Contest #207 shortlist ⭐️

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Fiction Drama Funny

The house at the end of Beverley is enthroned with pink blossom trees. From the outside alone, a pale bricked driveway swept clean, I can tell this household likes to keep everything in order. Spring shivers through the branches as I bring my own ride, an ergonomic budget-friendly hatchback, to a stop. I wonder, gazing through the window if the party’ll be hosted outside.


Spring is my favourite season, but sadly, it’s incredibly temperamental. I have vivid memories of enduring outdoor functions whereby all four seasons fought for centre stage within one hourly period. It’s not such a big deal if you’re a guest - first class hospitality is expected, it’s your privilege. But as a hired hand, the same courtesy isn't. If any unforeseen circumstance interrupts the event and my performance, I’m expected to fend for myself. I am contracted to simply do my job regardless and then get the hell off of the premises.


Mostly, my events occur without incident. I turn up, make myself known to the client, get in the zone and then wait in the wings until it’s time to show out. The best events normally take place after midday, because the client has considered holding a celebration late enough that allows the required contractor to get some shut-eye, eat and make the journey to the venue. The worst demands an early start (a breakfast event) or a late finish (sleepovers are the devil’s work!) with no additional financial incentive to work these ungodly hours.


“It’s part of the job. It’s what you signed up for,” Punch (officially Paul) of “Punch and Judy”, reminds us at every debrief meeting as soon as someone even slightly complains about an overzealous job. ”You get paid, don't you? We pay the best in the country. We work with respectable clients, we cover your costume laundering fees - what more do you want? If you don’t like it, there’s the door!” “Punch” isn’t one to mince his words. You’d never believe he owns a business supplying entertainment services for children's events. But he does, in fact, he and his wife “Judy” (officially Lena) are the owners of several businesses. They are known nationwide and have won multiple awards.

“So remember it’s a bloody privilege that you’re employed by us,” Paul usually concludes, stabbing the air with a can of Irn Bru, “No better place to work and the whole damn industry and clientele agrees. You represent us and don’t you forget it. So give the client the best experience of their lives or I'll personally make yours a living hell. Understand?”

“Yes Paul,” we mutter. 

So much for raising team morale…


It’s a wonder how very few people have actually quit Punch and Judy. Often I wonder how and why I’ve been kicking it with these two overbearing tycoons for four long-suffering years. The idea of entertaining used to fill me with jittery excitement. I used to get high from the applause and the mini arms wrapped lovingly around my brightly coloured façade.


I used to not mind missing days without eating properly or spending my tips on extra makeup just so I could play the part better for the paying client. But it’s been four years and I will never get them back. I have dutifully dedicated every moment to a company, which still gives me, despite what Paul claims is the best, a minimum wage. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to finally be truthful; to address the undeserved wage and my deteriorating unhappiness, in the hope that things will change.

But I've been burnt before.


When I was a rookie, I spoke up perhaps too often and made the mistake of being honest.

I still remember the first and only time I naively ranted about a notoriously bonkers but loyal client to her equally loyal nanny whilst on duty at her daughter’s first birthday party, “Gosh, I can’t imagine working for Mrs Jacobs every day. She’s a bit of a ‘mare, isn’t she? Is it true she left the birthday cake outside to cool down overnight only to find a dozen birds had scavenged it? What a looney…”. I also still remember the squeezed expression of the nanny, my own realization of my mistake and, of course, the caution notice from management about my unprofessional outburst. I was promptly disciplined, with reduced work opportunities for an entire month, and humiliated by Punch, when he forced me to write an apology to January Jacobs.

Now, four years later, I keep my mouth shut and look at the floor when Punch Paul shoots me a threatening glare, whilst part of their ridiculously problematic mantra scrolls through my mind: 

Here at Punch and Judy, our clients are our pride. We commit to conducting ourselves in a professional manner at all times. We will not slander or share false information about our clients...


But, I know now, this industry is full of and built upon fakes. I’ve been here long enough to witness the two-facedness, and sadly, become a part of it. My job is to pretend. I’m paid to shut up and look cute. Ironically, I’ve pretended to love my job, my persona, my so-called work family. Because we've all been conditioned to.


You are rewarded when you pretend, you are punished when you do not.  

-

I sit reminiscing in my car, my breath further obstructing the view of the house I have been contracted to spend five hours at this afternoon, and seriously consider going home to crawl in bed and mourn my lost years and innocence.


I am tired. And today, I feel it even more as reality shakes me like a doll.

Wake up Flora, wake the heck up. Nothing is going to and will ever change.

You are the sheltered fool that naively allowed two opportunists to coax you in. You fell for their reputation wrapped up in their false promises to welcome you into their family and teach you the ropes if you remain loyal. And yet, here you are, four years later, still the clown in the Barbie getup, glossing their lives and slumming your own…


A Mercedes shoots past my hatchback, halting outside the pristine drive. The driver is a fake-tanned mum, who is carrying a teal leather handbag whilst balancing a frosted tiered cake. A flashback of January Jacobs makes my pits perspire. The mum totters across the drive, followed by two girls, both sporting French braids and those Perspex kitten heels you find in a fancy dress box. I slide down quickly to avoid them seeing me and watch as they disappear into the house. 


When it is safe again, I check my appearance in the rear-view mirror. My hair is a box blonde wig, fashioned into a labour and pain-intensive style made possible only by overnight old-fashioned rollers. It hangs static, after the hours’ drive, but it’s nothing a little Elnette won’t fix. I flick a curl back and sigh heavily at my reflection.


For today’s façade, my eyes are framed with thick black kohl and washed with a typical rosy eyeshadow. The earrings are heavy loops, a gesture to the 90s - a decade these little party girls surely know nothing about. Thankfully, for once, the reference photo I meticulously studied this morning, didn’t include a bright lipstick. I touch my slightly swollen lips - medicated with prescription ointment and a less offensive pink gloss - and wince. They're still sensitive after withstanding a million rhinestones, affixed with some cheap craft glue, part of an aquatic look from last weekend’s event.


Yes, Spring is my favourite season, but it’s also a punisher because it contains the most celebrations - Easter, Mothers Day, Valentines. Which normally means that come summer, this Barbie body is in dire need of R'n'R.


The dashboard clock blinks an angry red 13:30 as I reapply my gloss. I take a breath before calling the client on her preferred contact number. She picks up after the fourth ring, her voice sounds clipped.

“Yes?<” she says as though I’m about to sell a life insurance policy.

“Mrs Lachland? This is Flora, from Punch and Judy. You’re expecting me for your daughter’s birthday party this afternoon?”

“Of course,” Mrs Lachland barks. ”But Paul said you’d be punctual. You’re late.”

What? I glare accusingly at my digital clock before checking my phone. It says 13:54. Crap….

“So sorry Mrs Lachland,” I attempt to exit the vehicle only to remember I am half-dressed and in full view of the client’s house. Rookie mistake.“ I am pulling in now, where do I enter the property?.”

Mrs Lachland snaps that there is a garage at the side.

“And don’t you dare scratch my car, you’re not insured for that.”

I reply sweetly that I will be careful and will be there in a moment.

She tuts and hangs up.

This is the last time Flora; I promise my screaming body; this is the last time.


The garage is big enough for at least three cars, so I manoeuvre my hatchback inside with ease. Mrs Lachland makes me wait ten freezing minutes alone and doesn’t even greet me.

“You’re not dressed!?,” she shrieks, eyeing my plain clothes, “I explicitly stated to Paul and Lena that I need the performer to be ready to go by 2”.

I'm embarrassed at my pathetic apologies.

“I didn’t want to dirty the boots and the feather bolero is handmade and very delicate…”

“Well, hurry up,” she stamps “It’s unacceptable, the girls are getting antsy. You look a mess. I paid for a polished Barbie, not a dishevelled one!"

I am about to follow her out, hoping for a dressing space with a mirror and soft furnishings, but my client slams the garage door shut on me, saying she’ll be back in five to bring me out. I almost lose a full minute gaping after her, my frosty breath escaping between chattering teeth.


My dressing table is the bonnet of my own car. I dare not go anywhere near the car, a hefty Lexus, I’m not insured to touch.

The silver corset is so tight I have to forgo my bra. Fortunately, I remembered to pack pasties to cover my nipples, which are now erect from the chill. I try not to swear or look around at the hostile environment I have been forced to undress and beautify myself in. My ears burn with anger but my toes start tingling as I hop around on the cold concrete, wiggling into the white heeled booties. The jeans go on next, clipping my starved stomach. I make a mental note to cook honey butter pancakes as a treat later for enduring this ordeal. Finally, I peel open the dry cleaner bag, reach in with pinched fingers and shoulder into the handmade pink feathered bolero. To my dismay, pieces of the elaborate plumage shed, floating like silent snow to the ground. I use my car’s windshield to re-poof my curls, then toss everything into my car just as Madam reappears to free me.

“Better,” her lips purse as she inspects my look. And then she breaks character, and a mischievous grin spreads unexpectedly over her face.

“Come on Barbie, let’s go party!” she sings, picks up my wrist and skips me out, ready for play.


To my annoyance, the main event is outside. I groan, skin goose-pimpling after exposure in the garage.

The birthday girl is a true blonde, prettier than the hired zitty student made to look like perfection. Mrs Lachland dumps me behind an amplifier and manages to gather the little girls away from a candy station in order to announce my arrival. 

The party theme is rock-star chic. The six-year-old birthday girl, Hailey, requested a “boss” Barbie - feathers, bold eyes, killer boots, the works.


The breeze teases my bolero. But I can only watch feathers float away helplessly before screwing shut my eyes and conjuring the Barbie from within. One last time.


I am jittery, but for the first time, not with excitement. My stomach gurgles. I’m a Barbie girl, and I’m about to hurl… A vision of me resigning flashes across my mind and steadies my nausea. Just in time.


Music from the amp suddenly tears up my ears, adrenaline kicks in and I break cover to my cue of Megan Trainor’s obnoxious “Made You Look” track.

There are shrieks of “Barbie!” from every side, and a wave of pink clothes and flesh ripples up and down at my strut. 

Barbie comes to a stop, flicks her lion curls in her best bossy way and punching the air, cheers “Let’s rock girls!”.


My eyes glaze over as the rehearsed steps to the infamous Tik-Tok dance take me over. I feel that out-of-body experience, like I’m simply a fairgoer strapped on a rollercoaster as I bend, jump, and snap. The track and delighted screams are blaring and distant at the same time. My adoring audience dances in sync as we jive together across the decked garden.

As the last sequence dawns, I resurface and happen to notice a huddle of adults gathering. I am shocked to spot Mrs Lachland, the pretentious housewife, actually doing a two -step, cheering and filming us on her phone. She thumbs me, mouthing “Love it!”

I grin instantly, my body warm with pumping blood and relief. I had hoped, for Barbie’s last outing, for redemption. 

As the song ends, I assume I’ve smashed it - the girls are ecstatic and Mrs Lachland is hooting. I envision a glowing five-star review and a generous tip. I envision collecting my dues and gloating on the way out of Paul and Lena’s stinking business forever. I envision finally being free from the façade, to live my very best life without needing to be the dumb blonde bombshell to meet my basic needs let alone fulfil my dreams.


Doting mothers descend on us, sweetly celebrating the darling dance troupe. Barbie seeks recognition but gets none. Of course! She’s just part of the décor.

The guests are ready to move on to the next item in the itinerary, probably lunch or another scripted activity.

My client finds me in the crowd of turned backs. I expect her to be smiling but her face is a hard line. She prevents three little girls from taking selfies with me before snatching my wrist again.


Inside an elaborate kitchen, we stop at an island boasting pink fruit, pink cookies and the tiered cake I saw the tanned mother carrying earlier. I wonder what I’ve done wrong, Mrs Lachland is frosty.

“Fix your hair;” she hisses finally, whilst chopping on a strawberry, “Quickly, before anyone notices it's a wig.” My face stiffens. But I obey miserably, blindly adjusting the hairline under her watchful glare. She doesn’t offer me a mirror.


When she is satisfied, Mrs Lachland barges the tiered cake into my bonded chest.

“Change of plans. We’re cutting the cake now since it looks like it might rain. You can do it. Stand beside the marquee, say something cute and only take a photo with my daughter. Understand?” She moves off again, calling me to follow.


The smell of the frosting makes me feel queasy. The cake feels heavy and I am weak with hunger after the dancing.


I falter and Mrs Lachland spins around.

“Let’s go Barbie!” she claps with each word.

But Barbie can’t go. Barbie licks her lips, sticky with salty sweat and gloopy gloss. Her plastic smile is dwindling fast.

“ I-, Mrs. Lachland, I need a break,” I whisper.

“Are you kidding me?” she snaps, “You’ve been here not even one hour, done one thing we agreed and you want a damn break?”


A stray child suddenly runs towards the kitchen door. But Mrs Lachland is quick and she slams it in her little face. Go away; my client mouths through the glass and I’m forced to watch tears bubble in the girl’s eyes as she turns away, dejected.

"God, I hate that greedy kid," Mrs Lachland scoffs, ignoring my open mouth. And then she’s back to hounding me. She is mad, she is triggered now.


“Paul and Lena promised me the best. But you’re absolutely useless. God, I knew I should’ve listened to January, knew I should've chosen a better company. Punch and blooming Judy - bottom of the barrel and they know it.”

I gasp, trying to make sense of what I’ve just learned. I’m not sure which part of Mrs. Lachland’s revelation is more shocking. And whether she realises the impact of her word vomit.


But Mrs Lachland has gone too far this time to regain her apparent polished composure. The housewife clatters back towards me, arms outstretched for her cake. She’s about to dismiss me, I know I’m about to be fired.

But I don’t care because I have no energy left to defend myself, to defend the company I represent, to even stand up straight. 

And also because this is Barbie’s last outing and Barbie not only deserves her redemption, but a payback.


I wait until my client is close enough to feel her fury before finally letting go.

I allow what she wants most - the tiered cake, a perfect image of her sweet but artificial façade - to slip from my grasp and splatter to ruin at our heeled feet.


I step back and claim, with dolly innocence, the “accident” to be an unforeseeable circumstance. And then, revived with adrenaline, I finally fend for myself by leaving the party early, forfeiting the measly pay and five-star review to strut away into my truth and well-earned freedom.


July 21, 2023 22:41

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8 comments

Amanda Lieser
04:23 Aug 16, 2023

Hi Kelly’s, Oh this was an incredible short list! I love how you addressed the prompt. It was heartbreaking and brutally honest in all the best ways. I loved the way you took the time to add those memories in the story and the car scene was perfectly well written. I’ve had a few of those, “this has got to change,” cat moments. Nice work!! I hope for a happy ending for this character.

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Kelita Sim
08:54 Aug 17, 2023

Hi Amanda Aww, thank you so much. Appreciate your comments and you taking time to read my story! Glad you can resonate with the characters struggle ❤️

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Story Time
16:40 Aug 03, 2023

I appreciate the approach you took with this story, and I think the story has a very distinct voice that made it jump off the screen.

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Kelita Sim
08:58 Aug 04, 2023

Cheers Kevin, happy you enjoyed the distinctiveness. Feel quite honoured to get a comment from you :)

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Philip Ebuluofor
10:33 Jul 30, 2023

Congrats.

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Kelita Sim
08:56 Aug 04, 2023

Thanks very much for reading :)

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Mary Bendickson
17:03 Jul 28, 2023

The best to Barbie. Congrats on the shortlist.🎂

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Kelita Sim
19:49 Jul 28, 2023

Thanks so much for reading! And for letting me know...I didn't even realise I'd been shortlisted!

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