There are two things you can do while waiting for eyelash glue to dry: you can wonder what kind of wave to give the people in the glass-bottomed boat of mediocrity as the arc of your life crests under their little viewing window and disappears into the murk, or you can watch a drag queen fall from the sky into a cow field. That night, the last of my life, the latter interrupted the former.
(Wave: I would choose the Queen Elizabeth over the classic side-to-side.)
There she was, through the window, through the condensation-glass-frost. A drunken phoenix, tumbling; one moment suspended, the next the dull drop in the fur coat of flame. She was an earring punched off a cosmic Pat Butcher by an angry Big Mo. She glinted like glass in a red sun, though all around was black.
(I thought I might call her Splat Butcher, but she might have been dead. Soft Southern Poof and Splat Butcher, deceased. Now that was a double act.)
(Big Mo is Gary Oldman’s sister. I don’t know which of them is more horrified.)
Left foot stiletto, right foot flip flop, I cantered out of the house towards the field with a nauseating rise and fall, clack, flop, clack, flop. I should have worn click and flip. Symmetrical vowels. No, I should have worn click and clack or flip and flop. We can blame this, like so many things, on vodka cranberry. Thank God I’d brought it with me, even if it was in the Sports Direct mug with the broken handle.
Canter became gallop, clackflopclackflop. I held down my wig and tried to blink away the pain of the barely-glued eyelash that had drooped into my eyeball. I tumbled over the stile into the field. I did not spill my voddy.
(Hallelujah does not rhyme with Fallujah.)
(Halle Vodkacran Berry.)
I stopped to down the rest of my drink and set off again towards the cow-crowd surrounding the spot where I would find her. Affronted by their impromptu wakefulness, they ooñed their displeasure at the celestial missile in their midst.
(Cows do not say ‘moo.’ They say ‘ooñ.’)
The field was a knobby stretch of frozen mud and frozen leaves and frozen tufts and frozen pats, and I lumbered across it – a black Igor against a blacker sky. ‘Esmeralda,’ I groaned, and hummed a few bars of ‘Hellfire.’ Perhaps I would sing that as an encore later, I thought, if I’ve not been booed off.
And she was there at my feet: face-down on the mud, a woman with skin shimmering like soft pearl. She lay with her arms at her sides, legs out straight.
“You all right?” I said. Perhaps she was a mannequin that had fallen from a stealth plane. I would have to tell the girls about this later.
“All right,” she said into the frosted earth, chewing a glutinous Russian accent, pitched low. She stood then, graceful and fragile, tall enough to appear pendant from the stars.
Her entire presence was one of silver and pearl, opal and ice, and glass. A long military coat, trimmed with fur, hung from wide shoulders. She wore a short, thin dress the colour of oyster shell beneath that, and long high-heeled boots to the thigh. On top of blown-black-glass hair perched an elaborate hat, consisting of a mirrored ball and four long metal rods. She glistened like fresh-fallen snow at twilight, and she was on the verge of translucence.
I had never felt such an envy. Whoever had put these clothes on this bitch had an eye. It was both kitsch and elegant, campy and solemn. This was a queen to be reckoned with. If she can sing and dance it’s over for me, I thought, though I know now it was over the moment I met her.
(Over the moment.)
(Over the moon.)
“What are you doing out here, tinsel tits?” I said, mean-spirited and queenly. “Looked like you fell out of the sky. Private party on the moooooooñ, was it?”
She blinked slowly, as if that were an answer.
(Take a fucking fly to the moon, you doughnut.)
(Don’t be so curt.)
I was, frankly, beginning to freeze my little tits off and I was anxious to complete my metamorphosis from ugly boy to sultry wildwoman. “Well?” I said.
“Take me to the party,” she said.
She entered my room like a prospective buyer, inscrutably assessing everything she could see and touch. Kate Bush pulsed and danced in the air with the dry and spicy warmth of incense, wisps of smoke and melody on the highwire between lamps covered with thin scarves the colour of port wine and mustard. The room hummed with heady invitation, though the air was little warmer than outside.
(I’m not made of money.)
She pointed to my laptop, which lay open on my desk. I took this as a question. “Go ahead,” I said. Maybe she needed to tweet. It’s what I’d do if I’d just fallen from orbit.
Instead, she sat down and played the video I had left on screen. The scene was a famous one: Bette Davis says, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night,” and has a monochrome argument with Gary Merrill. I had spent all day editing clumsy homemade puppet hands into the scene, so that it played out like this:
(ii) Bette hands Gary her drink.
(iii) A closeup of a puppet hand trying to pass a martini to another puppet hand, only to drop the glass, knock over a spindly table and vase, get their strings tangled, and become detached at the shoulder.
(iv) Wide shot, Bette up the stairs, “Fasten your seatbelts…”
She watched in silence, then twice more. I couldn’t see her face, but she wasn’t laughing – not even on the inside, as far as I could tell.
If I hadn’t been wearing an inch of foundation, I’d have turned white. I had spent all day making the props and filming and editing the scene. I was going to use it in my show later as a new bit, but it wasn’t funny.
(I’ll have to do ‘Forrest Fire’ again.)
(Forrest Gump on fire.)
(Everyone else in the scene has Forest Whitaker’s face.)
(They are also on fire.)
She pressed play again. I had to explain. “Last night, I was watching old Thunderbirds episodes. Do you know Thunderbirds?”
She did not answer. She watched the clip again.
“They were all puppets, and they used to use closeups of real hands for anything fiddly.”
No answer. Replay.
“I was doing ket at the time, so I thought it would be funny to do the opposite. Of Thunderbirds, I mean. Do you like All About Eve?”
She sat at my desk with her back to me. She turned and met my eyes with her own. Something struck me in the chest; my body was a juddering gong, tolling its revulsion. A wave of unease swelled outwards from my heart, like a stone dropped in deep water.
She didn’t look like that before.
Her eyes, more widely spaced. Arched brows, heavy lids.
Her hair, a sweep and a cascade and a curl.
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” A perfect impression. Another strike, another judder, another wave, another stone.
“Excuse me,” I said, and I ran to my little bathroom and vomited into the sink.
She did not look like that before.
Old embarrassments axed their way through my bathroom door and I screamed at them inside my head: the time I impersonated Cher on stage and no one clapped, let alone laughed; the time I spent all my money on a Marilyn costume and sang ‘Happy Birthday’, only to watch the recording and see that I looked and sounded like Myra Hindley with a sore throat.
She was a mimic. That must be her act. But the face? Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe I saw Bette’s face on hers because I had been staring in horror at the shitty edit I’d made to the scene. Maybe it was the drink and the ket.
I went back into my room, and she was standing. Shimmering, silver, glassy. Not a hint of Bette in her face.
“I think it is very funny,” she said, Russian accent resumed. “You will use it in your show?”
“You didn’t laugh, though.”
“They will laugh. It is good.”
“I’m spooked, to be honest.”
“Let us drink.”
She remained still, giving as much indication as The Statue of Liberty that she was about to walk to my cabinet and pour us a cocktail.
“Vodka okay?” I said.
“Vodka. Cranberry juice.”
“You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste,” said Anthony Hopkins through her blank, silver mouth.
I poured the drinks with shaking hands. I did not look at her. “That’s incredible,” I said. “Is it your act? Are you on tonight? Did Tommy book you?” Tommy owned the club. I was a regular fixture, but he gave slots to queens from all over.
“Yes, I am on tonight.” She sat, and I handed her a glass.
“Chin chin,” I said. I drank. I drank all of it. “Do you have a name?”
“Oh, come on, Sputnikola. Really?”
(I was proud of that.)
“What is your name?”
“Soft Southern Poof,” I said. “They’re a bit hostile to the London queens up here. Thought I’d nip it in the bud. I used to be called Carmina Nomi Betterman, but no one got the joke, not even at Christmas. You can call me Poof, if you like. ‘All aboard the SS Poof,’ I say in my show. It’s become my catchphrase.”
This had a curious effect on her. She smiled, but I did not like it. She was uncanny. I had been swimming in shallows, but below me had passed a cliff edge to a silent deep, and, though I knew it was there, I dared not look down. I took a sip of my drink but found it empty. I poured another.
She felt inside her coat and produced a small plastic bag of something white. “You would like?”
“Would I? Wooooow,” I said, attempting Gary-Oldman-as-Mason-Verger, but not nearly well enough for a reaction.
She portioned out two lines and made a tube from a Post-it on my desk, on which I had written something unfunny. She passed it to me, and I snorted a line.
It wasn’t coke.
Its effect was instant and raw. I was suspended, like water in a popped balloon, the memory of its rubber skin prolonging its roundness for only the tiniest moment before the spill and the splash and the end. But the end didn’t come. The moment paused; I hung in the air and felt the imminence of my disintegration like a burn.
She came towards me and kissed me on the mouth. No, not a kiss, a taste. She was tasting me, and I felt her sucking. I thought about the lock on the bathroom door behind me, but I dared not move. I was liquid.
She stepped away from me and shoved me hard in the shoulder so that I turned as I crashed through the bathroom door behind me onto the stage at Tommy’s and there were lights and music and I was halfway through my set.
She sat in the back row, glowing, glittering.
“All aboard the SS—”
“—Poof,” I saw her say on stage, out of my own mouth with my own voice, from my position in the back row. She was silver still, but my own pink mouth was on her face. The club hushed and she moved with purpose, like a mime, to produce a silver music box from… from where? She beckoned us all to gather.
She opened the lid. I heard “Liebestraum” and I was inside the box looking up at the crowd. They were laughing with red-puffed, strangled faces, heaving-jerking-slapping like a merry hanging.
She was there with me inside the grey room inside the box.
“Many of your guests have been wondering when they may be permitted to view the body. Where has it been laid out?” She-Bill-Gary said.
“It hasn’t been laid out,” I-Margo-Bette said. “We haven’t finished with the embalming. As a matter of fact, you’re looking at it. The remains of Margo Channing. Sitting up. It is my last wish to be buried sitting up.”
“Wouldn’t you feel more natural taking a bow?”
I vomited into the toilet, on my knees in my bathroom. I wiped my eyes with monochrome hands and I was at Tommy’s and she was on stage with my mouth and Marilyn’s hair.
The crowd around the stage juddered away, like laughing mannequins on moveable boards on chains. A spotlight followed her onto the club floor. Silent.
“Happy birthday to you,” she sang in my own lousy Marilyn voice. Her coat grew shorter and paler and wrapped around her. Its wide shoulders slimmed to a white halter. She stalked towards me.
“Happy birthday to you.” Her face was changing. It was at once her own, mine, and Marilyn’s, competing signals on an old, broken television. Her silver hat was gone, and her boots slid down her legs to form small white heels. No longer translucent, she was the only solid thing in view as the wind whipped around me and I felt the frosted grass at my ankles and heard the low clink of cowbells.
“Happy birthday, Mr President.” She was close to me. I could not look away from her eyes. I was struck again and again in the chest, clattering like a gong, almost to shatter. A perfect Marilyn stood in front of me, but she had my eyes.
She gripped my wrists with searing hands, my own grey arms dull and dead against the burning life of hers. I was entirely grey. On my legs were long boots, and I felt a long grey coat billowing behind me. Four metal rods gripped my scalp.
“Happy birthday to you.” She finished in my voice, euphonious and certain in a way I had never achieved. She thrust my arms upwards. I floated up in screaming silence, away.
I looked down at her, but she did not look at me. She was saturated, encircled by a laughing crowd in blazing technicolor. They chanted my name at her, and I drifted up, away, through dark clouds, and they were gone.