Jessica Bartlett-Barker (Melbourne University, Australia)
A fog of pink engulfs my sight and I’m left alone, with the whiff of sweat, hairspray and stale strawberries. The fog evaporates to reveal my reflection, glamorised by artificial lights. Dabbing my eyelashes with mascara I sigh in relief and annoyance.
‘Ugh, I look like a panda,’ I whisper, hoping that no one hears me. I am just about to turn my lips the reddest of red when an elbow digs into my spine.
‘Sorry, Gorgeous,’ Coco yells before heading to her chair.
‘It’s Scarlett’, I mumble, desperately wanting to shout it out but I know I can’t. Maria gives me a light tap with her black high heel. She always does it whenever I’ve said something wrong. I go back to fixing my lips.
Ryan calls out ‘All right girls, this is it. Minnie, Heather and Lola are up first. Coco and Maria are second, and Gorgeous is the final act. It’s just a light show tonight, so you can leave early.’
He touches my shoulder, ‘You look gorgeous as always,’ he whispers in my ear and with a tight squeeze he walks away. I sigh as Maria puts on her leopard ears to match her leopard-print dress and tail. ‘And he’s supposed to be gay,’ she says smiling.
‘It’s always the same,’ I say; ‘I’m the favourite doll because I’m the owner’s niece. It doesn’t matter who the guy is. They think I’m someone to play with every night.’
‘Honey, only an idiot would call you anything but Gorgeous,’ she says, brushing her hair over her shoulder.
‘Don’t call me that, you know I hate that word. It’s a man’s word; they only care about how women look.’
‘I know, Honey, but you know what I always say.’ I heave a sigh and repeat after her, ‘Be grateful for your looks because that’s all anyone really cares about in this world.’I’m given a whack to the ear.
‘That hurt! I just want to believe there’s at least one man out there who thinks that looks aren’t everything.’
‘Honey, you’re dreaming the impossible,’ Maria rises from her chair and pats me on the head, then she walks over to Ryan.
I stare at the woman in the mirror. Her hair is as red as her lips, her eyes are emerald and she’s wearing a dress two sizes too small. I blink away the tears, but I can’t blame them for appearing. This gorgeous woman that looks thirty is a nineteen-year-old girl. With a sigh I stand up and watch as feathers, tails and limbs dance on the dyed blue stage. Even though there are only five girls tonight, there is an ocean of heads.
Coco and Maria appear for their yin and yang number; wearing Chinese dresses. The only reason this place is bearable is because we keep our clothes on, although I’ve heard that the owner, my Uncle Scott, wants to change the rule. Hopefully he won’t include me in his idea.
‘Okay, five minutes and then you can sing your head off, Gorgeous,’ Ryan says, ticking something on his clipboard. Coco and Maria create an elegant pose side by side, ending with a heartbeat of silence. Once the crowd begins to applaud and whistle their approval the curtain falls. Ryan rushes me onto the stage and a big mike is placed in front of me. The curtain slowly begins to rise, and I sing ‘I want to make love to you.’
I take a deep breath and start, ‘I don’t want you to be no slave… I don’t want you to work all day… but I want you to be true… and I just wanna make love to you… ’
A fresh whiff of mint hits my nose and I’m able to relax. ‘Aunty Sam’s’ is my favourite place for breakfast and despite the cold, metal chairs and steel table are outside in the sun. I’m soaking in the sunshine.
Sam comes out with her cinnamon bun hair and flour covered clothes. ‘Okay, here’s your bagel and salad.’
‘Thank you, Sam,’ I say after I sip a bit of my tea.
‘Anytime Scarlett,’ she adds with a smile and heads back to the kitchen. The tiny acidic smell is incredibly enticing.
I look around at the other customers who are enjoying the morning sun just like me. A few couples are drinking a cup of coffee together or having breakfast. A woman even brought her Tri-Blue Collie. However, my body grows still as I notice an older guy staring; he doesn’t hide or seem to care that I’ve caught him. They’re all the same…
I turn away to find a girl in the window; my reflection is normal for once. My curly hair and make-up free face is annoyed.
‘Why are there so many creeps around,’ I mumble, stabbing at a cherry tomato when I’m shoved into the window. My head smacks into the glass, causing it to vibrate.
‘Ouch! What are you doing?’ I yell, rubbing my forehead.
‘I’m so sorry,’ a voice says, and a boy immediately jumps up; watching me with worried brown eyes. I’m surprised by the soft roundness of his cheeks and the brightness in his eyes. No lust, no anger just a pure, worried look; reminding me of a dog. What are those dogs called? Golden Retrievers!! Even his hair is the same colour as their fur.
Another boy chuckles behind him, ‘Ha-ha, that’s one way to catch a girl’s attention Mike! Can’t believe you pushed her.’
Mike gives his friend a dirty look, ‘Not funny Cole… ’
He reaches out and I flinch as he brushes his thumb over my forehead. ‘Doesn’t look good,’ he mumbles, and I brush my own finger over the same spot, wincing from the pain. He continues, ‘There’s already a bruise forming, I’ll get you something cold for it.’He heads inside to buy whatever, and I pick up my hand mirror. A bruise is just above my eyebrow.
‘Oh, Ryan is going to be pissed… ’ I groan; remembering last night.
After my song was over, I could hear all the wolves in the crowds howling with approval and yelling, ‘Take it off!!’ and, ‘Don’t be a tease!’ Uncle Scott groped my butt as he commented about the great night. My stomach churns at the memory and the traitorous tears begin to flow.
An icy kiss sends shivers down my spine, and I snap back to the present. The icy kiss was a cold bottle of water.
‘Hey, come on, don’t cry,’ Mike says, ‘hopefully this will stop the swelling,’ he places the bottle back against my head. He smiles, and my cheeks start to burn.
‘Thank you, I’m okay now,’ I push his hand away, uncomfortable. Scratching my chair along the ground as well, I try to calm down.
‘Do you have a name?’
‘Um, Scarlett… ’ I pick up my bag and start to leave when a hand grabs my arm. I look over my shoulder and see Mike frowning.
‘I’m sorry but I need to get to work,’ I brush his hand away and without a second thought I head back to the club. Uncle Scott will kill me if I’m late. It’s supposed to be a big night tonight; Uncle Scott wants everyone to be at rehearsal. I’m already exhausted at the thought of it all.
There are twelve girls in the cast and most of them do three different numbers a night. Uncle Scott has been ‘looking’ after me since my parents passed away. He was all smiles and kind words to the people working for the government. Even to the teachers and parents at school. However, he told me that I couldn’t go out and stay away from boys. ‘To be a good girl, you need to do homework and stay inside… ’ was what he always told me and when I grew tall and curvy, he got this club idea, focusing on a girl called ‘Gorgeous.’
I sigh as the club’s brick building and unlit sign is in front of me. Stepping inside I spot Uncle Scott and Ryan sitting at one of the tables, watching Coco and the Barbie girl, Lola doing a belly dance. I try to sneak past into the dressing room, but someone shouts, ‘Good Morning, Gorgeous!’ and Lola waves at me.
‘Gorgeous get over here!’ Uncle Scott says, and everything stops. In the silence I walk over to the stage and stand in front of him.
‘You’re five minutes late,’ he says, shaking his head.
‘Sorry… ’ I mumble and watch as his usual light brown eyes turn darker. My hands begin to shake as Ryan, who’s next to him, crosses his arms.
‘What happened to your head?’ Uncle Scott asks. His finger touches my forehead and I pull away.
‘It’s nothing… ’ I shrug my shoulders, trying to hide how stiff they are.
‘How could you be so careless?’ Uncle Scott says, ‘Ryan I’ll need you to take care of that before tonight. In the meantime, we need to talk.’
Ryan and I immediately say in unison, ‘Yes, Sir.’
‘Don’t call me Sir, Gorgeous. I’m your uncle. Come with me.’
‘Yes, Uncle.’ I follow him to his office. It’s much bigger than the dressing room. His big hand forces me to sit on a fluffy red couch and he sits in his chair, behind his desk.
‘Gorgeous, my girls are supposed to be flawless every single night. I can’t have them being so careless. I won’t fire you though, because you’re my niece.’ He gets up and pulls out Ryan’s collection of costumes from his closet. He sorts through corsets, tight dresses and things that I haven’t seen even Maria wear. He pulls out a skimpy, pink and black corset.
‘You’ll also be dancing with the other girls and singing ‘Lady Marmalade’ with Maria. I need you to wear something different from your normal outfits.’ He throws the garment at my face.
There’s a knock at the door and Ryan walks in with a first aid kit. Uncle Scott steps aside as Ryan inspects the damage on my forehead.
‘You should be thanking me for this,’ Ryan mutters, and applies something cold to the bruise. I crunch the corset between my fingers; feeling the heat in my face.
‘I can’t wear this tonight,’ I whisper.
Uncle Scott’s finger lifts my chin up to the ceiling.
‘Gorgeous be a good girl! You want to find another job, right? I don’t mind but if you won’t wear this I’ll have to think of something else… ’
Uncle Scott places his hand on my thigh. Memories of the dark, busy hands and cruel laughter rush into my head. I instantly push his hand away, ‘I’ll wear it… ’
Ryan takes the corset off me and pulls me out of the office. We head to the dressing room, cramped with more costumes, mirrors and tables. It isn’t any different to my bedroom upstairs. I trip over one of the footstools as Ryan sits me down.
‘Strip,’ he demands, turning his back but as I lift my top up, he appears again. Grasping my wrist, he scolds down at my stomach. A mirror shows another bruise forming on my side.
I force myself into the corset along with black gloves, heels and a fluffy garter to match. Ryan colours my face with blush and mascara as I watch each girl leave to do their number. Two flamingos dance on the stage as Ryan finishes.
‘You look perfect tonight, Honey. I’m so excited!’ Maria says.
I nod not wanting them to see me cry. I spot my reflection and almost can’t recognise myself. My face and costume glitter in the light and my usual waves have become ringlets. However, the bruise on my forehead is bigger.
‘Okay you two go on.’ Ryan pushes us towards the stage and Maria clamps her hand around mine. We stand on a dark stage and watch the curtain rise. A crowd of howling wolves greet us. I sing my duet with Maria while the other girls swing their hips and move their feet just as they are taught. I glance towards Uncle Scott who is by the bar and he waves. The girls flow along the stage as I continue to sing, “Giuchie, Giuchie, ya ya dada.”
‘This can’t get any worse,’ I quickly mumble during Maria’s turn; it’s humiliating. My eyes shift to a pair of brown eyes. Oh my God! It’s Mike and he’s as red as a tomato. My cheeks begin to burn as well, in complete shock. I can’t believe that he’s here. His friend, Cole, elbows him in the ribs and he smiles.
‘I thought you were different… ’ I mumble, frozen.
‘Gorgeous, what are you doing?’ I turn around to find Lola. I push her away, but more eyes are watching me including Mike’s.
‘No!’ I yell and run over to the exit sign.
‘Gorgeous!’ Maria shrieks.
‘Get back here, Gorgeous!’ Uncle Scott demands, but I can’t. I guess, boys are the same as any man.
I shove my hips against the heavy door and stagger against the back-alley walls. Light flashes into my eyes as the door creaks open. Someone’s coming… Despite the stupid corset pinching me I run, the heavy wind whipping my hair across my face. In my high heels I push to go as fast as I can but, I stumble and kiss the footpath.
Pain shoots up my side. I place a hand where it hurts and force my arm and legs to move. However, my lips touch the hard ground again and more pain shoots up my spine. ‘Click,’ ‘click,’ ‘click.’ My body stiffens as footsteps grow louder, then stop.
Jessica Bartlett-Barker, 22, is currently a student at University of Melbourne. She is studying a Masters in creative writing, editing and publishing. This is her first time submitting a story but she has been writing since she was twelve. She has many stories in the works at the moment, a novel almost completed and two more planned this year.