Mina took a long slow drag on her cigarette as if it was the necessary apparatus to sift through the artificial air of the oft-frequented club – it was the usual accolade of 1950’s London, she could not complain. The lights pulsed dully, intended for atmosphere, like uncertain breaths brushing over the traffic of socialites at the bar, their enhanced hair and painted faces glowing like the human façade in the animal kingdom. She felt sick. Her slot was in 15 minutes, and she attempted composure.
For everything in the room wavered, as if possessed by a kind of sewn-in insecurity. Posters boasting of the freedom to drink and dance were accompanied with the curtail of handing over coinage – so many pounds for a drink, so many for a dance. Life’s pleasures always have a price, Mina thought abstractedly. We have to lose some of ourselves - otherwise they are pleasures no longer. She glanced at the wild smile of some nearby society woman – so happy in that she no longer knew herself – a part of her at the bar, part in bed with a man, another part courted, another part married. It was a glorious human dissection at every social gathering. Mina mused that it was the cheap pot-pourri which attempted to mask the bits of blood, or at least a lust for it.
It was a lust she felt concentrated upon her, every time she stepped onto the stage, all assembled like some extravagant act, and strangely – not towards her body. Her body just suspended itself – the uneven tone of her legs, her torso nervous and overly-rounded in anticipation of childbearing or a certain tender touch which had never occurred, a waist which caved in with no definition like a blunt knife, all empty. But her voice was somehow infused, almost enchanting.
She ran her fingers through the crudely cropped blonde hair, and smoothed the strange strands on her dress which stood up pink and obvious like guilt – all the fashion in America, hopefully empty at home. It was not attention she wanted – no, she wished immensely to be back in the room she singularly called ‘home’ and yet was a simple expanse of space owned by someone she did not know and had never met, to whom she paid the rent, and just to stare through the window and let the moment be lost. Not that it was difficult to lose oneself in the club – people were always rapturously, desperately, giving themselves to others – but everything stank of age and experience, the coffee stains resplendent on the tables told of past lies, and lips, and deceit. Old ash glimmered in the cut-glass trays beneath artificial light and stagnant heat.
A masculine voice somewhere to her left announced in the stretched drawl of a synthetic American accent, prompting her forward ‘Mrs Mina True!’
It was the management’s insistence that they would announce her as a married woman, when her actual circumstances were quite the opposite – she had never been married. It was more ‘presentable’ to appear as such, they told her – oh couldn’t she quickly find someone, they asked of her. They told her that audience loved nothing more than a married woman singing about lost love – perhaps they would presume she was a widow and enjoy the absence even more. The awful absence of truth, like the absence she saw in every open eye, the cut, cut, cutting of the clock face in the corner, every dripping night -
As Mina stumbled up to the stage, she wondered what in the room was real – so many necessities ultimately unnecessary and extravagantly unreal. Humans covering up humanity – sex was taboo, and sweat masked with a scent close to collapse. Of course, humanity happened in private, but in public – these were people, models of excellence. Instigators of quality, who liked wine and cards and pretended to appreciate art.
At a table just next to the arc of the stage sat a middle-aged man with a wizened face fashionable at the time – indicating experience and the expectation of sincerity. His table was ornamented with a dish of empty oyster shells and several blank sheets of paper – one fast between his fingers as if he was inspecting the thickness. He breathed loudly beneath an age-old moustache.
‘’It would be the rocks which would kill her in the end…’ He mused, marking the motions of the words in the air with his free hand, somehow aiming his speech towards Mina with flickering fingers which fell through the air as if imitating a broken body, his words peculiarly spaced. They were resonant in her ears, as if individuals.
‘Excuse me?’ She managed, for she was shy in the social sense, sheepish and inelegant as she stood in front of him.
‘Aw, nothing, nothing,’ He continued, still apparently engaged in thought ‘Just an idea for my new work. I come here to write you know. I like the – ‘
He paused with an outstretched palm in the air.
‘Exhibitionism.’ He finished, almost triumphantly ‘Yes, that’s it. The exhibitionism. Nothing’s too real here, you could picture anything – '
‘Perhaps you should paint then,’ Mina managed by way of departure as she ascended the stage steps hurriedly, avoiding him – just another attempt at another failure, to create something, to make something. Whatever ‘something’ was, she was sure it existed by itself and that moment she was acutely aware that the management – whatever kind of conglomerate that was - which enjoyed the particulars of it’s times, giving the audience a certain act at a certain minute. She hurried.
When finally upon the stage she was always confronted with the same simmering nausea which tripped the end of her nerves, almost familial with an agonizing regularity, as she gazed down from her elevation into a sea of painted faces beneath painted lights – ladies in their brocade finery, men assembled as if peeled from packaging with pins and ties and buttons to press them together. Indeed, the whole room seemed suddenly tense with the need to retain composure. It was the same every time she stood onto the stage, staring down at those cold, hard faces, ugly, almost abstractedly formed heads, bringing time back to her, back to her… . Memories suddenly flooding of how, once, she had stood on a stage of her very own, eerily distant like a half-set dream, and how she had stared and stared at the tongues of water below. She thought so strongly that that was what ‘something’ was – it was ‘something’ to die when to live was empty. Absurd – how people searched life for it! She remembered standing, the wind slicing her sides as she knew it would be the rocks which would kill her in the end.
Not herself. No, she was not even permitted the identity of her own death, suicide– to ‘commit’ anything or even ‘commit to’ anything still had the connotations of crime. It had not ended, just as the singing never ended, and the dancing, and the made-up human assembly – they all dragged on as her feet had dragged her away from the cliff and back to the ‘home’ which meant nothing, and the layers of old love letters and the immediacy of cold water and all the other things people believe it necessary to live. For everyone says life must be composed of ‘something’…
It was with these thoughts, of the past, that she began to sing. She sang of heartbreak, of lost love. For she had lost love before, that was why it was so significant. Everyone wants to see the gaping wound, stand with staring eyes upon the still smarting flesh, the thickened rawness of the treble notes which everyone applauded as if eager to aggravate the injury. Her body was insignificant, her voice went on, a voice pierced with desire, how she yearned for the solace of human touch, how she had lost, how her thoughts became wild and time increasingly distinct, and drilled and drained her. Her heart coursed beneath her ribs, her mind looked on blankly, stared into the voice so rich and bloody. She shrilled the last few lines of the world not letting her love, or something like that, and stumbled quickly from the stage. The women in the audience sitting at the little glass tables inevitably with a dry Martini and a man’s hand firmly round their waist clapped ravenously– for how they loved to see someone without! It was a treat for them, the high-fliers, the lucky audience in the unfair trial. Flurry after flurry of hands in the awful velvet of the air, little lights of cut-diamond rings glinted sickly in the half-darkness.
‘She even cried!’ One of the ladies declared confidentially, affably to another, over the long steel finger of her cigarette holder.
But Mina could hardly recall what she had done – all she wanted was the horrible cold confirmation of money in her hand and the absence so many waited for – sleep. Her feet seemed to unfurl with every step like a thick human weight between the hardened rain of female glances and bodies passing each other non-committal and cold in the night. Just as she was down from the stage, rustling and dragging like a bird caught with a bullet – a young man approached her, emerging from somewhere on the left with an excited step.
‘You were really swell!’ He gushed, though the flush of amiability in that young face and the composure of his neat hands hurt her. A touch she would never know, a voice she may hear in one singular instant and then only ever in memory – for she was used to people becoming immaterial before her, coming, going, no true meaning. Dark hair and piercing eyes framed her.
He leaned closer, as if in confidence – always and ever-assumed - so she felt the dry heat of his breath against her cool neck like the pressure of fine jewellery on an open throat. His hands were moving closer.
‘Let me buy you a drink. You know, you were really something.’
She knew herself as nothing. She shook her head with the precision of an oft-performed action.
‘No,’ she replied, quickly, deliberately ‘If I was something, they wouldn’t applaud like that.’
He looked at her questioningly.
‘People would rather see someone with nothing than with something, otherwise they don’t see someone anymore.’ She hurried, adjusting the shoulders of her dress as she spoke ‘Audiences like absence – it’s humanity they don’t have.’
She glanced round emphatically at the piles of coloured crêpe and napkins and balloons - their torturous hues glowering as if attempting to make up for their emptiness. Mouths open and empty, and in an attempt to fill them – bowls empty, glass empty, a horrid human emptiness shrieking over and over…
‘I’ve got to go,’ She muttered, by way of departure. Every explanation was accompanied with departure.
She felt the clammy fingers of exhaustion around each wrist, easing deliberately behind the lid of each eye, her whole head. For she was heavy, as if swollen with monotony and inevitably of another day, pulling the stones of attempt for human contentment, jagged, desperate -
The rocks which would kill her in the end.