Winning Story 2018

And No Birds Sing

by Sandra Hill

Ray sat at the best table in the house, slouching in his chair and breathing in the stale scents of cigarettes and spilt beer.  Shabby green velvet curtains were strewn across the stage where he’d pulled them down in a fit of rage and the carpet … it should have been cleaned last year but what was the use now?  Stubbing out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray he stood up, slid the chair under the table and sighed.  He was ready to go.  He didn’t have any regrets.  Well maybe a few but who doesn’t?  And he’d stuck to what he’d said.  No more birds … no more birds ever.  He was done with them.  Good and proper.
Slipping his hand into his pocket he curled his fingers round the last few pound notes from the till.  Once they’d been spent he’d be down the dole office, joining the ranks of the unemployed for the first time in his life. 
The sound of someone knocking on the front door made him jump.  Thinking it was the landlord out to squeeze him for more money, he pulled his foot out of his left shoe and shoved the green notes into his sweaty sock, tucking them under the sole of his foot. 
The knocking began again and, swigging back the dregs of his warm beer, he walked over to the door.
‘Whose there?’ he asked.
‘Dolores,’ came the reply.
His heart sank.  What did she want?
‘I don’t know who you are,’ he said, ‘go away.’
‘Ah come on honey its Dolores, of course you remember me.’  The woman’s voice deepened to a low husky whisper, ‘last December in the double seats at the back of the cinema.  You … me ... and Dirty Harry.  Or should I say Dirty Ray?’ the voice tailed off into a low laugh.
            Ray sniffed at his armpits … they stank.  Why oh why hadn’t he had a bath last night?   Brushing the crumbs of digestive biscuits from his jumper and flattening down his greasy hair, he opened the door and Dolores stalked in, the floral scent of Kiku following her into the club.  She was wearing the shortest pair of black hot-pants, a checked blouse tied at the front and makeup … mountains and mountains of makeup with the longest false eyelashes Ray had ever seen.
            ‘Well hello gorgeous,’ she purred.
            Ray’s mouth was so dry he couldn’t speak and he gulped loudly … too loudly.  He felt himself trembling inside as she walked round the club hands on hips, looking the place over, blowing small bubbles with her grey chewing gum. 
‘So how’re takings?  Got many in tonight?’ she said.
‘We’re closed.  Finished,’ he said.  ‘As of last Saturday.’ 
‘Closed?  You’re kidding me.  This used to be the hottest spot around.  People came from miles away for a night out at Ray and Janey’s,’ she said.
‘Yeah well that was a lifetime ago.’
Dolores chewed thoughtfully on her gum, pursed her lips so she could pluck it out of her mouth and, sweeping her brassy blonde curls away from her face, stuck it behind her right ear.
‘You know your problem Ray … you’ve gotta have girls.  I don’t know why you had to change everything.  Everyone in the business knows it’s the only way to get the men in.  The guys don’t wanna come and see blokes singing, or be served by a farting old scroat.  What’s in it for them?’
‘I’ve been in the game long enough to know what I’m doing,’ he said. 
Who did she think she was, swanning in and trying to tell him how to run his business, flaunting herself in that low-cut top.
Dolores looked around and laughed.
‘Yeah it looks like it,’ she said.  ‘You’ll never make any money with a women only audience.  Some’ll drink themselves stupid to forget their miserable marriages but most of them are gonna be sippers.  Eking out the housekeeping, making their drinks last all night.’
‘When Janey left I made a promise to myself,’ he said.  ‘No more birds in my club, especially no singing birds.  Not while I’m in charge.  And one thing I never do is go back on a promise.’
‘But that’s just it,’ she said.  ‘You ain’t in charge … not any more.’
She took a few steps towards him and he backed away.  He wasn’t going to get tangled up in her seductive ways again.
‘Look Dolores what we had back last year … it was really great but …’
She ran her hand over the table nearest to him, pulling a face at the sticky goo it left on her hand.
‘See thing is … I’ve taken over, bought the lease,’ she smiled.
‘You what?’ he whispered.
She stepped forward, placed her right forefinger on his lips and pulled a sheaf of papers from her bag, waving them in front of him.
‘That’s my signature there … right at the bottom.  The club’s mine now,’ she said, ‘and we’re doing things my way.  I’m gonna turn this place on its head, take it back to the glory days.’
Ray turned and walked away.  Stab you in the back.  That’s all the rotten birds in his life had ever done.
‘It’s up to you Ray,’ she said.  ‘Walk if you like but you’re a good MC.  The girls like you … the lads like you … everyone likes you.  But if your pride is so huge you can’t see the potential in this place you might as well carry on walking.  I’ll not stop you,’ she said.
Ray paused, thinking it over.
‘So you’re expecting me to work for you … a bird?’
‘Yep,’ she nodded.
‘You’ll be calling the shots … telling me what to do?’
She nodded again.  He leaned heavily on the bar, tracing the marble pattern in the deep red Formica surface with his forefinger. Should he go along with it? 
‘If it makes it easier I’ll put you on a month’s trial,’ she said.  ‘If you don’t work out I’ll give you your cards.’
‘But you can’t …’
‘Can’t I?  Isn’t that how you always treated the girls … a month’s trial on low wage, then keep on extending the trial period, not paying any more till they threatened to walk?’ she said.
‘Its business,’ said Ray, ‘you’ve gotta play tough.’
‘Seems I learned from a master,’ smiled Dolores, twirling her right forefinger around one of her curls.
‘Ok, OK.  I’ll give you one month of my time then I’m walking.’
He shoved his hands back in his pockets, stood appraising the place.  It wasn’t so bad, a bit tatty round the edges, but nothing a bit of new money couldn’t fix.  She’d never been the brightest bird in school.  He’d give her a couple of weeks before she realised she couldn’t cope and was begging him to take over.
‘Alright you’re on,’ he said.  ‘There’s things we need to do right now, like renewing the brewery contract, getting the staff back.  I’ll go into my office and start calling ...’
‘Hold on, hold on,’ she said, ‘it’s sorted.’ 
She opened the side door, blew a wolf whistle, and stood back as two … five … eight girls strode in, all wearing hot-pants and knee-high boots.
‘This is Suzie, she’ll be managing the bar,’ she said, ‘and Karen over there will be overseeing the hostesses, making sure the customers don’t get out of line.’
‘We’ve got staff,’ said Ray shaking his head.
‘Oh yeah like mouthy Bill and that sleaze bucket Mike?’ she said.  ‘I want this place to ooze class, bring in people from all over like the old days.  The only way that’ll happen is if we do things my way.  And that means getting the girls back in.’
Over the next three weeks they cleaned, painted, stuck up posters and auditioned new acts.  On the 9th July, opening night, Ray and Dolores stood on the stage looking out over the club.  The dark brown tables and wobbly chairs had been replaced by gleaming chrome and smoked glass with the dull sheen of the newly polished floor replacing the filthy brown carpet. 
‘It looks a treat,’ said Ray, ‘I’ll give you that.’
‘It’s more than that,’ said Dolores, ‘we’ve given the place class and sophistication.’
She dodged behind the gold velvet curtains and pulled out a bag, handing it over to Ray.
‘You’ll need these for tonight,’ she said.
Ray reached inside and pulled out a lilac ruffled shirt, black velvet jacket and bow tie.  ‘I’m not wearing those,’ he said. 
‘Yes you bloody are,’ she said.
‘But what’ll the lads say?  I’ll look like a trussed-up turkey.  I’ve got clothes,’ he said, ‘I don’t need anything new.’
‘If you think you’re getting up on my stage in those baggy old trousers you can get lost right now,’ she said.  ‘I said we’re doing things my way and that includes your clothes so quit arguing.  Anyway there’s something outside I want you to see.’
She walked into the foyer and out onto the pavement with Ray following behind.  Standing on the edge of the pavement, looking back towards the club she pointed at the sign that had just gone up.
‘The Singing Bird,’ Ray read out loud.  As he tried to think of something to say his gaze moved downwards and rested on Janey’s face.
‘Oh bloody hellfire what are you doing here?’ he said. 
Glancing at Dolores’ smiling face, he took a deep breath and turned away.  He should have known she’d be behind everything.  Why couldn’t he have had a wife who’d keep her nose out of his business?
‘Wait,’ said Janey running after him.
‘You’re a traitor, that’s what you are,’ said Ray, ‘we had the best business this side of Manchester.  Wasn’t that enough?’  
‘So I had a fling,’ said Janey.  ‘Why shouldn’t I?  You’re hardly Mr Innocent.  I know what you go up to with Dolores last Christmas.
Ray carried on walking, dumping the jacket and shirt on the pavement.  He’d been beaten by a bird.  A bloody singing bird.  Her clattering heels stopped, well good he thought.  Interfering old baggage.
‘All I’ve done is what you should have done months ago,’ said Janey, ‘but you were too damned stupid to see it.  It didn’t matter what I said you always knew best.  This was the only way I knew to make you see sense.’
She pulled on his arm, making him stop and turn round. 
‘Look at it,’ she said.  ‘The place looks amazing and tomorrow night’s a sell out …’
‘A sell out?’ he repeated.  They hadn’t had that for well over a year.
‘Yes and the weekend after and the one after that.  I’ve put myself on the bill, just to get the punters in for the first few months.’
He turned and carried on walking. 
‘You can’t walk away.  We need you Ray,’ she shouted.
‘Yeah it looks like it.
‘You’re on the bill.  We can’t do it without you.  Look at the flier pasted onto that window over there.’  She read it out loud ‘“The Singing  Bird, Opens 14th July with the best MC in the business … Mr Ray Dorset”.’
Ray’s steps faltered and his shoulders lifted a little.  Had she just said he was the best in the business?
‘You always were the best … always will be,’ she said, running to catch him up.  She linked her arm into his and they walked along together.  He tried pulling his arm away but she clung on tight and, though he desperately tried not to, he could feel himself falling for her again.  The scent of her hair, the way she looked up at him from those deep blue eyes.
‘Anyway we’ve got a contract, there’s still a week of your trial period left,’ she said, nudging him in the ribs.  ‘If it works out I just might keep you on for another month.’

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