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#11 The Unbearable Light (2/3)
Happy mid-February friends!
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Now for this week’s content:
If you missed the first part of The Unbearable Light, go back and catch up here.
For those who need reminding, we heard from a man who is staying with his dying father by the coast, and walking his dog, Barney, every afternoon down to the beach. There, coming to terms with his father’s condition, he meets a strange old woman who is about to change the subject altogether…
If you haven’t read any of Story Press, check out the archives here.
The Unbearable Light, Part II
‘Do you know what happened here, last Saturday?’ The strange old woman sighs but sits forward, looking out to the sand in front of us.
I look to where she looks: a small pool of seawater wriggles in the breeze. Barney sniffs a crab’s crevice; a seagull gazes down on the horizon like a captain at sea.
‘At Mr Rodrick’s birthday party?’
‘Whose birthday party?’
‘Mr Rodrick. You know, he owns the big house on top of the hill. Everyone knows him round here, he owns most of their land.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about this place other than that my father lives here.’
‘Ah, well. Look.’ The woman turns around and points up the hill, close to where I had walked from, but her finger rises higher and higher, and then bears off to the left to highlight a single white house protruding from between the trees. ‘Do you see it? The white house?’
‘Yes, I see it. That’s Mr Rodrick’s?’
‘Indeed it is. He’s not an old man, but extraordinarily wealthy.’
‘What does he do?’
‘He made his money in the city. I don’t know it all, exactly.’
‘His party last Saturday was, as you’d expect, a great occasion. People came from all over the country, some even from the Isles - Scilly, Man, Wight - you name it. They came in their finest attire, their classiest cars and the whole town really was in celebration.’
‘I had no idea.’
‘You might be the only one…’ She catches my eye as though to encourage me, to open up my excitement at her story. ‘Well, the party was held right there at the royal hall.’ She turns again and indicates the hall where the girl had fought with the letters of the previous night’s film. ‘So everyone parked along the road, all these old cars - Jaguars, Bucattis, Aston Martins - lined the streets. Inside, 70 tables were set up. Jazz musicians warmed everyone up. Chikashi Ito, the famous classical pianist, came here from Berlin to play for Mr Rodrick, and an American comedian performed as well.
‘So, you’ve got a birthday boy, Mr Rodrick, turning forty-five, throwing a huge party for him and his wealthy friends. One thing that you must remember about Mr Rodrick is that - more than anything - he loves to dance. He has learned many dances from years of practice for any number of social occasions. Best of all, however, he likes to dance casually with friends, after a red wine in St Mark’s Square in Venice, or by the Trevi Fountain in Rome. He knows it’s indulgent, but he always told himself, if you like indulgences, indulge every once in a while.
‘At his birthday, he wanted to be able to dance and to dance well, and more than this, he wanted everyone else to dance too. For his birthday, because it was his birthday, he organised for a dancing contest to be held after dinner. Guests would enter, be partnered up randomly and have to improvise to the music. The best dancers would be voted through into the next round by a panel of various other guests.
‘Naturally Mr Rodrick entered. That much was to be expected. But what happened next, nobody could have foreseen. Mr Rodrick was partnered with a young American girl, Ms Annabelle Selzer. Ms Selzer was petite and dark-haired and had that ethereal quality that carries so many women: grace. However, Mr Rodrick would not be counting his luck for drawing Ms Selzer. In fact, she might be the one person out of the three hundred guests that he would have begged not to be partnered with. The reason for this is that, for no good reason whatever, rumours had spread that Mr Rodrick had averted his wife to carry out an affair with Ms Selzer - can you believe it?’ The woman’s face is hot with animation.
‘It was an absurd theory, I cannot think how they may possibly have met. And if he did, well, he would have had to go about it in the black of night, return before the sun comes up, and be so high functioning that one could not tell that he hadn’t slept all night. No, it was impossible.’ She shakes her head as though arguing with herself over the matter. I, for one, am intrigued. How have I not heard of Mr Rodrick, of this garish party?
‘The thing you must understand about Mr Rodrick is that he faces his critics with courage and, despite the rumours, danced with Ms Selzer anyway. They danced a foxtrot exceedingly well. Both are well-formed dancers, can arch their backs perfectly, can time moves to the split-second, and, if nothing else, they always keep the audience guessing.
‘Mr Rodrick commanded the floor, yet guided Ms Selzer with confidence. And she, well, being so small, so light, she drifted across the scene airily, like a cloud. It was elegant, and I think it sent a message to the audience: we don’t care what you say about us! We can dance better than you, smile with pride, and thoroughly enjoy ourselves despite your hawkish eyes!
‘They finished with great aplomb, greater than any pair yet. They waited for the other pairs to finish and discussed what dances they knew well, which they hoped they would dance next, and so on.
‘But while they talked, Mrs Rodrick, the hard-nosed wife of the accused, was also being paired to dance. Mr Rodrick himself had encouraged her to enter and, in defiance of her better nature, she agreed as a birthday present to her husband. And again, against all the odds of the thing, she was partnered with none other than Ms Selzer’s brother, Paul Selzer!’ The woman takes a deep breath, shakes her head, is flabbergasted at the sheer luck in the story she tells. It is as though she still doesn't believe it despite having had over a week to comprehend the facts.
‘Mrs Rodrick and Paul Selzer were not great dancers,’ she continues. ‘They had only an outside interest in dancing. Paul entered because he had been dared to by his sister who said she was better than he was. Mrs Rodrick had only ever danced with her husband to oblige him. She was clumsy with her feet, easily frustrated by it, and often left her husband to dance with whoever else might get more satisfaction from it. Despite this, they stumbled their way through the first few rounds, and found themselves into the final four pairs.
‘Paul had been intimidated by Mrs Rodrick’s personality, but as they progressed through the rounds, and guests cheered and judges nodded approvingly, she began to soften, to speak to him equally and even to compliment him on his dancing.
‘‘You’re a commanding dancer,’ she said, plainly. ‘Indeed, you dance with more conviction and control than any man with which I have danced... besides my husband, of course.’
‘‘Of course,’ he replied quietly. ‘Perhaps we can give them a run for their money.’ He nodded towards Mr Rodrick and his sister.
‘‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ she said. ‘She’s a greater dancer than I am. She’s younger and more nimble; they have good chemistry.’
‘Yes, they do. Unfortunately, it might not help them in the longer term,’ he mumbled. Mrs Rodrick had not taken his meaning; in fact, she took no meaning from his words whatsoever. She did not know that he was referring to the rumours about her husband. She knew nothing of the rumours and no inkling that any such suggestion could be expected. But when she looked up at him she understood immediately. There was a look on his face: perhaps concern, perhaps empathy, some deeper angst.
‘‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘‘You didn’t mean nothing, did you?’
‘No. I only meant, well, you’ve heard the rumours, haven’t you? I only meant it won’t help with the rumours.’
‘Nothing. It’s nothing at all. I didn’t mean anything by it’ Just as she demanded this information from him, they were called up to dance. Paul tried to drag her out onto the floor, but she held him back, demanding that he tell her about these rumours. He refused to say a thing, and instead he opted to walk out onto the floor alone and then laid an arm out to welcome Mrs Rodrick. She stared at him, her eyes tearing him apart with anger. Then she stepped out onto the floor too. They danced a minuet, and when they got into the rhythm of their dance, she asked him again.
‘‘You really must tell me.’ They turned and turned. ‘I have a right to know.’
‘‘I thought you already knew.’
‘‘Why would I?’
‘‘Well…,’ he paused.
‘‘Everyone knows. It’s been all the talk for some time now.’
‘‘A few months… maybe six.’
‘‘Does it involve me?’
‘‘Can we not focus on the dance?’
‘‘No, we can’t focus on the dance until you tell me about these damned rumours.’ At the word damned, Mrs Rodrick took a wrong step. She was clumsy, as I mentioned, and she stepped left when she should have stepped backwards. She quickly corrected herself.
‘It’s really nothing. I don’t know anything about it.’
‘Oh that’s rubbish. If you don’t tell me, I’ll storm out of here in a rage and embarrass the hell out of you.’
‘‘Oh, Jesus. No it’s not worth it.’
‘‘Okay, see you later then.’ Mrs Rodrick made to leave, but he pulled her tighter by the waist so she could not leave.
‘‘If I tell you, promise me you’ll dance normally after I tell you.’
‘‘I promise,’ she said immediately, without thinking.
‘‘But you must know, the rumours are not true. I see Annabelle every day. I know her. I know it is not true.’
‘‘They say my sister is having an affair with your husband, but I must insist they are not true.’ He fumbled over his words. He was too quick to defend his sister. He held Mrs Rodrick so tightly, it was as though he was trying to prevent her from running away. For her part, she stayed surprisingly calm. She danced and danced and held a straight face, pursed lips to hold herself together.
‘When they left the floor, behind the curtains, she asked, ‘Where have you heard these rumours?’
‘‘Several different places over the last six months. It’s hard to know where it all started.’
‘‘Have you spoken about it with her?’
‘‘No, I daren’t.’
‘Mrs Rodrick nodded. She believed it wasn’t true. A rumour like that. She knew her husband, she spent enough time with him to know the improbability of an affair. She rendered herself perceptive, thought she had an eye for the details - surely she couldn’t miss something so blatant as that? No, she told herself, surely there is another explanation.
‘She took a deep breath, calmed herself, and reassured Paul Selzer that she believed it to be a rumour and nothing else. Then, ten minutes later, Annabelle and Mr Rodrick were back out dancing. Mrs Rodrick watched from behind the curtain as her husband lifted Annabelle, twirled her, spun her around in his hand like a deck of cards to a magician. She saw their chemistry, their closeness, the hand clutching at the cinch of her dress, the smile that infected them, the firm spread of her fingers across his back. She started to think: they do look awfully good together, and they’re standing a few inches closer than Paul and I ever do. Indeed, their chests are touching; and how do they know exactly what the other is going to do?’
‘She was jealous,’ I interject.
‘Quite,’ the woman replies. ‘Nothing ignites the imagination like the kindling of envy.’
‘So she started to believe the worst…’
‘When Mr Rodrick left the floor to applause, he welcomed his wife with a grin and a kiss on the cheek, ‘How wonderful this is for a birthday,’ he joked.
‘‘Check yourself,’ Mrs Rodrick said, pushing him away from her. ‘You better be careful out there; you won’t be able to lie about it once everyone has seen the way you two dance.'
‘Mr Rodrick quickly wiped the smile from his face, realising that his wife was teeming with anger.
‘‘What are you talking about?’ he asked.
‘‘I’ve heard all the rumours,’ she said. ‘About you two…’
‘‘What are you talking about?’
‘‘Oh, don’t lie to me.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Mr Rodrick replied. ‘You’ve lost your mind.’ He threw his hands up in the air and walked away. Mrs Rodrick was shocked he walked away, that he would not defend himself. It only spoke to her of his guilt. That he did not want to face his truth. ‘You’ve had too much to drink,’ she heard him mutter as he walked. She was crimson-cheeked.
Mr Rodrick was tired. He loved to dance, he had the energy for it, but the way his wife had just spoken to him dragged him back down to earth. He heaved and wheezed, wiped the sweat from his forehead. In the back, he sauntered past other couples who spoke to him, wished him a happy birthday, congratulated him on his party. He saw Annabelle rested on a large wooden wheel on its side, with a pile of rope on top. Mr Rodrick went and sat beside her.
‘‘How are you doing?’ he asked politely.
‘‘Oh, okay. I must say, it’s been quite a day. I hope you’re not bored of dancing with me.’
‘‘Not at all, you’re as good a dancer as I could hope for, besides my wife.’
Annabelle smiled and looked down to her hands. Her dark hair was puffing out about her cheeks and ears. ‘‘How is she? She looked angry when we walked off.’
‘‘Oh, she’s angry, but she will be fine,’ he replied politely. ‘Listen, Annabelle, I know this may seem rather strange. But have you heard these rumours about us? About an affair?’
‘She looked into his eyes as he spoke, but as soon as she recognised the topic he pursued, she could not hold in the smile. She looked down to her hands again. ‘‘I confess, I had heard them before. Some people had asked me whether they were true.’
‘‘Can you tell my wife they are ridiculous? She has heard them tonight and seems to believe them, for whatever reason.’
‘‘I suspect my speaking to her would not be wise,’ she replied. Mr Rodrick laughed, but sadly. ‘I’m sorry your wife believes these rumours,’ she said. ‘That must be hard.’
‘‘Yes, it is when she’s so angry with me.’
‘‘I wish there was something I could do, but I suspect my involvement would only worsen things.’
‘‘I suppose so.’
Annabelle turned to him and put her hand on his shoulder. ‘I’ve very much enjoyed dancing with you,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we can do it again some time, without all the drama.’
‘Yes, I suppose we could,’ he replied. And Annabelle beamed into his eyes, and he saw something in her that irked him. Perhaps he saw his own sin, not an affair but this flirtation; not his words, not his acts, but his openness. She leaned in and tried to kiss him, but before she could, he leaned away, stood up from the wheel and stepped back from her.
‘‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘‘I’m sorry…,’ she said. ‘I thought… I thought that with the rumours… I thought you were asking me because you wanted me.’
‘‘Wanted you?’ He looked down at her and saw the look in her eyes; a deep fear, an uncertainty. He realised then that she was so young, so unsure of herself. ‘I’m sorry. I love my wife very much.’
‘‘And the dancing?’
‘‘I very much enjoy the dancing.’
‘‘Can we continue the dancing?’
‘‘I still want to win.’
‘As they finished speaking, someone called Mr Rodrick and told him that they had been accepted into the final two, to dance against his wife and Paul Selzer. The two couples were drawn onto the floor to do a coin toss to decide who would go first. Mr Rodrick tried to speak to his wife in private, to talk to her about the rumours, but she wanted nothing to do with it.
She thought by his departure he admitted guilt, and in that moment, after a few drinks and feeling powerless, she wanted nothing else but to dance and to win.
Make sure and read the last episode in this story, in two weeks’ time, where we’ll learn the results of the dancing contest, and what happens in the drama between the Rodricks and Selzers.