When the darkness slowly began to lift, a single rosy spotlight, growing gradually stronger, illuminated the centre of the stage. On it was a coil of rope, six feet high, wider than a barrel at its base, narrowing in a cone shape to barely a foot in diameter at the top. The audience hushed, chatter dying away, the curiosity of the spectators piqued by their inability to imagine what this act could possibly be.
And then the rope began to unwind, from the top of the cone. Evie couldn’t see how it was being done, and that impressed her. A cord from above, probably, but the motion was very smooth and even, which couldn’t be easy to manage.
Gold flashed behind the rope as it unwound. The gold of a woman’s hair, piled up high on her head, resembling the shape of the coiled rope. More rope uncoiled, beginning to fall now down the cone as it unwrapped itself, and more and more of the woman’s shape was revealed. She was naked, her skin very pale, her nipples gilded, and as the cone of rope slowly undid its shape, exposing more and more skin, a man whooped at the back of the room.
The loud, raucous noise fell into silence, and was absorbed almost immediately by the dark. This striptease had nothing titillating about it, in the sense that the performer needed to be egged on with yells and salacious cheers. The woman, gazing straight ahead, seemed not to be aware even of her audience: she kept her position, arms gently curved at her sides, feet together, until the rope was almost completely undone. When she did eventually move, it was a shock: more than one person gasped. She raised her arms, and started to undo her hair. Evie couldn’t tell what had been fastening it up, but it must have been something very simple, because with one motion, curls of golden hair – it had to be a wig – cascaded over her shoulders, partially concealing the slope of her breasts.
And something was revealed, something resting on the crown of her head, which had been concealed by the hair. Unbelievably, it was a vase of water, narrow, fluted at the top. The audience gasped as they realised what it was.
She took it in both hands, raising it and holding it above her head, like a goddess on a Grecian vase holding an amphora. And then she tilted her head back and poured the water over herself, opening her mouth as it flowed down over her body. There was a moment’s pause, everyone staring at her, amazed, as the water poured down her breasts and the curve of her stomach, the empty glass still held over her head. Then she spat out a miniature fountain of the water she had allowed to collect in her mouth. It was a bright curve of liquid that splashed through the air, sparkling in the rose-coloured light, tiny beads of water spinning off and dancing to the ground.
Evie couldn’t see where the stream of water landed, but from the exclamations, the laughter and the scuffling at the table right at the front of the cabaret stage, someone had at least got splashed.
The lights went out. Immediate darkness, apart from the little candles burning on each table.The act was over.
Now everyone did cheer. The applause was long and prolonged. The house lights went up, and Evie spotted a man at the front dabbing his head with a napkin, red-faced and smirking with pleasure at having been singled out.
“You don’t sit down at the front if you don’t wanna get up close and personal, right?” the bartender said, leaning on the bar and grinning at Evie. “Another mineral water?”
“I can’t talk you into a cocktail? I make a damn good Cosmo. Not that sweet shit they call a Cosmo now – mine’s the real deal.”
She shook her head, explaining:
“I got to be at work in an hour.”
“No prob,” he said, pouring her another glass of water.
New York wasn’t quite the city that never slept, but you wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow at someone being due at work at one in the morning. Evie’s heavy makeup – she’d done part of a shift at the Lounge already, talked Paulie into giving her a couple of hours off – indicated that she wasn’t heading to proof-read at a law office, or pull a late shift at an open-all-hours pharmacy. It was probably pretty obvious that she was an exotic dancer. But, like Natalie and Jeremy’s circus troupe, the burlesque crowd were nothing if not open-minded.
She liked all of them. A lot.
“Staying for Carrie On?” he asked, momentarily ignoring a hipster down the bar holding out a folded twenty.
“Great! You don’t want to miss her, she’s always a blast. Jeez, I’m coming, okay? Hold your horses.”
The hipster got his designer beers just as the lights dipped again. A trapeze descended from the ceiling, a double trapeze hung from ropes on each side and one at the centre. A brief round of clapping greeted Natalie and Laura, each hanging from it in a single knee lock, something that Evie, from brief experimental trials over the last few days, had found to be very secure but equally painful. Wearing shimmering leotards and white leather boots, Natalie and Laura performed a routine that consisted of them mirroring each other perfectly: even when they dropped to an ankle hang, swung in two huge beats and pulled themselves, amazingly, up to sitting and then to standing so fast it took your breath away, they moved in absolute unison.
It wasn’t at all sexy, though. And because it wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t burlesque. Evie sensed the audience growing restless, and the applause at the end was more polite than appreciative. This wasn’t the kind of place that Natalie and Laura usually performed: they’d been asked to fill in because a filthy comic had dropped out at the last minute, and had simply done one of their regular routines, sexed up a little by Natalie’s last-minute suggestion of wearing the white boots.
This dim, low-ceilinged, cabaret venue was much more Evie’s atmosphere than theirs. Evie knew how to dance sexily, always leaving something back, something to the imagination, something that teased you by remaining perpetually just out of reach, but so close you felt you almost could grasp it, could caress it, for a split-second, with the tips of your fingers. Evie knew how to make men, and sometimes women gasp, convince them that they had seen more than they had, but leave them even more desperate to see it again. It was a game, where you gave just enough but promised more, a promise you never quite filled, so that you kept your audience in an endlessly-burning state of wanting, longing, flushed and swollen with desire for you that they could never completely satisfy.
In the Lounge, Evie showed a lot less skin than some girls. She’d never needed to do the gynaecological stuff, the writhing on the floor playing with yourself, pulling at the crotch of your g-string titillatingly, sliding it back to make it look like you were going to show everything. And she made more tips than anyone else there without having to do that kind of porno crap, which the other girls always resented.
The barman was busy setting up trays of drinks for the table service waitress, everyone wanting to get their rounds in before the final act for tonight, the headliner. Evie was squinting at his watch, trying to work out the time. She’d told Paulie she’d be back by half-midnight, like a skanky, low-rent Cinderella.
Which, let’s face it, was exactly what she was.
And unexpectedly, the thought of going back to the Lounge depressed Evie so much that she felt herself slump on her stool, her back sagging. She wanted to put her head down on the bar and weep.
Bam! The club was suddenly plunged into darkness. Music blared from the speakers, an old-fashioned bump-and-grind of trumpets and saxophones and the sexy pluck of a double-bass. People were applauding already, knowing what was coming, psyched up for the headline act. Evie swivelled on her stool to face the stage. And there, in a blast of white spotlights, she was: Carrie On, one of the biggest stars on the new-burlesque circuit. Literally.
Not that you could see much of her right now: her body was entirely concealed by two huge, beautiful mauvy-pink feather fans, each held in a gloved hand, her face peeking over the top. She winked, and the audience clapped some more. White-blonde hair in a fall over one eye, very Veronica Lake. Cat’s-eye black eyeliner, flicked up at the corners, and fake lashes so long and luxurious they must have been mink. Red lips, glossed and glittery, pursed into a perfect bow. And a black heart-shaped beauty spot high on one cheekbone. She looked like a boudoir fantasy, a girl from a chocolate box come to life.
She started to dance, slowly, a controlled and choreographed routine of shimmys, wiggles, and the occasional dramatic leg kick. It was a game she was playing with the audience, to the sound of the pumping trumpet: see what you can spot as I undulate and bend over and spin around, always covering myself with my fan… is that a round white hip curving through the trembling feathers for a split second? The top of a breast? Or are you just imagining it, because the more I dance like this, the more you want to see what’s behind the fans…
And all the time, she was laughing, winking, flirting madly and naughtily with the spectators, making each and every one feel that she was connecting directly with them, dancing just for them. She had them in the palm of her hand. Evie was fascinated. This was pure burlesque: the knowingness, the playfulness. The opposite of what she did. In Carrie On’s dancing, everyone was in on the game, everyone was having fun. Carrie On would tease, reveal, tease, reveal, playing with you, just as a stripper did. But when you stripped, nobody laughed. God forbid. It was deadly serious.
Plus, the only feedback you got from the clients, believe me, you did your best to ignore. You fed off their attention, sure: you knew you were performing for them. But apart from that, you pretended they weren’t there. Really. The more you looked at them, the more gross you felt. You blurred their faces so you couldn’t see their expressions. You sang songs in your head, loudly, so you couldn’t hear what they said to you. And if you were like the majority of the girls, you were hopped up on something extra – pills, booze, powder – to help you get into a happier place and blur out the clients still further.
Boom! Carrie On popped a hip and a silvery garment shot off as if fired from a gun. She pantomimed surprise. The audience whooped with laughter. To the next trumpet blare, she popped the other hip. A garter magically pinged off her leg. It was with wide-eyed amazement that she let the fan she was holding over her breasts slip down so they were revealed, two enormous white globes imperfectly covered by a silver bustier. She looked down at them. Pop! The bustier flew off, revealing the silver tasselled pasties on her nipples. The audience was in ecstasy as they watched her jiggle her breasts in perfect synch, spinning them in circles, the tassels flying out, and then spin round, as the music reached a crescendo, to finally tease them by slipping the fan covering the equally rounded and enormous white spheres of her ass. Only fractionally, but enough so that so they could see the glittering silver G-string threading between them. She bent over, thrusting her bottom at the audience, just as the trumpet wailed to a final top note and the lights dropped to black.
The audience went wild. Cheers, screams, whoops of applause. As the spotlights snapped on again and Carrie On, covered again by her lavender-pink fans, curtseyed demurely, laughing and waving one silver-gloved arm in acknowledgement of her adoring public, Evie was already slipping off her stool and heading for the door.
Because she knew that if she didn’t go then and there, she’d never leave at all.