‘Look, these tickets cost a small fortune. I’m not backing out of the night, I’m only going to be a little late picking her up, that’s all.’
‘If you let her down again, Stu, she’ll be so upset, and it’ll be the last time, believe me.’
‘Fuck’s sake, Sarah, I said I’d be there –’
‘Don’t swear at me –’
‘I’m not swearing at you –’
‘Just get here on time. Just try. Chris will be waiting.’
‘Chris will be there? Where will you be?’
‘I’ll be out. Chris lives here now. You know that. Just try not to be late, okay?’
Hard to tell sigh from static.
‘Tell Clara I’ll see her tomorrow.’
‘Look, don’t get upset. And don’t forget this weekend is us doing you a favour…’
‘Just tell her.’
Abigail’s mum and dad take her to the ballet all the time, she’s been to Covent Garden to see the Royal Ballet, she’s been to Sadler’s Wells and to the Coliseum, she’s even been to New York and San Francisco in America to see the ballet over there; she says dancing’s in her blood because her mum and her aunt were dancers and her grandma and her grandma’s grandma probably too; Abigail’s better at the five positions than the rest of the class and Miss Moreau says her demi-plié is the best and her tendu is exact and her shoes are always satin and made by the best London brands and her tops are never creased and when the class stands at the barre everybody looks down at their own shoes because everybody knows Abigail will be picked as princess, everybody just knows it.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats; this evening’s performance of Giselle is about to commence.
The slab’s soaked and reflective of the grey above, quick ripples of raindrops repeat, repeat, repeat the shiver of the sky. Over this slab Stu’s stepped myriad times. Perhaps its gentle indent was worn by the balls of his very feet, eroding his days here step by step until he came no more. He can’t remember if it was ever flat before. Now he stands, water seeping into the soles of his shoes whilst he waits, contemplating the keyhole next to the door bell. Those who have keys don’t suffer the rain; those who wait get wet, standing in a puddle they helped create.
The door opens to Chris standing where Stu once stood, in the warm, the spider plant on the bookshelf gone, a purple orchid in its place. Chris with his height which looms.
‘I’ve come to pick up my daughter.’
No greeting for this replacement man who stands in the dry of the hallway next to a purple orchid above a contested copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.
No words wasted for the visitor in return.
Hurried thuds through floorboards.
‘Clara, we’ve got to get going!’
A rush downstairs in aqua drainpipe jeans that only a girl of ten can wear, the flash of a golden plastic jacket that looks neither durable nor warm. And yet the smile will deter the rain: that smile will deter the murkiest, greasiest, most dense and detestable of all weathers. That smile is the last jewel in a world of smashed precious stones.
‘Have you got everything you need, have you got your Oyster, are you taking a bag?’
‘Dad, please, I’m not a child any more. But actually I do need a kit bag from the ballet shop – I’ve seen a pink one I really like – Abigail bought one online but they’re better from the actual shop.’
‘Right, Abigail, well, we’ll see.’
The dry man in the hall turns to the child.
‘Your mum’s expecting you no later than 11, Clara, so make sure your dad takes you home in a cab directly.’
‘Your mum will see you when she sees you, won’t she, Clara?’
‘Okay, let’s go.’
Splashing over the slab they’re gone. Quick ripples of raindrops repeat, ripple and repeat.
Silence falls over the auditorium. The light fades and the velvet all around sheds its colour. The curtains become shadows, a portal revealing itself. The orchestra tunes up and applause greets the conductor’s arrival in the pit. There’s a pause before the music starts. With a sigh Stu sinks into his seat, his shoulders at ease now in the dark and as the portal opens, all he sees is the stage.
The dancers gather there and begin to show their skills. The women move across the space light-footed and nimble, delicate, their wide steps exact. The men are deft and precise, muscular (enviable) and sharp. Each dancer embodies the common assurance of professionalism. From the centre of the stage the choreography blooms with the symmetric patterns of nature, a time-lapse of petals opening in slow motion, vines curling across a rainforest floor, rolling surf, a sunrise, the eclipse of the moon.
The principal dancers arrive, she a common country girl, he a duke in disguise. They begin to dance together, smiling at one another sincerely as they fall in love. It takes a few moments only.
Was it ever like that for Stu and Sarah? Did he hold his hand across his chest to offer up his heart, did Sarah look towards him with breathless innocence, nubile curiosity? Breathless desire was there but what of love existed in her smile, what of eternity? She reached on tiptoes to kiss but did she spin on her toes from that kiss?
Or is this impression of love an unachievable Romantic ideal? The principals leap and spin on stage, elegant and strong, turning always to smile after each form is perfected. Are those honest smiles, does love wear an honest face? Or are those smiles flashed only for their attraction, part of the enchantment of dance, a lure to entice the body and ensnare the heart, the adorning crown of beauty, the pearls over the breast.
Had Stu been fooled by such a lure or had he too worn a mask – or had his and Sarah’s smiles been genuine? He doesn’t remember falling in love. Bitterness and resentment has built too great a wall for his memories to scale. The wrangling over Clara has created animosities with Sarah. And his disappointment when their love didn’t last, didn’t live up to the hype, didn’t survive the smiles, his rejection when Chris arrived, his resentment of Chris in his place: all this buried deep the reminiscence of Stu’s love.
But as he watches the heartache of Giselle, whose lover has been unmasked now as an aristocrat, unobtainable, he pulls his arms up to hug himself, pushing his thumbs into the folds of his jumper. The emotion on stage is real, and sitting in his chair he’s trapped vicariously to know again the devastation of the end, the end of love; as Giselle takes up her lover’s sword to pluck her life away, the portal transports pain back to Stu, pain which lies at the root of his relationship with Sarah; every moment from beaches to childbirth, every argument in-between, every fight that followed, the exhaustion of it all, the futility, from his velvet chair he remembers every detail. That root buried frozen underground still grows. Exposing it reveals the truth of the seed regardless of its fate.
Why go to a graveyard at night? Why not wait until daytime? The forest is lit only by the moon and Albrecht has passed two spirits on his way to bring flowers to Giselle’s grave already; why doesn’t he just turn and run?
He takes the risk because of love. The vengeful queen of the Wilis dances with cold stern precision; she’s beautiful and terrible, clad in silk that shimmers – Clara can’t wait to tell Abigail about these costumes – and when the spectral queen draws forth the ghost of Giselle, the heroine moves with frantic passion unaffected by death; her love for Albrecht transcends the grave as she fights to save his soul from the surrounding majestic malevolent shades. But the queen is coming for them, and watch! Giselle and Albrecht step together in perfect motion – they’re caught in the moment; nothing can part them – their pas de deux flows and glitters; the duke lifts his partner towards the heavens in pure defiance of their destiny.
Clara’s mum says love only exists in fairy tales. Because her parents didn’t fight for their love when it faltered? Because Chris calls her dad rude names? Because bringing Clara up made them all argue too much? But if love’s not real, why then did her dad drink that strong drink so quickly during the interval?
Moonlight moves across Clara’s bedroom through a slit in the curtains and passes over a photo of her father framed on the bedside table as she sleeps. The colourless light glints on the glass and obscures rather than highlights his face.
Earlier in the taxi home, Clara had been subdued.
‘Did you have a good time?’
‘Only yeah? You’re being pretty quiet.’
‘I was expecting you to be a bit more excited. You usually go nuts for ballet.’
‘I’m tired, that’s all.’
‘Did we get the wrong bag or something?’
‘The bag’s fine.’
‘You’re sure you’re not upset or something? Those ghosts were pretty scary!’
‘No, dad, and they were just dancers.’
‘I did enjoy it, I’m just tired.’
The purr of the road and repeating moving shadows cast by passing lampposts.
‘Thanks for taking me.’
‘Which was your favourite, Act I or Act II?’
‘Act II I think. The Wilis were beautiful.’
‘Ghosts of jilted brides, right? They were pure magic. And the way Giselle sank back into her grave at the end: just brilliant.’
Stu paid the driver and father and daughter passed once more through a damp garden glistening orange in stark street light. Sarah answered the door, and Clara went straight upstairs to bed with barely a hug. Sarah watched her go.
‘Tired or upset?’
‘Thanks for bringing her back on time.’
A sigh stifled on the slab.
‘So, how was it, worth the small fortune?’
‘Yeah. It was…good.’
The telltale creaking of floorboards from the landing: memories ripple of a house that creaks whilst a small child sleeps; memories ripple and repeat; they cast their shadows as smiles trace shadows of smiles upon a face.
‘You and Chris should go next time.’