Swansong by David Lowis

An ageing Hollywood actress prepares to attend an Oscars ceremony where she has a chance at winning the award of a lifetime; by David Lowis.

Late in the afternoon, Gretchen Stephens, one of the best actress nominees at that evening's Academy Awards, sat in her hotel suite and watched the wrinkles disappear from her face in the mirror.

"Almost there," said the makeup artist as she went about her task with deft brush strokes.

"Thank you, Carmen. You're a star."

Carmen smiled. She was a tall, slender woman with blonde hair tied in a pony tail. "I think there's only one star in town tonight," she said.

"Oh, please, spare me," said the actress. Her laugh was raspy, like a smoker's, although, apart from an occasional scene where she'd been required to smoke, she'd never before raised a cigarette to her lips.

Despite entering the dusk of her acting career, Gretchen's high cheekbones helped her to retain a striking beauty. Tonight, she'd had her hair styled in a loose bun which, when combined with the effects of Carmen's work, made her taut facial features appear even more prominent than usual. The low light inside the room revealed a blue sheen to her dark hair - an unusual, but natural hue that Gretchen felt proud to call one of her defining features.

With so much time spent in the public eye, she felt there was little about her appearance she controlled anymore. If she attended a public engagement, she'd have makeup applied. If she was photographed, then touched-up versions of the images would proliferate the Internet afterwards. Distorted versions of herself were everywhere. But one thing nobody seemed interested in altering was her hair colour, perhaps because it already projected the enhanced look favoured by social mediaites, she thought.

Gretchen clasped her hands and cradled them in her lap. Her palms felt clammy. She put it down to the pre-award ceremony nerves she always felt, but was at a loss to explain. Her eyelids felt heavy too. She wanted to rub them, but Carmen was still at close quarters, applying mascara. She focussed on fighting off the tiredness. The ceremony had not yet begun, but the day already felt interminable. Thinking about it, the weariness she felt was not just from the day's exertions, but of life itself. There was no doubt that she'd loved inhabiting the variety of characters she'd been privileged to perform during her long acting career. But was there anything left to challenge her, to truly excite her?

She'd now received five best actress nominations and, having never won, she was well-versed in playing the role of gracious loser. Perhaps that was the reason she felt nervous. When portraying another person in a film, she aimed to truthfully convey that person's character through her performance. But showing delight when one of her fellow nominees was later announced the winner would be yet another false representation of herself. She'd be playing herself, so to speak, without being true to her character.

"Is that okay, Mrs Stephens?" asked Carmen, stepping back.

"Perfect," said Gretchen, admiring her transformed face. "If only they could see how I really looked beneath all this," she added, laughing.

"Darling, you look wonderful, as always," came a voice from the other side of the room. Gretchen turned briefly to glance at her husband, Edgar, who was sitting on one of the suite's velvet-covered sofas. Already dressed in a tuxedo, Edgar's face was masked by a newspaper. He folded one side of the paper inwards to reveal a playful smile. Gretchen turned back to the make-up artist and rolled her eyes. "Always the charmer," she said.

Maybe I'm over-complicating things, she thought. Perhaps I'm just nervous because this time I might actually be in with a chance of winning. She immediately dismissed the idea. She'd already attended the Globes and the Baftas during the awards season and had sat applauding politely when the name of one of her fellow nominees was announced. So she was definitely not the favourite for tonight's award. Unless, of course, the Academy, realising that this may well be her last chance, decided to give her the sympathy vote.

"Feeling confident about tonight?" Carmen asked, as if reading her thoughts.

"Not really," said Gretchen. She sighed. "You know, always the bridesmaid, never the bride. I've gotten quite used to it."

"If it's any consolation, I've seen all the films and I thought your performance was by far the best," said Carmen.

Gretchen's white Versace gown slipped from the side of one of her legs, revealing a slender strip of fake-tanned skin. "All I need now is for the rest of the Academy to agree with you," she said, forcing another laugh.

To settle her nerves Gretchen drank a single shot of whiskey before, arm in arm with Edgar, she passed through a gauntlet of photographers to a waiting limousine. As the car eased its way through traffic towards the Dolby Theatre, she leaned over and adjusted Edgar's tie. "You always did look good in a tux," she said, tucking a few stray strands of his slicked back hair behind his ears.

He kissed her gently on the lips and said, "Good luck tonight, darling."

As she twisted back into her seat, she waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "I can't see luck coming into it," she said. Wiping her palms on her dress, she looked at them before saying, "I can't understand why I'm so nervous."

"Perhaps because you're the favourite to win," Edgar said.

Gretchen laughed unconvincingly. "How many of these have we attended now?" she said.

Edgar smiled. "Five at the last count."

"So we know how it works. It's sure to go to one of the bright young things."

"I wouldn't be so certain," Edgar said.

Gretchen looked out at the blur of passing lights and said, "Why am I even bothered? It's just the industry giving itself a big pat on the back."

"We're part of that industry too."

"Well, maybe we don't have to be. I mean, can you really say, hand on heart, that my performance was better than any other actor's in the last year?"

"I certainly can."

"Well, of course you would, darling, and that's very sweet of you." She sighed. "How can anyone say that one performance is above all others? It's ridiculous."

They travelled in silence for a few moments before Gretchen turned back to her husband and said, "Let's turn around. Or even better, let's head to our Santa Monica beach house."

Edgar laughed. "Honey, this is the Oscars. We can't just not turn up."

"Who says?"

Edgar struggled to prevent his response sounding feeble. "We've already accepted. They're expecting us."

"So? It'll provide an air of mystery to the occasion. I want out, Edgar. We've been in this long enough. I mean, admit it, the only reason you're still working is because I haven't retired yet."

Edgar laughed again. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"

"Look into my eyes." Gretchen pulled a straight face and used one hand to point two fingers at her eyes. "I'm deadly serious."

She held her pose for a moment before they both burst into laughter. Placing her hand over Edgar's, she said, "Come on, darling. It's time to get out of the game."

Edgar held his wife's stare a moment longer before letting out a final laugh. "You're crazy," he said. He leaned forward and tapped on the dividing window. "Driver?"

An hour later they'd exchanged their formal attire for bath robes and were seated on the sofa in their beach house, glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in hand. As the evening was mild they'd opened some fanlight windows to air the house. The relaxing sound and smell of the sea wafted in.

"Now this is more like it," Gretchen said. "Let's order in."

Edgar called an up-market restaurant where the couple had previously dined and ordered steak au poivre with bitter chocolate mousse for dessert.

When the meal arrived they moved to a table they'd positioned in front of a sea-view window, where they ate in comfortable silence to the gentle backdrop of waves, blissfully unaware that fifteen miles down the road, the best actress Oscar had been announced.


  1. Most enjoyable. This story tells us a lot, in few words. Thank you.

  2. This is so well written, with dialogue and description. I wonder who won the Oscar, or would it matter anyway.

  3. Great story. Things matter only if we decide they matter. This couple made their own alternate truth where winning or not winning doesn’t matter.

  4. Gretchen went out in style and as a class act. She won even if she didn’t.

  5. A perfect shorty story. Beatifically written, good character growth.

  6. Gently told with themes of grace and dignity. Sometimes it is worth listening to our impulses.

  7. Thanks all for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate it.

  8. Good job, Mr.Lowis! Good characterization through dialogue and effective visual descriptions. I like the economy of this story!
    Cameron Spencer

  9. I enjoyed reading SWANSONG by DAVID LOWIS in FICTION ON THE WEB so much that I linked it to my WEEKEND READS site https://shawnbrinkauthor.wordpress.com/weekend-reads/. Hopefully this will draw additional readers. – Cheers! Shawn D. Brink, Author

  10. They say actors are among the most insecure of people, I like the decision Gretchen made at the end, she had a supportive partner in Edgar.

  11. I love both the premise and the execution! Such a fun short story and meditation on beauty, aging and Hollywood.

  12. Good read, quick and to the point. If Edgar was sure that she would win, he might have fought harder to attend and that would create more conflict? Where it reads, ". . . woman with blonde hair tied in a pony tail." Try to incorporate physical descriptions in a 'show' instead of 'tell' way. i.e. 'her blond pony tail whipped back and forth as if it too, aided in brushing away wrinkles.' There were a few unnecessary words, that when omitted, would strengthen the read. Look for them :)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and provide feedback. I appreciate it.

  13. I think there’s nothing tougher than to write a good short poem or a good short story, the latter especially so because you need a beginning, a middle and an end. David Lowis acquitted himself nicely at each stage with “Swansong.” While most readers can’t easily relate to such privilege and opulence, we can appreciate a happy couple, incomplete professional achievement and a change of heart. I believe this is the shortest prose I’ve ever read on FOTW and I’m glad I did. A final thought: although we are led to believe that Gretchen is a veteran thespian, we really don’t know what “old” means, in terms of the film industry. Nice job, David

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Bill.