Bella the Dancer
The year was 1981. It was a sunny bright day and Lady Diana Spencer was marrying Prince Charles. My wee dirty old pub was pretty empty, there were not that many Royalists in the Calton in Glasgow so I had the telly switched on and watched the news coverage of the Royal Wedding.
I am a sucker for a fairytale.
Whereas my smatterings of wee drunk smelly men were invariably unimpressed “Turn that shite off” Archie the old safe blower shouted. He had one of those old wrinkled faces that seemed to be permanently chewing something. His skin was the colour of a tea stained chamois leather cloth, the malleable softness of his saggy face morphed into a host of shapes as his gums rotated constantly.
Yet his startlingly blue eyes sparkled with fun when he chatted to you. Every story started out a dull pedestrian anecdote about one night when he had just finished work on the boats and somehow ended up with him having hard core sex- the man was deeply odd, filthy and funny. According to him, he had shagged more people than Frank Sinatra; he reckoned it was the blue eyes that did it. I avoided him at all costs.
I stood at the other end of the bar where Tony the dancing alcoholic was throwing himself about, Gene Kelly style, he was about 80 years old and I often worried he would drop down dead.
The day wore on the customers came and went.
The wedding on the telly was reaching its big crescendo – Lady Diana was at St. Pauls Cathedral. I squinted through the streaming sunlight that shafted through the open door and tried to see the much talked about wedding dress.
At that moment Bella came in.
She was wearing a bright red Spanish off-the-shoulder dress; it was layered with black taffeta and swung like a wonky lampshade as she moved. She donned a pair of white plastic sling-back shoes and a really inappropriately placed fake rose stuck between her low slung floppy breasts. I stifled a sigh.
“Hello boys, Bella is here, who wants a dance?” she clattered and skittered over the dirty lino towards Tony.
Her hair was dyed the same shade of jet black that people usually reserve for painting taxi cabs and it was piled randomly on top of her head. A silver shell-like hair comb was stabbed into the crown of the loose bun.
Bella was about 70 years old.
“Janey, I will have a wee or big-wee glass of beer, but just charge me for the wee bit of it” Bella purred. This was her usual request.
The first time I had met her I was totally confused between the ‘Big-Wee’ glass sizes, but I soon worked it out. You gave her a half pint of beer as that’s all she could afford.
I loved Bella; she made me smile and her bizarre collection of outfits really brightened the place up. I recalled how she dressed up as a Hawaiian dancer, straw skirt and garland of flowers over a pink stretchy bikini top, scary and funny especially as it was December and the snow was knee-deep that day.
I slipped her a shot of whisky “To celebrate the Royal Wedding, its free” I smiled.
Bella downed the whisky, slammed the glass down, and then whispered “Fuck the Queen, but thanks for the drink” Her scarlet lips parted and she stuck out her tongue through tainted misshapen teeth that were the colour of fresh butter.
I laughed out loud. Bella click-clacked on her cheap heels and dropped a coin into the jukebox. Minutes later Dean Martin started crooning out through the speakers. Prince Charles was staring solemnly at his bride and Lady Diana was being coy through a bridal veil. Dean belted out ‘That’s Amore!’
Tony the dancer clutched Bella by the waist and they were off. His shaking veined hands gripped her tightly.
Archie ignored them and chewed his face off in silence. He dismissed the dancers with a wave of one hand over his shoulder and stared into the distance.
Within minutes Bella managed to get away from Tony, he was good for about a minute of dancing then it usually and quickly descended into a groping sexual assault. Bella knew the routine, prised herself out of Tony’s hands and threw herself into the bar seat. All flushed, her hair falling down out of the multitude of hair grips that failed to keep it in place.
Tony carried on dancing without her; he shuffled about and sang loudly. The men in my bar may have been really old, but they were constantly on the heat!
Bella went into her usual routine of asking me probing questions and quickly providing the answers herself. “Are you happy Janey?” then before I could speak she said “Course your not fucking happy, you are still here in this shit hole of a bar. Do you regret getting married so young? Yes, I bet you do of course you do, men are all fucked and use you up till you don’t know your arse from your elbow” Then she leaned over and gripped my hand “Run away Janey, while you are young- go darling just fucking run away and don’t look back, did I tell you my man was an evil bastard and ran away when I was pregnant?”
“Your man was a violent bastard, you were well rid of him Bella, he broke your two legs with a cricket bat” Archie hissed between chews, then he added “Who plays cricket in Glasgow? He must have been a poof as well”
“I loved him” Bella screamed, she pointed a blood red fingernail at her crepe skinned chest “he was MY LIFE” she ran towards Archie and spat her words at his face “He never hurt me in his life, he was a gentleman”
Archie raised his wiry eyebrows at me, mouthed and mimed with a shaky fist “he punched the baby out of her”
Bella screamed again and pulled at Archie’s old shirt. He let her inflict the pain on him. Archie had been through this drama before with Bella.
Then she burst into tears. This was what always happened with Bella. Dancing, laughing and then the floods of tears over the bastard husband, I felt so sad for her.
Meanwhile back in St. Pauls Cathedral Prince Charles never cracked a smile.
He spoke his vows with pure conviction as Bella, Archie, Tony and I sat in silence. We watched as the blonde Diana whispered her vows, she looked flustered.
Then suddenly the peace was broken as Bella screamed “Fuck men, all of them” and threw a half pint glass at the wee television that was hung from the ceiling in the corner of the bar.
I screamed in fright. I didn’t expect Bella to throw the glass, the noise was deafening as it smashed to pieces on the tiled floor beneath the telly. The TV flickered but continued to screen the Royal couple though the volume was now gone.
Archie shouted “Fucksake Bella, calm down hen” then went back to chewing his gums.
Tony carried on dancing to a long gone tune that was playing in his head.
I rushed round the bar with a brush and pan and tried to clear up the mess.
Bella continued to scream and cry. She was pulling out all her hair grips, she was ripping at her dress, and she was going absolutely mental.
“Janey, can I get a pint of lager hen?” Archie shouted over the din.
I ignored Archie and tried to console Bella. “Come on Bella, don’t get yourself so upset” I hugged her and stroked her warm shoulder. She sniffed on a tissue I gave her; she looked at me with dark heavily made-up eyes and spoke in a hushed voice “Can I have a wee-big beer?” I nodded and went round the bar to pour her beer.
Bella eventually settled down, climbed on a stool and supped on her drink, Archie lit a roll up cigarette and Tony finally fell asleep on the couch near the door.
We all watched the Royal Wedding on the telly which was now without sound, the rich and famous mouthing words, heaving crowds waving Union flags, and opera singer Kiri Te Kiwana belting out a silent song during the wedding service. I laughed as Bella opening her scarlet lips to imitate the singer’s mouth but uttering no noise, Archie chewed and Tony snored.
My husband came in and stared at the scene, pointed at the television “Why are you watching it with the volume down?”
“It’s not down, it’s broke. I smashed a glass at the telly coz all men are bastards and I hate weddings and I think I have fucked the volume” Bella said loudly to my young husband, she shrugged and went straight back to her beer.
Husband replied “Ok, I am going upstairs, I will see you later”
Bella, Archie and I looked back at the telly and tried to guess what was happening without the commentary as the camera panned the cathedral and its royal guests.
Bella was found dead in a hostel a week later. Apparently she dressed up as sailor-girl, and was found clutching a photo of her bastard husband after taking a fatal dose of pain killers.
Archie and I cried when we spoke about her. Tony danced._