“Marilyn,” she said, holding out a soft, tiny hand. He noticed the blood-red varnish on the fingernails.
“Of course,” he replied, shaking the hand gently as if holding a small, warm animal. “Marilyn.”
He looked at the full red lips, pale make-up, bleach blonde hair and thick false eyelashes and tried not to stare at those parts which he suspected may have had a bit of work. He could have been standing opposite an American movie icon from the 1950s, except that this Marilyn spoke with an English accent, and Marilyn Monroe had committed suicide. He tried to remember when. Maybe 1962, before Kennedy was assassinated. .
He introduced himself as Robert Sharp.
“Bob,” he corrected himself. They were standing together at the reception desk in the Business Class lounge waiting to fly back to London, and the airline staff were checking their flight documents.
“Thank you Ms Holloway,” one of the check-in staff said, returning her documents to her.
“My real name,” she explained, dipping her eyelids. “Jane Holloway. But of course…”
“Everyone calls you Marilyn?”
“Thank you Mr Sharp,” the other check-in attendant returned his passport and e-ticket. “The flight will be called in about an hour.”
They walked up to the business class lounge together and he invited her to have a drink. She took sparkling mineral water with ice, and so, to begin with, did he.
“So what brought Marilyn Monroe to Dubai?” Bob Sharp asked, and then wondered why it seemed natural to talk about her in the third person.She explained about a big party at the end of the horse racing season, the Dubai Gold Cup, and how her act as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator was very much in demand in Britain and – for some reason that she could not entirely explain – in some Arab countries too.
“Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Lebanon, Jordan. I get here ‘bout once a month. The rest of the time it’s Germany, Italy, Holland, Britain, motor shows, horse racing, corporate dinners.”
“Nostalgia?” he said.
“Everybody loves Marilyn,” she shrugged.
“How about you?” Marilyn said.
“Yes, I love Marilyn.”
“No, I mean, what brings you to the Gulf?”
He talked about his work for a whisky company, troubleshooting mostly, checking on the Duty Free sales at the big airports – Dubai, JFK, Singapore. She looked him over. Early forties, she would have guessed. A sun-tan from the hotel pool, confident, divorced, most likely, if he travelled as much as he said. She was thinking how you get to meet a better class of person in business class. She handed over her business card.
“In case you ever need a Marilyn,” she said.
“Everybody needs a Marilyn once in a while,” he smiled.
“That’s how I see it,” she replied, and lowered her lashes to sip the mineral water.
“So,” he wanted to know. “How does it work? Being Marilyn, I mean. What do you actually do?”
“It’s not that I do. It’s more that I am,” she laughed. Her act involved two ten minute slots, a bit of lip-synching, normally culminating in her wearing a skin tight shimmering dress of the type that Marilyn Monroe had worn when singing “Happy Birthday, Mister Pwesident” to John F Kennedy.
“I can carry a tune,” she said. “Maybe better than Marilyn herself.”
He told her he did not doubt it.
When the flight to London was called they found that Business Class was half empty, and she had a seat free beside her which she was happy for him to move into. She listened to his stories of Miami and Singapore and Honolulu and Osaka and Beijing, but could not help thinking of the one question which she dreaded to hear from someone she might grow to respect. Or even like. The Question. It came into her head unannounced.
“So tell me, Jane – Marilyn,” The Question went, “when a man is making love to you, do you ever wonder if, in his heart, he is doing it because he is really making love to Marilyn Monroe?”
No man had ever asked The Question. Bob was talking about something quite different.
“…. and it turned out that sponsoring the Dubai golf classic was a shrewd business move, because, while we could not advertise the whisky, our menswear and luggage collection meant that at least the brand was out there, y’know what I mean? And brand image is … ?”
She turned her head to listen, but wasn’t, mostly.
“… and yet in Cuba the government was more capitalist than the capitalists in terms of the bribes that they wanted. It took a case of our best malt scotch for the minister who ……”
When he stopped talking about himself he asked if she found any difficulties working in Arab countries, as Marilyn. She shrugged.
“Not really,” she said. “It’s much worse in Russia. Arab men are respectful as long as you dress and behave modestly, which I do, except on stage. Or on the beach.”
After the flight they went their separate ways, Bob to his town-house in Belsize Park, and Marilyn to her two-bedroom apartment in Balham. She was not surprised when he called her. He might get her work – his company owned a hotel in a castle in the north of Scotland and they were holding a whisky festival in a couple of months. He wanted to take her to dinner to discuss it. She accepted.
“I enjoyed our conversation on the plane,” he said. He had chosen Quo Vadis in Soho.
“Me too,” she admitted.
They made love that night in his bedroom in the townhouse in Belsize park, and afterwards they lay together side by side. He poured whiskies and soda which stood untouched on the bedside table. He stroked her hair and then ran his hand down to the cup of her breast. She looked into his eyes and, for the first time noticed they were grey. Suddenly, for no reason she could explain, she felt uncomfortable. There was something different about him. Some kind of anxiety.
“What is it?” she said, leaning on an elbow and reaching out for the first sip of her whisky.
“I …” He did not know where to start. He seemed embarrassed, and she handed him his whisky glass. He took a sip. She realised what it was that was troubling him. The Question. She felt it with dread, coming upon her like a wave.
“Listen,” she said. “You want to ask me something, don’t you?”
“Well, let me make it easy for you, Bob.” She sat up on the pillows and tried to control the hostility in her tone. “If you think that when you are in bed with me you are actually sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, then that is your problem, not mine, okay? Just so you know, Marilyn wasn’t her real name either. Norma Jean Baker. And she was born in 1926, which puts her way into her 80s. If sex with an eighty-something dead person with a phoney name twice over is what turns you on, then I can’t help you. She does have her own website, though, I give you that. So maybe she is living still, in some ways, okay? But whatever I look like to you, or whatever you fantasise about, Marilyn Monroe is dead and I am alive and beside you.”
She surprised herself with the vehemence of the words. Each one of them was like a blow upon him. He looked confused.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “I just wanted to ask … I wanted to ask if you would … if you would take off all your make up.”
She blinked. He continued, awkwardly.
“Look, I … want to see what you look like … without … anything. That was all. I just wanted to see what you really look like, Jane.”
She leapt from the bed. She grabbed his bathrobe and ran into the bathroom, slammed and locked the door and then stood with her back against it. Her heart was heaving. When she caught her breath she moved in front of the mirror and looked at her face, from the blonde hair down to the paleness of the skin, past the black eyelashes to the full red mouth. Then she looked at the sink. In the swelling of the polished metal of the tap, her reflection was distorted.