by Joseph Surtees
To those watching it looks as if they dance well, with the natural balance of a couple who know each other’s body. But Anna is rigid in her husband’s arms, more interested in looking over his shoulder at the other guests, at a young man standing at the far end of the ballroom, his eyes crisp as celluloid. He stares back at her, as he stands talking to a teenager wearing a shiny suit.
They had learned to dance for their wedding and each Saturday for a few years afterwards enjoyed heading out, as Anna described it, to be together until it hurt to breathe. But one day she had stood up to dress for the evening and he had remained sitting. Now, as they spin, she drifts away from him, inside each second, with gradual minuteness.
There are few other couples on the floor, avoiding desperate lunges, disguising incompetence as abandon.
John’s bald uncle trots along out of time, grasping his young wife. Sweat runs from his crown down behind his ears to moisten a shirt creaking under pressure. Two of the bridegroom’s work colleagues, grown similar in looks over thirty years of marriage, stand in the centre of the dance floor, holding tight as if on the rolling deck of a ship. Three small children weave their way in a snaking line around them all. A little girl dressed in multi-coloured overalls brings up the rear, her mouth stained red from fruit juice, and John is reminded of loss.
As they dance John remembers the last time they were here, twenty years ago as newly-weds, attending a ball marking the completion of his police training. The building has changed, decayed, somewhat since, John reflects. He moves his hand to his wife’s lower back and Anna recoils at his touch. Beneath their feet cheap laminate, made to look like oak, vibrates as they pirouette. Although their movements are precise, the heels of John’s shoes leave a grey smear, soon destroyed by other couples scuffling along behind them.
John watches the young man and sees a tiny thing, the passage from one hand to another, the furtive turn of the sweat-spotted teenager, and understands. Instead of reaching for his badge, his bestowed authority, he does nothing.
The music, jazz, playing from loudspeakers inexpertly positioned around the hall, drifts upwards and is lost among the high wooden rafters. John’s hand moves to where Anna’s shoulder meets her neck in a mass of freckles.
His wife turns her head away. The notes start to fade. They stop.
The young drug dealer, his unshaven, aquiline face animated, is now in conversation with another guest, a woman. John notices Anna watch her, let her slide from sight, then look again, eyes locked still and unreadable.
Anna thinks to speak, then does not. She pulls her hand away from her husband’s and walks away. John doesn’t follow her and instead returns to his table. There is an old man there, sitting alone.
‘How do you know the couple?’ John says.
‘The bride was engaged to my son once.’
‘It didn’t work out?’
‘I suppose you could describe it that way,’ the old man says, ‘One afternoon Thomas left their flat carrying an out-of-date atlas and never returned.’
John is silent. He finishes his glass of wine, one of many.
‘That was five years ago,’ said the old man. ‘I’m glad Jane has found somebody new, but I wish she hadn’t invited me to the wedding. And I wish I hadn’t accepted.’
John stands and leaves the ballroom. The bathroom is at the end of a long corridor. Several double doors lead off it, frosted glass panes concealing what is beyond them. Passing one he hears the sound of low, complicit laughter and sees through the pane the silhouette of his uncle’s new wife running her hand down another woman’s cheek. He recognises the easy sensuality of the gesture.
John and his wife had kissed in this corridor on the day of their wedding. He remembers her leaning back against the wall, arms around his neck. He remembers being seen by the head of the local force, a grey face, who coughed ostentatiously to make his presence known. When they stopped kissing and pulled apart, one of the buttons on his uniform caught Anna’s dress and ripped it.
He walks through the decomposing building and feels the presence of his young self is walking with him. It shadows him, just out of his vision, a youthful parody of a declining self. It is a figure that has gained what its future is losing, that has just kissed a beautiful girl and sees only possibilities. There might be another figure here as well, one who was not even alive when that kiss occurred but whose life was implicit in its occurrence.
Like the rest of the building the bathroom has seen better days. Built to look like a cabin on a stately cruise liner, it’s encased in ornate panelling, dark and comforting to protect against imagined storms outside. But now the panelling is worn and has broken off the walls to reveal the brickwork beneath. A mirror, cracked lengthwise through the centre, and measuring almost the height of one wall, hangs above a row of porcelain basins. They bear a maker’s mark, now partially obscured by dirt.
John hears the sound of somebody moving in one cubicles and enters another, sitting on the closed lid of the lavatory. There’s no need for him to be in here, he knows, beyond the temporary escape it offers from the wedding. He loosens his tie and notices a small stain on it, a blood-coloured trail of wine, now permanent. He runs his thumb over the stain, then takes off the tie and drops it onto the filthy floor, where it sticks with the stain topmost, ineradicable and staring at him.
His hands are crooked, two fingers drooping down towards his palm, brushing it like a fishing weight finding the bottom of a lake. John slips his hands around his neck, touching his thumbs together in front below his Adam’s apple, and has the strange sensation he is cradling a child.
The wooden partition besides him cracks suddenly, spraying splinters as a heavy body falls against it, and John hears the uncomfortable sound of rubber soles on linoleum flooring. He opens his cubicle door in time to see a tall teenager, an underdeveloped boy, his mouth a whitish mess, emerge and fall smashing his head against a dirty basin. A corner breaks off and blood leaves behind a jagged red edge. On the floor the teenager is still, blood running from his scalp to pool against John’s instep. As he kneels down it soaks into his trousers.
The bathroom is now silent and John finds himself breathing more quietly. He wonders what he should do. He knows what his training tells him is the right response but he can’t bring himself to check for life or seek help; another person would ruin the calm. The memory of his youth watches from the edge of the room, still beyond sight. In John’s mind it urges him to act. Instead John takes off his jacket and hangs it on the ruined sink, then rests his hands on the boy’s head, feeling for the places that are missing beneath his palms.
They maintain this tableau for a while, until a small man comes in and calls for help. There’s some confusion over who John is, but after he is identified as a police officer, there follows the familiar deferrals and assumptions that correct protocol has been observed.
‘Drug overdose, I think,’ he tells paramedics as he makes to leave.
Afterwards the corridors in the building seem endless, like telephone wires beneath a city. The alcohol shakes its way through his system, reaching new extremities with every thud of foot against floor. He doesn’t want to return to the celebration, his family, his wife.
The rooms by the edge of the building are all empty, small windows letting in what remains of the light still pinioned outdoors. He sits in one furthest from the ballroom. All it contains is a solitary wicker chair, sunk into a green carpet. The surrounding walls are a disconsolate grey. In its plainness this place reminds him of the first house he and Anna had lived in. No matter how much furniture, how many possessions they filled it with, that house was never one in which he could relax.
In ageing he wonders if possessions distance us from the world. Draw our attention away from life around us? Help us to forget? A few years ago he had heard that their first home had been destroyed. Now, he thinks, it would have been good if everything he owned had been inside the house when it crumbled.
John supposes this building will come down soon as well. He welcomes that event, wishes for it, but knows his shadow, his former self, would not feel the same. For that man, that young man, this place is a first step, not a reminder of lost chances. For him, new life will begin to grow within these walls, not forever cease.
When he returns to the ballroom, he sees his wife is dancing with the young drug dealer. They make a handsome couple, despite the difference in age. She’s resting her head on his shoulder as he whispers into her ear. They turn in John’s direction and he sees she’s smiling. He realises he has left his jacket in the bathroom. It has his badge in it, although that doesn’t matter; he’s not intending to arrest the man. That doesn’t seem worthwhile. As John thinks this, he can swear he feels a hand on his shoulder, his shadow’s hand, growing braver. He turns around, but there is nobody there, only the echo of his wedding vows in his ear.
The little girl in the multi-coloured overalls is standing by him and John runs his hand affectionately over her head. It’s only when he looks down he realises his hand is still covered in blood, which now shimmers in waves through the girl’s blonde hair. Blood, blonde hair and a small body.
Later he drives home drunk. Cars slash past on the motorway, headlights bright. It has been raining and the gleam on the slick road seems a tether between past and present. He talks to his silent shadow.
Have the last twenty years meant nothing, he asks? Were they always in a dance and each moment drifting further apart?
John finds his wife asleep in bed alone. He does not know if this pleases him. Leaving her to sleep he walks the house, his past self never far away. They see the world through different lenses the two of them, one old, one achingly new. They are the same form, utterly adjusted by time.
He starts to pack a box, trying to divest himself of his worthless belongings. With each thing he puts away he feels his shadow fade and he knows he should stop but does not. The final item to go in is a photograph of him and his wife, she slightly rounding, taken at his passing out ceremony. It’s fading around the edges.
Joseph Surtees lives in London and writes about memory. He has previously been published by Unsung Stories and the Ham Free Press.