© Maria Thermann 16.12.2009
The Importance of Gazelles
„Arms outstretched, right leg forward, turn… and jump! Mes amies, not like hippos, please! What is all this thump, thump, thump? Think of gazelles; girls, you are supposed to be a fairy princess light as a feather!” Madame Tolstoy gave the metronome a kick to vent her frustration.
She looked down the row of girls and sighed. “You there, petite Blonde, show me the dance routine again.”
Eleven-year-old Felicity Henderson positioned herself in front of her classmates, put her right leg in front of the other with the toe of her pink ballet shoe pointing towards Madame, lifted her arms above her head and raised her heart-shaped face upwards. She gazed at the ceiling, her blue eyes in rapture, as if they beheld a fairy prince instead of a stain caused by the leaky toilet on the second floor.
Her fellow pupil Willow Band had to admit, Felicity looked the part. The mirrors around the room displayed a small army of Felicities dressed in enchanting layers of pink chiffon skirts. Arms gracefully held above her head, poised and still, Felicity awaited the start of the music. On the third beat she turned, pirouetted on the spot and jumped up in the air, twirling her feet daintily in mid air. What a princess, what a leading lady for this year’s performance of the famous ballet Duck Pond!
THUMP! Felicity landed on the slippery parquet floor with a crash, lost her balance and fell on her behind. Willow snorted. She looked down at her own outfit. Yep, for once her tutu was clean, her tights had no holes or ladders and there were no chocolate stains on her leotard either. This was her chance! She stepped forward and raised her arm into the air.
“Madame Tolstoy, may I try? Now that Felicity has shown us how easy it is with a bit of concentration, I’d like to have a go, if you please.”
Madame Tolstoy gazed coolly into the speaker’s direction. Willow gulped and withered under Old Pointy Toes’ stare. Madame was scrutinizing her appearance. Willow’s brown hair had escaped the constraint of an elastic band and an unruly strand had glued itself to her forehead. Madame had surely noted the faded pink of Willow’s outfit, an heirloom from her dad’s cousin Meg! Madame would never choose her, not in a million years! However, Madame nodded her approval and the metronome sprung into action.
Willow couldn’t remember the next few moments, when her mum asked her later. She had come to a halt in front of all her classmates. Total silence had greeted her. Everyone had stared at her open mouthed. The metronome had slowed down, the tape recorder had whined and the music had come to an end. Suddenly Madame had clapped her hands and smiled. Willow had pulled it off! She had sailed through the air, had twirled her ballet shoes until they resembled an egg whisk and had landed on the balls of her feet with ease and grace.
“Bravo!” Madame was thrilled. “What a performance, what style, what…elegance! Just like a gazelle!”
All eyes were on Willow. She stood in the middle of the room, basking in the admiration of all but one of her fellow pupils. One pair of blue eyes bored into the back of Willow’s head.
“Well, I think mes amies, we have found our leading lady! Ah, I see it is getting late. We’ll meet again on Thursday to determine the other parts in Duck Pond. Au revoir, mes enfants.” Madame switched off her tape recorder and halted the metronome.
“That was quite a performance! Didn’t know you had in you. One doesn’t associate short-legged people with ballet somehow.” Felicity sat down on the wooden bench in the changing rooms and untied her ballet shoes.
“Oh I don’t know… fairies don’t have terribly long legs either but they manage to be graceful and …silent. Has anyone ever heard of a fairy flattening a flower with a crash landing?” Willow looked around the changing room and saw her classmates’ faces grin back at her.
“I am rather surprised at Madame, I must say. The Great Nureijev would never have danced with a ballerina with such fat arms. Still, there’s no accounting for taste.” Felicity peeled off her leotard. One of her long, slender arms reached for a jumper.
“Funny, I’ve never noticed the Great Nureijev had fat arms. Are you sure you are not confusing him with the Great Houdini again? You know how weak you are on foreign languages.” Willow heard her remaining classmates snigger. The changing rooms slowly emptied and their fellow pupils filed out one by one to the car park behind the school.
They were the last to leave. Felicity insisted on folding her chiffon tutu into a neat package, before it was committed to the safety of her gym bag. Delivered all the way from France via courier, the skirt was a creation by Yves St. Camembert, a costume designer for the Paris opera no less.
By the time they left the changing rooms, all the cars had left. Parents had picked up their daughters and were now on their way home to a dinner in front of the TV. It was dark, much darker than usual. The streetlights had been put out of action by someone throwing stones at the lamps. Glass splinters crunched under Willow’s feet, when she stepped into the car park.
“I’m so going to get Darren for this! One could break an ankle in these potholes!” Felicity side-stepped a particularly deep specimen and squinted into the night. “I wonder what’s keeping Daddy.”
“Perhaps Daddy’s busy mixing cement to fill the potholes! Why do you always assume Darren’s behind every thing that goes wrong in this school?” Willow hissed into the darkness.
“Because he usually is! Face it Willow, your boy friend is a trouble maker. These street lights are his handy work, mark my words. I mean, have you seen where he lives? Lower Stinkforth! That’s were they’re building those council houses.” Felicity sniffed and shouldered her bag.
“Darren lives in Lower Stinkforth-upon-Avon and you live in the village proper, big deal! His mum owns a very nice two-bedroom semi, thank you very much.” Willow peered into the darkness and wondered if the bus was going to be delayed again.
“Daddy must be working late. It’s such a lot of responsibility being headmaster. What does your father do for a living?”
“My dad’s a musician.” Willow consulted her watch. The bus was late.
“Oh, you mean in an orchestra? Playing second fiddle, is he?”
“He’s a musician with his own band. Be quiet for a minute, will you! Something’s wrong. Can’t you hear footsteps?” Willow dropped to the floor and pressed her ear onto the tarmac.
“A rock musician? Well, I never! Anything in the charts, anything we’ve heard on the BBC?” Felicity dumped her bag on the ground and sat on it. “Are you displaying artistic temperament or is this eavesdropping on Mr. and Mrs. Mole?”
“Dad’s music isn’t being played on BBC Radio Four, fathead! By the way, what’s that precious tutu ever done to deserve such a punishment twice in one day?”
Felicity jumped up, cursing. She peered into her gym bag. “It’s no
good. I can’t see a thing. I bet it’s flattened and crushed. Oh, Mummy is going to be ever so cross. It took Mrs. Thingummy ages to get the creases out.”
“I take it Mrs. Thingummy is your housekeeper? Doesn’t she
have a proper name?” Willow got up and brushed off her jeans. “Oh I get it. Felicity Henderson is too grand to remember a simple cleaner’s name! Very la-di-da.”
“Daddy says, we are comfortably off, why shouldn’t we have a
housekeeper? I take it your daddy hasn’t made it big in the music industry? No offence, but your tutu doesn’t need ironing, it needs a cremation!” Felicity said with her hands on her hips.
“Shush, somebody’s coming!” Willow motioned Felicity to follow her into the middle of the car park. These were not Mr. Henderson’s familiar footsteps. Willow sensed danger.
The girls stood back to back, staring into the night. The wind had freshened up and autumn leaves rushed across the tarmac. The trees surrounding the school buildings creaked and moaned softly.
Without warning a hooded figure appeared out of the shrubbery. The man stood outlined against the pale moon light. He circled the girls slowly, muttering under his breath as he did so.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Willow challenged him.
“I recognise that voice! You are the girl the late vicar told me about, the one who writes poetry.” A thick voice said. The man came closer.
“That’ll be me, actually. Did you see my Ode to Youth in the parish magazine by any chance?” Felicity asked keenly.
“Well, well, if it isn’t little Miss Henderson.” The man came closer still. ““I haven’t seen you in my library for a while.”
“Oh, now I recognise you. You’re Basil Slimefoot, the assistant librarian, aren’t you? How-de-do?” said Felicity and held out her hand.
“I don’t think he’s after a polite chat, fathead.” Willow dug her elbow into Felicity’s ribs. “Look, what’s that by the changing room windows!”
Felicity turned her head and spotted the ladder.
“You’re sick! I’ll tell Daddy about you and then you’ll lose your job!”
“Oh really? I don’t think it’ll come to that, little Miss Headmaster.”
“He’s got a knife!” Willow reached behind her, squeezing Felicity’s arm briefly. “Don’t antagonise him!”
The man had completed his circle. Leaping forward, he grabbed Felicity’s wrist and pulled her towards him. He held the knife to her throat with one hand and clamped his other hand tightly over her mouth. Her frightened eyes bulged out of their sockets. The blade was piercing her skin. Willow smelled blood trickling down Felicity’s throat.
Basil stroked Felicity’s hair. “There, there, hush little girl. Don’t you cry…Basil is going to kiss it better.”
“Let go of her at once!” Willow took a step forward.
“Or you’ll do what? Scream for help? Nobody’s going to hear you. Nobody’s going to care! I’ve watched you for weeks. Out late at night, walking across the fields. Your mummy and daddy are too wrapped up in themselves to bother with you. As for Miss Henderson here, her Daddy’s far too busy working his way into Stinkforth’s upper class. Invited to the mayor’s dinner party, isn’t he? His dutiful wife is beside him. They’ve all but forgotten you, little Miss Henderson!” He shook Felicity hard, his fingers cutting into her pale cheeks.
“LET.GO.OF.HER. Last warning!” Willow took another step forward. Basil stood his ground.
“Day after day girls come into my library. Their grubby little hands all over my books. Torn pages, chocolate stains, chewing gum under the reading desks. And all the while they are smiling, fluttering their eyelashes at me, hitching up the skirts of their school uniforms, when they’re climbing up the ladder to get a book from the grown up section!”
“You are sick! LET HER GO!” Willow screamed.
“Hm, feisty, aren’t you? I reckon you and I will have some fun discussing that anatomy book you tried to borrow a few weeks ago!” Basil’s knife hand moved slowly down from Felicity’s throat to her chest. “But first it’s little Miss Thingummy’s turn.”
Felicity fainted and slid out of Basil’s grip. He let her fall to the ground, where she lay like a crushed fairy princess, long blonde hair streaming across the tarmac, her pale face raised to the moon.
Basil stepped over her body and approached Willow. In the faint light he didn’t see the change that had come over her face. In the darkness she could sense him coming closer. She could smell his cheap aftershave, his sweaty armpits and even the ink stain on his wrist.
Basil did not see the fangs until it was too late. Willow leaped up, turned in mid-air and hit Basil hard across the face with her foot. She landed softly on Felicity’s gym bag. Willow got up fast. The man was lying under a dead streetlight among the glass fragments. Basil didn’t move. Willow approached, kneeled down and lifted his knife hand. His fingers were still holding tight. She let his hand slide to the ground. He had stepped into a pothole and had broken his neck in the fall.
Felicity was still out for the count. In the distance, working its way up the steep lane, Willow could hear the bus. She grabbed their gym bags, strapped them over her shoulder and lifted up Felicity.
“Don’t hurt me!” Felicity opened her eyes just as the bus left the school and headed for Wilberforce Lane. She blinked. “How did I get here? Where’s that man?”
“What man?” Willow helped her to sit up straight. “You’ve banged your head harder than I thought!”
“What are you talking about? There was this man and he had a knife… he threatened us!” Felicity rubbed her temples as if that would help to disentangle the cotton wool in her head.
“Listen fathead, you tried to demonstrate Madame’s dance routine in the car park, you mucked it up as before and crashed like a hippo…not on your behind this time but on your head. Though how anyone’s supposed to know the difference with a face like yours…”
“Haha, very funny. So I imagined seeing Basil the Librarian threatening us in the car park?”
“You will day dream of your secret admirers! It’s a hell of an age gap, but hey, as long as you’re both happy!” Willow grinned.
She could see how Felicity tried to work out what had really happened but it seemed her head hurt too much.
“How did I get this scratch across my throat?”
“Vampires? How should I know?” Willow pulled a face. “There was glass everywhere, fathead, you work it out!”
“Did I dream Madame made you leading lady, too? Please tell me that was part of my nightmare –“
“Nope, glorious reality, I’m afraid. Best girl won. Or should I say…best gazelle won?” Willow chuckled, thinking of her four meter leap across the tarmac and a mid-air turn combining Madame’s dance routine with some fancy footwork of her own.
The bus stopped at Felicity’s destination. She got up and walked to the exit, rubbing the back of her head.
Just before the bus driver closed the doors, Felicity shouted: “You’re right, I must be concussed. In my dream I saw you standing in the middle of Madame’s class and guess what?”
“WHAT?” Willow pressed her nose against the windscreen and rolled her eyes. “You finally recognised my genius? You saw the most inspired dance routine ever?”
“You were all alone! I mean…four walls lined with mirrors and you stood there with no reflection in any of them! Idiotic, the things we dream.” Felicity shook her head and turned into her street to enjoy a TV dinner for one, whilst Mrs. Thingummy ironed the creases out of Yves St. Camembert’s chiffon.