© Celia Micklefield
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Not Rodgers and Hammerstein a SHORT story
Julia decided on first sight that Barry wasn’t your usual transvestite. The cross-dressers she knew were cast in the same die: dressed to the nines with over-the-top makeup and big hair. They went for ‘glam’, as if it was impossible to look like a woman unless you were a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe or a young Joan Collins. They were stuck, it seemed to her, in some kind of time warp. They never attempted to emulate real, contemporary women. Their clothes were too tight, their shoes were too high and they didn’t know how much jewellery was too much. Barry was different.
Julia had removed her stage makeup and thrown on a denim jacket over her baggy tee shirt roomy enough to hide the fact she could no longer fasten up her jeans. A quick brush through her hair and a hand-ruffle to put some bounce back into it would have to do, but it still looked greasy and flat after wearing Bloody Mary’s wig for the last three hours or so. She’d come through the rear door, the one reserved for artistes, and entered the bar at the end of the pier.
The garbled hum of conversations hit her first and then the heat of too many bodies packed into the small space. After the draughty dressing rooms behind the Britannia theatre, the atmosphere in the bar made her wish she’d brought something different to wear, but there’d been no time; she had come straight from work. The usual first night crowd clustered around the bar. They applauded as they caught sight of her and she smiled and waved at her faithful supporters. Colin, aka Caroline was the first to grab her. Colin was in scarlet and he had on his black wig. He wore fishnets with his black patent four- inch heels.
‘New shoes?’ Julia said. ‘God, I wish I could wear those.’
‘Darling,’ he said. ‘You were wonderful. Come and meet Barry. It’s his first time out as Inez. Be kind, my love.’
Colin led her across the room to where a slim figure waited alone. The legs were fantastic, Julia thought, and the shoes understated and classy. He wore an expensive-looking suit in some kind of soft jersey material, which hung beautifully from his shoulders and sat well on his hips. The collarless jacket was cut à la Chanel and Barry had a silk scarf tucked inside the top to hide his neck. His nut- brown wig was sleek and well-shaped and the pearl stud earrings just the right size.
‘Julia, I’d like to introduce you to Inez,’ Colin said in his telephone voice. Julia noticed Barry’s shy smile and the downward tilt of his head as he held out both hands to greet her. As she stepped closer, Barry took her arms just above the elbows, pulled her in even closer and planted a kiss on her cheek.
‘South Pacific is my favourite revival show,’ he said. He didn’t put on a fake female voice as Colin had. He merely spoke quietly; Julia was fascinated by the resulting husky whisper.
‘I hope you enjoyed our production, Inez,’ she said. Barry did a little cough and looked embarrassed.
The crowd pressed in. Other well- wishers jostled for position or attempted to make their way through to order drinks. The volume of chattering voices soared through the octaves. Julia spotted her sister, Melanie over by the far wall with some of her work friends.
‘We’ve saved you a seat, Julia,’ she shouted. ‘And we’ve got you a drink in. Come and take the weight off. I bet you’re exhausted.’
‘Are you?’ Barry asked. That sultry voice again.
‘I am a bit,’ Julia said. ‘It gets very warm underneath all that padding. I deliberately put on two stones to play this part and it still wasn’t enough.’
Barry leaned in so close to Julia’s ear that his mouth was almost touching. ‘That shows how dedicated you are,’ he said and Julia wondered what perfume he was wearing. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Melanie still standing and waving her over.
Julia said, ‘Thank you for coming, Inez. Maybe I’ll catch up with you later.’
He pulled that small, shy smile again and wiggled his fingers in a little wave goodbye. Julia’s insides flipped over. Like a tickle or a flutter of nerves.
*Stop it,* she thought. *Don’t be ridiculous.*
She made her way through the gathering towards her sister. People from tables nearby whistled their approval, clapped and shouted out congratulations, but Julia could never tell whether they were being sincere. She smiled and thanked them and squeezed through the mass of bodies to take her seat. Melanie dug her in the ribs with an elbow.
‘Is that another one?’ she asked, nodding her head towards where Barry was standing. ‘I haven’t seen him before.’
‘Neither have I.’ That strange flutter again when she looked at him.
An elderly woman appeared through a momentary gap in the throng. Julia recognized her as Mrs Starling, Bobby’s owner, the little black Cockerpoo who had his trim every eight weeks. Mrs Starling put a box of chocolates on the table in front of Julia.
‘These are for you, Miss Mansfield, and I would like to say how much I enjoyed your Bali Ha’i.’
‘Thank you. Thank you very much, Mrs Starling.’
‘I’ve been following your shows for years, my dear. You get better and better.’
‘That’s very kind of you.’
‘It’s true. You missed your calling, you know. You are what they call a natural. Of course, my Bobby would miss you if you left us and went professional. He’s never stood still for anyone else. Well, I mustn’t keep you. We’ll see you next week, Bobby and me. What do they say? Break a leg?’ She linked arms with a younger woman who could have been her daughter and they pushed their way towards the exit.
Melanie dug her in the ribs again. ‘You’re such an old lady magnet,’ she said.
‘Old ladies and queers. What is it about you? Thirty eight and not a decent bloke in sight.’ She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘Drink up,’ she said. ‘I’ll get you another.’
The crowd began to thin after half an hour. ‘Carriages at ten thirty’ was the usual arrangement; the Norfolk theatre crowd still liked to see the antiquated wording on printed invitations and Julia knew that a line of taxis would be waiting shore side, their passengers thankful for the warm interior of their cab after a bracing walk back along the pier in sharp April winds.
‘You coming?’ Melanie asked. ‘I’ve got to get back. I said I wouldn’t be late. We can share a taxi, if you like.’
‘No thanks. I’ll have another drink with some of the others, Mel, before I go. I usually buy a round for the stagehands. You go on. I’ll be fine.’
The stage crew were in a tight group at the corner of the bar. The company’s best baritone, who’d played leading man, was there with his boyfriend, some of the male chorus and there were a few dancers. The young leading lady had already left.
‘Can I buy you a drink, guys?’ Julia said.
An arm slipped around her shoulders and pulled her close.
‘Not this time, Julia. Let me get one for you.’ Steve, the stage manager gripped her. His sleeves were rolled up to his biceps. The material of his shirt strained across the size of him; she could feel his taut bulk against her body and the strength in his fingers on her arm. His neck was thick and solid looking. Dark chest hair sprouted from his open collar.
*Funny,* she thought. *I’ve never been turned on by big men.*
She accepted his offer and was drawn into the group’s conversation. Her mind wandered off subject and before she realized, she was imagining what Barry’s arms would look like without his clothes and she put a fast full stop to picturing the rest. She made herself join in with talk of how the flat in scene three nearly fell over and one of the lads had had to crawl behind and sit with his back against it to prop it up and how they’d only just managed to set the shower for ‘I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair’, seconds before the curtain drew back.
‘The audience wouldn’t have noticed,’ someone said and everybody agreed.
They were the last to leave. The lights had gone out on the theatre hoardings around the entrance and box office. They picked their way along the dark pier and there was only the whistling of the wind and the sound of the North Sea breaking on the shore. The beach below them was cold and black and empty: no bronzed, bare-chested U.S. Marines singing about dames; no mysterious island rising on the horizon with promises of paradise. Instead, the Norfolk wind, blasting straight across the water from Siberia, it seemed. Julia stuffed her hands in her pockets.
Across the promenade, the kebab shop was still open; its smell set Julia’s mouth to watering.
‘The diet starts next week,’ she said and queued with the others for a doner with barbecue sauce. Steve offered to walk her home.
‘There’s no need,’ she said. ‘ I can find it by myself.’
She regretted being so abrupt when she saw his surprised reaction, but there was no point in letting him think she was interested in him. She said her goodbyes and turned the corner along Regent Road towards the market place and her apartment above the doggy parlour. The wind heightened as she walked. Fish and chip papers from overfilled waste containers spiralled in the air and settled with a rustle in dark shop doorways. She screwed her kebab paper into a tight ball to take it home.
Pubs were emptying around the market place: from one, groups of girls in silly summer clothes, heading for the nightclubs, lads in shirt- sleeves following them. She wondered if Barry had gone on somewhere. From the hotel on the corner, middle- aged couples with their arms around one another hurried across the car park. Where would Barry go? What sort of club? There was a wine bar along Nelson Street, frequented mostly by gay men. Perhaps Barry would go there. She passed The Three Feathers. Solitary old boys shuffled out of the side entrance and from The Market Arms next door. *We all feel more comfortable with our own kind,* she thought.
At half past eleven, she turned the key in her door and stepped inside. She made hot chocolate and poured a brandy to go with it. She turned on the television but she wasn’t concentrating on Newsnight. There was an unsettled feeling jumping around inside her and she knew she was headed for one of those nights when sleep kept its distance. She flicked around the channels to find a late night film and grabbed the blanket of doom, the throw she kept over the sofa for such occasions. She wrapped herself in it and stretched out.
The Sandra Bullock film couldn’t stop her thoughts from wandering: *Why am I such an old lady magnet? Why don’t I go for manly men? What kind of a woman am I?*
It wasn’t as if she’d had no experience of relationships with men. They found her attractive enough, she supposed. Even after she’d put on all that extra weight, Steve had still been interested. But what was he interested in after his divorce? Just getting his leg over? That wasn’t enough. She wanted something more, but still didn’t know what it was. She pictured the market place below her apartment and the groups coming out of the pubs. Other people seemed to know what they wanted, what they needed, where they belonged. Barry wasn’t afraid to mix with his own kind. So what was her kind? Why did she feel so different from her sister and all her female friends? There was no answer. She let the questions drift away. She listened instead to Sandra Bullock arguing with another FBI agent and the blanket of doom worked its gentle magic. She slept.
The next night, a bouquet of pink flowers lay on the table in her dressing room. There was a card tucked in the top. ‘Most people live on a lonely island’ it read, the opening line from her big song. There was no signature, not even a ‘from an admirer’. She thought they might be from Steve and she kept glancing across at him when she stood in the wings, waiting to make her entrance, but he was occupied and unaware that she was looking at him. After the show, she carried the flowers home and their scent filled her small sitting room. She decided she’d ask Steve outright.
On the third night of the week’s run, another bouquet lay waiting for her in various shades of blue and lilac. The card read ‘Lost in the middle of a foggy sea’, the second line of Bali Ha’i. Again, there was no signature, no clue. Before she began her make up and dressing routine, she went to find Steve, to stop him sending any more. He was in the props room throwing his weight around and was in a foul mood.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘Has something happened?’
‘Bloody young kids,’ he said. ‘Think they can take a night off just when they feel like it. I’m a man short. I was going to ask Maria if she could give me some time, but . . .’
‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
‘Would you, Julia?’
‘Yes. What do you need?’
‘Somebody on curtains, Act One.’
‘Okay. I can do that. I’ve ages between my scenes.’
After the show, by the time Julia had removed all of Bloody Mary, Steve had already left. She bought a round of drinks for the rest of the crew and went home.
On Friday night, the flowers were yellow with ‘Most people long for another island’. Still there was no signature, no hint as to the identity of the sender. And still, there had been no opportunity to speak to Steve alone. Her living room was full of sweet-scented blooms and she’d run out of containers to put them in. She lined up the cards on the coffee table and knew that there’d be another bouquet to finish the first verse of the song.
*Poor Steve,* she thought. *He must have spent a fortune.*
On Saturday, she left home early to get ready for the matinee performance. If she could catch Steve by himself, maybe she could explain. The assistant stage manager was holding the fort.
‘Steve’s on his way,’ he said. ‘Been a bit held up. Something to do with his son’s school football match.’
She went to the cafeteria next door to the bar and ordered a late breakfast. She took a table near the window, looking out over grumbling grey water and beyond to the wide stretch of sand. A pale sun struggled through roiling clouds then abandoned its efforts. She ordered a second coffee.
The matinee audience began to arrive. She could see them walking up the pier towards the theatre. She looked at her watch: time to make a move. When she looked up again, her stomach jumped. Barry was there, dressed as Inez and he had an elderly woman with him. Julia paid her bill and rushed outside. They met by the box office.
‘Inez,’ she called out. ‘It’s lovely to see you again.’ And it was lovely, she realized.
‘Mother, this is Julia Mansfield,’ Barry said. ‘Wait till you hear her sing Bali Ha’i.’
Julia took the woman’s offered hand. ‘I hope you enjoy,’ she said.
Barry’s mother smiled at her and Julia helped her up the few steps to the entrance.
‘Thank you, Julia,’ his mother said. ‘Not everybody understands, but I see that you do.’ She lowered her voice and brought her face close. ‘He isn’t gay, you know.’ She smiled again and popped her eyebrows. ‘In case you were wondering.’
Julia broke into a grin. She floated around to the stage door and when she went into her dressing room and sat facing the mirror, she realized she was still grinning. Something was falling into place, but she couldn’t quite put a name to it. Barry wasn’t gay. She wasn’t either. Barry dressed as a woman. So did she. Was there a name for it? She had to put it out of her mind and concentrate on the next few hours. She reached for her Leichner cosmetics and began applying dark tan wet wash to her limbs.
While Julia was dressing, Steve kept hovering around in the corridor. A sinking feeling, weighing at her insides reminded her she must sort things out with him. He poked his head around the door.
‘No flowers this afternoon?’ he said.
‘No,’ she said, trying to read the expression on his face.
‘Maybe there’ll be some more tonight,’ he said and that convinced her Steve was the anonymous sender. She must tell him as soon as possible. She was putting the final touches to Bloody Mary’s wig when there was a rap on the door.
‘You decent, Julia?’ Steve’s voice.
*Perhaps now would be a good time,* she thought.
‘Yes. Come in.’ A young woman waited in the doorway behind him. Julia hadn’t realized Steve had a daughter as well as a son.
‘Could I ask you a favour, Julia? This is my girlfriend, Lisa. She’d like to watch from backstage. Would you mind if she . . .?’
‘Oh, oh. No. I mean, yes. Of course. Come in, Lisa. Make yourself comfortable.’
Julia watched as Steve kissed his new, very young lady.
‘There’s a quick way into the wings, Lisa,’ he said. ‘Julia will show you. Don’t hang around the other dressing rooms, though. They have some really fast changes. It’s more relaxed in here.’
He kissed her again and left. Julia was glad of the deep tan make up; it wouldn’t reveal her hot embarrassment. The girl sat in the battered armchair and gave Julia a shy smile.
*Jeez, she’s just a kid,* Julia thought. *What is she? Twenty? Steve’s what? Forty-three? God, I feel old.*
‘I love South Pacific,’ Lisa said. ‘My grandma’s got all the old musicals on DVD.’
‘Are you coming to the after show supper tonight, Lisa?’ Julia asked.
‘Yes,’ the girl said, her face brightening. ‘I’m looking forward to meeting everybody. Steve says it’s always a lively evening.’
‘But we can’t stay late. Steve has an early start with his son in the morning. They’re going fishing.’
‘Aren’t you going with them?’
‘No chance. Fishing’s not my thing at all. I’m making Sunday lunch for them when they come back. Steve and Mikey love my lemon meringue.’
Shame tightened Julia’s throat. She had got it all wrong. Steve and Lisa were obviously in a long-standing relationship. Julia had misjudged Lisa and acted like a fool when Steve had offered to walk her home. He was only being friendly, caring about seeing her home safely. She was thankful she’d said nothing to him about the flowers.
At the end of the final performance that night, after the applause, the lights came up in the auditorium and the cast waited on stage for the procession of local dignitaries. There were mayoral and presidential speeches and bouquets for the wardrobe mistress and Maria in props and more applause and the Chair’s announcement of next year’s production and more applause.
Julia usually felt a sense of elation at this time for a job well done and a sense of satisfaction that so many people had enjoyed something she'd helped create. She looked out into the audience: a thousand smiling faces, maybe more. Her own smile felt false. It was an act.
*Yes,* she thought, *I’m still acting. I’m not being me. Here I am under the spotlights, playing at being somebody else: someone who looks happy and has a wonderful full life.*
The company took their final bows and the curtain came across as the orchestra played them out. A flurry of air-puff kisses, then, and tears from the dancers and promises and laughter.
‘Clear the stage, clear the stage, people,’ Steve shouted, ‘Costumes to wardrobe, please.’
Julia removed Bloody Mary to the thumps and thuds on stage of the breakdown and disassembly of sets. She could hear Steve and his assistant shouting orders and warnings. Hurried footsteps rang along the corridors and there was the screech of hangers on metal rails. She placed the wig on its cushioned head, secured it with pins and lowered it into the box supplied by Hombergs of Leeds, Theatrical Costumiers. She cleared the table of all her things and handed back the shrunken head and Bloody Mary’s other baubles to Maria.
She would go to the after show supper. She would put on her daytime face and her doggy parlour smile, eat a sirloin with curly fries and sour cream and afterwards she would curl up with the blanket of doom for company.
*Most people live on a lonely island,* she thought.
Outside the stage door, the wind was battering the walls of the Britannia theatre. The metal roof rattled in blasts from the open sea. She joined the others walking down the pier. They had to keep their heads down against the gusts.
*Look at me,* she thought. *Lost in the middle of a foggy sea.*
The company filled the downstairs area of The Damned Yankee diner. Julia sat well away from Steve and Lisa. From time to time, she glanced down the room at them and saw how comfortable they were with each other. She wished she could feel as free as that.
*Most people long for another island.*
She stared at her empty plate. It stared back at her like an expression of herself. Finished. Just a few crumbs left. She shook the thought off. There was always a feeling of anti-climax after a show, she told herself. It got to you sooner or later. This time, it happened to be sooner, that’s all. She excused herself from dessert and said she was tired. Steve got up and walked with her to the door.
‘Are you sure you’re alright, Julia?’ he said.
She kissed him on the cheek and said, ‘Thank you, yes. I think I just need a good night’s sleep.’
‘See you at the next auditions then. Lisa wants to come along. I think you’ve really inspired her.’
‘Good. I’m glad. I’ll see you both there.’
She walked home on autopilot. The wind wasn’t a problem. It had swung round into the west and Regent Road basked in the relative shelter of buildings on Market Place. She had little to carry. There was no bouquet to protect from the weather. Whoever had sent the flowers had decided not to complete the verse.
‘Ah, well,’ she said when she got inside. ‘I didn’t have another coffee jar big enough, anyway.’
It was pathetic of her, she knew, but she couldn’t help feeling forgotten. She slipped into her ‘comfies’, picked up Mrs Starling’s gift and emptied the top layer. Later, she sat wrapped in the blanket of doom listening to Classic FM and looking at pink, blue and yellow flowers in two vases and a coffee jar. One of the freesias had drooped. Clasping the blanket around her shoulders, she fetched scissors and snipped off the end of the stalk.
‘You stupid woman,’ she said. ‘Why should you expect more? Look at what you already have.’
She replaced the flower and sniffed the bunch. She thought about the words of the missing last line.
*One where they know they would like to be.*
She asked herself the question: *Do I? Do I know where I would like to be?*
In a flash of realization, she knew what she must do. She pulled off the blanket of doom and threw it on the floor.
*He’s waiting,* she thought. *He needs it to come from me. He needs to know if he’s what I want.*
'I’ll find him,' she said aloud, reaching for her phone. 'Colin will know where.'