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

 "What's your singing voice like?" she snapped.

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

"Our group...," it was clear that our meant her, "is primarily concerned with musical productions. All speaking parts would be held by lead actors, 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 societies.

"Well, if you can’t sing here, you'll never manage on stage?" chirped in left-bookend-girl.

"Exactly," added, right-bookend-girl, not wanting to be outdone.

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

"Then the stage is no place for you," said blondie, stabbing my dream with her pitiless eyes and icy words. "However...we're always looking for stage crew," said blondie, with a sniff.  That was how I became one half of the costume department, the other half being the lovely Laura.
Laura was strikingly beautiful but she did everything she could to hide it. She draped herself in over-sized dungarees: huge knitted jumpers, chunky glasses and always some kind of floppy hat pulled down over her face. She seemed determined to cover every possible inch of skin. Some days, the only part of Laura visible were her eyes, huge pools of innocence beaming from a frame of auburn curls. The other reason Laura went unnoticed was her near complete silence. Laura had a stutter, which got worse when she was nervous. Often Laura was so quiet you wouldn't realise she was in the room until she materialised in front of you with her angelic smile.

As well as beauty, Laura had grace, a quality most people failed to notice, but not Sarah Callaghan. Sarah was the blond tyrant that murdered my artistic dreams with one cutting remark. She had an extra nasty bit of her withered heart reserved specificity for Laura. She deliberately crumpled costumes, ripped seams, dumped stuff on the floor, 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 slide. Only her eyes betrayed the hurt with an occasional tear. 

Late December and rehearsals were ramping up in preparation for the Christmas show. Try as we might, Laura and I just couldn't keep up with everything. We often had to stay behind to finish up while the rest of the cast went home. Tonight was worse than any other. 

It had been a full dress rehearsal with opening night only a few days away. Laura and I were mired in a blizzard of costumes, all needing to be to ironed, pressed, mended or steamed. Everyone else had vanished in a whirlwind of air kisses - bitches. 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 behind me. I was outside the school gates when I remembered I'd left the Sarah's finale costume steaming in the dress bag. It would be in tatters if I left it there all night. I had to go back. 

I caught the janitor as he was locking up the main doors. He let me into the auditorium where the lights were out. I had to feel my way through the cavernous room, eventually finding the stage door. I pushed it open and heard a noise coming from the costume room. As I got closer, the noise transformed into the most wonderful singing I've ever heard.  I inched closer and listened. It couldn't have been Sarah, she wasn't that good, in fact, none of the cast were this good.

I peeked in but the room was empty. The iron stood on its end, steam gently swirling upwards from its ticking hotplate. The wonderful melody filled the room, it seemed to be everywhere at once. I tip-toed in, afraid to make a sound, for fear of breaking the spell. I honed in on the perfect notes until my hands were resting on a lid of a wicker costume hamper. With a heave I threw up the lid and there was Laura, sitting in the dark and singing like an angel. I was about to say something when a voice boomed from behind me.  
"Is that you singing, Sally Ann?"  It was Mrs Wiscon, the drama teacher. I nearly jumped out of my skin and let the wicker lid fall back in place. 

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

"Don’t take the Lord's name, young lady," she scolded, "but that 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 asked, waving her arms about her. I heard a near silent, "no," come from the basket beside my leg.

"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 passed before the first notes of Bring in the Clowns came dancing from the wicker basket. The song was perfect in every way: each note crystal clear, each tone super-rich, but more remarkably, every single word 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's cheeks were glistening with tears as she crushed 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. I know, I know, the show is nearly upon us but that will make this all the more special."

Somehow, I ended up nodding as she left the costume room, blowing kisses as she went. Once the emergency door slammed shut, I flipped the lid off the wicker basket. Laura sat there wearing a Snow White costume with her hands clasped to her chest. She was so pale she was nearly white herself. I dove into the basket and gave 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'd 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." 

"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 next.

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 it is, getting up in front of all those people!"

"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." 

It looked like there was no way out of this for 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, if only once in my life, and Laura was my secret weapon.

After hours of persuading I got Laura to agree to do it. 

"Sss-so long as ppp-eople ccc-can’t see me!" she said, her only condition.

"They won't. I got this all figured out. Trust me," I said and it took me a second to remember how Mrs Wiscon had used the same battering ram on me only a while ago. 

"We need a sad song. Something that I can dress like a widow for. A black dress and a black veil. We'll bring down all the lights, just have one spotlight on me, standing over the coffin."

"C-c-c-c-coffin," said Laura, aghast.

"Yea, coffin. We'll drape the hamper in cloth, you can hide inside with a mic and sing, I'll stand on stage and mime."

"I-i-i-it will n-n-n-never work."

"Sure it will, trust me!" 

I was going to hell for this.

"What are you going to sing?" asked Mrs Wiscon on the morning of the performance.

"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 our plan.

Mrs Wiscon sat back in rapture, "That's a perfect! 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 and hurried out the door. 

Laura was waiting outside for me. “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 lied. Her tears gushed. Laura had pleaded with me to get Mrs Wiscon to forget the whole thing. I'd lied that I would. For the first time I saw how vulnerable Laura was, but she was the key to my dreams. Just once, I wanted to stand on that stage and have the whole world love me. Was that too much to ask? I wrapped my arms around her. 

“I cc-can’t,” she blubbed. 

“You can, sweetheart. It’s our only chance. Or, should I tell Mrs Wiscon that it's you who sang, not me.”

“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. 

“You can do it. One way or the other, I'll be right there with you,” 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.


That night, Mrs Wiscon was constantly fussing around me, making sure I knew what I was to do, while trying to keep our plan from everyone else. The lead up to the curtain-call was dominated by Sarah, faffing around, like the world depended on her performance. She kept throwing tantrums, and saying how everyone was letting her down. I actually overheard her tell one of her minions that she was carrying the whole cast on her back – wagon. Wait till she gets a load of my song, I thought with an internal smirk. 

The curtain went up, the lights blazed into life and everything was forgotten. Two hours later the curtain fell on a huge success. 

"More! More!" Yelled the crowd and the whole cast went on stage to take a bow. This gave me and Laura the chance to get into our positions. I gave her a hug as she got into the basket.
“I love you Laura, your amazing!” I had no intention of saying that, it just came out but because it was true. She smiled, and took the microphone from my hand as I closed the cover and draped it in black cloth with a white cross sown on it. 

I pushed my makeshift coffin behind the backdrop to the mark Mrs Wiscon had shown me earlier and waited. The applause began to wain and the cast scurried off stage in a gale of teenage squeals. I heard high heals click across timber and the crowd grew quiet. Although I couldn't see, I knew what was happening.

“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,” boomed Mrs Wiscon's voice and the curtain before me slowly hoisted high into the rafters. 

I couldn't see much. The room was dark and a shaft of light lay heavy on my black-clad body. There was a scattering of polite applause followed by silence. I could only imagine the worried look my own parents must be wearing. I knew they were in the audience.  It was now or never. I took a deep breath and bowed my head.

The music began very softly, only barely audible, but growing in volume. I raised the fake mike to my veiled face, and gave the basket a gentle tap with my foot.  Even though I knew what was coming, I was knocked sideways when Laura began to sing. A voice, hand-picked by God himself, enveloped the room. I was so captivated I nearly forgot where I was. I could feel every heartache she had suffered, every frustration, every disappointment life had dealt Laura, pouring out in that song. The beauty of it moved me more than anything before in my life and then I remembered the selfish way I had manipulated my friend to make this happen. 

As if in a dream, I walked to the front of the stage and made the gestures we'd practised in the dark recesses of the costume room. I looked at the sea of amazed faces gazing up at me and realised that none of this was mine. I was a thief.

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

I felt the whole audience hold its breath but the powerful song kept them silent. In the wings, I could see Mrs Wiscon plonk herself on the nearest flight case, unable to watch what was happening. I could see the delighted smile on Sarah’s face. She must have thought I was miming to a recording, they all must. 

In the end the song finished and the lights come up. 

Not one sound was made. Two hundred accusing faces stared at me with hatred. I turned my back on them and threw the cover off the basket. When I opened the lid, Laura was curled in the corner like an abandoned kitten. I smiled at her and held out my hand. Thinking our trick had been found out, she started to cry and climbed out. 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 her shaking hand and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen. Laura,” 

Nothing happened. Now my hand started to shake and the microphone fell to the floor with a thundering clunk.

We joined hands and began to walk off when one man stood up in the middle of the audience and began to clap. We stopped and looked over just as the dam burst. Everyone in the room shot to their feet and the applause was thunderous, nearly lifting the roof clear off the building. They cheered and shouted while in the wings the cast went wild. There was one notable exception, Sarah just stood with her mouth in a very unflattering O.

Beside me, Laura had stopped shaking. After a full two minutes of of wild rapture I pulled Laura by the hand and walked toward the wings. Waiting there were her friends, many of which were not her friends before, but they sure were now. As we reached the curtain I felt Laura’s hand pull out of mine. She turned back, and slowly walked to the middle of the stage. The applause died away. This this little weird girl, who had sung so wonderfully, stood stoic in the middle of a single circle of light. When the room was silent, Laura stooped down and picked up the dropped microphone. I saw her 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.


Lady Butterfly said...

Beautiful story, Squid. I loved it.

squid mc finnigan said...

Thank you Karie hope your week is going great, your killer bee story was fantastic, it grabbed me from the opening to the very last line, love the diamonds for door knobs :)

paula shene said...

You had me in tears ~ that is a good thing. Beautiful story, poignant.

squid mc finnigan said...

You're the first girl I was ever happy to make cry Paula, it was quiet fun writing and it kind of evolved itself as I went along.

Nikkah Lubanga said...

It was so refreshing reading this from you Squid. This should be turned into a fantastic book for youngsters. I mean, it's so light and warm. I just so remembered my high school days...

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story!

squid mc finnigan said...

Thank you so much Nikkah I was staggered by the fantastic story you wrote after your experiences in the super typhoon I just had to share it and hopefully people will remember there is something they can all do to help. My thoughts are with you and all your family and friends as are the thoughts of the world I am sure.

squid mc finnigan said...

Thank you so very much Marsha, delighted you enjoyed it hope you will pop back and visit again sometime

lefti said...

Beautiful and moving, i'm glad i bumped into you by chance! Keep on writing..
Have a nice day and weekend as well :)))

squid mc finnigan said...

It is great to meet you too Lefti and I am very glad you liked this one.

Ellen M said...

Such a beautiful, lovely story! Wonder, Squid��

Squid McFinnigan said...

If you ever met the real Laura you would know this story didn't do her justice. She is one of a kind, and so are you.