A Dance of Many Nations.

Brian sat on his upturned rucksack with a piece of card that said 'Winnipeg' resting against his feet. The night around him was full of the fluttery suggestion of mothsiles, and miles distant, he could see silent lightning dance a vast flashing dance across the mirrored surface of a lake.

He had begun his hitchhiking a fortnight before, on the evening of his final day attending international school on the west coast. Throughout those fourteen days he had experienced many moments of loneliness, but nothing compared to how looking at that distant lake made him feel. Utterly alone. Utterly vulnerable. A speck on the curved, corn-covered darkness of the Canadian Midwest. He tried to think of Stephanie, as she physically was, in her bed in Winnipeg, far over the corn where it was already dawn. He recoiled from that thought too, from the rushing sense of distance contained in it.

As dawn brightened, he watched a small red truck approach from some way off. It slowed down as it drew close. He stood up cautiously, raising the cardboard sign. A car had slowed down the evening before, but only so that the driver, a leering man wearing big reflecting sunglasses, could best aim a coke can at his torso. There were no projectiles as the truck pulled up with the fart of a handbrake. Its driver, a long haired man, beckoned him over. He smiled as he did so, revealing teeth the colour of decayed vegetation. As Brian bent into the passenger seat, he breathed in close air that smelled of alcohol and, oddly, because they were thousands of miles inland, dead sea life.

“Where ya going?” asked the driver, adjusting the mirror, disturbing a dreamcatcher.
“Winnipeg,” said Brian.
“Winnipeg. The cloudy lake,” the driver's eyes became distant, “that's what they call it in the First Nations' tongue. It's not exactly a tourist trap. What brings a British kid like you there?”
He looked quizzically at Brian who did not bother to correct the geographical error.
“I’m travelling from Vancouver. I'm visiting my girlfriend.”
“Vancouver, Eh? A sweetheart, Eh? You met her over here?”
“Yeah her name is Stephanie. We went to a school together.”
“Wow, good for you buddy, good for you. A Manitoba missus. And tell me, sexy Steph isn't worried about her white knight out roaming the province on his own? I've got to tell you, you're fuckin crazy doing that on your own.”
“She doesn’t know where I am. I’m going to surprise her with my visit,” he said.
He imagined her, possibly lying awake in her room. She'd wondering to herself why he had not contacted her as he usually did. He experienced a frisson of excitement at the spontaneity of it all.

“Where does she think you are?” asked the driver.
The driver whistled low and slapped his knee, making the van lurch so suddenly that boxes shifted and fell inside its boot. The smell of dead sea life immediately became more intense.
“Well, may God bless you my buddy. Or should I say, 'old chap',” the laughing driver said, “I hope it's a great surprise.”
“I hope so too. She likes spontaneity,” said Brian, as his mind returned, once more, to their last night.

On the last night of term, the international school's dance society had put on a “Dance of Many Nations,” for the school’s various local fellows, mostly elderly couples who were well-to-do. He had come to the performance laden with dark and secret humours. Though he had never told Steph, he resented the show because its rehearsals had eaten so hungrily into their last months at school together. He couldn't resent her, though. He could never resent anything about that laughing, dancing girl.

The theatre building was so full when he arrived, that he had to crouch, like a human fire hazard, on the steps between cloudy banks of old ladies' perfume. As he pulled his knees close to his chin, the desire to see Stephanie in her element won over his resentments. He was soon smiling and laughing, as the performers began their first dance, the big crowdpleaser, the South African gumboot. The lines of dancers hollered their song, then beat a ferocious syncopated rhythm of slaps against their rubber boots as they began to dance. Stephanie, small, springing, and fluid, moved at the edge of the front line. He watched her freckly face with fascination. She was lost in the life of the dance, transported.

Her star turn came two dances later. She was the female partner in the Argentinian tango.

It began suddenly, with the pair of them appearing out of nowhere in a tube of red stage light. They were static. He, in his striped suit and fedora, made sharp angles into her limbs. They stared into each other's eyes. Moaning string music began.

Two minutes later, Brian bounded for the exit with the taste of puke strong on the back of his tongue and the awful, alien in his ears, all lusty lunges and moans. The way she had looked at him... at those eyes that burned beneath the brim of his hat... that look!

Later, in the school's car park, she looked at him with her eyelids fringed bright red from sustained crying.
“I just wish you could be more spontaneous sometimes,” she said.

“I thought you were the spontaneous type when I picked you up, alright,” said the driver, towards the end of their eight hour journey, “but now I’m not so sure. You’re the quiet sort, I'd wager.”

Later, the numbered door of a city apartment swung open and a bearded middle-aged man, with a spherical nut brown belly in an open Hawaiin shirt, met Brian. His anger was intense and shocking. He spoke through clenched teeth in piercing spit-flecked tones, as his belly hopped like a fully inflated basketball.
“The Irish asshole finally arrives,” he said.
His face was murderous.
“I’m so sorry,” said Brian, failing to halt an involuntary physical cringe.
“Why did you not phone my daughter? You know she has thought about nothing else this week? No, you fucking don’t know this, hey? Wowee, pal.”
“I wanted to surprise her.”
“Yeah. A surprise. But why didn't you email her, you fool?”
Stephanie appeared behind her father in the soft shadow of a staircase ascending to light.
“Shushh Dad,” she said, and ran down to pull Brian into a happy hug.

Hours afterwards, he sat on the patch of kitchen floor where the moonlight and the candlelight mixed, and he watched her dance. Their surroundings seemed to him mutable in the low light. On the far counter-top an empty wine bottle and glasses made a disquieting cubist still life in shades of purple and grey. They had been talking about fantasies, and she was lost in one of her own.

Behind her naked shoulders, he saw the full moon between derelict buildings. When he turned his eyes from it, her face had changed. A look had come over it. Like the first time he saw it, the look wasn't for him. It was aimed into the gloom behind his shoulder.

Her shadow twisted over the floor towards him. He drew his feet up under himself so that it could not touch them. Somewhere in the room, a tap dripped irregularly against an iron basin. The sound of it, once he noticed it, became louder with every drop. A thought grew with it, a horror that spread itself towards clarity with erratic lurches. He was watching a stranger dance.


TAD said...

This is wonderful. Waiting for more ghost stories, too....
Very nice word choices -- the mood and setting and underlying sense of dread come through very clearly. I kept expecting something truly awful to happen. You and Clive Barker, man....

Gardenhead said...

Tad, I promise you now, I'm going to write a ghost story just for you. How about that?

TAD said...

Well, I meant the ghost stories you started with The Puca, but ... What, haunted-record-store or haunted-gas-station ghost stories? Whatever, bring it on!