‘Now, standing at the barre in the silent white studio, she remembered that blood.’
Extract from The Gloaming
Forthcoming from Harvill Secker
By Kirsty Logan
Signe was alone in the studio, running through rehearsals for a role she already knew by heart: Odile, the wicked black-costumed witch of Swan Lake, the contrast to the good white-costumed Odette. She’d been playing the dual role for three months in this particular production; there was another month to go. It was hard not to measure time in months now. Ever since she’d met Peter – his knuckles big and knotted like they were carved from wood, his shoulders curving round her like the walls of a house. She knew she wanted to make new life with him.
Signe brought her foot up to the barre and bent to touch her raised toe, feeling the pull in her inner thigh, in her obliques, through each finger as she stretched – and there, suddenly, another pull where there shouldn’t be one. A flutter, an insect-wing flicker deep inside her. She straightened and stretched her arms above her head until it went away.
Love had already begun to fill her out. A ballet dancer’s clothing is tiny and tight, but the practical thinness of her figure makes the skimpiness elegant, classic, rather than sultry. In the streets, in her coat and ankle boots, Signe was still a slim woman. But at the barre she was fleshly, an embarrassment of curves. Her shiny black leotard seemed more to oil her body than cover it.
After her performance the night before, she’d run straight from the stage to a theatre two streets over to see Peter fight. They’d spent every night that week with his bent and swollen hands resting in a salad bowl of ice, his body hunched over the kitchen table. His knuckles were salted white with scars.
‘There are two ways out of a life like this,’ Peter had said. His voice was thickened and drowsy, treacle-slow. Signe turned from the sink where she was tipping more ice into a cloth. ‘One way is to fail. The other is to die.’
Signe brought him a new bowl of ice and lightly kissed his forehead and slid her heavying body onto his lap. She distracted him with her love and herself – but she knew that he was right.
Most dancers, if they’re lucky, will perform as prima ballerina throughout their 20s. Then, when their 30s roll around, they can no longer play the princess or the young lover. There are still plenty of good roles to play – some may argue that these roles are better. The psychotic queen in Alice in Wonderland, the wicked godmother in Sleeping Beauty, the grotesque fortune-telling witch in La Sylphide. By the time the dancer is in her late 30s, even mothers and witches are too young, and the only choice left is to train others. That’s assuming you’ve hung in there that long: it’s possible you’d have snapped your achilles tendon, dislocated your knees during a spin, or had a hip replacement after too many leg extensions. But whenever you go, it’s rare that anyone would notice you were gone. As soon as you stop dancing, there’s another dancer already prepped to step into your place. She’d snatch the shoes off your feet, too, if you hadn’t already danced them to rags.
Signe had soaked Peter’s hands, and the next day he’d got up again and gone to the gym and prepared for that night’s fight. He was hurting, but that wasn’t enough reason to stop. Signe watched from the crowd as he threw a punch, blinking as it landed. According to the rules of boxing, a boxer cannot hit a man when he’s down. But when he is still on his feet, half-senseless, reeling, both eyes blood-blind – then you can and should hit him as hard as you can to bring him down. Hit hard and you’re a champion; show mercy and you’re nothing but a fool. And so down he goes, and out comes another boxer. Another strong, ignorant, innocent boy. But why blame the gloved opponent or the cheering crowd? We don’t blame a ballet’s audience for the dancers’ bleeding feet.
There was a time that Signe had loved to watch Peter work. He had nothing except his own body, and still the crowd wanted it, and he happily gave it away. The bell rang, and Signe clambered into the ring, her small nervous hands slippery on the ropes. She was still wearing her swan costume, the white leotard patched with nervous sweat. A scatter of crumpled white feathers from her tutu floated across the heads of the crowd, and surely they must be thinking that her appearance was a planned – though melodramatic – part of the show.
Peter looked up at her, and it took a full three seconds for recognition to spark in his eyes.
‘You’re not here,’ he said, but he reached for her anyway.
‘Peter,’ said Signe. ‘Peter.’
There was a time that Peter had nothing except his own body. But didn’t he have something else, now? Wasn’t she something? His slick, hot forehead pressed to her smooth, cool one. He was as strong as stone. He would never break. The roar of the crowd fell away. They both watched as a dark glob of blood spatted onto the diamond of floor between their feet. Peter looked up at her in surprise, one nostril ringed red.
‘But he didn’t get a head hit,’ said Peter. ‘He didn’t…’
The problem is not the impact of the fist and the face. The problem is that a punch makes the head snap back and then forward, causing the brain to thud repeatedly against the hard inside of the skull. It’s a concussive blow. A car crash, over and over. It’s common for two boxers to bump heads while sparring. But just because something is common, that doesn’t mean it’s not devastating. The worst collision is when the soft circle near one man’s temple collides with the tough band on the top of the head. It’s not just about how sturdy a man is, not if the softest part of you hits the hardest part of someone else. Detached retinas, blood clots, cauliflower ears, broken thumbs, obstructed nostrils. And that’s just the damage you can see. Signe had watched as Peter’s other nostril darkened, a trickle of blood on his top lip.
Now, standing at the barre in the silent white studio, she remembered that blood. She thought of her suddenly too-tight clothes, the fluttering low in her belly, and the world shifted. That falling drop of blood – it was a sign. It was a warning.
That night, Signe was ready for the pinnacle of her performance: to whip herself around 32 times on the same standing leg, using the force of her other leg to propel her around, the whole thing done on the tip of one toe.
But she didn’t get that far. First came a leap. She dropped her body, ready. Her feet tensed. Her calves, her thighs. Her body poised to spring – and she let it go.
An audible bang, like a stone thrown to the ground.
Pain exploded in her right ankle.
She fell to her knees, too shocked to cry out. She felt like she’d been kicked with a dozen booted feet all at once, like she’d been shot – not that she knew what either felt like, but they couldn’t be much worse than this. The music carried on, but Signe did not.
Later that night in her hospital bed, to explain why she’d refused sedatives, to explain why she kept saying that the days of dancing and the boxing were over, to explain why she was crying with happiness when she should be crying with pain, she told the doctor and Peter and anyone else who would listen that she was pregnant, she was pregnant, a baby was coming, and now that she had this life she did not need any other.
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan will be published in April 2018 by Harvill Secker. If you enjoyed this extract then you might like this exclusive piece by Kirsty, ‘Solitude, Swimming and Sheep: Ten Easy Steps For a Month-Long Writing Residency in Iceland’, on Books from Scotland, as part of our ScotBookFlood Issue for Book Week Scotland.