Countdown to Launch is back! Today we have a rather creepy tale from Elaine. She asks us, what would you promise to be everything you ever wanted? Miss Gilda has her own answer.
Peter packs Gilda’s things. She has a whole room to herself in his flat; rails of dresses, racks of shoes, stands of wigs on a shelf above the Hollywood mirror surrounded by bulbs. He fills a sports bag with her outfits: pairs of heels, choice of sheath dresses, wigs in net bags, stockings and underwear. Jewellery, makeup, both side by side into the bag’s cargo pouch.
Out the door and down the street he goes, a fit young man with gymnast’s muscles. Never dancer’s, not in this town. Bag shouldered, stride quick, on his way to meet someone. To be someone. The curtains can twitch, all they’ll see is Peter. Engineer; nice lad; kind to his mum. Keeps in shape, look, there he goes again off to the gym.
He reaches the place, a back door down an alley in the centre of town. Peter is familiar with these rat runs, and the little bars and clubs that are set among the narrow roads. He’s drunk in many of the places here, and played in a couple, but he has never noticed this dank, narrow back alley or the steps halfway down that lead to a sunken doorway.
Inside and past the vestibule, the venue is deceptively large. A hotel ballroom with tables and seating arranged cabaret-style in three rows of arcs centred on the stage. The roof of the room is high, and there’s an aerialist’s hoop set up to the side, in shadows. One of the shadows shifts slightly, and the hoop swings. He peers to see, is there something there?
“Daaaarling! It’s so lovely to see you again.” The voice is as voluptuous as its owner and Peter is enfolded in the arms of Madame LaBelle as she kisses first one cheek then the other. “My goodness, what a strapping young man you are.”
Peter blushes, “Thank you Madame, and thanks you for asking me to play. I have music here, for your sound man?”
“Oh, no need for that, my dear, you’ll see. Now, the dressing rooms are this way.” She leads him to the side of the room and into a back corridor, lined with doors, all of them closed. She opens one, “This one is yours, do come see the show when you’re ready. You’ll be on after the first interval.”
In the bare little room, Peter sets out Gilda’s things; the dress with the side slit, the longer wig, brushed out into waves, the patent heels; jewellery and makeup out on the table in front of the mirror with its unforgiving overhead striplight. First, makeup. Heavy foundation and concealer to hide any hints of beard, then layers of contouring, highlighting cheekbones to minimise jaw, shaping eyebrows and outlining eyes, changing curve of lips, lengthening lashes. Miss Gilda is a forties diva, with a film-star pout and come-hither eyes.
Then costume: corsetry and padding, nipping waist and shaping bust and hips. Never sexy, it feels false, stuffed and constricted, like wearing a sofa. Then the dress, slipping over the upholstery to define Gilda’s figure. This, Peter loves, and he poses for a moment in front of the mirror. Nails, pre-painted and superglued, and jewellery, a tasteful touch at ears and wrist with a pendant to draw eyes to neckline. Gilda’s ready.
At Madame’s invitation, Gilda watches the first act from the side, astonished at the performances. Madame opens the show with a sultry version of the old jazz number, Skylark, and then introduces each act, her rich voice cajoling applause at the beginning and end of each set. There is a magician, a handsome young man who seems to be performing particularly to an older woman in the centre front of the audience. She beams through the performance, enthralled, but Gilda sees the sparkle in her eye roll down her cheek; tears as well as joy. A duet play; a seedy-looking man and a gorgeous woman, he playing the piano and constantly scowling at her, while she blithely disregards his looks and sings in an enthralling mezzo-soprano while playing a saw. Brownish flakes fall away from the saw as she plays, leaving bright metal; rust? surely not anything else. Spotlit at the far side from Gilda, the shroud falls away from the aerialist’s hoop; a slim woman had been sitting there through the performance. From before? She executes a dizzying arrangement of swings and rolls, interspersed with graceful poses held longer than Gilda could imagine was possible. Her feet never touch the ground, and at the end of the set, the shroud falls again over performer and perch.
Then it’s the interval, and Madame follows Gilda back to the dressing room.
“Honey, how lovely you look! Now, as I said when we first met, I have a special something for you.” She is intent as she holds up a brooch, an oval cameo on a ribbon, arranged to be worn as a choker. The portrait is a bust of a woman face half-hidden behind a fall of hair, a forties style as worn by Lauren and Ava, Greta and Rita. The eye not hidden is hooded, the lips pursed. Gilda takes off the necklace and hands it to her, takes the brooch and puts it on.
“Fabulous! Now, my dear, take a look at yourself.” Madame gestures grandly to the mirror.
The woman there is beautiful, makeup classically understated, jaw and shoulders slightly smaller than Peter’s, cheekbones and hands more graceful. She raises her hands to her cheeks and the face in the cameo winks once and blows a kiss, the eye a little ruby chip glowing in the striplight. Gilda looks at her hands, runs them down her sides. Her clothes fit perfectly, shaping her without constriction, outlining her natural contours.
“What…?” She stops as she hears her voice, throaty, thrilling, the kind of husk that is meant to be saying, “You know how to whistle, don’t’cha?”
“Perfect! Now, you know your set list, give’ em hell!”
Madame LaBelle ushers Gilda back to the cabaret. She moves as in a dream, barely noticing as Madame recaptures the audience’s attention and introduces her. Up the couple of steps and into the spotlight, she falters, uncertain. The audience is hushed. Then a swell of music from the side, and she feels, knows, that she doesn’t have to lip-sync. Madame’s promise is true, Gilda will be able to sing.
The first number is light, funny, sexy; a jazz standard, I Get a Kick out of You. She holds back on her performance, easing into it, not gesturing as extravagantly as she would have done as a drag queen. She’s a diva in truth now. The audience is delighted, and their applause buoys her up. Then a slow, haunting number, a Tom Waits song about nighthawks at a diner, half spoken, half sung in her new sultry voice. Change up beat next, to Heart of Glass, subtle swaying of her hips in time like Debbie Harry, rather than the gyrations of her usual act, she can see the audience nodding along, mesmerised. And end with one that she never would have attempted as a drag artist, Songbird. The promise of the love song, the haunting guitar backing, brings a tear to her eye.
She curtseys to the ecstatic applause, and leaves the stage, floating; in heaven, as Madame coaxes more applause and then goes on to introduce the next act. Back to her dressing room, in front of her mirror, gazing at the golden waves of hair. She is running her fingers through it – no wig now – as the soft voice at her shoulder brings her back from her dream.
“That can be yours, my dear, seven nights a week.”
“For what? My soul?”
“Oh, my dear, nothing so crass. Simply never leave us.”
Elaine writes fiction, screenplays and poetry. She has had poems and stories published in The Queen’s Head magazine, http://www.