Chapter XIII

Residue-encrusted and doze-eyed as she is, Mewsy blinks to find the sky light at the top of the basement stairs. It it dawn? But, no — still only late afternoon. And a sickly one. She steps out into the courtyard and is hit with devastating torpor.

Where from here? Th’eventualities seem hazy. She sinks down on the back stoop. Salvation’s assiduous ministrations have washed away her sparkling Edge.

“I must be puffy as all sin,” she mumbles, “One shudders at the thought of a mirror.”

Across the courtyard two service lads take the Kaffeehaus back door, letting out a burst of teatime sound. They spit out their black wads of chewing rubber and fall upon each other.

Mewsy heaves herself up and makes for them. Crossing the broad swath of unshaded ground, she grimaces. “My pallor,” she murmurs, clawing up at the burning sun.

“If it’s me then I’ll give you good suck for a month,” says one boy, a Common, to the other.

“If it’s me I’ll let Sam Bitter take what he’s owed from you — nor shall I complain if you’re pleased!” His voice is well-bred, slippery.

Their tongues meet as rival snakes, their white-gloved hands scuttle hungrily for treasure.

“Gentles,” she hails them, “But have you both read for it?”

“Oh h’llo,” says the second lad airily, drawing attention to the obscenity in his white cotton trou’ by affecting to hide it.

“There ain’t to be readings, nor voice trials neither,” says the first. He smiles with pride when her gaze falls on his hidden truncheon.

“No trials?” she frowns, “But then how will the best man come out?”

The boys shrug and return to their milking. Mewsy licks them up with her eyes for a decadent mo’ and then carries on steadily round toward the front, brandishing her Saigon fan against the cruel sky.

Passing under the jasmine bower is like stepping through a waterfall. The civilized coolness beyond gives her gooseflesh. Mewsy slips a silk scarf over her rumpled updo and weaves through bistrot tables strewn with macaron and fragrant amber tisanes. Please, her carriage implies, I shouldn’t like to be treated as anything more than an ord’n’ry patron.

“Why, Mewsy,” Titzi minxes out her tight little mouth, “I’d never’a thought to see your face at matinee!”

“You mustn’t waste time thinking, Titz,” she says as she sidles past, “when there’s so much talk to be had.”

There’s the old Toast, thinks Mewsy. Tellin’ ‘em just like that.

She opens the drape to the lobby. The air is blue with hookah, which rolls from the booth in the corner where The Five and a Half sprawl and cluster.

“Gents,” she nods. “Babs.”

“None taken,” says Babs Kazan, horking a fat one toward the spittoon.

“I beg your pardon,” says Wiggsy McIntyre, “But you’re not the M. F. Stone, a.k.a. SHE, also known as The Toast of Upper Acres?”

Mewsy sauces back, “Last I heard begging from you, Wiggsy Mac, was after Karman B. Kawchuk threatened to walk when he found out you wrote up his bad press yourself.”

“And walk he did, as I recall,” says Morty Huff, sounding strangled as he holds in a lungful of heavy vapour.

“Well,” says Wiggsy, “That was a turbulent project.” He purses primly and tosses his shoulder-length curls. “And what no one cares to recall is that it worked and the house was the fullest we had the whole season.”

“Anyway, he came back,” says Clovis & Clotilde, laying a hand on Wiggsy’s, “and that’s what matters.”

And was spectacular,” says Curiosophat.

“What in the haitch are you ruffians out in the daylight for anyway?” Mewsy says, scooting in beside Curiosophat and fingering their brooch, a jewel-crusted arm-bone.

“New material,” says Morty Huff.

“New stuff…” Mewsy frowns, “In the week before Herio?”

“That’s just it, though, i’n’t it,” says Babs. “Word is after this they’re shifting the mandate toward“ — all five mouth the words — “Contemporary Work.”

“Who told you that?”

Wiggsy: “Titzi LeBus’ says that Lazephine Baker was overheard —“

“Vipresses,” Mews’ interjects, “If they’re thrown in one’s path, should have all of their utt’rance heard only as hissing.”

“It’s nice to see you, Toast,” says Curiosophat, warmly squeezing Mewsy’s arm.

“I’m taking that down,” Wiggsy says, with a chuckle, “if you’ll let me, M.F. — Let’s see… ‘Vipresses…’ so spat the lady, ‘simply must have all utt’rance converted to hissing.’”

Mewsy twinkles with something like a blush.

“So you don’t think it’s true?” says Clovis & Clotilde.

“Well, I’m sure I don’t know,” Mewsy says, “but if it comes from LeBustier, it’s safer assumed to be hot hateful smear.”

”Pal’s right,” says Morty Huff, “She’s disturbed, is that Titzi.”

“No harm in a little incentive,” says Clovis.

“So you’re bracing for impact and making new art,” Mewsy says, “Well, then, brava bravi. What’s the concept?”

A grimace appears in the air, at the question.

“Well,” says Kazan, “That’s just it. It’s… in flux.”

“It’s short notice,” says Wiggsy, “Some reworking is inevitable…”

“Pastiche,” says Clo’, “has an honourable history.”

“In this world there is nothing truly new,” says Curiosophat.

“Not ‘Gentle Sailor’…” says Mewsy, sick to think of it.

“Among other treasures,” says Morty Huff. The whole nook falls silent. The hookah cloud seems to settle on them all.

“Oh!” says Mewsy, smiling brightly. “Well…! The public has always loved your Classic work, and surely a new coat of paint will recall that to their minds that while you, uh, you know…..”

Curiosophat passes their mouthpiece to Mewsy, who hesitates briefly, and breathes in deep.




“You ever hear from the folks?” says Clo, from what seems a awful distance. “How’s life in the city for Dick and Nan?”

Mewsy feels her mind go utterly blank, like an Arctic night. She slowly blinks and scans the faces of her smokemates. What maverick wind has jumbled this troupe together?

Behind her the service lads can be heard coming back in, bickering, their voices wet with bedsuck. They unlatch and throw wide the theatre doors for the meagre crowd.

“Don’t think of it as a premiere,” says Babs. “Because it genuinely is not.”

“Now now, Meredith,” says Mewsy, straightening, “the Craft is its Own Reward.”