Tuesday 11 July 2017

Shadow Dancers

Wrote this story a good while back and it was short listed in a Cootehill Arts Festival writing competition.


She loved trees in winter. The gnarled blackened barks split down the middle. Siamese twins warring with each other. She saw dancers, warriors, tai-chi masters; gathering the stars, bowing to the moon. Shadow boxers, shadow puppets.

She photographed these, dozens of them and hung them in her hallway. She painted the walls in coconut twist- pale cream with a tinge of pink- and gave them up to her shadow dancers.

Then Michael asked her to give up her coconut twist bungalow and move into his spacious flat overlooking the bay.

“It doesn’t make sense. You’re always here anyway!” he argued.
“That’s not true.”
“Mostly true?
“Sometimes true.”

She liked his huge bay window pouring sea light on his bed every morning. She liked his high corniced ceiling, his cast iron fireplace with the Victorian tile inset. She liked his steel sprung sofas and marble topped tables with carved mahogany legs, his stone hot water bottle and his silver hand grinder. She revelled in the wine- reds and night-sky blues of his Kashmir rugs and the smell of dust that clung to his heavy window drapes. But most of all she loved his frayed wallpaper where cupids and shepherdesses disported themselves recklessly on some Elysian plain.

Her shadow dancers could not compete with these Grecian foibles. They needed a blank space on which to sketch their stark poses. She wondered how long Michael would allow this glorious revelry to continue. He didn’t seem to notice their state of disrepair and disarray. And that was the problem. Michael didn’t seem to notice anything.

He would happily hang her shadow dancers on these walls and not see how ugly their choreographed limbs would look set against the pastoral anarchy that reigned here. Michael did not notice such things.

He did not know when her stillness needed to be stirred. He caught none of her shifts in mood and she could find none in him. She found his will to complacency a lump of unleavened dough between her fingers, and knead as she would, she was unable to make it yield to her touch. There was no yeast in it. She decided to cover the dough and leave it and hope that it might prove.

And still he asked her to give up her coconut twist walls and still she could not explain and then it happened.

She returned home one day to find a gin bottle in the middle of the floor and the DVD player pulled out of its niche. Her wardrobe had been ransacked. Her favourite coat, a shabby Avoca tweed, her beloved Canon camera and her shadow dancers were gone. In disbelief she scoured the hedges, gardens and laneways in search of them.

“They must have been disturbed,” pronounced Sergeant Doyle. “They usually take the electricals. A tweed coat? That’ll be to wrap up the booty. And were the pictures valuable?”
Valuable? Margaret thought about the word. Latin in origin? Valuare, valuatum. She couldn’t remember.

“No. Yes. I mean to me.”
“Are you sure they didn’t take cheques from your cheque book? They remove them from the back so that you won’t notice.”
“No. They’re all there.”
“And the camera?”
“I liked it a lot. It takes time to get to know a camera. Like a relationship.” On seeing his blank expression she added, “It was a Canon. I’d have to look up the model number.”
“And its value?”
“I’ve had it a while.”
“The insurance company will need a statement with figures and model numbers.
You wouldn’t think of getting an alarm system?”

Alarm bells punctuating the night silence, disturbed by a breeze or a wrong sequence entered after a late night out. No she wouldn’t consider it.

 She wrote poems about the burglary and read them to her creative writing group. The words looted , plundered and violated figured a lot. Someone asked her if she’d been raped. Margaret was stunned into a silence that could not be stirred.

 She sat on her haunches in corners of the house and never went out. She took sick leave from work. She dreamt of a house with no doors, an open skied cylinder leaking rain on its heirlooms. She woke up sobbing, her whole body aching with the pain of something that felt like loss. She developed a chest infection that would not clear.

Michael bought her a new camera which she wrapped in a woollen jumper and stowed  under the bed for safe keeping. He watched her lying inert for hours, unresponsive and silent. He lay beside her at night waiting for the moment when she would waken, choking on her dreams. He watched the silent tears that streaked her hair grey overnight.

She threw away her bohemian attire, her scalloped edged jumpers, her sequinced cottons reeking of sandalwood. She wore polo neck acrylics and polyester trousers in shades of grey and brown. Michael gave up his sunlit-frayed shepherdesses and moved into the coconut twist bungalow in suburbia. Margaret went back to work.

She stood in front of a group of Second Years, every muscle in her body taut, her teeth clenched, trying to hold their concentration in this jug that was the class room; knowing that at any moment the jug would spill over or even crack.

“Miss, Can somebody open a window, I’m roastin’!”

“But it’s freezin’ Miss!”
“There’s a wasp in your hair, Sarah Casey!”
“Oh Miss!”
And she watched the liquid rise in the jug and dribble all over the floor.
She was aware of the profile of the Deputy Principal in the glass panel on her left, always patrolling the corridor for just such leaks. The thought of shadow dancers flitted and vanished.

“Now that’s enough girls,” she said quietly, too quietly.

If she was lucky the bell would ring. Books would shut, catapult into desks. Lids would slam, desks scrape and a flurry of girls would squeeze themselves through the doorway and expand into the corridor.

The Principal was glad to get rid of her.

Michael now did all the cooking and cleaning and washing. He weeded the garden and planted spring bulbs. All winter the new camera lay in its nest of wool beneath the bed and still Margaret mourned. She watched triangles of light brighten at intervals the neighbour’s gable wall. She watched the dying fuchsia boxing with the wind and thought to write a poem. She watched Michael come and go. It was like the time she had broken her arm and was untouchable. They watched each other now through this barrier of a broken arm’s length and waited.

A kitten circling the tall stalks of spring daffodils caught her unawares. It may have been his shade of tortoise shell or the pose in with which he gathered himself for pounce. She reached for the camera, fumbled with the unfamiliar dials, her mind dazed with the possibilities. She pressed a button and the thing sprang into action.

“There’s a handbook to go with it,” he said from the doorway. And looking at his face a knowing stirred in her.

She knew that the dough had been left to prove for long enough and she stretched out her arm towards him.

Copyright with Cathy Leonard 2017

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