Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

The Skins

The Skins - illustration by Reggie Oliver

Illustration by Reggie Oliver

I first met Syd and Peggy Brinton in August 1977 on the Sunday after Elvis Presley died.

It was a sultry evening at the Pier Pavilion Theatre, Scarmouth, and an argument was simmering before the show in No. 5 dressing room which Victor Bright and I occupied. We had come in early that day to gorge ourselves on images of the doomed star in our shared Sunday papers. Details about hamburgers and drugs, the distended, tawdry glamour of Graceland, were pored over with sickened fascination. Thinking of that mountain of flesh, now cold and corrupting, I felt a strange, guilty satisfaction: I would never know such stardom; but I would equally never know the futility of success, or its ignominious end.

To purge myself of these unworthy thoughts, I gave way to pious platitudes. “What a waste!” I said. “That fantastic talent. It’s just such a waste . . .”

Victor, who loved to pick a fight, took the opposite view. Of course it wasn’t a waste. It was the inevitable end. Elvis was finished, had been finished for years. He had done what he was meant to do: changed the face of modern music. He had nowhere else to go, nothing to do except give increasingly pathetic displays of his spent talent. Dying was the best thing he could have done. He ought to have died sooner.

I rose to the bait and was beginning to challenge Victor when there was a knock at the door. It opened a fraction and two smiling heads popped round it simultaneously, a male and a female.

“Hello,” they said, almost in unison. “We’re Syd and Peggy. We’re the new Spesh!” The next instant they were gone.

It had all been done with such precision, such show business flair, it had come as if on cue at such a critical moment, that the tension was immediately relieved and both of us burst out laughing. So they were Syd and Peggy Brinton, the new Spesh.

The “Spesh,” or Speciality Act, was a feature of our Sunday nights at the Pier Pavilion, Scarmouth. During the week we performed in a couple of plays, a comedy and a thriller, changing midweek, but on Sunday, the night when we regularly filled the theatre, there was “Old Tyme Music Hall with Special Guest Stars,” two of whom were Syd and Peggy.

They came to us nearly at the end of the season because the management, “Bunny G. Enterprises,” had a violent disagreement with the previous “Spesh,” an Ultra Violet Puppet act called “Fantastique!” We were not sorry to see it go because the two men who were “Fantastique!” gave themselves airs. They thought they were better than us lowly actors; they called themselves artists rather than “artistes.” Entertainment, not art, was what Bunny G. Enterprises was about, and Syd and Peggy Brinton had similar priorities.

Their bill material was “Syd and Peggy Brinton, Comedy Tap Sensation.” Their act, always a precise and theatrically correct twenty minutes, began with “Happy Feet” and ended with “Me and My Shadow.” Between these two numbers, the tap dancing elements of their performance, they executed a harmless and fairly ordinary magic act involving balloons and mild comic banter. Their routine never varied and was always well if not enthusiastically received.

I had watched them from the side that night and enjoyed their performance. Syd had winked at me once through his sweat as they clicked and shuffled round the stage to “Happy Feet.” Peggy had barmaid blonde looks, a good figure and excellent legs. At five foot five, Syd was no more than an inch taller, lithe and slightly wizened. They seemed to my young eyes pretty ancient but they were only in their mid-forties. He wore a dinner jacket, she a gold lamé leotard and fishnet tights; both carried straw boaters and canes for their numbers.

I saw them in the theatre bar after the performance. Syd stood at the bar with the boss, Mr. “Bunny” Warren Goldman, who had come down specially to see them into the show. Syd was laughing uproariously at Bunny’s jokes, as one had to, but I noticed that Peggy was sitting alone at a distant table sipping from a schooner of sweet sherry. The rest of the company were ignoring her for some reason. When our eyes met I felt compelled to go over and keep her company and I saw relief in her smile as I joined her. Close to, her face, still carrying a heavy stage make-up, looked quite deeply lined. She fished in her bag, took out a packet of cigarettes and offered me one. I declined and she lit up with a quick, almost convulsive movement.

“I enjoyed the act,” I said.

“Yes. We spotted you in the wings there. Did you really like it?”

I made further noises of assent, surprised by the plaintive note in her question. I had thought Peggy too consummate a professional to need reassurance because I had not yet learned that everything in show business is an act, including, and indeed especially, complete self-confidence.

“Isn’t it terrible about Elvis?” she said after a slight pause. I nodded. She went on: “It’s terrible the things they’re saying about him in the papers now he’s dead. I’m sure none of them are true. He had a lovely act. Syd used to do an Elvis impersonation in the routine. We couldn’t do it now of course.”

I was intrigued. As a young actor in “legit” theatre I had very little understanding of the variety side of things and was curious to know more about it.

“Mostly we do the clubs and guest appearances like this,” she told me. “We have done summer season variety, but we like the clubs. We always go down well in the clubs. It’s a clean act: I think they like that for a change. There’s a lot of blue material in the clubs these days. Yes, it’s a good act. But there’s always room for improvement, isn’t there? That’s what I say. I keep telling Syd. We ought to change now and then. Put in more gags. We’ve got to move with the times. But he’s happy as it is. He won’t budge. Typical man. We could be a top flight supporting act. We’ve done it before. Once we closed the first half for Frankie Lane at the Empire, Hartlepool, you know. We’re very big in Hartlepool.”

I looked impressed and asked her if they worked the clubs all the year round.

“Oh, no! We’re always in Panto at Christmas. We do the skins, you see.”

I must have looked blank, so she explained. “We’re in the skins. Like Pantomime Horse. And Daisy the Cow, you know. They call it the skins. People don’t understand, but it’s a very specialised field. Not just anyone can do it. Our feature is a tap routine in the skins. It’s famous. We’re one of the top skins double acts in the country. Of course, you know, the great skins role in panto is a single. It’s Mother Goose. You’ve got a real character there in Priscilla the Goose. You have to do pathos and everything. She’s central to the subject, you see; lays the golden eggs. I could do that. I haven’t yet because of Syd. He wouldn’t have a role, you see. So it’s Daisy and Dobbin for us.” She sighed resentfully and pulled hard on her cigarette.

Over the course of the next few Sundays I had several talks with Peggy. She and Syd always seemed on amicable terms but, as if by some unspoken ritual, they never drank together in the bar after the show. Peggy liked to talk but she did not have Syd’s natural gregariousness. “Syd’s a man’s man, you see,” she said to me once when we heard his loud laugh above the others at the bar. I gathered that she and Syd had teamed up and married early. They had one son, Mick, who was grown up and in work “Stage Managing at the London Palladium.” Peggy was inordinately proud of this. “He’s doing really well there,” she would say. When I asked what position he occupied in the stage management hierarchy she was vague, but she said that he got on really well with everyone and “they all love Mick.”

I found that few people in the company cared to spend time with Peggy. I couldn’t quite see why. Victor in particular took against her: he objected to her smoking. “That’s bad enough,” he said. “One has to look after one’s voice. But she will wave the bloody cigarette around in that twitchy way.” Admittedly too, her conversational range was limited. She really only had two subjects: their son Mick and their professional status. She would often tell me how they were one of the top skins acts in the country and that her great ambition was to play Priscilla in Mother Goose.

On the last Sunday of the season there was a party in the bar afterwards; the drinks were on Bunny Goodman and everyone got a little drunk. I remember once again finding myself with Peggy, who had abandoned her strict rule of one schooner of sherry per night and was on her fourth or fifth. She told me twice about how they had closed the first half for Frankie Lane in Hartlepool, then suddenly and quite unexpectedly she seized my knee under the table in a strong nervous grip.

With little relevance to what had gone before she fixed me with a stare and said: “Don’t get me wrong. Syd’s all right. I’m not complaining. But he doesn’t satisfy me. You know what I mean? I need to be satisfied.” I saw her hazel eyes begin to flood with tears. Those eyes were the only real thing about her face: the rest was green eye shadow, false lashes, lip gloss, Max Factor pancake and powder. It was like a mask, or another skin.

Then, just as suddenly, she released my knee and began to apologise abjectly. I found this as embarrassing as what had gone before, so I made excuses and left her as soon as I could.

• • • •

At Christmas a couple of years later, having nothing better to go to, I accepted an offer from Bunny to play Will Scarlett, one of the Merry Men in Babes in the Wood at the Alhambra, Brightsea. Victor Bright was playing the Sheriff of Nottingham and since we had last worked together he had become a “name.” He had landed the role of one of those ruthless yet virile businessmen, so beloved of TV Soaps, in a thing called Seaways. So he was near the top of the bill as “Victor Bright, TV’s Mr. Nasty.” Also in the cast were Syd and Peggy Brinton who, in addition to being “Merry Men,” were in the skins as “Dobbin, the Wonderhorse.” At the first rehearsal Peggy greeted me pleasantly but quite distantly. I wondered whether she remembered our intimate conversations at Scarmouth, or whether she had chosen to forget them. Victor Bright was similarly aloof, but for different reasons. Success had clad him in a hard, shiny carapace of invulnerability.

We opened on Boxing Day. It was a good show and there was talk of “breaking all box office records,” something which is done more frequently than you might imagine. To me everyone seemed happy, but I was wrong: I do not have the kind of sensitivities which detect what is going on in a company.

About a week into the run I happened to be in the wings watching Syd and Peggy as Dobbin the horse doing their tap dance. I regularly watched it from the side as it was a most expert performance. Peggy took the front half of the horse and Syd the rear. Suddenly I became aware of Freddie Dring, our Dame, gigantic in a white frock covered in huge red polka dots, standing beside me. He was waiting to make his entrance.

“That’s a very Biblical Horse you’ve got there, my friend,” he said, nudging me in the groin with a vast purple handbag. On and off stage Freddie Dring spoke almost entirely in gags, so I knew what was expected of me.

“Oh, and why is that a Biblical Horse?” I said, feeding him the punch line.

“Because the back legs knoweth not what the front legs doeth.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I think they’re amazingly coordinated. And that dance —”

But Freddie cut me off. “Don’t be green, son. Don’t be green,” he said and made his entrance.

It often happens that when you get wind of trouble from one source it is almost immediately confirmed from another. During the interval I happened to overhear a conversation between the two actresses playing Principal Girl and Principal Boy. They had gone for a smoke just outside the stage door.

“Bastard!” said Robin Hood. “He thinks he’s God’s gift. I told him when he tried to put a hand up my tunic, ‘My boyfriend’s a Black Belt and he’s taught me a move or two.’”

“Is he?” asked Maid Marian. “A Black Belt?”

“No. He’s a Chartered Surveyor. But he was in the Territorials. You know who Mr. Wonderful’s trying it on with now?”

“No! Who?”

“Dobbin.”

“No! Front or back?”

Robin Hood let out a snort of laughter. “Oh, Please! One thing he’s not is a wrong ender.”

“Be a lot less trouble if he were if you ask me,” said Maid Marian, who was newly married and had a philosophical approach to life. “But that is so disgusting! Peggy! I mean she’s . . . Just because he’s been in some poxy soap he thinks he’s God’s Gift. What’s Peggy doing about it?”

Robin Hood said: “You won’t believe this —” But just then she saw me and drew Maid Marian away to share further secrets, unspied on.

I had heard enough, and next day a fresh piece of news was all over the company. Syd had caught Peggy and Victor “at it” in Peggy and Syd’s camper van in the theatre car park. “I tell you, he wouldn’t have minded only they were doing terrible things to the suspension,” said Freddie Dring.

That evening we saw Peggy and Syd enter the theatre, silent, tight-lipped. An equally taciturn Victor played the Sheriff of Nottingham with such venom that several terrified young members of the audience had to be removed from the auditorium. When it was time for Dobbin to do its tap dance most of the company was gathered on the side of the stage to watch the spectacle.

It seemed a monstrous thing that clattered and stamped its way about the stage that night. Syd and Peggy, consummate professionals, were giving their usual well-drilled performance, but perhaps their steps were more percussive than usual, their taps more brutally metallic. Every ripple of the shabby cloth skin, every nod of the clumsy beast’s head seemed a sign of the terrible, claustrophobic conflict that must be raging within. Freddie, who might have been expected to come up with something humorous, was in a gloomy mood. “I tell you,” he said. “There’s worse to come. I’ve never liked Babes in the Wood as a subject. It’s always been a jinxed panto. It’s a well known fact.”

• • • •

The following morning I was summoned to the theatre. Syd had had an accident after the previous night’s performance; he had injured his leg badly and was in hospital. The cause of the accident was not vouchsafed to me: I was there because Peggy had selected me to take over the back legs of Dobbin while Syd was out of action. I knew that any protest on my part would not be tolerated because Bunny Goldman had driven down from London and was sitting stony faced in the auditorium.

Peggy seemed unnaturally calm. She said that “everyone” had thought it would be a shame to remove Dobbin altogether from the pantomime, but that I would not be expected to do anything too difficult like the tap dance. From now until the first show at 2:30 Peggy was to give me a crash course in “working the skins.”

It was a strange, uncomfortable time which Peggy handled better than I. Perhaps the concentration required in giving instructions to a novice purged her mind of other, more troublesome thoughts. And I was in the acutely embarrassing position of having to enter Syd’s skin.

Nothing quite prepares you for the experience of being “in the skins.” You are not entirely in the dark because gauzes set into the cloth give you glimpses of the stage, but the sense of entrapment and enclosure is astonishingly intense. The feeling was enhanced for me because I was acutely conscious of occupying another’s space. The smell inside was not particularly offensive but it was somehow personal to the body which had once occupied it and the body of the former occupant’s partner, which still did. I felt an acute and irrational terror of touching Peggy in the skins.

Before I made my first entrance in this new role Freddie Dring winked at me and said: “Sooner you than me mate. Talk about dancing cheek to cheek, eh? Eh?”

“We’re not doing the dance,” I said solemnly.

“Don’t be green, son. Don’t be green,” said Freddie.

I thought that, all things considered, the matinee performance did not go badly. I performed as instructed by Peggy and was hoping for some word of commendation at the end of it. Instead, when we had taken off the skins for the last time I was met with a set face and an angry stare.

“When you’re in the skins, you keep your hands to yourself. That’s one of the golden rules. I thought every professional knew that. Don’t you ever do that again.”

I was astonished. I had avoided any physical contact with her whatsoever. The last thing I had wanted to do was touch her. My protests and denials were cut short.

“Don’t insult me by lying, young man!” she said as she stalked off to her dressing room carrying the empty horse.

• • • •

Between the matinee and the evening show I visited Syd in hospital. I had learned that the night before, after the show, Syd had wandered off and got drunk. On his way back to the camper van late at night he had lurched out into the road and was run over by a car. His right leg was badly damaged; how badly I did not yet know. There had been conflicting opinions among the company, some saying that he would be out of hospital and dancing in a matter of days, others offering less hopeful prognostics.

Syd occupied a private room in the hospital. I found him sitting up in bed surrounded by flowers, fruit, and Get Well cards. His right leg was under a frame which formed a long barrow in the blanketed surface of the bed. As I entered the room he gave his cheerful grin and wink, but I was immediately aware that a change had taken place in him. What first prompted this feeling were his teeth. I had never noticed them before but they seemed more prominent than usual: his grin was wolfish. His face, never in any way chubby, had sharpened; flesh had collapsed onto the bones.

“Hello, son,” he said. “What do you want?” The bonhomie was now no more than a façade, and I could smell something confused and resentful beneath. I did my dutiful best to wish him well and express the hope that he would be out of hospital and performing within a few days. As I did so his face remained blank, and he nodded sharply at each clumsy expression of good will. He seemed impatient. His hands fumbled with a piece of dark cloth. I asked him about the leg.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Just give us a few days. It’ll mend. They’re operating tonight. Don’t you worry. That’s a good leg. I’m not having it off in a hurry.” I was puzzled: the possibility of amputation had not occurred to me. Syd’s hands continued to work at the piece of cloth: he seemed to have taken on some of his wife’s restlessness. When I told him that I now occupied his position in the skins he became animated.

“You don’t want to do that, son,” he said frowning.

I told him that I didn’t want to do it, but I that was doing it under Bunny Goldman’s orders. Syd did not take this in.

“Listen to me, lad,” he said, drawing me closer to him with a beckoning finger. “She’ll never work those skins without me. I tell you she’s nothing without me. Nothing’s going to change that. She can talk all she likes about Priscilla and Mother Goose. Oh, I know. It’s Priscilla this, sodding Priscilla that. Well, she won’t do no Priscilla. Understand? I’m seeing to that. Peggy and I do the skins together or we don’t do it at all. All right, son?”

He bared his teeth again. The lustreless eyes were no longer on me but had concentrated themselves on a distant object. The skin was pale, tautly folded and shining. Something convulsed under his sheet and I left quickly.

• • • •

I felt still more nervous about the evening performance. The atmosphere in the theatre had not improved. I gathered that Victor was not speaking to anyone, least of all Peggy. Quite why he had pursued an affair with her in the first place was beyond me. Maid Marian and Robin Hood’s speculation was that it was wounded vanity: the star’s droit de seigneur had been denied him in other quarters, so he had settled for the only available opportunity. Peggy alone was hurt by his aloofness because the rest of the company, in one of those periodic fits of self-righteousness that sometimes grip theatrical people, had decided to shun him as coldly as he shunned them.

Peggy herself had absorbed some of this mood of indignation and the object of her censure was still me and my alleged offence inside the skins that afternoon. I had stopped protesting my innocence. In her dressing room, I allowed her to give me a talking to and to heal her guilt with the balm of moral superiority.

“Whatever happens,” she concluded. “I’m going solo in the skins after this. I’m going to ask Bunny to give me Priscilla next year, but I’ll settle for Puss in Boots.”

She was sitting at her dressing table as she said this and Dobbin’s skins were lying at her feet, looking like the desiccated corpse of a farm animal. As she spoke the last words she must have kicked the skin accidentally; at least, I saw one of the cloth legs give a strange twitch like the last convulsion of a dying beast. Peggy noticed this too and seemed shocked. She put one of her stockinged feet carefully on Dobbin’s head, then looked at me defiantly.

Long before the thing happened I was determined that this would be my last night in the skins. The stage lights beat down upon my mobile prison and made its darkness noisome and oppressive. I felt beads of sweat crawling off my bent back. The other occupant, so near yet so distant, was also in a state of agitation. How it was I don’t know—perhaps it was my eyes—but the gauzes in the skin out of which I could see onto the stage had become more opaque. The events outside seemed dim and remote, and among the unpleasant odours which surrounded my captivity was a faint scent which oppressed me most of all, that of another person, not Peggy, but another.

It was our last entrance before the “Walk Down,” the curtain call of the Pantomime. In this scene the Sheriff of Nottingham’s villainy was finally exposed and Dobbin had to come on to nudge him off to prison. We were waiting for our entrance in the wings when I felt something pass across my face, something yielding, cold and damp, like a cloth. It filled me with terror because it had no explanation and it left behind an intense version of that alien smell which so revolted me.

I heard Peggy’s muffled voice urging me to “Get a move on! We’re missing our entrance.” So we trundled on, I now in a state of incommunicable panic. Then it happened again, just as Peggy had given the Sheriff of Nottingham the first butt with her head, rather more violently than usual as I remember. It was at that moment that I felt as if someone or something was trying to suffocate me. The cloth—if that was what it was—was being forced over my mouth and nose. I tried to bring my hands up to pull it off, but I was paralysed and somehow I dreaded touching the thing. Its odour was intense: it was yielding, a little slimy and somehow soft. It felt like someone’s skin.

I was told later that having been violently sick inside the Pantomime Horse, I collapsed on stage. And the audience, seeing all this from the outside, roared with laughter.

That was my last night in the skins. I learned later that Syd had died in the early hours of the following morning. Gangrene had set in and he stubbornly refused amputation. I had the impression from the nurse I spoke to that a loss of the will to live had played its part.

• • • •

In the summer of 1981 Bunny G had nothing for me in the way of theatrical work because he had closed down the repertory side of his enterprise—it had never made much of a profit—and was concentrating on variety. But I was desperately hard up and out of work, so he took me on as a kind of office boy at their London Headquarters. I also became a roving trouble-shooter if there were stage management problems at any of his theatres. Bunny Goldman was one of those hard-faced businessmen who liked to think of themselves as having “a heart of gold” underneath it all. Everyone at the office repeated this mantra about Bunny’s heart of gold, but I never saw enough of his heart to say what metal it was made of. Unless you count that blazingly hot August day when he came in and leaned over his secretary’s desk.

“Millie, my love, I wonder if you can find a nice bouquet of flowers for me.” There was something in his tone of voice which announced to the world that he was about to make a gesture. “I’ve just heard some very sad news about Peggy Brinton.”

He turned to me. “You remember Peggy, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“Lovely lady. Real Pro. One of the old school. A trouper. Salt of the Earth.” Moved by his own eloquence, he wiped something from his eye, then mopped his huge sweating head. He sighed. By this time he had commanded the attention of the whole office.

“I fear she is not long for this world.” A pause, then he announced solemnly: “The big C.” After which he nodded several times in a thoughtful way, as if he had personally given the diagnosis. Everyone in the office began to make aggrieved and sympathetic noises.

“I want a nice bouquet of flowers,” he said, handing me a ten pound note. “Nothing fancy. Just a nice bouquet of flowers. And I would like you, my friend —” putting his hand on my shoulder —”to take it round to Peggy, personally, from me and all of us here. I have a card here which we can all sign.” He produced a large specimen decorated with yellow roses. He had already signed the card with an enormous flourish and our little messages were to adorn the empty spaces around this central signature. After we had put our names to the gesture, he told me where to go. Peggy had recently come out of hospital and rather than returning to her house in Southend she was being looked after by her son Mick at his flat near the Elephant and Castle.

That day London rippled in white, airless heat. Having bought the flowers—and even in 1981 a decent bouquet cost more than £10—I made my way to Mick’s flat. It was on the fifth floor of a huge block on the Old Kent Road. The lift had failed and the walk up a baking concrete stairwell was an exhausting, despairing journey. I think the heat blacked out some of my conscious memory because I remember suddenly and unexpectedly finding myself in front of a red door, one of many which opened onto a narrow balconied walkway. Down below traffic roared, houses hazed and shivered in the heat. I had a chance to recover my senses because a long time elapsed between my ringing the bell and the door being opened.

Standing in the doorway was a very large man in his thirties with a great senseless slab of a face. His huge bulk was clad in shorts and a black sweatshirt with LONDON PALLADIUM emblazoned on it in white.

“Hello,” I said proffering a hand. “You must be Mick.”

Mick looked at the hand, but did not move. He said: “Have you come to see Mum?” He pronounced the last word “Moom” which, in his cavernous, colourless voice had a suggestion of threat to it.

I nodded, showed him the flowers and explained their origin. Mick stared blankly at them and retreated an inch or two inside the doorway. I could see a narrow passage beyond and an open door to the right through which I could just discern a small, sweltering sitting room. There was a smell of unemptied kitchen bins and fried food.

“Moom don’t like company no more.” he said eventually.

“Will you give her these, then?” I said handing him the flowers. He hesitated warily before accepting them and withdrew a little further into the hot darkness of the passage.

Mick’s great bulk made it impossible for me to pass him, but I could now see a little more of the sitting room. It was lit by the sun made pallid and bland by the yellow muslin curtains through which it filtered. The room was crammed with photographs and ornaments. Someone had decided to collect gaudy little china figurines of animals. In the midst of this in an armchair sat Peggy, her face white and shrivelled, the air and blood sucked out of her. She was smoking hard. From time to time she gave a convulsive twitch as if she were trying to shake off the loose robe of flesh which still clung to her bones. It was hot, horribly hot and stuffy, but she seemed to be wearing a sort of white woolly jump suit. I noticed that where she ought to have had shoes there were great orange webbed feet.

She saw me and opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

“Moom won’t move out of the skins now,” said Mick.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Reggie Oliver

photograph by Caroline Webster 2015

Photograph by Caroline Webster 2015

Reggie Oliver is an actor, director, playwright and author of fiction. Published work includes six plays, two novels, six volumes of short stories, including Mrs. Midnight (2012 winner of Children of the Night Award for best work of supernatural fiction), and, the biography of Stella Gibbons,Out of the Woodshed (Bloomsbury 1998). His stories have appeared in over fifty anthologies. The Sea of Blood, a new collection from Dark Renaissance, has just been published. Forthcoming shortly are: The Boke of the Divill, a novel from Dark Renaissance, Holidays from Hell, a new collection of stories from Tartarus, and The Hauntings at Tankerton Park and How They Got Rid of Them, a children’s book with illustrations by the author from Zagava Press.