C H R I S P A L I N G
The Silent Dancer
(Transmitted as a Morning Story on BBC Radio 4, 15th Aug 1988, read by Ann Morrish)
“I wonder what I’m trying to say to you, my dear? She wrote as she stole a fond glance at the man asleep beside the fire.
“Is it that I don’t love you anymore? No I don’t think so.” She paused and surveyed the comfortable sitting room; neat, spotless, everything in its place. “Is it that this thing we call love disappears when we reach middle age and companionship takes its place? Or can the two feelings live on in the same relationship? No, you won’t accept it. You’ll read this note when you wake and you’ll look into the wardrobe expecting to see my clothes. Then you’ll begin to wonder and perhaps phone round our friends, probing my whereabouts with innocent questions, but I shan’t leave any clues.
I hope my leaving won’t cause you too much embarrassment. If there was another way then I should have taken it. I have tried to talk to you but, as always, you refuse to face up to facts and remain content to shrug me off with endearing phrases and expensive presents. And now we have become like two silent dancers, moving in a set pattern around the dance-floor, following the same steps but without music. Waltzing without complaint towards old age and whatever lies beyond. That’s all I have to say. Please understand.”
She hesitated, then folded the notepaper carefully down the middle and placed it beside the whisky decanter. He would wake and reach, as he always did, for the decanter. He would drink a little and then catch a glimpse of the note from the corner of his eye.
She wandered out of the sitting room and into the bedroom. Her two suitcases lay where she had hidden them beneath the bed. Two suitcases representing twenty years. Perhaps a little battered but monogrammed tastefully with her initials: E.V.P.; Elizabeth Verity Pierce. She decided to leave her books, or perhaps take her well-thumbed copy of Persuasion. No, she thought practically, there is no room. My yesterdays remain securely locked away in this flat. She now had an hour or so while the man slept. An hour during which she would be in limbo, neither part of her old life or her new. “My new life begins when he wakes,” she reflected.
She picked up her suitcases and strode down the long hall to the front door of the flat. Out she went past the umbrella stand, closing the door carefully, and then down the dark stairwell, always frightening at night. Across the marble-floored entrance hall and then out into a London night. The night made its presence felt gradually as she walked through the shadowed front garden. First by sounds; car horn arpeggios over a rumbling traffic bass, and then by sight; orange streetlights giving familiar objects an unfamiliar glow. She stole a look towards the first floor window. The man still slept, she could see the shadow of his armchair silhouetted behind the thin curtains. She turned and walked away.
Strolling briskly along the crisp frosting pavements, she reached the main road in a matter of minutes. She saw a taxi nosing its way through the early evening traffic and made to cross the road. Then she stopped. “I’ll take the tube. Yes, I’ll take the tube,” she said to herself. The decision seemed important for some reason. Anyway, there is no particular hurry. She mentally computed the saving she would make as she walked towards the ticket hall. Once in the hall she was faced with a choice. Where did she intend to go? The diminishing of the queue made the need for a decision more pressing and yet when she finally reached the counter and the man behind the glass looked at her quizzically, she realised she was not going anywhere. “Anywhere in particular, that is,” she thought to herself. “Just away.” Like her husband did occasionally, “I’m going away for a few days . . . on business.” Like her eldest brother did in his funny blue coat during the war, and like her grandmother did when she was small. For them, it seemed, it had been easy. The destination was pre-ordained.
“Oh, just a ticket to a stop . . . near the river.” Yes, she would go and sit by the river for a while.
“Charing Cross is as near as it gets unless you change.”
“That will do nicely. How much please?”
The man announced the price and she struggled through the barriers with her cases. They had become heavier the further she went. She reached the top of the platform steps. “God, why do I feel so helpless?” she said to herself. “Five minutes from home and already I need someone to tell me where I want to go. Already I need help with these cases. Can any woman in this so-called enlightened age be so unemancipated?”
She became angry with herself. “I shall get these cases down this flight of stairs.” A figure appeared beside her.
“May I help you?”
“No thank you,” she replied through clenched teeth. “I can manage.”
Then she lost her grip and one of the cases bounced down the steps and burst open, strewing her clothes over the platform. She swore to herself and then out loud. Then she remembered she was not alone. She turned and saw the man who had spoken to her. She began to apologise for her rudeness, then she had a second thought. I don’t care. I wanted to swear and I bloody well did.”
“I don’t bloody care,” she said to the man.
“I’m pleased,” he said and proceeded down the steps.
An elegant figure, she thought, watching him go. He looks as though he looks after himself. He reached the bottom of the steps and she waited for him to continue along the westbound platform. Instead, he put down his briefcase and began picking up her clothes and bundling them into the case. By the time she had reached him, the case was shut and the floor clear of her wardrobe.
“Thank you,” she said simply and meant it.
He inclined his head, a shadow of a bow, picked up his briefcase and walked off.
“No, wait!” she called and immediately wondered why she had done so. “I don’t know if you’ll understand this but,” she paused, “I am a very independent person and the reason I swore was because . . .”
The rest of the explanation was swept away by the turbulence of an incoming train. It hissed to a stop.
“Let me help you,” he said, and lifted her cases onto the train.
“He’s patronising me now,” she thought, “arrogant swine. The male as predator. But you don’t win me over with your boyish smile and your expensive suit.”
“You’re awfully hostile,” he said.
“Pardon me,” she replied. “I have just left my husband and I don’t feel much like talking.”
There it was. Out in the open. She was now a separated woman. Or was she? It was only ten minutes ago that I left home. He’ll still be asleep, she thought. The man smiled.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must be very upset.”
Am I? she thought. No, it isn’t real yet. I could walk back now and tear up the notes. Make it not real.
“No, not yet,” she said. “Talk to me in an hour and then I’ll tell you.”
“May I?” he said.
“May I talk to you in an hour’s time, over a drink or a meal?”
My God, can this be real she thought. I, Elizabeth Verity Pierce, left my husband ten minutes ago and already I’m virtually committing adultery. Has it all become . . . well, so instant.
“No, I’m meeting someone,” she said and then wished she hadn’t. “What I mean is that . . . no. Just no. Thank you for the offer but I’m going to the river to think things over.” Why was she telling him this?
“As you wish. My offer remains open until we reach Charing Cross.” He terminated the conversation by opening his briefcase and drawing out a newspaper. She took to surveying the carriage and the advertisements plastered above the underground map. “Are you sitting opposite the new man in your life?” one asked.
The train burst into Charing Cross. It was greeted by a guard of honour of leaning commuters, all bearing slightly towards the train as if magnetised. They sped past at first and then slowly drew to a halt by the door. She pushed her way through them, the man carrying her cases behind. Half an hour now, she thought, and a casual observer could be forgiven believing I was running away with the new man in my life. In answer I would say that I am not. I am merely dancing a very formal waltz with someone I don’t know terribly well. He remains at arm’s length and the confidences we appear to be sharing are merely polite observations on the finesse of the band and the finery of the room in which we stand.
Silently they stood on the escalator, one behind the other. Occasionally someone would dash past and run up the iron staircase, but they remained motionless, borne upwards only by the momentum of the stairs. They were carried to a long corridor. The corridor led to another and then they were out again and into the night. They stopped. The man put down the cases – one on each die of her, and then stood stiffly, formally.
“Well this is the end of the line. I catch a train here . . . that is, unless you have decided to take up my offer.”
“I must say,” she started, “you’ve been very kind carrying my cases. I don’t know what I’d have done without you. Yes I do. I’d have taken out my favourite dress and thrown the cases into a bin.” She smiled. “Listen, I’m not particularly hungry but, as I said, I intend to walk for a while by the river. It’s ages since I did that. Will you walk with me?”
“Yes. All right,” he said.
At the left luggage counter they swapped the cases for a ticket and then trekked down a steep road to a park that was surrounded by iron railings. They walked through the park and she instinctively linked her arm in his. His hands remained in his pocket. They broke apart when they reached the embankment road which they crossed and then they stood by the river. The tide was low and the mud banks were clearly visible. A light breeze toyed with the water and sent it chopping against the hull of a barge moored in the centre of the channel.
“I don’t remember it being like this,” she said, looking at the water, the illuminated gallery on the far bank and the latticed railway bridge to their right. “It should be all blue reflecting the sky. All sort of warm and comfortable-looking but slightly menacing and stern like father when he was in one of his bad moods.” She paused. “Perhaps it wasn’t expecting us.”
“No, I don’t believe it was,” said the man. “It shouldn’t be seen like this with its banks all naked and covered in rubbish. It’s unfair to look.”
Something I would have said, she thought. How has he got inside my head so quickly? She turned and looked at the man in profile. A good physique, yes like a dancer, and young looking. Firm jawline and a blue pin-striped suit, or is it brown? Or is he wearing a coat? It is terribly cold after all.
Is he bearded or clean shaven? What colour is his hair, is it blond or dark? Did those lines round his eyes come from laughter or pain? Is he married or unmarried; cruel, sensitive, moody, witty, kind, attentive, masterful, weak? Real or imagined?
His strong profile faded the harder she looked. The smile slipped away it by bit. His coat lost its line and began billowing in the wind as it became a distant union jack above a granite building. The shadow he had cast on the wall moved and merged with hers as she turned her gaze back to the water.
“Always a good imagination has young Elizabeth Pierce,” her teachers at school commented as much.
“One of her favourite games,” one was heard to say, “is to cling to herself and waltz around the school playground.”
“This child will never be unhappy,” said another, “she has music in her head.”
She sighed and turned back to the road. An hour had passed. Would he still be asleep? Back through the park she walked to the station where she reclaimed her cases. She carried them with ease, only dresses after all. Down the escalator and onto the platform. The arrival of the train and the crush as she fought her way on. The jolt as it arrived at her stop. An hour and a quarter. She felt her heart beating against her breast. The greeting of the night as it recognised her and the slow diminishing of the traffic rumble as she walked away from the main road. The creaking of the gate and the casting of her eyes up to the silhouette in the sitting room. The key in the lock carefully, quietly and the padding upstairs, almost on tip toe, to the hallway.
The opening of the front door. The hasty pushing of the cases back beneath the bed. The first hesitant steps towards the living room. The opening of the door. The heart beating faster. The discovery of the note, unmoved beside the decanter. The sudden emptiness as she hugs herself and begins the waltz across the floor of the spotlessly neat but hopelessly empty room.