Real Celebrity {Rachel Kendall}

She was the kind of woman mothers warn their sons about and wives refuse to name, preferring to spit out words like slut and gold-digger instead.  She'd been the kind of girl who totters off the beaten path in high heels and fake furs, except this specimen had matured into a superstar who could own as many shoes and drape as many dead animals around her shoulders as she liked.  After leaving home at sixteen and, some say, horizontally making her way through all and sundry to get to the top, she'd swung her woozy hips (the gateway) and fluttered her long lashes (the sweet nothings) right to the heart of Hollywood where Metro Goldwyn Mayer had catapulted her to stardom.

When Lily Amsel assented to the interview I was struck momentarily silent with awe and fear.  Her first interview in forty years and she'd agreed to spill the beans to me, a writer for Real Celebrity Magazine who also happened to be her biggest fan.  I'd seen her greatest film, the 1938 Von Sternberg-directed Last Train to Frankfurt so many times I could reel off the lines, strike the poses and mimic her every smouldering expression at will.  As a teen I had died in front of the mirror over and over till I was able to impersonate the leading lady's death-throes to perfection.

I rang the bell again.

This had once obviously been a magnificent house, but time and weather had worn it down to a chapped and blistered replica of its former self.  Many of the roof tiles were missing, the garden gate was hanging off its hinges and the fountain was empty but for a thin covering of green slime.  It might actually have been Dorothy Gale's house post-hurricane, if it hadn't been slap-bang in the middle of Kent.  To think Amsel had been here all along yet no one had been able to find her.  She had faded so well into nothingness that she had almost ceased to exist altogether.

How had the most famous woman in the world managed to dive so deep into that inkwell of obscurity, without even making a splash? Lord Lucan and Richie Manic would achieve it in later years but Lily had actually announced to the press that, at age 45, she was retiring from the public arena.  People knew where she lived and the paparazzi had certainly tried their best to steal a grainy glimpse, but no one seemed able to even get close.

I was about to ring the bell again when I noticed a small mass of fur half-concealed behind an upturned plant pot by my feet.  It looked wet and glistened slightly in an oozy congealed way.  Cautiously I prodded it with a foot, afraid, but not really believing, that it might jump to life with snapping teeth and a drooling maw.  But there was no movement.  After some deliberation I slowly reached forward to touch it, but as I bent to the ground, the front door opened and I stood rigid, smiling stupidly.

The old woman at the door didn't seem to notice.  She stood there looking at me and after almost a minute of silence I extended my hand.

"Hi," I said. "Gillian Stevens." I let my ignored offer of a polite handshake fall limp to my side. "Gill. I'm here to interview Lily Amsel."

"Ah yes.  Pleased to meet you.  Do come in."

As I stepped over the threshold I was pounded with the right hook of a disturbingly strong odour, but before I had time to separate the nuances of this particular bouquet, a sudden flurry of dogs appeared, like a noisy, annoying dust cloud.  The smaller beasts bounced up and down at my feet while the larger labradors and retrievers got busy with their noses.  One of the aforementioned bigger dogs went straight for my groin, burying its thick black nose into my crotch and refusing to submit, no matter how much I yanked, strangled and quietly swore at it.  The old lady seemed mildly amused.  I walked into the living room, dog still attached, and sought refuge in a low chair.  Crossing my legs quickly I was able to smile at the miserable dog's defeat.  But it didn't last long as, noticing the smear of brown around the edge of my shoe, it became obvious the dog had won this shitty battle.  And with this came the realisation that the main spectrum of the foul odour was dog excrement.  Perhaps I could detect some TCP, sweat, mints.  But there was something else.  Something rotten that made me feel decidedly uneasy.

"There will be blood," I whispered to him as he stood with tongue lolling and, as if in agreement of my thrown gauntlet, he let out a gentle fart.

I turned away from the dog's revolting effluvium and let my gaze roam the room.  The inside of the house was in keeping with its exterior.  Beneath a large window a chaise longue was spitting out its stuffing and the armchair in which I'd found sanctuary was pock-marked with cigarette burns along the arm.  Curtains were drawn but didn't quite meet and burnt-down candle stubs sat in pools of hardened wax.  A large gilded bird cage hung suspended from the ceiling.  Pictures idled in their rakish frames and spider webs thick with dust decorated every corner.  Above my head a chandelier barely lit up the room as most of its bulbs had blown and at my feet a large Oriental-style rug had various things mashed into its weave.  Fruit, I thought and meat (dog food I hoped) and, were those splinters of egg shell or bone china? Or simply scrapings of bone? My mind was beginning to wield an unruly hammer around the collected memories of the horror films of my youth.

"Gin?" she asked.

"Tap water will be fine, thanks."

She looked at me in disbelief. "Tap water? Oh no.  I have bottled water somewhere my dear.  We're not peasants are we!"

Lily Amsel was not at all what I had expected.  I knew time would have ravaged her but this woman looked at death's door, despite all her efforts to conceal it.  Wearing a diaphanous gown that might have been passable on a woman 50 years younger, her pale arms bare but for a fine layer of dark hair, and a neck as pitiable as a chicken's on the chopping block.  Her thin hair was bleached blonde and the nicks and scars on her upper lip could not be erased by the perilous outline of sticky dark red .

She dragged her old bones out of the room, the dogs following her as though attached by an invisible leash.  Finding myself alone I decided to have a little sneaky peek around.  I desperately wanted to know what was in that birdcage.  Reaching up I tilted the cage so I could see inside and I was treated to a blast of that same potent smell. 

Lying inert on the floor of the cage, amongst torn scraps of discoloured and bone-dry newspaper was the skeleton of some creature.  It was perhaps the size of a squirrel or a large bird, but this didn't belong to any animal I could recognise.  The little body was only half the length of the skull and was made up of numerous tiny bones.  Rotten teeth protruded at every angle and its eye sockets were too small.  It had four legs of equal length but the front two feet (hands? paws?) were much smaller than its hind pair.  There was not a scrap of meat on it.  The bones were dirty brown and crumbling, as though it had been picked clean many months ago by a carrion-consumer or a hungry clot of maggots.

I was so engrossed in this freakish work of art that when a small cat jumped silently onto the chaise longue from the window, and down to the floor in a clean, mathematical motion, I almost had a coronary.  I had never trusted cats with their quiet, unassuming glances and holier-than-thou attitudes.  I glared at its silky, fluid back as it strolled off towards a darker part of the room.  I turned to Lily with a smile as she came towards me, her frailty evident in her slow shuffle.  She managed to set down the two glasses on a table before bursting into a fit of coughing that racked her ailing body.

I helped her to the chaise longue and she sat with some difficulty, her dress hitching up to reveal varicose veins snaking around her calves.

"Well, she croaked, looking at me reproachfully as if I had been wasting her time. "Are we going to get on with it?"


She'd been gregarious, in her time. She'd been downright exhibitionist, in the fullness of her youth.  So much had been written about her in the numerous biographies, radio shows, newspaper articles.  There had been photos of her out and about with the pet panther she kept on a leash.  There were rumours of her turning up at restaurants and letting her fur fall to the floor to reveal bare breasts and firm buttocks.  Intelligent, witty, raucous, she was every boy's fantasy and every girl's idol.  In a way I wasn't surprised that she had turned into this Baby Jane character, clutching onto her youth in an arthritic iron-grip, desperately trying to keep hold of the things that had made her a star.

And today she was the perfect interviewee, dishing out the gossip of the time, telling, perhaps, tall tales and exaggerated truths.  She was charming, witty and ready to spill the beans, even if they were out of date.  She spoke spiritedly about her four husbands and the string of lovers that included Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Lon Chaney, Jr.  She gossiped about which directors had bedded which actresses, who was locked firmly in the closet, who slept with call girls, and which producers had been tried on fraud charges.  She was most animated and almost revivified by this plunge into the past.  So animated, in fact, it seemed almost as if she were rediscovering a past that had long-been suppressed.  No, it was more than that.  It was like she'd never left it.

If it weren't for the occasional slip of her dentures which she sucked back into place with a well-practiced motion, I would almost believe she really had been transported back there, for a moment.  A brief whirl of false lashes and fur coat and we could be back in the Hotel Rio where most of her antics had played out.

But when she started coughing again I was brought back to the dusty here and now.  The attack lasted longer this time.  I offered her my glass of water but she shook her head, eyes squeezing shut and tears rolling down her rouged cheeks.

"Damn! Damn!" she gasped.  Her breath seemed to scratch in her throat and her fingers raked the air as though she could claw in some oxygen.  But finally the coughing subsided and she began to regain her composure.  I decided to continue the questioning and ignore the undercurrent of urine now apparent beneath that stronger stench.

"So, what have you been up to since you retired from the silver screen?" It was the first question on my list.  I was expecting talk of donkey sanctuaries, or high living in Parisian hotels with men half her age.

"I watch my films," she said.

"Oh really? Do you have a favourite? I'm quite a fan of noir myself."

"After Dark, Justine, The Odyssey, Last Train to Frankfurt …" She was reeling off all the films she'd starred in.

Beside my chair, the golden retriever was focusing its sticky attentions on a creature half its size but, for all accounts, a total bitch, as she kept thrusting her rump towards the bigger dog and then skipping away coyly.

"…Teacher's Pet, Marilyn and Freddie, Paper Chase…" Either Lily was oblivious to the dirty deed or was just accustomed to it.  I tried to catch the full list of vehicles that had careered the woman so securely into the public's favour, but the noise of the dogs, now in full swing, was getting too loud.

She paused for a sip of what I guessed was gin.

"And I'm writing a book." She smiled.

"Tell me about that," I said, desperate now to steer the interview to its end.

"It's an autobiography called Life in the Fast Lane.  I've almost finished it.  Would you like to read a little?"

That cinched it.  I had that book sitting on my shelf at home.  It had bent corners and toast crumbs between its pages and a black and white image on the back cover of the young, glamorous author.  I'd had that book for about 10 years.  I'd bought it second hand.  It was first published in 1952.

I came to the conclusion I'd been toying with from the moment Lily Amsel opened the door.  She was ill.  She was, undoubtedly, suffering from dementia.

I stood up.  The dogs continued to rut regardless.

"I think that's a wrap." I said. "It's been wonderful and I have everything I need from you."

"Wait!" she said, with some urgency in her voice.  She tried to get up but seemed unable to lift herself from the chaise longue.  I helped her to stand on legs that were barely strong enough to take her small weight.

"Let me show you something," she said. "Come."

She led me to the far side of the room and again that damn cat jumped from the shadows, startling me.  We stopped in front of a gnarly old dresser and she pointed to the candle on the top.  Like all the others this had bled itself dry and was stuck firmly in its own effluence.  It was covered in a layer of dust.

"There." She said, triumphantly. "I keep it just as it is.  I'll never throw it away."

My face obviously gave away my lack of understanding.  She pointed to it and brought her face closer to mine.  In a whisper she said, "Isn't it an exact replica of the final scene from The Devil's Daughter? Right down to the smoking gun in my hand." She cackled, which brought on another bout of coughing.  I grabbed her arm, ready to lead her to a chair before her legs gave way, but she shook her head and pulled her arm out of my grasp.

She mumbled something and I had to lean in closer to hear.  That smell, that stench emanating from her open mouth, her clothes, her very pores.  It was making me nauseous.

"Help me," she said.  I started.  I moved away.

She looked almost compos mentis now.  She looked right into my eyes. "I'm dying," she said, and tears began to roll down her cheeks, giving them the appearance of soggy, crumpled tissues.

I wasn't a quick thinker.  I wasn't one of those selfless people.  I was just out for my own survival and this was definitely beyond my comfort zone.  That stare, piercing and almost accusatory, was frightening me.  I didn't want to be a witness to this.

"It's killing me," she cried.

Suddenly she brought her hands up to her throat.  She began scratching, scratching at the skin there, digging her claws in and drawing blood.  She exhaled a low moan and my heart pounded against my chest, the backs of my eyes, the roof of my mouth.  My fear heightened my senses and I heard a small movement, felt a low growl, probably from the cat, or one of the dogs.  I've heard animals can sense imminent death.

"I'll get someone," was all I could think to say.

But before I made a move her skin began to throb, like the tiny fluctuations of a baby kicking in utero.  The papery skin on her breastbone was flexing and retracting and her small bosom heaved.  Her flesh was rolling around something beneath that roiled and struggled.  As I watched with eyes as big as ping-pong balls, the skin at her breastbone ripped apart with a wet tearing sound leaving a hole about five inches long.  I fell back, landing on the rug with a painful thud.  A small black hand or paw flexed its digits and poked through the orifice, its fur matted and wet.  And then another hand joined it and the two pushed their way out, tearing at the pliable skin, opening the wound further, stretching it wider as the dress, too, began to rip.

Lily sputtered and coughed.  She raised her head and shuddered.  Brown eyes rolled back and red drool ran down her chin.  Her white dress was covered in blood as the split in the fabric and the epidermis grew wider, exposing sagging breasts, a crumpled belly.

Her body fell with a flop to the floor, legs and arms tangled in the bloody dress and torn skin.  Her wig fell from her head revealing a scalp covered in sores and small tufts of white hair.

I was frozen to the spot.  I'd never known terror before.  My own body was as rigid as hers was flaccid; melded wood and metal whilst hers was pliable as elastic.  The thing inside her looked comfortable in its soft and oozing nest.  It seemed uninterested in me and its surroundings.  It rubbed its eyes with small black fists and then stretched first one leg then the other out of Lily Amsel.  It stood before me in all its two-foot glory.

And then came the others.  From beneath the chaise longue, the dresser, the chair.  The cat suddenly whipped across the room, screaming, as it was chased by a lesser version of the beast in front of me.  The dogs were howling.  The creatures came closer, many, so many of them, while the parasite before me licked the blood from its fur.

It looked down at the used and discarded bloody bundle on the floor, and then up at me and for the first time seemed to actually see me.  Still frozen with fear I watched and waited as it started to move towards its new host.


Real Celebrity previously appeared in The Monster Book for Girls, The ExaggeratedPress, 2011