All eyes are on her. She whirls across the dancefloor, barely feeling her feet touch the worn wooden boards, glorying in the glitter of candlelight on the jewels at her throat, and the waterfall of a dress that sweeps out behind her and catches the attention of everyone in the room. The music sustains her, lifts her, raises her high in the air. She feels like she could fly, even without the hands of her partner on her waist lifting her off the ground – soar into the sky and dance there forever…
All eyes are on her. She whirls across the kitchen floor, feeling her stockings catching slightly on the edges of the worn red tiles, raising both arms in a graceful arc before plunging the wooden spoon she holds in one hand into the bowl of cake mix on the counter. Watched with curiosity by three tortoiseshell cats and an excitable young sheepdog, she waltzes out to the radio in the next room and adjusts the volume slightly, humming along to the Strauss as it fills the kitchen. Returning to her bowl, she taps time with the spoon as she scrapes the contents into a tin. No sooner is the cake in the oven than she is back in the centre of the kitchen, dancing back and forth, wiping cake mixture off her hands onto her apron as if smoothing the folds in the most luxuriant of satin ballgowns. In her mind’s eye she is the guest of honour at a wonderfully opulent Viennese court, leading the dance – the sparkling focus of attention. She spins and spins again, the wooden spoon held aloft as if she is both dancer and conductor, articulating every beat of the soaring music. And as the waltz reaches a cadence, an overenthusiastic flick of the wrist sends the spoon flying out of her hand and clattering onto the floor.
Three cats fly yowling into the air in fright. Their noise sets the dog barking. Panicked, the cats tumble over one another in their desperation to escape the dangerous wooden spoon lying on the tiles. The dog, delighted by the commotion, gallops after them, and a crash from the next room indicates his haphazard path.
In the kitchen, she picks up the spoon with a sigh, then whips around as a hiss from the stove warns her that the vegetables are boiling over. She drains them, lays out plates, takes the meat from the oven, carves it, sets it on the table next to the vegetables, fills a jug of water and finally, wistfully, returns to the radio and turns it down. But there is still a spring in her step as she makes her way to the foot of the stairs and calls out to her family, “Dinnertime!”
The ballroom is the most opulent space she has ever been in. The candlelight gleams off every surface – off gold and silver, mirrors, glass and polished wood – and blazes from the three tremendous crystal chandeliers suspended from the impossibly high frescoed ceiling. As she dances, she gazes at the people around her, taking in the intoxicating wealth of richly-coloured silks, satins and velvets, diamonds and pearls, ribbons and lace. The scent too is enticing: a dozen different perfumes are being worn around her, and from further away comes the aroma of perfectly-roasted meat, of deliciously sweet pastries, of rich, dark wine…
But most bewitching of all is the music, powerful enough to enchant one’s body and soul and envelop one utterly in its melodies. Enraptured, she performs an exhilarating spin…
… and suddenly has no recollection of what comes next.
There is no time even to gasp. With barely a pause for thought, she begins to dance the opening steps again, ignoring her partner’s look of confusion, and forcing down the momentary panic with the renewed ecstasy of the waltz. She does not allow herself to think about what will happen when she reaches the forgotten passage again…
Her sitting room is piled high with the keepsakes of two generations, a fine film of dust coating every surface, from playgroup paintings to school photographs, greetings cards to knitted toys. The swollen, painful joints in her legs and feet mean she no longer dances around the house as she used to, but the radio still plays Strauss, and it enchants her as much as ever. She smiles indulgently from her armchair as her grandson, fresh from school, with muddy knees and crumpled uniform, pets the venerable old cat curled into a dignified ball in front of the electric fire. The cat is impressively aloof.
She turns to her daughter, who is seated next to her, and answers her questions about whether the new medication is helping in any way with her arthritis, whether the neighbours are keeping the noise down as she requested, whether she can still cope with feeding the cat. Then she asks some questions of her own: how her grandson is finding school, how her daughter is finding her new job, whether their puppy is house-trained yet.
Her daughter chooses not to remind her that the boy is now in his second year at school, she has been in her new job for eight months, and the dog is almost fully grown.
Their conversation is interrupted as the boy, having failed to elicit any sign of acknowledgement from the cat, comes over and begs his grandmother to play the piano. With another indulgent smile, she takes up her crutches and hobbles over to the old bow-fronted upright piano, which these days serves more as an extension of the crowded mantelpiece than a musical instrument. It is in dire need of tuning, and a couple of the keys stick, but as she plays the opening bars of a Victorian parlour waltz, she can already picture herself again in the Viennese ballroom of her dreams.
The wrong note surprises her as much as her two listeners.
She has played the piece more times than she – and certainly her grandson – would care to count. Slips are commonplace, certainly, but this is more than that; her hand has moved to entirely the wrong part of the keyboard, and she cannot work out where to go from here. She cannot remember what comes next.
With a slight frown, she starts the phrase again. The mistake comes sooner this time, and again, the melody is irretrievable.
Puzzled, and forcing down the rising panic, she laughs it off with forced levity and returns to her armchair. She summons the boy to her, and he stands patiently, with a long-suffering expression, as she affectionately tidies his hair and brushes him down. Staring intently into his face, she announces, not for the first time, that he is the spitting image of his mother. The boy suppresses a sigh, but cannot restrain himself when she asks for a second time how he is doing at school.
She frowns slightly, doubtfully. “Have I already asked you that?”
Her footsteps echo off the walls of the cavernous chamber now, and no music fills the air save the sound of her own humming, for the other dancers left long ago. But she is oblivious to the fact that she is alone, oblivious to the passage of time. The partners she danced with all blur into one in her memory – those whom she still remembers at all. Still she does not stop dancing; still she remains enchanted by the soaring melodies – melodies she cannot quite remember. Every so often she pauses in the great circles she is making around the cold, empty ballroom – frowns as she realises she has forgotten not only what comes next but what came before – and starts again – she cannot stop now – carrying on suppresses the fear that she will never remember…
The gleaming, golden ballroom is growing darker now. Shadows slowly claim the surfaces that once sparkled with light. One by one, the candles are burning down to stumps, flickering, and going out…
She taps her foot lightly on the inoffensive beige carpet, humming peacefully. The radio rarely plays the waltzes she really loves any more, but most music can still make her dream of gold and satin and sumptuous ballrooms in Vienna. Her grandson, clutching the book from which his attention has been temporarily and reluctantly dragged, smiles at her, and she smiles back. What a nice boy, she thinks – he looks just like his mother. She doesn’t look ill any more, he thinks – she’ll probably be coming home soon.
Her daughter watches her silently, continually at a loss as to what to say to her. Every week, when they visit her, she remembers a little less and repeats herself a little more. Increasingly now she talks only of the past – of where she lived in her childhood, pets her family used to own, holidays and dances, her wedding day. When she mentions her daughter or her grandson now, it is only to remark how similar they are to someone only she ever knew. And every so often, she turns to her own daughter and calls her by her sister’s name.
As the clock reaches the hour mark, her daughter sighs and prepares to leave. Her grandson, who has been impatiently awaiting this moment virtually since they arrived an hour ago, snaps his book shut immediately and slides off his chair. He leans in gingerly to kiss his grandmother’s withered, sunken cheek and then trots away to wait by the door. He wishes she could play the piano the way she used to, but there is no piano in the home where she lives now.
His mother takes a more affectionate leave. Every time she says goodbye, it feels as though she is waving off another facet of the woman who was her mother.
She turns at last to depart, but feels her hand grasped suddenly with surprising pressure. Her mother’s face is frightened, imploring, almost tearful, and as they stare into each other’s eyes, it is almost possible to believe in miracles – to hope that maybe she has remembered everything.
And then the hope is dashed as she asks despairingly, “When will you take me home?”
Her humming is almost tuneless now, for the last vestiges of the melody faded from her memory long ago. She drags her feet, still roughly tracing out the same circle, still smoothing the folds of her dress, even though her shoes are worn through and the gown hangs in faded tatters. The steps of the dance, too, have long since been forgotten, so she merely walks. But she is barely even aware that she has stopped dancing.
The room is lightless now, and darkness has consumed the blackened wall-hangings, the flaking paintwork, the crumbling marble, so that they might as well not be there. She does not notice. She does not think of leaving, nor remember when she arrived, nor where she came in. All that exists for her now is continuing to put one foot before the other, because in her mind, she is still dancing…
Her grandson sits by her side, unsure of what to do or say. She is staring into her lap, barely aware of his presence. Conversation is so impossible to maintain these days that he inevitably falls into thinking of how many times he came here unwillingly, book in hand, expecting to be bored, of how many hours he used to spend sitting in this very seat, wishing he were elsewhere, and how all the while he was totally unaware of what was being lost. It is only now, now it is too late, that he realises just how much there was to lose.
He glances at his mother, seated on his grandmother’s other side, and struggles to fathom her experience of the last decade. Being fully aware of what was going on must hardly have dulled the pain of watching it happen, of having to act as mother to her own mother while she regressed into childhood, of watching her completely fall apart. It is only now, now it is too late, that he realises just how much she has gone through.
The soft strains of music emanating from the radio cease, the presenter says a few words, and then a new piece strikes up. A waltz by Strauss.
At first it seems that his grandmother has not noticed. And then, almost inaudibly at first, but gradually more loudly, in a wavering vibrato, she begins to hum. She raises one emaciated hand and twirls a finger in time to the music. And the expression on her face is pure bliss.
He knows it is impossible, but even now, just for a moment, watching her affected so greatly by the music she used to love so much even when she is almost completely oblivious to her surroundings, he can dare to hope that something of his grandmother remains.
The waltz ends far too soon.
Regretfully, he and his mother prepare to leave. Immediately, his grandmother seizes both their hands, as she always does. Every time, he hopes that it is because she has suddenly remembered who they are, but every time it is simply the same heart-wrenching request for them not to leave. He is growing to fear, rather than hope for, the day when she says something different.
She smiles up at them, sweetly and kindly, and says, “You’re very nice. Will you come and see me again soon?”
With a monstrous groan, the beam from which one of the enormous crystal chandeliers is suspended buckles and gives way, finally yielding to the rot that has penetrated to its core. The chandelier tinkles softly as it falls, then shatters on the dancefloor with a tremendous crash. Shards of crystal fly in every direction out of the rising cloud of dust, and the noise echoes on long after the pieces have landed.
At the other end of the dancefloor, she stops humming at last and looks slowly over her shoulder. She gazes at the wreckage of the greatest glory of the ballroom, and sighs. And gradually, very gradually, her shuffling feet come to a stop.