1,855 words – approx. 6 minutes
Blood spattered onto the front of Mary’s habit. Splayed on the floor in front of her lay George Evans, his hands curled in a final attempt to grasp the stiletto in his neck.
For several moments Mary stood still, save for the heave and sink of her chest. She was hardly aware of the shoe still poised above her head. Somehow she expected a man as big as George to deflate, but he just leaked.
From downstairs came the thud and whump of music, breaking into her state of near-unconsciousness. Clara must have started. Mary looked around the upstairs room of The Gentleman’s Rest – George seemed to have finally stopped bleeding, but the evidence of what had happened was soaking into the carpet.
The dead man on the floor wasn’t all that was unusual about the scene: a chair lay, splintered, where George had collapsed, and the far side of the room was sprayed with red. It was all over the costumes and accessories. At first he had spurted, then it had slowed to a pumping flow. What had really surprised Mary was that he’d hardly made a sound, just a low gurgle and widening eyes, and his tongue trying to escape his mouth.
A thick haze of thoughts settled on her mind, but one impulse was overriding. She had to hide the body. There was no shortage of sheets and drapes on the foldable wooden tables up here, so Mary cleared one of its array of silver masks, lace bras and lone shoes and spread it over her boss’s huge form.
As a child, Mary would hide under her bath towel, stifling giggles as her mother hammily pretended to search for her. Then, when her mother had tired of it – always too soon for Mary – she would whisk away the towel to mutual shrieking delight. Mary remembered this as she looked at what she had done, wishing that it was, in fact, possible to hide a body underneath a sheet.
The second-to-last step of the staircase creaked achingly, and Mary’s head snapped around to the doorway; even an accidental murderer is always on alert. She watched it helplessly, like in a nightmare where you know the terror is preparing to enter stage right. In her wild, static panic she did not dare to move, in case that action somehow brought the intruder charging into the room.
She heard the clink of coins before the muttering, which was punctuated by loose, braying sobs. Through the door came a skinny blonde thing, one hand pressing a loose bra to her chest, the other holding a dimpled glass by the handle. She wore a rabbit-ear headband and a tiny black ribbon that tied a limp cotton-wool tail to her buttocks. Dark blue mascara mingled with the redness of her cheeks.
At first the rabbit-person registered nothing – not Mary stood, in her customary nun’s outfit, legs apart, trying hopelessly to shield the grotesque scene; not the pooling blood already blotching the grubby sheet; not the mountainous bulk that lay like a boulder on the carpet (the carpet that had once been an off-white colour, but was now a rapidly blushing shade of plum).
Then the glass fell with a heavy thud, spilling its load across the floor, and the bra dropped alongside it.
“Amy,” said Mary, urgently, as the young woman sank like a collapsing telescope onto the floor. “Amy, ssh!” In fact not a sound had yet come from her, but the risk was too great. Mary did not know what she was going to do, but if anyone were to hear a scream from the dressing room she would be immediately out of options. She stepped round the folded body of her friend and pushed shut the heavy grey door. It clicked, but there was no lock. There was no need. When exposure is your business, modesty comes as an optional extra.
When Mary crouched beside her Amy was still panting furiously, but the immediate danger of her raising the alarm seemed to have passed. She was looking glassily around the room. It was as though everything was new to her; there was simply too much to see, so she didn’t see anything.
Mary helped her to her feet and eased her into the folding chair at the dressing table. The counter was covered in open make-up bottles, their rims encrusted with red flakes, and razors, hair rollers and mascara brushes littered its surface. The lights that framed the mirror sagged in the middle, and several of the bulbs were dead. How many times had Mary stood hunched there, applying a last-minute glaze of lipstick before descending the stairs and taking her place on the tiny raised platform they called a stage? And how many times had she come up here afterwards, sweating and flushed from the heat of exertion under cheap lights, to find George there with a look in his eye?
And it was now, only now, that Mary began to realise that she’d never again feel that sick dread when George’s massive frame filled the room, or the shame when the envelope he handed her at the end of the month was thickened with a couple more notes.
“Just a little something,” he’d say and wink, and she’d say thank you in the airy, empty way he liked.
By now Amy was blinking less and looking around her more attentively. Mary knew she had to act fast. She put on the pose she always did when one of the younger girls was upset, usually by a punter ignoring the sign that hung on the stage curtain that read: “No touching – yourself or others.” She crouched and rested her forearms on her knees, and raised her eyebrows a little as she spoke. Up here you could only hear the rhythm of the music, but it wouldn’t be long before the act finished and Clara came upstairs to change.
“Amy? Amy, listen to me.” She’d started countless conversations like this over the years – if not Amy then Sarah, Lucy, or Danni. But this was the peak to which it had been building. This was the one she couldn’t get wrong.
“It was him or us,” she said, looking Amy straight in the frightened eyes. “Do you understand? If it hadn’t been him, it would’ve been me, or if it hadn’t been me it would’ve been you, or Maya, or Clara, yeah?”
It was a high-risk strategy. The new girls often had a loyalty to George, an automatic gratitude that he’d given them a job at all (and they thought nothing of thanking him for it). Amy wasn’t the newest, but she was new, and she was young. She had probably never seen a dead body before.
Mary tried again. “I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident, the heat of the moment, you know? I know it’s fucked up. But what we’ve got to do now, right, what we’ve got to do is look after ourselves. You and me. Ok?” She looked imploringly at Amy, and was relieved and gratified to see her slowly nod.
“We need to call the police. Can I use your phone?” Mary could have punched her. She hadn’t listened at all. Somewhere at the back of Mary’s mind the thought stirred that perhaps she should strangle her, right there in the chair. But she hadn’t even registered the thought when she heard the creak of the step and realised that the music had stopped.
“I’m changing!” she shouted. The footsteps stopped. Mary could just imagine Clara silently huffing and rolling her eyes, then turning left instead of straight on at the top of the stairs. “I’m changing” only ever meant one thing in a world where bare flesh was currency, and that reason was now soaking in his own blood in the middle of the floor.
She’d bought herself some time with her quick thinking, but only a little. It would be suspicious if she hadn’t emerged in a few minutes. Her priority now was to deal with Amy, and she turned back to her with renewed resolve – she hadn’t come this far to be ruined by some 19-year-old cottontail.
She needn’t have worried. Amy’s face had creased helplessly and her body shook with racks of laughter. She clapped a hand to her mouth in shock at her uncontrollable giggling, and before long Mary had joined in. Because it was funny, the nun and the naked bunny in the upstairs room of an East London pub, with George’s body covered with a sheet like some old museum display. They laughed and laughed, and for the life of her Mary couldn’t understand why she hadn’t done this years ago.
Finally they stopped, the laughter having slowed to high-pitched sighs and the tears wiped from their eyes. It was down to business. The first question, even before what to do about what used to be George – he wasn’t going anywhere; the carpet could be steam-cleaned – was whether to tell the other girls. Mary had expected some resistance from Amy, some childish loyalty or solidarity, so was impressed when the first thing Amy said was, “Obviously only we need to know about all this.”
Obviously. The more people who knew, after all, the more people who could give the game away. It wouldn’t need to be deliberate, they reasoned – it wasn’t that they didn’t trust Dawn, Maya or the rest. It was just that one loose-tongued “Since George left” could bring the whole operation crashing down around them.
They talked quickly, ideas and strategies bursting from their mouths. It would be easy enough to explain George’s absence: he regularly took long trips away, beach holidays from which he returned heavier and empinkened by Iberian food and sun. And Amy was shocked to discover that for the past three years Mary had had access to the safe that sat in the corner of the dressing room, the combination divulged drunkenly when George was both very pleased with Mary’s efforts and too lazy to fetch her reward himself.
Their problem now was how to prevent the others from charging in to see the bloodied, wrecked room. But Amy, now fully invested in the project, had a solution. Some weeks ago she’d performed a disastrous routine as a handyman (utility belt, hard hat with torch, toolbox) and had, as a result, a large diamond-shaped yellow sign that read KEEP OUT – MEN AT WORK. For the finale she’d placed it in front of her crotch then whipped it away to a few rowdy cheers, but now it was jammed in a corner with a mop, a doctor’s uniform, a pile of old newspapers and several pairs of glasses with clear plastic lenses, far from the blood-sprayed half of the room.
Together they worked it free and propped it outside the door with a note explaining that there was an electrical problem, and please would the girls use the kitchen or bathrooms to change. From below they could hear the clink of glasses as Dawn served the afternoon’s customers. They looked at each other and smiled, their lives finally spreading out in front of them. The early evening shift started in two hours, and there was so much to do.
This was a lot of fun to write, and to imagine. It’s probably one of the most playful stories I’ve written in terms of language to date.
It was also an attempt to write something that aggressively passed the Bechdel Test – a test that requires two female characters to talk to each other about something other than a man. I suppose Mary and Amy are mostly talking about a man, but he has just been murdered, and it’s certainly not about their relationships with him.