Freda Slave needed a shave. No amount of pan-stick would hide those bristles. My God! It took more and more gunge to fill the cracks and creases in his fifty-two year old face: quivering jowls, wobbling double chin and not so much crows’s feet as eagles talons. He wasn’t helped by eyes that worked independently of each other, the result of measles at six months and a cocked-up operation at seven years. He reached for his razor. Even through the sound of its buzzing he could hear the noise of the punters: the raucous laughter of sixty-something sagging mutton squeezed into lamb’s clothing, each one looking more like a drag-queen than he did. And the sage wisdom of arrogant fascists who were already well pissed and loudly knowing all the answers to the world’s problems but unable to deal with their own impotence: bears at the bar, beef at work, babies in bed.
Freda put down his razor and looked in the mirror. Smooth as a cold-plucked chicken and just as attractive. For the next twenty minutes he ploughed through a routine which, in spite of years of practice, he was never comfortable with. Tape over his sideboards, eyebrow wax, beard cover, pan-stick, powder: that at least was the easy bit. Then the eyebrows. A series of dainty dots which he joined together giving him a look of permanent surprise. Eye shadow, highlighter, eye-liner, blusher, contouring to define an otherwise non-existent jaw line and give himself back the cheek bones he firmly believed he once had and then the lip liner, lipstick, powder and then more lip liner and lipstick. Finally the Copydex and the eyelashes. He studied his image and sighed. This was the magic of theatre. The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. A dressing room that was little more than a toilet with a draughty window, a forty watt light bulb and a cracked mirror. He closed his eye s, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly as he directed a cloud of hairspray over his face. Streuth! That stings! But it keeps the slap in place. It’s only suffering for one’s art.
"Come on, girl! You’re on in ten minutes!". Jerry was his friend and driver, a sort of informal roadie.
"What’s that glass doing in your hand?"
"It’s only a shandy. Honest."
Freda had heard that before. "I’ve heard that one before."
He finished pulling up his under-tights. For years he had shaved his legs, his arms and his chest at least twice a week. Now he settled for the easier way: opaque under-tights which gave him that wonderful smooth-leg look and over which he drew a pair of shiny licra tights. Once his frocks displayed carefuly groomed shoulders and arms; now they had long sleeves and made heavy use of flesh coloured net, illusion net. It covered a multitude of sins.
"What’s the crowd like?" As if he didn’t know. All this crap about every audience being different. It would be the same as the crowd yesterday and the same as the crowd tomorrow.
"All right. Pissed. Loud. Usual". Jerry passed him his padded bra.
"Don’t need it. Wearing the back-less number." The back-less number had the tits built in! What a joy! Much more comfortable. And surprisingly lightweight: a shapely, black frock smothered in black sequins and bugle beads with a neckline trimmed with boa and a tantalizing slit up the side. Freda stepped into it and eased it up over his arse and hips.
"Do the hook for me." Jerry obeyed. Freda slipped into his black courts – nothing too high these days – clipped a diamante choker round his neck and slipped gaudy rings on his fingers. He never used nail varnish: "Makes the hands look too big."
"Go check the DJ’s got the tape right. Don’t want another cock like last night."
"Done that. He said other acts used mini disks or CD’s."
"Do I care? Pass the wig."
Jerry plucked the wig off the block. It was nothing lavish. Nor expensive. It was Freda’s favourite wig: light, comfortable and curly, a kind of grey-ish ash blonde colour with a pink carnation wired into it. Freda pulled it on, tweaked the curls and gave it a spraying. There! Transformation complete. Tired middle-aged old git transformed into a tired middle-aged old drag queen.
"You look beautiful, love!"
Jerry leaned over to give him a peck on the cheek.
"Mind the slap you silly bastard!" But he was pleased. He liked to be told he looked good. Now he was ready to fill the stage with his presence, rivet the audience with his repartee and thrill the punters with his voice. Oh yes! No miming for him! All his singing was live. Not always in tune, but live!
He turned and smiled at Jerry. All the whingeing had gone. As soon as that wig was in place Freda came alive. All the shit of the past disappeared from his mind and he thought only of new faces, new challenges. This was his world. He was in control. He was mistress of the tinsel universe. No matter how crude the hecklers might be, he could be cruder.
Freda queened out of the dressing room and waited behind the curtain at the back of the stage. His eyes sparkled, his heart raced and his performer’s mind clicked into operation.
"And now…." The DJ was a supermarket shelf-filler with pretensions. Come hell or high water the turns had to finish by half eleven. Forty minutes for Freda, twenty for the stripper…that’d do nicely, thankyou. He had to be stacking shelves at twelve…"give a warm
welcome to the country’s leading drag queen…" "Female impersonator, you little prick" thought Freda. ….."FREDA SLAVE!!!"
For the millionth time in his career Freda waited for the click of the tape deck and his music to start. Yet again he was warming up for a stripper. The intro to "Lady is a Tramp" blasted out and Freda burst through the curtain on to the stage. It was eight by four. After all, one sheet of hardboard was enough for any act to perform on and wood didn’t come cheap. Glittering in the blaze of three screw in spot bulbs Freda threw his arms wide, bared his perfectly white teeth (all his own, bought and paid for) and launched into his opening number. The audience was enraptured. By each other. No conversation stopped. No drinking slowed down. No one held back from going to the toilet. No one looked. No one cared. They’d seen it all before. And anyway it was free.
The Widow’s Mite
never charged for cabaret. Maybe they should have. Then they could have booked better acts. Freda ploughed on.
The stripper, Zeus got up from his chair in the corner of the bog-standard dressing room. The times he’d watched Freda get ready….the process never failed to fascinate him. How any man could get pleasure from dressing up as a woman defeated him. Freda as nice enough, usually quite chatty – talking abut his kids and grandkids, but tonight he’d been quiet. A quick ‘Hi!’ when he came in and that bitching with Jerry and that was it. No matter! Freda’d be on for forty minutes - or maybe thirty if he got bored – and then it would be time for the magnificent Zeus to strut his stuff. He stripped off and studied the fake tan. It’d do. Gel on his hair and a quick ruffle, baby oil for body shine and an elastic band round his cock. Not that he was ashamed of his equipment but every little helped.
‘Then for my next job I was put into men’s wear. Well, it’s always good to try something new. And this punter came in and said ‘I’d like to see your Harris in the window’. Well, who was I to disobey and that was the end of another promising career!’
Five minutes to Freda’s finish, thought Zeus. Better start whanging up. He started to gently wank for the sixth time that week. Then Jerry came in to collect Freda’s bunch of cheap roses: he threw them one at a time during his big finish.
‘Oh! Sorry, Brian! Didn’t mean to burst in. She forgot her roses. I’ll only get the blame. Good job someone kows what he’s doing!’
‘You having trouble?’
‘Not in the mood’.
‘Must be hard. Doing this every night. Oh! What am I saying, silly bitch! Must be hard!’
Brian sighed. He’s heard it all before.
‘Well enough of my banter….you like some help with that?’
‘You can try’.
‘Oh, well. If you insist’. Subtle as a stuck pig, though Brian and he turned to face the drooling Jerry.
Jerry got down on his knees and wrapped his mouth around Zeus’s cock. Brian closed his eyes and imagined his girlfriend, Zandra, naked, sweating and pouting. She was good, was Zan. The best he’d had. Well, this week, anyway. But isn’t it funny? No girl he’d ever been with could suck cock as good as a bloke.
‘OK! That’s enough! Can’t go out there with a hard on!’
‘Bugger! I was justgetting into it. See you afterwards, perhaps….’
‘Don’t be silly’. Streuth! The elastic band felt tight. If his dick turned blue and fell off he’d have to go back to hod-carrying. In a practised two minutes flat he shoved on his well velcroed American cop’s outfit.
‘Shit!’. Jerry heard Freda start her last number….
‘The Best of times is now, what’s left of summer but a faded rose….’
Quickly he dashed to the rear o the platform, stuck his hand through the curtain and wiggled the bunch of roses. He felt them being snatched.
‘Fucking hell!’ A thorn ripped through that fleshy bit between the base of his thumb and his forefinger.
‘Shit, shit, shit, shit, bloddy shit!’ He dived back into the dressing room and shoved his hand under the washbasin’s cold tap. Under the washbasin’s only tap, in fact.
‘Brian! Find me a plaster, for God’s sake’.
Zeus rooted through Freda’s slap bag and found a couple of dodgy plasters. He dried off Jerry’s hand with some toilet roll and stuck the plaster on.
‘There we are. Good as new’.
‘And make this moment last because the best of times is now, is now, is now, is now, is no-o-o-o-o-w!’
Freda was finished.
‘And remember, boys, wearing a condom for sex is like listening to a concert with cotton wool in your ears! Good night and God Bless!’ So much for safer sex. Political correctness was not Freda’s forte.
‘And now the star you’ve been waiting for, girls, direct from Benidorm, the amazing stripper with a huge talent…and I do mean
the one and only ZEUS!’
Freda flounced into the dressing room.
‘You little shite! ‘
‘You’ll be fucking sorry. Made me a bloody laughing stock out there.’
‘A thorn ripped my hand….’
‘It should’ve ripped your dick off, you little prick!’ Freda pulled off his lashes and then rubbed Fairy liquid into his face. ‘Just get packed up and stop whingeing’.
Jerry knew better than to argue. It had been a long week. The gigs had all been in shitty places and he knew as well as Freda that as far as time lasted for Freda’s type of act, every gig that was yet to come would be in a shitty place. Jerry picked up Freda’s frock and packed it in the suitcase. He gathered the slap, put the wig on the block and carted the lot out to the car. By the time he got back Freda was washed and dressed (trainers, jeans, tee shirt, anorak – nothing flash for this modest star) and sitting having a fag and a scotch. A professional to his un-varnished finger tips, Freda never touched alcohol before a show.
‘Sorry, again, love!’
Freda looked up at Jerry. A glint of affection appeared in his eye. ‘Well, you silly queen. Next time I shall have to smack your bottom with a wet hand’.
Freda reached out and took Jerry’s hand. He pulled Jerry closer and gave hime a smile.
‘So where’s the money?’
‘Oh yes! Here!’
Once Freda and commanded four and five hundred pounds for a show. Now Jerry counted out just ninety quid into Freda’s hand. Thirty went back to Jerry.
‘Well’, sighed the drag queen, ‘at least there’s no agent to pay these days…’
‘Ah, well…’ said Jerry, ‘you never know. There might be something big round the corner’.
‘Flying fucking pigs. Come on. Let’s get off. I’m knackered.’
‘Zeus hasn’t finished yet. We can’t go blundering through the punters while he’s on.’
‘Jerry, I do not think the sight of two men, a suitcase and a wig on a block is enough to grab the attention of our darling fans out there. Far too busy keeping their eyes glued on his nether regions.’
‘The blokes won’t be.’
‘Of course they will! Those who aren’t queens’ll want to study the competition. There’s nothing like the sight of a dick bigger than yours to put the blight on bedroom frolics later on. Comparision is essential. If their’s is bigger, God forfend, the women’ll be planning headaches and if it’s smaller the memory will work better than twelve pints of Guinness…or worse, depending on how you look at it. Come on. I have a bed that’s calling me.’
‘Room for two?’
It’s odd. Jerry had worked with Freda for years but had never quite been able to work Freda out. Was he or wasn’t he? It didn’t matter how much gentle prying Jerry indulged in, Freda gave nothing away. For two people who lived in each other’s pockets much of the time, they knew remarkably little about each other.
‘Cup of tea, then?’
‘If you’re good and don’t drive like a rampant teenager following a bus full of Girl Guides I might stretch my hospitality to a quick cuppa. If you’re really good I might throw in a biscuit or two. And if you’re amazingly wonderful I might consider letting you bunk down on the sofa, thus saving you a twenty mile drive to that brothel of yours you call your flat.’
‘You’re a hard man, Freda.’
‘But not for you, dear!’
‘If not for me, who for then?’
‘Don’t get personal.’
‘Come on, Freda. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve listened to your act. I know it as well as you do. It’s full of gay jokes.’
‘So – are you or aren’t you?’
‘One ex-wife, two daughters, two grandchildren.’
This time it was Jerry's turn to say: ‘So?’
‘So I once played Toad in Toad of Toad Hall but no one accused me of being a frog!’.
‘Listen, Jerry. What I am is me – a knackered, fifth rate drag queen working the less salubrious pubs and clubs for a pittance with a loyal driver and roadie who gets a third of what I make but earns less…’
‘….a statement of fact, nothing personal. I’m too old and tired for sex with anybody or anything so it doesn’t matter a toss whether I’m straight, gay, bi, all three or none of them. And in any case it’s entirely my business. So shut the fuck up, take me home, drink your tea, eat your biscuit, kip on the sofa and bugger off in the mrning and I’ll see you again tomorrow night. All right?’
‘That's told me, then.’
Freda leaned across and gave Jerry a kiss. On the lips. Just a quick one. Not passionate.
‘And all that means is I love you like a brother. OK?’
They turned to leave behind the glitter and sparkle of the back-stage facilities and Zeus came in.
‘For Christ’s sake, Freda, get this elastic band off me! It’s killing me and I can’t get a grip.’
‘Go on, Jerry. I’ll pass this one to the expert!’ And with that he made his way over the stage and through the punters to the car. Twenty minutes and two fags later he was joined by Jerry.
‘No need to guess what you were up to.’
‘A boy’s gotta do…..Anyway, it was for medical reasons, really. Zeus was very uncomfortable. Wish he’d get my name right, though.’
‘What d’you mean?’
Jerry turned on the ignition, slipped the car into first and pulled away. ‘He kept calling me Zandra!’