Come dance with me, p.1
Come Dance With Me, p.1Russell Hoban
To the memory of Lillian Hoban
‘Life has surprises. Life is absurd.
Because it is absurd, there is always hope.’
Graham Greene, The Honorary Consul
‘It’s free but it ain’t cheap.’
Robert Duvall, The Apostle
1 Christabel Alderton
2 Elias Newman
3 Christabel Alderton
4 Anneliese Newman
5 Elias Newman
6 Jimmy Wicks
7 Christabel Alderton
8 Elias Newman
9 Titus Smart
10 Christabel Alderton
11 Anneliese Newman
12 Elias Newman
13 Christabel Alderton
14 Elias Newman
15 Christabel Alderton
16 Elias Newman
17 Abraham Selby
18 Anneliese Newman
19 Christabel Alderton
20 Elizabeth Barton
21 Elias Newman
22 Christabel Alderton
23 Henry Panawae
24 Elias Newman
25 Christabel Alderton
26 Elias Newman
27 Christabel Alderton
28 Elias Newman
29 Rita Henderson
30 Florence Jasper
31 Anneliese Newman
32 Christabel Alderton
33 Elias Newman
34 Christabel Alderton
35 Elias Newman
36 Jimmy Wicks
37 Christabel Alderton
38 The Times
A Note on the Author
By the Same Author
21 January 2003. I read somewhere that a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong could affect the course of a tornado in Texas. Sure, why not? Probably the first time I put on mascara I made it rain in Norwich three years later and Dick Turpin fall off a roof a year and a half after that. I don’t need a scientist to tell me that everything’s connected and a teentsy cause in one place can result in a big effect some other place. Chaos Theory is what they call it, which is the right name for any theory that concerns me. Life is full of problems, you have to expect that, but I have this extra thing that gives me trouble.
I was thirteen the first time it happened. We lived in High Hill Ferry by the River Lea, that’s in Upper Clapton. Across the river the view is very wide. Over the Walthamstow Marshes the sky is big, everything else is small. Beyond the railway the sheds, pylons, gantries and distant buildings are all very small under the sky.
It was in August: 7 August 1962, I wrote the date in my diary. I was walking by the river. The banks were all purple with Michaelmas daisies and there were moorhens nesting in the reeds. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, the shadows were cool in the tunnel under the railway bridge. Beyond the bridge the river stretched away all calm and peaceful into the distance. A boat came along, a big cabin cruiser, the Badroulbadour. The name reminded me of a princess in The Arabian Nights, Badoura, but this name had a different feel to it. There were a lot of people on the boat and some of them waved to me. As I looked the action seemed to freeze for a moment and it was like a photograph of people waving. ‘Better not,’ I said. Not loud enough for them to hear me. Why did I say that? The picture unfroze and the boat and the people passed out of my view while I stood there shaking my head and feeling strange.
After tea my stepfather went to The Anchor & Hope for his usual four pints and later on I went out too. I liked that time of evening when the lamps were lit and the sky was still light, it sometimes gave me good ideas for the poems I wrote in my diary. I saw a bat flittering about and tossed up a pebble. The bat followed it down for a moment but its sonar must have told it pebbles are no good to eat so it flew off into the dusk.
I didn’t ordinarily go near the pub in the evening when Ron, my stepdad, was there. But there were men on the benches outside The Anchor & Hope and I wanted to hear what they were talking about. They were all local and I knew some of them. When I got close enough to hear them Ted Wilmot was saying, ‘I was at the marina when I heard it blow up. You could see the smoke and flames from half a mile away. Killed all nine people.’
Without thinking I said, ‘The Badroulbadour?’ Everybody turned to look at me.
‘That’s the one, Chrissy,’ said Mr Wilmot. ‘Did you know anybody on board?’
‘No,’ I said. I started to cry and I ran home. I knew that I was somehow connected to the deaths of those people, but how? When I said, ‘Better not,’ I wasn’t foreseeing anything, the words just came out of my mouth. I went up to my room and wrote what happened in my diary but I had no poems in me that evening. When Ron got back from the pub he came stomping up the stairs so the whole house shook and it was about a six-pint smell that came ahead of him. He flung the door open without knocking as he always did but I was used to this and I was fully dressed. ‘Piss off, Ron,’ I said.
‘I know for a fact you were in all afternoon,’ he said. ‘How’d you know about the Badroulbadour?’
‘I’ve got second sight,’ I said. ‘Want me to tell you what’s going to happen to you?’
His eyes got very big and he went pale and hurried out of the room. He died of a stroke a year later. I couldn’t see his future, I was only trying to scare him because he was a creep and I hated him.
When school started again I asked the English teacher, Mr Burton, about the name Badroulbadour. He was a short man who wasn’t fat but his shirts always seemed about to pop their buttons. He smelled of sweat and aftershave and when he talked to you his hands always seemed about to touch you in various places but he pulled them back before they did. I guess he was about forty.
‘You’re thinking about the boat that blew up?’ he said.
‘Yes.’ I backed away a little because of his breath.
‘It’s a variant of the name of the Arabian Nights princess Budur or Badr-al-Budur,’ he said, ‘and it’s from a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Worms at Heaven’s Gate”.’ He took a book out of his desk and read:
Out of the tomb, we bring Badroulbadour,
Within our bellies, we her chariot.
Here is an eye. And here are, one by one,
The lashes of that eye and its white lid.
Here is the cheek on which that lid declined,
And, finger by finger, here, the hand,
The genius of that cheek. Here are the lips,
The bundle of the body and the feet.
Out of the tomb we bring Badroulbadour.
I almost said, ‘That’s gross,’ but I didn’t because it gave me goose pimples. There was nobody else in the room but the two of us. I remember the smell of the chalk dust and the distant voices and footsteps in the halls. ‘Worms,’ I said, ‘carrying her off in their bellies.’
‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘This beauty who was the Moon of Moons, to this favour did she come at last. This book is his collected poems. There’s a copy of it in the library.’
‘Have you got a boat?’ I said.
‘If you had one, would you call it Badroulbadour?
‘No. Are you thinking of naming a boat?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Thank you, I’ll look for the book.’ I got it out of the library and read the poem. It put horrible pictures in my mind, the worms bringing out an eye and the eyelashes one by one and the eyelid. I wished I hadn’t read it but it gave me a kind of thrill that made me ashamed. I leafed through the book and page after page grabbed me with ideas and images I never would have thought of, like, ‘The bird kept saying that birds had once been men, / Or were to be …’ With my birthday money I bought a copy for myse
The main thing on my mind back then was the blowing up of the Badroulbadour. Is there such a thing as luck? Most people think so, you even hear it said that some are born lucky, and being lucky is better than being rich. Was Badroulbadour an unlucky name to give a boat? I thought it was. When I said, ‘Better not,’ what exactly did I mean? Better not stay on that boat? I guess so. So maybe I really did have second sight, and from then on every time I had a weird feeling of any kind I expected something awful to happen but it didn’t work that way. Sometimes a bad thing happened and sometimes it didn’t, so I was never sure and I was always uneasy. Still am. I came to think that maybe I was just bad luck. I kept it all to myself and hoped that it would go away. I made friends and tried to lead a normal life and nothing happened for a long time.
I didn’t mean to get into all that right now. I should be getting my head around doing my thing yet again at the Hammersmith Apollo this Friday. I’ve never been very dignified but I’m getting too old to climb out of a body drawer while the crew do Hammer Horror effects with dry ice. Mobile Mortuary is the name of the band and I’ve climbed out of that drawer in a lot of places I wouldn’t mind never seeing again. In some of them the dressing rooms smell about the same as the toilets and the sink is the safest place to pee. I have to knock back a little vodka to get my voice straight and the guys in the band use up the same amount of liniment, painkillers, and knee and elbow bandages as a football team but we still make money and they love us in Tirana. So it’s hard to stop but it really isn’t me any more, I’m not who I was when I started rocking around various clocks. What else is new.
When I’m not working my life is quieter than it used to be. Last year I became a patron of the Royal Academy of Arts and I’ve been buying art books. When I discovered Goya’s etchings I felt like starting a new band and calling it Los Caprichos. I didn’t though. Sometimes I find pictures that were already in my head or they seem to have been: various lithographs by Odilon Redon especially. There are all kinds of things it would be better not to see and he’s drawn as many of them as he could. Sometimes when I look at those lithographs I feel a bit queasy. It’s as if he knows something about me that he oughtn’t to know. Crazy thought. He’s been dead since 1918. So far I haven’t read anything about his life but I think there must have been a lot of blackness in it. His lithographs are called The Blacks, Les Noirs. Up to the evening I’m about to describe I had only that one book of Redon’s work.
Today I was at a private view of ‘The Symbolists’ at the Royal Academy and all of a sudden there was a painting by Redon, The Cyclops. I’d never seen any of his paintings, not even reproductions. Looking at this one I felt that I’d seen that cyclops before. Had I been to that place in dreams where I smell the salt wind and the sea? The naked woman lying there, maybe she’s been left as a sacrifice — is it me? She has her arms raised as if to ward off the stare of this huge creature that’s peeping over the edge of where she is, a monstrous misshapen head with one giant eye in the centre of it and a disgusting little mouth that you don’t want to think about. Or maybe she’s accepting it, opening her arms to it, I didn’t know, I couldn’t be sure about the woman and the cyclops.
There were a lot of people between me and the painting and I hadn’t yet finished looking at it when I noticed a man watching me from about ten feet away. Not a Mobile Mortuary fan, I thought. He was tall, nice-looking, definitely interested, and about fifteen to twenty years older than I used to pull. Well, the years are going by faster all the time, aren’t they. I had to smile, not at him, but because I was thinking that his taste in women was as unreliable as mine in men.
The people between me and The Cyclops were gone and I had a clear view of it again and stepped closer. It’s only about two feet high but it suddenly opened up and became huge in front of me. I was in a big silence and then I thought I could hear the sea far below me. ‘Oh,’ I said, as if I suddenly knew something that I hadn’t known before. Then the room started to spin and I just made it down to the ladies’ in time to throw up.
I was still shaky when I went back to the exhibition. I didn’t see Mr Interested but I wasn’t really in the mood for making new friends anyhow so that was OK. I didn’t look at The Cyclops again and I avoided Redon altogether. There were some good Bresdins that didn’t make me vomit and of course Moreau and Böcklin and others that I now know as the usual suspects in Symbolist art.
There were drinks after the show and a lot of champagne was being put away by people with money to spend on the arts. The catering staff, all young and all in black, kept topping me up and I kept emptying my glass, so I was feeling pretty free and easy by the time I bumped into Mr Interested or he bumped into me. He’d had enough bubbly to put a little heart into him and this time he smiled at me.
I said to him, ‘Komm tanze mit mir!’ What in the world made me say that? I remember that I had to grab his arm because I almost fell over. Champagne doesn’t do that to me, it must have been the vodka I’d had before coming to the Royal Academy, although I’d have thought my session in the ladies’ would have given me a clean slate. ‘Komm tanze mit mir!’ Did I say it twice?
He seemed surprised. ‘Are you German?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Are you?’
‘Half — my mother is. That’s a line from ‘Herr Oluf’. Why did you say it to me?’
‘I don’t know, I’m not responsible for everything I say.’
‘Are you the Erlking’s daughter?’
‘Maybe, but I don’t feel like dancing now. Anyhow, this is not a dancing situation, it’s a Symbolists do and symbols refer to something else. Like me.’
‘What do you refer to?’
‘Different things at different times. I have to pee.’ Off I went. I hung around the loo for a long time thinking about the line I’d quoted from ‘Herr Oluf. It’s a Loewe ballad and ‘Come dance with me’ is what the Erlking’s daughter says to Herr Oluf as he’s riding late and far to summon guests to his wedding the next day. ‘Komm tanze mit mir,’ she sings. He turns her down and on his wedding day he’s dead. I heard that ballad for the first time in Vienna at Adam Freund’s flat when he sang it to me stark naked. A weird guy, that Adam. What made me say those words to this stranger? It was as if there was a connection between us before we’d ever met. I was sort of spooked by that and I didn’t know how I felt about talking to him again.
I thought I heard a man’s footsteps approaching so I ducked into a cubicle. Mine was the only one that was occupied. There was a knocking at the door of the loo, and when he got no answer he came to my cubicle and said, ‘Are you all right?’
I said, ‘Yes, but I can’t talk any more tonight.’
‘When can I see you again?’ he said.
You’ll be sorry, I thought. ‘Write down your name and slip it under the door,’ I said. ‘I’ll call you.’
‘I don’t know your name,’ he said.
‘Not now,’ I said. ‘I’ll call you.’ Why was I doing this? I don’t know, I do a lot of stupid things. A scrap of paper came under the door: ‘Elias Newman’ and his phone number.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ he said, and his footsteps walked away.
When I came out the lobby was pretty empty. I got my things and went outside. The air was cold and seemed heavy with snow that was almost ready to fall. I walked across the forecourt, under the arch, over the road and hailed a taxi. Piccadilly was full of lights and traffic, with a lot of blackness around the lights. When we turned into Park Lane the cars rushing through it looked as if they were emptying London; soon there’d be no more people, only driverless cars hurrying into the night. The trees in Hyde Park were pale under the lamps, with cold black shadows. Bayswater Road stared at me as if I were a foreigner. When we got to my place in Notting Hill the street was deserted, the lamps were dim. I’
21 January 2003. ‘Komm tanze mit mir!’ In those words I heard my mother’s voice and saw the alders and birches of the Teufelsmoor near the Worpswede of her childhood. ‘On little islands in the swamps grew these trees,’ she told me. ‘Very slender and modest, those alders and birches. Shy they were, didn’t like to be looked at. They had their own way of listening to the voices of the wind; thinly they took the light, they made small shadows on the water and the reeds and the boggy ground. Always was I very careful, very respectful there.
‘One very cold Christmas Day I found a man lying dead in the shallow water where he had fallen through the ice. Hung around his neck was his camera. He was a house guest of one of the artists who lived nearby. He had no wounds, the police didn’t know how he had died. I think he was foolish to photograph those very shy trees with their little shadows.’
‘Did someone have the film developed? Maybe his photographs showed how he died.’
‘I don’t know what happened to the film.’
‘How do you think he died?’
‘Perhaps the Erlking’s daughter reached out her hand and invited him to dance, not? Listen to this!’ She sang me ‘Herr Oluf’, accompanying herself on the accordion and giving me shivers of dread and delight. She was beautiful, my mother, tall and elegant. She wore her fair hair in a Louise Brooks ‘Lulu’ bob, not a style you saw very often in our town. Her voice was thrilling, and altogether there was something mythological about her. Her name is Anneliese, and I don’t know where she is now. When I was eleven she ran off with a tenor from a Pittsburgh opera company and became the myth of Anneliese. But that was still ahead, of us when she first sang ‘Herr Oluf to me. I was eight then and more of a rationalist than I am now. ‘Is that song like a fairy tale?’ I said.
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