short stories, comment, articles, humour and photography
His gaze trailing rows of old framed photographs in virtual trance; Eddie’s attention is startled out of its reverie by a dramatic monochrome studio portrait of a young flamenco dancer. Hanging on the far wall of the dimly-lit room, between the familiar image of a wasp-waisted matador parrying a bull and another of an old man smoking a briar, he notes they have been moved slightly aside to accommodate the newcomer. He can’t help thinking it been done on purpose, to make it look as though it was there all the time. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t there on his last visit, nor was it there before that. He is seeing it for the very first time. The three pictures hang to the left of the bracket clock above the gramophone. It must’ve been done in his absence. Without so much as a word.
He pads across the worn Ushak carpet to view the intruder at close quarters. So striking it’s unthinkable he couldn’t have noticed it before. No way.
A garden scene is arranged around the dancer. A tired, old wicker chair stands on her left. To her right, the limp leaves of an unambitious aspidistra spill from a jardinière precariously mounted on a spindly-legged mahogany torchère. Both are set on a fraying Anatolian prayer kilim. A crudely painted, theatrical backcloth depicting the grounds of a fictitious country house completes the setting.
Framed in birdseye maple and set behind glass, the portrait is no more than twelve inches in breadth and perhaps sixteen inches high. Caught mid-step, the girl’s spine strains into an arc, almost like a bow about to let an arrow fly. Her head thrown back and slightly to one side, an arm stretches up behind it, the hand forming the head of a serpent. Her other hand lifts the ruches of her flamenco dress revealing bouncing frills of bleached white petticoats, and a high-heeled shoe strapped to a dark-stockinged foot.
Viewed from a stride or so away, it becomes clear the photo hasn’t always been as monochromatic as it looks from afar. Remnants of faded tinting ink reveal themselves. On the sagging backdrop, nicotine-tainted streaks of blue barely convey the cloudless summer sky they must once have represented. The painted twigs and branches of a lone, almost leafless, wintry tree claw into it. Faint green traces have all but given up distinguishing the ivies cascading from a pair of unlikely looking twin grey urns stood on matching grey plinths in the garden of the equally unlikely house. The few red areas of the photo have mostly paled into pink. Yet, for some unknown reason, the young dancer’s scarlet lips have lost none of their intensity, nor the pink blush applied to her cheeks. A red rose sprouts from behind one ear.
She wears the melodramatic expression of haughty disdain vital to flamenco. Yet there is something especially arrogant about hers. Something more authentic. Something dark. Something exhaling genuine defiance.
Parted in the middle and sleeked tight back from either side of her face, her glossy black hair resembles nothing so much as a pair of folded raven wings. The few curls allowed their liberty uncoil like oily springs to dance about her ears, hung with silver hoops over the faintest hint of down. A few more are teased forward to dangle across her forehead.
His attention moves towards the whites of her deep-set eyes and into pupils black as jet. With her chin raised and jutting, she stares down her slender nose, nostrils flaring, directly into the camera lens, directly into his. The youthful anger in the eyes is intoxicating. She is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen.
At the sound of the old woman’s return Eddie hurries back.
So captivating is the study he can’t keep it from his thoughts. Eyes black as jet. Pupils flashing, glinting diamonds. Shining white marble orbs hooded by heavy, dusky lids. Framed by thick lashes. Black as soot. Deep-set, haunting. Ringed with the shadows of too many late, sultry nights laced with nicotine, narcotics and alcohol. Staring out at him. Arced by pencil slim eyebrows rendered in mascara. Black as night. The anger in them. The beauty. As he lies on his mattress back at the old, dilapidated house the vision enchants him into a rare and blissful sleep.
As time passes, his own eyes become voracious for the picture of the young flamenco dancer whenever he’s in the room. The portrait stirring something deep and dark within. Something lain dormant far too long. Each examination reveals fascinating new details. A mole at one corner of her mouth. Another above her breast, to the right, just above the cleavage. Three rings on the fingers of her left hand.
Fresh aspects of light and shade constantly imprint themselves. A stain on her underskirt. Maybe it’s a shadow. Or a speck of dust on the camera lens. Little folds and creases in her dress. A small tear at the hem. The daintiness of her one visible ankle. Yet, no matter how much else there is to beguile, he always returns to her eyes. Her eyes, he becomes obsessed by her eyes.
The moment the young flamenco dancer strutted through the studio door Emilio knew she was different. Though over an hour late for her session she was far more annoyed than apologetic. In fact, she didn’t bother to apologise at all. Most young dancers were only too happy to be photographed by the elegant, if slightly dishevelled, middle-aged Argentinian. Though small and rotund in stature, his bow tie and waxed moustache exuded a somewhat bohemian air. Aided by his crumpled, white linen suit and the cigarillo constantly sticking from one side of his mouth, it was an image he had spent years cultivating and refining. An image designed to impress the young and impressionable. And it had worked in the main.
Even though they had to pay a considerable amount of their paltry earnings, his subjects regarded the experience of posing for him as a privilege. If not exactly a guarantee, none the less, a visit to his studio, was a seen as a necessary rung to encounter on the precarious ladder to fame and fortune. They couldn’t afford to provoke his ire. So they showered him with flirtatious compliments and wide smiles, guarding their aloof expressions for performances, or the camera lens. Seeing straight through his laboriously contrived façade, the strutting young flamenco dancer dispensed her aloofness liberally, omitting even the faintest hint of frugality.
Emilio was swift to detect the smouldering anger she could scarcely contain beneath the miserly smile she belatedly offered in greeting. In the briefest brushing of cheeks that followed, he could almost feel her disgust at the physical contact the custom dictated. There was sense of raw fury in her sparking, rather than sparkling, eyes. His own anger at her tardiness had dissipated the instant he caught it. She fascinated him. And, despite his preference for young members of his own sex, he fell for her immediately.
The émigré from Buenos Aires had shot portraits of young and famous dancers, musicians, actors and models from all over Latin America. Some of the most beautiful women in Argentina had once beaten a path to his studio door. But that was long ago. In the days before he was forced to flee into self-imposed exile, following an indiscreet liaison with the son of a powerful general.
Though obviously born into the poorest of the poor, the young flamenco dancer from San Fernando, on the other side of the Atlantic, was in a class of her own in all respects. Already richly endowed with vanity and arrogance in equal measure, for someone so young, in truth, even she had no idea of the extraordinariness of her beauty.
He sees she is less than impressed with the decaying wicker chair and sickly plant he’s arranged on the shabby Turkish kilim. As for the grimy backcloth he’d bought from a travelling theatre manager, down on his luck, she can’t contain herself from emitting a loud, impatient sigh as her eyes flick across it. One contemptuous glance from those dark eyes induces a shame he’d almost forgotten existed.
Close enough together to come within a hair’s breadth of deformity, there’s the merest hint of a cast about them. Mesmerising. Almost as though the Almighty had set out to confuse the observer’s aesthetic sensibilities to the extremities of tolerance, the source of her incredible beauty lies in those eyes. With their minute, yet obvious imperfection, they radiate an impression of divinely calculated asymmetry, which combined with their fatal attraction, has them almost tottering carelessly on the brink of repulsiveness. The immaculate flaw. How sublime. Those eyes will make her a far greater fortune than the suppleness of her limbs and fleetness of foot ever will, Emilio thought. If God hadn’t created them, it was sure to be Satan.
They challenge the Argentinian photographer to capture their paradox in the surest knowledge he’s bound to fail. But in some miracle of the moment he doesn’t.
Instructing her to take up a position in the centre of the set, she assumes a pose perfectly without need for direction, before staring directly into the lens. Placing the black cloth attached to the rear of the camera over his head, Emilio checks the composition, and makes a final adjustment to the focus in the image he sees on a ground glass screen by moving the bellows slightly forward, then a touch back. Taking a loaded plate he pushes it into the rear slot of the camera. He asks her to remain completely still for a few seconds, as he removes the lens cover. Then turning the loaded plate round to expose a second sheet of film, he repeats the process.
It is only some hours later, he begins to fully comprehend the extent of his achievement. By the red light of the darkroom he draws the sopping paper out of the developer tray to rinse before placing into the fixative. As he watches it sink below the surface of the clear liquid a tremendous excitement takes hold. He realises he has captured something he has never captured before on film; something he will never capture again. An image of the young flamenco dancer’s very soul floats in the tray before his eyes.
An age seems to pass before he can bring himself to switch on the ceiling bulb to examine it in more detail. By that time he is sweating so profusely his shirt is soaked. There it is. Somehow, he managed to seize the very essence of the moment in an almost supernatural way. He caught the instant of youth where life is eternal. From the very insolence of her expression it’s plain to see the notion of growing old is unimaginable. The savage sense of passion locked into the picture is overpowering. At the same time the very depth those angered eyes betray holds too much of a lust for danger for their light not to be extinguished prematurely. Emilio knows it is the best portrait he has ever made, and the best he will ever make. The little Argentinian, who left a thriving studio in one the ritziest suburbs of Buenos Aires to eke out his days exiled in a poor barrio of Cádiz has taken the most magnificent photo of his entire career. He will never again take its equal.
In that he was more right than he could ever have imagined. After hanging it up to dry, and locking his studio for the night, he pauses in the middle of the narrow lane to check his pocket watch. Twenty-two minutes before midnight. If he hurries, he might still be able to get a tapas at the bar on the corner. At that very moment he hears a commotion and looks up. A runaway horse and cart are hurtling towards him. Swiftly glancing, both to his left and to his right, he sees there is no means of escape in the little byway. The cathedral clock is striking midnight when he reaches the hospital, where he is pronounced dead on arrival by the night doctor.
Eddie can’t get over the young flamenco dancer’s eyes. Each time he’s left alone in the room he approaches the photo to examine them close up.
Comes the day, he is scrutinising them so closely, the tip of his nose touches the surface of the glass. In the same instant the hard chill of the glass takes him by surprise; the warmth of his own breath glancing back onto his mouth feels almost as though she has reached out of the frame and breathed onto his lips. He draws his face quickly away with the bizarre sensation they were on the verge of kissing.
Spooked by the discomforting perversity of the illusion, he steps back further, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, as if they had in fact kissed.
Nothing has changed. At the same time, not all is quite as it seems. Beneath the mist of his condensed breath still visible on the glass, her mouth has assumed a mocking grin. The mist clears in an instant, revealing the same aloof expression that has him enmeshed. Her scarlet lips express no more than arrogant contempt. Another figment of his imagination. Her eyes look down her nose, as they always have. The customary pose; back arched, one arm raised, the wrist and hand resembling the head of a serpent. Everything is the same. It’s just a photograph. Her lips couldn’t possibly have moved. His confused senses are toying with his emotions. The room is always so dark. Her expression can’t have changed. It was just a trick of the light accentuated by his reflection superimposed on the misty glass.
Still, there’s something a little too knowing about her eyes. Something too lifelike. Now, they unnerve him. Whites as white as virgin snow, pupils dark as coal. Beauty made infinite by virtue of teetering on the precipice of disfigurement.
The more Eddie looks at the beautiful young flamenco dancer the more he cannot help feeling their destinies are somehow impossibly intertwined. However insane he knows that to be. The photo must be over fifty years old. Her eyes. Always the eyes. Transmitting scorn and contempt undimmed from a different century, another millennium, she becomes the sole reason he continues to put up with old woman’s growing misery. That, and the fact, as he drinks his glass of water, she always slips over to the shiny bureau, pulls out the small drawer, reaches a hand inside, and withdraws it holding a five-euro note.
It is nearing the end of autumn and the winter rains have started. At once the air is fresher, flowers bloom, and sun-scorched grasses grow green again. Everywhere seems much cleaner. Accustomed to the greyness of Scottish autumns and winters Eddie receives the contradictory impression of an unusually pleasant Glasgow spring.
That day the old woman has more bags than he can recollect, and he struggles to haul them up the flights of stairs.
“Ye expecting a war or sompthun’?” he mutters sarcastically, dumping them onto the kitchen table. Either she doesn’t hear, or ignores him, as is her routine practice. She rarely wastes words unless instructing him what to do. Even then they’re always curt and in Spanish, her hands flapping irritably from time to time. But she seems unusually preoccupied. Instead of directing him into the dim-lit room to wait for his glass of water, she stands before him. From her attitude, he gains the ironic notion she is about to relieve him of his duties. For fuck’s sake! He might act like one, but he’s not a bloody servant!
“Today’s a holiday in Cádiz,” she begins gravely. “A day of fiesta. A time for families and friends to gather in order to celebrate. Mostly by eating and drinking rather too much.” She speaks the words in careful, almost aristocratic, English with hardly a trace of her native accent. All the time they’ve been acquainted she never let on. He didn’t suspect for one moment she spoke more than a word or two of English. If that. It seems she is fluent. “Forgive me for the presumption, but I’m fairly certain you have no family here. And probably few friends, if any.” She pauses, as though expecting he might contradict her. Eddie remains silent. “You must come to dinner this evening.” For once he is looking straight at her face in astonishment. She holds his gaze. “At nine o’ clock. Despite the Spanish custom, it would please me greatly if you weren’t late.” Though intended as an invitation she has phrased it almost as a decree. He doesn’t know what to say and shifts his gaze to stare uncomfortably at the floor. “I’d consider it an honour,” she adds, somewhat unsurely. The prospect terrifies him. But as the words were spoken in the manner of an edict, he feels the same as he might had he been condemned to wait at her majesty’s pleasure. There is no invitation about it. He cannot possibly refuse.
“R-right,” he stammers. “Right, I’ll do that.” Yet it doesn’t sound nearly enough.
In working class Glasgow dinner was the everyday meal ordinary folk ate at midday. One or two slabs of unidentifiable grey meat accompanied by soggy vegetables and heaps of flaky boiled potatoes. The whole lot drowned in pools of steaming gravy. There was nothing formal about it. You just dug in. He knows it is not the sort of dinner she means. The sort of dinner she means will not involve digging in. He will be expected to savour each tiny forkful and take part in small talk. He can’t think why he’s been invited. Unless it’s to make a fool of him in front of her friends. But he will still go.
Several hefty swigs of cheap red wine straight from the bottle. Enough to take the edge off his nerves and steady his hands. Slamming back the cork, he sinks to his knees to push the remainder beneath the bed as far as he can. Out of the way. Somewhere he might forget it. Fat chance. At least he won’t knock it over. Time to open the suitcase. Dousing his mucky fingers and palms under the tap over a kitchen sink in the corner of the room, he rubs them dry on the front of his sweatshirt. He lifts the suitcase lid and peels away several sheets of tissue concealing the white linen jacket he bought from a Marbella hotel boutique. An age ago. A world away. Paid a bomb for it. In cash. Just because he promised himself he’d have one some day. Drawing it out, he unfolds, then shakes it, turning it round in the light from a broken window. Despite its brush with the cobbled street it’s clean enough. He lays it out on the bed. Carefully. More layers of tissue. He takes out the white dress shirt and black trousers he hasn’t worn since gambling away a small fortune at half-forgotten casino tables. He lays them next to the jacket on his shabby mattress. The bow tie, the silk cummerbund, one by one, side-by-side. Everything as though preordained. In times of greatest need, he could’ve sold the lot. He never understood his reason for hanging onto any of them until this moment. He removes the shining patent leather shoes from their clear plastic bag, feeling as if the whole of his life has been in preparation for what is to come. Stripped to the skin, he stands before the sink and sponges himself thoroughly in icy water. He shaves with the fresh blade he now knows he’s been keeping for the great occasion. Finally, he dresses.
The way to her block takes him by the supermarket. Closed early for the holiday, a gang of workmen busy themselves replacing the shopfront for something more modern. Two of them test a pair of automatic doors. He sees the operation as yet another sign.
Climbing the stairs to her flat, he pauses to adjust his bow tie, uncertain of whether to proceed. A nervous sickness wells in his stomach at the thought of the ordeal he’s about to undergo. A couple more swigs of wine would’ve done the trick. He can’t go through with it. He should’ve drank the whole bottle. He won’t know what to say. Yet neither can he turn back. The same impulse he feels has driven him to this moment is impelling him still further. He mounts the last few steps to stand before her door. He presses the bell. There’s something he’s meant to do. He has his purpose at last.
The old woman answers the door wearing a different widowy, black dress to the threadbare one she usually has on. If it weren’t for the old-fashioned cut and cloth, it could be new. Her silver hair is tied neatly behind her neck in a bun. A few stray wisps escape about her ears.
“Good evening,” she says, tilting her head in a mechanical, almost reluctant, nod. Moving aside, she gestures for him to pass before her, closing the door gently behind them, and showing him into the dimly-lit room.
To his amazement, it stands completely transformed. No longer gloomy, dozens of candles burn, gilding the walls and ceiling. Everything shines with unnatural brilliance, the deadened room restored to life by dancing curtains of candlelight.
The gramophone, its green horn and varnished wood case glistening, appears to sway precariously from side to side in the flickering glow. The three-fold screen, its magazine cuttings seemingly fresh-pasted, waxes and wanes. Forgotten Latino stars of stage and screen display nonchalant indifference to the concept of mortality. A triptych of toothpaste smiles radiating celluloid vacuity beyond the grave. The great stuffed bear, dwarfed by its own juddering shadow, lunges forth from time to time. Bared ivory fangs gleam. Glass eyes glint menace. Glancing towards the window Eddie observes the treadle sewing machine. Highlighted by the unfamiliar luminescence the chrome wheel looks to whirr silently at last again, the sharp needle to pierce its backdrop of blackness with sparks of silvery steel, as it sews the ragged seam between darkness and light. Everything appears brand new. Even the ranks of dusty clocks seem cloaked in plush grey velvet for the occasion.
One thing dominates. In the middle of the worn Ushak carpet a long dining table has been set with whitest damask. A grand candelabrum blazes myriad tiny flames. Silver branches and crystal drops twinkle, multiplying and diminishing with reflection and refraction in the continually changing spectacle of light. Just as they had in the old photo of the smartly-dressed diners taken decades before. Eddie gazes in wonder.
Yet something isn’t quite right. Something is missing. Then it clicks. No chairs. There are no chairs. Apart from one. At the table’s farthest end a solitary carver stands where a single place has been laid. And he realises nobody else has been invited. He is expected to dine alone.
The old woman escorts him slowly down the long table to the single setting, as the bracket clock chimes nine. On the final stroke she draws out the only chair and motions for him to sit. She pours white sherry into a small-stemmed glass, and places a dish of green olives to hand, before assuming a position against the wall at his rear.
Taking up a napkin, Eddie shakes it out and tucks a corner into his shirt collar, arranging the rest carefully to form a bib over his white linen jacket. In the same moment he checks the sparkling array of silver cutlery laid out before him. Enough knives, forks, and spoons for a small tribe. No way is he is going to know which to use when. He senses the old woman’s dark eyes registering his each and every move.
Eddie lifts the small glass and puts its delicate rim to his partially-deadened lips. Though the dried blood stitches are long gone, his slashed nerve ends retain as little tactility as a calloused palm. The thin scar connecting his right nostril to his mouth remains a potent reminder of a score to be settled. Next time he runs into the pimp and his whore he’ll be ready.
The first tentative sip of sherry has him anticipating a dribble down his chin from the insensitive lip. He’s already wiped his mouth on the back of his hand by the time he realises he should’ve used the napkin. Too late. And there wasn’t even a dribble. He curses himself. Nothing feels quite right, yet everything has its rightful place. Except him. He replaces the glass as accurately as he can back into the light depression it left on the bleached damask plateau stretched out before him. Only to see a drop of wine snake its fitful path down the stem to form a damp crescent on the virgin cloth at the glass’s base. Where there hadn’t been a stain spreads the faintest tinge of palest yellow. Desecration and defilement. He might as well have pissed on the snow-white cloth the way he feels. He doesn’t fit. In other hands, there wouldn’t have been a drip. There wouldn’t be a stain.
To occupy those awkward appendages he plucks an olive from the dish and rolls it between finger and thumb. Slowly back and forth, comparing them minutely. The coarseness of his dry skin, the deep-whorled fingertips, dirt-ingrained, the chipped nails, so stark against the silkiness of the olive. Clumsy and loathsome. So at odds. He pauses, only for a swift rush of blood to burn his face, as he breaks into a sweat. Hunted eyes search out the implement of cutlery almost certainly provided to spike the olive. There must be one. Too late again. The treacherous fruit is in his clutch. The clocks are stopped and cloaked in dust. No turning back. Hand to mouth, painfully slowly. He nibbles at the soft flesh until a loose front tooth jars against the woody stone. He never did like the bloody things. Food for people strangers to hunger.
At the point the old woman sets off for the kitchen he conceals the half-chewed olive amongst the others, and begins to drum the table quietly with very empty fingertips.
His peculiarly heightened senses alert to the photographs lining the walls. The flickering candlelight lending an air of unruly crowds stirring behind windows, of noses pressed against glass panes, of eyes straining to peer into the room. An audience attending an event. Spectators at a ritual. Witnesses to a sacrifice. A sudden draught sends candle flames spluttering and darting, spitting molten wax, shooting exaggerated arrowheads of light into the room’s farthest recesses. In an intake of breath the figures appear to withdraw back into their frames.
Eddie peers over his shoulder half-expecting the old woman to have materialised behind him. There is no one. A pair of lace curtains wavers in the soft evening breeze. Turning back, his eyes are drawn along the table, to its far end, towards the facing wall. Highlighted in the dying, random splutter of flames the contemptuous gaze of the young flamenco dancer. Unmoved and unmoving. Head thrown back. Hand the head of a serpent. Deep-set eyes. Black as jet. Pupils flashing, glinting diamonds, their arrogance extenuated by candlelight.
Raising his glass in silent toast, he tosses it back. Only one thing left to do. The one thing he knows how to do best. Get blind drunk. He recharges his glass and tosses it back a second time. The weird old woman can go fuck herself with her stupid tricks! He will eat and drink with the beautiful young flamenco dancer.
Two more glassfuls have passed his lips by the time the old woman reappears in the doorway bearing a silver tureen. Gliding the length of the table she sets it down and removes the lid. Iceberg chips chink on a miniature sea of arctic water speckled with finely-chopped parsley. A silver ladle clinks its way from metal tureen to china bowl, dispensing a discordant carillon of cold ice soup.
About to pick up a spoon he checks his hand upon hearing the almost imperceptible click of a tongue. Reprobation. Wrong spoon. It was bound to be. He steers his hand towards another spoon. No click. The old woman draws a frosted green bottle from a silver ice-pail and glugs white wine into a misted glass. Ice-cold wine with cold-ice soup. Not a word passes between them. Host and guest. Servant and master. Sadist and masochist.
A similar routine accompanies each course. Silver salvers, porcelain tureens, china plates and bowls appear and disappear. One after the other, borne out of the kitchen and placed on the table in turn. Fish, fowl, meat, and vegetables, course after course, red wines and white wines, a new wine for each course, a fresh glass for each wine. Before one glass can empty another full one is at hand.
The glow of alcohol suffusing his veins he begins to relax. Tension falling from his shoulders as a silken cloak. Release brings relief. He is back where he always wants to be. Where he belongs. In the cottonwool Nirvana summoned up from a bottle. Wine and candlelight smearing and blearing his vision, shrouding the room in a gauze of soft and welcome mist.
From far and near sounds weave in and out of open windows. A tapestry of drifting voices, echoing laughter, clattering cutlery, tinkling glasses. Other parties. There are other parties. Parties with people. A flourish of guitar. The knock of a rhythm rapped out on a tabletop. A voice breaks into song. Hands clap.
And out of nowhere guests appear. Noisy, bustling, blurry crowds. Filling empty spaces. People have been invited after all. People he recognises. From Scotland. From Glasgow. He picks out Mam and Nan from the faces. Gabbing and bickering like they always do. And then his fucking Dad. “Who invited you, ye cunt!” he yells. “Blathering and shooting ye fucking mouth off! Shut yer fucking gob! Ye always wreck every fucking thing!”
The swoosh of a closing window stifles the breeze, dampening all sounds. As swiftly as they arrived, the guests melt away. There is no one. Even with his senses thoroughly distorted by booze he realises there never was. All another illusion in an endless parade of illusions. A party of ghosts conjured out of alcohol and the sounds of other parties. Virtual silence reigns. Emphasised by the relentless ticking of the bracket clock. Even the old woman cannot be seen. He couldn’t feel more alone.
Something stirs. A shadow shifting amongst shadows. He shakes his head. A moving shroud of darkness out of the corner of an eye. He turns. A dim form sweeping across the floor. Perhaps he nodded off. Blackness flowing. A female silhouette. Head to foot swathed in black. The swish of taffeta on oaken boards. Face concealed by fine black mesh. As if in mourning.
Towards the gramophone the stygian apparition glides and stops before it. A black gloved hand emerges from a black sleeve to grasp the handle of the ancient machine, and crank it back to life. The turntable squeaks initial dissent before gradually gathering momentum. A nickel-plated, articulated pickup is swiftly turned and lowered daintily onto a shining bakelite disc. And the phantom fuses back into the darkness on which it was borne.
Only the scraping of the turntable remains to show someone has been. The regular tick-ticking, as the needle encounters the same introductory scratch in neighbouring grooves over and over again. Scraping, rocking, and ticking, the old 78 crackles into being once more. From the depths of the green horn, and out of the crackles, emerges the strumming of tinny guitar strings accompanied by the clickety-clack of the flamenco handclap. In a language needing little translation, the wail of a man’s plaintive voice comes drifting over both. And out of a distant past the unmistakable melodrama of love’s deceit and everlasting sorrow.
Another sound. Sharp and loud this time. The other side of the room. Tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tigger-tig-tig, tigger-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig. Like the rattle of an old Gatling gun. Tigger-tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger-tigger. Slow at first, it fills the air. Tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tigger-tig-tig, tigger-tig-tig. A train gathering speed. Tigger-tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger-tigger. A slender form slips from behind the screen. Tigger-tag, tigger-tag. From behind the triptych of toothpaste smiles. Tig-tig-tig, tigger-tig-tig. Scarlet dress flying, white petticoats swirling, high-heeled shoes slam the floor. Tigger-tag, tigger-tag. Marking the rhythm in forever changing patterns. Tig-tig-tig, tigger-tag, tigger-tag, bursting into a furious clatter, tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger. Drawing ever closer. Tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tigger-tag, tigger tag. The report of leather soles and heels striking oak floorboards. Tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger. He rises to his feet. Tigger-tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger-tigger. Tigger-tag, tigger-tag. Another swift and furious explosion, tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger, stamping, turning, fingers clicking. Tigger-tag, tigger-tag, tigger-tag. Red skirt slashing air, white petticoats swishing, tigger-tag, tigger-tag, tigger-tag, the dancer snakes her way along the length of the table. Tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger, tigger-tigger. Turning and clapping, fingers snapping, swirling and whirling into a daze. Tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger,-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger. Spinning, spinning, spinning. Tigger-tag, tigger-tag, tigger-tag. Faster and faster, tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger. A blur of red and white. Closer and closer, faster and faster. Tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger, tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-tagger-TAGGER-TAG! Both feet come crashing to the floor inches before his chair.
The eyes. Whites as white as virgin snow. The eyes reveal all. Flashing jet, glinting diamonds. The immaculate flaw. Close enough together to come within a hair’s breadth of deformity. The merest hint of a cast. A fan concealing most of her face, the young flamenco dancer stands before him, snatching for air. With the snap of a hand, the fan clicks closed. Hair slicked back. Oily black. As folded raven wings. A smooth film of perspiration accentuates fine cheekbones. Copper skin flushes, radiating excitement, exertion and allure. Scarlet lips. So close, her hot breaths almost burn his face.
Eddie inclines his head into hers. Just one heated breath shared against the painted mouth would be enough. A brush with paradise. She steps away so swiftly he almost topples. Moving a hand behind her neck she pulls a ribbon from her hair. A carefree toss of her head sends black tresses tumbling about her jutting shoulders. Locking his gaze, she begins the dance again. Tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, tig-tig-tig, skirt ruffles rising and falling, swirling and flouncing, flashes of brown calf framed by white lace.
Gradually turning, she whips her head round and round always returning to face him, raven hair streaming and lashing. Teeth glow white through cheeks of roses. He stands transfixed.
Out of nowhere, an arm reaches. A rough hand grabs at the swirling skirts. And then another. But the young dancer is far too quick, continually spinning just out of range. Crabbed fingers snatch again and again. Grasping and snatching, grasping and snatching. Fists always closing on empty air, the dancer swirling beyond their reach. Rab, Rab is at his side.
Eddie shouts his name. Rab won’t listen. Reaching out and grabbing time and time again he backs the young dancer towards the table till there is nowhere left to go. She slams her feet to the floor. Rab steps back. In one bound, she’s on the tabletop, angry eyes burning into his. Black as jet. Flinging her hair about her shoulders defiantly, she takes up her dance one more time, winding slowly round. Leather soles muffled by linen as they slam into the wood of the tabletop. Glasses, and crockery fly and crash to the floor. Rab leaps onto the table. Eddie’s head bursts. Picking up a bronze candlestick with candle burning he jumps after him. Raising his arm he brings it down with all his might onto the head of the figure in front of him. One, two, three times he smashes the candlestick onto the skull.
The sound of scrubbing breaks into an instantly forgotten dream. Or nightmare. Stiff bristles scouring stone. Back and forth, back and forth. His temples throb. His tongue sour and dry. Already he can’t recall waking, falling asleep, or what existed before. He doesn’t know where he is. All memory wiped. He could’ve arrived in life at this very moment. Or death. Born into hell. Forcing gluey eyelids apart, pencil strands of street lights stream through slatted blinds to stretch along the floor and drill into his eyes. His aching head rests on an old carpet. Saliva-sodden tufts stick to his lips, the roof of his mouth and clog his throat, making him cough. He spits dryly and tries to wipe them away. They cling as obstinately as had they been gummed. How long has he been there? Wherever it is. The scrubbing goes on. Bristles on stone, back and forth, back and forth. He calls for it to stop. Why won’t they stop?
Raising his head he struggles to his knees, disconnected images start flooding his mind. As he clutches his pounding temples, he hears himself mutter: “Cold ice soup, ice cold wine.” He can’t think why and looks around. Smashed ornaments everywhere. Cold ice soup, ice cold wine. Porcelain figurines in smithereens, china cats and dogs in bits and pieces. Fragmented crystalware sparkles. Somehow familiar. Cold ice wine, ice cold soup. Like the bric a brac shops Nan used to take him to as a lad. Only bombed out. Cold ice soup, ice cold wine. Had there been a bomb? Nan, Nan was here. And Mam. Cold ice soup, ice cold wine. He starts to remember. There was a party. The old woman in a widowy black dress. Ice cold wine, cold ice soup. He carries her shopping up fights of stairs. Cold ice soup, ice cold wine. Dusty clocks, all broken springs and jumbled cogs. Splintered frames and shattered glass. Scraps of torn photos. Ice cold wine, cold ice soup. On the other side of the room an ancient gramophone turntable grinds slowly round. Ice cold wine, cold ice soup. Fucking Dad was there too. Metal scraping metal, marking each revolution. Nickel-plated pickup rising and falling. Cold ice wine and ice cold soup. He remembers more. Rab. Rab was there. A fight. Rab was definitely there. Cold ice wine, ice cold soup. The sound of scrubbing stops as the turntable slows and grinds to a halt. Ice cold wine. Rab went completely berserk. Cold ice soup. What time is it? A murky rectangular contour remains to tell where the bracket clock had once hung. A fragmented wood case lies on its side on the floor beneath. A glazed door hangs from one of its hinges. A brass pendulum pokes through dagger-like shards of glass. The clock face reads twenty-four minutes to three. He can only have been unconscious for a short time. It all starts to come back in a rush. The beautiful young flamenco dancer. Dancing. Rising to his feet Eddie stumbles towards the dining table. The endless white desert that stretched before him the previous evening is stained with wine and spattered with wax. Dunes of crumpled damask are strewn with broken crockery and shattered glass. Blood. A large pool of blood. Ice cold wine, cold ice soup. He recalls rough hands snatching. Snatching. Coarseness. Dry skin, deep-whorled fingertips, dirt-ingrained. Chipped nails.
Below the table a pile of discarded rags. Tattered and torn. Scarlet taffeta trimmed with shreds of black lace. Frilly, white undergarments slashed and ripped. For a moment he stands in disbelief. A tangle of raven tresses. He reaches down to grasp them. As they come away gossamer strands of silver tumble revealing the faded black irises of the old woman staring lifelessly out of their sockets. Her forehead is smashed in. Below an eyebrow arced in mascara, blood is starting to congeal. Lipstick and blusher smear on a thick mask of theatrical pancake. A tiny mole has been painted above one corner of her mouth. He turns his gaze swiftly away. A hand. At the end of a scrawny arm poking out of the pile of rags. Three rings on the fingers. Tight in their grip, a crumpled photographic study of young flamenco dancer. He rips it away.
Alone, Eddie stands above the corpse unmoving. In one fist he grips the photo tightly, staring down at the mayhem, the other holds the bronze candlstick. His entire body twitches erratically. There was something he was meant to do. Something preordained. The old woman had weighed him up, sure enough. He jolts into a series of silent spasms till he can hold the forces back no longer. The old witch had planned it all along. At the realisation his lungs explode into a fit of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter. She knew exactly what he was capable of when even he didn’t. Laughing and laughing and laughing. Selecting him carefully for the job. Convulsing with laughter. He had nothing left to lose. Laughing till the tears stream his cheeks. Everything as though preordained. Laughing till his body wracks with pain. Laughing, laughing, laughing. Laughing so much he bangs his fists on broken crockery and glass to burn and bleed. He had his purpose at last. Laughing till he begs to stop. The joke is on him. Laughing and laughing and laughing. Laughing till there is no laughter left. Only then he stops. Choking and soughing for breath, he hangs his head and weeps like a child.
“You shouldnae ha’ loaded the fucking gun!” he screams, “I told ye not to! But ye wouldnae listen, wouldya? Ye had to go and load it!”
But Rab is no longer there to hear him.
Copright © 2014 Bryan Hemming
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