First time I laid eyes on Alanna, I thought, There’s a woman I want to saw in half.
She was in the audience, one leg in plaster stuck out into the aisle. After the show I watched her leave, expecting her to walk like a pair of compasses, but somehow she moved so gracefully everyone else looked awkward. I sent my assistant to catch her at front of house but she claimed she missed her, ha ha. And that’s where I should have left it. Stopped thinking about her. I keep going over it, how I might have escaped this God-awful mess, financial and . . . yes, yes, all right, all the rest.
But I didn’t leave it, did I? Took me three months to find her, volunteering in a charity shop. Didn’t take much persuading to leave. We start rehearsing and she’s a natural. Trouble was, instead of getting stuck into the latest trick, I was watching her. Bumped into her once – by accident, honest – and the contact nearly drove me wild. After that, any excuse to touch her – ‘You’d look good with your hair down to here, love’, or ‘Move this leg further forward.’ I could tell she didn’t like it.
We got on best in coffee and lunch breaks. She liked to hear my experiences. The fellow in Paris who blew a kazoo to disrupt the show. I played statues in weird poses, changing every time he stopped for breath. The audience loved it. The fellow cringed and fled. Oh yes, and the dressing-room in Italy full of crickets. That sort of thing.
But she kept going distant. Her lovely bosom heaved with sighs. All about Corporal Bloody Duckett the one-legged soldier. Whether to arrange to see him now she didn’t work with him in the shop.
‘It would put things on a different footing, Jack.’
I laughed, she didn’t.
Didn’t take me long to lose patience. ‘So he lost his leg to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Should never have gone there. Stop feeling sorry for him and come for a drink with me.’
‘So you can get me drunk and have your evil way with me?’
‘I’m too old for sex, love. Theatrical chitchat by a nice pub fire is enough.’
She wasn’t taken in. I thought when we went on tour we’d be thrown together, but even in the same hotel she avoided me. And in the green room before a show she was always texting, with those delicious legs crossed in their sparkly tights. With a constipated expression and a little smile.
I nearly died when she said he wanted meet me. Corporal Bloody Duckett wanting to meet Jack Springett. Marvellous.
‘But Terry so admires you, Jack.’
‘There’s a queue from here to the sunset. Tell him to get to the end of it.’
But then a thought. I’d been trying to get her into the Cabinet. Not those self-servers in Government. The Sword Cabinet.
‘Not an inch of your lovely hide will suffer.’
‘No! I’m claustrophobic and, and swordophobic.’
‘Nothing will penetrate your beautiful body.’
‘No! And no!’
‘Pity. Thought we might do a deal.’
‘Oh. Am I right in thinking . . . ?’
‘You got it in one.’
I couldn’t decide – should I be chuffed she agreed to the Cabinet? Or pig-sick she thought Matey was worth it? Anyway, I did it. At the charity shop. Half-baked do-gooders picking through people’s rejects, a window display like a dog’s breakfast. Duckett doing something with a Stanley knife, dummy leg at an awkward angle, fingers like bananas.
‘That knife looks sharp. Don’t lose a finger as well.’
Sitting to attention as if I’m some bloody general. Alanna meanwhile off talking to her old mates, giving our hero space with me. The usual fan guff:
‘That trick with the wine bottles must have taken a lot of training.’
‘Training? Are you equating that with squinting through a gun sight?’
‘Of course not.’
Before long he’d said all he could think of. We watched Alanna across the shop.
I winked at him. ‘Curves in all the right places.’
The poor sod blushed. Then blurted, ‘Do you think she . . .’
Big grin from me. ‘Go on. This is interesting.’
‘She could ever . . . you know, care for me?’
So admiring the show was just window-dressing. It all flooded out like a backed-up sewer.
‘It seems daft now, Jack, but when I first met Alanna I only saw one foot under the table. The one in plaster was laid along the bench beside her. So it looked like she’d lost a leg and I thought, Hey, I’m not the only one. I was okay in the rehab unit, but back in civvy street I felt – well, unreal.’
I felt unreal listening to this rhubarb. But Alanna had her eye on me in case I ratted on the deal. Duckett sighed theatrically, staring into space the way she does. I thought, A right pair.
He said, ‘I don’t suppose she ever talks about me.’
I got an idea. ‘Oh, we’d a long talk about you once.’
‘Over a bottle of Southern Comfort. Where was it? Edinburgh? Dublin? Brighton?’
He tried not to sound eager. ‘And?’
‘Oh, she’s very concerned about your future.’ Pause for effect. ‘Brighton, yes.’ I flashed him a smile. ‘Southern Comfort, eh? Well, I comforted her all right.’
‘D’you mean . . . ?’
‘Are you and she . . . ?’
I laid my finger against my nose and rolled my eyes, as if he’d asked me the secret of a trick.
And it’s off to the loo with his clunky walk like Chester on Gunsmoke. I went to tell Alanna time to leave.
‘Nice talk with Terry?’
‘Where is he?’
‘The little boys’ room.’
She insisted on waiting, but no Duckett.
‘Will you see if he’s all right?’
‘It’s part of our deal.’
There he was in the dingy khazi, puking his guts out. Didn’t notice me.
‘He’s fixing a sink,’ I told Alanna. ‘He’ll be a while. He’ll text you.’
‘Oh.’ Crestfallen expression. ‘Okay.’
Sometimes you have to fine tune the truth. That’s showbiz.
Grim winter months, endless touring in drab cities. Alanna went through the motions like a beautiful automaton, then off to her hotel room. I bought a new suit and pricey aftershave, but she still avoided me. Didn’t get texts from Matey, though. I could tell, the way she kept checking her phone. Thought I’d feel relieved, but everything seemed an effort, like wading through treacle.
Then it was spring. We were in between tours, getting ready for the biggie, North America, Eastern Europe, South Africa. And suddenly she comes up to me beaming. For a moment I thought she was falling for me at last. What a laugh. She might as well have kneed me in the balls.
‘I’ve seen him, Jack!’
‘“Him” being . . . ?’
‘Terry! I was at home when a big man rapped at my door, clean-cut, good suit with a fish badge in the lapel. I didn’t recognise him at first. He was as gob smacked as I was.’
‘Yes, really, Jack. Words pour out of us so fast we can’t keep up with each other, all those imaginary conversations we’ve been saving up for ages.’
‘What’s with the fish badge? Flogging fish fingers on doorsteps?’
‘Jesus has saved him, he says. Now he’s got a job selling religious books. Pure chance, him knocking at my door.’
‘I thought you couldn’t stand organised religion.’
‘I can’t. So we have a strict rule – no preaching from him, no nitpicking from me. But Jack, he seems so happy, with his Christianity and a new high-tech leg, no longer a victim.’
So Madam had come alive again, more desirable than ever. I didn’t know who was worse, Gloomy Guts or Chatty Chops. She was on about him all the time now. Wanted to help him get better accommodation.
‘He’s in this dismal flat on the fifth floor, broken lift. He just laughs, says it’s fine, but it’s a bad area, nobody lives there if they can help it. They’re moving asylum seekers into the block behind his.’
‘Poor buggers who don’t have a choice, eh?’
‘Yes, and some local hotheads have been shoving burning rags through their letterboxes. Terry wants to save them.’
One evening after rehearsal we were packing up when she came up and hugged me. Exciting or what? I tried not to let her go, but she giggled and broke free.
‘What’s all this about?’
‘Just thank you.’
‘For what exactly?’
‘My new career. The chance to earn money. Get a better place to live.’
A horrible thought seeped into me, like a trick going wrong on stage. ‘I suppose Corporal Bloody Duckett will move in with you.’
‘It’s not like that, Jack. If he comes to my place he always leaves promptly at eleven. If we were more than friends I’d ask him to move in, but he seems . . . distant somehow.’
So, no need for jealousy. Everything hunky-dory? Not exactly. But I thought, Put it this way – it could be worse.
How much worse I never imagined.
One day after weeks of heat the weather broke. It pissed down. I thought that was why she acted strange all through rehearsal. Or maybe she had a bellyache. I asked what was wrong.
‘Oh nothing, Jack, nothing.’ Tight-lipped.
Afterwards I usually dropped her at her flat. This time she wanted to be at Bloody Duckett’s. I drove her there but had second thoughts right away. It was one of those areas time forgot. Shabby sixties flats in a waste land where every pub and corner shop had been flattened and the betting shop had wired-in windows. I could almost smell the piss on the stairways and hear the crunch of syringes underfoot.
She said, ‘Thanks, Jack. See you tomorrow.’
She tried to open the door but I’d locked it from my side.
‘Let me out,’ she said through clenched teeth the way she used to when she rejected my choreography.
‘No bloody way, princess. You’re not stopping here. Especially not overnight.’
‘We’ve an international tour next month and if anything happens to you I’m fucked.’
‘How kind. Just tell me one thing, Jack.’
‘The other night Terry asked me, “Does Jack mind our friendship?” I said, “What the hell has Jack got to do with it?” He said, “I don’t want to cut across your relationship with him.” So tell me, how did he get the impression that you and I are lovers?’
I cleared my throat. ‘I can’t imagine.’ But I twigged she knew I’d lied about Brighton. I was almost relieved when the arrival of three comedians in hoodies cut across this conversation. I grabbed the big yellow car lock and got out to face them, swinging it gently, testing its weight. They stopped a few yards away.
‘Hey, mate,’ says one. ‘Know which flats them foreign bastards are in?’
I could easily have said, ‘No, sorry, no idea.’ Then I thought of Duckett waiting to get his meaty hands on Alanna’s silken skin. Slide his leg stump over her perfect thigh. I said, ‘Yeah, that block, right there,’ and got back in the car just in time to stop Alanna sliding out on my side. I shoved her back but she was surprisingly strong. We wrestled. I got the biggest hard-on of my life. I won. I drove on.
‘What did you say to them?’ she demanded.
‘I’m a kung-fu black belt and I’ll crack your fucking skulls like Easter eggs.’
She pulled a face. ‘It seemed shorter than that.’
I dropped her at her flat. The last I saw of her balletic grace, through the plate glass of the foyer, was a slim figure in shiny leggings and a furry jacket mounting the stairs not looking back.
It was me that had to identify the bodies. Alanna must have got a taxi back straight after I dropped her. They died of smoke inhalation about four a.m, found unclothed on the stairs. That was as far as they got. Matey didn’t have time to strap his tin leg on. Why couldn’t she leave the poor bastard and save herself? Love? Don’t make me laugh.
They were laid on slabs, adjacent like twin beds. Matey I couldn’t look at. I thought to bend close to Alanna but knew the familiar perfume would be replaced by the bitter smell of sulphur or burnt plastic, so stood with well-planted feet trying to stop the tremor in my legs, noticing she’d tied her hair with a wide brocade ribbon, now darkened by smoke. It’s the details kill you. Wish I’d never seen her.