The smell reminded me of the smear between unwashed toes.

The mortal before me was bald and very old. The face was undoubtedly feminine. Her skin was sallow, her head oddly smooth and shining. Two deep pleats, black with neglect, curved from the outside of her nostrils around her crimped lips. Within the skull were set a pair of large shining black eyes, reflecting the lamplight.

She made a sweeping gesture for me to enter.

A pair of heavy, faded green velvet curtains, a touch apart, hung unevenly from the flaking ceiling to deep-piled matching carpet. The thick dangling tasselled ropes reminded me of the stage curtains that framed the screen in the old picture palace back home.

A still chandelier hung, unlit, at the dead centre of the high, corniced ceiling. Before me was a huge dusty parlour palm in a vast chamber pot of a vase. Beside it stood a dressing table, the triptych of mirrors unreflecting. One outer blind leaf lacked glass, revealing backstage bare wood. The silvering of the glass on the other was mottled and clouded with a film of dust. The centrepiece was covered with layers of crumpled dresses: grey and yellowed tulle, straps hanging carelessly. As I moved into the room, sequins caught the light, flashing green, blue, gold and silver.

I pushed the door to and saw then that the high, huge bed dominated the room. They say the stage was once an altar. The eiderdown was in shades of red. Peering through time, I could see that once, much expense, thought and flair had been expended on this boudoir.

The wide, dusty headboard of red and gold velvet framed the figure wearing a spumy, ruffed nightgown and propped at a rakish angle against a pile of large greying pillows. Her knobbly, veined hands rested on the eiderdown; between her fingers was black slime. Her nails were long and filthy.

She smiled at me, baring a few elongated teeth, in shades of mustard and bitter almond brown. Yet the smile and the gaze seemed to me, I must confess, flirtatious. Ebony eyes looked me up and down swiftly with much energy; she licked her thin parchment lips and gestured for me to sit beside her bed. As she moved her arm, decay wafted towards my flaring nostrils.

She sensed my hesitation

"Make yourself at home, dear."

Not wanting to offend - and, yes, fascinated - I perched on the edge of the faded green velvet, gilt chair, unsure where to look.

The matching bedside table displayed shapely gilt legs. The top was covered by a mass of assorted corked medicine bottles and pillboxes. The sole source of light in the room was a parchment-like red-frilled shade atop a jade lamp stand, a pair of naked nymphs holding the bulb aloft.

I held my head down, but surreptitiously scanned the bed out of the corner of my eye. The bulge of her body beneath the eiderdown ended with her torso. She had no legs. I had the absurd thought that if she made a play for me, I could run away into the street and she could not pursue.



We got on very well. She showed an interest in me. I found myself talking about my lover and my jealousy.

"You picture them together." She was frowning for me.

I felt myself blush. She stroked my cheek with the back of her grimy, mottled hand. It was icy cold.

"So young," she murmured.

Then she leaned back and looked across, silent, to the dressing table and the faded dresses. She reminisced about her own life in the theatre, firstly as a 'babe' in a troop of child performers, then as a chorus girl and eventually a solo dancer.

Her dark eyes darted back to catch and hold my gaze.

She took the name, Abanica, a feminine corruption of the Spanish for 'fan' and became very successful with her exotic dancing and, in particular, her portrayal of Salome.

"I performed before the crowned heads of Europe. A Hungarian prince really did drink champagne out of one of my dancing pumps."

All of her stories were tinged with innuendo, a hint of scandal.

"Young Josie Baker was after my top spot! I would have scratched her eyes out if Chevalier hadn't suggested a menage a trois. She was beautiful and he was very attentive."

She talked and I listened into the small hours. Did I nod off as I sat there? I cannot be sure.