She Danced by Fiona Howe
I didn’t stop walking till I reached her street, sputtering on full throttle like some amateur rocket-enthusiast’s attempt at orbital domination, pain streaming off me like a comet’s tail. I had no idea if she’d be in. I certainly shouldn’t see her if she was. But there were no brakes on this piece of space-bound scrap metal. I was a junkie in the lunatic spasms of cold-turkey, I was crawling on the ceiling, making about as much sense as a psychopath’s short story. How short it would be was in her hands.
‘Hello?’ Her hushed voice breathed down the intercom. My lower body turned to soup. My upper body beat itself up internally. It was hard to breathe at all. Perhaps I would die on her doorstep.
There was a pause, then the buzzer sounded and the door latch clicked open. I dragged myself up the two flights to her landing, where I’d been accustomed to looking dolefully at her closed door. This time it was open and she was standing there, her back to the light, everything shining around her like the angel I knew she wasn’t. There was no fathoming the depths of denial she could raise in me.
‘What’s happened to you?’ Her soft hands were moving to the places where it didn’t look too painful to go. ‘D’you need a doctor?’
‘I don’t know.’
She took me in, propped my guitar carefully in the hallway under her hatstand and closed the door. There was music playing on the big speakers, ultra-cool, bass-heavy. She killed the volume, placed me on her big sofa and looked me over, trying to decode my battered appearance.
‘You’ve been in a fight.’
‘So it would seem.’
‘But you’ve just been with Karl Fleet.’
She muted the dismay in her face and stopped talking, putting two and two together. Instead she decided to clean me up. She put tea and oranges on the Moroccan coffee table, brought a basin of hot water from the little kitchen and sat down by me.
She reached forward tentatively and I felt her hand trembling. Her eyes were veiled. She looked sad. The white skin of her throat contracted as she swallowed.
The night we met she’d been drenched with the sweat of the dance and the sudden rainstorm that pelted us on the way back to my flat. Her lips parted easily and her tongue darted quick and sweet at mine as if she could communicate those wondrous stories of hers by osmosis, through her cherry-sharp saliva. She slowed into a long draught of me, limp as a murder victim in my arms, the moment at which we took possession of each other and she became my girl.
Her skin was damp, her dress slippery under my fingers. The scent of her permeated my trance and made me rise pore by pore until I thought the top of my head would explode in rainbows, mainlining the essence of her, the sweet animal smell that wafted from the damp hollows I would later explore with my tongue. I held her where I could look at her, eyes bright in the streetlight that flooded the room, hair hanging down salty as a mermaid’s. I thought: this is the girl I’m going to marry.
I still have the sensation of that zip peeling apart and how far it ran down the back of her. It was the most erotic thing that had ever happened to me. I slid the silk from her shoulders and let it drop to the floor with a gentle slap. She became softer, unclothed, her curves more absorbing than ever, right down to the five-inch heels she was still wearing. She was a work of art. Escher without the edges, drawing herself into being. I wanted to look at her, every line of her, before I forgot myself, before I forgot the composition of her. She watched me looking, engrossed in her effect, took me by the hand and turned me to face the wardrobe mirror. She wanted the live theatre version. There we stood, a pair of sexual conspirators. She touched the dip at my throat which made me swallow and suddenly I was shaking, out of control. With a ripping of distressed fabric, that shirt was floored in the second it took to seize her in my arms and press her beautiful body against mine. The skin of her breast glowed against me like warm chamois, but we were vibrating together like the reeds of a strange, primitive instrument and this was the way our bodies would make their music for the next three hours.
I put my hand over hers and held it to quell my raging sadness. My eyes closed. Waves of trembling overwhelmed me. A blood-red sea of pain whose tide was endlessly coming in, never receding. She held me so lightly it was hardly holding at all. But her warmth finally seeped into me and slowed the tide, slowed my heart, made it possible for my lungs to inflate a little more in their barbed cage.
Her caller had had the generosity to wait until then. Her phone trilled and she snatched it from the table where our tea was cooling.
‘I can’t talk now. No. Yes. Around seven is fine. Thanks.’ She was off the line. I didn’t need to know who it was.
In the duration of the call she’d made her decision. She unbuttoned and gently removed my shirt. A few scrapes and bruises, nothing time wouldn’t heal. That was the external narrative. She arranged one of her ample Egyptian cotton towels around my shoulders and dabbed at my bloody jaw with her make-up pads until the skin was clean, the towel stained and the damage clear.
‘At least your hands are ok.’
I turned them over, looked at the dirt drying under the nails, looked up at her looking. She lowered her eyes and a small muscle in her cheek flinched. Otherwise her composure was immaculate. I wondered how to let her off the hook.
‘Good enough for sweeping streets.’
‘Come on, have some tea. I’ll get you sugar. No, I’ll do better than that…’
Nimble as a cat she jumped up, disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a jar labelled in faintly medicinal script and containing large brown sugar crystals suspended in a thick liquid that took their murky, mysterious colour.
‘What d’you call this?’
I liked the sound of the word on her tongue. With the passing of the initial shock, my withdrawal symptoms were moving into a more imperious phase.
‘It’s rum and sugar. A German girlfriend swears by it.’
I realised in a kind of swoon that I would try and get her to sleep with me again. I pushed my cup forward and she spooned in some of the elixir. I held it there until she’d upended half the contents of the jar, then stirred it slowly, watching her watching me.
‘Aren’t you having any?’
She hesitated, the ghost of a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. I knew perfectly well she didn’t drink alcohol. But this wasn’t, really. It would have been like saying chocolate liqueurs were out of bounds. Or that you couldn’t cook with red wine. She took the merest spoonful and stirred it into her tea.
So does cyanide. But I took a deep draught and let the warmth infuse my bones. It felt like that moment when you’ve been in bed with a raging cold for two days then suddenly your body decides it’s well and in defiance of death all of a sudden wants to connect with the nearest female. Any female. The cleaner. Your little sister. And here I was unexpectedly reunited with the woman of my dreams. I was horny as hell for her. The angst of the previous weeks evaporated. She’d made a decision without me, it still felt like the wrong one, but that was my take and I had no right to trespass on her freedom.
‘What were you listening to? When I came in?’
‘It’s a drum and bass mix of a song I’m working on.’
The towel slid a little further off my shoulders. I felt like Marilyn Monroe. She bleated a giggle and threw me a striped running tee-shirt she’d pulled out of the cupboard to preserve my decency.
‘Sorry, it’s got paint on it somewhere from when I was making papier-maché with my nephew.’
My skin thrilled to know that she had a gentle side, a playful side, a side that invented games for children. She was human then, no siren. I pulled the cotton top over my head, soft as a kid-glove with all the washing and wearing. Strange and comforting to think of it next to her warm body.
‘Can I hear some more?’
She grabbed the remote control and while she twisted round to select the track, I tipped what I could of the remains of the rumkandis into her tea.
The sound flooded my senses in a way I didn’t associate with her at all, but she’d been working up her programming skills and the fruit of her labour was this dreamy, trance-like pattern looped but off-synched against a darker, equally hypnotic pattern, and then – how could I have missed it the first time? – her voice, ethereal, haunting, and by the end almost operatic. One simple line, like a mantra, building different harmonies as she swept the world away.
Root in me
Grow through me
Breathe through me
It was hard to find words that didn’t fall short. ‘It’s beautiful. Brave, I think.’
She wriggled her toes in her dance tights and glowed. ‘It’s therapy.’
‘If all therapy felt like that, what a world it would be.’
‘That’s a sweet thing to say.’
She rested her head on my shoulder. ‘How d’you feel now?’
‘Right now? I’m dandy.’
‘You shameless flirt, I’d give you some punishment if you hadn’t taken too much already today.’ She stroked my hand. ‘D’you want to talk about it?’
I crooked my head round to look at her close-up but it hurt too much. ‘I’m sure your manager will give you the low-down when you see him.’
At this she moved away to get a better handle on things. ‘You split already?’
‘It was short but intense. Bit like us.’
She coloured up. Her hands fluttered. She took a sip of the rum-laced tea in an attempt to light her through the forest, and as usual it wasn’t the way I’d predicted, we were down a narrow pathway heading for the thicket without a torch before the end of the first sentence.