He watched the girl for a long time. She had no idea he was there and had abandoned herself thoroughly to her sorrow with the passion and drama that only teenage girls seem capable of. He loved that about them; their devotion to their own wilful misery. There was something so naive about it. Touching. When the harder, grinding troubles of the real world began to fall on them as they grew up, they began to bear things with more stoicism and that, for him, was the hardest and strongest loss of their innocence; this girl was still able to fully throw herself into whatever likely triviality she was facing and she wept for him with a poetic and childlike grace.
He stepped to her, then, careful to make his presence obvious without intruding. Soft shoes shuffling over the chalk and filth. He watched her stiffen as she heard his step and pull her head up on her swan’s neck. He had not seen her face. He stepped towards her from the shadows and she knew he was standing behind her, yet she did not turn. That puzzled him; the children usually jumped up when they knew someone was there, but she did not. She remained frozen on the floor, legs splayed in a mass of dirty white netting, skin tight and hard from the cold and the tears. He moved closer to her. In what little light there was he could begin to make out the features of her profile, swollen and blotched as they were, and lit only in the faint glow from his lamp. She was older than he had thought from behind; at least sixteen or seventeen and strangely pretty, though they were all beautiful to him. Ethereal.
He sat beside to her with an effort on the floor and noticed that her tutu was torn all over, ripped – even shredded in places, and that she still wore her dancing shoes bound painfully to her feet. Silently he handed her his handkerchief and she took it, though her tears had dried in black, grease paint smudges down her cheeks. She dabbed ineffectually at them and smeared the black around her face quite pathetically. Her lips were parted and burgundy-dark in her pale face, like a fresh blossomed bruise.
He’d never noticed her dancing. From his place in the shadows, in the wings he knew all of the girls; if not their names then definitely their faces or the way they moved and he was almost certain that he had not seen her as part of the show tonight.
She was wispy and frail and she’d had her back to him when he’d noticed her, her bare shoulders starkly visible in the almost pitch darkness. Red velvet curtains coated in decades of dust surrounded her like a frame and he had seen her little body shaking with silent wracking sobs. She was sitting on the filthy stage; there would be trouble for that in the morning, he knew. All of the other chorus girls had been packed giggling and screeching off to bed an hour ago, and even if she could manage to sneak back in to the dorm unseen there was no hiding the stage smut smeared all over her costume. He grimaced silently for her.
He usually tried to help the girls, especially the younger ones, who would often leave something behind that they would need for the next day. He had lost count of the times he had restored a lost ballet shoe or trinket to a distraught child afraid of disgrace from the mistresses in the morning. There was something insufferable to him to see a girl in tears – or hysterics as some of them came close to in their little panics. The dance mistresses were strict and cruel on occasion, and the newer girls found it difficult; away from their mamas. He tried to look out for them without them knowing, for he, with his ancient face and shuffling movements, had become to them all a shadow, of ghost, a figure to be avoided. They never knew what to make of him, the girls, even now – and he had been a part of the furniture for fifty odd years, part of the scenery and the torn curtains, the cracked mirrors, the ropes and the hoists. The older girls were used to him and always told the younger ones not to mind him, that he was just a quiet old man – nothing to be scared of. But they were never comfortable around him themselves when he was actually there. There were just muttered words and lowered lids and hasty exits.
He rarely spoke, just ambled around with his broom, his tape, his hammer. He’d fix the things that needed fixing, shift the things that needed shifting and try to stay out of the way. Their faces were always the same, he thought, whenever he did something for them; slightly incredulous that he would be helping them, fearful – and of course they would never stay with him for long. A few seconds of sobbing, whispered thanks and away in a dash; a flurry of petticoats and talcum powder. Distaste shining through their gratitude, repulsion through their surprise. Then over the next few days puzzled glances if they should meet backstage, whispered conversations with friends, shudders maybe, and then they’d forget all about him again.
He knew the stories they told about him in the darkness of the wings, knew the nonsense and atrocities attributed to his withered, disfigured old face by the sillyness of teenage imagination. He could shrug it off. It was enough for him to be near them all; to breathe in the air of their little triumphs, their tragedies even if he could not share in them.
He asked her if she’d lost something or of there was anything he could do. Didn’t she know she’d be in trouble if she was caught out of bed? What had happened to her skirt? She shook her head wordlessly at him and turned her face to his. Her hair was plain brown and scraped back into a tight bun at the back of her head and her eyes were blue and glassy with tears, like a doll, he tilted his head to one side. Behind the blotches and the grease paint she was very pale. Translucent in the lamplight, nearly. There were many people who would not call her pretty at all, but there was a delicacy to her that was compelling. He was afraid to touch her, to comfort her in case she should break in his hands or disappear. Instead they sat together in silence and darkness. Soon she wordlessly rose to her feet, his handkerchief clutched in her little fingers. He looked up at her. Her eyes were focused and dark behind their blueness, her breathing steady now. She walked awkwardly away from him, the wood in her stained satin shoes clunking gracelessly.
He didn’t know how long he sat there. His work was done and with no windows it was impossible to tell the hour, but it was late he knew. His face was impassive in the dark. He pulled himself to his feet and shuffled painfully back to his room.
When he’d begun working here they had made up a room for him under the stage in a tiny place full of pipes and cogs and wheels. No-one had ever seen fit to move him. It was always hot in there and loud and dirty and it was a part of who he was, who he had become. He suspected that he was essentially forgotten, that one day they’d begin to notice that the scenery wasn’t being mended or that the stage was even dirtier than normal, and then they’d come down to find his body in the latter stages of decay on the thin metal bed in the Pipe Room, as the girls called it. He chuckled to himself at the thought of that and stood his broom up behind the door where it lived. The room had changed very little in the time he had lived there. His bed was tucked in the far corner behind the pipes with its ragged little blanket. He’d tacked some pretty things to the wall over the years that he’d found that had never been claimed; a tiny torn ballet shoe, scribbled drawings left by the younger girls in their dressing rooms, a collection of powder puffs in faded pinks and blues and browns, still clinging to their feminine scent.
And his prized possession; a delicate, snow-white hair net. It had tiny white sequins woven into the mesh He didn’t know how he had it, but he thought it was beautiful and he never touched it. Just lost hours gazing at its fine stitching and simple elegance. It was pinned to the paper-thin wall at the end of his bed. He liked to fall asleep looking at it, feeling the strange, bitter nostalgia and sense of feminine beauty it held for him from a world he could always see, but could never touch.
His cupboard contained one change of practical work clothes identical to the ones he now shrugged off and folded neatly on his chair. Underneath his bed was an enormous old leather trunk that he had once used to store things in, but now he couldn’t remember for the life of him what he could ever have had that was worth storing. For the thousandth time as he kicked his shapeless old boots under the bed he felt the trunk’s sturdy presence and resolved to finally find out what on earth he’d been keeping in there for so long.
But not tonight, never tonight. He was dog tired and had no idea of the time. He would wake up early to make the stage preparations for the pre-matinee rehearsal as usual and he needed his sleep. He fell into the thin mattress and was asleep before his eyes were closed.
His days ran together, a blur of darkness, heat, grease and paint. The girls swarmed around constantly, though they seldom noticed him. His air was thick with the sound of their laughing and bickering and tears; rank with the bitterness of their sweat and with the cloying taste of their powder and perfume. He breathed in their vitality, their youth and beauty. He looked often for the girl-swan he had seen that strange night, but he could never pick her out amongst the others. His eyes were rheumy with age and disease by now and he struggled to make out features in the white netted clouds of girls that brushed by him.
He saw her once again, before it all happened. She passed him on the stairs. He knew it was her immediately from the way she lifted her head to meet his eyes. None of the other girls would ever have done that, he knew by now; knew better than to try to speak to them or smile at them. It was not what they wanted. He had grown to accept their stiff avoidance and downcast eyes. He didn’t think to ask why she was coming down from those stairs. The girls had no business being up there and by rights he should have taken her to the mistresses for a serious talking to, but he knew he would not.
She smiled at him now.The greasepaint was gone from her face and her dress was unsoiled, though her eyes were ringed painfully with black sleepless bruises and her skin had a sickening pallor to it. She was tiny standing on the stairs, though and he felt again that he daren’t move any closer to her. As she passed him he fell back into the curtains.The other girls didn’t like to be near him, went to lengths not to touch him, but she didn’t flinch away. The encounter lasted seconds and then she was gone.
It was then that things began to get frightening. He was an old man. He had lived at the theatre nearly his whole life and never once in that time had anyone ever bothered him or harmed him. Repulsion and disgust he had learned to live with a long time ago, back-biting, rumours, lies. But here was a place where he felt safe; ignored and alone. When he returned to his room that night he found his old trunk pulled out from beneath his bed. It lay there insolently, like an intruder. He had stopped in the doorway and stood stock-still to stare.
It frightened him, to see it just lying there like that – somehow threatening. He didn’t know why, but it was a shameful thing and he wanted just to push it back under the bed. But now it was out it could never go back. Someone must have come in here and pulled it out, he decided. It hadn’t been opened, it was still tightly bound with the cord he remembered wrapping around and around it one day. Why had he done that? Why had it been moved? The girls were all too scared to come in here. He’d heard them and their games; daring one another to come and touch the door, just run inside for five seconds, steal something from the wall. Even the fingertips of the very bravest only ever grazed the splintered wood of the door. Then screeching and laughing and chaotic running.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, but eventually he strode over to the box and lifted by its perished handle. It was light. He’d expecting it to be heavier; weighed down with his forgotten memories, with his whole life, but it felt almost empty. He threw it from him to the corner of the room where it lay upended and unperturbed. He felt it there, but turned his back on it and lay on his bed readying himself for another sleepless night.
It was later the next day that he found her. After the weeks of peering into the faces of tens of nameless girls he could see her, starkly and clearly in the grey light of the upstairs bathroom. The mirror was shattered and the window was broken and shards of silver glass lay all around her fragile shape on the urine stained floor. The girls weren’t meant to come up here. The toilets were broken and the floor was unsafe, the workmen came up here to drink after the show. They were rowdy and dangerous and had a quick eye for a slim figure and a pretty face.
Burgundy-dark streams trickled from her nose and lips into the pools of water around her and flowered slowly, silently with a sickly metallic scent. Her eyes were blank and staring. She did not see the dirty walls, the crumbling plaster or the rotting wood in the last place she ever lay down. Tears were drying on her cheeks, streaking through the blood and the grease paint. Broken teeth and torn nails, bloody hand-prints on the wall. She had struggled. She had not died easily.
Strips of shredded netting drifted slowly down from the ceiling, like snow after a storm, to settle in the redness pooling out on the tiles.
Dazed he fell out of the room seeing nothing. He staggered into one of the stage hands who was passing. He recoiled, but caught the old man and shot him an alarmed look. Wordlessly he gestured up the stairs and steadied himself against the wall. Nauseous, panicking. The boy ran up the stairs and looked back puzzled behind him when he reached the top. He shrugged at the old man, confused, who did not see his blank and bewildered expression, just the sad and hopeless face of the girl he had left on the bathroom floor. He stepped away, not looking back.
The air was filled with buzzing and the hot air swirled before his eyes. He shook his head to clear it and fell sideways into a stack of paint tins. He lost it then and began to run back to the pipe room. His legs and back screamed in protest, but he ignored them and ran blindly down the steep stone steps. Around his feet he could see swathes of the aged brown cord that had bound his old leather suitcase, they snatched at his ankles and twisted maliciously around his feet to trip him. He stumbled and fell more than once, bruising his wrinkled hands, jarring his shoulders.
As he flung himself into the safety of his room he knew what he would find. His sweating, shaking hands steadied themselves as he made ready to turn and face the room. He knew what he would see; his suitcase lay on the bed, the lid flung brutally back, gratuitously exposing it’s insides. Sitting beside it, calmly now – or in some sinister semblance of calm, he sifted through its contents. He was surprised to see that it was full of roughly torn bits of paper and old photographs. The photographs were of the theatre, backstage. Of pretty girls dancing, of sweat drenched embraces and black-faced grinning stage hands. Pulleys and ropes, gangs of young men with bottles of beer in rolled up sleeves and braces, gauzy costumes, blood-stained shoes, heat and life and energy.
And there he was, but as a young man now in sepia, his strong-arm tightly around the waist of his girl-swan. She was laughing into the camera, flushed and radiant in browns and yellows, fresh from the stage. He was looking at her with a fierce pride and intensity in his dark eyes.
On the paper there were sketches in pencil and smudged charcoal. His own. His name was scrawled in the bottom corners. The yellowed, curling pages of every one detailed precisely and with chilling accuracy the scene from which he had fled in the bathroom upstairs. Over and over again, the same horrifying scene scrawled in black and white. The way her head had tilted, so that her cold lifeless eyes had seemed focused directly on him, the curl of her fingers, the blood matted in her hair. His eyes clouded over once more as he frantically sorted through the madness, the self loathing and horror that he had found in his trunk, to find even one image of normalcy – a sketch of a room, or a dancer that would somehow make everything alright again. But there were none. He saw over and over his hands dark with her blood, his face flecked with it, heard those awful sounds.
His hands shook as he bunched up the papers strewn carelessly over the bed and he placed them back in the case. Photographs on top, of course. Neatly piled, edges hastily smoothed. Calmly, slowly, ordered.Blank eyes.Then he gathered up the matted mess of cord from his feet and began to wrap it around and around the trunk. Around and around until the trunk itself was barely visible again, until its contents were hidden, forgotten, undone. Then he flung it under the bed and focused his swollen streaming eyes on the snowy hair net above his bed. It was so pretty, it almost reminded him of someone he might have known a long time ago…
He had to sleep soon. He was dog tired and the stage had to be cleared out for the pre-matinee rehearsal and there was a mountain of props to be shifted before then. Dreaming of white lace petticoats and laughing, dancing-girls he drifted into sleep.
Jennifer is an extremely talented writer and journalist based in Cardiff. You can find her fabulous website and blog here.