Part of the ‘Stranger stories’ series
Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters.
Scroll to the bottom for Author’s notes.
The air was so hot that it hovered around her nostrils even as she walked. Somehow the air outside felt warmer than the hot blood running through her veins, and it made Judy uncomfortable. There hadn’t been a single breeze between her house and the town hall which had given her any release from this feeling, and her skin was already prickling at the thought of pushing open the door and feeling the cool air that only a place with stone walls 10 feet thick could have on this summer day.
The door was a little heavier to open than usual, or perhaps that was her imagination. Maybe she’d gotten weaker in the last week. She looked at her arms as she gripped the huge door handle – sticky, slender, with a fine mist of blonde hair. Her wrists looked sharp and she noted the sinews in her forearms popping as she gripped it. They looked so thin. This pleased her.
Judy pulled the door back, imagining the shapes her shoulder blades were making underneath her dress as she did so. The cool rush of air hit her ankles first and then rushed upwards. It smelled like disintegrating cardboard and tarnished metal trophies. If she closed her eyes she could imagine that she was the first – that the hall hadn’t been opened for twenty years or more. But it had, and moving around inside she could see George, standing on top of a box, on top of a ladder.
He was in the centre of the room, reaching up towards the ceiling with his good arm, cradling the shorter one to his chest as he always did. He was clutching the end of a large red ribbon about the width of Judy’s torso, balancing precariously and trying to loop it up over, over again. The hook for the decorations had been hammered into the not-quite-centre of the hall, and he looked to be just a few centimetres too short. She realised with another extension of his arm that he had dark shadows on his shirt, and she recognised in the air the slight sourness of sweat.
“Judy!” he said in surprise, stretching his arm up higher and making the whole ladder sway. “God no, please d’nt tell me it’s almost three already.”
“‘Fraid so,” she said, leaning her whole weight on the door to close it. The town hall was directly in the middle of the village square and, with a market outside, she was glad to close a seal on the noise. She cut off a squeal of laughter and there was a click as the wooden door settled into its frame. Judy squeaked her shoes across the floor and listened to it echo around the vastness of the hall.
“Damn it,” George said as the ribbon fluttered out of his hand and spiralled down to the ground. He wiped his forehead and muttered something under his breath.
“What was that?” Judy said loudly. She heard her voice, shrill and high, bounce off the walls and back towards her. She cringed.
“I said – I’ll do most things for two shillings but you c’n tell your uncle that I ain’t decorating this place again by m’self. Never.”
George’s black hair was combed close to his head – the little wave that he’d tried so hard to put in this morning already drooping. She wondered whether the ‘greaser’ look he was going for was responsible for the sweat on his clothes. Perhaps the oil had just run all the way down his neck and into his armpits. Still, she knew how hard he’d been trying since he’d been hired to be a stagehand this year. She’d seen him watching from the wings, his eyes following the girls as they’d twirled and chatted, touching his hair occasionally to check it was in the right place.
“I’m a cripple, you know,” he said, waving his arm. “I ain’t built for hard work.”
Judy dropped her mouth in mock surprise. “You’re a cripple? Why, George, I never would have known. You’ve never mentioned it, not once!”
George shot her a look. “Ha ha. You know, you ain’t as funny as you think,” he said, climbing down the ladder. jumping off the last rung and plucking the ribbon from the floor. “You’re going to have to act better than that tonight.”
He draped the ribbon over the ladder, wiped his palm on his trousers and looked upwards, sighing at the still empty hooks that were dotted around the ceiling. Judy thought they looked like melting stars. She looked at him again – his fringe had started to flick backwards and was reminding her more of a ramp than a wave. She decided to ignore his comment.
“Neat look by the way,” she said, hooking her purse over her arm and putting her second, larger bag on the floor. “If you weren’t being such a toad today, I’d ask you to show my brother how to style his hair. He’s always wanted to look like Marlon Brando.”
George was a few years older than her in age but blushed all the same. She gave him a moment, pretending to search in the larger bag for something. Pushing aside a little compact of makeup and stockings, she saw her four dresses, neatly ironed and prepped, ready for the performance tonight. She felt a thickness in her throat, and then her stomach growled.
“Are you nervous?” he said.
“Why not? I’d be. All them people watching you, waiting for a mistake.”
“I’m not going to make a mistake.”
“What if you do, huh?”
He knew that this was all she’d been worried about for months, and she had to stop herself from shouting back at him. She was nervous – not that she would say the wrong lines, or miss her cue, or trip, but that she was the mistake and she couldn’t do anything about it now, this late. That a good performance wasn’t enough to distract from how she looked. She’d worked out her best angles from the front row, the middle row and the back row, but still she was sure that they’d be able to see that she wasn’t this woman, that she was so obviously not this kind of woman. That she fell far short and how could she ever think that they’d see her any other way?
“I won’t make a mistake,” she said, her cheeks darkening. “I’m going backstage.”
Judy squared up to George for a moment and then picked up her bag roughly before pausing and tipping her head towards the ceiling, from which only half of the ribbons were draping. “You know, you’re never going to get all of that finished by four, and then people are going to start arriving and you’ll be in real trouble.”
For a brief second he looked really panicked, and she felt bad.
“Do you want some help?”
“Absolutely not!” he said, the affront hitting him so hard that he screwed his face up in protest. “Couldn’t be responsible for you falling and breaking your pretty neck just b’fore opening night! You’re the main attraction, darrrrrlin’!”
As soon as he started to say no, Judy walked off and so George had to shout the last sentence to hear it above the clacking of her heels as she stomped across to the stage.
She pulled open the backstage door and flicked on the light. There was a buzz as the bulb tried and then flared, illuminating another huge room with lots of dressing tables, the costume rack, a few chests of clothes and old props from other performances. Tacked to her mirror, she saw, was a bright piece of paper.
She heard George curse from the room behind her, muffled this time.
As she got closer, she saw that the paper was the poster – the one that she’d seen around the village for weeks. One that had been drawn and then reprinted, and reprinted again when the first ones had been defaced.
The words “A Streetcar Named Desire” were written across it and colored boldly in red. A drawing of her, except it wasn’t her, clasped in the arms of her co-star, took up almost the whole space. She looked down at this girl who wasn’t her, with bigger hair, a smaller nose and breasts which popped off the page. She looked down at her own chest, which had barely begun to develop even at 13.
“We need to make you look more like the star,” the director had said, after she’d finished one of her very first scenes. His gravelly voice and waving hands had silenced the small orchestra playing alongside her. “You’re a fine player – really – you’re fine at the acting part. Best we’ve ever had. But you’re young, so – we just need to change your look. You don’t want to look like a little girl up there.”
At first she’d tried to resist, but the reasons why she wanted to keep bits of herself all melted on her tongue before she could say them. She heard the girls behind her onstage giggling and thought in anger that at least she was special enough to be moulded – she was picked to be the star and one of the other girls would get it, if not her. She looked at the vast hall and imagined it filled with people, all here for her. She’d do it this once, she told him, wrapping the white costume robe around herself tightly.
“It’s not just this play,” he replied, pleased. “You could go to Hollywood with the right look. I want Hollywood-calibre.”
It started small at first. First they’d only asked her to wear a padded brassiere. She agreed. Then they wanted her to wear a wig. She agreed. Then start smoking, to keep her appetite small and make the pads give her even more of an hourglass look. She figured she’d agreed to this much, so she might as well just do this last thing.
Then somewhere between getting the part and standing here in the dressing room, she’d been convinced to wear rubber discs in her nose to round it out and give her more of a sexy starlet look.
Judy sat down on the stool at her dressing table and looked in the mirror. The pieces the director had added over time were so small that they hadn’t really felt like all that much, but in the last few weeks she’d started suggesting things to add herself – higher heels, a corset, some lipstick. Her hairline was crooked too, but he’d said there was little to do about that. It was something she could fix when she was famous.
Soon it was more than being a character. She needed the extra bits all the time. Well, if her nose wasn’t right on stage from far away then it certainly wouldn’t be right during the day only an arm’s width from people. If her hair wasn’t good enough for Blanche, then it wasn’t good enough for her. Why would she go back to the cracked foundations when she’d been given a tub of cement and a spade to fix it?
She sneaked the wig out of the costume room and wore it to school. She’d pop the discs into her nose before class and even tried straightening her teeth at night by stuffing the back of her mouth with smooth pebbles, but had to stop when she’d almost choked. Within weeks, the whispered teasings were being shouted at her in the corridor, the posters started being ripped down all over the village, and the word “whore” became synonymous with the name Judy.
“It’s only a village play,” her mother had said, confused, finding her crying one evening over the posters. “Don’t take it so seriously. You’ll play your part, and be done, and that’ll be that.”
“Do you think I’m pretty?” she’d asked her, head turned towards the open door her mother was hurriedly trying to leave through. Tears ran tracks in the cakey stage makeup she’d brought home.
“Being pretty isn’t important,” her mum said, closing the door. “You’re a smart girl, you should know that.”
Judy threw herself down on her bed, knowing that looking pretty was the only thing that she wanted, and her mother must think her stupid for caring. But she couldn’t stop – Blanche had taken on a life of her own and was chipping away at Judy bit by bit.
At seven, the curtains on the show went up. Everyone was in their place. The seats were full and the lights focused on the spot where Judy would enter the stage. Her mother clapped in the front row, her eyes already gleaming with pride.
Just this one performance, Judy told herself in the wings. Just the opening night, and then I’ll step down. I’ll just put the wig on, one more time. I’ll throw away the discs. I’ll start eating again tomorrow. I just want to feel what it’s like to be a star, for once. But then that’s it. I won’t let this happen again.
Two hours later, the roars and cheers filled her ears and her heart. They rose from their seats and carried her up towards the ceiling. She fell into their praise without caring about how she’d pull herself out again.
For the last week, I’ve been obsessed with Judy Garland. It started with a duet with Barbra Streisand on her show (guys, she had a show?!) where they both sing in beautiful, crackly harmony. Give it a watch:
I’d never heard her sing a song beyond ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’, and even then it was the well-known Wizard of Oz version. I didn’t know her daughter was Liza Minnelli, I didn’t know she died at just 47, or that she’d struggled so much throughout her life with fame, self confidence and addiction. I completely fell down the rabbit hole and before I knew it I was watching documentaries, dramatizations and every live performance I could get my hands on. I flew through her performances from when she was one of three in the Gumm Sisters as a child, right until her last performance of ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ which is so totally bewitching that that I stood in my kitchen, saucepan in hand, transfixed for over four minutes.
In many ways, we’re drawn to tragedy when it happens, but mostly I think I’m drawn to Judy as a human being because it gives me a feeling of sisterhood, to know that despite ‘having it all’, she still didn’t feel good enough.
I was going through my pictures and as soon as I saw the image of the three girls walking along the road, trying to look so grown up, I knew that this week’s obsession was speaking to me. At this same age, (I’d imagine these women are about 15?) Judy Garland was allegedly being fed amphetamines by MGM so that she could keep up with her gruelling film schedule, and barbiturates to help her sleep at night. Her father had died when she was 13, and she had already been told by most of the men she’d worked with that she wasn’t pretty, and was too fat. This stayed with her for life. I can remember what it was like to be that age – a delicate, glass vase of a thing who thought that if only she could change how she looked, she would be happy. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been famous at that age, when people were held far less accountable and child stars were wrung out for their talent until they broke. It would have killed most of us. But Judy hung on for 47 years, and I think she was amazing for that reason.
It was really difficult to distil my Judy’s experience down into just over 2,200 words. I had the initial idea and then managed to write the whole story in one sitting – but it was a total mess.
There are still elements that I think don’t work – George is in the story for a little too long in hindsight, I think – he’s meant to ease us into the story, provide a bit of context to the scene through his interaction so that it’s not just descriptive paragraph after paragraph. I really liked him, and wanted to use him as an example of how boys and girls grow up differently (certainly not in all cases, but as a generalisation); where the latter are pulled apart for how they look, the boys are taught that it isn’t as important as other things (being a man, of course also problematic re: toxic masculinity). George has an obvious physical disability but doesn’t let that stop him feeling confident, capable and attractive, even when Judy mocks him.
I wanted to show a slow slide into the feeling of not being good enough physically and I don’t think this story does it well enough as I had to try to cram it all in: the initial doubt, the re-affirmation by your peers, the clumsy but well-meaning retorts of parents, the pushback when you take it too far, and the realism of the ending where (as a 13 year old girl) being loved for being someone else is most times more attractive than being disliked when being yourself, no matter what the cost.
What would you have written?
My choice of short story here was massively influenced by Judy Garland – so what kind of story could you see with these three young women? Let me know in the comments which part speaks to you!