Cigarette ash falling on the window sill. Toes curling on the upholstery, a knee drawn up next to an ear, vee of legs stretched open. The lining of her dress falling between, and hot sunlight on the back of her neck.
Maggie’s wrist rolls away from her mouth, dropping the cigarette into a glass.
“I’ll do your lips,” she says. Hates the sound of her voice, too soft too gentle too quiet—why are they so quiet, when always they used to scream. Loud, happy girls, always have been. You wouldn’t believe the set of pipes on Martha. The carpet sucks the sound up, sucks Maggie’s bare toes in as she pulls away from the window and lopes towards the writing desk.
Martha makes an assenting noise into her coffee cup, gulping the last of it down. The frazzled movement of her arms, of her swallowing, is the same as if they were ten minutes from show time. Maggie uncaps the new lipstick and places a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
Martha’s head rocks back, just slightly, and Maggie’s blood goes cold.
“I’ve done your lips for three years in two square feet of space, and you’re—now?”
“No, no. Give me a moment,” Martha protests. She chews her lower lip, tongue seeking out the dry edges of skin, and Maggie waits patiently although Martha’s been like this all morning. Every tiny task undertaken with a determined but fleeting thoroughness, before she gets distracted by the next necessary thing.
Maggie leans forward, starting at the bow of her lips. “This is brand new. Funny smell?”
“No,” the bride says, eyes flicking up to the ceiling and around the room. “’S’fine, love.” The perfume from the lipstick wafts subtly up to Martha’s nose. The line of her shoulders relaxes.
Sweeps of waxy pink over thin, blood-warmed skin. Nails on her shoulder—directing, demanding fingers under her chin. Maggie purses her lips and makes a fish face in demonstration and Martha mirrors promptly. Then she parts her lips slightly, returning with the lipstick to apply it the tiniest bit past the seam of Martha’s mouth, her sensitive inner lip. The bride sits primly, hands in her lap, angelic pink mouth parted to match hers.
Maggie swallows and swallows, tries to cure her dry mouth. She is unsure whether this feels like suffocating or drowning. Martha’s lips after she'd licked them had looked like dew had wet them.
“Do you remember the first conversation we ever had?” Maggie says into the space between their concave throats, their collarbones.
Martha grins widely. Her skinny little bird’s chest flutters with laughter.
Before her tongue slides between her teeth, Maggie says it for her: “I was pulling that bra over your tits before we even said hello.”
Martha raises her eyebrows. “Should we get started on that now, then? It’s on the bed.”
“I don’t need directions, Madame.”
Martha stands, fixes the leg of her underwear, touches her hair. She turns around with a small, business-like sigh, for Maggie to hook the back of her white bra.
“We’ve wrangled pieces of see-through shit flimsier than this, haven’t we?” Maggie mutters, and Martha has to giggle again with the memory – her first day at the music hall, a girl she’d never met tugging the cups of a feathery, sky blue bra over her breasts until they were centred, and then three years of the same and more.
“Is it always like this?” she’d asked breathlessly. There were women dressing, undressing, naked and talking on the telephone.
“Ever been to the Folies Bergères? Well, it’s always like this. Only we don’t speak French. There, off you go.” She’d gotten a good luck pat on her hips before—Margaret, she’d later learned—tapped and trotted away in her sparkly shoes to finish curling her hair.
“You’ll be Mrs Frank Hudson, then.”
Flattening the straps of her bra. Fingers press for a moment against the smooth fabric on the back, but not the pointed cups on the front.
“That’s what his rotten friends call you, isn’t it? ‘Frank’s missus.’”
She holds Martha’s elbow, standing a distance away and lending balance as Martha steps into her wedding dress. She hadn’t wanted to get make-up smudges on the rented dress, that’s why she’d left putting it on til last.
“‘Frank’s missus’. Say goodbye to Sissons, darling.”
Button after button after round satin button up the back of the dress, and she stares dumbly at her own fingers. Thumb rubbing over them like rubbing over white pearls.
“Oh, it’s the end of an era. Isn’t it, darling?”
And Maggie is half a head taller than her dear Martha, so she leans her chin over her shoulder – no foundation on the sleeve, please – and turns her face to meet her eye, smiling.
Martha settles into her shoes, holding her skirt up in two pinches. She rolls her dancer’s ankles one after the other, first clockwise then anti-clockwise. Presents a leg forward with a cheeky look at her chief bridesmaid.
“How do I look, love?” Her eyes sparkle in an almost-wink. Show time. That on-stage radiance all over her face, her being.
Maggie coughs. Can barely breathe.
“You look beautiful, darling. Like a bride should look, of course.” Maggie looks back into her whisky glass, forgetting for a second the cigarette butt floating in it.
“Is that everything?” she asks. She casts an eye around the room. “What about your something blue?”
Martha runs her fingers through the hair behind her ear to reveal pale blue stones. “Frank bought me these earrings last month.”
“Oh. I didn’t know that. You... you know, shame, I thought. That you, ah, can’t wear blue underwear underneath a white dress. You looked absolutely bomb in those feathers.”
Martha doesn’t seem to catch Maggie’s wistful smile. “Before all the weight I gained in three years, maybe!”
Maggie sweeps through the room to grab Martha’s perfume bottle from the desk. She sprays it a little angrily onto her own neck. “You talk complete rubbish, Martha Sissons. You haven’t changed at all since I’ve known you. At all.”
Martha whirls around and reaches for her hand. “You’ll still like me when I’m—Well, you’ll see. Old and boring?”
Maggie squeezes her hand back. But she scoffs. Always been a bit of a haughty know-it-all, Mags. “Why would anything change now? I’m your best friend, you know. I adore you.”
Martha’s face melts into a sweet smile in gratitude. “This day is going to be so much fun, Maggie.” She pulls her friend behind her, her free hand stretching towards the doorknob. Maggie hadn’t been lying; she does look beautiful. A fairy queen in white, a thick veil that looks like white moss trailing behind her dark head of hair.
Maggie swallows. She, too, has dancer’s feet. She takes small, hurried steps in her heels to keep up with the bride into battle. Before they reach the end of the hallway, Maggie feels the air sigh out of her chest. All day, all morning since she woke up with her eyes watering today, she has felt a horrible frown sitting heavy in the centre of her forehead. She stops.
“Martha, wait,” she says.