They had all been so polite, trying to soothe her through their strychnine grins whilst shifting uncomfortably in their seats and avoiding her gaze. It was for the best, they said. She was getting tired, they said. She knew, of course, that they meant getting old. They had evidently thought everything out carefully, and had suggested several possibilities for her future. She could take up their generous offer of becoming artistic director. Or she could teach. This was not the end – mais non! – but a new beginning. And what better way to bow out in glory than a final season as Le Cygne?
She had looked away, towards the window. Outside the rehearsal room in which the sombre meeting had taken place, a light snow was falling. How she wished, then, that she could don her furs and slip out discreetly to walk alone by the secluded lake behind the theatre. Impossible. Fans, admirers, well-wishers, journalists and the simply curious were gathered at every entrance to the theatre, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive, staunchly private prima ballerina assoluta. Instead, she had shaken each of their hands stiffly, said that she would consider her options and then fled, her footsteps making no sound, to the sanctuary of her dressing room. She would not allow them to see her cry.
Later, alone, she finished painting her face in front of the large mirror and studied the room in its reflection. Aside from the stage, this was her favourite space. Wherever she performed, the dressing room would always be reclaimed and transformed into a set piece of her own, meticulously recreated at each theatre. A creature of habit and deeply superstitious, she could only feel at ease once her various accoutrements were arranged exactly as before. Thus: the black lacquered vanity screen stood in a corner, its three panels inlaid with semi-precious stones forming the shape of a magnificent dragon. A faded silk kimono (both it and the screen remnants of her triumph in the Far East) was thrown casually over it, along with stockings, several silk scarves, and a voluminous mink overcoat.
Displayed upon the shelves behind it was a colourful conglomeration of papier-mâché masks, jewelled headdresses and props from the various roles she had played. Telegrams, cards, invitations and mementoes were tacked in place as usual around the mirror-frame in a potpourri of faded découpage and pressed flowers.
Below this, her dressing table, laid out meticulously: to the left, a clean towel, a comb, and an assortment of ceramic pots containing brushes, cold cream, greasepaint, spirit gum, kohl, hairpins and powder. To the right, a small antique reticule spilled out its contents: lambswool, cotton wadding and rubbing alcohol for her feet along with needles, thread and ribbon for her shoes. Next to this sat an antique music box, exquisitely crafted from silver into the shape of a swan: a gift from her maestro after her first performance in St Petersburg. She picked it up carefully and turned the tiny key protruding from its underbelly, smiling as the tinkling chant du cygne began to play.
Now she studied her face in the glass, taking in the sunken, sharply rouged cheeks, the thin, crimson-covered lips and the heavily exaggerated eyebrows. Old. Even under the heavy powder, she could see the weary lines, the crows’ feet around her tired, red-rimmed eyes. No longer the doe-eyed, Pre-Raphaelite beauty of her youth, she thought of the Kabuki performers she had seen in Japan and winced. Her face was betraying her. Despite the thin streaks of grey which crept in at her temples (and which had been cleverly concealed with a few deft strokes of the mascara wand – et voila!), her hair was still as black as ebony. It was currently coiled into a tight braid and pinned at the nape of her neck.
The clock on the wall struck six. In one hour, she would give her final performance. She felt a sudden, acute awareness of every ache and pain which coursed through her tiny body – the sharp pins digging like claws into her head, the tightly-bound ribbons that ate into her ankles, the sharply-boned bodice of her costume which crushed her ribs. She felt as though she was encased inside an iron maiden. She needed air.
Pushing open the heavy sash of the window, she arched her long, sinuous neck out into the maelstrom. The snow was falling heavily now. She gazed up at the baleful moon through the ballet of whirling flakes, her pallid skin soothed at last by the icy chill. Beneath the windowsill, the filigreed steps of an ornate cast-iron fire escape led down into the gloom. Further below, the alley beside the theatre lay still and silent, beneath a carpet of glistening white. Pulling herself back into the room, she gave one last, final glance at her little empire her collected treasures. Her history. Then she slipped into her mink, took her tiara from the shelf and, placing it in her pocket, climbed through the window. The steps leading down reminded her of the entrance to a tomb. Inside the room, the mechanical swan continued to play its melancholy dirge. This was it, then. Her denouement. Her swan song. Carefully and quietly, she began to descend.
The maestro, having found no trace of his leading lady despite a thorough search of the entire building, had just reached the stage door when the old night watchman from the park came bursting through in a flurry of snow, his face streaked with tears. He was quickly ushered into the tiny managers’ office, and offered a large glass of brandy which he took in his trembling hands and slugged down in one gulp. Through chattering teeth, he told the maestro what he had just witnessed. He had just finished tending to the swans and begun his hourly rounds when he had noticed a solitary figure, swaddled in furs, standing in the middle of the narrow bridge which spanned the lake. He had called out that the park was now closed, at which point the figure removed the capacious garment it was wearing to reveal a woman dressed in a glittering white costume.
Instantly, he thought of the delicate creatures he had just checked for the night and realised who she was. He called out again and began to run, hampered by the deep snow and half-blinded by the tiny, stinging flakes. Too late. Removing a sparkling diadem from a pocket of the discarded coat, she carefully placed it upon her head. Stretching her out her arms towards the heavens, she had taken a graceful leap and then plunged head-first into the icy waters. By the time he reached the middle of the bridge, the black water had almost entirely enveloped the fragile white form. Reflecting this, as if in mourning, the moon hid her face behind the jet-black clouds. Then, darkness.
The performance that evening began two hours later than scheduled. There was to be no understudy or alternate – instead, as was tradition, the pale beam of a spotlight moved around the stage, illuminating the space in which she should have given her final dance. Her partner, the famous Russian premier danseur noble, played his part exactly as had been rehearsed, the solemn shaft of light echoing his graceful movements. He felt as though he were dancing with a ghost, and crossed himself whenever he was in the wings, awaiting his cue.
At the curtain call, the spotlight was fixed upon a point in the centre of the stage, in which a pair of her satin shoes had been placed, along with a bouquet of lilies and the tiny silver simulacrum of a swan. It played out its woeful tune before winding down and finally coming to an end. Silence. Then – thunderous applause, the audience rising to their feet, each of them in tears. The ovation lasted for thirty minutes.
In the park behind the theatre, beneath the pale, full moon, a newborn cygnet gave a shrill cry and stretched her tiny wings.
(“Swan Song” was short-listed for the 2016 Deana Morris Prize for Fiction)