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Pretty Polly

Photograph by Marcelo Del Pozo, Story by Matthew Blakstad

Legs Bath_MdP.jpg

Do you like what you see?
Because I have more. Choose me and I’ll show you.
Or maybe all you want to see are these two long roads to heaven?
Don’t blame you. See more and I’ll disappoint you, like I disappoint myself.
Your face tonight though, when the spotlight fell on them. A want. Then a fear. Then something different. I thought I knew what that something was.

Just look at those pins. Shimmery wet like mermaid tails.
Why do they glow so? Normally their shine fades, post-show, and I fall so flat, coming home to my little flat to soak in my songs and smells. The blue walls of my bathroom are as dark as an auditorium at overture, the fixtures red as the velvet of cabaret tabs.
My legs stretch high as I sink the rest of me. Vanish it away. Only those lovely pegs remain, like the last trace of a synchronised swim squad that’s vanished beneath these rose-otto waters.
Only look at them. Look. Am I beautiful? Because they are.
Which is why I named her Pretty Polly.

There was a magic man in the show, in the time before they sliced the guts from the Starlight and made it a luxury hotel. The Great Arkadi, he was styled. He’d tag about me after curtain-down, like a whippet scenting a saveloy. He’d that bale in his eye—the same look you had, buster, when you appeared backstage tonight.
Before your face fell and you fell away.
This Arkadi would say to me, post-show: It’s the cold turkey, Polly. All show people are addicts for limelight.
But that wasn’t it. Not for me, any road up. Not just the adrenaline. The moment that spotlight fell at my feet, and rose so slow and perfect to the trumpet’s wail, there was someone I became, and that somebody was me.

The poster went up over one weekend, on the Seaton Insurance building on Bondway. Every morning I’d ride the top deck to school, just to be on a level with those endless slender legs. They radiated in polychrome rays like a fresh limb sun.

I thought the reason I loved them was the usual, until that day in break when Danny Cassidy told me they used men in them ads because their legs was longer, which made me a poofter for gawping. I didn’t know what he meant but I knew that wasn’t it, either. That afternoon home, I held my breath as the bus swung onto Bondway. As my eyes panned, keeping that image in frame, what stirred in me was not the usual. It never took shape like the older boys said. It bloomed in the back of my mouth, as beautiful and wordless as a taste, soaked in the flavours of yearning.
Back home I stripped off my uniform trousers and looked in the mirror and I knew.

It was years before I showed the world, or rather I showed the denizens of the Starlight. How I ever had the courage to audition I’ll never know but that dim afternoon, as Polly moved to a tinny showtune from the cassette machine, life changed.
I did.

Half of me did.
Just the legs, I said, that’s all they need to see—and true to my word, that’s all they ever did. For the nine minutes of my routine, I’d hide in darkness and watch as Polly’s legs went through their dainty motions. She was less than a woman but truer than the whole of me. And how they laughed.

This is your USP, said Arkadi, your mystery, and yes, I’d a half-lit fame at The Starlight. They took Polly for who she was, only ever below the waist.
And not in the way you’re thinking.
Then the Starlight shut down and Polly had nowhere to be. I walked on my own legs, keeping an eye out for those posters on roundabouts and high streets. I never saw them. Someone told me the company went into receivership.

I didn’t seek out the gig with Mandie la Fay. I’d never even played straight cabaret. But she called me, spun me on how burlesque’s a space of freedom, her crowd so accepting.
And, true, they’re always with me when the spotlight lands, for a little spell—but then come the titters, the backchat and oh lord the heckles. How can she come to be, I’d ask myself, without the hush, the love?

I’ll be honest, I was on the point of giving it up. Giving up on my better half. But then your eyes, tonight, seeing me though her—or so I thought.

You came backstage, like nobody ever does for Polly. Everyone knows that fragment of a girl has no life offstage. You said you’d never before. You were so clumsy, so impossibly pale. So striking. You said you were training as an accountant which I found hilarious. I still do—sorry, like.

When the penny dropped, you thought I’d been pretending. Taken you for a fool. The straight world never understands how pretence isn’t always pretending. Two sparkling lallies drew you backstage, which was where you discovered the whole of me; and so you fled.

This is the body they gave me, you dope. We’re all of us two—or three, or more.
I could only change myself so far, and for so long. Only ever with the touch of the spotlight. Until tonight.
When I left the stage door I heard you call her name. I turned and you was there. Your eyes took in the whole of me and made it one.

So now I look over to where you’re perched so tidily on the loo seat and I ask, do you like what you see? Will you take me into receivership?
Your eyes roam up the silky isthmus of my legs, then down to the shame I won’t hide—not here in our post-show secrecy—and you say:

Matthew Blaksted's first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had multiple roles spanning TV, film and theatre. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications. He now in public service, researching ways to make the financial system work better for people on low incomes. His first novel, Sockpuppet, was published in 2016, followed by Lucky Ghost in 2017. Find him here - @mattblak 

Marcelo Del Pozo has covered a multitude of national and international events for Reuters. In the field of sports, he has covered four Olympic Games (Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016), in addition to the soccer world cups of South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. In Spain he has provided extensive coverage of the economic crisis with both financial and human reportage, as well as scores of coverage and exhibitions on culture, social issues and festivals in Andalusia. See more of his work and follow him here - @marcelo.del.pozo

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