with brown hair scraped back under a hairband, no make up, and wearing slacks and a big sloppy sweater. In fact all the girls looked scruffy to Laura, who had dressed for the evening in heels, a pretty, narrow-waisted blue dress with a flared skirt, and a thin cardigan draped over her shoulders. Alice’s men friends weren't much better. Most wore jeans and the same large sweaters or duffel coats, and some had beards and hair over their collars. Despite their unkempt appearance they seemed confident and at ease in their surroundings, and Laura began to feel self-conscious and overdressed. People were drinking beers and coffees and chatting in low voices, as though waiting for something. Then there came the snare drum riff again, a light cymbal crash, and someone with a microphone at the back of the room made an announcement that Laura couldn't make out. The talk died away, and after a moment the music began. It was a kind of jazz that Laura had never heard before. It was insistent and discordant, instruments running off in different directions over a thrumming bass note. At the end of the set everyone clapped enthusiastically. The musicians started another piece, and a single saxophone began to dribble out slow, low notes. The sound grew from a rippling lament, then lifted into an aching crescendo, the notes slipping off the edge of the rhythm, pure and sad and ecstatic. Laura was thrilled, exhilarated; the music churned feelings within her that she couldn't name. She smiled unawares, lost in the smoky sound, and was still smiling at the end of the set. The audience let off a burst of applause, and the musicians nodded and smiled in acknowledgement, then dispersed for a break.
Laura saw one of the musicians coming towards their table, and recognised him as the saxophonist. He was young, black and very tall. He sat down with Alice and her friends, shrugging off their congratulations, accepting a drink. Laura watched him with interest. When he threw his head back and laughed the sound did something to her that the saxophone had done, too. It captivated her. He glanced in her direction and she couldn’t help smiling. Someone returned to the table with drink, and he stood up to make room, moved his chair, and suddenly he was sitting next to her.
‘You smile like you know me,’ he said. His voice was American, dark and loose, like him.
Laura laughed, confused. ‘No – it was just I thought your playing was wonderful. I've never heard anything like it.’ He glanced with speculative interest at her pretty dress and her pinned-up blonde hair. ‘Your first time here?’ She nodded. He put out a large, bony hand and Laura shook it.
‘My name's Ellis Candy.’
‘I’m Laura Fenton.’
‘You like jazz, Laura?’
‘It's fine,’ she replied uncertainly. ‘I haven't – I mean, I don’t ever hear much. So it’s – ’ But she was interrupted; someone tapped Ellis on the shoulder. He knocked back his drink. ‘Gotta go,’ he said. ‘See you later.’ And he gave her a smile, rose and left. Laura watched him as he returned to the stage. She had never spoken to a black man before. She'd seen a few coloured people around London, and one of the conductors on the bus she caught every day was Jamaican, she thought, but she’d never spoken to one up close like that. There had been something so vivid, so different about his eyes and his smile. She moved her chair so that she could see him properly. She watched as he played his saxophone, long, black fingers pressing down the keys, his mouth tight, blowing out the notes. She watched barely anything or anyone else all night, and once, just once, she thought he looked up and caught her eye.
‘Laura? Laura!’ The sound of Pamela’s voice broke her concentration. She was leaning over and tapping her watch and Gloria was picking up her handbag. ‘It’s nearly half ten. I have to get my bus.’
The music died away, and a spatter of applause broke out. Laura rose from her seat. Everyone was saying their goodbyes, and she realised that she’d barely spoken properly to anyone all evening. Conversations had been going on, people had been making friends and getting to know one another, and she'd been entirely detached. Ellis Candy had stayed on stage all night; he hadn’t come back to their table as she’d hoped he would. She picked up her coat, and as she reached the stairs, Pamela and Gloria ahead of her, she felt a hand on her arm. She turned and saw him standing next to her.
‘I'm sorry I didn't get to talk to you more,’ he said. ‘Drop in again sometime.’ Laura gave a nod, flustered because he looked serious – or not smiling, at any rate. Then he grinned, and she felt a curious relief. Pamela called down the staircase to her. Ellis Candy lifted his hand, and Laura smiled, then turned and went upstairs.
The three girls walked down to Charing Cross Road together. Laura said very little. Pamela and Gloria talked most of the way about some man called Gordon, with whom Gloria had agreed to go to the cinema with next week.
Pamela turned to Laura. ‘Did you like it?’ she asked. ‘You were awfully quiet.’
‘Oh, yes. I loved it. The music sort of grows on you, doesn't it?’
‘I thought it was smashing. Let’s go again next week.’
Laura thought about what Ellis Candy had said. He wanted her to go back to the club so he could see her again, and that thought produced a little knot of excitement in her stomach.