At last, Velma's story is here! I know at least two people who've been anxiously waiting for it… This is based on a lesser-known Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, The Red Shoes, so if anyone needs a quick version of what the story's about, PM me and I'll give you a summary. I indulged a bit with this one, but hey, this is Velma we're talking about. She deserves to have her say.
There was a girl in a picture book Velma read when she was a child. She had blonde hair, curled into spirals, a white apron and red shoes on her feet. The shoes were pretty, but they were cursed (of course, pretty things always were in these stories), and the girl danced in them, and she danced until she died.
Velma hated that fairytale.
She lived her life among satin and dancing shoes, smoking cigarettes that didn't always contain tobacco and sipping glasses that never contained water. Her life was so typical of a cabaret dancer it was almost a cliché, as Velma observed to herself one night after marrying Charlie. Charlie was a bootlegger who packed a gun and more besides, not that it did him any good. Velma laughed. The night was as clear as diamond, and when she exhaled the smoke seemed to disappear into the inky sky. It was winter, 1927, two weeks before Charlie and Veronica were shot down dead.
Velma was the Queen of Cook County Jail and she dominated over lesser beings. She joined in the lazy camaraderie of Murderess Row, giving the proper amount of respect to those she deemed worthy of it, knowing she wouldn't be tolerated if she didn't. June was the first girl she met, after Velma had been dressed in her prison sack. The black girl narrowed her eyes, then offered Velma a cigarette. It was her first test, and she took it.
"Ain't ya Velma Kelly?" June questioned as Velma rummaged in her pockets for her lighter. "I saw ya once, at the Onyx. With me husband, now deceased."
"Did ya?" Velma had to admit she was intrigued.
"Sure," June continued, watching Velma's search for the lighter with laid-back amusement. Another girl, scrawny with dust-coloured hair, offered Velma her matchbox with a sneer. "It was a good show," June concluded. "But one of ya was out o'time to the music. Can't remember which. I'm June, by the way, and the skinny bitch is Liz." The matchbox girl gave Velma a lazy half-smile. "The red-haired girl flirtin' with that guard is Annie, and the blonde over there don't speak no English, so I dunno what she's called." June shrugged. "Mostly we call her the Hunyak."
Velma pursed her lips, not really listening to June's talk. "Which one of us was out of time?"
Liz cackled, and June grinned widely. "I told ya, I can't remember which."
It was Veronica. It has to be. You were always the better dancer. Velma tossed her glossy hair in hope the doubt would be tossed with it.
She tapped staccato rhythms with her heel; Charleston, ragtime, jazz. Remnants of her world, like Liz's matches, the Hunyak's rosary, Mona's crimped curls. They all kept their memories alive, somehow.
If I was at the Onyx now, the piano player would say I had the blues. "You got the blues, Velma, perk up, sweetheart." Velma's tapping faltered. She wouldn't have the blues if she were at the Onyx. Velma Kelly didn't let life get her down. So was this life, then? Without the stage, the crowd, the music?
"Reality, yeah, I know her," Annie laughed one afternoon. "She's a bit of a bitch…"
Velma lit a cigarette. "You guys think this is reality? Prison?"
Annie stopped laughing, suddenly serious. She held an ace of spades between her fingers like a cheap carnival fortune. "Sure it's real. And the longer we stay here, the more real it gets."
"Maybe for you. I'm gettin' out."
There was a hissing crack as Liz struck a match. "Keep dreamin', cupcake. That's what got y'here anyway."
Were killers marked from birth? Had there been some sign as a child that her picture would be splashed across the papers, glaring seductively between the bars? Her mother was a showgirl and her father didn't care. When she was seven Velma perched on the candy-store counter, sipping lemonade while the old shop lady read her fairytales. The Red Shoes. It was always The Red Shoes.
"That girl, you know what her sin was? Why God punished her?"
Kid-Velma stared. The shop lady had snow white hair severely crammed under a battered hat, and sun-kissed skin. She came from somewhere down south, Velma was told. Kansas or Alabama. "I dunno."
The shop lady leaned forward, filling Velma's face with chocolate smelling breath. "Vanity."
Vanity. Velma danced her way across liquor-stained stages, singing songs full of sin and not caring about it one bit. She danced in front of priests and mobsters, lawyers and bricklayers, sailors and generals. Her favourites were the sailors. C'mon, Fate, she seemed to say. Catch me if you can. Do your worst.
But Annie was right, and reality was a bitch. Velma Kelly was the most infamous murderess in Illinois, until Roxie Hart, doll-faced and smart-mouthed, came creeping in to Cook County Jail and took it all away from her. Now she danced and no one watched. Who would watch a woman in prison?
C'mon, babe, why don't we paint the town…
Velma took a drag on her cigarette. "And all that jazz…"
Her voice was barely above a whisper, but Annie's sharp ears picked it up all the same. "Y'know, you're not that bad," the redhead sighed haughtily, examining her nails. "Pity no one'll listen to you."
There was no life without dance, so this must be death. Velma could come up with no other term for it. But she was getting out. Getting out to… to… what?
Vanity, my girl. You'll dance until you die.