She arrived right on time, smoking a cigarette round the corner, checking her watch between drags before popping in a peppermint pastel, wary of meeting one of those non-smokers sensitive to the stale tar smell as she had been during the three weeks she’d quit last June. Right down to the quick, last drag tasting of burnt toast rubbed in face cream as the flame hit the filter; she screwed it into the pavement, unable to stop herself indulging in the impression of the ‘50s twist as her shoe shimmied left and right, every filament glowing red and orange extinguished to a dull grey.

She knew this role, she’d played a role like it once. And with all the years of experience added to her slightly plumper waistband since those youthful theatrical roles, she teetered on the loosening tightrope between assured confidence in her talent and the greediest and most arrogant of all the actresses’ perils: desiring novelty rather than familiarity.

Her freshly manicured nail counted two-seconds on the buzzer.

She’d thought about chewing down the length, chipping the beauticians’ handiwork as the youth of today were prone to do, but hadn’t the heart; and still, she remembered all too well her mother’s vicious wrist slaps from when she herself had had the habit of biting at her own cuticles, all those years ago.

The front door released with a subtle click and she pushed through into an unmanned reception; forcing her into taking unwanted initiative, as she followed arrowed signs pasted haphazardly onto pealing wallpaper, down into the musky basement corridors, too cool to remove her coat, as she would have liked to have done.

She had not wanted to come at all.

In fact, she had bickered down the phone to her agent for over half an hour the night before — not to much avail — on the pretence of her suitability to the part (whilst skirting the subject of age). Now she felt even more put off by the informality of it all. Auditions were never run like this when she first started out.

Thoughts crescendoed, snobbish in nature, pinging round her brain, shaming her to sound as prim as those waspy types, upwards of forty; and so, in hope of recapturing her fast fading youth, she coaxed the top button of her coat free, revealing the slightest glimpse of her much prided, delicate collarbone as she found the final arrowed sign and an open doorway.

She sashayed inside, her lips plump around the quickly dissolving pastel. But the intended allure remained unnoticed by her audience: a man in a haggard three-piece suit. He merely nodded towards a clipboard teetering on the entrance desk’s edge, too engrossed to look up from the tiny print in the pocket sized book he was reading. Slightly perturbed (but with all the dignity not to show it), she dotted the i and crossed the t in her femininescrawl at the bottom of a list that ran longer than her liking, turned, and joined the horseshoe arrangement of chairs occupied by six or seven other actresses awaiting the limelight.

The blonde occupying the chair opposite in a starched white dress that screamed virginity was nibbling on the butt of an ornate pen, decisively filling out the xeroxed page laid across her play text. With alarmed investigation, she deduced what exactly this pen chewer was doing and with a skip and a jump (and a little trip over the purse she had planted at her feet) she hurried back to the desk. The suited gatekeeper, uninterested in social niceties, did not remove his eyes from the book even a fraction as he licked the gap between forefinger and thumb in preparation of freeing up the topmost xeroxed page from the stack to his left.

Her ballet pumped feet padded back to the cold metal chair, pores of her fingertips heating sticky prints onto the paper she clutched. It seemed that the youthfulness of all the other actresses had exaggerated further and further in her mind, so that in the small lag between initial arrival and the present anxious moment, she was now utterly convinced that each of them could be no less than half her age.

She scorned her agent silently.

She would have to be damn well explicit next time.

Dragging her thoughts away from this all too familiar track, she occupied herself with her own xeroxed page. She wished she’d brought her glasses with her but knew full well that the horn-rimmed spectacles she revered for boosting her self-professed intelligentsia, aged her nothing short of ten years, and she’d tactfully left them at home. The words columned downthe left hand side blurred in and out of comprehensibility, unpredictable in rhythm, leaving her no choice but to subtly squint in the way she had practiced to make her look thoughtful rather than blind, lest her competitors considered it an additional splinter of evidence digging into her Achilles heel.

Upon reaching the dotted line for which she was quite certain said:
‘Measurements’, she paused, chewing on a less ornate pen that she had fished out of her cluttered purse, a biro purchased in a panic at the deli on route, along with the cigarette pack she was craving to dip her fingers back into now that she had to think in inches and pounds.

She remembered the exact numbers on the tape measure she’d wrapped round herself during the post New Year’s diet, but knew full well it could not have remained so. She had become rather relaxed with her resolutions and quietly blamed it on her new lover, a passionate wine connoisseur.
But although she brought out a flourish of acting charm at the opening of every new bottle, she could not so much distinguish between the different reds and the different whites and most of all the different rosés, and to how much this new hobby of hers had added to her ‘Measurements’.

So she put down an optimistic number, a youthful number, and whispered a silent prayer — as agnostics sometimes do — for an audition room filled with men, so that she would not have to come under the scrupulous eye of a woman.

Through a door adjacent to the collection of aspiring starlets stepped a tweedy little fellow, whose comically slight frame and short stature could have won him the role of a child — and/or leprechaun — in any theatrical production of his choosing. He brought with him, his very own clipboard, pin hole spectacles that he whipped off magnificently on arrival and all the self-important airs that people lacking in very much importance often have.
In the bates silence, he called ‘Miss Verity Alison’ off of his list.

Miss Verity Alison, another blonde but with fine natural ringlets that we all assume fall limp after the initial blooms of childhood, transformed her vacant expression into the most radiant of smiles as she rose to meet her gentleman caller. She blossomed with all the required innocence of the sixteen-year-old Southern belle she had come to embody and was watched nosily by all the others as she disappeared through the mystery door. All around the waiting room fingernails rose to meet agitated teeth and chips of fresh varnish floated to the ground below.

Back with her xeroxed page and embellished bra size, like most of the other actresses, she considered leaving. The nerves were now manifesting as an annoying little tickle at the back of her throat, forcing her to clear it every so often, embarrassed to break the pristine silence of their less etherial purgatory. The ordeal doubled her craving for the cigarette she knew was off-limits. That had been her last pastel and she was utterly convinced that sixteen-year-old Texan sweethearts weren’t renowned for their smoking habits in the ’30’s.

Several increasingly uncomfortable minutes passed of avoiding eye contact and studying the set monologue until the return of Miss Verity Alison broke the tension. With a not-so-subtlety smug smile, which could only have originated from compliments to her performance, Miss Verity Alison collected her things, tucking her well thumbed play text into the purse that she’d left on her chair, entrusted to perfect strangers; and with a cutesy wiggle of her fingers and a hushed ‘Good luck, Laies’ Miss Verity Alison exited.

The tension swelled once more.

Luck wasn’t what was needed, she thought, surreptitiously eyeing the remaining competition. Perhaps shaving five years was necessary and the idea of adding a touch more powder to the crows feet she had been obsessing over and ‘imagining’— according to her agent — crossed her mind. But at many an audition she had watched appearance-stricken actresses add excess make-up at the last minute, veneers to low confidence rather than actual flaws, and the vanity of the action goaded her into inaction.

The tweedy leprechaun man was back to call ‘Miss Alicia Franks’.

She watched a considerably agitated Miss Alicia Franks (the only brunette among them) disappear before she went back to the study of her monologue, scanning over-rehearsed lines and barely taking them in under the distraction of the methodically ticking clock; equally as maddening as the dripping faucet in her kitchen sink which drove her livid in the way that only a cliché can.

She stared up at the second hand. It was stuck between the seven and the eight, juddering in its paralysis, never quite breaking free.

She must have drifted off for some time as another name was called, and then another, and it took a mighty effort to drag herself away from all the exuberant fantasies of her 8pm date that night when she heard:

‘Miss Anita Johnson?’

She started a little, suddenly aware that the waiting room had been replaced with a fresh bouquet of actresses awash with crisper peroxide, neater play texts, even fancier pens; and she had wasted away precious remaining rehearsal time on meaningless daydreams. Gathering up her things without making too much of a fuss, coat now drooped over an arm in the heat generated from all her nerves, she revealed in full splendour, the day dress that she had rustled up from the storage boxes left over from her school days.

She let rip a final clear of the throat, mentally preparing her pitch slightly higher than what felt natural, with every intention of softening it — Monroe style — into a wispy naïveté, disguising the (self-perceived) wisdom acquired with age. With a lightness in her step, she handed over the xeroxed page to Mr. Tweedy and stuck out a hand amiably, ready for an informal handshake and to reintroduce herself with the name he was already in possession of.

Through the mysterious doorway, the darkened room was lit only by a single stage lamp, leaving the three sofa bound men in an unintentionally ominous shadow. Anita shook hands with each as they offered names and titles. Furthest to the right was the Director, and it may have been because his name was simply the same, or that he had pronounced it in a similar way, but, just like a pungent perfume can bring back those childhood visits to that exuberant Grandmother’s, or a song can bring back a night of misnaming constellations under a starry sky, every aspect of this man’s voice brought forth a memory for Anita, clear as the diamond ring she had never been offered by the young man that she had dated — and regretfully loved — once upon a time, when she was just a puny seventeen.

The Director removed his thin-rimmed, sharp-edged eyeglasses to meet her gaze, and as she met with his, all she could suddenly see were the effervescent curls that tumbled down over the dark oceanic irises of that very first, diamond-less love. The Director’s polite smile of introduction, metamorphosed in Anita’s vision into that lustful, juvenile stare that had always made her blush right down to her twiggy little adolescent ankles. And in the rim of golden light from the sole lamp, Anita’s high school blush and high school dress suited her no less than the day she first wore them.

Anita neatly arranged her possessions and sat on the provided chair, exhilarated by the timing of this remerged memory, which had remained unconsidered up until this point, but nevertheless absolutely perfect to aid her in this exact performance.

The company allowed a polite splatter of laughter to pass as the tweedy assistant man realised their meeting was in need of some more light and blinded them all momentarily with a harsh explosion from the high wattage ceiling bulbs. Small talk and general cooing over shared acquaintances took its course before Anita was invited to take the stage. Although promoted to: ‘take as much time as you need…’ she was quick to prepare and simply curled up on the solitary stage chair, letting her pumps clatter onto the linoleum as she tucked her bare feet under her lap. She warmed her fingertips between her knees until the pose created in the mind of each audience member that of a vast cushioned sofa she had cozied up on.

Anita stared off into the space to her left, where the light, now returned to the single stage lamp, didn’t reach so well and objects faded into half distinguishable shapes. Her inky pupils took the form of lead and penciled into her imagination the shutters and panes of glass and even that little crack which was never quite fixed on the sitting room window looking out onto her parent’s garden.

A shiver scampered up her bare arms, chilling her as a single blink brought about a snowflake, followed by another, until a mass of wintery beauty was swirling in the imaginary wind on the other side of her imaginary window.
Anita remembered this night exactly. She had planned to spend it with her hands running through her First Love’s curls, while her parents were out at the annual office shindig. But he had been whisked off, on short notice, by his excitable and unreliable father, on a ski trip to Zurich, and she had received only a brief letter a few days before explaining that this circumstanche, and the fact that he had ‘fallen in love’ with the first girl he had met at university, was reason enough to, ‘regrettably’ end their relationship.

Anita sighed, the bitter taste clinging to her tongue from the recreated brandy she had sneaked from the liquor cabinet, all those years ago, and never drunk since, the sweetness too pervasive and the bite from the booze giving her heartburn.

She let the nostalgia wash over her; nostalgia for a time where painful moments branded her and every relationship held the value of life and death; where she could just sit and stare out of a frosty window and think that brandy was outrageously rebellious. And at just that moment, when every detail was emblazoned to life and the imagined reality pulsing through her, the words of the monologue began to flow.

In the opinions of the three men, and even the tweedy leprechaun manchild who was still lurking in the dark by the door, there could be no other Milly Andersen, the 1930’s Texan debutante. But aware of the many other actresses to be seen and the fact that it was simply not the done thing, they all remained as poker faced as could be, wary of letting slip that she had just landed the job on the spot.

Anita wiped away one last idealistic tear at the crescendoed finale and waited, expectant of a redirection. But there was nothing more to be said other than a few ‘thank you’s’ and the muttered pleasantries that went along with more handshakes. She slipped out the door in a heavy silence, feeling as if she had been nothing more than a light nuisance.

Crossing the waiting room, she looked purposefully downcast, a habit of hers she maintained in hope that the expression would alleviate the other actresses into states of impudence, believing there was one less girl to beat.
A farewell nod in the direction of the uninterested bookworm went unnoticed as she buttoned her coat all the way back up and made her exit, travelling up through the chilly corridors, past the deserted reception and down the front steps into the musky city smell of an early spring afternoon.

Anita made a point of taking a detour past the fanciest liqueur store she knew and had always felt too timid to enter. But boosted by a new focus on her 8pm date and by the desire for a distraction from all the swirling ideas of what she could have said, what she could have done in the audition, she stepped into the library of bottles, rows upon rows, aligned on polished oak-panelled shelving right up to the ceiling, so that in some cases, a foot stool was needed to reach a particular bottle.

The burly shop assistant tracked Anita’s movements as she ran her fingers across creamy labels, some in French, some in Spanish, none of them comprehensible to her. She thought of asking for his expertise but his chesty cough was rather repulsive and she was somewhat convinced that she’d seen a button pop off his undersized shirt and spin across the counter after a particularly violent eruption. She tried to believe that it was just a penny or a bottle cap for all she could see this far away across the shop, but regardless, thinking it better not to endanger her health, she instead took a gamble on a bottle with a price tag that, although not out of her price range could not be considered cheap.

Sidling her way down one of the many aisles, she met with red rimmed eyes, partially hidden behind chunky glasses and a grubby hanky mopping up a dribbling nose. The bottle had hardly found it’s standing on the counter when the sickly shop assistant grunted, ‘Identification, please.’

The request stunned Anita. It delayed the action of fishing out a predominantly unused drivers licence from the depth of her wallet. But it was retrieved and she found herself sucking in her cheeks trying to stop the smile from infecting her face while she looked up, as well mannered as could be, at the shop assistant’s eyes which grew wide when fixing upon her date of birth.

Anita pretended not to hear his mumbled apology, handing him a crumpled bank note, cradling the bottle under her arm and stepping back out under the cloudless sky, thinking of how wonderful it all would be if age, and maybe beauty too, was always to be established by the bleary eyes of a bespectacled beholder.

Stephanie de Giorgio’s fiction piece, Ode to Spectacles (Three Inches Thick), is her first short story. She is a London-based writer who trained as an actor at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. Previous writing includes a feature length music video for the album Night Thoughts, exhibited by Suede at their shows across Europe and in London at the Roundhouse and Barbican. She has also written and co-directed a short film, Witch, that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and the London Independent Film Festival.

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