Monday, 18 November 2013

Where's Laura?


Glee has wrecked school drama societies if you ask me. In the Eighties, the drama group was a complete mystery to everyone, except the ones in it. Nobody knew what they did, who they were, or what was involved, except that they were the super nerds of the nerd universe.

In my mind, I was a superstar waiting to blossom into utter fabulousness, darling, the reality was much duller. I was a tall, stringy girl, as straight as a beanpole, with wire-rim glasses and hopeless taste in fashion. I dreamed of performing on stage, but sadly I possessed the most terrible voice, even I knew it was horrendous. On the first day of High School, societies set out their stalls to entice freshmen to join their ranks. The queue for the drama society was by far the smallest. Even so, the gang of giggling drama Nazis sitting behind the table, eyed me with utter disdain.

"Name," said the one in the middle with the perfect make-up and professionally styled hair, which looked ridiculous on a sixteen year old.

"Sally Ann Farmer," I said, handing over my pre-filled application form.

"You know, you actually look like a farmer," said Miss Middle America, causing her bookend groupies to stifle mock gales of giggles. She plucked my form off the table using her finger nails, her pinky finger cocked high as if it were a bag full of dog dodo.  As she read down the page, she made a decidedly unimpressed litany of uhmms and ahaas.

 "So you want to be in the chorus line, what's your singing voice like?" she asked in a terse manner.

"I'm not much of a singer, I'd be fine with speaking parts."

"Our group is primarily concerned with musical productions, all speaking parts would be main roles, and all would be required to sing. Sing something now," commanded the hard faced beauty queen.

"What, here?" I said, looking round at the milling students signing up for other societies.

"Well if you can’t sing here, how will ever manage on stage?" chirped in left bookend girl.

"Exactly," added right bookend girl, not wanting to be left out.

"I can't," I whispered, going red, right down to my toenails.

"Then the stage is no place for you," said blondie, stabbing my dream in it's heart, with her pitiless eyes and icy words. 
"But, we're always looking for stage crew," said blondie, with a sniff.  That was how I became one half of our school drama costume department, the other half being the lovely Laura.




***



Laura was a strikingly beautiful girl, but she did everything she could to hide it. She draped herself in oversized dungarees: huge knitted jumpers, glasses far too big for her face, and always some kind of floppy hat or other, pulled down over her face. She seemed determined to cover every possible inch of skin, leaving just those blue pools of innocence beaming from a frame of auburn curls. The other reason Laura went unnoticed was her near complete silence. Laura had a little stutter, which got worse when she was nervous. In the end, Laura preferred to say nothing at all, she was so quiet, you would not even realise she was in the room, until she materialised in front of you with her angelic smile.



Most people failed to notice Laura's grace, but it wasn't lost on Sarah Callaghan, the very same blond tyrant that had snuffed out my artistic dreams with one cutting remark. Sarah was the leading lady, in everything. Mrs Wiscon was the school drama teacher, but Sarah was the one pulling all the strings, and she had an extra nasty part of her black and withered heart reserved specificity for torturing Laura.  She'd deliberately crumple costumes, rip seams, throw things all over the place, but mainly she was just down right spiteful. She would yell at the top of her voice, "Where's Lalalalala-Laura," something her troop of evil minions found side-splittingly funny. Any lesser girl would have snapped and slugged her, but Laura just let the abuse wash over her, seemingly oblivious to it. Only her eyes betrayed the lie as they glistened with tears.



Rehearsals were ramping up, in preparation for the Christmas show. Try as we might, Laura and I just couldn't keep up with everything, so we often stayed behind to finish up, after the rest of the cast had gone home for the evening. Today had been a full dress rehearsal, and the opening night was just days away. Laura and I were left with a blizzard of costumes to iron, press, mend, and steam. Everyone else had vanished in a whirlwind of air kisses, hours ago. It was nearly dark when I said good night to Laura, leaving her ironing one last shirt in the costume room. She smiled, and waved as I left, banging the fire exit door leading directly out of the dressing rooms behind me. I was outside the school gates when I remembered, I had left the Sarah's finale costume, steaming in the dress bag. It would be in tatters if I left it all night, there was no choice, I had to go back. 

I just caught the janitor as he was locking up the main doors, he let me into the auditorium, but all the lights were off. I had to feel my way through the cavernous room, edging closer towards the stage. As I pushed open the door to the dressing room corridor, I could hear a hum coming from the costume room. As I got closer, the hum transformed into the most wonderful singing I've ever heard.  I inched closer, it couldn't have been Sarah, she wasn't that good, in fact, none of the cast were this good.

I peeked around the costume room door, but the room was empty. On the ironing-board, the cooling iron stood on its end, steam gently swirling upwards from its ticking hotplate. The wonderful melody filled the room, seeming to be everywhere at once. I tip-toed in, afraid to make a sound, for fear of breaking the spell. The singing came from a big wicker hamper, we used to store costumes between shows. It had to be Laura, sitting in the box with the lid closed, singing, who else could it be? But could it be her?

"Is that you singing, Sally Ann," boomed Mrs Wiscon's voice from behind me. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and the singing stopped at the exact same time.

"Jesus, Mrs Wiscon, you scared me," I said, clutching my racing heart.

"Don’t take the Lord's name, young lady," scolded Mrs Wiscon, "but that singing was amazing, why didn't you tell me you could sing like that."

"I can't Mrs Wiscon, honest," I said, telling the truth.

"Of course you can, I just heard you. If it wasn't you, who was it then?" she said, waving her arms about her, to the clearly empty room. I heard a near silent "no" come from the basket beside my legs.

"I can't sing when people are watching me, I get nervous," I said.

"Don't be such a Silly Billy, its only me," she said, getting a little cross.

"Please, Mrs Wiscon, I can't."

"You can, and you will, young lady," she said, her tone stern.

After a long pause, and a little time to think, I said, "Okay, will you just stand outside the door, and I'll try."

Mrs Wiscon gave me a look, but did indeed step out into the corridor. I stooped very quickly and whispered to the basket, "Laura, you better sing now, or we are both in trouble, and your secret will be out in the open."

Several seconds of silence followed, then the first words of "Bring in the clowns" came dancing from the wicker basket. The song was perfect, in every way: each note crystal clear, every tone rich, but more remarkably, every single word clear and without a hint of stutter. When the song was nearly finished, Mrs Wiscon appeared at the door, I hid my mouth behind my hands, and tapped the basket with my shoe, silencing Laura in perfect time. Mrs Wiscon cheeks were glistening with tears as she rushed at me, throwing her arms around me, crushing me to her heaving breasts.


"You’re a miracle, child. A miracle," she half sobbed, half laughed, into my wiry hair.

"I'm not, and that's the truth," I said, but my words were muffled, and she was beyond listening. She babbled on and on about, a star is born, and diamonds on a beach of sand, as well as other such rubbish. The thing is, she was right, she just had the wrong diamond. I'm ashamed to say, I wanted it to be me, I wanted this reaction, this love to be showered on me.

"You must come to my office in the morning, we'll talk about what part you'll play in the show, this weekend. I know, we have had no time to rehearse, but that will make it all the better, such a surprise."

Somehow, I ended up nodding as she left the costume room, blowing kisses as she went. Once the emergency door slammed, I flipped the lid off the wicker basket. Laura stared at me with huge eyes. She was wearing a Snow White costume, her hands clasped to her chest, and she looked a vision. I dove into the basket, giving her the most enormous hug, "Why didn't you tell me you could sing like that?"

"I can only do it bbb-by myself," she said, echoing the lie I told Mrs Wiscon.

"But you did it when you knew me and Mrs Wiscon could hear you?" 

"Yy-you couldn't see mm-me, and ss-she did not know it was mm-me," Laura said.

"We'll have to figure some way out of this mess," I said. We sat in the bottom of the hamper, excited and terrified, without the faintest idea what to do.




***






The next day, I sat in Mrs Wiscon office, and tried one more time to get her to forget the whole idea.

"Honestly, Mrs Wiscon, you don't know how terrifying getting up in front of all those people is for me!"

"Let me tell you, Sally Ann, if you only sing, one tenth as well as you did last night, you'll be the hit of the show. What's the worst that can happen? You forget the words, or freeze up. It happens all the time, trust me, Sally Ann, it will be fine." Had she no idea that forgetting the words, or freezing up, was like a death sentence to a high school girl. It looked like there was no way out of this, for either me, or Laura. Secretly I was glad she was so persistent. Deep inside I wanted to be on that stage, too feel the adoring eyes of the audience on my skin, and hear the thunder of their applause. I wanted to feel that just once in my life, and Laura was my secret weapon.

"Well, I wouldn't feel too bad, if I could sing through a veil, or something. So long as people can’t see me, I feel better," I said. Laura and I had discussed this last night, if we had to sing, she would do so from some place hidden, and I could try and mime along with her. Our biggest chance of being discovered, was if I missed some of the timing, then everyone would know it wasn't me singing.

"After that sad song last night, what about a widow, with a black dress and a widow's veil. That might work. We could bring down all the lights, just have one spot light on you,” Mrs Wiscon mused aloud. "Have you a song that you want to sing?" Mrs Wiscon asked.

"In the arms of an Angel, by Sarah McLoughlin," I said, it was Laura’s favourite, and one hell of a song, it would fit in perfect for what Mrs Wiscon had in mind.

Mrs Wiscon sat back in rapture, "That's a perfect song for your voice, perfect choice. We must keep this between ourselves, do you think you can pull it off without a rehearsal?"

“I'll give it my best shot," I said. "Do you think we could dress one of the costume hampers as a coffin?" I asked.

"That would be fine, but don't make it too maudlin. We don't want the parents getting the hebigies, do we?"



Laura was waiting outside the door for me, we walked together in silence until we were alone. The poor girl was nearly bouncing with anticipation, waiting to find out what had happened. When we reached the costume room, she blurted, “Wwww-what did she say?” Her eyes were huge, and terrified, under today’s hat selection.

“She said we – I have to do it, I’m sorry Laura. I tried to talk her out of it,” I half lied. Her tears began to flow as the reality of the situation dawned on Laura. For the first time, I saw just how vulnerable this girl was, but she was the key to fulfilling my one and only dream. Just once I wanted to stand on that stage, and have the whole world love me. Was that too much to ask?

“I think I have a way of making this work," I said, taking Laura's elbows in my hands, making her look at me in the face. "Mrs Wiscon wants me to dress like a widow, which is great, because I'll have a veil and no one will be able to see my lips. But better still, I convinced her to let me dress the hamper as a coffin. You hide inside, then I can give you a signal when you should sing, and when to stop. It will work, I promise," I said, wrapping my arms around the sobbing girl.

“I cc-can’t go out ttt-there,” she said, pointing out the door, towards the stage.

“You can, sweetheart. It’s our only chance, or should I go back and tell Mrs Wiscon the truth.”

“NN-NO , Please,” Laura grabbed my arm, terrified that she would be made go on the stage herself. It was a nasty trick, but I had to play it. The tears came in floods now. I held her in my arms again, until she seemed all cried out.

“You can do it. One way or the other, I'll be right there with you, I know we'll get away with it,” I said, with as much compassion as I could get into my voice. From my shoulder, I heard a tiny “O-K”, and our fate was set.

***

The night of the performance arrived all too quickly. Mrs Wiscon was constantly fussing around, making sure I knew what I was to do, while trying to keep it from everyone else in the cast. The lead up to the performance was dominated by Sarah, faffing around, like the world depended on this show. She kept throwing tantrums, and saying how everyone was letting her down. I actually over heard her tell one of her minions, that she was carrying the whole cast on her back – wagon. Wait till she gets a load of the final song, I thought with an internal smirk. 

The curtain went up and everything was forgotten but the performance. The show was a raging success and the last act was It’s a hard knock life, from Annie. The whole cast were on stage, which gave me and Laura the chance to get into our positions. I gave Laura a huge hug as she got into the basket.
“I love you Laura, your amazing!” I had no intention of saying that, it just came out, because it was true. She smiled, and took the microphone Mrs Wiscon had given me. I had picked up another one earlier, one which was turned off. I covered the basket in the cloth we had made to make it look like a coffin, well kinda. I pushed the basket to the middle of the stage, behind the final backdrop, and waited. On stage the last part of the show climaxed, and the audience applauded, the cast took several bows, but were taken aback when Mrs Wiscon strode out to the middle of the stage. I watched it all through a rip in the backdrop. Mrs Wiscon raised her hand, and the applause died away.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you could bear with me for one more minute. We have a very special, last minute addition. I introduce to you, a first time performance by, Ms Sally Ann Farmer.”

Mrs Wiscon left the stage, shooing the bewildered cast before her. There was a scattering of polite applause from parents, who didn't appreciate the spot light being taken from their own little darlings. I could only imagine the worried look my own parents must be wearing, on hearing my name. I took a deep breath as the auditorium went pitch black, there was no turning back now. I heard the backdrop in front of me rustle upwards, the butterfly’s in my stomach went into overdrive. I bowed my head and felt the spotlight fall on me.


The music began very soft, only barely audible, but growing in volume. The atmosphere was magical, and the song was completely suited to the setting. I raised the fake mike to my veiled face, and gave the basket a gentle tap.  Even though I knew what was coming, I was still knocked sideways when Laura began to sing. A voice, hand-picked by God himself, enveloped the room. Not one person who sat in that darkened theatre, will ever forget the beauty of Laura’s voice. I was so captivated by her singing, I nearly forgot where I was. I could feel every heartache she had suffered, every frustration and disappointment of her life, poured into the words of her song. As if in a dream, I walked to the front of the stage, moving my arm and making the gestures we had practised in the dark recesses of the costume room. Something terrible happened, as I looked at the amazed faces gazing at me, I realised that none of this was for me.

How could I steal this magical moment, from a girl that never once asked for anything, but deserved so very much. I knew there was only one thing I could do, I lifted the veil, and lowered the microphone. I pressed my finger to my lips, in the gesture that every kid knows is, “Shussssh”. 

I felt the intake of breath from the whole audience, but the powerful song kept them silent. In the wings, I could see Mrs Wiscon plonk herself onto the nearest flight case, unable to believe what was happening before her eyes, and sadly I could see the delighted smile on Sarah’s face. She must have thought I was lip sinking to a cd, they all must. In the end the song came to an end, and the lights come up. 

Not one hand clapped, not one sound was made, as two hundred faces stared in bewilderment at me. I turned my back to them all and threw the cover off the basket. When I opened the lid, Laura was curled into the corner, like a tiny abandoned kitten. I smiled at her and held out my hand. Thinking our trick had been found out, she started to cry silently, but she took my hand and climbed out of the basket. Laura stood beside me on stage, shaking from head to toe. We stood there in silence, looking at the bewildered crowd before us. I reached down and took the microphone from Laura's shaking hand. I put it to my lips and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, you have been listening to the wonderful, Laura.” My hand was shaking so much, I let the microphone fall to the floor.


It was like a dam had burst, everyone in the room stood and the applause was thunderous, nearly lifting the roof clear off the building. They cheered and shouted for more. In the wings, every member of the cast was hugging each other, with the notable exception of Sarah, who just stood with her mouth in a very unflattering O.


Beside me, Laura had stopped shaking, but was clearly in shock. She stared, and stared, and stared. After a full minute of a standing ovation, I took Laura by the hand, leading her toward the wings. Waiting there were her friends, many of which may not have been friends before, but they sure were now. Just before we reached the curtain, I felt Laura’s hand pull out of mine. She stood rooted to the spot, still on the edge of the spotlight. She turned back, and slowly walked to the middle of the stage. The applause died away, as this little weird girl, who had sung so wonderfully, stood stoic in the middle of the single circle of light. When the room was silent again, Laura stooped down and picked up the dropped microphone. I saw Laura’s fist tighten around it, as she raised it to her trembling lips.
“Thank you all so very much,” she said, clear and stutter free. 

This time, the roar of the audience did take the roof off the place, and even the black heart of Sarah broke, because she clapped like her life depended on it, crying like a baby. 

That was when Laura finally took her bow.
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