This strange tale won first prize and was printed in The Pages Anthology (UK) June 2009
I remembered the first time, walking home from work, I saw the poster. They called themselves Birds of Paradise, one bird in particular caught my eye. Stretched with languor on the stage floor, his body melting into a pool, a pool of molten flesh, the face of a boy, eyes widened, almost afraid. Dark hair and brows, his mouth open. I still heard the sound of broken glass but I bought a ticket for that nights show at the Midas Theatre.
At home I ran a bath in preparation. Put on a slow, seductive blues CD and slipped beneath the bubbles. I wanted to look good but not too obvious. He must tire of painted ladies falling in his path. I practiced what I might say.
“Hi. Olivia. Call me Livi.” Then a laugh at something he said. My head would tip back and a dainty laugh would escape my lips. And how we would meet, losing my way, looking for the exit, we would stumble across each other. Our eyes locked, we would both know, like animals.
I walked to the theatre, wearing my dark cloak over a white dress. The evening cooling as I strolled beside the river, avoiding the dangerous streets. The first green on spring trees, blossoms in bud. Big boats and small boats, people milled around, dressed up and expectant. What would their evenings bring? I knew what mine would bring. I’d watch him closely all through his set, never taking my grey eyes from him. And then I would disappear into the night. A woman of mystery.
“Good evening, ma’am. Could I see you ticket?”
A stocky man with salt and pepper hair, wearing a suit, leant towards me. I passed him what he asked for.
“Thank you. Follow the lights down the steps, sixth row from the front.”
“No. There must be some mistake. I bought a ticket in the first row.”
“The numbering can be a little confusing, independent theatres, you know.”
No, I did not know. Rage flooded me. I made my way to my inadequate seat. And waited. Things would proceed slower than I had planned, a rumba rather than a cha-cha-cha. Three acts before him, mostly female dancers dressed in tight fitting flesh coloured gowns. Others in white leotards, bright lip-sticked mouths but no smiles. Then from centre stage, where one minute there had been a gaping chasm, the door between life and death, the boy.
He led with his upper body, curled and weaving, dressed in white. He slid to the floor, turning himself seemingly in knots, knots that bound and then unraveled.
Later I couldn’t sleep. As I tossed and turned a flickering image, like a flame, danced through my conscious mind. The boy in tight white danced and turned until he rolled like a cocooned moth spinning inside my head. Finally before night turned to day, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of dark streets lit by moonlight.
When I awoke, late, almost lunchtime and bathed in sweat, I couldn’t remember what had happened, although I knew something had. A space, where something had moved in. Scratching around my thoughts and memories I retrieved him, my dancer, not the other boy. I thanked God I had bought another ticket for tonight’s show. But I had missed work. I heaved my bedding aside, untangled it from my legs, and wrapped a single sheet around me.
“Hello? Is that Simone? Yes, it’s me. Olivia. Yes, I know. I was sleeping. I have the most horrible migrane. Yes. Yes. I should be fine for tomorrow. See you then.”
The office would run along without me, I doubt they would even miss me, so efficient I’d become invisible. Selling on the phones, role-playing, it came easy to me. Selling advertising space to corporate executives, a work of theatre on its own.
I would go back to work tomorrow but I had to see him again today. His beautiful face, pale with those dark brows. Half moon crescents on pools of ink, his black eyes without expression. Sinewy limbs that seemed liquid.
I opened my wardrobe in search of something to wear. I may be older than the boy but I dressed well. Mummy left me her tea dresses from her youth, my sister Rebecca didn’t want them. She thought them too flimsy, said they lacked substance. I loved them. Dusty pink and cream. Ribbons and silk. Roses and lilies. I chose cream roses on the palest green silk, my ivory court shoes and a cream shawl to wrap around my delicate shoulders.
I would not eat. I wanted to look pale and thin. Besides I had no appetite for food. I ran my bath and picked out golden ear-rings, the sort that dangled. Pretty, glittery, jittery. If my pale grey eyes didn’t hypnotise him maybe my ear-rings would.
Sitting in the front row, old velvet chairs in cherry red, I watched those girls sashay across the stage. How well they danced, turning circles in on themselves, throwing pale arms to the sides, east and west. I bided my time.
The boy walked onto an empty stage. I stared hard but his eyes didn’t see me. It was haunting, as if only a memory, he looked through me, ignored me. Let him dance, let him perform, I’ll throw him pennies and he will move to my tune.
Before I walked home, alone in the darkness, I bought a ticket for a front row seat for the rest of the tour. I didn’t look for the boy’s name on the billing, I didn’t want to know. He belonged to me and I would call him ‘the boy’ forever.
That night I slept well, content in the knowledge that I had control. I dreamt of doves, blurry against a night sky. The doves cast no shadow. When I awoke the dawn was coming up and I showered and dressed for work.
The wonderful thing about a city apartment and a city job is that I walked everywhere. No need for a fuel-guzzling car or parking tickets. Heels snapped on the concrete, the sound of birds perched in an occasional tree and small trucks dropping off deliveries. Beep, beep, beep, the reverse song assaulted our ears.
I stopped in front of a café. Bright lights in the yellow glow of early morning with the smell of croissants and bagels, ground coffee. I placed my hands on the glass. The smell of scorched rubber and fear. When did I last eat? My mind swam as I entered the café. I ordered a coffee to go. The dizziness pleased me, it was euphoria. The thought of hot food made me nauseous.
I stopped in front of a black glass and chrome building and took the lift to my office. I walked across the blue carpet to my desk.
“Liv, you can settle this.” Simone was holding court, Tim and Adam on chairs rather than at her feet. “The first non-native animal introduced into Australia, any idea?”
A day away and things hadn’t changed. Simone’s blonde hair swept up and held by a bejeweled clip. She looked glamorous and felt competitive. Long red finger nails, her chin jutted the air precociously.
“Liv, you okay?”
I sat down wearing a Mona Lisa smile. Their faces all turned to mine.
“Yes. Why?” I removed the plastic lid and sipped my coffee. Would I keep him secret or throw snippets to the poor?
“You look odd. Maybe you should have taken another day.”
“I’m fine, good actually.”
Simone’s skillfully plucked eyebrows draw together in a frown. I smile and say nothing. I don’t want to share.
The day dragged, a day in monochrome. Printing machines whirred and buzzed and beeped. Phones trilled melodically. None of it meant anything. No flash, no sparkle, no beauty. Simone bent over her computer, worked hard, added value. Tim and Adam on the phones, sold things you cannot see. Smiling helps the voice sound happy. I remembered all those bullet points in sales training. Wear a dark suit, don’t wash the car on Sunday and don’t be ordinary. What was this if it wasn’t ordinary?
“Hello Liv, nice to see you back. Can I tempt you to your usual?” Matt, the sandwich boy. Toothy and tall.
“I don’t think I will today. Thank you.”
“I hope you’re not on a diet, Liv. You’re perfect as you are.”
Perfect? What did he know? Those girls in flesh coloured dresses, willowy with clean lines. No lumps or bumps. Nothing to spoil their silhouettes. Like lines on a page, some straight, others with a graceful curve, perfect. But not me.
The hum of a busy office blurred the afternoon. Snatched conversation then heads down. The strip lighting constant, denying us the colour changes of natural light. Yellow through to white, then the pink grey of late afternoon. I left before the light faded.
I dressed all in black and twisted my hair into a chignon, standing in front of the mirror, with no make-up. My skin pale and my enormous eyes, delicate silvery lashes. In the partial obscurity I was just a white face suspended. When I sat in the front row, like a girl from another place, he couldn’t fail to notice me.
After six I slipped into the streets, a dark figure moving against a tide of office workers. I felt ghostly, like an aberration walking through the tiny streets of Venice. It was dark and the rain started, slate coloured clouds blocking out the stars. It reminds me of another time, the reflection of light on rain on tarmac. I swore as my dress soaked up the rain, absorbing it greedily. I reached the theatre and walked through the enormous entranceway. I dripped like a water feature. I went to the ladies to repair the damage. In the mirror I checked my face, now lined with messy tracks of mascara. I look strange, otherworldly. I don’t recognise myself, only the smell of burnt rubber, it won’t let me forget. A sound behind me startled me. The toilet flushed and a girl emerged from the small cubicle.
“Hi. You here for the show?”
“Thought I recognised you. You’re usually in the front row, right?”
I nod dumbly. The girl lights a cigarette. “Hope you don’t mind. Dancers curse, ciggies. Sadie.” She held out her free hand and I took it. I forgot to let go. I felt awkward but Sadie just smiled warmly and waited.
“Who’s your favourite bird of paradise? It’s him, isn’t it? All the girls love him.”
“Oh, yes. He’s oblivious of course. Mar…”
I put my hands over my ears. I don’t want to hear his name. It would spoil everything.
“Are you okay?” Her hand reached out to touch me, concern in her voice. I pulled back and ran. Out of the bathroom, into the dark corridors, the opposite way from the auditorium. Doors everywhere, I tried a handle and it opened. The room dark but I knew it wasn’t empty. It had a muffled quality, as if lined in cotton wool. Something feathery and soft brushed my bare legs, a store room. I daren’t turn the light on for fear a sliver of light under the door would give me away.
I must have fallen asleep. I was awoken by voices and light footsteps outside. “Come on, Penny! We’re on in a minute!” More footsteps, and voices, indistinguishable words. I waited for the voices and footsteps to subside. I turned the handle and closed the door behind me. There is no one around. I slip down the noiseless corridor. A door sprang open and a white dressed figure emerges. It was him.
“Hello. Are you lost?” His beautiful face, leaning askew.
“No. No. It’s okay. I know where I am.”
“Good. I have to be backstage.” He smiled and brushed past me.
Electricity. Chemistry. Isn’t that what they call it? I faced his dressing room, I know he wouldn’t mind. I could wait until he finished his performance. A delicious surprise.
A large mirror, the bench in front on it lined with pots of make-up. I sat down on a chair facing it, racks of clothes behind me, on chrome rails and every piece white. I checked my appearance, pale without makeup and my hair is frizzy from the rain. What must he have thought? More hag than harlot. I saw a photo and picked it up. It’s him with a girl, a shiny shiny girl. White blonde hair and honey coloured skin. The frame slipped from my hands, fell to the hard floor. The glass splintered. My hot tears ran down over lines of mascara and rain drops. Time to go home.
Outside it is dark and a beautiful moon shined silver on the pathway. I wandered near the river where the chatter of people having dinner or drinks after work filled my ears with noise and my insides with loneliness. It didn’t seem fair. I looked at their faces, interested in each other, laughing together. I was an extra in my own life. I didn’t even have centre stage in that production. The moon as a spotlight didn’t shine on me.
It must have been three or four days, maybe a week. Or it could have been moments later, I heard pounding on my door. Was it at the door or was it in my head? I got up from the bed and pulled a robe from the back of the door, walked with a light head, in the direction of the noise.
“Livi, it’s me. For Gods sake let me in!”
Rebecca. I buzzed her in, the door opened, all silk blouse and sensible shoes. My sister, the only woman I knew who dressed up to come into town.
“Oh Livi! You look awful, you really do. Please don’t faint.”
My head sped up, spinning and spinning. I felt I could spin into another dimension.
I sat in an armchair, the red one, and the light from the windows came in in shafts. I couldn’t see the room, bleached of colour. I heard a sound from the kitchen, water on glass. “Here. Drink this.”
Ah, yes. Rebecca. “What is it?”
My throat felt so dry, as did my mouth. I took small sips from the glass. “What are you doing here?”
Rebecca looked close to tears. Has somebody died? Again?
“Simone rang me. You haven’t been in work for days and she couldn’t get an answer here.”
“I had to sleep.” I felt sleepy again. My eyes began to close.
“No, Livi. We need to talk.”
Rebecca took my hand. “I know it’s been hard. But it’s been months now and… I think you ought to come home with me, for a while.”
“What about my job?”
“Simone suggested it actually, no problem, she said you should take as long as you need.”
“As long as I need to what?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Livi.” Rebecca paused. “I’m sorry.” She knelt in front of me, took my hands in hers. “It wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could do.”
The accident. Shards of glass inside me. Splintering, sharp, that’s what pain is. The rain, late, driving back from shopping. So late. The street lamps shone on the wet roads, no one around. He was dressed in grey with his hood pulled over his head. He stumbled out into the road, holding something. I put the brakes on. Thud. He rolled across the bonnet. I got out of the car. Screaming, the boy was lay face down, hot greasy chips all over the road. No blood, just screaming, who was screaming?
I looked down. Rebecca was still there, crying. I took a deep breath, the light rose, the lines aren’t as blurred, my focus regains. The walls I’d painted midnight blue, my Louis Ghost dining chairs, transparent, barely there. The Persian rug under my feet, my feet feel like ice. And Rebecca, her face close to mine. Where have I been? What have I been doing? Was the boy was real?
“I want to stay here, Rebecca. I’ll be fine.”
She didn’t look sure.
“Thank you so much for coming. There are some things I need to face. We’ll have that lunch though. I’d really like that.”
Later, after Rebecca left and I caught my breath, I knew what I needed to do. I took an old ashtray from the back of a kitchen cupboard and placed the unused tickets for The Birds of Paradise tour inside. Using a lighter that someone had left here, I set fire to them, watched the flicker of orange and red like a dance itself. And out of the flames I could almost see the boy emerge as fire turned to ashes and he disappeared forever.