Beauty Queen

Blankly she stares through mascaraed eyes, a soulless being with a painted face. For hours a tumultuous swarm of activity has ebbed and flowed around her. It is only now, with moments to spare, that the hurricane winds gather pace. Faceless fingers tug her hair into a style that defies both gravity and reason. Yet more tend to her nails, pinch her cheeks, tweeze her brows. Quietly she sits in the eye of the storm; watching, waiting.

From behind the chair upon which she is borne aloft a camera clicks. She smells the cloying odour of stale alcohol before she sees the photographer’s face in the mirror. Sweat oozes from his forehead like ectoplasm, sticky and wet. His lips purse, he blows a kiss at her then laughs, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. She does not respond, merely looks away.

Her rosebud lips are painted pink, a final wash of blusher applied to the apples of her cheeks. She steps down from the chair. Her vantage point lost, she feels her diminutive stature acutely. The layers of cream and pink tulle on her princess cut dress are adjusted. Her feet are prised into crystal slippers; replicas of Cinderella’s, or so they told her. A cloud of perfume and hairspray shrouds her, stinging her eyes and throat like nettles. Now she is unrecognisable even to herself, she is ready.

The curtains pull back and she steps onto the runway, drawing collective gasps. “Isn’t she beautiful?” “What a darling little thing.” “Only five years old, you say? Well I never.” “Adorable.”

In the glare of the studio lights nobody notices the single tear that slides unbidden down her painted face, dropping from her chin into obscurity.

This gorgeous little girl was at a centre for disabled children that I visited in southern India. She’s quite the opposite of the girl in my story – naturally beautiful and enjoying her childhood, just as she should be.

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