It was a Thrillers Killers 'n' Chillers thing, as it so often is, when I first met the marvellous Mrs Sue H. She likes her noir, her crime and her blood - and I like everything she has to say about it. Her writing is clever, and hard-hitting. It's also humorous, and twists like cat gut.
When Sue began contributing to my weekly Friday Prediction challenge, I saw a whole different side to this highly-talented writer. Her observations touch the soul and more than once her poetry and prose have brought a tear to my eye.
We've got a few things in common, me and Sue - and I am very proud that she has accepted to be a February Femme Fatale. Be Careful What You Wish For is the darkest of her three spots this month - please take your seats, the show is about to begin.
Be Careful What You Wish For by Sue Harding
The reveal was coming soon. Another few bars and in one swift movement his true features would be laid bare.
Christopher LeGrande eyed the faces as he glanced out in the darkness but there was no time to watch for their reaction.
Now came her hand, reaching up and pushing away the mask. He heard the collective sharp intake of breath as the audience caught their first brief glimpse of his grotesque, misshapen face.
He turned away, recoiling from her touch. All part of the act, a well rehearsed scene that he’d performed for so many months.
He continued in his role but it was almost as if he were on auto-pilot. His voice, his stage presence and bearing had been honed and crafted over the months until he could almost do it in his sleep. Where once there had been joy in his soul, was now pain and loss.
At last, he escaped from the stage as the scene changed and folded himself away within the hushed but busy wings. Actors and stage-crew jockeyed for position, miming signals and cues as the performance continued and Christopher sank thankfully onto a waiting chair.
Now his mind had time to reflect. This role was his big breakthrough, a passport to fame and success. As the lead in the ‘Phantom of the Opera’, he had earned stunning plaudits from even the least generous and hard to please theatre critics. But he knew deep inside that he was trapped.
He looked at his reflection in the mirror, hung nearby to afford the actors a last chance to check their attire before they stepped out onto the stage.
The white half-mask stared back at him in an evil grin, concealing a secret irony. He realised it was too late now; that he’d reached the point of no return and thought back to that day all those months ago, when he’d celebrated not only his birthday but the announcement that he’d landed the part.
“Be careful what you wish for!”
It had been said jokingly at the time, but now he realised the truth and wisdom of those words. Closing his eyes, he’d made his wish - to become the greatest Phantom the show had ever seen. He’d held his breath and then blown out the candles. All but one. A single flame had defied his efforts and winked back at him, tauntingly, as if echoing that warning. As he’d silently repeated his wish, promising to sell his soul for the chance he’d been given, the flame guttered and finally went out.
As the weeks and months had progressed he had worked hard and immersed himself in refining the songs, the moves and the magic. The box office tills had rung in celebration of his skill and the critics had fallen at his feet.
“Christopher LeGrande IS the Phantom!” the reviews stated.
How little they knew.
It had been a few weeks into the production before he’d realised the full enormity of the bargain he had struck, resigned to the fact that this was a role he was destined to play. The only role.
Now, as he sat in the dimness hearing the orchestra beyond his view, he raised his hand and lifted the mask from his face. The air felt deliciously cool on his skin. The rippled and puckered flesh felt rough to the touch of his fingers as they traced the bloated and misshaped lower lip. There were no smudges, no smears that needed to be attended to before he strode back out into the auditorium.
With each performance his face had become more and more distorted. First it was a slight droop of his smile, then a darkening redness to his skin. He’d begun taking concealer home from the make-up cupboard, in an effort to mask the reality that was slowly becoming apparent, but soon he was forced to employ more refined techniques as the changes gathered momentum. He’d become adept with creams and colours and hairpieces as he’d desperately tried to hide the growing deformities that stared back at him each morning in the bathroom mirror.
Now, the crossover was complete. Months had passed into the current living nightmare he inhabited and he was thankful for the sanctuary of a private dressing room. Each day he arrived and attended to his make-up alone, removing the lie he carried about on his face, wiping away the attractive features that he’d come to perfect to reveal the vile truth beneath.
The music jarred in his ears, calling him back to his own private hell, where illusion and reality danced a sinister and macabre tango.
“Be careful what you wish for!”
The words echoed again in his head as he stood up and headed out into the footlights’ glow ready to continue the masquerade and he knew that later, when ‘Christine’ chose ‘Raoul’ over him, the tears he shed would be no act.
Sue Harding worked in public libraries for eleven years, where her greatest joy was introducing customers to new books and authors and also discovering them for herself. Having taken early retirement, the intention now is to knuckle down to serious writing - perhaps one day her former colleagues will be shelving her books!