Christ. Almighty. Aunt Nell. Aunt. Fucking. Nell.
Bloodshot, enflamed eyes – well, eye: the right one. Skin like crumpled autumn leaves. Fleshy folds beneath her chin, dangling down like an over-spill tray on a coffee machine. A red, bulbous nose, courtesy of the ‘bloody rosacea’ that plagued Aunt Nell her whole adult life and transformed her nose into a beetroot.
It had happened. The unthinkable. The thing that she had been dreading for four years since finding out. She was morphing into Aunt Nell. Weird, you might think, turning into her aunt; turning into her mother would be more like it. A natural progression. What happens. This was what she found out: Aunt Nell was her mother. More on that can-of-worms later.
She was in the dressing room, preparing. Attempting to beautify. Just how many rooms like this had she been in over the years? Christ knows. Too many to count. Each one different…and yet…similar. Cold. Freeeeeeeeeezing. Too miserable to install a heater. She brought a dressing gown from home and kept it on over her dress until the last possible moment, her own way of sticking two fingers up at the stingy club owners. Drab. Stains on the chair, assuming that there was a chair; wallpaper peeling off uneven walls. And smelly. They were always bloody smelly. Stale sweat mixed with stale smoke – garnished with a dousing of stale food. She felt dirty after a show, tainted, contaminated, as though the dressing-room-stench was clinging to her, to her skin and hair, even to her teeth, her gums: she had to take a steaming hot bath and clean her teeth at least twice as soon as she got home, and she had her show-outfit and dressing gown dry-cleaned once a week. She found a squashed meat and potato pie in a drawer once – she had only opened it because blobs of grease kept appearing on the floor next to her sparkly shoes. The pastry had split down the middle, reminding her of the diagrams of tectonic plates that she used to doodle on in her Geography textbook, and green mould was weaving a path through the partially-exposed filling.
Leaning forwards, she adjusted the mottled mirror – because a normal mirror, that is, a clean one, was too much to ask for – and applied a final layer of mascara, screwing its lid back on afterwards; this was her good one, it had not been cheap. She got it from Debenhams. Enough said. Nothing was cheap there. She bought it in the January sales, but it had still been a fair price. When not ‘preparing’, she just made do and used her everyday one from Avon. It was not as silky but was good enough for her. But she would cry if this one from Debenhams dried up – she was not even halfway through it yet. Once the air got to them, that was it, you were done for: you might as well be trying to smooth out scrambled eggs.
One minute, doll.
The door swung open, sending in a rush of warm air and laughter. Ned, her agent, was peering into the room, specs on his head and a cigarette tucked behind each ear. He loathed the smoking ban, thinking it a personal conspiracy against him. ‘What are they going to do next? Stop me from breathing? Talking? Shitting?’ He could be a rum bugger at times – what a thing to say. A rum bugger, but lovely. His bald head made her think of lightbulbs and the fact that she still had not got around to replacing the one in the bathroom. She had been showering in the dark for three weeks.
Right you are, love. Almost done.
Ned winked and then shut the door, the room quickly losing its injection of warmth. She shook off her dressing gown. Christ. Almighty. Like the bloody Arctic. She touched up her blusher – a lady could never wear too much, but could wear too little – and stole a last look at herself in the mirror. Aunt. Fucking. Nell.
Ladies and gentlemen.
Ned on the mic, delivering his pre-show patter. He loved it – he was in his element up there on the stage.
I have got one hell of a treat lined up for you. Please put your hands together for the gorgeous…
She snorted, careful to not smudge her lipstick. Nothing looked worse. Gorgeous? Forty years ago: definitely; twenty years ago: just about; ten years ago: in very benevolent lighting; now: not a bloody chance.
True enough, not that she went in for arrogance. But where had that talent got her? Nowhere, that’s where.
Ned, bless him. Did he get these out of a cracker? No one, apart from Ned, and he did not count, as her agent he was virtually contractually-bound to say so, ever called her wonderful. She had for many years assumed that she repelled the word. Her and the word were opposing magnetic poles.
She stood up. Stretched her aching legs. Pulled in her less-than-trim waist. Show-time. Time to razzle-dazzle.
Cheeky fuckers. The whole fucking lot of them.
Those lining the back wall especially. The women all on one side of the long table, facing her, but looking anywhere but at her, their husbands opposite, turned towards their lady-loves and showing her the backs of their heads.
Thank you. Thank you. You are too kind.
Bollocks. They were pig ignorant. But this was nothing new: they – her ‘audiences’ – were always pig ignorant. It seemed to be item one on the job specification.
It is wonderful to be here with you all this evening.
Like fuck it was wonderful.
You are a fabulous audience.
Like fuck they were.
I love coming back to this club.
Like fuck she did.
Right, my lovelies, listen up. With this next song, we are going to go all the way back to the 1960s. 1964, to be precise. Close your eyes, picture it. Now, I know what you will all be thinking: ‘I’m not old enough to remember 1964.’ I hear you, my friends, I hear you loud and clear: neither am I.
Ha. She would overlook these blatant untruths if they would do the same. Like them, she was old enough to remember 1964 – she had been twelve and in her first year at the secondary school.
But, never fear, we can pretend, can’t we? We can use our imaginations.
Who was she trying to cod? Invoking their imaginations would be an expenditure of energy too far for this lot.
So, the year is 1964, free love is everywhere, spirits are high, and this little number is on the radio day and night…
Okay. Fantastic. Hit it again. Dig deep. You’re young, you’re beautiful – and you’re heartbroken. And angry. A woman scorned. The bastard left you. Humiliated you. You see him. Tell him where to go.
Christ. This was hard, draining – but so much fun. This was in her bones. She had been born to do this. She would never be happy unless she was doing this – she would never be living. Hell, she would just be waiting to die.
Hit him where it hurts, girl. Right in the crown fuckin’ jewels.
She stood up straight, closed her eyes; she pretended that there were not rows of eyes – male eyes – scrutinising her every move. And, no doubt, body part. She was no fool – she knew exactly how these things worked. But she hoped beyond hope that it was about the voice, too. Her voice.
The piano fired up, its notes pirouetting around her head. Her fingers tingled. Her body swayed, as if of its own accord. One hip, then the other. She felt the music. Tasted it. It filled her with a pleasure – pure, intense – that hitherto only the richest chocolate had been able to effect.
If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by
She had never had her heart broken – not by a real boy, in any case: she had never been in love, she was only seventeen. Music was her love; she wanted no other. Davy Jones, that little monkey, had come close to breaking her heart once upon a time when, at the grand old age of thirteen, she finally realised that he would never be making her Mrs. Jones, but, with an emotional alacrity exhibited only by the very young, she soon got over him. Davy who? She was still a virgin. But Mr. Foster did not need to be privy to such information; if he thought that she was drawing on experience, on a real-life break-up, then so be it.
Yes, Margo. YES.
Margot? Who..? Oh, yes, her. Margot had been his idea – his invention. ‘Margaret. It’s just so…just so…vanilla.’
That you don’t see the tears
He called her the white Dionne Warwick. He called her his star.
Just let me grieve
In private ‘cause each time I see you
Clapping. Cheers. Cheers. And more cheers. Hip hip hooray. Music hitting her, carrying her away, far far away.
You’re killing me, Margot. You’re going right to the top.
She never did go right to the top; she never did get anywhere near ‘the top’: that sunny afternoon in 1972, in Mr. Foster’s cramped London studio, flanked by his gang of staring merry-men and their assorted dodgy moustaches, was as close as she got. Her pinnacle. For all his charming grins and encouraging maxims, Mr. Foster, it soon transpired, was a heartless bastard. And a Grade-A liar. He had been right about the Margot thing, though. Credit where credit was due. Margot sounded so much better than Margaret. Drab Margaret could go; delectable Margot could stay.
She was back in the dressing room – what the club insisted on calling a dressing room; she was back in the cold, smelly, grimy hovel, her dressing gown once again draped over her. Her shoulders felt heavy, burdensome. Her whole body felt burdensome. They had been a tough crowd to crack. Granted, they clapped and shouted for more at the end – minus the back-wall-bitches, naturally. A few even jived in her second spot. But they had had no interest in listening to her. In truly listening to her. It was not just the constant talking as she sang. God, she was used to that, expected that. It ran deeper, was more subtle. To sing was to render herself naked – undercrackers and all; to sing was to reveal a glimpse of ‘her’, of whatever it was – her soul, her essence, whatever terminology you wanted to use, she was no authority on it – that was at her core. But this truth had passed them over: she could have been relaying a shopping list or reading out a gas metre. They were oblivious to the fact that she was putting herself in their hands. They had made a fist and pummelled her heart without even realising it.
She had had enough. Her quota of this shite had been filled. And exceeded. Her singing days were over.
Margot pulled off her clip-on earrings – she never had followed through and invested in the real things, the real deal, and it was too late now, it was far too late – and sighed. It seemed a sad way to wrap up her career – and yet wholly appropriate. Had not her entire performing career – career? What a joke – been like this? Her entire life? For they were one and the same. Nobody truly listening. Nobody truly seeing. Nobody truly understanding.
‘You’re going right to the top.’ Fuck you, Mr. Foster. Fuck you. Where was the floppy-haired fucker when she needed him? Washing his manicured hands of her. Grinning at his next project. ‘Sorry, kid, but we gotta face facts. You’re used goods now.’
Margot reached for her face wipes. Her face felt unbearably dirty. Used goods. The words sliced into her, sharp in spite of their round edges. Was that how people had seen her? Used up, worn out, no good to anyone – like a snotty tissue? Mr. Foster made her feel worthless, expendable; a prized possession one day, unwanted tat the next. He had heard on the grapevine that she was pregnant. ‘Knocked up, and only seventeen. Such a waste. You could have had it all.’ But he had heard only half a story – that was the problem with the fucking grapevine. It was an unreliable platform. She had not wanted to fall pregnant – she had not planned it. She had not wanted to have sex. She was not consulted in the matter. That man, that dark figure, that monster, had taken the decision for her. She never learned his name – she never even saw his face. She just heard him. His grunts, his huffing, his puffing. And smelled him. The curry sauce lingering on his breath as he pounded his way into her and held down the back of her neck with cold, calloused fingers. Curry sauce had made her gag ever since. Sex had made her gag ever since.
But Daniel. Her Daniel. The light of her life. Blonde hair, blue eyes – like her, thank God. Skin as soft as cotton wool. Gentleness after violence. Hope after despair. Life after death. For part of her did die that night. How could it not? He cried a lot as a baby. On and on the cries went; piercing screeches all day long – and all through the night, too. Had her little man somehow imbibed the horrors of his conception? ‘He hates me, Mam. My own son hates me. He knows what I thought – what I almost did.’ ‘Don’t be silly.’ Her Mam, the voice of reason. ‘He loves you.’ But she knew the truth. She knew that he knew. That she had thought about aborting him. That for a moment she had hated him, despised him – had wanted to rip him out of her stomach and flush him down the toilet, along with the monster that had put him there.
Her Mam was a little angel when Daniel came along. Her rock. She would have drowned without her; the blackness of it all would have sucked her under and blocked out Daniel’s light. ‘It’s what us Mams are for, love.’ She made her see that she could simultaneously loathe the monster and love Daniel; to loathe one was not to necessarily loathe the other – ditto to love. Fast-forward seventeen years and she was her rock again. Daniel died when he was seventeen. ‘I’m your Mam, we’ll get through this together.’ But. But she was not her Mam. Aunt Nell was her Mam. This tumbled out of her Mam’s – for what else could she call her? – mouth four years ago as she lay dying in a hospital bed. Akin to a plotline in a salacious TV drama, Aunt Nell was deemed too immature, ‘too wacky,’ to look after her, and the more sedate Ivy was thrust into the role. ‘My Mam, your Nana, thought that it would be for the best. Nell was a mess. She couldn’t be trusted with a baby. With you. Please don’t hate us. I’ve always loved you and I’ll always be your Mam. Always.’
Another blow, another rape – another decision taken for her. Her world bulldozed for a third time. No third-time-lucky for her.
Ten minutes, doll. And then I’ll run you home.
Lost in her thoughts, fizzing away like dropped cans of Cola, Margot had not heard the door edging open. Ned. A lemon sherbet of a guy, sweet and oh so comforting in a crisis. He had encouraged her to return to her singing. When Daniel started school, she picked up a few afternoon shifts in a local pub, cash-in-hand work. Ned was sometimes in, always friendly, always chatty. One afternoon, they got talking about music. She told him of her almost-record-deal. Looking both impressed and interested, Ned broke into a toothy smile and said that he was a music agent and worked the local club circuit. ‘I’d love to hear you sing, doll.’ Even then he called her doll. She declined at first, no, she couldn’t possibly do that, and she wasn’t even that good, wasn’t good at all, but, then, just before the end of her shift, what the heck, she did it, she threw caution to the wind and sang for him, not an easy undertaking given that she had sung for no one since that afternoon in Mr. Foster’s studio. ‘Blimey. Where have you been hiding that voice? And, doll, why?’
He became her agent, got her onto the local club circuit, and, in time, those further afield. One summer, he even got her a contract with a high-end jazz club. He never promised her fame or riches, but he always said that he believed in her talent and that to keep it concealed would be a travesty. ‘Share that voice with others.’ Over the years, he had proven himself a true friend – along with her Mam, he fought for her when Daniel’s death set her on a path of self-destruction, and he stopped her from traversing that same dark path when the truth came out about her Mam and Aunt Nell.
Okay, love. I’ll be ready.
He was a gent; in all the years that they had known each other, not once had he tried it on with her. Years ago, he told her that he was in love with her, but that he would never force the issue – sensing that she did not reciprocate his feelings, he would happily settle for friendship. He had had a few relationships, but had never married – she hoped that he had not been hanging on for her. He had been right – she was not in love with him. She loved him, she really, really loved him, but as a friend only. As a brother.
Her relationship-log-sheet made for even lighter reading than Ned’s. Most teenage girls had racked up more experience. Two relationships. Yes. T-W-O. Matthew and Mark. Jesus. She needed only Luke and John and then the Biblical quadruplet would be complete. They had been nice enough blokes, kind, patient. Handsome, too, the pair of them. Matthew reminded her of Tom Selleck, and she had had a thing for him since his Magnum days. She ended both relationships. They did not feel right – she did not feel right in them. Though she fancied them, sex felt beyond her. She did not want to be seen naked; she certainly did not want to be touched intimately. Sexual intimacy brought back that night. His knee in her back, her face crushed against the damp, cold concrete. Her and Mark never got to the sex stage, though they did date for over a year, but her and Matthew, perhaps because of the Selleck resemblance, almost got there.
Talk about embarrassing. It was a Saturday night and she had cooked for them. They had gone through to the living room. They were kissing. He was stroking her arm, her leg. Whispering into her ear. She was enjoying herself. Enjoying him. Sex still felt like a leap off a mountain. Her history could not be rewritten; Matthew’s soft fingers could not cancel out the imprints of the calloused ones. But she was curious. Desirous. What did real sex feel like? Sex that she had chosen. With a man that she liked…loved. How would it feel to hold Matthew inside her? And he had been so good to her. So considerate. She wanted to please him, to be a woman who could please him. She would push back the fear. This feeling for Matthew could be stronger than the memory.
They undressed each other. They kissed some more and then he entered her. And BAM. Her head exploded. Her body went wild. Thrashing arms, flailing legs. ‘Get off me. Get OUT of me.’ That face-less bastard was still ruining everything. And, in the end, he ruined Daniel. Death was preferable to the reality of his genetic profile. He left a note. Its shaky, half-formed letters told her that he had been crying. ‘He is my father. The man that raped you is inside of me.’ She had told him that his father was dead. That he was a good man. An industrial accident. ‘Working for us, for our future.’ She created a whole narrative. ‘You came from a place of love.’ She believed that she was protecting him. Keeping her boy safe.
He read the truth in her diary.
A diary that she had kept in a box in the loft for years.
A diary that she should have fucking destroyed.
A diary that Daniel placed beside his note.
Good night, sleep tight, doll. You were amazing tonight. Right at the top of your game. See you next Saturday; usually get a decent crowd in there.
As promised, and as per their routine, Ned had driven her home, dropping her off just in front of her gate, which, lopsided and rusty, had seen more salubrious days. The bulky boot of his Land Rover was now receding from view as his left indicator winked a vivid green and he turned out of her road. Built like a military tank, the car was massive, but it barely made a sound, its tyres gliding over the road. It was Ned’s baby; he called ‘her’ Sandy, à la Olivia Newton John, his other baby.
Margot fastened up her coat, it was both cold and windy, a meteorological double-edged sword, and rooted in her bag for her key, wondering why, as always, she had not had the foresight – the bloody common bloody sense – to do this in the car. The wind was making her eyes water and its hands were having a party with her blow-waved hair. Next door, a light was on downstairs. Old Miss. Hughes – though she was not much older than her; did people call her old Miss. Young? No, the irony of this was not lost on her – was a night-owl; no matter how late she got back from a gig, she would still be up, watching the television in her front room.
Right on cue, the screen’s flickering images bled through a chink in the curtains, a red here, a bright orange there, proffering the few steps from the gate to her front door a kaleidoscopic light. She wondered what her neighbour was watching – something colourful, for sure, but, really, it could be anything, she knew next to nothing about old Miss. Hughes, her likes, her dislikes, her driving passions, though they had lived side-by-side for thirty years; yet, in spite of this emotional distance, the knowledge that she was not the only one still up comforted her. She would not be alone. Old Miss. Hughes would be there, on the other side of the wall. Strip that wall away, that cuboid of cement and plaster and whatever else, and they would be in the same room. Two women, together, alone. Two women doing what they need to do.
After a solid minute of bag-rooting, she found her key and slotted it into the door. The lock felt stiff and initially refused to budge but, with a bit of force, and a fair amount of under-the-breath swearing, turned to the right and granted her access. Rushing in, she dropped the key into its dish on the sideboard and headed towards the alarm. She could smell the salmon that she had cooked before leaving; the smell normally lingered for a couple of days, but it was not unpleasant.
Should she have kissed Ned goodbye? A platonic kiss, of course. A peck on the cheek, maybe a squeeze of the hand, a pat on the arm, just to say thanks, just to let him know that she was grateful: grateful for this evening, grateful for his friendship, grateful for every little and big thing that he had done for her over the years. Too late now. She hoped that he knew just how much she valued him, how much she had always valued him. She took off her coat and tossed it over the banister, its bespoke coat-peg, and placed her carry bag beside the bottom stair, her show-dress poking through a tear in the material. It felt toasty warm in the hall, she was glad that she had left the heating on.
Walking through to the living room, she made for her record player. Vintage, hers since the sixties. They were back in vogue now. Record player, CD player, back to record player. CD players would have their day in the sun again. Life was but a circle. Would Ned be angry when he realised that she would not be doing the gig next week? That she would never be doing a gig again? Anger was not his style. But he would be disappointed, hurt that she had not felt able to tell him – him, her oldest friend; him, her confidante. She traced a finger down her stack of records, their sleeves yellowed and curled from decades of love. What should she put on? Which song should she choose? She did not need to ask. She knew which one. There was only one. She pulled out the record, held it in her hands. Were her hands trembling? Yes. They were. The record felt lightweight, flimsy. One snap and it would be dust. Yet it contained so much. So much meaning, so many memories.
Had the evening really been so bad? Yes. Beyond repair? Afraid so. One humiliation too far. She would not, could not, put herself through it again. Why had she put herself through it for so long? God, she was tired. Every inch of her felt depleted. She would not bother with a bath. She could stay dirty. She would make a last trip to her kitchen, put the record on the turntable and then sit in her chair. All tasks complete. No further movement necessary. No need to think or examine or question.
The leather kissed her legs and bottom as she eased herself into the chair. Those familiar notes, so familiar that they were an intimate part of her, passed out of the record player and into the room, all one, magic. Damn. Water. She needed water, but had forgotten to pour herself a glass. She looked to her left. Nothing. Her right. Bingo. Half a mug of black coffee on the side table, as if waiting for her. Had she had it in her head all along? The cold coffee would get the job done.
She shifted her fingers and studied the box beneath them – until a minute ago, it had lain at the back of her kitchen cupboard, unopened, undisturbed. It would not be easy. But what did ease have to do with any of this? Nothing about her life had been easy. But it was the right thing. Right for her. And she knew that it was time to do something for herself. She picked up the coffee mug. A brown stain – almost the shape of a smile. There was no fear inside her. There was just the music. She let her head sink back into a cushion. She was ready.
Walk on by, walk on by…