Grim, by Liam Hogan
He peers past the limelight: dark shapes in the shadows. An audience, then; though he can see nothing of them. Hushed, expectant.
He is up first, with no compère to introduce him or to warm up the unseen crowd. A tricky slot; as soon as the lights had dipped all attention would have been focused on the stage, waiting for him. He steps boldly forward.
“Ladies and Gentleman!” he begins in his brightest showman style.
“There no ladies here,” a gruff voice replies and is met with a deep rumble of laughter.
“Um… that’s…” he flusters.
Max isn’t used to being heckled this early on in his act. He has no ready reply as he does for some of his more colourful humour, prepared ripostes to an audience’s predictably shocked reaction. He screws up his eyes but the stage lights are too bright, or the auditorium to dark, for him to see who has spoken, to flip the heckle back, to neatly skewer the speaker. He’ll have to wing it-
“No Gentleman, either,” another, different wit drawls just as he draws breath, the laughter wider spread and a little higher pitched than before.
His shoulders sag. He’d been warned about the Working Men’s Clubs ‘oop North’ but he hadn’t expected this. He’d played small festivals where the mud splattered audience had been drinking strong ale or even stronger cider all day long and were only interested in his act because it was under canvas and it was pissing it down outside. He’d played half the rough pubs from Kilburn to Essex. Played to audiences of two, one of whom was up on stage after him. But he’d never felt such a wave of hostility as is directed at him now.
Maybe it’s the way he was dressed. He’d had some time to kill after his early evening arrival, the later service would have cut things a little too tight for his liking. As the train had jerked to a violent halt he’d snapped awake, for a moment confused about where he was, scanning the dark platform for clues until he saw the sign looming eerily out of the twilight and had quickly grabbed his things before the train could depart without him.
Once the sombre fella had wielded an antique looking punch on his ticket on the way out, he’d wandered around town, locating the venue first, so that he knew roughly how to get back there, and how long it would take. He was travelling light: a spare shirt, his on-stage shoes, currently replaced by a pair of comfortable trainers, a bottle of water, and a reporter’s notepad for any ideas for new material or tweaks to old that came to mind. But though he was wearing jeans and the top of his shirt was casually undone, he still stood out from the dark mass of scruffy humanity that trudged the streets. Even the buildings were blackened, years of burning the local coal had given them the same grimy cloak as those who huddled beneath. It was like something out of Dickens.
But though the people looked weary, weighed down, oppressed, their reddened eyes had still flicked towards him, quickly taking in his thin jacket, his leather satchel, and lingered. Fresh meat.
He’d clutched his bag tighter, then forced himself to relax, to exude the confidence he hadn’t really felt. He thought of ducking into one of the many pubs bathed in orange light; he had plenty enough time, but a step towards the nearest brought unfamiliar sounds and smells… and besides, he nearly never drank before a gig. It wasn’t professional.
Right now, stood on stage under the unforgiving glare of the bright overhead lights, he wishes he’d taken that pint, or perhaps even something stronger.
He pulls himself together. Time to take the upper hand. Time to hit them with his most outré material. Hit them hard and hit them fast. Let them heckle back; he’d be ready. So what if he was the outsider, he’d play to that role, own it, and by god, he’d be bloody brilliant. Hadn’t he wowed them at Jongleurs? Hadn’t Chortle named him: “One to Watch”?
He launches into a skit on why UKIP were the only party to vote for in the next election, an argument reductio ad absurdum, lampooning political beliefs of every colour, but, of course, most of all, UKIP’s.
He’d had a lot of different reactions to this piece, even had some people walk out, and had a heckle ready for that as well. But never before – never – had it been met by stony silence. Sweating under the lights, he wonders if he should have researched the political leanings of this former mining town, rather than just pigeonholing them as “Labour.” Feeling strangely detached, he watches himself heading for the full balls-out crescendo, UKIP’s victory meal, roast baby with a side helping of dog turd, before a soft murmur from beyond the stage brings him back to his clammy body. It’s the first reaction the ominous crowd has given, albeit a low key one.
“No, hear the man out,” a calm, educated voice says into the pause. “He’s got a point.”
Max segues into an expletive laden piece on the power of swearwords, “a ton of fucks”, not even bothering to wrap up his previous strand, throwing away the ending that is supposed to close the loop, because, no, he doesn’t have a fuckin’ point. It’s comedy, satire, not some rational, cogent argument, and who the fuck do these people think they are? Who do they think he is?
Unable to see them, he pictures the audience in his mind, a gaggle of hulking men, sitting in clouds of sweat, stale ale, and even staler tobacco. He’d wondered, when first he’d sniffed the dank air, whether Working Men’s Clubs were somehow exempt from the smoking ban, but the smell is old, generations of nicotine soaked into the no doubt yellowed ceiling, into the tatty chairs, into the faded stage curtains.
He imagines one of them sitting slightly aloof; the owner of the educated voice, respected for some reason by the rest of the low-browed thugs; maybe he’s a Union rep or something.
Face red, cheeks blowing, he delivers the pièce de résistance; swearwords as poetry, “motherfucking cunty arsewank”, and awaits their nervous, shocked laughter.
A deeply soiled blanket of silence hangs over the auditorium.
He wants nothing more, nothing more in the entire world, than to be able to see their reactions, see if they have any reactions. The wave he’d felt earlier, had that simply been his imagination? Are they then, not hostile, but worse, far worse; indifferent?
He curses his stupidity. Of course swearing won’t work! This isn’t America, where even a D-list swear word like “pussy” can get a response, middle aged women in twinsets rocking back in surprise. Swearing was probably invented in shitholes like this. He’d been misled by their reaction, or lack of it, into not thinking his act through.
Time to bite the bullet, to go for the jugular. Time, to interact with the audience.
“Hey, is there anyone on the lights?” he asks, projecting to the back of the room. “Could we have them up, so I can see who the fuck I’m talking to?”
The audience titters. Odd, isn’t it, you can fill five minutes with every swear word known to man, but there’s a difference between saying them and meaning them. Maybe he’s getting a handle on this crowd after all.
At least, that’s what he thinks before they flash into illuminated being before him.
The microphone slips from his fingers and with an amplified thud, hits the stage.
Inhuman eyes glint back at him, the floor writhes with what he imagines to be snakes, before he clocks that they are, in fact, tails. A dozen forked, unnaturally long tongues mock his own timid licking of his suddenly dry lips. And one, nightmarish creature, oddly elegant in this feral mass, thin, cruel face crowned by a sharp widow’s peak, jacket casually unbuttoned over a waistcoat so deep in colour as to be nearly black, though Max knows that it isn’t, his eyes are telling him it’s blood-red, darkened by layer upon layer; this one man, cloven feet tapping on the roughly hewn wooden floor, winks at him, and smiles in indulged amusement.
He thinks back to his screaming arrival, to the sound he’d taken in his slumber to be that of tortured brakes, the sound that came before the half forgotten impact of twisting steel, of crumpled bodies flying through thick smoke, of a flame flickering, eager to finish the task of reducing all these personal possessions, carefully thought out wardrobes and gym-groomed bodies, to chaos, to char and ash.
He thinks back to the face of that guard at the exit to the rail station, the one with the sunken eyes that glimmered like old pennies, the skeletal hand reaching out to punch his, and all the rest of his carriage’s, red-edged tickets.
His brain struggles for thought and he dimly recalls a memory so distant it might as well not be his; a Sunday School teacher, a fan of Dante, who claimed that each man’s hell is tailored personally to his own peculiar sins.
As his clammy back comes up hard against the wall hidden by the black drapes, he finally thinks to wonder, why this stage has no exit.
Knights Round A Table, by Elizabeth Hopkinson
You can buy anything on eBay nowadays. A friend of a friend of my brother sold his soul on there. True but strange – especially as my brother says he didn’t have a soul to start off with.
Anyway, that’s where I got the Literary Dinner Party Kit from. Everything you need for a magical evening with up to six of your favourite characters from literature. I thought that might have been something of an exaggeration. And to be honest, I was a little disappointed when it arrived through the post and turned out to contain just six party invitations and a sort of old radio aerial on a piece of round card that was meant to be a “universal translator”. In fact, I probably never would have used it at all if it hadn’t been for that week Neil was away with his Boy Scouts at Windermere. A whole week with no husband and nothing to do: how tempting is that?
The instructions were simple: just pop the invitation cards between the pages of your chosen books and wait for the characters to show up. I suppose, if I had thought it through properly, I would have invited Jo March and Lizzie Bennett round for a nice girlie chat. But I didn’t truly believe it would work, so I thought I might as well have a bit of fun.
Neil’s a school caretaker. He’s a lovely man, but buffing floors and getting balls off roofs – it’s not exactly Errol Flynn material. So before I knew where I was, Mrs Laura Jenkins – that’d be me – had requested the pleasure of the company of Narcissus, Aramis, Legolas, Prince Caspian and Wilfred of Ivanhoe for dinner. Yes, I know that’s only five, but I couldn’t think of another. Besides, we’ve only got the six dining chairs.
So there I was, five of the most fanciable males in literature due to arrive on the doorstep at eight, and not the first idea of what to cook. I couldn’t imagine Aramis going for the sort of hearty Anglo-Saxon fare Ivanhoe would be into. And God knows what Elves eat. In the end, I decided to go for Chinese. It wouldn’t be culturally threatening to any of them, everyone likes it, and you can have as many courses as you want. I can’t actually cook it, but my best friend married a Chinese dentist and apparently her mother-in-law owed her big-time for some unmentionably embarrassing incident, so she dropped the gear off at about six. She wasn’t invited – this was strictly between me and the boys – but I promised to take photos, get autographs, that kind of thing.
The last thing I needed was a babysitter getting in the way, so I ended up trying to do my hair in Maid Marian-like braids and read ‘Old Bear’ to Holly at the same time. At quarter to eight I stuffed her into bed and told her she had to go to sleep immediately. Amazingly, it worked. I’d already sorted out the drinks (a few good-quality wines and some Ye Olde English ales), so that only left my outfit. I toyed with a cocktail dress at one point, but, considering the company, decided I would be better off with the sort of velvety, hippy thing I usually wear. By some miracle, I was actually ready when the doorbell rang at eight.
What. An. Entrance. In they all came, doing me humble courtesies and depositing their swords and bows in the umbrella stand. Legolas was definitely the looker of the bunch: swoon factor at least 20 (although, disappointingly, he didn’t have pointy ears). He and Caspian (who couldn’t have been a day over nineteen) arrived together and were already chatting like old friends, despite being a considerable distance from the universal translator. Must have had something to do with the closeness between their authors. Narcissus had lovely Greek eyes (and nice legs) – but he walked straight past me towards the mirror hanging above the fireplace, and I had some trouble luring him away from it, even when dinner was served. Aramis kissed me on the hand twice and said, ‘Enchanté madame’ with a look I can only describe as filthy.
“I’ll have to watch him,” I thought. “He probably thinks it doesn’t matter what we get up to because he can confess me himself afterwards.”
Ivanhoe, I’m sorry to say, did smell, which didn’t go down well with the mythological contingent, but I decided to be a gracious hostess and just light a couple of scented candles.
It was only when we got to the table that I started to think this might not have been such a great idea. For a start, no one could agree on a suitable way to begin the meal: Aramis and Ivanhoe were dead-set on saying grace in Latin, while Legolas was demanding a hymn to Elbereth. Narcissus wanted to pour out a libation of wine, but I wasn’t having that on my new carpet, so I quickly said ‘For what we are about to receive’ and started dishing out the sweet-and-sour.
After that, it went from bad to worse. I started to understand what generals’ wives must have felt like having to dine in the officers’ mess. Aramis and Ivanhoe seemed hell-bent on getting poor young Caspian as drunk as possible. The universal translator kept going on the blink, and Legolas seemed to think he could fix it by singing to it in Elvish and stabbing it with his knife. Narcissus went all moody and started staring at his reflection in the wineglass. And no-one took the slightest bit of notice of me.
I was trying to think how I was going to get them to start paying me a bit of gentlemanly attention when the hall door opened and a tiny figure in Barbie pyjamas and fluffy slippers appeared.
“Mummy,” it said. “I want a drink of milk.”
“Back to bed this instant!” I cried, manhandling her through the door.
“What are they doing here?” she asked, with the idle curiosity of the four-year-old.
“These men are Mummy’s friends,” I said. I tried to sound as calm and normal as possible. “We don’t have to tell Daddy they were here, do we, Holly?”
“One of them was a lady,” she said.
“No he wasn’t. Get to bed.”
“She was a lady,” Holly insisted as I propelled her up the stairs. “She had long hair and a pretty face.”
“Just because someone has a pretty, Elvish face – ” I began – but at that moment, there was a crash and a huge drunken roar from below. I pecked Holly on the cheek and set off downstairs two at a time, nearly breaking my ankle in the process.
I could tell things weren’t good when I got there by the amount of violent rummaging going on in the umbrella stand – a very bad sign. I managed to glean from Narcissus that Aramis and Legolas had fallen out over whether or not the stars were people, and, to cut a long story short, Aramis had called Legolas out. But they were having some trouble getting going, as the only other person who actually understood the rules of duelling was young Caspian, and Caspian was now grovelling under the table, puking up bits of prawn cracker. (So much for the new carpet).
I saw Legolas – who while ignorant of the niceties had obviously grasped that some kind of extreme violence was involved – picking up his bow and heading for the garden, with Aramis in hot pursuit.
“Oh, God,” I thought. “He’s going to kill him!”
I don’t have many brainwaves. I had one then.
I fished the sixth card out of the drawer, scribbled a hasty invitation, and shoved it into the Holy Bible, at Revelation chapter 12.
It worked like a charm. A really weird charm. Exactly two seconds later, an enormous red dragon came sweeping down over the rooftops, the tip of its tail just scraping the tops of the leylandii. To add to the effect, I decided to do a sort of damsel-in-distress act, running up and down the drive, screaming and waving my arms. If I’m honest, I didn’t really have to act much: the thing had seven heads and ten horns, and its breath smelled like a really bad day in the boys’ toilets.
The guys snapped into action immediately. Legolas was loving it. He had three of its eyes out before I’d even worked my scream up to a top F-sharp. Caspian came out, waving his sword and muttering something about Eustace and Lord Octesian. Even Aramis was soon yelling all for one and one for all, and shouting instructions in Latin to Ivanhoe, who was going at it like St George, if St George had had a BO problem. Narcissus sliced one of the heads off single-handedly (he declared afterwards that now he’d finally be able to look the other Greek heroes in the eye; up to now they’d all thought he was a bit of a wet blanket).
Anyway, the whole business did wonders for their pent-up aggression and by the time the many-headed dragon of the Apolcalypse lay dead and dismembered on the front lawn there was just about time to finish off the spring-rolls before they were all kissing my hand, collecting their blood-drenched weapons, and thanking me for a lovely evening.
After the whole lot had disappeared back into the mists of literary genius, I sat on the window seat with a cup of coffee, surveying the trampled daffodils, the holes in the fence, and the pitiful state of the not-so-new carpet. Not a pretty sight. Still, there’s no point keeping a caretaker and barking yourself. Neil would be back in two days and he’d have the whole place patched up in a jiffy.
Now there’s a real man for you.
The Cimmerian Club, by Susan Carey
All of them were present, sat in winged Chesterfields in a semi-circle around the fire. It was Desmond’s turn to tell a ghost story. This was his initiation night. If his story was good enough, he would be accepted into the Club.
He stood in front of the fireplace. All eyes were upon him.
‘It was the end of November. The golden days of autumn had fled, and it was too early to feel the approaching cheer of Christmas.’ He paused for dramatic effect, seeking reassurance from his champion, Theodore.
‘Get on with it, man,’ Theodore said. It was as if they were still in the Crimea together.
Desmond lifted his chin, and continued.
‘A fog hung in the air; a real pea-souper. I was going back to my townhouse in Camberwell. Walking past the bandstand in Myatt’s Fields, I was surprised to see candles burning, and a band playing. A hunched figure was selling roast chestnuts from a brazier. Their smell enticed me.
‘“Farthing a bag, Sir!” The chestnut-monger looked up, and where his nose should have been was just a hole. His features eroded by syphilis. A wave of revulsion made my stomach heave, and I lifted my hand, palm outwards, in a gesture of refusal. Something about the way his skull showed through his skin made me dig out a farthing anyway. A talisman of protection, perhaps.
‘“God bless you, Sir.” He doffed his cap “May you be lucky in love!”
‘Back at home my housekeeper was setting freshly-baked scones on the table. I rubbed my cold hands together.
‘“Mrs Trimble, I would love one of those tempting-looking scones of yours.”
“Not straight away, sir. It will give you the most terrible indigestion!”
‘I laughed lightly.
“You are right, of course, Mrs Trimble. I’ll take a glass of port in the library.”
The port soothed my spirit, and when Mrs Trimble brought in tea and buttered scones my contentment was complete. I was seated by the window. Above the jumbled skyline, a new moon rose.
‘Muscles in my shoulders tensed as I thought of the encroaching night. My bedroom, you see, was no longer the place of sanctuary it should have been. At around half past two in the morning, a weight would descend on the end of my bed. A human form. Gaslight from outside cast her delicate profile into shadow: she was an attractive lady, wealthy; she wore a fur about her neck and her hair up in a chignon. After a few minutes, she would stand and glide from my room – straight through the door. Her Lily-of-the-Valley perfume would linger. It was a scent I knew and loved from the grounds of my country home in Berkshire.
‘After a while her visits revealed a pattern: she appeared only on new and full moons.
‘Mrs Trimble swore that the lady had never been seen before. “There’s no ghouls in this house. This is a Christian house, this is. Ghosts are most surely not welcome ‘ere, and I won’t have anyone contaradicting me.”
‘Mrs Trimble was an intelligent woman, but uneducated.
‘I didn’t contradict her after the third or fourth sighting of the lady. It was a waste of energy. And besides, when I saw the lady in fur, although at first alarmed, something inside me was stirred. The sensation was not wholly unpleasurable.
‘The next day, while walking home from Chambers, I took a different route. Not through the park: the aroma of the roasting chestnuts coupled with the physical repellence of their seller created a conflict within me that was not conducive to the relaxation I craved after a day wrestling with endless litigations. No, I would walk along Camberwell High Street, by the music-hall, turn right at the church, and perhaps stop for a cheering drink at the Grapes tavern.
‘As I approached the music-hall, something arrested me in my tracks. It was a life-sized poster of a woman in silhouette. The saliva drained from my mouth. The fur collar and the chignon; the pretty upturned nose, the generosity of the lips. This was the lady who had haunted the end of my bed these last few months!
‘It was, as the Cockneys says, brass-monkey weather, but even so, beads of sweat appeared on my top lip.
‘I read the poster. Madamoiselle Isoline Villiers, the Nightingale from Paris, for one night only at Camberwell Music Hall. The date was that very evening! The show began at half-past eight.
‘I went straight to the Grapes and ordered a double Scotch whisky. While I sipped the tawny liquid, I overheard a conversation from the snug.
‘“She’s as French as I am. Madmoiselle Isoline Villiers, my arse. That’s Swanny Penn from down Peckham way. She’ s not from Paris at all. But she can sing all right, that one. And I’ve heard” – the woman lowered her voice – “that she can do other things with them rosy lips as well!”
‘A cackle of laughter came from the snug and in the mirror above the bar I saw the two red-cheeked doxies swigging back their gin before going out to walk the streets. The pot calling the kettle black, I mused. I paid for my drink and went home.
‘Mrs Trimble was a fountain of knowledge regarding working-class do’s and don’ts. I asked her opinion in respect of my escapade.
“Mrs Trimble,” I asked. “Would it be seemly for a gentleman to be seen in a Music Hall?”
She looked up and her eyes popped wide open as if she had just taken a sniff of potent vinegar.
“You, sir? In a Music Hall?”
“Is the idea so strange?”
“Well, you’d have to be up in a box, sir. Not down in the stalls with the riff-raff.”
“A box. Mmm. Very well. And what does one wear to such an occasion?”
“You can wear what you think is fitting, sir. Evening dress I suppose. But whatever you do, don’t talk to the performers.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because them women that trots the boards is unclean. And I’ve heard about that one singing there tonight.”
I pressed her: “What have you heard?”
“That she is no better than she should be.”
There was a long queue outside the theatre, but I strode past the rabble and gave sixpence to the doorman. The seats in the box were upholstered in red velvet, and as I sat down plumes of dust filled the air. A low murmur came from the crowd below. They drank and smoked and talked and the atmosphere – if only I had not so felt so out-of-place and alone – was quite convivial.
‘A comedian performed first. His South London accent was so thick I couldn’t understand him. But when the ‘punch-lines’ came, guffaws of laughter carried up from below, and I found myself involuntarily chuckling along. Then came a fellow with a performing dog. The dog jumped through hoops of fire and the audience oohed and aaahed like children. By this time my patience was wearing thin.
‘Finally, after a woman dressed as a man sang some bawdy ditties, the act I had been waiting for appeared. Mademoiselle Isoline Villiers stepped out onto the stage – and it was as if, as if something inside me that had always been broken was put together again. A recognition of the other half of my soul.
‘She sang some French songs which were unfamiliar to me but were clearly about love. Her voice was pleasant enough, a tolerable mezzo soprano but not, I felt, entirely deserving of the title ‘Nightingale’. After she had finished, she curtseyed and blew kisses to the audience. Then she looked up at me, and, as our eyes locked, she stumbled backward and visibly paled. She crossed herself, as if I represented some malignant spirit.
‘This did not bode well. Perhaps I should have felt the same about her, having seen her previously only as an apparition, but when she had entered my bedroom it was only on that very first night that I had been afraid. After that, although her visits alarmed me, I looked forward to seeing her. Longed for her, even.
‘Afterwards, of course, I had to meet her. Another sixpence went to one of the stage-hands, who led me through a narrow corridor that smelled of sweat and cheap scent. He knocked three times on Mademoiselle Villiers’ door.
‘“Entre,” called a voice with a heavy French accent.
‘She sat unpinning her hair in front of the dressing table. Our eyes met in the mirror. Lily-of-the-Valley scent filled the room, but now it was ranker, mingled with perspiration. She stood up to face me. Her Rubenesque bosoms drew my gaze – but, although I had little knowledge of proper dressing-room etiquette, I did not think it proper to keep staring at her breasts; asides from that, they aroused lascivious thoughts in me.
‘She took three steps towards me and, in a manner which I found both pleasurable and disturbing, ran her delicate hands over my body from head to toe.
‘“You’re real, then,’ she said. ‘My God, you are real. A real flesh-and-blood man, not a ghost after all.” There was absolutely no trace of a French accent any more. Her voice was pure South London.
‘“Why on earth would you think me not real?” I asked.
‘“Because, my friend, you have been appearing to me the past few months in my bedroom, every new and full moon. Sitting on the edge of the bed!”
‘I stared at her open-mouthed, unable to speak.
“You must think me some kind of lunatic.” She looked shy – all at once young and unworldly. I wanted to put my arms around her.
‘“No, no, my dear – I don’ t think you a lunatic. I have had the very same experience myself. Each night at the new and full moon, you come to me.”
Desmond clasped his hands together, signalling his story’s finalé.
‘So you see, my good gentlemen, this ghost story doesn’t end in death or ill omen. Quite the contrary – for my wife and I.’
Theodore stood up, quick as a jack-in-the-box.
‘You married the woman? You married a woman from the music-hall?’
‘No,’ Desmond riposted. ‘I did not marry a woman. I married a lady! But you see, gentlemen, my wife and I had to meet first as spirits. How else would two souls from such dissimilar backgrounds come together?’
‘Unless of course it was down the back-alleys of Camden Town,’ Theodore muttered.
Desmond opened the heavy, panelled door, and his good lady wife walked in. Her russet locks cascaded down her heliotrope dress.
The gentlemen’s eyes swelled in their heads as though some exotic creature from the jungle had entered their midst.
With a vivacious toss of her head, Swanny addressed them.
‘Now, Gentlemen,’ she said, in cut-glass English. ‘Which of Shakespeare’s sonnets shall I recite for you tonight?’
A Sideshow Story, by Joseph Saxon
I know she’s dead even before I wake up. In my dreams, I can feel her going, sapping my goddam soul with her. I never normally dream about her. My dreams are always the same. I’m alone. Free.
I should’a sued Disney. I never even saw the movie – Anita hates cartoons – but big Roberta told me all about it. I’ll bet you some hotshot executive took a trip to Coney Island and thought he could cash in on our tune. He didn’t even get the goddam lyrics right.
Oh boy, it’s a killer show. Everybody has a gas. We walk on and curtsey and just that gets them going, watching us fight over the dress. Then we juggle for a minute or two – Coney Island folk are suckers for that sort’a thing. With the travelling freakshow, it was more about the monstrosity of it all. Harry used to black us up and make us crawl around the floor. It ain’t easy, I’ll tell you that, not when your twin sister is fused to your right butt-cheek. ‘The Two-Headed Spider-Woman’, that’s what he called us. He thought it was a hoot. He’d had some hit in the ‘20s with ‘The Cannibal of the Congo’, until the police shut him down. Anyway, he liked having a savage on show. Hurt my back doing that sort’a thing. Bruised up my knuckles too. The shows got classier when we moved onto the island. It became more about the music. Oh how Anita loves the music. And the booze.
So, we begin with some joke about “Have you seen my sister?”, then comes the song. Legless Larry on the piano, we sway and smile. ‘We are Siamese. We come and go as we please.’ Then Anita walks away and I shuffle backwards with an ‘Oh My!’ and I walk the other way, we spin around and see each other, jump halfway up the rafters. The audience are hollering, falling right out’a their seats. Then we spin in a circle, me trying to grab Anita, her trying to grab me. Those suckers are on their feet, every night, laughing their fat asses right out of the place.
We’re a hit. Bigger than a hit. The stars of Coney Island; queen sisters of the biggest show on the planet. If Barnum were alive, he’d a fought tooth and nail for an act like us.
Oh, I love Coney Island. I mean, who wouldn’t? You got the beach, you got the music, the rides. If only Harry ever let us out. ‘People gotta buy a ticket’ he says, as if we were a walking movie theatre. We only go out at night, when the crowds are gone. Goddam Harry. But Anita loves him. She was always Harry’s favourite.
Problem is people look from left to right. That’s the way they read books and it’s the way they look at Siamese twins. First the left one. Then me. I’m not saying I ain’t pretty – I know I’d turn heads even if I weren’t a freak – but Anita was always the pretty one. And, oh boy, does she know it. She follows Harry round, fluttering those two-inch eyelashes and, of course, I have to follow. Her dress gets shorter at the top and lower at the bottom and, of course, mine has to too.
We get all our dresses made by Jeanie the Sword-Swallower. She’s a talker, is Jeanie. I never liked Jeanie, but I’m sweet to her. Ain’t no room for rudeness in a world like this – you need everyone on your side in a sideshow. But she sits there at the sewing machine, crying over how she can’t eat graham crackers now her stomach’s all cut up. Or some guy she likes who asked her “what else do you swallow?”. Come on, this is Coney Island, doll, you ain’t gonna find your dream guy here! And I have to listen to her rattle on, wondering, like every guy in the audience, how the hell she got that gag reflex – it sure wasn’t by sipping Communion wine. But Jeanie’s not a drinker. Anita is. I bet the only reason my sister would ever go to church would be for the free booze.
Or if Harry wanted her to.
Anita loves staying up late with the boys. All I want to do is go to bed and read a magazine, but she drags me to the parties. People think it’s all laughs in the sideshow world, but you wouldn’t believe how stuck-up some of those drips are. Even the geeks won’t talk to us, with their blood-stained teeth and nails up their noses. The regular folk, the ‘entertainers’, they see themselves as different. We get stuck with the pinheads and midgets, just ‘cause we’re joined at the ass. God, I hate those pinheads. So short and needy with their weird bows; you can’t tell one from the other. But Anita thinks they’re ‘cute’. She makes a joke out’a them, then goes drinking with the boys.
Saps make jokes, think I get drunk when she does, which just ain’t true. But God knows I feel it when she’s hit the bottle. It’s like the worst belly ache you ever had. And getting her to bed ain’t easy steering.
Harry don’t like it when Anita goes heavy on the booze. Hell, that’s one thing I agree with him on. But that don’t stop him sneaking into our room, laying his fat paws all over her. I just lie there and pretend not to hear, not to feel his weight on the bed. He likes to touch the skin between us and that I feel, his fingers creeping towards me, going places that ain’t no business of his. And they call us freaks.
Anita tells me that I’m grouchy; that I ought’a smile more. Oh, sure. Life’s a gas when you get more than four hours sleep a night, but I ain’t never known a good night’s sleep. I’d love to know what it’s like to sleep on my back. Oh boy, that’s the dream. I’m so goddam tired every goddam day, I ain’t got the energy to be nice to people. Especially not Harry. Raking in the ticket sales that we never see nickel or dime for. Anita don’t like it when I break into Harry’s van and get our share of the lettuce, but she ain’t complaining when I’m buying the drinks. A lowball glass is only thing that keeps her trap shut.
Sometimes I think Harry knows I’m stealing, but I don’t care. In this world, you gotta get what’s yours. I’m sick of being trampled on, of being prodded and stared at. By boys, by doctors, by customers. Long as I can remember, I’ve had my skirt round my waist and people poking at the skin between us. That’s why I like being on stage – it’s the only place where we call the shots. Where we get to choose what’s on show. And we give one hell of a show.
If you’re a freak, Coney Island is the only place to be. And, if you steer clear of the pinheads, you can have a pretty good time. Maybe I’m getting delirious, but some of those kids ain’t so bad. Arty’s got no arms, but he sure can deal cards. And Roberta may be fat as a walrus, but she ain’t greedy. At the party last night, she was buying all the drinks. Except Anita’s. Harry was pouring all of her drinks. I knew Anita was getting stewed when I got that pain in my belly. Worse than ever before. Ain’t like Harry to get Anita that loaded, not the night before a show. Goddam Harry.
I never normally dream about her. In my dreams, I’m always alone. Free. Now I feel her weight pinning me to the bed, trapping me in this room with its dirty drapes and sloe-gin stink. My mouth is dry. I want to holler, but I can’t. My body is going numb and I know that bitch is sapping the life right out’a me. The last thing I see is the smoke of the audience, the glow of the lights. And Harry.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, may I present a curiosity like you’ve never seen before…’
The Comeback, by Rosalind Stopps
Somewhere along the line, I got the wrong job. I don’t know how this happened and it’s probably my fault but the fact is, this is not my real life. I had another one planned, but it got lost in transit. I’m an actress, that’s the gods honest truth, but I haven’t had a part in years. Not even a walk on.
It wasn’t always like this. I was tipped for a ‘most promising newcomer’ award in 1992 when I landed a small part in a soap opera. Two months later, my character was unexpectedly murdered by a serial killer. I nearly cried when I read the script, but not because I was moved. If your character runs off with someone’s IVF twins or goes to prison for setting fire to a valuable dog there’s always a chance that the agent will ring again with a return but my character was pushed off a cliff and then swept out to sea. Her body was only recognisable from dental records so that really was that. I still watch it in case I’m mentioned, but soaps move on quickly and even the characters who knew the characters who knew my character have emigrated, been blown up or killed off in accidents involving adultery or faulty hair dryers. I don’t mention her any more, even on Christmas nights out with the girls from work.
So I’m a carer. I hate the word almost as much as I hate the job. Carer. It sounds like a girl’s name and it’s cloying and feminine but not in a good way. If I was going to try for a part now I’d want it to be a tough one. A middle-aged Rosie the riveter or the inspirational coach of a kick boxer, something like that. Maybe the firm but kindly matron of a home in a musical about old people falling in love. Death and sex, a sure fire success.
I’m just a carer, though. Not much room for rebellion or promotion so I have decided that the only way I can take back some control in my life is to try not to care about the people I visit. It’s hard. My working day is spent doing intimate tasks for the housebound, taking them to the toilet and reheating mushy dinners. It’s almost impossible not to care a little when they’re so dependent. Some of them can’t even wipe their own bottoms.
‘You’re so good at this,’ some of my clients say and I think, ‘really? Am I? Is that why I don’t get callbacks any more? Have I got ‘carer’ tattooed on my forehead as well as chapped hands from the scrubbing up? Maybe if I don’t give a damn I’ll be able to walk away from it all and get my real life back, acting in the West End opposite Bill Nighy or Tom Cruise in a part just written for a glamorous older woman.
So I’m trying not to care at all, and it’s harder than I imagined. I start out slowly, by forgetting to put the top back on the marmalade in Mrs Sharp’s kitchen and walking away from it, just to see if I can. Before I’m halfway down the road to the next visit I have to go back, sort it out and wipe the surfaces down. I’ve got to try harder.
Next, I spill a glob of yogurt down Mrs Eden’s cardigan when I’m feeding her and I try to leave it there, but I only last five minutes before I’m at it with a damp cloth. ‘Thank you mummy,’ she says. I feel like the lowest of the low but I have to steel myself, remember that all’s fair if it gets me back to my real life.
‘You wouldn’t deny me that, would you dear?’ I ask.
‘Strawberries,’ she says, ‘they’re the red ones.’
I’m determined to keep trying but I’ve reckoned without Mr Donaldson. Mr Donaldson is a gentleman and he has been my favourite ever since I started the job. He’s funny and sweet but I’ve made up my mind and there’s no going back. I’m going to change things, be someone else. Someone who doesn’t give a damn, someone who might be in the running for a mid life breakthrough part.
‘I don’t care,’ I say under my breath as I let myself in to his house, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ I walk into his front room like the leading lady on a first night, head up and smiling towards the window, where the stalls would be. Deep breaths.
‘I don’t care,’ I whisper again, really low this time as I shake his pills out of the compartment marked Friday and put them into his hand. I really am whispering, but I have forgotten that Mr Donaldson, unlike most of his contemporaries, has ears like a bat.
‘Well,’ he says, his eyes twinkling like Shaftesbury avenue on a Saturday evening, ‘well, you’d better start caring, or you’ll give me the wrong pills, for sure.’ He bursts out laughing like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard all day, and I blush and before I know it I’m joining in with the laughter and he’s coughing and trying to pat himself on the back and the pills go flying and that makes us both laugh even more and by the time we’ve finished I’ve nearly forgotten about not caring and I wish I could give him a hug for cheering me up so much.
‘Thanks Sylvie,’ he says, ‘a good laugh is like money in the bank, isn’t that what they say?’
‘It is,’ I say although I’m not sure who they are who say that and I haven’t got the faintest idea who Sylvie is. I often get called by the names of people who have been lost or mislaid but that’s one part of the job that’s no problem for an actress. I’m sure about one thing though – Sylvie was a lucky woman.
‘I’ll tell you another thing that never fails,’ he says, ‘something that’ll put the smile back on that pretty face quicker than quick, lickety split.’
‘I’m fine,’ I say because its not his fault I’m a carer. He’s got enough to worry about, sat in his chair all day waiting for me to come and feed him and wipe his bottom. I’m ashamed of myself, properly ashamed, and not caring suddenly seems like a very mean idea.
‘Dancing,’ he says as if I hadn’t spoken. ‘Dancing, that’s what you need, and plenty of it. Hey – I’ve got a joke for you. Why do fairies like dancing?’
My stomach clenches. Just when you think it’s ok, an offensive joke. Shit.
‘Well,’ I say, playing for time and trying to look disapproving, ‘that’s not really appropriate, Mr Donaldson,’ but he replies without paying even a tiny bit of attention to me.
‘Because its good for your elf,’ he says, ‘get it?’
I am embarrassed and ashamed that I assumed the worst, and I hope that he hasn’t noticed but he’s off again, laughing until I worry that he will hurt himself, burst a blood vessel or trigger another stroke.
Time passes for all of us and there are many ways of growing old but for Mr Donaldson, old age seems to be one long party.
‘Come on,’ I say like a parent with a summer time child, ‘time for dinner.’ He has at least thirty years on me but I can’t keep up the hilarity and I’m feeling a little deflated. Mr Donaldson stops laughing and peers at me.
‘Never mind dinner,’ he says, ‘bugger dinner, I told you, what you need is a dance.’ He shuffles forward until he is on the edge of his chair and grips both the arms.
‘Careful,’ I say but he dismisses me with a wave of his hand.
‘Why?’ he asks, ‘tell me that, Sylvie, why?’ His voice sounds firm for a moment, no wavering post-stroke confusion, no jokes, so I just watch, ready to step forward if he needs me.
‘One, two, three,’ he says, rocking in his chair to get the momentum to stand. I push his Zimmer frame towards him but he flaps it away.
‘I can manage,’ he says, ‘it’s a good day, today.’
And we’re on. Mr Donaldson is standing up, and he bows and flings his arms wide as if he is acknowledging the crowd. He steps away from his chair and in to the middle of the room, wobbly at first but gaining confidence as he goes. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he says in a big announcing sort of voice and then he looks at me and beckons.
‘Come here, Sylvie,’ he says.
‘I’m not Sylvie,’ I say as I move towards him. For one second, maybe two, I can see that he knows it.
And then he starts. Quietly at first, almost singing to himself. ‘What good is sitting, alone in your room? Come hear the music play, life is a cabaret old friend, come to the cabaret.’ He’s good, I’m surprised but he’s good. Not quite Liza, not quite dancing but he stands up straight and strong and he’s tuneful and snappy and I can’t help tapping my feet and nodding my head. By the time we get to the part about tasting the wine and hearing the band I’m bashing it out like a menopausal Pan’s person, dancing, posing with my leg up on a chair and everything. I’m wearing leggings but they feel like stockings and Mr Donaldson has his head flung back, belting it out like the pro he may have been. He sings and I twirl and dip and then we slow right down for the last verse, the one about it being only a short journey from cradle to tomb. He has tears in his voice as he sings it but he keeps going, right to the end.
Then it’s over and he looks lost standing there in the middle of the room. I can still hear echoes of applause in my head as I help him back to his chair and feed him his fish pie.
‘Oh good,’ he says, ‘chicken curry, my favourite, thanks Sylvie.’
Mr Donaldson is long ago and far away when I leave and the lights in his eyes have dimmed. I bow four times as I’ve been taught, once into each corner of the room.