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“Faded Feathers”

By Stephen James

 Innocent feathers… pretty to look at, soft to touch, but hard to fathom. We all have said or done things we are probably not prepared to brag too much about. The strength of the human mind to retain explicit details of our high and our low points is truly amazing. Offloading the truth to others — as well as forgiving them when they reciprocate can be a rewarding redemption. Let us see what happens to this individual.

 

Beverly Martin sat in her front parlour; hot midday sun streaming through the threadbare curtains. There was nothing remarkable about her appearance, she just looked like any lady you might meet of her elderly years… but Beverly’s past holds a dark secret! She smiles through her wrinkled mouth, as she looks in the far corner where a hideous blue vase was sitting with some faded old feathers propped up, in no specific arrangement. Her mind began to wind back the clock…

A well-proportioned girl, just turning twenty years walks into the Grace with Lace Burlesque Nightclub, located in Sydney’s Rocks District. It was 9.30 pm. A clear view of the famous lit-up harbour bridge, from its old Sydney town surrounds, gave the popular watering-hole a romantic backdrop, extending into the early hours of each morning. It wasn’t sleazy, having a good honest reputation with a variety of local clientele, as well as a strong influx of once-a-year customers who came from all over Australia to feast on the scantily-clad high-quality dancers. The year was 1961. Leggy Beverly had learned to dance the new-vogue style of jazz-ballet — currently sweeping the nation on the heels of the movies and theatre productions about jazz-dancer Gwen Verdon, and the infamous Bob Fosse. After school dance lessons, paid for by her Auntie Molly, drilled her technique and flexibility into a master-class level. She was a natural and felt a shoo-in for the position she had read an ad for in the 17th October Sydney Morning Herald’s classifieds. Young Beverly had only had one previous boyfriend, whom, as was fitting for the era, she had refused to allow past second base — hand-holding and kissing. Aunt Molly had shown her some sexy manoeuvres, and besides, the advertisement had clearly said; performance training would be provided. She entered, paying the five-shilling cover charge.

“Do you know where I can find Wally Luciano?” the girl politely inquired of the stout barman, nervously twirling her sooty-black hair whilst speaking.

He looked her up and down, as if she was a prime cut of beef, stalling before he answered. “I may know where to find ‘im, lovie,” rolled out the side of his mouth. “Course, it’ll cost ya!”

Beverly eyeballed his facial stubble and clutched the top of her old-fashioned Charleston dress’s straps to force a better cleavage. The hand-me-down from her aunt was all she had outside of linen-factory clothes, which is where she’d spent her post-school years. “I don’t have any money. That is why I’m here,” she said, forcing an older-womanish pout.

He laughed. “Just kidding, toots, I know why you’re ‘ere—” then pointed with the white tea towel he was using to clean some glasses. “The boss is right through that door.”

Beverly’s plump full lips parted again, their preceding smile dazzling the barman. “Thank you very much indeed, my handsome friend.” She sashayed off like a Greek Goddess.

After an hour-long interview, apparently, Wally must have liked what he saw — she got the job. “Start on Friday night but be here for tuition tomorrow, at 8.00 am sharp. Clarise will help you to get started — she’s been my number one girl for seven years now. Do as she says, okay? Ten pounds fifteen shillings a week and you keep half of your tips. Split them equally with the bar staff. Is that clear?” The handsome Italian hotel owner winking at her to seal their salutation.

“As crystal,” she nodded back.

Beverly was an honest girl who knew what hard work was all about. The bawdy burlesque outfits did not faze her one iota. Her shapely body, enhanced by the colourful lacey negligees and suspender-belts sent the men wild. They screamed for topless — so, she obliged. The talented dancer utilised the glamorous showgirl feathers and boas cleverly, to tease the onlookers. It wasn’t long before she became the crowd favourite, soon having to accommodate encore after encore. She donned the stage-name of; Cleo the Temptress Jewel of Denial, often wearing Egyptian-flavoured outfits. With her stunning black hair cut in pageboy style, Beverly was at the doorstep of a huge career. Her kicks were high. Her tips were hefty. Her physique grew strong…

As the baton became passed on, then so was the sexual relationship between her and Wally Luciano, who had grieved for only one month after the sad passing of Clarise. Discovered in her dressing room only minutes prior to taking the stage, Clarise’s cold limp figure clutched desperately to his photograph. One grace-saving fact was that the forty-year-old mentor had absolutely no knowledge of Beverly and Wally’s six-month-old affair. The Sydney police suspected Luciano of foul play — but a thorough investigation yielded no abetting evidence, therefore, no charges were laid.

The parlour-sitting old lady had a vivid memory of those blossoming years, under the guiding hand of Clarise. She stared at the drooping feathers that had helped launch her career, their memory lurking boldly in the chronicles of her mind. They had been kept for nostalgic reasons. A tear wept from the sides of her wrinkly hazel eyes, upon recalling Clarise’s strong husky voice, still barking tuitional instructions to her the day before. She wiped the tears away to continue reminiscing…

As the years progressed, Beverly introduced singing to her shows. Blessed with a near-perfect soprano tone and a sharp memory for lyrics to match, the curvy twenty-five-year-old soon outgrew Wally’s Grace with Lace Burlesque Nightclub. He begged her not to leave.

“Please, Bev darling, I’ll pay you anything you ask… don’t quit the show. I don’t have anyone else like you to draw those crowds in. My club will go under without you. I beg of you, stay with me?” he was on his knees. “Don’t you remember who gave you your start?  Marry me, please?”

Her mind was made up. “Sure, you did Wally, and I’m grateful to you. But this is not about the money,” she lied. “This place is too small and I have a public who needs me… you wouldn’t want to hold me back, now. Would you?”

His voice quivered. “But what about us?”

“There is no US!” she laughed. “Show-biz is show-biz, and we are all simply pawns in the game. You of all people should know that!” Her eyes locked in an accusatory fashion with his.

“I didn’t kill her!” he bleated back.

“I believe you! But this is good-bye Wally and thanks for everything.” She took her Marseille woven clutch bag and her favourite feathers and left.

Beverly had already accepted an offer from The Majestic Theatre Company of Sydney. She was to commence in the chorus line, with an occasional support-singer/dancer role — knowing that it wouldn’t be very long before the cracks of opportunity would open for her. And, they did…

The scanty underwear gave way to grand costumes. The expert stage productions were highly professional, with a full orchestra and state-of-the-art lighting. The months leapt by in Springbok-like fashion and along with them, her talents did not cease there. Oh no, her promiscuous prowess percolated through the years, delivering a string of co-starring roles, in the wake of a dozen broken-hearted producers and leading men. Beverly never quite achieved the top-billing, which her ego truly believed she so richly deserved. Until she began an affair with Hugo Michaelson. This multi-talented musical arranger had sat in the audience of one of her shows during the cold winter of 1972. He was awed by her looks and melodious capacity and flabbergasted at the fact that she was yet to score a showcasing role. Fifty-one-year-old Hugo met her in her dressing room after the performance.

After formal introductions, he eagerly said, “Miss Martin, I have written, produced and choreographed a brand new major musical called ‘De la Peña… Genius of the Floor’.” Michaelson grinned with pride, before continuing. “It is about the life and times of the legendary South American performer George De la Peña and I would like you to play the leading role of his ballerina wife, Rebecca Wright. You would be perfect for the role.”

“I’m significantly more than just interested, Hugo,” she replied with a single nod, uncrossing her legs to sit forward. “Who is starring as Mr De la Peña?”

“That will be Lincoln Kirov. You will both have an understudy to work with, naturally.” Kirov was a titan of the theatre and needed no explanation. The man’s credentials were more impeccable than his Giorgio Amani suits.

“Naturally!” Beverly agreed, with spark in her voice, having been an understudy on numerous occasions, but having never had one herself. “And whom might they be?”

“Lincoln’s is Jeffery Abercrombie. Always has been. He knows Kirov’s work like a shadow. And yours will be Juliet Thallon… she was originally going to co-star.” Hugo’s eyebrows shot up. “That is until I saw you.”

“Is it being performed in the Majestic?”

“Certainly, Miss Martin. We are opening here in six weeks, then travelling the entire country for two years. The best theatres in every city. Last show is at Bennelong Point.” He folded his arms and smiled. “So, will you sign a contract if I bring it here tomorrow night?”

Her hand shot out. “Let’s do it over a late dinner, after the show!”

He shook it. “Done!” His smile grew broader. “I’ll watch you again — just to make sure I have the right girl for the part… if so, I’ll join you here at the same time, okay?”

Beverly restrained her excitement, offering a bashful solitary nodding smile. Then, showed him the back of her door for the last time. A happy-dance followed. The subsequent day, after the contract was signed, their secret but full-blown love affair commenced in supersonic flight. Their secret, kept tighter than a movie-star’s complexion, saw them move around from hotel room to hotel room like a couple of spies. Hugo Michaelson was the musical genius in his family, however, his wife Margot was his wallet. She had the family money of her late father, which had been responsible for putting him there. She was also his accountant. If she ever found out, he would be finished. The production became a box-office success, mainly due to Lincoln Kirov’s billing, which bolstered beautifully with Beverly Martin’s encouraging recitals. Her beautiful black tresses returned to the middle of her back and were on full display. Now comfortably in her thirties, party-animal Beverly spent her money like it flowed from the perpetual fountain of youth. She was travelling the country in style but as a concubine, and it did bother her…

One night after making love she offered… “Why don’t you leave Margot? You and I could really become something. Why, with your talent and my panache, we are practically unstoppable!”

“You have mentioned this proposal many times before, Beverly dear. But it isn’t quite that simple. She has me over a barrel. Things are complicated between us—”

Now kneeling on the bed, she barked. “For Christ’s sakes, Hugo! You told me yourself, that you don’t love her anymore!” Her hands found her hips. A scowl found her face. Anger filled her brain.

“Beverly honey, it is difficult—”

“Difficulties are made to be overcome! This is bull-shit! What am I? Your wife-to-be! Your convenience! Your lover… or your prostitute!” Fire blazed in the songstress’s teary hazel eyes.

He hadn’t seen her like this before. “Shhh dear, it’s nothing of the sort. Go to sleep. I’ll see myself out.”

“You bastard! I shall quit the show!” she seethed.

“If that’s the way you feel… Juliet can always do it!”

Beverly’s own words to Wally Luciano of; “Show-biz is show-biz, and we are all simply pawns in the game. You of all people should know that!” rang like a proverbial gong inside her head. She watched him quietly leave. The hotel door thudded, as a champagne bottle crashed against it.

In the weeks to follow, Juliet Thallon filled the role of Rebecca Wright admirably with five months on the road left, covering Brisbane and finally Canberra, before returning for one Grand Finale day of three sessions at The Sydney Opera House. On the eve of that day, a mysterious letter arrived at Margot Michaelson’s Sydney residence. It was not mysterious to Beverly because she wrote it. The letter was neither signed nor bore her name:

Dear Mrs Michaelson
     It pains me to write this. For the past few years, I have been conducting an illicit love   affair with your husband, Hugo. I realise this news will extremely distress you, however,     I believe you should know the truth. This is no fault of yours. It is with regret that I am writing to inform you as I now feel the need to clear my own conscience of what has been going on.
   He has told me on several occasions that he no longer loves you but does not have the courage to tell you, let alone leave you. The man is a mouse, although I do still love him and can’t help myself doing so. You don’t know who I am, but I have heard all about you.   I hope you can find a way to forgive me and try to understand. I am sure his own conscience is making him pay.
          A remorseful friend.

This nasty spiteful letter was simply to provoke a hornet’s nest into a frenzy.

After the Opera House curtain calls were accepted, on Saturday 23rd November 1974, Hugo returned to his dressing room for the final time. He had previously participated in a celebratory toast. His dead body was discovered by the security guards at 11.58 pm. They had been knocking for some time. Known as a man who required space to himself, they’d been slow to react. Once again, the investigation came up empty-handed. Unable to cope with the loss, Beverly disappeared into seclusion for forty-five years. Until now…

The fallen-from-grace entertainer, now nearing her eighties, leaned back against her favourite cushion, allowing the sun to bathe her face. Her re-cycled from old-bed-sheet curtains doing precious little to block out its rays. The thick layer of dust on the welfare accommodation’s window ledge resonating her soiled integrity. Beverly thought about the delicious drink made from Atropa Belladonna, that lethal but untraceable poison she had twice used for vengeance. How she’d drank a toast of wine with both victims, only hers contained added blackcurrant juice not the lethal toxic berries of Deadly Nightshade. With Clarise and Hugo’s murders weighing on her conscience, she was encouraging the grim reaper to take her to wherever it was that multi-murderers, such as herself, ended up. These two ugly heinous secrets, she would take with her. Beverly had been quite famous, even performing in front of Lady Isaac Isaacson and Sir Garfield Cuthbert-Allington. The wry smile on her face was a fake one, as she lifted the wineglass of Deadly Nightshade to her lips to draw the final sip. Beverly now realising her faded feathers merely represented lost love and a lonely life… instead of fame and fortune…