Judith doesn’t know exactly when it was that Betty started hating her more than all the other usherettes. She suspects the seeds were sown as soon as she opened her mouth and her Kelvinside accent made its debut in the staff cloakroom. A mention of Oxford probably didn’t help either. But it doesn’t matter, Judith has become familiar with the sour suspicion that greets her kind of betrayal, a Scot who has got away. Whenever it was, Betty has her favourites and Judith isn’t one of them.
It’s only thanks to a flu virus that Judith and Heather are promoted to the Royal Circle as Betty insists on calling it, as if Princess Anne turns up on a nightly basis. Easy street, according to usherette lore. Expensive seats, bought by doting parents treating their only child to the pantomime. Little madams in party dresses, boys got up like tiny men in ties and long trousers. They queue nicely for their ice creams at the interval and get the back of their legs slapped if there’s any horseplay with the flippy seats. Sometimes the combination of excitement and Irn Bru makes a child wet himself, or they throw up after eating a whole layer of Black Magic chocolates. Then she or Heather fetches the biscuit tin of sawdust and discretely covers the offending area until a cleaner turns up.
They have seen Cinderella twenty two times. They know every gag, every scripted corpse, every perfectly timed ad-lib. Each musical sting is seared into their brains. The grand finale’s rousing chorus of Footloose invades Judith’s dreams. She does pratfalls around the house and double takes at the bus stop. Do all the ushers and usherettes suffer in the same way, or is it only the Christmas temps? Perhaps the full timers’ brains are immune, protected by an evolutionary survival mechanism. Now when the band strikes up, she and Heather become giddy, hysterical with intolerance.
During the performance they are supposed to stand at the top of the aisles, ready for an emergency. But that evening they sit on the floor behind the flock covered half wall that separates the seats from the entrance. Heather mimes slitting her wrists, so Judith hangs herself. Heather acts out immolation and Judith performs a disembowelling. Their mimes grow more elaborate and obscure until they are laughing so hard they cover their faces with their tabards. Betty has watched it all from the doorway, her generously lipsticked mouth twitching in anger.The dressing down takes place in Betty’s nicotine stained office. She stands behind her desk and Judith is suddenly back at school.
“I see girls like you every Christmas. Expecting everyone else to do the work for them. Just here for the laughs – sneetering away.”
“Well it is a pantomime, Betty,” says Heather.
“Your coat’s on a shakey peg, young lady, ” Betty snaps back. “And yours too, Miss Hoity Toity,” she says, pointing at Judith with an unlit cigarette.
It shouldn’t matter, but Judith is a good girl, susceptible to tellings off. To her embarrassment, she feels a familiar nasal tingling and has to concentrate hard to prevent it from becoming full-blown tears. She fixes on a signed photo of the Krankies for distraction. It takes a couple of seconds to decipher the slanting inscription: “To Betty – you’re Fan Dabi Dozi!”
She and Heather are banished to the Gods. The full-timers gloat, the temps shoot them sympathetic looks. The Gods has a reputation. Poor lighting leaves it in a permanent gloaming. Its cheap seats are even cheaper if bought in bulk. Cubs, Brownies, birthday parties. There isn’t just one biscuit tin of sawdust up there. Heather pinches her arm and says, “Let’s get high before we go.” Anything to forget the telling off.
They stand in the windy lane behind the theatre with Malky, one of the journeyman musicians from the band, all of whom keep pints of heavy and half bottles of whisky underneath their chairs. It is rare to see them outside the pit, but here is Malky, skinning up some of his excellent weed. He tells them scurrilous stories about the cast as they share the toke.
“Sayonara, dollface,” says Malky as he grinds the joint’s stub under his cowboy booted toe and gives Heather a peck on the cheek.
It is, as usual, a full house. Groups of children writhe and squirm in the murky half-light, waiting for the pantomime to begin. Heather breaks up a fight between rival cub packs.Weary Brown Owls and Akelas look on, desperate for the curtain to rise. A birthday boy gets his head rammed down the gap at the back of his seat. Sure enough, a child bokes in the aisle. Judith watches the chaos through a stoned haze. More than anything she wants to sleep. She gets the First Aid stool and sits down in a dark nook, resting her head against the soft nap of the flocked wall.
The next thing she knows, Morag the live Shetland pony is pulling Cinderella’s carriage on stage, and taking a nervy dump as she does every night. The interval. Judith wipes a string of drool from her chin and tries to moisten her dry mouth but her tongue seems to have inflated. She’s hungry too. But there’s no time now, a restorative ice cream will have to wait. She straps on her tray, waggling her head to adjust the thick canvas band round her neck. Then the Safety Curtain does its hanged-man drop and the lights come up everywhere but the Gods.
A great horde of screaming children pour down the stairs. They swarm around Judith, pushing her against the edge of the balcony. She staggers slightly, glances down and sees a tray of little disembodied hands flickering over the choc-ices, as if she’s carrying a tray of hungry mice. She wants to fling the whole thing over the side, but the mice weigh it down, making the strap cut into her neck. Within seconds a layer of ice cream is filched away. Judith slaps one grubby little hand. It slaps her back.
“43p for a mivvi,” Judith says and snatches a 50p coin held between finger and thumb. The fingers pluck some coins from her float. “62 for a tub, 37 for a choc ice.” This is Betty’s pricing, designed to keep their mental arithmetic on its toes. Judith’s float tips over in the tray, coins roll amongst the remaining ice creams. She manages to grab a few more 50ps but she fumbles and drops them amongst the scrabbling hands. Far away, the band strikes up. There’s a feral scampering and small bodies buffet her as they scurry past. Judith stumbles up the stairs, past rows of slurping children. Heather is already in the Gods foyer, one bust mivvi left in her tray, pinkish cream oozing from the splits in the wrapper. Her float is also empty and she has a scratch on one cheek.
“You should see the other kid,” she says and gives a lopsided smile.
Judith and Heather queue up with the other ice cream sellers waiting to return their floats. Judith looks at Betty bent over her ledger, her beehive parallel to her desk. One hand holds a biro, which she gives a little lick before each entry. Her other fingers are curled round a cigarette. How Judith wishes she would just once get her hands mixed up.
The queue quivers. Betty milks it.
“I said, monies taken?”
“Nothing at all? Oh dear, I don’t think you’re learning anything at that fancy uni of yours,” Betty says, earning a round of titters, and writing a big fat zero in her ledger.
Judith straightens up “I’m reading the Greats, actually,” she says and hands Betty her tabard. As she walks out of Betty’s office, she hears someone say “See her? If she was chocolate she’d eat herself.”
They don’t want her back and they keep her last week’s wages. She, Heather and Malky walk arm-in-arm to George Square where they sit on a bench and watch the drunks fall in and out of love. Judith tries to be wry and plucky about what has happened, but right now such bravado is beyond her. She turns to Malky to ask for a swig of whisky but Malky can’t answer because his mouth is busy elsewhere, clamped over Heather’s. Judith leaves them to it and starts the long walk back to Kelvinside, humming Footloose as she goes.