Creatives in profile: interview with Señor Samba

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In the spirit of all good interviews, Nothing in the Rulebook first encountered Señor Samba on a chilly night in central London, dancing in a group apparently gripped by some shared disco-infused hysteria and shouting half-correct lyrics of classic disco tunes at unsuspecting tourists.

This is the model of a creative phenomenon that has been gripping creative festivals since 2008 – and launched in London in 2018. Founded by Guru Dudu, these silent disco walking tours are a unique blend of interpretative dance, crazy improvisation, and spontaneous flash mobbing through different cultural settings. Inspiring and insane in perhaps equal measure, they offer participants an extremely rare thing in a day and age so often defined by rules and limitations: they offer people permission to play and celebrate their creative and quirky selves.

It may come as no surprise to you, then, that these silent disco walking tours are right up our proverbial alley. Make no mistake: there is absolutely nothing in the rulebook that says you can’t dance and sing to Bohemian Rhapsody in the middle of Leicester Square.

It was thus a real treat to catch up with Señor Samba once he’d had a chance to get out of his effervescent, ever-so-revealing, tight blue outfit and feature him in our long-running ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series.

And we have a real treat for all of you, dear readers, too: the first 10 people who read the interview and quote it in an email to London@gurududu.org (and follow Guru Dudu on Instagram at gurududulondon or facebook at gurududulovesyou) will receive a pair of free tickets to Guru Dudu’s shows. 

Happy reading (and dancing), comrades! 

 INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SEÑOR SAMBA

My name is Rikesh. I grew up in Brighton, UK, where my heart still resides. I live a relatively chaotic life based on the principle of never saying no to anything, which has led me down some pretty interesting avenues (like dancing around in blue lycra short shorts leading people dancing to ABBA).

Other than moonlighting as a lycra wearing disco diva, I’m the Vice President of a green technology company called Pluvo (check us out), a professional session vocalist, and I’m studying a medical degree. I like to keep busy. 😊

As well as singing and dancing on every occasion I like to travel, read, learn, eat, and I’m partial to a good crossword. Favourite quote, and one of the maxims I live by: ‘Just because a song has to end, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the music.’

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SEÑOR SAMBA

Anyone who does good in the world and has a passion for doing so. The real heroes are those who are unsung and fight against all the s*** we put up with but make sure they leave the world in a better place than they found it.

Similarly, I’m inspired by honesty. It’s a really difficult thing in an image-centred world to be true to yourself. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what that truth is. So to find it and to live it is a difficult thing.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get involved with Guru Dudu’s project?

SEÑOR SAMBA

I was going through a really bad period and I did what every sensible adult would do. I quit my day job in the city, moved out of the big smoke, and curled up in a ball in my parents’ house in Brighton for a while. I’ve always been a fan of the Brighton Fringe and I’d seen a bunch of crazy people wearing headphones so I thought I’d give it a go. For an hour I forgot about everything – I was Freddie Mercury, I was Whitney Houston, I was even Kylie Minogue, and I didn’t care who saw. For an hour the world was a splash of music and colour. At the end Guru came up to me and told me I danced like a lunatic. I thanked him. He told me he was recruiting new Gurus. A few months later I was in my blue lycra short shorts in Edinburgh getting 60 shameless superstars to do the YMCA on the Royal Mile.

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INTERVIEWER

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced getting the project off the ground?

SEÑOR SAMBA

London is a big city; there’s loads to do. We’re competing with some of the best entertainment the world has to offer. Also, it’s getting the word out. When people do it they love it, it’s just going to take time before the disco revolution hits these streets. In smaller towns/cities it’s much easier to gain traction but then the target market is smaller. Those are some of my favourite gigs though.

INTERVIEWER

There’s something liberating about singing loudly (often badly) in a group while getting down on it in the middle of an otherwise unexpecting public space. Why is that?

SEÑOR SAMBA

Music is a wonderfully liberating thing. Who doesn’t sing and dance in the shower or in the car when by themselves? Headphones allow privacy and are one of my favourite inventions of the 20th Century. What we do is take that privacy and make it public, through community. Privacy in public – I like that. It doesn’t matter that you’re singing and dancing just like you would in the shower right in the middle of Leicester Square – as long you’re not alone in doing so. And that freedom to be as ludicrous as you feel in front of the whole world? Why, there’s nothing more liberating than that.

INTERVIEWER

Are you in a secret, unspoken war with DJs of traditional, ‘loud’(?) discos?

SEÑOR SAMBA

Absolutely not! The more music the better.

INTERVIEWER

We’re living in some pretty reality-shattering times. In an age of Trump and Brexit, should we be getting people out on the streets to protest, rather than party?

SEÑOR SAMBA

There are a million and one answers I could give here depending on my state of mind, but ultimately the main thing is that Guru Dudu is for everyone. Your politics, your views, they don’t matter when you’re jumping up and down to S Club 7.

Beyond that, I truly believe that fun, joy, laughter – that’s the best form of protest. There’s a lot of angry people in the world and they have every right to be. I’ve been angry. Angry at the state of the world, angry at the state of my life, angry at the state of myself. The best way to combat anger is with love. Self-love, love of others. Play, joy, passion, and love.

INTERVIEWER

Hopes for the future?

SEÑOR SAMBA

For myself or for Guru Dudu? For myself – I hope that someday I find my inner peace, whatever that means. I’ll know it when I see it. Chaos can only last so long. For Guru Dudu? I just hope that everyone who would get something out of our vision gets a chance to.

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Quick fire round!  

Just what is a ‘laughter meridian’?

A meridian that makes you laugh. Obviously.

Are we really supposed to blame everything on ‘the boogie’?

Well we can’t very well go round blaming it on sunshine. Blame it on the boogie. Occasionally you can blame it on Piers Morgan, but yeah – mostly just the boogie.

Craziest thing you’ve seen on a silent disco tour?

I did a tour in Chichester where there were mostly children and I decided to play the Pink Panther theme tune. I got the kids to pretend everyone was a spy and hide. I led the tour into a Poundland. One of the kids, couldn’t have been more than 5, took it so seriously that he climbed onto a shelf and hid himself behind the cereal boxes. It took us a while to find him and a little longer for his mother to coax him down so I had to maintain a dance party in Poundland for a while…

Worst moment as a silent disco leader?

I don’t know that I’ve really had one. I’ve had one tour where the energy wasn’t what I’d like but to be honest people still came up after and said it was the most fun they’ve ever had. It’s difficult when you know you haven’t been on the best form, but this idea is so unique and novel it’s easy to forget that people will still love it anyway. It’s an even harder thing to accept you can’t always be perfect, but it’s an important thing to understand.

Best moment?

I was doing a tour in Edinburgh and I was getting the participants to show off their dance moves. There was one teenage boy with Down’s Syndrome. I passed the baton to him to show his moves. There was a couple of seconds’ hesitation after which he proceeded to break dance in the middle of the circle. Literal air flares. If you don’t know what that is, look it up. It was incredible. I actually fell to my knees. The tour kicked off. At the end I asked him if he wanted to show off some more of his moves and much to the delight of half of central Edinburgh he strutted his stuff on the steps of the National Museum of Scotland. It was one of my first tours, but I’m not sure I’ll ever see anything that tops it.

Doing ‘Dancing Queen’ the weekend after the Tory party conference outside 10 Downing Street and having a police car turn on its sirens in appreciation of our moves wasn’t bad either.

Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner?

Aretha. Saying a little prayer for her on all my tours. But I love all the divas. I’d have to say my favourite is Etta James.

Favourite book/movie/TV show?

Book: The Flying Classroom by Eric Kästner. It’s a German children’s book. I don’t know how to describe how much I love this book. It’s about 5 boys at a boarding school and in 100 pages (with illustrations) it deals with concepts such as abandonment, depression, loneliness, loyalty, fear, poverty, and friendship – and never in a way that feels remotely condescending. A quote from the book goes as follows: ‘God knows, children’s tears weigh no less than the tears of a grown up. It doesn’t matter what causes your unhappiness. What matters is how unhappy you are.’

Movie: Barfi. It’s a Bollywood movie that was the first to deal with disability. The two primary characters are unable to speak for the entire movie. In a country where disabled children are often seen as a burden or a curse and abandoned by their parents, this film is a welcome reminder that disabled does not mean less than. It’s also just adorable and has me a weeping wreck by the end – every time.

TV Show: Ed. A cute little show about a guy who owns a bowling alley in small town America. It’s nothing special but the dialogue is quick, the characters are endearing, the storylines are easy, and it is a saccharine escape from a much more complex existence.

What’s your ideal silent disco playlist?

I love trying to vary up my playlist depending on the crowd. I love hearing people’s ideas too. My favourite song to get people moving however is always a bit of Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance with Somebody. And it’s probably the one song that I have on my regular playlist that I haven’t got remotely tired of yet. Any ideas, let me know!

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Horrible Feet

Dancer's feet

When I was ten I saw a ballerina tear her Achilles tendon. I was sitting on the side of the stage during a recital rehearsal, unrolling a leg warmer on my left thigh. It was April, and I could hear heavy rainfall beating against the emergency exit doors of the theatre. My face was warm, and one of my legs was aching with a cramp. I sipped some water from my bottle as I looked at the girl who was going over her pas de deux behind the curtains opposite me. I knew her name was Camilla because she was the most promising dancer in our school, even though she was only fifteen. She was talking angrily to her dance partner, Alex, but I could not hear what she was saying. He was a handsome boy with wavy hair, and all the girls in my class were obsessed with him. Through the white empire-waist costume Camilla was wearing, tight on her flat chest and broad around her thighs, her ribs and backbone were visible. When I saw her walking towards me, I hastily looked down.

“Is this yours?”

I raised my eyes. Camilla was pointing at my water bottle. I nodded. From up close, I noticed that her hair was dirty and that she had a violet bruise on her neck, the shape of a jellyfish. She had an unlit cigarette in her right hand. She grabbed my bottle with her free hand and gulped like she was dying of thirst. Then she put it back next to me.

“Camilla!” Maria, our ballet teacher, joined us on stage. She was pregnant at the time, her belly round like a melon, bags under her eyes that were puffy and purple. “What are you doing?”

“Smoking.” Camilla talked to Maria as if they were equals, which surprised me, as I feared Maria more than anyone else. Maria took the cigarette from Camilla’s hand and broke it in two.

“You’re rehearsing.” She stared into Camilla’s eyes until she nodded, like a rebellious daughter annoyed by her mother. “Get ready now!” Then Maria noticed me, sitting at their feet: “Cecilia, after Camilla bothers to try her choreography, it’s your turn.”

Camilla and Alex danced like swans. She looked pale and weightless, while he touched her and lifted her. They ran away from each other and then jumped back into each other’s arms. I counted her pirouettes as her gown opened like a moonflower. Then I heard a snap, and Camilla fell. It was an audible pop; it echoed all over the stage. Alex stepped back, unsure of what to do. The music went on. Camilla was not crying.

“Fuck,” she screamed, panting.

Maria hurried on stage as I looked from behind the curtain. She knelt next to Camilla and caressed the back of her ankle.

“It’s the tendon,” Maria said, “I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No!” Camilla almost shouted and grabbed Maria’s arm. Her ankle was twisted, quickly swelling up. I wanted to go closer but I couldn’t.

“She’ll be fine.” I turned, and Alex was right behind me. I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or not, but I could tell from his face that she wouldn’t be fine at all.

*

I straighten my back and grit my teeth. I can feel blood staining my pointe pads; I did not have time to place them properly on my toes.

“Smile!” Maria shouts to the entire class, yet it feels like she is addressing me only. I’m her favourite, but she hates me. She has been my teacher since I was three. Now, after thirteen years, nothing has changed. She still treats me as if she doesn’t understand that I have feelings. I suspect she doesn’t have any.

I complete the sequence of assemblés and échappés, my ballet shoes clacking against the polished wooden floor, my hand holding on to the barre. When the music stops, the smiles drop off every girl’s face at once. Maria takes the CD out of the player. We are all waiting for her response, our necks sweaty, our legs shaking with exhaustion. Once, she took the CD out and threw it on the floor, then started shouting at me, saying that I was “rude”, “stupid” and “unfit” for the class. Turns out I kept yawning before starting the choreography.

This time, Maria turns to us and says: “Class is over.” She never says “well done” or “good job” or anything like it, but, if she doesn’t complain or insult any of us, it means she’s satisfied. I’ve learnt that silence can also be a compliment.

We leave class dragging our feet, looking forward to getting rid of our uncomfortable tights. In the changing room, the radiators are not working. I take my bag and clothes and walk to the bathroom; I don’t feel like talking to anyone. Sara follows me. She is older than me, like everyone else in the class. This year, her acne is gone and her blonde hair has grown long and glossy. When she rehearses without tying it in a chignon, it swings and arches like a golden rainbow.

Sara sits on the cold floor of the bathroom and wipes her sweaty chest with toilet paper. She starts removing her shoes slowly, first the heels and then the toes, which have become glued to the pointe pads. I remove mine quickly; I’d rather feel the pain hitting me all together. I stuff the pointe pads in my bag, then I rapidly place my feet under the freezing water coming out of the sink. Sara does the same. Our feet look terrible, mine covered in blisters, hers missing a couple of nails.

“Ballet shoes are not for everyone,” Maria has always told us. When we were ten and got our first pairs of pointes, we all looked at them with excitement. The satin was shiny and the sole was hard; it smelled of leather. I used to put them on at home, and jump and spin around my mother’s grand piano, coming up with choreographies that I would then perform in front of my family.

After getting dressed, we walk back to the changing room through a narrow, poorly lit corridor, then to the entrance, where all the other girls are waiting for someone to pick them up. I walk past them, stuffing my hands inside the sleeves of my coat. I see the lights of the cars driving away from the parking lot, chasing one another until they fade into darkness. I look at the illuminated windows of the terraced houses and at the floating moon. The outlines of other passers-by seem ghosts under the lamp posts, and I am glad they cannot see my horrible feet.

*

Alex has come to class today for a new pas de deux assignment. I haven’t seen him in six years, since the day Camilla tore her tendon. Sara, whose mother is friends with Alex’s parents, says he passed the auditions for the ballet school at La Scala Theatre but then quit because he wanted to go to university to study psychology. He has changed: he has tattoos on both his hands, his skin is stretched on his muscles and a hint of beard has appeared on his chin. He is sitting on the floor next to Maria and watches us as we perform the choreography alone, one after the other. I see him out of the corner of my eye: sometimes he stares blankly, other times he checks us out in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Emma, our headmistress, paces back and forth in the room, clapping her hands to the rhythm and shouting “posture!” She is in her forties, her hands are rough and wrinkly, and her long black hair looks dry. Still, when she moves, only hinting at the steps of the dance with her graceful limbs, she seems younger than any of us.

Maria is quiet, as always when Emma is around. Earlier today, I heard them talking about the costumes we have to wear for the next recital. Emma suggested we paint our faces red, which did not sound like a good idea to me. I still remember the dance contest when we had blue paint on our cheeks and so much glitter on our eyelids that some got into my left eye. It started to ache and water right in the middle of our performance, and everyone thought I had become emotional.

After she has observed all of us carefully, Emma says: “Cecilia will dance with Alex.”

The other girls whisper in disappointment.

“Does anyone have a problem with that?” Maria asks. Anna, who is shorter than me and as skinny as a twig, speaks up: “The best choreographies are always assigned to the same people.” Last week she almost fainted. I think she doesn’t eat much anymore; she keeps swallowing weight loss pills before class.

“Like who?” Maria stands up, walks closer to her.

“Cecilia is the only one who did a solo.” Anna’s top is slick with sweat and sticks to her back.

“Cecilia remembers the steps of the choreography and doesn’t complain.”

Anna flushes, and I notice her hands are shaking. Emma takes me by the arm and turns to everyone else: “You can leave early today girls. Good job everyone.”

I remain alone with Emma, Maria and Alex. He stands up and stretches. I wipe the sweat from my forehead.

“This is not a pas de deux as you imagine it. It’s not too graceful, too perfect, too clean,” Emma says. I look at Alex’s tattoos and then at my pink bodysuit.

“I want this to start quietly. You smile, you touch each other gently. Then you let go. Can you do this Cecilia?”

“Yes,” I lie.

“Good. Then let’s just try one sequence before you go home. Alex’s running after you, he catches you. So you stand and your arms reach out… remember?” We both nod and get into position.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex runs after me, and his hands brush against my naked back. He takes me, and I raise my arms to the ceiling.

“Hold it!” says Emma, “Hold it Cecilia, you are a tree, a tree in the wind!”

I let my arms swing gently, and wonder what kind of tree I am.

“Your arms are branches, your hands are leaves!”

I feel Alex’s hands tight on my waist, his breath on my neck. I move my fingers and wrists, and tilt my head back, laying it on Alex’s shoulder. I decide that I am a weeping willow, like the one that grows in my grandmother’s garden, shading the daisies and cobblestones against the sun. Its branchlets turn yellow in autumn and look like a cascade of golden tears.

After class, Alex lights a cigarette outside, cupping his hand around the end. The tattoos on his hands are feathers, one for each finger. He has nice knuckles. I wonder if he remembers that I was there when Camilla got hurt. But that was a long time ago.

“Are you sad?” he asks me.

“Why would I be?” I remove the pins from my hair and let it loose on my back. He watches me as if we were intimate and not two strangers.

“Your friend hates you because you got the part.” He tilts his head a bit, his smile is cheeky.

“She’s not my friend.”

He laughs, ties his curly hair in a knot and walks away.

“See you tomorrow,” he says, without turning around.

*

Back home, I skip dinner and fill the bathtub with hot water and vanilla soap, as the smell of minestrone comes from downstairs. I undress slowly, my muscles tired and aching. I throw my clothes on the floor like waste paper. The water burns my skin but I slowly sink until I am completely immersed, my hair dancing around my face in slow motion. I close my eyes.

I hear a muffled knock on the door. When I re-emerge, my mum is folding my clothes, crouching on the bathroom floor. I rub the soap from my eyes and look at my toes that creep out of the suds, covered with plasters.

“How was class?” my mum asks.

“Tiring.”

“And this new guy Alex?”

“Too good.”

“Better than you?”

“Yes.”

My mum runs her fingers through my wet hair: “Should you practise more?”

“I already practise two hours every day. I also need to study.”

“But if you want to do the auditions for La Scala…”

The moonlight filters through the slats of the blind, striping her face. She takes my feet into her hands and rubs them gently.

“It’s my life not yours,” I say.

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

My mum wanted to be a ballerina but her family couldn’t afford to pay for her ballet classes. Once, I saw a photo of her dressed up in a light blue tutu, taking a bow in front of an invisible audience. The colours were faded and there was a blemish on the lower part of her face, so I couldn’t figure out whether she was smiling or not.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired.”

“I’ll bring you something to eat.” She leaves the door slightly open, the light of the corridor illuminating the flowery tiles of the wall. I fall asleep in the cooling water, my head resting on the edge of the tub.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Alex and I rehearse two hours every day after my class with Maria. Emma supervises the choreography, sitting on a white plastic chair, swinging her head left and right to the rhythm. Alex does not seem to struggle with anything. I sweat too much, weigh too much, forget too much.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Some days Emma dances with Alex to show me what I do wrong. As they sway around the room in perfect harmony, they seem to hear each other’s thoughts, their steps echo in tune. I feel like an off-key note.

“We have to do this together, you know,” Alex says to me as we take a break, stretching at the barre. “It’s like finding a compromise.” I think that I’m not good at compromising but I nod.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

My horoscope says: “It is important for you to keep at least one foot on the ground, as powerful emotions are likely to take over the scene.” As Alex lifts my body in the air, his hands on my thighs, my back arched backwards to form a right angle with my hips, I wonder if the “foot on the ground” thing is physical or metaphorical. I start liking our practise, our stretching breaks, the cigarette he smokes before we go back home, hungry and exhausted.

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

I learn that he is always a bit early with the tempo, that pirouettes are not his strength, but he jumps so high he seems to defy gravity. I learn that our bodies have a way of reading each other that slips beyond the things we tell – or fail to tell – each other. When my fingers brush against his shoulders I imagine I am opening windows, letting his light peek through the clouds.

When he runs after me, Emma repeats: “Cecilia is the direction you are going Alex! She is your path!”

*

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Emma hasn’t come to class today because her daughter is sick, so we have to practise without her. I look at Alex and myself in the mirror, at how his tattoos jar with my pale skin, his hair band that barely holds his curls back with my perfect chignon. The floor is dusty and covered in signs left by my pointes. We try the choreography until the sunshine does not come through the windows anymore, and we are left with the feeble light that comes from the bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

“I’d better go home for dinner,” I say as I put on my oversized sweater. Alex nods.

“Do you want me to walk you?” He has never asked me that before.

“That’d be nice.”

He smiles, picks up his bag. I open the door and, as I am about to walk out, he closes it from behind me, covering my hand with his. He kisses me, and I taste mint and smoke and remember when, as a child, I was looking at him with Camilla, wanting to be like her. I am like her now but I’m not sure it is a good thing.

*

On Saturday Sara insists that we go to a house party thrown by a boy from Anna’s high school. I drink too much beer, the kitchen table is sticky, and the people keep jumping in the swimming pool with their clothes on.

I love you like a love song baby. Anna and Sara drag me to the centre of the living room to dance. I look at them and copy their moves; the rhythm is repetitive and shallow but it’s nice to let go. And I keep hitting re-peat-peat-peat-peat. Anna takes my hand and makes me spin; she doesn’t seem to hate me now, she looks beautiful in her leather dress, her curls loose. A tall boy comes up to me, offers me a plastic cup filled with wine. I, I love you like a love song baby.

“That’s Marco, he’s from my school, go and talk to him,” Sara whispers in my ear and pushes me towards him.

“So you’re a dancer,” Marco smiles, a bit awkwardly. He is wearing a nice, ironed shirt. I take the cup from his hand and gulp down the wine.

“Yes, but what I should really have been is a singer. Everyone kept saying it for years.”

“Wow. Really?” He sips from his drink. He seems more confident now, enjoying the idea of me singing for him.

“No. That was a joke. No one has ever told me that.”

He stares at me, confused, then laughs out loud. Before he can say anything, I feel the weight of someone’s arm across my chest and I turn and see Alex, a cigarette between his full lips, a wrinkled blue shirt looking too big on him. The music grows louder and Alex carries me outside, leaving Marco and his ironed shirt empty handed. The street is quiet and still.

“Let’s go home,” Alex says. He drops his cigarette, and I watch it glowing and bursting into sparks as it hits the ground. He drives me home, in silence. Re-peat-peat-peat-peat. The screen of my phone illuminates with Sara’s message: “you okay? Why did you leave?” I type: “practise tomorrow,” and wonder why I keep doing this, going to ballet classes, spending most of my days with people I don’t really like. I come to the painful realisation that I don’t have an answer.

Alex kisses me goodnight in front of my door, then drives away. From outside, I see my parents’ faces lit up in front of the television screen. I unlock the front door with difficulty, then walk up the stairs to my room. I hear the soft steps of my father’s slippers following me from the living room. I jump on my bed and hide under the sheets, my alcohol smelling clothes still on. My father’s head pops in, accompanied by a gentle knock.

“How was the party?”

“Fun.”

“Your mum is upset. The recital is in one week.”

“Tell her it’s fine.”

He nods. Doesn’t leave. It looks as if he is about to speak but then he closes my bedroom door behind him, and I am left alone in the dark.

*

I draw a big amount of brown eyeliner across Sara’s eyelids and smudge it with my fingertips, as we have run out of eye shadow. She is struggling to flatten her chest inside her bright red tutu.

“Can you stay still?” I ask.

“Why do I have big boobs?” she moans.

I spread some glitter on her cheeks and chest, then I fix my own headdress, whose orange and yellow feathers won’t stay in place. We are standing in a corner of the changing room, next to a harlequin costume that is hanging from the ceiling and keeps ticking our necks with its sleeves. The room is an explosion of colours, as girls and boys of every age walk around, trying to find space for their own bags and costumes, swearing whenever a hairpin falls and gets lost on the messy floor. Most of the older girls are stretching, leg warmers wrapped around their ankles and feet. The place smells of sweat and deodorant. The music that is playing upstairs, on the stage, is muffled by the buzzing that reigns backstage. Every now and then, the head of a ballet teacher pops in and tells us to lower our voices.

I crouch on the floor and close my eyes, focusing on the sound of Sara’s hands rifling through my make-up bag. I wonder where Alex is; he is late and I am meant to perform with him right after the dance with Sara and the other girls. I feel Sara’s fingertips finishing the touches of my winged eyeliner.

“You’re up next,” Maria’s voice comes from the stairs. I know she is talking to us, even before she walks down and repeats: “Cecilia, Sara you’re up next. Then I want Anna, Clara, Francesca, Paola! Quick!” She grasps Sara and me by the arms and drags us upstairs. We leave the changing room and enter the darkness of the stairs. We go past younger ballerinas who are already waiting in their yellow tutus, biting their nails. Emma’s husband is smoking by the door at the top of the stairs, keeping it open; the cold air makes me shudder and paranoid abut my muscles.

Maria speaks on my behalf: “Shut the door, Mario! Can’t you see they’re about to go on stage?” She keeps holding our arms, as if we weren’t able to walk by ourselves.

I stand behind the curtains with Sara, looking at the girls on the other side of the stage, as they twitch their hands and fix their shoulder straps and headdresses. Emma presents our choreography, a dance inspired by The Firebird with music by Igor Stravinsky. Then the audience applauds, and the lights go down.

My pointe shoes do not make any sound as I walk towards the centre of the stage with Sara, the other ballerinas spreading around us. I look up and smile; the light suddenly illuminates me, and the music starts playing. I stare at the upper part of the audience, where faces seem to melt into one another. My arms are wings, my fingers are light and long, my palms are speaking. When I jump near the curtains, I see Maria’s apprehensive face. She is counting to help us keep the rhythm. I finish the dance landing on my feet after an assemblè. The audience claps and shouts, I can see my mum’s proud face in the crowd; she is sitting in the front row.

We run backstage, and, in a second, a thousand hands are touching me, removing my tutu, working on my chignon and make up.

“She’s up next!” Maria says. Sound and light operators make room, pushing younger girls behind. Alex, already in his white costume, is stretching his neck with his eyes closed as if I wasn’t here. I stand half naked behind the curtains, trying to fit into my empire dress, as Maria wipes off my Firebird make up with a wet tissue. An assistant covers my cheeks in white foundation and my lips and cheekbones with red lipstick.

“The hair!” Maria removes the pins of my chignon, pulling the skin of my head. My eyes tear up but I have no time to recompose myself, as Maria pushes me towards the stage. I feel Alex’s hand into mine and I follow him.

There is only the two of us now, our bodies curved one on the other like two piled up spoons. We start dancing in the silence and our shoes echo on the floor, our breaths fill the air. We dance in circles, as if there was a revolving door between us, its glass never letting us touch each other. Then the music starts, his fingers grip mine, and I start doing my pirouettes. In a second, my neck paralyses. I lose my balance and fall; I feel Alex’s hands letting me go as I land on my ankle. A shooting pain makes me gasp. I try to stand up as gracefully as I can, but my leg cannot carry me and I fall again. I hear Maria’s whispers behind the curtains: “stop the music for fuck’s sake.” Silence, followed by Maria’s and Emma’s light steps on stage.

“I am sorry but we have to interrupt the recital, our ballerina has been injured, nothing serious, no need to worry.” Emma speaks into her microphone, and her words echo in the theatre. I raise my eyes and see the audience, all silent and staring back at me. One small figure detaches from the mass, the gracious silhouette of my mum, running towards the stage. She is wearing her best silk dress.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I whisper, as Maria and Alex lift me up and carry me backstage.

Back in the darkness of the curtains, the cold pavement is like freezing water against my back. My mum and Alex remove my ballet shoes, exposing my damaged feet that I don’t want anyone to look at.

“You’ll be alright,” Alex tells me.

*

The parking lot is empty in the early morning light, except for Maria’s light blue beetle car. I know I can always find her here in the morning; she prepares the choreographies before the afternoon classes. From the window of the ground floor, I see her standing at the barre, stretching her arms. I limp inside with my crutches.

“You look better,” Maria says when she sees me. There is a freshness in her face that I have never noticed, maybe it is the summer air or her blonde hair, always messily tied up, now loose and brushed.

“Last week before I can put these crutches away,” I smile.

“When do you finish your physical therapy?”

“Two more months.”

“So you can only do the winter recital. That’s fine. You can catch up with the choreographies afterwards, maybe you can come here every day after lunch, we’ll work together.” She speaks hastily, as if she was eager to make things go back to the way they were as fast as she can.

“I’m not coming back here,” I blurt it out all at once.

“What did you say?”

“I’m not coming back to classes in September,” I repeat.

“Why?”

“I want to focus on school, then try to go abroad for university.”

Maria takes a strand of my hair and smoothes it with her nervous touch.

“Think about it. You still have time to change your mind.”

“Yes,” I say, but I know I won’t. “Thanks for everything you have done for me. I’ll come back and visit.”

Maria seems to struggle with words.

“You are one of our best dancers,” she says.

“You have been a great teacher. You pushed us to our limits.” I turn around, the wooden floor creaking under my crutches.

Her voice follows me: “Alex says you haven’t been replying to his calls.”

“Say sorry to him from me. I’ll see him around, I guess.”

About the author

CostanzaCostanza Casati is a writer and screenwriter. After completing her Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick, she currently works as a freelancer journalist for the Canadian magazine HOLR and as a screenwriter for Erminio Perocco’s feature-length documentary about the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto. The first chapter of her historical novel has been published in Manifest: New Writing from Warwick and her short film Sguardi is available on Youtube.

The Dancer

Dancer letter

I saw Jane Hariott for the first time since our schooldays over the body of a dead Canadian. Normandy, June 1944.  I was fresh from England, still blinking away the things I’d seen on the voyage across the channel and on the drive down from the coast. As a nurse I was used to death, but within the confines of wards and funerals. Now, it was everywhere: the remains of an old woman strewn across the pavement, bombed out of her London flat, blood and brains staining her tea-dress. Or the corpse of an American tank commander, draped over the shell of his Sherman like dirty laundry.

The field hospital was between Bayeux and Caen, in what had once been an orchard but was now a swampy crater. Tiny, sour apples clung to the remaining trees – once, on the verge of passing out from hunger, I grabbed one and took a bite, only to spit it out again immediately. Tents crouched low in the space that was left, footprints and the wheels of heavy vehicles turning once solid ground to mud, the air full of the sound of the dying and the smell of the dead. In the time I was there, I don’t remember once hearing birdsong.

I climbed out of the jeep and presented myself to the nearest official – a young woman in full battledress, injecting a sweating man with morphine. She smiled at me. “Reinforcements,” she said, and I saw she had a homely gap in her teeth. Immediately, I liked her. Her name was Betty – the medical officer was on duty in the theatre tent. “You might have to wait a while, though,” she said, unscrewing her syringe as the man’s breathing steadied. “He’s in surgery.”

I hovered outside the tent. I still had my pack slung over my shoulder and I was conscious of the fact I hadn’t washed in several days. But looking too clean would make me conspicuous. The nurses here wore the gore smeared on their battledress with as much pride as the pips on their shoulders – the epaulettes signifying rank, expertise, experience. I had the pips but not the gore, just a damp sand-stain from where I’d fallen over on the rubble-strewn beach.

I pulled back the tent flap. Inside: a man stretched out on the operating table. His innards were shared between the people standing around him – each was covered in blood, engaged in stitching, pulling, prodding. They spoke to each other clearly, but in an undertone, as if worried about disturbing the patient. I inched closer and was stunned – surely, the man was beyond help? Still in uniform, the insignia of his Canadian regiment hung ragged from his shoulders but looked like the most substantial part of him. I hadn’t yet witnessed the medical miracles that would make these tents sacred. I glanced up at the nurse on duty, hoping to confirm my suspicions with a shared glance, and saw that the nurse was Jane Hariott.

We left boarding school together, five years previously. We hadn’t been friends but still I expected some indication of pleasure when she recognised me. Instead, her eyes widened above her mask and she looked away, horror-struck. She was so determined to avoid my eyes that she didn’t realise that the man had died on the table and continued to sterilise the equipment, arranging the scalpels on the surgeon’s tray. It took a nudge on the arm from the orderly for her to see that the scalpels were unnecessary. I wanted to smile at her, say something to dispel the unease that was now suddenly between us, but it seemed inappropriate to do so over a corpse.

“You were supposed to arrive with the gas.” It took a second for me to realise that the surgeon was talking to me. He turned, mask down. “Where’s the gas?”

I travelled to France on the HMS Lancaster. The gas and oxygen cylinders, the trunk containing my dress uniform and the crates of theatre instruments came on the sister ship. I watched from the deck of the Lancaster as the sister ship erupted into a ball of fire, burning for an impossibly long time on the dark waves, before sinking beneath the surface of the sea. A mine. It could have been us but, that time, it was them.

“I thought you knew,” I said. “They split us between two ships.” The surgeon stared at me. I knew I had to say it. If I didn’t say it, he’d hate me even more. “The other one went down. It’s just me.” We lost two medical officers on the ship, along with the gas and equipment. The body on the table stopped me from mentioning this.

The surgeon held me still with his stare and I flinched as he turned away, ripping his bloodstained apron from the front of his uniform. “My name is Lt Col Marks,” he said. “You need to report to the matron. And by the way,” he added, just as I was turning to leave. “You should have saluted.”

*

I fell into my duties quickly. I was desperate to speak to Jane, to reestablish our relationship, iron out any misunderstanding, but I didn’t get to speak to her for some time. We were busy, still dealing with the dregs of the Normandy survivors. We also began to take fresh wounded, those felled in more recent skirmishes, on the winding, hedge-lined lanes of the bocage. There were no shifts, not in those early days. If you could move your hands, you could heal.

The first break I had was with Betty, who offered me a cigarette and passed me a cup of Compo tea, premixed with milk and sugar. It was disgusting but I drank it anyway – I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

“You’ll fit in right enough,” Betty said. “Once you get the hang of things.” It was early, the sun just breaking in a bloody mess across the sky. This was usually the time when the countryside began to stir, when hedgerows began to rustle and birds began to sing. But there were only human sounds – the murmur of different accents, someone laughing, the distant sound of shells.

“I actually know Jane,” I said. “We were at school together.”

Betty’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re a ballet dancer too?” she asked.

I frowned. “No,” I said. “Why would I be?”

Betty smiled. “Jane went to ballet school,” she said. “I’m sure that’s what she said.”

Back then I was quick to laugh. “I’m definitely not a dancer,” I snorted. “Maybe ballet came afterwards? We lost touch.”

“Yes,” Betty said. “That must be it.” She seemed the sort of person to cringe away from conflict. She wanted everyone to be friends, for everything to be the truth. She took a drag on her cigarette and exhaled upwards, squinting into the sky. “Looks like a scorcher,” she said.

*

 I remember being shocked at the number of Germans we treated. A lot of them were snipers, lone wolves, cut off from the rest of the pack. Like Betty said, after a while it stopped bothering you – you fell into rhythm, found the veins in their pale, delicate forearms and diluted their Aryan blood with morphine. It was hard to get worked up over a forearm.

I was just treating a German boy – too young to grow a moustache – when I heard Jane behind me. She had a high, nasal voice and she was talking about her brother, John. She was leaning low over an American paratrooper; the camp beds were shoved together under the sloping canvas roof and sometimes you had to get uncomfortably close to your patients to hear what they were saying. But Jane’s voice carried. “My brother John’s a wonderful horseman,” she was saying to the American. “I bet he could show you a thing or two.”

I had been there three days and I still had not managed to speak to her. If we ever shared a break, it was shared with others too. We passed each other, going in and out of the sleeping tents or emerging from the latrine pits, but she never slowed for a second. I caught her with the occasional ‘hello’ or ‘night’ but it seemed as though she was deliberately avoiding me. I didn’t have time to be offended: too much to do, to feel. I didn’t have a second to spare to worry about Jane. Not until I heard her mention her brother, John.

Like I say, I was never friends with Jane at school and that was partly because of her brother. She began to tell us about him in our first year, about his feats in the army, how clever he was, how handsome. He had always just been posted somewhere exotic, was always fighting in a far-off desert or swatting away insects in a rainforest. You couldn’t open an Atlas near Jane without her ramming her finger between the pages, pointing to a wonder of the world and saying, ‘my brother’s been there’.

“I didn’t know there was a war going on in Antarctica,” I remember saying, as she prodded the white sliver at the bottom of the page.

“He’s not there fighting,” Jane told me, witheringly. “He’s there on reconnaissance.” She was clever with her choice of words. This new word – reconnaissance – had exactly the effect she desired. I did not like to read aloud in class, could stumble through only a few lines of Bleak House before the teacher called the torture to a halt. “You’re supposed to breathe when there’s a comma, Atkins,” the teacher told me, in front of the whole class. “Not suffer a mild aneurism.” I cringed away from the unknown word like a wounded animal.

John marched triumphant over everybody’s anecdotes. Whatever we did over the holidays, John had achieved more. He had affairs with heiresses, duels with their jealous lovers. He could fence and was a fabulous marksman. By the time we were in fifth year, at the end of our school careers, John was also universally loathed throughout the school.

The worst part was, by the end, none of us even believed he existed. Every year, someone would ask (with a sly glance sideways at her friends) if John would be coming to the annual school play and, every year, Jane would have an excuse as to why he couldn’t.

“John’s contracted malaria, unfortunately,” I remember her saying in our fifth year. “He said he’d love to come but he doesn’t want to infect me. Can’t be putting the lives of schoolgirls at risk.”

By this time, she sensed that her stories were failing. She produced letters, crumped and mud-splattered, signed by John himself. Except the handwriting was very like her own, only with the ys, js and gs looped back over themselves. I used to sit next to her in class and I once saw her slip up by looping a y, betraying herself, allowing John to spill out onto the page. I told my friend Rachel, who told her friend Louise and so on. I’m not proud of my sixteen-year-old self but, when the material was so rich and beckoned so seductively, it was hard to resist. It was the thought of her writing them to herself, deciding how to word every line and then stamping on them with muddy shoes to make them look well-travelled. I did impressions of her in our dormitory, stamping up and down in my stockings on the rough wooden floorboards while the other girls roared, rolling around on the beds, beside themselves. Like I say, I’m not proud.

So when I heard her mention him to the American, I stood up abruptly, startling the German boy. I had no school-friends with which to exchange eye-rolls, only Betty, who was further down the row of beds and who had no reason to believe that John wasn’t a real person. A real, excellent horseman.

Jane was still with the American. Her cheeks bore acne pockmarks. I remembered someone trying to give her skin tonic and her fleeing to the bathroom, eyes brimming with tears. I saw the tonic in the dormitory bin and her skin never improved.

John was a fiction, of that I had no doubt, and I found it shocking that she still maintained the fantasy as a grown woman. But I was a grown woman too and it was nothing to do with me. On those wards, you saw people getting through however they could. Rosary beads, secret amulets sewn into seams, wedding rings tied on string around necks – you did what you had to in order to survive and that, I decided, was fine by me. But then Betty’s fiancé died and that changed things.

I still didn’t know Betty very well and so, when I found her sobbing in our sleeping tent, I felt I was intruding. It was Col Marks that told me during a break from surgery. He lit a second cigarette from his own and passed it to me, his bloodstained fingers leaving a smudge of red on the paper.

“Taken out by a sniper,” he said, exhaling smoke. “His name was Albert.”

I wondered if Betty would change around our young German, if someone should watch her, but the pale, drawn face she presented to him was the same one she now showed everyone. And life went on, wherever it could. I reduced my fluid intake, so I wouldn’t have to be escorted to the lavatory pits quite so frequently. We were supposed to be escorted now, because of snipers, which made the whole enterprise even more painful. Drinking was complicated because all water had to be boiled and the Compo Tea was vile, so I could go almost a whole day without a trip. However, between the dehydration and the humiliation of using public toilets (essentially a series of holes over a plank of wood in an open tent) we all had a near-constant ache in our guts, a heaviness that crept from our stomachs up into our chests, making it difficult to breathe. You noticed it when you stopped, when it was your turn to rest and you curled up in bed with your helmet on (new rules, again, on account of the snipers) only to spend the whole time tossing and turning, trying to negotiate the lump of cement inside you. But life went on, until a few days later, when I found Jane sobbing in the sleeping tent.

I stayed in the entrance for a second, watching her shoulders shake. I knew exactly what I should do but was unable to act, as if my quota of dutiful behavior had been used up for that day. And then Betty came in after me. She sank down onto the camp bed next to Jane and, rubbing her back, asked her what was wrong.

“It’s John,” Jane sobbed, her chest heaving. “My brother. He’s missing in action.”

*

I did well – I stayed silent while she told the story. John’s whole squad were missing, suspected dead. He was so brave, he had probably put himself in danger trying to save a friend. That would be so like him.

I moved over to my own bunk and began to tidy my things. I noticed as I unbuckled my pack that my hands were shaking. Earlier that day, I had been unable to remove shrapnel embedded in the face of a British squaddie called Len, blinded in a shell explosion. In a way, it was a relief to discover I had a reserve of emotion left.

But I managed not to say anything, anything at all, until she mentioned John’s unit. She said he was in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and my head snapped up, even under the weight of my helmet. That was when I knew – that particular lie was for me.

Jane hadn’t been the only impersonation in my repertoire during my school days. In the summer between my third and fourth years, my mother’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worse and, when I came home for the holidays, I found that our ‘home’ had moved to a small flat in the East End. We didn’t see much of our new neighbors, only heard their shouts and groans through the thin plaster walls, but one resident was impossible to avoid. His name was Carsall and he lived on the ground floor. The door leading to his chambers was right next to the central stairway and, as soon as you placed your foot on the bottom step, bourbon fumes would catch in your throat, halting your progress, and he would appear like a ghoul, swaying slightly in the gloomy hallway. If you were lucky, he’d let you go after half an hour, his diatribe – ‘I was the best of them, that’s why they couldn’t stand me,’ – still ringing in your ears. He’d served in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the late twenties until some kind of scandalous incident had resulted in his swift ejection from the army. Carsall always skimmed over this part, murmuring something about a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a senior officer’s inability to appreciate ‘a soldier’s right to a good time’ and I never managed to get to the bottom of the story.

That didn’t stop me from exploiting it. I swayed around the dormitory, slopping the contents of my imaginary tankard over my friends as they howled with laughter. “King’s Own Yorkshires,” I slurred. “That’s me.” I turned the shameful – my mother’s gradual descent into financial ruin – into something funny. Now, Jane was using it, once again.

“The what?” I snapped at her. Her face, tear-streaked and blotchy, showed no hint of shame, or recognition. Was it conscious? Was she goading me deliberately, or had the name just stuck in her memory?

“The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry,” she said again, her bottom lip trembling. “John’s battalion.”

“Except it isn’t his battalion, is it?” I said. I was tired, so tired. It was almost too much to keep my head up, the heavy helmet weighing it down. And then I said it. “Because John isn’t real.”

The pair of them stared at me, eyes wide, which made me even angrier.

“You didn’t go to ballet school,” I said. I was standing up now – I didn’t know how that had happened. “It’s pathetic.” The only thing left for me to do was storm out but my feet throbbed in my army-issue boots. After a moment of indecision, I stayed where I was, my arms crossed over my chest, shifting my weight from one foot to the other so I could deal with the pain in shifts.

Betty opened her mouth and then closed it again. Jane, tears still streaming, looked as though she was burning from the inside out. She was actually vibrating with anger.

“I have a letter,” she said, her teeth gritted, mouth twisted. Tears rolled down her nose, over her lips.

I started to laugh. “Well we’ve been here before,” I said. “Where is it?” My hands were still folded over my chest.

Jane jerked her head over to her jacket, slung across the bed. Still burning, she made no move to get it. Betty only stared at me, dumbstruck, so I squeezed between them and the next bed, aware as I did so of how close we were, how vulnerable I would be if she chose to hit me, or dig her fingernails into my face. At that moment, it did not seem unlikely. As soon as I reached the jacket and found the slip of paper in one of the pockets, I darted back to my side of the tent, safely out of range.

To my horror, it looked legitimate. I had never seen one before so had nothing to compare it with but the words seemed official: typewritten and sterile. We regret to inform you that Sergeant John Harriot of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry has been reported missing in action, presumed dead. I folded the paper back over, unwilling to look at it a moment longer and turned to Betty.

“Her brother doesn’t exist,” I told her. “At school, we all used to laugh at her because she made up these ridiculous-”

“You humiliated me because I was ugly.” Jane was on her feet too now.

“That’s not-”

“You made my life hell,” she spat. Betty was standing now as well, with an arm around Jane’s shoulder. “And now, after this happens, you torment me further.” Jane snatched the letter back and stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

Betty was frowning, an expression I had never seen before on her mild features. “She’s competitive,” I said to her, trying to assume a teacherly air of reason. “When you lost Albert-”

“Don’t you dare bring Albert into this.” Betty’s voice was quiet and dangerous. I was used to hearing her bark loudly with laughter, or shout instructions at me from one end of the busy tent to the other. This new, quiet Betty had shadows under her eyes and a scratchy voice, like she’d always just been crying.

“I don’t know how she’s got that letter,” I said. “But it’s not true. You should have known her before. We always used to say-”

“I think you’ve said quite enough, Mary,” Betty said. Jane was crying again, her head in her hands. It was only then that I realised what I’d done, how far I’d gone. There was no going back now. The die was cast.

“Fine,” I said. My own eyes were beginning to burn and I wanted to get out of there before they saw. “Fine.”

I left the two mourners in the tent and stepped out into the night feeling, for the first time in that crowded hospital, completely alone. Now looking back, I see my mistake. I showed my hand, I blinked first. I should have stared straight back.

*

Never before had I been written off as a villain and I felt miscast. I was used to the role of the clown – not pretty enough to be threatening but generally good fun to be around. I was always invited to things and expected to entertain. My mother was an actress and her troupe often rehearsed in our flat. I watched the actors playing the star-crossed lovers and imagined my mother and father in their place. It was widely known that my father was an eminent politician and I was the result of his extramarital affair with a young, penniless actress. I had never met him and wasn’t interested in forging a relationship. He had enough of an impact on my life as it was, with some girls warned off being my friend by virtuous parents and my mother and I enduring the humiliation of being shunned in certain shops and restaurants. At least one of the lovers always seemed to end up suffering, so I was never interested in the part. I was content with the clown. Appear in Act One, make everyone laugh, and then spend the rest of the play backstage, eating sugar mice and giggling with your friends. Fewer lines. It was a shock to find myself as the antagonist. Iago: motiveless and cruel.

Jane and Betty didn’t speak to me anymore. The rift went unnoticed by the higher-ups, as we were too busy wading through wounded for them to pay any attention to our social lives. I found a friend elsewhere – the orderly that had been on theatre duty when I’d first arrived at the camp. Had that really only been a week ago? With days flowing into nights and then days again without any rest, time was elusive; it whipped right past you when you were looking the other way, tightening a tourniquet.

His name was Brian. He had buck teeth and a West Country accent. I kept hoping he’d mention a wife or sweetheart soon, so that I could write off any possibility of him being attracted to me, but none was forthcoming. We cracked on, making each other laugh when we could, sharing tin mugs of Compo Tea, and then we heard about the move.

*

The camp was splitting up. Betty and Lt Col Marks were heading South West, towards Saint-Lô and Caen. Brian, Jane and I were to go North West, to Isigny-sur-Mer, to follow the Americans advancing towards the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was amazing how quickly the patients were moved, sent along the lines to other hospitals, how soon it was before we were standing in nothing more than a sad-looking orchard, dirty canvas lying in muddy pools at our feet.

We left early in the morning, the trucks crawling along the bumpy road. We were driving for an hour. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but the landscape was littered with debris. Moving troops blocked the roads and we were waved through only to be stopped abruptly by a tank or a truck backing into the road. I tried not to see the gravediggers, black clouds of flies churning above their heads as they dealt with the bodies. Fires burned, brazen and unconstrained, wherever there was oxygen and provocation. Occasionally, I saw what looked like a French family shivering by the roadside in their rags but it hurt to look at them so I tried not to see them either.

I was sitting at the back of the truck, near the tailgate, so had a good view of what we were leaving behind. Jane was at the other end of the truck, wedged behind the driver. I replayed the argument over and over in my head, thinking of all the things I should have said. But it was over. I was pleased Betty wasn’t coming with us. It would be a fresh slate, with a new group of people. As long as Jane and I stayed out of each other’s way, all would be well.

*

Over half of Isigny had been destroyed in two major bombardments on the 8th June, a few days after D-Day. We were in tents again, as there was barely a building left standing. We drove into Isigny on June 19th and, as the Americans grappled with the Germans troops in the winding lanes, between the dense green hedgerows, the sky turned black with storm.

Quickly, we fell into routines. Beds were crammed into tents. We kneeled in the mud between them if there was space and straddled the beds if there wasn’t. Over those few days, with the heavens opening up around us, I spoke more to patients than I did to either Brian or Jane.

I can’t tell you any more about Jane Hariott without telling you about Donald Rhodes. Don was an American paratrooper, a medic. The first time I saw him, he was screaming and it took me a moment too long to realise he was screaming at me. His voice was tinged with a twanging accent. By that time, I’d met enough Americans to create a kind of mental patchwork map of the US from their voices. I still had areas missing, but I knew enough to place him from the South, where they dragged out their ‘r’s and called you ‘ma’am’. In that moment, Don was not calling me ma’am. He was yelling at me to ‘get some goddamned morphine or the guy’s gonna die – what are you, nuts?’

I was in surgery that day, had already spent six hours passing the surgeon – forties, tall, skinny, slightly lecherous – his equipment, swallowing my distaste whenever I had to sponge the sweat from his forehead. We stopped for ten minutes and, while I was standing in the entrance to the tent, watching the rain pour down from the canvas, inches from my face, an ambulance tore into the street. A figure threw open the back doors of the truck from the inside while it was still moving and leapt out. A whistle blew and I began to run towards him, the rain deafening as it thundered on my helmet.

You had to drop everything. It didn’t matter if you’d been on duty ten minutes or ten hours, no one wanted to know. The man was already shouting by the time I got there, pulling a soldier out the back of the ambulance.

“Grab his legs!” he yelled, over the rain.

Together, we transported the wounded man into the theatre tent. Others descended on us, removing the man’s uniform as he coughed black blood onto the groundsheet.

The man that had leapt down from the truck was wearing a medic’s armband. He was bent low over his patient and had stopped shouting; he was now murmuring softly to him, stroking his face. I realised they knew each other, they were friends.

The wounded man was called Bill Moyer and, by some miracle, he survived. We got him stabilized that evening and then the next morning had him transported to the coastline, where he was shipped back to a hospital in England. Shot in the chest, just a bit too far off centre to hit anything vital. Few were so lucky.

The medic was Don. Together, we carried Bill from the surgery tent to the wards and settled him into a cot. It was hard to do so gracefully; if you bent low over a bed, you were always shoving your arse into the face of the person next door. We stood in the awning of the tent, listening to the rain. I didn’t know that Jane was behind us until later and, even then, I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to cheapen the moment.

When he wasn’t giving orders, Don was usually quietly-spoken but, that evening, he had to shout over the sound of the storm. “Somebody told me France was mighty fine this time of year,” he said.

“Somebody lied,” I said.

*

In those days, people could throw a party in any kind of structure, if it stayed intact long enough. We held dances in operating theatre tents, with the tables and equipment pushed to the sides of the room. Bombed-out churches with only a few shards of stained glass left in the windows made for eerie dance halls, the strains of Glen Miller bouncing off the gargoyles and buttresses.

Cherbourg was captured by the Allies on 25th June but we only heard about it twenty-four hours later, when the new influx of patients arrived on stretchers. We knew something good had happened when, despite their wounds, some of them were smiling.

Word spread through the camp about a party at the US base – all medical personnel welcome. The MO allowed those that would be off-duty anyway to go. I was one of the lucky few. So, unfortunately, was Jane.

Over the last few days, I had become aware of her tracing my steps, following me, I assumed in order to intimidate me. I remembered from school that she breathed heavily in her sleep and when we’d shared a tent at the first field hospital, I’d spent many nights trying to drown out the sound of her snores. Now, it was the silence keeping me awake. If she wasn’t snoring, she wasn’t sleeping. What was she doing? Planning? Staring at me as I lay in my sleeping bag, trying to kill me with the power of her stare? I was absurdly grateful for the new rules, demanding we wear our helmets to bed.

I smiled at her as I climbed into the back of the jeep, knowing that this would annoy her more than a shove to the chest, or an elbow to the ribs. Childish, I know, but I was wearing lipstick and my spirits were high. I was not in the mood for diplomacy. I wanted to drink champagne and dance.

The party was at the American Mess, ten minutes down the dark, twisting roads. We sang in the back of the truck, passing around a bottle of whisky and, by the time the truck stopped, we were all drunk already.

I had met Americans before, but always on their own when they were on the back foot, when they needed patching up. En mass, they were quite something. The songs were tasteless, but they were loud and drowned out insecurity. After years of blackout warnings, it was a joy to dance in a hall that was light and warm with bodies. I drank too much and danced until my feet throbbed. I saw Jane out of the corner of my eye, staring at me. She was sitting with a group of soldiers and, when she caught my eye, laughed theatrically at something one of them had said. I remembered this tactic from school and smiled to myself. With all her dance training, I wondered why she wasn’t here on the floor, showing the Americans a thing or two.

I sat down at a table and, within minutes, was joined by ten or twelve GIs. That was the problem – we were outnumbered to such a degree that it was exhausting. Looking back, however, I can’t pretend that it was always a burden. One of the GIs was a Bostonian of Irish descent. His name was Mickey and he was a fellow impressionist. He made me laugh until I thought I was going to be sick, doing an impersonating his platoon’s medic who had tied a cow to a tree in order to milk it.

“So we’re all there shitting ourselves,” Mickey said. “And then this guy lassos this fucking Friesian – pardon my language, ma’am – and starts milking it into his helmet. I mean, of all the crazy shit I’ve seen out here…” He wiped his eyes, laughing too hard to make it to the end of the sentence. “A real country boy, that guy. Hey, there he is! Rhodie! Hey Rhodie!”

Don Rhodes was making his way to our table, looking mortified.

“I was just telling… what was your name?”

“Mary.”

“I was just telling Mary about you lassoing that Friesian-“

“It was a Normande,” Don said.

“What?”

“The cow was a Normande, because we’re in Normandy. Friesians are Dutch.”

“Right whatever. Lassoing that cow. Man, that made my goddamned life.”

*

It took an embarrassingly short time for me to fall in love with Don Rhodes. I didn’t have much experience of love; I was too quick to make fun of myself, too gawky, too robust to be convincing as someone’s sweetheart. But Don didn’t seem to know what he was doing either. He preferred cows to people. I was glad he was slight – statistically, the smaller ones were the ones that had a better chance of making it through unscathed. His family owned a ranch in Texas and the only aspiration he had was to end up back there. Perhaps he could turn his medical training to use as a vet? He didn’t know. He was trying not to think too far ahead.

Word got back to camp that I was seeing someone. Brian was awkward around me, confirming my suspicions, but it was Jane that troubled me most. It’s a strange feeling, sleeping near someone that hates you so much. Sharing meals with them. I heard her talking to an Irish tank commander once; he was talking about how it was impossible to hate a German once they showed you a picture of their wife and kids. He said the first thing they did when they were captured was to reach into their jackets and bring out the photograph, holding in front of them like a shield shouting ‘Meine Frau, meine Kinder!’

“Oh I don’t know,” I heard Jane say as I walked past. “There’s definitely one person I’d see dead.”

It was moments like this that I felt aware of the equipment around us, the syringes, the scalpels. The instruments we had that could save life would be just as effective at ending it.

But the thing about love is, you feel like you’ve got a guardian angel watching you all the time, someone on your side. Nothing seems truly dangerous if you know that you can turn it into an anecdote, if you can make it malleable by language and intonation. Don was sometimes at the hospital; after dropping off a patient he would try to find me and kiss me roughly before disappearing again. When he could be spared for more than an hour we would walk together. It was strange, but not unpleasant.

“Sounds like one crazy lady,” he said, when I told him about Jane, but he was laughing when he said it and I felt slightly annoyed that he didn’t think she was a serious threat. But then, I supposed, to someone that spends most of their time under fire from machine-guns, she wasn’t. I tried to laugh too.

*

I came back one day from a walk with Don to find her sitting alone in the sleeping tent. When I couldn’t bear the silence any longer, I said, “Any news about John?” Honestly, I did not intend to goad her – it had been my way of trying to forge some sort of truce – but she just glared at me and, when she spoke, she was full of fury.

“What do you think will happen,” she asked. “When he finds out you’re a bastard, that your mother was a whore?”

I couldn’t speak for a second, the breath knocked out of me. “I’m sorry?” I said.

“These Americans are pious folk, you know,” Jane said. I wanted to slap the smug smile from her face. “Do you think he’ll be pleased, when he finds out what you come from?”

I breathed deeply, to get my heartbeat to return to normal. “I’m not ashamed of who I am,” I said, slowly. “I don’t have to lie to live with myself.” And this time, I had the sense to leave the tent, despite the throbbing in my feet, my head, my heart.

*

Don never did find out about my family. I knew as soon as I saw Mickey, standing in the entrance to the tent, wringing his hands, that Don was dead. A machine gun, not even a precise bullet, intended especially for him. He was killed in a spray.

Everything was dangerous again, everything was cruel. The soldiers I healed were no longer funny or loveable, but more opportunities to get hurt. I thought of Betty, crying over her letter. I even thought of Jane, how I’d kill someone that told me my pain wasn’t real. And then I shut it all down. Do your job. It’s all you have left.

But then we had a Texan on the wards. I found it difficult to listen to his voice and I was glad when Jane became his primary. I walked stiffly past his bed, as if he were somehow infected with something. One day, I was walking by and Jane was next to him, changing the bag on his IV. Her head turned slightly to the side and I knew she’d sensed I was there.

“I knew a Texan,” she said loudly, in her nasal voice. “We were going to be married.”

Sometimes, I can still hear the sound of the slap I gave her. When I lie in bed at night, I can feel it still trembling in my hands as they lie on the sheets in the dark. I can hear the slap and the chill silence as, head snapped to the side, she turned to face me, smiling.

*

They couldn’t keep us together after that. It was shocking, the MO said. Never before had he seen such behaviour from a member of his staff. I was lucky to not be losing my job, but they were so understaffed that they needed every pair of hands they could get. I was sent away to Caen. The less they heard from me the better.

I couldn’t bring myself to care. I’d been in France three months and, in that time, seemed to have sampled the entire range of emotion war had to offer. I was ready to go home and yet it went on and on.

I went to Caen, Brussels and Louvain. I was driven through destroyed cities, populated only by mangy dogs and rats, only to suddenly pull into a town that was untouched. One day I would have to eat whatever was left of the hospital’s K-rations, normally ground into a powder at the bottom of the packets, and then the next there could be freshly-baked croissants, wine from the vineyard of the local chateau. There was sometimes cheese too, but everyone steered clear of the camembert; now I knew it smelled not dissimilar to rotting flesh.

I joined a convoy of British medical officers and, when we stopped in Poix on the way to Belgium, we stayed in an abandoned SS barracks. There were indoor lavatories and tinned food left in the larder. German uniforms were slung over the backs of chairs and hung up on pegs behind doors. There were also German magazines, full of naked women positioned into convoluted shapes. We were still laughing as I opened a drawer in a chest. Inside was a collection of maps. They showed the south of England and, though many of the place names were misspelled, were eerily accurate. Hand-drawn arrows showed exactly how the invasion would take place. I quickly handed the maps to the MO. I felt uneasy about sleeping in the room with them there, in the drawer. The German’s handwriting bothered me, the way the ys looped back over themselves.

In Belgium, we set up our hospital in a beautiful medieval convent. The nuns were still resident and eager to help, but often their efforts made life more complicated as they couldn’t speak English and my French hadn’t progressed much past my schooldays. They cheered us up though – they were plump and rosy-cheeked, scurrying around their wards in their habits, happy to be doing God’s work. I didn’t believe in Heaven any more, only Hell, but it was nice to think that there were those that still thought good could triumph over evil.

It was while I was in Louvain, trying to prevent Sister Sophia-Marie from giving a patient an overdose, that I met John Hariott.

The POW camp had been liberated and he was being treated for malnutrition. On the whole, he hadn’t done too badly and, when he was discharged, I bought him dinner. It seemed like the right thing to do.

John Hariott slurped his soup, wiped his nose on his sleeve of his uniform as he buttered his bread with his other hand.

“Janey never mentioned anyone called Mary,” he said with his mouth full of food. “She said she had a bunch of schoolfriends but I thought she made them all up. She was always such a brat.”

I had lost my appetite and now my soup was cold. When it was brought over to the table it had smelled delicious and I was sad to see it go to waste.

“What was she like at school?” John asked, mopping up the rest of his soup with a hunk of bread.

I thought for a second. “Lonely,” I said.

He snorted. “Yeah that sounds right. She was obsessed with this play thing you did every year. She said she was always picked to do the solo dance.”

“Did you ever write to her?” I asked.

John looked at me over his beer glass as he took a swig. “No,” he said. He had a moustache of froth along his top lip. “We never got on. I was already posted abroad when she was young. What? Why?”

I thought about telling him he needed to wipe his top lip. “Right,” I said. It was late and there were only two other tables occupied by diners. I wondered how long it would be before I could leave without seeming rude.

“Are you going to eat that?” John was pointing at the bowl of cold soup in front of me. I shook my head and pushed it towards him.

He insisted on walking me back to the convent. It was obvious from the way he hovered near the gates that he’d expected something more from the evening but I was clear – painfully so – and, as he walked away, he kicked a stone up the road. I watched him go, walking through this ancient, medieval city as though it had been saved especially for him, so he could kick this stone down this street, and I realised that in a way I had been right. Jane’s John did not exist. This man was his shadow.

*

Victory in Europe Day. I was in Brussels, having dinner with a friend. Nancy was a nurse I’d met in Louvain and, by then, we knew not to talk about what we’d seen. Now, there was a future to toast and we wasted no time on the past, uncorking a bottle of champagne with our appetizer.

Later we went dancing. The city was a mess, but it was joy that was creating the mayhem, spilling out over the edges. The parties flowed into the streets and Nancy and I danced with each other, with strangers and, when no one else could keep up, on our own. Just before midnight, I glanced across the cobbled street and saw a young woman, dancing with a GI. In the lamplight, her acne scars were pitted, pronounced, but she was no longer hunched over. Her posture was upright, elevated, and her legs moved quickly, skirting the ground, whipping around the soldier’s legs.

“Do you know her?” Nancy asked me.

“We went to school together,” I said. “Her name’s Jane. She’s a dancer.”

About the author

Ellen LavelleEllen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.