The Wildebeest Soul Star by Annie Rose

I learnt to walk within minutes of birth. Surely, I can manage this. Can’t I?

In front of me the long, shifting puzzle piece of rain macs and damp heads stirs. The afternoon fog is forked by the faintest glitter of lightning. Finally, after so long standing still, we all move along three paces. A light rain has wetted my muzzle. I keep shaking back locks of coarse white-tipped hair which have escaped in front of my eyes. No matter how delicately I try to tread, my steps always sound louder than everyone else’s.

From around the corner, finally, a murmur breaks out as we approach a spread of orange light, which glows on a section of shiny pavement. Is this coming from the room where we will all get signed in? Uh-oh. Perhaps I should’ve thought up a stage name, or at least something more cool and fierce than Florence Biggs anyway. On Soul Star they probably want contestants with names that command fire. Like Serafina. Or I don’t know, names that just feel fast somehow, like zipping down a zip wire – Isla? I could pull off being an Isla, couldn’t I?

Oh god, oh god.

No matter what Mum says about “just be true to yourself”, I’m pretty sure names in show business are seriously important. Like, more important than whether you’ve got an intriguing back-story even. On last year’s show a girl with a voice like silk chocolate got all the way to judges’ houses, but her surname, unfortunately for her, was ‘Clutterbuck’. When the last space for the lives came down to her and Phoenix Fastbender, big surprise who got the tearful farewell.

If only Mum had thought to change the name on my adoption papers, and make me a present of something more inspired than Flo. Bah. No matter how I say it, it sounds so lagging, like a constipated pond fountain.

In honour of today, I’ve decided to walk on two legs. Balancing on my hind hooves (which I have painted entirely glitter silver to match my top hat – Boy George eat your heart out, thank you) I’m far taller than most of the other girls, as well as their mums. Two legs however, is much better for singing, everyone knows that. It brings breathing space to the vocal cords. Plus… considering, it just looks a lot better doesn’t it? Last night I practised marching around on the upstairs landing. All the thudding and dust showers must’ve secretly drove Mum and Dad bonkers, since they were trying to watch TV downstairs. Only knowing how much today means to me, how hard I’ve worked, was probably why neither of them put an end to it.

The arts and crafts centre is only a fifteen minute walk away in Newport. Still, early this morning, before the sky had changed from a ropey, strangled grey, Dad insisted on driving me. As we pulled up at the side of the road, we spotted people camping in the cracked car parks along the borders of the River Medina. The queue along the pavement was already wrapped around two entire sides of the building.

“Dad, I’ll get out here,” I said, struggling with the door handle of our especially adapted camper van, careful not to chip my glitter as I prised it open. “Sign-up will take ages. Thanks for the lift.”

As I heaved myself onto two hooves, then straightened my taffeta skirt, I felt his careful, spectacled gaze following me. “Are you sure you don’t want me to… I mean, I can still phone the office.”

“No, it’s okay,” I said too quickly. “If I don’t make it, I won’t want you to see.”

“You’re going to be great, munchkin.” I could tell by the heart in his voice that he meant every word too.

Now Dad has driven to work, and the queue must be at least ten times as long already. If I look behind me at the snake line of heads, I feel suddenly queasy at the largeness of what I’m trying to do. Not that long ago, the camera crew arrived. Mum texted me from her office cubicle to say good luck again, so I rootled out my stylus, secured my phone to the Velcro band on my wrist, and put my phone on silent, just in case later I forget.

By half past twelve I have a dry mouth from cheering, and my front legs ache from holding up an enormous foam finger with Soul Star’s red and black logo on it. Every time a camera on a crane flies over us, a man all in black signals, then we have to wave our foam fingers like crazy, all chanting in unison: “The Isle of Wight loves Soul Star! Wheey!” I’m not complaining, this is still of course going to be the best day of my adolescent life so far, but I suppose it all just looks a lot more easy and spur of the moment on TV.

The family next to me have thought to bring snacks and bottles of water and fizzy wine. When the queue gets particularly slow they even produce fold-out chairs, and under umbrellas they make a street picnic out of the occasion.

Politely, the grandmother of the boy who is auditioning asks me: “Have you got lots of family supporting you back home, dear?”

I nod yes. I want to talk to her more, ease my nerves with her crinkled kindness, but the boy who is holding the multi-stickered guitar case, and who may or night not have eyes underneath that black curtain of hair, takes this opportunity to smirk.

“What, you mean in Kenya?”

I think the grandmother pretends not to hear half because she’s embarrassed of her grandson, and half because she just wants to be nice. None of the family try to talk to me again after that.

When we’ve snailed our way through security, in small groups of three or four, we are admitted into a high ceilinged, brick and white entrance hall. It’s bursting with people as well as long tables bearing administrative paperwork. In one corner a hip-hop trio of young boys in over-large vests are practising furious dance choreography. Whilst popping and locking their arms in unison, they rap about life in jail, although I’d be surprised if any of them have ever actually gone to prison. Outside the lit-up crafts shop some contestants look bored, and are slumped on plastic chairs, as if they might’ve been here for quite a while. Others seem to be practising meditation, or are eating sandwiches, or gargling herbal tea. I don’t know who to stand with. All the chairs are taken. Besides they look too frail to take my weight anyway.

It takes a really long time to get my turn. I have to fill out forms, slap a sticker on my front, then spend forever leaning against a dusty wall. By five o’clock I’m sorely tempted to eat the salad which Mum packed into my shoulder bag, but the thought of doing that in front of so many people… of actually lowering my face into the plastic container…

Finally, a brisk woman with an iPad scuttles over to tell me that I have sign this and that, then follow her into the next room. She’s so small I don’t catch her last words. With the pen still in my mouth from signing my name, I bend down and almost stick the nib into her forehead.

As I’m going along the corridor, I’m expecting what you see on TV: the intimidating but cosy audition room; the jazzy lights; the familiar faces of the judges, all sceptical at first, but wanting me to do well.

What I get instead is a man with a very tired looking moustache, who is sitting behind a desk which is as tall as his chin.

“Number?” He grunts, pen poised, without looking up.

For a moment I’m too unravelled to speak. In front of him sit two piles of paper, one made up of shiny green slips, and the other red. From this angle I can make out that the red one says Congratulations! and the green says something like: Thanks for taking part! 

Ohmigosh. Does this mean that this one very ordinary man will get to decide whether I go on to do the real audition then? Does my childhood dream really depend on him?

I want one of those red slips so badly I will even kiss his moustache if I have to. If he tells me that I need to go home without one then I might actually wee myself, or instantaneously shed all of my hair, or chuck my top hat on the floor, then kick the desk over.

But I’m a decent girl so I won’t do that.

I’m required to get over the disorientation quickly. There’s a build-up of people in the entrance hall, all anxious for their chance too.

“Florence Biggs,” I say, only just mastering the quiver in my voice. “Singing a verse and a chorus from “Karma Chameleon”, Culture Club. But my own version of it.”

Seriously, this guy couldn’t look less inspired if he tried. “Begin when you’re ready,” he drawls.

I nod, flick a bushy clump of hair out of my eye. The Savannah desert builds in my throat. Oh no. What am I doing here? I’m not a Phoenix Fastbender at all, I’m a Flo Biggs. Who’s going to even care, or want to waste their time?

Deep, calming breaths.

Finally, after so much imagining, I open my mouth to make my dream come true.

***

I love the way singing can take you to a whole other place. Nailing the high note is similar to what I imagine flinging a frisbee might feel like. Sporting hooves, I’ve never actually managed to throw a frisbee before… Never mind. As the song progresses, each playful riff, each breathy intensity goes exactly as I planned. Soon I get the slightly pretentious feeling like, I don’t know, like maybe I’m becoming the frisbee or something…? Is that incredibly stupid? The man with the moustache is looking pleasantly stupefied. People in the side-lines of my gaze are stopping what they are doing to turn around and listen. But is this a bad sign? No. When I risk shooting a proper look, they’re not laughing like I fear. Actually they’re smiling. Actually, they look like they might even be having a good time.

Holy rabies. The only thing that could make this moment better right now is if everyone else in the building were to join in singing karma, karma, karma with me too.

Coming away from the song is like breaking away from a wave in motion. A huge, focused, free energy release. I’m glad and proud to see that the man behind the desk still has his tongue sticking out of his mouth a bit.

“Thank you so much.” I’m still tingling with adrenaline when I hold out my bag to scoop up the little slip of red paper. His fingers accidentally brush my wrist, and his old skin is unexpectedly warm. He doesn’t recoil from my hair either. In fact, as I turn to go, he murmurs to someone beside him. The words “distinct” and “ambitious” spring out. Ohmigosh, I can’t believe they’re actually talking about me! A full-body glow develops. My first Soul Star audition! The journey has finally started. I did well! Wow.

I might as well be a hand glider over heaven as I follow the giant bird-print arrows on the carpet out of the audition room.

There are so many people in the corridor leading to the exit. The boy band with the big vests have joined up with family members, and the large group of them are celebrating like this is their own private Christmas party. In contrast, the guy with the fringe, who I was behind earlier in the queue, is hunched into himself, standing near a wall on the far side of the corridor. His mother, or a bolshie auntie maybe, is arguing with an attendant. The Soul Star runner has one hand up, as if to ward off the woman, while the other is pointing rigidly towards the double set of doors. Fringe Boy’s mouth is a wobbly slug, his temple a grey sheen of sweat. He sags against his grandmother, who is patting him. Hearing the boy moan, the Soul Star attendant casts a worried glance towards him—but then Fringe surprises all of us by springing bolt upright.

“Let me back in. I can do another one! Please, come on. I’ll sing a different song this time!”

Even though he wasn’t very nice to me in the queue, I still get a sour ache in my chest for him. An opportunity like this can mean everything, if like me you’ve spent so long imagining the moment when your talent will finally be validated, and by people who have the professional eye.

He’s not the only one crying in the corridor. With similar scenes playing out all over, is it selfish to feel relieved and psyched for myself, while others are so frustrated?

On the safe side, I’ll take my offensively good vibes outside.

The exit is framed by an arch of red and black balloons, which rustle and squeak against one another. The air outside is chilled and startlingly empty compared to the bedlam going on inside the building. While we’ve been worrying our little nuggets off, the small car park has grown dark. As if the Newport arts and crafts centre exists in a whole different time zone, there’s a stark line of artificial light against shadow on the concrete. One side offers a place of golden Hollywood happenings, the other… darkness.

My hooves make loud scuffing noises down the ramp. For a couple of seconds, I have to balance with my arms like an aeroplane. The street lamps are so dull that I pull my bag up to my face, and hunt for my phone and stylus by scent alone. The fishy smell of the plastic case is fainter than you might think it would be. Instead I concentrate on seeking out the dusty, dandruff aroma of the Velcro strip which is secured to the back of my phone. That was Dad’s good idea of a way to fix it to my wrist if I ever find myself struggling.

Wait until I tell Mum and Dad! I bet they’re waiting on the edge of the sofa for news at home. Dad will whizz over here in the van to collect me when I ask him. On the drive back no doubt I’ll have to relay every tiny detail of the audition, but that’s okay. After so many hours waiting with epic nerves, the good parts of today seem to have flashed by in an instant.

By the side of the ramp, a young couple with a restless toddler are fussing with a tote bag and a buggy. I stop searching for my phone to watch as a super smiley woman in a Soul Star t-shirt presents the little boy with a red balloon tied to a string. She’s so sure of her ability to cheer him up, she gets right in the kid’s face and squelches air kisses. She’s fashioned a tiny loop at the end for his chubby little fingers, but when she tries to secure this around his wrist, the child thrusts his lip forward and scowls.

The River Medina looks like a mirrored staircase in the near distance. On the far side of the car park, this side of the water, a smattering of local reporters have even turned up to interview the auditionees who are filtering out. A couple have small camera crews. Above the heads of the reporters, furry mikes on long poles waver in the breeze.

I can’t believe this is really happening. I’ve taken my first step towards the big time, and I’ve actually done okay. No, I did pretty good.

The nearest reporter, a lone man with green tweed hat, about twenty feet away, is asking a pretty white girl what her favourite thing about singing is. When she gets the giggles, he asks her friend the same questions in succession.

“Who’s your musical inspiration? What advice would you give to anyone about to enter the first round of auditions?”

Evidently the answers they provide are not adequately thrilling, because as the girls sway away, arms linked, the reporter sniffs, chews his lip, and lowers his notepad without having written a single word.

His eyes spark to life when he sees me. “Hey, love!”

Last night I went through some interview prep in my head after I finished practising walking on two hooves on the landing. I read that in order to actually get quoted in an article it’s essential to stand out from the crowd. Your answers have to be interesting, but they also need to take a particular stance, so there should be no sitting on the fence.

“Hello love, have you just been in to audition then?” The reporter’s voice is livelier than a rabbit. He bustles up next to me, but he speaks too fast; I have to angle my ears forward just to separate the words.

“Yes, I have.” A thrill of pride as I realise my voice has come out sounding reasonably confident. “My inspiration is Boy George, and my parents are also an unwavering source—”

“What’s your name then?”

“Florence.”

“And what are you exactly? … Biologically speaking?” His pen is poised.

“Err… Pardon?” My ears twitch. My hearing is exceptionally good, but I can’t have heard that right.

He tries a different question. “So how old are you?”

“Fifteen,” I say, dismayed to realise that now my voice is shrinking.

“And what’s that in human years?” He’s scribbling furiously on the notepad now.

“Errm… I’m sorry, but I don’t know.” (Actually, I do know, but I’m not telling him that.) “I have to go, sorry. My… friends are waiting for me over there.” With a guilty, lying hoof, I gesture to the collection of big-vested boys, who have spilled out of the double doors. Now they’re making their way across the car park with their support party. “Sorry again.”

“Where do you come from?” He’s calling after me as I scuttle off in their direction.

“Where’s your homeland?”

Reluctantly I turn my head. “Newport.”

“But where originally?”

Don’t answer that. Mum says that when people ask me questions I don’t like, I should just hold my head up high and ignore it.

My teeth are chattering, not with cold, but with some kind of fearful, embarrassed adrenaline. The feeling only gets worse when Fringe Boy emerges through the archway of balloons to my right. He drags his feet along the ground. Oh dear. He looks broken. His father is carrying the stickered guitar case. The equipment appears to have been recently damaged somehow, because the tired-looking man has to hold the two giant sides together to be able to walk with it against his chest.

My teeth catch my rubbery lower lip, causing a skewer of pain. Because of the reporter, now we’re heading in the same direction, the boy, his tired family, and me. Unless I slow my pace, there’s no way to avoid our paths crossing. And if Fringe looks up—will he be pleased to see me?

It happens before I’m prepared. Up ahead the big-vested boys suddenly give a great big “Whoop!” and they all jump in the air together. This commotion catches Fringe’s attention. Scowling, he kicks the ground. Before I can disguise my apprehension, it’s too late.

The boy’s gaze is like lava as it rolls over my face, then lands on the edge of the shiny red slip, which has been stirred to the top of my shoulder-bag. Desperately, I want to turn away, act like it’s nothing, but—I knew it—he’s already shouting across the car park.

“Hey, look. It’s a total joke! Even that got a yes? Are you kidding? She’s not even a real person. It’s wasted on her.”

The cold river could literally consume me.

“Oh no,” I whisper. The boy slams his trainer into the A-board sign which advertises the gift shop. People watch as the sign flies a couple of feet, topples, clattering against concrete. More people are looking now. In the young father’s arms, the toddler wails in shock. His chubby fist lets go of the string. His red balloon flies upwards. The sight of this loss only makes the child cry harder.

Instead of all eyes being on Fringe Boy, the toddler, or the balloon, it feels as if I’m the one who’s caused all the disturbance. I should be keeping my hooves moving. Come on, Flo, drag yourself through the shock. Get out of here. But now I’m hyper aware of the fact that I’m the only girl who doesn’t have to wear a coat because my temperature is always regulated. My ugly, forward-curving horns are weighing me down. My long, boxy head is too big to hide. The other girls who talked to the reporter are climbing into a car on the other side of the river—nimble swishes of blonde on sprightly little legs. A sharp breeze shifts the heavy, bristly tufts of black hair on my throat, chest, and face. I blink back moisture. This morning, the only way I could put on my top hat was to have Mum secure it with thick elastic under my chin.

***

For a late lunch there is chunky artichoke and butter-nut stew. We are all vegetarians, Mum, Dad, and me. Buttery sunlight shines through the window as Dad reads the local paper while Mum pens a list for the weekly food shop. I think I’m being quite subtle containing my gloom, but of course Mum has eyes like a cheetah.

“Are you feeling funny, love? Do you need some pepto bismol?”

Uh-oh. How can I admit that I don’t feel comfortable putting my mouth into my food right now? If I do, then surely Mum will only say that it’s ridiculous to feel uncomfortable in front of family. Then I will have to eat just so as to not hurt her feelings.

When I nod, she scrunches her fair brow in sympathy.

Looking down at Mum and Dad’s cutlery, so doll-like against the stocky oak of the table, I get the flash of a mean perception. Surely these implements are what should appear foolish, and not my large mouth and the need to chew in wide circles?

Mum is rootling in the cupboard above the toaster for the medicine, another miniature bottle. When I spot my name in Dad’s paper, I read over his forearm.

An otherwise peaceful and fun-filled day at the Newport Arts and Crafts centre was disrupted this Friday. As always at this time of year, excitement is palpable, with preliminary auditions for the family entertainment show, Soul Star, in full swing. 

My stomach does a pretzel dance. Unfortunately Dad is quick to notice that he’s being spied upon. As he tries to slide the paper casually from view, a much lairier version of me takes over. One of my hooves springs up onto the table and pins the sheets in place. If he keeps dragging then the paper will rip. Then we both know how bad he’ll feel for drawing attention to my abnormal strength.

“What’s going on?” Mum puts the medicine on the counter.

Amongst the usual high emotions however, this year there has been one remarkably stand-out occurrence. Onlookers were startled when a teenage wildebeest decided to celebrate her advancement to the second round of auditions in a particularly dangerous way. Among other auditionees, professional yodeller, Zara Plum (38), was left shaken when she was narrowly missed by a “large, hairy shadow stampeding through the car park, before whatever it was proceeded to head-butt a wall”. 

The wildebeest in question, Florence Biggs, (15 in animal years—human years unknown) has a radical appearance, including a startling 70-inch body length, as well as a bushy horse-like tail, which has been known to make small children cry. 

I can’t read the text that follows because Mum reaches over to confiscate the broadsheet.

“Robert, how could you bring such bile into the house?” Pink-cheeked, she scrunches the paper against her front. I barely have time to blink before, with a furious crackling sound, she’s stuffing the entire paper into the bin. She must be really angry because she doesn’t even put it in the side meant for recycling. The paper gets squashed down with the used tea bags and shrivelled potato peelings. A smell like cabbage briefly exudes from the open lid.

“I didn’t know—I—Oh, sorry.” Dad hoists up his glasses.

I can’t meet her eyes. Mum says in a low, almost tearful voice to me: “You just remember, darling, you’ll always be special and interesting to us because you’re our daughter, and nobody else will ever compare. But to these people? Who are too small-minded to comprehend what’s normal, or what’s true talent and what isn’t?” The air bristles with her frustration. “They have no right to be spouting off about what you should or shouldn’t be allowed to do!”

“Well said, love.” Looking relieved, Dad cradles his coffee mug, but then seems to think better of it, and cradles my hoof instead.

“Is that what they said about me then—that I shouldn’t take part in Soul Star?” My face tightens when I realise I’m trembling.

They both look at each other, sorrowful about their mistake. Neither of them answer, but it’s already obvious, isn’t it? Dad pats my hoof, but he touches the hard bit, so I can’t feel that.

“I’m okay…” I mumble to the table as I feel every coarse hair on my face becoming extra sensitive, “I think I’ll go and hang out in my room now.” I push back my reinforced chair and the kitchen tiles squeal.

“Darling—” Mum begins, but Dad shushes her.

“—just needs some time alone—”

Dust showers as I heave myself up the stairs. Before I reach the top, there’s a loud knock on the front door.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” Dad calls. “Don’t worry, don’t worry anyone.”

I continue climbing, but on the landing an imposing, nasal voice infiltrates the house.

“Mr Biggs? Does Florence intend to make a cultural stand by auditioning for Soul Star?”

My heart judders. Oh God, what’s this?

Apparently, there’s more than one reporter on our doorstep. As voices compete with each other, I crouch on all-fours to spy between the balustrades, but all I can see is Dad’s back. Another voice, female this time, pipes up.

“Who does she hope to represent if she goes through with the televised audition? Is there a wildebeest community here in Newport?”

Straight-backed, Dad widens his stance. “Look,” he insists in his stern voice which he normally saves for business calls. “We have no comments. Please leave our home immediately.”

He tries to shut the door, but a small hand appears around the side of it. “Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?” Dad’s resilient composure fractures as a female reporter comes into view, brown-haired, and hunter-eyed. “Back off, lady,” he says, but he doesn’t seem bold enough to actually touch her. They both end up squashed in the doorway, angling for space, each talking over the other.

In case he needs my help, I hurry downstairs, but half way down I slip. The lumbering crash stalls the argument at the door.

The female reporter peeks over Dad’s shoulder. “Florence!” She’s positively beside herself at the sight of me. It’s as if she’s trying to grow taller, to bend unnaturally to reach me. “Florence! Would you say that your chances of winning are greatly diminished by factors you have no control over?” It all comes out in a rush.

“Oh great,” I mutter. At least they don’t seem to have a camera ready to hand. I’m on my bum on the middle step, trying to untwist my four legs from one another. Dad casts me an anxious glance. He tries again to shut the door, but the woman won’t budge. The tension in her body thrums through the air—as though she’s itching to throw aside all restraint, and just barge in.

Dad must sense it too. “Keep out of our house!” He thunders. “Flo, go up to your room, please. I’ll deal with this.”

“Or are you hoping these factors will give you an advantage, where others fall short?” She interrupts him, with an obvious thrill in her voice.

I’m not exactly sure what she means by this. Dad looks equally flustered. Like a perplexed owl, he swivels from her, back to me. “Look, we don’t know what this game is all about,” he finally says with a warning tone in his voice, “but leave immediately. This is private property.”

Before she can answer there’s an abrupt smashing noise from the kitchen. Suddenly Mum is in the hallway. Seeing her worried frown, I finally right all my legs, and hurry down to meet her. She reaches up to lay her warm hand on my shoulder. “Robert, what’s going on? Excuse me, young lady!” She squalls as the pushy reporter manages to nudge an elbow around Dad. “Get your foot off my carpet. This is ridiculous. Don’t you people have any boundaries?”

“No, they don’t, Karen.” Dad frowns.

***

By five o’clock there’s a black van parked on the curb, and five more reporters camped out in our street. From look-out posts at the sides of the living room window, me and Mum spy on them making conversation, and occasionally gesturing towards the house.

Mum gasps.

“What?” I search the pavements and windows wildly, thinking of news crews in helicopters. She doesn’t answer, but soon I spot what she’s looking at anyway. The small old lady from across the road is slowly wheeling herself down the concrete ramp outside her front door. In front of her is a service trolley loaded with tea cups, all wobbling on saucers.

“What the blazes does Noreen think she’s doing?” Mum clasps the living room curtain in horror. “Look, Robert.” She gestures to him. “Can you believe that? She’s offering them refreshments.”

Dad joins us at the window. But two of them together on one side is not as inconspicuous as one alone. Soon we’re all forced away from the window by the flashing of cameras.

I fling myself into the armchair, not caring when it lurches a good few feet away from where it started. Noreen and the tea isn’t the problem. Most times when I’ve waved at her she’s been sitting alone in her armchair by her front window. I don’t think she gets to talk to people very much.

“Since the press is here, does this mean I’m a celebrity now?” I try to make light of the situation, but my words betray me. It sounds a bit like I’m being strangled.

It’s weird, every time I’ve ever imagined such an impossible thing as being famous, it seemed like the reality would feel so much better than a daydream. Right now though, with my stomach whirling, I feel much more like the lumpy vegetable remnants of our half-eaten lunch, which are still sitting on the kitchen table.

“No, love.” Mum attempts to hide all from me, like I’m a baby. “This is just a blip. Silly people with their heads full of some silly nonsense.” She moves forward to stroke my mane, but for once I dodge out reach.

“Why do they keep asking for my picture then? And why do we have to sit inside with all the curtains shut? What are they waiting out there for? Do they need me to go and prove that I can actually sing? Is that the problem?”

Dad kneels beside the coffee table. “Trust us, Florence. These are not people to whom you want to make yourself vulnerable.”

Mum nods. “I hate to say it, but you shouldn’t give them anything, love.”

Okay, so I know my parents are just trying to protect me, but if they believe that, then by the same logic surely I should never have auditioned in the first place?

Mum forgets that my hearing is much better than theirs. I catch her fearful whisper against Dad’s shoulder: “Do something. I’m concerned.”

“You know what…” Dad begins after a small pause, as if this is a casual thought that has just occurred to him. “It might be a good idea, Flo, if you—well, I mean, if all of us, really—were to stay inside the house for a while.” He takes off his glasses and rubs his face; his eyes seem fish-like without them. “I’m sure by this evening the vultures will have got bored. They’ll be on their way. Until then, just to stop them bothering us, perhaps it would be best to keep a low profile? You have some homework to do anyway, don’t you? Hmm?”

I raise my heavy brow at him. How can I really be expected to focus on homework right now?

All the same, to make them happy I trudge up to my bedroom. Upstairs however, I thud past my desk, and instead sneak a peek over the window ledge, onto the hectic street below. Some of the reporters have wedged their notebooks between their knees so their hands are free to drink tea. Between them, Noreen is wheeling around, getting the trolley tangled in rucksacks, and bumping into people’s legs.

Before any of the reporters can spot me, I whisk the curtains shut. Some celebrities don’t allow their picture to be taken unless the photos are paid for. Should I do that?

When I went to audition the other day, I never thought it would lead to this. Why are they so interested in me? Is it just because I ran from that boy and accidentally scared some people? But why has that led to them asking all these questions? I’m not making a cultural stand. I don’t even know any other wildebeest. I just love to sing. I’m just Flo.

Surely a simple demonstration of my talent will be enough to convince everybody that my voice is what they should be talking about. Then we can go back to normal at home, and I can be excited about my next audition.

Could that actually work though?

Coils of plastic necklaces slither and rumble to the bottom of the box as I rootle through my accessories to locate my favourite top hat. This one is crushed black velvet. It has a tall ostrich feather and a purple rose poking out of the band. Hopefully it’s lucky too. With the aid of my Velcro wrist strap, I manage to hold the hat in place, then actually snap the elastic under my chin all by myself.

“Good job. Now come on, Flo.”

Perhaps if I serenade the reporters like a singing Juliet, then they will have no choice but to fall in love with me.

On my iPod, after a few difficult attempts with the stylus I get the track playing quietly, just so I can hear the beat. With a jangle of nerves rattling up my spine, I flap aside the curtain, prise open the window handle, and all of a sudden I’m leaning out.

The reporters hear the noise. They all scramble like seagulls.

“Florence!” Flash. Flash. Flash.

I try a soft introduction at first.

I’m doing my sweetest singing, but they won’t be able to hear above all that commotion. Flash. Flash. “How tall are you, Florence? What’s the fastest you can run?”

Quickly I have to up the intensity, just to be heard.

“Do you have to cut holes in your clothes to accommodate your tail?”

“How long is your tail? How often do you need to wash?”

It’s useless. They’re not going to sing karma karma karma. They couldn’t care less.

Flash. Flash.

“Do you remember living with wild animals back home?” Flash. Flash. Flash.

A white strobe dazzles me right in the eyes. I reel backwards and sideways, my temple thumping the window frame.

“Did your parents procure you while you were still in a feral state?”

My head throbs. No good. Get out of their line of sight. Back away from the window. I have to feel my way, nose in the carpet, silver spots revolving in my vision. When I collapse into a sitting position against the far wall, my curved back digs against the wall, and hurts.

“Idiot,” I pant, dizzily. Why am I so stupid? Of course, that didn’t work.

“Flo? Is everything alright?” Mum calls from downstairs.

“It’s fine, Mum!” I press my cold, bony hoof to the side of my head, squeeze my eyes shut. “Just doing my homework.”

Downstairs, a heavy hand knocks against the door, but this time nobody answers it.

***

When I feel well enough to peek between the curtains, Noreen is slowly wheeling down the ramp to deliver her second round of refreshments. The reporters have been upgraded to biscuits now too.

Mum must be by the downstairs window again. From downstairs I hear her furious muttering: “Chocolate hobnobs? The traitor.”

I’m not even nearly tired, but it would be more comfortable to lie down in bed. The rumble of an unfamiliar engine enters our road as I rub my nose into the comforting smell of the duvet. The metal bed frame whines. I close my eyes.

Without warning the elastic under my chin snaps, and my top hat pops like a cork. I don’t look to see where it lands.

The doorbell trills twice more. We all pretend not to notice.

I lull my mind towards sleep, think of everyone smiling as I sung at my first audition, think of hot parsnip casserole, when below a big, throaty voice overtakes the street.

“Personally, I think Big Flo’s flamboyant appearance is to die for! I would love to have a flirty horse tail instead of my flabby old bottom.”

The reporters are all laughing now. Slowly I sit up.

“Who are you?” Somebody asks exactly what I’m thinking.

There’s a theatrical pause before: “Darling! Why, of course, I’m Madame Pinkie Couture—vocalist, dancer, and cutting comedian. Live shows at the Medina every Thursday, Friday, Saturday. But now you mention it, I’m also thinking of becoming a booking agent, if the young wilde-lady were looking for representation.”

Inwardly I groan.

In response to this revelation, the reporters all murmur in appreciation, then go dangerously quiet. I can smell their excited sweat, hear them scribbling away in their notebooks.

Dad was right: Vultures. 

The CD has moved onto the bouncy hit single, “It’s a Miracle”. This one is usually my favourite song on this album, but they’ve even managed to spoil Culture Club, I realise with a disquieted pang.

It’s horrible listening to the small crowd gathered outside. Over the hours, as the light behind the curtain dilutes to the depressing taupe tones of evening, one thing becomes terribly clear. What they all really want to know is will I be going through with the next audition? This seems to be a paramount issue, whether millions of people will get to see my long, boxy, hairy mug on TV, then get to debate about whether it’s okay or wrong for someone as different as me to take part.

Why is that so important though? If everybody’s more interested in hearing about my horns and tail, then no self-respecting talent scout will put me through any further anyway.

A breeze weaves through the open window, carrying with it the scent of the reporters’ stale sweat, and new smells too: gummy make-up and a synthetic wig. My music posters on the walls all tremble in unison. In a corner, on the carpet, my top hat stirs beside the shoulder bag I took to the audition. A sound like an electric fan catches my attention, My gaze flits to the precious red slip, which is now shivering at the bag’s opening. The paper is slightly crushed from being cooped up overnight. Another gust and it does a limp tumble-weed onto the carpet.

In the street below, the reporters are laughing at something newly outrageous Madame Pinkie Couture has said, but I squeeze my eyes shut. Wish I could squeeze my ears shut too. My heart drum drums as I imagine the slip magically unfurling, then taking flight around my bedroom.

Maybe the weight of it would keep it grounded. It’s heavy, thick paper, but could it be possible for it to fly anyway? Perhaps… if the breeze through the window was just right, and if I could believe in it enough.

For some reason it’s comforting to think of my acceptance slip staying up there, beyond the laws of physics. Unseen by anyone but me. Just dancing on its own.

 

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annie rose

Annie Rose studied the Creative Writing M.A and B.A Hons at the University of Chichester. She is currently writing a contemporary novel which features alpacas, competitive Latin and Ballroom dancing, and too many cats to keep track of. When she is stuck for the right word, she finds drinking a lot of red wine helps.

Twitter: @AnnieRoseWrites

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