During the Dance
Dad stopped drinking the day my sister was born. He called her his angel, and the booze didn’t take him back until she died. He came drunk to the funeral, crying and roaring, loud enough for two parents, loud enough to make up for Mam’s silence. At the end, the men had to hold him back, or he’d have thrown himself in the grave. And foolish enough he’d have looked, a grown man in that narrow hole. I saw it in my mind’s eye, him stuck in the grave-slot, his legs waving in the air, and a laugh ripped out of me, so fierce it hurt my throat.
“Shush, boy.” Uncle Jim took my shoulder. “Quiet, Sammy.”
“Shut him up.” That was Aunt Grace. Fat, brutal, and red.
I couldn’t stop of course. The hysteria had me, and the laughter howled through me.
Dad, and Mam, and me. We made a trio, there in our borrowed black, him cursing God for the taking of a baby, me with the laughing gas and the tears rolling down my cheeks, and Mam twisting so slow on an invisible wrack, every muscle at war with every other, and no sound escaping past her teeth.
Me-me came into the world five years after me, to the day. She arrived on the same rug, in the same room. We lived the same life, but somehow she lived it deeper and sweeter. Mam called her Martha, after Nana Robbins, and the priest at St Luke’s down by Bethnal Green poured the holy water on her so that God would know her name too. I thought that was strange, because God knows everything, and because no-one called her Martha after that.
Mam called her a blessing, and her heart. Dad called her his angel. He would rock her in his arms, hour after hour, when the coals burned low in the hearth that first winter. He’d lick his finger and curl her hair into black spirals on her forehead, and she’d chuckle and reach for his hands. Somewhere along the way she named herself, in those first gurgles. Me-me.
I came back to that room after we’d buried her. The room where we slept four to the bed, and now three. I sat on the rug, gray, with a memory of some diamond pattern in the fluff above the worn hessian. We’d both arrived there, me squalling at the world, telling it off good and proper, Mam said. Me-me limp and silent so’s to set Dad shouting up the stairs, is it dead? Oh Jesus! But she’d coughed, and rolled open the bluest eye.
I picked at the fluff and tried to imagine the pattern that’d been there once, a lifetime ago, woven in, bought and sold, sold again, beaten for dust in the alleys. Beaten out. Would Me-me be beaten out? She was just a pattern now. A pattern in my head. A small marker in the corner where they put the little ones. A white coffin Dad couldn’t afford. She’ll be cold there, under that London clay. I thought of her, alone now, in that dark box, and the tears came.
Me-me walked young, and she talked young. She brought the sun with her, into the narrow alleyways of the East End. As a child in poverty you never know that you’re poor, the slums are the slums. They’re home. They’re what is. So I’d never felt poor. But Me-me made us feel rich. She carried smiles with her.
An older brother is supposed to be the one to delight the younger children with tales, but in our house it was Me-me who told the stories. From the moment she could talk she narrated a world I couldn’t see. We’d sit on the steps out front, and watch the children barefoot in the street, and the coal-man coming with his sacks to fill the cellars of those who could pay. We’d watch the birds above, in that bright line of sky between the rooftops, we’d watch the washing on the lines, but most of all, Me-me would watch the dancers, and I would listen.
She saw them everywhere. She saw them dancing on fence-tops, along old gutters, between the pegs on the washing line. She called them the `dancers’, but then `angels’ because Mam said that was proper if she couldn’t stop talking about them. Mostly she saw them out on their own, dancing one at a time. She saw a lady in white, dance on Mrs Jenning’s doorstep. She said the lady had hair like glass, and a dress that sparkled like sugar. She danced there for an hour before the light failed, jumping from step to step, even though they were taller than her. And we watched, or rather Me-me, watched and clapped her hands, and I listened to her, and tried so hard to see that sometimes I imagined a sparkle from the angel’s dress when she spun.
The next day the sheets on Mrs Jennings’ line were stained red, and Mam said she had a lovely baby girl. Dad told me about the stork and the gooseberry bush, and I nodded and told him I believed it. But really I knew the white lady had brought little Sarah Jennings to the house that night.
“Where do the dancers come from?” I wanted to know. “And why don’t they talk?”
“They do talk, silly.” Me-me spread her pudgy arms. “They talk like this.” She twirled, half-graceful, half-awkward, for she wasn’t even four.
“Where do they come from?” I asked.
I kept my voice low because Billy Evans was coming up the street. He’d be ten soon. He was skinny, but tall with it, and mean. He had an apple, and my tummy growled as I watched him eat it.
“Somes come from peoples,” Me-me said. “And somes don’t.”
Billy passed by. He smiled at Me-me. Everyone did.
“From people?” I tried to imagine it.
“From peoples.” She nodded. “When they let them out.”
I glanced at Billy Evans, splashing bare-foot through the mud at the corner. “Billy Evans has a dancer?”
“What’s his dancer like?” I asked.
“Very sad,” Me-me said.
“What’s your dancer like?”
“She’s a rainbow.” Me-me grinned so wide her dimples showed.
“Do I have a dancer?” I asked.
But she’d turned away. “Looks!” She clapped her hands together.
And I looked. “What?”
“Lots!” She clapped again. “Blue dancers.”
We watched and she talked. She told me they were rushing around us, fast and serious. She told me about their blues, and greens, and how they danced together, swirling around, and around.
That night Old Father Thames burst his banks, and we had to live upstairs for the week it took Dad to dig the mud out of our living room.
I think it was that week of wetness, with the stink of the mud, and the rain never stopping, that put the cough in her. She’d cough and it would hurt inside me. Mam and Dad kept her close. Dad was always picking her up and twirling her round in a jig. “Hey Me-me, we’ll dance that nasty cough away? Do your angels dance like this, do they?” And she’d giggle and push at him, “No.” But then she’d cough again, with blood in it, and the game would finish.
Me-me got a fever, and Dad went for the doctor. He said he’d steal for the money if he had to. He didn’t though, the street turned out for Me-me, a penny here, a farthing there, a shilling from Mrs Jennings.
The doctor came, and went. A little man in a hat that I’d have laughed at, if Me-me wasn’t sick. He left his bitter medicine, and that was that. The four of us huddled the bed, with the darkness, and the coughing, and Mam taking a little gasp of breath every now and then.
That next morning the fever had gone, and Me-me lay quiet and very white. Dad said it was a good sign. He went out to find work at the docks, maybe there’d be unloading, and he could buy her some bread and some bacon fat to drip on it. “Nothing like bacon fat for a weak chest.”
Mam went to do washing for rich ladies down at the laundry. And I sat with Me-me.
“What’s my dancer like?” It was a game now. I always asked and she never told me.
She turned toward me, heavy, like she was made of stone. “You got to let him out, Sammy.”
“How?” Something’s wrong?she never tells me.
“You got to let him out. Soon, or never.” She seemed to be looking through me. “He’s like a new penny. Copper, and very quick. Very quick.”
I’d never felt so frightened, not even back when Dad was drinking. “Let’s go play, Me-me. I can carry you down.”
She looked away.
“Oh!” Her eyes went round.
“I see a new dancer. She’s so pretty.”
I looked around the room. I always looked and never saw. “Where?”
“She’s on the end of the bed, silly. She’s black like coal.” Me-me giggled. “She’s got no dress.”
It felt cold in the room and I didn’t want that black dancer dancing on the end of Me-me’s bed.
“Tell her to go away,” I said.
“Oh, but she dances so pretty, Sammy. She dances . . . so pretty.” She was only four, and didn’t have the words for it.
I watched her eyes. Very wide and dark.
“Tell her to go!” I had ice on my skin.
Me-me lifted her white arms and swirled them before me. For a moment I heard the music.
“No!” I caught her up in my arms. But she’d gone, and what I held was limp and cold.
The slum is gone. Razed and built over with warehouses and factories. Beaten out like a carpet-pattern. All that came with me from those days is Sarah Jennings, who I married, because of her smile, and her cleverness, and the white lady who danced on her step the night of her birth.
We go to the cemetery, Sarah, me, the twins, Samuel and Robert, and little Martha in Sarah’s arms. I had Me-me’s white coffin moved from the mud at St Luke’s. I didn’t watch, but I had them do it. You can have things like that done when you’re rich. I had her put in Highbury, up on the hill with a view, with Mam to her left and Dad to her right. He’d have liked that.
I gave her a new headstone too, and since I never had the words to tell it, I had Oscar Wilde’s words put there instead, the poem he wrote for his little sister who died too young as well, even though she had fair hair and Me-me had black.
All her golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.
Peace, Peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life is buried here,
Heap earth upon it.
Sam and Robert hold my hands, one each. They don’t like to see me get sad.
“How did she die, Dad?” Sam asks.
I don’t answer. I can’t speak.
Sarah tells them. I’ve told her everything.
“During the dance.”
They want more, but Martha has struggled out of Sarah’s arms and is running to the graves. She stops in front of Me-me’s. She’s laughing and pointing.
“People dancing, Daddy. Dancing!”
“Who’s dancing, darling?” Sarah’s voice isn’t much more than a whisper.
“A rainbow girl.” She claps her hands. “And a copper boy. And they’re laughing.”