(from The Piranha Dances)
When he came into view of the door, he could see that it had been closed. Claude stood at a cautious distance from the mottled glass and peered through to see Bernadette’s shape lace its way between the rows of chairs towards the back, where he should have been sitting. She sat next to the hazy figure that was the lady who wore wrist supports and always smelt a little of cigars.
Raphael was standing at the front, primed to patronise. Even blurred, disdain emanated from him like a stench.
Claude drew further back from the window and took a few paces towards the top of the stairs. But he stopped. There were promises that had to be kept. And there was nothing beyond this place if he walked down the stairs and out of the door.
But still he couldn’t drive himself back towards the studio.
He looked around the murky corridor. There was another door, another room closer to the stairs next the Danzamão studio. Claude walked quietly over and laid his fingers gently on the door handle. He pressed down. It wasn’t locked.
As he stepped inside, some heavy feet began to climb the stairs. The compelling tones of Harry the doorman reached the climber, “Oi, you! Where you headin’ off to?”
Claude quickly moved inside the room and closed the door behind him.
On the stairs, an awkward response burbled unintelligibly.
Harry’s voice, though downstairs, still made its way through the closed door. “Well, that class is not upstairs, my son. That is down the hallway here.”
Apologetic murmurs faded with descending footsteps.
And finally, fading slightly, “Alright. Fine. But now you know. So off you go. … And don’t be heading up there again. I’m all soft and cuddly now but you don’t want to see me when I’ve told someone twice.”
Claude stood in the sudden silence and looked around the room. Some evening light spilled through the window along the wall opposite the door. After a moment of peace, Raphael’s voice came through the wall, berating some poor individual about notes and writing and rules. Claude knew he had to stay where he was for now. It seemed sensible – but gutless. He couldn’t go into that room next door, and if he went down the stairs he knew he would never come back. And the rest of his life …
He slid down onto the cool floor and leant against the closed door. And as he sat and tried to rest his eyes in the simplicity of the dark, the light from outside glowed more brightly and the room etched its shape in greater detail. It was a small studio – conventional, probably like the ones downstairs. The front wall was a mirror and along the side opposite the windows was a barre. In the corner under the window where the light was brightest, a patch of the linoleum contrasted with the floor surrounding it. It was darker and shiny, a skewed rectangle shape. Claude guessed that a piano had once been there and hoped, for someone’s sake, that it was still somewhere upstairs – because carrying such a thing down the steps that he climbed and descended every Thursday would have been a perilous job.
There was a rag – perhaps an old towel – hanging over the barre and some curling posters still clinging to the back wall.
And that was all.
A plain, empty room.
Claude felt the tinny voice from the neighbouring room reach through him again. And suddenly he was remembering other voices he had heard when he sat alone in rooms – when he had been a boy and his mother had worked night shifts so that she could make better money.
He hadn’t been scared. The people around had been neighbours, people he knew. But their voices had sounded different through the nighttime walls – all echoes and far away and in another world. And Claude had told himself then that he liked the quiet of the room and the trust of his mother, who relied on him.
“You will be fine,” she had said. “I know you will. Because, Claude, that is the person that you are. I see how strong you are and I’m sorry that you need to be, but I’m glad of it.”
His father had been first a bastard and then just gone. And gone was better. Not that he had hit them – no more than fathers did in those times – or locked them up, or broken too many things. But he had been selfish and unpredictable and sometimes cruel. And later Claude had wondered if he had also been sad and ashamed, but that was never clear. And never talked about.
Claude’s mother was all the parent he had needed. She had loved him and helped him to see that being brave by itself was not enough. He had to be brave and just be a boy – if he could – because bravery could be an empty place if that is all you have. So she had coaxed him to find some fun here and there and not look at her with concern but smile at her because she had all that she could want. And she had laughed and scolded and been proud. And Claude still missed her every day.
The lights outside were flickering. Perhaps a neon sign on a building below was coaxing passers-by to enter or buy. Or a streetlight may have been in its death throes. Claude’s eyes settled on the piano imprint as it caught the light and intermittently glowed and faded. But his gaze was really somewhere else.
He wished his mother could have seen the restaurant. He wished she could have known what he’d become. He wanted to show her that he was not his father. That he had worked and trained and learnt and become someone.
She had known his first kitchen. And when he had become a sous chef, she had told her friends, “My son is a chef. Not a cook – a chef!” And he had known that she was proud.
But now. What would she think of him now? He couldn’t call himself a chef when he couldn’t work in the kitchen.
Claude’s heart plunged, cold and sickened. Perhaps he had become his father. Perhaps now that he was nothing, genetics had risen to take hold.
Next door, the muffled voice of Raphael introduced the ‘berço’. Claude imagined stiff fingers trying to find a curve, braced wrists looking for an appropriate posture.
He looked down at his palms and lay one over the other in the cradle pose. He lifted the tips of his fingers – with some effort – to form a slight arc. And he stared at his left palm and its jagged scars. He stared at them closely and he moved his right hand to stroke its fingertips across them, looking all the time.
And he told himself that this was his problem. Not his father. This was his to beat, not something deep inside him. It was just skin.
He lifted himself up and, as he did, the door of the Danzamão studio opened. Claude opened the door of the vacant room and stepped into the corridor as the smokers headed down the stairs. As he reached the studio door, Bernadette was walking out.
“Oh!” She stepped back.
Claude took some backward paces into the corridor to allow her to exit and she joined him outside the room.
“I thought you weren’t here.”
Claude nodded. “I wasn’t. … Now I am.”
Bernadette smiled. “You haven’t missed much. Just ‘ondas’ and ‘berço’. And ‘sienta la tierra’ … everyone’s got that now.”
“I’ll head on in.”
“OK – new stuff after the break, I think.” She turned and headed down the corridor towards the bathroom.
Claude walked into the room and made his way towards the back. He counted two down from the cigar lady and sat down. And as he waited, he looked directly at his palms and gently stroked each with his fingers, feeling every knot and ridge, noticing every patch of numbness. His breath was shallow and his mouth was dry but he kept massaging with his fingertips, trying to ease the stiffness and coax some movement into his hands.
And as he did, he saw his mother doing something similar. When he would visit her on his days off from the hotel, she would be sitting in her chair, listening to the radio and rubbing softly at her hands. Years of work, mending, cooking and living had ached through her hands and Claude had watched her try to knead some new life into them.
And he had hoped one day that he could be the kind of person that she was.
Claude smiled privately.
He looked towards the window and the blanket glow of night light and he wondered for a moment what had happened to the flickering shimmers that had invaded the room next door. A breeze suddenly blew through the studio and the veiled mirrors – pushed to the side of the room – flared their shimmering reflections. As the black gauze floated down again, Claude blinked himself back. To this room, this Thursday, these hands in front of him. Bernadette sat on the chair beside him and he looked up at her. She smiled gently and then turned to look towards the front.
“’Uma brisa delicada’,” Raphael said, as he lifted his fingers to waft rhythmically in front of his face. It was as if a faint ripple made its way through his hands. “A gentle breeze.”
Claude began to try the movement lower, out of view. It was difficult but not as painful as the more extreme movements. He glanced to his left. Bernadette’s interpretation was more like a gentle breeze than anything Raphael could have imagined. Even her face looked as if she could feel soft puffs of air tracing her features. She paused for a moment and gestured to Claude to lift his hands. He was reluctant. Bernadette cast her eyes around the room. No one was looking at them. And no one had mastered the move yet.
Claude continued to strain to make his hands undulate and, as he did, he raised them towards his face. He urged them to move the way he could see in his mind.
And then he felt soft buffeting breaths of air from his fingertips wafting so tenuously over his cheeks. The movement was almost touching his skin, but not quite close enough. He continued to concentrate on the smooth and careful rippling movement.
And for a second, he wondered what his mother would think of all this.