In The Deepness Of The City

An extract from the fourth chapter of the novella I’m working on, currently titled ‘In The Deepness Of The City.’


She is outside the dance studio again, watching. It is good that there’s a bus shelter just outside and she can stand there on the pavement side, leaning against the perspex with her back to the road, watching. She looks as if she’s waiting for a bus that won’t come, but in fact she is watching through the glass as bodies bend and stretch and perform feats of contortion that barely seem real. Françoise had been fit, but never like this. Ell has never been fat but she hardly spends time at the gym. Her fitness is a façade. Her ligaments are like old rope, not elastic.

Audrey is in there, bending, graceful. Today she has a turquoise leotard something the colour of peacock feathers. She has opaque flesh-coloured tights and for now there are crumpled leg warmers about her ankles, in stripes of fuschia and cream and blue. She is wearing pointe shoes that are grubby over the blocks. Ell just stands and watches, and wonders if she could be lucky enough. There are so many variabilities, so many flaps of the butterfly’s wing to take into account. Even after the minute possibility that Audrey is gay, is she free or taken? Does she want to date? Would she possibly, possibly ever be interested in what Ell has to offer her? Would she have the strength to fight with Françoise’s ghost?

Ell closes her eyes and when she opens them Audrey has gone from her place at the barre. She searches around, almost panicking, but then Audrey appears, so close that Ell is startled. She’s just on the other side of the glass, bending to her bag and taking a drink of water from a battered Evian bottle. She straightens up and sees Ell through the glass, and there is a moment of recognition. Ell half smiles, and Audrey half waves.

The moment stretches into awkwardness. Ell looks down, starts to fumble with her phone as if something needed attending to. And then when she looks up Audrey is gone again. The bag is still there, but Audrey is gone. She’s not in the room behind the glass. She is just gone. Perhaps it’s Ell’s curse to find herself drawn to faeries. She picks those who can perform feats of disappearance and reappearance at will. Françoise’s disappearing act had been the most perfect of all. It doesn’t matter how long she waits for her to rematerialise, whole and well. It will never happen.

And there Audrey is, in front of her, wearing a retro trenchcoat that reaches her knees but doesn’t disguise that she’s still in the dance outfit. Her lower legs are still clad in opaque pink tights. There is a flash of peacock at her chest, where the sides of the coat come together. She is wearing slip-on shoes that look too big for her.

‘Are you stalking me by any chance?’ she asks lightly. She is Audrey Hepburn. She has that same light insouciance. She gives the impression that she is quietly amused.

Ell is unnerved. She doesn’t know what to say. She fumbles with the mobile in her hand, and drops it. Audrey picks it up and hands it to her. The screen is cracked.

‘There’s a good place for screen repairs just round the corner,’ she says. Then she nods over towards the door of the dance studio. ‘There’s a café inside. Just a little place. You can tell me over coffee.’

‘Tell you what?’ Ell asks. She is still unnerved, but she follows Audrey in through the door. She is used to being in control. She has six girls and a couple of men directly under her at work. She is always friendly, but they do as they are told.

‘If you’re stalking me,’ Audrey says lightly over her shoulder.

Inside the building is not how it seemed from the façade of glass. It’s an old place, Victorian maybe, but it’s been hacked about to suit its current needs. Audrey takes her up a narrow staircase with peeling paint and in through doors with safety glass panels – the kind with a wire mesh inside the glass. The place is more of a canteen than a café, but there are small tables and a friendly atmosphere. Audrey steers Ell to a table by the windows, which seem to have been installed in the sixties in defiance of the Victorian intentions of elegance.

‘Coffee, yes?’ Audrey asks. ‘Black? White? Sugar?’

‘Oh,’ Ell says, and then, ‘Black, yes. Two sugars.’

She can’t stand white coffee unless it’s properly made, or with cream, and she can’t imagine getting a macchiato at this place.

Audrey returns with two coffees in hotelware cups, and a stack of two plates with pastries on top.

‘I took a liberty,’ she says, separating the plates and tipping one of the pastries onto it. It is flaky and topped with what looks like apricot jam, and Ell’s mouth waters despite herself.

‘I didn’t think dancers – ‘ she begins.

‘We don’t all have eating disorders,’ Audrey laughs, tearing open a packet of sugar and tipping it into her coffee. When she stirs it the spoon hits musically against the china.

‘I suppose I am stalking you,’ Ell says in a quick voice, while Audrey’s spoon makes that noise. ‘I saw you in the laundrette. You must live near me.’

‘Oh, is that where it was?’ Audrey asks, as if she has been struggling with a memory all along. ‘I knew I’d seen your face. I’m surprised we’ve never met on the tube.’

‘Well, there are so many people on the tube,’ Ell shrugs, and Audrey laughs and takes a sip of coffee.

‘Oh, I must give Karen back her shoes,’ she says, sticking one artfully pointed foot out from the side of the table. The shoe almost falls off. It is a sharp-ended thing, a kind of flat-soled pump, and Ell thinks of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers.

While Audrey hurries out of the door Ell sits and sips her coffee and takes a bite of her pastry. It is surprisingly good. Through the window she can see people moving up and down the pavement and a red bus drawing in to the stop. The buildings opposite have Georgian façades. The sky above is growing heavy and grey, and she supposes it is about to rain.

Audrey returns, wearing more complicated shoes that are high-heeled with more than one strap. These ones fit.

‘I couldn’t go out in my pointe shoes,’ she explains.

‘I thought you were Dorothy,’ Ell says with a self-conscious laugh. ‘You know. The Wizard of Oz.’

‘Oh, the film,’ Audrey says, and then quickly adds as if it were common knowledge, ‘Dorothy’s shoes were silver. They changed it for the film. Anyway, I had to borrow Karen’s. These would have taken too long. You would have been gone.’

‘You wanted to see me?’ Ell asks, trying not to sound too surprised or needy through those words.

‘Well, I wanted to know why I keep seeing you,’ Audrey corrects her, but in a light and friendly way.

‘This is the only time it’s been deliberate,’ Ell confesses. She is very self conscious of whether her makeup is all right and of the little ring that Françoise gave her, silver on her little finger. ‘Pret a Manger was coincidence. So was seeing this place the first time, and you being here. But you didn’t see me then, I think. I recognised the logo from the laundrette.’

‘You don’t know me,’ Audrey says.

‘I don’t know anything about you,’ Ell confesses. ‘I don’t even know your name.’

Audrey smiles. ‘My name’s Henry,’ she says. ‘Henrietta, of course,’ at Ell’s bewildered look. ‘Mum and dad really wanted a boy.’

‘Oh,’ Ell says, then, ‘Ellen. I’m Ell.’

Audrey – or Henry, as Ell must remember to call her – extends a hand. ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Ell.’

Ell smiles and takes her hand. Henry’s hand is small and cold and she wants to carry on holding it but she lets go quickly instead. She is not usually this hesitant. She’s used to being direct and getting what she wants. That was how it was with Françoise. She walked up to her and asked her for her number, and Françoise gave it to her. That was just how it was. Sometimes she expects to look up and see Françoise standing there, watching her fall apart.

‘My partner killed herself,’ she says quickly, bluntly, as if that will dispel Françoise’s ghost.

‘Oh,’ Henry says.

Ell is used to that. People never know what to say. The people at work didn’t know what to say when she had to explain. She had to say something because she found herself crying at her desk, and the company weren’t obliged to give her time off, but they did anyway. Audrey’s eyes have dropped and she has picked up her pastry, but hasn’t taken a bite. No. Henry. Ell tries to imagine Audrey Hepburn playing a character called Henry, and that makes it easier. She supposes she would do it well. She would have short hair that framed the contours of her face and chic 1960s clothes, and would suit the name perfectly.

‘I – suppose I’ve been lonely,’ Ell confesses.

‘How long ago?’ Henry asks her. She is sitting with half of her pastry held between her fingers and flakes fall down onto the table. She is obviously not going to start eating while Ell speaks to her about this.

‘Oh, how long ago?’ Ell muses. She has the date imprinted in her mind, but that doesn’t tell her how long ago it was. ‘It must be six months,’ she says with a tone of surprise. ‘Yes, I’m sure it’s six months. She – well – she was at the tube station…’

‘Oh,’ Henry says again, and then her eyes widen. Her eyes should belong to a doe, but they are too forthright. ‘Oh, I think I remember something about that. The station was closed for a few hours. There was something in the paper.’

‘Well,’ Ell says with a half-choked laugh that wants to be a sob. ‘Well, that was her. That was Françoise.’

‘I am so sorry,’ Henry says, and Ell believes that she is sincere.

‘Well,’ she shrugs. She takes a sip of her coffee and wishes she were in Starbucks, where they always write ‘L’ or ‘Elle’ on her cup but get the coffee just right. ‘I saw you in the laundrette,’ she continues after a moment. ‘I saw your reflection in the washing machine door. I was drawn to you.’

So there it is. It’s all out now, and Audrey – Henry – can do what she likes with it. Ell has laid down a hand of cards on the table and it’s for Henry to pick them up and see what she can make.

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