The Beauty Contest
This amusing short story by Ewan Smith is set in 1976.
Her family were surprised Ava wanted to enter the competition, but she had a hidden agenda!
THE argument raged at tea time. “But we always watch ‘Top Of The Pops’, Dad.” Harvey snorted. “You watch it, you mean. The rest of us just have to put up with the racket.” Betty scowled.
“I’m sure that Abba will be at Number One this week. Benny is so dreamy.”
“You can dream about him while we’re watching the European Cup Final.”
Her fourteen-year-old eyes flashed in outrage. “Football?”
“The whole match is being shown live.”
“It’s going to be on all night?” Betty wailed.
“I sometimes think we’d be better off without a TV.”
Betty gazed at her mother in horror. But before she could reply, her older sister Ava had quietly placed a sheet of paper down on the table.
“Mum, Dad, could one of you sign this? I want to enter the Miss Bridevale 1976 competition.”
Stunned silence fell.
Betty let out a little laugh.
“You in a beauty contest?”
“It’s two weeks on Saturday. Because I’m only seventeen I have to get my parents’ permission.”
Nora realised her mouth was open and closed it.
“That’s rather unexpected, dear.”
After a glance at the form, Harvey scribbled his signature at the bottom.
“I don’t see why. These beauty competitions are all very respectable.”
“Yes, but . . .”
Nora wasn’t quite sure how to put it. Ava was the last person in the world she would have expected to take part in a beauty contest.
Her sister Betty was obsessed with make-up, clothes and boyfriends, but Ava had never shown the slightest interest in such things. All she cared about was fossils and dinosaurs.
“What gave you the idea?”
“The Miss Bridevale winner gets to spend a week in Lyme Regis.”
Nora looked puzzled. “And?”
“It’s the fossil capital of England, Mum! Where the first-ever ichthyosaur skeleton was found. Imagine being able to spend a whole week there!”
“You’d be there for the Miss England contest, not fossil hunting!”
“Nobbie agrees even finding an ammonite would be amazing,” Ava said.
Nobbie was her pal from school. He was as obsessed by dinosaurs as Ava was. She got to her feet.
“It’s my turn to do the dishes.”
Harvey checked his watch.
“And I just have time to fill in my pools coupon before the football starts.”
Betty groaned and stomped off to her room, banging the door noisily.
Nora helped Ava take the dishes to the sink. She tried to probe gently.
“Won’t you find this beauty contest rather tricky, dear? You don’t have any experience.”
“We walk round the room once in swimwear and once in evening wear. Then we answer questions from the MC. How hard can it be?”
Put that way, it didn’t sound complicated.
“Where are you going to get an evening dress from?” Nora picked up a tea towel.
“Marlene Briscoe is lending me one.”
Nora’s eyes widened. “Marlene from the Fashion Boutique?”
“She’s the sister of Mr Briscoe, my geography teacher. I told her it would be good publicity if I won the Miss Bridevale contest wearing a Fashion Boutique dress. She’s going to help me choose something.”
Nora gaped. The Fashion Boutique had some gorgeous clothes but they cost a fortune. She couldn’t believe Ava had persuaded Marlene to lend her one. “What about your hair?” Most of the time Ava tied her lovely auburn hair up with an elastic band.
“Terri Blake from Hair And Now is doing that.”
“Terri Blake? You can’t afford her prices.”
“I’ll work a few hours a week in the shop over the summer. She’s doing my make-up, too. Don’t worry, Mum, it’s all sorted.”
Nora felt baffled. Ava must have been planning this for months.
She shook her head. There were times when she felt that she didn’t know her elder daughter at all.
“So, what’s the plan?” Nobbie was on a bean bag in the corner of Ava’s bedroom. “It’s one thing to enter the Miss Bridevale contest, it’s quite another to win it.”
“We have to work on the judges. They’re the ones who choose the winners.”
“Who are they?”
“There’s three. Cedric Fanshawe, the mayor, Dolores Bastable, the actress in that soap, and Peanut Jarvey.”
Nobbie’s eyes widened. “Peanut Jarvey? The lead singer of In Pain?”
The punk band had appeared out of nowhere about six months before and, ever since, the newspapers had been filled with their controversial exploits.
“That’ll be interesting.” “When I appear in front of the judges on the stage, I want them to already know who I am. I need to stand out in their minds.” “What are you planning?” Ava leaned forward. “I want you to start with Mayor Fanshawe.”
“I’m grateful you agreed to see me, Mr Mayor.” Nobbie smiled eagerly. “Our school newspaper is doing a series of articles on prominent members of the local community. It’ll be ace to do one on a person as important as you.”
He wondered if he had gone too far, but the mayor seemed delighted with the flattery.
“Well, my work keeps me incredibly busy.” He looked at his watch. “But I have twenty minutes before a vital meeting on dog mess, so I’m all yours. I hope that you won’t give me a hard time, like Robin Day does to politicians on television!” He gave a barking laugh. “Fire away, young man.” Nobbie began with bland questions about how the mayor spent his day and what he did with his chain of office at bedtime. Then he moved on to the real purpose of the interview.
“About the Miss
Bridevale 1976 contest which you’ll be judging . . .”
The mayor’s eyes narrowed. There had been complaints about beauty contests over recent years. Some people felt that they were demeaning to women.
Was Nobbie planning to ask awkward questions?
However, Nobbie was smiling enthusiastically.
“I think this is a great opportunity to raise the profile of the town.”
The mayor relaxed.
“I’m glad to hear you say that, young man, because that’s my view exactly.”
“Wouldn’t it be brilliant to have a winner who could generate lots of newspaper headlines about the town?”
“That would be perfect, and . . .”
“Someone keen to promote local businesses?” “I agree, and . . .”
“A local girl who could show her enthusiasm for Bridevale to the nation!”
The mayor gave another barking laugh.
“Perhaps you should be doing my job!” A serious look crossed his face. “The trouble is that most contestants just want to win. Promoting Bridevale isn’t a priority for them.” Nobbie leaned forward. “Let’s hope this year there’s one contestant who thinks more of Bridevale than of herself.”
“You think he got the message?” Ava asked, sipping her milkshake. They were at the Wimpy Bar by the town hall.
Nobbie nodded, digging into his sundae.
“He’s so pompous; it was hard to keep a straight face. But I reckon I got him thinking it would be brilliant to have a Miss Bridevale who was keen to promote the town.”
“Good work. I’m meeting a journalist from the ‘Gazette’ today; that should get things rolling. Then I’m off to the Fashion Boutique so Marlene can help me pick an evening dress.”
“Can I do anything?”
Ava looked at him thoughtfully.
“Since you mention it, I need a couple of full-sized animal costumes.”
Nobbie shook his head. “I won’t ask. Two animal costumes it is!”
Nora gasped as Ava appeared from the boutique’s fitting-room.
“Oh, my goodness, Ava, you look so pretty.”
Ava gazed at her reflection. The silk dress had a floral pattern and the skirts clung to her gently, outlining her long legs.
“It does look very well on you,” Marlene murmured. “Try walking in it.”
With one hand resting lightly on her hip, Ava made her way confidently to the rear of the shop. She stopped, turned to either side, then walked back. Nora gaped at her.
“You look as if you’ve done that all your life.”
“It’s only walking, Mum.” She looked at herself in the mirror again.
“Is something the matter?” Marlene asked. “The dress is perfect . . .” “But?”
“It makes me look like a seventeen-year-old girl.” “You are!” Nora cried. “Maybe, Mum. But that’s not going to win me the beauty contest.”
Marlene’s eyes narrowed. “You’re right. You have a good eye. Take that dress off and I’ll bring you another one; I think I have the perfect alternative.”
When Ava reappeared, it was obvious to all of them that they had a winner. The deep-crimson dress had an elegant train and, as Ava moved, it seemed to swirl and flow around her.
Nora’s eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t believe that this beautiful creature was her teenage daughter.
“Wow,” Marlene said. Her eyes narrowed. “What size are your feet?”
“Size six, narrow fit.”
“I’ve a pair of shoes which would be perfect. You can borrow them.”
They watched Ava practise walking.
“I can’t thank you enough, Marlene.”
“You have a remarkable daughter. I have a feeling she’s going to go places.”
“Lyme Regis!” Ava grinned, approaching them. “That’s where I want to go.”
“From Brontosauruses To Beauty Contests,” Nobbie read aloud. “Local lass
dreams of becoming Miss World.”
He turned to Ava.
“That’s a great story. You don’t really want to become Miss World, do you?”
“The journalist made that up. But it got the story on to the front page.”
“It has a lot about how great you think Bridevale is. The mayor will love it.” “Fingers crossed.”
“Look – there’s been a break-out from the aquarium!” Across the street, two lads were gazing at them in amusement.
Ava waved. She and Nobbie were making their way along the pavement with friends from the “We Love Animals” group they belonged to.
Some were carrying home-made banners; others handed out leaflets about their upcoming Jumbo Jumble Sale. They were attracting plenty of attention, especially Ava and Nobbie, who were dressed as whales.
“Love these costumes.” “I borrowed them from Friends of the Earth. They used them for a ‘Save The Whale’ protest recently.”
“Let’s hope they catch Dolores Bastable’s eye. She’s mad about animal welfare. She set up her own charity for abandoned cats. If I can get her on my side in the judging . . .”
They had reached the Grand Hotel.
“Right, guys, we want banners waving, chanting, singing, lots of noise. All the guests in the hotel need to hear us.”
“Why here?” Tania, one of the group, was puzzled.
“This is where Dolores Bastable, the soap star, is staying,” Nobbie explained. “She’s here for the Miss Bridevale contest. If we can get her to support our Jumbo Sale it would be brilliant publicity.”
Tania looked at Ava. “Aren’t you entering the Miss Bridevale contest?”
“Complete coincidence,” Ava replied loftily. “OK, everyone, let’s do what we’re best at and make some noise. We love
animals! We love animals! We love animals!”
The group was practised at making a racket in public. In no time at all they were marching about, singing, chanting, clapping and blowing whistles.
One or two faces began to appear at the windows of the hotel.
“That’s it, guys!” Ava called. “Keep it up.”
A smart-looking man with a disapproving frown hurried out of the hotel. His badge said he was the manager, Roger Stone. “What’s all this about?” Tania waved her banner. “We’re publicising our Jumbo Jumble Sale. Maybe you’d like to come?”
His nostrils flared.
“I don’t think so. Meanwhile, you are disturbing our guests so I would like you to move on.”
“The pavement is a public place. We’re entitled to be here.”
“You are causing an obstruction. If you don’t leave immediately, I will contact the police.”
The groans of protests from the group changed to cheers as a familiar figure appeared out of the hotel. A new chant began.
“Do-lo-res! Do-lo-res! Do-lo-res!”
Dolores Bastable stood looking at them with an amused expression. She lifted a hand.
“What’s happening here, Mr Stone?”
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Bastable. These people will be removed in no time at all, I assure you.”
“We’re not doing any harm!” Nobbie called out. “We’re just publicising a fund-raising sale for our
‘We Love Animals’ group.” Dolores smiled.
“I love animals, too. Perhaps I should be part of your group.”
Cheers went up.
“Maybe you could come to the sale?” Tania held out a leaflet.
She looked at it.
“Ah. I’m only here for the Miss Bridevale contest.”
“We know. Ava here is one of the contestants.”
Ava waved a flipper and Dolores smiled.
“Is that the bathing costume you’ll wear?”
“I thought I’d wear something else for the contest.”
“Very wise.” Dolores turned to the group. “Though I can’t be here for the sale, I wish you the best of luck.”
Tania waved her camera. “Can we get a picture of you with the group?”
“Of course.” She took the camera and handed it to the hotel manager. “Perhaps Mr Stone could take the photo.”
He forced a sickly smile on to his face.
“That was brilliant,” Nobbie said to Ava as they made their way home. “Dolores Bastable certainly knows who you are now.”
“That only leaves Peanut Jarvey to work on.”
“What’s your plan for him?”
“I haven’t come up with one. We’ll have to leave him till the contest itself.”
Ava looked at the photo. It was of a fossil fragment, and the magazine article claimed that it was the tooth of an entirely new species of dinosaur.
But she wasn’t convinced. To her, it looked like two plesiosaur teeth which had become fused together in the fossilisation process.
She glanced up. She and her fellow contestants were waiting for the eveningdress round to start. The changing-room was filled with low mutters of conversation. Some contestants were having their hair and make-up touched up.
Ava had been given strict instructions by Terri.
“Don’t think about touching your hair. You’ll be tempted if you see a mirror. But don’t.”
Ava had nodded.
“I get the message.”
Terri had smiled at her. “You don’t need any improving, girl. You look gorgeous and you’re going to blow the rest of the contestants away.”
So Ava was sitting quietly in her swimsuit, reading her magazine. Marlene had said that she would help her on with the evening dress shortly before the round started.
“It won’t take long and if you put it on too early it’s bound to get crushed and crumpled. I want it to look perfect, just like you do.”
The swimwear round had gone pretty much as Ava had expected. The contestants had come on to the stage together. One by one they had made their way along the catwalk to where the three judges were sitting.
Ava hadn’t felt particularly nervous and she was amused by the sight of Peanut Jarvey.
He was sprawled in his chair in a bizarre outfit made from offcuts held together with chains and looked utterly
bored. It was as if he really didn’t want to be here.
“Ten minutes till the evening-wear round begins.”
A buzz of excitement went round the room and Ava put down her magazine. Marlene would be here in a minute to help her on with the dress.
In the meantime, she could be mentally rehearsing her answers to the questions the MC would be asking her.
They had been told to keep their answers short and simple, but Ava had her own plans.
“Tell us something about yourself, Ava.”
Ava resisted the temptation to change position. She had her left hand resting on her hip, her right foot forward, her shoulders leaning slightly back and her eyes fixed adoringly at the MC.
She and Marlene had worked out that was the position that showed her and the dress to their best advantage.
“I’m a Bridevale girl, born and bred, and I love it here,” she said, gushing with enthusiasm. “There is so much talent in this town and we have such wonderful local businesses.
“Here I am today in a Bridevale dress, with Bridevale hair and Bridevale make-up.”
“I’m Bridevale through and through! If only I had a chance to take that message to the wider world.”
From the corner of her eye she could see the mayor nodding as she spoke and writing something on his notepad.
“What hopes do you have for yourself in the future?”
Ava adopted the cutebut-serious look she had been practising in the mirror.
“Actually, my hopes are more for animals than for myself. I belong to the local ‘We Love Animals’ charity and that is such an important part of my life. I believe that how we treat animals is a measure of our humanity.”
“I agree!” Dolores Bastable cried, jumping to her feet and clapping.
Her applause was immediately taken up by the audience. Ava tried to stop a wide grin from spreading across her face. Things were going just as she had hoped.
The only issue now was Peanut Jarvey. She gave him a quick glance. He was taking a gulp from a small flask he had stashed under the table.
He didn’t seem to be paying any attention at all to what was going on. Somehow, she had to get him to notice her.
The microphone was pointing at her again.
“Finally, Ava, tell us an interesting fact that we might not know about you.”
Ava realised it was time to risk everything.
“I’m fascinated by fossils and my favourite dinosaur is the velociraptor. They ran about on two legs with a hopping movement. It’s thought that they may have made a hooting, howling sound.”
She glanced at Peanut Jarvey, whose eyes were closed. He seemed to be falling asleep.
“That’s fascinating, Ava, and thank you for your answers. Now –”
“They moved a bit like this!”
Lifting up her skirts, Ava began leaping across the stage.
Everyone gazed at her in astonishment. Reaching the judges’ table, she threw back her head and let out a series of howling hoots.
Peanut Jarvey almost fell out of his chair in shock. “Wh – what?”
“And that is how we think the velociraptor sounded.”
A huge grin spread across Peanut’s face. He began to howl and hoot himself.
“I’m a dinosaur!” he shouted, jumping to his feet and hopping from foot to foot.
The call was taken up by members of the audience. Hoots and howls started sounding from all sides.
Ava gazed around wide-eyed. What had she started?
She retreated to the line-up of contestants as the MC tried to control the chaos.
“At least I got Peanut Jarvey to notice me,” she whispered.
Ava and the other contestants were standing in a long line in front of the judges. The second runnerup had been announced, though she looked rather sour at not being chosen the winner. Then the first runner-up.
The MC was going on and on, thanking everyone at great length, and Ava’s feet were starting to ache in the unfamiliar shoes.
“And without any further delay . . .” the MC finally said.
“About time, too!” Peanut shouted, getting a cheer from the audience.
The MC flushed in annoyance.
“The winner of Miss Bridevale 1976 is . . .”
The audience began drumming their feet, encouraged by Peanut. The sound grew louder and louder.
For a while, everything was a blur. Ava was overcome by noise and music and people shouting all kinds of instructions.
With the crown wobbling uncertainly on her head she made her way along the catwalk, cheers and applause echoing in her ears.
Afterwards there were photos, hugs from the family, Marlene and Terri squeezing the life out of her and a local reporter demanding to know how she felt.
It was much later when eventually she escaped and headed for the changing room. There was Nobbie in front of her.
She threw her arms around him.
It was the first time they had ever hugged. She could feel him tense up.
Horrified, she began to let go but then Nobbie’s arms were around her and holding her tight.
She hugged him back, completely confused and not sure what was going on. All she knew was that being in Nobbie’s arms felt right.
After a while, they moved apart. Nobbie’s eyes were filled with a mixture of wonder and puzzlement.
“You look so beautiful,” he whispered.
It seemed to Ava that everything had changed between them. And she liked that, a lot.
Peanut Jarvey appeared round the corner.
“I’m a dinosaur!” he hooted. “Hi, there, Miss Bridevale 1976, did you know that I was a dinosaur?”
But before Ava could answer, he was disappearing again in great, hopping leaps.
“It’s just possible that he might be completely mad,” Ava murmured.
She turned back to Nobbie but he was gazing at her with a slight frown.
“That reminds me. You know when you suggested that velociraptors made a hooting, howling sound?” Ava felt herself blushing. “Ah, well, yes. I may have exaggerated there a little.”
“A lot! Nobody knows whether dinosaurs made any sort of vocal sounds at all.”
“That’s not strictly true. Many scientists have argued that, because they had fairly sensitive ears, then . . .”
“Hang on, how they heard is a completely separate issue from how they sounded.”
“That’s not true at all, Ava. If you interpolate the data from . . .”
The discussion quickly exploded into one of their enthusiastic but determined arguments.
Nobbie’s arms waved wildly about and the crown on Ava’s head wobbled with passion.
Winning beauty contests and falling in love was one thing. But working out the truth about dinosaurs – now, that was a serious matter!