I raise my hand at the girls as I cross the stage. The orchestra have started tuning up. I think I’ve got about thirty minutes before the show airs. Is Rebecca here? I stop and face the cameras. Wires trail loosely across the floor, like a sea of snakes. Audience members file in from the back of the room, chattering to one another as they take off their coats and arrange themselves in their seats. People with clipboards run across the studio floor. Everyone has a purpose. Mine isn’t live yet. I sit on the edge of the stage. It’s a small stage built of pre-modelled blocks that can be put together in different shapes. It’s not quite Wembley Stadium.
“All right, Steve?”
I glance up. Myriam. I think she has a soft spot for me. We’ve used her quite a lot on the show and she always comes and finds me. She sits next to me. I nod hello at her.
“I’ve got my mum in the audience today. I didn’t think she’d come but she has. I’m well excited!” Her laugh is throaty like a smoker’s. She rubs her knee. It’s disconcerting. I can see hairs poking through the fishnet.
“Yeah? Good for you, Myriam!” I give her a smile.
“Oh dear. What’s up with you today?” She cocks an eyebrow at me and pats my back. “Bad day?”
“No. What makes you think that? I’m having a good day!”
“Well, your voice and your words don’t match, mate!” She laughs again. I stare at her top lip.
“What do you mean?” I’m sure I’m happy!
“You sound a bit flat. Maybe it’s just me hearing it wrong. Never mind, love!” She pecks me on the cheek. “Break a leg!” And off she trots, leaving me with her strange observation. I look behind me at the other girls. They’re huddled together giggling. They look normal. They are normal! What is going on with me today? I shake my head.
“What are you shaking your head at, Stevie?” A voice in my ear, warm and rich, strikes a tremor in my belly. Rebecca! I bow my head and smile.
“I’m glad you’re here. Didn’t know if you would be.” I glance at her as she kneels beside me.
“You still struggling with the feminine hair thing?” She grins. She has fine hair above her top lip; fine hair covers the skin on her face. It’s normal hair. She sees me looking and ruffles my head; I shake it to dislodge her.
“You know I am. I’m a man. I like my women to be hairless.”
“Oh, do you now? How many you got?” I don’t need to look at her to know she is smirking.
I sigh. “Rebecca, I’m really struggling with this. I know Mum means well but… I just don’t see how encouraging women to be hairy will empower them! And you’re not.”
“I’m not hairy because I can’t let go of this ingrained belief that it’s better or more feminine to shave my legs and my armpits. I feel less than feminine when I don’t do these things. I feel unwelcome if I don’t shave. Like I’m not part of society. I tried not shaving my legs. I have stubble. See?” She lifts a trouser leg to show me. “And I’m wearing trousers so no-one can see. You’re lucky. You don’t have to bother with this crap. You can shave or not shave. Either way you retain your maleness. If I don’t shave I start to lose my femininity. And it’s not fair. And who makes money out of all this? The Party. Made mostly of men. We’re doing this to change opinion, Steve. To create a sense of coolness from the choice of being hairy or not. We want to create choice where currently it’s not even thought about because it’s such an accepted piece of propaganda: women should be hairless or less hairy than men. And it’s not true. Women should be want they want to be. Not for men. For themselves. That’s the point.”
“Then why is it so hard for you to let your leg hair grow?”
“Think about it, Steve. If you had done something for years and years without questioning it because it was something that you as a man were expected to do and then new thinking came along and questioned it, wouldn’t you feel odd about making a change? It’s natural isn’t it? It goes to the very core of identity. What is a woman if not the image of what man portrays her to be? It disturbs my deep seated beliefs.”
“Well, I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t find it attractive.”
“That statement makes me so fucking angry! What the fuck has what you find attractive got to do with it? That is so belittling. As long as you find it attractive women should spend loads of money on beauty products created by men? Fuck that!” She laughs, “I didn’t know I felt so strongly about this! Ha!”
“Why did you test my semen when I first met you?” I don’t know why this question bumped its way forward but I’m glad it has. It’s stopped her in her tracks.
“Where did that come from?”
“Dunno. What’s the answer?”
“Well, now. Isn’t it nearly time for you to be on the air?” She nods at the large analogue clock on the back wall. A couple of minutes to go.
“Yes. And the answer is?”
“Oh, there’s your mother. She’ll tell you!” She pecks me on the cheek, jumps up and skips towards the front row of seats. I watch her sit and whisper to the man on her left. Smiling at his reply she turns to the front again.
I press the earpiece into my ear. The producer is swearing. I spy him through the window below the clock on the back wall. His arms are waving. I give him the thumbs up sign and stand.
“Close up of Becky’s thigh; yes, that’s it. Give us a good view of the hair. Lovely. Number Two Camera ready? Yes, yes, and fade Number One. Number Two. Good. Steve, ready? Yes. Love it. Fade music. Yes. Lovely. Steve, ready to walk on and walk on!”
I walk onto the stage. I’m in the centre of the Lovelies. I bow and smile. Thank them from the bottom of my heart. They run on tiptoes off the stage. I look into Camera One. Everything I was going to say has dissipated. It sits around the edges of my head and won’t be found. Please. Come on. I widen my smile. Where are my words? They’re not my words. They’re mother’s.
“Talk, Steve! What the fuck are you doing? Come back! Steve! For fuck’s sake! Cut to advert!” I rip the earpiece out and shove it in my pocket as I walk, purposely at last, across the studio floor, up the stairs and through the door on the back wall.
I wish I smoked. I used to. Years ago. Before I got involved with the Party. Smoking would be a way of dealing with these emotions right now. I kick at a weed. It swishes against my foot before springing back up. I breathe in deeply as I imagine inhaling that first pull of smoke. It would be rancid. And rebellious. That’s it. That’s how I feel! Yeah! I punch the air as the door opens outward and mother appears. She steps off and pushes the door to. We circle each other amongst the intermittent weeds.
“How you doing?” Her hair is up with escaping tendrils at the edges of her face.
“I’m feeling rebellious.” I smile at her. She smiles back and the warmth in her eyes affects the whole of her face. “I didn’t know what that feeling was called before. They’re your words, Mum. I can’t be your puppet. I did that for the Party. I can’t. I won’t- ha ha!” I won’t! It’s so incredibly great to say it. She laughs too, gripping my arms. The circle we’re making is smaller. I take her hand and put my other hand on her waist and we move across the weeds cracking their way through the tarmac.
“What are your words?”
We spin. Round and round. My words? I don’t think I have any. I am this whirling. I don’t need words. “Who needs words?”
“Well how are you gonna communicate?”
I break free and twirl away from her. She jerks to a stop. “Like this!” Monkey position! I lower myself to the ground and bounce. Grunting and flopping my arms up and down I imitate the gorilla I saw on TV the other day.
“Pretty good, monkey boy. Are you going to come back to the show today?” Lily’s voice calls from the doorway. Guttural sounds emanate from my belly and it feels good. I slow my bouncing to a low walk, ripping weeds up as I pass them. They might be good to eat. I lift them to my nose, pulling in their tangy scent with fast jerks of air. No. I throw them to the ground.
“He won’t mind a bit of facial hair if he’s gone ape, will he?” Rebecca’s voice prods my desire and I bounce over, grunting deeply. I yank her arm, pulling her past Lily. She screams theatrically. I think. I lift her over my shoulder but it’s hard to bounce or even do a low walk now so I resume my normal walking height. My grunts dissipate.
“Put me down! Steve! Put me down!”
I giggle at her squeals. “Physically or with insults?” I laugh. She thumps my back. I put her down, softly. She rubs her tummy and gives me a faux hurt look but I can see a glint in her eye. Mother and Lily flank her slowly. The three of them watch me. Mother. Rebecca. Lily.