Felicity Fair Thompson
First published in the anthology Dance Stories – Robinson 1996
The Concert Party
They are standing up and clapping. Everyone.
And it’s only a week ago I heard her arguing. ‘But Mum, the ballet concert…’
There will be plenty of other concerts, Flora. And anyway you couldn’t have stayed at home by yourself.’
‘Stop being ridiculous, Flora. You’re ten.’
‘I could have stayed with a friend. I’m sure I could have.’
‘For Suzie’s sake just make the best of it and unpack your clothes.’
For my sake. Quarrelling.
But my cousin Flora is lucky. I would give anything to learn dancing. She goes on about the kind of dedication it takes, how important it is to her, how it’s wonderful to do. But listening to them then, I was glad she’d had to give it up for me. I wanted her here. It was my birthday, wasn’t it?
‘Did anyone ask me if I wanted to come? Surely Suzie has friends of her own. What can we do together except sit down all week?’
At dinner time Flora looked at the delicious meal my mother had dished up and said: ‘I’m watching my figure, Aunt Dorothy. I can’t possibly eat this.’
My mother had spent hours preparing the food. She looked as if she might burst into tears.
‘I’ll eat it,’ said David. That’s Flora’s younger brother. He’s a total couch potato.
‘No, you won’t.’ Uncle Jack’s voice was low and threatening. ‘Eat your dinner, Flora.’
Yes, I thought, eat your dinner, Flora. Get fat like me. Well, I’m not fat really. It’s just I can’t get enough exercise to digest my food properly, so I’m always having to watch what I eat, but Mum had given me the night off, and cooked all sorts of lovely things. I could eat anything I wanted, and there was Flora taking the pleasure away.
Eventually she excused herself from the table and wandered out into the garden. I followed her to the door. Outside the sun was setting and the air was cold, and I think it was to cheer herself up Flora did a few ballet steps, then several more. How I wanted to feel that wonderful sensation of energy I could see happening. That waking up inside the muscles, and power surging through the body. She twirled round the fish pond and leaped over it a couple of times.
‘I wish I could do that!’ I called before I could stop myself.
Flora swung round.
‘Help me out?’ I asked.
Flora frowned. ‘I’ll come inside. It’s cold out here.’
It was difficult, her helping me out of my chair. She wasn’t quite sure how to let me lean on her without my mother around to instruct her.
‘Dance for me again?’ I said, sinking down onto the grass beside the fish pond. ‘Twirl like you did before?’
‘Is that what it’s called?’
Flora twirled around and around.
‘More!’ I said, excited.
‘It’s hard without music,’ she said breathlessly, stopping for a moment. ‘Could you sing, do you think?’
So I hummed and Flora timed her steps to the song. Eventually she collapsed down on the grass beside me.
‘You make it look so easy,’ I said enviously.
‘It’s very hard work learning to dance. One day I want to be as good as Rowena.’
‘There’s a photograph of her in Madame’s office,’ Flora said. ‘She’s Madame’s great success and now she’s leading ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre.’ Then she told me all about her dancing school, and her friend Linda and the others, and how there was a summer concert planned.
‘Rehearsals started today and I might have been given a solo this time. Madame – Miss Pearson is her name, but we have to call her Madame – Madame has just begun to notice me. “Higher, get that arabesque higher!” she said to me last week. Well, she doesn’t say, she sort of over-dramatises in a kind of rasping hysterical scream, but when I did, she got all excited and said, “Nice line, darling.” And you just don’t get compliments from Madame, ever, not unless she has plans for you. And now, I won’t be there. Linda always gets a solo, and always the dance I would give anything to do, and when I get back I’ll be so out of practice Madame will stick me in the back row and ignore me.’
I felt sorry for her. ‘You’re missing it for my birthday.’
Flora looked embarrassed. ‘Well,’ she said, trying hard to sound enthusiastic, ‘your birthday will be nice.’
My mother was striding towards us. ‘Flora! How dare you entice this child out to sit on the damp grass?’
‘I’m not a child, Mum.’
‘I—’ Flora began.
But Mum didn’t want explanations. She was to busy bundling me back to my chair. ‘You should be more considerate, Flora,’ she shouted angrily over her shoulder as she took me inside.
‘I don’t see why we can’t watch telly,’ David was muttering when I came into the living room. He gave me a filthy look, probably certain he would die without his constant diet of television. He was sprawled on the sofa drawing a huge dragon on his arm with a blue felt tip pen. ‘Tattoo,’ he explained, when Flora came in.
Flora glanced at him in disgust and flopped into the chair. ‘Want to play cards or something?’
She didn’t want to, I could tell.
‘Oh, neat,’ moaned David. ‘Really brilliant!’
‘Well, what else is there?’ asked Flora.
‘I know!’ I said suddenly. ‘Let’s have a concert here!’
David stared at me. ‘A what?’
‘A concert! Flora can dance for us.’
‘Wow,’ moaned David. ‘Just what we always wanted!’
‘A concert!’ breathed Flora, looking at me with delight. ‘Do you really think we could?’
‘Why not?’ But it has to be good!’ I said. ‘Costumes. Everything.’
Flora looked at the folding doors which divide my bedroom off from the sitting room. ‘We could put a row of chairs in your room and use those doors as a sort of curtain. We can turn the lights on after we open them just like a real stage.’
‘Count me out!’ said David.
‘No,’ said Flora. ‘You like telling jokes, don’t you?’
‘Is that sensible?’ I asked, remembering my mother’s face when David had told a joke once.
‘We’ll censor him. He has to help. If that’s all he can do—’
‘Okay, David’s the joker.’
‘And you?’ asked Flora.
‘I’m part of the audience,’ I said quickly.
The white crêpe paper rustled as I folded it all the way down the centre. It was Tuesday and Flora and I had been down to the shops.
‘Now the pink one! Needle and cotton. Elastic! Where?’ demanded Flora.
‘Mum’s sewing table.’
She ran to find them.
When she came back she had two of her pretty vests as well. ‘These are for tops.’
The crêpe paper gathered up into two pretty tutus. ‘One pink, one white, and the vests will match. You’ll look lovely,’ I said admiringly.
‘Which one do you like best?’ she asked, holding them up against her.
‘Pink,’ I said. ‘Yes, the pink.’ She put it on my lap and I rustled it with my fingers. ‘It’s so lovely,’ I said, wishing it could be mine.
‘I hope you don’t expect me to dress up,’ said David.
‘Oh yes,’ said Flora, ‘but you have to invent your own outfit. We’re too busy.’
‘We did buy you a joke book,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Flora, ‘so there’s no excuse for awful jokes.’
‘Magic,’ said David, and he went off to study it.
‘Music! We need music!’
It was Thursday. We had the music. We had the costumes. Flora had been practising like mad, getting me to sit in the middle and watch to see what I thought. Sometimes she asked me to hold up my arms in a position to see what it would look like. ‘Remember that for me,’ she’d say. How could I forget? I really felt part of her dance, and when the piece of music came I’d do the movement to remind her. And then she had me try another position with my arms. ‘I never thought I’d be doing choreography this week,’ she said. ‘Making up the steps is really interesting, getting them to flow and blend into one another.’
David was being rather secretive about his act.
‘What’s your costume like?’ Flora wanted to know. ‘I hope you’re going to look decent.’
‘You wait!’ said David.
‘What is it? I asked. ‘A clown? A wizard maybe? Tell us!’
‘Not on your life,’ he said. ‘It’s a surprise.’
We spent the last hours rehearsing again and making programmes and decorating them. Flora put my name in it as well. ‘You’re part of it,’ she said, when I protested.
I asked Mum if she’d make a little tea party for us all for afterwards.
‘All good concerts should have a reception afterwards for the artists,’ said Flora approvingly.
Late in the afternoon Flora set up my room like a theatre with chairs for my mum, and her parents, and space for my chair, and we decorated my bed with some flowers, and put a programme on each seat.
‘Where’s David? Why isn’t he helping?’ Flora said crossly.
We soon saw why when he appeared just before we were ready to start. He had on black leggings and he had decorated the upper half of his body with felt tips – butterflies, dragons, birds. He looked amazing!
‘Wait till you hear my jokes,’ he said.
But I never did, because what Flora said next took my breath away.
The doors open slowly. It’s dark and the music begins, those sweet high notes Flora and I listened to and thought about. I’m sitting on Mum’s desk chair alone when the light comes on. Centre stage. Me! I can see surprise on my mother’s face, then a little puzzled frown. I’m the last person she expected to see.
I lift my arms and sway them a little, just like Flora showed me, then I lower them slowly, first one and then the other, and then again, and the beautiful pink tutu I’m wearing rustles. The music speeds up and Flora comes on! I lift my arms, framing my face, while Flora spins right round the stage, leaning in, facing her arabesques and attitudes in towards me, using me as the centre point of her dance. Then we sway together lifting our arms as she planned, floating our hands gracefully to the music. Flora does an arabesque while I lift my arm to match her line, and then she twirls around me again, twirling, twirling. How beautifully she moves. I’m almost dizzy with delight watching her, being part of her dance. The melody rises and she circles me again. She’s taking my hands and as she points her toes and runs gracefully around in a circle, and now I am pirouetting too, pirouetting, turning on my chair. She lets go, and I turn and turn and turn. Look at me! I’m dancing and everyone’s clapping, and I know what it feels like. At last I know what it feels like, Flora. I want to cry out, I’m alive! I know what it means, that wonderful sensation of energy flowing through me. But now the music’s finishing, and I remember I have to fold my hands across to my shoulders. Flora balances in a beautiful arabesque behind me as the last note fades away. Then everything is still.
The audience stands up and starts clapping and my mother rushes over to me with tears in her eyes, and hugs me, and then she hugs Flora. And then Flora’s mother is hugging her!
And Flora, my darling cousin Flora, whispers in my ear: ‘Tonight, Suzie, you’re the dancing star!’