Read Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance Online

Authors: Lloyd Jones

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Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance (9 page)

BOOK: Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance
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They danced that night.

Schmidt introduced Billy Pohl and Henry Graham to the rocking step that had so scandalised them a few nights earlier. She could feel Billy pulling her into him. Henry just leant against her. She noticed Schmidt give himself completely over to the others. He crouched like a blacksmith shoeing a horse to correct the position of errant feet. He encouraged Henry to step more inside the embrace. Billy he got to extend his front leg so she could flick her bare ankle up; and when she did so, her calf brushing his, she saw Billy smile, as if at a pleasurable taste in his upper palate. On top of this instruction Schmidt kept the song going. He was there strictly for the benefit of the others. Very deliberately, Louise felt him avoid her eye. She didn't get to dance with him at all.

By the time they lay down by the embers of the fire to sleep she felt the evening had been wasted. The sea made its listless noises. It slurped and drew back around the rocks. It was a full moon, and there was enough light for her to see a crab crab-walk into the cave entrance. There, it stopped to look around before moving on to search for lodgings farther up the beach. She managed to smile. She realised she had become used to the cave. It wasn't so bad. On the surface at least it had grown to be tolerable. In other more vital ways, she had never felt more alive. She just wished she had got to dance with the piano tuner. She
needed
to dance with him. And what a shift that represented. Who'd have thought three weeks ago when she packed up provisions that dance might be more important to her than water?

Far out to sea she saw a shooting star grow bright, turn brighter, then die in a burst of incandescence. There went her old life. She heaved a sigh and returned to listening to the sleeping breath of Billy Pohl and Henry Graham. She thought of the shellfish gatherer. Then, tired of these thoughts, tired of thinking and of being awake, she switched herself on to her side to find Schmidt awake beside her. She saw him smile. In the half light he looked like a jowly lion. He must have been looking at her all this while. Now he marched his fingers across the sand and spread his hand over hers. He kneaded each finger. Circled her palm with his forefinger. Caressed. Probed. She closed her eyes and let his fingers explore her neck and cheek. There was a sudden noise, a shuffle of rearrangement from one of the others, and his hand withdrew in to darkness.

In the morning, on her way back from the hill stream, she climbed the point. Her hair was still wet, and a cooler sea breeze than usual goosepimpled her skin. The wind was from a different quarter. The shellfish gatherer was back, his heavy shoulders digging in the sea. She was shocked by his progress. She had imagined him going from one rock to the next, progressively, more or less in order. She hadn't expect him to be so random about it. But there in the sand was the drag of his sack where he had walked along the beach in search of an entry point into the sea.

She climbed down and ran back along the beach. She met Schmidt sitting on a log a short distance from the cave. He stood up in his leisurely, bemused way.

‘Where are the others?' she asked him.

He shrugged and pointed vaguely.

‘Henry's gathering firewood. I don't know where Billy is. Up at the stream?'

‘Then we can dance,' she said.

He was slow to take her words on board. Or perhaps that was just a ploy while he thought of a way to turn down the invitation? ‘Just us,' she said, in case he had other thoughts.

The piano tuner's smile faded. He looked behind.

‘No one will know,' she said.

‘One dance.' She saw him calculating the quantity of danger ‘one dance' represented. He started to nod his head.

‘Just the one,' he made her promise.

‘One is good,' she said, knowing that one dance could be for a long, long time.

As they hurried to the cave Schmidt tried to get her to see it from his point of view. It was a ‘delicate situation'. It wasn't that he didn't want to dance.

‘Please understand that,' he said. He raised his shirtsleeve to adjust a cufflink that had long ago disappeared. She told him to relax. It was just a dance for goodness sakes. But she smiled as she said this. It was an insincere voice, one that adults use for children. She was as excited as Schmidt. Still, she told him he was worrying over nothing.

‘Not over nothing Louise,' he said.

She didn't think he was going to say it, admit it out in the open. But he did.

‘You know what Billy's like,' he said.

She noticed his forehead. It was sweating. And when he took hold of her his hands were clammy.

‘Plus,' she said, just in case he had other ideas, ‘I want to hear you sing.'

They danced, after a fashion.They danced in spite of themselves. Louise couldn't stop herself thinking of the shellfish gatherer, the threat he posed. Just as a new life was taking shape for her, too. Schmidt, on the other hand, trained his attention on the cave entrance. There was a male wariness about him. He sang, though very softly and without much conviction, until finally the words drifted away entirely and when he began to hum she told him, ‘No, I want to hear the words.'

At a certain point though the song ended and Schmidt stopped and released her. He stepped back and held his hands away from her. ‘One dance. I thought we agreed.'

This was one of the times she could have told him about the shellfish gatherer. He wouldn't be so cautious if he knew their days might be numbered. On the other hand she couldn't be sure of his reaction. He was a hard one to judge. He might turn out to be like Henry. Given half a chance she was sure Henry would conspire to let himself be seen. Probably he would just turn himself in; like the man who chooses to fall from a cliff face rather than persist with the mental agony of hanging on.Wishing for certainty above all else.

She could give up the cave. She could give it up at a moment's notice. The cave was just part of the fit. The shell enclosed about the succulent bit. But she couldn't give up Schmidt. She would have to get rid of the shellfish gatherer.

She had run through the scene many times. In her own mind, when she approached the stranger he would look up and she would bide her time, like God with all the answers, or a train conductor on his approach along the carriage, or the grocer, neat dapper Mr Fawls who her father had approached for credit one time during a poor fishing season.

It could have been for as long as a minute that she stood at the edge of the tide waiting to be ‘discovered'. She watched the shellfish gatherer with his blind man's movement; saw his thick shoulders hover and bob. When at last he sensed he had company his head appeared to snap back. The sea let go of his white singlet and poured off his huge stomach. The rest was the unrehearsed part.

The man's face reported back what he saw. A woman fallen out of the sky. Her bare feet, the sun-faded and torn black dress.

His eyes ran over her, noting detail. His silent examination caused her to raise a hand to her uncombed hair.

He may have said something at that moment. The shape of his mouth suggested ‘What?' That may have been the end or the start of what he said. A wave flopped noisily ashore and spilled a million glass fragments.

She raised her dress over her thin legs as far as her waist. She invited the shellfish gatherer to look, which is what he did. He did look. Though only briefly, because he looked up again as if to check with her.

She meant to say,
You can touch.
To make it easier on both parties she cast her eyes out to sea. She took on the forbearance of the hills that take no notice of events at their feet, and waited for the man to drag himself from the water. He hauled his sack and dumped it on the wet sand. Louise thought she saw the red shell of a crab crawl out the opening. He let go of the sack, and with the hand he'd used to pick up shellfish he reached towards her as if to pick up something off a shelf; that's when she took a well-rehearsed step back.

He was unshaven. Dark around the eyes. A rough-shaped mouth.

‘I know who you are,' he said. ‘You're that woman.' As he said that he looked back at the point separating the two beaches.

‘They're gone,' she said quickly. ‘They went north a week ago.'

He kept gazing up at the skyline above the point. She didn't think any of the others would show themselves. She'd made a point of telling Henry in passing that she was going to the hill stream. The man lost interest in the sky. The revelatory moment he clearly thought was on the cards had failed to reveal itself. She saw him reconsider. He set his teeth against his bottom lip and looked back at her. Then he dropped his eyes to what her raised dress revealed. A puzzled but interested look took hold of his face. He made a move towards her and once again Louise quickly stepped back, though still with her skirts riding around her hips.

‘First promise me something.'

She waited until the man nodded.

‘Promise me you won't ever come back here again.'

He nodded.

‘And that you won't tell another living soul.'

Again he nodded.

‘What?' she said.

‘Right,' he said this time.

‘Because if you do people will find out about this.'

The man's face whitened. She thought perhaps she shouldn't have said that. She didn't want to scare him away.

‘One touch is all you get,' she said.

The hand that tore shellfish from the rocks was laid against her. Thinking it would be unpleasant she looked away and found a slow-moving cloud to focus on. But it wasn't quite as she had thought it would be. It wasn't unpleasant. It was no more and no less than interesting. The shellfish gatherer kept his hand there. Loyal to the task. She heard him sigh and it was like the breath of a man grown tired of waiting. Or simply wanting to move on to the next thing. It occurred to her that time was up. She let go of her dress and reluctantly, the shellfish gatherer withdrew his hand under the falling curtain of fabric.

‘Don't forget,' she said.

The shellfish gatherer looked down at the wet sack. It moved and crawled with sea life. He looked back at the sea. She saw him frown. It had just dawned on him what he had agreed to give up. How easy it was. Every unrehearsed moment falling into place. Everything with its own pulse shifting with tidal inevitability. He'd coughed a lot: that was really the worst of it. Coughed again as he touched her. She didn't feel bad or guilty as she had thought she would. She didn't think or feel much other than a curiosity—and this, which was the surprising part, a continued light pressure where the shellfish gatherer's hand had been.

The feeling stayed with her, that light pressure. She worried that it would pull certain strings in her face. The world had its ways of leaking information. She remembered as children, how careful they had been to brush away the crumbs of the pinched biscuits.

The panic of the past few days lifted and Louise returned to the daydream of chores and division of labour. There was firewood to collect. ‘Beds' to be made. Paua to scrape off the ocean bed, its flesh to wrap in cloth and beat to a pulp then sliced and cooked on the skillet. There was the usual talk on whether or not the world had forgotten them. More speculation as to what had happened to Tom Williams.That was a concern. She also mentioned to the others that they were running out of salt. But no one said anything, preoccupied as they were with the one thing.The resolution of ‘the situation'.

Billy and Henry repeatedly told one another Tom would come when he thought it was safe. They must have been watching him otherwise Tom would have come for them by now, for sure. Leave it to Tom to figure out a way. Tom will outsmart them. Hell, everyone knew Tom could look you in the eye and make the hills move without you knowing.

These discussions didn't include Schmidt. He didn't know this Tom Williams, or his saintly power, and so removed himself to the mouth of the cave to stare at the horizon and watch another day depart, another nightfall.

At night, with the flames crackling at his back, the piano tuner turned away. It was a private moment that she both wondered about and resented him for. She was sure that Schmidt's thoughts wheeled and circled in a place richer than her own. And because that place did not include her—how could it?—she envied the piano tuner these moments alone. This entry into his other life.

Or his next. The one that would exclude her. Whereas she had only this one to ponder and contemplate. This one life because it was richer than any she had known. She stared at the piano tuner's back with these mixed feelings. And while it was also true that if you stared long enough at the horizon eventually your eyes burned a space big enough to call your own, Schmidt wasn't allowed to idle there for long.

The eager hand clapping of Billy Pohl and Henry Graham snapped the piano tuner back to the here and now, this sandy, sticky, sandfly-plagued cave. Billy and Henry's efforts at managing the tango beat pulled him out of that space he had cleared for himself. From a cross-legged position, they leant forward slapping their hands and howled the few remembered Spanish words he'd taught them. And the piano tuner, appreciative, though with just a bit of hangdog capitulation pulling on the edges of his smile, came gliding back inside the cave. He smiled at Louise and raised his arms; and she smiled back, shifting her shoulders a bit this way and that. She moved inside his arms as she had on numerous other occasions. The piano tuner shifted his left leg forward which was a signal for her to move hers back. But at that same moment he forestalled her. She felt him exert pressure on her back. He dropped his head and she rose to meet his lips. They hadn't rehearsed that before. On the other hand, it didn't feel like something they might get wrong. She tasted his mouth, his rough whiskered lips. That was all they had time for because the ‘music' stopped.

It was silent. A piece of dried sea necklace popped in the fire. She felt Schmidt release her. His mouth. Then his hand on her elbow. Bit by bit she was being released.

BOOK: Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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