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The hand of the clock on the Paddock wall levels with a clunk and whirr. Quarter to four— a final flurry, awash down the street, the evening’s rain exhausts itself.

The silence of the world gathering breath... the smallest noises sharpened and clear— Along storefronts, the rhythm of drops; from gutters, from awnings, from the bulbs of baskets hanging—water threading itself in brown plaits by the roadside.

Into this echoing cleanness of air a hand unfurls from the pharmacy door, reaching to catch the terminal drop.

When it’s withdrawn and measured for wet, when thumb strokes along this dryness of palm, out of shops and houses they come, crowding the pavements — women and men and the very young.

Gathering under lanterns swung from streetlamps, plastic and crepe made ragged with rain, while dangling, black and amber tongues, bunting loops from pole to pole— corset laces holding the slow-orange belly of sky.

Across the mouth of the courthouse a semi-trailer stretches, in sudden stages the canvas siding is wrestled back and on those boards and lantern-lit, Francis Darby and his band pluck and strum and burst their breaths to test their mikes:

One two. Ah one two.

They whine.

As runoff slurs along the drains, as docile people wait, from either end of the street it comes— the slapping meat of rushing feet. From the parish hall the boys and from the toll house come the girls, two long lines in single file run to meet before the court.

The beat of their soles is taken up by Francis Darby’s violin— with each footfall the fiddle shrieks.

The boys are dressed in crisp white shirts, sleeves over the elbows rolled, and black trousers torn above the ankle; the girls wear long white skirts and coalblack blouses. The masks of the boys are black, the girls are white and both are shaped like butterflies. As parents watch, they hurry past; the boys one side of the centre line, the girls along the other—

Between these speeding rows he strides, in leather rags of red and black, wearing a low-crowned wide-brimmed hat, his face concealed behind a mask— the long curve of a curlew beak, on either side and held in wire red stones are the strider’s eyes and they’re of different shapes and size.

In one leather wing he clasps a stick of polished wood, the bulb-end taps a tattoo against his thigh:

Ta-ta-ta-tun—

Ta-ta-ta-tun—

The lines pass, faster and faster, and the band match their speed—shrieking violins, beating drums, an accordion like a drowning calf, and when the children can run no faster, the bird-masked man holds his stick aloft and screams—

Keeeeeeee-yaaaaah!

Stumbling, gasping, the columns skid to a halt. Music dies in echoes, the bird-man stalks between the heavy breathers, rubbing his stick along their sweating backs.

He growls in unknown accents: “Take your Part-nurrrrrrs.

The two lines approach each other, meeting in the middle of the wet, shining road.

Wherever the lines have stopped; whichever boy and girl are facing...

“Part-nurrrrs!” cries the bird-man.

Francis Darby and his band slick into a slow and rhythmic jam, moving at hip-height down the street.

And there in front of the trailer, in front of the courthouse—

He’s a stout and lumpish lad, whose heavy limbs are graceless things— sausage meat or cookie dough, darkly freckled, lightly haired. His wrists are creases; his calves melt into broad, flat feet.

She’s a short and angled girl, pale and slight with slender limbs like willow twigs, her fingers long and features sharp; there’s not a pick of meat on her—her joints come close to breaking skin.

They feel the tarmac against their soles; cold and wet and hard and smooth and cruel and unforgiving.

Standing before her, an eye upon the bird-masked man, the stout boy whispers “Help me.”

The music quickens.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says, his voice a rasp of urgency, “I don’t know what to do.”

She looks at him. Sweat bright in his forehead creases, coursing slug-marks down his cheeks.

“Help me,” he says, voice cracking, “Look at the state of me. I... I haven’t got an ounce of... I’m a lump; I’m a... look at me. Just... look.”

Words fail him. His eyes are wet in the holes of the mask.

“I don’t...”

He swallows, and it can be heard over the music, the panic rising in him.

“I don’t think I can do this.”

And Francis Darby starts to sing.

 

And when your hand encloses mine,

When love’s left out for us to find—

 

“It’s okay,” she says, “Take my hands.”

He eyes the crowd and the bird-man strutting but he makes no movement of his own. “I don’t know why... I don’t know what they want.”

“Take my hands,” and she looks at him and there can be no argument.

Slowly, his rough, dull-fingered hand envelops hers.

“And?” It is a lost thing, a plea.

“Hold me,” she says.

He takes an awkward step. A limp arm shambles it way around the bones of her waist, barely daring to touch.

She nods encouragement. “Hold me tighter,” she says. “I won’t break,” and she smiles.

(There is a gap behind her canine.)

He wants to say ‘Okay,’ and say it soft and debonair, but it comes out as a short high breath—“K,” and there is crimson shame in that.

Holding her, her softness shocks (and it shouldn’t, what else did he expect?)

He is hoarse and the eyes of the curlew-headed man are red and uneven. “I don’t... I don’t know what to do.”

“The fella is supposed to lead,” she whispers, “but I’ll show you how to begin.” They sweep in a circle as Francis Darby sings:

 

The biting bitch,

The killing kind,

The blind led onwards by the blind

When love’s left out for us to—

 

Words swallowed by a scream—a couple stumbles, clutching, hanging at an angle for a long, shocked moment and falling—the boy smacking his mouth upon gravel, the girl scraping skin from her knees.

With a scream the bird-masked man is on the injured, polished stick rising and falling on neck and limb and rib with a thump, with a crunch.

Kee-haw! he screams, Kee-haw!

Men force their way between partners, lifting the fallen, carrying them into the night.

Couples have stopped to stare and the bird-masked man turns and strikes them too.

Keep dannn-cing!”

And spitting teeth and coughing blood the stricken waltz away— staggering parabolas, dragging each other round, in time to violins.

The bird-masked man keeps his artificial eyes on them lest they drop.

“Oh god,” the stout boy mutters, “Did you see..? That could have been... ”

“No, no,” she says, “You’re doing it. We’re flying. We’re flying.”

He nods, chances a smile. “Okay,” he breathes, almost relieved, “Okay.”

As music swells they waltz amongst arbitrary couples, and some are moving with grace, others stumble, collide— trodding on toes, tripping on heels, catching on the hems of ill-fitting dresses.

Once or twice their own feet slip or bluntly collide and then his mouth falls open, his eyes hunted, waiting for the blunt stick to crash between shoulder blades, for men to come and take them away.

“It’s okay,” she says, “you’re doing fine.”

And there is something undiminished in her eyes.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

He opens his mouth—for a moment he can almost remember—it began with... it began... but there’s just the gap where knowledge used to be.

Turning its back to him.

Withdrawing.

“I don’t remember...” he mumbles.

“Neither do I,” she says, as another clumsy mismatched pair pull themselves down, “But... I remember some things—”

Her voice a rushing, plucking thing, rescuing precious things from a fire— “My father... has a shop. And he sells... beautiful things. Little beautiful things... perfect things...”

Her eyes are gemstones in the sockets of her mask.

“And I know that when I wake I see the woods from my window... I think those things are important to me. Those things I’ll never—”

She stops as the bird-masked man stalks past, fixing couples with its uneven silicon stare.

In a low voice she asks “What do you remember?”

(In silence they drift past the pharmacy door.)

“I was getting dressed,” he says.

(Now passing: Video rentals)

“Looking down at my fingers, doing up a button. I’d already done two but I... couldn’t remember doing them.”

(Passing: The dry cleaners)

“And they weren’t my clothes I was wearing.”

(Passing: Promissory House)

“Dozens of us. In the parochial hall.”

(Passing under the gaze of Francis Darby)

“Getting dressed or undressed. None of us knowing what we’re doing. Why we’re there.”

“Like you’d woken up,” she says.

He nods. “Like we’d been... dreaming... for years.”

“And the taste,” she whispers.

“Smoke,” he murmurs.

“Plastic burning,” she purrs.

And Francis Darby sings:

 

When lovers lick.

When grinner’s grind.

Holes bleed through the meat of mind.

When love’s left out for us to find—

 

Around them couples are stumbling, falling, colliding, screaming, dragged to disappear into the dark—

And he thinks she has such fire...

Such fierce eyes.

And she thinks he has a kind voice...

The softest eyes she’s ever seen.

Then whipping the corset laces, making lanterns convulse in shreds, wind comes down from the orange sky.

Bringing rain.

It plasters her blouse to her porcelain chest.

It melts the shirt to the pulp of his back.

She guides her partner in a circle and he lifts a hand to touch her cheek.

The shocking smoothness as she smiles.

As she whispers “But we’ll remember nothing of this.”

She puts her hand over his and strokes it with a thumb.

“We’ll wake tomorrow and we’ll wonder why our feet are sore. Why we’ve left blood upon our sheets.”

He dares to move a hand down the curve of her back. Pulling her closer.

“But we won’t know where the cuts are from. We won’t know why our muscles ache.”

Wind lifts the hem of her dress, sprays the dancers with flecks of wet.

“This isn’t for us,” she says, “We’re dancing for them.”

They look at the hunched and silent crowd; glowering parents, bored and restless kids.

He smiles. “But we’re doing it right, aren’t we? We’re flying.”

She smiles too, but her eyes are sad.

They sweep across the tarmac, their feet smooth and whispering, and there is sureness in his grip.

“I’ll remember this,” he says, “I’ll remember.”

“You shouldn’t promise that,” she whispers, “You can’t keep that promise.”

He takes off his mask. Flings it under unshod feet.

“Nothing,” he says, “will make me forget.”

A ragged strip of sickly dawn— blue and green and purple— rises at the end of the road. Francis Darby sings:

 

The misery of the most maligned

Behind what crippling fingers bind,

                        When love’s left out for us to find...

                        We fail to see.

We pass it by...

 

Music fades and he holds her close— he’s not shy now— “I’ll find you,” he says as the bird-masked man holds his stick aloft and screams: “Keeee-haw!”

“I’ll find you. We’ll remember this.” He cups her face in his broad hands, “We both will.”

“I want that,” she says, “I want that.”

The bird-man points with bloodied stick, red eyes lighting up with dawn.

Boys and girls are lining up.

“I’ll find you,” he says, “I’ll find you.”

Hands held across the centre line for as long as they’re allowed but the boys and girls are going in different directions. Slowly their fingers slip away and when he turns to watch her go the stick comes down upon his neck.

KEE-HAW screams the bird-masked man, tapping his stick against his thigh:

Ta-ta-ta-tun—

Ta-ta-ta-tun—

The boys go one way; the girls the other.

Slowly, slowly, the parents clap.

It was okay, they think, but not as much fun as last year.

(There was lightning then. More panic.)

(More injuries.)

 

 

 

She remembers.

 

He forgets.

 

And he doesn’t believe a word she tells him.

 

Not a word.

 

Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer and recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010. Over eighty of his short stories have been published, appearing in Anobium, The Missing Slate, The Quotable, Pyrta, Jersey Devil Press, L’Allure Des Mots and Poddle. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.







 


 




  


Copyright 2009