by Linda Flynn
Piicon Biere, created in 1830. This is a French orange bitter liqueur which also contains essences of gentian and quinin and it is mixed with pilsner or wheat beer or even Hoegaarden to make it particularly potent. (Quinine has been used for restless legs syndrome and gentian for hysteria.)
Impulses by their nature are difficult to explain but when Jocelyn enclosed the smooth wooden box in her palm and absently passed the money over, she didn’t even attempt to. It was simply there, in a Strasbourg market, waiting for her to find.
Her ponderous footsteps meandered wearily between the stalls in Place de l’Etal, with the awning flapping to free itself above her head. Weighed down by the heat and her thoughts, her joints felt stiff and heavy, so unlike they had been in her younger years.
She scanned trestle tables of nougat and honeycomb, cheap oversized sunglasses and bubbles of beads that were suspended from wire racks. Some jewel coloured crystal goblets reflected the setting sun in taupe, amber and burgundy, burnishing her hair in the sheen of the golden light.
As Jocelyn sauntered away from the striped canopies, she heard a faint rattling sound clinking in time to her steps. Back in her hotel room she peeled open the lid, inhaling the musty oak smell. Nestled in a corner lay a small object, which she prised out with a finger and turned it over in the palm of her hand. It was surprisingly heavy with a silver hallmark at its base, a tiny pointed shoe, painted over in a vibrant red.
Without hesitation, she strung it on to the silver chain around her slender neck. Somehow it seemed appropriate, after all her years at the Ballet. She had given so much to that life, not just her time, but her health and relationships. Single-minded ambition was essential when she had to shine above all the other dancers to be noticed and she could not slip for a moment or a new girl would be waiting in the wings to take her place. Such intense rivalry made it difficult to form firm friendships. Even when she pulled her tendons and strained her joints, she had to keep smiling. Even when John realised that he couldn’t compete and the ‘phone calls stopped coming. Wherever the venue, whichever the country, when the spotlight shone, she surged into life.
Her whole world had been poised on the point of a pirouette.
When it ended, she went on a tour of the places she liked best, but with heavier limbs and an aching hollowness inside.
That evening she wore scarlet to match her shoe and set off in search of a pavement café. Birds wheeled above her in the sky, dipping and diving in free, fluid movements. Her steps began to pat rhythmically as she walked and she found herself drumming her hands against her thighs in time.
At the Place Gutenberg, a carousel whirled around, spinning russet and gold horses with their hoofs lifted in an eternal gallop. Her head felt as though she was turning with them.
At the far end of the square, on a wooden raised platform, a jazz band was performing, not simply playing. Even at a distance, she noticed that their animation riveted groups of people strolling out for the evening, so that they stopped to watch and listen.
Jocelyn observed an elderly couple tapping their feet at a nearby pavement café. She found herself swaying to the music, her cotton skirt fluttering and swooping around her legs. Her body moved sinuously in its own dance to the natural rhythm. Her aches and inhibitions melted away, as all her senses became swallowed in the heat, the throbbing drum beat, the saxophone’s insistent call, the trumpet’s victory dance.
Soon she was surrounded by others who were also immersed in the moment. She forgot to eat or drink, aware only of her circling arms and swirling hips. Jocelyn noticed that the saxophonist seemed to be gazing in her direction, as though the sweet bursts of improvised harmonies were just for her. The tune surrendered to bottom base notes and her skirt billowed out around her like a balloon.
When the band stopped playing to drink beer, she continued swaying. The saxophonist attempted to flatten his unruly black hair, then assuming nonchalance; he tucked his hands into his pockets and strode over. His grin lacked the arrogance of so many of the men she had met in the past, but still she kept dancing to the background music played by the local café.
“I think I know you, I’ve seen you before, that is, I’ve seen you dance. Properly I mean.” Realising his faux pas, he ruefully ran his hand through his hair so that it stood up in clumps, which made Jocelyn grin. “No that’s not what I meant to say. You are Jocelyn Gatsby aren’t you? The Prima Ballerina?”
Jocelyn smiled with a barely discernible nod.
“Your ballet dancing’s stunning.” He shook his head. “That sounds presumptuous, of course it would be, but this,” he pointed to her dancing in the square, “I like it even better, it’s freer, more flowing, less controlled. I’m Ted by the way.”
She took his outstretched hand and led him into the dance. “Well Ted, the music’s wonderful! How long have you been playing the saxophone?”
“Since I was eight. Drove my Mum mad at first. She wanted to know why I couldn’t be normal and play the recorder like the other kids.”
Jocelyn laughed, “Sometimes these interests can take over. It did for me until very recently. Do you travel much for your work?”
“It used to be all the time, but apart from this mini three week tour of Europe, I am largely based in London now. It was no life really, without any place to call home, or a person to call my own.”
Jocelyn nodded vigorously, trying to stop the sadness from welling up inside.
His hazel eyes searched her face, “Is that why you stopped dancing on the stage?”
“No, a dancer’s life is short lived. Like a butterfly, you have to make the most of your day in the sun. In the end I couldn’t keep fighting against my injuries and younger feet stepped into my shoes.”
“And now you’re here and you can’t stop dancing,” he laughed, waving to a band member holding up his saxophone. “Have you been to the museum yet?”
“No, but I leave tomorrow lunch time.”
“Well you should,” he replied, stepping away. “Read about the St Vitus Dance,” he called over his shoulder. “It happened exactly 501 years ago to this day, on the 15th June, 1518.”
With a flourish of notes, he re-joined the band. She flitted amongst the twirling dancers as a soft velvety darkness slowly descended over the square, warm and comforting.
As the numbers increased, surging forward, her feet sought greater freedom. A sense of panic constricted her, needing to escape Ted’s gaze, no longer soothed by the saxophonist’s melody. The cobbled road radiated outwards, splayed in a fan. She felt him watching her as her steps pattered rhythmically away and her hands weaved the air. Her skirt swept out behind, like a warning red flag.
She was spinning, whirling with her hair flailing out behind her in the flickering lights. Groups of students joined the dance, singing, shouting, ringing bells, blowing horns. At the Place Kleber they leapt into the fountains, leaping through the spray with gleaming droplets sparkling on their clothes.
They processed through Petite France, past Liquorice All Sorts coloured Tudor houses outlined with thick black beams. They shimmied beside the river Ill winding its silky sheen through the moonlight and underneath balconies laced with rich red geraniums.
As a torrent of water rushed through the loch gates, the group disbanded and Jocelyn stood alone watching the inky black River Ill. Almost in a trance, she found a bench where fronds of weeping willow formed a fringe between her and the sweeping river. Shadows pooled around the path as the darkness thickened.
Jocelyn shuddered as her clothes clung clammily to her skin. Breaths of breeze rippled the willow, but she stared through its tentacles at the deep, dark River Ill snaking through the city. Flanked on both sides, the Tudor buildings slumped drunkenly together; she could almost hear their creaking timbers. Ripples of laughter trickled their way through from a distant back street.
Suddenly a cool hand touched her arm and she jumped up, stifling a shriek. His grip was firm, his eyes wide and dark. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, I was just checking that you were okay, that’s all.”
“Okay? I was Ted, until you came along and frightened me out of my skin! Have you been following me?” She arched her back defensively.
“Following? No of course not. How could I? But I was concerned about you, when you went flying off like that. I wanted to check that you are all right. I’ll go now if I’m not needed.” He rose and Jocelyn could see that he was bristling.
“Sorry, no it’s me. Please sit down. I don’t know what has come over me this evening.”
He looked concerned at her soggy clothes. “Look why don’t I walk you back to your hotel before you catch a chill. It’s easy to get lost in some of these dark back streets.”
Jocelyn nodded and he planted a firm steadying arm around her back. She became aware that her skirt and top clung to her body. “Oh the wet clothes. We all ended up in the fountains at Place Gruber.”
Ted grinned. “So what time’s your train?”
“It leaves at 12.15,” she sighed.
“Well that should just about give you enough time to check out the museum.” Gently he kissed Jocelyn on the cheek and left her staring after his receding back.
The following morning her eyes flicked around the roads adjoining the museum for a man with unruly black hair. There was a ripple of laughter as a group of tourists flooded past, but he was not behind them. She couldn’t shake off the pang of disappointment which felt almost like a broken promise or being stood up on a date.
She tried to brush it off as she pushed open the doors and slid inside, feeling as though she had stepped back in time. Across the room, she noticed a picture of a pointed red shoe and swooped towards it. “St Vitus’ Dance,” read the caption. With a sharp intake of breath, she read the details of how a lone woman on the 15th June, 1518 set people in the town of Strasbourg compulsively dancing. They did not stop for food, drink or even exhaustion. Various theories were suggested, from the rye bread, bacteria, collective hysteria to escaping the miseries of their lives, but to this day it remains a mystery. Eventually the dancers were led to the St Vitus shrine, where they were given red shoes and finally stopped their dancing.
With her heart thudding, Jocelyn fingered the red shoe around her neck. She knew what she must do. Carefully she slid it off her chain and ran to the market at Place de la Grande Boucherie, aware that her steps felt lighter, the aching had gone.
She elbowed past punnets of strawberries and plump nectarines. A stall-holder reclined in a chair in front of a trestle table laden with brass pots, his mouth open and his belly heaving. Jocelyn chose a tarnished vintage jar, embossed with a leaf filigree. With a quick glance to the side, she lifted the lid, slipping the shoe inside it with a clink. Somehow she knew that the right person would find it.
Just as she was about to leave for the station a finely spun, black silk scarf caught her eye. It rippled over her fingers as flimsy as gossamer. A cyan feathery design was etched across it, sprinkled with an iridescent gold shimmer, which danced in the morning light.
As Jocelyn opened her bag to pay, she noticed a card that someone must have dropped inside her bag. It was for the Ruby Slipper Jazz Club and simply said, “I play here every Friday. Please come and dance. Ted x.”
Jocelyn placed it carefully inside her purse and smiled as she sprinted for her train.
About the auhtor
LINDA FLYNN has had two humorous novels published: Hate at First Bite for 7 – 9 year olds and My Dad’s a Drag, for teenagers. Both won Best First Chapter in The Writers’ Billboard competition.
She has six educational books with the Heinemann Fiction Project. In addition she has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, including theatre reviews and several articles on dogs.
Linda has had sixteen short stories published in the Bridge House anthologies, Chapeltown CaféLit and from the Waterloo Festival.
Her website is: www.lindaflynn.com