This will be a bit of harmless fun, I thought, as I climbed three flights of stairs to the top of a building in theatreland in search of a fancy-dress costume. I found myself in a room full of rails crammed tight with bright costumes. And there, standing in front of them, was the strangest person I have ever seen. She was wearing a lacy Dangerous Liaisons number with bursting décolletage and enormous side hoops, and she was smiling a disconcertingly wide smile.
When I told her I had come to hire a fancy-dress costume she shrieked as if someone had stuck a cattle prod up her bottom. ‘Oh, how exciting!’ Barely had I started to explain that I wanted a tasteful costume for a small house party than she shrieked again. ‘Yes, yes! A dancer from the Moulin Rouge!’ and dived into the rails of ruffles and satin.
‘No, please, come back,’ I implored her. ‘It’s a black-and-white party…’
She stopped riffling through fluffy dresses and gasped again. ‘Yes, yes! A lovely courtesan from the Moulin Rouge with black and white feathers in your hair!’ And she disappeared into the clothes rails again by squeezing her absurdly wide dress sideways into the aisles.
She was gone so long I had to go in after her. I crept slowly into the strangely frightening rows of musty old velvet. The outfits hanging limply on hangers reminded me of nothing so much as dead bodies. I called after her as I wandered deeper into the faded finery. Suddenly the costumes parted and she stuck her head through, grinning from ear to ear like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I don’t know how I didn’t let out a bloodcurdling scream.
I told her as firmly as I could that I really did not want the Moulin Rouge outfit.