I have a picture of the wedding dance. This island man, young and handsome, with epaulettes, leads me, in my white gown and silk slippers, around the pavilion. Our guests, some holding back tears, sit back under hanging mangoes and applaud. I cherish this picture, and never let it go.
The real pictures, the ones cousin Albert took, I burned; My darling sleeping under the wedding boughs, tongue, heavy with rum, dangling to one side; me, withering gypsophila in my hair, faraway look on my face.
“Too late to turn back,” my mother said, when she saw my eyes turn wet, “Life not all dolly and dance”
I remember too that the very next morning, or maybe the morning after that, looking used as an old floor rag, my darling went away.
“Gave his life for the Motherland,” they said when he didn’t come back. I know that much, but if he kissed me goodbye, I can’t remember.
My second husband was different. My mother approved. He wasn’t handsome and he wasn’t young and he wasn’t my darling. He hated all things musical, right down to the chirpings of our two baby girls.
“Dancing is for sinners” he said, “and idle feet” and that’s what I told cousin Albert who pulled me to dance at the funeral, when I found myself a widow again. Cousin Albert laughed and left me to dab at my dry eyes and my mother cursed him and passed me her sewing to ease my mind.
I sew shirts for my third husband, a railwayman, who takes me from my island to another, across unending ocean. He’s fat and jolly and he likes to dance as much as to eat. My mother is dead now, but she doesn’t approve. Still, with those babies hanging about my ankles, ever hungry, never satisfied, I’ve no time for dancing anyway. Besides, the railwayman has brought other burdens to trouble my head, poverty and one bellyache of a daughter. As scrawny as she is sly, the girl does nothing but sigh and whimper and retch over my good pot soup.
“Grieving for her poor dead mother,” he says, but I remember her as a sulky, arrogant little madam who wouldn’t eat her dinner.
My own girls ignore their new sister and fight each other to reach the pot bottom first. I feed them just to keep them quiet.
We take rooms in a shared house with use of the kitchen each day between four and six. Wet skies keep up inside more often than not, except on a Tuesday, when we hang our washing under a dying chestnut tree in the yard and Sunday, which is the railwayman’s day off. On Sundays, he plays music and calls the girls outside to dance. I keep to my sewing. It’s hard to say which of us is the bigger fool, him for skipping over a patch of dirty concrete like it was the best dance hall in town, or me for watching him do it.
Dance does nothing for the railwayman’s daughter’s appetite, any more than the baubles, bangles and expensive toys that her father drops in her lap at every opportunity. One time, instead of good meat and potatoes he comes home with a musical box
“Look!” he crows, throwing open the lid and we gather and watch the turns of the wooden doll with her painted cheeks, and we listen as the music plays
The railwayman’s daughter sits mesmerised while my own girls bawl for their hungry bellies
“Again, again!” she cries “Again, again!”
But the railwayman is not a mechanical man and when the box breaks down, he‘s at a loss to fix it.
“Something jammed inside,” he says, holding it up for me to see, “What it look like to you, a needle or what?”
I say nothing. He knows I’ve no time for toys.
The railwayman’s heart gives out. I think about crying and then knit some socks instead. His send off is well attended
“It was his wish,” I say, as cousins and aunts puzzle over the baubles and bangles filling the coffin and the musical box clutched in his cold purple hands. They step back quickly when the box starts to play, ‘ting-a-lay-la-pam-pam, ting-a-lay-la,’ and look at each other with startled eyes. But later, they mop up their troubles in plates of fried fish and bread, and go home.
A father’s death does nothing to change appetites in the house. Two girls grow fat and one grows thin and all three start smelling like women and hankering after shoes and stockings and pieces for their hair. I do what I can, sewing shirts and socks that can sell for good money. Those girls start to dance too, by themselves and with each other, laughing into their reflections in the mirror on the wall. I turn the other way.
One Tuesday, sometime after the wash, while I’m dozing over my needles, I hear those girls kicking up noise outside. Excited voices and clapping hands suggest good news. I leave them to whoop for a while and then later, send them to gather their senses and scrub down the stairs. A ball at the palace indeed.
For days after, my needles are busy, clacking over the sounds of their foolishness as they argue about the Prince’s best girl,
“Who will it be Mama? Which one? Which one?”
“Do you think he likes pink, or white, or red?”
I give them my best advice
“Dolly and dance can’t fill a belly.”
But soon, the prince and his ball start to twist my head too. I salt the tea and sugar the eggs and can’t understand myself at all. I go so far as to trade a dozen napkins with the landlord’s wife for a pair of worn silk slippers that I clean and embroider until they shine. And when no-one’s looking I throw off my sooty kitchen pumps, and slip those little beauties onto my feet, twisting my ankles this way and that to get a better view. Truth be known, I think I’m possessed. Those shoes sweet me ‘til a tune starts up inside my head, but no matter how my feet itch, I won’t let them dance. I pack the shoes away in my sewing chest, along with my black funeral dress and get busy, sweeping leaves in the yard.
The girls need help and I do my best, fixing seams and sequins and helping to horn their giant feet into little kitten heels. I ignore their foolish questions, how to curtsey, how to dance and how to capture a Prince’s heart. I ignore the railwayman’s daughter too, drooping about the place like a weeping willow.
Then the night comes. Dresses, aired in a stiff autumn breeze, are patted and pressed. Faces, flushed with excitement, are scrubbed and painted. Even the railwayman’s daughter pulls on a frock and stands there expectantly, looking like soup bones in a bag. Surely she knows someone will have to stay behind?
“Starch needs boiling,” I tell her, snatching up the last of my things and hauling out of the door.
“Why’s she crying?” the girls ask as we pull away.
“Think too big and eat too small” I say. The spit in my mouth is as bitter as aloes.
The Palace is big and glitzy. Uniformed guards stand in the entrance, channelling a sea of would-be princesses, bodies packed inside red velvets and peacock silks, heels clacking on newly paved streets. Painted lips form perfect Os as they oooh and aah at the splendour inside; carpets as deep as cane fields and a hundred, crystal chandeliers overhead. I keep my mouth closed, my head straight and my excitement locked under my widow’s hat. Stupid I know, but I really thought I was going to meet a prince.
The girls nudge each other, pointing rudely at everything and everyone and I frown. But I wouldn’t have minded had they not turned their fingers on me,
“Mama!” they say, “your feet,” they say and I look down to see what the fuss is about. A pair of sooty kitchen slippers watch me from the hem of my dress. My mouth forms an O with the rest of the crowd.
Life may not be a dance, but that’s no excuse for leaving your good shoes in a sewing chest. This is what I’m thinking when I stomp in through my gate and I see that weeping puss, the railwayman’s daughter, spilling out her sorrows to the chestnut tree. In full conversation she is, which strikes me as ridiculous, but not nearly as ridiculous as the sound of the tree talking back.
“Dear dear,” it says as little Miss tells how wicked I am to leave her behind. “Dreadful” it says as she holds up her skinny arms and swears she eats nothing but water and bread, “may their toes meet a thousand stones on the way,” it declares, and at this, the little brat folds herself up at its’ roots and gets all snotty and sad. Well, I guess my feet are just too full of kicks to stop themselves. I may even be smiling as I take a leap for that scrawny little backside.
The leap is like time stretched to a thread. I’m held in mid air as though buffeted front and back by a giant wind. My legs and arms are flung about me and I’m caught like a fly in a web. I can’t move and I can’t speak, but I can see. I see that girl become one bag of woman, complete with fandangle; silver shoes, silk purse and a grand coach and horses. Why, she’s even got a little hip and thigh.
“I’m going to dance with the Prince,” she trills, as her carriage draws away.
As sure as a stitch, when I get my body back, I hear a mighty rip that snatches my breath from my chest. With my clothes untouched, I know that it’s me that’s come apart. I feel an invisible gash, in a place that no needle can reach. In any case, my darning days are over.
“You think it is fair?” I bawl out loud, “for a woman who works her fingers to sticks, sewing from morning ‘til night, who marries men who die too easily and gets daughters who eat too much or too little to find herself at a ball in a funeral dress and dirty shoes?”
The tree is silent. I kick at its roots.
“Do you think it is right?” I scream, tearing off my widow’s cap, “that my hair sprouts white before I know what it is to be given roses, to sip fine wine? To dance with even the most cross-eyed, idiot prince?”
I pounce at the trunk, claw at the bark and kick harder and deeper, until those miserable shoes lie in shreds on the ground
“Give me my dolly,” I scream out into the night, “Give me my dance.”
The cold concrete tugs at the soles of my feet. The wind toys with my hair.
“Minuet or merengue?” says the tree.
There are no wings or wands or magic words, just twigs and branches and a little greenfly. But who’s to say what a fairy godmother should be? I look down in wonder at my feet and see that they’re already moving. All by themselves. Moving.
My mother never talked about trees; about getting high on their scent or shivering as leaves brush like kisses against your face. My mother had no time for scenery. She didn’t know that trees could dance.
This dance is so hungry it swallows me like dry grass in a bush fire,
“Can you see me now, Mother?” I sing as I spin, “Girls? Sinners? Railwaymen? Can you see?”
At this jump up, there’s no doubt about who’s the best girl.
And that’s the end of the story, or maybe the beginning. You’ll hear nothing more of railwaymen and their daughters and fat girls and chestnut trees. Let them find their own darlings. Here, we care only for dance. We simply ignore the people that gawp and shout
‘Again again! Again!’
And we never complain that the band has only one tune to play.