In the dressing room
The old woman had been the worst; her cold rubbery fingers and skin bunched and grey and wrinkled, like wizened fruit around her eyes. She had kept her wages stashed in an old sock and never spent them on anything, not even new shoes when her toes were sticking out of the old ones. Then had come that awful fat man with the sinus problems. Angela had had to bite her tongue whenever his thick fingers had chanced a caress on her skin as he moved to straighten her tutu or rearrange a flounce of tulle on her costume.
The procession of wardrobe assistants had always been varied at the Grand, but since Angela had been there it had felt like a different one every week. As soon as she grew used to the rancid breath and clammy fingers of one, along came another with hairy palms or some kind of facial curiosity. They were never just normal people, Angela mused. But then, what normal person would want to work backstage at the Grand every night for pennies? They wouldn’t, she decided.
Until Jacob had arrived. She and the other ballet girls had huddled, shivering into the dressing room to be pulled and squeezed and pinched into their costumes and there he’d been, all smiles and winks. He was young, just a few years older than Angela, and eager to prove himself. The thin strip of dark brown hair dusting his upper lip showed that. Angela thought it was wonderful. She blushed when his blue eye caught her brown one in the mirror and didn’t pull away when his hand slipped down to cup her bottom with a sly grin.
After that Angela had found reasons to be around the dressing rooms more and more.
“You again?” he’d smile. And she’d blush, and he’d find some reason to touch her cheek or hold her waist, or whisper something in her ear. He’d slip her tiny treats; a slice of cake, a filched biscuit, a sliver of chocolate whenever he thought no-one was looking. When she went to bed after each show her heart was singing.
So it was a shock to spin into the dressing room one evening and into the arms of a tall, strong, clear-skinned young woman instead of into Jacob’s flirtatious presence. Angela pulled herself up suddenly, embarrassed and cold.
“Oh! Sorry - you’re not...where’s Jacob?”
Shock and disappointment made her blunt. Rude. She blushed, but didn’t retract the words, even as she saw the hurt register in the woman’s clear blue eyes. He’d gone, she shrugged, like all the others. But she’d softened when she saw the look on Angela’s face.
‘Sweet on him were you kid?’
“What was it about him you liked so much?”
Angela shrugged. “He was funny. Made me laugh. Something about…” she stopped.
“Go on” said the new wardrobe mistress though a mouth full of pins, as she yanked the netting on Angela’s tutu up over her head.
“It’s stupid. Just something about how he looked at me. It was like I was the only girl in the world. But he probably looked at everyone like that.”
The woman emerged from underneath Angela’s skirts.
“Hey I bet that’s not true. Chin up, you never know what’s around the corner.”
Angela smiled, but wouldn’t look at her. Soon she was bundled off to wait in the wings with the other chorus girls.
But that night, after the show Angela was astonished to be told that ‘her young man’ was waiting for her at stage door. And he was. New jacket, neatly trimmed moustache and those laughing blue eyes. He waited for her as she wiped off her make-up and hung up her costume, then held out an arm and they wandered off together into the night, spilling jokes and laughter into the air like they were confetti.
The other girls watched her go enviously, wishing a night out for themselves, instead of lazing around the theatre or rooming house yet again. As a body they languidly wandered back to the dressing rooms.
As they passed the door to the costume room the bravest girl stopped and gave the it a little push. It was unlocked. This was unheard of. Delighted, the girls poured inside to touch and caress the costumes that hung in shimmering rows in the shabby room.
“That new wardrobe mistress isn’t going to be popular when they find out we were all able to get in here and paw these dresses” said Olivia, though she didn’t stop herself lifting the lead’s long green gown from its hanger and admiring it draped over herself in the mirror.
“Here, give me a hand” she instructed one of the littler girls as she shrugged off her own clothes and stepped into the costume. Before long they were all doing it; the room was full of giggles and feathers and the rustle of netting as the girls preened in front of the mirrors and admired their thin bodies in layers of gauze and glitter.
“Hang on - I think there’s something under here” Olivia cried, crawling on the filthy ground in the green dress and reaching for something tucked way back under the shelf full of pins and powders. She dragged out a battered and ancient old suitcase fastened with string.
“Jewellery, you reckon?” she asked the room, then fell to opening it in a frenzy,
But when the string was finally untied and the lid pushed back none of the girls could think of a thing to say. Inside, in layers of tissue paper were costumes, yes, but not costumes for the stage. Thick rubbery false fingers curled limply on a brown rag; false beards, the padding to bring to life a fat man, glue, paints, wigs, binding. A pair of old shoes with holes at the toes…
At the restaurant Angela was beaming. Jacob had pulled out her chair for her and was turning to drape his jacket over his own chair. She saw then that he looked nervous and reached out to reassure him as he sat.
“Angela” said Jacob, meeting her gaze with his clear, blue eyes. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
And Angela watched as he reached his fingers up to the thin line of the moustache that neatly framed his upper lip