I gasped with surprise when the letter arrived. It was handwritten on pink personalised stationery and when I opened the envelope, there was a delightful puff of lavender in my nostrils which made me sneeze. An invitation from a part of Hollywood’s regal, decadent past.
Lorna Hammond. She only made one movie, a clumsy but beautiful affair called The Incorrigible Ms Evans. It captured the imagination for a time, enough that Ms Hammond managed the trick of fame without the unnecessary effort of producing art.
She made the most of it, attaching herself to a succession of handsome artists then distinguished captains of industry before age and culture consigned her to a dusty exile. I wrote my thesis on her and kindled the flame of it into a solid career as a pop culture and feminism commentator.
She let her legend wax in the silence. The lack of biography added to her allure. There were no children or close family to offer anything to her profile, just a series of sightings and rumours, strung together like cheap paste jewels on a string of pearls. It held my attention for a long time.
I wrote to her agent who had died five years ago. His assistant sent a cheque once a month and never heard from her. She was exhausted enough to give me the address without any argument.
I wrote to her several times. She did not reply, but that did not stop me from writing a book about her, and went onto talk shows to talk about it. I spent the whole time worrying about the alleged ten pounds that the camera adds and wishing I had worn pants rather than a skirt.
When an independent film studio approached me for the rights to the book, I received a letter from her inviting me to sit with her; I replied coolly, but inside I was trembling with a giddy joy at the thought of seeing her.
The etymology of giddy, refers to a state of being insane, mad or stupid. That should have occurred to me at the time, but we always lack clarity when it comes to our enthusiasms.
She apologised for not replying to me sooner. The note enthralled me and I spent many hours finding hidden meanings in its terse structure. I was invited on a Sunday afternoon; she sent directions which tickled me as I had watched the building from Google Earth, disappointed that it was a squat, smoke-stained carbuncle rather than a candied mansion house.
The penmanship was shaky in places, but I put that down to age and excitement.
I imagined her crepe paper skin, the febrile persistent tremor of her hands as she wrote and the excited thirst in her eyes as she anticipated another fix of attention, the only true sustenance she had ever known. It still took me two attempts to find the place in person, which made me late for the appointment. I hoped that her need for recognition was greater than her adherence to civility.
It was a scarred doorbell next to a curled, yellowing sign pinned under scuffed plastic.
I pressed it and heard the harsh bray of the bell, even through two floors up and insulated by the walls.
The intercom coughed into life.
‘Ms Hammond? I’m Gloria Davis.’
A faint rustling sound.
The voice was thin, almost a whisper but the poor quality of the intercom lent it a dark, hollow volume.
‘It is such an honour to meet you.’ I said
The intercom belched like a dyspeptic robot and the door clicked open. The sour, greasy odour of fermented garbage stuck fingers in my nostrils hard enough to make my eyes water. I hurried up the stairs and held my breath.
Her door was peeling and had faded from a fire engine red to an infected pink in places. I knocked hard and the door clicked open. I pushed it open and walked into the thick, velvet darkness of the hallway.
Adjoining rooms had been recruited to the service of her ego. Piles of correspondence, yellowing newspapers cut into rectangles and pictures adorned every possible surface. A pang of envy dug out from inside my breastbone at the towers of papers before she called to me in that thin, whispering voice again.
Her room was set at the back of the apartment. The door was slightly ajar and as I stepped forward, the hairs on my arms went up with an excited unease.
Squalor and glamour are two sides of the same sour coin No manic pixie starlet imagines a point where they become desiccated husks sustained on fleeting glories. The same would apply to the likes of Hammond who would look back and never be able to work out exactly why their beauty closed as many doors as they opened.
It was the fuller figured envious obsessives like myself or the irony-saturated hipsters who fed and sustained the two-faced dreams of these women. In ancient times, they built temples and now we had blogs and books instead. I should have been overjoyed, but I fought the sudden, vicious urge to turn tail and run.
They say you should never meet your heroes.
The lights were out and the curtains drawn.
A faint scratching started up, gaining volume with each second, a million yellowing fingernails, stroking at a million chalkboards. I saw the impossibly thin brown legs of spiders advancing, dense and packed like a broom.
The glimmer of their eyes, implacable and vicious.
I screamed and ran, swatting them away as they poured through the door. A fast-spreading brown mould that wanted to infect me.
My screaming alerted someone and I was outside, weeping and gibbering until the paramedics arrived.
It was not until I was released from observation, that the details I had fled from, emerged into matters of public record.
The spiders were Loxosceles, the recluse spider. They had travelled in the knotted twists of the wig that Ms Hammond had ordered no more than three weeks ago. The wig had come from New Mexico. The eggs had grown warm and full nestled against her scalp and they were born hungry.
They had to fumigate the building after that.
Details returned to me by degrees.
The piles of correspondence and newspaper clippings.
The ashtrays that were perfect cones of cigarette butts and ash.
The wigs mounted on wooden mannequin heads.
It was a beautiful wig once. No wonder she had worn it so often, clinging to the last threads of a faded glory whilst bearing the pain of spider venom coursing through her flesh.
Perhaps it was the closest she had felt to beautiful in a long time.
Hollywood recluse eaten by same was a headline I would have killed to have written.
No one could explain the voice, the invitation I had received. The times were as fucked up as the situation and in the end, they released me rather than try to explain them.
Yesterday, I was sat in the kitchen, looking out at the street when I heard her voice rustle into my ears and a perfect row of spiders on the window sill.
Thirsting for my attention.