Honey flounces down onto a bar stool and throws shade at the guy standing opposite: forehead furrowed, nose pinched, her whole aura glowering like it’s made of acid-lemon. Just because she’s never seen the guy before doesn’t stop her from reading him like she found him on a library shelf. Honey can spot the married ones from at least fifty paces.
‘Been there, done that, got the friction burns,’ she likes to say, although sometimes she has to change it to: ‘got the black eye,’ or ‘got crabs,’ or even, ‘got the broken heart’.
‘Got a new friend?’ says Rob, who’s mixing up a highball.
It’s Monday, a slow night. On any other night of the week, Rob doesn’t have much time to talk.
‘I gave up friends like that for Lent, as well you know, Miss Thing.’
‘Funny, I never had you down as the altar girl type.’
‘That’s because you never had me down. Now why don’t you make yourself useful and get me another one of those before I dehydrate,’ she says, sliding her empty glass across the bar and smoothing out her dress.
‘And if I don’t?’
‘I wouldn’t refuse me if I were you. I’m in a mood that could sink ships. If you want to know the truth, I’m feeling perfectly vile. VI-LE,’ says Honey, pronouncing the word with two syllables as the one on its own seemed lacking in significance.
Rob laughs. ‘What’s new?’ Honey leans across the bar, her silicone enhancers flattening out against its varnished wooden top. ‘Just pour the damn gin Miss Thing, or I’ll scratch your fucking eyes out.’
A sharp movement from the other side of the bar makes Honey turn her head. It’s the guy opposite, waving a £20 note aloft.
‘Allow me,’ he calls over.
‘In fact, make that two. I’ll have whatever’s the lady’s having.’
‘Oh Jesus,’ Honey says through ventriloquist’s lips and adjusts herself quickly into an upright position.
The evening, already wrong-footed, had begun with a back stage spat with Maeve and now the rest of the night, if the guy heading her way was anything to go by, promised little in the way of improvement.
‘I hope you don’t mind me joining you, only I saw you were on your own and, well, I’m on my own too,’ says the guy, pulling up the bar stool next to hers and extending his hand.
‘I’m Geoff.’ Honey sees thick pink fingers, straight cut nails. She sees middle aged, bad haircut, and that just-off-the-train vibe from some place where – were she ever to step foot in – she’d be lynched by the locals before last orders and hanged from a tree by her high-gloss tights. Recalling her drama training, she summons up a smile. A free drink is a free drink after all, especially when they’re Soho-priced and Maeve has stopped giving bar discounts because, she says, it’s murdering her profit margin and nobody likes a half-cut queen.
‘Well that’s not strictly true, Maeve,’ Honey had wanted to say at the time, but held her tongue, owing to the state of their relationship, which seemed to be deteriorating by the day.
‘Pleased to meet you, Geoff,’ says Honey, shaking his outstretched hand and finding it moist.
‘Oh, the pleasure’s all mine…’
‘Honey,’ she says, lowering her feathered lashes so they fan out like spines across the bones of her cheeks.
She pouts her lips, a painted Cupid’s bow of pillar box red and uses her free hand to pat round the back of her head to make sure her victory rolls are still in place. ‘I thought as much! That’s you up there, isn’t it?’ says Geoff, pointing at the wall of photographs opposite where a gallery of headshots gaze down at the assembled crowd.
‘That’s me alright,’ she says glancing over her shoulder to where a picture of her teenage self, eyebrows arched and cheekbones contoured, stares back at her in black and white.
Honey remembers the day the photos were taken – a full ten years ago when she’d just been hired to join the chorus line. It was the middle of summer, the club was being redecorated and Maeve wanted everyone’s mugshot taken for a Hollywood-inspired ‘wall of fame’ opposite the bar. She had everyone traipsing over to a studio in Wardour Street, a parade of the fierce and the fabulous striding through Soho, dragged-up to the nines. In five inch Louboutins and a halter neck that chafed, the walk down Brewer had never felt so long. The tourists clapping, the workmen whistling, Vera out front flipping the finger at anyone she didn’t like the look of. By the time they arrived at the studio, Vera’s pompadour had wilted in the heat and Maeve had to power blast it back in place with half a can of Elnett. ‘Remind me whose bright idea this was again?’ Vera had said to Maeve in between choking on hairspray fumes, and Honey, laughing and crying at the same time, couldn’t believe she was actually being paid to have this much fun.
It had been a quick rise from drama student to drag artiste. Only one week earlier, Honey had been queuing outside the club in a long line for her audition and then, inside, waiting to be called to the stage with hands shaking so hard with nerves that she hadn’t been able to steady them long enough to draw her eyeliner on straight. Maeve had watched her performing, tipping her head to one side from the floor below. ‘What look are you trying for, darlin’? I think it’s going to need some work.’ Her name needed work too. ‘Honey-Bea Diamond,’ said Maeve and, behold, a chorus girl was born. In a parallel universe, Honey supposes that makes Maeve some kind of other-mother. Or at least it did, in the days when she rented Maeve’s spare room from her, after her husband had walked out and her son, gone away to university, had left the whole flat feeling like some great big empty nest. Honey couldn’t remember the exact point when things started to go wrong between her and Maeve, but one thing was for sure: Maeve didn’t own her. Nobody did. Every debt owed, every kindness shown, had been matched long since and paid in full.
Rob sets the drinks down on the bar, the tonic water sparkling beneath a half moon chunk of lime. Honey picks up her tall glass and clinks it into Geoff’s.
‘Cheers, Ears’ she says.
‘Don’t mind if I do.’ Geoff’s still staring over at the wall of fame.
‘Well, isn’t that terrific,’ he says.
‘A real Soho starlet. I take it that means you’re singing in tonight’s show?’
‘It does indeed, though I couldn’t rightly claim the vocals as my own, Geoffrey. That would be down to the Andrews Sisters.’
Geoff comes over all wistful. ‘The Andrews Sisters! I tell you something, Honey. They don’t make music or women like they did in those days. Elegant, sophisticated. You can’t find class like that anymore, believe me. Those were different times. Better times. What we’re left with now is inferior. Mediocre…’ Honey’s heard it all before. She zones out and takes a slug of G&T that makes her eyes pop wide. If she doesn’t watch herself, she’ll be staggering on stage come show time and screwing up the whole Andrews Sisters medley. Given the current levels of ill will that existed between them, Maeve would be in no mood for forgiveness and Honey would, no doubt, be left looking for another job.
She’d been mouthing off backstage half an hour earlier telling Maeve, for something like the hundredth time, that the acts needed bringing up to date.
‘But nostalgia is what we do here,’ said Maeve. ‘Golden age glamour. Ingrid Bergman, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake.’
‘Ella Bitchgerald, Vera Him,’ said Honey.
‘Exactly,’ said Maeve.
‘And Ella and Vera are the two headliners. They do alternate nights. When Ella’s on, Vera’s off, and vice versa. There’s no room for a third headline act, even if she is all grown up now and fancies her chances in the big league.’
‘Swear to God, if I have to hear Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy one more time…the act’s getting tired Maeve and I already told you I wanted to be headlining by Christmas, and now look where we are,’ said Honey. ‘It’s Easter next week and I’m still little Patty Andrews.’
‘Girl knows her bank holidays at least.’
‘I don’t want to be a warm-up act forever. I’m sick of this shit,’ said Honey, her hands planted firmly upon rounded, padded hips.
‘And I’m sick of you moaning. Put a sock in it, Honey. I can’t hear myself think.’
Honey’s mind was made up: she was going to show Maeve where to stick her ‘big league.’ Ella and Vera – she’d show them too. She’d turned her world upside down once before, so she sure as shit didn’t have any problem doing it again.
‘Penny for them?’ says Geoff, touching Honey’s arm, startling her, waking her up to some decisive act inside herself that she’d been shying away from for far too long.
‘Come on,’ she says to Geoff, slamming her glass down on the bar.
‘I don’t know about you, but I’m in the mood for a party. How about you and me livening things up around here?’ Geoff’s face brightens like it’s been lit from within. He loosens the knot in his tie.
‘Barman,’ he calls.
‘Same again when you’re ready.’ The party starts and after the third drink there’s a fourth, and after the fourth there’s a moment when Honey interrupts Geoff mid-flow, stopping him from talking by placing one red acrylic finger nail at the corner of his mouth.
‘Now, listen to this, Geoff. I bet you didn’t know that I could sing,’ she says, sliding off the stool and swaying to her feet where the floor seems to ripple beneath like it’s powered by some wave machine.
‘Like, really sing, I mean. Not just lip sync.’ Honey pulls in her diaphragm and expands her chest so that the notes will come out strong and clear. She hears the opening bars in her head, feels her whole body lift towards the spotlights and is just about to open up her throat when there’s a sharp tug at her elbow. It’s Maeve. ‘Are you drunk?’ She says and then looks towards Rob.
‘Is she drunk? I thought I made it clear, never more than one before the start of the show.’
‘Don’t you have a go at him,’ says Honey.
‘You’re already up to your neck in trouble. I’d be quiet if I were you,’ says Maeve. ‘You can’t tell me what to do any more. I quit.’
‘No you don’t. Not twenty minutes before show time. Rob, make her a coffee and make sure she drinks it.’
Honey jabs her index finger in the air. ‘You can’t tell me what to do any more. You’re not my mother, you only act like you are.’ Maeve tightens her grip on Honey’s elbow and steers her over to the bar hatch. ‘You walk out of here tonight, Honey, and you’re on your own. There’s no coming back. I’ve had just about as much of your shit as I can cope with.’
‘My shit?’ shouts Honey. ‘MY shit?’
‘I’m trying to run a business here, not a care home. Rob, get a move on with that coffee. Sober her up,’ says Maeve, shaking her head and striding off past the bar stragglers, past the wall of fame, past the crimson velvet curtains drawn together on the stage. After she disappears from view, Honey slumps back down on a stool.
‘I’ve got more bad news,’ says Rob. ‘Lover boy had to leave I’m afraid. Seemed in a hurry to get away.’
‘I know how he feels.’
‘You planning on going somewhere?’
‘Where?’ ‘You heard me, Miss Thing. Caesar’s Palace, Celine Dion. Elvis has left the building,
‘Oh, that Vegas.’
‘To Vegas?’ Honey shrugs. ‘Why not? Or are you holding out for a better offer?’
Rob rattles two Espressos down on to the bar, diesel-thick and steaming in small white cups perched on matching saucers. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘I made them extra strong. Better drink them while they’re hot.’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘Well then, I’ll have to scratch your fucking eyes out won’t I?’ At the very mention of them, Honey’s eyes respond by starting to fill and then overflow. As the steam from the coffee rises, smelling like home in the family kitchen of some long forgotten past, Honey starts to flap her hands up and down in front of her face in an effort to beat back the tears. ‘Now look what you’ve made me do,’ she says as Rob leans across the bar and dabs at her eyes with the corner of a paper napkin, soaking up all the pretty colours as they start to slide.