Clara was sweating. This was most definitely sweat. Rivulets of moisture cascaded down her arms and back, aided by the ludicrously inappropriate travelling clothes she was still wearing. Growing up, her mother had always told her that ladies did not sweat, they perspired. No, that was wrong; horses sweat, gentlemen perspired, ladies glowed. That was it. Clara was glad her mother were not here to see she had transformed into a five foot horse. Ladies from Meltcham and the surrounding areas ideally should emit as few bodily fluids as humanly possible, especially in public. Clara had grown up trying her best to take up as little space on the planet as she could, and yet here she was flinging her arms wide, creating arcs of perspiration – no, sweat – that flew into the air out and away from her like so many colourless rainbows. At the very least, all this unexpected physical exertion was sobering her up. After the third time of running the dance routine, Clara began to realise it was she that was holding back the assembled cast. On the stage, spread out evenly as per Betty’s instructions, and all suitably attired in work-out gear, some with parts of their costume already employed, the throng of dancing girls she had encountered in the pokey little dressing room didn’t seem all that numerous after all. From her vantage point at the very back of the stage, almost entirely obscured by the feather fans of the other girls, she counted five dancers including herself. Not that Clara was any kind of dancer. Nevertheless, people were being generally polite, for now. Various interjections ranging from ‘You’ll get the hang of it.’ to ‘Who’s the dud with no left feet?’ had punctured the last, what was it, half an hour. More? The three-piece band included Troy of the ghostly trumpet strains – who was in fact the current drummer – and his grandfather Fingers, who must have been the oldest working musician in England and who never missed a beat – unlike Clara –, in spite of his playing an impressive array of wind instruments and being ninety if he was a day. At the baby grand was the band leader, a very slim, very tall and very calm man in his forties, Clara would guess, with sandy blonde hair which he was continually flicking out of his eyes, when he wasn’t pushing his small, round tortoiseshell glasses back up the bridge of his nose. The trio of musicians were boosted by something Betty referred to as ‘the track’, which offered recorded support from the sound desk. Operated by Willie, encased within a tiny little cupboard with a perspex window, the sound desk and its operator were situated the furthest point from Clara whilst still being in the auditorium, and looked out across the tiered tables and chairs, now clear of glasses, ashtrays and the general detritus of last night’s shows. If Clara could barely see Willie crammed within the sound booth like an over-stuffed armchair, Willie – replete with headphones – could most definitely see and hear everything going on on-stage, she was assured by a red-head in front of her who answered to the name of Lola.
Lola, Betty – who it turned out was ‘Betsy’ to her fans –, the erstwhile Kittie. Clara was beginning to realise why she might want to divorce herself from the name ‘Clara Pin’.
“Pardon me. Where are all the gentlemen?” She ventured to her new neighbour, convinced that male body parts had formed part of the dressing room throng earlier.
“The boys are the spesh acts. They don’t do the group numbers. Some of them won’t even be back by the time the show starts,” informed a gum-chewing Lola, whilst displaying an impressive set of back molars for the duration of her speech.
“Why ever not?” Clara felt sure this was a rather laissez faire attitude, in spite of her total lack of knowledge of the world of theatre in general and nightclub entertainment in particular. Lola treated her to a three-hundred and sixty degree tour of her mouth before slowly answering,
“‘Cos they’re performing in two or three other joints tonight, Toots. They’re where the money’s at.”
As well as Lola the redhead, she was flanked by a Fifi and a Ginger. Surely these were the sort of names one gave one’s pets? Didn’t Cook have a moggy called Ginger? Yes, a massive Tom Cat which her Grandmama’s Bichon Frise, Fifi, had detested! Perhaps Clara was dreaming all this? For the second time since entering this curious world, she began to feel like Alice. The pair Clara Pin now found herself sandwiched between seemed to share not just the animals’ names, but a similar rivalry too. Clara Pin. What a ridiculous specimen she must seem to these impossible beauties. Clara Pin was an ageing librarian with pince-nez and a bun. Clara Pin was a dowager aunt. Clara Pin was considering a sensible pair of ladies brogues. No! Those were the nightmares her parents foisted upon her. Those were the stings and jibes her gadabout brother Freddie laid at her door. ‘Well, look at your Clara Pin now, Freddie!’ Clara dared to think as she attempted a pirouette, lost her footing and fell into the drum kit.
“Careful not to injure yourself on your first day, Missy. It’s a marathon, not a sprint’. Troy gave her a wink as he kindly helped her to her feet.
“Betty, we’re getting close to our statutory break.” the sandy-haired band leader spoke up.
“Sandy’s right” agreed Betty, hands on her perfectly slender hips, encased in a wrap-around dress. So his name was Sandy too. But Ginger was not the red-head. This place!
“Statutory break?” boomed Quentin Treadwell “Statutory break!? Only from a muso would you hear such blasphemy!” He had been waiting for his entrance at the side of the stage for the past thirty minutes or more, but they had failed to make it as far into the routine as that. “Some of us have been working here!” He glowered in the general direction of the band, as if to suggest that their ability to play and sit down at the same time were somehow idleness on their part. Sandy held his hands up in surrender, having presumably been around long enough not to tangle with a crotchety Master of Ceremonies.
“Betty, why have I been dragged away from vital preparations for this evening to attend an unscheduled rehearsal, only to stand in the corner like a wilting Aspidistra dying of thirst?” The most petite of the showgirls took this as her cue and trotted over to the abandoned bar to fix her idol a drink. “Bless you for that Sukki my darling,” he demurred. Sukki? Oh, for heavens sake!
“Really, Betty, this is too much – the floor staff will be back to set up the tables in before long” continued Treadwell.
“Yeah, some of us have missed our dinner break for this” declared the gum-chewing Lola, pointedly.
Treadwell persisted “I really must insist on some form of resus.”
“Recess.” offered Sukki.
Betty, stood between the stage and the raised tiers of tables and chairs, clapped her hands with finality. “Alright, everybody take five. That’s five – not fifteen!’
Clara watched as people scattered in every direction – the band were slipping down a gap between the stage and the back wall to spaces unknown to the newcomer. Willie had vanished from the sound desk no sooner had Betty finished clapping. Quentin Treadwell and his lapdog Sukki had crossed the floor and gravitated towards the bar, swiftly slipping into the stock room beyond. Lola and Fifi were making for the dressing rooms now via the wide double doors which separated staff and clientele, whilst Ginger took advantage of the extra stage space and dropped into the splits, beginning an elaborate series of stretches that seemed to Clara to be both impossible and highly unnecessary. She thought of Cook’s cat once more, licking itself beside the Aga, daring you to object with its green glass eyes. Clara met Betty at the lip of the stage. “I’m terribly sorry. I am trying, honestly”
“It’s not your fault. You’re getting us out of a bind, here. Clearly you’re more suited to comedy”
Clara’s eye twitched. “But can’t you take Ruthie’s place in the opening number? I don’t think I…”
“I’ve got a solo routine in a totally different costume immediately afterwards. It’s the only way the running order works. We’re limited to how much we can change without mucking up the spesh acts appearances in other venues across town.”
“Yes, of course. The spesh acts.” Clara nodded sagely, trying to sound as if this was not her first time in a cabaret club, let alone on a stage of any kind.
“You do understand that tonight is an important event for us? Old Ma Lewis is in.” Continued Betty.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Old Ma Lewis is the owner of this place.
“I thought you said Quentin was the boss?”
“Lewis is a very hands-off owner. The money. We only ever see her when there’s a problem.”
“Oh my. But what could possibly be wrong?”
“A long-running show like this doesn’t get reviews any longer unless there’s a major shake-up of cast or a refurbishment, and we have had either for a decade at least.”
“I should imagine Mr Treadwell commands his fair share of attention from the press, after thirty years?”asked a wide-eyed Clara.
Betty tinkled her tinkling bell laugh for the longest period Clara had witnessed yet, before declaring flatly, “No.”
“I see. So it’s money.” deduced Clara.
“It’s money.” agreed Betty.
Just as Betty seemed about to say more, Lola the gum-chewer flew through the double-doors leading to the dressing rooms, a look of panic in her usually doe-like eyes.
“Betty, you’ve got to come, quickly. It’s Ruthie.” she insisted.
“Not again!” sighed Betty, “Do we need the Lucozade?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” said Lola, deadpan. “She’s dead.”

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