SHORT STORY: Cinderella Unbound

CINDERELLA UNBOUND

   As she took the double scotch-on-the-rocks, Diane tried to steady her right hand. The ragged chunks of ice Joe the barman had spooned in from the pineapple cooler rattled around the thick glass. She fumbled for two quid with her left hand. Opening her purse and finding the right change wasn’t too easy in such a confined space, especially under these dim overhead lights. Behind her, the Saturday nighters pressed ever closer to the bar. They smelled of sweaty armpits and aftershave, swaying forward together as they attempted to keep time to the karoake machine:

 

                        “Maybe I…didn’t love you…

                        Half as good as I should,

                        Maybe I…didn’t love you

                        Half as often as I could…”

 

 

       She undid the catch. The big man to her left swung a heavy bare elbow back. The purse was knocked to the floor, along with half the whisky. The big man wheeled around, his bloated pink excited face only inches from hers.

       “S’alright, darlin’…” The big man swayed towards her. He steadied himself on her shoulder with a pudgy hand. His eyes rolled. “Don’t you worry, love. I’ll get it…”

       He picked up the purse, then turned and nudged his mate. “What a cracker, eh, Phil? A real cracker. Heh heh. Lissen…” He burped up a great cloud of stale beery breath into her face. “…lemme buy ya nuther drink.” He pulled a fiver from his back pocket and folded it in half lengthways. “Joe, ma boy, get the lady nuther scotch…”

        Behind the bar, Joe fingered his black silk bow tie uncertainly.

       “No thank you very much!” Diane’s voice was firm. She took care to pronounce each syllable carefully, soberly. She handed over the two coins, held the glass up over her head, and squeezed her way through towards a corner of the pub where there was an empty table.

 

                   “You were always on my mind,

                   You were ALWAYS….on my mind…”                         

 

       She knocked back the rest of the whisky. It tasted warm, and beautifully bitter. But her hands were still shaking. Pretty worn-out hands for a woman of only thirty three, Patrick used to say. Wouldn’t exactly make a fairy snow commercial if you know what I mean, haw haw haw. Once upon a time she would spend half an hour at the end of her regular Friday evening class at the Adult Ed Centre carefully scraping the clay from under her fingernails. In those days the fingernails had shone. They’d been painted black, purple, sometimes bright green. Now they were yellowed from cigarettes, cracked, bitten, with a layer of hardened clay under the nails. Around the bottom of the nails, another permanent black layer. From there, downwards, a series of thick intersecting lines and cracks. It was good, Diane thought, to have the clay inside you, always inside you.

       “Hey… Diane! Is it really you?”

       The voice was high-pitched in surprise. It was somehow familiar. Diane looked up. She tried hard to focus. A youngish woman, eyes heavily made up, face whitened, hair in a neat, even perm. A sharp red two piece business suit, short matching skirt and jacket. Black stockings. Pointed black patent leather high heels. Behind her the figures of the revellers were a blur, swaying soundlessly.

       “Diane! It’s Julia! Don’t you recognise me?”

       Diane struggled. She focused again. For a moment she saw the shock of pink fringe falling over the eyes, the sides of the head shaved, the ripped blue jeans, the sloppy pink sweater. Then the old Julia faded. At the same time, the noise and smell and smoke of the pub crowded back in.

       “Diane! It must be… what… ten years?” Julia bent over and kissed her on the cheek. “Let me buy you a drink.” She sighed. “After all, I can afford it…”

      

 

       At Julia’s insistence, they moved on to a wine bar off Picadilly. It was cool, quiet, brightly lit with striplights and mostly deserted. They found a white plastic table next to a potted palm. Diane offered to get the drinks, but Julia insisted again.

       “I must admit…” Julia sipped clear white wine from the thin glass. “I did get a pretty generous settlement. Not that I didn’t deserve it after enduring six years with Barry Clarke.” She grimaced slightly as she waved away a cloud of smoke from Diane’s cigarette.  

       “You know, Diane, the last time he roughed me up I swore I’d screw him for every penny he’d got. God, he thought he was so fucking sophisticated. Just because he’d been to that public school where they’d brainwashed him into thinking he was some kind of superior being. Just because his old man was some kind of fatcat in the City . The final straw was when he came back from that so-called business trip to Bangkok about four o’clock one morning. “She leaned in closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Don’t you try to lay a finger on me’, I told him. ‘Last time you only brought back a minor infection. I might not be so lucky this time.’ That was when he … listen, by the look on your face you really don’t want to hear this, do you?”

       Diane jolted. “Sorry, I was miles away.” She sipped her whisky. “You can leave out the grisly details.”

       “With pleasure…” Julia sighed. “The upshot of it all was I got the house and the car and the kids. Except for every third Saturday from now on when I have to bring them up here and leave them with him till Monday morning. He’ll spend the whole weekend spoiling them stupid and telling them what a fucking wicked old witch I am. All this despite the fact he’s moved up here and I’m still living down in Basingstoke. It stinks, I know, but the solicitor said I had to make some kind of concession.”

       “If you’re short of a place to stay…” Diane began.

       “He offered me his floor. Can you believe it? His floor. I told him you’ve got to be joking, I wouldn’t trust you. So I book myself into The Carlton. What the hell, I think. He’s paying for it. So there I am, Saturday night, Manchester in the rain. What else is there to do but to take a look over some old haunts.” Her bright blue eyes opened wide. There was a spark in them, or something that at least still flickered from the old days. “And who do I find but you, sitting in the same chair you sat in ten years ago. Still on the scotch. Though you never used to drink it neat. And you’re so… slim. How the hell do you manage it? When I was with Barry Clarke we had to go to all these expense account lunches. I keep trying these crash diets, but… you know how it is… “

       Diane sighed. “Here you see me in all my glory. Alone on a Saturday night slumming it in noisy pubs, pretending I’m having a good time. See these grey streaks in my hair- they’re for real. I wear these jeans and this old sweatshirt all the time. And look at my hands. I look about fifty. But to tell you the truth I don’t really give a shit anymore. Since my last attempt at taking Patrick in-“

       Julia screwed up her eyes. “Not Patrick Spence? You’re not telling me you-“

       “Yeah, I know what you’re going to say. When we were at college together you used to tell me I was off my head getting interested in such a pathetic creature. It must be your mother complex, you told me. And you were right, of course. Only it took me eight years to find that out.” Diane grimaced as she drained the rest of the whisky in one go. “Meanwhile, I’m still working at that same college . I used to have a proper job until the cuts came. They offered me a temporary contract. Now all I get is two evening classes a week. Something has to go, Diane my dear, Craven said. You must remember Craven- he’s head of department now.  Always calls me ‘my dear’, the creep. Committee decided women’s sculpture frankly peripheral, my dear. Just can’t be helped, my dear…”

       Julia nodded. “Craven always did see our ideas as a threat. Remember those rows we used to have with him about Frieda Kahlo? A minor talent, he used to say. One time I very nearly hit him-“    

       Diane leaned forward. Her eyes, dulled from the whisky, now brightened. “You always said that when you left you’d get yourself a proper studio, and-“

       “Sorry to disillusion you…” Julia shook her head. “After College I went travelling, then I came back and met Barry Clarke, and, well… I always meant to get started. But one thing kind of led to another. Specifically, I got pregnant. There’s Carmel, she’s six. And Abigail, she’s four. But what about you? You must have done a lot of goodÿwork. At least you’ve stayed committed.”

       Perspiration began to form on Diane’s forehead. “The trouble is, since Patrick’s been gone, my hands…..I can’t feel anything…”

       Diane was vaguely aware that she was slumping forward onto the table, that everything was in slow motion and that it was taking such a long, long time for her to fall.

 

 

       Diane is sweating. She is in a white room with no walls. Thick heavy hands press down on her head. Cold clammy, slimy hands slide up along her back and over her breasts. Then the hands turn to tentacles and they wrap themselves around her and squeeze. She screams and screams but nobody comes.

 

 

       Diane sat up, still sweating. At first all she could see was a bright, blindingly white light, swinging towards her. She shielded her eyes. A sharp pain penetrated her forehead. She raised herself on one elbow and squinted. Above her the bare lightbulb was swinging slowly back and forth in a gentle breeze from the skylight window above her head. Her mind was a blank. Only when she picked up a note by her pillow did the previous night began to flood back:

 

Dear Diane,   

          Really had one over the odds last night, didn’t you? Must admit, I didn’t expect you to collapse on me. I had to get two men to help me carry you into the taxi. I don’t know how I managed to get you up those stairs. Still, I expect you’ve slept it off by now.

             So great to see you again. I took a look round your studio before I left. Some amazing pieces. You’ve inspired me! Maybe I could come round next time and do some work. I copied your phone number down. Will give you a ring in two weeks when I’ll be back to bring Carmel and Abigail up again.

                                     See you then

                                          Love Julia

 

       In the kitchen, Diane located a glass in a pile of dirty dishes by the  sink and filled it from the tap. She winced. ‘It’s a well-known fact,’ Patrick used to say, ‘that the water that comes out of that tap has been recycled at least four times. Imagine all those bodies it must have been through. Why d’you think it tastes like shit?’ Patrick may not have been right about much but he had a point. Or maybe the taste was in her own mouth. She ran the top of her tongue against her teeth, and splashed more of the shit-water on her face.

 

 

       Julia stared down at The Independent. Trying to read on train journeys always gave her headaches, but Abigail, who leaned against her arm, had just dropped off, and she was hoping that Carmel, in the seat opposite, would follow suit.

       “Mummy… do you like my Barbie?”

       “Sssh, Carmel.. you’ll wake Abi up.”

       A small hand pulled the newspaper down. “Daddy gave me Barbie. Isn’t she lovely?”

       “Yes Carmel dear. Very nice. Mummy’s reading just now.”

       “Mummy, daddy said this Barbie cost him lots of money. He said it was the most expensive Barbie in the shop.”

       For one second Julia had a terrible urge to grab Barbie by the neck, throttle her and throw her out of the window of the train carriage.

       “Yes dear. Mummy already said your Barbie was lovely. You tell Barbie a story.”

       “Mummy, you do it. I don’t know any stories.”

       “You know ‘Cinderella’. Remember, I taught you it. Quietly now.”

       Carmel cradled the doll and began to whisper. “Once upon a time…”

       Julia folded the paper and watched the clouds gathering over the Pennines. She yawned. Finally, a moment to think. Only two days ago her student days had been a blurred picture in her mind, like the countryside whizzing by outside. Now the memories all came flooding back…

       There was the time Diane, Julia and Crazy Jane had sat up all night writing their proposal (or The Ugly Sisters’ Manifesto, as they called it) for a joint exhibition as part of their degree show. Of course they knew there wasn’t a hope in hell of it being accepted by Craven and that committee he controlled. But at least it was guaranteed to stir some shit.

       “…and the prince and he was really handsome and he took cinderella in his arms and they danced and they kissed under the moonlight and all the people clapped and cheered and…”

       The idea was to take over the whole of the main hall of the College for the exhibition. Crazy Jane’s piece was going to be an abstract made of papier-mached copies of The Sun, with knives sticking into the breasts of page three girls. Thick red paint would do nicely for blood. Julia was going to provide ‘The Feminist Adonis’, a huge naked hunchback grasping at a tiny, shrivelled member. And as the centrepiece, Diane had promised them Cinderella Unbound.

       Julia had seen all the pieces in Diane’s flat. They were good, very good. But there was no Cinderella.

       Diane’s description of Cinderella in the Manifesto had been vague: The princess in rags… throwing off her chains. ‘This is hardly an adequate outline, my dear’, Craven had sniffed as he rejected the proposal.

       Nobody really ever knew what Cinderella would look like apart from Diane. ‘Whenever I close my eyes’, she would say, ‘she’s there…”

       The clouds were breaking as the train pulled into Crewe. Julia smiled to herself as Carmel told Barbie the end of the story:

       “…and in the end the prince decided that being a prince was dead boring so he gave up being a prince and he and cinderella shacked up together in a little house by the river and they lived happily ever after…”

      

      

       The morning sun streamed in through the studio window. Diane’s head throbbed. No way had she been able to stomach breakfast. Hair of the dog would get her going. She opened a new bottle of Bells and half-filled a tumbler. She climbed into the dungarees, once light blue, now encrusted in old grey clay dust. She adjusted the blinds hanging from the attic room window until the light was just right. She filled a bowl of water from the sink and placed it on the large round wooden table in the middle of the room. She dipped her hands in the water, closed her eyes and began to work the shapeless mass of clay. Every morning she would repeat this ritual. Her hands would shape and mould, knead and gouge. Shape and mould, knead and gouge.

       It was the way she’d always worked. The way she always told her students to work. She had to admit it was the only way she knew how to work. First Empathize… feel the clay warming to the heat of your body. Then Energize… listen to the sound of your own heart beating faster. Then Visualize…

       Maybe today would be the day. The clay felt warm and sticky. Maybe today she’d open her eyes and the sculpture would be there, revealed, shimmering transparent illuminated. Then her hands would only have to smooth the clay into that shape. As if the sculpture was already there, as if her hands were merely stroking and shaping the air around it.

       Her heart was pounding. She took a deep breath. Slowly, agonizingly, she opened her eyes. But like every morning since Patrick had left, there was nothing. Only the grey wet mass of hateful clay, and her cold, cold hands.

      

 

       In the ladies loo at The Crown, Diane examined her face in a pink-bordered mirror. She grimaced, raised the soft black brush and applied another layer of mascara. But it was no use. She still looked like death. The skin on her pale cheek bones face was stretched tight. Her eyes were surrounded by sunken hollows. She adjusted a black velcro shoulder strap, which kept falling down to her shoulder. The dress was her shortest and tightest but it still hung loose. Patrick had bought it for her birthday once. She’d always dreaded him suggesting that she wear it. But he’d probably only done it to wind her up. He knew she hated tarty gear like that.

       At the bar, she ordered another double and knocked it back in one go. That was better. Then she leaned against the bar, and lit up a B and H. She knew this wouldn’t take long.

       In the event, it took about thirty seconds.

       “On yer own, love? Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

       God, men were so predictable. She turned and looked this one up and down. It was overweight, red faced, breathing lager. But at least not as old as some of the others. Its beer belly wasn’t yet totally grotesque. And there was certainly a lot of flesh on it. That was all that mattered. Flesh to feel, flesh to mould, flesh to shape, flesh to warm her hands on, to bring her hands back to life with. It would do.

       “My name’s Marsha”, said Diane. “You can buy me a drink if you like.”

       “Terry…” The man leaned in close to her. “Seen you before in here”, he slurred. “Sitting over in that corner reading one of the posh papers. I sez to me mate, I sez, who’s that gorgeous piece, I sez.” He placed a clammy hand on her bare shoulder. “S’true. Y’really are gorgeous, y’know…”

       Terry was pressing against her now, and she could feel the bristles of his chin against her neck. She tried to disguise her shudder as she shook him off.

       “Listen, Terry, cut out the groping, OK?  Just get me a double scotch. Or even better, a small bottle of Johnny Walker to take away. My place is just around the corner…”

 

 

This wasn’t working. It just wasn’t working. Diane lay spreadeagled across the bed, with the fat white body on top of her, pumping sluggishly. She ran her hands down Terry’s back and legs. She held one fat buttock in each hand and pressed him down onto her. But it still wasn’t working. Her hands were still cold, lifeless. Terry started to grunt. Oh god, this would be over any second now. She closed her eyes and tried to go through the process. She repeated the words over and over to herself, aloud, like a mantra:

       ” Empathize…. energize… visualize…

       Empathize… energize… visualize…

       Empathize…”

 

       “Fucking bitch…” Terry was already climbing back into his Y-fronts. “Fucking you is like….” He spat. “…like fucking a corpse. You’re a fucking weirdo, you are. Chanting all that shit. Fucking weirdo…”

       Diane lay back on the bed. She stared up at the white ceiling. Now the numbness had spread from her hands to her whole body. Terry’s voice sounded far, far away.

       “You hear what I say?” Terry came closer. “What’s wrong with you? Chanting all that shit. You some kind of fucking witch?”

       No reaction.

       “Listen, you fucking well listen to me or I’ll-“

       Diane saw the high heeled shoe descending as if it were in slow motion. As it crashed into her jaw she was only dimly aware of the cracking bone. She felt nothing. She didn’t feel the next blow, or the next.

       Or the next…

 

 

 

       Julia stared out through the grey rain at the rush hour traffic as the taxi lumbered across Piccadilly. A beat-up black Sierra swung in ahead of them as they changed lanes, missing them by inches. The taxi driver honked on his horn and shouted a curse in Greek.

       “I tell you, lady…” He inclined his head back slightly. “Ees real crazy here now. Ees worse than Athens. Everybody want to go somewhere. Nobody got no fuckin’ patience. What they in so much of a hurry for, I want to know.”

       “Good question…” Julia said. She noticed that the Sierra was stuck in the traffic just ahead.

       The driver was still in a stew. “Eees crazy. The man risk his life and ours to make up ten metres…”

       Julia gripped the black leather handrest. Barry Clarke been so smarmy when she’d dropped the kids off earlier. ‘Do make yourself comfortable, Julia darling’ he’d said in that smooth, sickly voice. ‘There’s no need to rush off. We can all be together for a while, like a real happy family.’ He’d pronounced the last two words with such heavy irony he’d practically spat them out. Of course the kids took it literally. ‘Mummy, mummy, daddy, daddy,’ said Carmel, clinging to Julia’s skirt with one hand and Barry Clarke’s trouser crease with another. ‘Mummy mummy daddy daddy…’

       Julia had to look away from Carmel’s pleading eyes. Of course Barry Clarke knew full well she couldn’t stand to be with him for more than the time it took to hand the kids over. As she left the kids began to sob. Barry Clarke smirked at Julia, cradling Carmel’s head with one hand and Abigail’s with the other. Another little victory.

       The taxi finally turned into Meredith Street. She sighed. At least without the kids she could devote the weekend to trying to get some real work done. Over the last three weeks, she’d been practising visualization. So much had come up, as if all the images she had suppressed over the last ten years had been spewed out in one long outpouring. She’d made some sketches, but mostly she’d kept the visions stored in her head. Diane had always said that was the best way. It would be so good to feel the clay again, slowly warming in her hands..

       The taxi driver slammed on the brakes.”This it, lady?”

       Julia handed over a tenner. “Forget the change… somebody else is paying.”

       She sidestepped a puddle just inside the gate, and almost toppled over. Bloody high heels. In a vain attempt to take shelter, she leaned up against the front door and scrutinised the writing on a set of tiny yellowing cards, each one above an illuminated square plastic buzzer. She located the one marked ‘TOP FLAT’, and pressed. She put her ear up against the door and waited for a noise on the stairs. She pressed the buzzer again, this time for several seconds. The rain was bucketing down now and the water was already seeping down the back of her dress. Maybe the postcard she’d sent Diane telling her what time she’d be arriving had got lost in the post. When she’d tried to ring all she’d got was a weird bleeping noise. Maybe Diane’s phone was offline, or maybe Telecom had cut her off.

       Julia shivered. This was ridiculous. She would have to try to get into the flat somehow or she’d catch her death. She stood back and peered up through the rain. It was hard to tell, but there did appear to be a light on in Diane’s bedroom. And what’s more, there was another way up. A black wrought-iron fire escape wound its way up to the top flat. Shielding her head from the rain, she began to climb. The higher she got, the heavier the rain seemed to beat down. The door at the top of the staircase, which led directly into Diane’s studio was open. Julia breathed a sigh of relief.

       “Diane! Are you in?” Julia grabbed an old towel that lay over a chair and began to rub her hair. For a moment she thought she heard a noise, a slight creak, from the bedroom. Probably her imagination. No doubt Diane had taken off for a few days. She certainly hadn’t worked in here for a while. Everything in the studio was covered with a thin layer of dust. In the middle of the round low table, a large lump of clay lay under wraps.

       There was another slight creak. She dropped the towel, and began to take faltering steps in the direction of the bedroom.

       The moment she saw Diane, Julia felt a wave of intense nausea rush over her. She steadied herself against a wall, then reached out. Diane’s naked body was cold, rigid, blank white eyes staring upwards. The whole of the bottom half of her face was a mass of dried, congealed blood. Julia grabbed a mirror from the bedside table and held it in front of her nose. A tiny, thin spot of breath settled on the glass.

      

 

       Julia stood up as Dr.Kumar came out of the operating theatre. His head was covered by a white turban, his face by a white face mask. Before he’d even unbuttoned the mask, she could tell what he was about to say by the resigned look in his eyes.  

       “I’m afraid there was really nothing we could do, Mrs. Clarke. There was widespread internal bleeding, compounded by evidence of malnutrition and alcoholic poisoning. After the attack she went into shock. Must have been like that for a week…”

       Julia nodded. The doctor continued his explanation but she heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. Later she gave a statement to the police about how long she’d known Diane and answered their questions coldly, numbly, as if the words she was saying meant nothing. They gave her hot black tea, with three sugars.

 

 

       In the back of the taxi, Julia looked down at her watch. It was only two thirty. At this rate she’d arrive at Barry Clarke’s place half an hour too early. She rested her head back on the seat and closed her eyes. Right now, even that didn’t seem to matter. She still felt no pain, no remorse, no sadness. Only numbness. Despite spending the night on a hard plastic hospital chair, she didn’t even feel tired.

       If she concentrated hard, she could see Diane, thumbs hooked into the straps of her blue dungarees, leaning over the polished wooden table in the ornate boardroom, surrounded by men in grey suits. There is a beautiful, triumphant gleam in her eyes as she demolishes Craven’s arguments, one by one. And she is still sneering, still triumphant, even as the chairman of the Academic Board announces they have taken Craven’s side. Of course, she’d been drunk, but when drunk she was usually at her most inspired.

       Julia opened her eyes, just as the taxi turned into Meredith Street. For a moment she thought she saw a figure shaped out of air, transparent, illuminated, outside Diane’s house. She blinked.

       She leaned forward and tapped the back of the driver’s seat. “Stop here, please. I won’t be long. You can keep the meter running…”

 

 

 

       The door at the top of the fire escape still swung open. Julia stepped into the studio. She pulled the wet cloth off the lump of clay on the table, and fetched a bowl of water from the kitchen. She dipped her hands into the bowl, and began to work the clay. After a few moments she began to feel its warmth working its way through her body, from the tips of her fingers, along her arms, up to her breasts and her arms and her neck, down to her stomach and her groin and her feet. Then, finally, she began to cry, and the hot, salty tears ran down her face.

       As she closed her eyes, she felt the warm clay penetrating her, sliding under her fingernails. She began to mould and shape, knead and gouge, pummel and pound, squash and roll, roll and mould. Then she began to repeat the words to herself, at first in a whisper, then rising and rising until she was shouting at the top of her voice:

       “EMPATHIZE!”

       “ENERGIZE!”

       “VISUALIZE!”

       Everything turns black. Julia can hear and feel each beat of her racing heart, as if her body is a huge iron bell being vigorously rung. The darkness dispels into mist. Out of the darkness steps a towering figure, flaming eyes narrowed in triumph. She is magnificent, proud, beautiful, enraged… a princess in rags, her right hand grasping the ankle chain she had broken and waving it defiantly, a woman in chains, shimmering, transparent,  alive at last… Cinderella Unbound.

       Julia closed her eyes again, and locked away the vision. She took a deep breath, looked at her watch and brushed away the tears. Her meeting with Barry Clarke to pick up the kids was only minutes away. Hands still covered in clay, she ran back down the fire escape and told the driver to step on it. As the taxi turned out of Meredith Road she lay back in the seat, and began to make plans in her head. Instead of frittering away her settlement from Barry Clarke she would make positive use of it. Already she could see what the studio extension to the house in Basingstoke would look like. A high, arched roof; all the best modern tools arranged around the walls. And plenty of windows, to let in the light.

       She closed her eyes again and repeated the words softly to herself, just to check…

       “Empathize… energize… visualize…”

       It was O.K. Cinderella was still there, perfect in every detail, just waiting, waiting patiently, to be born.

 

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Any comments, please email me at chris@chrisgregory.org

 

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