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The Last Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
By Merlene Fawdry
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Winner of the FAW Tasmania Betty Nicholson Short Story Award 2006
The old woman in the chair had never looked happier or more contented as she waited for her transport to arrive. She sat with her head held high and proud against the back of her chair, her hands open and relaxed on her lap, and a smile so wide as to make her unrecognizable to those who knew her. This transformation had a sobering effect on all who came to say goodbye, and there were some who were more than a little envious of her release, but all agreed that she deserved to go.
* * *
Chrissie Barnes never moved far from the street she’d been brought up on; a nondescript street in a provincial Victorian town, with its avenue of trees, and a tiredness that comes from decades of watching the pedestrian life of its residents.
It was a street where high fences hid what lay behind them.
A street that concealed the truth of the abandoned and neglected children who existed behind the highest and the longest fence.
Here there was a church, and there a school, but nowhere were the children to be seen.
Children were neither seen nor heard in this part of town. It was only if you went back to the start of Elizabeth Street, just past where the railway line intersects the street; and if you stood on the opposite side of the road, you could see the chimneys that rose above the expansive red tiled roof. But there was no smoke coming from the lifeless chimneys that rose from the chill interiors of a collection of buildings that was home to many hundreds of children.
It was here they sat in silence on Sunday afternoons, eyes large in anticipation of a miracle, hands knotted together in obedience and supplication to an invisible God.
It was in this dimly lit room that children waited for some small sign of acknowledgment of their individual worth, in the form of a parental visit, and where Chrissie waited for the door to open and let in the light of her mother’s return.
She could be distinguished from her peers by her perpetually downcast head, as she studied the hard prison of her knuckles that held her heart firmly in the palm of her hand. Her face was a still life of inert anger and disappointment. Her mouth turned down in the corners and her eyebrows drew together to meet in a violent slash that divided her baby face. She did not look up on the few occasions that the door opened, and the light that entered briefly did not reach her, for she knew that it did not shine for her.
The other children shunned her, in silent protest against her oddness, fearful of joining her position as a pariah in a community where they were all outcasts from the society that existed beyond the walls. On one occasion Rosie, one of the older girls, excited at having received a visit from her delinquent parent, and the obligatory guilt-reducing tin of toffees, made an overture of recognition towards her. She offered her the open tin to make a selection from and when Chrissie’s hands refused to cede to the temptation, the other girl unwrapped a toffee for her and gently placed it in her mouth. The smooth caramel brought life to her taste buds, and a line of thick brown drool ran slowly from the corner of her mouth until Rosie caught it with her finger and moved it back between her lips. This was the closest thing to friendship Chrissie ever experienced, and she noticed Rosie’s small acts of kindness to other sad children and she loved her in silence and from a distance.
Those who had no other choice than to sit near Chrissie, heard the repetition of a tune she hummed; a fast moving chorus of flight and fancy. Although barely discernable, it was a repetition of ear tingling monotony that no amount of threats or punishments from staff could silence. This one tune was her only concession to communication and it was only ever a private commune with herself or whatever images she carried in her mind.
There were times when Sister Immaculata, irritated to the extreme by the spectre of moon-eyed children and the mournful dirge of Chrissie, took her off to be punished and the sound of flesh hitting flesh could be heard through the thickness of the walls. Yet she never made a sound. She never cried and, when she returned some time later, she continued to hum as if there had never been an interruption. Sometimes, when she was taken from the room, she was not seen again for several days, and once when she was returned to the general population she had her arm in a plaster cast. Her fingers linked together inside the sling in hidden accusation against her abuser; the heart it held shrunken and atrophied through lack of use.
Although her mother never returned for her, she waited each week in hope; a practice only disturbed once during her fourteen years at the home.
It was just after she’d found Rosie, her kindness stilled forever as she lay in her narrow dormitory bed, her life force expended like the foetus beside her, in an unnatural prenatal river of blood. Chrissie thought the shiny form of the dead baby was Rosie’s heart; that she had shed her heart and died. Her hands opened of their own volition and took the small body and held it to give it warmth. She held it for a long time, her fingers plumped around it.
Chrissie wondered if she could make it her own, if she could replace her own damaged heart with the pure heart of Rosie, but this too was taken from her in a violent tug of war with Sister Immaculata and she was alone again.
And then she found herself in the waiting room on a Saturday, where she sat alone until the door opened and let in the beige light of a holiday host family. She was led to a waiting car and driven to a farm on the outskirts of town. It was here that she spent Christmas day and two miserable weeks, as they tiptoed around each other in discomfort and watched the clock and marked off the calendar in their mind. If she wondered why this family had chosen her above some of the more outgoing and attractive children she never let on, neither did she change her demeanour as she looked at her new world from beneath puckered brow. She counted down the days until she could return to the orphanage, and if she overheard a conversation between the host mother and her sister in law she never let on.
‘Why did you pick her Betty … I mean if you really had to do this thing, then surely they had a more attractive one…’
‘Shh, she might hear you.’
‘… don’t be silly. Look at her! She isn’t even aware of who she is. I think they saw you coming when they passed off this retard on to you.’
‘I said be quiet. The truth is she was the only one left … and by then it was too late. I could hardly turn around and say that I didn’t want her.’
‘Well Christmas day must have been a real joy.’
‘Well I’ve had better I must say … although she did appear to brighten up at one stage. You know Brian … and his Christmas day tradition of playing Tchaikovsky until we’re all bored silly …?’
‘Oohh no! He doesn’t still do that … surely not … and let me tell you again … that is no family tradition. I’m his sister and I should know.’
‘Well never mind, as I was saying … when the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy began, she put her head up and looked straight at the door. It was the strangest thing … and a bit sad really … for a minute there I thought she was going to smile, but then she dropped her head again and that was it.’
‘What are you going to do with her then?’
‘I’ll have her back on their doorstep at the earliest opportunity … and I’ll block my ears the next time Father talks about Christian charity and needy children in the same breath.’
‘You’re just too kind for your own good Betty. You’re an angel … but someone needs to clip those wings.’
Chrissie viewed this time away from the home as an affirmation of her position in life; she was a nobody, of no consequence to any except the one she waited for, and the Sunday waits became easier with her acceptance of this.
Week after week, month after month, year after year, she continued to wait for her mother’s return, certain that it would happen one day. She knew that her mother loved her, she was sure of it. It was her only truth and, with Rosie gone, she had no room in her heart for any other love. She didn’t care that the other children shunned her or that the staff avoided her, or even when people stopped trying to communicate with her altogether.
Her external world was devoid of colour and light. It was only black with occasional flashes of grey, but her internal world was the world of her memory. It was full of colour and hope and indelibly printed with images of the past that refused to make way for the here and now.
* * *
Chrissie didn’t take in the scenery when she was moved to another nondescript street on the other side of town; to another red brick building set back from the street and away from the prying eyes of passers by. She had neither interest nor curiosity. Her head hung low and her intertwined fingers sat neatly in her lap. She had no goodbyes for the people she had lived with since her early childhood, nor greetings for those who would take their place in her new home.
Time meant nothing to her.
Her life was a period of waiting that transcended segments of time. Her only reality was her memories of the past and her hopes for the future. The present held no relevance for her at all.
* * *
She sits with others on a Sunday afternoon, gnarled knuckles locked into each other, as they wait for the door to open to admit the family and friends who never arrive. Chrissie studies her hands from her bent head position, and she is pleased to be different from the others. Not for her the waiting and wondering, for she has no family, and she now knows the door will never let in the light for her.
She hears a sniffle to her right, and knows instinctively that Robert is crying for the wife who cannot rise from her grave to visit him. In a few minutes he will begin to call his wife’s name, and then move from beseeching her to abuse. Dirty foul words that no-one should ever use, especially nice old men.
She is glad that she never had love to lose, nor gave love to have it thrown back at her. It was almost a comfort now. She has seen a lot during the past seventy years spent in this place, more than other people would ever guess, and she holds many secrets in the mind that others believe to be devoid of thought.
Robert’s voice gets louder and she squeezes her eyes shut against the violence of it. She knows that if she looks up she will see the tears and snot and dribble mixed together in a spray of grief, which will continue until his mind closes over the pain and he returns to the recesses of his mind. A place where the past is the present and where he is forever young with his love.
The door opens but it only gives out the dull light of volunteer visitors, those who are trying to buy their way into heaven through the pathetic posies they offer and the patronising chatter they try to force on to their captive audience. They learnt long ago not to bother with her, that her soul is irredeemable, and they take a wide path around her chair to reach more docile targets, but still she can hear their inane one-sided patter as they reach the side of some poor soul in an almost vegetative state.
‘Hello dear and how are you today much better oh that’s good isn’t it look I’ve brought you some nice flowers would you like me to read to you just let me get settled then.’
Then out comes the bible and the voice drones on, and Chrissie wants to put her hands over her ears to block out the sound, but she knows that if she does that they’ll know that she’s listening.
She sends up a silent prayer to her own God. The one that leaves people alone, and who doesn’t push people beyond where they want to be.
Please God don’t let them sing, please God!
‘Would you like us to sing yes of course you do what would you like to hear something bright and cheery would be good don’t you think of course you do.’
Chrissie hears the lid of the piano hit against the frame, and the puff of protest as the wide backside lands on the padded seat of the sturdy piano stool. She risks a sly glance, and sees the overflow of flesh that quivers as its owner limbers up with a discordant scale up and down the keyboard. The small shoes that struggle to contain the swollen flesh of vanity pump the pedals, and then it begins.
‘Let’s all sing together shall we … ‘Christians seek not yet repose; cast thy dreams of ease away’…’
Old Robert breaks out of his reverie and turns to Doris, who is sitting closest to him. The veins on his hands stand out, blue and knotted, where they crisscross the brown liver spots that mark his advancing years. He reaches out with one clawed hand and grabs the dumpling of her arm.
‘Where ya been? I’ve been waitin’ here all day … take me home now … I don’t like it here!’
Doris interrupts her singing and tries to extricate herself from his grasp by peeling his fingers back, but his hold is vice-like against her arthritic stubs, and she starts to cry.
‘Nurse! Nurse! He’s doin' it again. Get him off please.’
Robert switches in and out of the parallel planes of his mind.
‘Margie … you’re a bloody whore … that’s what you are … I know …’
Doris screeches, Robert curses and slobbers, the attendants come running and the music plays on.
‘Hear the victors who o’ercome; Still they mark each warrior’s way …’
Chrissie sent a quick thankyou to her God for this diversion, because she knows the attendants will shut down the piano now and terminate the volunteers’ visit.
Robert is wheeled away, Doris nods off again, and the knuckle-watching resumes.
Chrissie looks at her own fingers. Fingers locked tight against the emotional intrusions of life. She wonders what might happen if she opened them, if in fact they’ll ever open again. The skin is stretched paper thin against the large knuckles. Bare fingers bereft of any adornment.
No rings on these fingers.
No love for Chrissie.
She sends her thoughts as pulsing energy down into her hands, daring them to move, to accept the offer of her key, but they resist. They are rusty and fused together for eternity.
She refocuses now, concentrating on raising her head, but her chin remains firmly against her chest. She’d like to use her hands to lift it, but there is no cooperation between one part of her body and another, as all had removed from participating in life many years ago. It was too late now to join in.
Chrissie feels that she’d like to cry. To hold her head in her arms and bawl, but her tears dried up years before, tear ducts calcified through lack of use have closed down with the rest of her body.
All around her she can hear the mucous meanderings of her companions; sniffles, snuffles and dribble impaired speech, and the nose emptying snorts of spasmodic laughter. She is overcome with tiredness.
She hums to the tune of the piano in her imagination, to the sweet music of the sugar plum fairies, and she swirls and dances and kicks her chubby baby legs, twisting and turning and laughing. She feels the touch of Rosie’s fingers on her face and tastes again the sweet caramel of their friendship.
Although visiting hours are now past she sees the door open and a bright light streams across the room, sparklets of light moving in time with the music; an orchestra of beauty accompanies the humming, and a chorus of angels add their voices to the one she has never forgotten.
The light comes towards her and illuminates her.
She wants to look up, but her head remains fixed, and her hands locked, until the beauty and magic of the sound unleashes her tears. They fall on her fingers, splashing, warming and healing, and the tears bring release and seep through them to rehydrate her imprisoned heart.
She puts her hands to her face and cries into them with sobs of deepest joy.
The music divides and multiplies, as the strings fade and the harp calls forth the sweetest sounding angel, who touches her face with velvet fingers and frees her voice from its paralysis as she answers from her heart.
‘Oh Mum … I’ve waited for you for such a long time.’
Site: Merlene Fawdry
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|Reviewed by Jean Pike
|Merlene, this story touched me very deeply. The writing was hauntingly beautiful; Chrissie's lot in life sad, and yet wonderful in its redemption at the end. Truly a winner.
|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|I can see why this won; this is a wonderful story! Very well done, Merlene! :)|