I am delighted to be one of the bloggers closing the blogtour for Louise Beech’s latest book I am Dust.
My thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda for the invitation. Below is an extract.. enjoy!
THE DEAN WILSON THEATRE
When Chester has gone, Chloe heads backstage. She keys in the door code and then stands in the chilly concrete space between the dressing rooms; it’s eerily quiet now the actors have departed. She fingers the row of costumes on the rack in the corridor, imagines them coming to life when no one is around, like the dolls in The Nutcracker.
Chloe smiles and shakes her head. An overactive imagination is a blessing when it comes to trying to write scenes in her room – here, it is a curse. And, oh, is she cursed with it. Her mum used to tell her frequently that she was born for the theatre – she used to say, when Chloe was younger and passionately performed her own little songs or skits, that she ‘glowed’. She would applaud vivaciously; smile proudly.
Now Chloe glances at the Morgan Miller dressing-room door. She can never help but look at it. It is shut now and the lower points of the gold star are tarnished, as if it has fallen from grace. Over the years, many ushers have reported seeing curious shadows moving on the stairs; exchanged frenzied tales of sounds coming from inside this dressing room.
Chester loves to spook everyone with the story of how he definitely saw Morgan’s ghost here, dressed as the ethereal Esme, waiting to go on stage one last time. Some of the ushers don’t like to come back here when it’s empty, and persuade someone else to go with them. Chloe has no choice. Her bike is around the back. She makes hearty fun of those who need to pair up, but she can’t say she hasn’t felt things too: goose bumps when she looks at the Morgan Miller star; an icy draught on her neck when she passes this door; a soft rustle of movement that she can’t be sure she has imagined.
The voice on the radio earlier was spooky. The words about being under a roof unnerved her. Thoughts of the incident that occurred in Morgan Miller’s dressing room creep into her mind. She shakes her head to get rid of them.
She’s about to hurry down the stone steps to the fire exit where her bike is chained when she hears it.
The creak of a door opening.
Chloe frowns. Stiffens. Waits. She is too scared to turn around and look back.
So don’t, she thinks. Don’t.
But she does.
The Morgan Miller dressing-room door is open. Chloe blinks, hoping that when she opens her eyes again it will be shut, just as she knows for certain it was earlier. No. It is wide open. Inviting. Gaping like the mouth in the famous Scream painting. She should run, but her feet are made of stone.
Another sound. A voice? Her name? Sung like the line from a musical? Why does the lilt of it stir something in her stomach? Some memory long gone.
No. She’s hearing things.
But the door is real. Still open.
She goes towards it, her heart screaming not to.
The dressing room is empty. George Dewitt’s things are scattered across the surfaces; ostentatious spectacles and scarves and make-up pots. The grey wig he wears in the show is perched on a mannequin’s head. Someone has drawn black eyes on its face, giving it an evil look.
Chloe steps inside.
She never comes into this dressing room to stare in the mirror and imagine being on stage. She can’t remember the last time she was in here.
Yes, you can, she thinks.
No. I can’t.
The original poster for Dust hangs on the wall. It’s yellowed at the edges and torn where its weight has pulled it free from drawing pins. It’s forbidden for anyone to take it down. Chloe moves closer to it. A coating of dust on the surface traps the light, so it looks like it’s sprinkled with glitter.
‘I am Dust,’ she whispers.
Surely it isn’t really coming back. Chester has got things wrong before, like the time he told them all that Tom Hardy was going to be in a show and it turned out it was local actor Tom Hardling.
Dean Wilson wrote the show to open the brand-new theatre twenty years ago. It sold out in minutes. The lavish musical set in Victorian England told the story of Esme Black, a housemaid who fell for her employer, wealthy doctor Gerard Chevalier. But he loved Lady Louisa Pearse, a vivacious and flighty creature. While Chevalier and Louisa were kissing at a garden party in his house, Esme hurled herself from the balcony and died at his feet. After that, she haunted Chevalier day and night, until he succumbed, fell in love with her ghost and committed suicide to be with her.
There was a huge battle for the role of Esme; actresses slept with producers; agents paid money to those who might sway the decision; actresses made recordings of themselves crooning the melancholic songs and sent them to anyone who mattered. But after a two-minute, breath-taking audition that silenced the room, Morgan Miller won the role.
Chloe saw it the night it opened, snuggled up to her mum.
During the interval on the fourth night of the run – press night – Morgan Miller was found dead in her dressing room.
Hit over the head repeatedly with a heavy object.
The show shut down.
The killer was never caught.
The theatre stayed open, though, and became a place of macabre interest. Ticket sales flourished, and stayed high for a long time, even if the quality of the productions declined. Now though, nothing seems to bring audiences in, not even the exaggerated tales of how Morgan Miller haunts the shadowy passages backstage.
But Chester thinks it’s coming back.
If it did, who would play Esme Black? Does Chloe have the versatility, the passion, or the ability to do it? Could she portray shy, desperate Esme; and could she evoke the ghostly enchantress Esme, on the other side? Even if she could … her body. Her damaged body. No. There’s no chance. But how amazing it would be to become Esme Black. To be part of the show that made her fall in love with the theatre.
Chloe looks at the two faces on the poster.
A lank-haired Morgan Miller looks into a mirror as the nondescript living Esme; but the reflection is the russet-lipped, golden-haired ghost who teases and taunts poor Dr Chevalier until he joins her in death. Chloe turns to the dressing-room mirror. She is also two opposing women. The one in the glass, with raven hair and neat eyebrows, smiles warmly and gives nothing away; the one with a heart beating too fast is afraid she will never be a success in the theatre.
But there is something else in the mirror.
On the mirror.
In the top corner of the glass, half hidden by one of the lights. How did she not notice before? Were they even there then? Chloe frowns at her own questions, wondering where they came from. They look like words written in black eye pencil. She moves closer, squints at the tiny capital letters. Then she gasps and leaps back:
YOU THREE NEVER BE UNDER ONE ROOF
What the hell? What three? It’s just her.
But isn’t that what someone whispered on the radio earlier?
Again, a dark memory uncoils in her gut like a black ghost rising from a grave.
When did she last see those words?
But how are they here on this mirror? Chloe looks wildly around. Who wrote them? When? She suddenly sees her friends from the youth theatre. Jess and Ryan. Jess Swanson and Ryan …
She can’t remember. But she hasn’t spoken to either of them for at least fourteen years. And why have they popped into her head? Why here? Now? What is it about these words?
YOU THREE NEVER BE UNDER ONE ROOF
Chloe has no clue what they mean.
You do, you just don’t want to remember…