‘The Dancer’ is by far the darkest of all short stories I've written . The idea came after I had frittered away an afternoon on social media, observing faces that smiled without reason, laughed without laughter. A world within a world, an illusion masquerading as reality and truth; I saw pictures and videos of people selling their dignity for small change, in the hope of finding fame and favor. After the entertainment had waned I looked over said videos and photos with an assessing eye, I began to consider their limits, wondering what they would sacrifice to finally make it and how far they were willing to go to obtain the stain of celebrity, stardom and wealth? ‘The Dancer’ asks this very question of Egypt, a young woman who can’t seem to catch her big break – until she is offered one that she discovers has interesting stipulations…
The silence within the dance studio was incredible, given how loud the music was moments earlier. She still hears the bass, kicks and snares vibrating through her body. Sweat forms over Egypt’s top lip. Her black hair shines with perspiration; her afro is tied back in a black band, creating an explosion of beautiful human wire at the back of her head.
Egypt glanced left at Shannon. Shannon’s black velvet skin glistened; her chest expands and caves in with every breath. Shannon met her stare, winked, and Egypt gave a small, unconfident smile in reply.
She will lose to her again, she is sure of it. She will be told she is good, but not quite good enough. She is used to this now – two years of being told you’re “not quite there” or “just not what we’re looking for” can do that to a person. Like Pavlov’s dog, who, upon hearing the bell, salivated for food, she too had begun to expect failure once she had been whittled down to the final two with Shannon.
The three gatekeepers whispered, exchanged and consulted over notes they made hours, and days, earlier. The woman at the end, a plump white lady with thick black-rimmed glasses, appeared to disagree with the other two, male, judges, but had appeared to eventually give up – give up on Egypt, on her dreams. Egypt wanted to scream at her, scream at the top of her lungs until her eyes were bloodshot and bulging, scream until her lungs had nothing left but wheeze and screech. Don’t give up on me! Don’t let my dreams die, you undisciplined fat bitch!
At last, the three came away from their scrum. There was silence. Egypt looked at the woman and she back at her. She had the concerned face of a corner man, white towel in clenched fist, moments from throwing it in the ring to rescue his fighter from further punishment.
The other two sat forward, submerged in Shannon, as if she were their shiny new toy, a look of fanatic child-like glee tattooed across both faces.
The middle man cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up his spray-tanned nose, his nails manicured to perfection.
“We’ve made our decision and we’re happy to announce that Shannon will take the lead at this year’s DanceLondon. Congratulations”
And with that, Egypt’s dreams were once again ripped to pieces.
The men got up and moved towards Shannon, while the plump woman remained seated, then stood and walked over to Egypt.
“I would have gone with you, but … ya know,” she said, nodding at the men as they laughed and joked with their pretty new dancer.
Egypt looked her in the eye and felt like spitting in her face, then sticking both her thumbs through her lenses and pushing till the glass broke and her eyeballs exploded, leaving two bloody cavities. Instead she smiled and said, “No problem, thanks for the opportunity,” as she always did.
On the way home, Egypt sat at the back of the bus, a homeless man at the other end of the seat. His clothes reeked of piss, his trainers were odd and lace-less, his blazer riddled with holes. He held his possessions in five bags, gripped tightly to his chest. The bus travelled from Tottenham Court Road down Oxford Street. The lights, noises and smells that made London’s West End colourful and exuberant invaded the top deck and for a moment made her forget and feel alive, hopeful and, in spite of her most recent failure, closer to her dreams, until her phone beeped.
Big up my girls @Egypt112233 & @ShanOfic for making it through to the last two of @DanceLon2015
The tweet darkened her mood within an instant. She read it over once more. It had been sent earlier, written in good faith, by Kelvin, a mutual friend from their dance school, written while she still had the opportunity ahead of her, the opportunity to win the life-changing spot. Now it had cruelly been taken from her.
Egypt switched her phone off and slung it into her bag before Kelvin’s tweets became congratulation for Shannon and commiserations for her.
She got off at Crimson Road Estate and walked through the central walkway, past a large group of boys and hopeless men whose years had been wasted in idleness. Two generations of men sat on walls, on bikes and in cars, their doors open, music spilling out into the Friday evening, the smell of skunk and alcohol cloying.
Several inappropriate suggestions later, she had made it through into the middle of the estate, surrounded by high-rise flats. She entered her stairwell and ascended the steps with haste, wanting to be off the streets before one of those inappropriate proposals became an inappropriate approach.
The lights above her flickered, the steps carrying the same sickening scent as the vagrant had earlier.
From her balcony she could see the entire sprawling estate, its massive blocks, square lights carved into their sides, and Wembley’s towering arch in the distance. She stood looking at it until one of the wretches wolf-whistled at her in an attempt to communicate, as if “yo” or “oy” were reasonable ways to initiate conversation with women you wished to court. She turned quickly and entered her home.
Her flat was small, dingy and all she can afford, her dancing yet to make her the fortune she vowed to her mother it would when she left her poor family home in quiet Linton over three years ago – like many a moth bound for London’s flames of fortune, the final resting place for many broken dreams. Unfortunately London loved hard and let very few in.
She stood with her fridge door open in the darkness, its yellow light illuminating her. All it contained was a piece of cheese, a small carton of milk and several slices of bread – all the food she had left till payday.
Her eyes danced between the three items, her stomach rumbling, and tears came unannounced. A shot of anger and self-pity surged around her body. She felt her hand tighten around the fridge door handle and, before she could attempt to tear it from its hinges, she forced herself to grab the cheese and let go before she did damage she couldn’t afford to pay for.
The flat was badly in need of redecoration. It had peeling wallpaper, patches of mould in several corners and lights that only worked intermittently. The ad had said it was fully furnished.
Their version of ‘fully furnished’ meant an old spring-less two-seater couch flung down in the middle of a living room. In the bedroom, a bed with two slats missing, and one short leg: a physical manifestation of ‘fuck you, pay me’, she often thought.
The only reason she stayed was so she could remain in London; the flat the measure of what her little supermarket job could afford to pay for. But at least it kept her closer to the Academy and auditions; kept her from going home with her tail between her legs, but mostly from going back to live with Shannon, who in the past had been so kind to her it made her sick to her stomach to think back at times.
People who have it all aren’t meant to be nice, caring, humble, talented and beautiful. Nope, not at all. They are meant to be horrible people who rub their success in everyone else’s faces whenever the opportunity arises.
Egypt’s enemy was no enemy at all. In fact, Shannon had stepped in three years ago when she heard that Egypt had fallen on hard times and couldn’t keep up with the fees to continue at the Academy. She secretly paid her arrears without hesitation and had never bragged about it or used it as a stick to beat her with. Egypt had only discovered who had paid her fees after her friend in administration had revealed the fact.
Egypt had confronted her and the pair discussed it. Egypt vowed to pay her back for her kindness – at least, until Shannon started winning everything, then the hatred came, and began to fester within Egypt like a disease in an old London workhouse.
A year after Shannon had paid her arrears, she had also insisted on putting her up in her swanky Maida Vale pad until Egypt had found her feet and – most importantly – a job, something Shannon didn’t have to worry about. Her brother was a top City banker, her mother a retired teacher, her father a well-respected doctor.
Shannon was secure in her life, and it gave her a confidence that shone throughout her dance and everything else she did. She had been given more than money; she had been awarded the freedom to fail. Her not having to work meant she worked harder than most in rehearsals, with rehearsals being her only job. How could she lose?
At first things were good. The girls did everything female flatmates did together – watched films and TV, ate together, drank wine, talked about guys and hosted parties.
Egypt eventually found a job at a supermarket, working weekends. She tried to offer Shannon money, but she wouldn’t accept a penny. Egypt would leave it on the kitchen table till it piled high and Shannon would take it and pay more of Egypt’s fees.
“What a lovely soul,” Egypt’s mother said once, while Egypt had been discussing her. Egypt had agreed.
Now, in the absence of monetary worry and with an abundance of practice time, Egypt’s dancing improved dramatically. Suddenly she was making it through to the finals of auditions, beating off hundreds of girls to get into the top five, then final tiers.
Then a pattern emerged that would change everything.
The first two productions Shannon won over Egypt, she was genuinely happy for her, but by the fourth or fifth time of losing out to Shannon the happiness had begun to wane and another feeling had crept in: a feeling Egypt tried to ignore with all her might. But it became near impossible to do so, especially when the person she had begun to hate was looking after her, a fact that made every gulp of food prepared on her stove harder to swallow, every movie she watched on her home cinema screen harder to enjoy, every drink harder to drink – even going to the Academy began to feel like a chore. Every aspect of her life was paid for by Shannon Bright.
Eventually Egypt had had enough and decided she would move out, to Shannon’s surprise and disappointment. She wanted to go it alone and be free to hate Shannon and not feel like an absolute bitch – or hypocrite.
Her flat on the estate was nowhere near Shannon’s, with its mahogany floorboards, cream sofas and chairs, marble bathroom and granite kitchen worktops.
That night Egypt fell asleep with the TV on and woke with it that way, the block of cheese still in her hand, uneaten, her stomach roaring now. She got washed and dressed, ate a cheese sandwich and drank several glasses of water.
As she gulped her sandwich she seriously considered packing it all in and moving back up to her parents’ council house up in Linton. She imagined returning there, where everyone knew everyone, where she was destined to work in a supermarket, pub or hotel for the rest of her life and eventually marry a distant cousin – if she was lucky.
The thought both sickened and scared her, so she dismissed it immediately and went out.
The day was warm and her journey to the Academy was relatively pleasant. She stopped at reception and had a little chat with the receptionist, Rosa: she said she was sorry to hear Egypt had lost out. Egypt replied with a smile and shrug, before heading into the locker rooms to hang up her things. She changed into her dance wear – black leggings, sports top, legwarmers and trainers – then made her way out into the dance studio.
Before she stepped in, she looked through the glass at the class swarming around Shannon. Egypt’s stomach rolled and she knew before she went in that she would have to apply her mask and project happiness. She took a deep breath and pushed the door open. The gap released loud well wishes and congratulations for Shannon, who thanked everyone for their kind words.
Egypt approached her. The very sight of her gleaming face made her sick to the core. She wanted to punch her repeatedly in the mouth till her lips exploded with blood and mushy pink flesh. Shannon saw her and grabbed Egypt’s hand through the gathering, pulled her in and raised their hand high above their heads.
“Now, this girl right here pushed me to the brink – in fact, I think she should have got it, to be honest.”
Egypt forced a smile, aware her mask could slip and her face give her away. Shannon’s very touch made her skin crawl: her palms so soft and delicate; Egypt wished she could dig her nails into them and draw blood. The class clapped and came up to Egypt with questions and commiserations.
Kelvin put his arms around the pair and squeezed tightly.
“So proud of the pair of you!”
“Thanks,” Egypt replied.
The class sailed by in a flash. Afterwards, everyone filtered out to the locker rooms to shower, get dressed and head out for drinks in celebration of Shannon’s victory.
Egypt informed the class teacher, Mike Prince that she wanted to stay behind and go through a few routines, and he agreed.
“Keep pushing: you’re so close to landing one of these big ones, I can feel it. Last year it would have been all three saying no, but now you’re starting to get yeses,” Mike said. “Don’t be long – you still have to meet us for drinks, remember,” he went on.
“Of course…” Egypt replied.
His face developed a smile.
“Look at you, putting extra in. I’m so proud to have both of you as my students,” Mike gushed.
Egypt smiled and he walked out, leaving her alone. As she was about to turn on the music, the door opened once more and Shannon stepped in, dressed to the nines: high heels, pink lipstick, her hair braided into a bun, her expensive coat buttoned to the neck.
The pair of them stood at a distance and stared at each other.
“Is everything okay between us?” Shannon asked, her voice loud, bouncing off the walls and mirrors.
Egypt frowned. “Of course. I mean, why’d you ask?”
“You don’t return my calls any more, you leave without saying bye. I hope I haven’t offended you. If I have, let’s get it out in the open and move on from it. I really value you as a friend.”
“I…I don’t know what to say to you. I honestly have no problem with you – how can I? Look at everything you’ve done for me.”
Shannon shook her head.
“I don’t want praise. I did it because I know you’d do the same for me or someone else.”
“Of course. Look, I’m just focused right now, so I may come off a little stand-offish,” Egypt replied.
“One thousand per cent.”
The pair enjoyed a moment of silence.
“My door is always open – any time. I mean it,” Shannon said.
Egypt nodded. “I know; as is mine for you.”
The pair stood in silence once more.
“When I say you should have got it, I truly do believe that: you danced beautifully yesterday.”
“Thanks. Next time, eh?” Egypt said.
Shannon stared at her with a soul-piercing intensity, then nodded. “Next time…” she repeated, then left, feeling unsatisfied.
Egypt watched the door swing slowly shut. She exhaled, feeling shitty about feeling shitty towards Shannon, who was the only person she had met in London who was genuinely beautiful both inside and out.
Egypt turned the music up loud to drown her thoughts and express herself the best way she knew how – through dance. She moved with such grace and prowess, it was hard to see why she hadn’t landed a major role.
Conscious of the time and growing tired, she knelt to turn off the boom box and suddenly felt a cold sensation creep in and around her, which ran her bones and muscles, making her shiver. She stood quickly to see if a window had been left open and almost jumped as high as the ceiling above.
A man with blue overalls and a broom stood at the studio door, his hands together on the broom handle, his chin resting on top of them. He looked thin and short at first glance, then with further scrutiny he looked taller and firmer.
Egypt wiped sweat from her eyes with the back of her hand to correct the disparity, and in the split second her vision was obscured he had moved closer, almost halfway to her, a distance almost impossible to achieve without running. Yet she hadn’t heard the squeak of the floor or his feet thudding.
She felt a scream bubble up inside her, then he spoke.
“My, oh my, you are one of the most competent dancers I have ever seen. You move with such refined finesse and guile.”
His command of words appeared unusual for a person with his profession and appearance, she thought.
“Who are you?” Egypt asked.
He seemed to pause, as if he didn’t know. His dark eyes were like small pimples in a face full of old leathery grey skin. Both his head and chin were hairless, like one of those expensive cats that never grow fur.
He appeared small once more, his back slightly hunched, his skinny body swallowed by his uniform.
He licked his lips, his thin tongue shaking as if he were a serpent tasting air.
Sick almost rose from Egypt’s stomach into her mouth.
“Me, oh, I’m just the caretaker. I make sure the place is spick and span for you guys.”
There was a pause.
“That’s nice. I’ll leave you to it,” Egypt replied, making her way past the man, who she expected to smell, given his appearance, but carried no scent at all.
“I think you should have won the role, Egypt…I think you should have got the spot over Shannon on all previous occasions.”
Her hand froze on the door handle. She looked in the mirror at him, facing her. She turned to him.
“How’d you know my name?”
The man laughed and for a second his voice was that of a man with a much bigger physique. It was bottomless and carnivorous, almost fear-inducing.
“My-o-my, you do like to ask questions, don’t you?” he said, his voice normal once more.
“I don’t have time for games. How do you know my name?” Egypt snapped, pointing at the man. Her finger shook, and her voice was harsh.
The man smiled and began to sweep the floor. “I think you should be asking how I know what you want.”
He stopped brushing, looked up and crossed his hands over the top of the broom handle once more. His beady eyes were hungry and focused, his fingers long, the nails either dirty or black, she couldn’t be sure. He seemed taller again; his voice appeared to surround and swarm her.
“How do I know what you wish for, what you crave? That is what you should be asking.”
Egypt and the man stared at each other.
“Then tell me…tell me what I want.”
“My-o-my, why, you want what Shannon has, and you’d do almost anything to get it, wouldn’t you?”
Egypt stepped further into the room, closer to him, and laughed. “Everyone wants what Shannon has, every single one of us at this Academy. You’ve proven nothing.”
“But no one wants – or needs – it more than you…”
He spoke with such conviction that it was as if he had walked around in her dreams and thoughts, deep inside her brain.
“I can give it to you, Egypt – I can make you one of the greats. The world, your mother, your friends will regard you as the best. You’ll have everything – money, love, respect – and all you have to say is that you want me to help, at any cost…”
Egypt stared at him, her caramel skin shiny with sweat. Her head swirled with a mix of wonder and fear. This man had the look of death, the mouth of a devil and the allure of an angel, the fine tailored desires he spoke of made whatever he said considerable.
“I’ll give you time to think it over, but I’ll need your answer by tomorrow,” the man continued, and walked past her.
“How can you give me success?” Egypt asked.
“My-o-my, you ask a lot of questions. Just know that I can, and you can have it if you ask,” he replied, stopping at the door to look back.
“But how will I find you?”
The man paused. His facial muscles relaxed, then a glow crept across him and he smiled. Only then did she realise his teeth were disfigured and forced together like the layers of teeth sharks have for replacement, when their current set have been worn out from tearing through flesh and bone.
“Oh, you’ll find me, I’m everywhere… Goodnight, Egypt.”
And with that, the man disappeared, leaving Egypt alone with her thoughts.
I’m much easier on the eye than she is. I can do everything she can, if not better. I shouldn’t have to consider doing a deal with some weird fucking caretaker to give me what I’m obviously entitled to. It’s political correctness gone mad – they give it to her to tick boxes and appease black people, Egypt thought later, climbing the stairs to her flat, the estate quiet and tranquil for once. She stood on the balcony looking at Wembley’s arch; it was illuminated, going from pink to purple, blue to yellow and red, dispelling the darkness around it. It looked like a concert or event was being held there.
She sighed. In four weeks the arch would glow for DanceLondon2015 – glow for Shannon. How could she allow that? She couldn’t – not now, not with an option on the table. Maybe, just maybe, I should hear the caretaker out; see what he has to say, she thought. And with that, she entered her flat and went to bed smiling.
‘Whoever envies another confesses his superiority.’
~Samuel Johnson, ‘The Rambler’
It was warm, yet raining. The smile that Egypt had gone to sleep with arose with her: a self-righteous grin she couldn’t wipe off her face. If this man could deliver, then maybe the next conversation she had with her mother would be telling her to get an all-expenses paid coach from Linton to London to see her daughter dance under the arch.
She practised making the call in the mirror.
“Yeah, Mum, it’s finally happened! I’ve landed the big one…” Egypt said to her reflection. “I’m finally going to buy you your own place … Yeah, don’t worry; they’ll pay for you to get down here for sure… Sorry, Mum, got to run, I’ve got an interview with the BBC, then Sky … Seriously, Mum, I’ve got to dash. Love you lots… I know, you and Dad, God rest his soul, were wrong about me making the move, let’s not dwell on it, eh?”
She ended the call and was back in her rundown flat. Still she smiled.
She got ready and packed her uniform for work after class.
If this man is right, this’ll be the last time I’ll need this repulsive thing, she thought of her work uniform, a blue and green top and bottoms.
The bus ride was busy. An old man she was forced to share a seat with tried to talk to her. She ignored him completely; the only man on her mind was the caretaker. She replayed his words over and over in her head.
I can give it to you, Egypt – I can make you one of the greats. The world, your mother, your friends will regard you as the best. You’ll have everything – money, love, respect – and all you have to say is that you want me to help, at any cost…
She wondered about the ‘at any cost’ for a little, then started to imagine headlining at DanceLondon2015. Just being on it made her a natural selection for any other big dance event globally, not to mention TV shows and endorsements. She could literally become a millionaire doing what she loved. Above all, it would be an opportunity to rub her success in Shannon’s face and give her charity for once; maybe make her an insignificant backing dancer or, better yet, a runner.
But what if it’s bullshit? She questioned herself.
The thought dismantled her smile and made her frown. Her brow dipped and her face darkened. She looked at the man on her right and saw her destiny: living in a shitty flat, forever a failed dancer, cohabiting with a man like him, working nine to five, trapped in a life she detested.
She arrived an hour early to the Academy, dried off from the rain outside, sat in the locker room and got dressed. There was an eerie silence about the changing room, as if the calm were on the verge of being shattered by some malevolent creature. She didn’t sit, opting to stand and keep watch over the corners and doors, lest someone or something decided to act. She wasn’t sure what she was afraid of.
Her phone fell out while she was squashing her gym bag into her locker. It fell on the wooden seat, still switched off from the DanceLondon audition.
She switched it on and within five seconds it started to beep and ring with messages, tweets and Facebook notifications.
She scrolled down through the messages, every one of them containing Shannon’s name.
Congratulations this, commiserations that!
Where are you? – Kelvin
@Egypt112233, well done for getting to the final audition, next time it’s yours!
Everybody’s wondering where you are, girl - Alicia
Not feeling your distance. Egypt, come over tonight – we need to talk properly – Shannon
Facebook notification -Insert picture here – me and Egypt the great before our audition
@Egypt112233 Yo! Shannon said you killed it! Your time will come!!!
Egypt flung the phone into her bag and the bag into her locker. She locked the door, leaving the phone to continue to beep with arriving notifications.
As she neared the dance studio she could hear music coming from inside – old music, the type her grandmother would have swayed gently to. She walked up to the door and peeked in. The caretaker was in there, dancing with his broom, this way and that, waltzing and gliding. His feet were as smooth as his mouth.
She watched for five seconds then let herself in. He looked up at her, his eyes widened, and he appeared to be delighted. He almost slithered over to her, his physical size seeming to change, deceptive at a distance, his skin a constant grey and snake-like.
He came close to her, grabbed her hand and placed his other hand around her thin waist.
His touch was cold and made her want to shiver, but she held it down, instead adopting a blank expression, aware that this man wasn’t quite right. His unearthliness seemed to give credence to his claims; claims she would love to be true at any cost.
Shorter than her, he buried his head in her bosom and moved her, his strength astounding, her lack of resistance astonishing.
He moved and she followed his lead; there one, two here one, two, spin one, two. Then he looked up at her, his eyes an unnatural crayon-green, alluring and young.
“So, what say you, Egypt? Do you want what I offer or not?” he asked, his voice in her head once again clattering around, falling all over her thoughts and ideas.
She felt as if she were about to fall, and shook her head to regain her composure.
“Y-y-yes, yes, I want it,” she slurred.
“At any cost?”
She blinked rapidly. Every time he spoke she felt as if she had taken a blow to the head.
She shook her head once more and had to lean on him for balance. Her head on his shoulder, he smelt of death, masked by a sweet-smelling musky scent.
“Ye…Yes. At any cost.”
“Then it shall be done.”
And like that, he was gone as if he had never been. She stood in the empty dance studio, looking at herself in the mirrors that covered three walls. She spun round in a circle, her trainers making the floor squeak, and she began to question her sanity. Tears welled. She turned, looking for evidence of him – she spun and spun, his last words echoing in his brain with a maddening repetitiveness. Then it shall be done, then it shall be done, then it shall be done, then it shall be done.
Before she could react, Kelvin and Alicia burst through the studio doors. She stopped spinning. She watched them approaching her, in the mirror; it was too late to wipe her tears.
She turned to them. Their eyes were red and mournful. Without a word having been spoken, she knew it had something to do with Shannon. That bitch, she thought.
Kelvin wrapped his arms around her and Alicia just stood to one side, sobbing.
“So you’ve heard, then?” Kelvin asked.
“Yeah, shocking…” Egypt lied.
“Both legs! Can you imagine that? Both…”
“My God, I thought it was one,” Egypt responded, hardly able to control her delight.
“Don’t even mention God! How can there be a god, when horrible things happen to such wonderful people?” Alicia said.
To this Egypt didn’t reply. Her deity was very real; so real he wore blue overalls, carried a broom and danced like the devil he was.
Her shift at work went by in a blink. Her head was in the clouds, awaiting whatever miracle would befall her next. On her way home, she read message after message of support on Facebook and Twitter for Shannon. A small part of her felt sorry; the rest felt pure wicked merriment.
In high spirits, she bought a bar of chocolate and a cheap bottle of wine to celebrate. She drank till her senses were washed away, then she lay on her back in her living room, looking at a patch of mould on the ceiling – black, furry and resilient. She ate chunks of chocolate with the TV muted in the background, the images projecting out into the darkened, silent room, the shapes from the screen making theatre on all the walls they touched.
She would have to go to the hospital tomorrow. To make it look good, she’d say she had been too distraught to visit on the first day. Her eyes began to close. She didn’t fight sleep; instead she embraced it, looking forward to the next day and the rest of her life. The TV watched her slumber in the darkness – and so did he.
When she arrived at St Helen’s Hospital the next day, she was shown through security doors to a private wing, where people with money kept their sick or dying. A glass lift took her up to Shannon.
The view from the lift was breath-taking. It overlooked a private VIP garden and small lake, which had swans afloat. This opulence made Egypt sick. On one side of the hospital there was disrepair, but if you were wealthy they made sure you were sick, dead or dying in luxury!
Egypt stepped out and made her way down a marble walkway, fashioned with oak wall panels and hanging lights from above. She slowed at a complimentary drinks and food station for visitors.
She recognised the voice of the man ordering.
“Alexander?” she said.
This was Shannon’s brother, lanky, dark-skinned, and exhausted-looking.
At first it looked as though he didn’t recognise her, then it clicked.
‘Egypt,’ he replied, his voice dim.
The lady serving held his order out for him to take – a wholemeal baguette with salad and veg. He took the baguette and thanked the lady before walking on with Egypt.
“We didn’t think you were coming – we tried your phone but it kept going to voicemail.”
She looked at his normally handsome face, which was ravaged by worry and sleep deprivation.
“Sorry, my mobile has been playing up lately”
He exhaled. “You’re the only person she’s asked for. You really mean a lot to her and I know she means a lot to you, so I don’t want you to lose it when you see her. We’ve been told that much of the damage to her face is superficial; it’s her legs we’re worried about.”
Egypt looked at the ground and nibbled her lip. Her feelings of guilt grew a little, but not enough for her to regret what she had chosen.
“Bear in mind, she’s not all there at the moment – the painkillers she’s on are powerful, so she might seem a little sleepy or confused.”
Egypt looked up and met his stare, which was deep and penetrative. At one stage she had had a thing for him, but the hate had come, and anything associated with Shannon became mud.
“How did it happen?”
He shook his head. “You don’t know?”
“Nah, I was too upset yesterday. I couldn’t bear to hear it.”
“Fair enough. Well, some asshole had left a broom on the top step of the restaurant they were celebrating at, and she tripped over it and fell. She broke both legs and fractured her pelvis. Her face – I just don’t know how her face could look so bad; it looks like she’s been hit by a car.”
The pair stood in silence.
“I’m so sorry, Alex…”
“It’s Shan I’d be sorry for. Her chances of walking properly, let alone dancing again, are slim. Her life is ruined. Dancing is the only thing she’s ever loved to do, all she ever wanted…”
He welled up. “Sorry. You go in, Egypt; I need a moment.”
Egypt rubbed his arm before he walked off. His head dipped; his posture defeated. She watched him till he exited at the other end. She looked at Shannon’s door, placed her hand on it, swallowed and pushed. It opened with ease and she stepped in. The room was silent and smelt of Savlon.
The marble floor theme carried on inside. The walls were painted peach and racing green. Her bed was in the centre of the room. Attached to the wall opposite her was a sleek flat-screen TV.
Shannon lay face-up, her eyes shut into slits. Her lips looked like engorged keloids. Egypt neared the bed, but didn’t want to come too close; Shannon looked bad enough at a distance.
If her chest hadn’t been rising and falling, Egypt would have thought her dead. The shape of her legs looked confused beneath the sheets, the usual smooth shafts replaced by rough, irregular contours.
At that moment, she didn’t know how to feel. Her fulfilled wish had created what lay before her, yet she could neither say if she were content or in a slight state of unease.
She placed the flowers on the table by the door, took one last look at Shannon from across the room, and left.
Things moved fast after that day. Two days after her visit to Shannon, Egypt was awoken by her phone beeping in the passageway, deep in the bottom of her bag. She stared at the ceiling as light tried to sidestep her curtains and invade her room.
The phone went again, and she thought she had better go and check it. She took it out of her dance bag and almost fell over when she saw the message. It read:
Give me a call urgently.
Egypt, we need to talk about DanceLondon2015.
Call me ASAP.
She looked at the message for all of two seconds before she called. It rang once. “Egypt!” Roberto said, his voice stitched with desperation.
“I suppose you’ve heard what happened to Shannon?”
“Yeah, I’m devastated…” she lied.
They both paused.
“Too devastated to get down to the first rehearsals for DanceLondon tonight?”
They listened to each other breathe. Two bullshitters wanting the same thing, covering our muck with niceties. Egypt thought.
“I have work. If I miss a day I’ll lose my job,” she lied.
Roberto laughed. “Are you serious? We’re asking you to take the lead role in the show and you’re talking to me about a little job. For the month the show is on, we’ll pay you twelve thousand, five hundred a week; that’s fifty thousand pounds for four weeks’ work, if you complete the whole thing.”
Egypt’s jaw dropped.
“You in or not? Trust me, we have hundreds of hopefuls waiting to take the spot.”
“Of course I’m in.”
The rehearsal went wonderfully. Egypt signed a contract and, just like that, Shannon’s name was scrubbed off the programme and replaced by Egypt’s. Egypt asked for an advance on her wages, which was granted, and with that she moved out of the Estate and into a beautiful little studio flat in Willesden Green, which was nicely furnished, airy, bright and, above all, safe.
On the first day Egypt moved into her new flat, doctors had discovered Shannon had contracted a virus in hospital. If left untreated, it would leave her brain-dead or kill her.
Rehearsals ran for three weeks and Egypt was given a runner, food and a driver. She began to feel like the big deal she had always known she was.
By now Shannon had been in hospital for almost four weeks. Her brother, Alexander, grew ever more unfocused and his performance at work dipped. Shannon’s mother Carmen cried daily at the state of her daughter, her body riddled with infection and incisions, her beautiful dancing legs in metal pins and braces.
Her father, Edgar Bright, had her moved to another hospital (King Edward’s) while he sought legal advice over the virus his daughter had caught in hospital.
The arch shone for Egypt now, big and bright in the Wembley sky. The first night was shaky; Egypt had never performed for 60,000 people before, but pulled it off and was clapped off by the crowd. Her mother sat in the front row, bewildered by it all; Linton was far away from London in every sense of the word.
Four more weeks passed and Egypt was paid the full fifty thousand pounds, minus her advance. The show was given five stars by every critic going: it was a major success for the company behind DanceLondon2015, so much so that they were asked if they’d be interested in doing DanceAmerica2015 in the summer. Egypt was asked if she’d be interested, and she could only say yes.
That summer, Shannon’s father lost his court case against the hospital. The hospital had a rule: no flowers to be brought into patients’ rooms. Unwittingly, Edgar had signed a contract to this effect upon Shannon’s admission. Apparently the one bunch of flowers that had been brought in had carried the extremely rare virus, therefore exonerating the hospital from all responsibility.
Edgar was emotionally and financially devastated. In the same week Alexander was sacked from his high-flying City job for being drunk and disorderly. Edgar was forced to pay both his and the hospital’s legal fees, and used every penny of his savings to cover the cost. Shannon’s mother, Carmen Bright, had a breakdown and, despite intervention by some of the best doctors, Shannon slipped into a coma as a result of the virus transmitted from the flowers Egypt had brought.
By October, DanceAmerica2015 had ended and Egypt’s name was famous globally. She had amassed half a million pounds already, through the production, plus endorsements and advertising. Egypt bought her mum a house, as she had always longed to do.
On that same day, an out-of-character and stressed Dr Edgar Bright snapped and slapped a patient in his surgery, and was duly struck off. Kelvin and Alicia visited Shannon, who was now in a normal NHS hospital, and they were shocked at the state Edgar was in, his son a drunk, his wife a shell. Shannon had gained an extraordinarily large amount of weight and looked grey and unhealthy, having spent six months in a hospital bed.
Edgar informed them that he was on the verge of losing his house if he couldn’t find the money to keep up the mortgage payments.
Kelvin and Alicia tried in vain to get through to Egypt to see if she could help, but were stonewalled at every attempt. Egypt ignored them. Alexander, having lost his bachelor pad and expensive car, resorted to smoking crack to ease the pain, and robbery to fund his habit.
A year passed. Egypt had almost forgotten about the caretaker and Shannon altogether. She was a celebrity now and had been picked by Hollywood execs for a film role, in which she would play a plucky, beautiful British girl who dances her way out of poverty. The film was released in March 2016 and was well received worldwide. More success for Egypt! “It’s as if she just can’t stop winning”, one paper said of her.
In that same month, Alexander went round to the council flat on the Crimson Road Estate in which his broken mother, bankrupt father and now disabled sister had been housed, and demanded money from them, threatening violence if they didn’t pay up. This became a pattern: he’d go away for a couple of days, sleep in a crack house, smoke or do heroin then return for more of his sister’s disability allowance.
His father gave it to him, his heart bleeding for what had become of his once-perfect family. He thought they had been kind-hearted, successful people who always wanted to help others, yet when “The shit hit the fan they were all they had left”.
The court case had ruined Edgar; the mental strain had destroyed both Alexander and Carmen. Shannon just sat and stared out of the window at the hopeless boys and men in the estate, the same ones that Egypt used to pass daily.
Another year passed. Egypt moved to Los Angeles and found herself a nice husband who just happened to be a major Hollywood director, Stanley Payne. She fell pregnant shortly after. Egypt both enjoyed and lived the life Shannon should have had.
On the tenth of June, 2017, Edgar woke up and found his wife slumped in an armchair, both wrists slit, weeping. He called an ambulance, but it was too late. He didn’t see Alexander at her funeral – in fact, he never saw him at all any more. He was secretly glad.
Now there was just Dr Edgar left, and his once beautiful daughter. She stared blankly at him, and he tried to keep it together. What a hand they had been dealt; what a horrible, horrible hand.
He began to have terrible thoughts: thoughts about placing a pillow over Shannon’s face while she slept, till she no longer needed breath, then running a blade down his wrists. He fought the urge, but for how long? How long would he be able to cope?
Egypt sat with her feet dangling in her outside pool. Her husband was out filming. She sipped champagne while reading a script she had been sent. The sun hung fat in the sky, baking all below. Her pool was designed to look like a waterfall and lagoon. Real flowers and plants hung in and around the stone and rock creation.
At night an underwater light shone, changing colours like the Wembley arch she used to stand and watch from her balcony on the estate.
The sliding doors behind her slid open and Egypt’s mum Sandy poked her head
“There’s someone at the front gate for you.”
Egypt turned and looked at her.
“Who is it?”
“Says he’s the caretaker.”
Egypt looked at her, unsure what to say.
“Tell him I’ll be out shortly.”
Sandy turned and went to deliver the message.
Egypt sat looking at her feet in the shimmering water.
On the surface, and in everyday life, she had forgotten about him; forgotten how she had achieved so much in such little time. But deep down, after her eyes had closed and she was in the space between reality and dreams, she always returned to the Academy, walked through the door and found him dancing with that broom, the handle close to his chest as if it were the love of his life.
She gulped the rest of her drink, got up and dressed. She walked through her massive kitchen through to her open-plan cream living room, past a ballerina statue made from jade, marble and gold, past expensive paintings and ornaments worth thousands of pounds. She crossed the foyer and walked towards the front door, which stood ajar.
When she stepped out onto her long gravelled driveway she could see her mother laughing and talking to the caretaker at the gate. She quickened her pace to get there, her linen dress flowing behind her. The sun baked everything below. The palm trees that lined the driveway gave off their smell in bursts as she passed them, and the sound of insects and lizards brought the place to life.
She walked right up to her mother, who was in tears of laughter, and grabbed her round the elbow. The caretaker’s face went from smiling to deadpan. Sandy looked at her daughter, confused.
“Mum, I need to talk to this man about business.”
“Fine, but there’s no need to be so heavy-handed.”
“Sorry, but please could you—”
“Okay, okay, I’m going.”
Sandy waved to the caretaker, and he and Egypt watched Sandy walk-back to the house, the heat shimmering around her legs.
Egypt turned to him. His hands gripped the gates, his nails as black as ever, sharpened to points. His eyes were an inhuman green, his skin grey and lifeless.
“My-o-my, your mother is rather entertaining; a real pleasure to converse with. You’re very lucky to still have yours – poor Shannon unfortunately lost hers…”
Egypt held his stare.
“Tragic how her life has panned out, while yours has flourished in the most incredible way imaginable…”
He took one hand off the gate and stroked his chin.
“Think I’m on to something there. It appears there is a direct correlation between your success and her downfall, would you not agree?”
“What do you want me to say to that?” Egypt snapped.
“Nothing; it’s just an observation. You see, in this life, in order for one set of people to succeed, another must suffer. Slavery, for instance. Africa’s civilisations had to flounder for certain rich Europeans to thrive. Nazis in Germany attempted the same thing with the Jews. America and the Indians. The clothes you wear? Some poor child or elderly person works for a pound a day, barely able to feed their family, just so you can feel that linen between your thighs. The gadgets in your pockets and house are all products of mass exploitation, yet the so-called civilised modern world loves them and laps them up, without a thought for those poor souls. My-o-my, we are living in the last days, Egypt, the last days, my dear.”
Egypt exhaled. “What do you want?”
The caretaker laughed, his voice echoing in her head once more. Suddenly she felt dizzy and she had to hold on to the gate.
“What do I want? Two years ago, I asked you if you wanted all you have today at all cost, to which you said yes. The cost was at Shannon’s expense – she has lost her brother, her mother, her ability to talk, and walk, let alone dance. Her body is a prison from which she is unable to escape. She hears and feels, but cannot speak or react. The life you are living doesn’t belong to you, Egypt – it never has. Right now, as we speak, her father is about to kill her – then himself. He will slit her throat, then hang himself. But you can prevent this – you can prevent all this from happening. You can save her life the way she saved your dreams, when your life was a nightmare. All you have to say is ‘make it how it was’ and it will be done. If you don’t, however, you will have completed one half of your payment. Your life will proceed. The other half of what you owe I will collect when your light dims, when your back and ankles ache, when your vision blurs and neither contacts nor glasses can be of aid. I will come when you are forced to walk on three legs, the third made of wood. What say you, Egypt, what say you?”
Egypt held the gate more tightly and shook her head. His voice was like standing in the dome of Big Ben’s bell; it bonged in and around her and made her feel as if she were first falling, then floating.
After a while, she gained a little composure. She didn’t even have to think about her response – the thought of going back to her life, as it had been, not worth even a second’s contemplation. The thought of Shannon having all she enjoyed today and Egypt growing old on that council estate, a failed dancer who’d always lived in Shannon’s shadow, married to some nobody with three kids, watching the arch glow for others, was incomprehensible.
“I want things to stay the way they are. I—”
Instantly her head, hearing and vision cleared and she stood alone at her gate. Her fingers were wrapped around the bars; no one was anywhere near her. She let go and spun around. There was nobody there. She composed herself and went back up the driveway to her mansion.
Edgar slit Shannon’s throat while she stared blankly out at the estate. She squinted, wheezed and made the kind of sounds people make in their sleep while in the grip of a nightmare. Her head drooped and blood dripped out onto the floor. Her body shook in her chair, moving uncontrollably, till it simply twitched. Edgar cried and cursed the gods for how things had panned out for them; before he smashed out the little window above the bathroom door, knotted a cord round the remaining wood frame, then his throat; before he jumped off a chair and extinguished his line of the Bright family from the Earth.
The police found them several weeks later, rotting, Shannon sewn into her chair by human moss and other organic substances. Edgar had formed a pool of human sludge beneath where he hung. There were maggots and flies everywhere. Their neighbours had begun to grumble about the smell and one had finally called the police.
Edgar and Shannon were buried as paupers by the state. Not one member of Edgar’s family stepped in to help with any costs. Alexander’s behaviour – stealing and robbing – had made relations with both Edgar’s and Carmen’s family beyond strained.
Egypt went on to feature in many top Hollywood movies, as well as more dance shows, and made more money than she could spend. Her mother lived a life other people her age could only dream of, spending most of her time on luxury cruises for old rich people.
Egypt’s son Maxwell grew nicely, given the best in life. He went on to become a model. Once he grew tired of modelling, he started a law firm which eventually became one of the world’s leading media law firms in America, specialising in screwing artists over for record and movie companies.
Egypt’s husband died and left everything to her, and nothing to his previous children. They fought Egypt in court, and lost.
By the time Egypt was old and her mother had died, she had amassed a staggering fortune of £600 million but had never been able to make, or keep, a single real friend, only associates and ‘yes’ people.
On her deathbed, only her son was by her side – and that was to make sure he got every penny she had. She held his hand and in his other he held a Dictaphone. At the other end of the room he had set up a camera to make sure he could prove she hadn’t been coerced into anything. Her grip was weak, she lay dwarfed in her cream four-poster bed, her eyes barely able to open.
“Son…be selfish, or life will not be kind to you.”
And with that, she slipped out of the world.
Her mind went blurry, then as clear as day. Suddenly she was standing at the foot of her bed, looking over her son, who had spread papers across her dead body, and had his calculator out, pen in hand, scribbling and jotting, making plans for the money he had inherited – before she was even cold.
She turned, and beside her was the caretaker with his broom.
“Hello, Egypt. As agreed, I have come for the rest.”
“Yeah, what’s that then?”
He wrapped his hands around her shoulders and moved her through the house, but her house wasn’t the same. It contained different ornaments and furniture, it was arranged differently. Egypt looked around. To her disgust, a family portrait of Shannon with two children and a husband hung on the wall.
In it she was slim, beautiful and smiling. Egypt shook her head in disbelief.
“How can this be?” she muttered.
The door to the house opened and in walked Shannon, her two children, her husband, Alexander, Carmen and Edgar. They walked right through Egypt and the caretaker as if they weren’t there.
They went into the kitchen – her kitchen – and started to prepare a meal. Egypt had an uncontrollable urge to follow Shannon and, although she fought it, her legs moved against her will and she followed her. When Shannon reached up, Egypt reached up as well, as if she were her shadow. Egypt’s old body ached and the movement made her teeth grind with discomfort.
When Shannon sat down, Egypt squatted in the exact same position, her back burning with pain, unsupported by a chair. She was in so much agony she screamed out, but no one could hear her.
The caretaker walked in and stood on top of the table. He looked down into Egypt’s watery old creamy eyes.
“You see, you wanted what Shannon had so badly that I decided I would give it to you – every minute of her life, as it should have been. You’ll get every single second of it, every single day. You will shadow her, listen to her speak, enjoy her success, but above all you will imitate her every move. Your bones will ache and grind. If she dances, you dance; when she sleeps, you will assume her position but never actually lie down; the pain and strain on your body will be beyond comprehension. She is twenty-four and has just completed a great run at DanceLondon2015. She has just moved to America to take part in DanceAmerica2015 – four weeks of gruelling rehearsals and shows, and you will be there for every single minute of it, Egypt, your old body dancing as if you were sixteen again. She will live to a ripe old age, ninety-nine, perhaps? And when she dies, then – and only then – will you have paid the price for your success.”
Shannon stood, as did Egypt, helplessly mimicking her as she went over to the sink to get a fork, then back to the table, where Shannon sat once more, her son in her lap.
Egypt looked up at the caretaker.
“Please take me back to the Academy and ask me again. I swear I will make a different choice – I can’t do this for seventy years.”
The caretaker shook his head and smiled, his teeth razor-sharp, his mouth jet-black, his eyes reptilian slits.
“Sorry my dear, the boss doesn’t give refunds on any deals.”
“Who…who is your…boss?” she asked through clenched teeth, the strain on her knees immense from squatting.
“He has many names, Egypt. My, o, my, does he have many…”
“The Devil pulls the strings which make us dance;
We find delight in the most loathsome things;
Some furtherance of Hell each new day brings,
And yet we feel no horror in that rank advance.”
- Charles Baudelaire
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