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